Building a career in the epistemological no man’s land

John Barry, Katharine N. Farrell

Research output: Chapter in Book/ReportChapter


Introduction At the 2007 Conference of the European Society for Ecological Economics, Professor Malte Faber’s keynote speech was entitled ‘How to be an ecological economist’. In that lecture (Faber 2008), Professor Faber, himself originally an ‘ordinary’ economist, reflected upon a career’s worth of experiences with the personal and professional challenges that arise as one reaches beyond the reductive boundaries of an individual academic discipline in an effort to conduct ecological economics research. In keeping with the discussion that Faber and others of his and the preceding generation (see also Boulding 1991; Max-Neef 2005; Røpke 1999, 2002, 2004; Walker and Holling, Chapter 10 of this book) have opened up, our aim in this chapter is to explore what is required of both the scholars and the institutions involved in conducting research that is concerned with interactions between economic and ecological systems - work that requires one to stand across the two disciplines of ecology and economics, often with very little institutional support underneath. While our subject is, in principle, a matter of ecological economics methodology, we believe that the challenges associated with building an academic career in ecological economics are also matters relevant for the study of twenty-firstcentury environmental governance (Barry 2007).1 This is because we consider accurately perceiving and appropriately responding to ecological economic situations to be central to good environmental governance. That is to say, we see the balancing act required for developing ecological economics scholarly work as having an important place within environmental governance, not only in terms of providing information, interpretations and recommendations but also in terms of the scholars’ participation in the collective work of developing expectations and aspirations regarding societies’ relations with their environments. On this basis we take up our exploration of scholarly practice in what we call the epistemo logical and methodological no man’s land of interdisciplinary sustainability research. We do so not only as scholars of method or with respect to our personal experiences but also as political scientists. Although ecological economics is practised within and across a wide variety of institutional settings, we focus here on the setting of university education and research, in part because it is the setting with which we are most familiar and in part because we see the university system as a trend-setting institution.2 We begin by presenting some background on the specific topic of the political theory-oriented ecological economics PhD thesis that we prepared together, as student and supervisor, locating it within the larger domain of ecological economics through Giampietro and Mayumi’s discussion of the requisite abilities for ecological economics. On the basis of this discussion we develop some minimum standards that we believe must be met if one aims to conduct the kind of fundamentally integrative ecological economic research and analysis that Max-Neef (2005) has tagged as ‘strong interdisciplinarity’, where not only data and results but also theory and explanations are built up between the traditional disciplinary domains. On the basis of this discussion we identify two quid pro quo, conditions that needed to be met or confronted if the work was to proceed at all: self-reflection and complex comprehension. In the next two sections we then consider some of the specific challenges that we encountered as we set out to conduct this kind of strongly interdisciplinary (ibid.) work within a traditional university setting. While our account is of our own experiences, we are exploring them here not only from a personal but also from a social science perspective, posing the question: what institutional settings and social practices may be required of universities if they are expected to support this kind of academic work? Finally, on the basis of both our personal and our professional assessments we develop some practical recommendations regarding how ecological economics education and research might be better supported within university settings. From our perspective as scholars of political science, working on issues that we classify as ecological political economy (EPE), we discuss and analyse what it means for a political scientist to think and work across disciplinary boundaries within the current globally dominant Western-style university system, where the ruling constitutive research, learning and incentive structures (and also significant aspects of the culture of social sciences more generally) largely work against, rather than in support of, interdisciplinary (and multi-authored) research. While our account may at times seem a little self-indulgent, our aim here is not to present ourselves as woebegone misfits or heroic outsiders. Rather, we wish to present a scholarly argument illustrating that inasmuch as environmental governance requires that the institutions governing human societies need to change, this need does not stop at the doors of the academy. That is to say, we propose that overcoming the substantial institutional and personal challenges that continue to face researchers concerned with ecological economics questions demands not only individual effort and creativity but also collective action and political commitment to institutional and cultural change within the academy. Our focus on the institutional setting of university education and research takes up this domain of study as one among many that together comprise the complex system of global environmental governance. We maintain that, on the one hand, the move beyond reductive disciplinary boundaries is a necessary step that must be taken in order to conduct ecological economics research, while, on the other hand, existing European-style university structures (which are the globally dominant structures for research organization) present substantial institutional obstacles and methodological challenges to taking this step. Our argument presumes that social institutions, including the institution of university education and research, are impacted by and impact upon ecological economic situations and dynamics (Norgaard 1988; Özkaynak et al. 2002; Farrell 2007) and that the configuration of these institutions may be more or less useful for sustainable development (Dryzek 1987; Dietz et al. 2003; Olsson et al. 2006; Ostrom 2005; Young 2002; Biermann et al. 2007). We are setting out to contribute to a discourse addressed by several other contributors to this book, concerning the empirical question of how revisions to the institutions of university education and research might contribute not only to the production of better science but also to the execution of better environmental governance. Our arguments are intended to give suggestions regarding what might constitute good environmental governance of university education and research, and they are informed by our experience within and our expert opinions regarding the current structure of this system. We see this work as an active and engaged part of the collective task of developing understanding and taking action to address ecological economic challenges. Practically speaking, we consider here how scholarly work within university systems might be reorganized to be more useful for addressing ecological economic issues. In doing so, we touch upon issues that are intimately related to questions that are taboo within ‘the academy’ regarding the relationship between power and knowledge (in a Foucauldian sense) and the sanctity of facts. Here we are speaking not only as scholars but also as workers - as individuals employed within the academy. In this respect, in addition to being an assessment of an empirical political science problematique - let us call it the ecological political economy of environmental science - our comments will, from time to time, also take on a more normative, moral and even at times ethical tone.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Title of host publicationBeyond Reductionism
Subtitle of host publicationA Passion for Interdisciplinarity
PublisherTaylor and Francis
Number of pages33
ISBN (Electronic)9781136281716
ISBN (Print)9780415470148
StatePublished - Jan 1 2013
Externally publishedYes

All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes

  • Economics, Econometrics and Finance(all)
  • General Business, Management and Accounting


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