Social Science blog

18 posts categorized "Social Policy and Welfare"

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.

Jon Legge TWS head shoulders SMALL
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: 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.

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.

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.


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.


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.


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.   

22 August 2013

When did we ever have it so good? Part 2 of the iPod generation

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Abiola Olanipekun is an intern at the British Library. This latest blog post is number two in a series of four which reflects on reports about the ‘iPod generation’ which appear on the Management and Business Studies portal and were published by Reform in 2006. 

This second blog post about the ‘iPod generation’ continues to follow the envisaged bleak turn of events for this generation. Before I start, you may want to read part one of this series here.

After my first posting, I re-read ‘Class of 2006: A lifebelt for the iPod generation’ and it confirmed that in 2006 there was no supposed ‘happy ever after’ or even a semi-decent outcome in sight, just a doomed financial future for this generation. Will there ever be any ‘Green Shoots’ at this miserable point? Knowing what happened to the economy in the years that follow suggest not.

Should you, as a member of our erudite audience, wish to see this report then feel free (once more) to click here. It’s free to download from our MBS Portal.

As I read the second report in the series by Reform, I wondered about the relationship between how the evidence is researched and presented, and how it is received. In my first post I received the information as an inquisitive person but certainly felt miserable by the end of the report. This time around it I feel more miserable than I ever did! Knowing that many of the bleak predictions came true in one way or another make the warning produced by Reform even more depressing.

Below are just a few of the points and observations made at the time of this report. Whether this may or may not be the case for today is another debate…

  • Young people’s earnings were rising by less than any other age group
  • Young people were most likely to be in debt
  • House prices had continued to rise beyond the range of young people’s earning
  • Older people will gain from a rising state pension linked to earnings. 
  • Young people funding the increase in the state pension at the same time as facing automatic contributions of 3 per cent of their salary. 

This report generally confirms that is predicting bad news like the first report.

When the baby boomers are referred to as ‘winning’ the generation game it sets the generations against one another in an insulting way as it reminds of how the older generations have benefited from the welfare state. Or maybe my sense of humour has left because I (like a lot of my age group) am so poor and frustrated feel the reality of these generational differences.

I must stress now though that I am in no way carrying out a ‘Debbie Downer’ type approach to these pieces because that would negate the areas where progress has been made for the young. I also am grateful that the situation for the young people here is not as bad as it is in some other European countries, but recent news stories have also shown that there is economy uncertainty and poor employment conditions for many. Fixed-term contracts, or worse, zero hour contracts do not have a place in my heart. I am hoping for something other than more economic instability.

30 May 2013

Every time you cross the road ...

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Ian Cooke, Lead Curator in International Studies and Politics at the British Library and co-curator of the Propaganda: Power and Persuasion exhibition, examines how propaganda can often be fed by public opinion.

I had a great time last week at a private view of Propaganda: Power and Persuasion for secondary school teachers, put on by our Learning programme. Professor Jo Fox, University of Durham, gave an excellent talk on the evolution of propaganda between world wars and into the cold war. One concept that stuck in my mind was the idea of propaganda being a reciprocal arrangement, which responds to public opinion and may require the complicity of its audience to work.

In our exhibition, we look at the London 2012 Olympic Games as a point at which there was a considered attempt to present a view of Britain that was in some ways new - about a population that was diverse, and drew confidence and innovation from that diversity. In some ways, there are echoes of the 1951 Festival of Britain, but, as the Sport at Heart bid film shows, the emphasis on people was much more central. The 2012 Olympic Games are also interesting in terms of public opinion, and we look at this as expressed through Twitter comments in the last section of the exhibition. It's been suggested that print media followed public opinion, expressed in part through social media, in its positive coverage of the games.

Carole Holden gives an example of public opinion shaping the form of propaganda on the Americas Studies blog. Norman Rockwell's 'Four Freedoms', initially turned down by the US Office of War Information for not being sufficiently representative of "fine arts", were later enthusiastically adopted by the same office once they had proved their popularity in the Saturday Evening Post.

Seeing Rockwell's 'Four Freedoms' up close in our exhibition brings home the emotional power in the images and it's not hard to see why they were so successful. However, the exhibit that's had the most impact on me personally is one that takes quite a different approach and at first didn't strike me as very impressive at all.

Road Safety
This poster, 'Road Accident Deaths to Children and Teenagers, Great Britain 1960' (click to view large image), presents a series of simple line graphs and I very nearly ignored it when I was looking through our set of posters from the Royal Society for the Prevention of Accidents. But I was drawn to the small graph in the left-hand corner headed 'Pedestrians'. The big peaks at ages 3- 4 and 6-7 was shocking and made me think about the risk to my own young children. Having been brought up with TV images of the Green Cross Code man, I was already running through the version of the code that I could remember (which I discovered is actually closer to the kerb drill) whenever I crossed the road with my children. However, seeing this poster made me much more diligent about doing this. And also now means that I take even longer to get anywhere.

Like a lot of propaganda, it didn't make me do something that was completely different than before. It worked through reinforcing attitudes and behaviour that I was already expressing. It's also quite odd in working even though I was looking at the poster in context of the exhibition - I was thinking about it as propaganda, but still influenced by it. The reason why it had such an effect was that I was exactly the right audience for it, which comes back to the idea of reciprocity and complicity in propaganda.

That's the piece of propaganda in our exhibition that's had the biggest impact on me. But how about you? What's the most effective or powerful message in your opinion or experience? Let me know #BLPropaganda.        

26 April 2013

What is the future of the voluntary sector? TSRC National Conference

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Bridget Lockyer, a PhD student at the University of York, reviews the TSRC conference which was held at the British Library in April 2013.

In 2013, the voluntary sector is in a state of flux and disruption. After a period of expansion and mainstreaming under New Labour, a change in the political and economic climate has led to scaling back of financial support and a different ideological approach to the voluntary sector and the provision of welfare in general. This has led to questions about the role of the voluntary sector in the UK and how organisations can adjust to this new environment.

The TSRC was established in 2008 with the aim to enhance knowledge of the sector through independent and critical research. A collaborative project between the University of Birmingham and the University of Southampton, it received five years of funding from the Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC), Office for Civil Society (previously the Office of the Third Sector) and the Barrow Cadbury Trust. As this current funding is set to end, the event at the British Library on 19th April was a chance for practitioners, researchers and policy makers to discuss the key issues facing the sector and contribute to the TSRC’s Futures Dialogue.

The conference was also an occasion to reflect on the vast amount of current third sector research and the resources available to those within and those researching the sector. TSRC director, Pete Alcock, informed us that the TSRC has produced almost 100 working papers on the current state and future of the voluntary sector. We were also reminded about the TSRC’s Knowledge Portal, an online and searchable library which collates academic papers, reports by voluntary organisations and government policy documents. This is a really useful tool for those seeking third sector evidence. Head of Social Sciences at The British Library, Jude England, discussed the Social Welfare Portal, launched in December 2012 as a single point of access to its print and digital collections of research and information on social welfare policy development, implementation and evaluation. Fiona Armstrong from the ESRC reiterated their continuing commitment to third sector research, via the Big Data Investment and the Centre and Large Grants capital funding initiative.

The day was organised into five themed workshops: People, Organisations, Resources, Independence and Impact. I had chosen ‘Workshop A: People’ which focused on the voluntary sector workforce, volunteering, skills and training, chaired by Stephen McKay (TSRC) with Keith Mogford (Skills-Third Sector) speaking. Keith discussed some of the challenges facing the voluntary sector workforce, including underemployment (as full-time, permanent roles are scarce); constrained training budgets; organisations playing it safe in recruitment decisions (chosing experience over enthusiasm); lack of long-term strategic planning and increased job insecurity. He also summarised the preliminary findings of the Marsh Review, a review commissioned by Nick Hurd, minister for civil society, which, through holding a series of conversations with key figures in the third sector, set out to recommend ways in which the sector can maintain and improve its skills. The recommendations Keith outlined were: increased digital fluency; better use and sharing of data; higher standard of governance; greater enterprise and innovation; more effective collaboration, the building of effective entry routes to and through the sector (for graduates and school-leavers) and better leadership development and management. The workshop group were very interested in these findings and the review’s recommendations and there was a general sense of despair about the false economy of short termism within the sector.

The discussion moved on to talk about young people, internships, apprenticeships and volunteering and the moral dilemmas inherent in providing and managing unpaid work. I was particularly interested in a discussion about the career routes into and through the sector as this was very relevant for my own research. The group considered how the voluntary sector could accentuate the strengths of work in the sector to attract graduates and school leavers. The distinctiveness of a career in the sector was examined, e.g. the horizontal rather than vertical career progression; the ‘portfolio’ or ‘rucksack’ career format and the fluidity and movement within the sector. Although the group devised two different questions to ask in the following ‘question time’ panel session, the question that stuck in my head was the age-old ‘what makes the voluntary sector different?’. To be specific, does/should the voluntary sector have a special commitment to provide jobs and a greater sense of responsibility (compared to other sectors) in the treatment of its workforce? I was left pondering these questions as we moved into the final sessions.

During the next session chaired by Sara Llewellin from Barrow Cadbury Trust, panel members Debra Allcock Tyler, Jonathon Breckon, Caroline Slocock, Karl Wilding and Pete Alcock were asked the workshops’ questions. The questions and answers focused on what the core values of the sector should be, the value of collaboration and partnership working, how to maintain voluntary sector assertiveness and its relationships with other sectors and organisations. This was a friendly and lively discussion, which gave a great overview of the current debates taking place within the voluntary sector.

The final plenary was given by David Walker, an ESRC council member. He expressed some criticism of the current government’s approach to empirical evidence, describing today as the best and worst of times to be a researcher of public policy. I agreed with him to a large extent but was unsure of the suggestion that those who research the voluntary sector could themselves be ‘moral heroes’, mindful of Debra Allcock Tyler’s comment in the previous session that ‘the voluntary sector does not have the monopoly on good intentions or worthy actions’.

It can often be quite difficult and frustrating to bring together different stakeholders who have diverse experiences and perspectives, but it is always worth doing. Overall, the conference provided an excellent networking opportunity and generated some stimulating discussion on the current condition of the voluntary sector and what its future role might be.

Bridget Lockyer is in the second year of an AHRC funded PhD at the Centre for Women’s Studies, University of York. She is researching women’s experiences of volunteering and working in the community and voluntary sector since the 1970s.

This blog post was originally published on Bridget’s blog: and has been posted here with her permission. All views expressed are her own. Bridget has also blogged for the Guardian.

26 March 2013

‘Addictive Personality’: Myth or Reality?

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This guest post from Stephanie Minchin highlights some of the discussions on ‘Addictive Personality’ as presented at the British Library’s ‘Myths and Realities’ public debate on 18th March, 2013; with  Prof. Phil Withington, Prof. David Nutt and Prof. Gerada Reith, reflecting upon what drives addiction.

As part of the ‘Myths and Realities’ series of public debates the British Library was host to Professor Gerda Reith, University of Glasgow, Professor David Nutt, Imperial College London and Professor Phil Withington, University of Sheffield who discussed and challenged the myths and assumptions attached to the concept of addiction. The event was chaired by Claire Fox from the Institute of Ideas who questioned the notion of an addictive personality with the term that society may be a nation of ‘addiction addicts’.

Prof. Phil Withington introduced the debate with ‘Addiction – an early modern perspective’. The language of addiction from the 16th and 17th century was described in the depiction of a cloth worker in 1628 as being “overtaken with drink”. The point was raised that the way we consume and think about intoxicants is reflected in the understanding of ourselves and where we come from. Therefore, it seems to some extent that today’s perception of addiction reflects the same as the early modern roots. Prof. Withington accounted for a historical perspective of intoxication and capitalism, such that substance use grew into a big business as an important feature of international trade in the industrial revolution; organized import and export allowed for the transfer of intoxicants (tea, coffee, chocolate, opium) as durable and profitable substances. The language from the renaissance period to today has also increased in the number of words used to describe the meaning addiction. Samuel Johnson’s (1740) reflection “he addicted himself to vice” still holds meaning today.

'Opium fleet descending the Ganges on the way to Calcutta'. Image taken from The Graphic. Originally published/produced in London, June 24, 1882. © The British Library Board

Following from Professor Withington’s portrayal of the language of addiction, Professor Nutt began with the translation of the Latin verb ‘addictio’ meaning ‘to enslave’. Professor Nutt firmly contended that he has never met an addict who wanted to be an addict, and used Amy Winehouse as an example of a great loss in a person who struggled to escape the pattern of addiction. From a biological and neurological perspective Prof. Nutt highlighted pleasure seeking behaviours as a natural evolutionary mechanism for the survival of the species. However, in an addiction, it is the compulsion, pressure and drive to change the brain with a substance that creates a loss of control. The brain circuits of addiction were detailed as self-control, pleasure, salience/attention, learning and memory and individual differences that all happen differentially in people.

With the example of tobacco and alcohol the audience was encouraged to reminisce on their very first taste of a cigarette/alcohol, unanimously agreeing that it evoked an instant dislike. So what is it that leaves us wanting more? The biology is all about how fast and how much of the substance gets to the brain. The faster the substance gets into the brain, the higher the addiction. In withdrawal, the quicker the substance is secreted from the liver, the higher the addiction. Prof. Nutt concluded his presentation from a political perspective to challenge the associated stigma and blame of societal problems with substance use; in order for Government to provide interventions and rational treatments for addiction, we need to de-stigmatise those suffering and understand that addiction is “not a lifestyle choice”.

Professor Gerada Reith encouraged the audience to think beyond the individual to consider the sociological complexities and ambiguities behind addiction. Prof. Reith’s presentation titled ‘If addiction did not exist, it would be necessary to create it’ portrayed the reality of addiction as being a combination of environmental, political, cultural and historical contexts. In a laboratory experiment titled ‘Rat Park’ it was found that the group of rats in a small cage became addicted to morphine, whereas the rats in the ‘social housing’ cages (with light, space, toys and other rats for company) did not. This experimental finding highlights the differential behaviour patterns associated with contrasting living circumstances. Therefore, Prof. Reith highlighted that geographical areas with certain populations and social groups may experience poorer housing and health, poverty, high rates of unemployment, short life expectancy and a low level of education, which in turn can lead to a vulnerability to addiction.

The concept of environmental influences was further supported by the notion that the social climates within cultural contexts attach meanings and values to social activity. In the case of substance use, Howard Becker’s (1953) book titled ‘Becoming a marihuana user' detailed how jazz musicians of the 1950s attached meaningful social activity to smoking marihuana, whilst it was condemned by other social groups, conveying the juxtaposition of cultural core beliefs  ‘cool’ vs. ‘deviant’. Further social tensions were described in the historical use of opium which created racial tensions between societal classes; consumption was very different in function for the degeneracy vs. middle-class. In agreement with Prof. Nutt’s political stance, Prof. Reith contended that the association of crime and unemployment with drugs has blamed individuals for universal social problems. Today, drugs are the “ideological fig leaf to place over unsightly urban ills” (Jimmie Reeves and Richard Campbell 1994). The term addiction now has a cultural specificity and popularity in its label. Addiction as a term and meaning is normalised; addiction is a discourse in its widest sense.


6a00d8341c464853ef017d4144513b970c 'The Gremlins will get you if you don't watch out!' US Office for Emergency Management. War Production Board. (01/1942 - 11/03/1945). This file was provided to Wikimedia Commons by the US National Archives and Records Administration. 

The discussion was then opened to the audience for questions, comments and thoughts on the topic. The first question asked do we lack individual responsibility for our own pleasure-seeking behaviours, and to what extent does the economic determinism of social deprivation account for substance abuse? The answer was a medley of biological vulnerability and lack of social opportunity with Prof. Nutt clarifying “Never does one drug addict everyone”. Questions continued to scale the continuum of biological vs. sociological factors, inquiring about addictions influenced by life events; peer pressure; endorphin pleasure factors; pharmaceutical companies; prohibition issues. At the moment society has an absolutist view against addiction. Can we really drink and use substances without losing control? Definitions and cultural power lie in the hands of medical professionals who influence how we understand addiction and the changing meanings of substance abuse. Regardless of what ‘type’ of addict one may be defined, be it compulsive or impulsive, the younger you are when you start the more likely you are to be an addict. The youth is the real target; the future needs to address addiction at community level.

In conclusion, the audience were left with provocative final thoughts: Prof. Reith highlighted the individual brain as a starting point within a cultural environment predisposing addiction. Alternatively Prof. Nutt posed the question ‘Why in our brain do we have the propensity to become addicted to substances?’ His answer? ‘It is all about LOVE. Substances are hijacking the pathways of love.’ For the reality of addiction we are now contemplating a new myth: are substances a surrogate for love?

Combining the understanding of historical, biological and socio-cultural perspectives will help find further answers in what is an undeniable reality of today’s modern society: addiction. The new myth: drugs or love?

Stephanie Minchin is a practitioner in NHS mental health services for ‘City and Hackney Centre for Mental Health in' the East London Foundation Trust’ and is a Masters student in Clinical Research at City University, London. 

20 March 2013

Propaganda and obedience: Noam Chomsky in conversation at the British Library 19 March 2013

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Ian Cooke, Lead Curator in International Studies and Politics at the British Library, outlines some of the key messages delivered by Noam Chomsky (in conversation with Jonathan Freedland), at the British Library on 19 March 2013.

Yesterday evening, the British Library was host to Noam Chomsky in conversation with Jonathan Freedland. The packed event covered subjects from the role of Biblical prophets to a “mafia model” of international relations. Professor Chomsky was here to help us launch a series of events that will accompany our Propaganda: Power and Persuasion exhibition, which opens on 17 May 2013.

The topic was propaganda, but Professor Chomsky provided a strong support of the value of information and the use of evidence that is open to all. Professor Chomsky, with his co-author Edward Herman, wrote Manufacturing Consent: The Political Economy of the Mass Media, a book which still influences discussion of mass media 25 years after it was first published in 1988. The book proposes a ‘propaganda model’ for news reporting in the United States, which predicts a strong bias towards state and elite interests. This is achieved through structural factors, described as filters, such as: corporate ownership of media and the reliance on advertising revenue; a reliance on state and elite sources of information as “authoritative”; and the ability of state agencies to create ‘flak’. So, propaganda can be seen as a structural process by which values, sources and evidence are selected according to elite and state interests.

Professor Chomsky described the origins of propaganda as we recognise it today in World War I, in particular the recognition of the success of British propaganda aimed at American intellectuals, in order to sway US political opinion in favour of war. Intellectuals generally came in for criticism, both for uncritically supporting elite interests, and for developing propaganda techniques to help sell elite interests more widely. In democracies, this deference to state and elite power comes not from coercion, but from obedience.


Franklin Roosevelt’s message to young people (illustrated with Hitler mask and skull) O.W.I. (Office of War Information, United States) USF. 4, 1942 © Crown copyright

Chomsky argued that, in such a system, the real challenges to state propaganda came from dissidents, making use of the evidence that is freely available but under-reported. But dissidents need popular support to avoid marginalisation, and the interests of the general public are often under-represented in policy decisions. Looking at the United States today, he used the example of public opinion-polling, the results of which are made available. The stratification of opinion survey results makes it possible to see whose interests are reflected in policy decisions. Chomsky argued that, for the majority of Americans, the most important issue right now is employment. Only wealthier individuals prioritise deficit reduction over jobs. It’s an argument that resonates with policy debates in the UK – and seems particularly significant today as the Public and Commercial Services union have organised a strike to protest about austerity policies and job cuts in the public sector.

Propaganda: Power and Persuasion opens at the British Library on 17 May 2013.