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S4S: Designing a Sensibility for Sustainable Clothing

Arts and Humanities Research Council

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Dr Joanie Willett

Senior Lecturer (Education and Research) - Cornwall


01326 253798

My broad research and teaching experience focusses on the inter-relationship between identity, communities, and the environment; using political philosophy to provide new ways of looking at the world to improve economic development and governance.  I have a strong interest in the use of artistic methods such as performance as research tools; and use phenomenological post humanist, materialist political philosophies to understand the identities, motivations, and behaviours of communities.

My research has been published in journals such as The Journal of Rural Studies, Sociologia Ruralis, Political Studies, Environment and Planning C: Population and Space, and British Politics.  I am currently finalising the manuscript of my book Affective Assemblages and Local Economies,  (with Rowmanand Littlefield) where drawing on ethnographic, embodied research in peripheral parts of the US and the UK, I imagine regions as complex adaptive regional assemblages to explore a more effective regional development.   

I have been PI or Co-I on AHRC and ESRC research projects, and have contributed to a number of Parliamentary Inquiries, such as the House of Lords Select Committee on the Rural Economy “Time for a Strategy for the Local Economy”, and the House of Commons Environmental Audit Committee’s “Fixing Fashion: Clothing, Consumption, and Sustainability” and "Green Jobs" reports.  I am invited to present my research internationally in both policy and academic settings, including the European Union Committee of the Regions (with the European Association for Local Democracy), The European Parliament (with the European Free Alliance), the University of California Berkeley, the Virginia Tech Office for Economic Development, Feile Belfast, the National Association of Local Councils, and the Ministry for Housing, Communities, and Local Government.

I am co-director of the Institute of Cornish Studies, a former trustee of the Political Studies Association, and help to coordinate the Creative Exchange, a UoE programme which brings together artists and researchers to develop joint projects.  I have been interviewed by local, national and international media, including BBC Sunday Politics, The Guardian, and the Australian Broadcasting Corporation.  Follow me on Twitter on @JoanieWillett   



Research interests

At first glance, my work looks quite disparate, exploring questions as diverse as regional development and the politics of sustainable clothing.  However, I link these through my theoretical approach which follows the ontological perspective of complex adaptive systems and uses affective assemblages as a way to trace attitudes, beliefs, emotions, institutions and practices.  Methodolgically, I am interested in embodied and performative approaches and find arts-based tools helpful for generating rich conversations.

In my most recent regional development work, I have been exploring what lessons we might learn for regional development if we view regions through the lens of complex adaptive systems, drawing on ethnographic fieldwork in the UK and USA.  This stems from an ongoing interest in understanding how regional development can be made more equitable, and people in regions can be best supported to adapt to changes in local (and especially post-Covid 19, global) economies. 

One of the things that came out of my research for my forthcoming book, Affective Assemblages and Local Economies, is that there are several spaces in particular which make it harder for individuals to adapt to significant changes in their environments.  Importantly, people need to understand what kind of jobs now exist in locality, what kind of skills are required to get those jobs, and where to find the jobs.  This is especially important during times of significant economic change.  I am very interested in exploring this aspect further in greater depth.

Additionally, I am keen to develop a project to explore the relationship between peripheral and national regions globally to consider what kind of mutual learning can be shared.

From our AHRC sustainable clothing project, we learned that people need to co-create new knowledges about the environment and society, rather than be ‘educated’.  Further, if meaningful behavioural change is to happen, people need to have spaces where they can share thoughts and ideas.  For future research, I’m interested in tracing and exploring the way that clothing is discussed in material culture, and about how making groups (as co-creative spaces) can be scaled up to a larger level.

External impact and engagement

Impact and public engagement is very important to my work.  Much of my research interests have direct and obvious policy implications, and I am always keen to explore these as much as possible, with individuals and organisations to whom they might be useful.  I have worked with or developed relationships with a number of local, national, and international organisations.  These include Cornwall Council, the National Association for Local Councils, the Ministry for Housing, Communities and Local Government, and the European Association for Local Democracy (ALDA). 

I really enjoy public engagement activities and regularly host ESRC Festival of Social Science events, including the “Citizens Take-over of Cornwall Council”, "On The Throne", and "Painting a Parish Future".  ·     

     Finally, I like the opportunity to talk about my work – because I think that its important! I have contributed to a number of political blogs, including the UK in a Changing Europe, Democratic Audit and The Conversation.  I’ve appeared on BBC Radio 4, (Rethink: Fairness, with Amol Rajan), BBC Radio Cornwall, BBC Sunday Politics, BBC News 24, and the Australian Broadcasting Corporation, and have discussed resilient communities with Andy Burnham as part of the Cumberland Lodge, Dialogue and Debate series. 


I took a Bsc in Combined Social Sciences with the University of Plymouth, and an MA in Critical Global Studies with the University of Exeter.  My PhD, entitled ‘Why is Cornwall So Poor, Narrative, Perception and Identity’ was completed in 2010 with the University of Exeter’.  In 2009/2010 I taught social theory on a social work degree with the University of Plymouth, and joined the politics department at Exeter at the start of the 2010/11 academic year.

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