Knowing Nature: Conversations at the Intersection of Political Ecology and Science Studies

Knowing Nature: Conversations at the Intersection of Political Ecology and Science Studies

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Political ecology and science studies have found fertile meeting ground in environmental studies. While the two distinct areas of inquiry approach the environment from different perspectives—one focusing on the politics of resource access and the other on the construction and perception of knowledge—their work is actually more closely aligned now than ever before.

Knowing Nature brings together political ecologists and science studies scholars to showcase the key points of encounter between the two fields and how this intellectual mingling creates a lively and more robust ecological framework for the study of environmental politics. The contributors all actively work at the interface between these two fields, and here they use empirical material to explore questions of theoretical and practical import for understanding the politics that surround nature-society relations, from wildlife management in the Yukon to soil fertility in Kenya. In addition, they examine how various environmental knowledge claims are generated, packaged, promoted, and accepted (or rejected) by the different actors involved in specific cases of environmental management, conservation, and development. Finally, they ask what is at stake in the struggles surrounding environmental knowledge, how such struggles shape conceptions of the environment, and whose interests are served in the process.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780226301440
Publisher: University of Chicago Press
Publication date: 03/15/2011
Sold by: Barnes & Noble
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 376
File size: 3 MB

About the Author

Mara J. Goldman is assistant professor of geography at the University of Colorado–Boulder. Paul Nadasdy is associate professor of anthropology and American Indian studies at Cornell University. Matthew D. Turner is professor of geography at the University of Wisconsin–Madison.

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Copyright © 2011 The University of Chicago
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-226-30141-9

Chapter One



Political ecology has engaged with the politics of environmental science pretty much since it started. In the days of cultural ecology, researchers such as Harold Conklin (1954) showed that shifting cultivation was not necessarily as damaging as many governments or environmental scientists assumed, and that this kind of cultivation could both support livelihoods and have a beneficial impact on landscapes. Since the transition to "political" ecology, various researchers have emphasized how "science" always reflects politics. The British Political Ecology Research Group, for example, was formed in 1976 partly to assess how "science" was used to support state authority concerning decisions about energy or technology (PERG 1979). Blaikie and Brookfield (1987) urged more attention to how scientific explanations were constructed. And Thompson, Warburton, and Hatley (1986) famously showed how different "scientific" projections of environmental calamity or cornucopia in the Himalayas could be linked to the political worldviews of scientific institutions. Since then, a variety of political ecology texts have looked critically at how scientific explanations of environmental problems are affected by politics, and how we need to reassess these explanations in order to achieve more accurate, and more useful, environmental policies (e.g., Fairhead and Leach 1996; Bassett and Zuéli 2000; Forsyth 2003).

Despite this initial work on politicizing scientific explanations, the impact of these studies on many accepted concepts of environmental explanation remains weak. For some observers, the inability of political ecology to make environmental explanations more accurate and socially aware simply demonstrates the strength of the government institutions, discourses, and scientific networks that hold these explanations in place. For some other critics, however, there is a need to rethink how political ecologists have engaged with scientific knowledge. In particular, there is a need to move beyond analyzing the social interests of science (who benefits), and instead focus on the explanatory potential of science (how we explain problems). In other words, would political ecology have more impact on scientific explanations if it sought a more politicized engagement with how environmental cause-and-effect statements are made?

This chapter contributes to the interface of political ecology and science studies by exploring how political ecology may employ more politicized explanations for environmental problems. By so doing, this chapter also argues that political ecology should engage more constructively with debates within philosophy of science (concerning causality and the politics of explanation) as well as within the sociology of science (concerning which social interests are represented in science).

I use a case study from Thailand, and different approaches to explaining soil erosion, to illustrate this more politically situated environmental science. In particular, I look at the role of the so-called Universal Soil Loss Equation (USLE) as a scientific approach that both carries and suppresses politics.


Most environmental explanation invokes the use of "science" somewhere. Science in this context means a "hard" biophysical explanation of how environmental problems occur, or how they can be addressed. But the origin of this science, or its appropriateness for different contexts, is often not discussed.

"Science" is usually considered a source of technical knowledge constructed from trusted techniques, performed by qualified individuals, and subjected to rigorous testing and updating. This approach is sometimes called the scientific method or positivism because this method aims to create "positive" (or confident) predictions about the world based upon trends inferred from smaller samples of that world. Indeed, positivism is at its most powerful when it can make statements that are considered "laws." For example, the statement that "clean drinking water freezes at 0° centigrade at sea level" is a positive statement that is easily demonstrated and that most people are happy to accept as universally true.

Many environmental explanations have evolved using positivist science. Applications, such as climate change models and the USLE, were constructed using this method, and give positive predictions about environmental change, in terms of location, timing, and extent of change. Furthermore, one could say that most environmental explanation is usually conducted along the lines of generalized cause-and-effect statements that effectively become "laws" in practice. For example, it is commonly said that "deforestation causes floods" (China banned logging in 1998 in part to prevent floods), and that "overgrazing causes dryland degradation."

But these kinds of projections have also encountered problems in practice. For example, the USLE has been criticized by various parties for making "universal" predictions about soil erosion when it was developed mainly in the central plains of the United States, where rainfall intensity, slope length, and land-use practices are not always the same as in the tropics (Hallsworth 1987, 145). Climate change models have also been criticized as indicators of environmental risk because they have tended to refer to atmospheric changes (such as projected changes in temperature or storms) rather than how these important underlying physical changes may actually create risks as experienced by people living at the earth's surface (Demeritt 2001). In West Africa, many "universal" explanations of biodiversity or forest loss were unduly blamed on village-based agriculture without acknowledging the conservation practices of villagers, or the nonanthropogenic dynamics of forest cover on the borders between closed forest and savanna (Fairhead and Leach 1996).

Why is so much environmental explanation based on these kinds of inaccurate universalistic statements? Philosophers of science and sociologists of scientific knowledge have tried to answer this question in different ways.

For philosophers of science, part of the problem lies with the assumptions inherent within positivism. Furthermore, the practice of "positivism" has changed over the years, with implications for the confidence that scientists can make assertions about biophysical properties and the causes of environmental problems (see Harré 1993).

For example, some early positivist scientists—such as the German physicist Ernst Mach (1838–1916)—established "laws" by inferring that trends observed in existing data sets should also apply to similar data sets. Later on, however, the so-called Vienna School of the 1920s argued that positive laws existed only when trends in one data set were verified by comparison elsewhere. This approach was called "logical positivism." Yet even this approach was criticized by the philosopher Karl Popper (1902–94), who argued that positive generalizations should be created, first, by making hypotheses based on observed trends and, second, by trying to falsify them through experiments. Under this approach (also called "critical rationalism"), hypotheses should be considered true if it is not possible to falsify them. Today, Popper's approach is popularly still called "positivism." But clearly it is more ambitious than preceding forms of positivism, and some critics suggest it may encourage scientists to think too readily in terms of universal explanations (Yearley 1996).

For sociologists of science, any scientific explanations have to be seen alongside the social groupings and values that created them. Social groupings can include the expert bodies or scientific disciplines that define environmental problems or who can participate in the collection of information. Social values might include assumptions about particular activities that are considered problematic. For example, much research on forest conservation has been driven by the perspective of forests as wilderness (e.g., Perlman 1994; L. Brown 2001). This is clearly a well-supported and important outlook, but is relatively more powerful than alternative perspectives of open forests for local agriculture or livelihoods by forest-dependent peoples. These values and framings of environmental research affect which information is collected to make explanations of forest change and inevitably portray different actors in roles relevant to those values.

Moreover, social analysts of science highlight how environmental "problems" use words with diverse histories that can have multiple meanings in different contexts. For example, "wilderness" may be culturally specific because it classifies land as without users. "Deforestation" is commonly considered to be a problem. But various researchers, including groups as diverse as hydrologists and anthropologists, have pointed out that "deforestation"—as a term—is far too general and imprecise to describe all forms of logging or forest disturbance that occurs (indeed "forest" itself may also be too general; Hamilton and Pearce 1988). More attention is needed to define which impacts create which kinds of problems for various people. Together, these criticisms from philosophy and sociology of science indicate that it can be inaccurate to adopt universal explanations of environmental problems across diverse scales and meanings attributed to these changes. But perhaps a more pragmatic criticism is that these explanations can sometimes be very inaccurate! They frequently do not address underlying causes of environmental problems. And sometimes they support supposed "solutions" to environmental problems—such as land-use restrictions—that may have no long-term impact on problems, but which threaten poor people's livelihoods unnecessarily (Fairhead and Leach 1996; Forsyth 2003).

But can these problems be addressed within the frameworks of positivism? Would it be possible, for example, to give more consideration to diversifying the scale of environmental problems (e.g., making "universal" explanations more specific to different landscapes or land uses)? Similarly, might there be ways that researchers can diversify the collection and evaluation of scientific knowledge?

At the same time, the research agenda pursued by political ecology requires approaches that are inherently more political than simply diversifying the manner in which positivism is applied. For example, it is clear that the very experience of environmental problems, or the proposed solutions to them, is deeply imbued with meanings from either local people or from people living outside a region. Environmental change will always be framed in different ways, and these different perspectives influence the gathering of data and the creation of explanations. This situation does not necessarily mean that we have to "do positivism better" but instead that we have to look for a new way of explaining environmental problems that makes social and political framings a key part of scientific inquiry. What are the alternatives?



In order to politicize environmental explanations, we have to see how political ecology has attempted this in the past, and then see what lessons can be applied from sociology and philosophy of science.

Political ecology research has frequently pointed out the problems in positivist environmental explanation. As noted above, some early work in cultural ecology demonstrated that common assumptions about environmental fragility (or human behavior in fragile zones) simply did not hold true (e.g., Conklin 1954; Geertz 1963). In turn, this research gave rise to the study of "environmental adaptation" and "institutions" as examples of human behavior that can reduce degradation in locations where degradation was expected. Indeed, much community-based natural resource management has looked at how the perception and management of resources are shaped by local norms and practices, rather than universal assumptions.

But other research within political ecology has also theorized how—and with whose inputs—environmental explanations have emerged. Two strands have been prominent. The Cultural Theory work of Thompson, Warburton, and Hatley (1986) famously showed how predictions of deforestation in the Himalayas varied by a factor of sixty-seven (even ignoring some apparent typing errors in some predictions). Accordingly, they argued that organizations will select or represent data to support worldviews. Cultural Theory, however, proposed that worldviews could be identified in predetermined ways based on the principles of how far individuals want to follow rules ("grid") or act communally ("group"). Cultural Theorists then proposed that different worldviews could be mapped relatively easily onto individualist actors (such as corporations), egalitarians (NGOs), hierarchists (governments), and fatalists (powerless groups such as hill farmers). For many analysts of environmental knowledge, these categories were too reductionist (Forsyth and Walker 2008, 22).

In contrast, a "narratives" approach to environmental knowledge emerged within political ecology. An environmental narrative is a well-known and convenient explanation of environmental processes that is widely accepted as truth, but that contains important simplifications and errors. Narratives are based upon a more poststructuralist and historical analysis to indicate how environmental explanations carry many hidden normative values, which in turn reflect the selective participation of different actors in the past and present (Roe 1991, 288). Maarten Hajer (1995) referred to narratives as "storylines," in which diverse physical events and processes are ordered into convenient explanations that also include concepts of blame and urgency according to dominant social groups. Fairhead and Leach's study of deforestation in Guinea, West Africa (1996), argued that government agencies and some international NGOs were using a narrative to blame deforestation on local farming practices and, accordingly, to control deforestation by restricting historic agricultural practices including fire. Consulting alternative sources of information such as historic photographs and oral histories revealed that local villagers had actually helped create islands of closed forest. Politicizing scientific explanations, therefore, depends on showing who shaped them and demonstrating the political implications of using them. Similar findings for explaining dryland degradation have been found by Turner (1993) and Bassett and Zuéli (2000).


Research within these themes has demonstrated the problems of separating environmental science from the contexts in which it is made or implemented. But how do these studies help day-to-day environmental management?

For example, the usual purpose of analysis such as Cultural Theory is to show that there is little point in following one dominant viewpoint when there are other worldviews that might challenge it. Narrative analysis also provides more historical and context-specific analysis of how certain explanations have become reified. But students and many environmental policy makers become frustrated when they realize that these approaches do not necessarily answer questions such as whether climate change is happening or whether deforestation does cause water shortages.

Some other work within STS and political ecology has addressed this dilemma by seeing how social solidarities influence scientific explanations themselves. In effect, this uses insights from philosophy of science, as well as the sociology of who participates in scientific processes and how.

Bruno Latour's Politics of Nature (2004), for example, suggested political ecologists need to ask two questions about scientific "laws": How many are we? Can we live together? These questions demonstrate that building scientific conventions (i.e., explanations) results from how many people are included and willing to live with the emerging rules. These ideas strongly echo the work of the seminal philosopher of science Willard Quine (1908–2000), who argued that the social frames (or "truth conditions") for scientific statements are crucial for understanding how scientific "truths" are assessed.


Excerpted from KNOWING NATURE Copyright © 2011 by The University of Chicago. Excerpted by permission of THE UNIVERSITY OF CHICAGO PRESS. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents

 Mara J. Goldman and Matthew D. Turner
Part 1

Matthew D. Turner

1 Politicizing Environmental Explanations: What Can Political Ecology Learn from Sociology and Philosophy of Science?
Tim Forsyth

2 Debating the Science of Using Marine Turtles: Boundary Work among Species Experts
Lisa M. Campbell

3 Technobiological Imaginaries: How Do Systems Biologists Know Nature?
Joan H. Fujimura

4 Agency, Structuredness, and the Production of Knowledge within Intersecting Processes
 Peter J. Taylor

5 Fermentation, Rot, and Other Human-Microbial Performances
Mrill Ingram

6 Ferricrete, Forests, and Temporal Scale in the Production of Colonial Science in Africa
Chris Duvall
Part 2

Paul Nadasdy

7 “We Don’t Harvest Animals; We Kill Them”: Agricultural Metaphors and the Politics of Wildlife Management in the Yukon 
Paul Nadasdy

8 Political Violence and Scientific Forestry: Emergencies, Insurgencies, and Counterinsurgencies in Southeast Asia
Peter Vandergeest and Nancy Lee Peluso

9 Spatial-Geographic Models of Water Scarcity and Supply in Irrigation Engineering and Management: Bolivia, 1952–2009
Karl Zimmerer

10 The Politics of Connectivity across Human-Occupied Landscapes: A Look at Corridors near Nairobi National Park, Kenya
Mara J. Goldman
Part 3

Mara J. Goldman

11 Rooted Networks, Webs of Relation, and the Power of Situated Science: Bringing the Models Back Down to Earth in Zambrana
Dianne Rocheleau

12 Circulating Science, Incompletely Regulating Commodities: Governing from a Distance in Transnational Agro-food Networks
Ryan E. Galt

13 Reclaiming the Technological Imagination: Water, Power, and Place in India
Roopali Phadke

14 Circulating Knowledge, Constructing Expertise
Rebecca Lave

15 Experiments as “Performances”: Interpreting Farmers’ Soil Fertility Management Practices in Western Kenya
Joshua J. Ramisch

Matthew D. Turner
List of Contributors

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