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The Environment, Time, and Resources

To understand how we relate to the world around us it is necessary to understand experiences of time, change and continuity, the ways in we know time and encounter the past and future in the course of our lives.

In our different research settings we are interested in understanding people in the natural and built environments in which they live and their cultural landscapes including the affective dimensions of how people experience place.

How do people envisage the future of the environment around them and how do they come to feel and experience anxiety about climate change? Or, how do we account for the explosion of concern for memory and heritage in different settings?

This research track aims to understand the ways in which people perceive and understand change in their environments and conversely the role of these environments in human perceptions and understandings of change (e.g. climate change, historical change). Central to this enquiry is the role of materiality in social life: how do physical traces in the world around us give us ways of thinking about time and change? We are interested in remains and vestiges of the past, and the ways in which they are used as indicators and proxies for apprehending continuity, duration and change and as tools for thinking about problematic pasts and uncertain futures.

The ways in which people relate to time have long been a key topic of anthropological interest. We build on this tradition to investigate in 21st century settings and scenarios how people conceptualise duration, transition, and the directionality of time, as well as how temporality shapes our experience on a cognitive and affective level: for example, how do people memorialise the lives of past generations? What becomes visible when we expand our temporal horizons? How does the span of human existence relate to the vastness of the deep time of geological processes, and how do people react when confronted with this disparity of scale?

Current research being carried out in the department within this theme includes: a cross-cultural comparison of children’s perceptions of environmental change between the UK, Alaska, Himalayan countries, Italy, Mexico and Mongolia; an investigation of the long-term social memory of the First World War in and around the former battlefield landscapes of the Western Front; an exploration technological transformations in material culture and in the ways knowledge is communicated in Buddhist contexts: a study of the role of religious conversion in shaping our experience of time;  and research on time and politics in post-socialist modernity.

We address the following themes and questions:

  • What are the different scales by which people understand time? What are the timescales that are most pertinent when thinking about political processes and economic processes? How do these timescales relate to the temporality of the environment in which we live?
  • To what extent is time understood as continuity, and to what extent do people experience social change as rupture? How do we think of ourselves as connected with the lives of past generations, and what would lead us to think of ourselves as disconnected from our ancestors?
  • How can an awareness of local knowledge contribute to the way we understand and respond to climate change?
  • Why are memorials sites of political and emotional potency?
  • How do we understand the past as it is revealed by excavated remains? Do particular vestiges of the past (for example, human remains, relics, war remnants, literary artefacts, evidence of extinct species) prompt speculations about time?
  • What are the factors which lead people to think of change as ‘rapid’?
  • Why might people conceptualise time as a sequence, and what is the role of cyclicity in our time-perception?
  • What is the temporality of the city? How do cities embody the past and adapt themselves for future use?
  • Why might some people experience fear for the future? How is temporality related to concepts of risk?
  • To what extent do children’s perceptions of time and change differ from those of adults?
  • What is the role of interaction with the landscape in our experience of time?

Throughout our work we are keen to engage with a wider public, and a key element of our research is outreach through schools and museums, as well as collaborations with policy makers and researchers in other disciplines.