Start › Forums › Courses › Current Debates and Themes in Global Environmental History › April 28th Science, Society, and Power
|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.
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.
|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.
|April 29, 2014 at 15:34 #12550|
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.
|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|
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.
|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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