Conference Agenda

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Session Overview
30 SES 17 A: Symposium: The Use of Theory in Environmental and Sustainability Education Research
Friday, 25/Aug/2023:
3:30pm - 5:00pm

Session Chair: Greg Mannion
Session Chair: Greg Mannion
Location: Hetherington, 130 [Floor 1]

Capacity: 40 persons


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30. Environmental and Sustainability Education Research (ESER)

The Use of Theory in Environmental and Sustainability Education Research

Chair: Greg Mannion (University of Stirling)

Discussant: Greg Mannion (University of Stirling)

In her genealogy of the word ‘use,’ Sara Ahmed (2019) highlights the potential that is inherent in the term. It is ‘stubby, plain, workmanlike,’ but also radiates sturdy practicality in achieving something worthwhile (p. 5). While recognising the value of ‘blue sky’ or basic research ‘of’ or on education, which advances understanding without the expectation of its usefulness, in the case of environmental and sustainability education (ESE) research, there is typically an applied aim of advancing some aspect of ESE, or in other words of being ‘for’ education. Within this, there are many ways that educational research can ‘be of use,’ including through theory (Fine and Barreras 2001).

Ahmed suggests that the requirement to be useful, while often presented generally, tends to fall upon some more than others, often those considered most ‘useless.’ In the case of research, for example, does the responsibility of ‘useful’ ESE research and practice rest with some more than others, including those most affected by a lack of ESE action—people from countries already hard hit by climate change, or communities who have experienced decades or centuries of environmental and colonial injustice (Rickinson & McKenzie, 2021).

Ahmed (2019) also alerts us to the value of ‘queer uses’, or those that challenge how things are usually approached (p. 75); suggesting the value of research that is atypical, or against the grain of usual ways of doing things. Another point is to beware of use as a technique of power, such as ESE research which keeps us busy, but maintains or even perpetuates the status quo. In doing seemingly ‘useful’ research through different kinds of research partnerships, we also risk becoming part of the structures that support education that is less than it can be for people and planet. And perhaps our research too often works with a limited view of what can or needs to be changed, not questioning enough, the forms or procedures of education (Ball, 2020).

In this symposium, we consider whether and how theory can or should be ‘useful’ in and as ESE research. Theoretical and conceptual work, whether standing alone or in conjunction with empirical data, has been a long standing aspect of ESE research, and research more broadly. It has been advocated as something that can allow us to ‘think without a bannister’ (Arendt, 1975) when used to peel back the layers of assumptions that lock us into particular ways of life harmful to ourselves or others. On the other hand, unconscious theory is always in use, such as in populist theories (the state is corrupt and wants to take away individual freedom), propagandist theory (climate change is a hoax). Theory is in use all the time, shaping how we know and what we do. Surfacing theories in use is typically considered an important part of a critical education, and can be enabled by the mobilisation of alternative theories and ways of thinking and being (McKenzie, 2009).

In addition, the recognition of the implicitness of theory in practice and vice versa, means extending understandings of theories as beyond cognition to also material and lived. Theory not only has an epistemological aspect, but also an ontology, and an axiology. As a result, we can understand theory as socio-materially productive of sense making and action, rather than only as thought (Mannion, 2020).

In this session, researchers will speak to how they are using theory in their ESE research and to what effects - what it enables or forecloses, how it is understood and practised, and with what possible implications for ESE research, policy, and practice.

Arendt, H. (1975/2018). Thinking without a bannister: Essays in understanding (Editor J. Kohn). Shocken Press.

Ball, S. J. (2020). The errors of redemptive sociology or giving up on hope and despair. British Journal of Sociology of Education, 41 (6), 870–880. doi:10.1080/01425692.2020.1755230.

Mannion, G. (2020). Re-assembling environmental and sustainability education. Environmental Education Research, 26 (9-10), 1353-1372.

McKenzie, M. (2009). Pedagogical transgression: Toward intersubjective agency and action. In M. McKenzie, P. Hart, H. Bai, & B. Jickling (Eds.), Fields of green: Restorying culture, environment, and education (pp. 211-224). Cresskill, NJ: Hampton Press.

Rickinson, M., & McKenzie, M. (2021). The research-policy relationship in environmental and sustainability education. Environmental Education Research, 27 (4), 465-479. DOI: 10.1080/13504622.2021.1895973.


Presentations of the Symposium


Literary Fiction as Theory in Climate Education

Sarah E. Truman (University of Melbourne)

This paper focuses on science fiction (including climate fiction and speculative fiction) as a theoretical practice for highlighting injustices in the present and imagining different futures. I think alongside science fiction texts with themes of climate change to highlight the affordances of engaging with literary theory and literature as a form of climate education. Considering the material effects of theory, and stories in creating worlds aligns with feminist literary scholars (Wynter & McKittrick, 2015), science and technology scholars (Bahng, 2017) and Indigenous climate fiction scholars (Whyte, 2018) who argue for the power of narrative in shaping experience, critiquing the present, and positing different futures. Through considering different worlds from our own, science fictions provide the opportunity for critical reflection on aspects of how our world currently is and where we might end up if we continue along certain paths Accordingly, this paper will (1) activate science fiction as a theoretical mode to think through real world news; and (2) think with climate fiction texts as a method to critique the world and posit different futures. Data sources will include literary fiction texts, and contemporary news, and discussion of a cross-curricular project with English teachers around Indigenous climate fiction in Australian secondary school. Through exemplifications of climate fiction as both a method of reading, and form of text in English literary education, the paper will demonstrate how English literary education as an important interdisciplinary site for reimaging social and environmental futures in times of ongoing climate and technological crises globally.


Bahng, A. (2017). Plasmodial Improprieties: Octavia E. Butler, Slime Molds, and Imagining a Femi-Queer Commons. In C. Cipolla, K. Gupta, A. Rubin, David, & A. Willey (Eds.). Queer feminist science studies : A reader .(pp. 310–325). University of Washington Press. McKittrick, K. (2015). Sylvia Wynter: On being human as praxis. Duke University Press. Whyte, K. P. (2018). Indigenous science (fiction) for the Anthropocene: Ancestral dystopias and fantasies of climate change crises. Environment & Planning E: Nature & Space, 1 (1/2), 224.

Fiction Science and the Role of Theory in ESE

Stefan Bengtsson (Uppsala University), Jonas Lysgaard (Aarhus University)

This presentation will conceptualize fiction science and the derived potential for the ESE field (Bengtsson & Lysgaard, 2023). Fiction science can be seen as a form of paying homage to realism in science, where we see the acknowledgement of realism as to open up again the facticity of how things are. Fiction science as a genre we would like to introduce plays with this openness of facticity, as acknowledged in the scientific tradition to scepticism, in order to play with potential futures and pasts that can be seen to be partially informed by generally perceived truth(s) and partially informed by fiction, where do not yet/any longer know if that fiction is turning out to be a “truth”. We consider fiction science to engage with the challenges to human exceptionalism that the Anthropocene can be interpreted to impose on us. This rests on the acknowledgement that an empirically founded experience of the world in the “present” focusing on the human senses and self-conception is out of tune with the strange times we live in (Bengtsson & Lysgaard, 2022). To put it simply, we are increasingly becoming aware that the projected facticity of our understanding of ourselves and the world is lacking in “truthiness”, and that what is and has been is apparently different than we thought (Saari & Mullen, 2020). Fiction science relates, in this sense, to the possibility of things existing in the past, present and future at the same time (Bengtsson & Lysgaard, 2023). Fiction science taps into an openness or the intervention of a past and future that we as humans do not have access to. The fictive or imaginative aspects of fiction science can not be “contained” to a imagined and non-factual future or past but rather have a Schrödinger's cat state where the future is open and the fictive aspect of its prediction can turn out to be a seemingly “fact” in the future (cf. Harman, 2012). In our presentation we will engage with the question of what fiction science might mean for the conception of theory in ESE research as well its delineation from data- or practice-driven research.


Bengtsson, S., & Lysgaard, J. (2023). Fiction science: Substance E as technological intervention from a future. In B. Baker, A. Saari, A. Prasad, & L. Wang (Eds.), Flashpoint Epistemology - Education in the Age of Interconnection and Complexity: Routledge. Bengtsson, S., & Lysgaard, J. A. (2022). Irony and environmental education: on the ultimate question of environmental education, the universe and everything. Environmental Education Research, 1-16. doi:10.1080/13504622.2022.2080809 Harman, G. (2012). Weird realism: Lovecraft and philosophy: ZERO books. Saari, A., & Mullen, J. (2020). Dark places: environmental education research in a world of hyperobjects. Environmental Education Research, 26.

Perturbing the Theory/Practice Divide in Environmental Education Research to Arrive at Situations Thinking

David Clarke (University of Edinburgh), Jamie McPhie (University of Cumbria)

With this presentation we share some fictionalised stories of the (non) use of theory in environmental education research. We think with contemporary theories of mind and the new materialisms to explore when and where the theory/practice divide has broken down for us as we have gone about environmental education (research). We discuss relatively ordinary events: teaching, presenting at a conference, and writing for publication to demonstrate how thinking and practice never exist independently of each other. We consider how thinking/practices make some practices/thoughts possible, and others impossible. We present three stories as partially fictionalised accounts to ask both where and when thinking occurs: We talk with students and trees on the Cairngorms Plateau; we are heckled by an audience member as we present a paper, and we receive reviews on a submitted manuscript, where the reviewer inquires, seemingly earnestly, if we’d be concerned about the presence of wolves when camping, given our philosophical orientation. These stories are indicative of Derrida’s often misunderstood/misquoted statement, ‘There is nothing outside text’, often mistaken for ‘there is no reality outside of language’. When we might suggest, for instance, that ‘nature’ is a cultural construction, we are not stating that the wolves on the ridge above your tent aren’t ‘real’, in some way. What we are saying is that the concept or idea of nature is entirely invented, and as such can perform (or be practised) in myriad ways. The concept ‘wolf’ is just as illusory and performs differently for different people and cultures over time. It can still bite you, whatever ‘it’ is, regardless of how it is conceived. Of course, postmodernists aren’t trying to deny the existence of reality, ‘they are talking about whether meaning can be derived from observation of the real world’ (Scott, 1996). This well-known ‘debate’ helps frame our thinking with these stories as we think with new theories of mind and the material turn to think social construction as itself materially real. With each story, we speculate on the material ‘when’ and ‘where’ of the thinking at hand to demonstrate thinking’s already environ(mental) nature. This, and the other examples we present, helps to demonstrate how thoughts occur as environments, rather than occurring over and against them. This immanent take reveals situations thinking, as events, and demonstrates a missing territory of reality (and research), in that it literally matters what theories we think with, or ‘use’, in environmental education research.


Scott, J. (1996). Postmodern Gravity Deconstructed, Slyly. New York Times. Published: May 18, 1996 Retrieved from:

The Uses of Cross-disciplinary Reading: Geographic and Social Theory in Education Policy Research

Marcia McKenzie (University of Melbourne)

This presentation will discuss trajectories of social and geographic theory that have prompted new angles of ESE research, namely: policy mobilities and network studies, affect theory, and infrastructure studies. Each will be introduced with some of the types of interconnected analyses they have prompted in my, with colleagues, recent empirical research and their potential usefulness for ESE. Policy mobilities theory developed out of geography during the 2010’s shaped by the mobility turn in the social sciences. Attention is given to flows and networks of ideas, people, technologies, and how they shape social policy (Peck & Theodore, 2012). It includes consideration of specific locations and their influence on the mobilities of policy, such as local social and political contexts, physical materialities, or other specifics of territory (Robinson, 2015). This has enabled analyses on how ESE policy moves (or not) across intergovernmental, national, and subnational settings, as well on the roles of policy actors and networks in the global mobilities of, for example, ESD, EE, and climate change education. Also drawn from geographical scholarship, as well as anthropology and literary studies, critical materialist theories of affect have been helpful for thinking through drivers of the relative mobilities of ESE policy (e.g. Anderson, 2014). This includes an understanding of affect as socially mediated and circulated, including in relation to other material and nonlinguistic considerations, and as part of what shapes the priorities of policy making on ESE. Finally, infrastructure studies is an interdisciplinary field which considers the social shaping and impact of physical ‘things’ or ‘systems,’ such as school buildings and associated digital, water, waste, and energy infrastructures. As Appel and colleagues (2018) suggest, attention to the materiality of infrastructure indicates how it is central to our ‘sensory, somatic, and affective’ habitation of the world (p. 25). Infrastructures are part of what shapes the mobilities of education policy and also have their own environmental and climate costs (such as the high emissions of the increasing digital platformisation of education governance). These examples will be elaborated to show some ways that researchers can ‘use theory to think with their data (or use data to think with theory)’ (Youngblood Jackson & Mazzei, 2012, p. 2) in generative ways for ESE research, policy, and practice. It suggests that cross-disciplinary reading can be indispensable for making new connections and helping point to critical gaps in current ESE policy making and practice (McKenzie, Lewis, & Gulson, 2021).


Appel, H., Anand, N., & Gupta, A. (2018). Introduction: Temporality, politics, and the promise of infrastructure. In N. Anand, A. Gupta, & H. Appel (Eds.), The promise of infrastructure. Duke University Press. Anderson, B. (2014). Encountering affect: Capacities, apparatuses, conditions. Burlington, VT: Ashgate. McKenzie, M., Lewis, S., & Gulson, K. (2021). Matters of (im)mobility: beyond fast conceptual and methodological readings in policy sociology, Critical Studies in Education, 62 (3), 394-410. doi: 10.1080/17508487.2021.1942942 Peck, J. & Theodore, N. (2012). Follow the policy: A distended case approach. Environment and Planning A, 44, 21–30. doi:10.1068/a44179. Robinson, J. (2015). ‘Arriving at’ urban policies: The topological spaces of urban policy mobility. International Journal of Urban and Regional Research, 39, 831–834. doi:10.1111/1468- 2427.12255 Youngblood Jackson, A., & Mazzei, L. (2012). Thinking with theory in qualitative research: Viewing data across multiple perspectives. Routledge.

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