Friday, September 2, 2011

Political Ecology: an interdisciplinary bridge

I am currently pursing a PhD in geography, while carving out a specific scholarly identity as a political ecologist. The breadth and variety of research in political ecology allows me to draw on my diverse background and requires a familiarity with a wide cross-disciplinary literature. In the 2007 edition of The Academics Handbook, Craufurd D. W. Goodwin warns that interdisciplinary study can be “hazardous to the health of a young scholar” because it results in research that pulls ‘haphazardly’ from different methods and theories (2007, 82-3). In this essay, however, I argue that interdisciplinary training is an advantage for scholars who study complex environmental problems. Further, political ecology is a field of study where collaboration between geographers and anthropologists has produced strong and insightful research.

Political ecology is a cluster of approaches with “many points of continuity” (Braun 2004, 151), an emergent ‘critical toolbox’ for studying nature-society relationships (Robbins 2004). Political ecology differs from other fields of nature-society inquiry because it acknowledges human relationships to physical processes, and then places them within a political economic framework. This balance and breadth of inquiry has been challenging to achieve, with some scholars arguing that the environment has become “simply a stage or arena in which struggles over resource access and control take place” (Zimmerer and Bassett 2003, 3; for a review of this debate see Walker 2005). However, some geographers and anthropologists have produced studies that simultaneously draw on their expertise in the social and physical sciences. For example, scholars have explored the implications of non-equilibrium ecology for management strategies (Zimmerer and Young 1998; McCabe 2004; Little 1994), demonstrated how a thorough examination of genetic science can bolster our understanding of commodification (McAfee 2003; Parry 2004), and uncovered the socio-economic implications of horticultural and agricultural policies (Schroeder 1999; Yapa 1996). To be clear, most political ecology is dominated by human geographers and cultural anthropologists, however, by these scholars have published in journals like Conservation Biology (Mascia et al. 2003; Robertson and Hayden 2008; West and Brockington 2006; Brosius 2004) demonstrating their ability to draw on their diverse backgrounds and reach across the physical-social science divide.

Collaboration between anthropologists and geographers is also a key component of political ecology research. Genealogists of the field suggest that it emerged from work by geographers and anthropologists, particularly those at the University of California Berkeley and the University of Michigan who were initially trained as ecological anthropologists, cultural ecologists, and natural hazards scholars (Robbins 2004; Neumann 2005). In the 1970s and 80s these scholars began to shift their focus away from studies of peasants and agrarian communities in isolation, and began asking how these communities dealt with the social and ecological impacts of global capitalism. They redefined environmental problems such as overfishing (e.g. Nietschmann 1973), famine (e.g. Watts 1983), deforestation (e.g. Hecht and Cockburn 1989), and soil erosion (e.g. Blaikie 1985) as the outcomes of structural political-economic forces associated with the expansion of capitalism.

Recent edited volumes collecting scholarship on “political ecology” reveal contributions by a wide variety of anthropologists, geographers, and scholars in other disciplines (Paulson and Gezon 2005; Peet, Robbins, and Watts 2011; Peet and Watts 2004; Biersack and Greenberg 2006; Rocheleau, Thomas-Slayter, and Wangari 1996; Zimmerer and Bassett 2003). What these volumes also reveal is that these scholars are not afraid to use methods and concepts claimed by other disciplines. For example, anthropologists are writing about and using maps more extensively (Moore 1998; Taylor 2008), as well as exploring concepts such as space, scale, and territory (Paulson and Gezon 2005; Escobar 2008). Meanwhile some geographers are citing the importance of ethnographic writing and field methods, particularly in the context of nature-society studies (St. Martin and Pavlovskaya 2009; Watson and Till 2010).

Political ecology is not, and has never been, a single approach and in fact there is a lot of debate over what constitutes an appropriate political ecology framework. However, it is revealing that many of the articles and edited volumes that deal with these debates are the result of cross-disciplinary co-authorship. Whether arguing for increased attention to ecological processes (Vayda and Walters 1999), further engagement with science studies (Goldman, Nadasdy, and Turner 2011), the importance of feminist research (Rocheleau, Thomas-Slayter, and Wangari 1996), or a more serious consideration of politics (Paulson, Gezon, and Watts 2003), these coauthored works transcend disciplinary boundaries and create a more holistic political ecology that can offer new insights into complex environmental problems.

When I speak with fellow graduate students who also consider themselves political ecologists, I see a group of young scholars with degrees in a variety of disciplines. Some are graduates of interdisciplinary programs like area studies or environmental studies; others have made their way to the social sciences from departments in the physical sciences. As we grow both intellectually and professionally, I hope that we can continue to find opportunities for writing and teaching together, despite the institutional boundaries that might separate us. Political ecology has always been grounded in collaborative projects and cross-disciplinary exchanges. Creating what Piers Blaikie calls ‘a future for political ecology that works’ (2008) requires that we work across disciplinary boundaries and continue to foster opportunities for meaningful collaboration.

Brian Grabbatin
PhD Candidate, Department of Geography, University of Kentucky
Adjunct Instructor, Department of Political Science, College of Charleston


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