Monday, February 23, 2009

Geographic Survey Project of the Sierra Juarez Mountains Stirs Protests

The mapping scandal continues to bubble with this post from Nancy Davies on the Narco news Bulletin. It is an interesting read and is not without parallels in two projects I have participated in Aotearoa/NZ (blogged mercilessly in the early days of this blog...). Indigenous peoples are intellectually 'interesting' and potential very profitable (for private companies and governments) but also profitable to those academicians who manage to wheedle or conspire some form of collaboration.

Anyways, the debate looks to continue...

Saturday, February 21, 2009

Science and Technology Studies (STS)

At the end of last year I attended the "Towards STS networking in the Asia-Pacific", a two-day meeting at Victoria University of Wellington, 1-2 December 2008.
There were 45 participants from China, Japan, Singapore, the USA, Australia and New Zealand, and a total of 24 papers were presented (including keynote and plenary talks), representing a wide range of STS perspectives and research approaches. The organisers released a report on several concrete outcomes that resulted from this meeting.

1. A special journal issue of selected papers from the workshop will be pursued by the workshop organisers, in the first instance through the newly established East Asian Science Technology and Society Journal.

A call for papers will be set in motion in February 2009, following the themes from the workshop, with the aim of publication in late 2010.

2. A regional STS Network is to be set up, with a convening group. A/Prof Richard Hindmarsh (Griffith University, Brisbane) was invited by workshop participants to be the inaugural Convenor (for 2009), with advisors Dr Karen Cronin and Virginia Baker (ESR, Wellington), and support contacts in China (Dr Ma Huiduan), Japan (A/Prof. Tomiko Yamaguchi), and Singapore (Dr Sulfikar Amir). However, as A/Prof Hindmarsh is also the organiser for the next STS workshop in Brisbane in November 2009, he has passed on the role of Convenor to Karen Cronin but remains on the committee as Deputy Convenor. Karen’s employer (Environmental Science and Research Ltd) is extending its capability in the STS field and has kindly agreed to provide support for the Network e.g. through hosting web pages, contact database.

3. Format for the Network. Rather than creating another professional association, it is envisaged that the Network will be an informal group, aimed at developing collegial relationships in the Asia Pacific region. It would operate primarily though an annual workshop, along with an email contact list and a website. There will be no formal membership, committee structure, or fees. The annual workshop will be self funding through registrations, grants and sponsorship. To share the workload, the Convenor role will be rotated on an annual basis [to December]. The Convenor will co-opt support from among the Network members, including appointing an organising group for the annual workshop.

The Network will be open to those with an interest in STS research, theory and practice in the Asia Pacific region, and it will be complementary to existing formal associations. Many network participants already belong to established national or international STS/HPS associations. The Wellington meeting agreed to investigate the options for a complementary support relationship with a potential regional chapter of 4S, but upon investigation this option is not available.

4. It was agreed to hold the next STS networking workshop in Brisbane, in late November 2009, with Richard Hindmarsh as the organiser. The Centre for Governance and Public Policy at Griffith University, of which Richard is a member, is kindly providing primary funding support. Special features of the Brisbane meeting will be a focus on the environment and on indigenous issues.

5. Network members are also looking forward to meeting again in August 2010 in Japan, at the 4S annual meeting in Tokyo. This will be an opportunity to extend our contacts in the Asia Pacific region and potentially present joint papers or sessions.

6. The Wellington meeting was honoured to have the participation of Professor Chen Fan, Chief Professor at the Innovation Institute of Philosophy and Social Science for STS Northeastern University, China and President of the Chinese STS Society, along with his colleague Dr Ma Huiduan. Prof Fan kindly offered to host a future regional STS networking meeting in China in 2011 or 2012.

7. Website information on the Wellington workshop was hosted on a blog. Following the workshop, the blogsite is being updated with a photo of participants, the programme, keynote and plenary speakers’ details, and the abstracts.

The full workshop presentations and future information for STS networking will be set up soon on a permanent web page, hosted by Environmental Science and Research (ESR) on its STS pages.

Finally, we would like to thank once again all our speakers, and in particular our sponsors: Environmental Science and Research (ESR), the Victoria Management School at Victoria University of Wellington, the Building Research Capacity in the Social Sciences Fund (BRCSS) in New Zealand, and the Centre for Governance and Public Policy, Griffith University in Brisbane.

Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Maori Ecopolitics in a Recession (if we're lucky) or a Depression (if we're still dead unlucky)

Ex-Alliance peep Laile Harré said an interesting thing on Nat Rad February 9th in response to Mathew Hooton’s comment that it was Prime Minister John Key who had to raise the issue of Maori unemployment when he recently met with Maori iwi leaders. For Laile this was “Damn depressing and a worry about where the civil society leadership of Maori heads’ are at.” I too have been waiting for a pronouncement from Maori leaders on a) how they perceive the current economic situation, and b) what they consider Maori collective options to be. Scan the editorials in the Maori media at the end of last year reveals a comparative lack of concern which for me tests claims of a true 'Maori economy'.

The TPK briefing to the incoming Minister notes “the extent of the future impact of tightening global economic conditions has yet to be fully understood. Mäori may be disproportionately vulnerable to economic shocks, particularly given the employment profile, the recent growth in the entrepreneurial sector and the high level of exposure of the Mäori commercial asset base to world markets1 along with the forecast falls in export demand commodity prices. Care will need to be taken to manage the impacts of changes in the economic circumstances of Mäori on other aspects of their wellbeing.”

As a footnote we have some numbers: “The Mäori commercial asset base is particularly vulnerable, with some 60% exposed to international trade, compared to 31% of the wider economy facing this exposure.” On a tangent, Te Tau Ihu iwi have just announced a massive settlement, with the media predictably focusing on the IP of the 'national' haka, Ka Mate (the one the All Blacks used to always do...).

Maori Minister Pita Sharples held a Maori Economic Forum in which he noted Maori vulnerability in economic downturns, our employment levels are generally double that of the national average, meaning current Maori unemployment levels are 9% compared to 4.5% for the NZ population as a whole. Sharples noted that in 1992, the proportion of Māori families marked as low income was a 42%, compared to the average of just 26%.

Ostensibly, the Maori economy has a holistic foundation (akin to Western concepts of socio-ecological resilience) and a longer itergenrational timeline. Of course it could be said that empirical evidence of these concepts are under contruction. Ngai Tahu presents aspects of this intergenerational timeline. But if Maori employment is going to hit 12, 15 or even 20%, what role do these iwi juggernauts have to play? On the one hand, Maori as citizens of NZ have all the rights to social welfare and other support. On the other hand, we all know how little difference that has made to our resilience in the past.

For a useful primer on the current economic crisis see Donald McKenzie's article in the London Review of Books. McKenzie notes the ‘collapse of the public fact’ which underlies this crisis and also notes the similarities and differences between physics and finance. “There is a generic resemblance between much of modern finance theory and mathematical physics. The Black-Scholes-Merton pricing equation is a form of what is known in physics as the heat or diffusion equation, which describes phenomena such as the flow of heat. The random walk model of share price changes appears in physics as Brownian motion, the movement of particles subject to minute, random collisions. Yet there is a crucial difference: finance inhabits the world of what the sociologist Barry Barnes calls ‘social-kind’ terms, not natural-kind terms. We do not ordinarily imagine that the flow of heat along a metal bar is affected by our beliefs about that flow. In finance, however, we cannot make the same presumption. Finance theory describes a world of human institutions, human beliefs and human actions. To the extent to which that theory is believed and acted on, it becomes part of the world it describes.”

He goes on to say “This (scarcely novel) observation is usually taken as a criticism of finance theory, but it is nothing of the kind. Its implication is not that the assumptions of that theory are false, but that their truth is a historical, context-dependent matter.”

Despite the current vogue for knocking neo-classical economics, I agree with McKenzie when he says "Mathematical finance is part of the infrastructure of the modern world...Yet we must also remember that finance theory describes not a state of nature but a world of human activity, of beliefs and of institutions. Markets, despite their thing-like character, their global reach and their huge volumes, remain social constructs and the feedback loops that constitute them are intricate, knotted and far from completely understood.“

This interpretation is similar to George Soros’ ‘reflexivity’ concept and is surely not antithetical to the holistic interpretation of the world Indigenous peoples continue to adhere to.

Another tangent...Donald McKenzie also reviewed a fascinating account by Caitlin Zaloom of the coal face of neoliberalism, the trading floor of a modern stock exchange. Click on to ‘Zero is a clenched fist’.

Sunday, February 08, 2009

Dispute on Collaborative Ethics for Research With Indigenous Peoples within Indigenous Peoples Specialty Group

The concerns raised regarding the Bowman Expedition project(s) have led to a wider debate on ethics in research. One IPSG poster comments "What disturbs me the most is the fact that so many members of the academic community are ready to believe very serious allegations made against their colleagues without a second thought. Don’t we routinely teach our students to be critical of information found on the web, especially when it comes from an unknown source?

They further comment: "On the subject of ethics, I would like to point out that the AAG 'Statement on Professional Ethics' states that members should refuse to 'spread unfounded accusations and rumors about colleagues' (2005, p. 1). The wide circulation of the accusations through AAG outlets without any effort to corroborate them or contact the people involved has given them some degree of credibility. The reputations of fellow geographers have been badly and to some degree irreversibly damaged, something that will likely affect their careers (and potentially those of their graduate students) for many years. The institutions involved have been tarnished. The discipline as a whole may even suffer. If good research can be so easily discredited, academic freedom is also in the balance. If we assume that all indigenous leaders are inherently noble and do not have the ability to construct discourses that manipulate the truth to advance their ambitions, then we are all vulnerable. This is another form of essentialism."

And further: "Receiving funding from military sources for research in geography, political science, psychology or any other branch of the social sciences is clearly controversial and merits debate. But we should keep in mind that the field of cultural geography has benefited significantly from the Office of Naval Research program that funded the field research of Carl Sauer and many other prominent geographers from the late 1940s to the late 1960s (see Herlihy et al., 2008 in the Geographical Review, volume 98, issue 3). As far as I know their research did not contribute to military operations or cause the loss of life. A careful analysis might indeed show that it had the opposite effect. Through the México Indígena project I learned first-hand that there are decent people employed in the military, people who are distressed by mistakes of the past and who want to make a positive difference from within by giving us “university types” a chance to show them what we can do and how we do it. But if funding from military offices is deemed immoral, perhaps we should consider the United States government as a whole. Many of the conflicts that have occurred around the world were initiated by people in elected offices, not by people in the military. Does that mean we should refuse funding from the Fullbright program, which is sponsored by the State Department? I don’t think so, but maybe others do."

I agree with this last comment: "These issues need to be debated, but should be debated respectfully without vilifying people who have views that differ from our own views." Interestingly, the debate also includes concerns regarding the editorial and review policy of geography journals. From my position, I am still bemused by geography's inherent dysfunction and can't help but think it is a function of the fields sheer diversity. I also can't help but think this is a good thing...

For those who know me, you will be aware that I have held personal concerns over what i considered substandard ethical practices on two collaborative projects involving Maori horticulturalists (at the Bioprotection Research Centre, Lincoln University) and kai tiaki of customary fisheries (at the Te Tiaki Mahinga Kai project at the Centre for Study of Food, Agriculture and the Environment, Otago University). In both cases, regardless of the validity of otherwise of the concerns I and others held, I was sacked from the first and sidelined from the second, so I know firsthand how these things can unfold, i.e., badly for the whistleblower! Oh, I would be the first to admit that my little one-man protest action at the BRC's international symposium probably prompted the actions of my so-called 'supervision' team...

...Luckily I have an excellent research job now, but the risks to a young researcher trying to develop a career in a hostile environment is one that is often discussed amongst postgraduates. Unfortunately, there seems to be little prospect of change, especially given the ever greater demands on 'results', publications, and proposals.
Simon Lambert

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