Building constructive engagements between social science and conservation

One of the hardest things to do as academic researchers is to conduct genuine interdisciplinary research that reaches across and engages with practitioners who are trying to put into practice things that you write about. This is especially true when studying conservation from a critical perspective.

There is a rich literature now on the social science of conservation, but we have, for different reasons not always found it particularly satisfactory. On the one hand, Peter Bille Larsen, working in both conservation and social anthropology, has long sought to bridge the gap between conservation anthropology from within with the growing body of critical scholarship on NGOs from the outside. On his part I, as a career social scientist, could spend a fair bit of time only writing about the social science of conservationists, for other social scientists, who would likely engage thoroughly and rewardingly with the whole enterprise. But the rather voluminous body of work resulting is unlikely to have much purchase on the conservation movement about which he writes. Social scientists can create echo chambers as well as anyone. But, ultimately being in such an echo chamber, is not particularly satisfactory.

In order to address these satisfactions we have recently published an edited collection The Anthropology of Conservation NGOs: rethinking the boundaries which brings together several years of thinking and writing about conservation practices. The book argues broadly for an anthropology of conservation NGOs, which moves beyond stereotypes of NGOs forms and action, on the one hand, and brings together multiple voices, on the other hand. It calls for more empirical study of conservation organizations as boundary organizations constantly expanding, or being challenged around, the boundaries of action through multiple forms of engagement with the state and market forces.

Structured around a series of chapters, written by scholars from multiple disciplinary perspectives, the book combines new articles with previously published papers. But, crucially, this collection is different from others in that it also includes a series of short essays in which different observers, academics and practitioners, reflect on these contributions. Commentators were given free reign to do so with no editorial control. It was, on other words, an attempt to create and nurture the dialogue and exchange of ideas that we were missing.

However, a book that is not read or discussed will hardly provoke much dialogue. It needs to be opened, challenged and disagreed with. The invitation from Bhaskar Vira, one of the contributors, to present the book in Cambridge was therefore welcome. We were privileged to launch this collection in the recently-completed David Attenborough Building which houses 10 different conservation NGOs, including the University of Cambridge Conservation Research Institute (which Bhaskar directs). It is a hive of conservation activity and thinking about conservation, and indeed an important space for dialogue. It would be difficult to find a better place to start the conversation we sought.

It was still rather daunting. When your own words about conservation NGOs which seemed perfectly right at the time of writing are read back to you in front of an audience of conservation NGO professionals, it necessarily prompts new questions and reflexive interrogation. Echo chambers suddenly seemed a good idea.

The three discussants who presented their thoughts about the book produced an effective mix of critique and engagement required for the engagement we sought. They paid a number of compliments to the collection, but we will not detain you with them (you can hear them on the podcast of the launch). In addition, they suggested a number of ways that this conversation could become more engaging.

Bill Adams (Cambridge University) took the lead by observing that conservation is a social phenomenon and so required the skills of social science and disciplines like anthropology to understand its decision making, beliefs and social consequences. He also observed that to be done really well this work required empathy – which he found rather lacking in this collection. His telling analogy was that Richard Dawkins (a British TV presenter famous for his atheism) could probably produce a wonderful documentary about the Catholic Church, but, while it would likely be incisive, it would be unlikely to help us understand why Catholics were Catholic. There is an intimacy to good social science which is not yet well demonstrated.

Jo Elliot (Flora and Fauna International) also welcomed the contribution of this book and its search for a constructive middle-ground. She argued that conservation NGOs have been doing effective social change for some time (in CAMPFIRE programmes, land titling exercises, and natural resource management schemes), which deserved more attention alongside revisiting the changing funding conditions of NGOs. Critiques need to recognise more of the achievements of existing work and engage much more with the specific kinds of social science questions prompted.

David Gibbons (RSPB), took issue with the language and conclusions of chapters emphasizing the emergence of neoliberalism in conservation. He could not recognise himself as the neoliberal operator that the parts of the book describes. Descriptions did not seem to capture the tasks with which he was faced on a daily basis. While at the same time he wanted to celebrate the funding successes of a growing conservation movement, its engagement with the private sector and use of market instruments to pursue conservation goals. He was missing the top ten ideas to make things better and called for more solutions from the social sciences.

These instructions to be more empathetic, better observers and to get better empirical data are all well taken. The call for more social science involvement in building conservation solutions is equally acknowledged. They imply, and this is particularly welcome, that the contribution of this collection is a step in the right direction because we need to do more of this work.

At the same time we recognise that this will be hard to do. Many are trying to, and have been for years. Bill Adams has been producing empathetic, well grounded, closely observed and engaged critiques since the start of his career. These are too numerous to list but selected books include Trade-offs in Conservation, Future Nature, Against Extinction and Transtion to Sustainability and there are many papers too. Likewise anthropologists like Peter Brosius and Paige West. The conversation in this sense may feel a bit like repetition for some of the protagonists, yet it is also clear that both conservation discourses and realities continue to prompt new questions not merely of a problem-solving nature, but equally so about the social, political and ecological effects of conservation NGO action. We can only really start grasping these complex realities in detail by working together, even if it may generate the occasional friction and disagreement. This is part of the condition of working across disciplines and professional boundaries.

We continually have to get used to each other, and repeat the experience of doing so until we are. On the 14th of December the debate continues in Geneva through the Geneva Environmental Network. Stay tuned.

This blog first appeared on the SIID site here.

A panel discussion of the book at the WWF and IUCN headquarters in Gland, Switzerland, is available here.





About Dan Brockington

Researcher at the Universitat Autònoma de Barcelona.
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