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Workshop V: Making and unmaking volatility: contextualising crises in deltaic lifeworlds

13 - 15 January, 2021


Workshop Report

The ‘Making and Unmaking Volatility’ workshop explored different approaches – both empirical and theoretical – to volatility in deltas and other environments considered as being "in crisis", i.e. facing profound socio-material transformations. During three days (January 13-15, 2021), the workshop gathered scholars from various disciplines, anthropologists, geographers, ecologists as well as non-scholars from all over the world. Discussions underlined the analytical potential of volatility. With multiple meanings and interpretive flexibility, volatility may be considered a boundary concept (Löwy 1992), which can be useful for bridging analyses across different research contexts and disciplines.

13. January

We started off with Franz and Benoit introducing the DELTA project, the general aims and structure of the workshop, which consisted of three main sessions (including individual presentations with Q&A and group discussions).

The first workshop session titled “Contrasting approaches to socio-environmental transformations and volatility” included four presentations. Kuntala Lahiri-Dutt (Australian National University) and Jenia Mukherjee (Indian Institute of Technology Kharagpur) spoke about the river islands of South Asia known as chars. Drawing on theoretical and empirical discussion, they showed how chars are volatile environments, constantly changing, constantly coming into being and passing away. Chars emerge as a co-production by the river, sediments, grass, and society in a dialectical relationship. Being always in motion and in constant flux, chars destabilise one of the foundational binaries, that of land and water. Kuntala Lahiri-Dutt and Jenia Mukherjee proposed to enrich the hydrosocial cycle approach, conceptualised as hydro(sediment)social (H(S)S) framework. Foregrounding the role of sediments, they emphasised the potential of the volatility concept to generate alternative narratives, contrasting with vulnerability-oriented and more declensionist approaches to chars.

In his paper “Confronting uncertainties in pastoral areas: from control to care”, that emerges from the PASTRES (pastoralism, uncertainty, resilience: lessons from the margins; research programme, Ian Scoones (University of Sussex) worked out how pastoralists negotiate uncertainty through skilled and careful practices. He showed how uncertainties, as constructions of knowledge, materiality, experience, embodiment, emerge as an important intersection of everyday life. Pastoralists live with and from variability and volatility through practices that center on care and movement, something which allow them to take advantage of the spatial and temporal heterogeneity in their environment. Such practices interrogate the standard vision of development that relies on notions of stability, order, and control. This, Ian Scoones argued, also lead us to question the extent to which these care practice-based responses are common to inhabitants in other settings – such as river deltas – where variability and change constitute the status quo.

Veronica Strang (Durham University) discussed historical engineering works and water management in the Brisbane river delta. She described how infrastructural efforts (for irrigation, domestic and industrial water supply, etc.) often constitute attempts to contain and control the river volatilities with the aim of achieving social and material stability. Conceptualised as ‘hard engineering’, such attempts at fixity rely on a vision of river flows as hostile and untrustworthy. Although hard engineered schemes remain conventional in water management in Queensland, Veronica Strang mentioned a shift towards ‘soft’ or ‘green’ engineering’, a working with rather than against natural processes. This involves integrating natural elements, such as wetlands for stormwater management. She argued that open and flexible designs that accommodate change and variability can contribute to creating more sustainable or convivial human-environment relationships.

Finally, Benoit Ivars (University of Cologne) presented his paper titled “Alluvial (is)lands only last for a while: making “continuity” along an unending ecological frontier” based on his fieldwork in the Ayeyarwady Delta. Describing the material transformability of the alluvial landscape, where land is constantly rising and falling, he discussed the practices and strategies employed by island dwellers to ensure continuity. A central aspect of life on the alluvial (is)lands is the volatile materiality of land. Yet its historical and contextual specifics – local histories of land accretion, allocation, distribution, transaction and erosion to the differential capacities at the village level for taking on “new” land – remain relatively unexplored by scholars. In his presentation, Benoit Ivars questioned aspects of positionality and agency of residents of a riverbank village where he conducted his fieldwork. He showed that newly emerged land does not constitute equal opportunities for local inhabitants, based on different financial capacities, risk perceptions and strategies.

After the presentation, a general discussion of the topic of volatility followed, with use of break-out rooms. Our guiding questions were: what can we learn from deltaic contexts and other environments described as being in crisis about the nexus of continuity and change? What can the concept of volatility bring to the understanding of social life in unstable environments, notably vis-à-vis other concepts such as change, uncertainties or hazards? Is the world in our research contexts becoming more volatile, or are we simply becoming more attuned to disequilibrium approaches? As part of the discussion, participants said that volatility has multiple possible interpretations and implications. What does volatility and change mean across different cultural and religious contexts? What is the difference between a thing being “volatile” and “dynamic”? Then, volatility in the sense of liable to change rapidly (or as a propensity to change) was contrasted with uncertainty and other categories, including risk and vulnerability. Participants highlighted the relationship between volatility, stability and vulnerability. Discussion touched on the state strive for order and control and how stabilisation efforts can limit the inherent opportunities of variability/patchy-ness and volatility. Put differently, stability can be the disrupter. Then, the multidimensionality of volatility (ecological, social, economical, etc.) was emphasised, notably the possibility to interpret it in relational way, as something emerging at the intersection of different kinds and (spatial/temporal) scales of volatilities.

14. January

Thursday started with a short reflection round on the preceding day, followed by the presentation of Nora Horisberger (University of Cologne). In her paper titled ‘Vida sossegada’: On the possibility of a peaceful life amidst volatile changes on the islands of the Parnaíba Delta, Brazil, she worked out how life in the Brazilian delta unfolds in sometimes volatile movements that are at times challenging, but which also bring forth chances and help to establish and sustain specific way of life. She describes how shrimp fishers embark on the deltaic islands and engage with the shifting tides in search for their luck and how many of them see fishing as autonomous and less precarious and exploitative than labour in the cities. Coming (back) to the islands of the delta promises a peaceful, relaxed life (vida sossegada) without major preoccupations or turmoil. The deltaic life thus figures as the other to the experiences of (urban) violence, marginalization and dependency and allows for an agentive exploration of abundance and richness, a mastering of the how of one’s life. In this sense, environmental volatility appears mainly as possibility, while modern (urban) life and labour is characterised as insecure and crisis-ridden.

In his paper Cosmo-Ecological Deltas: Sophisticated Conjunctions and Ontological Politics—via the Upper Mekong, Casper Bruun Jensen (Osaka University) laid out how Social Scientists consider delta problems in the context of modernization or (post-) colonial development, while Earth System Science and Social-Ecological Systems focus on rising water levels and sediment transport and thereby understand the importance to integrate ‘the social’, yet struggle with its unruly dimensions. As an answer to this shortcoming, Jensen argued for sophisticated conjunctions of epistemologies, methods, and practices to establish a cosmo-ecological basis for tackling the multi-dimensional delta crisis. Drawing on research about the rehabilitation of irrigation infrastructures in the upper Mekong Delta, he showed how so called preks (canals connecting floodplains with rivers) are not a singular ‘natural object’ but rather gain different ontological inflection depending on how they are enacted – for example as channels for moving and storing water, as pathways to rice intensification, as elements in climate adaptation, or in state-making. An approach based in care for multifaceted socio-natural landscape – a cosmo-ecological focus – he proclaimed, allows to acknowledge and assess the enactment of preks as socionatural mosaic landscapes where water, biodiversity, different forms of agriculture and fishery can co-exist.

In the following break-out rooms, we discussed three guiding questions. A) Crisis or ordinary flux: how do people frame the ordinary amidst rapid social and environmental changes? B) What resources do people have/need in order to perceive volatility as an opportunity? C) Under what condition does volatility become a problem?

In response to these questions, participants first highlighted the role of perspective and the prerogative of interpretation: who perceives and experiences volatility from which positionality? Who defines volatility and who frames it as problematic or good? Then, the dualistic outlay of stability, ordinary, planning or control vs. volatility or crisis was questioned and it was recalled that ‘order’ is culturally constituted. Also, related tropes such as uncertainty (with open ended potential), risk (to be predicted and controlled) or variability and ambiguity were brought up and put into comparison with volatility. And volatility as rapid, spectacular or dramatic social and ecological change was contrasted with slow dynamics that can (also) be unpredictable and violent.

In a more unison way, participants then uttered critique of standard economic and managerial frameworks and engineering projects that often aim and promise to eliminate volatility or to make it profitable for some, but in reality might create more marginalization. In short, on the stock market, volatility is good and profitable, in nature, volatility is bad and has to be controlled (and doing so also attracts capital). As the main underlying paradigm, participants identified the translation of nature into resources and the premise of wealth through possession rather than relation, which leads to projects of scaling and creates clashes of scales and the accompanying differences in ontologies. What would rather be needed is a scaling down and a learning about modernity’s liquidity (Bauman 2000), the modes of flexibility and the differentiation between livable and unbearable flux from below.

Half of the workshop program was already up. We were meeting again, after a longer break, for the afternoon session that hold two more presentations and another discussion. Teresa and Sandro were chairing us through the upcoming four hours. Next speaker was Thomas Hylland Eriksen, professor of social anthropology at the University of Oslo, who took us along on “Clashing scales and the double bind”.

The general framework from which he started was based on the argument that in the overheated Anthropocene, traces of human activity are everywhere. Transformations of the environment are taking place at an ever-increasing speed. The ‘great acceleration’ which began after the Second World War has accelerated further in the last three decades. The neoliberal, globalised world is all about speeding and upscaling. Thomas Eriksen called this the acceleration of acceleration and talked about a world that is overheating in the sense that lots of things are much faster.

He drew on two empirical vignettes for illustration. Vignette 1 was located to the Lågen delta, site of a huge controversy that has been brewing for a few years which is about a proposed plan to build a bridge through the nature reserve. This vignette is an example where local communities are overrun or dominated in various ways by powers whether that be corporations or governments. It is an example where speed and efficiency, scalar gaps between planning and life-worlds and impenetrability of decisions (bureaucratic labyrinth) materialise. Speed, efficiency and growth is key to understand the economic and political processes that are affecting communities, in deltas and elsewhere, Thomas stated. He posed the question: What is it that you want to accumulate in your life? Is it money, is it efficiency? Or is ‘the good life’ other things? The other vignette dealt with a natural disaster, a major quick clay landslide on 30 December 2020, which shared certain features with the delta cases presented by others and also raised questions about scale, flexibility and growth.

After expanding on questions around volatility and impenetrability in the Q&A, we moved on to the next speaker. Franz Krause, leader of the DELTA project at the University of Cologne gave us some deep insights into “Valued volatility: uncertain flux as an asset in the Mackenzie Delta, Canada”.

Franz’ presentation showed very well how most of the things that we have already been talking about during the last one and a half days were coming together here. In his presentation, Franz related to some of his work with the Gwich’in and Inuvialuit inhabitants in the Mackenzie Delta to illustrate that volatility can be a valued asset rather than liability to be avoided. Franz backed his argument on research that has pointed out that neither ecologies nor social relations are constituted by equilibria, and that uncertainty is a key dimension of social and ecological life. Volatility in the Mackenzie Delta is a fierce obstacle to state governance and economic development, Aklavik residents however seem to know volatile dynamics in job markets, gambling, drinking and hunting mostly in terms of opportunities, albeit uncertain ones, and as a way of life worth defending. Franz summed up that only in relation to the fixed and disciplined aspirations of the colonial government does a volatile world become problematic. Valuing volatility in the Mackenzie Delta means avoiding control and discipline to be able to appreciate an emerging and uncertain world. In the Q&A Franz discussed in more detail the term volatility and how / if its use as an analytical term has changed for him over time of research.

To keep pace with the schedule we reconvened after a shortened break of 20 minutes back at zoom for the Open Space, a format of discussion that allowed free brain storming of questions that we could like to be discussed. We first formulated and collected emerging questions and notes on the padlet, which then could also be commented, or connections could be made. Then we clustered them into topics, each of which were discussed in different break-out rooms in zoom that we were free to navigate through.

Questions and clusters that turned out to be of interest were mainly touching on issues of definitions and categories of volatility, like:

  1. The linguistic definition of volatilities. Should it be singular/multiple? Are we actually trying to create a new term?

  2. Defining scales: global/local, stability/movement, short term/long term

  3. How do other stakeholders define the term? Are there differences from different academic disciplines/between different land managers/politicians

  4. And who do these environments define?

  5. And in the act of definition, are we attempting to ‘stabilise’ in a way that we critique?

At 5.30 pm was the end of a long but stimulating day.  

15. January

The final workshop session was set in the European afternoon, in order to enable participation from colleagues based in African, European, and North and South American countries. The “warm-up” session in small break-out groups, reflecting on the workshop so far and looking ahead at the rest of the programme, made clear that for many participants, the discussion about volatility as an analytic term in anthropology was highly productive. Some participants, for example, were worried that an uncritical use of volatility might de-politicise processes of disenfranchisement and precarisation and might be open to neoliberal capture, similar to what had happened to the “resilience” concept.

The session “New Approaches to Volatility” included three presentations. Nikhil Anand (University of Pennsylvania) discussed the conundrum of “Perfect Pollution? On Sewage Blooms in the Anthroposea.” Based on his current work in Mumbai as a coastal, wet place, both in the city and its urban sea (see e.g., he talked about fishing off the Mumbai coast as an engagement with the urban metabolism, where heat, sewage and industrial pollution were shaping the sea’s ecology and the fishers’ catches. For example, the polluted waters were very attractive to flamingos and lobsters, while they had displaced other marine life. In these volatile ecologies, Nikhil Anand argued, the “near future” – and with it a lot of room for political agency – is evacuated, since there is no reference to a fixed baseline that could be restored, conserved or built on.

Sandro Simon (University of Cologne) spoke about “Presence and Absence in Volatile Mollusc Lifeworlds” based on his fieldwork in the Sine-Saloum Delta and an exhibition that he had been involved in recently. Describing both current mollusc gleaning practices and historic and recent uses of the abundant shell middens in the delta, he discussed multiple ways in which molluscs are implicated in delta life. As climate change, conservation, industrial fisheries and other processes have displaced many of the opportunities that afforded a wider livelihood base to delta inhabitants, molluscs provide a reliable resource to fall back on, and the rhythm of gleaning and processing them provides a sense of order in the volatile delta. Sandro Simon’s evocative presentation slides were used not only as illustrations to the argument, but also presented their own arguments with the fading of images into one another and the use of split-screen videos.

Finally, Kirsten Keller (Aarhus University and University of California Santa Cruz) presented her paper titled “Mussels and Megaprojects: Making Subsistence in Jakarta.” Zooming in and out from panoramic satellite views of Jakarta and the structural causes of land subsidence and flooding to detailed descriptions of life in a coastal informal settlement that has is growing, rather than sinking, due to an intensified production of green mussels, the presentation illustrated how subsidence and other water-related crises, including pollution and flooding, are products of a (post-)colonial geosociality that materialises ideas and hierarchies about hygiene and hierarchy. Kirsten Keller emphasised that landscape structures and persistent inequalities are implicated in each other, and that the volatility in the informal settlement reflects their inhabitants’ general marginalisation and precarisation.

After a break, we reconvened for a final round of extended discussions in break-out groups that focused on how to take the workshop insights forward. Our guiding questions were: are there any new questions we could ask about socio-material transformations and crisis related to aspects of agency, inequality or justice? How can we better integrate ethnographic accounts of change and volatility to recontextualise and represent crisis situations? And, are there any alternative tropes to volatility that can shed light over the patterns of transformations in deltas and other environments described as being in crisis?  Discussions touched on a variety of connected themes, including the attention to people’s agency afforded by a volatility idiom, which may lie in activities that are not immediately recognised as agentive, including patiently waiting and preparing. If indeterminacy and flexibility can be productive, they may be sidelined by the same projects that aim at stabilising volatile dynamics. Stabilization and ordering may therefore be part and parcel of political action, but may also diminish capacities to inhabit a volatile world. Identifying volatility as emerging in the frictions between a dynamic world and attempts to pacify it, volatility can be approached as a boundary object productively bridges the term’s different implications in different fields – ecological, personal, material, social.

The workshop was generously supported by the Global South Studies Centre of the University of Cologne (GSSC). Of the GSSC Christine Rath and Meike Meerpohl kindly helped with the organisation of the event.


Bauman, Z. 2000. Liquid Modernity. Cambridge: Polity.

Löwy, I. 1992. The strength of  loose concepts boundary concepts, federative experimental strategies and disciplinary growth: The case of immunology. History of Science 30:371–396