Abstract for: Whose Model is it Anyway?

Participation by stakeholders in developing system dynamics models holds much appeal, but what we mean by ‘participation’ and ‘model’ varies greatly. This can create ambiguity and confusion about what is meant by participatory modeling, especially in projects involving multiple stakeholder groups and modeling stages with different types of models. More specifically, questions can arise about whether the results were based on “true” participation and the degree to which model based insights and recommendations were based on the participants’ model or the expert modeler’s version of social reality. In this paper, we argue that the confusion arises from imprecision about the different types of models we use in system dynamics for theory specification, operations we apply in developing models, and relationships between different types of models. To address this imprecision, we propose a formal framework for specifying different types of models that can arise in a participatory research, and illustrate the approach through a series of case examples from previous and ongoing system dynamics research on childhood obesity, nonprofit organizational performance, and household economic security. Implications for future research in participatory modeling and the use of system dynamics diagraming are also discussed.