Navigating the social sciences: interdisciplinarity and ecology


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In this paper, we introduce the first Special Profile of Journal of Applied Ecology to concentrate on the relationship between social sciences and ecology. We report on a survey of ecologists engaged in interdisciplinary research to see how they navigated their choice of social science partners. In introducing the research papers, we explore what they reveal about the development of common analytical methods and approaches for collaboration between social scientists and ecologists, as well as various roles of humans in applied ecology.

Ecology is a portmanteau discipline – broad and outward looking. It has always been open to models and methods from other natural sciences, and centrally concerned with the relations between human action and the environment. Through their training and outlook, therefore, many ecologists aspire to cross-disciplinary collaboration.

However, during ecology's century of existence as an organized science, most of its explicit exchanges have been with natural sciences. Although applied ecology aims ultimately to design human interventions in ecological systems and produce outcomes of both environmental and social value, collaboration with the social sciences has been limited until recently. Increasingly, through the demands of studying complex environmental problems or the exigencies of funding, ecologists have to work with social scientists on the social and human dimensions of environmental management.

The Special Profile brings together a selection of articles from the largest research collaboration of ecologists and social scientists ever mounted in the UK – the Research Councils’ Rural Economy and Land Use Programme (RELU). Ecologists are the largest grouping of scientists in RELU, alongside over 40 other disciplines. They represent a quarter of the more than 450 researchers. Twenty-two out of 29 of its large research projects (ranging from £0·3 to £1 million) have an ecological dimension. Seven are led by ecologists. The RELU programme provides an opportunity to reflect on applied ecologists’ experience of interdisciplinary working with social scientists and the different forms it may take. This programme did not prescribe the specific form of interdisciplinary collaboration, only that each project had to have good, well-integrated natural and social science components.

To introduce the Special Profile, we conducted a survey of ecologists in the programme. A questionnaire was piloted and then distributed electronically in May 2008 to 95 ecologists working in RELU (with 50 returned). The ecologists embrace a wide range of applied ecological specialisms, the main ones being applied, agricultural, wildlife, plant, community and landscape ecology. Alongside other natural scientists, they have been collaborating with 145 social scientists from 15 different social science disciplines: most prominently with economists (39% of the social scientists), followed by human geographers (23%), sociologists (10%), political scientists (6%), social anthropologists (6%) and psychologists (4%).

In this editorial, we report on the survey findings around the core question: how do ecologists choose social science partners? We then introduce the papers.

How do ecologists navigate the choice of social sciences?

To the uninitiated, the social sciences can seem like the Tower of Babel. They comprise diverse sources of expertise, focussed on different facets of human behaviour and social structure. They offer a range of methods in gathering evidence, from the collection and analysis of statistics, to the collation of responses to questionnaires and interviews, to the systematic observation of human behaviour. There are also basic philosophical divides running through the social sciences – regarding the subjectivity and partiality of human knowledge – that go to the heart of their scientific status. For the social sciences, complete detachment from their subject is not possible: they cannot stand outside the human condition. How to deal with issues concerning the inter-subjective nature of human understanding, the role of knowledge as a source of power and the bias and perspective in social science observation and analysis, forms the basis of contrasting philosophical traditions. Indeed, whether to adopt an empiricist or rationalist logic, inductive or deductive theory, a universalistic or relativist perspective, are questions that can make it difficult simply for social scientists to collaborate amongst themselves across disciplines. This all complicates the choice for ecologists of suitable social science partners. How do ecologists navigate that choice?

In making their choices, it must be said that most of the ecologists surveyed were not uninitiated, that is, they could draw on past exposure to social sciences. Thirty per cent of them reported that their basic scientific training had equipped them for working with social scientists: several referred to first degrees which had included social science inputs, such as environmental economics, agricultural economics, human geography and ethics; others had done interdisciplinary PhDs. In addition, most of the respondents (53%) had collaborated with social scientists previously. As one landscape ecologist commented, the ‘best interdisciplinary training I ever had was the actual collaboration with social scientists in interdisciplinary projects’. (Quotes are taken from the survey.)

expertise and roles

In the first instance, ecologists choose their social science partners based on the various types of expertise and roles that they bring.

One prominent role was to illuminate the social preferences, attitudes, values and motivations of diverse stakeholders and audiences. For example, researchers looking at the implications of planting large areas of land with novel crops have drawn on human geographers to consider the implications beyond ecology in terms of public opinion and the landscape effects. In other projects, economists are deploying valuation techniques to ascribe market values to biodiversity change. Other social scientists are facilitating participatory approaches which are leading to ‘a greater degree of trust and understanding between natural scientists and practitioners at a local level’. They are also being used to support stakeholder engagement: ‘People have a democratic right to be involved in research that affects the land they use.... Stakeholder participation has the potential to make our research more robust by providing higher quality information inputs’.

Social scientists also offer different perspectives to help reframe scientific problems and prioritize research around societal challenges and opportunities. Seventy-eight per cent of the respondents had engaged in collective framing of research problems with their social science partners and 51% thought new framings had been introduced. Many felt working with social scientists had improved research applicability and relevance. Problem reframing implies give and take. One respondent, however, complained that ‘good ecology’ had been hampered by having to fit it into an ‘investigative framework’ driven by social science.

Social science expertise was also sought to improve understanding of how socio-ecological systems work. Fifty-two per cent of respondents were engaging with social scientists to gain a greater understanding of the social factors responsible for the success or failure of environmental management. Fifty-six per cent expected collaboration would engender a greater understanding of socio-economic mechanisms of land use change. One respondent – researching deer management – explained that in ‘order to analyse the decisions that deer managers make, we need to employ social science methods’.

methodological and philosophical compatibilities

In thinking about social science partners, ecologists were also guided by their sense of what was methodologically and philosophically compatible with their own research. Questions of compatibility arise at the level of whole disciplines, but more often between sub-disciplines and even the disposition of individual researchers. Most (57%) thought some social scientists were easier to work with than others.

Although collaboration with qualitative social science could be rewarding, many felt themselves better equipped to collaborate with those using quantitative approaches which meant that ‘common methodologies, techniques and principles’ could be pursued. One wildlife ecologist noted he had been ‘trained to deal only with quantitative data’. Helpful social scientists had to be willing to ‘work with large sample sizes and spatial scales’. A field ecologist considered that the ‘qualitative nature of much social science does not easily lend itself to integration with ecological models’. For many, but not all, economics was seen to fit the bill. Economists were seen to have ‘much in common with ecologists – i.e. they are quantitative, they develop models, they are predictive and they can be experimental’. A few respondents ascribed similar attributes to psychologists.

Philosophical divides – some running through ecology itself – also influenced choice of partners. Comparing ecology and various social sciences, reference was made to ‘different ways of conceptualizing and studying things’ and contrasting ‘research paradigms’. A community ecologist considered their own ‘hypothetic-deductive approach’ to be ‘quite alien’ to those social scientists adopting more inductive perspectives. In contrast, an applied ecologist said that he was ‘used to field situations where experimentation/manipulation is difficult and so I am prepared to believe that useful science can be done without recourse solely to hypothesis-testing methodology’. A related divide concerned the choice between ‘reductionist’ and ‘holistic’ approaches. A spatial ecologist considered ‘links are easiest to the more “reductionist” and quantitative social scientists (certain economists, certain social psychologists) than the more “holistic” and qualitative ones’. In contrast, another respondent argued that ‘ecology as a subject concerns interactions of organisms and systems that are tightly or loosely coupled – social scientists have similar issues, trying to understand systems that cannot easily be confined to simple equations or hypotheses, and may not be amenable to experiment’.

Working through methodological and philosophical differences was generally seen to be essential to successful interdisciplinary collaboration. That required significant time and commitment. Whilst some of the ecologists were impatient with what they regarded as too much navel gazing, others saw achieving mutual understanding between different scientific perspectives as the great goal of interdisciplinarity. One landscape ecologist, for example, commented that while quantitative social science disciplines could be easier to work with, collaboration with qualitative social science was ‘much more exciting and challenging’.

Social scientists were thus also sought as partners because they specifically brought contrasting and complementary perspectives. Not only did they offer expertise in addressing social dimensions, but also alternative forms of interpretation and judgment. Social anthropologists and sociologists were for example considered by one respondent to be ‘open to adding ecological findings to help explain their findings or in framing new work’. Some social sciences, however, were seen to present too much of a totalizing perspective. Here economics (but also anthropology and political science) came in for most criticism. An ecological modeller found working with economists methodologically easier, but more difficult in other respects ‘due to their conviction that the whole world is subservient to economics’.

Introducing the papers

The papers in this Special Profile reveal much about the challenges and opportunities surrounding the development of shared understanding and common analytical techniques for interdisciplinary collaboration. They display different methods and approaches in dealing with the socio-ecological systems under study. These systems range from individual fields and farms to geographical clusters of organic enterprises and to whole landscapes (floodplains, open moorland, etc.).

The authors span ecology and a range of social sciences. Although they cross over qualitative and quantitative social science methods, most include some forms of quantitative social science, with all but three of the papers involving economists. The choice of social science partners relates to the role that they are playing in the research: for example, economics for economic modelling and valuation (Rouquette et al. 2009); human geography for spatial analysis (Haughton et al. 2009); and sociology/social anthropology for elucidating stakeholder preferences and knowledge (Irvine et al. 2009).

The challenges and opportunities of developing common analytical methods between social science and applied ecology, are featured in several papers. Regression analysis, for example, is the most commonly used technique for empirical analysis of land management in both economics and ecology, and Armsworth et al. (2009) discuss its potential to act as an analytical bridge between the disciplines. Regression models can potentially provide an organizing framework for interdisciplinary research by requiring researchers to be explicit about variables of interest, sources of uncertainty and directions of causality. Armsworth et al. explore culturally specific practices in the way regression analysis is used between the two disciplines, including which assumptions are typically foregrounded for testing and those which are taken for granted. These differences can inhibit collaboration if not mutually understood. They arise largely because of the stronger spatial orientation of ecology compared with economics’ greater temporal orientation. Ecology is also more inductive, whereas economics is more inclined to assume a priori that certain factors are exogenous or endogenous to the system under study. This goes to the heart of all the social sciences which are concerned with elucidating the limits and extent of human agency. Ecologists in interdisciplinary work are drawn into such debates as they redefine, with social scientists, the place of humans in nature.

Several papers focus particularly on the modelling of coupled human–natural systems. A major effort is required to combine ecological and social science models. This calls for a common understanding between ecologists and social scientists of their respective methods. Cooke et al. (2009) provide a first step in elucidating a common taxonomy of approaches that have been used to integrate quantitatively socio-economic and ecological factors, with different approaches adopted depending upon the scale at which human welfare is quantified. Chapman et al. (2009) provide an example of a combined model of the interacting dynamics of moorland vegetation and decisions about its management that could be used to simulate long-term responses to policy or environmental changes. In taking modelling forward, there needs to be an explicit linking of policy decisions to resulting human actions and the effects on ecological processes and ecological and societal outcomes. The links between these are not straightforward, especially as human behaviours are not always (economically) rational. Nor does policy necessarily lead to the desired actions (Chapman et al. 2009; Dallimer et al. 2009).

The concept of ecosystem services is addressed either explicitly (Rouquette et al. 2009) or implicitly in all the papers. This potentially allows the translation of ecological data into economic or cultural values. A feature of the collection is to introduce social science perspectives on societal values from within and beyond economics (Dallimer et al. 2009; Haughton et al. 2009; Irvine et al. 2009; Rouquette et al. 2009). Not all cultural and human values are reducible to monetary terms. We sensibly resist the intrusion of market logics into vital areas of our lives and existence. Non-economic social sciences offer other ways of ordering and understanding these values and preferences. They may be particularly helpful in conditions of great contention or uncertainty, or where the value judgements needed are far removed from market idioms.

Fundamentally, the papers also explore the multiple roles of humans in applied ecology; both not only effecting and being affected by environmental change, but also being actors in the science itself. Lowe et al. (2009) review the ways in which ecologists construe and incorporate the human dimension in their research. Their strategies span engagement of stakeholders, enlargement of ecology as a life science, and active exchange with social sciences, with each posing specific challenges for ecology.

The underpinning concept of applied ecology is that humans are the major drivers of change in many ecological systems. However, this is an interactive and reciprocal process with human actions shaped and prompted by perceived changes in system state (Chapman et al. 2009). Koerber et al. (2009) provide refined spatial and temporal detail of the carbon fluxes in arable and upland systems and show how management can be modified to respond to increased carbon outputs. New farming approaches such as biomass crops and organic farming are designed to address environmental degradation. In papers by Haughton et al. (2009) and Gabriel et al. (2009), we see how their patterns of adoption, resulting from complex interactions between environmental conditions and socio-economic determinants, may lead to spatial aggregations of new farming approaches, with landscape-wide effects on biodiversity.

Subsequent papers in this Special Profile demonstrate the use of human knowledge in understanding environmental change. Dallimer et al. (2009) show that the causes of change are often hard to attribute. Analyses of how farming and vegetative systems have co-evolved in the British uplands depend upon an incomplete historical record, and stakeholders’ recollections can add crucial information that enhances ecological analysis. The knowledge of deer managers with no formal scientific training is also found by Irvine et al. (2009) to increase the accuracy of deer distribution models. The papers explore the challenges and opportunities that stakeholder expertise presents in dealing with questions of uncertainty and scale. They also show how stakeholder knowledge can be elicited by presenting the results of ecological analyses or the implications of management options using models or spatial mapping software (see Gabriel et al. 2009; Haughton et al. 2009; Irvine et al. 2009).

Finally, the papers recognize the subjectivity of environmental management aims. Applied ecologists tend to assume that public aims, such as the UK Biodiversity Action Plan, are fixed and objective and enjoy unquestioning support, when in fact they are aspirational, and their implementation may be contentious and involve much negotiation. Dallimer et al. (2009) emphasize the need for knowledge and understanding of baseline states to allow setting of realistic targets. Conflicts can arise, for example in the contrast between the aims of returning systems to some historical state (e.g. pre-Industrial Revolution) versus an idealized state reflecting no human intervention. Some concept of biodiversity increase is often an aim, but there are many ways of measuring this. Haughton et al. (2009) show how stakeholder concerns should be considered when deciding a measure. In assessing impacts of biomass crops, they find butterflies to be more appropriate than the standard farmland bird indicator. Rouquette et al. (2009) address this issue, contrasting approaches to evaluating floodplain management based on predefined priorities, stakeholder preferences or monetary value. Their study demonstrates broadly congruent outcomes among these methods; thus, added complexity need not result in confusion.

Ecologists often state that they are simply providing research to inform science-based decisions by politicians and end-users. This Special Profile demonstrates the ill-founded nature of this view. The context of human society dictates the questions posed, the approaches used to address them and the types of answers which are required of applied ecologists. A greater appreciation of this, coupled with an enthusiastic integration with social science, can greatly assist in making applied ecology truly applied.


RELU is a collaboration between the Economic and Social Research Council, the Natural Environment Research Council and the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council, with additional funding from Defra and the Scottish Government. Thanks to Geoff Whitman, Gary Bosworth and Marian Raley for their assistance with the survey.