Originally published on the More-than-Human Participatory Research blog, an AHRC funded project exploring the possibility of extending participatory research techniques to non-humans.
This project takes place in a context of mass species extinction, extensive habit loss, climate change, and resource depletion. At its heart is the conviction that, while dominant research paradigms have undoubtedly given rise to improvements in a range of areas, they have nonetheless failed to address how our changing societies might remain within sustainable limits. One concrete example of the effects of failing to consider more-than-human communities within research is the drastic decline of vultures in East Asia, where over 99% of the population have died from acute reactions to diclofenac, an anti-inflammatory drug given to cattle. Over and above the consequences for the vultures themselves, the increasing amounts of carrion available, (which was previously eaten by the vultures), has led to an exploding feral dog population, which in turn has led to tens of thousands of rabies cases in humans, as well as increases in other diseases. There have also been cultural losses for Zoroastrian communities who have had to find alternative funeral methods. This cascade of effects, which has very real consequences for humans, is partly due to inadequate research methods around drug testing that do not take broader contexts into account (van Dooren, 2010).
What this suggests is that the impacts of transforming research practices so that they operate within a paradigm of more-than- human communities are potentially immense. However, shifting conventional research paradigms, many of which remain embedded within Enlightenment philosophies of self-aware humans in a machine-like world, is not a task to be taken at all lightly. Thus while we would like to situate our project within this broader context, we have more modest hopes for our work. Traditionally, concepts of community have been tightly bound to ideals of shared communication. The vision of the localised, face-to-face community and the emphasis on the need for shared languages and cultures, as well as the exercise of public reason (e.g. Habermas), remains influential even as it has been widely challenged. In this context, the move towards the co-production and co-design of research (e.g. Ostrom, 1996) is particularly interesting, since even while much of this research is aimed at strengthening local communities, at its heart is an account of knowledge as partial and situated (Haraway 1988). That is, rather than taking a universalist approach to knowledge, and knowledge generation, it is explicit about the difficulties of communication and the incompleteness of any knowledge system. As a result, the co-production agenda raises a range of fundamental philosophical questions about what it means to generate knowledge, even while it insists on the need to engage with a wide variety of stakeholders in the interest of stronger and more ethical research processes.
Inspired by a variety of feminist epistemologies, as well as emancipatory movements from South America and Africa (e.g. Freire 1970 [PDF]), the central components of the co-production agenda have been the desire to support the inclusion of marginalised voices in the research process, to make research accountable to those it affects, and, in the process, to transform the practice of research and knowledge production. To date, discussions of co-production have taken place in a range of areas including public service provision (Verschuere, 2012), health services (Gillard, 2010), management and organisational research (Antonacopoulou, 2010; Orr, 2009), as well as broader debates about science, policy and the public realm (Nowotny, 2001). However, in our current context, where the failure of the enlightenment project to produce knowledges that support sustainable ways of life has become clearly apparent, there are strong incentives to extend this agenda by thinking through what, and who, research might still need to take into account.
Intriguingly, one of the foremost current proponents of participatory research - Peter Reason – has explicitly argued that the ethical and political imperatives implicit within the co-production paradigm need to be extended to non-humans (Reason, 2005). Claiming that we need to re-conceive ourselves as embedded within biotic systems, Reason characterises the notion of the more-than-human as an emergent edge within participatory research. Like other writers on co-production within sustainability research (Maclean, 2009; Pohl, et.al. 2010), he notes that non-humans are both marginalised from, and affected by, research processes. The need to more explicitly engage with the problem of how to place non-humans at the heart of the research process has also been noted by feminist biologist Lynda Birke in relation to Human-Animal Studies (Birke, 2012, 152). Even so, the work of exploring how co-production might be redesigned to take non-human participants into account is still to be undertaken.
Despite this, there is much work to suggest that taking the more-than-human into account can produce broader understandings of both ‘community’ and ‘research’ that are better able to account for the changing nature of communities in our current context. Bruno Latour’s notion of a Parliament of Things (Latour, 1993), and Donna Haraway’s account of companion species (Haraway, 2008) already provide important pathways into thinking through these issues. More recently, Nigel Clark’s account (2010) of the role of dynamic geological processes in social life provides an example of how to extend the more-than-human community beyond animate life. Work utilising methods such as multi-species ethnography has further shown the importance of attending to the perspectives of non-humans in understanding technology design (Mancini, 2012), tourist communities (Fuentes, 2010), indigenous activism (de la Cadena, 2010) and field research (Candea, 2010). Connecting research on co-production and ‘the more than human’ thus has the potential to extent both literatures while also contributing to more nuanced understandings of ethics, power and voice in the research process.
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