Environmental Discourse Analysis as Applied to Ecosystems

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Environmental Discourse Analysis as Applied to Ecosystems
Environmental Sociology

Environmental Discourse Analysis as Applied to Ecosystems
What is an ecosystem? At first glance, this seems to be a straightforward question, one to be answered by environmental scientists. However, the concept of an ecosystem, or more specifically, the action that posits the existence of an ecosystem, raises a series of questions that challenge some basic assumptions about the environment. For instance, is an ecosystem a concrete object in the same way that a stone or a tree is? Or instead, is an ecosystem a set of interactions between such objects?

While ecosystems of indeed exist, it is not without dramatic changes in our epistemology that we can speak of such objects without contradiction. Most importantly we must acknowledge that the existence of ecosystems is contingent on human society. Environmental scientists certainly play an important role in describing ecosystems and in prescribing correct management of these systems, but we miss an important aspect of humanity’s role in the environment if we see ecosystems as discrete objects that exist independent of human society.

Then what is an ecosystem? An ecosystem is a concept constructed by human society that aids us in perceiving an amazingly complex structure of interactions. This construction is rooted fundamentally in our language and discourse analysis is vital to understanding what an ecosystem might be.

While there are advantages to seeing the ecosystem as a concrete object, it is my intention in this paper to describe an alternative view of ecosystems that is rooted in a post-positivistic, post-modern analysis of reality. Hopefully, such analysis will also be useful in analyzing other concepts pertinent to environmental issues. To approach this alternative view, I will outline the concept of discourse as formulated by Michel Foucault, summarize the views and extensions of post-Foucauldian discourse analytic theorists, and finally apply these concepts to the question of ecosystems. Throughout, I will address the epistemological changes implicit in discourse analysis.

A discourse is an institutionalized way of speaking that determines not only what we say and how we say it, but also what we do not say. Originating in the field of linguistics, the term discourse initially referred to whole units of speech (conversations) and the speech community in which these units were communicated. William Labov (1972) and other sociolinguists have used discourse analysis primarily as a descriptive tool, leaving epistemological and post-modern considerations aside.

Michel Foucault (1972) transformed the concept of discourse from its linguistic formulation and applied it to the social sciences. He rigorously identified and typologized the structures of discourses, emphasizing how discourses affect everything in our society while remaining nearly unobservable. He argued that, “in every society the production of discourse is at once controlled, selected, organized and redistributed according to a certain number of procedures, whose role is to avert its power and its dangers, to cope with chance events, to evade its ponderous, awesome materiality” (Foucault 1972). For Foucault, discourse is necessarily tied to systems of power insofar as the elite is able to maintain power by controlling what can be said.

Foucault (1972) identified three types of exclusion that can be used to control discourse: rules that prohibit what can be said, rules that distinguish reason from madness, and rules that determine truth and falsity. The first type, prohibition, refers to the rituals, practices, and privileges that determine who can say what in a given situation. These rules form a complex web that envelops our discussions, public and private, to allow only certain types of statements to exist. Moreover, commenting on the hidden nature of these rules, Foucault noted that,...
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