Environmental Changes. Reflections from Different Philosophy of Science Perspectives

Term Paper, 2015

12 Pages, Grade: A



1. Introduction

2. Main part
2.1 Feminism
2.2 Positivism
2.3 Critical Realism
2.4 Social Constructivism

3. Conclusion


1. Introduction

In mainstream Western discourses, phenomena of environmental change such as climate change, loss of biodiversity or degradation of soils are often linguistically equated with valueladen terms such as 'environmental problems', or subsumed under titles such as 'environmental crisis'. Whereas these phenomena are widely researched and discussed in terms of their nature, their causes, their severity and potential solutions (Di Chiro 2014, 9), the underlying assumption of this research and these discussions, namely the assumption that these phenomena are actually problematic and need to be averted, seems rarely to be considered. However, given the amount of research dedicated to phenomena of environmental change, it is crucial to investigate this assumption.

This paper will discuss how different philosophy of science perspectives would deal with the question in how far phenomena of environmental change (such as climate change, loss of biodiversity, degradation of soils) are actually problematic1. The perspectives that will be adopted are positivism, critical realism, social constructivism and feminism. The paper will be structured along the spectrum between realism and relativism on which positivism, critical realism and social constructivism can be located rather clearly. However, since “[t]here is no single feminist standpoint” (Haraway 1988, 590), 'feminism' as such can not be unitarily placed on this spectrum. Therefore, the feminist perspective will not be discussed in a separate section like the other perspectives, but will be taken up wherever it can enrich another perspective in its approach to the question. To provide an understanding of feminism, feminism will be shortly outlined before getting into the discussion of the question.

2. Main part

2.1 Feminism

Feminism in general, including feminist theory, aims to “articulate a counterhegemonic discourse and argue for a less repressive society” (Hekman 1997, 363). Within feminism, two important themes can be identified, namely the situatedness of knowledge and the gendered dualisms shaping 'malestream' thought (Sayer 2000, 33).

The notion of the situatedness of knowledge has been taken up particularly by feminist standpoint theory (Hekman 1997, 357). This theory was originally constructed around the idea of 'a women's standpoint' assuming that all woman have one common standpoint that is privileged for disclosing “the truth of social reality” (ibid., 349). However, this idea turned out to be inadequately essentialist since not all women have the same standpoint (Sayer 2000, 54), and was then abolished (Hekman 1997, 349). Moreover, the theory was opened to other marginalised groups than women (Haraway 1988, 350), observing that “previously excluded and unheard voices […] are likely to lead to new knowledges” (Sayer 2000, 55). It was pointed out that none of those groups is to be categorically privileged over others, since it depends on the specific research goals which standpoint will give the most meaningful insights (ibid.).

Another branch of feminism that is more concerned with the second feminist theme is ecofeminism. Basically, ecofeminist theories aim at expanding feminists' focus on “socially constructed differences in gender between men and women [by which …] the two sexes in fact have unequal power, opportunities and social status” (Di Chiro 2014, 11) to also include 'nature' as another “field of multiple exclusion and control” (Plumwood 1993, 4). Some versions of ecofeminism include 'race' and class as further potential targets of exploitation (ibid., 1).

Moreover, there are some (even though not firmly established) proposals of an 'ecofeminist standpoint theory' that are concerned with the perspective of non-human beings as providing another kind of situated knowledge. Although I can hardly imagine how this could work in terms of methodology, such an ecofeminist standpoint theory is expected to “provide[...] the opportunity to give nature a voice” (Murray 2009, 45).

2.2 Positivism

Positivism in its original idea was introduced by Auguste Comte as the scientific approach to knowledge in society, contrasted by the theological and the metaphysical approach (Ek 2015). It implied that scientific knowledge could be gained through observation, experiments and comparison (ibid.). Compared to speculation, experience was regarded as a superior way of gaining meaningful knowledge about the world (Jackson 2010, 50), which was based upon the assumption that “facts are directly given to careful, unprejudiced observers via the senses” (Chalmers 2004, 4). One central characteristic of positivism is thus the epistemological criterion of observability (Sayer 2000, 12).

The criterion of observability provides the basis for the positivist concept of causality in that causality is understood as “associations between observable phenomena […]: a phenomenon A is called cause to a phenomenon B if and only if A and B are connected in time and space, A occurs before B, and there is a constant conjunction between cause and effect, A and B” (Brante 2001, 173). This concept of causality is framed by the assumption that natural and social systems are closed or at least can be closed and that parts of the system can be isolated so that the phenomena of interest (A and B) can be observed (Klintman 2000, 29).

However, there appeared to be a logical problem about the positivist concept of causality based upon the observation of a constant conjunction between two phenomena ('verification'): No matter how often such a conjunction is observed (e.g. books falling to the ground when dropped), we can never make it a law-like claim (e.g. books always fall to the ground when dropped) but at best a probabilistic one (Jackson 2010, 12). As a solution to this problem, Karl Popper proposed to “stop asking whether a claim could be proven true and instead ask whether a claim could be proven false” (ibid.): Instead of making law-like claims, falsificationists would propose 'speculative theories' that are to be tested thoroughly through experiments and observations, and that are to be abandoned and replaced by another theory once they are falsified (Chalmers 2004, 60). That way, theories can not be proved true, but only the currently best theory (ibid.). With the procedure of falsification, a new form of positivism was established, namely neopositivism.

Approaching the research question from a positivist perspective From a positivist viewpoint, a specific environmental change -that is assumed to exist since it was observed by natural scientists- is seen as problematic when it can be proven that the environmental change causes problems to the society under consideration. This is the case when the environmental change ('A') and certain societal phenomena ('B') that are perceived as problematic by the researcher (such as an increase in migration or social conflicts, or a decrease in food security, income or level of education)

- are connected in time and space,
- when the environmental change occurs before the societal phenomena,
- and when a constant conjunction between the environmental change and the societal phenomena can be observed.

If all this applies, the environmental change is acknowledged as the cause for the observed societal phenomena, and the phenomena as the effects of the environmental change. Since the system is considered as closed (due to a certain study design), external factors that could have influenced the observed effect as well are not taken into consideration. Taking into account all measured2 'problematic' societal phenomena that are seen as caused by the environmental change, the latter can be placed on a problem severity spectrum (cp. Klintman 2004, 43).

From a neopositivist viewpoint, an environmental change is problematic as long as the thesis “the environmental change X causes problems to society Y” can not be falsified. As an example, the theory could be falsified if it is observed that the specific environmental change does not or not only cause what is defined as a 'problematic' societal phenomenon, but its very opposite (such as an increasing income).

Feminist contribution to the positivist approach to the research question Since all knowledge is situated and shaped by the particular standpoint, as feminist standpoint theory claims, insights from one social group are not necessarily always valid for another group (Sayer 2000, 53). Accordingly, feminist standpoint theorists would question (and modify) the variables chosen by the positivist researcher to measure the problem severity: As an example, would people living in the considered society perceive it as a problem as well if e.g. the level of education decreased? Is the level of education valuable in that society at all? Are the variables appropriate to measure the problem severity from the society's point of view, or do they rather reflect the researcher's (most likely Western, male, white) mindset?

Furthermore, feminist standpoint theorists would point out that the chosen variables might not be applicable to all members of the society under consideration. As an example, in some societies women don't have access to education and don't have their own income since they have to do unpaid work at home. In such societies, the variables 'level of education' and 'income' do not allow to measure the problem severity of the specific environmental change for women.

2.3 Critical Realism

As opposed to positivism and its realist ontological assumption of “a world existing independently of our knowledge of it” (Sayer 2000, 2), the critical realist ontology assumes a more differentiated 'stratified reality' composed by the real, the actual and the empirical (ibid., 12) where only parts of reality are mind-independent. The real refers to all natural or social entities that exist irrespective of whether someone looks at them or knows about them, and the structures and powers of those entities. The actual implies everything that follows when those powers are activated. The empirical, finally, relates to the experiences of both the real and the actual (ibid., 11f.).

As Sayer (2000, 53) observes, the differentiation between the real and the actual on the one hand and the empirical on the other hand is compatible with the feminist notion of situated knowledges since both theories underline that all knowledge is always selective (and, furthermore, social, situated, and contextual).

Another central characteristic of critical realism in which it differs from positivism is its notion of causality. Instead of solely referring to the observability of entities for claiming what exists, critical realism allows to derive the existence of unobservable entities if certain “observable effects […] can only be explained as the products of such entities” (ibid., 12). Accordingly, the critical realist concept of causality is more complex then the positivist one: It does not consist solely of cause and effect, but - assuming an open system- also considers external mechanisms that can impact the effect (ibid., 13f.).

Approaching the research question from a critical realist perspective As opposed to positivists, critical realists would not only look at phenomena of environmental change and their effects on societies when dealing with the research question. Building upon their concept of stratified reality, critical realists would distinguish between phenomena of environmental change (the real), their effects on society (the actual), and the way those are experienced, e.g. as problematic (the empirical). Accordingly, only environmental changes and their effects (the real and the actual) would be seen as existing mind-independently, whereas it would be claimed as a matter of perspective whether those changes and their effects are perceived as problematic.

From a critical realist viewpoint, environmental changes and their effects are thus not automatically equally problematic for everyone, even if the positivist's 'problem severity' would measurably change along a phenomenon of environmental change. The problem severity also depends on the way the environmental change and its effects such as changing income are perceived ('problem severity perception').

As an example, the Dolpo-pa, “a culturally Tibetan population dwelling through the highlands of Midwestern Nepal” (Pierce 2012, ii) where phenomena of environmental change such as more rapidly changing weather patterns occur and affect people's lives (ibid., iii), do not perceive these phenomena as particularly problematic. As Pierce (2015) puts it, the Dolpo-pa don't feel vulnerable towards phenomena of environmental change, which is on the one hand because they are used to all kinds of ecological uncertainties, and on the other hand due to their karmic understanding of life and death.

To answer the research question, critical realists would thus consider all three levels of the stratified reality: The phenomena of environmental change as observed by natural scientists, their effects on society as measured by positivist social scientists (at best refined by the feminist perspective as proposed in the previous chapter), and the perception of those changes and their effects. Taking a 'strong' critical realist position, one could claim that environmental changes are only problematic if a) they actually occur, if b) they do affect societies, and if c) the changes and the way they affect societies is perceived as problematic by those societies themselves.

Furthermore, if trying to causally explain a certain 'problem severity perception', critical realists would not only take into account the environmental change and its effects, but also unobservable entities and external mechanisms (e.g. culture, religion).


1 This question is formulated in a way that implies certain ontological assumptions (e.g. mind-world independence). Those assumptions will be brought up in the sections where disagreement with them occurs.

2 This measurement can be done both quantitatively and qualitatively (Brante 2001, 169f.). 5

Excerpt out of 12 pages


Environmental Changes. Reflections from Different Philosophy of Science Perspectives
Lund University  (The Department of Human Geography and the Human Ecology Division, Faculty of Social Sciences)
SIMM23 – Theory of Science for the Social Sciences
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ISBN (eBook)
ISBN (Book)
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environmental problems, environmental changes, loss of biodiversity, environmental crisis, positivism, critical realism, feminist standpoint theory, social constructivism, human ecology, theory of science, philosophy of science
Quote paper
Lea Klöppel (Author), 2015, Environmental Changes. Reflections from Different Philosophy of Science Perspectives, Munich, GRIN Verlag, https://www.grin.com/document/301394


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