Category Archives: events worth blogging

Chairing academic sessions for fun and… diversity #IST2018 #manels #academia

So, the International Sustainability Transitions conference has come and gone. A fine event, with a huge number of scholars delivering papers, speed talks, with plenty of time for schmoozing and boozing.  I wrote already about the problem of manels and ‘What is to be Done’, but that was before I had a) delivered my own talk and b) chaired a session unexpectedly.

So this post is to talk through how those went, what I learned, what I would do differently.  #reflexivity #narcissism

My presentation

  • I almost had a horrible powerpoint melt down.  So  always have the latest version on your email account (which I did) but ALSO have it on two (not one, but two) NEW memory sticks.
  • Having a countdown clock (my tablet) was hugely useful
  • I talked for too long explaining the multiple streams approach, but people seemed to appreciate it.
  • I didn’t talk about my methodology and nobody gave a damn.  In my opinion, if you aren’t trying to make a methodological contribution, then don’t waste limited time in a short session (ten mins) talking about it.
  • I asked the chair of the session for permission, and then I cut my session down by two minutes and used that time (as I’d previously advocated) to have people turn to the person next to them and try to come up with a question.



  • I am biased, and one is not a sample, but I think that there was extra energy in the room, and I got more, shorter, sharper questions than the following three speakers, who kept to the traditional format….


My chairing

The following morning I went to a session where the scheduled chair was not available.  The (good) advice from the conference organisers was that in such a situation, the speaker scheduled to be last should be the chair, since they are highly motivated to keep everyone to time.  I thought ‘sod it’, I’ll volunteer (I had been volunteering for the past two days, in my purple t-shirt).  So, I took the opportunity (not asking anyone’s permission, as I recall – perhaps I did ask the first speaker) to try out the “turn to the person next to you” innovation.

In my opinion there are four key roles that the chair has to accomplish in any papers-presentation session

In chronological and escalating order of difficulty

First, they have to make sure that everyone is welcomed to the session and at least mildly ‘energised’ (this can be as simple as a warm hello and a comment about lunch/the night before).
Second, they need to ensure that all powerpoints/prezis whatever are loaded onto the computer and ready to go.
Third, they have to keep schedule ticking over.  It is grossly unfair if the final speaker doesn’t get as much as the first simply because of the sequencing.  That means that speakers have to be kept to time, so that there can be some questions to them. Ask the speaker if they want –
A five minute warning as well as the mandatory “two minute warning”
questions one at a time or in batches
Fourth, they have to take all reasonable steps to ensure that everyone in the room has a realistic chance of participating, and that the discussion is not dominated/ controlled/ unduly shaped by a small coterie of the most confident/experienced/highest status actors.

So, less interesting is the fact that I was able to ensure that all four speakers got the same amount of time and we finished bang on time so people could get down for a cup of coffee and a schmooze (the most interesting bits of a conference are often the random encounters).  This was partly by giving the speakers warnings, but also, while they were answering questions, I brought up the next presentation on the computer. I also didn’t waste time introducing the speakers- they just started talking.

More usefully, though was the getting people to actually participate fully.  The first time I  I said “everyone, for two minutes, please speak with someone close to you- if you have question, get help honing it – a short question is a good question. If you have half a question, get help forming it”  there was confusion/mild bewilderment  but the ‘authority’ of the chair carried the day.  By the third speaker I could just say “you know what to do” with a wave of my hand, and they slipped into it.  (I did NOT explain the rationale)


So, that’s basically how it worked.  In the third Q and A and the fourth I gave priority to people who’d not asked questions before.
Again, this is one experiment, and I would hesitate to extrapolate or invoke without more efforts.  There were only about 20 people in the room, for example – might be harder with fewer or more.


  • there was a very good mix of gender with the questions
  • most people asked a question
  • some people came up to me and thanked me for the format, and were enthusiastic about it
  • one of the speakers was also very complimentary about it…


So, would I do this again?  Yes.  Would I have a single slide with the instructions on it?  Yes.  Would I ask people for feedback after the session? Yes.


The rationale

There are two purposes to this (though neither needs to be explained to the attendees unless you really want to be explicit)

Firstly, it means that people who are less confident, have been socialised into believing their question can’t be any good, are able to get help/reassurance/encouragement from others if they need it.

Secondly, it gives you options when you come to ask for questions, because there is now a sea of hands to pick from,not just the Quickdraw McGraws. This makes your job easier.


Of interesting questions and interesting times

How do you create collegiality?

How do you ensure that the emotional tone of an ongoing event is ‘right’, and that people aren’t intimidated from the outset?

How do you get peer-to-peer learning and interacting going at a higher-than-normal level?

How do you do those things and other important things?

How do you make sure they aren’t likely to be scuppered?
In my opinion, these are Interesting Questions.

Gig review: TV Smith in #Manchester 24 May

There are obvious signs that the species, far from being ‘sapiens‘ (wise) is as dumb as a bag of hammers.

Item the first: ignoring climate scientists and biologists for the last three decades (or more), and continuing to burn fossil fuels as if there were, um, no tomorrow.

Item the second: building up nuclear weapons that can never be ‘used’ (though they do of course run a nice line in intimidation and keeping the owners of the bomb making factories in hookers and cocaine) to the level where we could turn the planet to a crisp many many times over, and might do so if there’s a flock of geese or an asteroid shower or a hemorrhoid in power.

Item the third: the fact that a singer of the brilliance, wit, passion and literacy of TV Smith plays to relatively small crowds in small venues. What the actual fuck is wrong with you, humans? You have a man of extraordinary talent playing songs with killer lyrics (the verbal dexterity is extraordinary) about life, love, loss, despair, the depredations of capitalism and ‘the system’ and you don’t even turn up?! Srsly.

For the record: TV Smith, with a 40 year back catalogue (and all of it fresh) ripped out 25 or so of his brilliant tracks tonight at Aatma. He started with a request (from me) – March of the Giants, and rattled through old ones (Tomahawk Cruise), brand new ones (they’re good), fairly new ones (I Delete, On Replay) and everything in between (Expensive being poor, Gary Gilmour’s Eyes, New Church, The Lion and the Lamb, Atlantic Tunnel). The trademark competence, energy, verve, guts and humour were on display. A great night, basically.


Holy Moses or “There’s never an irony policeman when you need one”

We watched the documentary. Excellent if problematic, it was basically a morality play: a bunch of old white powerful men in a self-designed and policed echo chamber are eventually brought low by a scrappy band of diverse (gasp) women. And so immediately after the film there was to be a discussion. And a bunch of old white powerful men sat around and started to talk among themselves about their memories, while (BME) women watched on from the back of the room.

Reader, I. Am. Not. Making. This. Up.

There really never is an irony policeman around when you need one.

The documentary was Citizen Jane: Battle for the City, a skilfully made but partial hagiography of Jane “The Death and Life of American Cities” Jacobs, and the battles she fought – and won – with the infamous Robert ‘The Power Broker’ Moses. Moses was drunk on the sort of power that being part of the winning side in an World War gives you (planes, tanks and atomic weapons). Moses then planned to redesign New York City to his own particular purposes. Not captured in the film (one of its silences) was just how fantastically racist (even “by the standards of his day”) Moses was. This would have complicated the straightforward (largely white) narrative that got told. So be it. Anyway, Jacobs, a journalist and all-round good egg, fought Moses over his plans to drive a road through Washington Park in 1954. Then, a few years later, Moses had a hard-on for a Lower Manhattan Expressway. Jacobs and co beat him again.

The documentary then took a good turn – looking at the Chinese government’s falling-in-love with Moses’ technocratic dreams. It didn’t have time to explore the new resistance (e.g. the Shanghai maglev doesn’t make it from the airport to the city centre). There are other problems of course.

For a film that celebrates “diversity” it didn’t have that many non-white faces (though to be fair, it did have some). It didn’t historicise- would it have killed them to say who Moses’ hero was – Haussmann of Paris (instead we got heaps of Le Corbusier. Interesting, but, meh). It could have further contextualised Moses’ will to power (he was both a regime and a Nietzsche actor) by better referencing the chaos of the Depression and the “successes” of US planning and power during the war, and put it alongside the white heat of 1950s ‘successes’ (DDT, the space programme, blah blah), and also pointed to the collapse of that faith not just with Jacobs, but also the civil rights movement, the Vietnam War. But to be fair, this was a documentary that needed to have a Bad Guy and a Good Guy (well, gal). It wasn’t, after all, an Adam Curtis documentary. My rule of thumb of a documentary – do I feel I know enough, but do I still want to know more? The answer in this case is an emphatic yes.

Meanwhile, Jacobs instantly puts me in mind of Rachel ‘Silent Spring’ Carson (mentioned by one interviewee) and more latterly Elinor Ostrom. Moses harks back to Haussmann but also to a near contemporary, Robert McNamara, an equally ‘modernist’ figure who prosecuted the Vietnam War (3 million dead at the time, more since from land mines and defoliants etc) with the same gusto and the same playbook as Moses did the enemy ghettos of New York.

Back to the ‘discussion’. Would it really have killed any of the initial speakers to look around the room and say ‘hey, if we’re gonna have a discussion about diversity, it would help if we were all in a big circle. You don’t have to say anything if you join the circle, and you don’t have to move to be in the circle if you don’t want, but we can hardly honour Jacobs and the documentary-maker’s capital M Message about inclucivity if we don’t at least try to reshape the space for conviviality in the Illich sense, rather than a Powerful White Men get to Express-their-opinions-Way.’

Didn’t happen, at least while I was there: I then invoked the law of two feet. Also, I have a thesis to finish.

Men critique things of me: of Winterson and Solnit in #Manchester #activism

aka some cishet white guy’s uninvited commentary on two feminist literary icons. But it’s his website and he can say what he likes. Nobody is forcing you to read it, ‘kay?

Rebecca Solnit will be known to the casual reader as the woman who wrote the (fantastic) ‘Men Explain Things To Me’. Last night she was ‘in conversation’ with Jeanette (Oranges are not the only fruit, Sexing the Cherry, Why be happy when you can be normal) Winterson as part of the Manchester Literature Festival.  A capacity crowd (female to male ratio 3:1ish) filled the Martin Harris  auditorium at the University of Manchester.

After a brief welcome, and announcement that Manchester is now a UNESCO city of literature, it was on with the program itself.

Solnit read from the lead essay in her new book The Mother of All Questions which  contains essays about the powerlessness of silences, men in/and feminism, the perniciousness of rape culture.

As ever with Solnit, the questions are apt, the prose measured, incisive.  She pointed out that the standard importance of happiness, and the standard belief that ‘ducks in a row’ (spouse, security, possessions) doesn’t in fact guarantee this ‘happiness’, and gave the example of a successful friend who despite a seventy-year marriage and all the other accoutrements that should lead to ‘happiness’ is despondent because her compassion makes her think of t’other species, t’other generations

Winterson kicked off the discussion with a question about the longest essay, ‘A short history of silence’.

Solnit says she quoted bell hooks on patriarchy begins with men’s silencing of other men, and that growing up in San Francisco during the 70s meant she could learn from queer men parodying and undermining traditional (heterosexual) masculinity.

At this point, I forget the context, she also uttered one of her axioms – “everyone has the right to be an asshole” (regardless of race, gender, class).
Winterson pressed on – the need of  (#notall) men to control women. Solnit concurred, pointing out that Weinstein could easily have bought sex if that was what he had wanted.

She also pointed to what she called ‘annihilatory acts’ (as in, actresses having their careers destroyed by Weinstein’s behaviour).  She then riffed on a 2007 article of here in which a guy who had directed straight porn returned to the industry and started directing gay porn, realising that there were ‘no humiliation scenes’.

She made the point that there are “a tonne of leftwing men” with deeply problematic behaviour, and that this is a really interesting moment, one of those ‘seismic lurches’ in the same way that Anita Hill’s 1991 testimony about Clarence Thomas was (‘before we had hashtags, we had bumper stickers, like ‘I believe you Anita’).

She made reference to the 2014 Isla Vista killings by a young man whose sense of entitlement crashed up against, well, reality, and pointed out that the woman who created the #yesallwomen hashtag, a young Muslim woman, had been hounded off the internet for six months

Winterson then, oddly imo, asked Solnit what she thought Weinstein would do next. Solnit labelled him a serial rapist, with crimes dating back forty years, and said she thought he’d probably been lying to himself and would continue to do so, that she expected nothing of him but that we should expect of ourselves the important work of liberation.

In the context of the Bechdel Test, Winterson introduced a Star Wars statistic of Solnit’s that clearly enraptured her.  If you take the original trilogy (and let’s pretend the Phantom Menace never happened, okay?) Three hundred and eighty six minutes and if you take out Princess Leia, (who never talks to anyone who isn’t a male), then there are only 63 seconds of females talking across the three films.

Winterson noted that for ages we imbibed this stuff and thought it normal. Solnit mentioned that women have had to be hermaphroditic in their reading, in order to be Odysseus rather than Penelope, and mentioning Hong Kong action films, where women get to kick ass, as liberatory zones.

On the subject of ‘Men explain Lolita to me’ – Winterson recalled that Martin Amis had said to her that she simply “did not understand her (the character Lolita’s power”.  Solnit was scathing about male critics and their ability to not see that this is a book about a young girl trapped and serially abused, trying to get away. She invoked James Baldwin “it is innocence which constitutes the crime” and argued that what was shocking in the Weinstein revelations is that men have been shocked by the breadth of sexual harassment and abuse.

Conversation then turned to the essay “Men explain things to me”.  Solnit pointed out that women being silenced can have potentially fatal consequences (women being ignored when trying to report ‘my (ex)husband is trying to kill me’ etc) and moved on to think of Sylvia Plath being born now rather than fifty years ago being ‘free to sleep under the stars’ (i.e., as they said, Virginia Woolf’s thought experiment of Shakespeare’s Sister).

Nonetheless, things are improving for (some) women, in the West, and Solnit argues that the genie is out of the bottle and won’t be forced back in. Citing marriage equality, she cited the observations of Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg that in until 1991 husbands in Louisiana could dispose of joint property as they saw fit under its ‘Head and Master’ law.

Q and A

There was only time for three questions (since we started late). Mercifully none were the sorts of chest-beaty ‘look at me’ stuff that can happen at these events and I am sure this had nothing to do at all with the fact that the questions all came from women).
First question:  Under Trump we may not be able to do just maintenance work but need to do recovery work. How can we be resilient?

The answer wasn’t so hot, imo.  Civil Rights gains rolled back by Republicans [aka the new Jim Crow]. Don’t be dismayed, activism isn’t just boredom and nastiness, can be fun/meet great people [yeah, I used to believe that].  Berlin wall, Apartheid ending.  Solnit also noted that good work is one of the best things you can have, noting that she had the privilege of getting to write for a living.

Second question: in wake of #metoo Social media – good or bad?

Solnit also in my opinion flubbed this one. Wondered if any quantitative work comparing snark/death threats and opportunities for co-ordination/mutual support. Facebook and Twitter not going answer.  Attention span is disrupted when everyone is checking phone every five minutes. What would search engines look like if designed by someone other than ruthless white male libertarians chasing advertising dollars?

Richard Flanagan article as crucial here

Also the amazing Zeynep Tufekci and her recent “Fighting Surveillance Authoritarianism, One Pull-up At a Time”

Third question: How can we shift blame to perpetrators? What can men do?

Solnit didn’t mention the French hashtag ‘name your pig’.  She expressed surprise at men pledging ‘I will no longer laugh at misogynist jokes, I will no longer stand by while…’ .  “I can’t believe your admitting that you’ve been doing that until now.”

My friend was seething, judging that Solnit had in fact not answered the first question, and that anyone who thinks feminism has made major advances is living in a (rich and white) bubble and that – in response to the second question you do not ‘give a voice’ but in fact stop silencing or colluding in the silencing of


So what?

Both lovely stylists, if you like that sort of thing.  But (and this is where I stick my big fat mouth and head above the parapet) it all seemed to me a little bit self-regarding and self-satisfied, with serious questions about the viability of ‘blockadia’ (to use Naomi Klien’s term) left not merely unanswered but in fact unasked.

If the radicals are so right (and I think they are) and it is shocking that men are shocked by the scale of sexual harassment (and yes it is shocking) then doesn’t that mean that social movements are doing something wrong/could be doing better?  (And a shout out to Everyday Sexism here – I think it is a great project).   Perhaps all this is answered in the book, but it wasn’t answered on the night, and my experience of a big fat long book of Solnit’s – A Paradise Built in Hell – was that there was some lovely rhetoric and powerful denunciations of patriarchy/bureaucracy etc, but not so much on how to sustain moments of passion and the liberatory moments, how to escape the sclerosis of the “system.”

Verdict –

  • Someone whose opinion on these matters I respect v. much and counts for more than mine decided to stay home under the cat.  Missed little, I think.
  • Glad I got a freebie, 8 quid seems a bit steep for an hour, tbh.  Maybe I am cheap…
  • Will defo read this collection of essays, once I can get a copy from a library or buy a year from now for £1.99 in an Oxfam in Chorlton. Will probably like various essays and even stick post-it notes in here and there, while being irritated by the wordiness and lack of concrete critiques of the good guys.

Sociotechnical transitions for beginners; of speed, stability and mixing it up

What’s a sociotechnical transition? Why should you care?  What does history teach us? Why might it be a false teacher? All good questions and they received good (though sometimes, by necessity provisional) answers yesterday as Dr Florian Kern of University of Sussex spoke on ‘Governing Low Carbon Transitions’ (see foot of this post for the abstract).

Kern, who is a senior Lecturer at the Science Policy Research Unit and Co-Director of the  Sussex Energy Group at University Sussex, started with a brief overview of energy – there are lots of different ways we (7 and a half billion of us) get energy – nuclear, coal, solar, burning wood etc) and each has consequences/sideeffects/costs (Fukushima, tar sands etc).  He touched on the Sustainable Development Goals (see here for a philosophical critique of them).  Energy dominates human well-being, and – crucially –  energy systems tent to be complex, long-lived and capital intensive. This means they involve ‘carbon lock-in’ . Businesses will be fonder of doing incremental ‘within the system’ changes on a business as usual trajectory.  You’ve got assets, you want to sweat them.  You’ve got core competencies, you don’t want to trash them…

So this leads us onto transitions of whole systems (rather than focussing unduly on shiny gadgets being invented and distributed).   How exacly do we think about these systems?  Technological infrastructure, user preferences? A mix.

Kern touched on the standard definition of a transition – scrutucal change in the way that societal needs are fulfilled (the thorny question of created needs – via advertising or destroying alternative provision – throwing people off the commons/accumulation by dispossession) was outside his remit.

The standard view (see below) is that they usually take 30-50 years, if not longer, that they involve both technical and non-technical change, that they are multi-level and co-evolutionary affairs that are non-linear and involve multiple actors.

At which point he threw up that Turner painting of a steam tug taking a sailing ship on its final journey…


So, transitions have various possible pathways, with questions around how they’re developed and supported.

There was then a rather snazzy and useful diagram of Jochen Markard listing some of the various intellectual (well, academic) disciplines which contribute to transitions studies – management, sociology, political science, natural science, , innovation studies, economic geography, economics (an incomplete list)

There are soooo many emerging topics within (sustainability) sociotechnical transitions, more than you could shake a thesis at.  (Deep breath): politics, power, agency, contestation; cities/urban sustainability’ beyond initial experiments (how to scale up/extend/mainstream); the role of social innovation.  [Fortunately my thesis (due by 2020, 2022 at the latest), will resolve ALL of these.]

Kern today was specifically focusing on three particular topics – the speed of transitions, whether/how sociotechnical systems can be destabilised and the appropriate ‘policy mix’ for transitions.

  1. Speed

“Speed” is not just a classic Keanu Reeves/Sandra Bullock action film.  It also matters given that we’re supposed to be decarbonising not just electricity grids but everything under, well, the sun.  Keeling Curve, Two Degrees, etc etc (#wearetoast)

The conventional view is this takes decades or centuries, but in late 2016 Benjam Sovacool (also SPRU) threw a very lively cat among the pigeons by arguing ‘How long will it take?’

It all might be quicker, he argues (and I am paraphrasing a paraphrase, not having re-read that paper!)  because … three things

  • there are lots of actors pushing,
  • lots of interesting international dynamics (from the global – IRENA, UNFCCC all the way through to local communities [Carbon Coop will save the world!!! I hope.]
  • Paris  (don’t talk to me about Paris).

Kern was interesting on the international dynamics thing, arguing (as have others) that German Solar PV policies got the Chinese interested in upping their manufacturing capacity, leading to oversupply, a price plummet and all sorts of gamechangery stuff. He cited also Peter Newell and Lucy Baker on emerging economies and possibly leapfrogging.  Suzlon instead of Vestas etc

Meanwhile, since (but not necessarily because of) Paris, renewable investment is outstripping fossil fuel investment.
2.  Destabilisation

We need to move beyond nurturing niches (What was that Vonnegut said about half the world’s problems being down to the fact at everyone wants to build, nobody wants to do maintenance).

So, what of incumbents?  Is Goliath motivated to innovate before David bullseyes him like a Womp rat? Can dinosaurs tapdance or do they just engage in state capture and buying/swallowing/crushing/controlling/retarding competence-destroying innovations?  It depends.

There are of course technological, economic, political and normative dimensions to all this.  And the incumbents toil at all of them, as do moral entrepreneurs like the divestors.

3. Policy Mixes

So (how) do various policies affect what innovation does happen?  Kern referenced Weber and Rohracher 2012 and Schot and Steinmuller 2016 here. What of both active and passive ‘protective spaces‘? There are no silver bullets (either policy or technological) and the direction of innovation matters too…

Can we honestly expect serious destabilisation through policy instruments? (I would argue nope, but I am one of life’s pessimists).  Kern pointed to the German Energy ministers attempted carbon levy and the pushback from mining companies and miners leading to companies being paid NOT to produce.  Great.  Then again, Norway and banning the internal combustion engine.  We. Shall. See. Quite soon.  (I’m writing of the Apocalypse here, y’all).

The empirical bit of the seminar came from a comparison of Finnish and UK policies for the Cinderella of energy policy, efficiency.  Kivimaa and Kern 2016 did some number crunching (with self-admitted concerns about the final validity of the methodology) and came to the conclusion that niche-creating activities were far more numerous than incumbent-attacking ones.  Then again, in the q and a it was pointed out that the latter, while fewer in number, might be more consequential.

This was followed by a vigorous Q and A session (but no chest-beatery nonsense) in which the relative lack of focus on individual firms was questioned (“in regimes they’re called incumbents, that’s it, but since Wikileaks we know Shell was ALL OVER Dutch energy policy”).

Kern agreed and lamented the lack of comparative political economy on the relative importance of policies and the nature of different states (esp fossil exporters)

The whole question of policy mixes got a further airing too (the lack of optimal mixes, the methodological trickiness of measurement, the fact that it’s always a snapshot in time and investors (aim to) take a long view.

Verdict: A great way to spend 90 minutes. Beats cutting cutting cutting my bloody empirical chapters.  And yes, Katrina, I have been doing that….


That abstract

“For a variety of reasons, current fossil fuel based energy systems are under pressure to change. Historical energy transitions have been slow processes, but in this seminar I will argue that there are reasons to believe that ongoing low carbon transitions can occur more quickly. The argument is that historic energy transitions were not consciously governed, while today a wide variety of actors is actively engaged in attempts to govern the transition towards low carbon energy, international innovation dynamics can work in favour of speeding up the global low-carbon transition and the 2015 Paris agreement demonstrates a global commitment to move towards a low carbon economy for the first time. I argue that supporting innovation as well as destabilising existing high carbon energy systems is required for a quick transition and that policy makers need to develop suitable policy mixes to successfully accelerate low carbon transitions.”

Gender Slash Infrastructure, or “sewage thick as toothpaste”

What a great event. What an unexpected delight. At the sharp end of a PhD you find yourself going to very few ‘recreational’ seminars. And so often they’re the standard mix of chest-beating, data dumps from those too close to their “facts”, or conceptual hair-splitting from those too far from them. And those are the best ones.

So, yesterday I stole away from cutting 14,000 words down to 12,000, (with only another 6,000 words of cutting to go. Call me Marc Scissorhands). And, thank goodness, I ended up at “Gender and Infrastructure”, a seminar by visiting Australian scholar Dr Zoe Sofoulis.

We will come back to the toothpaste thing.

Sofoulis, who had started out looking gender in science fiction and was supervised by Donna Haraway [we are not worthy, we are not worthy] did a couple of things that should be entirely unremarkable, but aren’t. She asked attendees to call out their disciplines (a good non-threatening way of getting people involved and signalling to everyone who is in the room [and who isn’t.] She also thanked by name people who’d asked ‘hairy questions’ at a recent outing of the presentation.

She then – more conventionally for anyone who has encountered Haraway’s work – decided to muddy the terms of the title – “Gender and Infrastructure”. Some bullet points. Lots of the digressions are mine, and this is heavily paraphrased too.

When and where does gender come up in infrastructure discussions? When and where does it FAIL to come up? Around water, gender often only seen as a ‘third world poverty’ issue. Not so.
Book: Fluid Bonds.
1992 Dublin Statement on Water and Sustainable Development.
Of course, positivist science (not to be conflated with “masculine”) is riddled with masculinised norms, and is a ‘master discourse’ which endlessly challenges qualitative research as mere anecdote. Sofoulis mused on whether the triumph of liberal feminism (and the emphasis on formal ‘equality’ had rendered other awkward questions invisible (which is not to say irrelevant).

Like technologies and interfaces, infrastructures are caught up in politics, in (re)enforcements of the social order.
Sarah Bell
Splintering urbanism of Graham and Marvin
[See also Susan George on the politics of chickens]

Imbricated with entrenching modern divisions of paid/unpaid, private/public and so on.
There is SOME relief from drudgery (days washing clothes, fetching water) but as work of Ruth Schwartz Cowan, Elizabeth Shove and others reveals, as drudgery decreased, housekeeping standards skyrocketed, with moralising discourses around hygiene etc creating a red queen shituation (running to keep still)

Turton Schreiner and Leestemaker 2000 on defeminisation of water, isolation of women’s voices from decision making.

Sofoulis had some fun with her younger self’s predilections for slashes and other attempts to show how terms can be mutually constitutive or antagonistic (gender of infrastructure, infrastructure of gender etc), but decided to park it and not alienate her audience. In words to warm the cockles of the hearts of the Australians present (both of them) a slash was ‘a bit wanky’

Things then all got a bit messy, thanks to double-sided printing, and a willingness (compulsion?!) to move about a bit) in tracing intellectual trajectories and inventories.
So this is going to be a bit bullet-pointy. Don’t blame me if you end up down rabbit holes and fail to submit your thesis/book/marriage proposal/suicide note on time.

Davidson and Stratford 2006 Gender-neutral technology in Economic Globalization, Sustainability, Gender and Water in ‘Fluid Bonds’ …
So anyway, within water studies because of how it is metered/measured, the “household” ends up being taken as the smallest unit of analysis (there was a good quote by Kuntara Lahiri-Dutt at this point.)

But we should take Latour seriously on the whole question of non-human actants and how ‘non-human’ stuff – plants, animals, technologies, shape wider practices and cosmologies. [though you still don’t ever interview doorknobs].

So “laundry” means and does different things when it is days of (communal) washing and beating of clothes by the river versus a button pushed as you head out to salaried work.
[Am reminded of a Vietnamese peasant who married an American construction contractor and then got laughed at by her new in-laws for not knowing the finer details of what could go in a kitchen trash compactor. Also, that thing about the Chinese washing machine manufacturer that learnt its customers were using their product to wash potatoes, and adapted accordingly.]
Sofoulis then digressed on cigars and Freud – sometimes a cigar is indeed just a cigar. Not everything longer than it is wide is a phallic symbol…

Then she talked about her 2000 paper on ‘Container Technologies’which is a Must Read for After The Thesis.

A mention of Gregory Bateson (aka Mr Margaret Mead) on the unit of survival being the organism plus its environment, and Withicott (sp?) on matter as facilitating movement [compare machine fetishism of Alf Hornborg?] Sofoulis also gave historian of technology Lewis Mumford a shout out, around his critique of history of tech being too much about thrusting/smashing machines and not about storage – – vats, kilns etc.

Mention of ‘Donai (?) and “background technologies”, and naturally old Martin ‘I was never a Nazi’ Heidegger and his concept of standing reserves’.
Shove and inconspicuous consumption.
Haraway and ‘situated knowledge’.
Back to positivism and its (great phrase!) ‘epistemocidal tendencies’. Undercuts interdisciplinarity as a kind of ‘apex predator’!!
Sofoulis then admitted to having not fully recovered from her “narcissistic intellectual wound” of having lived in a HisCon bubble only to realise the lack of influence it had on practitioners in the Real World. She urged the attendees to think of the ‘shit and string beans’ issue, as captured in a quote from Marilyn French’s ‘The Women’s Room’.

“When your body has to deal all day with shit and string beans, your mind does too.”

What knowledges matter? Which roles? How do they circulate? What resources are used?
For example, in Australia the technical/technological work (mostly by men) around water gets published in journals, while the social research is ‘commercial in confidence’ and appears in the grey literature. She was scathing on engineers who think everyone is a data nerd and technology sorts who add a survey at the end of a report and call themselves social scientists, but who wouldn’t actually know social science if they fell over it.
So, some oracular statements/suggestions

  • Don’t assume liberal feminism is an unalloyed Force For Good
  • Diversity in groups
  • New problems will affect different groups differently
  • Specificity – work ends up generalised too easily
  • There are differences both within and between households that need looking at.
  • Sue Jackson on different knowledges, also Deborah Bird Rose.


There were different question from the audience. Sofoulis listened intently and was clearly having a good time with them, and occasionally ‘just’ ‘riffed’ (it’s harder than it looks).

Some observations (and yes, finally, toothpaste and sewage).

The Millennium Drought in Australia, that led to expensive desalination plants being built and then mothballed DID create some discursive openings for social scientists. Sofoulis explained how economic rationalism (Australian for “neoliberalism”) had assumed that ‘homo economicus’ would respond only minimally to the (minor) price signals in water charging changes. In actual fact people’s willingness to conserve water far far exceeded expectations (not just ‘in public’ but also behind closed doors. People were sending in all sorts of ideas that had to be acknowledged before they could be ignored [shades of Nigel Balchin’s The Small Back Room]. Sewage became so thick (because people weren’t flushing?!!) that pipes were corroding and an odour control sector boomed?!
Similarly, people bought water tanks (tapping into the whole rural imaginary of “The Bush”) when it made little or no ‘economic sense’ to do so…

So, government ended up (and still is) WAY behind people in sustainability aspirations, and defer and stymie it. [Indeed, just today it turns out the Turnbull government is ‘NEGging’…]

Trying to speak to indigenous knowledges without having done the field work would be a Very Bad idea…

Extra stuff
– the DAD model of policy making – Decide Announce Defend, versus PEP participate, educate ??
Naturvation – nature based innovation, mexico city (biomimicry? Industrial ecology?)

Timothy Moss Infrastuctural legacies 

Things to think with:

Verdict : Fascinating event, instructive, fertile, suggestive. Could not be a greater contrast to the ‘people willing to have smoke blown up their asses as the planet burns’ thing I also went to…