National Seminar

The Environment as Metanarrative

National Seminar

Department of Sociology, University of Delhi, Delhi

Shimla, Himachal Pradesh

Concept Note

Sudha Vasan, Associate Professor, Department of Sociology, Delhi School of Economics, University of Delhi, Delhi

The place of humans in nature and their relationship to the rest of nature has always been at the centre of human philosophy and practice.  The current moment in history in some ways makes us more conscious of this centrality, given increasing understanding of our cumulative species impact on the planet.  Discussions around the Anthropocene as a geological label, and increasing visible material manifestations of the climate crisis have brought The Environment centre-stage in social discourse. Concepts such as sustainability, climate change, Anthropocene, global warming have entered everyday social discourse, and can be heard in a diversity of social contexts. This ubiquitousness of the Environment –addressed in diverse forms, in a wide variety of social concerns suggests its emergence as a discourse, a concept with multiple and varying meanings, a floating signifier.  How, why, in what context and, with what impacts is the Environment invoked? The objective of this seminar is to bring into conversation diverse motivations and forms in which the Environment is invoked in social discourse.  In doing this, we seek to engage with the plurality of form, content, and context of material struggles that are contained in, that generate, sustain and are (re)produced by the environment as discourse. We intend to examine environment narratives not merely as instrumental or strategic, but to provoke a more fundamental question on the nature of current society: Is the Environment a Meta-narrative of our times?

Meta-narratives are narratives about narratives; they are universal and hegemonic ways of framing, narrating and legitimising the particular and local; they are pre-existent socio-cultural forms of interpretation that often delineate and confine local interpretations; they enable recognition, travel and translation of ideas and concepts, while reproducing the hegemonic; they offer ways of identifying with normative experiences, provide a blueprint for other stories; they silence alternative stories and have the potential to integrate and overwhelm counter-narratives. While the term traces its popularity to Lyotard[1] heralding the postmodern condition as incredulity toward all meta-narratives, others[2]  have argued that this universal scepticism of meta-narratives, i.e. post modernism itself, is a meta-narrative. The persistence of meta-narratives or hegemonic frames that shape representations of diverse local experiences has been illuminated in diverse contexts[3]. For instance, feminist examination of motherhood has shown how moral frames are internalized and engender universal patterns of subjectivity and behaviours[4]. Development has been examined as a powerful discourse whose material effects in transforming the world may be invisible or appear unintended[5]. Contrary to post-modern expectations, meta-narratives not only survive but continue to emerge from and shape a social morality, provide frameworks of legitimacy and comfort in uncertain times[6]. Concepts such as ‘master narratives’, ‘dominant discourses’, ‘culturally available narratives’ have been important in understanding how people make sense of their own lives as much as macro-structures that shape social life[7].

This seminar will examine the instantiation of the Environment as a meta-narrative in diverse local contexts. For instance, ‘development’ – projects, policies, demands, imaginations – routinely invoke sustainability. A range of social movements, social justice struggles, lifestyle choices, infrastructure demands and provisions, invoke the environment as legitimate cause or moral positions. While the institution of law routinely struggles with rights of, to and for nature, India is a pioneer in setting up a court (National Green Tribunal) exclusively dealing with the implementation of environmental laws. Sectors as diverse as transport, energy, health, tourism, media, education, etc. increasingly prefaced with ‘eco’, invoke the environment as cause, outcome or legitimate objective.  From state policy and international agreements to law and anarchic movements, from industry and marketing to social justice demands, the invocation of the environment in varied forms can be found everywhere.  In many of these contexts, diverse stake-holders with opposing interests, locations or ideologies may all simultaneously claim to speak/act/represent/protect the environment. Rather than examining these as isolated events, this seminar seeks to explore the multiple pathways through which such narratives emerge, their wider social linkages, social processes through which they emerge, how they negotiate internal contradictions and conflicts.

We will deliberate on the forms, contents, temporalities, influences and implications of the environment as a meta-narrative in specific and diverse material contexts.  What are the processes through which the Environment emerges as a meta-narrative? What are its components, its sources of sustenance and legitimacy, its material interests and impacts? And, what does this imply for our ability to deal with the critical challenges of our generation, from climate change to social justice?


[1] Lyotard, Jean-François (1984) The Postmodern Condition: A Report on Knowledge, trans. Geoff Bennington and Brian Massumi, Minneapolis: U of Minnesota P.  Orig. 1979.

[2]See Habermas, J. 1981. Modernity versus Postmodernity. New German Critique (Special Issue on Modernism), 22: 3-14; Callinicos, A. 1990. Against Postmodernism: A Marxist Critique. New York, N.Y.: St. Martin’s Press.

[3]Klein, K.L. 1995, In Search of Narrative Mastery: Postmodernism and the People without History, History and Theory, 34(4): 275-298.

[4]Bassin, D., Honey, M., and Kaplan, M. M. (Eds.) 1994. Representations of motherhood. Yale University Press, New Haven, CT is one example of this vast literature.

[5]Sachs, W. 1992, The Development Dictionary: A Guide to Knowledge as Power, London: Zed Press; Escobar, A. 1995, Encountering Development: The Making and Unmaking of the Third World, Princeton University Press, Princeton.

[6]Klein, K.L. 1995, In Search of Narrative Mastery: Postmodernism and the People without History, History and Theory, 34(4): 275-298.

[7]Bamberg, M. and M. Andrews 2014. Considering Counter-Narratives. Narrating, resisting, making sense. John Benjamins Publishing Company, Amsterdam and Philadelphia.

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