Can We Repair or Transform the Science-Ecology-Agriculture Nexus? (Part 2 with Chris Henke)

Pt. I | Pt. 2 | Pt. 3 | Pt. 4

Part 2 with Christopher Henke, discussing his book Cultivating Science, Harvesting Power, follows below. All entries in the author-meets-blogger series can be found here.

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WF: Now I can get back to the interpretive framework and your own concepts when understanding your empirical evidence. "Repair" is a guiding framework for you here, a way of approaching, understanding, and explaining your research findings. So what do you mean, repair?

CH: We use the term repair in everyday life to describe the process of fixing things---sociologists use repair as a concept for describing how people fix social order in everyday life. One common example would be misunderstandings that can occur in a conversation: we "repair" these breakdowns in the flow of speaking, adjusting without much thought to the need to maintain mutual understanding. In this book and some other work that I've done, I am trying to expand this meaning of repair to include levels of social life beyond the interpersonal. I want to think about what it takes to fix and maintain larger orders that include things like social institutions and even material stuff. In other words, I want to explain the persistence of ecologies of power, as described in the prior question. How is it that something as complex and changing as an agricultural ecology can yet stay relatively stable over a period of decades? Repair is my way of describing how this occurs, and I find it a useful concept because it helps to bridge levels of analysis and kinds of activities that don't always mix in the social sciences.

An ecology of power, as illustrated by Lara Scott.

WF: But there is repair with respect to maintenance and repair w/r/t transformation. What's the basic difference and why do we -- do we? -- go for maintenance more than transformation?

CH: Maintenance and transformation are the terms I use to describe what you might call the scope of repair. Obviously, some repairs are bigger and more complex than others, and this distinction gives us a way to talk about how the structure of a system impacts how things get fixed. The key to understanding the difference again goes to my interest in how systems of practice and power shape how things get done in complex ecologies. Imagine that your car breaks down---you could take it to your mechanic, and she could give you a wide range of possible repairs to your problem, anything from an oil change to a new car. But say you scrap your old car and buy a new one---despite the cost, what does this change about how you get around town on a daily basis? The repair was expensive but pretty straightforward in terms of how you interact with the larger structure of our transportation system. This would be a good example of "repair as maintenance": you worked within existing structures and effectively preserved them by buying a new car.

WF: Okay, and transformative repair?

CH: Transformative repair, in contrast, changes existing structures in the course of fixing things. We have such an entrenched car culture and structure in the US, it's kind of hard to imagine what a transformative repair would look like, but presumably you could buy a bike or lobby hard for a light rail system in your community (good luck!). The point is that, even if buying a bike is a lot cheaper than buying a new car, you might be quite structured in terms of your choices. So it's not that we always prefer maintenance instead of transformation, per se, but that the structure of an ecology shapes our responses to the need for repair. To bring it back to agriculture, those who farm in the Salinas Valley have a lot invested in a particular structure of technologies, labor, transportation, and many other factors that help them produce and sell crops. These diverse investments make them more likely to prefer a maintenance approach to repair, but not because it's always easier or cheaper. Rather, maintenance is typically preferred because it preserves control and, ultimately, power. Similarly, agricultural science has a lot invested in this system, too, and typically approaches repair with a maintenance approach as well.

WF: Let's talk more about Cooperative Extension. As you know, my own work has dealt with the era before cooperative extension began, so I'm less certain about that development. Anyways, why *did* they start the extension service, what is it, by the way, and what does science have to do with it?

CH: The Cooperative Extension system was created in 1914 through the federal Smith-Lever Act and serves as what you might call a third leg of the US's system of university-based agricultural science. The first leg is the land-grant universities, created in 1862 under the Morrill Act. The University of California and many of the other "state" schools in the US were created under this system, with a mandate to teach the common folks of the country such practical knowledge as farming, forestry, and mining. A second leg was added to the system in 1888, when the Hatch Act created a system of agricultural experiment stations, intended to produce applied knowledge related to farming. By the turn of the twentieth century, many felt that the first two legs of the system weren't doing a very good job of getting knowledge from the universities and experiment stations to the rural communities where farmers did their farming. The idea of extension work is that someone ought to take all the information generated by agricultural science and use it to advise farmers on how to do things more productively and efficiently. And so the Cooperative Extension service is administered by the land-grand universities, but the actual employees---called "farm advisors" in California but county agents in many other states---are based in specific counties and are charged with helping the folks in their particular county with improving their farming practices (home/consumer advisors as well as the 4H programs are also part of this system). So given that there are extension advisors in just about every county in the US (yep, they are even up in Alaska), it's not a stretch to say that Cooperative Extension represents one of the most widespread systems of state-funded expert knowledge in the US.

Pt. I | Pt. 2 | Pt. 3 | Pt. 4

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