Home Sociology Understanding Society and Natural Resources
Multidisciplinarity is a goal of the sciences (McMichael et al. 2003; Poteete et al. 2010). Problems such as climate change, biodiversity loss, land degradation, food security, and water availability are complex and threaten human sustainability. “It is ridiculous to think that the way to understand complexity is to dig deeper and narrower at one spatial and temporal scale in a single field of science alone” (Giraudoux et al., 2007:294). To address complex problems the social sciences must address critical questions in modeling social-ecological systems. For example, how much progress has been made in developing integrated, multi-scale representation of social phenomenon that can be interwoven with the biological and physical sciences? What are the best approaches for pursing social science integration? Is true consilience possible, where one discipline builds upon another? Is a theory of “everything social” to be developed from game theory as Varoufakis (2008) advocates? Or should we continue on a path of disciplinary strength/integrity with the philosophy that “the gains from disciplinary and methodological cross-fertilization are greatest when scholars with a solid command of their own disciplines and methods interact with each other” (Poteete et al. 2010:271)? Perhaps social science integration is simply impractical as suggested by Elster (2010)? As we consider answers to these questions, it will be important to consider if there are ways to alter our approaches to present a more holistic social science.
In this edited volume, leading scholars from different disciplinary backgrounds wrestle with the answers to these questions. This is a critical time to set a vision for the future of integrative science (Costanza 2009). This book explores the growing concern of how best to achieve effective integration of the social science disciplines in addressing natural resource issues.
An Enduring Concern
The quest for integration among the social sciences is not new. Rorty (2001) contends that unity of science was the undertone of logical positivism, which was ubiquitous some 60 years ago. For example, Talcott Parson's interdisciplinary volume Toward a General Theory of Action (Parson and Shils 1951/2001) was born from an optimism for a “unified theory of science”. The 2001 re-publication of this book, concluded that “in the past half century, American behavioral and social scientists have come to shun such efforts at such general social theorizing, and have chosen more modest, though not necessarily more successful, ways to advance their science” (Smelser in Parson and Shils 2001: xix).
E.O. Wilson raised similar concerns about the lack of integration efforts in the social sciences in his 1998 book Consilience. Wilson (1998) describes consilience, as the “jumping together” of knowledge by the linking of “facts and fact-based theory to create a common groundwork of explanation” (p. 8). Consilience, he contends, is a critical step in the advancement of science and is the greatest of all intellectual challenges as we enter an age of synthesis among biology, the social sciences and the humanities. The social sciences have lagged in their advancements and contributions to society due to their lack of consilience. He argues that, “…it is obvious to even casual inspection that the efforts of the social sciences are snarled by disunity and a failure of vision… Split into independent cadres, they stress precision in words within their specialty but seldom speak the same technical language from one specialty to the next” (Wilson 1998:198). This proposal has not been without criticism, particularly the recommendation for a recommitment to positivistic, reductionistic science (Berry 2000; Ceccarelli 2001; Gould 2003). While there is disagreement on Wilson's fundamentalist approach, few disagree with the importance of pursuing the (re)unification of social science knowledge or with the slow progress so far being made on this topic.
The National Science and Technology Council (NSTC 2009) recognized the need for collaboration among social sciences. Understanding humans from individual behavior to societal systems is a difficult and wide-ranging quest (p. 3). The questions posed by the social sciences are best answered using methods from disciplines that cut across traditional academic boundaries. Advances in explaining human diversity is constrained by traditional disciplinary approaches that focus on one level of analysis (Norenzayan 2011). Collaborative teams that cross disciplinary boundaries will open up new horizons in the behavioral sciences.
The 2010 UNESCO's World Social Science Report identified social science integration as a major issue consideration. The social sciences are at a critical juncture. The direction might be toward a new integration with the hard sciences, or towards local, context-dependent problem-solving, integrated into 'epistemic communities' with actors originating from different social activities outside science” (p. 189).
Debates about integration are not new among social scientists working in natural resources. Belsky (2002), for example, addressed integration in the context of whether environmental and natural resources sociology are separate sub-disciplines. Integration merits debate for a number of reasons. First, natural resource issues are complex and are affected by multiple proximate driving social factors. Single disciplinary studies focused at one level are unlikely to provide explanations that represent this complexity and are limited in their ability to inform policy recommendations. Complex problems are best explored across disciplines that examine social-ecological phenomenon from different scales.
Second, multi-disciplinary initiatives such as those with physical and biological scientists are necessary to understand the scope of the social sciences. Too frequently there is a belief that one social scientist on an multi-disciplinary team is adequate social science representation. Third, more complete models of human behavior will be achieved through a synthesis of diverse social science perspectives.
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