Episode 3: How Humanity is connected to the natural world


Jennifer Manyweathers can see a problem. It’s the problem of how, in her work on foot and mouth disease, she’s seen the assumption that if someone is included in policy guidelines or if people are told by experts to do something, they’ll do it.

In this episode of What’s Sociology Got To Do With It?, Manyweathers calls on policymakers, researchers and scientists to remember that raising awareness or issuing guidelines doesn’t equate automatically to action. For Manyweathers, there needs to be a baseline understanding of how even the most well-intentioned people can be waylaid by competing priorities. In other words, will you choose between money, your family, what guidelines are telling you to do or something else entirely?

For Manyweathers, her work as a vet has seen the realisation that while the relationship between animals, humans and disease is on our minds at the moment because of the ongoing coronavirus pandemic, there needs to be an ongoing discussion of how humanity is connected to the natural world. But when a large part of this is disease management and risk reduction, how can we ensure we follow guidelines? In other words, how can we fix issues before they become problems and solve the problems themselves?

If you want to contact Manyweathers, she can be reached through the Graham Centre for Agricultural Innovation or on her e-mail jmanyweathers@csu.edu.au.

A transcript of this episode is available at www.thatsociologypodcast.org

Produced by Dr Sarina Kilham with support from Charles Sturt University and The Australian Sociological Association for Social Science Week 2020.

Transcript: Jennifer Manyweathers

Manyweathers episode

[00:00:00] jm: [00:00:00] But if you actually want to make genuine change and really empower people to do the best that they can, in terms of disease prevention and disease management, then you have to actually understand the really local context.    [00:01:00]sa: [00:01:00] So, welcome to the podcast What’s Sociology Got To Do With It? Can we start by you telling us about your research?

jm: [00:01:10] Yeah. Sure, so I-in my research, I think about humans and animals and diseases and just that great big, messy mix of that. At the moment I’m looking at foot-and-mouth disease. Now that’s a really nasty disease. We don’t have it in Australia at the moment and we certainly don’t want it. And so the work that I’m doing at the moment is with producers and with other people that work in the livestock industry to think about ways that we can stop it coming into the country. The other part of the work is also thinking about, well, if it does come in, what can we do to jump on it as quickly as we can and get it under control? The other thing that I’m interested in that kind of bubbles away in the background a little bit is thinking about diseases that humans and animals share. So that’s another sort of messy space that exists. So whether it’s diseases that come to us through our pets or through livestock [00:02:00] or through wildlife-and I guess COVID is a really good example of that.

sa: [00:02:04] I was gonna jump in and say, probably-

jm: [00:02:06] Yeah. 

sa: [00:02:06] most of the nation has this on their mind at the moment because of COVID. Um, but you and- 

jm: [00:02:11] That’s right. And I think we forget it because this COVID is unique in the sense that it. does go human to human now. So we don’t actually need the animals to be there, but the place that it came from in the first case was a crossover somewhere between animals. And there’s lots of other diseases that fit into that. So. Just thinking about how we live as humans on the earth and how we look after the environment and animals to try and minimize that kind of crossover. Yeah. So viruses are smarter than we will ever be. And their sole goal is survival. We need to get really smart about how we protect ourselves and our animals as well.

sa: [00:02:45] So what’s your background. How did you get into this research topic?

jm: [00:02:50] I’m actually a vet by training and I still practice in our local clinic. Yeah, I guess I worked out pretty quickly when I started a veterinary practice that veterinary science is actually [00:03:00] more about people than about animals. I guess that’s where I started to get lots of questions about why people behave in a certain way, in a certain situation. If people behave differently, to me, why is that? How are their decisions being made? And that’s when I started to go down the research path of just unpacking those kinds of ideas.

sa: [00:03:16] So what are the benefits of applying a sociological or even just that broader social science lens to your research?

jm: [00:03:24] Well, I think the beauty of sociology is that each of us are our own research lab. So we have a lot of thinking and, um, processing that goes on it. And a lot of it goes on automatically. We don’t tap into it at all, but when we do start to tap into it, it does get really interesting because people are so different from each other. So I often get ‘aha’ kind of moments when I’m doing a bit of reading about sociology or looking at research projects, because that explains a lot of my reaction to things.  And that then helps me to understand how my clients are thinking and how they’re reacting. [00:04:00] Yeah. So whether I’m doing research or whether I’m actually practicing, thinking about human beings as incredibly complex beings with habits and ideas and beliefs that all go on in the background, producing then behavior and outcomes like that. So that kind of helps me to understand where, how to move forward. So if we need to make progress in problem solving, whether it’s within my veterinary practice or whether it’s in my research, having that as a background, understanding why these decisions are being made can then give us progress to sort out you know, difficult problems.

sa: [00:04:31] So if we go back to foot-and-mouth disease, can you perhaps talk our listeners through how, I guess hard science or, like, the normal vet science would approach that issue. And how what you’re doing is a bit different or how social sciences changing the way that we look at that in Australia.

jm: [00:04:52] Yeah. Sure. The kind of hard science around foot-and-mouth disease, I guess it’s called the branch of science is called epidemiology, which is how [00:05:00] diseases move around populations around large numbers. So it’s not individual to individual, but it’s groups. So you can either have groups of animals or groups of people. But epidemiology kind of-that approach is  ‘this is what we know about the disease,’ ‘this is is what we know we can do or have in place to protect ourselves or our animals.’ So we make policy that implements those. And then we send the policy out and there’s a thought that, well, if there’s rules and regulations and policy in place, people will do those things.

sa: [00:05:30] Yep.

jm: [00:05:31] And of course that sometimes happens, but it doesn’t always happen. A lot of producers, for example, their first priority is not to protect themselves against foot-and-mouth disease. It can’t possibly be that, you know, their first priority is their animals, their welfare, making a living, all those kinds of things are competing priorities. So there’s-the hard science approach is we’ll just keep getting more information and then people will take this up. And of course it doesn’t really cut it.

sa: [00:05:57] And it’s that, that one way flow of [00:06:00] information, isn’t it? Like here us is the scientist, we’ll figure out the controls and now we have communicated it to you. You should just be doing it.

jm: [00:06:08] Yes. Yeah. So my favorite two sayings are let’s raise awareness and the other one is it’s on the website. And that’s not to say both those things are very good things. It’s very good to have websites and to use the technology that we have and raising awareness is a perfectly legitimate goal for some projects. But if by raising awareness, we think that means behavior change in people, you know, doing, ah, the behaviors that-say for example, the policy directs them too-then they’re very different things. And so we have to be really clear about what it is we’re hoping to achieve.

sa: [00:06:40] Let’s say, then you don’t start with this idea of raising awareness or creating a website. Where do you start them?

jm: [00:06:47] So it comes back to what you said earlier. I think about valuing experts and expertise and thinking about that in a really different light. Our work is around, putting experts in the room together. And by [00:07:00] experts, we mean the producers themselves, and it means the transporters and the shearers. And the milk delivery guys.  It means all of those people in the room because they’re the ones on the ground. Of course, this is thinking about foot-and-mouth disease. They’re the ones on the ground that know the systems and that they can identify the gaps in the weaknesses, in their industry, in their area.

So. I live quite near to Bega. Obviously it’s a fairly big dairy center, but our issues are very different from those issues just over the border in the Gibsland area, really different issues. It’s important for local knowledge and expertise on farm expertise to be taken into consideration, even up to the highest policy development level.

sa: [00:07:42] And that’s super local, then if you’re still talking about you know, a certain corner of Australia. It’s not just, like, local to Australia or local to New South Wales. You’re saying we really need to tap into that local knowledge of what is going on in the context, the social factors that [00:08:00] are influencing how foot-and-mouth disease can be prevented. Is that right?

jm: [00:08:05] Yeah, that’s exactly right. This summer has been a great example with the bush fires that have come through. So there are some areas for whom foot-and-mouth disease has gone so far off the radar it’s not even funny. Bcause they’re struggling to build fences and feed their cattle versus other areas where you can still have those conversations about that kind of disease that’s really low likelihood of it coming, but if it does come, you know, catastrophic. But for the people who’ve just gone through the summer, it’s not the time for those conversations. So even understanding to that level. Just what’s going on in the region. What do we need to know about before we have these discussions? You can see the benefit of raising awareness campaigns and putting it on the website because you don’t have to get down and dirty and tap into those really hard local issues. But if you actually want to make genuine change and really empower people to do the best that they can, in terms of disease prevention and disease management, then you have to actually understand the really local [00:09:00] context.

sa: [00:09:00] That’s just really interesting when if you think about the general public’s sudden understanding all of these issues because of COVID-19. Has that changed at all? How you talk or think about foot-and-mouth disease or how you think the public might be more or less engaged with issues around disease control and prevention and management.

jm: [00:09:26] Yeah, certainly. So the producers that I work with through this foot-and-mouth disease program, it’s funny. They’ve become-oh, they were already fairly switched on because obviously we spend time talking about it, but they’ve seen this increase in awareness among their communities and their, um, colleagues. And so they’re taking advantage of that to have those discussions around, you know this idea of isolation. Well, the same rules apply for animals as do people: if you’re trying to stop diseases coming into your herd or your flock, then you need to isolate. So it’s been really interesting to see how they’ve taken on-I call it an [00:10:00] advantage, even though it’s a very strange kind of advantage that COVID-19 has given us in this sort of bio-security, you know, disease kind of space because it has become part of legitimate conversation and everyone has increased in knowledge and experience around that.  So it has made those conversations definitely more interesting and probably easier as well.

sa: [00:10:21] Yeah. So this is our new normal where now many people have opinions on biosecurity.

jm: [00:10:27] Yeah, that’s right. 

sa: [00:10:28] So how would you say that sociology is disrupting or innovating the normal hard science way of thinking about animal disease control and prevention?

jm: [00:10:40] Yeah, I think we’re at the very early stages of that. Not so long ago, scientists-so biologists, vets- they were-they were slightly insulted by the idea that social science had the word science in its title. Because they didn’t see it as a science, because it is a very different sort of science. I think It’s gradually changing. Now, the fact that I’m working on a project as a vet, [00:11:00] and we have lots of other vets and psychologists on this project, the fact that this is project that’s funded from Commonwealth state/territory funding. So there is-we’re starting to see more and more value in having these sort of discussions around these wicked problems. And I guess there’s more understanding now that this one health approach, which says we’re actually all part of the same world. And of course, we know that in a kind of a brain way, but what that means is that what affects our environment, our oceans, our bush, our pastures affects us as people, affects our animals, whether they’re domestic or wild. And so that greater insight I think too is helping us to see that these problems are incredibly complex and  one lens or one set of eyes on it will not be enough. That we actually need all these different angles, including sociology, to come in because, in variability, these problems involve people and where you have people, the better you can understand the people and the decisions and the behaviors, the [00:12:00] better you can actually problem solve and make progress.

sa: [00:12:03] You threw in a term there Jennifer, ‘wicked problems’; do you want to tell us what is a  wicked problem?

jm: [00:12:11] I think it’s probably got a formal definition. It’s certainly not my creation, but it’s just those problems that just haven’t been solved and it looks like they can’t be solved, but they’re problems that just have, I guess, multiple aspects, incredibly complex aspects. So it’s economics, it’s human health, it’s animal health, it’s politics. It doesn’t even need to be global. They tend to have a wider reach, those wicked sort of problems. So I would put climate change into one of those baskets, I guess. Bio-security in another.  You can’t just change one aspect of the issue and expect the problem to resolve itself.

sa: [00:12:46] No hard answers to those wicked problems. As soon as you come up with one resolution, the problem center has shifted and it’s all moved on and all the other parts shifted.

jm: [00:12:55] It’s like a whack-a-mole game, isn’t it, with problem solving? Like ‘we’ve dealt with it. Oh, what’s that? We [00:13:00] didn’t even see that. In fact, we might have created that by just having a one lens look at this problem.’ So yeah.

sa: [00:13:07] Can you tell us your name, where you’re talking to us from and what is your current role?

jm: [00:13:12] Yeah, sure. So my name is Jennifer Manyweathers. I work for  the Graham Center for Agricultural Innovation, which is actually based in Wagga, but I work remotely and I have since before COVID. Um, I’m based at Tathra. My official title is something really, really important sounding like Postdoctoral Fellow in Farm Bio-security, I think is the full title. But. Basically, I just. I just do research with producers and around foot-and-mouth disease.

sa: [00:13:39] That’s fantastic. My very last question is how do you hope to change the world with your research, even a tiny little bit?

jm: [00:13:47] Oh, that is a very good question. How do I hope to change the world? I hope that universities and governments can come to understand the power of local knowledge and on [00:14:00] ground expertise.  That would be great  if-if my research and my work had any role in facilitating that, in making that happen, that would be great. So just valuing what people bring to the table, regardless of how much schooling or education they’ve had, regardless of any sort of background, that people can contribute to helping us solve problems  that affect communities and even more globally.

sa: [00:14:25] Wonderful. If the listeners to this podcast, What Sociology Got To Do With It?, want to find out more about your project or contact you, can they find you on social media or the Graham Centre website? Where’s the best place to get in contact with you?

 jm: [00:14:41] Yeah. So probably the Graham Center website is the best way to do that. The other-about the project specifically, if you just Googled F-M-D, so foot-and-mouth disease, FMD Ready, and it’s hosted by CSIRO, um, their website. So, you could Google it that way as well. 

sa: [00:14:58] That’s fantastic. Thank you [00:15:00] so much for joining us today. 

jm: [00:15:01] No worries. Thank you so much for your time. 

Bye. 

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