In April this year, I was lucky enough to go to the Association of American Geographers (AAG) conference in New Orleans to present work on the DRY project. Although our project is interdisciplinary, we have a strong geographical component through our catchment-based approach, our attempts to geo-locate stories and drought-science resources, and due to the disciplinary interests of multiple team members. We have been thinking about how
place (sense of place, place identity, place attachment) inflects people’s perceptions of local water and weather-related risks, such as drought risk, as well as how place-specific capacities and structures might enable or be a barrier to drought adaptations. Our storytelling focus also means that we have been thinking about the scales at which narratives around drought circulate and interact in the UK (from the personal to the global), and considering what a systems approach to story might look like.
One of the main themes of the conference this year was around ‘Public Engagement’. I presented DRY project in one of four sessions that had been
convened around the topic of ‘Public engagement for a purpose’. I presented on behalf of the DRY project team with the title ‘Finding ‘ways-in’ to different publics through translation processes: fluid methodologies and creating place-based intersections between research evidence and experience’ (View Abstract and Slides). I discussed the variety, and methodological, ethical and practical issues, of the public engagement we have carried out in the project, also stressing how narrative and creative approaches have played an important role. DRY team members have been involved from the start of the project in thinking about what ‘public’ means in the context of our project, considering the multiple publics that might have a stake in drought risk management. Our work within the catchments has revolved more around the idea of ‘community engagement,’ working with both place-based communities and communities of interest.
Although an engaged process was central to many of the projects presented over the course of the themed day, it struck me that our work in the river catchments was really core to the project, and a central form of data to build our archive of local drought stories; whereas others bemoaned the fact that their public engagement was not always recognised institutionally, and limited time and financial resources made it difficult to do. These things will always put a pressure on how sustained and thoughtful engaged methodologies can be. Discussions also arose around issues of care and responsibility
with the publics/communities being worked with, and towards the researchers themselves who are building these relationships ‘on the ground’. Familiar concerns not to ‘parachute’ in or ‘extractive’ research were rehearsed but also more personal reflections about how to disentangle ourselves (or otherwise), when contracts and projects end, from relationships developed locally, especially for post-doctoral research associates (PDRAs) and early career researchers who are more likely to be doing the work with communities in this type of project. Equally, how to balance time and resource limitations with being respectful and consistent with research participants as professional and personal relationships are blurred in these types of informal, community-based relationships.
Some of the points that came out in a panel discussion at the end of the day of presentations revolved around the degree to which story and storytelling comprised a central role in a lot of the engagement work being done, as an alternative and accessible form of local? knowledge and through which a language of commonality could be developed. The importance of the embodied, sensory and the visceral could also be important aspects of engaged practices, and a way to
inspire and get people interested in participating in research projects or research topics, for example through the idea of ‘play’ and other more creative, ‘playful’ approaches – like our river drawings. Another point raised was about the need for tools to do this, whether it be a sophisticated mobile app or the humble ‘post-it’ note, our attention was drawn to the different examples across the projects of diagrams from stakeholder meetings covered in post-it notes and messy, formative lines creating relationships and identifying problems. The post-it note becomes a bit of a symbol of the process-orientation of engaged projects (rather than pre-determined output driven). The clear need to be flexible in both attitude and methods, to be experimental, and to allow the publics/communities being worked with to steer the direction of the project to a certain extent was repeatedly voiced.
by Liz Roberts