What is the role of a rat in an inquiry on urban rats?

It has been suggested that in order to adequately attend to the planetary crises and flourishing and survival of biodiversity, undoing such hierarchical relations between humans and other beings is crucial. Could ecological research on rats help?

Usually in ecological research, humans are considered as the active subjects producing knowledge whereas nature and other animals are seen as objects to be studied. Researchers from the Universities of Helsinki and Oulu aimed in this new research to study how non-anthropocentric goal of environmental education could be bridged with ecological inquiry with scientific goals.

The researchers followed secondary school students when they conducted ecological inquiry on urban rats. The young citizen scientists used track plates to trace potential rat tracks and find out about rat presence close to their schools.

- We draw from two conceptualizations – animal’s atmospheres and materiality of the research. to rethink ecological inquiry and environmental education activities in ways that unsettle the human-centredness of scientific research, explains Anttoni Kervinen, the lead author in the research.

- We noticed, that the goal of the inquiry requires negotiating tensions between human cultural atmospheres and rats’ atmospheres. To place the track plates in suitable spots and succeed in the ecological research, the young researchers needed to attune to rats’ atmosphere and find a way of thinking that fits both the scientific need to know about rat movement and rats’ needs to live and move around, Kervinen continues.

During the research, the materiality of the track plates become obvious as they were transformed by markings and the students needed to interpret what had happene. The researchers then explored how the track plate can be understood as a dynamic and transforming collaboration between humans and rats rather than a mere research instrument used by human researchers.

- By re-conceptualizing the track-plate as collaborative knowledge production among rats and humans, we shift focus from the final research reports that tend to reproduce the subject-object setting to the scientific research process itself. Such a perspective creates space for attentiveness to the more-than-human world, says Tuomas Aivelo, the senior author and the leader of Helsinki Urban Rat Project.

- The findings demonstrate that ecological inquiry and posthumanist attentiveness to multispecies entanglements can intersect in environmental education without compromising their respective aims. Future studies should investigate the implications of such educational activities for students learning and thinking in more detail, suggests Anttoni Kervinen.

The study was published in Environmental Education Research and it was part of Research Council of Finland -funded project CitiRats led by Pauliina Rautio in the University of Oulu.