Ecology and the social sciences


*Correspondence author. E-mail:


  • 1The urgency and complexity of current environmental problems require ecologists to engage in cross-disciplinary research with social scientists, among others.
  • 2This study explores what ecologists expect from such cross-disciplinary engagements, through a review of editorial statements in key ecological journals and an empirical survey of ecologists working with social scientists.
  • 3Ecologists were found to have different perspectives on collaborating with social scientists depending upon whether they had an instrumental or non-instrumental outlook on the role of social sciences.
  • 4Ecologists are also pursuing other approaches to incorporate human dimensions into their work, including engaging end-users and stakeholders in their research; and enlarging the scope of ecology to include human subjects/objects in their research focus.
  • 5Synthesis and applications. Ecologists face strategic choices when incorporating human/social dimensions in their work – whether engagement with stakeholders, enlargement of ecology as a life science, or active exchange with the social sciences. The choice depends on the stance taken on the place of humans in nature. Each strategy poses specific challenges for ecologists relating respectively to: the justification of how and which stakeholders to engage; the avoidance of naïve borrowings of terms and methods from the social sciences; and the training needed for working in interdisciplinary teams.


The research challenges posed by global environmental change cut across established scientific divisions and call for collaboration between natural and social sciences. Ecologists are playing a leading role in these cross-disciplinary endeavours. As Ludwig et al. (2001) remark, ‘A new sense of urgency about environmental problems has changed the relationship between ecology, other disciplines and public policy’, such that ‘ecology now finds itself in intense interaction with a host of other disciplines’ (p. 481).

Ecology has always been receptive to developments in other natural sciences. The historian Stephen Bocking (1997, p. 190) goes so far as to suggest ‘ecology's relationships with other disciplines have been intrinsic to its own identity’. ‘From time to time’, he explains, ‘ecology has had to resolve certain practical or scientific problems that could not be addressed solely by the tools available within the discipline’. In doing so, ecologists have drawn selectively on methods and concepts from other disciplines to position themselves within the wider scientific enterprise in pursuit of their ‘ambitions to revise their own discipline’.

However, engaging with the social sciences is a major shift of strategy, which may involve ecologists not only in novel subject matter but also in unfamiliar research methods and modes of understanding. This study therefore explores why and how ecologists are turning to cross-disciplinary research with social scientists. To address those questions it is helpful to pose another one: ‘How do ecologists construe people?’ The following analytical framework presents three possible responses.

How do ecologists construe people?

Broadly conceived, ecology is the study of organisms in their environments. Quintessentially, it is taken as the field study of natural organisms under natural conditions, with natural taken to mean non-human. In this ideal sense, ecology is the antithesis of the human world and, in its broader public role, is equated with the protection of nature from human obliteration. This type of pure ecology, studying and conserving wild nature in pristine environments, has people absent from its empirical focus, although its rationale may be that they are a looming presence, as pervasive threat or benign saviour. Indeed, it strongly presumes, even sanctions, human agency (either positively or negatively). Thus, people and human society set the context in which ecological research is conducted: essentially, on their behalf, it studies the dynamics of other living things. Primarily, in effect, people are treated, as the ‘ecological audience’.

However, the study of natural organisms under natural conditions is not always desirable or even attainable. Human influences are now everywhere, affecting every system and flow (McKibben 1989). While many ecologists seek to study relatively undisturbed systems, they cannot wish away human influence. As Begon et al. remark ‘Ecologists are not only concerned with ... organisms in nature, but also ... with ... man's influence on nature’ (1990, p. xi). The rationale for much ecological research is to improve for human purposes the management of systems or organisms, including ones already extensively modified. Here human effects are treated as external factors or goals in the management of semi-natural systems. Secondly then, people are treated as ‘ecological agents’.

The third perspective arises from the ontological debate over whether to treat people as a part of, or apart from, nature. Ecologists as natural scientists are committed to the philosophy of naturalism – the assumption that there is but one system of reality and all life-forms, including human beings, are thus subject to the same underlying processes (Keller & Golley 2000, p. 12). Therefore, in prescribing ecologists’ objects of study, the ‘natural’ cannot be taken to preclude humans. Most ecologists, even so, choose to study non-human organisms, but still assume that the generalizations they produce are relevant to human processes too. Others deliberately embrace human society within their object of study – what Berkes refers to as ‘an emerging understanding of ecosystems as complex adaptive systems in which human societies are necessarily an integral part’ (2004, p. 624). In this perspective, then, people are treated as ‘ecological subjects/objects’.

The expectations ecologists have of the social sciences might be expected to vary depending upon which perspective is taken. The first – treating people as the ecological audience – makes no specific claims on the social sciences: the science–society link is treated in conventional terms as the fact/value distinction. The second perspective – treating people as ecological agents – construes human effects as either exogenous, anthropogenic factors or as determinants of the goals of managed systems. With the third perspective – treating people as ecological subjects/objects – ecology crosses into the social sciences.

While these three perspectives co-exist in contemporary ecology, they can also be seen partly in chronological terms. The first was much more tenable when ecology was establishing itself as a basic biological discipline and pristine environments still existed. The intervening century has seen remorseless human expansion and the retreat of nature. The political response in the 1960s and 1970s, through the environmental movement, produced policy demands that enabled the establishment of an ecological managerialism in pursuit of scientifically-based technical solutions to environmental problems. This stimulated the development of a set of ecological sub-disciplines (such as applied ecology, landscape ecology, conservation biology, restoration ecology) based on the second perspective.

The environmental movement politicized ecological concerns in ways that both excited and alarmed scientific ecologists (Lowe & Worboys 1976). Political movements were formed (including political ecology, social ecology, deep ecology) heralding ‘The Age of Ecology’ (Worster 1977, p. xiii). A few ecologists were drawn to the third perspective. Eugene Odum, for example, whose conception of the ecosystem infused the new ecological managerialism, declared that, under the pressing need to address ‘the totality of man and environment’, ecology had become ‘a major interdisciplinary science that links together the biological, physical and social sciences’ (1975, pp. v, 4). But others feared political co-option by radical movements. Indeed, the emergence of a set of sub-disciplines orientated towards ecological managerialism can be seen not only as a scientific response to pressing environmental problems but also as an effort to depoliticize these fields and demarcate areas where scientific priorities could prevail.

With recognition of global environmental change in the 1990s and 2000s, ecological managerialism has come to seem a self-limiting perspective. Complex environmental problems appear less amenable to straightforward scientific or technical fixes. Resolving human–environment dysfunctions calls for more fundamental attention to the human side of the equation. Moreover, the human dominance of the biosphere is rendering a non-human ecology ever more untenable. Increasingly, therefore, ecologists are embracing the third perspective. This is taking them beyond the sub-disciplinary strategies of the 1970s and 1980s. As they seek to take on the human dimension more fully, some of them are reaching out to the social sciences.


We are interested to explore this no-man's land of cross-disciplinarity without too many preconceptions. That is why we use the neutral term cross-disciplinarity to refer to ecologists’ engagements with the social sciences, without presuming (as do other terms – such as interdisciplinary, multidisciplinary and transdisciplinary –Tress, Tress & Fry 2005) what form that engagement should take. We are interested in clarifying what ecologists conceive of, and expect from, cross-disciplinarity. We pursue this through two empirical lenses. The first is a review of positioning statements in ecological journals oriented towards ecological managerialism, to see if and how they prescribe engagement with the social sciences. The second is a survey of ecologists currently engaged in a cross-disciplinary research programme – the Rural Economy and Land Use Programme (RELU) – the largest ever conducted in the UK involving ecologists collaborating with social scientists.

The journals surveyed were: Journal of Applied Ecology (founded in 1964), Landscape Ecology (1987), Conservation Biology (1987) and Restoration Ecology (1993). They do not cover the full range of ecological opinion, but are a cross-section of well-established, mainstream applied ecology journals. Moreover, each included an editorial prospectus in its first issue. Recently also, each carried a stock-taking editorial. We were thus able to compare and contrast their foundational and contemporary formulations of the scientific challenges they face. The objective was to review the changing framing of the human dimension of ecological managerialism by established ecological sub-disciplines and how these are translated into prescriptions for engagement with the social sciences.

The journal review informed the design of a questionnaire, which was distributed to 95 ecologists in 37 RELU projects, to explore their attitudes towards cross-disciplinary working. The response rate was 53%. It is difficult to say how representative this group is of the wider ecological community, other than that it must be a fair proportion of those UK applied ecologists interested in working with social scientists. The programme does not prescribe the form of cross-disciplinarity to be undertaken – that is left to the individual project teams. The projects therefore offer a rich diversity of experience. The interest in the findings is in what they reveal of the diverse strategies and fundamental choices confronting ecologists in developing the human dimension of their work.

Ecological managerialism's changing conceptualization of the human dimension

journal of applied ecology

Journal of Applied Ecology's founding in 1964 marks the advent of ecological managerialism, understood then as providing the scientific foundation for the ‘wise utilization of natural resources’ (Bunting & Wynne-Edwards 1964, p. 1). The opening editorial saw, in the rapidly rising population and the acceleration of development throughout the world, that ‘Ours is an age in which ecological thinking and methods have more than ever before to contribute to the progress of mankind’. The editors of the new journal, however, were at pains to emphasize that applied ecology – or what they termed ‘work in the economic field’ (p. 1) – should not depart from strict scientific norms, insisting that ‘the distinction between pure and applied ecology is one of convenience and not of scientific merit or status’ (p. 1). Precisely because applied ecology should lead to recommendations for action, ‘measurement and experiment should be characteristic features’ (p. 2). Additionally, the editors urged that ‘synthesis is an essential component of effective ecological research’ (p. 2), but with the stricture that ‘synthesis does not condone the introduction ... of subjective or sentimental considerations into ostensibly scientific reasoning’ (p. 2).

In 2000, Journal of Applied Ecology's editors returned to the role of applied ecology in an increasingly human-altered world, in an editorial entitled ‘The age of applied ecology’ (Ormerod & Watkinson 2000). They presented a bleak view of the extent of human encroachment on the natural environment which nevertheless reinforced their confidence that ‘Successful ecological management will become one of the most pressing necessities of our time’ (p. 2). That implied enlarged responsibilities for applied ecologists: ‘Guiding subsistence, well-being and resource-use ... as much as ... the grim warnings we must continue to give’ (p. 2). This expanded domain demanded ‘the highest standards of rigour, scientific quality, clarity and services’ (p. 2). In turn, large-scale ecological management provided the ultimate test of ecological theory. The editorial makes only passing reference to other disciplines in the rhetorical remark that the Journal of Applied Ecology must maintain its status as ‘one of the world's major journals through which ecologists speak to each other, and to other related disciplines in environmental management’ (p. 2). The social sciences are not explicitly mentioned.

conservation biology

Conservation Biology was launched in 1987 in ‘response to the biological diversity crisis’ and brought together interested scientists in universities and conservation organizations (Soule 1987, p. 4). The journal's opening editorial declared that ‘biology is at the heart of all phases of conservation and is the ultimate arbiter of its success and failure’ (Ehrenfeld 1987, p. 6). A broad applied agenda was set for conservation biology including ‘development and evaluation of technological and management interventions that maintain and restore diversity and function’ and their integration with ‘complementary human activities, from agriculture to anthropology’ (p. 5). The editorial added that ‘we are not so arrogant as to think we can go it alone.... We need such academic disciplines as palaeontology, climatology, oceanography, anthropology, philosophy and ethics, and economics. And in the “real world” we rely upon nongovernmental conservation organizations’ (p. 6).

In 2006, in an editorial looking back on 20 years of the journal, the current editor was joined by his two predecessors (Meffe, Ehrenfeld & Noss 2006). While gratified by the scientific stature Conservation Biology had achieved, they berated that ‘Our collective influence on global conditions, policies, and quality of life for humans and nonhumans has been minimal as the world marches on, largely oblivious to our science’ (p. 595). To stem the loss of biodiversity would require a ‘global change in worldview’ and to tackle that ‘fundamental problem relative to human behaviour’, there was a clear imperative ‘for interdisciplinarity and inclusion of the various social sciences’ (p. 596). Conservation biologists were urged to ‘break down intellectual and disciplinary barriers ... to address the most vexing and serious problem ever to face humanity: survival of a planet increasingly vulnerable to a massive build up of one species – ours’ (p. 596).

landscape ecology

This journal was dedicated at its start in 1987 to ‘correcting biospheric disorder’ (Golley 1987, p. 3) – a condition that stemmed from ignorance of ‘the interactions between human decisions in economic and social spheres and the land, water, and air upon which we depend for life’ (p. 3). Landscape promised to provide a larger and comparative context for ecosystem studies to overcome the basic shortcoming of much ecological research, that: ‘Our scale of focus has been too small and our attention span too short to grasp the biospheric web in which we exist’ (p. 3). The larger scale entailed moving beyond ‘the reassuring replicability but constrained relevance of field plot studies and laboratory experiments’. With the aim of ‘truly reaching across barriers towards solutions to human problems’ (p. 2), there was also the requirement to synthesize and evaluate. Besides ecologists, the journal was intended to embrace the landscape research interests of ‘landscape designers, architects and planners, as well as soil scientists, geographers, modellers, biogeographers’ (p. 1).

A 2006 editorial identified contrasting traditions within landscape ecology: one ‘dominated by a bioecology-centred spatial view that focuses on question-driven studies’; the other ‘a society-centred holistic view that focuses on solution-driven research’ (Wu 2006, p. 1). The difference hinged on the extent research incorporated anthropogenic influences, ‘ranging from treating humans as one of the factors creating and responding to spatial heterogeneity to considering the landscape as a total human ecosystem’ (p. 1). The editor suggested that these differing perspectives spanned a spectrum, ranging from interdisciplinary to transdisciplinary approaches, with ‘the degree of integration among disciplines, prominence of humanistic and holistic perspectives, and direct relevance to societal issues all increasing’ (p. 2). The dominant research mode also shifted ‘from plot-based and question-driven studies to place-based and solution-driven investigations, with increasing subjectivity and uncertainty in system description and prediction’ (p. 2). With such a unified framework, landscape ecology should be central to ‘sustainability science’ (p. 3) – a new kind of science focusing on ‘the dynamic interactions between nature and society’ (p. 2). The key contribution of landscape ecology would be understanding the biophysical and socioeconomic mechanisms of land use/cover change and their impact on ecosystem services (p. 4).

restoration ecology

Restoration Ecology was launched in 1993. The Ecological Society of America had recently identified restoration of damaged ecosystems as a major priority for a sustainable biosphere (Lubchenko et al. 1991). However, while this was a field of extensive technical and engineering activity, it had not previously attracted strong scientific interest. The purpose of the journal therefore was to communicate ‘among researchers and practitioners, with the goal of advancing the scientific foundation of restoration’ (Rieger 1993, p. 2).

In 2005, a new editor took the opportunity to set new directions. Restoration ecology as a ‘young and developing science’ (Hobbs 2005, p. 240) ‘needed to be open to alternative perspectives if it were to ... be a real force in ... the repair and better management of the Earth's ecosystems’ (p. 241). ‘At a time of flux when traditional or “normal” science is being seen as not sufficient on its own to tackle ... pressing environmental problems’ it was important ‘to explore differing approaches’, to ‘the standard experimental and observational scientific methodologies’ (p. 241). That entailed engaging with the movement towards ‘inter-, multi- and transdisciplinary studies’; and being receptive to contributions from ‘philosophical, social and other more humanities-based arenas [with] the potential to contribute greatly to the conceptual and theoretical development of the discipline’ (p. 241).

Different modes of cross-disciplinarity

This review of foundational and contemporary editorials in journals orientated towards ecological managerialism does confirm our initial hypothesis of a shift in perspective towards the human dimension and potential engagement of the social sciences. The temporal movement over the last 20 years has broadly been from the second perspective (treating people as ecological agents) towards the third perspective (people as ecological subjects/objects), but to differing degrees.

A common justification of each of the contemporary editorials is a disparity between the scientific strength and societal influence of their respective fields. For sub-disciplines with an outlook of ecological managerialism, there is an acute contradiction in portraying a flourishing science alongside chronic environmental decline. However, different understandings of the source of this disparity are presented.

To address the gap between science and application, recent editorials in Journal of Applied Ecology have looked either to enlarging the spatio-temporal scale of applied studies to improve their relevance, or to a better targeting of research design and scientific communication to enhance their impact. In these ways, they have looked to draw environmental management into the scientific rationality of applied ecology, with the arguments: firstly, that the ultimate test of ecological theory lies in the management of ecosystems (Ormerod et al. 1999, after Bradshaw 1996); and, secondly, that: ‘Applying ecological research to real-world problems ultimately requires that we predict future management practices’ (Freckleton et al. 2005, p. 1). This refounding of policy and practice on ecological principles and methods may imply no explicit reference to the social sciences.

However, Lawton (2007) argues it is naïve to assume that scientific evidence delivered to the responsible organization will lead straightforwardly to policy changes, adding that in reality, ‘the process of influencing policy is messy, iterative and involves many players’ (p. 288). Lawton proposes that ecologists should learn from social science about public policy and decision-making. In other words, if the science is sound but the system is not responding, there may be a role for social science in communication and policy translation, to help to get the message through.

Others argue that the shortcomings of ecological managerialism indicate a more fundamental failing. A contemporary editorial in Conservation Biology resoundingly declares: ‘Those who still think that ... good science by itself will save the day are as much in denial as those who say there is no environmental crisis’ (Meffe et al. 2006, p. 596). It is argued that: ‘Biodiversity conservation is a human endeavour ... intended to modify human behaviour to achieve a socially desired objective’ (Mascia et al. 2003, p. 650). Conservation Biology has most consistently pursued the ‘mainstreaming of the social sciences in conservation’ (Mascia et al. 2003, p. 650). The approach is essentially instrumental, insisting that ‘it is the applied tools from both social science and conservation biology that are most needed for successful conservation’ (Fox et al. 2006, p. 1819). The potential role of social science is facilitator of environmental management.

It is perhaps not surprising that ecologists were led first to collaborate with economists – the group of social scientists with which they had most in common: including a preoccupation with the role of competition for scarce resources which gave them a common intellectual heritage; and a largely positivistic and quantitative orientation, which made them open to similar statistical techniques and the vogue for mathematical modelling (Røpke 2004). Economists are also the closest social scientists to government, with strong theories about how societies value resources. Ecologists saw working with them as a means of translating their claims into the dominant discourse of money. With a loss of consensus in the 1980s over the urgency of environmental problems, governments were not prepared to pursue environmental protection regardless of cost; instead, cost–benefit analysis, risk assessment, and other methods of establishing relative priorities came to the fore. Increasingly, economics became the key arbiter of these issues. As ecologists turned to it for analyses of human values and societal interests, some were drawn more fully into its concepts and methods, and thus to engage with social science on its own terms, that is in a non-instrumental manner (Røpke 2005).

A major development was the founding of the journal Ecological Economics in 1989 to ‘address the relationship between ecosystems and economic systems in the broadest sense’ (Costanza 1989, p. 1). ‘A new approach to both ecology and economics’ was called for to overcome the partiality of the parent disciplines: the neo-classical blinkers of economics; and ecology's preoccupation with ‘natural’ systems. The journal therefore set out ‘to make economics more cognizant of ecological impacts and dependencies; ... to make ecology more sensitive to economic forces, incentives, and constraints; and ... to treat integrated economic–ecologic systems with a common (but diverse) set of conceptual and analytical tools’ (p. 1). Working first with economists therefore demonstrated to ecologists the scope and challenge of cross-disciplinary working with social scientists. While it revealed some of the limits of an economistic frame of analysis, it began also to open up non-instrumental perspectives on the social sciences, and thus laid the basis for potentially wider and deeper collaborations.

From its very beginnings, Landscape Ecology too has sought to integrate a non-instrumental approach to the social sciences, albeit more orientated towards the analysis of human impacts. The journal's opening editorial recognized that ‘biological changes and human interactions have been an ongoing process’ (Golley 1987, p. 3) and committed itself to ‘reaching across barriers towards solutions to human problems’ (p. 2). Contributors to the journal fluctuate between seeing humans as a factor influencing landscapes and seeing the landscape as a total human ecosystem.

From this journal review, we can identify a number of potential roles that ecologists envisage for social science collaboration. We distinguish between instrumental roles (which include ‘communication and policy translation’ and ‘facilitation of environmental management’) and non-instrumental roles (which include ‘human values and societal interests’ and ‘understanding human behaviour and impacts’) (Fig. 1). Non-instrumental roles imply engagement with the concepts and methods of social science and not just with its outputs, entailing a departure from the conventional epistemology of the natural sciences. Some of the journals acknowledge the need for such a departure. Landscape Ecology, for example, has charted the shift in epistemologies from ‘falsification and hypothetico-deductive methods, rooted in the Popperian philosophy of science ... to alternative scientific methodologies that emphasise the value of confirmation and inductive reasoning’ (Wu 2006, p. 2). Restoration Ecology too has opened up to ‘inter-, multi- and transdisciplinary studies ... and the emergence of “postnormal” science’ (Hobbs 2005, p. 241).

Figure 1.

Expected benefits from research collaboration with social scientists.
Note: percentages refer to ecologists’ ranking benefit as most important in the survey reported below.

Ecology and the social sciences in a major cross-disciplinary research programme

Some of the above may well be rhetorical positioning by journal editors (Antrop 2007). It is unclear what their prescriptions imply for, or how much they reflect, research practice. To find out more about the reality of cross-disciplinarity, therefore, we conducted a survey of ecologists who are actually collaborating with social scientists within RELU.

ecology and the human/social dimension

Almost all respondents (94%) agreed that there is ‘a need for ecologists to take into account the human/social dimensions and context of their work’, although from differing perspectives. Some saw people essentially as ‘ecological agents’. An agricultural ecologist commented: ‘If ecologists wish to have their work utilised then they need to understand how this may be perceived and used by end users’. A wildlife ecologist commented that ‘it is essential to investigate the needs of the policy makers ... to develop more efficient communication between scientists and policy makers/practitioners’. For some respondents, acceptance of the ecological agency of human society was a normative stance: in the words of an agricultural ecologist: ‘Ecological science needs to serve the people.’

Other respondents in contrast expressed a philosophy that human beings are necessarily ‘ecological objects or subjects’. As an agricultural ecologist put it: ‘The actions of humans, whether intentional or not, will affect the other organisms surrounding us and therefore not to consider our behaviour in studying the wider ecology would be a grave omission’. An applied ecologist explained: ‘I don't think that it is possible to examine any aspect of the natural world without considering the role of humans and society in it, either as components of the system or because of their impact on or management of the system’. A landscape ecologist remarked: ‘The way we ... study things depends on the way we conceptualise issues and this depends on historical, cultural, political parameters’.

From our questionnaire survey, it would seem that the movement by ecologists to embrace the human dimension arises not from any perceived failings of ecology but from the environmental and scientific challenges they confront. Thus, 84% disagreed with the proposition that ‘Ecology has reached its limits in addressing complex environmental problems and providing solutions to these’. There was also broad consensus (78% agreement) with the proposition that ‘natural and human systems are inseparable, so an integrated view is necessary to understanding ecological processes’. Where the group was more divided was on the question of whether ‘human behaviour is subject to the same underlying ecological processes as other organisms’, with 45% agreeing, 31% disagreeing, and 24% neutral. The question of ‘how can ecologists more effectively address complex environmental problems’ also revealed different prognoses. Thus, 44% felt that ‘dealing more effectively with the social/human dimensions of their work’ was what was primarily needed; while 35% felt that they had to ‘communicate their findings more effectively’; and 22% thought the main way forward was to ‘produce better ecological science’.

A divergence of opinion is also evident in responses to the question of how ecologists should ‘take into account the social/human dimensions of their work’ as seen in Table 1. The most popular responses in descending order were to ‘work closely with stakeholders and end users’ (51%); to ‘work closely with social scientists’ (27%); and to ‘extend ecological concepts/methods’ (16%). Thus, for most in this sample, working with social scientists is not their top preference. Instead, just over half prefer to access the human/social dimensions themselves through direct engagement with stakeholders and end-users (and most of the rest ranked this high as their second or third preference). These ecologists are keen to be socially responsive in their research, and do not necessarily wish to cede this responsibility to social scientific intermediaries. It should be noted that working with stakeholders and end-users is not, for most of them, an overtly political strategy (the option to ‘work closely with social or political movements’ scored low).

Table 1.  How can ecologists best take into account the social/human dimensions of their work
 Ranked responses (in %)
First (N = 49)Second (N = 48)Third (N = 44)
Work closely with stakeholders and end-users512311
Work closely with social scientists in research projects273118
Extend ecological concepts and methods to embrace the human/social dimensions161525
Take into account the results of social science research 21327
Work closely with social or political movements 21314
Themselves adopt social science methods or concepts 2 6 5

working with social scientists

Although second choice in the ecologists’ overall preference for partners in pursuing the human/social dimensions of their work, 76% of respondents ranked working closely with social scientists among their first, second or third preferences (Table 1). As one applied ecologist commented: ‘I need to collaborate with social scientists to better understand people as the most influential species in most systems I study’. A population ecologist explained: ‘Collaborative projects with social scientists allow me to do research that is scientifically sound but has a socially-led dimension’. However, some ecologists regard working with social scientists as a poor substitute for stakeholder engagement – as one chemical ecologist commented bluntly: ‘I have learnt more about the socio-economic dimension of ecological research through collaboration with industry partners’.

The third most popular response to the question of how best should ecologists deal with the social/human dimensions of their work –‘by extending ecological concepts and methods to embrace the human/social dimensions’– reveals that a minority of ecologists are prepared to go it alone. As one applied ecologist commented: ‘ecological scientists are very eager to adopt techniques from the social sciences ... and can thereby introduce effective social science into their research’. This solo strategy addresses what a landscape ecologist referred to as ‘socio-ecological’ problems by treating humans as integral to ecosystems and extending ecological notions and approaches accordingly.

In light of the varied priorities accorded to working with social scientists, it is of interest to learn what ecologists saw as driving it (Table 2). They predominantly referred to external influences, particularly concern over pressing problems and funding opportunities. Seventy-eight per cent of the respondents felt that the need to collaborate with social scientists had intensified in the past 15–20 years. When asked to explain why, many alluded to the limitations of ecological managerialism. In the words of an ecological economist: ‘ecologists have realised they cannot solve the world's problems on their own. They are frustrated at the relatively low impact of their work’. Funding agendas are also seen to favour interdisciplinarity. A landscape ecologist commented: ‘government and research bodies want interdisciplinary perspectives. Solutions based solely in ecology will not work if social and cultural processes remain unexamined and unchanged’.

Table 2.  Perceived drivers for collaboration
 Ranked responses (in %)
First (N = 49)Second (N = 46)Third (N = 38)
Funding opportunities373316
Concern over pressing problems352818
Intellectual curiosity181132
Government pressure22418
Popular concerns over science448
Disciplinary leadership405

Respondents were presented with a list of potential benefits from collaborating with social scientists and asked to identify the most important one. In Fig. 1, these benefits have been grouped in relation to the roles for social science extracted from the review of ecological journals. There is a broad spread of approaches to collaboration, with instrumental approaches to do with the facilitation of environmental management in the lead, followed by non-instrumental approaches to understanding human impacts.

Respondents were then asked: ‘Has collaborative working with social scientists in any way changed your views on the discipline of ecology?’ While the majority (73%) replied that it had not, 27% replied positively. Among the latter, some felt that collaboration with social scientists had given them a fresh perspective on the justification and rationale for ecological research. An applied ecologist commented: ‘It has renewed my confidence in the discipline ... No longer is it seen as a “waste of time and money” because it could not deliver “solutions”– with the collaboration of social scientists, science can now be part of the bigger picture’. An agricultural ecologist commented: ‘I learned that ecology is not justified by its own presence but just by the humans it serves. On the other hand I learned that the social factors may be influenced towards an ecologically more sound solution’. For others, collaboration had opened up alternative perspectives on scientific problems. An applied ecologist stated: ‘It has made me think of the wider context and allowed me to develop new framings of research problems’. Others had been led to an appreciation of the context-dependent nature of scientific knowledge. A landscape ecologist explained: ‘It has helped me to question norms, values and priorities which have previously been defined very much through an ecological perspective’.

The sample of ecologists is too small for any sophisticated statistical analysis. Nevertheless, certain patterns are apparent. For example, those ecologists who preferred to access human/social dimensions through direct engagement with stakeholders were inclined strongly to an instrumental outlook on collaboration with social scientists, to see funding opportunities as the main driver and to report that their views on ecology had not been changed by working with social scientists. Equally, those who prioritized working with social scientists were more likely to have a non-instrumental approach to collaboration, to consider pressing problems as the main driver, and to report that collaboration had changed their views on the discipline of ecology. Those who prioritized extending ecological concepts and methods were also more likely to report that collaboration had changed their views on ecology (Table 3).

Table 3.  How can ecologists best take into account the social/human dimensions of their work
 Respondent's perspective on the social sciences (in %)Whether collaboration had changed respondent's view of ecology (in %)
(N = 24)
(N = 21)
(N = 36)
(N = 13)
Work closely with stakeholders/end users58436123
Work closely with social scientists/take account of social science research21382246


The study identifies a transition in ecological sub-disciplines from treating people as ecological agents to treating people as ecological objects/subjects. It is coming about from recognition of global environmental change and the ubiquity of human influences on nature. These present the justification and scope for an enlarged role for ecological research, and ecologists are responding by taking more fully into account the human/social dimensions and context of their work. However, there is a contradiction in portraying a flourishing problem-solving science alongside chronic environmental decline. From the review of selected journals, ecological sub-disciplines present fundamentally different understandings of the source of this disparity: ranging from perceived weaknesses in the scientific basis of policy-making; to a recognition of the need for more profound societal change to achieve sustainability; to a conviction that scientific analysis itself must move beyond an understanding founded on a divide between nature and society. Not surprisingly, different characterizations ensue regarding the human dimensions of ecological managerialism and different prescriptions of why and how to engage with the social sciences. In particular, our review of ecological journals distinguished between instrumental and non-instrumental roles envisaged for collaborations with social scientists.

The essence of an instrumental approach is that it maintains the science–society distinction; the role of social science being to facilitate the societal consequences of ecological research. In the past, ecological managerialism has been presented with two other possible means to power and influence: one in the form of technocratic expertise implemented via close and reciprocal links with scientifically based conservation organizations; the other in providing the scientific underpinning of policy changes via engagement with social movements. The move to embrace social science represents in part a refinement of these strategies: social science is seen as offering either additional techniques for adaptive management in conservation; or it is seen as a key means of instituting environmental reforms of government and society.

Engagement with social science is part of a move by ecologists away from a narrow or exclusive alignment with either conservation agencies or the environmental movement. This reflects a change in the political climate heralded by such documents as the UN's Millenium Ecosystem Assessment (2005). Through a broadening of the means and agenda of conservation (particularly under the influence of sustainable development ideas) and the absorption into the political mainstream of many of the precepts of environmentalism (a response to the pressures of global environmental change), new influencing opportunities have been opened up for ecologists that transcend either ‘fortress conservation’ (Berkes 2004, p. 622) or the marginality of radical environmentalism. Working with social scientists is thus one of several alternative strategies for ecologists seeking societal influence.

In order to understand human values and behaviour, however, some ecologists have been drawn into engaging with social science on its own terms, that is, with its concepts and methods and not just its outputs. The movement towards treating people as ecological subjects/objects is thus opening up prospects also for non-instrumental collaborations with social science.

The survey of RELU ecologists explored the currency of different strategies to take account of the human/social dimensions and context of ecological work. Most preferred to access these dimensions through direct engagement with stakeholders/end-users. The other popular responses as to how to take account of the human/social dimensions were to ‘extend ecological concepts/methods’ and ‘work closely with social scientists’.

We thus see a diversity of epistemological strategies in ecology about dealing with the human/social dimensions, which imply different philosophical perspectives on human behaviour. The first strategy, simply of stakeholder engagement, preserves the conventional science–society and fact-value divides and with them the integrity of applied ecology. Ecologists, however, are not thereby absolved from making societal and value judgements: the (self) selection of stakeholders and the way they are engaged in projects presume issues of problem framing, the equity of resource allocation and impact distribution and questions of control. Applied ecologists need therefore carefully to think through and justify how and whom they engage as stakeholders.

Under the second strategy, human subjects/objects are drawn into the focus of ecological research by extending its concepts/methods, without relaxing the philosophy of scientific naturalism, potentially leading to the enlargement of ecology as a ‘life science’. This presents a challenge for the development of ecological concepts and methods to handle questions of human agency, power and normative judgement. Ecologists need to guard against naïve borrowings or transference of terms and methods: even common terms such as resilience may have different normative and analytical connotations between human and ecological systems.

Under the third strategy, ecologists reach across to the social sciences and, to some extent, adopt their philosophies, including humanistic perspectives, leading to ever more intensive interdisciplinary engagement with social scientists. It should be noted that this strategy does not preclude working with stakeholders, but one of the roles of social scientists may be to advise on the appropriate strategy for that. Equally, social scientists can help ecologists consider critically the judgements involved in extending methods and concepts from the natural to the social sciences and vice versa. What ecologists need under this third strategy is training to equip them to know what to expect from social scientists and to work in interdisciplinary teams. There is no simple resolution to these dilemmas. The choice for ecologists and social scientists depends on where they stand on the most profound question of our age – the place of humans in nature.


The research was funded as part of the UK Research Councils’ Rural Economy and Land Use Programme (RELU) (Award RES-224-34-2003-01). RELU is a collaboration between the Economic and Social Research Council, the Natural Environment Rsearch Council and the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council, with additional funding from Defra and the Scottish Government. Thanks to Andrew Donaldson, David Macdonald and Dave Raffaelli for their guidance on the work.