Context 155 - July 2018

12 C O N T E X T 1 5 5 : J U L Y 2 0 1 8 TOM YARROW IN CONVERSATION How conservation matters Conservation is a nexus of people, ideas, interests and forms of professional practice that come together to create the complex and shifting object that is the historic environment. Tom Yarrow (see page 45) is a senior lecturer and associate professor in social anthropology at Durham University. His research uses ethnographic methods to understand conservation as a social practice, including through an institutional study of Historic Environment Scotland (with Siân Jones) and a recent project on the relationship between heritage and energy in the built environment, funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council (AH/L000032/1). His research on conservation relates to more general interests in the built environ- ment and the ‘social life’ of expertise. CONTEXT: An ethnographic approach is central in your work.What is that? TY: Traditionally ethnography was associated with the study of ‘tribal’ people, particularly influenced by the work of Bronislaw Malinowski in the Trobriand Islands at the beginning of the 20th century. His approach relied heavily on the idea of ‘participant observation’, that is, learning about social practice through taking part in those practices; doing things with people and trying to understand what it is they think they are up to. More recently the approach has been used to understand a much broader range of social phenomena. Whereas the challenge of earlier ethnography was mostly to make sense of what seemed manifestly strange, ethnographies of social phenomena ‘at home’ more commonly face the challenge of how to understand what is so familiar that it gets taken for granted. In this broader tradition, I use ethnographic approaches to try to understand the various ways in which conservation figures in people’s everyday lives, whether as an ideology, a per- sonal conviction, a form of professional practice or even, for some, as a problem to be resisted. It is a methodological orientation that seeks to illuminate the manifold complexities and intersecting concerns through which lives are lived, without reducing these to explanations of a more singular kind. CONTEXT: How can these kinds of approaches shed light on the work of conservation? TY: In my work I have employed this gen- eral approach to explore conservation as a social arena – a nexus of people, ideas, interests and forms of professional practice. My research is oriented by the overarching question of how this all comes together to create the complex and shifting object that is ‘the historic environment’. Distinct understandings of heritage and energy conservation are expressed and resolved through meetings on site.