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A practice-based approach to IPA

By Severine van Bommel

On Monday 10 May 2021 at 5pm AEST, 9am CET, the fourth meeting of the Virtual Community of Practice for Interpretive Practitioners was held. After discussing new trends in IPA in general (meeting 1), and putting IPA into the current context of post truth politics (meeting 2) we decided to discuss some new trends in IPA in detail. In meeting 3, we discussed action research as a new approach in IPA. This meeting focussed on practice theory as another upcoming trend in IPA. Our special guest today was Simon West, who kindly shared his experiences about working with indigenous forest rangers in Australia on developing a monitoring and evaluation plan for the area. Simon West is interested in using practice theory to help non-indigenous participants and researchers in their efforts to be effective partners of indigenous rangers. He also shared his experiences in using a practice-based approach for engaged, transdisciplinary (interpretive) research.

Simon West discussing how Interpretive Practitioners can be effective partners for indigenous communities

Before the meeting all participants of the CoP were provided with a link to a recent article by Simon West as well as two links – one to a blog post, another to an online conference presentation including video and a short text – that gave everyone a sense of the project he has been involved in over the past 3 years in Northern Australia:

At the start of the meeting Simon West was introduced by Henk Wagenaar. After that Simon gave a short presentation about his work in Northern Australia.

In his presentation Simon West shared with us his experiences of working in a project that was led by an Aboriginal group in Northern Australia, near Darwin. The project focussed on developing an intercultural monitoring and evaluation system for the area that the indigenous rangers were managing. Simon stressed that he wasn’t speaking for the indigenous rangers and certainly not for indigenous communities more broadly but he was rather speaking from his own experiences as a non-indigenous researcher. He started out by positioning himself and giving some information about himself. He introduced himself as someone who was born and raised in Bristol in the UK. He mentioned that he came from a long lineage of farmers and workers in the UK. This sparked his interest in practical environmental work. He stated that he had also always had an interest in literature and how meaning shapes our perception of the world. He studied American and English literature as an undergraduate student and environmental law as a Master student. Then he went on to do a PhD in sustainability science with Stockholm University. He explained that sustainability sciences is a field that is dominated by system approaches that seek to bring together social and environmental sciences and the humanities to engage in interventionist research to address sustainability challenges. Simon found it very difficult to apply his critical, interpretive skills in this environment. So when he got in touch with Henk Wagenaar in 2013 it was a great relief to him to discover interpretive policy analysis, particularly the practice-based dimension. It allowed him to bring together interpretation, deliberation and practice. In his PhD research he used interpretive approaches to explore the role of scientists and scientific practices in environmental management, policy and governance and he used this empirical work to sketch out how interpretive research could contribute to the field of sustainability sciences. After finishing his PhD he became interested in the concept of ecosystem services and how this was reshaping environmental policy around the world. Through this interest he became aware of certain carbon farming schemes in Northern Australia. This is where indigenous groups were collaborating with scientists in their fire management work in order to sell carbon credits on emerging carbon markets as a source of income. He wanted to use the three faces of meaning – hermeneutic, discursive and dialogical – to examine the development at these schemes. However as he travelled to Northern Australia and began to meet with people and talk to people and he began to see what was going on, this all began to change. In Darwin he met with local researchers and representatives from Bush Heritage (a conservation NGO) and he discovered that the indigenous communities were about to start working on an intercultural monitoring and evaluation system for the rangers to achieve ‘Healthy Country’. He was invited to come along to a workshop for this project with the Arafura Swamp rangers. The Arafura Swamp rangers are based on the edge of the Arafura Swamp region which is eight hours drive from Darwin. This region is home to 33 clans that speak 8 different languages. Their cultural history stretches back more than 50.000 years, including trade and exchange with Indonesia prior to European settlement. The region also has a huge variety of ecosystems, ranging from Mangroves to flood plains, fresh water swamps and Monsoon rainforests. The indigenous ranger group is an intercultural initiative that emerged at the intersection of the Aboriginal society’s desire to “Care for Country” and the government’s desire to deliver environmental services. The indigenous ranger group is an indigenous organisation with an indigenous Board of Directors and with membership from the different clans in the region. The rangers carry out a range of different work practices ranging from conventionally framed in English in terms of land management that are intended to contribute to the goals and aspirations of the traditional owners and clans in the region. In addition to that ‘country’ for traditional owners holds language, stories and law and it is a living entity with a yesterday, today and tomorrow and a consciousness and will toward life. In 2017 the rangers finalised their ‘Healthy Country’ plan which was necessary to comply with governance requirements intended to describe the work that the ranger groups were doing. Ranger groups need to have plan in order to receive funding and support. And if formulated well, a plan also provided the opportunity for traditional owners to articulate their priorities. Simon shared with us some of the challenges of formulating such a plan which needed to include both western knowledge and indigenous knowledge without necessarily trying to integrate or resolve epistemic differences.

After Simon’s presentation, we opened the floor to questions and discussion. First of all, the participants recognised the issues that Simon raised and noted that the issue of how to work towards acceptance of pluralistic knowledges is something that a lot of us encounter in our work – even in Western European settings. We discussed the challenge of working with funders of research or the governmental actors that may not necessarily be convinced of the value of non-scientific knowledge and do not necessarily take non-scientific knowledge seriously. We discussed that also within Australia – which is the context that the rangers are operating in – is more directed to scientific knowledge and it is a continuous struggle for indigenous rangers to get equal recognition for their ways of knowing. Work of ranger groups is often assessed according to positivist scientific approaches and standards by outside agencies and this makes it difficult to work with these differences.

We also discussed the tension in relation to speaking for others that we are all experiencing in our work. On the one hand we have to let go of the idea that we can represent a native point of view but at the same time when we are working with people we do try to understand their native point of view. It is like trying to reach an ideal that you know you are never going to reach but you still do the effort to get as close as you can get. So you end up saying that you are talking from your own experience while you are also talking for other people’s experiences. It feels like a political imperative to say that you are speaking for yourself and make it very clear where you are coming from, but you always talk about shared work that you are engaged in together and you are inevitably representing someone else while doing that. How to navigate that? We discussed the work by John Law on modes of syncretism and ways of putting together different types of knowledge or even different types of ontologies. We also discussed whether it would make a difference if we would present our projects together with a range of actors to talk about it and present it together so that the audience can work out the tensions between the different groups and so that everyone will be more on a level playing field where they can challenge each other and each others representations.

This brought us to reflect on our role as researchers. We then discussed our experience as researchers operating in those sort of situations, especially researchers from a western background trained in western science. We discussed how we sometimes have these ‘aha moments’ in which suddenly indigenous knowledge starts to make sense and allows us to see things that we had not been able to see before. We recognised that in our research projects there are often gradual, multiple moments like that. Simon explained how he started out with an implicit assumption that there were parallel concepts for monitoring and evaluation among indigenous communities and then he discovered that in the indigenous communities there was a whole other set of concepts around what people were doing and how they were assessing ‘Healthy Country’. For him it was an ‘aha moment’ to realise that there was a fundamental incommensurability. In relation to this, we wondered that if you have two different sets of knowledges that are incommensurable and you acknowledge that one is not superior to the other then what is the overarching element or position that allows you to say that or to compare those two types of knowledges? We discussed that taking that overarching position is not a ‘view from nowhere’ either. It is a political move to state that two types of knowledges are both valuable. We shared our experiences in dealing with that. Some of us follow the lead of our research participants in dealing with this. Simon shared how the indigenous rangers really appreciated the scientific monitoring and evaluation methods because those allowed them to tell their story of indigenous fire management practices to nonindigenous people. So the scientific methods became a language for them to share their stories.

We then turned to practice theory and we discussed Schatzki’s teleoaffective structures and how those organise practice. We discussed whether this would allow us to get at the messiness of the judgements that people make in terms of whether something is going to make sense or not. We were wondering about the practical judgements and how that works in the ongoing flow of work. We discussed how Schatzki conceptualises the teleoaffective structures as the mix of telos and emotion and how he conceives of these as the interface to guiding judgement. Not all of us were equally convinced of the contribution of Schatzki’s work on this. Some of us also still didn’t really get what he meant by this. Others really liked it and found it very useful. We discussed the tension between Schatzki’s ideas and Dewey’s ideas. Following Dewey, means and end are not so easily distinguished. We wondered if the concept of praxis – as developed by Maturana and Varela – would offer a way out or if that would get us even further into trouble.

After this, we ran out of time and we had to finish the discussion. We ended the meeting by thanking Simon West for joining us and sharing some of his experiences with us. We agreed to meet again in two months’ time and to continue our exploration of new trends and debates in Interpretive Policy Analysis

Interested in joining the Virtual Community of Practice for Interpretive Practitioners? Send an email to s.vanbommel@uq.edu.au