Resilience for Development colloquium – on reading landscapes and imagining agri/cultural futures


Performative artwork titled Eland and Benko which was burned onto the landscape by artist Hannelie Coetzee as part of a science – at collaboration where scientists were studying burning of grasslands and the effect on grassland species and habitats.

Last week i attended the Resilience for Development Colloquium which was held in Johannesburg. The colloqium was organised by  GRAID (Guidance for Resilience in the Anthropocene: Investments for development) and SAPECs (Southern African Program on Ecosystem Change and Society) which falls within the Stockholm Resilience Centre. GRAID has been set up to “generate the latest knowledge on resilience thinking, synthesize and employ insights to assess and build resilience in the context of development across Global South”.

Busiso Moyo’s keynote provided a deeply insightful place from which to think about South Africa’s social-economic challenges rooted in the complex history of the country which underpins the current lived realities. Lorenzo Fioramonti’s key note speech on the ‘well being economy‘ provided an  introduction to imagining  development without the economic growth being at the centre of decision making in South Africa and globally. And finally Michelle Lee-Moore’s keynote provided an overview of the history of resilience thinking and how its is growing in appeal globally as tool for approaching the social-ecological challenges and oppourtunities were are faced with today in a development context.

The colloquium explored the importance of a resilience perspective within development and in finding ways to work collectively towards human and ecological wellbeing. It also focused on workshopping research methodologies and approaches towards monitoring and sustaining longterm resilience focused projects or “transformative development projects”. The program was extensive and comprised of 3 sets of 3 parallel session over 3 days. Therefore it was not possible to attend all the sessions but i was able to attend most of the ones that i was interested in and which i felt would be useful for the agri/cultures work. Themes of talks and workshops ranged from thinking about resilience in agriculture and food security, to marine ecosystems, and urban environments. A  number of practitioners who are exploring resilience as a lens in their work shared their experiences from around the globe. Some of the discussion focused on how a resilience approach has been interpreted widely by practitioners and it was agreed that while some tools and methodologies are valuable to guide practice,  tools must be flexible so as to be adaptive to different contexts.

The colloquium was a great opportunity to learn more about the resilience work being carried out and also learn more about the focus within this field on social-ecological connections and research and how practitioners are approaching this. In attending thecoloquium i was curious about how a resilience perspective may add insights to exploring agri/cultural futures in South Africa.  Within the PhD project i have been exploring changing social-ecological knowledge in agri/cultural systems and how agri/cultural knowledge of both farmers and scientists (involved in maize agri/culture) in South Africa has changed over time and specifically in relation to the introduction of new seed varieties and technologies. As new technologies are introduced agri/cultural knowledge shifts, leading to changes in social-ecologial relationhips and knowledge.  I am interested in how a resilience perspective may support the the growth of research and development that moves beyond the dominant models ( which are largely geared towards supporting industrial agri/cultural systems) and which take seriously diverse agri/cultural knowledges (which are ever changing) as vital for building social-ecological resilience for the future of agri/culture in South Africa.

The colloquium program also had a strong focus on interdisciplinary research methodologies as being important within the resilience field. It was an opportunity to share experiences with other researchers making use of visual and sensory data collection methodologies. Over the past year while i have been very excited about the interdisciplinary component of the project this has also been a challenging part to develop and often i have felt a bit disconnected from others working in this way and it is extremely useful to have the change to engage with other researchers experiencing similar challenges and excitement around the use of these methods.

I attended 3 sessions which explored the use of visual disciplies. One was on paricipatory mapping and “photo voice”, one was on photograpy and research and the final was presenting a case study art-scince collaboration between a team of ecologists and a fine artist (Hannelie Coetzee – see art work in the top image) who works with ecological materials and concepts. In the collaboration the ecologists had set out to explore the effect of annual fires on grassland ecosystems. In the process they would burn a patch of grassland annually and record data as the area evolved from the fires over time. Hanellie Coetzee joined up with this team of ecologists and designed an image of a human and an Eland antelope that would be burnt into the landscape (rather than a square). They described how the art science collaboration got each other thinking about their tools and methods in new ways and how it brought a new set of dialogues and a new audience to the project. This third session was an extremely powerful session and stimlated a great dialogue around the value of interdisciplinary work and the value art can bring to scientific research.  In recent months i have been contemplating the how people from different vantage points, interact and read landscapes in different ways – whether it be scientist or artist, farmer or researcher. I asked the   collaborators if they were inspired by each others reading of landscape/ or relationship with landscape and this evolve into a very interesting dialogue on how multiple knowledges may contribute to building more resilient futures.


Sensory Ethnography: Methods for moving beyond the human and a reliance on words

crossing paths - tractor tyre tracks, bird and goat footprints in mud on a small-scale GM maize farm in the Eastern Cape South Africa

Crossing Paths – tractor tyre tracks and bird and goat footprints in mud on a small-scale GM maize farm in the Eastern Cape South Africa

Over the past few months I have been exploring how I may be able to move beyond a sole reliance on interviews and spoken words to collect information about each of the three small-scale maize agri/culture systems I will be exploring in South Africa (these are defined by the kind of maize seed being used – traditional, hybrid or GM seed) . As the intention is to map socio-ecological relationships, I have been searching for methods that are suited to exploring the human-nature relationships happening in each part of the agri/culture system.

In a previous post ‘Unlikely’ protagonists: a multispecies approach, I wrote about a multi-species approach as a methodology that may help the researcher move beyond a human centered narrative by focusing on other species vital for the existence of the agricultural system. Building onto this, a sensory ethnography approach could also offer a way of engaging beyond the human and carrying out such a multispecies inquiry.


An interest in the multi-species world and in socio-ecological relationships requires methodologies that work beyond words. It requires approaches that can expand the ‘sensory noticing’ of the researcher in each space.

A ‘sensorial turn’ has gained interest in a number of disciplines over the past decade – e.g. through ‘sensuous scholarship’, ‘sensuous geography’, ‘sociology of the senses’ etc. Within visual anthropology, this turn has lead to the development of Sensory Ethnography.

The Harvard Sensory Ethnography Lab (HSEL) define Sensory Ethnography as:

“combinations of aesthetics and ethnography as a means of engaging in research that is beyond a reliance on language”, encouraging “attention to the many dimensions of the world, both animate and inanimate, that may only with difficulty, if it all, be rendered with propositional prose” (Harvard Sensory Ethnography Lab).

The Harvard Sensory Ethnography Lab (SEL) promotes innovative combinations of aesthetics and ethnography to explore the natural and unnatural world and points of intersection. Artists and Ethnographers experiment with how this way of being in the field opens up new types of noticing and awareness that may be missed if attention is mostly focused on language. Sarah Pink’s (2015) book Doing Sensory Ethnography offers a valuable field guide to the research being done within this realm and urges that the “greater use of multi-sensory-experimental data (vision, taste, hearing touch etc)” be used in combination with other ethnographic methods. I feel that sensory ethnography offers an exciting approach for engaging in nature/culture research and multi-species engagements and therefore intend to use it in combination with more traditional interview techniques.


For my project, the sensory component will involve using observational drawings, photography, film, and sound recordings as a way of observing and engaging with each site. As each site is different, the kinds of activities I choose to undertake will depend on the site. Sound recordings may be appropriate in agricultural fields, whereas photography may offer a useful way of observing and recording a laboratory. Drawings may present a way of expressing location, proximity, or geographical relationships, such as how close GM varieties are planted next to traditional varieties. In addition, Sensory Ethnography could offer an interesting way of engaging in dialogue with human actors in the spaces I enter. The sensory material could then present a set of interactive materials able to stimulate and help facilitate conversations with farmers, scientists or other stakeholders. Furthermore, this process will build an archive ‘other than words’ about each system that will provide a valuable set of interactive communication tools and potentially material for an exhibition at the end of the project.

In January I will be traveling to Hlabisa in KwaZulu Natal with some other researchers who are looking at GM maize adoption in South Africa. They will be conducting focus groups with small-scale GM maize adopters and during this trip I plan to begin exploring the use of some sensory ethnography methods. I hope to report back on this in my next post!