Title

Cultural imaginaries or incommensurable ontologies? Relationality and sovereignty as worldviews in socio-technological system transitions

Document Type

Article

Publication Date

10-2021

Department

Department of Social Sciences; College of Forest Resources and Environmental Science; Department of Humanities

Abstract

Scholars bridging the fields of science and technology studies (STS) and energy research in social sciences (ERSS) offer a rich and integrated conceptualization of how energy systems are imbued in social systems, including cultures, social structures, institutions, and social relations of power. Yet as fields of study, STS and ERSS are dominated by approaches to understanding nature, culture, and relationships among them with origins in western European Enlightenment thinking. In this article, we argue that the language of “imaginaries” provides an understanding of culturally organized normative commitments but may obscure attention to what are actually diverse and sometimes incommensurable yet legitimate plural ontologies. Tribal Nations, Indigenous communities, and other non-Western worldviews are not simply imagined; they offer different teachings regarding the relational and embedded realities governing relations among human and more-than-human beings across time and space. The field of STS has a rich history of exploring ontological controversies and provides insight into understanding diverse and competing perspectives in science and technology, yet without articulating the connection between this conceptual terrain and the lived realities of socio-technological system entrenchment or change. ERSS recognizes participation, energy system democratization, and even co-production as components of a just energy transition, while most typically thinking about participation as a methodology or research approach rather than as requiring consideration and even wholesale reconceptualization of ontological foundations. To advance convergent, transdisciplinary social science research in socio-technological transitions requires grappling with plural ontologies regarding the reality of relations in the world. Here, we explore diverse ontologies shaping the realities of energy systems through the lens of Tribal Nations in the Great Lakes region in the United States. Ontologies that recognize reciprocal relationships among human and more-than-human beings as well as the sovereignty of these beings and their collective kinships suggest fundamentally different priorities for energy systems transitions. Moving beyond the language of imagination to recognize that cultures can involve diverse and sometimes incommensurable pluralistic ontologies is essential for developing inclusive and just frameworks for socio-technological system transitions.

Publication Title

Energy Research and Social Science

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