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Notes for some PhD proposals

Sociological approaches to ecological uncertainty (version 2)

This PhD proposal attempts to establish grounds for communication between the sciences and the humanities on ecological matters. This communication may be necessary to counter, on the one hand, the view that knowledge in science is universal rather than provisional (a view that Casti (1991) is keen to dispel), and on the other hand, the view that uncertainty in sociological meaning is absolute (i.e. everything is meaningless) rather than contextual (a view that can be labelled the intentional model of language, which is dismissed by Hall (1997)).

The rejection of these two caricatures requires an investigation into the hypothesis that sciences and humanities might have points of agreement, but that these points of agreement might be expressed in different languages. This becomes important when questions arise which cross the traditional boundaries of these disciplines. Ecological questions seem particularly adept at this: recent examples being the safety of GM foods, the BSE crisis and the use of growth hormones in cattle.

I will attempt to draw parallels between science and humanities on ecological questions in two areas.

Firstly, a broad look at authority with its relations to truth, universality, and authorship. A particular instance of this that I will investigate is the possibility of links between formalism in mathematics and linguistics. This allows two definite questions to be asked. Does a linguistic version of Godel's Theory exist? If it does exist, what is the specific form of this linguistic version?

The second area I will study is the meaning of 'hierarchy' in biology and its relationships with diversity, pluralism, and local knowledge of ecosystems. The mathematical differences between webs or nets and hierarchies would also seem important to this discussion. This has particular relevance to the interactions of different organisational codes within organisms and ecologies. The main scope of this part of my work would be the identification and characterisation of organisation codes actually present in biological systems and the presence or absence of interactions between these different codes.

NOTE: This section has shifted emphasis. The general problem will now be the question of organisation in organism. This will be analysed to see whether a sociological or cultural approach to the problem can produce new questions. The specific example will be the roles of Calcium in human physiology. Calcium takes part in the pathways of many biological systems: the nervous system, the hormone system, muscle action, cellular development, amongst others.

Taken together, these two areas will hopefully show that there are grounds for agreement between sciences and humanities. There are also arguments between sciences and humanities, but in ecological situations, the range of arguments within science and the the range of arguments within the humanities are sufficiently large to find a number of parallel approaches. To ignore the possibility of new insights based on these parallels, purely from a position that devalues either science or the humanities in terms of some idealised methodology, seems to be short sighted. 

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Written 3/5/99
Created 30/5/99
Last modified 14/10/99