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Is Escobar’s Territories of Difference

Good Political Ecology?
On Anthropological Engagements with Environmental
Social Movements

Ståle Knudsen

Arturo Escobar, Territories of Difference: Place, Movements, Life,

Redes (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2008), 465 pp.
ISBN 9780822343448.

Arturo Escobar’s book Territories of Difference has rapidly attained a position

as an authoritative and exemplary work about activist ethnography and social
movements. In it, Escobar creatively summarizes and employs progressive
theories to address larger issues such as modernization, development, and
political ecology. This extended review engages particularly with the book’s
ambition to address political ecology in the Colombian Pacific. In what follows,
I challenge both readings of Escobar and arguments made in his book in order
to propose alternative ways in which a political ecology can be conceptualized
within anthropology.
Territories of Difference has been met with considerable scholarly interest
across the fields of anthropology, geography, sociology, development studies,
and Latin America studies, and it has largely received positive reviews and
much acclaim. Although most reviews note that it is a demanding read, they
generally praise the book for being a “monumental achievement” (Juris 2011:
172); for providing “a theoretically sophisticated and ethnographically rich anal-
ysis” and being an “intellectual tour de force” (Routledge et al. 2012: 143, 145);
for being “an epic account of a social movement” (Hale 2009: 826) and “an
amazing book of scholarly dexterity and breadth” (Flora 2011: 201); and, finally,
for providing “an innovative method to the study of social movements” (Hamel
2010: 1606). Cooper (2010: 498) seems to summarize all this when he contends
that “Territories will serve as an abundant and exemplary theoretical resource
for activists and academics alike.” In this review, I will spell out reasons why

Social Analysis, Volume 58, Issue 2, Summer 2014, 78–107 © Berghahn Journals
doi:10.3167/sa.2014.580205 • ISSN 0155-977X (Print) • ISSN 1558-5727 (Online)
Escobar’s Territories of Difference | 79

we should perhaps not consider it an exemplary work in terms of theoretical

sophistication and ethnographic detail.
The book obviously makes some very significant contributions and pushes
some important agendas, especially concerning the work of social movements
in Colombia and the ways in which anthropology can engage with activism.
Territories is also a courageous attempt at integrating very different strands of
thinking and an astonishing variety of thematic issues. The first chapters in
the book outline the context and ground for the work of social movements,
whose activities are more directly described and analyzed in the second half.
In addition to an introduction and conclusion the book has six chapters, each
with one word titles. Chapter 1, titled “place,” is about place making and
region making (partly as an antidote to much recent focus on ‘movement’ and
‘flow’). The next chapter, “capital,” draws on new Marxist theory to explore
the workings of capital on the Colombian Pacific. In the third chapter, “nature,”
Escobar counterpoises “place-based ecological practices” to the “coloniality of
nature in modernity” (8). He takes this dichotomous thinking further in the
next chapter, “development,” where he argues that, seen against a backdrop
of development projects generated from the outside, alternative development
initiatives linked to social movements can be analyzed as “acts of counterwork
by locals … producing alternative modernities” (10). Chapter 5, “identity,” sur-
veys the “knowledge about identities produced by the social movements” (11),
while the last substantive chapter, “networks,” focuses on how different social
networks may have different characteristics. In particular, Escobar considers
that most modern organizations are hierarchical and centralized, while the
social movements he has worked with can better be seen as “self-organizing
meshworks” (34). Biodiversity is a recurring thematic throughout the book.
There is no separate theory chapter. Instead, longer theory discussions are
interspersed with ethnography, with major sections on economy (in “capital”),
epistemological positions (in “nature”), modernity and development theories
(in “development”), and flat ontology (in “networks”).
Reading and reflecting on Territories motivated me to ponder some general
issues concerning anthropological writing, knowledge production, and the
question of how anthropological knowledge can advance (if not ‘progress’)
and mature. My discussion of this in the context of Escobar’s book is about
what place we make for ethnography in our texts, about reflexivity concern-
ing the ethnographer’s role in ‘dialogical’ or ‘activist’ projects like this, about
the use and interpretation of theory, and about what criteria we should use
to assess the quality of ethnographies of political ecology. This is thus not
another conventional review, and I will not be discussing in detail all of the
book’s contributions. Territories first caught my attention because I am myself
currently working on biodiversity and social movements and was interested
in finding exemplary texts on political ecology. Since Escobar explicitly pres-
ents Territories as a contribution to political ecology (6, 21–22), I have read
and assessed it as a work on political ecology. For a review of the book’s
contribution to the issues of development and modernization, I will refer the
reader to Cooper (2010).1
80 | Ståle Knudsen

“Ethnographically Rich Analysis”

The first issue that I want to broach is the place of ethnography in the book. It
is a long book, 450 pages in all, the main body of text being 312 pages. How-
ever, this length does not translate into the rich ethnography one might have
expected. The main ethnographic story is about the work of PCN,2 a social
movement in which Escobar has somehow himself been involved. Most of the
ethnographic material presented is in the form of substantive generalizations.
Presentations on ‘territory’ by black organizations at a ‘landmark meeting’ in
1995 are conveyed by the following text: “Among the elements emphasized
were the river-based models of appropriation with their longitudinal and trans-
versal dynamics (see chapter 3), the organizational process for the defense of
the territory, and the local knowledge, patterns of mobility, kinship, and gender
relations. Their declaration of principles highlighted their right to a territorial
strategy that built on traditional appropriation models in order to resist the
onslaught by capital and the dominant culture” (58).
There is, of course, nothing wrong about such a summary in and of itself. It
becomes problematic, however, when this is the general tone or mode of pre-
senting ethnographic material throughout the entire book. Put differently, the
ethnographic information we are provided with is already highly interpreted
and generalized to the point of oftentimes obscuring when Escobar moves from
ethnographic ‘fact’ to analysis. Did the black organizations themselves express
directly “their right to a territorial strategy … built on traditional appropriation
models in order to resist the onslaught by capital and dominant culture” (58),
or is this an interpretation made by Escobar? Without more concrete ethno-
graphic description and evidence, the line between ethnography and comment/
analysis becomes blurred.
The presentational mode exemplified above is by far the dominant mode of
ethnographic exposition in this book. Pieces of what I consider concrete evi-
dence consist of the following: individual narratives/interviews (89–90, 95–97,
98–99, 220, 230–232, 237–239, 242, 265); an individual’s role in early oil
palm cultivation (76–78); myths and ritual (111, 113—but these are not really
Escobar’s own observations); texts/documents (156–158, 184, 187–195, 223,
251, 302); e-mail (299–300); one extended case (177–179); and descriptions of
meetings (254–258, 267–268). In between there are certainly small snippets of
concrete evidence, typically presented as one-sentence statements by activists
(in chapter 5, 211–212, 225, 226, 228, 251). All in all, the substantial chunks of
concrete ethnography amount to only about 25 pages.
Moreover, except for six generalized schemes designed by PCN (60, 134–
137, 148) and two standard topographical maps of the larger region, there are
no images, figures, or photographs in the book. Although the politics of territo-
ries and map making play an important role, especially in chapter 1, we do not
get a sense of what the maps produced by ‘participatory mapping’ look like,
beyond Escobar’s generalized textual description of them (56).
The development and work of PCN is arguably the strongest and most cap-
tivating ethnographic story in the book. Yet, except for the description of PCN
Escobar’s Territories of Difference | 81

itself, of the oil palm entrepreneur Don Primitivo (76–78), and of PCN activ-
ist participation in one international and one national meeting, there are no
accounts of actors, interaction, or practice. I will here especially focus on ‘prac-
tice in place’ since this is important to Escobar’s own argument. He devotes
a whole chapter to place, stressing the importance of “place-based cultural,
economic, and ecological practices” (106), noting that “there is an embodi-
ment and emplacement to human life that cannot be denied” (7). Escobar
further mobilizes Varela’s phenomenology3 to argue that “what most defines
PCN is a continuous engagement with the everyday reality of Afro-Colombian
groups, grounded in the last instance … in the experience of the Pacific as a
place” (234). Alas, how place and territory come to mean something to people
through their daily practices is something we do not learn much about—the
only glimpses are through what a couple of individuals relate in “brief personal
vignettes” (234) or narratives, which Escobar himself in the introduction to the
section considers sufficient evidence: “In the personal narratives of activists,
the personal dimension of collective action starts with their early experience of
difference, discrimination, and the sense of injustice” (229).
In the fifth section in the “nature” chapter, Escobar claims that “territory
… embodies a community’s life project” and that “for activists, biodiversity
equals territory plus culture” (146). Yet these assertions are not backed up by
ethnographic evidence. I find the whole section (145–153) suffused with such
unsubstantiated claims and gross generalizations. Considering the importance
of the place-based conception of region-territory in Escobar’s overall argument,
this shortage of evidence—the absence of a phenomenological sense of how
practices in places are experienced and form the foundation for identities and
politics, and the lack of description as to what kind of activities and situations
actors are involved in—is surprising. At one level, this surely is a question
of style of writing. Nonetheless, one need also to consider what is sufficient
evidence to support a claim. The argument in the “capital” chapter hinges on
Escobar’s claim about there being “alternative paradigms of production” (104)
(other than capitalism) in the region, but only one very shallow example—the
ASOCARLET community—is provided as evidence of this. Reading his text I
get the impression that what Escobar says about this community is based on
informants’ idealizing statements only.
Overall, my contention is that the way ethnography is presented in this book
makes it difficult to see whether or not ethnography is primarily used to ‘illustrate’
preconceived and ideologically informed conceptions. Escobar’s previous work
on ‘post-development’ has received similar criticism. Olivier de Sardan (2005: 5)
argues that the ‘deconstuctivist’ approach of Escobar and others “tend[s] to pro-
duce a caricature or reductio ad absurdum of the developmentalist configuration
… [which] is not based on unbiased empirical enquiry … and leaves the door
open to … risk-free generalizations.” Pieterse finds that “Escobar’s perspective
on actual development is flimsy and based on confused examples, with more
rhetoric than logic” (Pieterse 2000: 180; cited in Cooper 2010: 503).
My reading of Territories supports such a line of critique as, overall, discov-
ery, analysis, and formulations of new insights are not driven by ethnography
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but by theory—a point I underline below. While the book’s approach is explor-
ative, ethnography plays a surprisingly limited role in Escobar’s exploration of
territories of difference. Although ‘concrete ethnography’ can never be neutral
representations and may entail strategic choices to create authority in an anthro-
pological text, such a presentation—of interviews, interactions, life stories, doc-
uments, rituals, or maps—allows for more interpretive openness. In Territories,
the readers are given little material to think with. Often, in good monographs,
it is the rich presentation of concrete observations that take the reader in, make
alternative realities ‘graspable’, and open new avenues for analysis.

“Innovative Method to the Study of Social Movements”

The claim about Escobar applying an innovative method to the study of social
movements is related to his mediating between activists’ views and critical
theory: “[T]his book stands in favor of seeing social movements as important
spaces of knowledge production about the world and of recognizing the value
of activist knowledge to theory” (306). I will here rather consider this a tri-
angle, with critical theory, Escobar, and PCN in each corner, and explore how a
few challenges produced by this configuration are managed in the book. First,
to what extent does Escobar reflect on his own role? What seems clear is that
Escobar considers it his role to facilitate dialogue between PCN knowledge
and scholarly debates. Also, he is himself both a scholar and an activist with
an ideological stance and a normative position—a conflation that makes it dif-
ficult to differentiate between Escobar’s views and those of PCN. It remains
unexplored in the book how Escobar’s own ideas and assumptions enter into
both the empirical field and the larger “collaborative projects,” as he refers to
them (307). To what extent is Escobar observing knowledges and ideas that he
himself has fed into the social movement? He writes that “my relation to PCN
remains close to this day” (x), and in the acknowledgments section he makes
clear that he has long-standing and close relations to a number of PCN activ-
ists. He stresses how much he has learned from them, but how much have the
activists learned from Escobar and critical theory? We learn too little about the
character of this relationship between Escobar, academic collaborators, and
activists to be able to assess this. Further, to what extent do the activists ‘mold’
their views to fit popular agendas of ‘critical scholarship’, global environmental
NGOs, and so forth? In sum, the book is methodologically unclear since we
learn very little about the author’s role as an activist.
To get a sense of Escobar’s very normative and dichotomous perspective,
I refer the reader, for example, to the last paragraph of the “capital” chapter
where he contrasts “meshworks of activists, local groups, ecosystems, and other
actors” with “the most recalcitrant and anachronistic forms of capital, devel-
opment, and the state” (109–110; see also 32). The whole text is so suffused
with normative imprint that at certain points it moves from being irritating
to amusing, as when Escobar writes that “scientific definitions of biodiversity
emphasize the various levels of destruction—genetic, species, and ecosystem”
Escobar’s Territories of Difference | 83

(139–140; emphasis added). The standard scientific definition of biodiversity

focuses instead on there being three levels at which biological diversity is orga-
nized (see, e.g., Farnham 2007). Many scientists may lament the ‘decrease’ in
biological diversity, but they do not define biodiversity by its destruction.
All in all, using a very idealistic, politically charged, and fashionable vocab-
ulary, Escobar expounds a very simplistic and dichotomist conception of good-
versus-evil forces in society: “Politics of place is a discourse of desire and
possibility that builds on subaltern practices of difference for the construction
of alternative socionatural worlds; it is an apt imaginary for thinking about
the ‘problem-space’ defined by imperial globality and global coloniality” (67).
While this pretty much sums up the book’s analytical argument, it also poten-
tially impacts the author’s interpretation of ethnography, resulting, for exam-
ple, in a consistent idealization of activists and their views. And if the intention
is to let political ecology be informed by informants’ voices, I think Escobar
does not succeed in showing this through the ethnography he presents—simply
because we hear so little of the informants’ voices, as noted above.
Another facet of the triangle (critical theory-Escobar-PCN) is the relation
between critical theory and PCN. Escobar repeatedly identifies congruence and
overlap between PCN and “critical scholarship” (x) or “progressive thinking in
ecology” (149). He writes: “Here again one finds a high degree of consistency
between the experts’ view and that of social movements such as PCN” (152).
But what does this mean? What are the implications? What if the Escobar-the-
ory-informants triangle had been constituted otherwise? What if Escobar held
other norms, or if he had mobilized ‘liberal theory’ in place of ‘critical theory’,
or if the social movement had supported very different views? How much
does the activist view actually challenge anthropological knowledge when it is
seemingly already largely congruent with it?
We would probably all like to see ethnographic practice as somehow
engaged and having an imprint on the world, as having the potential for mak-
ing a difference. But the ethics of engagement is not necessarily self-evident.
Nancy Scheper-Hughes (1995) lashed out at anthropology’s inability to engage
with political issues, to take a stance on the conflicts observed in the field. She
held that as social beings we exist in the world as ethical beings and that ethics
therefore exists prior to culture, even making it possible (ibid.: 419). She envi-
sioned a “new cadre of ‘barefoot anthropologists’” (ibid.: 417) who would not
be pacified by cultural and moral relativism, and she exemplified this with her
own engagement during her fieldwork in Brazil and South Africa.
Scheper-Hughes’s position has been criticized for being a vision that “is
vaguely Marxist in inspiration but diluted as well as transformed into descrip-
tive categories, good guys and bad buys” (Friedman 1995: 422). On the same
note, Robins (1996) argues in his critique of Scheper-Hughes’s intervention that
it is not easy to be sure that one takes the ‘right’ side (see also Ramphele 1996).
In my ongoing work on social movements protesting against various power
plant projects in the Black Sea region of Turkey, I have identified three differ-
ent views among activists and environmental NGOs: one anti-capitalist (fairly
similar to PCN’s views), one nationalist/anti-imperialist (especially seeing the
84 | Ståle Knudsen

development of energy projects as the machinations of the US and Israel to

get control of Turkish land and water), and one urban, professional-business-
friendly perspective (Knudsen 2014a). If I were to collaborate along the lines
suggested by Escobar with one of these groups, which one should I choose?
Were I to take Escobar’s dictum “thinking about the project in terms of the valu-
ation and analysis of the movement’s thought” (307) seriously, what would my
collaborative analyses with the nationalists look like?
In his comments on Scheper-Hughes’s intervention, Friedman further con-
tends that the primacy of “[e]thical first principles … is not at all apparent”
and that “[e]ngagement demands analysis of the way the world works” (ibid.).
Scheper-Hughes does not present enough evidence to assess whether her activ-
ism is well-founded or not, which is related to “her apparent indifference to
the question of methodology” (Harris 1995: 424). A Turkish partner whom
I cooperated with in my work on energy projects and social movements has
become increasingly involved with left-leaning groups whose ideological posi-
tion she largely shares. However, I think that it is important to keep a distance—
to see the left-leaning groups as positioned and their theories and concepts
(also) as objects of analysis. For instance, when they invoke the specter of
‘neo-liberalism’, as they often do, what do they mean by that? Where do their
ideas come from? What is the effect? How does that mobilize some actors,
but also prevent cooperation with others? Furthermore, their interpretations
of events, intentions, and structures, as with those of other actors, should be
scrutinized and held up against evidence. Theories of conspiracy abound in all
camps, and it can be poor science to select some and elevate them to ‘theory’.
Returning to the Colombian Pacific, are there other groups holding different
views with whom Escobar could have cooperated? If so, why did he choose
PCN? What are the interactions between different groups and relations between
perspectives? The way I read Escobar’s text, he shows no critical distance to
PCN. He is, for example, either unable or unwilling to analyze documents
produced by PCN (103–104) as an ideological statement. Rather, he focuses on
how this PCN text contains a “remarkably similar notion” about “sustainable
development” as a scholarly text by a Mexican ecologist (103). One effect of
Escobar’s ideological stance and lack of distance is his tendency to romanti-
cize PCN and the Pacific black population, taking a ‘noble savage’ perspective
on their knowledge and practices: “These traditional production systems …
have had a built-in notion of sustainability” (9). This, of course, is a concept
problematized extensively within anthropology (Hames 2007), and his earlier
work has been criticized for the same tendency (Cooper 2010: 503). Escobar
has recently admitted in his author’s response in a book review symposium
“that the choice of what is ‘different’ is not without problems … Of particular
interest to Power … would have been a fuller account of ‘competing visions
from below’” (Routledge et al. 2012: 151). Again, however, Escobar chooses not
to discuss the rationale for, and implications of, his choice.
I engage the debate about activist anthropology here because it demon-
strates that such activism clearly comes with challenges concerning ethno-
graphic practice and analysis. Although Scheper-Hughes’s engagement was
Escobar’s Territories of Difference | 85

different from Escobar’s—the former focused on direct intervention in the

field, the latter on promoting dialogue between activists’ views and scholarly
theory—both make assumptions about ‘good’ and ‘evil’ forces, assumptions
that are not allowed to be challenged because the researcher has taken a
stand that privileges some interpretations over others. Analysis thus becomes
‘straightforward’ and does not confront much resistance as it lapses into simple
dichotomous explanations of how ‘people’ fight against ‘capital’ and the ‘state’.
Does this not violate core anthropological principles such as the importance
of trying to avoid preconceptions and of tracing the complexities of social life?

“Theoretically Sophisticated”

Escobar engages an impressive amount of theoretical approaches and epistemo-

logical positions in Territories of Difference. As he has demonstrated before, for
example, in “After Nature” (Escobar 1999), he has an enviable capacity to draw
together various strands of emerging ‘progressive’ theories. Many will find his
review of ‘epistemologies of nature’ (122–128) very helpful. I find, however, that
he often stumbles when he moves from programmatic statements to a level of
operationalization of theory. I will here particularly argue that his interpretation
and use of theory in discussion and analysis of materiality, nature-culture, and
networks is inconsistent with the sources to which he refers. I will also contend
that it is a problem that many important analytical concepts remain undefined.
Both in his discussion of epistemologies and toward the end of the book,
Escobar argues in favor of an emerging ‘neorealist’ or ‘new materialist’ position.
This trend—exemplified, I think, by the non-representational theories of Latour,
Law, Mol, DeLanda, and others, and more extremely by Henare et al. (2007)—is
part of the ‘ontological turn’ in anthropology and social sciences in general.
In this view, the nature-culture dichotomy is thought to be deconstructed and
the material is accorded an active role in the construction of different realities
through relations (DeLanda 2006), associations (Callon 1986; Latour 1993, 2005),
enactments (Law 2004; Mol 2002), or performance (Abram and Lien 2011). This
approach considers reality as constructed not of essences but of relations of man-
ifold (also non-human) ‘actants’ (Latour) or ‘components’ (DeLanda) that form
‘networks’, ‘collectives’ (Latour), or ‘assemblages’ (DeLanda). This research
program seems to have gained momentum during the last 10 to 15 years, espe-
cially in Europe and particularly in the UK. However, I think this ontological turn
has not manifested itself in good ethnographies. While I consider Mol’s (2002)
The Body Multiple to be particularly successful despite some obvious limitations
(politics, role of larger-scale dynamics), many studies that claim to work in this
direction end up making conventional analyses of human narratives (e.g., Lavau
2011; Swyngedouw 1999). Materiality is conspicuously absent from their inves-
tigations, despite claims to the contrary.4 So how well does Escobar manage to
produce a neorealist or new materialist ethnography?
With regard to the culture-nature issue, Escobar states that “this chapter [on
place] is concerned with what could be termed the making of a socionatural
86 | Ståle Knudsen

world” (29) and that “there are no separate biological and social worlds, nature
and culture” (309). He also writes about the “nature-culture regime” (111,
138, 154). However, this non-representationalist thinking is not pursued when
he discusses knowledge of nature in the “nature” chapter. Here, he rather
articulates the conventional social constructivist view that “nature is culturally
constructed” (112). He briefly outlines a “Local Model of Nature,” which “may
be seen as constituting a complex grammar of the environment,” forming “a
cultural code,” and concludes that “the environment is a cultural and symbolic
construction” (115). In my view, his outline of this local model of nature, based
in large part on ethnographic work by other scholars, tends toward describ-
ing one coherent, homogeneous model or cosmology and does not allow for
variations, multiplicity, tensions, material agency, and so on. This is the ethno-
science take on local knowledge (see Berlin et al. 1973; Conklin 1962) that has
been criticized for equating knowledge too much with linguistic categories and
ignoring situated practice (Ellen 1993). Escobar has added to this linguistic
understanding of local knowledge a pitch of romanticism—the “ecological
ethic” (118) of the black groups forming the backbone of a “decolonial view
on nature” (154). Put differently, his basic assumptions about the local model
of nature are clearly based on an understanding of culture and knowledge as
being organized along linguistic principles.
Thus, Escobar seems to expound a classical version of social constructivism
(not easily situated within either of the positions on ‘nature epistemologies’
that he discusses in the same chapter). The stance that he takes here contrasts
starkly with two positions that he elaborates and draws on later in the book:
(1) a Varela-inspired perspective on embodied cognition and “embodiment and
emplacement” (7), and (2) a DeLanda-inspired promotion of assemblage/net-
work/meshwork theory. Both Varela’s cognitive-phenomenological approach
and DeLanda’s relational ontology typically define themselves in opposition to
language-based theories of knowledge. We can see this if we go to these sources
themselves. Varela (1999: 17) states that “cognition consists not of representa-
tions but of embodied action.” According to Varela, it is through situated embod-
ied action within an environment that knowledge about that environment is
gained, not, as Escobar puts it, through a “complex grammar of the environment”
(115). And DeLanda (2006: 3) asserts that social entities should be “treated as
assemblages constructed through very historical processes … in which language
plays an important but not constitutive role.” More radically, he holds that “[l]
anguage should be moved away from the core of the matter” (ibid.: 16).
Escobar concludes the “nature” chapter by claiming that the political ecolo-
gies of social movements “articulate uniquely questions of diversity, difference,
and interculturality—with nature as central agent” (155). However, he provides
no evidence to substantiate his claim about the agency of nature. The descrip-
tion we have had of materiality thus far in the book is a fairly old-fashioned
account of the geological and biological history of the Pacífico Biogeográfico
(33–42), which Escobar, from what I will consider an anti–anti-realist position,
defends as necessary to explain how “[p]laces are thus [results of] coproduc-
tions between people and the environment” (42). However, the description on
Escobar’s Territories of Difference | 87

the preceding pages gives little substance to such a purported co-production

but rather reverts to ‘pure’ nature. Analytically, therefore, nature and culture
remain separate and purified.
Thus, Escobar’s descriptions of a local model of nature and of the biological
and geological environment are not congruent with the ‘new materialism’ that
he argues to be part of. He makes a more direct attempt (based in large part on
his 1998 article, “Whose Knowledge, Whose Nature?”) to put these new materi-
alist and network theories into play in his analysis of the social movement and
the biodiversity discourse. This is initially more promising. Following DeLanda
(2002, 2006), he outlines in the “network” chapter a ‘flat ontology’ perspective
on networks, self-organization, meshworks, systems theory, and so on. This is a
dense and complex chapter—interesting but also frustrating. Space prevents me
from tracing all of its threads, but a focus here on how hierarchy and materiality
are portrayed will illustrate some of my concerns.
Escobar’s analysis of biodiversity networks (or assemblages) goes along
these lines: “If the first set of sites produces a dominant view that could be said
to be globalocentric—an assemblage from the perspective of science, capital,
and rational action—the second creates ‘third world national perspectives’”
(282). In addition to these two assemblages, he also identifies “biodemocracy”
advanced by “progressive NGOs” (282) and social movements that empha-
size cultural and political autonomy (282–283). We can already see here how
difficult it is to stick to a consistent definition of assemblages. Are assem-
blages constituted of sites, perspectives, actors, or something else altogether?
Overall, in this chapter, concepts such as ‘networks’, ‘views’, ‘assemblage’,
‘perspective’, ‘interrelated sites’, ‘position’, ‘discourse’, and ‘discursive forma-
tion’ slide into each other and are used interchangeably. However, whatever
concept Escobar uses, the new materialist agenda disappears: the networks
he describes are purely social networks. He also mobilizes Latour’s (1996)5
actor-network theory (ANT) (270), which is even more explicit than DeLanda’s
views, about the important role of non-human actants in the construction of
networks. When Escobar discusses the “ceaseless negotiation between subal-
tern and dominant actor-networks” (284), he allows no role for the material in
the story. His description of networks descends to a very conventional social
network analysis. While the description of associations between human and
non-human actors is central to the practice of ANT, Escobar limits network
theory to be about chains between human actors only. He thus fails to make a
new materialist, monist analysis that would disturb conventional understand-
ings of ‘nature versus society’. When challenged in a book review symposium
on the issue of why he has not better accounted for “how ‘non-humans actively
contribute to constitute worlds,’” he brushes this away, saying: “I believe that
this absence characterizes most accounts of socio-natural worlds, even those
frameworks specifically developed to deal with the non-human, such as actor-
network theories” (Routledge et al. 2012: 150). I might agree that some accounts
(see above) that claim to draw on or articulate ANT perspectives are less than
successful, but I find this a shallow explanation for the incoherence between, on
the one hand, Escobar’s programmatic statements about socio-nature and, on
88 | Ståle Knudsen

the other hand, his very conventional accounts about ‘the social construction’
of nature and about social networks.
The novelty that Escobar more explicitly tries to bring into his analysis of
social networks is an understanding of social movements as self-organizing
meshworks, which he contrasts with the hierarchical structures of state and capi-
talism: “What takes place is an encounter between self-organizing ecosystems
and people from below, on the one hand … and hierarchical organizations of
various sorts (e.g., capital and the state), on the other” (62). In the “biodiversity
network” (283), “subaltern assemblages” are “based on a design principle of
interoperability among heterogenous organizations … which allows for intercon-
nection of autonomous components, decentralization, resilience, and autonomy”
(284). The degree to which assemblages, networks, or organizations—whatever
you call them—are organized vertically (or rhizomatically) or hierarchically (or
tree-structured) and the way in which self-organizing social movements can
develop into more hierarchical social organizations are indeed important issues
explored by Escobar. I think that relational ontology, especially of the ANT vein,
has shown little willingness to explore and compare the character of different
networks. Its proponents have been busy trying to identify all the threads that
make up a network, but perhaps they have ignored the the network’s overall
structure, whether the threads amount to an ordered carpet or a yellow pullover,
or if they are more messy, like threads floating around the floor of a tailor. Does
Escobar do a better job at describing how the threads come together to create
networks with unique properties? What I think he does is to assume that peo-
ple’s real interests, hopes, and lives are constrained by the always hierarchical,
heavy black cloak of capitalism. And he does this without following the threads
or the relations, without exploring the network that makes up capitalism.
Escobar seems to take it for granted that DeLanda’s social ontology assumes
that ‘distributed networks’ are not found in capitalism. However, it is precisely
a core concern of DeLanda (2006) to show that markets and capitalism can take
various forms, also within modern Western capitalism. Comparing Silicon Valley
to Boston industrial systems, DeLanda concludes that the first has a distributed
character, while the second is hierarchical (ibid.: 79–82). Economic anthropol-
ogy has also demonstrated the wide variety in forms of the organization of
markets (Polanyi 1957).
The second problem relating to Escobar’s operationalization of theory is that
some important concepts and assumptions are left undefined and unexplored.
While Escobar deconstructs and explores alternatives to, for example, mod-
ernization and development, other important concepts that he widely invokes
as powerful outside forces, such as capitalism, neo-liberal globalization, and
imperial globality, are left undefined and unexplored. Imperial globality is espe-
cially called on to explain violence in the Colombian Pacific: “[L]ocal war is in
part a surrogate for global interests” (20). He does not clearly define or provide
references for the concept, but he does mention that “imperial globality is also
about the defense of white privilege worldwide … the defense of a Eurocentric
way of life” (20). Again, I do not find the claim well-substantiated. Instead,
I am left with the impression that many of Escobar’s assumptions about the
Escobar’s Territories of Difference | 89

larger dynamics and forces affecting the Colombian Pacific are related to his
undeclared but clearly strongly held ideological position.
Commenting on Corson’s (2010) identification of alliances between business
and conservation in USAID, Laura Rival (2011: 17) argues that “Corson’s sim-
plistic anti-neoliberal approach does not allow her to go beyond the surface of
rhetorical pronouncements, or to engage the complex contexts in which rhetoric
get transformed into activities and processes on-the-ground.” I think very much
the same goes for the way that Escobar identifies the presence of neo-liberaliza-
tion, capitalism, and imperial globality in the Colombian Pacific: he claims the
presence and effects of these (undefined) forces or dynamics without describing
the causal relationships to processes that he has observed.
Rival’s critique echoes previous criticisms of political ecology for assuming
too much about structures and their causal effects (Latour 2004; Vayda and
Walters 1999). In formulating a list of precepts for a reformed political ecology,
Latour (2004: 21) claims that a strength of political ecology, as he envisions it,
is that “[i]t does not know what does or does not constitute a system. It does
not know what is connected to what.” Latour would then be likely to say ‘I do
not know what capitalism is’. I find both Escobar’s and Latour’s positions to be
problematic—Escobar assuming in advance what capitalism as a system is, and
Latour not willing to assume anything at all about it. Promising work in this
field is being done by, for example, Igoe and Brockington (2007), who attempt
to ward off definitions and uses based on popular and ideologically impreg-
nated understandings of core concepts. They make an explicit effort to define
what, for example, ‘neo-liberalism’ and ‘territorialization’ are and are not, and
how they can be identified in ethnographic material. Escobar’s approach is
rather to draw on popular and ideologically informed concepts and to refrain
from giving them a precise definition.
Furthermore, Escobar’s use of analytical concepts is often not stable.6 His
application of concepts that he does define often slips gradually back to some
conventional understanding—be it of ‘networks’ (as social networks), of ‘nature-
culture’, or of ‘local knowledge’ (as linguistically based). By invoking such
‘innovative’ concepts, he gives to a conventional analysis a veneer of innovation,
boldness, and creativity. Finally, distinct yet similar concepts are used inter-
changeably as mentioned above for networks and also with regard to ‘capital’,
‘neoliberal capital’, ‘postmodern capital’, and ‘conservationist capital’. What, if
any, is the difference between these forms of capital? Since the ‘new’ concepts
that Escobar employs slide back to conventional understandings, and since other
core concepts remain undefined, the book is best described as a neo-Marxist
political economy, tempered by some meshwork analysis of a social movement
confronting a homogeneously exploitative capitalism and a monolithic state.

“Scholarly Dexterity and Breadth”

Escobar explicitly identifies political ecology as one of the important schol-

arly contexts for his book (21–22), and he cites some of the major overviews
90 | Ståle Knudsen

and collections produced in this field. However, I think that he could have
contributed better to advancement in this area if he had positioned his work
more explicitly in opposition to Latour (2004) or Vayda and Walters (1999).
Furthermore, there exist works whose agendas are very similar to Escobar’s
that have received much attention, and he surely must be aware of them. I
am here thinking particularly of Anna Tsing’s Friction (2005). Like Territories,
it addresses nature-culture, environmentalism, capitalism, social movements,
the nature of knowledge, biodiversity, and the nature of globalization, and it
explores avenues of/for hope. But it would be unfair to criticize only Escobar. To
build your own project (career?), it may sometimes seem wiser to ignore than
to relate to comparable projects. Indeed, in Friction Tsing fails to relate explic-
itly to works upon which she bases her elaborations or that address the same
agendas, for example, Latour on ‘nature-culture’ or Debord ([1967] 1994) about
‘world-making’.7 Would not anthropology and political ecology progress much
more advantageously if major contributions like these could relate explicitly to
each other? Is ignorance of similar, comparable projects good scientific practice?
But then, after all, Escobar may not consider his work to be science. He
maintains that what is called for to address today’s crises is not science but
rather “different forms of existence,” as promoted especially by social move-
ments (311), and here supposedly brought out by Escobar’s collaborative effort
with them. He maintains that “[m]ore than the validation of theories, the goal
of collaborative projects comes to be seen as contributing to the goals of par-
ticular social and political movements” (307). But if this book is not a work of
science, what criteria shall we then use to assess it? If it is ‘action anthropol-
ogy’, why does Escobar not relate to the literature about this? Do we think
that it is acceptable to retreat from established criteria for evaluating academic
knowledge when the project is the outcome of dialogue between scholarly texts
and activist knowledge? I think that there are at least two reasons not to renege
on such criteria for assessing this book as an academic text. First, there is good
reason to argue that cooperation with activists is—in principle—no different
from anthropological projects that cooperate with other kinds of informants.
After all, do we not increasingly consider ethnography generally as projects of
cooperation and collaboration with informants? Second, Territories of Differ-
ence is a highly academic text; it is clearly intended for an academic readership,
not for activists. Thus, should not academic standards apply? Graeber’s book
Direct Action (2009) is probably a better ethnographic account of activist-
ethnographer collaboration, and it also retains the dialogical intention in its
written output since it is crafted in a style accessible also to activists.


In an exchange about the future of anthropological engagement with environ-

mentalism, Escobar once commented that environmental movements “can be
seen as elaborating an entire political ecology”; further, he asked, “Do we have
a role to play in this intellectual and political project?” (comment by Escobar
Escobar’s Territories of Difference | 91

in Brosius 1999: 292). I think Territories was intended to be his affirmative

answer to that. Escobar tries, especially, to show that anthropology has a role
to play in elaborating theory in cooperation with social movements. In pursu-
ing this objective, Escobar’s project might have grown too ambitious. Territo-
ries would have been a much stronger book of political ecology if it had been
limited to an ethnographically based description of PCN and a discussion of
social movements, identity, and development. Yet even without the excessive
discussions of complexity theory and epistemology; the weak chapters about
“place,” “capital,” and “nature”; and the too long and overlapping discussions
about the emergence of the biodiversity discourse (139–145 and 278–282),
there would have remained major issues relating to reflexivity and politics,
the role of ethnography, application of theory, and dialogue with comparable
anthropological projects.
It is perhaps ironic that while Escobar himself stresses—celebrates, even—
bottom-up or self-organizing processes, meshworks in place of hierarchy, his
own approach to ethnography is highly hierarchical. Escobar has not designed
his project in such a way that his ideological, political, and theoretical positions
risk being rubbed against evidence. By allowing PCN knowledge the same epis-
temological status as expert knowledge, the project does initially seem to offer
the potential for an exciting dialogue between theory, activist knowledge, and
ethnographic evidence. However, as there appears to be no tension between
PCN perspectives and Escobar’s own position, this potential dissolves. One
is left pondering what this project would have looked like if there was not—
apparently—such a high degree of congruence between its academic and social
movement perspectives.
I do accept that learning from knowledge produced by social movements
is one way that we can work, but I do not think that there is only one way to
practice good political ecology or only one kind of role that anthropologists
can legitimately take in the study of environmental social movements. Further,
I believe that what counts as good political ecology can be demonstrated only
through its practice, the writing of monographs such as Territories being one
such practice. Thus, what has this review of Territories taught me about politi-
cal ecology? If anything, I think that it has brought out the major challenges
facing the political ecology of environmental social movements. Since there is
no scope for elaborating widely on these challenges here, I have below pro-
vided references to works that take these discussions further.
If we can say that the agenda of political ecology is to try to understand,
at one and the same time, environmental and distributional issues, current
approaches to each of these seem to pull the field in opposite directions: the
study of the environment/material toward relational ontology and method-
ological individualism, the study of power toward neo-Marxism or post-struc-
turalist discourse studies. While there have been many calls for reinvigorating
the study of ecology (Vayda and Walters 1999; Walker 2005), the biophysical
dimensions (Escobar 1999), and the material (Biersack 2006) in political ecol-
ogy, it seems to be particularly fashionable to turn to some version of ANT to
reclaim the material. However, the material agency thinking that comes with
92 | Ståle Knudsen

ANT/relational ontology sits uneasily with the largely structural approach of

much political ecology that is often drawn on to understand the role of states
and capitalism in environmental struggles (see Fine 2005; Gareau 2005; Rudy
2005; Taylor 2011). I think this uneasy mix is responsible for much of the
tensions and imprecise operationalization of theories in works of political
ecology. Are there good alternatives to the dichotomous positions on issues
such as capitalism, represented by vulgar/popular Marxism (to some extent
represented by Territories) and the anti-structuralist approach of ANT (Latour
2004)? I think that sensible alternative approaches are being elaborated by
scholars focusing on neo-liberal/capitalist conservation (e.g., Brockington and
Duffy 2010; Igoe and Brockington 2007; Rival 2011), although they are not tak-
ing account of the material. There are also promising theoretical studies (see
Castree 2002; Kirsch and Mitchell 2004; Tsing 2010) and empirical studies (e.g.,
Mitchell 2002) that attempt to bridge the gap between structure/power/history
and material agency.
Another major issue concerns how to engage with and represent social
movements and activist knowledge. This involves challenges pertaining to
the danger of disclosing resistance ideology and strategies and the question
as to whether there is a distinction between intervention and analysis. Brosius
(1999), for instance, claims that the production of anthropological knowledge,
as discourse, helps to reframe the world and therefore intervenes in the world.
Above I also discussed the tension between engagement and analysis and the
related question of what criteria to use to select which—if any—knowledge
produced by social movements should be adopted as anthropological analysis.
Other scholars have been concerned with how political ecology can inform
policies and the extent to which it should (Walker 2006).
As acknowledged by Escobar (24), anthropologists are latecomers to the
theorizing of social movements. Activist anthropology, like Escobar’s, seems to
place high hopes on the transformative potential of social movements. While
embracing this hope, we should realize that the concept ‘social movements’
and the images related to it can also be problematic. For instance, where does
one draw the line between environmental social movements and green NGOs?
In pursuing such questions, there is potential for dialogue with studies of and
engagement in social movements in Western/Northern societies (e.g., Graeber
2009; Katsiaficas 2006).
Questions of identity and authenticity are almost always part of the agenda of
environmental social movements. Studies of situations where authenticity is at
stake entail a major dilemma: should our analyses expose through critical eth-
nography the politics of authentication, or will that risk hurting the cause of the
mobilization (Brosius 1999)? Perhaps there are constructive ways to collaborate
in which the politics of authenticity can be seen as a creative dialectic between
romanticized identities/knowledges and a deconstruction of those same ‘essen-
tialized’ identities (Tsing 1999).
Centrally at stake in most environmental struggles are notions and experi-
ences of place and landscape. Anthropology more than any other discipline
has made valuable contributions to our understanding of this. Yet the way in
Escobar’s Territories of Difference | 93

which the materiality of landscape and the politics of landscape are connected
remains unexplored. As becomes apparent in Territories of Difference, an analy-
sis of the politics of landscape becomes very thin when it is not supported by
a detailed ethnography informed by the experience of the landscape. While
the human ecology of the 1960s and 1970s was unable to engage many of
the agendas mentioned above and in Territories, one thing that this literature
should remind us about is the continued importance of detailed ethnography.
We certainly have got work to do!

Ståle Knudsen is a Professor of Anthropology and Head of the Department

of Social Anthropology at the University of Bergen. For over 20 years, he has
researched Turkish Black Sea fisheries, covering issues such as knowledge,
technology, science, consumption, state policies, poverty, and common pool
resources. Between 2004 and 2013, he was involved in interdisciplinary EU-
funded work related to the management of European seas. More recent research
interests have included biodiversity and introduced species in the Black Sea and
beyond, the energy sector in Turkey, with a particular focus on environmen-
tal protest and international energy companies’ handling of corporate social
responsibility, and assessment of how and to what extent neo-liberalization in
Turkey impacts on natural environments.


1. For a critical assessment of Escobar’s previous articulations on ‘post-development’,

see Olivier de Sardan (2005).
2. Proceso de Comunidades Negras (Process of Black Communities) is described by
Escobar as a “network of ethnoterritorial organizations” (10) working in the Colom-
bian Pacific region.
3. While Escobar explicitly draws on Varela’s phenomenology (234), he fails to pro-
vide a reference. However, judging by the terminology presented and the fact that
it is listed in the bibliography, the work being preferred to is likely Varela (1999).
4. For my own effort in this direction, see Knudsen (2014b).
5. In the back matter, Escobar provides a reference for a 1997 article by Latour titled
“The Trouble with Actor-Network Theory.” The source is a URL (http://www.ensmp.
fr/fflatour/poparticles/poparticle/p067.html) that is no longer accessible. The work
in question is probably largely the same as Latour’s (1996) article “On Actor-Net-
work Theory.”
6. I am indebted to Mads Solberg for having pointed this out.
7. For Tsing’s failure to acknowledge Debord’s work, see Igoe (2010: 378). Escobar also
writes about “the process of world making” (129), without providing any reference.
94 | Ståle Knudsen

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Escobar’s Response

Arturo Escobar

Thanks, first of all, to Professor Knudsen for his review of Territories of Differ-
ence; it denotes a thorough and thoughtful engagement with the work. Thanks
also to the journal’s co-editor Bjørn Enge Bertelsen for his kind invitation to
write this response. Let us hope this engagement is useful to readers of Social
Analysis, as both the critique and my reply reflect open-ended and contested
issues in the nature of social analysis, as I shall hope to demonstrate. It is
often the case that in substantial critiques of a given work, such as Knudsen’s
review, there is more to the disagreements than meets the eye. Paraphrasing
Viveiros de Castro, we might speak of ‘uncontrolled equivocations’ in these
cases, in the sense that while both author and critic disagree on many issues,
the grounds on which they disagree are not the same, and thus the disagree-
ments are not solely about what seems readily apparent. I will not be able to
address all of the aspects covered in the review (particularly Knudsen’s com-
mentary on neo-materialist and network approaches, which would require a
treatment of its own) but will attempt to answer those which are most central.
It seems to me that Knudsen’s criticisms could be arranged into three over-
lapping categories that converge in his argument about my “lack of distance.”1
The first concerns critiques that refer to the place of ethnography in anthropo-
logical research in general and in Territories of Difference in particular. Many
of these criticisms would seem valid to many, perhaps most, scholars, and I
also find many of them pertinent and useful. The second category involves
critiques stemming from epistemological and ontological assumptions regard-
ing the nature of ‘theory’ and the role of ‘reflexivity’. The third relates to dif-
ferences in our respective views of the relation between theory, the academy,
and politics (related, but not reducible, to the second set of criticisms). These
three categories parallel those highlighted by Knudsen throughout the text,
most clearly in his opening statement. I should make it clear from the outset,
however, that especially for the last two categories there is no easy resolution
to the debates. In fact, as I shall argue, at these levels we are dealing with con-
trasting epistemological and ontological assumptions about knowledge and the
world, with no absolute right or wrong position. In a way, we would need to
‘agree to disagree’. This, in my view, would go a long way toward explaining
many aspects of Knudsen’s reading. Agreeing to disagree in this sense would
98 | Arturo Escobar

be a method to control the equivocation, that is, a means to reveal the onto-
epistemic grounds of our practices of conceptualization. I would hope that
my comments contribute to eliciting a commitment on our part to discuss the
grounds of the disagreement and respond accordingly—to engage in a different
politics of reading across positions.

Ethnographic Writing versus Ethnographic Fieldwork, or the

Question of ‘Evidence’

Let me paraphrase at the outset Knudsen’s main criticisms, particularly those

concerning ethnography. Although perhaps an oversimplification, my para-
phrase is purposeful in the sense of helping me bring to the fore—and partially
disentangle and reposition—the various levels of Knudsen’s commentary.

Your ethnographic evidence is thin, which leads to unsubstantiated claims and

gross generalizations. The line between ethnographic evidence and analysis is
blurred, and as such the work is a poor example of political ecology and social
science research.

You do not differentiate sufficiently between your views and those of the social
movement with which you work. Readers cannot make out which is which, and
as such your book is not a good model for scholarship. You take stands that
privilege PCN interpretations without submitting them to critical scrutiny (i.e.,
as one position among many).

A third, closely related claim concerns my role in relation to PCN:

You fail to reflect on your role vis-à-vis the social movement. This lack of distance
between researcher and researched can only lead to idealist and romantic stances
on the side of the movement. Your position is thus politically compromised. Con-
sequently, the work is not a good model for scholarship on social movements.

Let me begin with the claims about ethnography and “general issues con-
cerning anthropological writing.” In Knudsen’s view, the book’s ethnographic
information “is already highly interpreted and generalized to the point of often-
times obscuring when Escobar moves from ethnographic ‘fact’ to analysis.” The
“concrete evidence” provided is sparse. Knudsen asserts that, overall, the book
is “not driven by ethnography but by theory.” One of the main examples given
to prove this point is my presentation of the social movement concepts of ‘terri-
tory’ and of the Pacific as a ‘region-territory’ of ethnic groups (145–153; see also
52–62). This example makes clear to me a first distinction that goes some way
toward explaining what is going on. In my view, there is a difference between
ethnographic writing, on the one hand (primarily based on the subjects’ own
voices, or with substantial sections paraphrasing those voices), and writing
based on ethnographic research but not primarily couched in the subjects’
voices. I refer to this distinction briefly (25), stating that the book follows the
Escobar’s Response | 99

latter, rather than the former, model. The section in question is precisely a con-
densed statement of substantial ethnographic research over several years on the
production of the said concepts by the movement, and of the movement’s distil-
lation of that knowledge linking together autonomy, territory, life projects, and
region-territory (e.g., 148; fig. 6). That being said, Knudsen is right in that the
reader would have been better served by a more detailed account of the activ-
ists’ discussions leading to their conceptualization. Generally speaking, I concur
with Knudsen that well-textured ethnographic writing (i.e., constructed largely
through people’s own voices) constitutes better anthropological writing in most
senses. But we should not forget that this is largely a professional convention, a
point to which I will return below.2
Knudsen is also right in commenting critically on the theory-driven character
of much contemporary anthropological writing. This, in my mind, is an effect
of the ascendancy of post-structuralism in post-Writing Culture Anglo-Ameri-
can anthropology (and of the latter’s influence on many world anthropologies)
and one that needs to be questioned. I always try to make our PhD students
aware of this feature and encourage them to write more ethnographically and
not just to engage in theory-driven anthropological writing based on ethno-
graphic research. While this might mean that I am ‘guilty as charged’, Terri-
tories of Difference introduces two correctives to this trend: first, it highlights
activist knowledge production; second, it encourages us to be mindful of which
kinds of theory we use, going beyond the established Euro-American canons
(following the analysis of the coloniality of knowledge, discussed in the chap-
ter on development). I should add, thirdly, that I do not believe that claims to
ethnography and “concrete evidence” are a good solution to the quandaries
created by post-structuralism (more on this below).
Another major problem identified by Knudsen regarding the ethnographic
basis of the book is the lack of first-hand ethnography on place making, and the
fact that I rely on others’ ethnographies of place and nature (e.g., in the long sec-
tion on the local models of nature, 113–120). In this case, I would also say that
he is right—up to a point. As I believe I made clear, it was not the book’s inten-
tion to provide such ethnography (as stated on 315n18, the book is not about
the ‘black cultures’ of the Pacific). Relying on the available and excellent stud-
ies by others (e.g., by Restrepo, Losonczy, and Ulloa) seemed to me a perfectly
reasonable choice. To provide my own account of the local meanings of nature
and place-making practices was well beyond the scope of the book. Indeed, it
would have been an altogether different project within ecological anthropology
(one in which, again, Restrepo, Losonczy, and Ulloa have engaged admirably).
Finally, still on the issue of ethnography, I tend to agree with Knudsen that
“Territories would have been a much stronger book of political ecology if it had
been limited to an ethnographically based description of PCN and a discussion
of social movements, identity, and development.” This is an issue that younger
scholars in particular would likely do well to consider; in other words, what
kinds of books do we want to write? I have the hunch that this decision is rarely
made on purely scholarly grounds or on pragmatic considerations alone, such as
the potential reception of the work. At issue, I suspect, at least in many cases,
100 | Arturo Escobar

are also deeply personal reasons and concerns—questions of ‘affect’, as some

theorists might be inclined to put it today, and considerations of politics that
overflow the academy. Throughout his review, Knudsen identifies what he
considers ‘good models’ for scholarship in political ecology and social move-
ment studies. I am sure that these are all excellent books, yet given the above,
I prefer to believe that exemplars of one’s scholarly practice do not conform to
a unique or even widely shared set of scholarly criteria and concerns.3

On Critical Distance and the Relation between Theory and Politics

These are the areas that I think can be characterized as ‘uncontrolled equiv-
ocation’. To put it succinctly, at least a great deal of the disagreement can
be accounted for by contrasting ontological and epistemological assumptions
about knowledge and the real—what in olden days readers might have called
‘paradigmatic differences’. My explanation will have to be brief, but I hope to
convey the sense of what I am talking about. I start with a clue provided by
Knudsen’s reliance on Olivier de Sardan’s criticism of the deconstruction of
development and proposals for post-development in which I was involved,
along with others, in the 1990s. According to Olivier de Sardan, this approach
“is not based on unbiased empirical enquiry.” Knudsen goes on to quote
from Pieterse’s well-known critique of my work on post-development as being
“based on confused examples, with more rhetoric than logic.” Elsewhere, I
have responded to the multiple critiques of post-development as involving,
indeed, paradigmatic differences—that is, as stemming from dissimilar social
theory frameworks, whether liberal, Marxist, or post-structuralist (Escobar
2007). This is not the place to recast these debates; however, in what follows
I attempt to bring these differences to light in a somewhat different manner,
taking a cue particularly from the alleged lack of “critical distance” on which
Knudsen bases much of his critique of Territories.4 I will do so by distinguish-
ing between three models of scholarship: critical distance, distanced interiority,
and embodied reflexivity (or embedded criticality).
Critical distance. This is the most common position in academia in general
and in social movement studies. It is epistemologically realist (although not
positivist in those works belonging to critical traditions, including many post-
constructivist approaches) and ontologically dualist. It assumes the existence
of a discrete ethnographer and discrete subjects. There is a real ‘out there’ at
some level independent of the researcher, the truth of which we can approxi-
mate. In this model, ethnography is constituted by empirical research or ‘evi-
dence’ plus logical argumentation (interpretation and analysis). The critical
distance model follows the conventions of ethnographic neo-realism. I call
it ‘neo’ because, with so-called postmodern anthropology, reflexivity often
became a higher form of realism. Much of the scholarship written following
this model is compelling and valuable, yet it functions within a ‘normal sci-
ence’ mode, in the Kuhnian sense. It is the dominant perspective in the so-
called leading journals in the English language.
Escobar’s Response | 101

Distanced interiority. I found this concept in my colleague Peter Redfield’s

recent work on the anthropology of humanitarianism, where he reports on its
use by Didier Fassin, one of the leading authorities in this field. Not having
read Fassin’s work, I can only mention a couple of features gleaned from Red-
field’s (2013: 166–167) account (see also Bornstein and Redfield 2010: 31–32).
It entails a sort of liminal critique or engaged critical realism that arises in
situations in which the anthropologist shares deeply the subjects’ concerns
(the work of Doctors Without Borders, in Fassin’s and Redfield’s cases) but
would also be willing to conduct uncomfortable critiques when necessary.
These critiques are seen as anchored in sound empirical research and complex
theoretical analysis that avoid easy binary distinctions (e.g., between ‘vic-
tims’ and ‘the state’). Likened to a sort of témoignage (witnessing), I believe
distanced interiority constitutes a hopeful model for the scholarship of global
conditions at present.
Embodied reflexivity (or embedded criticality). This is an oxymoronic con-
cept at first sight, since ‘embeddedness’ implies precisely a lack of distanc-
ing. In this version, the ‘individual researcher’ cannot be fully independent
of the object of study; moreover, there is no real ‘out there’ that could serve
as an anchoring point for the kind of strong distancing envisioned by the first
model of scholarship. The epistemology of this model is neo-realist, and, most
importantly, the ontology is not dualist. In a deep relational conception, life is
interrelation and interdependency through and through, and, by implication,
nothing pre-exists the relations that constitute it. In other words, there are no
discrete entities, independent selves, or pre-constituted or self-standing objects
at all. You can see how this conception complicates ‘distancing’. What enables
the knowledge that we (academics) can recognize as such is the fact that
besides our inevitable embeddedness in the world (‘thrownness’, in phenom-
enologists’ lingo), there is also always a distancing of sorts, whether for histori-
cal reasons (we all live partially in modern societies, for which distancing and
abstraction are a sine qua non) or for cognitive reasons (we are both Cartesian/
detached and embedded/relational beings).5 But this sort of embodied reflexiv-
ity implies a different distancing from the dualist detachment entailed in the
critical distance approach.6
My classification is very tentative as the three models often overlap in each
researcher’s practice, yet all three are valid in their own way. Nonetheless, I
want to emphasize a few points that explain, at least partly, Knudsen’s critique
about my lack of distance and reflexivity vis-à-vis PCN. First, to paraphrase Law
(2004), there is no ‘out there’ out there that is not enacted through particular
practices (including method). Critical distance is made possible by historically
intensified practices, including ethnography and the use of logocentric language.
Fox’s (1991: 8–9) contention that anthropology’s fixation on ethnography as
the method of anthropology par excellence (even in postmodern anthropology)
shelters an “artisan image” of the anthropologist, hiding the fact that we are also
produced “under ‘factory conditions,’” remains valid to this day, in my view. We
need to see critical distance as an artifact of our practices.7 Second, if we adopt
a relational view (embedded criticality), the relation to our subjects changes
102 | Arturo Escobar

significantly. The idea of a social movement as an object of study disappears

entirely. Issues such as the “idealization of activists,” “keep[ing] a distance,”
taking “a stand that privileges some interpretations over others,” and the “ten-
dency to romanticize” the movement all take on a different meaning, given that
the relation between theory, politics, and the real changes form (Osterweil 2013).
Let me offer the following counter-narrative in lieu of a full explanation. To
the charge of romanticism leveled against those who speak about the need for
alternatives to development, I often say that the true romantics are the world
bankers, IMFers, and developers of all kinds who still insist, after six decades
of failure, that yet one more round of ‘development’, no matter how qualified,
will bring about significant improvements. Now I would add that a ‘roman-
tic’ is s/he who believes that our knowledge can be assessed on the basis of
how dis/connected we can be from our subjects; who holds that ‘distancing’
ensures more adequate knowledge; who operates within a naturalized view of
knowledge in which politics can take the form of ‘not taking sides’, truth corre-
sponds to empirical evidence, and the real exists independently of our actions.
In contrast, those who place as much trust in popular or activist knowledge as
in academic knowledge, or who seek to validate their knowledge in relation to
the subjects’ knowledge more than any academic canon, could be seen as more
politically realistic. A politics of the possible, in any case, should be as valid as
a politics of the objectivist real (Gibson-Graham 2006).
Does this make science impossible? It does, if by ‘science’ we understand
only what conforms to the realist model of critical distance. But it does not
if we are willing to question the onto-epistemic arrangement by which only
certain humans can speak authoritatively about the world. Allowing others—
humans and non-humans—to participate in both knowledge and politics signif-
icantly unsettles this modernist arrangement (Blaser 2010; de la Cadena 2010).
I am aware that the above is not a completely adequate response to Knud-
sen’s review. My hope is that by proceeding in this way, we might at least agree
to disagree, in the sense of recognizing a multiplicity of methods that, instead
of enacting an academic ‘one-world’ ontology (Law 2011), might help to foster
a pluriverse.

Arturo Escobar is Kenan Distinguished Professor of Anthropology at the Uni-

versity of North Carolina, Chapel Hill. His main interests are political ecology,
design, the anthropology of development, social movements, and science and
technology. Over the past 20 years, he has worked closely with several Afro-
Colombian organizations in the Colombian Pacific, in particular the Process of
Black Communities (PCN). His most well-known book is Encountering Devel-
opment: The Making and Unmaking of the Third World (1995; 2nd ed., 2011).
His most recent book in English is Territories of Difference: Place, Movements,
Life, Redes (2008; 2010 for the Spanish edition).
Escobar’s Response | 103


1. Unless otherwise specified, double quotation marks are used to indicate text from
the draft of Knudsen’s review, provided to me by the journal.
2. As in most reviews, there is bit of selective reading as well. For instance, Knudsen
expresses dismay at my saying that “scientific definitions of biodiversity emphasize
the various levels of destruction—genetic, species, and ecosystems” (his emphasis,
from pages 139–140 of the book); he goes on to provide the “standard scientific
definition of biodiversity.” I agree that “definitions” was not the right choice of
word; I should have said “discourses” (scientific discourses of biodiversity do
indeed lament the loss of diversity at these three levels). However, to suggest that I
do not know the standard scientific definition of the term amounts to very selective
reading. There are ample sections in the book where scientific debates on biodiver-
sity are reproduced and analyzed (after more than 20 years of studying the subject,
writing about it in English and Spanish, and having substantial scientific training
myself, it would be safe to assume that I know what scientists are talking about?).
3. For instance, among books that I have read recently, I find Ogden (2011), Blaser
(2010), and Dove et al. (2011) to be good exemplars for work in political ecology.
But even these are very different from each other. What might be a strength in
one of them (say, theory, or ethnography, or narrative style or design, or politi-
cal engagement) is not necessarily so in the others. In terms of neo-materialist
and ANT-type ethnographies, I generally agree with Knudsen that the promise of
neo-materialist approaches has not crystallized in novel ethnographic treatments.
Again, here I find a situation in which the emerging theoretical approaches have
solved some problems in social theory but have created others. (I deal with the apo-
rias of network approaches in Escobar [2008], specifically in terms of unresolved
issues concerning agency, connectivity, historicity, and contextuality.) Some recent
ethnographic treatments, such as John Law and Marianne Lien’s (2012) work in
progress on industrial salmon fishing in Norway, are taking strides to bring together
theoretical insights and empirical research. Through a detailed and careful ethnog-
raphy, these authors deal more effectively than most with fundamental questions
of the ontological turn: What kinds of worlds are enacted through what kinds of
practices? What is the role of scientific and technological practices in generating
multiple ways of ‘doing nature’ and creating ‘reals’? How do we think politically
about strategies for multiple reals within the experience of modernity itself?
4. To summarize, my response to the critics of post-development suggested that the
liberals’ critique was based on a defense of the Real (‘post-development advocates
do not understand how reality actually works; they are fixated on language’); the
Marxists’ critique was based on a defense of the People (‘you do not understand
people’s real needs and struggles, which are material and not discursive’); and the
post-structuralists’ critique was based, paradoxically, on a defense of Truth or better
science (‘you, Escobar et al., do not understand how the development discourse
works; it is not homogeneous as you depict it but heterogeneous, localized, and
contested, etc.’). See Escobar (2007) for a lengthy response. Some of these issues
are also at play in Knudsen’s review.
5. I find inspiration for the term ‘embodied reflexivity’ in the work of Francisco Varela,
Evan Thompson, and Eleanor Rosch, who speak of embodied, mindful, and open-
ended reflection. Their work is based on both cognitive science and Tibetan Bud-
dhism. See Varela (1999) and Varela et al. (1991).
6. This model exists in contemporary scholarship in many forms, for instance, Har-
away’s notion of ‘situated knowledge’, or anthropologist Xochitl Leyva’s method of
104 | Arturo Escobar

‘co-labor’ in Chiapas, which constitutes a radicalization of participatory research

approaches along relational lines. Marisol de la Cadena (forthcoming) develops a
notion of co-labor that acknowledges relationality. See also Osterweil (2013) for a
relational framework on ontological and epistemic politics.
7. The consequences of academic practices (including those from critical scholarship)
are being discussed in novel ways, as in those works emphasizing epistemic decolo-
nization in Latin America, as well as in attempts focused on decolonizing method-
ologies, such as Smith’s (1999).


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Reply to Escobar

Ståle Knudsen

In a short rebuttal like this, it is difficult to respond fully to the profound

considerations Escobar has undertaken in his response. I am glad he acknowl-
edges the value and relevance of several of my comments. Moreover, I appre-
ciate his effort to seek to uncover deeper differences in assumptions—in
epistemologies and ontologies—that underlie our different stances. Escobar
suggests that “we would need to ‘agree to disagree’.” Actually, I do not find
it difficult simply to agree to many of the points he makes in his response:
on the challenges involved in theory-driven approaches, on the relational
character of fieldwork and of the world, on the importance of acknowledg-
ing the ‘factory conditions’ of anthropological knowledge production, and so
forth. Yet I think there is some distance between the position he outlines in
his response and the way that his project is articulated in the book. I will try,
briefly, to explain why.
In his response, Escobar primarily relates to my section titled “Innovative
Method to the Study of Social Movements.” The most striking tension between
Territories and Escobar’s response here relates to social movements as an
object of study. In his response, he argues that “if we adopt a relational view
… [t]he idea of a social movement as an object of study disappears entirely.”
However, in three of five endorsements on the back cover and in claims in Ter-
ritories itself (24, 258, 259, 311), the book is precisely presented as being such
a study of a social movement and as contributing to social movements theory.
Now, I am aware that Escobar’s “point of departure for working with activists
is the political position of the movement, not academic interests” (24). If so,
then I think that his take on social movements in the book is ambiguous as he
tries to contribute to social movements theory, but only from within a social
movement stance. Moreover, is a researcher’s choice of a social movement with
the ‘right’ political position straightforward? In a review article, Edelman (2001:
310) argues that anthropologists who work with social movements with which
they share political sensibilities tend to take positions that “potentially mask
vital movement dynamics and may even limit researchers’ political usefulness
for activists.” Edelman furthermore asks: “[H]ow are we to understand move-
ments about which we do not feel intensely protective … or which we may, in
fact, not like at all?” (ibid.: 311).
106 | Ståle Knudsen

I do not believe in a science that does not take sides. I was in Istanbul during
the demonstrations in June 2013, and I explicitly took a side in the conflict. ‘Not
taking sides’ is, of course, a fictitious position. But I do not think that this is a
question of either-or. One can be involved but still try to take a step back and
consider what is happening from a perspective not framed by the activists’ own
discourse. Why are some Turkish activists, whose position I feel sympathetic
toward, inspired by Harvey, Agamben, and Chomsky, and what are the implica-
tions of that? There was an amazing mood of hope and excitement in Gezi Park
in Istanbul during its occupation, but the place was also extremely heteroge-
neous, with the activists’ resistance toward the AK Party and its authoritative
leader Erdoğan being the only commonality among those there. Why would it
be legitimate to choose the perspective of only one of these protest groups for
elaborating a ‘Turkish insider’ perspective on social movements and knowledge?
Again, I do not criticize Territories for taking sides but rather for not discuss-
ing the justification for the choices made and the implications of the approach
taken. I do not claim, as he alleges to in his third paraphrasing of my criticisms,
that his position is “politically compromised.” I think it is analytically compro-
mised. Not because of the particular choice, but because the reasons and impli-
cations of the choice are not discussed. For example, it may be that in the Latin
American context the academics-politics-social movements configuration takes
on a special character. This configuration might be very different elsewhere. The
issue of which social movement to work with may seem more acute, and rela-
tions between academics and activists may also be more tense.
Latour’s and Law’s politics are very different from Escobar’s. Escobar starts
from an explicit political stance and selects collaborators on the basis of that
stance. The politics of ANT/relational ontology is, in some senses, more radical
in that it, ideally, starts out ‘naive’ and unpositioned, claiming not to listen to
the great narratives and theories about science, modernity, development, and
so forth, with their associated dichotomies (this approach also comes with
some challenges, which I do not have space to discuss here). So the method
of relational ontology has political implications, and Escobar has in his book
tried to harness the force of this approach. However, I think it ultimately
fails since Escobar’s position is already political, structured around some core
dichotomies, and embedded in theories that make great claims about the way
the world is arranged.
It is thus paradoxical that Escobar draws on Latour and Law to argue for
relational approaches, a flat ontology, a methodological plurality, and an epis-
temological multiplicity. It is precisely to counter and deconstruct gross gen-
eralizations about capitalism, state, and science, for example—which I think
abound in Territories—that they have developed their approach. I think Law’s
intent has been to call for acknowledgment of the fact that the world we study
is messy and not easily captured by preconceived theories. Thus, we need to
experiment with method and work on our epistemology to craft better accounts
of the messy, multiple world. But I do not think that Law’s position lends sup-
port to saying that we should accept a multiplicity of incommensurable methods
with different standards. I think we should continue the conversation across the
Reply to Escobar | 107

board about what is good method and what is good ethnography. And I do read
Territories as an attempt to contribute to a conversation about method in anthro-
pology: it makes claims about how to study social movements, development,
and so forth. The claim Escobar makes in his response is for “writing based on
ethnographic research” (rather than “ethnographic writing”). I think this choice
has resulted in restricting rather than multiplying interpretation, in closing the
door to the messiness of the world—to plurality, ambiguity, flux, tension.
Escobar claims that “embodied reflexivity,” the model of scholarship that
he seems to prefer, is based on an ontology that is not dualist. However,
as I indicated in my review, I find that much of the analysis in the book is
based on dualist ontology—nature:culture, hierarchy:network, activists/social
movements:capitalism/state, even good:evil. Some of his analyses, especially
those leaning on Marxist perspectives, may even tend toward objectivist real-
ism and one-world ontology. And his politics is at times a politics of the objec-
tivist real (it is objectively true that capitalism and imperial globality are evil
forces disrupting the livelihoods of people in the Colombian Pacific).
My review was written in the belief that we do share—or, in Escobar’s par-
lance, can have a conversation about—method and epistemology. I am a bit
weary of accepting a thinking that holds that there are different/plural/multiple
and mutually incompatible epistemologies in anthropology and that different
standards apply to each of them. Although there are different anthropological
methods, although ethnography and method are not coherent objects, they still
hang together somehow. They are related, and that is why we are able to prac-
tice and teach anthropology and anthropological method. I think we can—and
should—have ambition to do more than “agree to disagree.” Our anthropologi-
cal projects are not totally disconnected. But we disagree on how we can create
authority in anthropological texts. I find it difficult to let analytical validity rest
on the ‘right’ political position. And I am not convinced that “writing based
on ethnographic research” is a sound ideal. Although Escobar claims that his
book is “an effort by the academy to be closer to the drumming” (25), I cannot
hear the drumming!


Edelman, Marc. 2001. “Social Movements: Changing Paradigms and Forms of Politics.”
Annual Review of Anthropology 30: 285–317.
Reproduced with permission of the copyright owner. Further reproduction prohibited without