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Will the ‘subject’ of research into environmental risk problems please speak up? Narrative methods and the interpretation of risk


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Presentation given at Fate, Luck and Fortune Workshop 3: Popular Narratives of Environmental Risk, University of Liverpopol in London, London, 8 September 2017.

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Will the ‘subject’ of research into environmental risk problems please speak up? Narrative methods and the interpretation of risk

  1. 1. Will the ‘subject’ of research into environmental risk problems please speak up? Narrative methods and the interpretation of risk Narratives of Environmental Risk Workshop (Popular narratives) 8th September 2017 Professor Karen Henwood School of Social Sciences, Cardiff University & Cardiff University Understanding Risk Group
  2. 2. Stratosphere (15-50km) Large scale environmental risk issues…
  3. 3. Risk and Everyday Life
  4. 4. Talk Approach & Overview 1. Debating & developing risk social science (and its relation to humanities): reflexivity about knowledge practices 2. Interpretive risk research: narrative & methods 3. Two empirical projects involving community & qualitative longitudinal (QLL) case studies 4. Insights generated through bespoke methodological & analytical strategies 5. Conclusions: studying risk subjects (& object- relations) in a material world
  5. 5. Epistemic reflexivity in risk research [1] • Subjective qualities of perceived risks (Slovic and Fischoff – early psychometric paradigm) • Working with epistemic tensions – real harm & socially constructed meaning (Pidgeon et al, 1992; see also Boholm’s (2015) relational risk theory’s “object of risk” versus “risk object”) • Risk as locally situated & contextual ie it involves social dynamics • Lay and expert knowledges and perspectives • Multiple discourses and framings • Known as interpretive/socio-cultural risk research (for overview, see e.g. Pidgeon, Simmons and Henwood, 2006)
  6. 6. Epistemic reflexivity in risk research [2] Openness to uncertainty & foregrounding temporal change and reflexivity - Empirically investigating changing perceptions & tracking discursive change (QLL research, see e.g. Capstick et al, 2015 [Environmental Values], on climate change discourses) – but also life change - Attending to methodological questions of biography and narrative is one way of developing/complicating/layering how to approach (diverse forms that can taken by) subjectivity in risk research (Henwood et al, 2010, [reprinted 2011 in Historical Social Research; cf Hollway and Jefferson, 1997) - Arguments associated with the turn to language/text/discourse highly influential in providing alternative methodological suggestions; choices of methods other than those established for studying subjectively perceived qualities of risk as discrete data/themes/qualia) - Narrative form and representation offers more holistic, textured (nuanced, culturally specific) ways of investigating questions about risk, knowledge and subjectivity, with potential for opening up interpretive questions and analytic insights
  7. 7. Narrative methodology within qualitative social science (Andrews, Squire and Tamboukou, 2008) Located in “turn to text/language/discourse”, it offers a choice of methodology (research strategy) and method to allow for investigation of: • temporal & causal ordering as features of human sense-making; potentials of differentiating between lived life & told story • interweaving of personal and cultural meaning frames; to gain insights into biographical patterns and social structures - different and sometimes contradictory layers of meaning & bringing them into dialogue with one another; offer means of understanding more about individual and social change
  8. 8. Working with narrative methods…: puts subjects in question - Not fixed repositories of self-knowledge but (speaking) subjects capable of negotiating textually nuanced positions ….. - articulating how knowledge is grounded in lived experiences; expressive of locally situated knowledges, manifests cultural world views - adopting identificatory positions (ie fluid & mobile identities) can have creative potentials, offering ways of reading texts - cultural tool-kits: drawing upon extended forms of sensing and sense-making within wider meaning systems (e.g. narrative genres) - multimodality of meaning making (writing, talking & listening; use of other sensory channels/media: visual, tactile…)
  9. 9. Debating science – various turns • Multiple waves of epistemological and ontological positioning Multiple (see e.g. qualitative social science – Handbooks, QRJ) • Interpretive (e.g. 1970s – symbolic interactionism – focus on perceptions, meanings, points of view, actions) • Language/Text/Discourse (post-structuralism) - critiques of essentialism, crisis of representation, questioning the authorial voice/issues in writing culture (see e.g. Clifford and Marcus in anthropology) - relativity and suspending belief in the real; weak and strong programme in the sociology of science – see e.g. Woolgar, 1988) • Material (the qualities/liveness of things/object-related ontology) • Affective (feelings and the non-representational) • List not exhaustive (subjectivity, embodiment, relationality, practices, multimodal sensing & sense-making)
  10. 10. The Material Turn/Object related ontology • Irreduceability & relationality : versus self sufficient ecologies of practice or expertise • The material turn – away from discourse analysis • See e.g. the development of “object interviewing” • Our own (Energy Biographies) work has considered object relations theorising & psychosocial inquiry
  11. 11. “Object interviewing” & the broader argument for developing social science methodology and methods for understanding materials and material culture • “there has been little methodological engagement with how qualitative methods might help us to understand materials and their properties…. • “[The development of such approaches] will help to promote understanding of the multidimensionality of the world as simultaneously visual, sensual, material and intangible ….[highlighting the potentials] of using sets of methods (to) make certain ideas and possibilities ‘present’ [and opening up] conventional qualitative methods to an interrogation of how they may ‘absent’ material properties” (p2) • [This means working from two understandings] i) “we need to take seriously the properties of things and ii) build knowledge production practices for studying the “entanglements of people, materials, things and environments” (p3) (excerpts from S. Woodward, 2016, Qualitative Research, DOI: 10.1177/1468794115589647)
  12. 12. Woodward cont’d …. Methods for understanding what people do with, and say about, things.. • Use ethnographic methods for exploring how things are framed in everyday life • Observe what people do with things by using visual methods such as photography • Use video capture to explore material practices as interactive and embodied • Use photo-elicitation techniques in qualitative interviews to explore facets of the material • Adopt object elicitation methods as a route into people’s narratives and memories • Explore how people provide a narrative context for objects in order to interrogate the relationships between what people say and what people do with things
  13. 13. …So, although words may not be enough, they still matter …. “Whilst words may not be enough in themselves to allow us to understand material practices they are still part of how people articulate their relationships to things. Given how many social science methods centre upon people’s verbal accounts, it is important to think critically about what these accounts allow us to understand about material practices…..[for example] the ways in which words can evoke the materiality of things.” (Woodward, 2016, p4)
  14. 14. Environmental Humanities research - a bone - or rather bonus - of contention Although the environmentalist concern of risk theory and (literary) ecocriticism are not the same, there is shared value in exploring the implications of risk theory and its narrative articulation - example of toxic discourse – concern with “textual and visual representations of exposure to hazardous chemicals” - reading for the role of realism and hyperbole in local perceptions & representation - asking how questioning of global and systems can(not) be effectively captured in risk narratives - - over-reliance on representation as reality…the problem of vacuous symptoms (&) …importance of multiple points of engagement with technological risk scenarios (Heise, 2002, in American Literature)
  15. 15. Empirical Case Studies • Nuclear Risk Perceptions & Local Siting Controversy – x 2 Communities (ESRC SCARR network 2003-2008) • Energy Biographies – a study of social change and risk in the everyday - x 4 community case sites plus case biographies (EPSRC/ESRC Energy Communities Joint Venture, 2011-2016)
  16. 16. Living with nuclear risk: Studying intangible meanings • Living with nuclear risk study (2003-8) (Henwood et al (2010, 11); Henwood, Sarre, Pidgeon et al (2008) • Narrative study of environmental risk (Satterfield, 2001) - risk framing - biographical & temporal extensions - reflexivity about lives/place (see also Tulloch & Lupton, 2003) - personal event narratives (see also Squire, 2008) - everyday affects - what is on the margins of awareness becomes researchable
  17. 17. SCARR data – an example • “Now when we where there, when I was there as a young man, we used to smash it about and it would be dust and throw it at somebody underneath, and they’d be covered in this dust like flour. Nowadays if there is a chance of a matchstick head of asbestos about, its contained, sealed, taken away. You know you can’t work there, you can’t go close to it. In those days, so who knows what’s in people’s lungs, now waiting to become malignant. ..I know of two people and I know of one who is dying at the moment you know he has a year or two to live. From Berkeley Power station and Oldbury, which is a bit sad and it’s a bit …concerns you a little bit, cos, it could be you next and it comes about quickly and not a very pleasant death. So I have had (that) checked out, yeah. And now they’ve recognised it they didn’t know how bad it was, nobody did, all other industries were exactly the same, the aircraft industry, ICA, all industries, you know, the construction industry particularly bad” (Toby Bundock).
  18. 18. Analyses & Interpretive Questions (Parkhill et al, 2010; see also Masco, 2006) • Ebb & flow of forms of risk awareness • Interruption by risk events • Momentary re-framings of power station as a risk issue Further exploration of risk meanings by attending to intangibles (humour, irony) (Parkhill et al, 2011) • Masking & revealing affective states • Suppressing vulnerabilities • Enabling communities to negotiate threat
  19. 19. Interpretive insights & gaining analytic perspective for policy • Not simply acceptance grounded in economic self- interest or community overdependence on the industry • Framing as ordinary dominant, but risk tolerability a fragile state • National policy relevance – future energy mix • International (post Fukushima) & carbon reduction targets
  20. 20. Why Interpretive Risk Research (IRR) is up to the (policy) task • Ways of getting up close to lived experiences of risk • Risk framing & object of study • Risky technologies, risky knowledges… • Questioning risk expertise-reflexivity dichotomy
  21. 21. Energy Biographies Project (ESRC/EPSRC) 4 year empirical study of the dynamics of everyday energy use for demand reduction • Innovative study design involving intensive methodological and conceptual work to harness cross disciplinary insights and develop understanding • Key emphasis on creating data through new ways of enabling talk about everyday practices would open up spaces for reflection offering possible opportunities for change • Harnessing new/interesting kinds of data offered analytic potential • “Bespoke” approach to data analysis using data and theory to promote exploration and generate insights • ie Not an instrumental approach to identifying the specific behaviours and/or practices that, if changed, will reduce energy consumption
  22. 22. The Energy Biographies Project – Study Design ▫ Four ‘community’ sites: ▫ Cardiff (Ely, Peterston), Lammas, Royal Free Hospital (RFH, London) ▫ QLL biographical, narrative interviews: ▫ 3 longitudinal interviews (original group of 74 in first round narrowed down to 36 for rounds 2 & 3) ▫ 6 months between interviews ▫ Multimodal activities between interviews
  23. 23. Interview 1 Themes: community and context, daily routine, life transitions Activity 1 Participant-generated photos Interview 2 Themes: changes since interview 1, discussion of pictures generated in activity 1, follow up on emergent themes from interview 1 Activity 2 Text-prompted photos Interview 3 Themes: changes since interview 2, discussion of pictures generated in activity 2 discussion of video clips provided by researcher Structure of empirical phases More information on each stage available at /our-project/project-design/
  24. 24. Participant photography 1. Participant-prompted photos ▫ Two week period for each of four themes ▫ Used as basis of discussion in interview 2 2. SMS-prompted photos ▫ Used as basis of discussion in interview 3 alongside film clips
  25. 25. Practices and meaning “The capability to ‘go on’ through the flow of largely routinized social life depends on forms of practical knowledge, guided by structural features – rules and resources – of the social systems which shape daily conduct”1 “This constructed world of predictable relationships is the context of our actions. But it is subject to constant revision, and always more or less vulnerable to loss, self-doubts, experiences which make no sense to us. Then we no longer know what to do.”2 1. Shove, E., M. Pantzar and M. Watson 2012. The Dynamics of Social Practice. London, SAGE Publications 2. Marris, P. 1996. The politics of uncertainty: attachment in private and public life. London; New York, Routledge
  26. 26. ‘Heating the outdoors’: practices and identity “Cos we love being outside, we just love that you can you know go, we were sitting out there one evening I can’t remember when it would have been, with friends, and it was like midnight and you could have a drink outside still and it’s so lovely here cos it’s so quiet and everything so but you wouldn’t have been able to do it without that so or you would have been freezing. So that’s our kind of, we know it’s really bad but we’re still going to use it ” Lucy, Peterston
  27. 27. The lived future: initial interviews “[…] I do kind of look at the world and see the trends and think, shit (Laughter), what kind of my life are my kids going to have? I kind of worry a bit about my kids’ future and quite what will be available to them, and their expectations because, you know, they don’t know all this stuff about houses with coal fires and coal range cooking and all of that. They have a very different set of aspirations and expectations and could be very, very bitter and betrayed about it if all of that goes.” (Jeremy, Peterston)
  28. 28. “I think it was looking at a kind of increased convenience and it had just come out of the war hadn’t it? […] And it was I mean the 50’s was that the hoover, the vote, the automobile you know all those things like washing machines, dryers that all kind of came at that time so it was sort of life was going to be easier because of it.” (Vanessa, Lammas) “And I think we lost common sense on things like energy and material usage, in perhaps the Sixties and Seventies, where the standard of living went up.” (Jonathan, Peterston) Film clips: critiques of futures past
  29. 29. Reflections on data analysis (Groves et al, 2016): Psychosocial theory as a perspective on everyday energy use and practice change Analytically distinct elements (e.g. biographies of attachments) and other psychosocial investments (e.g. shared affective patterning) derive from, but do not tend to be brought into view by, the study of entanglements of practice as embedded within social relations Understood psychosocially analytical “elements” are viewed as : - emergent & dynamic properties of lived experience - subjectively meaningful and affecting - temporally and spatially situated, but also potentially cumulative in their effects • Study of sense making activities concerns biographical patterning of experiences and connections/attachments in and through time) & how cultural forms shape (socially & temporally situated) subjectivity • Need to promote understanding of (dis) embedding of psychosocial elements/subjects within particular cultural formations (knowledge regimes/discourses)
  30. 30. Theoretical engagement with practice theory & substantive findings from the Energy Biographies Study • Patterns of practices in and of themselves cannot be viewed as responsible for the continuance of unsustainability • Need to go deeper and broader in thinking about people as carriers of practice • While internal rewards in practice theory are competences afforded by doing something well, or by performing a practice in accordance with social norms & cultural distinctions, a psychosocial perspective offers more complex views of the various other elements that lock in, or fail to lock in, subjects as carriers of particular practices • Our approach has focussed on difficulties of changing everyday practice (inc work with Carbon Conversations) • Can we justifiably claim to have succeeded in opening up potentials for change in everyday practice? How far has our psychosocial focus opened up possibilities of sustainable change?
  31. 31. Conclusions: studying risk subjects (& object- relations) in a material world • Assemblages of objects in relationships (material turn) but with psychosocial subjects brought centre stage (narrative analysis) • Questions of authorial readings; when does theoretical engagement inform and disrupt problem focus? • Methodological work required to situate the problem, maintain problem focussed, and keep analysis on track • Gap opened up between the representation and reality of risk is central to interpretative work, but this is not the same as same as the irreducebility and relationality of the object related world? • Reflexive work involves seeing, listening and speaking subjects caught up in (what can be emotionally demanding) sense making about things that can be invisible and intangible, either because they are out of the frame, too discomforting to bring to mind, unnoticed because they are routine, or otherwise hidden in plain site.
  32. 32. Selected References Interpretive Risk Research • Henwood, K.L. and Pidgeon, N.F. (2016). Interpretive environmental risk research: Affect, discourses and change. In J. Crighten, Firkins, A.R. and Candlin, C.N. (Eds) Communicating Risk Basingstoke: Palgrave MacMillan ISBN 9781137478771 Narrative and Risk • Henwood, Karen; Pidgeon, Nick; Parkhill, Karen & Simmons, Peter (2010). Researching Risk: Narrative, Biography, Subjectivity [43 paragraphs]. Forum Qualitative Sozialforschung / Forum:Qualitative Social Research, 11(1), Art. 20. Reprinted in Historical Social Research, 2011, 36 (4). Living with Nuclear Risk • Parkhill, K.A., Pidgeon, N.F., Henwood, K.L., Simmons, P. and Venables, D. (2010). “From the familiar to the extraordinary: local residents’ perceptions of risk when living with nuclear power in the UK.” Transactions of the Institute of British Geographers, NS 35, 39-58. • Parkhill, K., Henwood, K., Pidgeon, N. and Simmons, P. (2011) “Laughing it off: Humour, affect and emotion work in communities living with nuclear risk”, British Journal of Sociology, 62 (2) 324-346. Energy Use and Everyday Life • Groves, C., Henwood, K., Shirani, F., Butler, C., Parkhill, K. and Pidgeon, N. (2016) “Invested in unsustainability? On the psychosocial patterning of engagement in practices” Environmental Values 25 (3) 309-328 DOI: 10.3197/096327116X14598445991466. (see also
  33. 33. Professor Nick Pidgeon Dr Chris Groves Dr Fiona Shirani Dr Erin Roberts Latterly – now Flexis social science