Book review In Australian
Anthropological Society Newsletter 99:
Draft published on www.simonbatterbury.net
Minnegal, M. (ed.) 2005. Sustainable environments, sustainable
communities: potential dialogues between anthropologists, scientists and
managers. SAGES Research paper 21.
Isbn 07304030827 90pp.
Cost – $10
The 2004 AAS conference in Melbourne was followed by a one-day meeting convened by my colleague Monica Minnegal on the question of how to strengthen anthropology’s role in environmental management and associated policy areas, and the contribution that the discipline can play in mediating the transmission of knowledge between local communities, scientists, and managers.
This volume is a polished and edited selection of papers from
the meeting. The central theme is that anthropology certainly has value as a
guide to management agencies and as input to understanding questions most often
answered by scientists, and that a dialogue between all three is possible. This
value exists over and above its intellectual contributions and explanatory
power as an academic discipline. The general sentiment is not new; in the
As Minnegal notes in her introduction, most of the chapters suggest anthropologists can act as mediators, or what Olivier de Sardan in a marvelous book (Anthropology an Development, 2005) calls ‘interlocutors’ between different actors in the policy process, especially as interpreters of “…the ways in which people make sense of their worlds, and in how the meanings they negotiate shape the ways they act in relation to that world” (Minnegal, p2). One chapter, by MacRae, bravely suggests a more material contribution than this, in his case by using his linguistic and cultural knowledge to hook up Balinese farmers with much-needed contacts and support. Another, by Hyndman, recognizes the mediator role, but cautions that “…anthropologists…are merely another class of knowledge holder, and they cannot presume to speak for indigenous people.” (p57). Nonetheless it is clear from this volume that anthropologists feel they are presently under-appreciated - or less than successful - as mediators, and several contributors are defensive of the discipline and its contributions, and sanguine about the lack of uptake of anthropological insights in the policy world.
Toussaint’s chapter, for example, makes an appeal for
anthropological relevance, applying a critical-realist approach to water
management. People differ in the meanings and explanations they ascibe to
natural phenomena like water. The job is to show why such cultural differences
occur, and this can be relevant; for example in designing water restrictions
that recognize a culture’s values or its own conservation practices. Strang’s
paper, the strongest in the collection, argues the case for an anthropology
that engages with and fully appreciates the natural sciences, and which transcends
its presently circumscribed role, based on her work on river catchments groups
Harrington, focuses on how heritage
and landscape is interpreted by non-traditional communities in
Not all the contributors focus on the mediator role. Mulcock,
McNamara and Trigger focus on the horse, not the cart: they argue that the task
of promoting dialogue begins in the classroom, for example by exposing
anthropologists to “…basic theoretical and methodological paradigms in the
physical and biological sciences as well as procedural and evidentiary
frameworks employed in law” (p21) - as well as by students gaining the
communications expertise necessary to conduct applied work. MacRae’s paper,
noted above, is concerned with what really constitutes ‘relevance’, while
Macintyre’s deals with the near-impossibility of helping mining companies to
make sure local communities are properly compensated around mine sites - achieving “informed consent” is complex even
when anthropologists are on-site to
interpret and to make recommendations about social issues. Given changing power relations in
Two questions arise from this excellent collection. Firstly, the separation made between
“anthropologists, scientists and managers” (p2) makes the assumption that we
are talking here about social or cultural anthropologists, and that managers
and scientists are not anthropologists.
A small point perhaps, but it struck me immediately that many anthropologists (particularly
in economic and environmental anthropology) actually have substantial
scientific training, or as some contributors argue, might aspire to acquire
some. Others, particularly in
Secondly, the mediator role is already being performed by many non-anthropologists. Other disciplines have played a substantial role of course (the leaders in this field, the IDS Environment group, comprises scholars with differing backgrounds, including anthropology), but there are also a whole class of ‘interlocutors’ that work in and around conservation projects, mines, and in the places targetted by international development organizations. This role is often taken on by literate and well connected local people. There is, therefore, no particular monopoly on cultural interpretation of the way people understand “nature”, conserve it, manage scarce water supplies, and so-on. As Filer identifies in his provocative paper, indigenous representation is now strong in international meetings on biodiversity, certainly outnumbering the western anthropologists involved in the Millennium Ecosystem Assessment (p81). For him, the tendency to counterpoise indigenous and western ecological knowledge, trotted out in such meetings, is unhelpful and reductionist – but it does provide a clear role for anthropologists. He does find the anthropological attachment to place-based knowledge (termed “local local”, p86) rather vexing, if this means that the political economy that controls and appropriates knowledge and formulates policy (Scoones’s focus) is not acknowledged. Nonetheless, the potential contribution of anthropological insights to the domains of ‘big science’ and biodiversity assessment is great.
The volume works well as Australasian contribution to an ongoing global debate. It feeds nicely into the growing movement for anthropological relevance – not by promoting advocacy or radical critique, as other have suggested, but through careful deployment of certain anthropological insights ands skills. It may be ordered from SAGES should you like a hard copy, but if you can wait a few weeks it should appear as a PDF file on an updated SAGES website (www.sages.unimelb.edu.au , go to “publications”).