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PyGyRg 10 Year’s Anniversary.

What do we do well and what should we work on next?

At the 2017 RGS-IBG Annual Conference PYGYRG held a ‘Celebration Event’ to mark 10 years as a research group. We reflected on what had been achieved in participatory geographies and what we still needed to work on. We asked participants to add their comments to flip charts on two questions: (1) What is working well in participatory geographies? and (b) What do participatory geographies need to work on? We wanted to share the answers publicly here as we work through them and identify what things to prioritise next. If you have any further views or would like to get involved please join us and let us know.


  • Celebrate what has been achieved in 10 years relative to the numbers and resources we had!
  • Stocktaking – celebrate what we’ve achieved
  • Created, in 10 years, a coherent critique of ‘disengaged’ research
  • Visibility of women researchers and them as positive role models for newer researchers
  • We have achieved a lot – mainstreamed within geography – price of co-option? but wider neoliberal content
  • Participatory approaches have been institutionalised (teaching, funding applications)
  • Mutual support network and growing!
  • Teaching – involving students
  • Support for post-grads (thanks!)
  • Well done for getting a central room, central time, at key conference – dare step out of the margins!
  • Achieved this in a context in which the rest of the Academy has been moving in another direction


  1. Participatory language very disparate – Action, PAR, Co Production = confusion
  2. Fear by academics of research not being ‘participatory’ or ‘action’ enough
  3. Make what we do ‘count’ – Communities impact our students via community engagement and find ways to turn agendas towards uni service and community capacity building
  4. Use our own networks to support students and PhDs; ECRs
  5. Make inclusive ways
  6. Public Interest Research Groups non-profits
  7. Grants for participatory work (small grants)
  8. Share writing and feedback – Mentorship? Writing weekends? Blog?
  9. Facebook page? Academia edu email lists
  10. Also sharing more when things don’t work or go wrong
  11. What is authentic knowledge?
  12. Support for community work surrounding university
  13. Boundary of the university and can we make it porous to the ‘outside world’
  14. Encouraging teaching in more participatory ways
  15. Can we influence agendas within academy to change what universities are expected to do, service to community etc – see as ‘core business’
  16. Building bridges with inclusive disability scholarship in geography (much to share!) – developing methodologies for working with people with mind body difference
  17. To what extent can we ever know other people’s knowledge?
  18. (How do we) institutionalise spaces for PR (especially long-time research)
  19. Share failures – blog more
  20. PR needs to challenge unequal power structures. How – that’s the question?
  21. Seek more recognition for long term nature of participatory geographies within academy
  22. Connect with other aligned groups across research and social science. PG –quite niche?
  23. More participatory hubs
  24. After having made participatory methods part of the canon – listening to communities – what kind of methods they want
  25. Interdisciplinary e.g. Bristol Participatory Action Research Group across the social sciences
  26. Formal research ethics procedures do not work/ are inappropriate/ un ethic – How to circumvent?
  27. More space and networks of CARE
  28. What is authentic knowledge? What is co-production? What is role of researcher and our skills?
  29. Impacting students – getting them involved
  30. We could still document the process more in our writing, not just the product.  How the processes are born and emerge
  31. Overcoming anti-uni experiences/ prejudice
  32. How? Articles? Summary reports? Conversations? Share writing and feedback
  33. How can we approach a community when they don’t need something?
  34. How to engage with a community over time
  35. Space literally outside university
  36. Working with students and communities impacting on them
  37. Valuing research in all spaces i.e. domestic spaces, not just overseas
  38. Has to be a collective process of doing research – more academics, so can rotate
  39. How to find the right balance between your research aims and community’s priorities
  40. Be examiners to create acceptance of participatory theses
  41. Defining the ‘right sort’ of impact = contributing to that conversation, otherwise researchers feeling guilt
  42. More discussion about negotiations around what knowledge is/ expectations of knowledge production
  43. Creating spaces physically inside the university and the boundaries of these and ‘the invited space’
  44. Service leaving – package what we do

The Trials and Joys of Disseminating Research – Part 2

La Paz often feels like a large town rather than a city of almost 1 million souls.  It is the kind of place where you greet your fellow passengers with a polite ‘buenos días’ on cramped microbuses, where you run into the Minister of Culture at a bar, where you eavesdrop on a conversation between two strangers at a café and realize you know the person they are gossiping about.  This makes giving an academic talk a somewhat intimate experience, because you know that the impressions of those listening will be spread – maybe not far and wide – but like soft footfalls along those worn-down streets that take  you to the same everyday places.

In 2014 Maria Copa (left of banner) organized workshops as an extension of my doctoral research, where she brought together scientists that had previously done research in the region to present the findings of their work for the first time to the Madidi park guards.

My first presentation was with the postgraduate centre at the Universidad Nacional de San Andres’ Institute of Ecology, where in 2013 I had conducted workshops with botanists on communicating and disseminating scientific research at the Herbario Nacional.  For decades, the scientists at the Herbario have been doing research in places where they have had to negotiate their access to the land with farmers and indigenous groups, park administrations and mining unions, among others groups of people who don’t quite see the point in botanical inventories, which has made them question what they are doing to an extent I have not seen in any other group of academics of any discipline anywhere (with a few notable exceptions).  Maria Copa (a biologist) and Igor Patzi (an anthropologist), two Bolivian researchers who have accompanied this research closely since 2012, also spoke about their experiences with and perspectives on the project.

The talk was well-received, and I was critiqued as well.  An anthropologist in the audience pointed out that in my films I have only interviewed men – this was indeed a major limitation of my research in general, and something I struggled with greatly throughout the work.  Because my research was somewhat abstract (I was ‘researching research’ – not something easy to understand for most local people), I found that the people who were able to speak with facility about the issue were those who had previously been involved in research – namely men, and those in positions of power and leadership in their communities.  I had tried many times to speak with women and older people, but found repeatedly that unless the person had worked extensively with researchers in the past, they really didn’t understand what I was asking.  This made interviews with ‘lower-power’ members of communities extremely uncomfortable, and in general I abandoned my attempts rather quickly, as I was also aware that I did not have informed consent if people didn’t understand what I was asking and why.

The same woman said that perhaps I was like all researchers – what was my research giving back?  Again, she had a point.  To the people I worked most closely with, my research fell short of its promise, as I attempted to come to terms with in my last blog post.  But her third critique seemed rather uninformed, as she said that my work should have been about teaching people to do research, instead of just learning about their experiences with it.  After four years of pondering the ‘problem’ of research, I have learned how incredibly difficult it is to ‘teach’ people how to do research, or to see how our research processes might fit more usefully into their own lives.

For example, in one hunter-fisher community that has hosted ‘participatory monitoring’ projects since the 1990s, I was told by several people that in the beginning, the local people mistakenly believed that the scientists were engaging them in a kind of ‘competition’ of who could hunt the most, rather than monitoring their monthly bushmeat consumption.  According to local leaders, this confusion resulted in the temporary depletion of certain species of animals, as people believed they would be ‘rewarded’ for the hunts by the outsiders (here it is key to understand that during the 1970s and 80s there was a local ‘boom’ in animal skins and pelts, where river traders paid locals per animal hunted).  The misunderstanding around the purpose of the monitoring project was apparently cleared up at the time and the information collected was then used by local leaders to support the territorial claims of the indigenous group.  But in 2014 I heard of a new attempt to do monitoring in the community, and how the same misunderstandings that had affected the project in previous years had once again resulted in the over-hunting of certain species.

The point to drive home: this stuff isn’t easy.  The activity of research, be it of a social or natural nature, is something very strange and foreign to most people in places like the Bolivian Amazon – the concept of collecting knowledge for its own sake, as opposed to more local and traditional knowledge practices in which knowledge and action are directly integrated.  Interestingly, this applies to all kinds of research and methodologies – people appeared to be equally mystified by social ethnographers as by ornithologists – regardless of whether our instruments are notebooks or binoculars, our activity is not easily explained or understood.

Presenting at the Institute of Ecology in La Paz. The slide reads, “What is the role of gringo-researchers?”, which is something I’ve asked myself countless times since doing research in a politically-charged Bolivia.

Standing in front of the multi-disciplinary audience at the postgraduate centre, I was given some respite from answering questions by Angelica, the Herbario’s wonderful secretary, who suggested we break for salteñas and coffee.  It’s always a nice feeling when people approach you rather than avoid you after giving a talk (I’ve experienced both) and I was invited to give many more presentations to other institutions – too many invitations to accept in the three days I had left in La Paz.  I was able to arrange my time to do two more talks – one for the Department of Geography at the same university, and the other for the Department of Biodiversity at the Vice-ministry of the Environment and Natural Resources.  Both talks went well, with a mix of critique and valuation of the work.

The marked difference in how I was able to disseminate my research in these more academic spaces in the city versus the less formal spaces in the Amazon speaks volumes about how far I – we – have to go to understand how to communicate about what research is with those who we engage in our fieldwork.  Even presenting to multi-disciplinary audiences in Spanish, I knew that we all had in common the language of research and academia, even if we had major differences of opinion on methodology, validity and other items that social and natural scientists love to argue about.  At the end of the day, we are basically part of the same elite camp – we earn our bread by thinking, reading, investigating and writing about what we find out.  But to carve out a meaningful space for research dissemination in a village meeting, especially when the community in question is busy with issues of real local priority – farming, child-rearing, political elections – this is quite another challenge, one that we still need to go a long way to address.

During my fieldwork, I spent the most amount of time with Madidi’s park guards and our countless hours of conversations helped in great part to shape my understanding of the problems around research in the region. Photo by Maria Copa.

Perhaps the ultimate impact of my last months of dissemination work in Bolivia will not be seen the form of large actions, but small ones, spoken in different ways by different voices.  Several of those present at the talks I gave in La Paz told me that this research was very important for them because their respective institutions were working on developing norms to regulate research, but they hadn’t yet incorporated the social side of things in a meaningful way.  A few people in particular indicated they are going to try to make something happen from this – to spark a national discussion – though the form that would take is yet unclear.  Perhaps the report I was aiming to publish with SERNAP will eventually make its way into official policy, but more likely the biggest, if humble, impact will take the less-visible form of individual and collective reflections of the many park guards, community members and researchers who have been involved in this work over the last four years.

I think in the end, we are still just all trying to figure out where we are exactly and to know just how far we still need to go.  I started my research by wanting to ‘bridge’ the so-called ‘gap’ between research and action in the field of conservation, but discovered through the process how it isn’t so much a ‘gap’ as a diverse series of spaces that need to be more fully understood and inhabited.  Spaces filled with different kinds of people, ideas and processes; spaces of encounter and misencounter; spaces that can be fun or difficult or meaningful or contradictory or countless other things.  My work was about getting to know these spaces, seeing how I am a part of them as well and learning that operating within these spaces is not simple, or easy, or explained in some paper I’ve yet to discover, but something we need to figure out step by step, mistake by mistake, through openness and honesty and the bittersweetness that comes with knowing we must try to do things better the next time.

The Trials and Joys of Disseminating Research – Part 1  

(published December 1, 2015)

38°C in the shade and climbing. I step hard on the kick start of the motorcycle – nothing. Sweat rolls in massive drops down my face, I reach underneath to flip the choke, give it some more kicks, a slight putter gives me hope. I turn off the choke and concentrate on the palm tree in front of me – a swift kick and – finally – the machine roars to life.

Rurrenabaque, at sunset. View looking west, over the Beni river and towards Madidi National Park

I am in Rurrenabaque, a small town in the Bolivian lowlands, the entry port to Madidi National Park – one of the most biologically and culturally diverse landscapes on the planet, and also the place where I did my doctoral fieldwork. I originally came to the region in 2012 to carry out a ‘participatory science’ project with a community, the specific topic which was to be determined together. However, I soon realized that there was so much confusion and frustration about the topic of research in general that I decided that instead of creating a new project from scratch, I would try to study what had already been done and what the impacts were on the local people.  Part of this research involved working with two communities, two indigenous leadership councils and a protected area to record the research already conducted in their territories, discuss what their experiences had been in the past, and what they would want to change for the future.  In 2014 I recorded some of these perspectives on video and presented them at the Royal Geographical Society’s conference session on ‘Fuller Geographies’.

After being away from Bolivia for over a year, during which I finished the writing up of my PhD thesis and passed my Viva Voce (thesis defense) at Lancaster University in England, I returned to La Paz in September 2015 to begin the long process of translating most of the thesis into a language and format easily understood by those who were involved in the research. One major obstacle to all of this is time – in Bolivia I only have three months to do this work due to rigid visa laws, not to mention my precarious state of being unemployed and without funding.

Three months may seem like a good long stretch, but the challenge of working at multiple scales requires significant time to sufficiently disseminate the findings with all of the different social actors I worked with – indigenous communities and leadership councils, protected area staff, and government ministries. This is one of the major challenges of doing a regional research project as opposed to one based in one single community – the scale of people one works with is large and diverse, and so dissemination requires almost as much time as one invested into collecting the data in the first place.

20-page ‘guide’ to the research in Spanish, which explained the process of doing the research, a brief description of results, plus a copy of the DVD.

Based in La Paz, I worked on the translation with the intention of producing a report that would be easily understood but also detailed enough to explain the main findings. The idea was to make it into a publication with photos, a long list of thanks, and a video explaining the process through which I carried out the work at the end. However, about a week into my stay in Bolivia, an opportunity arose to publish the report together with the National Service of Protected Areas in Bolivia. It would be presented as a report authored by that institution, but I decided to take the opportunity, considering that it might have more impact in influencing policies on research practices at the national level. Instead of producing the one document, I opted to create a second product alongside the report – a kind-of ‘guide’ about what research is, the different steps of research, with a very brief summary of the results at the end of the report, plus a film about my personal research process. This guide was never meant to be the main dissemination tool, but as the report lay in the hands of the government ministry, awaiting a final decision from the institution’s director, I decided to use it in that way.

Almost two months and more than $1000 later (spent at the printers in producing the finished booklet and DVD), I flew to Rurre and borrowed a motorcycle with the determination to share the guide far and wide. However, with only three weeks left, I was landing not only into an entirely different geographical and cultural context, but also a changed political one. When we leave the field we remain stuck in time – the last time we were in that place, and we write from that static perspective. But life goes on, often in a very rapid, dynamic way. In the case of Madidi National Park and the communities within it, two major government-led development projects – a hydroelectric dam that would flood thousands of hectares, and a national decree to allow for oil extraction in protected areas – now threatened to change everything.

With such a short timeframe to accomplish my aims, I rode the motorcycle back and forth, visiting offices, calling community leaders, setting up presentations. But the problem was that the guide didn’t really report my results, and the video much less so. When I stood up in front of the park guards and presented the two videos without much prior explanation (I had only been given a 30 minute slot, and the videos made up 20 minutes), I looked out to see a sea of blank faces. Something wasn’t right. I had decided ahead of time to allow the last 10 minutes as a space for them to give me feedback. And so they did – those who I knew the best, who I had interviewed multiple times and had spent time in the field with, even in their own homes, were the most detailed in their critique. They told me of everything that was missing from the video – the parts of the work that had been the most important for them: to explain that research should directly link to the needs and concerns of the place in which it is carried out, and that it should have a direct benefit for the communities involved. I strongly believe this to be true, but I was so focused on the importance of returning to Bolivia, that I forgot why exactly it is so important to return. Not just to show face, but to ensure that the results are usable to those who could most use them.

Standing in front of all of them I felt ashamed. We had spent so much time together over the last three years – I worked in their offices, accompanied them on patrols and trips, played football with them and we even sang karaoke together – and for them the work was incomplete. But perhaps like many others who attempt research dissemination, I had written up the ‘final’ materials after a full year of being ‘out of the field’, at a great distance from the research (in both time and space). The key lesson for me in this moment was to realize that when we leave the field, we can forget what is most important to the people we worked with and get lost in projects and materials that perhaps are not quite as useful as we imagined they would be.

It is hard to do anything in tropical heat, and even harder when you feel as if what you have to offer isn’t good enough, but I called a good friend and she told me not to worry – ‘ánimo!’ That word, which can be translated to English as ‘strength, energy, good vibes’, kept me moving, kicking the motorcycle to a start, visiting the communities I had previously worked with, getting out there and trying to be present, to show them that, at the least, I had come back.

Link to video I made to explain my research to the communities and other local actors. It is in Spanish, but I will make a new version, taking into account comments from the park guards and others, to upload on YouTube with English subtitles.

With less than a week left I headed to San José de Uchupiamonas, one of the indigenous communities where we had attempted to create a norm to regulate future research on their lands. With three days to think over my experiences thus far and to organize a proper presentation – this time explaining that the video was only a partial representation of the work, and that I was aware that much was missing – it was a better experience. The screening was well attended by a mix of women, children, men and older folks, and something changed in my relationship with the community in that space. I felt accepted for the first time since I had arrived to San José in 2012 – not just as a visitor, but as a researcher. I remembered something one of the park guards, Sixto, had said to me after the presentation of my films the week before. “Your work is just beginning,” he said. “Now is the part where you need to go out and share what you’ve learned, and to show how research should be done. Your research should be the recipe for all research.”

My PhD work is far from being the recipe for any research, but perhaps the experiences I’ve had can shine light into some of the many issues researchers face in attempting to make research relevant and useful for communities and other local actors. The main lesson that I learned from these last couple of months: that dissemination isn’t about products, but rather about process. By focusing so much of my time and efforts on the publishing of reports and burning of DVDs, I missed out on giving enough space and time to re-enter the field and remember why the research was meaningful to those who had been most engaged with it.

Next week I am back in La Paz with a very different challenge, presenting for multiple academic audiences – botanists, biologists, geographers and anthropologists, as well as selected government ministries. Being a gringa-researcher, the topic is not only academically sensitive, but also politically so. This makes giving these presentations even more nerve-wracking than usual! Stay tuned for the next blog post in which I will share these experiences, as well as my plan for – what next? Will I be given a second chance to try again? Can we ever know the true legacy (or impact) of our research in a given place?

July and August (posts by Martina Angela Caretta from Stockholm University in Sweden)

Current expansion and past dynamics of small-holder irrigation farming in African dry-lands, measuring landscape, labor and climate interactions is an interdisciplinary project that has run between 2011 and 2015 and is funded by SIDA – the Swedish International Cooperation Agency.  The project involves human and physical geography components and makes use of collaborations with the Institute of Research Assessment within the University of Dar Es Salaam, Tanzania, the British Institute in Eastern Africa and Jomo Kenyatta University of Agriculture and Technology, both located in Kenya. This research takes place in two small villages: Tot, Kenya and Engaruka, Tanzania. Both locations have ancient systems of irrigation which have been subjected to historical and archeological studies, but have not been investigated for their current developments.

By investigating how these irrigation systems are currently used, the project aims to assess local agricultural practices and how they have changed over time to adapt to socio-ecological changes. The physical geography component of the project focuses on soil management practices that are put in place by the locals in order to comprehend the process of soil anthropogenic formation. The human geography component, which is led by Martina Angela Caretta, takes a gender perspective and investigates the local gender division of labor in relation to the institutional arrangements of small-holder irrigation farming. Participatory methods as participatory mapping and member checking have been used to fulfill these research aims.

Participation in cross-cultural, cross-language research: 

The role of research assistants*

Since 2011 I have been studying smallholder irrigation farming in the dry-lands of East Africa in the two small villages: Tot, Kenya and Engaruka, Tanzania. Both villages have ancient gravity irrigation systems which have been subjected to historical and archeological studies, but have not been investigated for their current developments. My thesis takes a gender perspective and investigates the local gender division of labor in relation to small-holder irrigation farming. I have conducted six research visits to these locations between 2011 and 2013, staying in the field roughly 7 months in total.

Although I learnt Swahili, local languages were spoken in these two locations and I needed translators – both men and women – who most importantly also served as gatekeepers and cultural brokers that could help me in getting acquainted with the local communities.  Cross-cultural, cross-language research is bound by the existence of a ‘triple subjectivity’ in the field: researcher, research assistants and researched. These three figures shape and condition the development of field research by seeking, contributing to, eliciting or limiting the attainment of data. Yet, while the voices of the researcher and the researched are often heard through reflexivity, auto-ethnography, direct quotes and collaborative writing, the voices of assistants are rarely present in texts.  In my work I have always engaged research assistants practically – they led interviews and focus groups – and academically – we wrote together this research article where we reflect on our four distinct research experiences.

Timothy Kipkeu Kipruto, standing on the right side of Martina, guides a participatory mapping exercise in Sibou, Tot, Kenya (July 2013)

During the research process intimate knowledge is in fact shared among the researcher, assistants and participants, which leads to collaborative relationships. My assistants and I developed a distinctive reciprocal understanding – between friendship and professionalism. Our mutual comprehension allowed us to critically reflect on the research process by discussing, reading each other’s diaries and writing together the material that fed into this article. Conversely, the social, cultural and economic gaps existing between us could not be erased, especially in the case of the assistants’ socioeconomic features as they influenced for good and for bad the attitude and responses of interviewees. Additionally, as much as I tried, and assistants facilitated my interactions, participants still had a hierarchical perception and distorted expectations towards me. This instance goes against the feminist participatory principles, which strives towards a more inclusive and equal research relationship.

Florence Jemutai Cheptum, sitting on the left side of Martina, translates Martina´s questions and interviews two farmers in Sibou, Tot, Kenya (July 2013)

Another important aspect to highlight is that assistants’ suggestions were crucial in the selection of participants as they safeguarded my safety by concealing men’s sexual proposals, but they also took advantage of my presence to bring up with women participants issues close to their hearts: violence against women and girls’ education.

Hence, when analyzing the process of situated knowledge negotiation in a cross-cultural setting we should be more attentive to how the interplay of researcher’s, participants’ and assistants’ positionalities shape the research process and how the evolution of the research can, in turn, affect one’s identity and one’s perceptions of the others’. Consequently, a truly participatory methodological approach should aim at engaging not only the researcher her/himself or the participants in the reflexive process, but especially the assistants who play a vital role in cross-cultural, cross-language research.

*This blog post comprises some extracts from:  Caretta, M.A. 2015. Situated knowledge in cross-cultural, cross-language research: a collaborative reflexive analysis of researcher, assistant and participant subjectivities. Qualitative Research 4, 489-505. DOI: 10.1177/1468794114543404

About the author: Martina Angela Caretta received her BA in Development Studies at the University of Padua, Italy in 2008 and a MSc in Sustainability Science at Lund University, Sweden in 2010. She conducted her MSc thesis research in Kenya on microcredit schemes and climate change adaptation thanks to the Legal Empowerment of the Poor scholarship. She started her PhD at the Human Geography Department at Stockholm University in 2011 and has since then spent 7 months in the field between Kenya and Tanzania studying gender relations in smallholder irrigation farming. Her research project is financed by SIDA, Swedish International Cooperation Agency. She is a contributor to her department blog Farmlands

May and June (posts by Jirka Panek, from Palacky University in the Czech Republic)

GeoParticipation is a growing multi- and inter- disciplinary field that combines geography, GIScience, cartography, development studies, urban planning, sociology, political science, architecture, policy making, among other disciplines. It has been given many different names, such as Participatory GIS, Community mapping, neocartography, local spatial knowledge planning, sustainable community development, but the main objective is the inclusion of local communities and their local spatial knowledge into decision-making process related to their environment. This can include data crowdsourcing to create better maps of Nairobi slums, emotional maps for better city planning as a part of Local Agenda 21 or Participatory 3D modelling (P3DM) for disaster preparedness education.

GeoParticipation is similar to Neocatography in that it blurs the border between the creator of the map/data and its user, but is more focused on the social part of the process (see also Peter Johnson’s GeoParticipation blog). Creating a map with a community can have an empowering effect, because members of the community are given the opportunity to think spatially about their environment and to literally put their community on the map. The process of creating the data can trigger feelings of belonging to the community and ownership of the process. With ownership comes the onset of empowerment leading to sustainable development that is driven and run by the community itself (Vlok & Panek, 2012).  Nevertheless, one needs to tread carefully when discussing ‘participation’.  As many others have pointed out, it is not a panacea, and can make projects more difficult, expensive and time consuming. On the other hand, the results have a greater chance to be accepted by the community if the community is part of the process from the beginning.

Mapping Emotions in Olomouc (published June 10th, 2015)

Recently I wrote a post about Emotional maps, how they can be used in local participatory mapping?. In this follow-up post I would like to share few outcomes from testing the platform. is an online application that allows users to crowdsource data about emotions in relation to used spaces. Users can mark points, lines and polygons on a given map, without any need to register or create a user account.  These data are later available in GeoJson format, which we can easily open in the open-source software QGIS. Currently we are testing the platform with the Healthy Cities of the Czech Republic project. The application can also be used to collect any other data – noise, POIs, voting patterns, sociological data, etc. Our aim, as part of testing process, was to deploy the emotional map of Olomouc, in the Czech Republic, among students to see if/how the platform will perform with data input from multiple users.

Our aim was to ask users about their feelings towards specific places in the city. We defined 6 feelings: “I like it here”, “this is ugly”, “I spend my free time here”, “I like shopping here”, “I don’t like driving/riding here”, “Here I feel proud of the city”. We deployed the map mainly via the University Facebook page and our departmental website and within a few days 87 people participated with a total of 1387 marked locations.  The most frequently used data category was ‘I like it here’ with 4.78 spots per person, followed by places where people spend free time (2.9 spots per person) and places where they feel proud of the city (2.59 spots per person).  Least frequently they marked places where they do not like to drive (1.23 spots per person).  There were large differences between the minimum (2 spots) and maximum (74 spots) number of places marked per person, but the average number was 16 locations per person and the median was 14. The gender distribution of participants was 45 male/42 female.

So the main question is: what we can do with all this data? From our platform – we can download it as GeoJson format, which we can easily open in QGIS and save as shapefile, or alternately save the data as GPX (GPS exchange format) and then use ArcGIS online (free for non-commercial use) to create a heat-map. I tried this approach as a part of the testing, with the spots marked “places I like”. I had to select only point elements as ArcGIS online can create a heat-map only from one type of the shapefile – point, line or polygon. As most of the data were points and polygons, I decided to use points in creating the map.  As you can see from the map, users mainly like the area of the old city centre and some random spots in the vicinity. The other map shows spots referring to the category “this is ugly”, where users marked mainly the area around the main railway station.

More practically, this platform can provide city planners with a support tool for urban development plans. For example, an application called was used by the Helsinki department of city planning for crowdsourcing information from citizens about future city development plans. During one month, almost 5.000 people mapped 33.000 opinions and ideas, including 9.000 places for new residential areas in Helsinki.

The emotional maps are still in the process of development, so I will be happy for any feedback from you!

April (posts by Kelvin Mason from the University of Liverpool)

Fracking values for the anthropocene

For the past two years I’ve been engaged with the network Frack Free Wales, an extension of previous PAR with the Camp for Climate Action dating back to 2008. In April 2015 that engagement materialises in a one-day public forum, Fracking and the Imagination, at the Aberystwyth Arts Centre. Environmentalist responses to fracking in Britain merit urgent social science research.

Academically, I seek to develop work on values (Compton, 2010) to propose a radical ethics for the anthropocene rooted in the everyday practices of environmental activists, particularly protest camp living. As a ‘para-academic’, operating on the margins, I’m grateful for the support of the University of Liverpool, which allows me access to academic resources to pursue my research. Two funding bids backed by ‘authorised’ colleagues from other institutions have been unsuccessful, however, and so my work remains precarious. Consolidated mainstream academic research into shale gas in Britain is set to focus on ‘a social license to operate’ and ‘legitimate knowledge’. It deliberately shies away from dissent that may transcend the limits of contemporary morality to reveal traces of an ethics more suited to an era where human activity is the dominant force in/over nature.

Fracking and the imagination: Reflections Written by Kelvin Mason, Photos by Giles Bennett

Fracking and the imagination, ‘a public depiction of extreme energy’, took place in the Arts Centre of Aberystwyth University on 23rd April. It was a trans-disciplinary forum, bringing together natural scientists, artists, social scientists, concerned citizens, and environmental activists from both constituted and networked civil society groups (see the event programme and contributors’ posts). The forum was also a multi-media event with four of the presentations made available online by the University’s Learning Spaces Design and Development team (just fast-forward through the rubbish facilitator who forgot to use a microphone!):

Morning session:

• ‘Fracking 101: Geology technology and climate’, Stephen Tooth, Department of Geography and Earth Sciences (DGES), Aberystwyth University

• ‘Energy and the environment: Two artists’ perspectives’, Jessica Lloyd-Jones and Ant Dickinson

Afternoon session:

• ‘Fracking in Wales: Devolution and alternative energy pathways’, Gareth Clubb, Director of Friends of the Earth Cymru

• Extreme energy as a human rights issue, Damien Short, Director Human Rights Consortium, University of London

The twitter feed for the (continuing) forum is #imaginefracking. And, thanks to Sam Saville of DGES, the forum was also ‘storified’. This technology has the potential for enlivening remote participation in pedagogic events, so do have a look at the story.

In addition to these presentations, the forum featured a conversation with two activists, one resident and another individual closely supporting a long-term ‘community protection camp’ at Borras near Wrexham in North Wales. The camp aims to stop IGas test drilling for gas on neighbouring farmland. Both activists are involved in direct action against fracking and associated extreme energy developments, arriving at the forum the day after a lock-on protest at IGas’ Doe Green coal bed methane (CBM) site.

Facilitating the concluding panel session on the day, human geographer Mark Whitehead proposed cross-cutting themes that had emerged as:

1. Space (differential opportunities for fracking development; spatial displacement of protesters; global mobility of fracking corporations; limitations of territorial bans on fracking).

2. Time (affect of fracking on future geological record; duration and challenges of anti-fracking protests; posthumous apologies for fracking; legacy issues and timeframes over which risks are assessed – particularly in relation to lifecycle of well casings).

3. Imagination (making visible the invisible and buried nature of fracking enterprises (hidden chemical contents of fracking fluids, complexities of corporate fracking relations etc; thinking more broadly about fracking in relation to extreme energy and climate change; links to debates about the Anthropocene; links to questions of human rights).

4. The Nature of Protests (role of art; move from protests to protection; why fracking has become such a important issue within environmental protest).

5. Knowledge (in particular the relation between informal and formal knowledge).

Mark will develop these themes in his own blog post on the forum.

In his blog, physical geographer Stephen Tooth ponders fracking as a complex, multi-dimensional issue that can be examined from many perspectives. For Stephen, the forum served as a prism for splitting/dispersing the issue into its constituent parts or ‘wavelengths’. While we examined geological, environmental and social perspectives, however, Stephen felt the economic view could have been better represented. Assessing the forum question of whether fracking/extreme energy is ‘scraping the barrel or saving the day?’, Stephen observes that such developments reflect extreme desperation, ‘sprinting in the wrong direction’ to quote Damien’s Short from the forum’s final panel discussion: society needs to reverse, turn 180 degrees and sprint the other way. Stephen will proceed to examine the actions of Ceredigion county council, which has declared itself frack free. Given that Ceredigion has no viable reserves of coal-bed methane, shale gas or oil, was this a meaningless gestures or symbolically important? He considers this question in the context of wider movements for disinvestment in fossil fuels (see for instance here and, specifically in the academic context this website).

In my own blog I intend to reflect on values, particularly with relation to environmental activists and how they may be embodying an ethics for the Anthropocene, investing environmental citizenship with a rebellious imperative while actively caring for each other, distant humans in space and time, and a wider nature. Herein, my scattergun observations of the forum include that environmental activists are highly rational, well-informed and committed to increasing their knowledge. A number of activist and artist participants in the forum, apart from assiduously monitoring and assessing internet sources on fracking and extreme energy, have undertaken the University of Nottingham’s MOOC ‘Shale Gas and Fracking: the Politics and Science. Their ‘informal knowledge’ stood up well in encounters with natural and social science during the forum, with all parties evidently gaining insights and developing mutual epistemological respect.

Artists contributions to the forum transcended our preliminary aim of ‘opening up a cultural front on fracking’, although Rebel Arts ‘frack discs’, which occupy the space where vehicle tax disc used to be, and artspark’s DIY Fracking kit are very much in that vein. Avi Allen described art works that have no object but the relation between artist and audience, and even that defying bounding or being put in any sort of frame as knowledges are exchanged and mingle. What might such a conception mean for social science? Imagine wholly relational research outputs that transcend any distinction between researcher and researched. How, for instance, could the all the connections made via this ‘fracking and the imagination’ forum be represented academically, the co-operation, the care and mutual respect, the antagonisms…? Somehow resonating with Stephen Tooth’s imagining of future scientists reading the scars of extreme energy extraction on the physical geography of the Earth, Ant Dickinson constructed a posthumous apology in machine noise for the chemically castrated gay scientist Alan Turing. How will we apologise for fracking, open-cast coal mining, tar sands and thence climate change? Because, regardless of all the other issues raised by fracking and extreme energy, climate change driven by the continued burning of fossil fuels was an over-arching concern from all perspectives.

You can follow up on fracking and the work of other contributors to the forum via these organizations and individuals:

Frack Free Wales

Friends of the Earth Cymru 

Damien Short (Extreme Energy initiative)

Jessica Lloyd-Jones 

Ant Dickson

Julian Ruddock

Avi Allen (Capel Y Graig) 

Rebel Arts 

artspark DIY fracking kit 

Ariana Jordao

Rosie Leach 

Giles Bennett

Borras and Holt Community Protection Camp

Sam Saville 

Fracking values and an ethics for the anthropocene (published April 3, 2015)

Just before midday on Wednesday 28th January 2015 Ceredigion county council voted to become the first ‘frack free’ local authority in Wales. This decision reflected more than a year’s hard work by local activists working within the network coalition Frack Free Wales (FFW). FFW aims to (i) establish the ‘facts’ and take action on ‘unconventional fossil fuel extraction that threatens Wales’; (ii) discover what unconventional energy means environmentally and economically for people in Wales; (iii) highlight green energy alternatives. Generated via a public petition, the motion before Ceredigion council exemplified one strand of FFW’s strategy. It stated that:

‘As a council which is leading on the use of renewable energy and energy conservation, we believe that Hydraulic Fracturing, Coal Bed Methane and Underground Coal Gasification (commonly referred to as ‘Fracking’) are incompatible with Ceredigion’s energy strategy as well as arousing considerable public concern. Having received a large petition from Ceredigion residents to this effect, we are happy to declare that we will not support fracking within the county and are therefore pleased to declare Ceredigion a Frack-free Local Authority. We hope that our commitment to a cleaner energy future will show the rest of Wales how important it is to protect our environment for future generations and to allow us to stand together with other forward thinking Local Authorities.’

I have been working with FFW for more than two years. Through 2014, I facilitated a series of workshops for Friends of the Earth (FoE) Cymru, an FFW member. These took place right across Wales, from Carmarthen in the west, east to Newport Gwent and up to Haywarden in the north. The workshops featured planning legislation, protest and the law, campaigning and communication, creativity/making, and understanding fracking technologies. Elsewhere, other FFW groups staged workshops on consensus decision-making, legal observing, and making transitions to community owned energy. A nation-wide day of action on July 5th collected signatures on a petition to the Welsh Government for a moratorium on fracking. On October 11th, Global Frackdown Day, the petition was handed to the government via an FFW rally in Cardiff. The government perfunctorily dismissed the petition, stating it was satisfied with regulation of the fracking industry and that a moratorium was beyond its devolved powers.

In late October 2014 the first anti-fracking protest camp in Wales was set up at Commonwood Farm, Borras near Wrexham. Initially, Wrexham Council rejected an application for test drilling, but the Welsh government overturned that decision. So, on 27th November, Borras and Holt Community Protection Camp was razed by a small army of bailiffs, backed by Police, and protesters were evicted, though they immediately set up camp on an adjacent site. With early warning systems in place, FFW are prepared to set up and support community protection camps wherever fracking threatens in future, making exploitation difficult and expensive for would-be developers.

Meanwhile, an emerging strand of FFW’s strategy is to establish ‘a cultural front’ on fracking. On April 23rd at the Aberystwyth University Arts Centre, activists are involved in organising a one-day conference with an exhibition of existing work by artists interested in fracking, energy and Wales. ‘Fracking and the imagination: Scraping the barrel or saving the day?’ is ‘a public depiction of fracking’ constructed via exchanges between activists, artists, decision-makers, natural and social scientists. In the context of the putative anthropocene in which human activity dominates nature, presentations range widely, from tracing the revealing scarification that fracking will leave on geological strata, through practices of protest camp living, to consideration of fracking and human rights.

There is no viable coal-bed methane, coal, shale gas or oil in Ceredigion, so the council’s decision should have been straight-forward, ‘a no-brainer’. Only thirteen councillors voted for the motion, however, with nine against and fifteen abstentions. The councillor who proposed the motion believes these figures reflect technological and geographical uncertainty as well as entrenched party political positions. This despite the fact that the local FFW group, Anti-Fracking West and Mid-Wales, eschewing bias, strove to ensure councillors had access to relevant knowledges. We do not know how, if at all, councillors were affected by fracking news stories from elsewhere, not least the re-advent of cheap oil which undermines the economic viability of extreme energy exploitation in the UK (but bodes even worse for climate change).

Ceredigion’s decision sends a strong signal to other councils petitioned by FFW. Indeed, just one week later, the Assembly Member for Ceredigion, Elin Jones, forced a debate in the Senedd on transferring decision making powers on fracking to Wales. Another strand of FFW’s strategy is to obtain a legal opinion on whether the Welsh government already has such powers, an opinion the debate may force the government to obtain. Relationally, the Ceredigion motion fore-grounded renewable energy and energy conservation in the fight against climate change as its rationale. Elsewhere in the UK, Councils stall fracking applications by citing concerns such as increased traffic and noise, concerns that might also apply to community windfarm development, for instance. Moreover, the actions of the local FFW group, Anti-Fracking West and Mid Wales, demonstrates an extraordinary relational care for other, unknown communities in Wales and beyond, in both space and time, who would suffer the effects to fracking.

Care as an ethics of the anthropocene?

Apart from a small consultancy fee from FoE Cymru, my participatory action research with FFW has been unfunded. In addition to pursuing FFW’s stated aims with the network coalition, my academic efforts (which I feedback to FFW) focus on values and ethics. I observe that environmentalists are faced with the problem of how to respond when shale gas is presented as a transition fuel (to a low or zero carbon economy). As there is no UK energy policy of transition but only market dogma, it is surely duplicitous to bill any fossil fuel as transitional. Jamison (2014) contends that in a climate-changed world, ethical reasoning itself must be refined: we need a new set of values, an ethics for the anthropocene, which will transcend the limits of contemporary common-sense morality. With this need in mind, I ask how environmentalists in Wales are responding to the advent of extreme energy and, specifically, what values are being mobilised in this response? If I can manage to continue my research, I intend to explore how an ethics of care (Held, 2006) might fit as an ethics for the anthropocene. In particular, I am interested in how changing ideas and practices of care for terminally ill individuals (c.f. Gawande, 2014) might translate into an everyday lived, hopeful and transgressive requiem for a species (Hamilton, 2010).


Gawande, A. (2014) ‘The Problem of Hubris’. Reith Lecture. BBC: London (Available at Accessed 3 February 2015.

Hamilton, C. (2010) ‘Requiem for a Species: Why we resist the truth about climate change’. Earthscan: London.

Held, V. (2007) ‘The Ethics of Care: Personal, political and global’. OUP: Oxford.

Jamieson, D. (2014) ‘Reason in a Dark Time: Why the struggles against climate change failed – and what it means for our future’. OUP: Oxford.

March (posts by Jessica Hallenbeck)

Climate Matters on Unceded Territory (published March 10, 2015)

It’s below freezing and two film mentors (myself and Elle-Máijá Tailfeathers ) are standing in the snow with a dozen Indigenous youth and non-Indigenous youth allies. We are on Burnaby Mountain, in Vancouver, Canada. This is unceded Indigenous land belonging to the Coast Salish peoples, including the territories of the xʷməθkwəy̓əm (Musqueam), Skwxwú7mesh (Squamish), Stó:lō and Selilwitulh (Tsleil-Waututh) Nations. We are here to create two participatory films for CLIMATE MATTERS, a multi-phased initiative that uses digital media and geomapping to spark dialogue about climate justice within schools, communities and larger public institutions. The first phase of Climate Matters is about making climate-focused films, involving over twenty four young people from six different communities in British Columbia (primarily rural, under-resourced, and Indigenous) being mentored by local media artists to create digital stories that focus on matters of local ecological significance and concern. As a PhD Candidate, community planner, and filmmaker. I’ve been lucky to serve as an Access to Media Education Society Board member for six years, and Climate Matters is the first AMES project that I’ve been involved with on the ground.

And so here we are, on the ground – filming a pipeline protest on Burnaby Mountain that has turned into a celebration as an application by Kinder Morgan to extend an injunction that was keeping protesters away from two drilling sites was denied. Over the next month I will be sharing my experience working as a local media artist on the Vancouver segment of the Climate Matters project. I’ll talk about the training, filming, and editing process, and about what has happened since the films have been completed.

CLIMATE MATTERS, A Pre-Production Weekend (published March 15, 2015) 

It’s the first day of the Vancouver based iteration of Climate Matters. We’re gathered at the Urban Native Youth Association (UNYA), and will be based here for the next three weekends. Most of us are meeting each other for the first time, and most people in the room have never made a film before. Everyone seems nervous. After a round of introductions, we begin by setting the context for the project – unpacking what climate justice means. We are privileged to hear from two brilliant speakers who share their experiences working on the frontlines of the global climate justice movement. Melina Laboucan-Massimo, a member of the Lubicon Cree First Nation and a Climate and Energy Campaigner with Greenpeace Canada shares her firsthand experiences of the impacts of the Alberta tar sands on her traditional territory. Sean Yap Sei-Been Devlin speaks and shares some of his film and story about super typhoon Yolanda / Haiyan that devastated (and continues to devastate) the Visayas region of the Philippines. Both speakers help to root seemingly separate events and places within a larger framework of colonialism, imperialism, and capitalism. Climate change works through existing circuits of inequality, adversely impacting peoples and communities that have fewer resources to deal with the effects of climate change. To put it lightly, this was an emotionally intense start to the Vancouver segment of the Climate Matters video project, and it was clear that the videos created needed to honor what was so generously shared by Melina Laboucan-Massimo and Sean Yap Sei-Been Devlin.

Over the first weekend there was a lot of learning, laughter, and sometimes awkwardness. A video footage forage exercise was undertaken in order to familiarize participants with the cameras and with basic film language. A storytelling and pre-production workshop was held, and ultimately the scary task of breaking the participants into two groups and coming up with preliminary concepts occurred. Throughout the conversations regularly drifted back to what was happening on Burnaby Mountain, and it became increasingly clear that there was an interest in creating at least one film that connected to that particular struggle. A focus also emerged towards a drama / narrative film. In coming up with the concepts it was necessary to work across different experiences, skills sets, and orientations to create video ideas that reflected who was participating in the project and the territories and spaces that the project was based in. As climate matters is a peer to peer educational and curriculum content generation project, audience was also central to initial scoping discussions, and in many ways would critically shape the production and post production decision making processes.

Please check out these two videos that we have made as a result of this project: Thicker than Oil and Poison, or go to

The Challenges of Participatory Post-Production (published March 24, 2015)

There are five of us sitting at a shared editing station. Editing, and especially group editing can be the most challenging aspect of a film project. In Climate Matters, most of the participants have never edited before. Learning to edit requires time, and group editing extends this learning process, demanding patience, communication, respect, and thoughtful decision-making. Crucially, editing is also about storytelling and the need to honor the story that the group wants to tell. It is in shaping the story that major decisions get made in terms of voice. Which voices tell the story? What is the story that needs to be told? These questions are negotiated and discussed by the group, and of course there are disagreements, tensions, and doubts. As an experienced editor I often find that group editing always tests my skills as a facilitator. I am constantly fighting the urge to jump in, to direct the story, to move more quickly through the process. I am also always anxious about how the group will work together, how they will ensure that everyone gets equal time at the computer, and that no one feels disempowered by the post-production process.

In the context of Climate Matters and Burnaby Mountain, questions of voice, representation, and power are in many ways front and center to the editing decisions made. ‘Thicker Than Oil’ was primarily filmed at the ‘Frontlines Beat Pipelines’ event at Burnaby Mountain. This event specifically prioritized voices and performances by Indigenous women and women of colour. It was essential that these same voices be centered within the film and consequently, decisions about how people are introduced, who is in the film, how ideas are communicated, and how outpoints are chosen are ultimately decisions about respect, ethics, and protocol. For example, our group had a conversation about a white woman we interviewed and whether the interview should be included in the film or not. After much discussion, including someone sharing that they were triggered by her interview, it was decided that her interview would not be included in the film and instead that the five-minute film needed to focus exclusively on the voices of Indigenous women and women of color. Likewise, the group chose to open and close the film with the voices of two Musqueam women – Kelsey Sparrow and Audrey Siegl. These decisions were intentional and made at the group level. They required genuine listening and communication. In this sense, group editing can become a decolonizing process.

February (posts by Liam Harney)

Alinsky’s Lessons for Geographers (published 25 Feburary 2015)

At our second training session on the 7th of February, we taught our participants the art of story-telling for leadership as developed by Marshall Ganz, a scholar-organiser in the USA working in the community organising tradition of Saul Alinksy. A long day was spent thinking and practicing telling the story of self, the story of us and the story of now. We ended by setting up their research project, in which each participant held 5 conversations with members of their community to get to know them better and gather their stories of ‘doing the right thing’, as well as to get an idea of  issues affecting them at present. This task in based on the three principles of community organising.

Storytelling for Leadership

The first of these principles is democracy. As pragmatic practitioners, organisers recognise that the people they work with come from a variety of worlds, each with their own set of experiences and beliefs that make sense of these. Community organisers seek to work with as diverse a group of people as possible and allow issues to emerge from them. They thus start with place, rather than specific identities or issues, and work to build relationships and facilitate communication through which common problems can start to be identified.

In contrast, many PAR projects that have been carried out by geographers involve the academic choosing which communities to work with and/or which issues to address through research. This is typical of the approach of ‘scholar activists’, who seek to use their position as academics to further the interests of political movements and projects that align most with their personal political agendas. Amongst others, this is seen in the work of people like the Autonomous Geographies Collective (2010), the Community Economies Collective (Cameron and Graham, 2005) and feminist geographers (Cahill, 2007) who conduct research with, for and about groups and struggles that align most to their own political views. This also occurs when research questions are set by funders or academic agendas (see Pain and Francis, 2003). For example, Cahill (2007) uses PAR to facilitate a process of self-representation amongst a group of working class women of colour in New York City. This feminist project utilised participatory methods to allow these women to identify the common issue of negative stereotypes that exist about them in dominant discourses. They then addressed this through the collective creation of a counter-narrative that represented themselves in ways that reflected how they wanted to be seen by others. Whilst this project is an example of valuable consciousness-raising work amongst an oppressed group that had positive impacts on the participants’ sense of self, Cahill’s feminist politics played an influential role in determining the shape of the inquiry. From a pragmatic point of view, this is problematic.

Pragmatists hold an anti-foundational view of knowledge, which holds that multiple truths can exist, none of which are more valid than another. Thus, within each social world different problems exist as understood and articulated by the people who experience them. So, accepting this, and accepting that the goal of research is to solve people’s problems, what right do academics have to choose which community’s problems to help solve, or which problems exist in the first place? Thus, going back to Cahill, whilst work that supports specific oppressed groups is useful and needed, her use of PAR to advance a particular feminist political agenda necessarily resulted in other communities being excluded from participating in inquiry, and other issues ignored. Stating that community organising puts ‘people before program’, Saul Alinsky stressed the need for organisers to put aside their personal political ideals and agendas and work to allow people to pursue their own interests instead. Organisers should never approach their job with specific issues in mind or attempt to recruit communities to pre-existing political programs, but facilitate people to create their own agendas for change. This is the challenge of Pragmatism to critical Geography.

In our group of participants we have people with a range of experiences and understandings of the world. They represent a multitude of faiths and are situated at various points on the left-right political spectrum. By basing the course around a project where participants have to speak to five people in their community about their experiences of the area, we hope to ensure that our practice is as democratic as possible and allows for multiple issues to emerge upon which we can support action to address.

Mapping the ‘targets’ for our one-to-ones

Principle number two of community organising is power. An organiser’s job is to help build the power of ordinary people to be able to shape the world as they see fit. Alinsky stated that power is a property of organised money and organised people. Situating himself on the side of the ‘have-nots’, he was interested in the latter. He knew that if people wanted to challenge the decisions being made about their lives by the rich and powerful, then the only way they could do this was to get organised and unite around collective action. In doing this they build ‘relational power’.

Relational power works in a number of ways. First people have to build public relationships with others in their community, which act as the basis for communication about shared concerns and joint action to address them. Community organising teaches that the way to do this is through the method of the ‘one-to-one’: a meeting between two people with the aim of allowing each party to discover what makes the other one tick and find out their self-interest. Knowing this makes acting together easier in the future (see Chambers, 2009).

Secondly, once people have forged relationships between others in their community and neighbouring communities, they then need to relate to those in power. Community organising seeks to get organised groups of people in civil society a seat at the negotiating table with influential decision-makers in the state and the market so that they may have more control over the decisions that affect their lives. This is intended to democratise existing institutions so that they become more accountable to the desires of the people affected by them.

This is the second function of our research project. The five one-to-ones that our participants will have with people in their community are intended to start building relational power for the group. These are people that they already know but would like to develop a stronger, public relationship with. As well as building relationships, the purpose of these one-to-ones is to find inspirational stories of people acting for ‘social justice’ (however they chose to define this). These stories will be compiled into a book that will be distributed to various institutions in the E14 area in the spring. This book will contain a narrative that tells the collective story of the area. Again, this place-based narrative is intended to help build a sense of community between people and contribute to the strengthening of relational power.

Building Relationships and Power

Finally, community organising is based on the principle of education-for-democracy; an organiser’s main role is to develop people as leaders for change who have the skills and capacities needed to operate effectively in a democracy. For Marshall Ganz, this involves two challenges: one of the head, and one of the heart. The challenge of the head requires an organiser to teach people the hard skills needed to do politics: how to run campaigns, how to negotiate with decision-makers, how to strategize actions. For the challenge of the heart, an organiser must break through people’s apathy and inertia, and motivate them for political action and public life. For Ganz, the best way of doing this is by telling stories of hope that demonstrate people’s agency to change the world. Effective stories break through hopelessness and teach people that they can make a difference. This is why we’ve asked our participants to find inspirational stories of ordinary people doing extraordinary things. By gathering people’s stories of taking action to do the right thing (no matter how ‘small’ this may be’) and presenting it back to them in a book, we aim to equip our new leaders with resources of hope that can be used to inspire others to act with them.


Autonomous Geographies Collective. 2010, ‘Beyond Scholar-Activism: Making Strategic Interventions Inside and Outside the Neoliberal University’, ACME, 9, 2, pp. 245-275.

Cameron, J. and Gibson, K. 2005, ‘Participatory Action Research in a Poststructuralist Vein’, Geoforum, 36, 3, pp. 315-331.

Cahill, C. 2007, ‘The Personal is Political: Developing New Subjectivities in a Participatory Action Research Process’, Gender, Place, and Culture, 14, 3, pp. 267- 92.

Chambers, E. 2009, The Power of Relational Action, Acta Publications, Skokie

Pain, R. and Francis, P. 2003, ‘Reflections on Participatory Research’, Area, 35, 1, pp. 46-54.

Kicking things off!  (published 10 February 2015)

It was 6pm on a chilly Monday night, and assembled in a room at the George Greens secondary school on the Isle of Dogs were 25 people, representing the diversity of one postcode in East London. Sat in a circle waiting to start were 16-year-old school students, mums, dads, grandparents, old age pensioners, recent university graduates, a dinner lady, a bus driver, a librarian, community workers, shop assistants… As the cliché goes, we had half of the world in one room, with people of Bangladeshi, British, American, Nigerian, South African, Brazilian, Turkish, Lithuanian, Italian and Brazilian nationality, representing a range of Christian, Muslim and Jewish faiths.

East Londoners

And in this circle too was me, Liam Harney, a geographer. These people were here to learn to become leaders for change in their community, which formed part of a project for my PhD. Funded by an ESRC scholarship and being supported by an Antipode Scholar-Activist award, I have set about designing a piece of participatory action research that can hopefully add a new perspective and insight to the practice of critical geography by bringing in ideas from philosophical Pragmatism.

The idea for the project came in the summer of 2014; just as I was finishing my Masters course at Queen Mary, University of London. I was reflecting on my dissertation project, in which I’d worked with the broad-based community organising alliance, Citizens UK, to support a campaign led by a diverse group of civil society institutions in Tower Hamlets, one of the most economically deprived boroughs in the UK, around issues associated with housing: high rents, damp conditions, overcrowding and unaffordability. Working with a team of 22 residents from the borough I coordinated a survey of over 300 households to discuss these issues and build up a credible evidence base, which we presented to the three main candidates for local Mayor in front of an audience of 400 local citizens and the local and national press, one week before the UK local elections in May.

Local Mayoral Candidates at Citizens UK Assembly

We presented our findings to the politicians elect and asked each one to make a public commitment to implementing our 4 policy proposals designed to fix the housing problems, should they be elected. We received commitments from all 3 candidates on the night, and our alliance is now in regular contact with the Mayor’s office to hold him accountable to his commitment and make sure our suggestions are put into practice. So we won, and the knowledge that I helped to produce as a geographer played a particular part in allowing us to achieve this.

I was on a high and started to wonder how else geographers could use their role as researchers to allow ordinary people to achieve their self-defined political goals. I turned to the literature on participatory action research (PAR), and activist geographies, and found examples of the success of this approach elsewhere. But I was also confronted with frustrations. Geographers have written of how the use of such participatory methods, whilst sounding good in theory, often fails to live up to ideals in practice. Concerns have been raised by various authors over power imbalances between researcher and participants, the inability of projects to achieve their desired results for real-world change, and the unsustainability of impacts from projects on participants.

I weighed these up with my experiences with Citizens UK and thought that they had a method that could maybe address these worries. Community organising is democratic, allowing people to identify their own problems through the simple act of listening to each other; it builds serious power for people to solve these issues by creating permanent alliances of civil society institutions that give people the ability to hold interests in the state and market to account; and it puts the development of people as effective leaders for change at the core of its approach. Delving into the philosophy behind the method, it is gradually being discovered that community organising has its roots in American Pragmatism, a theory of knowledge and action developed by the work of Charles Sanders Pierce, William James and John Dewey.

Pragmatism sees knowledge production, or inquiry, as a means of solving the problems we encounter in our world. It also tells us that there multiple worlds, each containing their own truths, and that the inhabitants of these worlds are best placed to identify their problems and work out how to solve them, rather than outside experts. Pragmatists argue for the democratisation of inquiry as a method for allowing all people to address the issues that matter to them. This is seen as essential for facilitating a healthy democracy where ordinary people have the ability to create the world in ways that meet their needs and interests. Community organising puts pragmatic theory into practice by bringing people together based on their shared attachment to particular places and getting them to identify, think about, and create solutions to the issues they have in common. Unlike much research within Geography, it is the people and their relationships that come first, rather than any specific issue. More importantly, once the issue had been identified, every effort is made to build the power to facilitate actual change.

So, here I am now in the E14 postcode of East London, at the start of a project which asks: what if a geographer approaches research from the perspective of a community organiser? How can research be used to build relationships between people?  What issues will emerge from a group whose only connection is a shared place?  How can we produce knowledge that helps to generate power? How would geographic practice transform if the goal of our research was to develop people as leaders for change, rather than generating knowledge on any set of issues in particular?

It is these questions that this project is trying to answer. Our 25 participants have been assembled, and over the next two months will be trained as leaders by learning the art of listening and story-telling. Putting these skills into practice, they will each speak to 5 members of their community to listen to their stories about what it means to live in this part of the world today. Through this, it is intended that the issues that really matter to people will emerge, upon which our newly trained leaders can take political action to address. I hope to show that by using the methods of community organising, geographers can facilitate truly democratic modes of inquiry and action, where ordinary people decide the focus of research and learn the skills needed to become effective world-makers who can bring about the futures they want to see, as opposed to those of the academic. This blog will track the progress of this project as it unfolds over the coming year.


 The Values of Participatory Action Research by  Sophie Wynne-Jones

At the start of this project we acknowledged that values were not only central to the food education we wanted to deliver, but also to the way we wanted to run our project. In their position paper on Food and Values, our project partner, the Public Interest Research Centre, remind us that we need to look inside as well as out when we are delivering values based education. This means that we need to consider the values we promote within and through our project by considering how decisions are made and how the people we work with are supported and engaged. ‘Be the change you want to see’ may seem a clichéd aspiration, but it has been a central guiding principle to the way we have worked together on Food Values. In this post I will reflect on what this has meant for us.

The Food Values project involves multiple partners in the delivery of the education events. We have also called on a range of individuals and organisations to inform our approach, asking them to share their experiences and learning from similar projects. Finally, at its core the project has involved collaboration between the Organic Centre Wales (OCW), the Public Interest Research Centre (PIRC) and myself – Sophie Wynne-Jones, based at Aberystwyth University. All of those involved have different motivations and agendas that we bring to the melting pot of this work, despite being unified around the central aspiration of exploring values-based education. Keeping a hold on the values that our project embodies in its day-to-day working can be challenging. But it has also been a great pleasure and inspiration to work with so many different people and organisations, and perhaps more fundamentally, we simply couldn’t do what we are trying to do without them all!

The food education events we are involved in have been initiated by different community actors in a range of contexts across Wales. We are working with existing networks and instigators who are embedded in their locales. Our approach is to explore how a values-led approach can support them in their work. We are not aiming to duplicate a formula of how to run successful food education events, it depends on where you are, who you are with, what issues they face and their current stance. We do want to share learning and reflect on good practice, but we have no onesize to fit all. The ideas for different events have therefore come from the communities we are working in. We have facilitated and supported this approach more or less depending on what was needed, but the community actors own the event. They have also decided what sort of data they would like to collect and the outputs that will be useful to them. We can help collect, process and analyse data, and we will produce an overarching report comparing learning across the events.

Are we getting it right?

Whilst I am not imagining that there are no tensions or concerns permeating in the project, or moments of miscommunication or mismatched expectations, I have been really heartened by how positive the overall experience has been to date. Some contributing factors at work here may be that we have very applied aims in our project, the proposed
written outputs and individual events have a practical focus which appeals and has clear relevance to partners. This is not to suggest that theorising is irrelevant to people outside of the university. As our research seminars have demonstrated, a wide range of individuals have been keen to take the time to reflect on their experiences, to take stock of what they are doing and why it is or isn’t effective; and most of all why it mattered to them in the first instance. This is the powerful thing about values framing – we get to reconnect with the deeper implications and drivers behind campaigns and programmes, which can often be forgotten in their day-to-day delivery. Thinking about values clearly strikes a chord – it is not always the case that academic discourse excites or entices people…

Another critical factor is the flexibility of our funding, which is  through the Welsh Government Rural Development funds for Supply Chain Efficiencies, and part of the broader ‘Better Organic Business Links’ project.  It has enabled us to support partners with their own established projects rather reinventing the wheel or overly imposing and dictating.   It does, therefore, differ from a research council funded project and places clearer focus on the applied working. Nonetheless, it is refreshing that research funding councils are increasingly attuned to the benefits of applied working and ongoing knowledge exchange, so this type of work is becoming more normalised. I would be interested to hear how our experiences compare with those working with more ‘conventional’ research funding, and perhaps this gives participatory researchers a push to be more innovative and experimental in the funding they seek?

Finally, to return explicitly to our focus on personal values and interactions, social dynamics are a key concern – ensuring that everyone is listened to and respected in meetings and other exchanges, for example. We have also tried to ensure that the project management has reflected a fair balance of work that each individual can realistically manage amidst the competing demands of their wider professional and personal roles. This has meant taking project planning seriously so we can deliver what we are setting  out to do, ensuring that the days allocated actually match the funding we can offer, and not creating bottlenecks of work where people are pressured to go above and beyond the contracted arrangements. Working on an issue that people care deeply about means that the project can become a labour of love. Some of the event planning and delivery has involved voluntary work from some partners, but we want to ensure that we can make this as fair and personally sustainable for them as possible. So for instance, if we can allocate funds for data collection and analysis to community partners, rather than bringing in external university personnel, this is what we have done. I am sure we haven’t got everything right, but these are some steps we are taking and we are very much open to suggestions and reflections from others.  Overall then, our experience shows that there is clear value to participatory working as it has opened so many doors. But equally, we have been reminded that that it is important to be aware of the values involved in this type of work to ensure that it can be meaningful and rewarding for everyone.