January 19, 2018

Science and Spaces – Resources


Stephen Bocking, “Science and Spaces in the Northern Environment,” Environmental History, 12, (October 2007): 867-94. Open Source article by Stephen Bocking.

Article Discussion Questions

The instructor can use a selection of the following, possibly supplemented by others of your own.

Q. What is scientific knowledge? What is related local knowledge? What are the virtues of each, and the relationship between them? How might one distinguish between the two?

Q. How do theories of local and global knowledge collide in their conceptions of the Canadian North?Must place specific research methods and theories be developed to best understand an environment, or can they be imported as a general rule from elsewhere? How do these tensions present in the article?

Q. How has the environment of the Canadian North influenced the development of scientific practice?

Q. Bocking looks at the spatialization of disciplines in the Canadian North, charting their growth and contraction over time. How have these changes been historically connected to the agendas of industry and government? What role does policy and funding play in the production of science?

Q. Is science neutral? How is scientific authority generated and sustained? Why does social context matter when looking at facts? What is the relationship between scientific knowledge and authority?

Q. Why does Bocking encourage building connections between environmental history and the history of science? What information does he perceive to be generally omitted from a traditional, or pure environmental history approach?

Q. How has the narrative of the Canadian North been conceived over time, and how does this narrative connect to changing views regarding wildlife population cycles, the diversity/stability hypothesis, environmental management, etc.? What motivates these stories? Consider the relationship between environmental narrative, political policy, and the economy in your answer.

Q. Is science meaningfully different, when commissioned by a government department, a university department, or a consulting firm?

Q. Do northern spaces demand special scientific approaches, or could those developed elsewhere be applied there? Why might Canadian scientists be inclined to argue for the distinctive nature of the north?

Contextual Essay

Stephen Bocking’s article is a good classroom resource to illustrate issues surrounding the production of scientific knowledge. Indeed, it is an example of the convergence of interests shared by environmental historians and historians of science. Questions that unite these two intersecting groups include how we acquire reliable knowledge; the differences between scientific knowledge and other bodies of expertise (the demarcation problem); the unity or disunity of science; the relationship between science and the wider social system; and more particularly, who we should trust to inform public decisions and why.

The popular perception of scientific knowledge is that it is true and objective independent of place or time. However, while science informs our understanding of the environment, it too has a history of its own, a context, and is subject to change. In this way the category of “science” is like that of “nature” or “culture”. Scientific explanations and social contexts are hopelessly entangled. Science has both a history and perhaps more startlingly, a geography.

In the last thirty years, social scientists and humanists have favoured local explanations over universal grand theories. These micro-history case studies detail how knowledge stabilizes to the point where a result seems secure, and then this local knowledge becomes global knowledge through the exercise of power. As Bocking explains, to be successful, scientists’ efforts to assert the authority of their knowledge across wider spaces must be invisible, permitting the claim that scientific knowledge represents merely a factual and objective description of nature (rather than a tenuous set of limited local observations).

In his article, Bocking traces two fundamental shifts between the 1940s and 1970s. These include that of the environment of northern Canada that was transformed physically (via industrialization and resource development) and politically (via the formation of an administrative regime).

The first episode saw its height in the 1950s. Bocking contends that northern Canada attracted the attention of ecologists debating the existence and significance of cycles in animal populations. Apart from being ecologically interesting, they also held practical interest for a region economically dependent on the fur trade.

The second episode occurred in the 1960s and 1970s. Notions of ecological fragility drew ecologists to the North, within a political culture newly sensitive to impacts on the environment. In time, the north’s unique fragility was replaced by the assumption that the potentially harmful impacts of industrialization could be managed by the same tools employed elsewhere. Bolstering this change, northern Native peoples gained a stronger political voice, such that their view of the Arctic as a cultural landscape with an intrinsic human presence weakened attempts to describe the north as a “pristine wilderness”.

Through both episodes, several themes are evident. First, is the value of understanding the practical work of scientists in the field (how they gather knowledge and assert its relevance and authority). The second is a consideration of how scientists conceived of the northern environment. Either defining it as unique (and requiring special ideas and techniques) or as a place like all others, except perhaps colder or less productive (and thus being entirely accessible via universal ideas and approaches developed elsewhere). Thirdly, these interpretations defined appropriate questions that scientists ought to pursue, how their studies were financed, and indeed the appropriate venues in which their knowledge was produced


(universities, government departments, or private consulting firms).

Bocking concludes his article with the concept of “Disciplinary space” to understand the role of science in environmental history narratives. He defines this term as “the territory in which the concepts and methods particular to a discipline are considered authoritative and relevant” (p 886). So, scientists’ attempts to argue that their methods and insights have relevance for a given region can thus be mapped (both cognitively and socially), implying that there is a geography of disciplines. Disciplinary spaces are dynamic in that they expand, contract and shift as the ideas of a discipline become more or less plausible or useful within a region. Bocking is drawing on a now significant literature to inform his analysis. Instructors seeking an entry into that realm would do well to consult some of the supporting resources listed below.

Additional supporting resources:
Stephen Bocking (2004). Nature’s Experts: Science, Politics, and the Environment, Rutgers University Press, particularly pp 16-44.

Bocking, Stephen. “Sketching a Political and Environmental History of Science in Northern Canada.” Northern Environmental History Workshop. 13 June 2009.

David Livingstone (2003). Putting Science in its Place: Geographies of Scientific Knowledge, University of Chicago Press.

Primary Sources

In his article, Bocking explores how economic needs helped to inform scientific models and approaches. In this case, predicting animal population cycles for the fur trade. Here are two primary sources, upon which Bocking draws in his analysis. These are good sources for students who wish to engage with these cases in greater depth.

The Arctic Prairies [Ernest Thompson Seton]

See especially p 95 through 112, for a section on population cycles entitled “Rabbits and Lynxes in the North-West.”
This text extract is especially rich and useful to illustrate the population cycle. Instructors seeking an additional supplemental reading might assign it to a class, or absorb it oneself to support a lecture. This extract is particularly insightful with respect to the fur trade economy that gave rise to scientific questions regarding predicting these cycles.

The Conservation of Wildlife of Canada [C Gordon Hewitt].

See especially p 213 through 234, for a section on population cycles entitled “The Periodic Fluctuations of our Fur Bearing Animals.”
Like that above, this text examines population cycles using Hudson’s Bay Company records. It concludes with a call for further research stating “It is hoped that such studies, extending over a number of years, may be undertaken by competent investigators in the future, as such a knowledge of the causes of these fluctuations is essential to an adequate understanding of a subject having economic possibilities of a very high order.”

Video Resources

National Film Board of Canada

Instructors who seek a more experiential element in their session might do well to include this brief NFB film. It illustrates, after the fashion of the time, the ecology described in Bocking’s article.

      • High Arctic: Life on the Land (21 mins 23 seconds, 1958).From the NFB’s synopsis:
        An ecological study of plant and animal life on the Queen Elizabeth Islands in the Canadian Arctic. The film includes profiles of animals such as musk-oxen, lemmings, arctic hares and various forms of plant life.

The instructor may want to show this film to a class, but withhold the date of production (assuming that no students are fast enough to decipher the roman numeral date at the end). Before viewing in class, share the following questions:

Q. While watching the film, be attentive to clues that you can use to date it, using Bocking’s analysis from his article to inform your approach. What clues can you identify to estimate the film’s creation date?

Q. What general image of the north does the film convey? How does this support or negate Bocking’s analysis in the article?

Q. The film does not depict any human beings. What do you make of this?


Tundra: Large portion of the northern hemisphere lacking trees and possessing abundant rock outcrops.

Permafrost: Permafrost is ground remaining at or below 0°C continuously for at least 2 years.

Polynyas (p 869): Areas of ocean that remain open when all else is frozen.

Thermokarst (p 878): Thawing of the permafrost (defined above) often results in subsidence where ice was present; and in the formation of thaw lakes or hummocky terrain. This terrain, called thermokarst, can be induced by human activities or by climactic change.

Archipelago (p 878): A body of water in which there are many islands, or a grouping of islands.

Inuit. Inuktitut for “the people” — are an Aboriginal people, the majority of whom inhabit the northern regions of Canada. An Inuit person is known as an Inuk. The Inuit homeland is known as Inuit Nunangat, which refers to the land, water and ice contained in the Arctic region.

Eskimo: The name “Eskimo” comes from one of the Algonquian languages, most likely Montagnais or Naskapi. In Canada and Greenland, the term “Eskimo” has fallen out of favour as it is considered by some to be pejorative. The Eskimo of arctic Canada call themselves Inuit, meaning “people.”

Queen Elizabeth Islands: The northern-most cluster of islands in the arctic archipelago, comprising islands from both Nunavut and the Northwest territories. Formerly the Perry Islands, they were renamed in 1953.

Many thanks to:

Dr. David Brownstein, Klahanie Research Ltd. (http://www.klahanieresearch.ca/)

NiCHE (http://niche-canada.org/)

Oxford University Press (oup.com)

National Film Board of Canada (https://www.nfb.ca/)

American Society for Environmental History (aseh.net)

Forest History Society (foresthistory.org)