Mar 16 2021

Professor Katherine Brickell, Department of Geography, recently won a Times Higher Education (THE) Award in the category of Best Arts and Social Science Project for her Blood Bricks work. We recently caught up with Katherine to ask about this work as well as her two GCRF awards. 

1. Can you tell us a bit about yourself and your role in the Department of Geography?

My main role in the Department of Geography is as Director of the Geopolitics, Development, Security and Justice Research Group. Recently seven of us came together to co-edit The Handbook of Displacement (Palgrave, 2020), an endeavour which reflected the myriad ways we each look at this foremost contemporary issue.

2. You recently won a Times Higher Education (THE) Award in the category of Best Arts and Social Science Project for your Blood Bricks work. Can you tell us about the research involved on that project?

The team were honoured to receive this award. The “Research Project of the Year” is awarded to the individual or team at a UK HE institution for innovative arts, humanities or social sciences research that has a far-reaching impact and has caught, or has the potential to catch, the imagination of the public. The project was funded by the Economic and Social Research Council and Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office (FCDO). We really benefitted from working with professionals to engage public audiences and enhance the impact of the project, this included photographer Thomas Cristofoletti and the graphic designer studio Bison Bison.

We received encouraging feedback on the research which established climate change as a key driver of modern slavery in Cambodian brick kilns. One judge commented that the project had “found excellent ways of publicising its findings and means by which to draw political attention to them, including high-profile transnational media reporting and governmental briefings. Its impacts include pending legal action in the United Nations, and material made available locally for wage negotiations, legislative change and action on child labour.” We continue to take this interventionist work forward through a Crowd Justice campaign.

While the project ended in 2019 we continue to update our website and Tweet regularly.

3. You have two GCRF awards, can you tell us about the projects you are working on due to the fund?

At the current time, I am Principal Investigator of two Global Challenges Research Fund (GCRF) studies.  

The first (2019-2022) in Cambodia and India (Tamil Nadu) is taking a gendered lens to explore the relationship between climate resilience, credit-taking, and nutrition. Small-scale credit is exalted in mainstream development thinking as a key means of supporting women and their families in dealing with daily, ongoing, and often slow-onset climate disasters. Facing growing crises of agricultural productivity from droughts and floods, and taking primary responsibility for the nutritional wellbeing of their households, women are targeted as credit borrowers globally. Credit provisioning therefore speaks to the push for 'resilience' against climate disasters that is central to Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) 13, 'Take urgent action to combat climate change and its impacts', and which has serious implications for SDG 5 'Achieve gender equality and empower all women and girls' that prioritises the valuing and recognition of women's unpaid care and domestic work. The project probes at the issue of how to ensure that 'climate resilience' does not come at the cost of women's emotional and bodily depletion through processes of household nutrition provisioning. For this, I am coordinating an interdisciplinary team across geography, development studies, anthropology, economics, nutrition, and art. 

The second study, ReFashion (2020-2022) is focused on the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on the global garment industry. It is of huge importance not only to Cambodia’s economy, but also to its 1 million workers, 80% of whom are women. Many garment factories are interrupting production with the effect that 1/4 of workers have been dismissed or temporarily suspended. Formal social protection in the sector, though improving due to multi-stakeholder efforts, is weak and fragile. Mixed-method longitudinal research is tracking and amplifying the experiences and coping mechanisms of 200 women workers as they navigate the financial repercussions of the COVID-19 pandemic. The study focuses its policy attention on learning to ‘Build Back Better’ social protection to prevent and mitigate longer-term impacts of the pandemic and future risk events.

ReFashion - Thomas Cristofoletti

Photo credit to Thomas Cristofoletti.

4. Before winning your GCRF awards, you received Royal Holloway internal GCRF funding to help develop your research ideas – did this seed funding help with your GCRF applications?

The internal funding was paramount to the success of Blood Bricks and the dialogue it enabled us to build in Cambodia as a precursor to the GCRF Depleted by Debt? project. We were also able to undertake air particulate analysis and follow up interviews on the issue of garment off-cuts we found being burned in Cambodian brick kilns. We brought together our data on this, including from the internal GCRF fund, in an open access journal article called “Discardscapes of Fashion”.

5. One of your GCRF projects looks at the effect of Covid-19 on the garment industry, has the pandemic opened up new research opportunities in some ways?

Before moving to the University of Nottingham, My Co-I Dr Sabina Lawreniuk completed her Leverhulme Early Career Fellowship at RHUL in 2020 on inequality and activism in the Cambodian garment sector. Dovetailing with my own research on Cambodian gender relations, and that of our Cambodian project partner, the project came about through long-standing connections and was not new per se. However, the pandemic has underscored the importance of better understanding and taking action on unjust supply chains and the complex power relations invested in them. The most severe hardships presented by COVID-19 have fallen to workers, inhabiting the most vulnerable location in the global value chain. On this, we are newly working with Dr Lauren McCarthy, Co-Director of the Centre for Research into Sustainability (CRIS) at RHUL. The opportunity to do so has been a highlight of the study so far.

Both GCRF projects include field studies in Cambodia, has that been logistically challenging because of the pandemic and how have you overcome these problems?

It has been very difficult, with different challenges along the way. For the ‘Depleted by Debt?’ project, this was designed and funded pre-COVID 19 so we need to make continued fieldwork, contractual, and budgetary changes which represents a considerable amount of work. In terms of fieldwork specifically, we were unable to undertake any for a long period so had to think creatively. My colleagues in India suggested that we did a telephone survey in the Tamil Nadu villages rather than wait for a return to face-to-face fieldwork. Given the uncertainty of working in person, still today, this proved a really significant decision, to take the work forward virtually. It has given us timely insights into how villagers are coping with the livelihood and personal impacts of the pandemic, including debt-taking. The very low incidence of COVID-19 in Cambodia meant that we took a different decision and we waited until we could undertake the household survey in person in late 2020. For the ReFashion study meanwhile, we designed and submitted the grant application in the midst of the pandemic to be ‘COVID19 flexible’ so it has been progressing well as we understood the constraints we were up against (you can follow us on Twitter to keep up to date).

6. What is your favourite thing about working at Royal Holloway, in the Department of Geography?

The sense of collegiality and openness to interdisciplinary dialogue is my favourite thing at Royal Holloway; as is the inspiring nature of the research happening in the Department of Geography across human and physical geography.

7. How do you like to spend your free time outside of work?

I enjoy spending my time with friends and family, going swimming in my local lido, and gardening.