Planting the seeds of a quiet activism

Laura Pottinger, University of Manchester

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Author’s photo

Though seeds are fundamental to all food systems they have evaded scrutiny in much of the discourse around local and alternative food networks. With rising interest in community gardens, urban allotments and ‘growing your own’ food, some gardeners have begun to question the provenance and suitability of commercially available seeds, and have learnt how to save their own.

‘Seed savers’ are gardeners who cultivate their own fruits and vegetables before selecting, drying and storing the seeds to provide future crops for themselves and others. They claim that home-grown seed is better suited to small-scale, organic systems. What’s more, self-sufficient seed production provides opportunities for resisting the control of what is argued to be an increasingly corporate and concentrated industrial seed system.

Conservation networks, like Garden Organic’s Heritage Seed Library and local seed swap events connect seed savers so that they can share their seed harvest and source unusual varieties at a low cost. In doing so, seed saving networks extend gardeners’ individual and everyday practices with plants and seeds among a wider gardening community, and contribute to the biodiversity of British gardens.

On February 5th 2017, Seedy Sunday takes place in Brighton and Hove. As the UK’s largest and longest running annual seed swap, the event brings gardeners together to swap seeds (one packet can be swapped for either another packet or a fifty-pence donation), exchange gardening advice and skills, listen to talks and learn about local food projects and environmental groups.

seed swap table.jpg

Seed swap table. Author’s photo

In a new paper in Area, I explore how seed savers’ practices of cultivating and exchanging can be understood as a kind of ‘quiet activism’. Though the relatively mundane activities of tending plants and sharing seeds may seem at odds with the vocal and combative protest often associated with traditional accounts of activist behaviour, they can contribute to environmentally and socially progressive goals.

Seed savers propagate and protect rare and heirloom seeds that are outlawed by EU legislation prohibiting the sale of unregistered varieties. Swapping and gifting seed also generates feelings of connectedness amongst extended collectives of growers. As plant material is circulated and sown, it forges links between diverse growing spaces, connecting gardeners over space and time.

A Guardian article exploring ‘the cult of quiet’ highlights a contemporary desire for quietness, and explores the recent trend for silent reading parties, dining and even dating. Occupying a purposeful rather than passive embodied stance, quiet activism seems to promise both radical potential and the possibility of retreat. Seed savers suggest that their tangible practices of making and growing hold greater currency in cultivating environmentally and socially just food systems than vocal, antagonistic protest. But is there also a risk that these quiet acts go unheard?

This research with seed savers prompts geographers to look beyond noisy and disruptive activism to expose small, quietly subversive acts of gardening, crafting, making and doing. These varied forms of action provide a rich terrain for researchers to explore activisms performed at varying volumes, and their unique possibilities and limitations.

About the author:  Laura Pottinger is a Research Associate and Senior Tutor in Geography at the University of Manchester. Laura’s research explores ethical food consumption, focusing on alternative food initiatives. 

References

books_icon Pottinger L 2016 Planting the seeds of a quiet activism Area doi: 10.1111/area.12318

Sokell A 2016 Saving seeds, one teaspoon at a time The Guardian Online Retrieved 12 December 2016

60-world2 Williams L 2016 Ssshhh! How the cult of quiet can change your life The Guardian Online Retrieved 12 December 2016

60-world2 Seedy Sunday http://www.seedysunday.org/

60-world2 Garden Organic’s Heritage Seed Library https://www.gardenorganic.org.uk/hsl

 

 

United and divided responses to complex urban issues

By Christina Culwick, Gauteng City-Region Observatory, South Africa

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Flood damage in Ekurhuleni, 2011. Author’s photograph

In November 2016, Ekurhuleni (South Africa) was hit by a spate of heavy floods that left people dead, houses washed away, cars under water and infrastructure irreparably damaged. These floods came in the wake of an extended drought which was experienced across the country. A quick assessment of the situation may lead to the conclusion that freak weather events are on the rise, and that floods are the inevitable consequence of extreme rainstorms. However, cause and effect are seldom so neatly defined, particularly in urban settings.

There are increasing suggestions that extreme weather events and climate change will have the greatest impact in cities, where people are concentrated and many of the natural systems that could provide buffers against extreme weather have been removed or degraded. When one starts to deconstruct the causes and impacts of natural disasters, the messiness and interconnectedness of contributing factors quickly become evident. Natural disasters occur at the intersection of social, political and environmental systems.

There is growing emphasis within both academia and practice on the need for integrated knowledge and disaster management solutions (Mercer et al 2010). However this is only possible through rethinking problems and combining a range of knowledge which is traditionally kept separate (Robinson 2008). Disasters, such as those experienced in Ekurhuleni, provide opportunities to reflect on the current understanding of disasters and approaches to managing them, and find more effective ways of anticipating, preparing and coping with disasters.

A recently published article in Area (Culwick and Patel, 2016) uses set of floods in Atlasville, Ekurhuleni, which took place between 2006 and 2010, to make the case for transdisciplinary approaches in disaster risk reduction. The Atlasville community experienced a series of floods between 2016-2010. Depending on who one spoke to, different people had different assessments of what led to the unprecedented floods in the areas. There was evidence to support some claims that the floods were associated with heavy rainfall events, or extended periods of rain. Other claims placed greater emphasis on the failings of the municipality in proactively managing flood risk by neglecting maintenance of the stormwater system, allowing upstream developments without sufficient rainwater management interventions and poor coordination between municipal departments. Based on their assessment of the cause of the floods, different people came to different conclusions about what flood management response would be most appropriate.

However, if the range of knowledge and perceptions are combined it is possible to gain a more comprehensive understanding of the situation. Culwick and Patel (2016) explore how, when people are able to reframe the problem in ways that cut across sectors and individual perspectives, it becomes much easier to see interconnections, blindspots and where different components have a compounding effect. The interventions that emerged from integrating the different knowledge and perceptions highlighted the importance of not just a single approach, but a multi-pronged approach that deliberately enhances the absorptive and adaptive capacity within each of the natural, infrastructural, municipal and social systems.

The significance of the research findings is twofold. Firstly, the community’s knowledge and social capital emerged as an important resource to assist with monitoring, adaptation and disaster response. Secondly, in the context of disaster management, individual factors in isolation may not pose major threat of disaster, however when these factors compound they can lead to significant disaster risk. It is thus critical to adopt an integrated approach to understanding and managing disaster risk.

About the author: Christina Culwick is a research at Gauteng City-Region Observatory. Her research interests lie in urban sustainability transitions, resilience, environmental governance, and transforming Gauteng towards a liveable, inclusive and just city-region.

References

Chernick I and Mbangeni L 2016 6 Killed in Gauteng flood horror IOL News

Joubert J 2016 SA drought not broken after driest year in history The Tines

books_icon Culwick C and Patel Z 2016 United and divided responses to complex urban issues: insights on the value of a transdisciplinary approach to flooding risk Area DOI: 10.1111/area.12282.

books_icon Mercer J Kelman I Taranis L and Suchet-Pearson S 2010 Framework for integrating indigenous and scientific knowledge for disaster risk reduction Disasters 34 214–239

books_icon Robinson J 2008 Being undisciplined: Transgressions and intersections in academia and beyond Futures 40(1) 70-86

The world needs to be concerned: Pathological lives

By Steve Hinchliffe, University of Exeter

“The diversity and geographical distribution of influenza viruses currently circulating in wild ad domestic birds are unprecedented since the advent of modern tools for virus detection and characterization. The world needs to be concerned” (WHO 2015: emphasis added).

Bird flu might be about pathological birds, spreading diseases.  Or is it about pathological lives, a sense that our economies and modes of organising life are in themselves causing concern?

This week half a million birds have been culled in Niigata, Japan in order to contain a highly pathogenic avian influenza virus (HPAIV or bird flu).  On the Friesian island of Texel in The Netherlands, 500 birds have been killed from a related strain, resulting in the closure of an important nature reserve.  Towards the end of 2016, this strain of influenza is busy circulating in 14 countries, affecting wild and domestic birds in Hungary, Germany and France.

In the UK, yet to report any HPAIV infections this year, a 30-day Avian Influenza Prevention Zone has been announced. Farmers and keepers of zoological collections are being encouraged to move birds indoors and to improve biosecurity for ‘housed’ flocks. Biosecurity suggests that housing birds on its own is not enough. Vigilance is needed as HPAIV can also move via staff, boots, equipment, rodents and so on. Meanwhile, and lest anyone should be uncertain about the ‘smoking gun’ in this matter, the Department for Environment and Rural Affairs (DEFRA) announced an enhancement of surveillance of wild birds. As a consortium of scientific experts suggests (2016), viral evolution and geographical spread (phylogeography) strongly supports the proposition that migrating wild birds are spreading the viruses. Wild bird surveillance is regarded as a necessary measure to secure domestic flocks.

Concern here is not only for the livelihoods of farmers, or even the balance sheets of national economies (avian influenzas are notifiable and trade-limiting diseases). Nor is it solely a matter for the welfare of wild and domestic birds (though generally it is the latter who are least equipped in evolutionary terms to live with infection). There are also fears for public health. These avian influenza viruses are only a few mutations away from ‘learning’ how to not only infect people (some of them already do that) but also transmit between people (not something that they have managed to do, yet). They are what are known as PPPs, potential pandemic pathogens. With the swarm of influenzas currently circulating, the chances are that the alphabet and numerical soup of ‘promiscuous’ H5-clades (H5N1, H5N6, H5N8 etc) as well as H7s (H7N9) will reassort or shuffle components. This ‘natural’ process of gene exchange and editing is the main reason that the WHO have cause “to be very concerned”.

What are we to make of this concern, what indeed is to be done about this swirling cloud of viruses and birds? The first point to note is that avian flu has been around for a long time, circulating in wild birds without too much of an issue. So current concern is undoubtedly related to recent developments in “virus detection and characterization” (WHO 2015). But this can’t be the whole story. A second point concerns changing stakes and biologies. The relatively recent explosion in global poultry numbers is both a reason for greater economic concern but also a driver of viral shifts. As inexpensively produced protein-rich diets become a worldwide norm, poultry populations, growth rates and metabolisms have changed accordingly. The result is a new set of conditions for viral selection and evolution. As any epidemiologist will tell you, a microbe can only become deadly or pathogenic if there are the right environmental and host conditions. Bird numbers and altered bodies have, in short, made the planet more ‘infectable’.

pathological

In a book just published in the RGS-IBG series, my co-authors and I call this entanglement of microbes, hosts, environments and economies ‘pathological lives’. The term allows us to investigate how these lives have become dangerous to themselves in a world of accelerated throughput and biological intensity. In contrast to the recent global consortium that reviewed the evidence on avian influenzas, we do more than focus on transmission (or the outward movement of a disease agent across space). Rather, we also investigate the conditions for the emergence, persistence and transformation of avian influenzas and other zoonotic diseases, and importantly highlight the changing intensities and enhanced ‘infectability’ of our farming and public health systems.

The result is that instead of biosecurity being a matter for segregating domestic life, ‘closing the hi-tech barn door’ so to speak, a more searching issue arises. We question the sustainability and security of the kinds of intensive protein production that are now, paradoxically, being rolled out across the planet as the solution to the problem that they may in fact have helped to generate. As we demonstrate in Pathological Lives, diseases have complex, multifactorial causes. The traffic of viruses, wild bird assisted or not, can only be regarded as a necessary rather than sufficient cause of a diseased ecology.

About the author: Steve Hinchliffe is Professor or Human Geography at the University of Exeter. His research draws together insights from Science and Technology Studies (STS), particularly actor network theory, and Geography. Steve is author and editor of numerous books and articles on issues ranging from risk and food, to biosecurity, human-nonhuman relations and nature conservation.

References

books_icon Hinchliffe S., Bingham N., Allen J,. Carter S,. 2016 Pathological Lives: Disease, Space and Biopolitics  RGS-IBG Book Series. Wiley-Blackwell. ISBN: 978-1-118-99760-4

books_icon The Global Consortium for H5N8 and Related Influenza Viruses (2016). “Role for migratory wild birds in the global spread of avian influenza H5N8.” Science 354(6309): 213-217.

60-world2 WHO (2015). Warning signals from the volatile world of influenza viruses. Influenza. Geneva, Switzerland, World Health Organisation.

Changing environments, moving people: protecting the rights of climate change refugees

By Amita Bhakta, Loughborough University

ClimaAB.jpgte change, together with the ongoing debates about the possible impacts it may have on human lives, cannot be ignored. Particular groups are already enduring the challenges of what to many may be regarded as something of the future: climate change induced displacement (CCID).

In their article in The Geographical Journal, Fornalé and Doebbler (2016) provide an in-depth discussion of the role of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) in protecting the rights of refugees on the move as a direct result of climate change, and the contention which remains in effectively ensuring that these rights are fully exercised. This is a particularly poignant issue, as the paper discusses how the UNHCR does not adequately recognise people who are displaced due to the impacts of climate change as refugees.

The Huffington Post recently reported that an estimated 20 million people, many of whom were children, who were forcibly displaced in 2015 as a result of the different impacts on them due to climate change. Due to, for example, compromises to access to shelter, education, water and sanitation – these various factors can lead to other risks such as violence and sexual abuse. These risks can mean that the rights of the refugees of climate change are at high risk of being violated. But what must be remembered, is that refugees, and their rights, need to be protected. Climate change is a global phenomenon that is being experienced by all species and all people across the world. Although refugees of climate change seek to cross physical political boundaries, environmental impacts transcend these, and therefore it is the responsibility of all people to ensure that the rights of each individual, moving or settled, and the rights of the earth to have a sustainable future will be upheld. Whether the recent COP22 meeting in Marrakech was able to discuss the impact of climate change through displacement, remains to be seen. But what is clear, is that climate change refugees, and their rights, will require significant attention in years to come.

books_icon Fornalé, E. and Doebbler, C.F.J. 2016 ‘UNHCR and protection and assistance for the victims of climate change’ The Geographical Journal

60-world2 Oakes, R. 2016 ‘Climate Change, Migration and the Rights of Children’  The Huffington Post Retrieved 27 November 2016

books_icon Hicks, C. 2016, ‘COP22 host Morocco launches action plan to fight devastating climate change’ The Guardian Retrieved 27 November 2016

Property guardians: when private security becomes precarious housing

By Mara Ferreri, Universitat Autónoma de Barcelona, Gloria Dawson, Independent researcher, and Alexander Vasudevan, University of Nottingham  

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Figure 1. Camelot’s ‘Protects by Occupation’ sign, North London. Source: M Ferreri

On 27 September 2016 a group of squatters occupied a vacant building in Shoreditch, East London. While not unusual in itself, the event was widely reported in local and national media because, with calculated irony, the occupiers had reclaimed the former headquarters of an international property security company, Camelot Europe. The company, with offices in six cities in the United Kingdom, specialises in a little-known yet growing form of property security through live-in guardians, also known as property guardianship. The squatters, who renamed the place ‘Camesquat’, hoped that the occupations would help “highlight the issues around property guardianship, and the rise in this new, precarious form of housing, first introduced to the UK by Camelot themselves” (SQUASH, 2016). So what are the issues with property guardianship and why do they matter for understanding contemporary cities?

Property guardianship (PG) is a relatively new form of insecure urban dwelling, existing in the grey area between informal occupation, the security industry, and housing. PG was first developed in the Netherlands by “anti-kraak” (anti-squat) companies in the 1990s and has since spread to other European countries, including France, Belgium, Germany and Ireland. Our paper ‘Living precariously: property guardianship and the flexible city’ is the first in-depth geographical study of PG in the UK that combines a study of the sector with an analysis of the lived experiences of guardians. Our research found that while until the mid-2000s the PG market in the UK had been dominated by large companies like Camelot, since the global financial crisis of 2007/2008 the sector has seen something of a boom. At least 22 out of 32 companies currently offering PG were founded after 2009 and growth in the sector is expected to continue. A high proportion of these companies operate mainly or exclusively in London, because of both a highly dynamic property market and high housing demand at a time of a double crisis of supply and affordability (Dorling, 2014).

As widely promoted by PG companies, the appeal to guardians is that of enjoying housing below market rent and often in central and ‘unusual’ locations, such as office blocks or civic buildings. However, guardians are bound by license agreements (not tenancies) that stipulate a number of restrictions on residents’ use of the premises, such as hosting friends overnight or having dependants, as well as a shorter notice period than a standard Assured Short-hold Tenancy agreement (AST). Crucially, as licensees, guardians do not enjoy exclusive possession of the buildings they inhabit (Hunter and Peaker, 2012) and are exposed to unannounced inspections and other forms of surveillance, and to the constant threat of having their licence terminated, leading to eviction. These conditions make living as a property guardian ambivalent and controversial, requiring a nuanced and qualitative approach to guardians’ rationales and experiences.

In our paper, we analyse these experiences through the narratives of guardians and their everyday precarious geographies. In-depth interviews with thirty-two long-term guardians in London reveal that choosing to live through PG can bring economic and professional advantages in a competitive job market. Guardians, who are often university educated, were able to change careers, afford unpaid or low-paid entry-level jobs or engage in further education. At the same time, everyday housing insecurity compounded by precarious work, exposed deep anxieties about the realities of ‘flexible urban living’, with many experiencing high levels of stress and the fear of being unable to leave a self-reinforcing cycle of precarity. In fact, critiques of the scheme are often met by guardians with resignation toward the lack of more secure alternatives, pointing to a much wider cultural and political acceptance of work and housing insecurity.

While the scheme so far only affects a minority of city dwellers, we argue that the logic underlying PG needs to be understood as an example of an emerging precarious subjectivity that has become normalised in response to wider dynamics of work and life precarisation in the global North. This normalization occurs alongside wider socio-economic shifts in urban centres. In London, in particular, guardians have been used to secure ‘unusual’ property in the context of a wider restructuring of the welfare state. For example, PG has been deployed by local government to secure council estates slated for demolition or privatisation (London Assembly, 2015), a process that further exacerbates the crisis of truly affordable housing in the capital. Our study of property guardianship shows the city as a site of intensified insecurity where uncertain work, life and housing co-constitute and reinforce new forms of urban precarity. While occupations such as Camesquat are useful in highlighting the iniquities that underpin PG, a geographical approach enables us to bring together a political economy critique with an understanding of the subjective dimension of the normalization of work and life insecurity in contemporary cities.

About the authors: Mara Ferreri is an urban researcher working at the intersection of human geography, politics and cultural theory, working at the Institut de Govern i Polítiques Públiques, Universitat Autónoma de Barcelona, Bellaterra (Barcelona), Spain;  Gloria Dawson is an Independent Researcher, based in Leeds; and Alexander Vasudevan is Associate Professor Cultural and Historical Geography at the University of Nottingham. 

References

books_icon Dorling, D. (2014). All that is solid: How the great housing disaster defines our times, and what we can do about it. London: Penguin UK.

books_icon Ferreri, M., Dawson, G. and Vasudevan, A. (2016), Living precariously: property guardianship and the flexible city. Trans Inst Br Geogr. doi:10.1111/tran.12162

books_icon Hunter, C. and Peaker, G. (2012) Who guards the guardians, Journal of Housing Law 297, 16.

books_icon London Assembly (2015) Knock it Down or Do it Up? The challenge of estate regeneration. London: Greater London Authority.

60-world2 Orbis Property guardians white paper 

60-world2 SQUASH (Squatters Action for Secure Homes) (2016) Camesquat Press Release – 3 October 2016.

60-world2Taylor D 2016 London protesters occupy former HQ of property management firmThe Guardian Online 27 September 2016

 

Trumping Ignorance: Engaging with Complexity and Difficult Topics

By Kieran Phelan, University of Nottingham 

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As the news came through that Donald Trump had been successful in beating Hillary Clinton to the White House, the world stood in shock. No matter which side of the political divide you positioned yourself on, it’s fair to say that his success was surprising. In fact, during the run up to the election, most of the professional pollsters, pundits and political hacks predicted the contrary. On the morning of the day after, I sat (in a state of shock) listening to the Today programme on BBC Radio 4. The presenters were dissecting the results and exploring the political ramifications of the incoming presidential regime. As part of this discussion, an attempt was made to summarise the contemporary geo-political situation Trump will inherit. The discussants reviewed Trump’s campaign strategy and mused over his many (misleading) statements. What haunted most of them was the slogan that dogged his campaign; ‘Make America Great Again’. Behind this, a grab-bag of diverse political groups somehow successfully appropriated this tag line and legitimised their own varying political agendas. Something so simple had morphed into something more complex. Despite this apparent complexity, Trump became an expert in avoiding detail. The how’s, what’s and why’s were rarely (if at all) addressed. In fact, the whole election campaign seemed overwhelmingly shallow. Frustrated with immigration? ‘Let’s build a wall’. Outright racism and xenophobia? ‘Freedom of speech’. Everyday sexism and misogyny? ‘Locker room talk’. Discussions that should have been about policy, ideas and agendas seemed worryingly to descend into bumper sticker phrases.

Unfortunately, American politics doesn’t have a monopoly on simplistic political debate. The EU referendum debate had discussion points that were equally narrow.  Concerned about immigration? ‘Get out the EU’. Questioning national sovereignty? ‘Get out of the EU’. Worried about competition, wages and investment? ‘Get out of the EU’.  Again, complex concerns boiled down into an overly simplistic decision; in or out. Theresa May’s‘Brexit means Brexit’ slogan beholds a similarly elusive quality. Yet when trying to understand what Brexit actually entails, we are too often left in the dark. Where on earth are the details? Where is the time for thought, and spaces for meaningful contemplation? It seems if it doesn’t easily fit onto a poster, or in a newspaper column, viral infomercial, or a political broadcast, it just isn’t worth mentioning.

With these political thoughts in mind, I sat down and read Luchs and Miller’s (2016) article exploring participatory visual methodologies for engaging with refugee stories. Utilising personal stories from three refugees who fled persecution in Rwanda and Zimbabwe, they powerfully advocated for the use of digital stories, photo-essays, mixed media collages and workshops in geographical work.  In adopting these methodologies, they produced ‘Mapping Memories’, a touring educational project that enabled understanding about the lives and experiences of refugee youth. By uniting with educators, film makers and policy advocates, Luchs and Miller (2016) explain how scholar-activism can aid refugees to tell of their own experiences on their own terms. In doing so, spaces are created that cultivate supportive environments for reflection and engagement. There was a deep desire to ensure audiences walked away with an understanding of the challenges young refugee face, as well an appreciation of the obligations countries have who’ve signed up to the Refugee Convention of 1951. Contrary to much news coverage, helping refugees is not an act of charity that we can choose to opt in or out. It is a duty that we are legally bound to uphold. It does not matter what their age is, or their ‘worthiness’ of help, but simply the recognition that they are refugees fleeing desperate situations.

This project was naturally challenged by ethical concerns, of which the authors thoughtfully engaged. Not least, the authors desired to ensure the topic was covered in a sensitive and respectful manner. Efforts were taken to ensure violence was not depicted as an act of the ‘other’, and they didn’t want to present personal stories from ‘victims’ and context by ‘experts’. Stereotypes and lazy troupes were also directly tackled through open-ended questioning and conversational interrogation. In this, appreciating that thinking takes time and needs space, was a central concern.

Part of the project’s success also was attributed to the use of entry stories; short introductions that drew out commonalities. Rather than dwelling on what separated participants, the project worked on creating spaces in which participants found likeness. From likeness, came empathy and from empathy came thought and reflection. More powerfully, the project disrupted the marginalising discourses that surrounds refugees, and enabled the project’s participants to move beyond a simplistic ‘poor them’ mentality. In doing so, it hoped to inspire awareness and political action. It facilitated engagement and provided accessible space for much needed nuance and complexity.

As I return to my news feeds, I see it is filled with three minute videos, images and memes attempting to explain away Trump’s election. They all attempt to capture, in just a few short sound-bites, what on earth went wrong (or right, depending on your political position). Whilst all of us who are politically active, are guilty from time to time of lazy activism, I can’t help but think perhaps this is part of the problem. It is lazy. In sharing and re-sharing our quick, three-minute sound bites, , we perpetuate politics on those terms. The voices we hear from are often limited, lacking in diversity. As a result, the engagement we have with the ‘real’ issues is often reduced. It lacks deep reflection. The world is incredibly complex and requires meaningful thought. When engaging with the political realities of the world, we owe it to ourselves to create spaces of deep reflection and engagement. We must ask the tough questions, pry open and debate the difficult, and relish the challenging. Instead of relying on superficial surface statements, we must strive to create spaces for meaningful understanding and engagement. It’s only through muddling through the messy and difficult, appreciating both depth and nuance, that then can we lay the foundations to trump ignorance.

60-world2 Cormier, R (2016) Meet the Man Behind Biden-Pranking-Trump Memes  USA Today 17 November 2016

books_icon Luchs, M. and Miller, E. (2016), Not so far away: a collaborative model of engaging refugee youth in the outreach of their digital stories. Area, 48: 442–448. doi:10.1111/area.12165

60-world2 Mason P (2016) Brexit is a fake revolt- working-class culture is being hijacked to help the elite The Guardian Online 20 June 2016

60-world2 Poole S (2016) ‘Make America Great Again’ – why are liberals losing the war of soundbites? The Guardian Online  13 November 2016

60-world2 Spayd L (2016) Why ‘Locker Room Talk’ is No Excuse New York Times 8 November 2016

 

 

Speaking for science: does it matter how and where?

By Diarmid Finnegan, Queen’s University Belfast

Company: ArcSoft (hangzhou)

A diagram used to demonstrate the art of ‘chironomia,’ a system of gestures suitable for oratory taught to Michael Faraday by the elocutionist Benjamin Smart. Source: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Chironomia_Sphere.jpg Image in the public domain and out of copyright.

During every American election season, pundits find something to say about the way Presidential candidates speak. Perhaps more than ever before, the contest between Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump invited this kind of attention. Trump’s hand gestures and Hillary Clinton’s voice were just two aspects of their campaign speeches that were closely scrutinised. Psychologists, journalists and media coaches all offered their take on the nonverbal strategies and automatic reflexes of the two nominees. One expert in embodied cognition even counted the number of times Trump sniffed during the second presidential debate (answer: 104). If nothing else, fixation on these dimensions of the live performances of Trump and Clinton demonstrated public appetite for close descriptions of their voices and body language.

However difficult it may be to demonstrate the influence of vocal performance over voting patterns, there is a long history of political speechmakers and their critics drawing heavily on the arts of oratory. But what happens when we look not at political argumentation but at efforts to persuade live audiences of the importance of science? Should any significance be placed on the voice and body language of the science communicator? One understandable reaction is to say no. After all, the truth of scientific claims is not supposed to be measured according to emotional resonance or alignment with public tastes or political convictions. Science, as one early historian of the Royal Society put it, should be communicated with ‘mathematical plainness’ (Sprat 1667).

It might be surprising to learn, then, that one of the most celebrated science communicators in the nineteenth century, Michael Faraday, argued that lectures ‘depend entirely for their value upon the manner in which they are given. It is not the matter, it is not the subject, so much as the man’. Among other things, this reflected a career-long engagement with the arts of oratory. It is perhaps yet more surprising to find Thomas Henry Huxley, the famous nineteenth-century exponent of science as trained common sense, pointing out that less than a tenth of Faraday’s audiences understood him. According to Huxley, the crucial thing was that most thought they had grasped Faraday’s meaning. Huxley was convinced that the intellectual value of lectures was extremely low. Why, then, did both Faraday and Huxley invest huge amounts of energy in delivering lectures to non-specialist audiences? As I argue in a paper published in the Transactions of the Institute of British Geographers, both Faraday and Huxley were acutely aware of the power of speech to nurture sympathy for science and to support an agenda that placed science within a wider vision of social progress. Huxley declared on a number of occasions that he held oratorical techniques in contempt, but he also realized that the living voice could be used as a powerful means for swaying public opinion. There are good reasons, then, to reflect on how Faraday and Huxley used the power of voice and non-verbal action to persuade audiences of the relevance and public value of science.

Taking seriously the lecture performances of Faraday and Huxley also means taking seriously where they spoke. In basic terms, Faraday rarely spoke anywhere else than the lecture hall of the Royal Institution in London. Huxley, by contrast, travelled extensively. Faraday’s style of speaking, which included carefully choreographed gestures and vocal performances, was well suited for an auditorium custom designed for science lectures. Huxley’s manner and mode of address – standing stock still and speaking extemporaneously – remained constant even as he moved from one venue to another. This, of course, does not exhaust the geography of these speech events. Both Huxley and Faraday took care to position themselves within a wider landscape of oratorical performance. Their efforts to speak with influence, and assessments of those efforts, reflected unique combinations of expectations and assumptions about what constituted effective communication. Their lectures on science also helped forge novel spaces of speech that had influence beyond their own particular sphere.

Cultural and historical geographers, among others, have paid increasing attention to where and how any kind of ‘live talk’ is delivered and heard. An undergirding argument is that speech performance of whatever kind is closely tied to the place in which it unfolds. That this turns out to be true for talk about science lends special support to this argument. At least in the case of Faraday and Huxley, there was no single way to persuade an audience of the virtues, values and veracity of science. The voice, and the body, had to be mobilized in different ways and in different cultural locations to win an audience’s sympathy and assent.

About the author: Dr Diarmid Finnegan is a Senior Lecturer at the School of Natural and Built Environment at Queen’s University, Belfast. His research interests fall within three main themes: (1) Science, space and culture; (2) Historical geographies of ideas; and (3) History of geographical knowledge. 

60-world2 BBC News 2016, August 16. What Trump’s hand gestures say about him BBC News. Retrieved November 17, 2016

60-world2 Beattie, G. 2016, October 14. How Donald Trump bullies with his body language.  The Conversation, Retrieved November 17, 2016

books_icon Finnegan, D. A. 2016,  ‘Finding a scientific voice: performing science, space and speech in the 19th century’ Transactions of the Institute of British Geographers DOI: 10.1111/tran.12159

60-world2 Khazan, O. 2016, August 1. Would you really like Hillary more if she sounded different? The Atlantic, Retrieved November 17, 2016

books_icon Sprat, T. 1667, The History of the Royal Society of London. London.