From the Olympic Games to the Demands of Motherhood

2 Oct

On Thursday, October 5th, the school will mark the beginning of a new academic year with a special event marking the production of ten new books within the school in 2012. The titles span a vast array of topics including social deprivation, welfare, motherhood, rural life and the social significance of the Olympic Games. Each book will be introduced in brief by the author or editor, all of whom will be available for comment and discussion afterwards.

The launch was initiated by the Identities, Lifestyle and Culture research cluster. Cluster director Robert Miller said that the list of titles underlined the diverse strands of research being pursued to a high standard across the school. He added, “The event itself is a great opportunity to acknowledge the work and dedication of these authors and editors, as well as for others to hear what goes into getting books like these completed and out into the world.”

The Evolution of European Identities: Biographical approaches” (Palgrave) is edited by Miller and explores the lack of identification by ordinary citizens with Europe and European institutions. Using state of the art analysis of in-depth interviews by renowned practitioners, the book provides a unique “bottoms up” perspective on the development (or its lack) of a sense of “European mental space”. Linking conceptual findings with case studies, the book provides unique insights into groups that have been especially sensitized by their life experiences to question what it means to be European in the twenty-first century. In this book, the editor brings together explorations of diverse groups, including adults who experienced European education exchanges when young; transnational workers; civil society organization activists; persons involved in cross-border intimate relationships; farmers who are subject to European markets, regulations and subsidies; and migrants into “fortress Europe”.

In Poverty and Deprivation in Europe” (Oxford University Press), Brian Nolan and Chris Whelan attempt to redress the reliance on primary household income measures to capture poverty in rich countries. Awareness of the limitations of income has heightened interest in the role of non-monetary indicators. This book takes as its starting point that research on poverty and social exclusion has been undergoing a fundamental shift towards a multidimensional approach.

The difficulties encountered in applying a multidimensional approach reflect limitations in the information available but also in the conceptual and empirical underpinnings provided by existing research.  This is salient not only for individual countries but also for the European Union post-enlargement. The central aim of this book is to contribute to development of those underpinnings and to provide ways of employing non-monetary indicators. The book maps out the current landscape and the best way forward, concluding by offering a critical evaluation of the EU’s 2020 poverty reduction target.

The Olympic Games, Mega-Events and Civil Societies.  Globalization, Environment, Resistanceby John Karamichas and Graeme Hayes (Palgrave) explores sports mega-events; their social, political and cultural characters; the value systems that they inscribe and draw on; the claims they make on us and the claims the organizers make for them; the spatial and ethical relationships they create; and the responses of civil societies to them. Sports mega-events are not simply sporting or cultural phenomena. They are also political and economic events, characterized by the generation and projection of symbolic meanings and by social conflict. Because of their peculiar spatial and temporal organization, they raise questions about the relationships between global cultural and economic flows and particular local and national spaces. Because of their evolutionary characteristics, they ask us to consider not simply the time of the event but also the effects of the event on the long-term direction, implementation and consequences of public policy.

InDemands of Motherhood: Agents, Roles and Recognition” (Palgrave),Lisa Smyth returns to the deeply contested and emotionally fraught role of motherhood.  Motherhood is the focus of much public scrutiny, situated as it seems to be at the frontier of processes of social order and change. Much has been written about the difficulties of mothering in a context of ever-expanding expert advice, as well as apparently increasing expectations that the mother-child bond be cultivated through intensive care-giving.

In this study, Smyth returns to neglected sociological questions concerning the connections between agency and normative complexity, through the pragmatist interpretation it offers of the recognition dynamics shaping motherhood. Drawing on qualitative interviews with forty mostly middle-class mothers across two research sites, Northern Ireland and the US, this book offers a three-party typology of the coping strategies women adopt. The various combinations of expressivism, instrumentalism and pragmatism taken up by respondents as they go about asserting normative authority and seeking esteem for the competence and quality of their mothering, provides the focus of attention.

Post-Qualifying Mental Health Social Work Practice” (Sage) is an extensive treatment by Jim Campbell and Gavin Davidson of the complex and difficult practice dilemmas faced by social workers working in the area of mental health, and the demanding policy and legal landscape surrounding practice in the area. The authors draw on theoretical and research perspectives on the subject, before outlining how professionals can achieve best practice. Topics covered include: models of mental health and illness; discrimination and social exclusion; addressing service users’ needs; carers’ perspectives; and working with individuals, families and communities. The chapters are accompanied by exercises, which encourage readers to critically reflect on their own professional and personal experiences. The book will be particularly useful for social work practitioners taking postgraduate courses in mental health and for those training to become Approved Mental Health Professionals.

Mary Daly’s “Welfare” (Polity Press) examines how welfare is understood across a range of disciplines and considers the relevance of the concept in the light of recent debates and scholarly developments. Not alone is welfare challenged by new concepts but it is also challenged as a political goal. Hence, the discussion of welfare raises large issues about policy. The book is especially concerned with three aspects of welfare – as a focus of academic thinking and research; as it has informed and been taken up by public policy (in the context of the welfare state especially); and as a way of understanding people’s decisions and actions in their everyday lives. The book takes a fresh look at the case for the continuing relevance of welfare and in so doing offers a novel approach, drawing especially on a multi-disciplinary approach.

In Blades, Blood and Bandages” (Palgrave), the taboo phenomenon of self-injury is examined. Author Theresa McShane draws on the experiences of 25 people who cut, burn or otherwise injure themselves who present their perspectives through interviews, diaries and poetry. The book explores issues of causation and suffering, stigma and ritual, and presents a helpful alternative to medical classifications of self-injury.

The book uses an original theoretical concept – the trajectory of suffering – to explain patterns of self-injury, from “causation”, through “ongoing injury” to “post injury”. It finishes with an explanation of the social face of self-injury and the structural influences on self-injury of both popular culture and the internet.

Asylums, Mental Health Care and the Irish 1800-2010 (Irish Academic Press) is edited by Pauline Prior, and comprises fascinating historical essays from well known scholars on a wide variety of topics in relation to mental health services in Ireland during the past two centuries. Topics covered include a major strike in 1919, when nurses flew a red Soviet flag over the building and rallied leaders of the trade union movement to their cause; poetry and prose from patients at Holywell Hospital in the 1960s; stories of Irish emigrants who went to Australia and New Zealand in the 1800s to find gold, but who ended up in asylums; changes in law and approaches to mental health care in Ireland in the twentieth century; and detailed studies into approaches to care and treatment at Ballinasloe, Belfast, Dundrum and the Richmond.

Irish Social Work and Social Care Law” (Gill & MacMillan) is a new textbook by Claire Hamilton introducing students to the law governing the practice of social work and social care in Ireland. The book provides a clear and concise guide to both the legal framework and the substantive law relating to social care and social work. It presents social care and social work law in an accessible manner, focussing on the specialist functions performed by social care professionals such as child protection, adopting and fostering, disability and mental health. It also considers the broader issues that affect service users in a social care context such as domestic violence, youth justice and the asylum system. The impetus for the book was the absence of a legal text dealing with social work and social care law in the Republic of Ireland equivalent to Ciaran White’s text in the North.

In Rural Transformations and Rural Policies in the US and UK (Routledge), editors Mark Shurcksmith, David Brown, Sally Shortall, Jo Vergunst and Mildred Warner set about illustrating the transformations that have occurred in rural areas and related policies. The political, social, economic, cultural and environmental landscapes of rural areas have changed utterly. Processes of globalisation and related decentralisation, population shifts, technological and industrial changes have resulted in the transformation from one rural societal form to another. This transformation does not only consist of the visible or tangible changes in rural areas, but it also includes the narratives and social construction of rural areas. In this comparison of the US and the UK, we examine four key components of rural transformation; rural policies and governance, economic transformations, social and demographic transformations, and rural environments. In each case we examine the evidential and philosophical nature of these transformations.


Pauline Prior – Asylums, Mental Health Care and the Irish (1800-2010)

31 Jul

Edited by Pauline Prior, Senior Lecturer in Social Policy at QUB, this fascinating book is a collection of historical essays from well known scholars on a wide variety of topics in relation to mental health services in Ireland during the past two centuries, with additional chapters on the Irish in Australia and New Zealand, poetry and prose from service users and a comprehensive chronology of mental health policies and laws since 1634.

For the twentieth century, Anton Mc Cabe (journalist) and Ciaran Mulholland (psychiatrist who also works at QUB) write about the major strike at Monaghan Asylum in 1919, when the nurses raised a red Soviet flag over the building and rallied leaders of the trade union movement to their cause, leading to improved salaries and conditions of service for psychiatric nurses throughout Ireland. Gillian Mc Clelland (QUB social policy) explores the Holywell Hospital magazine Speedwell published throughout the 1960s, looking for staff and patient views on psychiatric care of the time. For a critical discussion of trends in mental health services in the Republic of Ireland from the 1950s to the present day, we hear from one of the most influential doctors of his time, Dermot Walsh (psychiatrist and former inspector of mental hospitals in Ireland)

For the nineteenth century, Brendan Kelly (psychiatrist who also works at UCD) and Margaret Crawford (QUB historian and dietician) discuss new insights into the causes of death and of disease in the Richmond and Dundrum Asylums, within the context of current knowledge on TB and beri-beri. Oonagh Walsh (UCC historian) reflects on the role of doctors (Visiting Physicians and Medical Superintendents) in Ballinasloe Asylum, while David Griffiths (QUB historian) and Pauline Prior tell us about a major legal battle between the Lord Lieutenant of Ireland and the governors of the Belfast Asylum over the appointment of chaplains in the 1850s. Pauline Prior also examines some of the issues that came to the attention of the Inspectors of Lunacy in their oversight of the asylum system – issues such as the growing demand for beds, the ever increasing cost of the services and unexplained or accidental deaths, which may have been caused by suicide or by abuse of patients by staff.

Moving beyond Ireland, and giving us another perspective on mental health and illness among the Irish, historians Elizabeth Malcolm (University of Melbourne, Australia) and Angela Mc Carthy (University of Otago, New Zealand), explore the stories of Irish emigrants who left Ireland during the nineteenth century to find gold or new opportunities but unfortunately succumbed to illness and institutionalisation on the other side of the world.

This collection of studies is complemented by an analysis of overall trends in institutionalisation within the mental health services by Damien Brennan (TCD sociologist), and of the laws underpinning these services in both Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland by Pauline Prior. A truly remarkable publication.

Radio interviews on Downtown Radio:Listen to Pauline Prior being interviewed by Bobbie Hanvey on ‘the Ramblin Man programme at 10.00 pm (after the News) on 12th and 19th August. You can listen to Pauline’s interview here. 

Details of book: (Available at any bookstore or directly from IAP):

Prior, P. M. (ed) 2012, Asylums, mental health care and the Irish 1800-2010, Dublin; Portland, Oregon: Irish Academic Press. ISBN 978 0 7165 31524.  

Read the Irish Times review:

Mike Tomlinson – Children of ‘The Troubles’ more prone to suicide

24 Jul

Until recently, the most politicised public debate about suicide in Northern Ireland was around the 1981 hunger strikes. While Irish Republicans saw the deaths as tantamount to ‘murder’, Unionists – the current First Minister Peter Robinson among them – saw the deaths as ‘self-inflicted’ and a matter of free choice.[1] These deaths were, in fact, classified as ‘suicides’ by the Registrar General’s office, a label avoided by the Catholic church at the time.

When public protests around suicide emerged in 2005, the Secretary of State for NI was quick to frame the issue in terms of violent conflict and the need to end paramilitary attacks on young people. This was completely off-target. The protesters, community groups from North and West Belfast, were responding to an ‘epidemic’ of suicides among young people in their areas, though it took some time for the official death registration statistics to record what was going on. A suicide prevention strategy was finally put in place in 2006, four years after England and Scotland. By 2010, Northern Ireland’s suicide rate was almost double what it was in 1998, the year of the Good Friday Agreement.

From a negligible rate in the 1960s, the suicide rate rose steadily during the 1970s and 1980s, up to a rate of 10 per 100,000 by 1988, low by international standards. It then fell slightly over a ten-year period. But from 1998 there is a strong upward trend rising from 8.6 per 100,000 of the population to a rate of 16 per 100,000 by 2010.  Suicide rates for men went from 13 per 100,000 of the population to 24 per 100,000 by 2008; for women the increase was from a rate of 3.9 to 7.3 over the same period. Northern Ireland is now in poll position among the jurisdictions on these islands, even ahead of Scotland. Whereas the 10-year trend is gently downwards for the Irish Republic, England, Scotland and Wales, the reverse is true for Northern Ireland. Why?

Having examined 45 years of death registration data and reviewed the suicide trends alongside changes in violence, politics and the economy, we can rule out ‘social constructionist’ explanations in terms of influences on reporting and registration processes. Apart from the period 1970-77, there is little evidence that social processes affected the broad reliability of the data. Nor can we explain the rise in suicides in terms of unemployment – from 1998 to 2007 the employment rate reached record levels and unemployment was below the UK average.

What the data show is that men in their late thirties up to their early fifties are the group contributing most strongly to the upward suicide trend since 1998. In other words, those born into the conflict or who were children during the worst years of violence are the cohort which now has the highest suicide rates and the most rapidly increasing rates of all age groups. For instance by 2010, men aged 35-44 had a suicide rate of 41 per 100,000 (age standardised) followed closely by 45-54 year olds and the 25-34 age group. The youngest age group (15-24) which attracts most of the media attention has a trend line that has changed very little since the late 1970s. Similarly for women, the weakest upward trend in recent years has been for the youngest groups and the strongest for 45-54 and 55-64 year olds. The overall gap in rates between men and women has widened in this period.

The rise in suicide rates in the last decade coincides with the move from conflict to peace in Northern Ireland and is most likely related to it.  The increase can be attributed to a complex range of social and psychological factors. These include the growth in social isolation, poor mental health arising from direct experience of conflict, and the greater political stability of the past decade. Those born and growing up in the conflict are the most acculturated to open expressions of violence, division, authoritarianism and hatred – they experienced no other political and social context until the late 1990s.  The transition to peace means that cultures of externalised aggression are no longer socially approved or politically acceptable.  Violence and aggression have become more internalised instead. We seem to have adjusted to peace by means of mass medication with anti-depressants, non-prescription drugs and alcohol, the consumption of which has risen dramatically in the period of peace.

Northern Ireland’s suicide prevention strategy has so far made little impact on the upward trend. It may well be missing the target by over-emphasizing interventions with younger age groups and failing to focus on those occupational groups and communities which experienced the worst of the violence. There remains a huge gap between those in psychic pain and support services – almost three-quarters of those who succeed in taking their own lives have not been seen by a health professional in the last year. It is cliché to say that mental health is the Cinderella of the National Health Service but it’s true. We spend far more on road safety than suicide prevention yet more die by suicide than through traffic accidents. Very few people realise that about 1,000 more people died by suicide than were killed in the conflict yet vast resources were committed to controlling the later. Suicide is a major legacy issue.

Tomlinson, M. (2012) ‘War, Peace and Suicide: The Case of Northern Ireland.’ International Sociology 27 (4): 464-482.

Listen to discussion of research findings on RTE’s Morning Ireland

[1] Peter Robinson (1981) Self-Inflicted, An Exposure of the H-Blocks Issue. Belfast: Democratic Unionist Party

Dr Jay Wiggan on – Enhancing social policy teaching and learning. Reflections on theatre as a means to improve student understanding of complex social problems

13 Jun

The cast of Hostel: Julie Maxwell, Louise Matthews & Caroline Curran

ImageThe School is always seeking to develop its range of teaching methods, enhancing the student learning experience to foster improvement in academic knowledge and analytical skills. With this in mind the Social Policy team, with financial support from the Queen’s Annual Fund, took the opportunity to commission Kabosh, an award winning Belfast theatre company, to deliver a performance of  Fionnuala Kennedy’s play, Hostel , to undergraduate social policy, criminology, sociology and social work students in the School. Hostel had been performed to, and well received by,  general public , service user, practitioner and policymaker audiences in Northern Ireland and commended for offering insights into the trade-offs inherent when problem solving intractable social issues.

Dealing with issues of stress, despondency and hope that accompany reliance on a fragmented social welfare safety net, Hostel is a semi autobiographical account of a young lone parent, ‘Maria’, and her experience of becoming homeless and moving into sheltered accommodation in Belfast. The play consequently gives ‘voice’ to how aspects of housing policy actually work in practice, drawing attention to issues of low income; social exclusion and the unequal power relationships that exist  between service users and service providers in the welfare state. Given this, the Social Policy team reasoned that bringing a performance of the play into the School was an excellent opportunity to bring to life and engage student with core social policy themes, grounding them in this ‘real life’ example of how homelessness is represented and experienced in contemporary society.

Did this work? After the performance we invited students to give verbal and/or written feedback on Hostel and below are two reviews of the play, written by undergraduate students on the first year module; SPY1001 Finding out about Social Policy.

While intelligently written and at times comical; hostel provides an insightful look at how ordinary family life is postponed and devalued during periods of homelessness.  While it contain many touching moments perhaps the most powerful where the actors descriptions of how they had been disempowered by the housing department and those who manage the hostel.   On numerous occasions their opinions were not just ignored by the housing executive, but they were treated like petulant children within the hostel system.  The underlay reason for many of the occupants stay at the hostel could be directly linked to poverty and lack of opportunity in procuring affordable housing.   This short play actively portrays how  the end users of the social security systems are disenchanted with the services,  it  illustrates the lack of voice that they have  and brings not only the problems in relation to poverty to life but how social policy directly affects an individual’s life chances, and gives a moving account of how these issues shape the lives of all concerned (Bronagh Boyle).

Hostel gave an interesting insight into the stress and frustrations felt by the users of services provided by local authorities regarding housing or the lack of it. This play showed how powerless the service user feels and how their opinion is not always considered or taken into account when allocating housing. Maria showed that circumstances beyond a person’s control contribute to their situations but these personal situations do not get brought into decision making. For example when Maria requested to be housed near her mother so she would know someone, instead the decision makers would only offer Maria a house in a completely different area, knowing that the policy is that Maria could only turn down two offers or she would be taken off the housing list. The play showed the in balance between the hostel residents and the management of the hostel who on the whole did not seem to care about the residents requests and policed the rules and regulations to the letter. I think this play can definitely show how the individual is affected by administrative decisions. People are not homeless through choice but through unforeseen circumstance, whether it is family breakdown, loss of income or bereavement. Few of these factors seem to be considered when making decisions in social housing allocation (Bernadette Parks).


The performance was followed by a short question and answer session with the playwright and director Fionnuala Kennedy, who was able to discuss the inspiration for the play and explain how much of the content was based on actual events that had taken place in Belfast. The play received positive comments from students who indicated to staff they felt the play helped to contextualise some of the more theoretical and historical aspects of the social policy module, covered in the preceding weeks of lectures and tutorials. In subsequent tutorial discussions around housing policy and anti social behaviour it was my experience that students did reference and draw on the play when interpreting and debating official data and policy concerning contemporary welfare reform. Was it therefore an unqualified success? Well in hindsight the play had as much to say on issues of social control and social justice as it did on housing and homelessness.  An improved alignment of these topics in the tutorials in the weeks immediately following the play, together with improved integration of these issues in the linked assessment would have strengthened the potential learning benefits for students. The support of Queen’s Annual Fund meant, however, that the Social Policy team were able to hire an audio visual company to record the play which enables us incorporate a non-live performance of Hostel into the curriculum in future years, taking on board the lessons learned. Overall our experience of using theatre to bring to life complex social problems, policy responses and administrative structures was positive and we would not hesitate to utilise this teaching method again as a means to enhance the student learning environment and facilitate debate.  

Brendan Browne – Postgraduate Research Student on: Returning to the field: Covering the 64th Annual Nakba Commemorations in Ramallah, West Bank, Palestine

24 May


Every year on the 15th May, Palestinians in the West Bank, Gaza Strip and across the wider Diaspora gather to remember their Nakba, or ‘Immense catastrophe’. The commemorative act is both a moment to remember and reflect on a traumatic and turbulent past, but more importantly an opportunity to deliver a strong political message and to present an image of unity to a broader, global audience. Set against the backdrop of ongoing disputes between the two main political groups, Fatah and Hamas, and taking place at a time when over 1,600 Palestinian prisoners remain on hunger strike in Israeli Jails, the Nakba commemorations provided the ideal opportunity for Palestinians of all backgrounds to come together in a public act of solidarity. Following on from my fieldwork in Ramallah in the spring and summer months of 2011, I returned to Palestine to observe the 64th Nakba.

According to representatives on the National High Committee for the Commemoration of the Nakba, the representative body established to organise the event, the presentation of unity helps to generate a collective sense of solidarity between a group of people who remain divided geographically, politically, economically and ideologically. But in a region where rival factions compete for political supremacy and where the land itself is governed by two different administrations, separate commemorative events are organised by those who interpret the current political situation differently. The day also provides an opportunity for those who believe a more appropriate way to send a strong political message is through skirmishes with their traditional enemy.

During the 63rd Nakba commemoration in 2011,the year of the Arab Spring, members of Hamas and Fatah stood side-by-side on stage in what appeared to be a deliberate show of political unity in front of one of the largest gatherings of Palestinians from cities across the West Bank. In comparison the event this year appeared a fragmented and divided affair and the total number gathered at Arafat Square fell well short of last year’s assembled crowd.   

Rituals of this nature are rarely static, even in spatial terms. The space designated as the central gathering point was different to last year and the parade route taken by some of those involved changed considerably. Such changes further highlight the value and importance of observing events of this nature on more than one occasion. The reasons for the change in venue, for the relatively modest turnout, and for the absence of members of rival factions on stage during the central rally can be speculated upon and may become clearer upon follow-up discussions with those involved in organising the day. However, one thing that can be noted at this stage is the impact of the political climate of the day upon the organisation and structuring of the commemoration –  a theme that has become increasingly important as my research has developed.

Unfortunately, one thing that had not changed from last year was the levels of violence surrounding the event. The issues associated with conducting research in a region famed for its volatility and instability make the data collection process increasingly challenging. However, in returning to the field I was better prepared for what was about to take place on the day. Even small acts of preparation help, such as the fact I had invested in better camera equipment, which allowed me to take clearer images from a safer distance.

My primary concern in returning to Ramallah to observe the Nakba commemorations for a second year was to ensure the validity and accuracy of my own data collection before it is critiqued during the examination process. In returning, I also have been able to reflect on my own development as a researcher. Whereas last year I entered the ‘great unknown’, so to speak, , this year I returned to friends, to an area which I can now navigate my way through with relative ease, and to a place that I have formed a deep attachment to. Such changes have their own effects on my analysis as a researcher.

Some of the mistakes I made and risks I took last year, in my unavoidable naiveté, are important experiences that have assisted me greatly in my own professional development as a researcher. They also give me a greater appreciation of the particular challenges of research in potentially volatile regions on potentially sensitive topics. This ‘reflective’ aspect of the PhD learning curve has in many ways been as important and as steep as that of the empirical work itself. 


New book on Mental Health and Social Work Practice by Jim Campbell and Gavin Davidson

2 Apr

Jim Campbell, Professor of Social Work at Goldsmiths, University of London, and Gavin Davidson, Lecturer in Social Work, in the School of Sociology, Social Policy and Social Work at Queen’s University Belfast have written a new book called Post-Qualifying Mental Health Social Work Practice.  The preface provides the rationale and context for exploring this complex area of practice:

“This is a specialist text for post-qualified social workers, and other mental health professionals who are interested in exploring the complexities of practice using a broad range of explanatory theories and evidence-based approaches. In writing this book we were mindful of the debates about the current mental health social work role (Ramon, 2009; Campbell, 2010) and how it might be changing because of the advent of the generic Approved Mental Health Professional (AMHP) in England and Wales, as well as the potential dilution of professional identity caused by the integration of social work practitioners in multidisciplinary teams.

The book presents a forceful argument for a strong, recognizable identity for mental social workers built upon a solid knowledge base and broad-based application of skills that complement the work of other professionals in this field. We argue that, in the midst of the inevitable changes to role and function created by shifts in law policy and organization, a discernible position can be identified and maintained for social workers in mental services. For these reasons we believe the text will be of particular interest to mental health social workers practicing and studying mental health social work at various levels with systems of post-qualifying education and training across the UK.

The text begins with summaries of four ‘core knowledge’ areas which inform the rest of the book – an Introduction to the various forms of educational and post-qualifying training in the UK followed by three chapters on Policy and Agency Contexts, Legal Contexts and Models of Mental Health and Illness. These provide essential, background contextual knowledge that then underpins the other chapters in the book. The following chapters, which focus on the application of theory to practice, are preceded by references to National Occupational Standards, learning outcomes and case study material. Throughout the book you are encouraged to reflect upon your learning through selected questions, exercises and further reading. We hope you will find the book particularly interesting through its use of diverse case material illustrating the many types of mental health problems that individuals and families experience, and how this experience is shaped by issues of age, class, gender, ethnicity and religion”.

Post-Qualifying Mental Health Social Work Practice is published by Sage.

The Phenomena of Age (rounded to 3 decimal places) by John Moriarty

28 Mar

11.689 was the mean average age on September 1st, 2000, expressed in decimal years, of the 5,285 people who completed a questionnaire for the Belfast Youth Development Study (BYDS) between 2000 and 2005. That number is derived from the date of birth supplied by each partcipant, which can be entered into an operation standard to most data packages (Excel, Stata, etc.) which counts the number of days between the date in the cell and another date you supply. I supplied the closest likely date to the participants’ first day of secondary school. Given their age in days, you then divide that number by 365.25 to get the number of years since their date of birth.
11.689 equates to 11 years and 244 days, which is almost precisely 11 years and 8 months. The standard deviation, which I’m obliged to report beside any mean, is 0.313 years, around 114.5 days. The standard deviation is like an average of how close everyone is to an average, so on average everyone was just under 4 months either side of the average starting school. The youngest was 10 years 231 days and the the oldest was 13 years and 62 days.

Now say something about age. What is it like to grow older, to become an adolescent in this society?

For some, the self-contained facts above are as far as statistical analysis can proceed without regressing into conjecture. Others might question the value of those facts themselves. Who cares about the mean age of a theoretical school-starter, was there anybody even born on the “average birthday”? (Answer: 28 were born one day either side of the average). Still others are plain bored already.

I calculated this age variable because I wanted to find out how the rate of cannabis use among and individual’s classmates affects the likelihood of that individual having used cannabis. In most studies (mine included) the older the participant, the more likely they have used an intoxicating substance. So that I didn’t confuse the effect of being older with the effect of being in a class with more cannabis users, I used the age variable to control for this effect. The best estimate I have of the effect of age is that having been been 10% older when starting school (which equates to just over 1 year older in this sample) is associated with an increase of between 7% and 8% in the likelihood of having used cannabis by third year of secondary school.

But what does this really mean? Does this even pass as sociological knowledge? What does it mean to say that an individual’s age  determines their behaviour? Surely we are not constantly aware of our age, particularly in an environment where everybody is of equal status and approximately the same age. And surely everybody ages and matures at different rates in any case. And even if this were fact, what do we do with this information; propose that people be younger?

To understand age as a phenomenon, one needs to exit the stats lab and get one’s hands dirty. Find some teens and talk to them. Ask them how they feel about being 11 (or 23 or 72 or whatever age they are, though you may feel be rude asking). Chances are, it’s a window into their world and they’ll tell you something of what it’s like to be them. You can read it back later and examine how much reference they make to “age markers”, to how the current phase of their life relates to the overall narrative of their life so far and from here out. If the conversation dries up, you might want to ask about birthdays, or how they perceive slightly older/ slightly younger/ much older/ much younger humans (as Lynn Johnston has done to good effect). If you’re interested in drugs, ask about drugs, see if they make the link between being older and smoking more dope.

Alternatively you could analyse public discourse, find idiomatic representations of age. You’ll find that some of these directly confront the idea that age is a mathematical fact, e.g. “Age is just a number, you’re only as old as how you’re feeling” (or, as I recently saw on a birthday card “who you’re feeling”). You could analyse the politicisation of age, from the march of the pensioners in Dublin 2008 to save universal medical cards for OAPs, to the introduction of Anti-Social Behaviour Orders in Britain in 2006.

Then you write up the interesting bits and that’s your contribution to the literature on age. Is that it?
Perhaps it doesn’t have to be.

Perhaps we didn’t look closely enough at the data we had to begin with. Young people who were 11 in September 2000: what else can we say about them? They were born between 1988 and 1990. They were between 4 and 6 when the 1994 PIRA Cease Fire began; between 8 and 10 when the Good Friday Agreement was signed. Being from Northern Ireland, many will have witnessed a key period in the evolution of discourse in the region, though in a diversity of ways.
We know that by the time of the second survey the following year, they will have seen and read news about aeroplanes flying into the Twin Towers, at around age 12.
We know that David Beckham will have been one of the most famous people in the world for most of their childhood, while the career of Britney Spears, who is 7 years older than them, will begin an infamous decline before any of them have taken GCSEs.
We know that mobile phone ownership is beginning to increase as they are starting school, and that in a short few years this will be their main mode of social communication.
We can guess that only a few tech-aware individuals will have heard of Google before starting school, but that by the time they are 23 in 2012, the search engine will be used over 320 million times per day worldwide, and its name passed into standard English.

In all of this, we don’t know which aspects, if any, would feature if we were to read back on anything they were to write or say about growing up. But we have some hints of the cultural era they belong to. We can even extrapolate, if we wish, that any study of the BYDS survey, partially captures these phenomena, provided we are cautious about the breadth of our claim.
Above all, we can posit that those at the elder end of the age distribution will have experienced all of these events differently from the youngest in the sample, by dint of having been at a different developmental stage at the time of each event.

My point is this. There is much valid criticism which can be offered about quantitative approaches to social science, particularly on how genre of research is presented. Here I’ve tried to illustrate how a variable can be mathematical in nature, but touches on perhaps the quintessential human experience, the passing of time. I believe the mistake would be to rule out one source of information in favour of another, be it ruling out the experiential in favour of the mathematically demonstrable, or vice versa.

I’ll be speaking about the interface of quantitative and qualitative research at the SSPSW Postgraduate Conference on Friday at 10:30am. I hope to prompt a lively discussion and that, in the mean time or afterwards, you’ll take the time to comment below.