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Year : 2022  |  Volume : 20  |  Issue : 3  |  Page : 268-277

Conservation Social Scientists in Transnational Institutions: Negotiating Hierarchies of Expertise

Department of Anthropology, American University, Washington, DC, USA

Correspondence Address:
C Anne Claus
Department of Anthropology, American University, Washington, DC
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Source of Support: None, Conflict of Interest: None

DOI: 10.4103/cs.cs_23_21

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Date of Submission11-Feb-2021
Date of Acceptance14-Feb-2022
Date of Web Publication27-May-2022


For decades, social scientists have been advocating for more social science in transnational conservation. Yet they confront considerable structural and epistemological challenges as they integrate in the organisations that hire them, since they face dual challenges of being numerical minorities and occupying low rungs on environmentalist knowledge hierarchies. This article analyses the labour of conservation social scientists employed in transnational non-governmental organisations (NGOs) through the lenses of interdisciplinarity and expertise to elucidate how they attempt to effect changes in their institutions. Conservation social scientists find themselves collaborating in asymmetrical interdisciplinarity and, therefore, they engage in extra hidden labour as they seek to disrupt hegemonic ways of conceptualising and practising conservation. These findings suggest that institutions must continue to make more meaningful bureaucratic, structural, and ideological changes if they truly aim to 'mainstream' the human dimensions of conservation.

Keywords: organisational change, expertise, interdisciplinarity, minorities, integration

How to cite this article:
Claus C A. Conservation Social Scientists in Transnational Institutions: Negotiating Hierarchies of Expertise. Conservat Soc 2022;20:268-77

How to cite this URL:
Claus C A. Conservation Social Scientists in Transnational Institutions: Negotiating Hierarchies of Expertise. Conservat Soc [serial online] 2022 [cited 2023 May 29];20:268-77. Available from: https://www.conservationandsociety.org.in//text.asp?2022/20/3/268/346205

   Introduction Top

Over the past decades, academics and journalists have exposed damaging policies and practices of transnational environmental conservation organisations, levying serious charges about conservation-induced displacements, torture, and even murder by those paid by transnational organisations to create and foster environmental conservation (Escobar 2011; Fletcher 2012; Goldman 2005; Li 2000; Neumann 2006). Some of these publications (WorldWatch 2005; Baker and Warren 2020) have prompted public responses from the organisations themselves. The changing tone in these public replies indicate that at least some of the organisations have begun to take such accusations more seriously, accept a measure of responsibility for harmful social policies in the countries and regions where they work, and attempt to effect institutional changes.

At the same time, and not unrelated to these critiques, 'people' now appear in some guise in the mission statements of many influential transnational conservation organisations. Conservation International, for example, “…empowers societies to responsibly and sustainably care for nature…for the well-being of humanity.” The Nature Conservancy states that their “…vision is a world where…people act to conserve nature for its own sake and its ability to fulfil our needs and enrich our lives.” World Resources Institute aims to “provide for the needs and aspirations of current and future generations.” This inclusion of societal needs in their mandates signals an ideological shift for organisations that had in the past interpreted their role as primarily understanding and protecting environments, as some prominent conservationists have argued, “by any means necessary” (Terborgh 2004).

In some transnational institutions, meaningfully implementing changes to become more 'people' oriented and simultaneously address the aforementioned transgressions has led to the hiring of social scientists who are trained to understand and interpret societies. Significantly, even as these organisations have loudly proclaimed that they are “science-based,” traditionally this has referred to natural sciences, disciplines like ecology that carry high symbolic weight among environmentalists. This is evident in the rise of the new and purportedly distinct category of “conservation social science,” a term (and concept) that began to appear regularly in the early 2000s (Chan et al. 2007; Mascia 2003; Viseu 2015; Green et al. 2015). With this amalgamating term, scholar-practitioners have attempted to better address the human dimensions of conservation by joining the disciplines of anthropology, sociology, political science, economics, geography, environmental studies, and psychology into one overarching category (Castree et al. 2014). Here I use the term 'humanist' to distinguish conservation social scientists from their colleagues who are trained in natural science disciplines.

Transnational organisations have hired trained humanists in the past, for example, to manage their community-based conservation efforts or to implement conservation from a human rights perspective (see, Alcorn 2005 and others). Additionally, the hiring of independent consultants on a contractual basis—especially for project evaluations or trainings—has been a common practice. These newer long-term hires, however, are related to a problem-solving approach within transnational conservation organisations that is explicitly interdisciplinary.1 Proponents argue that hiring humanists helps create more successful projects and prevent societal harms by connecting social and ecological concerns, re-orienting organisational priorities, and ensuring project relevance to communities (Russell and Harshbarger 2003; de Snoo and al 2013; Sandbrook et al. 2013; Viseu 2015). This interdisciplinarity is one way that organisations can become more accountable, effectively deflecting public criticisms or meeting policy requirements or guidelines set by funders and governments (Doubleday 2007). In fostering this interdisciplinarity, conservation organisations ostensibly seek to promote sustained boundary transgressions that also reconfigure the relations between social and natural sciences (Strathern 2011).

These conditions raise questions about the processes through which social scientists become integrated into the structures and practices of transnational conservation organisations.

Some have suggested that the problem of effectively integrating conservation social scientists into conservation organisations rests on practical matters—for example, conservationists are not familiar with social science disciplines, and thus, need more information about how they can be mobilised for conservation ends (Fox et al. 2006; Bennett et al. 2017a, b). In addition to that, others have emphasised the epistemological barriers that also emerge for social scientists in conservation contexts (Campbell 2005; Peterson et al. 2008). As diversity and inclusion officers attempting to promote and reconcile integration in other contexts would note (Ahmed 2012), the work of integration requires making multilayered commitments to bureaucratic, ideological, and structural changes, of which hiring practices play a significant but small part.

No one I interviewed for this research said that social sciences are on equal footing with natural sciences or that their organisation has 'mainstreamed' social science, despite the recent transformation of mission statements and increased communications about the significance of conservation's 'human dimensions.' The humanists I interviewed for this article exhibited diverse professional aims for integrating into conservation institutions. Although they were united in their passions for making positive change in environmentalism, their approaches differed. Some sought to contribute without upending the status quo, through lending their expertise in social science methods. These humanists found ways to make their work fit within the frames of reference that were established by dominant natural scientific understandings. Others sought to challenge nature/culture binaries, redistribute resources and staff to humanistic priorities, and reconceptualise conservation processes. They sought to make more extensive changes in the ways that conservation was understood and undertaken. Below I illustrate that these conservation social scientists—e.g., the humanists referenced earlier in the paragraph—regularly find themselves stuck in one type of interdisciplinarity but they actively engage in a series of manoeuvrers in attempts to transition into another type.

I approach this inquiry through the lens of expertise, examining the work of conservation social scientists as they attempt to disrupt hegemonic natural science ways of conceptualising and practising conservation. Like the organisations themselves, I collapse diverse social science disciplines into one amalgamated grouping in order to explore the analytical potential of this categorisation for understanding institutional practices of transnational conservation organisations writ large. In asking these questions I build on the work of Riles (2006) into the micro-politics of expert practices as I look to the interpretations of conservationists themselves to understand the various ways that their institutions (do and fail to) cultivate, authorise, and organise their knowledge practices to create space for social science and social scientists.

My research questions emerged through my long-term fieldwork on transnational conservation in Japan since 2009, and I support my arguments with 14 in-depth interviews conducted in 2020 among social scientists working long-term (i.e., not as consultants) in the headquarters of five transnational conservation organisations: The Nature Conservancy (TNC), Conservation International (CI), World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF), World Resources Institute (WRI), and Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS). Together, these organisations generated over USD 2.7 billion in revenue in 2018, employ around 13,000 individuals, and work in nearly every region of the world. These specific organisations were chosen for analysis because their work is transnational in scope and they are perceived by conservationists to be significant transnational actors. I also interviewed social scientists who work on conservation at United States Agency for International Development (USAID) and the World Bank's Global Environmental Facility (GEF); these agencies regularly fund the work of transnational conservation organisations. All interviewees have graduate level academic training in a social science and have been employed in the field for 1-40 years. I used referral sampling to identify interviewees, who are located around the globe. The interviews, semi-structured, were conducted in English and the duration ranged from one to four hours. Many of the interviews were conducted at cafes in or near Washington, D.C. where most of the organisations' headquarters are located, and others were conducted over video conferencing or phone calls.

I interviewed multiple individuals in most of the organisations, but never more than three in each, because of the limited numbers of staff employed as social scientists. Though it is hard to find definitive numbers—notably, the organisations themselves do not track this data—it is clear that conservation social scientists are minorities in their organisations. In one organisation known for having a concentration of social scientists, six of the 50 staff members in the science department are trained social scientists. Another organisation recently dismantled their social science team and dispersed the staff who remain—three of whom have graduate training in social science—into different programmes. In a third organisation, six of the 35 staff members in the global science department are trained social scientists. In organisations that range from hundreds to thousands of employees, graduate-trained social scientists are indeed minorities.

Although those I spoke with may also be minorities in the more commonly discussed sense of their ethnicity, race, gender, nationality, or sexual orientation, this article focuses solely on their status as epistemological minorities within their organisations.2 Feminist scholars have noted how the intersection of personal identity traits like gender and race significantly shape the production of knowledge and the fashioning of expertise (Kobayashi 1994; Faria and Mollett 2016). Further, gender, race, sexuality, and ethnicity play key roles in affective aspects of institutional life (Ahmed 2004). In future ethnographic research, I aim to further explore the relationship of these dynamics to the work of conservation social scientists, moving beyond an analytical focus on their collective status as disciplinary minorities. In this article, in keeping with ethical standards that protect research participants that may otherwise be easily identifiable, interviewees remain anonymous, gender neutral pronouns are used, and the organisations are intentionally disentangled from the comments of interviewees.

In the following discussion, I give a brief overview that places conservation social scientists in the context of other development officials and outline the various ways that they perceive asymmetries in their interdisciplinary collaborations. Conservation social scientists draw on academic and journalistic critiques of transnational conservation to inform their work, performing authentication that simultaneously creates space for alternative ways of understanding and practising conservation as this hidden labour also takes time and effort away from doing that work. Throughout, I draw from scholarship on expertise to understand how pernicious knowledge hierarchies continue to constrain the resources and relationships of minority social scientists as they attempt to negotiate a place for themselves in transnational conservation.

   Knowledge Hierarchies, Expertise, and Conservation Social Scientists Top

Conservationists have rarely been the subjects of social science research (Carrier and West 2009; Redford 2011; Kiik 2019). Considering the growing body of work about (other) development officials and professional expertise, it is surprising how little is written about conservationists.3 In previous ethnographic research I examined the ways that a disciplinary minority working for a transnational conservation organisation's Japanese field station navigated challenges to his authority within the organisation. This research indicated how performing expertise is a collaborative act that involves more than the individuals who represent diverse disciplinary ways of knowing, as in this case, the support of external experts was critical for legitimating counter-hegemonic conservation work (Claus 2020).4

Expertise is inherently interactional and also always ideological, as scientific evidence never “speaks for itself” (Clarke 2020) but is made to articulate through performative expressions based in particular ontological frameworks (Boyer 2008). Transnational conservation organisations have historically depended on the expertise of conservation biologists, whose knowledge about species and ecosystems has been critical to determining geographies where organisations focus their efforts. For decades these organisations have been embroiled in larger debates about whether the work of global environmentalism should be primarily ecocentric or anthropocentric, ongoing debates that continue to reveal the persistent nature/culture binaries that underlie this work (e.g., Adams et al. 2004; Sanderson 2003). These tensions are critically important to the work of humanists because they also map onto knowledge hierarchies in the sciences more broadly.

Conservation contexts differ from international development because inverted science hierarchies mean that humanist expertise is privileged in the latter, however, there are other helpful thematic and theoretical overlaps with scholarship on development experts (Dove 1992; Lewis and Mosse 2006). Binaries that permeate development are also integral to the work of conservation NGOs—particularly those surrounding the ways development is rendered technical or anti-political, rather than critical or political (Ferguson 1994; Fairhead and Leach 1996; Mosse 2004). These binaries are significant to the work of conservation humanists in two significant ways. One is through rationalisation. As Mitchell (2002: 242) argues, writing about the relationship of the West to elsewhere, “development discourse wishes to present itself as a detached center of rationality and intelligence…the West possesses the expertise, technology, and management skills that the non-West is lacking. This lack is what has caused the problems of the non-west.” For some humanists, the technical and rationalistic modes of expertise in conservation run counter to their disciplinary ontologies which may be explicitly critical or political, creating problems for interdisciplinary collaboration (Goldman 2005). A second way these binaries become significant is through how that rationalisation is quantitatively achieved. Much in the way that within the United Nations Environmental Programme (UNEP), disciplinary inclusivity is hampered by the 'measurement logics' that privilege standardisation (Turnhout et al. 2014; see also Shore and Wright 2015), in conservation organisations there continues to be a de-privileging of qualitative data. In negotiations over these contestations, disciplinary divides often times become meaningful (Lelé and Norgaard 2005).

Even in collaborations among disciplinarians, there is heterogeneity and fluidity which results in both boundary fortification and crossing (Laclau and Mouffe 1985; Lamont and Molnar 2002). Interdisciplinary collaborations are likewise heterogeneous. Barry and Born (2013), for example, lay out three different “ideal types” of interdisciplinarity to demonstrate the heterogeneous forms that collaborations can take. There is relatively symmetrical integration of two or more disciplines (integrative-synthesis type), which may or may not involve epistemic transformations (Ramadier 2004); (Petts et al. 2008). Another type of collaboration, agonistic-antagonistic, signals a self-conscious dialogue about the constraints of disciplines and is more likely to result in the transcendence of disciplinary epistemological and ontological assumptions. A third type is characterised as an asymmetrical meeting in which one or more disciplines primarily serve the knowledge production of other disciplines in a division of labour that does not engender epistemic change (Irwin and Wynne 1996; Marcus 2002. Categorised as subordination-service, in this type, “practitioners who are firmly rooted in one discipline, and have a strong internal sense of [its] authority…go on looting expeditions to grab some subject matter or [methodology] from some outlying discipline and drag it back to mine or exploit or reprocess it” (Penny, quoted in Barry and Born 2013: 14).

In finding that symmetrical interdisciplinary remains difficult for conservation social scientists to implement, I draw on analyses of other environmental contexts where humanists occupy a low rung on knowledge hierarchies. For example, in 2012 in an explicit attempt at inclusivity, the United Nations Environment Program (UNEP) established the IPBES (Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services) and welcomed social scientists and humanities representatives to its governing bodies. Despite these efforts, a recent review has noted their constrained participation due to “IPBES' predominant use of concepts and methodologies derived from the natural sciences” (Diaz-Reviriego et al. 2019). These pervasive conditions raise the question of how such asymmetries are perceived and addressed by humanists in their transnational conservation work.

   Resource and Relationship Asymmetries Top

What are the available resources that help conservation social scientists to meaningfully integrate in their institutions? How is power rendered legible and accessible (or, conversely, inaccessible) to them? Seemingly innocuous organisational practices reveal the extent to which stated aims align with organisational directives around increasing humanist conservation. Power itself is a fraught concept that can be viewed with more complexity as a set of intersectional forces that have historical contingencies (Abu-Lughod 1990; Johansson and Vinthagen 2016). As conservation social scientists attempt to push the limits of the work of transnational conservation, their humanist work is thwarted (or becomes possible) largely in two overlapping domains of resources and organisational integration.

Oftentimes the bar against which conservation social scientists measure their access to these dimensions of power and influence is vis-à -vis their natural science colleagues. As minorities within their organisations, the relatively lower visibility of their work can make it challenging to access organisational resources that are available to others. As one interviewee said, “[My organisation] talk(s) about the importance of indigenous communities…talks about it a lot. But, the extent to which they act on what they're…saying is, I think, lacking.” “Acting” for this interviewee refers to both funding and other multifaceted forms of support. Within organisations there may be support staff to assist with grant-writing or communications about research designed for both internal and external audiences that help to raise the profile of emerging research and, thus, subsequently lead to more resources, awareness, and prestige. One challenge interviewees discussed, that relates to ensuring they have adequate resources to undertake their work is in accessing those support staff. For some, the issue is insufficient organisational integration of conservation social scientists—requiring individuals to build their own relationships with people in the fundraising and communication departments. A related issue is that, even for those social scientists who are well-connected, the abilities of the individuals working in those departments to communicate adequately about conservation social science or find funding sources is limited. This inhibits larger shifts in organisational values.

For many, concerns about access to relationships with those who can help to fund and communicate about their work within their organisations is part of a broader series of concerns about how organisations authorise and cultivate social science through staffing. For some these concerns are pervasive,

I am…constantly saying that you need to understand local context. And that doesn't mean that somebody who's sitting in [the US] should be the one calling the shots, it means that we need to make sure that our field staff that are based in-country are the ones leading projects, and more often than not, not even them, but the people that are actually…on the ground, that know a landscape…and are also the ones that are going to be living with any consequences in terms of outcomes of a particular project.

This comment calls into question the conceptualisation and implementation of projects. Ensuring that the 'right' people (discussed in terms of those who 'understand the local context') collaborate is a key struggle for conservation social scientists as concerns over who shapes and manages projects are relevant at every stage of a conservation project. Some conservation social scientists who have been in the field for decades recognised positive changes in this regard, in that there are now more conservation social scientists in their organisations, thus more trained staff who could be available to ensure more systematic engagement with human dimensions of conservation. One interviewee mentioned that a specific aim of their work is to ensure that “gender, vulnerable peoples, indigenous peoples…are integrated into the main questions of the work, and form central conservation strategy and don't get silo-ed into something that's like a hoop that you have to jump through.” In other organisations this work is not explicitly part of someone's job, and the integration of social scientists across an entire project's lifecycle is project-dependent, rather than systematic.

In fact, for the majority of those I spoke with, humanist concerns are still relegated to specific (oftentimes late) stages of projects or integrated at one stage of a project but then not at others, indicating one way that organisations continue to fail to reorganise their knowledge practices to include social science (Brosius 1999; Verma et al. 2010; Chua et al. 2020). One interviewee summed this up succinctly as they noted that at their organisation, “there's social science inputs to something versus social science designing something and getting inputs from natural sciences.” Without consistent engagement across the entire lifecycle of a project social scientists have concerns about how meaningful the integration of humanist concerns is. These questions about how organisations cultivate access extend to whether they are able to highlight humanist concerns regarding the reverberating social impacts of projects. A final concern about how organisations integrate humanists into their practices relates to their involvement in designing global-scale conservation strategies (rather than circumscribed projects)—in most organisations, integration of humanists into broader strategy development remains limited, indicating another key way in which organisations fail to authorise and cultivate expertise that could lead to more symmetrical valuation of social and natural sciences.

Foundering organisational integration of humanists has financial implications as well. The clearest example of how humanists discuss this is in reference to the pressing need in most of the transnational conservation organisations to implement social safeguards to achieve more equitable conservation, a key concern of many humanists working within conservation organisations. A conservation social scientist who has been in the field for around five years said,

there has been a lot of talk about safeguards and safeguard systems within the institution but not a whole lot of commitment, mainly because they feel it's too much of a financial investment…this is something that I think all of the big NGOs have…a problem with.

Many interviewees, in short, perceived discrepancies in the amount of dialogue about humanist concerns in conservation practice versus actual financial commitment to them.

Funding agencies themselves recognise the failure of transnational organisations to allocate adequate resources to humanist conservation. Social scientists who work in funding agencies that support the work of transnational conservation organisations perceive neglectfulness in resourcing and supporting the integration of social science into organisational practices and processes. One funding agency interviewee noted that, while they have seen change over time in transnational conservation work plans that indicates increased awareness of the importance of humanist concerns, oftentimes they discover the appropriate personnel are not involved, or the project budget falls short of the articulated aims. They admitted,

Now I've gotten to the point where I say, 'Okay, we need to add this component for indigenous peoples in protected areas. I don't want to just see the workplan, I want to know how, and what your budget is. I want to know what expertise'…I see that the NGOs…put a lot of lip service into it, they don't put the resources.

Another interviewee mentioned that they insert social science into socioeconomic and governance assessments and help to manage the initiatives when possible. They noted, “I'm usually the one to say, 'hey, you're missing the socioeconomic piece' or be critical of what they propose to do with the social science. Because they have all of this detail with the natural science and then very little on the social science.” Funders noted other ways that they support humanist conservation include adding critical learning components into project plans, helping to influence the work plan and the key personnel, or completing evaluations to bring critical perspectives into the programmes that they fund—the work that, they noted, aims to encourage organisations to cultivate social science expertise.

As conservation organisations themselves would be quick to point out, undertaking their work is impossible without having adequate 'capacity,' a term which is shorthand for the trained staff.5 Even as mission statements shift and enable different kinds of work within organisations, without employees to undertake this labour then institutional change is slow to materialise. However, as Strathern and Rockhill (2013) note, even with adequate funding and research policies, attempts to implant interdisciplinarity in unresponsive or hostile organisational cultures will fail. The presence of trained staff does not easily translate into legitimation or acceptance of their work (Silverstein 2004).

In conservation organisations, contestations over expertise emerge in assumptions about who is deemed able to interpret humanistic knowledge. For many humanists, one continued challenge of their collaborative work emerges in failures to understand the depth of knowledge needed to undertake and interpret social science research, oftentimes in contrast to the natural sciences. An interviewee who has been in the field for around three decades and has worked for both transnational conservation organisations and the agencies that fund them said,

I think [the inclusion of social science] has improved, it's more than it was 25 years ago when I came out of grad school…It's just that people are still a little bewildered by how to do it or what it means…[it's] still not taken as seriously as I think it should be, there's still this perception that you need a real scientist for the natural science and then the social science can be done by anyone.

These sentiments were pervasive, suggesting an imbalance in authority of social scientists related to a lack of awareness of the complexity of social science theories, epistemologies, and methodologies. Whereas natural science is perceived as complicated or necessitating expertise to comprehend, social scientific concerns are interpreted as legible to laypeople and non-experts. These conditions create extra authentication labour for conservation social scientists.

   Authentication Labour Top

A consequence of interdisciplinary asymmetry based in the weighted authority of natural science is that humanists must advocate for their own presence. In spite of the gains made in the past two decades, that is, many conservation social scientists, still face legitimacy challenges that require them to do not only their work but also to undertake additional strategic work to 'authenticate' conservation social science.

This authentication work encompasses the labour of translation and advocacy emergent in these struggles over expertise. Authentication may be necessary to counter an assumption not uncommon to environmental organisations that the key aspects of their work are ecological, which suggests that sociocultural variables are minor and insignificant, or that they may be important but that anyone can effectively address them without training because they are also themselves 'people.' This authentication work has varied outcomes and can also result in precarious positioning of the social scientists within their organisations. As has been noted in other contexts, “realising one's self as an expert can hinge on casting other people as less aware, knowing, or knowledgeable” (Carr 2010: 22).

Scholars have discussed how NGOs in particular orient their work around 'projects' which may appear to be successful on paper but upon further examination are oftentimes divorced from actual eco-social outcomes (Freeman and Schuller 2020). Such scholarship suggests that improving organisational practices involves expanding from these project success narratives to critically analyse their humanist elements through social science-informed critiques. One staff member noted both the necessity for and the reticence in their organisation to critically assess their projects, particularly ones that seem like failures, saying,

The only way we can get better…get closer to having conservation outcomes that are also socially just—is to learn from that failure. And that means that you have to be able to talk about it and you have to be able to analyse it and figure out what went wrong at every stage. And that's something that, at least at [my organisation], doesn't happen at all levels and not everybody is open to that.

For some social scientists, authentication work that involves pointing out how previous work in their organisations has been unsuccessful or problematic is one way to advocate for humanistic concerns: thereby pointing out the real need for diverse social science expertise. Outside critiques of transnational conservation practices can serve important roles in helping prompt transformations and increase the ability of social scientists to be 'heard' in their organisations, as conservation social scientists draw on popular media and academic research to deflect and bolster their authentication work. In attempting to enact broader changes to prevent such harms in the future, social scientists who draw on these critiques to legitimise their work can seem troublesome to their organisations. This form of authentication work runs counter to the broader tendency in NGOs to look for 'successes' and overlook project failures, as it simultaneously potentially jeopardises the long-term integration of social science within these organisations. By looking at failures and pointing to the arbitrary, the contingent, and the unintended consequences of their work, humanists also create new vulnerabilities as they point to problems that organisations are unable to address because of their current bureaucratic, structural, and ideological positions.

Authentication work requires time and thus resources, as an interviewee who is new to the field said, “we have to…self-advocate for what we're doing and demonstrate its importance. And that takes time and effort.” Another interviewee elaborated on this point, saying, “social scientists work harder than natural scientists to let people know that [their work] is important.” Knowledge hierarchies thus create what feminist scholars would recognise as significant additional 'hidden' labour for many conservation social scientists (Noon et al. 2013 ; Hatton 2017).

   Epistemological Manoeuvrers Top

Despite the need to engage in authentication struggles in their work, nearly everyone I spoke with noted that general demand for social scientists within their organisations is high and that there is often more work than they have time to undertake, indicating that transnational conservation organisations are aware of the ways that social scientists can prove instrumental to improving conservation practice. For humanists, it is evident that people within their organisations value their methodological contributions, particularly when the methods they use to do their research align with positivist natural sciences.

Unsurprisingly, because of prevalent knowledge hierarchies, some social science disciplines are better regarded by their colleagues. There is continued high receptivity to economists, for example. These ideas about hierarchies of knowledge domains shed light on the persistent relationships among different knowledge forms. One interviewee noted, “economists are definitely an easy seller…people somehow get what an economist does because they come up with numbers. Whereas sociologists, anthropologists are not quite as tangible…” In fact, differences between disciplines related to their primarily quantitative or qualitative methodologies came up often in my discussions.

The work of conservation social scientists involves much more than simply the deft implementation of social science methodologies, regardless of how significant methodologies are to the debates surrounding which social science disciplines are a better 'fit' for conservation organisations. Further, those I interviewed were from diverse disciplines including political science, geography, anthropology, economics, environmental studies, and sustainable development, suggesting that these perceptions of disciplinary 'fit' do not align with actual hiring practices of organisations.

Conservation social scientists engage in diverse epistemological manoeuvrers in bids to integrate theories and methodologies, deploying diverse modalities to make their expertise legitimate within the hierarchical knowledge domains within which they operate. One modality references how social scientists capture and present their research in their organisations. As in other transdisciplinary work environments, working successfully as a conservation social scientist requires literacy in diverse disciplinary ways of understanding, skilful mediation and translation among epistemological orientations, and humility and openness to other ways of knowing (Perz et al. 2010; van Rijnsoever and Hessels 2011; Welch-Devine et al. 2014). For those I spoke with, as minorities in their organisations, figuring out modalities that were effective amongst their colleagues was important for conveying their expertise.

Some interviewees discussed how they make their social science work seem more valid and legitimate to colleagues through presenting it in easily digestible ways. For example,

Governance is very difficult to comprehend for someone who is not involved in social science…one way that we tried to do it was…boil it down to the simplest possible form…and put the social in the terminology of the biophysical…quantifying and displaying in a way that the biophysical guys will comprehend and recognise as valid.

In other cases of competing expertise, experts advocate for the necessity and legitimacy of their work (Carr 2010), utilising jargon to signify their expertise in many domains (Philips 1998; Jacobs-Huey 2006). In transdisciplinary environments where they are the minorities, many conservation social scientists bear the work of translation with others, acquiring new jargon and setting aside theoretical frames that have helped to shape their expertise. In this comment, however, it is important to note that the same ritualised manners of communicating that indexed expertise among other humanists can become liabilities that make them seem overly specialised or unable to be understood by their non-humanist colleagues, who are unable to effectively evaluate their expertise. Humanists thus repeatedly diminish the complexities that allow them to be credentialed and interpreted as experts by others. Again in this case, the responsibility for being conversant in interdisciplinary collaborations falls to the social scientists rather than all scientists, demonstrating that divisions between different sciences are not innocent distinctions but stand in for social hierarchies of knowledge and result in asymmetrical interdisciplinarity.

Expert knowledge is anticipatory, in that it is shaped in anticipation of the reaction of others (Schwegler and Powell 2008). For some, the conditions of accepted knowledge forms in their organisations necessitate not only authentication but further training in different knowledge forms in order to be seen as more authoritative, reflecting a perception that with just their social science training they are not considered to be on the same level as their natural science colleagues. This additional training ranges from attending workshops about how to be effective in cross-disciplinary collaborations to obtaining additional degrees. One interviewee with a Ph.D. in a social science discipline who has had jobs in foundations and as a field social scientist went back to school for a master's degree in a natural science after working in the field for years, explaining that decision by saying, “I felt like I was going to stick it to those guys who told me, 'you have no…qualifications.' Now I have a Master's degree…yeah tell me I don't know anything about the environment!” One interviewee found that, although social sciences were not perceived as authoritative by their colleagues, medicine and health were seen as legitimate so they pursued additional training that allowed them to reframe their work accordingly. They explained the challenges of articulating their social scientific expertise in their organisation in detail, saying,

I had been banging my head against a brick wall for a while until I changed my framing…if you say, 'look this [methodology] is used by medical science'…it's borrowing from other disciplines to give it validity…once you can borrow from disciplines that are seen as more legitimate it gives it more legitimacy. …This is not some fluffy social science business—…that's how [social science] is viewed.

This reframing was critical, not because the work that they did was necessarily different but because of perceptions about the legitimacy of the originating discipline, indicating how (some) social sciences writ-large lack value afforded to other ways of knowing even outside of the natural and social science knowledge hierarchy (see (Stein et al. 2021).

Incongruous interpretations of the value of having trained social scientists in transnational conservation institutions are laid bare in these epistemological manoeuvrers. Institutions seem to perceive the place of social scientists as legitimising their work more broadly, and specifically authorising their self-described work in the “human dimensions” of conservation. Social scientists would agree that they play a key role in improving conservation practice but many of them also see themselves tasked with reframing and critically analysing the nature of conservation work in order to build more ethical conservation practices. Effectively doing such work, however, requires institutionally authorised symmetrical interdisciplinarity.

   Discussion Top

Humanists see their potential for destabilising dominant forms of knowing, reframing conservation conceptualisations and making new environmental futures possible. Recognising their lower status both in knowledge hierarchies and as minorities, conservation social scientists utilise their skills in translating across cultures and between differences in their institutions as well as for their institutions. As minorities they oftentimes have reflexive distance from institutional culture and are thus open to recognising other ways of knowing and being. This may make them more cosmopolitan than their natural science colleagues whose symbolic dominance makes them epistemologically insular (Hannerz 1996). Their need to work as translators in and for their institutions creates a few distinct challenges for work in non-profits given their funding structure. The ensuing paradox, that individuals are hired to create broader change but at the same time need to be embedded in their organisations and perceived as such to gain the legitimacy needed to accomplish their work with the necessary resources, requires skilful manoeuvring on the part of minority employees. The more technical or methodological their interventions can be articulated, the more likely they are to be interpreted as legitimate. But this may also effectively erode their capacities to make broader change in their organisations. The continued need for social scientists to perform authentication work within their organisations can, at times, put them in uncomfortable adversarial positions. In other contexts of institutional actors advocating for or being individually tasked with promoting organisational change, researchers have demonstrated that having to occupy that role and devote time to legitimating one's work leads to fatigue that also calls into question how sustainable this avenue to organisational change is (Ahmed 2012).

Conservation social scientists are placed awkwardly within their institutions as norms shift and the contributions of humanists to conservation practices and processes become perceived as integral to transnational environmental work. As humanists are folded into interdisciplinary collaborations in asymmetrical ways, they engage in “hidden” labour involving practical, political, and normative struggles over resources and relationships. This work is hidden both because it is obscured by institutions and because humanists are less visible in their institutions (Poster et al. 2016). This work may effectively be hidden to institutions—that is, it is obscured or obfuscated by institutions who do not require the same labour on the part of natural scientists—even as it is crucial for humanists to retain their jobs and generate income. In some cases it is clear that managers understand the necessity of this hidden labour, and seek to protect their employees from it. In other instances, this hidden labour only becomes visible to humanists themselves well after they take their jobs, when they realise the necessity of engaging in extra epistemological, tactical, and practical work (like returning to school or learning new jargon) to enact their expertise and simultaneously to effect more symmetrical collaborations with their colleagues.

Science, as Jasanoff (2004) notes, is a political resource. Conservation organisations increasingly utilise humanists to further their political aims, yet the prevalence of hidden labour indicates that organisations still devalue or undervalue the labour of humanists. Alongside promising changes in organisational hiring practices, conservation social scientists also see disappointing failures to enact other meaningful changes to how conservation is conceptualised and funded. In some cases, it is clear that conservation institutions are so driven by accountability that they do not commit to other things interdisciplinarity can deliver in epistemological or ontological terms. Empowering symmetrical interdisciplinarity will require organisations to commit to disempowering natural science frameworks or approaches in some cases, effectively making bureaucratic, structural, and ideological changes to dismantle prevalent hierarchies of knowledge. In organisations where there is no real attempt to reconfigure the relations between social and natural sciences, asymmetry will result in continued service-subordination type of interdisciplinarity and organisational cultures that are ambivalent or hostile to humanist integration and, by extension, the “human dimensions” of conservation.


Thank you to reviewers for their helpful suggestions and to Shannon Clark and Peter Kaufmann who assisted with interview transcriptions, and Heba Ghannam and Pawan Haulkory who assisted with manuscript preparation.

Declaration of competing interests

The author declares no competing interests in the conduct of this research.

Financial disclosures

This research was not funded by any agency.

Research ethics approval

This research was approved by the Institutional Review Board at American University, #IRB-2020-195.

Data availability

The data is not accessible due to privacy restrictions.

   Notes Top

  1. Interdisciplinarity is defined here as the integration of modes of thinking from two or more disciplines.
  2. See Taylor (e.g., 2016) for more about ethnic minorities in environmental organisations in the United States.
  3. There are exceptions: see Büscher (2013), Haenn (2016), Larsen and Brockington (2018), Lowe (2006), Nyssa (2019), Schuetze (2015), Shrestha (2006), Tsing (2015), in addition to brief mentions of these actors in other scholarship that primarily addresses other analytical points.
  4. Here, “counterhegemonic work” meant questioning pervasive nature/culture binaries and reconceptualizing how and by whom conservation projects were framed.
  5. See West (2006) for an astute analysis of the idea of “capacity” in transnational conservation.

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