Cultural Ecology Specialty Group of the Association of American Geographers

Cultural Ecology Newsletter

(CEN #18 -- 1991)

[I am reproducing only part of an old Newsletter from 1991, which I have scanned into the computer, since it is relevant to current debates about name changes for the Group. Ed. 5/2000]

Cultural Ecology Newsletter, Number 18, Spring 1991, pp3-5

To the Editor:

Given the number of comments I have received, principally from friends, in response to my recent letter in the Cultural Ecology Newsletter (#17), it seems that I was not only wrong about my impressions of the last business meeting, but may have offended a number of members. In that letter I said that I was "told by more than one person in attendance that the individuals who promoted the idea of a name change appear to have mustered a sizeable following of individuals (many of whom may not have been bona fide members) who rarely, if ever, attend business meetings to dominate the vote." A comparison of a list of those in attendance with a list of members at the 1989 Baltimore meeting proved me wrong. Furthermore, and much to my chagrin, my informants did not appear on either list. Carelessly, I relied upon what turns out to have been third-hand information. I apologize to all members of the Cultural Ecology Specialty Group, and especially to those who raised and discussed the issue of a name change, for even insinuating that a cabal might exist. I do, however, maintain my previously stated position about the name change.

William E. Doolittle

To the Editor:

A name change for the Cultural Ecology Specialty Group was never the central issue of my proposal made at the Toronto business meeting. As I began by saying then and reiterate more carefully here, the proposal was a mechanism to stimulate us to address the more fundamental questions of pluralism and the health of our group. (Raising the intellectual issue without a concrete proposal as a wedge would have never led us to the current exchange.) In my mind, pluralism - the hallmark of holistic approaches claimed by both our discipline and our subfield - is intimately tied to the health of our group, from its intellectual base to the number of its quality members. While the health of our group is strong and perhaps improving, I believe that we fall considerably short of the mark that we can achieve and should seek.

Allow me to sketch in broad strokes my reasoning and the connection to the name change proposal. Cultural ecology does not have a monopoly on the study of nature-society relationships within geography (which, by my count, has at least seven other specialty groups so engaged), nor is it perceived by most to be one of the more important components of the discipline. This situation arises both from the noninterest, misunderstanding, or myopia of non-members and from the cultural ecology group's own view of its place and role within and without geography. If we seek to strengthen cultural ecology, nature-society studies, and geography, then we must begin to address thoughtfully the pros and cons of the different roles that our specialty group can play. Our key task, in my opinion, is to increase the dynamism of nature-society discourse, and hence the visibility of cultural ecology, most probably by actively seeking to unite for discussion and interchange the fragmented but complementary strains of nature-society studies within geography. I speak here of a level of interaction that transcends the occasional jointly sponsored session with other groups at the AAG. This sponsorship is usually given out of political necessity for AAG approval. The degree of intellectual interaction or even mutual interest in most of these sessions can be questioned by merely observing the composition of the audience and the discussion, if any. Our group is no more to blame for this situation than any other, but this does not mean that we should not take the lead in attempting to change it. We should seek the intellectual high ground.

The history of knowledge is one of increasing fragmentation, not only of expertise (which is necessary) but of intellectual interest (which can be counter- productive). The history of approaches to realms of study is one of generational shifts in perspectives. In or- ganizations and fields such as ours, pluralism is dimin- ished through a process of splintering into smaller, finer- tuned specialty groups, and through the lack of interest of many junior scholars (the newer generation) in the configuration of the existing "cores". As they mature, many of these scholars will move closer to the cores they once rejected, only to find that they no longer exist in their original form, having been reshaped, if only moderately, by the issues that prompted the rejection in the first place. Some of us seek the security of established cores, others, the dynamism of edges and the pluralism that generally pervades this zone.

Cultural ecology, like some of the other nature-society specialty groups, could be much more intellectually exciting, visible, and significant, I believe, if we sought to increase communication between the core and edges, thereby increasing pluralism of thought. This communication, of course, should be a two-way street. Moreover, the long-run health of the subfield and specialty group is related to the number of quality junior scholars engaged in it. I fear that we fail to attract the full breadth of junior talent interested in our avowed subject. Do not misinterpret me; we have excellent young scholars in our specialty group, but we could have many more of them. It is here that the perception of interests and the associations of names, correct or not, matter. No specialty group name is neutral, claims to the contrary notwithstanding, if only because of the como- tations it acquires by perception of the work done within its domain. This does not mean that all names or interests are equally value-laden; some are much more pluralistic - open to competing values - than others, although the belief in pluralism is itself a value. The very roots of cultural ecology in Stewardian anthropology, Sauerian historical geography, and classical Ger- man geography, however, connote preferred interests and views of our specialty group. And the practice of our current work, mine included, solidifies this view in the eyes of many. Granted, a name change per se will not increase pluralism in our group, nor necessarily attract a larger breadth of junior talent. I even concede that I find Cultural Ecology - stripped of its connotations - potentially more pluralistic in content and perspectives than any other name that has brevity and a bit of "zing" to it. The reason for suggesting the change, however, is worthy of our concern. If we keep the name, how do we take the intellectual high road, fostering greater plural- ism and attracting more of the junior talent who are working on the very same subjects that we study, but choose not to associate with our group, in part because they perceive us to be uninterested in or even hostile to their perspectives? Though some of them do not seek a pluralistic group, others do, and we should strongly encourage their participation, not view it as the intrusion of "outsiders" seeking to alter our warm, comfortable nest. Indeed, if our group can be radically altered easily, then we are intellectually weak and deserving that fate.

I have always been prone to hyperbole, perhaps overstating the case; and my perceptions are colored by an East-West coast experience where few of the very best junior scholars in nature-society studies have his- torically selected cultural ecology as their principal specialty group. I worry, though, about a specialty group whose members challenge the name change as "faddish" and appear to justify retention of it on the grounds that we claim to be open to all perspectives and interests within the nature-society set. Such responses fall short of the mark and may say something about ourselves. Do we not understand, for example, that cultural ecology is virtually absent internationally in geography and that this subfield itself is less than 30 years old? I can imagine that the cultural-historical geographers of the 1960s ascribed a "bandwagon men- tality" to the pioneer cultural ecologists among us and criticized the label as "faddish." Do we not realize that the comments that appeared in this newsletter about the membership credentials of those voting at the Toronto meeting may signal the real value thatmany of our group place on pluralism and on "openness to all perspec- tives"? Judging by the exchange on the subject thus far, it appears to me that a name change may do more damage than good to the specialty group. Indeed,it may even precipitate the loss of some of our most productive members. And I would be disingenuous if I did not admit that I am delighted to witness "traditional" cultural ecologists defending their group, engaging in an element of "turf-protecting." We care! I am also delighted to witness the pluralism of the words em- ployed in this defense, but somewhat disappointed by the implied messages of some (at least as I interpret them), which very much may be "business as usual" and "watch out for interlopers." I contend that the Cultural Ecology Specialty Group is not as healthy as it could be. We have grown in numbers on paper for a number of reasons: the resurgence of environmental geography; several major publications over the last few years promoting the subfield; activities taken by our secretary to make the group known to a larger audience; and, at least in the case of my program, the apparent realization by tutors and students alike that their research interests overlap with those of cultural ecology. I suspect, however, that this increase in numbers has been gained largely through those who list us as second or third in their interest priorities, and hence do not actively participate with us. Witness the number of students entering our paper awards program as an example. The large doctoral programs are replete with graduate students doing nature-society research, many of whom deliver papers at the AAG meetings, but very few of whom participate in our sessions or enter our paper competition. Why? I am also worried about some responses that imply a conspiracy theme -non-members voting in our Toronto business meeting! - rather than tackle the larger intellectual issues. To my knowledge, every person in our meeting was a member of the cultural ecology group, whatever their record of active participation within it. I have always assumed that we wish these members to participate with us; we certainly use them come funding and body-count time with the AAG! Is that all we wish of them? Or do we wish to enter an exchange that allows all parties to understand the interests and interchanges that are possible among them?

A final point, please, before I lose permanent contact with both my mentor and some of my students. No one loves their discipline and subfield more than I, and few have participated as diligently with the Cultural Ecology Specialty Group. It is this very love that prompts my concerns. Cultural-ecological geography is not about to wither away as a significant professional and intellectual cluster, but are we as strong as we could be? Or, are we satisfied with the level of our status and accomplishments? Will we not be stronger profession- ally and intellectually with greater pluralism, and do we seek that strength? If so, we must confront the issues behind the proposed name change. A small step towards addressing these issues was taken with the infusion of "new blood' into our officer positions. This will not be sufficient; it may even have adverse effects. At least, however, we actively reached out with the goal of experimenting with pluralism.

B L. Turner II

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