Wait… you’re studying what again? (Part 1) 6

One of the most challenging initial hurdles that I’ve had to overcome in order to do research about permaculture is to simply and succinctly define my object of study. It’s all well and good to note that permaculture is holistic, integrative, that it’s a kind of systems thinking, that it constitutes a total paradigm shift from modern industrial consumer culture… But when it comes down to defining specific questions I’d like to answer – to actually do some science – that kind of big vague concept doesn’t cut it. I suspect that this is a challenge faced by many up-and-coming permaculture researchers. When we’re trying to get funding, our trying to get a research proposal approved, we have to navigate between the twin pitfalls of oversimplification and murky abstraction. One one hand, our working definitions tend to be a little all-encompassing. Just try using Holmgren’s flower explain your research topic to a scientist. Brace yourself for furrowed brows, if not rolling eyes. “Everything good” is not a good research topic.

Holmgren's Permaculture Flower

On the other hand, we face a widespread (and understandable) confusion of permaculture with a particular practice, or set of practices.  You see this all the time, in and out of permaculture – people latch onto the most concrete aspect of some novel complex thing they encounter. So permaculture is like, mulching, right? Or worse – permaculture is herb spirals. (Don’t get me going on herb spirals!) I’ve had academic advisors who were pretty sure that permaculture was simply agroforestry dressed up in fancy verbiage.  And it was hard to convince them otherwise, because the alternative definitions that I had to offer were so amorphous that – for scientists – they didn’t seem to mean much of anything.

The process of getting more and more specific and focused with ones research questions is a necessary step – that for me, has been incredibly valuable. But there is a constant danger of loosing sight of the larger questions that motivated the research in the first place. You may have narrowed your focus to questions you can actually answer… but are you still researching permaculture? How can you tell?  An advisor might say “Hey, you want to research agroforestry – great! Why do you even need the term permaculture? Why confuse things with a term that has no meaning in the natural sciences?”

And for some projects, it might not matter. There is a wealth of research, coming from a number of disciplines, that doesn’t use the term permaculture, but does support the proposals emerging from the permaculture perspective. This body of supportive research is far larger than I think many permaculturists realize. Some small fraction of this research was almost certainly carried out by researchers who were informed by permaculture thinking, but couldn’t see a way or a reason to use the term. This difficulty of connecting specific research with the sprawling big-concept thinking of permaculture is surely one of the things that has kept permaculture out of peer-reviewed journals. So when does permaculture get its day in the sun? How can we research permaculture – not in terms of a particular practice that it advocates, but as itself?

Topics and thematic clusters in a 225-reference permaculture bibliography

I’ve tried to deal with the challenges in a few different ways. Right now I’ll just share one – what I called systematic literature analysis. Now, there is a whole world of methodology out there on the semi-related approaches of content analysis and discourse analysis. I mostly ignored these, in favor of an improvised, fast, and course-grained approach to generate a quantitative picture of the distribution of topics within permaculture literature. I assembled a 225-reference bibliography, and coded and tagged each reference for key topics. I then regularized these themes into shared categories, and grouped them into thematic clusters.

The idea here is that one way to define permaculture is by what people are actually talking about. It’s not the only way, but it can shed some light on the the question of “What the Heck is This Thing Anyway?” At the very least, it helps dispel the notion that permaculture “is” one particular practice of landscape management – like agroforestry.

As you can see – and probably already knew – permaculture is pretty thoroughly transdisicplinary. (That, by the way, is the Academically Correct term for what might have been called holistic in the days of yore.) Tracking the change in the distribution of thematic clusters over time can provide a useful perspective on (among other things) the emergence and growth of attention to social systems within permaculture thinking. (Thank goodness!) Again, this is probably something you already suspected.

Thematic clusters, over time, in a 225-reference permaculture bibliography

It’s worth noting some weaknesses in this approach. (1) It doesn’t account for length. An article counts the same as a book. (2) It doesn’t drill down into the content of books in the Overview cluster, so we don’t get any fine-grained resolution on how permaculture is represented when it’s introduced as a whole. Both of these weaknesses could be corrected with a bunch more work – which will probably not happen anytime soon. Nevertheless, the analysis, and the ability to clearly and simply communicate something tangible and quantitative about what’s going on in permaculture, has been very useful.



  • neat, glad to read that Rafter!

    1) Perhaps worth mentioning what sort of university department you work in, since the approach to studying permaculture, or any “transdisciplinary” topic seems to happen differently in different departments… say, if you studied permaculture from an anthropology department instead of a GIS? Agroforestry? Field naturalist? department.

    2) If you (or anyone) want to do more literature analysis, we might find the libre software Overview useful — made for investigative journalism dealing with large collections of documents, such as the cables published by WikiLeaks: http://overview.ap.org/ . If Overview seems a bit complicated right now, come back to it later this year as the author intends to polish it in coming months.

    3) Why use conventional copyright for scientific investigation? Open and libre licensing (such as CreativeCommons-By-ShareAlike) seems to me much more aligned with the scientific spirit of building on past knowledge and sharing new knowledge in ways that others can scrutinize and build on… see Linus Torvalds for more from that perspective.

    4) You mention switching to a new web host… for your next switch, perhaps http://www.MayFirst.org/ May First / People Link would appeal to you, as a web hosting cooperative focused progressive change, such as organizing computer tech training specifically for people of color.

  • Rafter

    Hey Patrick,

    Thanks for your comments. I’ll respond point by point –

    (1) Very true. I’m in a very quantitative Crop Sciences Dept, that mostly focuses on industrial agriculture research – Monsanto style. So 75% of my committee is from outside my department. With the mix of natural scientists, agroecologists, and geographers on my committee, I’ll be doing a project with a very rich mix of qualitative and quantitative approaches. I think this is ideal, actually.

    (2) That software looks interesting. It’s usually pretty challenging to adopt software that is so new, but it might be worth it. Lots of emerging methodologies for quantitative analysis of large bodies of text… I’ll add it to the list!

    (3) You know, I threw that © watermark on there without a whole lot of thought, just before putting them up. I just didn’t want the images circulating without attribution. In the future, and certainly for larger works, I’ll be using CreativeCommons or something like it. Good catch.

    (4) Having just switched, you can imagine that I’m not trying to switch again anytime soon. That being said, it’s good to know for the future that there are hosts out there that share some social justice values!

  • flik

    i love this article, it’s amazing to hear your work on meta-analysis of permaculture. It’s so refreshing to know there are people out there that recognise permaculture and ecology extends onto the related fields that surround the treatment
    of plants and environments.
    I often struggle when I want to mention ecology in academic essays in order to answer questions that have a humanities basis. And yes it gets to the point where I feel unsure it’s worth bringing up this point to others because I don’t see how it can convince them…Deep ecology lifestyle seems unheard of or unthought of as a realistic option in my neck of the woods..even within my environmental circles. This article been a real encouragement for me, and I do wish one day I will be able to find peer-reviewed permaculture literature. My uni library is a bit stifled on publications about this subject from about 1998 onwards.

    • Rafter

      Thanks so much, Flik. I’m keeping this website, in part, to connect with other folks interested in the opportunities and pitfalls of this kind of transdisciplinary research, and keep the discouragement at bay – so your response is very encouraging!

      In regard to bringing up ecology in the humanities – are you familiar with the eco-criticism movement? It specifically approaches literature through the lens of ecology and the environment – it might be useful to check out, if you aren’t already.

  • Nathalie

    Hi Rafter,
    interesting to read your research process. Thanks.
    I have a question though about the type of knowledge you gain doing a PhD.
    Last September I graduated (in Belgium) and it’s time now to go to the next step. I arranged one year, 2013, of learning more practical knowledge in areas of my interest (following a permaculture design course amongst others) because one day I want to create a self sufficient place (as much as possible) and obviously academic knowledge is not sufficient to do that. However, there is an opportunity to do a PhD from October next year for which I can write my own proposal (would be in cooperation with a conventional forestry lab). I was very enthusiastic as I saw this an opportunity to learn practical knowledge (forest gardens would be my specific topic), combine this with academic knowledge and still keep my freedom. After talking with a possible promoter, I wonder though about the acceptance of this ‘practical knowledge’ and how to be ‘more concrete’ about what I want to research.
    My question is thus how you see your PhD work as compared to the courses you followed and work you undertook and the amount of freedom you have/take to integrate your idea in the academic world?

    Kind regards,

  • Hi Natalie,
    Thanks for your comment. Sorry it’s taken a little while to respond – launching this crowdfunding project has been a full-time project for the last few days. 😉

    I’m not sure I understand your question, but I’ll give it a shot. I’ve had a generally (though not all) very positive experience with coursework in academia. And I’m having an amazing time with research! The challenge of refining and sharpening the questions I’m asking, and the criteria for what constitutes a meaningful answer, is ever present – and sometimes crazy-making. There are a lot of opportunities to vacillate wildly between self-doubt and rejection of process – and sometimes both at once.

    At this point, however, I find the whole process worthwhile. It’s very hard to find an environment where you’re thinking will be so persistently and thoroughly challenged – and we need that challenge. Of course, the level of challenge and the level of support vary widely from advisor to advisor, program to program, and school to school. You should definitely talk to multiple students in the program and find out about their experience. I’m lucky enough to have a great advisor and a great committee – but some advisors are just a trainwreck. (Academia is sometimes a refuge where people can go to avoid learning social skills or developing good emotional boundaries.) Do your homework before investing your time in any program.

    Now, I’m finding the process worthwhile – but I also came in with very clear goals. I’m passionately interested in research and education, with a secondary interest in different kinds of consulting professional work. If you’re intention is to practice homesteading & forest gardening as a way of life or profession, then I think you may well be very unhappy in graduate school. It’s not a question of ‘practical’ or ‘impractical’ knowledge – the skills I’m learning are practical for my intentions! But the skills and knowledge you need for making and maintaining a permaculture homestead will not be found in a formal academic program.

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