Tag Archives: social theory

“Impossible to Simply Continue Along Previous Lines” A Partial Design Sketch of Enactable Social Theorizing

Overview of Notes on Enactable Social Theorizing assembled in 2012, followed by key points of each of the notes. Comments welcome to help nudge me to revise and develop the notes. Continue reading

Alternation between complexities of situation studied and the situation of the studier: A series of writing projects

Let me share the ambitious writing plan I formulated during a workshop last October, given the need I see to feel generative not only reactive when making one’s work and life in the turbulent politics of the USA today. Continue reading

What’s the use of it? (Complex maps of science in society)

After a graduate class in which students presented maps they had made of the complex intersections surrounding ideas about genes, race, families, identity, society, business, science,… the question arose of what does one do next. Here are some responses of mine:

1. Look for “an aspect of the map’s complexity that engages you most. Or… look for a path on which you can move through the complexity while turning to the side from time to time so you do not lose sight of the wider terrain” (Taylor & Szteiter 2012, 110ff). This is the question we asked of each students after they described their maps.

2. Interrogate the maps further, with a view to exposing more connections and, perhaps, the mycelium under the visible mushrooms. In the context of this PBL case, we might ask probing questions, such as:

a. How do the data collected limit the questions asked?

b. What meaning of genetic is in play in each instance?

c. What is the social infrastructure (e.g., surveillance, monitoring, ..) that is implied by the use (now or in some future scenario) of the science being pursued?

d. Where does this item sit in relation to the tension that rises when we want to “shift the focus from group membership to heterogeneous pathways without bolstering the fiction that racial group membership no longer brings social benefits and costs”? (Taylor 2009)

e. Which of these four aspects of racial distinctions are being addressed: similarity, diversity, ancestry, and admixture?

etc. (For some themes to rephrase as questions, see Taylor 2009)

3. Establish spaces in which people can choose to take time away from more directed and feasible directions of research and activism to explore the wider realm of issues that they had been backgrounding or leaving unnoticed. (See discussion of refractive practice and CPR spaces.)

4. Include #1, 2, and 3 in a more ambitious endeavor— “enactable social theorizing,” described in an incomplete and unedited thought piece. In brief, the ideal is to embrace:

heterogeneity, shifting associations, and contingency… bring[ing] the multiple strandedness of changing social life into the center (as against being the variation or noise around the deeper [more essential] Social Dynamics [capitalization deliberate here])… shift[ing] the focus from shaping a better social theory to allowing for social theorizing, as well as from representing social dynamics to enacting social theorizing in the form of repeatedly defining and pursuing engagements in the heterogeneous dynamics that intersect in all kinds of society-making.

Taylor, P. J. (2009). “Infrastructure and Scaffolding: Interpretation and Change of Research Involving Human Genetic Information.” Science as Culture, 18(4):435-459.
— and J. Szteiter (2012). Taking Yourself Seriously: Processes of Research and Engagement Arlington, MA, The Pumping Station, 2012.

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)


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.



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)


Blaikie, P. (1985). The political economy of soil erosion in developing countries. London: Longman.

Bryant, R. (1992). “Political ecology: An emerging research agenda in Third-World studies.” Political Geography11(1): 12-36.

Carney, J. and M. Watts (1990). “Manufacturing Dissent: Work, Gender and the Politics of Meaning in a Peasant Society.” Africa60(2): 207-241.

Cockburn, A. (Ed.) (1979). Political Ecology. New York: Times Books.

Collins, J. (1986). “Smallholder settlement of tropical South America: The social causes of ecological destruction.” Human organization45(1): 1-10.

Escobar, A. (1996). “Constructing nature: Elements for a poststructural political ecology,” in R. Peet and M. Watts (Eds.), Liberation Ecologies.  London: Routledge, 46-68.

García-Barrios, R. and L. García-Barrios (1990). “Environmental and Technological Degradation in Peasant Agriculture: A Consequence of Development in Mexico.” World Development 18(11): 1569-1585.

Gorz, A. (1980). Ecology as Politics. Boston: South End Press.

Hayward, T. (1995). Ecological thought: an introduction. Cambridge, Polity.

Hecht, S. (1985). “Environment, development, and politics:  Capital accumulation and the livestock sector in eastern Amazonia.” World Development 13: 663-684.

Hess, D. J. (1997). Science Studies: An Advanced Introduction. New York: New York University Press.

Knorr-Cetina, K. D. (1981). “Introduction: The micro-sociological challenge of macro-sociology: towards a reconstructio of social theory and methodology,” in Knorr-Cetina, K. D. (Eds.), Advances in social theory and methodology: Towards an integration of micro- and macro-sociologies.  Boston: R & K P, 1-47.

McLaughlin, P. (1993). “Essentialism, generative entrenchment and the Agrarian question.” Biology and Philosophy submitted.

Peet and Watts (1996).  “Introduction,” in Peet, R. and M. Watts (Eds.) (1996). Liberation Ecologies. London: Routledge.

Resnick, S. A. and R. D. Wolff (1987). Knowledge and Class: A Marxian Critique of Political Economy. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Richards, P. (1983). “Ecological Change and the politics of African Land Use.” African Studies Review 26(2): 1-71.

Sewell, W. H. (1992). “A theory of structure: Duality, agency and transformation.” American Journal of Sociology 98: 1-29.

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. (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. (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. (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.

Taylor, P. J. (1999). “Critical tensions and non-standard lessons from the “tragedy of the commons”,” in M. Maniates (Ed.), Teaching Global Environmental Politics As If Education Mattered, forthcoming.

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.

Vayda, A. P. (1996). Methods and explanations in the study of human actions and their environmental effects. Jakarta: Center for International Forestry Research.

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. (1990). “Sustainability and Struggles Over Nature:  Political Ecology or Ecological Marxism?” ms.

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]  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.