We’re currently moving slowly from the curatorial stage of the followthethings.com project through a reflective to an analytical stage. Below are abstracts, snippets and screenshots of the work that’s now emerging. We’ll update this!
When we have researched and published our 100th [followthethings.com] page, the plan is to stop; to analyze this data set; to identify relations between their inspirations, tactics, responses and impacts; to write a handbook of ‘follow the thing’ scholar- activism; to redesign our website based on its structure; and – let’s dream big – to organize festivals of ‘follow the thing’ scholar-activism for ‘follow the thing’ researchers and activists to discuss and make new work in this genre. Because ‘follow the thing’ research, for us at least, has morphed into this substantial experiment in critical, creative, digital geo- graphical practice (cf. Ash et al., 2018; de Leeuw and Hawkins, 2017), we do not recognize its characterization by Ibert et al. (2019: 48) as a ‘strategy of revealing the “true” story of a product’ (that’s too simple) nor that it ‘has reached limits and arguably lost some of its potential for mobilization’ (far from it). Rumors of the demise of ‘follow the thing’ scholar-activism have been greatly exaggerated! Thinking this way is ‘arguably’ to the detriment of the research that Ibert et al. (2019) say is so important to pursue
Cook et al, I. (2018) Inviting construction: Primark, Rana Plaza and Political LEGO. Transactions of the Institute of British Geographers 43(3), 477-495 link
Toys protest political corruption in Siberia, critique ISIS worldviews in London, and illustrate Greece’s financial and migrant crises. Geographers disagree about whether playing with things distracts us from, or helps us to more critically engage with, questions of justice, poverty, exploitation, environment and the commodity. Art activists in the academy say that working in creative ways can enliven and enhance our practices of research, publication and impact. Drawing together these debates about art, activism and geography, this paper asks what can be learned from re-creating in LEGO and posting online scenes from the tense and changing socio-economic relationships between investigative journalists, corporate executives and garment workers making clothes for a high street fashion retailer Primark before, during and after the catastrophic Rana Plaza garment complex collapse in April 2013. It also experiments with the composition of academic outputs, in the hope that that its arguments leap up from the page. And it finishes by inviting readers to try this approach for themselves.
Cook et al, I. (2017) From ‘Follow the thing: papaya’ to followthethings.com’. Journal of Consumer Ethics 1(1), 22-29 Full Text
Why spend time researching and writing academic papers that so few people get to read? I posted drafts online like Lancaster University’s sociologists were doing. People found them, got in touch, asked questions, invited me to do things. A Manifesto for cyborg pedagogy (Angus, Cook & Evans, 2001), for example, outlined a ‘follow the thing’ undergraduate module inspired by Paulo Freire’s (1996) pedagogy of the oppressed and Donna Haraway’s (1991) cyborg ontology. Students wrote first person accounts of their intimate, bodily, material entanglements with the lives of people who grew, for example, picked, packed and shipped the leaves in their morning cup of tea. An email from a geography school teacher said her class had become cyborgs. Could I offer them some advice? It seemed I could make a difference in the world by writing freely available academic papers for more than academic audiences. But how do you write in intellectually rich and accessible language? Develop ‘a cinematic imagination geared to writing’, Marcus says (1994, 45). Read about ways in which filmmakers, artists and others engage audiences in commodity followings in warm, affective, critical ways (see Cook & Crang, 1996; Cook et al, 2001). ‘Follow the thing: papaya’ is poetic, filmic writing (Crang & Cook, 2007). In 2009 it was made freely available online by Antipode. Loads of people have read it.
Cook et al, I. (2017) followthethings.com: analysing relations between the making, reception and impact of commodity activism in a transmedia world. in Ola Söderström, Laure Kloetzer & Hugues Jeannerat (eds) Innovations Sociales: Comment les Sciences Sociales contribuent à transformer la Société, MAPS: Université de Neuchâtel, 50-61 Full Text
What we are keen to find out are what filmmaking, artistic and activist tactics lead to what kinds of public and corporate responses, and with what kinds of impacts on whom. There is an established argument that, when this work is didactic and tries to enroll its audiences through blame, shame and guilt, it tends to fail. Audiences feel powerless, overwhelmed, apathetic, and angry at those making them feel this way rather that at the injustices exposed (Barnett 2010, Sandlin & Milam 2008, Cook & Woodyer 2012). Even the most cursory examination of our website suggests that the elements of, and relationships set out in, this argument are quite narrowly defined. To illustrate this, we offer below a taste of what’s to come from the analysis of the followthethings.com archive. We provisionally outline one engagement tactic, one kind of consumer response, one kind of corporate response, and one kind of impact.
Cook et al, I. (2016) Les géographies du numérique: on en veut encore! | More digital geographies, please. Justice Spatiale | Spatial Justice, 10 Full text in English & en Français
Researchers now expect their peers to discuss the kinds of laughter their work evokes. It’s a signal of the complex registers through which research quality is judged. Maybe it ‘raises consciousness and … reveals a darker reality hidden behind the veil of appearances’ (Lewis 2010, 643). Perhaps it ‘open[s] us an oblique path that links together heterogeneous semantic contents previously unrelated’ (Virno in ibid). Hopefully it ‘get[s] difficult messages across to a broad range of actors and decreases the risk of encountering angry reactions or alienating bystanders’ (Kutz-Flamenbaum 2014, 298).
Cook, I. & Crang, P. (2016) Consumption and its geographies. in Daniels, P., Bradshaw, M., Shaw, D., Sidaway, J. & Hall, T. (eds.) An introduction to human geography. Harlow: Pearson, 379-398
Recent reviews of new media scholarship have criticised it for paying little attention to the social and environmental (in)justices in its technical infrastructure. At the same time, scholars of social and environmental (in)justice are experimenting with web2.0, using wikis, blogs, twitter and other social media to conduct and disseminate their research. These strands have collided in the making of a website called followthethings.com which simultaneously critiques the injustices embedded in everyday things, whilst also being made and maintained using everyday things, most notably a laptop, its software and the technical infrastructure of web2.0. Drawing on an emerging literature on critical making, this paper explains what has been learned about the material geographies of web2.0 and commodity activism through this making process.
Cook et al, I. (2014) ‘Organic Public Geographies and REF Impact’. Acme: an international e-journal for critical geographies, 13(1), 47-51 Full text
‘Follow the things’ … [is] a radical research and public pedagogy project. It taps into public curiosity about ‘where stuff comes from’, and draws into its processes a proliferating genre of non-academic ‘follow the things’ work, including documentary films, art work, journalism and activism. Its intellectual / political purpose is to critique the fetishism of commodities, to show abstract relations between things as social relations between people (Harvey, 2010). Its pedagogical/political purpose, within and beyond academia, is to encourage critical thought, conversation and ‘do it yourself’ research that enables diverse people to follow their own things, consider the social relations and trade (in)justices in the lives of those things, and then to share, discuss and perhaps be activist with their findings (Cook et al., 2007a; Cook and Woodyer, 2012).