Nature, Culture, Conservation: History of science as an integrative framework for analysis of research on environmental problems, 1950-2010

Lead Research Organisation: Imperial College London
Department Name: Humanities - Ctr for History of Sci, Tec


Not so long ago, understanding and tackling environmental problems was thought to be a job for science and technology. Today it is widely recognised that 'the environment' consists of systems both natural and cultural. Understanding and affecting these systems successfully will require collaboration across the science / humanities divide. This is urgent in areas like species conservation: despite 40 years of concerted international conservation action and advocacy, rates of biodiversity loss today are higher than ever. Yet in the effort to develop needed knowledge and methods, it has proved difficult to reconcile disciplinary differences. Scientists are unsure how to accommodate qualitative data into their ecological models. Social scientists are often suspicious of quantitative approaches to managing social-ecological systems. Many humanities scholars are unfamiliar with natural-scientific data and methods and seldom engage with the scientific literature.

This project aims to address this urgent practical and intellectual problem. And it aims to do so in a novel way: by studying science / humanities relations empirically through a review of existing interdisciplinary efforts around the environment as well as by comparing scientific and humanistic studies of the same environmental problem. This will be done through a novel use of the history of science: a field that straddles the science / humanities divide and that specialises in the conceptual and contextual analysis of past and contemporary research and knowledge involving both natural and cultural dimensions.

The project will collect and review scattered interdisciplinary, cross-disciplinary, and some single-discipline studies (c.1950-2010) of environmental problems and interventions in the USA, Europe, Africa, Southeast Asia, and Australia. Within this wide spectrum, the focus will be on biodiversity conservation, livestock epidemics in natural environments, and indigenous land-use practices in natural environments. These foci were chosen as key problem areas with natural and cultural dimensions and in which conservation efforts can conflict with the needs and development of human communities.

Questions to be asked include: What combinations and ways of combining approaches or critical perspectives have been tried? Which categories of problem have attracted cross-disciplinary collaboration? How have approaches differed in assumptions and conclusions? What approaches and/or projects have worked well, and why?

Answers to these questions will form an empirical basis for suggesting ways in which science / humanities cooperation can fruitfully be undertaken in the future. This is the project's overall objective.

The first-ever formal research collaboration of the humanities and the sciences at Imperial College London, the project brings together the Centre for the History of Science, Technology and Medicine and Imperial College Conservation Science. Outcomes will therefore more likely be useful to researchers from the sciences as well as the humanities.

These outcomes will include a published literature review, a typology of approaches, an annotated bibliography of case studies, and suggestions for how to design interdisciplinary and collaborative work that will be meaningful and useful to researchers in both science and the humanities and that will maximize insights and critical capacities from both.

These outcomes will be of interest beyond academic research - to professional and third-sector organisations, to policymakers, to communities affected by environmental problems and conservation solutions, and to wider publics engaged in issues of the environment and human development. The outcomes will be made available on a website for discussion and use by these audiences and communicated directly where possible to governmental and non-governmental organisations, especially those involved in the surveyed case studies.

Planned Impact

Project outcomes will be of interest beyond academic research - to third-sector organisations, to policymakers and managers, to communities affected by environmental problems and conservation solutions, and to wider publics engaged in issues of the environment and human development. The outcomes will be made available on a website for discussion and use by these audiences and communicated directly where possible to governmental and non-governmental organisations, especially those involved in the surveyed case studies.

Key target groups that are directly reachable in a six-month project are humanities researchers and social science researchers working on problems of the environment, environmental science researchers, environmental policymakers and managers, and (in particular) wildlife conservationists. Affected communities and wider publics will have access to the outcomes on the website and may be reached indirectly over time.

Humanities and social sciences researchers
The research review, typology of approaches, and annotated bibliography of case studies will benefit humanities and social science researchers. They will become informed about the range of existing approaches to interdisciplinary and multi-disciplinary collaboration; the variety of methods, assumptions, and conclusions; ways of integrating scientific data and methods into qualitative studies; and probably also the potential for integrating critical perspectives from the humanities into scientific studies and vice versa. The outcomes will contribute generally to methodological reflexivity in this broad area of research, encouraging debate on the advantages and limitations of a variety of approaches.

Ecologists / environmental sciences / conservation science
Policy and action to alleviate environmental problems is overwhelmingly informed by the research of environmental scientists. Although it is widely acknowledged by conservation scientists that it is impossible to try to conserve the Earth's natural flora and fauna and landscapes without taking humans into account, scientists have struggled to integrate cultural and historical dimensions into their biological and (more recently) economic models of social-ecological systems. The project outcomes will serve as resources for scientists who are rising to this challenge, and will encourage others to do so. Outcomes will suggest ways in which scientific researchers can integrate expert thinking about human cultures and societies from the humanities and social sciences into their scientific analyses.

Wildlife conservation organisations, managers and policymakers
These groups often face tensions and conflicts between conservation and the needs and development of human communities. Understanding both the natural and cultural dimensions of environmental problems and interventions is vital to addressing those conflicts successfully. Such understanding can come from research, including interdisciplinary research that crosses the science / humanities divide. Hitherto there exists no centralised and widely accessible survey and analysis of such research. The project will provide this to these target groups.

Affected communities and wider publics
In a six-month project, specific communities and publics cannot feasibly be targetted for dissemination of outcomes, but they may be reached indirectly by informing conservation organisations and policymakers, as above. In addition, the website containing the outcomes will not be specialist only. It will be designed and written to be understandable and interesting to wider publics engaged in environmental issues. Communities and publics will be made more aware of the kinds of research that potentially or actually shape policy, especially at points of conflict between conservation and development. Such awareness can potentially empower engagement, for example, in determining what approaches will be taken in the future.


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Pooley SP (2014) Hunting down the chimera of multiple disciplinarity in conservation science. in Conservation biology : the journal of the Society for Conservation Biology