Agency, structuredness, and the production of knowledge within intersecting processes

Knowing Nature: Conversations at the Intersection of Political Ecology and Science Studies is a new anthology published by the University of Chicago Press.  My contribution, “Agency, structuredness, and the production of knowledge within intersecting processes,” begins as follows:

The label “political ecology” has been used in many ways, but this volume is primarily aligned with inquiries into environmental degradation that first became active during the 1990s in which the complexity of social and environmental dynamics are analyzed in terms of intersecting and conflicting economic, social, and ecological processes operating at different scales.  These intersecting processes range from the local institutions of production and their associated agro-ecologies, the social differentiation in a given community and its social psychology of reciprocal expectations, through to national and international political economic changes.  Common features of political ecology’s rich descriptions are that they: connect local struggles and changes around land, labor, and other resources to disputes over roles and responsibilities; draw upon the historical background of the current processes; highlight the dynamics related to inequality; and attend to critical developments in the larger political economies (Watts and Peet 1993; Taylor and García-Barrios 1995; Taylor 2005, 159ff).

During the 1970s the sociology of scientific knowledge (SSK), a field now subsumed in science and technology studies (STS), introduced an angle of inquiry that remains common in STS: what does it mean in actual practice for people to establish and modify scientific knowledge?  (This practice-oriented epistemology was SSK’s antidote to the emphasis in philosophy of science on ideals about how scientists ought to proceed in justifying or refuting knowledge.)  Since the late 1980s the STS literature includes many rich descriptions of the diversity of things scientists do and the resources they use in the production of scientific knowledge: scientists employ or “mobilize” equipment, experimental protocols, citations, the support of colleagues, the reputations of laboratories, metaphors, rhetorical devices, publicity, funding, and so on (Latour 1987; Law 1987; Clarke and Fujimura 1992, 4-5).  Such heterogeneous construction, as I call it (Taylor 2005, 102ff; alternatively heterogeneous engineering, Law 1987, or assembling the collective, Latour 2004, 16) lies at the center of actor network theory (Science Studies Centre 2004).

It has become popular in actor network theory to describe human, other living beings, and non-living things alike as actors or actants.  The move to ascribe agency to non-humans may seem attractive to researchers wanting to give more acknowledgement to the ecological dimensions of political ecological dynamics.  After all, these dimensions tend to have been eclipsed by the political economic emphasis in political ecology.  In this chapter, however, I resist this move and pull in a different direction.  More insight and more interesting questions follow, I suggest, from exploring parallels between the frameworks of intersecting processes and heterogeneous construction without ascribing agency to non-humans.

The critical interpretation of early actor network theory in the first section and the parallels explored in the other two sections reflect the direction I have pursued since the late 1980s as a teacher and writer interested in both STS and political ecology (Taylor 2005)…

Clarke, Adele, and Joan Fujimura. 1992. What tools? Which jobs? Why right? In The Right Tools for the Job:  At Work in Twentieth-century Life Sciences, edited by A. Clarke and J. Fujimura, 3-44. Princeton: Princeton University Press.
Latour, Bruno. 1987. Science in Action:  How to Follow Scientists and Engineers through Society. Milton Keynes: Open University Press.

Latour, Bruno. 2004. Politics of Nature: How To Bring the Sciences into Democracy. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Law, John. 1987. Technology and heterogeneous engineering: The case of Portugese expansion. In The Social Construction of Technological Systems: New Directions in the Sociology and History of Technology, edited by W. E. Bijker, T. P. Hughes and T. J. Pinch, 111-134.  Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

Science Studies Centre. 2004. Actor Network Resource: An Annotated Bibliography (viewed 8 August ’09).

Taylor, Peter J. 2005. Unruly Complexity: Ecology, Interpretation, Engagement. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Taylor, Peter J., and Raúl García-Barrios. 1995. The social analysis of ecological change: From systems to intersecting processes. Social Science Information 34 (1):5-30.

Watts, Michael, and Richard Peet. 1993. Environment and Development, Special double issue. Economic Geography 69 (3-4):227-448 (republished with some changes as Peet, Richard, and Michael Watts, eds. 1996. Liberation Ecologies: Environment, Development, Social Movements. London: Routledge).


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