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
In February this year, Ian, Charlotte Brunton and Jenny Hart contributed to a Pedagogy Cafe seminar at Plymouth University’s Centre for Sustainable Futures. They talked about Geographies of Material Culture coursework (a university lifestyle catalogue and a singing heart pacemaker) now published on our site. What happened next was surprising. Plymouth lecturer Helen Bowstead talked about her use of ‘follow the things’ research to teach English as a Foreign Language. Here’s what she said.
The benefits of group work have been well-documented: Gibbs claims working as a group “has the potential measurably to improve student engagement, performance, marks and retention and usually succeeds in achieving this potential” (Gibbs 2010:1). However, successfully implementing and assessing a piece of group work is also often fraught with challenges, particularly when the students do not share a common language and/or cultural background. In groups where some or all students are non-native English speakers, there may be an ‘imbalance’ in power relations, as the ideas and views of the students with ‘stronger’ language skills often end up dominating. In many instances, non-native speakers find themselves side-lined within the group, sometimes because their language skills are weaker than other members, but also because, due to cultural and educational differences, their knowledge base is perceived as having less ‘value’.