Where are they now? - Petra Stapp

Interview with Petra Stapp first published in Volume 5 June 2015 of the Sophia Project News.

Where are they now?

Petra Stapp, second from right with (from left) Johns Wadsworth, Anthony Thorley, and Chantal Allison at Graduation

Petra Stapp entered the Cultural Astronomy and Astrology MA programme in 2003, a year after the programme was founded, and graduated in 2006 with a distinction. Her background includes time as a police officer, professional singer and songwriter, a DEFRA animal health officer and a Command and Control radio operator for the Thames Valley Police. Currently Petra is the Regulatory and Policy Advisor to the waste management firm Viridor, having completed a Masters in Environmental Law last year.

Kate Namous talked to Petra Stapp about the impact of the MA on her life and work.

KN: Why did you do the MA?

PS At the time, I was working for Thames Valley Police as a command and control radio operator, directing police officers in incidents. Despite the twelve-hour shifts, I was bored! I needed to do something to expand my mind, and had already been accepted into and enrolled at Birkbeck for Renaissance Studies. A friend sent me an advert for the MA in Cultural Astronomy and Astrology and said I should do it. My undergraduate degree is in the history of ideas, so this MA looked fascinating, with Earth-based cosmologies right through to physics. So I applied and had the interview. I think they thought it would be a good thing to have someone on the MA from a slightly different background.

KN: What modules did you find most interesting?

PS: The research module. It taught me that you didn't have to resort to a quantitative approach; that you didn't have to use statistics and roll out the evidence in that scientific way. It also introduced me to phenomenology, which to me is fantastic. I found the Science and Scepticism module to be the most difficult, but enjoyed the dissertation most of all.

KN: How did the MA affect your attitude to astrology?

PS: I did the MA for the cultural astronomy, and I managed quite well. I'm very interested in the esoteric side of science. My main interest became how people experience the world. I think the reductive worldview has chained us up in an unquestioning mechanistic universe, and experience can't be verified by science. I focused on the shamanistic potential that happens when you engage with the world, in particular in encounters with animals.

KN: What did your dissertation focus on?

PS: It was titled 'The More or Less Shaman'. My research found that shamanism is a quality and that people can be more or less shamanic - so therefore shamanism can work in Western culture, because everyone has that potential, although some people are more shamanistic than others.

KN: What doors have opened since doing the MA?

PS: It didn't open any doors for career, but it opened my mind and gave me skills to argue for my passions and my alternative worldviews regarding animal welfare. In addition, several of us formed a group called the 'Imaginals' while we were doing our dissertation. We got together every two weeks to support each other, and we've kept the group going every since. It's great to be able to have a good chinwag about our interests, things we can't talk to about to anyone else!

KN: What books are you reading now?

PS: At the moment I have several on the go, including Extraordinary Anthropology: Transformations in the Field by Jean-Guy Goulet and Bruce Granville Miller, and Deep Roots in a Time of Frost by Patrick Curry. I also revisit books I've read before, like those by Sean Kane and David Abram.

KN: Any new projects in the pipeline?

PS: I'm now revising my PhD application through Trinity Saint David. It started out using phenomenological and autoethnographic methodologies to describe encounters people have with animals and how it can completely change their worldview. I'm now tying that in with my MA in Environmental Law, where my dissertation was on Wild Law - there are lawyers trying to reframe laws to allow for agency in the environment and animals. I want to explore experiences and legal approaches to animals that could move the law towards animals so they have some sort of legal standing. At the moment, the law is human-centred and based on property rights; we need to look at how it can include non-humans and the environment.

KN: Many thanks for taking the time for this interview, Petra. We wish you all the best with your forthcoming PhD studies.

Petra Stapp

Fig 2: Petra at Graduation

Petra Stapp

Fig 3: Petra now