Narratives of Power

I recently gave a paper at the UHI Centre For Nordic Studies St Magnus Conference, held this year in Kirkwall. It was nice to get a chance to present to a home audience and not to have to worry about travelling and being away from home. It was also really nice to part of a panel with two of my supervisors, Dr Ragnhild Ljosland and Dr Michael Lange. I met Mike when he was in Orkney, living in Stromness and doing fieldwork for his PhD, subsequently published as a book The Norwegian Scots: An Anthropological Interpretation of Viking-Scottish Identity in the Orkney Islands, which has been so helpful in my own thinking about questions of identity in Orkney. This was the first time Mike had been back in Orkney since his fieldwork days, over ten years ago, and there have been a lot of changes, in Stromness in particular, during that time.

The title of my conference paper was ’Ebbing away?: Locating Narratives of Power in the Marine Environment’ and I told my audience a somewhat abridged version of the story of Marine Renewable Energy (MRE) in Orkney over that period since Mike was last here. I told them about the local grid connection issues, the fact that we generated 104% of our electricity needs last year (mainly from wind turbines) and that the inter-connecter to the Scottish Mainland is overheating and no-one wants to pay for a new one.

I told the sad story about the demise of both Pelamis and Aquamarine Power, wave developers who had previously been testing their devices at the European Marine Energy Centre’ s (EMEC) wave test site at Billiacroo – both falling victim to cashflow issues and lack of investment.IMG_2619


The test site at Billiacroo was empty when I drove Mike there to show him the substation built discreetly into the coastline, and the distant marker bouys marking out the area of sea once inhabited by sea snake and oyster (the local names given to the wave devices).


I also told the story of the Crown Estate leasing sites for wave and tidal development in 2010, the headline stories about a potential for 1.2 GW of electricity production by 2020 and the impact of those claims on an emerging technology. As more than one person in the MRE sector has said to me “it was like asking the Wright Brothers to build Concorde”.

The fact that only one of those sites is currently undergoing development and 5 were relinquished back to the Crown Estate in 2015 has led to what I have identified as ‘the narrative of disappointment’ in the story of MRE in Orkney. The narrative of disappointment characterises the lack of development as a failure of the technology, which explains the lack of investor confidence. It also highlights the ambiguous role of the Crown Estate in the development of MRE. The Crown Estate holds crown lands, and in this case the seabed needed for MRE developments, its remit being to maximise income from its assets – this income going to the UK treasury. The narrative of disappointment continues to inform ongoing debates about solutions to Orkney’s grid constraints and the possibility of a second inter-connector to mainland Scotland.

Dr Laura Watts has been doing ethnographic research on the MRE sector for many years and recently presented a paper addressing the grid situation in Orkney in response to the recently published report by UK National Infrastructure Commission entitled ‘Smart Power’. Through her fictional character – the Electric Nemesis – Watts expresses her frustration at the report:

TheElectric Nemesis SmartPower report reeks with hubris. It is filled with acts abandoning my electric kin here in Orkney. The government report describes a Future Power System with three components: interconnection, demand flexibility, and storage. It says, “these three infrastructure innovations have the potential to create a leaner, more efficient electricity system at the cutting edge of global technology”. And yet it never mentions that all three have already been created in Orkney. The ‘cutting edge of global electricity technology’ is alive and well at the island edge. (Laura Watts, 2016, The Electric Nemesis, p.4 )

Electric Nemesis image © Neil Ford (

Watts goes on to highlight the other factor in the political story, the contrasting narratives on renewable energy from Westminster and Holyrood, and how this has shaped the place of MRE within the wider policy discourse:

The Scottish government once called the seas around Orkney ‘the Saudi Arabia of marine power’–estimating that between half and all of Scotland’s electricity could be made from marine green Orkney energy. The UK government in London is still struggling to remember. Wave and tide energy are merely listed in the report’s glossary under ‘renewable energy’. The imagined Future Power System does not pay much attention to an entire new renewable energy industry that could generate the green, low carbon electricity it needs. (Ibid, p.9)

Watts sees the Orkney response to this lack of attention as an assertion of power:

The islands do not give their power away to a higher authority, like the government. Nor do they give in to despair and risk destruction. They take ownership of a world that kicks back at them with limits, prejudices, forgotten materials, and abandoned innovations. They make their own solutions in defiance of their abandonment. (Ibid 16)

One of the solutions  is the Orkney Surf ‘n’ Turf project, a scheme which received £1.5 million in funding from the Scottish Government’s Local Energy Challenge Fund and sees a partnership between Community Energy Scotland, EMEC and the Eday community wind turbine. The plan is to use electricity generated by the Community turbine and EMEC’s tidal test site at Fall of Warness off Eday, to produce hydrogen which will then be shipped to Kirkwall and used to power the Orkney North Isles ferries when they are tied up at the Pier overnight.

There is a lot at stake, Orkney is currently leading the way on MRE development globally, but the grid constraints threaten the work of EMEC, as developers looking to test larger devices and arrays look elsewhere.

The story of MRE in Orkney is only one of the narrative strands in the developing saga of modern Orkney, and my research is focusing on the particular narratives that are woven together in the story of Orkney’s marine environment.

As I think about the role of these narratives in relationships of power I am constantly aware of the global narratives about climate change which will shape the story of all our futures. As CO2 levels have now reached 400ppm for the first time in history and we are all, as I heard someone put it the other day, taking part in the first global experiment in breathing, we need to be aware of the way narratives of power have the potential to  lead us into hubris.


You can read the full Electric Nemesis paper on Laura Watts’  website

Bakhtin and Dialogism

My obsession with Mikhail Mikhailovich Bakhtin began when I was an undergraduate with the Open University. I was working my way slowly (if took me 7 years, including a year off to have my daughter) through a BA (Hons) in English Language and Literature, and one of the courses introduced Bakhtin’s ideas on the dialogical nature of language.


Mikhail Bakhtin 1920 image from Wikipedia

I was so inspired I rushed off and bought a copy of The Dialogic Imagination[1] which I proceeded to devour. It was the first time I allowed myself to actually write in a book (in pencil!) as I underlined passages and wrote my own responses in the margins – and so my dialogue with the work of this great Russian thinker began.

Born in 1895, Bakhtin’s life and work was inevitably shaped by the dramatic events of Russian history, and although he had his first major publication in 1929, it was 1968 before his work was translated into English.

There is a degree of controversy over the authorship of some of the texts  which have been attributed to Bakhtin, due in large part to the constraints of working within the Soviet regime and the fact that he often worked in close correspondence with a group of other thinkers, often referred to as the ‘Bakhtin Circle’. Some of Bakhtin’s work was lost during the turmoil of WWII – with one manuscript being blown up when the publishing house was bombed. Other work was lost when, because of war shortages, Bakhtin – a lifelong heavy smoker – had resorted to ripping out pages of his notebooks to roll his cigarettes! I’ll leave Wikipedia to fill you in on further details of Bakhtin’s biography, for now I’ll try to explain why I find his ideas so inspiring for my research.

Bakhtin takes the utterance as the basic unit of language and recognises that all utterances are always both situated – within a physical/social/cultural/historical context – and interactional – that is always involving more than one participant. This view of language forces us to acknowledge meaning making as an ongoing interactional process- as Bakhtin puts it:

We are taking language not as a system of abstract grammatical categories, but rather language conceived as ideologically saturated, language as a world view…

(M.M. Bakhtin from ‘Discourse in the Novel’ in The Dialogical Imagination 1981: 271)

This world view emerges through the process of language use – we experience ourselves through this process of interaction with others. As Bakhtin so beautifully puts it –  ‘…Language, for the individual consciousness, lies on the borderline between oneself and the other. The word in language is half someone else’s.’ (Bakhtin, 1981:293).  This is an active process of meaning making as negotiation.

This relational understanding of language offers to explain the potential of discourse to shape our understanding of ourselves, others, and the world through our interactions:

The tendency to assimilate others’ discourse takes on an even deeper and more basic significance in an individual’s ideological becoming, in the most fundamental sense. Another’s discourse performs here no longer as information, directions, rules, models and so forth – but strives rather to determine the very bases [sic] of our ideological interrelations with the world, the very basis of our behaviour; it performs here as authoritative discourse, and an internally persuasive discourse.

(Bakhtin, 1981: 342)

The idea of the word as ‘half someone else’s’ and the power of discourse to shape our view of ourselves, others, and our experience of the world, forms the foundational basis for my research. The resonance I felt between Bakhtin’s dialogism, and George Mackay Brown’s power of ‘the word’, was the inspiration for basing my project in my hometown of Stromness.

It is the word, blossoming as legend, poem, story, secret, that holds a community together and gives a meaning to its life. (George Mackay Brown, An Orkney Tapestry, 1969, page 21)

As I continue to carry out my fieldwork, and reflect and write about my experiences, I hope to illustrate the way Bakhtin’s dialogical approach to language can help to explain the power of the word identified by George Mackay Brown. I am particularly interested in how narrative and stories shape our everyday lives, often in ways that go unnoticed.


[1] The Dialogical Imagination: Four Essays by M.M. Bakhtin, edited by Michael Holquist, translated by Caryl Emmerson and Michael Holquist. University of Texas Press, 1981.


Before my fieldwork could begin I had to get ethical approval from the University and that process has had a deeper impact on my thinking than just working out the correct box to tick on the forms! It has really made me question how I understand ethics and what that means for my work as a researcher.

The University is, quite rightly, concerned with good research practice and its policies are designed to ensure that the principles of ethical behaviour accepted by fellow academic institutions are upheld by its research staff and students. Underlying these principles are an acceptance that researchers should be aware of, and minimise, risk so that research ‘does no harm’; that participants must be fully informed about the nature of the research and be able to voluntarily consent to take part; and that having given their consent the confidentiality and anonymity of participants is respected by the researcher.

The mechanism for achieving this is a series of forms.

Application forms for the University detailing the potential risks I have identified, information sheets for participants to inform them about my research project and what I will be doing with any information they give me, and a consent form for us both to sign to prove that I have given them the information sheet, that they have read it, that they are consenting to take part, and that I agree to respect their confidentiality and anonymity.

Looking at the stack of information sheets and consent forms sitting on my desk as I start planning my fieldwork it would be easy to think that ethics is merely a boring bureaucratic exercise in box ticking, or a kind of insurance policy against future accusations of misrepresentation. Yet while I understand the need for the paperwork, and the language of ethics policies, I would argue that alone they do not address the issue at the heart of ethical research.

For me the fundamental issue raised by the question of how to carry out ethical research is the nature of the relationship between the researcher, the participant, and the research project.

Thinking of research as a relationship – something which is reciprocal, ongoing and evolving    suggests a different view of ethics. Instead of a  bureaucratic exercise in defining and documenting consent, ethics becomes part of this relationship. An ethical approach to research then becomes about establishing a set of guiding principles as to how the relationship is conducted, in applying those principles the researcher must be responsive, respectful and sensitive to changing circumstances. Carrying out research ethically is about taking care of this relationship, it is not something that stops once the forms have been signed and filed away. This is ethics as praxis.

My own research practice, the ethical considerations that underpin the relationship I have with my project, and I hope to develop with my participants, are informed by my theoretical interests, particularly my ongoing engagement with the work of Mikhail Bakhtin.

In my next post I’ll offer a brief introduction to Bakhtin’s work, and explain why his ideas have been so important to my understanding and my approach to this project.

So, what’s it all about?

This blog is intended to provide a place to share and explore the ideas and issues raised through my research.

One of my primary concerns is the potential for language to both reveal and obscure our experiences of the world and our relationships with others. Attempting to write about my academic research in a non-academic format will, I hope, challenge my own writing practice, and help me to think more deeply about the work words must do to express our thoughts.

My intention is to try to write something every week which reflects upon my activities during fieldwork and the things I am thinking about – so be prepared for my musing on everything from Bakhtin to boats!