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Fire ecology fuels Fowler's passion


Every year, Wofford’s Community of Scholars brings many disciplines together in the name of scholarly research and discussion. The topics chosen by the scholars are always an interesting and eclectic mix. This year, for instance, assistant professor of sociology Cynthia Fowler has selected “Indigenous Fire Management in the Monsoonal Topics.” How does a person from the Deep South develop such a passion to learn about something occurring in Southeast Asia, on the opposite side of the world?

“My educational path led me there,” says Fowler. “I was getting my master’s degree at the University of Georgia, and the chair of my masters committee did work in Indonesia and Malaysia. He gave me a lot of stuff to read from that area. I started to learn a lot about Southeast Asia in grad school, and when I was looking at PhD programs, my advisor (Peter Brosius) pointed me to the University of Hawaii.

“I had developed an interest in Southeast Asia and I wanted to work somewhere different. Peter was very familiar with Hawaii and knew that they had several departments there that focus on Southeast Asia. When I got to Hawaii I was trying to decide where in Southeast Asia I would focus, and I signed up for an Indonesian language class.”

But knowing the language wasn’t the only attraction for Fowler.

“The anthropology of Indonesia appealed to me,” she says. “The University of Hawaii has several faculty members in the anthropology department who have worked in Indonesia and I was really taken by them and the work that they did. I wanted to work in that area. I was raised academically in a type of anthropology called environmental anthropology, or ecological anthropology, and the stuff in that subdiscipline about Indonesia is fascinating, and that’s what captured me, I think.”

That’s how Fowler got there. She spent the summers of 2007 and 2008 staying there.

“I’m trying to write about the field work I’ve done the past two summers,” says Fowler. “Also, when I was in grad school I spent a year doing field work there for my dissertation. I’m writing up that data and trying to explore issues related to the use of fire by the people who live on the island where I’ve done my field work.

“Fire ecology is a discipline of science, a well-populated discipline with tons of literature. In fact a lot of fire ecologists live in the U.S. There are many fire managers around here…people who use fire to manage the landscape.” (An example would be controlled burns in Florida that keep brushfires in check)

Fowler hopes to bring it all together -- anthropology and fire ecology -- to write an ethnography about indigenous fire management in the town of Kodi (Sumba, Eastern Indonesia).

“Theoretically, I am interested in knowledge production, and links between human perceptions and behavior,” she says. “Technical data about burning and vegetation will enable me to assess the impact of cultural fires on vegetation in the dry monsoonal tropics. The ethnography consists of numerous short stories about real people involved in specific fire incidents. The stories that make up this ethnography work together to build a set of lessons about and to illustrate patterns in anthropogenic fires on post-colonial Sumba.

“ I’m trying to present information on how farmers use fire in their everyday subsistence activities. But also, in less technical ways, what does fire mean? What do the ecosystems where they use fire mean? How is the use of fire related to other things in the culture? In politics? In economics? In religion? I’m going to be able to present that information to the fire ecology community as much as to the community of anthropologists.”