Empirical Ecocriticism

Workshop Report (14–15 December 2018, Rachel Carson Center, Munich, Germany)

By Alexa Weik von Mossner and Matthew Schneider-Mayerson

On 14 and 15 December 2018, the Rachel Carson Center for Environment and Society hosted the workshop Empirical Ecocriticism. Empirical ecocriticism is an emerging subfield of ecocriticism that focuses on the empirically grounded study of environmental narrative—in literature, film, television, etc.—and its influence on various audiences. The main objective of empirical ecocriticism is to put to empirical test claims made within ecocriticism, and the environmental humanities more generally, about the impact of environmental narratives and art. To this end, it employs empirical methods used in disciplines such as environmental communication, environmental psychology, and the empirical study of literature.


Building on recent work that combines the methodologies of the environmental humanities and empirical social science to examine the real-world influence of environmental narrative and art, workshop participants discussed the potential direction of this new and exciting field. Alexa Weik von Mossner (University of Klagenfurt) and Matthew Schneider-Mayerson (Yale-NUS College) led the workshop, in which thirteen scholars from ten countries were invited to Munich to discuss ongoing and future work. Seven of the presentations focused on literature: Matthew Schneider-Mayerson discussed his research on the ability of climate fiction to generate an awareness of environmental injustice and empathy for climate migrants; Wojciech Malecki (University of Wroclaw) described his experiments on the influence of animal narratives; Alexa Weik von Mossner built on her work in cognitive narratology to examine the surprising impact of a well-known and controversial short story by Alice Walker; Scott Slovic (University of Idaho) discussed his previous experiments in evaluating the impact of eco-pedagogy, and described his plans for future collaborations with social psychologist Paul Slovic; Marco Caracciolo (University of Ghent) focused on the use of metaphors by scientists, environmentalists, and climate change deniers; Jan Alber and Judith Eckenhoff (University of Aachen) discussed their research design for experiments on the influence of different genres of climate fiction; Greg Garrard (University of British Columbia) identified some of the most important questions in eco-pedagogy that empirical ecocritics might examine; and Eline Tabak (Rachel Carson Center) talked about working with readers’ diaries in response to climate change literature.

DSC_0054.JPGThe rest of the presentations were focused on methodology, film, new media, and interdisciplinarity. Frank Hakemulder (Utrecht University) described the extensive work and creative methodologies employed by researchers in the empirical study of literature; Meryl Shriver-Rice (University of Miami) workshopped the research design for a study of the influence of climate change videos on the beliefs of Floridians; Pat Brereton (Dublin City University) highlighted the environmental influence of celebrity YouTube videos on young people in Ireland and Uruguay; Salma Monani (Gettysburg College) described her study of the impact of the environmental documentary The Human Element; and Harriet Hawkins (Royal Holloway, University of London) proposed a project of empirical research and evidence-based art production focused on UNESCO GeoParks.

During the closing discussion and throughout the two-day workshop, a sense of excitement, anticipation, and possibility was shared by all participants. With the generous assistance of the Rachel Carson Center, empirical ecocriticism is taking off. But what will it be? Questions faced by any new sub- or interfield were posed and discussed with great interest and rigor. How do we draw the borders of empirical ecocriticism? How might we distinguish it from related fields, such as environmental communication, traditional ecocriticism, and ecomedia studies? What are the appropriate methodologies? How do we develop, fund, and sustain the kinds of interdisciplinary collaborations that are clearly at the center of this work? The enthusiasm of the invited participants as well as the present Carson fellows and staff demonstrated that this emergent field is certain to engage scholars across disciplines in the environmental humanities and social sciences.

There are numerous tangible outcomes of the workshop. Most participants will be contributing to either a thematic “cluster” of articles on empirical ecocriticism in the journal ISLE: Interdisciplinary Studies in Literature and Environment or an edited collection that will double as a series of case studies and a guide to “doing” empirical ecocriticism. Five of the participants will appear on a panel on empirical ecocriticism at the upcoming ASLE conference at UC Davis, and others are planning panels at the EASLCE and IGEL conferences. The contact between participants, who hailed from a wide variety of disciplines, is also leading to a number of research collaborations and funding proposals.




One Comment on “Empirical Ecocriticism

  1. I trust that some of the empirical approaches will be modelled on Goethe’s approach of using himself as a measure, in the world, rather than more 21st century methodologies involving statistics and other approaches that can comment best on statistics and other approaches. If not, this new approach runs the risk of being privileged. In this respect, Indigenous approaches are parallel to Goethe’s. If they are not included as empirical approaches, then the new discipline risks constricting itself to Eurocentric models. I trust that the leaders of this movement have already incorporated these and other challenges. I look forward to seeing what comes out of this.


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