Three overarching research questions are guiding the Chair’s unfolding research agenda:

  1. What does ‘sustainable development’ mean in the context of the Karoo, given its particular history, ecology and location within the larger political economy of South Africa, as well as the new dynamics that development interventions such as the SKA and possible shale-gas mining are introducing into this region?
  2. What, in particular, does sustainable social development mean in this context?
  3. What insights do the answers to these questions bring to the understanding of changing relationships to land and environment, as well as to the meaning of ‘sustainable development’ across different scales (local, national, global)?

The first question addresses the idea of ‘sustainable development’ itself, which can be usefully broken down into its constituent elements of sustainability and development. While few would argue with the idea of ‘sustainable development’ as a social good, what it means in practice is the outcome of a complex set of interactions which are not politically neutral, nor value-free, and regularly bring competing public goods into tension with each other (for instance the protection of bio-diversity and job creation). In this regard the SKA and shale-gas mining represent two very different kinds of development initiatives that pose very different sets of challenges.  While the SKA foregrounds basic scientific research aimed at answering some of the most fundamental questions about the nature of the universe, shale-gas mining directs attention to more immediate, material concerns around energy and economic growth, and the place of extractive mining within them.

The second question addresses the social dimensions of development as a critical but often neglected aspect of the triad of social sustainability, economic sustainability and environmental sustainability into which conventional development theory divides the analysis of sustainable development. Implicit within this question is the recognition that there are different, unequally positioned social groups in the Karoo, along with significant social challenges that stand in the way of national policy goals of promoting rural communities that are ‘vibrant, equitable, sustainable’. This question points also to the importance of social meanings around land, nature and identity for the analysis.

The third question addresses the Research Chair’s concerns with building social theory that is globally relevant AND contributing to policy development at national and community level. This work builds on the ideas around ‘critical cosmopolitanism’ that have informed Prof Walker’s recent research project, ‘Cosmopolitan Countryside’. ‘Critical cosmopolitanism’ is seen as offering one set of creative tools for exploring relationships to land and place under conditions of significant social and ecological change. British sociologist Gerard Delanty has described it as an ‘emerging direction in social theory’ that can be particularly valuable ‘when and wherever new relations between self, other and world develop in moments of openness’ (2006:25). Arguably, contemporary developments in the Karoo around the SKA and shale-gas mining represent such a conjuncture, although claims to this effect have to be empirically grounded in the field.

A range of subsidiary research questions flow from the above, including:

  • What are the key social concerns and/or challenges in the Karoo and what changes have there been in this regard over time?
  • What are the key ecological concerns and/or challenges in the Karoo and what changes have there been in this regard over time?
  • What might sustainable land and agrarian reform mean in the context of the Karoo?
  • How are different constituencies in the Karoo responding to the opportunities and/or challenges presented by the SKA, shale-gas mining and other significant development interventions?
  • How might these externally driven interventions be shifting local relationships to ‘self, other and world’ within selected research sites? Is ‘critical cosmopolitanism’ a useful conceptual tool and what other framings may work well?
  • What meanings do local constituencies attach to constructs such as ‘development’, ‘place’, ‘nature’, ‘identity, and ‘national interest’?
  • How do local concerns intersect with national and global research and development agendas on sustainable development, energy security, bio-diversity, social justice and the advancement of basic scientific research?
  • How and where are tensions around competing public goods and possible trade-offs in development policy negotiated?
  • How effective is the investment that the SKA is making in promoting science and mathematics education as well as computer literacy in local schools, and what are the criteria by which ‘success’ should be judged?
  • How are history and heritage being reconceptualised as the Karoo’s place within national and global networks is reconfigured through current development interventions? Here an emerging issue is the potential for new land restitution claims to emerge that draw on revitalised Khoisan identities. How might these dynamics intersect with land issues related to the SKA, shale-gas mining and/or other initiatives?
  • What does inter-disciplinarity in research across the social and natural sciences entail in this context and how might this goal be advanced in relation to social theory and research methodology?