Peter Taylor

Environmental and Health Sciences in their Social Context:
Critical Thinking & Reflective Practice

Research, Teaching, Field Building and Associated Links

As a Professor at the University of Massachusetts Boston, I direct the Critical and Creative Thinking (CCT) Graduate Program, which aims to provide its mid-career or career-changing students with "knowledge, tools, experience, and support so they can become constructive, reflective agents of change in education, work, social movements, science, and creative arts." I also direct the Program in Science, Technology and Values (STV), which offers courses to undergraduates about the interactions between scientific developments and social change and promotes discussion and teaching innovation among faculty. These roles come together in the new Graduate certificate and Masters track in CCT on "Science in the Changing World."

The intellectual basis for my work in and across these interdisciplinary endeavors lies in my analyses of complexity in the social situation in which the research is undertaken as well as in the situations studied in science. For many years my focus in science was on ecology and environmental studies, but in recent years I have been studying social epidemiological approaches that address the life course development of health and behavior. I argue that both the situations studied and the social situation of the researchers can be characterized in terms of unruly complexity or "intersecting processes" that cut across scales, involve heterogeneous components, and develop over time. These cannot be understood from an outside view; instead positions of engagement must be taken within the complexity. Knowledge production needs to be linked with planning for action and action itself in an ongoing process so that knowledge, plans, and action can be continually reassessed in response to developments -- predicted and surprising alike. In this spirit, I explore ways to stimulate researchers (and students training to become researchers) to self-consciously examine the complexity of their social situatedness so as to change the ways they address the complexity of the situations they study.

This project on complexity and change had its beginnings in environmental and social activism in Australia which led to studies and research in ecology and agriculture. I moved to the United States to undertake doctoral studies in ecology, with a minor focus in what is now called science and technology studies (STS). Subsequently, I combined scientific investigations with interpretive inquiries from the different disciplines that make up STS, my goal being to make STS perspectives relevant to life and environmental students and scientists. Critical thinking and critical pedagogy/reflective practice became central to my intellectual and professional project as I encouraged students and researchers to contrast the paths taken in science, society, education with other paths that might be taken, and to foster their acting upon the insights gained. Bringing critical analysis of science to bear on the practice and applications of science has not been well developed or supported institutionally, and so I continue to contribute actively to new collaborations, programs, and other activities, new directions for existing programs, and collegial interactions across disciplines. My aspiration is to foster education that supports people to become resilient and reorganize their lives, communities, and economies in response to social, environmental changes.

Further elaboration of this work and details of specific products

Selected recent publications

Recent funded NSF projects

About my Teaching

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Created June 11, 1995; Last revised Mar. 12, 2014