Launch Event: Researching Alternative Worlds: New political orientations in Geography

The Official Launch of the Society and Space MSc Blog

4.00pm, Hepple Lecture Theatre, School of Geographical Science, University of Bristol

Register here

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On Wednesday 27th April, we will be officially launching the Society and Space MSc blog with a panel discussion event bringing together Society and Space alumni to discuss a common concern to all of their work – the role of academia in creating alternative social worlds. The Society and Space MSc Course is the principle Human Geography research training Master’s programme within the School of Geographical Sciences at the University of Bristol. As a Master’s degree that emphasises social and political theory, the programme trains students to think about social and cultural geographies from a critical perspective while also interrogating the political and ethical components inherent to these geographies. The programme has produced a range of alumni who have, in the course of their research, continue to contemplate and develop the issues, theories and debates they first encountered on the Master’s programme.

To officially launch the Society and Space blog, we have invited back Society and Space alumni – including James Ash, Emma Roe, Sam Kinsley, Nathan Eisenstadt, Owain Jones and Julian Brigstocke – to take part in a panel discussion centred upon pressing questions concerning our role as researchers in mapping alternative social worlds. What is the role of academic research in investigating, creating and sustaining alternative social worlds? When is academia useful and effective? What are we doing wrong, and what should we be doing more of?

Although a Master’s programme in Cultural Geography, the Society and Space MSc attracts students from a range of backgrounds and a variety of disciplines, such as journalism, English literature, philosophy, fine art and cultural studies. Due to the wide spectrum of backgrounds and interests of those who enrol in the course, as well as the dynamic nature of Human Geography as a subject, the contents covered in the Society and Space programme stimulate a range of conversations about the nature of sociality, the world we live in, and potential futures that may lie ahead of us. We expect that this diversity and broad outlook will be reflected in the work our speakers will present and the discussions that ensue. In addition to being a highly theoretical course, there is a strong, grounded political and ethical focus to the Master’s programme. Consequently, the issues debated, discussed and encountered throughout the Society and Space course are in direct conversation with ‘real’ issues – today’s hot topics and current political and ethical debates. In a context of austerity and the neoliberalisation of academia, the role of academia in researching and co-creating an alternative future is surely one such topic.

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For a taste of the themes that the panel discussion will traverse, please have a look at abstracts provided by some of our panellists:

Dr James Ash, University of Newcastle

In this short reflection I offer one way of thinking about how we frame social science research questions. In doing so I want to caution against approaches which, however well meaning, centre on ‘big’ problems, framed in a general sense in relation to the concept of world. While issues such as climate change, poverty, homelessness and debt, amongst myriad others are undoubtedly real, there is an issue when assuming that a set of general problems are experienced within a shared horizon of meaning that is implied in the use of the term world. Rather than framing social problems in terms of big or small, or general or particular, I want to argue that such problems can be more productively framed in terms of what Simondon terms the abstract and the concrete. Drawing upon vignettes from the research design of an ESRC project on debt and digital interfaces, I demonstrate how Simondon’s work can be applied to specific societal problems.

Dr Emma Roe, University of Southampton 

Following the ongoing methodological and conceptual fascination with performance, matter and practice in cultural food studies I discus a participatory research methodology called ‘becoming ecological citizen’. This is an ecological citizen defined not in its traditional relation to the state, but rather to the world of humans and nonhumans whose lives are materially interconnected through nourishment. Participation involves the opportunity to not only engage with food stuff as ethical consumers but also as ecological citizens that can respond to forces and affects outside of ‘the food retail market’.

Dr Nathan Eisenstadt, University of Bristol

In this brief intervention I reflect on my doctoral work exploring paradoxes of freedom enacted in contemporary anarchist spaces. I propose that while performed inconsistently and in contradictory ways, the liberatory and egalitarian character of these practices lies in their capacity for an undoing of oneself with the help of compassionate others. Wonderful as this may sound – it has its edges. In closing I call attention to the failure of self-reflection and attempts to make spaces ‘safer’ when collectively established norms are radically transgressed.

Dr Sam Kinsley, University of Exeter

Computation is being used, within and without academia, to make ever grander and more detailed claims about our world. Yet, the (many) ‘worlds’ that emerge from what are generically referred to as ‘algorithms’ can be seen to fall foul of well-known fallacies of empiricism, in relation to their supposed lack of theoretical basis and apparent exhaustive reach. So, in light of grand claims made on behalf of ‘big data’ research and a contemporary predilection for the study of ‘algorithms’, I argue for a critical interrogation of the forms of world-ing propounded by such an ‘algorithmic imaginary’. In so doing, I suggest we reflect on what can be called a dialectic of ‘stupidity’ and ‘knowledge’, following Bernard Stiegler (2015), that undergirds our contemplation of such world-ings. My aim here is to tackle the inherent politics of this logic of worlds and how critical social scientists might engage.

Professor Owain Jones, Bath Spa University

My short presentation will reflect upon my experience of being in the first (very small) cohort of the MSc and then also devising and teaching the Nature and Society module from 2003-2006. I did not do an academic degree but an arts practice based degree so the MSc really marked my ‘conversion’ to academia and to geography. I can say without any exaggeration that doing the course was a life transforming and enhancing experience (as university (PG) education should be). The very possibility of imagining and enacting alternative worlds was very much part of that. My subsequent academic and professional life stands upon the very strong foundations put in place by the MSc and I think this is the case for many others too. I will offer some reflections upon why the course was so effective in this way. In part this was simply about being in a centre of excellence where there was a powerful intellectual momentum in which the conceptual and imaginative tools for questioning the trajectories of modernity were set out . But it was also about openness, spirit and collegiality with the staff and PG cohorts.

In addition to the panel discussion – which will be followed by time for audience questions – there will be a brief introduction by the Society and Space Blog Editors, before our very own Dr JD Dewsbury will recount his experience as first a student and then a lecturer on the MSc and map out how the course has changed and developed over the years.

The event will take place at 4.00pm, in the Hepple Lecture Theatre, School of Geographical Science, University of Bristol (see map). The discussion will be followed by a drinks reception. If you intend to attend (and we hope you do!), please confirm your attendance here.

We look forward to meeting you on 27th April.

The Editors

 

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