The 5th “Why the World needs anthropologists?” is right around the corner, and we are getting excited! In one month the city of Durham (UK) will host this edition named “Powering the Planet” where we will learn about how anthropologists can collaborate with different professionals to design energy innovations. To get a first contact with this topic we have spoken with one of the speakers of the event, Veronica Strang. Her work focuses on human-environmental relations, reflecting on people’s commitments, relationships and attitudes to resources, particularly water.
Even though we consider a lot of her work to be applied, she avoids using these concepts. “One of the things that worries me is the kind of anxieties that it creates by having two categories, one of which often feels like a second class citizenship. And one of the products of that is that they don´t engage much with universities. It worries me that a lot of young people who aren´t getting to universities job possitions feel left out of the whole disciplinary debate, and I would like us to do a lot more to link with the anthropologists outside academy. I take the view that good theory makes good practice. And that good practice feeds the development to good theory.”
Tell us about your first years in anthropology. How did you end up working in enviromental anthropology and specifically the study of water?
I always wanted to be a writter. I did my first degree in Design & Art History and when I finished, I headed off the world doing various things. At one point I ended up in Canada working with the goverment enviroment agency there. I was doing a lot of work looking at how to get people to take care of their lakes and how to think about water quality. (Because the big issue there at the time was acid rain and the forest destruction). And so I became very interested in how people valued their enviroment, and why some people cared about it and some didn´t.
After some years living there, I went off to Asutralia and ended up in North Queen´s Land on one of the cattle stations working with aborigenal people. This was a fabolous adventure and very fascinating because they had completely different attitude to what matter around the enviroment to anything I hade ever seen. Aborigenal people have this very deep affect attachment to their country, its absolutly central to their lives. Where as for the young stock men and politicians is much more of a combative thing with nature and a very much more comercial type of relationship.
So I got very much fascinated by these differences and when I came back to England I thought I would do a Masters and just look at that question: “How do they arrive at such different relationships?” And of course it turned out to be a very large question, and I ended up doing a doctorate, and fell down the slide of being an academic. So it just kind of happened.
What are you currently working on?
I have got several large projects running at the moment. I´m doing a lot of work with the United Nations writting some principles about water which will support their principles of sustainability. The idea is that these will encourage heads of state to take better care of their water.
Then I have River catchment Project which I have been working for years, and has just gone to the second stage which is called “Re-imagined communities” and this is trying to apply sort of ethical theories about human-nonhuman relations in river catchments. Rather than just focusing on the human communities it focuses on all the communities and all the species involved. It´s a big project that involves 17 disciplines and each of them will be speaking for parts of the catchmen. So as well as having ethnographers working with different communities, I also brought biologists, geologists and many other specialists. The idea is that rather just saying that it is about us, we reposition human relation and talk about the relationships in the catchment by actually giving each part of it a voice.
It is simultaneously an experiment in non-anthropocentric thinking about sustainability, and an experiment into interdisciplinareity and having equality between all of these different disciplines that speak for the different parts of it. So its a lovely project. And its also allowed me to work closely with some of the people writting some really interesting stuff on the ethics about the non-human and to rethink concepts of sustainability. And thats a little bit into the work I am doing with the UN: Im trying to persuade them if we only think of the problems from the human needs and interests they are not going to solve the enviromental issues that are fundamentaly unsustainable.
Also, I have another project in which I´m trying to bring anthropologists and engineers to work together on water infrastructure in various parts of the world.
And Im going to take some study-leave to write up years of work on water beings, like the Rainbow Serpent in Australia or Mami Wata in Africa. I have been collecting data for many years on the ways in which people personifiy water through mithological beings. Which is a lovely topic because it gets us to how people think about water. So I have far too much going on!
Several of those projects involve interdisciplinary teams. What is it to work with such different disciplines and professionals?
I love working with other disciplines and I always have. In a sense I find it very easy, and I think that this is something that a lot of anthropologists find easy to do. Because when I worked in river catchments doing ethnography, I worked with a lot of different groups. I worked with the miners and the pastors, the farmers, and tourists, and goverments agencies… For me lots of projects come to be a cultural translation.
In some ways working with interdiciplinary teams is very much like that too. They all have their own language, worldviews, their particular values, identities, the things that they think are important… So in a way, and partly because anthropology is such a broad picture view, there is always room for all of those who are in it. We make it come out naturally to work with other disciplines, because when we do ethnography we are interested in the history of the place and the enviromental stuff people are doing, and the economic part… In every area of ethnography there is overlap with other disciplines.
So I often feel like anthropologists ought to have the training that make it very easy to them to work with other disciplines. Because they understand the concept of cultural translation and diverse world views. And I would love to see anthropologists embrace that more fully. I gave a talk at the Anthropological Institue a couple of years ago and I said we should be leading disciplinary projects.
Usually what happens is that we are not leading the projects. They are led usually by natural sciences, who want anthropologists to fit into their much more specific models of whats happening, which is very difficult to do. And they kind of just want to inject the “people´s stuff”. “Ok, now we have done the people stuff”. A lot of us have experienced being tagged on to a project to bring the “people stuff”, and just inject it without having to disturb the thinking of the Projec, as if it was some kind of magic elixir… You find situations where you have hydrologists saying “well, we know how to make people´s stuff”. And I ask them, what ethnography have you done? “Well we´ve talked to people”. But they are not using the toolkit of anthropology, the theories and the ideas to bring that analysis together. So I think anthropology should take more the role of leading projects and help people to make use of anthropological theory, gently leading people into social science theory. It has to be approached carefully rather than squizing an elephant into a match box….
Interdisciplinarity work is about having the patience and the good will and the generosity to exchange knowledge in a meaningfull way and it needs to be reciprocal. Then you come down to basic principles like equality in disciplines, which is very rare in the academy. You have to create a space as we have here in Institute of Advance Study (Durham) where people have to leave their egos outside and accept that there is an equal exchange of knowledge to be done. And when it happens, it´s terribly exciting!
We are really looking foward to listening to your lecture next month in the “Why the world needs anthropologists?” in Durham. What does this event mean to you?
I think definitely the world does need anthropologists. I can´t think about a better way of understanding complex issues. And bringing broad theoretical frameworks to bear our complex problems.
One of the things that worries me about the ways in which we address problems is that we are too attached politicly to much more reductive methodologies. And there is a real need, people are willing to spend a lot of time in the fieldwork and really try to unpack what is going on. And to bring things that are invisible up to the surface. I always think that anthropologists make things visible, which is not always welcome, of course. But it is in fact very usefull.
When it comes to issues around energy and power, its necessary to bring in to visibility the very important dynamics of how people engage with energy systems and the enviroment. If we are to hoping to change people´s behaviours in any way (and of course in terms of sustainability that is an imperative), then we absolutly need to understand what drives their behaviours. And so many times behaviour is like an iceberg, and what we see is just a manifestion of a great bolk of ideas, beliefs, and values and if we don´t understand those, then we can´t hope to change the direction of what they are doing. So, this is something I´ve always tried very hard to do in terms of water, understand what it means to people.
So for me, these kinds of events that really think about what anthropologists can do to engage with this sort of things are very important. And I´m very supporting to all of them. . So… yes, I think its good to have these things that focus in this very specific issues. And Im sure its going to be a fabolous event.
What advice do you have for young anthropologists starting their profesional paths?
I would say, be adventurous. There is a lot of politics around the doing of anthropology, we are a very reflecting discipline, we critize ourselves a lot. And I always used to tell my students, never apologize for being an anthropologist. Because if you are doing it well, you are bringing humanization of issues into any equation. Be bold and be brave about engaging with other disciplines. Put on a few skills on how to do that.
Be bold and be brave about engaging with other disciplines.
Learn how to write clearly and accesibily.
And the other thing I would add is learn how to write clearly and accesibily so you can really explain yourself to other audiences and to each other. We get a lot of rather mystifing types of writting in anthropology and I dont believe it´s necessary. I think it should be possible to put any complex ideas into language that is understandable. And I think anthropology needs to work a little bit harder as a field in communicating itself to other people. And that is difficult! (laughs)
One of the things when I work with other disciplines people tell me: “Anthropologists allways say “its complicated”. And its true! That is exactly what we do. Because it is complicated if you are talking about human behaviour. But I think we have to be willing to say, yes it is, but im going to help to unfold this for you. And then when you do unfold they get very excited, because they didn´t realize that human behaviour wasn´t a black box that you couldn´t open. I found this when working with water industries. They thought it was really exciting to have answers to questions like “Why are people spending a 1000 dollars on bottled water?” Or “why arent they conserving?” Or “why are they so angry about water privatization?” And so, rather than apologizing for being complicated, I would say to work and make the effort to explain that complication in ways that people can engage and people can handle and lead it into a more complex landscapes. Learn more communication!
Thank you Veronica!
See you all in Durham!