How can the social sciences be made one with conservation?

Regardless of a researcher’s academic training, it can often be challenging to understand and apply ideas, concepts, and theories from a discipline that is not your own. For highly interdisciplinary studies, such as natural resource management and conservation, failure to understand how seemingly disparate disciplines are related can become a source of confusion and conflict. Distinctions in natural resource management can often be simply deconstructed to either natural or social science based. Recently, researchers in conservation sciences have presented ideas for merging the natural and social sciences under one umbrella. Specific examples of bridging the gap between the natural science and social sciences include a philosophical discussion on the ontological and epistemological differences of scientists (Moon & Blackman, 2014), while others have positioned conservation as inherently a social and behavioral issue (Schultz, 2011). Extending ideas from other fields, I propose two additional frameworks/perspectives which provide a basis for furthering the conceptualization of a holistic conservation science.

The first perspective to consider for uniting conservation science originates from evolutionary psychology, where theory provided a conceptual groundwork for the integration of biological theories with theories of psychology. Expanding ideas beyond biology and psychology, the conceptualization of vertically integrated explanations (VIE) positions physics as the groundwork that underlies and imposes functional restrictions onto the next layer of scientific understanding (Barkow, Cosmides, & Tooby, 1992). Following in sequence, physics places restrictions on laws of chemistry, restricting laws of biology, then psychology, sociology, anthropology, and lastly unto culture. VIE can be further extended to position that each layer of scientific understanding interacts with layers above and below (see Figure 1.). The interconnection between each layer of scientific understanding suggests that to fully explain some phenomena, every layer must be understood as well as the interaction between each layer.  Therefore for conservation science, it is critical to understand natural and social explanations for phenomena as well as the interactions between them.



The second prospect for integrating the social science with the natural sciences into conservation can be gathered by examining the history of psychology. Early psychology was founded in the structuralism paradigm, where it was believed that the mind and behavior could be understood by examining the smallest components/building blocks. In contrast, an alternative to structuralism developed into a functionalism philosophy, where the mind and behavior were examined in terms of the function and adaptation to the environment. Since the dawn of psychology, functionalism has continued to be a dominate philosophy of psychology (Green, 2009). It could be argued that functionalism has become so predominant and implicit within psychological research in the United States that few psychologists concern themselves with explicitly identifying as a functionalist. For the natural sciences of conservation, the methods and analysis often reflect a structuralism approach, attempting to understand the chemical and biological make-up of some phenomena. Much of the environmental social sciences has tended to mimic the natural sciences by seeking to understand the social structure of conservation (i.e., number of people, where people are located, what people are using, etc). In contrast, a functional understanding of social science in conservation would provide a new basis for theory, methodology, and an overall understanding of pro-environmental behavior and conservation. Tasked with seeking to understand the function of people in conservation and the function of conservation on people provide new perspectives that are generally non-existent in the environmental social sciences. New theories and directions can be tactful to continue bridging the natural and social conservation sciences

As researchers in conservation continue to seek solutions for issues that plague society, a unified understanding of the natural and social elements is necessary to resolve highly complex and intricate problems. While cooperation between the natural and social sciences is important to unify the fields, wishful thinking and good intentions alone will not produce a fruitful result. Instead, specific and concise goals are required to build a holistic conservation science. Borrowing ideas and concepts from other disciplines and applying them to conservation science (VIE) and seeking to understand the role of people in the function of conservation (functionalism) are both ideas that can be used to formulate novel theoretical, methodological, and philosophical understanding of conservation. New understandings of conservation are key to providing solutions to difficult real-world problems.


[1] Moon, K., & Blackman, D. (2014). A guide to understanding social science research for natural scientists. Conservation Biology28(5), 1167-1177. [2] Schultz, P. (2011). Conservation means behavior. Conservation Biology25(6), 1080-1083. [3] Cosmides, L., Tooby, J., & Barkow, J. H. (1992). Introduction: Evolutionary psychology and conceptual integration. [4] Green, C. D. (2009). Darwinian theory, functionalism, and the first American psychological revolution. American Psychologist64(2), 75.