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An Interview with Robert Biel, author of Sustainable Food Systems: Role of the City

AlisonFox21 February 2017

RBIEL78I’m intrigued about your pathway into this topic.

Well it converged from two directions. I’ve been an allotment holder for 15 years, experimenting with a low-input, high-productivity method where you work alongside natural systems, not against them.  That was a hobby, something I loved doing.  Professionally, I was teaching international relations theory, which is a lot about how order can emerge from within a system itself.

In the debate following my first book, The New Imperialism, I discovered general systems theory, which tries to identify what’s common to all systems: they have a capacity to self-regulate, but they can also go haywire.  So I began to understand that the ecological problem and the threats to human society are not two separate challenges which just happen to face us simultaneously; rather, we can study them – and look for answers – in an integrated way.

I addressed this in my 2012 book The Entropy of Capitalism, but at that more general level it was easier to write convincingly about all the bad stuff that was happening, than about solutions! The only way to get to grips with positive solutions was to take a very concrete topic and run with it.  With Sustainable Food Systems, this all came together.

Please tell us a bit about the process, from initial conception, to publication

Together with my colleague Yves Cabannes I started teaching a Masters module on Urban Agriculture, and there were also a few small community food-related action research projects.  This suggested a lot of ideas which I felt somehow needed to be written down.

But the project implies an unusual form of knowledge, drawing on both natural and social sciences.  While general systems theory was a help, I had to be respectful to the integrity of each specific discipline – soil science, anthropology etc. – even where I don’t have specialist training.  To ensure the research was solid, I embraced the peer-review process at several levels.  I started with a conference paper, delivered in Paris in 2012, and then split it into five journal articles and book chapters, all exploring different aspects of food-systems issues.  While I received much important feedback from the reviews on these papers, I was also myself doing quite a lot of peer-reviewing for journals.  And I could trust the peer-review system for the quality of research in the leading scientific journals which I was citing.

At the same time, the ‘new paradigm’, also implies deeper issues of fundamental world view.  In this sense, knowledge (or maybe we should say wisdom) should not be reduced to academic research.  The traditional/indigenous spirituality doesn’t see a distinction between nature and society anyway, it understands that our minds are part of nature, and correctly sees farming as intrinsically rooted in the wider ecosystemic context.  In this sense, visioning sustainable futures is also a return, to a more authentic way of apprehending the world and our place in it.Sustainable Food cover

Finally, the project implied a different publishing model.  Though there were enquiries from conventional publishing, I quickly rejected this when I realised that the form of publication must reflect the content: the book is about emergent order, self-organisation, commons regimes, peer-to-peer, grassroots research … therefore it had to be open-access.  I was delighted that UCL Press was thinking the same way.

What’s your take on organic food? Are you advocating it?

There are two issues here.  First, from a consumer angle, of course there are dangers from pesticides or loss of nutrients, which are rightly emphasised, but at the end of the day you might just say mainstream agriculture successfully feeds the world and the risk of changing it is too great.  So I would rather approach the question from the production angle: the main thing wrong with conventional farming is that it destroys the complex soil ecosystem and ultimately the soil itself, and therefore the risk of not changing it is too great.  We have a window of opportunity while there’s still enough food around.  That’s why the issue is urgent.

Secondly, ‘organic’ can often seem a negative definition, i.e. we limit ourselves by renouncing chemicals, which makes it seem like we’re farming with one hand tied behind our back.  I’d rather emphasise what we are opting into: a whole new world of biomimicry and self-organisation … that’s why I sometimes prefer a term like Natural Systems Agriculture.  Besides, the problem isn’t just chemicals, but a lot of other stuff: excessive ploughing, monocropping … Much of this is about how we face risk, because natural systems spontaneously evolve in response to shocks, and become stronger in doing so.

Surprise me with something unexpected you encountered in researching this book.

A couple of paradoxes, which are in fact closely linked:

[1] When looking for cutting-edge examples of the new paradigm in action – learning from nature, self-assembly and self-healing, not trying to control systems too much – I found them in areas like industrial design and materials science; farming in contrast, which you might expect to be our interface with nature, is still horribly conservative and stuck in the old ways. Wonderful research is being done, about soil systems for example, but translating this into an innovative, high-productivity, totally biomimicked farming practice: that’s not yet the mainstream, it’s still very peripheral.

[2] The countryside is so heavily depleted by herbicides, pesticides and monocropping, that cities are potentially havens for nature to regenerate itself: this has been beautifully demonstrated by green roofs, for example, and is potentially very encouraging for a programme of greening the city.  We might even pioneer the new paradigm here!

The book has an optimistic vibe, because it’s about solutions, and as you’ve said, some elements of ‘paradigm shift’ already underway.  So what’s blocking it?  And in particular, how do you interpret the recent Right-wing nationalist backlash.

In the book, I paraphrase a quote from Lenin, about the ruling system being dragged against its will into a new social order.  The shift in world politics towards the nationalist Right shows the system digging its heels in, frantically resisting the implications which its very own development has unleashed.  That’s the aspect internal to society.  But then there’s the environmental context: climate – plus soil-degradation and species-loss – forms the backdrop to everything.

So why is the nationalist Right addicted to climate denial? Because if we take climate seriously, we’d have to face up to the social conditions demanded by resilience: decentralised capacity, peer-to-peer networks, modularity, non-monetary exchange, commons regimes.  These are all evident in today’s food-related social movements – seed-sharing for example.  The issue is inevitably political: a new ‘order’ is a self-organised, emergent order.  That’s what scares the ruling interests.

So what about this term ‘food sovereignty’? That sounds nationalistic in a way…

I think it was always more about community autonomy.  But in a deeper sense, I take your point: we must dare to be normative, not just describe a movement like food sovereignty, but discover what it should be.  A lot about the ‘old’ food sovereignty was resisting the extreme neo-liberal agenda of ‘free’ trade and its disastrous implications for food, and that was all very necessary, but it was only a phase.  In the book I try to place this in a much broader historical context. You have millennia of resistance against exploitative agrarian systems, then against colonialism and imperialism, then against the ‘Green Revolution’ of the Cold War; at an English level, there is an unbroken legacy: the peasants’ revolt, the Diggers of 1649, early 19th century Chartists, the Land and Freedom movement of the 1970s, and some inspiring contemporary stuff. If the ruling agenda is today shifting away from ‘free’ trade, the enduring issues of commons and land rights haven’t changed.

At the same time, today’s food sovereignty must also face up to new challenges.  What has gone haywire (in society and its relations with nature) has been a narrowing, homogenisation, simplification.  Physically, this is seen in the shrinking variety of crops being cultivated, in the strains of each crop etc.; socio-politically this is seen in intolerance, xenophopia, the narrowing of discourses.  If that is permitted, we will have a system (in food, in society) which fractures and disintegrates in the face of shocks.

So if we are to respond to this threat, I would say – prolonging the book’s argument – that if political liberalism has in a sense destroyed itself by hitching itself to economic neo-liberalism, then the good things which used to be (very imperfectly) identified with liberalism must be regenerated on a new basis: tolerance, pluralism, what I’d call a ‘new cosmopolitanism’ … in essence a diverse system which can produce innovation from anywhere and which – when it faces shocks – will get stronger.

The movement over land and food can be a flagship for this.  Today, the academic and science community is trying to resist the attacks of obscurantism, but can’t do this alone: it needs mass allies.  This is precisely what the land/food-related struggles – of peasants, indigenous peoples, the urban masses – can supply; the academic world has important knowledge to offer, but it will also be itself transformed by discovering a new social relevance.

In these ways, researching the book, I got some kind of glimpse of a new world coming into being.  It’s exciting to feel part of this.

Sustainable Food Systems: The Role of the City is available to download for free here.

Institution as e-textbook publisher: New e-textbook ‘Key Concepts in Public Archaeology’

JaimeeBiggins21 February 2017

Key conceptsThis post was written as part of the JISC funded Institution as e-textbook publisher project. UCL Press outputs for this project include Key Concepts in Public Archaeology and Textbook of Plastic and Reconstructive Surgery.

We launched our e-textbook, Key Concepts in Public Archaeology this week. This book appears on our innovative, browser-based HTML platform, and can be found here. This collection is edited by Gabriel Moshenska, Lecturer in Public Archaeology at UCL, and it brings together contributions from the dynamic field of public archaeology. It is aimed at both undergraduate and MA students and provides a broad overview of the central themes in public archaeology. The book also takes into account the growth of scholarship in this area from around the world and seeks to clarify what exactly ‘public archaeology’ is. The first nine chapters are now published, with more chapters to be added to the platform in the next few months allowing it to become an ongoing, evolving resource.  The chapters cover a variety of different areas such as ‘Community archaeology’ and ‘Digital media in public archaeology’ and feature a number of illustrative case studies.

The platform is published on has been specially developed by UCL Press in collaboration with the award-winning digital developer Armadillo and includes scholarly functionalities such as the ability to highlight, search, annotate, export and cite content as well as saving personalised copies of individual books. We believe these tools really add to the user experience and allow for a unique reading experience. We will also produce an open access PDF as well as a traditional print edition this summer. Alongside these formats, we are working with the digital developer YUDU to produce the complete textbook as an app. The app will offer another option for readers, featuring scholarly functionalities as well as animation.

Our Marketing and Distribution Manager is now promoting Key Concepts in Public Archaeology in the coming weeks using both traditional and online marketing channels including mailing lists, listservs, social media, the UCL Press website and other tools to promote the book as widely as possible. This is the second book UCL Press has published as part of the Jisc ‘Institution as e-textbook publisher’ project. As the final part of the project we’ll also be conducting surveys to gather feedback from students, lecturers and librarians about these books to assess how they have found the user experience, in order to inform UCL Press’s future textbook publishing strategy. We look forward to sharing these learning outcomes with the other participants in the project and contributing to the wider discussion about the future of academic textbook publishing.

UCL Press wins UCL Brand Ambassador award

LaraSpeicher16 February 2017

UCL Press was thrilled to win the UCL Brand Ambassador award at the UCL professional services awards yesterday. The award was made for the global reach UCL Press’s books and journals have achieved, with download figures now close to 200,000 in over 200 countries since its launch in June 2015.

When UCL Press launched, it was the first university press to set up from scratch with an Open Access model. As such, it was a brave step, and since such a venture had never been attempted before in the UK, it was hard to predict the outcome. The idea for the Press was that of Dr Paul Ayris, Pro Vice Provost, UCL Library Services, a leader in OA advocacy for many years, and the Press was the flagship addition to strong OA services and policies already established at UCL.

From the outset, the reaction at UCL to the Press has been unfailingly positive: authors have submitted proposals in the hundreds, many of them already committed Open Access advocates with few other OA options for publishing their monographs. For those early adopters, and for the Senior Management team at UCL who supported the setting up of the Press, their belief is now paying dividends, as research published by UCL Press reaches a huge global audience. Many of those reading UCL Press’s books would not be able to access a print version, either because they would be unaffordable to individuals or to local universities, or simply because print book distribution to many countries around the world is severely limited or indeed non-existent.

UCL is committed to being a force for good and enlightenment in the world, and ensuring that the products of its research are made as widely available as possible helps to support that commitment. UCL Press is excited to be contributing to the institution’s global presence, and proud that its books and authors are acting as UCL Brand Ambassadors worldwide.

I would personally like to thank the whole UCL Press team, our wonderful authors, David Price, Paul Ayris and Martin Moyle for their unfailing support and encouragement, our colleagues in Library Services, and our colleagues around UCL who support us – all of them make this happen.

An Excerpt for Valentines Day: Romantic relationships on social media

AlisonFox14 February 2017

Today’s excerpt is from Social Media in Industrial China by Xinyuan Wang, UCL Deprtment of Anthropology.

Every day after work, a group of young female factory workers leaves the factory plant together, hand in hand. All of them are unmarried young women, and gossip about relationships is always the most popular topic. Girls chatter avidly on the 10-minute walk from factory to dormitories; everybody is trying to contribute something to the daily ‘gossip time’:

‘Hey, did you hear that he just asked for her QQ number? I was surprised that he wanted to add her on QQ!’

‘Really? I didn’t know he was keen on her. Oh no – it is really bad news for his ex-girlfriend. A few days ago I just saw her new QQ status … sounds like she really regrets the break-up. Look, look … ’

The girl then took out her smartphone, showing her friends the evidence she had spotted on QQ.

The very action of men and women adding each other on QQ can easily be interpreted as romance, since, in the words of one girl, ‘QQ is not used for talking business or other things; QQ is for you to fall in love (tan lian ai)’. It has become almost a consensus among young people that one of the major functions of social media is to develop and maintain romantic relationships. Xiao Lin, a 20-year-old factory worker, sent me QQ messages explaining how QQ helped him to become a better lover:

I am much more bold and romantic on QQ … you just wouldn’t say those sweet words face to face … And I used lots of cute stickers when we were chatting on QQ, which made her find me really funny.

Many young migrant workers, like Xiao Lin, think they can be a better lover on social media. Vivid stickers and emojis enrich people’s expression; an element of time delay allows more scope for strategic communication. Behind the screens of their smartphones, people feel more empowered and confident. Rather than a diminished form of intimate interaction, romantic relationships on social media have become an efficient modality combining elements of voice, image and text, as well as emoji and stickers. There is another reason why social media is regarded a place for romantic love: a public display of love offline is usually frowned upon in GoodPath. Walking hand in hand was the most intimate interaction that one could spot on the street. When Xiao Yu, a 21-year-old hairdresser’s apprentice, posted photos of herself kissing her boyfriend on QQ, she perceived QQ to be a romantic and liberating place where one can feel free to display intimacy as the ‘public’ was different:

In big cities people won’t make a fuss [about kissing in public]. But here some traditional people would dislike it … but the good thing is they are not on my QQ!

Xiao Yu’s kiss photographs elicited many comments. Rather than feeling embarrassed, she felt that was exactly what she was looking for: ‘… When you posted something like that, you just knew what people would comment. If I am not sure, then I won’t post it,’ Xiao Yu explained. To the question ‘do you think about what kind of reaction you will receive when you post something on social media?’, the majority of participants, both in GoodPath and in Shanghai, said yes. Moreover in many cases the imagined audience and presupposed reaction justify the posting. A few days later, Xiao Yu finally uttered the real reason why she posted the kiss photos – to warn another girl to stay away from her boyfriend as she assumed the girl had been stalking her.11 ‘It’s so annoying, she is still flirting with him (Xiao Yu’s boyfriend) on his Qzone. Is she blind? I am pretty sure she saw the kiss photo on my Qzone.’

In romantic relationships, surveillance on social media can lead to jealousy in various ways. For instance, a delayed reply to a WeChat message can make the romantic partner feel unimportant, especially when he or she can see on other social media platforms that their partner is online. Situations such as that described by Cai, a 22-year-old waitress in a restaurant, are very common: ‘I sent him a message half hour ago; he didn’t reply, but ten minutes ago, he updated his QQ status … that made me feel upset.’ She was always online throughout the day when working at the restaurant; the multiple social media platforms her boyfriend used allowed her to connect with him constantly, but such an environment also made it more difficult for her boyfriend to hide anything from her. Many young people share similar insecurities about their romantic relationships, As Zhu, a factory worker aged 20, complained: ‘She [his girlfriend] never mentioned our relationship on her QQ. My gut feeling is she is not that committed, or maybe she is hiding something from me?’

Because social media profiles are continuously subjected to scrutiny to a greater extent than most offline spaces, for many young people such as Zhu a romantic relationship gained its ‘legitimacy’ by a public announcement on social media. However, in practice, the attempt to make a public announcement may backfire. Lujia, a factory worker, set up a QQ group of 78 contacts in order to win the trust of his new girlfriend. He explained:

My girlfriend said she was not sure about my love, unless I showed it in public (gong kai); Once I set up the QQ group and show my love for her she will believe me.

On this QQ group, every few hours Lujia wrote something along the lines of ‘ … darling you are the most beautiful woman in my life and I love you so much’. Clearly not everybody thought Lujia’s declaration of love quite as sweet as his partner did, and most people soon quit the group. As one former member complained, he thought QQ was his own place to do whatever he wanted … But why should I read screenfuls of such goosebump-arousing nonsense?’ What was evident in Lujia’s case was that ‘audiences’ felt extremely disturbed and offended. Unlike posting something on one’s own social media profile, Lujia’s QQ group messaging, which constantly tried to grab people’s attention to witness something of little relevance for them, was way too aggressive and inappropriate.

However, in most cases some subtle strategies regarding the public display of love on QQ had been applied. It was very common to see a couple talk to each other in a way that others would not be able to understand without knowing the context of the dialogue. For example, a conversation between a young couple on Qzone that could be seen by all the online contacts was:

‘Don’t forget you promised me that you wouldn’t tell her about that.’

‘Yes I promised, and I didn’t tell her about that at all, quite the opposite, I told her that you said those three words on my birthday, and she was so delightfully surprised. I told you she liked you.’

Even though substantial information from the above correspondence was very limited, everyone who read the dialogue got the message that these two people were close to each other and that their relationship was exclusive. That is exactly the reason why, rather than this taking place on the seemingly more convenient and private basis of one-to-one chatting, the couple chose to talk secretly ‘in public’. Such ‘coded’ intimate talk on QQ between lovers skilfully displayed love in public without disturbing others too much.

The self-exposure of personal relationships on social media is not always about positive emotions. Having arguments on social media, for example, is regarded as a fatal hit to a romantic relationship. Huang Ling, a 19-year-old factory worker, explained the problem:

Each time, when we had some friction, he would update his QQ status immediately with things like ‘please introduce girls to me, I need a girlfriend, blah blah … I really hated him for that!

Two weeks after their break-up, Huang Ling was still complaining about her ex’s outrageous QQ usage, and every female friend of hers expressed the same resentment. As one of her close female friends remarked, ‘How could he say so regardless of the place and the situation (chang he)?! He just wanted her to lose face’. Ling applied some ‘media sanctions’ to cope with the break-up’s aftermath. First of all she locked her Qzone, which means nobody could view it except herself.

I need some space you know. I don’t want people to gossip about my break-up. Even though they do it out of kindness, I still find it so annoying.

Huang Ling’s elder cousin even called her very late at night to ask her what had happened when he saw her ‘unusual’ QQ status update. She felt embarrassed to explain the reason to her friends and relatives, and therefore locked the only channel (Qzone) from which most of her friends got news about her. After four days Huang Ling reopened her Qzone, having already deleted all her previous QQ status updates. Meanwhile Huang Ling’s updates on WeChat were very remarkable, even dramatic. During the four ‘non-QQ’ days she uploaded a large number of emotional remarks on WeChat. One day she even uploaded a photo of her arm, carved by herself with a steel ruler (Fig. 4.3). The two ‘bloody’ Chinese characters she carved on her skin were hate (hen) and love (ai). It seems that only carving her own skin would fully express her strong feelings about the frustrating break-up. She told me:

Because some of my family members are on Qzone, I don’t want to scare my relatives and other friends. Whereas the circle of friends on WeChat is much smaller; most of them are just colleagues at the factory, so it won’t cause me too much trouble. And he [the ex-boyfriend] will see the photo either way as he is also my WeChat friend.

If we view Huang Ling’s story together with the accounts of Xiao Yu’s careless display of a kiss photo on Qzone and Lujia’s less successful public display of love on QQ group, a more comprehensible picture emerges. First of all, we need to recognise that social media provides many possibilities; it enables people to practise romantic relationships online with much greater freedom than in offline situations. Social media has also become an essential arena in which romantic relationships take place in daily life. However, a more liberating place online does not equal fewer social norms. New norms about what is appropriate or inappropriate on social media dealing with romantic relationships emerged almost immediately. For instance, the release of private problems between couples on social media usually brought immense embarrassment, serving to trigger even worse consequences than in an offline situation. Sociologist Erving Goffman12 used the word ‘frame’ to explain how people’s behaviour is cued by elements that constitute the context of action. In the frame of social media, people were not only aware of the private/public nature of social media, but also intentionally played around with it to express the exclusiveness and intimacy of relationships – even though not everyone was successful at first.

Also, from the frequently applied and highly valued public displays of love on social media, we see how on social media the perceived public gaze is just as strong as in the offline situation. Online, young rural migrants may be free from the disapproval and judgement of senior relatives and fellow villagers, yet their peers’ opinions or those of even strangers were highly valued, and can also cause concern. Regardless of what kind of social rules one follows, as long as there are ‘others’ the risk of ‘losing face’ always exists, and sometimes the uncertainty of who is watching online exacerbates the anxiety.

Another point that emerged from the varied use of social media in romantic relationships is that, in order to make sense of sociality on social media, a whole range of available communication tools must be taken into account. As suggested by the concept of ‘polymedia’,13 it makes no sense to study only one particular media platform in isolation – the meaning and use of any one of them is relative to the others. As is clearly shown in Huang Ling’s situation, her choice of WeChat only made sense in comparison with the role that QQ and mobile phones played in her social life. Furthermore, in a polymedia environment, once one has either the smartphone or a personal computer, the decision which media to use is no longer much affected by either access or cost; instead it becomes a social and moral choices. For instance, in Lujia’s case, his choice of using QQ group messaging to declare his love for his girlfriend had been regarded as very inappropriate. The approach of polymedia, as well as the arguments put forward about new social norms on social media, are not confined to the analysis of romantic relationships on social media.