Tag Archives: ethics

Understanding the impact of austerity

By Morag Rose, University of Sheffield

Closed_all_hours_-_geograph_org_uk_-_530913

Closed all hours This shop, now disused, located in the small village of Ballyroan: Image credit: (c) Liam Murphy Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 2.0 license

David Cameron recently announced plans to introduce  parenting classes, in part as way to combat poverty. Aside from valid criticisms of heteronormativity, troubling assumptions about what makes a “good” family, and a disregard for established support networks, this ignores the complex causes of poverty and impact of austerity.

Sarah M Hall has been conducting long term ethnographic research on families living with, and in, austerity. Much research focuses on large scale economic impacts but Hall works at the level of personal and intimate geographies. This reveals the complexity and diversity of individual lives; there is no one-size-fits-all austerity family experience. Hall is influenced by moral and Feminist geographies and has a deep concern for the ethical impact of her work. The ethnographer is necessarily entangled with the subject of her research and becomes part of their lives for the projects duration. Ethical research acknowledges power dynamics and is constantly aware of researcher positionality but this does not preclude empathy. Indeed Hall suggests research has a caring dimension as “by listening to and empathising with participants, or in providing companionship or intimacy one can provide a caring role” (2016:3).

Decisions on whether to offer financial compensation to research participants take on added weight in times of austerity. Hall did not pay her participants but offered small tokens of gratitude, which often made her part of an extended support network.  The impact of austerity on families can be devastating and Hall describes conversations which she found deeply affecting. However she stresses there is a distance in the research relationship, and differences of experience, which means the researcher must be mindful not to speak for, or steal the voice of, her participants.

Hall confirms JRF (2015) research that states welfare cuts disproportionately harm people already in difficult, precarious and marginalised positions. She also witnesses the unintended consequences of closing services such as libraries and the threat to community groups suffering grant cuts or loss of volunteers who need to find work. Hall treats her participants with the dignity they deserve, and implicitly challenges glib demonization.  It is hard to imagine how parenting classes will help tackle structural inequality or mitigate the very real impact austerity has on families.

References

books_icon Hall, S.M. (2016) Personal, relational and intimate geographies of austerity: ethical and empiral considerations Area 2015 DOI: 10.1111/area.12251 http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/area.12251/abstract  (online accessed 15.1.16)

60-world2 JRF  (2015) The Cost of The Cuts: the Impact on Local Government and Poorer Communities Joseph Rowntree Foundation https://www.jrf.org.uk/report/cost-cuts-impact-local-government-and-poorer-communities (Online accessed 15.1.16)

60-world2 The Independent (2016) David Cameron Plans to Make Parenting Classes Normal http://www.independent.co.uk/news/uk/home-news/david-cameron-plans-to-make-parenting-classes-normal-a6804381.html (online accessed 15.1.16)

Exploring “Militant Research” and how to research protest

By Morag Rose, University of Sheffield

 

Occupy_London_-_Finsbury_Square

Banners at the moved Occupy London protest in Finsbury Square in the City of London: Image credit: Alan Denney 

This month sees the twentieth anniversary of ‘The Battle of Newbury’ when protesters were evicted from their camp to make way for a bypass. The BBC takes the opportunity to reflect on the long term impact of the anti-road campaign. Journalist Paul Clifton reported on events in 1996, suggesting that

“the protesters lost the battle. But perhaps they won the war. There is no doubt the tree climbers swayed public opinion and, later, political policy changed too. It virtually halted the construction of major new roads for a generation.”

In a recent article for Area, Sam Halvorsen discusses the challenges faced when trying to study social movements when the researcher has an involvement with the cause. He focuses specifically on the role of ‘militant research’ in his work with, and on, The Occupy Movement. Like Newbury, Occupy had a distinct geographical element to its fight against much bigger issues and it fought to physically claim space. Halverson states the ‘starting point for militant research is not an academic researcher seeking to further a particular strand of knowledge, but the context of political struggle’ (2015:467). He acknowledges many within those struggles are already engaged in theorising, but may have an antagonistic relationship with academic institutions.

Having a dual role as a scholar and activist is not new, but it remains problematic. Universities are labyrinthine structures, constantly reshaped by the students and staff within them. They can provide opportunities to support research, engage in discussion and offer practical help such as meeting spaces. They also have strict ethical codes which may, for example, complicate relationships with direct action campaigns. The militant researcher cannot claim to be neutral – indeed the rich understanding they offer springs directly from their commitment to the ethics and aims of the cause they are engaged in. Halvorsen also discusses his experience with ORC (The Occupy Research Collective) an attempt to re-imagine research and create opportunities outside the university. This became a valuable space for discussion but encountered its own problems.

Halvorsen concludes that militant research needs to constantly be ‘pushing against any form it takes, as it is only through negation (and simultaneous creation) that change becomes a reality’ (2015:469). He draws on Holloway (2002) and the idea of a dialectical relationship between protest and its wider context. This accounts for both the contradictory relationship between both universities and militant researchers and the researchers themselves who may criticise the movements they are studying. Social movements, and their struggles for justice, are key components of society. It would be disingenuous to claim researchers are, or can be, passive, objective onlookers. Taking a critical view of such movements, whilst remaining involved, is necessarily complicated but very worthwhile. Passion and an ethical commitment to a cause should not be a barrier to research, as surely scholarship should be aiming to make a positive difference to the wider world.

References:

60-world2 The BBC (2016) Did The Newbury Bypass Change Anything? Online article accessed 13.1.2016

books_icon Halvorsen, S.  (2015) Militant research against-and-beyond itself: critical perspectives from the university and Occupy London Area, 47:4 466-472 (open access)

books_icon Holloway, J (2002) Change the world without taking power: the meaning of revolution today. Pluto Press: London

 

 

Man’s best friend?

Kate Whiston, University of Nottingham

In an article recently published in Area, Remus Creţan’s (2015) study of dog culling in Romania provides a splendid example of a practical application of animal geography to a situation that will be familiar to academics and non-academics alike.

An aggressive dog Source: Wikimedia Commons

An aggressive dog
Source: Wikimedia Commons

Creţan (2015) takes a more-than-human approach – that is, considering the ways in which humans and animals interact and  co-habit in particular spaces – to the relatively recent debate surrounding the culling of stray dogs in Romania in 2013. In September that year, a 4-year old child was mauled to death in Bucharest by a stray dog. The ensuing government proposal for a dog culling policy was met with vigorous protest from both the public and animal rights activists, on ethical grounds. Stray dogs were abundant on the streets of Bucharest, and overcrowding led to poor conditions in dog shelters, so it became necessary for some form of action to be taken. Following considerable debate, the puppy dog eyes of anti-culling protesters prevailed; euthanasia of stray dogs is, for the moment, banned in Bucharest.

Dogs are valuable military team members Source: Wikimedia Commons

Dogs are valuable military team members
Source: Wikimedia Commons

Human-dog relationships span across the spectrum, from pampered pets and trusted work colleagues, to pesky pests and feared beasts. A lot of work in animal geography is based around the notion that humans create imaginative and physical spatial categories in which animals are deemed ‘in place’. Any resistance against these spatial placings, or transgression from them, and animals are considered ‘out of place’. This is when they may become ‘pests’, threats to human order.This explains, for example, why your beloved family pet or the endangered giant pandas at Edinburgh Zoo are loved and treasured, whilst animals such as urban foxes or feral pigeons can provoke World War 3.

The issue of stray dogs, thus, becomes inherently geographical; dogs in western society belong in the home, and those that live on the street, therefore, become a risk to human society. There is also a moral argument underpinning this problem; do humans have the right to cull animals? Animals are, after all, sentient beings, making the line between euthanasia and murder increasingly blurred. The culling of animals has been against EU legislation on animal welfare since the Amsterdam Treaty of 1997. However, there have been occasions in the not so distant past when the British government has had to consider the culling of various animals; the foot and mouth crisis in 2001, for example, or the more recent debates about badgers.

The Dangerous Dogs Act was enacted by the British government in 1991, and outlines certain particularly troublesome breeds that it is illegal to breed or sell. Whilst dangerous dogs are not as prevalent in this country as they are in Romania, there are still more cases of dogs mauling humans than there should be. The difference in Britain is, however, that most of these are caused by pet dogs, often uncharacteristically, but also, sadly, sometimes by dogs that have been mistreated and misled by their owners. This raises a further ethical question that must be considered when the lives of dogs are being as freely tossed about and fought over as their chew toys. Whilst many look to blame dogs, should we not, in fact, be penalising the people who lead them astray? Surely aggression is something a dog learns, not a trait it is born with? Far from foe, dogs are, after all, ‘man’s best friend’.

The author's own pampered pet pooches, Mitch (left) and Monty (right)

The author’s own pampered pet pooches, Mitch (left) and Monty (right)

books_iconCreţan, R. (2015). “Mapping protests against dog culling in post-communist Romania”, Area, doi: 10.1111/area.12155.

60-world2Clej P 2013 Bucharest dog cull plan divides Romanians  BBC

60-world2Wensley S 2013 Viewpoints: What can be don about dangerous dogs? BBC

 

The $250,000 burger: towards a new moral economy of meat-eating?

Image credit: macieklew

No cows were harmed in the making of this post
Image credit: macieklew

By Helen Pallett

On Monday afternoon at a West London press conference, reporters witnessed a world first: the eating of a pioneering laboratory-grown hamburger. The carefully orchestrated spectacle also reached a further audience worldwide, as this pricey mid-afternoon snack was streamed live onto thousands of PCs, whilst others joined in the conversation on twitter with the hashtag #culturedbeef. Media reporting on this event has been quick to point out the potential of this emerging technology to alleviate pressing food security and distribution problems, and to reduce the environmental impacts of meat production. The arrival of the new burger has also been celebrated by animal rights advocates, such as the philosopher Peter Singer and the activist group PETA, as opening up a new market of cruelty-free meet.

The event has raised challenging questions which have stimulated wide-ranging debates across the traditional media and new media. Are there any meaningful differences between this stem cell burger and ‘natural’ meat? How do we know that it is safe to eat? What stance should vegetarians take? Can a lab-based food source prove to be a sustainable alternative to other low carbon, low impact diets based on low meat intake and local or organic food? And of course, does it taste any good?

The press conference focused on demonstrating the safety of the new product, but also brought together a group of food writers and journalists to attest to the meat-like taste and texture of the burger. What was not under the microscope were some of the broader moral and economic questions, covering scales beyond the object of this solitary burger, spanning temporalities beyond the specific event, and concerning the whole of the production chain. In a 2009 paper, Peter Jackson and colleagues used the term ‘moral economy’ to describe how ethical and moral concerns were expressed across time and space, and in relation to the diverse practices and processes involved in the production of different food products. Whilst Jackson’s paper was concerned with the morals and markets of the supply chains of chicken and sugar, their framework also helps to shed light on the moral economy of this newest of products.

The answers to questions such as ‘how different is this new meat?’ and ‘is it suitable for vegetarians?’ depend not only on which ethical frameworks we use but also where we choose to look, through space and time. The in vitro burger is made up of muscle tissue, the substance which would also account for the majority of any normal beef burger that you could pick up in the local supermarket. The scientists have also been careful to reassure potential consumers that there have been no ‘unnatural’ chemicals added to the burger. In this sense then, perhaps there is no meaningful difference between the two kinds of beef. But the processes that went into making the new burger, do set it apart, and this is why it is possible to claim vast environmental benefits of in vitro meat. A small amount of muscle cells are harvested from a living cow and are then nurtured in the lab so that they grow and multiply. This process takes around 3 months, much shorter than the life of the average cow when it enters the slaughterhouse. The carefully controlled laboratory process also means that there is no fat in the meat to give it flavour, so this instead came from the use of ‘natural’ flavourings such as beet.

On the question of the response of vegetarians, the the texture and taste of the burger itself has been likened to the meat substitute quorn. When we broaden our gaze to the production processes as well, the burger has been welcomed as cruelty-free (and therefore implicitly vegetarian friendly) meat by many advocates as it requires the painless removal of muscle cells rather than the slaughter of a cow. However, when the micro-scale laboratory processes which go into the production of the meat are also brought into the frame the use of calf serum – a slaughterhouse product – to nurture the stem cells comes into view.

Another aspect of the moral economy of the new burger which has been relatively unexplored in the media coverage is its situation in broader economic and market structures. The making of the in vitro burger was bank-rolled by the much-criticised Google co-founder Sergey Brin, citing animal welfare concerns but also with interests in the market potential of this emerging product. In the liberalised and globalised modern food industry does this product bring into being new moral economies or will it simply be moulded by existing ones?

books_icon Peter Jackson, Neil Ward & Polly Russell, 2009, Moral economies of food and geographies of responsibilityTransactions of the Institute of British Geographers 34 12-24

60-world2 The world’s first cruelty-free burger The Guardian, 5 August 2013

60-world2 First hamburger made from lab-grown meat to be served at press-conference The Guardian, 5 August 2013

60-world2 Google’s Sergey Brin bankrolled world’s first synthetic beef hamburger The Guardian, 5 August 2013

60-world2 World’s first synthetic hamburger gets full marks for ‘mouth feel’ The Guardian, 5 August 2013

60-world2 Synthetic meat: is it ‘natural’ food? The Guardian, 6 August 2013

60-world2 Lab-grown burgers cannot provide a secure future for Africa The Guardian, 6 August 2013

60-world2 PETA: Lab meat to provide methadone for meat eaters ITV News, 5 August 2013

60-world2 What is Cultured Beef? Maastricht University, accessed 5 August 2013

60-world2 Test-Tube Burger: Lab-Cultured Meat Passes Taste Test (Sort of) Scientific American, 5 August 2013

Religion, science and geography

I-Hsien Porter

Adi Holzer, "Die Taufe"Earlier this month, it was announced that the astronomer Martin Rees had been awarded the Templeton Prize. Administered by the Templeton Foundation, the prize rewards a person who has made “exceptional contributions to affirming life’s spiritual dimension”.

Critics of the Templeton Foundation warn against placing religion on a par with science, arguing that the two are “incompatible.”

However, as a geographer, I’m interested in seeking to understand the world around us. To this end, I believe that science and religion are both important forms of knowledge. Religion cannot explain the complex mechanisms of climate change. Nor can ‘rational’ science can fully understand the social, cultural, emotional and spiritual complexities of people around the world; our actions are often apparently irrational.

A quick search for ‘religion’ through the geographical journals linked on the right of this page returns dozens of articles. In one paper in Area, Benedikt Korf discusses an idea of “spiritual geographies” – engaging with religion, rather than treating religion as an object for scientific study.

Korf argues that, in research, much is to be gained from engaging with both science and religion. Such an approach offers a broader understanding of how we humans interact with our world. It also provides a useful context in which to critique the motivations for our research; for example, whether geographers should be seeking to actively change some of the situations we encounter.

Science is not without its own uncertainties and assumptions. So to frame science as superior to religion is itself an act of belief. I don’t intend to argue that religion is a viable alternative on its own. However, as geographers, much is to be gained from listening to both, as forms of knowledge and a means to understanding our world.

The Guardian (6th April 2011) ‘Martin Rees wins controversial £1m Templeton Prize’

Korf, B. (2006) ‘Geography and Benedict XVI’, Area 38 (3) 326-329