Tuesday, 29 October 2013

New publication - Park Spaces: Leisure, culture and Modernity A Glasgow Case Study by Andrzej Zieleniec

Dr Andy Zieleniec's new book explores the park spaces of Glasgow.  His work argues that the  importance of a critical understanding of space in contemporary social scientific enquiry is increasingly recognised as fundamental for the analysis of the development, enlargement and experience of modern capitalism. In particular, the concentration of forces and relations of production, circulation and consumption, of people, commodities and services, is progressively appreciated as achieved through the creation and exploitation of urban space. The works of Lefebvre, Harvey, Foucault, de Certeau and Simmel are used to create a syncretic theoretical analyses that provides a conceptual framework for the substantive analysis of a case study of specific forms of modern urban social space. That is, an exploration of the processes by which the origins and development of what came to be integral features of the landscape of the modern city were produced, namely, the creation of the social spaces of public parks. The investigation of Glasgow's parks as social spaces constructed, depicted and used for leisure and recreation contributes to the understanding of the development and experience of urban modernity, as well as to contemporary socio-spatial analysis. 

Saturday, 26 October 2013

Einstein's Nightmare

I recently presented a paper at Professor John O’Neill’s Festschrift (literally ‘festival of words’) at York University in Toronto.

Professor O’Neill remains a key figure in sociological theory and his work continues to influence my own thinking. Beyond his research influence, his teaching and supervision inspired my own career and taught me everything I know about what it means to be a teacher. For many teachers, the work of teaching remains about their own journey and the position of the student is largely incidental, but Professor O'Neill taught me that a different approach is possible, where the role of the teacher is to create a psychological space fit for real learning, where the student feels safe, secure, and centrally wants to learn, understand, and express themselves. I have since theorised this approach through the work of the psychoanalyst D.W. Winnicott, who wrote about the creative space in early childhood and I remain indebted to Professor O'Neill for creating this space for me and inspiring me to think for myself during my undergraduate days. I am almost certain that I would not be an academic without Professor O'Neill's influence and I remain eternally grateful for his gift of thought.

Inspired by the tradition of Canadian media theory, and particularly thinkers such as Marshall McLuhan and Arthur Kroker, who have made Canada the home of media analysis, my paper, 'Einstein’s Nightmare', addressed Professor O'Neill's own work on the mass media, which is very much part of this rich history of Canadian media theory. Centrally, I explored the idea of social relations, social responsibility, and what I call social debt through reference to the popular internet meme, 'Einstein's Nightmare' which appeared early in 2013.

As the image to the right of your screen shows, the meme itself concerns the impact of social media, and centrally new media gadgets, on social relations. My key point was that new media potentially undermines social relations and social responsibility and introduces a new form of what I call 'sociality at a distance'. Beyond making this argument, the aim of my paper was to contrast this idea of sociability, which is thinned out, weakly defined, and absolutely provisional, with the mode of relationality defined by gifting, generosity, and responsibility, which characterised my experience of Professor O'Neill's teaching and supervision. 

I will present a different version of this paper at the Keele Sociology seminar next week – 30th October – but if you would like to read my discussion of the relationship between the classic media myth, Plato’s Cave, which Professor O'Neill explores in his book of the same name, and Einstein’s Nightmare, you can visit my home page on the academia.edu website. I include my paper on this site in draft form. Full versions of the paper will be available later in the year when I publish the piece in article form.

Friday, 25 October 2013

The ‘War on Drugs’ was not imaginary Peter… and it’s older than you think.

Andrew Henley, PhD student and Graduate Teaching Assistant in Criminology

Earlier this week I attended Keele Debate and Discussion Society’s ‘Big Debate’ on the issue of cannabis legislation.  The debate was somewhat scuppered by the no-show of those who were supposed to be arguing the case for decriminalisation and, whilst those who stood in did an admirable job at short notice, I can’t help thinking that someone missed a trick by not inviting my colleague Dr Samantha Weston  to take the stage.  In any case, my post concerns not the quality of the debate, but one of the central claims made by Mail on Sunday columnist Peter Hitchens who argued strongly in favour of maintaining the current illicit status of cannabis. 

In his book, The War We Never Fought: The British Establishment's Surrender to Drugs, Hitchens argues that ‘the 1968 generation have for the most part become supporters of drug ‘decriminalisation’, a cause whose success will no doubt mean more doped contentment and more willing serfdom’.  He further describes the ‘War on Drugs’ as ‘phantasmal’ and suggests that, due to the influence of those often characterised as the ‘cannabis lobby’, the British government has engaged in a progressive weakening of drug prohibition which can only be rectified by harsher punishment of those who consume and deal in drugs.

First of all, to suggest that there has been no concerted effort to apply the criminal law in respect of those who use or deal in illegal drugs is simply not correct (unless the 212,708 seizures of Class A, B and C drugs reported by the Home Office for 2011/12 didn’t really happen).  As for the utility of harsh punishments, we can easily see the hugely expensive effect (in both economic and human cost) of such punitiveness in the US which has introduced numerous minimum mandatory sentences for possession of (certain) drugs in the last few decades:

I’ll leave a response to Hitchens’ prognosis for drug policy to those far more qualified to write on the subject than I am.  But I thought it worth making a different point that didn’t feature in this week’s debate – that of where anti-marijuana legislation came from in the first place.  Now one would like to think that once upon a time, a range of medical experts got together and decided to classify drugs according to those which were relatively safe and that could be either regulated or ignored by legislators altogether and those which were so dangerous that they had to be criminalised in the interests of public safety.  Not so. 

If we take the example of marijuana, we find a slightly different and altogether more troubling story that begins as a result of the Mexican Revolution of 1910.   Marijuana (from the Mexican Spanish ‘marihuana’ – for the Cannabis plant) was often smoked by those Mexicans who escaped the political upheaval of the period by crossing the border into the United States to find work.  Fear and prejudice regarding this new immigrant population in the Southern states quickly focussed upon the strange smelling weed which they brought with them.  According to Eric Schlosser's excellent article in The Atlantic:

Police officers in Texas claimed that marijuana incited violent crimes, aroused a "lust for blood," and gave its users "superhuman strength." Rumors spread that Mexicans were distributing this "killer weed" to unsuspecting American schoolchildren.

Before long, and in response to such claims, a number of local laws popped up which sought to criminalise the drug.  Between 1914 and 1937 as many as 27 different states introduced some form of anti-marijuana legislation.  Somewhat incongruously, in 1920 the US Department of Agriculture urged US farmers to grow marijuana as a profitable crop – due mainly to the practical uses of hemp.   However, by the end of this period a vigorous anti-narcotic lobby had assembled and led to the formation of the Federal Bureau of Narcotics in 1930, headed by Harry J. Anslinger.  The claims made about marijuana at the beginning of this ‘war’ reiterated those which had spread in the Southern states following the influx of Mexican migrants after 1910.  These are evidenced in the claims made in the 1935 poster (below) from the FBN and was also seen in the now comical anti-marijuana propaganda films of the era such as ‘Reefer Madness’ (1936) and ‘Devil’s Harvest’ (1942).

In essence then, the beginnings of the ‘War on Drugs’ were a lot earlier than its official declaration by President Nixon in 1971 and may have actually had far more to do with who was originally taking the drugs in question rather than the dangerousness of the drugs themselves.  If we look at the origins of other anti-drug legislation we see a similar pattern.  The 1875 Opium Den Ordinance in San Francisco is often linked to anti-Chinese sentiment in the city and concerns that white Americans were starting to become addicted.  Elsewhere, the Aboriginals Protection and Restriction of the Sale of Opium Act in 1897 was originally passed on the basis that it would address opium addiction amongst the indigenous peoples of Australia, though it soon became a vehicle for the rulers of this newly emerging nation to take control of aboriginal affairs more generally.

If we fast-forward to the more recent history of prohibition in the US, we see more evidence which suggests the ‘targeting’ of drug laws at specific populations.  Prior to the passage of the Fair Sentencing Act 2010 penalties for the possession of crack cocaine could be up to 100 times more severe than for its powder equivalent.  Of course, crack cocaine use is associated more commonly with poorer (and frequently black) users on ‘Main Street’ when compared to power cocaine, which remains the drug of choice for the whiter, richer and more powerful on Wall Street.  Even after the passage of the Act an 18:1 disparity in sentencing remains, despite suggestions that the relative harms of the two forms of cocaine have been exaggerated.  So, in conclusion, perhaps before we enter into another debate about whether or not certain drugs should be decriminalised, we might do well to first ask the questions: ‘how did they come to be criminalised in the first place?’; ‘was criminalisation actually a response to the drug use of specific populations?’ and, crucially, ‘why was this the case?’

Wednesday, 16 October 2013

Student Journal of Criminology

A discussion piece by Nicola Byrne, one of our third year students in Criminology and Sociology, has been published in the first issue of the online Student Journal of Criminology.  This is a student-run journal which aims to enable students to write for a wider audience than they would usually be able to reach at undergraduate level.  Submissions are reviewed by criminology academics from universities in the UK.  This publication is a great achievement for Nicola and testament to her commitment to her studies.  Her paper, 'Sex work in the 21st century - a case for worker centred policy' can be read by scrolling down this page.

Thursday, 3 October 2013

Sociology in practice - the HIV and later life project

By Jessica Thorley  


In this post, one of our recent graduates reflects on her experiences of working on a research project at Keele.  


As my degree course was coming to an end, and after 22 years of simply moving from one educational institution to the next, I had no idea what to do next with my life.  I’d loved studying sociology, and knew that I wanted to follow this passion further, but I had no experience of what sociologists really ‘do’ in the real world: how does the classroom stuff translate to the outside world? How does a real research project actually work and what does it entail?  When I was appointed as a research assistant on the HIV and later life project, led by Dr Dana Rosenfeld, I was able to start to answer some of these questions.  

The best thing about my role was the way I was thrown straight into the deep end, whilst still supported every step of the way.  Within previous work experience placements I have undertaken my job role has simply consisted of ‘tea maker’ and ‘washer-upper’, with a little bit of ‘observer of other people doing stuff’- but here I was actively involved in the project.  It was very exciting to see a real research project in practice and feel that I was a part of it.  I had done a little primary research of my own within my undergraduate dissertation, but it was a big leap going from a project based on eight interviews to being involved in a two year project with around 150 participants!  All the team were really supportive and friendly, with Dana mentoring me throughout and always making the time to include me and explain things thoroughly. 

The skills that I developed and the opportunities I received through this internship were invaluable to me as a recent sociology graduate, giving me an insight into the world of social science research.  I was involved in data inputting, using NVivo to code interviews, helping create the end of project event brochure, listening in on media meetings and phone calls, and a little bit of data analysis.  I was able to watch and be a part of sociology in action – not just reading a text book but handling masses of data about people’s real lives and experiences.  One of the main things I learnt was about the importance of ethics and water-tight methodology to ensure participants voices are heard, respected and represented properly.  It showed me how essential methods training is (even if the modules are often a little dry!) and how methods can actually be really interesting when applied to real life projects.  I was also able to make some connections between theories I had learnt about during my degree and the data I was looking at, reassuring me that the stuff I have spent three years of my life on is relevant, and not just confined to classrooms and my dusty folders. 

Being part of this project has taught me so much about social science research and its key role in highlighting issues and raising awareness of invisible populations and problems. I have had a really exciting and fascinating summer, and the experience has boosted my self-confidence and interest in research, and made it seem a lot less daunting as a possible career choice. As a recent graduate, the freedom to do whatever you want can often leave you feeling a bit lost and unsure what direction to go down, but this internship has helped give me focus and inspiration. I now plan to go on to do a masters course next year, with the aim of entering a career in research and/or social policy.