community education leadership rural sociology

Remote engagement

Karsten Henriksen has held education leadership positions in several communities in rural and remote northern Canada, most recently Nunavat Arctic College and at Lambton College. There he has specialised in aligning programmes with the needs of communities. We talk about growing up in Vancouver, sociology, remote communities, storytelling, and indigenising curriculum and self-determination.

Was I really a person who deserved to be there?

Aligning programmes with the needs of communities

Complexity of challenges

Authentic relationships with rural and remote communities

Being authentic means focusing entirely on relationship – everything else will come from that.

Sustainable: We are stewards of the world in which we live. Our actions today will impact future generations – and we will be judged by that.

Activist: Facilitate improvements

Superpower: Lessons learned from others. Never ask someone to do something you are not prepared to do yourself. Being authentic.

Motivation: The challenge of the day – making life better for that one student. Creating an environment where people feel they belong.

Advice: Be kind to one another – think about global society and coming together collectively.

education Inequality sociology values

Transforming education

Vaneeta D’Andrea is Professor Emerita, University of the Arts London. An edcuator and sociologist, Vaneeta literally wrote the book on improving teaching and learning.   Vaneeta has a belief in the role of values so we talk about where those came from, and how that has influenced her career including what she describes as the disconnect in education.

The obligation to the other people we share the world with.

Opinions are valid, but that’s not evidence in my class.

Challenge of how to make people consider lives of other people more seriously

Sustainable: try to act in ways that will sustain the planet.    We’re seeing the impact of a non-sustainable world on the current generations.

Success: funding for research what it means to be a “western academic” – the role of affirmative feedback.

Superpower:  Experience.  47 years of experience in higher education.

Activist: Yes.  I won in 1972 a sex discrimination case against my employer.  It was a precedent that allowed other people to make claims.

I don’t see (activsim and teaching) as mutually exclusive.  I don’t have an agenda about my activism in my teaching, I just try to model what I consider to be good human behaviours and hope that people respect that.

It’s a question of what you accept as evidence.

Motivation: Opportunity to work with people and chance to facilitate their learning and my learning – the opportunity to learn something every single day of my life.  Being a learner and helping other people learn.

We don’t have a tendency to be able to abstract – we’re very concrete thinkers – we have to have something concrete in front of us, we have to see that this action affects this action, affects that action.   Unfortunately with issues around sustainability, you can’t see immediately the impact of that one decision, say to recycle that piece of glass. And you can’t make the leap of that to the climate problem. So when scientists say they can see this relationship, people feel threatened by that – because they think “well I don’t see it”, what are these smart guys trying to do, and then there’s this resistance to the smart guys because we can’t see the relationship, we can’t go there.   Questions around sustainable practice are really challenging because of that level of abstraction that’s required.

Challenge: More of these projects learn something everyday.   Helping institutions reconceptualise their learning and the way that they function – and bringing a sociological perspective to that.

If you slow down you will stop.

Miracle:  Progressive governments to make the lives of more people better.




Social movements to change the world

Andrew Szasz

It will take major generational shifts rather than individual consumer choice.

Prof Andrew Szasz is a thought leader in environmental sociology. Professor and Chair in Sociology at UC Santa Cruz, he has written Shopping Our Way to Safety and EcoPopulism: Toxic Waste and the Movement for Environmental Justice.

We begin this conversation with his coming to America after starting his life in Hungary. Whether the streets were paved with gold, it wasn’t long before he was engaged in student social activism…

Talking points

I went to very first earth day…my vision of what to fight for in terms of improving American society, changed from anti-war and social poverty, justice issues to encompass a more environmental focus as well.

I didn’t grow up with nature – my parents were much more comfortable in a coffee house than the great outdoors…I didn’t connect the environment with the troubles in society until that (first Earth) day

Later, I travelled to the spectacular National Parks and really fell in love with the outdoors, that really cemented my interest – I became a sociologist and discovered a group of people, environmental sociologists.

I read an article that became the foundation document of environmental sociology, that said sociologists had neglected nature and were reproducing an exceptionalism that exists in the general culture that separates us from nature.

There was a general discussion (amongst my classmates) about what is the relationship between all this political activity, anti-war and so on, and how we are being prepared to work on individual psychological issues? A time of much broader questioning…so it wasn’t a great leap to what is this other dimension that we haven’t really considered yet?

I was drawn to sociology as one of the few places in academia where one could have a radical critique of society

I don’t think I ever wanted to become just an ecologist, a biological scientist, it was always about social change.

It was revelation to me, the race issues that were going on.

Moment where federal government was vastly expanding the regulatory state…the Clear Air Act, the Clean Water Act…the Environmental Protection Agency…a rapid expansion of regulatory apparatus putting controls on the private economy for the sake of worker’s health and for the general environment, for the sake of the population not being exposed to dirty air, dirty water. (But is was a) two directional movement, formation of regulation, and the mounting of counter attack, a backlash.

I’ve been interested in the role of non-social movement institutions, or entities who are not into climate denial but are quite powerful – who could then be the foundation of a climate change coalition – the insurance industry, the churches, and the military.

There’s a part of the national political elite that is in deep denial, and militantly so, and these are the same people who really like the whole military apparatus and are hawks in terms of foreign policy. But they don’t listen when the army, and the navy and the CIA come to them and say “hey, this is trouble and we’ve got to do something about it now”.

Climate change is a threat multiplier. Places in the world that are already having trouble feeding themselves, getting enough potable water – that’s going to get worse. There are going to be failed states, civil wars, potentially hundreds of millions of climate refugees. That’s a national security issue.

(you can’t build a wall against climate change) You can’t build a wall against anything.

(Green consumption isn’t going to get us there) Does green consuming have a politicising effect? Are your lightbulbs and your Prius materially decreasing the collective trouble. And then there’s the ideological or political effect, if you start thinking about your life in that way, is it radicalising? Do you broadly become an environmental activist? My argument is that it does the opposite (you’ve ticked that box), right, and there’s so many other things you have to worry about – your health, your family, ageing parents…and if you think you’ve protected your family by creating this green bubble, why do anything more? Other people have argued that it’s a first step, you go and make those changes and it sensitises you, next you’re going to the local farmers market and so on..

Consuming green has to do with consumer choice, you go to the market and there are pesticide apples and non-pesticide apples, but so much of our consumption is constrained. When you buy a house, you don’t design your own house, you go onto the housing market. The social geography is already in place and in many places in America this requires you to own your own car because public transportation is really weak and cities have sprawled out…so you can buy a car with higher mileage (but the big decisions are already taken). It will take major generational shifts rather than individual consumer choice.

There’s something going on in the younger generation that Bernie has revealed. We always knew that the younger generation was socially more progressive…we hadn’t realised that they may be also economically progressive.

(will it take a revolution?) I see some positive movements…(but) I think it will take a series of major catastrophes to focus the world’s attention, I hate to say that.

America’s a growth of irrational weird culture. Bizarre developments

(Superpower) Transition to non-polluting energy. We have to respect the desire of millions of poor people around the world for a stable society and lifestyle, and if you’re not going to kill off most humanity, seven billion people, then they’ve got feel secure and they’ve got to eat and you have to do that in a way that doesn’t cook the planet

(Success): Books I’ve written, and planning to write, try to foster a reassessment of climate change

(Activist) I do, First of all, I’m a teacher.

Every environmental sociology class I teach is divided half and half between making the students upset and depressed by telling them how awful their world is about to become and then spending the second half teaching them about the history of the environmental, worker and community based movements

I want my students to feel knowledgable but not hopeless.

People have in the past been able to clean up the cities, win the ten hour day, win the eight hour day, achieve safer workplaces…social movements really have had successes.

I want to leave my students feeling hopeful that collectively they can do something.

(Motivation) Understanding how things work and a sense of empathy for the rest of creation…and a sense of fighting for justice.

(Challenges) trying to change Sociology 1. Changing the textbooks, that’s the challenge we’re working on.

(Miracle): The disappearance of climate denial

psychology sociology

Interdisciplinary approaches to complex societal and global problems


The value of interdisciplinarity is that most of the complex societal and global problems that we are facing can not be resolved or even ameliorated from a single vantage point.

Professor Dan Stokols is Chancellor’s Professor Emeritus in University of California Irvine’s School of Social Ecology. We talk about the transdisciplinary, multi-level, and empathic nature of Social Ecology.

Talking points

Expose students to many vantage points, and teach them how to connect those different analytic perspectives

Three legged stool we were founding our programme on, first the ecological paradigm with all its conceptual and methodological implications – that is you look at problems from a very broad contextual perspective at different levels of analysis from gnomic to societal or global; the second leg is interdisciplinarity, we were committed to training students in an explicitly interdisciplinary way – so that when they framed problems they would not embrace the orthodoxy of one particular field or one level of analysis, but they would be flexible and able to move across different levels and be receptive to different disciplinary points of view; and the third leg of the school was application to policy and community intervention – what today is called translation to practice, translating scientific knowledge into practical strategies to improve the world.

The value of interdisciplinarity is that most of the complex societal and global problems that we are facing can not be resolved or even ameliorated from a single vantage point. They are complex, they have multiple origins or causes, they manifest at different levels, from individual organisational levels to community and societal levels. So to tackle those kinds of problems, it is important for students, researchers, practitioners to bring a broad multi-level, cross-disciplinary perspective where they’re able to span and integrate a lot of different fields. Now, there are some problems in science and society that can be solved quite nicely by disciplinary specialisation…for example vaccine development…but the social ecology comes in when you can have a wonderful new technology developed by one field…but when it needs to be integrated into society you need a broader model for how to facilitate that.

If we want to cultivate a transdisciplinary orientation in a student or a scholar, there are certain values that underlie that orientation – for example inclusive, being tolerant of other perspectives, not rejecting things that are different or foreign to what you are used to things about. Also there are attitudes and beliefs. If people believe that it’s way too time intensive to do interdisciplinary work, and they can be more effective working individually on smaller and more focussed problems, then that’s an attitude that will make it difficult for them to thrive in a large cross-disciplinary team environment. Then there are behaviours that reflective of a transdisciplinary orientation – such as reading material outside your main field of training, or going to conferences outside your main field, or getting together often with colleagues from different fields to integrate and share ideas. Finally, there is a conceptual or analytic stance – how people frame problems. What we try to focus on in social ecology is how would we train a student to think systemically, to look at the multiple levels of a problem – to be able to traverse those and be adept at doing that. How would we train them to think ecologically, so that they see that a problem is science or society may have roots in biological processes, in material geographic properties, it may be an economic phenomena…in other words the roots of complex problems may lie in several different fields.

Wicked problems are vexing because there are no easy clear solutions to them.

One of the attributes of wicked problems is that they are so intertwined with other problems, in other words, you cant identify the core wicked problem, but it’s wicked because it cross penetrates other problems that are related to it. Rather than taking a reductionist approach to a wicked problem it seems that the only hope to getting a sense of the multiple roots and manifestations is thinking more broadly – it’s patterns of wickedness, the ways in which different problems are synergistic that becomes vexing.

Climate change is pretty wicked…I don’t know whether the behavioural potential is sufficient to get us out of this predicament

Psychology in an age of crisis.

We’re going to need behavioural and social innovation for greater sophistication.

As humans we haven’t been very good at curbing some of those destructive impulses.

People get overwhelmed by the enormity of the environmental and social problems we’re facing. They see not only occasional references to these things, but through the internet and multimedia they’re seeing tsunamis and the terrible destruction that they can cause, real time. They’re seeing terrorism, and the aftermath of terrorism, and war and brutality, we’ve become so immersed in media coverage of these problems that it’s easy to become overwhelmed and feel that there’s nothing an individual can to try to be more sustainable, to try to promote civility…a learned helplessness in thinking about global problems.

We are in an age of crisis and psychology is important in trying to understand what are the bases for people’s tendency to give up on these problems, and how can we reverse those tendencies and get people more engaged in a collective active effort to stem those problems?

There’s a certain amount of defensive neglecting – trying to get problems such as climate change out of our awareness because they are just too disconcerting to think about them.

Whether we can reach Anthropocene 2.0 and pull that off, is anybody’s question.

We’re all in this together, no matter what area of the globe we live, but humans haven’t proven themselves to be very effective at political cooperation across borders. Our social limitations are just as important to address as our technological limitations.

Slow collapse suggests processes are happening so gradually, an almost invisible way, and yet there are tipping points where processes accelerate very rapidly

Social ecology in the curriculum – a missing systemic view of the world, we need to broaden the curricula. we need students to think broadly about the environment, and the way that different phenomena are interrelated, rather than encouraged too early to pursue a narrow curricula box.

We need to enable students to think in more innovative and broad ways about the world around us.

Social problems…high school students should be exposed to some of the underpinnings of violence – racism, poverty…

People in the top 1% of income bracket – global change may not seem as threatening. They may feel that they are insulated from it – they can always go to higher ground, or more luxurious ground, buy the water the need. But in fact, we’re all so interconnected that it’s really a mirage. A mirage for affluent people to think that way. The whole infrastructure is something they’re dependent on and if that collapses, they’re just as vulnerable. Certainly the poor are more vulnerable, they don’t have the buffers of income and affluence, but ultimately even the 1% need to take into account the protection of the earth’s ecosystems and equality.

Sustainability: many different definitions…one definition concerns preservation of resources for future generations so that the current generation doesn’t over consume…a quantitative assessment of the resources we have against global footprint of the current generation. Other definitions embrace the idea of equity and equability – sustainability for whom? for which groups? what’s being sustained? Many definitions prioritise the idea that sustainability preserves and takes care of the most vulnerable in society, whether that be be women, or people living in poverty, or minority groups often suffering from prejudice. So a combination of resource management and fairness, distributive justice and fairness.

(Intergenerational equity) a kind of visioning process, whereby imagined or projected needs of that population, those future generations are brought to the table.

As our world population grows fairly soon at 10 or 11 billion people, what would it feel to be living on a hotter, drier planet with so many more mouths to feed? How can we crack some of those challenges. So in some ways, our decisions need to be made as if we are already there. How would those more severe constraints shape our decisions?

I’m at times an optimist, at other times I’m less optimistic when I see the capacity of people to hurt each other. That bothers me because the climate change is going to require cooperation, some altruism. It’s going to require empathy. I would like to see more of that in the world.

We have to get our social and behavioural house in order before before we have a prayer of effectively tackling the environmental and technological problems we’re facing today.

(Success?) I really value my teaching. I value my research too, but when I see students in my classroom getting excited about ideas, and they leave a course wanting to do some good things in the world – that for me is a momentum for changing the world.

(Activist?) There are ways that I have been activist, in working to translate some of the research that I’ve done into guidelines for improved policy, public health. As far as environmental movements or at the frontlines of those, I haven’t been as active that way, but I’ve tried to be at the interface of research and scholarship, and the translation of some that into strategies that might improve public health, or urban design or environmental management

(Motivation?) Joy in my family. building a non-traditional interdisciplinary unit. Thinking freely.

(Challenges?) Working on a book on principles of social ecological analysis. Continuing my research into understanding the circumstances that enable cross-disciplinary teams to work effectively together to create integrate knowledge, to create transdisciplinary innovations that have a positive effect on society.

(Miracle?) I’d love to see major illnesses cured. Effects of global climate change reversed. I’d like to see more peace in the world, and less conflict, war and posturing in ways that have potential to create havoc.

(Advice?) If we to have any hope of resolving some of the problems we’ve been talking about at global level, it’s going to require individuals thinking broadly, acting cooperatively with each other, giving each other the benefit of the doubt – rather than being too judgemental or quick to criticise – I do think that so many of our problems are rooted in this proclivity for conflict and competition. So think as broadly as possible, give fellow humans the benefit of the doubt – everyone’s having a challenging existential existence, trying to get through their day so if we could all support each other that would be very valuable.

This Sustainable Lens is from a series of conversations at University California Irvine. Sam’s visit was supported by the Newkirk Center for Science and Society, and coincided with Limits 2015.

design sociology systems

Socially strategic sustainable

Merlina Missimer

Merlina Missimer is a researcher in the department of Strategic Sustainable Development at Blekinge Institute of Technology in Karlskrona, Sweden. She is exploring the social side of the Framework for Strategic Sustainable Development.

Talking points

What does the world need from us to make sustainability happen?

We need to find a way out, and depression is not the most helpful thing we can teach

Rather than convincing people of what’s right, we create positive examples of what’s possible in a sustainable world.

Considering sustainability with a systems lens to make sure we don’t address one thing but create negative consequences somewhere else…this has been clearly done on an ecological basis, but for social we had gone straight to the individual…what would it look like if we took a systems perspective to the social side?

People are not subject to systematic barrier to integrity (physical wellness), influence (the individual is able to influence the system), competence (ability to learn), impartiality (being treated equally), meaning (clear purpose).

Systematic barriers are ingrained in how we designed the system

Sustainability principles create a space for people to meet their needs

Asking bigger and better questions. Does this product even exist in a sustainable society? Those are the kinds of questions we need people to ask.

We don’t necessarily have to have the answers, but the more people we have to ask questions in that way, the better we will be going in the direction of a sustainable society. If we don’t ask those questions, we’ll never get there.

It’s the giant systems that we currently have for production that are really hard to change

Aha moment…there’s a framework, an intellectual structure around of these things that are interrelated. Without that structure we’d be going crazy because there’s just too many things to think about.

(Activist?) I don’t consider myself any of the labels. I’m actively working. Would I choose academia if I thought it was imperative to take a neutral stance? No.

(Miracle?) People woken to face the fact that we have somehow managed to build systems that are not only inherently unsustainable, but don’t actually achieve what we want to achieve – and equipped with a desire to do something about it.

(Advice?) If you haven’t started asking yourself what we’re doing, then start asking.

This conversation is one of a series of four recorded at Blekinge Institute of Technology Department of Strategic Sustainable Development in September 2014.


Collective societies

Michelle Dawson

Far too often problems are individualised, young people are told that to succeed they have to do so at the expense of others – “to get ahead you have to stomp on others” (yet) we know we are far stronger when we act collectively


Dr Marcelle Dawson is a Senior Lecturer in Sociology at the University of Otago.   Her research focusses on the study of social movements, activism and popular protest.   We discuss her work on popular resistance against privatisation of water in South Africa.

In June 2014 Marcelle is co-directing the Otago Foreign Policy School, the theme of which is ‘Global Resource Scarcity: Catalyst for Conflict or Collaboration’. (


Talking points:

The interface between people and society

Society is based on notion of collective benefits

Being a resource abundant nation can be a blessing and a curse

Ask questions about allocations of resources,





Societal tensions

Katharine Legun

Environmental/economic tension is rising and this overlaps with questions of social equity – who is benefiting from extraction and who is suffering ills from that?

Dr Katharine Legun is an environmental sociologist in Otago University’s Department of Sociology, Gender and Social Work.    She is interested in the relationship between the economy, social organization, and the environment.

Talking points:

Stretched out commodity chains have separated the consumer from the environment.

Food is an essential resource that goes beyond nutritional aspects – food politics is concerned with social security and your place in the world.

I believe in the power of conversation and political dialogue – this enables democratic processes

Economy, environment and society are not actually separate, but separated in institutional practices.

Resources: Dunedin free university

Shane’s number of the week: 2%.  Global warming will cut crop harvests by 2% each decade (more>>>).
Sam’s joined-up-thinking:  Jon Kolko describes the empowering role of teaching entrepreneurial hustle – the idea that you can actively cause things to happen rather than passively have things happen to you (more>>>).