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.