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Q&A with Courtney Flint: the social dynamics of mountain systems

Hi Courtney. You're attending the Mountains of our Future Earth conference this week. As a social scientist, what are your expectations of the conference?

Courtney Flint – I am very much looking forward to the Perth Mountain Conference! There’s a lot of good energy these days about integrating diverse experiences and expertise from around the world to better understand the world’s mountain landscapes. It’s an exciting and challenging time to be a social scientist in the mountain research community. It’s exciting because social science is more recognized by the physical science community as being relevant and we have a place at the table to help shape the development of a global mountain observatory. I am eager to hear new insights and perspectives from mountain research around the world at the Perth Conference. I expect to be overwhelmed by new ideas! It’s challenging because there are still quite a few misconceptions about what social science is all about. So I also expect some complex discussions at the conference as we work to find common understandings and approaches for future interdisciplinary work on mountain landscapes and socio-environmental systems. I really hope conference goers will attend at least a few sessions that are outside of their typical comfort zone!

Your research looks at the social dynamics of mountain systems. What kind of new insights are social scientists bringing to research on mountains?

Courtney Flint – Social scientists have been involved in mountain research for a long time and I want to be sure to highlight the importance of their work in shaping understanding, policies, and development efforts to improve wellbeing around the world. Social scientists are bringing a toolbox of creative methodologies for observing human dimensions of mountain landscapes and systems. One wave of insights coming from social scientists into the mountain research community focuses on the role of values, experiences, and identities held by individuals and groups and institutions. In other words, more attention is focusing on human-nature relationships both in general as well as regarding mountains. Perceptions and values are rather uniquely human and we are learning a lot more about how influential they are on decisions and actions with regard to natural resources and environmental wellbeing. I think social scientists these days have “moxie”! What I mean by this is that social scientists are boldly taking up the challenge of asserting new research paradigms into interdisciplinary work and not just tacking on a little social bit to otherwise physical science puzzle. I also believe that social scientists are leading the way on new insights into understanding how mountain landscapes and communities fit within a broader context of regional and global human-environment relationships. 

You’ve said that joint working with social scientists can bring confusion and complexity to interdisciplinary research projects. How have you dealt with these challenges in your research?

Courtney Flint – There’s been a lot of discussion of the difficulties of integrating natural and social science. These are real challenges. But even among social scientists, we have wildly different perspectives on what we know, what we can measure, and how we ought to be doing research. I think social science is often assumed to be some homogenous, happy bouquet of disciplines. But really we are a crazy hodgepodge of different and often competing theories and approaches. We have very different languages and methodologies even within our disciplines, not to mention across them. Some social scientists are very much like physical scientists in terms of how they do their research. But others, like those who take a more interpretive or qualitative approach are really very different. So by inviting more social scientists to the mountain research community, I’m not sure everyone realizes the wild bunch of cats we really are! For me, a pragmatic and mixed methods research approach helps to see the value of incorporating different theoretical and methodological perspectives because the whole is greater than the sum of the parts when it comes to generating understanding of complex processes. I like layering indicators and quantitative data with the rich narratives about lived experiences. But it isn’t always easy and not everyone finds that acceptable!

The conference in Scotland will bring together the World’s leading mountain researchers. In terms of natural characteristics, it’s perhaps easy to understand why mountain landscapes are studied as a distinct field – we can make some generalisations about topological features that set mountain regions apart from other landscapes. But is there also something specific to people’s experiences of living in mountain areas that makes them interesting to study as a distinct field? And can we make any generalisations about the social dynamics in mountain areas?

Courtney Flint – I think this question is really important. As we work toward developing a global mountain observatory, we should be ever mindful of the goal to assess what is generalizable and what is context specific. There is meaningful work underway to question long-standing assumptions of mountain landscapes as remote, isolated and disadvantaged with comparative assessments and analysis. Even within the United States where I come from, we have the Appalachian Mountains that might fit the disadvantaged description to a certain extent – there some high levels of poverty and resource degradation. But I live in the Wasatch Mountains in Utah and this area is neither isolated nor disadvantaged. We need more comparative research across mountain landscapes and societies to better understand what is shared and what isn’t. But we also need to continue longstanding excellence in place-based research within mountain areas so we can also better understand variations from one community, ridge, or valley to another and over time. That said, I think you will find that some people just have a strong affinity or connection with mountains. I do. I love how they make me feel small and insignificant and yet grounded and empowered at the same time. In many ways, researchers study things they are interested in so I expect most of us at the Perth Mountain Conference will have plenty in common!