Coronavirus Media Narratives

While Coronavirus is no doubt a real-life event, with real-life social and (for an extreme minority tragic) individual consequences, it is also very much a media event, especially since isolation is correlated with a significant increase our media consumption with news sites especially seeing a surge in visits (U.S. data)…

news consumption coronavirus

Social media usage (Facebook, Twitter, Whatsapp) is seeing a similar 75% increase in user engagement. 

The News is a Social Construction

The spread of Coronavirus, and the societal reaction to it are media-events, they are socially constructed – that is to say we do not get to see every aspect of reality, only that which is selected by media professionals.

Because Coronavirus was so unexpected, and because the consequences are potentially so horrendous (millions could die from it globally, so we are told), it’s tempting to think that the reporting around this global event are ‘true’ or, at least as accurate as can be given the lack of any actual real data.

HOWEVER, it is precisely because this event is so ‘massive’ ( global, and with a range of different responses), and because there are so many unknowns (missing data on how many people actually have it), that this event in particular is possibly the most ‘media constructed’ in world history.

Add to this the fact ‘ordinary people’ have a reduced capacity to get out and see what’s going on for themselves (because of emergency social isolation legislation), then this is also the most hyperreal event in world history. One might even ask if it’s actually happening at all, as this person does here:

Give all of this, we really need to ask ourselves how the story of Coronavirus is being constructed, and to my mind I see several core narratives which haven’t so much emerged rather than just blasted all of a sudden onto the media scene:

The 11 media narratives of Coronavirus

  1. Panic and Risk based around uncritical use of statistics
  2. Enforcing the importance of social control
  3. ‘The War footing’
  4. New villains
  5. Celebrities ‘like us’ in isolation
  6. Sharing ‘isolation coping strategies’, while staying isolated
  7. Victims: Private tragedies made public
  8. New heroes (frontline workers and volunteers, especially NHS workers)
  9. The importance of trusting medical experts/ technical solutions to Covid-19
  10. The economic impact/ bailout of covid-19/ ‘pulling through this together’
  11. Blame other countries or poor migrants

This is very much a first-thoughts run through of this, and I might rejig it later. Below I provide a few examples for some of these themes.

NB – I am not saying that we shouldn’t take this virus seriously, and I do accept that this is a highly contagious bug and potentially deadly for some (like the flu, that’s also deadly!), and the challenge we face is the rapidity of the spread of it. But at the same time, I just think we also need to aware of uncritical reporting of the death rates and social responses…

NB for a ‘content analysis’ challenge, scroll down to the bottom of this post!

Media Narrative One: Panic and Risk based around uncritical use of statistics

At time of writing (April 1st 2020) you get this theme from doing a basic Google search for the term ‘Coronavirus’:

The panic is in the language in the ‘top stories’: ‘record surge of cases’, ‘fatality rate shoots up’, but also in the images – you’ve got The Army, the Prime-minister with a lab technician (themes 2 and 10 above there) and then just a sea of red in the next image.

This could all be contextualized instead – things get worse before they get better, in China the cases are coming down:

Theme Two: Reinforcing social control

In case you missed it, same picture as above, search return Number One: Stay At Home: Save Lives| Anyone Can Spread Coronavirus, and this is from the NHS.

If you think such a simple statement doesn’t require analysis, then you do not have a sociological imagination.

Coronavirus is the most searched for term atm (NB that is an assumption, but I think I’m pretty safe making it!), and Google is the most used search engine in the world: so these are the nine words which people in Britain are the most exposed to.

There’s a rather nasty psychological manipulation technique going on here – social control through the internalizing of potential guilt: if you go out, you could kill someone.

However, the fact that this advice comes from the trusted and loved NHS makes us think (maybe) that while dark, this must be ‘good advice.

Confused yet, terrified? I’m not surprised!

NB: Keep in mind that this advice is reinforcing government emergency lock-down legislation, legislation that is not based in hard statistics on the actual chance of people dying from Covid-19 – there’s every chance that the real mortality rate from the disease is the same as the flu, but here we are in lockdown for three weeks.

On the theme of social control, I found this from The Sun especially interesting…

Here we have the perfect way of reinforcing the stay at home method – a 19 year old female nurse (although I don’t know how she can be qualified at age 19?) crying because people are flouting the stay at home rules – the perfect hero and victim, all rolled into one!

If that doesn’t make you feel guilty for going out, nothing will, I mean look at that face, how could you hurt her?

Theme Three: The War Footing

President Trump has declared himself a war time president, and he’s far from the only one using the ‘War Footing’ narrative – besides using war related language (fight against, achieving victory, the national effort), a lot of commentary harks back to WW2 analogies – I heard one lab technician today saying how his small lab, testing for Covid-19, was like one of the boats from Dunkirk, for example.

Theme Four: Coronavirus Villains

You really don’t have to look far, and probably no newspaper does a better of job of singling these out for us than The Sun, which tells us that going out for a too long walk is now deviant (top right hand corner below)

Anyone who now goes out for anything but emergency health reasons or going to the supermarket for essential food shopping is now a deviant!

Theme Five – Celebrities like us in Isolation

I present you my man Gregg Wallace – getting buff while in isolation in his Kent Farm House… coping with isolation, just like us! (Except he’s probably in a very large farmhouse in a very exclusive part of of Kent with several acres surrounding him, and a couple of million quid in the bank to fall back on in tis of crisis, like every other celebrity.

Theme 6: Coping Strategies

Here’s a nice middle class example from The Guardian. I’m sure there are plenty of other social media sharing strategies going on out there!

Theme Seven: Victims: Private tragedies made public

This example from Sky News is interesting – it shows how the media is lining up to report on ‘the most extreme’ cases… even before Covid-19 is confirmed as a cause..

Theme 8: New Heroes

The NHS front line workers appear to have emerged as the new heroes, as well as other essential key workers, but it’s mainly NHS workers who are getting the praise – the weekly clap for the NHS has become a media event with extreme rapidity (clapidity?)

Theme nine: The importance of trusting medical experts/ technical solutions to Covid-19

This is an emerging theme, which I expect we’ll see a lot more of in coming weeks. Not much to say on this atm, but it is there – at the bottom of the BBC News links – I might be overanalysing this, but the fact that it’s at the bottom, or at the end, does suggest implicitly that such technologicla drug trials are the way out….

Theme 10: The economic impact/ bailout of covid-19/ ‘pulling through this together’

This is one of those ‘boring but important’ themes that is likely to become more prevalent as the Pandemic slows down…

Theme 11: Blame other countries or poor migrants

From a recent edition of The Sun….

Covid-19 content analysis research challenge

Why not keep your sociological skills engaged by doing a little content analysis (yay, fun!)

Use the content analysis sheet below to analyse one newspaper, one news website, or one news show, or maybe even chat shows like the One Show, and see how many of themes crop up.

There are several methods of doing the content analysis – as follows:

  • For Newspapers simply look at each discrete story (you might want to just focus on the biggest stories) and put a tick in the relative box every time you come across a theme.
  • For websites (e.g. News Websites), start with the home page and follow the main links, tick according to whatever the main theme is.
  • For TV shows, you can watch and note down how many minutes is devoted to each.

Enjoy, and stay…. critical!

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Why is the Italian Covid-19 Death Rate so High Compared to Other Countries?

The Italian covid-19 mortality rate is so high because they record the number of people dying with the disease RATHER than deaths from the disease.

According to news reports Italy is the epicenter of Coronavirus deaths in Europe. Take this extract from today’s BBC News report as an example:

When you look at the Covid-19 death rate in Italy compared to other countries, the death rate is around 10-20 times higher compared to some other countries, if we look at deaths per million of the population. This to my mind is suspicious, by which I mean ‘possibly invalid’, as indicated below…

The graph below, of Coronavirus cases rather than deaths makes me no less suspicious of the validity of the Italian Covid-19 death rate. Admittedly Italy has the most cases, but not that many more than France or Germany, which have much lower death rates.

So how do we explain the high Italian Covid-19 mortality rate?

To find out the full answer to this question, with lots of evidence and links, I recommend you visit this website – The Corbett Report: What’s up with the Italian Death Rate and watch the video below:

In case you can’t be bothered to watch the whole thing (although I recommend it!) the gist is as follows:

  • The Italians record the deaths of people with Coronavirus as deaths from Coronavirus. Dying with Coronavirus is NOT the same thing as dying from Coronavirus.
  • Most people in hospital with Coronavirus have 3 other diseases (yes that is MOST, as in over 50%), such as cancer, heart disease, and other fatal diseases. Many more have two or one other diseases.
  • Since most people who have already died during this phase would have done so before the lockdown measures were in place in Italy, the chance are that everyone permanently in a hospital with a would have contracted Coronavirus.
  • Long story short – many of the people who are recorded as having died from Coronavirus would have probably died of something else, e.g. Heart Disease, but IF they happen to also have Corona, they are recorded with that as the cause of death when it probably isn’t!

Other good stuff in the Corbett Report

This is an excellent source of ‘alternative news’ on the Coronavirus. This particular report is full of evidence of more than 20 experts (reported in The Guardian) questioning the official figures we are getting on Covid-19.

The current lockdown situation was based on projections of literally millions of people possibly dying of Covid-19, up to 500, 000 in the UK, BUT the ‘experts’ who made those projections have since retracted them, in other words admitting they got them wrong, but the lockdown remains in place.

There are plenty of people out there suggesting that the Corona statistics are meaningless, such as Steve Goodman, professor of epidemiology at Stanford University.

This is partly because of what I wrote about in this post – there are possibly millions of people who have already had it, but they had such mild symptoms, they never even really noticed, thus we don’t know how many people have had it, thus we don’t really know what the actual mortality rate is!

So why are we really in Lockdown?

This is something you need to think about very carefully. Possibly this is all about social control – through fear and using ‘protecting the health of others’ as ideological justification (hard to argue with that). The reasons why authorities might feel the need for more control is something I’ll come back to later.

In the meantime, please do watch that video.

And rather than staying safe, stay critical, society needs that more.

Why the Covid-19 Death Rate might be misleading

The latest figures show that 6% of people who have tested positive for Covid-19 die of the disease.

A 6% death rate, and only a 94% survival rate, I don’t fancy those odds!

However, writing in The Spectator, Dr John Lee points out that these death rates may be misleading, and that Covid-19 is possibly no more deadly than the flu, something we are all familiar with and which has a death rate of 0.1%

So far, relatively few people have been tested for Covid-19, and those that have are probably those displaying the most serious symptoms who have presented themselves at a hospital, or they’ve been tested because they were already in hospital, which means they’re likely to be more susceptible to infection because of being in sub-optimal health.

In short, the type of people already tested for Covid-19 are probably not representative of the wider population!

It could be the case, as has been suggested by Sir Patrick Vallance, the Government’s chief scientific Adviser, that the actual infection rate is 10 to 20 times higher in the general population with most people displaying only minor symptoms, not getting tested and recovering without us ever knowing about it!

If it were the case that the real infection rate is 20* higher then the actual death rate would be nearer 0.3%, which is in the same realms as the flu.

Furthermore, Covid-19 has now been added to the list of ‘notifeable diseases’ (along with Smallpox and Ebola and other nasties), which means that anytime someone dies having contracted Covid-19, it must be recorded as the cause of death.

This isn’t the case with flu, so while someone in their 80s may well die of it, this may not be recorded as the actual cause of death.

Thus overall, while Covid-19 may be more infectious than the flu, it may not be more deadly!

Ultimately we need more testing for the virus to be done to get a more valid picture of how deadly it is.

Managing risk in an age of uncertainty

Having said that, even if the real death rate may be lower than reported, the extreme contagiousness of Covid-19 has still led to a rapid increase in the number of critical cases and deaths in a short period (as I understand it flu isn’t as contagious, so there simply aren’t as many people who catch it such a short period of time), so the extreme control measures we’ve put in place may just be worth it!

It may sound cold, but this is a great example of managing a threat in a risk society where we have limited available data.

NB – it’s worth pointing out that you have much less chance of dying from it if you’re young compared to if you’re old:!

CoronaVirus: A very divisive virus?

The CoronaVirus seems to be dividing us

While our national response to CoronaVirus has been couched in terms of ‘working together to beat this’,  ‘solidarity’ and ‘social responsibility’, I don’t think our collective response to this virus can be characterised as ‘acting in solidarity’ or ‘enhancing social integration’.

Rather, I think the short- and long-term result of the Virus and our response to it is leading to more social fragmentation and division.

There is a lot of case study and statistical evidence you can use to back up this analysis:

In the initial phases of the ‘emergency response’ there was plenty of evidence of people not obeying the government advice of ‘social distancing’ – plenty of photos of people in buys Parks and crammed tube carriages for example, duly shared on twitter and other social media sites.  

Then there’s the most recent government’s orders that we should all stay indoors, with a handful of exceptions such as for exercise and food shopping, during which time we all need to keep 2 metres apart from each other.

You might interpret this as ‘solidarity’ – all ‘distancing together’, but TBH I don’t think we can characterize us NOT doing things as solidarity.  For the most part, people are staying indoors, isolated in their private life-worlds.

Yes, we can stay connected via social media and our Smart T.V.s, but this is a very selective kind of social interaction, we aren’t ‘rubbing up against’ people in public space anymore, at least not for the foreseeable future.  

What we are seeing are new norms about social interaction – people view each other as potential carriers of the virus and thus a potential threat to their own health.

Maybe there is a new kind of uniting against the social pariahs who do not social distance? This article outlines how there have been social media campaigns shaming people ‘not doing their bit by keeping their distance’…. But that strikes me as a very weak kind of solidarity, at about the same level as online petitions.

Then of course there’s the evidence of so many people just looking out for themselves – by stockpiling food, leaving the shelves empty for others!

The response the Virus is set to be even more divisive

Public sector workers (bizarrely) do quite well (at least for now) by keeping their pay, private sector workers get 80%, but the self-employed seemed to have been left to their own devices.

Those on lower incomes and in precarious employment are likely to suffer the most of course, as these do not have the funds to tied them over a reduction income in the short term and maybe further cuts to hours and pay in the long term as a recession is likely.

Meanwhile I have no doubt that there will be  a massive bail-out coming for the banks and Corporations, again, like in 2008.

All of this means that the young will probably pick up the tab as decreasing tax revenues and increasing government debt in future months will be managed by cuts to public services and probably pensions.

Finally, from a global perspective, I don’t imagine travelling abroad is going to be easy or welcomed by people in other countries – there may be more hostility towards tourists, let alone asylum seekers after this.

Final thoughts…

To make this sociologically relevant, I think CoronaVirus is a great example of an event that suggests Functionalist analysis is no longer relevant to understanding late-modern society.

TBH I’m not sure what perspectives are relevant to understanding this – I guess it’s an extreme example of how we manage Risk, so maybe Beck’s Risk Society thesis, maybe also Giddens – I think it was him who said Nation States were too small to tackle global problems, and this seems to be the case here!

Unless this current situation is the best we can do?

How do teachers teach ‘British Values’?

most schools repackage British Values and teach them through what they are already teaching, very few use them to get students to think critically about what citizenship means!

Schools in England and Wales have been required by the to teach British Values since 2015.

Initially the introduction of these to the National Curriculum may seem to offer support for the Functionalist view of education, which holds that one of the functions of education is to promote Value Consensus.

HOWEVER, this may be a simplistic understanding according to some recent research outlined below. It is possible that schools and teachers present British Values as being very traditional (all about The Queen and Fish and Chips), which may alienate some pupils who have not been brought up with such traditions. In other words, the way British Values are taught in some schools may not be an appropriate way of realising value consensus in our complex, multi cultural society.

Recent research on how teachers teach British Values

Professor Carol Vincent – of the UCl Institute Of Education has carried out some recent research on how schools and teachers interpret ‘our’ so called ‘fundamental British values’. Her research is based on 56 interviews almost 49 observations and 9 case study schools, a mix of both primary and secondary.

Why do schools have to teach them?

The requirement to teach ‘Fundamental British Values’ seems to have come about because of concerns over social cohesion and ideas of ‘Britishness’ in general, and as a response to the Trojan Horse scandal of 2014 in particular, when there was an alleged co-ordinated attempt to impose a conservative islamist agenda onto several schools in Birmingham.

The requirement to teach British Values is closely related to the government’s counter terrorism strategy and broader Prevent agenda.

Despite it being a requirement, there is very little government guidance on how, exactly, teachers should go about teaching ‘British Values, so how do teachers understand this responsibility and how do they go about promoting British values in practice.

Where the teachers supportive?

Teachers were generally supportive of the values, but they didn’t like the word ‘tolerance’ as this suggested a begrudging way of putting up with each other, rather than a celebration of diversity and mutual respect. Some teachers were much more cynical about the requirement to promote them.

How did they fit it in?

The majority of schools embedded in what they were already teaching, but some schools (not the majority) used PSHE and Religious Education lessons and assemblies to address them more explicitly.

How did schools teach British Values?

Some schools used stereotypes to represent Britain using symbols and stereotypes , such as the Royal Family, one school re-enacted the marriage of Prince Harry, even though support for monarchy is not one of the Fundamental British Values.

Vincent cites the example of one commercial resource, a poster aimed at young children which has examples of British foods, music, and festivals, with the food being ‘traditional’ British food – Roast Dinner, Fish and chips, strawberries, Trooping of the colour.

Vincent found that in one school they used the Queens Birthday as an opportunity to promote the values – the organised a whole school lunch and got students to make mugs and sing different songs to celebrate the event.

Some teachers found teaching British Values problematic

Representing Britishness through symbols as those above can lead to a monocultural representations, a kind of ‘nation freezing’ – leading to the idea that Britishness is fixed.

It can also have an exclusionary effect – what if you’re from a family who doesn’t eat Cottage Pie

One teacher maybe hit the nail on the head and said that such an approach is ‘Reductionist and Crass’.

NB they way these values are taught is inspected by OFSTED. The Chief inspector has actually said ‘it’s not about The Queen’.

Repackaging Fundamental British Values

The majority approach to teaching was repackage the values into things the schools had already been doing – democracy = school council, rule of law because they have school rules etc.

However, this doesn’t open up discussion of British Values, so no deeper understanding of what these values mean.

Dangerous conversations

A lot of teachers expressed anxiety about not knowing how to deal with controversial issues if they came up in discussion around the values

The top two areas of concern were migration and Brexit – teachers found having to deal with these issues demanding and anxiety inducing. They were also worried about their own impartiality, and what to do about xenophobia – so rather than discuss the issues , they tended to talk to the students about them, not giving them space to respond.

How to teach them more effectively?

Vincent suggests that we need to give Mmore status for citizenship education, more space and time to allow students to discuss the meaning of citizenship and British Values and more training for teachers on how to discuss difficult issues.

Find out More!

This thinking allowed podcast

Winners and losers from the cancellation of A-level exams

The evidence suggests that if you’re white and middle class you’ll do OK out of A-levels being cancelled, not so if you’re BAME or poor.

The Coronavirus may not discriminate, but the social response to it probably will, and this could well be the case with the recent decision by the DFE to cancel A-level exams.

Universities will now rely on a combination of GCSE results and predicted grades from schools and colleges in order to determine which students qualify for which degree courses, and this will benefit some more than others.

The winners

If you’ve been working hard all year and had a decent mock exam grade (which would have been sat very recently in most centers) then you’re predicted grade should at least match the grade you would have got.

If you suffer from exam stress, dyslexia or any other ‘condition’ that may mean you under perform in exams compared to your ability, then your predicted grade may even be higher than what you would have got.

If you’ve got an unconditional offer from a university for the course you want, and you’re happy enough with your predicted grades then you’ve just been gifted two free months of your life, although you may not be able to do what you want with those two months, like going outside for example!

In general I’d say that the next two months of A-level teaching are actually the most pointless thing in terms of useful skills and knowledge – you would have literally spent two months cramming knowledge into your head and learning exam technique, both skills being utterly useless in any real life content, work or otherwise.

You’ve been spared that, however….

The losers

This article in The Guardian suggests that predicted grades tend to be lower for black and minority ethnic students and for those from poorer backgrounds, compared to those students from white middle class backgrounds.

The argument is that teacher stereotypes, or labelling if you like, mean that BAME student’s grades are under-predicted, and so these students tend to do better than expected in exams, an opportunity now lost to them. (Yes they may get a chance to sit some kind of exam in the Autumn, but that might be too late).

The article further suggests that those who are privately educated are more likely to have an unconditional offer and that those with ‘pushy parents’ are more likely to negotiate their children higher predicted grades from the schools, drawing on cultural capital theory.

And I do feel for home educated or self-studying students, who probably have no record of past achievement and no mock exams to fall back on, especially if they messed up their GCSEs and are returning to A-levels maybe after taking a year or a few months out.

Conclusions

The DFE, exam boards and UCAS are all aware of how a university entrance system based on predicted grades discriminates against certain students, I just hope they put measures in place to combat this.

We won’t know how effective any anti-discriminatory measures have been until we can compare the ‘results’ and UCAS entrance stats for this year with last year, assuming that data will even be published?

Why do we have a British Citizenship Test?

The UK citizenship was introduced in 2005 in order to address White Working Class concerns over immigration, at least according to one sociologist….

If immigrants to the UK want to claim British Citizenship, then they need to pass a British Citizenship Test.

The test consists of a number of questions on British history, culture, society and politics. If you’d like to try some test questions the Life in the UK Test 2020 has some examples, and if you answer 25 questions it will even tell you whether you’d pass the test!

It mights seem obvious, from a common sense point of view, why we have such a test: surely it is perfectly reasonable that we require potential future citizens to possess a certain level of knowledge about the country the wish to reside in permanently.

However, from a more critical, sociological perspective it is not at all obvious, especially since the test is such recent invention – having been introduced in only 2005, and since some of the questions do seem a little trivial, and don’t necessarily have much to do with ‘Britishness’ at all.

In a recent Thinking Allowed podcast, David Bartram, currently at the University of Leicester, discusses why we have a citizenship test, and what the consequences of it are for the people who take it, among other questions.

What prompted the introduction of this test?.

Bartram notes that there was an increasing interest in the concept of Citizenship in Late 1990s under the Blaire government, but it wasn’t until 2002 that an Act of Parliament was passed, making it a formal requirement for anyone seeking naturalisation in the UK to sit and pass a formal test.

Bartram suggests that the test was introduced as a response to unrest in northern cities in early 2000. The media cast the so call Northern riots, in towns such as Bradford and Oldham in ethnic terms, focussing on mainly Asian Youths being out of control, and being out of control and separate from the rest of ‘us’.

Rather than blaming the native white working class community for these ‘riots’ the media blamed immigrants for failing to integrate properly, and something had to be done to address this situation.

Thus the introduction of the citizenship test, which people first started taking in 2005.

Crucially, Bartram notes that the test was primarily introduced and directed towards an audience of white British natives. It was the government’s way of addressing concerns over immigration, rather than in terms of the positive outcomes for the people who took it.

Some problems with the UK Citizenship Test

The very act of imposing a requirement for a test suggests that those who must take it (i.e. anyone seeking to claim British citizenship) doesn’t initially know enough about the British way of life, it has an immediate stigmatising effect.

Originally the test had some useful questions to help candidates nagivate their way around some of the complexities of life in the uk, but overtime it deteriorated into more and more factoids – such as ‘what year did Richard 3rd die’ – just exactly how knowing the answer is 1485 is supposed to make you a better British citizen is unclear.

The test seems to have a negative impact on Participation in British Life

Bartram uses survey data to demonstrate that those people who have taken the test and passed it have lower levels of participation in British social and political life compared to similar people who had not taken the test.

Participation here is measured by such things as how likely someone is to do voluntary work, among other indicators.

Why is this?

The problem is possible in the nature of the questions about politics – they are about knowing the rules of the game, about obedience, not about rights or political activism, which suggests to the people who take it that just obeying the law is enough to be a British citizen, rather than actively taking part in voluntary or political action.

Relevance to A-level sociology.

This material can be used to criticise the Functionalist view of society consisting of shared values, clearly integration is a problem, and the solution to it isn’t helping.

There’s also some support for the labelling theory of deviance – just be introducing a test, you are stigmatising any potential applicant.

Globalization and the Coronavirus

sociological perspectives on the coronavirus

Coronavirus is an extremely useful virus to illustrate perspectives on globalisation

Generally the rapidity of the spread from China to America and Europe demonstrate how interconnected we are: from the outset this very contagious virus was always going to be very difficult to stop.

Global Optimists might point to the importance of working collaboratively and internationally to share information and maybe find a vaccine: it’s pointless if every laboratory repeats work towards the vaccine goal, after all.

Global Pessimists might point to the role of just-in time supply lines in spreading the virus and how weak the capitalist economy is if a virus can cause such a profound economic crash.

This might also be a good example of the importance of the Nation State in managing the crisis, especially where health care is concerned – might vulnerable people without health insurance in the United States die if they catch the virus?

Traditionalists, or anti-globalists might use this as an opportunity to criticise gloablisation, especially the migration aspect of it, and use this crisis as a means to support view that we should be less reliant on global supply chains- they may have a point when it comes to the shelves in supermarkets being empty!

The rice isle in my local Tesco!

Maybe we need to look at becoming more self-reliant!

Whatever your perspective, this virus is certainly is a global problem!

What is Social Control?

Social control refers to the mechanisms a society uses to get individuals to conform. This post covers sociological perspectives on social control such as Functionalism, Marxism and Interactionism

A broad definition of social control is ‘all of the formal and informal mechanisms and internal and external controls that operate to produce conformity’*

Social control is the opposite of deviance. Sociologists of deviance ask ‘why do people break social norms and values’? Social control theorists ask ‘why do people conform to social norms and values’?

NB for students studying the crime and deviance component of A-level sociology, most resources tend to focus on the ‘crime and deviance‘ aspect, NOT the social control aspect, but the question of why people conform is just as important as the question of why people break the rules!

Origins of the Concept of Social Control

The concept is often traced back to the seventeenth century Philosopher Thomas Hobbes who argued that in a society of self-interested individuals a great power (the State) was needed to prevent things deteriorating into a war of all against all.

Individuals agreed to give up some of their individual freedoms by promising to obey the laws of the State, and in return the State promised to protect individuals.

Talcottt Parsons (1937) developed one of the earliest sociological perspectives on social control. He argued that conformity was not just produced by external agencies coercing individuals to obey rules through the threat of punishment, but also through individuals internalizing norms and values through socialization.

Travis Hirschi (1969) developed this idea further when he argued that juvenile delinquency was the result of an individual’s bonds to society were weakened. His theory emphasized the importance of ties to family, peers and other social institutions such as education and work as important in maintaining social control.

Types of social control theory

One way of dividing up theories of social control is to separate them into conformity producing and deviance repressing approaches (Hudson 1997) suggested there were

Conformity producing theories tend to focus on how people learn to conform by internalising social norms and taking on social roles (like with the Functionalist view of the family or education)

Deviance repressing theories tend to look at the relationship between deviance behaviour and the measures used to reduce it (like with right and left realist approaches to deviance).

Better methods combine both types of approach

Parsons’ approach to social control

Parsons was interested in the question of how societies produce enough conformity to reproduce themselves (or carry on) across several generations.

He pointed out that the majority of people to do not seem to mind conforming to most of society’s norms and values for most of the time during most of their lives. In other words most people willingly conform.

Parsons argued that socialization was central to this ‘willing conformity’. Socialization within institutions such as the family and education helped individuals to internalize the norms and values of a society and convince people that a ‘good-person’ was one who willingly conformed to society’s rules.

Matza’s Techniques of Neutralisation

David Matza’s work on ‘techniques of neutralisation’ supported this view. He pointed out that even people who broke the laws of society still shared the general values of that society.

Matza argued that when people committed deviant acts, they employed ‘techniques of neutralisation’ to explain why they had broken social norms and/ or values.

Techniques of neutralization may include such things as ‘I was drunk, so I was out of control’ or ‘that person is nasty, they deserved it’, and they are used by individuals to justify why they were temporarily deviance on that particular occasion.

Matza argued that ‘techniques of neutralisation’ enabled people to convince themselves that there were exceptional circumstances which explained their occasional acts of deviance, while at the same time allowing them to maintain their self-concept as someone who generally conforms to social norms most of the time.

Hirschi’s Control Theory

Hirschi’s theory of social control emphasized the importance of attachments and social bonds. The more bonds an individual has to society, the more time he or she spends involved with other people and social institutions, then the less likely that individual is to commit deviance.

In Hirschi’s theory, deviance doesn’t really need explaining: it happens whenever an individual is cut free from social bonds and has the opportunity to be deviant.

Marxist Approaches to Social Control

Unlike the three consensus approaches above, Marxists tend to see social control as being consciously or unconsciously ‘engineered’ by the capitalist class and the state.

In terms of ‘conformity producing’ approaches – Marxists see the norms and values of education as working to produce a docile and passive workforce – as outlined in Bowles and Gintis’ Correspondence Theory.

The media is also seen as an important agent of social control – processes such as agenda setting and gatekeeping mean the elite’s view of the world is presented as normal, thus producing ideological control.

Marxists are also critical of how ‘deviance is reduced’ – seeing the police as working with the elite and the state – working class street crime is, for example, over-policed and prosecuted, while Corporate Crime is relatively under-policed and prosecuted.

Interactionist Approaches to Social Control

The labelling perspective sees social control and deviance as having an ironic relationship.

The more the agencies of social control try to prevent deviance, by labelling and policing certain behaviours as deviant, then the more deviance will be created.

A lot of research from the interactionist perspective has focused on how it is certain types of people (rather than behaviours) who tend to get labelled as deviant, and thus are more likely to become deviant.

Sources

(*) Giddens and Sutton (2017) Essential Concepts in Sociology

Education and social control

How do schools try to control pupils? Some of the ways include academic surveillance, CCTV, teaching British Values. Prevent and the use of isolation units. It also explores how effective schools are as agents of social control.

One possible social function that schools perform is that of social control. This post explores some of the ways school might perform this function and asks how effectively schools control pupils and parents today?

You can use the material below to evaluate some of the perspectives on education, and much of it is also relevant to the crime and deviance module, especially the material on surveillance.

What is social control?

Social control refers to the formal and informal techniques that may be used to make the individual conform to social norms and values.

In sociology the focus is usually on how those with power and authority use institutions to control ‘ordinary’ people in society.

There are many institutions which can be said to perform social control, such as the law and the courts, the police, religion, the media and education.

The education system is of interest as an institution of social control because it reaches more people than most other institutions. Nearly all of us will attend school from a young age, and spend thousands of hours in school as children, while most of us will have no direct contact with the police, for example.

How might school act as an agent of social control?

  1. Parents are legally required to either send their children to a state or independently run school. Put another way, pupils are expected to attend school, and truant officers are employed to catch those who are not attending. Parents can be fined if their students have unauthorised absences.
  2. The > 90% of pupils who attend state schools will spend at least six hours a day in formal education. Many will spend more time in school because the school day has been getting longer in recent years, through the addition of both morning classes or breakfast clubs and after school clubs.
  3. Students who attend state schools will be taught the National Curriculum, having limited choice over what they study until they make their GCSE choices at 14.
  4. From 2013 young people are required to remain in some form of education or training until the age 18, raised from the previous ‘education leaving age’ of 16.
  5. Schools and colleges are required to teach pupils about ‘British Values’. This might be regarded as indoctrination by the State.
  6. Schools are responsible for Prevent – they have to report to the police anyone they believe to be involved with terrorist activities, and they have to work to prevent students being attracted to terrorist organisations.
  7. Schools engage in physical surveillance of pupils, most obviously through the increasing use of cameras, but also by using staff at school gates, in playgrounds and walking the corridors during lessons.
  8. Schools have clear codes of conduct and use isolation units and detentions to regulate deviant behaviour.   
  9. Schools increasingly involve parents in monitoring students and keeping them on track, using ‘parenting contracts’ with deviant cases.
  10. Schools keep databases of student’s academic progress and report back to parents regularly. This means students know they are being watched, and most of them ‘self-regulate’ because of this.
  11. Schools may require certain students to work with learning support staff or attend further supported learning, which means such students will be under higher levels of surveillance.
  12. Schools may keep (confidential) records of student discussions about mental health and well-being and work with medical professionals to require students to attend further ‘support’ as necessary.  
  13. Schools constantly remind students of the importance of qualifications for getting a good career, which may lead to some students self-regulating.
  14. Students are required to resit GCSE maths and English when in 16-19 education if they achieve less than a C first time round, meaning less choice in later life for those students.

Are schools effective agents of social control: exploring the evidence

It’s hard to argue against the view that schools use more control measures today than they did in the 1970s and 80s. However, just because schools try to control pupils more than they used to, this doesn’t necessarily mean that they are effective in doing so.

Furthermore, there are some possible counter trends, such as the growth of home education and the increase in post-16 educational choices, that suggest that ‘formal education’ might actually be less constraining and controlling than it once was for increasing numbers of pupils.

Below I explore some of the different types of evidence to examine whether schools are effective agents of social control

Fines for Parents taking their children out of school during term time

Local councils can impose fines on parents if their children have an unauthorised absence from school during term time, even if just for one day. The fines start at £60 and if not paid parents can be prosecuted and face up to three months in jail.

These fines were tested in 2015 when John Platt refused to pay a fine handed out by the Isle of Wight LEA after he took his daughter on holiday to Disney World, Florida during term time. He argued that his daughter’s attendance had otherwise been excellent, and took his case the Supreme Court.

John Platt: guilty of taking his daughter on holiday for one week during term time.

Platt lost the case, with the court siding with the Local Education Authority, declaring that he was guilty of breaching school rules and failing to secure his child’s regular attendance at school.

This court ruling seems to have made LEAs more likely to impose fines, and in 2017 -18 Local Authorities issued 260 000 penalty notices for unauthorized absences to parents, which was an increase of 110 000 on the previous year.

Extended School Days

Though not compulsory, there are some academies, such as the NET Academies Trust which run extended school days – starting school at 8.45 rather than at 9.00, running extra lessons after 15.00 for underachieving students, and offering a further enrichment programme later in the afternoon.

The rising of the ‘education’ leaving age in 2013

In 2013 the government raised the ‘formal education’ leaving age of pupils in England from 16 to 18 years.

Pupils can still leave school at 16, but only if they have a place at a further education college, or are going into work which has some kind of accredited training attached to it.

This means that rather than being able to transition to full adulthood and relative freedom at the age of 16, students are now subjected the control and surveillance associated with training for at least another two years.

If an individual is on a work-based training course, this regime of control may not be as severe as being in school, and in many ways this is probably going to be quite similar to just starting out on a new job anyway. But since 2013 this layer of ‘educational control’ has been formalised, and it means that MORE PEOPLE are now definitely going to be subjected to work based observations and assessments than ever before.

Physical surveillance

In 2012 Big Brother Watch released a report based on Freedom of Information requests that estimated there are over 100 000 CCTV cameras in schools.

There are more recent reports that camera footage taken in schools to show parents how their children have misbehaved, and to get students to reflect on and take responsibility for their ‘bad’ behaviour.

It’s interesting to note that if you do a google search for ‘schools’ and ‘cctv’ or ‘surveillance’ there isn’t much research being done, so the use of CCTV in schools seems to have become normalised as a form of social control.

Some schools even have security cameras in toilets, and this is raising some concern among parents.

The most recent evolution of physical surveillance is the use of body cams by teachers, which some schools are currently trialing. (Link from 2020).

The increasing use of isolation units

Isolation units are staffed rooms, often with partitioned booths, where disruptive students are sent to ‘cool off’, possibly for an hour or so, but sometimes for an entire day.

They are especially popular, according to at least one of the reports below, among multi-academy trusts.

Isolation booths in one primary school – may as well start ’em young!

According to a 2018 BBC report, at least 200 out of 1000 schools use isolation units, or booths. Some even have permanent units with their own toilet facilities so pupils can remain in them for an entire day if necessary.

According to this Guardian article (2020), schools are using isolation units to punish pupils for more and more trivial breaches of the rules. For example the article refers to one girl who was put in isolation for forgetting her planner, for the first time ever.

Some schools seem to be using isolation on a more regular basis to freeze some pupils out of the mainstream school environment. The article refers to one individual, Brendan, who spent much of his last term in isolation, and left schools with no GCSEs.

It’s likely that these units are growing in popularity since the government has cracked down on the use of exclusions, which means schools are more likely to try and deal with deviant students in-house, which explains the rise of isolation units.

isolation units – https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/education-46044394

British Values

According to Ofsted, ‘fundamental British values’ are:

  • democracy
  • the rule of law
  • individual liberty
  • mutual respect for and tolerance of those with different faiths and beliefs and for those without faith.
A fairly typical ‘British Values’ poster from one of Britain’s Academies.

The British government has required schools to promote ‘British Values’ since 2014, when it first published its guidance on how schools might go about doing this.

Certain extracts from the guidance read like something out of the 1950s: schools are required to prepare pupils for modern life by ensuring their moral, spiritual and cultural development.

The primary aim of the British Values agenda seems to be about promoting democracy, and it is suggested that schools look for opportunities within the National Curriculum as well as extra-curricular activities to promote them.

This article in The Conversation presents one of the problems with teaching British Values is that the idea of what British Values should be taught in schools wasn’t discussed particularly widely by parliament, let alone the general public before schools were required to teach them to pupils.

The Prevent Duty

The Prevent Duty (in effect since 2015) requires that schools take due regard to ensure that pupils are not drawn into terrorism.

Specifically, the guidance recommends teaching British Values, as well as the possibility of monitoring students’ online activities, and it provides contacts if schools have a concern about particular students, among which it lists the local police force.

This seems to be some extremely strong evidence that schools are directly being used as agents of formal social control, working directly with the police to combat terrorism.

However, although the intention is to prevent extremism, the legislation may have had the opposite effect. This 2016 report by Rights Watch UK suggests that Prevent may have increased divisions in British society.

The report argues that divisions may have increased as a result of untrained teachers unnecessarily referring students on to anti-terrorism authorities because they have misinterpreted certain patterns of behaviour or actions as being suspicious, when in fact the students has no terrorist intentions at all.

The increasing use of technology to monitor students

In the United States some schools have moved to 24 hour monitoring of students’ online activities, at least those made within the school’s own system.

This article cites the example of one student talking about self-harm on a school messaging system, after school hours, this triggered an alert from the monitoring system, and a member of staff contacted the student’s parent immediately.

I know this is the United States, but the UK so often follows what the U.S. does, just a few years afterwards. This article from Wired Magazine highlights the fact that students are already under a historically unprecedented level of electronic surveillance here in the UK, and maybe this is just the start, with surveillance of personal communications set to get ever more intrusive.

Other forms of Surveillance in schools

I’ve only examined a limited range of some of the more obvious forms of evidence which suggests schools are increasingly acting as agents of social control for the British State.

In addition to all the above, schools have increased their level of ‘academic surveillance’ since the introduction of the 1988 Education Act, and students are now exposed to regular testings, reports, and reviews of their progress as just a normal part of school life.

This kind of academic-surveillance has just become normalised: most students expect it, and don’t even think about challenging it.

It is possibly this that is the most profound social control measure – millions of students knowing that their progress is going to be reviewed at least once every six weeks, probably more often, keeps them working, keeps them doing homework, keeps them chained to the system.

The same may be said of getting students to think about their future careers – where UCAS is concerned, students have to start thinking about what universities to go to and writing their personal statements a year in advance, taking up considerable time in their final year of formal education, AND (if they get a conditional offer) keeping them working.

So it is possibly the competitive nature of the system, the concern about failure and the constant surveillance of progress which are the main mechanisms whereby schools control pupils?

Counter Trends?

The system doesn’t control all students equally, and there are at least three recent counter-trends which suggest schools are NOT effective agents of social control: the increase in home education, the increase in exclusions and the increase in choice in 16-18 education.

The Number of Exclusions is Increasing

According to DFES data, both fixed term and permanent exclusions have been increasing since 2012/13

However, whether this counts as evidence against schools being effective agents of social control is debatable.

Personally I think it does suggest schools are not being effective, because exclusions suggest schools cannot control students within school boundaries, so students are offloaded, possibly to be under less surveillance once they have been excluded.

HOWEVER, you might interpret this increase as evidence of MORE control: it all depends what happens to the students afterwards!

The increase in Home Education

48,000 children were being home-educated in 2016-17, up from about 34,000 in 2014-15, according to this BBC article.

Students educated at home are more likely to get a choice in how they are educated, and are less likely to be subjected to many of the control measures suggested above.

However, we are talking about relatively small numbers of students here – 48, 000 children, compared to a few million in the education system as a whole!

Increasing post 16 education choices

Students may have to stay on in some form of education or training until they are 18, but it’s debatable whether many of those are really still under educational surveillance.

Once students hit 16 years of age, they can enter work based training, which can be just like an ordinary job, except with lower pay because they are ‘training’, so this may not be that much of a change from pre-2013 when they could have just left formal education altogether!

Conclusions: Are schools effective agents of social control?

Based on the evidence above, I’d say that they are certainly being used by the State to control certain pupils more, and that schools themselves are making increasing use of technology to control students through surveillance.

When it comes to the question of effectiveness – I’d say yes, they have become more effective – but this is primarily due to the more subtle forms of academic surveillance, which works day to day, and goes largely unquestioned.

However, there are a significant minority or students who are NOT controlled – both those who get excluded, and those who are home educated, and I’m sure if I dug further I’d find that we’re talking about the underclass being excluded and the educated middle classes who are being home educated.