Deep incumbency and sociopolitics – a methodology workshop (Tues 18th Jan) and interview with Dr Adam Lucas

On Tuesday 18th January 2022, from 0930 to 1230 (GMT) a workshop on “deep incumbency and sociopolitics” will take place online. You can find out more and register (free) here.

Below find an interview, conducted by Environmental Politics social media editor Marc Hudson, with the workshop’s leader, Dr Adam Lucas.

Briefly, who are you and what do you work on?

My name is Adam Lucas. I’m a senior lecturer in science and technology studies at the University of Wollongong in Australia. Prior to taking up this job in 2008 I worked for several years in the New South Wales Cabinet Office, and the Departments of State and Regional Development, Aboriginal Affairs and Housing as a researcher and policy analyst. My primary research interests are climate change and energy policy, and the history and sociology of technology. My work in climate and energy policy has focused on the role of the fossil fuel industry in shaping national and international responses to decarbonisation, and in particular, forms of influence which are not amenable to discourse or policy analysis. See my recent paper in Energy Research & Social Science titled Investigating networks of corporate influence on government decision-making: The case of Australia’s climate change and energy policies (November 2021).

I’m currently in the UK doing research for a Leverhulme Trust Project titled ‘Away from the water: the first energy transition, British textiles 1770-1890’. The project combines my interests in the historical development of powered machine technologies, climate change and political economy. It involves working with a historian postdoc and two physical geographers to correlate our findings from detailed archival research and data mapping to reveal aspects of the Industrial Revolution that have been largely overlooked in the past.

What do you mean by ‘deep incumbency’ and why does it matter?

The term ‘deep incumbency’ was coined by Andy Stirling, Phil Johnstone and Emily Cox in a research paper for SPRU from 2016 which examined why the British Tory Government was preoccupied with developing next generation nuclear power technology when the economics simply didn’t stack up. I won’t dwell on the details of their findings, but strongly recommend to anyone who hasn’t read it or their subsequent published research on the topic to do so. 

What they meant by this term are the opaque but often extensive networks of influence that certain kinds of elite actors are able to construct to shape political, regulatory, financial and policy outcomes to their advantage. This is achieved without any broader social awareness of how that influence is being exercised, or the kinds of advantages that are being obtained. The elite actors who form these networks already occupy positions of power and influence in key institutions and organizations that enable them to further extend that power and influence across entire political structures and cultures. The networks they construct are, to paraphrase Cox et al., formatively confined in their dynamics, intimate in their settings, and so opaque in their operations as to avoid external scrutiny. That does not, however, mean that they can’t be scrutinized, or that their operations can’t be revealed. From a social theory perspective, they operate beyond such “neatly-partitioned conceptual structures as ‘levels’, ‘scales’, ‘systems’, ‘sectors’ or ‘regimes’” (Cox et al. 2016: 17-18).

Why this matters is because these networks are fundamentally anti-democratic and socially corrosive in character. They are premised on the idea of maintaining or conferring undeserved privileges, favours and advantages to the individuals who occupy them, which almost invariably involves riding roughshod over social norms, professional standards, ethical considerations, and legal constraints. They often blur the lines between morally questionable and illegal activities, and routinely involve maladministration, nepotism, malfeasance, and corruption, all of which is motivated by a cynical disregard for public interest criteria in order to further the narrow personal interests of those involved.

My own research on how these covert networks operate in Australia in relation to the fossil fuel industry was focused on developing some new methodologies for locating the actors in these networks, the strategies they use to achieve their goals, and the kinds of outcomes they are able to achieve.

You’re doing a workshop on 18th January 2021, hosted at University of Sussex. What, briefly, are the methods you will be sharing?

There are four methods I’m going to discuss with participants, which will involve brief introductions to the methods followed by half-hour sessions where participants can test the methods for themselves individually, in pairs or small groups. The methods will involve looking at:

  • “Linked In” as an employment tracking tool
  • Media analysis for tracking covert networks
  • Sources of information on lobbying
  • Sources of information on political donations

The main goal of the workshop is to help empower fellow researchers with some of the tools we can all develop to identify actors in covert networks and the kinds of sources that can reveal the linkages between them and the kinds of political, financial, regulatory and legal advantages they are able to win for themselves and others in their networks. 

What are some of the organisations and other academics that you think are doing good work on “covert networks”?

With regard to academics, obviously Andy, Phil, Emily and their fellow researchers here at SPRU, along with a number of American and Canadian sociologists and political theorists, including Riley Dunlap, Peter Jacques, Mark Stoddart, Ruth McKie, Myanna Lahsen, David Tindall, Justin Farrell, Robert Brulle, William Carroll, Shane Gunster, Harris Ali, Patrick Doreian and a number of other co-authors for the forthcoming Handbook of Anti-Environmentalism (Edward Elgar) in which one of my most recent articles on these issues will appear later this year.

With regard to organisations based in the UK, US, Canada and Australia: DeSmogBlog, Campaign Against Arms Trade, Corporate Europe Observatory, Corporate Mapping Project, CorporateWatch, InfluenceMap, LobbyFacts, Michael West Media, Open Secrets, POGO (Project on Government Oversight), SourceWatch, SpinWatch, Taxwatch.

I’m sure there are many others based in our own and other countries, but these are the ones I know about and/or have used to help inform some of my own research.

What would you like to see scholars and practitioners of “Environmental Politics” doing in the aftermath of COP26 that they haven’t done (much of) before?

It is vital that there is more collaboration, cooperation and information- and resource-sharing between scholars and activists involved in environmental politics, especially given the very mixed outcomes of COP26 and the considerable power that fossil-fuelled nation states and corporations continue to wield in national and international climate change and energy policy. I know that building these kinds of alliances is time-consuming and difficult, but it’s nevertheless crucial if we want the environmental and social justice movements to gain more political and social traction and learn from one another’s many successes (and mistakes!).

One of the lessons that I hope participants will draw from this workshop is that working collaboratively and sharing our findings is a way of building counter-networks of democratically informed social power that can expose, oppose and hopefully neutralize the effectiveness of these covert networks. Building alliances between NGOs, academic researchers, investigative journalists and social and environmental justice activists and advocates is going to be decisive in the social and political conflicts in which we’ll all be engaged over the next few decades.

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