Ecology and sociotechnical systems research – motivations for theoretical and methodological integration across fields
Conference contribution, 2017
Currently, we are witnessing a number of global trends that do not promise well for the future. Accelerating climate change, loss of biodiversity, chemical pollution, disappearance of natural forest and degradation of fishing grounds and agricultural lands are just a few of the serious environmental problems that threaten the functional and structural integrity of ecosystems, to an extent that also human societies risk collapse. The scale of human impact is now such that scholars suggest that we live in the Anthropocene. The trends are driven by several linked factors, which are not easily disentangled into manageable specific problems to be solved by specific policies. More than ever, interdisciplinary and transdisciplinary collaborations are needed in order to address these urgent challenges.
The objective of this paper is to argue for the importance of research on socio-technical-ecological systems (STES) rather than social-ecological (SES) and sociotechnical systems (STS) separately. Hence, we address researchers in both the social-ecological and sociotechnical fields. We organize the argument around six reasons why “technology” should be integrated into SES studies. We call these reasons: (1) the interface and mediation aspect, (2) ambivalence, (3) the agency aspect, (4) the question of scale, (5) the question of governance and politics, and (6) the question of epistemology and framing. We also highlight potential conceptual conflicts and mistranslations. Our discussion is primarily a theoretical argument, exemplified with empirical examples.
Among the conceptual challenges, we note that SES scholars, if they consider technology in their analyses, generally treat it as an exogenous factor or as a passive background element. Similarly, STS scholars tend to neglect ecological dynamics and refer to the ecological domain mainly in terms of inputs and outputs, e.g. natural resources, environmental and health problems caused by human activities. In light of the discussion, we conclude that the importance of collaborating across the two fields goes beyond each field adding pieces together. We argue that integration and translation across these domains will lead to qualitative change in the theoretical and methodological approaches of both fields; and that technology, society and ecology should be given symmetric analytical attention.