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Think about how you think (Part 1)

Updated: Apr 16, 2020

Maris Gillette | 24 October 2018

Two boys fishing, somewhere in Sweden. In the background a sailing boat.
"Två pojkar som metar", permission by: Swedish National Heritage Board, Creative Commons. Stable URL: (via WikiCommons)

Yesterday I attended Svein Jentoft’s seminar on “Governing Change in Global Small-Scale Fisheries” at the School of Global Studies. The Faculty of Social Sciences has awarded Jentoft, Professor Emeritus at the Norwegian College of Fishery Science at UIT, an honorary doctorate for his contributions to the development of marine social sciences, marine governance, and community-based approaches to fisheries management.

As a newcomer to the study of small-scale fisheries and the only social anthropologist in the room, I wondered if I would be a fish out of water at this talk. Imagine my delight, then, when Jentoft appealed to J.L. Austin’s How to Do Things with Words to support his argument that we need to think about how we think about climate change, poverty, and sustainable development, because how we think and talk about these things affects what we do. Austin’s book is well-loved by anthropologists, and a teaching staple in undergraduate courses.

Austin’s basic point is that utterances do things. Language is action. His argument about the performative force of language is particularly clear in relation to verbs like “declare,” or “command,” where the word is the action: “I declare you to be man and wife” is a good example. However, many verbs have an explicit relationship to action; think about what happens if I ask you to “come in” or “answer the doorbell.” From here it is a short step to recognizing that quite a lot of words call us to actions of one sort or another.

Jentoft’s focus was to problematize the language of “adapting” and “adaptation” for thinking about climate change. He connected these words to resilience theory and the theory of evolution. Given that meaningful, enduring adaptation in evolution takes a million years, should we really be “adapting” to climate change? What would happen, Jentoft asked, if we thought about our response to climate change with a vocabulary from political economy? Power would become visible, as opposed to its absence from resilience theory. What would happen if we changed how we thought about responding to climate change from “adaptation” to “revolution”?

Jentoft clearly intended his talk to be a wakeup call to environmental social scientists. He was challenging his audience to rethink how they think. Talking about how small-scale fishing communities should “adapt” to climate change leads to the wrong kind of action. We need a different, and better conceptual toolkit if we hope to elicit action that will make a meaningful difference.

I’d like to apply Jentoft’s invocation of Austin’s ideas, and his call to think about how you think, to another problem and scholarly community. The problem is the use of the word “culture” in Swedish public conversations, and the scholarly community is sociocultural anthropologists. As a colleague and I were recently discussing, references to culture (kultur) are frequent in Swedish popular discourse, but infrequent in contemporary anthropological scholarship. This disconnect is more than a little troubling. It’s a topic that merits its own blog post…


Maris Boyd Gillette is a social anthropologist and filmmaker whose research explores how capitalist processes affect group identities, material culture, and economic practices. She has studied porcelain workers and entrepreneurs in Jingdezhen, southeast China (see her previous Blog post one and two); Chinese Muslims in Xi’an, northwest China; and urban neighborhoods in the midwestern and eastern United States.



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