CfP POLLEN 20: Political ecology of professional practice: plurality and possibilities in environmental governance

The Third Biennial Conference of the Political Ecology Network (POLLEN 20)
Contested Natures: Power, Possibility, Prefiguration
Brighton, United Kingdom
24-26 June 2020

Session organisers

Sam Staddon (University of Edinburgh, UK) and Floriane Clement (INRA, France). Paper titles and abstracts of 250 words should be sent to and by 28 October 2019 by November 18.

Session description

Professional environment and development practice has been critiqued by political ecologists and development scholars for its techno-managerialism, its professionalisation, its colonial continuities with the past, its ‘rendering technical’ of complex realities, and ultimately for being apolitical (Nightingale 2005, Lund 2015, Kothari 2005, Li 2007). It is said to fail to engage meaningfully with environmental justice and social equity concerns, or with the politics of knowledge and authority of intervention. Digging into these professional practices however, some urge us to unpack the ‘social life’ of interventions (Mosse 2004) and environmental policies, and to question the role and agency of ‘intermediary actors’, including as ‘bricoleurs’ (Cleaver 2012, Funder & Marani 2015) or ‘street-level bureaucrats (Lipsky 2010). Others draw attention to the multiple knowledges of development practitioners (Hayman et al. 2016, Eyben et al. 2015) and the importance and potential of reflective practice (Eyben 2014, Fechter 2012, 2013) in shifting professional practice to more effectively challenge hegemonic and oppressive systems.

Whilst political ecology has rightly explored and exposed the heterogeneity of ‘communities’ in community-based environmental governance, pointing to the diverse interests and dynamic power relations inherent within them, it has not extended this same attention to the importance of intersectional identities and multiple knowledges of the professional community working in this field. This session aims to unpack the community of environment and development professionals, to explore the diversity, plurality and possibilities of these actors and their actions. Kontinen (2016, p.29) observes that “NGOs are not only structures but also practices, communities, and sites of negotiation” (p.29), whilst Bee & Basnett (2017, p.797) suggest that “The key, then, is to identify possible points of reversal or switches, whereby potential openings for struggle and contestation occur”. This session seeks to explore such ‘negotiation’ or ‘points of reversal or switches’ where ‘struggle and contestation’ may occur, and which may open up the possibility of shifting environment and development practice into something more ‘transformatory’. It points also to the need and difficulty for researchers to engage in both critical and relational ways with environment and development actors (Bartels and Wittmayer, 2018).

We are welcoming theoretical and empirical contributions on the topic, from the Global South and Global North. Possible questions include:

  • How do different theories and bodies of knowledge help us to draw a more nuanced account of how environment and development programmes and policies get re-interpreted and re-negotiated and to identify pathways towards transformatory practices?
  • Which methodological approaches offer potential for understanding professionals’ everyday negotiations and struggles?
  • In particular, how does participatory action research support identifying ‘points of reversal or switches’ to challenge hegemonic and oppressive systems and moving beyond identification towards action?
  • To what extent and how might everyday, undercover and individual forms of resistance and negotiation by professionals lead to significant and transformatory change on the ground?
  • How do such forms of resistance and negotiation get acknowledged, accepted and institutionalised – and what are the risks and trade-offs of such institutionalisation?
  • How do individual professionals create space for reflexive and transformative practices within technocratic structures? In turn how do structures impede or support critical and reflexive agency through professional discourses, culture and institutions?