Boundary Shifts: From management to engagement in complexities of ecosystems and social contexts

“Boundary Shifts: From management to engagement in complexities of ecosystems and social contexts” is the title of my contribution to a newly released book on Ecosystem Based Management for Marine Fisheries (Belgrano and Fowler, 2011).  The chapter begins:

Günter Grass’s 1959 novel, The Tin Drum, begins with its main character, Oskar declaring, “GRANTED: I AM an inmate of a mental hospital…”  Following this lead, let me make clear at the outset that I am writing from outside the boundaries of marine ecosystem management.  Admittedly, I was a member of an EPA-funded “Marine Ecosystems Research Group” as a new graduate student.  But I moved away from this project as I clarified the direction of my own inquiries into ecological complexity.  Indeed, my research career has seen me progressively positioning myself outside the boundaries of groups and fields with which I had been associated at an earlier time.  These shifts of position sometimes leave me wondering if I am crazy—in the sense of talking about a reality not recognizable to others.  Nevertheless, the invitation to contribute to this volume lured me in.  In this chapter I to try to say something as an outsider that readers might translate to speak to their own concerns about marine ecosystem management.  Let us see if my above-water examples and discussion—the drums I beat—resonate for others.

The chapter continues:

My inquiries into ecological complexity have built from a question that I shall phrase in general and thus necessarily abstract terms:  How can ecologists and resource scientists account for order arising out of “unruly complexity,” that is, out of the complexity of situations that build up over time from heterogeneous components and are embedded within wider dynamics, and in which there is an ongoing restructuring (Taylor 2005).  The way we understand the world can change qualitatively as we shift our attention from uniform components to include the heterogeneous; from well-bounded dynamics to successive embeddings; and from current arrangements and recognizable endpoints to historical background and ongoing changes….

The chapter’s abstract summarizes what follows:

Three pictures of savanna ecology are used to draw attention to the explicit or implicit boundaries adopted by environmental and resource scientists and to the potential for researchers’ accounts to be confounded by the dynamics of what is left outside the boundaries.  A series of boundary shifts are introduced through four vignettes that concern environmental research and the management of resources.  Researchers can shift from a conventional scientific focus on refining models or representations of complexity to see themselves simultaneously representing and engaging within that complexity.  From a focus on product—established knowledge—ecological researchers can embrace process, continually reassessing their knowledge, plans, and action proposals.  Science can be seen as science-in-context, so that researchers become more self-conscious about their engagement within the complexity of the social situations that make it possible to do their research.  Regarding this last shift, there is a tension between, on one hand, taking seriously the creativity and capacity-building that seems to follow from well-facilitated participation of diverse people whose livelihood is directly dependent on the ecosystem, and, on the other hand, researchers’ professional identities and abilities as people who can contribute systematic analyses of changes that arise beyond the local region or at a larger scale than the local.


Belgrano, A. and C. W. Fowler (eds.) (2011). Ecosystem Based Management for Marine Fisheries: An Evolving Perspective. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Taylor, P.J. (2005). Unruly Complexity: Ecology, Interpretation, Engagement. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.


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