Tag Archives: methodology

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

 

 

If only plants could talk

By Hannah Pitt, University of the West of England

What am I being shown? Image Credit: Hannah Pitt

What am I being shown? Image Credit: Hannah Pitt

Plant scientists at Virginia Tech recently reported their discovery of communication between a parasitic plant and its host. By exchanging genetic material the parasite seemed to be urging the host to lower defences to its invasion. The researchers described it as a form of dialogue between the two, with one communicating new information to the other. This revelation adds a further form of plant conversation to others previously recognised in which plants exchange messages in the form of chemicals or electrical signals.

These quite capable forms of floral communication come as a surprise to many because plants have long been seen as the least active or intelligent living beings. In a hierarchy with humans at the pinnacle, plants sit well beneath them and other animals. But human geographers are increasingly recognising that this portrayal is misguided. The more we know about what plants do, the harder it is to see them as unintelligent. And there is an ethical imperative pushing us to recognise plants’ abilities for the habit of regarding flora as passive and insentient has allowed humans to dominate and neglect it, with serious ecological repercussions.

This is a topic ripe for geographic investigation because plants are everywhere and make a significant difference to places. Human geographers have made interesting progress with research into human-plant interactions. In my contribution to Area I explore how they tackle this, and examine some of the ways social scientists like me learn what plants are doing. I invited gardeners to act as guides and encouraged them to show me what they do with plants. Their expertise taught me much about plants’ actions and capabilities because good gardeners have to understand how they grow. Techniques such as time-lapse photography helped to show plants growing and moving. By speeding up and zooming in on processes which are otherwise difficult to perceive it was possible to see plants as active and mobile.

These methods, guided by the intention of paying close attention to plants were helpful, and ensured that plants ‘showed up’ in the research. But, unlike the team at Virginia Tech I’m not very skilled in understanding what plants have to say. In the paper I conclude that the techniques I used were limited because plants speak a language social scientists don’t understand. To really research plants as independent active beings, human geographers will need to become skilled in communicating with them or look to experts such as botanists to act as interpreters. Because plants can talk, we just need to know how to listen.

About the author: Dr Hannah Pitt is a Research Associate within the Department of Health and Social Science at the University of the West of England. Hannah is currently working on research projects which evaluate programmes related to food, public health and sustainability. 

 Pitt, H. (2014), On showing and being shown plants – a guide to methods for more-than-human geography. Area. doi: 10.1111/area.12145

60-world2 Maynard, G. (2014) Prince Charles was right all along: Plants really can talk to each other Express

Beyond sub-disciplinary boundaries: geographers and the study of development

By Rory Horner, University of Manchester

The world economic, social and political map and consequent geographies of development are rapidly changing, as a result of such trends as the growing influence of rising powers and simultaneous forms of crisis in both global North and South.

Yet, among geographers, it can seem as if the study of development is often relatively separate to that of economic geography, which can be quite perplexing and challenging for postgraduate students and others keen to research at this interface.

In a recent paper in Area, I explore how this imbalance may be encountered and hopefully gradually overcome. Upon commencing my PhD research on India’s pharmaceutical industry, I initially focused on the economic characteristics of Indian pharmaceutical firms as emerging multinationals. However, I struggled to reconcile much of the conceptual work I was reading, initially in economic geography, with the empirical issues at hand.

Fieldwork beyond disciplinary boundaries

Particularly when conducting fieldwork in India and reading various India-published newspapers and journals (as well as some more development studies-oriented research), I was opened to a whole host of broader “development” debates around the industry – most notably around the public health issue of access to medicines. After my pilot fieldwork, I adapted my research to try to take a more inclusive focus:

Interviewing:

  • a wider range of small and medium-sized, as well as large, firms
  • civil society organisations as well as firms and policymakers
  • Asking a broader range of questions, going beyond firm-level concerns to a greater interest in access to medicines issues
Corporate Headquarters of Aurobino Pharma, Hyderabad Image Credit: Rory Horner

Corporate Headquarters of Aurobino Pharma, Hyderabad Image Credit: Rory Horner

A small-scale pharmaceutical company in Delhi (image credit: Rory Horner)

A small-scale pharmaceutical company in Delhi (image credit: Rory Horner)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Particularly for those at an early career stage who are perhaps less embedded in prior research divisions, fieldwork, and engagement with various stakeholders, can provide relative freedom from academic boundaries and be a crucial stage for challenging sub-disciplinary boundaries.

Richer geographies of development?

Ultimately, the scope of my PhD research shifted from understanding a growth industry, and its industrial reorganisation internationally, to research about global governance, specifically changing patent laws, the role of the state and development impacts. By playing a crucial role in the global access to medicines campaign and in contesting a Northern agenda on pharmaceutical patent laws. the Indian pharmaceutical industry has had global significance in a social as well as an economic context. Any analysis to separate the ‘economic’ aspects of the industry from the broader ‘development’ dimensions involving health would have been incomplete.

Writing up the research, making conference presentations and submitting to journals did provide somewhat of a re-encounter with disciplinary divides. Yet, some journals and senior scholars (and PhD supervisors) fortunately appeared interested in seeing early career researchers pursue research in new directions. I found new opportunities by drawing on economic geography literature to contribute to a development debate (around the impact of changes in patent law – and vice-versa (around integration into global production networks. In addition, India-focused social science publications, and a report for the interviewees involved in the research, provided opportunities to communicate my results relatively free of disciplinary boundaries.

The possibilities of any scholar being completely free of sub-disciplinary boundaries is doubtful, and some research may have greater resonance with one “side” (for me, with economic geography). Yet if we are to better understand major development debates that cross the economic, social and political, such as access to medicines issues in India as featured in a 2013 New York Times article, we need more integrated approaches. By engaging with the dynamics of extensive fieldwork and the integrated nature of social and economic development, a new generation of researchers can play a crucial role in breaking down the divides between the “economic” and “non-economic”, in geography and related fields, and ultimately produce richer geographies of development.

Recommendations for postgraduate students seeking to cross (sub-) disciplinary boundaries
  • Read beyond your (sub-)discipline and from multiple sources (e.g. academic, policy, media, international journals and local publications)
  • “Listen” to the data during fieldwork, following and even reconsidering the research question, relatively free of disciplinary boundaries
  • Inter-relate concepts, perspectives and literatures derived from global North and South, and different parts of each, to make new connections in journal publications
  • Write publications for stakeholders where the research was conducted, and other more “empirical” publications to communicate the work relatively free of disciplinary boundaries

books_icon Horner, R. (2014), Postgraduate encounters with sub-disciplinary divides: entering the economic/development geography trading zone. Area. doi: 10.1111/area.12130

books_icon Horner R (2014) The Impact of Patents on Innovation, Technology Transfer and Health: A Pre- and Post-TRIPs Analysis of India’s Pharmaceutical Industry New Political Economy  19 384-406

books_icon Horner R (2013) Strategic decoupling, recoupling and global production networks: India’s pharmaceutical industry Journal of Economic Geography

60-world2 Harris G (2013) India’s efforts to aid poor worry drug makers The New York Times

About the Author: Dr Rory Horner is a lecturer in Globalisation at the University of Manchester.

 

 

 

‘As long as I keep moving, the air is a little cooler’: studying weather experiences and practices

Martin Mahony

This week, parts of the UK have been basking in temperatures around 20 degrees Celsius  ‘At long last!’ many have exclaimed after a springtime marked so far by frigid easterly winds bearing cold air and snow from the still frozen interior of the Eurasian landmass. Trees have been late to blossom, crop growth has been stunted, and newborn lambs have perished under snowdrifts. Many were starting to wonder whether we would ever seen spring at all.

With climate change expected to alter weather patterns in many parts of the globe, a growing band of researchers across geography and the social sciences have started to explore how individuals experience and relate to the weather in their everyday lives. These researchers are interested in how people deal with extremes of heat and cold, or wet and dry, and in how even the most banal changes in the weather impact on our everyday lives. For example, Russell Hitchings has investigated the ways in which office workers deal with the seasonality of the weather, with interesting conclusions for thinking about how we interact with the elements when many of us spend most of out time indoors, in climates regulated by air conditioning and central heating.

Source: Wikimedia Commons

Studying these practices is challenging. While many of us remember extreme weather events like heat waves and blizzards for some time, we might struggle to remember how we dealt with the intricacies of the weather on a typical British Spring day, where sunshine and showers alternate in step with the opening of umbrellas and the packing away of raincoats. Some of these methodological challenges are dealt with by Eliza de Vet in a new paper in Area, where she compares the use of interviews, diaries and participants’ photographs in research on weather experiences and practices.

Drawing on a research project looking at weather practices in Darwin and Melbourne, Australia, de Vet argues that interviews may be the most effective way for researchers to reconstruct the everyday practices of, for example, keeping cool and comfortable in the tropical heat. Interview techniques can be usefully supplemented by asking respondents to keep diaries and to take photographs which capture their own ways of dealing with the weather. However, de Vet points towards the importance of considering “participant fatigue” in such projects, as asking too much of respondents – especially about usually banal things like the weather – can lead to disengagement. Projects investigating people’s experiences and practices of weather therefore need careful management, but they can yield fascinating insights into behaviours which many of us take for granted, but which might become hugely significant under a changing climate.

globe42 Spring: where has it gone? The Guardian, March 30

books_icon

Russell Hitchings, 2010, Seasonal climate change and the indoor city workerTransactions of the Institute of British Geographers, 35, 2, 282-298

books_icon Eliza de Vet, 2013, Exploring weather-related experiences and practices: examining methodological approachesArea, DOI: 10.1111/area.12019

 

Area Content Alert: 44, 2 (June 2012)

Cover image for Vol. 44 Issue 2The latest issue of Area (Volume 44, Issue 2, pages 134–268, June 2012) is available on Wiley Online Library.

Click past the break for a full list of articles in this issue.

Continue reading

Content Alert: New Articles (20th January 2012)

These Early View articles are now available on Wiley Online Library.

Original Articles

A tale of two teens: disciplinary boundaries and geographical opportunities in youth consumption and sustainability research
Rebecca Collins and Russell Hitchings
Article first published online: 16 JAN 2012 | DOI: 10.1111/j.1475-4762.2011.01075.x

Critical distance: doing development education through international volunteering
Kristina Diprose
Article first published online: 16 JAN 2012 | DOI: 10.1111/j.1475-4762.2011.01076.x

Lightness and weight: (re)reading urban potentialities through photographs
Cian O’Callaghan
Article first published online: 18 JAN 2012 | DOI: 10.1111/j.1475-4762.2011.01078.x

Original Articles

A ‘new Foucault’ with lively implications – or ‘the crawfish advances sideways’
Chris Philo
Article first published online: 16 JAN 2012 | DOI: 10.1111/j.1475-5661.2011.00484.x

Boundary Crossings

Assessing the significance of soil erosion
G S Bilotta, M Grove and S M Mudd
Article first published online: 17 JAN 2012 | DOI: 10.1111/j.1475-5661.2011.00497.x

Street Performance and Video Methodology

Sarah Mills

The Edinburgh ‘Fringe’ Festival will soon be opening (5th-29th August) and host a range of acts including comedians, dancers, artists and musicians.  Alongside the ‘official’ shows and ticketed events will be a variety of street performers – each becoming part of the largest arts festival in the world that has been held in Scotland’s capital since 1947 (with the Festival Fringe Society established in 1959).  Their official website states that “In 2010 we enjoyed a record-breaking 2,453 different shows staging 40,254 performances in 259 venues by 21,148 performers.”  The Fringe prides itself on being an ‘open access’ arts festival, meaning that street performers in particular can put on a show as part of Fringe with no selection process and be part of a programme that is not curated.  This creates a unique environment and arena for ‘performance’, as well as a particular type of engagement with the audience(s).

In his recent article published in Area (currently on earlyview), Paul Simpson discusses the geographies of street performance and “the acts of audiencing that members undertake in relation to this” (2011: 1).  He uses street performance as an example through which to explore the role of video methodologies in contemporary geographic research.  The paper reflects on his research – during which he played guitar in Bath, UK and videoed the street performances – and focuses specifically on the giving and receiving of donations, linking these practices to debates on affect, embodiment and ethnography.  Whilst ultimately a paper that critically reflects on using video as a research method, Simpson’s research on street performance highlights debates on everyday and artistic practices, many of which can be seen at the Fringe Festival.

Read P. Simpson (2011) ‘So, as you can see . . .’: some reflections on the utility of video methodologies in the study of embodied practices Area [currently early view] 

Visit the Official Site of the Edinburgh Festival Fringe