Research and Writing

Peter Taylor, April 1995

[See also Introduction, Personal Home page]

My research and writing is directed towards developing and operationalizing theory about heterogeneous complexity and processes of construction in ecology, in socio-environmental studies, and in science and technology studies. In ecology, complex assemblages of interacting components do not make sense, I argue, unless one considers their construction, that is, the process of development over time during which one structure gives way to another.10 In socio-environmental studies I advocate political ecological explanations, which account for, say, soil erosion in terms of the interplay among processes as diverse as climate and geo-morphology, local social norms, work relations, and economic differentiation, and changes in the international political economy.11 And in S&TS, I analyze the complexity or heterogeneity of influences or resources that scientists draw upon in making their science. To explain heterogeneity and process, I aim to identify which of the diverse things mobilized make a difference and how they are combined to do so.12

In each of these areas, ecology, socio-environmental studies, and S&TS, the dominant theories and methods steer attention away from explaining heterogeneous complex processes.13 As a consequence, my work deliberately explores new questions, categories, methods, and practices that may eventually constitute the frameworks needed for dealing well with complexity. Broadly speaking, the "explainers" in these different areas tend to reduce complexity, either by advocating a unifying metric or underlying rationality, or by making a virtue out of elevating situations or systems from their context. For the "anti-explainers," complexity can only be apprehended through thick description or well contextualized narrative. In contrast, I am sceptical of "common currencies," I problematize the drawing of boundaries and the subdivision of phenomena into systems,14 and, at the same time, I tease out causal claims.15 I see all descriptions, especially in the categories chosen and the juxtapositions of events, as making implications about causes, and all explanations, that is, all causal claims,16 as facilitating certain interventions over others. As a corollary, I interpret descriptions in terms of the causal claims they privilege. I analyze explanations (models, theories etc.) in terms of the explainer's diverse practical commitments and other resources, which, when linked, render the explainer's accounts and on-going scientific activity more difficult for others to oppose or modify in practice.17 In short, in the sciences and in S&TS, people are always representing-intervening, and that perspective must be woven reflexively into my own representing-intervening.18

Relating conceptualizations to the actions that are facilitated by and, in turn, facilitate these conceptualizations is a theme I have developed consistently through the body of my work.19 When I described H. T. Odum's work, for example, I argued that when he

pioneered the important features of systems ecology, in particular, its technocratic orientation, he was "making science" of his place in society. His vision of designing systems of man and nature gave him access to resources -- both institutional and personal -- for pursuing prodigious amounts of ecological research. Society facilitated his work -- in the broadest sense, and in a way not possible before World War 2.20

Wanting to go beyond such broad correlations between theories and action led to my analysis of a 1974 project in which MIT scientists built computer models of the rangeland-livestock-pastoralist system in sub-Saharan Africa.21 The resulting models, I claimed, were shaped by the main modeler employing a range of resources, which included: the available computer compiler; available data; the short length of time both in the field and for the project as a whole; the work relations within the MIT team; the relationship of the United States and the U.S. Agency for International development (USAID) to other international involvement in the region; the terms of reference set by USAID and the agency's contradictory expectations of the project. The task of interrelating the diversity of such resources raised serious methodological and conceptual challenges, which the counterfactual method developed in that paper,22 and my heterogeneous constructionist program more generally,23 begin to address.

Given my interest in heterogeneous causes, linked processes, and complexity that is difficult to bound or control, it is not accidental that the primary topics of my S&TS analyses have been the application of mathematical models and other quantitative methods to the task of representing ecological and socio-environmental complexity. Such modeling reveals dynamics and dimensions of scientific practice that are not so central in laboratory-based sciences. In ecology and socio-environmental studies we can see scientists engaging with subject matter that is complex and difficult to control while they simultaneously construct categories, data analyses, texts and audiences that establish scientific distance from the subject matter. Modelers of complexity negotiate intellectual, financial and working relationships across disciplinary boundaries, advise and seek support from different national and international agencies, and position themselves in the larger politics of conflicting social responses to environmental change. (Similar issues characterize environmental studies more generally, making them, I argue, a key research site for S&TS.24). In this light, my framework of heterogeneous constructionism exploits construction as a metaphor of building from many elements25 and avoids associating construction with correspondence and reflection, or with relativism in opposition to realism.26

Transdisciplinarity is essential to my approach to developing theory and method for operationalizing theory. By working simultaneously on topics in ecology, socio-environmental studies and S&TS, my thinking in one area is stimulated by my understanding of developments and problems in another area. For example, as I see the field of political ecology, it seeks to represent intersecting processes at an intermediate level of complexity.27 Once I formulated these terms for political ecology, I began to use them in discussing heterogeneous constructionism and problems of social theory, such as Giddens' duality of social structure and social agency.28 However, I also want to promote what I call exploratory theorizing in its own right; it is an undervalued aspect of disciplinary inquiry. In a recent paper I articulate a position that I began to develop in my doctoral work in theoretical ecology.29 Exploratory theorizing recognizes that theorizing should never lose sight of the need for eventual empirical validation. Nevertheless, when people insist on specific hypotheses that can be readily tested, or, more generally, favor incremental additions to a field, they tend to stifle the derivation of new terms, questions, and models. To open up new paths, room should always be made for exploring in principle problems without translating them directly into the current terms, tools and subject matter of the field.30 In fact, among the diversity of resources linked by intellectual agents heterogeneously constructing their work, there are always some resources drawn from exploratory or metaphorical theorizing. Acknowledging this strand and, at times, highlighting it is necessary for sustained, pleasurable progress in a field.

Through the transdisciplinary research and writing projects described below I have been developing a set of interlocking themes and heuristics. In addition to concepts already mentioned -- representing-intervening, heterogeneous construction, intersecting processes, intermediate complexity, counterfactual analysis, exploratory theorizing, and reciprocal animation -- other themes recurring in my work include unruly complexity, practical reflexivity, , and inverting standard intepretations of the relationship between simple and complex models. Of course, in order to introduce such ideas into the literature, I have to address readers and, in particular, journal reviewers, with specific and often divergent disciplinary sensibilities. My strategy has been to take up facets of the larger theoretical project in articles written for the different feeder disciplines of S&TS, before completing The Limits of Ecology, in which I seek to bring all the different audiences "under the same roof." At the same time, I have used a variety of opportunities to continue my theoretical exploration and develop my distinctive transdisciplinary approach to S&TS.31. In the paragraphs to follow, in addition to The Limits, I describe four other research and writing projects, and locate them in the body of my on-going work.

1) The Limits of Ecology: Perspectives on the Re/construction of Unruly Complexity

The argument of The Limits of Ecology builds upon conceptual, historical, and sociological reconstructions of selected episodes in ecology and environmental studies. I examine: debates within theoretical ecology on diversity and stability and on indirect effects; the early history of systems ecology in the United States; and computer models of salinization of agricultural land in Australia and of pastoralism and desertification in sub-Saharan Africa. Through these cases I critique the pervasive, albeit often implicit, use of the concept of system, i.e., natural units having clearly defined boundaries and coherent, internally-driven dynamics and simply mediated relations with their external context.32 I contrast this with an image of unruly complexity, in which boundaries and categories are problematic; processes at different levels and scales are not clearly separable33; structures are subject to restructuring; and control and generalization are difficult.34 I argue that the fields of ecology, socio-environmental studies and social studies of science35 need to shift their terms from attempting to represent complexity, to jointly representing and intervening within it. To this end, I draw attention to Participatory Action Research as a model, employ a form of counterfactual analysis,36 and promote "mapping," a form of diagrammatic representation,37 to stimulate the new kinds of collaboration required.

The disciplines from which I draw and which I aim to influence through my work include the sciences and social sciences, namely, ecology and socio-environmental studies (itself a range of disciplines), in addition to the standard S&TS fields of sociology, history, philosophy, and politics of science. At this point I have publications corresponding to most parts of most chapters (the last one was accepted by Perspectives on Science late in 1994) and I am rewriting them to address the multidisciplinary audience of The Limits. The contents and draft introduction provide a more detailed overview of the book.

2) Research Collaboration in the Group for the Study of Agrarian Institutions and Natural Resources, at the Center for Economic Research and Education (CIDE), Mexico.

When offered the chance to be a Visiting Professor for the summer of 1992 at CIDE and the Ecology Center at the National Autonomous University (UNAM) in Mexico City, I took a calculated risk. I realized that completion of The Limits would be delayed, but, in working towards this book and in teaching my graduate course on the "Social Analysis of Ecological Change," I had become convinced of the importance of political ecology for understanding socio-environmental complexity. The summer position would allow me to gain direct experience in political ecology, through participation in and observation of the Group for the Study of Agrarian Institutions and Natural Resources at CIDE, and through close collaboration with the group's director, Raúl García Barrios, an ecologist turned resource economist. In Mexico I joined a major study examining the fine scale economic dynamics of tropical deforestation in Veracruz and relating these dynamics to structural changes, such as market liberalization, in the national economy. My contribution to the project has centered on the elaboration of a framework for representing the political ecological processes. My S&TS-style observation of the project focused on the reception among economists of the theoretical developments and other conclusions from the study. The work was sufficiently rewarding that I returned the following summer. To date, the collaboration has yielded two publications at the nexus of S&TS and socio-environmental studies,38 and another work in progress.39 The engagement with political ecology has also led to my formulating a book to follow The Limits, provisionally entitled Intersecting Processes, which will address certain intersections of political ecology, S&TS and social theory.

3) Intersecting Processes and "Popular political epidemiology"

Political ecological analyses of environmental degradation pose in the clearest form a theoretical and practical challenge common to socio-environmental studies, S&TS and social theory, namely, that of representing and intervening in intersecting processes. Whether we are concerned about the development of computer models of society-environment relations (as I am in The Limits), the origins of soil erosion in the Oaxacan altiplano of Mexico over the last 500 years, or how people (ourselves in S&TS included) explain such developments and attempt to influence their future, we can discern processes operating at different spatial scales, temporal scales and levels of generality. Moreover, the processes are interlinked in the production of any outcome and in their own on-going transformation. How can our studies, in particular, of science, the environment, and society, discipline the unruly complexity of intersecting processes without suppressing it? And, given that our representing is one of these intersecting processes, how can we act more reflexively and responsibly?

I plan to take up these questions in Intersecting Processes, which will draw upon and develop political ecological studies of environmental degradation and heterogeneous constructionist studies of science.40 These two areas provide perspectives underdeveloped in the other together they allow me to develop a framework distinct from previous attempts to reconcile social structure, human agency, and the refractoriness of material and social phenomena. In particular, I combine political ecology's integration of local action and social structuredness, representations at an intermediate level of complexity, a view of agents as heterogeneous constructors, and reflexivity about the relationship of description, explanation and intervention.

The final part planned for Intersecting Processes sets the terms for a future S&TS/ political ecology research project. My work on political ecology in Mexico toegther with my recognition of its logistical difficulties have led me to formulate an project that can be carried out closer to home.41 I propose to investigate whether popular epidemiology, which has often enabled "invisible" disease patterns to be revealed in the U.S. context, can be extended to an analogous uncovering of processes that political ecology addresses in Third World situations.42 That is, could a "popular political epidemiology" reveal the processes -- systematic and contingent, local and transnational -- that link the State, corporations, and citizenry? After completing The Limits, I plan to teach themes in my "Science and social theory" seminar related to the project43 and begin participant observation of a campaign informed by and informing popular epidemiology. In analyzing the disputes about the scientific status of the knowledge produced I expect my background in statistics to prove valuable. Through this research I aim to explore the limits of various agents, ourselves in S&TS included, knowing and acting upon a political ecology of environmental hazards.

4) Transdisciplinary studies of biology: Three anthologies

In order to develop contexts of production and reception for transdisciplinary work, my own included, I have organized three sets of sessions at meetings of the International Society for History, Philosophy and Social Studies of Biology and co-edited collections of essays from these sessions. "Pictorial representation in biology," appeared in 1991 as a special issue of the journal Biology & Philosophy. Natural Contradictions: Perspectives on Ecology and Change (co-edited with Yrjö Haila) honors my dissertation adviser, Richard Levins, and reflects the range of his inquiry, covering the theoretical and philosophical dimensions of research in ecology, its relations to evolutionary biology, and broader issues about the history of ecological thought and the role of ecology in social and political affairs. The prospectus for this book has been accepted by the University of Chicago Press and the collection will be sent out for review this spring.

These two editing experiences convinced me that a special edition of a journal is a more expeditious way to bring transdisciplinary work to the attention of readers. I therefore directed several papers from the 1993 sessions on "Changing life in the new world dis/order" to the journal Social Text. Given its cultural studies orientation, this was an appropriate outlet for papers examining how the "new world dis/order," that is, the changing international political economy, has been reshaping living processes and how the metaphors, narratives, models, and practices of life (techno)sciences are helping to shape that dis/order. The Social Text collective, however, subverted my plans by deciding to publish a selection of the essays (which just appeared in issue no. 42) and asking us to prepare an expanded set of essays for the Cultural Politics series they edit for the University of Minnesota Press. I enlisted the co-editing support of Saul Halfon and Paul Edwards, and this volume is coming together rapidly. The prospectus has been accepted and the collection will also be sent out for review this spring.

5) The Social Construction of Life

Eventually I plan to publish a book based on the extensive course notes and handouts I have developed for my Biology and Society core course.44 The proposed book, The Social Construction of Life, would be written both for a wider S&TS readership and as a text for courses. Through the ways that I break down the barriers between the natural sciences, the social sciences, and the humanities, this book would make an important contribution to recent efforts to bring S&TS into science education, and science into liberal arts education. The book will follow my syllabus in considering selected historical and contemporary texts and episodes in the development of evolutionary theory, studies of heredity and development, reproductive interventions, and ecology and environmental change. Each case explores different connections between biology (the science and the phenomena) and aspects of social life, which I organize into four strands: scientists' use of language; their social/historical location; their political and economic interests; and their views of causality and responsibility. The central organizing themes of the book correspond to many of those described in this statement:

-- Construction: Any outcome, from Galton's understanding of regression to severe depression in working class women, should be seen as the result of the linkage of diverse components.

-- Reciprocal animation: Close examination of conceptual developments within the sciences can lead to questions about the social influences shaping scientists' work or its application, which , in turn, can lead to new questions and awareness of alternative approaches in those sciences.

-- Critical thinking: Theories and practices that have been accepted or taken for granted can be better understood by placing them in tension with what else could be, or could have been, e.g., contrasting constructionist accounts of behavior with genetic determinist accounts.

-- Heuristics: In the spirit of exploratory theorizing, most interpretive themes and propositions should be applied first as heuristics, e.g., "Think about the causes Davenport and Goldberger propose for the disease pellagra in terms of the social actions they favor to seeif this sheds light on their modes of inquiry and standards of evidence."


10 "The construction and turnover of complex community models having Generalized Lotka-Volterra dynamics," J. Theor. Biol. 135:569-588, 1988, "Developmental versus morphological approaches to modeling ecological complexity," Oikos 55:434-436, 1989.

11 "The dynamics of socio-environmental change and the limits of neo-Malthusian environmentalism," to appear in T. Mount, H. Shue and M. Dore (Eds.), The limits to markets: Equity and the global environment. Oxford, Blackwell (With R. García-Barrios); "Social analysis of ecological change," "From environmentalism to political ecology: Towards a framework for understanding changes at agricultural-rain forest borders in Mexico," paper given to the Geography Department, University of California, Berkeley and the Latin American Studies Program, Cornell University, November 1994, and to be given to the American Assoc. Geographers, March 1995.

12 "Re/constructing socio-ecologies: System dynamics modeling of nomadic pastoralists in sub-Saharan Africa" pp.115-148 in A. Clarke & J. Fujimura (eds.) The Right Tools for the Job: At Work in Twentieth Century Life Sciences, Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1992; "Building on construction," "Co-construction and process."

13 See appendix A of "Building on construction."

14 In the case of ecology, see "Developmental vs. morphological," "Apparent interactions in community models" (work in progress); my discussion of recent trends towards the end of "Community," and "Situated ecologies: Re-positioning complexity and change in ecological and evolutionary theory" (Introduction for Natural Contradictions) (work in progress). See also my discussions of political ecology in "Social analysis of ecological change," and of heterogeneous construction and process in "Building on construction" and "Co-construction and process."

15 "Building on construction."

16 See appendix A of "Building on construction."

17 "Re/constructing socioecologies."

18 "Building on construction."

19 "Technocratic optimism, H.T. Odum and the partial transformation of ecological metaphor after World War 2" J. Hist. Biol. 21:213-244, 1988; "Ecosystems as circuits: Diagrams and the limits of physical analogies" Biology &Philosophy, 6:275-294, 1991 (With A. Blum); "Mapping ecologists' ecologies of knowledge" Proceedings of the Philosophy of Science Association 1990, Vol.2, 95-109; "Re/constructing socio-ecologies"; "How do we know we have global environmental problems?: Science and the globalization of environmental discourse" Geoforum, 23: 405-416, 1992 (With F. Buttel); "Co-construction and process"; "Building on construction"; "Shifting frames: From divided to distributed psychologies of scientific agents," Proceedings of the Philosophy of Science Association 1994, Vol.2, in press.

20 "Technocratic optimism," "Ecosystems as circuits."

21 "Re/constructing socioecologies."

22 See also appendix B of "Building on construction."

23 "Building on construction," "Co-construction and process."

24 "Environmental studies as a key research site for social studies of science," paper given to the Society for Social Studies of Science, November 1991.

25 "Re/constructing socioecologies."

26 "Building on construction," "Co-construction and process."

27 "From environmentalism to political ecology."

28 "Heterogeneous constructionism as a challenge to science studies and social theory," paper given to the Society for Social Studies of Science, October 1994.

29 "Strategy of model building," "Revising models."

30 "Revising models."

31 See the list of presentations in my curriculum vitae.

32 "Community."

33 That is, they are intersecting processes; see the section below describing a planned book with that title.

34 "The social analysis of ecological change."

35 These were more or less the cases proposed in the lengthy prospectus, on the basis of which the University of Chicago Press awarded me a contract for what was then to be called Modeling Ecologically. The conceptual infrastructure has, however, developed significantly since I have been working in an S&TS context.

36 "Re/construction socioecologies," "Building on construction."

37 "Mapping workshops for teaching ecology" Bulletin of the Ecological Society of America 70:123-125, 1989. (With Y. Haila); "Mapping ecologists' ecologies."

38 "The social analysis of ecological change," "The dynamics of socio-environmental change."

39 "From environmentalism to political ecology."

40 In a very provisional table of contents Intersecting Processes would consist of eighteen "components," most of which are based on parts of published papers, talks I have given, or other works in progress, including "Situated ecologies"; "Heterogeneous constructionism as a challenge"; "Environmentalism to political ecology"; "Building on construction"; "Shifting frames"; "Co-construction and process"; "Social analysis of ecological change"; "Environmental studies as a key research site"; "Is transgression good"; "Mapping ecologists' ecologies"; "What's (not) in the minds of scientific agents: Implicit models of the psychology of agents in science studies," paper given to the International Society for History, Philosophy, and Social Studies of Biology, July 1993 & to the Society for Social Studies of Science, November 1993; "From natural selection to natural construction to unruly complexity: The challenges of integrating ecology into evolutionary theory," paper given to the 29th Annual Philosophy Colloquium, University of Cincinnati, May 1993; "From political ecology in Mexico to engaged constructionism in the United States," paper to be given to the Science & Technology Studies Dept., Rensselaer Polytechnic, April 1995.

41 If I take this path, I would decline a standing offer to be a visiting professor at CIDE for a year. I would, however, like to sustain the Mexican collaboration at a long-distance for the insights and comparative perspectives it provides.

42 "Political ecology to engaged constructionism."

43 I have two seminars planned, one on ethnographic challenges in S&TS research, the other covering accounts from within S&TS disciplines of risk, epidemics, statistics and the quantification of social life.

Notes about Author, Disclaimer, etc