Monthly Archives: February 2015

Mapping Diasporas: Goad, Pervititch and the Survey of Egypt

On Tuesday, February 17th we had the pleasure to have with us Dr George Vassiadis from the History Department. George started his appointment as a Lecturer in Modern Greek History at RHUL in 2014 and he is also an executive member of the Hellenic Institute, an interdisciplinary research centre for the study of Greek history and culture. His research focuses in part on the Greek diaspora in Egypt and Turkey.

Here are some post-LS reflections by George.


I was invited to Landscape Surgery to talk about using maps as a source for my ongoing research into the social, political and economic history of the Greek communities in Turkey and Egypt between the 1850s and the 1960s.  Minority groups in the successor states of the Ottoman Empire were negatively affected by the violent upheavals of the twentieth century. Although there are still small numbers of Greeks in Turkey and Egypt, they are struggling to survive as viable communities. Maps provide us with one of the most immediate visual and documentary testimonies of their presence in cities where the host cultures have now come to predominate.

Key Secteur Nord Vol IIIa 1926-27 Pervititch   Alexandria 1944 Survey of E sheet 20

Using specific examples, I showed how the maps produced by Charles E. Goad (1848-1910), Jacques Pervititch (1877-1945) and the largely anonymous cartographers and surveyors of the British-run Survey of Egypt (extant from 1898 to 1960) serve as invaluable aids for tracking the urban presence of non-Muslim minority communities, both indigenous and foreign, in Constantinople (Istanbul), Smyrna (Izmir), Alexandria and Cairo. The ethnic groups involved include Greeks, as well as Armenians, Jews, Syrians, and Levantines of western and central European origin.

Goad Charles E 1879 Vancouver Archives

The beautifully drawn and coloured Goad and Pervititch maps were originally produced for the fire insurance industry. Until recently, very little was known about the motivations and working methods of these two important cartographers.  Goad had a flourishing fire insurance plan business in Canada, yet he chose to map four Ottoman cities. Pervititch’s maps are highly idiosyncratic, the inspired output of a first-generation Constantinopolitan who strongly identified with his adoptive city. Although initially aimed at producing a detailed record of land tenure for taxation purposes, the Survey of Egypt left a rich cartographic legacy which far exceeds its original administrative requirements.

Pervititch Jacques

Until now, I tended to study these maps in isolation. Preparing for the Landscape Surgery highlighted the value of a more comparative approach. The interesting and thought-provoking discussion which followed raised a number of significant points.  Can the personalities and professional working methods of Goad and Pervititch tell us more about the maps they produced? We know that these maps were originally produced for commercial and administrative purposes.  But did people interact with them in different ways at the time? Have these maps now been wholly reappropriated by historians and cultural geographers?  Should we treat them as cultural artifacts?  When looking at these maps, how do we trace the physical presence of the people we are seeking?

George Vassiadis, Lecturer in Modern Greek History, RHUL

Precarious Geographies workshop, 10th February, 11 Bedford Square, sponsored by the Royal Holloway Social & Cultural Geography Group (organised and convened by Ella Harris and Mel Nowicki)

Featured image

Keynote Speakers Hannah Lewis, Louise Waite and James Rhodes 


On Tuesday 10th February at 11 Bedford Square, Ella Harris and Mel Nowicki ran a workshop, kindly sponsored by the Social & Cultural Geography Group here at Royal Holloway, exploring the theme of ‘Precarious Geographies’. The day was divided into two parts. The first consisted of two keynote talks: Hannah Lewis and Louise Waite from the University of Leeds discussing their ‘Precarious Lives project, and James Rhodes from the Sociology department at the University of Manchester exploring urban decline in Youngstown, Ohio.  The second part of the day consisted of seven short (5 minute) presentations, in which presenters outlined their work, followed by in-depth discussion of the topics raised.

Precarious Geographies is an ongoing project of ours, and follows on from the Landscape Surgery session we led on the same theme last November. This workshop was the first of a series of sessions relating to Precarious Geographies that we are running throughout 2015. On 23rd April we will be convening three sessions at the AAG Annual Meeting in Chicago, and in September will be convening a UGRG-sponsored session at the RGS-IBG Annual Conference on ‘Urban Precarities’.

The Precarious Geographies project was born out of a discussion around our own PhD research, and the realisation that precarity of place was a concurrent theme in both of our work.

Mel’s research broadly assesses the impact of Coalition housing policy on inner London residents, with a particular focus on the under-occupation penalty, or ‘bedroom tax’, and the criminalisation of squatting as key case studies. Precarity runs throughout Mel’s research in relation to how housing policy targets the precaritization of the homespaces of particular societal figures, namely social tenants and squatters. Mel is particularly interested in the ways in which this precaritization becomes normalised through housing policy being framed as morally just, feeding into an ongoing ‘deserving vs. undeserving poor’ rhetoric in the UK.

Ella’s work looks at geographies of pop-up places in London.  She is specifically interested in the spatiotemporal logics of pop-up culture and their instrumentality within the city. For Ella, precarity comes into this in multifaceted ways. Pop-up can be seen as a phenomenon framed by precarity, given that it has been promoted as a way to tackle post-recession urban decline; valued as a solution to vacancy rates on high streets and a way to utilise interim sites awaiting development. But pop-up culture can arguably exacerbate precarity too by turning urban turbulence into an opportunity for commercial enterprise or normalising temporariness and uncertainty.

Whilst there has been an important and growing body of work in geography that considers precarity in relation to the labour market, spearheaded by academics such as Louise Waite (2009), we feel that precarity as a concept would be a really useful tool in other areas of geography as well, and that there is much to be gained from a focused interrogation of the ways in which precarity is spatialized. This and future sessions seek to extend the existing conversations around precarity, and in particular to further tease out the many and varied relationships between precarity and place.

Below we briefly outline the presentations given, both by our keynote speakers and our short-paper presenters.

Drs Hannah Lewis and Louise Waite, (Critical Geography Research Fellow & Senior Lecturer, University of Leeds): ‘Precarious Lives’ project

Hannah Lewis and Louise Waite got the day off to a fascinating start in their keynote talk on their ongoing ESRC funded ‘Precarious Lives’ project. Alongside their colleagues Peter Dwyer and Stuart Hodkinson, Hannah and Louise have been exploring the experiences of forced labour among asylum seekers and refugees in England. Recent outputs of the project include a book entitled Precarious lives: Forced labour, exploitation and asylum, and a journal article in Progress in Human Geography, ‘Hyper-precarious lives: Migrants, work and forced labour in the Global North’.

In their keynote talk, Hannah and Louise discussed forced migration and precarity of labour as a normalised outcome of neoliberalism, globalisation and austerity, and cautioned against understanding precarity as an exceptional state. They highlighted the multi-dimensional insecurities experienced by refugees and asylum seekers in forced labour. This condition, termed ‘hyper-precarity’, sees a continuum of exploitation that is defined not only through labour conditions, but is compounded through various aspects of the migrant’s journey into forced labour, from dangerous homelands to border trafficking, to the hostility experienced when arriving in the UK.

Hannah and Louise emphasized the difficulties faced in mobilising those experiencing hyper-precarity due to their fear of deportation and their fragmentation and isolation as a group. They did however suggest that a useful way of using precarity as a potential tool for resistance and change may be through linking migrant exploitation to broader instances of exploitation occurring throughout the labour markets of the Global North, for example zero-hour contracts.

James Rhodes (Lecturer in Sociology, University of Manchester): Shrinking cities, urban marginality and socio-spatial inequalities

The second keynote talk was given by James Rhodes, a Sociologist from the University of Manchester. Although not a Geographer by trade, James’ presentation offered a captivating insight into the spatialities of precarity in Youngstown, Ohio which has lost over 60% of its population since 1950, seen drastic declines in employment levels, and experienced falls in house prices so severe that residents sometimes simply cut their losses and walk away. As James described, Youngstown has lost urban density to the point where many areas of the city are food deserts (where no fresh food is sold within a mile) and streets which used to be lined with houses are now only sparsely populated. James considered the production of precarity in Youngtown as relating to a convergence of concentrated disadvantage, high vacancy and demolition rates and the development of insecurity as a structure of feeling. However, his presentation also questioned whether precarity is a forceful enough term to describe the situation in Youngstown. If precarity implies being in-between or on the edge then how can it account for the unremitting deprivation of such a place? Having raised this provocation, James considered precarity as relational and subjective and opened up fascinating questions about the role which imagined geographies play in structuring experiences of precarity, suggesting that desired or remembered places function as bench marks against which present realities are measured.

Mara Ferreri (Research Assistant, Queen Mary’s, University of London): Temporary, Precarious

The first short presentation was from Mara Ferreri, a research assistant at Queen Mary’s University. Mara’s presentation considered the complex precarities of temporary occupations of space including pop-up shops and property guardianship schemes. Describing the rise of policy around temporary use and its instrumentality in delivering social regeneration, Mara positioned pop-up as paradigmatic of neoliberal urbanism and as increasingly entrenched in the ways we imagine future cities. She suggested that temporary urbanisms can be sites of resilience for creative practitioners despite their neoliberal affiliations, and explored tensions between imaginaries of neo-bohemianism and flexibility and the underlying precarities which typify temporary use. Mara ended by questioning what alternatives and forms of resistances to precarity might be emerging, and where we might locate alternative urban futures.

Alexander Proudfoot (Undergraduate Geographer, Oxford University): Solidarity in Precarity

Alexander Proudfoot presented research he has conducted into precarious employment in London as an area where multiple forms of precarious labour exist in close proximity and precarity is growing in the aftermath of financial crisis. He research involved interviewing untenured academics, retail workers and business-service interns and looked to question whether solidarity existed amongst precarious labourers, testing the applicability of Guy Standing’s assertions that such workers are forming a new social class, ‘the precariat.’

Alex explored the different ways in which precarity is experienced across these diverse sectors of work and argued that precarity is often seen as a necessary stage in building towards future aspirations, in particular noting a narrative of “short term pain for long term gain” amongst interns. Alex concluded that although commonalities exist across precarious work, experiences are ultimately diverse and solidarity is rarely felt given the individualistic nature of work in post-fordist, neoliberal labour regimes. His presentation contested the utility of ‘the precariat’ given these realities of neoliberal work.

Ruth Solomons, (Practiced based PhD candidate, Birkbeck, University of London): 2008-2010: The ‘First Phase’ of Artists in Balfron Tower

Ruth Solomons described her experience as one of the “pioneer phase” of artists occupying the Balfron Tower in east London where in 2014 Turner Prize nominee Catherine Yass controversially proposed to drop a piano from the tower, prompting a series of media articles which questioned the ethics of making art in council estates. Ruth’s presentation explored tensions between the deployment of artists for the ‘art washing’ and gentrification of the tower and the precarity of the artists themselves as paying occupants of properties deemed unfit for habitation. She documented worsening conditions for artists across each ‘phase’ of artist occupancy, but also emphasised that her own experience was in many ways positive and that she lived harmoniously among the tower’s existing residents. She raised interesting issues around how the realities of artists’ lives and practices might be negated in narratives of art washing.

Andrew Wallace (Senior Lecturer, University of Lincoln): Regeneration of Salford

Returning to ideas around urban decline and renewal, Andrew Wallace explored the impacts of regeneration practices in Salford as a peripheral, deindustrialised UK city which has seen a barrage of renewal schemes in recent years, bolstered by the infamous relocation of parts of the BBC to the area. Andrew outlined Salford as a deprived area struck badly by austerity and explored how precarity is commonly experienced as an anxiety over the security of private property amidst high levels of crime.

Andrew’s paper drew out tensions between gentrification, abandonment and renewal. He positioned residents of Salford as enveloped within a ‘chaotic alliance’ of projects within which they are subject to multiple place re-brandings yet remain unsupported on the level of service and housing provision, illuminating how regeneration schemes can make residents feel in limbo yet do little to alleviate local problems.

Dr Andrew Burridge, (Associate Research Fellow, University of Exeter): “Where is your solicitor?” Unrepresented hearings and precarious geographies of legal aid in UK asylum appeals

Andrew’s presentation was based on ethnographic research conducted between July 2013 and July 2014, which included daily observations of first tier asylum appeals hearings at Immigration and Asylum Chambers Tribunal (IAC) hearing centres. A particularly concerning realisation emerging from his research has been the high frequency of unrepresented hearings in certain regions of the UK. In these hearings judges are expected to take on an ‘enabling’ role, yet with little clear guidance, while asylum seekers are left to defend themselves against the Home Office. At some hearing centres over a quarter of hearings have no legal representative present, a clearly spatialized precarity that has left some regions of the UK ‘legal deserts’, where the chances of a successful hearing are severely reduced by a lack of representation. Indeed, success rates for asylum seekers are typically below five per cent when unrepresented.

Andrew drew on Waite’s (2009) call for a critical geography of precarity, in which she identifies instability, lack of protection, insecurity, and social and economic vulnerability as central components, and considered whether precarity is helpful in understanding the position of asylum seekers against the broader impacts of cuts to effective legal representation, and uneven geographies of access to legal advice and support.

Dr Geoff Deverteuil, (Senior Lecturer, University of Cardiff): Precarity and violence

Geoff’s paper explored the relationship between precarity and violence, where violence is defined as “…individual, group, or institutional actions, or a consequence of the dominant social relations, that inhibits self-development and self-expression of individuals or communities’’. Geoff proposed three forms of violence – interpersonal, structural and mass intentional – and explained how precarious populations are both receptors and agents of precarity; they both experience violence but also have the potential to inflict it on each other.

Geoff also considered precarity as a medium through which violence becomes institutionalised; a slow-moving violence that is inherent in the everyday lives of particular populations. He emphasised that precarity and violence have a distinctly geographical relationship, and that space and place have both passive and active roles to play.

Dr Menah Raven-Ellison, (Queen Mary’s, University of London, & Senior Occupational Therapist): Negotiating homes beyond the detention centre: Experiences of asylum seeking women

Menah’s paper was based on qualitative research undertaken for her PhD on the experiences of women who have been detained and then released from UK Immigration Removal Centres. Her presentation highlighted that, even after women are released from spaces of detention, they continue to negotiate multiple and fluctuating boundaries in relation to subjective accounts of home and belonging post-detention. Menah argued that the experiences of ex-detained women are best understood within a discourse of precarity. She suggested that the ‘state of precarity’ implicit within narratives of detention can seep into and define the everyday geographies of home beyond release, with erosive impacts on the mental wellbeing and sense of belonging for ex-detained women. For these women, the discrimination they experienced in the detention centre followed them into other forms of homespace. For them, the borderlands of the home and the state were highly blurred in their everyday experiences, through continued surveillance and ongoing experiences of discrimination.

Menah suggested that precarity itself is strategically employed by the state through geopolitical interventions in the name of security and immigration enforcement which are played out in part within (in)secure spaces of home with implications for feelings of safety, belonging, and gendered identities.

Concluding remarks

All the presentations were well received and sparked a really interesting and lively afternoon of debate and discussion, with many provocative and insightful questions from attendees. Particular issues which came into focus were;

  • The utility of ‘the precariat’ as a concept
  • The temporalities of precarity – including the challenges of thinking through slow moving violence and crisis
  • ‘Deserts’ as a type of precarious geography, including food deserts and legal deserts
  • The subjectivity of precarity and the roles played by imaginative geographies of place in experiences of precarity
  • The recurrence of narratives around ‘short term pain for long term gain’
  • The ways in which precarity is made structural, with a particular focus on the relationships between structural precarity, ‘investor ready cities’ and ‘the temporary city’ as the model for the future

Overall we felt that the workshop as a great success and were really excited by the ideas and questions which emerged. There was a fantastic energy all afternoon and we are very grateful to all the speakers and attendees for their enthusiasm and their contributions to the debate.

In particular we would like to thank Phil Crang and the Social and Cultural Geography Group at Royal Holloway for enabling the event through their generous provision of funding, as well as all of our key note speakers and short paper presenters for their fascinating presentations.

Ella Harris and Mel Nowicki

In the archive with Foley Vereker


On 12 February, students from the MA Cultural Geography (Research) visited the Royal Geographical Society (with the Institute of British Geographers) for a half-day of archival research. The day began with a series of talks from current CDA students (Emily Hayes, Exeter; Natalie Cox, Warwick; and Jane Wess, Edinburgh), before we moved on to view an exhibit of lantern slides and scientific instruments from the society’s collection. The focus of the day’s work was the rich collection of illustrated journals and log books written by the nineteenth-century mariner Foley Vereker (1850-1900). The students were invited to examine Vereker’s journals and to form a response to them–not necessarily to offer a narrative account, but an interpretation of them. What follows is, then, a cultural geographical response to the items in the collection.

Innes M. Keighren



Vereker was an accomplished artist and the drawings and watercolours in his journals evoke the atmosphere of the places he travelled to in a way that his written accounts don’t. This is a picture I drew (using the pencil I was allowed to bring in to the Foyle Reading Room) of Vereker from a photograph of the whole crew aboard the HMS Alert somewhere in the South American waters in 1879.

Alice Ladenburg

The colour and diversity of Vereker’s entries range from precise sketches, graphs, maps and watercolours to evocative scenes in towns and detached descriptions of engagements in violent actions against pirates and an opposing navy. Some of the entries that struck me are those translating his name. He has written, or had others write, his name in Hindo, Persian, Singalese and Abyssinian among others (all spelling as in the original). These, together with his decorative dates, initials and occasional titles are interesting details. I also found some humour in several of the fragments on the backs of relevant newspaper cuttings scattered through the pages. One of which describes how the Prince of Wales went deerstalking in the Ballochbuie Forest but, “owing to the rain, his Royal Highness returned to Abergeldie without firing a shot”. I find the contrast with Vereker’s experiences curiously compelling.

Huw Rowlands

Despite numerous references to his on-board shipmates, there is very little reference to his own wife, who we believe was left behind when he travelled. His briefly mentioned spouse gave him 8 children over 10 years, yet she is left out of the majority of his extensive journalling. We do appreciate these journals have been redrafted after fieldnotes, and, therefore, such emotional writing may have been edited out. Although to him this may have seemed a more academic way of writing, as his audience may not have appreciated this at the time, looking back now, through our cultural and emotional geography-focused eyes, this is clearly a missing element from the journalling. It could have been informative regarding geographies of exploration in relation to geographies of domesticity and home during a time of rapid geographical knowledge expansion.

Oliver Knight & Emma Shenton

From the stories on board the ship we gained greater insights into the atmospheric conditions that were produced whilst on board. Piecing together the fragments of legible writing there were many diary entries that were centred on heightened emotions from the jubilation of spotting sharks to the horror of explosion on the ship . The descriptive nature of the diary entries invited a more imaginative  reading through the piecing together of the fragmented performances and events.

Robbie Sheargold & Thomas Dekeyser

Language in the Age of Algorithmic Reproduction

On Tuesday I had the fantastic opportunity of presenting my research on algorithms and language to Landscape Surgery. I also received some incredibly useful, far-reaching and challenging feedback on the draft of my paper ‘Language in the Age of Algorithmic Reproduction’. I learnt so much from the session, and am currently re-working the paper in order to present at Prof. Louise Amoore and Dr Volha Piotukh’s ‘Thinking with Algorithms: Cognition and Computation in the work of N. Katherine Hayles’ workshop at Durham later this month.

I have so much to think about from the LS session, but the main realisation for me is that for this paper at least I need to focus less specifically on search algorithms and start looking further into how language is also affected by things like plagiarism software, keywords and firewalls. Also in terms of my wider thesis, I really need to work on my methodology to try and measure some of the things that concern me, perhaps by looking deeper into Search Engine Optimisation, Google as ‘curator of knowledge’, and the materialities, practices and ethnographies of the processing of words through computers.

PIC for LS blogThe current (extended) abstract for the paper is as follows:

Using Walter Benjamin’s seminal essay The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction (1936) as inspiration, contrast and critical framework, this paper seeks to examine what happens to writing, language and meaning when processed by algorithm, and in particular, when reproduced through search engines such as Google. Reflecting both the political and economic frame through which Benjamin examined the work of art, as mechanical reproduction abstracted it further and further away from its original ‘essence’, the processing of language through the search engine is similarly based on the distancing and decontextualization of ‘natural’ language from its source. While all algorithms are necessarily tainted with the residue of their creators, the data on which search algorithms can work is also not necessarily geographically or socially representative and can be ‘disciplined’ (Kitchin & Dodge, 2011) by encoding and categorisation, meaning that what comes out of the search engine is not necessarily an accurate (or entirely innocent) reflection of ‘society’. Added to, and inseparable from these technologically influencing factors, is the underlying and pervasive power of commerce and advertising. When a search engine is fundamentally linked to the market, the words on and through which it acts become commodities, stripped of material meaning, and moulded by the potentially corrupting and linguistically irreverent laws of ‘semantic capitalism’ (Feuz, Fuller & Stalder, 2011), and “by third parties in the pursuit of gain” (Benjamin). With the now near total ubiquity of the search engine (and particularly monopoly holders Google) as a means of extracting information in linguistic form, the algorithms which return search results and auto-predict our thoughts have a uniquely powerful and exponentially increasing agency in the production of knowledge. So as “writing yields to flickering signifiers underwritten by binary digits” (Hayles, 1999), this paper will question what is gained and what is lost when we entrust language, knowledge and the interpretation of meaning to search engines, and will suggest that the algorithmic processing of data based on contingent input, commercial bias and unregulated black-boxed technologies is not only reducing and recoding natural language, but that this ‘reconstruction’ of language has far-reaching societal and political consequences, re-introducing underlying binaries of power to both people and places. Just as mechanical reproduction ‘emancipated’ art from its purely ritualistic function, the algorithmic reproduction of language is an overtly political process.

Many thanks to all who came and contributed on Tuesday!

Pip Thornton

Conference Presentation: Excited or Petrified?

Embarking on utilizing autoethnography to research sexuality for my undergraduate dissertation at Royal Holloway was a tough decision. Nevertheless, it seemed like an interesting and potentially transformative methodological avenue to adopt to research the construction and contestation of homosexual identities in rural Essex as I was endeavouring to accomplish. Indeed this case has proven true as 18 months since the completion of the original empirical research, I am preparing a paper composed from this empirical research. When my dissertation supervisor initially suggested I submit a paper for submission for a conference, I never thought it would be accepted. It seemed to me to be an experience I would only be successful in procuring in latter years of academic study, not as a Masters student as I currently am. Therefore receiving the email in the first week of the New Year that I had been accepted secured me a disconcerting ensemble of anxiety, excitement, worry and self-doubt. I must report in the four weeks hence, since the news has had more time to percolate, I still feel the same way.

On the 16th of May, I will be presenting my paper entitled “(Re)defining Rural Geographies of Sexualities through Autoethnography: Picturesque and Idyllic Fields and Farmlands as Masculine Sanctuaries within Landscape” at the Masculinities in the British Landscape conference held at Harlaxton College. Here is the abstract for the paper:

“This paper adopts autoethnography in order to explore the hidden, intricate and interwoven nature of the construction and contestation of male homosexual identities within the landscapes of public spaces in rural Essex. Specifically, it analyses the co-constitutive relationship between homosexual male identities and the rural landscapes, citing the importance of analysing emotional responses to the landscape in understanding the intricate webs of spatialities of male homosexual identity. Challenging normative notions of the hegemony of heterosexual identity within rural areas, analysis of thirty-four days of consecutive analytic autoethnography demonstrates how fields and farmland evoke a unique emotional experience. The nuances of this experience are discussed in relation to three themes: sanctuary, wilderness and nostalgia. Overarching these three themes is a broad recognition of how the mediation of homosexual male identities by rural landscapes is fundamentally therapeutic against a background of hegemonic heteronormativity embedded into rural society. In concluding, this paper emphasises the potential utility of formulating such emotional self-cartographies for comprehending the symbiotic relationship between sexual identity and landscapes, and more broadly underscores the need to consider emotion when researching rural geographies of sexualities.”

With sessions entitled ‘Bloodied Landscapes’, ‘Imagined Landscapes’ and ‘Emotional Landscapes’, it is shaping up to be a fascinating opportunity to see the interdisciplinary interaction and scholarship currently happening within landscape studies from different arenas around the academy. This is evident in the ‘Emotional Landscapes’ session that I will be presenting in, whereby my paper regarding the geographies of sexualities sits besides a discussion of romance, grief and masculinity in Moreland as well as a presentation on the literary portrayals of the Clerical Rambler. I feel honoured to have the opportunity to partake in such interdisciplinary discussion.

One nagging question however remains rather prominent for me, something dominating my thoughts of late whenever thinking of this particular opportunity. How do I feel about having to intimately portray my sexuality and its everyday spatial and temporal idiosyncrasies to the world? This concurrent concern I knew all along was going to be an inherent part of adopting an autoethnographically-oriented methodological attack, yet its evident significance and meaning is only just becoming realized to me 18 months down the line. However I reason that in invoking such self-display I will hopefully be following in the fascinating footsteps of some other socio-cultural geographers who I would argue have advanced geographies of sexualities scholarship considerably through invoking their own experiences, emotions, feelings, behaviours and cognitive sensations as their core empirical material. Through chatting with other members of this academic community, I have gathered that this concern is very much characteristic of the requisite nerves synonymous with your first conference presentation. My mind is therefore (momentarily) eased. Nonetheless, I cannot wait to grab this opportunity and see where it takes me.

Oliver Knight, MA Cultural Geography (Research).

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Measuring the value of monographs


Last year, in the lead-up to the publication of the 2014 REF results, I posted some reflections about the effects of the audit culture on the authorship of research monographs. Some of the concerns I outlined are echoed in the recently published Overview Report from the REF’s Main Panel C.

The findings of Sub-Panel 17 (Geography, Environmental Studies and Archaeology) are worth noting here. Of the 6,021 outputs submitted to Sub-Panel 17, more than 80% were journal articles. The Sub-Panel’s report notes (in a delightfully subversive piece of self-criticism) that

the number [of monographs] submitted by geographers declined relative to 2008. This justifies concerns expressed after RAE 2008 about the impact of research assessment on the continuing health of monograph publication in the discipline (p. 32).

That said, the Sub-Panel’s data show that research monographs have, in both 2008 and 2014, accounted for a disproportionate percentage of 4* grades. In 2008, monographs accounted for 4.7% of outputs and 15.1% of 4* grades (in Sub-Panel H-32); in 2014, they accounted for 7.8% of outputs and 14.4% of 4* grades (in Sub-Panel 17).

What are we to make of this? Perhaps, simply, that the authorship of monographs (within certain sub-fields of geographical research) remains a risk worth taking notwithstanding the strictures of audit. Something of the continuing significance of monograph publishing had recently been underlined by Geoffrey Crossick in his 2015 report to HEFCE, Monographs and Open Access:

Academics across a wide range of arts, humanities and social science disciplines see monographs as central to the advancement and communication of knowledge, and they have done so for many generations. Across arts and humanities disciplines as well as law, good monographs are the equal of good journal articles in terms of the importance that is attached by academics to publishing in each category…. When we think about the monograph it is therefore important to avoid the danger of seeing it as an awkward outlier in relation to a mainstream framework of research communication defined by the journals and refereed conference proceedings that dominate the sciences. For a significant part of the UK research community, by some calculations a majority of that community, the monograph and the research book more generally are central to their discipline (p.13).

Long live the research monograph!

Innes M. Keighren

Writing futures with anticipatory history

At the session on 20th January, I was delighted to introduce discussion on a paper in the ‘provocations’ section of Environmental Humanities journal – Mapping common ground (Bergthaller et al, 2014) – and the equally provocative introductory essay to the volume Anticipatory history (DeSilvey, Naylor & Sackett, 2011). A significant focus for me is the short entries in that book (some of which we circulated with the longer papers).

Anticipatory history and the complementary paper Making sense of transience (DeSilvey 2012) have informed my work in the context of coastal change and my writing. As a set of ideas, anticipatory history offers an experimental and exploratory approach to considering the future in place and how we relate to that in the present. An important aim is to question, even unsettle, the settled views we have of ‘the past’ and of the dominant versions of ‘the future’ that we desire or fear. We need to broaden our understanding of place and the processes which change it, rather than narrow our vision and prematurely define the scripts we want everyone to act from. As such, anticipatory history opens up space for multiple perspectives, taking the diversity of ‘place voices’ as our starting point – and the likely end point. It questions assumptions of permanence and certainty: the same but more so than the recent move beyond climate change scenarios that once presented simplistic ‘snap shot’ alternative futures requiring equal consideration but providing only modest practical help, to more probabilistic projections where we need to address our own ‘risk appetites’ for the futures we are prepared to make and to hand on. But where climate scenarios talk of probabilities, which most of us are ill-equipped to deal with, anticipatory history talks of plausabilities: what can we imagine, based on what we know of the present and the past? And, anyway, how much is ‘the’ past a product (or process) of imagination in the first place? We need to appeal to imagination as well as evidence in anticipating the range of plausible futures that climate and environmental change are carving out for us.

Some of the angles of imaginative attack that I see anticipatory history offering are:

  1. Space for alternative storylines. For example, the use of reverse chronology approaches to a site, as with Mullion Harbour in Cornwall (DeSilvey, 2012), and the building of new narratives through hearing different ‘place voices’ at past points and imagining the futures that peoples then might have projected forward, and which we might now: “looking back to look forward.”

  2. A fresh look at the language we use and the way we talk about change, place and our options. For example, the array of policy or expert jargon among the disciplines and professions often collide with each other and with public discussion. The everyday language we use to express and reinforce our sense of place, nature and culture is highly metaphorical; and our metaphors can carry different meanings and associations than those we imply. When we come together to share different perspectives on change, we may share an illusion of sharing the meanings of our words while in reality we are ‘talking past each other’. Maybe a room can be divided by a common language even without the open hostility we encounter when specialist jargons are heard as nonsensical words.

  3. Opportunities for naming new names for unfamiliar or novel responses to environmental change. For example, coining a phrase such as “Palliative Curation” for the sensitive handling of the passing of a landscape or cultural artefact is a provocation to open ourselves up to a different view – or to a new argument entirely.

Conversations about change will always be difficult – very often turning and building on notions of loss, blame, guilt. When talk involves both the people who feel directly impacted by change or by the responses to it, and the experts and officials charged with deciding and delivering those responses, then conflict is highly likely – as many agencies have discovered and seem likely to keep discovering. And as we experience more of the impacts of a changing climate, we can expect more conflicts over the future of the places we or our neighbours attach our highest values to. We need ways to keep the conversations open and, it seems to me, engage our imaginations as well as our abilities to take on board evidence and argument.

With all this in mind, I was please to have Mapping common ground as our other main pre-reading. Some of the common ground with anticipatory history, for me, lies in the insistence that environmental crisis is as much cultural and social as it is physical, and that an adventurous approach can help us reach beyond the professional, academic and expert-public boundaries. Part of that adventure is the need to question our own ‘givens’ and to address the difficult ‘chokepoints’ along the borders. It also requires the skill of working across the boundaries, accepting what each party has to offer – which in the case of the humanities includes the ability to grapple with ambiguity. In the shuttling backwards and forwards between the whole and the parts, the past and the future, culture and nature (both our environment and ourselves as shaper and shaped), the aim is to help us to forge insights rather than (just) to formulate new knowledge.

Fiction is one way of engaging imaginations and building insights through conversation. Many of the same elements – plotting alternative storylines, challenging the language, and bringing new words and ideas to the fore – enliven fiction. Possibly, they can also enrich what we hold to be ‘the facts’. I’m hoping that bringing people together for participatory creative writing (or drawing, photography, craft or performance) workshops can create good conversations about change as well as good fictions.

Bergthaller, H, et al (2014) Mapping common ground: Ecocriticism, Environmental History and Environmental Humanities, Environmental Humanities, vol 5

DeSilvey, C., Naylor, S. & Sackett, C. (2011) Anticipatory history (Axminster, Uniform Books)

DeSilvey, C., (2012) Making sense of transience: an anticipatory history, Cultural Geograpies 19(1)

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Last Breath: Exploration and Art Practice as Research

I’m Thomas, currently an MA Cultural Geography student at RHUL. Over the last months I initiated my first two ‘real’ academic adventures: a participation in UCL Urban Labs’ Cities Methodologies exhibition (showcasing innovative means of investigating the urban) and in the Reconfiguring Ruins research project (an AHRC-funded platform bringing together museums, academics and artists to reconsider our current understandings of material and immaterial ruins and the process of ruination). Apart from the disastrous technological breakdown minutes before the exhibition’s opening night (no surprises there), it proved to be an exciting experience to present a project I have been working on throughout 2013 and 2014, where the ‘traditional’ boundaries of the researcher were questioned and blurred into spheres of curation, art practice and film making.

Last Breath

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