PhD student Chisaki Fukushima talks about her experience of working for the Cultural Models of Nature project, and highlights key concepts from this that she will use in her doctoral research.
Cultural Models of Nature (CMN), a project funded by the U.S. National Sciences Foundation between 2011 and 2016, endeavoured to understand the cultural models of primary food producers around the world – their collective mental systems and processes as well as models of knowledge transfer and use. Findings from the project have now been summarised in a book of the same name, to which my mentor Dr. Hidetada Shimizu and I contributed a chapter.
A key goal of the project was to compare CMNs on a global scale, particularly in terms of climate change. All project collaborators who contributed to the book report that primary food producers are struggling with the effects of climate change. These producers perceived it to be affecting their livelihoods in different ways. Sometimes its impacts were direct, such as changes in weather patterns, temperature and storms (including flooding), and sea level rises. Other times they were more indirect, for example market price turmoil – a result of equipment or oil price fluctuations and political manipulation. In complex economic and political systems, primary food producers struggle to understand not only what happens in these systems, but how to cope with the issues present.
Nature (with a lowercase ‘n’) – defined in this project as natural objects, environments and others — is the longest and strongest relationship for humans. Scientists and philosophers learn about nature from a careful examination of people’s livelihoods and subsistence patterns as there is always a relationship between cultural ideas of Nature (with an uppercase ‘N’) and any group dependent on nature for their livelihood ( i.e. all humans). The natural environment we see has already been permanently changed by humans. Human-aggravated disasters are affecting not only current, but also future generations. Therefore, we must focus on learning what humans know and understand to help them adapt to this new, harsher reality. The CMN scholars in this volume seek to understand decision making through clear and consistent mental models shared across a group, while also reflecting on cognitive models of the world. Specifically, ethnographers involved in this collection reject the notion that primary food producers are a ‘problem’ of irrational thinking and instead see their decision making as logical.
This addresses profound epistemological questions about what we can know about others. CMN tells us to open our eyes and look at the available evidence from people’s existence and livelihoods through discourse analysis, observation, and experimental data production and analysis. The different sites generated data from mixed and inter-subjective cultural analysis, borrowing from psychology and anthropology in order to produce data about primary food producers’ knowledge. This approach assumes there is an isomorphism, or similar process to do with what people say and what they know. This knowledge system recognizes cognition as central to individual decision making and attempts to formally describe what people know and the relationship between elements of their knowledge, or ‘folk knowledge’.
In the chapter I co-authored with Hidetada Shimizu, we introduced two key concepts that are integral to local cultural models of nature. A study of Japanese farmers found particularly high salience (or importance) of Human Relationships in those two narratives regarding risk supported by more than two analyses.
Japanese farmers experienced the Green Revolution in the 1950s and 1960s along with the post-war social infrastructure such as land consolidation and technological development. They are well educated and knowledgeable, use modern technology, and enjoy an independent middle-level income that relies on robust management skills. However, their collective peasant value of ‘Hyaku-sho’ community structure is still critical to their production and is very similar to what it was twenty years ago. It is therefore not only the nature of each agent that is important but also the relationships between agents. Social networks are particularly critical for managing risks from labour shortages, market price fluctuations, succession of the family business and coping with climate change. For the primary food producers included in the study, their success strategy emphasised overcoming risk, threats, and eliminating elements that might negatively affect their products. The entity which we can understand as ‘social relation’ almost appears to be one social organism – a kind of human eusociality.
The other narrative articulates the idea that crops are not just ‘products’, but are provided by the mercy of a holy nature and are a personified risk. This came through in a detailed study of the use of metaphor and semantic causal analysis. For example, farmers claim that they cannot control what nature does to them since nature is like humans, who make mistakes, and humans themselves are part of nature. Nature is personified both as something that can provide things, as well as a systemic relationship of components that includes people. It is possible that this is a result of the fusion of secular Buddhism and indigenous animism, but at present, we lack the evidence to make such a claim. It is, nevertheless, something I would like to explore in the future.
These two narratives are echoed across other sites in the project, and it is fascinating to see the differences and similarities between them. These may be the result of different environments, cultural histories, religions, economic policies, citizenship or, more likely, a complex interaction of all of these and other factors. The two narratives that we focus on in our chapter see risk as one of the attributes of nature, but humans as the ones who experience the consequences of that risk. Since humans face the consequences, they are responsible for managing risk. Successful risk management allows people to find Ikigai (the purpose/value of life) through a belief in surviving difficulties like economic crisis, climate change and natural disasters.
The work I did for Cultural Models of Nature with my mentor, Dr Hidetada Shimizu, was rewarding and profoundly inspiring. I am now continuing this work in my doctoral research, titled ‘Cultural Models of Risk’. I will extend the work I did with Dr. Shimizu to understand belief systems and cultural perceptions of the risk of radiation in food and in a nuclear host community.
 The original data belongs to Dr Hidetada Shimizu (Northern Illinois University).