Presence to Influence: Examining the Politics of Representation in Global Environmental Governance

Source: Kimberly Suiseeya & Laura Zanotti

By: Kimberly Marion Suiseeya (Department of Political Science, Northwestern University)[1]

Laura Zanotti (Department of Anthropology and Center for the Environment, Purdue University)[2]

Kate Haapala (Department of Political Science, Purdue University)

Sarah Huang (Department of Anthropology and Ecological Sciences and Engineering, Purdue University)

Savannah Schulze (Department of Anthropology, Purdue University)

Kate Yeater (Department of Anthropology, Purdue University)

Elizabeth Wulbrecht (Department of Political Science, Purdue University)

“I felt rushed so I was like ahh, I couldn’t catch what everyone was saying,” Kate reflected. Kate was one of five students assisting on an interdisciplinary project, entitled Presence to Influence, that focuses on examining how Indigenous Peoples and other marginalized groups influence global environmental governance. This late evening in September the seven person team led by Dr. Kimberly Marion Suiseeya (Northwestern University) and Dr. Laura Zanotti (Purdue University) was in Honolulu huddled around a small digital recording device, with our laptops clicking and notebooks strewn about. It was the third day of the 2016 World Conservation Congress (WCC). The Presence to Influence team’s hotel rooms had become makeshift meeting areas, where we assembled chairs around small tables and beds for our daily debriefs. At once exhausted and exhilarated from over 35 hours of data recorded, more than 1,000 photographs snapped, and pages and pages of field notes collected at the Congress, team meetings would often begin with sighs of exhaustion, excited conversations from moments that resonated that day, and the never popular discussion of data management.


The Presence to Influence project is a multi-year, multi-sited ethnographic study that seeks to study how power and influence can be made visible across sites of global environmental governance. We have begun our research at two sites: the Conference of the Parties United Nations Framework on the Convention of Climate Change Conference to the Parties (UNFCC COP21, Paris), and WCC 2016. The United Nations recognizes Indigenous Peoples as peoples who identify as indigenous, maintain distinct languages, cultures, beliefs and social, economic, or political systems, form non-dominant groups in society, hold strong relationships with territories and surrounding natural resources, and resolve to maintain their systems as distinctive peoples and communities (UNDRIP 2007). Moreover, Indigenous Peoples govern, occupy, or use nearly 22% of global land area which contain 80% of the world’s remaining biodiversity, and 20% of global tropical forest carbon stocks (UN 2009; Sobrevila 2008; EDF 2015). Our project considers Indigenous Peoples as critical actors for solving global environmental problems and shaping global environmental governance.

Because sites of global environmental governance, like the WCC and COP21, are expansive with multiple simultaneous events taking place, our team approached these events with a focus on forests, biodiversity, and Indigenous rights—in other words, a selected number of topics central to Indigenous Peoples’ rights and recognition. As we attended the WCC and COP21, we took on active participant roles to examine how tensions between conservation, development, rights, and livelihoods, emerged, gained traction, and were contested, debated, and ultimately traded-off. In addition to our empirical and theoretical objectives, one of the goals of the project was to expand methodological approaches to collaborative event ethnography.

In this blog post we focus in on how collaborative event ethnography is expanding our understanding of doing collaborative, team-based and interdisciplinary informed ethnography at ephemeral but intensive short term sites—sites which have become central spaces for treaty-making, conventions, and agreements in international and transnational governance regimes. Conceptualizing negotiations like WCC as ethnographic field sites is a primary innovation and contribution advanced by the early pioneers of collaborative event ethnography (Lisa Campbell, Pete Brosius, Ken MacDonald) who also sought to tackle the substantial logistical hurdles of approaching these sites as solo ethnographers (Brosius and Campbell 2010). From this work, collaborative event ethnography has emerged as a team-based approach to participant observation, interviews, and iterative analysis, which integrates the practical and analytical strengths that ethnography can bring to studying such temporally and spatially fixed field sites with the rigor and reflexive strengths of team-based approaches to research (Brosius and Campbell 2010; Campbell et al. 2014; Corson, Campbell, and MacDonald 2014). Specifically, we draw on our extensive fieldwork in global environmental governance to demonstrate the strengths and potential contributions of collaborative event ethnography to the affective dimensions of ethnography and the practice of responsible ethnography embedded within interdisciplinary spaces.

To build our methodology and our team, our work started well before both events. We began with writing workshops, trainings and meetings to solidify an eventual shared, team-based, analytical framework. We developed field note templates and matrices of events to guide our individual and collective observations. Once on site in Paris and Honolulu, we attended the events as participants and researchers not only accumulating massive amounts of data but also building a shared experience with one another, guided by our core commitment to project goals and research questions. Collectively, our experiences as individuals and as teams inform our analysis and understanding of these events.


At the WCC, memories trickled out, at first slowly, but then in torrents as the team collectively wove moments together during team meetings in the evenings, discussions over morning breakfast, or walks to and from the congress. During team meetings, such as the night Kate highlighted the difficulties of participant observation, team members shared a wide variety of experiences: their recollections of how they were moved when an intimate ceremony unfolded in the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) Kauhale Equator room, the ubiquity of screens and photography during the (second) opening ceremony at the Neal S. Blaisdell Center, and feelings of anger at the way in which conversations seemed to be stagnating around issues of justice and rights. These micro-observations often started to nucleate around significant analytical insights as we built a community of ethnographic practice. Pulsing through our discussions also were recommendations for data management best practices and how to adequately contribute to the team as well as discussions about self-care during the long days and emotional testimonies we listened to and were touched by.

Below we present student reflections on their Presence to Influence research experiences both at COP21 and the WCC. These reflections were written by team members after post-field interviews that were designed to elicit insights into multiple dimensions of the project. We draw attention to two elements of ethnographic practice, affective dimensions and interdisciplinary possibilities, that team members highlighted to contribute to broader discussions taking place about social science and qualitative contributions to understanding global environmental problems (Bennett et al. 2016; Bennett et al. 2017; Biermann 2007; Braun 2006; Marcus 2002; O’Neill et al. 2013); interdisciplinary ethnographic practice and complexities of linking individual work to team objectives (Corson et al 2014; Erickson and Stull 1998; Jarzabkowski, Bednarek, and Cabantous 2015; Mauthner and Doucet 2008; Pink 2003; Gottlieb 1995), and, the affective, resonant, and transformative dimensions of doing ethnography (Behar 1996; Hansen and Trank 2016; Kleinsasser 2000; Paterson 2009; Stacey 1988; Watts 2008). The comments from team members presented here engage with these topics, highlighting how team members considered the strengths of ethnographic practice at these sites, balanced individual insights and interests with team goals, reflected upon transformative and affective dimensions of practice, navigated their responsibility to the team, and considered collaborative approaches to doing ethnography.


From Elizabeth Wulbrecht, Graduate Student, Political Science, Purdue University

Climate change is a wicked problem, a global grand challenge that I find exciting to help address. As depressing as the topic can be, especially when discussing climate change’s ramifications on human populations, I still want to be involved in “solving” the problems caused by it. Addressing these problems holds much promise for involving local communities and the people most impacted by it, whether they are Indigenous Peoples or poor communities. Mitigating climate change involves global environmental governance, which increasingly includes Indigenous Peoples and local communities.


The Presence to Influence project has enabled me to not only witness global environmental governance but be a part of it, as a participant researcher in collaborative event ethnography at the COP21 in Paris and the WCC. Participating in collaborative event ethnography has allowed the team and me a wider view-screen on how global environmental governance is unfolding in spaces like the COP21 and WCC. These include emotionally-charged moments where Indigenous Peoples engage with ritual, song or dance to assert their presence or influence in the policy process. These are my favorite moments, and are the ones I find the most fascinating and thought provoking.

I think ritual moments hold immense potential for transformation and for structurally and discursively incorporating Indigenous Peoples’ voices into policy practices that have historically excluded them, such as sites of global environmental governance. Participating as a collaborative event ethnography researcher also has afforded me an opportunity to bear witness to these moments and, in turn, be influenced by them methodologically, theoretically, and personally. As a team-based approach, collaborative event ethnography allows our group to collectively assess the efficacy of these events as moments of influence in the political process. Do ritual moments disrupt hegemonic discourse and make space for different experiences, definitions and understandings of climate change? What are the meanings of the rituals performed by and for Indigenous Peoples at sites of global environmental governance spaces? These questions are important to explore as Indigenous Peoples pursue justice in global environmental governance.

Responding to these will help researchers uncover the cosmopolitics behind the rituals researchers experience and with Indigenous Peoples help to address how they are influencing the policy process. Collaborative event ethnography is a method that allows individual researchers, like myself, to pursue these questions and continue to engage with these critical and transformative moments as we all seek solutions to climate change.


From Sarah Huang, Graduate Student, Anthropology and Ecological Sciences and Engineering, Purdue University

Prior to leaving for Paris COP21, Dr. Marion Suiseeya attempted to ease the nervousness of the team, by describing previous global environmental governance events that she had attended. I remember Marion Suiseeya telling us that we would start to recognize people at the events that we attended while at COP21. Now you think, okay, I’m attending an event with over 40,000 other attendees in a conference-styled setting, I’m sure I’ll start to recognize people’s faces. But, Marion Suiseeya was right. On the fourth day of attending COP21, I could name and identify people from the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) and talk about their standpoints on various topics.

Similar to how recognizing individuals seemed impossible at first, the idea that we would be able to reach our project goals to unpack moments of influence seemed even more unattainable. And yet, one of the strengths of collaborative event ethnography is in its ability to connect seemingly disparate thoughts, moments, and individuals that take place between and throughout mega-events. For example, at the WCC during the Members’ Assembly, a staffer from IUCN Asia was sitting in front of several team members in the back of the large room. During the voting processes that occurred on the first day of the assembly, I watched as voting members from an endangered species organization in Thailand came up to the staffer and asked him to help them with the voting process. Over the next couple of days, I began to recognize the same individuals from South and Southeast Asia and the IUCN Asia staffer as well as other outspoken members from Bangladesh and Pakistan. These individuals were particularly vocal and often commented on their underrepresentation in the structural organization of the IUCN offices throughout the assembly. This is just one example of how ethnography at these events can reveal important contestations of representation in real time, in this case, how particular assembly members sought to overcome structural silences through institutionally sanctioned practices (commentary) carried out at what might seem unnecessary moments. From these experiences, I have learned how collaborative event ethnography can expand how we seek to understand what influence and power look like at global environmental governance events from the intimate perspective that ethnography affords.



From Kate Haapala, Graduate Student, Political Science and Ecological Sciences and Engineering, Purdue University

The Presence to Influence team was sitting in the WCC Member’s Assembly, a forum where delegates from the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) both debate and vote on environmental policy. While observing the delegate body, I noticed frustration begin to emerge within and across the delegates in front of me because of the frequent technological and procedural challenges they were experiencing while using the electronic voting machines required for the Assembly meetings. Recalling that the 2016 WCC was the first time that delegates were required to use these machines to cast votes and call for a point of order, I began to pay closer attention to the network of delegates near me. Meticulously scanning the crowd, I saw a delegate on the left side of the room raise their hands in a triangle over their head to call for a point of order. A point of order can be called by any delegate to ensure that the correct procedural process is being followed in the negotiations. However, to my surprise, the vote proceeded and the point of order went unacknowledged yet not unrecognized. While the point of order was not acknowledged, the Council leaders muttered among themselves while pointing at the delegate. Puzzled as to why the Council could overlook this inquiry, I remembered the new procedures introduced by electronic voting. The delegate was invisible to the Council leaders because they did not push the far right key on their voting device prior to raising their hands.

This narrative illustrates that while the policy outcomes of global environmental governance negotiations are critical, they are the result of an intricate and often unseen process. Collaborative event ethnography can uniquely contribute to the study of social and environmental justice by placing scholars inside bureaucracy that allows for new insights to governance and justice issues to be witnessed and then studied. For instance, this narrative raises questions of procedural justice regarding the institutional processes of voting for members. Although delegates were made aware of the necessary procedures to call for a point of order, it is easy to imagine how an individual might revert to familiar practices of voting. Furthermore, it raises concern over the fact that the Council did not recognize the point of order despite acknowledging the formal body movement of the request. By studying the nuances of processes unfolding within global environmental policy-making, collaborative event ethnography can unveil procedural injustices that may or may not translate into formal policies that continue to stabilize environmental or social injustices.


From Kate Yeater, Undergraduate Student, Anthropology Major, Purdue University

Collaborative event ethnography poses unique opportunities for researchers to support one another and exchange knowledge. Having a team of researchers with varying educational backgrounds and research experiences aided in the learning process. One of the most notable opportunities that comes with collaborative event ethnography is having additional eyes, ears, and brains to collect more data than a lone researcher ever could. A team can also collectively interpret events to make sense of mega-events like the WCC. Time during regularly held team meetings was allotted for each team member to share and comment on how their own insights aligned or challenged those of other team members – Was I the only one seeing indigenous leaders in my events? Were we capturing all the different things happening across the WCC? In this way, daily team meetings and informal check-ins allowed for team members to share their data management issues, connections to the analytics, or favorite moments at the WCC.

Collaborative event ethnography is not without some challenges. A foreseeable challenge to working on a collaborative event ethnography team is that broader team analytics and goals must precede individual research interests. Project PIs Marion Suiseeya and Zanotti made sure that our team’s individual interests in areas such as mental health, fisheries, and protected areas resonated with the broader team’s research questions, analytics, and matrix. As such, at the WCC event selection was based on a criteria matrix that balanced team scheduling with overlapping individual research interests. This allowed for individuals to identify moments in their schedule where they could attend events that were not central to the team, like a talk with Jane Goodall or an evening social, in addition to sessions necessary to carry out our collective work.

My experience with collaborative event ethnography as a collaborative, interdisciplinary team of researchers showed that finding time for deep personal engagement with the data and balancing team and individual needs were both challenges and strengths of the work. Our collaborative event ethnography team also placed importance on well-being and self-care, which not only meant we could have a healthy, productive research experience, but also created a caring environment with team support. After up to eleven hours in the field each day, team members would often meet up for dinner and debriefs. Local restaurant servers welcomed our team for late-night fried ice cream with our laptops in tow. While these informal moments of reflection on research and data collection reinforced our team bonding, setting aside time for individual reflection and data management was often a stressor. Mentoring, intellectual discussions over eggs benedict, and engagement with the field site in a larger capacity than an individual could capture alone, exemplify the strengths of collaborative event ethnography.


From Savannah Schulze, Graduate Student, Anthropology, Purdue University

Working as both a primatologist and cultural anthropologist I have spent many hours alone in the field trying to unravel the daily events or behaviors I witness. Even today, I write from my field site in Uganda where I often work solo to try to understand the impact of global environmental governance and conservation management on former forest dwellers. The traditional methodologies of anthropology can present a challenge to our work, as we can only be in one place at one time, and can only rely on our own interpretation of events. However, collaborative event ethnography provides one way to traverse the difficulties of working alone and for me created a panoramic view of the WCC. The small conversations between team members while on route to conference events or even over fried Hawaiian ice cream helped to expand my view of the Congress and deepen analysis.

My own interests at the Congress stems from my work with displaced former forest dwellers indigenous to southwestern Uganda. I attended events at the WCC that addressed the importance of recognizing the human rights of Indigenous Peoples living adjacent to protected areas. These conversations were spurred by a history of past injustices experienced by Indigenous Peoples at the hands of conservation efforts. Where I work, Batwa people were forced from the forest to make room for gorilla conservation and ecotourism schemes in Bwindi Impenetrable National Park, Uganda. At the WCC, I also attended several events that attempted to call attention to the serious impact of displacement on Indigenous Peoples and the responsibility the conservation community has to correct them. However, these gatherings seemed low in attendance with much overlap in the audience from different sessions addressing similar topics. I was afraid that this vital message addressing both social and environmental justice did not reach all members of the IUCN or those responsible for implementing conservation policies-that directly impact the daily lives of local communities. By comparing my observations with my teammates, it seems that concern regarding conservation and human rights violations consisted of a small subset of panels at the conference, which may have impacted their attendance and visibility.

Overall, I attended 19 events at the Congress and came away with a sense of dissatisfaction with the inclusiveness of Indigenous Peoples at the conference. From my experience, it seemed that Indigenous Peoples participation still was not mainstreamed as part of all conference events and Indigenous Peoples were rarely part of the events that I attended – events which directly addressed issues relevant to Indigenous Peoples livelihoods. However, through my conversations with other teammates I could see where indigenous participation was present but I was not. Through our daily conversations and exchange of data a more complete and meaningful picture began to appear of the WCC. Using collaborative event ethnography, we could see who was in certain spaces, who was absent, or where they often reappeared. We could capture which events appeared salient to indigenous concerns and those that didn’t appear to attract their attention. Although, in a sense I felt some disappointment in the structural and institutional framework that seemed to work against Indigenous Peoples’ self-representation at the WCC, I could gain insights on other spaces of indigenous engagement from my teammates. Using collaborative event ethnography, the Presence to Influence team can offer a rich description of multiple events that enhances our understanding of the role of the WCC in global environmental governance.




Our team’s reflections capture the affective dimensions and interdisciplinary complexities of conducting team-based ethnographic field work in a high pressure, high stakes situation. From the methodological and teamwork pressures to capture data in an ephemeral community to navigating the highs and lows of intense emotional moments, these students show how their experiences as participant researchers impacts their broader approaches to understanding sites of global environmental governance. In this way, the team-based approach not only generated important empirical reflections as the event unfolded, but also offered a much-needed space to dialogue about the challenges and range of feelings our team experienced in real time. Moreover, the insights and opportunities cultivated through a multidisciplinary team have engendered, especially for the project leaders, a new appreciation for the generative possibilities of interdisciplinary, grounded ethnographic research. We believe these rich theoretical, methodological, and pedagogical opportunities made possible by collaborative event ethnography should provoke further exploration and experimentation in how to carry out and support team-based, interdisciplinary research. In particular, we see this method as an especially promising approach for capturing the range of experiences during short-term, intense moments of decision-making and social change, not only limited to sites of global environmental governance but also to other large-scale but ephemeral events that require a rapid but coordinated team-based ethnographic response.

Acknowledgements: We draw from Lisa Campbell and J. Peter Brosius, along with later colleagues, who developed collaborative event ethnography to study global mega events, in our work (see Brosius and Campbell 2010; Campbell et al 2014; Corson, Campbell and MacDonald 2014). The project was supported through seed grants from Purdue University (Center for the Environment, College of Liberal Arts, Purdue Climate Change Research Center, and Purdue Policy Research Institute).

All photos courtesy of authors Kimberly Marion Suiseeya & Laura Zanotti




Works Cited

Behar, R. 1996. The vulnerable observer: Anthropology that breaks your heart. Boston: Beacon Press.

Bennett, N. J., Roth, R., Klain, S. C., Chan, K. M. A., Clark, D. A., Cullman, G., Epstein, G., Nelson, M. P., Stedman, R., Teel, T. L., Thomas, R. E. W., Wyborn, C., Curran, D., Greenberg, A., Sandlos, J. and Veríssimo, D. 2017. Mainstreaming the social sciences in conservation. Conservation Biology, 31: 56–66.

Bennett, N. J., Roth, R., Klain, S. C., Chan, K., Christie, P., Clark, D. A., Cullman, G., Curran, D., Durbin, T.J., Epstein, G. and Greenberg, A. (2017). Conservation social science: Understanding and integrating human dimensions to improve conservation. Biological Conservation (205):93-108.

Biermann, F. 2007. Earth system governance as a crosscutting theme of global change research. Global environmental change 17(3):326-337.

Braun, B. 2006. Environmental issues: global natures in the space of assemblage. Progress in Human Geography 30(5):644-654.

Brosius, J. P., & Campbell, L. M. 2010. Collaborative event ethnography: conservation and development trade-offs at the fourth world conservation congress. Conservation and Society8(4):245.

Campbell, Lisa M., Catherine Corson, Noella J. Gray, Kenneth I. MacDonald, and J. Peter Brosius. 2014. Studying global environmental meetings to understand global environmental governance: collaborative event ethnography at the tenth conference of the parties to the Convention on Biological Diversity. Global Environmental Politics 14(3):1-20.

Corson, C., Campbell, L. M., & MacDonald, K. I. 2014. Capturing the personal in politics: ethnographies of global environmental governance. Global Environmental Politics 14(3): 21-40.

[EDF] Environmental Defense Fund. 2015. Tropical forest carbon in indigenous territories: a global analysis. Retrieved from Woods Hole, MA:

Erickson, K. C., and Stull, D. D. 1998. Doing team ethnography: Warnings and advice. Vol. 42. Thousand Oakes, CA: Sage Publications, Inc.

Gottlieb, A. 1995. Beyond the lonely anthropologist: Collaboration in research and writing. American Anthropologist 97(1):21-26.

Hansen, H., and Trank, C. Q. 2016. This Is Going to Hurt Compassionate Research Methods. Organizational Research Methods 19(3):352-375.

Jarzabkowski, P., Bednarek, R., and Cabantous, L. 2015. Conducting global team-based ethnography: Methodological challenges and practical methods. Human Relations 68(1):3-33.

Johnson, J. C., C. Avenarius, and J.  Weatherford. 2006. The active participant-observer: Applying social role analysis to participant observation. Field Methods 18 (2):111-134.

Kleinsasser, A. M. 2000. Researchers, reflexivity, and good data: Writing to unlearn. Theory into practice 39(3):155-162.

Marcus, G. E. 2002. Beyond Malinowski and after Writing Culture: On the future of cultural anthropology and the predicament of ethnography. The Australian Journal of Anthropology 13(2):191-199.

Mauthner, N. S., and Doucet, A. 2008. Knowledge Once Divided Can Be Hard to Put Together Again’ An Epistemological Critique of Collaborative and Team-Based Research Practices. Sociology 42(5):971-985.

O’Neill, Kate, Erika Weinthal, Kimberly R. Marion Suiseeya, Steven Bernstein, Avery Cohn, Michael W. Stone, and Benjamin Cashore. 2013. Methods and global environmental governance. Annual Review of Environment and Resources 38: 441-471.

Paterson, M. 2009. Haptic geographies: ethnography, haptic knowledges and sensuous dispositions. Progress in Human Geography 33(6):766-788.

Pink, S. 2003. Interdisciplinary agendas in visual research: re-situating visual anthropology. Visual studies 18(2):179-192.

Sobrevila, C. 2008. The role of Indigenous Peoples in biodiversity conservation: the batural but often forgotten partners. Washington, DC: World Bank.

Stacey, J. 1988. Can there be a feminist ethnography? Women’s Studies International Forum 11(1):21-27.

[UN] United Nations. 2009. State of the World’s Indigenous Peoples. New York, NY: United Nations.

UNDRIP. 2007. United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. edited by United Nations. New York.

Watts, J. H. 2008. Emotion, empathy and exit: reflections on doing ethnographic qualitative research on sensitive topics. Medical Sociology Online 3(2):3-14.