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Political Ecology: Nature and Society against the Grain

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  17 May 2021

Pamela McElwee*
Pamela McElwee ( is Associate Professor in the Department of Human Ecology at Rutgers University.


This essay advances the argument for James C. Scott as a preeminent political ecologist, despite the fact that he has not claimed such a title for himself. While he is variously described as an (errant) political scientist, an (adopted) anthropologist, and a (most of the time) Southeast Asianist, he has not usually been called a card-carrying political ecologist. But in fact, his many works have foreshadowed a number of the topical concerns of political ecologists of Asia, such as his attention to subsistence strategies of peasants, to hegemony and resistance, to state power and simplifications, to anarchism and self-organization, and to ecological transitions and human-nonhuman interactions. The fact that Scott is one of the most-cited theorists in the field of political ecology is further proof of his influence, with authors using Scottian themes to launch critical investigations of how power shapes environmental relations and how politics plays a role in the co-constitution of nature and society.

Forum—Power and Agency: The Discipline-Shifting Work of James C. Scott
Copyright © The Association for Asian Studies, Inc., 2021

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1 For example, see Hanne Svarstad, Benjaminsen, Tor A., and Overå, Ragnhild, “Power Theories in Political Ecology,” Journal of Political Ecology 25, no. 1 (2018): 350–63Google Scholar; Cavanaugh, Connor J., “Political Ecologies of Biopower: Diversity, Debates and New Frontiers of Inquiry,” Journal of Political Ecology 25, no. 1 (2018): 402–25Google Scholar; Blok, Anders, “Pragmatic Sociology as Political Ecology: On the Many Worths of Nature(s),” European Journal of Social Theory 16, no. 4 (2013): 492510CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

2 Scott, James C., Against the Grain: A Deep History of the Earliest States (New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 2017)CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

3 Ghertner, Asher, Rule by Aesthetics: World-Class City Making in Delhi (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2015)CrossRefGoogle Scholar; Turner, Sarah, Bonnin, Christine, and Michaud, Jean, Frontier Livelihoods: Hmong in the Sino-Vietnamese Borderlands (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 2015)Google Scholar; Miller, Ian, Fir and Empire: The Transformation of Forests in Early Modern China (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 2020)Google Scholar

4 Bryant, Raymond, “Power, Knowledge and Political Ecology in the Third World: A Review,” Progress in Physical Geography 22, no. 1 (1998): 7994CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

5 Nancy Lee Peluso, Rich Forests, Poor People: Resource Control and Resistance in Java (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1992); K. Sivaramakrisnan, Modern Forests: Statemaking and Environmental Change in Colonial Eastern India (Stanford, Calif.: Stanford University Press, 1999).

6 W. Neil Adger, Tor A. Benjaminsen, Katrina Brown, and Hanne Svarstad, “Advancing a Political Ecology of Global Environmental Discourses,” Development and Change 32, no. 4 (2001): 681–715; Timothy Forsyth, Critical Political Ecology: The Politics of Environmental Science (London: Routledge, 2002).

7 James C. Scott, The Moral Economy of the Peasant: Rebellion and Subsistence in Southeast Asia (New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1976)

8 Wolfram Dressler and Robin Roth, “The Good, the Bad, and the Contradictory: Neoliberal Conservation Governance in Rural Southeast Asia,” World Development 39, no. 5 (2001): 851–62.

9 Raymond Bryant, “Politicized Moral Geographies: Debating Biodiversity Conservation and Ancestral Domain in the Philippines,” Political Geography 19, no. 6 (2000): 673–705; Haripriya Rangan, “From Chipko to Uttaranchal: Development, Environment, and Social Protest in the Garhwal Himalayas, India,” in Liberation Ecologies: Environment, Development, Social Movements, 2nd ed., ed. Richard Peet and Michael Watts (London: Routledge, 2004), 205–26.

10 James C. Scott, Weapons of the Weak: Everyday Forms of Peasant Resistance (New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1985); Ramachandra Guha, The Unquiet Woods: Ecological Change and Peasant Resistance in the Himalaya (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1989); Peluso, Rich Forests, Poor People.

11 James C. Scott, Seeing Like a State: How Certain Schemes to Improve the Human Condition Have Failed (New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1998).

12 Nancy Lee Peluso and Peter Vandergeest, “Genealogies of the Political Forest and Customary Rights in Indonesia, Malaysia, and Thailand,” Journal of Asian Studies 60, no. 3 (2001): 761–812; Ian G. Baird and Keith Barney, “The Political Ecology of Cross-Sectoral Cumulative Impacts: Modern Landscapes, Large Hydropower Dams and Industrial Tree Plantations in Laos and Cambodia,” Journal of Peasant Studies 44, no. 4 (2017): 769–95.

13 Anna Tsing, The Mushroom at the End of the World: On the Possibility of Life in Capitalist Ruins (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 2015); Pamela McElwee, Forests Are Gold: Trees, People and Environmental Rule in Vietnam (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 2016).

14 David Biggs, Quagmire: Nation-Building and Nature in the Mekong Delta (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 2012); Tania Li, The Will to Improve: Governmentality, Development, and the Practice of Politics (Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press, 2007); Jenny Goldstein, “The Volumetric Political Forest: Territory, Satellite Fire Mapping, and Indonesia's Burning Peatland,” Antipode 52, no. 4 (2020): 1060–82.

15 James C. Scott, The Art of Not Being Governed: An Anarchist History of Upland Southeast Asia (New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 2009).

16 Tessa Morris-Suzuki, “Liquid Area Studies: Northeast Asia in Motion as Viewed from Mount Geumgang,” positions: asia critique 27, no. 1 (2019): 209–39; Jacob Shell, “Elephant Convoys beyond the State: Animal-Based Transport as Subversive Logistics,” Environment and Planning D: Society and Space 37, no. 5 (2019): 905–23; David Nally and Gerry Kearns, “Vegetative States: Potatoes, Affordances, and Survival Ecologies,” Antipode 52, no. 5 (2020): 1373–92.

17 Michael B. Dwyer, “‘They Will Not Automatically Benefit’: The Politics of Infrastructure Development in Laos's Northern Economic Corridor,” Political Geography 78 (2020): 102118; Christine Bonnin and Sarah Turner, “At What Price Rice? Food Security, Livelihood Vulnerability, and State Interventions in Upland Northern Vietnam,” Geoforum 43, no. 1 (2012): 95–105.

18 Erle C. Ellis, Nicholas R. Magliocca, Chris J. Stevens, and Dorian Q. Fuller, “Evolving the Anthropocene: Linking Multi-level Selection with Long-Term Social–Ecological Change,” Sustainability Science 13 (2018): 119–28.

19 Donna Haraway, “Anthropocene, Capitalocene, Plantationocene, Chthulucene: Making Kin,” Environmental Humanities 6 (2015): 159–165.

20 Jonathan Spence, The Search for Modern China, 2nd ed. (New York: W. W. Norton, 1999).

21 Anna Tsing, Friction: An Ethnography of Global Connection (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 2004).

22 Karl Wittfogel, Oriental Despotism: A Comparative Study of Total Power (New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1957); Marvin Harris, Nirmal K. Bose, Morton Klass, Joan P. Mencher, Kalervo Oberg, Marvin K. Opler, Wayne Suttles, and Andrew P. Vayda, “The Cultural Ecology of India's Sacred Cattle,” Current Anthropology 7, no. 1 (1966): 51–59.

23 Scott, Against the Grain, 122.

24 Scott, Against the Grain, 102.

25 Ronald Barrett, Christopher Kuzawa, Thomas McDade, and George Armelagos, “Emerging and Re-emerging Infectious Diseases: The Third Epidemiologic Transition,” Annual Review of Anthropology 27 (1998): 247–71.

26 Scott, Against the Grain, 18.

27 Lowe, Celia, “‘Viral Clouds’: Becoming H5N1 in Indonesia,” Cultural Anthropology 25, no. 4 (2010): 625–49CrossRefGoogle Scholar; Porter, Natalie, “Bird Flu Biopower: Strategies for Multispecies Coexistence in Việt Nam,” American Ethnologist 40, no. 1 (2013): 132–48CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

28 Vupenyu Dzingirai, Salome Bukachi, Melissa Leach, Lindiwe Mangwanya, Ian Scoones, and Annie Wilkinson, “Structural Drivers of Vulnerability to Zoonotic Disease in Africa,” Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society of London B 372 (2017): 20160169, 1,

29 Scott, Against the Grain, 15.

30 Swyngedouw, Erik, “Apocalypse Now! Fear and Doomsday Pleasures,” Capitalism Nature Socialism 24, no. 1 (2013): 918CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

31 Walker, Peter, “Political Ecology: Where Is the Ecology?,” Progress in Human Geography 29, no. 1 (2005): 7382CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

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