Adaptive Agency and Local Knowledge in Central Asia: environmental (un)sustainability and social (in)stability

Last modified by Mike on 2021/12/30 08:21

PI: David Henig. Funder: Wenner Gren
Proposals in progress: David Henig and Michael Fischer

The research is sited within pastoral Central Asian Pamir mountain societies in Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan that have undergone tremendous changes and diversification in the the 20th and 21st centuries in response to socio-economic breakdowns and macro-societal transformations following the collapse of the Soviet Union and, more recently, climatic and environmental changes.

In the proposed research we examine how vulnerable Central Asian pastoral communities are addressing day-to-day and longer term requirements through adaptive agency. The aim of this research is to address the fundamental question of how people employ cultural knowledge in adapting to a changing world, especially through active agency, interventions and inventions, not just passive adaptive responses.
We will investigate how people employ cultural knowledge to so adapt to change and uncertainty, ranging from short term adaptation to political transition to longer term adaptation to environmental change. In particular we will look at water management, cooperation in  land use and grazing management, and creating and adapting new knowledge about the environment.

We will advance our capacity to describe, conceptualise and understand the limits of adaptive agency where  the robustness (cultural continuity) and resilience (cultural change) of cultural knowledge are central to managing the complex interplay of social, material and environmental processes that affect both livelihood and biodiversity.

We are specifically concerned with how knowledge is reproduced, distributed, lost and created, and how this body of knowledge is configured and enacted through social relations to address specific problems. By interrogating the concept of agency we address how cultural knowledge is instantiated, reproduced and distributed to change people's material circumstances.

We will combine systematic ethnographic fieldwork with knowledge-based multi-agent modelling to represent knowledge-based processes underlying pastoral cultural adaptations, resilience, and sustainable human-environment interactions in the context of socio-economic and environmental uncertainty and change. In addition to more conventional methods, to collect the data required we will employ more novel methods including interactive elicitation of judgements  using Knowledge Elicitation Tools (KNeTs), fieldnotes tagged w/Ethnographic Contexts Ontology (ECXO) for use in Semantic Inferencing Fieldnote Tools (SIFT) and hyperlinked georeferenced and geotagged media, including fieldnotes, images, audio and video. NETWORKS!

Reproduction and distribution of IK
Recovery and modification of IK

We are including methods based on relatively new qualitative tools based on the 'semantic web' to analyse the material and disseminate the research in addition to conventional papers.

The proposed research aims to: 1a) advance our capacity to describe, conceptualise and understand how people adapt to rapid social, political, economic and environmental change through active interventions  and inventions (i.e. adaptive agency), not simply passive responses, 2) develop and evaluate better theory and methodology for situations where knowledge is central to reproducing the complex interplay between cultural continuity and adaptation, 3) to understand how knowledge-based processes support responses, including inventiveness, when subjected to large-scale social, economic and environmental pressures, particularly applied to indigenous agropastoral practice and development of local political structures, 4) to understand under such circumstances how institutions supporting adaptive agency are formed, enacted, communicated and transmitted.

In particular this project focuses on documentation and analysis of the creative uses of knowledge {adaptive agency?} by the Wakhi and Kyrgyz communities in situations of rapid change and uncertainty, ranging from short term adaptation to political transition, to longer term adaptation to environmental change (including potential tipping-points). 

More specifically our objectives are to: 

  1. to identify and evaluate evidence-based accounts of the role of adaptive agency in responding to and driving local adaptations to pervasive socio-economic and environmental change in a high mountain habitat such as the Tajik Pamirs. Specifically: a) how Wakhi and Kyrgyz people adapt practice to address change, based on existing practice, knowledge and skills, and, if need be, by invention, particularly in situations of environmental and socio-political threats, insecurities and/or approaching tipping points, b) how expertise (i.e. knowledge actively used by any local actor) is robust enough to endure in, and resilient enough to adapt to new circumstances. 
  2. to document and understand the dynamics of human  adaptation in socio-political, cultural and environmental contexts. Specifically: a) how practice, knowledge and skills are organised and enacted in rapidly changing environments and conditions. In particular, b) to focus comparatively on how the Wakhi and Kyrgyz communities have responded to perceived increasing environmental insecurity and social-economic uncertainty associated with environmental change and post-Soviet social, political and economic breakdowns. [hyp?: as circumstances approach tipping points the structure of variation will become more complex indicating an ongoing process of adaptive activities], c) collect lacunal comparative ethnographic and other data relating to local practice, management and processes of agriculture  (e.g. water management, ethnobotanical knowledge, landscape appropriation), pastoralism (e.g. grazing practice, space utilisation), cultural landscape (e.g. religion, rituals, folklore, material culture), well-being, and entrepreneurship, and their political embeddedness (e.g. changing property regimes, legal pluralism), 
  3. to document and understand emergent properties of adaptive agency - the consequences of people adapting practice to changing circumstances, individually or as a group. Specifically: a) the nature and character of human interactions, relationships and networks in which practice, knowledge and skills are distributed and exchanged to address day-to-day issues and needs (e.g. local, rural-urban, trans-border, transnational, inter-ethnic, face-to-face, cellular networks), b) identify how social networks emerge, endure and/or change in the short and medium term in response to or to instigate other change. 

More applied objectives include development of new analytical tools, particularly software and methods that will have a wide range of usage in social science and conservation research.  


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