Oh Canada…Why I am not celebrating Canada Day today.

Today, 1st July, is Canada Day, an annual holiday that marks the day in 1867 when the British North America Act was signed, uniting the colonies of Canada (now Ontario and Quebec), Nova Scotia and New Brunswick into a single Dominion – Canada – within the British Empire.

The holiday is typically celebrated with much fanfare: parades, concerts, fireworks, and large gatherings with family and friends which almost always involve a barbeque and lots of beer. I grew up wholeheartedly taking part in these activities and have continued to do so even as I have lived outside of the country, always finding fellow Canadians to mark the occasion with. Only in recent years have I begun to reflect on what Canada Day means and what I am celebrating when I take part in festivities to mark the occasion.

Photo credit: Maarten van den Heuvel

Canada is a settler colonial project of grand proportions. European explorers first ‘discovered’ what is now Canada in the 15th century. Early explorers, traders and missionaries were followed by settlers (including my maternal great grandparents) who were actively supported by their home countries – initially, Britain and France – to claim territory in this vast wilderness. In the mid-19th century, Canada built 1,600 kilometres of “colonization roads” in a bid to make it easier for settlers to claim land, and thousands of kilometres of rail were established. Over the course of a century, the Dominion of Canada grew to stretch across 9.9 million square kilometres, from British Columbia in the west to Newfoundland in the east, and far north past the arctic circle. A true feat of empire.

What has been left out of this narrative until relatively recently, is that in order for brave settlers to forge new land for King (and Queen) and country, a key problem had to be overcome: this ‘wilderness’ was, in fact, already inhabited by millions of people.

Various authors (e.g. see Bev Sellars, Nick Estes and Thomas King, among many others) have eloquently documented the process by which the British and French governments, then the Canadian (and American) government, set about destroying Indigenous people in what is now North America. There is not space here to even begin to detail this violent history, but in short, concerted focus was placed on systematically eliminating “the Indian Problem”.

Indigenous people were violently uprooted from their traditional homes and pushed far into remote areas where they would not get in the way of new European settlements. Generations of Indigenous children were taken from their families and “aggressively civilised” in residential schools, where they had their culture literally beaten out of them. This is not ancient history. Canada’s last residential school closed in 1996.

The Canadian government finally established a “Truth and Reconciliation Commission” in 2008, and formally apologised for its treatment of Indigenous people that same year. However, for many, the apology rang hollow, as have subsequent apologies, including from a tearful Justin Trudeau. Many Indigenous communities in Canada still live in abject poverty, their suicide rates are the highest in the country, more than 4,000 Indigenous women have been murdered or are missing (something which has officially been classified as a genocide), and the Canadian government continues to steamroll over Indigenous rights to land and livelihood as it pushes through new pipelines and dams on Indigenous territory.

As Nick Estes and Nyla Matuk argue on the excellent Red Nation Podcast, Canada’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission was more about Canada absolving itself of its crimes than about making tangible change. Moreover, what is there to reconcile if there was not conciliation in the first place?

Wet’suwet’en Land Defenders protest the construction of a natural gas pipeline that passes through their unceded territory in northern British Columbia, Canada
Photo credit: Jennifer Wickham

Canada is not unique in its treatment of Indigenous people. The United States, Australia and New Zealand, among others, are all products of similar settler colonial projects. However, many Canadians still seem unable to understand the implications of the European settler colonial project that birthed their country and remain fiercely – and uncritically – proud of their nationality. Canada Day narratives serve only to perpetuate this, almost entirely glossing over the colonial history of the country.

Equally, we must contest the narrative that these issues are simply ‘in the past’. To this day, Canadians hold tight to a pervasive narrative of Canadian ‘multiculturalism’ (e.g. Canada is a ‘mosaic’, unlike the United States, which is as ‘melting pot’), which overlooks the continuing influence of racism in Canadian society. This extends beyond the country’s ongoing reprehensible treatment of Indigenous people. Black people in Canada are twice as likely to be on a low income than other Canadians and are more likely to be a victim of a hate crime. In Toronto, Black people account for 37 percent of the victims of police violence despite making up only 8 percent of the population. I could go on.

So, I am not celebrating Canada Day today, not because I think Canada is a uniquely terrible place, nor because I think Canadians have nothing to be proud of. Rather, the history that this day in particular represents is something that should not be celebrated. Moreover, Canada Day celebrations perpetuate the notion that Canada is an unproblematic bastion of multiculturalism and progressive politics. Unfortunately, this couldn’t be further from the truth.

This post was originally published on Newcastle University’s Sociology blog.

Waterway Management and the Dairy Industry in Ireland

This autumn I was in Ireland undertaking fieldwork for my ongoing PhD research, which focuses on agriculture policy, land use and waterway management on the island of Ireland. While there, I travelled all over the country, interviewing people from across the agriculture sector, including farmers, civil servants, industry lobbyists and NGO workers. I hoped to find out how the Irish agriculture industry plans to deal with its ongoing water pollution issues.

Dairy is King

Something that became abundantly apparent over the course of my visit is that dairy is ‘king’ in Ireland. This, of course, was not a total surprise, given that it is by far the most profitable agricultural enterprise in the country. Although only 13% of in Ireland’s 137,500 farms are devoted to dairy – there are approximately 18,000 dairy farmers in the country, managing around 1.35 million cows – Irish dairy produce exports totalled €4.6 billion in 2017, accounting for 34% of Irish agri-food exports. What I had not fully understood until I started talking to people was just how much discussion of the dairy industry dominates discourse around land and waterway management practices on the island. This may have interesting implications for how best to address Irish agriculture’s pollution problems.

A dairy farm outside of Wicklow, Ireland.
Photo credit: Adrienne Attorp

A brief History of Irish Dairy Farming

Dairying has a long history in Ireland. Archaeologists at the University of Bristol argue that dairy was an important food source for Neolithic peoples on the island, after their research identified traces of dairy fats in pots found in the region dating between 4,000 and 2,500 BC (Smyth and Evershed, 2016). They note that, as dairy cattle are not native to the island, early farmers – possibly indigenous foragers or incoming farmers, or both – would have had to transport the animals across the open sea to Ireland in small vessels that could hold only a few animals at a time. This was no easy feat, and “…these voyages are unlikely to have been undertaken without a significant degree of determination and broader social support” (Smyth and Evershed, 2016, p. 220). The Irish love affair with dairy clearly has deep roots and continues to be an integral part of the country’s social, cultural and economic fabric.

Fast forward to the 20th century, by which point the Irish landscape had been transformed into a patchwork of small, family-owned farms. This landholding pattern developed as a result of centuries of land rights struggles under British occupation. In the late 19th century, a series of ‘land agitations’ and a changing political environment finally forced the British government to concede to far-reaching land ownership transfers from members of the British landlord class to their impoverished tenant famers (Hannan and Commins, 1992 [1]). As a result, family farms became the central focus of what was previously quite a diverse rural economy. By the 1920s, the majority of Ireland’s ‘active population’ were either farmers or ‘relatives assisting’ with farming (Hannan and Commins, 1992). Dairying would have been one of many agricultural activities undertaken by such farmers. Although the significance of agriculture in Ireland declined as the 20th century progressed, this landholding pattern remained relatively consistent through the middle of the century.

Prior to Ireland’s accession to the European Economic Community (EEC; now European Union) in 1973, the Irish dairy sector was not particularly significant economically. The majority of Irish dairy was consumed within Ireland, with UK being the country’s only meaningful export market. This changed with entry to the EEC. Common Agricultural Policy price supports translated into a huge increase in milk prices, which, alongside improved access to the European market and general productivity gains, greatly stimulated production. Irish dairy output doubled between 1970 and 1984 (Donnellan et al., 2015). A similar trend occurred across the EEC, and by the late 1970s, there were considerable milk surpluses across Europe. In 1984, the EEC brought in a quota on dairy production to curb this, which dampened the growth of the industry and became one of the key factors resulting in the consolidation of dairy farming in Ireland. Between 1984 and 2014, the number of Irish dairy farms declined from 80,000 to 17,500. This was accompanied by a 470% increase in output per farm, a 350% increase in average dairy herd size and a 48% increase in output per cow (Donnellan et al., 2015). The trend was, unequivocally, ‘go big or go bust [2]’.

The Irish Dairy Industry Post-Quota

The EU milk quota was eventually lifted in April 2015. As a result, the volume of Irish dairy output increased by 60% between 2015 and 2019, translating into a €2 billion per annum increase in value (National Dairy Council, 2019). This rapid growth contrasts starkly with the prospects of dairy farmers in some other countries around the world, notably the United States, where the industry, which is the largest globally, is facing significant economic pressures and decline. For example, according to a recent New York Times article, in Wisconsin, a state known as ‘America’s Dairyland’, the number of dairy herds has fallen by half since 2005, and nearly 1,200 dairy farms have closed in the past two years alone.

Undoubtedly, there are multiple factors contributing to these contrasting fortunes. However, perhaps most relevant to this discussion, is Irish dairy’s USP as the ‘green option’: predominantly grass feed, it is touted as the “the lowest carbon emitting dairy sector in the Northern Hemisphere”. This, along with the sector’s comparatively high animal welfare standards, has attracted a strong international demand for the industry’s various products. Today, over 90% of Ireland’s total dairy production is exported to more than 120 countries, and despite its small size – both geographically and in population terms – Ireland is consistently one of the largest dairy exporters globally.

A Billboard from the Irish Dairy Council’s November 2019 #LoveIrishDairy campaign.
Photo credit: Agriland 2019

The Dairy Industry and Ireland’s Waterways

While this growth may be great for Irish dairy farmers and for the Irish economy more broadly, for those concerned with waterway management in Ireland, there is less cause for celebration. Ireland is a country covered in water, with 513 groundwater bodies, more than 800 lakes, and over 70,000 km of waterways (Fanning et al., 2017). Diffuse agricultural pollution is the most significant source of water pollution in the country, and run-off of nutrients such as nitrogen and phosphorous, the majority of which comes from animal waste (van Grinsven et al., 2012), poses a particular problem (Mockler et al., 2017). ‘Green’ credentials or not, the Irish dairy industry’s ongoing growth ambitions may not be compatible with water quality targets Ireland is statutorily obliged to meet as a member of the EU.

This is not to suggest the dairy industry is uniquely responsible for Ireland’s water pollution problems. The Irish agriculture industry as a whole is very animal-production focused, and in terms of numbers, the Irish dairy herd is vastly smaller than either the beef cattle or sheep herds: there are 5.35 million beef cattle in Ireland – nearly four times the number of dairy cows – and approximately 3.9 million sheep (Teagasc, 2017). Moreover, from what I can gather through my interviews thus far, the dairy industry has been leading the way within the agriculture sector in terms of trying to improve its sustainability. Dairy Industry Ireland has initiated a broad reaching sustainability initiative called ‘Dairy Sustainability Ireland’, and according to many of the policy makers and extension workers I spoke to, dairy farmers are often the most likely to engage with efforts to mitigate pollution.

A Billboard from the Irish Dairy Council’s November 2019 #LoveIrishDairy campaign.
Photo credit: Agriland 2019

This is, of course, not only because of some altruistic desire to help the environment, although for some farmers, such as those involved in the innovative BRIDE project, this does indeed play a leading role. Mainly, the dairy industry appears to be acutely aware of its obligations to maintain water quality under Ireland’s current Nitrates Directive derogation [3], and is very wary of losing this privilege. However, it is clear there are also other factors at play. Practically speaking, because the majority of dairy farmers farm full time, they tend to have more capacity to engage with extension services and stay up-to-date with industry trends than do their counterparts in the drystock industry, many more of whom farm part time. Because dairy is profitable, dairy farmers also tend to have more access to capital, enabling them to invest in measures that help mitigate pollution. Furthermore, dairy farms are often based on some of the best quality land, meaning that in many cases, nutrients are less likely to run off from these farms into waterways. Drystock farmers on more marginal land may have greater runoff issues, even if they farm less intensively. Last, but not least, public opinion plays a big role; current ‘plant-based’ diet trends are making the industry sit up and take notice, and public awareness about the environmental impact of agricultural practices generally is also placing pressure on the industry.

What does this mean for Ireland’s commitment to have all of its waterways achieve a ‘good’ status under the EU Water Framework Directive by 2027? Clearly, engaging with the dairy industry will continue to be very important. It is a very big player, and dairy farmers seem to have the willingness and capacity to address water management issues. Equally, since drystock farmers are also a big part of the pollution problem, but are harder to engage, then more creative ways will need to be found to do so. Furthermore, the discussion cannot be about dairy and drystock farmers only. Although industries such as pig, poultry and mushroom are far less significant, both in terms of economic output and of number/size of farms, they are still a major pollution risk, particularly in some regions of the country where they are concentrated. How exactly improvements are to be achieved remains to be seen, but I hope that my research will provide some insight as to how to bring everyone on board. King or not, the dairy industry is but one of several players that have to work together to reach Ireland’s environmental goals.

Sincere thanks to the Enviresearch Foundation for funding this research visit.

[1] Hannan, D. and P. Commins (1992). The significance of small scale landholders in Ireland’s socioeconomic transformation. The development of industrial society in Ireland. J. Goldthorpe and C. Whelan. Oxford, Oxford University Press: 79-104.
[2] This is, of course, a relative term. Today, the average size of an Irish dairy herd is 80 cows, whereas in the United States it is around 230. In some cases, American CAFOs may house thousands of cows.
[3] Under the existing Nitrates Directive derogation, approximately 7,000 intensive farmers in Ireland (mostly dairy) are able to farm at stocking rates higher than permitted than baseline Nitrates Directive rules. Most argue this is critical to sustaining existing levels of dairy production in the country, let alone expanding them.

This blog was originally posted on Newcastle University’s Centre for Rural Economy website

Some thoughts on emotion in academia

Question: As academics, and, in particular, as sociologists, how acceptable is it for us to be emotional? I don’t mean as individuals, but as professionals.

In general, emotion is a tricky subject. How much emotion is too much? Who gets to show emotion, for what reason, and when? Answers to these questions depend heavily on context.

For example, it seems it is not OK for women in positions of power to show emotion. That is a sign of weakness, evidence of a woman’s inability to hack it in a world of powerful men. Case in point (there are many): This past week, American Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez was called out on Twitter for being ‘too emotional’ following an interview outside a migrant detention centre on the American-Mexican border.

Conversely, it seems it is OK (at least these days, in ‘the West’) for a man in power to show some emotion, or tap into his ‘feminine side’. Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has political tears down to an art, and Barack Obama also cried more than once during his presidency (e.g. here and here). Both are applauded for it.

So what about emotion in academia? Obviously, to argue a point effectively, academics have to be measured and relatively neutral. The degree to which this is important depends somewhat on an individual academic’s chosen stance. In the context of policymaking, Cairney and Oliver (2018) write that an academic can chose to be an ‘activist scholar’ or an ‘honest broker’, the former being less neutral.

Intellectually, I understand that this is important, and I am not necessarily advocating otherwise. However, two years into this PhD business, I sometimes still struggle to put this into practice. How are we supposed to separate emotion from our work when so much of what we research as sociologists is, well, incredibly emotional? Sociology is about society, about lives. Sometimes those lives are pretty tough. Here at Newcastle University we have people researching everything from refugee experiences to child abuse and homelessness. That ain’t light stuff.

On a personal level, in reflecting on why I am here, in academia, it comes down to one basic fact: I am angry. Furious actually. The social challenges and ecological breakdown we are currently experiencing – the result of a whole host of interconnected political, social and economic factors – fill me with rage and frustration. I know that we, as a species, have the potential to be so much better.

On bad days, anger takes a break and grief and fear pay a visit. For example, last week I was sent into a bit of a tailspin by news that British Columbia’s once vast salmon run has all but failed to return this year. Although various pressures can be blamed for the decline of this great fish, something that has been happening for a while now, climate breakdown looks to be the main culprit: hotter, drier summers are causing many smaller spawning streams to dry up, and it also appears the salmon are not coping well with warmer coastal waters.

Salmon are the lifeblood of coastal British Columbia, where I grew up. They are a critical part of the regional food chain: a staple food for indigenous peoples who have lived in the region for thousands of years, as well as for everything from otters and orcas to the towering coastal trees (bears feed on spawning fish and leave the remains of their meal on the forest floor, thereby fertilising the trees. I find this incredible). Salmon’s precipitous decline is already having disastrous knock-on effects for all other life that relies upon them. The fishing industry was also historically a huge employer of British Columbians; the industry’s collapse has hit coastal towns hard.

Photo credit: TripAdvisor

The loss of the salmon is just one of the many cascading changes already being written on the land I love as a result of climate breakdown. This sometimes makes me feel overwhelmed, and yes, pretty damn sad.

(I hope we can leave aside, for now, discussion of the fact that I am clearly in an incredibly privileged position if it is salmon I am crying over. I can hear you saying: “Turkish forces are using British weapons to bomb Syrian Kurds into oblivion as we speak. People are already losing their homes because of climate breakdown, and in many cases, instead of finding safe refuge elsewhere, they are being kept in deplorable refugee camps not fit for any lifeform. And you are worried about a few fish?!”. I take your point, but that is a discussion for another blog.)

What does all this have to do with emotion and academia? Indeed, what does this have to do with my current research, which is mainly about agriculture politics and cow poo, not salmon or climate change? Well, I have chosen to focus my work on agriculture because so many of the challenges we face – social, political, ecological – converge in the food system. Modern food production is one of the biggest contributors to climate change and ecological destruction globally, and some of the poorest people in the world work in the agriculture sector, often under grossly unfair conditions.

I am under no illusion that by doing a bit of research on agriculture policy I will fix the food system or stop climate change. However, I have spent quite a few years trying to figure out how to use my anger and grief constructively, and, for the time being, this PhD is fitting the bill. I have convinced myself that trying to make change, however small, is better than making no change at all. Geographer Susanne Moser refers to this as grounded hope.

The question then is: how do I channel my rage, my grief, my fear and frustration into something that is powerful and effective in an academic setting?

Many of the people who inspire me most are writers. When I doubt why I even bother, passionate essays about social and political change by the likes of poet Adrienne Rich, writer and playwright James Baldwin, and modern climate justice advocate Mary Annaïse Heglar can often snap me out of whatever funk I have fallen into.

James Baldwin said “You write in order to change the world”. He argued, “The world changes according to the way people see it, and if you alter, even by a millimeter, the way a person looks or people look at reality, then you can change it.”

As Sociologists, we are not writers, we are academics. But academics write, and many of us, social scientists in particular, are in this game to try and make things better. If we cannot effectively convey in our writing the emotions we feel, are we actually able to effect change?

Author and activist Naomi Klein is vocal about the need to be more emotional about issues such as climate change. She speaks about how she – particularly as a woman – has been trained to speak in a calm and measured fashion when communicating lest she not be taken seriously. However, she says this causes a disconnect between the message that she is conveying – the causes and consequences of climate breakdown – and her affect. She argues that in order for people to take the emergency we are facing seriously and treat it as one, those of us communicating about it need to, at least on some level, show how emotional we are about it.

Academic writing is not about persuasive essays, nor is it public speaking. I accept that a sound academic argument cannot be as emotional as a James Baldwin essay or the column of a talented journalist. But if academic writing is to be the main form of communicating my work, how do I convey my emotion? How do I encourage change rather than restrict myself to analysing problems in a clinical manner and identifying possible solutions? Perhaps a sideline in blog writing (haha) or public speaking is the way forward. However, if I do write emotional blogs, or give emotional speeches, will I lose all hope of ever being regarded as a serious academic? Can emotion and academic credibility co-exist?

As I write these questions, plenty of passionate scholars pop to mind. I guess the answer is yes: academic writing is just one of several tools that will allow me to convey my message. Nevertheless, I remain mindful that activism comes with its own set of risks, especially for women who hope to have their research taken seriously. I am going to have to figure out how to get the balance right.

This post originally appeared on the PGR Sociology @ Newcastle University blog

Academia, policy and practice – How can we ensure our research findings make a difference?

Adrienne Attorp and Beth Clark summarise what they learned about policy making from Professor David Freshwater during his recent visit to the CRE.

This February, the Centre for Rural Economy (CRE) was lucky enough to receive a visit from Professor David Freshwater of the University of Kentucky. While here, he spent an afternoon with CRE PhD students and early career researchers, and spoke to us about his work as a researcher and policy analyst in the field of rural and agricultural policy, which has included many years working as a consultant for the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD). He also shared with us his thoughts and reflections on farming, including what he thinks are the biggest challenges facing the industry, and imparted some words of wisdom to those of us interested in working to influence policy. Some highlights:

The Challenges facing Farming

According to Professor Freshwater, policy is the biggest threat to agriculture because it is in a constant state of flux. This observation could not be timelier for a UK-based audience given the imminent arrival of Brexit and the looming threat of a ‘no deal’ exit, or a last-minute announcement of tariffs. Brexit aside, given the short-term focus of politicians that accompanies short stints in power and party changes, and the lack of overall strategy, it is not surprising to find that this makes longer-term planning difficult for farmers.

We also discussed the structure of farming and farm income, with farm support moving away from direct payments in a number of instances towards a more risk management-based approach. This reflects a need to change the approach to payments as a country and its economy develop. Related to this, Professor Freshwater highlighted the need for diversification, citing off-farm income sources as a means of risk mitigation. While some would portray this as a negative narrative as it suggests the farm is not a profitable entity without a separate source of income, Professor Freshwater offered a different perspective, arguing that a portfolio of uncorrelated income sources can in fact provide more resilience in an ever-changing climate. He pointed out that most households are multi-income, so why not farming households also?

How to Influence Policy Making

Politics precedes policy (and audience matters!)

“If you want to change policy, you have to talk to politicians”, Professor Freshwater told us. He also underscored that in order to influence policy effectively, researchers must “be immersed in the politics of [their] time”. Why? Because it is essential to understand both the context in which policymakers are working and the agendas they have, in order that research can fit into this context and align with current political values. This does not mean ‘selling out’, so to speak, it just means it is important to think about how you frame the problem and potential solutions, so as to make the most impact. Audience matters.

In addition, Professor Freshwater highlighted that policy can struggle with the unique. Generalizable findings and recommendations are much more suited to political interests. Thus, it is important to consider the smallest number of variations a policy may have while still being effective. He also stressed the need to ensure that any policy suggestions are both cost and outcome effective.

Further, similar to the pressures farmers contend with, the time constraints faced by policymakers make implementing long-term change difficult. With changes to political parties happening every four-to-five years or less, planning in two-year periods is often more feasible, with short-term recommendations more likely to be implemented.

Tell a story

Anecdotes and stories make policy impacts real, we learned. In policymaking, this is where qualitative research comes into its own. These anecdotes and stories should form part of your overall narrative on a subject, but crucially, we must always back them up with statistics. Furthermore, once you have your narrative, stick to it. Never contradict yourself!

Some final pearls of wisdom…

To be effective outside of academia there is a need to avoid the ‘tunnel vision’ that academics so often have, and to have an overview (even a not very in-depth one) of other disciplines. (This is evidently a strength of the CRE, given the diverse expertise of staff and students, not to mention the broad range of collaborators that we have and continue to work with.)

And finally, Professor Freshwater made a plug for theory, emphasising that, by approaching research from a theoretical perspective, researchers can be deductive, as well as uniform in their approach to comparing and evaluating different policy alternatives. This subsequently provides rigour to their work.

So, what are the take-home messages? Other than the need to ensure we keep an open mind and read more broadly, we came away with a number of key points for preparing a policy brief:

◾Create and tell a story about why your research is important
◾Provide evidence of the impacts of what you are recommending
◾Be consist in telling this same story to different people
◾Consider how generalizable your findings are

Many thanks to Professor Freshwater for helping the CRE’s early career researchers expand their research arsenal. Watch out policy world!

This blog was originally published on Newcastle University’s Centre for Rural Economy website

Landscape: By whom, for whom?

Who possesses this landscape? –
The man who bought it or
I who am possessed by it?


Landscape. What does the word mean to you? When you think of the landscape most familiar to you, whether it be urban, rural, or something in between, what images, smells, feelings, memories are conjured up? Maybe you feel strongly attached to a certain place, or perhaps you have moved around a great deal without really putting down roots. But the fact is, sooner or later, most people do start to feel strongly about the place or places they call home.

Landscapes mean different things to different people. For example, the rolling hills and green fields of the United Kingdom form a significant part of British and Irish social and cultural identity. After nearly a decade spent living in England, I, too, have grown very fond of its countryside. However, the landscape that most stirs my soul is that of Canada’s west coast. The journey home to Vancouver Island (for it is still “home” to me) is always an emotional one; the first sight of mist shrouded forests meeting the ocean, coupled with the scent of cedar and fir carried on the salty Pacific air, never fails to overwhelm me.

But people do not need to be from opposite sides of the world to feel differently about a landscape. There can be considerable differences in opinion about what landscape means, or what a particular landscape should be “for”, within a country, within a region, or even within a neighbourhood. And when it comes to managing or responding to changes in landscape, resolving those differences of opinion can be significant challenge.

Landscapes undergo a continual process of change, evolving through time as a result of interaction with both humans and natural forces. However, at certain points in time, this process may appear to be more rapid than others. When change is noticeable, people often struggle to come to terms with it, and that increases the potential for conflict. Brexit may usher in one such period of rapid landscape change (and potential conflict) since changes in policies related to agriculture, the environment, rural development and trade could have significant implications for how the UK’s countryside is managed. We are also entering what is almost certainly going to be a period of rapid environmental change as the effects of climate change become increasingly apparent and write themselves on our currently familiar landscapes.

How successfully we respond to these changes as a society depends to a large degree on how successful we are at working together. In terms of Brexit, for example, can new policies be developed that effectively take into account the opinions and needs of all stakeholders (which includes just about everyone)? In terms of responding to climate change, can the interests of all those affected (again, everyone, not just those profiting from polluting industries) be taken into consideration?

This is not just about “listening” to everyone’s voices, and paying lip service to having done so. It is about undertaking the difficult process of giving value and importance to everyone’s needs and desires, and figuring out how to meet them, as far as possible. This task is challenging for various reasons. First, people need and/or want different things, and assessing what these needs and wants are is not as simple as asking people for their opinion. Both can change over time, and are influenced by a great many external factors. Secondly, it is difficult, if not impossible, to determine if all voices should be given equal weight, or if some are more important than others.

Great bodies of research have been devoted to both these challenges, and there is no clear consensus. But perhaps that is the point: society is dynamic, just like the landscape, and working together must be an ongoing process rather than a one-off consultation. We as social researchers can contribute to this process by helping to develop a deeper understanding of how to assess opinion, bring everyone’s interests to the table when important issues are discussed, and ensure those interests are not ignored when policy decisions are made.

This post was originally published on the PGR Sociology @ Newcastle University blog 

Going to TARRN 2018

Adrienne Attorp blogs about her first academic conference, following a windswept journey to Cornell.

As a first-year PhD student I was not sure what to expect from my first academic conference. The Trans-Atlantic Rural Research Network (TARRN) is “a collaborative network of social scientists in North America and Europe conducting original research on rural transformation and rural policies”. The main aim of the network is to undertake comparative research on rural transformations in the US and UK. Each year the group meets to discuss new and ongoing research being conducting by network members, and to act as a “springboard” for new research that is in line with the network’s aims. I’m told it’s not a “typical” academic conference but it was a great introduction for me, particularly as I was able to give a paper myself. This year the network meeting was hosted by Cornell University in Ithaca, New York, and I attended along with four academics from Newcastle University’s Centre for Rural Economy. Nothing at all against Aberystwyth (last year’s hosts) or Aberdeen (next year’s hosts), but there is something rather exciting about taking a trans-Atlantic flight in order to get to a conference, and I for one was delighted that it was Cornell’s turn. Never mind that a fierce nor’easter shut down the entire eastern seaboard the day most of us travelled over, meaning that more than one of us had to go on a magical mystery tour of European and American airports before finally arriving in Ithaca (I highly recommend Detroit’s airport). We did all get there in the end!

I spent the days leading up to the event preparing to have my underdeveloped ideas torn to shreds by the seasoned academics in attendance, most of whom are leaders in the field of rural sociology. Thankfully, I was spared humiliation; it turns out that TARRN works to actively support new and experienced academics alike, and this meeting was no exception. I am pleased to report I didn’t have any rotten tomatoes thrown at me, nor did anyone tell me I am stupid (I cannot confirm no one thought this, but I choose to remain comfortable in my ignorance). Instead, I received a great deal of thoughtful, constructive feedback, which left me feeling motivated and inspired.

TARRN meetings aim to maximise idea sharing. Participants present ‘think pieces’, each written with a view to stimulating debate and sparking future research. This is followed by round table discussion on the topic – an opportunity for people to ask questions, provide feedback, and suggest ideas for future research and collaboration. There are also short presentations about attendees’ current research again followed by round table discussion. This offered those who wished it an opportunity to receive valuable feedback about their research from their fellow academics. The conference room was abuzz with exciting ideas, and everyone seemed energised.

To me, the TARRN meeting felt like what academia should be about: idea sharing and collaboration, for the benefit of all. For why do we research if not to learn about the world and how it works, in order to help make it a better place? And therefore, if our research is indeed for “the greater good”, should we not, as academics, be helping further each other’s work as much as we can? Perhaps it is naïve of me to believe this. I am aware of academia’s competitive, cut-throat reputation, and maybe after another three years of PhD study I will become jaded. However, I hold out hope, because the TARRN meeting demonstrated to me that academia can be positive, supportive, and collaborative. I am already looking forward to next year’s meeting in Aberdeen, which, although not as exotic as New York, will at least not take two days to travel to.

This blog originally appeared on Newcastle University’s Centre for Rural Economy Website