Historical and autobiographical origins of an ongoing project on scientific and social complexity

From Taylor, Unruly Complexity (2005, xiv ff):

The sequence of cases [in the book] should help researchers and students in this wide range of fields appreciate more acutely the limitations of assuming that ecological, scientific, and social complexity can be delimited into well-bounded systems.  My hope is that readers will then take steps—on their own and in collaboration with others—to reconstruct the unruliness of complexity without suppressing it, to link knowledge-making to social change, and to wrestle with the potential and limitations of critical reflection as a means to redirect practice.  In the words of Raymond Williams (1980, 83), I want to encourage others not to “mentally draw back [and be] spared the effort of looking, in any active way, at the whole complex of social and natural relationships which is at once our product and our activity.”

Historical origins

Why undertake a project that addresses complexity and change across the different realms of science, interpretation of science, and critical reflection on practice?  One answer would be that the realms are already always connected, but concepts and practice are shaped to make the realms seem separate.  This is a position that can only emerge after the book has worked its way through many steps.  A shorter answer that might suffice in the meantime derives from the project’s historical origins, which can be located in the intersection of two kinds of ecology during the 1970s.

A century earlier Ernst Haeckel had defined “ecology” as the study of the complex interrelations among animals, plants, and their living and non-living environments (Allee et al. 1949).  The meaning of the new term soon stretched to refer to the complex interrelations themselves as well as the scientific study of them.  Starting around 1970, “ecology” (and the prefix “eco-“) also became associated with actions responding to the degradation of the environment of humans and other species.  The array of endeavors that have come under the umbrella of ecology-as-social-action is vast: preventing pollution, ozone holes, global climate change, future catastrophe; advocating radical social change, environmental activism, recycling, simpler lifestyles, unrefined foods; preserving nature, biodiversity, endangered species; promoting balance and interdependency.

Ecology-the-science promised to help address ecological concerns from a number of angles.  Researchers competent in using tools of ecological research could provide technical assistance on particular environmental problems.  Systematic environmental analysis and planning might be established so problems could be managed before they became the crises that provoke environmental campaigns.  General theories of ecological complexity might enlighten humans about the conditions for more harmonious relations among people and with other organisms sharing our environment.

The rise of ecology-as-social-action, however, also involved a serious critique of the scientific enterprise.  The presumption that scientific advances constitute Progress was challenged by peace and environmental activists, among others.  The destructive effects of science applied, for example, in military technologies and synthetic agro-chemicals made it hard to justify the pursuit of knowledge as a good thing for all.  The pertinent question was raised: Who benefits from scientific research, and who does not?  Such probing exposed science’s role in many forms of domination: developed nations over former colonies, military and security branches of the State over dissenting citizens, managers over workers, whites over other races, men over women, and humans over non-humans.  Some people saw science in the service of domination as abuse, not use, of science, but other critical commentators associated these tendencies with the nature of scientific inquiry itself.  Either way, science was not viewed as unfettered inquiry; instead, specific developments in scientific knowledge began to be interpreted in terms of the social priorities of the governmental bodies, military agencies, corporations, and individuals who sponsored, created, or applied them.

The critique of science also involved positive proposals for alternative processes of inquiry and alternative applications of the products of science.  To counter the inherent tendencies of science towards domination—or the recurrent abuses of science in that direction—these alternatives should revolve around cooperation and should not take the contributions of other people or species for granted.  Scientists were urged to accept local, democratically formulated input to their research.  Even among scientists who insisted on their freedom of inquiry (albeit within parameters set by their funding sources), there was wide recognition of the need to take more responsibility for how the knowledge they made would be applied.[endnote]

In short, ecology-as-social-action challenged ecological researchers not only to attend to ecological concerns through technical assistance, analysis for planning, or general theories, but also to shape their scientific practices and products self-consciously so as to contribute to transforming the dominant structure of social and environmental relations.  In retrospect, I would read in the broad terms of the critique of science an overoptimistic assessment of the potential, on one hand, for the social movements of the 1960s and 70s to bring about radical restructuring of social relations and, on the other hand, for people to transform their lives accordingly—including, in this context, for scientists to redirect their research.  Yet the 1970s critique of science was a key aspect of the context in which I first began to engage with the complexities of environmental, scientific, and social change together, as part of one project.  The challenge I take up in writing this book, then, is to build on the historical and personal origins of the project and to convey its subsequent evolution in terms that help other researchers engage with such complexities in the context of the early 21st century.


Conceptual exploration: An autobiographical narrative

My decision to study ecology during the early 1970s stemmed from environmental activism in Australia that ranged from a collaboration with trade unionists opposing the construction of an inner-city power station to street theater exposing fraudulent, industry-sponsored recycling plans (Whole Earth Group 1974).  Ecology-the-science was the recommended choice for college students who sought programs of study in which to pursue their interests in ecology-as-social-action—if indeed any other choices were available.  I hoped my studies would lead to some kind of career that would take me beyond responding to one environmental issue after another and instead allow me to help in planning that prevented future problems from emerging.  I also hoped that understanding how to explain the complexities of interactions in life would lend support to less hierarchical and exploitative relationships, both within society and among humans and other species.

I had brought a mathematical disposition to my studies in ecology, so I undertook projects that advanced my skills in quantitative analysis and mathematical modeling.  I was excited to learn that some biologists and mathematicians were creating a specialty called theoretical biology (Waddington 1969).  This discovery was still fresh when I took a course for which E. C. Pielou’s (1969) text on mathematical ecology was assigned.  In the introduction she noted that organisms come from a range of species; within any species they differ in age, sex, genetics, experience, and so on; and any particular individual changes over its lifetime.  Any situation an ecologist might study is continually altered by births and deaths, by migratory exchanges with other places, and by seasons and climatic change.  Even so, ecological regularities persist long enough for most people to recognize some order, such as, an oak-maple forest or the sequence of plants encountered as one moves inland from the seashore (Pielou 1969, 1).  The processes could be simply described, yet the combination of them seemed theoretically challenging—how could ecologists account for order arising out of such complexity?…[continued through the book]


Allee, W. C., A. E. Emerson, O. Park, T. Park and K. P. Schmidt (1949). Principles of Animal Ecology. Philadelphia: Saunders.
Pielou, E. C. (1969). An Introduction to Mathematical Ecology. New York: Wiley-Interscience.
Taylor, P.J. (2005) Unruly Complexity: Ecology, Interpretation, Engagement. Chicago: U. Chicago Press.
Waddington, C. H. (Ed.) (1969). Towards a Theoretical Biology. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press.
Whole Earth Group (1974). Uncle Afrely’s Earth Guide (info)
Williams, R. (1980). “Ideas of Nature,” in Problems in materialism and culture. London: Verso, 67-85.


One thought on “Historical and autobiographical origins of an ongoing project on scientific and social complexity

  1. Pingback: “Democratic” control of science? | Intersecting Processes

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