Tag Archives: unruly complexity

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

Philosophy of ecology

Abstract of updated article to appear in Encyclopedia of the Life Sciences,

Although philosophy of ecology was slow to become established as an area of formal philosophical interest, there is a rich history of developing and debating conceptual frameworks in ecological and environmental science. A key challenge in conceptualising ecological complexity is to allow simultaneously for particularity, contingency and structure – structure, moreover, that changes, is internally differentiated, and has problematic boundaries. In contrast to ambitions of earlier decades for identifying general principles about systems and communities, ecologists now widely assert historical contingency, nonequilibrium formulations, local context and individual detail. Given that all organisms – humans included – live in dynamic ecological contexts, philosophy of ecology raises more general questions about conceptualising the positionality of humans and other organisms in the dynamic flux of their intersecting worlds.

Ecological philosophy: A series of impulses in addressing complexity

A 22-minute youtube of ecological philosophy, taken to refer to conceptual frameworks in ecological and environmental science.

Given the gaps in my knowledge of the literature, especially recent research, I would be grateful for any suggestions listeners/readers can provide, however brief. For example, I would be helped by getting notes of significant publications you think I might have omitted, categories (or, in my terms, impulses) I have overlooked or misconstrued, and so on.  (If you are really interested a draft of the article that the youtube gives an overview of can be viewed at http://ptaylor.wikispaces.umb.edu/EcologicalPhilosophy.) Continue reading

What if everything is always already unruly complexity?

Open this pdf, then listen to this mp3 (18minutes)

(An 18-minute talk related to Taylor, P. J. Unruly Complexity: Ecology, Interpretation, Engagement. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2005.)

Some thoughts about border-ing

1.              Starting position: Around the mid-1980s as a doctoral student in ecology, I became aware of the work of the anthropologist, Eric Wolf, which primed me to look in areas other than ecology for ways to think about problematic boundaries (or borders): “’Societies’ emerge as changing alignments of social groups, segments, and classes, without either fixed boundaries or stable internal constitutions.”  If anthropologists observe “transgenerational continuity, institutional stability, and normative consensus,” they should seek “to understand such characteristics historically, to note the conditions for their emergence, maintenance and abrogation.  Rather than thinking of social alignments as self-determining… we need… to visualize them in their multiple external connections” (Wolf Europe and the People Without History, 1982, 387).  In other words, whenever theory has built on the dynamic unity and coherency of structures or units—in Wolf’s case, societies or cultures—researchers could invert this and consider what would follow if those units were to be explained as contingent outcomes of intersections among processes that implicate or span a range of spatial and temporal scales.

2.              Borders are constructed within such intersecting processes.

3.              If borders seems natural or unproblematic, that needs explanation as a special case of intersecting processes.

4.              Borders are policed, with more or less seriousness.  (This can be part of the explanation of natural/unproblematic borders.)

5.              Interesting things happen when different kinds of dynamics intersect, that is, when the dynamics, which previously seemed well-bordered (although these borders were always constructed), cross the borders, e.g., ecotones, “invasive” species interact with indigenous.  (Note, however, that a focus on borderlands, such as ecotones, often takes for granted, i.e., without examination, the dynamics of the areas outside the ecotone.)

6.              Interesting things can be made to happen when different kinds of dynamics intersect.  E.g., when we see borders as problematic and examine those dynamics, we illuminate not only the construction of the borders, but also the possibilities of alternative constructions.

7.               All of the above apply to ecological dynamics as much as any other kind of boundary or border.   The concept of boundary object in sociology of science refers to cases in which the dynamics of separate areas of inquiry or activity can, despite their separateness, affiliate and act as if they are communicating (even if they understand the “same” term differently).  Ironically, this may be a form of border maintenance.

Prepared for the Handbook of Ecological Concepts workshop, 6-7 April 2006

Cities beyond the Year 2000: Engaging with/in the militant particularism-translocal tension of Raymond Williams

Talk given to Inter-college faculty Seminar in Humanities and Sciences, University of Massachusetts, Boston and New England American Studies Association in Lowell, MA, October 2009.

Introduction 1. Writings of Raymond Williams

—- (1983). The Year 2000. New York, Pantheon.
“…crises… are simply exposures of existing real relations, as distinct from the presumed and limited relations within which most political programmes are formulated.”

—- (1973). The country and the city. New York, Oxford University Press.
“The country and the city are changing historical realities…

Moreover… they represent only two kinds of settlement…

Yet the ideas and the images of country and city retain great force.  This persistence has a significance matched only by the fact of the great actual variation, social and historical, of the ideas themselves.”

—- (1976, rev. 1983). Keywords: A Vocabulary of Culture and Society. New York, Oxford University Press.

“The city as a really distinctive order of settlement, implying a whole different way of life, is not fully established, with its modern implications, until early 19th century, though the idea has a very long history…”

“…The widespread specialized use of country as opposed to city began in late 16th century with increasing urbanization and especially the growth of the capital, London.  It was then that country people and the country house were distinguished….”

—- (1985). Loyalties. London, Chatto & Windus.
“…’As I said at the beginning,’ [he] shouted, ‘you’ll cut and run.’  Jon stood holding the door.  The edge of the wood was between his fingers.  ‘I told you.  I have these questions to ask.  Open questions.'”

(Other novels on related themes: 1960, 1964, 1979)


Introduction 2.  Qs re: Boundaries of cities, work, and lives

What are the boundaries of the


we live and work in?

What are the boundaries of the

lives and work

we carry out in cities?


Introduction 3.  Personal history of socio-environmental engagements

My environmental activism in Australia during the early 1970s led me to study ecological science.  I had a mathematical disposition, so I chose to focus less on field studies and more on quantitative analysis and modeling, with a view to planning to prevent problems from emerging.  I soon developed an interest, which continues to this day, in ecological complexity as a challenge to conventional scientific ways of knowing.  As I explored this challenge, my work in ecology and socio-environmental studies opened out to interpretive studies of science and then to facilitation of critical, reflective practice. The common thread has been to problematize boundaries used by researchers to partition of complex situations into well-bounded systems and backgrounded or hidden processes. The integration of these three levels or angles is evident in my 2005 book, Unruly Complexity: Ecology, Interpretation, Engagement.  [Shameless plug]

Of course, problematizing boundaries would not be necessary unless it were not also the case that ecologists and environmental scientists can readily adopt explicit or implicit boundaries and study what is inside.  The challenge then is to develop a frame that acknowledges people’s efforts to make boundaries work for them as well as the ever-present potential for their accounts to be confounded by what is left outside.  In this talk I present a few vignettes or snapshots that speak to this challenge.  These vignettes are chosen to highlight the tension between the local and the translocal, in particular, to take seriously the participation of diverse people whose livelihood is directly dependent on the ecosystem or city, and, at the same time, acknowledge researchers’ professional identities and abilities as people who can contribute analyses of changes that arise beyond the local region or at a larger scale than the local.

(to be continued)

Critiques of attempts to model complexity well enough to make predictions and policy

In December 2009, I heard Jeremy Walker relate developments over recent decades in ecology, economics, and security policy and connect them with the theories of the neo-liberal economist, Hayek, whose views underwrite minimizing government to allow private corporations to adapt to inevitable crises (Walker and Cooper 2011).  I’m still puzzling over the overlap between Hayek’s critique of attempts to model complexity well enough to make predictions and policy and my view that “knowledge, plans, and action [have to] be continually reassessed in response to developments — predicted and surprising alike” as stated in my personal website and elaborated in Unruly Complexity [U. Chicago 2005]).  The challenge is to explain why Hayekians are dangerously wrong and I’m not!


J. Walker & M. Cooper (2011). Genealogies of resilience: From systems ecology to the political economy of crisis adaptation Security Dialogue 42: 143-160