Doctoral Dissertation Research: Rossi: Ecological Restoration’s Genetic Culture: Participation and Technology in the Making of Landscapes

Grants and Contracts Details


This project analyzes how scientists in the Chicago Botanic Garden (CBG) incorporate genetic technology, volunteer labor, and seed banks into ecological restoration practices. Ecological restoration is a conservation practice that erases visible human impacts on landscapes by reconstructing functional historical ecosystems. To accomplish this task, scientists and volunteers must collect, propagate, analyze, and plant geographically appropriate seeds in large quantities. These activities require intense labor and capital inputs. Restorationists can replicate historical, scientifically-informed ecosystems only to the degree that their botanical institution attracts necessary resources. To circumvent limited financial support for these endeavors, botanical gardens rely on volunteer labor and donations to assist seed collection and plant cultivation efforts. Supporters also consider ecological restoration an inclusive conservation paradigm and advocate public participation when defining, implementing, and monitoring landscape interventions. Yet these projects are not always inclusive, especially when proprietary technological competencies are preconditions for participation. By introducing genetic technology to restorations, scientists potentially alienate their support base and produce new criteria for who can use and produce knowledge about nature. This research focuses on the integration of volunteers into various aspects of genetic restoration projects, both inside and outside of the lab. Chicago Botanic is becoming a national model for restorations involving consolidated plant resources and genetic technology. Therefore, CBG’s emerging strategies have widespread implications for what resources are used and who can participate in restoration practices more broadly. Analyzing how CBG restores landscapes using genetic technology will contribute to the geographical study of human–environment interactions by asking the following questions (drawing together specific literatures): 1) How do botanical scientists enroll specific genetic technologies and social practices to delineate what plants should be included in restored native ecosystems? (Science Studies) 2) How do these practices define legitimate users of and knowledge-makers about plant genetic resources through differential patterns of volunteer involvement? (Political Ecology) 3) How do restored landscapes embody and mediate social relations and cultural meanings formed in translation between genetic science and popular conservation imaginaries? (Cultural Landscapes) By answering these questions, the Co-PI will examine how the technological delineation of ecosystem structure relies on different forms of public participation. CBG relies heavily on volunteers accessed through complex relations with citizen science groups, industry, and local governments. As such, this research analyzes how genetic concepts are communicated to the public to encourage participation in restoration projects. Research methods will comprise a combination of semi-structured interviews, participant observation, and discourse analysis The intellectual merit of this research lies in extending research in science studies literature that considers the cultural dimensions of scientific technologies and knowledge-making practices. It also adds to a growing literature of first world political ecology focused on how specific technologies and institutions redefine access to and validate ownership over particular resources. Finally, this research draws science studies and political ecology into conversation with cultural landscape literature by considering restoration science a social process that explicitly recreates culturally-defined natures. The broader impacts of this study will draw together ecologists, social scientists, and non-experts to critically reflect on unintended benefits or consequences of genetic restoration practices on volunteer participation. This research will elucidate how the public-science interface can be made more inclusive and responsive to volunteer restorationists, their local knowledges, and their site-specific restoration visions. The Co-PI will disseminate analyzed data and practical recommendations through geography and restoration journals, presentations at related conferences, and through botanical garden publications.
Effective start/end date3/1/128/31/13


  • National Science Foundation: $4,000.00


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