Friday, 29 March 2013

Ecological anthropology -- by Ted Maclin

Ted and Ellie Maclin see their life on the land in Tennessee as "lived anthropology:a means of subsistence, a way of living in community, and embodied research". This excerpt from Ted's blog sandworms is about his study of the World Wildlife Federation. It is published with his permission.

Over the past few weeks several people including friends and family members have asked me about my research, or about what it is that I do, exactly. I’ve given the usual elevator speech, but after reflecting a bit I think it may be worth me writing here in more detail. Partly this is because I’m working on writing my dissertation. Writing is a sort of emptying process for me, and so occasionally in order to write what I want I need to get other things out of my system. At the end, I’ll recap by addressing a few misconceptions I keep hearing when people talk to me about my research.

Anthropology is the study of humans. That is about as broad as you can get within the social sciences, and it encompasses everything from anatomy to zymurgy. Traditionally in the US anthropology consists of four fields of study: human biology, linguistics, cultural anthropology, and archaeology. Some programs include a fifth area, applied anthropology, that focuses on the role of anthropology in current affairs. Ecological anthropology—my focus—just means that the focus of the work is on ecology, or human-environment interactions. My dissertation research is on social and cultural processes in international conservation, specifically within the World Wildlife Fund’s (WWF’s) Global Arctic Program.

So, what does that all mean? Well, I’d say that we are all immersed in fields of culture and social relations. We tend not to see culture; in a sense culture is what makes some things seem normal or even inevitable. Why do we tend to eat three meals a day? Why do we stand in line so willingly at the hotdog vendor? Why do we get jobs and work for paper (or electronic) money? Culture is a process of shared knowledge and meaning-making. Not shared as in “I know certain things and you do too, so we are part of the same culture”, but as in “you and I function as a group to know things and determine what things mean.” Looked at this way, you might imagine that each of us is actually involved in many cultures: the culture of the community, of the nation, of the church, etc. And, you would be right. You might even imagine a situation where these many cultures are in disagreement on what a situation means.
Given that, I am looking at the process of international conservation in WWF and asking what culture contributes to the work they are doing. The international component is important because, in theory, people from different parts of the world might have different cultural approaches to their work. Or, maybe WWF is such a powerful organization that ts own culture trumps national differences. I’m also looking at social network structure–how people communicate within and between offices. I make pretty network maps like this:
As of 2011-2012
as of 2011-2012
Why is this my focus? I have a long-time interest in both environmentalism and in the ways that people form their beliefs and decide to act within the world. Biodiversity conservation is a knowledge-making practice, and I’m interested in that, too. We don’t just soak up “knowledge” from the world around us like sponges. We may soak up various types of information – but knowledge is really inseparable from values and beliefs. That is the subject for a whole other blog post.
The goal for me academically is to get a job teaching, writing, and researching, ideally with a link to ongoing environmental activism and policy.

Misconceptions (collected from recent conversations).
  • WWF is not the wrestling group. That is the WWE. Make fun of WWF if you must, but there is nothing funny about the WWE.
  • I am not an archaeologist. I like digging, and I like old things, but my training is in biology, botany, and cultural anthropology. My wife is an archaeologist; feel free to ask her all your dinosaur-related questions.
  • I don’t work for WWF. That would arguably be a conflict of interest. My funding comes from the National Science Foundation.
  • I am a scientist (see above).
  • When I say I’m studying “social networks” that doesn’t mean the Facebook.

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