Landscape: By whom, for whom?

Adrienne Attorp is a second year PhD student at Newcastle University, studying agriculture policy and land use in Ireland.  Here she writes about some of the challenges inherent in researching landscape.  

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

Norman MacCraig, from “A Man In Assynt (extract)”

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.

“The Sociological Review’s 2018 conference: undisciplined and demonstrably alive”

Emma Seddon is a PhD student in sociology at Newcastle University, with a background in languages and translation. Her research looks at the translation industry and translators as a professional group.  Here she reflects on the Sociological Review’s recent conference in Gateshead.

The Sociological Review went out on a limb at this year’s conference: “Undisciplining: Conversations from the Edges” (18-21 June 2018). They wanted to encourage discussion and collaboration across disciplines in a conference with a difference. This “undisciplining” took various forms. The venue itself, far from being your average convention centre, was the BALTIC Centre for Contemporary Art in Gateshead – a converted flour mill. The itinerary included challenging keynotes and panels, as well as walking tours, films, board-making and practical workshops. The conference was not only “undisciplining” in name, this was fundamental to every aspect of the event. It fell somewhere between festival, exhibition and academic conference. From the beginning, Michaela Benson, the managing editor, made a clear statement that not only the conference, but also the journal did not limit itself to Sociology the discipline with a big “S”, but was committed to the sociological more broadly.

The journal’s manifesto calls for research which is “demonstrably alive”; aware of the consequences and politics of its standpoint; seeks to open up discussion and avenues for action; and doesn’t simply aim to fill a gap in the literature. This ethos was key to the opening discussion and was referenced across the three days. It’s quite unusual for a journal to have a manifesto, but this seemed aligned with such an “undisciplined” event. The theme of the conference and the spirit of the manifesto made it feel like a true call to action.

This came through in the keynotes, given by Dr Ayona Datta and Professor Jenny Reardon. Dr Datta gave the opening keynote “Undisciplining Urban Futures” –  in which she discussed her work on Indian “smart cities”. She spoke of “futuring” as a strategy of governance that sought to rescale nationhood at the scale of the urban, and brought together discourses and practices at global, national and local levels. She explored the idea of a digital class and the relationship between social mobility and technology in India, asking a poignant question: “whose urban futures are we referring to?”

Prof Reardon gave the closing keynote – “When Prairie Meets Genome” – and discussed completely different concerns and themes to Dr Datta, exemplifying the “undisciplined” nature of this conference. As part of her research, she is cycling across her home state of Kansas. Here, cycling becomes a method, an embodied form of knowing that allows her as a researcher to ask ontological and epistemological questions by engaging with a certain space, and the people – and things – within it. Her talk covered clashes between political ideals and convictions, environmental disasters, refute and subsequent acceptance of climate change, and the silent absence of indigenous peoples, among other things.

The conference also included the Sociological Review’s Annual Lecture 2018 given by Professor Satnam Virdee: “Unthinking Sociology and Overcoming its History Deficit”. For me, this was the most challenging and fascinating talk of the conference. He started by unpacking the Eurocentric beginnings of social theory and described the culturally syncretic roots of the Renaissance. He aimed to show the importance of history and how looking historically at the intertwined issues of race and class can help shed some light on the rise of reactionary populism we see today, particularly in the US and UK.

The two keynotes and the annual lecture, although presenting different subject matter, nonetheless had something fundamental in common: a desire to extend or go beyond disciplinary definitions of the sociological, the social, and what should be studied sociologically. I came away from the conference with more questions than answers – and I think that was the point. It challenged and questioned what the discipline of sociology is and what it can – and should – do. It questioned the disciplinary barriers between sociology and other fields that deal with the sociological. It started a conversation about what foregrounding the sociological means, and challenged me not to shy away from what may be uncomfortable truths. Ultimately, it showed me what it means to do research that is “demonstrably alive”, and I think the value of that, especially during the long, lonely days of your PhD, shouldn’t be underestimated.

Making the most of ESRC: Collaborating with researchers in Brazil

Clare Vaughan is an ESRC-funded PhD student at Newcastle University. She is currently researching the experiences of young women at risk of homelessness in the north east. She recently travelled to Brazil to develop new research links with other academics in her field, and to disseminate her own research findings.  Here she writes about her experience, and encourages other students to pursue similar opportunities.

As an ESRC-funded PhD student, I was lucky enough to be awarded an Overseas Institutional Visit grant, taking me to Brazil in May of this year. The purpose of the grant is to:

  • undertake additional specialist research training not available on the UK
  • develop language skill
  • establish research links that will be beneficial to their current or future academic career
  • disseminate early research findings
  • attend and participate in seminars where directly relevant to their research

My visit to the Federal University of São Paulo (UNIFESP) allowed me to explore the latter three of the above points, working directly with gender and anthropology professor, Cynthia Sarti. I had reached out to Professor Sarti due to the close relationship between our research themes, and was excited at the prospect of developing the theoretical framing of violence within my own work.

I was invited to a number of events whilst at UNIFESP, and seeing the enthusiasm of students attending lectures up to 11pm gave me some food-for-thought! The highlight of my visit to UNIFESP was presenting to postgraduate gender studies students, delivering a presentation on the use of the visual method photovoice in research with young homeless women. Having an opportunity to present your work within an international context enables a totally different perspective on definitions and contexts that we often take for granted, and we had an excellent debate on the legal categorisation of ‘homelessness’ in the UK vs Brazil.

Part of my trip also included visiting Porto Alegre, to the very south of Brazil. Here, I spent time with gender scholar Dr Tatiana Maia from La Salle University and attended an incredibly interesting panel on the theoretical and social value of restorative justice (see pic below). My good friend and philosophy professor Fabricio conducted live translation so I was never left out of the loop!

From left to right: Fabricio Pontin, Brunilda Pali, João Pedroso

Completing an Overseas Institutional Visit to Brazil was, at times, a daunting experience. Arriving alone in a city of 12 million is not for the feint-hearted. However, the warmth of the people I met whilst there, the academic opportunities I was given and the sadness I felt boarding the plane home was testimony to the brilliant time that was had. I highly recommend applying for this scheme – you never know what connections and opportunities may come out as a result. And having a university-funded trip abroad wasn’t half bad either!

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.