Ecologies as Systems
Perhaps the first reference to “ecologies” as taxanomies of representation in scientific study can be traced to the botanist Arthur Tansley who in his 1935 publication, “The Use and Abuse of Vegetational Terms and Concepts,” codified the term to mean a system, “so formed which, from the point of view of the ecologist, are the basic units of nature on the face of the earth. (Tansley, 1935)” For Tansley, ecosystems extended beyond nature as defined by unique objects, locations, and studies of single species. The impact of Tansley’s ecological system would become embedded in the discourse of a variety of disciplines from the natural sciences to the social sciences over the next century. With the popularizing of whole systems theories, ecosystems also inspired cybernetics in the 1950s, and the modern environmentalism movement of the ‘60s and ‘70s - both of which are intertwined with sociology of science topics discussed in this entry such as Actor Network Theory and feminist critiques in the study of knowledge production.

Ecologies of Knowledge
As for the introduction of ecology taxonomies into the sociology of science, Susan Leigh Star, Adele Clarke and others working with ecology methods credit historian of science Charles Rosenberg for relating the term to situated knowledge production. For Rosenberg, no social body could be studied without consideration for the complex web of relations within which it operates and operates upon (Rosenberg 1979).

Key Concepts

Axis of Relationalities
In Star’s influential edited collection, “Ecologies of Knowledge: Work and Politics in Science and Technology,” contributing authors extended Rosenberg’s work and set the stage for how Science and Technology Studies might find useful approaches to applying knowledge ecologies. In her introduction, Star defines what it means to apply knowledge ecologies: “refusing social/natural or social/technical dichotomies and inventing systematic and dialectical units of analysis. (Star, 1995, pg.2)” She continues to define the fields which bound ecological spaces as four interconnected axis. Within each, knowledge ecologies are situated in the former axial dimension, such that the field of inquiry is, “in its entirety looking for relationships. (Star, 1995, pg.14)”

1) continuity vs. discontinuity
2) pluralism vs. elitism
3) work practice vs. reified theory
4) relativity vs. absolutism

Against Actor Network Theory
It has been noted by Star and others that knowledge ecologies is similarly use by Bruno Latour and Michel Callon in describing interconnected nodes between human and non-human agencies in Actor Network Theory. However, proponents of knowledge ecologies such as Atsushi Akera have made the distinction that ANT’s applications only utilize knowledge ecologies in that they are useful for describing complex and interdependent systems. ANT’s insistence on symmetry between nodes in network regardless of their relative positioning relative to other actors is otherwise not in accordance with ecology of knowledge.

Ecologies, Akera explains, are inherently assymetrical and, despite later recognitions of power structures by ANT theorists, does a better job of identifying power relationships shared amongst actors rather than centrally located in any one agent or sphere of agency. (Akera 2007). Star lays similar claim to such differences, “the dividing lines should not really be between advocates of humans and advocates of nonhumans, but between ecologists and reductionists. (Star, 1995, pg.14)


A number of projects have built upon knowledge ecologies to map out how behaviors and characteristics of complex systems might be studied. Two are mentioned here:

Situational Analysis
Adele Clark has used knowledge ecologies to extend grounded theory in her work on situational analysis. In this method, Clarke prescribes a series of steps to illustrate complex webs of situated actors:
  1. Situational maps that lay out the major human, nonhuman, discursive, and other elements in the research situation of inquiry and provoke analysis of relations among them;
  2. Social worlds/arenas maps that lay out the collective actors, key nonhuman elements, and the arena(s) of commitment and discourse within which they are engaged in ongoing negotiations—meso-level interpretations of the situa- tion; and
  3. Positional maps that lay out the major positions taken, and not taken, in the data vis-à-vis particular axes of difference, concern, and controversy around issues in the situation of inquiry.
(Clarke, 2005)

(Image: A situational analysis diagram of "social worlds/arenas")
Metonymic Relations
Atsushi Akera, in his study of science and technological development in the U.S. cold war years, uses ecologies of knowledge to demonstrate metonymic relations which better identify esoteric knowldges not easily associated with simple actor relationships:

“The layered representation suggests, first of all, that esoteric knowledge is upheld through many intermediate forms of social organization, including occupations, disciplines, and corporate organizations. Moreover, each body of knowledge is upheld by an assortment of artifacts and actors. (Akera, 2008, pg.2)”

(Image: Akera's layers of an ecology of knowledge with metonymic relationships identified by dashes.)


Akera, A. (2007). Constructing a Representation for an Ecology of Knowledge: Methodological Advances in the Integration of Knowledge and its Various Contexts. Social Studies of Science, 37(3), 413-441. doi:10.1177/0306312706070742

Akera, A. (2008). Calculating a Natural World: Scientists, Engineers, and Computers during the Rise of U.S. Cold War Research. Isis (Vol. 99). doi:10.1086/59326

Clarke, A. (2005). Situational Analysis: Grounded Theory After the Postmodern Turn. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications.

Rosenberg, C. (1979). Toward an Ecology of Knowledge: On Discipline, Context, and History. In: Rosenberg, No Other Gods, revised and expanded edition. Johns Hopkins University Press.

Star, Susan Leigh (1995) ‘Introduction’, in S.L. Star (ed.), Ecologies of Knowledge: Work and Politics in Science and Technology (Albany, NY: State University of New York Press): 1–35.

Tansley, AG. (1935). The use and abuse of vegetational terms and concepts. Ecology 16 (3): 284–307.