A Way in the Wilderness: Using Critical Realism to Navigate Environmental Security’s Methodological Terrain

By J. Jackson Ewing.

Published by The Social Sciences Collection

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Article: Print $US10.00
Article: Electronic $US5.00

The environmental security subfield exists at an intersection between the natural and social sciences. The subfield’s parallel interest in ecological and social variables necessitates interdisciplinary research approaches, and creates fundamental methodological challenges for exploring the interplay between the environment and security. Two polemic methodological approaches define the subfield. Research on one side of the methodological divide is dominated by qualitatively-based approaches that are inclusive of multiple social and natural variables along complex causal chains leading to insecurity. On the other side of the divide, research is predicated upon more empirically rigorous methods that seek to isolate and measure particular environmental and social variables to determine their causal relevance for cases of insecurity. The former position is based upon the assumption that methodologies focusing upon strict variable measurement and causal weighting fail to recognise intricate relationships existing among environmental and social variables. The latter position challenges this assumption and questions the findings produced by overly inclusive methods; accusing such research of lacking analytical rigor and explanatory value. These two combative methodologies reflect elementally different philosophical approaches to multifaceted scientific enquiry and, as a result, have led to profoundly different conclusions about the nature of the environment-security connection. This paper enters into the environmental security methodological debate and proposes critical realism as a philosophical school that is well-placed to inform research approaches in the subfield. By explicitly addressing the intersection of natural and social scientific modes of inference, critical realism makes valuable theoretical contributions that have unexplored imports for environmental security questions. This paper applies these theoretical contributions to environmental security’s methodological challenges, and constructs a critical realist framework for future inquiry in the subfield.

Keywords: Environmental Security, Critical Realism, Causality

International Journal of Interdisciplinary Social Sciences, Volume 5, Issue 7, pp.305-316. Article: Print (Spiral Bound). Article: Electronic (PDF File; 629.265KB).

J. Jackson Ewing

Teaching Fellow, International Relations Department, S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, Gold Coast, Singapore

J. Jackson Ewing is the MacArthur Post-Doctoral Fellow for Environmental Security and Climate Change at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies in Singapore. His research and teaching interests centre upon non-traditional security threats, with a particular focus on potential conflict drivers emanating from the interplay between environmental and social variables.


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