Ethnographies of Place Disruptions: Development and Socio-environmental Deterioration

  • Cristóbal Bravo Ferretti
Keywords: Place disruption, development, place identity, ethnography, Bay of Concepción, Chile.


Large industrial projects are an unwelcome neighbour for many local communities in developing countries. The weak environmental legislation coupled with an extractive economy favors the development of these initiatives exposing residents daily to their negative externalities such as pollution of the air and sea, loss of biodiversity and alteration of the landscape, among others (Gudynas, 2012). An important body of literature has identified how place disruption events threaten the well-being and the sense of identity commonly provided by places. Place attachment, place identity, residential satisfaction and other environmental psychological dimensions are severely affected in these contexts (Devine Wright & Howes, 2010). The present work aims to expose the main ethnographic elements in research with communities whose socio-physical environments have been abruptly modified as a result of development projects. As Low (2017) states, “the ethnographic study of space and place is critical to understanding the everyday life of people whose homes and homelands are disrupted by globalization, uneven development, violence and social inequality” (p. 1). The research that inspires this presentation was carried out in the Bay of Concepción, on the Pacific coast of central-southern Chile, where the construction of a maritime gas terminal is planned. Although this initiative has not yet materialized, since its announcement a perception of risk has been generated that has increased in the community, triggering a series of actions of rejection and mobilizations against the industrial project. The research adopted a narrative approach which focused on people´s life course and lifeplace trajectories (Bailey, Devine-Wright & Batel, 2016). Narratives of place can be understood as a body of regular conventions and patterns that are cultural and socially situated in such a way that they serve as discursive materials to elaborate personal narratives regarding to places people live (Taylor, 2010). The ethnographic approach used in this research combined field observation with narrative interviews. For the presentation of the results I tried to “assemble the different voices” (Giarracca & Bidaseca, 2017); that of the local residents and that of the researcher himself, in a set of ethnographic texts. One of the most remarkable results is referred to the confrontation of narrative resources in a community, particularly the increasing employment opportunity and the socio-environmental deterioration related to development projects. Moreover, the perception of environmental threat as well as intensifying resistance actions, allows for a revaluation of natural and community resources, articulating local development actions such as local trade, ecotourism, and the strengthening of networks, among others. From the defense of the territory new place identities have emerged, allowing the empowerment of the communities in their environmental claims.