DEALING WITH COMPLEXITY
Why background conditions should not be put in the background
We should keep our options open to understand why certain things are seen the way they are
- Interest in causality is growing in sustainability science
- A new thought provoking study questions the usefulness of thick boundaries between background conditions and causal elements
- They use the collapse of Baltic cod in the 1980s as an example to illustrate their argument
THE COD AND THE CUT: Truth, according to Foucault, depends on “the instruments
required to discover it, the categories necessary to think it, and an adequate language for formulating it in propositions.”
In our complex, messy world, researchers are trying to break through the multiple levels of contexts, beliefs and noise we all are part of and extrapolate insights that are relevant and applicable for as many as possible. Some elements, however, are rarely questioned in the process, notably those we can call “background conditions”.
In a new paper in Frontiers in Sociology, centre researchers Tilman Hertz and Maria Mancilla Garcia question whether the background might be more important than previously thought.
They argue that the connections between cause and background conditions is worthy of investigation because they might point to novel ways for transforming social-ecological systems.
We question the usefulness of thick boundaries between conditions and causal elements that explain the processes by which social-ecological systems evolve.
Tilman Hertz, lead author
How we look at a problem
Interest in causality is growing in sustainability science. However, many approaches separate between cause and everything else, which is given the label of “background conditions”.
Hertz and Mancilla Garcia argue that background conditions are related to what Karen Barad has called a “cut”, a specific determination of the world respective to another part. In this sense, most approaches to causality operate from “within” the same cut that manifests via background conditions.
A cut determines the way we look at a problem. The authors also use the term "territorialization" to explain this, which was invented by philosophers Deleuze and Guattari to refer to processes that become consolidated and difficult to change.
The authors use the collapse of Baltic cod in the 1980s as an example to illustrate their argument.
A large number of studies from a variety of different disciplinary angles have found many different explanations for the collapse, yet their explanations are based - by and large - on the same cut.
Understanding the why and the way
But a cut is not something inherent to nature, and instead is something actively enforced or performed” say the authors. In other words, causal explanations are specific to particular cuts, which puts the focus of causal inquiry onto the cut itself.
Hertz and Mancilla Garcia dug deeper and the background conditions within which the Baltic cod crisis manifested, and uncovered a separation between the social and the ecological enforced by encouraging policies aimed at increasing productivity under the rationale of national development.
In their conclusion, Hertz and Mancilla Garcia emphasise the need for openness and seeking to understand why we think and operate the way we do.
“A cut is political because it reduces Being to particular experiences, and the processes of territorialization keep this understanding of Being in place.”
Instead, they argue, we should keep our options open to understand why certain things are seen the way they are. This way, novel cuts might emerge.
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