“Racist societies produce racist sciences”: Biological determinism and ideologies of race in political ecology

“Racist societies produce racist sciences.” -Sandra Harding, DOPE 2017 Closing Plenary Address, February 2017


Geography as a whole acknowledges its disciplinary place in reinforcing and spreading scientific racism, from Social Darwinism to the foundational embrace of environmental determinism (Livingstone 2011). Regrettably, teachings on environmental determinism in core geography seminars positions it as a historical aberration that has been resolved in our field. Meanwhile, current events -- from Elizabeth Warren’s DNA test to find “Native American ancestry,” to Paul Ryan’s similar claims to “Jewish ancestry,” to the Trump administration’s attempt to wield science in the service of institutional transphobia -- shows that scientific racism is not as far in the past as our field would like to imagine. Additionally, critiques from within critical scholarship have raised concerns about a reification of static racial categories in progressive spaces in service of neoliberal, non-liberatory ends (Haider 2018). We are witnessing a resurgence of claims of biological determinism on the basis of race, gender, and other identity categories.  


Calls have been issued to complicate simplistic and singular notions of identity difference in political ecology (Mollett and Faria 2013). Mollett and Faria point out that political ecology has lacked critical engagement with critical race studies, postcolonial studies, and Women of Color feminisms due to a normative whiteness in the field (Faria and Mollett 2016) and hesitation to name the complicated nature of identity categorization. New scholarship on the history and resurgence of racial science has been fruitful.  Historical and current debates over DNA ancestry have challenged scientific categorization of inherently political categories (Abu El-Haj 2012; TallBear 2013). Native American and Indigenous Studies scholars, such as Kyle Powys White, have criticized the environmental/scientific romanticization of Indigenous people by “allies” in the climate justice and/or global environmental movements (Whyte 2018). Jade Sasser has criticized the relationship between scientific racism and neo-Malthusian logics in climate change organizing (Sasser 2018).


While some limited work within more traditional political ecology addresses these issues, (Moore, Kosek, and Pandian 2003), political ecology as a whole has deigned to sustain engagement with the entanglements of science, race, settler-colonialism, capitalism, and the environment. Yet the political urgency to deal with these issues head on could not be more pressing. How can we make sense of current resurgences of and debates around scientific dimensions of racialization and racial assemblages? How do the sciences -- natural and social-- perpetuate fixed notions of multiple categories of difference (race, gender, sexuality, ability, etc.), both historically and in the contemporary moment? How do structures of transnational settler-colonialism and global racial capitalism spread and solidify scientific discourses which serve to oppress and dispossess? How do we as critical social scientists resist reifying ideologies of racism? How can our scholarship, activism, and the nexus between the two trouble normative notions of race?


Possible topics for this session may include:


  • Intersection of scientific racism with settler-colonialism, misogyny, transphobia, ableism, etc.

  • Urban political ecology and race in the city

  • History of scientific racism or racialization outside of the U.S.

  • Relationship between racialization and settler-colonial land dispossession in the U.S. and/or globally

  • The construction of whiteness in the US and legal claims to access whiteness and the subsequent permission and/or boundaries

  • Political ecology of anti-Blackness and environmental racism

  • Political ecology of the racialized body

  • Racial capitalism and political ecology

  • Lived experiences of race in political ecology scholarship (in research, teaching, etc.)

  • Critical interrogation of whiteness in political ecology

  • How science has contributed to “whiteness as property” (Harris 1993)

  • Addressing the black/white binary in research projects surrounding questions of race and racism

  • Limits of racial frameworks to understand indigeneity and settler-colonialism

  • Struggles within social justice, environmental justice, and climate justice movements on race


We particularly encourage submissions, whether traditional papers, conversations, or manifestos, which are from scholars whose lived and research experiences are most impacted by this conversation, and ask all papers submitted to center the voices of those most affected by scientific racism historically and presently.


Please submit abstracts of max 300 words by December 7 to Diego Ariel Martinez-Lugo at dmartinezlugo@email.arizona.edu and Gabi Kirk at gekirk@ucdavis.edu




Abu El-Haj, Nadia. 2012. The Genealogical Science: The Search for Jewish Origins and the Politics of Epistemology. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.


Faria, Caroline, and Sharlene Mollett. 2016. “Critical Feminist Reflexivity and the Politics of Whiteness in the ‘ Field .’” Gender, Place & Culture 23 (1): 79–93.


Haider, Asad. 2018. Mistaken Identity: Race and Class in the Age of Trump. London and New York: Verso Books.


Harris, Cheryl I. 1993. “Whiteness as Property.” Harvard Law Review 106 (8): 1707–91.


Livingstone, David N. 2011. “Environmental Determinism.” In The Sage Handbook of Geographical Knowledge.


Mollett, Sharlene, and Caroline Faria. 2013. “Messing with Gender in Feminist Political Ecology.” Geoforum 45: 116–25.


Moore, Donald S., Jake Kosek, and Anand Pandian, eds. 2003. Race, Nature, and the Politics of Difference. Durham and London: Duke University Press.


Sasser, Jade. 2018. On Infertile Ground: Population Control and Women’s Rights in the Era of Climate Change. New York: NYU Press.


TallBear, Kim. 2013. Native American DNA: Tribal Belonging and the False Promise of Genetic Science. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.


Whyte, Kyle P. 2018. “Indigenous Science (Fiction) for the Anthropocene: Ancestral Dystopias and Fantasies of Climate Change Crises.” Environment and Planning E: Nature and Space 1 (1–2): 224–42.


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