Social Science blog

20 posts categorized "Social Policy and Welfare"

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.

15 March 2013

Evidence in Social Welfare Policy and Practice Conference, 7 Dec 2012

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This blog highlights a conference that was held to celebrate the launch of Social Welfare at the British Library a new free online service offering a single point of access to our vast print and digital collections on social welfare and social policy.

Developed in partnership with the Social Care Institute for Excellence  and the School of Social Work, Allied and Public Health, University of Staffordshire , Social Welfare at the BL showcases and provides a single point of access to our social policy and welfare content, collections and services for researchers, policy makers and managers in government and in the voluntary, independent and statutory services sectors.

The Conference

The Conference was opened by Roly Keating, CEO, British Library followed by a brief presentation on the Social Welfare Portal by Jude England, Head of Social Sciences.

The first presentation by Dr Jo Moriarty, Social Care Workforce Research Unit, King’s College focused on the need for good evidence in social care, some of the challenges in disseminating evidence in the sector, and the need to think beyond academic users to the general public and frontline care staff. The presentation drew in part on her NIHR School for Social Care Research funded project, Social Care Practice with Carers.

The presentation by Prof. Pete Alcock, Director, Third Sector Research Centre, University of Birmingham, focused on the Centre’s work in disseminating research on the development, role and organisation of the sector. It showcased the Third Sector Knowledge Portal, a free resource bringing together reports from third sector organisations, academic research, and government studies in one easy to use collection. Through its unique thesaurus, the KP helps voluntary organisations, government departments, academics and others to access evidence on a broad range of topics related to the sector, including commissioning, service delivery, impact measurement, social and community enterprise, volunteers and volunteering, and fundraising. The presentation concluded with some preliminary results from a KP user survey.

The keynote presentation by Prof. Jon Glasby, Director, Health Services Management Centre, University of Birmingham looked at the role of evidence in health policymaking, how policy is implemented, and how knowledge spreads. Using at case study from his own career, Prof Glasby explored what constitutes valid research evidence. He concluded by calling for a move from evidence- to knowledge-based practice, arguing that: 1) there is no such thing as a hierarchy of evidence - the ‘best’ method for researching any given topic is that which will answer the research question most effectively; and 2) the lived experience of service users/carers and the practice wisdom of practitioners can be just as valid a way of understanding the world as formal research

Dr Georgina Brewis, John Adams Fellow, Institute of Education, University of London, and founder, Campaign for Voluntary Sector Archives, with Gareth Millward, Phd student at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, opened the afternoon session with a presentation on the value of charity archives as evidence for research, policy and practice. They argued that use of archival evidence would prevent reinvention of the wheel, by showing which policies and interventions had been tried in the past and whether or not they worked.

Diana Leat, Board Member, Diana, Princess of Wales Memorial Fund, considered the value of preserving and giving access to foundation archives. These organisations are in many senses different form other voluntary organisations in that they do not have to raise funds and therefore have the freedom to fund what could be considered niche causes. Their archives help to record the historical and political context of particular periods and add to the overall sense of the role of the third/voluntary sector within society across time. Foundation archives can reveal why certain projects were funded and others not, how the development and growth of small, newly formed organisations can be supported in non-financial ways and help tell the story of how issues first 'bubbled to the surface' in the public consciousness

The conference concluded with a lively panel discussion on use and abuse of evidence, chaired by Amanda Edwards, Deputy Chief Executive, Social Care Institute for Excellence with Dr Helen Kara, independent author, researcher and consultant, and Pete Simcock, Senior Lecturer, Staffordshire University School of Social Work, Allied and Public Health Birmingham. The panel and audience debated how evidence is used to inform social welfare policy and practice. The session was interactive and tackled questions such as: different interpretations of the same evidence, the barriers to use and dissemination of evidence, and whether there are sometimes good reasons not to use evidence. The audience were asked to vote on the questions before and after the discussion, to see if views had changed.


Please visit the event web page to listen to a podcast of the conference proceedings.

20 December 2012

Commoditising risk in a global age: spread betting and digital gambling

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In this post Toby Austin Locke, currently working in The British Library's Social Sciences team writes about commoditising risk in the new global, digital era of gambling and the individual and reglatory impacts it may have.

With the Coalition Agreement giving a commitment to tackle the culture of risk in financial institutions and June’s whitepaper on banking reform, risk is certainly one of the contemporary hot topics. But exactly how risk is packaged in order that it may be bought and sold as commodity is a complex issue, made all the more so by globalisation and the digital boom.

Of course what we define as risk is itself a contentious area but it is hard to disagree that the activities of gambling and spread betting involve the commoditisation of certain forms of risk. What is also interesting to note is that both gambling and spread betting have seen increases in popularity over recent years (Wardle et al 2011; Read 2011). With the latter increasingly extending from the domain of financial institutions to consumer markets the FSA is increasing commitment to ensuring good practice and ensuring consumers are aware of the associated risks. And likewise, gambling practices are being brought under scrutiny as an increasing number of social games such as Zynga, on networks such as Facebook, mirror the services offered by online gambling, and even begin to move toward real-money gaming.

There is a growing amount of research being undertaken into gambling, particularly since the advent of remote gambling has thrown many regulatory and legislative paradigms into murky waters. However, the links between gambling and other means of buying and selling risk remain unclear. What really separates the acts of gambling and spread betting for example, asides from their institutional and regulatory settings, in terms of the buying and selling of risk is an area of study that promises to yield fascinating results. But how to go about engaging in such research is by no means a simple question.



Image by Jamie Adams from Hull, United Kingdom (Poker chips) [CC-BY-SA-2.0], via Wikimedia Commons

Last year I worked with an ERSC funded research team at Goldsmiths College, University of London and London Metropolitan University. The research team, comprised of Prof. Rebecca Cassidy, Dr Claire Loussouarn, Dr Andrea Pisac and Dr Julie Scott, are currently examining how gambling is emerging in the contemporary technological and regulatory climate. Their projects explore remote gambling in the UK, The British spread betting industry, the impact of geographic borders on tourism and gambling between Slovenia and Italy and land based casinos in Cyprus. Their work is diverse, and approaches gambling not simply as an easily defined market, but as a ‘global assemblage’ (Ong & Collier 2005). These ‘global assemblages’ are understood as are “the actual configurations through which global forms of techno-science, economic rationalism, and other expert systems gain significance” (Collier 2006: 400). What such an approach highlights is the need for new methodological approaches in attempting to come to terms with the changing face of global markets, the need for social researchers to begin widening their studies beyond traditional field-sites and the disaggregation of statistics, the need to broaden rather than narrow the scope of studies.

With the explosion of remote gambling bringing questions not just about regulatory frameworks, but also questions regarding national and individual identity, the limits of the nation state, and areas of convergence between ‘gaming’ and ‘gambling’ on various social network sites (Griffiths & Light 2008; Wardle 2012), and the increased confusion as to how to regulate these new faces of commoditised risk, such new approaches are of all the more significance. One of the aims of the project in which I was involved was to develop a methodological blueprint ‘to explore the value of a systematic qualitative approach to gambling’ and I for one will be waiting with bated breath to see what the research team turns out.


Collier, Stephen J (2006) ‘Global Assemblages’ in Theory Culture and Society, 23 (2-3), pp. 399-401

Griffiths, Marie & Light, Ben (2008) ‘Social Networking and Digital Gaming Media Convergence: classification and its consequences for appropriation’ in Information System Frontiers, 10 (4) pp. 447-459, 

Ong, Aihwa & Collier, Stephen J (2005) Global Assemblages: technology, politics and ethics as anthropological problems, Oxford: Blackwell Publishing

Read, Simon (2011) ‘Spread betting: time to jump on a global bandwagon’ in The Independent, 

Wardle, Heather (2012) ‘The Challenges of Convergence: a case study of gambling, gaming and the digital world’, The British Library, The Social Research Association annual conference, 10 Oct

Wardle, Heather et al. (2011) British Gambling Prevalence Survey 2010, London: TSO


Toby Austin Locke is currently working in the British Library social sciences team on the Social Welfare Portal and is due to start working towards his doctorate on ‘The Commoditisation of Creative Industry’ in October 2013 at Goldsmiths College, University of London.You can contact him on twitter @tobyalocke and