Orangutan near a former mining concession, Central Kalimantan, Indonesia. Photo credit: Tine Geurts.

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Conservation and the social sciences have long had a complicated relationship. Whereas conservationists historically neglected social issues and social scientific knowledge, social scientists have routinely criticized conservation’s methods, policies, and practices. This relationship has recently entered a new phase, as more conservationists seek to integrate social scientific methods, data, and perspectives into their work. A key challenge, however, is how to do so without merely co-opting the social sciences into existing conservation practice.

In this paper, we ask how the conservation-social science relationship can move beyond the impasse of co-optation (of social sciences by conservationists) vs. critique (of conservation by social scientists). Taking orangutan conservation as our main case study, we argue that both conservationists and social scientists can benefit from stepping out of their comfort zones, and engaging in equal, mutually respectful, yet constructively critical ways.

To flesh out our argument, we think through one case study: the global network of orangutan conservation, in or on which most of us work. We begin with a state-of-the-field review of current ecological and social scientific research on orangutan conservation. By combining our disparate perspectives and experiences (as conservation scientists and social scientists), we aim to shed new light on the complex challenges facing orangutan conservation today. These include dilemmas over how to deal with social, cultural, and political difference, the problem of juggling scales and contexts, and the often-unacknowledged influence of politics and political dynamics. Many of these, we argue, are equally applicable to the conservation-social science relationship in a world where ‘nature’ and ‘culture’ are impossible to disentangle. We look to the future by exploring ways forward for both orangutan conservation and the conservation-social science relationship. These include the use of proxies (keywords or issues that can stand for and bridge different parties’ concerns), the creation and maintenance of shared spaces for exchange and collaboration, and a commitment to challenging status quos.

Rather than describing a conservation-social science collaboration in the field, this paper aims to be an example of collaboration in action. Through it, we hope to encourage conservationists and social scientists to think more critically and creatively about how they can work together. Paradoxically, this may mean slowing down in the face of real and perceived crisis in order to consider how—and how better—we can do the work we do.