Environmental Impact Assessment through ethnography: disentangling or negotiating slippery subjects?
Sofia Bento (University of Lisbon)
Raquel Carvalheira (Universidade NOVA de Lisboa)
Paper short abstract:
Ethnography in Environmental Impact Assessment opens a door to slippery subjects for engineers. Through this experience, we look at different situations during and after fieldwork when techno-scientific knowledge and ethnographic work are debated.
Paper long abstract:
For many of the engineers working on the Portuguese Environment Agency, techno-scientific knowledge is crucial for controlling inherent uncertainty and risk related to Environmental Impact Assessment. However, according to many studies (Callon, 1986; Latour, 1988, Law, 2002 and Boltanski & Thévenot, 1991), our empirical research shows the political and moral dimensions of technical work. Based on a five month fieldwork conducted within the Impact Assessment Department of the Portuguese Environmental Agency, this paper looks at how concrete negotiations about the definition and frontiers of techno-scientific knowledge took place during and after the fieldwork. Engineers working on a state environmental agency use rigid bureaucratic procedures and quantitative knowledge and techniques to fend from public accusations about the political and economic dimensions of their work. When discussing our data with them, we were often criticized for putting too much "politics" on their work or of expressing our opinions instead of producing objective analysis. But also they highlighted how Impact Assessment was a complex endeavour, not anchored on "pure science" and where subjectivity was inevitable. Even though, our ethnography, was often perceived as highly subjective and dependent on workers worldviews. Leaderships questioned the process of data collection and the weight of informal conversations in our ethnography. Different epistemologies were being negotiated; roles and frontiers between us and them were constantly built. This process opened a discussion of how collaborative ethnography should impart from a more insightful discussion among engineers and social scientists and how future projects should foresee this path.
Methodography of data practices in STS's ethnographic collaboration and participant observation