Kate Burningham is a Senior Lecturer in Sociology of the Environment; a joint appointment between the Department of Sociology and the Centre for Environmental Strategy (CES) at the University of Surrey. Her research interests focus on the social construction of environmental problems, public environmental knowledge, environmental inequalities and sustainable lifestyles. In this latest interview for the SRI Talks to Series we discussed with Kate her background in Sociology and environmental strategy. We then moved on to talk about her paper “Flood risk, vulnerability and environmental justice: evidence and evaluation of inequality in a UK context” http://epubs.surrey.ac.uk/15383/ which has attracted interest on our repository in light of the recent flooding in the U.K. Finally we asked Kate about her current projects and research, we thank Kate for her time and for giving us a valuable insight into her work.
1: Your work encompasses both sociology and environmental strategy . Can you tell us a bit about what attracted you to these disciplines and how you began cross-disciplinary research?
My background is in Sociology, and when I was an undergraduate environmental issues weren’t really considered part of the discipline. After completing a masters in Social Research Methods in the Dept of Sociology at Surrey (a course we still run today!) I got a research job working with Nigel Gilbert to provide a social impact assessment of proposed routes for a new road in the South of England. I had to learn about social impact assessment fast and at the same time found that some sociologists were beginning to draw attention to the important role the discipline can play in helping to understand the social causes and consequences of environmental issues. That research project turned into the basis for my PhD which explored how the impacts of roads were ‘socially constructed’ and engaged with debates current at that time about the appropriate way for sociologists to study the environment.
Since then my research has always taken a sociological approach to study issues of environment and sustainability, particularly in terms of how people experience and understand environmental issues and risks. I’ve been supported in this research by having a joint appointment between the Department of Sociology and The Centre for Environmental Strategy. That has enabled me to maintain a sociological perspective and methodological expertise while also staying up to date with current environmental concerns and priorities. Most of the research I have done has been on projects which are multi disciplinary, including geographers, psychologists and engineers as well as sociologists.
2: Your paper “Flood risk, vulnerability and environmental justice: evidence and evaluation of inequality in a UK context” investigates how floods can impact groups of people differently depending on their wealth, age or gender. Did these findings surprise you?
Not really. I’d been working on issues of environmental justice for a while and one of the things that is well established is that environmental risks and problems do not affect everyone equally- the poorest and most vulnerable in society are often those who are hardest hit, both in terms of being more likely to be affected and in terms of how they are affected. While that relationship is quite well researched for pollution it was interesting to explore the extent to which the risk and impact of flooding is also unequally experienced. This paper draws on several projects that Gordon Walker and I had worked on for the Environment Agency and it illustrates that how people are affected by the experience of flooding varies depending on their wealth, age and gender for example. Lots of factors come into play in informing how both the immediate impact of flooding and the long process of recovery affects people, including: the kinds of property and tenancy they have; whether they have insurance and financial resources to draw on; their physical frailty and their social relationships and responsibilities. For example infirm older people are more likely to be adversely affected by the cold, damp conditions caused by flooding and may also have characteristics which both increase their psychological vulnerability and compromise their ability to restore their homes after flooding (living alone, fewer financial resources, reduced social networks). They’re also over-represented amongst those who live in bungalows, ground floor flats and mobile homes, property types that tend to involve a greater degree of damage to possessions in the event of flooding.
3: Could you tell us about your latest research and projects
For the last three years I’ve been leading a project funded by DEFRA, ESRC and the Scottish Government http://www.sustainablelifestyles.ac.uk/projects/change-processes/elicit which explores how everyday practices (in terms of such things as transport use, shopping, food and energy use) change or remain stable as people move through the life transitions of becoming a parent and retiring. We’ve used a longitudinal methodology which follows individuals through these experiences, interviewing them and asking them to keep diaries & complete questionnaires at three different points in time. We have been focusing on how changes in everyday activities might make our participants’ lives more or less sustainable and in exploring the extent to which they might be open to interventions which encourage and support sustainable lifestyles at these points. This year we have a lot of work to do disseminating our project findings, most excitingly we are hosting an international conference at the University of Surrey in July on life course transitions as opportunities for sustainable lifestyles http://www.ias.surrey.ac.uk/workshops/lifecourse/, and also going to Edinburgh to share our findings with Scottish Government analysts and policy makers.