THE BRITISH LIBRARY

Social Science blog

15 posts categorized "Social Policy and Welfare"

02 February 2015

2014 in review: Management Book of the Year, the problem with democracy, epigenetics and beyond.

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2014 saw British Library curators working across diverse themes, including: sport, law, language, gender, ageing and democracy. Through conferences, exhibitions, workshops and collection development, we worked with a range of audiences, uncovering new insights to our collections and learning more about contemporary research. Here are some highlights:

The annual Chartered Management Institute/British Library Management Book of the Year awards ceremony was held in the British Library conference centre on the 3rd February 2014.  Details of the category winners can be found on the CMI website along with videos which summarise each of the books.  The videos were produced by students from Ravensbourne College of Design and Communication.  The overall winner for 2014 was The Ten Principals behind Great Customer Experience by Matt Wilkinson.  We look forward to participating in the 2015 awards ceremony, which takes place on the 9th of February this year.

As part of the public events series linked to the Beautiful Science: Picturing Data, Inspiring Insight   exhibition, we held a public discussion ‘Beyond Nature versus Nurture’.  This event brought together social scientists and scientists to discuss how the nature versus nurture debate has been revolutionised by the study of Epigenetics and to debate the moral, ethical and social consequences of the growing understanding of how nurture affects nature. The speakers were Professors George Davey-Smith and Nikolas Rose.  The evening was chaired by Professor Jane Elliott. The discussion is available as a podcast and can also be watched on the library’s Youtube channel.

To mark Le Grand Départ of the Tour de France 2014 from Yorkshire, members of the team, with colleagues from across the library, curated and installed a display of collection items at the library’s Boston Spa site near Wetherby. The display included accounts of the early days of cycling as a mass pastime and sport, including an 1897 description of a ‘bicycle gymkhana’, more recent journalistic accounts of the legendary cycling extravaganza, typographical prints responding creatively to the 2011 Tour de France – including Mark Cavendish’s Green Jersey win – and the original manuscript of Tim Moore’s best-selling French Revolutions, his 2001 account of cycling the entire 3,630km route of the 2000 Tour de France.

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Gill Ridgley and Robert Davies following the installation of Le Grand Tour exhibition at Boston Spa

In addition to the exhibition there was a ‘peloton’ of blogs written by staff including 'Pedal Power' which explored how patents held by the library shed light on the technical development of the bicycle over the last two hundred years and ‘Escorting Stoller's Depart' which reports on the Tour de British Library when members of staff cycled from St Pancras to Boston Spa to mark the start of the Tour de France.

In April we held a one day conference Portraying Ageing: Cultural Assumptions and Practical Implications in partnership with the The School of Language, Linguistics and Film – Queen Mary, University of London and the Centre for Policy on Ageing.  The conference brought together experts from different backgrounds to share and discuss, from a variety of theoretical and practical viewpoints, how age and ageing are not only biological events but also cultural and social constructions and how insights from research can be translated into policy and practice.  They keynote address was given by Professor Lynne Segal, Anniversary Professor of Psychology & Gender Studies at Birkbeck, Guardian Columnist and author of ‘Out of Time: The Pleasures and the Perils of Ageing’. The conference was filmed and the videos can be accessed via a page on the Social Welfare Portal.  An overview of the day is also available via the ‘Age is in the eye of the beholder' blog post.

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Professor Lynne Segal delivering the keynote address at the Portraying Ageing Conference.

We were delighted to hold the Fourth Annual Equality lecture in association with the British Sociological Association.  This year our speaker was Dr Tom Shakespeare, a senior lecturer in medical sociology at the University of East Anglia and disability rights advocate. Tom’s research interests centre on disability studies and bioethics and his publications include: The Sexual Politics of Disability (1996), Genetic Politics (2002) and Disability Rights and Wrongs (2006). He has worked at the World Health Organization in Geneva where he helped write and edit the World Report on Disability (WHO 2011) and has been involved in the disability movement for 25 years.

The theme of Tom’s talk was ‘Enabling Equality: from disabling barriers to equal participation’ and explored what it takes to achieve equality for disabled people, in the era of the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities and ‘welfare reform’.  The lecture is available on our podcast page and as a video on the British Sociological Association’s vimeo channel.

Members of the team assisted colleagues from across the library in the planning and delivery of the Languages and the First World War International Conference which was held in association with the University of Antwerp and timed to coincide with the opening of the library exhibition Enduring War: Grief, Grit and Humour.  The conference aimed to study how the languages of combatant nations influenced each other; the use of trench slang to both include and exclude individuals; censorship and propaganda; the development of interpreting as a profession; personal communication and silence during and after the war and how the First World War still influences how we all speak today.  The speakers represented a range of academic disciplines and were drawn from across Europe, North America and Australia.  The programme and related blogs can be found on the dedicated conference tumblr page. Some of the twitter feed from the conference is available via Storyfi.

Post Card Home
Postcard home: Arthur Tildesley writes to his Mother and Father that he is 'tray bon'.

In June we hosted the inaugural English Grammar Day, which was inspired by renewed political interest in the role of grammar in English teaching and assessment and debates about the cultural and educational significance of knowledge about grammar. EGD 2014 was a sell out event and a forum for reflections on the state of, and attitudes towards, English grammar – in school and beyond – with public contributions encouraged in the form of a lively ‘Any Questions’ style Panel session. The event brought together academic linguists, teachers, PGCE students, teacher trainers and non-specialists and we look forward to hosting EGD 2015 on June 29 and making this an annual event.

The year also saw British Online Archives made available via remote access for British Library readers.  This is an online platform which brings together digitised images, and descriptions, of collections held in archives and libraries from across Britain.   Collections include the BBC Handbooks and Listener Research, Parliamentary Labour Party records, missionary and colonial papers (recording some of the earliest contacts between Europeans and the populations of Africa, the Americas, and the Pacific), and the archive of the Communist Party of Great Britain.  More information on some of the material available via the service can be found in an earlier Social Sciences blog post.

Holders of British Library Reader Pass can now access these collections from outside our Reading Rooms, using our Remote e-Resources service at https://eresources.remote.bl.uk:2443/login

Britihs Archives Online

Images taken from British Archives Online.

In partnership with the Institute of Advanced Legal Studies and the Socio-Legal Studies Association we held the third national socio-legal training day.  The theme this year was Law, Gender and Sexuality.  The day aimed to draw attention to archives and content which newcomers to the investigation of intersections between law, gender and sexuality may not be aware of and to consider the methodological and practical issues involved in analysing sources. Information about the programme and details of speakers can be found here and overviews of the day can be found here and here.

We also launched our new series of public discussions ‘Enduring Ideas’ in partnership with the Academy of Social Sciences.  The series aims to explore some of the key concepts which underpin society.  In the first event, Professor Matthew Flinders, University of Sheffield and author of Defending Politics, discussed ‘Enduring Ideas: The Problem with Democracy’.

During the evening Professor Flinders asked and addressed many questions: does the apparent shift from healthy scepticism to corrosive cynicism have more to do with our unrealistic expectations of politics than a failure of democratic politics?  Do the problems with democracy – if they exist – tell us more about a failure on the part of the public to understand politics rather than a failure of politicians to understand us?  Is the problem with democracy is not that it is in short supply but that we have too much of it? He went on to suggest new ways of thinking about politics to ensure not the death but the life of democracy.  A podcast of the talk is available here.

Naturally, this post only provides a snapshot of some of the activities we were involved in, in 2014.  We’ve enjoyed working with colleagues from across academia; libraries; archives; third sector organisations; professional bodies such as the Academy of Social Sciences, British Sociological Association and the Sociological Research Association, enormously.  It has also been a great way to meet so many members of the public.  We’re already looking forward to a new Enduring Ideas discussion, Talk Science, the Annual Equality Lecture and more in 2015.  Keep an eye on What’s On for events.

02 December 2014

Feminism in London Conference

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Louise Kimpton Nye writes:

Last month Polly Russell and I joined about 1000 other people in a vast auditorium at the Institute for Education for the Feminism in London Conference. We were there partly for professional reasons - Polly, a Curator at the British Library, manages a project to digitise, preserve and make freely available the complete run of Spare Rib magazine and I have been working as a volunteer with her for the last ten months. But we were also there as committed feminists, curious to find out more about feminist campaigns, issues and arguments. The atmosphere in that auditorium at the start of the conference was exciting, welcoming, irreverent yet serious and this set the tone for the rest of the day.

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  Photograph used with kind permission of Foto Bella Foto
     

The conference comprised lectures, panel discussions and workshops on a wide range of feminist issues including Grounding Feminist Activity in our Everyday Life, Intersecting Oppressions In The Sex Industry and Sisterhood Around The Globe, for instance.  Annette Lawson OBE (National Alliance of Women’s Organisations) kicked off the day with her keynote speech, ‘Feminism in Context’ in which she explored the sources of misogyny and asked why people are often reluctant to use the word ‘feminist’.  Lawson was followed by a rousing speech from Dr Gail Dines, author of Pornland: How Pornography has Hijacked our Sexuality and Professor of Sociology and Women’s Studies.  

Dines aims to put the radical back into feminism, and argued that the core principal of feminism, ‘the personal is political’ has been undermined by too much emphasis on personal empowerment at the expense of a wider collective feminist activism.  She argued that women in positions of privilege and power have ‘sold out’ to do the bidding of powerful men and that while patriarchal power structures are embedded in institutions, women are never going to gain a rightful share. Dines is a powerful speaker who doesn’t mince her words. She captivated the crowd with her no holds barred analysis of pornography and racism in pornography, subjects we had another opportunity to explore at a film and discussion event over the lunch break, The Porn Industry has Hijacked our Sexuality.

In the morning, we attended Feminist Archives and Activism: Knowing Our Past - Creating Our Future, a workshop which explored the importance of preserving and celebrating feminist history.  From our perspective this was an opportunity to find out about the important work of feminist libraries and archives, to meet a range of feminist librarians and archivists and to talk about our project to digitise Spare Rib. Organised by the newly formed national network of Feminist Libraries and Archives, FLA, this workshop was chaired by Sue O’ Sullivan, member of the Spare Rib collective and Sheba Press. Panel  members included Yasmin Ahmed from the Feminist Library , Frankie Green from the Women’s Liberation Music Archive, Jalna Hanmer from the Feminist Archive North, Zaimal Azad from Nottingham Women’s Centre, Sue John from Glasgow Women’s Library, and Liz Kelly and Joan Scanlon from the radical feminist journal Trouble & Strife.

Liz Kelly talked about the impetus for digitising Trouble and Strife magazine – a desire to ensure that the ideas of older-generation feminists are available online to younger feminists. The interactive online resource takes articles from past editions of the magazine and reflects on these from a present-day perspective.  Kelly was keen to encourage women to get in touch if they wish to contribute to the website,  www.troubleandstrife.org.

Yasmin Ahmed, gave us a potted history of the Feminist Library which started in 1975 and houses a large archive of Women’s Liberation Movement material, as well as an extensive collection of feminist books, journals, photos, leaflets and pamphlets charting different feminist perspectives from around the world.  Ahmed’s presentation stimulated some interesting discussion about modern attitudes to de-cluttering and whether it is ‘worth’ keeping our old magazines and other memorabilia.  The resounding message from the older feminists in the room was “don’t throw anything away!”  Indeed, the Feminist Library will take people’s old books, photos, leaflets etc. and archive them.  One younger delegate said how much she enjoys handling the resources held in libraries and archives, in contrast to using the internet for research. Others concurred with this and argued that physical space of a library can play an important part in creating and maintaining feminist communities. The consensus was clear, in our digital age there is still a place for physical items and for spaces where feminist activists, historians and scholars can come together and share ideas and resources.

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Photograph used with kind permission of Foto Bella Foto

In the afternoon, I attended the workshop on Fighting Against Patriarchy in Turkey.   The panel comprised four inspiring young women from the Istanbul Feminist Collective who gave us a vivid picture of how feminists are organising in Turkey to develop a feminist theory and practise against the system of patriarchy.  These women made a real impression on me.  They had such a firm handle on what is needed to make a real difference to real women in Turkey and explained their goals with focus and clarity.   Violence and sexual violence against women were key themes.  They talked about how the women’s movement in Turkey has successfully argued that so-called ‘custom killing’ or ‘honour killing’ should be called femicide.  For them, every male crime against a woman is political in a country where at least three women per day are killed.  But it is in the domestic sphere and in the labour market that the Istanbul Feminist Collective believe deep change is needed if women are to gain the independence needed to rise up against violence and oppression.  Men control women’s labour in Turkey, both paid and unpaid, the collective argue.   ‘We want our dues back from men’ was how one of the panellists described their goal to ‘force the state to demolish the gender division of labour’.  This was powerful stuff. 

Male violence against women and rape were key themes running through the day.  They were explored by both keynote speakers at the start of the day and further discussed in some of the workshops.  Violence against women was also the main topic of the closing plenary, with the Awarding of the Emma Humphreys Memorial Prize which recognises individual women and women’s groups who have raised awareness of violence against women and children.   Women nominated for the prize stood up to give their personal testimonies of how they had been affected by male violence in what was the most moving part of the day. 

Intense and inspiring in equal measure, the conference achieved a good balance between academic debate and discussion of how issues of inequality affect women in their everyday lives.  There was also plenty of entertainment on hand with the fantastic stand-up comedian Kate Smurthwaite chairing the plenary session and a poet in residence who spent the day gathering material for a poem which she then performed at the closing session.  The day ended on a real high note with a feminist party with performances from feminist band the Stepney Sisters, formed in 1975, performance poet, Carmina Masoliver, artist and activist Rebecca Mordan (founder of Scary Little Girls), and many more. Lively, engaging, challenging and rich, this conference had something for everyone.

25 November 2014

Socio-Economic Developments since 1820

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Jerry Jenkins writes:  While unpacking some parcels earlier in the month, Matthew Shaw, the North American Curator and I were comparing the contents of our respective parcels.  I produced from my parcel an OECD title: How Was Life? Global Well-Being Since 1820.

It struck me on browsing the contents that this work provides a useful 'long view' of social development in many different fields and disciplines. The report is in the main concerned with socio-economic developments since the industrial revolution. 

In the foreword it states that the work goes beyond the traditional measures of GDP “to encompass a broader set of dimensions that shape people’s living conditions such as their wages, longevity, education, height and personal security among others.”

Across thirteen chapters, illustrated with figures and tables, the central themes of human well-being are analysed and explored in-depth. Each chapter is organised in a uniform way providing an introduction leading into eight sections all of which provide an overview of the historical sources consulted along with a description of the concepts used.  Each chapter also provides an explanation of the main research findings as well as devoting space to the important issue of data quality and recommendations for future research.

Its publication is a timely one, as it coincides well with a renewed interest in 'long history' as demonstrated by the publication of The History Manifesto by Jo Guldi and David Armitage which is freely available to read on the  publishers website

These two publications go some way to indicate how the 'long view' is coming into focus as methodology and data become accessible for both academics and practitioners to use in their work on modern society and all its competing pressures and the forces which shape it.

Along with How Was Life? Global Well-Being Since 1820 the library has a historic collection of OECD material available and accessible to the researcher in our Reading Rooms.  Furthermore, this title, along with many others by OECD, is available with the click of a mouse through the OECD i-library

I should also mention Matthew Shaw's recent acquisition was a leather bound pocket book diary of a Philadelphia oil worker from the 1870s, which I am sure you’ll be able to read more about in a forthcoming entry on the Americas Studies blog in the future.

Jerry Jenkins is the British Library's Curator for International Organisations & North American Official Publications.  

12 September 2014

Regeneration?

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Robert Davies, Engagement Support Officer for Social Sciences writes

Just over a year ago I wrote a short blog post ‘Memory Place’ which recorded my reaction to seeing a particular item in our Propaganda Power and Persuasion exhibition and how it evoked memories of the fire at the Cuming Museum, Walworth, a few months earlier. Since then I have been prompted to explore some of the Library’s holdings relating to the study of regeneration and re-development.

Why these particular areas of study? Well, the Cuming Museum, the town hall and the Newington library remain under plastic wraps or behind hoardings following the fire last year, but thankfully they have not disappeared as if part of an illusionist’s amazing turn of prestidigitation. However, over the last few months many other buildings have disappeared behind similar wraps or hoardings to re-emerge as temporary piles of rubble. This is all part of the vast and often disputed project to replace the Heygate Estate with Elephant Park and the wider redevelopment plans for this particular part of South London (or as it was once described ‘London South Central’).

As the re-development progresses I have been taking photographs in an attempt to record how once familiar places are being removed. Often you are confronted with rather peculiar sights such as spotting the wreckage of this car:

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Car wreckage at the Heygate Estate. Photograph by author.

This prompted me to wonder: who had left it behind, had the contractors forgotten to ensure that the garages were empty before demolishing them, could the owner not be contacted or had a film crew decided to take advantage of the demolition sites to record a scene for an apocalyptic movie or gritty television crime drama? Maybe it is a left over prop from the filming of ‘Attack the Block’, ‘World War Z’ or perhaps even as far back as ‘The Bill’? To me it is also one of many images which represent the “shock and awe of urban renewal….” as Professor Michael Keith phrases it [Chapter 14, The Routledge Companion to Urban Regeneration, 2013].

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Demolition at the Heygate Estate. Photograph by author.

As you can probably tell I am not a very good photographer. To gain a much better sense of the many types of media being used to research and record changes to ‘material culture, heritage, urban life, place-making practices and spatial politics’ you can read Dr Bradley L Garrett’s blog post on Visual Urbanisms: Perspectives on Contemporary Research and Holly Gilbert’s post Perceptions of the Material Landscape.

A large number of videos, created by a wide range of people, including those recording the oral histories of some of the former residents of the Heygate, can found online  by searching for ‘Heygate Estate’. Other websites worth looking at to gain different perspectives on project include those of the developers and groups such as Southwark Notes , The Walworth Society and 56aInfoshop.

Anyway, I’ll conclude with a select bibliography of some of the latest academic publications on the subjects of regeneration and gentrification held by the library:

Mitchell Duneier, Philip Kazanitz and Alexandra K. Murphy. ed.s. 2014. The Urban Ethnography Reader. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Available in the Social Sciences Reading Room at: SPIS.307.76

Anna Jorgensen, and Richard Kennan. ed.s. 2012. Urban Wildscapes. London: Routledge. Available in the Social Sciences Reading Room at: SPIS.307.76

Michael E. Leary and John McGarthy. ed.s. 2013. The Routledge Companion to Urban Regeneration. London: Routledge.
Available in the Social Sciences Reading Room at: SPIS 307.3416

Loretta Lees, Tom Slater, and Elvin Wyly. ed.s. 2010. The Gentrification Reader. London: Routledge.
British Library shelfmark: YC.2013.b.1602

Michael Storper. 2013. The Keys to the City. Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press. Available in the Social Sciences Reading Room at: SPIS.307.76

Andrew Tallon. ed. 2010. Urban Regeneration and Renewal: Critical Concepts in Urban studies. 4 vol.s. London: Routledge.
British Library Shelfmark: YC.2013.a.9906

Fran Tonkiss. 2013. Cities by Design: The Social Life of the Urban Form. Bristol: Polity Press. Available in the Social Science Reading Room at: SPIS.307.76

In addition to this very short bibliography there are numerous articles and reports available via our Social Welfare Portal and Management and Business Studies Portal. Whilst writing this particular post I have also found many other collections items which cast light on how current regeneration schemes within the UK fit into a wider social history including the ‘improvements’ of the late 19th century, the development of the garden cities movement of the early 20th century, post-war modernist architecture and urban planning, the entrepreneurial property-led regeneration of the 1980s and redevelopment schemes which have formed part of recent sporting ‘mega-events’.   More of that in another blog post.  

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Rubble at the Heygate Estate. Photograph by author.

16 July 2014

Age is in the eye of the beholder

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Social science curator Simone Bacchini reports on a recent conference at the British Library, which examined the portrayal of ageing.

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Professor Lynne Segal, Birkbeck University of London, speaking at the British Library

Everybody’s doing it, so we might as well be open about it. What? Drug-taking? No: getting older; it’s ageing I’m talking about.

And talk about it we did, at the one-day conference held at the British Library on Monday, 28 April 2014. To be precise, what we explored was how we talk about or, to be more precise, how we portray age and ageing. The event was co-organised by the British Library’s Social Sciences Department, Queen Mary University’s School of Languages, Linguistics and Film, and the Centre for Policy on Ageing (CPA).

You might think that this was a very academic debate, quite abstract and theoretical. And yes, many of the day’s speakers were indeed academics, starting with the keynote speaker, Professor Lynne Segal, - whose recent book ‘Out of Time: The pleasures and the perils of ageing’ (Verso, 2013) is an examination of her own life as well an exploration of ageing. But the whole point of the event was to show that the ways age and ageing are portrayed - in the media, in Government policy documents, or in countless everyday conversations – does have practical consequences.

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This portrait of Ms Alexa Purves (acrylic and watercolour on paper, 83.5 x 59.9 cm.), painted by Scottish artist Fionna Carlisle was displayed at the conference. It is part  of the artist’s cooperation with the Edinburgh-based  Centre for Cognitive Ageing and Cognitive Epidemiology for the  Portraits of an Intelligent Scotland project, an exhibition of portraits representing the lives of two groups of people: cohort participants in a unique study of ageing, and the scientists that are studying them.

Like many other occurrences, age and ageing do not appear to be problematic concepts, at least on the surface: age/ing is what happens when, well, when you get older. And yet, think about it a bit more carefully and problems begin to appear. Words like ‘old’ turn opaque: when does one become ‘old’, for example? Is it at 70, 80, or 90? Much depends on average life-expectancy, of course; which is why, in the West at least, who is and who isn’t ‘old’ and what society expects of them is constantly shifting.

So age and ageing have become ‘hot topics’. More and more people are looking at them from a variety of angles. This is why, here at the British Library, we decided to prioritise this disciplinary area by expanding the existing resources to facilitate its study and to actually bring together people with an interest in it, not only to exchange ideas but also to explore how to better respond, as a repository of knowledge, to their needs.

The idea for the conference began to form following an observation: on one hand, scientific innovations that allow us to live longer are hailed as great advances; while on the other, the fact that people nowadays live longer is regularly framed as a problem. The metaphors that are often used when the topic is discussed, for example in relation to the welfare state and health services are revealing: ‘time-bomb’ and ‘drain on resources’ are only two examples. And in discourse on ageing populations, older citizens (itself a problematic label: who are ‘the elderly’? Are they all the same?) are often portrayed as ‘takers’, leading comfortable lives at the expense of the younger generations who, when their time comes, will not be as fortunate. The messages we receive are, in other words, contradictory; age is both an opportunity, especially in a market economy that sees longer lives as a chance for prolonged consumption, and a burden, for its ‘costs’.

The ways in which we, as a society, represent age and ageing are therefore relevant and have consequences for the ways we construe and relate to older people. From policy-making to intergenerational relations, the ways in which age is construed and presented are never neutral. They can and should be constantly challenged; to do so, both the art historian and the sociologist, the social worker and the literary theorist, as well as – let’s not forget it – older people themselves, can and should contribute to the debate. Something we hope to have facilitated with this event, a video recording of which will soon be available (watch this space!).

And anyway, when does ageing really start? The day we are born, one may say.

 

21 March 2014

The Annual Equality Lecture

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This year we will hold the fourth annual Equality Lecture with the British Sociological Association on the 30 May. This series has been a brilliant way for leading sociologists and social scientists to present their research on key issues in equality to a public audience. This year, we are delighted that our speaker will be Dr Tom Shakespeare, a senior lecturer in medical sociology at the University of East Anglia and disability rights advocate. Tom will be talking about ‘Enabling Equality: from disabling barriers to equal participation’ to explore what it takes to achieve equality for disabled people, in the era of the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities and ‘welfare reform’.

Tom’s research interests centre on disability studies and bioethics and his publications include: The Sexual Politics of Disability (1996), Genetic Politics (2002) and Disability Rights and Wrongs (2006). He has worked at the World Health Organization in Geneva where he helped write and edit the World Report on Disability (WHO 2011). Tom has been involved in the disability movement for 25 years.

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Above: Dr Tom Shakespeare. Photograph © Jon Legge.

Last year, the speaker at this event was Professor Danielle Allen, from the Institute of Advanced Study, Princeton, who spoke about what is needed from society in order for an egalitarian model of politics to be successful. Her talk ‘The Art of Association: the formation of egalitarian social capital’ is available via YouTube and below:

  

In 2012, Professor Danny Dorling, Halford Mackinder Professor of Geography at the University of Oxford, spoke on the subject of ‘What’s so good about being more equal?’ Much of Danny’s work is available on open access via his website: http://www.dannydorling.org/. Danny’s lecture is also available via YouTube.

The first speaker in the series was Professor Richard Wilkinson, Professor Emeritus of Social Epidemiology at the University of Nottingham and co-founder of The Equality Trust, who spoke on the topic of the best-selling book (co-authored with Professor Kate Pickett) The Spirit Level: Why Equality is Better for Everyone'. The first lecture in the series was hugely popular and was a fantastic start to the whole series.

This year Tom's lecture will be accompanied by live subtitles provided by STAGETEXT. For more information and a link to the booking options, please visit the British Library’s What’s On pages.

Useful information

Remember that books by the speakers listed here are available via the British Library’s collections. Begin searching here and find out about how to get a reader pass here. The British Sociological Association lists their events here.

12 September 2013

Thank Goodness for Propaganda!

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The following article was prepared by Ruth Fox, Director of the Hansard Society, to open the discussion on our second of four public debates to accompany our exhibition Propaganda: Power and Persuasion. The debate was held on Tuesday 3 September. It has also been published on the website of Speakers Corner Trust, our partner for the debate programme.

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Stamps produced by the Tufty Club. The Tufty Club was set up in 1961 by the Royal Society for the Prevention of Accidents to encourage better road safety amongst children Copyright Statement

What do Joseph Goebbels and Tufty the Squirrel have in common? Not much at first glance. Goebbels advanced the Nazi cause for over a decade, and Tufty taught millions of school children a ‘quasi-military kerb drill’ to safely cross the road. But in fact they embody the two poles of the propaganda spectrum – sinister and sympathetic, malignant and benign. And each, in their own way, influenced millions of people to change their attitudes and behaviour.

Propaganda is a word loaded with negative connotations – brainwashing, deception, lies, half-truths and hoodwinking – and is often associated with times of war. But strip the term of a particular context provided by time and place and propaganda – good and bad – is all around us. The Goebbels-Tufty comparison may be facetious, but the extraordinary extent of the difference serves to underline an important point: we have to think about the intent and if we think only of the sinister and not the sympathetic we fail to truly understand why and how hearts and minds are won. For stripped to its core, propaganda is no more and no less than the dissemination of ideas designed to convince the public to think and act in a certain way and for a particular purpose. And influencing beliefs and behaviours need not always be a bad thing.

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llustration from the Medical Officer journal to promote better public health. At the time, flies were held responsible for contaminating food and spreading diseases such as tuberculosis.

Propaganda by those in authority can be motivated by genuine concern for the public interest such as the health and safety of citizens. For every war that has been shaped by propaganda, so too a disease has been tackled by a mass public information campaign designed to eradicate health threats posed by killers such as tuberculosis and polio. The first national public health campaign urged mothers to ‘kill the fly and save the child’ here in Britain in 1910. In the 1960s every parent knew that ‘coughs and sneezes spread diseases’, and by the late 1980s fewer citizens were likely to be ignorant about AIDS following the government’s 1987 tombstone campaign.

Today, across the globe governments promote the ‘5 A Day’ campaign to encourage citizens to eat five daily portions of fruit and vegetables following a recommendation by the World Health Organisation. For some this is the nanny state in action. Of course the government wants to encourage people to eat more nutritious food but they also want to change behaviour in order to conserve resources and reduce the cost to the public purse posed by health problems like diabetes and obesity. Is that a bad thing?

Propaganda is also used to create a sense of identity and belonging and not always by the state. Historically, governments have utilised images and items – the national anthem, coins, flags, stamps, buildings or monuments – to promote a sense of national identity and patriotism. But so too have anti-establishment campaigns: the wearing of suffragette colours, or anti-apartheid and CND badges was a clear statement of a person’s views and an encouragement to others to join them in common cause. These iconic images portray meaning and belonging in the same way as the Swastika or the Hammer and Sickle, or an Oak Tree or Red Rose. Some are malevolent some are not; but all, in their own way, are instruments of manipulation targeted at hearts and minds.

Patriotic symbolism need not be jingoistic or even solely targeted at domestic citizens. The London 2012 Olympic opening ceremony on the theme ‘Isles of Wonder’ was described as a ‘love letter to Britain’. The organisers may not have intended it to be propaganda, but in showcasing the cultural, economic and social achievements and prestige of Britain it was explicitly designed to influence people’s emotional response at home and abroad, bathing the country in a positive light even before the sport had begun. It was soft propaganda for ‘Brand Britain’.

One of the most effective propagandists of recent years has been Her Majesty the Queen. Following her ‘annus horribilis’ in 1992 and the death of Diana in 1997 the Royal Family embarked on a concerted effort to change public attitudes towards them. The propaganda toolbox was cracked open in a carefully choreographed effort to win back public support. The power of symbols and ceremony and a nod to modernity and accessibility through the embrace of social media were all harnessed in the effort, buttressed by the propagandists’ clever use of humour culminating in the iconic James Bond moment during the Olympic opening ceremony. As the country marked the Diamond Jubilee, royal popularity hit a fifteen year high and the Queen herself has personal ratings that politicians can only dream of. But is this twenty-year public relations effort necessarily a bad thing? Only if you’re a republican perhaps.

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Liberty provided a symbol that would be understood anywhere in the United States. The theme of “freedom imperilled” deflected from discussion of the rationale for joining the war. National War Savings Committee. Paper bags with war savings messages. c.1916. Copyright Statement

Even in wartime, some forms of propaganda can be a good thing. If the country has to go to war, better to win than lose; but to do so recruits, money and supplies are needed. So it’s in the national interest for the Parliamentary Recruitment Committee to promote a ‘Your country needs YOU’ campaign, encourage the population to ‘lend a hand’ through war savings, and remind everyone that ‘careless talk costs lives’. And, particularly as an island nation facing the disruption of international transport links, it’s vital that food and energy supplies – so essential to morale – are maintained. So propaganda efforts to promote rationing and the conservation of coal supplies are all beneficial for the national cause. In World War Two, as food imports fell by a third, an additional six million acres of land was cultivated largely as a result of the Dig for Victory campaign which informed the public how to grow vegetables in their gardens and on public land. Without this public information propaganda to change citizens’ behaviour the country might have been starved to surrender.

So there are times when we can say ‘thank goodness’ for propaganda.  Ultimately it is the intention of propaganda that should determine our view of its merits. The society in which we now live, with a watchful media and powerful social media platforms, means British citizens are less likely than in years past to have the wool pulled over their eyes and the government to escape challenge. That’s not to say it can’t happen; merely that it’s more difficult than before for malevolent propaganda to prevail, at least in peacetime. And as social media democratises access to powerful channels of communication we could all be propagandists in the future.

11 September 2013

Speakers Corner at the British Library

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Ian Cooke, co-curator of 'Propaganda: Power and Persuasion' provides a summary of public debates held at the Library in partnership with Speakers Corner Trust.

Over four days 2- 5 September, the British Library held four public debates related to the theme of our exhibition Propaganda: Power and Persuasion. We worked with Speakers Corner Trust to plan the programme of debates, and were extremely lucky to have four inspirational speakers to introduce and lead our debates. 

Dr Evan Harris, Associate Director of the Hacked Off campaign for a free and accountable press, introduced our first debate ‘Is the News Propaganda?’. On subsequent days, Ruth Fox, Director of the Hansard Society, asked us to re-examine our views about propaganda, and consider more-positive aspects. Anthony Barnett, founder of openDemocracy, led a lively discussion on our attitudes to media new and old, and how we respond to a sense of “information overload”. Finally, Agnès Callamard, Executive Director of Article19, gave a strong defence of freedom of speech as the best means of combatting the “propaganda of hate”.  

Each speaker gave a short introduction to the topic, and then the direction and theme of the debate, as well as the content, came from the audience present. This worked better on some days than others, but on every day I was struck by the richness and seriousness of the discussion that came from the audience. I learnt a lot, and the four days have made me look at these subjects in a different light. I’m very grateful to everyone who attended on these days. For the rest of this post, I’ll try to summarise some of the main points that came out in the debates. However, this is of course a personal view, and I’m sure that, for those of you who came along, you’d probably have different things to say.

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Introducing the last of our debates, Peter Bradley, the Director of Speakers Corner Trust, reminded us that ‘rights are like muscles, you need to exercise them or they grow weak’. A strong theme through all four days was the importance of freedom of speech and expression, and the value in ensuring this is extended and nurtured for all. Access to the means of communication, including through new media and social media, empowers and provides the means for groups to organise and gain support. More than this though, it can also provide a means of redress, to correct distortions and challenge prejudice. As Ruth Fox demonstrated, the use of powerful symbols, for example on banners and badges, could generate feelings of solidarity.

There are, of course, challenges. People talked about the inequality of access to spaces for debate, resulting from structural issues around ownership of the national and international news organisations and social media platforms, or around access to new technologies. Online information sources can sometimes give the impression of creating a “deluge” of news. Difficulties in sorting that which we find trustworthy from the untrustworthy can lead us to the conclusion that all sources are unreliable, and promote a sense of cynicism where we feel powerless and alienated. In the case of social-media, the capacity to harass and abuse, often anonymously or under cover of a pseudonym, appears unchecked. Much of the discussion over the four days sought ways in which we could overcome such difficulties.

We discussed regulation in the case of news reporting. In other circumstances, there was support for education as a way of challenging cynicism, coping with perceived “information overload”, and understanding how to exercise our right to free expression without restricting this for others. One person noted that those who used new media more frequently became more confident in recognising authenticity in online communications. Understanding the process by which news becomes news can help us make decisions about what sources we trust. The teaching of history is one way in which a critical analysis of sources can be introduced. 

The programme was devised to accompany our exhibition on propaganda, so there was much discussion about what the word meant to people. Talking about news reporting, propaganda could be thought of as intentional, editorial, bias. Also, and perhaps more damagingly, it could be a failure to analyse things presented as fact or to critically question sources. A lack of accountability or poor systems of redress could also contribute to propaganda. Here, we were thinking about propaganda as being the narrowing of argument and heightening of inequalities in access to debate. However, the presence of bias in debate and commentary could also be a healthy sign – one that shows that freedom of expression is protected. The crucial element here would be an accompanying plurality of voices.

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Ruth Fox reminded us that persuasive speech could also be used to mutually beneficial ends. Health campaigning by state bodies can result in savings for services, and more productive populations, but also result in genuine benefits in wellbeing for individuals. As with other, more readily-recognised forms of propaganda, the appeal is often made to emotions, using powerful images and symbols.    

An important issue in the way that we respond to these powerful messages is trust. This was a theme raised by many of our speakers and in subsequent discussions. At some points there seemed to be a reluctance to place trust in many of the sources of information that we receive, with both social media and more traditional media faring poorly. The point was made that we tend to place more trust in sources and people that are local. Also, that we are more likely to trust sources that we agree with – which can be a useful tool for propagandists. This leads back to the importance of education and access to debate. The more we understand about how the messages that we find influential are produced, the better-equipped we are to analyse and assess them. Access to the arenas of debate, and making use of that access, makes the sources of information more accountable and more reflective of the range of interests and opinions within a society.