Tag Archives: geography

Rural development in practice

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It is comparatively rare that the cover of a book so adequately describes not just the contents inside those covers, but also manages to capture so completely a flavour of the book itself. It is even more rare to have a ‘textbook’ land on my desk that is such an absolute pleasure to read. The author is an evaluator in the field of international development, and his down-to-earth style of writing manages to satisfy both the practicalities of the development worker in the field and the academic in the study. A quick glimpse at the comments from reviewers in the official blurb, saying ‘insightful’, ‘enjoyable’, and ‘engaging’ seem to summarise the common perspective. To that, I would add ‘useful’ because although this publication is nominally directed at rural development in ‘the global south’ there is a wealth of reading for practitioners and socially aware academics everywhere. For example, although the fine-grained details of the context vary hugely between least-developed countries and my own region of the Highlands and Islands of Scotland, there are gems of thought-provoking reading in this book that should allow people “to see ourselves as others see us” (as Burns wrote in his poetry). This is a book that should stimulate people of all sorts who are working in rural development anywhere. I have little doubt that it will also usefully inform many other areas of activity, including regional studies, colonial history, the psychology of development, and several other related topics.

The main topics for each chapter deal with the big issues of our time – agricultural change, micro-finance, migration, and climate change, among others – but the inclusion of text-boxes for more detailed explanations, along with many well-chosen examples, lifts this text beyond the normal. Above all, it is both accessible and challenging – a rare combination. It is accessible because it is well-written, in language that is not cloaked in jargon nor obscured in cliché – most importantly, it is understandable. It is challenging because it looks at the failings both of practices in the field and of theories in the classroom, thereby forcing us all to re-evaluate some ideas that we have taken for granted or simply not explored thoroughly enough. This is not a smug take-down of development that has been done by others, this is an honest re-evaluation of what matters, and what should matter, when anybody begins to talk about improving social and environmental conditions, or social equity in rural areas. This is a book that can be informatively read sitting in an old armchair at home, or shared with others who have come straight from the fields and want to understand better how to plan for changes that will improve their own lives and the lives of their families.

Does this book give us ‘the answer‘ to better rural development? No, but it gives us some suggestions, and it throws a welcome and an insightful light on some ill-lit corners. I have no doubt that critically reading this book, and following up some of the many interesting ideas that are discussed here, will help readers gain a deeper appreciation of the necessity of integration, and the imperative of engaging, with the many diverse strands of activity that we loosely describe as ‘rural development’.

I will certainly put in a request for multiple copies in my university library, and I will recommend it as background reading to every student of rural development in our undergraduate and postgraduate programmes. It is not enough simply to enjoy this book personally, it has to be shared with others, and above all acted upon.

Willem van Eekelen. (2020). Rural development in practice: Exploring challenges and opportunities. London: Routledge.

Quantum landscapes

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After posting a couple of blog articles recently, https://idruhi.wordpress.com/2020/04/08/where-and-what-is-here/ and later https://idruhi.wordpress.com/2020/05/21/development-place/

that talked about “the other landscape” and how places can be imbued with characteristics and features that are apparent to some people but hidden completely from others, I received quite a few emails. Fortunately, none of them supposed that I had been talking about supernatural attributes (perhaps they know me too well) but I was surprised how deeply the concept seemed to resonate. Several people genuinely wanted to explore in greater detail this idea of how we might come to appreciate, and possibly explain, what we might mean by “a sense of place”.

The following might bring some enlightenment, or it may simply confuse the issue further. What it certainly will not do is to help you to understand quantum physics (in as much as anyone ever really understands it). Nor is it advisable to take the comparison too literally- it’s really only an analogy. The following is a suggestion for an alternative way of thinking about “the other landscape” that I hope will clarify, (but don’t get sucked into pseudoscience).

When we look at a landscape, or immerse ourselves deeply in a place, we see it as a certain reality. There are many ways in which we can measure or describe that reality. Some obvious factors that could be employed are the physical parameters, the latitude, longitude, and altitude of the place. Then, expanding the idea of place beyond a single spot to encompass an entire section of the landscape, we might add a consideration of the aspect (the direction it faces – sunward or shade?) as well as the complete hydrological system, the soil types, the covering vegetation and the habitats that they provide for the various species in that place. We might ponder the atmospheric conditions of the place (weather) and the climate (the effects of weather over a long period of time). Then, of course, there are the impacts of the human species on that place, both the physical imposition of changes (roads, farms, drainage, buildings) and the intangible aspects of society and culture (legends, stories, songs, old images, names on a map and other heritage examples). There is the terrain (the surface features of the landscape spreading out before us) and then there is the terrane (the geologist’s three-dimensional block of Earth that extends a place below the superficialities of the surface to include the rock strata that quite literally supports the world we walk upon).

All of these multifarious factors contribute to the creation of a place, and of course, they all change over time. Here is the quantum comparison, though, because this perceived reality not only is different for every person looking at that place, it is also different for each individual every time we look at the place. Although some changes may be invisible (the subterranean flow of water, for example) other differences only become known slowly (learning a historical anecdote connected to a place) or remain forever hidden from our deepest awareness (like the nocturnal movements of an otter or the unfailing attachment to place by migrating birds). All of these different realities of place are real, but the reality is unique to different people and different times simultaneously. Like Schrödinger’s cat, which quantum theory indicates can be both dead and alive at the same time, the quantum landscape is both the same (in memory, at least) and intrinsically different every time we perceive that place. It is changeless and at the same time constantly changing.

To make sense of this paradox we can adopt the realisation of quantum mechanics that multiple realities coexist (indeed, multiple universes, apparently) or we can simplify (as many physicists do) and try just to understand more deeply, more completely, the singular reality that we personally perceive, feel, smell, touch, and enjoy at any one time. Avoiding the wormhole of postmodernism that seems to deny any objectivity in anything, we humans have the advantages of being able to communicate in networks (that we call community) and that we are able to share and agglomerate our knowledge, and even our subjectivities. This facilitates multiple interpretations and empathies of what a place is, what a place means. We can attempt to express that sense of place through writing, arts, photography, film, or utilitarian social activities. Or we can simply enjoy the quantum variations of place – the differences between the static fluctuations and the (de)localisation of the observable. Enjoy your weekend, in whichever place you may be.

The digital polymath

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So, here is an idea.

I have written in other places about the benefits of using online communications for education, so I will not rehash that here. Initially, I began my online journey by seeking ways to offer high-quality education and supervision to learners in rural areas, because I firmly believe that many learners (especially mature students who have jobs and family) do not want (or are unable) to remove themselves to the city simply because that’s where the education is provided. In addition, it can also cause a dislocation between people and places that perpetuates the myth of ‘city = buzz: rural = sleepy’.

There has been a steady growth in the delivery of online education, whether through dedicated chat spaces and/or videoconference facilities, and there has been a massive leap in adoption by a whole range of organisations and individuals since the COVID-19 lockdown. As colleagues across the UHI have responded to the difficulties of the lockdown in various ways – social interaction with online quiz nights, intellectual satisfaction through open online seminars extending across modules and disciples – there is a real sensation that (in that overused phrase) we are seeing a paradigm shift. This is literally a fundamental change in approach from previous assumptions and practices. No-one is in any doubt that at least some of the current shift of education online will revert back to face-to-face contact once it is safe to do so, but returning to face-to-face need not necessarily mean the abandonment of the benefits of digital education.

So, let’s take this a stage further.

For similar reasons to those that initiated the great clubs and learned societies of the Enlightenment, when people of all sorts came together to share a joint passion for science, or literature, or simply for exploration, there is an opportunity now to extend the frontiers of knowledge networking.

My idea is simply this, that an opportunity can be managed through the university networking systems to bring together online a small group to share perspectives that are intellectually and academically challenging. I do not mean simply listening to the delivery of seminars or lectures, stimulating though these can be. The intention would be to invite a short (ten minute?) presentation by one participant, to which is then added to, challenged, refuted by other participants in a round-table discussion. The events would need to be carefully moderated in order to avoid online rants and allowing everyone the opportunity to contribute, but within these flexible guidelines, there need be no barriers to disciplinary engagement or geographical affiliation. This would be available as a resource for open education. In the online environment, it is as easy to bring in external guests, research students, and colleagues from other institutions and organisations as it is to network within the university. In fact, given the costs, difficulties, commitments that are required to bring people to a face-to-face round-table (not to mention the carbon footprint) the online gatherings have a great deal to commend themselves.

Those gatherings might coalesce around a blog post (there is an excellent example set by The Edge blog at https://idruhi.wordpress.com/ ) and they might record the core presentations to create an open-access archive of clips for subsequence reference and reuse. Unlike a standard archive, these recordings could be made available as a continuously broadcasted stream, as well as being available by click-on-demand. There are possible difficulties, of course, and it is it more difficult to apply the Chatham House rule of confidentiality when digital records can be disseminated globally at just the click of a mouse, but with trust and professionalism these need not be insurmountable barriers.

The idea of participating in an online academic coffee house, with the flexibility of not needing to leave the home office, is an intriguing idea, and possibly a good deal more interesting than most of what is on television these evenings.

Whirlwind

Frustration with the dynamics of a network where some people seem to think that important things can (should) only happen at a centre. How can an integrated network have a centre? I firmly believe that we can dissociate a centralised function from a centralised geographical location. In the UHI, the huge videoconferencing network is co-ordinated from Shetland – which I am sure most people would agree is not a “central” location (apart from those people who live in Shetland!) I thoroughly approve of this, and I wish other “centrallised” functions would be geographically de-centrallised. I think it would benefit the entire network to ‘walk-the-talk’ and commit to the fact that Inverness is not the automatic choice of university functions that are established to benefit the whole network. With decentrallised communications and an efficient transport system (ten flights a day from Stornoway – I can leave home at breakfast and be in London/Paris/Brussels by lunch-time) – why do we cling to this comfort-blanket of co-location in an over-priced urban office?