Material Social Futures


The way we live is obviously dependent on the material things we use and the social arrangements we prefer. Material science has transformed the way we make things as well as what we can do with them, and this has altered how people conduct their lives - plastics have transformed packaging and transport, and this has altered the kind of foods people expect to see when they shop. But people themselves have altered what foods they like to eat and this, in turn, has affected patterns of production and storage. The values they place on different types of resources has altered, too, and this is affecting their willingness to use some types of material to cook, store and carry, plastics included. In short, the material and the social go hand in hand in complicated and dynamic ways.

Until recently, however, research tools and techniques have tended to separate these concerns, with material scientists working without reference to social matters, and social and humanities researchers knowing little about materials science. As a result, researchers from any discipline have not been able to make the future in ways that bring the benefits of materials science alongside better understandings of social and human values.

This is to put things simply but is enough to convey why the Material Social Futures Scholarship programme, funded by the Leverhulme Trust and Lancaster University, has been set up. The ‘MSF’ trains PhDs to see how the material and the social intersect and how research in one of these dimensions can be infused by knowledge of the other. These dimensions are complex, crisscrossing and affecting each other in diverse ways. The goal of MSF research is to provide students with the intellectual tools, techniques and concepts to manage this interplay so that they can effectively undertake their own disciplinary research in reference to these larger dimensions. Doing so will ensure that their research contributes to shaping better futures, ones that combine the material and the social.

More particularly, MSF training teaches PhDs how to:

  • Examine research problems from multiple viewpoints and big picture perspectives that bring the social and the material together;
  • How to use these perspectives to judge the potential impact of research, and on this basis how to measure success and failure;
  • How to address major social and materials science problems as part of research teams with diverse skills and disciplines;
  • And how to communicate research agendas and findings to influence the world at large.

In sum, the MSF programme teaches researchers how to make better material social futures.

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