The (relevant) context of jatropha development

by Gerard Persoon

Quote: Jatropha in Indonesia

The section title ‘Jatropha in Indonesia’ announces that the general discussion about jatropha will be put in its national ‘context’ – a concept that is often used in social science descriptions and analyses. Events, political figures, social movements and similar concepts should be placed in their ‘proper context’. We also often hear in science and daily speech that words or events should not be taken ‘out of their context’. However, what exactly is the ‘proper context’? What do we actually do when things are either taken out of their context or put into it? When do we know that we talk about the ‘right’ context in the description or analysis of events, conditions, persons, or words? Or what is the relevant context for the study of jatropha?

Gerard Persoon explained about 'the relevant context' during the JARAK workshop in Yogyakarta in October 2012. Photo Jacqueline Vel.

Gerard Persoon explained about ‘the relevant context’ during the JARAK workshop in Yogyakarta in October 2012. Photo Jacqueline Vel.

For a long time, it has been common practice to provide a kind of spatial and temporal background to a particular phenomenon. These descriptions usually start with information about the national, provincial, or regional setting. In terms of time, a certain historical depth is provided against which we should better understand the issue at stake. The direct relevance of such spatial and temporal dimensions, however, is not always immediately clear, even though they are presented as more or less self-evident. Like in the case of jatropha: how far should we go back into history to understand the recent developments?

One of the few social scientists who have paid explicit attention to the concept of context is Andrew Pete Vayda (1) who proposed to turn the line of reasoning the other way around. Instead of starting with a kind of a priori defined context he suggested to construct the context on the basis of meaningful or causal relations with the topic of the research. This implied that territorial boundaries, or particular historical events, would not by definition be relevant in describing or analyzing a certain phenomenon. Their relevance had to be revealed by a portrayal that people, events or political, historical or economic conditions had demonstrable impact on the topic of research. These relations needed to be proven by demonstrating the relevance of the actions of certain people through the impact they have on the behavior of other people. Or to put it in photographic terms, one had to zoom out on the basis of relevant actions instead of zooming in from a wide perspective without previous knowledge whether or not these wider perspective were of any relevance to the issue at stake. The method of constructing the relevant context in this was labeled by Vayda as ‘progressive contextualization’ (1) which inspired many of his students and colleagues (2,3)

By working in this way the relevant context is no longer necessarily a particular administrative unit (e.g. province, country) or a particular ecological area (e.g. watershed). The pattern of relations on the basis of which people influence each other’s behavior may actually take the researcher far beyond these administrative units or ecological area or only refer to a small part of it. The same holds true for the relevant historical context: start with the present and work your way into the past as far as necessary and useful in terms of analysis and explanation. For jatropha in Indonesia this could be for instance the promotion of the crop by the Japanese.

Another explanation of the present refers to the motivation of why people behave the way they do, like accepting or rejecting jatropha as a cash crop. There is ample evidence that people do certain things or refrain from doing them not only because of reasons or motivations based on the past experiences but because they want to achieve something (or to avoid something). In other words: a projection of the future can be an important cause from which people derive their present day actions. In that sense images of future can have important consequences for present-day behavior. A large part of present day behavior can only be explained in terms of actions that are derived from images of the future. Economic investments, like using land and labour for jatropha cultivation,  are  related to projected images of personal or material well-being. This type of behavior is of course not the same as a prediction of the future. It is however a way to ‘navigate the future’, or to influence the future in a way that people perceive as useful. These ‘projected futures’ may be situated in a distant future or even expand beyond people’s own lifetime but they may also refer to futures that are not far removed from the present. The challenge for social research in addition to constructing the relevant past is to also explain the present in terms of the consequences of actions that people undertake on the basis of projected futures. This is what Sandra Wallman (4) labels as ‘contemporary futures’. The same line of reasoning is also developed within psychology (5).

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If the prime research question would be related to the response of farmers to the promotion of jatropha, the concrete starting point would be the planting of jatropha plants and building the relevant past by referring to their past experiences in terms of crops, as well as the expectation for the futures. The line of reasoning would be to start with looking into the motivation of farmers why they would grow this crop, which would assumingly, at least partly, be based on the past experiences with other crops (prices, risks, labour investments, cultural aspects of crops etc.), but another part of the explanation would refer to how they perceive the projected future of this crop as was explained to them by investors or extension officials and whether they were willing to invest their time, land and other resources income form this crops (also in terms of prices, risks, labour investments etc.). The extent to which one would have to refer back to earlier phases of jatropha cultivation or other events and conditions in the area or to external conditions beyond the region would all depend on the relevance of information acquired in the period of the original starting point and from the main research question. Most likely looking into the consequences of the projected futures would yield much relevant information, because as argued recently by the environmental historian McNeil ‘there is something new under the sun’, and one cannot ignore the fact that part of the relevant context for understanding the present is the projected future of multiple actors. Needless to say that the relevant context (both in terms of time and space) for research with a focus on international investors in jatropha or on Indonesian politicians taking decisions on jatropha projects or granting subsidies substantially differs from that of the local farmers involved in the cultivation of the crop.

Therefore, context could be understood as a device by which meaning and understanding of events, objects, people, texts, conditions etc. can be revealed or deepened and that allows for (better) explanation and interpretation (6, p.3). It is evident from some of the other mini articles that this concept is of crucial importance in understanding jatropha in Indonesia.



  1. Vayda, A.P. (1983) ‘Progressive contextualization. Methods for Research in Human Ecology’. Human Ecology 11: 265-281.
  2. Walters, B., B. McCay, P. West and S. Lees (eds.)(2008) Against the Grain. The Vayda Tradition in Human Ecology and Ecological Anthropology. Lanham, Alta Mira Press.
  3. Mjøset, L. (2009) ‘The Contextualist Approach to Social Science Methodology’. In: D. Byrne and C.C. Ragin (eds.) The SAGE Handbook of Case-Based Methods. London, Sage Publications Ltd.
  4. Wallman, S. (ed.)(1992) Contemporary Futures. Perspectives from Social Anthropology. London, Routledge.
  5. Seligman, M.E.P., P. Railton, R.F. Baumeister and C. Sripada (2013) ‘Navigating into the Future or Driven by the Past’. Perspectives on Psychological Science 8(2) 119-141.
  6. Dilley, R. (ed.)(1999) The Problem of Context. New York/London, Berghahn Books.
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