Problems of Scale, Problems of Semantics

Discussion in 650 last week following the usual seminars turned into an examination of what I see as two major problems with environmental research: size of scale, and the generalizing tendency of multi-disciplinary studies. The first was discussed in class; the second is my own addition. Discussion was based on two seminars and subsequent articles by the seminar speakers: Dr. Soskolne, an epidemiologist concerned with human health as a result of environmental degradation, and Dr. Line Gordon, a researcher from the Stockholm Resilience Centre, pursuing work on agriculture and hydrology. Both researchers are working on projects of global-scale, and this is problematic – namely because the sample population, community, ecosystem, or other unit of study is actually too big to measure with detail or precision; focusing on a small-scale area and expanding the data to reach global proportions is not effective, either. Dr. Soskolne’s article (with others), “Toward Measuring the Impact of Ecological Disintegrity on Human Health” (Epidemiology 12 (1) 2001) most effectively demonstrated the near-impossibility of such endeavours, as the authors’ hypothesis did not match quantitative results, but was assumed to be proven true anyway.
This problem of scale also rears its ugly head in my own field of study: cultural anthropology. In fact, it has become a critical point in the field, and the subject of constant discussion and publication. It stems out of the difficulties with defining the boundaries of a specific culture or cultural group in an era of globalizing modernity. Some anthropologists turn instead to words like “flows,” “hybrids,” and “cosmopolitanism,” in order to explain the changes facing minority groups as a result of the extensive reach of a global economy and its political and social effects. But such words are metaphorical, tentative notions, and in the long-run, ambiguous, and thus open to contestation equal to that of “scale.”
The environmental justice movement is an example of the problem of scale. This movement was borne out of the idea of “environmental racism,” as coined by Reverend Benjamin Chavis, of the United Church of Christ Commission for Racial Justice in 1981. The term refers to the intentional or institutional racism expressed via the high tendency for toxic waste disposal sites and other polluting industries to be built in minority or coloured communities. The concept has expanded globally, but has taken on a different form, and more generally refers to the idea that neighbourhoods suffering the most intense pollution are the poorest areas. This now also includes the idea that countries of the global North frequently situate their industrial plants in the global South, thus forcing the developing world to bear the brunt of the developed world’s consumption. Concepts of environmental justice and injustice encompass different social processes, and can mean quite different things at different geographic scales. Such scalar ambiguity poses serious challenges for environmental justice theorists and activists working to solve social disparities which may be experienced in local pockets, small communities, but which may originate at larger scales of political and economic decision-making force.
The example of environmental justice plays aptly into the seminars which form the basis of this blog post, as both researchers were dealing directly with the effects of global issues on discrete communities and cities. But I pinpoint a second problem which is not as applicable: the problems with multi-disciplinary studies. This is a brief, albeit significant issue.
Advocates of multidisciplinary studies and collaborations argue that it is limiting to approach studies of global importance, such as environmental degradation, from only one perspective – that it is more productive and obviously beneficial to have anthropologists, ecologists, epidemiologists, and so on, to contribute to one body of knowledge; this ensures, supposedly, that no actors or factors are left out of an equation which could eventually equal formal and effective policy. I firmly believe that a number of varying voices can only lead to positive contributions to knowledge. But the problem I have noticed with this idea is that the people contributing to multi-disciplinary studies seem to possess a limited understanding of whatever field is not theirs; anthropologists tend to generalize about what ecology is, and epidemiologists tend not to understand the aims of anthropology. I realize this is a grandiose claim, but I am documenting a trend, not a rule. And indeed these are inevitable divisions and disparities, but important ones, as they can lead to erroneous research. Thus I posit that rather than encouraging multi-disciplinary studies, we should more actively promote trans-disciplinary studies – studies that supersede faculties, and therefore do away with the need to categorize specific departments or labeling contributors and risk classifying either incorrectly. Perhaps this boils down to a problem of semantics, but I think it a necessary distinction.

2 Responses to “Problems of Scale, Problems of Semantics”

  1. merle says:

    Just a thought on the problem of scale for environmental justice:
    I think that Culture Kid is right to say that the concept of “environmental justice” is quite ambiguous and can be used to refer to many issues. Not only does the concept of “environment” is hard to define and seems to refer to something more or less precise as long as we don’t focus on it and do not try to define it, but the same is also true (if not even more) of the concept of “justice”. But nonetheless, I think that most persons agree that these concepts are useful and maybe even because, not in spite of, their ambiguity.
    Contrary to what Culture Kid said, I think that their ambiguity, once recognized, may help to connect issues happening simultaneously or consequently at different scales. Recognizing that issues of “environmental justice” do happen at the local and global scales, in different contexts and affecting different actors, whether they are discriminated against for racial or sexist questions, or for questions of wealth or classes, may help realize that those issues are in fact interconnected and should therefore not only be examined in isolation. To show this interconnection by regrouping all those cases under one concept, it might be necessary to have some ambiguous and very broad concepts like “environmental justice”.

  2. Jones says:

    I’d like to add a comment to Merle’s train of thought. Though ambiguous concepts may lead to positive action, I am inclined to think the opposite is more likely – ambiguous concepts facilitating negative actions. For example, a whole host of ambiguous concepts have been invoked by politicians, corporate executives and policy-makers in general, to justify decisions with extremely negative consequences. Think of ‘sustainability’, ‘justice’, ‘freedom’, ‘liberty’, ‘democracy’. Now think of all the harm that has been done in the name of these concepts. Why? I think because people, when a concept is highly ambiguous, can define it anyway that they like, using it to achieve a desired end, regardless if that end is ultimately harmful or not.