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Sociology and the Environment 2: Thinking Sociologically about Nature and the Environment.

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1 Sociology and the Environment 2: Thinking Sociologically about Nature and the Environment

2 Nature in classical sociology The institutionalisation of sociology as an academic discipline owes more to Emile Durkheim than anyone else. Especially important were Durkheims efforts to establish that there is a social level of reality which is unique and cannot be explained in terms of biology or psychology. So Durkheim entrenched the idea that the validity of sociological knowledge depended upon the independence of social facts from natural phenomena. This society/nature divide has been massively influential in sociological 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 society is the way that humans labour to transform nature into useful goods. This is called production and Marx sees labour and production as the real foundation of human societies. So for Marx society is not completely separate from nature, instead society is a product of the way that humans organise 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 Webers interpretative sociology was based upon the idea that social science was concerned with phenomena which were different in kind from the phenomena studied by natural scientists: For Weber Sociology is the science of meaningful social action, which explains behaviour in terms of peoples own understandings and interpretations. This kind of explanation is entirely different from the kinds of explanation used in the natural sciences. i.e. Because human beings are reflexive (they can reflect upon their own actions and change them), this means that society and nature are fundamentally different kinds of entity.

5 So with the partial exception of Marx (who was never an academic sociologist anyway) the classical sociologists put forward ideas which were anthropocentric. Anthropocentric = human-centred Anthropocentric views tend to see humans as all-important and ignore the significance of the nonhuman world of animals and nature. This meant that the sociological concept of society assumed a separation of society from nature. For this reason sociology has seldom paid much attention to nature and the environment until fairly recently.

6 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-animal relations sociology of the environment These 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 thinking has fuelled a heated debate between: Social Constructionists vs. Critical Realists

7 The Social Construction of Nature The essence of social constructionist approaches is their attempt to cast doubt on the objective and real status of the things they study. Instead social constructionism insists that supposedly real things are actually socially constructed. In other words, we can only know these things through the ways that we categorise, classify, define and understand them. And these systems of classification (or meanings) are the products of our culture and society, they are not given by nature.

8 Example: Climate Change. Social constructionists emphasise the social and political context of our discussions of climate change: How our understandings of the issue are shaped by cultural meanings (including those transmitted via the media) How all these social factors help to construct climate change as a recognisable concept How it is this concept which shapes our perceptions and our actions. Even expert scientific research is influenced 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 scientific knowledge of natural phenomena. So social constructionism places human society at the 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 can possibly know. This placing of human society at the centre of all explanations has led many environmental sociologists to accuse social construction of anthropocentrism.

10 Keith 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 any message and symbolic meaning that society wishes. (46). So for Tester there is no fish except what we construct in human social categories. But do not misunderstand: The argument is not that the fish does not exist, but that we have no way of knowing of its existence except through human social categories. In this way social construction is based on Immanuel Kants philosophy concerning the nature of human knowledge…

11 Immanuel Kant ( ) developed a very influential epistemology which still provides the philosophical foundations of social constructionism. Epistemology = a theory of knowledge i.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 perceive and classify it. He argued that we cannot know the noumenal world directly, we can only ever know it through phenomenal forms (i.e. through our social categories and perceptions).

12 So 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 that nature as an objective real thing (noumenon) is less significant than nature as it is socially interpreted or constructed (phenomenon). However Critics of social constructionism would argue that none of these human social constructions of 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.

13 A Critical Realist View of Nature Critics of social constructionism would argue that it is not enough to talk about how nature is socially categorised, understood, and acted upon, we must also talk about nature itself, its natural powers 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 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 to identify the generative mechanisms (or essential dynamics) of both nature and society. E.g. laws of gravity, thermodynamics, the evolution of species, etc… But also, the laws of development of human societies, and the characteristics of humans as a species. Concrete knowledge is then needed to understand the way specific circumstances shape how these generative mechanisms work out in practice.

15 The Critical Realist view of nature – an example: Peter Dickens (1996) - Examines the industrialisation of agricultural production. The introduction of industrial techniques into animal and crop farming has massively intensified agricultural production. E.g. artificial insemination has allowed dairy cows to produce numbers of calves and quantities of 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 a large extent a human social construct. But for Dickens only a critical realist approach can explain why some industrial interventions into nature have unintended outcomes, i.e. because they deal with the real properties and capacities of nature and sometimes push these beyond 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): 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…

17 The strengths of a realist perspective also emerge in analyses of the human exploitation of animals: Ted Benton (1994) – Argues that realists are able to acknowledge the natural characteristics of animals (contrast Keith Tester) and that this provides a basis for the concept of 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.

18 Constructionism vs. Realism: A Summary Social ConstructionismCritical Realism Pros - Recognises that nature cannot usually speak for itself. - Emphasises how social factors a affect our understanding of nature - Helps to avoid an uncritical attitude towards scientific facts Pros - Acknowledges natural forces and natural limits to human intervention. - Better able to explain the unintended consequences of human action. - Offers a less anthropocentric view of the world. Cons - Tends towards anthropocentrism: puts humans at centre of analysis. - Can seem to deny the significance of natural forces and capacities. - Often supports a sceptical attitude towards environmental issues. Cons - Can involve a simplistic view of facts which neglects interpretations. - Sometimes talks as though scientific knowledge is outside of society. - Tends to think of reality as separate from the social meanings it involves.

19 Beyond 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 a supposedly objective world out there (realism) or upon social meanings (constructionism)… McNaghten and Urry advocate a focus upon embedded social practices.

20 These embedded social practices consist of: Discourse/meanings (how nature is talked and written about) Embodiment (peoples 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 peoples social activities bring elements of nature and society together. According to this approach, peoples views of nature are constructed, but they are constructed within practices which depend upon and are shaped by the real properties of nature. E.g. Hill-Walking: The social practice of hill-walking is a product of modern social life and of tourism discourses which encourage the desire to experience an authentic natural environment, but it is also a real sensory experience which can change the walkers perceptions of nature and of society.

22 The Co-Constructionist Approach Another alternative to realism vs. constructionism is what is known as the co-constructionist approach: E.g. Alan Irwin (2001) – Sociology and the Environment Irwin argues that environmental problems are neither purely objective (realism) nor fully socially constructed (constructionism). Instead he sees them as co-constructed by both society and nature. And it is not only nature that is constructed but society as well. So environmental problems are hybrids of society + nature.

23 In Irwins co-constructionist approach, the sociology of scientific knowledge (SSK) is very important. Because he argues that our understandings of nature depend heavily upon scientific knowledge and research. So to understand nature and environmental problems sociologists must study how scientific expert knowledge is constructed and analyse its relationship to public layknowledge.

24 The 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 institutions 2) 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.

25 Co-construction – an example: Mad Cow Disease BSE may seem a natural problem relating to cattle diseases, which are identified through scientific methods and dealt with by political institutions. But cows are not simply natural: The modern cow is the product of generations of human-controlled cattle-breeding, feeding and housing. (Alan Irwin, 2001, 80). So the modern cow is a socially constructed artefact as well as 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 within society 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 social construction 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 approaches which separate what is natural from what is social.

27 Beyond 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).

28 Summary 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.

29 Summary 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.

30 Conclusion: 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-setting of institutions in addressing environmental concerns. To help to bring expert scientific knowledge into dialogue with lay knowledge.


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