A Principled Pragmatic Approach allows Water Diplomats to Move from a World of Seemingly Infinite Possibilities Towards an Actionable Subset of Implementable Ideas

We began this series by arguing that many important contemporary water problems emerge from a complex coupling of natural and human systems. In our second post, we argued that Water Diplomats need to be careful when identifying whether or not a system is complex, as this is an essential factor in determining an appropriate response to issues arising within that system. For those systems that are indeed complex, our third blog post made the case for a problem-driven approach to interdisciplinary collaboration.

In this post, we seek to take that model of collaboration further. To truly tackle complex (colloquially known as “wicked” or “messy”) problems, one must move beyond mere “collaboration among experts” and enter the messy world of inclusive fact-value conversations and collective decision-making processes that engage broad categories of stakeholders. For many traditionally trained water professionals, this may be an uncomfortable idea. Professional education and training tends to be centered on preparing practitioners for what Schön (1984) refers to as the “high ground” –  the neat and orderly place where “practitioners can make effective use of research-based theory and technique” (Schön 1984, p. 42).

Water Diplomacy, on the other hand, is practiced in, “the swampy lowland where situations are confusing ‘messes’ incapable of technical solutions” (Schön 1984, p. 42).  Professionals working in the high ground are “hungry for technical rigor, devoted to an image of solid professional competence, or fearful of entering a world in which they feel they do not know what they are doing … [and as such] they choose to confine themselves to a narrowly [defined] technical practice” (Schön 1984, p. 43). In contrast, professionals like Water Diplomats working in the swampy lowlands “deliberately involve themselves in messy but crucially important problems and, when asked to describe their methods of inquiry, they speak of experience, trial and error, intuition, and muddling through” (Schön 1984, p. 43).

In this blog post, we will take a brief look at some of the important considerations for professionals seeking to prepare themselves for important work in the “swampy lowlands” – a topic that is covered in more detail in Chapter 4 of our most recent book. In that chapter we argue that the practice of Water Diplomacy requires drawing upon four domains of knowledge: episteme, phronesis, techne, and praxis. For water professionals looking to engage in Water Diplomacy, we further argue that effective synthesis and application of these domains of knowledge requires principled pragmatism.

Moreover, in the book we highlight three archetypes of professional practice from the literature – the Honest Broker, the Humble Analyst, and the Democratic Professional – that identify concrete modes of practice for Water Diplomats seeking to understand how they can apply these ideas in negotiated approaches to resolving complex water issues (a topic that is excluded here for brevity).

Four Domains of Knowledge

Professionals working on complex water issues will need to move beyond notions that equate professionalism with absolute specialization. They will need to work with other experts across disciplinary boundaries as well as engage with a diverse set of stakeholders in inclusive fact-value deliberation, collaborative joint fact-finding, and decision-making processes. This will require them to draw upon four domains of knowledge: episteme (formal knowledge), phronesis (practical wisdom), techne (practiced technique), and praxis (thoughtful practice). Principled pragmatism provides a lens for synthesizing these four domains into outcomes that are actionable, equitable, and sustainable.


Episteme represents formal knowledge. Water professionals will need both  a deep understanding of their discipline’s scientific knowledge and best practices, as well as an understanding of the formal constraints (e.g. laws and regulations) that limit the available options for the problem at hand.


Phronesis represents prudence and practical wisdom. For water professionals, applying phronesis when working on complex problems entails: appreciating the irreducibility of complexity; recognizing the inadequacies of conventional causality-based reasoning; embracing non-zero-sum thinking; inventing – but not committing to – different options for intervention; and respecting the need to communicate effectively with broad audiences.


Techne represents practiced technique. It represents a fluency with the tools of the trade.  For water professionals this often means: a familiarity with both laboratory and field methods; comfort with domain-specific methods and modeling tools; and an awareness of the available workflows for collecting data, analyzing it for insights, and visualizing those insights effectively.


Praxis represents thoughtful practice. While techne represents the skills to produce scientific findings and materialize ideas, praxis represents the skills required for the operationalization of those tools and techniques in the messiness of the real world. For water professionals, this often means: inviting and facilitating fact-value deliberation; embracing joint fact-finding without abandoning the importance of scientific expertise; seeking mutually-beneficial options guided by the criteria of “flexibility” rather than “optimality”; a commitment to finding resolutions that are contingent and do not require a particular realization of the future to be infallible; and adopting a conscious mode of operating in an inclusive joint fact-finding or decision-making process (e.g. in the mode of the Honest Broker,  Humble Analyst, or Democratic Professional mentioned above and explored in more detail in our book).

Principles and Pragmatism

In contrast to traditional notions that equate professionalism with absolute specialization, we argue that the notion of principled pragmatism can guide professionals towards an effective integration and application of knowledge and skills from all four of the domains outlined above. Resolutions to complex problems require interdisciplinary collaboration, fact-value deliberation, joint-fact finding with a broad array of stakeholders, as well as contingent, collaborative, and adaptive operational strategies. For many professionals, embracing the pluralism present in these situations can be uncomfortable and challenging when coming from training and education programs where their specialized expertise was valued unconditionally.

However, we argue that when professionals view themselves as principled pragmatists, their value as experts need not be threatened by inclusive fact-value deliberation, joint-fact finding, and decision-making processes where power is shared and knowledge is co-produced. This framing allows them to understand their role as a mediator between the extremes: the infinite reticence of uncompromising dogma on one hand, and the brash and foolhardy application of supposedly value-neutral science and technology on the other. Instead, they embrace the humble middle path required by complex problems – one that attends to both principles and pragmatism. Some key ideas from this framing are summarized below.

Pragmatic Compromises Don’t Entail a Compromise of Values

Water professionals engaged in complex water issues will need to engage in processes where knowledge and solutions are co-produced in concert with a broad range of stakeholders with a pluralistic set of values. Coming to compromises and contingent resolutions is an integral part of this process. However, the pragmatic process of arriving at compromise – a settlement of differences in interests –  doesn’t entail the compromise of one’s guiding principles. Indeed, with respect to negotiating resolutions to complex water problems “compromise over interests is possible and actionable while compromising principles is not” (Islam 2016).

Principled pragmatists must therefore be aware of the context-dependent nature of their work and be sensitive to prioritize principles in ways that allow them to achieve actionable outcome in practice. Water professionals need to understand how context dictates what interventions represent acceptable pragmatic compromises (in interests) and unacceptable compromises (in values). In the case of water management in Bangladesh, deal-making over the quantities of water allocated for agriculture versus aquaculture may be acceptable, but such deal-making is out of the question when it compromises the sustainability of the Sundarbans mangrove forest or equitable access of water to the local community. Through principled pragmatism we must remain committed to actionable options that are “grounded in translating global norms in terms of local understanding and the capacity to act on them” (Islam 2017).

Embrace Other Ways of Knowing, But Value Your Expertise

In order for professionals to be effective partners in the inclusive and collaborative processes we have been describing, they must work with experts from other disciplines as well as stakeholders with local expertise. This necessarily entails embracing the existence of other ways of understanding the problem being addressed – and, indeed, different ways of understanding the world –  which can be uncomfortable for professionals trained in the “self-referential” practice of their own discipline (Tabulawa 2017, p. 16). However, acknowledging the legitimacy of multiple viewpoints is too often seen as “a threat to intellectual certainties, on the one hand, and to moral seriousness on the other” (Lukes 2008, p. 1). In reality there is room for both principles and pragmatism in inclusive collaborations on complex water issues.

Professionals need to acknowledge the importance of their contributions as one of many members of a collaborative process that requires the diverse synthesis of both disciplinary expertise and local knowledge. One needs to remain humble and respect the flattened power structure of the collaborative setting, but need not be “timid” (Andrews 2002, p. 41). Indeed, experts engaged to work on complex water issues have an obligation not to sit back, but to engage fully in the collaborative process. Full participation by professionals requires not only the engagement of their formal knowledge (episteme), but also their practical wisdom (phronesis), their practiced techniques (techne), and their thoughtful practice (praxis).

In our next blog post in this series, which we are calling Interdisciplinary Collaboration For Water Diplomacy,  we will highlight the case studies compiled in the book to show how the ideas we’ve been discussing can be used to arrive at actionable outcomes. We will consider our efforts in producing this series and the book worthwhile if it leads you to rethink as well as critique, refine, or replace the arguments we are offering here.  We look forward to sharing more highlights from the book in the coming weeks – and we invite you to engage with these ideas and send us your critical feedback.  If you are interested in more details about the book, you can visit the publisher’s website. The book is also available on Amazon.

Kevin Smith

Kevin M. Smith is a PhD candidate in environmental and water resources engineering and a member of the third cohort of Water Diplomacy graduate students at Tufts University, USA.

Shafiqul Islam

Shafiqul Islam is a Professor of Civil and Environmental Engineering and Water Diplomacy, and the Director of the Water Diplomacy Initiative at Tufts University. Follow on Twitter: @ShafikIslam