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Feminism: The Ecological Practice of Science

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Feminism: The Ecological Practice of Science

Rosemary Malfi

I. Introduction: Ecology and the Feminist Critique of Science

Like many successful lesson plans, I choose to start this piece with definitions. Let us take a look at the etymology of the word ecology. The prefix eco- comes from the Greek word oikos, meaning “house” or “dwelling” and –ology refers to logia, which means “study of.” Therefore, the field of Ecology is literally “the study of the house or dwelling.” You might be asking yourself, “Isn’t ecology about plants and animals? What does a house have to do with it?” I answer this question with another, albeit less ancient, definition. According to the Oxford English Dictionary, ecology is “The science of the economy of animals and plants; that branch of biology which deals with the relations of living organisms to their surroundings, their habits and modes of life, etc.” In some rudimentary way, ecology is about plants and animals, but more accurately, ecology encompasses the study of all living organisms on this earth, small and large, and how they interact with each other and the environment.

Given this information, one could then interpret “dwelling” to be the planet, home of all living things, arena of all possible interactions. This seems a logical answer. Of course, each organism experiences the world differently, and seeing the world through a different lens, possesses a unique conception of a “house” or “dwelling.” Depending on “who” you are, home is the soil, the forest canopy, disturbed grassland, the beach, an urban landscape, etc. Maybe ecology is more accurately defined, then, as the study of how organisms relate to their own specific, perceived environment or “dwelling.” While I cannot impart the true interpretation of these root words, as they are quite simply that – interpretations – I can say, as an Ecologist, that both correctly represent the practice of ecology. Ecological studies span all scales, ranging from organisms to communities, to populations, to ecosystems, to regions and even the globe. This field strives to contextualize scientific data as much as possible, to create stories about the world that allow us, as humans, to understand how nature works in parts and as a whole, and how we play our own part in shaping nature ourselves.

Mull that over for a minute. Does this discourse sound familiar? It should, if you follow or contribute to the feminist critique of science. In contending current scientific practice, Karen Barad, physicist and feminist critic, describes four major tenets produced by the feminist critique of science: (1) There is no objective understanding of reality as it exists independently of us; rather, knowledge is situated or contextualized; (2) the scientist or observer has agency in experiencing science and creating knowledge; (3) nature, as well as the observer, has agency: “nature is not a blank slate awaiting our inscriptions”; and (4) there needs to be an ethics of knowledge generation involving direct accountability and responsibility, given that the creation of knowledge can have real, material consequences.[1] Thinking about the subject Ecology, as previously described, and how it is practiced, I am inclined to say that this field obeys and in fact embodies the vision feminist theorists have for scientific rhetoric and practice. The goal of this essay is to demonstrate that the groundwork for a new view and practice of science has already been established by the field of ecology, which addresses the issues of current and common scientific practice presented by feminist critics.

II. Objectivity, Agency, and Responsibility

The most fundamental scientific concept that feminist critiques take issue with is the notion of objectivity. Karen Barad sums it up well: “The Newtonian worldview is compatible with an objectivist epistemology of the world… That is, what is ‘discovered’ is presumed to be unmarked by its ‘discoverer.’ The claim is that the scientist can read the universal equations of nature that are inscribed on G-d’s blackboard: Nature has spoken.”[2] Essentially, objectivity presumes that we, as scientists, are passive observers of the world and that our measurements are a reflection of the predetermined nature of reality. The results we glean from data collection are a translation of the text before us, rather than an interpretation. Invoking the thoughts of Donna Harraway, another feminist critic, Barad claims, rather, that knowledge is located or situated. The feminist idea of knowledge “reject[s] transcendental, universal, unifying master theories in favor of understandings that are embodied and contextual.”[3] In other words, knowledge is not discovered or gathered from some ultimate source of truth – it is actively created and shaped by the scientist through experimentation, measurement, and analysis. We need to recognize that the meaning we derive from science is not independent of us; it comes from the process of “[s]cientists constantly make judgments in the course of their work. They determine whether the results of an experiment or a set of data are valid, consistent with previous results and with prevailing explanatory frameworks… These judgments are rendered within a set of assumptions that may be influences by cultural, scientific and individual beliefs and values.”[4] Essentially, scientists need to recognize the context that surrounds their work, that scientific practice is experiential as well as experimental.

Ecology, perhaps unlike other fields, is all about context. It loves context. In fact, without context, ecology is meaningless. Because ecology focuses not just on organisms, but on entire ecosystems or landscapes, scale is extremely important to this discipline. In order to answer a question about your study organism or system, you need to understand the scale at which that study subject operates. An ecology textbook captures this concept nicely:

“To an ecologist, a patch in a community is an area in which a single variable distinguishes it from its surroundings. Thus, a fallen tree in a forest leaves a gap in the canopy and a patch on the forest floor where sufficient radiation may penetrate to allow seedlings to grow and eventually fill the gap. A tide pool is a patch on a rocky shore, but within that pool snails may graze and clear a free patch of algae. It is often useful to think of patches at the scales at which particular organisms experiences the environment around them.”[5]

Understanding your organism and developing a method which captures environmental factors potentially influencing the study subject is the practice of ecology. Spatial context is not the only contextual factor given consideration – measuring temporal influences in many cases will also assist in creating a more complete picture of how nature functions. Year to year, environmental factors can vary, leading to entirely new conclusions about your observations. Gathering as much data as possible over a period of time will allow for a more complete answer to your question, and a better understanding of how your study subject is influenced by its surroundings. I will provide an example.

Dr. Neal Williams and Dr. Claire Kremen, both pollination ecologists, conducted a study on watermelon pollination over the course of two consecutive years[6]. They found in the first year that the available pollinator community (consisting of all pollinators that visit watermelon) were capable of providing more than adequate pollination services to the watermelon crop in that region. In the second year, when rainfall was not as high, however, the pollinator community as a whole was barely adequate. The implication of these results is that pollinator diversity is important. Variability in environmental changes annually will have differential effects on constituents of the pollinator community, and thus the best way to ensure adequate pollination services for this crop (as well as others) is to preserve as many different species of pollinators as possible. In the case of this simple, isolated example, this conclusion could not have been drawn without a temporal context. The ability of the environment to change, to vary over time and distance, is a principle ingrained in ecology. It is understood in ecology that the world is anything but static, solidifying the acceptance of nature’s agency in the discipline.

Ecology embraces context, loves context, needs context. It recognizes that nature’s activity and contribution to knowledge making. So what? What about the agency of the observer? Does ecological practice really account for this idea? The feminist critique claims that in an effort to understand reality as it exists independently of us, the scientific community attempts to create technologies and methodologies which assist in the elimination of our own influence from our studies. This is an impossibility, however, because the very choices we make in how to measure and what a particular result signify are a part of process by which knowledge is produced. It is true that ecologists, like other ilk of scientists, generate methods through which data is collected and perform analyses through which that data is interpreted. I don’t think Barad would argue that knowledge should not or cannot be produced in this way. Barad says herself that “[w]holeness… does not signify the dissolution of boundaries. On the contrary, boundaries are necessary for making meaning… Wholeness requires that delineations, differentiations, distinctions be drawn; differentness is requires of wholeness.”[7] The logic we create through establishing boundaries is what gives our data and results significance, and we draw those boundaries the best way we know how. What Barad would say is that we are responsible for understanding that delineations are not natural or “arbitrary partitioning of a holistic oneness, existing outside of human space and time… boundaries are instances of power, specific constructions, with real material consequences.”[8] It is the intra-action of the agent, the object of study, and the apparatuses used to generate information that creates meaning and knowledge. The boundaries we draw to create these parts are inseparable, and we must be willing to accept that changes in those boundaries may yield a different understanding of the world.

To address the self-posed question, Does ecology embrace the idea of agency?, I would have to reply yes and no. Because ecologists are so conscious of context, we acknowledge the limitations of our measuring capabilities. What I mean by this is that each of us, as a scientist, is measuring a piece of the puzzle. No single person of any profession is capable of measuring the entire world at once – if this were true, we’d all be out of a job. An ecologist looks at a particular community or population and tries to determine what factors are influential to this particular group and how. We know, however, that the conclusions we draw about one study subject will not necessarily be the same for another. Again, I provide an example from my own experience. In temperate ecosystems, forests are depleted of floral resources by the end of spring, making this terrible foraging habitat for bees. Open, disturbed grassland, however, is great summer foraging habitat for bees and many species of birds. When I write a paper about the excellence of open grassland for bee populations in urban habitats, I am sending a message that advocates meadow restoration in cities, whereas another author doing work on rising CO2 levels in urban centers may advocate that reforestation is necessary for improving air quality. What do city officials (who presumably care about environmental issues) do with this information? What is more important? The field of ecology is full of people trying to understand specific aspects of a network of life forms, and we understand that our personal scope is a limited view.

It is not just acknowledged that our data gathering processes are limited in scope, but that data interpretation is anything but straightforward. An introductory ecology textbook states, “…not only is it not true that you can prove anything with statistics, the contrary is the case: you cannot prove anything with statistics – that is not what statistics are for. Statistical analysis is essential, however, for attaching a level of confidence to conclusions that we may wish to draw; and ecology, like all science, is a search not for statements that have been “proved to be true” but for conclusions in which we can be confident.”[9] That being said, it is not necessarily actively believed that statistics are a construct or that methods of data gathering are boundaries drawn and agreed upon. Ecology, after all, is the production of centuries of scientific thought, the same thought that has resulted in physics. This does not mean that ecology does not incorporate the feminist notions of agency; it means that ecologists don’t fully realize feministic nature of their field. The same passage on statistics goes on to say that “[w]hat makes science ‘rigorous’ is that it is based… on conclusions to which a level of confidence can be attached, measured on an agreed scale” (italics added). In other words, the community has decided on a particular, constructed boundary by which information can be judged and given meaning. The sentiment is certainly there, but the affinity ecology has for feminist discourse is not necessarily recognized.

Last, but by no means least, is the question, does ecology embody an ethics of knowledge involving accountability and responsibility for knowledges created? From me, you will get a “Yes, undoubtedly.” Though ecology technically refers to a branch of science which studies interactions, ecology has also come to be associated with environmentalism and the green movement. It is no wonder that this would be the case. Entire sub-fields have emerged out of ecology that are devoted to conservation and urban studies, which explicitly examine issues of sustainability[10]. Even the sub-fields without overt dedication to environmentalism strive to understand communities and ecosystems in an effort to evaluate their health and maintain their existence. Out of ecology rose the term “ecosystem services”, a buzz-phrase used frequently these days to describe “the habitat, biological or system properties or processes of ecosystems [from which human populations] derive [benefits], directly or indirectly…”[11] Examples include clean air and water (via natural processes, e.g. photosynthesis), pollination services, carbon sequestration, storm buffers (such as mangroves and other wetlands), and the list goes on. These naturally occurring functions have been recognized by ecologists for quite some time as necessary to human existence. By labeling these processes with the term “service” the agency of nature in providing these amenities is conveyed along with a sense that it is our responsibility as consumers to respect the fragility of these resources (for humanity’s sake).

As evidenced by the Ecological Society of America’s website[12], sustainability is a huge, overarching theme in the practice and discourse of this science. What does sustainability mean? John Renne, Ph.D., a professor of urban planning, defined this somewhat ambiguous term very concisely in a lecture I saw this year: “Sustainability is providing for people now while ensuring that future generations will also be provided for.” This circumstance is inextricably intertwined with environmentalism and ecology; in order to provide for all future generations as well as ourselves we must adopt practices and strategies which preserve the natural resources we have. There are, of course, many factors that contribute to sustainability, including urban planning, land conservation, renewable energy, increased and more reliable public transportation, and preservation of biodiversity, to name just a few. You might be asking, “How does feminism fit into this tangent exactly?” Sustainability, like feminism, is about representing all people. The same people who are disenfranchised in our inner cities without access to proper education, housing, or nutrition are usually also the victims of environmental injustice. They are the ones who live without basic amenities, including clean drinking water, clean air, properly inspected living spaces, financial access to nutritional food…[13] These are voices that need to be heard – their agency has been stripped from them, politically and socially. I think Barad and other feminist theorists alike would agree. Sandra Harding in her work on Rethinking Standpoint Epistemology says that “strong objectivity requires that scientists and their communities be integrated into democracy-advancing projects for scientific and epistemological reasons as well as moral and political ones.”[14] Through maximizing voices contributing to discourse or politics, I believe that this is a call for science to understand its role in making a better place of the world we live in. Ecology, in many ways, embodies this notion of feminism. It makes an effort to understand and protect the resources valuable to the survival of humanity as well as prevent humanity from destroying the environment, and thus, itself. Ecology is not only a responsible science, but it strives to hold others outside of the field accountable as well.

III. Conclusions, Projections, Hopes

The biggest question of this paper is, what do we learn from the idea that the theoretical feminist practice of science already exists in the form of ecology? What do we gain from recognizing the affinity for feminist theory that ecology possesses? Do we lay the feminist critique of science to rest? Hey, critics! We’ve found the feminist science, so you can stop theorizing about it! Of course not. Among the most significant ideas we can take away from drawing this relationship is the possibility that ecology could act as a gateway for the feminist critique to enter the scientific world. I have read a hefty amount of feminist discourse this semester, and I don’t recall a single article talking about a scientific practice that actually follows rather than defies the principles outlined by feminist theorists. While Biology may not draw heavy fire from feminist critics due to its near even sex ratio of professional participants[15], it would be worth the time of a feminist theorist (or several) to utilize the similarity between the language of feminism and the terminology of ecology. The applied ecological concepts of interaction, scale and time could be used in addition to (or at times, instead of) the lofty theoretical rhetoric of feminist discourse in conveying feminist ideas on scientific practice. Perhaps it would be more amenable to fellow scientists if the criticism were coming from a more familiar place. If not more amenable, perhaps just more understandable. If theorists can show that feminist notions of scientific practice are already employed, extending the application of these ideas to other areas of science may be that much easier.

This essay has been largely about science, but it is not just scientific practice that can learn from ecology and the feminist critique. In our daily lives, we need to adopt practices that envision and respect our relationship(s) to the world around us. Ecology allows us to understand that we are capable of having an effect on nature and that we need nature to survive. We are not independent of the world or the resources it provides. We are a part of a wholeness that is reality, and the delineations we draw within that wholeness have real life consequences. When we decide how many fish we can catch without jeopardizing the population, when we decide how much lumber to cut down for building houses, when we create tax boundaries that isolate wealthier regions from ones that are poor, we bear the consequences of these decisions. Some are sustainable, some are not. If we can make an effort to embrace and understand the role these principles play in our daily life practices, there is no reason why they cannot be applied to the scientific world. What is the most valuable message we acquire from bringing to light the relationship of ecology to feminism? That the feminist critique can be and is more than rhetoric. And that, class, concludes today’s lesson.

[1] Halfway – Barad - 183

[2] Barad, Karen. “A Feminist Approach to Teaching Quantum Physics.” Teaching the Majority: Breaking the Gender Barrier in Science, Mathematics, and Engineering. Ed. Sue Rosser. New York: Teachers Coll. Press, 1995. pp. 46

[3] Barad, Karen. “Meeting the Universe Halfway: Realism and Social Constructivism Without Contradiction.” Feminism, Science, and the Philosophy of Science. Ed. L.H. Nelson and J. Nelson. London: Kulwer Academic, 1996. pp. 187.

[4] “Frequently Asked Questions About Feminist Science Studies.” Women and Scientific Literacy: Building Two-Way Streets. The Association of American Colleges and Universities. 1999. pp. 11.

[5] The Essentials of Ecology. 2003. Ed. Colin R. Townsend, Michael Begon, & John L. Harper. Oxford: Blackwell Publishing. pp.117

[6] Kremen, Claire et al. Crop pollination from native bees at risk from agricultural intesification (2002). Proceeding of the National Academy of Science, 99(26), 16812-16816


[7] Barad, Karen. “Meeting the Universe Halfway: Realism and Social Constructivism Without Contradiction.” Feminism, Science, and the Philosophy of Science. Ed. L.H. Nelson and J. Nelson. London: Kulwer Academic, 1996. pp. 182.


[8] Barad, Karen. “Meeting the Universe Halfway: Realism and Social Constructivism Without Contradiction.” Feminism, Science, and the Philosophy of Science. Ed. L.H. Nelson and J. Nelson. London: Kulwer Academic, 1996. pp. 182.

[9] The Essentials of Ecology. 2003. Ed. Colin R. Townsend, Michael Begon, & John L. Harper. Oxford: Blackwell Publishing. pp.11.

[10] See for example:

[11] Costanza, Robert et al. 1997. The value of the world’s ecosystem services and natural capital. Nature, 387: 253.

[12] See the Ecological Society of America’s website:

[13] Farber, Stephen. “The Economics of Biodiversity in Urbanizing Ecosystems” in Nature in Fragments: The Legacy of Sprawl. 2005. Ed. Elizabeth A. Johnson and Michael W. Klemens. New York: Columbia University Press. pp.263-283.

[14] Harding, Sandra. “Rethinking Standpoint Epistemology: What is ‘Strong Objectivity?’” Feminist Epistemologies. pp.69.

[15] Thom, Mary. Part 3: Academia – Graduate School and Beyond. Balancing the Equation: Where Are Women and Girls in Science, Engineering and Technology? New York: National Council for Research on Women, 2001. pp. 67