Integrative Conservation Research

As global environmental change proceeds at an unprecedented pace, conservation has emerged as a central element in civic and political debates in the nations of both the Global North and Global South. Responding to these debates, new forms of conservation practice are emerging. Some years ago we witnessed the proliferation of bottom-up models under the rubrics of community-based conservation and community-based natural resource management. More recently, the “requiem for nature” argument raised fears about mixing development and conservation and called for enlarging and defending protected areas. All the while in many parts of the world, especially places characterized by extreme poverty, conservation is not working.

The reasons for this failure vary and there is widespread disagreement over how to account for it. Many conservation scientists feel that the emphasis on community participation, development and equity dilutes the main goal of conservation initiatives: saving species and habitats. Many social scientists believe that conservation strategies that ignore the human element are bound to fail. Between these two positions lies a series of heated debates in an increasingly politicized international conservation domain. No single discipline can possibly address the complexity of this domain. Understanding it requires that we bring the insights of multiple disciplines to bear on contemporary conservation debates.

In recent years, calls to undertake interdisciplinary research have become commonplace. Yet rarely are the challenges to doing effective interdisciplinary research addressed as an element in the design of a research program. Activities carried out by the Center for Integrative Conservation Research (CICR) are informed by a broader effort to understand and respond to the challenges of interdisciplinary research in two ways: (a) by drawing on the experience of previous interdisciplinary research initiatives, and (b) by incorporating mechanisms designed to promote collaboration. This requires defining more constructive social science engagement with contemporary conservation policies and practices. It is a challenge that numerous scholars and scientists have faced in a variety of other fields, and there is significant experience in dealing with the issue. The insights derived from analysis of past successes and failures in interdisciplinary research will be incorporated into the integrative research component of CICR from the outset.

An integrative approach to conservation research recognizes that valuable insights can emerge not only from conservation biology or other natural sciences, but also from the social sciences and humanities. From this perspective, the social sciences are more than a generic toolkit of methods that can be applied to conservation problems. An integrative approach recognizes the particularity of different disciplines and the variety of perspectives that specific disciplines bring to the conservation realm. It takes seriously the promotion of engagements between the academy and the domain of conservation practice, and it uses those engagements to inform academic approaches to conservation. Finally, integrative conservation research is a process, not an endpoint; it is integrative, not integrated. That is, it does not seek consilience, a singular paradigm that claims to provide exclusive insights into complex conservation problems. Instead, the integrative perspective accepts and embraces the value that accrues from considering a diversity of ways of perceiving and analyzing complex conservation issues.