Interesting links: First half of 2014 (1) – Climate change, water and evidence

The year has sped by, and I have not been able to get to the blog ūüė¶ But I have a week of recess before the new teaching term starts, so thought I should update the blog with the interesting links and articles I have been bookmarking during the first half of the year. So here goes the first set of links related to climate change, water, and evidence.¬†In a second post related to the interesting sources I found during the first half of 2014, I will post about the ontological turn in anthropology and sources related to the Anthropocene.

Weather and climate change

The last two of 5th assessment reports of the IPPC was released in the first half of 2014, namely Impacts, adaptation and vulnerability; and Mitigation of climate change.

I am enrolled for the MOOC offered by¬†UC San Diego on Climate change in four dimensions (#climatechange4D). The short description of the course is that it “views climate change from a variety of perspectives at the intersection of the natural sciences, technology, and the social sciences and humanities” – it runs from 1 July until 1 September.

The anthropologists Ben Orlove chats about why he studies El Nino¬†(video) [read his co-published article on El Nino’s impacts on water, agriculture and health], and Gavin Schmidt did a TED talk on the emergent patterns of climate change¬†(video).

The journal Environment and Urbanization has made a list (and made free access) all the articles published in the journal on cities and climate change since 2007. And the ICLEI at the Cambridge University did a great job of summarising the key findings of the IPPC Fifth Assessment Report as it relates climate change and cities.

The CODESRIA Bulletin 1 of 2014 has an article by James Murombedzi about accumulation by dispossession: Climate change & natural resource management in Africa (see pages 38-40). Also watch this short film produced at the first southern African adaptation colloquium.

Although published a while ago (in 2006 in Anthropology in Action), the article by Mariella Marzano about changes in the weather: A Sri Lankan village case study does seem useful to the research project on this blog. The abstract states: “As the impacts of climate change are expected to increase, there is growing concern in development contexts over how best to assist the poor and vulnerable to adapt to such changes whilst ensuring environmental and livelihood security. Climate variability is a persistent and progressively more worrying feature in the everyday lives of individuals and communities in rural areas around the world, and there is a pressing need for comprehensive knowledge of the complex relationships between humans, and between them and their environment. Thus there is a growing movement towards bridging the gap between top-down decision-making and more grassroots approaches that encompass local knowledge and experiences. Drawing upon fieldwork in Sri Lanka, this article examines the potential of taking an indigenous knowledge research (IKR) approach to understanding local adaptation to climate change, specifically how local people are adapting their livelihood strategies to what they perceive to be increasing variability in weather patterns. It also explores the prospect of indigenous knowledge networks as vehicles for rapidly sharing information and building links between policy making and local reality.”

For a laugh (on a serious matter), watch John Oliver on Tonight talking about the climate change debate in the US (video).


Watch this talk by Cynthia Barnett on a water ethic for America¬†(video), and don’t miss one of my favourite water researchers, Erik Swyngedouw, talking about Urban water: Urban environmental justice or political ecology?¬† There is also a short film about the threats of 12 mega-dams to the people and rainforest of Sarawak in Malaysia, called Damming our future¬†(video).

Cameron Harrington published an article in the Canadian Foreign Policy Journal – Toward a critical water security: Hydrosolidarity and emancipation. The abstract sounds enticing: “Traditional approaches to water security presume that water will be a primary vehicle that will drive conflict in the future, and may in fact lead to war between states or armed intra-state groups. This article begins by pointing out the limitations of the connections between water scarcity and traditional security and examines the role of emancipation as an aim for the study and practice of water security. It aims to uncover the complex relationships individuals and political communities have with scarce water sources; relationships that defy simple classification as competitive and protectionist, as traditional security views might have us believe. An individual’s connection with water is characterised by a wide and shifting confluence of personal and social needs and identities. Thus, this article seeks to reveal the wide range of approaches used by individuals and political communities to manage their relationships with water, and more broadly, with each other. In particular, the concept of ‚Äúhydrosolidarity‚ÄĚ is studied as a potential emancipatory alternative to hostility, strategy, and conflict in water relations.”

Evidence and systematic reviews

Noah Feldman talks about the Nature of evidence (video), Yves Gingras talks about Transformations in the relations between science, policy and citizens (video), and Stathis Psillos discusses From the bankruptcy of science to the death of evidence.

Recently Jon Turney wrote a post about whether conversation can turn research into action, and Duncan Green asks whether politics and evidence are compatible. And on the BBC website you’ll find an article highlighting the difference between correlation and causation – it shows the spurious correlation between consumption of margarine and divorce rates in Maine, and shows why we cannot claim that eating margarine will cause your marriage to fail.

Be sure to follow the blog of Kirsty Newman, the head of DFID’s¬†Evidence into Action team – all her posting will have you thinking and questioning. I loved these two on bringing research rigour and context together¬†and where evidence fits in between top-down and bottom-up development approaches. Sarah Morton blogs about her talk in Canada on evidence-based service delivery and development – she addresses three issues: what do we mean by research-utilisation; what is evidence for service and practice; and key ways of improving research use.

The annual conference of the Campbell Collaboration took place in June in Belfast. Whilst I did not attend, I had colleagues attending and presenting, and I tried to keep abreast by following the tweets from #c2Belfast. One of the outcomes is that the Campbell Collaboration has adopted MECIR standards as guidance for its systematic reviews.

My colleagues at the Centre for Anthropological Research (CfAR) at the University of Johannesburg launched UJ-BCURE Рsee the video of the launch. BCURE  is a DFID-funded project to build capacity to use research evidence.

The website of the Africa Evidence Network was launched recently Рbe sure to visit regularly, join as a member, and attend the November colloquium meeting of this network in Johannesburg.

My colleagues Laurenz Langer and Ruth Stewart of the CfAR have an article out in Journal of Development Effectiveness –¬†What have we learned from the application of systematic review methodology in international development – a thematic overview. Ruth’s article, Changing the world one systematic review at a time, also appeared in Development Southern Africa.

Birte Snilstveit and colleagues published a working paper with the World Bank’s Independent Evaluation Group, called Evidence gap maps: A tool for promoting evidence-informed policy and prioritising future research. The abstracts reads: “Evidence-gap maps present a new addition to the tools available to support evidence-informed policy making. Evidence-gap maps are thematic evidence collections covering a range of issues such as maternal health, HIV/AIDS, and agriculture. They present a visual overview¬†of existing systematic reviews or impact evaluations in a sector or subsector, schematically representing the types of interventions evaluated and outcomes reported. Gap maps enable policy makers and practitioners to explore the findings and quality of the existing evidence and¬†facilitate informed judgment and evidence-based decision making in international development policy and practice. The gap map also identifies key ‘gaps’ where little or no evidence from impact evaluations and systematic reviews is available and where future research should be focused. Thus, gap maps can be a useful tool for developing a strategic approach to building the evidence base in a particular sector. This paper provides an introduction to¬†evidence-gap maps, outlines the gap-map methodology, and presents some examples.”

Elaine Barnett-Page and James Thomas wrote an article in 2009 (Methods for the synthesis of qualitative research: A critical review) in BMC Medical Research Methodology – useful.

Thomas Winderl wrote a guest post on the blog Better Evaluation on innovation in development evaluation.

I love this tweet by Irene Guijt (on 13 March) about evidence!

CEGSS from evidence to convince authorities to evidence to mobilise citizens.

My second blog post on interesting sources I found in the first half of 2014 will follow – it will contain links re the ontological turn in anthropology and sources related to the Anthropocene.


Interesting links: November and December 2013

A visit last night by a virtual connection turned real friend inspired me (without any conversation about blogging per se) to book time this weekend to finish some of the half-done postings I have worked on over the December holidays. So, I’ll start with the numerous links I saved over November and December – such links posted on this blog serves as bookmarking of sources and ideas for those working on this project; hopefully others will also find them useful.

On climate change

Towards the end of November 2013, the IPCC released it Fifth Assessment Report on physical sciences; see the whole report in 19 illustrated haiku Рclear and to the point. The International Geosphere-Biosphere Programme and Globaia produced a video visualising and summarising the findings of the 5ht IPCC physical sciences report Рsee Climate change and and the state of the science. Joseph Stromberg helps with clarity by writing on the Smithsonian blog about Six things we learned about our changing climate in 2013. In early December 2013 David Keith and Mike Hulme debated on another at Oxford on climate geo-engineering Рwatch the video of this debate. WIREs Climate Change is an open-access cross-disciplinary journal on climate change, and WIREs Water Рcoming in 2014, will be the same on the topic of water.

At the American Anthropological Association (AAA) conference in Chicago in 2013, Shirley Fiske and Tony Oliver-Smith, both members of the AAA Global Climate Change Task Force, spoke to Anthropology TV about the role of this task force. Another member of this task force, Sarah Strauss, in the December Anthropology News highlighted the work of Cindy Isenhour on¬†climate change and consumer societies. And Jamie Clarke posted on the Global Policy blog that¬†Values, not just science, need to be central to the climate change debate.¬†In a short documentary,¬†Maasai Voice on climate change,¬†¬†group of young Maasai pastoralists from Kenya share their perspectives on climate change, whilst in a new book –¬†Media and the politics of Arctic climate change¬†– Annika Nilsson, Miyase Christensen and Nina Wormbs¬†examine new narratives about the Arctic and climate change, indicating what is lost when simple story-lines dominate over the reality of complex, dynamic, interrelated issues.¬†In the December 2013 issue of Anthropological Theory, Jerome Whitington has an article on¬†Fingerprint, bellwether, model event: Climate change as speculative anthropology.¬†You can read a short excerpt from Rebecca Costa’s book The Watchman’s Rattle on the Mayan civilisation and drought. Lastly, watch the trailer of a new TV series called Years of living dangerously, which will start in April in the US on Showtime – it tells the stories of people touched by climate change.

Years of living dangerously


On systematic review methodology and evidence-based policy
There’s a quick guidebook out by Gough, Oliver and Thomas, called¬†Learning from research: Systematic reviews for informing policy decisions. The same authors published a useful article in¬†Systematic Reviews¬†in 2012 on¬†Clarifying differences between review designs and methods. And then there’s¬†a new book edited by Boland, Cherry and Dickson (all from the University of Liverpool):¬†Doing a systematic review – A student’s guide.¬†In a critical engagement with systematic review methodology, Loevinsohn and colleagues from the IDS did a¬†review of a systematic review of the impact of water, sanitation and hygiene interventions¬†have on¬†child diarrhoea morbidity¬†. Their findings raise questions about the impact pathways used in the systematic review, and contributes to the debate about appropriate methods to evaluate and synthesise evidence on complex interventions.
I’ve come across numerous articles engaging the debate on the nature and usefulness of of evidence-based policy. One is by Nina Vohnsen in Anthropology Today on Evidence-based policy: Some pitfalls in the meeting of scientific research politics. Another is¬†Brain Head’s article, Evidence-based policymaking – Speaking truth to power?, in the November 2013 edition of the Australian Journal of Public Administration, highlighting the relationships between evidence and policy. Oliver and colleagues wrote up A systematic review of barriers to and facilitators of the use of evidence by¬†policymakers¬†in¬†BMC Health Services Research. ¬†And¬†Ben Taylor has a working paper out on Evidence-based policy and systemic change: Conflicting trends? The abstract states: “Two concurrent but incompatible trends have emerged in development in recent years. Firstly,¬†evidence-based policy and the results agenda have come become ubiquitous amongst¬†government policy-makers in recent years including in development. Secondly, there has been a¬†realisation of the utility of systemic approaches to development policy and programming in order¬†to bring about sustainable change for larger numbers of people. This paper highlights the¬†negative impacts of this former trend on development and, more acutely, its incompatibility with¬†the latter trend. The paper then highlights positive signs of a change in thinking in development¬†that have begun to emerge to lead to a more pragmatic and contextually nuanced approach to¬†measuring progress and identifies the need for further research in this area, calling for evaluation¬†of approaches rather than searching for a silver bullet.” Lastly is Ruth Levitt’s The challenges of evidence.

I did not attend the  2013 conference of the American Anthropological Association (AAA), but did scan #AAA2013 for tweets from there. I was struck by two words: ontology and anthropocene. Below a few links that indicate some of the discussions regarding these ideas, not only at AAA2013 but also wider.


In Cultural Anthropology there is a set of position papers on The politics of ontology. It is from the¬†roundtable discussion at the 2013 AAA meeting in Chicago which explored theoretical positions and methodological projects on the political implications of the ontological ‘turn’ in anthropology. Also read the posting (and the comments) on Savage Minds on Ontology as the major theme of AAA 2013. This debate is not new though – see Ontology is just another word for culture, a debate on a motion table at the 2008 meeting of the Group for Debates in Anthropological Theory. Also read ¬†Relativism and the ontological turn within Anthropology¬† by¬†Martin Paleńćek and¬†Mark Risjord, and Common sense: A review of certain recent reviews of the ‘ontological turn’, by Morten Axel Pedersen.¬†Not on this debate, but related, is¬†Daniel Little writing on his blog Understanding Society¬†about¬†ANT and the philosophy of science.

Be sure you sign in to Bruno Latour and colleagues’s project, An inquiry into modes of existence.¬†Over the next few months I will be reading and engaging with their project, which will frame some of our research project’s questions about the nature of evidence, for whom, for what. You can also register for Latour’s open online course on Scientific Humanities, which starts the 10th of February 2014.

Bruno Latour

Bruno Latour (Source:

And what about listening to Tom Ingold’s lecture, entitled Towards an ecology of materials. The abstract for the lecture is as follows: “Both material culture studies and ecological anthropology are concerned with the material conditions of social and cultural life. Yet despite advances in each of these fields which have eroded traditional divisions between humanistic and science-based approaches, their respective practitioners continue to talk past one another in largely incommensurate theoretical languages. Through a review of recent trends in the study of material culture, the reasons for this are found to lie in: (1) a conception of the material world and the non-human that leaves no space for living organisms; (2) an emphasis on materiality that prioritises finished artefacts over the properties of materials, and (3) a conflation of things with objects that stops up the flows of energy and circulations of materials on which life depends. To overcome these limitations, an ecology of materials is proposed that focuses on their enrolment in form-making processes. The paper concludes with some observations on materials, mind and time.”

On the Anthropocene

The Anthropocene refers to the idea of a new geological era for earth, one formed due to the influence of humans – see the video Welcome to the Anthropocene. Debates on ontology and the Anthropocene is brought together in a conversation between Phillipe Descola and Bruno Latour about approaches to the Anthropocene – see the¬†video of this discussion. And read Descola’s¬†Beyond nature and culture¬†(a review by Des Fitzgerald is¬†here).

Anna Tsing, author of Friction: An ethnography of global connection, has started a new research programme with Niels Bohr, called ‘Living in the Anthropocene’; the website for this project is here. Melissa Leach, the new director of the IDS, gave a talk in Stockholm about Science-governance challenges in the Anthropocene, and you can listen to a keynote speech by Elizabeth A Povinelli on The Anthropocene Project.¬†A new journal was launched in December 2013, called¬†Elementa: Science of the Anthropocene. It publishes “original research reporting new knowledge of the Earth’s physical, chemical, and biological systems during this era of human impacts; feedbacks between human and natural systems; and steps that can be taken to mitigate and adapt to environmental change”; it’s an open-access journal. And lastly,¬†Tony Turton wrote for Global Dialogue about Water wars in the Anthropocene: A South African perspective.

December being the month that my country’s first black president died, I end my post quoting from a poem by William Ernest Henley called Invictus, which was one of¬†Nelson Mandela’s favourite poems:

Beyond this place of wrath and tears
Looms but the horror of the shade,
And yet the menace of the years
Finds and shall find me unafraid.

It matters not how strait the gate,
How charged with punishments the scroll,
I am the master of my fate:
I am the captain of my soul.



Interesting links: July 2013

In the last few weeks of July I came across the following links that are relevant to our research project. (I got bogged down with admin, and didn’t get to publish this posting earlier.)

On RCTs in development, systematic reviews, evidence, and policy:

РIn two blog postings in July, Kirsty discusses the anti-RCT sentiment in the development field by highlighting a few myths about RCTs, and she gives a number of tips for presenting synthesised evidence.

РOn the IDS blog Stephan Whitfield reported back on the recent Science in Public conference.  Read about his highlights.

– My collaborator Ruth made us aware of a series of introductory training videos on systematic reviews that were recorded during the 2011 and 2013 Campbell Colloquiums. I haven’t watches them all yet, but they seem very useful.

On changing climate and climate change debates:

– Dennis Bray discusses the use of ‘projection’ and ‘prediction’ by climate scientists; he compares 2009 and 2013 surveys.

– Martin Mahony highlights the argument of his paper in Geoforum, ‘Boundary spaces: Science, politics and the epistemic geographies of climate change in Copenhagen 2009‘.

– The website of the ESRC-funded climate change leadership fellowship holds various useful resources related to the project called Transitions in practice: Climate change and everyday life.

– The Past Global Changes project published their work on reconstructing Africa’s climate history.

– In the blog posting ‘The role of climate on African stone age technology‘, Kambiz Kamrani discusses an article published in Nature Communications in ¬†May that indicates the authors’ observations that very abrupt changes in rainfall in South Africa between 40 000 and 80 000¬†years ago, correlated with the development of new technologies. Wetter periods saw, for example, the making of tools from stone and bone, whilst drier climate correlated with the end of certain stone tool industries.

Water footprints at Nokeng

Systematically reviewing knowledge about climate change and water (guest post)

In this guest posting, Dr Ruth Stewart, a collaborator on this research project, writes about why we are using a systematic review methodology in the first phase of our research project, and explains what exactly a systematic review is. Ruth is a research fellow at the Centre for Anthropological Research at the University of Johannesburg, where she co-directs the Collaboration for Environmental Evidence Johannesburg Centre, and she is a senior research officer at the EPPI-Centre of the Institute of Education at the University of London. (Photo: Ruth and Carina making ready for World Cup action in 2010 Рown photo)

Me & Ruth at Royal Bafokeng

Part of the work of this Thuthuka research project is to review the science on climate change and water in South Africa. These reviews won‚Äôt simply be literature reviews though ‚Äď they are using systematic review methods. If you‚Äôre not sure what this means, I‚Äôll try and explain a bit more below.

Systematic reviews are essentially large pieces of ‚Äėsecondary‚Äô research. To conduct a review, you need to search out, collect, read and combine all the available relevant research on a given topic in order to provide ‚Äėthe answer‚Äô to a question of importance (Moyniha 2004).¬†That question might be an exploratory, theoretical one, in which case you would seek out conceptual research, or it might be one on the effectiveness of an intervention, in which case you would seek out impact evaluations. Systematic reviews typically take a team of two-to-four people around a year to complete. They require specialist methodological skills and topic expertise. The review process is laborious, and typically results in a long and detailed report for the purposes of completeness and transparency. Reviews often begin by identifying many thousands of potentially relevant references, which are then filtered down by relevance and quality to include only the good quality pertinent research.

You might ask whether all this effort is worthwhile when more traditional literature reviews are so much simpler and primary research seems more ‚Äėcutting edge‚Äô. But systematic reviews have been proposed as a means to avoid research sitting on a shelf unread, and instead contributing to understanding issues and finding solutions to the world‚Äôs problems, and enabling decision-makers to access the best available research evidence to inform their decisions. The suggestion is that, if you want your research to make a difference, then you need to engage with systematic reviews, even if you do not conduct them yourself.

For some people systematic reviews are synonymous with randomised controlled trials and ‚Äėpositivist‚Äô knowledge, and indeed this has been their history, but the methodology is simply one that can be applied to a wide variety of evidence. As suggested by the name ‚Äėsystematic review‚Äô, in order to reach the final synthesised findings of the available evidence-base we must simply follow a logical process. This includes the stages employed in most research: establishing your research question and conceptual framework, collecting your data, analysing it, reflecting on the strengths and weaknesses of your methods, and drawing out your results and conclusions. Each step is set out in advance and described in detail in a protocol to ensure transparency and instil trust in your reviews findings.

Whilst relatively new in environmental sciences, this approach is standard practice in medicine, health promotion and some areas of social policy, where policy-decisions are not made and new research not commissioned without first understanding the combined findings of the best-quality and most relevant research evidence as reported in a systematic review (see the Cochrane Collaboration and the Campbell Collaboration).

Reflecting on the use of evidence in health-care decision-making, Pullin and Knight (2009)¬†have noted that “environmental management has, up until now, had no formal shared evidence-base of this kind.” In the last ten years, Andrew Pullin and colleagues at the Centre for Evidence-Based Conservation at Bangor University, UK, have led an emerging paradigm shift towards environmental decision-making based on the systematic collation of rigorous evidence. This shift was formally reflected in the recent establishment of the Collaboration for Environmental Evidence (CEE).

Earlier this year the Centre for Anthropological Research at the University of Johannesburg agreed to host CEE‚Äôs first regional centre ‚Äď CEE Johannesburg. The Johannesburg Centre includes a team of experienced systematic reviewers who have been using this methodology in health, education and development for many years (for example, see Van Rooyen et al (2013) on¬†what a systematic review methodology for development means). We are now working to promote the approach throughout the southern African region.

Carina‚Äôs and colleagues‚Äô research on climate change knowledge in South Africa will be using the principles of systematic reviews to understand different shades of evidence on climate change, including reviewing both ‚Äėscience‚Äô knowledge and local environmental knowledges. In doing so, they will provide the first structured transparent overview of evidence on climate change across the region. I, for one, am looking forward to reading these reviews.

List of references

Moynihan R 2004 Evaluating health services: A reporter covers the science of research synthesis. New York: Milbank Memorial Fund

Pullin AS & Knight TM 2009 Doing more good than harm ‚Äď building an evidence-base for conservation and environmental management. Biological Conservation¬†142(5): 931-934

Van Rooyen C, Stewart S & de Wet T 2013 Systematic review methodology for development: An example from micro-finance. Africanus 43(1): 65-77