EASA2014: Collaboration, Intimacy & Revolution


'Grounding': when multiple ontologies meet material facts

Location M-648
Date and Start Time 01 August, 2014 at 09:00


Coll Hutchison (London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine) email
Laur Kiik (Tallinn University) email
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Short Abstract

Anthropology's 'ontological turn' has tended to idealise indigenous ontologies. However, all ontologies are grounded in and emerge from specific contexts and are thus imperfect. This panel explores how to take seriously both the plurality of ontologies and the reality of singular material facts.

Long Abstract

What happens when ontologies and material facts meet? 'The ontological turn' has again brought to focus radical cultural differences - how people with different ontological theories live in all but, totally different universes. However, this literature has tended to reify, romanticise or idealise indigenous ontologies. It often does so to reaffirm an anthropocentric anti-realism in juxtaposition to natural sciences and their assumption of a singular material reality. Few attempts have been made to consider the encounters and disjunctures between different ontologies and a singular material reality, beyond, for example, critiquing science-based interventions into societies for being ignorant or dismissive of alternative ontologies. Similarly, natural sciences have rarely engaged the potential of 'other' ontologies for reconceptualising political, social, economic and ecological relations. This panel proposes that the key to move past these attitudes is to 'ground' ontologies, through emphasising the contexts (historical, geographical, ecological, social) from which they have emerged. All ontologies - indigenous, subaltern, popular, scientific - are necessarily incomplete, dependent on their scale (spatial and temporal), and invested with politics, power and religions. The central problem for this panel is thus: how, as social or natural scientists, to take seriously both the plurality of ontologies as well as singular material facts? This central question may arise from a variety of research topics, such as encounters of indigenous or other popular ontologies with facts/'facts' from biomedicine, conservation biology, climate science, archaeology, or behavioral and evolutionary sciences, and any other situation where material facts and ontologies meet.

Discussant: Coll Hutchinson, Laur Kiik

This panel is closed to new paper proposals.


Farming technology: an interplay between grounded and engineering ontologies

Authors: Dominic Glover (Institute of Development Studies)  email
Jean-Philippe Venot (Institut de Recherche pour le Developpement (IRD))  email

Short Abstract

We use the cases of drip irrigation and the System of Rice Intensification (SRI) to explore the interplay between the abstract ontologies of agricultural scientists and engineers, and the socially, culturally and agro-ecologically embedded, practical and situated ontologies of small-scale farmers.

Long Abstract

We argue that agricultural technologies are shaped by the interplay between the universalising ontology of agricultural science and engineering, and the situated ontology of farming practice. Agricultural engineers typically conceptualise farming technology as an assembly of material inputs and hardware, or as packages of technical and managerial practices. Conceived in this abstract way, one can envisage the smooth introduction of technologies or their seamless transfer from one site to another. This approach results in a procession of glittering silver bullet technologies rising and, predictably, fading again. The practical reality of technological change in agriculture is a spatially and temporally situated, socially embedded process of problem-solving. From this perspective, technology is the purposeful use of tools (including hardware, knowledge and information) by human agents as they attempt to achieve particular goals. It is through this practical work that the ontologies of engineers and farmers confront the materiality of specific agro-ecological situations. We argue that the intimate interactions between farmers and communities and their soils, seeds, water, etc. are inescapable processes within agricultural innovation and technological change. Yet, this practical activity is also influenced by, and communicates with, the abstract, universalizing ontologies of science. We use the cases of drip irrigation and the System of Rice Intensification (SRI) to explain our argument. In both cases, blueprints of technological change are transformed locally into distinct forms within which, we argue, the abstract and normative assumptions of technocrats play a relatively minor role.

Making histories: the enactment of historical knowledge in the classroom

Author: Josefine Raasch (Ruhr-Universität Bochum)  email

Short Abstract

This paper describes practices through which different types of historical knowledge were enacted in the classroom of a Berlin high school. Different actors not only enact different knowledges, they also need to coordinate the underlying different ontic-epistemic imaginaries.

Long Abstract

Based on six months of ethnographic fieldwork in a Berlin high school, this paper describes how two different types of historical knowledge were enacted in the classroom. The knowledge enacted in accordance with the History curriculum is identified as representational knowledge (Sørensen 2009), and is understood as being based on spatiotemporal particulars (Verran 2001). The enactment of another type of knowledge, communal knowledge (Sørensen 2009), is also identified and discussed. Also, instead of ordering historical reality solely around spatiotemporal particulars, as Berlin's History curriculum demands, the teenagers also ordered reality around moral and other particulars. As such, this paper demonstrates how teenagers' enactment of communal knowledge challenges the ontological basis of the historical knowledge enacted in the History curriculum. The paper illustrates how different types of historical knowledge co-exist in the classroom, overlapping and in tension with each other. It shows the impact of the co-existence of these types of knowledge on classroom activities, and identifies the ordering practices that structured and stabilized classroom situations when tension between the two types of knowledge occurred.

Amazonian ontology in the Brazilian national political context

Author: Pirjo Kristiina Virtanen (University of Helsinki / University of Turku)  email

Short Abstract

This paper focuses on Amazonian indigenous political actors and interactions with governmental agencies. It brings Amazonian ontology to the Brazilian national political context that is increasingly shared with indigenous populations.

Long Abstract

This paper brings Amazonian ontology to Brazilian national political context that is increasingly shared by indigenous actors. My ethnography deals with the Manchineri, in a multisited approach, including those having a political authority both in forest and urban environments. Here I focus on Manchineris' recent employments in the local government in Brazilian Amazonia.

For the Manchineris working in governmental agencies, learning to act in urban offices contributes to their individual knowledge-making and can be understood in the context of their personal histories and transformations, while the government often has other expectations from these employments. The emphasis on the body of Amazonian perspectivist thinking has been one of my main keys to analyze the attempts to learn and negotiate in the state politics largely designed by the dominant society. In Amazonian social philosophies personhood is continuously produced in embodied relations with various human and non-human actors. Many Manchineri actors explain how their work in urban administrative environment is about new bodily practices impacting their subjectivity. This paper discusses especially how village communities often discuss these changed subjectivities. I will take examples from the situations when material sources of governmental agencies and projects are distributed in indigenous villages. Those members of community, who have been part of negotiations and interactions with local governments, come strongly identified with these sources. That also affects the practical use of the materials and even their renunciation. The paper points out that in order to understand differences between ontologies, it is also essential to understand the tensions and conflicts between those who share the same ontological ideas.

Ontology, reproduction, and what anthropologists didn't know about how babies are made

Author: Mwenza Blell (University of Bristol)  email

Short Abstract

This paper explores how the ‘virgin birth debates’ can be construed as a conflict between two indigenous ontologies addressing the material facts of conception.

Long Abstract

This paper explores how the 'virgin birth debates' can be construed as a conflict between two indigenous ontologies addressing the material facts of conception. These two ontologies reflect realities at different scales and different ways of conceptualising variation in outcome (without variation in input). The attribution of greater truth and importance to the microscopic and a fixation on biological paternity on the part of anthropologists arise from the context of early 20th century European scientific study of humanity. This focus on the truth in what is invisible (microscopic particles) did not extend to invisibility where explanations have a supernatural character. The combination of power, concepts like 'the primitive' and an ontology that sought to deny the validity of alternative views led anthropologists to regard alternative ontologies of human conception as 'ignorance'. The Trobrianders, at the centre of the debates, can be understood, on the one hand, to have grasped something which eluded the anthropologists and, on the other, to take a more macroscopic view of reproduction. The differences in ontology between these anthropologists and research subjects can be partly explained in terms of human reproductive ecology: differences in levels of subfecundity between the two groups in conflict. Recent evidence indicates that levels of fecundity observed in Europe in the 20th century are likely outliers in human experience. For the Trobrianders, as with most humans, observation would show a far weaker correlation between heterosexual penetrative sex and pregnancy than would have observed by European anthropologists of the early 20th century.

Law and its subjects: creating the world through legal processes

Author: Hans Chr. Korsholm Nielsen (Aarhus University)  email

Short Abstract

Based on descriptions of trials held against animals in Europe until the 19th century, this paper discusses how law and legal procedures define their subjects and create ontologies that define the relationship between those (humans) engaging in the legal trial, and animals and innate objects.

Long Abstract

During a period spanning from the 13th to (at least) the 19th century it was common in Europe to arrange court trials against animals. What was special about these trials were that they were enacted as exact replicas of ordinary court cases: for a pig accused of having killed or maimed a child or beetles accused of having destroyed the crops - a defense lawyer was appointed who was to speak for the animal(s), a prosecutor was appointed, representing the state or the local community, and the trial was held in an ordinary court room overseen - and adjudicated by a judge, registered by clerks etc. In most cases the animals were sentenced to death by hanging, excommunicated - or in rare cases - imprisoned.

These descriptions, which are both amusing and thought provoking, raise a wide range of interesting questions concerning how to define a legal subject or how to define law, and they point to a range of questions about different ontologies and the interaction between these.

This presentation will depart from descriptions of a number of cases from Denmark raised against rats and held in the 18th and 19th century, and thereby look into how those arranging the trials related to the accused animals - as animals and as legal subjects.

Ontologies within international AIDS vaccine studies: community engagement and 'democratic' medical research in Kenya

Author: Salla Sariola (University of Oxford)  email

Short Abstract

Using a New Materialist framework to analyse ethnographic fieldwork in an AIDS vaccine trial in Kenya, this paper explores the multiple ontologies manifested in the study and its community engagement.

Long Abstract

Community Engagement is an increasingly common requirement in 'ethical and socially relevant' international medical research. By pushing for accountability, and redefining expertise and ownership, this normative mandate, iterated by various medical charities and international funding bodies, to involve of publics in design, knowledge production, and science policy, is deemed to democratise these processes.

Based on three months of ethnographic fieldwork in an AIDS vaccine trial conducted on high risk populations (sex working men and women) in Kenya in 2014, this paper explores the different ontologies manifested in the trial and its community engagement. While both homosexuality and sex work are criminal and illegal, expectations and understandings of medical researchers, trial participants, LGTBIQ activists, and Christian social workers who were in charge of community engagement varied. These expectations were based on material realities concerning the potential for HIV infection during trial, but also included political agendas of addressing the human right to sexual expression. Departing from the notion of epistemology, this paper employs a New Materialist reading (Braidotti 2013; Barad 2007) that enables an analysis where 'biological' and 'social' worlds are inter-related and affect one another. From this perspective, how did the various ontologies differ and overlap? What did the various groups expect from the study? What do the relationships between the groups tell us about the possibility of democratising research with community engagement in health research on the on hand, and equalising different ontologies within anthropological enquiry, on the other?

This panel is closed to new paper proposals.