Introducing: Grammars of Marriage and Desire (GoMAD)

In what ways can the grammars of marriage and desire constitute languages of hope and solidarity for imagining and constructing a better world? Or simply put: what makes a good marriage? 

An introductory Q&A with the Grammars of Marriage and Desire (GoMAD) research network (2021 – 2022).


Q. How did GoMAD come about?

The GoMAD research network was born from the complex interplay of personal aspirations and cultural negotiations, historical contestations, and political propaganda that have come to define the languages and grammars of marriage and desire today. The inadequacy of these grammars in ensuring well-being—ours, and that of our worlds—can hardly be overlooked. It finds expression in the climate crisis, increasing mental health issues, and an overarching crisis of care. We are faced with a dilemma. On the one hand, the institution of marriage has historically provided the grammars of kinship and community. On the other hand, the COVID-19 pandemic continues to expose its potential for violence, more than ever before. It has further exacerbated existing inequalities and disrupted the societal structures that have so far grounded the institution. Social distancing and stay-at-home instructions in place during the pandemic, for instance, have led to a global spike in domestic violence. Child marriages too, have seen an unprecedented rise amid the global lockdowns, with 10 million additional girls reportedly at risk. Thus, taking one of the oldest institutions of the world back to the drawing board has become more important than ever.

As early career researchers, we aspire to build a space to reflect on and question the socially accepted practices of heteronormativity, caste endogamy, and gendered labour roles among other factors in making and sustaining a marriage, and community at large. Methodologically, we feel the need to blur the lines between the academy and the world by including lived traditions, folk practices, and marriage makers in our conversations. Through the network, we wish to link history with the contemporary, everyday negotiations with macro narratives, the household to the market, and the subjective to the social in reimagining an emancipatory grammar of collectivisation and kin-making in the twenty first century.


Q. By definition, a CRASSH Research Network has an interdisciplinary question at its core. What is yours?

In what ways can the grammars of marriage and desire constitute languages of hope and solidarity for imagining and constructing a better world? Or simply put: what makes a good marriage? It is a tough question. We felt there is not enough conversation and dialogue happening between different disciplines or schools of thought in this area. And that's what we want to undo. For instance, we will be studying Ambedkar's feminism to understand endogamy (marriage within a group) and think beyond the oft-cited, upper caste portrayals of it. At the same time, we will be listening to a Hindu matchmaker who talks about the need to protect caste purity through marriage. The beauty and significance of our network rests in the fact that we are bringing together different discourses and standpoints to study one of the world's oldest institutions. We are particularly looking forward to connecting academics with people who identify as practitioners, and trying to broaden participation beyond elite educational institutions in the UK or South Asia. Across the Global South desire and marriage remain hotly debated. So many people are invested in our core question, and we think that is what will make our network really flourish.


Q. Could you tell us a bit more about this year’s convenors, speakers and attendees and the perspectives they bring to the discussion? 

The three conveners of our network, Shuvatri Dasgupta, Edward Moon-Little, and Reetika Revathy Subramanian, are from different disciplinary backgrounds, in the humanities and social sciences. Edward Moon-Little moved from Art History and History into Social Anthropology and then into big data and then back to Social Anthropology. Shuvatri’s academic training has been in history, but she has participated in courses on political theory and literature, in Sciences Po. Reetika’s academic training and professional experiences, as a journalist and researcher in India, stand at the intersections of gender, labour, and distress migration. Our doctoral research converges on the institution of marriage. Whilst Shuvatri’s work is more historically oriented and explores conjugality within the context of the British empire, Reetika and Ed’s research is based on ethnographic research conducted in contemporary South Asia.

For our network activities we welcome regional comparisons, although our conveners share a focus on South Asia, albeit from diverse disciplinary training. Apart from academics whose research addresses diverse aspects of marriage and desire, we intend to invite practitioners in the marriage market (matchmakers, astrologers, priests, and wedding planners) from the Global South to share their experience with us. We also hope to have on board archivists and artists who play a crucial role in enshrining the diversity of practices which continue to produce and rewrite the grammars of marriage and desire. We plan to host our activities in a hybrid format over the next academic year, to ensure greater accessibility and participation. Using CRASSH’s wonderful infrastructure we hope to develop an interdisciplinary public-facing platform for addressing questions on marriage and desire, which shape our quotidian lifeworlds.


Q. What can we expect from GoMAD (Grammars of Marriage and Desire) in 2021/22?

In an uncertain world, affective collaborations and companionships offer much comfort and nourishment. Yet, the existing structures of kinship or languages of desire often appear exclusionary and oppressive, if not downright violent. There has never been a greater need to form solidarities and networks. The pandemic has left humanity at its weakest, by furthering the atomisation of the individual in unprecedented ways. In this context, marriage can be a prison as well as joy. We expect to use this network as a drawing board to resketch some of the structures of marriage and desire, as a part of our collective attempt to imagine a good life, and a better world. How can a sociology of love remake our worlds for the better? We know that conceptions of the good life differ widely across contexts but how do we bring this into our academic practice? Working with practitioners, scholars, and performers located in different classes, cultures, and disciplines, we hope to further our understanding of the diversity of ways people pursue a good marriage and a good life.

The interdisciplinarity of CRASSH hence remains extremely crucial to the nature of our collective explorations on marriage and desire in this network--especially when it comes to addressing these larger overarching questions which simultaneously traverse several cultural, methodological, and disciplinary frontiers. How can the methodological tools of anthropology, political theory, and intellectual history facilitate these conceptual explorations? These are some of the questions we will address across our sessions. Our sessions during the following academic year will follow two broad formats: we will host seminars with pre-circulated readings, and we will organise roundtable conversations. As a culmination of our collective explorations in this network, we will tie the knot(s) in a two-day conference in June 2022, and ask: in what ways can the grammars of marriage and desire constitute languages of hope and solidarity, for imagining and constructing a better tomorrow?


Q. How can people learn more about your Network?

Please visit the research network’s web page on the CRASSH website and do join us for our network events! 

You can also follow us on our social media pages on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram.

Also feel free to write to us at:



The views, thoughts and opinions expressed on the CRASSH blog belong solely to the authors and do not necessarily represent the views of CRASSH or the University of Cambridge.

Posted: Thursday 23 September 2021

Contributor: CRASSH News

Introducing: Hidden Epidemics and Epidemiological Obfuscation – CRASSH

Introducing: Hidden Epidemics and Epidemiological Obfuscation

What are the mechanisms by which public health practices, and public health practitioners, can end up obscuring large burdens of disease?

An introductory Q&A with the Hidden Epidemics and Epidemiological Obfuscation research network (2021 – 2022).


Q. How did Hidden Epidemics and Epidemiological Obfuscation come about? 

Through our work as public health practitioners and researchers, we kept encountering situations where the systems ostensibly set up to make burdens of disease visible were actually acting to hide them. Sometimes it was overt, for example, in 2017 Dr Jephcott found herself working as a field epidemiologist in a cholera outbreak in Ethiopia with local epidemiologists who had been instructed by government officials not to acknowledge the presence of cholera within the country. More often though, the obfuscation we encountered was subtle and baked in the daily practices to the point that if you were not looking for it, it would have been easy to miss. For instance, the difficulty in obtaining data on COVID-19 recovery relative to the ease with which data on hospitalisations and deaths was collated probably led epidemiologists to model the trajectory of the epidemic according to the latter alone, erasing the burden of chronic manifestations now referred to as ‘long covid’ from much of the early discourse and public health decision making.

Epidemiological obfuscation is ones of those things that once you start to notice it suddenly it’s everywhere. In recent months, Twitter and the mainstream media have covered chronic fatigue patients’ fight with the British medical establishment to have their condition recognised, the large number of deaths due to TB in Canadian residential schools in the early 20th century that medical officers simply chose not to count, and the difficulties African epidemiologists have faced simply trying to publish the outbreaks they have investigated in medical journals to get them onto the official record and into the public domain.

Whilst the work of making diseases visible within public health is routinely discussed and interrogated, the work of rendering diseases invisible or illegitimate has received little attention, despite its obvious serious consequences for both health and social justice.

The Hidden Epidemics and Epidemiological Obfuscation research network, or ‘Hidden Epidemics’ for short, is our attempt to address this gap. By bringing together a diverse range of experts, we hope to collate case studies of epidemiological obfuscation and, hopefully, sort and characterise these processes. In doing this, we may also get to peak at the epidemiological landscapes that have gone unseen because of them.


Q. By definition, a CRASSH Research Network has an interdisciplinary question at its core. What is yours? 

At its core, the question our network is grappling with is "What are the mechanisms by which public health practices, and public health practitioners, can end up obscuring large burdens of disease?".

The inverse, the processes by which burdens of disease come to light, are the sum of a vast arrays of factors. These include, the distribution and incidence of disease, the current vanguard of technological and scientific innovation, the design of surveillance systems and research initiatives, the provision of healthcare services and concomitant patterns of treatment seeking, all of these factors are informed by larger shifting political, social, material and economic landscapes. This indicates that characterising the processes of obfuscation is going to require a cross-disciplinary approach.

At the very minimum, understanding epidemiological obfuscation will require the perspectives, insights, and analyses of historians, anthropologists, clinicians, epidemiologists, patient activists, biomedical researchers, political scientists, geographers, and philosophy of science scholars.  As our network progresses, we hope to integrate an even greater array of perspectives as we try to elucidate under what circumstances epidemiological obfuscation happens, what it looks like when it does, and what the underlying mechanisms are.


Q. Could you tell us a bit more about this year's convenors, speakers and attendees and the perspectives they bring to the discussion?  

Hidden Epidemics is convened by Drs Freya Jephcott and Charlotte Hammer and PhD candidate Liza Hadley. We all do a combination of interdisciplinary research and applied epidemiology, though the exact forms of epidemiology we respectively study and practice differ in detail.

Freya is primarily a medical anthropologist interested in how public health disease surveillance and response systems handle uncertainty, however, in addition to her research, she also does intermittent applied work as a field epidemiologist and advising on policy. 

Charlotte is an infectious diseases epidemiologist. Her research interest lies in understanding how novel diseases evolve from singular spillover events to large scale outbreaks. She is also interested in the drivers of outbreak risk in humanitarian emergencies. Charlotte works intermittently as a field epidemiologists for the World Health Organization and completed the European Field Epidemiology Training Program.

Liza is a mathematical modeller and epidemiologist. Her PhD spans the interface of infectious disease modelling and public health decision-making. She is interested in mapping the utility of and understanding current practices in mathematical modelling for outbreak response, with a view to advancing this emerging field. Liza is also separately interested in outbreak response and its obfuscation more broadly.

The network’s speakers will include an array of public health practitioners, patient activists, and science and social science researchers. Essentially, anyone who has an interesting example of epidemiological obfuscation or some light to shed on the processes underlying them will be invited to participate.

As the network is in its infancy, we can’t really say what the size or make up of the audience or will be, but we imagine it will look quite similar to the makeup of the speakers; that is a group of people interested in discussing epidemiological obfuscation and how epidemics come to be hidden.  


Q. What can we expect from Hidden Epidemics and Epidemiological Obfuscation in 2021/22?

From our talk series, you can expect fascinating case studies of epidemiological obfuscation followed by engaging discussions. In conjunction with the talks, we have some other events and products in the works for later in the year, so be sure to follow us on Twitter (@HiddenEpidemics) or email Liza Hadley so you can be added to our mailing list.


Q. How can people learn more about your Network? 

Please visit the research network’s web page on the CRASSH website and do join us for our network events! 

If you have a topic or case study you would like to see discussed, please contact Freya Jephcott



The views, thoughts and opinions expressed on the CRASSH blog belong solely to the authors and do not necessarily represent the views of CRASSH or the University of Cambridge.

Posted: Thursday 23 September 2021

Contributor: CRASSH News

Introducing: Global Conversations Towards Queer Social Justice – CRASSH

Introducing: Global Conversations Towards Queer Social Justice

The network aims to locate queer subjects and subjectivities at the very heart of 'social justice' to re-think justice, and its transnational aspects through creative methods and methodologies.

An introductory Q&A with the Global Conversations Towards Queer Social Justice research network (2021 – 2022).


Q. How did Global Conversations Towards Queer Social Justice come about? 

The research network Global Conversations Towards Queer Social Justice emerged from the interdisciplinary collaboration we have been building as co-convenors for the past three years. This includes our work within several previous projects, all of which used creative methods to explore intersections of queer lives with social justice. The foundations for our thinking were laid thanks to the seminar series Methods in Question: Epistemologies of Gender and Sexuality that Dr Hakan Sandal-Wilson has been convening at Cambridge since 2018. Reading queer kinship and reproductive justice, as well as scholarship and activism together was the topic of the Making Families project, co-convened by Dr Marcin Smietana with Prof. Charis Thompson and Prof Sarah Franklin at UC Berkeley and Cambridge between 2016 and 2018. The questions that animate our research network became clear after the CRASSH- and lgbtQ+@cam sponsored conference Queering Authoritarianisms: Conflict, Resistance and Coloniality that Dr Sandal-Wilson and Dr Smietana convened in March 2021. A formative part of that conference was the ‘Writing in Conflict, Writing in Community’ workshop, led by Dr Natasha Tanna. We owe the use of creative and interdisciplinary methodologies to the series of workshops Creaction: Critical Interventions for Social Justice that Dr Tanna and Dr Sandal-Wilson co-convened with Dr Abeyamí Ortega (University of Manchester) in summer 2021. Of crucial importance has also been our work within lgbtQ+@cam, which is the research network’s co-sponsor alongside CRASSH.


Q. By definition, a CRASSH Research Network has an interdisciplinary question at its core. What is yours? 

The interdisciplinary question at the heart of the research network Global Conversations Towards Queer Social Justice is how we can think expansively about social justice. As the network’s co-convenors, our different disciplinary backgrounds in Political Sociology (Dr Hakan Sandal-Wilson, University of Cambridge), Reproductive Sociology (Dr Marcin Smietana, University of Cambridge), and Literary/Cultural Studies (Dr Natasha Tanna, University of York) have enabled us to explore this question. We have been working collaboratively with artists and activists to foster spaces for interdisciplinary international conversations to draw on and challenge some of the norms and forms of each of our disciplines.


Q. Could you tell us a bit more about this year's convenors, speakers and attendees and the perspectives they bring to the discussion? 

Global Conversations Towards Queer Social Justice are going to take place with the participation of academics, activists and artists. We will be exploring six themes directly related to social justice through queer lenses: Queering Race/Anti-Racism; Health Inequalities and Reproductive Justice; Queer Ecological Justice; Queer Dis/abilities; Housing, Homelessness, and Class; Queering Religious Conflict. One thread running through these conversations is the migratory experience and migrapolitics. Through considering flows of people, ideas, and capital, we seek not to essentialise particular places, and to be attentive to sites sometimes excluded from the notion of the “global”. Each theme will feature two events: (1) a reading group, moderated by the authors of the texts, including one early career scholar and one more established scholar and (2) an exploration of creative methods for understanding and addressing social justice issues, research, and praxis, such as film-making and creative writing.


Q. What can we expect from Global Conversations Towards Queer Social Justice in 2021/22?

We aim to locate queer subjects and subjectivities at the very heart of ‘social justice’ to re-think justice, and its transnational aspects through creative methods and methodologies. We take a broad approach to the notion of ‘social justice’, which we understand as including racial justice, climate justice, and human engagements with the more-than-human world. By bringing together artists, activists, and scholars to emphasise the importance of cross-disciplinary exchanges, and by attending to the discomfort these exchanges may bring about, we aim to expand our discussions around the ways in which conventional research methods render invisible certain subjects or beings, and dislocate them from the discussions around social justice. Our experience in thinking about queer approaches to social justice through an interdisciplinary and transnational perspective has made it clear to us that these conversations do not only broaden our horizons around theories of justice but also have significant impact on the lived experience of social (in)justice. 


Q. How can people learn more about your Network? 

Please visit the research network’s web page on the CRASSH website, which we will be gradually updating – and do join us for our network meetings! Our meetings in Michaelmas term in autumn 2021 are going to be on zoom, and they are open to anyone upon registration. 
You can also follow the network on Twitter.



The views, thoughts and opinions expressed on the CRASSH blog belong solely to the authors and do not necessarily represent the views of CRASSH or the University of Cambridge.

Posted: Thursday 23 September 2021

Contributor: CRASSH News

Tags: social justicequeer social justicequeer

Introducing the CRASSH Research Networks 2021 – 2022 – CRASSH

Introducing the CRASSH Research Networks 2021 – 2022

CRASSH Research Networks are our crucibles of new thinking: they allow for sustained acts of shared analysis, intellectual invention and spaces of collective dreamwork. Most importantly, they build new communities of thought.

Steven Connor, Director, CRASSH

Our Research Networks will bring you exciting and thought-provoking events and activities for the coming academic year. While we hope that in-person events will be possible again, for the moment events will take place online in various formats, from seminars, talks to podcasts and online reading groups. 



Indigenous Studies Discussion Group (ISDG)

The Indigenous Studies Discussion Group at the University of Cambridge is a graduate-led network that aims to (1) promote scholarship by and about Indigenous Peoples across disciplines and spaces to be a regular feature of the intellectual life of Cambridge and (2) promote the sharing and discussion of insights and ideas pertaining to Indigenous studies across peoples, disciplines, times and geographies.

Read the ISDG introductory blog.



Global Conversations Towards Queer Social Justice

In the research network 'Global Conversations Towards Queer Social Justice' we aim to locate queer subjects and subjectivities at the very heart of 'social justice' to re-think justice, and its transnational aspects through creative methods and methodologies. We take a broad approach to the notion of 'social justice', which we understand as including racial justice, climate justice, and human engagements with the more-than-human world. By bringing together artists, activists, and scholars to emphasise the importance of cross-disciplinary exchanges, and by attending to the discomfort these exchanges may bring about, we aim to expand our discussions around the ways in which conventional research methods render invisible certain subjects or beings, and dislocate them from the discussions around social justice. Our experience in thinking about queer approaches to social justice through an interdisciplinary and transnational perspective has made it clear to us that these conversations do not only broaden our horizons around theories of justice but also have significant impact on the lived experience of social (in)justice. 

Read the Global Conversations Towards Queer Social Justice introductory blog.



Grammars of Marriage and Desire (GoMAD)

In an uncertain world, collaborations and companionships offer much comfort and nourishment. The institution of marriage has been a central way communities produce continuity. Castes, clans, and dynasties, all need marriages to ease the transference of power and property across generations. Most religious community show a preference for intermarriage to ensure faiths are maintained. All this work to ensure kinship remains in tension with desires, which always have the potential to be unruly.  The existing structures -or grammars as we are terming them- of kinship or desire, often appear exclusionary, and oppressive, if not downright violent. Are these grammars capable of ensuring our well-being, or that of the world, during this time of global pandemic? We are trying to think of practises of managing desires and kin as they relate to the climate crisis, increasing mental health issues, and an overarching crisis of care. The pandemic has left humanity weakened by furthering the atomisation of the individual. In this context, we are faced with a dilemma. On the one hand, the institution of marriage has historically provided the grammars of kinship and community. On the other hand, the COVID-19 pandemic continues to expose its potential for violence, more than ever before.  There has never been a greater need to form solidarities and networks. Thus, taking one of the oldest institutions under renewed reflection seems appropriate.

Read the GoMAD introductory blog.



Hidden Epidemics and Epidemiological Obfuscation

Epidemiological processes ostensibly exist to reveal and ascribe features to burdens of disease at a population level. However, as the designated arbiters of visibility in public health, epidemiological processes are well placed to also obscure and hide burdens of disease.

Epidemiological obfuscation can occur in many forms. At times it is overt, for example when the authoritative trappings of epidemiology (e.g., graphs, charts and spreadsheets) are wielded to deny the existence of an apparent burden of disease, be it a cholera outbreak in a politically sensitive part of Ethiopia, a cluster of cases of a rare cancer near a chemical waste plant in the United States, or a TB epidemic in residential schools in Canada. More often though, it appears that epidemiological obfuscation is subtle and unconscious. It comes about from choices baked into the daily practices of epidemiologists, modellers, and public health policy makers and occurs as part of larger material and political landscapes and in conjunction with other clinical, laboratory and, data collection processes. Understanding the various forms and circumstances of epidemiological obfuscation has important implications for biosecurity and social justice.

'Hidden Epidemics' is an interdisciplinary research network interested in characterising processes of epidemiological obfuscation and the situations in which they occur.

Read the Hidden Epidemics introductory blog.


Archives of the Disappeared: Discipline and Method Amidst Ruin

'Archives of the Disappeared' is an interdisciplinary research initiative for the study and documentation of communities, social movements, spaces, lifeworlds, literatures and cultures that have been destroyed through acts of political repression and mass violence. Through a reading group, seminars and masterclasses, as well as lectures by scholars, artists, archivists, and community activists, the initiative will explore the question of ‘archive’ in the context of annihilation.



In War's Wake: Mobility, Belonging, and Becoming in the Aftermath of Urban Conflict

The 'In War's Wake' Research Network investigates the aftermath of war in cities. This is conceived heuristically as a constellation of the official and unofficial workings of urban conflict and political violence. Thinking generatively from and across South America, the Middle East, Eastern Africa, and the 'Black Mediterranean', we aim to examine how political violence reshapes contemporary urban lives, imaginations of urban futures, and experiences of movement, citizenship, and hope. How are legacies of violence inscribed into the urban space and how are they elided? How does urban violence exceed conceptions of the 'post-conflict' and disrupt naïve temporalities of a 'before' and an 'after' war? We will approach these questions through the prism of mobility, belonging, and becoming. The Research Network seeks to generate important provocations, trans-national and multi-lingual dialogues, and cross-disciplinary intersections that contribute to discussions about political violence, urban studies, and post-conflict reconstruction among academics, activists, and artists.



Slavery and Freedom: Material and Visual Histories

'Slavery & Freedom: Material and Visual Histories' is an interdisciplinary research network that focuses on connecting researchers working on transnational histories of enslavement, resistance, abolition, and the afterlives of transatlantic slavery. It brings together researchers from many fields, including archaeology, history, geology, art history, archival studies, natural history, and material science who will meet for workshops to share methodologies and resources, and develop multidisciplinary frameworks of interpreting and understanding objects.



Find out more about CRASSH Research Networks.


The views, thoughts and opinions expressed on the CRASSH blog belong solely to the authors and do not necessarily represent the views of CRASSH or the University of Cambridge.


Posted: Wednesday 22 September 2021

Contributor: CRASSH News

Tags: researchnetworks

Making and Remaking Saints: 5 Questions to Gareth Atkins – CRASSH

Making and Remaking Saints: 5 Questions to Gareth Atkins

To browse nineteenth-century periodicals and publications is – to adapt Stuart Clark’s phrase – to encounter numerous authors "thinking with saints".

Gareth Atkins

Gareth Atkins is Fellow and Director of Studies in History, Queens’ College, Cambridge. From 2012 – 2017 he was a member of the Bible and Antiquity in Nineteenth-Century Culture project at CRASSH. His edited book, Making and Remaking Saints in Nineteenth-Century Britain, was published in 2016, and is now going into paperback. In this blog Dr Atkins reflects on the book’s significance.



Q. What is your book Making and Remaking Saints about?

It has long been a commonplace that the Victorians were obsessed with Great Men and Great Women and what made them ‘great’. Could greatness be taught, or was it inherent? Was it mystically bestowed or naturally generated? Did it radiate from its possessors to those of lesser spirit? The National Portrait Gallery, founded in 1859, was an embodiment of the belief that contemplating virtuous men and women might help to make the viewer virtuous: entry was free, and visitors were encouraged to spend time reflecting on the attributes of those portrayed. Prominent sages and savants such as Thomas Carlyle, Charles Kingsley, George Eliot and William James spent much of their lives considering such questions, drawing on German idealist philosophy, Liberal notions of the importance of cultivating character and a host of other currents as they did so. Yet although the centrality of concepts like character and manliness in British culture has received much scholarly attention, the religious resonances of such ideas have often been overlooked. ‘Character’ has often been assumed to be part of a secularising shift, as older ideas about the centrality of the performance of religion to the ‘public man’ and of private conviction to social existence congealed into ‘moralism’, ‘citizenship’, ‘celebrity’. This was not always obvious to contemporaries, however. Religious or quasi-religious language infused the utterances of figures like Carlyle, who hailed ‘Great Men’ as ‘living light fountains’ and placed Jesus at the very pinnacle of his pantheon. Closer to hearth and home, too, households were packed with plaster death masks and busts, School Prize books and kitsch ceramic figurines: contact relics and texts for moral meditation where the line between religion and secular was seldom clearly drawn. Similar things can also be observed about the burgeoning tourist market, as earnest self-improvers made pilgrimages to sites associated with the great and good. Making and Remaking Saints in Nineteenth-Century Britain argues, then, that the nineteenth century was an age of hagiography, as ‘saints’ in all but name were made and debated not just by Catholics and Protestants, but by freethinkers, atheists and even acolytes of scientific materialism. Their reverence for their heroes was soaked in the ideas, language and habits of hagiography.  


Q. What drew you to the subject and what do you find particularly interesting about it?

Putting together the conference that led to this book brought together two themes that have long intrigued me about the nineteenth century. One is the ever-presence of the past. For the go-ahead and increasingly globally-minded Victorians clothed themselves in history, wrapping museums and other public buildings in Greek and Roman aesthetics, and cladding imperial and educational institutions in architecture that smacked of medieval cathedrals. While in some ways this was about the celebration of progress, that’s to flatten out the tremendous energies that went into producing and debating such pastiches. For figures like A.W.N. Pugin, for instance, medieval churches, schools, houses – and the Palace of Westminster, in whose rebuilding he played a central part – signalled a rejection of the notion of ‘progress’. Pugin sought to resurrect medieval values not just through a decorative aesthetic that spoke to those values but through making buildings that fostered medieval-style life and rituals. This raises the second of my themes: religion. Organised Christianity retained tremendous social and cultural clout in this period, and saints loomed large in the sectarian conflicts and competition between Catholics and Protestants and between the Protestant denominations that ignited across the British world throughout the nineteenth century. But the more one looks at this subject, the more unexpected the treatment of such figures comes to look. As Andrew Holmes shows in his chapter, while Ulster Presbyterians rejected episcopacy, monasticism and the veneration of saints, for example, they nevertheless saw the need to claim Patrick as one of their own: a proto-presbyterian who would have stood alongside them in the conflicts of the nineteenth-century present. This book, therefore, also represented a chance to explore the subtler and more pervasive ways that religious metaphors, practices and behaviours often crossed the theological or disciplinary lines that were designed to contain them. Indeed, they often transcended the need for belief entirely. Even the most secular-minded Victorians were interested in the questions that devotion to individuals evoked. Historians, sociologists and psychologists were fascinated by saints and the societies that created them, not least because global encounters with ‘other’ cultures and beliefs encouraged comparative investigation.


Q. Around which themes did you decide to structure the book, and to what end?   

The book is multi-authored: each contributor took an individual or a group and explored their reception. Some of those covered are highly conventional: St Paul and the Virgin Mary have dedicated chapters. Others focus on familiar figures but from unexpected angles: Ulster Presbyterian readings of St Patrick, for instance, or grudging Protestant respect for the Jesuit founding father, Ignatius Loyola, or veneration for the Puritan Richard Baxter. Others tackle figures that sectarian conflict had long made controversial: Thomas Becket, for example, or the Scottish Covenanters. Still others deal with contemporary figures whose reputations were still in the process of being formed: John Wesley and the Methodists, William Wilberforce, John Henry Newman, Thérèse of Lisieux and others.


Q. In your view, wherein lies the book's main contribution to our understanding of religion in nineteenth-century Britain?

It challenges readers to widen their sense of what religion might be. Instead of seeing it in terms of churchgoing or even of belief it underlines how inherited habits of mind and debates about them were central even and perhaps especially in a globalising, commercialised culture where orthodox Christian belief was increasingly only one among many options. These ideas have also informed my research since Making and Remaking Saints was first published. In 2020, for instance, I co-edited an issue of the journal 19 with Dr Jasmine Allen on stained glass. In it we and other contributors considered how an ostensibly traditional medium usually associated with sacred contexts was in fact a marker of modernity, being the subject of technological innovation, mass marketing and global distribution. In museums and civic buildings across the British Empire, it was also perfectly fitted for blurring the boundaries between sanctity as a theological concept and broader notions of celebrity or historical lineage. 

In the years since it was first published the continued growth of interest in folklore, ‘magic’ and a host of other beliefs and habits that fall outside the bounds of religious history as it has often been practised traditionally has opened up new perspectives on worlds of ‘faith’ that the academy has tended to overlook. Political historians, too, seem to be waking up to how belief has shaped the behaviour of politicians and publics, as well as realising how institutional churches reinvented themselves as purveyors of soft power or providers of education even as the numbers of people in the pews declined. Particularly close to what this book sought to do is John Wolffe’s new book on martyrdom: an interesting category to play with for twentieth-century historians. I’d like to think that Making and Remaking Saints is part of this development. As religious history becomes less and less the property of those concerned with structures and their health it has the potential to speak to more and more questions about how the modern world has taken the shape it has.


Q. What would readers be surprised to learn about in your book?

They might raise an eyebrow on encountering 'Saint' Charles Darwin…!


Published by Manchester University Press, July 2016.


The views, thoughts and opinions expressed on the CRASSH blog belong solely to the authors and do not necessarily represent the views of CRASSH or the University of Cambridge.

Posted: Wednesday 15 September 2021

Contributor: Gareth Atkins

Tags: saintsnineteen-century

20 Years CRASSH: Famous Faces – CRASSH

20 Years CRASSH: Famous Faces

Wide-ranging interdisciplinary perspectives from well-known speakers – a collection of material from our archive.

A playlist from our archive in the context of CRASSH's 20th anniversary.


President Martti Ahtisaari: Preventing Conflicts and Building Fair Societies

Humanitas Visiting Professor




Madeleine Albright and Vin Weber: Campaigns on the World Stage

Campaigns on the World Stage conference




Homi Bhabha: The Humanities and the Anxiety of Violence

Changing the Humanities / The Humanities Changing conference




Alistair Campbell: Why Journalism, and Why it Matters in a World in Flux

Humanitas Visiting Professor in Media




Posy Simmonds: Making People

Cambridge Festival of Ideas




Bruno Latour: Reset Modernity – The Limit of a Method

Book Launch




James Williams: Stand Out of Our Light

Nine Dots Prize Book Launch




David Aaronovitch: Stolen Votes, Secret Spooks and the Hidden Oil – Conspiracy Theories in an Age of Transparency

Conspiracy and Democracy Research Project




Alastair Campbell: Media and Politics in a Changing World

Humanitas Visiting Professor in Media




Baroness Helena Kennedy: Women’s Rights and Women’s Woes – Who Says Human Rights are Universal?

Humitas Visiting Professor



The views, thoughts and opinions expressed on the CRASSH blog belong solely to the authors and do not necessarily represent the views of CRASSH or the University of Cambridge.

Posted: Thursday 19 August 2021

Contributor: CRASSH News

Tags: nine dots prizelecturefamous facesbook launch

Introducing: Indigenous Studies Discussion Group – CRASSH

Introducing: Indigenous Studies Discussion Group

The Indigenous Studies Discussion Group at the University of Cambridge is a graduate-led network that aims to promote scholarship by and about Indigenous Peoples across disciplines and spaces to be a regular feature of the intellectual life of Cambridge and promote the sharing and discussion of insights and ideas pertaining to Indigenous studies across peoples, disciplines, times and geographies.

An introductory Q&A with the Indigenous Studies Discussion Group, a new Research Network at CRASSH 2021 – 2022.


Q. How did the Indigenous Studies Discussion Group come about? 

The ISDG was founded in 2019. Nishant Gokhale (PhD Candidate Legal Studies) and Oliver Antczak (PhD Candidate Heritage Studies) both met in Cambridge during their intro week, and at that point we shared our experience and research topics and we realised that even though there were many people working with Indigenous topics in Cambridge, there was no space for them to meet and share together. We founded the ISDG soon after with a small grant from the Cambridge Heritage Research Centre. Although it was initially only a reading group, to discuss readings we would do every month, it has since evolved into a larger network that expands beyond Cambridge and organises a variety of events. 


Q. By definition, a CRASSH Research Network has an interdisciplinary question at its core. What is yours? 

Our aim is to challenge the core ideas of our research with the question: how and why are we doing Indigenous Studies, and what is the best way to do it? In and of itself, Indigenous Studies is an interdisciplinary field, and with our network, we aim to bring everyone together to challenge each other’s methods, justifications, ethics, and goals. We also believe that by engaging with others who are involved in this field, and together reading and discussing Indigenous scholarship, we can gain insights from other disciplines and geographical contexts that we may otherwise miss out on.


 Q. Could you tell us a bit more about this year's convenors, speakers and attendees and the perspectives they bring to the discussion?  

This year the ISDG is run by a group of graduate students from Venezuela, Poland, India, Australia and Canada, and they aim to use this geographical breadth to reach speakers and attendees from around the world, and to provide access to more diverse perspectives. 


 Q. What can we expect from the ISDG in 2021/2022?

This year you can expect a termly topic or theme, and a set of events around that theme. We will be running multimedia showings, panels, and in-person discussions. These will cover a range of topics, including Justice and Criminalisation, Pervasive Narratives of Vanishing Indigenous Peoples, Wellness and Personhood, and the roles of non-Indigenous and Indigenous scholars in the development of this field. 


Q. How can people learn more about your Network? 

The ISDG has it's own website, is active on Twitter as @ISDGCambridge, Facebook, and has a Youtube channel. 



The views, thoughts and opinions expressed on the CRASSH blog belong solely to the authors and do not necessarily represent the views of CRASSH or the University of Cambridge.

Posted: Thursday 19 August 2021

Contributor: CRASSH News

Tags: indigenous studiesdiscussion group

Poetics in Practice: Cyclical Poetics, Psychotherapy and Recovery – CRASSH

Poetics in Practice: Cyclical Poetics, Psychotherapy and Recovery

I use Merrill Moore’s sonnet as a case study to examine the relationship between poetic practice and recovery models in evidence-based therapy.

Katherine Franco

Katherine Franco is an incoming MSt student at the University of Oxford in English with interests in subjectivity, epistemology, theories of reading, and philosophy of medicine. She has written this guest blog for the Talking as Cure Research Network at CRASSH.


To the Sick in Winter

Merrill Moore

You’ll feel better when the spring comes, you’ll feel
Better when the spring comes, you’ll feel better
When the spring comes, you’ll feel better when the
Spring comes, you’ll feel better when the spring comes,
You’ll feel better when the spring comes, you’ll feel
Better when the spring comes, you’ll feel better
When the spring comes, you’ll feel better when the
Spring comes, you’ll feel better when the spring comes,

You’ll feel better when the spring comes, you’ll feel
Better when the spring comes, you’ll feel better
When the spring comes, you’ll feel better when the
Spring comes, you’ll feel better when the spring comes,

You’ll feel better when the spring comes, you’ll feel
Better when the spring comes, you’ll feel better


I first read this poem in March 2020, in a workshop led by poet Alice Oswald. Oswald offered the poem as a kind of preemptive poetic medicament as she briefly spoke of a virus running through Italy. I set the poem in my bag. Two days later, I left the University of Oxford and returned to New York where I would stay for the next ten months.

Oswald’s photocopy of the poem sat on my desk, wrinkled, from March 2020 until May 2021. The pleasure of Moore’s poem ultimately comes from – or at least, for me – the inability to know to which spring the poem refers, what constitutes ‘better,’ that one never knows they need to be ‘better’ until one suddenly does, the fact Moore’s ‘better’ is not singular but unstable and repeating. To attempt to reach or mark a definite ‘better’ would be antithetical to Moore’s poem. This attempt to reach and mark: we might call it recovery, by another name.

Here I use Merrill Moore’s sonnet as a case study to examine the relationship between poetic practice and recovery models in evidence-based therapy. I deliberately say ‘practice,’ given this blog post aims to interrogate the relationship between poetic and psychotherapeutic practice. In mentioning evidence-based psychotherapy and medicine, I refer to statistical models such as randomized controlled trials (RCTs) and outcomes research (Schechter and Perlman, 2009: 161). Poetics ultimately provides an alternative ‘stabilizer for subjectivity and selfhood’ (Horncastle, 2018: 263).


Cyclical and Clinical

Mikkel Kenni Bruun recently wrote about developments in UK evidence-based psychological therapies, specifically IAPT (Improving Access to Psychological Therapies). IAPT’s five primary features include ‘the introduction of 'self-referral,' the proliferation of therapists, the development of 'stepped care', a focus on evidence-based therapies, and the measurement of outcomes’ (Pickersgill, 2019: 634). These 'measurement[s] of outcomes' – such as the Patient Health Questionnaire (PHQ-9) – offer a means for evaluation of IAPT and its success. In citing IAPT, I do not hope to discount its importance in UK mental healthcare but instead to consider the relationship between standardized assessment and the mandate for discernible recovery. More plainly, in order to receive funding, IAPT must demonstrate success and recovery among its patients; poetry need not remain accountable to political or economic institutions.

What is the relationship between a cyclical poetics and the rise of 'economistic approaches to accounting for the efficacy of psychological therapy' in UK mental healthcare (Pickersgill, 2019:  634)? Emily Dickinson famously wrote, "After great pain, a formal feeling comes –," yet the cyclical nature of her poem undercuts the opening pronouncement. Dickinson challenges the linearity of that opening ‘After’ with her concluding line, ‘First – Chill – then Stupor – then the letting go –‘ (Dickinson, 2016). Adopting Dickinson’s own recommendation of ‘Reading Backward’ – discussed by poet and scholar Susan Howe, in My Emily Dickinson; and scholars Jerome McGann and Lisa Samuels – I consider the value of reading Dickinson’s, and now Moore’s, poetics backward.[1]

How does Backward Reading challenge the sort of linear recovery models proposed by (or implicit in) talk therapy? Or, as I began to consider following Bruun’s discussion of IAPT with our research network in December 2020, how can Moore’s or Dickinson’s poetics (or any cyclical poetics on psychic pain and recovery) challenge the rise of an ‘(ac)countable’ therapeutic practice like IAPT (Pickersgill, 2019: 634)? Moore’s verse rejects (ac)countability through its trance-like repetition. Although it follows a sonnet form, it does not reach a particularly cathartic release in the final couplet. In fact, Moore’s sonnet begins at not even the end of the repeated line but ends on its first fragment, making it impossible and irrelevant to ‘count’ the number of times the phrase is uttered or spoken.

Moore’s work offers an apt case study on the relationship between poetics and psychotherapy given his own dual professions as poet and psychiatrist. A ‘serious physician and serious artist,’ according to Robert Frost, Moore (1903-1957) was a practicing psychiatrist with foci in alcoholism and suicide in the mid-twentieth century (Poetry Foundation, 2021). Moore taught neurology at Harvard Medical School and the Boston City Hospital, and published in medical and psychiatric journals (Dartmouth Library). Despite sharing company with poetry heavyweights like Allen Tate or John Crowe Ransom in the Fugitives movement, Moore remains lesser known and studied.

Poetics is antithetical to death, given its cyclical and ongoing nature. The incomplete nature of Moore’s poem runs counter to the possibility of termination, of suicide (as Moore very well knew), too. But a cyclical poetics is then perhaps also antithetical to recovery – or, at least, a linear recovery. What would it mean to get ‘better’ in the ‘spring,’ Moore’s poem asks us, when spring seemingly never ends nor arrives?


Poetics as Practice

Lastly, I consider how poetry can lend agency to subjects who fail to find agency in talk therapy and medical practice. After describing the inadequate response to queer subjectivity in medical and psychiatric institutions, J. Horncastle encourages an examination of ‘the value that poetics has more specifically to analyses of crisis’ in ‘contexts of mental health care and other medical settings where agency is routinely and markedly compromised’ (Horncastle, 2018: 260). I write about poetry in the practical context of talk therapy to consider the role of poetry in establishing subjective capabilities and faculties. Moore’s poem offers linguistic capabilities that goal-motivated practices cannot achieve.

Poetry is not a symptom but architect of subjectivity. Poetry does. ‘The poetic landscape is the antithesis of speechlessness,’ Horncastle writes, ‘it provides access to further conceptualisation of a rich language of becoming, out of, for example a language of erasure or formlessness in medical clinics’ (Horncastle, 2018: 260).[2] I don’t propose that poetics is therapy, and vice versa, but instead consider what sorts of speech acts and thus subjective liberties become available as a result of poetics.

Poetics isn’t a talking cure; it’s just talk. I don’t intend to suggest that poetics can save you––it can’t––but it has salvaged something, unnamable sometimes, within me. Poetics saved that.


This Blog draws from my project, Sarah Kane’s Poetics of Subjectivity, specifically my second chapter, 'A Cleaving in the Clinic: The Cyclical Poetics of Emily Dickinson and Sarah Kane.'



Dartmouth Library Archives and Manuscripts. 'Moore, Merrill, 1903-1957.'

Dickinson, Emily. 'After great pain, a formal feeling comes –' Emily Dickinson’s Poems: As She Preserved Them. Edited by Cristanne Miller, 2016, p. 198.

Franco, Katherine. Sarah Kane’s Poetics of Subjectivity. Honors Theses. 266. 2021.

Horncastle, J. 'Busting Out: Happenstance Surgery, Clinic Effects, and the Poetics of Genderqueer Subjectivity.' TSQ: Transgender Studies Quarterly, volume 5, number 2, 2018, pp. 251-267.

Howe, Susan. My Emily Dickinson. New Directions, 1985.

McGann, Jerome, and Lisa Samuels. 'Deformance and Interpretation.'

'Merrill Moore.' Poetry Foundation,

Moore, Merrill. 'To the Sick in Winter.'

Pickersgill, Martyn. 'Access, accountability, and the proliferation of psychological therapy: On the introduction of the IAPT initiative and the transformation of mental healthcare.' Social Studies of Science, vol. 49, 2019, pp. 627-650.

Schechter, Alan N., and Robert L. Perlman. 'Evidence-Based Medicine Again.' Perspectives in Biology and Medicine, vol. 52, no. 2, 2009, pp. 161-163.


[1] In my thesis, I examine the relationship between Sarah Kane’s and Emily Dickinson’s cyclical poetics and evidence-based therapy. Here I apply and extend this theoretical framework to Moore’s poetics.

[2] See J. Horncastle’s “Busting Out: Happenstance Surgery, Clinic Effects, and the Poetics of Genderqueer Subjectivity” (2018) on the practical value of poetics in the context of gendered and queer subjectivity––a context in which both Dickinson’s and Kane’s work exists.



The views, thoughts and opinions expressed on the CRASSH blog belong solely to the authors and do not necessarily represent the views of CRASSH or the University of Cambridge.

Posted: Monday 9 August 2021

Contributor: CRASSH News

Tags: recoverypsychotherapypoetrymental health

Meet the Fellow: Sally Woodcock – CRASSH

Meet the Fellow: Sally Woodcock

Barry, after a life of struggle, disappointment, and poverty, was compelled to drink off the cup of sorrow and humiliation to its last dregs, and to submit to have his name advertised as an object for a public subscription, in the hope of obtaining for his wants and grey hairs that shelter which was refused to his merits. Sad, indeed, must have been the necessity which wrung from his proud heart an assent to that last deplorable shift of misfortune.

William Carey on James Barry (1741–1806), painter, in 'Cursory Thoughts on the Present State of the Fine Arts, occasioned by the Founding of the Liverpool Academy' (Liverpool and London: 1810).

Sally Woodcock holds a Paul Mellon Centre Postdoctoral Fellowship based at CRASSH part-time from April 2021 to March 2022. Before her fellowship at CRASSH, Sally completed a PhD in the Faculty of History at Cambridge University, co-supervised at the Hamilton Kerr Institute, a teaching and research institute that is also the paintings conservation department of the Fitzwilliam Museum.

Drawing of a starving artist
Edward Burne-Jones, sketch in pass book, © The Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge

Q. You recently joined CRASSH as a Visiting Fellow. Could you tell us a little bit about what you are working on during your fellowship?

While the nineteenth century in Britain has been referred to as ‘the Golden Age of the living artist’, the artists I am researching had a very different experience of the Victorian art world. My research project, The Starving Artist: The Romance and Reality of Suffering for Art in the Long, Hard Nineteenth Century combines the history of art with social and cultural history to examine the working lives of the lower ranks of British nineteenth-century artists. While many painters experienced unprecedented prosperity in this period, the gulf between the successful and unsuccessful artist widened, leaving many to face illness, insanity, poverty and the bleak prospect of Victorian charity at the end of their lives. By contrast, the literature, art and music of the period often represented artistic poverty as improbably enjoyable, favouring the romance of the imagined starving artist over the reality of actually starving. My research will look at the ways in which life could go disastrously wrong for artists through ill-health, loss of sight, madness, debt and a simple lack of talent, contrasting this with the romantic image of the starving artist in novels, pictures and songs. It aims to shed new light on the lives of an unusually broad range of artists and explore the public perception of the artist as an unconventional outsider in an increasingly commercial art world, revealing both the myth and the reality of suffering for art in nineteenth-century Britain.

Selection of Roberson catalogues and china palette.

C. Roberson & Co. Ltd, Artists’ Colours Materials, 1937–40.

Q. What drew you to your research initially and what parts do you find particularly interesting?

My PhD thesis was based on the business records of Charles Roberson & Co., an artists’ colourman who supplied materials to most of the nineteenth century’s most celebrated artists and also to several thousand of their more obscure colleagues. A notable feature of Roberson’s ledgers was the long lines of credit and multiple cases of debt they record. While some artists wrote apologetic letters explaining their difficulties and promising to pay; others simply moved house without settling their bills, causing Roberson to resort to private investigators and debt collection agencies in an attempt to get paid. In an era more usually associated with the establishment of artistic elites, investigating the other end of the ladder of success developed naturally from my doctoral research. While the twenty-first-century artist may no longer have to choose between food and paint, I find it striking that many of the difficulties faced by Victorian artists would be familiar to their modern counterparts, who are still dependent on second jobs, grants and extended credit as they try to make a living from making art.

Charles Roberson & Co., William and Evelyn De Morgan’s account 1908–19. Personal account ledger 1908–20, Roberson Archive HKI MS 136-1993, 189–90. Photograph, © Chris Titmus, Hamilton Kerr Institute, University of Cambridge.

Q. Are there any persons that have impacted your research in particular?

I remain grateful to the anonymous person who, just as the Second World War got underway, decided that it would be better to put Roberson’s archive in an attic than in a dustbin. It has not only provided me with a fascinating subject for research, but will do so for others in years to come and offers an illuminating glimpse of the busy, dirty, creative, inventive, optimistic, and sometimes unforgiving world of the Victorian artist.

My interest in starving artists was in part inspired by a doctor’s letter assessing an artist’s suitability for insurance, come upon by chance amongst the papers of the Artists’ Annuity Fund, a Victorian health insurance scheme founded by artists to protect themselves from poverty in sickness and old age. The letter was so unflinchingly personal and intrusive that reading it, even at a distance of over a century, felt like eavesdropping on private unhappiness. Having already encountered cases of distress, disease and debt throughout my doctoral research, it inspired me to investigate further the nineteenth century’s impoverished and sickly artists in order to recover and reconstruct their difficult lives, both imaginary and all too real.

In terms of the living, one colleague who stands head and shoulders above everyone in the artists’ colourman’s world is Jacob Simon, who is both wholeheartedly generous in sharing his own material while scrupulous in his acknowledgement of the input of others. The contribution he has made via his multiple online directories on the National Portrait Gallery’s website will continue to inform those interested in artists and their materials for many years to come.

Finally, I would not now be undertaking postdoctoral research were it not for my PhD supervisor, Professor Peter Mandler, who was able to see beyond a career largely devoted to cleaning pictures and was willing to take on a mature, part-time student from outside his immediate field and who enabled me to see much more clearly the Victorian world he knew so well while not losing sight of the material world in which Charles Roberson and his customers were immersed.


Q. If you are currently working on a publication, could you tell us about it?

My doctoral thesis revealed much about the intersection between art and business in Victorian Britain and was particularly valuable in uncovering the working lives of female artists of the period. I am currently preparing it for publication in order to make its findings, and the archive on which it is based, available to an audience outside technical art history. I am also working on a biographical website of ‘starving artists’, offering and asking for information from both scholars and the public for whom having ‘an artist in the family’ continues to elicit interest. This will contribute to, and benefit from, the popularity of genealogical research, as well as providing source material for my own and others’ academic study.


Find out more about Fellowships at CRASSH.


The views, thoughts and opinions expressed on the CRASSH blog belong solely to the authors and do not necessarily represent the views of CRASSH or the University of Cambridge.

Posted: Tuesday 27 July 2021

Contributor: Sally Woodcock

Tags: artists19th century

Future Directions for Citizen Science and Public Policy: 5 Questions to Katie Cohen – CRASSH

Future Directions for Citizen Science and Public Policy: 5 Questions to Katie Cohen

I am very grateful to CSaP for bringing together this diverse group of authors to share their experience of citizen science, enabling us all to better understand the potential it has to contribute to public policy.

Sir Patrick Vallance, UK Government Chief Scientific Adviser

Katie Cohen, Researcher at the Centre for Science and Policy (CSaP) and Research Assistant at CRASSH's Expertise Under Pressure Research Project tells us about the book Future directions for citizen science and public policy she co-edited with Robert Doubleday, Director of CSaP and Co-Investigator of EUP.


Q. What is your book Future directions for citizen science and public policy about?

The book illustrates the benefits of citizen science, a diverse set of participatory practices by which individuals contribute their knowledge to scientific and policy processes. Collating citizen science case studies and perspectives across various policy domains, it shows how making use of citizen science can lead to more effective and inclusive decision-making. The book also begins to chart the way forward for governments to integrate citizen science practices into public policy.


Q. What drew you to the subject and what do you find particularly interesting about it?

At the Centre for Science and Policy (CSaP), we have seen a growing imperative in government to find new ways to involve citizens as partners in the development and delivery of policy. At the same time, we have seen a flourishing of citizen science experiments and the increasing embrace of these approaches by scientific communities. But to date there have been surprisingly few experiments with citizen science by government itself. As the UK government continues to navigate a way through the challenges posed by the COVID-19 pandemic, we thought it important and timely to consider how citizens’ knowledge can make a more active contribution to science and government.


Q. Around which themes did you decide to structure the book, and to what end?   

The cross-cutting themes we explore in the book are data quality, diversity and inclusion and infrastructures of citizen engagement. We chose to divide the book into three sections: Democratising science and policy, Cultures of engagement and Publics, Participation and Governance. These divisions allow the reader to begin with broad perspectives on the potential of citizen science for policy, then move to domain specific examples and conclude with new ways for policy makers to activate citizen knowledges.


Q. In your view, wherein lies the book's main contribution to our understanding of citizen science and public policy?

The book provides concrete case studies about integrating citizen science into public policy across a range of policy areas, including health and wellbeing, environmental monitoring, food regulation, local decision-making and the data economy. It advocates greater use of citizen science by governments, while also addressing policy makers’ concerns and institutional barriers.


Q. What would readers be surprised to learn about in your book? 

Readers might be surprised to learn that citizen science comes in many forms. The book explores use of online platforms, air pollution sensor kits, citizens assemblies, co-produced research and other varieties of participatory practices. By considering a plurality of citizen sciences, the book opens up new ways for citizen science to democratise science and policy.


This book is available Open Access (some rights reserved). Download the e-book.

Published by the Centre for Science and Policy, June 2021 © Centre for Science and Policy.


The views, thoughts and opinions expressed on the CRASSH blog belong solely to the authors and do not necessarily represent the views of CRASSH or the University of Cambridge.

Posted: Friday 16 July 2021

Contributor: Katie Cohen, Robert Doubleday

Tags: public policycitizen science

Can We Imagine a Better Internet? – CRASSH

Can We Imagine a Better Internet?

"In order to understand and better address the environmental consequences of digital tech, we need to be more open for the experiences of individuals and communities on the ground who often “know better” since they live (and occasionally also cause) the very consequences of tech we research."

Julia Rone

On 17 June 2021, over 40 participants from all over the world joined the Minderoo Centre for Technology and Democracy for a workshop exploring 'the cost of convenience' and the opaque impact that digital technology has on the environment.

Instead of having academics presenting long papers in front of Zoom screens with switched-off cameras, we opted for a more dialogic, interactive and (conveniently) short format.

We invited each participant (or team of participants) to share a provocation across the environmental impact of technology/the political economy of the environment/technology nexus and discussed in small groups. Then, in panel sessions, we discussed the provocations (what we know already), the known unknowns (what we don’t know yet), and ideas for an action plan (what could we be doing). 

Below are our reflections on the workshop. 


There is no real technical or technological 'fix' for the climate crisis

By Alina Utrata

I am currently working on the relationships between technology corporations and states.

For me, what stood out about the discussions was the sense among all participants that there was no real technical or technological 'fix' for the climate crisis.

Instead, the conversations often revolved around globally embedded systems and structures of power—and asking why a certain technology is being deployed, by whom, for whom and how, rather than whether they could 'fix' anything. 

In fact, it was pointed out that often the creators of these technological innovations deliberately promoted certain kinds of narratives about how they wanted the technology to be thought of—for example, the 'cloud' as a kind of abstract, other place in the sky, rather than a real, tangible infrastructure with real costs.

The same could be said of the metaphors of 'carbon footprint' or 'carbon neutral'—the idea that as long as discrete, individual corporate entities were not personally responsible for a certain amount of emissions, then they could not be held culpable for a system that was failing the planet. 

I was inspired by how participants immediately recognised the importance of these systems, and instead focused our conversations on how to change them.

Although many political concepts today are so commonplace that they seem ordinary, we discussed how they are often really quite modern or Western in origin.

For example, the idea of the shared, communal commons is an ancient one, and can be used as a political framework to tackle some of the harmful systems humans have put in place on our earth. 

Finally, we acknowledged that we all have a role to play in this fight for our future—but not all of us have or need to play the same role.

Some of us will be activists outside these systems of power, and some of us will be sympathetic voices from within.

The participants reaffirmed the need to both communicate and coordinate across disciplines within academia, and more broadly in sectors across the wider earth.


Should we abolish the Internet?

By Julia Rone

I am currently working on the democratic contestation of data centre construction.

John Naughton often says during our weekly meetings that the most interesting conversations are those that finish before you want them to end. That was definitely the case for me at the workshop since of each the sessions I hosted ended with a question that could be discussed for hours and that still lingers in my mind.


Concepts and conceptual problems

If I have to identify the key common threads running through the three sessions I hosted, the first one has to with concepts and conceptual problems. 

Several participants posed the crucial question how do we think of 'progress'.

Is progress necessarily synonymous with growth, increased efficiency, better performance?

What are we sacrificing in the name of 'progress'?

One participant asked the painfully straight-to-the-point question: 'Should we abolish the Internet?' (considering the massive toll of tech companies on the environment, the rise of hate speech, cyber-bullying, polarization, etc.)

Do we feel loss at the thought? 

"Yes!" - I immediately said to myself.- "How could I talk to my family and to my friends".

This question really provoked me to think further.

If I can’t live in a world without the Internet, can we think of a different Internet?

How can we re-invent the Internet to become more caring, accessible, more Earth-based and less extractive (as one of the provocations suggested).


What does it mean to be sustainable?

Another, similarly important conceptual question was posed at the very end of the second session by a collegue who asked "What does it mean to be sustainable? Why do we want to be sustainable? What and whom are we sustaining?"

Should we not rather think of ways to radically change the system?

Our time ran out before discussing this in-depth and therefore this question has also been bothering me since then. 

Ultimately, as another participant emphasised, research on the environmental impact of tech is most problematic and underdeveloped at two levels - the levels of concepts (how do we think of abstraction and extraction, for example?), but also at the lowest level of what individuals and communities do.

This latter question about on-the-ground labour, work and action is actually the second common thread between several of the contributions in the sessions I attended. 

A colleague studying workers who do repair for their livelihood (not as a hipster exercise) rightly pointed out that when discussing the environmental consequences of tech, and practices such as repair in particular, it is difficult to disentangle the economic aspects of repair from the environmental ones. 

Indeed, in a different context, scholars of the environmental impact of tech have clearly shown how tech companies’ extractive practices towards nature go hand-in-hand with dispossession, economic exploitation and extraction of value and profit from marginalised communities.

Another colleague had studied the ways in which local leaders participate in decision-making about data centres in Thailand and controversies around water use - a topic very relevant to my own current project on data centres in the Netherlands.

Another participant yet had studied how participatory map-making not only consumes electricity but also changes the very way we see nature.

The reason why I found all these contributions so fascinating is that they challenged simplistic narratives of Big Tech vs the Environment and showed how many players (with how many different intentions, principles and economic interests) are actually involved in the increasingly complex assemblage of humans-nature and tech. 

So to sum up – in order to understand and better address the environmental consequences of digital tech, we need to be more clear about the concepts we use as researchers but also to be more open to the experiences of individuals and communities on the ground who often 'know better' since they live (and occasionally also cause) the very consequences of tech we research. 


To summarise...

Ultimately, each of us who attended (and hosted) the sessions of the workshop have a rich but still incomplete overview of the workshop.

By attending different sessions, there were provocations that individually we missed as sessions intertwined and overlapped (a bit like tectonic plates readjusting meaning, ideas and new perspectives for research).

We would love to hear from other attendees from the workshop, the ideas that struck them most during the sessions.

Luckily, some participants have submitted their provocation to our Zine, a unique document that we will share soon to help guide us forward in our thinking.

We can't wait to share the Zine with you... stay tuned.


This blog was originally posted on the Minderoo Centre for Technology and Democracy's Power Switch Blog.


The views, thoughts and opinions expressed on the CRASSH blog belong solely to the authors and do not necessarily represent the views of CRASSH or the University of Cambridge.

Can We Imagine a Better Internet?

Fakurian Design for Unsplash

Thinking and Practicing Care: Some Reflections From Organising a Conference During a Pandemic – CRASSH

Thinking and Practicing Care: Some Reflections From Organising a Conference During a Pandemic

We hope that by sharing our experiences, we may encourage conference organisers to recentre, revalue, and reflexively practice care at the heart of academic life.

Social Life of Care Conference Organisers

The conference organisers of the 'The Social Life of Care' conference, which took place in May 2021, reflect on organising a conference across continents and during a pandemic.


When we first conceived of 'The Social Life of Care' conference in 2019, hardly anyone had heard of coronavirus or imagined what living through a pandemic could be like. By the time the conference materialised in 2021, we had all become intimate with lockdowns, social distancing, and indeed crises of healthcare. In the days leading up to the conference, one of us was in India witnessing a large scale tragedy in the face of the state’s complete failure to care[ii]. Closer to time, some participants were withdrawing because of personal Covid tragedies and pandemic burnout. We simply could not ignore these developments in the planning and running of the conference. The space and format of the academic conference is not usually a particularly caring one, catering largely to the normative academic subject who is white, masculine, able, and carefree (in many senses of the term), but for us a conference on care without the practice of care would have been self-defeating. 

When we started planning the programme, we asked ourselves what a caring conference could (and should) look like. From the point of conception, we were committed to contesting the Global North bias of the mainstream care literature. We, therefore, attempted to distribute the call for papers widely by connecting directly with scholars based in the Global South. Going against the spirit of competition and hierarchy that tends to inform selection of papers for conferences, we decided to accommodate every paper that made a clear and salient contribution to the theme - with over 100 applications, this was no easy task! We put together a three days programme, with valuable input from CRASSH (Centre for Research in Arts, Social Sciences and Humanities), allowing plenty of time for discussion as well as breaks[iii].

Even though the fluctuating situation in the UK offered a window for convening the conference at least partly in person, we made an early call to run it entirely online to avoid creating unequal modes of participation. Attending conferences can be an elitist pursuit – travel, accommodation, and registration fees price people out; hostile border regimes make it impossible for some to attend[iv]; and conference venues often edge out disabled people. An online conference meant that scholars from all over the world, with different kinds of caring responsibilities, and physical and mental abilities could participate. However, recognising inequalities in access to as well as practices of digital technology, we did not harbour illusions of the conference being completely inclusive. We realised that many carers were participating in the online conference while simultaneously attending to caring responsibilities. An in-person conference would have allowed the possibility of at least creche provision. In that sense, we were at all times working within the structures and restrictions both of the online format of the conference and of the male-centric academy, but we made attempts along the way to mitigate barriers to participation.

We asked participants for pre-recorded video presentations so they could take their time, in their own space, using familiar equipment, to produce exactly what they wanted to present without the fear of technical issues on the day adding to the pre-conference nerves, particularly for those who experience intersecting marginalisation within the academy[v]. The use of breakout rooms allowed for a less intimidating experience of discussion in smaller groups. Any time a participant emailed to withdraw, including in the minutes leading up to the panel sessions, we replied with a simple “Sorry to hear, but not a problem at all”, demonstrating mindfulness of the circumstances of the pandemic. But these caring practices, that we hope made the conference experience smoother and enjoyable for the participants, required additional labour from us, highlighting what we understand as ‘tensions of care’ and the difficulties in challenging the prioritisation of academic production over social reproduction. 

For example, for the three days of the conference, we had to be constantly available to make adjustments to the programme at fairly short notice and to anticipate likely issues and barriers. Between sessions, one of the organisers remained by their screen to chat with the participants and ask them how they had found the session. This added a human face and a more personal feel to the virtual conference, but massively increased the screen-time and labour borne by this organiser. We also had to occasionally deal with sessions running into break time. With the aim of showing care to the speakers as researchers, we extended the sessions to enable them to conclude their Q&A responses. However, in doing so, we neglected to consider other caring priorities that participants may have had, such as, the need to feed children or to rest as a practice of self-care, particularly given varied time zones. Navigating running the event from our homes, with our own caring responsibilities, alongside supporting the presenters was a challenge. 

The labour that went into the conference was not an outlier, but rather an example of the way that academia is facilitated by care. This care, however, is largely unremunerated, invisibilised, and dismissed, carried out largely by workers, including administrators, students, and academics on precarious contracts, whose gender, race, age, and ethnicity ‘naturalises’ them as carers. As women in early-career and administrative roles, some of us parents and carers, some of us women of colour, we fit the image of such ‘naturalised carers’. This was, in part, offset by our privileged membership of elite institutions, which allows us to garner recognition of our work within normative systems of academic achievement. 

The care that went into the conference, however, didn’t just flow unidirectionally, from us as organisers to participants - we as organisers also demonstrated care for each other, for example, by volunteering ourselves for different tasks to lighten the load on one person’s shoulders, and by asking for and receiving assistance. The trust that these interactions and offers required was facilitated by our acquaintance through the Gender and Working Lives research group[vi], where we have been regularly convening for the last few years. The care that we demonstrated for each other was borne from the relationships that have been formed through our regular reading and writing sessions, foregrounding the importance of community-building within the academy. 

We also wish to highlight the care the participants showed, both to us as organisers as well to other participants. Over the three days, we experienced various technical glitches, particularly around the sharing of pre-recorded videos. We all learnt a lot about the nuances of Zoom and the dangers of heavy reliance on the internet (which tried to crash mid-event for one of us!) But the speakers and attendees showed great patience as we resolved these issues – and often helped us to do so, drawing on their own technical skills, as a practice of academic care. Through participants’ reciprocal caring labour, the conference became, for us, a shared space of care, pointing to ways of re-envisioning academia through a collective ethic and praxis of care. 

We know that we did not get everything right. There are issues that we could think of solutions to only in retrospect. For example, we wondered whether we could have organised this online event in a way that genuinely took into account the feelings, wishes, and needs of children who many of our organisers and participants were caring for as well as thinking about in their research. What would a genuinely children-centred conference look like? We also thought about the possibility of caring grants that could have enabled participants time away from their caring responsibilities. Perhaps this is more of a possibility now that conference funding is not being spent on food, travel, and accommodation? While some parts of the world are beginning to recover from the pandemic, others are mired with issues of vaccine supplies and crippling health infrastructures. In these conditions, we are wary of calls for hybrid conferences, which could create a hierarchical participation system. We hope that by sharing our experiences, we may encourage conference organisers to recentre, revalue, and reflexively practice care at the heart of academic life.


Blog Authors

Jules Allen
Yasmeen Arif
Nicki Dawidowski
Asiya Islam
Clare Walsh
Siby Warrington

Information about the conference, including the session recordings, can be found on the conference website.



[ii] Krishnan, V. ‘Uncritical support for Modi paved the way for India’s COVID-19 crisis’. Accessed on 21 June 2021. 

[iii] This is in the spirit of the ‘slow scholarship’ movement and feminist calls to democratise academic events, and inspired by The Nap Ministry’s advocacy of the Black feminist framework of ‘Rest is Resistance’.

[iv] Ehdeed, S. 2019. The Impact of Visa Denial in Academic. Accessed on 21 June 2021.

[v] Gunaratnam, Y. 2020. Presentation fever and podium affects. Feminist Theory. doi:10.1177/1464700120969348.

[vi] Gender and Working Lives group is on Twitter – @GenderWorkGroup – and can be contacted via email – 


The views, thoughts and opinions expressed on the CRASSH blog belong solely to the authors and do not necessarily represent the views of CRASSH or the University of Cambridge.

Posted: Friday 2 July 2021

Contributor: CRASSH News

Thinking and Practicing Care: Some Reflections From Organising a Conference During a Pandemic

Women’s Strike poster, Stuart Hall at the First Women’s Liberation Conference Creche, Oxford 1970

Artificial Intelligence and Multimodality: Workshop Reflections – CRASSH

Artificial Intelligence and Multimodality: Workshop Reflections

The workshop brought together researchers with interests in Artificial Intelligence (AI) and Multimodality (or both), with the aim of identifying common ground that connects these two research domains. Such an undertaking is timely since we live in a world that is increasingly multimodal.

Marcus Tomalin

Marcus Tomalin reflects on the Artificial Intelligence and Multimodality: From Semiotics to Intelligent Systems workshop which was a collaboration between the UCL Centre for Multimodal Research/Visual and Multimodal Research Forum and the Giving Voice to Digital Democracies project based at the University of Cambridge. The workshop brought together the fields of Artificial Intelligence (AI) and Multimodality, with the aim of identifying common ground that connects these two research domains.


The Giving Voice to Digital Democracies (GVDD) project, which is based at CRASSH’s Centre for the Humanities and Social Change and funded by the Humanities and Social Change International Foundation, hosted its first online workshop of 2021 on 14 June . This was a joint event that had been organised with the Centre for Multimodal Research at University College London, and it was dedicated to the memory of the influential Multimodality theorist Gunther Kress (1940 – 2019). The GVDD project investigates the social impact of Artificially Intelligent Communications Technology (AICT), while the Centre for Multimodal Research, which was established in 2006, explores multimodality from theoretical and practical perspectives, so the collaboration was an effective one. The organisers were Marcus Tomalin, who is the project manager of the GVDD project, and Sophia Diamantopoulou, who is a member of the Centre for Multimodal Research and the facilitator of the Visual and Multimodal Research Forum. 


The workshop brought together researchers with interests in Artificial Intelligence (AI) and Multimodality (or both), with the aim of identifying common ground that connects these two research domains. Such an undertaking is timely since we live in a world that is increasingly multimodal. The internet, social media, mobile phones and other digital technologies have given prominence to forms of discourse in which texts, images and sounds combine to convey complex messages. Animated emojis, internet memes, the automatic captioning of live shows and e-literature are all illustrative examples of this trend. Since its emergence in the 1980s, the academic discipline of Multimodality has offered a set of robust analytical frameworks for examining multimodal phenomena. A careful consideration of such things enables the form and function of multimodal communication in human social interactions to be analysed in greater detail.


In a parallel development, over the last decade a new generation of AI systems has attained unprecedented levels of sophistication when performing generative and analytical tasks which, traditionally, only humans had accomplished convincingly. These advances have been triggered by the resurgence of neural-based machine-learning techniques which coincided with the greater availability of more effective hardware, such as Graphical Processing Units (GPUs), that facilitated parallel computation. The task of building state-of-the-art systems has benefited greatly from the release of free open-source software packages such as PyTorch (2016 – present) and Tensorflow (2017 – present) – and these advances have made it possible to create intelligent and autonomous systems that are increasingly multimodal. For instance, systems have been developed that can identify racist or sexist internet memes by processing texts as well as images (eg The Facebook Hateful Meme Challenge), while other researchers have created multimodal machine translation systems that perform image-guided translation of written or spoken texts. These multimodal tendencies are becoming increasingly prevalent in many modern AI applications.




However, despite their many obvious overlapping areas of interest, these two research domains remain largely disjunct. The computer scientists and information engineers who develop multimodal machine learning techniques tend to know very little about dominant theories of Multimodality while, conversely, the semioticians, linguists, philosophers, sociologists and social scientists who elaborate theories of Multimodality tend to know comparatively little about the architecture and application of multimodal AI systems. This persistent disconnection is regrettable since more extensive interactions involving researchers from both groups is likely to be mutually beneficial, and the workshop provided a valuable opportunity for AI researchers and Multimodality theorists alike to come together to exchange ideas and approaches in order to address crucial questions.


The event was divided into two sub-sections and the first, which focused on ‘Learning and Knowledge’, featured Kay O’Halloran (University of Liverpool), Lucia Specia (Imperial College London),  Victor Lim Fei (Nanyang Technological University) and Nadia Berthouze (University College London). The resulting discussions explored a wide range of issues including the difficulty of obtaining and labelling high-quality data sets for multimodal AI research, the challenges facing state-of-the-art multimodal machine translation systems, the need for multimodal data analytics, the gender-related consequences of designing a multimodal persona for an automated system, and the difficulties of modelling multimodal communication when different modes convey contrary meanings (eg the facial expression implies one thing but the words spoken suggest the opposite).



The second sub-section of the workshop focused on ‘Communication and Agency’ and the conversations involved Douwe Kiela (Facebook AI Research), Theo Van Leeuwen (University of Southern Denmark), Verena Rieser (Heriot-Watt University), Carl H Smith (Ravensbourne University London) and Rodney Jones (University of Reading). Some of the topics explored included the task of detecting hateful memes automatically online, the theoretical complexities that AI poses for social semiotic theories of multimodality, the multimodal implications of context engineering and mixed reality tools, and the consequences of the need for (multimodal) AI systems to make the world legible so that they can process it.




More than 260 people registered for the event. They were based in many different countries around the world, and questions from the audience were incorporated into the probing discussions that took place during each of the sessions. It is hoped that this workshop will simply be the first in a series of events that provide further opportunities for detailed discussion about the complex relationship between AI and Multimodality.



The views, thoughts and opinions expressed on the CRASSH blog belong solely to the authors and do not necessarily represent the views of CRASSH or the University of Cambridge.

Posted: Thursday 24 June 2021

Contributor: Marcus Tomalin

Artificial Intelligence and Multimodality: Workshop Reflections


Mental Health and Social Power: Conference Reflections on Lived Experience – CRASSH

Mental Health and Social Power: Conference Reflections on Lived Experience

Engagement of attendees was very important to us and in addition to Q&As, we invited ideas, thoughts and comments. They included lessons for mental health services, activists, government politicians, and researchers. These fantastic insights will be drawn on in the continuing work of the steering group.

Joannah Griffith

Joannah Griffith (conference steering group) reflects on the Social Power and Mental Health: Evolving Research Through Lived Experience conference which took place online in April 2021.

Two years ago I was in the final stages of my Clinical Psychology MSc. I attended two academic conferences presenting my research. Both were daunting and I felt uncomfortable about how close I was to my subject of prescribed Benzodiazepine withdrawal. I had been through it. Despite my endeavours as an Expert by Experience with CPFT, I questioned my expertise: What did I really know? Through years of being sat in the seat of the ‘patient’ relating very much to the powerless experiences of my participants, who was I to harness my personal agency and talk about these things? My fears were sometimes reflected in comments on my work: ‘Do people still do exactly what their doctors say?’ scoffed one academic (the implication being that developing dependence is a personal flaw – a painful suggestion to someone who had been restrained and forcibly medicated countless times). I felt like an imposter.

So, when I received the email about a conference on Social Power and Mental Health I was both curious and sceptical. I love a challenge but it felt like a radical idea - you’re lucky if there’s a couple of people at a conference with lived experience of the subject in question. Even then, you don’t typically find them speaking – that is left to the “real” experts! Could this be done in an authentic and purposeful way? 

Joining the steering group was refreshing from the start. We passed around ‘A Simple Guide to Co-Production'from Recovery In The Bin, a satirical leaflet highlighting the downfalls common in this type of work. It included points on gratitude: “Be so grateful for being heard that you learn to live off the power of your own gratefulness. Do not request a living wage.” and presentation: “If you are not recovered enough to be socially acceptable, please ensure you conceal this in public.” Many of us smiled, with experiences of unpaid emotional labour these points were familiar, but now the chance to challenge them was here! I certainly didn’t feel like an imposter now and we were all going to be paid too!

When the pandemic hit, we moved to online contact and eventually decided to host the conference online too. Planning was very much democratic, we discussed and we voted: eg. On things like whether we would call the conference a conference (I’d only just learnt what one was!), prospective keynote speakers, and wording of the call for papers. We wanted to ensure that it was inclusive and accessible: people could apply with or without academic qualifications and we really wanted them to! Who did we feel would best tackle some of the issues at the heart of social disempowerment for people suffering from mental distress? Showcasing work by those with lived experience became a clear priority.  This felt hopeful and comforting to me personally. Interestingly, some quandaries of social power arose in planning around speaker fees, speaker affiliations and funding origins. These were discussed in an open way; everyone was heard and collectively we made decisions that we felt were best for our conference. It certainly felt that it was ours rather than something we were helping with.

The conference itself I felt could not have gone more smoothly. Engagement of attendees was very important to us and in addition to Q&As, we invited ideas, thoughts and comments. They included lessons for mental health services, activists, government politicians, and researchers. These fantastic insights will be drawn on in the continuing work of the steering group.

A point I want to end on was made in discussion on Twitter, essentially: ‘What about those who are too mentally unwell to participate in such an event?’. Initially I felt defensive and concerned for our speakers: was this gatekeeping of mental distress? Would they feel that they were not mad enough? The conversation unravelled and one of our keynotes, Rai Waddingham, spoke eloquently about a recent experience of being cut off for being too open with her distress. I thought back to my own acute psychiatric stays, to my inpatient friends and how unwell we were. Something like this would likely not have been possible to engage with. I realised, of course it was a good point – what about those people? To have so many people with lived experience speaking and in attendance (both majorities) was a fantastic accomplishment, however, there remains much work to be done. We need to continue pushing for a culture of lived experience being drawn on as the invaluable resource it is. Our voices are fundamental if we hope to ensure that the systems there to serve us meet us in the reality of our situations. 

The steering group are continuing projects to this end, including writing up a local mental health plan and intend to publish academic work on the conference. Updates on these can be found on our Twitter page @SocialPowerMH.

The conference was hosted by CRASSH in April 2021. It began with two panels on Covid and Mental Health and Black Mental Health. Shortly followed by sessions themed around Psychiatry and Other Systems, Activism and Hope, and Social Inequalities and Justice. Our keynotes Imogen Tyler explored Mental Distress in Austerity Britain and Rai Waddingham Listening to ‘Mad’ Voices in a Crazy World. 

Written by: Joannah Griffith, Independent Researcher, EbE with CPFT, and Origami Advocate


The views, thoughts and opinions expressed on the CRASSH blog belong solely to the authors and do not necessarily represent the views of CRASSH or the University of Cambridge.

Posted: Thursday 17 June 2021

Contributor: CRASSH News

Mental Health and Social Power: Conference Reflections on Lived Experience

Image: Lifecraft Art Group

Conference Reflections | Dressing a Picture: Reimagining the Court Portrait, 1500-1800 – CRASSH

Conference Reflections | Dressing a Picture: Reimagining the Court Portrait, 1500-1800

Over the course of two virtual afternoons, 'Dressing a Picture: Reimagining the Court Portrait' explored the myriad of meanings and values expressed within portraiture from a range of disciplinary lenses. 

Ana Howie and Alessandro Nicola Malusà

Authors and Convenors Ana Howie and Alessandro Nicola Malusà reflect on their conference Dressing a Picture: Reimaging the Court Portrait, 1500-1800 which took place online in May 2021.


Conference Summary | Dressing a Picture: Reimagining the Court Portrait, 1500-1800

The genesis of the Dressing a Picture conference dates back to November 2019 when we discovered the various points of convergence between our respective doctoral projects on early seventeenth-century portraiture. In discussing these points, we came across the lacunae in scholarly literature, and decided to launch a programme designed to generate fresh discourse. 

Portraiture represents a fundamental tool with which to explore the experiences, aspirations, and motivations of early modern societies. Europe’s grandest portraits from the early modern period have been scrutinised by art critics and lovers from their first unveilings. This leaves us with over 500 years’ worth of scholarship, which has informed how these images are seen today. However, the interdisciplinary turn in the humanities has drastically transformed our approaches to these rich images, and our understanding of the cultures, societies, and environments that shaped them. It was therefore our goal to bring court portraiture into dialogue with the multiplicity of frameworks that inform interdisciplinary study.

Of particular interest to the investigations of our speakers was a focus on dress, adornment, and material culture. Early modern society was extremely dress literate; this phenomenon was pronounced at court, where everyone vigorously partook in the consumption of fashion and material goods. Within these sartorially minded communities, one was constantly on display. Portraiture was a unique vehicle for expressions of the intertwining of perceptions and presentations of subjects and beholders. Clothing and bodily ornamentation played a crucial role in this relationship, bringing liveliness, symbolic meaning, and socio-cultural values to the painted canvas. 

Our conference brought together the many strands of meaning materialised in portraiture and demonstrated its centrality to the fashioning of early modern courtly identities. Importantly, the identities explored in portraiture did not only concern the elite but all levels of society, from tailors, jewellers, and furriers, to artists and their apprentices, court jesters, buffoons, and attendants. Questions of the body also took centre stage. The fleshy human body, be it male or female, old, young, pregnant, or othered was also subject to pictorial scrutiny, and speakers explored the ways in which bodies were susceptible to sartorial interventions in representation.  

The early modern period witnessed a burst in global encounters, where images and objects played key roles. As our conference demonstrated, court portraits and luxury goods were not solely the prerogative of European courts and Western subjects.  These items of material culture had vast and varied ramifications across many global courtly settings. Importantly, these settings are fundamental to our comprehension of the function of court portraiture. Our speakers conceived of these spaces as pre-set stages for human action, and specifically the performance of a multiplicity of royal identities, emphasising that within these spatial frameworks, social relations between artist, sitter, and viewer could be activated and expressed. 

The conference was closed by an insightful and thought-provoking keynote lecture by Professor Erin Griffey from the University of Auckland, who explored the role of cosmetics in early modern bodily adornment and image making. This was a fitting ending to an event that had brought together scholars at all stages of their careers, and from around the world.

Over the course of two virtual afternoons, Dressing a Picture: Reimagining the Court Portrait explored the myriad of meanings and values expressed within portraiture from a range of disciplinary lenses. Through the rich discourse generated by our speakers, moderators, and participants, the conference succeeded in advancing the discourse surrounding visual and material culture in early modern global societies. 


Keynote Lecture by Erin Griffey (University of Auckland)
'Beauties Silken Livery': Dressing the Face at the Early Modern Court


The views, thoughts and opinions expressed on the CRASSH blog belong solely to the authors and do not necessarily represent the views of CRASSH or the University of Cambridge.


Posted: Friday 11 June 2021

Contributor: CRASSH News

Conference Reflections | Dressing a Picture: Reimagining the Court Portrait, 1500-1800

Portrait of Doña Ana de Velasco y Girón, Duchess of Braganza, 1603, Juan Pantoja de la Cruz, Alicia Koplowitz Collection Wikimedia Commons

20 Years CRASSH: Caring for Others – CRASSH

20 Years CRASSH: Caring for Others

Wide-ranging interdisciplinary perspectives on 'caring for others' – a collection of material from our archive.

A playlist from our archive on the theme of 'Caring for Others', created within the context of CRASSH's 20th anniversary.


Steven Eastwood: Images of Care and Dying

Images of Care and Dying Research Group




Mike Levy: On Their Mettle - Professor Robert and Mrs Sybil Hutton and the Rescue and Care of Cambridge Refugees

Cambridge: City of Scholars, City of Refuge (1933-1945) Conference




Toby Parsloe: The Politics of Refugee Shelter Placement and Development in Berlin

The Politics of Social Protection: Is it really the Citizens vs. the Vulnerables? Conference  (audio only)




Panel Discussion | The Subversive Good - Curating Kinship: Forcing Spaces of Learning and Encounter

The Subversive Good: Disrupting Power, Transcending Inequalities Research Network (audio only)




Ashley Moffett and Meghan Vaughan: New Approaches to Maternal Mortality In Africa

Maternal Mortality in Sub-Saharan Africa Conference




Marilyn Strathern: Taking Care of a Concept: Anthropological Reflections on the Assisted Society

CRASSH 'Understanding Society' Lecture Series




Valerie Bradley: The Recommendation on Science and Scientific Researchers: Entailments and Ramifications for People with Disabilities

The Right to Science Symposium (gloknos)




Ashok Ranchhod: Games, Health and Cancer

Arts & Science Researcher Forum




Mette Louise Berg and Ben Gidley: Welfare, Neighbourhood and New Geographies of Diversity

City Seminar Research Group (audio only)




Nazia Habib-Minz and Katrin Glatzel: Paris 2015: Securing Food in a Changing Climate

Food: Field to Table? Research Group (audio only)




Panel Discussion | Fostering Ethics: Care of Children in Islamic Law and Society

Fostering Ethics: Islam, Adoption and the Care of Children Conference


The views, thoughts and opinions expressed on the CRASSH blog belong solely to the authors and do not necessarily represent the views of CRASSH or the University of Cambridge.

Posted: Wednesday 2 June 2021

Contributor: CRASSH News

Tags: societycaringcare

Berlin-Based Writer and Journalist Wins US$100,000 Nine Dots Prize – CRASSH

Berlin-Based Writer and Journalist Wins US$100,000 Nine Dots Prize

The Nine Dots Prize is a remarkable opportunity: it is the only prize I know that offers a new voice the chance to write a transformative book – a book that will change things in the world and will change the writer's own life. It is judged absolutely anonymously, and the award is made to what we think is simply the best proposal. This year's remarkable winner, Trish Lorenz, wrote a compelling case for thinking hard about the future of Africa's huge young population. I can't wait to see the book take shape and to read the final version.

Simon Goldhill, Chair of Prize Board

Berlin-based journalist Trish Lorenz has been announced as the winner of the 2021/2022 Nine Dots Prize, receiving US$100,000 and a book deal with Cambridge University Press for her ‘compelling and well-evidenced’ response to the question ‘What does it mean to be young in an ageing world?’

• Nine Dots Prize Press Release

The Nine Dots Prize is a prize for a book that has not yet been written. Every two years, its Board sets a question and invites people to respond with a 3,000-word essay and a book proposal. The winner receives US$100,000, which enables them to spend time researching, developing their ideas, and turning their essay response into a full-length book which is published by Cambridge University Press.

Nearly 700 potential books were submitted in response to the 2021/2022 question, from 92 different countries around the world. They were judged anonymously by the Prize’s twelve-strong Board of leading academics, journalists and thinkers.


We are elated at the announcement that Trish Lorenz is the third winner of the Nine Dots prize, and looking forward eagerly to welcoming her to CRASSH later this year to work on what is going to be a truly exciting book.

– Steven Connor, Director, CRASSH

Lorenz’s winning essay argued that no question of what it means to be young in the 21st century should overlook the significant youth populations of sub-Saharan African countries including Nigeria, Ghana, Kenya, Rwanda, and Ethiopia. Focusing on Nigeria – one of the youngest countries in the world, where more than 42% of the population is under 14 years old – as a case study, she proposes to conduct in-depth interviews and discussions with the youth population to explore the following topics:

  • The role urbanisation is playing in defining this generation, and how this generation is in turn redefining the notion of an African city
  • The emergence of a distinct generational identity across music, fashion, design, art, and culture
  • How this generation is employing technological solutions to become self-sufficient and solve pan-African and global issues
  • The discrepancy between the average age of the population and the age of its leaders, who are amongst the oldest in the world
  • The activists challenging traditional societal norms and carving out a new vision of what it means to be African

Chair of the Nine Dots Prize Board, Professor in Greek Literature and Culture, and Fellow of King's College, Cambridge, Professor Simon Goldhill said: "The Nine Dot Prize questions allow entrants to define the terms for themselves, so that they can approach the question in the way they feel is most interesting. The Board was thoroughly convinced by Trish’s compelling and well-evidenced argument that the 2021/2022 question could only be answered in this way, and by the authenticity and rigour of her approach. We very much look forward to reading the book she will now write on the topic."

Lorenz has been a journalist for more than 15 years. She is a regular contributor to titles including The Guardian, The Financial Times and The Telegraph, among others, and her reporting has included covering stories in Senegal, Mali and Burkina Faso. Formerly a design columnist at The Independent and the Lisbon correspondent for Monocle magazine, she covers subjects ranging from design, art and culture to travel, politics and human interest. She moved to Berlin in early 2020. Prior to that she lived in Lisbon for eight years, working as a correspondent in Portugal and the Portuguese speaking world, a role that involved travel and reporting on African Portuguese speaking countries such as Cape Verde.

Lorenz said: "I am very excited to have been chosen as this year’s winner. The topic is a subject that’s close to my heart – in my travels to African countries I’ve always been struck by the energy, commitment and positivity of the young people I’ve met. I’m very happy that the prize will give me a chance to learn more about some of their lives, achievements and ambitions and to share their stories more widely across the world."

As part of the prize win, Lorenz is invited to spend a term at the Centre for Research in the Arts, Social Sciences and Humanities (CRASSH), Cambridge University. Her book will be published by Cambridge University Press in May 2022 in a variety of formats, including open access, meaning the book can be downloaded free of charge.


About the Nine Dots Prize

The Nine Dots Prize is a prize for creative thinking that tackles contemporary societal issues. Its heartland is in the analysis of contemporary society and societal challenges, and it welcomes responses that draw on any perspective and discipline. Entrants are challenged to submit 3,000-word responses to a question set by the Board. The winner receives US$100,000, which supports them to write a short book expanding on their ideas to be published by Cambridge University Press in a variety of formats, including open access, meaning the book can be downloaded free of charge.

The Nine Dots Prize is judged anonymously and funded by the Kadas Prize Foundation, an English registered charity established to fund research into significant but neglected questions relevant to today’s world. Its name references a lateral thinking puzzle that can only be solved by drawing outside of a box of nine dots arranged in three rows of three. It is supported by Cambridge University Press and the Centre for Research in the Arts, Social Sciences and Humanities (CRASSH), both departments of the University of Cambridge.


About the Kadas Prize Foundation

The Kadas Prize Foundation was established to fund research into significant but neglected questions relevant to today’s world. Its main charitable activity is as a prize-awarding body, enabling Prize winners to further their work in the arts, humanities, sciences and social sciences to the benefit of the public. The Foundation was established by Peter Kadas, who has worked around the world for a number of leading institutions. Originally from Hungary, he holds Canadian and UK citizenship and currently lives in Barcelona, where he is a Senior Adviser at BXR Corporate Consulting Partners SL, which is an adviser to investment group BXR Group.


Past Winners

The 2017/2018 Nine Dots Prize was won by former Google employee turned Oxford philosopher, James Williams, who submitted the best response to the question ‘Are digital technologies making politics impossible?’ The resulting book, Stand Out of Our Light: Freedom and Resistance in the Attention Economy, was published in May 2018 to critical acclaim (‘A landmark book’ – the Observer; ‘Switch off your smartphone, slouch in a comfy chair, and pay your full, undivided, attention to this short, absorbing, and deeply disturbing book’ – Financial Times). It was chosen as Princeton University’s 2019 Pre-read and sent to all incoming students as an introduction to intellectual life at Princeton.
The 2019/2020 Nine Dots Prize was won by Mumbai-based writer Annie Zaidi, who submitted a ‘powerful’ and ‘unique’ response to the question ‘Is there still no place like home?’ The resulting book, Bread, Cement, Cactus: A Memoir of Belonging and Dislocation, explores notions of home and belonging rooted in Zaidi’s experiences of life in India. It was described by the Observer as a ‘compelling exploration of the intimate and political sides of an itinerant life’.

Posted: Thursday 27 May 2021

Contributor: CRASSH News

Tags: trish lorenznine dots prize

In Review: The Cloud and the Ground – CRASSH

In Review: The Cloud and the Ground

Big tech’s logics of extraction, abstraction, invisibility, hypervisibility and impermanence are driving the current third wave of urbanization and unequal development under digital capitalism.

Julia Rone

In this literature review from the Minderoo Centre for Technology and Democracy, Julia Rone outlines the key trends and logics behind the boom in data centre construction across the globe.

Hamlet: Do you see yonder cloud that’s almost in shape of a camel?

Polonius: By th’ mass, and ‘tis like a camel indeed.

Hamlet: Methinks it is like a weasel

Polonius: It is backed like a weasel.

Hamlet: Or like a whale?

Polonius: Very like a whale.


The cloud – this fundamental building block of digital capitalism – has been so far defined mainly by the PR of big tech companies.

The very metaphor of the “cloud” presupposes an ethereal, supposedly immaterial collection of bits gliding in the sky, safely removed from the corrupt organic and inorganic matter that surrounds us. This, of course, can’t be further from the truth.

But even when they acknowledge the materiality of the “cloud” and the way it is grounded in a very physical infrastructure of cables, data centres, etc., tech giants still present it in a neat and glamorous way. Data centres, for example, provide carefully curated tours and are presented as sites of harmoniously humming servers, surrounded by wild forests and sea. Some data centres even boast with saunas.  

Instead of accepting blindly the PR of tech companies and seeing “the cloud” as whatever they present it (similarly to the way Polonius accepts Hamlet’s interpretations of the cloud), we should be attuned to the multiplicity of existing perspectives on “the cloud”, coming from researchers, rural and urban communities, and environmentalists, among others.

In this lit review, I outline the key trends and logics behind the boom in data centre construction across the globe. I base the discussion on several papers from two special issues. The first one is The Nature of Data Centres, edited by Mél Hogan and Asta Vonderau for Culture Machine. The second: Location and Dislocation: Global Geographies of Digital Data, edited by Alix Johnson and Mél Hogan for Imaginations: Journal of Cross-Cultural Image Studies. I really recommend reading both issues – the contributions read like short stories and go straight to the core of the most pressing political economy problems of our times.

Credit: Zbynek Burival for Unsplash

The “nature” of data centres

Data centres as key units of the cloud are very material: noisy, hot, giant storage boxes containing thousands of servers, they occupy factories from the past or spring up on farm land all over the globe. Data centres are grounded in particular locations and depend on a number of “natural” factors for their work, including temperature, humidity, or air pollution. In order for data centres to function, they not only use up electricity (produced by burning coal or using wind energy, for example). They also employ technologies to circulate air and water to cool down and emit heat as a waste product.

But data centres are not only assemblages of technology and nature. Their very appearance, endurance and disappearance is defined by complex institutional and non-institutional social relations: regions and countries compete with each other to cut taxes for tech corporations that promise to bring jobs and development. Some states (e.g. Scandinavian states) are preferred over others because of their stable institutions and political “climate”.

No blank slate

To illustrate, the fact that data centres are built in the Sweden’s Norrbotten region has to do a lot with the “nature” of the region conceptualized reductively by tech companies as cheap energy, cheap water, cheap land and green imagery (Levenda and Mahmoudi, 2019, 2). But it also has to do a lot with the fact that Norrbotten is filled with the “ruins of infrastructural promises” (Vonderau, 2019, 3) – “a scarcely populated and resource-rich region, historically inhabited by native Sami people, the region was for a long-time regarded as no-man’s land” (ibid). Not only is Norrbotten scarcely populated but it also has an “extremely stable and redundant electricity grid which was originally designed for […]‘old’ industries” (ibid, 7).

A similar logic of operation could be discerned in the establishment of a data centre in the Midway Technology Centre in Chicago, where the Schulze Bakery was repurposed as a data centre (Pickren, 2017) Pickren was told in an interview with a developer working on the Schulze redevelopment project that “because the surrounding area had been deindustrialized, and because a large public housing project, the Robert Taylor Homes had closed down in recent decades, the nearby power substations actually had plenty of idle capacity to meet the new data centre needs” (Pickren, 2017). As Pickern observes, “there is no blank slate upon which the world of data simply emerges”(ibid.) There are multiple “continuities between an (always temporary) industrial period and the (similarly temporary) ascendancy of digital capitalism” (ibid).

Extraction and the third wave of urbanization

What the examples of Norrbotten in Sweden and the redevelopment of Chicago by the data industry show is that despite a carefully constructed PR around “being close to nature” and “being green”, decisions on data centre construction actually depend on availability of electricity for which depopulation is only a plus. Instead of “untouched” regions, what companies often go for are rather abandoned or scarcely populated regions with infrastructure left behind. Data centres use resources – industrial capacity or Green energy – that are already there, left from previous booms and busts of capitalism or from conscious state investment that is now used to the benefit of private companies.

“Urban interactions are increasingly mediated by tech and leave a digital trace – from paying your Uber to ordering a latte, from booking a restaurant to finding a date for the night.”

Both urban and rural communities are in fact all embedded within a common process of a “third wave of urbanization” that goes hand in hand with an increase in the commodification and extraction of both data and “natural” resources (Levenda and Mahmoudi, 2019). What this means is that urban interactions are increasingly mediated by tech and leave a digital trace – from paying your Uber to ordering a latte, from booking a restaurant to finding a date for the night.

Credit: Priscilla Du Preez for Unsplash

This urban data is then stored and analysed in predominantly rural settings: “[T]he restructuring of Seattle leads to agglomerations in urban data production, which rely on rural data storage and analysis” (ibid, 9). Put simply, “[J]ust as Facebook and Google use rural Oregon for their ‘natural’ resources, they use cities and agglomerations of ‘users’ to extract data”.

Ultimately, data centres manifest themselves as assemblages for the extraction of value from both people and nature.

As if in a perverse rendition of Captain Planet, all elements – water, air, earth, human beings and technology – unite forces so that data centres can function and you can upload a cat photo on Facebook. In this real life data-centre version of Captain Planet, however, all elements are used up, extracted, exhausted. Water is polluted.

People live with the humming noise of thousands of servers.

Taxes are not collected and therefore not invested in communities that are already deprived.

What is more, data centres often arrive in rural regions with the promise to create jobs and drive development. But as numerous authors have shown, actual jobs created by data centres are less than what was originally promised, with most jobs being precarious subcontracting (Mayer, 2019). As Pickren notes, “If the data centre is the ‘factory of the 21st century,’ whither the working class?”


Data centres do create jobs but predominantly in urban areas. “[W]here jobs are created, where they are destroyed and who is affected are socially and geographically uneven” (Pickern, 2017). Where value is extracted from and where value is allocated rarely coincide.

And if from a birds view perspective, what matters is the total number of jobs created, what matters in Sweden’s Norrbotten or The Netherlands’ Groningen, where data centres are built, is how many jobs are created there and furthermore, what types of jobs (Mayer, 2019). In the same way, while from an abstract point of view tech companies such as Microsoft might be “carbon neutral”, this does not change their questionable practices and dependence on coal in particular places.

The Introduction to the “Location and Dislocation” Special Issue quotes a classic formulation by Yi-Fu Tuan according to whom “place is space made meaningful” (Johnson and Hogan, 2017, 4).

“Whenever we hear big tech’s grandiose pledges of carbon neutrality and reducing carbon emissions, we need to understand that these companies are not simply “green-washing” but are also approaching the problem of global warming “in the abstract””.

One of the key issues with tech companies building data centres is the way they privilege space over place – an abstract logic of calculation and global flows over the very particular local relations of belonging and accountability.

In a great piece on “fungible forms of mediation in the cloud”, Pasek explores how the practice of big tech companies to buy renewable energy certificates does more harm than good, since it allows “data centre companies to symbolically negate their local impacts in coal-powered regions on papers, while still materially driving up local grid demand and thereby incentivizing the maintenance or expansion of fossil energy generation” (ibid, 7).

The impact for local communities can be disastrous: “In communities located near power plants, disproportionately black, brown and low-income, this has direct consequences for public health, including greater rates of asthma and infant mortality” (ibid).

So whenever we hear big tech’s grandiose pledges of carbon neutrality and reducing carbon emissions, we need to understand that these companies are not simply “green-washing” but are also approaching the problem of global warming “in the abstract”, at the global level, paying little attention to their effect in any particular locality.

As Pasek notes, this logic of abstraction subordinates the “urgencies of place” to the “logics of circulation”.

Unsurprisingly, it is precisely the places that have already lost the most from previous industrial transformations that are the ones who suffer most during the current digital transformations.

Invisibility and  Hypervisibility

What makes possible the extraction practices of tech companies is a mix between how little we know about them and how much we believe in their promise of doing good (or well, not doing evil at least).

In her fascinating essay “The Second Coming: Google and Internet infrastructure”, Mayer (2019) explores the rumours around a new Google data centre in Groningen. Mayer explores how Google’s reputation as a leading company combined with a the total lack of concrete information about the new data centre create a mystical aura around the whole enterprise: “Google’s curation of aura harkens back to the early eras of Western sacred art, during which priests gave sacred objects their magical value by keeping them ‘invisible to the spectator’” (Mayer, 2019, 4).

Mayer contrasts a sleek Google PR video (with a lone windmill and blond girls looking at computer screens) with the reality brought about by a centre that offered only a few temporary subcontracting jobs. The narrative of regional growth presented by Google unfortunately turned out to be PR rather than a coherent development strategy.


Furthermore, in a fascinating essay on data centres as “impertinent infrastructures”, Velkova (2019) explores the temporality and impermanence of data centres that can be moved or abandoned easily. 

How could such impertinent structures provide regional development?

What is more, even if data centres do not move, they do reorganize global territories and connectivity speeds through the threat of moving: “data center companies are constantly reevaluating the economic profitability of particular locations in synchrony with server replacement cycles and new legislative frameworks that come into force.

Data centres are above all impermanent – they can come and go. Rather than being responsible to a particular locality, data centres are part of what Pasek called a “logic of global circulation”

Should tax regulations, electricity prices, legislation or geopolitical dynamics shift, even a hyper-sized data center like Google’s in Finland or Facebook’s in Sweden could make a corresponding move to a place with more economically favourable conditions within three years” (Velkova, 2019, 5).

So data centres are on the one hand, hypervisible through corporate PR. On the other hand, they are invisible for local communities that are left guessing about construction permits, the conditions of data centres arrival, their impact on the environment and the economy.

But ultimately, and this is the crucial part, data centres are above all impermanent – they can come and go. Rather than being responsible to a particular locality, data centres are part of what Pasek called a “logic of global circulation”.

Holding each node accountable

Big tech’s logics of extraction, abstraction, invisibility, hypervisibility and impermanence are driving the current third wave of urbanization and unequal development under digital capitalism.

But it is possible to imagine another politics that would “hold each node accountable to the communities in which they are located” (Pasek, 9).

The papers from the two special issues I review here provide an exhaustive and inspiring overview of the “nature” and imaginaries of data centres.

Yet, with few exceptions (such as the work of Asta Vonderau), we know little about the politics of resistance to data centres and the local social movements that are appearing and demanding more democratic participation in decision making.

Would it be possible for us – citizens – to define what the cloud should look like? Not sure. But this is a crucial element of any project for democratizing digital sovereignty. And this is what I work on now.


The views, thoughts and opinions expressed on the CRASSH blog belong solely to the authors and do not necessarily represent the views of CRASSH or the University of Cambridge.

Anna Alexandrova on Measuring Well-Being and Alternatives to Technocracy – CRASSH

Anna Alexandrova on Measuring Well-Being and Alternatives to Technocracy

For well-being to become an object of science, it needs to make a trip into another discipline [and so] it loses something and it gains something [...] it will become simpler, it will be more limited, and it will be represented by an indicator.

Anna Alexandrova

An article and podcast with Anna Alexandrova, Principal Investigator of the Expertise Under Pressure project. This blog has been reposted with kind permission from Hear this Idea.


Anna Alexandrova is a Reader in Philosophy of Science at the University of Cambridge and a Fellow of King's College, having previously taught at the University of Missouri St Louis. Anna studies the philosophy of social sciences, focusing on the use of formal models and the science of well-being. She is the author of A Philosophy for the Science of Well-Being (2017).


Is there, or should there be, a single measure of overall well-being? Can the science of well-being be objective, or does any plausible measure rely on values? And what do philosophers mean by "well-being" in the first place? These are the topics of the first part of our conversation, which turns into a broader discussion of technocratic versus democratic approaches to constructing measures of well-being.

Next, we discuss the use (and abuse) of formal models in economics. Anna has argued that formal models derived from the 'rational choice' framework have become overrated as tools for explanation. Instead, Anna says, the economics discipline would do well to pay more attention to historical explanations and qualitative evidence. We ask Anna about how economics might become more receptive to such alternative methods and sources of evidence.

We finish by talking about Anna's own field of study — philosophy of science — and how it should stand in relation with the sciences. Should philosophers of science stick to asking highly conceptual questions about things like "the scientific method"? Or is it appropriate to weigh in on conversations about more practical matters — about actual norms and institutions?

In the article below, we summarise and illustrate the key ideas from the interview; providing both more detail and further readings for listeners who want to find out more. The article is not a transcript: you don't need to listen to the episode to read it, nor should listening to the episode make it redundant.


Anna's Recommendations


Measuring Well-Being

In philosophy, ‘well-being’ refers to what is intrinsically or non-instrumentally good for someone. Whereas instrumental goods like wealth are valuable only as a means to something else, well-being is what ultimately makes someone’s life go well. Yet, 'well-being' is not just a philosophical term of art, but "one of those vague concepts that has had a place in many different spheres of life." Here Anna's work can be distinguished from much philosophical writing about well-being — it takes this diversity of conceptions as a starting point, rather than a complication to define away.

I think it's really important to recognise the parochialism of the question — when a philosopher's asked to define well-being, they will be talking within this specific context, which is doing ethics and metaethics in the analytic tradition in the 20th and 21st century. This is the point at which 'well-being' gets identified with the kind of value which is not moral value, not aesthetic value, and not political value. It's prudential value — what is good for someone. It's a circumscribing move which philosophers make which is [sometimes] unrecognisable to others.

Indeed, the idea of distinguishing different kinds of good — from 'well-being' as 'good for me', moral goodness as 'good for others', and even aesthetic goodness — has not always been obvious. Aristotle, for instance, entertained a holistic conception of goodness, where my well-being is largely constituted by both the moral goodness of my actions.

The philosophical concept of well-being is also unusually abstract, Anna points out.

The person has to be just a person, not someone embedded in a context, in a culture and a history. We try to come up with a theory at the most abstract level which would work for everyone [...] philosophical theorising about well-being is a very peculiar exercise. The big question for me has always been "how do you connect that peculiar exercise to the practice?"

There is a rich and ongoing philosophical discussion about what constitutes well-being at this most general level. For instance, is well-being ultimately constituted by positively valenced experience (hedonism), the fulfilment of certain desires (desire satisfaction theories), or some list of objective goods like knowledge, virtue, and physical health (objective list theories)? Whatever the answer to this question, it prompts a further one: how do we translate from this 'high-level' philosophical theory to various 'mid-level' theories of well-being? Here, a 'mid-level' theory is some account of well-being specific to a particular kind of person in a particular context — such as child well-being, or well-being in the context of palliative care. They also suggest practical measures and indicators, such as stages in infant development or signs of physical discomfort. Mid-level theories pay in generality what they gain in usefulness: they can motivate actual policy or practice. This question of moving from high to mid-level theories, Anna claims, is at least as important as the abstract question about what constitutes well-being in general.

For well-being to become an object of science, it needs to make a trip into another discipline [and so] it loses something and it gains something [...] it will become simpler, it will be more limited, and it will be represented by an indicator.


How Measures get Made

How, then, have measures and mid-level theories of well-being been constructed in the past?

An early and prominent conception of well-being comes from the field of economics. As Anna describes it, economists of the 20th century noticed that the clearest counterpart to well-being in their toolbox of concepts was preference-satisfaction, since (economic) preferences are well defined and understood. The clearest way to measure preference satisfaction is to look at behaviour — specifically spending behaviour. Roughly, the more goods and services I'm able afford, the better off I'm understood to be. Put simply, the more I'm able to afford, the more options are open to me, and more options is always better than fewer. As such, consumption and income became leading indicators of well-being (or 'welfare').

Next in this rough and idealised chronology came research into 'social indicators' of well-being, beyond economic behaviour. Around the mid and late-20th century, development scholars saw a need for a more diverse array of well-being indicators, in order to track the fates of countries emerging from colonialism. These indicators included child mortality, access to education, and life expectancy. One such 'multidimensional' measure is the UN's Human Development Index. You can see charts tracking progress on the HDI over time and between countries here.

One philosophical offshoot of the focus on the development context was the so-called 'capability approach' to well-being: construing well-being as something like the freedom to achieve various human ends, such as nourishment, travel, education, and marriage. This approach is associated with Amartya Sen (Development as Freedom), and Martha Nussbaum (Creating Capabilities).

In the 1980s and 1990s, well-being became an object of the psychological sciences. Constructs like personality had already been fruitfully explored using new statistical and survey methods, so psychologists began turning their sights to well-being.

Roughly speaking, two kinds of approach have emerged from the psychology of well-being. On the first, well-being is understood in terms of valenced (positive or negative) mental states. I am well if I experience a consistently good state of mind (peace, engagement, happiness) and rarely experience negative states of mind. On this approach, well-being is often measured by averaging or aggregating over many self-reports, prompted by randomly timed nudges through e.g. a mobile app.

On the second approach, well-being is understood in terms of overall judgements about how well one's life is going. This is different from the former approach, because people are free to incorporate factors other than their mood over time. It's also different from 'objective' measures of well-being for just the same reason — if you don't think your spending behaviour pertains to your well-being, you are free to ignore it. This approach led to a family of so-called 'life-satisfaction' measures. For illustration, Ed Diener’s popular ‘Satisfaction with Life Scale’ (SWLS) asks participants to respond to a series of statements on a numerical scale from ‘1 – Strongly Disagree’ to ‘7 – Strongly agree’. The statements include “In most ways my life is close to my ideal.”, and, “If I could live my life over, I would change almost nothing.”. An overall score is generated, which ranges from 0-7.

As these economic, social, and psychological measures were developed over time, and evidence accumulated, the measurement of well-being began to attract the attention of policymakers. As Anna puts it, eager policymakers from the 90s and early 00s could be imagined saying —

We're going to fix the problems of politics by giving a neutral basis for policy, and that's going to be our evidence-based policy, and for that we're going to need a measure of well-being.

At this stage, however, the policymaker is presented with a grab-bag of options. Can they reasonably defend using just one? Better, and more defensible, to use some complex mix of all the available measures. This kind of result is reflected in the 'Measuring national well-being' program organised by the UK's Office for National Statistics, which employed 41 (!) headline indicators. This has since been honed to a dashboard tracking indicators of health, wealth, education and skills.


Subjective Indicators

As mentioned, one development in the measurement of well-being has been a shift from 'crude' economic indicators (e.g. GDP) to subjective indicators (e.g. the SWLS), and interest in these approaches has recently gained momentum. Indeed, psychologists studying well-being have spend enormous effort constructing new measures, arguing that they should be taken seriously, and insisting that they can be integrated with conventional econometrics.

At the extreme, this new wave of interest in subjective indicators could entail a simplification of existing measures: from the ONS' 'wheel' of 41 indicators, to effectively a single (ultimately important) measure: self-reported well-being. What's the case for such a bold move?

Here's one version of the self-aggrandising 'origin story' for focusing on subjective well-being, which Anna relates to us.

In the late nineteenth century, economists recognised that economics should (ultimately) be about improving happiness. Here is 'happiness economist' Richard Layard —

It is actually a rather sorry tale. [These economists] thought of a person's happiness as in principle measurable, like temperature, and they thought we could compare one persons happiness with another's. They also assumed that extra income brought less and less extra happiness as a person got richer.

Yet, throughout the 20th century (so says the 'SWB origin story'), economics became unhealthily fixated on the conceptual neatness that flows from abandoning messy psychological notions for easier to model facts about consumption and finance. The commendable goal of promoting the happiness of nations was supplanted by the goal of maximising weak proxies for genuine well-being, such as GDP, 'utility', 'social welfare functions', unemployment, and inflation. You can see how well self-reported life satisfaction correlates with GDP here, and read about more empirical results from the study of life satisfaction here.

Furthermore, the origin story continues, the reason mainstream economics assumed (and assumes) that consumption can be conflated with or taken as a proxy well-being proper is that economists make a set of assumptions about people act as if they are perfectly rational utility maximisers. But this isn't even approximately true, and so the recommendations of traditional economics aren't even approximately correct. As such, we should go 'beyond the money' and reorient economics toward what matters: how happy people in fact are.

Moreover, life satisfaction ratings provide a summary of people's priorities, as chosen by them — so it's the ultimate democratic measure. Who would possibly be against that?

Again, this is roughly the 'origin story' of this new wave of well-being policy optimism. Yet, Anna cautions —

Origin stories are usually myths — let's keep that in mind.

Perhaps this story is too simple. As Anna explains, consumption surveys and the study of GDP as a policy goal are conducted less naively than their opponents suggest. And it isn't clear that measures of life satisfaction are more democratic than measures of consumption, since people are also free to trade off goods against one another in virtually any way they choose when they spend money. Next, Anna explains her positive concerns with explicitly orienting public policy toward maximising (subjective) well-being.


Well-being policy as technocracy

The model of policymaking we have in mind here is of a some empirical expert, who constructs and conducts surveys to gauge well-being in a particular place, or before and after some intervention. The expert then reports to the policymaker, who drafts and enacts new initiatives based on the expert's recommendations. The citizens of this government, despite not being consulted on the decision-making process, stand to benefit from the new initiatives. As Anna puts it —

[W]ell-being policy as proposed by Layard and his colleagues has this vision of the expert scientist figuring out what causes well-being, and then the policymaker wants to maximise it, so the [scientist] passes on their knowledge and the policymaker figures out how to implement it.

Yet, this vision smells like the bad kind of technocracy —

The well-being policy that is based on that does well-being at people, not with people.

Although there is a democratic flavour to responding to people's self-reported life satisfaction, failing to involve the same people in deliberations about how to improve their lives begins to look positively undemocratic. A person's "voice", Anna points out, should amount to more than a single number representing well-being. In other words —

Life satisfaction is a summary of how well you think you're doing, it is not a summary of what you think matters.

This worry prompts a question —

What would it mean for well-being policy to be not technocratic, but properly responsive to people's priorities? I think we need to get beyond that model of the expert and the policymaker figuring out what to do.

The idea here is that well-being policy as practiced (and espoused by economists like Layard) involves asking people to report on their life satisfaction through surveys, and then insists on maximising the numbers that come back — without pausing to ask the same people whether this is in fact what they want. Yet, some communities might care about issues of justice, fairness, or equality which do not necessarily manifest as overall deficits in happiness or life satisfaction. The alternative to this technocratic model, Anna suggests, is local democracy and other 'bottom-up' forms of deliberation and decision-making. Nobody is suggesting that local and/or deliberative democracy is remotely easy — indeed, one of the draws of data-driven well-being policy is that it can circumvent these processes ("squabble all you like, the numbers show that a new bike lanes just won't don't make sense on the cost-to-happiness ledger"). Nonetheless, Anna suggests it might be the only way to truly involve interested parties as stakeholders, rather than mere 'receptacles for well-being'.

Maybe this is too harsh. One thing the proponent and opponent of technocratic well-being policy can agree on is that current practise (which might largely ignore direct effects on well-being) falls short of any reasonable ideal for policymaking which is appropriately sensitive to well-being. Perhaps, then, even the opponent of total technocracy could agree that more top-down, evidence-based policymaking would be a good thing? Could the worries about involving stakeholders be both legitimate and entirely secondary to the point that some amount of broadly technocratic influence would be a good thing?

Anna isn't so sure, and she responds by highlighting a difference between theory and practice —

The overall vision of a well-being policy is one thing, its implementation in an environment of austerity and the demise of the welfare state means that it gets plugged into existing practises in much more depressing ways than the ideal shows up.

We can imagine a politician explaining —

Tough luck your housing is so rubbish [...] do some cognitive behavioural therapy to feel better.

Anna also points out that wonky, marginal tweaks aimed at improving measured well-being can crowd out efforts to enact more speculative, less data-driven, and more difficult kinds of structural change.

There's this temptation to plug it in at the sides wherever we can, instead of recognising this need for deeper reform.

A (tired) medical metaphor comes to mind here, of 'plastering over' symptoms of a disease which runs deeper than the symptoms, and requires entirely different methods to fix.

The philosopher Amia Srinivasan makes a similar point as a critique of attitudes she sees as characteristic of effective altruism —

The idea that a single anti-worm pill is the key to solving the deep societal injustice of poor education is another instance of the glib ‘freakonomics’ style of thinking that has hijacked much of the field of social studies. Claims for a pharmacological magic bullet as a solution to poor educational attainment in Africa dovetail very nicely with the prevalent ideology of international health governance, which is content to accept structural inequalities in wealth and power while focusing on vertical, narrow, top-down, and ultimately ineffective strategies in alleviating health inequalities.

The philosopher Hilary Greaves has addressed a related critique of effective altruism, to the effect that some problems are uniquely amenable to collective action, but not individual action, such that a focus on marginal (individual) interventions can end up having precisely no effect. You can watch the talk here or read the slides here.

On this point, Anna points out that the margin-focused technocrat stands at one extreme, and the revolutionary at the other, and that the best path lies somewhere between them —

My worry is that on the revolutionary extreme [...] it just forgets the fact that we've got one life to live. It would be nice to enjoy it a little bit, and sometimes all you need is a patch.

The 'lockdown' measures from COVID-19 provide a case where temporary, non-structural fixes really were the best thing: "all I needed were patches to get through that" Anna tells us; — "there was no question of deep structural change".


Contextual Theories of Well-Being

We've been considering a cartoonish idea of well-being policy as handing out life-satisfaction surveys, and using the results to design and implement policy aimed at improving it. In the last section, we considered a criticism of this approach as overly technocratic: treating people like receptacles of well-being rather than stakeholders deserving of a seat at the deliberative table.

But Anna has also raised another worry with any view that focuses on abstract, 'all things considered' conceptions of well-being, and on measures designed to fit all people in all circumstances. Clearly, phrases like 'well-being' and 'doing well' can be used in reference to all kinds of people (young children, war refugees, Manhattan socialites) in all kinds of contexts (a therapist, a close friend, a stranger asking if you're ok after seeing you fall). How should we make sense of this diversity?

Some argue that phrases like 'well-being' and 'doing well' refer to the same thing for all people and across circumstances (e.g. a certain kind of positive emotional state). Suppose my new boss asks about my well-being having settled into a new job, and I say I'm doing well, although I know that while the job is going smoothly I'm having relationship trouble at home, which is making me anxious. On this view, I have (strictly speaking) used the phrase 'doing well' inappropriately, because all things considered I'm not doing well (which isn't to say I should have told my boss the truth).

Others take a less strict view, on which well-being phrases are 'semantically invariant' (they always refer to the same underlying concept) but 'differentially realizable' — different things constitute well-being in different contexts. For instance, a young child's well-being might primarily be constituted by whether they're hitting developmental milestones, such as displaying an appropriate level of attachment to their primary caregiver. By contrast, whether a high-functioning 30-something is 'doing well' might primarily depend on whether they are actualising their projects, and on their emotional state. Yet, on this view, there's a shared underlying concept.

As Anna explains —

Let's just think again — my city council decided to improve the well-being of people in Cambridge. What should they be doing? I think what they should be doing is very different from what my therapist should be doing, or what my close friend should be doing, or a development economist who is in charge of an overall region. The benefactor with concern for me as a person [...] she knows my priorities and the distinct challenges that I face [...] talking about my well-being with her should be a very different exercise from talking about well-being with my city council.

Anna has argued for a third view, on which the 'semantic content' of well-being phrases also varies widely across contexts. So not only does the bar for what counts as 'doing well' vary, and not only is 'well-being' realised by different things (developmental milestones versus self-actualisation), but 'well-being' actually refers to different concepts in different contexts.

We're talking about well-being qua what? Qua individual, qua citizen, qua new mum? [...] These line up naturally with a rejection of the technocratic approach to well-being.

For instance, collective well-being is just conceptually distinct from individual well-being —

Citizen well-being is not just an addition of all the individual well-beings. Rather, citizen well-being is a different notion.

Contextualism about well-being naturally suggests the importance of building specific theories and measures of well-being for different contexts, rather than insisting on a single, universal measure (like self-reported life satisfaction). These are 'mid-level' theories: so called because they are halfway between otiose philosophical theories and specific, concrete measures.

This said, Anna takes care to stress that a contextual semantics about well-being "does not imply that well-being is relative to individual taste, it need not result in eliminativism about well-being, nor in scepticism about a general theory of well-being." In other words, rejecting the idea of a single, objectively 'correct' measure of well-being does not mean giving up on the possibility of expertise about well-being **—**

I do believe ultimately that there is such a thing as expertise about the social, and therefore there is expertise about values, because the social is value-laden. So I do passionately believe in social science, and in its power and responsibility. It probably just needs to be more spread-out and connected [with other disciplines].

Readers may be interested in this critical response to Anna's perspective: "Against Contextualism about Prudential Discourse" (2019).


Can measures of well-being be objective?

A final and related question concerns whether the science of well-being can be objective. 'Objective' in this sense is contrasted with 'normative' — meaning having to do with judgements about what is good, valuable, right, or wrong. The measurement of weight, for instance, is not especially value-laden: people aren't going to disagree on definitions or measures of weight based on their views about ethics! On the other hand, a concept like health *is plausibly* value-laden: most cases of ill health are obvious, but edge cases are going to depend on your idea of what a well-functioning body looks like, which sounds like a value judgement.

Social science is filled with 'thick' concepts — concepts that are partly judging and partly describing, like 'progress', 'well-being', 'resilience', and 'frailty'. Because they are partly value-laden, unless you think you're an expert on values, you're going to need to be inclusive.

So can the science of well-being be objective? Clearly, well-being is a value-laden concept par excellence: its definition depends directly on what you think makes a life worth living. But this doesn't necessarily rule out the possibility of a more or less objective science of well-being. One possibility is that people's conceptions of well-being tend to be conveniently similar, and another possibility is that different conceptions of well-being are conveniently correlated. On the latter possibility, normative disagreement ends up not mattering, because different conceptions of well-being appear to 'point' to a single empirical 'cluster' or 'factor'. In either case, the science of well-being could end up being like the various health sciences (e.g. nutritional science): the basic being well-established and commanding wide agreement. Some psychologists have suggested that the process of 'construct validation' puts measures of well-being on a similar standing to measures of health. In general, construct validation involves testing to see if a proposed measure (e.g. a set of survey questions) accurately tracks the intended object of measurement, by comparing its results to predicted outcomes, other measures, and background knowledge. Anna is not so hopeful, as she explains in her paper Is Construct Validation Valid? (2016), co-authored with Daniel Haybron.


Do Models Explain?

Nearer the end of our interview, we discuss Anna work discussing the uses and explanatory power of rational choice models in economics and other social sciences. Her website outlines some key questions —

What are researchers and users warranted to conclude on the basis of these models? What is their exact role in historical explanation and policy making? What is progress in model-based social science? Is modelling as efficient of a method of inference as its high profile indicates? (On the last question I am growing increasingly skeptical).

In the interview, we focused on one class of models: prisoners dilemmas, and a well-known application of a prisoner's dilemma model to 'explain' the dynamics of trench warfare in World War I.

As Anna puts it, the prisoner's dilemma is the "E. coli" of the social sciences: apparently every other social situation is a kind of prisoner's dilemma, if you squint hard enough. The simplest version of the PD pits two criminals, Alice and Bob, against one another. Alice and Bob are held in separate cells, and are both faced with a simple choice: do you cooperate or defect? If you cooperate with your partner, and they also cooperate (i.e. you both stay quiet), you both serve one year in prison. But if you cooperate and your partner defect ('rats you out'), you serve 3 years while your partner walks free. If you both defect (you both 'rat' on one another), you both end up serving 2 years. Since the situation is symmetrical, if you defect and your partner cooperates then you get to walk free while your partner gets to spend 3 years in prison. Lastly, you have no means of credibly committing to a course of action in advance and communicating this with your partner (nor vice-versa). Do you cooperate, or defect?

One way this simplest form can be extended is by considering what happens when the game is repeated, with the same partner or a pool of other players — how should you update your moves in response to other players' previous moves? Which strategies are 'stable'? Which tend to do best over time? To answer these questions, the political scientist Robert Axelrod designed a series of simulated tournaments between agents using a variety of strategies. The results were described in a landmark paper, co-authored with evolutionary biologist W. D. Hamilton, called 'The Evolution of Cooperation' (1981). The paper soon became the most cited publication in the field of political science. You can play with a delightful interactive demonstration of the tournament here.

In particular, the winner of Axlerod's first tournament was the 'tit for tat' strategy, which cooperates on the first move, and then does whatever its opponent has done on the previous move. Thus, two tit for tat players will always cooperate in an iterated prisoner's dilemma with an indefinite number of rounds. Axelrod proposed that this result could be used to explain the 'live and let live' dynamic that arose in Word War I, where non-aggressive co-operative behaviour would spontaneously arise. Some excerpts from his paper can be read here.

In her paper co-authored with Robert Nortcott, 'Prisoner's Dilemma doesn't explain much' (2015), Anna argues that Axelrod's 'explanation' of these periods of cooperation in WWI are less explanatorily successful than he makes out. In fact, she suggests, this example illustrates a more general point that merely pointing to some similarities between formal models and real-world phenomena is rarely enough to truthfully say you can explain the phenomena in terms of the model.

I'm worried about this vision of social science where we prize the generality over the specificity.

In the interview, Anna expresses a general skepticism about this project understanding the social world solely by building up a "library of models", seeing where they might be said to apply, and thereby "finding the unifying logic of social life".

You scratch the surface and very quickly this falls apart.

This mirrors Anna's scepticism of finding a single, objective measure of well-being which can straightforwardly and directly inform policy. Instead, she suggests, economists and other social sciences would do well to pay more attention to historical explanations and qualitative evidence.

I think economics for a long time has over-invested in a particular mode of knowledge.

One plausible example of formal models having a large and tangible impact on the real world can be found in the successful design of 'spectrum auctions', especially the 1994 FCC auction in the US, and the 2000 British 3G telecom licence auction (described as the "biggest auction ever"). The design of the auctions was informed by game theory, the study of a class of models involving strategic interaction between multiple actors. As such, the project was hailed as a triumph for formal models in designing high-stakes, real-world mechanisms. Yet, Anna stresses in our interview that the prestige and acclaim from this exercise was not fairly distributed — effectively all the glory went to the game theorists, but the auction's success was also made possible by software engineers, experimentalists, lawyers, policymakers, and others.

One view of economics treats the discipline as using formal models to 'uncover' deep truths about collective behaviour, and to predict large-scale trends. However, Anna suggests that the spectrum auctions teach a different lesson: that most progress in economics has been made by economics understood as a kind of engineering. In the paper co-authored with Robert Northcott, "Progress in Economics: Lessons from the Spectrum Auctions" (2014), Anna argues that economics can be said to have progressed not primarily because of progress in its theory-building, but because of progress in know-how about how that theory can successfully get applied.

The paper draws an instructive analogy to a Formula One team —

The designers in such a team are faced with the challenge of maximizing a car’s speed and reliability while constrained by reg-ulations concerning weight, tires, engine size, fuel capacity, and a host of other details. These regulations typically change each championship season. There is of course a lot of relevant theory to know and, for this reason, senior designers are highly trained engineers. Yet theoretical knowledge alone is not enough. All teams also have huge testing programs, analogous to the experimental test beds of the spectrum auction. For example, new chassis designs are tested extensively in wind tunnels, while in-house drivers take each new model for vast numbers of timed laps on private tracks. Engineers on all teams are highly educated and presumably have very similar levels of theoretical knowledge. Yet, of course, the final results of their efforts—that is, each team’s cars in the races—are far from very similar. On the contrary, some are much more successful than others. And typically it is the teams with the biggest development and testing budgets that end up producing the winning cars. That is, within any one season, the quality of racing cars correlates with teams’ development budgets rather than with their levels of theoretical knowledge [...] Within that time span, the theoretical knowledge being employed presumably does not change significantly. What does improve, rather, is the ability to apply it effectively. That is, the development of better racing cars through the season is due to the accumulation of new context-specific engineering know-how. It is not due to any global nearing to the truth of our underlying theoretical picture of the world.

There's a trade-off here: the more practically applicable a piece of economics (or racing car engineering) is, the less 'exportable' it is to other contexts. Anna's overall point is that the economics discipline may currently be leaning too far on the side of increasingly abstruse, context-free theorising. This reflects her perspective on the measurement of well-being and its relation to policy, where the central idea is an insistence on being sensitive to context, and a plurality of perspectives. If there is an 'Anna Alexandrova worldview', maybe it is a skepticism about the idea of clever people inventing general, one-size-fits-all theories, which are then handed down to implement unquestioningly, accruing all the prestige in the process.

Thank you to Anna Alexandrova for her time.


Further Reading

Anna's talks and writing on well-being:


Anna's writing on models and explanation:


Other relevant resources


The views, thoughts and opinions expressed on the CRASSH blog belong solely to the authors and do not necessarily represent the views of CRASSH or the University of Cambridge.

Posted: Tuesday 11 May 2021

Contributor: Anna Alexandrova

Tags: wellbeing

Can I See Your Parts List? What AI’s Chat-up Lines Tell Us About Computer-Generated Language – CRASSH

Can I See Your Parts List? What AI’s Chat-up Lines Tell Us About Computer-Generated Language

I love you. I don’t care if you’re a doggo in a trenchcoat.

GPT-3’s “DaVinci” variant

'Can I see your parts list?' What AI's attempted chat-up lines tell us about computer-generated language

An article by Stefanie Ullmann, Research Associate with the Giving Voice to Digital Democracies project. Originally published in The Conversation in April 2021.

Have you ever wondered what flirting with artificial intelligence would look like? Research scientist and engineer Janelle Shane has given us an idea by training a neural network – an algorithm loosely inspired by biological brain structures – to produce chat-up lines.

Some of the results are hilarious and completely nonsensical, such as the inelegant: “2017 Rugboat 2-tone Neck Tie Shirt”. But some of them turned out pretty well. At least, if you’re a robot:

I can tell by your red power light that you’re into me.

You look like a thing and I love you.

Can I see your parts list?

But how were these lines generated, and why do the results vary so much in terms of quality and cohesiveness? That’s down to the types of neural networks Shane worked with: all based on GPT-3, the world’s largest language model to date.


Language modelling

GPT stands for generative pre-trained transformer. Its current version, developed by OpenAI, is the third in a line of ever-improving natural language processing systems trained to produce human-like text or speech.

Image: Voice-activated smart speaker by Kyle Johnston via Unsplash

Natural language processing, or NLP, refers to the application of computers to process and generate large amounts of coherent spoken or written text. Whether you ask Siri for a weather update, request for Alexa to turn on the lights, or you use Google to translate a message from French into English, you’re able to do so because of developments in NLP.

It takes a variety of NLP tasks – from speech recognition to picking apart sentence structures – for applications such as Siri to successfully requests. The virtual assistant, much like any other language-based tool, is trained using many thousands of sentences, ideally as varied and diverse as possible.

Because human language is extremely complex, the best NLP applications rely increasingly on pre-trained models that allow “contextual bidirectional learning”. This means considering a word’s wider context in a sentence, scanning both left and right of any given word to identify the word’s intended meaning. More recent models can even pay attention to more nuanced features of human language, such as irony and sarcasm.


Computer compliments

GPT-3 is such a successful language-generating AI because it doesn’t need retraining over and over again to complete a new task. Instead, it uses what the model has already learned about language and applies it to a something new – such as writing articles and computer code, generating novel dialogue in video games, or formulating chat-up lines.

Compared to its predecessor GPT-2, the third-generation model is 116 times bigger and has been trained on billions of words of data. To generate its chat-up lines, GPT-3 was simply asked to automate the text for an article headlined: “These are the top pickup lines of 2021! Amaze your crush and get results!”

Because GPT-3’s training updates have been added gradually over time, this same prompt could also be used on smaller, more basic variants – generating weirder and less coherent chat-up lines:

Hey, my name is John Smith. Will you sit on my breadbox while I cook or is there some kind of speed limit on that thing?

It is urgent that you become a professional athlete.


But GPT-3’s “DaVinci” variant – its largest and most competent iteration to date – delivered some more convincing attempts which might actually pass for effective flirting – with a little fine-tuning:

You have the most beautiful fangs I’ve ever seen.

I love you. I don’t care if you’re a doggo in a trenchcoat.

I have exactly 4 stickers. I need you to be the 5th.

The latest variant of GPT-3 is currently the largest contextual language model in the world and is able to complete a number of highly impressive tasks. But is it smart enough to pass as a human?


Almost human

As one of the pioneers of modern computing and a firm believer in true artificial intelligence, Alan Turing developed the “Imitation Game” in 1950 – today known as the “Turing Test”. If a computer’s performance is indistinguishable from that of a human, it passes the Turing Test. In language generation alone, GPT-3 could soon pass Alan Turing’s test.

But it doesn’t really matter if GPT-3 passes the Turing Test or not. Its performance is likely to depend on the specific task the model is used for – which, judging by the technology’s flirting, should probably be something other than the delicate art of the chat-up line.

And, even if it were to pass the Turing Test, in no way would this make the model truly intelligent. At best, it would be extremely well trained on specific semantic tasks. Maybe the more important question to ask is: do we even want to make GPT-3 more human?


Learning from humans

Shortly after its reveal in summer 2020, GPT-3 made headlines for spewing out shockingly sexist and racist content. But this was hardly surprising. The language generator was trained on vast amounts of text on the internet, and without remodelling and retraining it was doomed to replicate the biases, harmful language and misinformation that we know to exist online.

Clearly, language models such as GPT-3 do not come without potential risks. If we want these systems to be the basis of our digital assistants or conversational agents, we need to be more rigorous and selective when giving them reading material to learn from.

Still, recent research has shown that GPT-3’s knowledge of the internet’s dark side could actually be used to automatically detect online hate speech, with up to 78% accuracy. So even though its chat-up lines look unlikely to kindle more love in the world, GPT-3 could may be set, at least, to reduce the hate.The Conversation


This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.


The views, thoughts and opinions expressed on the CRASSH blog belong solely to the authors and do not necessarily represent the views of CRASSH or the University of Cambridge.

Posted: Tuesday 11 May 2021

Contributor: Stefanie Ullmann

Tags: languageartificial intelligenceai

Conference Summary | Politics and Ethics of Platform Labour: Learning from Lived Experiences – CRASSH

Conference Summary | Politics and Ethics of Platform Labour: Learning from Lived Experiences

For the moment, platform workers are in the last mile of the algorithmic value chain, performing tasks which are too sophisticated to be automated. Appropriately recognising platform labour would mean appreciation of the most unique faculties shared among us.

Conference convenor Sian Lazar and presenters El No and Alexandrine Royer reflect on the Politics and Ethics of Platform Labour: Learning from Lived Experiences conference which took place in April 2021.

Digital platforms are increasingly important forms of organising work today, from the physical labour of driving, delivery, cleaning and other tasks – organised through platforms like Uber, Lyft, Deliveroo, Instacart etc., to freelance digital labour through sites like UpWork, Amazon Mechanical Turk, Fiverr. Sites connect clients to workers, organise payment, and take commission, while mostly seeking to avoid the responsibilities that an employer might have to employees. The conference pulled together researchers from a number of disciplines to discuss these questions from the basis of qualitative research into lived experiences of workers.

One of the main themes during the conference emerged in the first session, where papers addressed migrant labour, examining the pull factors that drew workers towards platform-based labour despite the poor pay and precarious conditions. For the Bangalore Uber drivers Aditi Surie spoke to, purchasing a car to join the platform increased their families' assets in a region where climatic changes threaten agriculturalists' livelihoods. The other presenters described how foreign migrants in large North American and European cities were entrapped by the "plug-and-play" of platform labour, often unable to secure more formal employment and finding it difficult to move on from the platform. What was especially noticeable was the way that platform labour continues forms of precarity that are older than the technology of the platform itself, in these cases especially associated with migration.  

The economic 'safety net' provided by platform labour also led thousands of Americans to shift to gig work during the pandemic, despite the health risks. Drawing on results from a 1000+ worker survey, Alexandrea Ravenelle delineated how the lack of information over pandemic relief payments, the social stigma surrounding government benefits, and the excruciatingly slow pace of the understaffed unemployment office drove jobless Americans to gig work. 

The risks faced by gig workers to their health and safety resurfaced in the presentations in the second panel of Day 1. In Argentina, Venezuelan refugees turned to gig work during the pandemic. Despite their high levels of dissatisfaction with such labour, fear of the 'virus of socialism' contributed to migrants' preference for gig work over state support. In Chile, food delivery workers were often the targets of criminals, with theft especially prevalent during stay-at-home orders. Yet, for Brazilian sex workers, webcamming sites allowed them to accrue followings from the safety of their homes, albeit with these workers still limited to the conditions imposed by the platform. 

Both panel sessions on Day 2 focused on the politics and practices of data production, from video marketing apps to picture tagging, reCAPTCHA and click farms. These mobilise both human faculties of interpretation and automatic power of bots (or bot-like practices). Papers revealed how platforms reproduce a certain worldview through the combined labour of unwitting Internet users, controlled data annotation work, and fake accounts and bots. Further, the discussion let us reflect on how the value creation mechanisms of platforms marginalise or direct aesthetic and sensorial human faculties. For the moment, platform workers are in the last mile of the algorithmic value chain, performing tasks which are too sophisticated to be automated. Appropriately recognising platform labour would mean appreciation of the most unique faculties shared among us.

Algorithmic management and its ensuing precarity was a running theme throughout. In the keynote talks of Day 2, Alex Wood spoke of the pressures of maintaining a solid platform reputation as another source of algorithmic insecurity and its effect on workers. Having to deal with the emotional labour of managing clients, workers would go so far as to reimburse a client if they feared a negative review. In her Q&A session, Mary Gray also touched on the detrimental impact of labour arbitrage on the valuation and compensation of platform workers. Understanding the extended supply chain of task-based platform labour is essential to revealing the 'cracks' that workers' movements can open up.

With governmental officials failing to intervene, the possibilities for collective action and social solidarity to advance platform workers' rights were a central theme on Day 3 of the conference. Presentations all touched on the current difficulties in forming workers coalitions and how other forms of cooperative association could adapt to the gig economy. The ensuing conversation pointed to the need to turn against the discourse of novelty surrounding platforms and instead historicise them within the standard political economy of labour. On the other hand, the final panel session brought together Indian and Belgian cases in conversation around the theme of time, flexibility, and precarity. They suggested how platform drivers and couriers' temporality is shaped by particular operating techniques of platforms, and in turn, flexibility turns into entrapments. If precarity is inherent to the way platform operates, it cannot be addressed without reimagining platforms' economic and social value creation models.  

Blog post by: El No, Alexandrine Royer and Sian Lazar

The views, thoughts and opinions expressed on the CRASSH blog belong solely to the authors and do not necessarily represent the views of CRASSH or the University of Cambridge.

Posted: Tuesday 4 May 2021

Contributor: CRASSH News

Tags: platform labourgig economy

Conference  Summary | Politics and Ethics of Platform Labour: Learning from Lived Experiences

Image © Miguel Micky Viezolli

20 Years CRASSH: Thinking About Society – CRASSH

20 Years CRASSH: Thinking About Society

Thinking about Society from an interdisciplinary perspective – a collection of material from our archive.

A playlist from our archive on the theme of 'Thinking about Society', created in the context of CRASSH's 20th anniversary.


Lord Giddens: Understanding Society - A Sociologist's Perspective

CRASSH 'Understanding Society' Lecture



Marilyn Strathern: Taking Care of a Concept: Anthropological Reflections on the Assisted Society

CRASSH 'Understanding Society' Lecture



Michael Puett: Neoliberalism and History, or: How Should We Understand China?

CRASSH Impact Lecture



Dan M Hausman: Why Do Rich People Love Austerity?

The Politics of Economics Seminar



Vivien Perutz: The Impact of the Refugees on History of Art in Britain

Cambridge: City of Scholars, City of Refuge (1933-1945) Conference



Paolo Quattrone: Who Said Accounting was Boring? Rhetoric and the Making of 'Socie-ties'

New Accounting for the Management of Ecosystems Conference



Paul Stevens: In Search of 'Good' Energy Policy: Fracking in the US vs Europe

In Search of ‘Good’ Energy Policy Research Network



The Financial Crisis: A Failure of Capitalism or Government Policy?

Soundbites, Mellon Sawyer Seminar Series



Helen Small: Active Citizenship: Democracy Needs Us

Active Citizenship, Public Engagement and the Humanities Group Series



Christena Nippert-Eng: Why Privacy?

Why Privacy? Conference



Michael Butter: The Continuing Attraction of Conspiracy Theory: From Dan Brown to Donald Trump

Conspiracy and Democracy Project



Paul Mason: Postcapitalism

Technology and Democracy Project



Ron Deibert and David Runciman on Reclaiming the Internet for Civil Society

Minderoo Centre for Technology and Democracy



Dibyesh Anand, Evren Savci, Lukasz Szulc

Queer and Conflict: Queering Authoritarianisms Conference



The views, thoughts and opinions expressed on the CRASSH blog belong solely to the authors and do not necessarily represent the views of CRASSH or the University of Cambridge.

Posted: Friday 23 April 2021

Contributor: CRASSH News

Tags: society

Online Translators Are Sexist – Here’s How We Gave Them a Little Gender Sensitivity Training – CRASSH

Online Translators Are Sexist – Here’s How We Gave Them a Little Gender Sensitivity Training

Biases are human: they’re part of who we are. But when left unchallenged, biases can emerge in the form of concrete negative attitudes towards others. Now, our team has found a way to retrain the AI behind translation tools, using targeted training to help it to avoid gender stereotyping. Our method could be used in other fields of AI to help the technology reject, rather than replicate, biases within society.

This article, written by Stefanie Ullmann (Giving Voice to Digital Technologies Project) and Danielle Saunders (Department of Engineering, University of Cambridge) was originally posted in The Conversation in March 2021.

Online translation tools have helped us learn new languages, communicate across linguistic borders, and view foreign websites in our native tongue. But the artificial intelligence (AI) behind them is far from perfect, often replicating rather than rejecting the biases that exist within a language or a society.

Such tools are especially vulnerable to gender stereotyping, because some languages (such as English) don’t tend to gender nouns, while others (such as German) do. When translating from English to German, translation tools have to decide which gender to assign English words like 'cleaner'. Overwhelmingly, the tools conform to the stereotype, opting for the feminine word in German.

Biases are human: they’re part of who we are. But when left unchallenged, biases can emerge in the form of concrete negative attitudes towards others. Now, our team has found a way to retrain the AI behind translation tools, using targeted training to help it to avoid gender stereotyping. Our method could be used in other fields of AI to help the technology reject, rather than replicate, biases within society.


Biased algorithms

To the dismay of their creators, AI algorithms often develop racist or sexist traits. Google Translate has been accused of stereotyping based on gender, such as its translations presupposing that all doctors are male and all nurses are female. Meanwhile, the AI language generator GPT-3 – which wrote an entire article for the Guardian in 2020 – recently showed that it was also shockingly good at producing harmful content and misinformation.

These AI failures aren’t necessarily the fault of their creators. Academics and activists recently drew attention to gender bias in the Oxford English Dictionary, where sexist synonyms of 'woman' – such as 'bitch' or 'maid' – show how even a constantly revised, academically edited catalogue of words can contain biases that reinforce stereotypes and perpetuate everyday sexism.

AI learns bias because it isn’t built in a vacuum: it learns how to think and act by reading, analysing and categorising existing data – like that contained in the Oxford English Dictionary. In the case of translation AI, we expose its algorithm to billions of words of textual data and ask it to recognise and learn from the patterns it detects. We call this process machine learning, and along the way patterns of bias are learned as well as those of grammar and syntax.

Ideally, the textual data we show AI won’t contain bias. But there’s an ongoing trend in the field towards building bigger systems trained on ever-growing data sets. We’re talking hundreds of billions of words. These are obtained from the internet by using undiscriminating text-scraping tools like Common Crawl and WebText2, which maraud across the web, gobbling up every word they come across.

The sheer size of the resultant data makes it impossible for any human to actually know what’s in it. But we do know that some of it comes from platforms like Reddit, which has made headlines for featuring offensive, false or conspiratorial information in users' posts.


New translations

In our research, we wanted to search for a way to counter the bias within textual data-sets scraped from the internet. Our experiments used a randomly selected part of an existing English-German corpus (a selection of text) that originally contained 17.2 million pairs of sentences – half in English, half in German.

As we’ve highlighted, German has gendered forms for nouns (doctor can be 'der Arzt' for male, 'die Ärztin' for female) where in English we don’t gender these noun forms (with some exceptions, themselves contentious, like 'actor' and 'actress').

Our analysis of this data revealed clear gender-specific imbalances. For instance, we found that the masculine form of engineer in German (der Ingenieur) was 75 times more common than its feminine counterpart (die Ingenieurin). A translation tool trained on this data will inevitably replicate this bias, translating 'engineer' to the male 'der Ingenieur'. So what can be done to avoid or mitigate this?


Overcoming bias

A seemingly straightforward answer is to 'balance' the corpus before asking computers to learn from it. Perhaps, for instance, adding more female engineers to the corpus would prevent a translation system from assuming all engineers are men.

Unfortunately, there are difficulties with this approach. Translation tools are trained for days on billions of words. Retraining them by altering the gender of words is possible, but it’s inefficient, expensive and complicated. Adjusting the gender in languages like German is especially challenging because, in order to make grammatical sense, several words in a sentence may need to be changed to reflect the gender swap.

Instead of this laborious gender rebalancing, we decided to retrain existing translation systems with targeted lessons. When we spotted a bias in existing tools, we decided to retrain them on new, smaller data-sets – a bit like an afternoon of gender-sensitivity training at work.

This approach takes a fraction of the time and resources needed to train models from scratch. We were able to use just a few hundred selected translation examples – instead of millions – to adjust the behaviour of translation AI in targeted ways. When testing gendered professions in translation – as we had done with 'engineers' – the accuracy improvements after adapting were about nine times higher than the 'balanced' retraining approach.

In our research, we wanted to show that tackling hidden biases in huge data-sets doesn’t have to mean laboriously adjusting millions of training examples, a task which risks being dismissed as impossible. Instead, bias from data can be targeted and unlearned – a lesson that other AI researchers can apply to their own work.


The views, thoughts and opinions expressed on the CRASSH blog belong solely to the authors and do not necessarily represent the views of CRASSH or the University of Cambridge.

Posted: Thursday 22 April 2021

Contributor: Stefanie Ullmann

Tags: stereotypingsexismonline translationbias

Online Translators Are Sexist – Here’s How We Gave Them a Little Gender Sensitivity Training

Image via Pixabay

Bridging Digital Divides: Proud Partners of the CDH Social Data School 2021 – CRASSH

Bridging Digital Divides: Proud Partners of the CDH Social Data School 2021

In the data-driven age, we believe it is our duty to help bridge some of the digital divides that plague our societies.

Hugo Leal

We are pleased to announce that applications are open to the CDH Social Data School 2021, taking place entirely online from 16-29 June.

Originally conceived by Cambridge Digital Humanities, this year’s event is organised in association with us, the Minderoo Centre for Technology and Democracy. We co-designed and will deliver together a new version of an already outstanding initiative.

Two of our goals at the Minderoo Centre for Technology and Democracy are to enhance public understanding of digital technologies and build journalistic capacity to interrogate big data and Big Tech.

These goals align neatly with the objectives of a Data School, borne out of the need to democratise the exploration of digital methods and push back against abusive practices of data appropriation and exploitation by internet giants.

I was part of the team that originally put together the Data School pilot, back in 2019, and it was clear to us then that academia was, once again, falling short on its mission and failing the public it should serve.

In the data-driven age, we believe it is our duty to help bridge some of the digital divides that plague our societies.

The yawing skills-gap between those who can and those who cannot understand key aspects of digital data manipulation and analysis, is one of the digital divides that must be urgently closed.

For that purpose, the CDH Social Data School utilises in-house expertise in digital methods and provides hands-on training and knowledge exchange across sectors, professions and disciplines.

Who can apply?

We invite, in particular, people and organisations whose role is to form and inform the public, such as journalists, watchdogs and NGOs, academics, and civil servants, to join us in Cambridge.

The CDH Social Data School also strives to address, even if modestly, other digital divides that fall along the traditional class, gender and racial fault-lines.

Although open to all, the selection procedure prioritises individuals from organisations whose access to digital methods training is limited or non-existent due to insufficient human or financial resources, especially the ones located in the Global South.

Furthermore, we particularly welcome applications from women and black and minority ethnic candidates as they have historically been under-represented in the technology and data science sectors.

While this will do little to redress centuries of colonial, affluent, white, male fuelled inequalities, we at the Minderoo Centre for Technology and Democracy believe that academic institutions, widely perceived as bastions of elitism, have a special responsibility to adopt inclusive practices and adapt our events to pressing public needs.

If academics want to remain relevant and have proper impact beyond obtuse journal impact factors, we must remove the barriers standing in the way of cross-sectorial and interdisciplinary dialogue.

The CDH Social Data School is a venue for that dialogue and an avenue to foster the development of better technical, legal and ethical practices in digital methods research. Both our delivery format and our programme intend to facilitate a conversation among professions, disciplines and methods.

Whenever someone asks to describe the Data School format the term “data stroll” comes to mind.

It bears some resemblance with what our colleague Tommaso Venturini calls a “data sprint”, intensive code and data-driven gatherings of people with different skill sets focused on specific research question, but with a more critical and even contemplative nature.

For starters, the pace is slower as we intend to reflect critically upon problems arising from data rather than solving them in a week.

This peripatetic wondering confers the CDH Social Data School its “strolling” colours. It caters more to “adventurous beginners” willing to get their hands dirty than to data whizzes obsessed over data cleaning.

It is less about having experts looking into a pool of data than about inviting participants to share their knowledge and experiences within the context of a guided immersion into digital methods.

For these reasons, having people from diverse backgrounds is not just a matter of desegregating or decolonising curricula but also an opportunity to confront and learn from different regional, disciplinary, cultural or gender informed perspectives over the widespread practices of data surveillance.

In the context of the CDH Social Data School, democratising access to digital methods is also a call to reclaim our data and demonstrate that data appropriated for private profit can be reappropriated for the common good.

This year’s programme is very rich and ambitious, covering topics ranging from data protection and surveillance to machine learning.

We will also try to make (some) sense of the online disinformation nonsense.

If you are a journalist who has the interest but lacks the tools to investigate the spread of misinformation, work for an NGO who wants to monitor online abuses, a watchdog trying to assess the impact of Machine Learning, a civil servant working to improve the health of our online spaces, an academic willing but hesitant to experiment with digital methods, the Social Data School was designed for you.

Apply now


The views, thoughts and opinions expressed on the CRASSH blog belong solely to the authors and do not necessarily represent the views of CRASSH or the University of Cambridge.

Posted: Monday 19 April 2021

Contributor: Hugo Leal

Tags: fake newsdemocracydata schooldata preservation

Bridging Digital Divides: Proud Partners of the CDH Social Data School 2021

Rami-al-Zayat for Unsplash

20 Years CRASSH: Global Conversations – CRASSH

20 Years CRASSH: Global Conversations

CRASSH strives to serve at once to draw together disciplinary perspectives in Cambridge and to disseminate new ideas to audiences across Europe and beyond. 

A playlist of material from our archive on the theme of CRASSH's 20th anniversary year –

Global Conversations


Reni Eddo-Lodge and Priyamvada Gopal in Conversation

CRASSH Impact Series



Cornel West and Ben Okri: Literature and the Nation

Mellon CDI Invited Fellow



Patricia Williams and Heidi Mirza: Black Life, Law, Love and Survival in Times of Trump and Brexit

CRASSH Impact Series



Homi Bhabha and Phiroze Vasunia

CRASSH Impact Series



Kwame Anthony Appiah and Ash Amin: Cosmopolitanism

CRASSH Mellon CDI Visiting Professor



Natalie Zemon Davis and Amitav Ghosh: Storytelling and the Global Past



Judith Butler in Conversation with Simon Goldhill

Understanding Society Series (University of Cambridge Raven login required)



Emily Bell in Conversation with Mary Beard: Facebook Eating the World

Humanitas Visiting Professor



Regina Schwartz in Conversation with Rowan Williams: Loving Justice - Migrant Knowledge, Early Modern and Beyond

Migrant Knowledge, Early Modern and Beyond: an event at the Crossroads Conference



Michael Puett and Julia Lovell in Conversation

CRASSH Impact Series




Cornel West and MM McCabe: Philosophy in the Public Sphere

Mellon CDI Invited Fellow



Natasha Walter in Conversation with Simon Goldhill

Humanities Visiting Professor



Dan Schiller in Conversation with John Naughton and David Runciman

Technology and Democracy Research Project




The views, thoughts and opinions expressed on the CRASSH blog belong solely to the authors and do not necessarily represent the views of CRASSH or the University of Cambridge.

Posted: Wednesday 31 March 2021

Contributor: CRASSH News

Tags: global conversationsconversationsanniversary

Beyond Beliefs – Listening to Cultural Voices in Psychological Therapy – CRASSH

Beyond Beliefs – Listening to Cultural Voices in Psychological Therapy

Most schools of psychological therapy do not have a well-developed account of how social and cultural contexts can influence an individual’s experience of distress, making it difficult to incorporate them into a clinical formulation.

Alistair Gaskell

A blog written by Alistair Gaskell of the Cambridge Stepped Care Therapies Service for Older People. He is a member of the Talking as Cure? Research Network at CRASSH.


Most, although not all, psychological therapies aim to offer an understanding of a client’s distress as a prelude to, or as part of the process of, helping them to resolve it. This is often termed a formulation. What kind of formulation is needed is a question about which there are substantial differences of opinion.

For some, particularly within the cognitive behavioural tradition, a formulation is primarily about what maintains the distress and how this can be interrupted. For others, both within cognitive behavioural and psychoanalytic traditions, it is important to understand how the distress came about; what the underlying beliefs or conflicts may be and how are they connected to a client’s experiences, particularly early experiences. There are also different accounts of how offering a formulation may be helpful (Johnstone and Dallos 2014). However, one important idea is that, in context, distress may seem more like a comprehensible and reasonable response to adverse circumstances and less like the strange personal failing that many people seeking therapy describe.

The understanding that is on offer in most therapy is a personal one. Psychological therapies are not, in general, good at incorporating social and cultural factors into their formulations. This is not simply a matter of thinking them unimportant. Most schools of psychological therapy do not have a well-developed account of how social and cultural contexts can influence an individual’s experience of distress, making it difficult to incorporate them into a clinical formulation.

I would like to offer a sketch of how some aspects of social context could be mapped in a therapeutically useful way, taking the example of a neglected aspect of context, age.

In my work as a clinical psychologist within an older people's mental health service my clients are almost all over 65 years old. Many are in their 80s or older. This contextualises their distress in two important ways.

Firstly, they were born and brought up at a particular time in history. Currently to gain the dubious privilege of referral to older people's mental health services in the UK, one must be born in 1956 or earlier. This brings with it exposure to a certain set of cultural assumptions and expectations which may impact on the way in which people's identities are formed. For instance, speaking to people who were brought up in the UK between about the 1930s and early 1960s, periods of economic depression and austerity, surrounding the extraordinary social upheaval of the Second World War, there seems to have been an emphasis on physical survival rather than emotional wellbeing. Although everyone’s experience of growing up in this culture is individual, I have heard from many people about an idea that we should not 'dwell on' our emotional experience, 'make a fuss' or be 'self-indulgent' by talking about that experience.

Secondly, on attaining the status of an 'older person' one becomes the subject of another set of cultural assumptions and expectations. Within UK culture many of these are negative assumptions, concerning for instance older people’s mental and physical abilities, their capacity to learn and change. One particular idea relevant to psychological therapy is the assumption that older people's emotional experiences do not need to be attended to. This assumption underlies the lack of research into emotional experiences particular to older people such as the transition from independent living to a care home or post-traumatic experiences following falls.

From a Cognitive Analytic Therapy (CAT) perspective (Ryle and Kerr 2016), one of the major influences on mental health is relationships with important others, typically in childhood, which are internalised and enacted in relationships throughout one’s life. They term such relationships 'Reciprocal Roles.' One way of understanding Reciprocal Roles is as 'voices' with which we conduct a dialogue (in our actions as much as in our thoughts and words). So, the experience of a critical father might be internalised as a critical voice which influences both relationships with others and one's relationship with oneself (in the form of self-criticism).

In typical CAT practice, as with other forms of psychotherapy, such voices are rooted within a client’s personal history, but the idea fits well with what we might call cultural voices both in the present day and historically. Perhaps many of both the current and immediately preceding generations of British older people have internalised voices which say that we should ignore emotional distress and 'soldier on with life' or maybe devote our energies into either providing for or caring for others. When, perhaps with retirement and the advent of health problems in later life, these roles get harder to sustain, we may have to deal with both the historical voice of our childhood culture, telling us not to make a fuss, but also the current cultural voice telling us that we are 'past it anyway' and should not complain.

Of course, cultural voices are nuanced; the cultural experience of a child growing up in the 1940s in the Cambridgeshire countryside is likely to be somewhat different to one growing up in the East End of London. People growing up in non-UK cultures may experience quite different voices. And cultural voices will interweave with voices from an individual’s personal experience, which may mitigate or amplify them.

In trying to understand these and other cultural voices that my clients are in dialogue with, I often feel like an amateur historian, or at times an amateur sociologist or anthropologist. Even the comparatively broad training of a clinical psychologist prepares me poorly for thinking about cultural voices. With the development of programmes such as Improving Access to Psychological Therapies in the UK, psychological therapy trainings are becoming briefer and more technique-focussed, making it even harder for therapists to consider social and cultural aspects of psychological distress.



Ryle, A. and Kerr, I. (2016) Introducing Cognitive Analytic Therapy: Principles and Practice of a Relational Approach to Mental Health, Chichester: Wiley

Johnstone, L. and Dallos, R. (2014) Introduction to Formulation. in Johnstone, L., & Dallos, R. (Eds.) Formulation in psychology and psychotherapy: Making sense of people's problems. 2nd edition. Hove: Routledge


Listen to 'The Talking as Cure' podcast series at the Cambridge Festival.


The views, thoughts and opinions expressed on the CRASSH blog belong solely to the authors and do not necessarily represent the views of CRASSH or the University of Cambridge.

‘Queering Authoritarianisms’: A Queer Rethinking of Social Justice and Global Politics – CRASSH

‘Queering Authoritarianisms’: A Queer Rethinking of Social Justice and Global Politics

…divorcing queer liberation from political struggles around race, poverty, capitalism, and colonization helped to conceal the historical and political complexity of queer liberation itself. 

Roderick A. Ferguson (2019, 8)

Queering Authoritarianisms’: A Queer Rethinking of Social Justice and Global Politics (1)

When we first started thinking about convening a conference on the relationship between queer/LGBTI+ politics and authoritarianisms, we had in mind many burning questions emerging from our own experiences and observations, mainly from Turkey, Poland, and the UK. Our conversations with other scholars, and a body of literature, especially by writers who laid the foundations of or engaged with queer of colour critique, helped us think further - or ask more questions - about the nature of authoritarianism, social justice, silencing, marginalisation, racism, anti-Semitism, Islamophobia, and xenophobia in relation to queer, or non-normative sexualities. Some of the edited volumes that particularly inspired our thinking whilst bringing together our line-up were: Black Queer Studies: A Critical Anthology (Johnson and Henderson 2005); The Lesbian and Gay Movement and the State (Tremblay, Paternotte, and Johnson [2011] 2020); De-Centering Western Sexualities: Central and Eastern European Perspectives (Kulpa and Mizielinska 2011); Cinsellik Muamması: Türkiye’de Queer Kültür ve Muhalefet (Çakırlar and Delice 2012); Black and Gay in the UK: An Anthology (Gordon and Beadle-Blair 2014); Decolonizing Sexualities: Transnational Perspectives, Critical Interventions (Bakshi, Jivraj, and Posocco 2016); The Fire Now: Anti-racist Scholarship in Times of Explicit Racial Violence (Johnson, Joseph-Salisbury and Kamunge 2018); and ‘Queer’ Asia: Decolonizing and Reimagining Sexuality and Gender (Luther and Ung Loh 2019).


In light of these books and our conversations with scholars, activists, and activist scholars, what seemed an urgent necessity to us was to bring these texts, scholars, and activists together in order to explore possible ‘theoretical synergies’ (Meghji 2020), cultivate ‘theoretical coalitions’ (Bilge 2016), and forge intersectional solidarities. In doing so, we intend to reflect on the ways that we can (re)situate queer or LGBTI+ politics at the core of social justice struggles (see Ferguson 2019). We believe that this can only be achieved by being in constant conversation with activists on the ground, claiming the radical roots of LGBTI+ activisms, and making visible – and porous – the limiting walls (2) of academia. 


Where do we, as queer or LGBTI+ people, position ourselves in relation to the oppression of, for example, Tibetans, Uyghurs, Kashmiris, Ahmadis, Kurds, and Indigenous peoples’ struggles? Who do we leave out when we discuss solidarities? Why should we, and how can we, care about these different struggles in the face of growing authoritarianisms and global right-wing political alliances? By asking these questions, we imagine new ways to go forward in a world ever more adapted to upholding authoritarian and discriminatory structures than to providing a space for the struggles of the oppressed. When it comes to authoritarianisms, we need to open up and dissect the ‘authority’ of authoritarianisms, and claim the authorship of our lives, politics, and desires.


We are not the first ones to ask questions about LGBTI+/queer politics, social justice, racism and xenophobia, nor will we be the last ones, inshallah. However, we firmly believe that bringing together those who ask queer questions about issues pertaining to social justice, in order to interrogate power structures that enable racism, anti-Semitism, xenophobia, and poverty, can make our questions bolder, more complicated, more critical. We may, and may we, become a source of power to one another as we dare to ask such questions. 

Hakan Sandal-Wilson
Marcin Smietana

Visit the conference website



(1) To see the ‘Queering Authoritarianisms: Conflict, Resistance, and Coloniality’ (22-26 March 2016) programme and sign up for the panels/workshops, please visit the conference page

(2) We borrow the metaphor of wall from Sara Ahmed (2017): ‘Making feminist points, antiracist points, sore points, is about pointing out structures that many are invested in not recognizing. That is what an institutional brick wall is: a structure that many are invested in not recognizing’ (158).



Ahmed, S. 2017. Living a Feminist Life. Durham: Duke University Press. 

Bakshi, S., Jivraj, S. and Posocco, S. (eds.) 2016. Decolonizing Sexualities: Transnational Perspectives, Critical Interventions. Oxford: Counterpress.

Bilge, S. 2016. “Theoretical Coalitions and Multi-Issue Activism: ‘Our Struggles Will Be Intersectional or They Will Be Bullshit!’.” in Bakshi, S., Jivraj, S. and Posocco, S. (eds.) 2016. Decolonizing Sexualities: Transnational Perspectives, Critical Interventions. Oxford: Counterpress.

Çakırlar, C. and Delice, S. (eds.) 2012. Cinsellik Muamması: Türkiye’de Queer Kültür ve Muhalefet. İstanbul: Metis Yayınları.

Ferguson, R. A. 2019. One-dimensional Queer. Cambridge: Polity Press.

Gordon, J.R. and Beadle-Blair, R. (eds.) 2014. Black and Gay in the UK: An Anthology. London: Team Angelica Publishing.

Johnson, A., Joseph-Salisbury, R. and Kamunge, B. (eds.) 2018. The Fire Now: Anti-Racist Scholarship in Times of Explicit Racial Violence. London: Zed Books.

Johnson, E.P. and Henderson. M.G. (eds.) 2005. Black Queer Studies: A Critical Anthology. Durham: Duke University Press.

Kulpa, R. and Mizielinska, J. (eds.) 2011. De-Centering Western Sexualities: Central and Eastern European Perspectives. Surrey: Ashgate.

Luther, J. D. and Ung Loh, J. (eds.) ‘Queer’ Asia: Decolonising and Reimagining Sexuality and Gender. London: Zed Books.

Meghji, A. 2020. “Towards a theoretical synergy: Critical race theory and decolonial thought in Trumpamerica and Brexit Britain.” Current Sociology. November 2020. doi: 10.1177/0011392120969764.

Tremblay, M., Paternotte, D. and Johnson, C. (eds.) [2011] 2020. The Lesbian and Gay Movement and the State. Oxfordshire: Ashgate.



The views, thoughts and opinions expressed on the CRASSH blog belong solely to the authors and do not necessarily represent the views of CRASSH or the University of Cambridge.

Posted: Tuesday 16 March 2021

Contributor: CRASSH News

Tags: queerauthoritarianism

‘Queering Authoritarianisms’: A Queer Rethinking of Social Justice and Global Politics

San Francisco, CA - June 3, 2020: Protestors at the George Floyd Black Lives Matter protest, some marching from Mission High School to Mission Police Dept and some to City Hall, holding signs.

© Sheila Fitzgerald /

20 Years CRASSH: Feminist Thought and Women’s Voices – CRASSH

20 Years CRASSH: Feminist Thought and Women’s Voices

A challenged world is an alert world and from challenge comes change.
So let's all choose to challenge.

IWD 2021 campaign theme #ChooseToChallenge

A playlist of lectures on feminist thought from our archive for International Women's Day 2021 and to celebrate 20 years of interdisciplinary research, dialogue and response at CRASSH.


Sara Ahmed | Complaint as Diversity Work

CRASSH Impact lecture series



Susan Stryker | Transgeneration: Or, Becoming-With My Monstrous Kin

Beyond Binary: Trans and Queer as a Disruptive Technologies conference



Mona Siddiqui | From the Feminine to Feminism: Women in Islamic Thought and Literature

Humanitas Visiting Professor in Women's Rights lecture



Judith Butler | Understanding Society

CRASSH Understanding Society lecture series



Baroness Helena Kennedy | Bought and Sold: Women and the Global Market

Humanitas Visiting Professor in Women's Rights lecture



Ambassador Melanne Verveer | "Women's Rights are Human Rights". The Beijing Platform for Action: An Unfinished Agenda

Humanitas Visiting Professor in Women's Rights lecture



Natasha Walter | Making Waves (WoW Cambridge)

Humanitas Visiting Professor in Women's Rights lecture



Annie Zaidi | The Idea of Home

Nine Dots Prize Winner



Elaine Scarry | Beauty and Social Justice

Pain in Performance and 'Moving Beauty' conference



Nancy Fraser | Between Marketisation and Social Protection: Ambivalences of Feminism in the Context of Capitalist Crisis

Humanitas Visiting Professor in Women's Rights lecture




The views, thoughts and opinions expressed on the CRASSH blog belong solely to the authors and do not necessarily represent the views of CRASSH or the University of Cambridge.

Posted: Thursday 4 March 2021

Contributor: CRASSH News

Tags: women's voicewomen's rightsinternational women's dayfeminism

Anthropology, Psychology and IAPT: Some Comments on Ethnography – CRASSH

Anthropology, Psychology and IAPT: Some Comments on Ethnography

The context of IAPT might serve as an analytical break against a common bifurcation of the psychotherapeutic and the biomedical.

Mikkel Kenni Bruun

A blog post written by Mikkel Kenni Bruun (Cambridge Department of Social Anthropology) for the Talking as Cure? Contemporary Understandings of Mental Health and its Treatments Research Network.

Anthropology and Psychology

When I embarked on my first period of fieldwork to study clinical psychologists, I wondered to what extent, if at all, anthropology had studied psychology ethnographically. Certainly, important anthropological studies of mental health and illness had been published over the years, especially with reference to psychiatry (e.g. Littlewood 2002; Luhrmann 2000), and anthropologists had long engaged with psychological and psychoanalytic ­theories (see e.g. Bateson 1972; Obeyesekere 1990; Moore 2007; Navaro-Yashin 2012).

However, despite a history of critical commentary on psychoanalysis in British social anthropology (see e.g. Malinowski 1927; Leach 1958; Sullivan 2012), attempts to subject psychology and its practitioners to the anthropological gaze seemed rather off the table. Instead, the ‘psy’ disciplines (Rose 1989) and its practitioners have tended to figure in anthropology as more or less fellow academics, whether as rivals or collaborators: the psychologists were the colleagues next door; and they were certainly not the kind of people anthropologists were supposed to study.

The relationship between anthropology and psychology has also at times appeared as efforts to pursue – what many would now refer to as – ‘interdisciplinarity’. While interdisciplinary aspirations and alliances between anthropology and psychology have their own merits, they are not without certain methodological and epistemological problems (Weisman & Luhrmann 2020). Anthropologists have offered relevant critiques of some problematic theoretical assumptions (such as universalism and cognitivism) upon which much of psychology rests (see e.g. Ingold 2001; Laidlaw 2007; Toren 2012).

Psychology has long provoked important debates among anthropologists, from the early psychoanalytic days of Malinowski to contemporary forays into cognitive science (e.g. Bloch 2012; Luhrmann et al. 2015). In Britain, Ernest Gellner was one of the first anthropologists to venture into the world of psychotherapeutics, examining Freud’s ‘psychoanalytic movement’ as a self-contained system of ideas (Gellner 1985). Of course, anthropologists before him had long engaged with (and critiqued) psychoanalytic ideas, and various schools of thought had emerged, including cognitive and psychological anthropologies (Ingham 1996; Irvine 2018). Psychology as well as psychotherapy continue to inform a range of anthropological projects (e.g. Fischer 2014; Luhrmann 2020; Martin 2019).



It might be time for anthropologists to pay keener attention to psychologists (including their theories, practices and subjects) as very much part of the ‘people’ under study in our ethnographies. We might also want to dispense with prevalent psychologisms in our own professional analyses that risk precluding a serious anthropological grasp of a wide range of issues relating to ‘mental healthcare’.

One immediate problem is that it is not an easy task to render psychology into an object of anthropological analysis; to situate ethnographically those organising practices and notions concerning the ‘self’, ‘mind’, ‘subjectivity’, and so on – indeed the very category of ‘consciousness’ (Davies-Horn n.d.) – which take shape around, and are shaped by, the psy disciplines and the cognitive sciences more broadly. It is also not an easy task to allow psychological ideas and commitments that might equally be cherished and confirmed in the daily life of the anthropologist (or the philosopher or historian) to be become matters of ethnographic inspection. Nevertheless, there is much to be gained and learned from an ethnographic stance; I have referred to this elsewhere as a call for an anthropology of psychology (Bruun 2019).

Moreover, the difficulties of access and fieldwork presence in psychotherapeutic contexts – in clinics, institutes, training programmes, therapy sessions, etc. – have also been duly noted by anthropologists as potential problems. For example, Ernest Gellner was unsuccessful on several occasions in gaining permission to study the British Psychoanalytic Society, turned down by the then President of the Society, Donald Winnicott. The resistance to Gellner’s proposal appeared to be largely due to his principal status as an anthropologist and the fact that he had no affiliation to or credibility in the psychoanalytic profession. Gellner’s position was thus utterly unlike that of Douglas Kirsner’s (1998), and later James Davies’ (2009), both of whom undertook fieldwork in psychoanalytic institutions in their positions as professional therapists (Kirsner as a clinical psychologist and Davies as a psychoanalytic psychotherapist).

Tanya Luhrmann (2000) also notes the constraints of her fieldwork in her ethnography of American psychiatry, reporting how her father’s status as a well-known psychiatrist and eventually her own training in psychoanalysis afforded her access to people and their professional worlds that would otherwise have been unavailable to her. Luhrmann’s fieldwork resulted in a powerful ethnography of the discipline of psychiatry and its conflicting epistemologies of care, the demise of psychoanalytic psychotherapy in the US and the rise of a self-consciously ‘biological’ psychiatry.


IAPT and the Study of Psychological Therapies

By the end of the twentieth century, psychopharmacology and drug therapies were deemed by some to have succeeded that embarrassing Freudian hangover of ‘talking therapy’. However, not everybody was done talking. In the UK and elsewhere, new and older developments of psychotherapeutic practices came to the fore (Marks 2015, 2017). Coupled with the increasing pervasiveness of evidence-based medicine (EBM), cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) ­promised a cure to a reported mental health crisis by way of an ‘evidence-based’ approach to ‘common mental health problems’ such as depression and anxiety (cf. Layard & Clark 2014).

Evidence-based psychological therapy has since proliferated in the UK with the launch of the IAPT (Improving Access to Psychological Therapies) programme in 2008. The IAPT service has been celebrated widely and its therapies such as mindfulness-based cognitive therapy (MBCT) or simply ‘mindfulness’ have become invested with political interest and are deemed increasingly salient beyond clinical contexts (Cook 2016). However, the IAPT service and its psychological therapies have also resulted in their own professional and therapeutic problems and uncertainties (Bruun 2019; Drage 2018; Hutten 2018; Pickersgill 2019; Ratnayake & Merry 2018).  

An emergent field of anthropologies, philosophies and histories of psychotherapeutics might be paving the way for new analytical orientations and critical reflections. For example, while anthropological studies of psychotherapy have often delineated the ‘psychotherapeutic’ in opposition to the ‘biomedical’ (Davies 2009; Luhrmann 2000; Young 1997), the context of IAPT might serve as an analytical break against a common bifurcation of the psychotherapeutic and the biomedical as opposing scientific epistemologies and modalities of care. Furthermore, the elision of notions of evidence and effectiveness with accountability appears to lie at the heart of IAPT’s therapeutic and scientific persuasions (Bruun 2019). The pursuit of objectivity and scientificity is not new in the world of psychology, but it could be said to have been given new and interesting life through the promises and ideals of ‘evidence-based’ psychological therapy.

The CRASSH research network Talking as Cure? engages a range of scholars as well as mental health professionals to reflect on contemporary understandings and issues of ‘mental health and its treatments’. Increasingly, anthropologists are directing their gaze at psychotherapeutic practices of various kinds across the globe and important questions remain for anthropologists to explore in this field of enquiry.



Bateson, G. 1972. Steps to an Ecology of Mind. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Bloch, M. 2012. Anthropology and the cognitive challenge. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Bruun, M. K. 2019. Scientific Persuasions: ethnographic reflections on evidence-based psychological therapy. Doctoral thesis, University of Cambridge. (Available online:

Cook, J. 2016. Mindful in Westminster: The politics of meditation and the limits of neoliberal critique. HAU: Journal of Ethnographic Theory 6, 141–161.

Davies, J. 2009. The making of psychotherapists: an anthropological analysis. London: Karnac.

Davies-Horn, J. (Forthcoming). Doctoral thesis, University of Cambridge.

Drage, M. 2018. Of mountains, lakes and essences: John Teasdale and the transmission of mindfulness. History of the Human Sciences 31, 107–130.

Fischer, E. F. 2014. The good life: aspiration, dignity, and the anthropology of wellbeing. Stanford, California: Stanford University Press.

Gellner, E. 1985. The Psychoanalytic Movement: The Cunning of Unreason. Hoboken: Wiley.

Hutten, R. 2018. The Making of Psychological Therapists: Towards a Psychosocial Understanding of IAPT Training, Culture and Practices. Doctoral thesis, University of Sheffield.

Ingham, J. M. 1996. Psychological anthropology reconsidered. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Ingold, T. 2001. From the transmission of representation to the education of attention. In The debated mind: evolutionary psychology versus ethnography (ed) H. Whitehouse.

Irvine, R. 2018. Cognitive Anthropology as Epistemological Critique. In Schools and Styles of Anthropological Theory (ed) M. Candea. London: Routledge.

Laidlaw, J. 2007. A well-disposed social anthropologist’s problems with the ‘Cognitive Science of Religion’. In Religion, Anthropology, and Cognitive Science (eds) H. Whitehouse & J. Laidlaw. Durham, NC: Carolina Academic Press.

Layard, R. & D. M. Clark 2014. Thrive: the power of evidence-based psychological therapies. London: Lane.

Leach, E. R. 1958. Magical Hair. Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute 88, 147–164.

Littlewood, R. 2002. Pathologies of the West: an anthropology of mental illness in Europe and America. Ithaca, N.Y: Cornell Univ. Press.

Luhrmann, T. M. 2000. Of Two Minds: The growing disorder in American psychiatry. (1st ed). New York: Knopf.

––––––– 2012. Beyond the Brain. The Wilson Quarterly 36, 28–34.

––––––– 2020. Mind and Spirit: A Comparative Theory. Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute 26, 1–166.

Luhrmann, T. M., R. Padmavati, H. Tharoor & A. Osei 2015. Hearing Voices in Different Cultures: A Social Kindling Hypothesis. Topics in Cognitive Science 7, 646–663.

Kirsner, D. 1998. Unfree Associations: Inside Psychoanalytic Institutes. London: Process Press.

Malinowski, B. 1927. Sex and repression in savage society. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul.

Marks, S. 2015. Psychologists as therapists: the development of behavioural traditions in clinical psychology. In Clinical psychology in Britain: historical perspectives (eds) J. Hall, D. Pilgrim & G. Turpin. (History of Psychology Centre Monograph 2). Leicester: British Psychological Society.

––––––– 2017. Psychotherapy in historical perspective. History of the Human Sciences 30, 3–16.

Martin, K. (ed) 2019. Psychotherapy, anthropology and the work of culture. Abingdon, Oxon; New York, NY: Routledge.

Moore, H. L. 2007. The subject of anthropology: gender, symbolism and psychoanalysis. Cambridge: Polity.

Navaro-Yashin, Y. 2012. The make-believe space: affective geography in a postwar polity. Durham, NC: Duke University Press.

Obeyesekere, G. 1990. The work of culture: symbolic transformation in psychoanalysis and anthropology. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Pickersgill, M. 2019. Uncertainty work as ontological negotiation: adjudicating access to therapy in clinical psychology. Sociology of Health & Illness 1467-9566.13029.

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The views, thoughts and opinions expressed on the CRASSH blog belong solely to the authors and do not necessarily represent the views of CRASSH or the University of Cambridge.

Posted: Thursday 4 March 2021

Contributor: CRASSH News

Tags: psychologyiaptethnographyanthropology

Metabolic Ruminations with Climate Cattle: Towards a More-Than-Human Metabo-Politics – CRASSH

Metabolic Ruminations with Climate Cattle: Towards a More-Than-Human Metabo-Politics

Interventions in the climate-at-large being realised through bovine bodies allows us to conceptualise a metabo-politics of more-than-human life. More-than-human metabo-politics is specific to the Anthropocene. It applies to situations in which nonhuman metabolisms are subject to measurement, calculation, and interventions that have consequences that extend beyond bodies. The portmanteau brings metabolism and politics together in a vein similar to bio- and anatamo-politics to signify the governance of metabolic flows across scales.

Jonathon Turnbull and Catherine Oliver

Blog essay authored by Jonathon Turnbull (PhD Scholar, Department of Geography, University of Cambridge) and Catherine Oliver (Postdoctoral Research Associate, ERC Urban Ecologies project, Department of Geography, University of Cambridge). Both are invited contributors with the Rescaling the Metabolic: Food, Technology, Ecology Research Network at CRASSH.



The advertising department of Burger King is undergoing a probiotic turn. In a February 2020 advert, a sped-up video of a Big Whopper burger decomposing over the course of 34 days was presented; this “moldy whopper” demonstrates the “beauty of no artificial preservatives.” The advert is a slight aimed at Burger King’s main competitor, McDonald’s, whose hamburgers have infamously been rumoured to preserve for a decade when lost in coat pockets or elsewhere, almost unaffected by the passing of time. The “moldy whopper” invokes a spectacular economy of rot, where decomposability (or its spectacle) is enrolled in the pursuit of profit. The process of decomposition seemingly proves the “naturalness” of Burger King’s ingredients. A temporality of freshness and naturalness is invoked in relation to the metabolic activity of microbes on food.

In July 2020, Burger King released another advert concerning microbes, albeit indirectly: a young boy sings a country song whilst walking through a set filled with cut-out cows burping and farting.[1] In one part, the lyrics go: “so to change emissions, Burger King went on a mission, testing diets that will help reduce their farts.” Burger King’s claim in the advert is that by converting a proportion of cattle diets to lemongrass (instead of corn) – specifically by adding 100g of lemongrass to their feed every day[2] – there will be less methane (CH4) in their flatulence, reducing their contribution to climate change. In both adverts, Burger King directly and indirectly invokes microbial activity in their products. In the first, microbes are “good germs” in the process of decomposition, while in the second advert they indirectly invoke the action of “bad microbes” as responsible for methane production in the rumen of cattle. By feeding cattle a diet including lemongrass, Burger King promises that consumers can continue to enjoy burgers with a lower environmental impact.

Burger King’s probiotic turn speaks to more-than-human metabolism from the corporeal to the global scale. Cattle bodies have become sites of climate governance, where meddling with their metabolic processes has become a way to produce “good cows” for the “good Anthropocene.” As Ormond (2020) notes, these interventions involve a shift from cattle as “climate villains” to “climate change saviours”. Human appetites, animal bodies, gut microbes, and plant matter are all involved in the re-composition of the atmosphere. In this essay, we explore how bovine metabolic processes have become the site at (and through) which the climate-at-large is manipulated or engineered (cf. Ormond, 2020).


A Note on Corporate Greenwashing

Before beginning our discussion of metabolism, however, it is important to note that the desire of corporations to produce - or, more accurately, to be seen to be producing – climate-friendly cattle has not come about in isolation. A range of local, national, and global environmental and anti-capitalist campaigns have had a significant impact in bringing attention to the devastating environmental impacts of fast-food corporations. In particular, anti-McDonald’s campaigns have exposed “the everyday exclusions and processes of marginalization that enable an actor like McDonald’s to exist” (Giraud, 2019, 25). More often than not, however, this important activism has been rendered invisible through the process of “greenwashing.”

Decades after the original anti-McDonald’s campaigns, made infamous by the McLibel law suit, organisations such as Greenpeace (2006) and the newly-formed Amazon Rebellion (2020) (a sub-group of Extinction  Rebellion) continue to highlight the link between deforestation in the Amazon basin, the production of soybeans to feed cattle, and ecocide. With cattle and soy production come transient workers, and with them often comes new illnesses, violence, and often “blatant disrespect for indigenous cultures and communities” (Carino and Diniz, 2019). Indigenous Peoples have led the resistance against such destructive practices, claiming the forest as an important socio-historical and cultural landscape (Bolaños, 2011).

Burger King’s commercial campaign brushes over the long lineage of activism that has led to the promotion of “sustainable beef.” Through this subtle and mundane technofix solution – a rather clever instance of greenwashing - they reveal their desire to shift cattle from “climate villains” to “climate change saviours” (Ormond, 2020), both materially and representationally. Public relations played a central role in attempting to ease the consciences of consumers who wanted their burgers to be less social and environmentally destructive. But we must remember that Burger King is not leading the march towards a more just climate future, nor is any other fast-food corporation.

Herein, and with this in mind, we discuss how these metabolic interventions engender the governance of material flows and transformations that connect the rumen to the atmosphere.


Towards a More-Than-Human Metabo-Politics?

Metabolism is a multi-scalar, plural concept (Barua et al., 2020) that is both everywhere and nowhere (Landecker, 2013). Contemporary thinking on metabolism draws from both 19th century developments in the biological, chemical, and physical sciences, and from political economy, especially Marx’s writings on human-nature transformations (Gandy, 2004; Barua et al., 2020). In the rumen of cattle, these two traditions meet, entangling the corporeal with the planetary.

At the corporeal scale, “metabolism is evoked to inform understandings of the governance of bodies” (Barua et al., 2020, n.p). This corporeal metabolism describes the endless becoming of organisms, which Hannah Landecker has described as “the constant becoming of the machine itself” (2013, 16). For Landecker (2019, 542), organisms represent “a ceaselessly churning scene of incorporation and excretion in which machines, bodies, microbes, enzymes, toxins, and nutrients are moving and converting matter into different forms.” Metabolism is thus concerned with a “cumulus of interlocking cycles” (Landecker, 2013, 1); the interface between inside and outside, individual and environment, life and nonlife. As Landecker writes elsewhere this “is a metabolism for the human condition in technical society, where the food is manufactured and designed at the molecular level, the air and the water are full of the by-products of human endeavor” (2011, 190). This molecular manufacturing of food can be found in the rumen of cattle.

At the planetary scale, the idea of social metabolism was developed by John Bellamy Foster (1999), who drew from the work of Marx to conceptualise the human-nature relationship as producing a “global metabolic rift.” Marx’s social metabolism denoted the process by which nutrients and energy are taken from the environment (by people), digested, and given back (Salleh, 2010). The theory of metabolic rift contends that industrial capitalism as a mode of production has separated social from natural metabolism (Clark and York, 2005; Moore, 2017), exemplified by capitalism’s inherent tendency towards destructive ecological crises. Moore (2017, 296) troubles this reading of Marx by emphasising that the metabolic rift is not about separation of Nature and Society, but rather a “reconfiguration” and “shift.”

Capitalist relations, then, do not merely act upon nature, but move through space to “ceaselessly search for, and find ways to produce, ‘Cheap Natures’” (Moore, 2015, 53). Capitalism appropriates the “free gifts” of nature “as an accumulation strategy [which] works by reducing the value composition of capital as a whole” (Moore, 2015, 53). Paying attention to capitalist metabolic interventions “draws empirical attention toward systems of interlinked processes rather than things” (Landecker, 2019, 542). This reveals uneven processes at a range of scales, aiding in “understanding the coercive effects of the social, material and spatial transformations of nature” (Barua et al., 2020, n.p). Interventions in the climate-at-large being realised through bovine bodies allows us to conceptualise a metabo-politics of more-than-human life. More-than-human metabo-politics is specific to the Anthropocene. It applies to situations in which nonhuman metabolisms are subject to measurement, calculation, and interventions that have consequences that extend beyond bodies. The portmanteau brings metabolism and politics together in a vein similar to bio- and anatamo-politics to signify the governance of metabolic flows across scales.

Metabo-politics involves the governance of materials as they move through, and are transformed by, bodies (cf Lemke, 2016). Where microbiopolitics intimately connects the governance of microbial communities with the state (Paxson, 2008), metabo-politics involves the governance of microbes, animals, and the climate by corporations according to capitalist logics. While we might consider metabo-politics of flows, anatamo-politics of bodies, and biopolitics of populations as intimately connected, metabo-politics specifically offers a means of retrieving a robust political economy concerning matter itself (and its transformation) whilst retaining a focus on the vibrancy of matter put forward by various new materialist approaches. The rumen is a site of such material transformation, where the atmosphere itself is apparently made and re-made according to specific visions of the Anthropocene in which humans continue to commodify and consume cattle, whilst attempting to do less harm to the environment.


The Rumen and the Climate Cow

In 2016, anthropologist Radhika Govindrajan proclaimed, the “Anthropocene is the age of flatulence.” Although methane from cattle primarily emerges via eructation (95%), not flatulence (5%) (Frederick, 2019), Govindrajan captures an Anthropocene problem that, as Burger King admit, is in need of “fixing.” As ruminants, cattle have stomachs with four parts: the rumen, reticulum, omasum, and abomasum. The first, the rumen, is where microbes break down food via enteric fermentation, which produces notoriously climate-unfriendly methane. Via eructation and flatulence, the average farmed bovine produces up to 200kg of methane annually (Johnson and Johnson, 1995). Ruminant methane production is a serious concern for climate scientists because methane is a powerful greenhouse gas, some 80 times as potent as carbon dioxide in its heat-trapping capacity (Fountain, 2020). Farmed animals account for around 15% of global greenhouse gas emissions, and around 40% of this is from bovine digestive processes (Gerber et al., 2013). Methane from cattle alone accounts for approximately a third of all emissions from agriculture (Scholssberg, 2020) which, with global cattle numbers expected to rise from around 1 billion to 2.9 billion by 2050 (IAASTD, 2009), means cow burps and farts are no laughing matter.

This is not the first evidence of nonhuman metabolisms having climatic impacts; large dinosaurs’ methane emissions might also have changed the Earth’s climate (Rabaiotti, 2019). Cattle are the first, however, to be engineered specifically with the climate in mind by reducing their methane emissions. As McGregor and Houston (2017, 7) note, a particular vision imbued with technofix logics suggests that “with greater investment in science and technology, farming practices and cattle biologies can be reshaped in climate-friendly ways.” The prospect of technologically-enhanced efficient cattle has led to significant investments in experiments with methane reduction, such as the National Livestock Methane Program in Australia, which focuses on the “measurement of methane, genetics, supplements, forages and rumen microbiology” (McGregor and Houston, 2017, 7).

Techno-visions of cattle efficiency “advocate de‐animating and containing non‐humans further in order to better control their parts and the atmosphere” (McGregor and Houston, 2017, 9). Ultimately, however, they are rooted in a liberal idealism that favours the production of Cheap Natures – in this case climate-friendly cattle – even when these interventions cannot be scaled up to have effects at the level desired and/or required for meaningful change (Moore, 2015, McGregor and Houston, 2017). It has also been suggested that Burger King’s specific estimations of methane reductions are significantly higher than what could be achieved in reality. This is because the 33% reduction they quote “only applies to the last three to four months of cows’ lives” (Chrobak, 2020). This means that for 75% of their lives, methane output would be normal. Recalculations suggest that only 3% reductions in methane production could occur due to using lemongrass as part of their feed (Chrobak, 2020). The fast food giant also ignores wider issues related to climate change. Technological innovation as the climate solution and the appropriation of Cheap Natures have always gone hand-in-hand. As Jason Moore (2015, 70) notes, “early capitalism excelled at this: developing technologies and knowledges unusually well-suited to identifying, coding, and rationalizing Cheap Natures. Here is a new way of seeing the world [which] decisively conditioned a new organizing technic for the capitalist world-ecology. According to McGregor et al. (2021, 20), moreover, “most cattle methane mitigation research is having the perverse effect of legitimising cattle industries and prolonging emissions in a time of climate change. ”The rumen has become a new site for this organizing technic of capitalism. Through the illusion of climate-friendly cattle, made more savourable for consumers via the greenwashing campaigns mentioned above, capital is able to maintain the production of Cheap Natures.


Metabolic Interventions

Cattle were domesticated around 9000BC and, since then, selective breeding has led to the existence of a plethora of breeds. Cattle penning and controlled diets were introduced over a century ago in the USA to produce cattle bodies that would efficiently convert feed into muscle or milk (Fountain, 2020). Rumen experiments, via cannulation, have existed since the early 20th century. Intervening in bovine metabolic processes with the aim of lowering methane emissions is, however, a more recent phenomenon. This marks a shift from an anatamo-politics and biopolitics focused on bodies and populations, to a form of governance concerned with interlocking corporeal and global flows: a metabo-politics. This is not to suggest that forms of bio- and anatamo-politics are not at work here, though. McGregor et al. (2021) brilliantly outline the role of biopolitics and anatamo-politics at a range of scales in the governance of methane production, highlighting how they function to make cattle visible as a climate problem. However, metabo-politics does different conceptual work, drawing attention to the governance of material transformations and flows, which is what we are concerned with here. The discourse around climate-friendly cattle, or ‘super low carbon cows’ (Ormond, 2020), is encapsulated in a media by-line that reads: “Inside the hard-working stomachs of these cows, an experiment that could potentially change the planet is taking place” (Watts, 2019, n.p). While a range of techniques for producing climate-friendly cattle are being developed, including the use of vaccines, antibiotics, further selective breeding, herd management and care, and dietary manipulation, here, we focus only on dietary manipulation.

A range of dietary shifts have been proposed to lower cattle methane production, based on the idea that, much like in human digestion, reducing fibre will reduce flatulence and therefore the production of methane. Legumes and oils have been added to cattle feed to reduce fibre (Watts, 2019) and some UK farmers switched their cattle feed to maize which might reduce methane production by 10% (Haque, 2018). More recently, lab trials have shown the addition of asparagopsis (a type of seaweed) to cattle feed could potentially eliminate emissions of methane (Kinley et al., 2016). Asparagopsis produces bromoform, which prevents the formation of methane in the rumen (Scholssberg, 2020), an intervention similar to that of Burger King’s lemongrass. Wheat-based diets for dairy cows can also “increase milk production by 20% while lowering methane by 30%–50%” (McGregor and Houston, 201, 7). But dietary shifts are not without problems. As the microbes that break down these introduced foods are different, “cattle have to be monitored carefully for bloat or other health problems” (Fountain, 2020).

A researcher quoted in Watts (2019, n.p) notes, “better quality feeding makes animals more productive, and more productive animals produce less methane,” but, as Scholssberg (2020) asks, “how do you change a fundamental fact of animal biology in an ethical way that doesn’t affect milk or meat?” By making cattle more efficient, they “are alive, and belching methane, for a shorter time” (Fountain, 2020). Clearly, these techniques are firmly rooted in anthropocentric and objectifying conceptualisations of nonhuman animals, reflected by the support these experiments receive from venture capital funds and huge consortiums of food companies, such as Starbucks (Scholssberg, 2020). Dietary changes for cattle reinforce an ecomodernist commitment to technofix solutions to Anthropocene problems, presuming economic efficiency and productivity can be increased without necessitating any change to the status quo, such as reducing beef and dairy intake. Whilst unsurprising, it is interesting that humans are more willing to change cattle diets than their own.

As Govindrajan (2016, n.p) reports, the rumen is one of “nature’s wonders,” and can “adapt quickly to different scientific solutions and return to producing methane in a few weeks.” Bovine metabolic interventions cannot offer a seamless solution. Indeed, scientists run the risk of altering microbial ecologies with unforeseen consequences. The microbiome is closely linked to both physical and mental health, and small changes could result in large health impacts (Watts, 2019). Scaling such projects up also poses significant problems (Tomkins and Kinley, 2015) and, as McGregor and Houston (2017, 8) note, if “absolute cattle numbers continue to expand as expected, it is likely to overshadow any marginal emissions gains developed through the research.”

Scale, therefore, remains important. Whilst shifting the diets of cattle could reduce greenhouse gas emissions, the reductions are incomparable to those that would come about through ending beef production and consumption, and wide-scale adoption of plant-based alternatives (Dutkiewicz and Rosenberg, 2020, n.p). The focus on climate-friendly cattle also does nothing to challenge the production of animals for human consumption in the first instance. Rather, they re-legitimise the eating of cattle, much like the PR-campaigns associated with “happy meat” (Cole, 2011).

As Dutkiewicz and Rosenberg (2020, n.p.) note, “when the public started to get queasy about animal treatment, the meat and dairy industry advertised happy cows. Now that attention has turned to cows’ methane-rich burps, the meatpackers are hawking carbon-neutral cattle.” Climate-friendly cattle distract from taking more radical action on climate change, shifting the responsibility for climate change across corporate value chains, producing cattle themselves as “the embodiment of carbon reduction” (Ormond, 2020, 136). The creation of an optimistic narrative around the consumption of beef is part of an economy where signs and spectacles are used to direct the public “away from questioning market structures and consumption behaviours to questions of brand loyalty” (Ormond, 2020, 136; cf. Barua, 2020).  Like clean coal, climate-friendly cattle are “more an oxymoron than a practical solution” (Dutkiewicz and Rosenberg, 2020, n.p).


Cannulation: The Materiality of Climate Cattle

These dietary experiments often occur via an intrusive cannulation procedure, sometimes known more gruesomely as “fistulation.” Cows are cannulated via a permanent hole – a fistula – being cut into their side (BBC, 2019). Into this hole, a cannula – a tube made of thick plastic – is inserted to keep the rumen open. This is sealed with a removable cap, allowing food to be deposited and removed from the rumen at (human) will. Historically, cannulation has been used to understand how cattle’s stomach pH varies throughout the day and to evaluate the effectiveness of different feeds on the digestion of cattle. The technique was developed in the early 20th century, first on goats in the 1910s, and then on cows in the 1920s (Welk-Joerger, 2021). These early metabolic studies were conducted at agricultural colleges in the US, where cannulated cows were often college mascots (Welk-Joerger, 2021). They were used to try to determine whether cattle could synthesise certain B-vitamins on their own through restricting their dietary intake (Welk-Joerger, 2021). A logic of capital, moreover, is inscribed into the technique, as agricultural colleges have the “improvement” of animals’ efficiency and that of their (by)products as core principles.

A cannula fitted into the side of a cow. (Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 United States (CC BY-SA 3.0 US)).

The cannulation of cattle is touted as a simple and effective means of accessing the “quintessential symbiotic relationship” between cattle and the bugs in their stomachs who convert cellulose into energy (O’Brien, 2014). Cannulation might be understood as an opening into the holobiont; a visceral example of what Barua (2018) describes as the porosity of animal work. The boundary of the individual bovine body can be found in the rumen, rather than at the surface of the body. Through intervening in metabolic processes with planetary ambitions, the rumen is reframed as “not quite the organism nor quite the environment, but the moving zone in which the two become one” (Landecker, 2013, 18). As Annemarie Mol (2002) contends, there is no fixed static boundary to the body, but rather an interaction between inside and outside. Bodies, therefore, are semi-permeable. Here, the rumen overflows the cattle body.

In his Manifesto for a Chemical Geography, Andrew Barry (2017, 13) proposes that “the chemical compositions of atmospheres, landscapes and bodies have become critical sites for politics, government, and everyday experience.” Where the broiler chicken carcass has become a signature of the Anthropocene’s stratigraphy (Bennett et al, 2008), methane from cattle might be one of the Anthropocene’s atmospheric signatures. The rumen and the atmosphere are connected through a logic of governance that does not usually apply to life, but rather to machinic emitters like cars and power stations. It is crucial to note that although these bovine experiments have been touted as producing “cows that are saving the world” (Watts, 2019), they are in fact sutured to an economic system that is doing the opposite. As Burger King feeds its cattle lemongrass, the company continues to expand year on year into more locations making even marginal reductions in methane emissions unlikely. These interventions into cattle bodies are a technofix solution to global environmental problems in which “[c]apitalist-designed environmental remedies continue to intensify the metabolic rift” (Salleh 2010, 206).


Conclusion: Atmospheric Cattle

Cannulated cattle and climate cows serve as visceral exemplars of the porosity of animals’ metabolic work, reminding us that “in a world that is truly open there are no objects as such” (Ingold, 2007, S28). In these interventions, there is no distinction between working on cattle bodies or metabolisms and working on the atmosphere. The two were never separate; their entanglement has just been brought into focus by these specific forms of metabo-political governance. Metabo-politics captures multiscalar techniques of governance that meddle with corporeal metabolisms with the intent of having planetary scale consequences. These climate interventions can be read as new forms of molecular governance running through nonhuman and human bodies at the corporeal and global scales. Empirical resonance might be found by others in metabo-politics related to synthetic biology, genetically modified crops, and other climate-friendly agricultural animals.

The shift to intervening in the metabolism of cattle to act on climate change is reflective of how “knowledge of metabolism in the postindustrial period is suffused with environmental risk, regulation, and information” (Landecker, 2013, 497). Metabolic research allows for parameters to be rethought, re-scaled, and re-imagined (Landecker, 2013), where intervening in metabolic processes at the site of the body can have planetary scale impacts. In tracing these bovine metabo-politics, we build on a rich tradition of research in the field of bovine biopolitics (see Holloway, 2007; Holloway et al., 2009; Holloway and Morris, 2014; Lorimer and Driessen, 2013; Ormond, 2020; McGregor et al., 2021), contributing to it by using metabolism as a conduit for going beyond bio- and anatomo-politics to attend to the governance of circulations and the modulation of flows (Lemke, 2016) that exist in the atmospheric rumen of cattle. Cattle are governed not only as lively capital but as planetary-scale actors: atmospheric Anthropocene animals.



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[1] The advert has since been removed due to criticisms that is exaggerates the effects of flatulence (when most methane is released from eructation). Critics were also displeased by the imagery of children wearing gas masks and the depiction of farmers as yodelling cowboys.

[2] For a sense of scale, a beef cow fed on silage eats around 2% of their body weight per day, which is between 12 and 15kg per day, whilst dairy cows eat 15-20kg of silage per day.



The views, thoughts and opinions expressed on the CRASSH blog belong solely to the authors and do not necessarily represent the views of CRASSH or the University of Cambridge.

Posted: Tuesday 23 February 2021

Contributor: CRASSH News

Tags: metabolicfoodfarmingclimatecattle

CRASSH at the Cambridge Festival 2021 – CRASSH

CRASSH at the Cambridge Festival 2021

We are always glad of the opportunity to demonstrate at the Cambridge Festival the exciting range of ideas coming out of research in CRASSH. Our contributions this year are as rich as ever, and we look forward to welcoming the broad audiences that the Cambridge Festival always attracts.

Steven Connor, Director, CRASSH

A summary of CRASSH's contribution to the Cambridge Festival 2021, including talks, podcasts, exhibitions and artist workshops, showcasing CRASSH's breadth of interdisciplinary research and involvement in the arts, humanities and social sciences.

The Festival runs from 26 March – 4 April 2021.


Archives of Sound: Syrian Cassette Archives
A conversation with Mark Gergis

26 March 2021 from 12 – 2pm UK time | REGISTER

Vintage cassette tape covers showing Syrian singers and musicians.

'Syrian Cassette Archives' is an ongoing project aiming to document what can be called Syria’s cassette era, dating from the 1980s to the present day. At the heart of the collection are 400+ audio tapes acquired by audio archivist Mark Gergis between 1997 and 2010, reflecting years of research and personal connections with local music shops, producers, distributors and musicians around the country. The archive is continually in motion: since its launch, it has acquired over 200 additional cassettes from donors and collaborators within and beyond Syria. Alongside the effort to archive, preserve and share these materials, the project also conducts oral histories and interviews with key individuals, providing a window into Syria’s broad and eclectic pre-war listening landscape and music networks.

This event is organised by the Archives of the Disappeared Research Network at CRASSH.

The Talking Cure Podcasts

26 March 2021 – 4 April 2021 | LISTEN from 26 March onwards

In this podcast series, we explore these questions by interviewing philosophers, historians, and practitioners of talking therapies, broadly construed. In particular, we’ll showcase the work of researchers associated with the Talking as Cure? Contemporary Understandings of Mental Health and its Treatment Research Network at CRASSH.

ROAR: Art and Sustainability – Online Exhibition and Talk

26 March 2021 – 4 April 2021 | VIEW from 26 March onwards

A person in a cloak walking on stilts across a muddy field.

The book ROAR by artists Rosanna Greaves and Marina Velez as part of broad aesthetic and critical conversations about sustainability. The title of the book, ROAR, refers to both a primordial expression and a voice that deserves to be heard. 

Join a live Q&A about ROAR on 3 April 2021 from 3 – 4pm UK time.

This event is organised in association with Art at the Alison Richard Building.

Investigating Female Ageing Through Creative Practice: In Conversation with Rosy Martyn and Kay Goodridge

27 March 2021 from 3 – 4pm UK time | REGISTER

Two bright pink full body dresses laid out side by side on a swampy shore.

Artists Beverley Carruthers and Jane Woollatt in conversation with Rosy Martin and Kay Goodridge.

Jane Woollatt and Beverley Carruthers have known each other for over 35 years, and for the past 5 years, they have worked together on a project motivated by menopause. Rosy Martin and Kay Goodridge work collaboratively using theoretical and performative strategies to analyse and contest the social and cultural constructions of the ageing body. Join them for this intriguing insight into their creative process, their experience as artists, working in collaboration and their unique look at menopause and ageing. Followed by Q&A. 

There will also be a follow-up workshop on 3 April 2021 from 1 – 2pm UK time where you will get to explore some of the artistic methods used by the artists. 

This event is organised in association with Art at the Alison Richard Building.

Safe Sex for Teenagers: A Journey Through Historical and Educational Sources

29 March 2021 from 3 – 4pm UK time | REGISTER

Two wooden posable puppets arranged in an embrace.

Sex education materials and contraceptive information for young people remain a contentious topic in today’s society. The extent to which young people should be informed about various methods of contraception and safe sex practices has been the object of recurrent debates since the postwar period. This online talk will provide a historical overview of the evolution of educational materials aimed at young people and produced by sexual health charities from the 1960s. Focusing on a range of leaflets and short films produced by the Brook Advisory Centres and the Family Planning Association, this event will contextualise these materials’ creation and highlight some controversies surrounding their publication.

A talk organised by the Health, Medicine and Agency Research Network at CRASSH.

Empathetic Machines

30 March 2021 from 12 –1pm UK time | REGISTER

A child holding hands with a robot.

Artificial Intelligence is having an ever-greater impact on how we communicate and interact. Over the last few years, smart speakers, virtual personal assistants and other forms of `conversational AI’ have become increasingly popular. In the context of health and social care, attention has begun to focus on whether an AI system can perform caring duties or offer companionship. This talk examines what it means to be empathetic and the ethical implications that arise when positioning AI systems in roles that require them to communicate with empathy.

A talk organised by the Giving Voice to Digital Democracies Research Project at CRASSH.

Bias in Data: How Technology Reinforces Social Stereotypes

31 March 2021 from 12 – 1pm | REGISTER

Code on a computer screen.

Virtually all modern communication technologies rely on data. This data is often inherently equipped with biases, naturally reflecting our own human and social biases. If dealt with blindly, these biases are not only reproduced but magnified by technology with potentially severe and discriminating effects. This talk will focus on gender and racial bias in data to explore these problems and discuss some of the possibilities for improvement.

This talk is organised by the Giving Voice to Digital Democracies Research Project at CRASSH.

Making Sense of the Evidence: Information Sharing Practices During the Covid-19 Pandemic

1 April 2021 from 12 – 1pm UK time | REGISTER

A man wearing a face covering shopping in a supermarket.

This talk explores how science and expertise relating to face mask use were discussed on Twitter in the first 6 months of the pandemic. The aim of this ongoing research is to investigate how the scientific evidence behind the changing guidance influenced public understanding and how people discussed the use of face masks on social media. In particular, we examined what key topics were talked about at various stages of the pandemic and how these concerns shifted over time.

A talk organised by the Expertise Under Pressure and Giving Voice to Digital Democracies Research Projects at CRASSH.

Investigating Female Ageing Through Creative Practice: Workshop with Beverley Carruthers and Jane Woollatt

3 April 2021 from 1 – 2pm UK time | REGISTER

Two bright pink full body dresses laid out on a swampy shore.

Join Beverley Carruthers and Jane Woollatt for an artist-led workshop.

Artists Beverley Carruthers and Jane Woollatt will hold an artist workshop exploring female ageing through text and image processes they use in their own practice. 
The event will be a collective creative discussion centred on the subject of the ageing female, we will consider this significant moment in our lives and notice some of the themes.

This event is organised in association with Art at the Alison Richard Building.

ROAR: Art and Sustainability Q&A

3 April 2021 from 3 –4pm UK time | REGISTER

A person wearing a cloak walking on stilts across a muddy field.

Please visit the online exhibition and watch the pre-recorded conversation about ROAR before attending this event.

The book ROAR by artists Rosanna Greaves and Marina Velez is part of broad aesthetic and critical conversations about sustainability. The title of the book, ROAR, refers to both a primordial expression and a voice that deserves to be heard. 

In association with Art at the Alison Richard Building.


Cambridge Festival logo



The views, thoughts and opinions expressed on the CRASSH blog belong solely to the authors and do not necessarily represent the views of CRASSH or the University of Cambridge.

Posted: Friday 19 February 2021

Contributor: CRASSH News

CRASSH at the Cambridge Festival 2021
A Conduit for Value: More-Than-Human Experiments With Chicken Metabolisms – CRASSH

A Conduit for Value: More-Than-Human Experiments With Chicken Metabolisms

In this essay, we ... attend to how chicken metabolisms are manipulated at a range of scales in pursuit of profit and human nutrition ... The chicken is conceptualised as a ‘singular inward laboratory’ where  metabolism forms a process to be controlled, monitored, and manipulated ... to become a conduit for, and synthesiser of, nutritional value for humans.

Catherine Oliver and Jonathon Turnbull

Blog essay authored by Catherine Oliver (Postdoctoral Research Associate, ERC Urban Ecologies project, Department of Geography, University of Cambridge) and Jonathon Turnbull (PhD Scholar, Department of Geography, University of Cambridge). Both are invited contributors with the Rescaling the Metabolic: Food, Technology, Ecology Research Network at CRASSH.


Eggs collected from hens at an industrial farm. Image by Jo-Anne McArthur/We Animals, 2019. 


The industrialisation of chicken farming has divided chickens into ‘broilers’ for meat and ‘layers’ for egg production (Davis, 2009). Both the broiler and the layer are the result of at least a century of fowl-breeding. Driven increasingly by market logics, farmers have contended with raising profitable birds, which involved selective breeding and genetic manipulation to increase their productivity whilst driving down costs, notably of feed. The coalescing of these demands has led to at least a century of multi-scalar manipulations. At the genetic scale, selective breeding aims for genetic ‘robustness’ (Mckay et al 2018). At the environmental scale, light exposure and access to space are manipulated to meet the productivity demands of capitalist temporalities (Davis 2009). And, at the metabolic scale, nutritional management experimentation pursues efficient growth rates.

Traditionally, egg production dominated chicken agriculture in the United States but by the end of the 20th Century, it was eclipsed by broiler business (Bell and Weaver 2002). Egg consumption dropped in the latter half of the twentieth century due to salmonella fears, but as a proportion of meat eaten by Americans, chicken rose from 23% to 43% (Davis 2009). Broiler chickens have become paradigmatic metabolic labourers (Beldo 2017); compared to 50 years ago, they grow twice as large in half the time (Barua, White and Nally 2020). Broiler meat has become emblematic of the geographical nature of metabolism, whereby ‘capitalist relations move through, not upon, space’ (Moore 2017, 313) with intense material consequences. However, in this essay, we attend to other experiments involving the metabolic processes of chickens, their eggs and more-than-human health to highlight how metabolism is a concept that stretches across geographical scales and sites.

Metabolic experiments with chickens are aligned with global shifts in human nutrition and diets. The selective breeding of chickens for food dates to at least the sixteenth century (Wood-Gush 1959) but it was the nineteenth century that ushered in a new attitude towards meat consumption in Britain that had ripples the world over. Meat ‘was regarded as a vital source of British power and stamina, a weapon of war and a tool of conquest’ (Otter 2020, 21). Chicken consumption has risen since the nineteenth century, today being the most popular meat in the Western world, and second only to pork consumption globally. While pork and beef consumption has remained steady since 1990, chicken consumption has increased by 70% in OECD countries (The Economist 2019). The ‘meatification’ of the planet has led to ‘selection for specific traits’ and ‘the elimination of undesirable ones’ in farmed animals, which has led to significant reductions in effective population size and overall genetic diversity of chickens (Otter 2020, 32). The composition of chicken products, both flesh and eggs, were subject to metabolic experimentation in animal sciences developing simultaneously with human nutritional science. Thus, contemporary chickens and eggs are the bearers of genetic and nutritional knowledge which, through molecular governance, stitch together human and animal metabolic interdependencies.


Metabolising Chickens

In Making Meat, Boyd traces ‘efforts to understand and improve the diets of chickens as a key component to accelerate growth rates and increase metabolic efficiency’ (Boyd 2001, 644). The alignment of agricultural chemistry and nutritional science meant chickens were regularly used in studies on essential nutrients, particularly vitamins. This expansion of knowledge regarding chicken nutrition meant that ‘by World War II, the nutrient requirements of chickens were known more precisely than any other commercial animal species’ (Boyd 2001, 645). These experiments were not merely on chickens, though. Rather, they were with chickens, albeit by force. The logics of capital pervaded the development of understandings of chickens’ nutritional requirements. This required chicken bodies to undertake forms of ‘nonhuman labour’ (Barua 2017) as ‘workers in the shadows of capitalism’ (Barua 2018). Chickens, therefore, undertake distinct labour ‘occurring at macrobiotechnological and microbiotechnological levels’ (Beldo 2017, 118). This labour is congealed in metabolic experiments.

One such experiment involves light used to disrupt chicken metabolisms to elongate their productive hours. Sunlight, or UV light simulators, stimulates the pituitary gland, signalling to the ovaries to increase the production of follicle-stimulating hormones (Smith and Daniel 1975). In industrial egg farms, the lights are kept on for 16 hours mimicking long summer days to foster daily laying. Light is also used to force moulting, where chickens are exposed to 24 hours of continuous artificial light, followed by being deprived of food for 14 days with exposure to 10 hours of light per day (Davis 2009). Inducing an intense and compressed moulting process lasting one or two months – which would ‘naturally’ occur over the course of a year – forces the chickens into their next laying cycle. Forced moulting prevents the ‘wasteful’ redirection of energy from laying to growing feathers. These hens are alienated from their own metabolic labour and their ‘natural’ metabolic clocks, whilst also having their spatialities tightly restricted and controlled.

In the twentieth century, chickens were also implicated in the metabolization of waste. Dairy waste was introduced to chicken diets, making their manure high in casein protein (Landecker, 2019). This chicken manure possessed ‘valuable fertilizing properties,’ but efforts to convert it into a dry substrate for sale and circulation were largely unsuccessful (ibid., 535). In 1927, a patent for the chemical treatment of this manure noted that the drying process could be facilitated by ‘the addition of poultry feathers or whole bird corpses’ (ibid, 536). As part of this fertilizer, chicken bodies were fed to crops and metabolised by plants. A ‘chemical gaze’ (Landecker 2019) had fallen upon chicken metabolisms; all aspects of chicken life – bodies, waste, produce – were seen in terms of their chemical constituents and capacities for chemical transformations.

Researchers at the University of Wisconsin in the early 1920s ‘discovered that vitamin D, when added to a chicken's diet, prevented leg weakness’ (Boyd 2001, 638), leading to the widespread addition of cod-liver oil to chicken feed. Vitamin D-supplemented chickens could be kept indoors all year round, reducing their spatial requirements, reducing the zoonotic risks of contact with ‘wild’ birds, and setting the stage for another century of experimentation in confinement and metabolic intensification.


Floor-raised egg-laying hens. Image by Jo-Anne McArthur/We Animals, 2019


The Chicken and the Egg

Attempts to fragment and automate the chicken draw on biologic and metabolic knowledges of nutrition, digestion, and reproduction. Chickens’ vitality overflows conceptions of metabolism as a ‘solely biomechanical process’ (Beldo 2017, 112), yet this same capacity of life makes them ideal experimental subjects. In this vision of the chicken, feed goes in and eggs come out. Metabolic labour is conceived as an intermediary process, which Haldane (1931, in Landecker 2013, 515) describes as ‘the transformations undergone by matter in passing through organisms.’ This refining of the industrial metabolism is undertaken in ‘the exact determination of which enzymes and which vitamin cofactors were necessary to catalyze what reactions within the framework of the cell’ (Landecker 2013, 496).

Eggs offer a ‘nutritionally complete and well balanced’ source of nutrition and are labelled ‘a nearly complete food’ by Smith and Daniel (1975, 193). The nutritional composition of eggs varies; fat-soluble vitamins A, D and E, and water-soluble vitamin B12 are all influenced by levels of fat and drugs in chicken diets (Naber 1979). As highly digestible foods, eggs and their proteins possess ‘biological activities of interest for human health’ including ‘antimicrobial, antioxidant, and anti-cancerous properties’ (Sophie Réhault-Godbert et al 2019), the composition of which can be altered even in colour, with changes in carotenoids determining the shade of egg yolk (Bouvarel et al 2011). The human-altered egg is thus a far from ‘natural’ food.

In contemporary metabolic theory, chemical conversions of food into energy have been replaced by understandings of ‘food [as] a conditioning environment that shapes the activity of the genome and the physiology of the body’ (Landecker 2011, 167). Modern malnutrition does not only arise due to nutritional deficiency, but also via excess (McMichael 2005). The ‘challenge for nutrition science is to develop new understanding and strategies to enable a balance between promoting, equitably, the health of humans while sustaining the long-term health of the biosphere’ (ibid., 706). In these nutritional excesses and deficiencies, metabolic experiments attempt to make the egg a conduit for nutritional tweaking.

Omega-3 (n−3 PUFA) is a polyunsaturated fatty acid found in flaxseed, fish and algae: an ‘ancient, human biology-attuned nutrient’ (McMichael 2005, 710) which is involved in the development and maintenance of the brain, and is helpful in preventing cardiovascular pathologies, and potentially stress, depression and dementia (Bourre 2005). The recommended intake of this fatty acid is rarely met in Western diets, leading to experiments to modify eggs’ Omega-3 profile through feed supplementation (Fraeye et al 2012). The use of dietary supplements for egg-laying chickens occurs for two reasons. First, so that living animals can efficiently distribute the desirable nutrients throughout their tissues (Bou et al 2009) – a process that technology cannot yet match. And second, because dietary supplementation is safer than transgenic modification or adding bioactive compounds to the final product. Via the metabolic labour of chickens, the egg is a conduit, produced and tailored for human nutritional needs and desires.


Post-Productive Metabolism

Changing patterns of human consumption are reconfiguring the Earth’s geology and biosphere. The broiler chicken has been proposed as a distinct new morphospecies signal (Bennett et al. 2018); a characteristic of the Anthropocene era. With a population of over 22 billion, the rate at which chicken carcasses are accumulating is unprecedented in the natural world (Bennett et al. 2018). Even as growth rates slow down, global egg production has increased from 20 million tonnes to over 70 million tonnes per year since 1961.

This waste problem associated with chicken carcasses has inspired efforts to develop methods for utilising spent, post-productive, hens. ‘Ground spent hen’ is used in hen meal that is fed back to chickens. It is also used in cheap human baby food, reconstituted chicken products like chicken nuggets, and in commercial pet food products (Alexander et al 2020). New utilisations of chickens’ post-productive bodies are continually emerging, notably as ‘a sustainable biomass source to produce fuels’ (Safder et al, 2019). The use of spent hens as such retains post-productive chickens’ bodies in the flows of industrial metabolism, connecting chickens back into the wider nutritional environment and demonstrating how metabolic intensification goes hand-in-hand with the capitalist logics of efficiency.

Expansive experimentations with chicken nutrition during the history of industrialisation have been the basis for more-than-human metabolic knowledge. Attending to chickens opens questions of what and who is inside and outside of the metabolic process. If the egg is used as a conduit for refining human nutritional intake, the chicken body becomes a space (and process) through which desirable nutrients are delivered into human food. Chickens are alienated from their own bodies, even as egg production relies on their currently irreplaceable metabolic labour. Chickens are always implicated in networks of capital, wherein value is eked out of bodies, both living and dead (see Gillespie, 2014). The metabolic regulation of chicken lives operates on multiple registers – across species, bodies, and cellular and genomic processes - but also across geographical scales, where chickens and their farming are produced and have effects internationally.

Chickens first became the subjects of an international project in the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries; the time when genetic and breeding sciences were developing. These developments also coincided with ‘the importation into the West of the giant Asiatic breeds’ (Smith and Daniel 1975, 205). With the advent of poultry shows in the USA and Britain, ‘so began the odyssey of the modern chicken propelled out of the obscurity of the barnyard onto the national and international scene, traded in and speculated on like a growth stock’ (ibid, 208). Both exotic variations and more familiar farmed hens were imbued in a particular politics of production wherein the ‘ideal chicken’ was pursued. This involved breeding for traits such as faster laying, whilst attempting to lessen traits that would impede production, such as broodiness. This ultimately led to the proliferation of the Leghorn, ‘a reliable layer’ with ‘the least tendency to broodiness’ (ibid 237-9).

Unsurprisingly, the industrialisation of chickens is not without negative consequences, notably in terms of significant reductions in their genetic diversity (Granevitze et al 2007), reducing genetic resistance to infectious disease (Zekarias et al 2002). Where ‘scientists see bird populations as a reservoir for human pathogens’ (Keck and Lakoff 2013), disease outbreaks in avian populations might serve as ‘sentinels’ (Keck 2013). Industrial chicken farming continues to produce interspecies ‘virulent zones’ that are neither temporally nor geographically bounded. As Wallace contends in relation to the highly pathogenic avian H5N1 infection: ‘the origins… are multifactorial, with many countries and industries and environmental sources at fault’ (2016, 79), not least the United States’ industrialised model of vertically integrated farming. The manipulation of chicken metabolisms has reverberating and unpredictable consequences across space, time, and species.

In this essay, we have attended to how chicken metabolisms are manipulated at a range of scales in pursuit of profit and human nutrition. From strictly controlling their environmental conditions to the recycling of spent hens into wider nutritional environments, chicken metabolisms are implicated across scales. Following Landecker (2011), the chicken is conceptualised as a ‘singular inward laboratory’ where the metabolism forms a process to be controlled, monitored, and manipulated. As such, chickens’ metabolic labour has been intensively fine-tuned to become a conduit for, and synthesiser of, nutritional value for humans. Such understandings allow chickens not only to be alienated from their metabolic labour as with all farmed animals, but also to be uniquely constructed as conduits that transform and improve matter as it passes through them.


The views, thoughts and opinions expressed on the CRASSH blog belong solely to the authors and do not necessarily represent the views of CRASSH or the University of Cambridge.

Posted: Monday 15 February 2021

Contributor: CRASSH News

Tags: metabolicchickenschicken farming