April 28th Science, Society, and Power

Start Forums Courses Current Debates and Themes in Global Environmental History April 28th Science, Society, and Power

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April 28, 2014 at 11:17 #12510

James Fairhead Response Paper and Replies

April 28, 2014 at 22:27 #12528

Nik Petek – Reflections on seminar and lecture with James Fairhead, 28-04-2014

I wish to reflect on Fairhead’s lecture on ‘Dark Earths of Africa’, which took place in the afternoon and how archaeology can be used to discerning past human occupation by looking at darker soils.
In the lecture, Prof Fairhead was talking about how some of the best soils for cultivation are dark humic soils which were anthropogenically created or modified to contain a higher amount of nutrients, intentionally and unintentionally, through general human occupation. These soils are then years later used for cultivation and are highly prized, so much that people steal it. Because these soils are created by human occupation, archaeologists will eventually be working with and within these soils, and many routes of investigation open up analysing these soils from an environmental archaeological perspective.

Looking for darker soils and sediments or just sediments different to their surrounding is nothing new in archaeology. In fact, sediments and soils different from their surrounding are prime indicators of human occupation and/or activity. We can start with small features, such as post holes, which leave a small circular imprint (seen in plan) in the layer they cut. Graves, ditches, and many other modifications of the land also leave an imprint within the layers they cut through containing darker sediment/soil. It is how archaeologists discern features. That is not to say that all human modifications of the land create „darker spots“ or that only human activity creates a more humic sediment, but in many cases that holds true.As a discipline, then, archaeology is well placed to identify past human landscape modifications.

Many methods can be used to study the African Dark Earths from an archaeological perspective. You can survey a large extent of an area containing dark earths, e.g. in Guinea, and from that determine the level of occupation and density at any one point in time (of course that also requires collecting other archaeological evidence from which we can discern relative time periods). You can combine taphonomic and phytolith study (like at Catalhöyük) to determine plant use and where and how these were used and their parts disposed of. There is also the possibility of using geoarchaeological methods to discern the formation and later use of dark soils by humans. You can also draw correlations between the dark soils and the plant species present around and on them, and see which were propagated by humans (but not necessarily) and/or see how the landscape was modified post-abandonment.

Many correlations can be drawn between these African Dark Earth and pastoralists’ abandoned bomas in East Africa, on which a reasonable amount of research has already been done. Pastoralists pen their livestock, which causes an accumulation of dung within that pen. After a couple of years that settlement is abandoned and slowly vegetation starts to take it over. However, only specific grasses are adapted enough to grow within the nitrogen-rich soils created from dung decomposition, and they stand out in the landscape as glades. These glades attract later on a number of browsers and increase the biodiversity of the landscape.
Both these glades and the African Dark Earth are anthropogenic, and they show, in the long run, how human intervention can help the environment prosper. Moreover, they contain data on human dwelling within the environment and how humans changed it through time.

April 29, 2014 at 09:47 #12545

James Fairhead’s short lecture this morning nicely complemented Fairhead and Leach’s book, Science, Society and Power. During the seminar I focused on question three, which dealt in part with how popular concepts can impact academic environmental discourse.

In particular I found Fairhead’s account of the process of investigating the historical record and categorization of landscape in Guinea very pertinent to this question. The inspiration for his future academic inquiries was found in the misleading description of forest growth in Guinea. How I understood part of his conclusion was that after further investigation into the matter, Fairhead established that the decolonization of nature had never occurred, thus decades of ‘scientific’ conclusions had been made on a colonial ideological foundation. I felt that this example highlighted two aspects to me: the power behind the idea of science as objective, and the discursive manner in which politics and society actually seem to infuse institutional science.

As Fairhead mentioned, his work lead him away from a concrete investigation of land use in West Africa and instead made him question the power structures that are involved with this type of science and ecology, in particular his area of study to do with forestry. What he wound up with is his collaborated work, Science, Society and Power. Fairhead mentioned that it was a difficult book to write, and I reflected that much while reading it, as the different layers one had to dig through; the institutions, funding agencies, government bureaus, academic settings, and so forth created a very entangled web.

The seminar and readings also reminded me of Steve Hinchliffe and his book, The Geographies of Nature. Just as Fairhead attributed the misreading of the Guinean landscape to a science steeped in colonialism, Hinchliffe draws his readers attention to the social and political influences on Charles Darwin, and how those may have contributed to his scientific conclusions. This idea of science as objective is a dangerous one, as it gives a free pass to some conclusions as long as they are based on science, or in more extreme cases, even pseudoscience. While politics within institutions are to some extent a given, and issues over finance and funding, it is possible for more subtle cultural ideas to also influence scientific contributions.

April 29, 2014 at 11:13 #12548

Reflection on yesterday’s discussion

By Yongliang Gao

How are concepts of indigenous knowledge and traditional environmental knowledge used to incorporate local knowledge into global epidemic/socio-political networks of environmental research and policy? Where do inconsistencies and instabilities arise in this process?

As a group, we first discussed the difference between indigenous knowledge and traditional environmental knowledge. We argued that the indigenous knowledge seems to stem from the local community while the local people pass through the indigenous knowledge to next generations and hence it becomes a part of the traditional knowledge speaking from the long run. At the same time, the traditional knowledge can also reach the local community and influence or even change the local knowledge in some way. In a word, the indigenous knowledge and traditional environmental knowledge are interconnected and interdependent. Personally, I believe the inconsistencies and instabilities arise when a global researcher inquiries the process of passing through the knowledge from one generation to another. When the indigenous or say traditional knowledge is missed out or overstated in that process, the consistency and stability of the knowledge will consequently be interrupted.

Apart from that, while watch the documentary Second Nature on YouTube, which recommended by Nik and Anna, I doubted that to what extent can we really trust the local people? This is really significant to me as they are responsible for recording and transferring their knowledge. It seems to me that very few of them in the documentary were educated and possessed the basic knowledge of their own land. Thus, when the outsider researchers come, how can they integrate their knowledge with the locals is a big concern for me.

April 29, 2014 at 13:02 #12549

One thing that I really found intriguing about Science, Society, and Power, but also reiterated during the seminar and lecture with Fairhead was how governments, policy makers, and academics are incessantly looking to identify the culprit of environmental degradation. While this seems logical, as in order to ‘conserve’ an environment you must determine what threatens it, Fairhead and Leach show that it is imperative to be critical about the validity of assessments of environmental degradation, and how such narratives arise.
In Misreading the African Landscape Fairhead and Leach expose that contrary to the popular opinion of scientists and policy makers in Guinea, forests were actually expanding due to population growth. During the afternoon seminar, Fairhead also detailed how agriculturalists in Guinea were creating and exploiting “black earths”, which are soils that are fertilely enhanced from the refuse of villages. Fairhead discussed this practice and compared it to the global warming driven business of biochar production. Biochar is a form of carbon offset; essentially it is taking agricultural waste or other flora, turning it into charcoal, and then burying it so it does not get released into the atmosphere during decomposition. Fairhead discussed how anthropogenic burning and burying of waste has been enhancing soils in forests throughout South America and sub-Saharan Africa for a very long time. By bringing attention to ‘anthropogenic dark soils’ Fairhead further asserts that ‘traditional lifeways’ of forest dwelling people in Guinea are creating conditions that benefit forests rather than destroy them, again deconstructing uncritical discourse centered around humans threatening nature.
Yesterday I was reminded of how archaeologists, ecologists, and conservationists in East Africa have published on how abandoned pastoralist settlements actually enhance the soil fertility on savannah landscapes. These publications also came about after decades of discourse regarding biodiversity loss and erosion due to cattle overstocking.
There is such elegance in Fairhead and Leach’s counter-narratives of human forest interactions in Guinea, it is enjoyable to read about how the misunderstood local heroes who conserve forests are finally being conceptualized as eco-friends rather than eco-foes. However, the really fascinating part about their work is that they do not stop at challenging assumptions of forest degradation, but they also investigate how these assumptions come into being, and how scientists, policy makers, governments, and media are implicit. By unpacking the process through which environmental threats and ‘indigenous people’ are conceptualized we learn so much more about the real impacts of our work as academics. In academic we are conditioned to authoritatively discuss things like landscapes, indigenous people, and environmental crises in a certain way and we must constantly be reflexive about our world-views. A tenant of historical ecology is that humans are neither implicitly helpful nor harmful to their environments and I’m grateful to Fairhead and Leach for pointing out the difficulties and value of overcoming these assumptions.

April 29, 2014 at 15:34 #12550
Sanna Karlsson

Reflection Paper on James Fairhead´s Discussion Seminar

I was intruiged by the introduction Fairhead held in the beginning of the discussion seminar. He spoke of his own research journey and how it had changed throughout the years. He began his research with the presumption that the desert in West Africa was once covered more or less by forests. That was the custom to believed and knowledge presented at the time in (what I understood) the Universities and the political world. Of course, it is then understandable that this was his starting point, from which he wanted to investigate how the forests had decreased the last centuries.
However, as we heard from him yesterday, this information was completely wrong! The truth then emerged as he research that the forests had not decreased but rather that the circular forests he observed where planted there by the people in the villages from the very beginning. Thus, Fairhead had to rethink his whole approach to his research. Later he instead investigated the power dynamics of society, politics and science and how they are intertwined. How is it that the truth about something (in this case, the forest) can be so distorted?
The means of power is not necessarily connected to the truth I believe. The want for a position of power can be driven by various motives. It can be driven by the want for power by itself, and this may be very destructive and can decieve us. If someone wants power to simpy rule, the person might overlook what is good and truly beneficial for the people over who he or she is have the power. Both good and evil/truth and lies can promote a power position. Therefore I believe it can be dangerous to be wanting a position of power for the power´s sake, since the power may also decieve and corrupt the morality/integrity of the person. If the person (or politics/science etc. for that matter) however is yearning for power in order to display truth, goodness and just, the truth is not as easily distorted. I believe the yearning for goodness must precede the want for power, cause seeking truth and goodness for it´s own sake becomes power. Goodness and truth is power.
Since real knowledge (what I call truth) is uphelf by the people wanting it and seeking it, people in a power position might want this, but simply not have the knowledge or access to the real knowledge. Let me explain why I think this is interesting in relation to the discussion seminar, as I feel I almost drift away into abstract reasoning on truth and power here. We often get upset when we feel we have been given the wrong information on facts of different kinds, that is, we have been given lies instead of truth (as in the case of the ”abundant forests in West Africa”). This can be of course simply frustruating, since we realize that we might be decived on other facts concerning life as well. Should we then be critical towards every bit of information we find? No. But perhaps learning to hear both sides of an issue in greater measure. I believe the two lessons one can learn is the one just mentioned, but also to be concious of our own motives as we seek knowledge. Do we really want the truth, or in what areas might distort the truth to suit us the best? I this way, we learn to be more transparent and it makes us better equipped to seek and present truth, and not be mislead by the means of power of different kinds currently surrounding us in society, such as ”what science, or politics” might say. Not to say these are wrong, but we will be better equipped to discern if they are if we keep our own motives pure to seek truth.

April 29, 2014 at 19:46 #12551

In response to Yongliang Gao:

I’m interested in the latter half of your reflection there, and your comment on ‘we’ and I’m assuming you mean the academic community, can trust information relayed by local people concerning forest histories, conservation strategies etc. Certainly there are many communities where oral histories and traditions are passed down in ways that could be seen as comparatively informal, semi-permanent, and prone to human error and manipulation. In addition, as a researcher, being an outsider, asking people to discuss these oral histories and traditions to the best of their abilities requires a lot of mutual respect and trust which can be really difficult to establish in the time frames allotted to say a masters student.

However, if you as a researcher are using ‘indigenous knowledge’ or ‘traditional environmental knowledge’ (TEK as it is known in the policy world) to substantiate an argument there are many ways in which you can evaluate the applicability of the statements relayed to you. Certainly one should be critical and consider the strengths and weaknesses of any data collected during the research process. Just as Fairhead and Leach discuss, we should be critical of the knowledge we inherit from government sources, policy makers, and other academics.

I believe that looking at a variety of data sources to examine the fallibility and biases which may be present in oral/participant observation gathered evidence is a good way to go. For instance if local people say the forest is not shrinking, look at historical photos, old government records, the diaries of explorers and travellers in the region and see if your data all indicate similar trends or if there appear to be distortions.

But it is so important to be critical and challenge all data sources and TEK is not in and of itself inherently more or less ‘good’ than any other resource for addressing research issues. That being said, Fairhead and Leach do learn a lot from the Guinean people they interview in the film, and actually the ‘local environmental knowledge’ turns out to be much more authentic and valid in some respects than the government/policy-maker/scientist rhetoric (I discuss this in my reflection paper posted above). A general rule may be to use as many different data sources, informants, perspectives etc as possible and evaluate the authenticity of them all with equal rigour.

April 30, 2014 at 13:33 #12555
Sanna Karlsson

Response to Morag Ramsey´s reflection:

Reading your reflection, I can no more than agree on the issues you brought forth, concerning how science is rather bias than is it objective, just as Fairhead also explained. He learn that himself the hard way. His book, written together with his co-worker Leach, named ”Science, Society and Power” entails this subjectivity when it comes to science. As you explained, the relations between science, society and power truly interconnect into a very entangled web.
As I read the book I experienced the same complexity between these different factors as you did. And as Fairhead said, the book was difficult to write due to this complexity of how science, society and power affect each other in diverse ways. This made me think, why so complex? Why is it so difficult to understand how different opinions and knowledge get mixed up and affect each other? Could it be so, that we sometimes let us be led by the ones in power and their position of authority of knowledge too quickly, without thinking for ourselves, even though we know that the ones in power, society or science, can be bias and not always hold the truth of things (and that this complicates matters)?
These are complicated questions by themselves. However, I believe that if knowledge was presented apart from influential powers of different kinds, we might be much more likely to distinguish what is obviously bias and what is closer to being objective. To avoid this entangled web and make sense of what is what, that is. For it seems like to me that even though we are aware of how bias science, or society can be at times, we still fall into the trap of handing our independent thinking over to the scientists or authorities to let them tell us what to do, or what knowledge to believe in. Maybe I partly over-exaggerate here, but I do think we find it comfortable to do so many times, and let someone else think for us without evaluating the facts given to us in a just way. I know I do.
I believe a lesson to learn from this entangled web, is to exercise independent thinking. Even so, independent thinking cannot be completely separate from collective thinking, since we are part of a larger community. However, to understand how to distinguish fact from fact in a society sometimes full of mainstream thinking people, some independent and sound critical thinking (best in collaboration with people who have the same aim though – that is, not to buy into whatever society tells them) will be beneficial in order to get closer to objectivity. The actual working task in which we operate in life will be where we dig deeper into understanding subjectivity from objectivity in our work we have before us. But for other information which comes our way, and in which we do have the time to investigate deeper into, we inevitably have to settle with perhaps quite subjective understanding for the moment. The key I believe, is to be open about this subjective understanding, so we are open for re-evaluation when opposing knowledge or ideas concerning the matter may arise.

April 30, 2014 at 21:08 #12556

In response to Sanna Karlsson’s reflection:

I also found Fairhead’s talk interesting on how his research progressed from the very beginnings. Furthermore, I really noticed how Fairhead was critical of himself and his research and lets this criticism guide him to future revelations. Fairhead was definitely aware of his motives (as you say in your reflection that we should be aware), but only after he finished his research and had time to look back. Personally, I think there is an advantage in that, deciphering your motives after the finished research. If you are trying to be critical of your motives beforehand, it can happen that you start doubting your motives if they are right/appropriate, which hinders your research.

For the rest of your reflection, I agree that goodness and the truth should guide our research. But I don’t think that scientists, academia, or anybody for that matter (excluding people who really do want to harm and do bad) would make their research harmful to anybody, in the short or long term. What a person believes is good, and what they think is worth researching is dependent on the time they lived in, the experiences they had throughout their lives, and what they think is interesting. As you already know, the discussion you have opened up in your reflection is a huge one, and can go on for years (literally, not only figuratively).

There is also the problem of there not being only one truth, as any post-modernist would say. I believe that. There are multiple truths, and truths, again, like goodness, are time dependent. The truth depends on the morals of the time, the experiences a person has, and what that person wants to achieve. There is a great talk on TED called “The long reach of reason”, which (among other things) talks about how people have changed their thinking and way of seeing the world and the truth through time, becoming less violent and more sympathetic, and how long it takes for a single thought to spread well enough within the community to be considered a general accepted truth.

I think to some extent certain powerholders will guide research, but I agree we have to be fully open of what we are doing in our research and how we are trying to or did achieve it.

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