I was thrilled this week to present some emerging vignettes from my research in Alaska at the “Survival”-themed conference organized by Wayne State University’s Humanities Center, as part of its Faculty Fellowships Program. Having received a fellowship for 2014-2015 that helped fund my work in Alaska on resource management policy, I looked forward to sharing some stories encountered on the field, and witnessing the great work by the other awardees.
“Survival,” as it turns out, is a great way to re-frame not just questions of human and environmental sustainability, but also to think about how contemporary organizations can negotiate these changed institutional ecologies. While the talks at the conference addressed a number of key humanistic concerns related to survival (e.g., workplace bullying and gender, language and ethnic media in large cities), several of them related explicitly to sustainability. For instance, Alisa Moldavanova (Political Science) talked about how cultural/art institutions approached the concept of sustainability from the lens of organizational and community viability; Andrew Newman (Anthropology) examined the political and moral economy of Detroit’s urban farming gardens and grocery stor(i)es; and Tam Perry (Social Work) and her team probed experiences of homelessness and how Detroit nonprofits sought to help people thus affected. Taken together, these research stories emphasize how survival and sustainability are broad interpretive frames, which encompass multiple methodological and disciplinary repertoires — and that, if we are to meaningfully address these “wicked problems” (Rittel & Webber, 1973) we must consider how these repertoires intersect, inform, and extend each other.
My own presentation was largely an overview of the communicative complexities regarding resource management policy in Alaska, given the complicated natural, social, and policy-scape in the U.S. Arctic. If there’s a single thing that I have learned from working on this project, it’s that simplistic master frames like “don’t drill offshore!” or “save the polar bears” are severely incomplete, and perhaps grossly elitist in their lack of consideration of local and native perspectives. The true story is far more nuanced and complicated, and even as we seek to protect endangered species and ecologies, we must note the impacts on cultural, economic, and political realities. I talked briefly about my forthcoming peer-reviewed article in Human Relations on proposing a culture-centered approach to career theorization, using the case study of the contested social construction of subsistence careers in Alaska. I also shared some preliminary thoughts on the multiple “activity systems” at stake, as different institutions and policies coalesce and collide in the crucial decision-making processes of resource management in Alaska. The more I sift through my data the more excited I get… more on this later! In the meantime, you can glance through my presentation slides above.
Rittel, H.. & , Webber, M. (1973). Dilemmas in a general theory of planning. Policy Sciences, 4, 155–169.