How can social ecology benefit from political ecology and vice versa? An international two-day online workshop organized by ISOE researchers offered the opportunity for dialogue between these neighbouring research fields. What role do more-than-human entities such as plants, animals, rivers, resources, geomorphological formations and things play in conflict analysis? This was the overarching question of the session, which linked the concept of social-ecological systems with approaches of environmental justice, resistance and politics. In addition, the question, “What happens when theoretical claims of political ecology meet practical problems in transdisciplinary, social-ecological projects?” invited to reflect on power asymmetries in everyday research.
A Workshop that brings social ecology and political ecology into dialogue
Rrecently, researchers from ISOE – Institute for Social-Ecological Research in Frankfurt/Germany created a POLLEN (Political Ecology Network) node. We have taken this and the originally planned, but now postponed POLLEN conference as an opportunity to bring the research fields of social ecology as well as political ecology into dialogue. After all, both research fields make an important case for disturbed nature-society relations. While political ecology looks at power relations, resistance, conflict and social movements to understand injustices and change, social ecology explores how to make the relationships between society and nature more sustainable, for example with its research on everyday practices.
Against this backdrop, a workshop seemed a superb opportunity to discuss our latest thoughts on the role of more-than-human entities in environmental conflicts as well as discuss our ongoing reflections on power asymmetries, which we observe in our transdisciplinary research projects.
Researching social-ecological conflicts – Bringing non-human entities into the analysis
In one session of the workshop, the following, still innovatory question was addressed: “what do gold, guns, yellow perch and dairy cattle have in common?” In environmental conflicts, they are all referred to as non-human entities (Bennet 2018; Evans/Adams 2018; Ivars et al. 2021; Ocakli/Niewöhner 2022; Pugliese 2020). So what does it mean when these entities cease to be mere objects and become subjects and thus active agents in environmental conflicts?
Political ecology is certainly an important field of research when it comes to resolving environmental conflicts using the concepts of environmental justice and resistance. However, analysis is often limited to the social dimensions of these conflicts. Only recently have some authors of political ecology begun to consider the more-than-human entities in their analysis, taking up contemporary debates on new materialism and ontological questions. Some of them, including ourselves, were participants in the workshop. At the same time, social ecology has developed terms, concepts and models of nature-society relations, that can help extend the analysis of environmental conflicts beyond their social on to their natural dimension.
Using the example of soy, livestock, fish, gold, and weapons as examples of more-than-human entities in conflicts, it became obvious that it is first of all necessary to consider their role and impact in order to gain a profound understanding of environmental conflicts. Secondly, that conflict resolution can be supported by making those roles and affects a visible and tangible component of the situation that encourages thinking more carefully about materiality, nature and networks.
Yet, rethinking the role of more-than-human entities is not an easy task. The active participation of more-than-human entities in conflicts raises conceptual and methodological challenges as analysis becomes (even) more complex: Societal actors, more-than-human entities, as well as societal and natural processes and structures all need to be considered simultaneously. This calls for new terms, concepts and methods, a point that was also included in the final remarks of the workshop session. Finding a systematic conceptual approach while acknowledging the necessary diversity would be an important step to develop this field of research.
Synergy or contrast? When the theoretical assumptions of political ecology meet practical transdisciplinary problems in social-ecological research projects.
Addressing crises in societal relations to nature requires the co-creation of knowledge among multiple scientific disciplines and practitioners. This collaboration – from problem definition to deriving conclusions – is an essential component of transdisciplinary research. Crises in societal relations with nature are often associated with power imbalances and frequently involve controversies. Political ecology provides an enriching conceptual framework for systematically illuminating these power asymmetries, as well as differences in the distribution of the causes and effects of environmental change. Critical analyses provide key insights as to how power relations reproduce crises in societal relations with nature, but solution-oriented conclusions are rarely drawn. Here, it seems promising to link the perspective of political ecology with that of applied research and of practitioners. However, this raises conceptual as well as methodological questions in everyday research, as the workshop contributions showed by raising the following questions: How can power imbalances in participation and integration processes be avoided? What happens when the research subject (as an actor in the network of power) is at the same time a research partner? What if theoretical claims collide with the pragmatism of everyday work? How can the dual role of a researcher as a scientific analyst of power imbalances and as a transdisciplinary researcher who moderates and manages processes of knowledge integration and collaborative problem solving be managed? Unfortunately, the outcome of our workshop is not an easily implementable guideline. Rather, the answers were as individual as the contexts themselves: But still, there were some key concepts that appeared throughout all of the presentations like for instance critical attention, constant self-reflection, transparency and communication. However, even if one exhausts all possibilities, it remains a challenge to find a good balance between entering and leaving power-laden transdisciplinary research settings, as one participant concluded.
So, should political ecology become more transdisciplinary or should transdisciplinary research deepen the theoretical claims of political ecology? Undoubtedly a tricky question to which we do not have a conclusive answer. However, to briefly pick up the common themes, political ecology emphasizes the need to consider the following aspects in transdisciplinary research: One should know exactly why a particular research is being conducted, one should be transparent about the goals of participatory processes, one should think about which questions are being asked and which are not, one should clarify whose knowledge is being integrated, and one should be clear about the different roles that the different actors-including us as researchers-have in the research process.
And vice versa? Within political ecology, voices are being raised calling for a reorientation of political ecology research. In a nutshell, political ecology is no longer limited to criticism but goes beyond in order to make a difference. This new approach virtually demands transdisciplinary approaches. What comes up remains to be seen.
In summary, we can say that the intensive discussions have definitely brought us new perspective and insights. These include, for example: A dialogue between political ecology and social ecology contributes to a better understanding of the crisis relations between society and nature, enriching social-ecological transdisciplinary research. But it is also clear that our workshop can only be the first step in working out synergies and contrasts between political ecology and social ecology. We would be very pleased if this contribution would inspire others to become part of this discussion.
Bibliography and further readings [in bold articles by participants]
Bennett, Julia (2018): Whose Place Is This Anyway? An Actor-Network Theory Exploration of a Conservation Conflict. Space and Culture 21 (2), 159–169
Bojovic, Milena/Andrew McGregor (2022): A review of megatrends in the global dairy sector: what are the socioecological implications? Agriculture and Human Values https://doi.org/10.1007/s10460-022-10338-x
Evans, Lauren A./William M. Adams (2018): Elephants as actors in the political ecology of human-elephant conflict. Transactions of the Institute of British Geographers 43 (4), 630–645
Hsiao, Elaine (Lan Yin)/Philippe Le Billon (2021): Connecting Peaces: Transboundary Conservation and the Integration of International, Social, and Ecological Peace, International Journal on World Peace, 38 (1), 7–40 https://www.academia.edu/49108063/CONNECTING_PEACES_TBCAs_and_the_INTEGRATION_OF_INTERNATIONAL_SOCIAL_AND_ECOLOGICAL_PEACE
Hsiao, Elaine (Lan Yin) (2022): Conviviality in disrupted socionatural landscapes: ecological peacebuilding around Akagera National Park, Conservation and Society, 20 (2), 79–91
Ivars, Benoit/Charles-Robin Gruel/Jean-Philippe Venot/The Ngone Oo (2021): Slippery land, ever-shifting boundaries: claiming and accessing alluvial (is)lands in the Ayeyarwady Delta, Myanmar. Journal of Political ecology 28 (1)
Kollnig, Sarah (2022): ‚Crossing Boundaries for Sustainable Development‘, Forum: Discussing international education, vol. 2022, no. Summer, 36-38 https://www.eaie.org/our-resources/library/publication/Forum-Magazine/2022-summer-forum.html
Latour, Bruno (2005): Reassembling the Social: An Introduction to Actor-Network Theory. Oxford University Press
Lévesque, Ann/Jérôme Dupras/Jean-François Bissonnette (2020): The pitchfork or the fishhook: a multi-stakeholder perspective towards intensive farming in floodplains. Journal of Environmental Planning and Management 63 (11), 1987–2003
Ocakli, Beril/Jörg Niewöhner (2022): Making and unmaking gold as a resource. Resistant socionatures in Maidan, Kyrgyzstan. Geoforum, 131, 151–162 https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/abs/pii/S001671852200063X
Ocaklı, Beril/Tobias Krueger/Marco A. Janssen/Ulan Kasymov (2021): Taking the discourse seriously: Rational self-interest and resistance to mining in Kyrgyzstan, Ecological Economics, 189, 107177 https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/abs/pii/S0921800921002354
Pugliese, Joseph (2020): Biopolitics of the More-Than-Human: Forensic Ecologies of Violence. Duke University Press
Rauchecker, Markus (2021): Transgenic soy as a political crop and a resistance crop in Argentina – The struggle around control and rent appropriation between the state, seed corporations and soy farmers. Geoforum, 130, 123-135. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.geoforum.2021.09.002
Scheidel, Arnim/Leah Temper/Federico Demaria/Joan Martínez‑Alier (2018): Correction to: Ecological distribution conflicts as forces for sustainability: an overview and conceptual framework. Sustainability Science, 13 1195 https://doi.org/10.1007/s11625-017-0526-1
Scheidel, Arnim/Daniela Del Bene/Juan Liu/Grettel Navas/Sara Mingorría/Federico Demaria/Sofía Avila/Brototi Roy/Irmak Ertör/Leah Temper/Joan Martínez-Alier (2020): Environmental conflicts and defenders: A global overview, Global Environmental Change, 63, 102104 https://doi.org/10.1016/j.gloenvcha.2020.102104
Turra, Héctor/Valeria Carrasco et al., (2019): Flipped classroom experiences and their impact on engineering students’ attitudes towards university-level mathematics, Higher Education Pedagogies, 4 (1) https://doi.org/10.1080/23752696.2019.1644963
van der Hoeven, Sara (2021): Guns and Conservation: Protecting Wildlife and Ensuring “Peace and Security” in Northern Kenya, Mambo!, XVIII, 2021 https://mambo.hypotheses.org/3043
List of contributions [affiliation only of first author as presenting author, listing according chronology of workshop presentations]
Session: Researching social-ecological conflicts – Bringing non-human entities into the analysis
Rauchecker, Markus, Thomas Fickel, David Kuhn and Diana Hummel: A conceptual approach to social-ecological conflict analysis; ISOE – Institute for Social-Ecological Research Frankfurt, Germany
Bojovic, Milena: Multispecies Justice in transitions studies: A case study of the dairy industry in Aotearoa, New Zealand; School of Social Sciences, Faculty of Arts at Macquarie University, Sydney
Lévesque, Ann, Jean-François Bissonnette, Timothée Fouqueray and Jérôme Dupras: The „right-to-farm“ in floodplains: framing processes of collective action in a conservation conflict context;Département des sciences naturelles, Université du Québec en Outaouais, Gatineau, Canada
Ocaklı, Beril, Jörg Niewöhner: Making and unmaking gold as a resource. Resistant socionatures in Maidan, Kyrgyzstan; Centre for East European and International Studies, Berlin/Germany
Scheidel, Arnim, Juan Liu, Daniela Del Bene, Sara Mingorria and Sergio Villamayor-Tomas: Which role plays ecology in the co-production of contentious actions and politics? Institute of Environmental Science and Technology, Universitat Autónoma de Barcelona (IC-TA-UAB), Spain
van der Hoeven, Sara: The weaponisation of wildlife conservancies: studying guns; School of Global Studies, University of Gothenburg, Sweden
Hsiao, Elaine (Lan Yin): Peace Theory in a More-Than-Human World; School of Peace and Conflict Studies, Kent State University, USA
Session: Synergy or contrast? When Political ecology theoretical claims meet practical transdisciplinary challenges in Social-Ecological research Projects
Kollnig, Sarah: From ideals to reality: The challenges and opportunities of being a political ecologist in an engineering context; University of Leoben, Austria
Turra, Hector, Mónica Clavijo-Romero, Andres Fernández, Samantha Ishak, Jaime Alvaro Paredes Paez, Ana Watson: Early-career scholars’ challenges and reflections on transdisciplinary training and practices for conservation in Latin America; University of Calgary, Canada
Frick-Trzebitzky, Fanny, David Kuhn: Visible and invisible power relations in studying groundwater: reflections from transdisciplinary research on groundwater; ISOE – Institute for Social-Ecological Research, Frankfurt, Germany
 Besides the term ‚more-than-human-entities‘ i.A. ‘non-human entities’ is common, too. We use them here interchangeably, though the connotation is slightly different.
 4th biennial conference of the Political ecology Netwrk ‘Political ecology: North, South and Beyond’, planned 28-30 June 2022, Durban South Africa, https://politicalecologynetwork.org/pollen-biannual-conference/
 For more-than-human agency see i.A. Latour 2005: Reassembling the Social: An Introduction to Actor-Network Theory