Watershed Ethnography

This post is an early draft of a chapter that didn’t make it into my final dissertation. I’m sharing it here because I think it still carries and important line of thought that I hope to develop further in future research and writing.


I set out to do an ethnography of a computer model; I ended up doing a watershed ethnography.

When I began researching computational modeling in the Chesapeake Bay region, my initial goal was to understand the effects that modeling had on management and decision making at different levels. I had planned to do a comparative study looking at different modeling projects taking place in the region and exploring the ways that different modeling techniques and methods influenced the relationships that make environmental management possible. However, as I undertook the research, things changed dramatically, as often happens in ethnographic field work, and gradually the watershed began to emerge as a framework for my project.

Two key changes – one research driven, the other resulting from a personal shift – really brought the watershed into focus. First, as I attempted to undertake comparative study, it became increasingly clear that there was no clear division between the different projects that I was researching. They all kind of flowed together much like the water flowing through the various tributaries converges in the Chesapeake Bay. All of the projects I had set out to study – including one that was technically outside of the watershed – drew upon the same sets of data, the same modeling methodologies, and fed into the modeling taking place at the Chesapeake Bay Program. This meant that a comparative analysis, while not impossible, would have been confounded by the interconnections of the different projects. After a great deal of deliberation, I decided to continue studying the projects, but now as a reflection of how different modeling practices can flow together. As a result, the focus of my research became the Chesapeake Bay Program’s modeling efforts and the convergences that underlie it.

The second change was the result of a personal decision. In 2005, I moved from College Park, Maryland to Binghamton, New York to be with my current wife who had just started a PhD program there. While this move made it necessary for me to commute to conduct my research in Annapolis, it also opened up my understanding of environmental management and shifted my perspective from the Chesapeake Bay to the watershed as a whole. Despite the distance between the two cities, Binghamton is still part of the watershed, sitting at the confluence of the Susquehanna and Chenango rivers. My house is blocks away from the Susquehanna and within walking distance of the park where the two rivers converge. Living up here has enabled me to not only see more of the watershed itself, but to see the processes and practices of environmental management that ultimately affect the Chesapeake Bay. It has made me cognizant of water quality issues that I would not have been aware of if I had stayed in the DC area. And it has allowed me to understand the perspectives on modeling from the people whose lives and livelihoods are affected by it.

It seems to me that theory and method often develop to take on the shape of the objects we are studying – especially in an environmental anthropology that is sensitive to ecological relationships and processes. This is evident in Anna Tsing’s work on matsutake mushrooms – she describes her writing style as a “riot of short chapters.” She then goes on:

“I wanted [the chapters] to be like the flushes of mushrooms that come up after a rain: an over-the-top bounty; a temptation to explore; an always too many… They tangle with and interrupt each other – mimicking the patchiness of the world I am trying to describe” (viii).

In this way, mushrooms are not only the objects of Tsing’s research, but also models for the process and practice of studying and writing about them.

Similarly, Laura Ogden’s ethnography of the socio-ecological processes that shape the Everglades takes on a “rhizomatic” quality that mirrors the rhizome of the vast, and thickly tangled swamp itself. Describing her ethnographic approach, Ogden says:

“This book should be read as a part of the everglades entanglement, or better, as an experiment with the rhizome’s logic… I have allowed the rhizome to guide this book’s composition. Each chapter maps the course of a particular trajectory within the Everglades rhizome” (31)

Following from these examples, I think it makes sense that my own research and writing would take on some of the characteristics of a watershed. And so, in what follows I hope to explore what I have come to think of as watershed ethnography – one that goes with the flows,” to find the places where they converge, and to navigate the currents that emerge from the intensive variations in their viscosity.

Watershed Theory

The Chesapeake Bay’s watershed covers 64,000 square miles and includes approximately 18 million people. Conducting an ethnography of the watershed on this scale would be an enormous undertaking far in excess of a doctoral dissertation, and potentially even the confines of ethnographic methods themselves. Instead, I characterize my research as a “watershed ethnography.” It is a subtle, and some may argue, small semantic difference, but there is good reason for inverting the terms. An ethnography of a watershed implies simply that the object of the research is a drainage basin, but “watershed ethnography” is something different, and, at the same time that it is shaped by the contours of the flow of water on the landscape, it also redefines our conception of the watershed itself.

A watershed is traditionally defined as “the area that drains to a common waterway, such as a stream, lake, estuary, wetland, aquifer or even the ocean” (EPA). For example, all of the water that falls on the Chesapeake Bay’s watershed ultimately flows into the Chesapeake Bay. Ecologists have come to recognize that there is more to a watershed than water drainage, and have begun to think of them as complex, interconnected systems. This notion includes the myriad living organisms who depend on the water for their livelihoods, and, to varying extents, the social lives of humans that utilize and affect water quantity and quality. Integrating human and non-human practices and processes in a way that adequately represents both presents a challenge to existing social and natural science theories and methodologies.

An ethnography of a watershed would apply an ethnographic methodology to the drainage basin and its inhabitants. In other words, an ethnographer might conduct interviews and participant observation with people who live in the watershed – especially those who are engaged in work to improve water quality. In more recent years, the ethnographer might incorporate some quantitative methods as well to develop a broader sense of the perspectives of the people who live throughout the watershed’s boundaries. The questions driving such research might be the way people think of themselves as part of the watershed, or the ways that their actions affect the water and other natural elements that constitute the watershed. In this sense, ethnography itself is taken to be an abstract methodology that can be equally applied to any issue or cultural practice. Additionally, regardless of how “integrated” the natural and social systems are thought to be, the focus of ethnography will always be on the “social dimensions” of life in the watershed because it fails to present the watershed itself as a product of social relations.

Several developments in the social sciences and humanities in the last few decades have made it possible to imagine a different kind of ethnography – one that is able to expand beyond the “social dimensions” and the dualistic view of natural and social systems. This is not meant as a way to usurp the role of ecologists and other environmental scientists. Because their methods were also designed with a particular object in mind, they are very effective for studying natural processes. What natural science methods are not well designed for is studying interconnections and the complex entanglements of humans and non-humans precisely because they must in some ways isolate themselves from social and political discourse. Attempting to study social practices objectively creates ethical and political conflicts because research is always socially situated and cannot be isolated in the same ways.

Recent approaches enable a better integration of natural and social systems because they transform our conception of the relationships between humans and nonhumans including materials, organisms, and technologies. Specifically, these developments have come together around social science and humanities research that attempts to address the myriad political and ecological crises we face around the world today. We live in a time that many have called the “anthropocene” – a time when human activity has reached a point where it can be recognized as a global geological force. Although the timeline for the epoch is contested, its origins have been traced  back to the 16th and 17th centuries. This period has been characterized by climate change, deforestation, and mass extinctions as well as global inequalities in the form of colonization, slavery, and economic exploitation. I would not be the first to point out the links between these processes, and some philosophers and social scientists have gone so far as to propose alternate names that reflect the social causes underlying both ecological destruction and human exploitation.

Haraway (2016), as a remedy for the anthropocene/capitalocene, proposes “tentacular thinking” in what she refers to as the Chthulucene “…a name for an elsewhere and elsewhen that was, still is, and might yet be” (31) and “…an ongoing temporality that resists figuration and dating and demands myriad names” (51):

“The tentacular ones tangle me in SF. Their many appendages make string figures; they entwine me in the poiesis – the making – of speculative fabulation, science fiction, science fact, speculative feminism, soin de ficelle, so far. The tentacular ones make attachments and detachments; they ake cuts and knots; they make a difference; they weave paths and consequences but not determinisms; they are both open and knotted in some ways and not others.”

In other words, tentacular thinking attempts to overcome the dualistic thought that created the anthropocene by exploring the entanglements of beings and the processes of sympoiesis – or making-with – in which we are all always engaged. These modes of thought force us to reconsider not only our relationships with nonhuman organisms, but also with the technologies we utilize, the knowledge practices in which we engage, and the institutions that govern us. And it challenges us to be cognizant of the kinds of relational systems that are produced from these myriad interactions including our own.

Within this conceptual framework, all forms of scientific research – including ethnography – take on a new character. The anthropocene requires a scientific practice that is not only oriented around the production of knowledge, it demands “… new research practices to excavate, encounter and extend reparative possibilities for alternative futures” (Manifesto, ii). This means that scientific practices must be considered as part of the social milieu in which they operate…Ethnographies of science began this work starting in the 1980s. In fact, much of the theory and practice that has developed into the kinds of tentacular thinking I have been describing emerged within the field of science studies.

Science poses a unique problem for social scientists. It is, without question, a social process. The knowledge it generates would not be possible without the social practices, norms, and institutions that foster it. But it is a social practice primarily oriented around understanding the material world. As a result, anthropologists and sociologists who study scientific practice can either relegate it to a unique category somehow outside of the social field, or we can incorporate it into our understanding of social practice. This is what sociologists of science refer to as first-order symmetry – treating all science, and not simply faulty science (e.g. Lysenkoism), as inherently social.

However, once we begin to treat science as a social process, a second problem emerges – the scientists resist. Science is not social, they argue, it is an objective process that produces objective knowledge. To say otherwise would be to reject the “facts” that science generates as mere “social constructs” – as if to stop believing in Boyles Law would cause airplanes to fall from the sky. In fact, this is exactly what happened in what came to be known as the “Science Wars” in the 1980s and 90s. The response on the part of some science studies scholars was to extend our conception of the social field through what came to be known as second-order or generalized symmetry.

Generalized symmetry maintains that science is indeed a social process, but that social processes always include nonhuman participants – the very materials, objects, technologies, and organisms that scientists themselves are tasked with studying. With this, science becomes a very different kind of practice whose primary project is not to develop accurate or truthful representations of the world, but rather to build effective relationships with the nonhuman beings with whom we share it. In other words, symmetry forces us into a non-representational position wherein practice and process are primary (Pickering).

Pickering advocates for what he calls a “performative idiom” for science and technology studies. The philosophy and sociology of science, he argues, has had an “obsession with knowledge” and performativity rebalances our understanding “toward a recognition of science’s material powers” (7). In a performative idiom, “science is regarded as a field of powers, capacities, and performances, situated in machinic captures of material agency” (7). Through what he calls the “dance of agency” scientists interact with the material world through the medium of machines in order to “capture” material agency and domesticate it. However, the outcome cannot be predicted or known in advance – the materials resist capture, and the machines must be remade:

“… we have no idea what precise collection of parts will constitute a working machine, nor do we have any idea what its precise powers will be. There is no thread in the present that we can hang onto which determines the outcome of cultural extension” (24).

Thus, the “dance of agency” or “mangle of practice” as he also refers to it is temporally emergent. But this process of emergence and mangling is not simply a scientific procedure. Pickering describes a metaphysics of agency in which the world is “…continually doing things, things that bear upon us not as observation statements upon disembodied intellects but as forces upon material beings” (6). He calls to mind the weather “winds, storms, droughts, heat and cold” that not only affect us materially, but also in “life threatening ways” (6). Everyday life, he contends involves “coping with material agency” that cannot be reduced to human causes. “My suggestion is that we should see science (and of course technology) as a continuation and extension of this business of coping with material agency” (Pickering; 6-7).

So we come back to the entanglement of human and nonhuman practices in the anthropocene that far exceeds the practices of science, and this has resulted not only in a reconceptualization of the role of science, but also of the nature of society as well. Social practices, too, must be reconsidered as the entanglement of human and nonhuman agencies leading to the further breakdown of the boundaries that define the social and natural sciences. Haraway’s cyborgs and companion species are two familiar examples wherein boundaries are breached – between organism and machine, and human and animal. Where Haraway differs from many science studies scholars is in recognizing that these boundaries are not simply oriented around objective knowledge production in the sciences, but also shape and are shaped by the asymmetries of power that operate within our broader social world. She advocates for a “situated knowledge” that is responsive to these asymmetries and responsible for the kinds of asymmetrical relationships in which it is engaged.

Making such a situated knowledge possible requires a thorough understanding not only of the entanglements of humans and nonhumans, but also of how these interactions combine to produce systemic asymmetries, and how scientific and ecological practices are in turn affected by these systems. Haraway, for her part, shows not only how science is entangled with the nonhumans it is tasked with understanding, but also with global capitalist markets, the military, and patriarchal society. In other words, in order to think about the entanglements of scientific practices, we must also think about the broader entanglements that make scientific research possible in the present era.

We seem to be operating in what Moore (2016) refers to as a capitalist “web of life” – a political ecology of exploitation that reduces both humans and nonhumans to their market value. This “web” is produced from the entanglements of humans and nonhumans and also reciprocally influences the contours that those entanglements take, including those of scientific practices. Thus, conceptualizing the web of global capitalism helps us think through our day-to-day entanglements and the possibility for building a different kind of political ecology.

But capitalism is not global by default. As Tsing (2005) points out, capitalism “spreads through aspirations to fulfill universal dreams and schemes” but “it can only be charged and enacted in the sticky materiality of practical encounters” (1). Thus, we must understand capitalism not as a global system, but as a series of “global connections” linked together by capitalism’s universalizing project. This enables us to recognize the localized entanglements in which we are all engaged, while also indexing the universal project of capitalism that influences many, if not all, of them.

To take universals at face value, Tsing argues, is to “erase the making of global connection” (7). She asks, “How  can universals be so effective at forging global connections if they posit an already united world in which the work of connection is unnecessary?” (7). Universals are “…knowledge that moves… across localities and cultures” (7) but movement cannot happen without what Tsing calls “…friction: the awkward, unequal, unstable, and creative qualities of interconnection across difference” (4). Universals cannot simply travel unimpeded anywhere they please, rather, it is through friction that universals gain “grip” and they become “charged and changed by their travels” (8). In other words “friction gives purchase to universals, allowing them to spread as frameworks for the practice of power” (10).

Techno-science also works within and amongst these global connections, and frictions. Edwards (2010), for example, refers specifically to the concept of computational friction or “the expenditures of energy and limited resources in the processing of numbers” (112), however, his concept mirrors that of Tsing’s in many ways. He describes the history of the field of meteorology and the processes by which it became a global science able to chart climatological effects around the world. In the early days, such a science simply wasn’t possible. Material frictions including computational power (“computers” at the time, were people whose job it was to process complex equations by hand), and data collection (a lack of devices for tracking atmospheric processes) were compounded by the social frictions between nation-states that impeded the sharing of data and other resources (the fear was that the information could be used for military purposes).

It was by working through these material and social frictions that meteorology became a global science with an international body of scholars, the IPCC, keeping it functioning. At the same time, these processes were bound up with the same globalizing aspirations of capitalism itself.

These global connections and the processes that maintain them feed back into our everyday lives and influence the kinds of entanglements in which we choose to engage through a process of subjectification. Robbins (2007) describes how people become subjectivised by turfgrass. Lawns, he argues, are not only aesthetically appealing surroundings for our houses, they draw us into a web of entanglements with turfgrass, weeds, other home owners, the chemical industry, the real estate industry, and other influences that in turn shape how we think of ourselves and the kinds of engagements that are possible.

“The lawn as sculpted, immaculate, atemporal, and emerald green monoculture … only developed as a product of the economic growth conditions in suburban real estate development, tied to proselytizing that connected the lawn with a certain kind of desirable urban citizen and economic subject” (129).

Lawn people are anxious, he claims, anxious about the condition of their lawn and others’ perceptions of it, but also anxious about the economics of maintaining it, and the ecological harm resulting from the chemicals they must apply in order to maintain the idyllic lawn. Lawns “hail” into existence certain kinds of human subjects with ecological causes and consequences.

This is why attempts at education so often fail to alter behavior. As subjects of these broader political ecologies – particularly those of us who have little political power – we are unable to simply choose one action over another because of the kinds of entanglements in which we are engaged. Crafting more sustainable and just political ecology will require more than simply the production of knowledge and the legislation of behavior. It will mean restructuring the entanglements that constitute the present political ecologies in which we are engaged through material  and social reconfigurations and the production of new subjectivities.

Watershed Ethnography

How does one do a watershed ethnography? I have already pointed out that there is a difference between an “ethnography of a watershed” and a “watershed ethnography.” Maybe the case is belabored, but I want to press the idea that ethnography – in light of the theories of entanglement and the consequent redefinition of the project of science – can no longer be conceived as an abstract set of methods that can be almost universally applied with some modest modifications. Ethnography must be situated within the political ecologies in which it operates, and that means that it becomes a different practice in each case.

In this sense, perhaps we need a conception of “tentacular” ethnography. But in this case, I refer not only to the entanglements that tentacles suggest, but also the extraordinary camouflaging capabilities of many cephalopods. Octopuses, in particular, are exemplary of this skill. Able to change not only their coloration, but also the texture of their skin to blend in with almost any surface. They accomplish this with the use of chromatophores – specialized skin cells that expand and contract to expose different colors and textures. However, these cells are not simply color changing cells, they are also sensory organs that operate through a distributed network throughout the octopus’s body. In other words, when the octopus changes its color and texture, it is not only attempting to match its surroundings, it is feeling the rocks, sand, plants, and shells around it. In other words, the octopus’s skin is its way of relating to the ecology that surrounds it.

Ethnography has always been this kind of sensing-camouflaging skin – ethnographers are chromatophores. The ethnographer’s skill is to immerse herself in the cultural ecology that she is attempting to understand. She must not only observe the activities and practices of the people, she must also participate, take part in those practices, and allow herself to be transformed by them. This was the original purpose of ethnography, and the reason for the trepidation among early ethnographers around the possibility of “going native.” Despite this, these early ethnographic practices were oriented around gaining some semblance of objective knowledge about the people rather than sensation as feeling and being.

In recent years, ethnographic methods have been reduced to simple data collection practices. Participant-observation and interviews allow the researcher to gather detailed and rich information about almost any topic, but what has been lost is a sense of immersion – of mimicry and camouflage as itself a process of sensation. Ethnography, in this sense, is not about entanglement with other modes of existence, but simply capturing what can be observed and documented in order to convey an abstracted understanding. The ethnographer – and the reader of the ethnography – are not transformed as a result of the encounter, and there is no risk of “going native.”

Tentacular ethnography is the way to bring ethnography into the anthropocene and confront the entangled problems we currently face. But this kind of ethnography must not be considered an abstract suite of methods that can be universally applied, instead as Kim Fortun (2012) argues, it must make itself “‘appropriate’ to the historical conditions in which we find ourselves” (459). She claims that:

“Ethnography also has a record and habit of shifting in concert with the times, responsive to both historical conditions and internal critique (of the sort Writing Culture offered). And these conditions can be discerned ethnographically” (Fortun 2012; 451)

I take this to mean not only that the practice of ethnography as a whole must change to meet global historical conditions, but must also – octopus-like – situate itself with respect the particular systems that ethnographers are attempting to resolve… Fortun, whose concern is the condition of late industrialism and the technological systems that pollute our atmosphere, land, and water, describes ethnography as itself a kind of technology – a “…means through which things are enabled” (450). In this sense, ethnography, like technologies, can be “designed” and “produces” various things.

In other cases, ethnographers have reconfigured their practice to align with other kinds of systems. I have already mentioned Anna Tsing’s work with matsutake harvesters, which takes on a patchy and “unruly” quality, and Laura Ogden for whom, “…the rhizome is not only a metaphor for thinking through the world’s relations, or in this case, theorizing the Everglades landscape, but also a model for producing landscape ethnography” (31, italics original). In both cases, the features of the system influence the character of the ethnographic process and define what features the ethnographer must be on the look out for. Participant observation and interviews continue to form the core of all of these ethnographic practices, but these processes “tolerate, indeed cultivate, open-endedness” (Fortun 2012; 451). Done well, they are, as Tsing would put it, “arts of noticing” – a way of feeling, but also of being that is attentive to the particular histories of the political ecologies in which we are engaged.

It is in this spirit that I propose the idea of watershed ethnography. A watershed is formed by flows. Water falls upon a landscape, percolates through the soil, condenses into drops and begins to pool. It flows over the land and gradually converges into increasingly larger creeks, streams, and rivers. Ultimately these cascade into a single confluence – a lake, estuary, wetland, or ocean. As I mentioned above, however, it is not only water that flows in a watershed, and it is the confluence of these disparate flows – the way they shape and reshape one another – that interests me.

In my research with the Chesapeake Bay watershed, I have followed the flows that constitute the political ecology of the landscape and sought out the sites of confluence. I was fortunate to begin my research with the modeling taking place at the Chesapeake Bay Program (CBP). It was wading in the waters of this enormous techno-scientific environmental management framework that I began to see flows converging. From there I had only to follow them up and downstream to see what other confluences emerged and how different flows tended to influence one another. I spent a lot of time at the CBP attending meetings because it was in these meetings where things tended to converge – although the streams themselves can be seen elsewhere. I conducted interviews to… I also jumped into the streams at various points where possible – learning to make simple computational models and requesting feedback on the models from my collaborators. In many ways, I tried my best to immerse myself in the various projects and processes taking place.

But the goal of tentacular ethnography, and watershed ethnography as a manifestation of it, is not only to learn and produce knowledge about the political ecologies in which we are entangled. The goal cannot be to become entangled one’s self – to simply and unreflexively “go with the flow.” The goal, as I mentioned earlier, must be to reconfigure the flows materially and subjectively in the hope of producing something more just, more sustainable. As Fortun describes:

“Our task now becomes creative. We must try, through the design of an experimental ethnographic system, to provoke new idioms, new ways of thinking, which grasp and attend to current realities. Not knowing in advance what theses idioms will look and sound like” (Fortun 2012; 453)

in order to encourage

“…particular subject effects—subjects able and willing—even wanting, desiring—to become party to new ways of thinking about and engaging a particular problem domain, a domain that we have analyzed ethnographically to understand the discursive gaps and risks that characterize it” (458-459).

In my research, I have seen the tensions – the currents and gyres – that emerge from the various material and subjective confluences that constitute the watershed. My hope is that this ethnography serves as an “experimental system” in the way Fortun describes – that it reveals and even brings into existence new “frictions” that we must work through collectively. I hope that by channeling, redirecting, and potentially damming some of these flows, we might reconfigure the watershed system to produce new subjectivities and new political relationships in order to produce a more just and sustainable watershed political ecology.

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