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S4S: Designing a Sensibility for Sustainable Clothing

Arts and Humanities Research Council

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Photo of Associate Professor Joanie Willett

Associate Professor Joanie Willett

Associate Professor in Politics - Cornwall


01326 253798

My research focusses on the entangled relationship between people, how they organise into communities, and the landscape that they are situated in (geography, geology, and ecology).  I use the New Materialisms to explore the politics and economics of entanglement, and the implications of a more-than-human politics on social and environmental justice.  In practical terms, I often find myself exploring rural economic development, and local government.

My Fulbright All Disciplines scholarship (ethnographic inspired) fieldwork explores what an entangled politics looks like, drawing on case studies in Appalachia, New Orleans, and California. 

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 recently published my book Affective Assemblages and Local Economies,  (with Rowman and 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, have been awarded a Fulbright All Disciplines scholarship for 2022-23.  I 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, co-convenor of the PSA Local Government and Politics specialist group, and help to coordinate EdgeNet, a Regional Studies Association network which explores questions of peripheral and rural development.  I have been interviewed by local, national and international media (TV, print and radio), including the BBC, NPR, The Guardian, and the Australian Broadcasting Corporation.  Follow me on Twitter on @JoanieWillett  




Research interests

My work explores questions ranging from regional development, careers education, and the politics of sustainable clothing.  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 book, Affective Assemblages and Local Economies I have explored 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 economies.  This has important implications for Levelling Up. 

I take this work further in my forthcoming Fulbright Fellowship, exploring the entangled relationship between communities, economies, politics and the natural, physical, and geographical environments in which they grow from.  I will be conducting the fieldwork in the Southern Appalachian region and will be using high street (main street) revival and local government and decentralisation to ask these questions.

My most recent research, What Kind of Career Can I Have Locally, (supported by the ESRC) works with the Cornwall and Isles of Scilly Careers Hub to examine ways to encourage primary age children in rural regions to consider career pathways in the local economy.  This includes sharing information on sectors which children may not realise are major employers locally.

My work on sustainable clothing was supported by our Designing a Sensibility for Sustainability AHRC 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, and synergies between making groups and high street revival.


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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