Three angles from which to view the practice of researchers IV

Here is another version of the three angles from which to view a researchers’ practice and three kinds of formulation of each angle introduced in the previous posts.  The science in this version concerns the dynamics of socio-environmental change.  The overall schema is described below, which is extracted from a new anthology of essays that might be called political ecology meets science and technology studies (STS).

Starting at the top left in the figure, we can view research as a “dialogue,” involving concepts and evidence, between researchers and the situations they study.  (Let us use the term researcher in place of scientist so we can accommodate the work of STS researchers as well as scientists.)  This dialogue may involve simple, broadly applied formulations, e.g., “population growth leads to environmental degradation,” as well as accounts that have a level of complexity characteristic of political ecology’s locally-centered, but trans-local accounts of environmental degradation.  Such complexity can, however, be difficult to convey so that members of an audience digest it and know how to take it up in their own thinking and inquiry.  For this reason, or because simple formulations seem to provide effective rhetoric when mobilizing campaigns for social change, political ecology researchers may look for ways to move upwards across the bridge from intersecting processes to simpler formulations (middle of top row).  In the opposite direction, teachers of political ecology may introduce scenarios or themes that, while simple enough to convey readily, open up issues and point to greater complexity and to further work needed in particular cases (Taylor 2005, 174ff).  The same bridging or tension between simple and complex applies to STS; STS also involves a dialogue with a situation studied, namely, the social interactions involved in establishing knowledge (top right).

The simple-bridge-complex arrangement can be projected horizontally and applied to the practice of researchers (middle row).  A simple formulation would refer to the way that researchers highlight their dialogue with the situation studied when speaking, writing, and attempting to influence policy and politics.  The more complex formulation would involve attention to the ways that particular researchers are always already negotiating diverse practical considerations as they try to establish knowledge and continue their work and lives (i.e., are heterogeneous constructors of knowledge).  The arrow (middle row, right) denotes the question of how to bridge from the simple formulation to a self-conscious attention to the dual dialogue, that is, with the situation studied as well as with the situation in which the researcher is enabled to act.

The bottom row combines the top two into one framework that articulates and negotiates tensions between  (apparently) simple and complex accounts of the situations studied in political ecology and the social situatedness of political ecological researchers.  The arrow in the bottom left refers to the use of political ecology to guide STS (as sketched in the second half of my essay for the anthology).  The arrow to a ? in the bottom right refers to the challenge faced by researchers who want to bring the practice-oriented epistemological concerns of Sociology of Scientific Knowledge (SSK) to bear on combining the intersecting processes approach of political ecology with the heterogeneous network-building of STS.  At the end of my book, Unruly Complexity, I characterize this challenge as one “of using our knowledge, themes, and other awareness of complex situations and situatedness to contribute to ‘a culture of participatory restructuring of the distributed conditions of knowledge-making and social change’” (Taylor 2005, 203).  In very broad terms, this summarizes the kind of social action I see as favored by this chapter’s picture of agency in the production of knowledge within—and about—intersecting processes.

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


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