Recent dissertations undertaken by Keble Geographers
The dissertation is a large component of the Geography course and an experience our students never forget. It is an independent research project requiring primary fieldwork around any branch of Geography that you choose, with guidance and support from Geography supervisors and Keble tutors. Few experiences match the sense of achievement that result from evaluating and synthesising ideas to produce a piece of research that is distinctively yours.
The following students present their recent experiences:
Eleanor Thomson – Traits of the Tropics: Investigating Leaf Functional Traits from a Moist Tropical Forest and a Transitional Tropical Forest, West Africa.
One of the most daunting parts of starting an undergraduate dissertation is the initial decision phase; trying to find a topic that seems not only ‘dissertation worthy’ but might continue to interest you for the next six months. I had always enjoyed the biogeography aspects of the course and decided from an early stage to focus on something related to the feedbacks between vegetation and climate change. To that end I emailed Yadvinder Mahli (from the Oxford Centre for Tropical Forests) and he agreed to be my supervisor. In our early meetings it became clear that the focus of tropical forest research was starting to shift from an almost exclusively South American perspective to looking at African Tropical Forests. African rainforests are the second largest in the world after the Amazon and, under current projections, are expected to face higher levels of climate change than the rest of the world. Yet, unlike in the Amazon Basin, indications of climate-change induced degradation and dieback have not been seen across Africa. Indeed, across some parts of the continent, tropical forests appear to be thriving under the changes.
In order to better understand these chronically under-researched forests and their reaction to climate change, my dissertation involved travelling to Ghana to collect leaf data on two different types of forest – a moist tropical forest and a drier transitional forest. A focus on leaves was chosen due to their principal role in important processes of respiration, photosynthesis and nutrient cycling. Over a period of six weeks I collected 2,888 leaves from 29 different tree species across the two sites and measured them for their area, dry mass, thickness and strength (proxies for a species growth strategy and other characteristics). Interestingly I found that, even within a species, African forests display an enormous variety of leaf characteristics. This is interesting because under increasing temperatures certain leaf forms may cope better than others. Thus, unlike the Amazon, that has experienced a stable climate and evolved very similar, highly specialized leaves, the disturbed climatic history of Africa over the past 10,000 years has rendered its forests much more adaptable to different climates by producing tree species that can change their leaf characteristics over their lifetime to track climate changes.
Overall my dissertation was a fascinating insight into the way research is carried out in the field and, despite my initial dissertation fear, I thoroughly enjoyed the process! The six weeks spent in Ghana were the highlight of my summer and, as a direct result of this experience, I am considering a biodiversity masters in the future to further my interests in this area.
Debra Guo – Chinese students and UK visa policy: a test of the gap hypothesis
Around the time we were asked to think about our dissertation topic, I was fascinated by the changes that were being made to the student immigration system in the UK; in particular the closure of the Post-Study Work visa which had attracted a lot of talented overseas students to the UK since its introduction. With Ali Rogers as my (very supportive) supervisor, I further examined these policy changes and how they were being received abroad in a large sender country – China. It was also interesting to apply popular theories in migration studies to this policy context and test whether my empirical data supported them. These theories mainly look at how migration policies always fail, either through hidden agendas that governments or agencies have, or because migrants have agency and tend to subvert policy changes. Most of these studies tended to apply these theories to illegal immigrants, rather than skilled migrants or students. Studying the changes to student visas, in the context of these theories was very interesting and current.
My research was mainly interview-based – speaking to a number of different stakeholders from high-status Embassy officials to young A-Level students. What was surprising was that I found no evidence of student migrants anticipating any subversion to the policies to fit their own educational aspirations. Instead, they were prepared to comply, therefore going against most of the migration literature! Travelling to China, on my own, and meeting some high profile people was a challenging but rewarding experience, and I could not have done it without financial help from the Keble Association Travel Grant. Carrying out my own independent research on an issue that I am really interested in has been an invaluable experience and has opened my eyes to the policy-making process. I now feel fully prepared to take on a Masters!
Matt – Climate change projections of precipitation in the Ganges basin: Model evaluations based on modes of variability
“Having decided I wanted to do a climate related dissertation, I stayed in Oxford over the summer investigating climate models, being supervised by Richard. Specifically, I looked at the ability of several models used by the IPCC to reproduce the South Asian summer monsoon, with a focus on the Ganges basin. Having analysed several models historical output, I then looked at the future projections of precipitation variance in the better performing models to constrain how robust those projections were and what the prospects for the region were into the 21st-century. The project involved quite a lot of statistical analysis and I picked up how to use Linux while I was doing it. For me, the main thing was that I wanted to know what the projections were – the region is vulnerable to any prospective changes in the monsoon through the impact on agriculture and increased flood risk. It was a tough project to undertake, but I was glad I did it and it confirmed to me that I wanted to do more of this kind of thing once I finished at Keble.”
Nicki – The performativity of calculative ‘agencements’ in the clean development mechanism: geographies of materiality
“Having chosen to do the Environmental Policy option in my second year, I became increasingly interested in climate change and the various programmes the UN have implemented in order to try and curb the levels of anthropogenic greenhouse gases that are emitted every year. One such programme is known as the Clean Development Mechanism (CDM). The CDM is a carbon offsetting program whereby projects in the developing world (Non-Annex 1 countries) reduce emissions and Annex 1 countries can buy these emission reductions to meet their compulsory targets. Most of these reductions are through renewable energy or energy efficiency projects. The CDM is also meant to contribute to the sustainable development of the Non-Annex 1 host country.
I chose to explore the CDM in general, and one landfill gas flaring project in Indonesia specifically, to try and understand how the CDM functions and to what degree the mechanism is fundamentally flawed in meeting its dual objectives. I visited the project in Indonesia conducted 30 interviews with various carbon market actors (banks, lawyers, project developers, UN workers, etc). I approached the topic using an actor-network perspective, whereby actors are not only humans, but also technological devices and texts become actors through the interactions between them. From this point of view actors such as ‘landfill gas’ becomes just important in the creation of emission reductions as the ‘UN Executive Board’. This was a really different lens under which to examine the CDM, and provided me with a lot of useful material which was sifted and consolidated in my dissertation. I really, really enjoyed exploring a part of geography that I would never have come across in the core lecture course, and I loved visiting Indonesia to carry out the research (and managed to fit in some travelling afterwards!). Dissertations can be tough but sometimes you have to be flexible and let the dissertation lead you, rather than the other way round!”
Liz – Education Gender Disparity: How does the school environment influence equality? A case study of Kisii district, Western Kenya.
“I had the opportunity to work with an Oxford/Cambridge run NGO out in Kenya over the summer. The charity focuses on resource investment programmes in schools and I was based in a rural region of Kenya, living and working in a village school for two months. Given I had this experience and access to rural schools I decided to focus my dissertation research on the issue of gender inequalities in schools. This remains a big challenge in Africa, and a key objective within the Millennium Development Goals. The focus of my research was on the impact school environments had on degree of inequality – for example; did female staff in schools correspond to higher female achievement? I learnt a lot just from living with and speaking to teachers and students every day, observing general school life, interviewing head-teachers, and sending a questionnaire out to students. I also visited local education authorities to get district data on education performance I wanted. At the time I worried I wouldn’t have enough to give a substantial write-up, but once I got back home I realised that 12,000 words was far too little to include everything I had seen and wanted to say! A big challenge in the dissertation write-up was extracting what was most important, and what the key findings were.
Travelling to Kenya was a unique experience in itself, and the dissertation research I did there made me delve deeper into difficult socio-cultural issues. It also required me to consider the ethics of research into sensitive issues such as sexual abuse, deeply entrenched societal beliefs in female circumcision and the roles of women and men. I have come back with so many stories and people to remember, only a few of which made it into the final report! Though choosing to do a dissertation overseas can bring a number of different challenges I found it a highly rewarding experience, combining it with the NGO work and a post-work holiday travelling along the coast!
My tutors encouraged me to pursue a dissertation that I was interested in, and gave me email advice when I needed it out in Kenya. The college also offer support for travel overseas, and I successfully applied for a Keble Association Travel Grant that eased costs considerably.”
Duncan – Learning About Segregation: Investigating the effects of ethnic segregation on examination performance in Oldham and Burnley.
“Having two parents as teachers and after working in different schools, using the dissertation as an opportunity for increasing my understanding of the education system seemed a sensible idea, so that’s why I decided to investigate the effects ethnicity has upon academic performance.
My dissertation was essentially a statistics project – it doesn’t sound very exciting but was actually really interesting and after spending hours messing around on Excel I’m now a pro with spreadsheets!! The basis of the study was to investigate how pupils from various ethnic backgrounds perform in schools with different ethnic compositions. For example, do Bangladeshi pupils achieve higher examination results when educated in schools with more co-ethnics, whites, or pupils from other ethnic groups. I focused the study on the towns of Oldham and Burnley in Lancashire given the salience of ethnicity as a social issue in these contexts (following the so-called ‘race riots’ etc), and given the sensitivity of the issues I was studying it was not surprising that perhaps the hardest part of the project was acquiring the secondary data sets from the DfES. An email or two to the Secretary of State sorted this though, and provided me with a summer of number crunching educational stats!
Completing the dissertation was really satisfying – it gave me a different insight into some of the educational environments that I had worked in previously and also helped broaden my knowledge of contemporary issues concerning ethnicity and segregation, which proved invaluable when it came to the ‘Urban Social Segregation’ optional paper that I was sitting for finals. Some other people seemed to have a great time going out and doing research in exotic places and I’m thoroughly jealous of them, but there’s value in doing other types of study too. I was able to do an internship at the same time as complete my dissertation, as all the work could be done on a laptop I was leant during the commute to and from the office!”
Richard – Rock-slope failure in Snowdonia, North Wales.’
After enjoying studying environmental evolution in the Quaternary option during my second year I decided to develop my knowledge by undertaking a geomorphology dissertation on rock-slope failure. Throughout much of upland Great Britain large slope failures are in abundance and play a key role in landshaping through the direct movement of material downslope as well as through sediment supply to glaciers and rivers. Despite their important role, little is known about the exact causes of failure with dramatically different explanations forwarded in the geomorphological and engineering geology literature. While work has been carried out looking at the slope failures of the Scottish Highlands and the Lake District little work had been conducted in North Wales. I began the study by compiling a database for the failures in a 40 km2 study site around Mount Snowdon. This data was then used to test three research hypotheses that together helped me to draw firm conclusions on the modes of failure. I was in contact with geomorphologists throughout the UK during my research and their keen interest in my project assisted its development and meant that it was making a significant contribution to the field.
The key skill the geographer possesses is the ability to see the landscape and interpret its features. While working in North Wales I gained enjoyment from attempts to deduce origins of the features around me. The study proved to be highly challenging as text-book concepts are often difficult to apply in the field. Performing a study of this kind gave me a greater understanding of how scientific studies are conducted. This proved invaluable for accurate interpretation of future physical geography literature that I read. The dissertation may not have involved one of the most glamorous locations that have been used for undergraduate dissertations but it did help me keep the associated costs down and was convenient for return trips to the study area to collect extra data.
The idea for my project came from my Biogeography option module. I had become particularly interest in patterns of species turnover on islands and decided to pursue this in my dissertation with the helpful input from experienced tutors.
I gathered data from surveys of insects and plants on four archipelagoes (sadly I did not get to travel to them as part of my project). Using this I found which islands had more species evolving on them and investigated what characteristics of the island environments could have contributed to this. The most exciting part was being able to test a brand new model against existing hypotheses, providing fresh conclusions. At first it was quite daunting having to conduct my own project. But once I had read around a bit more and got stuck into my own analyses the whole process was very enjoyable, if a little challenging at times. In fact I became so fascinated by the topic it spurred me on to do a further degree.
Sam – Spaces of Effort: Geographies of a Kinaesthetic Assemblage.
One thing I love about the Oxford course is the freedom we’re granted to develop our interests – however strange they might be! Since I’ve been here I’ve become quite interested in the more radical, philosophical sides of Geography, thinking about what kinds of activities, ideas and spaces can be looked at that you might not normally associate with a subject traditionally concerned with populations and climate for example.
For my dissertation, I thought about the ways in which activities like sport can change the ways we experience the spaces surrounding us, and how focusing on the interactions between humans and technology might help us to think about ‘human’ geography in different and exciting ways.
I looked at the increasingly popular sport of indoor rowing as a way to investigate these ideas. It seemed a really good activity to focus on because the indoor rowing community is mostly based online, giving me the opportunity to participate in a world-wide activity, without spending lots of money travelling. I met lots of interesting people while doing my research, including the world record holder (he was huge!), and some remarkable athletes competing in the 80+ age category!
Because I was looking at the experiences of ‘spaces of effort’, the dissertation was an opportunity for me to do lots of rowing myself, and keeping a diary of the metres I rowed (over 120,000) and my feelings and experiences throughout was an important part of the research process. So not only did I get to do most of my research on the internet, I also got to do lots of exercise and call it work!
The dissertation has been by far the most rewarding aspect of the course at Oxford, and although I set myself quite a difficult task, I thoroughly enjoyed thinking about geography in different ways and contributing some original research myself.