Walkshops for Interdisciplinary Research

Sep 29, 2023 | Opportunities in Pollution, Projects, Transformations (Issue 10)

Walkshops for Interdisciplinary Research

Dr Margarita Staykova (Physics) and Dr Kim Jamie (Sociology)

Our Opportunities in Pollution project focused on the multi-species story of pollution in Northeast England – how human and non-human stakeholders live with, and adapt to, pollution in the region. This required a high level of interdisciplinary thinking, bringing together social, physical and biological scientists to capture the effects of pollution on the land, water, humans, animals, plants, microorganisms and others living in the area. But coalescing disciplines that don’t usually work together, around a topic which is highly charged, is challenging and requires creative thinking to ensure success and sustainability of such networks.

Blast Beach – rock layers​

To address this challenge, we decided to use a series of events that would take project participants outside of their disciplinary comfort zone and, in fact, outside of the university altogether. In particular, we used ‘walkshops’ which have elsewhere been described as mobile conversations which ‘actively engage with and use landscapes as stimuli for discussion’ (Springgay and Truman 2017). We ran two walkshops during the project term – one to Blast Beach outside Seaham and one to Middlehope Burn in the North Pennines. Pollution has left clear markers on the landscape in these two places. On Blast Beach, the different coloured layers of rock chart the area’s mining story and the deep red lagoons are a legacy of the 2.5m tonnes of mining waste Dawdon pit (1907-1991) dumped on the beach every year. At Middlehope Burn, the high levels of electric conductivity are a proxy for the pollution levels in the water running from the former mining site.

Blast Beach – Red Lagoon

Though these sites bear signs of pollution, they are not scarred by it – they are, in fact, beautiful, intriguing, and even “romantic” (a quote from a walkshop participant). Capturing and appreciating this beauty and telling the complex story of these sites simply isn’t possible in a traditional workshop or symposium – it requires people to be present in the space, and to see, feel and experience the site.

Water sampling – Middlehope Burn

But it’s not enough for a group of academics to just show up at a place, however interesting the site might be. Our walkshops worked well because they were each lead by one or two colleagues with expertise in that site. For example, our trip to Middlehope Burn was led by a hydrologist and a sociologist who were able to share the stories of mine water pollution, the rise and fall of the lead mining industry in the Northeast, and the interactions between them. Yet, walkshops aren’t guided tours and need to give space for the interjection of other expertise and ways of ‘reading’ the landscape. On Blast Beach, for example, chemists and geologists coalesced their knowledge to enlighten us about the different coloured layers of rock which we were seeing. We were also joined by local artists for this walkshop who were able to share personal and creative stories about mining artefacts that are regularly found on the beach platform. By giving space for these different disciplinary lenses onto what we were seeing, we were able to build a holistic, multidisciplinary and multi-species view of pollution and its legacies at these two sites.

Our walkshops were both half-day events and we incorporated other activities – a lunch and a visit to a museum – as an opportunity to debrief. As well as being co-lead by experts, it was also important that the walkshops had preparatory materials so participants knew what to expect on the day. Good organisation – transport, food, meeting points etc. – is also vital!

We’re now planning what happens next with our walkshops. While walking methods are fairly well-established for data collection and for teaching, we’re thinking more about how walkshops might be used as a tool for interdisciplinary research.

(Springgay S,Truman SE. A Transmaterial Approach to Walking Methodologies: Embodiment, Affect and a Sonic Art Performance, Body & Society, 2017, 23(4),27-58)

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