Tag Archives: Sci&TechStudies(STS)

Reasons for science studies scholars to use critical judgement in engaging with the content of science

As I brushed off a 2011 talk “What to do if we think that researchers have overlooked a significant issue for 100 years?” to give again to philosophers of science and biologists together, a colleague mentioned the work of philosopher-historian of science, Hasok Chang, on complementary science.  So I watched his 2013 Presidential Address to the British Society for History of Science.  In this post I note that his list of reasons for science studies scholars to use critical judgement in engaging with the content of science could be expanded. Continue reading

Political ecology as a fertile site for social theorizing

During the 1990s political ecology became an active field of inquiry into environmental degradation and, sometimes, environmental restoration. Political ecology also had the potential to contribute to the process of social theorizing, which stemmed from the implications of what this paper calls “intersecting processes.” This term signifies that political ecological analyses attempt to make sense of dynamics produced by intersecting economic, social and ecological processes operating at different scales.

Talk, 21 minutes Continue reading

What to do if we think that researchers have overlooked a significant issue for 100 years?

Practice run of a talk to philosophers of biology & biologists, March 2016 Continue reading

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

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.

Heterogeneity in science and technology studies (Day 15 of Learning road trip)

Joan Fujimura, a sociologist of molecular biology, convened a group of graduate students and a post-doc for me to talk with.  She let me know that some people had read a recent Biology & Philosophy paper of mine (but it turned out they meant my commentary on race and genetics, not my critique of heritability studies) and said “most of us are interested in genomics and complexity.  Presenting the PKU example may be good.”  I decided to try to get discussion of the implications of heterogeneity for understanding problems that concern me in heritability studies and in STS (science & technology studies) more generally.  To introduce myself, I’d connect heterogeneity with the 3-angle approach to heterogeneous (or unruly) complexity that has run through my work, that is, critical thinking about science, interpretation of science in its social context, and bringing these back into science through refelctive practice and participatory pedagogy.

In the spirit of the last term, after introducing the term and two examples I asked participants how people deal with heterogeneity, where people might be researchers in natural sciences, in social sciences, or in STS—their choice.  Contra the spirit of participatory pedagogy, my themes may have come across more clearly if I’d given a standard presentation on one part of my work.

Anyway, out of the discussion came the pertinent objection from Joan that people are building infrastructure based on new genetic knowledge and STS scholars are study this.  (This was said to moderate my contention about heterogeneity, control and social infrastructure.)

(back to Start of road trip; forward to Day 16)

Three angles from which to view the practice of researchers

My book, Unruly Complexity: Ecology, Interpretation, Engagement (Taylor 2005), considers three angles—like facets of a crystal—from which to view the practice of researchers:

A.  their study of complex situations;

B.  their interactions with other social agents to establish what counts as knowledge; and

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

These angles are evident in the larger structure of the book’s three parts: I. Modeling ecological complexity, II. Interpreting ecological modelers in their complex social context; and III. Engaging reflexively within ecological and social complexity.  The complex situations referred to in angle A are primarily those studied in ecology and socio-environmental research, but the complexity of influences studied in the interpretation of science leads to an equivalent set of three angles.

For each angle, I discuss problems with simple formulations of well-bounded systems that have coherent internal dynamics and simply mediated relations with their external context (labeled type 1 formulations in Chapter 6).  I contrast these formulations with work based on dynamics among particular, unequal units or agents whose actions implicate or span a range of social domains (type 3).  I note, however, that simple formulations are easier to communicate than reconstructions of particular situations and simple formulations appear to have more effect on social mobilization.  I introduce, therefore, an in-between kind of formulation (type 2): simple themes that open up issues, pointing to greater complexity and to further work needed in particular cases.  Indeed, opening out across boundaries and opening up questions provides the impetus from each chapter to the next.  This mode of expository and conceptual development is conveyed by the summary in the next post of the book’s themes and the questions opened up.

This 3×3 structure (summarized in a subsequent post) should be applicable to other fields with complex subject matters.