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 SOCIAL ECOLOGY  
Stuart Hill
UWS-HAWKESBURY
Chair
             
PROFESSOR STUART B. HILL
Stuart Hill is the Foundation Chair of Social Ecology 
at the University of Western Sydney, Hawkesbury

       
 

 
 
 
 
 
 
 SOCIAL ECOLOGY IS...
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
BACKGROUND
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 AT UWS WE EMPHASISE 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
FAQ
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
SOCIAL ECOLOGY
           
 
           

         
             
 FOR A SUSTAINABLE FUTURE
 
           

           

       
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 Social Ecology is...
Social Ecology (SE) at UWS today is an emerging meta-discipline that provides a sophisticated and critical framework for the generation of holistic theory, deep understanding, and effective, responsible action. 
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     Background
Social ecology is a field of study first named and developed by Murray Bookchin, a well-known North American anarchist, in the 1960s (1). The guiding principles he emphasised were unity in diversity and complexity, spontaneity, complementary and mutualistic rather than hierarchical relationships, active, participatory democracy and bioregionalism. 
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     At UWS we emphasise experiential learning, participatory action research and other qualitative methodologies; we learn best in action, and research about change is most effective when it involves those most implicated.
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      FAQ
1. How long has social ecology been taught at UWS Hawkesbury and how is it taught?
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PAPERS
 
           

           

       
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
"As a Social Ecologist..."
Stuart Hill, Professor of Social Ecology at the Hawksbury Campus of the University of Western Sydney, describes himself as a social ecologist. 

A more accurate description might be a catalyst for change. But then, according to Professor Hill, ecology is about how systems work and social ecology is about learning to work effectively with those systems, particularly when change is occurring. 
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    "What SE means to me.."
This is a very personal account of social ecology. In this essay I will endeavour to discuss what social ecology means to me at this moment, place it within the vast smorgasbord of frameworks for understanding and action, share some critical moments in my evolving love affair with it, and talk boldly about where I believe it can make important contributions to our future, from the individual level to that of the species, and from the local to the global. 
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    Twelve SE Testing Questions
Prior to planning Healthy City initiatives and at several stages throughout their implementation, to aid relevance and sustained effectiveness and efficiencies, it is helpful to consider a range of mutually supportive testing questions. 

The twelve questions that will be discussed (listed below) were designed to broaden considerations by including concerns in the personal, social and environmental domains.
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     FAQ
7. I like the idea of chaos as a precondition for creativity. How does social ecology relate to the arts, are there any artists who have worked with you or within the Department of Social Ecology? 
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SOCIAL ECOLOGY IS...
 
           
For a print version click here!
           
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
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 chair
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
SE is
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
Background
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
We emphasise
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
FAQ
 
 
 
 
 
 
     
 
              PROFESSOR STUART B. HILL
Social Ecology (SE) at UWS today is an emerging meta-discipline that provides a sophisticated and critical framework for the generation of holistic theory, deep understanding, and effective, responsible action.

It derives its theory and direction from applied philosophy (critical reason, ethics, world-views, imagination), personal experience (postulation, action, reflection, contemplation) and diverse sources and systems of disciplinary, cultural and contextual knowledge (education, particularly ecological thinking, and spirituality).

SE emphasizes actions and reflective practice that integrate personal, social, political and environmental concerns and possibilities.

End goals include wellbeing and health, in the broadest sense, equity and social justice, and the fostering of mutualistic and caring relationships, personal meaning, organizational learning, co-evolutionary change and ecological sustainability. These relationships are illustrated below.


Relationships between sources of theory and praxis in social ecology

Because of this focus, most of its work is concerned with transformative learning and change, from the re-conceptualisation and redesign of existing theories, disciplines, professions, institutions and other structures and processes, to the facilitation of the actual processes of personal, social, political and environmental change.

The emphasis is on thinking about the big picture, while at the same time being willing to act in small meaningful ways, and also share and celebrate the associated visions, processes and outcomes to facilitate their rapid spread throughout society.

At UWS-Hawkesbury, SE had its origin in the mid-1980s in social communication. It was initially located within the Faculty of Agriculture and Rural Development and was primarily concerned with adult education in applied social and community settings. The change of name to Social Ecology reflected a drive to bring ecological thinking and concern for the environment into the nexus of key relationships.

Gradually SE has broadened to its present format, with undergraduate Majors in Community Development and Organisational Change, Environmental Education and Advocacy, and Ecological Psychology and Cultural Change. Coursework postgraduate programs include the Graduate Diploma and Master of Applied Science in Social Ecology, with Majors in Environmental Education, Organisational Development and Cultural Action; also a Master of Arts in Cultural Psychology: Jungian Studies and Complexity, Chaos and Creativity. Several other coursework postgraduate degrees are in the planning stage. Research degrees include the B.App.Sc.(Hons.), M.Sc.(Hons.) and Ph.D.

The educational goals of SE are pursued within a learning community in which opportunities for both students and staff to learn from one another are facilitated and encouraged. This process of learning is alive, exciting and empowering for all concerned. The knowledge and theory generated and the actions taken are at the cutting edge of personal, social, political and environmental thinking.

The research foci within the Social Ecology Research Group (SERG) are the same as the Majors plus Sense of Place and Critical Studies in Political Ecology. Discussions are underway for SERG to examine a possible amalgamation with the Centre for Systemic Development, the Centre for Strategic Thinking and the Critical Social Sciences Research Group.

Globally the term social ecology was first used in the mid-1960s by the United States anarchist, Murray Bookchin (1982) to characterise his particular critique of the centralised, hierarchical, naively simple, exclusionary and ecologically uninformed structures and processes that were (and still are) dominant in western society. Whereas Bookchin emphasised a philosophical analysis and was critical of deep ecology (Devall & Sessions 1985), SE at Hawkesbury had a more inclusive and practical approach. It drew its inspiration particularly from Carl Rogers (1969) conception of whole-person-learning, David Kolbs (1984) experiential education, Paolo Frieres (1972) view of education as liberation, Mary Belenky et als (1986) feminist perspectives, and Peter Reason and John Rowans (1981) participatory action research.

Subsequently, numerous other concepts have been incorporated. These include Gregory Batesons (1972) ecological or recursive epistemology, Peter Senges (1990) learning communities, Mary Clarks (1989) interdisciplinary approaches to global problems, Humberto Maturana and Francisco Varelas (1987) biologically-based constructivist mind, Peter Checkland and Jim Scholes (1990) soft systems methodology, Kurt Lewins (1935) force-field analysis and Fran Peaveys (1994) strategic questioning. Others are reflected in the selections included in the extensive collection of Readers that have been prepared for the subjects offered in social ecology by the academic staff. These are available at cost from the Course Administrator at the address given below.
 
 

References Cited.
Bateson, G. 1972. Steps to an Ecology of Mind. Intertext, London.
Belenky, M.F. B. McClinchy, N.R. Goldberger & J.M. Tarule 1986. The Womens Ways of Knowing: The Development of Self, Voice, and Mind. Basic Books, New York.
Bookchin, M. 1982. The Ecology of Freedom. Knopf, New York.
Checkland, P. & J. Scholes 1990. Soft Systems Methodology in Action. Wiley, New York.
Clark, M.E. 1989. Ariadnes Thread. St.Martins, New York.
Devall, B. & G. Sessions 1985. Deep Ecology. Gibbs M. Smith, Layton, UT.
Friere, P. 1972. Cultural Action for Freedom. Penguin, Harmondsworth, UK.
Kolb, D. 1984. Experience As the Base for Learning and Development. Prentice Hall, Englewood Cliffs, NJ.
Lewin, K. 1935. A Dynamic Theory of Personality. McGraw Hill, New York.
Maturana, H.R. & F.J. Varela 1987. The Tree of Knowledge. Shambala, Boston, MA.
Peavey, F. 1994. By Lifes Grace. New Society, Philadelphia, PA.
Reason, P. & J.Rowan (eds) 1981. Human Inquiry: A Sourcebook of New Paradigm Research. Wiley, New York.
Rogers, C. 1969. Freedom to Learn. Merrill, London.

Professor Stuart B. Hill 1st August, 2000.
Foundation Chair of Social Ecology
University of Western Sydney-Hawkesbury
Richmond. NSW, 2753, Australia
Ph.: (02) 4570 1280 Fax: (02 4570 1531. Email: s.hill@uws.edu.au

Department of Social Ecology Website:
http://www.nepean.uws.edu.au/showcase/aou/uwsh/socialinq/social_ecology/
Social Ecology Research Group Website: 
http://www.hawkesbury.uws.edu.au/research/groups/SERG/

 
           
           
 

         
             
 SOME SE BACKGROUND
 
           
           


       
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
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FAQ
 
 
 
 
 
 
   
Social ecology is a field of study first named and developed by Murray Bookchin, a well-known North American anarchist, in the 1960s (1). The guiding principles he emphasised were unity in diversity and complexity, spontaneity, complementary and mutualistic rather than hierarchical relationships, active, participatory democracy and bioregionalism.

At the University of Western Sydney-Hawkesbury, social ecology was adopted, virtually without reference to Bookchin, to better describe the Social Communications Graduate Diploma in the mid-1980s. The course had broadened beyond communication issues (initially in relation to agriculture and rural communities) to encompass a wide range of social and environmental issues. Social ecology at Hawkesbury has continued to evolve ever since. 

In 1996 I was appointed Foundation Chair of Social Ecology and one of my first tasks was to try to help the group arrive at a currently acceptable definition and description of what we do. This is an ongoing project!

For me, the central attraction is that at Hawkesbury social ecology aims to integrate the personal, social and environmental in most of its teaching and research. This is in contrast with the usual sustainability and change frameworks, which highlight the economy, society and the environment, in that order! By doing this, they exclude the individual from responsibility and perpetuate the role of money, rather than some higher system of values, as the basis for decision making. Money can only function effectively in a sustainable society if it is regarded as a tool in the service of a higher value. Thus, our programs at Hawkesbury are about sustainability and change, with an emphasis on equity and social justice, personal and collaborative action, imagination, and learning from nature and history

 
       
 
           
 
           
         
             
 UWS WE EMPHASISE
 
           
           


       
 
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experiential learning, participatory action research and other qualitative methodologies; 

we learn best in action, and research about change is most effective when it involves those most implicated.

the importance of context and diverse ways of knowing (including womens and indigenous ways);

so many so-called solutions to problems fail over the long term because they ignore the complex relationships that exist in nature, society and in our own bodies and because they are limited to scientific knowledge (the verifiable knowledge that we know we know), whereas most of the knowledge that we have we dont know we know, and most of it is unverifiable rather than ignore this, we need to find ways to work with this knowledge (which is what most artists spend most of their lives doing!).

the value of diversity and of learning to collaborate across difference;

valuing and working with diversity and difference is a quantum leap beyond tolerating it or even understanding it and it is a pre-requisite for peace.

working for equity and social justice, particularly in relation to issues of power, gender and race;

again, it is very demanding to act on such goals, and for most of us reading this (particularly us white males) it will mean giving up some privilege and reducing ownership and consumption.

understanding how to work with and design complex mutualistic systems, recognising chaos as an important precondition for creativity, development and coevolution, and not something to be quickly controlled and simplified;

our scientific, technological and regulatory approaches to the design and management of systems have usually overemphasised simplification, uniformity and control. Nature, on the other hand, is extremely complex, and creative, forever following cycles from chaos to order and back again to chaos. To avoid major crises, the key is to keep such cycles as small as possible.

What is exciting for me is that social ecology brings together so many poles that rarely meet: the arts and sciences; critical thinking and reflexivity, passion and intuition; rationality and spirituality; the stories of the ancients, systems theory and chaos theory; plus an extensive list of disciplines. Social ecology is a transdisciplinary metafield or meta-discipline that is particularly informed by ecology, psychology and health studies, sociology and cultural studies, the creative arts, holistic sciences, appropriate technology, post-structuralism and critical theory, ecofeminism, ecological economics, peace and futures studies, applied philosophy and spirituality. If one thinks about designing systems that can really work in the best possible way, it soon becomes clear that one must be free to draw on the full spectrum of human knowledge and wisdom. This is what social ecology aims to do. Because one cannot be an expert in every area, to be effective while taking into account such broad concerns, most of us need to become much more comfortable with unknowing.

Whereas we need to be in a knowing state to act, we can only be open to learn in our unknowing way of being. The key is to be able to move flexibly and appropriately between these two in an emergent spiral, not getting stuck for too long on one or the other. Learning to work flexibly and spontaneously with knowing and unknowing, the rational and the mystical, science and spirituality, the modern and postmodern, order and chaos, goals and plans as well as visions and dreams, and sustainability and change is an important expression of the essential competence of being able to embrace, learn from and work with paradox. This is an essential competence that remains largely undeveloped in our society. D. Rushkoffs book Children of Chaos(2) provides a paradoxical, challenging and hopeful view of many young people, who by playing with chaos, creativity and shadow material, and with computers, are already intuitively preparing themselves for creating a more benign and caring future.

One of the greatest challenges in Western society is the small percentage of the population that really understand the absolute bottom line nature of ecological sustainability and its important legislative, legal and regulatory implications. It is essential that at every level our species recognises the primacy of those ecological values that are concerned with our survival, health and wellbeing. 

Humanism demands that we live up to our potential as pragmatically caring human beings, but we also need to function spiritually. To do this our spirituality needs to be able to be expressed spontaneously in the moment as an integrated expression of our core nature and not as compensation or escape. For me, spirituality is concerned with the rest, the mystery, the unmeasurable wonder and amazingness of it all, from our still largely unknown origins to our unknowable futures. It is related mostly to the unknowing side of the spiral referred to above. It is not something that needs to be explained and organized in great detail. Rather it is one expression of being human, a source for our creativity and openness to learn. Over-organization of spirituality is robbing many of us of contexts within which to develop our sense of wonder, so necessary in turn for the development of our values, respect, caring and responsibility, and of our ability to make wise decisions. 


1. Bookchin, Murray, The Ecology of Freedom: The Emergence and Dissolution of Hierarchy. Cheshire Books, Palo Alto, CA.

2. Rushkoff, D., Children of Chaos: Surviving the End Of the World As We Know It, 1996, Harper Collins, London.
       
 
           
 
           

         
             
 FREQUENTLY ASKED QUESTIONS
 
           

           

       
 

 
 
 
 
 
 
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FAQ
 
 
 
 
 
 

 

   

1. How long has social ecology been taught at UWS Hawkesbury and how is it taught?

2. Would you say that social ecology was developed by Bookchin, or that it is a collaborative effort over a number of years by a number of people? Is there a Bible of social ecology, or library of sacred texts?

3. What role does the writings of Gregory Bateson play in social ecology?

4. Is social ecology merely a university curriculum term for a discipline that exists outside the academic context in more practical and experiential ways?

5. You have called social ecology a metafield; can you expand on this term? If it is a grab bag of recent thinking how does it bring ideas together constructively?

6. Can you expand on the notion of understanding paradox?

7. I like the idea of chaos as a precondition for creativity. How does social ecology relate to the arts, are there any artists who have worked with you or within the Department of Social Ecology?

8. How do you see the importance of a sense of place in peoples lives, and how are the arts implicated in this?

9. What is the public face of social ecology?

10. Are there any upcoming events, conferences, and symposia that incorporate social ecology?

1. How long has social ecology been taught at UWS Hawkesbury and how is it taught?

Further to what I noted in the short article above I can say that there are three ways to do Social Ecology at UWSH: 1) our two undergraduate degrees, with majors in community and organisational change, environmental education and advocacy and ecological psychology and cultural change, are studied full time in the same way as most degrees; 2) our coursework postgraduate degrees (Graduate Diploma and Masters) are studied largely by mature-aged students who each semester attend a week-long residential, and do projects within their own home area; and 3) our research degrees (BSc (Hons), MSc (Hons) and PhD) are also largely conducted off campus with the same residential attendance requirements. Our students come from across Australia and overseas. Residential's are intense learning extravaganzas, each with a different topical theme and outstanding guest presenters in the area chosen. They are also celebrational. and community-building events.

2. Would you say that social ecology was developed by Bookchin, or that it is a collaborative effort over a number of years by a number of people? Is there a Bible of social ecology, or library of sacred texts?

While Bookchin developed his brand of anarchist social ecology in Vermont (Goddard College, Montpellier, VT), others have developed other varieties in other parts of the world, yet there still remain very few degree programs. We distance ourselves from some of the positions taken by Bookchin, largely because of his unwillingness to collaborate across difference (e.g., with deep ecologists, and those interested in the spiritual). In the absence of a bible of social ecology, I have put together a two-volume reader, which contains over 50 key articles, which we work with in our introductory subjects.

3. What role does the writings of Gregory Bateson play in social ecology?

Bateson is certainly one of the key thinkers that inform our version of social ecology. His articulation of an ecological epistemology is particularly valuable. We tend, however, to be anti-guru and so different members of our group will have derived their inspiration from variety of different sources.

4. Is social ecology merely a university curriculum term for a discipline that exists outside the academic context in more practical and experiential ways?

Although most social ecology (SE) is still associated with university programs, because nearly all of our 1000+ graduates have conducted projects within the broader community, SE is starting to become recognised as a particularly comprehensive and effective approach to working with situation improvement. This is particularly because it is open to dealing with difficult issues such as equity, sustainability, change, long time frames, complex situations, systems in need of rejuvenation, and broad concerns.

5. You have called social ecology a metafield; can you expand on this term? If it is a grab bag of recent thinking how does it bring ideas together constructively?

Because SE is concerned with gaining comprehensive understanding and with effective, ethical action it must be free to draw upon information and wisdom from across all disciplines and knowledge systems. It is the action focus that integrates these diverse sources in a constructive way. This is reflected, for example, in my recently compiled 12 Testing Questions for Healthy City Initiatives. I could not have come up with these if I had been limited to thinking within just one or even a few disciplines.

6. Can you expand on the notion of understanding paradox?

I could write volumes on paradox. In some ways it relates to Edward De Bonos concept of lateral thinking, although it is more like upside-down thinking. Thus, the enemy may turn out to be the ally, the problem contains the solutions, and so on. Weeds, for example, often concentrate the rare trace minerals needed to make the soil fertile and so once fertile the weed-healed soil no longer provides a suitable habitat for these same weeds. Minor health problems give early warning signs of more serious problems, which if we respond to by changing our lifestyle we can avoid. Conversely, if we imagine we have dealt with the problem by treating or masking the symptoms then we are likely to be continuing on down the road to degenerative diseases and early death. Parallels occur at every level. One of my rules is that if I havent recognised one or more paradoxes in whatever I am working on I am likely to be missing a key part of the story.

7. I like the idea of chaos as a precondition for creativity. How does social ecology relate to the arts, are there any artists who have worked with you or within the Department of Social Ecology?

We have many artists among our staff and students, and many projects are submitted partly as works of art. Poetry and stories are also common within project write-ups. Music and songs are sometimes written, and films are sometimes made. Drama is a central focus of our new Cultural Action coursework Masters program. Most students find that such creativity is essential to both communicate the bigger picture and to help others to empower themselves into action.

8. How do you see the importance of a sense of place in peoples lives, and how are the arts implicated in this?

Sense of place is central to most of our work. Conversely, I believe that loss of connection with place ones inner core, community and nature is the major pre-requisite for both loss of caring and irresponsibility; and for the resultant degeneration and degradation that can be recognised all around us. The role of art in helping us to connect and re-connect with place was brilliantly displayed at the recent Palimpsest. Nobody could have walked away from that experience either unchanged or more connected to the earth, to one another, and to ones essence. It was an empowering and expanding experience, and one that needs to become contagious across the world.

9. What is the public face of social ecology?

Social ecology has always had a public face mostly challenging the inappropriate, inequitable, unsustainable status quo but it is only just beginning to be recognised as a preferred alternative paradigm and framework for effective, responsible action. Partly it is effective because it thinks and acts across the usual boundaries of disciplines, professions, class, gender, religion, species, time, space, etc. It works with passions rather than problems. It meets people where they are and supports them in taking the next, usually small, meaningful initiatives that are relevant to them, and it encourages the public celebration of resultant improvements to help them become contagious.

10. Are there any upcoming events, conferences, and symposia that incorporate social ecology?

There are upcoming social ecology conferences, particularly in North America, but we are unlikely to be attending them. Rather you will find us at every other conference presenting papers and workshops with titles like the one I referred to above, which I presented recently at a Healthy City Conference in Canberra. Already this year I have spoken about taking a social ecology approach at conferences on livestock production, organic farming, urban planning, leadership, futures, nutrition and health, environmental education and special education; and a diverse array are planned for the rest of the year. Because we are committed to transforming the whole system, we must be open to engaging with whichever parts of the system are open to change and also to working with others, often with less broad interests, in this exciting journey of learning our way into the future, retaining a sense of humility, wonder and humour as we go.


Stuart Hill is the Foundation Chair of Social Ecology at the University of Western Sydney, Hawkesbury. 
He is also in the Steering Committee for Palimpsest #4.

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