Presentation on theme: "Sociology and the Environment 2:"— Presentation transcript:
1Sociology and the Environment 2: Thinking Sociologically about Nature and the Environment
2Nature in classical sociology ■ The institutionalisation of sociology as an academic disciplineowes more to Emile Durkheim than anyone else.■ Especially important were Durkheim’sefforts to establish that there is a ‘social’level of reality which is unique andcannot be explained in terms of biologyor psychology.■ So Durkheim entrenched the idea thatthe validity of sociological knowledgedepended upon the independence of‘social facts’ from natural phenomena.■ This society/nature divide has been massively influential insociological thinking, so that ‘nature’ has often been out of bounds.
3■ Of the classical sociologists Karl Marx has the most to say about the relationship between human society and nature.■ For Marx the material basis of societyis the way that humans labour totransform nature into useful goods.■ This is called ‘production’ and Marxsees labour and production as thereal foundation of human societies.■ So for Marx society is not completelyseparate from nature, instead societyis a product of the way that humansorganise their relationship with nature(through labour and technology).■ This means that changes in the human relationship with nature(production) will lead to changes in social structure.
4■ Max Weber’s ‘interpretative sociology’ was based upon the idea that social science was concerned with phenomena whichwere different in kind from thephenomena studied by naturalscientists:■ For Weber Sociology is the scienceof ‘meaningful social action’, whichexplains behaviour in terms ofpeople’s own understandingsand interpretations.■ This kind of explanation isentirely different from the kindsof explanation used in the naturalsciences.■ i.e. Because human beings are ‘reflexive’ (they can reflect upontheir own actions and change them), this means that societyand nature are fundamentally different kinds of entity.
5● So with the partial exception of Marx (who was never an academic ‘sociologist’ anyway) the classical sociologistsput forward ideas which were ‘anthropocentric’.‘Anthropocentric’ = human-centred● Anthropocentric views tend to seehumans as all-important and ignorethe significance of the nonhumanworld of animals and nature.● This meant that the sociologicalconcept of ‘society’ assumed aseparation of society from nature.For this reason sociology has seldom paid much attention tonature and the environment until fairly recently.
6► the sociology of the body ► the sociology of emotions But recent trends in sociology have seen a cautious ‘return of nature’:► the sociology of the body► the sociology of emotions► the sociology of science► sociology of human-animalrelations► sociology of the environmentThese all involve engaging with‘nature’, whether internal nature(human biology), external nature(animals and the environment), or knowledge of nature (science).► This partial return of biology and nature into sociological thinkinghas fuelled a heated debate between:Social Constructionists vs Critical Realists
7The Social Construction of Nature ● The essence of social constructionist approaches is their attempt tocast doubt on the ‘objective’ and ‘real’ status of the things they study.● Instead social constructionism insists that supposedly ‘real’ thingsare actually ‘socially constructed’.● In other words, we can only knowthese things through the ways thatwe categorise, classify, define andunderstand them.● And these systems of classification(or ‘meanings’) are the productsof our culture and society, theyare not given by nature.
8Example: Climate Change. Social constructionists emphasise thesocial and political context of ourdiscussions of ‘climate change’:► How our understandings of the issueare shaped by cultural meanings(including those transmitted via themedia)► How all these social factors help toconstruct ‘climate change’ as arecognisable concept► How it is this concept which shapesour perceptions and our actions.Even ‘expert’ scientific research isinfluenced by social factors…
9■ For social constructionists all knowledge of the world is produced by people in society, therefore all knowledge is socially constructed…■ And this includes scientificknowledge of ‘natural’phenomena.■ So social constructionismplaces human society atthe centre of its analysis.■ It insists (like Durkheim)that there is a social ‘level’of reality, and it claims that this is the only level of reality that we canpossibly know.■ This placing of human society at the centre of all explanations hasled many environmental sociologists to accuse social construction of‘anthropocentrism’.
10Keith Tester (1991) – “A fish is only a fish if it is socially classified as one… Animals are a blank paper which can be inscribed with anymessage and symbolic meaning that society wishes.” (46).► So for Tester there is no fishexcept what we constructin human social categories.But do not misunderstand:► The argument is not that thefish does not exist, but thatwe have no way of knowingof its existence except through human social categories.In this way social construction is based on Immanuel Kant’sphilosophy concerning the nature of human knowledge…
11► Immanuel Kant (1724-1804) developed a very influential ‘epistemology’ which still provides the philosophical foundations ofsocial constructionism.‘Epistemology’ = a theory of knowledgei.e. – How we may claim to ‘know’something (‘how we know that we know’)Kant made a key distinction between:‘Noumena’ = the world as it really is.‘Phenomena’ = the world as we perceiveand classify it.► He argued that we cannot know the noumenal world directly,we can only ever know it through phenomenal forms (i.e. throughour social categories and perceptions).
12So on this basis the social constructionists are right. Fish can be: ● foods ● pets ● commodities ● ornaments ● resources ● creatures- according to how humans in society classify and define them.■ More broadly this supports the argument thatnature as an objective ‘real’ thing (noumenon)is less significant than ‘nature’ as it is sociallyinterpreted or ‘constructed’ (phenomenon).However■ Critics of social constructionism would arguethat none of these human social constructionsof fish alters the reality of fish.i.e. their natural characteristics and capacities remain the same regardless of how they are understood by human societies.
13A Critical Realist View of Nature Critics of social constructionism wouldargue that it is not enough to talk abouthow nature is socially categorised,understood, and acted upon, we mustalso talk about nature itself, its naturalpowers and properties.This view is known as ‘critical realism’.► Many environmental sociologists who favour critical realism argue that social constructionism does not provide a solid basis for understanding ‘real world problems’ because it refuses to give due significance to the reality of natural forces.► Instead of adopting a Kantian epistemology which divides reality into noumena and phenomena, critical realists see reality as ‘layered’…
14● This means that theory and science ● So for critical realism there are different ‘layers’ of reality and these require different levels of knowledge to be understood:Abstract Concrete● This means that theory and science(abstract knowledge) can be used toidentify the ‘generative mechanisms’(or essential dynamics) of both natureand society.E.g. laws of gravity, thermodynamics,the evolution of species, etc…But also, the laws of development ofhuman societies, and the characteristicsof humans as a species.● Concrete knowledge is then needed to understand the way specific circumstances shape how these generative mechanisms work out in practice.
15The Critical Realist view of nature – an example: ■ Peter Dickens (1996) - Examines theindustrialisation of agricultural production.■ The introduction of industrial techniquesinto animal and crop farming has massivelyintensified agricultural production.E.g. artificial insemination has allowed dairycows to produce numbers of calves and quantitiesof milk unimaginable without human intervention.■ For constructionists this would simply demonstrate how much nature has been‘socialised’ by modernity – i.e. how the ‘nature’ involved in modern farming is to alarge extent a human social ‘construct’.■ But for Dickens only a critical realist approach can explain why some industrialinterventions into nature have unintended outcomes, i.e. because they dealwith the real properties and capacities of nature and sometimes push thesebeyond natural limits.
16► So realists are much better at acknowledging the natural limits to human interventions into nature.► And at explaining why many interventions lead to unintended consequences (Beck – ‘Risk Society’):E.g’s: ● Intensive dairy farming soil phosphate depletion.● Intensive animal farming new diseases (e.g. BSE, H5N1).● modern medicine antibiotic resistance and ‘superbugs’.● globalisation of industrial capitalism global climate change.Critical realists would argue that these examples show that nature is not just what human society says it is.i.e. humans do not construct nature just as they please…
17The strengths of a realist perspective also emerge in analyses of the human exploitation of animals:Ted Benton (1994) – Argues thatrealists are able to acknowledge thenatural characteristics of animals(contrast Keith Tester) and that thisprovides a basis for the conceptof ‘animal rights’.Environmental issues are also a key site for the debate between social constructionists and realists because:► Realists find them a rich source of evidence to support their argument that natural forces are more than just social constructions.► Social constructionists find in them examples of how environmental ‘facts’ and findings are always constructed in the context of social, political and cultural factors – they are not simply ‘objective’.
18Constructionism vs. Realism: A Summary Social ConstructionismCritical RealismPro’s- Recognises that nature cannotusually ‘speak for itself’.- Emphasises how social factors aaffect our understanding of nature- Helps to avoid an uncritical attitudetowards scientific ‘facts’- Acknowledges natural forces andnatural limits to human intervention.- Better able to explain the unintendedconsequences of human action.- Offers a less anthropocentric view ofthe world.Con’s- Tends towards anthropocentrism:puts humans at centre of analysis.- Can seem to deny the significance ofnatural forces and capacities.- Often supports a sceptical attitudetowards environmental issues.- Can involve a simplistic view of‘facts’ which neglects interpretations.- Sometimes talks as though scientificknowledge is outside of society.- Tends to think of ‘reality’ as separatefrom the social meanings it involves.
19Beyond the Constructionism/Realism Divide? New Approaches Increasingly some sociologists have tried to find alternatives to the polarised opposition between constructionism and realism.McNaghten and Urry (1998) – ‘Contested Natures’Rather than focus either upon asupposedly objective ‘world outthere’ (realism) or upon ‘socialmeanings’ (constructionism)…McNaghten and Urry advocate afocus upon ‘embedded social practices’.
20■ These ‘embedded social practices’ consist of: Discourse/meanings (how nature is talked and written about) Embodiment (people’s sensory experience of nature) Space (local, national and global forms of nature) Time (changing ideas of time in relation to natural cycles) Activity (action upon, with, and in relation to nature)■ According to McNaghten and Urry these elements make up complex social practices, which sociologists can analyse.■ But to do so requires an approach that is neither realist nor constructionist, because both of these approaches rely upon separating what is social from what is natural (dualism).■ Whereas embedded social practices weave together elements from both society and nature in combination.
21► So a practice-based approach to understanding society and nature examines how people’s social activities bring elements ofnature and society together.According to this approach, people’sviews of nature are constructed, butthey are constructed within practiceswhich depend upon and are shapedby the real properties of nature.E.g. Hill-Walking:The social practice of hill-walking isa product of modern social life and oftourism discourses which encouragethe desire to experience an ‘authentic’natural environment, but it is also a real sensory experience whichcan change the walker’s perceptions of nature and of society.
22The Co-Constructionist Approach Another alternative to realism vs. constructionism is what is known asthe co-constructionist approach:E.g. Alan Irwin (2001) – ‘Sociology and the Environment’Irwin argues that environmental problemsare neither purely objective (realism) norfully socially constructed (constructionism).Instead he sees them as ‘co-constructed’by both society and nature.And it is not only ‘nature’ that isconstructed but ‘society’ as well.So environmental problems are ‘hybrids’of society + nature.
23● In Irwin’s ‘co-constructionist’ approach, the sociology of scientific knowledge (SSK) is very important.● Because he argues that our understandings of naturedepend heavily upon scientific knowledge and research.● So to understand natureand environmental problemssociologists must study howscientific ‘expert’ knowledgeis constructed and analyseits relationship to public‘lay’ knowledge.
24The Co-Construction of Environmental Problems: ► Alan Irwin emphasizes the need to look at 2 elements:1) The institutions which provide the ‘sites’ that define and deal with environmental issues. Scientific institutions Scientific knowledge and research Regulatory institutions2) Technologies and technological developments, which mediate the relationship between nature and society.► “All human societies, not just modern industrial capitalist ones, develop, create and use technologies in managing their relationships with nonhuman nature.” (Philip Sutton, 2004, 72).► By focusing on these elements a co-constructionist approach tries to bypass society-nature dualism and combine elements of both constructionism and realism.
25Co-construction – an example: ‘Mad Cow Disease’ BSE may seem a ‘natural’ problemrelating to cattle diseases, whichare identified through scientificmethods and dealt with by politicalinstitutions.But cows are not simply ‘natural’:“The modern cow is the product ofgenerations of human-controlledcattle-breeding, feeding and housing.” (Alan Irwin, 2001, 80).So the modern cow is a socially constructed artefact as wellas a natural creature – it is a ‘hybrid’ of society and nature.
26● Similarly scientific understandings of BSE are not purely scientific. ● Even scientific knowledge is produced withinsociety and is influenced by: social structures and relations cultural meanings and processes● Therefore, science is a social activity:“Science cannot be counter-posed to‘Society’, since this is to ignore the socialconstruction of both of these categories.” (Irwin, 2001, 133).● So BSE is a ‘hybrid’ of nature + science + society.● For this reason it cannot be properly understood by approacheswhich separate what is ‘natural’ from what is ‘social’.
27Beyond the Constructionism/Realism Divide? – An Assessment There is some doubt about how successful these attempts to move beyond constructionism vs. realism have been:► They often seem much closer to a constructionism than realism.► It is not clear how ‘nature’ plays an important role in the ‘hybrids’ described in these accounts’► Saying that ‘society’ is also socially constructed seems to be a circular argument or self-contradiction.► The focus is far more upon the ‘contested natures’ produced in human social and political processes than upon the given properties of nature.“These alternatives remain closer to the constructionist pole than the realist one and do not really build on the effectivity of the natural world on social life.” (Sutton, 2004, 74).
28Summary 1:■ Until recently sociology has traditionally paid little attention to nature and the environment.■ Classical sociology tended to be deeply ‘anthropocentric’ (i.e. human-centred) and to exclude ‘nature’ from its analysis by separating society from nature.■ Karl Marx was a partial exception to this in his focus upon the relationship between society and nature in production.■ But despite Marx classical sociology institutionalised ‘culture/nature dualism’.■ The significance of environmental crises in late modernity has led to the development of a new ‘sociology of the environment’.■ But this has been polarised between opposing perspectives: social constructionism and critical realism.
29Summary 2:■ Constructionists draw upon Kant to argue that we cannot know nature directly, but only through how it is socially defined and interpreted.■ Critical realists argue that reality is ‘layered’ and that we can understand the ‘generative mechanisms’ of nature and society.■ They stress that nature has its own powers and properties which must be acknowledged by sociologists.■ Many have tried to bridge the gap by developing practice-based or co-constructionist approaches.■ These stress the ‘hybrid’ intermixing of society and nature, which allows them to move beyond culture-nature dualism.■ But they often seem closer to constructionism than realism, so there may still be an important role for critical realism in challenging anthropocentric thinking about nature.
30Conclusion: So what is the practical role of sociologists in addressing environmental issues?► To help to open up environmental issues to public scrutiny.► To bring more democratic accountability to the search for solutions.► To show that certain institutional and technological assumptions are actually a matter of social choice.► To show how social power relations impact upon the agenda-settingof institutions in addressing environmental concerns.► To help to bring ‘expert’ scientific knowledge into dialogue with ‘lay’ knowledge.