Dr Jim Scown
Lecturer in Environmental Humanities
My work centres on the relationships between people, culture and the environment from 1800 to the present, with special interests in environmental change, imperialism, the natural sciences, and the relationships between science and wider aspects of culture, especially literature. My research expertise is in the field of Environmental Humanities and on the natural and cultural histories of soils through the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. I have collaborated with the UK Soil Association and worked as a Senior Researcher on the transition to an agroecological food system at the Food, Farming and Countryside Commission, where I am now an advisor. I have shared my research on BBC Radio 3 as a BBC New Generation Thinker, a scheme jointly run by the Arts and Humanities Research Council and the BBC, which gives researchers the chance to develop programmes for BBC radio.
I am interested in the relationships between environmental change, the sciences and wider aspects of culture, especially literature, in the context of our ecological and climate emergencies. I find transdisciplinary research that brings the arts, humanities and sciences together to be the most rewarding. I have worked on and continue to pursue research and education projects with scholars from different disciplines, including synthetic biology, soil ecology and archaeology, and with people working largely outside the university, including farmers and artists.
My current research is on the links between soils and understandings of nature, place and belonging, from 1800 to the present. I am interested in the rich life soils hold (including the stories and ideas that give soils their diverse lives in history and culture), how the queerness and radical alterity of soils challenges our understanding of the world and our place in it, and soils as sites of slow violence – violence that is gradual, attritional, and often ignored or out of sight. I am curious about how this conception of violence can help us better understand and address the harmful impacts of imperial ways of living, such as plantation and chemical agriculture, on different soils, ecosystems and communities through time.
My doctoral research examined soils in science and literature of the mid-nineteenth century. I am currently devloping my PhD research in my first book, entitled Dirty Realism: Soils and Science in Gaskell, Dickens and Eliot. I argue that novels by Elizabeth Gaskell, Charles Dickens and George Eliot, in dialogue with the emerging sciences of agriculture and sanitation, engage with various soils and their capacity to impact lives and environments. I draw on methods from the fields of Environmental Humanities, including new approaches to matter, agency and the more-than-human, and Literature and Science, with a focus on the play of scientific ideas and methods in imaginative fiction and on the place of literary devices such as metaphor and narrative in the creation of scientific knowledge.
Alongside this, I am working on a broader research project that examines the growing appreciation of soil and recognition of its importance in the contexts of health, agriculture, ecology and conservation. I am interested in what is at stake in this ‘return to soil’, as it is often alluded to. Whose ideas of soil are privileged? What forms of return (and to when) are we talking about? Who gets to ‘return’ and who is excluded? These questions bring together my historical and transdisciplinary research and my work with the Food, Farming and Countryside Commission on contemporary farming policy and practice and a just transition in food and agriculture.
I am working with Catherine Clarke, a literary agent at Felicity Bryan, on a book that grows out of this project, which will track broadly through the practical details of food and farming, the sciences and philosophies of nature, and the politics of migration and belonging, via a series of walks in the company of people who live and work closely with soils today, including farmers, scientists, artists and writers.
I am an advisor at the Food, Farming and Countryside Commission (FFCC), where I worked from 2021 to 2023 as a senior researcher. As co-lead of the FFCC’s farming transition work, I helped take forward the FFCC’s work on the transition to a socially and environmentally just agri-food system. In my FFCC role I have led a session on a just transition for food and farming at the Oxford Real Farming Conference and spoken at Groundswell regenerative agriculture festival. I have also contributed to workshops and calls for evidence on farming and land use policy hosted by bodies such as Defra and the Met Office. I come to this work through my historical research and the principles of agroecology.
An example of this strand of my research can be read here, in a special issue of Mother Earth, written to mark the 75th anniversary of the Soil Association in 2021. This project (funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council’s South, West and Wales Doctoral Training Partnership as a doctoral training placement) developed from a series of interviews with doctors, writers, musicians, farmers, growers and gardeners on what soils mean to them.
I have held postdoctoral positions at Cardiff University, notably on the Wellcome-funded ‘Covid Future Narratives’ project, with Professors Martin Willis and Keir Waddington and the Cardiff ScienceHumanities Initiative. The project began with a question – how is coronavirus and the pandemic it has generated influencing the ways we imagine the future? It involved collecting and analysing narratives collected across a range of genres and media that focus on imagining a post-pandemic future from the start of the pandemic to the end of 2021. More on the project can be read here.
I am a member of the following research groups, networks and initiatives:
Anthropogenic Soils, University of Oslo, 2023-present www.hf.uio.no/ikos/english/research/projects/anthropogenic-soils/
Vcologies, Victorian Ecologies Transatlantic Research Network, 2020-present www.v-cologies.org
Southwest Agroecology Network, 2020-present www.sw-agroecology.net/
Soil Care Network, 2019-present www.soilcarenetwork.com
University of Bristol Centre for Environmental Humanities, 2018-present www.bristolenvironmentalhumanities.wordpress.com/members
Cardiff University ScienceHumanities Initiative, 2017-present www.cardiffsciencehumanities.org
External impact and engagement
I am a BBC New Generation Thinker and share my research regularly on BBC Radio 3. For example, on episodes of Free Thinking, I have linked George Eliot’s Middlemarch and Charles Dickens’s Bleak House to the challenges facing farmers today. Most recently I have examined organicist thought and German Romanticism in dialogue with the concerning resurgence of Blood and Soil politics in an edition of The Essay. Inspired by the turn to activism in the humanities, as well as a commitment to help the communities we work in and for, I am passionate about the importance of sharing our research with as broad a range of people as possible, especially in the contexts of a just transition that can address the harms and inequalities of climate and ecological breakdown.
Contribution to discipline
I am the early-career editor, alongside co-editors Martin Willis, Michelle Geric, Sarah Daw and Aidan Tynan, for the open access Journal of Literature and Science.
I teach on the Environmental Humanities BA on the University of Exeter’s Cornwall campus at Penryn. I am an Associate fellow of the Higher Education Academy
I taught on Cardiff University’s English Literature programme from 2018-2020. I have also worked on an educational outreach project with the University of Bristol, designing and co-leading workshops in local schools (Brunel Academy & Merchant’s Academy) with researchers from the School of Biological Sciences on ethical and environmental implications of contemporary soil science.
From 2013-2014 I taught English at the Hunan Institute of Engineering in China.
I grew up in Bude in North Cornwall, attending Budehaven Comprehensive school. I studied English Literature at Cardiff University from 2010-2013, helping to fund my studies by working as a lifeguard for the RNLI on the Bude beaches. This combination of skills and expertise allowed me to travel and work abroad. I worked as an English teacher at the Hunan Institute of Engineering in Xiangtan, China, travelled widely in South America, and found work lifeguarding on Clifton beach in Cape Town, South Africa, and Wainui beach in Gisborne, New Zealand.
I returned to Cardiff in 2016 to study for an MA in English Literature, which was generously part-funded by a Cardiff University Master's Excellence Scholarship. I was successful with an application to the AHRC South, West and Wales Doctoral Training Partnership for a doctoral studentship, which was jointly supervised by Professors Martin Willis (Cardiff University) and Ralph Pite (the University of Bristol). After completing my PhD in May 2021, I spent two years as a Senior Researcher at the Food, Farming and Countryside Commission, combining the role with two postdoctoral research fellowships at Cardiff University. The first in 2021 was as a research fellow on the Wellcome-funded Covid Future Narratives project as part of the Cardiff ScienceHumanities Initiative. The second in 2023 was an AHRC-funded South, West and Wales Doctoral Training Partnership postdoctoral fellowship.
I moved home to Cornwall and began working at HaSS Cornwall for the University of Exeter as Lecturer in Environmental History in 2023.