The Discourse of Discouragement

I’ve been in the struggle a long time now, and I’ve conditioned myself to some things that are much more painful than discourteous people not allowing you to speak, so if they feel that they can discourage me, they’ll be up here all night.

-Martin Luther King, Jr.

I’m not going to post about Ferguson, mostly because, if you want to read about Ferguson, there are a lot of better places to go than here (e.g. here and here). All I can express is personal disappointment, frustration, and outrage at the lack of action and the failure to understand. However, in the wake of the decision, the protests, and the nation’s reaction, I’ve come to understand something about discourse in this country (and probably beyond) – something that’s maybe obvious to others, but which I’ve never encountered before. What I’ve learned is that there is a mode of discourse – of debate or discussion, perhaps – in which the goal is not to come to a common understanding, nor even to find truth or meaning. The goal of this mode of discourse is simply this – to attack your opponent, to make them feel weak and powerless, to hurt them or destroy them to the point where they are discouraged enough to stop fighting.

The most disheartening thing about this mode of discourse is that this is the discourse that wins power, and the people who use it are the ones who are in control. How can we ever expect for change to happen as long as that’s the case? It is a discourse that doesn’t engage, but only attacks. One that isn’t open to possibility, but only seeks to assert itself. It is not even a discourse, but a violence.

How do you confront such an attack? How do you fight back or do you just leave or stay out of it altogether? All reasonable responses seem untenable. But it is important to look at the broader picture. These discourses are not where the larger issues will be solved, but they are the situations in which a person can be prevented from pursuing solutions to those issues. The important thing – regardless of how you choose to confront these attacks – is to come out of them with your spirit intact so you can go on to fight for what you believe in.

Struggling with “Social-Ecological Systems” Part II

Yesterday I wrote a bit of a ranting critique of social-ecological systems (SES) theory. It was helpful, and since then I have clarified my thinking a little. In yesterday’s post I said:

It’s hard to articulate exactly what my problem with SES theory is, but I think it comes down to the framing of these “linkages” as “systems.” … Framing the bait worm industry as a “system” erases its heterogeneity, and the processes – intentional and unintentional – that produce it.

I’ve realized that this is not a new issue – it’s the old structure versus agency debate framed in new terms.* It is exactly the issue that theories of performativity – which I invoked in my post yesterday – were designed to address. With this in mind, I am convinced that I am at least on the right track.

The structure/agency debate has a long history in the social sciences. The question is, how do you reconcile larger patterns of activity with individual abilities to navigate and change the patterns through their actions? Ignoring the larger patterns leads to methodological individualism which manifests politically as Regan and Thatcher style “up by your bootstraps” policies. There is no need for social programs, or government intervention – these things can only get in the way of individuals’ abilities to choose what’s best for them and lift themselves out of poverty, oppression, etc. On the other hand, focusing too much on structure leads to a politics of impotence. The structure is set, and any attempt to change it is already anticipated by the structure, so there is no hope for creating a better structure. Few, if any, actually subscribe to the strong structuralist position – most take some kind of middle path where people have some capacity to change the structure or at least navigate within it. However, these middle grounds are often poorly theorized: what exactly is the structure? how is it composed? how is it maintained over time? how do individuals or collectives go about making changes to it?

I don’t want to get into answering these questions here, but it seems to me that this is the same issue underlying SES theory. If a set of relationships is characterized as an SES – whether resilient or not, well or poorly fuctioning – then what happens to the desires and intentions of the organisms – including the humans – who make up that system? Their intentions are essentially subverted to the functioning of the system as a whole. Now it’s tricky because SES theory has defined functioning of the system in a way that is politically acceptable in most ways. It promotes democratic decision-making, collaborative research, diversity, etc. But these political ideals are undermined (or overmined, perhaps) by the problematic position of the sciences in relation to the system.

Scientists – both natural and social – from an SES perspective are the ones who can grasp the system as a whole. As a result, they are not simply actors within the system with their own unique set of interests. Instead, they become the arbiters of whether or not the system is functioning and resilient (and since these concepts are poorly defined, there is a lot of leeway in terms of what a resilient and functioning system might look like). The authority of the sciences is, therefore, maintained, even if they engage in democratic and collaborative processes. These become merely perfunctory ways for scientists to “intervene” to “change behavior” and move the system in the direction that they want.

Before you complain that I am anti-science, let me explain. I am not against science – I think it plays an important, even essential, role in building a more just and sustainable world. My concern is that, in maintaining the authority of Science as an institution, we risk creating bad relationships between scientists and the public. The result will not be a more sustainable or resilient system, but a lot of backlash and controversy that perpetuates the problems and might eventually – in an extreme case – lead to either the dismantling of the sciences or a fascist approach to environmental management.

In place of authority, I want the sciences to have trust. I want to be able to interact with people and work with them – on a genuinely equal level – to figure out the best way to live sustainably. This means stepping back from ideologies that position ourselves as the ultimate arbiters of what’s best (e.g. resilience), and instead working on building relationships with and between others – human and non-human alike – so that we can all figure it out together.

It is for that reason that I want to propose an alternative to SES theory in, as I described it yesterday, the idea of performative ecology. I won’t go into all of the details about how the performative approach and SES theory differ, but the basic idea is that, in place of systems, there are only actors (of different scales) navigating and negotiating their relationships with one another. The practical result is that scientists are situated back within the ecologies they study, and their role is that described above – the composition of relationships with and between actors in the ecology. This will make for a better, more effective science, and – hopefully – a more just, sustainable, and, possibly, “resilient” world.




*This is what happens when social scientists borrow concepts from the natural sciences without an equivalent feedback of social theory – we end up recapitulating the same old debates in new terminology.

Struggling with “Social-Ecological Systems”

I recently began really digging into the literature on “social-ecological systems” (SES) theory because I have a real love/hate relationship with it and I want to figure out once-and-for-all what I can take from it and what I think is best left behind.

Here’s the general framework, as I understand it: SES theory is based in complexity and systems theories. It is an attempt to overcome nature/culture dualism by looking at the ways that social systems and ecological systems are “linked.” It is inter- and transdisciplinary in practice, and much of the prescriptive emphasis is on increasing “resilience” within social-ecological systems. This is done, generally, by taking a more ecosystems approach to management and through the creation of more democratic management institutions.

This all sounds good in the abstract, and, practically, I think most of the results are probably what I would advocate. But there’s something still that rubs me the wrong way about it, and I need to figure out if I’m just being overly critical or if there are legitimate concerns about this approach.

It’s hard to articulate exactly what my problem with SES theory is, but I think it comes down to the framing of these “linkages” as “systems.” Most of the “systems” SES folks are interested in do not function as systems in my opinion. They are certainly linked, but not in a way that produces the kinds of emergent properties that we typically associate with systems. For example, I’ve spent the last four years researching the bait worm industry in Maine and its role in transporting invasive species to the Mid-Atlantic. Is this a social-ecological system? I wouldn’t characterize it as such, but an SES theorist might simply because there are social processes and ecological processes that are influencing and affecting one another. I could be okay with that, but it ends up being more than just a definitional issue, I suspect.

Framing the bait worm industry as a “system” erases its heterogeneity, and the processes – intentional and unintentional – that produce it. Instead, the system is said to be fluctuating around certain points of equilibria – even when it is out of equilibrium, it would, ideally, be moving towards one of those various states. There is a kind of teleology to this even if there is not a single telos, and it washes away the desires and intentions of the beings who compose the system in place of the “intentions” of the system itself. For example, if the system were more “resilient” if the social system were fascist, then would our interest in democracy override our desire for resilience? It doesn’t seem likely to come up, in part because “resilience” is defined in such a way that it excludes fascism as an option. It seems tautological in that sense.

In place of SES theory, I have been thinking about proposing an alternative in a kind of performative or enacted ecology. This theory would maintain the basis in complexity, but forego systems. Instead, it would work under the assumption that ecologies are heterogeneous, composed of both humans and non-humans – but not socials systems and ecological systems – and that the ecology is composed over time through the (heterogeneous) relationships between these actors. There are no equilibria around which the ecology fluctuates, and there is no assumption that “resilience” is worth pursuing – there are only myriad actors with many different interests continually negotiating a tenuous coexistence, and always subject to change and uncertainty. So if the social structure is fascist, but the ecosystem is resilient in relation, then there would still be reason to seek out a non-fascist, resilient ecology. Furthermore, we must take into account the desires and intentions of all of the beings who compose the ecology, because the ecology has no intentions of its own – there is no right or natural way(s) for the ecology as a whole to be. Instead, we have to look to the beings and their relationships to understand what needs to change and what should stay the same.

In the case of the bait worm ecology, we can see that the relationship between humans and worms is not very good for the worms (because they are overharvested) and that this will eventually lead to problems for the humans. We can also see that the relationship between the transported organisms and the Mid-Atlantic environments (or those organisms who compose the environments) might not be very good for those environments. However, changing the way the people in the industry package and ship the worms might disrupt their livelihoods, leading to disruption in the angling communities, etc.

There is a place for science – both social and natural – in this conception of performative ecology, but that place is never outside looking in. The role of the sciences is to perform the ecologies by producing feedbacks between different actors within them. For example, the biologists on the project mentioned above provided a feedback between the species being transported and the people involved in the industry. We – the anthropologists – tried to provide feedback between the scientists and the people in the industry, and also – to some extent – between the people in the industry and the anglers who buy the bait (and presumably introduce the organisms into the new environment by disposing of them improperly). In other words, our role is to build relationships that didn’t exist before, improve (or, perhaps, destroy) relationships that aren’t working well for the participants. All throughout, we are engaging in our own relationships with others, which adds another layer of complexity to the situation. Our very presence introduces new feedbacks, and, as a result, a new tenuous coexistence must be negotiated – from an SES perspective, this might look like the creation of a new system or the system “flipping” to a new domain of attraction, but to me it looks like a set of actors continually negotiating their relationships and performing their ecology differently.

So my questions for my readers are: Am I making a genuine critique of SES theory or is this just a straw man? Is the performative ecology I propose actually different (in practice) from SES or is it functionally the same thing? If it is worthwhile, do you have any suggestions for how I can better articulate this alternative? Is there anything you would add or anything you see wrong with what I’ve proposed?

Experimental Entanglements

This post from Somatosphere inviting a discussion on Des Fitzgerald and Felicity Callard’s article hits the nail right on the head. In it they call for a reconceptualization of collaborative research in which the social and natural sciences are entangled through a process of experimentation. I highly recommend that you go and read it now!

Here are a few excerpts in case you’re not convinced, and after the excerpts a few comments of my own:

Our wager is that collaborating might be imagined not simply as working in conjunction with an other or others, but might also unsettle the sedateness of such ‘conjunction’.


Our article is the product of four to five years of shared distress at being, on the one hand, moved by technological and conceptual developments that hold out the hope of radically re-mapping dynamics between the social and biological sciences; and, on the other hand, a deep frustration, at every attempt to begin that cartographic work, where we seem to be endlessly confronted with a deadening bureaucratic and technocratic edifice of ‘interdisciplinarity’ – whose major purpose is to evacuate these possibilities of any real sense of experiment, risk, joy or play.


What if, instead of endlessly poring over maps of the shifting border of these sciences, vainly trying to reach a consensus on where those borders are at any given moment, we re-focused our attention on the neuroscientific experiment, as an already thick, ambiguous rubric for making sense of the biosocial intricacy of human life?


The world is entangled, whether we want it to be or not.

To the extent that we affiliate with a ‘collaborative turn,’ this – the clause above – is our entry-point. The purpose of a term like ‘entanglement’ is that it foregrounds a world, and also processes of world-making.


Our claim is that, for those of us in the medical humanities and social sciences at least, ‘collaboration’ is the work that comes after the ontological turn.

I’ll stop there, though there is a lot more in the post and article that I could quote, because this last point is what I’ve been trying to say – though in a much more haphazard and inarticulate way – for a long time. I believe that what the ontological turn does for anthropology is to push the issues raised in the literary and reflexive turn of the 1980s even further – to their ontological roots. That’s what it has done for me, at least, and I am disheartened when I see things like Hau’s recent book symposium on Kohn’s How Forests Think in which all of the discussion is about articulating different “ontologies” (read “cultures”) rather than exploring the implications of ontological thought for our practice. To me the practical extension of ontological politics is the reimagining of collaborative practices. Although Fitzgerald and Callard’s article explores this primarily for anthropology’s relationship to neuroscience, I have encountered the same issues and possibilities in my work with environmental sciences and with the Bureau of Land Management. The authors also leave open the question of how this looks in practice – choosing instead to explore the theoretical implications of entanglement and experiment – and I have some thoughts on that I hope to be sharing in published form soon. Regardless, the article is worth reading, and I look forward to the ongoing discussion.