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29 March 2010

Actor-Network Theory

Found this neat little video on You Tube that explains Actor Network Theory in plain english (though I think Latour does a pretty good job of explaining things in easy to understand terms himself).

Some of the criticisms she mentions are (via Wikipedia):
1) That it insists on the agency of non-humans which lack intentionality.
2) That it is amoral
3) That it doesn't account for structural factors (i.e. power, class, scale, etc.)
4) That it's merely descriptive

Responses to those criticisms (partially from Wikipedia, partially my own):
1) ANT doesn't imply that non-humans have intentionality. It doesn't claim that intentionality is a characteristic of agency. It doesn't locate agency in humans or in non-humans, but in heterogeneous associations of humans and non-humans (i.e. Actor-NETWORKS).
2) Morality and politic positions are possible, but you have to describe the Actor-Network first. I'd actually argue that ANT is inherently political as it deconstructs concepts such as power, class, scale, gender, etc (see #3 below) and highlights points of intervention.
3) People - critical scholars especially - tend to throw around terms like Power without explaining what they are. This has been extremely frustrating to me as I try to understand exactly what it is we're trying to resist and the best tools and techniques for intervening. To me ANT operationalizes these concepts in a way that few others have (i.e. Foucault). Again, understanding how these things work directs us to points of intervention that allow us to change the way things are. How can you fight something like Power - which doesn't exist, but seems to determine everything around us?
4) Maybe it is merely descriptive, or maybe it just recognizes its own limitations. More scientists (both natural and social) ought to acknowledge the limits to generalization and prediction that are inherent in their work. The world is full of uncertainty and complexity; if we recognize this fact, then the possibilities are endless!

I also recommend this short article by John Law, Notes on a Theory of the Actor Network: Ordering, Strategy, and Heterogeneity. In fact, I recommend a visit to John Law's website, Heterogeneities, which has a lot of good recent articles. Like Latour, he's a good writer and explains things in a way that's easy to understand.

26 March 2010

Comments on the Health Care Bill

Given the excitement, both positive and negative, about the recently signed health care bill, I thought I'd give my perspective on it. First of all, I have to admit that I don't understand the "reconciliation" process. I don't know if it's legal or responsible, but I'm glad to have some kind of health care reform on the books and I don't think it would have gone through otherwise. Secondly, I think that this health care reform is very limited and will not solve all of our health care issues - I think we really need some kind of public option to keep health care costs down, and to ensure that people are not going bankrupt as a result of their health. That said, I think there are a few good things in this bill that will help tremendously:

1) Requiring insurance companies to cover children on their parents' plans until the age of 26. This alone will cover a major section of the population without health coverage. I know when I turned 21 it was a concern of mine, though I found a job with good insurance for a few years. When I returned to school, though, I was left out in the cold. The early 20s is a time when a lot of people are either in school and unable to afford private insurance or working at a crappy job that doesn't offer decent insurance. I think this is a great step in the right direction.

2) No denial of coverage for preexisting conditions. Let's say you're diagnosed with cancer or some treatable but potentially fatal condition, but your health coverage runs out. As it stands, no insurance company will take you, even if you can pay for it yourself. This is unnecessary and unfair - allowing people to die because insurance companies don't want to pay.

3) Subsidized health care for lower income people. Currently over 40 million people are without health insurance of any kind. What happens as a result is that those people aren't able to visit the doctor for preventative treatments or early diagnosis. They then have to go when things get really bad and major operations are the only intervention and they are unable to pay for them. This drives up health care costs for the rest of us. "Won't this allow poor people to milk the system?" Well, that depend on what you think of as "milking the system." If you think that people don't deserve good health, if you believe that we're not already paying the costs for not providing these people with health coverage, if you believe that these people are truly just lazy bums who don't want to work for a living, then yes. I do not believe any of those things. I think that everyone deserves to be healthy, I know we're paying those costs already in the form of higher insurance premiums, and more expensive hospital costs, and I think that a lot of very hard working people are out of health care simply because of their position.

4) Tanning tax - excellent idea! Like smoking, why should the rest of us pay for higher health care costs because a few idiots think it's a good idea to expose themselves regularly to cancer-causing radiation. Let them bear the burden of the excessive cost!

My hope is that with this health care reform on the books, people will realize that it's not so bad having a healthy population and we'll be able to move toward more comprehensive reforms. At least it's a good start.

25 March 2010

The Commons

The Commons and common property regimes have recently become all the rage. The government is implementing ecosystem management based on common property systems in a variety of cases (i.e. NOAA and fisheries management), and Elinor Ostrom, who has pioneered research on common property regimes and heads the Center for the study of Institutions, Population, and Environmental Change (CIPEC), recently won the Nobel Prize in economics. I personally, think that common property regimes have the potential to revolutionize the way we interact with the environment and one another - if they're implemented properly.

So just a little background:
Common property refers to any resource that is managed for the public good. In the case of fisheries, for example, everyone has equal access to the fish and, assuming they have the means, can go out on the water and extract what they need. Garrette Hardin wrote a famous essay on the "Tragedy of the Commons" demonstrating that, when everyone has equal access to a resource, it is in the best interest of an individual to extract as much as possible as quickly as possible before others do the same. He argued, that this would draw down the resource quickly leading to collapse of the commons. However, his research has come under criticism from Ostrom and others. They say that what Hardin described is not a common property regime, but an open access regime. In practice, common property is effectively managed through cultural norms and consensus, so that individuals are not allowed to extract beyond a certain limit. As a result, the commons is maintained from generation to generation without collapsing.

Common property regimes have proven effective in a number of cases including the lobster fishery of New England, and provide a viable alternative to privatization schemes which limit access to resources and often cause more harm than good (i.e. Bolivia's water crisis). I believe that using common property regimes as well as other locally based, self-organized management systems will create a more equitable and sustainable economic future.

10 March 2010

Convincing Climate Deniers

Recently there has been quite a commotion on the Environmental Anthropology (EANTH) listserv over the science around global climate change (GCC). Essentially, a couple of climate deniers have stirred up the list, and they've been encouraged by a combination of polite people who want all voices to be heard and others who are willing to argue with them endlessly. This got me thinking about what it will take to convince climate deniers, and whether or not we should actually waste our time.

Part 1 - What is a Skeptic?
First of all, the climate deniers on the EANTH list have insisted on being called skeptics rather than deniers. They claim that "deniers" is a pejorative term meant to associate them with the likes of Holocaust deniers. So the question arises, what is a skeptic and do these individuals deserve that title?
A skeptic is a person who has an inherent doubt about any claim, and, therefore, requires a certain burden of proof to be established. Even then, a skeptic might hold on to some doubt as new evidence comes along which may change the picture. A genuine skeptic would look at the two sides of the climate debate and see that the climate scientists have a mountain of strong evidence in support of their claim (most of which is freely available from the IPCC) and a general consensus among scientists and the leading scientific organizations around the world that climate change is occurring and that it is caused by anthropogenic greenhouse gasses. The skeptic would then look at the denier's case and see a paltry amount of very weak evidence, and no general consensus except among energy companies, and others for whom climate policy poses a potential threat. A genuine skeptic might look for alternative explanations, but would conceed that the weight of the evidence is in favor of anthropogenic climate change.
As a result, I reject the use of the term skeptic to describe climate deniers. They don't weigh each side equally, expecting the same burden of proof from both sides. They have taken an emotional, political stance against climate change, and will automatically reject any evidence that contradicts them. Furthermore, their "science" is driven by economic and political claims, and backed by substantial funding from oil companies.
In fact, science has a built in skepticism. Any claims must be backed by substantial evidence, and those that are not will be outed in the peer-review process. I think a great disservice has been done to science in the last decade by those who think that all opinions should carry equal weight. In the scientific world, however, claims that cannot bear the burden of proof (i.e. intelligent design and climate denial) must be discarded. Climate deniers will claim that a conspiracy of scientists has kept them from getting a fair consideration. However no such conspiracy exists, and I would be far more doubtful of "science" that comes from powerful corporations with a vested interest in halting climate policy.

Part 2 - What will it take to convince them?
As I said above, climate deniers have taken an emotional, political stance against climate change science. They are not scientists, they are not concerned with the accuracy of the data, and they are will re-interpret or discard any data that contradicts their position. The mountains of evidence that support the climate change science is not enough to convince them, so what is?
I don't think anything will convince them short of some massive disaster with clear and direct ties to climate change. Nor will long, drawn out discussion and arguments on email listservs. Whenever I see debates such as the one on the EANTH list, I am torn between the desire to correct the climate deniers and the knowledge that my arguments will never change their minds. We seem to be caught in a double bind - we can't keep quiet or they'll win, and we can't engage in discussion because they don't care about the evidence. It seems to me that all we can do is mechanically repeat the facts "The planet is warming. The warming is caused by anthropogenic greenhouse gasses. It's already harming people, and will only get worse. We can do something about it." Rinse and repeat.

Part 3 - Do we really need to convince them?
The media tends to exaggerate extremes, and that's why we hear scientists arguing with climate deniers all the time in the news. Some of that needs to be done, especially for building support at the policy level. But it should be done in the way I mentioned above. Like the captured soldier being interrogated - just repeat: name, rank and serial number (or in this case, the facts behind climate change).
But Policy is not the only way to address climate change meaningfully. As Elinor Ostrom has pointed out in her report to the World Bank, Polycentric Approaches to Climate Change, we should be looking for multiple solutions on multiple scales.
When I was doing my research on the controversy surround the Holcomb power plant, I talked to a lot of people in Western Kansas about issues like climate change. There were a couple of people who suggested to me that they believed that climate change is a fiction, but overall I got the sense that most people are aware of the science and at least somewhat concerned about the potential problems that could occur. They may not be fully convinced, but they are not generally climate deniers like the two on the EANTH list or those in the media. They want to do something about climate change, but, at the same time, they take a pragmatic view of it. They are concerned about their jobs, about their families, about their health. They want a better life for themselves and their children, and climate change simply isn't the most pressing issue in their lives.
On the plus side, we don't need to convince them either, we just have to sympathize with them and figure out workable solutions that will reduce greenhouse gas emissions, provide jobs and other economic benefits for them, and help build sustainable communities. This kind of grassroots effort could then develop into a broad-based support for national policy and international governance. This approach, I believe, will be far more successful than trying to convince all of the deniers and trying to craft national legislation or international policy that will satisfy everyone.

06 March 2010

Discarding Scale: The Global is Local and the Local is Overflowing

Example 1: A week ago, I saw the closing ceremony of the Olympics. I was sitting in my living room watching a big screen TV as the ceremony was broadcast live on NBC. The ceremony took place in Vancouver, B.C., and athletes from around the world attended. In addition to the athletes, there were thousands of spectators from around the world and representatives of almost every nation were present as well. For better or for worse, there were many images derived from North American indigeneity as well as images of cultures from around the world. I must have heard a dozen national anthems, and seen the flags of just about every country, but all of it took place in a single arena in Vancouver, and I was sitting on my ass in a small living room in College Park, Maryland.

Example 2: I've mentioned before that every time I go into D.C. I am awe struck by all of the people and places that I see there. I've walked by the Heritage Foundation, and visited the Bureau of Land Management. The headquarters of the AFL-CIO is a few blocks from the White House, and I can see the Department of Education from the train. I even saw a giant emblem being placed above the door of the Church of Scientology.
Most of these are places where decisions of national or world wide consequence are made. I've seen them on TV, heard about them on the radio, or read about them in newspapers, magazines, and books. They have always appeared so vast to me, but when I see them it's clear that they're just buildings filled with people - ordinary people. Most of those people ride the same dingy metro trains that I do - some of them may ride in Limos or drive fancy cars, but I know that those cars are just as ordinary when it comes right down to it. I see the dirt and grime, I see the menial laborers who do much of the work to maintain these places, but who are pushed aside when the cameras come by.

My question is, what aspects of these examples are global and what aspects are local? Was my watching of the Olympic ceremony local because I was sitting in a living room? Or global because I was watching it broadcast live through a global satellite system? Was the ceremony itself global because it was broadcast across the world, and involved participants from many different nations? Or was it local because it took place in Vancouver, B.C.? Is the White House local because it's a specific building on a particular street in a particular city? Or is it global because decisions are made there that potentially affect the world? Who among the many people that work in those buildings downtown gets to be global and who gets to be local, and what exactly does that mean for them?

The concept of scale has never really been operationalized adequately, and geographers in particular have been debating the meaning of global and local for the last few decades. In fact, traditional conceptions of scale have been criticized for privileging those deemed "global" and marginalizing those deemed "local" and, as a result, reifying and naturalizing existing power structures.
Latour, in his usual way, undercuts the debate entirely by discarding the concept of scale all together. The global is a fiction, he argues, because everything happens in a place. The President of the US meets his staff in the White House, the UN delegates congregate in New York, the Olympics took place in Vancouver. The only difference, he argues, between these places and any other is the number (and I would add distance) of connections, and it is these connections that we must trace. These connections are not one-way and they are not acquired without incurring some cost. Transactions must be made along these connections, and something must be transferred. Very often what is transferred is paper or electronic signals, but these transactions take work and are not unidirectional.
The other thing that makes them different is that most of them engage in world-making, what he calls panoramas. They zoom out, seemingly effortlessly, to construct a macroimage. The UN depicts the many nations of the world, the US government, the many states. But these are images, and the zooming is not as effortless as it appears.
So he has discarded the global, but, unlike others, he doesn't stop there and merely claim that we should "see the local in the global." The local, too, is a fiction. The global must be situated, but every site is overflowing. In every place there are evident signs of outside forces acting over long distances in both space and time. The room I'm sitting in was designed by an architect and built 30 years ago (that's just a guess). The computer I'm typing on has evolved over several decades and gone through many incarnations to become the piece of machinery that sits on my desk now. The keyboard is a relic of typewriters - largely out of use now. The layout of the keys was set almost one hundred years ago to make typing more efficient - why isn't it Dvorak or AZERTY rather than QWERTY? All of these actors must be taken into account as well, for a full picture to be developed.
The implication of discarding scale in this way is that we can no longer assign the labels of Global and Local to individuals, organizations, events or places. Such a practice is politically problematic for the reasons mentioned above. Instead we have to follow the traces, keep an eye out for panoramas and account for all of the myriad actors involved in an event. It's a lot more work for social scientists, but it pays off in the end by providing a more realistic picture of the world and one that we can actually be engaged with instead of trying to resist vast structural forces that are far bigger than any of us and are so abstract as to be phantoms.

04 March 2010

REQUEST: What is Work?

I'm doing some research for a class, and as part of it - but really for my own knowledge - I would like to ask for definitions of "Work." What is work? What significance does it have? How is it different from or similar to "Play"? Answers can be from personal experience, or ethnographic insight. In fact, if someone can point me to an "ethnography of work" I'd be thrilled!

02 March 2010

Ghassan Hage Videos

The first two of these videos were posted over at Archive Fire a month or so ago. I like them so much that I thought I'd post them, along with two others by Hage on the Gaza conflict, so that my readers can benefit from watching them too. I really like Hage's way of thinking, and will comment more on these lectures later. Right now I've got to go to bed so I can wake up bright and early for lecture tomorrow. For the moment, I'll just say that I really like, in the videos on Gaza, his emphasis on improving the relationship rather than empowering one side or the other. I think the same principle could apply in a number of situations, including the environmental crisis. More later, I promise. Enjoy the videos!

Anthropology and the Passion of the Political (part 1) (part 2)

On Gaza and Narcissistic Victimhood (part 1) (part 2)
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