THE BRITISH LIBRARY

Social Science blog

Exploring Social Science at the British Library

Introduction

Find out about social sciences at the British Library including collections, events and research. This blog includes contributions from curators and guest posts by academics, students and practitioners. Read more

Social Sciences at the British Library

Over the past few years this blog has brought together various events, activities and archives at the British Library that have relevance to social scientists.

We have covered activities like our Propaganda exhibition in 2013 and our collaborative work on women’s liberation in the UK, incoming archives such as those deposited by Joan Bakewell and John Pilger, and recently our partnerships with PhD students on topics such as housing activism, British comics and the Judicial Committee of the Privy Council. Our yearly events calendar always includes an open day for social science PhD students, as well as the Equality Lecture on which we partner with the British Sociological Association.

But as well as the activities that receive publicity through this blog, there is a great deal of work under the surface at the British Library which has connections to social science research and presents opportunities for work with social scientists at all stages of their career.

On a day to day basis at the British Library, curators are managing and developing the content that they care for. They assess current research needs and consult with researchers to plan for the future, making connections across content types to facilitate the research process. They bring in new content via deposits and acquisitions, seeking to ensure the Library's collections represent British culture and society. Our international language and area specialists curate our overseas content, with rich collections to enable comparative, socio-historical and economic research.

It is not just printed content such as books, newspapers (national and international) and official publications that our curators manage. The collections here include diverse formats such as digital maps, websites, fanzines, oral history interviews, broadcast news (radio and television), spoken word recordings, world music recordings, personal and public archives, and political ephemera.

We have found through speaking to social scientists that they are often surprised at the range of content at the British Library that could support their research, or take it in new directions. There are so many opportunities here to contextualise research, to analyse different formats, to work with international material and indeed, to find unused or rarely-seen items which bring originality to research.

This short video should give you a taste for social sciences at the British Library. Please feel free to share and contact research.development@bl.uk if you would like information about collaborating with the British Library on social science research.

You can also view this video on YouTube here.

28 February 2018

Legal Deposit in 12 panels

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Last month, Olivia Hicks completed a 3 month PhD placement at the Library, investigating our collections of 21st century British comics. You can read more about how this project started in Olivia's blog post at http://blogs.bl.uk/socialscience/2017/12/21st-century-british-comics.html. In this post, Olivia describes the creation of a comic for comics creators, explaining Legal Deposit - and helping to build our collections.

Olivia Hicks is a second year PhD student at the University of Dundee. Her PhD focuses on the superheroine in British and American girls' comics. Her favourite superhero is the Spoiler, alias of Stephanie Brown, because they both love waffles and are penniless students.

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For the first two months of my placement here in the Library, I kept things fairly academic. I regularly went into the reading room, digging up old zines and small press comics – everything from roughly printed, handmade artefacts to glossy, professional-looking publications. I supplemented my research on 21st century British small press comics with plenty of serious and studious academic reading, learning from the grand-daddies of British comics scholarship, David Huxley and Roger Sabin. I complemented this by compiling my data into pretty (if slightly incomprehensible) graphs, which intricately detailed the gender and regional location of each creator I came across. My aim was to use ‘best of British comics’ anthologies as a representative sample for the comics industry; to try and gain an understanding of who was producing comics, and where.

Of course, these books are inherently curatorial, which problematizes the use of them as definitive statements on the UK comics scene. As a humanities student, this made them even more fascinating; what was the vision of UK comics that people were choosing to present. I spent my days poring over the editorials, introductions and statements of intent which accompanied these volumes. They provided a view of Britishness that was varied, and, in the volumes published in the wake of Brexit, increasingly unstable. However, because the Library’s collection of 21st century comics is both overwhelmingly large and also somewhat incomplete, anthologies represented a manageable microcosm for me to examine over my placement.

This was all well and good, if a little numbers heavy and dry for a final report. But this was only the first two months of my placement. The final month was completely different.

Ian, my supervisor, agreed to let me try and aid the Library’s collecting by creating a comic to raise awareness amongst comics creators of the legal deposit system, and that it is a legal requirement for them to deposit their work in the Library. The final month my desk space, already quite messy, became swamped in pencilled pages and I could regularly be found at my desk, headphones in, inking something which was at first, quite incomprehensible to the rest of the office, but which has slowly morphed into a wee comic which is silly, colourful, but packed to the gills with information about the legal deposit. The completed comic is now displayed above my (still messy) desk, and hopefully will serve as a reminder for the next PhD student to not be afraid to get creative with the placement. While my report findings will interest relatively few, the comic has taken on a life of its own in the office, and has encouraged lots of interest in the Library’s online and physical comics collection. By finding a creative angle to compliment your more serious output, you can broaden the audience for your research and get more people engaged, which is the aim for any academic, and indeed, for the Library as an institution. What can I say, the sky is blue, water is wet and people love comics!

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All images in this post from The Legal Deposit and You, by Olivia Hicks (coming to the British Library's website soon)

  

03 January 2018

The Persistence of Gender Inequality

A Summary of the Annual Equality Lecture 2017 by Professor Mary Evans

At the end of October 2017 we hosted our seventh annual Equality Lecture in partnership with the British Sociological Association. We were really delighted that the lecture this year was given by Professor Mary Evans, who has been central to the development of women’s and gender studies in the UK, and a prolific writer and academic on all aspects of gender in society. Her work has covered diverse topics such as love, detective fiction, austerity, autobiography, social class and higher education, Jane Austen, and has examined how social actions and actors are formed and structured within the social world.

Professor Evans drew on her recent book ‘The Persistence of Gender Inequality’ (Polity, 2016) to show how gender inequality is being reproduced in contemporary society, but is taking new forms. She began by making the point that gender as well as race, have been largely ignored in those major recent works (for example, by Thomas Piketty) which seek to address inequality. She argued that the connection between class inequalities, as shaped by gender and race, need to be brought to the fore if we are to understand the forms that unequal social relationships take in the contemporary western world.

WEB Equality Lecture Mary and John credit Sam Lane

Professor Mary Evans taking audience questions with event chair, Professor John Horne. Photo credit Sam Lane for The British Library Board.

She suggested that in the past forty years particular forms of social change have enlarged and reshaped inequality including:

‘the dissolution of some forms of class boundaries; the creation of a new social contract and with it a new version of the ‘ideal citizen’ and the expectations of women’s appearance and conduct.’

Evans described these latter two changes as constituting a form of ‘aspirational coercion’ which has a particular effect on four central forms of inequality between men and women, which are:

‘inequalities of income, public power, responsibility for care and; forms and means of representation, all of which are experienced in different ways according to difference in class and race.’

The notion of who counts as ‘middle-class’ and assumptions about middle-class personhood and values in contemporary neoliberal western societies such as the UK, were shown by Evans to be important to her idea of ‘aspirational coercion’.

On the one hand traditional markers of ‘middle-classness’ are increasingly uncertain; on the other, the middle-class to whom politicians often refer could be more accurately described as the ‘upper middle-class’.

Evans argued that in the UK, it is in fact, upper middle-class white men who remain dominant in elite professions, ‘high’ culture and politics. Yet, it is this particular version of elite autonomy, financial reward and social mastery that have become central to the notion of the ideal contemporary citizen whom she named: ‘the master of the universe’.

‘Being a commander of men has always dominated the aspirations of the ruling class but what interests me here is that we get to the point here where it intersects with gender in the way in which this idea of the powerful autonomous individual, replete with choice and agency has now become generalised as a human ideal.’

Evans suggested that very few people, men or women, of any race, ever get to occupy the position of ‘master of the universe’ but that this fantasy has a very real impact on the way in which people, and especially women, are recognised and ascribed social value. As paid work becomes the ‘gold standard’ as part of the fantasy status of ‘autonomous subject’, the unpaid work of caring for others, which remains overwhelmingly work done by women, becomes value-less:

‘The ‘master of the universe’ […] the specialist, the highly skilled, is essentially […] care-less. So with ‘success’ goes distance from care: a social association which establishes a connection between high achievement and being care-less, and being a low achiever and doing care.’

  WEB Equality Lecture audience credit Sam Lane
Audience questions at the Equality Lecture. Photo credit Sam Lane for The British Library Board.

The second issue of ‘aspirational coercion’ is around consumption as a route to, and marker of, female emancipation. The inability to participate in social expectations around consumption become a marker of lacking, and therefore source of personal shame, such that for women living in poverty, consumption has done very little to narrow class difference or experience. At the same time, consumption is a site for control and coercion around the shape and appearance of the female body. In this, the standards about the appearance of the female body are presented in ways which are connected to an ideal about an autonomous, emancipated, culturally hegemonic female subject. An ideal subject very far removed from the reality of most women’s lives, both in the west and in developing nations.

Professor Evans finished her lecture with a reminder of the need to think about gender and social inequality together, to enable us to understand what is being called the ‘new form of capitalism’. The idea of ‘aspirational coercion’ is important to understanding the relationship between individuals and capitalism which shape who is able to participate as an autonomous subject. And autonomy remains largely determined by new forms of this interplay between class, gender and race.

Further information;

Watch a video of Mary’s lecture here.

Listen to a podcast of Mary's lecture here.

Read a short piece by Mary on her lecture here

21 December 2017

John Pilger: Why the documentary must not be allowed to die

Last month, we announced the acquisition of a digital archive of John Pilger’s published work. This archive covers John Pilger’s career, bringing together some 60 films, 90 radio broadcasts and more than 1,400 articles written for newspapers and current affairs magazines. The collection reflects the interests that have influenced John Pilger’s career, including international affairs, the operation of power and giving voice to ordinary people. Bringing these materials together in one place, in digital form, creates huge potential for research and highlights the significance of independent investigative journalism of the highest quality. John Pilger has twice been named Journalist of the Year by the British Journalism Awards, and his films have won BAFTA awards in the UK and Emmy awards in the US. On Saturday and Sunday 9- 10 December, the British Library held a documentary festival to celebrate the acquisition of this archive, and also to feature other documentaries chosen by John Pilger as fine examples of the documentary craft. On Saturday, John gave a talk on ‘The Power of the Documentary’. An edited version of this address follows below, with kind permission of John Pilger.

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Why the documentary must not be allowed to die

by John Pilger

I first understood the power of the documentary during the editing of my first film, The Quiet Mutiny. In the commentary, I make reference to a chicken, which my crew and I encountered while on patrol with American soldiers in Vietnam.

“It must be a Vietcong chicken – a communist chicken,” said the sergeant. He wrote in his report: “enemy sighted”.

The chicken moment seemed to underline the farce of the war – so I included it in the film. That may have been unwise. The regulator of commercial television in Britain – then the Independent Television Authority or ITA – had demanded to see my script. What was my source for the political affiliation of the chicken? I was asked. Was it really a communist chicken, or could it have been a pro-American chicken?

Of course, this nonsense had a serious purpose; when The Quiet Mutiny was broadcast by ITV in 1970, the US ambassador to Britain, Walter Annenberg, a personal friend of President Richard Nixon, complained to the ITA. He complained not about the chicken but about the whole film. “I intend to inform the White House,” the ambassador wrote. Gosh.

The Quiet Mutiny had revealed that the US army in Vietnam was tearing itself apart. There was open rebellion:  drafted men were refusing orders and shooting their officers in the back or “fragging” them with grenades as they slept.

None of this had been news. What it meant was that the war was lost; and the messenger was not appreciated.

The Director-General of the ITA was Sir Robert Fraser. He summoned Denis Foreman, then Director of Programmes at Granada TV, and went into a state of apoplexy. Spraying expletives, Sir Robert described me as a “dangerous subversive”.

What concerned the regulator and the ambassador was the power of a single documentary film: the power of its facts and witnesses: especially young soldiers speaking the truth and treated sympathetically by the film-maker.

I was a newspaper journalist. I had never made a film before and I was indebted to Charles Denton, a renegade producer from the BBC, who taught me that facts and evidence told straight to the camera and to the audience could indeed be subversive.

This subversion of official lies is the power of documentary. I have now made 60 films and I believe there is nothing like this power in any other medium.

In the 1960s, a brilliant young film-maker, Peter Watkins, made The War Game for the BBC. Watkins reconstructed the aftermath of a nuclear attack on London.

The War Game was banned. “The effect of this film,” said the BBC, “has been judged to be too horrifying for the medium of broadcasting.” The then chairman of the BBC’s Board of Governors was Lord Normanbrook, who had been Secretary to the Cabinet. He wrote to his successor in the Cabinet, Sir Burke Trend: “The War Game is not designed as propaganda: it is intended as a purely factual statement and is based on careful research into official material … but the subject is alarming, and the showing of the film on television might have a significant effect on public attitudes towards the policy of the nuclear deterrent.”

In other words, the power of this documentary was such that it might alert people to the true horrors of nuclear war and cause them to question the very existence of nuclear weapons.

The Cabinet papers show that the BBC secretly colluded with the government to ban Watkins’ film. The cover story was that the BBC had a responsibility to protect “the elderly living alone and people of limited mental intelligence”.

Most of the press swallowed this. The ban on The War Game ended the career of Peter Watkins in British television at the age of 30. This remarkable film-maker left the BBC and Britain, and angrily launched a worldwide campaign against censorship.

Telling the truth, and dissenting from the official truth, can be hazardous for a documentary film-maker.

In 1988, Thames Television broadcast Death on the Rock, a documentary about the war in Northern Ireland.  It was a risky and courageous venture. Censorship of the reporting of the so-called Irish Troubles was rife, and many of us in documentaries were actively discouraged from making films north of the border. If we tried, we were drawn into a quagmire of compliance.

The journalist Liz Curtis calculated that the BBC had banned, doctored or delayed some 50 major TV programmes on Ireland. There were, of course, honourable exceptions, such as John Ware. Roger Bolton, the producer of Death on the Rock, was another. Death on the Rock revealed that the British Government deployed SAS death squads overseas against the IRA, murdering four unarmed people in Gibraltar.

A vicious smear campaign was mounted against the film, led by the government of Margaret Thatcher and the Murdoch press, notably the Sunday Times, edited by Andrew Neil.

It was the only documentary ever subjected to an official inquiry -- and its facts were vindicated. Murdoch had to pay up for the defamation of one of the film’s principal witnesses.

But that wasn’t the end of it. Thames Television, one of the most innovative broadcasters in the world, was eventually stripped of its franchise in the United Kingdom.

Did the prime minister exact her revenge on ITV and the film-makers, as she had done to the miners? We don’t know. What we do know is that the power of this one documentary stood by the truth and, like The War Game, marked a high point in filmed journalism.

I believe great documentaries exude an artistic heresy. They are difficult to categorise. They are not like great fiction. They are not like great feature movies. Yet, they can combine the sheer power of both.

The Battle of Chile: the fight of an unarmed people, is an epic documentary by Patricio Guzman. It is an extraordinary film: actually a trilogy of films. When it was released in the 1970s, the New Yorker asked: “How could a team of five people, some with no previous film experience, working with one Éclair camera, one Nagra sound-recorder, and a package of black and white film, produce a work of this magnitude?”

Guzman’s documentary is about the overthrow of democracy in Chile in 1973 by fascists led by General Pinochet and directed by the CIA. Almost everything is filmed hand-held, on the shoulder. And remember this is a film camera, not video. You have to change the magazine every ten minutes, or the camera stops; and the slightest movement and change of light affects the image.

In the Battle of Chile, there is a scene at the funeral of a naval officer, loyal to President Salvador Allende, who was murdered by those plotting to destroy Allende’s reformist government. The camera moves among the military faces: human totems with their medals and ribbons, their coiffed hair and opaque eyes. The sheer menace of the faces says you are watching the funeral of a whole society: of democracy itself.

There is a price to pay for filming so bravely. The cameraman, Jorge Muller, was arrested and taken to a torture camp, where he “disappeared” until his grave was found many years later. He was 27. I salute his memory.

In Britain, the pioneering work of John Grierson, Denis Mitchell, Norman Swallow, Richard Cawston and other film-makers in the early 20th century crossed the great divide of class and presented another country. They dared put cameras and microphones in front of ordinary Britons and allowed them to talk in their own language.

John Grierson is said by some to have coined the term “documentary”. “The drama is on your doorstep,” he said in the 1920s, “wherever the slums are, wherever there is malnutrition, wherever there is exploitation and cruelty.”

These early British film-makers believed that the documentary should speak from below, not from above: it should be the medium of people, not authority. In other words, it was the blood, sweat and tears of ordinary people that gave us the documentary.

Denis Mitchell was famous for his portraits of a working-class street. “Throughout my career,” he said, “I have been absolutely astonished at the quality of people’s strength and dignity”. When I read those words, I think of the survivors of Grenfell Tower, most of them still waiting to be re-housed, all of them still waiting for justice, as the cameras move on to the repetitive circus of a royal wedding.

The late David Munro and I made Year Zero: the Silent Death of Cambodia in 1979. This film broke a silence about a country subjected to more than a decade of bombing and genocide, and its power involved millions of ordinary men, women and children in the rescue of a society on the other side of the world. Even now, Year Zero puts the lie to the myth that the public doesn’t care, or that those who do care eventually fall victim to something called “compassion fatigue”.

Year Zero was watched by an audience greater than the audience of the current, immensely popular British “reality” programme Bake Off. It was shown on mainstream TV in more than 30 countries, but not in the United States, where PBS rejected it outright, fearful, according to an executive, of the reaction of the new Reagan administration. In Britain and Australia, it was broadcast without advertising – the only time, to my knowledge, this has happened on commercial television.

Following the British broadcast, more than 40 sacks of post arrived at ATV’s offices in Birmingham, 26,000 first-class letters in the first post alone. Remember this was a time before email and Facebook. In the letters was £1 million – most of it in small amounts from those who could least afford to give. “This is for Cambodia,” wrote a bus driver, enclosing his week’s wages. Pensioners sent their pension. A single mother sent her savings of £50. People came to my home with toys and cash, and petitions for Thatcher and poems of indignation for Pol Pot and for his collaborator, President Richard Nixon, whose bombs had accelerated the fanatic’s rise.

For the first time, the BBC supported an ITV film. The Blue Peter programme asked children to “bring and buy” toys at Oxfam shops throughout the country. By Christmas, the children had raised the astonishing amount of £3,500,000. Across the world, Year Zero raised more than $55 million, mostly unsolicited, and which brought help directly to Cambodia: medicines, vaccines and the installation of an entire clothing factory that allowed people to throw away the black uniforms they had been forced to wear by Pol Pot. It was as if the audience had ceased to be onlookers and had become participants.

Something similar happened in the United States when CBS Television broadcast Edward R. Murrow’s film, Harvest of Shame, in 1960. This was the first time that many middle-class Americans glimpsed the scale of poverty in their midst.

Harvest of Shame is the story of migrant agricultural workers who were treated little better than slaves. Today, their struggle has such resonance as migrants and refugees fight for work and safety in foreign places. What seems extraordinary is that the children and grandchildren of some of the people in this film will be bearing the brunt of the abuse and strictures of President Trump.

In the United States today, there is no equivalent of Edward R. Murrow. His eloquent, unflinching kind of American journalism has been abolished in the so-called mainstream and has taken refuge in the internet.

Britain remains one of the few countries where documentaries are still shown on mainstream television in the hours when most people are still awake. But documentaries that go against the received wisdom are becoming an endangered species, at the very time we need them perhaps more than ever.
 
In survey after survey, when people are asked what they would like more of on television, they say documentaries. I don’t believe they mean a type of current affairs programme that is a platform for politicians and “experts” who affect a specious balance between great power and its victims. 
 
Observational documentaries are popular; but films about airports and motorway police do not make sense of the world. They entertain.
 
David Attenborough’s brilliant programmes on the natural world are making sense of climate change – belatedly.
 
The BBC’s Panorama is making sense of Britain’s secret support of jihadism in Syria – belatedly.
 
But why is Trump setting fire to the Middle East? Why is the West edging closer to war with Russia and China?
 
Mark the words of the narrator in Peter Watkins’ The War Game: “On almost the entire subject of nuclear weapons, there is now practically total silence in the press, and on TV. There is hope in any unresolved or unpredictable situation. But is there real hope to be found in this silence?”

In 2017, that silence has returned.

It is not news that the safeguards on nuclear weapons have been quietly removed and that the United States is now spending $4.6 million per hour on nuclear weapons: that’s $4.6 million every hour, 24 hours a day, every day. Who knows that?

The Coming War on China, which I completed last year, has been broadcast in the UK but not in the United States – where 90 per cent of the population cannot name or locate the capital of North Korea or explain why Trump wants to destroy it. China is next door to North Korea.

According to one “progressive” film distributor in the US, the American people are interested only in what she calls “character-driven” documentaries. This is code for a “look at me” consumerist cult that now consumes and intimidates and exploits so much of our popular culture, while turning away film-makers from a subject as urgent as any in modern times.

"When the truth is replaced by silence,” wrote the Russian poet Yevgeny Yevtushenko, “the silence is a lie."

Whenever young documentary film-makers ask me how they can “make a difference”, I reply that it is really quite simple. They need to break the silence.