Our CEO Ian went on a countryside walk earlier this year with colleagues in Exeter’s Geography Department. Their aim was to follow the flow of electricity by walking the route of a power line. Their social media posts about this journey prompted discussions about electricity and difficult-to-follow commodities. One was Peter Forman – from the Institute of Political Science, Eberhard Karls University of Tübingen – who had just finished his PhD on natural gas. We asked him to share his experience of following a commodity whose materiality is especially challenging.
Natural gas can be thought of as natural in two senses of the word. First, it forms deep beneath the ground, independently of human action (as opposed to the manufactured gas that was used in the UK before 1970 – this gas was the product of hard labour, workers feeding iron retorts with coal), and second, it is naturalised. Whilst gas plays a crucial role in many people’s daily lives – we heat our homes with it, cook with it, and use it to warm water for bathing comfortably – most of us never give it much consideration. We come home from work, twist the tap on the hob, give it a press, then click! A spark. An eruption of yellow-blue flame. It is there, ready and waiting. It provides heat in an instant and is worthy of no further thought.
Yet in other ways, ‘natural gas’ is far from natural. Its presence beneath the earth is made knowable through a multitude of technologically complex devices, and it is only through the deployment of established knowledges, bodies and technological instruments that it is securely extracted, processed, pressurised, transported, and consumed. This is what Bridge (2004; 396) refers to when he describes how “a whole industry has emerged … dedicated to corralling the waywardness and variability of gas and rendering it a commodity compliant with the workings of the market”. Indeed, it is as a consequence of this dense assemblage that we can understand gas to not simply be there, ready and waiting. Far from it! For without the practices of these diverse actors, it would remain deep beneath our feet, trapped between layers of rock. As it travels (the direction and nature of which is likewise defined by said actors), it could also come to realise a series of what Dillon and Reid (2001) call ‘dimensions of dangerousness’. From it realising its flammability and explosiveness, to it causing significant societal disruption through the interruption of its supply, or it having severe ecological impacts of different kinds (for example, affecting global climate or contributing to marine crises such as in Puchuncavi, Chile – see Tironi et al. forthcoming), across its travels, natural gas can come to present a series of dangers that generate myriad attempts to perform security around it. Continue reading
There’s an academic publications page on our blog that gives a taste of, and provides access to, our research papers about the followthethings.com project. A book chapter has just been published in an open access e-book that brings together a series of lectures in Switzerland asking if and how social scientific research can transform society. Our answer is a qualified yes.
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.
This year we have been working with Dr Carolin Schurr in Switzerland. Her new ‘Follow the Thing: Studying Transcultural Markets’ course at the University of St Gallen ran in parallel to our ‘Geographies of Material Culture’ course at the University of Exeter. To showcase the awesomely critical, creative scholar-activist work that our students produce, this year we’ve published student guest blogs about gun sights, iPhones and paint. This post contains two pieces of work on palm oil by Carolin’s students Gianmarco Zorloni, Harpreet Perhar, Julian Krauth, Leonardo Ehnimb and Milan Kuzmanovic. We start with a short animated information film (expertly put together using Videoscribe software), followed by a script showing how ‘the thing with palm oil’ can enter conversation and affect behaviour, and finishing with the research report upon which this work is based. How can you respond to ‘follow the thing’ research that finds that thing in, more or less, everything?!
The information film
En el International School Peniscola (www.colegiosisp.com) hemos querido unirnos a la celebración del Fashion Revolution desde el ámbito educativo con nuestros alumnos. Ellos son el futuro y, hoy más que nunca, necesitamos personas que estén concienciadas y que entiendan el mundo desde una perspectiva global en la que cada acto cuenta y tiene una consecuencia directa en otro lugar del planeta.
It was Fashion Revolution Day last Friday, the second anniversary of the collapse of the Rana Plaza factory complex in Dhaka, Bangladesh in which 1,129 people died making clothes for High Street brands. This year, we helped to create education packs for the global campaign, hoping to finds ways in which teachers and students of all ages could interrogate (un)ethical and (un)sustainable fashion by asking ‘who made my clothes?’ We have written about Fashion Revolution Day’s approach to teaching controversial issues here. Below, however, we showcase a blog post by Professor Becky Earley on the ‘Who made my uniform?’ project she worked on at her childrens’ primary school in London. We think this is fantastic. Here’s an extract.
“… My son loves trainers. He’s a football fan and player, and the influence of the Arsenal team and their colorful attire – and what is donned by his group of friends at school and on his team at the local sports centre – is significant to him. He got the trainers he wanted for Christmas – bright orange. They looked amazing with his lime green away kit. Yet within days he starting asking for another pair, in a different colour. I took the opportunity to explain to him again about why ‘stuff’ is special. The materials, dyes, labour, shipping… all comes at a cost, and not just to the bank of mum and dad. At 8, he knows all this already. We talk about ‘stuff’ all the time. But he just can’t make the leap to applying this knowledge to his insatiable desire to be part of the team – to look the part. At his school the lost property area is a mess of unlabelled and unloved green, white and navy cotton and polyester. I decided to start here with my research, and look at the way in which primary school children relate to their uniform – their everyday clothes. The deputy head at St Mary’s Catholic Primary School in Chiswick and I hatched a plan to run a ‘Who Made My Uniform’ project, in response to the FRD provocation ‘Who Made My Clothes?’ Beginning with a carefully prepared school assembly on the actual day, the project consisted of a week-long residency by myself with the help of another mum, and a series of class projects run by the teachers. The photo story below documents the project. Over the summer term we asked:
- Where was my uniform made?
- Who made my uniform?
- What is it made from?
- How can I make my own clothes?
More blog posts like this