Structuration and Intractability in Environmental Public Participation and Decision Making: An International Case Study

Janey G. Trowbridge

Major Professor: Carl Botan, PhD, Department of Communication

Committee Members: Stephen Farnsworth, Katherine Rowan, Melinda Villagran

Johnson Center, Meeting Room D
April 03, 2012, 09:30 AM to 06:30 AM


Against the backdrop of mixed results of public participation in environmental decision making, this research used the lens of structuration theory to analyze the intractable and tractable dimensions of the U.S.-Canadian International Joint Commission’s (IJC) controversial Lake Ontario-St. Lawrence River (LOSLR) study. Launched in 2000 with substantial public involvement, the study is ongoing and an agreement on a new water levels and flows regulation plan for the LOSLR Basin is still being worked out. Interviews (n=40) were conducted with representatives of the IJC, the scientific community, interest groups, and jurisdictions on both sides of the U.S.-Canadian border, who actively participated in driving the direction of the LOSLR study.

Findings were derived from a four-step qualitative coding process of the interview transcripts and case documents. Ten rules, or generalized procedures constituting the LOSLR study’s communicative practices and contributing to the study’s intractability, were identified. The rules were categorized by the way they were structured over the life of the study, including transformation over time by the same party, inconsistent enactment by the same party, and different interpretations and enactments by various parties to the LOSLR study deliberations. The rules served as a basis for analyzing the structures that enabled or constrained the parties in their interactions. Parties’ ambiguous and sometimes conflicting interpretations and enactments of the rules and their differential access to human and material resources had unintended consequences that contributed to prolonging the process of reaching an agreement on a new regulation plan for the LOSLR Basin.

This research concludes that the LOLSR study was carried out in a pluralistic context characterized by ambiguous goals and rules, diffuse power, and emphasis on knowledge-based work. By drawing on structuration theory and the concepts of ambiguity and pluralism, the dissertation contributes a nuanced perspective to the environmental communication literature. That literature stream has heretofore largely focused on the power of the government agency managing the public participation process in relation to the stakeholders who contribute to it. Recommendations based on structuring roles, dialogue, networks, and scientific communication, as well as engaging ambiguity and pluralism in the context of environmental public participation practice, are advanced.