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of environmental change reflect the diverse views of individuals in specific
communities; it is therefore well suited to the collection and interpretation of
qualitative materials, including the archival records of government departments
and the (equally) value-laden, interpretive nature of oral history sources. In its
methodology, my research was informed by the approach of Denzin and Lincoln
(2000, p3), who defined qualitative research simply as 'a situated activity that
locates the observer in the world'. Those authors argued that qualitative research
is a distinct field of academic inquiry that is concerned with the interpretation
of empirical materials in order to produce representations, such as recordings and
texts; consequently, the outcome of qualitative research is itself an interpretation of
reality. Like Cronon's (1992) narrative approach to environmental history, Denzin
and Lincoln's (2000) approach to qualitative research emphasises the pivotal
position of the researcher, whose values and attitudes fundamentally influence
the research process. Therefore, those two approaches are complementary: each
uses postmodern critical theory, examines the role of the narrator/researcher and
emphasises the social and political contexts of representation.
Some environmental historians have emphasised the importance of
reconstructing past environments in order to derive baselines that can be
used to assess environmental change (Dovers, 1994; Gammage, 1994). Such
reconstructions of the baseline condition of the Great Barrier Reef at the
time of European settlement - if those were possible to produce - could reveal
subsequent changes in the coral reefs and associated habitats of the ecosystem.
Some researchers have attempted to establish this type of baseline using historical
sources: Wachenfeld (1995, 1997), for example, compared historical photographs
of known coral reef areas in the Great Barrier Reef with modern images, although
he acknowledged that multiple methodological difficulties limit the value of that
technique in reconstructing changes in coral reefs. In general, any attempt to
reconstruct ecological baselines for the Great Barrier Reef is problematic, for
several reasons: (a) the historical records about the ecosystem are discontinuous
and extremely patchy; (b) only limited scientific monitoring of the Great Barrier
Reef took place before around 1970; and (c) coral reefs are highly dynamic
systems, both spatially and temporally, across a very wide range of scales. The last
of these considerations has prompted some to suggest that any attempt to establish
a baseline for coral reef ecosystems may be futile. Veron (2009, p36, emphasis in
original), for instance, has stated that the condition of coral reefs can never be
regarded as permanent, 'for there are no baselines for coral reefs, only intervals
of time over which the environment appears not to change'. Moreover, attempts
to reconstruct ecological baselines are also challenged by the postmodern view
that all representations of reality are interpretive and value-laden: they do not
record objective realities. Therefore, any narrative of environmental changes in
the Great Barrier Reef is not definitive but represents only one of many possible
readings of the historical evidence.
Although it may be impossible to reconstruct, definitively, the pre-European
state of the Great Barrier Reef and the environmental changes that have occurred
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