Tag Archives: political ecology

Political ecology as a fertile site for social theorizing

During the 1990s political ecology became an active field of inquiry into environmental degradation and, sometimes, environmental restoration. Political ecology also had the potential to contribute to the process of social theorizing, which stemmed from the implications of what this paper calls “intersecting processes.” This term signifies that political ecological analyses attempt to make sense of dynamics produced by intersecting economic, social and ecological processes operating at different scales.

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Political ecology—open questions

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

Open questions

….tensions we have identified among political ecological accounts (see earlier post), or even within any one account, such as Schroeder’s.  If an account emphasizes one pole of the following tensions, consider what would be required to attend to the other pole or to both poles together:[1]

i) description of the various events vs. explanation of what caused what;

ii) explanations made in term of theoretical “necessities,” informed, e.g., by political economy vs. ad hoc set of explanatory factors as given by the particular observations

iii) ethnographic engagement with subjects vs. study as comprehensive overview

iv) activist engagement vs. social scientific analysis/ stance

v) conflict over material conditions of production vs. discursive/ linguistic constructions (categories, labels, self-descriptions)

vi) focus on local situation vs. national or transnational conditions and changes

vii) action constrained by social structure vs. rationality and initiative of specific agents


[1]  A larger set of tensions within political ecology was compiled at a workshop on political ecology held at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, May 1996.

Political ecology—Distributed social agency

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

Distributed social agency

We are now in a position to discuss “distributed social agency,” the third broad heuristic that characterizes political ecology as a theory of complexity and distinguishes it with other approaches.  This has implications for the expanded project introduced in the previous section.  The social agency implied in the account of Schroeder was distributed, not centered in one class or place…

The intersecting processes characteristic of political ecology 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 agro-forestry practices, or mass mobilization to overthrow capitalism.  They privilege multiple, smaller interventions linked together within the intersecting processes.

This shift in how policy is conceived requires a corresponding shift in scholarly practice.  On the level of research organization, intersecting processes accounts highlight the need, in brief, for transdisciplinary work grounded in particular sites.  They do not underwrite the customary, so-called interdisciplinary projects directed by natural scientists, nor the economic analyses based on the kinds of statistical data available in published censuses.  On the level of scholarly exposition, because we wanted to present Schroeder’s account as one that others can digest and adapt to their own situations, we abstracted away considerable detail.  An even simpler account might have been easier to remember, but we did not want readers to lose sight of how political ecological analyses are best taken up.  Each analysis, such as the one of Schroeder, should be viewed, not as a general explanatory schema, but as a guide for further studies.  Researchers entering the field might first follow this guide, but then depart from it as they faced the particularities of their research sites…

These tensions became less debilitating when we accept that each additional strand of complexity has increased the range of relevant social agents, the diversity of resources they mobilize, and the possible points of engagement and reconstruction.  Our task need no longer be to resolve the tensions and present a comprehensive argument covering the complexity of the expanded project.  Instead, we aim to evoke an on-going process of opening up questions and opening out to greater complexity.  Moreover to do so in a way that invites others to keep tensions like those of the schema active and productive as they reconstruct the complex social and environmental situations with which they are involved.

(the paper needs to discuss workshops as a setting for this; see, e.g., mapping & social-theorizing)

(continued)

Political ecology—Further complexities and a schema to address them

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

Further complexities and a schema to address them

Methodological choices are decisions made by analysts; the choices may be conditioned, but are never dictated by the nature of the situation studied.  Political ecological accounts ought, therefore, be considered not only in relation to the social-environmental situation they are representing, but also in relation to the wider influences shaping those methodological choices.  (This broad heuristic is informed by social studies of science; Hess 1997).  A direct sense of influence is involved in interests explanations, in which someone interpreting an analysis shows in whose interests it is to address problems, say, without attending to differentiation among unequal agents.

A more complex sense of influence—one that parallels the multiplicity and heterogeneity of elements in political ecological accounts—is the goal of “heterogeneous constructionism” (Taylor 1995).  This approach to interpreting the course of science seeks to expose the diverse practical, as well as conceptual, resources and interactions through which these researchers shape their work.  For example, Taylor (1992) analyzed research undertaken at MIT in the mid-1970s concerning the future of nomadic livestock herding in sub-Saharan Africa.  The computer models produced were shaped by the main modeler employing a range of resources, which included: the available computer compiler; published data; the short length of time both in the field and for the project as a whole; the work relations within the MIT team; the relationship of the United States and USAID to other international involvement in the region; the terms of reference set by USAID and the agency’s contradictory expectations of the project.[1]

Heterogeneous constructionism has a number of implications for thinking about political ecology: 1) An expanded sense of methodology is involved.  The choices are made not only in relation to representing the situation faithfully—the conventional goal attributed to research—but also in relation to the agency of the analysts.  The choices concern the influence they are having, or intending to have, in the intersecting social arenas in which they work, from the situation studied to the analysts’ scholarly communities.  Methodological choices are practical as well as theoretical matters. (Taylor 1992, 1995, 1998).

2) In contrast to the broad heuristics identified in this essay, in any particular study the researchers make much more specific decisions about funding sources, audience, research location, length of time in the field, informants, available and reliable sources of data, equipment, daily program of measurements, interviews, observations, and so on.  To identify the specific heuristics used, detailed empirical research observing and interviewing the analysts would be necessary.

3)  Heterogeneous construction adds considerable complexity to the project of political ecology.  Representing or theorizing the complexity of social-environmental situations is connected to negotiating the complexity of the social situations that enable different researchers to do their research.  And such complexity only increases when researchers promote change in either or both of these situations.  Let us, therefore, introduce our proposed schema for negotiating the interconnected complexities.

We contrast simple formulations with accounts that attend to the dynamic relations among unequal agents in particular situations.  As scholars we are drawn to more complex analyses, but, when it comes to social change—and here we include change even as small as influencing students and colleagues—we have to recognize that simpler themes are easier to communicate and appear to have more effect on political mobilization.  To address this tension we a) insert a position of intermediate complexity consisting of a larger, but potentially manageable number of characterizable processes; and b) apply heuristics that disturb simple analyses, open up questions, and point to the need for further work to address the complexities of particular cases.

For political ecological accounts of social-environmental situations, the simple formulations correspond to system-like conceptions, in which boundaries are clearly defined, and coherent dynamics or causal relations produce generalizable trajectories or phenomena.  The broad heuristics of the previous post point us to intermediate complexity, intersecting processes accounts.  Such accounts share, however, many features with unruly complexity and thus remind us of the need for further work to address the complexities of particular cases.

Another simple formulation is the scientific convention that foregrounds research into some situation while backgrounding inquiry into the situation of the researcher.  This foregrounding/backgrounding is disturbed by the broad heuristic that, because methodological choices are decisions made by analysts in social settings, scientific accounts need to be considered in relation to both the situation researched and the social situation of the researcher.[2]  The positions of intermediate and unruly complexity remain to be specified.

For analyzing the complexity of the social situations that enable different researchers to do their research, the simple formulation would be that scientific analyses reflect some mixture of the reality studied and the influences of society on the researchers.  This is disturbed by trying to expose the diverse practical, as well as conceptual, resources and interactions through which researchers shape their work.  The categories “reality” and/or “society” are too big to be useful when we consider what it means practically to conduct science.  The resulting heterogeneous constructionist accounts tend to produce idiosyncratic accounts, leaving the position of intermediate complexity to be specified.

Finally, another simple formulation is to foreground research into either (or both) the social-environmental situations and the situation of the researchers, while background efforts that change them.  The disturbing heuristics and the positions of intermediate and unruly complexity remain to be specified.

(continued)

References

Hess, D. J. (1997). Science Studies: An Advanced Introduction. New York: New York University Press.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. (1995). “Building on construction: An exploration of heterogeneous constructionism, using an analogy from psychology and a sketch from socio-economic modeling.” Perspectives on Science 3(1): 66-98.

Taylor, P. J. (1997). “How do we know we have global environmental problems?  Undifferentiated science-politics and its potential reconstruction,” in P. J. Taylor, S. E. Halfon and P. E. Edwards (Eds.), Changing Life: Genomes-Ecologies-Bodies-Commodities.  Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.

Taylor, P. J. (1998). “Mapping the complexity of social-natural processes: Cases from Mexico and Africa,” in F. Fischer and M. Hajer (Eds.), Living with Nature: Environmental Discourse as Cultural Critique.  Oxford: Oxford University Press.


[1]  An emphasis on what it means practically for agents to modify science makes it appropriate to use the term construction.  The adjective heterogeneous, however, establishes some distance from standard views about social construction, which tend to imply that scientists’ accounts reflect or are determined by their social views.  The aim is to evoke the connotations construction has of a process of agents building by combining a diversity or heterogeneity of components or resources, as in people building a house or a nation rebuilding its economy after a war.  Although some of these resources will be real, material and perhaps unmodifiable aspects of the world, heterogeneous constructionism is not a realist philosophy of science.  The difficulty of modifying science always depends on how such ‘natural’ resources are linked by people in the making of science to other resources, including ‘social’ ones.  For this reason, heterogeneous constructionism is not philosophical relativism either (Taylor 1995).

[2]  Another broad heuristic with the same effect is to notice correlations between different analyses and different conceptions of what social action favored by the analyst (Taylor 1997).

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.

(continued)

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.

References

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.

Political ecology–the case of Gambia agroforestry

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

In order to make our terms for thinking about political ecology concrete and ground our subsequent discussion of intersecting processes and heuristics, we present in this section a synopsis of geographer Richard Schroeder‘s research in The Gambia (Schroeder 1993, 1995, 1997a).  Taking gendered conflict as his entry point and focus, Schroeder’s work analyzes the changing social relations and agro-ecology brought on by market garden, tree-planting, and land reclamation schemes initiated by international development organizations.

For a number of decades agricultural production in the village of Kerewan on the North Bank area of The Gambia River had been divided into two parts: In the uplands, men grew rainfed groundnuts (peanuts) and coarse grains; in the lowland swamps women grew rice.  In addition, on in-between land starting in the 1970s some women tended hand-watered vegetable gardens.  Senior men controlled allocation of the upland areas and some swampland, which was inherited patrilineally as “lands of the beard.”  Women obtained their garden plots from the senior men.  The rest of the swampland was controlled by senior women and inherited matrilineally as “lands of the belly.”  Men controlled the cash income from the end-of-the-year, government supervised sale of groundnuts, and were responsible for the purchase of clothes, especially for ceremonial occasions, and of food for the family during the hungry, mid-year rainy season.  The other crops were for subsistence needs, or, in the case of garden production, for local village consumption.  In short, gendered division of labor corresponded to a division by crop, space, season, and value of return.

After 1970 the frequency of dry years increased markedly.  One response was the adoption of shorter duration rice varieties, which had the effect of freeing up some female labor.  At the same time, international development organizations sponsored “Women in Development” (WID) projects promoting women’s production of garden vegetables for market.  Concrete wells were built; material for fencing, tools, and seeds were provided.  Initial efforts resulted in a glut of onions, but, with a diversification of crops and the opening up of markets along the border with Senegal, the area devoted to gardens increased dramatically through the 1980s and into the 1990s.  Whenever a new development project was proposed, local groups of growers lobbied actively for resources.  The resulting plans were an outcome of negotiation among representatives from these groups, from the civil service, and from the development organizations.

While women’s income increased, men’s declined.  A glut on the international vegetable oil market led to much lower groundnut prices after 1980.  A national Economic Recovery Program, following IMF and World Bank mandates to reduce State subsidies, led to significant price rises for rice and fertilizer purchases.  Men were increasingly unable to fulfill their financial obligations; the pressure on women to generate cash pushed the expansion of vegetable production, both in area and in seasonal mix of crops.  Initially men tended to resent the time taken by women’s garden work, especially during the previously relaxed dry season.  By the end of the 1980s, however, the benefit was fully acknowledged–in approximately 50% of households income from gardens exceeded income from groundnuts–and men had adopted a variety of tactics to capture some of the women’s earnings.  They might provide labor for garden projects, be sweet to the women, secure unrepaid “loans,” or steal from their wives.  Women, in turn, invented ways of resisting these moves and exerted their new power, which included some buying themselves out of bad marriages.  These conflicting tactics were conditioned by the seasonal characteristics of labor and income, with male income arriving mostly around the end of the year, while garden income was more spread out.

Senior male landholders were paid a levy by the women to whom they allocated land for garden plots.  Gardens, however, were women’s space.  Leaders of the women’s groups planned and supervised activities in the gardens.  Moreover, garden plots began to be transfered, especially from mother to daughter, without the permission of or a levy payment to the landowner.  The productive use of the land for cash-earning market gardens not only conferred prestige to women, but permanence of cultivation threatened to erode the landholding claims of the senior men.  WID projects continued into the 1990s–at the national level, the Gambian president secured World Bank funds for a five-year $15m WID program in 1991.  Other development initiatives, however, involving the planting of trees in the name of environmental stabilization, have contributed to a partial reversal of the gains made by women during the 1980s.

Tree cover in the Gambian River Basin drastically declined after the middle of the century.  In the late 1970s government conservation and forestry legislation led to the creation of a national Forestry Department, a forestry extension system through school teachers and the Agriculture Department, an annual tree-planting campaign, and a ban on charcoal production.  International development agencies supported reforestation, but also began to emphasize the creation of commercial incentives to achieve environmental objectives.  Starting in 1979, the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) sponsored the planting of woodlots around villages.  These woodlots failed because the returns were too slow and the rights to benefits from woodlot labor were not clear.  For the species traditionally grown, the trees belonged to the planter, but benefits would be dispersed more widely depending on the species.  Villagers could not, however, be sure of the situation for the exotic species introduced in the woodlots.  One woodlot owner attributed the difficulty in recruiting labor to the villagers “lacking foresight.”  In short, the developers had incorrectly assumed that villages were cohesive units.

In the meantime, women had begun planting and tending fruit trees, such as papaya, banana, orange, and mango, on their garden plots.  The returns came more quickly than from woodlots, and women could spread out their income stream over the seasonal cycle.  As the trees grew to shade the gardens, and as terms of trade shifted in favor of vegetable products over tree fruit, women trimmed the branches or even chopped the trees down.  In addition, village tree tenure custom meant that women were able to use treeplanting as a means of extending their rights over male land.

The reversal of this shift in control of trees and gardens began in the middle of the 1980s after a crisis which began when a certain male landowner attempted to reassert his control over the garden land and the resources provided through development projects.  The ensuing protest by women led to police intervention, a court case, and the involvement of the national judiciary and political parties.  As a result of the court case, the focus of dispute shifted to the trees.  Sites for new garden plots came to be granted under explicit conditions, stipulating that the gardener watered the landholder’s trees and abandoned the garden when the trees matured.  Landholders had found an indirect way to recover their eroded control of garden land and command women’s labor to tend the trees.  Woody trees, such as mango, came to be favored over the less shady papaya and banana.  The advantage of trees in garden plots had shifted back to men, and the traditional rights to benefits from the trees began to give way to a new privatization.

From the start of this reversal the Forestry department assisted the male landowners in planting trees.  Moreover, whereas the crisis of the mid 1980s was fueled by the development agencies refusing to sign over control of resources to the landowners, by the end of the decade those agencies participated fully in instituting the new arrangements that tipped the balance back in favor of men.  This change flowed from a shift in emphasis by development organizations and their donors to environmental stabilization, a shift that has become very pronounced during the 1990s.  The World Bank, for example, has mandated National Environmental Action Plans; The Gambia instituted its NEAP in 1992.  At the same time, given the 1990s emphasis on central administrations as constraints on economic growth and democracy, national plans have been complemented by community-based Natural Resource Management (NRM) plans, to which, for example, USAID funded a $22.5m project.  In this context, trees in garden plots have been showcased as if they demonstrate a widespread commitment to reforestation.

To bring this narrative up to the mid-1990s, reclamation of salt-affected swamp lands has become another focus of NRM projects in the Kerewan area.  Although the benefits of this reclamation in increased rice harvests are clear to all, the longer duration rice varieties used also lead to a demand for women’s labor at the same time that gardens need to be prepared and planted.  A religious leader appealed to the obligation to work for the community’s benefit (in securing food) before women’s individual profit (from gardens).  Women, in turn, disputed whether the rice harvest required the special skills that warranted other rice operations being deemed women’s work.  Given that households still depend on the cash from gardens, the situation remains in flux.  It is clear, however, that environmental stabilization is being pursued on the assumption that women’s labor can be captured.

(continued)

References

Schroeder, R. A. (1993). “Shady practice: Gender and the political ecology of resource stabilization in Gambian garden/ orchards.” Economic Geography 69(4): 349-365.

Schroeder, R. A. (1995). “Contradictions along the commodity road to environmental stabilization: Foresting Gambian gardens.” Antipode 27(4): 325-342.

Schroeder, R. A. (1997a). “’Re-claiming’ land in The Gambia: Gendered property rights and environmental intervention.” Annals of the Association of American Geographers.

Political ecology–a fertile site for development of social theory

(an unfinished paper from 1998, drafted with Derek Hall)

The term political ecology has been used in a variety ways, from Cockburn (1979), Gorz (1980), and Escobar (1996) arguing that environmental struggles are also struggles over the political, economic, and discursive orders of late twentieth century capitalism, to Somma (1993) proposing that political structures can be analyzed in the terms of ecological theory (see reviews by Bryant 1992, Hayward 1995, Peet and Watts 1996).  In this essay we consider a particular political ecology that emerged during the 1980s.  On one hand this variant follows human ecology in allowing for dynamic interactions between people, organisms, and their environment.  At the same time, it follows political economy by including social inequality as a key source of crisis, whether disease, drought, or other “natural” causes are the nominal form of the crisis.

This combination of locally-centered human ecology and political-economic relations that extend beyond the local site was well illustrated in Michael Watts’ early analysis of the vulnerability to drought of poor Hausa farmers in Northern Nigeria (Watts 1983, 1984).  Their vulnerability had increased decisively in the twentieth century when the British colonists undermined the previous Islamic “moral economy” through their policies of inflexible taxation, encouragement of export crops, monetarization of the economy, and with the economic differentiation that then resulted.  In the period of his own field work in the 1970s, Watts observed that the responses to a dry season extending into a drought were graduated, but decreasingly reversible–borrowing grain, buying grain, selling labor, selling livestock, selling assets, etc.–and were employed first by the poor, often to the benefit of the rich fueling further differentiation.  “Natural hazards” were thus mediated through the unequal social relations of production, which cannot be understood without examining the historical background.  Watts criticized as unhelpful ideas characteristic of systems approaches in human ecology, such as adapatation (or maladaptation), and evolutionary replacement of traditional by modern agricultural systems.

Locally-centered, trans-local political ecology (hereafter, simply political ecology) has been advanced, in particular, by efforts to integrate economic and ecological dynamics at agricultural/forest frontiers in Latin America.  Collins (1986) and Hecht (1985) showed how the structural conditions of indebtedness and access to credit induce further social differentiation and short-term income production at the expense of long-term ecological sustainability.  Hecht emphasized the way the Brazilian military government responded to international and national pressures in forming its national policies that favoured cattle industry in the Amazon.  Collins, an anthropologist working at a more micro level, identified the role of seasonal labor shortages in producing poor management and subsequent land degradation.  García-Barrios et al. (1990) identified effective labor shortages as a cause also of soil erosion in Mexico.  The labor shortages, brought about by migration to industrial areas and semi-proletarianization of the rural population, built upon and added to the undermining of traditional political authority after the Mexican revolution, and resulted in the breakdown of the collective institutions that had maintained terraces and reduced soil erosion in mountainous agricultural areas.  Contrary to the neo-Malthusian view of the direct relation between population and resources, effective population reduction, when associated with the loss of ability to sustain or regenerate social organization, could be a significant cause of environmental degradation (Taylor and García-Barrios 1997).

During the 1990s political ecology has become an active field of inquiry into environmental degradation and, sometimes, environmental restoration.  Its characteristics as social theory have not, however, been well articulated (but see Peet and Watts 1996).  The contribution we believe political ecology can make to social theory–or, more precisely, to the process of social theorizing—stems from two key features–”intersecting processes” and “heuristics.”  The first term signifies that political ecological analyses attempt to make sense of dynamics produced by intersecting economic, social and ecological processes operating at different scales (Taylor and García-Barrios 1995).  Environmental conditions may be grounded in the local climate, geo-morphology, and topography of a community’s landscape, but the local institutions of production and their associated agro-ecologies are also implicated.  These are bound up with differentiation in any community, the social psychology of norms and reciprocal expectations, and disputes over roles and responsibilities.  Local changes and conflict are, in turn, implicated in changes in national political economies and international debt relations.

This essay explores some implications of an intersecting processes picture for theorizing the complexity of social-environmental situations.[1]   Not surprisingly given the complexity of intersecting processes, political ecology has generated its own variants of the on-going debates in the social sciences about how to overcome the macro-micro and structure-agent splits, to span multiple levels of analysis, and to balance generality and particularity (Knorr-Cetina and Cicourel 1981, Sewell 1992, Blaikie 1985).  By sketching one such debate, between Watts and Piers Blaikie, two central figures in political ecology, the significance of the other key feature, heuristics, will emerge.

In his key 1985 text The Political Economy of Soil Erosion, Blaikie laid out an ambitious framework that combines proximate and background conditions, physical and socio-economic, local and “non-place based” in accounting for soil erosion.  Such analyses would center on the decisions of the land manager in a particular place, but relate the constraints on their activities to more distant influences.  That is, the analyses are not local, but, in our terms, locally centered and trans-local.  Watts (1990a,b), however, criticized Blaikie for lacking any theory either to explain the choices available to the land manager or to guide us in selecting among the multitude of possible factors when we construct an explanation of a specific phenomenon.  In particular, Watts noted, Blaikie did not present a theory of political economy and, as a consequence, tended to leave out the dimensions of conflict and struggle.

This response of Watts to Blaikie raises the issue of the proper role of theory in analysing social and environmental complexity.  Blaikie seems to want to include everything, while Watts wants to build upon a theoretical tradition to formulate expectations or “realms of necessity.”  For Watts, anomalies relative to these expectations provide puzzles–situations that should be interesting to investigate.  Understanding of those anomalies adds incremently to the research in the given theoretical tradition (in Watts’ case, a Marxist tradition).  Watts would not, however, want political ecological theory to be based on some single underlying dynamic, say, population growth or modernization, nor want to invoke the economists’ axiom of egocentric self-interest and thereby discount the complex histories of social institutions.  The challenge he sets is to address complexity and historical contingencies, while not navigating not too far away from explicit theoretical foundations.

Nevertheless, in Watts’ own work at the intersection of peasant studies and environmental studies, he rarely articulates a distinct theory of political economy, let alone a theory of how to analyse multiple levels or intersecting processes simultaneously (see, e.g., Carney and Watts 1990).  It is, moreover, difficult to assimilate the heterogeneous developments in either of those fields to any one theoretical tradition.  It seems to us that, in giving due respect to diverse intersecting processes, the typologies and underlying dynamics needed to derive “realms of necessity” become difficult to theorize (McLaughlin 1993).  Indeed, on one hand Watts still identifies with a Marxist tradition (Watts 1990b, Peet and Watts 1996).  Yet, on the other hand, the last two decades have seen his theory change shape and style in response to the challenges of Chayanovian peasant studies, feminism, resurgent environmentalism, and “poststructural” discourse theory.  Not surprisingly, the theoretical sources of his expectations and anomalies are now difficult to disentangle.

Our assessment is that theoretical propositions in political ecology take the form of heuristics–propositions that stimulate, orient, or guide our inquiries, yet break down when applied too widely.  The different heuristics need somehow to be interwoven with each other.  Far from regarding heuristics as soft theory, we argue that valuable perspectives follow from focusing on identifying the heuristics used for negotiating complexity, and how they are employed jointly with other heuristics.  Moreover, the complexity involved goes beyond the social-environmental situations studied in political ecology, to include also the situation of the analyst as a theorist and as an agent in the wider social world.

(continued in next post)

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[1]  We use the term process in the sense of sequences of events that persist or are repeated for sufficiently long for us to notice them and need to explain them.  As will become clear, this contrasts with a sense of process as a basic underlying causal structure that allows people to explain events as instances of the process or as noisy deviations from it.