Category Archives: Geography Compass

High-flying research: Geographies of air transportation

Kate Whiston, University of Nottingham

Source: Wikimedia Commons

Source: Wikimedia Commons

This weekend marked the fifty-eighth anniversary of the Munich Air Disaster, so what better time than to take a look at some of the work being done by human geographers into the social and cultural dimensions of air space and air transportation. February 6th 1958 was the darkest day in Manchester United F.C.’s history. Following their European Cup quarter final win in Belgrade, the ‘Busby Babes’ – so-called after their illustrious manager Matt Busby – were involved in one of the most documented plane crashes in history, in which twenty-three of the forty-four passengers were killed, including eight of the players, when their plane crashed after trying to take-off amidst a devastating snow storm in Munich. Memories of the victims are still today as poignant as ever, in an age when air transportation has been completely transformed, and has come to signify the complex networks of social, political, and economic relationships in our contemporary mobile world.

‘Aeromobilities’, as Adey (2008) calls it, started to become the subject of geographical enquiry in the twenty-first century, with geographers looking to trace the economic and political links that air transport creates between places. Adey’s (2008) paper provides a useful summary of some of the work within geography about air transportation, research which has drawn on the ‘mobile turn’, a shift towards investigating how spaces are travelled through.

‘Identity’ being a key theme in geography due to the influence of feminism, the airport and the airplane have themselves been unravelled as sites of identity creation and performance. Adey (2008) explains how both airports and airplanes have become important geographical sites for the formation and suppression of identities. For some, airports are sites of alienation and inequality, whilst for others they are happy, homely places, a stepping stone between important places in their lives. Nowhere better is this evidenced than the film ‘Terminal’, in which Tom Hanks plays an eastern immigrant whose country suffers from the collapse of its government whilst he is in the air, leaving his papers no longer valid when he lands in America. Forced to stay in the airport for weeks, he feels the brunt of the airport’s hostility and exclusive power, but starts to enjoy and embrace his time there, making many friends, as well as enemies. Today, Adey (2008) argues, borders are shifting even further, spatially and temporally, with your entry into a country being variously permitted or denied from a distance, before you have left your airport of departure. Thus, the ways in which we imagine our place in relation to the rest of the world have changed, air transportation building notions of national identity and citizenship, and variously connecting and disconnecting people and places.

Modern spaces of air travel, as spaces for international border-crossing as well as state and terrorist violence, have triggered increasing regulation of societies. As Adey (2008) states, air-travel has become one of the most closely-monitored and highly-segregated spaces in modern society. Security screening in airports today has reached very intense levels, which redefine both bodies and belongings as ‘threats’. Full-body searches and X-ray machines mean that it is not only international boundaries that are crossed at airports, but also, as Adey (2008) claims, our personal boundaries. All this is part of a new culture of ‘anticipation’, in which our vision has become so accelerated that it has overtaken time (Adey, 2008). The threat of terrorism is, today, pre-empted, an imaginative geography of disaster created before it has even happened, evoking fear and panic.

Air transportation has also had more fatal effects on societies, playing a major part in wars since the turn of the twentieth century. Aerial warfare has come a long way since the air raids of World War Two, with new unmanned aircraft causing terror and destruction to contemporary society. The aerial view – or as Adey (2008) calls it the ‘cosmic view’ – has, since the early days of landscape surveys and the invention of aerial photography, been associated with a powerful total gaze of the world, with limitless capacity for knowledge and control. This total observation is seen, for example, in Israeli-occupied Palestine, where Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs) are used for aerial surveillance of military and civilian targets (Adey, 2008).

The performance of gender relations within the space of the plane has also, Adey (2008) claims, captured the imaginations of geographers; cockpit and cabin gender roles being fascinating examples of gender relations. A recent paper by Lin (2015) has explored this in relation to air hostesses on a Singapore airline. Feminisation and sexualisation of air hostesses’ bodies on planes has been long been practised by most airlines. In Lin’s (2015) example in Singapore, the design of air hostesses’ uniforms was evocative yet graceful and traditional, whilst interview candidates were carefully screened for flaws or disfigurement, their body shape, beauty, and complexion being important. Even successful candidates underwent various aesthetic ‘corrections’, such as speech therapy, and were prescribed precise shades of make-up to make them appear uniformly ‘beautiful’. Lin (2015) frames the cabin – a ‘mobile atmosphere’, as she calls it – as an important social space, in which geographers have explored the multi-sensorial interactions between passengers and their environment. The plane and its crew provide a ‘service’, passengers’ bodies forming active consumers during their flight. Air hostesses create a comfortable and professional environment for passengers. These women perform a version of femininity whereby they are a friendly, affectionate, reassuring, approachable, helpful, polite, and glamorous aid to passengers’ journeys.

A lot has changed, therefore, in the fifty-eight years since the Munich Air Disaster. There is a vast range of research being done by geographers into the spaces of air travel, research which can help us better understand the social, cultural, and political experiences of airports and air transportation. The looming threat of terrorism means that geographers have a lot to contribute to understanding ways in which different nations engage with air space. However, it is a testament to the continual improvements to passenger safety being made that today geographers are talking about passenger ‘comfort’ rather threats to their ‘safety’.

 

books_icon Adey, P. (2008). “Aeromobilities: Geographies, Subjects and Vision”, Geography Compass, 2(5):1318-1336.

books_iconLin, W. (2015). “’Cabin pressure’: designing affective atmospheres in airline travel”, Transactions of the Institute of British Geographers, 40:287-299.

60-world2http://www.telegraph.co.uk/sport/football/teams/manchester-united/11394795/Manchester-United-Munich-Air-Disaster-anniversary-emphasises-the-magnitude-of-footballs-loss.html

60-world2http://www.manchestereveningnews.co.uk/sport/football/football-news/manchester-united-players-fans-remember-10826494

Reframing civil society through the everyday: from farms to toilets

By Amita Bhakta, Loughborough University

The evolving role of civil society in the development agenda is a critical point of discussion, as Peck (2015) rightly argues in her recent article in the Geography Compass. A key aspect of what is considered as ‘civil society’ builds on traditional notions of getting involved in development ‘from the outside’ separating the donors and those who are seen as providing support, and those receiving it. But when it comes to assessing and evaluating precisely the significance of civil society, it is important to look at the individuals who are getting involved as part of their everyday practices to bring about change, and the subsequent consequences for everyday lives. As reported in The Guardian, it is with the support of civil society organisations such as NGO’s that female farmers in the region of Samburu in Kenya can be empowered to provide for their families with the uncertainties of climate change through their existing roles. But, is it enough to look at livelihood practices alone as a way forward for civil society, or should we turn to the mundane, hidden yet significant elements of the ‘everyday’?

World_Toilet_Day_WTD_Logo

On the 19th November 2015, the UN held World Toilet Day which was marked across the globe. The Guardian provided a stark reminder of the fact that 774 million people in India alone still lack access to a toilet. Access to adequate sanitation is a human right for all, yet a place to find relief is still a critical issue for many. As the Sustainable Development Goals call for ‘availability and sustainable management of water and sanitation for all’ (UN, 2015), the role of civil society in meeting these targets remains crucial. The Right to Pee movement in India provides an example of how women are being specifically targeted as a group who require a safe place for defecation, and often require toilets to deal with secretive issues such as menstruation. Therefore it can be said that paying attention to hidden stories of different groups of the everyday, including the use of toilets and livelihood practices, can truly be a significant way forward for development. In the bigger picture, it remains to be seen whether civil society is the only relevant actor in understandings of the everyday, or whether a global cooperation between civil society and governments is the way forward to nurture and focus the attention of the world onto the everyday. Finally, as Robert Chambers (1997) questioned, ‘Whose reality counts?’ and whose everyday, and which aspects of their everyday, will we look at?

60-world2 BBC 2015 100 Women 2015: India’s ‘right to pee’

books_icon Chambers, R (1997) Whose Reality Counts? Putting the first last London: Intermediate Technology Publications

60-world2 Kibet R 2015 On Kenya’s climate frontline, female farmers are building a secure future  The Guardian

books_icon Peck, S (2015) Civil Society, Everyday Life and the Possibilities for Development Studies  doi: 10.1111/gec3.12245.

A Real Game Changer: The Use of GPS Tracking Devices in English Football

Kate Whiston, University of Nottingham

Is the use of GPS in football a good thing? Photograph: Kate Whiston

Is the use of GPS trackers in football a good thing?
Photograph: Kate Whiston

Last month the use of GPS tracking in football came under scrutiny, following a seven-minute delay in a League Two game. In the interests of player safety, Plymouth manager, Derek Adams, complained about the devices worn by the Wycombe team as they lined up in the tunnel. The device, worn between the shoulder blades underneath the shirt, is surrounded by padding, although it is debatable whether this padding is designed to protect the GPS tracker or the player! An article in The Guardian (2015) quoted the Plymouth Manger: “it’s a hard object and a dangerous bit of equipment”. However, after consulting the rules and regulations, the matter was resolved; FIFA ruling permits players to wear GPS trackers – official termed Electronic Performance and Tracking System (EPTS) – during matches and, this season, the Football League has also sanctioned their use. There are currently 19 English Football League clubs registered to use these devices.

So why are GPS trackers being used in football? Has sports science turned into Big Brother?

Tracking devices have been used by football clubs, behind the scenes, for some time, but have only recently been used in competitive matches. In this sense, football is lagging behind rugby, which has long used such devices to monitor player performance and health. Speaking to the BBC, Wycombe midfielder, Matt Bloomfield (2015), explained the importance of GPS tracking devices in football. Electronic Performance and Tracking System (EPTS) devices track each individual player’s every move on the pitch and can provide a wealth of data about the player; how far they have run, how many sprints they have completed, their position on the pitch over time, their heart rate over time, and how much work their body has done. The feedback players get after each game, Bloomfield (2015) states, is then used in training sessions to recreate the number of sprints or distance covered in games. This is certainly one way to decrease the number of players deemed ‘not match-fit’. Furthermore, Bloomfield (2015) stresses the importance of EPTS devices in monitoring players’ well-being, as their stats can highlight when they are fatigued and, therefore, more susceptible to injury. Thus, prevention of niggling injuries is another major benefit.

The use of GPS in football redefines the space of the football pitch. Understanding the ways in which footballers use the space is every sports geographer’s dream. The data collected by the devices can be used to map players’ use of space and track the flows of their movement throughout space. This is not dissimilar to the use of Geographical Information Science (GIS) to map and monitor transportation systems. In this further example of mapping mobile subjects – although admittedly on a much larger scale than the football pitch – data about transport is used to map and analyse the spatial networks within which interactions occur, showing the routes and flows of movement (Miller and Shaw, 2015). Miller (2007) recommends a ‘people-based’ approach to GIS, rather than the traditional ‘place-based’ approach. The increasing mobility and connectivity of people means that the relationships between people and places are becoming more complex. Mapping the “individual in space and time”, Miller (2007:503) argues, provides a more complete analysis of our interactions with space. The theory behind this approach has its roots in 1960s ‘time geography’, which considers the dynamic use of space in human activity, the constraints and fluidity of these activities, and the temporal aspects of them. From this we have evolved location-aware technologies, which collect space-time activity data in real time, such as global positioning systems (GPS) and radiofrequency identification (RFID). The use of location based services (LBS) has become ubiquitous in everyday life; social networking, parcel tracking, and Google Maps all use locational data to provide us with real-time information about what is around us. Locational privacy is a thing of the past, as our movements across space and time are constantly being logged. It is, therefore, not surprising that technology is now being used to track the individual movement of athletes in sport.

The use of GPS trackers in football can certainly give teams a competitive edge and reassure fans that their favourite players will be in top condition. They are useful ways to track movements on the pitch and the ways in which the space is used, as well as monitoring players’ health and fitness. There is, however, another implication that I’d like to propose to you; these GPS trackers are re-defining footballers’ bodies. Tailoring training and recovery to individual players’ needs, whilst not new, has taken a massive step with the use of tracking technology. No longer the achievement of individual skill and managers’ tactics, football teams are being moulded around quantitative observations of individual players’ movements and bodily responses. The goalposts have been moved, and expectations of players’ performances and capabilities are being raised accordingly. Footballers’ bodies and performances are becoming hybrid collaborations between player and machine. Thus, it seems, even in the beautiful game, we cannot escape the pervasiveness of computers in modern society and the ever-diminishing distinction between humans and technology.

 

books_iconMiller, H. (2007). “Place-Based versus People-Based Geographic Information Science”, Geography Compass, 1(3):503-535.

books_iconMiller, H. and Shaw, S-L. (2015). “Geographic Information Systems for Transportation in the 21st Century”, Geography Compass, 9(4):180-189.

60-world2Bloomfield, M. (2015). “Matt Bloomfield explains why GPS tracking devices work”, BBC Sport Football Online. 16th September 2015. Available at:  www.bbc.co.uk/sport/0/football/34267968

60-world2The Guardian (2015). “Football League supports Wycombe over GPS trackers under shirts”, The Guardian Online. 14th September 2015. Available at: www.theguardian.com/football/2015/sep/14/football-league-wycombe-plymouth-gps

 

 

Humanitarian mappers’ response to the Nepal earthquake

By Joseph J. Bailey (@josephjbailey), University of Nottingham, UK.

In the days since the earthquake in Nepal, thousands of humanitarian mappers have sprung into action to fill in gaps in the map in the affected area” (Mapbox article, dated 27th April 2015, two days after the Nepal earthquake).

The earthquake that occurred in Nepal on the 25th April 2015 is the largest quake to affect the region since 1934 and one of the most devastating natural disasters in recent memory, killing thousands of people. Aftershocks present an ongoing threat, including one on the 12th May killing over 100 people. Accessing the affected communities requires explicit and accurate knowledge of the area’s infrastructure.

The world’s population continues to grow, making natural disasters increasingly devastating. However, technology develops in parallel. Emerging technology can and is helping with disaster management. More people than ever across the world now carry in their pockets a very powerful tool; a smartphone connected to the internet and equipped with an inbuilt GPS unit. This can be used to quickly and accurately record spatial information not only on a day-to-day basis but also after a natural disaster where possible. Additionally, and often more realistically amidst the destruction where the event has occurred, people nowhere near the disaster itself can contribute towards mapping efforts using satellite information, providing an invaluable resource for those on the ground.

A recent paper in Geography Compass (Haworth and Bruce, 2015) reviewed volunteered geographic information (VGI) for disaster management (prevention, preparation, response, and recovery). VGI technologies allow for near-instant sharing of relevant geographic information for disaster management and the resource implications for generating these data are minimal. This article also assesses the associated challenges of these data, including: “lack of data quality assurance and issues surrounding data management, liability, security, and the digital divide” (p. 237), the latter referring to the lack of technology in some areas so that people can benefit from and contribute to VGI projects (this is improving every day, however). The authors stress the importance of VGI in disaster prevention as well as response, but response is the main subject of this post herein.

There are many examples of VGI, and one of the big projects where such data are used is OpenStreetMap, which I focus on here. Founded in 2004, driven by limits on access to spatial data and the dominance of proprietary software, and in response to the increase in affordable GPS and satellite navigation units, “OpenStreetMap (OSM) is a collaborative project to create a free editable map of the world” (Wikipedia). It uses data contributions from volunteers all over the world (Wiki – OSM Map Production). Such an open, editable geographic information system (GIS) based on crowdsourced data is an incredible resource. It has huge potential from making lives easier day-to-day, to saving lives in extreme circumstances like during and after a natural disaster.

This image shows the burst of mapping by humanitarian mappers after the quake struck on April 25th 2015. Source: article by Eric Fischer on Mapbox, dated 27/04/2015, last accessed 17/05/2015, available at: https://www.mapbox.com/blog/nepal-earthquake-animation/).

This image shows the burst of mapping by humanitarian mappers after the quake struck on April 25th 2015.
Source: article by Eric Fischer on Mapbox, dated 27/04/2015, last accessed 17/05/2015, available at: https://www.mapbox.com/blog/nepal-earthquake-animation/).

In the context of the 2015 Nepal earthquake, OSM has been invaluable, providing accurate and up-to-date maps that are used by aid organisations and local disaster response teams. Indeed, according to an article on Mapbox (by Eric Fischer, 27th of April), just two days after the quake struck, “more than 2000 mappers … recorded 13,199 new miles of roads and 110,681 new buildings” (see the image below from the Mapbox article). Naturally, these figures will have increased substantially since this article as mapping efforts continue. The OSM volunteers rapidly digitised satellite images after the earthquake, providing much-needed maps and data to humanitarian organisations (OSM Nepal Earthquake Wiki). The process is coordinated by the Humanitarian OpenStreetMap Team (HOT), who communicate with relevant organisations to focus mapping efforts. Anyone can use the resultant maps and associated routing services for free.

The use of VGI will only grow alongside technological development and, importantly, so too will accessibility to this technology through projects such as OpenStreetMap. There are known issues of data quality and so on, as discussed by Haworth and Bruce (2015), but ultimately this technology can only be a good thing. Hopefully it will mean that populations at risk of large-scale natural disasters, like those in Nepal most recently, will be able to be helped more quickly and effectively, thus mitigating the impact.

books_icon Haworth, B. and Bruce, E. (2015). A Review of Volunteered Geographic Information for Disaster Management. Geography Compass, 9 (5), 237–250

60-world2 Humanitarian OpenStreetMap Wiki available at: http://wiki.openstreetmap.org/wiki/2015_Nepal_earthquake (last accessed 17th May)

60-world2 Mapbox article and animation image available at: https://www.mapbox.com/blog/nepal-earthquake-animation/ (dated 27th April 2015, last accessed 17th May)

An Uncomfortable Encounter for David Cameron in the ‘Auditory Space’ of Radio 1

By Ashley Crowson, King’s College London.

The UK election campaign has, so far, been a rather dull, stage-managed affair, with political leaders tending to opt for speeches to the party faithful and heavily choreographed photo opportunities over grillings from well informed, forthright and inquisitorial journalists.

In this context, it was incredibly exciting to hear David Cameron subjected to a ‘mauling’ at the hands of a panel of young people during a Q&A for BBC Radio 1’s ‘live lounge’.

In what was arguably the toughest media appearance the Prime Minister has faced during this campaign, Radio 1’s young audience quizzed Cameron on, among other subjects, his record on homelessness, his refusal to rule out a coalition with homophobic political parties, and whether he would like to see the introduction of a living wage.

The PM’s handling of these questions does not make for comfortable listening.

The public service remit of Radio 1 is to “engage a broad range of young listeners with a distinctive mix of contemporary music and speech” and to “reflect the lives and interests of 15-29 year olds”. In the March edition of Geography Compass, Catherine Wilkinson explores radio that fulfils a broadly similar role, arguing that it offers “crucial spaces of development for young people’s identities, and a space of creative learning outside of a more formal environment of school.” (p. 127)

Wilkinson’s focus is youth engagement with ‘community’ radio, i.e. radio with a public function serving geographic, ethnic, cultural or social communities. Reviewing literature dealing with community radio, Wilkinson contends that programming created both by and for young people in an urban context allows them to “listen to discussions by their peers about how they resist the social restraints erected for them by their families and the wider society. In this scenario, radio functions as an alternative space for those young urbanites who have limited public spaces to meet and share stories about their social and cultural interests” (p.131).

Such broadcasting creates “genuine potential for community radio stations to provide young people with a space for the exploration and exhibition of voice, and a space that has inclusionary potential.” As such, “community radio… is a means of agency for young people and of negotiating marginalisation, and… is affectively central to disenfranchised urban young people in attaining civic participation.” (p.135)

The Radio 1 Live Lounge encounter with David Cameron does appear to be an example of meaningful civic participation fostered by youth-centred radio. The panel of young people articulated a political vision attentive to LGBTQ rights, and the rights of migrants and society’s most vulnerable; priorities that have not always been so prominent in less youth-centric election coverage. This encounter, then, raises some interesting questions about the capacity of youth radio’s auditory space, in the absence of the availability of traditional public spaces for young people, to act as a catalyst in the formulation and projection of a distinctive ‘youth voice’.

More broadly, Wilkinson’s paper represents a small shift within geographical research from the visual to the aural. As Alasdair Pinkerton (2014) notes, “it is important to recall that prior to the development of textual communication, human experiences of space was largely conditioned through shared oral traditions.” (p.64)

 Catherine Wilkinson, 2015, Young People, Community Radio and Urban LifeGeography Compass, DOI: 10.1111/gec3.12197.

 Alasdair Pinkerton, 2014, ‘Radio‘ In: Paul Adams, Jim Craine and Jason Dittmer, eds. The Ashgate Research Companion to Media Geography. Ashgate, pp. 53-68.

Gridlock: GIS in transport planning

By Joseph J. Bailey (@josephjbailey), University of Nottingham, UK.

It is not hyperbole to state that we are witnessing a revolution in the human sciences … fuelled by a stunning advancement in capabilities to capture, store and process data, as well as communicate information and knowledge derived from these data” (Miller and Shaw, 2015; p. 180)

We have all been there, haven’t we? Powerlessly sitting in a vehicle amidst of a sea of pollutants. I am of course referring to the traffic jam. They are often the result of rapid urban expansion around city centres that were simply not designed with such volumes of traffic in mind. It is something that people the world over can relate to. Indeed, Statista (with TomTom data) recently released a graphic that identifies the world’s worst cities for gridlock (also see: IB Times, Forbes). Drivers on a thirty minute commute (with no traffic) in Istanbul, Mexico City, Moscow, Saint Petersburg, Bucharest, and Recife (Brazil) could expect to spend more than 100 hours a year in gridlock; that’s over 4 days a year just sitting in a car stationary in traffic! The sheer volume of waste that traffic causes (fuel, money, time) has hugely negative effects on the environment, economy, and human wellbeing. Environmentally, of course, pollutants are also a significant problem, posing risks to both the natural world and human health.

‘GIS’, or ‘Geographic Information Systems’, is now ubiquitous in geographical research and beyond. It refers to an array of processing and analysis techniques that use spatial data and theory (see the QGIS introduction to GIS online). GIS can be used across an enormous range of research from natural disaster management and monitoring deforestation, to biodiversity science and geomorphology. This post considers GIS in transport planning.

Rgoogin at the English language Wikipedia [CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/), GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html) or GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html)], from Wikimedia Commons. Available at: http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:New_York_City_Gridlock.jpg

New York in Gridlock. Source: Rgoogin at the English language Wikipedia [CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/), GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html), from Wikimedia Commons. Available here.

Miller and Shaw (2015), writing in Geography Compass, recently discussed GIS-T (GIS for Transportation), providing an update update on their previous work from 2001. The quote at the top of this post says a great deal in itself and, while people referring to data volumes and computing power is so common it is bordering on a cliché, it really is true and we need intelligent systems to make both sense and use of it. The heart of GIS-T projects is identified as a georeferenced transportation database, probably using a spatial network in which locations, nodes (e.g. junctions), distances, and directions can all be represented in a model. With this spatial network in place, mobile objects (e.g. people, vehicles, freight) can then be incorporated and modelled. Terrain (e.g. if somewhere is very steep) and human-imposed features (e.g. congestion zones, toll roads) can also be considered where they may affect traffic flow and peoples’ decisions.

We are now comfortably into the 21st century, and new technologies can help provide information for GIS-T models. Most notably, GPS technology is widely available in most vehicles and on most individual people (via a phone or tablet). Such mobile tech means that “it is now feasible to collect large amounts of data from a wide range of mobile sensors in real-time or near-real-time at high spatial and temporal granularity” (Miller and Shaw, 2015; p. 185). A better understanding of how people move should help with urban planning, in terms of both policy making and infrastructure design, by allowing scenarios of certain decisions (e.g. creation of a congestion zone where people have to pay to drive into the city centre) to be incorporated into the GIS-T models.

GIS is a fantastic geographical analysis and problem-solving tool that needs to be fully harnessed and applied to a range of problems (from traffic management to conservation planning) if we are to cope in our increasingly busy and complicated world. As we have seen here, GIS-T has enormous potential in urban planning, utilising quantities of fine-scale data that we have never had at our disposal before. Hopefully this will be able to make for more efficient and sustainable cities, towards improved environments, economies, and human wellbeing.

 

books_icon Miller, H. J. and Shaw, S. (2015). Geographic Information Systems for Transportation in the 21st Century. Geography Compass, 9 (4), 180 – 189.

Silence of the Lambs? Farm animal subjectivity in welfare research

Kate Whiston, University of Nottingham

Lambs: a typical Spring scene Source: Wikimedia Commons

Lambs: a typical Spring scene
Source: Wikimedia Commons

It’s that time of year; fields are bursting with prancing lambs, cows graze on the lush Spring grass, and cute chicks are as abundant in incubators as they are on Easter cards. What better time than to remind ourselves of the ongoing debates surrounding farm animal welfare that proliferate scientific, political, and public realms, and – more importantly to the geographers amongst us – the relevance of geography to these debates.

Johnston’s (2013) article in Geography Compass identifies two areas of geography that contribute theoretically to animal welfare research. Firstly, the geography of science, part of the broader field of Science and Technology Studies (STS), views scientific knowledge production as spatially, culturally, and historically grounded. That’s to say, research in animal welfare is constituted by spatial, cultural, and historical factors. Secondly, animal geography views animals as active political agents, and engages with animal subjectivity, the spaces they live in, and their moral rights.

This consideration of subjective well-being is a relatively new addition to the previously physiologically-orientated assessment of farm animal welfare. Animal subjectivity is not directly measurable, although it may be indirectly measured through an animal’s cognitive capacities. Animal scientists believe cognitive capacity to be linked to animals’ ability to suffer emotionally and to be consciously aware of their experiences. Needless to say, farm animals are cleverer than we think, not quite to the extent that George Orwell portrays in Animal Farm, but they still have mental and emotional capacities far greater than is accredited to them.

A recent article on Dairy Herd Management’s website discusses the practicalities of implementing this idea of farm animal subjectivity. According to the article, there are three main measures for evaluating dairy cow welfare; ‘biological functioning’ (animal health and productivity), ‘affective state’ (emotions), and ‘natural living’ (ability to behave naturally). Farmers strive to optimise the biological function of their dairy cows, whilst trying to avoid compromising their subjective welfare. A further farming article, this time on Farming UK’s website, has illustrated the subjective welfare of free range chickens. Farmers with chickens emphasise the welfare benefits of letting them roam free outdoors. ‘Natural living’ – interacting with other chickens and their environment – farmers argue, allows chickens to live happier, more ethical lives.

Productivity v subjectivity: dairy farming is not without its moral issues Source: Wikimedia Commons

Productivity v subjectivity: dairy farming is not without its moral issues
Source: Wikimedia Commons

Further emphasising geography’s relevance, Johnston also identifies and investigates three ‘spaces’ of knowledge production in farm animal welfare research. The first is geopolitical ‘space’; animal welfare is often part of the public agenda and parliamentary reform, meaning that farm animals are enrolled in human political systems. All farm animals are political subjects; in true Animal Farm style, they actively shape farm infrastructure, research agendas, and policies. The second ‘space’ is the research environment itself. Making use of Actor Network Theory (ANT), geographers have suggested that the production of knowledge in farm animal welfare research is tied up in networks of people, animals, and institutions. The third and final ‘space’ of knowledge production is the most complex; animals’ spaces, or the ‘location’ of their subjective experience. These spaces are two fold; animals’ bodies (in their nervous system) and animals’ environments (the spaces that they inhabit). Thus, farm animal subjectivity is relational, produced through their interactions with their environments. The production of knowledge in animal welfare research is, therefore, complexly linked to politics, science, and the animals themselves.

So next time you see farm animals blissfully frolicking in a farmer’s fields, remember that all is not as it seems in this typical Spring scene. The animals may seem passive and content, but they are, in fact, active political subjects with cognitive capacities strong enough to feel emotional and physical suffering, and to be consciously aware of their experiences. Along with scientists and activists, farm animals themselves are fighting an inherently geographical battle to improve farm animal welfare.

Cute and cuddly (and politically active!) Source: Wikimedia Commons

Cute and cuddly (and politically active!)
Source: Wikimedia Commons

books_icon Johnston, C.L. (2013). “Geography, Science, and Subjectivity: Farm Animal Welfare in the United States and Europe”, Geography Compass, 7(2):139-148.

60-world2  http://www.dairyherd.com/news/successful-animal-welfare-planning-your-farm

60-world2  http://www.farminguk.com/News/Egg-producers-promote-a-million-reasons-to-choose-free-range-_30965.html