Situated Research

Good research could go a long way toward addressing environmental issues. But what is good environmental research? It’s common to hear environmental thinkers call for an integrative, interdisciplinary scholarly approach spanning the natural sciences, social sciences, and humanities. Disciplines generally excel in systematic work, but what is needed is something far more synthetic. Yet it’s much easier to see the need for interdisciplinary research than to do it well.

Our SGE initiative offers a particular answer to the interdisciplinary environmental challenge: get situated! There are many ways to provide a geographically situated context to an environmental topic; here are a few possible contexts.

For any of the above, situated inquiry could be located in one site, or could involve comparisons or connections between multiple sites. The latter is particularly relevant to our approach in ENVS given our emphasis on networks and connections.

Simple Cmap suggesting how situated research spans nature/culture and the local/global

Now let’s consider the situated approach in a broader way. In our initiative, situated research brings environmental issues into a geographical lens, examining a range of processes and perspectives at multiple temporal and spatial scales as they bear on a particular location, region, or network of locations. Situated research offers a real-world context for interdisciplinary environmental research; the broad situated themes and specific research projects featured on this website demonstrate a variety of situated studies.

The above may just sound like doing local case studies, but the theory behind situated research suggests something far different. In brief, the situated approach spans two major intellectual divides:

  • The nature/culture divide, for instance that between the sciences and the humanities; and
  • The global/local divide, for instance that between research focusing on generalizable laws vs. particular details

These two divides, if unaddressed, pose a real challenge to good environmental research, since environmental issues mix biophysical and human processes and a wide range of scales. Below is some background theory on these two divides and ways we can address them in situated research.

Figure 1.1 (p. 11) from We Have Never Been Modern (Harvard, 1993)

One scholar who has long commented on the nature/culture (as well as global/local) divide is Bruno Latour. In Latour’s classic work, We Have Never Been Modern, he argues that reality is much more mixed up than we want to admit. In fact, the more mixed up things get (what he calls “translation” in this diagram [Figure 1.1] from the book), the more we keep insisting on keeping them conceptually separate (what he calls “purification”). Latour uses environmental issues as the book’s first example of translation: “On page four of my daily newspaper, I learn that the [ozone] measurements taken above the Antarctic are not good this year.…the same article mixes together chemical reactions and political reactions…dangers on a global scale and the impending local elections” (p. 1). Latour’s work has situated environmental issues via focused transdisciplinary approaches such as actor-network theory or ANT.

Figure 1 (p. 97) from Place, Modernity, and the Consumer’s World (Johns Hopkins, 1992)

Many geographers practice situated research as it arises from their concept of place. To geographers, place means much more than the local; in fact, it addresses the global/local divide as well as the nature/culture divide. As one example, geographer Robert Sack produced the diagram at the right to suggest how place mixes together processes (“forces”) related to nature, social relations, and meaning (analyzed by the natural sciences, social sciences, and humanities, respectively), as well as perspectives including the view from somewhere (highly contextual and local) to the view from nowhere (more “objective” and global). Situated (or place-based) research to geographers thus offers a way to approach environmental issues that blends disciplinary skills and a range of scales. To a geographer, the environmental mantra could be “think glocally, act glocally,” as the two perspectives come into dialogue in any given place.