Theorizing in a society of nature : a grounded theory analysis of permaculture online and textual discourse

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Dowdall, Justin, A.
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Electronic thesis
Communication and rhetoric
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This project explores conceptual themes in the ecological design movement known as permaculture. The project is guided by the question: How does the permaculture movement form its theoretical trajectories in service of achieving ecological repair? Within the movement, practitioners of permaculture interpret and apply insights provided by the founders of the program in what have become the core texts of the movement. These “design manuals” function as a type of instructional diagram, philosophical guide, and space of contestation for participants in the movement. The manuals are extensive, complex, and interpreted in unique and heterogenous ways by the broader community. To this point, scholarly articles have based their examinations of permaculture on these texts while ignoring the interpretive activities of contemporary practitioners. This dissertation attempts to resolve this gap in scholarship by exploring the online community of permaculture practitioners on the web forum Using grounded theory qualitative methods, the forum provides Permie's own voices to explain the conceptual underpinning of the movement. This research, then, exposes critical debates in the movement surrounding how participants negotiate meaning and attempt to build a permaculture worldview. This research identifies their use of system thinking, debates between spirituality and science discourse internal to the movement, and the social complexity surrounding the broader use of indigenous design techniques. This research also discovered that through these topics the community images a type of communication with Nature resulting in the movement's attention to what they call “pattern language.” For Permies pattern language is expressed as a type of embodied eco-literacy resulting from a complex relationship dynamic between practitioner and landscape. Additionally, this study highlights the intersection of permaculture theory with emerging theories of Other-than-human and nomadic design. Broader implications of the study contribute to debates of naturecultures and the construction of ecological based communities in online spaces. These findings provide deeper understanding of the ways in which ecological based subcultures self-create unique theoretical assemblies impacting participants' worldviews.
December 2022
School of Humanities, Arts, and Social Sciences
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Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, Troy, NY
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