Landscape as metaphor, systems as metaphor; and ANT as un-packer and sensitizer...

At the World Historical Ecology Network Seminar at Uppsala University, Prof William Ballée is soon visiting to give a talk from a historical ecological perspective, an approach that uses a multidimensional "landscape" as an analytical unit and the "transformations of landscapes" as a way to trace human-nonhuman dynamics (see abstract of paper he gives at the bottom of this blog). Or as Ballée states in the opening abstract of his article "The Research Program of Historical Ecology" (Ann. Rev of Antrhopology, 35, 2006):
Historical ecology is a new interdisciplinary research program concerned with comprehending temporal and spatial dimensions in the relationships of human societies to local environments and the cumulative global effects of these relationships.
The landscape as metaphor is used to embed humans as (active) part of emergent ecologies.

Another metaphor on the broad canvas of sustainability research is 'social-ecological systems'. This metaphor however tries to be more than just a metaphor since it uses the word 'system'. This links it to systems theory and the search of positive and negative feedback loops that control the system (see for instance Resilience Alliance and Stockholm Resilience Centre). One problem of a social-ecological systems perspective that I have had is that it seems to have difficulties in transparently clarify what normative assumptions that went into constructing 'the system' as some-thing that we can talk about and debate. I will return to this.

Another problem is that - although this is mere speculation since I have not seen any real studies on this issue - a system's perspective could create an image of the social/manager/human as somebody who can potentially find a set control knobs, or at least work out a set of practices that can control the system and/or generate more resilient trajectories. This means that it creates the idea that we can find practices that can sustain a certain state (a set of feedbacks) of the system (or transform it on will...; transformative capacity). I know that I might be oversimplifying here, but bear with me as I am trying to formulate a concern that I believe is worth debating.

These practices (or control knobs) are in contemporary theory building often thought of as social learning among various human actors, that in turn apply their knowledge and recognize changes in the system that can be feed back to create more learning. The image conjured is that human actors live as an active part within a social-ecological systems, and the 'solution' to live sustainably is translated to one of increasing the sensitivity by which human actors can detect, store and make sense of information of environmental change. Heavily influenced by social-ecological systems thinking I have myself participated in creating this type of image (see our publication on scale-crossing brokers and network governance).

This image of social learning (to find "control knobs" through good old social engineering) might not be a big problem in itself as society has always been a collective project to find a way of living together (with humans and non-humans), and/or controlling one another to suppress latent conflicts (systemic approaches are often criticized for not allowing critical analysis). The problem lies rather in that a system's perspective seems to silence the normative notions and assumptions that were used in putting the system together so as for us to be able to talk about it as a system. For academic debates it might be alright (if one believes that the academy is indeed a Tower of Babel), but when these ideas and narratives of 'systems' start entering decision-making, at least I become a bit more suspicious in questioning how 'the system' was put together. At least this is an impression that I have after having read (and being influenced by) the literature coming out from a social-ecological systems perspective.

Professor John Law, Lancaster Univ, UK
A way to complement this type of theory building is to start unpacking the social practices (often scientific practices) that so to speak work "off stage" to stabilize a social-ecological system that we can speak of, and that we can interact with (the 'we' here can be the public, politicians, managers, stakeholders in a co-management arena etc.). This type of un-packing could clarify that we are not really interacting directly with the physicality of the world, but we interact with the physicality of the world through a certain (historically) constructed idea or image or model of the physical world (an image that often states that the system is a constellation of interacting parts with feedback loops, which surely are dynamic, changing and inherently uncertain (to us), but whose parts and feedback loops we nonetheless, it is argued, can be able to grasp, if not in empirical ways, so at least on a conceptual level).

Almost needless to say, but important nonetheless, is that this way of speaking about social-ecological systems does not mean that the physicality of reality is removed. This would be to silence very important actors in the making of 'social-ecological systems'. Instead non-human actors, like plants, animals, microbes, viruses, wind currents, CO2 molecules in the atmosphere and the like, should be seen as part of the game for (scientists, politicians, activists and others in) negotiating a stabilization of a 'social-ecological system' that we can talk about and decide about. If we take biological researchers as an example, they surely need to develop social practices that can trace the many movements of for instance bumblebees to be able to quantify and talk about pollination processes as a "feedback loop within" a 'social-ecological system'. Indeed, science as practice has been a lot about trying to find ways by which to count, measure and re-present non-humans, their movements and flows, and how they interlink to form chains of cause and effects.

A type of research practice (among others most surely) that could help in performing the un-packing of how "social-ecological systems" are being constructed and made public so we can talk about them is of course science and technology studies, and studies using actor-network theory (google these terms and navigate your way so as to put together your own understanding of this rich and rhizomatic school of thought). ANT has been seen as an infralanguage to trace how humans and non-humans interlink to produce facts, narratives, and other matters discussed in public.

To complement social-ecological systems research as it is been practiced today by starting to unpack how social-ecological systems are being made (and re-made), puts epistemological discussions, and eventually ontological discussions, or ontopolitics, as central themes for research and debate. John Law writes (in one of his publicly available papers; "Enacting Naturecultures: a note from STS", page 3):
In relational production this no longer works. Reality is not a fixed thing out there. Instead it pushes us to what Annemarie Mol calls an ‘ontological politics’[11] and Isabelle Stengers and Bruno Latour call ‘ontopolitics’ [12]. The natural, the real, is not a gold standard. It can, at least in principle, be unmade and reconstructed otherwise. And if it can be remade, then within the clinging stickiness of the constructed web of relations, it is possible to ask what kind of reality, what kind of nature, might be both possible and better. Here truth and politics, two versions of the good, are blended together. Inseparably. There is no gold standard.
The 'gold standard' - the metaphor of the 'system' - is being created and re-created, transformed and interpreted. Of course most researchers know that we can never 'see' reality as such, but that we are engaged in acts of translations. However, what happens if we take seriously this idea that "reality is not a fixed thing"? What happens to the practice of research as an individual (me as researcher in the field generating data, me as researcher writing texts, me as researcher communicating/presenting my findings, me discussing with colleagues  etc.) if we take seriously the relational idea that reality continuously comes to us as a negotiated image or model and that it can never come to us in any other way, i.e. 'reality' is not even to be thought of as being somewhere their "behind" all translations? What should we do? How should we do? How should this influential collective project called research and science be practiced? (Need to read and write more on this, see e.g. Noel Castree and Tom MacMillan on 'weak' and 'strong' ANT, "Dissolving Dualisms: Actor-networks and the Re-Imagination of Nature".)

Again, I believe that ethnographic research, cultural studies, anthropology and similar schools of thought and practices have immense collective experience on how to build a new sensitivity into the studies of 'social-ecological systems' that can only deepen the way we speak about these 'systems', i.e. to also speak of their political and cultural underpinnings


[The above was a quick note following the raison d'être of this blog to share (premature) ideas and thoughts. Those interested should also contact Jacob von Heland a young thinker on these issues that continuously challenge me to develop and clarify my (premature) thoughts.] 

References from quote:
11. See Annemarie Mol (1999).
12. See Bruno Latour’s introduction in Isabelle Stengers (1997). The term ‘ontopolitics’ has recently been picked up and developed by Steve Hinchliffe and his co-authors in their (2005).

Balée, William, The Research Program of Historical Ecology. Annual Review of Anthropology, Vol. 35, October 2006. Available at SSRN:

Castree, N. and T. MacMillan. 2001. Dissolving Dualisms: Actor-networks and the Reimagnitation of Nature. Pages 208-224 in N. Castree and B. Braun, editors. Social Nature: Theory, Practice, and Politics. Blackwell, Oxford.


World Historical Ecology Network Seminar at Uppsala University presents:


Abstract. Historical ecology is defined as a research program focusing on time, space, society, and the environment. Environmental changes caused by human activity are understood as landscape transformations and these are measured in terms of replacement rates and distributions of species, among other variables. In Amazonia, these represent complex changes, because of the relative abundance of species, and they are divided into two basic types: primary and secondary landscape transformations. Both kinds of transformations, in principle, are grasped in at least some systems of traditional knowledge (TK), and can be measured quantitatively with tools such as freelisting of the contents of a semantic domain, such as “trees of anthropogenic forests.” Another means to understanding chronology (though not a calendrical or other method of dating per se) of landscape transformation in Amazonia is in the study of language. Languages bear the historical-linguistic residue of landscape transformation, as seen especially in marking reversals. Finally, it is possible to show that heterarchical societies, of a sort that existed in Amazonia both before and after the European conquest, could have caused landscape transformation that is aptly characterized as a control hierarchy.

WILLIAM BALÉE, Ph.D., is Professor of Anthropology at Tulane University in New Orleans, Louisiana, USA. Trained as a sociocultural anthropologist, he has published widely on the subject
 of historical ecology. He has also written extensively on ethnobotany and human ecology more generally in Amazonia, with a focus on languages and cultures associated with the Tupí-Guaraní
 family of languages, in Brazil and Bolivia. His current research involves collaboration with archaeologists on relationships between the monumental enclosures in the Western Brazilian Amazon called geoglyphs and the remaining forests that cover some of these. He continues to carry out fieldwork with the Ka’apor Indians of eastern Amazonian Brazil, especially on issues related to their own knowledge and preservation of their forest habitat.

Thursday, October 14, 2010 at 14.15-16.00  Geijersalen at Campus Engelska Parken, Thunbergsvägen 3H, Uppsala. World Historical Ecology Network Seminar at Uppsala University.