Empirical Ecocriticism: Bridging Narratives for Change

Empirical Ecocriticism: Bridging Narratives for Change

In 2018, Associate Professor of English Matthew Schneider-Mayerson coined the term “empirical ecocriticism,” and today, it shines bright in the title of his latest book, Empirical Ecocriticism: Environmental Narratives for Social Change. So, what exactly is empirical ecocriticism? It’s a unique subfield within ecocriticism that focuses on empirically-grounded studies of environmental narrative, particularly in filmmaking, television and literature. Schneider-Mayerson hopes that his newly released book will help to bridge the boundaries between practitioners and researchers of environmental storytelling and help promote climate and environmental justice.

The book, which was published this year, incorporates a wide range of authors that include 2023 Colby Summer Institute in Environmental Humanities Seminar Leader Ursula K. Heise who is a leading ecocritic within the field. Schneider-Mayerson explained to CAH program coordinator Portia Hardy that the idea for the book began pre-pandemic, with all the main authors living outside of North America. “At the time, I was in Singapore. And it was definitely noteworthy that all of us were not in North America. And I think there’s probably something about this approach that diversifies the Environmental Humanities a little bit.”

The collection of chapters aims to bridge fields such as ecocriticism and environmental communication by encouraging original research on environmental narratives, using methods from the social sciences and contextualizing results within multiple bodies of knowledge. In this way, Schneider-Mayerson says Empirical Ecocriticism is meant to act as an introductory text for anyone interested in the field or surrounding ones. Richly multidisciplinary, the book’s layout includes a chapter on qualitative methods, case studies written by both social scientists and humanists, and even has reflections on the project of empirical ecocriticism by scholars from the environmental humanities and environmental social studies. 

For example, one of the case studies within the book focuses on environmental journalism, particularly how the inclusion or exclusion of direct quotes from victims of environmental injustice influence different emotional reactions from readers. Schneider-Mayerson explained that “the authors found that narratives of environmental injustice, news stories that have more direct quotations are more likely to lead to compassion. Whereas stories that have less direct quotations and more third person descriptions are more likely to lead to pity. Pity and compassion are closely related to some extent, but also are very different in terms of seeing victims as agents of change.” He believes that this case study might help journalists, many of whom are increasingly telling stories of climate injustice and environmental injustice. 

One of the major goals that Schneider-Mayerson has for the book is for it to aid in the fight against climate change, specifically focusing on climate justice. He emphasized the importance of environmental storytelling and interdisciplinary research, sharing that the environmental humanities and ecocriticism “gives us guidelines for how storytellers might be able to aid the ecological transition that is already underway”. He hopes that this body of work, through its methods and case studies, might impact students, scholars, and storytellers, helping to gradually shift and shape the future fields of environmental humanities, inspire action in response to climate change and move us all towards a more sustainable and just future. 

“Ecocritics don’t really have much of a sort of public voice, which I find disappointing. I think it’s possible that by connecting all of the incredible arguments, theories and hypotheses that are coming out of ecocriticism and the environmental humanities with environmental communication and environmental psychology, we can have a more holistic approach to how environmental narratives affect audiences and how they can do so in a more effective and justice-oriented way.”

To learn more about his book and the other co-authors, please visit the University of Minnesota press website linked here

To learn more about empirical ecocriticism click here.