Political ecology—intersecting processes and intermediate complexity

(Continuing a 1998 draft paper on Political ecology–a fertile site for development of social theory)

Broad heuristics–intersecting processes and intermediate complexity

Even in the reduced form of the synopsis of the previous post, Schroeder’s account of gendered conflict in The Gambia exemplifies political ecology.  Ecological degradation or restoration at a local level is richly described, in a way that connects many features—historical background and processes, dynamics of inequality, local struggles and changes related to land, labor, and other resources and to disputed roles and responsibilities, interventions from national and international agencies, and critical developments in larger political economies.

We see three broad heuristics as characterizing the dominant features of political ecology as a theory of complexity and distinguishing it with other approaches.  The first two we describe in this section; the third is the subject of a later post.

1.  Intersecting processes (IPs).  In accounts such as that in the previous section, we can discern processes that operate at different spatial and temporal scales, involving elements as diverse as the local climate, gender norms, work relations, and policies of international development agencies, and we can speak of regularities of varying degrees of generality and abstraction.  Moreover, the processes and regularities are interlinked in the production of any outcome and in their own on-going transformation.  This interlinkage means that IPs span spatial and temporal scales; political ecological analyses may be locally-centered, but they are also trans-local.

In Kerewan, an ecological strand of the agro-ecology involves seasonal timing of weather and growth, upland-lowland differences in soil and water availability, varieties of crops and trees, and canopy relations.  These are clearly bound up with the local relations of production, the social strand of the agro-ecology.  These relations include the control of labor and income within households, which is tied up with the control and allocation of land, labor, and other resources within the village.  The local agro-ecology and socio-economic relations within the households and among households within the community are, in turn, conditioned by the economic opportunities and terms of trade, the policies and practices of government organizations, including the police and the judiciary, and the projects initiated by development organizations and donors.  Moreover, these trans-local strands are themselves mutually interacting.  Most importantly, changes in all these processes influence each other.

An IPs perspective matches the conclusion of anthropologist Eric Wolf that regularities and any apparent stability are contingent outcomes to be explained–not starting points for social scientific theory.  In commenting on anthropology’s use of the concepts of culture and society, Wolf noted that:

Societies emerge as changing alignments of social groups, segments, and classes, without either fixed boundaries or stable internal constitutions…  Therefore, instead of assuming transgenerational continuity, institutional stability, and normative consensus, we must treat these as problematic.  We need to understand such characteristics historically, to note the conditions for their emergence, maintenance and abrogation (Wolf 1982, p. 387).

Within the frame of IPs, political ecology emphasizes:

• differentiation among unequal agents, without which qualitatively different (and incorrect) accounts would be produced (Watts 1983, 1984, Taylor and García Barrios 1997).  It would be misleading, for example, to account for the rise of agroforestry in terms of the eventual discovery of the most economically productive trees, e.g., mangoes and other woody trees;

• historically contingent process.  Although the different work roles and influence of men and women have a long history, the improved economic status of women with the market gardens and their resubordination with the new tree plantings reveals the contingency that is characteristic of history.  The significance of such contingency rests not on the events, say, around the male landowner attempting to reassert his control itself, but on the different processes, each having a history, with which the ressertion intersected.

2.  Intermediate complexity.  Although the elements included in the synopsis are multiple and heterogeneous, it is possible to tease out a limited number of strands—the agro-ecology, within-, and among- household socio-economic relations, and inter/national economic development interventions.  The strands, however, are cross-linked; they are not torn apart.  In this sense, the account has an intermediate complexity—neither highly reduced, nor overwhelmingly detailed.  In general, political ecology does not promote the theoretical simplification characterizing many alternative frameworks.  By highlighting the cross-linkages among strands, the IPs formulation makes clear that no one strand, no single category on its own could be sufficient.  This contrasts with competing explanations that center on a single “dynamic,” e.g., emancipation of women, population growth as motor of change, modernization of production methods, or peasant marginalization in a dual economy.  Political ecology also steps away from debates centered around big oppositions (e.g., ecology-climate-soils vs. economy-society, or ecological vs. economic rationality of women).  Similarly, political ecology discounts any grand discontinuities and transitions (e.g., peasant agriculture to capitalist commodification), and, instead, places explanatory focus on on-going processes.[1]

In all these ways political ecology theory eschews “systems” in the sense of entities that have clearly defined boundaries and are governed by coherent internal dynamics.  Unlike systems, IPs do not require that the internal and external can be separated, or that the external influences, such as the resources provided by development organizations, are simply mediated into the system (Taylor 1992).  Indeed IPs tend towards another pole that we label “unruly complexity” (Taylor and García-Barrios 1995), in which boundaries and categories are problematic, levels and scales are not clearly separable, structures are subject to restructuring, and control or generalization is difficult.  (See Table A for a summary of contrasts among system-like, intersecting processes, and unruly complexity perspectives on complexity).

We say only “tend towards” because a great amount of detail has been omitted or abstracted away—we have “disciplined” the unruliness of socio-environmental complexity.  For example, our synopsis did not include the increased exploitation of younger women by the senior women controlling garden plots and market sales, alliances or disunities among the landholding lineages and village men more generally, the history of development schemes in the Gambia river basin that have failed to achieve their goals of intensifying rice production and reducing food imports, conflicts over policies within development organizations and the donor bodies, and so on.  There is no a priori reason for the exclusion of such details; they are certainly consistent with giving attention to differentiated agents, historically contingent process, and processes that span scales.  Their exclusion is a methodological choice, taken with a view to delineating a manageable number—an intermediate complexity—of intersecting processes.


Table  A–Contrasts among perspectives and approaches to social-environmental situations

System-like Intersecting Processes Unruly Complexity
System structure & rules fixed Structures (or structuredness) subject to restructuring*
Clearly defined boundaries Separate strands, but intersection with other IPs highlighted Problematic boundaries & separateness of strands
Coherent internal dynamics;External forces are simply mediated “External” contributes to “internal” restructuring
Natural reduction possible Categories heterogeneous
System decomposable into sub-systems or levels Processes span temporal & spatial scales
Individuals uniform or aggregated Individuals stratified & differentiating
History = tradition is a source of long-term parameter values Historical contingency; history is a source of conditions (incl. memories) which condition future changes
One generic system, or cases of a common type; generalizations are made Local particularity, but one account may serve as an initial guide for other situations Idiosyncracy;Generalization is difficult
Focus on integration, stability & adaptation to external conditions Focus on sources of change & restructuring; Persistent structure is a special case to be explained
Dominant forces or factors;Essential trajectories from which deviations occur Heterogeneity of resources, distributed across diverse social agents
External observer position;policy can be formulated; control is conceivable Ambiguity about status as analyst & engaged participant No privileged standpoint; the boundary between scientist and engaged participant can hardly be maintained

* When description spans both columns, the distinction between intersecting processes and unruly complexity is a matter of degree.


Taylor, P. J. (1992). “Re/constructing socio-ecologies:  System dynamics modeling of nomadic pastoralists in sub-Saharan Africa,” in A. Clarke and J. Fujimura (Eds.), The Right Tools for the Job:  At work in twentieth-century life sciences.  Princeton: Princeton University Press, 115-148.

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

Taylor, P. J. and R. García-Barrios (1997). “The dynamics and rhetorics of socio-environmental change: Critical perspectives on the limits of neo-Malthusian environmentalism,” in L. Freese (Ed.), Advances in Human Ecology.  Greenwich, CT: JAI. Vol.6, 257-292.

Watts, M. (1983). “On the poverty of theory:  Natural hazards research in context,” in K. Hewitt (Ed.), Interpretations of Calamity from the viewpoint of human ecology.  Boston: Allen & Unwin, Inc., 231-262.

Watts, M. J. (1984). “The demise of the moral economy: food & famine,” in E. Scott (Ed.), Life Before the Drought.  Boston, MA: Allen & Irwin, 124-148.

Wolf, E. (1982). Europe and the People Without History. Berkeley: University of California Press.

[1]  Discontinuities and transitions often rely on the sense of process that we want to avoid; see note on earlier post.


2 thoughts on “Political ecology—intersecting processes and intermediate complexity

  1. Pingback: Political ecology–the case of Gambia agroforestry « Intersecting Processes

  2. Pingback: Political ecology—Further complexities and a schema to address them « Intersecting Processes

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