Introducing the blog: People and Nature

This first post explains my pragmatic goals and broad vision for this blog and concludes with a short discussion of my plan for how the blog will develop.

The Big Picture

This blog is about people and nature, the most boiled-down description of what I study. Though the acronym means “all”, a goal out of reach, pan can also mean bread or a cooking implement, tying into my topical interest with farming and food.  Pan also refers to the Greek god of the wild, of forests and pastures and mountains—typical meeting places of people and nature. In other words, titling the blog People and Nature is an overreach, but also a nod to the immensity of the world and the endless and often surprising connections we can find if we don’t worry too much about narrowing our vision.

The Practical Purpose

In a practical sense, this blog is a way for me to work out how to explain my research, my field, and why I think it matters. When people ask me what I do, I never feel I have an adequate response. “I am an environmental social scientist,” I might say, or “I study food safety governance in an environmental science and policy department.” These descriptions might satisfy the questioner and help me move the topic somewhere else, but I think neither of us really understands what is meant. On my end, my work incorporates elements from many disciplines: science and technology studies, political ecology, environmental history, political science, organization and governance studies, public health, ecology, and philosophy to name a few. I struggle to explain the core concepts and methods of inquiry for each of these fields to myself, let alone explain how they all fit together in a way that an interested bystander can make sense of. Writing things out always helps me organize and compose my thoughts, and provides a durable record that I can share with others. In addition, this blog is a platform from which I can showcase what the National Science Foundation (which currently funds me) calls “broader impacts” – helping inform the wider public about my research findings and hopefully engage more people in a wider, more knowledgeable, more transparent and more inclusive discussion of pressing problems at the nexus of people and nature, or at least farming and food!

The Connection

Combining the abstract big picture with the detailed day-to-day concerns of working and living is also the challenging divide that all academics must straddle. We have to explain the connection in our work: What does Polanyi’s double movement or Beck’s risk society have to do with controlling foodborne pathogens? We have to explain it to our students: How is an in-depth understanding of the concept of sacrifice zones or immutable mobiles going to help me get a job when I graduate? And we have to explain it to the public and private sources that fund our work: Why does elaborating a better formal model of meta-governance or examining the philosophical differences between paradigms of safety and sustainability justify you using spending our money? These connections are neither obvious nor intuitive; academics spend years learning how to think about and make use of them, and it is an ongoing struggle to teach others how to do the same.

This blog is my attempt to work on my skills in teaching and communicating the importance of connecting the big picture to the day-today. I will begin with a series of posts that discuss basic concepts from my fields that inform how I understand people and nature and frame my work on food safety governance. For example, next week I will post about why we should ask what nature is, and the next week will explore the concept society, or “the social.” Each post will aim for between 700 and 1000 words of plain language, to make the concepts as digestible as possible. In the endnotes, I will try to provide citations and links for articles and books that provide a more in-depth treatment of the topic. As the blog progresses, I will begin to weave in discussions of current events – for example debates over GMO labeling, fracking, pesticides, climate change, air pollution, or endangered species, to name some likely candidates – that highlight how the basic concepts may be used. Once there is sufficient foundation, I will also post about my own research progress in my studies of food safety and other ongoing research. I hope to post once a week, usually on Sunday night (PST).


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