Browsing through books: Reimagining livelihoods – Life beyond economy, society, and environment by Ethan Miller (2019, University of Minnesota Press)

I noticed Reimagining livelihoods – Life beyond economy, society, and environment (2019, University of Minnesota Press) from the Community Economies Research Network emailing list. When I read the title I felt tingles going up and down my back. This sure sign of finding something extremely relevant is no wonder. Since my postdoc research is about reimagining livelihoods in these times of “economy, society, and environment”, this was a match made in heaven!

Miller, E. (2019). Reimagining Livelihoods: Life Beyond Economy, Society, and Environment. University of Minnesota Press.

Miller’s book is based on detailed research done in Maine (USA), extensive reading of relevant literature, years of teaching, and heartfelt working in the communities that are the focus of the book. These aspects made me very hopeful about the book, since I felt kinship to the author’s position as an academic worker (not) balancing many expertise and labour of love. 

Miller sets out an important, impressive and massive task for himself: How to write about livelihoods that is often caught up in a “hegemonic assemblage of economy, society, and environment” (p. xi), or in other words, the common sense of understanding our ways of being in this world? It is precisely the ambition of the book to go beyond this trio – as stated in the subtitle of the book – that makes it such an interesting piece. 

Overall, I feel the book succeeds in its task, while it is beautifully written. The book makes visible the author’s work with these themes and his deep connection to Maine, the place of the study. What makes this book so interesting is that the more precise it is about one place, the more it manages to capture places everywhere. He describes the concrete dilemmas related poverty, large-scale forestry, environmental concerns, corporate activities, hunting and gathering traditions, land rights, gardening, social security as well as national and local politics. As a result, I get a sense of being there and making connections to where I am now. This is the power of detailed (ethnographic) fieldwork. 

A spoiler: It is difficult to capture the essence of the book in short sentences or diagrams that would neatly fit a blog post, because moving beyond the trio in question requires work and words. The book is organised so that it problematises trio (part I), traces hegemonies (part II), decomposes the trio (part III), and (re)composes livelihoods (part IV). 

Since I openly admit that this blog series is about books I (might) have not read the entirely, I can say that I merely skimmed parts I & II and jumped straight to part III. This provided to be a good choice. Not because the empirical work done in Maine would not be interesting – oh it is! But because I’m in a place right now where reading about the tangled stuff makes me lose my muse and want to stop doing anything. Thus, part III. 

Miller writes convincingly about (re)composing livelihoods. I’m impressed and inspired. What makes this book useful for me is the work done to specify what kinds of activities comprise livelihoods. The livelihoods triad consist of

  • Making a living (autopoesis)
  • Being made by others (allopoesis)
  • Making others (alterpoesis)

I found this presentation very helpful, since I have been troubled by the idea of livelihoods as an individualistic project. Miller’s presentation allows livelihoods to be considered as something that is done communally, including more-than-humans.

Miller also discusses the types of habitats, the set of relations that define singularities and allows their emergence. He lists biosocial, geosocial, technical institutional, cultural-conceptual, and emotional-affective habitats (Miller 2019, 186). These allow even more analytical work conducted regarding understanding and reimagining livelihoods. Moreover, there is an important discussion about commoning as an opposing process to uncommoning (Miller 2019, 189). Miller wants to set a difference between ‘enclosures’ as the opposite for commons. Instead, he justifies to refer to commoning and uncommoning as processes, because they determine how people can be in this world and influence their livelihoods.

Toward the end of the book, Miller uses Latour’s concept ‘scenarizations’ (Latour 2005, according to a Miller 2019, p. 205) to highlight that humans develop descriptions of the whole, while these descriptions never can capture the whole. Miller states that his ‘trans-commoning livelihood circle’ (Figure 15) is one attempt. Indeed, economics as a discipline develops models that try to capture the whole and therefore generate ‘scenarizations’. Unfortunately, many models fail to capture the diversity of economic activities.

Figure 15: Circle of livelihood: Trans-commonings, actual or possible (Miller 2019)

Therefore, I’m with Miller in promoting the shift of economics into a transdisciplinary livelihood studies. This could serve one of the key messages of the book:

‘Can we begin to catch glimmers of what it might mean to shift from protecting an “environment” to defending the relations that sustain us and others? … From developing an “economy” to cultivating trans-commoning practices of ethical sustenance?’

Miller (2019, 232)

Finally, I want to celebrate the fact that this book elevated my thinking in many ways. I feel much more confident with my own work now that I have this book to refer to and from where to seek guidance. During the time I read this book, I was constantly pulled to other realities of ethnographic (participatory) fieldwork and the chaos known as academic work. I’m very happy to know that Aalto University Learninf Centre has a copy of the book and that I can return to it again.

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