Monthly Archives: November 2015

Permaculture research methodology

This is an excerpt from my research proposal for a Masters thesis on applying permaculture design to business. It is an initial, if inadequate, attempt to sketch out what a permaculture research methodology means:


Permaculture Systems Design (PSD) offers its own research methodology, which can help to inform the research design and interpretation of the results. In PSD, the starting point is always the ethics – earth care, people care, fair share (share the surplus). This becomes the ground from which a permacultural system is evaluated, somewhat akin to the Triple Bottom Line of environmental, social and economic sustainability. Following from this, the first part of the design process begins with a social and physical site analysis, to examine the larger context within which the system operates, the social and physical energy flows that intercept the system and the location and proximity of zones of activity within the system. Various social and physical indicators can inform this analysis, to gain a sense of the underlying conditions. Following a contextual analysis, the 12 design principles can be applied (after Holmgren, 2002):

1. Observe and interact
The beginning of good design is understanding. Permaculture supports a process of interaction as well as observation. “A process of continuous observation in order to recognise patterns and appreciate details is the foundation of all understanding… there is little value in continuous observation and interpretation unless we interaction with the subject of our observations. Interaction reveals new and dynamic aspects to our subject and draws attention to our own beliefs and behaviours as instrumental to understanding” (Holmgren, 2002, pp 13 – 14).

2. Catch and store energy
Energy is the driving force behind all natural and human systems, and tends to come periodically. If we understand the temporal and spacial patterns of different forms of physical and social energy, we can harvest and store it when it is abundant for use when it is scarce. Permaculture also has a strong focus on using existing wealth to build high value stores of natural, human and economic capital for the future, including future generations.

In a research context, data is the main form of energy in question. How it is gathered and stored is of critical importance, including efficient mechanisms for its retrieval. Obviously the very process of gathering information about how to successfully design sustainable organisations is building an asset for the future, but it also requires a focus on how that knowledge will be made available for others to use. Open source research and creative commons licensing of research results are considerations here.

3. Obtain a yield
We need to use captured energy to maintain the system before we can build stocks for the future, however we also need to think creatively about what kinds of yields are available to us. As mentioned above, rethinking value is a critical element of building sustainable systems. Evidence from agricultural studies suggests that some of the most productive systems are not necessarily the most profitable (Sial, Iqbal, & Sheikh, 2012) and so a consideration of the many different yields that can be obtained from the system and how those can be used to generate value of different kinds, apart from simple profit, is important

As a researcher, the question of yield is challenging. Support for research students is not generous, especially since the Government ended student support for postgraduate study. Financial yields as well as conceptual, family and community support are all important elements of a successful research project.

4. Apply self-regulation and accept feedback
It is important to develop feedback systems that discourage inappropriate behaviour within a system, as is common in natural systems. This principle speaks to the need for good supervision, constant self reflection and openness to feedback from the subjects of the research about the conduct and direction of the study. Indigenous and Kaupapa Maori methodologies have well developed thinking around placing the agency of the subjects of research at the centre of the research design (eg Smith, 2012; Murphy, 2013)

5. Use and value renewable resources and services
Permaculture places a priority on the use of renewable services (the non-consuming use of natural systems), as well as renewable products (sustainable consumption of products derived from regenerative living systems). As a sustainability researcher it is important to ‘walk the talk’, by critically examining my own resource consumption in order reduce the ecological impact of the research. In addition, it is worth bearing in mind that the social capital that research often relies on is a renewable resource in the sense that it regenerates and tends to grow with use, but which can be exploited in an unsustainable way.

6. Produce no waste
This principle relates to traditional notions of frugality, as well as the understanding that wastes are simply outputs that are not being used productively – and have the potential to become feedstocks for another process. As a research method, it speaks to the need for well considered survey and interview questions, maximising the use of the data generated (including multiple publications out of a single research project if possible), and thinking creatively about how to disseminate the research findings beyond the academic milieu.

7. Design from patterns to details
Many permaculture principles take a bottom up approach, and so this principle reminds us to keep the big picture in view as we design. Permaculturalists such as Mollison (1992) have developed extensive teachings around the recognition, interpretation and emulation of natural and social patterns. In research methodology terms, this can be interpreted, among other things, as a reminder to understand the process of theory development and understand and design the individual research project to fit within that broader pattern (eg. Eisenhardt, 1989)

8. Integrate rather than segregate
Integration and building connections is a key component of PSD. A permaculture aphorism is that ‘each element of a design should support many system functions, and each important function should be supported by multiple elements’ and this built-in redundency is part of building system resilience. Within a research design this principle could be interpreted as, for example, the use of multiple methods to generate data, including the use of deliberative techniques that bring together research participants to build shared understanding and a deeper analysis of their practise, where feasible. It also speaks to a holistic rather than reductionist approach to data interpretation.

9. Use small and slow solutions
PSD encourages a nuanced, situation specific and responsive approach to problem solving. As such it tends to align with constructivist and inductive approaches. It warns against biting off more than one can chew in any individual research project and prematurely leaping to grand theories and assumptions that miss important details.

10. Use and value diversity
In developing an understanding of how PSD applies to business organisations, it is important to involve a diversity of business types in order to build a picture of both the commonalities and the differences in how the principles and general design approach can be interpreted. Similarly it is useful to involve a variety of participants at different locations within the organisations, where possible, as their different perspectives will offer different kinds of insights.

11. Use edges and value the marginal
In ecology, the margin between two systems is characterised by high productivity, as part of what is known as the ‘edge effect’ (Park & Allaby, 2013). This principle relates to the last to some degree – people in what might be considered marginal roles may have particularly interesting perceptions that more ‘central’ informants may not have. Certainly my own observations in doing strategic planning in an education context was that it was the ones who had been marginalised by the education system that had the most interesting observations and suggestions for improving it. A second insight around this principle relates to those on the boundaries between different social groups – the people who straddle social milieus and so provide access points and information channels between them, and can help both to recruit participants and offer deep insights of their own.

12. Creatively use and respond to change
This principle reminds us that change is a fact of life and that we need to remain flexible and responsive as researchers. By allowing the research to develop its own trajectory, we can creatively adapt to changing circumstances and make the most use of what we find rather than missing important insights in our attempts to force the research to meet our own assumptions and expectations. This again aligns with a constructivist approach to research.


Eisenhardt, K. M. (1989). Building Theories from Case Study Research. The Academy of Management Review, 14(4), 532–550.

Holmgren, D. (2002). Permaculture: principles and pathways beyond sustainability. Hepburn, Vic: Holmgren Design Services.

Murphy, N. (2013). Te Awa Atua =: Menstruation in the pre-colonial Māori world: an examination of stories, ceremonies and practices regarding menstruation in the pre-colonial Māori world: based on a Masters thesis. Ngaruawahia: He Puna Manawa Ltd.

Park, C. C., & Allaby, M. (2013). A dictionary of environment and conservation (Second edition). Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Sial, M. H., Iqbal, S., & Sheikh, A. D. (2012). “FARM SIZE – PRODUCTIVITY” RELATIONSHIP: Recent Evidence from Central Punjab. Pakistan Economic and Social Review, 50(2), 139–162.

Smith, L. T. (2012). Decolonizing methodologies: research and indigenous peoples (Second edition). London: Zed Books.

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