Projects

Visual Arguments as Scientific Currency

Visual Arguments as Scientific Currency

This research project analyses the conditions of establishing visual arguments in ecology. Images of landscapes are part of the disciplinary history of ecology. They were also considered an art genre in their own right, the landscape being a favorite subject of ‘snap shooters’ in the 1920s and 1930s before evolving into an epistemic figure. This applied to other research fields beyond mainstream landscape photography, too, where photographic techniques are tentatively used (e.g. underwater photography, aerial photography, microphotography, and microfilming). Biologist Einar Naumann, whose scientific work established the microphoto as an epistemic figure in the experimental context of aquatic ecology, was one such pioneer of microphotography.

Scientific figures are not just representations of experiments (as in physics or chemistry) or an observation (as in astronomy or botany). Instead, scientific figures are significant to the whole process of scientific knowledge production. This extends both to traditional sciences (e.g. astronomy) and to the newer sciences, also known as ‘emerging technologies’.  Over the past few years, imaging methods in the technosciences have been studied more intensively, and it is becoming clear that visualisation technology in research processes can be used effectively from the beginning of research, e.g. in order to identify patterns or reduce data complexity.

Images can become visual arguments in scientific and public dialogue. An iconic example of scientific dialogue is the logo of IBM being inscribed in the nanoscale and, thus, demonstrating an ability to act in the fabled ‘room at the bottom’. A good example for a visual argument in the public sphere are photos of Waldsterben in Germany since the 1980s. These do not circulate in France (despite the existence of similarly defoliated forests). Images acquire normative meaning and culture-specific usage within extant narratives. Together, images and narratives draw on specific stylistic mannerisms and tropes which enter the process of interpretation that helps constitute a scientific phenomenon.

Thanks to the completeness of Einar Naumann’s legacy and the continued existence of artefacts, usual science publications, scientific tools, and the historical scientific practice in Naumann’s lab and fieldwork can be analyed. Consequently, a near gapless ‘registration string’ can be visually documented: microscopic glass top photos, laboratory journals, handwritten manuscripts, paper cutting techniques, a completed publication in a leading scientific journal, and also the release in a reference book for methods.

Undoubtedly, those micro-historical analyses of scientific-technical experimental systems (being located beyond standard scientific research) will yield new results for theory and practice of scientific photography. New insights into early experiment-oriented ecological research and its societal relevance, which have received little attention to date, promise to enhance the ecology debate and, perhaps, settle smoldering controversies. This also sheds light on the increasing distribution and intensification of experimental modes outside of the laboratory since the 20th century, the globalisation of socio-technical systems, and their visual signatures.

Funded by BTU Cottbus-Senftenberg for project application.

Visual Cultures of Ecological Research

Visual Cultures of Ecological Research

This project focuses on visualisation strategies of ecological research and transformations of pictures as they move between science and society. Visual figures are generated and defended depending on their historical, cultural or methodological context. These figures represent metaphysical perceptions and epistemic models. They differ in technique, strategy and presentation. We believe that ecological research may be deemed a mapping matrix for conceptions of nature. The same phenomenon exists in different scientific, national, philosophical, and geographic cultures. The extent to which a piece of nature is considered capitalisable, unreliable, dangerous, contemplative, or worthy of protection depends on its cultural environment and our scientific society.

We consider this unconventional pairing of scientific research and media studies to offer important and innovative insight into the poitics of nature. Viewed from a media-scientific perspective, the use of photography and film is interesting in two respects: One, both methods have a critical impact on the progression of practices and theories; Two, plenty of new media techniques have developed historically a a result of certain scientific methods. Image transfers also play a central role in the popularisation and mass circulation of ecological knowledge. With this project, we want to analyse the genesis, technical production, and epistemological status of images – being as they are a direct extension of scientific and philosophical problems.

The aim of the project is to map visual cultures of ecological research. This literally means connecting geographical data with images. These images may be sketches or charts, but mostly they are photographs of research objects, locations, people, or institutions. The web-based information system prototype arising from this cataloguing should be used as a heuristic instrument. Issues are hereby developed and confronted from the viewpoint of epistemology and media science.

We digitize the collected data and index it in a database. High-quality search and compilation functions develop from the cooperation of all project partners. This creates the basis for further research activities. Towards this end, innovative web and mapping technologies are employed.

This project has been supervised by Astrid Schwarz (TU Darmstadt) and Angela Krewani (University of Marburg). The construction of the website and database has been realised by Jutta Weisel, Stefan Aumann, and Johanna Bolkart.
The project has been sponsored by the Hessisches Ministerium für Wissenschaft und Kunst, Landesinitiative hessen-media, Kapitel 07 05 – Förderprodukt 24, 2008/09.

Stories of Objects: Cultural Scientific and Aesthetical Fieldwork

Stories of Objects: Cultural Scientific and Aesthetical Fieldwork

Technical objects betray their cultural contexts. Their genesis is as culture-specific as their usage, be it consumer goods (e.g. smartphone) and technical structures (e.g. mountain cableways) or signatures (e.g. ‘Ampelmännchen’ = little traffic-light men).

In this project, the cultural history of Rhenish ship bollards are investigated. Their diversity is chronicled, as are the varieties of shapes and usages, national production methods and conditions, and networking of local and global trade structures. This serves as a point of departure for thinking about the harbour as a built environment and an urban social space. Bollards may become ‘advertising columns’ with signatures both private and declarative. Bollards are used for fun as well as messaging. Bollards structure space and predetermine visual and topical patterns. Bollards help locations to offer diverse routings and they provide instructions for and means of orientation and movement. Bollards furnish sites. Their localisation is intrusive and trailblazing.

Stories of objects are inseparable from an aesthetic exploration of the heuristics of fieldwork. We seek to develop this method, prove its efficacy and juxtapose it to historical and cultural predecessors.

Project is in preparation.

Research and Edition Project Handbook of Ecological Concepts (HOEK)

Research and Edition Project Handbook of Ecological Concepts (HOEK)

This project covered ecological knowledge and its historical and philosophical debates. The project was initiated by Astrid Schwarz (TU Darmstadt) and Kurt Jax (UFZ Leipzig). Several workshops (Paris, Leipzig, Darmstadt) and a lot of enthusiasm from many colleagues realized this research, which ran for about a decade. Results have included an international, interdisciplinary reference work situated in the fields of ecology and environmental studies, and the creation of a scientific network on these topics. 

The project was particularly interested in the ways in which ecological concepts are used. Our main concern was to trace the dynamics and continuity of concepts, that is, to analyse processes of conceptual transformation as well as strategies for rendering robus concepts in both current and historical ecological knowledge. In the book, concepts are discussed as being more or less appropriate to their intended task, and not discussed in terms of being true or false. 

From the beginning, the project understood itself as a contribution to ecological research, especially theory building and also modelling. In this sense, the project is a good example for a study in the philosophy of science in practice. However, the historical issues never got lost, to begin with reflections on the methodology of a philosophy of concepts in a mixed field like ecology, to the discussion of formation stories of ecological knowledge and institutions in different countries. 

As concerns about humankind’s relationship with the environment move inexorably up the agenda, this volume tells the story of the history of the concept of ecology itself and adds much to the historical and philosophical debate over this multifaceted discipline. The text provides readers with an overview of the theoretical, institutional and historical formation of ecological knowledge. The varied local conditions of early ecology are considered in detail, while epistemological problems that lie on the borders of ecology–such as disunity and complexity–are discussed. The book traces the various phases of the history of the concept of ecology itself, from its 19th century origins and antecedents, through the emergence of the environmental movement in the later 20th century, to the future, and how ecology might be located in the environmental science framework of the 21st century.

The study of ‘ecological’ phenomena has never been confined solely to the work of researchers who consider themselves ecologists. It is rather a field of knowledge in which a plurality of practices, concepts and theories are developed. Thus, there exist numerous disciplinary subdivisions and research programmes within the field, the boundaries of which remain blurred. As a consequence, the deliberation to adequately identify the ecological field of knowledge, its epistemic and institutional setting, is still going on. This will be of central importance not only in locating ecology in the frame of 21st century environmental sciences but also for a better understanding of how nature and culture are intertwined in debates about pressing problems, such as climate change, the protection of species diversity, or the management of renewable resources.

About the methodology of history of concepts

The Handbook of Ecological Concepts deals with fundamental terms that are or have been of theoretical relevance in scientific ecology. They are discussed using an approach that to some extent builds on the methodology of history of concepts. Approaches using such a methodology were developed during the second half of the twentieth century in various encyclopaedic projects in the fields of history, politics, musicology and philosophy, among others. Rather than providing simple definitions and explanations, these approaches seek to trace and reconstruct the dynamics of concept building and conceptual transformation. This is exactly what this Handbook aims to do and is also reflected in the structure of the volume. 

Further information:

► https://de.wikipedia.org/wiki/Handbook_Of_Ecological_Concepts
► http://www.faculty.umb.edu/peter_taylor/EcologicalPhilosophy.html
► https://www.ufz.de/index.php?de=37984