Bridging the Gap: Qualitative Empirical Ecocriticism and the Impact of Environmental Narrative

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Nicolai Skiveren




Canterbury University (New Zealand Centre for Human Animal Studies)


DKK 900,000




Internationalisation Fellowships


This project aims to explore how documentary films can help us respond better to the challenges of the contemporary environmental crisis. Focusing especially on food production, which today accounts for approximately 26% of global CO2 emissions, the study seeks to investigate how people respond to films that portray the negative consequences of commercial fishing and industrial agriculture. The study is particularly interested in the impact that such documentaries might have on their viewers and whether they might lead to changes in awareness, attitude, and behavior. In doing so, the project contributes new knowledge about how one of the most widely distributed and consumed forms of contemporary media can contribute to mobilizing prosocial behavior in a time of rapid social and ecological change.


One of the widespread premises motivating most research in the environmental humanities today is the insight that we cannot rely upon technological innovations alone if we wish to resolve the ecological issues that afflict the modern world. To this end, we are also in desperate need of new visions, affects, attitudes, habits, and behaviors. Recently, scholars have argued that media – such as literature, film, and television – can offer one way of bringing about precisely these kinds of societal transformations. By reading a book, watching a film, or experiencing an artwork, the argument goes, we come to see ourselves and the world in a new light, and, by doing so, we become more responsive and (potentially) willing to act differently. However, as promising as such claims might sound, there is currently very little empirical evidence to support this belief, as the existing scholarship in the field has so far relied primarily on the traditional methods of the humanities – i.e. textual analysis in its various forms – thereby engaging very little with the question of how empirical readers and viewers experience films and literature with environmental themes. Exploring this question is what this project seeks to do.


The project’s empirical undertakings will be conducted using the well-established methodologies of qualitative audience reception studies. By screening two different documentaries that engage with ecological issues of food production from both a global and a local perspective, the study will explore the experiences of different viewer groups – such as dairy farmers, vegans, and other ordinary citizens – using qualitative interviewing as a means to generate knowledge about their film experiences. The interview study will then culminate in an analysis of the stories told by viewers as a means to answer the question of why, how, and for whom environmental documentaries can inspire personal and collective change.

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