I’ve been following an interesting discussion of Facebook where Levi Bryant says that the way to eliminate essentialism is not to erase “nature” and make everything “cultural”, but rather to embrace “nature” and queer it. The discussion is largely conceptual and not worth rehashing here, but it did remind me of an issue I’ve been thinking a lot of lately. As a cultural anthropologist who works extensively with natural scientists, I walk this tight-rope a lot. We are continually trying to insert or tack on what is generally referred to as “the human dimensions” to environmental science projects. This is how it was with the invasive species project that I was working on and this is how it has been with many of the projects on which I and my cohort have been involved. “The human dimension” is secondary and often perfunctory rather than integrated and systematic. Nevertheless, we continue to try, going to great lengths to fully integrate our research with that of natural scientists.
What I’ve noticed recently, though, is that, in this process, there is often the adoption of concepts and methods from the natural sciences by social scientists – perhaps as a way to appease the natural scientists and “speak their language.” For example, we take on concepts like “resilience” and “complex adaptive systems” in order to frame our investigations of socio-cultural phenomena in a way that scientists will appreciate and understand. There’s nothing wrong with that – it facilitates communication and the concepts are not necessarily wrongly applied. And yet, it does lead to a kind of naturalization of social phenomena. We end up looking for the ways that societies function in naturalistic ways – the ways they are “resilient” or “adaptive”. These approaches, while perhaps accurate and valuable in a certain way, also tend to obscure important aspects of social relations such as power and the processes of social construction. In that sense, going too far down this path of appeasing the scientific crowd can severely limit our own approach to understanding and addressing social issues. This is perhaps why so much environmental social science seems so limited or ineffective – because we so dramatically reduce the parameters with which we are dealing that the products of our research become compromised.
That’s not to say that I want to stop incorporating ecological concepts into the social sciences, but what I would like to see more of, I think, is the socialization of the natural sciences. That is, I would like the natural sciences to accept and incorporate concepts from the social sciences and apply them to their ecologies. Ecologies are, at base, societies – collections of different materials and organisms attempting to coexist in a given space. And the ways that they attempt to coexist – the negotiations that occur between populations in a space – often look very much like the attempts of humans to coexist in a given space. Note here that this is not an attempt to say that “nature is culture” in the sense of subverting the non-human and material world to a world of humans and signs, it’s just to say that the material processes by which ecologies are composed are very social. As a result, it might be worth looking at power dynamics between different populations or even within a population. It might be useful to view ecological processes as practices of social construction (in the material-semiotic sense and not in the exclusively conceptual sense that “social construction” is often taken).
At present, we have a largely ineffectual and poorly integrated “human dimension” tacked on to natural science projects (often as an afterthought), and I would say this is largely because of the unidirectional and uneven flow of concepts from the natural sciences to the social sciences. I think equalizing that conceptual flow is the only way to actually integrate the two approaches to create an effective science of environmental concerns. How to do this without alienating the natural scientists (who already feel themselves under constant threat of attack) is another question, which I’m still working to understand.