The Badgers Moved the Goalposts

Tuesday 8 April 2014

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Law School LT 101, Level 1, Sydney Law School, Eastern Avenue, The University of Sydney.


Understanding the nature and dynamics of knowledge controversies.

“The Badgers Moved the Goalposts”: trial culls and animal politics in the English countryside
Professor Sarah J. Whatmore, Environment and Public Policy, the University of Oxford

The badger (Meles meles) is one of the most iconic creatures in the English popular imaginary. In childhood, Mr badger is introduced as the sage keeper of order in the wild woods in Kenneth Grahame’s familiar tale ‘The Wind in the Willows’ (1908). Yet, as nocturnal creatures whose complex social worlds are lived out for the most part in labyrinthine underground sets, few of the people they live amongst in this densely populated country are ever likely to encounter them first-hand. The history of their relations with people mixes savage persecution, as the subject of a once commonplace country ‘sport’ of baiting, and statutory protection as the subject of an act of parliament – the Protection of Badgers Act 1992.

Today, the badger is caught lethally in the political cross-fire between these contrapuntal energies as farmers and conservationists dispute its role in the transmission of bovine tuberculosis (Mycobacterium bovis), a disease that plagues the English dairy cattle industry. It is a dispute that ostensibly looks to science for the answers, culminating in the autumn of 2013 in a trial cull of badgers in two locations. In the process, however, it is badgers themselves that have been seen to expose the poverty of this formulation of the relationship between science and politics. In this paper I interrogate how it was that badgers came to ‘move the goalposts’ and with what consequences for better understanding the nature and dynamics of knowledge controversies

Sarah J Watmore is Head of School of Geography and the Environment and Professor of Environment and Public Policy at the University of Oxford. Her research focuses on relations between people and the material world, particularly the living world, and the spatial habits of thought that inform the ways in which these relations are imagined and practiced in the conduct of science, governance and everyday life. She has published widely on the theoretical and political implications of these questions in two main directions.

These themes are brought together in her most recent books – Political Matter: technoscience, democracy and public life (co-edited with Braun, 2010); Hybrid Geographies: natures cultures spaces (2002) Using Social Theory: Thinking through research (co-edited with Pryke and Rose, 2003) and Cultural Geography: Critical concepts (co-edited with Thrift, 2004)

A Fellow of the Royal Geographical Society (with the Institute of British Geographers) for nearly 20 years, she is also an elected member of the Academy of Learned Societies in the Social Sciences and a Fellow of the RSA (Royal Society for the encouragement of Arts, Manufactures and Commerce). She is currently an editor of Environment and Planning and of the Blackwell Dictionary of Human Geography (5th edition), and serves on the editorial boards of several journals.