Political ecology—Further complexities and a schema to address them

(Continuing a 1998 draft paper on Political ecology–a fertile site for development of social theory [rough notes])

Further complexities and a schema to address them

Methodological choices are decisions made by analysts; the choices may be conditioned, but are never dictated by the nature of the situation studied.  Political ecological accounts ought, therefore, be considered not only in relation to the social-environmental situation they are representing, but also in relation to the wider influences shaping those methodological choices.  (This broad heuristic is informed by social studies of science; Hess 1997).  A direct sense of influence is involved in interests explanations, in which someone interpreting an analysis shows in whose interests it is to address problems, say, without attending to differentiation among unequal agents.

A more complex sense of influence—one that parallels the multiplicity and heterogeneity of elements in political ecological accounts—is the goal of “heterogeneous constructionism” (Taylor 1995).  This approach to interpreting the course of science seeks to expose the diverse practical, as well as conceptual, resources and interactions through which these researchers shape their work.  For example, Taylor (1992) analyzed research undertaken at MIT in the mid-1970s concerning the future of nomadic livestock herding in sub-Saharan Africa.  The computer models produced were shaped by the main modeler employing a range of resources, which included: the available computer compiler; published data; the short length of time both in the field and for the project as a whole; the work relations within the MIT team; the relationship of the United States and USAID to other international involvement in the region; the terms of reference set by USAID and the agency’s contradictory expectations of the project.[1]

Heterogeneous constructionism has a number of implications for thinking about political ecology: 1) An expanded sense of methodology is involved.  The choices are made not only in relation to representing the situation faithfully—the conventional goal attributed to research—but also in relation to the agency of the analysts.  The choices concern the influence they are having, or intending to have, in the intersecting social arenas in which they work, from the situation studied to the analysts’ scholarly communities.  Methodological choices are practical as well as theoretical matters. (Taylor 1992, 1995, 1998).

2) In contrast to the broad heuristics identified in this essay, in any particular study the researchers make much more specific decisions about funding sources, audience, research location, length of time in the field, informants, available and reliable sources of data, equipment, daily program of measurements, interviews, observations, and so on.  To identify the specific heuristics used, detailed empirical research observing and interviewing the analysts would be necessary.

3)  Heterogeneous construction adds considerable complexity to the project of political ecology.  Representing or theorizing the complexity of social-environmental situations is connected to negotiating the complexity of the social situations that enable different researchers to do their research.  And such complexity only increases when researchers promote change in either or both of these situations.  Let us, therefore, introduce our proposed schema for negotiating the interconnected complexities.

We contrast simple formulations with accounts that attend to the dynamic relations among unequal agents in particular situations.  As scholars we are drawn to more complex analyses, but, when it comes to social change—and here we include change even as small as influencing students and colleagues—we have to recognize that simpler themes are easier to communicate and appear to have more effect on political mobilization.  To address this tension we a) insert a position of intermediate complexity consisting of a larger, but potentially manageable number of characterizable processes; and b) apply heuristics that disturb simple analyses, open up questions, and point to the need for further work to address the complexities of particular cases.

For political ecological accounts of social-environmental situations, the simple formulations correspond to system-like conceptions, in which boundaries are clearly defined, and coherent dynamics or causal relations produce generalizable trajectories or phenomena.  The broad heuristics of the previous post point us to intermediate complexity, intersecting processes accounts.  Such accounts share, however, many features with unruly complexity and thus remind us of the need for further work to address the complexities of particular cases.

Another simple formulation is the scientific convention that foregrounds research into some situation while backgrounding inquiry into the situation of the researcher.  This foregrounding/backgrounding is disturbed by the broad heuristic that, because methodological choices are decisions made by analysts in social settings, scientific accounts need to be considered in relation to both the situation researched and the social situation of the researcher.[2]  The positions of intermediate and unruly complexity remain to be specified.

For analyzing the complexity of the social situations that enable different researchers to do their research, the simple formulation would be that scientific analyses reflect some mixture of the reality studied and the influences of society on the researchers.  This is disturbed by trying to expose the diverse practical, as well as conceptual, resources and interactions through which researchers shape their work.  The categories “reality” and/or “society” are too big to be useful when we consider what it means practically to conduct science.  The resulting heterogeneous constructionist accounts tend to produce idiosyncratic accounts, leaving the position of intermediate complexity to be specified.

Finally, another simple formulation is to foreground research into either (or both) the social-environmental situations and the situation of the researchers, while background efforts that change them.  The disturbing heuristics and the positions of intermediate and unruly complexity remain to be specified.



Hess, D. J. (1997). Science Studies: An Advanced Introduction. New York: New York University Press.Taylor, P. J. (1992). “Re/constructing socio-ecologies:  System dynamics modeling of nomadic pastoralists in sub-Saharan Africa,” in A. Clarke and J. Fujimura (Eds.), The Right Tools for the Job:  At work in twentieth-century life sciences.  Princeton: Princeton University Press, 115-148.Taylor, P. J. (1995). “Building on construction: An exploration of heterogeneous constructionism, using an analogy from psychology and a sketch from socio-economic modeling.” Perspectives on Science 3(1): 66-98.

Taylor, P. J. (1997). “How do we know we have global environmental problems?  Undifferentiated science-politics and its potential reconstruction,” in P. J. Taylor, S. E. Halfon and P. E. Edwards (Eds.), Changing Life: Genomes-Ecologies-Bodies-Commodities.  Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.

Taylor, P. J. (1998). “Mapping the complexity of social-natural processes: Cases from Mexico and Africa,” in F. Fischer and M. Hajer (Eds.), Living with Nature: Environmental Discourse as Cultural Critique.  Oxford: Oxford University Press.

[1]  An emphasis on what it means practically for agents to modify science makes it appropriate to use the term construction.  The adjective heterogeneous, however, establishes some distance from standard views about social construction, which tend to imply that scientists’ accounts reflect or are determined by their social views.  The aim is to evoke the connotations construction has of a process of agents building by combining a diversity or heterogeneity of components or resources, as in people building a house or a nation rebuilding its economy after a war.  Although some of these resources will be real, material and perhaps unmodifiable aspects of the world, heterogeneous constructionism is not a realist philosophy of science.  The difficulty of modifying science always depends on how such ‘natural’ resources are linked by people in the making of science to other resources, including ‘social’ ones.  For this reason, heterogeneous constructionism is not philosophical relativism either (Taylor 1995).

[2]  Another broad heuristic with the same effect is to notice correlations between different analyses and different conceptions of what social action favored by the analyst (Taylor 1997).


One thought on “Political ecology—Further complexities and a schema to address them

  1. Pingback: Political ecology—intersecting processes and intermediate complexity « Intersecting Processes

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s