Power, Fear, and Ethics

Power, Fear, and Ethics within Knowledge Communities

Last month I participated in the organization of a seminar around interdisciplinary research for environmental problems in Ushuaia. We decided to give a 5 minutes speech each so that we could have 1 hour for discussing with the audience. It took me two weeks of headaches to experiment with ideas. What can I say, in 5 minutes, that presents both, what I do, and introduces some of the critical questions I have without putting my research in danger?

I wanted first to elaborate how social scientists do not only study citizens “perceptions” of science or environmental problems and not only the cultural embeddedness of science; we also address the very cultures and histories of others than humans, including animals, artifacts, or landscapes. To this end, I would support my ideas with the concepts of “coproduction” (Jasanoff 2004), “naturecultures” (Haraway 2003; Law 2004), and “intra-action” (Barad 2007).

A second idea was to talk about the removal of animals and species through conservation projects. One of my research questions explores the different justifications and world visions that produce various forms of killing and the distribution of responsibilities in the governance of deaths. For this, I would expose some basic ideas around biopolitical governance (Foucault 2003), “necropolitics” (Mbembe 2003; Valencia 2012), animal biopolitics (Asdal, Druglitrø, and Hinchliffe 2017), and the concept of “response-ability” (Haraway 2008) for studying the practices of killing others.

Third, and as a result of observing the disconnections between what conservation biologists and ecologists know and what they publish, I thought about a discussion around the constraints of methods. If reality is complex, biosocial, and made of multiplicities, as the scientists I work with describe, why then lose and abandon all that richness when it can’t be statistically representative? Or when we cannot distinguish the parts of a landscape made by “humans” from those made by all the rest (animals, trees, climate, time, disasters, rivers, and so on)? To this end, I would provide examples from my own research supported by the concepts of “non-intentional agency” (Law and Mol 2008) and agency as an “achievement” (Despret 2016).

There were a few more questions I wanted to address but I  ended focusing on these three before the event. To different degrees, I was afraid to be misunderstood: that my speech sounded either as a critique of scientists work and their values or as a ridiculous scholar who is proposing surreal, philosophical and not practical ideas such as interessing beavers in breaking their dams when moving to other areas. Besides, the public was going to be composed not only by scientists but also by different policymakers and authority-voices of Ushuaia.  After many drafts and power points, I decided to do a small activity to question our assumptions around human exceptionalism. Then, I brought some examples of how this epistemology affords certain realities and not others.

The rest of the talks brought issues around interdisciplinarity, neoliberalism and sustainability, the reading contracts of media and consumers, the actors involved in situating a problem in the policy agenda, the lessons of a conservation project in a National Park, and the perceptions of citizens around trapping and killing animals for conservation. With the absence of suit-dressed authorities in this meeting, a few critical voices arose during the discussion. Some of them questioned how the category of “invasive” species is made; others brought their uncanny thoughts around using lethal traps for animals as a scientific device.

At this point, all the headaches I had had trying to think how to bring these issues vanished. I was, of course, not the only one who wanted to talk about the practices that make beavers invasive while not sheep. Neither I was the only one who questioned the top-down strategy that enacted the project of eradication of the species. Moreover, all my fears to be treated like an “animal activist” for being interested in the governance of death vanished when these questions where brought by the speakers and the audience regarding citizen´s perceptions. Within that context, I could then bring some questions: within the general tension we live between the spectacularization of death and violence (Valencia and Sepúlveda 2016) and its negation and reduction to a mere negative event, that which ends life, are not we disavowing the killings of beavers by calling them “restoration” practices? And is not this disavowal an impediment for sharing best practices regarding efficiency and ethics among different trappers, regions, and even nations?

This is a successful experience of collaboration and negotiation. And this event talks about the tensions that arise from being part of the community one works with. I recently read a book from a North-American scholar who came to Latin America to investigate environmental problems. The book freely names some academics and criticizes them for their economic interests and powerful positions. This scholar had the freedom to come, research, and then leave to the US where these critiques can be rewarded for their directness in questioning the status quo of our scientific Latin communities. However, to those of us who work in the region attempting the same, the same logic does not work. I have attended political meetings where direct and strong discriminating and racist statements have been pronounced without anyone challenging them. How could anyone do that with the fear not to be invited again and the consequent loss of possibilities to work with powerful communities to be able to propose other discourses while bringing oppressed and ignored actors and values?

Being this the first post of the blog, I have brought an example of negotiation for practicing critical research. Since I created this blog, I have been surrounded by fear: what can I publish while being here? With this blog, research now becomes serious. If until now I had my totally-free diary notes and the possibilities of bringing silenced discourses in my ethnographic conversations, I am now faced with the reality of representing others. As Derrida and Haraway state, ethics come from the capacity to decide (Haraway 2008). And that is what is at stake. Every sentence that is made public is a decision on how to question current power structures while remaining within them. And here, my critical view around the positivist methods returns to me. I was surprised to see reductionist accounts of nature in journal articles from biologists who work with critical discourses and theories. A similar phenomenon happens to me, the anthropologist, now. And to both, the same is at stake: how to ethically bring the multiplicity of reality and its power dynamics while being able to be heard.

To conclude, I would like to remark the necessity not to reproduce the oppressed-powerful dichotomy that transverses ethical questions around studying others, whether subaltern (Alcoff 1992; Harding 1991) or privileged (Nader 1982). Postmodernist ontologies that have decentered the human understand the world of effects not as a product of humans’ intentions but as the result of complex structures of power and truthmaking that are (re)produced by humans and more than humans. These anthropologies focus on the effects of discourses (Foucault 2001) and the understanding of the sociocultural mechanisms that produce different capitals and ways of acting, representing, and feeling (Bourdieu 1986).

And this means that if we are part of the community we work with, we are also part of those very same discourses we aim to critique. The implication of this is not “do nothing” but rather to do as much as possible without going too far that we stop being part of the community. This is to bring voices Other and to challenge certain assumptions while remaining recognizable at certain levels, which also change. And this means not to fall into the critical anxiety disorder for being accomplices of allowing certain discourses to be made. Inspired by the concept of “ecological anxiety disorder” (Robbins and Moore 2013), I define “Critical Anxiety Disorder” as the paralysis that researchers might face when encountering oppression and violence in their work. The paralysis results in either rejecting the critical voice to work within powerful institutions or becoming the total critical voice who works separated from the structures it critiques. To get out of paralysis, I suggest partial negotiations, constant reflexivity, and inhabiting tensions.



Alcoff, Linda. 1992. “The Problem of Speaking for Others.” Cultural Critique 20 (20):5–32. https://doi.org/10.2307/1354221.

Asdal, Kristin, Tone Druglitrø, and Steve Hinchliffe. 2017. Humans, Animals and Biopolitics. The More-than-Human Condition. Edited by Kristin Asdal, Tone Druglitrø, and Steve Hinchliffe. Routledge.

Barad, Karen. 2007. Meeting the Universe Halfway: Quantum Physics and the Entanglement of Matter and Meaning. Duke University Press.

Bourdieu, Pierre. 1986. Distinction: A Social Critique of the Judgment of Taste. Routledge Classics.

Despret, Vinciane. 2016. What Would Animals Say If We Asked the Right Questions? Univ Of Minnesota Press.

Foucault, Michel. 2001. Power. The Essential Works of Foucault, 1954-1984, Vol. 3. Edited by James D. Faubion. The New Press. https://doi.org/10.1016/S1571-5078(08)00422-4.

———. 2003. Society Must Be Defended. Lectures at the College de France 1975-76. Edited by Mauro Bertani and Alessandro Fontana. Picador.

Haraway, Donna. 2003. The Companion Species Manifesto. Dogs, People, and Significant Otherness. Paradigm.

———. 2008. When Species Meet. University of Minnesota Press.

Harding, Sandra. 1991. Whose Science? Whose Knowledge? Thinking from Women’s Lives. Milton Keynes: Open University Press.

Jasanoff, Sheila. 2004. States of Knowledge : The Co-Production of Science and Social Order. Routledge.

Law, John. 2004. “Enacting Naturecultures: A View from STS.” W.Heterogeneities.Net, no. February. http://w.heterogeneities.net/publications/Law2004EnactingNaturecultures.pdf.

Law, John, and Annemarie Mol. 2008. “The Actor-Enacted: Cumbrian Sheep in 2001.” In Material Agency Towards a Non-Anthropocentric Approach, edited by Carl Knappett and Lambros Malafouris, 57–77. Springer.

Mbembe, Achille. 2003. “Necropolitics.” Public Culture 47 (1):11–40.

Nader, Laura. 1982. “Up the Anthropologist: Perspectives Gained from Studying Up.” In Anthropology from the Eighties, edited by Johnetta Cole, 456–70. New York: The Free Press.

Robbins, P., and S. A. Moore. 2013. “Ecological Anxiety Disorder: Diagnosing the Politics of the Anthropocene.” Cultural Geographies 20 (1):3–19. https://doi.org/10.1177/1474474012469887.

Valencia, Sayak. 2012. “Capitalismo Gore y Necropolítica En México Contemporáneo.” Relaciones Internacionales, no. 19:83–103.

Valencia, Sayak, and Katia Sepúlveda. 2016. “Del Fascinante Fascismo a La Fascinante Violencia: Psico/Necro/Política y Mercado Gore.” Mitologías Hoy 14 (0):75. https://doi.org/10.5565/rev/mitologias.395.

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