“Crafting Gentleness: The Political Possibilities of Gentleness in Folkloristics and Ethnology” – an amended transcript

Presented at Reflecting on Knowledge Production: The Development of Folkloristics and Ethnology, an international conference organised by the Estonian Literary Museum and the University of Tartu Department of Literature and Comparative Folklore. May 17-19, 2007.


[I was nervous. I wasn’t reading from a page this time. Some notes, but no set text to work from. I told myself that I should have some idea what I want to say after eight years of researching this. They looked friendly enough. But I’m not standing up and speaking any more. I’m writing now.  Déanaimis teangmháil. Let’s connect. Let’s communicate. Let’s get in touch. Well, no, no touching. Looking. Reading. I’m not really with you now. Am I?]

Why don’t I just leave all those people alone?
Why don’t I just stay at home and read?
Why don’t I just let all that stuff go? I’ve already got too much stuff in my life; too many books, too many things; why don’t I just let it all go?
Why do I have to remember everything? Why do I have to write down everything other people remember? Why do I have to even bother talking to people?
Is my desire to collect greater than my desire to respect?
Is my desire to record greater than my ability to just be present with people?
Is my desire to write greater than my desire to listen?
Is my desire for knowledge greater than my desire for wisdom?

An Irish fiddler, Paddy Cronin, was being interviewed at a summer school called the Willy Clancy Summer School a number of years ago, and he was asked what he thought about young people playing traditional music and he said something like, ‘they’re not playing traditional music, they’re collecting tunes’.

Jean Ritchie was up for a National Heritage Award in the United States and as she was accepting the reward she was asked something to the tune of, would she like to be remembered as a singer?, and she said, no, she wouldn’t like to be remembered as a singer, she would like to be remembered as a person who sings.

[Juxtaposition. Little wordpictures alongside each other. They’ll do quite a bit of shimmering on their own if I allow them to hold the space together. I tell myself that it’s an exploration of poetics – poetics, not just causality. Poetics, not just causality. Stories can rhyme too, rhyme and chime. Sound them out. A little bit of  shadowplay.]

I was working with some students this year on a folklore course and a number of them came from an Irish language speaking district of Donegal, an area that had been the focus of a lot of collecting work in the nineteenth century, and I introduced them to the philosophies of a number of the people who had been doing the collecting. I introduced them to the idea that a number of these people considered people from their own communities as ‘resources for tradition’ as ‘raw materials for the nation’ and a couple of my students got very angry. They thought that quite a number of people at that time in the nineteenth century might have got very angry if they had known that that is how these people, the ones doing the collecting, thought about them and their lives, and about what was important to them.

I was reading an article recently by Ríonach Uí Ógáin, a folklorist based in Dublin, and she’s been doing a lot of work on the field diaries of Séamus Ennis, and she recently published a book, a magnificent book, which is mainly in the Irish language, the diaries of Seamus Ennis. But she has this very nice article published in Béaloideas, the Irish folklore journal, about the relationship between Séamus Ennis and Colm Ó Caodháin, who was a person who lived in Conamara who Séamus identified as someone with whom he could work to collect songs and stories and various other things from. But there’s one line in the article, and in the diaries of Séamus Ennis, which sits with me and makes me very sad. Séamus Ennis had a wonderful relationship with this man by all accounts. By the accounts of the diary he was a great friend of his. He more or less lived with him on many occasions and was invited by Colm to live with him semi-permanently at one point. But there’s one point at the end of his diaries in relation to Colm where he says, ‘Bhí mé réidh leis’. ‘I was finished with him.’ He’d done all the collecting that needed to be done; it was time to move on. ‘Bhí mé réidh leis’.

The ethnomusicologist Kofi Agawu has a line in the middle of an article that he wrote, where he says, ‘the imperial urge dies hard’.

I was once speaking to someone, I was working as a music journalist, and I was speaking to someone about various things, and interviewing her, and in the middle of the interview we stopped talking about what we were talking about and the attention turned to myself and my own family, and I let it slip that my parents didn’t sing traditional songs or play any instruments, and she goes, with a little disappointment, if not disdain, ‘Oh. I thought you came from a traditional family.’

[That set me off, although I said nothing at the time. I’ve learned since to make it more obvious when something annoys me. I must have spent a year thinking about what this woman said, mulling it over in my head, wondering why it had irked me so, wondering what I understood by the term ‘traditional’]

I was sitting beside the sociolinguist Joshua Fishman at a conference a number of years ago and it was about a year from the end of my Ph.D. and he turned to me and asked what I was working on, and I babbled my Ph.D. abstract back at him in rather large prose. In the middle of it he just put his hand up in a sign for me to stop, and said, ‘Speak to me as if I’m your grandfather.’

I had two grandfathers. One grandfather was named Joe; he worked in quarries; he worked as a postman; and a baker at one point; a quiet gentle man by my Dad’s account. My other grandfather was called Johnny; a farmer, apparently a very smart man, with a sharp wit; he sang many songs, many long songs. I didn’t know him very well because when I was growing up I was scared of old people, and he was an old person. But I’m guessing that neither of my grandfathers and neither of my grandmothers would have much time for people who couldn’t communicate with them respectfully. And part of the work that I’m trying to do at the moment is, in a sense, to honour them; to honour the relationship I have with grandfathers Joe and Johnny; with my grandmothers, Kathleen Edith and Mary; with my parents, John and Teresa; and with the rest of my family who are too numerous to mention. And I think that’s very, very important for me at the moment, to consider this relationship with the people in the communities where I live, the people in the community of family in which I have grown up. It’s important for me to consider the ways in which, as an academic, I have been conditioned and trained to write in ways which could often be regarded as very disrespectful if I were to be standing here speaking to them.

[I suppose part of the point is that I’m often not standing here speaking to them. But I’d like to be. Maybe it will take a while. Any disrespect was never meant. There are simpler ways to say what I’d like to say, although it may take me many more years to come down from the abstractions that I love so much. I’ll give it a try, anyway. And I’ll practice. And I’ll be more patient with myself, maybe take fewer shortcuts on the way to my next potentially unnecessary insight. Is é an bealach mór an t-aicearra. The main road is the actually the shortest way there.]

Why do I do the work that I do?

I don’t regard myself as a folklorist, I don’t regard myself as an ethnomusicologist, I don’t regard myself as an anthropologist. I regard myself as a person who sings songs. I regard myself as a person who practises some of the methodologies of anthropology, ethnomusicology, and folkloristics. But one of the reasons that I do the work that I do is because I regard any academic position, any role as a professional thinker – someone who is paid to think thoughts about life and about human beings – to be a very, very privileged position, and to be one which is deeply political whether we like it or not. We’re the professional thinkers. We get time to think about the world. We get time to think about life. Not many people get as much time as we do. There’s a lot of violence in the world. There are people getting blown up. There are people getting murdered. There are people getting raped. There are people dying all the time. People die. It happens. But I think we do have an opportunity as professional thinkers to really take that responsibility very seriously, that we do have a part to contribute to the diminishment, the lessening of dynamics of violence, coercion, fear, anger, hate, domination, and oppression in the communities in which we live.

[As I read back on these words, I am drawn to mention Derrick Jensen’s book, A Language Older Than Words. It’s a book I recommend with caution – it’s a magnificent piece of work, but it demands a robustness from you as you read it, an emotional vulnerability with armour at the ready. Where does our impulse to commit violence against violence come from, and how can we come to a better understanding of our participation in violence, silence, and denial? How can we come to face the destruction we so specialize in as human beings? I’m not sure I would follow Derrick in some of his more recent conclusions, but in this book he raises questions that are important to sit with, and respond to.]

In our disciplines [speaking to an audience of folklorists], many of the practices that have been undertaken in the name of the things that we do have contributed to domination, to oppression, to anger, have not helped a lot, and there’s a lot of damage reparation and damage control that tends to go on in the work that we do. And the silences and exclusions that have been a consequence of the work that, for example, folklorists have done, and the silences, exclusions, and blindnesses that tend to be structured into the work that we often continue to do, are not accidental. They tend to be a consequence of the epistemologies that we use, and we talk about epistemology quite often, but we don’t really have any open discussions about epistemology.

[A did a little digging in the last few weeks, for another discussion in another place. I was looking for discussions about epistemology in anthropology, particularly in relation to the notion of ‘participant-observation’. There’s not an awful lot out there. What I found quite interesting, though, was that most things labelled ‘epistemology’ were really just cloaked discussions about methodology. What’s with that?]

Epistemology is sort of like pedagogy. We’re teachers, but we very, very seldom talk about what pedagogy means for us and what it can mean for us. Similarly, we very, very seldom talk about what epistemology might mean. [I didn’t really say much about this myself in my original talk. What I mean by the term is the study of how we know what we know, or what we understand as ‘knowledge’ or the knowable. Some might even go as far as to say that it’s the study of our basic assumptions about reality, but I’m not sure I want to push it that far today.] And too many times our epistemologies are still grounded in Kantian, Platonic, Hegelian, etc. etc. etc. Euro-American, ‘Western’, whatever you want to call them, models which are deeply fragmented at their heart, in terms of subject-object dichotomies, in terms of various ways of thinking about the world which, from our starting assumptions, often shut down the heart, shut down any sense of holistic relationship and often leave us in a position where our very starting points desiccate our work. And what I’m interested in is the way in which, in thinking about trying to honour the people I live with, work with, admire, love, in what ways have our epistemologies, in what ways have our methodologies, in what ways have our discourses made the people I admire and love not only discursively invisible but politically irrelevant?

[My Dad, reading this over, was quick to point out that I was falling into the ditch of disrespect that I had already said I was going to try and avoid. Not much speaking to anyone as if they’re my grandfather here! Maybe there are other ways to talk about epistemology, methodology, discourses, or dichotomies. Maybe I’m so steeped in jargon that it’s going to take me a long time to reground myself. And even then, maybe I’m too fond of the wordy familiarity? I don’t know. I need to think about it for another while.]

What I’ve been looking at in my work are two themes; one is the theme of ‘enclosure’, the other is the theme of gentleness.

When I talk about enclosure, I’m talking about expansionary social dynamics that involve accelerative or intensifying commodification of everyday life, emerging from the dominance of the expectation that uncertainty can be or should be eliminated. What I’m looking at in my work is the way in which certain unhelpful dynamics of social change are driven by these tendencies we often have to eliminate uncertainty.

[Talk about wordy. Need I say more? Probably. What I was trying to say was that, for me, ‘enclosure’ is a word I use to talk about really unhelpful ways of relating to each other that we often fall into when we try too hard to eliminate uncertainty. I feel that we do that if we place too much value on control, or perfection, or purity, or truth, or righteousness, or status, or … many other values by which we try to convince ourselves that the elimination of uncertainty is not only possible, but also desirable.]

I work with the assumption that uncertainty is a constant and variable aspect of my experience. So to seek to eliminate uncertainty, for me, is to deeply disrespect the character of that experience. Historically, seeking to eliminate uncertainty has also often meant seeking to eliminate the aspect of emotion from our work. The idea of the ‘objective scientist’ is very much at the heart of this notion of the elimination of uncertainty. Often it very much involves simply eliminating people from our work, because people can be unpredictable and uncertain and keeping people and their biographies, keeping people and the richness of their lives away from the heart of our work (actually, the heartlessness of our work, sometimes) is actually a very, very interesting process for me.

[I remain astounded by the obviousness with which people producing folklore collections in the past have often sucked the people they worked with out of their collections of songs and stories. What we are often left with are pages and pages of songs and stories that could have been sung or told by anybody, to anybody, anywhere, at any time. I would hope that we don’t leave that impression for our children. We’re getting better at it, but silences, profound silences of absent humanity, continue to structure some of our most valued collections.]

But these enclosing dynamics, as I think of them, arising from the ‘elimination’ of uncertainty, for me they can be identified in two particular ways. One is in the dominance of discourses of resource production and management, and another is in the privileging of sight and sound in the discourses of our analysis.

[I need to work on this. It says what I would like to say, but it may not communicate what I would like to communicate. I hope what follows makes some sense. If you would like it to make more sense, you can always try to track me down and ask me to clarify something. I’ll do my best to keep it simple.]

In terms of discourses of resource production and management, just think of the ones that we use. ‘Heritage’ is a property metaphor. ‘Property’, that’s a property metaphor too. ‘Data’, ‘that which is given’. ‘Information’. ‘Knowledge’. ‘Capital’. ‘Resources’. Tradition as a resource. Etc. etc. etc. Most of the words that we use at the core of our work are resource metaphors.

Discourses of sight and sound tend to be privileged in what we do. We tend to talk a lot about aesthetics. We tend to privilege text. Again, the privileging of sight and sound. We tend to do a lot of surveillance work – that’s what we do, we monitor people, we go, we record, we monitor. And there tends to be a lot of emphasis on spectacle, on performance.

One of the consequences of the elimination of uncertainty as an ethic, or of discourses of resource production and management, or of the privileging of sight and sound, tends to be a profound depoliticisation of what we do, and of how we think about what we do, and of how we think about the possibilities of what we do. Primarily because what we’re left with, and this is what the orthodoxies of most fields are left with, is that our understandings of power are reduced to the idea of power as control, or power as intervention, but power as some form of resource production or management.

Also what tends to happen, particularly with regard to the privileging of sight and sound, is that there tends to be an emphasis on descriptive analysis, analysis that simply describes what’s going on, without really explaining how a situation happens to be the way it is and not some other way. Further, often without allowing for any participatory analysis, in terms of how might we be participating in the dynamics that we analyse?, or how might we be participating in the dynamics that we seek to critique?

As far as my interest in gentleness is concerned … what I’m interested in doing is not identifying what gentleness is, or what gentleness looks like. What I’m interested in looking at is the way in which the elimination of uncertainty as an ethic can draw us away from the possibilities of relationship.

If we only think of power as control then those who seek to control have power and those who do not seek to control are powerless. Those who seek to be gentle are powerless and are in fact irrelevant to politics.

What I’m interested in is the way in which the gentle people that I’ve worked with, the gentle people that I’ve admired and loved – in line with work in eco-feminism, in line with work in certain aspects of gentle anarchism, in line with aspects of certain Buddhist and quasi-Buddhist approaches to thinking about politics – these people are living deeply powerful lives. These people are living lives that we [folkorists] can learn from. And I think we are in a deeply privileged position. We get to talk to people as a job. We get to talk to people that we can learn from about what it means to be human.

And when I think about the archives that we have … When I go to a zoo it makes me sad, but I still keep going to zoos because I keep thinking that it’s a good thing to go to a zoo. But every time I go to a zoo I go with hope and aspiration, and I come back feeling very sad. Archives increasingly make me quite sad, because for me they’re records of missed opportunities. They’re records of missed opportunities for understanding what it means to be human. We’ve had a chance a chance to talk to so many wise people, historically speaking as folklorists, and we have so little wisdom in the archives. We have lots of stories and songs, but in terms of what it means to be human, the emotional intelligence, the emotional wisdom, the emotional university that has been there, we don’t have access to that, because we weren’t listening well enough, and I think that’s one of the opportunities that we have now, is to really privilege those aspects in our work and to not think of ourselves merely as archivists. I think archives are important, if we ground them in the social responsibility of reimagining the power of small emotions, reimagining that folkloristics is actually in a very privileged position. You have eco-feminism, you have activism, you have all these things, but we’re the ethnographers. We’re the ones who get to actually sit down and spend time to work out what do people think are helpful ways to make sense of being human. We can ground our work. We can substantiate our work. And for me that’s very much at the heart of the gentleness project.

I’m just going to stop there and open it up to the conversation.

Comment/Micheál Briody: First, Séamus Ennis’s comment that he was done with Colm Ó Caodháin. Yes, I’ve come across other comments like that, and there’s one interesting aspect in Delargy’s diaries when he’s finished his East Clare collection, it’s in the bag, it’s done with and over, but that’s partly due to the rushed nature of the collecting. When Delargy first started learning collecting he spent two years working with Seán Ó Conaill without collecting anything, just listening to him. He wasn’t ever able to do that with anyone else, just because he had his mission and he liked to collect so much. There was a much more humane approach originally before it became this sort of production stage, I would call it mass production folklore. That’s one thing. You get that a lot, and in Estonia in the 50s and 60s you get a lot of folklorists talking about ’emptying’ an area, sending out a team of collectors to ’empty’ it, and again you get that in Delargy’s report, emptying an area. It’s very much there. But, yeah, I think though, Delargy, to give him credit, he often said that the only experts on the folktales were the narrators, you know, and unfortunately he didn’t follow that through entirely because one thing he never got around to was sending out a questionnaire on storytelling. He intended sending out a questionnaire about storytelling but he never got around to it. There was a great deal of information collected, nonetheless, from many storytellers about the tradition and all of that, so he did … sometimes it was just lip service, but he always sort of humbly said they were the experts. Now maybe there was pretence involved to some extent but I think myself there was a gentle nature in him. I think there wouldn’t be the big collection without that, but it somehow got left aside because of the ambition of making a very large collection and then also of saving it, even if you might say emptying it, but, you know, in many cases if he hadn’t emptied it, despite what you say about archives being places like museums or zoos that are not so pleasant, if we hadn’t it you might be standing up here and saying, you know, why don’t we have archives, and zoos, and museums, so we can’t really have it both ways. But there is that absence of gentle approach, maybe.

A: Well I think what you’re saying is really, really important, in that most of us, pretty much all of us are in this field because we care about people, you know? And I think Delargy and Ennis and all of these collectors were doing what they did because they cared, they really cared. Perhaps they cared too much in some ways. And I think that for me is part of the challenge, that we get drawn in because we like spending time with people, we like talking to people, we value that aspect of what we do perhaps more highly than we value anything else. We value what we learn from these people as human beings. We value spending time with them. We don’t necessarily talk or write about those aspects of our work, instead we privilege the collecting aspect, but I think what we can learn from the likes of that experience that Delargy had where he goes from spending lots of time to spending very little time with people, is to become more aware and more discerning of the influence of institutional imperatives on the work that we do, and to clarify for ourselves what is actually important to us? Regardless of what the institutional imperatives are, what’s important to us as human beings, each for ourselves, and as we go in and do our work how can that be reflected in the work that we actually do?

Comment/Regina Bendix: It’s very nice that you’re able to talk like that. I would like to suggest context as a very important component of evaluating where our predecessors were. I mean that sort of sadness or frustration that you report about your students thinking about the nationalist paradigm of the nineteenth century, I have been helped a lot in doing historical work to recognise that they were also caught in whatever political or academic forces there are, and so the sadness or frustration is not as productive as recognising where individuals are caught. I think the connection between yours and the previous paper is very powerful as a recognition of allowing ourselves, in doing research, to recognise our body, our mind, our emotions. But the link that’s missing there is acknowledging that you’re not just researching or spending time with people, you’re also sitting in this highly institutional, regimented professional life. You’re little episode with Joshua Fishman, here you found a human who wanted you to talk ‘unprofessionally’, so to speak, and I think we have not done enough legwork in our own professional worlds, because our own professional worlds are the realm that is unexamined, are the realm which we slide into, and we appropriate its mores, and its pressures. And because we have not done enough of that kind of deconstruction work you feel isolated when you feel the way you do, maybe also the way Janika [Oras] feels, when you dare to come out and speak that way and act that way, the pressures around you … there are not enough of us who do this, you know? And as a result you get ‘fringed’ unless you participate also in the deconstruction of the professional life.

A: As I do, and that’s why, for me, pedagogy and radical pedagogy is actually very much at the heart of trying to challenge the institutional structures and the institutional values in the places in which I work. I align myself with social ecologists across the world more than anything else, and there is a growing community of people out there, even within university structures, that are doing work like this, that are privileging the human.

And I don’t have to be an academic. If I get too frustrated within the university structures, I will leave and do something else. I can always do something else. I will continue writing and I will continue researching. At the moment I find the university I’m in does facilitate the work that I want to do, and I hope that continues.

Comment/Valdimar Hafstein: Thank you for your talk which I found thought-provoking in many ways. The elimination of uncertainty you spoke about as an ethic and as a social program related to such things to coercion and violence and domination. I found myself being somewhat uncomfortable with this and think perhaps you’re not giving the elimination of uncertainty its due. There is another way of understanding the elimination of uncertainty, and that’s to do with such things as social security and the welfare society, in fact the elimination of uncertainty as an ethic, as a political and social programme has been the programme with the most powerful movement in western societies in the 20th century. The labour movement, its political arm, the elimination of uncertainty has been its programme to create a more decent and just society. And I think that it perhaps another aspect of the elimination of uncertainty that is under-acknowledged in the way that you present it.

A: In looking at movements like the labour movement, for example, for me, discourses of the elimination of uncertainty tend to pervade most political movements. Although I think it’s important to make a distinction between the provision of stability and the elimination of uncertainty. Because the elimination of uncertainty can never happen, as far as I’m concerned. It’s a discursive claim, it’s a claim that people make about what happens. In terms of the welfare state and those sorts of political achievements, in a sense, that’s about the provision of stability, the reduction of uncertainty in often crisis situations. The reduction of uncertainty or the provision of stability for me are quite different from the elimination of uncertainty, which tends to be a[n unsustainable] discursive claim about the way the world is, a declaration that this is reality, and what is and must be in terms of how we think about reality. So I think what you’re talking about are very helpful in many respects, but I would also suggest that in those political movements, if you look where people are claiming the elimination of uncertainty rather than the reduction of uncertainty, you are likely to find very unhelpful dynamics around those aspects of what they do.

Comment/Kristin Kuutma: I would think there is still some hope in the human encounter with the folklorist and the people that they meet because very often there is quite a long interaction and very often the people that folklorists talk to they kind of are indoctrinated into this process of creating wisdom, so they are inside this process. This is a different kind of wisdom, but they know what the folklorists might know, or if the interaction is long enough the folklorist has explained what he or she is looking for so the person talking to the folklorist gets a certain status from being inside this process and producing the knowledge for the folklorist, as they take it down, record it. So there is another side to it as well, whether we ask them what they personally think about things, but I’d say there is a positive side to it as well.

A: I think there’s a positive side to any two people being in the same room together even if they’re hating each other. In thinking about this, I am thinking from a deeply hopeful perspective, and for me hope works better when it’s here, rather than somewhere else that you’re aiming for. I think the mere recognition and acknowledgement of the lives of people who have experienced what might be described as marginalization, or have felt as if they are in situations of oppression, or felt like nobody listens to them any more, that nobody cares about what they care about, these people that we live with and work with, I think it’s very, very important that the mere acknowledgement that they exist and that somebody wants to listen to them is a very positive thing. I don’t think it’s enough. I think that any status that might be accrued from that for them is a very small gift, as far as I’m concerned. I think we can be far more respectful, even in that. I do wonder … at the moment one of my big questions is, is it more respectful for me to visit people and not record anything they say? It’s a very serious question for me. I think of Delargy and his two year visit. Maybe we can be professional friendly people in a true sense, with the powerful character of friendship and relationship that we can bring with ourselves. But there are a lot of interesting things going on there.

Comment/Diarmuid Ó Giolláin: Do you think you can make distinctions between different disciplinary traditions there. It seems to me, for example, that at least the stereotypical folklorist in the last couple of generations as someone who goes in search of particular genres, say, and who perhaps in a sense scratches the surface, and on the other hand the anthropologist who tries to delve deeper, seeking social structures and so on. Often with the folklorist there’s a sort of exaggerated pietas to the tradition, with the anthropologist … there have been a couple of cases in Ireland where the anthropologist was the one that caused the most problems. I’m thinking about that highly respected book by Nancy Scheper-Hughes called Saints, Scholars, and Schizophrenics. I mean, can you elaborate on that perhaps?

A: For me it’s a question of what’s more important, the disciplinary boundaries, methods, narratives, or making use of the privileged positions we have to make sense of what it means to be human. For me, the second is more important. I am in a privileged position, I am a professional thinker, I get paid to teach, which is the most wonderful opportunity that anyone can have on a daily basis, and I get to research what I want to research, which is not what everybody gets to do, particularly in the current research environment. But I have a chance to try and make sense of my own experience in a way that I think can help me towards more helpful relationship, in the sense of what’s going on. This for me involves both a critique of unhelpful dynamics in the world, or in my experience, and a reconstructive approach to relationship. And wherever I can find disciplinary help in terms of peopled, heart-filled, respectful ways of thinking, whether in anthropology or in social ecology or in folkloristics, wherever I can find them, I’ll try and use them, and see to what extent they work or do not work depending on the epistemological grounding that they come from. But at the end of the day I do regard myself as being in a privileged, institutional position at the moment, which facilitates the kind of work that I want to do and wherever I can find it, in whatever discipline I can find helpful support for that, I’ll go there and I’ll look to that. I’m more interested in inviting the idea that we can think about what we do and say, okay, we’ve got where we are, we’re in a position, we’re professional thinkers, how can we act most helpfully in the world as human beings, while still doing what’s important to us, while still doing things we care about?

Comment/Diarmuid Ó Giolláín: It’s not a romantic search for community?

A: No, not at all. Because that potentially leads us back to eliminating uncertainty through the utopian imagined community. For me community is expectational resonance, it’s the sense that you can have with anyone at any time to some extent, but also conflict as expectational dissonance that’s always present too to some extent. It’s about being more discerning of the conflict and community opportunities that are available to us at any particular time, being aware that at all times there are traps of romantic communalism, traps of arrogant academicism, and so on.

[Déanaimis teangmháil. Let’s connect. I find that hard sometimes. I’m still pretty shy, and meeting new people still takes quite an effort. Disconnecting is easier. And harder.

Why don’t I just leave all those people alone?
Why don’t I just stay at home and read?
Why don’t I just let all that stuff go? I’ve already got too much stuff in my life; too many books, too many things; why don’t I just let it all go?
Why do I have to remember everything? Why do I have to write down everything other people remember? Why do I have to even bother talking to people?
Is my desire to collect greater than my desire to respect?
Is my desire to record greater than my ability to just be present with people?
Is my desire to write greater than my desire to listen?
Is my desire for knowledge, money, and status greater than my desire for wisdom?]


Bhí Mé Réidh Leis (a folklorist who cared).
Anthony McCann, 2013.

Bhí mé réidh leis,
Séamus the Folklorist wrote in his diary,
and left, off on his bicycle,
Leather satchel bulging at the seams,
off to the next
National Treasure
by the sea,
near a field
without a cow.

Bhí mé réidh leis.
Too easily translated as
“I was finished with him.”
Time spent.
Proverbs listed.
Songs recorded.
Stories transcribed.
Tunes notated.
Resources extracted.
Surveillance completed.
Primary target acquired.

Primo Levi once wrote:
“To give a name to a thing
is as gratifying
as giving a name to an island,
but it is also dangerous:
the danger consists
in one’s becoming convinced
that all is taken care of
and that once named
the phenomenon has also been explained.”

Double danger
When naming people.
When watching people.
When describing people.

Triple danger
When making a good living from
Naming people
Watching people
Describing people.

Bhí mé réidh leis,
Séamus the Folklorist wrote in his diary.
He could have meant
“I was ready with him,”
and stayed.
To talk like neighbours.
To keep good company.
To be with.
To sit in silence.
To chat about those near and dear to him.
To share a cup of tea.
To wile away the hours
Where words matter less
than the heart that dances.

I wonder if
Séamus the Folklorist
ever wished
(as he cocked his leg over his bike
and wiggled his bum
and uilleann pipes
into position for the rocky road)
that he was carrying
a leather satchel bulging at the seams,
chock-full of the sparkling delights of
proverbs unlisted
songs unrecorded
stories untranscribed
tunes unnotated.

For, in truth, he loved that man.
And sometimes
just sometimes
it didn’t feel right.

And sometimes, late at night,
He would stay behind
After a paperful day
And walk through the stacks
Drenching himself in the names
of old friends, dear friends,
Showering himself in half-glances
warm cups of tea
a devilish drop of poitín
a dirty joke
And a broad choir of grins.

And in the light of morning
In office hours
At the start of another paperful day
while walking his fingers through
the cabinet of the card catalogue
for references to “Na Ceannabháin Bhána”
He would again feel a stirring of regret
that there was no card for “love”.

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


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


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.


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.


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.


five water-worn stones

“I do not relish the role of david confronting Goliath, who numbs the soul wherever he touches it. But I find myself curiously, perhaps absurdly, cast in that role. And the five water-worn stones I choose from the river to put in my sling, are five spiritual aspects of Maori community life – arohanui: the love of many; manuhiritanga: hospitality to the guest and stranger; korero: speech that begets peace and understanding; matewa: the night life of the soul; mahi: work undertaken from communal love; I do not know what the outcome of the battle will be. My aim may be poor. But I think my weapons are well chosen.”

(James K. Baxter)

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