Interdisciplinary Inquiries: Contemporary Environmental History Meets Political Science

Environmental history is an interdisciplinary science at heart, covering a wide range of interests from antiquities to contemporary history, from biology to gender studies. As a contemporary environmental historian I have spent the past couple of years trying to understand how the Finnish green party, the Green League, has adapted and conformed to Finnish political culture and the country’s party system. How did a party established in an act of protest become a pragmatic part of representative democracy during the 1990s and 2000s? Delving into this question in my postdoc project has led me to ponder the disciplinary boundaries and practices of contemporary history and political science.

From the beginning, I aimed to publish a peer-reviewed scientific book examining and analyzing the birth and bourgeoning of the Green League, an environmentalist party established in 1988. How did the party evolve from a parliamentary group of four MPs to the first-ever Western European Green government party in 1995, and an established part of the Finnish pluralistic multi-party party system? Above all, my interest was on what kind of argumentation was used to legitimize the change from a responsive anti-party party to a responsible government party, and why.

Doing environmental history from a party-political perspective has clearly indicated the strengths and shortcomings of both contemporary history and political science. To understand, analyze, and explain a rather recent phenomenon challenges the innate narrative style of historical utterance. Without the comfort of temporal distance, one struggles to avoid merely explaining what happened. The somewhat intimidating position of having to make claims regarding the sayings and doings of (still) active politicians easily entices one to just narrate how things happened without critically explaining and analyzing why things happened.

As a historian used to studying and analyzing actors, activities, and actions a hundred years or so ago, changing to a subject much closer to my own world of experience requires a lot of emphasis on objectivity. Which interpretations can truly be derived from primary sources, and which are opinions based on one’s own experiences and perceptions? To achieve this, interdisciplinarity is of great help, since green party organizations, policies, and programs have been in the focus of politological scholarly attention. 

However, political science typically answers the question how rather than the question why. Quantitative methods offer explanations of how the parties have changed: their membership base, manifestoes, electoral fortunes, and office seeking. These are all aspects of party change which a historian is interested in, but seeks to understand beyond the question of how.

Environmental history on a party-political subject benefits from being situated between history and political science. One can complement the shortcomings of historical narrative with longitudinal or cross-sectional studies revealing the structural and organizational developments of the research subject. Results derived through statistical analysis from surveys and questionaries might seem more objective, but they are siloed explanations. In my particular case study, for example, the connections between changes in party manifestoes and becoming a desirable coalition government partner often remain undetected. 

This presented the biggest difficulty that I encountered: how can I benefit from interdisciplinarity and at the same time stay true to my identity as a historian when surrounded and overwhelmed by research compositions, data, analysis, and conclusions relevant to my research but engendered from a different disciplinary perspective? How can I most effectively utilize answers that are the end result to political scientists, but the beginning for historians? 

As a historian I was interested in examining the Green League at its entirety. How did the different aspects—organization, manifesto, membership base, government participation—of an environmentalist party change when the party had adapted and conformed to the political culture and system it initially set out to revolutionize? The difficulty was, however, how to combine the siloed politological studies and results with a nuanced historical narrative in a way that would produce an interesting, comprehensive analysis and at the same time be enticing to a commercial publisher. 

A traditional historical narrative focusing on continuity and change from a longitudinal perspective verges on a party history. Though this might be interesting to a partisan, it is unappealing to a larger public and a publisher. A detailed description of a party’s doings is interesting to a contemporary historian but seldom attracts the indisputable attention of the general public. Even if the politicians and general developments are known, publishers are reluctant to accept interdisciplinary manuscripts with an unclear focus, and even a timely subject, such as the Green League as a current participant in a coalition government, does not compensate for such a shortcoming.

As clear as it might have been for some, the resolution to my conundrum became clear to me only after the second time I had rewritten my manuscript. What I had hoped to do all along was to take the politilogical results on the question how and to elaborate and deepen that analysis to answer the question why. The key to my finding was a structural revelation: to offer qualitative, primary-source-based analysis on the four key areas of politological interest. Political scientists had laid the foundations by studying how the Green parties and the Green League in particular had developed, changed, and adapted. On this foundation, I built my analysis and argumentation of why all this had happened.

In the end, my interpretation of environmental contemporary history of the Green League was built on a basis provided by political science and then complemented with a deeper historical understanding which applied qualitative, historical methods. Political science explains how the Green parties have come to join coalition governments. I, as a historian, explain why this has happened. This approach, at least in my mind, offers a new, more enlightened, and informative analysis than resorting to contemporary history or political science alone could ever have provided. At times problematic, interdisciplinary inquiries are, however, worth making.

*Cover image: A Birch mushroom (Piptoporus betulinus). Photo via Wikimedia Commons.

[*Cover image description: The top of a large weathered mushroom on a broken dead birch branch between fallen leaves.]