Faculty of Social & Historical Sciences


Research Spotlight: Professor Hannah Knox

29 June 2023

Meet Hannah Knox, Professor of Anthropology at UCL’s Department of Anthropology. Her 2.5 year ESRC funded project ‘REGeneration: An Ethnographic Study of Energy, Data and Social Change in Net-Zero Britain’ will begin in October. Find out more about Hannah's research.

Professor Hannah Knox

What is your role and what does it involve?

I’m a Professor of Anthropology here at UCL and mainly teach on our masters programme in digital anthropology, although I also work a lot on issues to do with climate change, energy and the Anthropocene too. I’m also one of the editors of an anthropology journal the Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute.

What do you find most interesting or enjoyable about your work?

I think there are many things I really like about my work. The first is being surrounded by people who are passionate about what they do, and who I can learn so much from every day. By this I mean both colleagues but also students. I sometimes just wish there were more time to just slow down and appreciate this. The second is the freedom to think and explore questions that are counterintuitive, novel and that cut through the normal way that things are talked about in the public domain.  I mainly do ‘anthropology at home’ which means critically engaging with the concepts, terms and ideas that surround us all the time, and stepping back and trying to find other ways in to analysing and understanding social life. Another thing I really enjoy is exploring what anthropologists sometimes call “other worlds”. I think that being an anthropologist is an extremely privileged role because it allows you to live both in the world of academia and step foot in other social worlds and spaces and live there for a while too. Right now I am spending the summer working with the department for levelling up housing and communities – not as an ethnographer but as a secondee – but again this opportunity to step out of one’s normal life for a while and into another space, is an enormous privilege.

Tell us about your research

My research mainly looks at how experts make sense of the world, and how this knowledge comes to shape the places that we live in and the relationships we have. Most recently I have explored this in relation to climate change, in a project that looked at how climate science travelled into the corridors of council offices and the everyday work of people trying to shape the future of the city of Manchester in the UK. I was very interested in how something as complex as climate change, which is rendered legible through global systems of data collection, computer models and digital visualisations, moves in and through local politics and the everyday work of running and planning a city. How does data on climate change come to have meaning in this context? Who does it have meaning for? What does it convey and how is it bringing about a change in people’s practices (or not as the case may be)? This has opened up some very big questions about the relationship between expert methods, digital technologies, environmental relations and the framing of social problems, which I continue to pursue in my research.

What led you to pursue a research career in this field?

I am not sure it was a decision as much as a mix of luck and serindipity. I wasn’t sure I wanted to pursue an academic career when I finished my PhD, but a year after I submitted my thesis an amazing postdoc became available at Manchester University to work in an interdisciplinary research centre called the Centre for Research on Socio-Cultural Change. I was incredibly lucky to be offered a position at the centre which I ended up working at for the next ten years, alongside other anthropologists, sociologists, historians, media and cultural studies scholars, philosophers, accountants and organisation theorists. After 10 years working there it was clear that I was going to stick with academic research! But my experiences at the centre very much shaped the kind of research I do, which is always somewhat interdisciplinary, and in which I always seek to reach out of academic conversations and debates into other public intellectual and policy spaces.

What working achievement or initiative are you most proud of?

In the past few years I’ve been trying to work in a bit of a different kind of way, not only producing academic outputs like books and journal articles, but also working with people I’ve met through my fieldwork to explore other ways of presenting findings and making them have a life in the world. These have included a ‘hackathon’ event, an immersive walk about electricity, a podcast about everyday experiences of energy and climate, and most recently some new ways of visualising community energy using digital platforms. I’ve found it really rewarding working in this way, as it brings my research into conversation with other people outside the university who constantly help me pose new questions and gain new insights which also travel back into my academic work too.  

What's next on the research horizon for you?

I am just about to start a new research project which is looking at how imaginaries about what energy is, and what it does in terms of supporting and transforming society, might be changing as we shift from fossil fuels to renewables. I’ll be working in the UK for this project, looking at where renewables are opening up possibilities of reimagining places and reframing people’s relationships in those places in new ways. This is a very political landscape where people are not only thinking about the technicalities of power, but also trying to think about what the future of social life could and should look like. Our present day lives in cities were made out of the possibilities created by fossil fuels, and so I am interested in what effects of different kinds of energy sources might have on the way we think about how to organise ourselves and what we value and care about.

Can you share some interesting work that you read about recently?

I’ve just finished Ways of Being by the artist James Bridle, which I found to be a fascinating journey into many of the topics I spend my time thinking about. Reading it felt a bit like an after-seminar conversation in the pub – so many shared references to things I’ve been reading in the past few years, from Richard Powers’ novel The Overstory, to Karen Barad’s philosophical work, to the history of cybernetics. One of the many fascinating things I found out from this book is the way that plants actually move across the land in response to environmental changes. Who knew that if we just slow down our perception we can start to see plants walking, twisting and exploring their worlds!

What would it surprise people to know about you?

Having just celebrated my daughter’s 13th birthday this month, maybe it is my secret life as a birthday cake maker. Three times a year I let loose my pent up creativity to create themed birthday cakes. I’ve done a Gruffalo cake, an Octonauts cake, a swimming pool cake, a campsite cake, a treasure map cake, a microphone cake, and the obligatory fairy princess skirt cake and many others. The latest one was a macaron cake, which my 9 year old daughter thought up and helped me to make, so I think she might take over from me soon on the cake making front!


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