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Geoscience Metanarratives -- Part 2

Submitted by jdp on Mon, 04/20/2015 - 11:41 am


This is a continuation of a previous post, and this one will be even less intelligible unless you read that one first.

So, even though we rarely use the term, geoscientists have our metanarratives. Metanarrative is something of a perjorative for postmodern (pomo) critical social theorists, but just because because a metanarrative doesn’t really explain everything, even within its domain, doesn’t make it wrong, useless, or even hubris-y. As long we don’t make claims or insinuations, or have expectations, of a “theory of everything,” overarching theories or explanatory frameworks can be evaluated on their own merits or lack thereof—that is, whether a construct can be considered a metanarrative or not is independent of its utility and value.

The second thing pomos don’t like about metanarratives is that they tend to be global stories that overshadow, obscure, or misrepresent important aspects of local stories. Before I even heard of metanarratives and pretty much up to the present, I have been arguing for the importance of local, geographically and historically contingent factors in physical geography, geology, ecology, hydrology, and pedology (here are the earliest and most recent published examples). No matter how much data we obtain, we cannot explain everything based on universally applicable models, theories (or metanarratives) without marrying those to the contingent details of place and space. However, those same arguments assert that we cannot usefully base all our research in idiographic case studies—we need the overarching general principles (metanarratives?), too.

Some have interpreted my embrace of the local, and my critique of some geoscience metanarratives (particularly those based on balance-of-nature and normative equilibrium) as a postmodern attitude on my part. I’m not too concerned with how I get labeled, but please rest assured that I am not intellectually or academically aligned with the critical postmodern social theorists, though I count many as friends and colleagues. Metanarratives may be unhelpful, or repressive, but when this is the case it is not because they are metanarratives!

Now to another issue: I have suggested that some geoscience metanarratives based on equilibrium or optimality concepts are better explained as simpler emergent properties of Earth surface systems (see dis and dat). Is emergence, or selection, or historical/geographical contingency just another metanarrative? Are they meta2 because they suggest that phenomena interpreted under a metanarrative of, e.g., dynamic equilibrium is a special case?

I don’t know and maybe I don’t care. What I do know is that the metanarratives I prefer and promote (if metanarratives they be) are attractive based on a classic, traditional scientific criterion: they are (or at least appear to me) to be the simplest possible way to explain observations.