Featured Research

Michael Dove Interviews Emily Wanderer, 2014 Rappaport Finalist

MRD: Your site – Mexico’s National Institute for Respiratory Disease or INER – and your topic – the role that concepts of air pollution and disease play in making the Mexican nation – are, to say the least, quite unique.  How did you come to be there in the first place and studying these topics?  What was the first ‘aha’ moment that led you to think of this as your dissertation topic?

Emily: I found my way to my dissertation topic through a combination of strategy and serendipity (as I imagine many people do). I have long been interested in the development of biosecurity practices and the intersection of science and politics. Early on I had done ethnographic research in a biodefense and infectious disease research lab in Chicago, and I wanted to build on that experience for my dissertation. The outbreak of H1N1, or swine flu, that started in Mexico, drew my attention. The outbreak was a surprise to public health experts, who had anticipated that the next influenza pandemic would be one of bird flu from Southeast Asia. The outbreak generated debates in Mexico, as people argued about why it happened and what should be done about it. Different people blamed the outbreak on the industrialization of Mexican agriculture, the lack of funding for public health, the absence of regulations, neoliberalism, and even human genetics.

Intrigued by these debates, I went to Mexico to study the development of biosecurity. I wanted to know how scientists produced knowledge about Mexican biology, and how this knowledge informed political projects to protect health. In short, I was interested in how science and the nation are co-constituted through biosecurity projects. I thought Mexico would be a provocative site to study these issues because while it’s deeply implicated in western projects and foundationally conditioned by European expansion, indigenous worlds are also essential to understanding Mexico. This combination of European and indigenous worlds continues to be an important element of the collective imagination of the nation and political ideology, informing the ways people think about the population and serving as the basis for arguments that Mexican populations are different. Further, looking at scientific and health research on the periphery helps demonstrate how contingent and local relations shapes discourse and scientific research about biological organisms. This is especially relevant in an age of global health and conservation regulations. Work in Mexico helps critique or complicate the idea of the universality of biology (both as discipline and life forms).

Initially, I planned to look at biosecurity in relation to infectious disease. However, what I found was that while in the U.S. biosecurity tends to be defined as protecting the population from intentionally introduced disease, in Mexico, when people talk about biosecurity they talk about health and the environment much more broadly – not just human health, but also ecological health, invasive species, biotechnology, and genetically modified organisms. My dissertation ended up being a multi-sited project, and the paper that I presented for the Rappaport prize addressed just one of those sites. In addition to working at Mexico’s National Institute for Respiratory Disease, I did fieldwork with conservationists eradicating invasive species on Mexico’s islands, and with ecologists at the National Institute of Ecology who were involved in regulating the use of genetically modified organisms.

Emily Wanderer

MRD: One of your most interesting findings is that the history of HIV/AIDS in Mexico, by comparison with the U.S., is seen by Mexican and U.S. scientists alike as an ‘asset’.  Crucial differences – Mexican doctors tends to not see HIV/AIDS patients until much later in the progression of the disease; on the other hand Mexico’s relatively late arrival to establishing a national HIV/AIDS treatment program means that it did not repeat the U.S. history of treating patients with suboptimal anti-retroviral therapies – means that Mexico has many patients with personal illness histories that are rare in the U.S. As one American doctor visiting the INER said, “It’s a fantastic opportunity”, for research.  Can you say more about the significance of this perceived time-lag in disease treatment between developed and late-developing countries, which in a way is reminiscent of another purported time-lag currently in the news, namely that between early industrializing countries that are now curbing their carbon emissions and late-industrializing countries that are loathe to do so?

Emily: This question gets at something that was difficult for me to grapple with, which was how to think through my interlocutors’ tendency to articulate difference in terms of temporality or a time-lag. As Johannes Fabian writes, ethnographic narratives have often placed their subjects outside of the time of the anthropologist writing them. I didn’t want to replicate that kind of temporal relationship, but I was quite interested in the ways that the physicians and other scientists I talked with proposed various gaps in times between different places, and in thinking through how people in other disciplines view time, and see various people or places as located in different times, or make reference to different historical periods to ground their work.

For example, determining whether a species is native or invasive often entails choosing a particular temporal reference point for an ecosystem. The Mexican National Strategy for Invasive Species, an important planning document developed by the federal government’s National Commission for the Study and Use of Biodiversity gives definitions of key terms. The strategy defines native species as “those naturally found in a region as a result of a long process of adaptation to the existing environmental conditions,” while alien species, on the other hand, are species occurring outside of their past or present natural range. So, whether a species is native or alien is in some ways a question of the duration of their presence in a place.

I did fieldwork with conservationists from the Grupo de Ecología y Conservacíon de Islas, an NGO that works on islands in Mexico, eradicating invasive species in an effort to restore a past natural order. Islands have long been imagined as utopian spaces where the social and natural order can be rethought, and where the past has been preserved. Following the work of GECI scientists, I found that while they did not see islands as places out of time or where the past had been precisely preserved, they did represent a more recoverable past than the mainland, and places where it would be possible to undo some of the homogenization of the environment brought about by processes of globalization and capitalism.

I’m hesitant to frame the question of carbon emissions and industrializing in terms of a time-lag, which to me implies that industrialization in all countries should follow the same path and that some countries are merely further behind on this path. I suppose I’m an optimist, in that I hope that late-industrializing countries might be places in which a better path can be found. Further, I believe that ultimately it is the responsibility of early-industrializing countries like the U.S. to radically curb their carbon emissions, regardless of the activities of other countries.

MRD: Another major finding of your’s concerns the link between disease and national identity and boundaries.  You demonstrate that the Mexican medical establishment believes in a uniquely Mexican biology and so, contra the prevalent idea that “disease knows no boundaries”, they see the particular manifestation of HIV/AIDS there as a specifically Mexican problem, one moreover that unites the populace in facing a shared national risk.  This contrasts starkly with the recent U.S. stance toward the Ebola outbreak in Africa, which was seen – albeit with some exceptions within the U.S. political establishment – as a shared global risk.  Your case seems to be another example of how the processes of globalization that were until fairly recently seen as rolling uniformly over the globe, can encounter locally opposing tendencies, in the most unexpected places and topics – as Mexican HIV/AIDS surely is, yes?

Emily: Yes, definitely. The rhetoric of disease knowing no borders has been very powerful in public health, and there’s been a push to move beyond state-centric or nation-based health projects towards treating health and biology as a global system. Part of the argument for this change is that globalization has transformed the nature of health risks and essentially dissolved the borders between nations, at least in terms of disease.

This move, however, has generated tension in Mexico between international goals and expectations and local needs. For example, in the case of HIV/AIDS, the scientists I worked with argued that it was essential to understand the epidemiology and viral diversity of HIV in Mexico. The argued that HIV was different from other places as a result of the genomic characteristics and immune responses of the human population of Mexico, as well as the political, social, and economic history that shaped trajectories of access to antiretroviral therapy in different countries. Standard reference strains used in HIV research that come primarily from U.S. patients may miss important aspects of viral life in Mexico. Conducting research similarly requires scientists to analyze and reckon with the way local biology is different – how the microbial and viral ecology around the lab and the state of the immune systems of lab workers are not the same globally and must be accounted for in analyzing the risk of various lab procedures. So, while organizations like the WHO seek to implement global health systems and regulations, scientists in Mexico are dealing with biology that refuses to be global, and instead remains idiosyncratically local.

MRD: Your research clearly also contributes to ongoing discussions within anthropology about the sense of place.  As you point out, attitudes toward air within the Mexican medical establishment complicate ideas of place – by expanding boundaries (of those affected by pollution and disease) outwards; at the same time as the aforementioned notion of a uniquely local, Mexican biology contracts boundaries (viz., of a unique HIV/AIDS threat) inwards.  Can you expand on these divergent tendencies and on what you think you can contribute to current theorizing regarding place in anthropology?  

Emily: My sense of one way that these divergent tendencies are linked is that they both tell us something about the politics of scale. Both air and HIV are in this case abstractions or incorporeal elements that people are using to understand their connection to one another. The borders around air or biology could be drawn in myriad ways. I’m interested in the particular connections that people see in the movement of air or patterns of viral infection. The scale at which the boundaries of care or concern could be drawn is flexible, and in this case it tended to be drawn at a national level, encompassing the entire population. In this way I see echoes in current scientific practice of historical political and social projects to unite the entire nation through the process of mestizaje, or the mixture of indigenous and European populations to produce a homogenized national body.

Regarding place in other sense, I’m also interested in places of science, particularly the lab and field. Historian of science Robert Kohler outlined the divide between lab and field, identifying them as two distinct cultural domains with different languages, customs, material, and moral economies. I suggest, however, that this dichotomy did not hold for the scientific practices I observed. Neither the lab nor the field in Mexico were purely lab or purely field. Instead, both represented hybrids. Laboratories, even those that specialize in containment, were not separated from the city in which they were located, and the scientists I studied did not think of the lab as placeless. Similarly, field sites were transformed into laboratories in which large-scale scientific experiments were conducted. The work of ecologists was not simply to characterize natural places but also to intervene in them. I also argue for the importance of a third scientific space, the office. The office was distinct from but also entangled with the lab and the field, and was where scientists engaged with bureaucratic processes and paperwork and shaped the administration of Mexican ecosystems and agriculture.

MRD: You speak of your research, in part, as a study of the way that “biosecurity projects” contribute to the production of Mexican science and nation.  For a decade and more, many anthropologists have drawn on Foucault’s concept of ‘biopolitics’ to analyze similar sorts of issues.  How does your research contribute to – or move beyond – this literature on biopolitics?

Emily: One thing that I hope to contribute to the extensive literature on science, nation, and biopolitics is an understanding of how biopolitics and biosecurity have been extended beyond the reglation of human life to encompass animal, plant, and microbial worlds. In my dissertation I bring together accounts of scientists working on lab safety, urban air quality, viral ecologies, biotechnology and bureaucracy, and island laboratories in order to analyze what happens when biology becomes the subject of security practices.

By analyzing these wide-ranging security practices, I can show how the nation is being defined in scientific work, as people establish who or what is within a group and who is excluded from group membership. In these practices, scientists make claims about how biology has been shaped by history, culture, and environment. They define which life forms are to be protected, which constitute a threat or danger, and they make arguments for how to adjust human behavior to improve the health of people and the environment more generally. I argue that Mexican biopolitics have become multispecies projects, and as a result, disciplining and regulating the health of the nation entails thinking about many kinds of life forms and their interactions.

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Shafqat Hussain Interviews Jerry Zee, 2014 Rappaport Prize Co-Winner

Shafqat: Please tell us something about yourself and why you chose environmental anthropology (political ecology) as a subject for your PhD?

Jerry: I grew up in California, did my bachelor’s in linguistics and a master’s in anthropology, and I’m currently finishing my PhD in anthropology at UC Berkeley. After graduating college, on something of a whim, I moved to China to work as a program manager at an environmental non-profit in Shanghai, which was my first real education into environmental politics as well as my first education on China. Both were disorienting to me, in the most exciting way. And what was clear and fascinating to me was that both thinking with Chinese politics and thinking with environmental problems would demand the assembling of a critical and political vocabulary that could be glimpsed in things I’d learned as an undergraduate and yet was still yet to come. Because of my job at the time, I was confronted with the feeling that thinking with environments would open something about politics and life in China that couldn’t be pinpointed in any other way, which is what brought me to political ecology, which was an opening into a lot of the other things that populate the analytic and ethnographic landscape of my dissertation. The work has emerged in conversation and encounter across many ways of knowing and acting with environments; my committee is half anthropologists and half geographers, my fieldwork brought me in contact with forestry administrators, ecologists, and Aeolian physicists, all of which have left a stamp on my thinking.

Jerry Zee

Shafqat: What is your dissertation about and what interests you in this particular issue?

Jerry: My dissertation is titled “States of the Wind: Dust Storms and a Political Meteorology of Contemporary China.” Broadly, my dissertation is about dust storms and politics in northern China. Since the early 2000s, the Chinese state has redoubled its programs for combating dust storms which, on the wind, connect desertification and exposed sand in inland, upwind places, with many places downwind along the wind’s path. These include Beijing, but also, over days, Seoul, Japan, and even the US. These programs of ecological construction against the movements of sand on wind have aimed essentially to transform the social and physical topographies of upwind China through environmental engineering, forestry, and new forms of social management oriented toward something called ‘environment.’ I became interested first in how the trajectories of dust storms also suddenly became the template of a political zone for intervening in strange weather, and then, in how the demand to control dust storms worked especially at controlling the relationship between the earth and the wind. My fieldwork tried to replicate this movement, and different fieldsites are arranged as moments in the airstream of a possible dust storm. Dust storms are fascinating as an environmental problem because demanded an attunement to the capacities of sandy earth to become roving atmospheres. So in each chapter I tried to think with sand, wind, and environments as elements in configuring particular political experiments, and then asked how the governing of human life – politics – is given when the focus is not ‘society’ per se, but the ways in which human, botanical, geological, and Aeolian things configure an ‘environment’ which in some way demands a rethinking of some political formation, either at the level of those governing, or for the anthropologist trying to make sense of a politics attuned to entanglements of environmental things.

In the Rappaport paper, “Groundwork,” the problem I wanted to think with was how to grasp a ‘becoming-environmental’ of power in desertifying Inner Mongolia. I was especially interested in how the entanglement of two roots could become taken up as a template for a political understanding of the relationship between human behaviors – which could be adjusted by the configuration of an economic environment – and ecological and geophysical conditions, which could be at least partly controlled by calibrating human behaviors with the demands of a desired ecology. In the meantime, as I wrote it, I realized that anti-desertification politics with a stage for a rethinking of many ideas that you pointed out in your comments: agency, economy, environment.

Shafqat: In your work you argue that the Chinese state achieves an ecological outcome (stop desertification) by manipulating the response of its subjects to economic conditions, created in the economic sphere, thus bypassing the need to target its citizens’ subjectivities. How is this model of neoliberal conservation approach different from other such approaches which use economic incentives to alter behavior? I guess what I am asking is what is specific about the Chinese case here? Also, an implication of such an analysis is that there is no room for individual agency or consciousness. If so, where does your work stand in relation to conventional political ecology, which proclaims to be mission oriented?

Jerry: You’re certainly right to note that there isn’t anything exceptionally novel about thinking about the market as a corrective to environmental degradation. In the chapter what I was more interested in doing was to think about how the creation – through economic subsidies, manipulation of demand, etc. – of an economic environment to ‘catch’ ex-herders after grazing bans raised a certain question of how what the market is and what it does, not as a force of its own, but as part of a theory of human action and its amenability to conditions in an economic ‘environment.’ I’m interested here in coming into a conversation about what ‘marketization’ in China has meant, that has argued that market economics have been deployed as a way in which the state bolsters its own sovereignty, instead of a kind of post-Cold War hope that markets will somehow topple ‘socialism’ and drive political change.

What I really wanted to say is that in these programs the economic sphere becomes one ‘environment’ through which an ecological environment can be managed. They are entangled in such a way that politics aims to transform one to transform the other. And at the center of this is a new conception of the human subject as ‘environmental,’ in two ways. First, insofar as they act in an economic ‘environment,’ their behaviors can be conditioned as the desired response to stimuli. ‘Economic motivation’ becomes an interface between political plans and ecological change. So this is a second sense in which we can think of an ‘environmental subjectivity’ in its intimate relationship with power – manipulating behavior which has physical effects rather than teaching people to, say, care for the environment, becomes a way in which their status as being in a physical environment becomes operationalized politically. And if these programs are neoliberal, it won’t be in the sense of a pull-back of the state against the powers of a market that yearns to be free, but instead, following Aihwa Ong, neoliberalism will be a mobile strategy and logic of intervention, wherein a certain kind of subject is presumed in power.

So while agency or consciousness in a classical sense of an intimate governing of how people feel or experience themselves as subjects takes a different form, but it doesn’t go away. In ‘environmental’ programs, so posed, the agency of individuals that’s at the very center. I argue that ‘agency’ is anticipated and manipulated as the desired response to changing environmental conditions – it’s already presumed, but in the form of a controlled reaction to a well-calibrated economic environment. Agency therefore isn’t somehow outside of these programs. Rather it’s the very condition in which they can operate. Shafqat: The ethnographic details of your paper focus primarily on one source: Mr. Li. Can you please talk about sources, and how are people coping with this transition from commercial livestock raising to commercial medicinal plant farming?

Jerry: In the chapter I focus on one family, partly to focus questions of ex-herding life. I’m not making a claim about representativeness, and I don’t think that there is a generalizable experience, but I will say that the ‘choice’ to become a farmer of medicinal plants (and de facto forester) is not made simply. While forestry agencies and local government aim to create economic conditions that over-determine this choice to grow roots as the natural ‘response’ of ex-herders, there remains an ongoing capacity to respond otherwise, a response-ability, to borrow from Donna Haraway. What I will say is that ecological degradation is distributed unevenly across the landscape, and this makes a big difference in whether or not people think of government programs and grazing bans as a ‘way out’ (chulu), as the Li family explained it, or as something else. Some families continue to hold onto grazing, but see it ending in coming years under political, economic, and ecological pressure, after which they will re-evaluate, while others try to cash out early to get in at the ground floor of some of these economic programs.

What I don’t discuss in the paper is that these programs are one moment in a broader ecology of economic interventions that aim to get people off the land or to hold them there as environmental actors. So, there are ecological migration villages and other real estate investments and subsidies that the local government supports, there are attempts to encourage new markets in things like stone-collecting (there is a tradition in China of loving strange rocks) or desert tourism on desertified sands. But what these programs share is that they aim to manage human habitation and behavior in a moment of ecological and economic precarity on the land. Shafqat: At what stage of graduate work are you at right now? I guess I am asking how close are you to finishing your dissertation and what are the future plans, especially in terms of a new project?

Jerry: I’m currently finishing my dissertation, and am on track to graduate from UC Berkeley in May of this year. My future plans remain up in the air. My future projects grow out of some of the concerns in my dissertation, and especially with this haunting image of the earth in the air that I can’t shake – this is a problem that has arrested me throughout the research and writing of my dissertation. So I’ve been very interested in particulate matter, which is key problem in Chinese air quality concerns and indicate that the atmosphere has become dense. That is, it has become a problematic suspension, just as dust storms are. I’m currently thinking about what Peter Sloterdijk calls air-conditioning, the containment and management of atmospheric compositions, in relationship to a number of projects, embodiments, and problems directed toward this too-earthy air in China’s cities. I wanted to explore how particulate matter drives a series of new ways of embodying, governing, and especially air-conditioning China’s contemporary as a state of particulate exposure.

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Karl Zimmerer Interviews Stefanie Graeter, 2014 Rappaport Prize Co-Winner

Karl: The interests in your paper weave together the cultural construction, social power dynamics, and medical and environmental dimensions of lead exposure occurring in a couple of paradigmatic places (La Oroya, El Callao) in Peru’s mining industry and its transportation network. It’s clearly a highly important topic at the intersection of major anthropological issues. What kinds of influences ‑ from fieldwork or travel experiences to certain conversations or texts ‑ led to your interest in this topic and to pursue it as your dissertation? Feel free to refer to related earlier versions of your interests and research that may have helped lead to your topic here.

Stephanie: I’ve been interested by the cultural politics of contamination and exposure for quite awhile. I studied environmental science as an undergraduate, a major at UC Berkeley which is quite interdisciplinary. I took a range of courses from traditional chemistry and biology to courses in environmental justice and anthropology. As an undergraduate, I stuck to a biological track, but my course work in the social sciences sparked my interest in the cultural complexity of environmental problems, particularly as they intersected with poverty, race, and models of economic development. After college, I worked for an environmental NGO that focused on issues of environmental health and policy. I became fascinated by the process of generating social concern around a potentially toxic chemical, most of which are incredibly difficult to study scientifically, conceive of ethically, and represent politically. In graduate school, however, I turned my focus to lead contamination, a scientifically well-established toxic material that has long-since been banned from U.S. consumer goods that come in direct contact with people. Yet, the “lead-scare” of tainted toys from China in 2007 (which gender and women’s studies scholar Mel Y. Chen has written compellingly about), or the old, chipping lead paint in U.S. urban spaces, point to the toxic metal’s persistence in certain human-inhabited spaces while it is annexed from others. The apparent obviousness of lead’s toxicity actually made it more intriguing for me to study ethnographically. How does a material get established as too-toxic for humans in one region, but continues to pollute another? Lead exposure in Peru provides a particularly compelling case to think with because of the ever-growing economic importance given to mining and the mineral industry, run mostly by companies from the U.S. or Europe where lead exposure is more stringently regulated. In addition to understanding the global distribution of lead commodities and contamination, I tried to better understand the localized political processes happening in Peru that attempted to inscribe lead as toxic and to reduce exposure to it. Given its persistence in the sites I worked at, I wanted to know what social practices in Peru resist international standards of harm and what can this tell us about the ethics of transnational mineral extraction, consumption, and economic development.

Stephanie Graeter, 2014 Rappaport Prize Co-Awardee

Karl: The image analysis you undertake is very important to your paper. These powerful images show the people of La Oroya and El Callao, especially young people, in environmental and sociocultural spaces that you note can highlight their personal vulnerability, on the one hand, or a rather impersonal or less vulnerable view, on the other hand. I think the audience who is aware of your work already, and others who will be following it, may like to know what it was it like to undertake this image analysis and whether there were certain influences or inspirations for this work that might not immediately meet the eye. Personally I would find it intriguing to hear how this image analysis was integrated into your research methods. For example, did you go into the image analysis with a sharp idea of the general or specific sorts of depictions you were interested in, or was it a more multi-stage style of methodological engagement? (and, if the latter, how did it work?)

Stephanie: I didn’t go into my research with a methodological focus on images. What I wanted to understand was how lead became political (or not) through various forms of social mediation. Methodologically, I tracked the various ways that people related to and represented lead, which included a wide range of media, including scientific reports, informational brochures, policy documents, newspaper articles, blog entries, and so on. So alongside my ethnography, I built up an archive of lead documents too. The imagery of children grabbed my attention pretty early on, particularly how as subjects of vulnerability to lead their depictions diverged between my two field sites, the port of El Callao and the Andean metallurgical city of La Oroya. The images of children seemed to anchor the moral dimension of lead politics, but to different effects depending on the socio-historical context of each place. I began to pay closer attention to how these images linked up with other narratives I heard about lead contamination and its human impacts. The dense distillation of meaning present in these images then provided a helpful tool for bringing together various sources of information on lead’s impact on human social behavior in my writing.

Karl: Your paper is important and offers insights to many sub-fields of anthropology including but not limited to environment and anthropology. These other sub-fields include medical anthropology and development anthropology to name only a couple. Through the lens of your own view of environment and anthropology would you be able to comment briefly on how you see your paper fitting in. Perhaps you could comment too on how you see your study creating an intersection of environment and anthropology with these other anthropological sub-fields.

Stephanie: I situate my work at the intersection of environmental and medical anthropology, but it can be difficult to contain because it also speaks to issues of economy, development, and knowledge. At the AAAs in 2013, I actually organized a panel with my Rappaport co-awardee Jerry Zee on ethnographies of exposure. One of our goals of the panel was to use the theme of exposure as a potential bridge between the subfields of environmental and medical anthropology. Exposure orients one’s attention to the environment-body interface and especially to its permeability.

Karl: You create a very interesting and productive spatial design in your research that contributes a particular strength to the paper. It combines the very linked yet contrasting sites of La Oroya in the Andean highlands and the port city of El Callao in the Lima Metropolitan area in coastal Peru. While comparative case study design is not unusual, it requires the use of spatial knowledge and often spatial imagination, so it’d be interesting to learn more about your choice of these sites. I’d be interested too, for example, to know if you had considered other spatial designs to your research.

Stephanie: El Callao and especially La Oroya are considered as emblematic sites of lead contamination caused by mining in Peru, but there are others. For instance, located fairly close to La Oroya is the city of Cerro de Pasco, famous for its ever-expanding open-pit mine and comparably high levels of lead contamination and exposure. Originally, I hadn’t considered more than one field site but one of my interlocutors in Peru enthusiastically encouraged me to study the “route” or “corridor” of lead, from the mine to the port. I then thought about three field sites: one each for extraction, refinement, and shipment. Cerro de Pasco-La Oroya-El Callao presented an appealing circuit to undertake such a project because the sites connect spatially along Peru’s central highway and temporally through a shared history of mining development that spans the entire 20th and now 21st century. For me though, three sites became unmanageable ethnographically. While I’ve visited Cerro de Pasco, I decided to focus on El Callao and La Oroya, in part because of the contrast between the Andes and the Coast intrigued me and in part because the regions contained lesser explored sections of the metal commodity chain. This mode of ethnography nonetheless required me to spend a great deal of my time on buses and collective taxis. A lot of my spatial understanding came from moving across these spaces, watching the dramatic scenery change between the coast and the Andes and across urban and rural regions.

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Veronica Davidov Interviews 2013 Rappaport Prize Finalist Monica Salas

1. To start with, can you say a bit about your background, what brought you to anthropology, and how did you select your fieldsite?

Growing up in Veracruz, I witnessed changes in both the material and social landscape that I wanted to develop a more complex understanding of. So I moved to central Mexico in order to pursue a degree in Socio-Cultural Anthropology at the Universidad de las Americas-Puebla (UDLAP). There, I developed my interest in Mexican Agrarian History and Environmental Anthropology through a collaboration with faculty members who were conducting archival and ethnographic research at the time on the changes in land tenure and use in the Cholula Valley. This experience inspired me to pursue a doctoral degree in Anthropology. I decided to focus my project on Veracruz not only because the area was familiar to me but also because it has generated such rich historical scholarship that I wanted to engage from an anthropological perspective.

Cornell has been a great place to develop my project conceptually. I have benefited from the generous guidance of faculty in the Anthropology and History departments. I have also received support from the Wenner-Gren Foundation, Cornell’s Atkinson Center for a Sustainable Future, and Mexico’s Council for Science and Technology (CONACyT), all of which allowed me to return to Veracruz in September 2012 and carry out 12 months of ethnographic and archival research.

Monica2 Q&A Q&A4 Q&A3

2. Can you say a bit about your dissertation project and how your Rappaport Panel paper fits with it?

My project examines the less perceptible effects of modern state interventions in the northern highlands of Veracruz, Mexico.  Specifically, I focus on the social and political afterlife of documents, artifacts, and industrial and monumental structures left by the implementation of post-revolutionary policies (such as the re-distribution of land to campesinos, the practice of indigenista policies, the implementation of major archaeological projects, and the nationalization of the oil industry) and the effects, desires, fears, and expectations that these material remnants generate. Crude Residues, the paper I presented at the Rappaport panel, is, in fact, a short version of one of my dissertation chapters, which focuses on the debris left by the oil industry in the city of Poza Rica. Both the paper and the chapter examine the ways in which, in this industrial setting, the natural and built environment has generated particular ways of seeing, perceiving, and inhabiting—of knowing—that are both generative and unsettling. Through an analysis of everyday encounters with the materialities of oil, I sought to demonstrate the ways in which crude residues alter living spaces and continue to informmodes of social and political organization in this region.

3. In your work, you engage with and draw upon new materialism, which is a relatively new terrain in anthropology. What do you see as the value of such an approach for anthropology, and how does it fit in with ethnography, which is, of course, conventionally a human-oriented endeavor?

Yes, in the paper I draw on the work of “new materialists” such as Jane Bennett as I was interested in finding a conceptual framework that could help me highlight the sensuous and material qualities of industrial debris and their implications in everyday social life. Once I paid serious attention to the unpredictability of igneous rocks, for instance, I was able to suggest that the transformation of the Papantla district into an oil region in the twentieth century was neither merely an act of political will, nor solely the product of scientific intervention and economic interest. It was rather the result of a working relation—of encounters—between a diverse array of human actors (scientists, Totonacs, foreign investors) and unstable and ‘vibrant’ material forms. The rest of the paper, similarly, followed a series of interactions (between oil residues and corporate actors, residents, retired oil workers and local scientists) that equally revealed the effectiveness or ‘agency’ of particular industrial objects, decaying structures, substances and smells. Overall, New Materialists’ conception of materiality—as always something more than mere matter: an excess, a force, or a vitality that renders matter active, productive and unpredictable, helped me think through my ethnographic and archival material. Yet, to account for the ability of ordinary material things to animate or produce dramatic and subtle effects does not mean—as Timothy Mitchell suggests in Rule of Experts—introducing in our analysis a limitless number of non-human actors and networks, all of which are somehow of equal significance and power.Rather, it means acknowledging the kinds of hybrid agencies, connections, and interactions, out of which intention and expertise in a specific context must emerge.

4. The ethnographic details of your paper are quite often harsh and represent people in difficult circumstances.  Can you talk about the emotional/affective labor aspects of your fieldwork and writing process given your fieldsite and topic?

The project itself came out of my frustration with the nationalist and patrimonial rhetoric around oil in Mexico. I felt there was a need to de-naturalize oil and to turn to what people in the oil regions are left with. Insofar as I wanted to bring attention to the environmental degradation in industrial zones like Poza Rica, I was very aware that fieldwork was not going to be easy. It was in fact quite challenging as I tried to be particularly attentive to the difficult circumstances that oil in this region has generated.  But while I wanted to highlight what I saw as residual forms of violence—the unacknowledged revolutionary legacies—I did not want to deny the optimism, hope, and commitment of many residents who either develop strategies to disentangle themselves from the noxious substances or have a strong affective connection with oil fields. Achieving a balance and trying to remain truthful to the diverse array of experiences I found in the field was the main challenge in this project.

5. Your work is part of the growing branch of anthropology focusing on natural resources and on oil.  What do you see as the project of anthropology of natural resources today?

While the insights of anthropologists’ work on oil and resources more generally are not sufficient in themselves to guide national (or international) policies, it is nonetheless true that we can join, contribute or initiate a serious conversation around such policies—policies that will affect the ways in which both resources and people are understood and managed. In Mexico, for example, president Enrique Peña Nieto recently announced his constitutional amendments to open up Pemex (the Mexican state–owned Petroleum Company created after the nationalization of the industry in the aftermath of the Mexican Revolution) to the private industry. Despite the importance of the reform, the debate around it was shockingly poor: full of mystifications around “the market”, “science”, and the “nation-state”.

On the one hand, supporters of the reform argued that Mexico’s old oil fields are depleting rapidly, and Pemex lacks both the money and technology to tap its substantial oil and natural gas reserves in the deepwater of the Gulf of Mexico and in the shale formations that run along much of the east coast. On the other hand, Peña Nieto’s opponents on the right blasted the plan as inadequate to attract investment. It would be easier, they argued, if Mexico could allow the type of concessions in which the United States and other countries transfer outright ownership of reserves to private companies. Meanwhile, Peña’s opponents on the left vowed to block what they termed as the “theft” of the nation’s resources. They proceeded with a discussion around “the true” meanings of the words and actions of the mythical figure of Cárdenas, responsible for expropriating oil in the 30s. Absent from the debate was the consideration of the behavior of shale formations and effects that the exploitation of unconventional oil (fracking) will generate: effects that will certainly transform—even more—not only the landscape of the oil regions, like the northern highlands of Veracruz, but also the lives of those living in them.

6.  What is next for you?  What are your plans for next year, and beyond?

I wrote the paper for the Rappaport Panel from the field. Now that both fieldwork and coursework are over I can devote myself exclusively to writing the dissertation.  In fact, I just came back from attending Cornell’s Summer Institute on Contested Global Landscapes, which marks for me the start of this process.

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Amelia Moore Interviews 2013 Rappaport Prize Finalist, Dana Graef

Amelia Moore (Assistant Research Professor, University of Miami) Interviews Dana Graef (Ph.D. Candidate in Anthropology & Environmental Studies, Yale University)

“Red and Green: Hues of Environmental Contestation in the Americas”

In this paper, Dana asks what it means to be red and green in Costa Rica and Cuba, two nations that are internationally recognized as paragons of sustainable development: Costa Rica for its forest conservation, and Cuba for its sustainable agriculture. She argues that the complex nature of color—encompassing both perception and physical being—makes it an ideal lens for examining environmentalism, which varies between nations and among individuals. Through her paper, she examines how ‘red’ dimensions of environment and development—crises, communism, fire—give green forests, fields, and nations new contexts and distinct meanings.

Dana Graef

Dana Graef

1) What initially drew you to your field sites and how did you come to conduct research in both Cuba and Costa Rica? This seems particularly challenging, logistically, and other graduate students might be inspired to hear how you managed this multi-sited investigation.

I was first drawn to my field sites for different reasons that predated graduate school. I lived in Costa Rica for a year after high school and spent some time there growing up. As a result I began college with interests in environmental and indigenous issues in Latin America. I took an Organization for Tropical Studies Field Ethnobiology course in Costa Rica after my freshman year that sparked my interest in large-scale development projects. Over consecutive summers I examined potential impacts of a hydroelectric project and historic impacts of the Inter-American Highway on a Costa Rican indigenous community. I also had the opportunity to go to Cuba for a 10-day research trip through the Princeton-in-Cuba program. I was originally planning a research project on Ernest Hemingway and José Martí, but my grandfather sent me a magazine clipping about urban agriculture in Havana. I re-read it on the plane, and it changed my trip.

When I began my doctoral program at Yale, I expected to pursue research solely in Costa Rica—but having already spent a fair amount of time there, I was also looking for ways to freshen my perspective and see my research in a different light. Thinking about Cuba and Costa Rica in a comparative perspective was intriguing, and eventually led to my dissertation research on how agricultural practices change and why in relationship with environmentalism in both nations. My dissertation research has followed many twists and turns over the years. I had to be flexible in my project; I’ve been fortunate to have a committee that supported my flexibility. I ultimately conducted the bulk of my fieldwork in Costa Rica, while considering Cuba as a comparative counterpoint.

For other graduate students interested in comparative and multi-sited research, I would offer a few thoughts. It is worth considering ways that comparative and multi-sited research are not necessarily the same thing. My research was driven by a geographic comparison, and to be remotely ethnographic in such a comparison, you need to do multi-sited research. That said, it is also possible to be multi-sited without adapting a comparative framework, or to be comparative without being multi-sited. For a doctoral project, making the connections between your sites as clear and concrete as possible is a good thing. (I say this in retrospect, of course!) It’s definitely challenging, but because of that, I’ve enjoyed the sense of discovery that multi-sited and comparative research brings.

2) Many of this year’s Rappaport papers were coincidentally about unconventional comparisons in some way. How did you manage the multiple levels of comparison between Cuba and Costa Rica and red and green, etc. in this article and did you encounter any comparative pitfalls that you had to avoid?

Hearing different ways that the Rappaport finalists were making comparisons was one of the unexpected highlights of the panel. To manage the comparisons in my paper, I established a narrative structure through iterative trial and error. I opened with the theoretical concepts and approach, and followed with a section on Costa Rica, a section on Cuba, an integrative section on both countries, and finally, an analytical section. I wrote the sections on Costa Rica and Cuba to mirror one another. Stitching together Costa Rican and Cuban voices respectively, I touched on representations of their environmental movements to audiences abroad, as well as internal debates within each nation and pieces of my own observations. It was my goal to give the reader a sense for how environmentalism in each nation has particular vocabularies that both vary and speak to one another at the same time. On one level my paper was about what it means to be red and green in Costa Rica and Cuba, while on another level this was a paper about the different socio-political meanings we ascribe to landscapes and to environmental change.

I think that for comparisons to really work, there needs to be a kind of productive tension between the concepts you are examining. There needs to be enough commonality that they speak to one another, but also enough difference to keep a sense of reality. At least for me, the greatest challenge in writing comparative work is not to be overly simplistic or overly wedded to your analytical categories and their attributes. In analysis and writing, my goal is to maintain a sense of possibility. It’s very tempting to establish a neat binary, ascribe certain qualities or attributes to each side, and follow that thread through your work—but this would ultimately not represent the true complexity of social interactions. Writing a faithful narrative that evokes some sense from the messy complexity is the greatest challenge of this kind of work, and it takes some honing. For me, a lens into this complexity is color. Beyond ideas of Costa Rica and Cuba as green nations, it was the juxtaposition within color itself—of green and red—that helped me think my cases through from a new perspective.

3) Your paper is very creative and dynamic.  The greatest innovation is that you begin to outline what you call “chromatic anthropology” in order to ethnographically investigate the life of color in relation to environment and development.  How did you come to focus so specifically on color? 

My focus on color came about for a number of reasons. First, the juxtaposition of The Green Republic (Evans 1999) and The Greening of the Revolution (Rosset & Benjamin 1994) on my qualifying exam reading lists in 2009 led me to consider distinct meanings of greenness in Costa Rica and Cuba. The idea that Costa Rica and Cuba are both green for different reasons became a major theme of my dissertation research. While in a practical sense Costa Rica and Cuba’s environmental reputations for conservation and sustainable agriculture can be studied independently of color, a common thread between them is chromatic: it is a question of greenness. Second, I was encouraged to think about color more broadly when I presented an early draft of a dissertation chapter on indigenous agrarian change in a graduate colloquium a couple of years ago. One friend in the Anthropology Department, aware of my interest in greenness, commented on the multiple colors present in this particular chapter. He encouraged me to read Taussig’s book What Color is the Sacred (2009), and suggested that I might consider broadening my perspective on color beyond green. I made a mental note of this suggestion, and eventually returned to it when I was conceptualizing the framework for my Rappaport paper. A third source of inspiration came from a visit to the Yale Art Gallery in 2012. I saw some striking abstract paintings by Josef Albers—large blocks of color on different backgrounds. As I recall, the museum’s description of Albers’ work noted that you will see a block of the same color differently, depending on the background. This resonated with my thinking about greenness in Costa Rica and Cuba: similar concepts or practices appear different depending on their context. I suppose in addition to all of this, I’m a visual thinker. Color makes sense to me, from both an ethnographic and an ecological perspective.

4) How does this focus open a window for you into events in environment and development in your sites in the Americas specifically?

For me, color—in particular, red and green—became a way of re-thinking ideas of sustainable development as they are applied and understood in Latin America. A major challenge of my dissertation has been the fact that greenness is, at least in my experience, very hard to analyze. It means so many different things at the same time—many of them contradictory. The fact that Costa Rica and Cuba are both called green nations for different reasons is a delightful expression of that. The idea that Costa Rica is recognized as a green nation for its forests, while Cuba is recognized as a green nation for its sustainable agriculture has influenced the trajectory of my research, as well as my writing. Among other things, the pairing of Costa Rica and Cuba led me to think more concretely about the social and political associations with forests and fields.

While I had originally envisioned the Costa Rican dimension of my research taking place almost exclusively in the indigenous territories where I had previously worked, the questions of greenness and the comparison with Cuba also led me to broaden my fieldwork in different directions. In an attempt to balance my research and provide a more solid basis for comparison, I ended up conducting research on organic agriculture in Costa Rica as well. So by pursuing the different meanings of greenness, I was able to see how chemical-free agriculture exists under radically different conditions in different places, and responds to different needs. These include prioritizing local subsistence, national and international markets, attempts to be ecological, and goals of productivity.

5) In your opinion, what can a chromatic anthropology reveal about the world in general?  What else would you like to see happen with this orientation?

I suppose that for me, chromatic anthropology is a reminder that there are so many different ways of seeing the world. So often, we see through others’ eyes. Sometimes, this is by design—we try to see things as others would see them in our field sites, we try to understand distinct perspectives. But often, it is unconscious, a result of habit. We see things as we saw them yesterday, or as we were trained to see them. For me, chromatic anthropology is also a reminder to be present: to observe, to really see what is before you, to write it down, and then, to try to capture some of that vividness in your writing.

When I was preparing for this paper, I began to casually browse a number of ethnographies on my bookshelf, looking for color. I was surprised by how hard I had to look even for simple color terms in many works. I think this may be associated with an aversion to description. Early in graduate school, I realized that when ethnography is called “descriptive,” it is said with a particularly deprecatory tone. Description can be tolerated if it is followed by an appropriate degree of explicit analysis, but lacking that, it is not sufficiently analytical. The implication is that analysis and description are two different things. If I had my druthers, there would be a greater appreciation for description in anthropology and an acknowledgement that careful description is analytical unto itself. Descriptive writing—writing that does not shy away from what the ethnographer sees—does not have to be flowery filler. Through careful description, all kinds of new questions present themselves.

6) How does this article fit into your larger dissertation project? 

This paper provided an opportunity to tackle the theme of color, which is more implicit in other parts of my dissertation. The chapters of my dissertation examine what it means to be green and the shifting relationships between environmentalism and agrarian change from different perspectives. I consider cases including indigenous agriculture, organic agriculture, conservation, a mine and a dam, and broader ideas of environmentalism. I alternate between in-depth case studies on Costa Rica and comparative chapters that juxtapose Costa Rica and Cuba. My dissertation begins with a chapter that examines processes of agrarian change in an indigenous community in southern Costa Rica, with a particular focus on the transition from fire to herbicides. In the second chapter, I examine multiple origin stories for organic agriculture in Costa Rica and Cuba, considering the roles of crises and history. In the third chapter, I look at the origins and history of a biological field station in southern Costa Rica where there was an emphasis on agroecology in the late 1980s. An expanded version of my Rappaport paper is the fourth chapter of my dissertation. I conclude with a chapter that examines changing memories of protests against a formerly proposed Aluminum Company of America mine in Costa Rica, published last year in Development and Change. As a whole, I am interested in ways that environmentalism means different things in different places, while also invoking certain common interpretations and ideas.

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Jim Igoe Interviews 2013 Rappaport Prize Finalist, Scott Freeman

As part of an ongoing series profiling finalists for the 2013 Rappaport Prize, Jim Igoe interviews Scott Freeman about his research and writing on soil conservation, labor, and environmental awareness in Haiti.

Scott Freeman was a finalist for the 2013 Rappaport Student Paper Prize from the Anthropology and the Environment section.  Scott is completing a Ph.D. in Applied Anthropology at Columbia University Teachers’ College and a dissertation entitled, To Conserve and Protect: Soil Conservation and Environmental Awareness in Haiti.  He is currently a visiting scholar in the Institute for Global and International Studies at George Washington University (Washington, D.C.) Scott was selected as one of five participants in the Rappaport Prize panel at the 2013 AAA meetings on the strength of his paper: Conserving the Project: Labor, Development, and Environmental Government in Haiti. The paper engages long-standing concerns with soil conservation in Haiti. His rich ethnographic analysis reveals the ways in which the economy and logic of funded projects shapes and directs labor practices and environmental awareness. His insights have relevance not only for soil conservation in Haiti, but for conservation and development generally, and in many different parts of the world.

CroppedPortrait

JI: Could you begin by talking a bit about your background. How did you become interested in anthropology in general, and soil conservation in Haiti in particular?

SF: After college, I was a Peace Corps volunteer in the Dominican Republic. I lived in an agricultural town in the mountains where I worked with youth, the environment, and sexual health education. There were a number of Haitian migrant workers living in the sprawling barrio where I lived, and we would trade English for Kreyòl lessons. I think that the more time I spent in the DR, the more I was aware of how necessary it was to understand the island as a whole.

I actually never took any anthropology during undergrad (I was pretty interested in comparative literature). During my years as a Peace Corps volunteer, I happened to run into an applied anthropologist. By that time, I was fed up with the absurdities of development that I saw unfolding around me, and he thought I might find some helpful perspectives in anthropology. After I did some reading and spoke more and more to him, I realized that the questions I wanted to ask were already being asked by anthropologists.

My interest in soil conservation is far more recent. It was one of those unforeseeable fieldwork moments. I hadn’t set out to study soil conservation, but I kept seeing these ditches dug along hillsides, and came to realize that they were the work of the organizations I was interested in. They seemed to be everywhere; I really couldn’t get away from them. Farmers I spoke to started telling me they would never build them, because it was the job of the NGOs and projects to do so. It went from an odd side topic of conversation to becoming my primary focus of research. As I learned more about the structures and their history in the country, these canals seemed to be the clearest way to really study how environmental development aid was unfolding.

JI: I remember reading about soil conservation in Haiti back in my Development Anthropology seminar in graduate school back in the late 1980s. What makes this topic such a long-standing topic in environmental anthropology do you think?

SF: Supposedly, soil conservation was considered the first ‘global environmental movement’. Right after the Dust Bowl phenomenon in the 1930s, people in the United States were startled. Even Washington DC was getting dust storms. Seeing all of this in the US, other countries (particularly British colonial administrations) wanted to figure out how they can continue to extract resources from the land without having some sort of environmental catastrophe. So soil conservation became this global concern.

Political ecology makes a pretty important intervention into all this. The premise for these interventions was largely that farmers were doing things wrong, and that populations were growing too fast. Piers Blaikie and Harold Brookfield looked at soil degradation and started pointing out that actually degradation has far more to do with broader systems of accumulation and dispossession.

Since then, this back and forth has continued. Is soil degradation the fault of ‘negligent’ farmers? Or is there something more insidious going on in terms of extraction and accumulation? Anthropologists love to get at these questions. They involve global movements of ideas and commodities, and revolve around knowledge production, representation and inequality. I think it was essential that anthropologists played a role in these debates, and I really hope that we continue to do so into the future.

JI: One of my favorite parts of the article is your discussion of collective labor, ritual feasting, and a postive post-colonial identity. Could you talk about that a bit and how it relates to some the arguments you are making about soil conservation?

SF: I think one of the most amazing parts of this research has been getting to think about the different ways that people work together in adverse conditions. Cooperative work groups are a prominent part of Haitian life. The strategy is, ‘we’ll work your land one day, my land the next’, and so on. The really fascinating part comes when the groups sell their labor to another person. When they collect payment for their work, they don’t distribute the money. Rather, they hold onto it until the end of December. At that time, they’ll buy a goat or cow to slaughter, and will divide the meat among the members. So rather than individual and immediate cash compensation, there’s delayed, non-cash compensation. On January first then, everyone gets some of the meat to eat. January first is Haitian Independence Day, and this activity comes as an assertion of freedom and humanity, remembering the day that the slaves won their freedom and for the first time could eat what they wanted.  Even if meat is scarce for the rest of the year, on that day everyone can meat- there’s this profound assertion of dignity with independence.

I think this intersects with soil conservation as conservation projects come in with cash-for-work type wages. Many of these projects assemble labor groups to dig ditches. These groups look the same, but there are completely different in terms of the types of relationships that are imposed. Unlike the cooperative work groups, soil conservation group payment is individual, immediate, and in cash. There’s a monetization of the social relationships in group labor. Not that wage labor hasn’t existed before in Haiti, but there’s something really quite different going on here with the way that particular labor forms become coopted for the purpose of cash distribution. Farmers too discuss the wage labor done for soil conservation as something qualitatively different, something they, without a project, would never attempt.

Digging

JI: The central focus of your analysis is what you call “the projectification of soil conservation.” What do you mean by this and what do you regard as some of its primary topical and theoretical implications?

SF: What I’m referring to is the way that projects slip into the everyday parts of people’s lives. For example, space starts to be defined in terms of beneficiaries, time becomes regulated by the entrance and exits of projects. Grassroots organizations continually seek legal recognition in order to obtain projects. However slowly all these processes occur, they start to alter the everyday.

Development aid has become remarkably dominated by ‘the project’. There are graduate school programs in ‘project management’, and aid workers have described to me their lives as hopping from project to project. I realized that this intense prevalence of the project calls for attention to how aid is  terms of the project. It forces us to consider what are the properties of the project itself—how does a project assert certain logics as it becomes more and more a part of life in both development and in the Haitian countryside.

JI: How would you describe this work fitting with your larger dissertation project?

SF: Funny enough, I now wince when I think of my dissertation as a project! But I think that this intersection of an examination of the project and of soil conservation is really at the heart of what I’m doing. I try to take a very historical perspective in understanding how problems get defined, and how they oblige particular solutions. Soil conservation as an institutional response then becomes this package of technical expertise and strategies that gets moved throughout the world to solve ‘environmental degradation’. I think the larger dissertation research really starts to show how profoundly projects work, and how they become this very intense and diffuse type of government.

JI: What kinds of questions and concerns still remain for you? What kinds of research would you like to do next?

SF: There’s still some conceptual work to be forged on the project for me. I think this means trying to reach out to other disciplines, scholars who are thinking about this in perhaps slightly different ways. In regards to soil conservation, there’s interesting work being done on infrastructure that I think aligns nicely with what I’m doing.

I’ve got another project in Haiti I’m excited about continuing. I looked at the vetiver industry in Haiti a few years ago. This is an industry that takes the roots of the vetiver plant, digs them up, distills them, and sells the oils to perfume houses. The oil is in a lot of widely distributed (and expensive) perfumes. I’m interested in the way the perfume industry conceptualizes Haitian vetiver as compared to the Haitian farmers’ understanding of the uses and movements of the oil. This has a lot to do with soil degradation (ripping roots out of the ground is a very real threat to the soil), and processes of extraction and accumulation. I think it will build off the current project really nicely, and hopefully add a important perspective to a very sparsely studied industry

 

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Derick Fay interviews the 2013 Rappaport Prize winner, Heather Swanson

As part of an ongoing series profiling finalists for the 2013 Rappaport Prize, Derick Fay interviews Heather Swanson about her research and writing on salmon fisheries and comparison in Hokkaido, Japan.

The 2013 winner of the Rappaport Student Paper Prize from the Anthropology and the Environment section is Heather Swanson.  Heather recently received a Ph.D. from the University of California, Santa Cruz, and  is currently Assistant Professor, Aarhus University and Postdoctoral Fellow, Aarhus University Research on the Anthropocene (AURA).  Her prize-winning paper, “Fishy Comparisons: Similarity, difference, and the making of salmon populations,” probes how (human) comparative practices shape the making of multispecies landscapes.  Focusing on salmon fisheries management in Hokkaido, Japan, she demonstrates that neither the island’s watershed ecologies nor its fish population structures can be understood without attention to comparison-making.  Since the mid-19th century, natural resources management in northern Japan has been profoundly shaped by how people both within and beyond Japan have compared Hokkaido’s landscapes and fish to those in other parts of the world.

Derick: In your paper you had mentioned you had previously worked in salmon hatcheries and fisheries research in the Northwest – could you talk about the trajectory that led you to anthropology?

Heather: I grew up in a salmon fishing town at the mouth of the Columbia River, a small place called Astoria.  Salmon were everywhere there – including on my dinner plate. From the time I was a kid, it was clear to me that fish and fisheries really mattered. Our local high school even offered a three-year program in salmon biology.  Normally, it was for boys who were going to go into fisheries-related careers, but I was very passionate about science, and I wanted to take every science class that was offered.  I had no idea that I was going to fall completely in love with the fish, but I did.  As part of this class, I worked at our school’s on-site fish hatchery, and the experience of caring for the fish was transformative. It’s weird to think you can fall in love with slimy fish, but I really did – so much so that it changed my life.

Heather Swanson

After growing up in a rural area, I went to college at Princeton University, which was a huge culture shock for me. I didn’t come from an “intellectual” background at all.  I went from a high school with a fish hatchery and no AP courses to Princeton.  When I got there, I had no idea what planet I had landed on. Nothing made any sense to me. I had no idea how I could still be in the same country, speaking the same language, yet I couldn’t understand anything. Based in part on my interest in salmon, I was planning to go into some sort of scientific discipline. My first semester, I took physics, chemistry, and calculus, along with an anthropology class that fulfilled a writing requirement.  It was an incredible course that helped me develop ways of thinking about the world that were incredibly helpful in dealing with the cultural differences between small-town Oregon and an Ivy League school. Anthropology resonated with me so much that I decided to completely change my trajectory and major in it.

However, at the same time that I came to be deeply passionate about anthropology and my new academic life at Princeton, I still felt profoundly connected to my hometown and its fish. There was a giant wall map of the United States in one of the hallways at Princeton. I would often sit on a bench in front of it and contemplate the cognitive, the emotional and physical distance between New Jersey and Oregon. They were totally different worlds for me, yet I also yearned to bring them together in some way. In an attempt to do so, I wrote an anthropology bachelor’s thesis on salmon-human relations along the Columbia River.

Derick: How did this early experience growing up in a fishing community in Oregon shape your fieldwork in Japan?

Heather: It drew me into all kinds of comparisons in Japan. As soon as they heard about my background, everyone in Japanese fisheries wanted me to make comparisons between the salmon fishing and management practices I knew from the U.S. and those I encountered in Japan. My experiences growing up in a fishing community elicited comparisons. I became an opportunity for the fishing industry people with whom I worked to engage in and enrich their own comparative practices. While my embodied presence as a white American elicited all kinds of comparative conversations in general, my experiences with salmon led to more specific salmon-focused comparisons.

My experience of growing up in a fishing community also shaped my research in Japan by inspiring it in an unusual way. I never contemplated studying in Japan until my second year of graduate school at UCSC, when I opened up a newly-published book called The Atlas of Pacific Salmon. For the first time, I saw salmon mapped in a trans-Pacific perspective as a species ranging from California to Japan. I had studied salmon quite a bit in high school, and after I finished my bachelor’s thesis, I had also worked at a salmon-related non-profit for three years. But until I opened that book, I had never even known that there were salmon in Japan. It had been possible to be seriously involved in salmon management in the U.S. without even knowing that Japanese salmon existed. When I encountered these maps, it was this moment of double reflection: I became intensely curious both about the salmon in Japan and about how I had managed to not know about them. What were the structures and power relations that allowed me not to know such a basic thing when I was pretty enmeshed in fisheries issues? I tried to find some English-language sources about salmon in Japan, but I found surprisingly little, which piqued my interest even more.

I’d never been to Japan, and my Japanese vocabulary consisted of “tsunami” and “sushi,” but somehow it seemed like an utterly reasonable idea for me to study salmon in Hokkaido. I felt that I needed to know about salmon from a place other than the region in which I grew up – and that I needed to know the salmon world in which I grew up by going somewhere else. I had to take two years off from the regular graduate school trajectory to learn Japanese.  It was at once a crazy and wonderful idea, and I am so happy that my dissertation committee encouraged me to do it.

Derick: Your paper on Hokkaido develops some really interesting ideas about comparison – that salmon bodies are constituted through comparison, and that as anthropologists we should attend to our informants’ practices of comparison. Could you talk about how these ideas grew out of that fieldwork in Japan?

Heather: When I arrived in Japan, I was almost physically struck by comparison. It was everywhere. You can’t order breakfast in Japan without being asked to choose between a “Western” and a “Japanese” breakfast. But comparison became even more important when I began living with the vice president of a fisheries cooperative and his family. They were constantly making all kinds of comparisons in which “modernity” mattered (or, one might say, in which “modernity” emerged). For example, they were constantly comparing their business practices to those of the U.S. and Russia, comparing their lives as fishermen to those they might have had in Tokyo, or comparing their own pasts and presents. Comparison and the ability to “compare well” were so important to them that it became a real theme for my fieldwork.  I also started tracing landscape histories while I was doing this ethnographic fieldwork with the fishermen’s cooperative, and I realized that I couldn’t understand either Meiji-era Japanese history or the actual changes in salmon bodies without understanding the same kinds of practices of comparison toward which the fishermen were pointing me. My Rappaport panel paper focuses largely on historical comparisons, but my attention to comparison primarily emerged from my work with the fishermen’s cooperative.

salmon from Swanson paper

Oncorhynchus keta, a species often referred to in English as “chum salmon,” just after being harvested by a fishing cooperative along Hokkaido’s northern coast.

Derick: That leads nicely to the question of how this article fits into the larger dissertation project.

Heather: Comparison is what structures the dissertation as a whole. This article is a version of a chapter that comes near the beginning of the dissertation.  While this article focuses largely on relations between Hokkaido and the Columbia River, the other chapters explore comparisons that connect the island and its fish with other places. For example, in another chapter I look at comparisons that Japanese officials and scientists make between Hokkaido and Chile. From the 1960s to the early 80s, the Japanese government was interested in both developing international aid programs and in expanding their access to salmon. At that time, Japan was losing access to high seas salmon fishing as new international laws and treaties came into effect. I trace how people from Hokkaido travelled to southern Chile, and the comparisons they made there as they helped to build a salmon farming industry. Other chapters look at comparison in the context of conservation and science, and in the context of Ainu indigeneity, all in relation to salmon.

Derick: You’re currently at Aarhus University in Denmark, on a project that’s headed by Anna Tsing.  Could you talk about the aims of the project and the work you’re doing some more?

Heather: I’m very fortunate to be part of the Aarhus University Research on the Anthropocene project, or AURA. The Anthropocene is a term that is cropping up everywhere right now, and different people are doing different things with it.  The AURA project explores the Anthropocene by focusing on the jointly natural and cultural histories of anthropogenic landscapes. We bring together environmental history, anthropology, and the natural sciences. Our project team is interdisciplinary, with scholars from those fields and more, and we focus a lot on collaborative practices.  Instead of starting with questions of epistemological difference, we try to focus on cultivating common curiosities. Our assumption is that everyone on our team, whether a biologist or an anthropologist, is curious about landscape in some way. So one of our methods is to go out and walk through a landscape together, asking each other questions about how we’re seeing and thinking about the landscape and about what’s interesting and exciting to each of us. Our hope is that starting with the curiosity and working slowly will allow us to build long-term conversations. We often lament how natural scientists call up an environmental anthropologist after a project is basically already designed to add the “social perspective.” Similarly, in the social sciences, we’ve too often either turned scientists and their work into objects of study, or we take snippets of their data as background “facts” in our own projects. But here, in the AURA project, we’re trying to build meaningful collaboration where we can be in dialogue from the start so that we are shaping the very ways that we conceptualize and design our research. The project is still in its beginning phase – it just started in September 2013 – but I am incredibly excited about how it’s developing.

Derick: Following up the paper, are there ways that your interest in comparison is travelling with you to this new setting in Denmark?

Heather: I certainly notice when and how I do comparison in a way that I didn’t before I started my dissertation work. This is the case both in academic contexts and in everyday life. On the most mundane level, the challenges of trying to build a life in a new country have certainly led me to make all kinds of comparisons! I’ve tried to pay attention to them. One thing I have noticed is that there is undoubtedly something very different about comparison-making in Denmark versus Japan. Living in Denmark has convinced me even more that being situated in Europe or being situated in Japan makes a difference that matters when it comes to one’s practices of comparison.

In addition, Japanese comparisons are also still with me in Denmark. This summer, I’m planning to return to Japan to continue working on questions of comparison and landscape-making in Hokkaido.

 

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Jim Igoe interviews Veronica Davidov

As part of an ongoing series profiling finalists for the 2012 Anthropology and the Environment Junior Scholar Award, Jim Igoe interviews Veronica Davidov about her research and writing on the eco-tourism-extraction nexus.
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Colin West interviews Shaylih Muehlman

Muehlmann, Shaylih. 2012. Rhizomes and other uncountables: The malaise of enumeration in Mexico’s Colorado River Delta. American Ethnologist 39(2): 339-353. Dr. Muehlmann's article is a wonderful and compelling account of how three distinct processes of enumeration interact to create a crisis narrative regarding the people, language, and ecology of the lower Colorado River Delta of northern Mexico. I have to admit that I was rather skeptical from the outset. I know a lot about the area and have personally interacted with many of the researchers who work in the region. I initially thought to myself, “C’mon now! How could counting residents, birds, fish and native language speakers really have negative consequences for people struggling to assert local control over natural resources?” As I read the paper, I got sucked into the story by Muehlmann’s clear prose and vivid imagery. Like all really good ethnographies, I felt like I was there. I felt like I was talking with Don Madeleno, catching birds in nets with Christian, or listening to the radio with Cruz’s family. So, my skepticism faded away and I became convinced that counting does matter.
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Jerry Jacka from UT San Antonio interviews Jen Shaffer from the University of Maryland

Jerry Jacka from UT San Antonio interviewing Jen Shaffer from the University of Maryland, about her article: 2010. Shaffer, L. J. Indigenous fire use to manage savanna landscapes in southern Mozambique. Fire Ecology 6(2): 43-59. I guess one of my concerns is what the future of environmental anthropology should look like. I too often worry that people haven't taken Vayda and Walters' critique of the lack of ecology in political ecology/environmental anthropology seriously enough. How do you feel about this critique and how do you think your work fits into it?
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