Call for abstracts: Using Applied Social Science Methodologies to Conserve the Historic Environment: Can Evidence Change Practice?

HistoricEnvironment_NetworkEnvironmental Design Research Association (EDRA) intensive proposal for the EDRA47 conference on May 18, 2016 at the Raleigh Convention Center, Raleigh, North Carolina, USA

Submission deadline has been extended to Wednesday, September 30


Dr. Jeremy Wells, Assistant Professor of Historic Preservation, Roger Williams University; Co-chair of the EDRA Historic Environment Knowledge Network;

Dr. April D. Allen, Assistant Professor of Interior Design, Michigan State University; Co-chair of the EDRA Historic Environment Knowledge Network,


Submit a 350-500 word abstract and title for consideration and contact information to the e-mail addresses above by September 30, 2015 (extended deadline). Submission of a full paper is not required in order to present your work.


Accepted presenters will participate in a day-long intensive at the EDRA47 conference on Wednesday, May 18, 2016. All accepted presenters will be invited to submit a full paper after the conference. Selected papers will then be published in an edited volume.

The proposal

The publication, thirty years ago, of David Lowenthal’s The Past is a Foreign Country (1985) helped create the field of critical heritage studies, which seeks an understanding of the relationship that people have with heritage and the historic environment. Researchers from this field have defined a novel heterodox approach to theory and practice based on the social sciences that is critical of the dominant system of expert rule and positivistic, top-down processes that characterizes orthodox built heritage theory and practice (Avrami, Mason, & Torre, 2000; Carman & Sørensen, 2009; Gibson & Pendlebury, 2009; Green, 1998; Harrison, 2013; Lixinski, 2015; Low, 1994; Smith, 2006; Waterton & Smith, 2010; Winter, 2013). Heritage studies scholarship, however, has had little impact on the day-to-day practice of conserving the historic environment, especially in those aspects that overlap with the regulatory environment. Moreover, built heritage practitioners lack generalizable/transferable knowledge about the psychological, ethnographic, and experiential dimensions of the historic environment that are required to provide a proper context for effective interpretation and communication with stakeholders (Wells, 2015).

Professionals in built heritage conservation often refer to their work as the “management of change,” which recognizes the impossibility of truly preserving or fixing, in time and place, the physical characteristics of a heritage object or landscape, especially when such objects must have a use. Conservation, therefore, becomes a process of making “good” decisions in the necessary interventions made to buildings, structures, places, and landscapes in order to authentically sustain their existence. Given this context, however, there is much confusion today about what it is we are really trying to conserve. Both heterodox and orthodox theory emphasize a focus on continuity, but as opposed to the continuity of fabric, heterodox theorists (Breglia, 2006; Muñoz Viñas, 2005; Smith, 2006; Zancheti & Loretto, 2012) direct that the focus should be on conserving the meanings associated with this fabric. Taken to its logical extreme, the fabric of a heritage object can change so long as the sociocultural meanings associated with the object are therefore conserved. A “good” decision then becomes one that conserves the sociocultural meanings of place rather than the fabric of place. It is therefore incumbent upon the built heritage practitioner to recognize, gather, interpret, and understand a broad array of stakeholder meanings associated with place.

This shift in heritage conservation to heterodox approaches means that in the future, the role of the heritage practitioner moves from controlling meanings associated with fabric to facilitating the gathering and interpretation of meanings from people as well as empowering communities to recognize, treat, and interpret their built heritage and cultural landscapes. Built heritage practitioners will therefore need to collect and interpret these meanings with more depth and consistency than has been happening to date using efficient and pragmatic social science tools that do not currently exist.

This intensive therefore addresses the question of how heterodox conservation theory can and should change practice. For the most part, there are few answers to this question because professionals in the heritage conservation field do not use social science research methodologies to manage cultural landscapes, assess historical significance, and inform the treatment of building and landscape fabric. With few exceptions, only academic theorists have explored these topics while failing to offer specific, usable guidance on how the social sciences can actually be used by heritage professionals. This intensive will therefore try to address the following, overarching questions:

  • Can heterodox heritage conservation theory be implemented in statutes, ordinances, and rules? Should it be?
  • How can we develop pragmatic, practical social science tools for built heritage practitioners, most of whom have no social science background, including ways to implement community-based participatory research?
  • How can heritage experts communicate with most stakeholders using the language of laypeople to describe the importance of heritage conservation and how the authenticity of buildings, places, and landscapes can be retained? Can and should this information be used to change people’s behavior?

We also welcome addressing more specific questions in terms of how they should affect/influence the practice of built heritage conservation and the conservation of cultural landscapes:

  • How do most people perceive and value the historic environment? What is meaningful about it to them?
  • How does the historic environment influence people’s behavior?
  • What are the psychological effects of the historic environment on people? How does the historic environment influence emotional attachment to place?
  • How do most people perceive the authenticity of the historic environment? What impact does authenticity have on cultural practices and on individuals?
  • How should we train students in historic environment degree programs to implement heterodox theory in the practice of conserving the historic environment?

For additional information, please refer to the “Principles for Integrating Environmental Design and Behavior Research into Built Heritage Conservation Practice” document on this web site.

Submissions are encouraged from all disciplines, academics and practitioners, and any country. Diverse cultural perspectives are especially welcome.

The venue

The Environmental Design Research Association (EDRA) was created in 1972 to address how empirical evidence from social science research methods (e.g., ethnography, grounded theory, survey research, environmental psychology, phenomenology) could be used to influence the design of buildings, places, and landscapes. This goal of this “evidence-based design” is to improve the human environment. The Historic Environment Knowledge Network was created in 2008 to further this mission with historic environments — i.e., “evidence-based conservation”. Attendees at the annual EDRA conference consist of a 50/50 mix of practitioners and academics with representation from the disciplines of architecture, landscape architecture, interior design, planning, geography, heritage conservation, anthropology, sociology, and psychology. It is one of the few conferences where the focus of attention is on a human environment topic rather than on a specific discipline.


Avrami, E., Mason, R., & de Torre, M. L. (2000). Values and heritage conservation. Los Angeles: Getty Conservation Institute.

Breglia, L. (2006). Monumental ambivalence: The politics of heritage. Austin: University of Texas Press.

Carman, J., & Sørensen, M. L. S. (2009). Heritage studies: An outline. In M. L. S. Sørensen & J. Carman (Eds.), Heritage studies: Methods and approaches (pp. 11-28). Routledge.

Gibson, L. & Pendlebury, J. (Eds.), (2009). Valuing historic environments. Surry and Burlington: Ashgate Publishing.

Green, H. L. (1998). The social construction of historical significance. In M. A. Tomlan (Ed.), Preservation of what, for whom? A critical look at historical significance (pp. 85-94). Ithaca, NY: National Council for Preservation Education.

Harrison, R. (2013). Heritage: Critical approaches. New York: Routledge.

Lixinski, L. (2015). Between orthodoxy and heterodoxy: The troubled relationships between heritage studies and heritage law. International Journal of Heritage Studies, 21(3), 203-214.

Low, S. M. (1994). Cultural conservation of place. In M. Hufford (Ed.), Conserving culture: A new discourse on heritage (pp. 66-77). Urbana: University of Illinois Press.

Muñoz Viñas, S. (2005). Contemporary theory of conservation. Amsterdam: Elsevier.

Schofield, J. (2014). Who needs experts? Counter-mapping cultural heritage. Farnham: Ashgate.

Smith, L. (2006). Uses of heritage. London and New York: Routledge.

Waterton, E. & Smith, L. (2010). The recognition and misrecognition of community heritage. International Journal of Heritage Studies 16 (1), 4-15.

Wells, J. (2015). Making a case for historic place conservation based on people’s values. Forum Journal of the National Trust for Historic Preservation, 29 (3), 44-62.

Winter, T. (2013). Clarifying the critical in critical heritage studies. International Journal of Heritage Studies, 19(6), 532-545.

Zancheti, S. M., & Loretto, R. P. (2012). Dynamic integrity: A new concept to approach the conservation of historic urban landscape (HUL). In Textos para discussão no. 53 (pp. 1-11). Olinda, Brazil: Centro de Estudos Avançados da Conservação Integrada.

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