Sticks, Stones, and "Stakeholders":
Can there be Harm in Buzzwords that Oversimplify Social Process?
Can the Cooperative Institute for Great Lakes Research lean to lead on using more specific, socially attuned language?
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For those growing up in North America, a childhood phrase was common as a rejoinder to the cruel name calling or taunting comments that all too often came along with group play and social interactions: "Sticks and Stones may Break my Bones, but words can Never Hurt me!"
This case study suggests that may not always be true. When rolling out a report on Great Lakes Stakeholders in Spring 2023 the University of Michigan Cooperative Institute for Great Lakes Research (or CIGLR) invited feecback from their wider community. They did not expect their very language to be "at stake."
But student groups apprised them of the way the term "stakeholder" can do a disservice to some. It flattens the different ways that individuals and groups engage with contemporary questions about resource management, minimizing or silencing the claims and rights of groups who historically lived on and protected forests, lakes and more.
What about "rights holders?" What about "specialized knowledge holders?" CIGLR's team went to work educating themselves, and found this concern with the term to be prevalent in many peer organizations. This case shares their circumstances, their conversations, and their creative, ongoing work at the University of Michigan School for Environment and Sustainability (or UMSEAS) to address these issues collaboratively