Monday, April 20, 2009

Bird - The Social Construction of Nature

Elizabeth Ann R. Bird’s piece, The Social construction of Nature: Theoretical Approaches to the History of Environmental Problems, begins with the question: “Where do environmental problems, and how can we account for their appearance in such ways as to prevent their recurrence?” This seemingly simple and open ended question leads Bird into a whirlwind of thoughts regarding the scientific base of research and it’s relation to the social construction of nature. Bird’s main focus is to separate the idea of scientific knowledge as being regarded as a representation of nature, from the idea and possibly reality of a socially constructed interpretation of nature. From her work it can be noted that scientists can merely make claims about their knowledge regarding the “truths” about nature.

It should be noted that everything in this world is socially constructed, meaning that it is socially shaped and influenced by cultures and society. Bird just brings to the foreground the concept of scientific knowledge as being socially constructed. Science is subjective, and relies on repeated, accurate and identical studies in order to prove a “truth”. However what may not be realized is that scientists must manipulate and change the environments in order to reproduce identical studies, thus producing socially altered results. When looking closely at nature, nothing in nature can be reproduced identically.

Bird asks the question “What is the relationship of scientific inquiry to nature?” and delineates three possible considerations. The first being the paradoxes that physicists and ecologists have posed, which implies that experimental practices determine the character of the output, constructing a filter for perception in shaping the nature of what is perceived. Second being ecologist and environmentalist suggestions pertaining to the social practices of humans as scientists have altered the conditions of the “nature” which they are studying. The third consideration comes from sociologists of science and Marxist theorists suggesting that objects scientists study may not be nature at all, drawing from Marx’s concepts of labor processes lending themselves to the notion that human nature (including society) and external nature are a mutually constitutive dialectic, or the idea that the world cannot be understood adequately in the abstract but only through one’s actions (259).

Moving forward the idea of there being no single reality in the world in which we live. In their being no single reality it is to be understood that there are multiple realities and what is represented is depends on one’s relationship to or one’s position in the field of negotiation. This brings back the ideas of conditioned states of reality, showing that a particular negotiated reality is reproducible under certain conditions.

“Environmental problems are not the result of a mistaken understanding of nature. Rather they are the result of mis/taken (unfortunate or ill-chosen) negotiations with and constructions of nature in the shaping of new socio-ecological orderings of reality.” (261). In order to approach the issues regarding environmental problems we must first learn how to renegotiate and interact with nature. Social interaction with nature, as it stands today, must be addressed and altered in order to maintain an ecological balance. Without balance of society and nature there is sure to be significant problems down the road, larger problems than we face today.


  1. I actually thought this article was really interesting and agreed with most of what the author stated. I agree that measurable science is socially constructed, and if you have ever taken an ecology class, using a small study area to represent the entire forest, seems somewhat obsured. But at the same time, I beleive our society as a whole percieves itself through generalizations and assumptions, many of which may or may not be true, depending. Mentally, we have to try and have a set perception about the boundaries of what is understandably and measurably so and what is not, otherwise, nothing is consistant. We must have someway to consistantly and repeatedly engage in a particular study in a controlled environment, because this is how we have chosen to make particular claims or re-create particular studies.

  2. I second that about the article in the way that it was interesting and somewhat true. The thing about measurable science is that is it hard to reproduce the exact same results because every situation seems to be different, often times including unpredictable variables. It is for this reason that scientists must negotiate the 'truths' about nature. Even with all of the facts it is important not to forget about the social aspect to fixing our environmental problems. 'Truths' can be produced in a labratory but they must then be applied in real world situations. The key to fixing the environmental issues is not to rely soley on the science, but for all different 'knowledge banks' to combine together and form one solution.

  3. I agree...this article provides a view of the diversity of science and how we perceive the scientific “truths” about nature. It would be difficult to view any environmental studies for "truth" without including social interactions into the equation. "Environmental problems represent situations in which some segments of society engage in practices that adversely affect other members of society." How we implement our interventions to address environmental problems will depend on how we transform our social exchanges with nature.

  4. This was one of my favorite articles that we've read over the course of the semester, it's the sociologist in me. Mmm, social construction.