Social Science blog

6 posts from November 2012

22 November 2012

Debating the right to die and other challenging topics

Ian Cooke, Lead Curator in International Studies and Politics at the British Library discusses his work with Speakers' Corner Trust to produce a bibliography on 'The Right to Die' debate.

A great thing about the British Library is that it enables you to take serious subjects and explore them from a range of viewpoints. The British Library has been working with Speakers’ Corner Trust, providing guides to accompany their Forum for Debate series, which promote public deliberation and debate.

Earlier this month, Speakers’ Corner Trust published ‘The Right to Die – Personal Choice or Public Safety’. This debate explores the controversial topic of assisted dying, with contributions from Sarah Wootton, Chief Executive of Dignity in Dying, and Dr Peter Saunders, the Campaign Director for the Care Not Killing Alliance. Recent cases in the UK have brought this sensitive topic to public prominence, with comparisons made between the legal situation in the UK and jurisdictions such as the Netherlands, Switzerland and Oregon in the US. At the heart of legal debates are questions of rights, medical ethics and protection for vulnerable people. Those arguing for a change in law to enable assisted dying point to the suffering reported by those at the end of their lives and expressing a wish to die. Those opposed argue that a ‘right to die’ could become interpreted by vulnerable people as a ‘duty to die’, and that the answer lies in improving patient care at the end of life

5400843133_67bffe817d   Speakers' Corner © Jorden rundt og hjem igen

However, the debate is not solely a legal or legislative one, with issues of religious belief, morality, medical science, and studies of public policy all playing an important role. The British Library’s collections, cutting across disciplines, countries and, crucially, points of view, allow you to explore how these complex factors combine. The guide to this debate provides an introduction to our collections and services, and also shows how these topics are debated in the news and on the web.

As always, working with Speakers’ Corner Trust provides an opportunity to explore in detail a topical and controversial subject. The debaters bring expert knowledge and personal experience, challenging you to examine and question your opinions on a topic. Producing guides for the series has always included an element of personal surprise, as I’ve found that the way I think about a subject has changed, sometimes quite considerably, through reading the debates and researching the guide.

The aim of the Forum for Debate series is to inform opinion and stimulate face-to-face debate.. If you haven’t seen these before, now is an excellent time to get inspired and get talking. Previous topics are kept in the archive, and include: press regulation; legalising the drugs trade; animal experimentation, GM foods; and the economics of football.

19 November 2012

Researching ethnicity, identity and 'mixed-race'

This post discusses our latest Myths and Realities event on ethnicity, identity and 'mixed-race' and points readers in the direction of some relevant British Library collections.

On the evening of 13 November we hosted our latest Myths and Realities event (in partnership with the Academy of Social Science) on 'Our ethnicity and identity - what does it all mean?' Speakers Professor Miri Song and Professor Ann Phoenix spoke about how we think about our ethnic identity, and how the meanings we attach to this identity can change across time, space and social context. The event was chaired by Rania Hafez of Muslim Women in Education.

Ann Phoenix's talk entitled 'Why are ‘race’ and ethnicity crucial to identities and social lives, but not central?' explored how debates about multiculturalism have produced contradictory ways of thinking about 'race', ethnicity and identities. Miri Song's title was 'Does the growth of ‘mixed race’ people signal the declining significance of ‘race’?'. Here she examined what is signalled by the growth in interracial partnerships and of 'mixed' people.

Since the 2001 census, ‘mixed’ has been used as an ethnic category. Indeed, in 2001 the census counted 677,117 who self-identified as 'mixed'. However, as Miri Song notes in her article ‘The creation and interpretation of ‘mixed’ categories in Britain today’ in the online journal Dark Matter, this figure is likely to underestimate the actual number of people in England and Wales whose ethnic heritage is ‘mixed’ because of the different ways of asking questions around ethnicity. Indeed, how we define ethnicity in social research and in wider society is complex and subject to ongoing revision, as Pablo Mateos, Alex Singleton, and Paul Longley discuss in their article about how we analyse ethnicity classifications.

In the Library we hold a range of different resources which relate to the how we understand, measure and interpret ethnicity and ethnic identities. As well as the statistical reports which relate to census data (reports for 1921-1991 are in the Social Science Reading Room on the open shelves), academic journals and monographs (including books by both Miri and Ann – see below), we hold collections which speak to the lived experience of minority ethnic identities in Britain. For example, we have an oral history collection called Moroccan Memories in Britain which explores the experiences of living in Britain by Moroccan migrants. More details about oral history collections which explore ethnicity and identities can be found here.

In our Social Science Reading Room we have copies of recently published academic books which relate to the study of ethnicity, ‘race’ and identity both in theoretical terms and with relation to social policy. On the open shelves you will also find editions from the last 12 months of relevant journals.

More historical collections include The India Office collections which are particularly valuable for those seeking to research the complex relationship between Britain and India, including the migration and settlement of Indians in Britain as well as British in India.

So, whether you are taking an historical, quantitative or qualitative approach to researching ethnicity and identity, our collections should be a good place to start.

Useful references and links

Phoenix, Ann. & Tizard, Barbara. Black, white or mixed race? Race and racism in the lives of young people of mixed parentage. London : Routledge, 2001.
British Library Shelfmarks
Document Supply m01/42623
General Reference Collection YC.2002.a.2257

Song, Miri. Choosing ethnic identity. Cambridge : Polity, 2003.
British Library Shelfmarks:
Document Supply m03/15838
General Reference Collection YC.2007.a.296

Song, Miri. (2012) ‘The creation and interpretation of ‘mixed’ categories in Britain today’ in the online journal’ in Dark Matter

Pablo Mateos, Alex Singleton, and Paul Longley (2009) 'Uncertainty in the analysis of ethnicity classifications: some issues of extent and aggregation of ethnic groups.' Journal of Ethnic and Migration Studies: 35 (9) Draft 'in press' version.


Office for National Statistics

Black Cultural Archives

Institute of Race Relations

BSA Race and Ethnicity Study Group

14 November 2012

What can Public Open Data and Academia Learn From Each Other

This blog talks about the links that can be made between tools and methods used in academia and those in public open data and how the two worlds can learn from each other in order to promote greater use and re-use of data, track impact and make information more widely available 

Professor Nigel Shadbolt recently visited the Library to talk to staff about the benefits of releasing public data into the wild. He didn't need to convince me, being a public sector researcher prior to joining the library I fought many licensing and cost battles to get my hands on the data needed for my research projects. This blog isn't about making the case for opening up public data as this has been made many times and yielded numerous important benefits. Having worked in creating, using and disseminating both public and academic data I think that there are tools and methodologies that both areas can learn from each other. 

Due to policies like the Research Excellence Framework there is a big focus in academia to develop methods to measure the impact of research funded and undertaken and to promote the re-use of data created in this research. Tools like impactstory that allow researchers to gauge the impact of their research outputs are already being created using open infrastructure being supported by the British Library and our partners in science and publishing.

These tools work by assigning a digital object identifier to a research output (datasets, papers etc.) which can then be tracked through to citations. ORCID is new system that allows researchers (academic and non-academic) researchers to register a unique identifier for themselves and attach their research outputs via DOIs and other identifiers. These help to link the researchers to their outputs and membership is available to any researcher: academic, public sector, open data hacker etc.

Currently it seems to me that the impact of open data is judged by the number of visible applications that have been developed and headline findings published in the media. However imagine the situation if a dataset posted on had one of these trackable DOI’s attached to it and open data users and researchers cited the use of this data using the DOI; a public sector data creator or an organisation as a whole could then track this, see what their data was being used for and what type of impact it was having. This could have potentially huge benefits for encouraging the sharing and re-use of public data and could help to provide evidence to support the collection and maintenance of certain types of well used data.

Another area we can learn from each other is around metadata, the data about the data. This is bread and butter in the academic library world, but quality is variable in the open data world. is a great start at a catalogue, however the metadata in there is of variable quality, however this is not the case with all open data reposirories: The London Datastore provides a good example of an open data repository containing high quality metadata. Maintaining good metadata and exposing it openly to other organisations will make open data more visible to researchers. For example it would be great if we could take a feed of and make it available in The British Library catalogue so researchers could discover a primary open data source alongside books and journals.

In academia more data that was previously locked away to the public in data centres and repositories is being made open. Last week it was great to see that the UK Data Service co-signed the Denton Declaration on open data, but the main area that academia can learn from the open data movement is to make the data properly open! Don’t make people fill in forms and register to use your data as if you do this you will lose a huge number of potential users. Good web analytics and citation metrics can hopefully give you enough feedback on your audience. In his talk at the BL Tim Shadbolt mentioned a 60% attrition rate from services that make people jump through hoops to get to the resources, however as Wikipedia would say – citation needed.


The British Library is UK Registration Agent for DataCite

The Library is also project coordinator for The ORCID and DataCite Interoperability Network (ODIN) 

Read more about The British Library's Datasets Program


These views are from John Kaye – Lead Curator Digital Social Sciences @johnkayebl and don’t necessarily reflect the views of the BL as an institution.

08 November 2012

U.S.A. Government Material the British Library

Following the election in the U.S.A. this week and the keen interest we in the UK have in U.S. national and foreign policy it very seemed timely to highlight some of the material relating to United States government material which we hold at the Library.

Our web-pages on national governments electronic resources provides a list of the free and subscription services which you can access via our reading rooms at the Library. For instance, did you know that from the British Library reading rooms you can access the U.S.A. digital national security archive? This resource provides access to the most comprehensive collection of primary declassified documents relating to U.S. foreign policy decisions. It covers issues around, for example, the Cuban Missile Crisis and the War on Terror.

A view of the White House © Seansie

From our reading room you can also access collections such as the full text of Congressional Research Service reports and committee prints. These cover social policy, American law, foreign affairs, trade, defence, science and industry, government and finance and are valuable resource for anyone studying the functions and policies of Congress.

Services which are freely available on the web, and which you can access from your own computer, include the FBI website which includes many of their reports and publications. The Library of Congress Thomas site provides access to U.S. legislative information.

As well as resources and services relating to U.S. Government and Policy we have a thriving team which focusses on the Americas. In fact, our colleague Dr Matthew Shaw is currently in Philadelphia from where he has written his latest blog post. Our Eccles Centre for American Studies works closely with academics and students in American Studies and offers a wide range of services, including a fantastic series of events. So if you can’t make it to the U.S. any time soon, you can always visit us for your research on all things American!

05 November 2012

Oral history interviews: possibilities for re-use by social scientists

I recently had a productive conversation with my colleague Dr Polly Russell about the re-use of the oral history interviews held in our collections at the British Library. Polly was in the process of writing a talk for an event which is to be held here this November (‘Tales from the Archive’) in which she will trace the biography of one collection item, discussing the journey through which an interview arrives at the Library, its life here and how the institutional context impacts on its possible re-use. This conversation added fuel to my desire to listen to more of the recordings held at the Library and to work with others to encourage possible re-use.

Since joining the Library I have been interested in the use of the oral history collections as a resource for social scientists. The oral history department, led by Dr Rob Perks at the British Library has built huge and varied collections of national relevance, as well as ingesting collections from oral historians and social scientists who have used the oral history methods in conducting their interviews. The collections include, for example, material as diverse as an oral history of British Science , The Millthorpe Project:  Interviews with Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Trans Trade Unionists and 150 recordings on City Lives . In fact, you can listen to a huge number of extracts from the oral history collections on the British Library Sounds Website and watch a brief introduction to the collections by Rob on our YouTube channel.

Two of the possible uses of the oral history collections for socials scientists are in secondary data analysis and qualitative interview training. There has been a great deal of debate about the extent to which other people’s interviews can be used for secondary analysis and there are examples of where this has been done successfully. For example, Peter Jackson, Graham Smith and Sarah Olive re-used oral history interviews in their work on families and food.

The interviews offer students in qualitative research methods the opportunity to listen to in-depth interview techniques and to benefit from the insight that can be gained through hearing the life stories of other people’s respondents. I was lucky enough to listen to some of the interviews with sex workers which Wendy Rickard recorded in the 1990s and certainly found that this experience offered me a new perspective which I will inform me should I ever again undertake interviews myself. I have written more about this experience with Wendy herself, and other colleagues.

We are interested in exploring how social scientists may make use of the oral history collections in the Library and would love to hear your views, as well as to hear from those of you who have used the collections in social science research.

02 November 2012

Did the Olympics do the trick?

At last! The Olympics are over but not for yours truly! My BBC DVD of the event arrived on Monday and since then me and the cats have been reliving it all. Now I can stop watching my ‘England wins the Ashes’ DVDs when the TV is too full of soaps, antiques programmes and reality shows (i.e most of the time) and switch to some multi-sports. And it’s almost better the second time around: Bert le Clos enthusing about his son’s gold medal in the swimming; our first gold medal in the women’s coxless pairs; Bradley Wiggins; Jess Ennis. How fab it all was!

Now there’s other good news: after five years of zero growth the UK economy has been reported as coming out of recession, with a 1% growth rate for the last quarter. This has taken pundits by surprise, and has been partly put down to the Olympics, ticket sales for which contributed approximately a fifth of the increase in GDP. No only this, but there was a reported £500 million underspend on the Olympic budget.

The economic cost/benefit analysis of the Olympic & Paralympic Games is clearly well under way. And it is obvious - anecdotally - that there have been winners and losers already: the BBC & NBC saw viewing figures and potential revenues shoot up; some retailers, on the other hand, lamented the lack of people on the high street during Games time. It’s still early days though and the final analysis – if there can ever be such a thing - will take ages to complete with numerous factors having to be taken into account.

The DCMS helpfully explains the process on its website: According to the Department “a post Games initial evaluation will be published shortly after the Games, in spring/summer 2013. Prior to this, a number of interim outputs will also be published. Further research will be commissioned separately to look at the effect of the Games up to around 2020”. The Government has taken an optimistic view already and has estimated a potential £13 billion benefit to the UK economy in the next five years:

The many reports coming out of this research are keenly awaited, and DCMS has asked that anyone undertaking legacy research should let them know by filling in a form to be found on the webpage above. That way, track can be kept of what findings exist, where they are, and who has worked on them. With luck, that information will be available to researchers many years hence. And that’s what real legacy is all about!