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.

Stormy waters: Debating the British Overseas Territories in Parliament

By Nichola Harmer, University of Plymouth


Photo Credit: Robin S. Taylor CC BY 3.0

August marked the start of peak hurricane season in the Caribbean, where last year Category 5 Hurricanes Irma and Maria wrought destruction across several of Britain’s overseas territories.  Criticised for an initially slow and unstructured response to aiding islanders affected by the disaster, the UK government recently announced a new improved strategy for monitoring and responding to future hurricanes. The plan includes improved coordination between the UK, the overseas territories, and other international actors, as well as the investment of further resources in the region, and additional insurance.

The devastation and loss caused by the hurricanes last year brought to public attention the continuing responsibilities of the UK to the overseas territories. Initial limitations on the UK Government’s use of overseas development assistance funding to aid the islands underscored their unusual position as non-independent territories in an international political system geared towards independent states. The crisis also brought back into the public spotlight wider and sometimes contentious issues surrounding the relationship between Britain and its fourteen remaining overseas territories.

In an article in The Geographical JournalI explore this relationship by examining the main concerns regarding the overseas territories expressed by MPs and Lords in the British Parliament between 2010 and 2017. The overseas territories are diverse, including a number in the South Atlantic Ocean:  the Falkland Islands, South Georgia and the South Sandwich Islands, St Helena, Tristan da Cunha, Ascension Island and British Antarctic Territory. In the Pacific Ocean there is tiny Pitcairn Island; in the Indian Ocean the highly contentious British Indian Ocean Territory, where the inhabitants were expelled in the 1960s and 1970s to make way for a US military base; in Europe there is Gibraltar and the Sovereign Base Areas of Akrotiri and Dhekelia in Cyprus, and there are six territories in the Caribbean.

Parliamentary debate on the territories during the researched period reflected this diversity, covering subjects as disparate as defence, the need to protect the rich biodiversity in many of the territories, the Brexit vote, the construction of an airport on remote St Helena, and the rights of Chagossians to return to the Chagos Islands in The British Indian Ocean Territory. Interest in the overseas territories was fairly evenly split between the main political parties and they were discussed both in the Lords and in the Commons.

Analysis of Parliamentary debate showed a peak of interest in the overseas territories in 2016, with many parliamentarians raising questions around this time about transparency in the financial services sector, which forms a significant part of the economy in some overseas territories. This coincided with revelations about tax-dodging in the so-called ‘Panama Papers’, an Anti-Corruption Summit held in London in 2016, and debate in Parliament of a Criminal Finances Bill.

Concerns among many parliamentarians about achieving greater financial transparency in offshore finance led to debate about the sensitive issue of whether or not it was right to impose legislation on the overseas territories. Many of the territories, although under British sovereignty, have varied but often significant levels of political autonomy. Territory inhabitants (except for voters in Gibraltar for EU elections) have no representation in the British parliamentary system. Nonetheless, the UK Parliament is empowered to make laws which affect lives and livelihoods in the overseas territories.

During debates, many parliamentarians expressed the view that the UK should make it compulsory for overseas territories to introduce registers of beneficial ownership to help strengthen measures combating financial crime, an activity which impacts significantly on both developed and developing countries. Others argued that the imposition of legislation was out-of-step with the post-colonial era practices and that the territories should instead be encouraged by the UK to do more on financial transparency. An amendment to the Sanctions and Anti-Money Laundering Bill adopted in Parliament earlier this year (requiring overseas territories to hold open registers of beneficial ownership in companies registered in their jurisdictions by 2020) was recently greeted with fierce criticism in the British Virgin Islands. The Premier, Dr Orlando Smith, described it as “a fundamental breach in the constitutional relationship and modern partnership between the United Kingdom and the Virgin Islands” and as a threat to the economy and reputation of the islands.

This dispute and the wider debates within Parliament draw attention to the ongoing, and at times controversial and difficult, relationship between Britain and its offshore territories. In July this year, the Foreign Affairs Committee announced an inquiry on the future of the UK overseas territories, which will consider their resilience, how the Foreign Office and Commonwealth Office manages its responsibilities towards them, and how it considers their future. The political, economic, ethical and reputational entanglement of the British state, with its widely dispersed and hugely varied territories, points to the continuing complexity of current political geographies involving the UK. Ongoing tensions over financial transparency, efforts to strengthen disaster response in the territories following last year’s hurricanes, and a plethora of historic and emerging issues from across the territories, mean they are likely to remain firmly on the radar of parliamentarians and of keen interest to political geographers seeking to better understand the complexities and implications of relations between states and the offshore territories.

About the author: Nichola Harmer is a lecturer in Human geography at Plymouth University.

BBC. (2018). Hurricane Irma: MPs say UK’s response ‘lacked structure’. Retrieved from https://www.bbc.com/news/uk-politics-43308421

The Guardian. (2018). Britain ‘will strengthen response to hurricanes in the Caribbean’. Retrieved from https://www.theguardian.com/politics/2018/jul/04/britain-will-strengthen-response-to-hurricanes-in-caribbean

Harmer, N. (2018). Spaces of concern: Parliamentary Discourse on Britain’s Overseas Territories. The Geographical Journal Article. DOI: 10.1111/geoj.12273

Smith, O. (2018). Premier Smith Statement on United Kingdom Sanctions and Anti-Money Laundering Bill. Retrieved from: http://www.bvi.gov.vg/media-centre/premier-smith-statement-united-kingdom-sanctions-and-anti-money-laundering-bill

Mapping Microbial Multiplicity

By Carmen McLeod, Erika Szymanski, Joshua Evans, Anna Krzywoszynska, and Alexandra Sexton 

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Microbes are everywhere. Headlines announce that microbes have been found in all sorts of spaces, from NASA’s cleanrooms to the vitreous fluid inside the human eye, in addition to such now-familiar residences as soil, skin, and all around our homes. And beyond simply being found, microbes are increasingly seen as significant and often valuable in virtually every space humans study—leading to more and more calls for research that flows between and beyond the natural and social sciences, as with this Geo: Geography and Environment open collection.

Repeating the truism that ‘microbes are everywhere’, however, can risk flattening microbial life into a sameness that is so much less interesting and useful than the diversity this ‘everywhere’ implies. Moreover, reifying ‘the microbe’ would suggest that the single-celled microbial body—one of many possible units of analysis—is always at the root of microbial life and human workings with it.

For these reasons and more, we propose deeper critical discussion of current approaches to thinking about and with microbes in the social sciences. This concern motivates our Geo: Geography and Environment-sponsored session at the upcoming RGS-IBG conference in Cardiff, where we will present and discuss work exploring some of these potentials and limitations. Our experiences working with human–microbial communities in a range of settings have spurred us to consider how social sciences might get better at dealing with microbes as crucial societal and environmental agents. We invite you to join us in this exciting debate.

To give a taste of the session, we thought each of us would share an image and anecdote about how we’ve found and followed our microbial fascinations, and the promise and trouble they bring.

Click on the contributor’s name, or scroll down, to read more about their work:

Carmen McLeod

Carmen McLeod

Synthetic biologists’ crocheted imaginings of microbes for public engagement activities

In 2015, I began working in a UK synthetic biology research centre. As the only full-time social scientist amongst microbiologists and other natural science-related disciplines, I was tasked with embedding a Responsible Research and Innovation (RRI) framework within the work of the centre. I assumed that much of my work would centre on the ‘big picture’ relationship between science and society. As it turns out, I have become fascinated by the smaller and intimate relations between humans and microbes. This began as I became aware of the complex ways that my scientific colleagues interact with microbes. Interviews and ethnographic fieldwork revealed that laboratory work encompasses what could be termed ‘cultures of care’ for microbial life and relationships that go far beyond scientific goals. My interest has extended to other specific relations that emerge when considering the context of the human microbiome. In particular, my work is looking at the key role that the gut microbiome plays in health and wellbeing, and the new (and old) human–microbial relations this reveals. Faecal microbiota transplantation (FMT), for example, is an ancient treatment for a disrupted gut microbiome, and FMT applications are growing in both the clinic and ‘DIY’ settings, revealing new sociocultural and ethical considerations. I am excited by the cross-disciplinary opportunities that emerge from studying and illuminating the places where humans and microbes meet. This area of scholarship has the potential to disrupt binary categories, such as human/non-human; science/society; and nature/culture, and my hope is that there will be increasing interest in the work of scholars exploring these messy human–microbial spaces.

Erika Szymanski

Erika Szymanski

My companionable sourdough starter and the current contents of my nightstand which, to be fair, don’t usually live on top of each other.

Yeast has been following me around since my childhood, when I baked bread with my mother and helped destem grapes for my parents’ tiny backyard winery. Notwithstanding a brief affair with gram-negative bacteria as a microbiology student, it wouldn’t be inaccurate to say that I’ve followed yeast through childhood hobbies and adolescent reading to higher education in microbiology, through humanities and now into the social sciences. There might seem little mystery in why someone initially trained in microbiology has, in her later career as a social scientist, chosen to work on microbes. But why have microbes stuck when so much else has not? Yeast, I find, is able to follow me anywhere—or, rather, I am able to follow it—as a common inhabitant of so many spaces where science, technology, culture, and domestic life happen. It is mundane to say that microbes are everywhere. But a corollary that seems to be articulated less often is that everywhere there are ways of coming to know microbes, and that these myriad ways of knowing may often be complementary to each other. In some of my recent work with the synthetic yeast project (Saccharomyces cerevisiae 2.0), I’ve suggested that conceptualizing microbes as collaborators to be listened to, learned from, and worked with—not just as tools or machines to be completely controlled—may offer new routes for achieving human design goals with living systems.

Joshua Evans


While the Kimbucha is a more recent encounter of mine with microbes involved in food fermentation, it illustrates much of what both enthralls me about microbes, and what suggests to me that current approaches to making sense of them may be insufficient. Kim Wejendorp is a friend and collaborator who works as a chef and crazy brain at a restaurant called Amass in Copenhagen. This screenshot, from his instagram account, details how he arrived at making a kombucha from scratch. Kim’s primary motivation is to produce new flavours for the restaurant’s menu, but it strikes me that with this project he has also inadvertently levelled a challenge at both received fermentation orthodoxy and the scientific literature, both of which generally agree that kombucha can only be made from existing culture. The question of whether this is a kombucha, sensu stricto, cannot simply be answered by looking at which cellular bodies are living in it or which ‘species’ emerge from its metagenome—it must also and mainly involve considerations of flavour, culinary use, and social function. We might indeed typically expect social scientists to highlight these factors; yet strangely, most social researchers studying human–microbe relationships have so far worked rather uncritically from the stories scientists tell, without questioning what other stories are missing and possible. By revealing such gaps, these novel fermentation projects are rich sites for investigating alternative and as-yet-unaccounted-for ways in which microbes come to matter.

Anna Krzywoszynska


“If you build it, they will come.” Jokingly quoting from a Kevin Costner movie, the farmer I am interviewing brings the invisible microbes in this clod of soil into the conversation; he explains how his changed land management practices are creating a hospitable environment for this microbial life to inhabit. In the UK and across the world a ‘microbial turn’ is taking place in conventional agriculture as farmers and scientists turn to soil biota for solutions to climate change adaptation, productivity increases, and even planetary salvation (through the much discussed capacity of soils to act as carbon sinks). There are similarities between the current interest in microbial life in the farming community, and my previous experiences of following microbes through the worlds of organic winemaking. The invisibility of microbes invites scientific forms of ‘making sense’ of human–microbe encounters and relationships. At the same time, everyday practices of living and working with microbes in fields and wineries have more to do with changing personal identities and ethics then with deploying ‘certified’ knowledges. Scientific tools and narratives are both embraced, refuted, and imaginatively redeployed; working with microbes thus goes to the heart of classic social scientific questions about the relationships between knowledge and power. But there is more here than interpretation. What I see are experiments in living on the planet differently through microbes, with microbes. The  most exciting moments come when the microbes thwart the stories I, my research participants, or my natural science colleagues are able to tell about them: when a wild yeast fermentation creates an unforgettable and unplanned rosé wine; when the unexpected alliance between cover crops, soil biota, and slugs wipes out a harvest. These moments challenge me to think about the relationship between the agential cuts I make as a social scientist in deciding what is and what is not an object of my inquiry when I say I am researching ‘human–microbe relations’. They gesture towards the need for new social scientific understandings of human and nonhuman agency which go beyond the struggle between control and co-existence—which are about finding ways to be human well in a busy world. I am excited to think through the kinds of social and inter-disciplinary science which are needed to be better at living (and making a living) in a world where humans do not call all the shots (something I have been thinking through in the context of soil for a while).

Alexandra Sexton


There have been many stories told over human history about the ‘future of food’. These stories are important not only for tracing evolutions in technological promise but also for taking a pulse of the food-related anxieties that have been felt across different times and spaces. Taken from a Demo Day of tech start-ups in San Francisco, the image above is one of the current stories being told by an emerging technological movement in Silicon Valley, California. In short, this story describes a broken global food system, particularly livestock-based food, and that salvation lies in the innovation streams and business models of Big (bio)Tech. When I took this photo I didn’t know that I was soon to encounter microbes through more stories presented by the start-ups during their pitches. Speaking to an audience of venture capitalists and media personnel, I heard microbes framed as a ‘logical’, ‘sustainable’, ‘ethical’ and, perhaps most emphatically, lucrative solution to future food production. I also heard that there are “literally no down sides” to these new microbe-based food factories. I was shown graphs of predicted company growth and projected environmental savings. Microbes were conjured as biology-turned-technology, their ‘natural’ behaviours reimagined through notions of the ‘synthetic’ that rendered them more useful for feeding (some of) us and making (some of) us rich in the process. Reflecting on the microbe in these stories has quietly forced me to ask new questions in my research, particularly concerning how the invisible is made visible through the mechanisms of the Valley, venture capital and media hype; and conversely, it has invited consideration of the agents and stories made purposefully silent. These are all inherently political acts disguised through the seemingly apolitical, controllable and distinct ‘bodies’ of microbes. The task set for myself as a social scientist, then, is to critically unpack the hype and find ways of staying open to the ability of microbes to resist and exceed the stories that are told about them.

Taken together, we believe these and other stories suggest why more and more diverse microbe-focussed studies might be useful. We invite you to join us at our session at RGS (Wednesday, August 29, 9-10:40am) to discuss the shape critical microbe studies might take, and to learn more about Microbe Work—our new network for facilitating cross-disciplinary inquiry into microbe–human relations.

This post was first published on the Geo: Geography and Environment blog: https://blog.geographyandenvironment.com/2018/08/22/mapping-microbial-multiplicity/  and is reproduced here with permission.

About the authors: Carmen McLeod is a senior research fellow in Responsible Research and Innovation at the University of Nottingham. Erika Szymanski is a research fellow in Science, Technology, and Innovation Studies at the University of Edinburgh. Joshua Evans is a DPhil candidate in the School of Geography and the Environment at the University of Oxford. Anna Krzywoszynska is a Leverhulme Early Career Fellow in Geography at the University of Sheffield. Alexandra Sexton is a research fellow in the School of Geography and the Environment at the University of Oxford.

The importance of studying innovation in complex systems: a case study of anaerobic digestion in the UK

By James Suckling, University of Surrey, Claire Hollohan, University of Manchester, and Iain Soutar, University of Exeter

Anaerobic Digestion Plant

GOC Weston-Bygrave 103: Bygrave Lodge anaerobic digestion plant. Photo Credit: Peter O’Connor. CC BY-SA 2.0


We are placing ever greater burdens upon the natural systems that underpin our societies, economies, and industries. While harvesting and consuming food, water and energy are crucial to satisfying our basic needs, it also has implications for our environment, our economy, and our societal well-being. Food waste, for example, is a hugely important issue, with roughly 30% of all food produce being wasted. This is not only an improper end for embedded water, energy, and land resources, but also a waste management challenge, and if landfilled contributes to climate change.

However, all too often systems are managed in isolation from one another meaning that focusing on, say, the energy system may mean that the resultant impacts on other systems (e.g. water, food) are in danger of being overlooked. Highlighting the need to consider the interdependencies between systems, the concept of the water-energy-food (WEF) nexus has been recognised as an important area for sustainability research. Our recent article in The Geographical Journal explores the process of innovation within the WEF nexus, taking anaerobic digestion (AD) as a case study. It is a processing technology which has a potentially bright future, operating across the WEF nexus to bring many benefits, but is one which is often hampered by siloed thinking.

AD is a natural biological process whereby organic matter is decomposed into methane, carbon dioxide and a nutrient-rich liquid called digestate. Harnessing this process in a controlled environment offers a sustainable alternative to producing gas or electricity by other means e.g. via burning fossil fuels. It also presents an attractive option to manage society’s increasing stream of organic wastes from food, farming, and wastewater treatment, while producing, in the digestate, a potentially-valuable alternative to energy intensive mineral based fertilisers.

Although the biological process is always the same, AD applications are hugely diverse, comprising a diversity of inputs (e.g. food waste, slurries, dedicated crops) and outputs (e.g. biogas, electricity, digestate). This also means that AD has the potential to interact with energy, food and water systems in a multitude of ways. In this study, we interviewed owners and operators of AD plants to better understand the nature of these interactions. We sampled a wide variety plants, encompassing micro-scale community enterprises to large commercial operations; those entirely focused on food waste disposal to those processing a range of feedstocks; those capitalising on energy incentives to those pursuing social and sustainability objectives; those based on farms, and those on dedicated sites; and those which are succeeding as viable enterprises, along with those which are not.

The breadth of AD as an innovation presents both opportunities and obstacles for accelerating its deployment. On one hand, its applicability towards processing a range of inputs and producing a range of products broadens its appeal beyond just energy production. That said, the chief driver of AD in the UK has, to date, been energy policy, particularly support for low carbon electricity and heat production. Though having created a supportive context for AD, the presence of energy subsidies has also constrained further innovation. For example, there are few incentives to explore AD as a tool for organic waste management, land management, social wellbeing, or the intended manufacture of digestate as a product in its own right. Indeed, those plants already operating are constructed to capitalise on the energy rewards, and opportunities may have already been missed, but for the lack of a more diverse support structure. Finally, with fluctuating levels of support from energy incentives, there is uncertainty within the AD industry and the businesses already operating, making new investment unlikely and limiting the scope for diversification of existing plants.

Taking a so-called ‘nexus’ approach is vital if we are interested in ensuring that sustainability transitions are truly sustainable. The nexus approach has emerged in response to calls for research and policy on complex systems to draw on whole-systems perspectives, that is, perspectives that consider the dynamics between multiple innovations and how they coevolve and impact on wider system goals. It demands that we integrate knowledge from multiple disciplines, maintain focus on multiple domains, and apply learning at multiple scales to emphasise the complex set of interconnections between systems. Our findings highlight that if the diverse and bright future envisaged, by some, for AD is to be realised, then its strengths and weaknesses across the WEF nexus must be understood and recognised in research, policy and experimentation, rather than just in terms of the energy sector against which it is currently judged.

About the authors: James Suckling is a Research Fellow at the University of Surrey, Claire Hoolohan is a Research Fellow within the Tyndall Centre for Climate at the University of Manchester, and Iain Soutar is Lecturer in Energy and Environmental Policy at the University of Exeter.   

FAO. (2018). SAVE FOOD: Global Initiative on Food Loss and Waste Reduction. Key Facts on food loss and waste you should know! Retrieved from http://www.fao.org/save-food/resources/keyfindings/en/

Hoolohan C, Soutar I, Suckling J, Druckman A, Larkin A, McLachlan C. Stepping‐up innovations in the water–energy–food nexus: A case study of anaerobic digestion in the UKThe Geographical Journal2018;00:1–15. https://doi.org/10.1111/geoj.12259

Press Association. (2018). Food thrown out by House of Commons doubles in three years. Retrieved from http://home.bt.com/news/uk-news/food-thrown-out-by-house-of-commons-doubles-in-three-years-11364273890892

Watts, J. (2018). Earth’s resources consumed in ever greater destructive volumes. The Guardian, 23rd July 2018. Retrieved from https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2018/jul/23/earths-resources-consumed-in-ever-greater-destructive-volumes