Department of Sociology

The Department of Sociology Blog

  • By Karen Bullock

    Together with my colleague, Paul Johnson from the University of York, I have recently been conducting research on the role that faith based organisations (FBOs) play in policing. We have been looking at how the British police seek to co-produce forms of crime control with FBOs. One facet of this research has looked at how faith groups may deliver policing relevant interventions on behalf of police services. At the present time there has been interest in this form of coproduction. This interest stems from wider debates about the role of civil society in the delivery of public services and from the long held belief that working with communities will promote police responsiveness, increase police legitimacy, and more effectively control crime. However, the extent to which officers identify, engage with, and motivate FBOs to deliver interventions aimed at controlling crime is far from clear.


    With this in mind, our research sought to unpick how officers understand work with FBOs, the mechanisms which exist to facilitate such interaction between FBOs and officers, the extent to which the wider police family engages with issues relating to faith and the perceived benefits and challenges of working with FBOs. To examine this we conducted interviews with officers and police staff in three English constabularies. We found that police officers support a degree involvement of FBOs in policing. FBOs were seen to share values which accord with public service, were thought to be well positioned to mobilise community resources and were thought able to deliver services in ways that reduce demands on constabularies. Participants gave examples of FBOs working with officers to implement projects and programmes that sought to improve community safety. However, we found problems as well. Much more critical attention needs to be placed on the assumption that FBOs are well placed to work with the police to increase the security of communities and citizens. Our research suggested that FBOs may be less willing and less well positioned to work with the police than is sometimes assumed. For instance, FBOs are different sizes, have different degrees of internal stability, have different outlooks on their role in the community and are more or less competent to deliver police relevant interventions. The consequence is that they may lack the technical expertise and capacity to work with the police and/or be more or less willing to do so. In addition, whilst FBOs may be thought to offer an important way of delivering services which reduce demands on constabularies, something viewed as especially important at a time of state retrenchment, it may well be that the reverse is actually true. We found that working with FBOs places demands on the time of officers. From identifying suitable FBOs, to motivating them to participate, to sharing information, to making joint decisions about the delivery of interventions, to managing or coordinating service delivery, FBOs need to be supported by police organisations if they are to deliver police relevant interventions. Incorporating FBOs into police work does not remove officer responsibility for the delivery of policing but merely alters the nature of officer responsibility. Lastly, orienting officers towards new ways of working will be challenging. There is now a long history of failed attempts to promote citizen participation in police work. Our research suggests that it will continue to be difficult, not least because of officer attachment to conventional modes of crime control, the organizational configuration of constabularies, and the considerable investment required to equip officers with the necessary skills. Taken together, this research indicated that the role of FBOs was seen to be valuable but that it should not be taken for granted.


    To read more see the article recently published by the British Journal of Criminology

    Karen Bullock and Paul Johnson, Faith in Policing: The Co-production of Crime Control in Britain British Journal of Criminology azw080 first published online October 21, 2016 doi:10.1093/bjc/azw080


    Please note: Blog entries reflect the personal views of contributors and are not moderated or edited before publication. However, we may make subsequent amendments to correct errors or inaccuracies.

  • By Nigel Gilbert [1]

    New technologies can only be successful if they are fit for market and society. The dramatic scale and pace of technological developments offers tremendous potential, but with these opportunities come new dangers and new responsibilities. This implies that technological innovations need to pay close attention to the social contexts in which they are to be placed. Moreover, many social innovations require technological development to be successful. Thus, social and technical research need to go hand in hand.

    Robotics, mobiles and Internet based technologies have already caused revolutions in social organisation well beyond the communication area. Similar effects are being caused by the explosively developing bio- and pharma- technologies. Science and technology enabled shifts will contribute to the redrawing not only our economy, culture and society, but also our biology and our ethics. It is thus of utmost importance to incorporate a social sciences and humanities research component in the development of these new technologies from the earliest stage.

    However, social science is often seen as merely the ‘handmaiden’ to scientific and technological research, offering at best advice about how to make new developments more socially acceptable, or providing hints about how they can be marketed. In this blog post, I outline some of the ways in which social science (and humanities) can act as equal partners to engineering and science (for a related discussion, see a previous post by Graham Scambler: Six Sociologies).

    Among the roles that social science can play are:

    1. Opening up new policy questions and identifying new societal needs. For example, users and organisations are increasingly aware of and demanding that software preserves their privacy. In response an approach called ‘privacy by design’ is becoming popular among software designers. But what do users mean by privacy and how should it be designed into software? What are the trade-offs involved? This is an area where the social sciences have already helped to set the agenda.

    A second example: the so-called “sharing economy” (as represented by Uber and AirBnB) have pointed to a new kind of division of labour, with the platforms and those who operate and own them making high salaries and large profits while the operators (drivers, room sharers) not only earn little, but are also stuck at the bottom of the organization with little job security. Research, some funded by Horizon 2020, has begun to propose new ways of distributing value in the collaborative economy in a way that is potentially more equitable and is as ‘disruptive’ as the current sharing platforms. However, refining these ideas requires a close cooperation between social scientists and software developers (see for instance the H2020 programme, Collective Awareness Platforms for Sustainability and Social Innovation).

    2. Developing and promulgating new social ‘technologies’ and defining a more holistic approach to technology governance. For example, in an increasingly complex world, it becomes ever harder to evaluate public policies to see whether they are actually working as intended, or even to determine whether some observed change is in fact the result of the application of a policy initiative. Social scientists are developing new methods (some involving advanced mathematics and statistics, and some using computational modelling techniques) to get a better understanding of policy impacts. Success would mean that we could become much better at formulating policies that actually have their intended effects.

    Another example is the development of ‘community energy’: local, distributed energy generation and supply from renewable sources such as wind, photovoltaics and biomass. Current research shows that the prime obstacles to community energy schemes are social and economic: the need to find ways to bring together volunteers with sources of finance and to develop novel and sustainable business plans. However, these depend on the development of appropriate technologies that are cost-effective at the local scale and can be maintained using local labour. Social and economic research needs to go hand in hand with technical development of the generation equipment.

    3. Critiquing current technologies and structures. For example, social science might show that certain technologies, and formations based on those technologies, discriminate against some groups. A classic example is the way in which violent and competitive video games, favoured by boys, can lead to girls being influenced away from pursuing computer science and technology at school and university.

    A second example: Some 40 percent of energy is used directly by households, for heating, cooking, leisure etc. Because the demand for electricity is very uneven through the day and capacity has to be provided by generators to meet the maximum demand, even small shifts in the timing of peak electricity demand can yield substantial economic and environmental benefits. One proposed technology is to install smart meters and use differential pricing – charging more during peak hours – but pilots have shown that this achieves very modest reductions. It is probably not new technology that is required, but new social practices: that is, new ways of doing things that become habitual and customary. Understanding behaviour in terms of ‘social practices’ is an emerging and potentially disruptive approach that stands in opposition to the usual ideas of individual behaviour change.

    4. Mapping trends in values for the future of Europe. Practices can be modified more efficiently and more rapidly if we know the values and norms that will become predominant in the future. What Europeans think about euthanasia, immigration, vegetarianism and so on, and what they will think about these values in the near future, crucially impacts the kinds of practices and technologies that should be developed. The way in which social and moral norms evolve is an important aspect of social science and its study should go hand in hand with the development of each technology with potential societal impact.

    5. Developing a reflection on institutional design. The design of new, more efficient interconnected European institutions (academies, political parties, voting systems, firms) requires a joint reflection from the outset by experts in new technologies and in institutional design. For example, rethinking collective systems of voting through new technologies requires a joint effort between the social sciences and ICT research. Large scale, European collaborative projects to design new institutions can give Europe a competitive advantage and contribute to creating templates for institutions that will serve as models for other countries.

    6. Integration of innovative perspectives from the arts and humanities into technological research. The development of socio-technological systems requires a “thinking out of the box” approach. Integrating techniques of reflection coming from arts and humanities (constructing narratives, scenario building, art performances, etc.), through promoting collaborations between the arts and humanities and science and technology will strengthen the creativity of European projects.

    7. Improving the usability and attractiveness of technologies. It is often assumed that this is the only contribution that social science and humanities are able to make in technological and scientific projects: a role where social scientists are either consigned to cleaning up the mess that technology design has created, or are used to develop marketing materials to promote technical innovations. Hopefully the above examples show that this is not social sciences’ only role.

    What could be done to increase the contribution the social sciences could make to research? The aim should be to have funded projects in which social scientists (and humanities scholars) are equal partners with those from other disciplines. Options to achieve this include:

    1. Making clear in Research Council and other Calls that social science input into science and engineering projects is welcomed and that inter-disciplinary proposals in which the social science questions are the driving force are eligible and encouraged;
    2. Making explicit in research programmes that social science and humanities have a role to play, especially when working with science and technology;
    3. Publicising exemplary projects that feature productive collaborations among social scientists and technologists;
    4. Maintaining a list of reviewers who have a track record of successfully evaluating inter-disciplinary proposals that include social scientists in partnership with scientists and engineers;
    5. Encouraging academic and industrial career paths that provide technologically literate social scientists and social science literate technologists.

    [1] The ideas in this blog post have been developed with the members of the Future and Emerging Technologies Advisory Group. The examples quoted are drawn from the author’s research, much of it funded by Horizon 2020, EPSRC, NERC and ESRC.  Nigel Gilbert was awarded a CBE in the Queen’s Birthday Honours 2016 for services to engineering and the social sciences.


    Please note: Blog entries reflect the personal views of contributors and are not moderated or edited before publication. However, we may make subsequent amendments to correct errors or inaccuracies.

  • By Christine Hine

    Last month I taught at a summer school focused on “New Media and Justice Communication in the Information Society” at Fudan University in Shanghai. This was the fifth in an annual series offered by the School of Journalism at Fudan, taking graduate students from across China for an intensive week of teaching by guest scholars, focused on this year on: political economy of the media; gender sexuality and queer theory; and online ethnography (observational study of online cultures). Students on the summer camp are keen to access perspectives rarely taught at present in China, including the research methods for ethnographic study of the Internet that are my specialism. In turn, I was also keen to learn. Having taught at Surrey for a number of years a module on “Internet and society” that tries to recognise different Internet cultures and governance regimes around the world, this trip offered an opportunity to put some meat on the bare bones of my existing understanding of the Internet, and Internet Studies, in China.

    Any consideration of the Internet in China has inevitably to reference ongoing government control and filtering of online activities, to the extent that many familiar online services from other parts of the world remain unavailable to many ordinary people in China and certain things are effectively unsayable in Chinese cyberspace. It is important, though, to recognise that this does not mean that the Internet in China is therefore under-used or under-developed. On the contrary, the Chinese equivalents to familiar services are growing apace, with Baidu, Alibaba and Tencent vying with Google, Amazon, Facebook and Uber as online commercial giants. . In the urban context of Shanghai, online and offline live seemed to be seamlessly woven together and I, the poorly connected visitor without my familiar social media and search engine, found myself feeling marginalized by lack of technology and language skills and very much dependent on the kindnesses of my hosts to steer me around and organize me. Just like students in the UK, or maybe more so, the Chinese students I met used their phones in almost every situation, chatting, calling and paying for taxis, taking and sharing photos, looking up scholarly information and song lyrics, moving seamlessly between academic activities and conducting their social lives.

    Given this vibrant yet constrained online culture, training students in China on how to conduct ethnographies of Internet use raises some interesting questions on how far established approaches transfer from a British context. The question of what online activities mean, when we can see that people are investing huge amounts of time and energy in them and yet at the same time we and they are conscious of the multiple layers of filtering, manipulation, self-censorship and evasion that characterise online social worlds is a troubling one to unpack. Then again, while the regimes of oversight and governance of the Internet are quite different between Britain and China, in both cases the online domain does not just reflect ordinary life as lived. In either country, we should be cautious in treating what we see online as being simply “what the public thinks” as in both cases many (often ultimately unknowable) layers of commercial and government surveillance, algorithms, cultural pressures, conscious performances and self-censorship shape how we portray ourselves and what we see. Finding out what the internet means to people, whether in UK or China, demands that we look for the bigger picture and interrogate the back stories behind the obvious features of online life. Neither should we expect social media to be experienced in the same way everywhere even within the same country, as two recent ethnographies of the Internet in China demonstrate. Methodologically speaking, many of the familiar principles of an open-minded ethnographic exploration that assumes nothing in advance still apply.

    One key difference that I encountered was in the treatment of research ethics. Social science research ethics are not as culturally or institutionally embedded in China as they have become in a British context in recent years. While in the UK we have become used to discussing concerns around how to properly respect participant privacy and wellbeing in online studies and how to handle informed consent for materials found online, such discussions are in relative infancy in China, and have little to draw on in terms of established social science research ethics debates. I therefore felt it important, whilst highlighting to students the exciting possibilities of online studies, also to explore some of the areas in which to tread sensitively and to highlight that the Internet makes possible an intrusion into the lives of others that sometimes as researchers we should not exploit.



    Please note: Blog entries reflect the personal views of contributors and are not moderated or edited before publication. However, we may make subsequent amendments to correct errors or inaccuracies.

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