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Tuesday, 4 July 2017

Why do some social scientists still feel the need to apologise for their presence at a conservation conference?

At the recent 2017 Student Conference on Conservation Science (SCCS) in Cambridge, student talks kicked off with an apology. The first talk featured a common anthropological study method, ethnography – something that the PhD researcher presenting felt the need to justify. Given increasing recognition that the root causes of many (if not most) conservation issues can be traced back to human behaviours in some form, why do the social sciences still sometimes seem out of place in the conservation field?

From economic cost-benefit analyses to psychological insights into human decision-making, conservation has much to gain from embracing the social sciences and yet the default position still seems to be one of “hard science” quantitative positivism. There is a need for more holistic approaches to conservation research, practice, and policy. Transdisciplinary research, which goes beyond interdisciplinarity by transcending specific disciplines and holistically approaching complex issues, can help us to break down the old barriers between research silos. A true community-based approach to conservation can be developed by integrating disparate forms of learning and beliefs, including those from civil society.

This may perhaps be a minority view, but not an outlying one. There have been multiple papers published in the last few years proclaiming the value that social scientists can contribute to conservation. We work in a solution-orientated subject where it makes sense to avail ourselves of all available methods, including those which tackle the human dimensions of conservation for practice and policy.  This does not seem to be merely lip service; there is increasingly recognition from funders also. Conservation social scientists are beginning to win big grants. In my own department at DICE, Zoe Davies has just been awarded a 2 million Euro grant to study how nature underpins human wellbeing.

And yet, only two of the nine SCCS student sessions, and three of the ten workshops, could be characterised as focusing on the human-dimensions of conservation (though credit is due for the fantastic plenary talk on behavioural economics by Brendan Fisher). Whether this was due to lack of applicants or an oversight by the organising committee, a token presence, a vague nod at inclusion, is not enough. We need to start playing a major role both at the forefront of the field in journals and backstage at conferences. Consider this a call to my fellow conservation social scientists, the anthropologists and the psychologists, the lawyers and the educators, to join me at the Cambridge SCCS 18 without apologising for your presence. Where could be a better place to form long-lasting transdisciplinary collaborations, to develop a holistic approach to conservation using knowledge generated across disciplinary boundaries?
This post is by Laura Thomas-Walters who is a PhD candidate at DICE, University of Kent, United Kingdom. You can reach Laura on Twitter @LauraThoWal.  

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