Women in Dark Rural Landscapes: Vulnerability and the Self
[Fellowship Proposal Submitted to the Leverhulme Early Research Career Award – February 2019]
Objectives and Aims: The project aims to decipher in what ways cultural and personal narratives act as a lens through which women in Scotland encounter and experience darkness and other material objects within rural excursions at night. It aims to explore how darkness can be both emotionally and physiologically experienced within these encounters. It reflects on the way some individuals articulate their own personal context, which seems to be mirrored in aspects of their perception of darkness in rural environments. For this reason, darkness can be considered as an affective and powerful Other in rural environments. The central aim of this research is to comprehend how the sense of self as dynamic (Crowther, 2018), manifests in one’s relation to dark rural landscapes. In a bid for self-verification (ibid), notions of the ‘extended self’ (Belk, 1988) can be seen in the way that individuals relate the activities, and symbols of outdoor interaction, to their own personal narrative. This is centred in anthropocentrism (Crowther, 2018). The objectives of this proposed research are to ask;
- What links the way that women experience darkness and their sense of self or physiological and mental wellbeing?
- How might the notion of multiple selves factor in to this experience?
- In what ways can ‘the darkness’ be considered as social within encounter?
- How is each darkness considered as a unique ecology?
- Do we have a heritage of darkness?
- How might we understand access to dark skies as ‘an inalienable right of humankind’? (StarLight, 2017)
- How might the ability to access this right be gendered?
- Finally, to what extent does experience differ in varied cultural and geographical environmental settings in Scotland?
Within multiple group excursions and interviews carried out throughout winter 2017/18 and 2018/19 in preparation for this post-doctoral research, some emergent themes (potentially projected upon darkness: See figure) have included; fear and the perception of threat or sexual danger, often in relation to perceived potential of encounter with an unknown or unseen presence in darkness, and the manifestation of the ‘Dark Triad’ – Socially dangerous traits; Narcissism, Machiavellianism and psychopathy (Paulhus, 2002). Further themes included; feminine symbology; notions of safe access to dark natural spaces and the objects of and material nature of darkness. How might these themes manifest in encounter and experience? It is necessary to turn to multiple behavioural, social and cognitive sciences in order to comprehend this: to be transdisciplinary (Crowther, 2018).
Methodology: I follow a feminist epistemology, (Harding, 1991; Hill-Collins, 1990) meaning, I intend to create knowledge from the stand point of women in darkness. I consider the ways in which gender influences concepts of knowledge, enquiry and method and consider this in relation to the informant, extending beyond the human to the non-human. I aim to challenge androcentric assumptions, distortions and the plausibility of objectivity. I wish to create something of social value, to comprehend the physical, emotional, cultural and social relation to darkness in rural environments and its affect on the self. Eco-feminism and Ecosophy encourage diversity, interdisciplinarity and transdisciplinary with anti-patriarchal values (Naess, 1987). This comes in to play with my own Goethean ethic and intention in research, with a necessity for empathic engagement. The fellowship would enable me to further develop my ‘serendipitous ethnography’ and ‘Goethean ethic’ towards data collection (Crowther, 2018). This refers to a mode of being within the field, allowing for responsive and flexible methods to emerge. Goethe observed plants. He considered a plant’s context as determinant of its nature and the significance of its relationship to its wider ecology. This mode of observation is intended as slow, open and with a distinct lack of ego. I have appropriated this and utilised it to comprehend ‘social’ situations, considering all actants, human and non-human, as potentially sociable and even intentional from the perspective of some individuals. These methods may come closer to approaching experience which is often ineffable and intangible. They may also come some way in dealing with the implausibility of language in experiential research with the non-human.
My methods are ethnographic. I will participate alongside small case study groups of women engaging in activity within dark rural landscapes. I will work with 4 diverse groups; 2 of which situated within remote rural landscapes and 2 journeying from within urban environments to rural spaces. I will adopt consensual observant participation (Crowther, 2018), autoethnographic reflection and documentation; sharing in outdoors experience and built in sharing and reflection practice. Consideration of these excursions as framed, or as performative is helpful. For Schechner (1985) all performance gatherings have a basic structure of gather, perform, disperse (ibid: 189). These excursions will be structured similarly to my previous research in that, within this social performance, informants will gather within and encounter darkness before returning indoors and in to the light. I will also carry out consensual group and individual free-flowing conversations, to be thematically analysed.
My research seeks to develop, and collaborate in, an intersubjective heuristic process when working within a collective of actors. This will involve engagement and re-engagement with a space with the intention of bringing something vaguely known into focus, to access a more tacit knowledge. In order to do this, I will follow a process of heuristic stages of inquiry (Moustakas, 1990) : initial engagement, immersion (deep engagement), incubation (intuitive process and development of ideas), illumination (finding clarity), explication (analysis, depiction of themes and developing understanding), creative synthesis (the bringing together of ideas and thorough familiarity of data) and validation of enquiry (meaning making and comprehension of experience). The validation of enquiry will take the shape of research monograph. Heuristic process, as often with ethnographic research, is not linear, however, it is my intention to proceed as follows: In year 1 I will develop the transdisciplinary theoretical underpinning of the research questions in preparation for this grounded ethnographic field research, with the inevitability of further trans and multi-disciplinary theoretical engagement through years 1 to 3. In year 2 I will carry out fieldwork alongside the 4 case studies, and in year 3 I will carry out data analysis and develop my manuscript and further modes of research dissemination:
Outcomes/ Dissemination: It is my intention to publish a full ethnographic research monograph, this will be titled Women in Darkness; Nature, Vulnerability and the Self and will be published with a reputable publisher such as Palgrave Macmillan or Routledge. Additionally, I will publish methodological enquiry within interdisciplinary social science journals. This work will not only look at the gendered experience of darkness but explore methods that may accurately help us to recall, comprehend, analyse, and represent these experiences. The potential for publication here lies in the possibility of approaching intangible, phenomenological, sensorial and vibrant experiences with nature, particularly those within darkness. This body of work will ultimately document a move towards an equal methodology that allows for a co-creation of knowledge from and across multiple disciplines. I will also facilitate multiple transdisciplinary collaborative workshop events engaged in the research themes.
 Including the ideal, ought, actual, possible, performed, latent, dormant, extended, collective, shadow and imagined self
 I have gathered significant data throughout these 10 excursions carried out collaboratively in Lenzie and Tyninghame.
 For example; mother, moon, birth, life cycle and home
 These groups would be no larger than 10 individuals to allow for in depth insight in to each informant’s experiences.
 All observation, participation and interview will follow the host institution’s ethical code of practice. I anticipate that this research will fall under a stage one ethical review process at this institution.
 For e.g. Gender, Place and Culture: A Journal of Feminist Geography (Taylor and Francis); Antipode: A Radical Journal of Geography; The Journal of Contemporary Ethnography (Sage); Social Currents (Sage); Methodological Innovations (Sage); Contemporary Social Science: Journal of the Academy of Social Sciences (Taylor and Francis); Human Geographies: Journal of Studies and Research in Human Geography.
Belk, R. W. (1988) Possessions and the Extended Self. Journal of Consumer Research (September 1988) pp 9-14.
Crowther, R. (2018) Wellbeing and Self-transformation in Natural Landscapes. Switzerland: Palgrave Macmillan/ Springer Nature.
Goethe, J.W. (1823/ 2010) The Experiment as Mediator of Object and Subject. In Context. (2010) No. 24. The Nature Institute. Pp 19-23
Harding, S. (1991) Whose Science? Whose Knowledge? Thinking from Women’s Lives. Milton Keynes: Open University Press.
Hill-Collins, P. (1990/2000) Black Feminist Thought: Knowledge, Consciousness and the Politics of Empowerment. New York: Routledge.
Moustakas, C. (1990) Heuristic Research. London: Sage
Naess, A. (1987) Self Realisation: An Ecological Approach to Being in the World. The Trumpeter: Voices from the Canadian Ecopsychology Network. (August 1987) Vol. 4. No. 3. Victoria, B.C. Canada.
Paulhus, Delroy L; Williams, Kevin M (2002). “The Dark Triad of personality: Narcissism, Machiavellianism, and psychopathy”. Journal of Research in Personality. Vol. 36. No.6: 556–563.
Polanyi, M. (1964) Science, faith and Society. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
Schechner, R. (1985) Between Theatre and Anthropology. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press
StarLight – A Common Heritage (2007) – Declaration in Defence of the Night Sky and the Right to Starlight (La Palma Declaration) International Conference in Defence of the Quality of the Night Sky and the Right to Observe the Stars. La Palma, Canary Islands, Spain
My research contributes to understandings of human and nature connectedness, providing accounts of cognitive, social and cultural experience.
Journey to the Ideal Self:
Personal transformation through group encounters of rural landscape in Scotland…
My Ph.D research was funded by The Arts and Humanities Research Council Doctoral Training Partnership. (To find out more about the AHRC click here.) It was carried out at The University of Edinburgh, working across the school of Landscape Architecture (Cultural Theory), Social Anthropology, and Material Culture at Edinburgh College of Art. I began my research in September, 2014 and completed my thesis and sat my VIVA examination in December, 2017.
What did I want to know?
What is positive about group engagement with rural ‘natural’ landscapes?
Why do some people take advantage of their ‘right to roam’ in Scotland and engage with these spaces?
What do groups do within these landscapes when they journey there?
Why do people go as a group?
And what happens when they do?
What do activities in rural spaces provide for people?
Why are these kinds of excursions considered to be personally and socially transformative?
In what ways is getting outside good for us as individuals?
In what ways is getting outside in to these spaces, as the Scottish government appears to believe, good for society?
and what do we even mean by good?
What were my methods?
My research was qualitative, meaning that it was concerned with the experiential elements of these excursions: the quality of these experiences. My methods relied on being with people as they made journeys and took part in these activities. I spoke to people, I participated in activities and I observed everything as I did so. I was concerned with the emotional and bodily experience of these kinds of excursions and with how the individual, the group and the landscape related to one another.
I researched among 5 case studies…
1) A young adults personal development charity that took young adults from urban areas in Edinburgh and Glasgow on excursions in rural environments where they camped, kayaked, walked and stayed in bothys.
2) A mental health initiative who utilise wood craft, site management and sustainable creative projects to foster well-being and better mental health in individuals experiencing mental ill health.
3) A community living initiative in the Inner Hebrides who champion a sharing ethos, permaculture, sustainability and living off the land. They also offer walks, kayaking a ‘wild’ swimming.
4) A group of artists, neo-shamanic practitioners, psychotherapist and mindfulness practitioners who engage with the ‘natural’ landscape to better their practice and well-being.
5) A woodland weekend group who spent weekends across the country volunteering to take part in forestry maintenance and social excursions.
I owe an awful lot to these groups of people.
This project was multi-sited: I traveled with my case study groups to rural spaces around the lowlands, highlands, and islands of Scotland.
Serendipity and transdisciplinarity
To remain responsive to my research communities and their activities I developed a framework for a serendipitous ethnography which is outlined within my thesis. Simply this means that I was open and allowed for what will be to be. I took every opportunity and activity to be a method for understanding.
I adopted a transdisciplinary research strategy, engaging with a theoretical framework spanning psychotherapy, psychology and eco-psychology, sociology, philosophy, human geography, anthropology and outdoor education as well as landscape and performance studies.
So, what did I find out?
My thesis outlines motivations for engaging in excursions from urban central Scotland to areas in rural Scotland. It explores the intangible, ineffable and ephemeral experience of case studies in ‘natural’ rural landscapes and what is relevant in the relations between the self and non-human in these circumstances.
- I describe how and why group interactions within ‘natural’ space are adopted as positive self-transformation strategies and I consider the ‘nature experience’ as relational between the self, the social and place – with what constitutes the social as ambiguous within case study interaction.
- I discuss the self and the perception of the ideal and ought self in relation to motivations to journey in this manner. I discuss the self as part of a group and within the landscape as a dynamic and relational subject.
- I have considered the sense of self within these experiences as a metaphorical liminal site. I discuss the group collectively as a site of dynamism and liminality. I also argue that this allows for the perception of the landscape itself to be a liminal site. With this we see the importance of temporality and structure, or indeed anti-structure, within these excursions as something which aids in the perspective that they are transformative.
- I have considered notions of perceived affordance (or sense of opportunity for activity and personal development, as I define it) and how this changes throughout experience with the increasing ability to associate ideas and abstract experience within one’s own personal narrative.
- I explain how each group differs in how they perceive the rural landscape as something to instrumentalise, personify or anthropomorphise – With this comes an exploration of complex anthropocentric mindsets and the influence of these ways of thinking on experience.
- And finally, I suggest that individuals choose to journey to ‘natural’ rural environments to self-verify an aspect of their ought or ideal self with a desire to re-imagine the self through engagement with others. In self-verifying one’s ideal or ought sense of self, finding a sense of belonging within a group and believing oneself to be doing something good in relation to the ‘natural’ rural space, individuals and groups experience a sense of personal and social transformation.
FOR ALL RESEARCH OUTPUTS ETC SEE ‘New Research and Collaborations’