Tag Archives: engagement

Three angles from which to view the practice of researchers III

Three angles from which to view a researchers’ practice (A, B, C) and three kinds of formulation of each angle (1, 2, 3), which define the nine combinations (A1-C3) discussed in the last chapter of my book, Unruly Complexity: Ecology, Interpretation, Engagement (U. Chicago Press, 2005) and introduced in two previous posts.

The practice of researchers can be viewed from different angles, which highlight the researchers’…


resulting formulations involve…


A. dialogue with the situation studied


B. social interactions to establish what counts as knowledge

C. efforts to pursue social change in which they address self-consciously the complexities of their own situatedness as well as of the situation studied

1. simple, well-bounded systems






2. simple themes that point to greater complexity and further work needed in particular cases 








3. work based on dynamics that develop over time among particular, unequal agents whose actions implicate or span a range of social domains  






Intersecting processes, illustrated and analyzed III

The synopsis of a case of soil erosion in Oaxaca (presented in the post before last) has, in addition to the themes of the previous post, a number of implications for thinking about the agency of the people studied and, reflexively, of researchers reconstructing intersecting processes:

6. The account represents agency as distributed across different kinds of agents and scale, not something centered in one class or place (Thompson 2002). In the nineteenth-century moral economy caciques exploited peasants, but in a relationship of reciprocal norms and obligations. Moreover, the local moral economy was not autonomous—the national political economy was implicated, by its exclusion, in the actions of the caciques that maintained labor-intensive and self-sufficient production. Although the Mexican revolution initiated the breakdown in the moral economy, the ensuing process involved not just political and economic change from above, but also from below and between—semi-proletarian peasants brought their money back to the rural community and reshaped its transactions, institutions, and social psychology.

7. The account has an intermediate complexity—neither highly reduced, nor overwhelmingly detailed. The elements included in my synopsis and in the diagram are heterogeneous, but I tease out different strands. The strands, however, are cross-linked; they are not torn apart. By acknowledging this intermediate level of complexity, the account steps away from debates centered on simple oppositions, e.g., ecology-geomorphology vs. economy-society, or ecological rationality vs. economic rationality. Similarly, by placing explanatory focus on the ongoing, intersecting processes, the account discounts the grand discontinuities and transitions that are often invoked, e.g., peasant to capitalist agriculture, or feudalism to industrialism to Fordism to flexible specialization.

8. Intermediate complexity accounts favor the idea of multiple, smaller engagements linked together within the intersecting processes. My synopsis and diagram of the García-Barrioses’ more detailed account can be read as an engagement with current scholarly discourses in an effort to promote the concept of distributed agency. This concept has implications not only for how environmental degradation is conceptualized, but also for how one responds to it in practice. Intersecting processes accounts do not support government or social movement policies based on simple themes, such as economic modernization by market liberalization, sustainable development through promotion of traditional agricultural practices, or mass mobilization to overthrow capitalism.

9. This shift in how policy is conceived suggests a corresponding shift in scholarly practice. On the level of research organization, intersecting processes accounts highlight the need for trans-disciplinary work grounded in particular locations. They do not underwrite the customary multi-disciplinary projects directed by natural scientists, nor the economic analyses based on the kinds of statistical data available in published censuses.

10. Finally, the intermediate complexity of the Figure preserves a role for some kind of social scientific generalization. The synopsis and diagram abstract away an enormous amount of detail, a move that suggests that the particular case described by the García-Barrioses might be relevant to other cases. The account does not provide a general explanatory schema, but at least could serve as a template to guide further studies. Such a template would be elaborated in new research projects once researchers began to address the particularities of the situation they are studying. In other words, the particularities of each case would not warrant starting from scratch when attempting to understand and engage in socio-environmental change. The intermediate complexity of my account also means—and here I am applying some reflexivity to my own representational work—that I have deflected attention away from the need to examine the particular institutional and personal resources, agendas, and alliances that people like me would have to cultivate to gain support for the desired trans-disciplinary research or policy interventions.

Thompson, C. (2002). “When elephants stand for competing philosophies of nature: Amboseli National Park, Kenya,” in J. Law and A. Mol (Eds.), Complexities: Social Studies of Knowledge Practices. Durham: Duke University Press, 166-190.