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!

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.

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

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.

The Marxist Perspective on Religion

Marx and Engels saw religion as a conservative force which prevented social change by creating false consciousness. This post summarises their key ideas and offers some supporting evidence and criticisms.

From Marx’s materialistic perspective, religion serves to mystify the real relations between men and inanimate objects.

In reality, according to Marx, nature is an impersonal force which imposes limitations on man’s capacity to act, but nature can be understood scientifically and manipulated rationally, via technology, potentially for the benefit of man-kind.

However, through religion, humans project personal characteristics onto nature: they invent gods which they believe have control over nature, and come to believe that the way to manipulate nature is to appeal to these gods through ritual or sacrifice.

The Marxist Perspective on Religion (1).png

Religion as the ‘Opium of the People’

In Marx’s own words:

‘Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the sentiment of a heartless world and the soul of soulless conditions. it is the opium of the people’.

marxist perspective religion

According to Marx, one of the main ‘functions’ of religion is to prevent people making demands for social change by dulling pain of oppression, as follows:

  1. The promise of an afterlife gives people something to look forwards to. It is easier to put up with misery now if you believe you have a life of ‘eternal bliss’ to look forward to after death.
  2. Religion makes a virtue out of suffering – making it appear as if the poor are more ‘Godly’ than the rich. One of the best illustrations of this is the line in the bible: ‘It is easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the Kingdom of heaven.
  3. Religion can offer hope of supernatural intervention to solve problems on earth: this makes it pointless for humans to try to do anything significant to help improve their current conditions.
  4. Religion can justify the social order and people’s position within that order, as in the line in the Victorian hymn ‘All Things Bright and Beautiful’:
  • The rich man in his castle
  • The poor man at his gate
  • God made them high and lowly
  • And ordered their estate.

Such lines make social inequalities seem as if they are ‘God’s will’ an thus unchangeable.

From the Marxist Perspective, religion does not only ameliorate the sufferings of life, it also effectively creates false consciousness.

Marx believed that the ‘objective’ truth was that the proletariat (i.e. most people) suffer deprivations because of their exploitation by the Bourgeois (namely the extraction of surplus value empowers the minority Bourgeois class and leaves the majority of the proletariat with insufficient money to lead a decent quality of life), however, people fail to realise this because religion teaches them that all of the misery in life is God’s will.

Or in Marx’s own words:

‘In religion people make their empirical world into an entity that is only conceived, imagined, that confronts them as something foreign’.

Religion and Social Control

Religion also acts as a tool of social control in a more direct sense: according to Marx and Engels:

‘The parson has ever gone hand in hand with the landlord’.

This was especially true in feudal England when the landed classes’ decisions were frequently legitimated be religious decree: as Marx and Engels saw it, the bourgeois and the church supported one another: the former generously funded the later, and church legitimated social inequality, thus maintaining the established social order.

The non-necessity of religion under communism

Religion is only necessary under exploitative systems where the majority of men do not control the conditions under which they labour, under systems where men work for someone else rather than for themselves: in such systems, religious doctrines which teach that ‘you are insignificant in the eyes of gods/ the supernatural’ make sense, and serve a useful function for those who are in control of and who benefit from said exploitation.

Under communism, where man controls the conditions of his labour, he is essentially ‘for himself’, and thus will have no need of religion. Under communism, where reality is ‘fair’ religion will not be required, and so will simply whither away.

religion opium masses
The original text where Marx’s ‘opium’ line first appeared in 1844.

Evidence to support Marxism

There is a considerable body of historical evidence which supports the Marxist view of the role of religion in society: for example the traditional caste system in India was supported by Hindu religious believes (in reincarnation for example); and in Medieval Europe Kings ruled by the ‘divine right of God’. Possibly the most ‘extreme’ example, however, is in ancient the ancient Egyptian belief which held that Pharaohs were both men and gods at the same time.

A more recent example, drawn from the USA, lies in the support that Republican politicians have enjoyed from the ‘New Christian Right’ who, according to Steve Bruce (1988), support ‘a more aggressive anti-communist foreign policy, more military spending, less welfare spending and fewer restraints on enterprise’.

The new Christian right have persistently supported more right wing (neo) liberal candidates – such as Ronald Regan in 1984 and George Bush in 2004 – when the later was elected, an exit poll found that two thirds of voters who attended church more than once a week had voted for him.

While it might be debatable how successful the religious right in the USA are in getting their candidates elected to political power, what does seem clear is that they do tend to support more economically powerful sectors of the political elite, suggesting support for the Marxist view of religion.

Criticisms of the Marxist perspective on religion

Firstly, it is clear that religion does not always prevent social change by creating false class consciousness. There are plenty of examples of where oppressed groups have used religion to attempt (whether successful or not is moot here) to bring about social change, as we will see in the neo-Marxist perspective on religion.

Secondly, religion still exists where there is (arguably) no oppression: the USSR communist state placed limits on the practice of religion, including banning religious instruction to children, however, religious belief remained stronger in the 20th century in Russia and Eastern Europe than it did in the capitalist west.

Thirdly, and building on the previous point: just because religion can be used as a tool of manipulation and oppression, this does not explain its existence: religion seems to be more or less universal in all societies, so it is likely that it fulfills other individual and social needs, possibly in a more positive way as suggested by Functionalist theorists such as Durkheim, Malinowski, and Parsons.

Sources

Adapted from Haralmabos and Holborn (2008) Sociology Themes and Perspectives, 7th Edition, Collins.

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The State COULD be watching you: and other lessons from #Hunted

In case you’ve been living in the dark-ages and missed it (like me) Hunted is a T.V. show in which ordinary individuals take on the role of fugitives on the run from ‘Hunters’ who take on the role of agents of the state (think of MI6 meets special ops).

Hunted C4

The latest C4 series kick-started with 9 individuals (although 6 of them paired-up, so really just 6 targets) bailing from a van in Manchester city center, and then spreading out to the four corners of the UK. If they can evade the Hunters for 25 days, the survivors each get a share of £100K.

The ‘Hunters’ consist of some serious (and not particularly pleasant, although that may be dramatic license) intelligence professionals based in  London HQ, who steer a number of ground-teams, some of whom are the ‘Hunters’ who are empowered to ‘arrest’ the fugitives, and some of whom are just covert surveillance operatives who aren’t allowed to reveal their identity.

I must say, I caught the second half of episode 5/6 entirely accidentally during a Thursday evening channel hopping session last week, and enjoyed it so much I binged-watch the entire series over the next couple of days.

At time of writing (5 episodes in to a series of 6), 4 out of the 6 targets have been captured by the Hunters using a variety of surveillance and closure tactics, and 3 remain: because one original pairing has split up.

Despite enjoying the show, I couldn’t help but do a little sociological analysis:

Sociological Observations of Hunted

We may as well start with the obvious – YES the state has deeply-penetrating powers of surveillance.

Without giving too much away, the ‘Hunters’ use the following techniques to track down the fugitives:

  1. CCTV – obviously
  2. Bank card transactions which PING an alert at hunter HQ as soon as they’re used (should’ve used steem)
  3. Phone taps – some of the fugitives use ‘burner phones’ to avoid detection, the problem being that as soon as they ring someone in their network, the Hunters have that burner phone on record and can tap it.
  4. Bugging computers – the Hunters are allowed access to the fugitives’ network to interview them and use USBs to hack into their computers so they can take control of them (whether this happens in real-life, I don’t know)
  5. Car tracking devices.
  6. Analysis of the fugitives’ social media profiles.
  7. Network analysis – this actually proves to be the most important aspect of tracking people down, simply analyzing the network of family and friends and focusing surveillance on these is what typically leads the ground teams to the fugitives.

Secondly – the show demonstrates the extent to which we live in a ‘Network Society’

The Hunters have access to the fugitives’ phone and social media records, which clearly show the fugitives’ recent life-histories mapped out, and, crucially for most of the captures, the ‘densest’ lines of communication within those networks.

With some of the individual fugitives, we really get to see the ‘strength of weak ties’ – especially the guy who is ‘Deputy Mayor of Sheffield’, whose network is huge. However, there is one person who stands out, and this is what gets him caught in the end.

With the three pairs, what is further apparent is that all of them have quite different personal networks, despite being very close to each-other, which really goes to show to complexity of networks in contemporary Britain.

Hunted2.png
The Network Analysis which ultimately led to the capture of the Deputy Mayor of Sheffield. 

Thirdly – the show demonstrates dramatically the continued importance of local and family connections

Interestingly, MOST of the fugitives return to their home turf, and most to the support of their local friends and families – so it is clearly not correct to say that our networks are free-floating and virtual – our meaningful relationships are still very grounded.

Finally – it gives us a nice insight into Multi-cultural Britain!

I don’t know if it was a deliberate ploy of this year’s recruiters to demonstrate British multiculturalism, but it’s very interesting to note that 2/6 targets were African Immigrants, all from different countries: it’s actually quite rare to get such an in-depth insight into the back-stories of black-Britons, quite a nice escape from the usual, generalized tokenistic representations we get in ‘black history month’ for example.

Very Finally – what I probably find most interesting about the show (although this might just be me) is that it does put you on the side of the fugitives… you do want them to win, and this is a potentially disruptive show… it wakes you up to the awesome surveillance powers of the State: the extent to which they can penetrate into our daily lives, especially if we leave an electronic trace… although it might also be performing a subtle ‘social control function’ by sending out the message that….

The State COULD be watching you.

Final thoughts:

I think the addition #Hunted really needs is a ‘how to avoid state-surveillance’ guide… and what would my strategy be? Actually I’m not going to say, I fancy a pop at this for season 4!

 

Big Data: Controlling its Use

Changes in the way we interact and communicate lead to changes in the way we govern ourselves and just as with the invention of the printing press resulting in the evolution of copyright and libel laws, so the emergence of big data will result in new laws to govern the new ways in which this information is collect, analysed and utilized.

In this final chapter of the main section of Viktor Mayer-Schonberger and Kenneth Cukier’s (2017) ‘Big Data’: The Essential Guide to Life and Learning in the Age of Insight – the authors suggest four ways in which we might control the use of Big Data in the coming years….

Firstly, Crozier suggests we will need to move from ‘privacy by consent’ to ‘privacy by accountability. Because old privacy laws by consent don’t work in the big data age (See here for why), we will effectively have to trust companies to make informed judgments about the risks of re-purposing the data they hold. If they deem there to be an element of risk of harm to people, they may have to administer a second round of ‘consent of use’, if the risk is very small, they can just go ahead and use it.

If is also possible to deliberately blur data so that it becomes fuzzy and you cannot see individuals in it – so you can set analytical programmes to return aggregate results only -an approach known as differential privacy.

Comment: NB – this sounds dubious – we just trust companies more….the problem here being that we can only really trust them to do one thing – put their profits before everything else, including people’s privacy rights. 

Secondly, we will also need to ensure that we do not judge people based on propensity by aggregate. In the big data era of justice, we need to hold people account for their individual actions – i.e. for what they have actually done as individuals, rather than what the big data says people like them are likely to do.

Comment: NB – all he seems to be saying here is that we carry on doing what we already do (in most 9cases at least!) 

Thirdly (which stems from the problem that big data can be something of a ‘black box’ – that is to say the number of variables which go into making up predictions and the algorithms which calculate them defy ordinary human understanding) – we will need a new series of experts called algorithmists to be on hand to analyse big data findings if and when individuals feel wronged by them. Crozier argues that these will take a ‘vow of impartiality’ in monitoring and reviewing the accuracy of big data predictions, and sees a role for both internal and external algorithmists.

Comment: this doesn’t half sound like something August Comte, the founding father of Positivism,  would say!

Crozier argues this is just the same as new specialists emerging in law, medicine and computer security as these field developed in complexity.

Fourthy and finally, Crozier suggests we will need to develop some sort of new anti-trust laws to ensure that one company does not come to have a monopoly on data.

Comment: Fair enough!

Overall Comment 

I detect a distinct pro-market tone in the authors’ analysis of big data – basically we trust companies to use it (but avoid monopoly power), but we mistrust governments – precisely what you’d expect from the Silicon Valley set!

Good Sociology Movies #1: Minority Report

Thought I’d start bashing out the occasional Friday post on good sociology movies… starting with Minority Report – which is a great intro to the ‘surveillance and crime control‘ aspect of the AQA’s 7192 sociology syllabus, crime and deviance topic,

It’s the opening scene in Minority Report which is really the relevant bit here: the arrest of Howard Marks:

In the above scene, John Anderton (played by Tom Cruise) is the chief of police of a special Washington D.C. ‘pre-crime’ unit – in which predictions are so accurate that people are arrested before they have committed a crime.

In the movie, predictions are actually made on the basis of some ‘psychic’ beings who are biogenically networked into the police’s systems, but this aside, the above movie acts as a great starting point for the topic of surveillance and pre-crime.

You can simply show the clip, and then get students to think about where in society authorities restrain or restrict people based on ‘big data’ which is a form of surveillance.

Students should be able to think of a few examples at least, tied into the topic of ‘actuarial crime control‘.

Maybe I’ll blog about the answers another time…