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.
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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.
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.
Human Processes in Earth Transformation: A Proposed Council Program on the Social Sciences and Global Environmental Changeby Items Editors
In 1988, the Council embarked on an ambitious new initiative on the Human Dimensions of Global Environmental Change. In tandem with Items’s new series on “Just Environments,” we are publishing the first of a set of archival essays detailing the development and progress of this program. Anticipating a research agenda on what has come to be called the “anthropocene,” executive associate Richard Rockwell describes an initial planning conference at Brown University and presciently writes, “The time has surely come to incorporate social perspectives more adequately into research on humans as forces in nature.”
The Items archive contains a wide range of essays on the evolution of area studies in the United States. Here, Bryce Wood reports on a major 1953 conference at Princeton University that played a role the development of African studies, bringing together a wide range of actors soon to have major influence on the establishment of that interdisciplinary field. It was cosponsored by the National Research Council and supported by the Carnegie Corporation of New York, which now funds two of the SSRC’s most significant programs in Africa, albeit with a focus on social scientists in Africa—Next Generation Social Sciences in Africa and the African Peacebuilding Network.