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With a little help from my family: how do researchers negotiate the risks and problems of doing fieldwork

Menusha De Silva, Singapore Management University, and Kanchan Gandhi, New Delhi

Kanchan Gandhi (right) with her mother during fieldwork

Kanchan Gandhi (right) with her mother during fieldwork

How can higher education institutions ensure the safety of researchers while they conduct overseas research without compromising the researcher’s academic freedom and their ability to deliver high-quality work? The cases of Giulio Regeni, who was abducted, tortured and murdered during his fieldwork in Egypt in 2016, and Matthew Hedges, who was imprisoned for over five months in 2018 during his fieldwork in the United Arab Emirates, exemplify some of the more brutal dangers researchers can face in the field.  Although most researchers will not face such extreme danger, all fieldwork – whether it is conducted overseas or in the researcher’s home country – involves some form of risk to the researcher’s physical and/or emotional well-being.

Geographers have drawn attention to the physical dangers researchers, particularly women, have to negotiate when they conduct fieldwork. For example,  some researchers rely on family members to assist and accompany them in the field. Meanwhile, some white, female researchers who engage in cross-cultural fieldwork, especially in the global South, rely on their husbands and/or partners to provide protection from physical harm. Female researchers often present themselves in a way that conveys that they are conforming to the social and cultural norms of the communities they are studying. In some instances, taking young children to the field can make it easier for researchers to build a rapport with their participants as they bond over common concerns about children. Researchers’ dependency on family to ensure the success and safety of fieldwork highlights that our work is shaped by who we are as individuals, our family, and our social connections. In other words, our gender, age, class, religion, ethnicity, citizenship status, sexuality, physical appearance, and personality, among other factors, are implicated in the ways in which people interact with us and consequently our work.

Our paper in Area focuses specifically on how we, as PhD students, relied on our parents to help us with research in our home countries. We reflect on our negotiations as ‘natives’ to our field sites in Sri Lanka and India and refer to three of our colleagues’ experiences in India and the Philippines. Our identity as local women meant that we had to align with the dominant gendered cultural norms of our field sites, such as being accompanied when we traveled to distant places or meeting with unknown people. In addition to protecting us from both real and perceived risks, we discuss how our parents assisted the research by tapping into their social networks to identify study participants, giving back to the communities we researched, and providing care and accommodation.

While there were occasions when we insisted on navigating the field alone, our fieldwork was most successful when we relied on our parents and emphasised our identity as a ‘daughter’ who was under the protection of their parents. Yet, due to our identity as PhD researchers, and experiences of living alone in an unfamiliar country, our dependence on parents led to feelings of shame. We show how the explorer and survivor rhetoric that continues to influence general understandings of fieldwork led us question was it means to produce an ‘independent’ piece of work. There are numerous individuals who contribute to PhD research, but they are ordinarily only mentioned in the thesis acknowledgements. Our parents played important roles by helping to facilitate our fieldwork and by mitigating risk during our fieldwork. Through this paper, we retrospectively recognize our parents’ influence on the research process and highlight the need to critically engage with other people’s contributions to shaping and accomplishing a research project.

About the authors: Menusha De Silva is a research fellow in the School of Social Science, Singapore Management University. Kanchan Gandhi is an Assistant Professor at the School of Planning and Architecture, New Delhi.

Chiswell, H. M., & Wheeler, R. (2016). ‘As long as you’re easy on the eye’: Reflecting on issues of positionality and researcher safety during farmer interviews. Area, 48, 229–235. https://doi.org/10.1111/area.12257

De Silva, M. and Gandhi, K. (2018) ‘Daughter’ as a Positionality and the Gendered Politics of Taking Parents into the Field. Area. https://doi.org/10.1111/area.12525

The Guardian (2016) Italian student killed in Egypt: Giulio Regeni ‘showed signs of electrocution’. Retrieved from https://www.theguardian.com/world/2016/feb/14/italian-student-killed-in-egypt-giulio-regeni-showed-signs-of-electrocution

The Guardian (2018) Matthew Hedges jailing: two more UK universities cut ties with UAE. Retrieved from https://www.theguardian.com/education/2018/nov/24/matthew-hedges-jailing-two-more-uk-universities-cut-ties-with-uae

Lunn, J., & Moscuzza, A. (2014). Doing it together: Ethical dimensions of accompanied fieldwork. In J. Lunn (Ed.), Fieldwork in the Global South: Ethical challenges and dilemmas (pp. 69–82). New York, NY: Routledge.

DNA sequencing can help fight epidemics — but there are privacy risks

By Liam Shaw, University of Oxford and Nicola C. Sugden, University of Manchester*

File 20181218 27767 1de19kn.jpg?ixlib=rb 1.1
A portable DNA sequencer in action: UGA CAES/Extension/Flickr

The Democratic Republic of Congo is battling an Ebola outbreak. As is the case with any disease caused by pathogenic viruses – like Zika or influenza – Ebola spreads dangerously and unpredictably. This makes tracking the movement of viruses around the world a major challenge.

Researchers have increasingly turned to DNA sequencing to help identify and track these sorts of diseases. They use portable DNA sequencers, which are the size of a USB and can be easily carried for use in the field. One such sequencer, the MinION from Oxford Nanopore Technologies was used during the 2016 Zika virus epidemic in Brazil. It’s also being used to track the DRC’s Ebola outbreak.

Some researchers hope it will soon be possible to combine sequencing data collected in this way with other information to tell us even more about disease outbreaks. Integrating different kinds of data into a global infectious disease surveillance system that continuously scans for new epidemics might make it possible to detect outbreaks and sequence viruses as they emerge, allowing public health responses to be suggested in real time.

There’s no doubt these efforts are driven by good intentions. But, as we argue in our new research, this technology – which supporters hope will become increasingly available to members of the public – could have serious privacy implications.

Metagenomic data – the kind that could be collected on a sequencer such as MinION or others such as the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative’s new platform IDSeq – contains an enormous amount of information about who we are and how we live. In combination with other widely available information someone could potentially use that data to work out where you live, or with whom you have a close relationship.

The reality is that, as improvements in data analysis methods allow us to extract new insights from old data (or de-anonymise anonymised data), it’s impossible to be absolutely sure what the potential uses of data will be.

Signing away your data

Imagine having an app on your smart phone that allows you to analyse samples from the world around you. You could use it to sequence your pet cat’s DNA, or to figure out whether the mould growing in your shower is dangerous.

Sound far-fetched? It’s not. The technology required is already here. For example, the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative recently announced IDSeq, a new platform and database for infectious disease surveillance where registered users can upload their metagenomic sequencing data to have it analysed for free.

There’s just one catch, as there would be with any sequencing app: you have to sign over permissions to the data. Most people will do this unthinkingly. Author Jamie Susskind has called this pervasive and common arrangement “the data deal”: people accept whatever a company asks so they can use an app or product, and worry about the implications later.

This is the case with IDSeq. Initially enthusiastic researchers became concerned when they realised the platform’s terms and conditions contained a clause granting the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative “perpetual” permission to “use”, reproduce, distribute, display and create derivative works” from the data.

The current justification given for this clause is that it’s intended to permit users’ research data to be used for improving IDSeq. However, in principle the data could later be shared with “any third party that purchases” part of the assets or organisation.

A world of information

So why does it matter if you share metagenomic data from your everyday life? Quite simply, because the data from that cat hair or mould sample might contain more information than you realise – and far more than you intended to sign away.

It could contain not only the DNA you wanted to sequence, but also DNA from your fingers when you loaded the sample, from the bacteria on your skin from the last person you hugged, or from the gardens your cat visited last night. In short, that data contains vital information about your microbiome – the vast collection of microorganisms that live on and in our bodies. And your microbiome can tell someone an awful lot about you.

As we learn more about our microbiomes, we are beginning to understand how much they are personalised. Even if we could filter out the human DNA sequences from datasets, our microbiomes could theoretically still be used to identify us.

The microbiome contains information not only about our lifestyles, like our diet and drug intake, but also our social relationships, such as who we live with. That’s a lot of information to work with, in a world where we already share a great deal of data about ourselves via platforms like Facebook and Instagram, or personal fitness trackers. This data could feasibly be merged with metagenomic data, making it even more powerful.

There are ever more surprising examples of incidental data being used in dramatic and unexpected ways that are far removed from the original reasons for collecting it. Data from a murder victim’s Fitbit was used to convict her killer. And data from users of the fitness app Strava inadvertently revealed the location of secret US army bases.

There is every reason to believe that data from portable sequencers collected primarily for disease surveillance would contain information that could be used in similarly surprising, and concerning, ways. Metagenomic sequencing data is highly personalised. It contains implicit information about who we interact with and where we go, which makes it commercially valuable.

These concerns shouldn’t (and won’t) stop portable sequencers being used for infectious disease surveillance. Corporations and governments will promise great benefits from the use of this technology. For example, the IDSeq privacy notice justifies data collection by appealing to “legitimate interest in investigating and stopping the spread of infectious diseases and promoting global health”.

We need to continue scrutinising these organisations to make sure we understand exactly what’s being done with our data. The consequences of widespread portable sequencing, like emerging infectious diseases themselves, will be highly predictable.The Conversation

*This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article. Liam Shaw and Nicola Sugden’s full article is available open access in Geo: Geography and Environment via https://rgs-ibg.onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/full/10.1002/geo2.66


Should we be (re)connecting children with ‘nature’ and ‘natural’ resources?

By Peter Kraftl, University of Birmingham, UK 


Photo credit: Peter Kraftl

The Guardian newspaper recently reported that the UK’s National Trust had been criticised for halting access to one of its properties by a Forest School. The Trust – which is a large landowner and preserves historic sites – has been a regular and ardent promoter of ‘natural childhoods’. As they state, ‘our mission is to reconnect a generation of children with nature and the outdoors’. Nevertheless, the Trust took this decision following concerns that the Forest School’s outdoor education activities had been endangering ancient trees and wildlife.

Discussion around the Trust’s decision was replete with a range of widespread assumptions about the need to (re)connect children – and especially urban children – with natures. Indeed, the Forest School’s response was to claim that the decision countered the National Trust’s own campaign to get children outdoors. Yet missing from this debate was a discussion about the relative merits of the idea that (re)connecting children with natures will be an unequivocally and universally good thing. Indeed, wider, and often powerful calls for children to play and learn outside tend to make assumptions about what ‘nature’ is (very often, apparently ‘pristine’ woodland) and about how children will respond to and experience those environments (which can vary significantly depending on a number of social and cultural factors).

In our recent paper for Transactions of the Institute of British Geographers, we offer a different perspective on the idea that children should be (re)connected with natures. We also question related arguments that they should be better connected to ‘natural’ resources, like food, water, and energy. Our approach is different for two reasons. Firstly, we foreground critiques of the idea of (re)connection, but equally acknowledge that some forms of outdoor play and learning can be beneficial. Secondly, our paper is based on research outside the Minority Global North (and especially Anglophone countries), where ideas of (re)connection are particularly strong.

Our research focused on young people’s experiences of and learning about the food-water-energy nexus in São Paulo State, Brazil. It was therefore concerned with the many ways in which young people (aged 10-24) sourced, produced, prepared, consumed and talked about food, water, and energy (and much more besides). Our paper draws on detailed qualitative research with a range of key professionals and with 48 young people. Key to our approach was the integration of recent forms of ‘nexus thinking’ into our methods – enabling us to trace connections and disconnections between different resources in people’s lives and across spatial scales.

Our work complements, challenges and extends calls to (re)connect children with nature in a range of ways. On the one hand, it highlights how food, water, and energy are not simply resources whose provenance one may either know or not know but are intimately entangled within everyday concerns. For instance, one boy was able to visualise the infrastructures and journeys of water at a scale ranging over hundreds of kilometres – but only because he had picked up these knowledges through everyday interactions with water pipes, pumps, and ditches in his local community. On the other hand, young people in our research connected discussions of ‘natural’ resources with a keen awareness of social injustices in Brazil, particularly during the ongoing political-financial crisis. They highlighted that not only were they ‘connected’ with the sources of food, water, and energy, but that in turn questions of ‘resources’ were intimately connected with inequalities in accessing those resources, and about which they felt very strongly.

Our paper does not suggest completely dismissing the idea of (re)connecting children with nature. Rather it asks geographers, childhood studies scholars and educators to acknowledge that children and young people are connected with ‘natures’ and with ‘natural resources’ – albeit in ways that might go beyond certain assumptions in some Anglophone contexts. Therefore, we pose the question: what might Forest Schools and other nature-based, environmental or outdoor forms of education learn from contexts like Brazil about the multiple ways that children already are, and could, be (re)connected with nature(s)?

About the author: Peter Kraftl is Professor of Human Geography at the University of Birmingham, UK, and led a team of UK and Brazilian academics researching young Brazilians’ experiences of, and learning about, the food-water-energy nexus in Brazil. Further information about the project, and the rest of the research team, is available at the project’s website: http://www.foodwaterenergynexus.com/

Barkham, P. 2018. National Trust criticised for evicting a forest school from its woods. The Guardian. Retrieved from: https://www.theguardian.com/uk-news/2018/oct/13/national-trust-criticised-for-evicting-a-forest-school-from-its-woods

Glum, J. 2017. Origin of Food: Children say cheese comes from plants, pasta from animals. Newsweek. Retrieved from: https://www.newsweek.com/kids-food-nutrition-misconceptions-survey-624337

Kraftl P, Balastieri JAP, Campos AEM, et al. (Re)thinking (re)connection: Young people, “natures” and the water–energy–food nexus in São Paulo State, BrazilTrans Inst Br Geogr2018;00:1–16. https://doi.org/10.1111/tran.12277

The National Trust https://www.nationaltrust.org.uk/children-and-nature

When do we move, and how far?

By Frances Darlington-Pollock (University of Liverpool), Nik Lomax, and Paul Norman (University of Leeds)


Image credit: Jamie Sarner CC-BY 2.0

Many of us will move house multiple times. Some moves may be international, but many more will be within the boundaries of the country in which we currently live. The majority will be across short distances – within or between local neighbourhoods and towns. The reasons why we move house vary: we may (want to) move to a particular school catchment area or our housing requirements change. Some move seeking employment opportunities or for higher education. We may later move upon retirement, to release equity, downsize, or to provide or seek care. While it is highly likely that at some point in our lives we will be faced with the decision of when and where to move, the factors influencing that decision will vary. This variation in the circumstances surrounding our decision to move means that different groups of the population have different probabilities of moving, and the nature of that move (e.g. in terms of distance) varies.

In a socially, economically and ethnically diverse population, the possible factors or circumstances governing individual moves can vary greatly. The government’s racial disparity audit reveals the extent of this possible variation, recording stark differences across a range of factors including health, employment rates and access to social housing. Given these contrasting experiences, it is important to understand whether and how far different groups of the population are likely to move. This has implications for how we provide for the population. Resource-allocation, from schooling to healthcare provision, is complicated by the fact that the population is selectively mobile. This selectivity is recorded in the literature in terms of documenting the array of socio-economic and demographic factors associated with the likelihood of a move, and how these factors vary over the lifecourse.

However, less is known about whether factors influencing migration vary within an ethnically diverse population, some of whom were born overseas and immigrated to the UK, while others are second+ generation migrants born in the UK. This matters in the context of debates around community cohesion and integration. Are some groups more able to move, and perhaps less constrained than others? Are preferences for remaining in the same place or moving over short distances born out of attachment to an area or community, or the result of constrained circumstances? These sorts of questions are key to understanding the changing ethnic composition of our towns and communities, and become increasingly important given recent reports of the spatial variation to everyday perceptions of immigration and integration.

In England and Wales, the Census of population is an invaluable resource with which to examine patterns of ethnic internal migration. The richness of the data enables the study of the factors associated with the likelihood of moving house, how far people move, and whether these vary between ethnic groups by age, and within ethnic groups depending on where they were born. We can ask questions such as: Are some ethnic groups (e.g. White British) with particular characteristics (e.g. educational attainment, social class) more or less likely than another ethnic group to move shorter distances? Does this pattern vary by age, or between UK-born and foreign-born groups?

Key to our analytical strategy was differentiating between age groups, and by country of birth. This entailed sub-setting our sample from the 2011 Census into different age groups and by UK-born or foreign-born status. Sub-setting the data and running a series of models allows us to estimate the probability of a move over a particular distance for different groups. We can examine whether the relationship between moving house for an individual of a given ethnic group born in the UK varies to that of an individual of the same ethnic group either of a different age or born overseas. Within these models, we control for a broad array of factors known to influence the probability of moving.

Our results contrast with previous research. It has been suggested that minority ethnic groups are more mobile than the White British population, but that these differences are to some extent explained by different socio-economic profiles. In other words, higher rates of migration in a particular ethnic group are explained by a concentration of factors known to be associated with a higher likelihood of migrating (e.g. higher levels of educational attainment, or being single). Controlling for these factors in the model should then reduce differences between ethnic groups in the likelihood of moving house. This is not the case, and it is particularly apparent when sub-setting the population by age and by country of birth. There are also differences within and between ethnic groups in terms of the distance moved. This is important as we must ask why some groups are more or less likely to move across particular distances.

We also made use of a new question introduced in the 2011 Census asking foreign-born individuals when they arrived in the UK. For our foreign-born sample, we ran an additional set of models for each age group including a variable controlling for year of arrival. As the population was subset by age, we essentially ‘fixed’ age which helps to separate the effect of time spent in the UK from increasing age—each may differently influence the likelihood of moving house. Time spent in the UK explained more of the differences between ethnic groups in the probability of moving house than the socioeconomic and demographic factors we controlled for in our models.

There is a need to integrate discussions of international and internal migration given the complexity of the dynamics shaping differences in ethnic internal migration. More research into the nature of different migration events might reveal whether the remaining unexplained differences between ethnic groups reflect barriers to integration, a lack of rootedness in the local community, or a preference for mobility either as an individual or as a household.

About the authors: Frances Darlington-Pollock is a Lecturer in Population Geography at the University of Liverpool. Nik Lomax is a University Academic Fellow and Paul Norman is a Lecturer in Human Geography, both at the University of Leeds.

Darlington‐Pollock F, Lomax N, Norman P. Ethnic internal migration: The importance of age and migrant statusGeogr J2018;00:1–14. https://doi.org/10.1111/geoj.12286 (open access)


The Guardian. (2017). Audit lays bare racial disparities in UK schools, courts and workplaces. Retrieved from https://www.theguardian.com/uk-news/2017/oct/09/audit-lays-bare-racial-disparities-in-uk-schools-courts-and-workplaces

The Independent. (2018). We’ve just completed the largest ever survey into British attitudes to immigration – and this is what we found. Retrieved from https://www.independent.co.uk/voices/uk-immigration-british-people-racism-xenophobia-multiculturalism-a8540951.html

Scaling-up climate action: a geographer’s primer

By Stefan Bouzarovski, University of Manchester & Håvard Haarstad, University of Bergen


‘World gets climate change ultimatum’ declared the UK Independent’s front page on the 8th of October 2018, following the publication of the International Panel for Climate Change’s (IPCC) long-awaited report on 1.5°C global warming. The IPCC report highlights the need for rapid and far-reaching changes in all aspects of society: land, energy, industry, buildings, transport, and cities. Employing an unusually urgent tone, it places an emphasis on connections between climate action, on the one hand, and the work of non-state actors as well as policies on jobs, security, and technology, on the other. A call for scaling-up and intensifying the global response to climate change is evident throughout the report.

The IPCC’s message resonates with the findings of our recently-published paper in the Transactions of the Institute of British Geographers on the development of relational thinking around the upscaling of low-carbon urban mitigation strategies. The paper starts from the premise that mainstream understandings of sustainable energy transitions have, to date, lacked a significant engagement with core human geography debates on the production and articulation of spatial scale. We contend that dominant policies and theories on climate change mitigation have tended to think of scale as a linear and nested hierarchy of ‘levels’ – not too different from Russian ‘matryoshka’ stacking dolls – unfolding against the background of seemingly passive urban and regional landscape. There has been limited recognition of the non-hierarchical conceptions of scale that have been proposed and developed by numerous geographers over a period of several decades (e.g. Marston et al. 2005).

At the core of the paper lies a case study of the multi-sited ‘Reduce Energy Use and Change Habits’ (REACH) project. REACH was funded by the European Union and implemented by a coalition of non-governmental organizations, advocacy groups, think tanks, small businesses, and practitioners working across several Southeastern European countries. It aimed to address household-level energy inequities at both the ‘practical and structural level’ (Živčič et al. 2016, 789). REACH focused its attention on undertaking energy efficiency improvements, in homes via overlapping communities of place and interest. At the same time, REACH activists actively lobbied governments and companies to promote climate-friendly policy and legislation. Using informal exchanges and public announcements – press releases, conferences and publications – project members pointed to underpinning injustices in the privatization and regulation of the energy sector, as well as the continued political neglect of energy efficiency and affordability among low-income households (Bouzarovski and Thomson 2017).

In the paper, we argue that REACH’s ability to effect transformational change hinged upon its ability to enroll a variety of actors operating at different levels of governance, while exposing the power relations and inequalities that underpin the production of urban space. Through this example, REACH shows how low-carbon energy initiatives travel and expand across multiple spatial sites – in other words, ‘rescaling’ – via three sets of processes. First, this involves processes of politicization, expressed by the ability to challenge established power relations, ideological systems and logics of capitalist social reproduction beyond the territorial location of a given LCUI. Second, it requires enrolment: interaction, knowledge exchange and engagement with actors operating at multiple levels of governance, and involving state and non-state organizations alike. Third, we recognize a dynamic of hybridization, involving the entanglement of humans, technologies and nature in the provision and regulation of energy.

The combined effect of all three processes is the positioning of cities as active agents in the process of low-carbon development. However, environmentally and socially transformative change in the energy domain is both strategic and messy, involving alterations in household-level practices and the introduction of new governance configurations at the same time. Even if our paper starts from a critique of existing thinking and policy approaches, the framework that it develops – we hope – may provide the starting point for more explicit human geography engagements with the much-needed expansion of climate action across society and space.

About the authors: Stefan Bouzarovski is a Professor at the Department of Geography, University of Manchester, where he convenes the People and Energy Programme within the Manchester Urban Institute while chairing the EU Energy Poverty Observatory, and the COST ENGAGER network. Håvard Haarstad is a Professor of Human Geography and Director of the Centre for Climate and Energy Transformation at the University of Bergen.

Bouzarovski S, Haarstad H. Rescaling low‐carbon transformations: Towards a relational ontologyTrans Inst Br Geogr2018;00:1–14. https://doi.org/10.1111/tran.12275

Are we losing our way?

By Rebecca Collins and David McCullough 

A sunny weekend in Britain sees walkers flocking to areas of outstanding national beauty, eager to enjoy some of the UK’s most beautiful landscapes.  Whilst most walkers go prepared with appropriate clothing, footwear, refreshment, and navigational tools, a growing number set out ill-equipped, sometimes finding themselves in danger as a result.  This year alone, one group of walkers had to be guided down off Blencathra in the Lake District, having failed to take appropriate navigation equipment, and three separate incidents in Ambleside (also in the Lake District) resulted from members of the public attempting to navigate snow and ice-bound mountain passes.  Local mountain rescuers later stated that the only navigational technologies that can provide reliable information about weather conditions are “your eyes and common sense; you can’t blame your sat-nav.”

In an attempt to tackle growing numbers of mountain rescue call-outs by ill-prepared walkers, this summer a team comprised of representatives from the National Trust, Cumbria Constabulary and the Lake District Search and Mountain Rescue Association, questioned all walkers at Wasdale Head as to their preparedness for their journey.  Learning more about walkers’ levels of preparation is part of an attempt to ensure the future sustainability of volunteer-run mountain rescue operations, at a time when growing numbers of people depend solely on GPS-based technologies – primarily smartphone apps and in-car sat-nav systems – for everyday navigation.  In recent years questions have been asked as to whether over-reliance on these technologies is having a detrimental effect on our innate way-finding ability.

In our recent paper for Area, “‘Are we losing our way?’ Navigational aids, socio-sensory way-finding and the spatial awareness of young adults” we report on an experiment designed to explore the impact of different navigational technologies on way-finding ability and sense of place.  The experiment responds directly to the 2012 call by Axon, Speake and Crawford in the same journal for geographers to engage more actively with the potentialities at the intersection of evolving navigational technologies and spatial and cartographic literacy.

The experiment required participants to navigate between two points in a series of towns unknown to them, using a different navigational aid each time.  On one route groups used a GPS compatible unit on a smartphone; on a second route they used a paper Ordnance Survey map; and on the third route they were asked to reach the destination with no navigational aids beyond clues in the built and natural environment and their sense of direction.  Following completion of these navigational tasks, participants were individually interviewed about their experience of way-finding using these different methods, and they were asked to draw sketch maps showing as much detail of each route as they could remember.

Although all our participants (without exception) claimed that the GPS tool (i.e. a smartphone) was their preferred navigational aid, the routes navigated using it were described overwhelmingly negatively, as “cold” and “boring”, and were characterised by scant recollection of details from the journey, regardless of which route (and town) the GPS was used to navigate.  In contrast, the routes navigated using the paper OS map were viewed overwhelmingly positively and were characterised by detailed recollections of the routes, including interactions with people and observations of the natural environment.  Despite this, the paper map as a tool was described overwhelmingly negatively, in terms including “not practical”, “out of date” and “hassle”.

Our findings raise interesting questions as to how to strike a balance between the convenience, familiarity, and potential of digital navigational tools and those characteristics of non-digital methods which appear to be better attuned to engendering place attentiveness.

About the authors: Rebecca Collins is Deputy Head of Department and Senior Lecturer at the Department of Geography and International Development, University of Chester. David McCullough is a Department of Geography and International Development, University of Chester alumnus. 


Axon, S. , Speake, J. and Crawford, K. (2012), ‘At the next junction, turn left’: attitudes towards Sat Nav use. Area, 44: 170-177. doi:10.1111/j.1475-4762.2012.01086.x
McCullough D, Collins R. “Are we losing our way?” Navigational aids, socio‐sensory way‐finding and the spatial awareness of young adultsArea2018;00:1–10. https://doi.org/10.1111/area.12478




What do we want to save from extinction?

By Ben Garlick, York St John University

Loch an Eilean Castle

Loch an Eilean Castle, where ospreys reportedly nested from at least 1808 until 1898. Photo by the Ben Garlick, July 2014.

The International Union for the Conservation of nature (IUCN) recently announced that nearly a third of all species surveyed are threatened with extinction. Such alarming extinction levels add weight to the thesis that we have entered a new epoch in our planet’s history – the age of humans, or the ‘Anthropocene’.

Mounting realisation and anxiety around the scale of biodiversity loss infuse conservation projects with palpable urgency. Ever more creative, experimental and open-ended strategies are proposed to reverse human damage (Lorimer and Driessen, 2014). Talk of eco-restoration, re-wilding, even ‘de-extinction’ offer sci-fi-tinged solutions.

For example, earlier this summer, sea eagles (Haliaetus albicilla) bred on Orkney for the first time in 95 years following reintroduction in 2013. Rendered extinct in Britain in 1918 following persecution, these birds have been the subject of several successful twentieth-century re-introduction schemes since the 1970s. A healthy population now nests on Scotland’s west coast.

Such an example is interesting because it raises questions about what extinction involves and objectives of conservation. What, in this case, are trying to save or restore? Are the eagles breeding on Orkney today equivalent to those of the past? Furthermore, if a species can return from extinction, then what did we actually lose when they disappeared? Are there some registers in which their loss can still be felt, and made to matter?

In my own research (Garlick, 2018), I explore such questions through the history of conserving another once-lost British raptor: the osprey (Pandion haliaetus). Like sea eagles, ospreys have returned to the UK – albeit under their own agency – despite having been wiped out at the hands of Victorian naturalist-collectors and gamekeepers by 1916. Attempts to nest in the latter 1950s were stewarded by the RSPB, most famously at Loch Garten, Speyside, where the public can still visit them today.

Though a success story of practical and dedicated conservation efforts, considering the birds’ existence prior to their eradication can complicate this triumphant narrative of return. The ospreys which exist in Britain today might be biologically near-identical to those of before, but they are not the same birds. Something remains lost.

Victorian naturalists’ describing the ospreys resident during the nineteenth century recall a tendency to nest on rocky crags and ruined human structures, such as the castle at Loch an Eilein, Speyside (Image). Some accounts even assert that these birds always nested on such structures, ignoring trees in the vicinity. Today, it is clear that ospreys the world over demonstrate a variable tolerance for different nest sites. Despite an increasing tendency to nest on human structures (like pylons), and tolerate human disturbance, British birds overwhelmingly nest in trees. Their former rock and ruin haunts sit empty. Why?

Male ospreys have a strong tendency to return to their birth-region upon maturity. Young ospreys often colonise sites that resemble the situation of their own fledging and prefer to inherit an existing nest rather than build from scratch (Dennis, 2008). All of this means that ospreys have the capacity to develop an affinity for particular kinds of places. Pair monogamy and faith to successful nests see structures maintained and used for generations. I argue that we might understand such nesting traditions as osprey ‘culture’: an inherited, communally shared, characteristic ‘way of life’ (Anderson et al, 2002). Nesting preferences, accruing over time, mark these ospreys as different to others: a distinct expression of osprey life, with a particular orientation towards the geography of nesting.

Ecological restoration, re-wilding, and de-extinction are increasingly championed as viable strategies for repairing, perhaps reversing, the damage done by humans. But such strategies also tend to identify and declare the survival of species at the genetic level. Some animals are sacrificed, killed or kept as captive breeders, to ensure the health of an abstract ‘population’ of creatures, with particular averaged characteristics and shared attributes.

Yet elsewhere, a concern with nonhuman ‘cultural life’ that challenges the notion of interchangeable biological beings does permeate conservation practice. There is a desire to conserve ‘authentic beings’, and ensure that captively bred animals obtain the necessary life experiences, behaviours, and learned ‘knowledge’ to survive a way of life in the wild (van Dooren, 2016). Conservation strategies can be designed to account for the cultural dimensions of animal life.

You can visit Loch an Eilein today (see the image at the beginning of this post) and see the empty castle for yourself. Does this emptiness matter? I think so. It suggests that the losses of extinction echo beyond the absence or presence of particular biological bodies. It suggests today’s birds are, even if only in a small way, qualitatively different.

We should not become accustomed to thinking that the ability to re-introduce, or re-create, past biological species means that all environmental damage can be undone. This slippery slope, as geographers have recognised (Lorimer 2015), leads to the evocation of fungible natures, justifying unbridled development on the condition that degradation is ‘made good’ elsewhere. Alternatively, realising that no return is clean, and that some things remain lost, might encourage us to reckon with what is truly at stake in the contemporary environmental crisis.

About the author: Ben Garlick is a lecturer in Human Geography with the School of Humanities, Religion, and Philosophy at York St John University. 


Anderson, K., Domosh, M., Pile, S., & Thrift, N. (Eds.) (2002). Handbook of cultural geography. London, UK: Sage.

Dennis, R. (2008). A life of ospreys. Cathness, UK: Whittles Publishing.

van Dooren, T. (2016). Authentic crows: Identity, captivity and emergent forms of life. Theory, Culture & Society, 33, 29–52.

Garlick, B. (2018) Cultural geographies of extinction: Animal culture among Scottish ospreys. Transactions of the Institute of British Geographers. https://doi.org/10.1111/tran.12268. 1-16.

Lorimer, J. (2015). Wildlife in the Anthropocene: Conservation after nature. London, UK: University of Minnesota Press.

Lorimer, J., & Driessen, C. (2014). Wild experiments at the Oostvaardersplassen: Rethinking environmentalism in the Anthropocene. Transactions of the Institute of British Geographers, 39, 169–181.