Ethno-Logic, Conservation Behaviors, and the Anthropologist

"The characterization of textbook logic is necessarily brief and simplistic, but it captures an essential point about how logicians view logic and its relationship to thinking. Even the most extreme logical formalists agree that logic is expressed through language. For instance, Quine presents logic as the product of truth and grammar. At the time, he claims that logic is empirically real and emerges in the scientific enterprise." -Hamill, Ethno-Logic: The Anthropology of Human Reasoning


Hamill cites a study done by Hutchins among the Trobrianders, in which he analyzed how the Trobrianders depended upon accurate inferences in arguments over land, indicating that they are able to make strong logical arguments, just as any other human group can.

However, my question, in regard to this material, is: what is the value of an anthropological study of logic? Does human reasoning warrant an altogether separate field of inquiry in anthropology? I've been thinking about this in relation to what has become my dissertation topic: focusing on how people reason or make decisions about the environmental dilemma of 'the commons.' As I am discovering, groups of fishermen often have their own way of managing 'the commons' and don't necessarily rely on purely 'scientific' theories or models about how the commons should be managed.

This is partially discussed in the works of many contemporary environmental anthropologists, including Robert Efird, who studied environmental learning in Lijiang, China. Here, he discovered that original 'moral' notions of environmental management were not retained, instead being replaced by these scientific theories in environmental education. However, children were not attracted to either way of learning about the environment, mostly because they had not directly interacted with the environment. After an NGO had established a program for children to foster a more direct relationship to their environment, they retained more conservationist behaviors.


Are the approaches we use towards resource management constitutive of ethno-logic? Or are these approaches something only learned through practice and conscious educational initiatives? How do we reason about what is appropriate resource conservation or not?

I guess a prime example that comes to mind is: how do people decide what level of recycling they deem acceptable? I know many people who compost and many people who find the idea absolutely ridiculous. What causes this divide?

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Comment by Abraham Heinemann on August 21, 2012 at 11:28am

Is there a two-year old anywhere in the world that does not know the local word for "mine" and become upset if something is taken away from them?

 

My mistake, I hadn't made it clear. I have been primarily approaching 'ownership' in terms of the socio-cultural approaches to conceiving and relating to it (managing in one sense), specifically 'the land' and 'the Sea'.

However I do not hold that there are any concrete universals across all human cultures (there are common ones no doubt), therefore my answer is no to your first question. I cannot assume a cross-cultural knowledge of two-year olds', even my own experience does not support a 'yes' as an answer. Conclusively for two-year old's to be using the words 'mine' suggests two possibilities, either through their very early years they have absorbed from their parents the primacy of this concept (making it a cultural non-universal), but due to the incomplete cranial development at this age it is probably more likely to be biological which would mean that the question suggests that individual ownership is a biological universal, plus for it to be used at such an age amongst so few other words would make it a primary concept. No, I see no evidence and do not sign up to the narrative that we are all 'naturally' individualistic in drive towards 'having stuff' (I would personal call it greed).

What is likely to happen if the folks from the next village pasture their sheep on "our" commons? Or invade our usual hunting grounds? Or....

 

Let me explain, a Commons is not a resource or a piece of land or pasture (that is a misconception in definition promoted by Hardin's paper). That is an Open Access Area. A Commons is the temporal totality of unifying relationships between people and a capital (social, natural etc), brought about through communal stewardship. In other words a commons is both the resource, and a certain group of people who share a relationship with it, and their relationship to that resource, AND that it must be maintained beyond their own lifespan.

Please provide me with an example of the story made up above, because it is simply not true of non 'enclosure' societies, and enclosure is a culturally specific approach. See almost any of Elinor Ostrom's work. 

Comment by John McCreery on August 21, 2012 at 5:34am

And this is where the question of what ownership might be, begins to get one of the possible answers. Just because 'ownership' may be a globally scattered concept, it does not mean it is a universal, a salient concept, or one that some people consciously wish to adhere to.

Is there a two-year old anywhere in the world that does not know the local word for "mine" and become upset if something is taken away from them?

Commons are an example of what ownership is not, and thus a good way to begin trying to getting some perspective on ownership. A Commons involves NO ownership. It does not involve public, private or community ownership. This is a misconception. A Commons involves stewardship which is a different concept.

What is likely to happen if the folks from the next village pasture their sheep on "our" commons? Or invade our usual hunting grounds? Or....

Comment by Abraham Heinemann on August 20, 2012 at 4:29pm

Thank you John for the delineation in your first point below, because as both Chelsea and yourself have pointed to 'Western' is concept that has been thrown back and forth without considering the variation in its meaning.

 

However there is something to be said about how

the infinitely subtle variations of legal contracts why specify with great precision the particular rights in question and how they are distributed within which geographical and temporal limits?

feed into the

folk model derived from Lockean and other Enlightenment notions of ownership as a property of wholly autonomous individuals, who are conceived as having total control over the things that are theirs?

and perhaps vica-versa. I think this is touched on in Graebers book as I have covered here http://kularing.info/2012/07/21/romaduality/, where the suggestion is that certain tenants of legal frameworks intertwine to become a part of how we conceive of the world. Anyway there is much to be unpicked within this relationship.

 

What I wanted to bring to it was my initial question to Chelsea which answers in some part John's line of questioning in point 2 below:

how are you defining Commons? as I tend to find that it general understanding in academia and beyond is limited.

The Commons as a way of understanding and approaching the environment is far more complex than Hardin's anti-popularisation of it. Even in the large quantity of anthropological literature disproving his paper, a premise that Hardin set has not really been overturned. His conceptualisation of a Commons.

And this is where the question of what ownership might be, begins to get one of the possible answers. Just because 'ownership' may be a globally scattered concept, it does not mean it is a universal, a salient concept, or one that some people consciously wish to adhere to.

Commons are an example of what ownership is not, and thus a good way to begin trying to getting some perspective on ownership. A Commons involves NO ownership. It does not involve public, private or community ownership. This is a misconception. A Commons involves stewardship which is a different concept.

One example of how this misconception has grown, is in terms of 'indigenous' communities that in some cases use something akin to how I define a Commons approach. This has been swept away in legal efforts to secure their cultural, resource and land-rights because the very legal system that is used is antithetical in its basic conceptualisation of the world. It can only offer some variation on public ownership due to the enclosing and compartmentalised nature of a certain way of thinking that has many names (western is one) but I find best described as 'alienation through entitisation and reinforced by a competitive individualistic narrative.' Which I believe correlates with John's second point?

Another example that I would suggest as exemplary of how a the limited capabilities of the 'ownership' concept are being forcibly extended for so called 'environmentally good reasons' is as part of something called 'ecosystem services'. Ecosystem services are an effort to extend the legal ideas of ownership (that I contend are rooted in Lockean concepts, as derived from such things as the Roman property laws as previously pointed to) to large environmental systems usually containing significant organic components. They are an effort to quantify - for purposes of monetising and thus profiting from - and thus enclosing whole swathes of the environment. Every sensible person knows that you cannot create a numeric value for organic based ecosystems in constant flux and of unknowable complexity. But in doing so one can legally constrain access to them, sell them, and push them ever harder to maintain the absurd political-economic use of the word growth. Why? Because someone or ones or something in the present 'owns' the rights to them. 
As you are covering fishing Chelsea you might be interested in something I picked the surface of as another example of how 'ownership' plays out. This is the idea of State specific areas of the Sea and fishing quotas, and how they are a simplistic application of land-property laws to a mobile and even more unknowable environment. In essence I boil down their result as simply an application of a legal system that is knowingly unworkable but allows only those who can over-power or lobby the enforcers of the system to benefit, at the expense of both the environment and other people that rely on the Sea.
Anyway I am starting to go off topic now so I will leave it there.
Comment by John McCreery on August 19, 2012 at 3:37am
Chelsea, two additional thoughts.

1. First, about the "Western concept": which are we talking about, a folk model derived from Lockean and other Enlightenment notions of ownership as a property of wholly autonomous individuals, who are conceived as having total control over the things that are theirs? Or the infinitely subtle variations of legal contracts why specify with great precision the particular rights in question and how they are distributed within which geographical and temporal limits? What are we to make of such notions as eminent domain, under which the state can compel the sale of property when the public interest is held to override that of the individual? What about environmental regulations that restrict the use or sale of real estate because of a public interest in preserving the environment?

2. You are not mistaken to perceive an upswing in sharing, especially in your generation. Sharing is currently a very hot topic, indeed, in marketing circles. This anthropologist observes that there is, however, a large literature on sharing, especially in poor communities with limited resources and precarious livelihoods. A case can be made that the flourishing of radical market individualism and the belief that what is mine is mine and only mine is an aberration only made possible by the extraordinary economic growth and explosive expansion of consumerism in a handful of OECD countries during the second half of the twentieth century. Single child families are also a factor.
Comment by Chelsea Hayman on August 18, 2012 at 12:12pm

Thanks John and actually, I agree. I kind of feel as if the juxtaposing of certain institutions against Western ideals is a bit tired and overused. There's a lot of arguments I have come across that accuse anthropologists of making the wrong inferences about social phenomena because they are 'imposing' their 'Western conception' of something upon a given context. Clearly, based on the points you raise, it is hard to historically deny the salience of 'ownership' in so-called non-Western settings. I am wondering if there's more than one way to think of what it means to own something though. In recent years, I have noticed more of a trending towards 'sharing' schemes - one example I can think of is the bike sharing schemes you see in major cities like London and DC now. I wonder if this is so compelling because it might be contra some of our past ideas of what we considered ownership to be? Perhaps I am wrong, but I feel as if there is a tending towards more of these initiatives among people of my age bracket and I'm just interested in some of the factors that could be influencing this phenomenon. Thanks for contributing!

Comment by John McCreery on August 17, 2012 at 4:13am

I was reading something recently about the idea of 'ownership' serving as a purely 'Western' logic that is unfairly imposed upon communities that may not necessarily believe in it similarly to how we conceive of it.

 

Chelsea, the author of this idea is either ignorant or hopelessly muddled or both. "Ownership" in the broad sense of rights to use, inherit, exchange or sell property goes back literally thousands of years in China, and is attested in historical records for at least hundreds of years throughout East Asia. I suspect that the same is true throughout most of South Asia. The devil is, of course, in the details, which vary widely. Consider, for example, the implications of the right to inherit: formerly restricted to a single heir in the Japanese ie system, equally divided among brothers in the Chinese jia, equally divided among brothers and sisters in some parts of South and Southeast Asia. Tenancy and sub-tenancy add extra layers of complexity, with, in some cases, all land the property of the ruler, a class of secondary owners, plus tenants and sub-tenants all of whom have the right to use the property in question so long as the rent (or tax) is paid. Tenant rights can be very strong. Japan is a good example. Landlords who wish to evict tenants to rebuild or sell a building must still pay substantial compensation to the evicted tenants, who once they have occupied a space own the right to stay there as long as they pay the agreed upon rent. 

Comment by Chelsea Hayman on August 16, 2012 at 1:00pm

I was reading something recently about the idea of 'ownership' serving as a purely 'Western' logic that is unfairly imposed upon communities that may not necessarily believe in it similarly to how we conceive of it. I think that tracing logic across cultures can be fairly challenging and perhaps best executed starting with a survey of the use of something like math, sort of in the tradition of Jean Lave, so I agree with you, Michael. Thank you for the book recommendation, John - I have looked into purchasing it and it appears to be a fairly accessible read as well so I am excited about reading that once graduate school has ended for me! Abraham, thank you for your very detailed responses - it appears that you and I share some very common interests due to my own recent turn towards the anthropology of fishing. I agree with you about not relying on one explanation - this is something I just recently realized in the process of writing up my dissertation. It appears to me that there are some commonalities across fishing economies, but trying to use one model to explain how or why resource management systems exist can be fairly complicated and perhaps not even immediately applicable to the idea of 'ethno-logic.'

Well, I suppose that my definition of the 'commons' is now relating to the 'tragedy of the commons,' which I am using as a point of departure, but merely for critique. In my paper, I am talking now about how a culturally informed model of the public goods game is more effective in the explanation of resource management in fishing economies rather than the 'tragedy of the commons' model that has been widely denigrated by anthropologists. However, that's not to suggest that the public goods game as we conventionally view it is the direct, valid explanation. Rather, I am interested in demonstrating how its culturally informed character - which may or may not include rational actor theory - is of great importance to understanding how fishermen procure their own ideas about resource management.

I agree with you about 'education,' but what I have noticed at least in the material is that informal education learned on the boat or in fishing crews is what matters the most in managing this commonly held resource. Perhaps a 'formal' educational system dictates certain norms of behavior, but in the cases of Maine and Iceland, this exists side by side with informal norms. Because the local activities are learned in context, they constitute some form of education, at least in my opinion.

After reconsidering some of the material, I realize that the idea of 'reasoning' may not be entirely appropriate for this paper, so I have left it out. But I think these kinds of philosophical questions are interesting in anthropology, although I am not entirely sure how to best tackle them.

Thank you everyone for your responses!

Comment by Abraham Heinemann on August 9, 2012 at 12:47am

btw I am using the word logic in its widest sense as I believe you are

Comment by Abraham Heinemann on August 9, 2012 at 12:45am

Are the approaches we use towards resource management constitutive of ethno-logic?

 

Well that depends on whether you think the people you are working with are using a shared 'logic' in their relationship with their environment, and whether it is comparatively distinct from the possible existences of other 'shared logics' used in similar practices with relation to the environment.

Or are these approaches something only learned through practice and conscious educational initiatives?

 

I do not understand how it is an 'Or' ? in the sense that 'learning through practice' and 'conscious educational initiatives' are not things that are necessarily distinct from being 'ethno' themselves or are intertwined with ethno-logic. 

 

How do we reason about what is appropriate resource conservation or not?

 

I would initially be reflexive of what 'conservation' means as this narrowly confines a great question within a very small box, otherwise we assume 'conservation' is itself appropriate. But aside from that your question is what I consider one of 'todays' big questions and I have yet to formulate my own universalising answer, perhaps because it is case-by-case dependent. However I am also interested in your post as I completed my dissertation recently on fishing and the Commons in Turkish Cyprus (http://kularing.info/2012/06/11/fishing/) and I do cover how fishers decided/practiced/said they fished in terms of what you would might call 'the ethno-logic behind how they fish, and most precisely what this is if they think in terms of 'appropriate resource conservation'. 

 

I would really like to know more about your dissertation because I am fascinated for a comparison.

Also, how are you defining Commons? as I tend to find that it general understanding in academia and beyond is limited.

Coming back to your over-arching question re-framed at the end of your post,

"how do people decide what level of recycling they deem acceptable?

I would say that the answer would be found in both consciously asking, watching and participating with people in it and I reckon an answer will be there. I could tell you how fishermen in Turkish Cyprus decide what level of ecologically harmful fishing they deem acceptable.

I know many people who compost and many people who find the idea absolutely ridiculous. What causes this divide?"

From your post I guess you are hypothesising -based on Robert Efirds work- that the difference lies in how alienated someone was from something when they learnt about it?

I started my dissertation with thinking about how fishermen learnt to be fishermen, but changed it later. For the case I looked at it was not educationally determined, however there is a possibility that what I identified as determining the divide you note, was itself intertwined with the fishermens learning to fish.

However I found a less precise focus on one cause, was better (prior to fieldwork), in particular when it came to formal education or a formal concept of 'education' itself. Because one must be careful of being sucked into 'education as the answer' discourse, which makes you ask what is the better way or thing to educate, when perhaps we should be asking whether the conception and discourse surrounding education isn't a rotten problem itself, and asking how local activities tackle the problem, activities that may or may not conform to the discourse of 'education'.

Comment by John McCreery on July 23, 2012 at 11:38am

Could it be that the study of how humans negotiate agreements and make decisions is off on the wrong foot if it starts with logic? There is now a substantial literature in fields like behavioral economics that suggests that humans are rarely logical in the sense a logician would recognize. A good place to start digging into this stuff is Daniel Kahneman's Thinking Fast and Slow.

My  takeaway from this literature is that anybody who thinks that humans start with clearly defined assumptions from which they deduce proper courses of action is way behind the times. 

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