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Despite the considerable potential for science integration inherent in modified Malthusian theories, mainstream social scientists are generally reluctant to engage in, or even consider, such research programs. To put it in the words of the anthropologist Possehl: “We should stop thinking about the physical world and start looking at the fabric of society” (quoted in Lawler 2008).
Looking at the fabric of society is what social scientists have been doing all along, so what is the actual worry underlying Possehl's statement? Quite obviously, it is fear of transdisciplinary hybridization or bastardization. Indeed, integration with other disciplines may be less desirable to most social scientists than suggested by solemn calls for interor multi-disciplinary collaboration.
The main impediment is a refusal on the part of social scientists to accept that societal change can be anything but endogenous to the social sphere (for a critique, see Sørensen 2008). Mainstream social science follows an increasingly counterproductive division of labor whereby physical scientists study the physical world and social scientists study the social world—as if the two were separate and not interconnected. Natural scientists mirror this by a concentration on physical processes, although some are open to neo-Malthusian theories and models.
The self-encapsulation of the social sciences works reasonably well in times of resource abundance and material affluence. It is epitomized by economists reducing scarcity to a problem related to the allocation but not the physical availability of resources, and constructivists cordoning off their scholarship from the analysis of material factors and thus making social change endogenous to self-(re)producing patterns of human interaction. However, the separation between social and physical sciences rests on the cornucopian assumption that industrial society always expands and never contracts. Under conditions of abrupt climate change and looming energy scarcity, social scientists do themselves a disservice by dismissing “materialistic” theories as reactionary or deterministic.
Just like the intersubjective norms that are at the core of social constructivism, resources constrain and enable human action. Precisely for this reason, it is self-defeating for social scientific research to dismiss Malthusian hypotheses. Social scientists should seriously (re-)engage with modified Malthusian theories. As we have, seen some pioneering work has already been done at the fringes of social science, leading to remarkably sophisticated causal models belying knee-jerk allegations of “environmental determinism”. Such research not only has the potential to better integrate the social and physical sciences, but it also provides a platform for better integration among social scientific disciplines. It is reasonable to assume that this would also make it easier to communicate the results to the public.
Despite the considerable promise of modified Malthusian theories, fundamental challenges remain. Most if not all existing Malthusian theories operate at the macrolevel, whereas work on common-pool resources (Ostrom 1990) operates on a smaller scale. While work on common-pool resources can hardly be scaled up to the macro-level (Levin 2010), it is equally challenging to scale Malthusian theories down to the micro-level. Despite the best efforts made by the International Association for the Study of Society and Natural Resources, the greatest challenge remains to formulate convincing theories that work at an intermediate level, perhaps connecting Malthusian theories with work on common-pool resources.
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