Friday, 6 December 2013

Endings: politics, future, world

By Martin.

While Helen has spent much of the last month thinking and writing about democracy, I've been working through a quite random selection of texts as I go about developing some new research projects. These include Amanda Machin's Negotiating Climate Change, Franco 'Bifo' Berardi's After the Future and Timonthy Morton's Hyperobjects. They are all connected with my broad interest in the cultural politics of the future and the mediation of imagined futures through the physical sciences. All of the books either present or challenge particular endings, so I thought it might be interesting to consider them alongside each other, despite them all residing in very different intellectual traditions.

Monday, 25 November 2013

A month of thinking and writing about democracy

Image credit: University of Brighton
I've been doing a lot of writing elsewhere this month, so it's been a bit quiet on the Topograph. This is partly because of my position as a news editor on the Royal Geographical Society's Geography Directions blog, which involves writing posts twice a month which relate current news stories to perspectives from papers in the archives of the RGS journals. It's been a great experience so far, but can sometimes sap my energy for other writing. I've also been commissioned to write a few extra posts by some other research blogs who have picked up on my work.

Though there was no clear project or agenda in my head when I was working on these different posts, I realise now that I have unwittingly been working through some of my thoughts about the nature of the democracy and representations of 'the public'. And this has in turn been very helpful in redrafting a paper I am about to submit to a journal, focussing on democratic practice. So this post is my attempt to synthesise and crystalise some of these thoughts for your perusal and responses and with one eye on my thesis write up which will start in January.

Tuesday, 29 October 2013

Social media strategy for early career researchers

Image from
Yesterday I ran a course for PhD researchers in my faculty offering some insights into how they could use social media to develop their academic profiles. As part of running this course I spent some time gathering resources from other academics together and developing some of my own perspectives on social media use for early career researchers, so I thought I would share these here while it is still fresh in my mind. So here's my two pennies worth! You can also access the handout I developed for my session which includes links to other relevant information on social media use for academics here.

Friday, 4 October 2013

New paper, new job, new projects

It's been a bit quiet on here from my side over the summer, mostly because I've been working on finishing off and handing in my PhD thesis. I trailed some of my arguments at a few conferences during the summer, including the RGS-IBG in London, the annual Interpretive Policy Analysis conference in Vienna, and the International Congress for the History of Science, Technology and Medicine in Manchester. I managed to hand my thesis in on 20th September, just in time to start a new post at King's College London (see below).

Tuesday, 23 July 2013

'Society in the Anthropocene' - Reflections

A few weeks ago Martin and I attended the 'Society in the Anthropocene' conference at the University of Bristol, hosted by the Cabot Institute and the journal Economy and Society. More information about the conference, including recordings of many of the talks, can be found here. There is a forthcoming special issue in the journal Economy and Society which will feature many of the papers from the conference. It was a very interesting and enjoyable conference, with a line-up of top academics that read a little bit like an undergraduate geography syllabus - many of my formative academic heroes were there. In this post I will offer some reflections on the conference, following up on the posts that Martin and I wrote back in April.

Tuesday, 9 July 2013

2°C and the geographies of truth and power in Copenhagen, 2009

I have a post over at the Merton Stone blog of the 3S Research Group introducing a new paper of mine in Geoforum, which is titled Boundary spaces: science, politics and the epistemic geographies of climate change in Copenhagen, 2009.

Pawel Kopczynski/Reuters
The paper explores some of the science-policy debates which played-out in the run up to the ill-fated international climate talks in Copenhagen in 2009. I engage with literatures on boundary-organisations, -objects and -work, as well as literature on organisational space to develop the notion of 'boundary spaces'. I basically try to argue that theories of formal boundary organisations are insufficient to capture the complex geographies by which scientific knowledge is negotiated and related to political decisionmaking. By these "complex geographies", I mean the diverse physical and discursive settings where knowledge is constructed and contested, often under certain guiding assumptions about how 'knowledge' and 'action' are related.

Tuesday, 11 June 2013

Trying to practice what I preach: a brief foray into public engagement

Last week I ran a small public engagement exercise in the centre of Norwich on the topic of, er... public engagement. The occasion was the annual UEA post graduate research showcase, which involves transplanting around 50 or 60 graduate students from our edge-of-city campus into the heart of Norwich, in the Millennium library. Researchers present their work through a mixture of posters, 'pecha kucha' presentations and cafe conversations. I applied to run a cafe conversation based on my research (on public participation and engagement) partly because I thought it would be fun but also because I hoped it would be an interesting experiment in practising what I preach. Would trying to run a cafe conversation myself alter the way I see the practice of the participation professionals who I study and critique or the way I view engagement exercises more generally? And how would members of the 'public' react to being involved in a conversation about how they could be involved in other conversations about science and science policy decisions? Would this be a reflexive turn too far?

Friday, 19 April 2013

The Anthropocene - reflections on a concept, part 2

From the artist David Thomas Smith's series
'Anthropocene'. Three Gorges Dam. 
Following on from this post by Martin last week, here are a few reflections of my own on the concept of the anthropocene, and its potential to stimulate new debates and new forms of political action.

I must admit to having, until recently, reacted with scepticism and disinterest to the conversations and (as I saw it) hyped-up claims about this new geological era, which were being bandied about by some deep-green activist-type friends and some of more offbeat natural scientists. This feeling remained unchanged whilst the concept began to garner more mainstream interest and prominence. Why are we getting distracted with impossible to answer questions about large-scale earth system changes, I thought? Does this really help us to tackle important environmental and social challenges in the here and now? Isn't this all a little vague and naively romantic to be going about trying to claim that humanity's relationship with the natural world has undergone a fundamental physical and metaphysical shift? And how narcissistic of us to start making such vast claims about our importance and influence!

I can't put my finger on exactly what has changed my view. It probably has something to do with attrition, and it is also linked to the increasing number of highly imaginative and thoughtful academic and artistic projects related to the concept which I've become aware of. Whatever it is, I have started to move away from seeing the anthropocene as a difficult to prove and potentially calamitously distracting concept, towards being more aware of the potential openings and opportunities that can come from this increasingly prominent way of thinking.

Friday, 12 April 2013

The Anthropocene - reflections on a concept, part I

Illustration: (c) Benedikt Rugar 2012
The idea that we now inhabit the 'Anthropocene' has really taken off. Even though I had to teach the word to my web browser's in-built dictionary in writing that last sentence, a Google search for 'Anthropocene' yields over half a million results. There is now an academic journal bearing the name, numerous research programmes take the idea as a starting point, and an increasing number of events and conferences are using the idea to stage interdisciplinary exchange between physical and social scientists (see for example the forthcoming conference in Bristol on 'Society in the Anthropocene', and the ongoing project in Germany led by the Haus der Kulturen der Welt).

Source: The Economist
The notion that the widespread impacts of human activities on the environment have led us into a new geological era was first formulated by ecologist Eugene Stoermer and atmospheric chemist Paul Crutzen. For them, human activities are having such a profound effect on the functioning of the earth's natural systems that changes are occurring at a pace which is unprecedented in geological history.

In this post, I want to explore a little of the relevance of the concept 'Anthropocene' to our understandings of  how knowledge and politics, and nature and culture, are related to each other. In a later post, Helen will offer some reflections on the deliberative openings which the concept offers. The Anthropocene is already becoming a site of exciting interdisciplinary conversations. Here, I will reflect a little on what scholars in science and technology studies (STS) and geography might have to contribute to these debates.

Tuesday, 12 March 2013

New commentary published on GM & public controversy

Picture from
Our commentary on the re-emergence of the public debate on genetically modified organisms (GMOs) has recently been published here in the geography journal Area. The full title of the commentary is 'Boundaries, territory and public controversy: the GM debate re-materialised', and it's a very short article which can be downloaded by anyone with an institutional subscription to Area. It follows on broadly from the argument that Helen made in this post last May, on the protests related to GM wheat trials at Rothamsted Research. Instead of focusing on organisational learning, as the blog post did, we decided to focus on the materiality and spatiality of the GM debate and examine the multiple ways in which boundaries are being continually drawn and re-drawn.

Wednesday, 13 February 2013

Evidence-based policy and the problem of non-knowledge

Following on from my post a few weeks back on the curious British-ness of the evidence-based policy debate, it occurred to me that recent work in Science and Technology Studies (STS) and the sociology of knowledge might be able to give useful insights on the challenges for those advocating evidence-based policy. The value-ladenness and political nature of policy decisions is usually acknowledged by many of those calling for the more systematic use of evidence in policy, often stating that they accept that ultimate policy decisions are rarely made on the basis of evidence alone. The disagreement of different experts and forms of evidence is also a commonly acknowledged problem with the process. What is often left out of the discussion are the problems associated with ambiguity, ignorance and even non-knowledge, as well as the obstinate impossibility of accurately predicting the future.

Friday, 18 January 2013

'Evidence-based policy': a very British debate

Yesterday, the writer and academic Jon Agar invited his twitter followers to guess the source of the following quote, calling for evidence-based policy:
"At government by knowledge, with the nature of things the only social force"
Rather surprisingly (for me anyway) it turned out that the writer of this sentence was none other than the nineteenth century French writer Victor Hugo, in his celebrated work 'Les Miserables'. However, whilst this quote shows that there is nothing very new or peculiar about calls for government policy to be rigorously based on evidence; I think it is nonetheless important to recognise that there is a very particular historical and cultural context within which current debates about evidence-based policy in the UK are situated.

Wednesday, 16 January 2013

The slippery concept of 'climate'

Reproduction of Johannes de Sacrobosco's zonal world map of 1230 
Warren Pearce has an interesting post over at the Making Science Public blog (see here) in which he explores the debate over the attribution of specific extreme weather events to climate change. He argues that when it comes to events like Hurricane Sandy, public and media discourse about links to climate change can quickly depart from the scientific line. While climate scientists prefer to say 'we can't attribute it directly to climate change, but it is consistent with the patterns we expect', some media outlets opt for the Bloomberg approach: 'it's global warming, stupid!'