Pluriverse and the Social Sciences


Social Sciences and the Pluriverse

Description of Event


In recent years, a number of empirically grounded theoretical developments have critically interrogated the Euro-modern ontological divide between Nature and Culture and a host of binary association related to it (i.e., subject and object, representation and represented, mind and body, and the like). One of the impetuses of this interrogation has come from the field of science and technology studies, in particular from ethnographies of scientific practices (see Latour and Woolgar 1986; Latour 1999; Mol 2002, Law 2004; Stengers 1997). A basic insight of these ethnographies is that, contrary to a commonly held assumption, scientific practices do not work with preexisting realities ‘out there,’ rather they produce those realities. A further insight of these ethnographies is that diverse scientific practices contribute to bring into being diverse realities and that generating singularity across this multiplicity requires a particular set of conceptual and political-managerial procedures through which divergences are rendered invisible. For example, Anne Marie Mol (2002) shows both, how atherosclerosis emerges as a different object under the microscope of the pathologist, the interpretation of the clinician, and the graph of the radiologist, and how this multiplicity is arranged into a singular ‘disease’ by selectively coordinating or discarding divergences. Law (2004), in turn, has expanded this insight to raise questions regarding how diverse knowledge practices (scientific and non-scientific) produce diverse realities or worlds and how the dominant Euro-modern ontology manages to make this diversity invisible. The interrogation of the Euro-modern ontological divide between Nature and Culture also comes from ‘innovative’ ethnographic work with Indigenous peoples who live according to quite different ontological assumptions. The innovative character of these ethnographies resides in that rather than trying to explicate/translate Indigenous categories so as to make them intelligible according to Euro-modern ones, these ethnographies denaturalize and make visible Euro-modern ontological assumptions (see Strathern 1988; Viveiros de Castro 1998; Descola 2005). In this sense, these works come to join long standing (but often marginalized) Indigenous intellectuals’ arguments on the no-universality of the ontological assumptions at the basis of scientific practices (see Cajete 2000; Deloria et al 1999). In any case, the important point here is that taken together these insights resituate the ontological divide between Nature and Culture as one possibility among a host of other ontologies that conceive entities and their relations in very different ways. From this perspective, multiculturalism misses the point, for rather than multiple views on one world (which assumes the ontological distinction between a set of cultural perspectives and a world of nature ‘out there’), what is at stake is a pluriverse in which literally multiple worlds or ontologies exist. However, at variance with a relativism that equates radical differences with incommunicability, from this perspective communication across worlds (or the constitution of a common world) remains a possibility—and a political one at that. Thus, this is a possibility that must be brought into being through active work, for it is not a given that is guaranteed by the assumption of the prior existence of a common ‘world out there’ that can be revealed by science. The question then is what would this ‘active work’ of communication entail? What notion of politics would it generate?


Interest on the notion of pluriverse has also emerged among social scientists concerned with globalization and social movements. Events like the Mayan Zapatista Army uprising of 1994 in Mexico, the 2001 launching of the first World Social Forum in Brazil and the countless episodes of place-based movements’ resistance to state or market’s claims to control territories (for resource extraction or schemes for ‘environmental conservation’) made visible the forces that disrupt teleological assumptions of globalization as a quasi-natural process of homogenization under the banner of capitalist modernity. For many analysts, slogans such as “a world in which many worlds fit” or “another world is possible,” that came to identify the so-called alter-globalization movement, have brought to the forefront that the meaning of globalization is a site of contestation where the place of ‘differences’ and the difference of ‘places’ is also at stake (Blaser et al forthcoming; Conway 2004; Escobar 2001, 2008; Khasnabish 2008) Santos 2004ab, 2007). ‘Place,’ understood as both location and sense of self, is central in these analyses as the grounding nexus where ecological, cultural and epistemological differences cohere into particular life-worlds that refuse to be rolled over or subsumed under capitalist modernity and its main apparatuses (e.g., state and the market). The defense of place against the universalizing tendencies of Euro-modernity’s agents and institutions, as well as the search for non-hierarchical ways to relate across differences, leads various exponents of this line of inquiry to speak of the pluriverse as a key term to understand the actions, orientation and possibilities of many strands of these grassroots movements (Escobar 2008; Esteva and Prakash 1998; Mouffe 2005; Santos 2007) and even of their attempts at refashioning the state formation (Walsh et al 2007; de la Cadena 2009). An important insight derived from the notion of pluriverse in this context is that we need to reconsider the categories with which we make sense of these movements, for categories might precisely be what are at stake in a struggle. For instance, in struggles about land, our understanding of them as being about resources might run counter to local experiences of the land as a bundle of non-human subjects with whom people sustain complex social relations rather than simply relations of use. Attention to how these sorts of differences play out in concrete struggles both reveals the existence of the pluriverse as well as the mechanisms by which capitalist modernity, in particular, and Euro-modern ontological assumptions (shared by most social scientist), in general, make it invisible. Then further questions arise, how to bridge the differences across the worlds in order to counter the erasure brought over by modernizing globalization, that is, how to constitute the pluriverse as ‘a world in which many worlds fit’? What role do social science analyses may play on this?

As it might result evident, both lines of enquiry lead to a similar set of questions about the active constitution (and defense) of the pluriverse. They also raise questions about the role that scholarly analysis might play on the constitution and defense of the pluriverse in the face of dominant Euro-modern ontological assumptions that are universalized through state, market and scientific practices. These sort of questions have also begun to be systematically explored by scholars concerned with the intersection between science and Indigenous or folk knowledges in the context of evolving legal frameworks on indigenous rights as well as various arrangements of co-governance, co-management and conservation (Blaser 2009; Feit 2005, 2007; Clammer et al 2004; Noble 2007; 2008; Rochelau 2008; Verran 2002). This area of inquiry thus constitutes a fruitful site to ground an exploration of these common questions from both an ‘alter-globalization’ and an ontological perspective simultaneously. For instance, what kinds of politics become possible when, in looking at grassroots mobilizations (in particular those of Indigenous and place-based peoples) and their relations to state, market and science, we shift lens from epistemological issues (differences in how people come to know the world) to ontological issues (what kinds of worlds are there to be known)? In turn, what do these processes of mobilizations, and their triggers, tell us about the conditions of possibility for the critical interrogations of Euro-modern ontological assumptions emerging in the academy and beyond? Are there patterns of resonance between interrogations in both settings? How these resonances might inform our understanding of the role of social sciences at the intersection of globalization (understood as a struggle for the pluriverse) and of knowledge practices as productive of variable realities or worlds?

The relevance of these questions is particularly salient for Canada where scholars are striving to rethink the relations between Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal peoples and institutions beyond the (ontologically limited) confines of liberal multiculturalism. Internationally, the timeliness of this workshop is brought into sharp relieve by increasingly common references to an ‘ontological turn’ in the social sciences and the centrality of globalization to understand the present conjuncture – including this ontological turn (Escobar 2007; Grossberg Forthcoming; Hemmings 2005; Henare et al 2007; White 2000; Debary 1999).


Participants to the workshop include key referents to the two lines of enquiry outlined above as well as a mix of junior and senior scholars and students whose work is straddling thematic areas where these lines intersect, in particular within Aboriginal and Environmental Studies, and more generally regarding questions about the possibilities and challenges associated with a politics and epistemology that takes the pluriverse as its starting point (see participants list).

Invitation also available in Word format