Method and Politics in the Dee Estuary

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I am leading a research group at the moment called SLOM:Lab (Social life of Methods Lab). This is a blog post I wrote for the website last  November.

Writing this post two days after Donald Trump’s election as US President, and in the wake of the UK’s vote to leave the EU, questions about the relationship between methods and politics seem more important than ever. In this post I outline a new project I am working on that will entail research in a social space in which ‘Brexit’ is a live topic – the coastal estuarial landscape of the Dee Estuary / Aber Dyfrdwy that crosses the boundary between The Wirral which voted ‘remain’ and North Wales that voted ‘leave’. However I chose this as a research site long before Brexit, identifying it initially for the way in which it constituted a rather different set of political relations not between leavers and remainers but between economy and environment. My hope for the project going forward is that by focusing not on Brexit per se, but, as originally intended on the place of data practices in navigating relations between economy and environment, we might be in a position to provide some different languages for talking about contemporary politics and some alternative methods for engaging relations that no longer neatly divide along class, race or left/right political lines.

Over the summer I have been doing some pilot research towards a research collaboration with Damian O’Doherty (Manchester Business School) and Marco Ferrari (Folder Visual Research Agency). We are interested in exploring how a combination of ethnographic research, data analysis and information design might be deployed to provide insights into what constitutes liveable landscapes under conditions of environmental and economic strain.

We have found it highly productive to situate this question in relation to a specific field site – the Dee Estuary / Aber Dyfrdwy, that straddles North West England and North East Wales.

This tidal estuary, like many similar estuarial locations in the UK and beyond, is a place where questions about future liveability cast trajectories of economic development out into wild territories of rising sea levels, animal subjectivities and ethno-geological histories. Projections of economic futures to inform infrastructure development here sweep out across a wilderness of mudflats and marshland. As they do so they become caught in the wilds of industrial nature with all the agentive complexity that the landscape contains. Here in the Dee Estuary / Aber Dyfrdwy spectres of financial accumulation and energy extraction rub up against the materiality of particulate sedimentation: sandbanks, mudflats and dunes that have emerged out of a process of non-human accretion in a slower temporal register to the hyperactive circulations and accumulations of financial capital. Natures intertwine with economic models to produce foraging economies, tourisms of beauty and dreams of conservation but also a landscape of extraction, contamination and transportation. The estuary brings together and entangles economy and environment in ways that trouble the central dualisms that are normally deployed in the description of what might constitute a liveable life. Our project is thus not only an inquiry into the question of who gets to define liveability (economists or conservationists, policymakers or local residents), but also a study of how liveable and unliveable lives emerge out of situated relations of material and informational entanglement.

In the spirit of SLOM:Lab and an acknowledgement that methods make worlds, one of the things we are trying to do in this project is not only to describe but also to participate in the practice of producing this liveability.  Central to this project is an attempt to find languages or concepts that can help us move beyond a dialectical view of environment and economy – where we remain locked in a back and forth between texture and numbers, nature and culture, abstraction and thick description. We start from the position that it is it insufficient to see environment as the basis of economy, or the economy as determinant of environment and we are committed to exploring modes of description and analysis that elicit alternative relational trajectories that require different modes of representation and different practices of participation.

Our research is in part a project of working out how to participate in the question of liveability by producing our own interventions that cross cut the kinds of divides that are constantly produced in the question sustainable livelihoods. We intend to do this by conducting an ethnographic project which takes as its starting point not community, nor place in any straightforward sense, but rather the implications and potential of practices/methods of data-modelling around which the estuary is being composed. Part of this project is understanding the data practices that are already at play and making these more visible. Another part of the project is bringing alternative data practices to bear on this estuarial space.

On the one hand then we intend to study data practices that inhere in things like the “bird-food model”. Taking this model as what I have recently taken to calling ‘an ethnographic probe’ and tracing the relations that become made and compromised by such models our aim is to ask questions about how different worlds get made, brought together and held apart. What understanding of livelihood comes to the fore when we begin to describe the involvement of ex-fishermen and their wives in both data collection and the maintenance of buoy-based monitors?


What story can we tell of sustainable living when we consider how the number of oystercatchers attracted to the estuary is held in tension with migrations of labourers from South Wales who come to the estuary to fish for local cockles, displacing the labour of fishermen from the local area? How do data tables, digital sensors, and website that grid and connect information interplay with the movement of vessels, salmon and sediment in the estuary? How might this be described, visualised and made newly present in the estuary itself?

Conceiving of data relations not as the simple imposition of one logic on another but rather as an instance of worlds in composition we have also been led to ask what role counter or alternative data practices might play in composing the estuary anew both for us and for those who live there. How as ethnographers might we produce our own ‘ethnographic probes’. Working with Marco Ferrari of Folder, a design/art /data architecture research agency, one of the aims of the project is to develop a mode of data-ethnography where the participatory mode of ethnography is brought together in the design of equipment that can elicit alternative relations, descriptions and modes of engagement between anthropological researchers and the worlds we research. In this tidal estuary might we find ways of measuring and mapping tidal flows and economic movements, for example, in ways that illuminate the interplay between tides and different kinds of lives? Who would we need to talk to and work with to do this? What effects might it have?

We are at the stage of reading and assembling examples of those who have begun this work before us. I see this very much as a continuation of the work of SLOM:Lab, a project that is explicit about taking methods not just as descriptions but as ways of world making. I hope that by being bold and experimental in devising different methods, this project will take the question of the social life of methods forward into explicitly political conversation about what world we live in and how we might participate effectively in its reconstitution.

Further information about the research project can be found here


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