Pluralism, Ontology, and Composing a Common World

In the last couple of days there have been a flurry of posts referring back to mine on “The Value of a Turn.” The response isn’t so much a response to that post, but a discussion of ontology and pluralism sparked by Levi Bryant’s posing the question here – how do we reconcile pluralism with any kind of realist perspective? It’s an important question for the recent interest in the ontological turn in anthropology, since anthropologists are interested in making space for the ontological claims of others who are generally left out of the ontological discourse (their views are seen as merely cultural representations of a unified Nature while we Westerners have the luxury of unmediated access to that Nature by way of science). However, if we grant that a reality to the ontologies of the Shuar or the Kayapó or other indigenous groups, then it seems we must also grant a reality to the ontologies of Christians, climate deniers, Capitalists, and so on. How can we reconcile these two opposing agendas?

As I said, there have been a few posts on the subject. Here, Phillip outlines Latour and Stengers’s approach to ontological pluralism, and James Stanescu has another detailing William James’s pluralism. I’m still trying to process these, so I can’t go into any kind of huge discussion here, but I do have some thoughts that might put a different spin on things. (See also, Levi’s response to these two posts)

The project, as Latour, Stengers, James, and others have described it, is to compose a common world. What pluralism recognizes is that, in this project, we all start from different places – Latour’s relativity rather than relativism. The goal, then, (and it has to be recognized that this project is always contingent and prone to failure) is to make these different positions converge, but in a way that doesn’t impose one upon the other as the Modern Nature/Culture dichotomy tends to do. Why should we avoid imposing one on the other? In part because it’s the right thing to do – by imposing we remove or reduce the agency of the other. The claim to unmediated access to reality makes us invulnerable – no other claim has that grounding, and therefore we can never be wrong. But we are wrong – the science of the Enlightenment gave us climate change, environmental destruction, imperialism in the name of rationality (indigenous peoples removed from their land and taken to reeducation facilities where they were taught “rational” economic activities such as farming), and so on. It removed us from the world and placed us above it – the God’s eye view.

But it doesn’t work that way, and here is the other reason why we need to engage in this common world-building project: because it’s not just about building a common world with other humans, but of building a common world with other kinds of beings as well. We’re not just trying to come to terms with the ontologies of the Shuar or the Kayapó, we are trying to come to terms with the realities of CO2, ocean acidification, sea level rise, arctic ice sheets, endangered species, hurricanes, tornadoes, floods, fires, deforestation, factory farms, genetic engineering, cars, airplanes, invasive species, computer models, and an almost infinite number of other beings that inhabit our worlds and have effects on us. To position ourselves outside of Nature undermines their agency as well. It posits them as a passive background that we can manipulate and mold to our social wills. But that’s not the case – these beings push back, they resist, they impose themselves on us. Not intentionally, of course, but they do nevertheless.

So we have a project – composing a common world – (which is an unending project, thus the “forever” in the title of this blog), and we all start from different places. And we are not simply composing a common world with other humans, but with other beings as well. That’s where an ontological pluralism positions us. From here we can begin to move forward, not from a common ground, but from a mess of contingent spaces – overlapping, intertwining, etc. We move forward as beings within a world, not viewing from above.

In this effort to build a common world, certain positions will fail. The climate deniers will fail to build a common world with CO2, sea level rise, ocean acidification, and so on. Others will continue to prosper, but it’s not our place, I think, to predefine which will prosper and which will fail – this once again pulls us out of the common world and back into the God’s eye view.

This is my take on ontological pluralism – it’s more about where we start from and where we’re heading than an accurate description of the world. Maybe we don’t need “ontology” to get us here, but the ontological discourse has been effective in some ways at conveying the pluralist mentality. For that reason, I think it’s a good project, a good turn, and I’m interested to see where it will take us.

Ontological Turns Inside-Out

It seems Ontology has finally gone mainstream in anthropology. Only a few years ago, it was something heard on the edges of the disciplinary discourse. Now you can’t throw a stick without running into a blog post, article, conference paper, or what-have-you that uses ontology as a central theme. Over at Somatosphere, Judith Farquhar has assembled a nice reading list for an introductory understanding of the “ontological turn” in anthropology. Then, over at Anthropological Research on the Contemporary (ARC), Lyle has a solid critique of this turn in anthropology – suggesting that it fails to change the form of inquiry to match its subject. It’s a running joke that anthropology has taken so many turns in the last  few decades that we’ve often ended up right where we started. I think there’s a truth to that, and I appreciate Lyle for calling out the underlying conservativism that can be found in this (or any) turn.

As a frequent (though not influential) supporter of the ontological turn in anthropology, I feel as though I should put in my thoughts on all of this. I can’t speak to the events at the AAA – I wasn’t there and I haven’t followed up on any of it as I’ve been obsessively working on an NSF proposal for the last two months (which I just submitted yesterday!!) – so I’m going to talk about some impressions that I get from this turn and then some of my thoughts on where things ought to go from my perspective. My first impression is much like Lyle’s. In the name of ontology, there seems to be a retreat to classical ethnography and broad, sweeping comparative analysis. The terms have changed – reflecting on “ontologies” rather than “cultures” – but the means, methods, and results are much the same. In this sense, it’s not really overcoming the Nature/Culture dualism so much as bringing everything into the cultural domain. I agree with Lyle when he says:

…the question is not about categorizing and typologizing multiple ontologies but rather of charting the historical emergence of new ontologies.”

He continues:

The stakes are not only ontological, but also ethical: how to live in this changed world? How to live together amidst these changed beings and groupings? How to make anthropological knowledge about these changed beings and lives? The point is not that ontology is not a useful question for anthropologists, and indeed forms a productive critique of the comparative form of cultural anthropology. Rather, the point is that an ontological critique must be coupled with a transformation of the procedures and form of anthropological inquiry. The question is where one goes after making this ontological “turn”: towards the contemporary, or towards the 19th century.”

I think that there is an element of this in the “ontological turn” most notably with John Law‘s and Annamarie Mol’s work – attempting to understand how the creation of new beings or systems of relation affect those beings and relations that already exist. This is expressed by the two (though Mol deserves credit for coming up with the term) in their conception of “ontological politics” (a concept that, to me, mirrors Latour and Stengers’s “cosmopolitics”). The way I see it, there can be no concrete ontology, not because we cannot know (this is the difference between this and earlier critiques) or access ontological reality, but because ontological reality is itself fundamentally weird and always in the process of being produced. Ontology is never settled, and that’s why we have to be cognizant of other ontologies, and attentive to the relationships between them. Furthermore, we have to be attentive to our own ontological commitments and effects. It’s not merely a question of understanding others’ ontologies, but of understanding our own as anthropologists. This is why I would ask that we take the “ontological turn” not left, right, or wrong, but inside-out. Turn it back on ourselves and our own practices rather than focusing once again on others. What kind of world are we creating through our practices as anthropologists? What kind of world do we want to create? And how can our methods and practices make that world come into being? These are the important questions an ontological perspective begins to address.

I still support an ontological anthropology, but one that is strange, weird, magical, and inside-out.

Buddhism and the Cultivation of Awareness

Following up on my previous two posts (here and here) on buddhism and the recent visit of the Dalai Lama, I want to elaborate on the position I see for Buddhism in the struggle for a better world.


What is Buddhism?  It’s not a religion like any other.  In those sects where deities are acknowledged, they are recognized as immanent beings rather than transcendent, and subject to the same limitations as other worldly beings.  In most sects, deities play little or no role at all.  At the core of Buddhist philosophy is the impermanence of the world.  The world is suffering, the Buddha tells us, but “suffering” is not necessarily the appropriate term. The world is dynamic – always changing.  Beings come in and out of existence, and the nature of our relationships with other beings is constantly in flux. Attempting to hold fast to one form of existence – to a particular kind of being or a particular kind of relationship – is, in the nature of things, to experience dissatisfaction. Huxley says it well:

Because his aspiration to perpetuate only the “yes” in every pair of opposites can never, in the nature of things, be realized, the insulated Manichee I think I am condemns himself to endlessly repeated frustration, endlessly repeated conflicts with other aspiring and frustrated Manichees.

So Buddhism is, at its core, a philosophy of coexistence. This world is changing because it is heterogeneous, because there is no ground. So what do we do about it? How does one live in a world coinhabited – co-constructed – with myriad other beings? Buddhism provides an answer in the eightfold path – right view, right intention, right speech, right action, right livelihood, right effort, right mindfulness, right concentration.  Notice, though, that these are not commandments – “Thou shalt”.  They are open-ended, defined not by some divine creator or an essential nature of being (the search for which is still reflected in the search for scientific truth), but rather by the circumstances.  So how do we know what “right” means in any given context?  Again, Buddhism has an answer for us – through the practice of meditation.

Meditation is a diverse practice.  There are many different kinds of meditation, and each does something different.  However, broadly speaking, they are all practices (in the sense of “practice makes perfect”) of cultivating a particular kind of affect or cognitive-emotional state.  At the least, meditation cultivates an affect of tranquility and peace of mind, at it’s best, it cultivates an affect of awareness.  Huxley, again:

Concentration, abstract thinking, spiritual exercises—systematic exclusions in the realm of thought. Asceticism and hedonism—systematic exclusions in the realms of sensation, feeling and action. But Good Being is in the knowledge of who in fact one is in relation to all experiences. So be aware—aware in every context, at all times and whatever, creditable or discreditable, pleasant or unpleasant, you may be doing or suffering. This is the only genuine yoga, the only spiritual exercise worth practicing.

Does Buddhism offer us a way of retreating inwards (and thus competing with critical theories that would have us turn outwards in our struggle for a better world)?  The answer is, in some sense, yes.  Buddhism – especially as it has been transformed by its encounter with Western, Capitalist modes of thought – offers us the possibility of a happiness that does not demand social change.  But it doesn’t have to be that way, and the practice of cultivating affect can be (I might go so far as to say is an essential) part of struggle.

Our affects – the way we feel and experience the world around us – are also part of the world we live in.  Our affects can be as inscrutable and unknowable as the lives as other beings.  In that sense, the usual division between inside and outside becomes irrelevant, and instead we can look at any given situation as a complex assemblage of factors and features, one of which is our affect.  What is it that compels an individual to struggle?  What is it that keeps that same individual, at a different time, from participating?  Affect is not the answer, but it is part of the answer.  A person who is simply depressed and unable to leave her room is not capable of struggle – for her own benefit let alone that of others.  It may be that her depression is tied to many factors that are beyond her immediate control (a lifeless job, or an oppressive marriage), and these factors will not go away magically through the practice of meditation.  Nor should meditation be seen as a way to achieve peace and happiness within those circumstances – she could be happy, perhaps, but happiness is not an end itself.  Instead, the cultivation of an affect of awareness might allow this woman to recognize how her depression is limiting her and shift her affect towards one that would allow her to struggle for the change that she wants – whether that new affect is happiness or something else.

Capitalism and other oppressive systems depend on our internalizing, to some degree, the logic of the system.  They depend on us becoming our own minions, to use Stengers’s phrase.  Much ink has been spilled in articulating how this is achieved: through schooling, media, etc. – the ideological state apparatus, however you conceive of that.  In that sense, taking time to cut out those voices all around us, and being attentive to the ways in which our own internal voice mimics them, might be a powerful form of resistance – one of the cracks that must be grasped and ripped open in order for struggle to continue. This is the cultivation of an affect of awareness that meditation (and sorcery, perhaps) offer.

But, you might say, what about enlightenment? Isn’t the goal of Buddhism to achieve enlightenment and escape from the world of illusion?  If so, how does that not compete with a desire/need to change the world itself?  It’s true, perhaps, for some forms of Buddhism.  However, what becomes very clear when exploring the philosophy of Buddhism and the concept of enlightenment as retreat from the world, is that it’s impossible.  Impossible because, even as enlightened beings, we cannot escape this world – the only out is death.  Our experience of enlightenment is subject to the same transitory existence as all of the rest of being, so achieving enlightenment becomes a project and practice of cultivation, and one which involves coexistence and co-construction with other beings as well.

All of this is not to say that Buddhism is a philosophy and practice of struggle.  It’s just to say that Buddhism and struggle are not, in my opinion, fundamentally incompatible, and that Buddhist practices can be important aspects of struggle.  There may be aspects of particular Buddhist philosophies that don’t fit well with struggle, and there are certainly aspects of the way Buddhism is practiced in both the East and the West that seem opposed to struggle.  However, the core philosophy of Buddhism (The Four Noble Truths) and the practices that it encourages (The Eightfold Path, and meditation) are compatible and possibly even valuable for struggle.

Work and Practice

This post is, in part, a request for help.  I’m trying to understand the relationship between Isabelle Stengers’s concept of “practice” and an “ecology of practice” and the practice theories of Bourdieu, Ortner, et. al.  Does anyone have any leads on this?  I see many similarities and many differences, but I’m trying to understand the lineage.  Is Stengers drawing on practice theory as such or is she developing an alternative practice theory?  My sense is the latter, but I don’t have evidence for this.  If anyone can suggest some readings to help me figure it out, I would greatly appreciate it.

Now on to the more substantive issue, which is my own concepts of practice and work.  I’ve tended to treat these two as synonymous, and will continue to do so.  Practice and work, for me, are the ways that we (beings, broadly speaking) constitute our worlds.  It is action that makes a difference – that alters and affects others.  It is also, in a sense, synonymous with “behavior” if for the simple reason that all activities make a difference and, thus, constitute a world.  However, I think the term “behavior” fails to make us think about the world constituting effects of our actions and those of others.  Behavior is just what we do, it doesn’t convey the sense of altering and affecting that I want to convey.  However, thinking about this today, I began to wonder if “practice” does this, and I’m increasingly convinced that it does not except in some very specific senses.  For example, to practice medicine is just to do something – the idea of shaping the world is left out.  However, to practice violin is a different matter.  Here an individual is building a skill in relation to another object – the violin.  But it just doesn’t seem strong enough.

In light of this, and also in light of my confusion with the origins of Stengers’s concept of practice and its relationship with Bourdieu’s (I say this because my use of the term practice in anthropology has caused me in some minds to be associated with Bourdieu, when, in fact, I don’t see myself aligned with his thought at all), I have thought about simply replacing the word “practice” with “work.”  As frequent readers will know, I like the concept of work – I think it is essential to my understanding of our social lives and our relationships with others (human and non-human) with whom we share a world.  Work, to me, conveys the sense of embodiment, but also the idea of constituting or composing that I want to convey.  We work, and this work builds relationships with and between other beings.  The world is shaped by our work and we are shaped by the work of others around us.  The one failure of the term is that it calls to mind manual labor, and, although I think that’s an important aspect, I don’t want to limit my conception of work to that kind of labor.  Instead, I want to think about the ways that all action, all behavior is work – the ways that all work makes a difference, and constitutes a world.  Still, I think it is a more powerful concept than either behavior or practice, though I still hold those two to me synonymous.

Agency and Efficacy

Last night I was doing some reading and watching for the upcoming UMD Anthropology Theory Discussion Group session on materiality, embodiment, and non-human agency.  I was thinking about this concept of agency that’s so important to my work and to the work of others who have inspired me – Latour, Stengers, Bennett, Bryant, etc.  First of all, there is the question of intentionality, a characteristic that is often taken to be synonymous with agency.  Intentionality is the ability to choose one mode of action over another – free will, as it were.  It is this ability, we as inheritors of a Judeo-Christian tradition tend to believe, that makes us unique among other beings.  The ability to choose prevents us from being determined by any other being, whether God, Nature, genes, social structure, etc.  In our modern, scientific mindset (which nonetheless contains elements of Judeo-Christian theology), the boundaries of intentionality have blurred extensively to the point where some animals and even plants or fungi can, depending on the circumstances and who you’re talking to, be considered to have a degree of intentionality.  But is intentionality really what generates agency?  Is it really what prevents determinism?  I and those I mention above would argue that it is not.  Instead of intentionality (or in addition to it, maybe) we consider efficacy to be the more important characteristic that signifies agency.

I like this term efficacy.  As Stengers points out in Capitalist Sorcery, it has this connotation with magical arts – the power of words, rituals, and things to alter and affect the world.  In fact, I like it better than agency itself because it’s a more descriptive term – “agency” itself doesn’t mean much without other words such as “intentionality” or “efficacy” to lend it signification.  Furthermore, it bypasses the structure-agency debate.  While I think it’s important to engage such debates (and, therefore, continue to push the term “agency” to its limits), there are times when bypassing the debate is easier.  Why, then, is efficacy the key rather than intentionality?  Because intentionality is not necessarily required to escape the trap of determination.  In fact, intentionality, I would argue, is really just a form of efficacy.  One can act in a non-deterministic way without intending to do so.  What matters is the way that we adjust and adjust to the other beings around us.  It’s this process of co-construction that exists in every interrelation that produces complexity, unpredictability, and novelty – not necessarily the intentional process of choosing one mode of action over another.

So if efficacy is the condition that we’re interested in, then what we’re confronted with in terms of analysis is a mesh of interconnection, and co-construction by various efficacious beings or agents.  Nothing can be reduced to anything else, but no thing is alone and unaffected by others.  Structure is agency.  It shapes and is shaped by us as we move through its dark and twisted passageways.  And there is no singular power, no encompassing being under which all of it can be totalized.  In each heterogeneous and monstrous interrelation, there is a capacity for difference and unpredictability simply because the interactions are never unilateral, but always co-constructed.  It’s this kind of analysis that these new (ontological constructivist) theories seek to explore, and I believe they are far more efficacious than those that rely on a structure-agency dichotomy.

Nature, Culture, and Methods

Life on here has been pretty slow lately. This is because, for the past month or so, I’ve been preparing for my first area exam. Last week, I took it and submitted on Friday. Now I’m just waiting for the grade and prepping for the beginning of the semester, so I have a little space to get caught up on some blog posts that I’ve been meaning to write. As I was writing the exam, I had something of an inspiration. In some ways it’s not much different from what I’ve been saying for a while now, but when I wrote it out it was a bit of a shock – a new set of implications for an old way of thinking.  This post will be an attempt to articulate those implications.

I’ve written a lot about the concept of culture in the past: what is culture, how is it composed, and how do we study it as anthropologists?  What I realized recently is that, if we want to overcome the Nature/Culture dichotomy, then we have to take seriously the idea that there are, in fact, multiple natures. There’s nothing new here – it’s essentially what Latour, Law, Haraway, Stengers, and other post-constructivist have been arguing for a long time. If there is only one nature or reality, then there would be, under a condition where the Nature/Culture dichotomy has dissolved, no way to account for difference except by a reintroduction of the dichotomy. Furthermore, Western Science would have privileged access to such a nature or reality because of its ability to separate itself from “subjective” or “cultural” factors. The only other way out of this is to say that existence is a projection of human social factors, and that there is no “reality” or that, at least, we do not have access to it. Thus, the process of reconciling different “visions” of reality would be a purely epistemological process of reconciling different belief systems – e.g. reconciling a belief in God with a belief in Science. On the other hand, if we want to preserve our realism – a reference to reality outside of the purely human – which is, in my opinion a worthwhile effort for a number of reasons, then we have to accept the possibility that there are multiple natures or realities that overlap and intersect in complex ways. In other words, reality is not singular or stable, and new realities are created all the time through the practices of the beings (human, non-human, living, non-living, material, and semiotic) who compose them. Realities are different ontological articulations of beings – different ways of putting things together – and beings are always putting themselves together in different ways all the time. For example, John Law demonstrates multiple overlapping and intersecting realities for things like cirrhosis of the liver, cattle farming, fish farming, and several other practices.

What does this mean for culture, then? If we break down the Nature/Culture dichotomy, and recognize that there are many natures rather than just one, then this means that “nature” and “culture” become, in some sense, synonymous. Around the world we see not only many different cultures that interact with a singular, stable Nature, but many different cultures which are also many different natures. The Tsembaga Maring of Papua New Guinea have articulated a relationship with other beings – pigs, ancestor spirits, yams, other peoples, etc. – to create a particular kind of nature, which Rappaport describes in his book Pigs for the Ancestors. Similarly, Western Science has articulated a different kind of relationship with other beings – germs, labs, legal and political institutions, etc. – that creates a different kind of nature from that of the Maring (it’s important to point out, perhaps, that natures can fail – that the particular articulations of a nature or reality can be poorly constructed, to borrow Latour’s phrase, and thus fall apart or transform into a different articulation at any given time). The process of integrating different realities, then, becomes not just an epistemological process of reconciling different belief systems, but an ontological process of rearticulating two or more different realities to create one or more hybrid realities. It’s not just about reconciling a belief in God with a belief in Science, nor is it about accepting Science and “tolerating” others (as Stengers points out), it’s a process of assembling the two realities into a new hybrid reality in which both can coexist. This process, I would argue, is a long and difficult one involving a negotiation between the beings of the old realities to find a place within the associations that compose the new hybrid(s). Unfortunately, this process is too often closed off prematurely by one or the other – in this example it could be either, but in the case of traditional natures versus scientific nature, it’s usually the latter that does the closing off – such that the new articulation doesn’t form a hybrid, and many of the beings are left struggling to find a place in a system that has been closed off.

Where does this put anthropology? Anthropologists have specialized in the study of different cultures – and now we can recognize that they were always also studying different natures. Furthermore, in order to effectively study those other cultures, they had to be able to bring themselves into relation with them on a relatively equal basis. Thus we have the methods of participant observation, cultural relativism, and extreme reflexivity. Anthropologists believed they were developing these methods in order to get a better image of the cultures they were studying – a worthwhile goal in itself, but there was always more to it than that. John Law shows us that methods are not simply tools for understanding reality, rather they are practices that themselves create new realities by articulating beings in new ways. If that’s the case, then it becomes apparent that the methods of anthropology have always been practices of creating hybrid realities between that of the (usually Western) anthropologist and those of the cultures s/he studied. Without realizing it, anthropologists have been developing methods to create hybrid realities all along, and we’ve been practicing this hybrid reality creation for over a century – sometimes with bad results, sometimes with good results. In a world where different realities are increasingly coming into contact with one another and being forced to articulate – often with negotiations being closed down prematurely – the methods could prove very valuable. The trick will be generalizing the methods to work for larger groups – more than just one or a handful of anthropologists interacting with a small tribe or village. I see some possibilities in the work of Whatmore, Callon, and others – people who have been working to create spaces where different realities can negotiate openly and evenly in order to produce a hybrid. However, a great deal of work still needs to be done.

Doing the Work

One of the most important things I’ve taken from my philosophical engagements – notably Levi Bryant, Gregory Bateson, and Bruno Latour – is that change (even existence) takes work. I’ve talked a lot about work before. This is because it is, for me, a foundational concept. In order to understand something, we have to follow the work that it took to produce it. Furthermore, in order to change things – to make a difference – we have to do the work that is required to make the change. I think this is an increasing problem with scientific thought – particularly in the environmental sciences.

I’ve worked with a number of scientists now on a variety of projects, and the thing they really like to talk about – particularly when social scientists are involved – is “behavior change.”  It’s become a buzz-phrase that’s thrown around casually at meetings and conferences as if it were the most natural thing for scientists to think about.  I don’t know the exact history of this phrase and how it came to be so popular.  However, I believe that it’s a reaction against two things 1) the ideal of dispassionate science, and 2) politically correct notions of non-intervention and relativism.  Scientists are not content to do research, provide information for policy makers, and educate the public.  That’s great, and I’m all for a more engaged science.  However, what’s resulted is this “behavior change” attitude that suggests that scientists know what’s best for everyone, and that we all should just listen to the.  When we don’t listen, then they turn to social scientists to tell them how to get people to listen as if we have some magic answer that will propagate their message (and behavior change) through the system.  Certain social sciences are more than willing to sell that – even though they don’t really have it.  It’s a kind of snake-oil social science where, if you just craft the right slogan, use the right social media, conduct surveys and focus groups to inform the whole thing, then everything will work out just fine.  These media campaigns tend to fall flat.  Why?  Because they have to compete with things that people enjoy like cats with pieces of bread on their heads (I’ll spare you the images) – those things people are happy to do the work to propagate.  It takes millions of people doing little bits of work (liking, sharing, replicating, spoofing, etc.) to make those “memes” successful (to make them “go viral”), but it seems like magic and it makes people interested in using social media to effect social change drool.  Often those social media campaigns created by scientists and others don’t catch the kind of work that’s needed to make them truly “viral” or even to get the message out beyond a restricted group of people (who likely are already aware of the issues).  Furthermore, it’s not clear that such social media campaigns lead to substantial change in behavior even when they do “work.”

When the social media campaign falls flat, the scientists turn to the ultimate form of systemic behavior change – the law.  In fact, the law itself takes a lot of work to create, maintain, and propagate – think of all of the congresspersons, their staff, bureaucracies like the EPA, state agencies, federal enforcement officials, state and local law enforcement, courts, clerks, fines, prisons, and so on that are required to make the law work, it’s just that this work is institutionalized and prepackaged.  Even so, the law may still fail to create the desired change.

So what’s wrong with “behavior change” mentality?  Aside from being a sort of paternalistic (or even outright imperialistic at times) attitude, it ignores the work that needs to be done to make a difference, and the potential (even probability) for failure.  Furthermore, it’s a position of relative invulnerability for the scientists.  It suggests that, as Stengers points out “scientists know, the rest of us believe.”  Therefore, scientists place themselves in a position of firm ground that requires little change on their part – the real change must come from the public.  I believe that the insights of science are invaluable – it provides us with an abundance of information that could help create a much better world.  However, scientists (including social scientists) need to understand that they are only one group among myriad others and that societies are complex – there are no single solutions and all change takes a great deal of work.  In place of the idea of “behavior change” I would suggest the idea of “negotiation.”  At first glance it sounds like a weaker position – like crass pragmatism or giving in to public whim – but I think it’s actually a much stronger position to start from.  For one, it doesn’t carry the paternalistic overtones of “behavior change” and so it’s less likely to generate knee-jerk reactions against being told what to do (nobody likes being told what to do!).  Second, there’s no reason in a negotiation why a person or group can’t take a firm stance as long as it’s recognized that others may reject that stance completely and simply ignore you – this means you’d have to be open to modifying your stance, adapting it to the contingencies of the negotiation process.  Third, it recognizes the work that needs to be done to convince others.  This work might use things like social media, legislation, surveys, workshops, education, slogans, etc., but none of these becomes the single solution, and all of them may fail.  Finally, it not only conveys a sense of the work that needs to be done, it also conveys a sense of “working with” others as opposed to imposing upon.  The goal should be to create the possibility for change with the people who will be affected by it rather than telling people they must change and getting frustrated when they don’t.

If scientists and others interested in “behavior change” were to shift their attention to “negotiation,” and attend to the work that needs to be done, I think a lot more significant change would get accomplished.  But even “negotiation” is no silver bullet – it’s always prone to failure as is any social change method – but it puts us in a much better position to pick up, dust off, and start again with a new negotiation.  Finally, I realize that what I’m asking for is a kind of “behavior change” among scientists, and this is paradoxical.  I don’t expect anyone to be convinced by this short blog post, but in my work with scientists, I try my best to convey a sense of the work that needs to be done, and the complexity of the issue rather than sell myself as a social media magician who can transform the world with the flick of a wrist.  Little by little, I hope to convince them that negotiation is the right approach, the best approach, and the way to a better world.

The Work of Ethnography

In the recent edition of Imponderabilia (in which I have an article, but that’s not what we’re talking about here), Alisa Maximova from the National State University in Russia has a nice little piece about “Understanding Ethnographic Work: Through Fieldnotes and Diaries.”  In it she draws upon the sociology of science – specifically Kerin Knorr-Cetina, who I’m not familiar with – to better understand the practices of ethnographers and the role of fieldnotes and diaries in the construction of ethnographic knowledge.  It’s a really interesting essay – something I’ve contemplated myself in recent years.  I have no critiques of it, but only a few things to add that make the full breadth of the work of ethnographers more apparent.

Knorr-Cetina’s research seems to focus on the (human) practice of writing and composing a text – in this case a scientific paper.  If we are to use science and technology studies as a means of understanding anthropological practice, I would advocate looking to the work of other STS researchers like Latour, Callon, Haraway, Stengers, and Law (who has done a great deal himself on the work of social science research) in addition to Knorr-Cetina and others who focus on the production of texts.  While the production of texts is an important and essential part of the practice of science, it is not all that scientists do, and these other researchers attend to the full breadth of scientific practice.  What this means is that they attend to the ways that scientists compose not just texts, but also relations with others – including non-humans.  Thus it is the practices of humans and non-humans that composes the knowledge of science and not simply the rhetorical practices of humans composing texts.  This is an important insight because it allows us to judge the differences between knowledge claims.  Instead of asking whether the knowledge claim was well or poorly argued (by means of textual composition) we can ask whether the knowledge was well or poorly composed (by means of the relationships composed by the practices of the scientists).  What’s more, we recognize the agency of those beings studied by scientists, whereas a focus exclusively on textual (re)production acknowledges only the agency of the humans composing the texts.

I would extend this to the work (practice) of ethnography itself.  It’s true that ethnographers spend a great deal of time producing texts – diaries, fieldnotes, jottings, research papers, correspondences, etc. – but that’s not all we do when we are in the field.  Indeed, the term “fieldwork” encompasses a broad range of activities that could be characterized as relationship building.  We spend time with the people we study, we build rapport, we participant-observe, we offer advice, goods, and services, and in many cases these days we actually work with these people to compose knowledge in the form of texts.  Only by looking at the full range of work that constitutes fieldwork can we understand the practice of anthropology.  For one, we must recognize the participation of these other human beings in the production of ethnographic knowledge – it is not merely the rhetorical production of texts, but an engagement with others that alters and affects us in a variety of ways.  To claim otherwise is to deny their agency.  Furthermore, we must be attentive to the role of non-humans in the production of ethnographic knowledge.  Certainly, they tend not to be the focus of our texts, but they often play an important role and carry an agency of their own which we deny by a focus only on the rhetorical strategies of ethnographers.  Finally, it becomes possible to see that ethnographers are not simply constructing knowledge about a pre-existing world.  Rather, through our work we construct the world itself.  A focus on knowledge production alone allows us to ignore other aspects of ethnographic work that are often more profoundly world changing than the production of texts.  The question then becomes, what kind of world do we create through the practice of ethnography – through our interviews, our participant-observation, our rapport building, our gifting, etc.?  How do we alter and affect that which we study, and how can we be more attentive to the realities that we construct?

I believe this is very fertile ground for consideration.  It’s not a theory to be validated – a “theory of” – but one which, hopefully, informs our work and leads us to better practices – a “theory for.”  The researchers mentioned above are at the forefront of this approach, and there are many more out there who have been thinking in much the same way.  It is one of my central concerns as an anthropologist – a better way of think about the work of anthropology.

Capitalist Sorcery

On the train ride home from Connecticut this weekend, I was finally able to put some time in and finish reading Isabelle Stenger’s Capitalist Sorcery: Breaking the Spell.  I was going to write a whole synopsis of the book with commentary, but Adam Robbert has posted a link to a review that does that work for me.  For the sake of novelty, I’ll quote a different passage than Adam:

The strategically non-linear development of their argument allows Pignarre and Stengers to draw a rather “heteroclite crowd” in support of their thesis. Various parts of the text thus discuss the relevance of Afro-American spirituality (the concept/affect of “yearning”), the pragmatic inventiveness of Alcoholics Anonymous (aware “of the impossibility of getting free alone”), organisations such as the Association Française contre les Mypathies (involving the parents of sick children in its budget allocation process) or the role of the mutual societies for working class communities in 19th-century France. The last chapter of the book is dedicated to an extensive discussion of the neo-pagan witch movement, whose attractiveness for Pignarre and Stengers (in line with Stengers’ own radical constructivism) lies in the fabricated yet realnature of its rituals. The red threat that connects these otherwise highly heterogeneous collectivities is that they all develop techniques of empowerment, a veritable “culture of recipes” to counter capitalism’s universal designs and the “psychosocial techniques of adherence” subtending them. The pragmatic “successes” of these collective interventions lies in the fact that they are always local, interstitial, “defined neither against nor in relation to the bloc to which [they] nonetheless belong.” (110)

This quote highlights what was to me the most captivating (dare I say “spell-binding”) aspect of the book – the many concepts Stengers and Pignarre introduce that help us “think through the middle” and find alternative paths in the interstices.  They introduce the idea of “minions” in order to distinguish between those who fully support Capitalism and those who are merely  captured.  Ideology-based approaches don’t allow for such a distinction – to them we are all equally guilty because we are all equally deluded.  The review points out another, which is “yearning” – a way of desiring alternatives without knowing a priori what form they will take. Another is “recipes” and “relaying” – an approach to transmitting success without becoming hegemonic or majoritarian to use their term.  Many of these concepts are drawn from other sources – Deleuze and Guattari, of course, Starhawk, feminists, etc. – but Stengers and Pignarre create an experimental, and pragmatic combination that draws us towards a speculative future.

Another thing I wanted to say – and the reviewer also mentions this briefly – is that the book has a lot in common with J.K. Gibson-Graham’s work.  In particular the need to resist reifying Captialism, and Ideology as totalizing forces for which there is no outside.  Instead we have to learn to work through the interstices – crafting alternatives in those spaces where Capitalism is unable to fully penetrate.  Stengers and Pignarre add to that conversation the need to create protective spaces – casting the circle – in order to keep capitalist sorcery at bay.