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29 July 2011

Toward A Cosmopolitical Anthropology

The following is the text of a paper I read at the Anthro(+) conference at UMD this past spring.  I've been meaning to post it up here for a while, but am only just getting around to it.  Hope you enjoy - feel free to comment.  

Toward a Cosmopolitical Anthropology
by Jeremy Trombley

Anthropology has been going through something of an identity crisis in recent decades. The move away from the positivism of the past threw the field wholly into the arms of the social constructionists. The move was liberating in many ways; finally we could free ourselves from all forms of determinism by showing that everything, even science itself, is socially constructed, contingent and ideological. But what we gained in liberation we made up for in terms of relevance – in our enthusiasm for deconstruction, the public lost interest in what we had to say, and we lost the ability to build anything new. Now, as the novelty begins to wear off and so many things have been shown to be socially constructed, we search for something that will give us back our relevance to the wider world and allow us to make a real difference. But we cannot return to the positivism of the past – that road is blocked. Instead we need something new. In this paper I propose an anti-essentialist but realist approach to anthropology drawing on the philosophies of Bruno Latour, Manuel de Landa, Isabelle Stengers, and others. This approach – which I'm referring to as a cosmopolitical anthropology – will, I hope, bring us back to the world while allowing us to avoid the pitfalls of the past.
In Territories of Difference, Arturo Escobar (2009) describes a spectrum of scientific theory. On one side are essentialist theories such as Positivism and Systems theories. On the other are anti-essentialist or constructivist theories, with several gradations or mixtures of the two along the middle. Until recently, this spectrum has defined scientific inquiry, and provided much of the basis for the division between the natural and social sciences.
According to the essentialist approaches, meaning is found within the object which possesses and essential core of being independent of human conceptions. This core is transcendental and ahistorical. It can be progressively known through observation and measurement, and knowledge is the ultimate goal of inquiry. We cannot alter the nature of reality, but knowledge of that nature can allow us to live more reasonably within it. This perspective closes down deliberation, and places science as the ultimate arbiter of truth – we may argue about values, but facts are immutable.
As a result, our lives appear in many ways to be shaped by forces beyond our control. We are stuck within a system of natural determinism, and our only hope is to learn and develop the means – usually technological – to overcome those natural limitations. In order to know, however, we must overcome the distance between the subject and the object. Positivism attempts to accomplish this through a kind of sleight of hand by abstracting the subject into the realm of objectivity – the panoptical view from nowhere. But in order to remain in this realm, one must be purified and keep one's self free from such vices as politics, and values, which are seen to be subjective.
For social constructivists, on the other hand, meaning is found primarily in the subject, and the world is not made of predefined essences independent of human thought. Indeed, all knowledge is contextual, ideological and historical including what we previously took to be scientific facts. Thus we were freed from the domination of the natural, and the sciences could no longer be said to hold a monopoly on truth.
But the freedom proved to be limited. For social constructivism failed to put to rest the cartesian dualisms that define Modernity. Instead of rejecting positivism on it's ontological grounds, constructivists choose to object on epistemological grounds. For when we talk of the “social construction of X” (i.e. gender, quarks, capitalism, etc.), we are talking not about the construction of the actual entity, but the construction of the category X. The world is thus a field of representations which must compete for dominance.
Rather than blurring the lines between facts and values, subject and object, nature and culture, and so on, constructivists merely shifted the balance in the opposite direction - facts become values, the object becomes subjective, nature becomes cultural. The result was a more empirical epistemology – one which recognized the reality of the subject embedded within the world – unable to abstract itself into an objective realm – but which failed to extend that empiricism to its ontology. Indeed, constructivists often avoid making ontological claims about the nature of reality, which inevitably causes them to default to the dominant ontology of Modernism.
Furthermore, there is no basis for differentiation between social constructs. One is as constructed and, therefore, as valid as the other. The only difference lies in their relative dominance in the field of discourse. Is it any wonder, then, that the public has lost interest? If we cannot distinguish between the claims of climate scientists and climate deniers aside from our personal or political preference, then what's the point of social constructivism other than to deconstruct our social lives? What can be built using such tools? As Latour points out, we cannot make a house with a sledge hammer.
So we are left searching for something different, something new. The obvious place to look is in the realm of ontology. What's needed, then, is an anti-essentialist ontology – one that takes the empiricism of social constructivism and extends it beyond epistemology. For this we can look to the emerging work of philosophers such as Bruno Latour, Isabelle Stengers, Manueal de Landa, and others. These philosophers outline a novel approach to the world, which I will call – borrowing from Stengers – cosmopolitical. Thus, an anthropology based in this ontological commitment is what I would refer to as a cosmopolitical anthropology.
In the cosmopolitical approach, reality – the cosmos – is not predefined. Rather, it can be thought of as a heterogeneous, material-semiotic assemblage which is in a perpetual process of becoming. In such a formulation, nothing can be reduced to anything else, so the barriers between facts and values, subject and object, nature and culture become blurred or are erased altogether. We escape, once and for all, the cartesian dualisms of Modernity. What's more, there are no essences, since any entity must be composed relationally. So we preserve our liberation from naturalism, while restoring our ability to differentiate between constructions – no longer on the basis of true or false, as Positivism would have it, but on the basis of whether they are well or poorly constructed.
Realities are composed through practice. Science, then, is not primarily a matter of knowledge about reality, but is a practice which contributes to the composition of reality. So the question is no longer an epistemological one – how do we know reality, and how do our methods and theories affect that knowledge – but an ontological one – what kind of reality are we creating through our methodological and theoretical practice, and is that reality well or poorly constructed?
In anthropology, for example, we can start thinking about the kinds of relationships we form in the course of our work, and how we alter existing sets of relationships through our practice. We can also begin to think of ways we might intervene to create a more just and sustainable world.
I have identified several characteristics of a cosmopolitical approach, though, the list is not exhaustive, and will surely expand. They include: 1) Strategic interventions during periods of bifurcation. Bifurcations are periods when existing realities converge and new potentialities are generated. Sometimes this results in great upheaval, as in the case of the current uprisings in the Middle East, but usually they are at least marked by controversy. It is during these periods where the greatest possibilities for change arise, and our interventions have a greater chance of giving rise to the desired changes. 2) A willingness to experiment. Since reality is complex, we cannot know what activities will contribute to change. We must, therefore, try many different approaches in the hope that one or more will take hold. 3) A commitment to broad strategies and tactics. Because reality is heterogeneous, we cannot limit ourselves to a single form of intervention or communication. Instead, we must be open to utilizing diverse media including: online media, mainstream media, non-traditional media, political activism, economic intervention, and so on. This broad approach will help us build the relationships that will foster the new reality and make it strong enough to resist appropriation or dismantling. 4) Humility in the face of a complex world. We cannot hope to simply impose our vision upon the world around us – this would be imperialistic, teleological, and ineffective. This should not, however, keep us from proposing a vision and arguing for its implementation. If approached with a degree of humility, and the recognition that others may reject our vision or alter it to suit their needs and desires, we can avoid the paternalism that characterized previous approaches to development and aid.
With these characteristics in mind, I would like to offer a few examples of a cosmopolitical approach. To begin with, I turn to geography and the work of Julie Gibson and Katherine Graham who, up until Julie Gibson's death last year, published together under the pen name J.K. Gibson-Graham. Together they founded the Community Economies Project, which seeks to bring together researchers and communities who are concerned with creating alternatives to the Capitalist economic system.
In their books, The End of Capitalism as we Knew It and Towards a Post-Capitalist Politics, Gibson and Graham describe their attempts to retheorize capitalism from a non-essentialist, ontological perspective. Starting out as Marxist geographers, they began to see how academic theories which critiqued Global Capitalism as a totalizing system tend to reinforce that system by obscuring potential alternatives. Instead of seeing Capitalism as a totalizing system which determines every aspect of our lives, they began to see it as a heterogeneous assemblage of different economic practices many – in some cases the majority of which are not capitalist at all. This allowed them to find pockets of difference where potential alternatives could be explored.
Research in the Community Economies project is characterized by intervention in communities to reshape their relationship to Capitalism. It begins with a thorough reconceptualization of the global Capitalist system, and a reevaluation of the assets and resources available to the community. They identify other modes that exist alongside the typical class and consumer modes, and look for resources for building potential alternatives including skills, materials, equipment, and so on. The result of this interaction in many of the communities they study has been the generation of new ways of living in places that were once dependent upon Global Capital for their livelihoods. The communities become empowered, and relatively self-sufficient while at the same time undermining the structure of domination.
From the cynical perspective that has come to dominate our field, Gibson and Graham's approach may seem too optimistic. Such small scale projects will likely be enveloped into the Capitalist system and have little actual effect in changing it or creating alternatives. But Gibson and Graham argue that we cannot judge these attempts as failures before they're given a chance. Just as no one could have predicted that one man's solitary act of frustration and protest could have ignited the conflagration that has consumed the Middle East and other parts of the world, there is no way to tell ahead of time if one or more of these small scale projects might provide the impetus for reforming Capitalism. At the very least, it offers a community the chance to live out an alternative, even if only for a time. As these kinds of projects proliferate, the likelihood that Capitalism will be replaced increases.
Another project that could be described as cosmopolitical is Sarah Whatmore's project titled Understanding Environmental Knowledge Controversies. In her research, Whatmore developed a methodology which she refers to as Competency Groups. These groups are composed of scientists, policy makers, and members of stakeholder communities, and work together to generate novel solutions to previously intractable problems. Her primary example is with flooding in rural England. Scientists and policy makers had come up with a solution based on their data, but the solution ignored the needs and concerns of the local communities. As a result, they were not supportive and even opposed the proposed solution. Whatmore convened a competency group with members of the communities affected by flooding and the scientists and policy makers responsible for decision making. Researchers provided interactive models that allowed the participants to suggest and experiment with different approaches to addressing the flooding, and as a result of this, they came up with a novel solution to the problem – strategically placing a few small dams upstream to store water.
By bringing together scientists and community members in an attempt to co-produce knowledge rather than merely consulting, the competency group methodology is able to generate novel solutions which may be more effective than those proposed by scientists alone and which are more likely to be accepted by the communities themselves. This practice does away with the gap between subject and object, facts and values. Solutions to environmental problems are never simply scientific – they involve a variety of other values as well, and, by bringing the communities on as equal partners in the research we can compose more robust solutions than if they were to be ignored or marginalized.
The question remains as to what a cosmopolitical anthropology would look like – what would it mean to incorporate these ideas into the practice of anthropology? I don't have a full answer, but I have some thoughts based on my limited experience researching traditional cultural properties for the Bureau of Land Management. During the course of my research, I began to think about the meaning of cultural protection and the role of the anthropologist in the process. What I realized is that cultural protection is about values – what is it that we want to protect and why? And values are relational, so cultural protection, ultimately, is about building relationships – between communities, between agencies, between individuals, and so on. As anthropologists, we often find ourselves working between communities, and ethnographic methods can be seen as more than just techniques for generating knowledge or translating knowledge from one group to another – they can also be seen as tools for building relationships. In my case, I began to see the possibility of using ethnographic methods to build relationships between federal agencies and tribes and communities – constructing a reality which is better able to protect the cultural and natural resources that people value.
By conceiving ethnographic methods this way, we can start to think more broadly about our role as researchers. We can think about ways we might use our methods to compose new realities by building relationships, and altering those that already exist.
What is the ultimate goal of the cosmopolitical project? The goal is to build a more just and sustainable world – it is nothing short of utopia. But utopia can no longer be thought as static or homogeneous. Rather, utopia must be conceived as an unending process of experimentation, and negotiation – constantly trying to improve – constantly fighting back the powers of oppression. To quote science fiction writer Kim Stanley Robinson, utopia can be defined with two simple words “Struggle Forever.”


I just got myself an invite to Google+, so here's my profile page:  If you want an invite, let me know, and I'll send one along.  So far it looks okay.

22 July 2011

Interviewed by Baltimore Sun

Yesterday, after posting to twitter that I got a ticket to Obama's town hall, I got a message in response from John Fritze (@jfritze), a writer for the Baltimore Sun.  He wanted to interview people going to the meeting for a preliminary article on the town hall and the debt crisis.  I talked to him for about 10 minutes by phone.  You can read the article here.

21 July 2011

Questioning Obama

This morning I arrived at campus early, and stood in line for about 3 hours to get a ticket to Obama's town hall meeting at UMD tomorrow.  Should be an interesting experience, and I'd like to try and get in to ask a question.  Do any of you have suggestions for questions I could ask?  I'm thinking something anthropology related since his mother was an anthropologist, but also relevant - maybe something about the HTS and military anthropology in Iraq and Afghanistan?  I don't know... I'll take any suggestions - anthropological or not - as long as they're relevant.  The meeting is at 11am tomorrow, so if you have suggestions submit early enough that I can use them (by about 9:30 or 10am tomorrow).

13 July 2011


There are several posts up this morning on nihilism in object-oriented ontology (OOO) - see herehere, and here.  The point seems to be that, because OOO claims that humans are merely one being among many it degrades values and meaning in the world.  I don't find that to be the case at all, and I agree with all three of the above posts that correlationism offers far more nihilistic potential than OOO or speculative realism in general.  If all values are human constructs and humans are the only beings involved in the creation of meaning, then there can be no basis for comparing values and all meaning is ultimately meaningless.  The only remedy available to such a world-view is to posit a transcendental being (i.e. God) which imbues the world with meaning apart from that which humans create.

For OOO on the other hand, meaning is created by and for all of the different entities that exist in the universe producing a tangled web of meaning and values which we contribute to, but which is not wholly dependent upon us.

It's impossible to be nihilist when you're not alone in the world.

10 July 2011

Social Construction and Reality

We have to get past the idea that things that are socially constructed are somehow not real.  I encountered it again today in something I was reading.  "X is socially constructed"  or "X are social constructs" as if to say they are only or just social constructs - as if to say X is not real.  But social constructs are real - that's what makes them so powerful.  Race, Class, Gender - these are all social constructs, but it is because they are socially constructed that they have tremendous effects on the lives of people who live in a particular society.

In fact, the only thing that saying something is socially constructed does is to indicate that it could have been (or could be) constructed differently - that it is historically and politically contingent.  This is a first step (though maybe not a necessary step) towards creating the possibility for change, but it is not the change itself.  Social constructions are powerful, deeply embedded structures, and change takes time and work.  We've spent the last 30 years showing how socially constructed everything is - that was the easy part - now it's time to get to work on making change.

01 July 2011

Making Science Social

I've had my head down the last few weeks working on a proposal for the NSF Science and Technology Studies grant.  We're planning to do an ethnography and other work on the Chesapeake Bay Model.  It's an interesting topic, and very relevant right now.  The model has been around for about 30 years now - continually being tweaked and refined.  However, it has become a large, unwieldy construct that requires a supercomputer to run, and it's not clear that it provides an accurate representation of the Chesapeake Bay.  Recently the EPA and the Chesapeake Bay Program (CBP) proposed total maximum daily loads (TMDLs) for the Bay based on the model.  These TMDLs restrict the amount of pollution - mostly nutrient runoff - which is allowed in each state in the Bay's watershed.  The states are then required to implement policies which would reduce their loads below the limit, and many of these policies revolve around best management practices (BMPs) which have been shown - in the model - to reduce nutrient loads.  This has caused an uproar in the scientific community, and among farmers and others who live and work on the Bay or in the Bay watershed. 

To make matters worse, the company LimnoTech was recently hired to conduct a review of the Bay model in response to criticisms that it doesn't match up with other models or with the actual data coming from the Bay.  The study found that this was indeed the case, and, as a result, the EPA requested a review by the CBP's Science and Technical Advisory Committee (STAC).  This review is currently in progress, and has apparently been very heated.

This is all very interesting and should make for an excellent STS case study.  What's happening, I think, is that the science - the Bay model in this case - is becoming public, and entering into controversy.  This is exactly the kind of thing I've been reading a lot about lately, and I've only been reading more since I've been writing this proposal. 

One very interesting book I've been looking at is Michel Callon's Acting in an Uncertain World.  In it he describes several controversies, but mainly focuses on the issue of how to dispose of nuclear waste in France.  He puts forward an idea he calls hybrid forums - open discussions composed of scientists, politicians, regulators, and members of the lay public designed to make science and decision making more democratic.  There are a lot of good points in the book, which I'll try to cover at a later time, but this idea of the hybrid forum strikes me as important right now.  The problem, according to Callon, is that, historically, there have been these bifurcations - the creations of new publics.  The first was brought about when specialists (scientists and technicians) were put in charge of coming up with scientific solutions to problems.  The second was when political representation was professionalized.  As a result, there are now three different publics - the specialists, the politicians, and the lay public (there are, of course, many more publics, and, as Sarah Whatmore points out, new publics come to be defined through the very controversies that Callon and others are studying).  Granting the benefit of the doubt, Callon argues that, most of the time, the specialists and politicians don't leave the lay public out of the discussion in order to further their own personal financial or political ends.  Rather, he believes that the majority of them do so "for the public good" simply because the public doesn't know what it wants. 

These bifurcations are intended to reduce uncertainty - the uncertainty of the natural world through the knowledge production of science and the uncertainty of the social world through the professionalization of representation - but it becomes clear when scientific knowledge goes public, as in the case of the Bay model, that they do not reduce uncertainty.  In fact, the desire to reduce uncertainty is misplaced, because it is uncertainty which is constitutive of new social forms which will, hopefully, effectively address the problems.  The hybrid forums are meant to mend the bifurcations in order to open the field to these new social forms.

It seems to me that STS has taken a U-turn in some ways.  The early ethnographies of science were effective at demonstrating the social construction of knowledge, but the scientists got upset at this and objected (thus the Science Wars).  Furthermore, the ethnographies did little to change the actual practice of science, and have been unable to predict or address the controversies raised when science goes public - as it so often has in recent years.  Now, STS folks are starting to realize this and are shifting their approach.  Callon says that the social sciences have been called upon in these controversies to make the public voice more clear and concise - using surveys, statistics, etc.  But, he argues, this is only another way to silence the public while "giving it a voice."  Instead, Callon suggest that social scientists ought to use their knowledge to create the kinds of discussions that need to take place if science is going to be made public effectively.  That is, not trying to reduce uncertainty or silence the public, but creating spaces where the public can speak for itself freely, and where scientist and politicians can listen and gain an affective understanding of what the public wants and needs. 

Callon is not the only one doing this, of course.  Latour has MACOSPOL, and Whatmore has her Knowledge Controversies project - I'm sure there are many others out there.  I like this line of work, and I think this project should be really interesting.  Hopefully we get funded.  If so, this will probably be my dissertation.  I'll have more to say on it all later.
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