In a comment on my earlier post critiquing the recent ENSO and conflict piece that appeared in nature Nature , Joe pointed out that my argument that the authors of the piece did not understand livelihoods was not necessarily clear to the reader.  I think this is completely fair – I am buried in livelihoods . . . it is a concept at the core of what I have researched for the past 14 years, and therefore what may seem obvious to me is not so obvious to everyone else.

First, to clarify: I think the top-line issue I was shorthanding in my response to Solomon was the causal framework: it is totally unclear to me how they think environmental change is translated into conflict.  It is possible that they had no explicit notion of how this connection is made, but I think that would create an enormous set of problems for the study as it would make it impossible to know what variables to control for in the study (to some extent, I think this is a problem with the study anyway).  However, the study, and Solomon’s response, led me to believe that they did have a very basic framing of this connection, where weather impacts livelihoods which impacts behavior.  In this apparent framing, it seems to me that they treated livelihoods as a straightforward set of activities – and the impact of weather on those activities could be easily and generally understood, and the human outcomes of those impacts could also be easily and generally understood.  If this is true, it is a serious misunderstanding of livelihoods.

There is a lot of stuff I could say about livelihoods – my current intellectual project involves rethinking how we understand livelihoods, because I think current analytical frameworks cannot really engage with actual livelihoods decision-making on the ground.  As a result, a lot of our understandings of what people do, and why they do it, are wide of the mark, and the interventions we design to improve/augment/replace existing means of making a living in particular places are often misguided and prone to “surprise” outcomes.

First, a quick definition of livelihoods as they are treated in the contemporary literature: “the capabilities, assets (stores, resources, claims and access) and activities required for a means of living” (Chambers and Conway, 1992:7).  As Brent McCusker and I have argued:

this definition of livelihoods moves past income toward a more holistic consideration of the manner in which a person obtains a living. In practice, this definition has resulted in a number of approaches to livelihoods that focus closely on access to various types of assets drawn upon by individuals to make a living. These approaches tend to categorize these assets as one of five types of capital: natural, physical, human, financial and social. Land comes under natural capital, “the natural resource base (land, water, trees) that yields products utilized by human populations for their survival,” though an improved field might come under the heading of physical capital, which generally includes “assets brought into existence by economic production processes.”

My problem with the livelihoods approach that dominates the literature, and subtly undergirds the Nature piece I was critiquing, is not the broad definition of livelihoods.  Instead, the problem lies in the subtle assumption of this approach that, in its focus on the requirements for a means of living, concentrates on material circumstances and outcomes as a metric for the success and viability of particular livelihoods.  As I have demonstrated repeatedly (for example here, and in my book Delivering Development), livelihoods are double-edged: they are aimed at both meeting certain material requirements of life and maintaining the privileges of the powerful.  Above certain very, very low thresholds, the social goals of livelihoods actually trump the material goals.  Therefore, if we want to understand livelihoods decisions and outcomes, we must understand the social context at least as well as we do the material conditions in a particular place.  Using generalized assumptions about human motivations to explain responses to livelihoods shifts will smooth over really significant differences in decision-making, and therefore obscure any possible causal connection between things like environmental change and the incidence of conflict – material maximization/deprivation is only part of the story of human motivations, and a relatively small part at that.

How does this all relate to the Nature piece and my criticism? While the authors never specified the means by which this would happen in the piece, only offering general speculation in their response to my criticism, I found Solomon’s response to my blog post really telling:

The study is trying to understand whether choosing to engage in conflict is a “livelihood decision” that individuals in modern societies select more often when El Nino events occur. Our findings tells us that for some reason, people’s willingness to engage in organized violence changes when the global climate changes. One hypothesis is that perhaps “predation” (i.e. the forceful extraction of property from others) is a form of “adaptation” to climate changes.

It is possible that Solomon’s reference to conflict as a livelihoods decision was simply echoing the terms of my criticism.  However, both the article and his response seems to reflect an implicit framing of the environment-to-conflict connection as somehow passing through livelihoods in a straightforward manner.  Because the authors never actually unpack how the environment impacts livelihoods, and in turn how those impacts are translated into human impacts, they become guilty of the same issue that plagues nearly everyone using the livelihoods framework these days: they implicitly embrace an over-generalized framing of livelihoods decisions that relies too heavily on a relatively minor driver of decision-making (material conditions), and completely ignores the dominant factors that shape the character of particular activities and therefore result in particular outcomes for the well-being of those living under that strategy.  I am sure that predation does occur.  I am also absolutely certain that this is not a general response – it does not happen very often (plenty of empirical studies show other behaviors).  It is not interesting to know that it occurs – we already know that.  What is interesting and important is why it occurs.  Going for “story time” explanations of complex behavior does not contribute to our understanding of human behavior, or the impact of climate change on human well-being.

I am working on a reframing of livelihoods that elevates the social component to its proper place in livelihoods decision-making (in review at the Journal of Development Studies).  The thinking behind this reframing is intensely theoretical and really, really academic (for a taste of what I mean, see this piece I wrote with Brent).  My goal in the forthcoming piece is to take this really esoteric theory and turn it into an approach that can be understood and employed widely.  With any luck it will be accepted and published relatively soon . . . I will put up a pre-print as soon as I am able.  But even with this reframing, we are going to have to work really hard at understanding when large-scale studies such as the one I have been critiquing are appropriate for furthering our understanding of things we really need to know, when they merely illustrate what we already know, and when they present really problematic findings with a misleading level of certainty.