I’m supposed to be turning an abstract I wrote into a paper and I’m having some troubles beginning. So rather than staring at the computer screen all day wondering how to begin, I’m going to try banging out my ideas here and see if that gives me a kernel to begin my “real” paper.
I’m presenting at the upcoming American Association of Geographer’s meeting as a panelist in a session called Lay Science and the Environment. Lay science, two terms I’ve hardly ever heard used together1, means the work done by non-professional scientists. Since they’re non-professional, scientist doesn’t really work, so I would suggest observer. Observer suggests that they only watch (which isn’t the case), so I’m going to use the term “naturalist.”
Naturalist works best for me for a couple of reasons. The first is a historical one: prior to the professionalization of the sciences, (truths about) the world was accessible to those with an interest in it2. A naturalists, then, was someone who was interested in the more-than-human world and with sustained attention to a place and the organisms found within, could make (truth) claims about the nature of that place and those organisms. Now as a sidenote, a historically-cast naturalist in light of current practises, did not have an entirely unproblematic relationship to those organisms and places. Collecting, as naturalist often did, created an uneasy, consumptive relationship with the natural world. These same men who were discovering nature were often doing a great deal to destroy it at the same time. So why do I still like the term naturalist today? This has to do with my second reason. I’m offering the term to describe contemporary practises that create different networks of relationships between the human and the more that human world; practises that do more to erase the boundary between the two then reify it. Being a naturalist is a disruptive practise more so today than it has ever been3. How is it disruptive? Well, for one, the knowledge-making enterprise has left naturalists behind. They’re not the source of authentic truths about the world.
For truth, our society turns to -ologist. For truths about animals, Zoologist; for insects, Entomologist; for fungi, Mycologist; for birds, Ornithologist. One thing that happens with this splitting is the knowledge required to make “discoveries” becomes more and more esoteric4 and the less we (and by we, I mean the “lay” or non-professional) are able to say anything about the world.
This is the power-play at the heart of the knowledge-making endeavour of the sciences. And this is where this idea of a naturalist redux comes into play. If the scientific knowledge about the world abstracts our every-day relationship to it, then we need to enact a set of practises that re-connects our experiences, opens the possibility to know the world differently and acts as a counter-point to diffuse power in knowledge making endeavours. David Abram writes in The Spell of the Sensuous, of the importance of a sensuous (sensory-filled vs. rose petals and satin sheets) knowledge of the more-than-human world5. Attentiveness to the agency and subjectivity of the world beyond ourselves is an exceedingly important skill to cultivate. In so doing, monolithic facts about the world are not the raison d’Ãªtre. They can (and have) help story a particular perspective about the world, but it is one of many. Taking the time to make discoveries on your own and paying attention to the inherent sociality6 of the world is part of being a naturalist. A keen sense of curiosity helps too.
But where do birders and robots come in here? It has to do with ornithology, actually. The practise of knowledge making in ornithology has always been more diffuse than in other sciences. By this I mean that the amateur has always had a part to play in the creation of official knowledge-making. It helps that the act of looking for birds is considered a recreational activity in Western culture. The emergence of birdwatching in the 19th century has been characterized as arising from the romantic backlash “against an increasingly urbanized, industrialized society”7. What is interesting about the timing of the emergence of the birder was the disappearance of the naturalist. What can be said about this double movement? In a sense, the act of being an amateur was caught up in the institutionalization of inquiries into the more-than-human world. Now rather than being a generalist we frames and compartmentalize how we see the world through a (somewhat) strict focus on one kind of organism. And so, birders have birds.
Now let’s turn to look at what’s happening today. Amateur ornithologists, birders bird watchers or whatever you might want to them, as a group, have had a significant impact on the kind of data that Ornithologist have been able to collect about these organisms collectively known as birds. The results of this are visible all over the place: most, such as Breeding Bird Atlases, Christmas Bird Counts & Project Feederwatch, are examples of citizen science at work. Project Feederwatch, which occurs yearly in backyards across North America, has been recognized in the Ornithological literature as the source of “good” scientific information8 In describing how different kinds of knowledge enter into official accounts, recognition may not be the right word. Perhaps acceptance is better. Better, in part, because the collection of bird observations at a bird feeder in and of itself offers little to scientific knowledge. Rather, it is the aggregation of this data that gives it power.
So just what is a Citizen Science project? To use a Science and Technological studies term, it is an inscription device. More typically speaking, inscription devices are imagined as the objects used by researchers to collect the data about the phenomena under investigation–the machine that goes ping9–and allow the data to be easily moved around & interpretedÂ without having to experience the original phenomena oneself. Bruno Latour called these things “immutible mobiles.” What is interesting, in part, is the fact that there is no machine that goes ping, rather humans are used as the inscription devices.
…to be continued
- More typical for me would be Citizen Science. [↩]
- True, these people were almost exclusively middle or upper class white males. Gilbert White is a good example of the kind of person who was a naturalist in the 18th and 19th century. [↩]
- And, in a sense this is the overall hypothesis of the fourth-year course on Natural History that I’ve had the opportunity to teach this term. [↩]
- This is the subject of another post at another time, but witness the reductive power of the gene: DNA barcoding has “told us” that there are many more species of organisms then ever before. This has implications for birding as, for example, where there was one species of Raven, the genes tell us they’re two distinct species. Problematically, for me at least, you can’t tell these two species apart by any sense that we have at our everyday disposal. So, really, what use is this information other then to continue to drive a wedge in between ourselves and the rest of the world? [↩]
- This term (more-than-human) is his, actually. [↩]
- A perspective that John Livingston was a vocal and convincing proponent of. [↩]
- Mark Barrow’s words from his book A Passion for Birds: American Ornithology After Audubon [↩]
- The two peer-reviewed journal articles that recognize and legitimize the work of Project Feederwatch: Lepage, D., & Francis, C. M. (2002). Do feeder counts reliably indicate bird population changes? 21 years of winter bird counts in Ontario, Canada. The Condor, 104(2), 255-270. & Lepczyk, C. A. (2005). Integrating published data and citizen science to describe bird diversity across a landscape. Journal of Applied Ecology, 42(4), 672-677. [↩]