Building Bridges to Where?

Sustainability Collaborations and the Arts of Ethnography

March 18, 2015

Nicole Peterson

I was in a group of ten or so engineers, business representatives, nonprofit workers, and a government employee, discussing whether we could develop a definition of social sustainability, which we understood as the third and neglected leg of the sustainability “stool” of environment, economics, and society. Like some other topics, it seemed that while we knew it when we saw it, we were hesitant to draft a definition or even a broad characterization. The reasons for and the degree of hesitancy varied from person to person, making the conversation even more difficult. Defining something meant limiting it, and our readings in the area warned us away from a specific delineation; we all seemed to shy away from a strict definition. Yet whether or not to characterize it was still up for debate—some in the group argued that this too would limit the scope of “social sustainability,” preventing us from engaging with those outside of this scope. Others found it a practical necessity to have some way to describe social sustainability, even if the characterization focused on its processes rather than its elements.

This argument has been at the heart of my work for the past few years, as I’ve helmed a network created to bring together those working on or thinking about social sustainability. The group is funded as a research coordination network, which we proposed as a way to bring together a broad set of participants to talk about how to bring more attention to the social aspects of sustainability. Some of us now talk about the inability to separate out social sustainability from environment and economy, and this becomes an uneasy compromise—uneasy because recognizing that everything is social means that delimiting what could be external to analysis or discussion becomes even more difficult.

We talk about moving on from this definition argument, but perhaps it is still necessary. In some ways, these discussions provide support for the idea of sustainability as a process rather than an endpoint. Those writing about sustainability in general often cite the Brundtland Report’s definition of providing for future generations, but this itself is vague and imprecise. How can we anticipate the needs of future generations? We can hardly understand the needs of our own. What would sustainability look like to other time periods and cultures and communities, and could it make sense in other places? Sustainability as a concept is very culturally specific, and this is not easy to understand and put into practice, which makes it difficult to establish specific ends-focused goals.

For me, social sustainability starts with the recognition of sustainability as a cultural process, deeply steeped in context. As an anthropologist, I want to understand the situations in which “sustainability” is an important issue, and then how it lives, breathes, and adapts to those settings. How do city planners, business owners, and nonprofit volunteers engage with sustainability as a concept, and how can it be more successfully integrated into the context of their work?

Bringing together those in our network has meant that we have worked closely with our steering committee and other key participants to find out their ideas about sustainability and what would help them to be more successful in bringing more sustainable practices to their work. At one point, we held a lunch for Charlotte-area business leaders and asked them what they needed to make a stronger case for sustainability efforts. I’m also working with a local agency representative to develop a set of best practices she and others in similar positions want to share with newer colleagues, to move them from a focus on recycling to seeing environmental justice as a planning issue. Similarly, working with academics, we are aware of the need to publish and produce certain kinds of work, and we’ve organized a journal special issue that can accommodate these needs but can also be open to case studies and other kinds of work that highlight achievements in social sustainability. We also focus on working groups that pull together bibliographies of articles, tools, and other resources, including case studies that can quickly communicate how people are addressing sustainability into their work.

Engagement in my work has required deeper ethnographic involvement with my partners and collaborators. It means seemingly endless discussions about definitions, outcomes, and even engagement itself. Because the target (cultures of sustainability) is moving, we are constantly adapting, and we are constantly assessing where we are and where we might go.

This year, I am proud that we have a new model for meeting. Our one site conference has now split into five semi-autonomous sites, each headed by a member of our steering committee. This has allowed us to pursue more local foci and community partnerships—a panel on Detroit redevelopment, a focus on Charlotte sustainability experts at my site, and London’s focus on field visits to a variety of urban locations. Bend, Oregon, is engaging grassroots activists, while the Arizona State University site is reinvigorating its local sustainability culture. We will overlap for a few hours each day and share experiences like the keynote speaker and a joint (online) poster session. At our third conference, we are still learning how to create better connections, both virtual and face to face, that can help sustain our partnerships, collaborations, and outreach.

But for me, at the heart of it, are the tools of engagement are participant observation, ethnography, and collaboration. How do we engage those outside of our field so that they appreciate the human side to environmental issues and can use this information to inform their activities and policies? I’ve heard from others that to do this, we need to learn other languages (e.g., talk more like a biologist) or become more quantitative. This advice may be simplistic, but it is also sound.

Nicole D. Peterson is Assistant Professor of Anthropology at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte and has been an interdisciplinary anthropologist for longer than she’s had her PhD. She has worked on interdisciplinary projects about sustainability, economic development, and food systems in Mexico’s Baja Peninsula, Ethiopia, and Charlotte, North Carolina, and she is leading an NSF-funded research coordination network on social sustainability.

Cite as:
Peterson, Nicole. 2015. “Building Bridges to Where? Sustainability Collaborations and the Arts of Ethnography.” EnviroSociety. 18 March.

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