Reflexivity in Environmental Politics

Organizers: Peter Taber (University of Arizona) and Ben McMahan (Climate Assessment of the Southwest, University of Arizona)

Discussant: TBD

This panel seeks to foster discussion about the role of institutional ‘reflexivity’, ‘feedback’ or ‘performativity’ in the context of environmental politics.  One consistent theme in theories of modernity is that human institutions reconfigure themselves based on changing collective self-understandings (Beck et al. 1994; Foucault 2007; Habermas 1962). This is also an empirical focus in science and technology studies (STS), whether in reference to scientific controversy (Jasanof 2007); medical evidence (Cambrosio et al. 2006); knowledge infrastructures (Karasti et al 2016); or markets and commodification (Callon 2008). Yet despite the current boom in anthropological interest in STS, anthropologists have yet to engage with this theme. The emergence and intensification of widespread concern about environmental issues (e.g. biodiversity and habitat loss, climate change, deforestation and environmental degradation, pollution, etc.) is a striking institutional change observed over the last thirty years in much of the world. Also striking is the corresponding assembly of institutions for environmental governance that are ostensibly designed to mitigate or intervene regarding these emergent concerns. It remains a key area of intellectual inquiry as to how anthropologists should understand these changes in light of empirical research-on and theoretical development-about the topic modern institutional reflexivity. For example, scholarship on biodiversity conservation has suggested that identifying high-biodiversity areas could prompt greater financial investment and institutional attention, generating a positive feedback loop in terms of biological knowledge and general institutional concern with those areas (Bowker 2000). Conversely, regional climate impact assessments are designed to integrate results into policy and decision-making frameworks, and this iterative activity has revealed emergent concerns about environmental risk (e.g. sustainable design and the built environment) that extend beyond ‘simple’ exposure to climate extremes. Yet there is frequently a mismatch between jurisdictional oversight and the appropriate timescale of information about climate risk – where emergency management is focused on large scale extreme events and disaster, local planners are assembling the built environment of the near future at a municipal scale. Such a mismatch between scale, intent, and timing is not unique to this example. These cases highlight the need for a better anthropological understanding of the contemporary forms of institutional reflexivity that shape our relationship with ‘the environment’.

This panel thus hopes to identify whether certain kinds of institutional self-reconfiguration are characteristically associated with ‘the environment’; what shape might be taken by these reflexive processes, forms of feedback or performativity; and how we, as anthropologists can understand them.  The panel is open to any geographic region, and encourages a broad construal of the idea of ‘environment’.  Some questions of interest include:

-Can we distinguish different kinds of reflexive institutional changes (i.e. performativity or counter-performativity; positive or negative feedback)?

-What assumptions about society and the environment as ‘systems’ are built into institutions for environmental governance?

-What are the timeframes that environmental problems are understood to exhibit, and how do they compare with the timeframes of institutional development?

-Given that these are often diffuse, long-term transformations, what methodological innovations are required by anthropologists to study them?

If interested, please send your 250 word abstract to Peter Taber ( and Ben McMahan ( by April 7th.

Works Cited

Beck, Ulrich, Anthony Giddens and Scott Lash 1994 Reflexive Modernization: Politics, Tradition and Aesthetics in the Modern Social Order. Palo Alto: Stanford UP.

Bowker, Geoffrey 2000 Mapping biodiversity.  International Journal of Geographic Information Science 14(8): 739-54.

Callon, Michel 2008 What does it mean to say that economics is performative? In Mackenzie, Donald, Fabian Muniesa and Lucia Siu, eds. Do Economists make Markets? On the Performativity of Economics.  Princeton: Princeton UP.

Cambrosio, Alberto, Peter Keating, Thomas Schlich and George Weisz 2006 Regulatory objectivity and the generation and management of medical evidence.  Social Science and Medicine 63(1): 189-99.

Foucault, Michel 2007 Security, Territory, Population:  Lectures at the College de France, 1977-1978. New York: Palgrave.

Habermas, Jürgen 1962 The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere. New York: John Wiley.

Karasti, Helena, Florence Millerand, Christine Hine and Geoffrey Bowker 2016 Knowledge infrastructures, part ii.  Science and Technology Studies 29(2): 2-6.

Jasanoff, Sheila 2007 Designs on Nature: Science and Democracy in Europe and the United States. Princeton: Princeton UP.