My dissertation research begins in earnest this semester, and I’m hoping to get most of the groundwork done before the new year. My research will explore the implications of a process-relational ecological praxis, in which human and non-human systems are viewed as entangled, enacted, and always becoming. Specifically, I will do this through an ethnographic engagement with computational environmental modeling as a practice for understanding, interacting, and managing environmental crises.
Computational modeling has become an “obligatory point of passage” for our understanding of and interactions with complex environmental systems. Every major environmental issue – climate change, sea level rise, nutrient pollution, deforestation, and so on – is understood and acted on through the mediation of computational models. Because these systems are so complex, so uncertain, and so threatened by human activities, we need models to understand them and to predict the effects of our actions – both harmful and restorative – on them.
Models are representations, we are told – simplified and scaled-down figures of a really existing world. They stand in for the systems they are meant to represent, and allow us to watch virtual humans interact with virtual natural systems, thereby providing a model for our actions as well as a model of the system itself. But from an enacted ecology perspective, the models and the practices and processes that constitute them must also be considered within the system they seek to model. Not that these processes should be included in the model itself, but that the way we produce and use models must be considered constitutive of the system it seeks to represent. There are many ways to go about producing and using computational models, and many different kinds of models to choose from. The question from this perspective is, how do these different kinds of models and modeling practices contribute differently to the production of different kinds of ecologies?
That’s the question I hope to explore in my research, but, carrying the logic of the ecological approach I’ve outlined further, I believe it is essential for me to view my own research practice as situated within this broader process-relational ecology. Not only am I concerned with the ways that computational modeling methods alter and affect the relationships between humans and non-humans, but I am also interested in the way that my own methods do so. As a result, I will approach my research as a situated praxis – enacting an ecological approach by navigating and negotiating the relationships that constitute the system within which I will be working – the Chesapeake Bay.
I’ll post updates here as the research progresses. Hopefully my readers will find it interesting and worthwhile. It’s definitely going to be a lot of thought and a lot of work, but if everything goes well, I should have a very good dissertation out of it.