Cottonopolis is an inter-disciplinary research project, seeking to examine and evaluate the socio-economic legacies of industrial cotton production in the city of Manchester. Having been awarded funding by the Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC), the project will consider the global impacts these legacies had on various scientific knowledge, such as how the future of modern environmental science can be informed by the past.

Manchester is well placed: formally nicknamed ‘Cottonopolis’, the city is intrinsically linked to the history of the cotton industry. The project can therefore identify trajectories of environmental changes on both a local and global scale, as well as resulting social transformation during the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

The project is being led by researchers from across the University of Manchester, including those from the Department of History, the School of Environment, Education and Development, and other frequent collaborators of Creative Manchester such as Lecturer in Heritage Studies, Dr Jenna Ashton. All form the ‘Cottonopolis Collective’, who are working towards answering the following research questions:

  1. How can research into hidden histories and archives of cotton across Manchester reveal trajectories of global environmental and social transformation in the 19th/early-20th century?
  2. Using the history of cotton in Manchester as an inflexion point, what claims can be made on the epistemology (underlying ways of thinking or doing) of environmental science?
  3. How can scientific, social science, and art-based methods (archival, mapping and participatory approaches) reveal Manchester’s longer-term effects on the utilisation of the land (land use/land cover) across Britain’s empire?

Building on this, the Cottonopolis Collective will develop and define their concerns with the current definitions of ‘scientific excellence.’ The primary concerns rest in the fact that current definitions undermine the stated commitments of funding bodies and the fundamental structural change required to diversify the people involved with environmental research. This leads to the final research question:

  1. Can we generate more inclusive, reflexive, critical, and just environmental knowledge production processes across the UK’s environmental science community by reframing ‘scientific excellence’?

If successful, Cottonopolis will be a prime example of how interdisciplinary projects can inform our understanding of the environment in which we all live and how there is always historical context to the world around us.

Project partners also include the British Geological Survey, The Geological Society of London, Manchester Geographical Society, Royal Geographical Society, and The University of Manchester’s John Rylands Research Institute and Library.