Engage. Communicate. Interrogate Power.

I’ve just recently returned from a fantastic trip abroad that combined two conferences, writing on the road, and some vacationing. I’ve returned to Australia travel weary but excited about moving forward with my work at AUSCCER.

Bred sterile Qflies for biosecurity programs

At both conferences, I spoke about human-nonhuman relations within horticultural production networks in Australia – focusing on the ways in which Queensland fruit flies and European honeybees participate in, shape and are shaped by commercial production on-going in parts of the Murray-Darling Basin.

at the first conference …

The Royal Geographical Society-Institute of British Geographers conference took place at the beginning of July in Edinburgh this year. The shift in date and venue (usually London) due to the Olympic fever gripping the UK and the logistics that come with it. It was my first RGS-IBG and though I heard speculation that some people skipped this year because of its timing/location, I was happy with a chance to return to Edinburgh (which I had only briefly visited before) and the conference was stimulating.

I began the RGS-IBG with a full day of human-nonhuman analyses. The morning was filled with a double session focusing on revisiting the project outlined by Philo and Wilbert (2001) to closely examine human-animal encounters and spatialities. Topics ranged from otter hunting practices and evolutions of meat edibility to zoos as ‘home’ and badgers roles in biosecurity debates. I was particularly struck by Bettina van Hoven’s presentation of a particular dog’s intimate but professionalised encounters with older people in institutions — her photos and commentary illustrated beautifully the opportunities and challenges of working and emotional exchanges. Another highlight was Bill Adam’s engaging presentation relaying the roles of discourse within conservation work with elephants in Kenya.

In the afternoon, I was lucky to be included in a double session aiming to push more-than-human geographies beyond considerations of companionable, cozy relations to include relations of conflict and killing. In addition to diversifying the kindsof human-nonhuman relations, presenters expanded the included subjects – talking of worms, insects, fungus, rivers – and considered locations. Notably, several cases from Australia and New Zealand were included. Emma Power’s examination of pest-in-the-home representations – particularly her cockroach accounts – urged us to consider how we think about and act in relation to ‘pests,’ and provoked reflections on personal ethics as well as some amusing – if uncomfortable – anecdotes. Steve Pile and Gail Davies rounded up the sessions as discussants, Steve encouraging us to attend the emotional in our accounts, and Gail surprising herself with comments that way forward may be to pay more attention to epistemologies, valuations, and power – without sacrificing what has been gained through the more-than-human approach.

It was a day of presenters attempting to put nonhumans in the centre of our stories, paying close attention to their lives as individuals and collectives – without ‘speaking for them’. I think we might have pushed further in our discussions of including nonhumans other than the ‘usual animals’ in our analyses and what this would do to how we think nonhuman-human relations, but there were some fantastic case studies and intriguing questions raised about the ways, places, and politics of our relations with nonhumans.  At the day’s end, my brain was overfull with ideas and questions – if somewhat fuzzy from jetlag. A trip to the pub with newly met colleagues felt well-earned.

For the rest of the conference I circulated to sessions on biosecurity, food security, embodiment, and a few sessions directly dealing with the theme of the conference – security.  After a full three days, I took some time to wander the city and think about the themes that had been raised in sessions I attended. (Edinburgh was wonderful to walk, and part of my journey was up a path to the castle that had some great views.)

Taking the path to Edinburgh castle

What I came up with is what I think of as a reassertion of the importance of three things that geographers (and geography more generally) were being rallied to do:

  • engage with communities (human and nonhuman), working with them to make a difference in our worlds;
  • find diverse and effective ways of communicating our work – including social media but also open access journals, policy documents, etc.; and,
  • ensure relations of power find their place in our analyses.

onto conference two …

Perhaps this kind of academic-activist project was on my mind as I arrived in Lisbon, Portugal for the World Congress of Rural Sociology. Or perhaps it’s circulating in the atmosphere. Tim Lang, the first presenter in the fist plenary session of the conference argued that we need to question food security as a concept, but more importantly as a policy. The related food and environmental crises, he argued, are about power, progress, and development. Terry Marsden, Patricia Allen, Elizabeth Ransom, and Philip McMichael (whose words were presented by Mara Miele in his absence) all raised questions in differing ways about how power is involved and articulated, what relations are being sustained, and how/which problems are being defined. The final plenary of the day involved discussions on on-going efforts to change food networks and to facilitate community access to decision-making. Paul Nicholson’s, speaking as part of La Via Campesina, made a moving and impassioned call to researchers and academics, asking us to engage with activist movements as partners in social change. Emphasis on partners. This time it was rural sociologists being reminded to engage, communicate, and interrogate power.

Debates about food security and sovereignty dominated this conference – or at least its opening and the sessions I attended in the following days. Opening comments from the UN’s Special Rapporteur on the Right to Food, Olivier de Shutter and later comments from the Food and Agriculture Organisation’s General Director, José Graziano da Silva, set the stage for several days of agri-food related sessions.

I particularly enjoyed the session organized by Mara Miele in which the relations of nature, food, and space were brought together in cases of moose hunting practices in Norway, EU chicken welfare standards, British supermarket leek labeling, and Lisbon’s primary school meal programs. And the series of sessions organized by the Research Committee on Sociology of Agriculture and Food (RC40 for short) brought together a varied set of subjects through a questioning of the convergences (and divergences) of alternative food networks. Several presenters expressed desire for some level of convergence, whether as a form of united movement or a looser set of shared principles, though others questioned the possibilities of any convergence – in some cases endorsing this diversity and in others lamenting it. Patricia Allen and Clare Hinrichs, each coming from North American perspectives, separately presented typologies of existing AFNs and the challenges posed to the hegemonic food system. Allen was most interested in how to generate more structural changes, while Hinrichs asked how to recognize relatively unorganized, individual action. Both, however, were interested in how to move forward with opposing the hegemonic agri-food system, asking how to enroll ‘ordinary people’ in more just agri-food systems (Allen) and how to move people to more direct, collective resistance (Hinrichs). I have been thinking about these concerns in relation to my work on seed saving in Canada, and these two presentations have spurred my thinking further.

Jane Dixon brought me back to the Australian context, and her presentation of the divergences among beekeepers and conservationists parallel some of the concerns being raised by the commercial apiarists I have been interviewing. After her presentation, Hugh Campbell asked ‘why doesn’t beekeeping make it into rural sociology analyses?’. It’s a good question, and one that should be asked not only of rural sociology, but of social studies more generally. At least that’s how I’ve been thinking about it — why are bees neglected in social studies and what’s gained by giving them more serious attention?

Checking a beehive on almonds

Of course, my trip was not all about food security. I made sure to participate in local food cultures – after all, you can’t leave Portugal without consuming plenty of pasties de nata! In Belém, which I visited on the Study Tour day of the conference, we found some very, very tasty ones at Antiga Confeitaria de Belém. Sadly they were gone so quickly, I didn’t have time to think of taking a picture. Oops.

Overall, the challenges I’m taking from these conferences are summed up in the title: Engage. Communicte. Interrogate Power. We’ve been talking about these things in various ways in AUSCCER lately – as you can see from various blog posts. They’re not new challenges, but on-going ones. It’s good to be reminded of their importance, and to hear and be inspired by how others are attempting to go about doing engaged, passionate, critical social studies and sharing it with others.

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