Session 1: How individuals, households, and communities cope with risk

Session 1:       How individuals, households, and communities cope with risk, Tate Hall, room 135. Chair: Lisa Cliggett.

8:30-8:50         Greg Gullette, Sayamon Singto, and Paporn Thebpanya, Thai livelihood strategies and economic migration in contexts of political decentralization and agrarian transitions

Problem Statement and Theoretical Frame: Thailand’s decentralization policies have sought to increase urbanization and development in provinces outside Bangkok, while increasing regional autonomy through the devolution of decision-making powers to localities.  Provincial and district government offices increasingly issue regulations and formulate local development strategies, which draw on concepts in sustainability studies and build from governance structures that index livelihood rights and market opportunities.  Yet, despite such policy changes, poorly regulated urban sprawl has created environmental degradation and natural resource competition among different stakeholders within transitional rural-urban spaces.  Furthermore, decentralized governance has not ensured equitable civic participation, thereby limiting agrarian families’ influence on development outcomes.

This paper examines how agrarian families in the northeastern (Isaan) region understand state development and urban encroachment and how these families reconfigure livelihood strategies and labor mobilities to mitigate changing socio-political and environmental conditions.  By combining literatures in the emergent ‘mobilities turn’ paradigm and livelihood and civic engagement studies, this paper is able to more fully explore households’ economic, environmental, and socio-political positions within urbanizing spaces and their differing and relative capacities to respond to new realities in securing stable livelihoods.  A primary focus is to understand how changing ecological conditions and broader shifts in socio-political systems that valorize certain economies engender ‘permanently temporary’ and ‘continually circular’ migration among agrarian households in Southeast Asia.

Methodology: Ethnographic research was conducted in Thailand’s Nakhon Ratchasima province.  Ethnographic methods consisted of participant observation, semi-structured and unstructured interviews, and socioeconomic data collection at the district level in Sung Noen. Unstructured and semi-structured interviews were conducted among agricultural households (n=38).  Semi-structured interviews were also conducted with government officials in the local agricultural administrative office (n=5).  Chained-referral and purposive sampling were used to locate participants.

Results: Building from research in agrarian transitions and risk aversion studies, this study found that economic diversification and secondary/tertiary sector linkages increasingly characterized agrarian households located in Nakhon Ratchasima’s urbanizing spaces.  Livelihood changes and labor flexibilities were partially explained through traditional variables such as education, land ownership, market access, class, among others (for example, landed households with sizable plots were more likely to invest remittances in agricultural expansion).  However, while state development may be viewed as coercive structural forces underpinning contemporary labor flexibilities due to alterations in land tenure, resource availabilities, and economic systems, complex individual and household agendas shaped people’s participation in and understanding of labor migration.  Ethnographic data demonstrated too the ways in which migration decisions and household provisioning strategies reflected people’s engagement with culturally constructed labor hierarchies, aspirations for modernity, and ideas of ‘being developed’.

Implications: This paper demonstrates that understanding the linkages between development and agrarian transitions benefit by using traditional research variables.  Yet, by incorporating people’s understandings of Thai labor hierarchies and development, this work highlights the ways in which political economies and cultural hierarchies interrelate with migration engagements and economic diversification.  Such multidimensional variables necessarily complicate agrarian studies and underscore how ‘continually circular’ migration factors into why particular livelihood portfolios are sustained, adjusted, or abandoned over time.

8:50-9:10         Discussion

9:10-9:30         Megan Steffen, How will we get through 2016?” Unpredictability, risk, and willfulness among socialites in Zhengzhou

In Zhengzhou, the capital of Henan Province in the People’s Republic of China (PRC), Olivia and her peer group of “people with influence” claim they’ve never experienced a year like 2015. Ever since the stock market crashed in June, everyone she knows has been in a bad mood. What were once thought to be temporary concerns about the environment at large or da huanjing—a euphemism for the political impact of President Xi Jinping’s anti-corruption campaign—have morphed into more directly invoked fears about the market at large or da hangqing. Repeated interventions by the state to counter the market’s invisible hand with the government’s visible hand—as in the short-lived stock market circuit breaker—have failed, miserably, and left Olivia’s friends scrambling to verify that others “can also feel the economy’s influence.” Conversations over meals in Zhengzhou’s increasingly empty restaurants revolve around adding names to a list of acquaintances whose shops have closed, whose companies have dissolved, and whose “broken chains of investment” have left their own lives shattered. “The question is how will we get through 2016?” Olivia moans at these meals, to laughter.

And yet, each meal ends with an expressed willingness to cooperate more, invest more, and risk even more. One friend asks to be put in touch with an acquaintance who can rent him expensive retail space for the Cantonese dessert restaurant he’s always dreamed of owning; another pitches investing in a new karaoke club for an undeveloped real estate complex; yet another reports that she’s made a million RMB “frying” stocks over the past six months; and Olivia herself has recently resigned from the steady job she held for ten years to found a new company whose exact purpose she cannot quite articulate.

Based on over 22 months of participant observation conducted between March 2013 and January 2016, this paper examines why certain socialites born between 1975 and 1985 persist in making what appear to be risky economic decisions even in the face of what they admit is probably a severe economic downturn. My work brings classical anthropological insights on the nature of accidents, unpredictability, and etiology together with other recent studies of how conceptions of markets and futures interact (e.g. Guyer 2007; Hiyazaki 2006; Roitman 2013).  In the wake of the unprecedented liberalizing policies that transformed the PRC from a planned economy to the second largest GDP in the world, people were often arbitrarily and unexpectedly rewarded; even success appeared to happen by accident. My research indicates that as a result of these unexpected personal outcomes, Olivia and her cohort of upper-middle and upper class friends learned to cultivate willfulness (renxing), sometimes to the point of willfully forgetting certain facts, willfully refusing to reflect on why certain ventures failed, and willfully rejecting certain questions (“why me?”) in favor of others (“why not me?”). I argue that unpredictability—the conviction that anything could happen—more than risk informs their economic optimism. Finally, I demonstrate the analytic advantages of unpredictability for longitudinal examinations of events.

9:30-9:50         Discussion

9:50-10:10       Joseph Lanning, Farming as gambling: A mixed-methods analysis of Malawian farmers’ attitudes toward agricultural risk

The annual purchase of agricultural inputs is often the single largest financial investment farmers make to secure their livelihood as they mitigate both probabilistic risk and informational uncertainty. In this study, I present the results of a quantitative analysis of a multi-round risk experiment and long-term qualitative ethnography from 85 households in rural Malawi to examine how farmers choose between a set of risky prospects and explain their choices. The limit of using choices from an economic experiment as a proxy for the complexity of agricultural decisions is obvious; participants are unlikely to calculate probabilities and expected values in their heads, in either the experiment or in farming. Experimental data reveals how farmers choose to spend money to increase the odds of winning, exploring the effect of outcome history (wins and losses) and problem framing (limiting costs or reducing objective risk) on choice. Many participants perceived the similarities between the experiment and real farming decisions, where people spend cash on fertilizer to reduce risk of crop failure. Post-experiment discussions reveal that farmers tend to ignore the amounts they spent to reduce risk in the game, so that they confuse net rewards with gross rewards (winning the game versus maximizing rewards). This suggests that farmers may base real-life agricultural investment decisions on successes and failures in previous years without fully accounting for the costs of inputs. The dominant strategy of paying to reduce perceived risk in the experiment suggests that the limited adoption of improved inputs may reflect capital constraints rather than general risk aversion of small-scale farmers.

10:10-10:30     Discussion

10:30-10:45     Break

10:45-11:05     Kandace Hollenbach, and Stephen B. Carmody, Juggling porcupines: The risky business of plant domestication in the Eastern Woodlands of North America

Problem Statement and Theoretical Frame: Recent discussions of the process of domestication in the Eastern Woodlands of the U.S. has been characterized by competing positions.  One discussion debates whether initial domestication occurred in river valleys or in uplands.  Another focuses on the appropriate theoretical framework to apply, particularly cultural niche construction versus optimal foraging theory.  In this paper, we apply optimal foraging theory – namely the diet breadth model and risk management – to the question of domestication of native seed crops in the Midsouth during the Late Archaic period.

Methodology: Our data include plant remains from upland and river valley sites in eastern Tennessee and northern Alabama with components spanning from the Late Archaic through Early Woodland periods.  We also compare the size and spatial distribution of Late Archaic and Early Woodland features at the Townsend site in east Tennessee.

Results: Our data indicate an increase in diet breadth, namely the inclusion of native cultigens at both upland and river valley sites.  As posited by other researchers employing human behavioral ecology approaches in the region, this widening of diet breadth apparently relates to needs to feed local populations that can no longer be supported by wild resources alone, due to a decrease in higher ranked resources, increases in population levels, or both.  We argue that this is related to a risk-reduction strategy, where forager-horticulturalists sited cultivated plots requiring minimal tending in both upland and river valley settings, adjacent to other resources (such as nuts in uplands and shellfish in valleys).  This dispersal of risk in multiple locales shifts risk management from interhousehold (sharing among foragers) to intrahousehold strategies (tending of multiple plots in distinct locales).  The feature data from Townsend similarly suggest a shift in storage and labor strategies from the community to the household level.

Implications: Our study suggests that the discussion around the initial domestication of native seed plants in eastern North America should not contrast upland and river valley sites, but instead should consider the two locales to be complementary pieces of a larger risk-reduction strategy.  Furthermore, our study demonstrates the value of applying optimal foraging theory and models derived from human behavioral ecology to discussions of the decisions made by foraging peoples that led to the process of plant domestication.

11:05-11:25     Discussion

11:25-11:45     Daniel Murphy, Risk, resilience, and thresholds of property in Mongolian pastoralism

This paper compares ethnographic and survey data on shifting ideas of property from 2008 to data gathered in 2014 in a district of eastern Mongolia. The data reveal that ideas about property, particularly natural resources such as pasture and land, have undergone considerable and seemingly contradictory change. In particular, attitudes concerning the allocation and recognition of more private recognition of claims to resources such as campsites and pasture have abruptly transformed from an unexpected embrace of privatization by many herders in 2008 to a near absence of such attitudes in 2014. These data, however, do not seem to reflect a trend away from private conceptions of rights to land but rather reflect a situational logic attuned to the specific context in which such data were collected. Positive attitudes toward private claims were witnessed in the immediate aftermath of a dzud event in 2008 while in 2014 the rejection of such private claims followed several ‘good’ years with decreased mobility.

These findings are somewhat ironic given that bad years are seen by scholars as justification for highly mobile resource use strategies and common property systems whereas more stable conditions should increase calls for recognition of private claims. I argue that these findings are understandable, however, if we consider them within what Little (2012) calls the “emotional ecologies of risk”. In the context of Uguumur in 2008, institutional uncertainty in the face of hazards shortened temporal horizons for perceiving risks, planning for responses, and ultimately making and executing necessary decisions. Consequently, the uncertainty produced by histories of decentralization and the atomization of household risk management forcefully materialized in these disastrous moments and played on the anxieties and fears manifest in pastoral survival. As such, in 2008, herders were simply willing to consider other pathways, as drastic as privatization. By 2014, though, the experience of dzud had begun to fade from memory and more deeply entrenched logics eclipsed the ‘thinkability’ of such drastic measures.

This interpretation is important for a number of reasons. Most studies of pastoral mobility are synchronic in nature and rely on what anthropologists call the “ethnographic moment”. This is highly problematic for the study of pastoral social-ecological systems because the temporal logics of common property systems, much like their spatial logics, operate at the macro-scale but the actors and social relations that make up such systems are practiced at the micro-scale. As such, following critical institutional theory, property must be understood to reflect mutable situational logics as well as shifts in political constellations of institutions and actors. Moreover, understanding how the phenomenological experience of the ‘emotional ecologies of risk’ play a role in property politics has significant implications for the future resilience of pastoral socio-ecologies. In this sense, given the compounding post-disaster privatization rhetoric with the increasing marginalization of pastoral identities and lifeways in broader Mongolian society, dzud disasters have the potential to trigger transformations of property not seen since decollectivization in the early 1990s.

11:45-12:05     Discussion