Reply To: April 28th Science, Society, and Power

Author Replies # Posted on April 29, 2014 at 09:47

James Fairhead’s short lecture this morning nicely complemented Fairhead and Leach’s book, Science, Society and Power. During the seminar I focused on question three, which dealt in part with how popular concepts can impact academic environmental discourse.

In particular I found Fairhead’s account of the process of investigating the historical record and categorization of landscape in Guinea very pertinent to this question. The inspiration for his future academic inquiries was found in the misleading description of forest growth in Guinea. How I understood part of his conclusion was that after further investigation into the matter, Fairhead established that the decolonization of nature had never occurred, thus decades of ‘scientific’ conclusions had been made on a colonial ideological foundation. I felt that this example highlighted two aspects to me: the power behind the idea of science as objective, and the discursive manner in which politics and society actually seem to infuse institutional science.

As Fairhead mentioned, his work lead him away from a concrete investigation of land use in West Africa and instead made him question the power structures that are involved with this type of science and ecology, in particular his area of study to do with forestry. What he wound up with is his collaborated work, Science, Society and Power. Fairhead mentioned that it was a difficult book to write, and I reflected that much while reading it, as the different layers one had to dig through; the institutions, funding agencies, government bureaus, academic settings, and so forth created a very entangled web.

The seminar and readings also reminded me of Steve Hinchliffe and his book, The Geographies of Nature. Just as Fairhead attributed the misreading of the Guinean landscape to a science steeped in colonialism, Hinchliffe draws his readers attention to the social and political influences on Charles Darwin, and how those may have contributed to his scientific conclusions. This idea of science as objective is a dangerous one, as it gives a free pass to some conclusions as long as they are based on science, or in more extreme cases, even pseudoscience. While politics within institutions are to some extent a given, and issues over finance and funding, it is possible for more subtle cultural ideas to also influence scientific contributions.