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.