Durham Geography aims to generate fundamental and applied research of international quality, with impacts both within and beyond the discipline. Here, we provide a flavour of what we do.
In practical terms, we organise our work through a series of research clusters and research institutes that focus upon themes of work rather than people, allowing us to transcend traditional sub-disciplinary divisions, in both Human Geography and Physical Geography.
Our faculty comprises 57 academics, all active in their fields, with currently 24 postdoctoral research fellows and associates and a graduate school of nearly 100 doctoral students. We welcome visitors from around the world and regularly host visiting academics.
Our work in Human Geography includes:
Extending spatial thinking beyond territorial explanation
We tend to conceptualise the political landscape as states and nations. Yet, the rise of a world made up of networks, flows and non-governmental sources of power demands new thinking on the substance and spaces of politics - a new post-territorial geography that recognises both the continuing significance of borders and a new politics beyond borders. By drawing upon critical ideas in continental philosophy and beyond, and through innovative engagement with the everyday practice of politics including its materialisation into technology (e.g. video surveillance, biometric monitoring), we are seeking to understand major international conflicts (e.g. Darfur, Kosovo, and the ‘War on Terror’) as well as reformulating base line concepts such as citizenship, empowerment and identity.
Reformulating the ‘everyday’ in geographical enquiry
Our work across Human Geography specialises in attending to ‘the lived world’ - the myriad of practices and experiences that are integral to the ‘hum-drum rolling on’ of human life. Our work recognises the importance of all the senses, the full spectrum of emotions (boredom, hope, love, fear), and the materials (shape, size, health, capabilities, phenotypes) involved in producing the world and shaping its geographies. We underpin this work with deep theoretical analyses of what is deemed the ‘matter’ of geographical enquiry, with sensitive empirical research (e.g. rural livelihoods in Asia; urban change in Southern Africa; youth in Eastern Europe; UK consumer identities) and radical approaches to participation that allow us to understand the geographical implications of behaviours, and practices that might otherwise be dismissed as irrational, categorised as inexplicable or ignored altogether.
Exposing the economy to social and cultural explanation
Economic policy, including the tenets of regional policy, is commonly grounded in a suite of accepted wisdoms (e.g. the benefits of education, technological innovation, wealth creation). We are working to unpack key economic ideas and concepts and to open up the economy to scrutiny from other areas of social and cultural research, so enlarging understandings of just what, and precisely where, ‘the economy’. We are particularly interested in the ways in which the economy is performed, through assemblages of people and things, bound by social conventions, infused with emotional energy, and propelled by an ethic that is not predetermined. We also have a particular interest in places outside of the economic mainstream, whether abandoned coalfields in the North-East of England or rural livelihoods in South Asia, where the social economy must be seen as a site of alterity, value creation and meaning for many.
From evidence of ill-being to thinking through well-being
The 21st century world continues to contain spatial inequalities and injustice with issues like health and crime remaining at the top of social policy agendas. We have a critical, yet sensitive, empirically-led focus on the patterning of risk, the affront of vulnerability and the incidence, as well as the effects, of death, disease, crime and fear. Central to this work has been seeing well-being as being about more than the well known indicators of ‘ill-being’ (e.g. ill-health, crime rates), by looking at the ethic and practice of care in more positive ways. We are interested in the ways in which safekeeping, positive health and public welfare are not secured simply by mitigating the factors that place people at risk, the negatives (e.g. the disenchantment of fear), but through positively enabling their antitheses (e.g. the significance of hope). This work has a central emphasis upon bringing the realities of everyday living into the mainstream of understanding and explaining issues associated with health, crime etc.
Reimagining the urban condition
‘Cities’ are a gathering point of much of all of our work in human geography, not only as surfaces on which global processes operate but as spaces that shape the world at large. Accordingly, we are interested in how they work: as ‘wrinkles’ of the economy and sites of economic rejuvenation; as places of social ‘settlement’ and sites of dislocation; and as the products of politics and the impulse for new forms of political life. Our research has a distinctive theoretical framework bound up with a strong emphasis on everyday practices, through which we are reimagining the city as: animated by ‘actants’ - from technology to nature - hitherto largely neglected in urban research; irredeemably social, defining the possibilities of being human in different urban settings; and mainfoldly splintered by technology, public policy choices, restrictions on public space, and ethnic, racial and cultural additions to the cleavages of class and divisions of social capital.
Our work in Physical Geography includes:
Sea level change and coastal response
Understanding the driving mechanisms of vertical changes in sea-level and subsequent coastal responses is central to addressing the challenges of future global change. Our work in this area has three particular emphases. First, we are developing new foci on sea level change in tectonically-active margins. Second, on stable coastal margins, we are addressing the interactions between storms, sediment supply and sea level that underpin coastal resilience. Third, we are developing a particular focus on Holocene sea level changes in East Asia, and their linkage to climate change and the development of early civilisations.
Integrated understanding of ice sheet and ocean dynamics in relation to climate change
Ice sheets are a focus for current concerns regarding present and future environmental change. We are developing an integrated understanding of linkages between ice sheet dynamics, the sedimentary record and sea-level by approaching their dynamics from multiple perspectives. We are leading the development of the fundamental modelling and remote sensing tools required to understand present and past ice sheet dynamics. We are able to combine this with unique expertise in the interpretation of the sedimentary record, in both terrestrial and marine environments. By intergrating these techniques, we are able to question basic assumptions regarding the interpretation of ice sheet history and hence ice-climate-ocean linkages, working on both the present-day Antarctic and Greenland ice sheets, and the Laurentide, Fenno-Scandinavian and British ice sheets of the late Quaternary.
Mass movements and catchment evolution
Mass movements are a global hazard of increasing importance and we have modelling, experimental and field expertise in mass movement processes in a range of environments, as well as in the catchment evolution of which they are a part. Aided by state-of-the-art geotechnical facilities, we have particular interests in peat landslides, debris flows, failures in cohesive materials and cliff recession. This includes tectonically-active settings, where there is a coupling between tectonic activity and mass movement processes, sea level impacts and climate change.
Modelling rivers and floodplains
In predicting river and floodplain flow, we tend to assume that water in rivers and floodplains moves through obstacles (e.g. rocks, houses) rather than around them. We then parameterise their effects as roughness rather than treating them explicitly. Using underpinning development of catchment-scale remote sensing techniques, we are developing new modelling approaches that represent the geometry of rivers and floodplains explicitly. This is allowing us to innovate our understanding of linkages between: turbulence and sediment transfer; flow hydrodynamics and instream river ecology; land management, sediment delivery and flood risk; and what happens in the very largest of the world’s large rivers, where we are only now starting to obtain measurements of river morphology and process.
The connection of landscapes to rivers and lakes
A critical catchment function is the connection of hillslopes and floodplains to rivers by water. This matters because it controls the delivery of matter to rivers and streams and hence mediates the links between climate change, human activities, flooding and pollution, and river ecology. This work uses novel methods for measuring, inferring and modelling connectivity over a number of different spatial scales. We are using the work to reformulate the role of rural land management in flood risk, the causes of diffuse pollution in river catchments and the implications for instream organisms, notably salmonids.