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“What is the

‘social construction of nature’? A typology and sympathetic critique”
(David Demeritt)

Definitions: Philosophy of Knowledge and Being
1. Ontology "What actually exists?” 2. Epistemology "How do we know what we know?” 3. Phenomenology "Whatever we perceive is what exists” 4. Empiricism "We can only know what we can observe”

Definitions: Philosophy of Knowledge and Being
1. Essentialism "Some things are the way they are just because” 2. Realism "There are things that really exist, even independent of our perceptions.” 3. Critical realism "There are things that really exist, and through our observations we can come to more or less know them accurately."

The term “social construction of nature” can mean…
1. Claims about the social construction of our concepts of nature 2. Or, our social construction of nature itself, in a real sense

Two types of social constructions of nature
1. Construction-as-refutation (e.g., gender differences are not real), denaturalization; 2. construction-as-philosophical-critique all human knowledge is social; reality itself is socially produced, and not simply given

The problem with “nature” as “external material world”
“This dualism between primitive people living within nature (iii) and civilized people living outside it has alternatively been read so as to legitimate the disposession of native peoples for failing to improve and cultivate wilderness nature (iii) or alternatively to critique modern people for dominating and destroying the natural environment (iii). Either way, it is a dualism that lends itself easily to gendered and racialized stereotyping.

The epistemological implications
“What are the epistemological implications of acknowledging

that our concepts of nature are socially constructed? To what extent does the world 'constrain' our concepts of it, or at least our epistemologically warranted concepts of it?

Realism and Critical Realism
Realism "There are things that really exist, even independent of our perceptions." Critical realism "There are things that really exist, and through our observations we can come to more or less know them accurately."

Critical realists permit absolute truth claims. Absolute truth claims create a type of scientific closure around an issue that shuts out other non-scientific conceptualizations

The privileging of science
“As a result of such closure, environmental politics becomes a narrowly technical issue of what to do with a pre-given nature, rather than involving wider ontological questions of identity and being … ‘struggles over nature, land, and meaning are simultaneously struggles over identity and rights’ of native peoples, the state, corporate capital and local forestry workers, among others” (Braun and Wainwright 2001:59).

What if…
What if we privilege science, or some other way of knowing, and incorrectly trust that it is providing us with an accurate representation of nature/reality?

Some might say that to do so is a form of ”neurosis.” Neurosis is defined as a relatively mild mental illness that is not caused by organic disease, involving symptoms of stress (depression, anxiety, obsessive behavior, hypochondria) but not a radical loss of touch with reality.

What if…
What if we privilege science, or some other way of knowing, and incorrectly trust that it is providing us with an accurate representation of nature/reality?

Or worse, perhaps it is a form of “psychosis.” Psychosis is defined as a severe mental disorder in which thought and emotions are so impaired that contact is lost with external reality.

Social Life Processes Cultural beliefs Technology Material culture Value systems Economic systems Political systems Social institutions Self-concept Socialization Social control Social structure
Biophysical Reality
Elements of the Social Life Process cultural beliefs technology/built environments material culture normative/value systems economic systems political systems social institutions self-concept/identity socialization social structure Ecological Processes water and air purification drought and flood mitigation decomposition and detoxification of wastes generation and renewal of soil and soil fertility pollination of crops and natural vegetation seed dispersal and translocation of nutrients

Ecological Processes
Figure 1. Conceptualization of Human-Environment Interaction

ENVIRONMENT Social World

social life processes
ecological processes/ services

Water and air purification Drought and flood mitigation Decomposition and detoxification of wastes Generation and renewal of fertile soil Pollination Seed dispersal and translocation of nutrients Maintenance of biodiversity Protection from UV rays Climate stability Moderation of extremes (e.g., temperature, waves, wind) (Daily 1997)