Tree Health: PuRpOsE 2016-19

Understanding disease narratives and institutional complexity in the borderlands of oak tree health



Oak health exists in and results from a range of different, contested and conflicting natural and social factors. These factors co-exist in ‘borderlands’ of interaction between species (including humans), and inhabit spatial and temporal borderlands of health and ill health.

In this part of the PuRpOsE project, researchers focus on narratives of oak tree health in science, society and policy, and the emergence of acute oak decline (AOD) as a syndrome to be researched, managed and experienced. We investigate environmental, political, social, and cultural stories through the lens of more-than-human participation and the novel conceptualisation of the borderlands. We do so in order to explore the complex and contradictory ways in which stakeholders (including practitioners, academics and the general public) describe, reflect on and enact oak tree health management within the context of acute oak decline.

For the researchers in this work package, we understand oak health as an interaction of pests or pathogens, hosts, environment, and humans. In this way, disease environments can be viewed as ‘borderlands’, whereby disease is “both integral to, and always part of, an entangled [and mutable] interplay of environments, hosts, pathogens and humans” (Hinchliffe et al. 2013). For us, oak tree health exists in and as a result of a range of different, contested and conflicting natural and social factors. From this standpoint, and following Powell et al. (2014) and others, we challenge the contemporary resilience narrative of an ecological system bound by its biophysical setting and for which science can provide solutions to return to its previous state.


Focussing on the slow spatial and temporal trajectory of AOD, we examine AOD as a ‘wicked problem’ that is not just ecologically complex but also socially and institutionally complex, ambiguous, and mutable. Any understanding of the interactions between humans and non-humans (from trees, Agrilus beetles, soil microbes to policy documents) giving life to oak tree health issues thus demands research and policy approaches that challenge business as usual. Our research questions include:

  • In what social context has AOD emerged and what narratives surround it?
  • How do institutions define and implement strategies towards AOD management?
  • How do borderlands enable a deeper understanding of the interactions in AOD?

Planned outcomes

From this work we aim to produce an account of how tree health narratives emerge and spread, specifically identifying the social context of AOD.

We plan to evaluate the complex stakeholder interactions in responding to and managing AOD, tracing the contested opinions, policies and motivations of groupings who arrive at different assessments when faced with a common question.

And we aim to produce a set of co-designed strategies for managing and living with AOD, when mitigation is ineffective or temporally out of reach.

The team

For the wider project click here.

Researchers working on this part of the project: Hilary Geoghegan (University of Reading), Alison Dyke (Stockholm Environment Institute, York centre at University of York), Annemarieke de Bruin (Stockholm Environment Institute, York centre at University of York) and Patricia O’Flynn (University of Reading).

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