MCFly interviewed Dr Hannah Knox of the University of Manchester’s Centre for Research on Socio- Cultural Change.
1. Tell us a little about the research that you are carrying out.
I am an anthropologist and I am doing research in Manchester into some of the cultural dimensions of attempts to tackle climate change. I am interested in what Clifford Geertz famously called the ‘webs of significance’ which we as humans spin, and in which we find ourselves caught. It can sometimes be difficult to see our own world as social and cultural, particularly when we see ourselves as experts who place great value on the objectivity of our knowledge.
However, moments of rupture or change can provide a powerful vantage point from which to gain new insights into the assumptions and beliefs we hold dear. Climate change offers just one such moment of rupture. In my research I am tracking the way in which climate change unsettles social relations and cultural ideas, and looking at the way in which they get ‘put back together’. Specifically, I am focusing on the way in which climate change poses a challenge for a city which has prided itself on being the first industrial city and subsequently a leader in post-industrial regeneration.
I am interested in how issues thrown up by climate change become incorporated (or not) within conventional methods of social and economic intervention such as planning, project management, and collaboration. Where does climate change re-inforce these methods and where does it pose a limit condition on accepted ways of doing things?
2. What led you to this topic and why do you think its interesting? (e.g are there links to the research you did on digital media in the early 2000s)
All of my research to date has been on the social and cultural dynamics of processes of economic development. My doctoral research looked at initiatives in the late 1990s and early 2000s to develop new media industry in Manchester. I then took my interest in communications technologies to Peru where I did research on road construction and the dream of connection in the making of the Peruvian nation state. Returning to Manchester in the late 2000s, I became aware that a dominant narrative that had been circulating during my first research – that social transformation could be best brought about through economic regeneration – was confronting a new problem – that of ecological sustainability in the face of climate change. I had become interested during my research on road building in Peru, in the importance of relationships between humans and materials in contemporary projects of social and economic transformation. In climate change I saw a fascinating example of a material process which was pushing up against some of our most cherised ideas of how we organise our relations with one another (e.g. via ‘the market’). My interest lay in understanding the different ways in which climate change, as a material process, was evidenced and became implicated in the way in which people were thinking about planning the future of the city.
3. Who is funding your research?
The research is being funded by the ESRC (Economic and Social Research Council) through the Centre for Research into Socio-Cultural Change at the University of Manchester.
I also have some finding from HEFCE’s Higher Education Innovation Fund.
4. Has the research brought up any surprises?
My first surprise was the way in which climate change in Manchester seemed to be all about buildings. I was struck by the way in which an ecological question was being tackled not just through a scientific analysis of weather and climate, but through an attention to the energetic dynamics of different kinds of building materials. I hadn’t expected to be spending my time thinking about loft and roof insulation, airsource heat pumps, voltage optimisation panels and thermoskirt radiators. Neither had I expected to find a proliferation of experimental eco-buildings within the city. To date I have come across at least seven or eight houses in Manchester which are operating as different kinds of test-centres for ecologically sustainable housing. This is at the same time as the Green Deal is being developed as another experimental intervention to reduce carbon emissions. Climate change in this respect seems to have opened up a whole new ‘frontier’ of activity around buildings and energy which has brought in its wake not just new material relations, but also new funding models, and financial mechanisms which tie together the building trade, government and energy companies in complex legal and commercial relationships.
As one becomes familiar with one’s research site, there’s always a risk that what was originally surprising becomes increasingly mundane and obvious. However, I am trying to hold onto this initial surprise in order to continue to ask the question ‘why buildings?’ and to remain open to the unexpected places that answering this question might lead.
5. What do you hope the end products will be?
I am planning to write the research up in a series of journal articles and ultimately, a book.
6. How will the end product be useful to civil society? How will you make sure it is useful to them?
This is a tricky question, not least because civil society is not just a homogenous group with a single set of interests that will find the results of this research useful. Nonetheless, I think the main way in which I hope the findings of this research will be useful is by ‘cracking open’ some of the black boxes of climate mitigation discourse. If the findings of this research can help people pose questions such as ‘why buildings’, I think we are more likely to turn climate change from an issue of just science or economics into an issue of politics. As to how I will do this, I will make sure that the content of my publications is made publicly available and will also feed back findings of my research to people in Manchester through one-to-one conversations, interviews like this one, and public presentations.
7. What do you think the barriers will be to making your research useful in the real world?
I think the biggest barrier will be the definition of ‘useful’. What I am trying to understand is the conditions of possibility through which certain kinds of knowledge are seen as useful and others are seen as useless. The findings of this research will be qualitative and descriptive. This puts it at an immediate disadvantage when it comes to proving its usefulness in the terms of dominant numerical systems of evaluation. At the same time, this is not a reason to be complacent and to just assume that the research itself is useful, even if its usefulness is not measurable. I think that establishing the usefulness of research is an ongoing and specific process, for which the researcher has to take some responsibility and that it cannot simply be left to numbers to do the work of proving or disproving utility.
8. Can you tell us a little about the upcoming conference that you are organising?
The conference is on the topic ‘Promises: Crises and Socio- Cultural Change’ and it is being organised by the research centre where I work, the Centre for Research on Socio- Cultural Change, at the University of Manchester. There has been much made of the fact that we are living through a number of crises – financial, ecological, political. Each of these crises involves a challenge to visions we might have had of a better world, and involves the making of new kinds of promises which aim to rethink where we are and where we want to be. I am running a panel with a colleague on ‘Green City Promises’ where I will be presenting some of my Manchester research alongside others who are working on similar ecological politics in Trömso, Norway and London.
9. Anything else you want to say?
Do come back and talk to me again when I’m writing up the research. Hopefully by then I will be able to elaborate more fully on some of my findings.