Dichotomies of thought

One of the sources of tension that has afflicted the quest for sustainable development derives from the fact that different producers of knowledge, or cognitive actors, take their point of departure, their problem formulation, from different aspects of reality. Whether by choice or by necessity, knowledge-makers identify with different social constituencies and, whether they like it or not, they are often supported by, and must, directly or indirectly, serve the interests of different paymasters. This is not to say that knowledge is bought and sold like any other commodity, but it is to say that the age of the "free-floating" public intellectual is largely a thing of the past (Jacoby 1987). In a knowledge society or knowledge-based economy, thinking becomes a highly valued and valuable social activity.

A basic division that has affected environmental knowledge is between what might be termed cultural and economic approaches to the understanding of human activity. Many focus their attention on the material, or economic aspects, of social life - often reducing those aspects to what companies do - while others focus on the more symbolic, or cultural aspects: what we do in our everyday lives when we are supposedly not pursuing our material interests. As the social sciences became institutionalized in the nineteenth century, the different interests led to different academic disciplines, and, in many countries, to structural barriers between different faculties and types of universities. Economics and management tended to be studied in their own departments and eventually coalesced around business schools and engineering faculties, often at newer scientific and technological universities, while humanists and eventually sociologists and historians tended to consolidate their positions at the older and often more tradition-bound universities, taking over and eventually "modernizing" the medieval subjects of philosophy, rhetoric and theology. In the twentieth century, as separate faculties for the social and human sciences emerged throughout the world, departments of economics and management tended to differentiate themselves from departments of sociology, politics, and government, history, psychology and philosophy, each with their own literatures, theories, methods, and professional rituals and customs of behavior.5

The study of society, in more general terms, split into social sciences on the one hand and into arts and humanities on the other, each with different conceptions and ideals of knowledge, indeed, with different conceptions of the truth. And that division has been reproduced in countless varieties over the past hundred years as science has grown into a significant professional activity. The arts-science distinction has served to reinforce the older distinction between the study of nature and the study of society that was articulated in the seventeenth century, between the sciences of nature and the sciences of man, and in the 1990s the bifurcation manifested itself in a number of heated exchanges: the so-called "science wars."6

What might be termed the national styles of interaction between the "two cultures" - the natural scientists and engineers on the one hand, and the humanists and social scientists on the other - have, in turn, led to different forms of accommodation in different countries. In some, perhaps in most, countries there have been erected institutional barriers among the cultures; while in others, albeit not very many, spaces for interdisciplinary or transcultural communication have been established where different scholars from different fields can communicate and interact with one another. The science wars were most intense in the United States and Britain, where the old distinctions have been perhaps most rigorously institutionalized; in many European countries, there has been a good deal more interaction between the human/social and the natural/technical sciences, although the forms of interaction have differed from country to country.'

In an influential account, Jurgen Habermas argued in the 1960s that the natural, social, and human sciences have different "knowledge-constituting interests" (Habermas 1971). For the natural sciences the central ambition is to achieve technical-practical control over reality, and knowledge is thus developed with an orientation toward use and technical intervention; for the social sciences, the main ambition is to achieve an administrative knowledge that can provide guidance for the effective management and administration of social life; while for the human sciences a reflective interest is paramount, with knowledge primarily pursued in order to increase understanding of the human condition. In later work, Habermas has referred to a communicative rationality in the human and social sciences that is to be distinguished from the instrumental, or technological, rationality that is fundamental to the natural and engineering sciences.

Environmental challenges cannot easily be separated into communicative and instrumental rationalities, however, or, for that matter, into natural, social, and human sciences, and so in the 1970s there were attempts, in what we can term the first "age of ecology," to develop more holistic or comprehensive frameworks of understanding that transcended these historically shaped barriers. Often under the rubric of human ecology or environmental studies, processes of nature-society interaction were studied in a more explicit interdisciplinary fashion. Often, models and theories that had been developed in biological ecology were "transferred" to society and to the understanding of environmental issues. Social relations were reinterpreted, for example, in terms of energy flows and resource use, and economic development was conceptualized in relation to ecological "laws" and processes (e.g. Georgescu-Roegen 1971; Wilkinson 1973). Attention was also focused on the underlying attitudes to nature, and the conceptions of pollution and waste that characterized human interactions with the non-human environment (e.g. Douglas 1966; Passmore 1974). In geography, anthropology, and history, as well as in economics, political science, and sociology, the rise of human ecology had the effect of bringing "nature" explicitly into the frames of understanding, both theoretically and conceptually, of many social science disciplines (e.g. Schnaiberg 1980; Douglas and Wildavsky 1982). In the 1980s, practitioners in the new sub-fields of environmental history, environmental sociology, and ecological and environmental economics began to publish journals and form academic societies.

By the 1990s many of the broader, more interdisciplinary human ecology and environmental studies departments that had been established in the 1970s had fallen on hard times, and their attempts to develop holistic theories and interdisciplinary perspectives had been countered by a resurgence of more narrowly specialized approaches under the general rubric of going "back to basics." Environmental studies were also subdivided into the various issue areas, or sectors, of industrial pollution, agriculture, natural resources, transportation, and energy, which has led to very different forms of scientific expertise that are seldom transferred or translated across the sectors.

The creation of national and international programs in "global environmental change" in the 1980s led to a number of other institutional initiatives which, in many respects, resembled the earlier efforts to develop interdisciplinary environmental studies departments. The result in many universities is that there are small bands of environmental scientists spread around in different departments, at the same time as there are centers of interdisciplinary programs, usually supported on a temporary basis by a company or foundation or international organ. Dialog or communication among the different tribes is minimal, and in many universities there are often now separate and competing departments of environmental studies, with a department in environmental management usually located at or near a business school and a department in human ecology or environmental ethics located at or near the humanities faculty. As such, the understanding of, and knowledge about, the environmental challenges that humankind is facing and the ways that those challenges can best be handled is highly fragmented.

The division that afflicts the contemporary world of environmental knowledge reflects, or reproduces, a number of long-standing divisions that have characterized modern science at least since the seventeenth century. Thomas Kuhn once identified an "essential tension" in modern science between a mathematical and an experimental tradition, each upholding a very different idea of what science was all about and how a scientist went about obtaining truth (Kuhn 1978). Others, like Habermas in our day, have referred to a division of science into instrumental, or positivist, varieties on the one hand, and communicative, or hermeneutic, varieties on the other, what Max Horkheimer and Teodor Adorno in the 1940s called the "dialectic of enlightenment" (Adorno and Horkheimer 1944/1972). Where the positivist tends to seek a specialized knowledge, often based on a thorough investigation of a delimited area of reality, the hermeneutic scientist seeks a general, or critical, understanding of a wide range of disparate phenomena. The specialist values precision and detail while the generalist wants to know a little about many things. They use different research methods, develop different concepts and terminology, and have very different ideals or goals for their research activity. And while the specialist is extremely important for many specific tasks, we also need the fuzzier, but wider range, the attempt to comprehend the totality, as Georg Lukacs put it, that characterizes the ambit of the generalist (Lukacs 1971/1924).

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