Placing ecology: The historical relations between ecological research and field sites
Close relations between scientific practices and field sites have been a central theme in the history of ecology. This has been evident in some of the most influential episodes in this history, such as Henry Cowles' studies on the Indiana Dunes in the late 1890s, when he developed ideas about vegetation succession; and the research by Charles Elton on Bear Island in the early 1920s, when he formulated some of the basic concepts of food webs. But as every experienced field ecologist knows, conducting research in the field presents not only opportunities but challenges, including those that stem from complexity, variability, and lack of experimental controls. The history of field ecology is therefore, in part, the history of efforts to manage these challenges so as to produce credible knowledge. The research question addressed by this paper is: How have ecologists responded to the challenges and opportunities presented by field sites? The methods employed in this study include an historically-informed survey of the research literature to identify trends and patterns in ecological field methods; an analysis of these methods in relation to field sites and ecologists' theoretical concerns; and a focused analysis of the history of field research at selected sites.
The results of this study include an historical account of the strategies that ecologists have employed to generate credible knowledge in the field. More specific results speak to several aspects of the history of ecological research. One is that several factors determine how certain locations become sites for field research: these include scientific reasons, such as the possibility of control over environmental conditions, as well as non-scientific considerations, such as economic or environmental priorities. A second result is that methodological strategies employed on field sites have often been framed in terms of two opposing considerations: a reliance on methods specific to the field site, or on methods considered to be of more general applicability. This also relates to the use of methods that aim to reproduce aspects of laboratory practice in the field – in effect, to achieve an appropriate balance between realism and control. The third result speaks to the relation between field sites and the regions in which they are located, such as the Arctic: historically, field research at these sites has often influenced perceptions of the identity of their regions.