In this post, Liana Chua, author of ‘Conservation and the social sciences: Beyond critique and co-optation. A case study from orangutan conservation‘ discusses the conversations that lead to this project, the challenges and possibilities facing orangutan conservation and insights into the evolving relationship between conservation and social science.

You can also read the authors’ plain language summary of their article here.

Orangutans at a feeding station in Tanjung Puting National Park, Central Kalimantan, Indonesia. Copyright: The Global Lives of the Orangutan project, 2019.

In December 2018, 25 individuals converged in Cambridge for a small cross-disciplinary workshop. Some were conservation scientists and practitioners working in orangutan conservation. Others were social scientists who either studied conservation or worked in/with conservation organizations. The workshop aimed to put both groups in a face-to-face dialogue over the challenges and possibilities facing orangutan conservation specifically, and the conservation-social science relationship more generally. What ensued were animated, sometimes heated, discussions that laid the groundwork for our new article in People and Nature.

Our initial aims had been more modest. The workshop was meant to be a small, informal meeting between members of the Global Lives of the Orangutan project, which I lead at Brunel University London, and the UK-based conservationists and organizations with whom we work. But as our project developed, our team decided to widen the scope of the meeting. In our reading groups, we found that the conservation-social science relationship was broadly characterised by two tendencies: critique (of conservation by social scientists) and co-optation (of social scientific methods and insights by conservationists). But what, we asked, lay beyond this impasse? And how might the conservation-social science relationship be nudged beyond these dominant positions?

The awkward relationship between conservation and the social sciences has been a topic of heated discussion since at least the early-2000s. In recent years, however, it has come under renewed scrutiny thanks to a surge of interest in ‘mainstreaming’ the social sciences within conservation. While welcome, this move also raises complicated questions, such as: What exactly can and should be mainstreamed? How can this be done rigorously and ethically, and not merely superficially? How might social scientists and conservationists think, talk, and work together in practice rather than just in principle? And how might this process transform the fundamentals of both conservation and the social sciences?

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

These were some of the concerns that we debated during the workshop and later in the article, which is co-authored by 14 natural and social scientists. In it, we 1) highlight the main ecological and social trends in orangutan conservation today, 2) review the extant literature on the many complicated social dimensions of orangutan conservation, and 3) identify some key challenges and transformative possibilities facing orangutan conservation specifically, and the conservation-social science relationship more generally. Here, orangutan conservation acts as a bridge between our respective interests and expertise, allowing us to ground our reflections on the conservation-social science relationship in a specific case study. In this way, we hope to show how conservationists and social scientists can work together in critical, constructive ways—even if this means upending some of our most basic assumptions.

Our aim here is not to speak for all of orangutan conservation. There are many different conservation models and strategies out there, and much important work being done by social and natural scientists, conservationists, and organizations in Indonesia and Malaysia. The discussions in our article can’t be disentangled from our partnerships with these parties and engagement with their work. Reflecting the small size of the workshop—which was crucial for fostering ‘safe’ and candid face-to-face conversations—this article presents a particular set of cross-disciplinary reflections rooted in our experiences as (mostly) UK and Europe-based conservationists and social scientists. Our hope, however, is that it will nevertheless speak to wider trends and concerns within both orangutan conservation and the conservation-social science relationship at large.

People and Nature was an obvious choice for this sort of cross-disciplinary collaboration. The journal’s commitment to interdisciplinarity resonated with our own experience of working together across disciplinary and sectoral boundaries. We were keen to publish in a journal that foregrounded, rather than just put up with, such ‘relational’ work. We were also attracted by People and Nature’s openness to multiple, even unconventional, article formats. Such openness made it easier to develop this particular article, which is a slightly odd combination of a review, synthesis, reflection, and perspective piece. The result is a hefty but (we hope) illuminating and provocative article that will stimulate further discussion—and possibly disruption—of the evolving relationship between conservation and the social sciences.