Canadian Journal of Sociology Online September-October 2000

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Rik Scarce
Fishy Business: Salmon, Biology, and the Social Construction of Nature.

Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 2000, 236 pp.
$CDN 29.95, $US 19.95 paper (1566397294), $CDN 88.25, $US 59.50, cloth (1566397286)

The growing interdisciplinary interest in the field of human/animal relations is evident in various social science journals devoting special issues to the topic, the creation of new journals (e.g., Society and Animals), and a growing catalogue of books in the field. Rik Scarce's Fishy Business, in the Temple University series “Animals, Culture and Society” (edited by Clinton Sanders and Arnold Arluke), is one of the first to be firmly rooted in the discipline of Sociology. Critiquing this absence of sustained reflection on the social constructions of Nature and its particulars, Scarce compellingly argues that the emerging field of “Environmental Sociology” has much to offer.

The primary strength of this book, I think, flows from Scarce's decision to ground his theoretical inquiry in a case study of biologists working with Pacific salmon in Northwestern United States and Western Canada. As feminists and others have argued for years, close examination of the particulars of practice can greatly assist in illuminating, clarifying, and generating theory. Scarce sets out to answer the following questions: Do biologists as a group embrace a single meaning of salmon? If not, how do new meanings emerge and how are they negotiated within the discipline? Which social forces - which institutions and organizations - appear best situated to influence meaning-creating processes? What interests are served by doing so? And how do less powerful social actors effect changes in meaning in the face of dominant, hegemonic forces (p. 8)? In answering these specific questions, not only does he shed light on the theories and practices of salmon biologists, and the social constructions of salmon in that context, but also on the social construction of Nature and of animals within the discipline of Biology more generally.

A central theme surfacing throughout the book is the concept of control, not only of the salmon and of Nature, but also of the biologists. Scarce ably demonstrates that the current dominant construction of salmon is as “resources” which often are used as “political and economic pawns” (p. 36). I particularly enjoyed his discussion of what might count as “real” salmon in light of the mixing of wild and hatchery populations. Scarce argues that biologists' constructions are greatly controlled and limited by external factors like the funding of applied rather than basic research, emphasis on the economics of salmon production, and the resultant adoption of an “engineering” model. Resisting such constraints, some biologists articulate a desire for “greater freedom for themselves as researchers and for the salmon they study” (p. 17), and see themselves as advocates on behalf of the salmon (at least on the level of populations, never on the level of individuals, it appears). These biologists tend to embrace Conservation Biology which places more emphasis on the intrinsic worth of species, and Scarce sees hope in the growth of this movement within Biology for he suspects it may “hold the possibility of substantially revising the discipline's dominant use- and control-oriented construction” (p. 149). While I am not sure I share Scarce's optimistic conclusions regarding Conservation Biology, I greatly appreciate his skill in documenting such shifts in scientific thinking and practice, as well as his determination to remain respectful of the complex world of salmon biologists, even when occasionally offering biting critiques.

I do have a few quibbles. First, the lack of explicit discussion of gender seemed, to me, a glaring omission. The world Scarce describes seems to be almost entirely populated by males, with the exception of one female biologist; building on insights from the large body of literature from feminist science studies to highlight and problematize the role of gender and other identities in the social construction of salmon would have been a worthwhile endeavour. Second, the appendix feels like part of a dissertation that Scarce was unwilling to let go, and, if absent, probably would not have been missed by most. Still, for those new to the field, his discussions of methods and the brief review of sociology literature on the social construction of Nature could prove useful.

These concerns aside, I think that Fishy Business is a strong contribution to the growing literature on human/animal relations and Environmental Sociology. Further, in light of the continuing “Salmon Wars” between Canada and the United States, and other conflicts based upon dwindling” resources,” Fishy Business is timely and thus well worth a read on that basis alone.

Constance Russell
Ontario Institute for Studies in Education, University of Toronto
September 2000
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