This is a personal reflection from Robert J. Pijpers* on the Transformations to Sustainability mid-term workshop, which took place virtually in June 2020. Find out more about the meeting and see all related content here.
During the T2S mid-term workshop all presenters were asked to reflect on a number of themes, including ‘Ethics’. Several questions developed by the workshop committee served as guidance: How are we dealing with issues of power, social and gender relations during our research? How does COVID-19 affect ongoing processes of co- production? How does our research deal with and make visible the most vulnerable social groups who are the most affected by this crisis? What does this crisis imply about how we perform research, produce knowledge, teach and assess our work as researchers (or research funders)? The following observations are reflections on the way in which issues related to ethics were discussed during the workshop.
Throughout the workshop it has become clear that research, debates, policies, impacts and opportunities related to sustainability and sustainability transformations are deeply embedded in unequal power relations in which certain actors are rendered less or invisible. This applies for example to the production of data which make certain groups invisible in formal statistics and to the artisanal gold mining sector where miners are often collectively set aside as environmental problem. One can also think of migrants who are seen as the vehicles of infections and who disproportionally experience the economic shock of the current COVID crisis. Or women in Burundi, who are a particularly vulnerable group when it comes to acquiring and securing land rights.
All the projects recognize and try to address issues of power inequality, not least by working with underrepresented marginalised groups. The various forms of joint learning, bottom-up driven outcomes, co-labouring or co-producing knowledge that the projects use, testify to that. As an example, the TAPESTRY project works intensively with communities to define needs and desired project outputs, but also specific conceptions. The project challenges, for example, the ways in which certain landscapes are labelled as ‘extreme’. However, these landscapes may be extreme to outsiders, they are normal to those inhabiting them. Of course, following Henrik Vigh’s (Ethnos, 2008) analysis of crisis as chronicity, normal does not necessarily mean unproblematic.
Clearly, many projects place transformations in broader fields of power relations, showing that change, transition or transformation is always contested and subject to multiple interests at multiple levels. This also applies to the often marginalised communities we are working with; there too may be contradictions and competing interests. Lyla Mehta’s question to Giuseppe Feola, during his keynote speech, is illustrative in this regard. She asked about the contradictions that exist in communities when it comes to processes of unmaking. Moreover, she drew attention to the specific roles of research and researchers, a question indeed related to Leon’s observation about the normativity of our research.
In this light, it is worth mentioning that the TRUEPATH project questioned the extent to which they are enabling policy change processes or forcing these processes too much. Co-labouring, or similar approaches, can also reveal the different interests and powers of collaborators, including researchers (see, for example, the recent blog ‘Co-labouring for Sustainability’ by the Gold Matters project). Moreover, in some instances, political situations force us to take clear positions, as Eduardo Brondizio of the AGENTS project argued in the case of Brazil. A following question is then, what are the effects of taking clear political positions. Which doors open, which ones close?
In addition to the above, the TAPESTRY project drew our attention to the fact that interventions may have trade offs, or dark sides. Indeed, we must be sensitive that unequal power structures may be reproduced or produced through interventions.
Lastly, it is clear that the global COVID-19 crisis (and the many restrictions put in place) has a big impact, both on the people we work with in our research, but also for us as researchers. As mobility is limited, many of our plans simply need to be postponed, if not cancelled and, as the H2O-T2S project indicated, there may be a chance that local governing bodies are not willing anymore to dedicate time to the type of conversations we as researchers would like to initiate. Moreover, it is important to draw attention to the fact that many of the projects include a significant amount of PhD’s and postdocs. They are often in precarious positions and the crisis exacerbates this in various ways, as confirmed by a recent study conducted by the Young Academy Leiden (June 2020,‘Young researchers drastically affected by lockdown’).
As indicated, many of the people we work with face extreme challenges. In addition to the aforementioned case of migrants, who are seen as vehicles of infections, the T2GS project explained that COVID-19 effects are highly gendered, and in Algeria and Morocco the pandemic has uncovered the precarity of farmworkers and the critical care labour provided by women and youth. In some countries, the current crisis is yet another wave of difficulties, following other crises, whether health crises, environmental disasters, socio-political crises or even violent conflicts. Many of the people we work with are in marginal positions, and although the virus itself is said to not distinguish based on socio-economic power and class, people’s exposure and possibilities to deal with the risks and harms do vary significantly.
To wrap up, ethics is a concern to all us, it is key to the thematic, theoretical, methodological, political and human aspects of our work, and, it has transpired, dealing with this is an ongoing process that all projects actively engage in.