Friday, 12 December 2014

Botswana Democracy ignored by the Global Media by Pnina Werbner

Pnina Werbner is Professor Emerita in Anthropology at Keele University and author of The Making of an African Working Class: Politics, Law and Cultural Protest in the Manual Workers' Union of Botswana (Pluto Press 2014).  In this post Pnina considers how Western ‘bad news’ perspectives on Africa disguises the strength of civil society and trade unions in protecting democracy and the public interest.

Botswana is the oldest, fully functioning democracy in Africa. You would never guess it, however, by the way in which the country is ignored by the western – and global – media. Bad news travels far and fast in Africa – the Ebola epidemic, kidnappings, civil wars, massacres, dictatorships, rigged elections, all make headline news. If Botswana is mentioned, it is in relation to the HIV/Aids epidemic or the dispossession of Bushmen. Not so, however, when it comes to holding free and fair elections or the defence of the Constitution by an independent judiciary.

About the same time Botswana held its elections for a new Parliament, on 24 October 2014, there were runoff presidential elections in Brazil, won by Russeff, and national elections in Tunisia, won by its secular party. These were clearly important events of undoubted significance for the West. Botswana’s elections were not even mentioned, let alone analysed, yet they too were something of a watershed. For the first time in the history of Botswana, a united opposition alliance, the Umbrella for Democratic Change (UDC), almost won. The ruling party, the Botswana Democratic Party (BDC) which had repeatedly won all the elections since independence, in 1965, got only 46% of the vote, though it gained 37 of the 57 parliamentary seats in a first-past-the-post electoral system. The cause of the opposition’s failure was a small party, the Botswana Congress Party (BCP), which had shortsightedly refused to join the main opposition alliance, thus splitting the vote in many constituencies. But the writing was clearly on the wall for the Botswana establishment: young people and city dwellers were fed up with the status quo, which had led to allegations of cronyism, corruption, secret surveillance and ‘tendrepreneurship’(corruption in awarding public contracts), emanating in the popular view from presidential autocracy.
Cartoon of President Khama tied to a tree

Despite his alleged autocracy, however, the President, Lieutenant General Ian Khama, was a democratic, publicly committed to giving up his office lawfully after two terms, as spelled out by the Constitution. This would mean, in effect, passing the presidency onto his Vice-President mid-term, as had happened when Khama himself became President. African presidents are known for their repeated attempts to extend their constitutional rights to office, clinging on to power come what may. In the case of Khama, the prevailing rumour was that he intended to appoint his younger brother to the vice-presidency, despite the latter's political inexperience and lack of popularity. In the local press, headlines proclaimed Khama's ambition to create a 'dynasty'. This led to a series of cliffhangers which tested Botswana's democracy as never before.

Unionist leaders in front of the High Court and
Court of Appeal Building
Before Parliament was dissolved it passed a ruling allowing for the election of the Vice-President, the Speaker of the House and the Deputy Speaker in parliament by secret ballot. After the elections, the President, through the office of the Attorney General, challenged this ruling in the High Court and later the Court of Appeal. The accepted view was that an open ballot would allow him to intimidate members of his own party, despite the widespread feeling, reported in the press, that elected parliamentary members of the BDP strongly objected to the nomination of the President's brother.

Cartoon of Masisi, now Vice-President, oppressing workers
As always in Botswana, the whole nation mobilized in anticipation of the court verdicts, crowding into the court, crammed wall to wall, packing the corridors. When the dismissal of the presidential challenge by the High Court bench of five judges was announced, it was greeted with ululations and a general sense of relief. The Attorney General managed, however, to get the appeal of the ruling heard on an urgent basis in the Court of Appeal, the highest in the land. Could the President of the Court of Appeal, Justice Ian Kirby, a conservative judge and long-term friend of the President, be trusted to defend the common good of the nation? At stake was the independence of the judiciary in Botswana. The whole country held its breath. When the Court of Appeal, presided over by Kirby, supported the verdict of the High Court the nation breathed a sigh of relief. Botswana democracy had been redeemed, with the Constitution safeguarded by the judiciary. In the event, the candidate selected for the Vice-President , Mokgweetsi Masisi, was an unrelated long-term politician, voted in by the ruling party unanimously in Parliament in a secret ballot.

Duma Boko, leader of the Opposition, speaking to
public sector union strikers
As in Tunisia and Brazil, the struggle and mobilisation by trade unions against inequality played a major part in this unfolding saga.  In Botswana, the public sector union federation (BOFEPUSU) in particular worked hard to create a unified opposition alliance. As I document in my recent book, The Making of an African Working Class (Pluto 2014), the unions urged and agitated the opposition parties, while taking the government constantly to court in judicial review, thus charting the way to legal activism and the demand for justice.

The global media's myopia with regard to Botswana is particularly short-sighted at a time when new democratic regimes in Africa are growing in confidence and strength. It would seem to be the duty of the media to support these nascent African democracies, and at the very least report on their struggles, rather than engaging merely in tired Afropessimistic reportage.

Tuesday, 9 December 2014

Research training award for Nicola Edwards

Congratulations to Nicola Edwards, a student on the MA in Criminology and Criminal Justice programme at Keele, on being awarded a fully funded place on a 3-day research training school in Barcelona in January.  The training school is run by a European intergovernmental organisation called COST (Cooperation in Science and Technology) which encourages research collaboration across Europe and the theme of the school is 'Offender Supervision in Europe'.  Nicola graduated from Keele this summer with a first class honours degree in Criminology and Sociology and she is continuing her research by combining her commitment to working with offenders with her interest in street art and 'visual criminology'. In Barcelona, Nicola will get the chance to present her research to European experts and to receive tuition on her future research plans.  She has agreed to write a blog when she gets back, so watch this space!

Monday, 24 November 2014

Sociology PhD funding opportunities, 2015-16

As part of the range of funding opportunities for new Social Science PhD students for 2015-16, we are keen to recruit high quality research students in Sociology and welcome applications in areas relating to research specialisms in the Sociology team.

Particular areas of interest in Sociology are:

  • Contemporary Social Theory
  • Anti-Capitalism and Social Protest
  • Utopias and Social Imaginaries
  • Social Psychology
  • Globalisation and Global Cultures
  • Sociology of Media and Culture
  • New Media Cultures
  • Families
  • Childhood and Consumer Culture
  • Environment and Climate Change
  • Gender and Consumption
  • Parenting and Motherhood
  • Ethnicity, Race, Migration
  • Urban Cultures
  • Urban Regeneration
  • Youth and Social Exclusion
  • Sociology of Health and Illness

The first step in the application process is to identify a suitable supervisor through our Research pages, then approach them with some ideas about what your research might involve. If your interests mesh, you will then work on developing a PhD proposal in time for the application deadline.

If you have any queries or would like support in how to identify a supervisor or prepare an application, please contact Dr Mark Featherstone (, Postgraduate Research Lead Sociology, Postgraduate Research Director for the Centre for Social Policy. The deadline for applications is February 23rd 2015, but contact us as soon as possible if you are interested in making an application.  

The Beautiful Game or Football’s Fantasy

By Dr Andy Zieleniec

Football continues to be the nation’s favourite sport and 2014 has given fans plenty of highs and lows to enjoy. The culmination of mostly competitive leagues across Europe, a Brazilian World Cup, the start of new league campaigns and the qualifying rounds of European club and international competitions to mention a few. However, over the last few weeks football has appeared almost as much on the front pages of newspapers as much as the back. It seems that what happens in football (in this country at least) shines a light or holds a mirror up to many wider social issues and provides opportunities for very public debate. Not a bad thing for a sociologist to consider.

The following, in no particular order, is just a very brief litany of recent football stories that has elicited interventions, comments and generated much heated debate and which can be interpreted as reflecting ongoing arguments and analyses in a broader social context concerning amongst other things discrimination and governance.

     1) Ched Evans – The professional footballer convicted of rape has expressed little contrition since his release from prison. The decision by the club that he was contracted to at the time of his offence, Sheffield United, to allow him initially to train at the club following a request from the Professional Footballers Association raised the prospect of him being resigned as a player for the club with a view to him resuming his career.
      The club has since come under intense pressure from patrons (including Olympic athlete Jessica Ennis-Hill and musicians), Rape Crisis England & Wales and the End Violence Against Women Coalition and more than 165,000 members of the public who signed a petition rejecting the clubs move. The club has now revoked the offer of training facilities for the player as a response to such opposition.
      Amongst the many issues this case raises is the impact that high profile footballers have as role models, the seriousness and pervasiveness of violence against women, what is appropriate employment for the rehabilitation of sex offenders, how can public opinion be organised to enact change.

     2) Malkay McKay/ Dave Whelan/Wigan: The appointment of Malky McKay as Wigan manager despite being investigated by the Football Association for offensive texts (of a sexist, racist and homophobic nature) raised many eyebrows not just in football but in wider society. Dave Whelan the owner of Wigan FC in an interview attempted to justify the signing of McKay but expressed views and used language that has led him also now to be accused and investigated for racism and anti-Semitism.
      Is this just another example of ‘Banal’ sexism, racism, homophobia and anti-Semitism to       be  found in everyday workplaces as ‘banter’?
      Is it representative of the unreconstructed nature of some/many areas of society?
      Should we be optimistic by the strong reactions it has invoked?
      3) The appointment of Jimmy Floyd Hasselbaink on 13th November as manager of League 2 Burton Albion highlighted that there are now only 3 black and ethnic minority (BME) people in top management roles in the Football League and that there are only 19 (BME) coaches in the 552 'top' coaching positions at professional English clubs.

Does this suggest, given the number of BME players in clubs in all divisions that there is a form of institutional racism at play in English football that stops players becoming coaches and managers. If not, what other factors can account for this disparity in opportunity? Is there a level playing field when it comes to appointments in top jobs (and not only in football) or is there a need for legislative action to ensure it?

  4) The Report of the Investigation into the Bidding Process and Competition for Fifa’s World Cups in 2018 and 2022 has been published. This resulted in something of a farce when the independent investigator, US attorney Michael Garcia, contradicted the findings of the chairman of the adjudicatory chamber, German judge Hans-Joachim Eckert, just 4 hours after the report was released.
Whilst accusations and counter accusations have been levied against the English FA, a failed bidder, and FIFA about the probity of the bidding process and the accuracy of the findings, what remains is a sense of distrust and lack of transparency in the organisation of world football itself and in particular it’s President, Sepp Blatter.
Given that the chief whistle-blower now fears for her and her family’s safety what can we believe or trust can we have in those who have organised and participated in this process?
Does this sorry state of affairs in footballs world governing body tell us something about corruption, governance and transparency in similar global corporations?
Is it indicative, given the levels of proven misdeeds among many global financial institutions and banks, of operating procedures and practices that appear intrinsically unsound, dishonest, sleazy and fraudulent?

5) The first Scotland - England match to be played north of the border since 1989 and certainly since the recent Independence Referendum saw some good football and goals and relatively speaking a fine England performance.
However, the reporting of the match also focussed on a small section of England fans who thought it appropriate to use the England supporters' band as background music for sectarian anti-IRA chants and songs.
Whilst much has been done in Scotland to try to address sectarianism in football and in wider society in recent year it appears that such mindless, tasteless and offensive chanting is sadly still too familiar for a section of England fans.
Does this reflect an inability for some people within Britain to move forward or does historical and religious conflicts live on?
What will be the result if present conflicts continue to fester and inflame centuries after they have taken place?
Are divisions and differences in society appropriate fodder for football terrace rivalry?
        6) Last week saw the publication of the annual ‘state of the game’ report in which amongst   other factors the number of English, Scottish, Irish and Welsh players contracted to and given playing time on the pitch was analysed for clubs in leagues across the UK.

Whilst there was much hand-wringing and soul-searching following England’s early exit from the world cup in the summer (mirrored in Scotland by the inability to qualify for such major tournaments) some of the focus and suggestions for improving ‘the national game’ has centred on the number of ‘foreign’ players who populate British clubs team sheets and squads versus other successful leagues in Europe.
This has led to some to call for a ‘quotas’ of home-grown players and the restriction of EU and Overseas players registered and playing for UK clubs

This reflects perhaps the financial success, power and popularity of English Premier League football but it also mirrors current public debates and political party posturing over immigration, multi-culturalism and the future of the UK.

    7) The financial success of the English Premier League and its knock-on consequences for the game throughout the UK is based on the huge revenues that are generated by the televising of the sport. Whilst some may argue this has been a good thing and brought many positive changes to the game there is a sense of unease about the costs to fans of the TV packages that provide the basis for the revenues that Premier League clubs benefit from. The price for the latest rights deal - covering 2013-16 - rose by 70% to £3bn when it was announced in 2012. 
     Last week saw the launch of an investigation by the broadcasting watchdog Ofcom into the process by which the Premier League sells its live TV media rights to matches in the UK. Virgin Media has lodged a complaint that more matches should be available for live broadcast.

     Whilst it could be argued that Virgin want a piece of the lucrative pie that SKY and BT have the role of pay-tv in the organisation, scheduling and financing of football reflects the fundamental importance of media organisations in the promotion and consumption of the not only football as a commodity but in wider debates about the power and influence of media corporations in the global fields of the communication and production of information, knowledge, leisure, culture and politics.

As a fan of football at times I find it difficult to juggle my love of the game with the way in which it is organised, presented and consumed as a commodity. Whilst I may not go as far as Bill Shankly in stating that "Some people believe football is a matter of life and death, I am very disappointed with that attitude. I can assure you it is much, much more important than that" I would say that football matters because it reflects and illuminates important issues in society.

Thus the tropism that sport and politics don’t mix has I think been well and truly laid to rest by such recent examples (I haven’t touched on gender and homophobia here I have only focussed on stories/events that have been reported in the last two weeks).
However, my argument here is not that football should be made a scapegoat for the ills of society not that by fixing football we will solve social problems. It’s only a game after all.
What I would argue is that football, as the most popular spectator sport in the country, as a mass participation sport, with a very high media visibility and with the ability to engender intense emotions, loyalty and commitment can provide a mirror or window into social issues and problems (and perhaps also suggest solutions) that reflect wider society.  

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

Stiegler’s University

On Wednesday the first Sociology / Social Policy research seminar of the new academic year is scheduled. Mark Featherstone will talk about his recent work, 'Stiegler's University':

Wednesday, 22nd October


In this paper I read Stiegler’s work on youth, and especially his discussion of attention from Taking Care of Youth and the Generations, and the decadent society, formulated across three volumes of Disbelief and Discredit, through the lens of the contemporary university in order to develop a theory of the potentially utopian and dystopian conditions of higher education. In the first section of the paper I set out Stiegler’s theory of youth, attention capture, and the decadent society before exploring the ways in which this thesis can enable a critical understanding of the university in neoliberal society. Reflecting upon work by Henry Giroux, Stanley Aronowitz and others on the university machine, I examine the university in terms of the campus, or camp, which refers to a delimited space where particular logics, rules, and regulations apply. Here, I link the campus to ideas of utopia and dystopia, which similarly refer to delimited spaces, in order to argue that the university might be understood in terms of a contained disciplinary space comparable to institutions explored in Foucault’s works such as The History of Madness and Discipline and Punish. Returning to Stiegler’s critique of Foucault’s concept of discipline, I suggest that this is not necessarily negative and dystopian disciplinary control, but rather might be understood in terms of the creation of a self able to concentrate and focus in the name of creation and construction. However, where university education is understood and practiced through neoliberal techno-logics defined by first information overload, rather than knowledge production, and second quantifiable results, rather than qualitative learning, I suggest that we enter the realm of the dystopian university, which forecloses space for creativity, and instead trains labourers, where the labourer is understood in terms of a hyper-rational machine that responds to input, but does not think for itself.

Thursday, 9 October 2014

Using Twitter in Sociology Teaching and Learning – Research Project Launch!

Today sees the launch of a new research project titled ‘Using Twitter in Sociology Teaching and Learning'

The project is being led by Dr Emma Head and Dr Ala Sirriyeh, and is funded by Keele's Teaching Innovation Project Scheme. The objectives of this investigation are to firstly assess the use of Twitter as a tool to promote enhanced student learning and engagement on a sociology module and, secondly, to explore the role of social media in the education and wider lives of undergraduate students.  The research will evaluate the use of Twitter as a teaching and learning tool in a new second year undergraduate module 'Race', Racism and Resistance, which will run this semester. This is an elective module in sociology, led by Ala. The module introduces students to the sociology of ‘race’, ethnicity and racism. Ala will be using Twitter as a teaching and learning tool within the module. Emma will evaluate this use of Twitter on the module as well as exploring this within the wider context of student engagement with various forms of social media. 

Research aims 
In this project we will be exploring three main research aims: 

·         To explore whether Twitter contributions and exchanges can help enable students to feel a greater sense of connection to their studies and whether a more collaborative approach to learning will develop as students exchange ideas about their reading and seminar preparation.  
·         To evaluate whether, and to what extent, the use of Twitter on this module encourages students to think of different forms of communication, to reflect on how to act in an online environment, and to consider their self-presentation whilst using social media. 
·         To examine how contributions online relate to contributions in seminars and preparation for seminars to explore the possible connections between student engagement both online and in the face-to-face settings.

We are interested in talking to students about these issues and considering whether existing social media networks might offer any advantages over the Keele Learning Environment (KLE) for student learning. This is particularly significant in a subject like sociology where we aim to encourage students to relate the observations of scholars to the contemporary social world and wider social issues.

Undergraduates are often heavily embedded in social media networks and this project will allow us to explore the experiences students have of issues around privacy and self-presentation online. We will be able to ask students to reflect on their ‘digital footprint’ and to consider related issues at a time when they will soon be making the transition from student to potential employee in a graduate labour market. We will also be exploring the appropriateness of using social media sites as places for learning and how students experience learning differently in online and real world environments.

Using Twitter on the module

Students on this module will be encouraged to participate in a series of tasks that connect their learning and seminar preparation with the weekly key readings and lecture topic.  For example, students might tweet questions for a forthcoming seminar discussion or tweet their favourite quote from the week’s key reading.  Students will be encourage to use a shared hashtag in their tweets. In the seminars the tweets from that week’s online discussion will be displayed via a hashtag search, or by using storify. Ala will present and comment on the Twitter feed in class to summarise and facilitate a discussion on themes that have been raised. Ala will also tweet and retweet links (from @AlaSirriyeh) to resources that debate contemporary issues around ‘race’ and racism, this will include journal articles, news reports, and documentaries. Students will also be encouraged to share resources that they find in the same way. One of the assessments on this module asks students to present an analysis of a relevant contemporary debate. These tweets will collate a set of materials that will be useful for this task.  Ala's twitter feed is displayed within the KLE for any students who don't wish to access Twitter, or to set up their own account.

Evaluating the use of Twitter for teaching and learning

We will be using questionnaires and focus groups to evaluate the use of Twitter on this module. Students registered on the module will be invited to complete a questionnaire at the beginning and end of the course. The first questionnaire asks about expectations and experiences of Twitter and the how social media is currently used by the student. The second questionnaire asks students to evaluate the use of Twitter on the module and their overall learning experience. Additionally, students will be invited to take part in two focus group sessions, once in the first three weeks of the module, and again in the final weeks of teaching. Emma will facilitate these focus groups, to explore issues around online teaching and learning and social media in greater depth. We hope our students will enjoy the opportunity to be participate in a research project.