Tuesday, July 24, 2012

Pragmatism and Cultural Studies

Fundamental ideologies, beliefs, values, artifacts (technology / tool / literature and poems)), values, assumptions are the things that make up culture. (I am sure I have missed a few but you get the idea.). In our cultural analysis of climate change many of these have been catalogued in one way or another, in one region or another, at one time or another, with one group of people or another. We have learned ‘how people feel about nature’ or ‘how people feel about climate change’ and I have also been made aware of some nice poems. Now, knowledge for knowledge’s sake is a nice luxury but climate change is, we are told, about real danger in need of real pragmatic action, although many ideals are often floated.


Let’s assume for this exercise that climate change is indeed one of the greatest and most dangerous issues facing life (in all of its aspects, as we know it) on Earth. Then what is the pragmatic contribution of cultural studies? (I admit there is probably a great deal I do not know about cultural studies and would therefore be grateful for any examples.)
In a nut shell, so far, culture studiers have given us ‘people’s alternative views of nature’ (Cotgrove), ‘what people think is the proper relationship with nature’ (Cotgrove), a list of ‘cultural orientations and environmental values’ (Kempton), the ‘myths of nature’ (Thompson), some nice poems (eh?), and probably many more things of which I am oblivious. My question is, now that we have this knowledge, how are we supposed to put it to use, or even if that was the intention? After all, we see many many calls these days for the inclusion of culture in climate change and related studies. Its inclusion seems to be imperative if we are to get things right. However, my ignorance prevents me from seeing how to include it.

What if culture studiers borrowed from climate science, standing cultural studies on its head if you will? (The study of culture has typically been a retroactive endeavour.) What if culture studiers took a different perspective akin to response to scenarios? What if they asked ‘How would local culture respond to ...? What would be the cultural implications given such and such a change (the generation of a raft of new poems)? What would be the cultural impacts of differing adaptation strategies? Of course, the what ifs and how woulds would indeed be educated fiction, but if this approach is good enough for the IPCC scenarios then ..

Or, without the scenarios, perhaps something simpler like the response time of culturally dissimilar groups (as already documents) in reacting to different types of situations/impacts? Response time and context are important factors in the selection of strategies for action. How do different groups respond to surprise? How do they respond to potential?

Or if you are too lazy for field work, and have no regard for empiricism, move ahead to a given point, and then imagine yourself looking back from that point documenting the passage of time and cultural change, sort of like cultural tree rings. For inspiration, see Human Engineering and Climate Change (http://www.smatthewliao.com/2012/02/09/human-engineering-and-climate-change  Lilliput world!

I too enjoy generating knowledge for the sake of knowledge. It adds a sense of fun to science. But in climate science – in all of its forms – morals have made a poignant appearance. So, if you are a culture studier on the climate change crusade, please add some useable knowledge. If not, then Bob’s your uncle. But don’t try so hard to demonstrate the utility of what you learn, simply be content that you have learned. (Difficult given the availability of funds for non-climate change related cultural studies, I know.)

15 comments:

EliRabett said...

But of course, cultural studies have asked just such questions. Cultural studies develops models of communications of ideas and beliefs and how they are formed and conveyed. Where cultural studies could, and is making a contribution is in showing how political groups and their fossil fuel funders are distorting the scientific message and shaping policy and how the growing awareness of this has produced limited pushback.

The open eyed innocence of this post is, as they say, either being naive or disingenuous.

Dennis Bray said...

@Eli

Can you give me an example of 'just such questions' and expand a bit and tell me how they have policy implications? Yes there are models of ideas and beliefs, how climate change crusaders distort scientific messages and shape policy, I agree. I am not sure what 'pushback' is, but the explanations of how it has occured is usually a little normative, much like the bias in your comment. All I am asking, as the call for the inclusion of things cultural into things climate change is increasing, how or if such studies have real policy implications? I am not denying they are interesting, insightful, etc. but has the work actually been attended to during policy formation. Do politicians take it into consideration?

Dennis Bray said...

@ Eli

A second thought. I seem to recall many climate change policies and political prnouncements make reference to rise in global temperatures. But I don't recall any mentioning models of ideas, commuications or beliefs. They are widely discussed in respective disciplines but seem to be lacking in policy design. We have shared blog comments on and off now for a number of years so I have come to think, if anyone should know of any examples, it would be you. Can you share any?

hera said...

Please apply the same criteria (instrumental to political problem solving) to traditional positivistic approaches of science. Did more and better scientific knowledge of this sort contribute to solve the "problems" related to global change? Take a look at the results of Rio+20? Did more and better scientific evidence (on planetary boundaries) help to catalyse decision-making or overcome political inaction?

Problems such as the lack of action and public consent are often not caused by the shortage of knowledge alone rather than grounded in politics. More and better information is often part of the problem itself rather than the solution.
In other words: there is also a need to understand how politics and decisionmaking works and what knowledge is relevant to decision-makers. These questions also point to a deeper problem, which lies in the way the question at stake is framed (see Mike Hulme’s comment http://www.3s.uea.ac.uk/blog/are-there-%E2%80%98solutions%E2%80%99-global-environmental-change).
Opening up these controversies, demonstrating alternative, hidden paths and options and last but not least deepening the understanding of politics and culture is the valuable contribution.
Finally, can we use these utilitarian notions of science to assess the relevance and value of social sciences?

Dennis Bray said...

Hi hera – in 3 parts


Part 1. First, I am a sociologist who has been working in the climate change issue since the mid 1990’s. Rio, in my understanding was a political event, not a scientific conference. If not for ‘postivistic approaches of science’ as you call it, Rio would not have taken place. And I am not judging the quality of any science, simply questioning the utility of various branches when it comes to having policy application. More specifically, I questioned the contributions of cultural studies, not social science, which is a bit broader. Certainly economics (social science) has played a role in policy design; broader public perceptions (sociology - Kempton) and the likes have mostly likely had impacts in political campaign designs, policy design, etc.; media studies have also likely played a role, demonstrating that a constant barrage of scary stories is likely to have a negative effect.

Dennis Bray said...

Part 2. I also agree that ‘there is also a need to understand how politics and decision making works and what knowledge is relevant to decision-makers.’ but could you tell me, with the return to the focus on the local, if discovering that half of the population of a village sees the local fish as lost sparkling souls in the misty waters and the pother half sees them as a box of frozen fish sticks, is of any political or other consequence? This might have been a fun project to do, it has added to a body of knowledge, an honorable goal. It has likely entertained like minded academics. But is it of any consequence?

Dennis Bray said...

Part 3. It seems to me that the comment by Mike Hulme points out that even the social sciences are wary of such work: ‘But the one element of the report I reflect on here is the adoption of the ‘solutions’ terminology. “In 19 pages of text, ‘solutions’ appears 15 times (neatly mirrored by 15 appearances of ‘problems’). ‘Solutions’ is prefaced most often by the terms ‘effective’, ‘sustainable’ and ‘policy’ – hence ‘effective sustainable policy solutions’. Occasionally, the terms ‘finding’, ‘social’, ‘equitable’ and ‘natural science’ preface ‘solutions’” (M. Hulme) . This to me begs a ‘utilitarian notion’ of social science. But I agree, the relevance and value of social science should not be limited by such constraints. But let’s not fool ourselves about this relevance. Back to M. Hulmes comment. His statement ‘It means re-framing the very purpose of intervention: not to solve, but to create novelty, to experiment.’ Well, we certainly intervened in the atmosphere creating a rather novel situation. But need we really worry, in the post modernist scheme of things (i.e Bruno L – et al - as mentioned by M. Humle as being insightful) as physical reality is only a social and linguistic construct. If we simply stop talking and thinking about climate change, will it go away? Hmm, maybe politicians do incorporate such stuff afterall.

Reiner Grundmann said...

Here is a quite interesting piece about the relevance of social sciences and cultural studies, by Andrew Hoffman, and P. Devereaux Jennings
which was published in Solutions online .

Here is the brief:

The debate over climate change has come largely from the physical sciences in defining the problem, and from one narrow branch of social science—neoclassical economics—in generating solutions. While this focus helps to define and address issues related to what is at stake and what to do about it, a greater and more varied voice from the social sciences (e.g., sociology, psychology, anthropology, political science) is needed to address issues related to how the problem is viewed by the public and how that public will respond to the solutions that are imposed upon it. In the eyes of the social scientist, people employ ideological filters when analyzing important issues. These filters are influenced by their identity and worldview; that is, their belief systems. Critical to the formation of such belief systems are the groups to which people belong and the biases and values of the individual. Unfortunately, these cultural and psychological dimensions are overlooked because social scientists that can identify and analyze them have been notably absent from the public debate. This omission is due both to a lack of awareness among policymakers of the valuable insights that the broader social sciences can offer and to the internal reward and incentive systems of the academy that bias social scientists away from engaging in public debates. This article discusses how the other social sciences could augment the proposed economic solutions to greenhouse mitigation with research on perception, decisions, consensus, and action across three levels of analysis: the individual, organizational, and institutional levels. It also discusses a series of proposed interventions to overcome the filters and biases that take place at these levels.

Dennis Bray said...

Hi Reiner

Thanks for the info. But I believe there has been a lot of work on 'research on perception, decisions, consensus, and action across three levels of analysis: the individual, organizational, and institutional levels' and this has been underway for many years now. While be have an abundance of research that 'address issues related to how the problem is viewed by the public' there still seems to be a dearth related to 'how that public will respond to the solutions'. Years ago Simon Shackley and myself attmpted to address this problem - www.tyndall.ac.uk/sites/default/files/wp58.pdf - at least begin to address it, in terms of perception formation. But wouldn't a determination of responses be dependent on competing issues at the time, election dates, etc, etc.
Even if that is sorted out, to know that 1, 2, 3, or even 4 opposing groups define things differntly, and this leads to conflict, is not very insightful. Perhaps the application of conflict theory to a concrete case study that provided useable knowledge might be a solution; one that moves for a local narrative to a more conceptual level of analysis. Maybe, a meta analysis of local ethnographic accounts, if you will.

Reiner Grundmann said...

Dennis
your reply leaves me puzzled.

You seem to be focused on prediction which in my view narrows the scope of cultural studies (and social science contributions) considerably.

When you say we don't know "how that public will respond to the solutions" you assume that the public will be presented with solutions, and cannot be included in their formulation.

I am even more puzzled by your statement "to know that 1, 2, 3, or even 4 opposing groups define things differntly, and this leads to conflict, is not very insightful"

Especially if you are into predictions such knowledge is not only insightful but essential.

Dennis Bray said...

Hi Reiner

Your last comment first: I think I could assume that it is comon knowledge that under contested conditions, simply to know there are opposing groups does not provide much insight. It begs the question of so what? Group 1 sees things blue; group 2 green, group 3yellow, group 4 purple. This is a catalogue of opinions, data for an analysis - but there is seldom any analysis. Given the way things go, each of the 4 groups could likely be broken down into another 4groups each and so on and so on.
As for "how the public will respond ..." of course they can be included in the formulations, but I am not aware of any work addressing such a matter. Or is this simply an ad hoc negotiation? (To be forewarned is to be forearmed?)

Prediction: perhaps knowledgeable guidance would be a more appropriate term. So far we (the social sciences) seem to be stuck at 'description', and only occasionally wander into explanation or address casual attribution (with caveats). In my example, there are 4 groups, we can describe the groups until we a blue in the face, but we still only have description. Can we explain why these groups are the way they are? Can we state the consequences of such differences?

In 'cultural studies' NOT social science in general, 'inventories' seem to prevail. Although I must admit there is sometimes some interpretive work, which is the interpretation of the author(s). And I know too this happens with the output of climate models on occasion and it causes controversy in the science. Of course controversy in science is a healthy state but controversy in real politic can sometimes have a negative impact. So if the work we do is to have some real utility (many seem unsatisfied to claim otherwise) then at least it should be clear enough to attempt to avoid rather than create problematic situations. So let's recap:

1. not prediction but useable knowledge

2. of course the public can be included, but apart from town hall meetings I am not sure how. Do the public have any say in the current controversy over taxing air travel for example?

3. I have to concede, perhaps knowing that groups with opposing viewpoints might lead to conflict among those groups might be an insightful to some. But I think at best, we can say 'oh oh, these two (four, ten) groups might be opposed as to how any solution might be reached.'

I am not saying there is anything wrong with what has been done or what we are doing. But if we are interested in knowledge for knowledge sake, then let's do it from a conceptual/theoretical level in which climate change/ climate science is simply one case study. Do we for example, need departments of 'you-name-it and climate change'? Wouldn't just the 'you-name-it' suffice and climate change simply represent one area of study?

Maybe it is time to stop collecting data and start extending the analysis.

Dennis Bray said...

Reiner,

I have just found a paper that takes 'framing' to a more concptual level. This is what I was trying to convey - there is not enough of this. In Dahinden, Urs (2005). Framing: A decade of research experience. Conference Papers—
International Communication Association. http://citation.allacademic.com//meta/p_mla_apa_research_citation/0/1/4/6/8/pages14682/p14682-1.php
Dahinden demonstates that frame are independent of the issue and can be applied to different issues.

Reiner Grundmann said...

Dennis

In a sense, these issues were discussed on Klimazwiebel in the past months, perhaps framed in a slightly different way. Maybe we are looking at different literatures. Anyway, my feeling is that we are talking past each other, but at the same time I _think_ I know what you are aiming at.

So let me try. You raise some quite complex questions here. First, there is the Q about the relevance of cultural studies for policy making. Then there is the Q about theory, and what contribution framing theory could make (correct me if I got this wrong).

Regarding the first, I think there are studies based on Cultural Theory (specifically, grid-group analysis), proceeding deductively:
Verweij, M., Douglas, M., Ellis, R., Engel, C., Hendriks, F., Lohmann, S., et al. (2006). Clumsy solutions for a complex world: The case of climate change. Public Administration, 84(4), 817.

Then there is the Six Americas study http://environment.yale.edu/climate/files/SixAmericasMay2011.pdf

which proceeds more inductively.

Both are going beyond a shallow “Group 1 sees the world green”, etc. But they cannot offer an explanation about the causes for these beliefs and, frankly I don't think such knowledge would be relevant.
What is relevant is that any type of knowledge will be used by different actors and stakeholders in the way they see fit. There cannot be any built-in mechanism to make the results of knowledge effective in specific and _intended_ ways.

Both studies above relate to the second question, about the theoretical framework for analysis. I agree that framing theory is very important here. However, it has not reached a stage where one could simply take it off the shelf and apply it to cases. There are many different applications and the applications are sensitive to cases.
Grid-group theory of course would claim that there is determinism but it has not been synthesized with framing theory in a sophisticated way (albeit it rests on some insights of it, called world views, views of nature, mythologies).

My conclusion is that we should create and evaluate comparative cases (across countries and issues) in order to build robust theories.

Dennis Bray said...

Hi Reiner


Given "Both are going beyond a shallow “Group 1 sees the world green”, etc. But they cannot offer an explanation about the causes for these beliefs and, frankly I don't think such knowledge would be relevant. What is relevant is that any type of knowledge will be used by different actors and stakeholders in the way they see fit. There cannot be any built-in mechanism to make the results of knowledge effective in specific and _intended_ ways."
I agree such studies are interesting but for the climate issue, what is the added value of such studies? But what is relevant in the fact that we know actors will use any type of knowledge to achieve what they want to achieve? IS a catalogue of relevant knowledges relevant? I am not saying it needs any relevance, i.e. knowledge for knowledge's sake is an honourable goal. But such analysis is claiming an importance in the science-policy realm of climate change, and I just cannot see what this relevance is.
Concerning framing, an important contribution to our understanding, but often it appears there are as many frames as there are individual thoughts; in short, it does not simplify the reality, it merely catalogues it. Again, the production of knowledge for its own sake is fine, it provides insights and understanding. We often see claims that it is necessary to include such knowledge and insights into the ‘climate issues’, but for what purpose?
This – the explication of purpose -is mostly lacking, or is simply presented as a blanket assertion: ‘It is important”.
I have no expertise on framing studies, etc., but I cannot recall seeing such studies over other issues, unemployment, financial crisis, famines, etc. for example - other more modern issues (gene tech, etc, yes). ‘Old’ issues are still very relevant, but I wonder why they are all but ignored in the context of framing. (Perhaps I am simply ignorant of the literature).
I very much agree with your conclusion ‘that we should create and evaluate comparative cases (across countries and issues) in order to build robust theories’ but, the same approach should be taken with other interpretative approaches and ‘time/history’ should be added to ‘across countries and issues’. For example, it would be fun and insightful – stop there – to look at art and literature through the ages, to determine if ‘visions of nature' perhaps have changed in different cultures, perhaps at different times, and look for the reasons for the change; in short, a historical comparative analysis with a touch of Philippe Ariès and Fernand Braudel. We could also apply the same approach to the history of source of frames themselves: i.e. raw experience to expertise (religion followed by perhaps religion and science – competing expertise) and the late comer of mass media. Again, very interesting but ...
Maybe we could assess the issue of added value.

Reiner Grundmann said...

Dennis
two points
1. "But what is relevant in the fact that we know actors will use any type of knowledge to achieve what they want to achieve? IS a catalogue of relevant knowledges relevant? ... such analysis is claiming an importance in the science-policy realm of climate change, and I just cannot see what this relevance is."

To give you one example which I learnt about at a workshop in Hamburg earlier this year (organized by Werner Kraus and Anita Engels): Proponents of carbon capture and storage used the term "Endlager" for the storage location. This framing makes it impossible (at least in a German context) to have any serious public discussion about CCS). Not that I am a fan ;-)
Literature about GMOs abounds and there were high hopes by GMO proponents to frame the issue in a way which would make it acceptable in public discourse. Indeed, many studies were funded with the hope to get advice on how to crack the public acceptance problem, as Rick Borchelt has shown.


2.
"I have no expertise on framing studies, etc., but I cannot recall seeing such studies over other issues, unemployment, financial crisis, famines, etc. for example - other more modern issues (gene tech, etc, yes). ‘Old’ issues are still very relevant, but I wonder why they are all but ignored in the context of framing. (Perhaps I am simply ignorant of the literature)."

Indeed. There is a wealth of studies, they just do not talk to each other very much. I am just reading Front Page Economics (Chicago University Press, 2010) written by Gerald Suttles. It is a newspaper analysis of the 1929 and 1987 economic crises, using framing methodology. The book quotes other relevant work, all on old-fashioned topics such as poverty, war, race. There is a programmatic article by Jeffrey Alexander and Philip Smith, The Strong Program in Cultural Theory: Elements of Structural Hermeneutics from 2001. There is lots more.

We need to take stock, and do comparative work. There is mileage in it. What the utility is, will always be determined by the readers/users of the work.