Ecologies and Expertise: Teaching Climate Adaptation with Sarah E. Vaughn

This post builds on the research article “Disappearing Mangroves: The Epistemic Politics of Climate Adaptation in Guyana,” which was published in the May 2017 issue of the Society’s peer-reviewed journal, Cultural Anthropology.

Sarah E. Vaughn is the James and Mary Pinchot Fellow at the Yale School of Forestry and Environmental Studies (2016–2017) and Assistant Professor in the Department of Anthropology at the University of California, Berkeley. This Teaching Tools post is designed as a resource for using the article to explore issues of scientific expertise and climate change in the classroom. It includes an interview with the author, suggested learning goals, in-class activities, lecture topics, and supplemental readings.

Author Interview

Julia Sizek: How did you become interested in climate-change adaptation, and what specifically inspired this article?

Sarah Vaughn: I came to this project in an indirect way. My predissertation fieldwork explored journalism in Guyana, and I noticed that much of what was characterized as environmental reporting emphasized interior rather than coastal spaces. I became curious as to why this was the case. I knew from previous visits that the coast of Guyana experienced a disastrous flood in 2005 and that engineers were building new infrastructure in its wake. So I figured that the civil engineering sciences would offer a compelling way to analyze the environment as it relates to coastal life. By the time I started dissertation research in 2009, government agencies had received a windfall of international support for projects around climate adaptation for dams and sea defenses. While related to complex colonial legacies of Dutch and British engineering, these projects set Guyanese engineers off into uncharted territory with regards to modeling and design methods. They have also reinvigorated fundamental questions about the relationship between technoscience and security, and about how climate change reconfigures notions of accountability among experts. The role of mangroves in climate adaptation is perhaps one of the more iconic examples of engineers confronting and answering these questions.

JS: How would you describe your methodological approach to the challenges of climate adaptation in Guyana?

SV: Climate adaptation forces one to be a bit self-conscious about using both historical and ethnographic methods. In my work, I tend to raise the issue of methodology as a problem of practice instead of theory. By this I mean that whatever material I gather in the field is part of a story that is always in progress and subject to counternarratives. I spend a lot of my time in the field moving between construction sites, people’s homes, archives, soil laboratories, farms, field offices, and forest/bush. Sometimes, because of the demands of engineering project deadlines or sensitive information being discussed, I am unable to accompany my informants and have to figure out other ways to do research. These various sites and challenges help me realize that climate adaptation is fundamentally about how people choose to articulate connections between the past, present, and future. So while technoscience is often an important entry point into the study of climate adaptation, it is not the only one.

An ethnographic encounter revealing these tensions occurred when an engineer admitted to me that even though he is deeply skeptical of mangroves as sea defense, they provide engineers a sense of camaraderie. Engineers openly struggle to define climate adaptation while negotiating their senses of belonging. His reflections bring into view the issues of performativity and epistemic politics that I examine in the article.

JS: What would you like undergraduates to understand after reading this article in relation to the anthropology of expertise? SV: I would want students to reflect on the entanglements between expertise and the material world. This means taking seriously the forms of social contingency brought about by climate change and how they shape ethical relationships between experts. Classic ethnographic texts that highlight the ecological complexities of expert collaboration, such as Franz Boas’s essay “The Study of Geography,” provide an important roadmap for such conversations. As I argue in the article, engineers depend on mangroves to help them not only refine their modeling operations, but to come to terms with novel collaborations with geoscientists, environmental consultants, and beekeepers. Ultimately, I would hope that the article sheds light on the ethical-political stakes of calling one an expert—human or otherwise—who aims to mediate processes of climate adaptation.

Suggested Learning Goals

Science and Uncertainty

  • Reflect on the role that doubt and uncertainty play in scientific knowledge production
  • Explore different epistemological challenges to scientific facts and the ways that they play into knowledge production Understand how anthropologists have approached climate change and adaptation, particularly in relation to expertise

Ecologies and Expertise

  • Interrogate assumptions about expertise as universal and about universalizing forms of knowledge (e.g. models), and then examining linkages between different forms of knowledge and expertise
  • Consider how nonhuman agents are “good to think with” (and in what ways) in understanding climate-adaptation measures

In-Class Activities

The Science of Mangroves and Uncertainty

Ask students to critically respond to this diagram of mangrove ecosystems from the University of Maryland’s Center for Environmental Science.

Discussion Questions

What are the forms of expertise embedded in this diagram, and in what ways are webs of expertise needed to produce this diagram?

How would one apply Vaughn’s discussion of GIS technology (pages 253–54) in discussing the assumptions of this diagram?

How could one use other forms of representation to demonstrate the coastal ecology discussed in the article?

Ecologies and Expertise

Together, make a map of the human actors—the experts in the article—and how their forms of expertise intersect. This could be in the form of a mind-map that traces connections between different figures of expertise or a map that shows the physical locations of expertise and the nodes at which different forms of expertise come into contact.

Discussion Questions

What are the forms of translation needed for experts to talk to each other, and how can they be represented in the map?

What does understanding the ecology of the coastal ecosystem do to change our understandings of expertise and its limits?

What are the spatiotemporal scales of the forms of expertise needed to understand climate change, and in what ways are these articulated in expert partnerships and collaborations?

How do these maps compare with understandings of mapping articulated in the “Science of Mangroves and Uncertainty” activity?

Modular Lectures: Linking Mangroves to Classic Anthropology

Use these modular mini-lectures to link concepts from the article to classic anthropological works (for upper-level undergraduates).

Boasian Anthropogeographies

Pair Vaughn’s article with Franz Boas’s (1887) “The Study of Geography.”


As noted by geographer Michael Watts (2016), geography and anthropology are “joined at the head” in their origin, in part through the figure of Franz Boas, a geographer turned cultural anthropologist. Long celebrated as one of the fathers of American cultural anthropology, Boas was famous for his form of historical particularism, the origins of which we can see in his 1887 article “The Study of Geography.” In this article, he stages debates over method and analysis through the figures of the physicist and the cosmographer, and points to the ways that they present both competing and complementary views of science.

Another legacy of Boasian historical particularism—and particularly the study of “anthropogeography” that he discusses in the introduction—is that of the relationship between anthropology and geography as a study of the environment. Later figures in ecological anthropology and cultural ecology (e.g., Alfred Kroeber, Roy Rappaport, Julian Steward) pick up some of this anthropogeographical prodding as they delineate culture areas that served to fix and bound cultures. Later critiques of these approaches point to the violence of the ethnospatial fix (Moore 2005) and its sedentarist metaphysics (Malkki 1992). These critiques point to the limits of Boasian anthropogeography, and ask what it would mean to study geography and anthropology together today.

Taking Boas and the limits of his anthropogeography seriously, what does it mean to discuss the intersection of anthropology and geography today? Vaughn argues that we should understand expertise through ecological concepts. She also shows how to translate across different forms of expertise through mangroves as a specific object, highlighting the problem of translation and scientific expertise.

Discussion Questions

What insights can Boas’s approach lend to contemporary environmental anthropology and studies of climate change? How can it help us rethink the relationship between anthropology and geography?

What are some of the ways that Vaughn’s discussion of expertise could be used to shift conversations about Boas’s ideas of anthropogeography?

Lévi-Strauss is “Good to Think With”

Pair Vaughn’s article with Chapter 4 of Claude Lévi-Strauss’s (1963) Totemism, “Toward the Intellect.”


In her article, Vaughn discusses how mangroves are “good to think with,” referencing the famous passage from Lévi-Strauss’s (1963, 89) Totemism:

[A. R.] Radcliffe-Brown’s demonstration ends decisively the dilemma in which the adversaries as well as the proponents of totemism have been trapped because they could assign only two roles to living species, viz., that of a natural stimulus or that of an arbitrary pretext. The animals in totemism cease to be solely or principally creatures which are feared, admired, or envied: their perceptible reality permits the embodiment of ideas and relations conceived by speculative thought on the basis of empirical observations. We can understand, too, that natural species are chosen not because they are “good to eat” but because they are “good to think.”

At the time, Lévi-Strauss was developing his form of structuralism in conversation with Radcliffe-Brown’s structural-functionalism. Structural-functionalism was influenced heavily by Émile Durkheim’s understandings of solidarity, and it attempted to explain moments of social stability. In this passage and elsewhere in the work, Lévi-Strauss claims Radcliffe-Brown as a structuralist, noting that his work integrates form and content without resorting to a materialist functionalism nor an overly theoretical formalism.

For Lévi-Strauss, structuralism does both: it ties together the relationship between “speculative thought” and “empirical observations.” It could be this aspect of Lévi-Strauss’s thought that has proved so appealing in contemporary multispecies and interspecies ethnographies, especially those also interested in the relationship between multispecies ethnography and structural linguistics (see a review of this literature in Kirksey and Helmreich 2010).

Vaughn’s article builds on this kind of work by considering how the materiality of mangroves shape understandings of climate adaptation on the Guyanese coast. Mangroves are “good to think with” inasmuch as they foster new ways of thinking about climate adaptation and challenge current understandings. To this end, Vaughn develops a concept of inverse performativity, which she uses to understand how experts act in climate-adaptation processes.

Discussion Questions

How do the different aspects of mangroves—as both “good to eat” and “good to think with”—appear in Vaughn’s article?

How would you use Vaughn’s approach to expertise in order to understand Levi-Strauss’s characterization of conducting fieldwork in the assigned chapter?


Boas, Franz. 1887. “The Study of Geography.” Science 9, no. 210: 137–41.

Kirksey, S. Eben, and Stefan Helmreich. 2010. “The Emergence of Multispecies Ethnography.” Cultural Anthropology 25, no. 4: 545–76.

Lévi-Strauss, Claude. 1963. “Toward the Intellect.” In Totemism, translated by Rodney Needham, 72-91. Boston: Beacon Press. Originally published in 1962.

Malkki, Liisa. 1992. “National Geographic: The Rooting of Peoples and the Territorialization of National Identity among Scholars and Refugees.” Cultural Anthropology 7, no. 1: 24–44.

Moore, Donald S. 2005. Suffering for Territory: Race, Place, and Power in Zimbabwe. Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press.

Watts, Michael J. 2016. “Joined at the Head: Anthropology, Geography and the Environment.” In The Routledge Companion to Contemporary Anthropology, edited by Simon Coleman, Susan B. Hyatt, and Ann Kingsolver, 323–58. New York: Routledge.