Climate Urgency and Anthropology’s Ethnography: fast theory & slow methods

By CHLOE CHESNEY, a PhD student in Anthropology at ISCTE and NOVA FCSH looking at the role of local people in the long-term persistence of western chimpanzees in West Africa.

In the last volume we introduced anthropology as a discipline with valuable theory and methods for biodiversity conservation looking at environmental anthropology, ontological anthropology and the example of ethnoprimatology… If you didn’t yet read that, you can check it out here.

So, with this quick discussion of the relationship between current concerns of the environment and anthropology let’s discuss it further….

There is an element across scientific disciplines that is increasingly ‘urgent’. Urgent, because of the rapid rates in which the world’s natural processes are changing, and the implications of these changes, that will be felt unevenly by Earth's inhabitants (both human and nonhuman). This period has even been given the name “the Great Acceleration” to reflect the increasingly rapid rates of change. Other terms coined in this time that reflect this urgency include “tipping points” and “critical zones”.

Ethnography is the systematic study of culture from the viewpoint of the subject and is pretty much the theory (and method depending on how you use/interpret the word) of anthropologists. An ethnography is a description of cultures/groups typically done by observing humans during fieldwork (though variations such as auto-ethnography exist too). There is great debate around ethnography: What actually is it? Who can do it? Is it only for anthropologists? What should it look like? This debate is vast, sometimes interesting and sometimes not and anyway not the focus of this blog.

Conventional ethnography (ethno = people; graphy = writing) has some key and foundational components and they are:

  • Studying the daily life of people

  • Usually staying with those people for a long time (at least a year or two)

  • Hopefully being fluent in the language of those people

  • And, most importantly being comfortably and mutually trusted by the people in the study.

Of course, this is not always the case and I wouldn’t even say that there are exceptions because there is so much diversity in the way this is done, the way it is written and so on and so on. BUT, one thing we can all agree on is that it takes time. A lot of time. Most of the time.

So how can anthropologists, with their ethnography, be in a time of environmental urgency?

Is urgency and ethnography not contradictory?

Google’s online dictionary defines ‘urgency’ as “importance requiring swift action”, whilst ‘ethnography’, or at least the ethnographic method tends to denote long periods of stay in a place, often so long, the ‘ethnographer’ becomes seen as no longer the ‘other’ (in most cases, a minimum of multiple years). Secondly, though ethnography is a method of great value in understanding local interpretations of life, in a specific time and place, ethnography alone is insufficient when the question demands answers, and especially quick answers, on global interconnectedness.

Anthropology began as a discipline describing and reflecting on people, at community levels, but “climate change is a multiscale phenomenon”.

In the Anthropocene(1), solely looking at local or even regional scales is no longer justifiable when even small-scale processes have cumulative and often significant consequences and effects on the global scale. This dialogue is what led Anna Tsing (2005) to write a book exploring ethnographic methods for studying global connections, titled: ‘Friction: An ethnography of global connection’. In ‘Friction’, she calls for a methodological shift in anthropology to a global ethnography that is dependent on “cross-cultural” and “long-distance encounters”. If ‘cross-culture’, then anthropology must join the theoretical ‘turn’ in anthropology (that we discussed in the previous blog in this series) that looks, as all societies in practice do on some level, ‘beyond the human’(2).

[1] Anthropocene, Capitalocene, Plantationocene, Chthulucene or any other term referring to this period or rapid environmental change and subsequent (or concurrent) societal change.

[2] Phrasing inspired by Eduardo Kohn’s (2013) “How Forests Think: Toward an Anthropology Beyond the Human”.


In 2011, Susan Crate coined the term “climate ethnography” in a paper titled Climate and Culture: Anthropology in the Era of Contemporary Climate Change. ‘Climate ethnography’ calls for anthropologists to act with urgency (in the climate crisis of the Anthropocene) beyond what terminology such as ‘environmental ethnography’ could muster. Climate ethnography integrates many contemporary themes of anthropology including critical collaboration for new dimensions of reflexivity, multisitedness, and public anthropology in terms of effective communication, for policy change, for example.

[Enter Stage Right]: Anthropologists, Biodiversity Conservationists, Activists - oh wait, it’s just one person…. Oh no, wait… it’s everyone, is it?

Urgency & Ethnography

Some of my ideas for a proposal for an anthropology fit for the Anthropocene

(for conscious biodiversity conservation)

Anthropologists must relate their research (on local knowledge and practices) to the descriptions of world-wide processes, such as rising sea levels. Though the ethnographic method is extremely costly in terms of time and produces no obvious uniformity or standardisation that could be easily adapted to strategies for climate change mitigation, anthropologists are almost uniquely qualified (primarily through experience) to co-produce (with experts from other disciplines) tailored solutions to local problems posed by global changes. Anthropologists can do this by providing critical insights, reflecting on historical perspectives and most importantly providing and explaining holistic viewpoints (Vázquez, Martins, and Mendes 2020; Eriksen and Mendes 2022). Here, comparison will play a crucial role. Theoretically understanding that global interactions work in every direction and ensuring that small-scale conditions are communicated clearly and disseminated effectively can allow for comparisons to be made globally. Small-scale single-site research can join the ‘global’ discourse through multi-sited, multiscale comparison. In environmental politics, transboundary approaches have been championed for 40 years now in recognition of the impossibility of containing environmental problems such as pollution, climate change and species loss to any single country.

Anthropologists must weave through the complexities of global phenomena to understand local action, all whilst deciphering alternative interpretations and even conspiracy theories. For example, in 2015, Mathur published an article tracking the introduction of the category of climate change in the Indian Himalaya. The article (1) discusses how the new category of ‘climate change’ was used to explain both human-animal conflict and local people-state authority conflict, (2) provides examples of local interpretations and subsequent actions that were used to deal with climate-change related phenomenon, (3) traces how expert, ‘global’, narratives dismissed these local counternarratives and associated actions as ‘mere conspiracy theory’, and finally, (4) questions and calls for anthropologists to give more attention to the work done in the name of climate change.

Anthropologists must balance progress (often denoted as ‘development’) and limitations (or inequalities). One possible start to doing this was proposed in 2011 by Nixon in his coining of the term ‘Slow Violence’ in an effort to revise the categorical definition of violence to acknowledge that environmental changes should be considered, at least in some circumstances, a form of violence. ‘Slow Violence’ is defined as “a violence that occurs gradually and out of sight, a violence of delayed destruction that is dispersed across time and space, an attritional violence that is typically not viewed as violence at all. Categorising previously unidentified violence could enforce better monitoring of the local effects of climate change and the actions taken to mitigate them.

Anthropologists must collaborate to investigate, question and offer ways to mitigate, manage and mediate the effects of climate change. Ethnography alone, or indeed any other method utilised by anthropologists, and any other single method from any other discipline, is not enough to address concerns of the Anthropocene. The Global Climate Change Task Force of the AAA states clearly that traditional methods of anthropology (such as ethnography) can be enhanced through integration with new tools and methods from other sciences, politics and economics. Integrating ethnography into more traditional methods of biological sciences such as modelling show some promise for more successful mitigation, management and mediation of the effects of climate change. To integrate ethnography into other disciplines, methods and tools anthropology must be open to transdisciplinary engagement. Anthropology (and all its branches: social-cultural, biological, linguistic and archaeology) has the potential to bridge the gap between social and biological sciences.

Anthropologists must engage with policy and public debate. Whether activism in the form of vigorous campaigning, writing no-jargon summaries of research papers, or posting on Twitter, anthropologists have a role in communicating and a social responsibility in the Anthropocene (this, like the rest of the blog, is my opinion, and I know anthropologists who would strongly disagree). According to Borofsky, a key actor in the debate around the return to public anthropology, anthropologists should actively seek to make the world a more equitable and healthy place to live and by expanding our readership (by tailoring messages, persisting with the message, and influencing public debate with OR without policy makers), anthropologists can encourage people (including the people they write about) to feel empowered in their narratives. This will surely be important in the ‘patchy’ Anthropocene, when the effects of the changes in global patterns will be (and already is) felt by Earth’s inhabitants unequally. As in the final statement of the AAA’s Humanity and Climate Change list: anthropologists should be active in climate change policy and engagement.

Anthropologists must permanently decolonize thought, method and practice. Discussions of degrowth and decolonising on small scales are at the forefront while the climate collapses and forms of slow violence excel on large scales. “Anthropology is ready to fully assume its new mission of being the theory/practice of the permanent decolonization of thought” (Viveiros de Castro 2009, 40), and this must happen urgently.

“Rather than an undifferentiated earth-wide effect, the Anthropocene is made in nonhuman responses to imperial and industrial infrastructure, which is distributed unevenly across the earth… Such differentiation matters… To study the Anthropocene as patchy requires transdisciplinary collaboration, because the landscape histories that create patches are simultaneously human and nonhuman”

(Tsing et al. 2020)

Climate change, which in many ways underpins the Anthropocene, has been most successfully studied through modeling of global patterns (Tsing et al. 2020). Yet, as the term ‘patchy Anthropocene’ would denote, global patterns are not only felt unequally by Earth's inhabitants and systems but are unequally contributed to also. This problem is of scale. The problem of different scales. Where the action and phenomena take place are usually different, and almost always on different scales. In the next volume we’ll explore how anthropology is vital for approaching this, and we’ll meet LEK: Local Ecological Knowledge.

If you want to read more about the debate around ethnography you can start here:

  1. Col, Giovanni da. 2017. ‘Two or Three Things I Know about Ethnographic Theory’. HAU: Journal of Ethnographic Theory 7 (1): 1–8.

  2. Col, Giovanni da, and David Graeber. 2011. ‘Foreword: The Return of Ethnographic Theory’. HAU: Journal of Ethnographic Theory 1 (1): vi–xxxv.

  3. Howell, Signe. 2017. ‘Two or Three Things I Love about Ethnography’. HAU: Journal of Ethnographic Theory 7 (1): 15–20.

  4. Ingold, Tim. 2008. ‘Anthropology Is Not Ethnography’. Proceedings of the British Academy 154: 69–92.

  5. ———. 2014. ‘That’s Enough about Ethnography!’ HAU: Journal of Ethnographic Theory 4 (1): 383–95.

  6. ———. 2017. ‘Anthropology Contra Ethnography’. HAU: Journal of Ethnographic Theory 7 (1): 21–26.

  7. Nader, Laura. 2011. ‘Ethnography as Theory’. HAU: Journal of Ethnographic Theory 1 (1): 211–19.

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