Science, environment and technologies

Our work on science, environment and technologies develops sociological frameworks to examine a wide array of contemporary developments, with particular concentrations of effort on: the sociology of contemporary communications technologies; the applications of computational technologies in the social and natural sciences; and the sociology of the environment and sustainability.

Research interests

Our work on science, environment and technologies develops sociological frameworks to examine a wide array of contemporary developments, with particular concentrations of effort on: the sociology of contemporary communications technologies; the applications of computational technologies in the social and natural sciences; and the sociology of the environment and sustainability. An interest in the sociology of knowledge production, dissemination and consumption in diverse settings cuts across these substantive foci.

The departmental interest in Science and Technology Studies (STS) exemplifies our aim to develop theoretically informed and sociologically robust analyses of issues of contemporary importance, whilst also demonstrating that novel scientific and technological developments can provide the occasion for theoretical development and the explication of new methodological approaches. Our research on science, environment and technologies represents an extensive portfolio of projects funded by research councils, DEFRA, EU, Foresight LINK, Wellcome Trust, Joseph Rowntree Foundation, Environment Agency and commercial support.

Key research areas

New media and communications technologies are a major focus within the department’s STS research. This focus includes both conventional sociological approaches and innovative engagements with new media practice. One key theme of our new media work is the examination of cultural specificity and the processes of appropriation of new media technologies. Nicola Green's current research focuses on the ways a range of new media technologies impact on discourses and practices of sustainability, and her previous work has included projects on young people and mobile technologies, mobile technologies and surveillance, the globalisation of personal data, and mobile media and technology design. Christine Hine has specific interests in the implications of new media technologies for science policy and practice, the development of disciplines and the dynamics of expertise, and has contributed to development of innovative ethnographic methodologies for understanding new media. Paul Hodkinson also explores new communications media in situ in relation to cultural identity, focusing on young people and new technologies, and the appropriation of new media within subcultural groups. Research in the group is linked to the Digital World Research Centre, with a number of doctoral students co-supervised with DWRC. Our interests in new media interweave with our concerns with the sociology of knowledge and the environment, through projects which focus on the production and consumption of online advice and the emergence of sustainability-oriented online networks.

Nigel Gilbert’s work on the application of computer simulation to social science, especially using techniques derived from artificial intelligence, is at the cutting edge of this field. The Centre for Research in Social Simulation (CRESS) is a world leader in applying a complexity perspective to sociological problems using simulation methods. A series of EU funded projects have developed simulation methods to help in understanding policy issues in application areas as diverse as tax reforms, business strategy, the housing market, the management of drinking water, and the spread of information about epidemics. Current projects include a collaboration with the Universities of North California State and Saõ Paulo on the influence of norms and sanctions on the governance of socio-technical systems; a study of social practices in the context of household energy use in collaboration with UCL, Imperial and Cambridge; and with European partners, three projects to model extortion racket systems such as the Mafia, assess communication strategies to improve risk communication in times of pandemics; and examine the effect of sustainable energy policies on household decisions to invest in solar panels.  A project led by CRESS with contributions from the Departments of Computing and Mathematics and the Centre for Environmental Strategy is working on the application of complexity tools and techniques to understand the development of industrial networks.

The group is also at the forefront of innovations in the use of computational technologies for the production and dissemination of academic research. (See also the Developments in Methodology group). CRESS is the leader of a European project to design internet-based software to support ‘Quality Collectives’, that is, communities that self-organise for their members.  Scientific communities are examples of such communities. Nigel Fielding has taken a lead role in shaping the emerging field of e-social science, authoring a consultation document commissioned to inform the ESRC’s e-social science strategy in the qualitative domain, and pioneering the use of Access Grid technologies for social science research through research funded by ESRC’s National Centre for E-Social Science. His current work in this area, in collaboration with colleagues in Psychology and in Languages, is evaluating the use of networked video teleconferencing for real-time translation in criminal trials. In his role as consultant to the ESRC ‘Digital Futures’ project, he is advising on the capture and curation of social media data for secondary analysis by future generations of social scientists.

Our work on sociology of the environment and on the public understanding of science explores the social dynamics of problem identification and the diverse modes of engagement with issues in science and science policy. Kate Burningham has conducted research funded by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation on the environmental perspectives of disadvantaged groups, and with colleagues in five other universities participated in ‘Beyond NIMBY: A Multidisciplinary Investigation of Public Engagement with Renewable Energy Technologies’ funded by the ESRC). In addition, in collaboration with Jane Fielding, she has conducted Environment Agency funded projects exploring public responses to flood warnings; public awareness of flood risk and  an assessment of environmental inequality and flood hazard, she worked alongside colleagues at Lancaster University in an ESRC and Hull city council funded study of children and young people's experience and agency in the flood recovery process. Kate is currently working with colleagues in the centre for Environmental Strategy and Psychology on a project entitled ELiCiT:  Exploring Lifestyle Changes in Transition, part of the SLRG (Sustainable Lifestyles Research Group) funded by Defra, the ESRC and the Scottish Government. Christine Hine has explored public understandings of science through examination of online discussions among parents about the treatment of headlice, and Paul Stoneman has analysed public support and use of complementary and alternative medicine, as well as attitudes towards biotechnology.

Research projects

Current projects

Dates

Start date: 1 January 2016
End date: 31 December 2020

Summary

The overall objective of CUSP is to explore the economic, environmental, social and governance dimensions of sustainable prosperity and to develop clear, pragmatic steps for enterprise, government and civil society to take, in pursuit of it.

The CUSP work programme is split into five themes (MAPPS). Theme M takes a broadly philosophical approach exploring the moral framing and contested meanings of prosperity and sustainability. Theme A explores the role of the arts and of culture in communicating sustainability and as a vital element in prosperity itself. Theme P addresses the politics of sustainable prosperity and explores the institutional shifts that will be needed to achieve it. Theme S1 focuses on the social and psychological dimensions of prosperity working with households and individuals to understand how people negotiate their aspirations for the good life. Theme S2 examines the complex dynamics of social and economic systems on which sustainable prosperity depends, addressing the challenge of achieving financial stability and high employment under conditions of constrained resource consumption.

Our specific research objectives are:

  • To examine the meanings and moral framing of the concept of sustainable prosperity
  • To explore the role of art and culture in achieving a sustainable prosperity
  • To establish the political economy of sustainable prosperity and propose concrete institutional architectures for it
  • To understand the social and psychological dimensions of people's aspirations for the good life
  • To analyse the system dynamics of an ecologically bounded macro-economy and explore viable scenarios for change

Funding

ESRC

Investigators

  • Prof Tim Jackson
  • Kate Burningham
  • Ian Christie
  • Angela Druckman
  • Birgitta Gatersleben

Plus colleagues at:

  • Keele University
  • University of Leeds
  • Anglia Ruskin University
  • Middlesex University
  • Goldsmiths College
  • University of Canterbury NZ
  • York University Canada
  • Aldersgate Group

Dates

Start date: 1 March 2009
End date: 28 February 2019

Summary

Using a complexity perspective, QLectives will understand, experiment with, design and build cooperative socially intelligent ICT systems composed of self-organising peers, that will enable and support emergent 'quality collectives' to enhance, for instance, scientific innovation and decentralized media distribution.

We shall bring together complex system scientists, social scientists and distributed systems engineers to produce new theories and algorithms. Our method will be that of empirical experimentation using "living labs" involving thousands of people connected over the internet into collectives. The project will generate better theoretical understanding of complex techno-social systems, and how trust and reputation may emerge among a community and used to enhance quality. The work is organised into 4 synergistic streams:
1. Theoretical and algorithmic foundations,
2. Algorithm design, simulation and evaluation,
3. Empirical data-sets collection, processing and validation,
4. Platform and living lab implementation.

As a basis we shall extend an already deployed, mature P2P technology platform and make use of two existing user communities: the econophysics forum and tribler.org. Our results will be applied to create two examples of how ICT moulds and becomes part of the systems to which it is applied: QScience - a peer-to-peer application for facilitating scientific innovation by supporting scientific communities, rating activities for quality to identify potential collaborators, hot spots and breakthroughs, and disseminating the right information to the right peers promptly; and QMedia - a peer-to-peer application for transforming media distribution by dynamically identifying shared interest communities and recommending quality contents to them using streaming media technology.

We anticipate an impact on all fields in which collective quality-ratings of contents and raters can counter an otherwise unsustainable growth in the digital information age.

Funding

European Commission, Framework 7, under the Future and Emerging Technologies programme.

Details

Project website.

Investigator

Nigel Gilbert

Past projects

Bridging contemporary meta-theories in social sciences

Dates

Start date: 1 May 2013
End date: 30 April 2015

Summary

Complexity theory and social constructionism are two important meta-theories that have evolved from very different worldviews and knowledge bases. Yet, there are some important similarities between the core arguments of the two meta-theories and these similarities are largely neglected in methodological debates. In essence, both meta-theories reject reductionist, time, space and relationship-free analyses of positivist or Newtonian social science.

While social constructionism reveals existence of multiple realities and viewpoints, history and context dependence of reality and the role of social embeddedness; complexity theory studies heterogeneous populations and the role of stochasticity, path-dependence of processes, the role of interactions and interdependencies and properties of social networks.

This project aims to initiate an international network of scholars working together to identify conflicts or differences as well as links and similarities between complexity theory and social constructionism. The network will also aim to develop a lingua franca through which some stability could be imposed on the terms in which social scientists debate these matters, so that scholars from different disciplines, in particular the early career researchers, could find their way around over crowded terminology.

Funding

ESRC

Details

Project website.

Investigator

Prof N Gilbert

Dates

Start date: 1 October 2013
End date: 30 September 2014

Summary

The e-POLICY project is a FP7 STREP project funded under the Information and Communication Technologies (ICT) theme, Objective 5.6 ICT solutions for Governance and Policy Modeling. Its main aim is to support policy makers in their decision process across a multi-disciplinary effort aimed at engineering the policy making life-cycle. For the first time, global and individual perspectives on the decision process are merged and integrated. The project focuses on regional planning and promotes the assessment of economic, social and environmental impacts during the policy making process (at both the global and individual levels). For the individual aspects, e-POLICY aims at deriving social impacts through opinion mining on e-participation data extracted from the web. To aid policy makers, citizens and stakeholders, e-POLICY heavily relies on visualization tools providing an easy access to data, impacts and political choices.

Funding

FP7 European Commission

Details

Investigator

Prof N. Gilbert

Dates

Start date: 1 June 2010
End date: 31 May 2016

Summary

The Evolution and Resilience of Industrial Ecosystems programme (ERIE) will address a series of fundamental questions relating to the application of complexity science to social and economic systems. 

Our programme of research aims to embed cutting-edge complexity science methods and techniques within prototype computational tools that will provide policymakers with realistic and reliable platforms for strategy-testing in real-world socio-economic systems.

Funding

EPSRC

Details

Project website.

Investigators

  • Nigel Gilbert
  • Rebecca Hoyle
  • Anne Skeldon
  • Paul Krause
  • Sotiris Moschoyiannis
  • David Lloyd
  • Lauren Basson

Dates

Start date: 1 October 2012
End date: 30 September 2015

Summary

The GLODERS research project is directed towards development of an ICT model for understanding a specific aspect of the dynamics of the global financial system:Extortion Racket Systems (ERSs). ERSs, of which the Mafia is but one example, are spreading globally from a small number of seed locations, causing massive disruption to economies. Yet there is no good understanding of their dynamics and thus how they may be countered. ERSs are not only powerful criminal organizations, operating at several hierarchical levels, but also prosperous economic enterprises and highly dynamic systems, likely to reinvest in new markets.  If stakeholders - legislators and law enforcers - are to be successful in attacking ERSs, they need the much better understanding of the evolution of ERSs that computational models and ICT tools can give them.

Funding

FP7 European Commission

Details

Project website.

Investigators

  • Prof N. Gilbert
  • Dr KA Bullock
  • Prof NG Fielding

Dates

Start date: 1 April 2015
End date: 31 March 2016

Summary

What impact does the invisibility of much of the natural environment and anthropogenic impacts upon it have on the construction of people’s environmental values?  This project seeks to holistically examine how people’s perceptions of different environmental issues (climate change and biodiversity loss) co-evolve in the construction of environmental values and impact their willingness to accept mitigation strategies. This is will be achieved by exploring the extent to which people recognise the link between the performance of mundane energy-consuming practices such as creating a comfortable space to live in, cleaning, organising their daily routine and communicating, with environmental degradation. In addition, it will also examine whether the highly visible nature of some low carbon energy technologies (particularly wind farms), in contrast to the largely invisible nature of traditional energy generation technologies, is a factor in determining people’s willingness to accept them, particularly when they impact upon treasured (and highly visible) landscapes. 

Funding

British Academy

Investigators

Dates

Start date: 1 May 2006
End date: 31 May 2011

Summary

RESOLVE is a novel, cross-disciplinary research collaboration between four separate groups in the University of Surrey: the Centre for Environmental Strategy, the Environmental Psychology Research Group, the Surrey Energy Economics Centre and the Department of Sociology.

The overall aim of RESOLVE is to develop a robust understanding of the links between lifestyle, societal values and environment. In particular, RESOLVE works to provide robust, evidence-based advice to policy-makers in the UK and elsewhere who are seeking to understand and to influence the behaviours and practices of ‘energy consumers’.

Funding

ESRC

Investigator

Kate Burningham

Dates

Start date: 1 August 2008
End date: 31 August 2011

Summary

Social simulation is a new method for the social sciences that combines some of the advantages of statistics and qualitative research. The SIMIAN project aims to develop expertise in simulation within UK social science.

The project involves three "demonstrator" simulations chosen to address important social science challenges:

1.Repeated Interaction: Where many theories exist across the social sciences, how can simulation be used to integrate and compare them so that social science as a whole can progress?
2.Novelty: How can simulation develop theories in which meanings and capabilities of objects are not "given" but change and develop in use.
3.Norms: Different social sciences understand and measure norms in different ways. How can these understandings be integrated to produce effective theories?
These three demonstrators will form the basis for a range of training and capacity building activities:
1.Taster courses to show what simulation can do.
2.Build-a-model courses to show how to create a first working simulation.
3.Specialised courses to train advanced users in specific topics.
In addition, there will be presentations at conferences and workshops, fellowships to encourage collaboration between users and academics, and international exchange visits.

Funding

ESRC. This project is funded as an ESRC Research Methods Node

Details

Project website.

Investigators

Dates

Start date: 1 October 2014
End date: 30 November 2015

Summary

Funded by the British Academy, this study seeks to explore "How, why and in what ways do sleep, drug dependence and recovery interact, and with what consequences?".  Although many of these questions have been addressed by biomedical scientists, to-date their work has not been matched by any detailed sociological research. The current study rests on the idea that: (i) if we are to answer these questions, novel conceptual models are required which situate sleep, drug misuse and recovery as embodied social actions that are embedded within social contexts; and (ii) novel methods are required which recognize that sleep is a liminal state. More information can be found here  This research is now also linked to a C2D2 pump priming project (funded through York) and a PROM study.

Funding

British Academy

Investigators

Dates

Start date: 1 December 2006
End date: 3 May 2011

Summary

This Collaborative Research Project (CRP) addresses practice and policy relevant issues arising from the nature, impact and management of the sleep-wake balance in later life. It will extend and 'join up' strategically targeted areas of sleep research relevant to understanding and improving autonomy, active ageing, and quality of later life.

The interdisciplinary research team comprises partners from six disciplines and four institutions - sociology (Surrey), psychology (Loughborough), neuroendocrinology (Surrey), engineering (Bath), nursing (Surrey) and medicine (Kings College London), together with consultants in health economics, medical statistics and clinical psychology.

This collaborative research project is also working closely with five project partners: Philips Lighting, Nottinghamshire Healthcare NHS Trust, Healthtalkonline (formerly DIPEx), Help the Aged, and The Relatives and Residents Association. Each is providing advice, access to research settings and products, and dissemination regarding one or more Work Package.

Funding

This project is funded by the cross-council New Dynamics of Ageing initiative, a multidisciplinary research programme supported by AHRC, BBSRC, EPSRC, ESRC and MRC.

Details

Project website.

Investigators

Dates

Start date: 1 March 2010
End date: 31 August 2013

Summary

The Sustainable Lifestyles Research Group (SLRG) is a DEFRA and ESRC funded research group with a group of universities across the UK and led by Surrey. A range of studies will be conducted among which a 3 year in depth qualitative study which will explore the opportunities and constraints for sustainable lifestyle changes during two life course transitions - having a first child and retiring. The study will involve around 80 participants in four locations in the UK. Participants will be surveyed at the start and end of the study and be interviewed in depth on three occasions.  

Funding

ESRC, Defra, and the Scottish Government.

Investigators

  • Tim Jackson
  • Birgitta Gatersleben
  • Kate Burningham

Dates

Start date: 1 January 2012
End date: 31 December 2014

Summary

TELL ME will establish an integrated research project involving experts in social and behavioural sciences, communication and media, health professionals at various levels and specialties and representatives of civil society organisations to develop an evidence-based behavioural and communication package to respond to major epidemic outbreaks, notably flu pandemics. The main outcomes of TELL ME will be an Integrated Communication Kit for Outbreak Communication and simulation software to assess alternative communication strategies.

Funding

FP7 European Commission

Details

Project website.

Investigator

Prof N. Gilbert

Dates

Start date: 13 June 2013
End date: 12 June 2014

Summary

The Complexity Science in the Real World network brings together 4 projects at 5 Universities in 4 UK locations.  It is funded by the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council's Complexity Science in the Real World programme, helping Science, Social Science and Engineering to tackle global challenges.

Funding

EPSRC

Details

Project website.

Investigator

Prof N Gilbert

Dates

Start date: 1 October 2014
End date: 30 September 2015

Summary

This British Academy funded Skills project will enable Rob Meadows to develop advanced analysis skills whilst exploring a substantive area. More specifically, the study will use longitudinal dyadic data analysis to explore (i) the dynamics of gender identity within heterosexual couples over time; (ii) how gender dynamics within couples over time are associated with reports of sleep.  Results will be used to engage with ideas surrounding how traditional masculinities are constructed in relation to ‘emphasized feminities’ and how they are constructed in the areas of face-to-face interactions over time.  The findings will also enable us to engage with recent sociological literature which suggests that ‘sleep’ is a gendered arena.

Funding

British Academy

Investigators

Dates

Start date: 1 October 2012
End date: 30 September 2016

Details

The wholeSEM consortium will make an internationally leading research impact, prioritising on key modelling areas of high relevance to interdisciplinary energy systems. The research will focus on:

  1. How does energy demand co-evolve with changes in practice, supply, and policy?
  2. How will the endogenous, uncertain and path dependent process of technological change impact future energy systems?
  3. How can the energy supply-demand system be optimised over multiple energy vectors and infrastructures?
  4. What are the major future physical and economic interactions and stresses between the energy system and the broader environment?

The consortium, funded by EPSRC under the RCUK Energy Programme, will employ extensive integration mechanisms to link and apply interdisciplinary models to key energy policy problems, with substantive bilateral engagement with stakeholders in academia, government and industry.

Funding

EPSRC

Details

Project website.

Investigators

  • Prof N. Strachan
  • Prof N Gilbert