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close this bookEcology in Development: A Rationale for Three-dimensional Policy (UNU, 1984, 59 pages)
close this folder2. Retrospective
close this folderII. Reorientation
View the document(introductory text...)
View the documentFrom a static to a historical perspective
View the documentFrom ecosystem to human use system
View the documentFrom system to organization
View the documentThe argument so far
View the documentSome avenues of compromise

From system to organization

The social factor is essentially a question of organization. The study of variation in the organization of social life beyond Western society has been the special province of anthropologists. In fact, attention to temporal and spatial variation in human life remains in one form or another the underlying characteristic of anthropological work. Practitioners differ among themselves partly in what types or aspects of variation they wish to explain, but most importantly in what assumptions they base their explanation on. Their approach is varied, from outright mentalist to uncompromising behaviourist; their assumptions can mostly be characterized in terms of functionalism or structuralism, but the intellectual tradition is held together by the implications of shared faith in the research method of "participant observation" and the aim of interpreting social and cultural phenomena in terms of particular people's own social and cultural universes. This combination of method and aims, whether mentalist or behaviourist in assumption, has generated a cross-cultural view of human life that is unique among the academic disciplines.

In the case of ecological degradation in dry lands the anthropologist is trained to focus on the social and cultural definition of a situation, the differentiation of interest groups within it, and the values and perceptions of individuals as they make the decisions which are the only components of the causality of desertification that are susceptible of preventative, as distinct from curative, treatment. But the anthropologist, as much as any other scientist, also has the problem of scientific objectivity. His analysis is just as vulnerable to unconscious bias in favour of one or another interest group. At an international symposium on "Anthropology and Desertification" held at the Central Arid Zone Research Institute in Jodhpur, December. 1978 (See Spooner and Mann 1979, 1982), it was suggested that the best way to avoid such unconscious assumptions might be to pursue anthropological analyses explicitly in terms of the perceivable range of public policy options in any given context, since public policy is the most practical guide to a socio-centric approach. Since there can be no absolute yardstick, public policy (which, though relative, is the most politically acceptable declaration of purpose a society can produce) provides the best guide at the level of government.

Desertification is a new subject for anthropologists. But it is one for which their specialties are particularly important, both because of the type of societies on which (for historical reasons) they have mostly concentrated their energies, and because of their theoretical preoccupations: they are concerned with the organization of behaviour and of thought, which they study comparatively, through its variation. By comparing the different forms and permutations of organization in human life, both synchronically and diachronically, they can discriminate and interrelate the range of different socio-centric approaches and perspectives in relation to a given issue.

In general, it is important to spell out as many examples as possible of different socio-centric approaches, but it is also important to note different levels of discussion. For example, in the various arenas of the anti-desertification debate two levels of discussion have become evident. They are both inherent in the political process and cannot be kept entirely separate: the campaign to organize for the purpose of conserving resources can never entirely free itself from the campaign to reorganize the distribution of resources. The consequent dialectic between overt discussion of how to organize in the existing system and the underlying theme of how to reorganize the system is particularly noticeable in two other arenas. Most obviously, it arises in the relations between populations which are at risk or suffering from Desertification and the planners and implementers of management programmes designed to combat desertification. Perhaps most significantly, it characterizes the relations between natural scientists concerned with the viability of physical and biological systems and social scientists concerned with the viability of social and cultural systems.

To give an example from the arena of implementation: management programmes designed by range scientists to address the long-term ecological balance in the relationship between animals and carrying capacity in the arid and semi-arid rangelands of the world are based on values and perceptions different from those of pastoralists. Coming from a different cultural environment and a different social class and trained in different land use systems, the ecologists are led to define the context of the problem differently and to place a different emphasis in the aims that they pursue in relation to it. The ecologist is primarily concerned with the long-term productivity of the resource; the pastoralist is concerned with survival - first in the short term and then in the long term. Survival for the pastoralist means not only his own personal survival but also his social and cultural survival, which involves the survival also of his socio-cultural group, which invariably depends upon the productivity of the herds. In the interaction between the ecologist and the pastoralist over the implementation of a management programme that would redress the balance in the ecological system of which the pastoral population is a component, the explicit bargaining concerns specific elements of the management programme; implicitly the values of the ecologist are pitted against the values of the pastoralist - in a conflict that will be resolved eventually in the larger political process.

The United Nations Conference on Desertification provides a further example. The slogan of the conference was: "Desertification can be halted and ravaged land reclaimed in terms of what is known now. All that remains is the political will and determination to do it" (UNCOD 1977b, p. 61).

The delegates to the Conference were asked to accept existing knowledge as adequate for the immediate purpose and to focus their discussions on the problem of organizing its successful application. They were told that their task lay in the organization of programmes and resources in order to make possible (in the words of the Plan of Action approved by the Conference) "the immediate adaptation and application of existing knowledge." Like all UN conferences, therefore, UNCOD was political in the sense that it was concerned primarily with organization.

Organization on this scale transcends the province of ecology, where Desertification is diagnosed. Answers to problems of ecological management beg questions of management of the political economy. As often happens in such international forums, discussions were conducted on two levels. While ostensibly the delegates were discussing means and guidelines for the organization of programmes in which they would cooperate to mobilize resources and combat desertification, many were using the discussions to bargain about relations between the parties to the Conference. Most delegates saw that solutions to Desertification lay in the mobilization of resources, but many also blamed the incentives for exploitation of people and resources that they considered to be inherent in the present world economic order, and saw the solution in the reorganization of that order. While all the delegates accepted the ecological explanations of Desertification and the technical solutions that were preferred, many were more concerned with causation at another level: that of the economic and political conditions that generate land-use decisions and access to resources. The organizers of the Conference pursued the strategy designed to keep deliberations at the former level, but the "political will and determination" that they sought to stimulate were more abundant at the latter level, though more difficult to harness (See Spooner 1979, Spooner and Mann 1982).

In general, therefore, we are concerned here with organization on different levels - social, cultural and ecosystemic. As long ago as 1930 Koehler wrote that "physics is becoming the study of organization. . . in this way. . . it will converge with biology and psychology" (1930, p. 5). The rise of general systems theory and cybernetics accelerated this process. Ecologists, such as Odum (See above, p. 22), have sought to put everything together in terms of levels of organization. But the progress in our understanding of organization and its significance has overtaken our ability to deal with the moral problems it poses. Appreciation of the organizational dimension is no substitute for the investigation of cause and effect. Although the focus on organization, microcosmic or macrocosmic, facilitates dialogue across professional boundaries and interrelation of professional fields, it does not necessarily help when we need to modify a particular situation, and it does not automatically provide a basis for action. In order to decide how to proceed towards the solution of a practical (as distinct from a theoretical) problem, we are obliged (if not for moral reasons, then for the political reasons which in the end upstage moral considerations) to go into cause and effect, responsibility and interest, of groups and of individuals. The admission of the human factor into questions of ecology and development logically forces these apparently nonscientific, non-objective factors on our attention.

In any particular case of ecological degradation a primary cause or causes might be sought in national policy or in the international economic and political order. Secondary causes derive from related local changes, such as the spread of new technologies. The direct cause in a particular location might be overgrazing or opportunistic dry farming. The symptom which will be picked up by a direct monitoring system is an increase in soil erosion or decline in primary productivity. The significant economic effect will be loss of production. Finally, the human effects will be evident in cultural stress and social change.

It is important to note that the socio-centric approach provides a framework for comprehending the whole length of this chain of causation. A socio-centric approach to ecological change must integrate not only all these levels of cause and effect, but all the relevant disciplinary sets of data. But integration alone is not sufficient. integration also tends to give priority to one or more factors over others, and therefore implicitly begins to explain. This explanatory function must be made explicit in the form of theory. The theory must take account of the centrality of human activity. Since the dynamics of human activity are complex and vary according to experience, age, sex, and other criteria for the division of labour, and between closely and distantly inter-related social groups of which more than one is likely to be implicated in any natural process, the theory must discriminate between different relevant social situations and interrelate them.

There can be no absolute criterion for determining among the different socio-centric explanations that would fit the interests of the various social groups. Deciding among them can only be a question of political process and public policy. A socio-centric theory of ecological change, therefore, must be designed to inform public policy.

There is more to be learned from the literature of anthropology about the organization of people in relation to technology and resources. The correlation of social structure and production technology does not mean that any given social structure can only accommodate one particular technology. A little thought will produce examples to demonstrate that "human communities typically rearrange themselves to accomplish various tasks" (Gearing 1958, p. 1149). The concept "structural pose" was formulated to facilitate explanation of these rearrangements in a study of American Indians:

The notion of structural pose. . . draws attention to the well-established fact that the social structure of a human community is not a single set of roles and organized groups, but is rather a series of several sets of roles and groups which appear and disappear according to the tasks at hand. The notion of structural pose elevates that known fact to a position of central importance in structural analysis. In every human community, a series of social structures come and go recurrently. A Cherokee village in 1750, faced with a community task such as holding a village council, divided that work and coordinated it by arranging all villagers into one social structure. Whenever the white flag was raised over a village council house to call the council, a young male villager assumed with little or no reflection a defined set of relations with every other villager. At the moment before, perhaps, his most engrossing relations had been with other men of his own age; now his mind's eye shifted to the old men of the village. Before, perhaps, his fellow clansmen had been dispersed and variously occupied with diverse interests; now they all came to sit together and were engrossed with him in a common task and were a corporate group among other like groups. Faced with another task, such as negotiating with an alien power, the community rearranged all villagers into still a different structure of roles and organized groups. (Gearing 1958)

In more complex societies some structural poses are achieved through formal or administrative forms of organization (See Wallace 1971). It is worth noting that since they are designed for specific production objectives, administrative forms of organization, such as those represented in the organizational charts of large firms, depend for their success on the insulation of each individual in his position on the chart from the influences of the external social structure in which his everyday life is embedded. In order to maintain this insulation and also to obviate the hindering effects of personal relationships that develop between persons who work together, it is common for management to move individuals frequently to different positions on the chart where they will carry out similar but different functions, "interfacing" with different people, and for the chart to be continually modified with the aim of maintaining and improving efficiency. This concept of insulation gives some insight into the most serious difficulties that have been experienced in attempts to develop the use of new agricultural technologies in the context of traditional social forms. Research reports on the formation of water-user associations to solve environmental problems caused by inefficient irrigation in Pakistan show how this concept might be applied (See Merrey 1982, and below, chapter 3).

There is a sense, therefore, in which any community has not one social structure, but several. Each member of a community has a repertoire of different roles which change according to his activity. As situations change, he moves from one role to another. According to the task that is being performed, the people involved each play a particular role from their repertoire. As a group, they develop a structural pose or special form of organization for each community activity. A community of transhumant pastoralists takes on one pose at a wedding, characterized by the fact that the wedding symbolises a new alliance in a series of which each one modifies the constellation of interest groups that generate the political process. The same community would take on a different structural pose at a meeting for making decisions or resolving differences about the timing of a pastoral migration, where a different type of expertise would come into play and different persons would be influential. If the same community turned from transhumant grazing to perennial irrigation, it would develop a series of new structural poses, but this time without the benefit of directly relevant expertise. The introduction of water-user associations in Pakistan should be seen as an attempt both to provide the expertise and to develop a special form of organization. The organizational problem is how to design the water-user association in such a way as to maintain a balance between cultural and ecological variables - whether or not the system is in equilibrium. The results of such a perturbation are difficult to predict. In the Sahel in the early 1970s, in combination with other factors including prolonged drought, the result was a major disaster. The social forms, which in earlier periods had periodically experienced and survived drought by dint of the flexibility in man-resource relations that they afforded, no longer worked after a decade of development combined with relatively good rainfall had encouraged reliance on newly engineered water sources with consequent increase in herd size and in population, and decrease in flexibility.

In the latter type, the populations were actually constituted on newly created resource systems and left to work out for themselves, from the assorted cultural baggage they had brought with them, not only an appropriate social structure but a suitable agricultural technology. The organization of agriculture on the basis of newly engineered perennial irrigation on a large scale in the Punjab (now Pakistan) in the 19th century serves well as an example. We should not be surprised if the result was ecologically inefficient. The structure of social relations and of man-land relations, with which the population embarked on the application of the new technology, did not facilitate the necessary types of cooperation, leadership and conservation.

These two cases are developed in detail in chapter 3 in order to demonstrate how any production technology is embedded, for good or ill, in a social structure. A change in technology is likely, therefore, to require a change in the social structure. Where a new technology is introduced from outside, the indigenous social structure does not necessarily adapt to its requirements. Further, the manner of introduction of the new technology, and the choice of individuals through whom it is communicated, may cause perturbation in the social system. Any such perturbation is likely to have repercussions on standards of resource management and human welfare.

Finally, in this regard some of the problems of bridging the gap between traditional social forms and modified or modern production systems might be alleviated if more attention were paid to the relationship between individual and group interests. What does the individual perceive as incentives or disincentives? An important first step in this direction is the recognition that individual interests may legitimately conflict with those of the continuity of the group (which is the locus of interaction between cultural norms and everyday behaviour), as for example in the type of situation characterized as a tragedy of the commons (Cf. Martin 1982b); that it is unrealistic to expect altruism; and that it is reasonable to anticipate a similar degree of villainy in all societies and therefore also to plan for it by designing administrative forms of organization that will contain it.

Attention to the need for incentives, especially in the form of real participation in significant decisions (provision for which should be built into any technological or administrative innovation) will help avoid the two extreme forms of organizational problems characterized by enforcement from above, and the too-rigid structuring of participation. These problems are responsible for most failures in planned social change. Appropriate incentives will also facilitate change in the symbolic or cultural dimension, in tune with changes in social form and population-environment relations.

Many (though not all) cases of desertification involve traditional food-producing technologies where the mode of operation of these technologies has changed in recent decades and is no longer explicable except by reference to a larger economic system that includes both the production and demand of an industrial society. Economic and political domination of traditional by industrial forms of society is often the crux of the problem of motivation on the part of the population that is immediately responsible for desertification. When people are faced with aridity in fluctuating degrees they may be expected to develop particular individual behavioural characteristics, and social and cultural adaptations, which will be a function of their total social universe. When they are faced with increased aridity or sudden worsening of production and living conditions, they may be expected to experience stress to the extent that their social and cultural system breaks down and they re-adapt "in the context of a set of imperatives imposed on them by the larger social system" (Bennett 1976, italics added).