A. The Nature Of Theory

In addition to the plausible benefits of increasing precision in conceptualization and clarity in communication, sensitivity to the structure of theory offers some less tangible rewards. Among the rationales for sensitivity to theory, Pickett, Kolasa and Jones (1994:58) point out that theory "[h]elps you make decisions about what to do next in a world in which `everything is a little bit interesting' but only some things are worthwhile," and also, "[p]revents you from getting lost in the threatening tide of details."

Sensitivity to the nature of theory also puts dichotomous and fragmented debates into perspective (see Figure 2), since exclusionary tendencies often develop out of protracted dichotomous debate. Examples from our intellectual heritage include the irritating nature/culture debate (for discussion see Scoones 1999:486); and the old Cartesian mind-body separation problem. Gaps in understanding widen as polar positions become entrenched. Discontinuity and fragmented understandings may become ends in themselves, perpetuating closed intellectual environments. Nonetheless, dichotomous debate can be resolved through integration, ultimately leading to more holistic understandings.

Fig. 2.

Theoretical Progress Via Integration

An initial simplified working definition of integration is the amalgamation of existing theory, perspectives, approaches, models or data that are apparently disparate. Although a desirable goal, achieving integration is not easy. Some of the procedures and circumstances necessary for successful integration include: (1) Specifying Domain. For integration to happen, the focus or domain of the relevant theories/subdisciplines, which are the subjects of integration, must be clearly stated. With clearly defined subject matter and boundaries, the development of linkages between the theories becomes more feasible. (2) Conceptual Clarification. The domain is not the only component of theory that needs to be clearly delineated. There is usually confusion about the meanings and subjects of specific concepts within a theory. Clarification of concepts also enables the asking of new questions that may further integration and the development of theory. (3) Consideration of Scale and Level. Integration requires consideration of the scale(s) at which a theory operates. Theories may answer questions across levels of organization, particularly adjacent levels of a particular scale, as in Figure 3a (bottom part) or Table 1.

Studies within ecology sensu lato can be ordered on several axes to illustrate the diversity of research areas within this arena (Likens 1992). Figure 3a represents the subdisciplines of bioecology7ordered along an axis of abiotic to biotic foci (Likens 1992; Pickett, Kolasa and Jones 1994).

The diverse discipline of human ecology can also be schematically depicted along axes of organization. As such, Figure 3b includes some of the subdisciplines and subject matter that contribute to human ecology. This contributing subject matter is ordered: (1) horizontally within multiple categories of environment (physical, biological, cultural, and social); and (2) vertically along a hierarchical scale of organization (individual to population to world systems). The diversity of the contributing subject matter illustrates the daunting challenge presented to those interested in achieving integration within human ecology.

Fig. 3a.Fig. 3b.

Understanding and Explanation

Understanding is experience made intelligible by applying concepts and categories to apprehending the general relations between particulars. Scientific understanding is an `objectively' determined match between some set of confirmable, observable phenomena in the non-human and human world(s) and a conceptual construct. Some of the components of this type of understanding can be seen in Figure 4. Our take on the components reflects a philosophy of human sciences that draws heavily on the humanities

Fig. 4.

The relationship between understanding and explanation is that explanation is the process of relating conceptual constructs to observable phenomena, and understanding is the professed and hoped for result of this process. Explanation may (among other things): (1) relate phenomena (patterns) to causal mechanisms; (2) resolve phenomena into processes at lower hierarchical levels (Pattee 1973); and (3) contextualize phenomena within larger processes.

  • 7. Here, bioecology refers to what is more conventionally simply called `ecology,' to facilitate use of the term ecology (sensu lato) for the domain that includes both biophysical ecology and sociocultural ecology.

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