Skip to main content

Moral Entanglements

Conserving Birds in Britain and Germany

At the center of Stefan Bargheer’s account of bird watching, field ornithology, and nature conservation in Britain and Germany stands the question of how values change over time and how individuals develop moral commitments. Using life history data derived from written narratives and oral histories, Moral Entanglements follows the development of conservation from the point in time at which the greatest declines in bird life took place to the current efforts in large-scale biodiversity conservation and environmental policy within the European Union. While often depicted as the outcome of an environmental revolution that has taken place since the 1960s, Bargheer demonstrates to the contrary that the relevant practices and institutions that shape contemporary conservation have evolved gradually since the early nineteenth century. Moral Entanglements further shows that the practices and institutions in which bird conservation is entangled differ between the two countries. In Britain, birds derived their meaning in the context of the game of bird watching as a leisure activity. Here birds are now, as then, the most popular and best protected taxonomic group of wildlife due to their particularly suitable status as toys in a collecting game, turning nature into a playground. In Germany, by contrast, birds were initially part of the world of work. They were protected as useful economic tools, rendering services of ecological pest control in a system of agricultural production modeled after the factory shop floor. Based on this extensive analysis, Bargheer formulates a sociology of morality informed by a pragmatist theory of value.

336 pages | 17 halftones, 1 line drawing | 6 x 9 | © 2018

Biological Sciences: Conservation

Philosophy: Ethics

Sociology: General Sociology, Sociology of Arts--Leisure, Sports


"Bargheer’s argument suggests that cities produce moral attitudes toward nature by being particular kinds of experiential environments. What’s wonderful about his account. . . is that he directs our attention to the physicality of everyday nature experiences, and especially to how changes in the ways we work and play with nature produce different moral sentiments about it."

Public Books

“This important book about the history of bird conservation in Europe has lessons for a North American audience.”


“A well written historical account of bird watching, ornithology, and nature conservation in Britain and Germany, from the naturalist collectors of the late eighteenth century to current efforts in international biodiversity conservation, as well as fascinating insights into the societal and political settings of each of the two countries and how these have shaped two distinct sets of practices and institutions. . . . Bargheer makes a convincing argument about how the collecting game has shaped the relationship of many people with birds, and how the shift from specimen and egg collection to listing and nature photography turned a morally questionable practice into a motivator for nature conservation.”

British Trust for Ornithology

“In Moral Entanglements, Stefan Bargheer achieves at a general level a significant accomplishment for any social scientist: the book provides a nonobvious, convincing, and relevant explanation for something seemingly already explained by common sense.“

American Journal of Sociology

"I believe that Bargheer’s insights give environmental sociologists a useful vantage point and framework to further analyse exactly how nature and the non-human world present a uniquely deep and effective reservoir of the sort of practice and experience that produces morality."

British Journal of Sociology

"Moral Entanglements promotes a pragmatist approach to understanding the relation between morals and human actions. . . . an impressive piece of scholarship that provides both theoretical and methodological contributions to emerging scholarship on morality by expertly weaving together two centuries of data."

Acta Sociologica

"Moral Entanglements contains many suggestive insights for historically and sociologically minded readers alike. It can be seamlessly read in two distinct but complementary ways. It delivers an excellent, in-depth study of the historical development and the social contexts of bird watching and bird conservation. And, at the same time, it uses birds as a cultural lens to probe, in a highly original way, fundamental issues about the sociology of morality."


"Bargheer plunges the reader—in my case, a reader largely unfamiliar with the world of bird watching—into this milieu with a detailed historical comparison based on life histories of its protagonists. Despite what may at first seem like an esoteric subject matter, the book tackles theoretical questions central to our discipline, as well as providing a penetrating critique of how we tend to think of environmentalism’s rise."

Social Forces

"Far more than an historical comparison as the author develops a 'Pragmatist theory of morality' and how nature is valued—the value attributed to birds derives from their relational position within a set of practices and institutions as social forms. . . this work [is] important for all involved in considerations of the ethical dimensions of conservation of any group of organisms, and not only birds. It merits a careful and reflective read."

Biodiversity and Conservation

"The sociological perspective that makes this book such an eye- opener for the bird conservationist. . . . This book, published in April 2018 first and foremost as a sociological study, has yet to gain the attention amongst the conservation community it deserves. Every conservation practitioner or organisation manager will benefit from the outside perspective on their field of engagement."

Marine Ornithology

"Moral Entanglements is a stimulating book overall that gives sociologists interested in the role of the non-social world an entry point into the historical study of environment–society interactions and the role morality plays in these interactions."

International Sociology Reviews

Moral Entanglements is an impressive achievement—a feat of historical work, a dazzling parade of scholarly erudition, and an elegant piece of writing. Even if you know nothing about or have no interest in birds you will find this original and meticulous book to be strangely engrossing. Bargheer has left no stone unturned, pondered every side of every debate, and chiseled his writing to perfection. It is rare, indeed, to come across such a remarkably well-researched piece of scholarship.”

Marion Fourcade, University of California, Berkeley

“A revolutionary book. Bargheer uses a wonderfully interesting and meticulously analyzed pair of cases to recover and elaborate a Deweyan theory of morality and play. The brilliant insight of his theory is matched by the beguiling character of his empirical evidence, both the historical data of the earlier period and the interview data that brings the analysis into the present. At once easy to read and intellectually powerful, the book will transform sociological approaches to morality.”

Andrew Abbott, University of Chicago

Table of Contents

List of Abbreviations
Prologue: A Bird’s Eye View
1 A Pragmatist Theory of Morality
2 Collector’s Items and Viable Means
3 Technology Comes to the Countryside
4 Field Ornithology and Practical Bird Conservation
5 Endangered Birds and Indicator Species
6 Bird Watching as Organizational Strategy
7 Data Power and Geographical Reference Frames
Conclusion: Studying Morality
Appendix 1: Method and Data
Appendix 2: Names and Translations
List of Interviews


ASA Section on Altruism, Morality, and Social Solidarity: Outstanding Published Book Award

Be the first to know

Get the latest updates on new releases, special offers, and media highlights when you subscribe to our email lists!

Sign up here for updates about the Press