Historical Foundations for Environmental Sociology: Environment, Nature, and Ecology in “Ecological” Sociology

Joshua Silver, University of Chicago

Recent approaches to the environmental social sciences have cast themselves as overcoming previously impassable society-nature (Moore 2015)(Latour 2004, 2005)(Chakrabarty 2009) binaries. Many of these insurgent theoretical formations make dualism-spanning moves similar in kind to previous admirable attempts to move beyond so-called Human Exemptionalist Paradigms in the social sciences (Catton and Dunlap 1978). However, as scholars such as Alexandrescu (2009), Gross (1999, 2002, 2004), Foster and Holleman (2012), and Foster (1999) have ably shown, previous generations of sociologists grappled with the ontological relationship between humanity and non-human forms of “nature” on several theoretical lines, including within the sociological mainstream. Though insurgent theoretical formations are often productive in setting new agendas, rupture-declaring interventions may have the unfortunate effect of asserting theoretical, epistemological, and institutional distance with previous periods that are in many ways continuous with our own. This outcome is most striking when we consider that previous critical theoretical perspectives engaging with the environment through ecological theory, though not explicitly in the “critical theory” tradition, often emerged from colonial peripheries and other social positions that may be productive of particularly informed perspectives on the mutual constitution of humanity and nature (Mukerjee 1926)(Du Bois 1903). I argue that many of the principal contemporary arguments made against previous “exemptionalist” social scientific approaches existed within earlier periods, and we would benefit from engaging with them directly rather than re-asserting our own privileged presentist perspective, stimulated as it is by our awareness of anthropogenic climate change. In this theory paper, I first track the explicitly environmental use of ecological concepts in sociology during three periods (Turn of the Century – WWII, Post-War – 1978, and our contemporary period). Second, I focus on the epistemic and textual practices by which researchers generated ecological knowledge and formed boundaries between various “ecological” schools with distinct problematics and epistemological foundations.

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 Presented in Session 88. Environment, Society and Social Theory: Critical Conversations in Historical Sociology