How do you Manage? Unravelling the Situated Practice of Environmental Management

How do you Manage? Unravelling the Situated Practice of Environmental Management

Report on a Workshop held at the Centre for Interdisciplinary Research (ZiF), Bielefeld University, 29 May to 2 June 2012

Written by Niklas K. Hartmann (), Franz M. Krause () with contributions by Ingmar Lippert (). The workshop was collaboratively organised by them as well as group members Anup Sam Sinan and Hannah S. Strauss.

2012 is the year of ‘Rio+20’, the United Nations’ Conference on Sustainable Development. Invoking ‘humanity’s’ dependence upon, and responsibility for, ‘biodiversity’ and ‘the biosphere’, as well as for ‘the climate’ and ‘the planet’, has gained currency once again. Some – scholars, policy-makers and activists alike – are trying to push concepts for global environmental management by making them more compelling and more benign at the same time. Others continue to criticise sustainability talk as being part of the apparatus which brings forth continuing environmental destruction and its social consequences. Still others turn to transformative or sustainability practices imagined as local, which are sometimes posited against, and sometimes conceptualised as complimentary to, ‘global management’.

In this ‘intellectual climate’ twenty-five scholars from across Europe, Colombia and the United States convened in late May for the five-day workshop ‘How do you manage? Unravelling the situated practice of environmental management’ at the Center for Interdisciplinary Research (ZiF) in Bielefeld, Germany. Bringing together deeply empirical, often ethnographic work from science and technology studies, environmental anthropology, sociology, human geography, history, social psychology and law as well as by conservation and renewable energy practitioners, the workshop aimed to open up the black boxes of ‘environment’, ‘management’ and ‘sustainability’ simultaneously, which are often still taken for granted. As the workshop introduction by convenors Ingmar Lippert and Anup Sam Ninan (both STS scholars based in Germany) put it: attending closely to the entities assembled in situations-assumedly-under-management, promises to provide insights not only about the managers, but also the environments, the societal patterns of how naturecultures are shaped, and how these enactments are entangled.

Focusing on the everyday practices of environmental managers and other relevant actors, the workshop opened up discussions about the emergent and open-ended nature of activities associated with sustainable development, biodiversity conservation, climate change mitigation and other grand narratives. The manifold ways in which environmental management consists of improvisations, negotiations and (sometimes deliberate) misunderstandings, in the context of techno-managerial infrastructures, political-economic power relations, knowledge controversies and an active and often unruly ‘environment’ became evident.

The workshop was structured around three themes, each exploring in detail a particular aspect of the practice of environmental management. The theme ‘Performance and imaginaries’ brought together a keynote on practice, performance and play in environmental management, by philologist and historical geographer Kenneth Olwig, with presentations on ecologists in the Brazilian Amazon, the Forestry Service in Finnish Lapland, Scottish farmers and landowners, and a US militant activist. The second theme ‘Managing objects, enacting assemblages’ featured a keynote by historian and STS scholar Kristin Asdal on the making of nature objects in politics and administration, alongside papers on animals’ agency in the definition of a disaster in Spain, the intricacies of recognising, defining and communicating a tsunami in Chile, knowledge controversies in a national park in the Colombian Amazon, and the challenges of scientific wildlife research in the French Alps. Finally, the theme ‘Rationalities’ opened with a keynote by anthropologist Lucy Suchman on the performative contingencies of rationales and rationalities, and continued with contributions on the making of bioenergy supply chains in Germany, the translations between global and local environmental discourses in flood risk management in Belgium, the enactment of construction law in Norway, and the wide networks enabling and inhibiting an audit procedure for German utility companies.

The workshop engaged with these contributions while critically reading Arthur Mol’s recent incorporation of STS notions in an environmental sociology of networks of flows. In a conceptually generative way, participants related to Ingolfur Blühdorn’s notion of ‘simulating’ sustainability. For zooming into practices performing the management of an environment, the workshop used core readings by Donna Haraway and John Law.
Overall, four main points emerged from discussions at the workshop. Firstly, crucial to most contributions was attention to what participants came to call ‘hegemonic environmental practices’ – the continually and laboriously re-enacted practices of imagining the environment, making environmental knowledge, and construing, as well as physically constructing, objects of management according to a dominant (Western, modern) logic and reproducing dominant social and ecological relations. Crucially, taking on hegemonic environmental practices enables critical engagement without positing particular sets of practices as (un)sustainable or (non)transformative a priori, or even presupposing particular understandings of sustainability.

Secondly, the workshop showed the value of work which is at once deeply empirical and enters into substantial dialogue with contemporary social theory, without necessarily engaging in ‘middle range’ theorising. In particular, participants concluded that not only is there still much to be learned from scrutinising individual cases; but also it is inspiring to see how different theoretical notions and analytical devices highlight the characteristics of different sites – such as laboratories, offices, and parks – and bring to the fore the siting-work of actors – translations of issues from one site to another.

Thirdly, the workshop was particularly fruitful in facilitating shared conversations about theoretical notions and analytical devices across the various disciplinary affiliations. For example, it made for rewarding discussions to contrast and read through one another the different ways in which the notions of practice, performance and actor were mobilised in Olwig’s keynote on the one hand, and by participants with an STS background on the other. Also, discussions of participants’ contributions often probed the space generated by engaging simultaneously with the post-ethnomethodological notion of ‘prescriptive devices’ developed by Suchman, the Foucault and ANT inspired attention to ‘ordinary political technologies’ demanded by Asdal, and Tim Ingold’s notion of ‘textility’ advanced in a core reading for the workshop.

Fourthly, engaging with hegemonic environmental practices in this way raises important ethical questions and demands attention to power relations as well as to questions of recognition and attribution of agency. The post-colonial question ‘who is allowed to speak, and in which way?’ as well as the feminist question ‘how to form alliances when we are divided along multiple axes of oppression?’ remain pertinent also in the context of environmental management. Studying environmental management as situated practice raises similar question also regarding ‘non-human’ entities and forces – from protected migratory birds to tsunamis. Empirical studies of environmental practices and recent theorising of ‘the non-human’ – from feminist scholarship on ‘becoming-with’ other forms of live to the currently emerging geophilosophy in (non-)human geography – can only gain from more intensive mutual engagement.

The workshop ‘How do you manage?’ was conceptualised by the Environment, Management, Society Research Group ( and hosted by ZiF – Bielefeld University’s Institute for Advanced Studies – with the kind support of Volkswagen Foundation. The introduction can be accessed at