The diversity, complexity, and contingency of ecological systems both bless and challenge ecologists. They bless us with beauty and endless fascination; our subject is never boring. But they also challenge us with the fact that results of our field studies typically are contingent on a host of factors unique to the focal system as well as where and when we study it. There are simply too few scientists to study more than a small fraction of the planet’s ecological systems. Given the importance of ecological understanding for managing the planet’s life support systems wisely, we need to devise efficient ways to extract “portable ecological knowledge” from our studies—that is, knowledge that can be applied elsewhere.
Ecologists seek generality in various ways. Some seek it by replicating observations, experiments, or measurements across taxa, space, and time. This pattern-analytic approach produces generalizations in the form of statements about frequencies of occurrence and estimates of parameters or trends. Others seek generality by constructing “pure” theory with potential applicability to many systems. Still others seek to understand universal ecological processes by studying simplified systems that remove some of the complexity of the real world. In these latter two cases, generality consists of statements about how nature might work. All of these approaches have produced important insights.
Paradoxically, many ecologists seek general understanding in a completely different way: they intensively study unsimplified systems in natural contexts—in particular places—often for many years, deploying diverse methods and types of information. We call this little-discussed approach “The Ecology of Place.” It is similar in many regards to Case Study methods increasingly used in the social sciences, perhaps because these fields also study complex entities whose current state is the product of individual properties, history, and setting. Generalization in both cases involves testable statements about the applicability of alternative conceptual frameworks to particular systems with particular properties.
The purpose of this symposium is to inaugurate discussion of place-centered approaches to generating ecological knowledge and how we can build capacity for them. This introductory talk outlines elements of the Ecology of Place and compares them with Case study methods in the social sciences. Subsequent speakers illustrate the approach with accounts of their own place-based research, or discuss how we can facilitate it by investing in field stations and field-based education programs. We end with a roundtable to invite general discussion.