Genealogies of Geomorphological Techniques

  • Rachael Tily


The chapter is focused around an ethnographic study examining the development of experimental field and laboratory techniques employed by members of Oxford University’s Rock Breakdown Laboratory (OxRBL). Parallels are drawn with Latour’s end of millennium observation of a team of field scientists including a geomorphologist. While the strengths of Latour’s study are acknowledged, two missing elements in his analysis are identified: firstly, a lack of curiosity concerning the genealogies of techniques and, secondly, a sense of overdetermination that omits attention to the latency and excess in scientific practice. To address these pitfalls, this study employs semi-structured interviews and the analysis of historical and contemporary geomorphological texts to augment descriptions and trace links across several decades. This combined methodology enables a fine-grained and textured account. Not only does this do justice to the richness of qualitative data gathered during interviews and participant observation; it also enables an awareness of the presence of the past, and the sparks that connect forwards to the future, that are at work in a given experimental configuration.



Grateful thanks are due to those who participated in this study. Professor Heather Viles and members of OxRBL at the School of Geography and the Environment, University of Oxford, were exceptional in their generosity and willingness to accommodate repeated interviews and observations. Sincere thanks to Professor Andrew Goudie for offering such candid and thoughtful responses to interview questions. Additional thanks are due to the range of research participants, including fluvial geomorphologists and members of the British Society for Geomorphology, whose responses contributed to other sections of this research project not represented in this chapter.

Secondly, thanks are due to my doctoral supervisors, Professor Andrew Barry and Dr. Richard Powell. I am highly appreciative of their guidance and support throughout the doctorate.

Sincere thanks are due to the ESRC who generously supported this research with a 1 + 3 studentship (ES/I025472/1).

I was extremely grateful for the insightful comments and feedback received in response to a draft version of this paper presented at the workshop “Political Geology: Active Stratigraphies and the Making of Life” (University of Cambridge, 17 November 2017). Further thanks are due to the organisers of this event, and the editors of this book, Dr. Amy Donovan and Dr. Adam Bobbette, for their superb support through the submission process and helpful feedback on a draft version. However, any mistakes or omissions remain my own.


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© The Author(s) 2019

Authors and Affiliations

  • Rachael Tily
    • 1
  1. 1.University of OxfordOxfordUK

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