Thursday, 13 November 2014

Why Do We Give to Charity?

By Dr Siobhan Holohan

It’s Children in Need tomorrow. The day in the year when the British public come together to raise hundreds of millions of pounds for children’s charities around the country. For weeks or months individuals and groups of people have run marathons, held bake-offs, or worn silly costumes to fundraise for this worthy cause. No-one can deny that the projects supported by this money need to be funded. They provide, amongst many other things, safe places for children to go when they feel threatened at home, respite care for the many thousands of children who care for their sick or disabled parents and siblings, and specialist childcare facilities for children with learning or physical disabilities.

Like many, I support local, national and international charities such as this on a regular basis; by putting a few coins in a bucket, by texting £5, or logging onto a website to donate. I also support a number of charities year in, year out. These are the causes that over the years have meant something to me. When I had no money, I supported them with time, now I have no time I mostly support them with money. I have also dropped in and out of other charities as my world-view and priorities have changed and, sometimes, as particular causes have come to dominate the headlines.

But why do I, and so many others, support charities - to the tune of £10.4 billion last year alone? Despite my willingness and indeed desire to show my support by volunteering time and money to these causes, over the years I have often questioned why we need charity as a society. This often hits me hardest when the ‘big’ celebrity-endorsed televised fundraising events come around. Watching TV last night and listening to the radio while driving into work this morning, I was struck by the entertainment and consumer value attached to Children in Need, one of the longest running and best known televised fundraising events in the UK. As I listened to a popular morning radio show auctioning off experience days for hundreds of thousands of pounds to generous (and clearly very wealthy) listeners, I wondered at the disconnect between these two polar opposites – individuals and groups who rely on the generosity of others to function and, indeed, offer vital support to those in need, and those who are able to give away large amounts of money without too much thought.

Within the current economic context where the gap between rich and poor is widening exponentially,  Zizek has provided an interesting take on this dichotomy in a controversial lecture on the problems caused by allowing charitable exchange to become the main feature in contemporary cultural capitalism (transcript available here). In short he argues that charity is being sold to us within the cultural products we consume. For example, when be buy a coffee from Starbucks, our guilt at buying into corporate capitalism is somewhat assuaged by the fact that we are drinking Fairtrade coffee that might benefit a remote community in South America. This transaction benefits the company by giving them good press and also allows us to feel better about our relative security in an increasingly uncertain world. The same could be said for televised fundraising events like Children in Need. In between being entertained we are shown heart breaking clips of those in need of our help. When we donate, we allow ourselves to feel better, but also to feel more in control. But, for Zizek, charitable giving does not solve the problem at the centre of the need for charity, he says:

People find themselves surrounded by hideous poverty, by hideous ugliness, by hideous starvation. It is inevitable that they should be strongly moved by all this. Accordingly, with admirable, though misdirected intentions, they very seriously and very sentimentally set themselves to the task of remedying the evils that they see. But the remedies do not cure the disease they merely prolong it; indeed the remedies are part of the disease. They try to solve the problem of poverty, for instance, by keeping the poor alive. Or in the case of a very advanced school by amusing the poor. But this is not a solution it is an aggravation of the difficulty (Zizek 2009).

So, giving to charity does not make the problem go away. Instead, in some kind of perverse contradiction, it acts to hide the problem behind a veneer of altruism where individuals become liable for the failures of a social system strategically organised to benefit the already wealthy.

Does this mean that we should all stop giving? Absolutely not. Not for Zizek, not for me, and most certainly not for the many millions of people who regularly donate time, money, and occasionally their lives, to causes that would otherwise be unable to function. But what it does mean is that we should perhaps open our eyes to why there is such a great need for charity, volunteers and philanthropy. What I would like to see in between the stylised gloss of the latest televised giveathon are accounts of why certain services have been cut, why charities need to exist at all, and, occasionally, a suggestion about how to organise society in a way that benefits all. 

Wednesday, 5 November 2014

Insurance and the Speed Awareness Course

This is a cross-posted from, a blog by AdamSnow (PhD Student, Criminology) that is dedicated to understanding and sharing ideas about road traffic regulation and the interplay between traffic law and society.

An interesting piece in the Daily Telegraph leads with the headline "I took a speed awareness course and my car insurance doubled".  Of course this represents just one instance of one policy doubling in amount so perhaps one shouldn't get worked up about the 'doubling'.  Indeed the piece overall is quite balanced in how it reports insurance decisions.  What will be interesting to many motorists however is the fact that one’s insurance can increase if one attends a speed awareness course.

The idea of awareness courses in motoring stem from the Road Traffic Law Review conducted by Peter North in 1988.  This report recommended the use of one day driver retraining courses for those drivers who it was felt were responsible for accidents.  It was not taken forward by the Government at the time but 
Devon and Cornwall Constabulary did take the idea forward at the local level.  At present a number of such schemes exist, some covering more serious instances of driver offending (Drink Driving) whilst the majority aimed at the more minor end (Seat-belt, Traffic Lights, Speeding, Mobile Phone Use, Careless Driving).  The use of such courses has gained impetus by being a centre piece of current government policy.

Attendance on a speed awareness course is not compulsory, instead it is offered as an option alongside the FPN and prosecution alternatives.  There has certainly been an uptake of the course by drivers, indeed more people sit the speed awareness course now than receive a fixed penalty notice for speeding.  One should certainly be wary of any claims that speeding offences have reduced overall. Over the last 5 years the number of speeding offences actioned by the police has risen by approximately 200,000.  Thus the idea that the speed awareness course reduces the likelihood of offending is somewhat undermined, in that more offending than ever is occurring.  The course merely displaces offenders at the lower end away from FPNs and prosecutions. 

Herein lies the problem for insurers. The actual risk on the road from speed is not decreasing (based on the official action statistics) - it is increasing.  Insurance is all about risk and it seems only sensible (no matter how much we may dislike it) that premiums increase as risk increases.  The ultimate question though is whether such courses lower the risk of speeding for those who attend them.

It is fair to say that those who attend speed awareness courses on the whole are lower risk than those who accept an FPN (I accept that I am making huge generalizations here).  The course is typically offered to those who speed only a small percentage above the thresholds for speeding enforcement (10% plus 2 mph).  For example those speeding 13 mph above a 30 mph limit will not generally be eligible for the course and instead offered an FPN.  Those caught driving between 35-42mph will be offered the course as an option, providing they haven't sat the course in the previous year.  Thus the more risky drivers are not offered the option of a course, although as the course is optional even low risk drivers may still accept the FPN instead of spending time on the course.

This is an interesting approach to say the least.  Surely attempts at lowering risk through education have more potential benefit when they are aimed at the more risky drivers?  Be that as it may at present the course is seen as suitable for low risk and the fixed penalty for higher risk drivers.  There is some 
evidence to suggest that such awareness courses do improve driver behaviour, although this is typically short term and a relatively modest effect.  Of course vehicle insurance is a short term deal (typically one year) which may support the idea that attendance on such a course should reduce not increase one's premium.  Certainly more concrete evidence is needed before that claim can be made with confidence, the studies to date aren't definitive.

 ACPO (The Association of Chief Police Officers) were, in 2012,
 critical of insurance companies who raised premiums based on attendance at a speed awareness course.  They argued similar to the above points that attendance on the course lowered risk by making driver behaviour better.

ACPO's position is somewhat problematic.   If it believes the awareness course is the better option for combating problematic speed then it should have the courage of its convictions and recommend the removal of the FPN as an option for speeding between certain thresholds.  My own research has found that the availability of the awareness course certainly contributes to officers issuing more penalties than perhaps they would have done. 

By making the course available the police are given a "positive" option (the course) which they can "sell" to the motorist as a cheaper alternative to the FPN.  This makes it easier for officers to enforce legislation that they may otherwise  have some difficulty in justifying to themselves.  The course is not stressed as a punishment but a positive alternative to punishment in which the driver obtains a reduction in the FPN cost and an educational opportunity at the same time.

In any event awareness courses are here to stay and the best advice one can give when it comes to insurance is to shop around.  The best way to avoid the problem all together is to drive safely and below the limit, although I certainly accept that this is not always possible particularly in unfamiliar locations.

Thursday, 23 October 2014

Project Update: Using Twitter in Sociology Teaching and Learning

By Emma Head and Ala Sirriyeh 

We are now in the third week of our teaching innovation project.  We have asked students to complete a questionnaire detailing their use of social media and noting their perceptions of using social media in education.  Next week we will be running focus groups with students to discuss these topics in more detail.

Ala has been making use to Twitter to alert students to news stories, journal articles, and other resources that are relevant to the 'Race', Racism, and Resistance module.  Seminar activities have also been documented in tweets.  Ala has used storify to collect together the module tweets.  The storify page is an excellent visual example of the range of ways Twitter has been used.

We will be blogging about our project again later in the semester.


Monday, 20 October 2014

A Sociology of the Seasons?

By Dr Andy Zieleniec

As a sociologist of culture or a cultural sociologist I am interested in the various ways in which we make and represent meaning to ourselves and to others. How we create and share and reflect on the present connected to the past and predicting, hoping and aspiring to some vision of the future. We do this within social contexts in which our material and physical environments also impact and influence our understanding of the social processes, forms and structures that affect our experiences of being in the world. 

An intrinsic part of this is how we interact with others: when and where, in what ways and why we do so. In many instances this relates to social environments and circumstances in which we act and interact in appropriate and acceptable ways conducive to the life worlds we inhabit and/or the stage of the life course we are in (family, work, leisure, etc.). As such, the places and spaces as well as the types and forms of social interaction available to us are not only to some extent prescribed but also assume and reflect aspects of power, status, access, availability, as well as other human traits – greed, ambition, lust, love, want, leisure, pleasure.

I have been thinking recently about the paradox of modern existence that means we experience life in predominantly human made environments (all those buildings, transportation networks and vehicles, all that concrete, glass, steel and tarmac) immersed within a battery communication technologies that allow us global connections and information but which at the same time increasingly insulate us from nature and from natural rhythms such as climate and the seasons.

As modern individuals living predominantly urban existences in (post?) modern, (post?) industrialised societies our relationship with nature and with weather and climate has changed the way in which we perceive and experience our sensual and embodied selves within and through our subjective experience of everyday life. We take advantage of the possibilities of warmer weather to make use of outside spaces and for a range of activities that are only made possible and more enjoyable by seasonal variations in climate.

I for one have made as much use of the spring and summer and with the exceptional and long, dry and warm September that has extended it, to engage in a range of outside activities and alfresco experiences (horse riding, mountain climbing, sea kayaking, coastal and forest walks, paddling and swimming in rivers and seas, boats trips, long lazy days out in the park, picnics, garden parties, late into the night parties around a blazing fire).
Autumn (the season of rain and wind, cold mornings and nights, mist and mushrooms, the beginning of Daylight Saving Time as the clocks go back) has come as a bit of a shock to the system. Whilst autumn reflects the end of some things it is also a season of new beginnings (not least the start of the new academic year). Whilst I can reflect ruefully on the need for warmer clothes (gone are the shorts and sandals, back are the socks and boots) there is also a recognition of the diurnal change/shift in chosen and available social activities oriented around and within inside as opposed to outside spaces and places.  This change in dress, behaviour, activity and place is also a reflection on how our individual and social behaviours are still affected but our climate and by the natural rhythms and cycles of seasons.     

This sense of connection to the seasons is something which our ancestors and others around the globe were and still are intimately connected with and many rituals, festivities and cultural activities revolve around or are associated with specific seasons and times of the year. For example, from my part of the world, the Celtic festival of Samhain (the Celtic New Year) celebrated around the 31st October, was associated with fires, rites and rituals, fetes and festivities marking the betwixt and between the living world and the world of ancestors and the dead (now our Halloween). Imbolc came at lambing time, around 31 January and was celebrated as the beginning of the end of winter (now our New Years Eve). Beltain was another fire festival celebrated around 1st May, and whilst Samhain was associated with the onset of winter and retiring indoors from harsh weather Beltain was the celebration of abundant fertility as spring burst forth, a time for feasts and fairs, fun and frolics. Lughnasadh was a summer festival lasting for as long as two weeks either side of the day itself, which fell around 31 July and celebrated the plenty of summer amid preparation for Harvest.

Most of these festivals were not only intimately connected to the season and cycles of nature they were also social and communal celebrations of solidarity and culture. We used to live more closely with and be aware of our connection to and relationship with the turning of the planet and the impacts of the change of seasons. This was all the more true when we were more closely aware of our dependence on the earth and its productive capacity. Now we are at the end of summer this is also a time of celebration and of bounty and the various Harvest Festivals, the Harvest Moon, the autumn equinox are all symbols and recognition of a change of season as well as a reaping of the benefits of summer growth and productivity. It has been a particularly good year for wild fruits, berries and nuts and if you had noticed the squirrels on campus have and are especially active at the moment.

We are perhaps less connected and aware as we become dependent and expectant on the constancy of choice of products provided by supermarkets and other retailers. Most are us as products of modernity live increasingly isolated and individuated lives where we are relatively oblivious, desensitised or view nature as an inconvenience, as when storms, rain, wind, impose and impact on our daily lives and routines. The impact of industrialisation, urbanisation and the enclosure movement forced many people from a rural connection to the land as demographic changes have now resulted in the majority of UK, European and US populations living in towns and cities: a process that is now being repeated in the global south. This has inevitably changed our relationship to and awareness of the natural world and seasonal change.

However, many still do have an awareness and understanding of how our behaviours, social interactions and cultural consciousness is reflected in and shaped by climactic and seasonal events and for us there is a need and desire to keep in touch with the turning of the earth through, literally, a turning of the earth. I speak as a long standing, enthusiastic and active, if not especially skilful, gardener who enjoys getting hands deep in soil and compost, digging over and enriching the soil, planting seeds and watching them grow, nurturing the process until blooms, fruit and vegetables are hopefully the happy outcome (as in these images). 

I am aware and appreciative that I am lucky to have a small garden to grow things in and that for many this may be seen as a luxury or a only a far off dream only available for a middle class home-owning waged class. However, there is a long history of working class engagement with gardening and growing things, whether for the table of for pleasure. This did not end with the demise of traditional rural occupations or because of the threat and demise of much social housing which included in their plans a front and back garden.
The recent publication of a number of books (Willes, 2014; Foley, 2014; Burchardt, 2011) traces and explores the long term commitment to and enjoyment of gardening as a working class leisure practice that provides some alleviation from modern urban existence. This need to connect with the land and with nature is reflected not only in the need for private gardens, urban public parks, country parks and rural recreations but also with spaces and places for cultivating and interacting with older and slower rhythms and tempos different from the 24/7 365 fast pace of our modern life. Despite the threat to allotment provision from land developers and cash strapped councils that results in more or less of a postcode lottery of provision gardening for pleasure and for necessity in cyclical periods of austerity remains popular. As Crouch and Ward (1997) have argued allotment gardening represents a form and expression of social interaction and engagement that creates and embeds social solidarity through a shared experience which can have potentially radical effects (McKay, 2011) beyond the garden fence (Reynolds, 2009). 

But how does this relate to a sociology of culture or a cultural sociologist? Culture, as Raymond Williams famously said (1976, Keywords) is one of the most complex words in the English language. In its earliest usage it meant the tending of crops or animals and is in part the usage I have emphasised above. Culture also means the growing or nurturing of minds and the development of intellectual endeavours. This is akin perhaps to the cultivation of a garden or allotment and perhaps if an intellectual seed is planted it will grow and flourish into a critical and enquiring mind. Culture is also a way of being or of life and gardening can certainly be understood as both a commitment to and orientation to the world as well as a (sub)cultural activity involving practices shared amongst a group exhibiting solidarity and self-help. The final definition of culture described by Williams is as products, things of intellectuals, artists, writers. As cultural producers there is certainly a plethora of products and artefacts associated with gardening and cultivation as well as gardening being a creative activity in itself which produces positive physical, mental and social benefits from the ground up, so to speak.  

My example of gardening whether at home, in windowsill pots, raised beds or on allotments is one which highlights and emphasises how social activities and interactions can be and still are associated with particular seasons and with climate and weather.

A sociology of the seasons or a seasonal sociology would be one which recognises the continuing interlinking of individuals, groups, industries and business, as well as particular behaviours and activities with longer, natural and slower rhythms and cycles and how one can influence the other in a reciprocal way. It would potentially provide an analysis that could consider how and why different a certain nostalgia around outside children and adults recreation and play is married to concerns about supposedly modern, unhealthy, sedentary inside pastimes as well as the decline of community. Such a seasonal sociology could perhaps explore this continuing fascination with inside and outside, home and away, nature/culture dichotomies etc. in our everyday lives.
Foley, C. (2014) Of Cabbages and Kings: The History of Allotments Frances Lincoln, London
Crouch, D.  and Ward, C. (1997) The Allotment: Its Landscape and Culture Five Leaves Publications, Nottingham
McKay, G. (2011) Radical Gardening: Politics, Idealism and Rebellion in the GardenFrances Lincoln, London
Reynolds, R. (2009) On Guerrilla Gardening: A Handbook for Gardening without Boundaries Bloomsbury Publishing, London
Willes, M. (2014) The Gardens of the British Working Class Yale University Press
Williams, R. (1976) Keywords Fontana, Glasgow