Department of Sociology

The Department of Sociology Blog

  • A research log by KATE BURNINGHAM, ABI BRAYLUCY RICHARDSON, KATT SKIPPON and SUE VENN

    The question of whether it is possible to live better by consuming less is a central one for CUSP. In order to answer this we need a rich understanding of the meanings that ‘stuff’ has in our lives. In this research log, Kate Burningham and colleagues offer insights into their analytical work in progress, summarising initial observations from a recent qualitative interview project with ten 18-22 year olds.

    The question of whether it is possible to have more fun with less ‘stuff’ – to live better by consuming less – is a central one for CUSP. We can’t hope to answer this without a rich understanding of the meanings which the purchase and use of ‘stuff’ has in our lives. Understanding the consumption patterns of young people and exploring whether issues of sustainable consumption have any significance for them is especially important. Learning how and why they consume what they do on a daily basis, gives us insights into the potential, and challenges – for engaging them in moves towards more sustainable consumption.

    Much research on young people’s consumption focuses on issues of style and their participation in spectacular subcultures. But most consumption is so everyday as to be almost invisible – what young people eat, wear or use on an ‘ordinary’ day has received less attention. We decided to focus on this and to explore in depth what 10 young people aged between 18-22 consumed on three ordinary days.

    CUSP has partnered with Brand Legacy for this research, a marketing agency focusing on developing sustainable growth strategies for brands and businesses across the globe. Working together is rewarding and we are learning a lot from each other’s knowledge, skills and ways of working. Together we have developed an innovative methodology which produced in depth and authentic data about young people’s everyday consumption. Participants sent us photos via an instant messaging platform of all the things they ate on one day, wore on another and used for personal care on a third day. We then used these photos with them in an interview, discussing each item in turn, to explore how they acquired it, what was important to them about it and how it fits into their everyday routines.

    Initial observations

    Our initial observations on our interviews indicate several interesting avenues for further analysis:

    Sociological theory tells us that consumption often involves processes of emulating the choices of more privileged members of society and also points to the way in which tastes work to distinguish sub groups from each other. We could see both of these forces at play in some of our interviewee’s discussions of clothing and personal care items. For instance one young woman kept and displayed packaging from expensive brands of cosmetics while one of the young men talked about how sharing tastes in clothing with his friends contributed to their sense of group identity. However, for many items our interviewees had little to say beyond the fact that their mother or grandmother had bought it for them. This reminds us that much consumption is not about displaying identity, and illustrates that it often happens within the context of family relationships. For both reasons we should be cautious about focusing too much on the idea of individual consumption choices.

    The idea of health was frequently used to explain what was consumed, particularly in relation to food, but also with personal care items (looking for natural/unscented products), and clothes (with gym clothes or ‘athleisure’ being worn everyday by some). Most participants said that health was very important to them even if this was not reflected in their consumption. This focus on health exists in a context of health and fitness internet bloggers and vloggers who some of our respondents credited with influencing their choice of products.

    Price was also very important in choosing what to buy or use as all of the young people interviewed were on relatively low, or no, income. However for some of the young women, personal care seemed to be an area in which they might splash out on expensive branded products which they viewed as better quality. This idea of spending one’s money wisely was a big theme in the conversations. This sometimes meant finding bargains and in other instances was about selecting brands which they thought performed well or would last.

    We asked participants whether any sustainability issues influenced their everyday consumption – most weren’t instantly sure of the meaning of the word, but could offer up various definitions. A common focus was on the durability of products, and the idea of ‘getting your money’s worth’. Those who talked about the environment discussed recycling, which most respondents did as a habit passed down from parents. Food packaging was often discussed, with several suggesting that bigger, more noticeable re-cycling labels would help them to make more sustainable decisions. The importance of avoiding food waste was also frequently mentioned.

    So, our initial observations illustrate how everyday consumption can be significant in terms of the construction of individual and group identity, and highlight the extent to which it is situated within relationships. Any promotion of ‘more fun with less stuff’ has to take these social functions of consumption very seriously. While the idea of sustainable consumption was not on our participants’ radar; discussion of health, durability and the avoidance of waste all resonated with them. Perhaps these are themes we should highlight as we seek to engage young people in discussions about sustainable prosperity.

    Our next step involves looking at all of the interview data in much more detail and producing a report which we’ll share on the CUSP website. Look out for that!

  • By Ranjana Das

    As I have noted previously, the social media activity around the Charlie Gard case has been unprecedented. My analysis of Twitter data has revealed American religious, so-called pro-life, right-wing groups have dominated a verbally violent Twitterstorm, and that key strategies of populism have been mobilised across Facebook and Twitter to misunderstand and misrepresent evidence, science and law, and to malign public institutions.

    So, what lessons needs learning now, from the Charlie Gard case, in terms of the critical role of the media?

    1. Design and language in the press: Some of the issues surrounding tabloid media coverage of the case are excellently analysed here by Barbara Rich. It is clear that the press reporting of family law cases occupying substantial amounts of national interest need to reflect closely on its use of emotive language, the selective use of quotes, interviews, photographs and headlines – none of which are used in a purely coincidental sense. A few design and language related practices during the Charlie Gard case stand out, which the press need to pay attention to
      • Printing old photographs and old videos to report about a current situation inviting audience focus away from complexities of the current situation towards idyllic images of what is never to return;
      • Juxtaposing images from a complex current case (for instance, a photo of Charlie Gard) with provocative headlines relating a different case (‘Manslaughter’ relating to the Grenfell tragedy), thereby inevitably inviting a fleeting mental connection between the word ‘manslaughter’ and Charlie Gard;
      • Selectively using quotes from one party in a case which are chosen specifically as they place blame on public institutions;
      • The use of emotionally-laden language, especially during the reporting of verdicts and hearings, that shifts the focus from reporting on evidence and facts to creating an emotional narrative that shapes the heightening of tension amongst readers;
      • Unclear representation of the law, and of evidence, replacing evidence-based reporting with emotionally appealing narratives, including those authored by publicists, rather than reporters (alone).
    2.  Social media reporting categories: Social media companies need to pay close attention to the categories available for ‘reporting’ posts on Facebook. The existing categories do not go far enough – for instance, reports about a group or an institution being maligned cannot easily be classified into either attacks agonist an individual or a religious community, and people reporting posts need to settle for categories that don’t quite work.
    3. Community reporting and response in urgent situations: Teams responding to reports of posts need to take into the account the urgency, contexts and consequences of the content being reported. Even if posts do not violate community guidelines as they stand, a high volume of reports coming up with regard to the same  group, in a case of national significance, needs attention that goes beyond existing community standards- urgent and specific situations may need something more than or different than standard protocol.
    4. Abusive content: A vast amount of content labelling the judiciary and clinicians as murderers and killers has been allowed to stand and is still standing – producing long lasting texts that have societal consequences and can be shared and reacted to. A clear explanation is called for as to how these posts are not in violation of existing protocol, and reflection is needed on how protocol needs to be context-sensitive and responsive rather than tick-box.
    5. Social media strategy for organisations: Social media teams for organisations need to be vigilant about the lines between critical and healthy debate and abuse. Online abuse is real, and its impacts are real and long lasting – on individuals and teams. There needs to be a way of being on top of at all times of the day and night, responding to and removing abuse that bridges the gap rather than leaving things to the public to report to a social media company with varying results as above.
    6. Peaks in posting activity: Heightened emotions around cases occupying national interest tend to arise around the live tweeting of court hearings. There is a need for organisations with a social media presence and for social media companies to be particularly aware at the times of live tweeting, given the sheer volume of discussions that unfold on Twitter and Facebook, to read, respond to and moderate abusive content.

    The media, including social media, have substantial roles to play in public understandings of evidence, health, science and law, and it is critical, for the sake of a healthy public sphere, that we reflect on lessons learnt from the role of the media in cases that occupy substantial amounts of national interest.

     

    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 Jo Smith

    On 30th June 2017 the Department of Sociology at the University of Surrey hosted a British Sociological Association Early Career Forum Regional Event centred around sexualities studies. Presenting keynotes were Zowie Davy (De Montfort University) and Yiu-Tung Suen (Chinese University of Hong Kong), and short ‘lightening’ papers were given by Sebastian Bartos (University of Surrey), Ben Colliver (Kingston University), David Griffiths (University of Leeds), Mia Harris (University of Oxford), Ruth Pearce (University of Warwick), Katy Pilcher (Aston University), Claire Tunnacliffe (University College London) and Ben Walters (Queen Mary University). The afternoon gave attendees the chance to engage in a workshop exploring the challenges and opportunities for researchers working in sexualities, gender, and queer studies.

    The conference was a success, which was due in no small part to the thought put into the event by the organisers. They created a space that was inclusive and encouraged participation, which allowed researchers at all levels of their career to engage with each other about the theoretical, methodological and structural challenges working in the field of queer studies. The organiser’s approach to ‘queering the conference’ is something which we can learn from and apply to other academic spaces, in order to encourage participants to engage with the event, to share their work, and to develop networks with other researchers.

    ‘Queer’ has long been used as a synonym for odd, spoilt, strange or for something going wrong. Something that is ‘not normal’. We are all familiar with the pejorative use of the term. In describing the organisation of this event as ‘queering a conference’ we are embracing the idea that it is okay to be strange, different, not normal. Stepping outside of the expected ways of doing things can encourage us to reflect critically on the successes and limitations of our actions, to create change, and to allow us to explore new and potentially better approaches. In queering a conference we are again reclaiming the word queer as something positive and constructive, and refusing to persist with the familiar, the usual, the ‘normal’ with reflecting on the limits of such.

    So how did the organisers queer the conference? One example was their use of the physical space. A relatively plain room was decorated with queer posters from some of the participants. Participants sat around tables, rather than in rows of chairs which encouraged conversation, and also discouraged the separation and hierarchy that sitting in rows might engender – the speaker as the conveyor of wisdom, the audience as passive recipients. Speakers were encouraged to take responsibility and control of timing their own papers, using of an egg timer. Whilst potentially unhelpful for those who want ‘5 minute, 1 minute’ warnings (and to adjust their presentation accordingly), adopting this technique was a way of trying to queer the power dynamics between organisers and participants: attempting to take some (albeit not all) power away from a single individual chair presiding over and controlling the time and space of the room, and giving this power to those presenting papers. Another success was the decision to give participants the opportunity to seek ‘mentoring’ support from Rachel Brooks (University of Surrey).

    At a queer studies conference, gender, identity and names are (unsurprisingly) of importance to many of those attending. Name badges were created by participants, giving them control over how they were named, and the organisers made efforts to ask and address participants by their preferred gender pronouns or using gender neutral language, something often overlooked at conferences and in academia generally. Although there were mistakes, is it heartening that these efforts were made.

    These (and other) relatively small decisions made a significant difference to the conference. There was a sense that everyone present was part of the event and was being taken into consideration. However, as was discussed during the open space workshop, this event was an overwhelmingly white space. With only one speaker, few of the attendees, and none of the organisers being people of colour, it is necessary to critically reflect on whether the ‘queering narrative’ is a predominantly white and often middle class narrative, the impact that this can have on queer spaces and queer studies, and what can be done to discourage this. This is, of course, not to diminish the efforts of the organisers, who created a positive and collaborative space, as ‘safe’ a space as one can make such events. With these reflections in mind, if we want to see academic events and conferences as a positive and inclusive place for researchers to talk about their work, and to develop networks and collaborations, we could do worse than think about how queering those spaces might encourage participation and engagement.

    With thanks to Fabio Fasoli, David Griffiths, Katherine Hubbard, Luke Hubbard, Andy King, and Kirsty Lohman for the hard work you put into organising this event, and to Rachel Brooks for her provision of mentoring support.

    This blog post was first published on The BSA Postgraduate Blog available at https://bsapgforum.wordpress.com/2017/07/31/queering-a-conference-what-we-can-learn-from-the-bsa-queer-studies-looking-back-looking-forwards-event/.

     

    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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