An environmental social science

One of the difficulties in coming to terms with these new challenges is that ecological issues have fallen prey to many of the same types of "tribal" conflicts and territorial disputes among the so-called experts that have affected our understandings of other areas of nature and society (Becher 1989). Already in the 1970s it was apparent that the new environmental problems required for their comprehension something more than a traditional natural-science expertise, but it has proved difficult, in the years since, to develop approaches to knowledge-making that could transcend disciplinary divisions and entrenched ways of thinking (Leroy and Nelissen 1999). What we have gotten instead is a highly fragmented array of environmental sciences - and, more recently, environmental social sciences - which typically seek to bring the new problems into the separate frameworks and theoretical programs of the specialized scientific disciplines. Ulrich Beck, in his influential book of 1986, aptly termed this process the "feudalization of cognitive practice" as he called for more "reflective" modes of sciencing in order to manage the problems of what he labeled the risk society (Beck 1986/1992). And while his call has definitely been heard, one can question whether the resulting forms of expertise have sufficiently escaped the dilemmas of fragmentation and specialization that he warned against.

Over the past fifteen years increasing numbers of environmental economists, political scientists, geographers, and sociologists have come to compete for academic attention, along with the natural scientists, who had earlier more or less cornered the expert market.4 The well-known patterns of disciplinary differentiation have led to a rather unhelpful division of the subject area, and, within the disciplines, there has often been more competition than cooperation among representatives of opposing schools of thought. The economists have tended to divide themselves into "mainstream" approaches, on the one hand, applying the well-worn concepts of neo-classical economics to environmental issues, while diverse groups of ecological economists, on the other hand, have sought to adapt some of the terminology of ecology to economic relations and production processes (Costanza etal. 1997; Daly 1999). The ecological terminology, however, has tended to become commercialized and to develop in isolation from other disciplinary perspectives. As such, ecological economists and green business managers have all but reduced the quest for sustainable development to the sustainable growth of the individual firm or economic branch. We thus have new consulting companies setting themselves up to propose "natural steps" for businesses to take on the road to an environmentally conscious capitalism that obeys the laws of nature, offering a kind of ecological phrase book in the form of organizational learning procedures (Nattrass and Altomare 1999).

Among political scientists a different kind of disciplining has taken place, with experts in environmental policy, environmental organizations, and international relations dividing the realm of environmental politics into separate and increasingly specialized spheres of scholarship. The particular activity areas of parliamentary debates, political protest, intergovernmental negotiations, local projects, Green Party machinations, and so forth all have their experts, but the knowledge that is accumulated tends to enter into public policy deliberations in a highly fragmented and sectorial manner. Policy analysis and advice has largely come to focus on the evaluation of policy "instruments" and institutional capacity-building in particular sectors - for example, transportation, agriculture, energy, industry - while the broader, and increasingly cultural, politics of the environment have tended to be filtered out of policy-making, as if they were simply too tough to handle.

In the 1980s, environmental issues also began to be taken seriously by sociologists and anthropologists after being more or less ignored through the 1960s and 1970s. But the ways in which the issues have since come to be investigated have been subjected to the peculiar logic of sociological differentiation. What C. Wright Mills once termed "abstracted empiricism" has tended to divide environmental sociology into a number of disparate bits and pieces, narrowly defined sub-areas and sub-sectors (Mills 1963). There are specialists in environmental movements, environmental catastrophes, participation in environmental decision-making, environmental risks and risk assessment, and environmental values and ethics, to name some of the more popular sub-fields of environmental sociology. But the empirical or factual bias that dominates the social science disciplines (especially in the United States, where most of the practitioners are to be found) has meant that broader, more all-encompassing modes of analysis have had difficulty winning acceptance. Understanding has tended to be partial and contextually specific and all too often a reflection of the particular investigator's interests and methodological preferences.

In Europe, what Mills referred to as "grand theory" has been influential among sociologists and those in the related fields of geography and anthropology. Since Ulrich Beck in 1986 first christened our age the risk society, many are the theorists who have sought to incorporate his insights into the received frameworks of social theory, and, in particular, into the language of modernization and modernity. Beck, Anthony Giddens, Scott Lash, and others have championed something they have labeled "reflexive modernization" (Beck, Giddens, and Lash 1994; Giddens 1998), without paying too much attention to the real-life contradictions that have confronted the greening of society. At a slightly lower level of abstraction, other sociologists and political scientists have developed a theory of "ecological modernization," in which they emphasize the new kinds of innovation and new forms of dialog and cooperation that are taking place among business firms, governmental authorities, and environmental organizations in countries like Germany and the Netherlands

(Mol and Sonnenfeld 2000). Still others, in both Europe, Australia, and the United States, have imposed the language and theoretical apparatus of postmodernism (Jagtenberg and McKie 1997), social constructivism (Hannigan 1995) and neo-institutionalism, or systems theory (Luhmann 1993) on to environmental politics, and have thereby identified some of the innumerable barriers that confront the visions and programs of the emerging culture.

And so, as has been the case in many other social-problem areas, environmental social science has become a debating, or, even worse, a mutual-indifference society, filled with divergent and fragmented (mis)understandings. The problem is not so much that the analyses are unconvincing; it is rather that they are, for the most part, incommensurable and competitive, and are therefore difficult to combine in any meaningful way. The analyst is all too often forced to choose a particular terminology and theoretical approach that tends to exclude the others, at the same time as research attention, according to the methodological precepts of academic life, is customarily confined to one particular aspect of reality, or one particular sector. The differences in understanding are thus in need of synthesis and integration, and a much more active process of dialog and communication than is encouraged by the increasingly competitive and entrepreneurial value system of the academic culture as it has developed in most parts of the world. Perhaps most crucially, differences in academic understanding of the issues need to be confronted with, or tested by, the ongoing processes of social and cultural change themselves. Neither the different social science disciplines nor, for that matter, the separate natural science disciplines can retain their splendid isolation in the face of the "co-evolution" of social and ecological practices (Norgaard 1994; Haila 1998).

In this, as in so many areas of social life, we need theories that are somewhat less grandiose and exclusive in their ambitions, and more open to the flow and dynamic of (eco)social development. Reality is simply too complicated and the processes of greening are too all-encompassing - they represent too much of a moving target, we might say - to be able to be explained by any one form of academic research.

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