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18.6.09

Double-Barreled Articles and Some Problems With Constructivism

There's a tendency in political ecology and related work in geography and anthropology to write double-barreled articles. A double-barreled article is one that (on the analogy of a double-barreled question on a survey) packs together two somewhat distinct components -- a (usually radical) philosophical/social-theoretic argument, and a (usually interesting) empirical case study. Michael Watts' seminal "On the Poverty of Theory" chapter remains the best example, but I was prompted to write this post by a recent article in American Anthropologist by Mario Blaeser. I focus on Blaeser's article here for the convenience of having a running example, not because his article is a uniquely bad instance of this phenomenon (indeed, Blaeser's article was quite interesting and thought-provoking).

Blaeser's case study has to do with a failed sustainable hunting initiative in Paraguay. After several years of strict hunting bans, the Yshiro people, the Paraguayan government, and an interested NGO thought they had worked out a plan to re-open hunting. But the government soon called the project off, citing the failure of Yshiro hunters to follow the conservation rules. The cause of the problem, Blaeser shows, had to do with the clash between the conservationist ontology and the Yshiro one. According to the Western conservationists on the government's side, nature consists of organisms reproducing themselves, so if they are overhunted there will be fewer babies born and the species will go exitinct. According to the Yshiro, however, individual animals are provided to the people by "bahluts," a class of powerful beings, as part of a network of reciprocity involving ritual responsibilities and intra-human social justice (excessive hunting pressure, crucially, is not a failure of reciprocity that could lead to a reduced supply of animals*). The government negotiators thought they were conceding the Yshiro demands for social justice within the program as a way of stabilizing a project that was basically about conserving wildlife by reducing hunting pressure, whereas the Yshiro thought they were conceding the government's pointless and perhaps ulterior-motivated demands for reduced hunting pressure in order to establish full social reciprocity within their community. Once the program was in place, the Yshiro began breaking the letter of the conservation law, since they never bought into its ontological premises. The government, meanwhile, not realizing there could be any question as to its ontological premises, interpreted the Yshiro rule-breaking as a threat to the environment.

Blaeser's philosophical/social-theoretic argument has to do with the contrast between the approaches he labels "multiculturalism" and "political ontology." Multiculturalism holds that cultural differences consist in differing interpretations of a single reality -- some of which may be demonstrably erroneous, but most of which can provide enriching additional perspectives. Political ontology, on the other hand, holds that cultural differences involve different realities, which he usually refers to as "ontologies." There's some slipperiness in the term ontology -- it can refer either to what things actually exist (e.g. reproducing animal populations or bahluts), or to a theory about what things exist**. Relying on the latter definition is consistent with multiculturalism. Blaeser wants to insist we can't understand the case study or similar situations without relying on the former, that is, without saying that the government and Yshiro have not just different worldviews but that they have, and make, different worlds. In some unspecified way, the Yshiro don't just construct an idea of bahluts, they construct a world in which bahluts really exist -- and similarly for the government's modernist ecology. Blaeser makes liberal use of Bruno Latour's term "factish," a portmanteau of "fact" and "fetish" meant to indicate a fact that is made to exist by the process of discovering it, as opposed to a regular fact taken to pre-exist the discovery process or a fetish that's purely imagined.

What makes this article double-barreled is that the very interesting case study of the failed hunting program can be understood perfectly well in terms of different worldviews. Because what happened was that putting the program into practice revealed that the government and Yshiro had different ideas about the prey and how to hunt them, and both sides realized that the stated plan didn't accomplish what they had thought it would. The ontology-as-what-actually-exists -- whether singular but interpreted differently (multiculturalism) or multiple (political ontology) -- plays little role, as we're not told (and probably couldn't be, given the brevity of the program) what happens to the animals. Contrast this with case studies in which the world out there really does play a role. I have read numerous articles in which it was shown how people's worldviews led to practices that modified the world to match it (or modified it to match less, setting them up for a nasty surprise -- Michael Thompson has written a very interesting, but I fear highly stylized, account of how environmental management among Alpine pastoralists causes the environment to change which in turn prompts a change in management strategy, all leading the environment and the managers' ideas of it to cycle through the four quadrants of cultural theory). What would have made this case study a real demonstration of political ontology, and eliminated the double-barreled nature of it, would have been if the failure of the program was in some way due to each side running up against the actual things posited by the other's ontological theory -- government scientists coming upon some bahluts, or Yshiro hunters finding that heavy hunting pressure led to a drop in animals despite maintenance of social and ritual reciprocity. The failure to find some actual-ontological clash doesn't disprove political ontology, it just makes the case study beside the point of the multiculturalism-political ontology argument. (Ironically, the reason most political ecologists seem to turn to Latour is that they believe that unlike postmodernism/poststructuralism, his actor-network theory allows nature/ontology to "talk back" and influence people's constructions in this way.)

Having gone over the double-barreledness of Blaeser's article, I have a few points to raise about his philosophical/social-theoretic claims. Again, I am focusing on this article as a convenient example of some common constructivist moves, not as a particularly egregious offender.

One argument that Blaeser makes in favor of political ontology is that multiculturalism is dependent on a modernist ontology -- specifically, the ability to separate the single actual-ontology from the multiple ontological theories rests on the nature-culture dichotomy. The Yshiro, who do not have that dichotomy as part of their ontology, would thus not be able to be multiculturalists. But Blaeser seems to confuse two related distinctions -- nature-culture, and signified-signifier. The latter distinction, between an actual thing and interpretations of it, is what's being used in multiculturalism. After all, we could apply a multiculturalist analysis to differing perspectives on a cultural object -- say, the institution of government, or the text of Blaeser's article. Blaeser is correct that the Yshiro would deny the nature-culture divide, since they see the world as a network incorporating humans, bahluts, animals, and all kinds of other stuff (as opposed to the conservationists' separation between animals doing their thing and hunters as agents acting on them). But there is nothing in Blaeser's description of Yshiro ontology to suggest they would deny the signified-signifier divide -- and indeed, there is a counterexample, in an anecdote he tells about an Yshiro friend who concludes that the conservationists are simply wrong about the actual workings of animal populations and speculates on what their real ulterior motives must be since they couldn't honestly hold that ridiculous interpretation of reality.

Blaeser goes on to argue that multiculturalism is oppressive. In order to maintain the idea that there is a single world and different ontological theories are just different perspectives on the same thing, multiculturalists have to set "common sense" boundaries on what types of ontologies can be accepted. Too weird of an ontological component (e.g. the existence of bahluts) has to be denied and/or ignored, and the remainder of the ontology (e.g. the importance of social reciprocity) is reshaped to fit within the bounds.

My first concern with the "multiculturalism is oppressive" thesis is that the oppressiveness he notes -- which consists in the summary, disrespectful dismissal of ontological components that are too challenging to one's own views -- can be recognized and accommodated within the multicultural framework. A multiculturalist can recognize the ethnocentric narrowing of his or her boundaries of common sense, and resolve to work harder to expand them and be willing to take on more divergent ontologies and work out how they all can apply to the same reality.

Second, Blaeser falls into a common trap of strong constructivist arguments. The reality/signified -- here, animals and their actual reproductive process, whatever that is -- drop out of the analysis, and do not appear to play a role or have a life of their own beyond the process of being constructed by people. This means we lose sight of any sort of shared problem situation that people find themselves in. And therefore, we're left with no other way for divergent ontologies to interact with each other than plays of oppressive power, marginalizing and bullying rather than persuading and demonstrating. The idea of examining the conservationist and Yshiro ontologies for their relative usefulness in guiding responses to the various problems that the actors have -- which would seem to me to be the respectful approach -- is nowhere to be seen. Instead the main options appear to be (though Blaeser is vague on his own counter-proposal to multiculturalism and leaves much for the future work he hopes he inspired) oppressive crushing of one ontology, or the unilateral giving up of a (false?) ontology by adherents of modernism.

(This post is already quite long, so I'll simply note for my own reference that this post is in part an exercise in preparation for an academic piece I'd like to do exploring the currently popular approaches to human-environment studies -- positivist, Marxist, poststructuralist, and increasingly now actor-network -- and show how their problems can be resolved through ideas drawn from Jane Addams, John Dewey, and the rest of American pragmatism. Pragmatism offers strategies for reconciling divergent ontologies, criteria for evaluating clashing claims, and an ethical approach centered on the idea of shared problem situations. Interestingly in this context, pragmatism's roots appear to lie in part in American Indian thought and its response to European colonialism.)

*This general sort of framework -- prey animals are provided in response to maintenance of reciprocity and social obligations, while overhunting as such cannot damage the resource base -- is held by some other American Indian cultures as well, some as far away as Canada.

**Throughout this post, when I don't modify "ontology" with "theory" or "actual," I'm being deliberately noncommittal between the two meanings.

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