Ecologists increasingly work with people from other fields, in which scholars, practitioners, and activists often pluralize: “ecologies.” By contrast, biophysical ecologists use the singular. Specialists beyond ecological science may avoid the singular because it evokes environmental determinism, lack of human agency, and disrespect for ways of knowing beyond science. Some social analysts consider biophysical ecology itself to be but one way of knowing, which embodies social positioning and uneven power relations. For their part, ecologists often ignore discussions featuring the term “ecologies” as unrelated to their work. The authors—one anthropologist and two biophysical ecologists—wish to facilitate social–ecological interaction by evaluating the conceptual content of the plural versus singular contrast. We suggest there are fundamental differences between ecology in the singular and plural. We examine these differences by showing that the singular and the plural within ecological science differ in specificity versus generality. In the view of social critiques, however, the conflict reflects political power differentials and social position of science. We explore whether there are productive parallels between these contrasting implications of the singular versus plural. Social criticisms of singular ecology include lack of system openness, open-ended dynamics, contingent pathways of change, and human agency in ecological processes. We find value in these critiques and have grappled with these issues ourselves. We find that contemporary ecology often employs concepts amenable to those in social critiques. This finding demonstrates why ecologists should not be so quick to dismiss plural ecology as a meaningful phrase. We show that concerns of the social critiques embodied in the plural term parallel ecology's use of (1) multiple models to understand a topic, (2) multifaceted, scalable concepts, and (3) nested dialog between generality and specificity. We conclude that the use of the plural and singular actually share a conceptual foundation that can facilitate interdisciplinary integration and scholarship. Furthermore, the emerging awareness by ecologists of the concerns about the politics of power in science and its use may improve the ability of ecologists not only to interact with social scientists but also to better engage with social movements and environmental justice.
- hierarchy theory
- social critique
- social–ecological system
ASJC Scopus subject areas
- Ecology, Evolution, Behavior and Systematics