"I know that the molecules in my body are traceable to phenomena in the cosmos
We are all connected;
To each other, biologically
To the earth, chemically
To the rest of the universe atomically."
Neil deGrasse Tyson
While my work is profoundly informed by the insights expressed in the above quote and by Gregory Bateson’s message that the basic unit of survival is always organism and environment, as a sociologist I spend much of my time debating whether a deep concern for the ecological has a place in socially oriented disciplines where, given the amount of work yet to be done to make the world a better place, it can seem counterintuitive to shift focus away from issues of ‘the social’ -- such as social inequality and human suffering -- in order to study the natural world. Of course, human misery grows in contexts of environmental degradation with profound implications for the social world and so ultimately the connection between humans and the natural world can be convincingly argued. Add to this the fact that what have been localised realities for decades are now becoming global realities as people around the world are increasingly competing for scarce natural resources such as potable water, food or fuel and that climate driven floods, heat waves as well as other natural disasters are collapsing built infrastructure, taxing social institutions and generally damaging human health and wellbeing, it is no wonder that coupled social-ecological issues are beginning to be treated seriously.
At the heart of this pursuit within the social sciences is the project of addressing the intrinsic value of natural worlds to social worlds. Western philosophy generally, and the biomedical cosmology specifically, are built upon notions of co-eternal binary oppositions through which the tacit view has emerged of humans as distinct from animals, culture from nature, mind from body, scientific logic from subjective experience, and human health as separate from natural environmental health. Some describe these binary constructions of reality as having led to the ‘death of nature’ within Western cultures and therefore medical thought making the 17th and 18th centuries not an Enlightenment but an ‘Endarkenment’ whose legacy is still felt within health studies. From a sociological point of view, the good news within all the bad is that public environmental health issues challenge the Enlightenment view of nature because natural environmental health determinants don’t often fit into binary frameworks. Rather, they illuminate the complexity, interactivity and co-determinacy of humanity’s relationships with the natural world; particularly evocative are those issues demonstrating that anthropogenic activity drives environmental events which in turn lead to human disease and suffering.
As an ‘ecological medical sociologist’ (to coin a term and construct an identity) then, I often find myself curious about how others are approaching working in the spaces between environmental, social and health theories and in the tensions between health policy and practice. I wonder, for example, how others are approaching questions such as:
- “How could the social sciences better contribute to health research if issues of health and illness were placed at the nexus between the natural world and the social world?”;
- “Within public health responses, what are the gaps between theory and practice, academic conversations and field work, and health policy and organisational practices on the ground in relation to the social and the environmental?’;
- “What can a critical approach to social construction make visible about the relations of power at work in constructing and contesting the interconnection of the social and natural worlds?”;
- “How can taking an interdisciplinary approach, one grounded in social, ecological and health frameworks, facilitate a rethinking of the relationship between the social world and the natural environment in relation to public health?”;
- “How can this research help with, first, understanding the complexity of health issues produced in the nexus between the social and the environmental and, second, the imperative of distilling this information into practices and frameworks which can be used both in the field of public health practice and in the health policy arena?”
So, what say you EcoHealther’s?
And what kind of work are you ecological medical sociologists, anthropologists, geographers, philosophers, poets, artists and more working on… and how are you going about it in the current moment?