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16 March 2011

The Week of Insanity


I just got off a long week writing and giving two presentations and attending a workshop on social science on the Chesapeake Bay.  The presentations went well, except for a difficult experience with a discussant at one, but I've been reassured many times that this person had no idea what they were talking about.  The first was a presentation on my research in Nevada last summer with a few theoretical pieces about seeing ethnographic methods as interventions and tools for building relationships.  The second was titled "Toward A Cosmopolitical Anthropology" in which I critiqued both essentialist and constructivist theoretical approaches and proposed a new way of seeing anthropology as building worlds.  This second will be put online soon, I hope.

What I want to talk about now, though, is the workshop I attended.  It was interesting - a mix of scientists, managers, and social scientists.  We were there to promote the integration of social and natural sciences in studying issues surrounding the Chesapeake Bay.  My advisor is one of the main social scientists working in the area, so he was leading it and me and my fellow students were there to help out.  What was most interesting to me was how the natural scientists and the managers were all talking about "behavior change" - how do we get people and communities to do what we want them to do?  And this led them largely to social marketing strategies.  Essentially, they had the idea that they know what needs to be done, but can't get people to do it.  Social scientists know how to get people to do things, so they need our help.

Every social scientist I talked to was disturbed by this effect, but no-one stood up and said "No, we don't have the answers and we can't make people do what we want them to do."  And at the end, a panel of three management people got up and basically told social scientists what we need to do to make ourselves relevant to them - limiting our role to providing existing data rather than new research, giving them articles that we think are important, etc.  It was really quite problematic all around.

What they don't see is that all of this is about values - what do we (collectively) want from the bay and why?  The answer to that will be different for watermen, for farmers, for scientists, for urban people, etc.  So, instead of trying to tell people what they should want - which will always fail - we need to start negotiating to get what we all want, or at least some reasonable compromise.  I'm not sure if it's possible, but it certainly isn't with the mentality that those folks brought to the table.

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