REF 2021

The results are in for REF 2021: the results for the Faculty are very good indeed, and part of a fantastic university result.

What is the REF?

The Research Excellence Framework (REF) is the national assessment of research, conducted by expert panels every six years, across some 34 subject-based units of assessment (UOAs). It provides rankings and ratings for research, impact and environment which are used by the four UK higher education funding bodies to decide on the distribution of around £2 billion of research funding. The last one took place in 2014.

REF is a kind of report card on research and impact for all participating British higher education institutions.

So how did we do?

Overall, we did very well. According to the rankings provided by the Times Higher, three UOAs have been ranked in the top ten in the country, namely Anthropology (6th), Classics (8th), and Modern Languages (4th).

In individual highlights, Anthropology, and Religion and Theology were given the highest possible award for outputs (for example, books, chapters, creative works, and articles). Music, Drama, Film and TV, and History were ranked in the top quartile for impact. Modern Languages had the highest possible award for environment.

An overall 48% of research submitted to REF 2021 by the Faculty was rated as world-leading (4*) in terms of originality, significance and rigour. 88.5% was rated as world-leading or internationally excellent (4* and 3*).

These figures represent an enormous amount of intellectual work and effort, not just by the academics but by the professional services staff who supported them and the process. It demonstrates that the research undertaken in the Faculty of Arts is world leading, has significant impacts on society, and contributes to knowledge across all our disciplines.

What difference will it make?

A strong REF 2021 result means the Faculty is in a good position to invest in more world-leading research in the arts and humanities, research which makes a real and positive difference to people’s lives. You can sample some of our outstanding impact in the refreshed Impact and Engagement page.

Congratulations to all.

Hilary Carey and Helen Fulton

Faculty Research Directors (Arts)

Same planet, different worlds: Environmental history conference comes to Bristol

By Professor Adrian Howkins, Department of History

In early July 2022, Bristol will play host to the European Society for Environmental History (ESEH) conference. The conference – which usually takes place every two years – will have the overarching theme of ‘Same planet, different worlds: environmental histories imagining anew’.

This is only the second time the ESEH conference has taken place in Britain, and the first time it is happening in England – the first ever ESEH conference took place in St Andrews in Scotland in 2001. The decision to hold the conference in Bristol reflects the strength of environmental history research at the University of Bristol, as well as the city’s strong environmental reputation. More broadly, it reflects the strength of the University of Bristol in the wider field of environmental humanities, which includes environmental history research.

“Environmental humanities are interdisciplinary areas of research, combining the traditional humanities – such as literature, music, history and languages – with areas including science and technology to better understand the relationship between humans and their surrounding environment, both social and natural. Environmental humanities can help us learn about the environmental challenges of the past, address those of the present, and plan for the future.”

The University of Bristol’s Centre for Environmental Humanities (CEH) in the Faculty of Arts is firmly established as one of the leading centres for environmental humanities research in the UK, and there is a wide range of exciting projects taking place. Do follow our CEH blog to keep up with everything that is going on.

Group of researchers look out across a waterway towards a stone bridge in the distance. The area is grassy with trees in full leaf.
Centre for Environmental Humanities field trip

In preparation for the ESEH coming to Bristol, Adrian Howkins – one of the co-directors of the CEH – spoke to Marianna Dudley and Andy Flack who are organising the conference.

What is the European Society for Environmental History?

[Marianna] The ESEH is the leading scholarly organisation for people interested in environmental issues from a humanities perspective. It is European, but that doesn’t exclude people in other parts of the world working on this topic. It is very inclusive, and has grown to include a wide range of scholars. It offers networking, mentorship, peer-to-peer support, and a discount on the Environment and History journal. It also has by far the best academic conference going, which moves around Europe and is coming to Bristol this summer!

Why is it important that the conference is coming to Bristol?

[Andy] It recognises Bristol’s status as an environmentally aware and activist city as well as recognising that the University is involved in environmental issues through the Centre for Environmental Humanities, the Cabot Institute, and other research centres and clusters. It is the first time the ESEH has been in the UK since the first meeting in 2001 (St Andrews), and the first time in England. The decision to come to Bristol shows that despite political developments like Brexit, the United Kingdom is still at the heart of the European scholarly community studying environmental change. We love living and working in Bristol – it’s a fun, vibrant, welcoming city and we want to show our colleagues from around the world what a great place Bristol is.

What impact do you hope to have as a result of the conference?

[Marianna] It felt more important than ever to have an in-person conference after such a long hiatus due to the Covid-19 pandemic. We’re looking forward to bringing our scholarly community together and reforging the connections that are so important to our work. In terms of academic legacies, we want to spotlight Bristol as a place to study environmental history and environmental humanities. We hope that other scholars around Britain will seek us out for postgraduate research, postdoctoral fellowships, and academic collaborations, maintaining and building the exciting work that is already taking place.

What opportunities are there for our students to get involved in the Centre and/or the Conference?

[Andy] There will be opportunities for students to get involved in the running of the conference. This will put our students in touch with scholars from all around the world. Please get in touch if you might be interested in joining our conference team. If anyone would like to attend the conference to see what it’s all about, we’ll be offering day rates for University of Bristol staff and students to come to talks and meet with conference attendees. There will be interactive environmental art installations, a talk on wildlife film, science and humanities conversations, and a poet in residence.

If you would like to register for the conference, you can find further details here.

A tale of two cities: The historical links between Bristol and Dublin

By Professor Brendan Smith, Professor of Medieval History

When we think of British cities with strong Irish links it is likely to be Liverpool, Glasgow, Manchester, Birmingham and London that first come to mind. In terms of historical longevity, however, no city on this island can match Bristol’s connections with Ireland.

The medieval connections

2021-2 marks the 850th anniversary of the conquest of Ireland by King Henry II of England. During his stay in Dublin at Christmas 1171, the king issued an extraordinary charter whereby he granted Dublin to ‘my men of Bristol’ and gave them permission to colonise their new possession.

Image of King Henry II's charter of 1171 - the paper is old and brown, with elegant script
King Henry II’s charter of 1171 (Dublin City Library and Archive)

Links between the two towns were already strong by this time. Ham Green pottery, manufactured on the banks of the Avon near Pill, was popular in Viking Dublin, and the vigorous trade in slaves conducted between Dublin and Bristol in the eleventh century inspired bitter criticism from churchmen before William the Conqueror and his successors brought this vile commerce to an end. After 1171, many important trading families from Bristol established branches across the Irish Sea, while stone quarried at Dundry, to the south of the city, was transported in large quantities to Ireland for use in the new churches and monasteries that the English began to build.

King Henry II issued an extraordinary charter whereby he granted Dublin to ‘my men of Bristol’ and gave them permission to colonise their new possession.

In February 2022 a symposium focusing on the medieval ties between the two towns was held in Dublin to mark the anniversary of Henry II’s grant. The Deputy Lord Mayor of Dublin welcomed the Lord Mayor of Bristol to the event with a certain wariness, since the original charter of 1171 was never officially revoked!

The age of Edmund Burke and beyond

Statue of Edmund Burke atop a plinth at St Augustine's Parade, Bristol, UK
The statue of Edmund Burke in Bristol
(Credit: Tim Green, Wikimedia Commons, CC BY 2.0)

In Bristol, on 20 April 2022, the University hosted the ‘return match’, with a symposium considering more recent ties between Dublin and Bristol, beginning with the career of the great political philosopher Edmund Burke (1729-1797). Burke was born in Dublin and was educated at Trinity College Dublin before developing a successful political career in England. Between 1774 and 1780 he was MP for Bristol, though his views on a range of issues made him unpopular with the city’s ruling elite. Two fine statues of Burke can still be seen today, one outside the gates of Trinity College Dublin, and the other on St Augustine’s Parade in the centre of Bristol, a few metres in front of the now empty plinth where Edward Colston’s statue once stood.

The University hosted the ‘return match’, with a symposium considering more recent ties between Dublin and Bristol.

The celebratory event

The University was delighted to welcome Ireland’s Ambassador to the UK, Mr Adrian O’Neill, at the recent event, who spoke warmly about the opportunities the day had provided to further strengthen links between Bristol and Dublin. In addition, Professor Martyn Powell (Head of the School of Humanities), Dr Erika Hanna, of the Department of Historical Studies, and Professor Steve Poole of the University of the West of England delivered academic papers and a guest lecture was given in the evening by Professor David Dickson of Trinity College Dublin. To coincide with the event, an exhibition was staged at the venue, displaying some of the important Irish-related materials held in the University of Bristol’s Special Collections department. This included early editions of some of Burke’s published works, as well as a sample of Irish political pamphlets dating from between the eighteenth century and the Easter Rising of 1916. The close ties that have existed between the University of Bristol since its foundation and Trinity College Dublin were also explored in some of the exhibited material.

The future

Following the guest lecture a reception was hosted by the Vice-Chancellor, Professor Hugh Brady, whose Irish background provided a fortuitous link to the day’s events. Professor Brady welcomed to the University Ambassador O’Neill, the Deputy Lord Mayor of Dublin, Councillor Joe Costello, the Lord Mayor of Bristol, Councillor Steve Smith, and members of the Bristol Irish Society. Councillor Costello promised that on his return to Dublin he would continue to work with his counterpart in Bristol to bring about a new twinning arrangement between the two cities. Reviving awareness of the historical links between Bristol and Dublin seems likely to lead to their further strengthening in the years ahead.

Attendees at the 850th Anniversary of Henry II's Grant of Dublin to Bristol, School of Humanities, University of Bristol.
850th Anniversary of Henry II’s Grant of Dublin to Bristol, School of Humanities, University of Bristol.
From left to right: Professor David Dickson (Trinity College Dublin); Ambassador Adrian O’Neill; Bristol Lord Mayor Steve Smith; Professor Hugh Brady (University of Bristol’s Vice-Chancellor); Deputy Lord Mayor of Dublin Joe Costello; Dr Erika Hanna (University of Bristol); Professor Brendan Smith (University of Bristol); Professor Steve Poole (University of the West of England) and Professor Martyn Powell (University of Bristol).

 

Brendan Smith, Professor of Medieval History, is a Dubliner who was educated at Trinity College Dublin. He took up a lectureship at the University of Bristol in 1993. He has published extensively on the links between England and Ireland in the Middle Ages, and in 2018 edited volume I of the four-volume Cambridge History of Ireland, which was launched in Washington, D.C. in September 2018 by Joe Biden, now the president of the United States of America. Professor Smith is currently engaged in research projects examining the financing of English rule in medieval Ireland, with an emphasis on the deployment of Digital Humanities techniques and methodologies. He has received funding from The Jean Golding Institute to work with Mr Mike Jones, from Research IT, on the production of visualisations of the financial data contained in medieval Irish exchequer material. He will be presenting some of the fruits of this collaboration at the Bristol Data and AI Showcase at the MShed on 7 June 2022.

 

Where is the (cycling) revolution?

By Professor Martin Hurcombe, Professor of French Studies, School of Modern Languages

It’s a beautiful Saturday morning in May 2020. The sun is glinting off Chew Lake. There is the sound of birds I’m too ignorant to know the names of. And on both sides of the road there is a steady stream of cyclists. Not just the regular MAMILs* like me who you’ll always find out here this time of day, but cyclists of all ages and sizes, many of them on bikes a lot newer than mine. I count them over an hour; there are six cyclists for every motorist.

During those awful first weeks of lockdown, many of us found some respite from the horrors unfolding around us in our ability to cycle, run or just walk away from the homes and the online world to which we were otherwise confined. Bike sales went through the roof as we all realised that, once you take away the bulk of the traffic, roads make pretty good cycle paths and cycling is both an efficient and pleasant way of getting about (particularly when the sun shines).

There was also a lot of serious debate about how the pandemic would transform our working lives. Most of us would probably be working from home for years. Time saved by not commuting could be reinvested in leisure; not the constant consumption of those tiresome pre-pandemic weekends spent trudging around out-of-town retail outlets, but what researchers call active leisure (running, walking, cycling, etc), activities that we could now integrate into our daily lives. Perhaps, despite the dystopia of a health service under constant strain, we could emerge healthier and happier as a nation. ‘A better world is possible’, the slogan painted onto the main road through Long Ashton declared as I cycled towards it on my first trip into Bristol coming out of lockdown.

Yellow heart painted on road surface with image of a bike within the heart

We caught some of this spirit in Active in Lockdown (AIL), a project that Dr Melanie Chalder (Bristol Medical School) and I ran in collaboration with Knowle West Media Centre. By collecting social media posts, and helping volunteers to capture and reflect upon their experiences of cycling, running, or walking during the three national lockdowns, AIL attempted to record the huge surge in active leisure in Bristol and the surrounding area.

I still see that slogan as I commute through Long Ashton on my bike. It’s beginning to re-emerge after being painted over by the authorities eager perhaps not to raise our hopes. It’s re-emerging because the paint used to cover it is being eroded by the cars that have now returned to our roads. Traffic levels are rapidly approaching pre-pandemic levels and congestion is returning to our city centres. It is hard to remember that, only a year ago, we stood on our doorsteps applauding keyworkers and swearing to protect the NHS. In our headlong rush to get back to our old way of living, though, we seem determined as a society to spend even more time in its care.

So, I’m left asking: Where are all the lovely new bikes of 2020 and the revolution we dared to dream of? We hope that global leaders will emerge from COP26 with the roadmap to a world that looks better than the course we are currently set upon. But is ‘A world not as bad as it could have been’ our only hope? And what is it that towns, employers, and individuals can do to help our roads contribute to our wellbeing rather than to be a major source of global decline? The stories captured by AIL can help here. They tell us about the wellbeing that comes with active leisure, but also the conditions needed to facilitate it: safe, clean, congestion-free spaces available for all.

*Middle-Aged Man in Lycra

Redrawing our Environments

By Dr Paul Merchant, Senior Lecturer in Latin American Film and Visual Culture, School of Modern Languages

Can art change how we relate to the environment? Might the experience of watching a film, observing a drawing, or visiting an installation help us to understand the current ecological crisis in ways that scientific reports and data can’t? As the crucial COP26 climate summit in Glasgow continues, these questions are taking on added urgency.

On Friday 5 November, visitors to the First Friday event at Watershed in Bristol will have the opportunity to explore these questions. They’ll be able to learn about some contemporary art initiatives from the UK and Chile, and take part in some drawing exercises led by the illustrator Jasmine Thompson (no prior experience required!).

Waves crashing on the Vina del Mar coast, Chile
Vina del Mar, Chile

The event draws on the work of the research project Reimagining the Pacific, which is led by Dr Paul Merchant and funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council. The project explores how artists in Chile and Peru are responding to environmental challenges on the Pacific coast.

One way in which contemporary artists are seeking to engage their audiences with environmental issues is by creating works that use a range of different media to create a multisensory experience. For example, Claudia González’s installation Hidroscopia / Loa (2018) uses drawings, videos, and electronic apparatus to present the effects of copper mining on the Loa river in unexpected ways.

Closer to home, the Bristol-based artist Dan Pollard’s Liquid Noise installation project creates a link between the movement of visitors’ bodies and the vibrations in pools of water to visualise the effect of underwater noise pollution on whales.

The value of projects like these is that they make issues that can seem distant or abstract (like marine noise pollution, or ocean acidification caused by uptake of carbon dioxide) feel present, by engaging our senses and our imaginations. It would be too simplistic to draw a straight line between an experience of an artwork and a specific political commitment. But if works like Hidroscopia / Loa and Liquid Noise, or even the simple act of drawing, can make us look again, listen again, and pay better attention to our environments, then there’s much to be said for them.

A Map of Medieval Bristol

By Professor Helen Fulton, Chair in Medieval Literature, Department of English
Image of the cover of 'Bristol in 1480'
Cover of Bristol in 1480: A Medieval Merchant City

One of my research directions is aimed towards medieval towns and urban culture, especially in the region of the March of Wales. Some while ago I collaborated on an Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC) project on medieval Chester which resulted in an online map of the medieval streetscape of the city, with links to its major churches and buildings. This inspired an interest in the possibilities of mapping ­­– both digital and hard copy – as a tool for research, education, and public engagement.

As a Trustee of the Historic Towns Trust (HTT), which produces hard-copy maps of historic towns throughout the UK, I took on the leadership of a project to produce a map of medieval Bristol, which was published in December 2020. I worked in partnership with Professor Peter Fleming at UWE, a renowned expert on medieval Bristol, and a team of local historians and archaeologists from the city of Bristol. Our first job was to decide roughly what period of time would be covered by the map – it is possible to layer maps on top of each other to show features and streetscapes from different periods of time, and some of the HTT maps have done exactly that. For Bristol, however, it made sense to focus quite precisely on the year 1480, when a well-networked Bristolian, William Worcestre, made a survey of the city of Bristol on foot, literally counting how many paces there were between landmarks. Using this survey, together with many other historical records of the city, the team was able to reconstruct the layout of Bristol in 1480, along with its major churches, abbeys, gentry houses, taverns, industrial buildings, and even its water supply.

The production of this unique map was funded partly by public donations and partly by a generous grant from the University of Bristol Knowledge Exchange fund. We used the money to employ a research assistant, Dr Bethany Whalley, who researched the history of the various streets and buildings that are described in the Gazetteer on the back of the map. Crucial information was also supplied by our team of local experts, each of whom had specialised knowledge of the city’s history. I co-wrote the introduction to the map, describing the work of William Worcestre, and edited all the textual information on the map, including the street names and other words on the map itself as well as the Gazetteer. We worked closely with the HTT cartographer, Giles Darkes, whose beautiful artwork makes all the HTT maps stand out not only as useful reference guides but as works of art.

Despite being published during a pandemic lockdown, the map has sold very well and has been the topic of numerous public lectures, in person and online. The map was launched during the Fifteenth Century Conference in early September at St James Priory. We are now planning a workshop at the annual Historical Association conference to be held in Bristol in May 2022, and we are working with an educational consultant to produce a study package for Key Stage 2 students.

Bristol’s MA Medieval Studies: partnerships, placements and progression

By Dr Benjamin Pohl, Programme Director of the MA Medieval Studies

Whilst students wishing to study the rich and fascinating culture of the Middle Ages can choose from a variety of postgraduate courses across the UK, those opting to make the University of Bristol their home and enrol in its flagship programme MA Medieval Studies are offered the exciting opportunity to do a bespoke work placement with a partner institution from the culture and heritage sector.

A medieval manuscript from the Monastic Library and Archives at Downside Abbey
A medieval manuscript from the Monastic Library and Archives at Downside Abbey

For the coming academic year (2021/22), three new exciting partnership agreements have been signed with the Church Conservation Trust, Bristol Baptist College and, most recently, the Bodleian Library in Oxford, one of the UK’s largest and most important collections of medieval manuscripts and rare books.

Offered as an optional module, the placement is credit-bearing and replaces one of the taught modules. Instead of spending more time in the classroom and being taught by one of the many experts from Bristol’s thriving Centre for Medieval Studies, placement students have one day a week over the course of twelve weeks with their partner institution. Some remote placements are available for those unable or preferring not to travel in person. In addition, placement students are given the option to replace their capstone dissertation with a practice-led project accompanied by a critical reflective commentary that develops their work placement further.

We curate our list of placement partners very carefully and keep it under regular review to ensure that students will always have the best possible experience. Our aim is to match students with suitable partners to accommodate their individual research interests and help them build relationships that endure beyond the duration of their degree.

Past and present placement partners of the Bristol MA Medieval Studies include the University Library’s own Special Collections, the Department of Manuscripts and University Archives at Cambridge University Library, the Monastic Library and Archives at Downside Abbey, the Cathedral Library and Archives at Gloucester Cathedral, Bristol Cathedral, St Mary’s Church in Portbury and, since 2020, Berkeley Castle.

Flyer for an exhibition at Berkeley Castle
Flyer for an exhibition arranged by one of our students during her placement at Berkeley Castle

Every year we are delighted to see the results of these student placements, and the scope and quality of the work produced by our brilliant students are most impressive. Not only do they speak to academic audiences from a range of disciplines, but they also attract significant public interest. Recent examples of public-facing student work emerging from placement partnerships include an exhibition on The Women of Berkeley Castle, an online edition and facsimile of Gloucester Abbey’s most important medieval chronicle (Gloucester Historia Online), and key contributions to the major online exhibition History & Community: 20 Exhibits from Downside Abbey.

It is not only the students who benefit from the placement option, however, but also the partner institutions. Berkeley Castle, for instance, hosted a placement student in 2020 who has since taken up the permanent position of Visitor Business Assistant. Jenny Low, Visitor Business Manager at the venue, told us she was extremely impressed with our student’s work ethic and enthusiasm.

Dr James Freeman, Medieval Manuscripts Specialist at Cambridge University Library (CUL), also praised the work of two of last year’s placement students who encoded selected manuscripts from the CUL’s collections and produced critical online catalogue descriptions, describing their work as a “tremendously useful contribution to scholarship”.

Rebecca Phillips, Librarian and Archivist at Gloucester Cathedral, reported the following: “Having a placement student has felt like gaining a colleague, and has enabled us to deliver a project that would otherwise have been impossible. I would recommend any other heritage venue to work with the University of Bristol and share the joy of providing a placement for the next generation of medieval historians.”

Dr Benjamin Pohl
Dr Benjamin Pohl

Feedback from our partners is invaluable to us and speaks volumes about the unique opportunities our MA Medieval Studies students have here at Bristol – not only during their degree, but also with a view to future career prospects. Creating these opportunities and facilitating relationships beyond the degree is an integral part of our mission – it’s what we do. I’m already in the process of liaising with additional partners for the coming academic years, so watch this space!

Welcome to Bristol!

Autumn is just around the corner, and as we creep closer to a change of season we are looking forward to the start of a new academic year. We’d like to take this opportunity to extend a special welcome to our new students joining the Faculty of Arts family this term. Read on to hear from some members of the Faculty.

Headshot of Professor Karla PollmannProfessor Karla Pollmann, Dean of the Faculty of Arts

As Dean of the Faculty of Arts, I am delighted to welcome you to the University of Bristol as you embark on this exciting new adventure. The Arts and Humanities are of great value to society, and are not only relevant, but vital in an ever-changing, unpredictable world. We look forward to seeing the creativity and innovation you – the next generation of linguists, historians, anthropologists, philosophers, musicians – bring to your respective fields, and to helping you to develop some serious skills as future leaders with a special emphasis on civic engagement and social responsibility.

A key strength of the Faculty of Arts lies not only in the incredible depth and breadth of academic knowledge housed within, but also in its diversity, inclusivity, and sense of community. We pride ourselves on fostering a welcoming space, and our sincere wish is that your journey with us will be a cherished and transformative one. The opportunities available to you within the Faculty of Arts are many and varied – we ask you to be curious, to be imaginative, to be bold. Challenge yourselves, apply yourselves, and enjoy yourselves! Welcome!

 

Headshot of Dr Shelley HalesDr Shelley Hales, Faculty Admissions and Recruitment Officer

Hi and welcome to Bristol! My name’s Shelley, and as the Faculty’s Admissions and Recruitment Officer I have been busy over the summer overlooking all the A-Level results coming in. It’s always an exciting time of year to find out who our new students will be. I also teach in the School of Humanities, and like the rest of academic staff across the faculty I am busy getting ready for the term ahead, preparing classes, working in new research and latest knowledge (for me, as a Classicist, that means adding the very latest finds from Pompeii to my Pompeii class) and posting material on our unit Blackboard pages so that you have all the information you need to get started in Week 1. We’re all looking forward to meeting you and working with you as unit tutors and personal tutors. Every student has a personal tutor who is there to help you with university life. When you arrive, you’ll be hearing from us as we reach out to welcome you and get you oriented. Please do ask us any questions you have – that’s what we’re here for! In the meantime, very best wishes for your first days of being a Bristol student – see you in class!

 

Michelle Coupland - headshotMichelle Coupland, Faculty Manager

Welcome to the Faculty of Arts at the University of Bristol. You’ve made a great decision to come and join our vibrant, supportive and dynamic community. Within the Faculty of Arts, we are proud to be bold, engaging and inspiring and I know that you will enjoy being a key part of our community. One of the things that I most love about this faculty is its friendliness – staff and students alike are smiling, encouraging and keen to support each other.

As an Arts graduate myself, I value the skills and techniques that my studies gave me and use them throughout my daily life (both in a professional work capacity and outside of work socially, too).  I look beyond the information in front of me to see the wider and bigger picture, constantly ask questions to learn more, and knit different pieces of information together to come up with the best solution for all. Not only this, but I value the fact that I have interests (reading, literature and music) that I continue to pursue outside of work and which help to provide perspective (something that I have really come to appreciate in more recent times).

Welcome to the Faculty, and I look forward to seeing you around and saying hello to you.

World Philosophy Day 2020 – Marvellous mysteries and the unity of science

According to the United Nations, philosophy is ‘the study of the nature of reality and existence, of what is possible to know, and of right and wrong behaviour. It is one of the most important fields of human thought as it aspires to get at the very meaning of life.’ Today we are celebrating World Philosophy Day by sharing a post written by Francesca Bellazzi, a PhD student on the ERC-funded MetaScience Project*, which delves into marvellous mysteries and the unity of science…

‘But what vast gaps there were, what blank spaces, she thought leaning back in her chair, in her knowledge! How little she knew about anything. Take this cup for instance; she held it out in front of her. What was it made of? Atoms? And what were atoms, and how did they stick together? The smooth hard surface of the china with its red flowers seemed to her for a second a marvellous mystery.’ (Virginia Woolf, The Years)

So reflects Eleanor in Virginia Woolf’s The Years. How can this china with red flowers be made of atoms that somehow stick together? Many solutions to this marvellous mystery have been offered, and these are the kinds of questions that the MetaScience philosophy project addresses.

The world, like the cup, seems to be composed of different levels, one clustered beneath the other. Different disciplines study these different levels. Each of them focusses on a specific level of inquiry: physics at the physical one, chemistry at the chemical one, economics at the economical one, and so forth. However, how these levels relate to each other is not obvious. They are not isolated clusters such that the things happening in the ‘biological’ and ‘physical’ clusters are completely independent from each other, nor do they seem easily reducible to the one unique level of physical particles.

In light of this, two extremes have been debated within philosophy. Some philosophers are in favour of what is known as ‘strict identity-based reductionism’, arguing that phenomena at the higher level – such as biological phenomena – are strictly identical to phenomena at the physical level. Such a view might lead to ‘eliminativism’, which essentially says that if all higher-level entities are identical to their lower-level components, then we should stop speaking or even worrying about the higher-level stuff. The only fundamental level is then the physical one, and all the sciences have to be reduced to that. However, this is now an ‘old dream’ – the world is way too complex to be pinned down by identity relations.

Against this reductive dream stand those that argue for the disunity of science. Often called Diagram titled 'An Old Reductive Dream' showing the levels‘pluralism’, this position argues that the physical, chemical, biological and social realms can all equally understand the world on their own. However, this route also appears too extreme, as it disregards important interactions between levels and the growing exchanges between disciplines. 

In the MetaScience project we are investigating how to achieve the unity of the sciences by saving the unity of the world itself without being an identity reductionist. Our project studies how the different levels can interact via a variety of dependency relations, such as ‘multiple realisation’ and ‘multiple determination’. Multiple realisation means that a higher level can be realised by different lower-level phenomena. An example is colour, where different microphysical phenomena can realise the same shade. Different surfaces (composed of different microphysical particles) can reflect the same wavelength. Multiple determination goes the other way around: the same lower level can determine different higher-level properties, such as moonlight proteins that play different functions in different environments. Our aim is to use these – and other – dependency relations to find out whether the sciences can be effectively unified.

Let us try now to be a bit more concrete and go back to the china cup: how can its smooth surface be composed of atoms?

Illustration of a china cup decorated in a flower pattern
Illustration by Francesca Moro

The strict reductionist would say that the cup is nothing more than the result of physical stuff interacting with each other following the laws of physics. The pluralist, on the other hand, would say that any of chemistry, physics or psychology can give us an equally valid story about the cup. However, both options seem to take the wrong direction. There is no 1:1 correspondence between the colour red of the flowers and some underlying microphysical phenomena; as we saw earlier, colour is an instance of multiple realisation. However, there are some relations between the colour level and the microphysical one; these are not self-isolated clusters.

Possibly, the truth lies in the middle. Pursuing philosophical enquiry, MetaScience studies the possibility that within one cup, all sorts of different properties can be found and that this is not mysterious. One and the same china cup can be described by different disciplines that consider different properties: its material composition can be studied by chemistry, its solidity by physics, its geometrical form by mathematics, its colour by the interaction between optics and neurophysiology, its function by psychology and sociology. Nevertheless, this does not imply that this single cup is nothing but atoms or that the different descriptions of the cup are self-standing and detached. Rather, it means that the existent cup is only one and yet is complex. It is composed of many levels studied by different disciplines that all help to understand how the compositional parts of the cup are related. The mystery might be solved without taking away the marvellous. Thanks to the interaction between sciences and philosophy, we are able to formulate a unified view of the one china cup with its red flowers.

by Francesca Bellazzi,

PhD Student in the ERC-funded Project MetaScience (771509)


*The MetaScience project has received funding from the European Research Council (ERC) under the European Union’s Horizon 2020 research and innovation programme (Grant agreement No. 771509).

 

International Day of the World’s Indigenous Peoples

Today, 9 August, marks the United Nations’ International Day of the World’s Indigenous Peoples, raising awareness of the needs of indigenous people across the globe.

Dr Camilla Morelli, a lecturer in social anthropology here at the University of Bristol, has been working with indigenous communities in Amazonian Peru for over a decade. Here we learn more about her most recent piece of research.

Amazonimations – co-producing animated films with indigenous people in Amazonia

Amazonimations is a collection of three animated films produced collaboratively with the indigenous Matses people of the Amazon rainforest. The films are the outcome of a research project (funded by the British Academy) that brought together academic research, art and animation with the objective of using collaborative film production as a means through which people living at the margins of technological and economic inclusion can find forms of self-representation and gain a sense of wider recognition.

Like many other indigenous societies, Matses people had no contact with outsiders until fairly recently, and they are now dealing with the challenges of urbanisation, socioeconomic change, and the impact of globalised media and markets. Amidst the difficulties they face, a key issue is the feeling of being largely unheard and cut out from wider society; their goal, as they phrased it, is for the world to know who they are. In each animated short, a different generation of Matses tells a story: the elderly talk about the traditional ritual of ‘acate’, an intoxicating substance that is said to create a connection between people and the forest; Matses children tell a story about rainforest animals and spirits; and young Matses who migrated from the forest to the city discuss their experiences of adjusting to urban life.

This work is quintessentially collaborative – the films have been scripted, narrated and illustrated by Matses people themselves, and the overall goal of this is to disseminate the animations widely in order to raise awareness about threatened indigenous lives and their precarious futures. Learn more about the Matses people and their culture by watching Amazonimations on Vimeo.