Yesterday I wrote a bit of a ranting critique of social-ecological systems (SES) theory. It was helpful, and since then I have clarified my thinking a little. In yesterday’s post I said:
It’s hard to articulate exactly what my problem with SES theory is, but I think it comes down to the framing of these “linkages” as “systems.” … Framing the bait worm industry as a “system” erases its heterogeneity, and the processes – intentional and unintentional – that produce it.
I’ve realized that this is not a new issue – it’s the old structure versus agency debate framed in new terms.* It is exactly the issue that theories of performativity – which I invoked in my post yesterday – were designed to address. With this in mind, I am convinced that I am at least on the right track.
The structure/agency debate has a long history in the social sciences. The question is, how do you reconcile larger patterns of activity with individual abilities to navigate and change the patterns through their actions? Ignoring the larger patterns leads to methodological individualism which manifests politically as Regan and Thatcher style “up by your bootstraps” policies. There is no need for social programs, or government intervention – these things can only get in the way of individuals’ abilities to choose what’s best for them and lift themselves out of poverty, oppression, etc. On the other hand, focusing too much on structure leads to a politics of impotence. The structure is set, and any attempt to change it is already anticipated by the structure, so there is no hope for creating a better structure. Few, if any, actually subscribe to the strong structuralist position – most take some kind of middle path where people have some capacity to change the structure or at least navigate within it. However, these middle grounds are often poorly theorized: what exactly is the structure? how is it composed? how is it maintained over time? how do individuals or collectives go about making changes to it?
I don’t want to get into answering these questions here, but it seems to me that this is the same issue underlying SES theory. If a set of relationships is characterized as an SES – whether resilient or not, well or poorly fuctioning – then what happens to the desires and intentions of the organisms – including the humans – who make up that system? Their intentions are essentially subverted to the functioning of the system as a whole. Now it’s tricky because SES theory has defined functioning of the system in a way that is politically acceptable in most ways. It promotes democratic decision-making, collaborative research, diversity, etc. But these political ideals are undermined (or overmined, perhaps) by the problematic position of the sciences in relation to the system.
Scientists – both natural and social – from an SES perspective are the ones who can grasp the system as a whole. As a result, they are not simply actors within the system with their own unique set of interests. Instead, they become the arbiters of whether or not the system is functioning and resilient (and since these concepts are poorly defined, there is a lot of leeway in terms of what a resilient and functioning system might look like). The authority of the sciences is, therefore, maintained, even if they engage in democratic and collaborative processes. These become merely perfunctory ways for scientists to “intervene” to “change behavior” and move the system in the direction that they want.
Before you complain that I am anti-science, let me explain. I am not against science – I think it plays an important, even essential, role in building a more just and sustainable world. My concern is that, in maintaining the authority of Science as an institution, we risk creating bad relationships between scientists and the public. The result will not be a more sustainable or resilient system, but a lot of backlash and controversy that perpetuates the problems and might eventually – in an extreme case – lead to either the dismantling of the sciences or a fascist approach to environmental management.
In place of authority, I want the sciences to have trust. I want to be able to interact with people and work with them – on a genuinely equal level – to figure out the best way to live sustainably. This means stepping back from ideologies that position ourselves as the ultimate arbiters of what’s best (e.g. resilience), and instead working on building relationships with and between others – human and non-human alike – so that we can all figure it out together.
It is for that reason that I want to propose an alternative to SES theory in, as I described it yesterday, the idea of performative ecology. I won’t go into all of the details about how the performative approach and SES theory differ, but the basic idea is that, in place of systems, there are only actors (of different scales) navigating and negotiating their relationships with one another. The practical result is that scientists are situated back within the ecologies they study, and their role is that described above – the composition of relationships with and between actors in the ecology. This will make for a better, more effective science, and – hopefully – a more just, sustainable, and, possibly, “resilient” world.
*This is what happens when social scientists borrow concepts from the natural sciences without an equivalent feedback of social theory – we end up recapitulating the same old debates in new terminology.