Knowing death

This article was written by Khyati Tripathi, a Commonwealth split-site PhD scholar from the Department of Psychology, University of Delhi, India and pursing a year of her PhD in the Department of Psychosocial Studies at Birkbeck under the supervision of Professor Stephen Frosh. Khyati has been selected for Cumberland Lodge’s Emerging International Leaders Programme on Freedom of Religion or Belief.
coffinThrough my PhD project, I am trying to understand how varied social constructions of dead bodies lead to different conceptualizations of death in a culture with a special focus on mortuary techniques (embalmment per se). Death is more than just a biological fact; it is also a social phenomenon. A dead body is the carrier of the social meanings that a culture attaches to death. Each culture has a different lens to look at the bodies whether it be male bodies, female bodies or dead bodies. Through my research I want to know how these cultural lenses differ by drawing a cross-cultural comparison between Delhi (India) and London (UK).

As a curious researcher, I have always been intrigued by the untouched complexes of human existence and death is one of them. This interest is closely tied with my experience of losing a friend in an accident when I was 14 and since then I have been on an ongoing quest to ‘know death’. I have been working in the area of death and related themes for eight years now and this journey started with my first project in  the final year of my undergraduate degree, which focused on the impact of physical health on death anxiety, where I worked with terminally ill (cancer patients), chronically ill and healthy individuals. A second research project that soon followed studied death personification i.e. how would people perceive death as a human or a person? A third analyzed the death rituals of  three religions- Hinduism, Islam and Christianity and a fourth was an ethnographic study to explore experiences of Hindu death priests of north India.

I have had many different experiences working on these projects. I remember sitting in the waiting area of the hospital where I had to meet cancer patients for my first project and not wanting to go inside thinking ‘I cannot do this’. I had presumed that none of the patients would want to talk to me about death and I would out rightly be rejected and dismissed. Gathering strength, I went inside the ward where I could see at least 15 beds. I took a right and approached the corner most one. There sat a 73-year-old man reading a newspaper. I greeted him and explained to him the purpose and objectives of my study. He replied saying, “of course, ask me whatever you want” while signing the informed consent. My interaction with him lasted almost six hours. My first ever participant made me realize that as a researcher you need to have no notions and assumptions about your field. There were quite a few  patients who wanted to talk about death with me because they did not want to talk about it with their family members. I can’t say that I was never rejected, I was – a lot and I accepted all rejections with respect. I knew that I was working in a sensitive research area and needed to be receptive.

I am asked a lot if working in this area makes me ‘depressed’. I would say no, it doesn’t but it does make me ask questions about our existence as humans. It gets overwhelming a lot of times and I distance myself when I feel saturated. My parents have been my pillars of strength. They supported me in each and every endeavor of mine and have given me the emotional care, support and motivation that I needed to continue.

I believe that life is a mystery that unfolds gradually but death is a bigger mystery because it is uncertain and this uncertainty and unpredictability about death make people anxious. Through my research, I want to study different aspects of death (ritual-based, culture-based, etc.) and contribute to the field of ‘Death Education’ in India and elsewhere.

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Reframing human-predator relations

This post was contributed by Dr Simon Pooley from Birkbeck’s Department of Geography, Environment and Development Studies. His paper ‘An interdisciplinary review of current and future approaches to improving human–predator relations‘ (Pooley et al. 2017) was published in the journal Conservation Biology on 13 February 2017.

wolvesFaced with shrinking habitats and increasing competition for natural resources, large charismatic predators are under severe threat in many developing countries. In contrast, in developing countries where protection is effective, predators like crocodilians and wolves are increasing. In both cases, the impacts on predators and humans bring the challenges of coexisting with wildlife sharply into focus. This year we have already had controversy over wolf culls in Scandinavia, wolves killed in Tuscany, mountain lions and black bears have been slated for culls in Colorado, USA, and there have been crocodile attacks in Australia, Indonesia Malaysia, South Africa and Zambia (among other incidents).

Currently, the dominant approach to managing human-predator relations focuses on negative impacts and frames the issue as ‘human-wildlife conflict’. This misses the complexity of the relationships in question, omits key influencing factors, and has limited effectiveness in delivering mitigation of conflicts where they occur.

With this in mind I convened a team of experienced, open-minded experts from the natural and social sciences and the humanities, to discuss the problem of human-predator relations. We were hosted by Professor David Macdonald at WildCRU headquarters in rural Oxfordshire. Following a stimulating day of interdisciplinary dialogue, we forged the resulting profusion of ideas, perspectives and experiences into a position paper (Pooley et al. 2016).

In our paper, we review the limitations of current approaches to mitigating conflicts over predators, observing that scientifically sound recommendations have often foundered for unforeseen reasons. These include locals feeling left out of the process, the high costs in terms of time and labour of effective livestock protection methods, resistance to what locals see as infringements on their freedom of behaviour, and disagreements over what causes predator attacks (e.g. supernatural explanations versus scientific ones).

We identify fruitful perspectives on how to reframe, research and successfully intervene in conflict scenarios. Importantly, conservationists need to rethink ‘conflict’ as a framework for dealing with problematic human-predator encounters. Framing an encounter as a ‘conflict’ can polarise and redefine it. For example, when conservationists intervene to resolve conflicts the problem (and the animal) becomes identified with them. It also leads them to ignore successful examples of coexistence. Other themes include the need to understand the historical, social and political context of such encounters, and to properly engage with their (often neglected) cultural dimensions.

It is challenging to unravel the multiple dimensions of conflicts over predator management. Local experiences with and representations of predators coincide with representations circulated in the global media, which inspire and inform international conservation NGOs and their local implementation efforts. Both dimensions impact on local management practices (and resistance to these). The response to the killing of Cecil the Lion in Zimbabwe was a good example of the disjunctions that exist between local and international attitudes to charismatic predators. To some Africans it seemed Americans care more for lions than local Africans.

Another challenge is to think more rigorously about human-predator coexistence and co-adaptation. New ways of thinking about human-animal relationships being developed by social science and humanities researchers can inform this process. Humans and animals should be studied in relation to one another: it is vital to transcend disciplinary divides over who studies what and how. Stimulating approaches here include studies of human-animal geographies, and multispecies ethnography. Further useful ideas include the notion of cosmopolitan nature (it is local and global), and reflexivity about how species’ charisma influences conservation decision-making. Political ecology and peace studies can contribute to improving conflict mitigation efforts. Environmental histories of human-predator relations, and human-human conflicts over conservation, provide essential context for framing interventions.

Another challenge concerns how to reconcile scientific and cultural ways of thinking about animals. Anthropology and psychology have much to teach us about studying the perceptions, beliefs, attitudes and behaviour of humans around dangerous animals. Our understanding of attitudes towards animals is developing fast, but the factors that guide attitudes and ultimately behaviour are less well understood. Moreover, we need to consider human positions in relation to the conservation management practices we put in place.

We seek robust, effective management of destructive and damaging conflicts. However, it is seldom possible to deliver the ‘win-wins’ increasingly demanded by funders. Indeed, aiming for win-wins focusses projects on dispute resolution and technical approaches to preventing or mitigating harmful impacts. It ignores deep, ongoing underlying drivers of conflict, and differences in power and vulnerability among the key role-players.

To adequately tackle this complexity requires a more inclusive approach, open to new ideas, perspectives and approaches for understanding the drivers of what we have unhelpfully characterised as human-wildlife conflicts. It is a challenge to co-produce knowledge about such problematic relationships, without generating a paralyzing relativism. We need to achieve agreement on what constitutes good evidence, and collaborate on developing processes and methods to mitigate conflicts. We should monitor and evaluate and share the outcomes of our efforts.

In sum, conservationists need to transcend the paradigm of conflict in human-predator relations. Conservation is one (to us vital) perspective among others on such relations, and it is necessary to draw on a wider range of concepts, frameworks and approaches to understand the full range of interests and factors influencing these relationships over time and in particular contexts (local and international).

Over the last 20 years conservation biology has evolved into conservation science, recognising that we live in a human-dominated world (Kareiva & Marvier 2012). Perhaps the field needs to evolve once again, to reflect the need for collaboration across the natural and social sciences and humanities, together with those managing and living alongside predators.

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What does the retreat of public research mean for welfare and innovation?

This article was written by Professor Daniele Archibugi and Dr  Andrea Filippetti, from Birkbeck’s Centre for Innovation Management Research

research-and-developmentAn increasing proportion of knowledge is generated in the private sector, rather than in public research institutions like universities.  For many, this is cause for concern; public research and private research differ economically in terms of public access, potential for future technological innovations and in the criteria of resource allocation. Does it matter whether research is conducted by  private business rather than in universities or government research centres? And will the retreat of public research have negative effects on welfare and innovation?

These are just two of the questions we considered in our recent research . While science and innovation policy in the last decades has focused on exploring the relevance of the interconnections between public and business players in enhancing knowledge-based societies, we argue that a major trend has been ignored: both the quota of public Research and Development (R&D) and its share over the total R&D investment has shrunk in most OECD countries.

The shift from public R&D to business R&D

The evidence for a shift in R&D is reflected in the most visible and measurable component of knowledge creation –  the resources allocated to R&D. In most OECD countries a significant shift in the effort to finance public R&D has occurred: as shown in the tables below, from 1981 to 2013 the share of public-financed R&D to GDP has been reduced from 0.82 per cent to 0.67 per cent. By contrast, the industry-financed R&D has increased from 0.96 per cent of GDP in 1981 to 1.44 per cent in 2013.

Gross R&D (GERD) expenditure as a percentage of GDP by source of funds (G-7 countries plus South Korea and OECD average), rate of change 1981-2013

Industry-financed GERD as a percentage of GDP Government-financed GERD as a percentage of GDP
rate of change 1981-2013 rate of change 1981-2013
Canada 53.06% -6.56%
France 63.16% -21.21%
Germany 38.81% -13.27%
Italy 33.33% 38.46%
Japan 85.82% 15.38%
South Korea* 86.90% 126.19%
United Kingdom -19.15% -59.26%
United States 48.21% -29.63%
OECD – Total 50.00% -18.29%

Source: OECD Main Science and Technology Indicators (MSTI).

*  Data for South Korea refer to 1995 instead of 1981.

 

Table 2 – Percentage of Gross R&D (GERD) expenditure by source of funds (G-7 countries plus South Korea countries and OECD average)

 

Percentage of GERD financed by industry Percentage of GERD financed by government
year 1981 2013 rate of change 1981 2013 rate of change
Canada 40.77 46.45 13.93% 50.61 34.86 -31.12%
France 40.92 55.38 35.34% 53.4 34.97 -34.51%
Germany 56.85 65.21 14.71% 41.79 29.78 -28.74%
Italy 50.08 44.29 -11.56% 47.21 42.55 -9.87%
Japan 67.71 75.48 11.48% 24.91 17.30 -30.55%
South Korea* 76.26 75.68 -0.76% 19.04 22.83 19.91%
United Kingdom 42.05 46.55 (70)** 10.70% 48.1 26.99 -43.89%
United States 49.41 60.85 23.15% 47.8 27.75 -41.95%
OECD – Total 51.64 60.76 17.66% 44.19 28.28 -36.00%

Source: OECD Main Science and Technology Indicators (MSTI). Data for South Korea refer to 1995 instead of 1981; the sum of the shares does not add up to 100% since there are other minor sources that are not considered, namely “other national sources” and “abroad”.

* Data for South Korea refer to 1995 instead of 1981.

** In the UK a significant higher proportion of R&D funding comes from overseas. When this is taken into account the share of private-funded R&D stands at 70% (Economic Insight, 2015, p. 7)

 

This data also indicates significant differences across countries. Japan and South Korea exhibit a virtuous trend where both  business and  government have increased their R&D expenditure; in South Korea, particularly, government expenditure increase has been spectacular. In the US, the UK, Canada, France and Germany, by contrast, we see simultaneously the growth of industry-financed R&D and  the decline of government-financed R&D.

Beyond the knowledge-as-a-public-good view

The current privatisation of research activity and knowledge (which is often praised) can have major consequences on innovation and, ultimately, on long-term economic growth and social welfare. But why is the threat to knowledge largely ignored or under-estimated?  We believe that it is due to an unclear understanding of the economic characteristics of knowledge. Historically, knowledge has been considered to be a public good; Nobel Prize winner in Economics, Kenneth Arrow, is cited arguing that knowledge is costly to produce but could be disseminated as information at zero or very low costs. While this view recurs frequently in literature, and is repeated by another authoritative Nobel Prize winner, Joseph Stiglitz, a great body of research has demonstrated that knowledge has both public and private components.

Public-generated knowledge and private-generated knowledge have different economic characteristics, which will shape future knowledge-creation and innovation. The way in which knowledge production is funded – public or business – matters for subsequent application for innovation, particularly in:

  1. Resources allocation
  2. Excludability in consumption
  3. Excludability in production
  Private-generated knowledge Public-generated knowledge
A.

 

Resources allocated through market mechanism.

The main purpose is to contribute to profits though knowledge-based products, services and processes.

Resources allocated through political process.

The main purpose is to contribute to the advancement of knowledge and social welfare.

B. Excludability in consumption pursued through active strategies such as industrial secrecy and proprietary forms of intellectual property. Non-excludability in consumption implemented through technology transfer policies and full disclosure (e.g. open science and non-proprietary forms of intellectual property).
C. Excludability in production associated to firm-specific technical knowledge and tacit knowledge. Non-excludability in production actively sought reducing tacit knowledge.

Our research suggests that, up until now, little attention has been given to the major shift from public to private consequences. We are calling for a change: while the long-term consequences of this shift have not yet been discussed at length, they have the potential to be extremely relevant to long-term technological opportunities, the role of major scientific breakthroughs, and vital knowledge exchange from basic research in the public sector.

Further reading:

  • Archibugi, D. and Filippetti, A. (2016) ‘The Retreat of Public Research and Its Adverse Consequences on Innovation’. CIMR Research Working Paper Series Working Paper No. 31.
  • Archibugi, D. and Filippetti, A. (2015) The Handbook of Global Science, Technology, and Innovation, John Wiley & Sons.
  • Mazzucato, M., 2013. The Entrepreneurial State: Debunking Public vs. Private Sector Myths. Anthem Press, London.
  • I.T., 2015. The Future Postponed. Why Declining Investment in Basic Research Threatens a U.S. Innovation Deficit. M.I.T. Washington Office, Washington D.C.

Further information:

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New film explores the link between Kew Gardens collections and the Amazon

This article was written by Dr Luciana Martins from Birkbeck’s Department of Cultures and Languages

boatKew Gardens holds fascinating artefacts collected by the botanist and explorer Richard Spruce, who travelled in South America in the nineteenth century. I am about to embark on a 10-day workshop with indigenous peoples in the Amazon based on this collection,  and so decided to seize this opportunity to take up the camera  and produce my first research-led film.

The purpose of filming was twofold. First I wanted to explore the potential of film to elicit memories and stories of the indigenous peoples participating in the workshop about specific artefacts of Kew’s collection. The second was to tell the story of one of these artefacts in a way that she could convey cinematically the contrasting environments of the object’s life.

Now, in collaboration with the Derek Jarman Lab (DJL), a research and film-making hub based at Birkbeck, I have released The Many Lives of a Shield, a short film that follows the story of one of these artefacts.

I participated in a DJL filming workshop with Bartek Dziadosz and Bea Moyes, which demystified the process of filmmaking, giving me confidence to go ahead with my project. The partnership with Bea worked really well, and the whole film-making experience opened-up a new way of working, seeing and thinking, which I’m still getting to terms with.

I am currently organizing a roundtable during Arts Week entitled ‘Telling object stories: film, peoples and plants in the Amazon,’ in which I will discuss with Bea Moyes and Bartek Dziadosz the potential of film to produce new insights into arts and humanities research – watch this space!

Watch The Many Lives of a Shield

Find out more

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