The Beginning…

This isn’t the beginning of my research on modeling. I am a little late getting this blog up-and-running, in part because I’ve already been writing about my work on my other blog. But I’ve recently realized that keeping the two projects separated might be the better way to go, so here I am starting yet another blog! The goal here is to focus on the research, describing the process that I have been going through and will continue to go through as I study computational modeling and write my dissertation. Let me start by explaining a bit about how I got here.

The conception for the project began in the last days of my Master’s degree as I was transitioning to the PhD. My advisor, Dr. Michael Paolisso, approached me about a possible project doing ethnography of the Chesapeake Bay Modeling System (CBMS) in collaboration with two modelers. Given my interest in science and technology studies, I jumped at the opportunity, and over the next few months began writing a proposal with them for National Science Foundation (NSF) funding. At first the goal was just to do a traditional ethnography, but the project has evolved over time.

The first NSF proposal was rejected, but my interest in the project did not wane. I began doing some background research, and applying for other funding. Over the course of this research and writing, my interests changed. It became clear that an ethnography of modeling wouldn’t be enough – it would just replicate all of the other “ethnography of X scientific practice” that have come before. As a result, I became interested in alternative modeling practices – particularly “participatory modeling” in which stakeholders, managers, and modelers work together to produce a model and develop research and management goals. A lot has been written about participatory modeling – I plan to write a brief “resources” page shortly to list some of this work, but for now I’ll just mention the work of Alexey Voinov, Erica Gaddis, and Sarah Whatmore. However, there has not been, as far as I have seen, a comparative investigation of the different modeling practices and the way they affect social and ecological relations. That, in brief, is the purpose of my project.

More broadly, I am interested in the performative dimensions of socio-ecological systems. When we talk about socio-ecological systems and processes, I think we often get caught up in what Graham Harman refers to as “over-mining” – focusing on the activities and agency of the systems as a whole at the expense of the parts. Theories of performativity were developed to address precisely this problem in the social sciences – allowing us to understand the agency of individuals without denying systemic forces. However, it hasn’t been influential in talking about the relationship between humans and the environment. The reason is that we tend to privilege natural scientific explanations in those contexts without an infusion of social theory. Thus we talk about “resilience” and “systems theories” without recognizing that they suffer from the same agency-reducing effects of the structuralist social theories that performativity was meant to challenge. My goal is to introduce an element of performativity into socio-ecological systems theory so that we can think about the processes by which systems are constructed and potential alternative constructions without naturalizing the limits and closing off the possibility for change before we even begin.

The basic assumption of this research is that socio-ecological systems are performative – that they are constructed through the performances of both human and non-humans as they interact with one another. In addition, it is assumed that the performances of both humans and non-humans are in some ways shaped by the overarching system in which they operate. As a result, scientific research is both social and ecological, and we must recognize it as such and ask what effects our work has on the broader socio-ecological system. Modeling is one example of that, and, given that modeling has become increasingly influential in environmental management, it is an excellent place to begin to ask those questions. The question that drives this research is, what are the effects of the production and use of computational models on the broader socio-ecological systems in which they are embedded?

With this in mind, I continued to apply for funding for my research and finally received an NSF Dissertation Research Improvement Grant. With this funding, I will undertake a comparative project to look at the effects of different modeling practices. I will be conducting several case studies on projects currently under way in the Bay watershed, and drawing comparisons between them. Each project will exemplify different approaches and degrees of collaboration between modelers, stakeholders, managers, and others, and I will be particularly interested in the way these different approaches affect the relationships between these groups. In the end, I hope that this research will help modelers and other scientists see that their research methods have effects beyond the immediate production of data, and that this will encourage them to think about the way that their research fits into and performs the broader socio-ecological system to address not just ecological problems but socio-economic ones as well.

Finally, I apply the same performative framework to my own research. I see this work as performative in the sense that it serves as an intervention into a struggling socio-ecological system. Part of the goal of this work is to improve relationships between modelers, managers, stakeholders, natural scientists, social scientists, and others so that we can work together to perform a cleaner, more healthy Chesapeake Bay. Obviously, I don’t expect this small project to have a dramatic effect, but I will do what I can wherever I can and hope that others recognize the value of this kind of work.