Tag Archives: engagement

Intersecting Processes: May 2017 New England Workshop on Science and Social Change

Location: Old Fire Station, Woods Hole MA, USA
New Dates May 2017, 8am Sat May 27 – 2.30pm Weds May 31

In this five-day workshop participants will create spaces, interactions, and support in formulating plans to extend our own projects of inquiry and engagement around “intersecting processes.”

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Glossary for Unruly Complexity: Ecology, Interpretation, Engagement

Just as it is said that the index of a book is the last chance for the author to shape how the book is read, a glossary can convey the sensibility of a book.  Below is the glossary for Taylor, Peter J. (2005) Unruly Complexity: Ecology, Interpretation, Engagement.  The place in the book where the terms are introduced or elaborated on is given in parentheses.  Items in italics are described elsewhere in the glossary. Continue reading

“Democratic” control of science?

During the first live session for the Collaborative Exploration case about making an e-trail on the Democratic control of science (http://sicw.wikispaces.com/CEFeb14), the meaning of the term “democratic” arose.  This has led me along two paths: Continue reading

Collaborative production of knowledge: Health, environment, and publics

The workshop “Collaborative production of knowledge: Health, environment, and publics” in Arouca, Portugal aimed to

make sense of the growing attention to the collaborations with the public (or different selection of the public) in the production of knowledge about health and environmental concerns. All research is collaborative-even solitary scientists have to secure audiences if their findings are to become established as knowledge-so why emphasize collaboration in health and environmental research? The workshop will consider the diverse reasons that might be put forward to explain that emphasis. How are different angles on collaboration related in theory and practice? In what ways can scientists, science educators, science shop organizers, and researchers in history, philosophy, and social studies of science conceptualize, interpret, teach about, and engage in the collaborative generation of knowledge and inquiry? What can we learn reflexively from our own experience in an interaction-intensive workshop around these questions?

Applications were sought from teachers and researchers (including students) who are interested in promoting the social contextualization of science through interdisciplinary education and outreach activities beyond their current disciplinary and academic boundaries.

At the start of each day participants undertook daily writing on the theme of the workshop.  My own writing makes up the next few posts.

22 May 2011

The growing attention to collaborations with the public in the production of knowledge about health and environmental concerns represents, I believe, a confluence of a number of streams:

  1. “Science for the People” and similar slogans were promoted by radical organizations during the 1970s.   However, scientists pushed back against local democratic accountability and pushed for the “freedom” for their research to be directed by corporations (and to share in profits).  The growing attention to collaborations with the pubic involves a push back against that pushback.
  2. Environment, health, and environmental health issues in particular involve activists who push for changes in policy, expose or exploit controversies in the science, and, in some cases, become conversant in the science and push for changes in funding priorities and regulations.  Collaboration with the public in this case means collaboration with these activist subsets of the public.
  3. Health and, to some extent, environmental remediation require people to follow advice or guidelines from authorities.  Physicians and environmental managers often lament the “lack of compliance” among members of the public.  Collaboration is valuable so these professionals can see the extent to which lack of compliance is rational resistance, can draw models or best practices from successful communities, and can co-develop policies that are more likely to be implemented and maintained.  In short, collaboration is a pragmatic move for professionals who want their advice to be taken up.
  4. The shifting social, economic, and political conditions means that ongoing innovation, monitoring, and adjustment is needed.  The “unruly complexity” of health and environmental situations does not allow for overarching, once-and-for-all knowledge to be established.

A modified three E’s for sustainable development: Economy, Equitable governance, Engaged populace

Ten years ago the Three E’s were promoted for sustainable development: environment, economics, equity.  I applauded the equity goal, but I wondered what its logical connection was with sustainabilty.  What follows was my take, as prepared for an education for sustainability initiative in 2003 (which proved not, alas, to be sustainable).

The vision of sustainable economic and social development expressed in the 1987 United Nations’ Brundtland Commission report, Our Common Future — development that “meets the needs of present generations without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.”

In this spirit, we envision three interrelated strands of sustainability:

  • a sustainable Economy, ensuring that members of future generations have equivalent — or enhanced — capacity for living, being healthy, making a livelihood, gaining environmental services, and harnessing natural resources.
  • Just and Equitable governance — decision-making procedures and institutions that do not permit one group’s access to resources to be ensured at the expense of others.

(Equity is linked with sustainability because, if we are concerned not to degrade the conditions for people in future generations, it makes sense to be concerned with improving the conditions of other people with degraded conditions in the present. Movement towards a sustainable, equitable society impels us to resist any growth of the gap among the capacities of different groups.)

  •  an Engaged populace, one in which people’s commitment to sustainability and equity motivates them:
    • to appreciate and monitor the state of the environment, social structure, human health;
    • to understand linked social and environmental processes;
    • to transform practices that makes those processes unsustainable and inequitable; and
    • to cross boundaries and collaborate with others in the pursuit of understanding and transformation.

Three angles from which to view the practice of researchers III

Three angles from which to view a researchers’ practice (A, B, C) and three kinds of formulation of each angle (1, 2, 3), which define the nine combinations (A1-C3) discussed in the last chapter of my book, Unruly Complexity: Ecology, Interpretation, Engagement (U. Chicago Press, 2005) and introduced in two previous posts.

The practice of researchers can be viewed from different angles, which highlight the researchers’…


resulting formulations involve…


A. dialogue with the situation studied


B. social interactions to establish what counts as knowledge

C. efforts to pursue social change in which they address self-consciously the complexities of their own situatedness as well as of the situation studied

1. simple, well-bounded systems






2. simple themes that point to greater complexity and further work needed in particular cases 








3. work based on dynamics that develop over time among particular, unequal agents whose actions implicate or span a range of social domains  






Intersecting processes, illustrated and analyzed III

The synopsis of a case of soil erosion in Oaxaca (presented in the post before last) has, in addition to the themes of the previous post, a number of implications for thinking about the agency of the people studied and, reflexively, of researchers reconstructing intersecting processes:

6. The account represents agency as distributed across different kinds of agents and scale, not something centered in one class or place (Thompson 2002). In the nineteenth-century moral economy caciques exploited peasants, but in a relationship of reciprocal norms and obligations. Moreover, the local moral economy was not autonomous—the national political economy was implicated, by its exclusion, in the actions of the caciques that maintained labor-intensive and self-sufficient production. Although the Mexican revolution initiated the breakdown in the moral economy, the ensuing process involved not just political and economic change from above, but also from below and between—semi-proletarian peasants brought their money back to the rural community and reshaped its transactions, institutions, and social psychology.

7. The account has an intermediate complexity—neither highly reduced, nor overwhelmingly detailed. The elements included in my synopsis and in the diagram are heterogeneous, but I tease out different strands. The strands, however, are cross-linked; they are not torn apart. By acknowledging this intermediate level of complexity, the account steps away from debates centered on simple oppositions, e.g., ecology-geomorphology vs. economy-society, or ecological rationality vs. economic rationality. Similarly, by placing explanatory focus on the ongoing, intersecting processes, the account discounts the grand discontinuities and transitions that are often invoked, e.g., peasant to capitalist agriculture, or feudalism to industrialism to Fordism to flexible specialization.

8. Intermediate complexity accounts favor the idea of multiple, smaller engagements linked together within the intersecting processes. My synopsis and diagram of the García-Barrioses’ more detailed account can be read as an engagement with current scholarly discourses in an effort to promote the concept of distributed agency. This concept has implications not only for how environmental degradation is conceptualized, but also for how one responds to it in practice. Intersecting processes accounts do not support government or social movement policies based on simple themes, such as economic modernization by market liberalization, sustainable development through promotion of traditional agricultural practices, or mass mobilization to overthrow capitalism.

9. This shift in how policy is conceived suggests a corresponding shift in scholarly practice. On the level of research organization, intersecting processes accounts highlight the need for trans-disciplinary work grounded in particular locations. They do not underwrite the customary multi-disciplinary projects directed by natural scientists, nor the economic analyses based on the kinds of statistical data available in published censuses.

10. Finally, the intermediate complexity of the Figure preserves a role for some kind of social scientific generalization. The synopsis and diagram abstract away an enormous amount of detail, a move that suggests that the particular case described by the García-Barrioses might be relevant to other cases. The account does not provide a general explanatory schema, but at least could serve as a template to guide further studies. Such a template would be elaborated in new research projects once researchers began to address the particularities of the situation they are studying. In other words, the particularities of each case would not warrant starting from scratch when attempting to understand and engage in socio-environmental change. The intermediate complexity of my account also means—and here I am applying some reflexivity to my own representational work—that I have deflected attention away from the need to examine the particular institutional and personal resources, agendas, and alliances that people like me would have to cultivate to gain support for the desired trans-disciplinary research or policy interventions.

Thompson, C. (2002). “When elephants stand for competing philosophies of nature: Amboseli National Park, Kenya,” in J. Law and A. Mol (Eds.), Complexities: Social Studies of Knowledge Practices. Durham: Duke University Press, 166-190.