More-than-Human Modes of Inquiry

A Workshop with Professor Sarah Whatmore, Oxford University Centre for the Environment

NatureCultures Group

Convenors: Professor Gay Hawkins (UNSW) & Professor Kay Anderson (UWS)

Date: 17-18 November 2008
Location: University of New South Wales, Sydney

Funded by the ARC Cultural Research Network and the Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences, UNSW

Aims
The aim of this workshop is to explore the significance of more-than-human currents in socio-ecological and humanities research. Debates about the more-than-human are growing in Australia but they remain very dispersed. Within socio-ecological research they tend to have a deep ecology bent and focus on transpersonal connections with nature. Within postcolonial studies, they remain caught up in tropes of indigenous proximity to nature. Within environmental history, the boundaries of colonialism's historiography have been extended beyond human agencies, but only to the extent that natural ecosystems are read as conditioning influences on colonialism.

This workshop seeks to open up another line of inquiry that focuses on exactly how nature and other material forms are assembled, how they come to matter in different settings and what innovative methods awareness of the more-than-human might generate. By drawing together participants from a range of disciplines we hope to develop a sustained discussion about the epistemological and political implications of more-than-human modes of inquiry.

Key questions will be: how is it possible to extend the company and modality of what constitutes a research subject? What does a more-than-human approach to research entail? How can we make sense of the affectivity of things, the ways in which they strike back or deflect human intention? What is at stake in these methods? What do you actually do, what modes of academic analysis are deployed, invented? What challenges does a more-than-human mode of inquiry pose to more conventional methodologies and research categories? What are the limits of representation and social construction as analytic modes?

The discussion will be lead by leading scholar in this field, Professor Sarah Whatmore, Centre for the Environment, University of Oxford. Whatmore’s book Hybrid Geographies (Sage 2002) and essays such as ‘Materialist Returns: practising cultural geography in and for a more-than-human world’ (Cultural Geographies, 13, 4, 2006) have had a major impact on setting out these issues, showing why more-than-human modes of research matter and how they can be developed.

Format
In order to generate a lively and inclusive conversation and exchange of ideas the workshop will involve a hybrid format. Apart from a presentation from Sarah Whatmore and a discussion of her work, we want to create a forum where participants can explore dilemmas in their own research and writing in relation to more-than-human modes of inquiry. We hope that this will lead to further workshops/conversations and the production of papers for publication in various journals. Continuum: Journal of Media and Cultural Studies is keen to publish papers developed from this workshop in a 2010 issue.

DRAFT Program

Day 1- Session 1- Monday November 17

Presentation by Sarah Whatmore
‘Reflections on Practicing More-than-Human Modes of Research’

Day 1- Session 2

Discussion of Whatmore’s work lead by Stephen Muecke (Cultural Studies, UTS) and Donna Houston (Geography, Macquarie)

Day 1 – Session 3

Discussion of case studies in more-than-human modes of inquiry in two projects: Gay Hawkins, Kane Race and Emily Potter’s project on the ‘Social and Material Life of Bottled Water’ and Kay Anderson’s project on ‘Aboriginal Skulls, Mind and Matter.’

Day 2 – Session 1- Tuesday November 18

Lesley Instone (Geography, University of Newcastle) Lesley Head (Geography University of Wollongong) Zoe Sofoulis (Centre for Cultural Research, UWS) and Emily Potter (Architecture, University of Melbourne) will lead a discussion on Australian currents in more-than-human modes of inquiry.

Day 2- Session 2

Open discussion of John Law’s book After Method (Routledge, 2004) and Sarah Whatmore’s Chapter in Using Social Theory – thinking through research (Pryke, Rose and Whatmore, eds, Sage, 2003) Led by Kane Race (Gender Studies, University of Sydney)

Day 2 - Session 3

Discussion of methodological issues by postgraduates: Bjorn Erik Nansen, Janine Randerson, Michael Dieter and Nathaniel Tkacz

Day 2 – Session 4

Summing up – Sarah Whatmore

report

On November 17/18 2008 an interdisciplinary workshop exploring the issue of more-than-human methods was held with 20 participants from across Australia. The workshop featured Professor Sarah Whatmore from the Oxford University Centre for the Environment. Whatmore’s book Hybrid Geographies and essays such as ‘Materialist Returns: practising cultural geography in and for a more-than-human world’ have had a major impact on setting out these issues, showing why more-than-human modes of research matter and how they can be developed.

The workshop drew together Australian academics, at all levels, from a range of disciplines (geography, cultural studies, sociology & philosophy) and developed a sustained interdisciplinary discussion about how it is possible to extend the company and modality of what constitutes a research subject beyond the human; how we can make sense of the affectivity of things; and how it is possible to recognise the ways in which material and non-human things strike back or deflect human intention. These issues are of crucial concern to all researchers working on socio-ecological research. The workshop deployed a mixed method of formal papers, short presentations about participants’ current research, simulated research problems and discussion of set readings. It generated a very lively interdisciplinary community of inquiry and made a useful contribution to developing these ideas in Australia and establishing good research networks. It also was very effective for PGs and ECRs who were able to speak extensively about their work and who were equal participants at all times.

Stay tuned for the special issue of Continuum on more-than-human methods in 2010.