Alongside Deborah Coen’s essay on the history of climatology, we republish an article from the Items archive from 1956 on what was then a still emergent field of the history and sociology of science. Written by Richard Shryock, the chair of a joint committee of the SSRC and the National Research Council on the History of Science, the essay explores historical connections between the development of the medical and social sciences. The Committee’s work culminated in the volume Critical Problems in the History of Science, edited by Marshall Clagett.
From Our Archives
In this archive piece from 1992, Joan Martínez-Alier and Eric Hershberg reflect on the then-emerging area of research that examines how poor people’s movements advance the goals of sustainable development. Many popular movements can be seen as having an environmental component to their struggles, whether those struggles arise from direct conflicts over natural resources or from related socioeconomic and political inequities. Rather than traditional notions of the “tragedy of the commons,” the authors find that an “ecology of survival” can lead the poor toward environmental conservation. Thus, poor people’s movements potentially offer models for the improved management of natural resources.
In an archival essay from 2001, Charles Hale makes the case for “activist research” that is engaged with and seeks to address key problems faced by research “subjects.” Emerging out of the Council’s Global Security and Cooperation program, Hale argues for how such research—and the participation of organizations and individuals in its conduct, interpretation, and use—can be both of high quality and impactful for social actors. Hale also notes the tensions and contradictions that must be navigated in conducting activist research.
To accompany Prasenjit Duara’s essay, we republish Paul Greenough and Anna Tsing’s 1994 contribution to Items. The authors articulate an intellectual agenda for a collaborative project between the Council’s South and Southeast Asia programs focused on how environmental discourses intersect with development in the context of these regions’ colonial legacies. Engaging topics and concepts such as “wild nature,” natural disasters, biodiversity, ecotourism, and environmental science, the essay was the first step toward the eventual publication of a volume edited by Greenough and Tsing entitled Nature in the Global South.
Susan Cutter’s essay from the Council’s 2006 “Understanding Katrina” series examines the particular confluence of natural and social vulnerabilities that devastated New Orleans—a doomed convergence that has echoes throughout the recent 2017 hurricane season. In New Orleans and other cities, failures in social support systems most severely impact the poor, the elderly, the homeless, and other special needs populations. Though disasters will continue to happen, Cutter argues that we can lessen their impacts by reducing social vulnerability and increasing resilience.
In this archive piece from the Council’s 2006 series on “Understanding Katrina,” Virginia R. Dominguez interrogates the portrayal of hurricane-ravaged New Orleans as “Third World.” Why are our conceptions of “America” equated with middle-class status and industrial prosperity, and why are we surprised when those notions are disrupted by images of poverty and non-whiteness? Dominguez argues that we need to learn to see things in new ways, as well as to question our own complicity in continuing patterns of inequality.
In the aftermath of Hurricanes Harvey and Irma, Neil Smith’s contribution to the SSRC’s 2006 series on “Understanding Katrina” is hauntingly relevant, particularly in conjunction with the ongoing “Just Environments” series. Arguing that there is no such thing as a natural disaster, Smith instead suggests that every aspect of a disaster―from causes to vulnerability to results to reconstruction―is the product of a social calculus and human decision-making. Rather than flattening social differences, disasters exacerbate them―leading Smith to call for a radical, bottom-up approach to reconstruction.
In this archive piece, John F. Richards and David C. Major describe a project, a core component of the Council’s Global Environmental Change Program, to study the role of landed property rights in global environmental change. Grappling with theoretical issues related to location, scale, bundles of rights, and communities, the project sought to understand the relationship between culture, nature, and place. Moreover, it was structured around an interactive research process, one that fostered interdisciplinarity and a coherent dialogue among its participants.
In this archive piece Harold Jacobson and Edith Brown Weiss explain how the Council’s Committee for Research on Global Environmental Change led the way in researching how countries implement and comply with international environmental agreements. Jacobson and Brown Weiss lay out how the group defined implementation and compliance and ask multiple questions that are relevant today in terms of more comprehensive climate change accords. Though the project focused on what countries do when they are signatories to an accord, not what happens when they pull out—as the Trump administration did with the Paris Agreement—understanding state behavior on this topic, and how social scientists wrestled with it over 20 years ago, remains valuable.
Continuing our archival posts on the work of The Council's Committee for Research on Global Environmental Change, here Richard Rockwell provides a detailed account of the various ways in which the social sciences can contribute to a wide array of research puzzles at the intersection of human and social activity with the environment. Rockwell also argues that engaging with natural scientists on these questions will strengthen the social sciences more broadly.