The imagination of resource and conservation frontiers

Research Team

Norman Backhaus

Benedikt Korf

Rémi Willemin


The concept of “cultural ecosystem services” – to be addressed by analysing imaginations – is undertheorized. It seems to be an important link between scientific aspects of global change and biodiversity and its societal, political and ethical impacts. Cultural ecosystem services have a lot to do with values and different understandings of the human role in nature. Especially in frontier as well as conservation contexts an analysis of visual discourses may be helpful to address conflicts and make them transparent. The project involves all URPP sites and aims at analysing images (i.e. from social media, local people, and URPP scientists).


Processes occurring at so called resource frontiers1 entail various transformations: landscapes, access to land and resources, shifts in resources used etc. Consequently, also ecosystem services (ESS) change as well as their estimation by different stakeholders. Not always, but often such changes have detrimental effects on the biodiversity but also on the livelihoods of local people. Conservation efforts – by themselves a sign for perceived changes – try to prevent biodiversity losses and a decrease of the quality of ESS. This project assesses – scientific and laypeople’s – imaginations and meanings of ESS by analysing images depicting such services (mainly cultural ESS but also social valuations of other ESS). Starting from the assumptions that a) the valuation of (some) ecosystem services can be identified in images2 and b) that by making differences between such valuations transparent conflicts can be addressed, the aim of the project is to develop a procedure to rapidly and critically uncover and mitigate differences between valuations and imaginations of ecosystems and their services. The following research questions shall server as starting point of this project:

  1. What kind of ecosystem services can be identified in images and how can their (e)valuation be assessed?
  2. What differences and similarities between scientific and lay-people’s imaginations can be found?
  3. How is it possible to use images (and what kind of images) to develop a procedure that is able to address critical changes in valuations of ESS in a frontier and/or conservation context.

All URPP sites shall be included in the analysis. By limiting the research to these sites it is possible to work with rather different case study areas to which extensive scientific knowledge exists and where researchers are willing to be involved in an interdisciplinary process. Not all of the URPP sites can be considered as frontiers though. However, for a comparison it can be useful to look at frontier and non-frontier contexts.

In order to answer the research questions the application of the following methods are envisaged:

  • Qualitative image analysis as a first step to develop criteria for subsequent analyses and later to analyse typical/iconic images from the quantitative analysis,
  • quantitative image analysis with images from URPP scientists and lay-people (from social media),
  • expert interviews (at different stages) with site captains and (field) researchers working at the URPP sites,
  • depending on the outcome of the afore mentioned analyses observations as well as volunteer employed photographs (VEP) in two different sites are envisaged.

Image analyses3 usually envisage images (and the context in which they are embedded) as texts that can (and as a first step need) to be analysed independently from image producers (i.e. photographers, editors, scientists) and consumers (i.e. people who look at images published in media). In this project the emphasis lies also on the images themselves but producers and consumers shall be included also in subsequent steps.

1    Korf, B., & Raeymaekers, T. (eds.). (2013). Violence on the Margins. New York: Palgrave Macmillan US.

2    Richards, D. R., & Friess, D. A. (2015). A rapid indicator of cultural ecosystem service usage at a fine spatial scale: Content analysis of social media photographs. Ecological Indicators, 53, 187–195.

3   Müller, U. (2007). Die Kraft der Bilder in der nachhaltigen Entwicklung – Die Fallbeispiele UNESCO Biosphäre Entlebuch und UNESCO Weltnaturerbe Jungfrau-Aletsch-Bietschhorn. Zurich: vdf Hochschulverlag AG an der ETH Zurich.

3  Müller, U., & Backhaus, N. (2007). The Entlebuchers: people from the back of beyond? Social Geography, 2(1), 11–28.

3  Müller, U., & Backhaus, N. (2006). Regionalisierung und die Methode der Bildanalyse. In N. Backhaus & U. Müller-Böker (Eds.), Gesellschaft und Raum – Konzepte und Kategorien (Vol. 22, pp. 31–51). Zürich.

3  Rose, G. (2012). Visual methodologies: An introduction to researching with visual materials. London: Sage.