A Common(s) Language?: The Growing Challenge of Interdisciplinarity in Common Property Studies

A Common(s) Language?: The Growing Challenge of Interdisciplinarity in Common Property Studies

2006

This paper was presented at the IASCP (International Association for the Study of Common Property, now the IASC) conference in Bali in 2006. 

Some of the thoughts I present here have been developed more fully in other papers, which can be found on my academia.edu page at http://independent.academia.edu/anthonymccann

I withdrew from this field following this paper due to personal circumstances, and have only recently (2014) been able to return to these discussions with the focus that I would like.

For another perspective on the IASCP Oaxaca conference, take a look at George Caffentzis’ paper, “A Tale of two Conferences.” http://www.commoner.org.uk/?p=96

Abstract

The field of common property studies is becoming something of an interdisciplinary nexus for the analysis of economic, social, and political realities within communities. Scholars from all over the world have been attracted by the political and, importantly, ethical impetus and promise of the field.  As common property studies becomes home to more and more scholars from an increasing variety of perspectives, it will be suggested that it is no longer helpful to assume that scholars of the commons speak a common language of scholarship, if they ever did.

A key tension is gradually emerging in common property studies. The historical foundations of the field lie within new institutional analysis, economics, and political theory. It is from these areas that the methodological orthodoxies of common property studies have emerged (e.g. comparative case study analysis, game theory, decision theory, among others). Epistemological models of rational choice and bounded rationality thus continue to provide the normative centre of the discipline.

In recent years, however, notions of ‘the commons’ have proved attractive for a variety of scholars either external to the foundation disciplines of common property studies or uncomfortable within them. This has, in turn, led to the introduction or perhaps intrusion of a range of qualitative methodologies and their epistemological counterparts to the field. As a result, the field is now almost unique among disciplines for the range of epistemological and methodological possibilities that are emerging in the study of discourses and practices of ‘the commons’.

However, with a diversity of qualitative scholarship comes a diversity of potential critique. From the challenges of social constructionism (e.g. Berger and Luckmann, 1966), to the so-called “crisis of representation” (Marcus and Fischer, 1986) in anthropology, from critiques of foundationalist reason (e.g. Flax, 1993) to the “decolonization of methodology” (Tuhiwai Smith, 1999), the securities of rational choice and bounded rationality remain open to question, along with the methodologies that have been built upon them. One of the interesting developments in the coming years will be whether such critiques are incorporated into new and helpful imaginings within common property studies or whether they are quite simply policed out of existence by a dominant refusal to acknowledge or address the growing academic diversity of the field.

Prologue: random thoughts on conferences

Conference papers are funny things. I didn’t want to write this one, preferring to wait and simply give a presentation, but writing a paper in advance was part of the deal in submitting an abstract. You go to a conference, you deliver your paper. If you’re lucky, people will remember what you wore. Don’t expect them to remember your name, that’s a rarity at the best of times. If you’re really lucky people will remember that you were entertaining (you hope). If you’re really, really lucky someone might remember a point, a detail, a snippet from your presentation. If you want to get really depressed, you might like to consider the mythic (non-?)statistic that within 5 years of leaving university people tend to forget all but 5% of the information they learned. People are unlikely to remember what was in your paper unless they sit down, read it, work with it, use it for something, or discuss it with someone.

In my first IASCP experience in 1998 I travelled 6,000 miles to present a 20 minute paper. In Vancouver I felt like an intitiate, eager to learn the language, eager to talk the talk. I was not one of you, I felt, but I was eager to become a member of the common property club. I received 5 minutes notice that I had actually only 10 minutes in which to present it. I did what many young, inexperienced academics might do. I rushed it. If there might have been anyone inclined to listen to what I had to say I imagine I spoke too fast to let any of it settle in.

I did get a lot of support from colleagues for my attempts to consider Irish traditional music as a common property resource at this time.

In 2000, in Bloomington, I submitted a written paper in advance, and then decided with two hours to go that I would rather talk about something else. I wanted to present some ideas that were exciting me in my more recent work. Bad idea. I threw together some overheads, drew a cartoon picture of ‘Hector the Vector’ in a bid to soften the presentation, and once again spoke too fast.

This time I was a little more aware that I was not among academic kindreds. I was having a lot of difficulty communicating what I wanted to say because most people simply weren’t used to my language, and I wasn’t used to theirs.

Still, in Bloomington I was excited by work in the field, excited by the increasingly visible interdisciplinarity, excited that Bonnie McCay noted at the plenary that maybe it was time to really start questioning the consequences of the dominant rationalist methodologies. I came away hopeful, and ready to undertake my training as a Jedi.

Over the years, the more I said that I didn’t really want to talk about Irish traditional music as a resource commons the more colleagues pulled away, quietly withdrew their interest in my work. I began to wonder if I was only going to be welcome in this field if I adhered to the doctrines of resource management and institutional analysis. I began to wonder if I would only be really admitted to this community of scholarship on other people’s terms. I hoped not.

In Oaxaca I felt like a heretic. I dared to question the notion of the commons. I dared to question best intentions. I dared to question the central and hardening doctrines of the field. I made some people angry.

It was in Oaxaca that I became really aware that there are some things that people really don’t talk about openly at these conferences. In my experience these conferences seem to be becoming more and more saturated with silences and silencing. It’s to be expected in a young field like this as it develops, but I had hoped it wouldn’t happen.

There are some conversations at these conferences about the limitations of common property studies at all as a framework or about the drawbacks of positivism, or about the inadequacies of rational choice and bounded rationality epistemologies. But those conversations take place in hushed tones, behind closed doors, in corridors, while passing in the street. We shouldn’t have to become courageous in order to simply say what we think at an academic conference. There were times at the last conference when I wondered whether I had stepped back into Catholicism, there was such a strong sense of orthodoxy and such quiet gravity of peer pressure to believe and conform to the central tenets of the faith.

I consider it highly unlikely that 10 minute conference papers will ever allow anyone to effect a significant sea-change in theoretical perspectives in any field, least of all those which rely on the doctrinal unassailability of their orthodox methodologies. Is a 10 minute paper likely to really challenge people to question their, your, my position, to get us to really think about our thinking, to have us come away thinking, ‘Hey, you know, maybe I don’t have to think the way I do’? In a sense, it matters little whether the statistic above can be substantiated or not. Just try to work out how many conference papers you really remember. Not many, I would venture. What I’m inviting you to consider is that conference papers (and by extension, conferences), as a social form, might tend to be deeply conservative mechanisms in the constitution of academic dialogue, the construction of theoretical canons, and the intensification of orthodoxies. In what I have encountered, they would seem to limit the possibilities for truly challenging conversations, indeed they tend to foster conservations more than conversations, really. Papers often provide the content for the championing of consensus or for declarations of heretical leanings. Either way, they often replay the less helpful possibilities of pedagogic encounter, falling into the pattern of what educational theorists might call banking or deposit education, providing information rather than engaging in real dialogue. Do we read papers to our students when we are trying to provoke inquiry, or invite thinking about thinking? I tend not to, at least not always, because I found that when I did it deadened the energy of the room, it established myself as the primary focus of authority while making me less personally present, and it minimised the possibilities for dialogue.

Maybe the really fruitful dialogues happen over coffee or dinner afterwards. If so, then why not organise a conference where informal chat is the main focus? If we are really interested in dialogue then can we reimagine what conferences are all about? Can we question the very idea of conferences and see where it gets us?

A round trip from London to Bali causes around 10 tonnes of CO2 to be dumped in the atmosphere. Merely taking the flight to this conference resulted in me contributing my average annual CO2 emission in one go, equivalent to the CO2 I from car use for a whole year.

All in all, my visit to this conference is costing me somewhere in the region of one thousand pounds, which is one twenty-sixth of my salary, and an exorbitant amount of money for many of the people who live on this planet. I would estimate that I have spent about £3000 over three IASCP conferences for the purpose of presenting three ten-minute papers and having maybe twenty conversations with colleagues.

During the Oaxaca conference in 2004 I got to talking with a local woman who was working as a waitress in one of the restaurants. I was only able to do this because I happened to speak Spanish, having studied it at University. Anyway, she outlined the difficult economic situation in Oaxaca, an area long reliant on textiles and shrouded by political unrest. She spoke enthusiastically about how great it was that the conference was happening, that all these experts were so concerned about her area that they would come to her town to offer their expertise to locals so that the lives of people in Oaxaca would improve.

I didn’t have the heart to tell her that conferences didn’t tend to work like that, or that all of the expertise was just passing through on the way to somewhere else. I couldn’t tell her I was pretty much just another rich tourist like all the other tourists, except that I had a better public relations package.

Introduction

The field of common property studies is becoming something of an interdisciplinary nexus for the analysis of economic, social, and political realities within communities. Scholars from all over the world have been attracted by the political and, importantly, ethical impetus and promise of the field.  As common property studies becomes home to more and more scholars from an increasing variety of perspectives, I would suggest that it is no longer helpful to assume that scholars of the commons speak a common language of scholarship, if they ever did.

The historical foundations of the field of common property studies lie within new institutional analysis, economics, and political theory. It is from these areas that the methodological orthodoxies of common property studies have emerged (e.g. comparative case study analysis, game theory, decision theory, among others). Epistemological models of rational choice and bounded rationality thus continue to provide the normative centre of the discipline.

In recent years, however, notions of ‘the commons’ have proved attractive for a variety of scholars either external to the foundation disciplines of common property studies or uncomfortable within them. This has, in turn, led to the introduction or perhaps intrusion of a range of qualitative methodologies and their epistemological counterparts to the field as new people come in to be part of this community of scholarship. As a result, the field is now almost unique among disciplines for the range of epistemological and methodological possibilities that are emerging in the study of discourses and practices of ‘the commons’.

However, with a diversity of qualitative scholarship comes a diversity of potential critique.

From the challenges of social constructionism (e.g. Berger and Luckmann, 1966), to Marcus and Fischer’s (1986) so-called “crisis of representation” in anthropology, from critiques of foundationalist reason (e.g. Flax, 1993) to Linda Tuhiwai Smith’s indigenous studies project  of the “decolonization of methodology” (Tuhiwai Smith, 1999), the securities of rational choice and bounded rationality remain open to question, along with the methodologies that have been built upon them.

More specific critiques such as those offered by the Green and Shapiro collection The Pathologies of Rational Choice Theory (1994) are also part of the wider discussion, as are books such as the Jeffrey Friedman Collection The Rational Choice Controversy (1996).  But all of these critiques have been for the most part excluded from theoretical discussion in common property studies. They don’t have to be, and I would love to see more open discussion about the ongoing controversies about the limitations of the dominant paradigms in this field.

One of the interesting developments in the coming years will be whether such critiques are incorporated into new and helpful imaginings within common property studies or whether they are quite simply policed out of existence by a dominant refusal to acknowledge or address the growing academic diversity of the field.

Return to Oaxaca

This paper in part follows on from my presentation at the Oaxaca conference. In that paper I addressed some of the ways in which my attempts to use resource management models of common property theory left me at a bit of a loss in my research. I found myself being drawn away, again and again, from the experiences of the people I was working with, drawn away from their ways of making sense of the world. I also found myself analytically disempowered, unable to explain many of the aspects of the social situations and expansionary social dynamics that I encountered.

In my Oaxaca paper I explained how it was that I had turned from models of “the commons” to a model of “enclosure” in a bid to come to less partial and more adequate analyses of expansion and commodification. In this way I also hoped to come to more reflective and reflexive understandings of  whatever “the commons” might mean for different people, and particularly for me. I presented a very brief overview of a new theory of commodification that brought me to what might be received as a somewhat counterintuitive understanding. My research has led me to think that many of the social situations we often characterize postively as environments of common property may also be characterized as environments of enclosure. I further suggested that our emphasis on resources, common property, and the commons is seriously misleading, and that we would be better served focusing on the relational implications of enclosure.

As I said in my Oaxaca paper:

“If we simply accept the “given” concept of the commons, with the accompanying architectures of resource management analysis, we will likely perpetuate occlusions with regard to the discursive power of much of our own work as scholars within the field of “common property studies”. The analytic and semantic closures that often accompany highly-commodifying resource management analysis are likely to blind us to many of the participatory implications of the theoretical constructs we deploy. This blindness, in turn, tends to reinforce, never mind foster and facilitate, the assumptions of analytic closure within the highly-commodifying architectures of orthodox methodologies of common property theory.

“If there are indeed such fundamental paradoxes, if not outright contradictions within common property theory, then a total re-evaluation of the field would be called for. It is suggested that the whole focus of the field of common property studies is misplaced, and would be more helpfully turned towards issues of enclosure and commodification. Taking the focus away from resource management and methodological individualism will leave us not only with less misrepresentative analyses but with less limiting theoretical perspectives with which to undertake assessments of our own engagement as discursive participants in the very fields of our inquiry, that, with which to undertake more helpful participatory analysis to supplement and inform other descriptive and explanatory explorations.

“Why is this important? It’s important because of the expansionary dynamic of enclosure, because of the acclerative dynamics of commodification. If we aren’t more aware of how we may or may not be helping with relation to such expansion and commodification, then we are likely to contribute to a long-term worsening of the enclosing dynamics we are often seeking to ameliorate, even if our short term intentions may frequently seem to be realized. The more appropriate, sensitive, fluid, dynamic, and flexible the methodologies we employ and deploy, the more appropriate, sensitive, fluid, dynamic, and flexible will be our participation as scholars and activists. This paper, then, is an invitation to less partial renderings of what happens, more participatory analysis, and more adequate understandings of power, agency, expansion, and commodification as they relate to discourses of enclosure and the commons.”

In the first response to my Oaxaca paper a respondent characterized what I presented as an “assault on the Commons”.

My work does not constitute an “assault on the commons”, if by that is meant an assault on those people who labour with good intentions on behalf of what they think of as “commons” within contexts of community. This is, however, a critique of discourses of the commons, a critique of how we may make sense of our work in terms of “commons”. Declaring a situation a “commons” doesn’t explain anything, it simply calls for explanation – the declaration is not somehow outside that which requires explanation.

My position is that we need to be more careful about the ways in which we make sense of our work, the ways in which we frame our actions, the ways in which we conceive of our epistemologies precisely because of our good intentions. I think it helps to remain vigilant of the possibility that through common property studies many of us may be ushering in another damaging wave of discourses and practices of ‘development’, repackaged in disciplines that haven’t really been touched by critiques of development discourse. I’m not saying it’s a fact or a truth – you get to work it out for yourself, but I can say that I am personally very wary of the potential for methodological colonization that, for me, remains implicit in many of the epistemologies and methodologies of political theory, institutional economics, game theory, and collective action theory.

How do we account for the people in communities who really don’t like what we do or the ways we do what we do? What can we learn from them? I’m sure they’re there if we were to look. I’m sure I’m not the only one who has ever come across cynicism or at least skepticism with regard to the crusading endeavours of much well-intentioned academic work. I think it would help to seek those people out and listen to what they have to say. We really don’t have to be doing what we do, and even if there are people out there who disagree with our whole project, maybe they have opinions that we would do well to listen to, and maybe even respect, dare I say it.

The same respondent to my paper also noted that there is, as such, no ‘theory of the commons’, and offered that focusing on enclosure rather than the commons is a profoundly disempowering strategy, emphasising victimization rather than positive activity at a community level. I will readily admit that there is no consensus on a ‘theory of the commons’. My Oaxaca paper never suggested that there was. What I did suggest is that the orthodox, dominant architectures of theories (plural) of the commons tend to revolve around conceptualizations of resource management. That’s about as close to a truism as I am ever going to get. Resource management is at the heart of the IASCP mission statement, which you can find on the IASCP website:

The International Association for the Study of Common Property (IASCP), founded in 1989, is a nonprofit Association devoted to understanding and improving institutions for the management of environmental resources that are (or could be) held or used collectively by communities in developing or developed countries (http://www.iascp.org).

My central point about the dominance of “resource management” discourses in this field can hardly be evaded. Discourses of the commons are primarily discourses of resource management, particularly within Common Property Studies. To speak of “the Commons” is often (most often here) to speak of resources. If you are interested in a developed version of this critique in relation to notions of the “information commons” you can consult my 2005 paper on “Enclosure Without and Within the “Information Commons”,” at http://independent.academia.edu/anthonymccann.

As for framing the concept of the commons in the position of the victim, if I were to take enclosure as the intruding privatization of common resources, or as external encroachments and intrusions into community life, then, yes, to focus on enclosure, as the opposite of the commons, would be to place undue weight on the victimization of the commons. Indeed, historically this is what has tended to happen where enclosure is concerned. However, this is not what I mean by enclosure. The effects of enclosure, for me, can be traced back to dispositional dynamics, and particular characters of interpersonal relationship. Working with undualistic and unfoundational epistemologies, as I do, enclosure is not the opposite of anything, as I do not recognise binary oppositions as an adequate way to make sense of experience (although I do acknowledge that the deployment of binary oppositions can have very powerful consequences for our understandings of experience). Although not discussed here, my understanding of enclosure is based in a broader social theory of hope and gentleness, a social theory in which I aim to come to more adequate understandings of agency, and the possibilities for positive social transformation. My theory of enclosure is not about victimization. Rather, it is through the identification and explanation of the dynamics that I refer to as enclosure that I think we might come to more adequate understandings of the possibilities for empowerment in our lives. My critique of “the commons” and resource management is anything but the normalization of oppressive dynamics and victimization.

Another almost mocking response to my Oaxaca paper, offered in private, was the critique that the very activity I was engaged in, the reading of what they felt was an obscurantist, theoretical paper, was profoundly enclosing, being profoundly audio-ocularcentric (my own phrase, referring to the discursive privileging of sight and sound in a particular context. Being nervous, I spent most of my time reading my paper straight from the page.), and linguistically difficult, which contradicted my work, rendering it pointless.

This critique is well taken, and very insightful. However, it also returns me to a central point in my work, that it’s never all or nothing. Presenting a paper in a highly-commodifying fashion does not “contaminate” my work, or render it irrelevant through contradiction. That’s an all or nothing position, and I don’t work with those. I’m interested in dominances, and if those kinds of presentations become dominant in my experience, and if I ever become blind to the expansionary allure of the more formal strategies of academic methodology, then, yes, I would be concerned. I don’t want to spend my life reading from a page.

I should remain aware, the person suggested, that for many people at the conference English was not their first language, and that my theoretical language was difficult. What I think is helpful to consider here is the extent to which conference and other academic structures foster and facilitate ways of interacting where people often feel left out, excluded, where people often feel like you have not communicated with them in a way which respects them, regardless of the language you speak.

However, most of the people who might read this paper are academics. Theory is our business. When I say theory I mean ‘thinking about my/your/our thinking’. We’re professional thinkers, and if we’re not thinking about our own thinking, if we’re not taking the consequences of our own thinking seriously, if we’re not continually challenging ourselves in our own thinking, questioning the ideas we take for granted, questioning the ideas we are most impassioned to defend, then I think we’re not doing our job. Sometimes complex language is part of that job, because we have been left with legacies of complex language that we are required to address and deconstruct. Maybe.

I once got to sit beside a well-known and elderly scholar at a conference. He asked me what I studied, and, being as I was in the last months of my Ph.D. write-up, I responded with babbling theoretical enthusiasm. In the middle of an epistemological flourish he slowly raised a hand to stop me, uttering the phrase, “Speak to me as if I’m your grandfather.” This has remained one of the most challenging things anyone has ever said to me.

In my work I want to talk less of resources and more of people, what’s important to them and how that changes, how their attitudes change, what subtle plays of influence operate in their lives, and the character of their relationships. I’m interested in “the power of small emotions” as the filmmaker John Cassavetes put it, the feelings of encroachment, the anger of resistance, the anxieties of exclusion, the fear of displacement, the depression of feeling like you don’t matter, the joys of love, and the intensities of belonging and rejection.

I don’t find that discourses of resource management help me much in this regard. Neither do rationalistic assumptions about incentives, cost-benefit analysis, or collective action. As has been said many times before, paradigms work to reveal some things, and conceal others. As the editors of Passionate Politics: Emotions and Social Movements put it:

Emotions are but the entering wedge for many aspects of politics and protest that have been neglected by the structural paradigm of the last thirty years, a whole world of psychological and cultural processes that have been considered too “soft” or too messy for empirical investigation (Goodwin, Jasper, and Polletta, eds. 2000:24)

But my main point is that not only do I feel that resource management discourses are unhelpful, but that allowing them to remain central to my work is to perpetuate and intensify the very commodifying and enclosing dynamics that I seek to counteract. I realise that making that statement involves me in the position that language shapes us as we shape language, but yes, I hold that position, and I believe that words matter, if only because they are often symptomatic of the degree of respect or lack of respect that we have for people, emotions, and the character of our relationships. I maintain that life is a lot more subtle than resource management, and if I were continue to use that very narrow window for making sense of people’s lives, including my own, I believe my research would be profoundly inadequate. If I were to assume that resource management was a good framework to impose upon a situation before I even got there, the likelihood of the inadequacy of my research would be multiplied many times over.

My Oaxaca paper was wordy, it was abstract, and appropriately so, as I was struggling with a maelstrom of ideas that took another year or so to emerge with any great clarity. Still, it said what I wanted it to say, even if it didn’t communicate it very well.

I think it helps to be more careful. I think it helps to consider the extent to which we depopulate our theoretical work, draining it of life and emotion. I think it helps to consider the impoverishment that results from, quite simply, focusing on things more than on environments of relationship that extend beyond the economic or the resource-political. I think it helps to be more humble in our theoretical work, less inclined to tell others that the ways we think are automatically better than their own or universally applicable. I think it helps to remember that as academics we often speak with privileged voices and from privileged positions. For many people, what we say matters more because we are professional thinkers. That’s a big responsibility, and it often comes with relatively very little accountability. I think we can do better than we’re doing.

Declaring Difference

Hello, my name’s Anthony.

I work in the field of Common Property Studies.

I don’t align myself with how the mission statement of the IASCP is framed.

I work in the field of Common Property Studies.

I don’t like rational choice or bounded rationality perspectives.

I work in the field of Common Property Studies.

I don’t like institutional analysis.

I work in the field of Common Property Studies.

I don’t find it helpful to talk about what I do in terms of resources.

I work in the field of Common Property Studies.

I do not think like many of you when it comes to epistemologies, methodologies, or maybe even your own basic ways of making sense of the world. That’s okay, but I still work in this field. I am still a contributor to a community of scholarship.

It is possible to think differently, and a number of us in this field do. Please do not assume that because you are a game theorist or a bounded rationalist or an institutional economist that you speaking within a community of consensus. A number of us think very differently, not sharing your fundamental assumptions about what knowledge is or how it is achieved. A number of us do not share your faith in some of the basic principles of empirical science or positivist method. There is difference here, and that’s okay. Not only is it okay, but it’s positively healthy, and one of the great things about this field.

I think it’s really important to face up to the theoretical diversity in the field. And I’m not just talking about theories-about-resources. A glance at the range of theoretical categories in the Digital Library of the Commons would suggest that theories-about-resources is all we have to choose from in common property studies. The point is, though, that there is a greater theoretical diversity already in this field than is reflected in the literature or in the classifications. I’m talking about the closet indigenous studies scholars, interpretative anthropologists, feminists, symbolic interactionists, Foucauldians, poststructuralists, anarchists, postmodernists, and more that are in this field, working within this community of scholarship. I’m talking about those people who have attended IASCP conferences, came, saw, listened, and went home disappointed and disillusioned that there was no place for their understandings here. I’m talking about environmental studies scholars I know who won’t touch this field with a barge pole because they think it’s sewn-up by political theorists and institutional analysts, leaving little or no room for other voices or other theoretical perspectives, least of all critical voices.

I am not looking for emotional revelations, but I would invite you to take a moment to consider how you are responding emotionally to my declaration of difference. I know the last time I declared my difference at this conference I got some little support, but it did make some people feel confused, angry, even betrayed, like somehow I was letting the side down. I’m sorry people felt that way, but I was never a member of a political party, and I’m not going to start now.

I think it’s really important to face up to the growing theoretical diversity of this field. I don’t know if anybody else has felt this way at these conferences, but I know that I simply felt uncomfortable a lot of the time in discussions, having so many problems with the whole framing of discussions that I didn’t know how to speak up without feeling like I was disrupting the production schedule. Speaking from experience, it’s hard to declare difference in the face of good intentions. There is a powerful peer pressure that results from the subtle dominance of unquestioned discourses in any field, and of all the fields I have encountered, this is one that is notably and increasingly saturated with orthodoxies and unquestioned paradigms.

Seeking Common Ground: Live and Let Research

And yet I still want to be a part of this field. For me, the field of Common Property Studies is also one of the most exciting that I have encountered. Normally academics get the luxury of only engaging with competing and conflicting methodologies and epistemologies in textual form, safely bound within books. In many cases, I’m sure, we afford ourselves the extra luxury of simply bypassing those people we disagree with by leaving their work on the library shelves where we found it, or by not citing their work. At IASCP conferences we get an opportunity to engage with competing and conflicting methodologies and epistemologies in personal form, but only if we take care to foster an attitude and an atmosphere in which people feel comfortable acknowledging difference, or feel comfortable making their diverse contributions known.

My position isn’t a prescriptive one; people do what they do, say what they say, and they get to work it out for themselves. I acknowledge there are many ways to talk about “the commons,” and that they involve increasing rhetorical and emotive power. I acknowledge that people train in disciplines where resource management perspectives are doctrine and rule, ground for authority and legitimation for action. I also acknowledge that there may be times when an emphasis on resource management may be very helpful, and when methodologies that emerge from resource management analysis may also be very helpful.

I personally do not think that the dominant concepts, theories, and methodologies here are appropriate for all contexts or analytical questions in thinking about “the commons”, or, more to the point in my work, “enclosure”. And, for the foreseeable future, I choose not to base my analysis of social, political, and economic changes on the concept of “the commons” or on models of resource management.

But I do invite you to consider why you use those frameworks, if you do. Where does that thinking come from? What assumptions about human nature and interaction are built into such thinking? Are you comfortable thinking about the complexities of your own life in those terms? Are other people? Have you considered that there might be other ways to think about all this? Do you still expect me to use resource management theory here even though I have been explicit about not wanting to use it?

Many would automatically consider a variety of conflicting epistemologies in an academic field to be methodologically unworkable. However, I would like to suggest that it may be possible to flout academic convention and adopt a working assumption that certain methodologies might be helpful for some analytic tasks and inappropriate for others, providing claims to universality are suspended. The real problem is that many epistemologies and methodologies of a positivist bent within political theory are often applied with a universalist attitude.

In this paper I was going to present a tentative typology of methodological approaches in common property studies. I think such a typology would go some way towards the cause of more helpful and dialogic analysis of social, political, and economic change within commons regimes, within the communities in which such regimes operate, and within the communities of common property scholarship. I continue to work on that project, but I feel that the epistemological principles upon which I base such a project are best left for a more extended exposition in written form. I’m happy to continue that thread of thought with anyone in conversation.

One of things I would have suggested with such a typology is that “resource management” epistemologies and methodologies are more likely to be helpful for the purposes of description rather than explanation. Where description is presumed to substitute for explanation we get ourselves into very unhelpful water, making it very likely that we might get swept away with the currents of good intentions.

I don’t know. I hold out hope that there is a grounding of resonances to work from here, one that emerges from a respect for the human, emotional realities of everyday life. In this field I am reminded very forcefully that academic work is always and primarily an issue of relationship. This makes this field rare, as academic fields go. It also makes the work of those in Common Property Studies all the more important. This nexus of academic approaches is a wonderful opportunity for interdisciplinary engagement, a wonderful opportunity for people to dare to talk across methodologies, to dare to critique each other without our methodologies and epistemologies hardening into ideological positions that must be defended against incursions.

I’m guessing that most of us are in the field of Common Property Studies because we’re curious. We’ve noticed social, political, and economic changes and we’d like to work out what’s going on. I’m guessing that a lot of us are in the field of Common Property Studies because we noticed that the social, political, and economic changes we are interested in have real effects on real people in real communities, and those changes are not always for the better. I’m guessing that many of us believe that more adequate analysis can lead to more adequate responses to the social, political, and economic changes in communities, and that somehow the differences that we make can be positive differences, that we can somehow contribute beneficially to the lives of those we work with. I’m guessing that many of us are in this field because, quite simply, we care. I believe that the more we care, the more careful it helps to be. Best intentions aren’t enough, and compassion and care don’t necessarily lead to long-term beneficial consequences. The histories of colonization and empire offer enough lessons in that regard, and I would suggest that many of our discourses and methodologies are likely still tinged with the architectures of empire, oppression, and violence. I think it helps to take that issue seriously, to not deny the historical realities of the ways we tend to think, to not gloss over the horrible histories of much academic work, to not efface the questionables of any so-called development work.

I believe that it helps to always be working for more adequate and representative ways of making sense of our experience, of the ‘realities’ we encounter. I believe it helps to work towards a greater respect for other people’s ways of making sense of their lives, and that includes other academics ways of making sense of theirs. Communities of scholarship such as ours offer us opportunities to do so.

References 

Peter Berger and Thomas Luckmann. 1966. The Social Construction of Reality. New York: Anchor Books.

Jane Flax. 1992. “The End of Innocence.” In Feminists Theorize the Political. Judith Butler and Joan W. Scott, eds. Pp. 445-463. London: Routledge.

Jeffrey Friedman, ed. 1996. The Rational Choice Controversy: Economic Models of Politics Reconsidered. New Haven: Yale University Press.

Jeff Goodwin, James M. Jasper, and Francesca Polletta, eds. 2000. Passionate Politics: Emotions and Social Movements. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press.

Donald P. Green and Ian Shapiro. 1994. The Pathologies of Rational Choice Theory. New Haven: Yale University Press.

George E. Marcus and Michael Fischer. 1986. Anthropology as Cultural Critique. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Anthony McCann. 2005. “Enclosure Without and Within the “Information Commons”.” Information and Communications Technology Law 14(3):217-240.

Linda Tuhiwai Smith. 1999. Decolonizing Methodologies: Research and Indigenous Peoples. London: Zed Books.

 

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