Social representations of nature : the case of the 'Braer' oil spill in Shetland
In this thesis, the work of Serge Moscovici on the human history of nature is made relevant to his theory of social representations. This theoretical synthesis breaks away both from the realist assumption of a given, immutable and non-socialised nature, and from the individualist conceptualisations of man-environment relations which still dominate environmental, ecological and social psychology. It is argued that social representations are not solely the concern of epistemology; they have ontological correlates and are involved in the social construction on nature. The empirical study investigates how social representations of nature functioned in Shetland - a society which combines traditional and late modern features - in the wake of the Braer oil spill in January 1993. The findings are based on the qualitative analysis of 17 individual interviews, five small group discussions, 375 articles from the newspaper The Shetland Times, the transcript of a public debate on the Cost of the Braer for Shetland and, more generally, participant observation. The analysis reveals the synchronic existence of three distinct, yet interrelated, social representations of nature: organic, mechanistic and cybernetic. Each of them is intrinsically related to a particular sense of identity, mode of knowledge, and mode of relations to nature. "Real Shetlanders" hold predominantly organic representations, whereby nature constitutes a repository of their history, a definer of their identity as a marginal but resilient community. It is known through direct engagement and participation in a life world. By contrast, "Sooth-Moothers" (outsiders) hold mechanistic and/or cybernetic representations which rest upon some universal, abstract knowledge of the systemic properties of "the environment". Their relations to nature oscillate between domination, mastery and protection. However, the imperatives facing the community, together with constant exchanges of information via the media, blur the boundaries between representations.