Tuesday, February 13, 2018

Kloppenburg. 1991. "Social Theory and the De/Reconstruction of Agricultural Science: Local Knowledge for an Alternative Agriculture."

Kloppenburg, J. (1991), Social Theory and the De/Reconstruction of Agricultural Science: Local Knowledge for an Alternative Agriculture. Rural Sociology, 56: 519–548. doi:10.1111/j.1549-0831.1991.tb00445.x

Kloppenburg begins with a quote by Carol Cohn that refers to "militarized masculinity and decontextualized rationality." Although there is more to the quote, and the rest of the quote relates better to Kloppenburg's purpose, those words caught my attention.

Kloppenburg is writing as an activist, an advocate of sustainable agriculture, and a critic of what we now call either conventional or production or industrial agriculture. Making the leap from the form of agriculture he opposes to the one he supports involves a "deconstructive task" - "the demonstration that agricultural science as currently constituted provides neither a complete, nor an adequate, nor even a best possible account of the sphere of agricultural production" and a "reconstructive task" - "the identification and legitimation of alternative sources of knowledge production for agriculture - sources which now have no voice, or speak without authority, or simply are not heard in contemporary agroscientific discourse" (p. 520). The deconstruction began with Rachel Carson and Silent Spring in 1962. For the reconstruction, he advocates "local knowledge."

Calling the deconstruction project "more a diffuse historical tendency than a coherent project" (p. 521), Kloppenburg cites critiques not just about conventional agriculture's ecological impact, but also its social one. Additionally, there are critiques of "the manner in which particular social interests gain differential influence over the institutional structure of knowledge production" - in other words, a few powerful agribusiness interests disproportionately influence call the shots (p. 521). Kloppenburg points to several critiques of the "validity and utility of the methodologies employed in research and the epistemic constitution of knowledge production itself" (p. 521). This sentence is so good I'll just quote it in full: "A growing number of biological scientists are concerned that the reductionistic and positivistic approaches characteristic of modern science constrain pursuit of unorthodox but potentially productive research initiatives, obscure important connections between organisms and phenomena, and actively inhibit achievement of holistic understanding of ecological systems" (p. 521). He cites as sources Suppe 1988; Allen and Starr 1982; Levins and Lewontin 1985; MacRae et al. 1989; Odum 1989; Prigogine and Stengers 1984.

After naming organizations calling for sustainable agriculture, Kloppenburg provides the response from Big Ag and some agricultural scientists: knowledge creation is for the scientists alone. If we are to have a different type of agriculture, it will be developed by them: "The objective is to control the shape that alternative agriculture will take by insisting upon the hegemony of existing science and thereby limiting the type and range of knowledges that can be brought to bear upon the construction of an alternative agriculture" (p. 522).

Therefore, Kloppenburg reframes his notion of a deconstructive project, adding that it is not to take down the current type of agriculture practiced in this country but the entire system of how agricultural knowledge is produced and legitimized: "The object... is not simply what should constitute alternative agriculture but - even more fundamentally - who is even to have the power to speak authoritatively in that debate, who is to have a voice at all" (p. 523).

For Kloppenburg, the reconstruction project involves not just a reconstruction of agricultural practices, but a reconstruction of agricultural science, of how agricultural knowledge is produced.

In the next section, Kloppenburg places science in a social context. In other words, he's pulling back the curtain on "decontextualized rationality." I'd like to quote a few particularly beautiful passages:

"In contemporary society, what we call science enjoys a privileged status among the possible ways of establishing knowledge about the world" (Aronowitz 1988; Marcuse 1964; Mulkay 1979) (p. 524).

"The mental productions we call scientific knowledge are no less subject to social influences than are the products of any other way of knowing and are, therefore, the fruits of a scientific enquiry that must be envisioned as, in Knorr-Cetina's (1981 :3) succinct phrasing, "constructive rather than descriptive."" (p. 524)

"The "facticity" of science is not comprised of objective descriptions of a determinate natural world but of socially contingent constructions provides a foundation for a powerful new critique of science" (p. 524).

In other words, the scientific method is but one way of producing knowledge and, due to social factors, we privilege this way of producing knowledge above all others. However, that does not make knowledge produced in other ways necessarily false. What it does do is tie knowledge production to power relations. In this case, it means that the most powerful interests in agriculture get to frame the problems, decide what gets studied, and limit the range of solutions considered, and the less powerful do not. He cites Gieryn 1983. Then he finishes by stating that if this system is socially constructed then it can also be socially reconstructed in a better, more equitable way.

Kloppenburg ties this to the work of feminists, writing, "As Keller (1987:37-38) points out, this conclusion follows logically from a central premise of feminist studies generally: just as gender is a socially constructed representation (rather than a precise reflection) of sex, so is science a socially constructed representation (rather than a precise reflection) of nature" (p 525).

To unpack this point, he bring's up Harding's (1986) "three tendencies in feminist thinking about the production of scientific knowledge:" "feminist empiricism," "feminist postmodernism," and "feminist standpoint" theory (p. 526). The first, feminist empiricism calls for "more rigorous adherence to the existing scientific method" to produce a larger but not a separate body of knowledge. Feminist postmodernism, if I am reading correctly, calls for more inclusiveness in who does science but does not think that all will come together to produce a single body of knowledge. Rather, there will be multiple different bodies of knowledge, each of which are "partial knowledges." The third approach, feminist standpoint, calls for a feminist version of science to supplant the existing science we have, as it will be superior.

Kloppenburg makes clear that he's not interested in endorsing one or all of these three approaches, but in their shared recognition that (he's quoting another author here):
"no rigid boundary separates the subject of knowledge (the knower) and the natural object of that knowledge; where the subject/object split is not used to legitimize the domination of nature; where nature itself is conceptualized as active rather than passive, a dynamic and complex totality requiring human cooperation and understanding rather than a dead mechanism, requiring only manipulation and control (Fee 1986:47)." (Quoted in Kloppenburg p. 526)
In other words, he's still saying that scientifically produced knowledge under the current system is not the only way to produce valid knowledge, and the current system of knowledge production reflects our current social structure. In the quote, Fee is also claiming that men maintain a false separation between the scientific subject and its object (the scientist in the lab coat is outside the cage of rats he is studying and he presumably has no effect on them, or they on him, and none of the social structure of the world impacts the research he is doing on them, and Fee thinks that is false).

Kloppenburg takes issue with the notion that making this correction to science is uniquely feminist. Fee wrote that other groups besides women have also made the same critique, and Kloppenburg sums up her point of view: "What feminists criticize as masculinist science is also criticized from other standpoints - differently situated knowledges, one might say - as European science, or imperialist science, or bourgeois science" (p. 527).

So apparently one does not need to be a woman to critique the existing version of science or to reform it.

Kloppenburg then synthesizes the work of several feminist scholars to call for and define what he calls "local knowledge."

"I agree with Fee that this spirit of eclecticism-of "shared conversations in epistemology" (Haraway 1988:584)-is the most fruitful analytical approach in a world of multiple identities and hyphenated commitments. One of the central themes in the feminist analysis of science is the importance of legitimating and reaffirming the value of producing knowledge through "sensuous activity" (Rose 1986:72) and "personal experience" (Harding 1986:240) that is necessarily and specifically "local" (and therefore neither universalizing nor essentializing) in character (Smith 1987). I suggest that what I will call "local knowledge" is an expression of such production and that it is the global ubiquity of this form of knowledge production that accounts at least in part for the curious coincidences noted by Harding and Fee" (p. 527)

In fact, he points out that a number of other scholars who aren't feminists or even women also offer up ideas about different types of knowledge:

"A wide variety of analysts from the phenomenologist philosophers to contemporary anthropologists have tried to illuminate this epistemic distinction through elaboration of a range of paired concepts: "tacit knowledge/ scientific knowledge" (Polanyi 1966), "science of the concrete/science" (Levi-Strauss 1962), "life-world knowledge/scientific knowledge" (Bohme 1984; Husserl 1970), "craft knowledge/scientific knowledge" (Braverman 1974), "practical labor/science" (Bittner 1983), "folk wisdom/processed knowledge" (Krimsky 1984), "indigenous knowledge/scientific knowledge" (Richards 1985), "working knowledge/scientific knowledge" (Harper 1987)" (p. 528).

This distinction reminds me of an ethnobotany class I took years ago. There were two professors, a Luiseno man trained by a revered Kumeyaay elder and a white woman who had a graduate degree in botany. When presented with plants to identify, the man would use his senses - and sometimes even taste the unknown plant in order to confirm its identity. The woman, who would absolutely NEVER put an unidentified plant in her mouth, would dissect the flower, view it under a microscope, and count its various parts (sepals, petals, male parts, and female parts). She'd see if it had an inferior or superior ovary, if it was a composite flower or not, and so on. This would tell her which plant family the flower was in, and from there she could go about looking at its other attributes - leaf shape, leaf margins, size, color, etc - to determine which exact species it was.

Although both could accurately identify just about any local plant you put in front of them - often the types of information they had about the plant were complementary. The man knew how to use plants medicinally, and which ones could be eaten. The botanist had not learned anything of the sort in graduate school, but she did give us a helpful explanation about the evolution of plants, and how phloem and xylem really work. The course was valuable because both perspectives were taught. I believe that is what Kloppenburg is saying here, that currently we have just one point of view and not the other, and we need the other - especially when the one we have currently is letting us down so badly, as he believes it is.

Kloppenburg defines local knowledge as derived from lived experience: "Such knowledge is local in the sense that it is derived from the direct experience of a labor process which is itself shaped and delimited by the distinctive characteristics of a particular place with a unique social and physical environment" (p. 528). This eliminates the boundary between subject and object. "This holistic sense of the substance and context of the labor process produces a unified field of knowledge that is finely tuned to the concrete exigencies, needs, and requirements of local conditions" (p. 528).

He defines the current system of producing scientific knowledge as Cartesian reductionism - "the practice of breaking a problem down into discrete components, analyzing these separate parts in isolation from each other, and then reconstructing the system from the interpretations of the parts (Levins and Lewontin 1985:2; Merchant 1980: 182)" (p. 530).

The flaws in the current version of science are that they "fit all too well with the premium placed on power and control by authoritarian and patriarchal society and have served to reinforce the domination of women and nature (Bleier 1986; Longino 1990; Merchant 1980)" and they "involve a loss of context (social and political as well as physical and biological) which encourages a hierarchical and linear rather than an interactive and ecological view of nature (Aronowitz 1988; MacRae et al. 1989; Odum 1989:177; Prigogine and Stengers 1984)" (p. 530). The other side of the coin of Cartesianism is the "neglect and delegitimation of local knowledge production" (p. 530). He writes, "Because it is reductive, abstracting, and interested in the immutable components of a phenomenon, science loses connection with the variability of local systems" (p. 530).

Kloppenburg writes:

"The route to solutions to problems at the whole-farm level-at the local system level-runs not through agricultural scientists, but through those who think in terms of whole farms, those whose experiences are of whole farms, and whose knowledge has been developed by the integration of hand, brain, and heart in caring labor on whole farms-that is, through farmers. We should be exploring how to bring farmers and their local knowledge back into formal knowledge production for agriculture" (p. 531).

In other words, even if a particular variety of seeds can produce a particularly high yield on an experimental farm (which generally means it is grown under the best possible conditions), that does not mean that that same seed variety will actually work best for a real farmer on a real farm. This has been a problem I have seen myself, often on peasant farms in other countries. The scientists at the land grant university or the multinational corporation may come up with a dwarf variety of high yielding grain, but at the local level it causes problems because actually the farmers use the long stalks of their existing varieties as animal feed or for some other purpose, and the new variety deprives them of that. Or because the new variety, while high yielding, does not taste as good to locals. Or perhaps the crop produced is just fine, but after a farmer borrows money to buy high tech seeds and the chemical inputs needed to go with them and then sells the crop and pays back the loan with interest, the farmer makes less net income than if he or she had planted a lower yielding landrace variety from saved seeds that did not require borrowing money or purchasing inputs. Or because, while the seeds work great under ideal conditions, the farmers at the local level do not have ideal conditions - no irrigation, or sloped land, or poor soil, or bad drainage - and under those conditions the seeds do not produce well at all.

For the farmer, the profitability or viability of the entire farm matters. The farmer's own lifestyle matters too if you want to bring in the ideas of Chayanov, who wrote that peasant farmers work up until the point where the benefits gained from work no longer outweigh the drudgery of doing the work itself. The simple reductionist factor that made the high tech seed so valuable to scientists - high yield - is but one factor in many to the farmer, and it may or may not be a seed that is ultimately the most beneficial to the entire farm as a whole and to the farmer.

Another line that struck me as important was this one: "Prodded now and then to treat people as subjects rather than objects, to engage in a pedagogy "with, not for the oppressed" (Freire 1970:33), or to try "reverse learning ... to learn from farmers" (Chambers 1983)" (p. 532). In the particular case I am studying now, the scientists who study the issue (how to bring back a viable wolf population despite the unpopularity of wolves among many and the very real problem that wolves sometimes eat pet dogs and livestock) see the population that will now have to coexist with wolves as the object of study in a top-down investigation.

Often the scientists see those who dislike wolves as an obstacle to overcome. An obstacle for they, the scientists, to discover how to overcome. What if we allow trophy hunting? What if we educate people about wolves? Or we could compensate people for lost livestock? Then will they like the wolves? No? We can study why not. One source I read called this a "techno-rational" approach and critiques it for failing to see the wider social reality influencing the conflict (Nie, 2003, Beyond Wolves). But it also sees those who live among wolves as objects of study for scientists who are the legitimate people to make the right decisions (as David Mech believes, according to Nie p. 40) or to at least offer the public a menu of potential solutions and their implications as a doctor would offer a patient options for treatment and the benefits and risks of each (Nie p. 41). In either case, the people who live among wolves are not a part of the creation of knowledge except as objects of scientific study.

I am skipping past quite a bit of this article that seems less relevant to my own work at present. Then Kloppenburg comes to a section entitled "Accepting partiality: articulating situated knowledges" in which he writes, "What we need to do is to establish conversations among these partial perspectives and ground them in the specific and material context of the agricultural sector" (p. 537). It sounds like he is saying that local knowledge should not supplant scientific knowledge. The two should work side by side, together, as they did in the ethnobotany class I wrote about above, each recognizing that they both have something valuable to contribute.

He writes, "Nevertheless, by expressing a preference for the term "local knowledge," the implication is that "locality" - in the sense of inseparability from a particular place in the sense of embeddedness in a particular labor process - is the key distinguishing feature of this type of knowledge" (p. 537). While I had started to think of what he calls local knowledge as lived knowledge - knowledge gained through lived experience - here Kloppenburg emphasizes that place matters. This knowledge is not just produced through lived experience but it is tied to the place where it was produced.

Later, it becomes clear that Kloppenburg does in fact favor one of the three feminist approaches: feminist postmodernism. He states this in a section toward the end - which I will end with - that explains how multiple systems of producing knowledge can coexist.

"Feminist postmodernism suggests that the transition to a successor science is a mistaken project. Multiple and separate realities do exist and to suggest that a universal epistemological stance is possible and desirable - however feminist, holist, or oganicist it might be - is simply to replace one hegemony with another (Haraway 1986). While difference must be recognized and valued, productive interactions between ways of knowing can be established through partial connection and "decentered knowledge seeking" (Harding 1986:55). Farmers know something that agricultural scientists do not know and cannot completely know; and vice versa. Articulations between these different ways of knowing need to be established not in order to combine the knowledges, and not to translate the knowledges, but to permit mutually beneficial dialogue. The problem is not one of choosing between scientific knowledge or local knowledge, but of creating conditions in which these separate realities can inform each other." (p. 540).

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