An interview with Justin Farrell, author of THE BATTLE FOR YELLOWSTONE

Farrell jacketYellowstone, the world’s first national park and a spectacular geothermal hot spot, has long been a popular summer vacation destination, with its unparalleled scenery, hiking and wildlife. But it also sits at the center of endless political struggles and environmental conflicts. What can Yellowstone teach us about the worsening environmental conflicts worldwide? And what can the persistent clashes about Yellowstone itself teach us about cultural upheaval in the US? Justin Farrell recently sat down to answer these questions and give us some background on the writing of his new book, The Battle for Yellowstone, which was recently called “The most original political book of early 2015” by The Economist.

Why Yellowstone?

JF: Yellowstone National Park is the first national park in the world, and is a natural and cultural treasure of the United States. The history about how this happened is somewhat complicated, difficult, and imperialistic (as I describe in Chapter 1), but it remains a modern treasure nonetheless.

In recent years it has become a site for some of the most intractable environmental struggles in the world. As a prototype for conservation, these struggles have great impact beyond the bounds of the United States. This is why the issues I write about in the book draw so much attention from U.S. Presidents, Congress, environmental groups, local ranchers and farmers, national media, and millions of members of the public from outside of the Yellowstone region. Each year more and more money is poured into finding solutions, yet the toxic polarization rolls on.

What does morality have to do with anything?

JF: In and around Yellowstone there is a massive amount of energy put into solving these conflicts, and just about all of this energy is put into ascertaining more facts and technical knowledge about biology, ecology, economics, or law. While this is good, and we always need more of this, it has clouded what the conflict is really about, and hindered progress in a number of ways. Underneath this sort of reasoning is the notion that once people “have the facts,” they will make rational decisions based on those facts. Of course, we know this is not true.

Through several years of research on Yellowstone conflict, I ask more fundamental questions that reveal the sources of pre-scientific cultural, moral, and spiritual commitments that in many ways drive Yellowstone conflict. In the book I unpack this argument in much more detail, and describe empirically how environmental conflict in this area has intense cultural and moral dimensions that are often ignored, muted, or misunderstood by the participants in the conflict.

You’ve blended computational social science with traditional qualitative fieldwork. Can you explain why this methodological approach is important?

JF: Mixed-methods can open windows of insight that are often missed by a single methodological approach. I really enjoy computational methods, such as machine learning, text analysis, and network science. I wanted to blend them with the qualitative fieldwork in a way that worked together in a complementary way, rather than side by side. So my interview guides and choices for participant observation were many times informed by the computational social science. And vice-versa, the difficult interpretive work required by qualitative data was informed by what I found in the computational analyses. On a much broader note, I really believe that there are so many benefits to blending these types of research, and that qualitative researchers in particular should try to make use of computational social science because—as I try to show in the book (and in a class I teach here at Yale)—that there are a lot of similarities, and a lot of tools at our disposal that can help us better understand human culture.

What are the main theoretical contributions of the book?

JF: While the main contribution concerns morality and environmental conflict, there are four general contributions that fit more neatly into subfield boxes. I won’t go into too much detail here, but they are (1) a contribution to the (re)emerging field of sociology of morality; (2) bringing questions central to sociology of culture into the field of environmental sociology; (3) examining religion and spirituality in ostensibly non-religious or “secular” settings; (4) a methodological model and call for scholars to blend computational social science with qualitative fieldwork.

Environmental issues have become especially important in the 21st century, and will continue to do so. How might this book help solve the growing number of environmental conflicts around the world?

JF: The model and argument I develop in the book has broad application to any environmental issue where cultural factors weigh strong. My bias is that there are cultural factors weighing strong in almost any environmental issue, and are driven by larger conceptions and cultural commitments about what the “good” life looks like, and how we should go about living it in relationship to each other and to the natural world.

Justin Farrell is assistant professor of sociology in the School of Forestry and Environmental Studies at Yale University.

Read the introduction here.