For the past fifteen years, after a career primarily devoted to studying the American family and, secondarily, to the study of race relations, my research has been focused on the ways Americans have thought about and related to nature. This abrupt shift began in 1990. Reading the local newspaper one morning, a story announcing a public meeting to discuss a proposed deer hunt on state land that had been off limits to hunters for fifty years caught my eye. I went to that hearing and almost instantly knew that I had stumbled into my next project.
It was clear from the start of that meeting that nature was contested terrain. Conflict is, as it were, “red meat” to a sociologist and I took the bait. To compress a complex story into a summary, the lines of cleavage that emerged were between those who thought that nature was ordered and balanced, if only we would stop interfering, and those who thought that nature was unpredictable and undependable. People persuaded by the former proposition were hostile to those who were trying to manage natural resources. People who were persuaded by the latter proposition were supportive of active management. The divide was bitter and largely unbridgeable, even though people on both sides of the divide professed a deep commitment to protecting nature.
This experience has led me to dig more deeply into the ways we think about and characterize nature. I have been particularly interested in efforts to reintroduce wildlife species into habitats they were forced out of decades ago. I continue to actively follow the reintroduction of wolves to Yellowstone National Park. I am also engaged in studying the ways biologists and lay people respond to the introduction of non-native and sometimes invasive species. Most generally, these particular interests can be embraced by my research on the shift in emphasis by more and more environmental organizations away from preservation and toward restoration. Restoration presumes a question that preservation is spared: to what state do you want to restore things? It turns out that there is no simple, much less unambiguous, answer to this question. Once again, a sociologist’s delight.