Conceptualizing the heterogeneity, embeddedness, and ongoing restructuring that make ecological complexity ‘unruly’

Revisiting ecology. Reflecting on concepts, advancing science edited by Kurt Jax and Astrid Schwarz (Berlin: Springer, 2011) is the first volume of the Handbook of Ecological Concepts (HOEK).  My contribution, “Conceptualizing the heterogeneity, embeddedness, and ongoing restructuring that make ecological complexity ‘unruly’,” begins as follows:

My thesis is that, although ecologists have not named the concept as such, they are always dealing with unruly complexity, that is, with ongoing change in the structure of situations that have built up over time from heterogeneous components and are embedded or situated within wider dynamics. Ecology tends to suppress such complexity by mimicking the physical sciences in constructing – materially and conceptually – well-bounded systems, which have clearly defined boundaries,coherent internal dynamics, and simply mediated relations with their external context. Ecologists can envisage themselves positioned outside the systems and seek generalizations and principles that afford a natural or economical reduction of complexity. If researchers want, in contrast, to discipline unruly complexity without suppressing it, they need to recognize that control and generalization are difficult and no privileged standpoint exists; that ongoing assessment is needed, and this requires engagement in the changing situations. The inner structure of ecology rests,therefore, on the tension between unruliness and attempts to discipline it.

This article, which builds on Taylor and Haila (2001), reviews the recent history of ecological theory with a view to highlighting the challenges of conceptualizing heterogeneity, embeddedness, and ongoing restructuring. The subject matter of this review is not well-bounded; at places I point well beyond the terrain of ecology proper. Indeed, the HOEK project of illuminating ecological concepts by positioning them in relation to the socio-historical context in which they are produced and deployed invites us to consider embeddedness of other kinds: ecological situations within socio-environmental processes; natural science within the systematic study of social change; conceptual work within scientific practice; and interpretation of science within engagement in scientific and social change. All these interconnected realms pose analogous challenges of dealing with unruly complexities (Taylor 2005). Although the unruliness-system tension can be seen in other disciplines, such as evolutionary biology, epidemiology, and developmental psychology, ecology provides a fruitful entry point for exploring this epistemic type.


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

Taylor, P. J. , Y. Haila 2001. Situatedness and Problematic Boundaries. Conceptualizing Life’s Complex Ecological Context. Biology & Philosophy 16(4): 521-532.


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