Blog 1: Environmental Discourse and Diversity

This year, I am working with Professor Pajo on a project titled “Environmental Discourse and Diversity in Urban Settings.” The goal of our project is to learn about the different ways that people talk about the environment and their many forms of environmentalism in their professional and day-to-day lives. We are accomplishing this by going to different organizations and talking to the people who work there, volunteer, or visit, about their motivations to “do something” about the environment. What exactly are their concerns? We find people and organizations by visiting environmental sites such as farmers’ markets, lobby or interest groups, or recycling centers. The organization itself is not so relevant as the people within it. This is to say, the important part of these groups is not what they do, but rather who is doing it, as well as how and why. The unique aspect of anthropology as a science is the focus on the intricacies of the human experience. With this project, we aim to discover the diversity of environmentalism in our country, especially in the modern era. It is important that we understand the reasons for activism in order to promote it and make it more effective.

In this project, I am hoping to gain a deeper understanding of environmental discourse. Often we isolate ourselves in groups which have little diversity of opinion. By exposing ourselves to different opinions, we are able to both challenge our biases and also strengthen our own values. This project is an opportunity to experience other people’s perspectives on something which we each feel so deeply as individuals and as a community. Climate change is a complex issue which must be considered through a manner of perspectives. How do we see climate change scientifically? Culturally? For instance, how does equity play a role in climate change? How can policy be used to affect change on a legislative scale? What is the place of politics in the issue? How can social justice be represented? All of these questions can be answered only by the individuals who hold that specific position within the grander issue. We hope to find patterns in this “climate talk.” Are there corresponding patterns in our diverse actions? The scientific approach gives us a vehicle to discuss complex issues without feeling the pressures that usually accompany ‘political’ topics.

The methods used to reach these conclusions are anthropological methods. These include participant observation, participant interviews, and textual analyses. The interviews provide the bulk of the qualitative data. The most important data we gather are people’s views expressed in natural conversation and recorded in natural language. The anthropological method of interviewing is to state a short, open-ended question and allow the interviewee to express themselves freely, with only some guidance on the general topic but not on the specific ideas. This is to ensure that we do not ask people simply to confirm what we believe. We are open to hearing about very different kinds of experiences, including framing environmental questions that we could not have imagined based on our own limited experiences. The beauty of anthropology is that most people will talk endlessly of themselves given the opportunity. Observation is effective to observe group interaction, but interviews allow us to experience the most direct expression of opinion.

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