Overview: Replacing nature
We approach environmental issues in the ENVS Program via situated research, which builds on the notion of place. We do this for many reasons: among others, it’s fun to discover places around the world! But the primary intellectual reason is that place may be a better grounding for environmental scholarship than its classic foundations in nature: here is a brief summary of this argument (Proctor 2016), and what you’ll read below considers place as a basis for interdisciplinary rigor in environmental higher education.
How do interdisciplinarity?
Environmental issues cross disciplinary boundaries. How, then, should we research them? We could split them into little disciplinary pieces, then, for instance, study their economic dimensions like an economist would; their ecological dimensions like an ecologist would; their philosophical dimensions like a philosopher would; etc. This is what is known as a multidisciplinary approach. The benefit of this approach is good disciplinary rigor, as each field has its own important way of studying the world.
But the drawbacks of a multidisciplinary approach are obvious: if indeed environmental issues cross disciplinary boundaries, their economic, ecological, and philosophical dimensions (to use the above three) push and pull on each other, yet these connections are lost in the multidisciplinary approach.
What we want is some sort of interdisciplinary approach that mixes the many dimensions of environmental issues. What would this look like? In the environmental arena, many believe that systems theory (for instance, as exemplified in the famous Limits to Growth study) provides a common approach uniting all disciplines. But systems language works better for some dimensions of environmental issues than others—e.g., the hydrological dimensions of a dam project, vs. the political dimensions of community resistance to the dam project.
Getting real (and hybrid)
We are all familiar with disciplines such as economics, ecology, or philosophy, to the point that we forget that they are not reality, which is far more mixed up than any one discipline would capture. In We Have Never Been Modern (1993), for instance, Bruno Latour starts with this environmentally relevant example:
On page four of my daily newspaper, I learn that the measurements taken above the Antarctic are not good this year: the hole in the ozone layer is growing ominously larger.…A few paragraphs later, I come across heads of state of major industrialized countries who are getting involved with chemistry, refrigerators, aerosols and inert gases.…Toward the bottom of the page, Third World countries and ecologists add their grain of salt and talk about international treaties, moratoriums, the rights of future generations, and the right to development.…The same article mixes together chemical reactions and political reactions. A single thread links the most esoteric sciences and the most sordid politics, the most distant sky and some factory in the Lyon suburbs, dangers on a global scale and the impending local elections or the next board meeting (p. 1).
The first step, then, toward doing interdisciplinary research is: get real. Two promising ways to approach this mixed-up, hybrid reality in environmental research involves (hybrid) objects and (geographical) places. Objects are highly popular in movements such as new materialism, and have been used in a learning context in texts such as Environment & Society, with “objects of concern” including CO2, trees, wolves, uranium, tuna, lawns, and others (see also Robbins & Moore 2015). Places, like objects, are real things familiar to us all, yet fascinating in their mixed-up complexity. We’ll cover places in more detail below—and note that objects circulate via places, so the two are not separable.
We all know about places, and we generally think of them as locations—a city, for instance, or a mountain range. But the geographical notion of place suggests that they are far more than locations, even far more than the merely local (Proctor 2016). Places, in fact, are ideal candidates for getting real as we do interdisciplinary environmental scholarship.
You initially met the diagram at right (from Sack 1992) when we introduced doing interdisciplinarity. But Sack intended his diagram to help us understand place in the contemporary context of modernity and consumption. To Sack (and other geographers), place is a gathering of processes (forces) and perspectives across space and time.
Any particular place (as in a location) would be found at the point indicated in red. Yet, as is evident here, any particular place gathers forces of nature, social relations, and meaning (i.e., natural science, social science, and humanities processes, respectively), and also gathers perspectives from somewhere and nowhere (i.e., highly nuanced vs. more generalized knowledge).
Places are thus as mixed up as you can get!: they are both real and imagined, they link environmental issues to a wide array of processes and perspectives—in short, places situate the environmental issues we care about in real contexts.
Places are certainly a mixed-up reality. But if this sounds too messy or abstract to you, consider how environmental issues unfold differently in a variety of geographical contexts…all of which contribute to any given place:
- Biological: Various biomes of the world
- Climatic: Climatic zones (which correlate strongly with biomes)
- Cultural: Predominant religions, languages, etc.
- Demographic: Areas of high or low population density
- Discursive: Constructions of place such as wilderness or wasteland
- Economic: Types of development, e.g. core/periphery/semiperiphery
- Geological: Landforms of the earth, or areas with common geomorphic processes
- Historical: Changes in landscapes over time
- Land Use: Forms of land use/land cover
- Political: Various possible characteristics, e.g., form of democracy or refugee status
- Settlement Type: Forms of human settlement
Places gather all of the above processes together in unique ways. But, given the ways they gather forces and perspectives far beyond them in space and time, places evidence more generalized patterns on the earth, and thus give us a focused way to address big environmental questions.
This is the basis for our hourglass approach to situated research, where studying places forms the middle of the hourglass, the situated context for interdisciplinary environmental research. If you read that page now you’ll see how the concepts introduced above can be applied to high-quality, interdisciplinary environmental scholarship.
- Proctor, James D. 2016. “Replacing Nature in Environmental Studies and Sciences.” Journal of Environmental Studies and Sciences6 (4): 748–52. https://doi.org/10.1007/s13412-015-0259-3.
- Robbins, Paul, and Sarah A. Moore. 2015. “Teaching through Objects: Grounding Environmental Studies in Things.” Journal of Environmental Studies and Sciences 5 (2): 231–236. https://doi.org/10.1007/s13412-015-0242-z.
- Sack, Robert David. 1992. Place, Modernity, and the Consumer’s World: A Relational Framework for Geographical Analysis. Johns Hopkins University Press.