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Notes for some PhD proposals
Sociological Approaches to Ecological Uncertainty

Recent academic work has highlighted the importance of local knowledge in ecological problem solving (McGlade 1993, Shiva 1993, Dryzek 1990). However, it can also be said that this knowledge has become important because it has been ignored by the dominant academic and economic knowledges. Ecological knowledge has referential or reflexive aspects that lead to uncertainties in its interpretation (Beck 1986:1992). In this way it becomes a problem of the sociology of knowledge. For my proposal, I would like to study the problems of ecological uncertainty within the context of Frankenstein and genetic engineering. Themes within this context may allow a greater level of communication of ideas between sociology and ecology.

Science and economics can be said to be the dominant knowledges of present society, yet they seem to have problems dealing with some types of uncertainty. Two ways in which they describe their realities are objective measurements and subjective emergence 1.

Objective measurements fail, in some cases, when the measurement does not accurately reflect the reality it is trying to describe. In astronomy, there are three methods to detect binary stars. These three methods select binaries with different characteristics; different relative masses of the two stars, different orbit times and different separations between the stars. These "selection effects" have to be taken into consideration if we want to calculate the number of binary stars in our galaxy.

In macro-economic decision making indices such as Gross National Product (GNP) are taken to be objective measurements. They are single figures derived from accounting systems (GNP is derived from the UN's System of National Accounts). Recently there has been concern that these indices are insufficient. They may need modification to cope with different aspects of welfare, ecosystem resources, and hidden markets 2.

These are problems with the objective measurements of science and economics. Descriptions in terms of subjective emergence take a different form. Its main form in economics is the 'hidden hand' argument as used by Adam Smith. This is a tenet of 'laissez-faire' or free-market economics - that competition will produce the best result for all. This argument was taken by Darwin to form part of his theory of natural selection - an argument that was subsequently taken to mean "survival of the fittest". The main problem with these emergent arguments is that they are not testable. Emergent arguments can be used to explain anything, as can be demonstrated by Foucault (1980, p.100) or Cohen & Stewart (1994).

When using either objective measurements or subjective emergence to describe ecosystems, and our places within them, we are met with uncertainties. The above methods may be selective of reality - they may not be able to handle the particular realities of ecosystems. If so, what might be the cause? One aspect of ecosystems is that actions are referential or reflexive meaning that an organism must act to change its environment in order to live, but that a changed environment may need different actions.

This might give us a reason why science or economics fail to describe ecosystems. There is a perception that a discipline that uses mathematics is better than one that uses other forms of representation. Referential systems may be difficult to describe mathematically. For example, Hilbert's program to formalise mathematics in the early part of the century was upset by Godel with a self-referential statement 3. Two questions raise themselves. What effects does this have on mathematical representation? Have these effects been acknowledged in the mathematical sciences?

Mathematics may not be the only direction to look in. Circles of action without primary cause (in ecosystems) may find fruitful similarities with circles of signification without absolute meaning (in linguistics). The course of ideas from Saussure, through Barthes, Derrida, Baudrillard to Foucault may provide different approaches to the problems of environmental uncertainty. Another course of ideas may come from Habermas, Dryzek, Beck, and Giddens. However, language differences between all of these ideas may cause problems.

As a starting point to my proposal, I intend to map some of the themes between the texts of Frankenstein and genetic engineering. Lyons (1992) gives some references to literary and social analysis, Gould (1996) highlights the differences between genetic and cultural reproduction in the story. Turney (1998) traces media representations of Frankenstein and genetics - he does not explore biology or cultural theory in detail but he does provide an historic(al) framework to these ideas.

These texts provide links to the ideas of reproduction in Shiva (1993, 1998), Mies & Shiva (1993) or in Cohen & Stewart (1994) Stewart & Cohen (1997). Shiva's analysis of dominant and local knowledge, combined with Cohen & Stewart's themes of contextuality within biology provide links to Foucault. Foucault's project of "genealogies of subjugated knowledge" (1980) provides a link back to Gould. Starting with these themes, it may be possible (when held in contrast to dominant biology4) to explore some areas of ecological uncertainty.

A major sub-theme to my proposal would be trace themes of ideas in biology, mathematics and sociology. This is partially to elucidate ecological uncertainties, and partially to produce links and translations. These translations will possibly allow communication between disciplines that have strong meanings for particular words. These translations could take the form of webpages. 

1. The problems of word use between science and sociology are vast. The terms objective measurement and subjective emergence here are only used as local signifiers within the next three paragraphs.

2. See, for example, Costanza (1991), UN (1993), or van Dieren (1995).

3. See, Casti (1991) for a good introduction.

4. A large part of the proposal must be a representation of the dominant biology that the dominant biologists agree with. Otherwise they will be less likely to accept criticism. 

Personal ability & suitability.
My first degree was in astrophysics, which had a large mathematical basis. I would say that my strongest areas of mathematics were differential geometry and computer modeling. Differential geometry can be seen as translations between measurement systems or between reference frames, and provides the basis for the wave theories of relativity and quantum mechanics. Computer modeling has opened up new areas of mathematical research, such as game theory, chaotic systems, and fractals. Fractals have brought a renewed interest in the work of Georg Cantor (1845-1918), who produced an early version of set theory. Referential paradoxes within his set theory induced a move towards new set definitions and Hilbert's formal programme of mathematics.

However, I would need some mathematical supervision if I study Godel's theory and its implications in any depth.

My biological background has largely been self-taught. Although my MSc course was called Analytical Biology, it was really inter-disciplinary ecology. My primary sources of biological knowledge are the books of Dawkins and Gould and practical knowledge of environmental conservation.

It would be useful to have biological supervision for the areas of dominant biology.

My Msc did, however, introduce me to sociological and economic arguments. The ideas of Habermas, Shiva, and Kropotkin, amongst others, were introduced to us. However, it was only a one year course and I'm only starting to understand some of their ideas. My thesis was Accounting for Environmental Decision Making. I now find most parts of it quite naive, but it did bring me to understand the reflexive aspects of ecological action. I am also happy with its review of immunology and the model of mutualism I produced.

After finishing the course I was offered a place to dtudy for my PhD with Dryzek in Melbourne but I could not get funding. I have been increasing my sociological knowledge by reading Hawkes (1977), Eco (1993:1995), and Beck (1986:1992), amongst others. I also began a third year Open University course in "Culture, Media, Identities" last year. I did not complete this course, for perhaps three reasons.

i) I always wanted to answer my own questions, not the ones asked. This was impossible within the word restrictions. Consequently it meant that I did not give sufficient space to represent the arguments that I was trying to criticise. Perhaps I was misunderstanding the differences in approach between undergraduate and postgraduate courses.

ii) Differences in word meanings between disciplines and the weight of their differing interpretation made translation of ideas difficult. Particularly words like objective, subjective, essentialist, natural, paradigm, and worldview. This was not helped by an aspect of scientific arrogance, I had just converted from Astrophysics to Analytical Biology without too many problems. Knowing what I meant, was different from saying what I meant.

iii) Problems in language. Most of my academic work has been judged on a mathematical basis, and this has led to a style of English representation that can be obscure and overly long-winded in places. This is an area that I must work on. Hopefully, this will be helped by study of linguistic representation. It does suggest, that there are specific differences between mathematical and linguistic representation. These differences could provide useful questions.

I would like to spend the first year of my PhD as a part time student, as this would allow me to continue my job as Community Information Assistant at Ilfracombe Library. I feel that studying local and ecological knowledge many not be best achieved in academic surroundings in a city. I realise than in view of the limitations in my academic knowledge, that I may have to spend at least a year studying full time. My internet and e-mail access may be an advantage for my part-time study. 

Created 1/2/99
Last modified 14/10/99