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The Social Construction of Nature: Relativist Accusations, Pragmatist and Critical Realist Responses

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Social constructivists argue that what we call “nature” isfar less universal and extrahuman than generally assumed. Yet this argument has been vigorously attacked by some natural scientists and other scholars due to what they perceive as its dangerous flirtation with relativism. I introduce this debate by reference to a recent controversy over the concept of wilderness, an important icon of nature in North America. I then define several forms of relativism, and compare two contemporary bodies of thought that are in broad agreement with social constructivism, yet do not promote strong forms of relativism: critical realism and pragmatism. For its part, critical realism is marked by a qualified, though vigorous, rejection of strong forms of relativism in understanding nature, whereas pragmatism involves more of an agnostic response, a sense that the so-called problem of relativism is not as serious as critics of the social-construction-of-nature argument would believe. Taken together, the two approaches offer more than either one alone, as they both suggest important truths about nature, albeit generally at different scales. Ultimately, pragmatists and critical realists alike admit that allknowledges are partial and a certain degree of relativism is thus unavoidable; yet they both, in a sort of tense complementarity, point to ways that geographers and others whose business and concern it is to represent nature can indeed have something to say.

Keywords: critical realism; nature; pragmatism; relativism; social constructivism; wilderness

Document Type: Research Article


Affiliations: University of California, Santa Barbara

Publication date: 1998-09-01

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