Social Science blog

01 November 2013

Challenging myths and understanding society

On the evening of the 15 October we held the 20th and final event in our series (with the Academy of Social Sciences) on ‘Myths and Realities’. The series began in 2009 and has examined discrepancies between political and press representations of social issues such as immigration, nutrition, education, crime, food, the environment, welfare and more to understand the gap between social science evidence and more broadly accepted and propagated social ‘truths’. Each event included talks from academics and social science practitioners in which they presented evidence from their field about the particular set of beliefs under discussion. Nearly all of the events have been podcast and are available here as well as on SoundCloud to download.

The final event was chaired by Professor Dame Janet Finch and the speakers were Professors Ivor Gaber and John Holmwood. It aimed to take a broad view of the role of the press and politicians in reproducing particular narratives about our society and to examine the role of social scientists in presenting evidence and challenging misconceptions.

Prof. Gaber gave the first presentation, and with a background in journalism and communications, offered his insights into the notion that as a journalist, one should ‘never let the facts get in the way of a good story’. Gaber critiqued this axiom to show that whilst this way of working could be seen to be responsible for many of the current ‘myths’ about society (e.g. the ‘scroungers’ discourse, ‘problem families’, ‘drugs’, ‘immigration’ and so on), it is also a cultural facet of an industry which is highly pressured and competitive, shaped by particular patterns of ownership and bias as well as by audience expectations. Gaber drew on writers such as Stanley Cohen (e.g. Folk Devils and Moral Panics) and Stuart Hall (e.g. in Policing the Crisis) to talk about the way in which particular narratives about society become subject to exaggeration and distortion as well as about how the press are often guilty of giving primacy to the views and opinions of particular groups (as has been discussed again more recently in relation to the ‘riots’ of 2011). Finally, Gaber raised the question of what objectivity is to the press (a ‘gold standard?’, ‘worthy aspiration?’) and finished on a lighter note with this comic song by Dan and Dan films!

Above: 'News on the way' by Vratislav Darmek Cc-by

Prof. John Holmwood’s presentation took a different approach, deconstructing the notion of the ‘expert’ social scientist verses the general public/the press. He suggested that there is a danger to the notion of democracy in thinking of oneself (in this case, the social scientist) as the expert or definer of what counts as valid knowledge. In fact, and as recent events have shown, it is in the public interest to question the nature of ‘expertise’. This took me back to another event held here at the British Library (to which Holmwood contributed) where we examined the relationship between power and knowledge (asking whose knowledge counts?). He suggested that when we think of lived realities, and how these realities are perceived and understood by the individual through various practices and experiences, it can become difficult to make a clear distinction between ‘knowledge’ and ‘belief’. If this position is held to be a useful one to take when considering beliefs in other areas of social science, then why isn’t the same approach taken when we examine the different ‘truths’ about society put forward by the press, the public, and social scientists?  Holmwood suggested that there was some truth in Paul Dacre’s recent point that politicians and the press on the left perhaps do not trust the public enough. Holmwood’s intervention was a useful and in some ways surprising one which gave the audience plenty of food for thought for subsequent participatory session as well as for events we hold in the future.

The audience contributed to the subsequent discussion with questions such as:

  • Are all these ‘myths’ necessarily always right-wing?
  • Why does the value of cognitive psychology not feature in this discussion?
  • How do ‘myths’ and ‘realities’ around pornography feature in this context?

The event itself (excluding audience questions and further discussion I’m afraid) can now be viewed as a video online via our YouTube channel. Please feel free to use this video to generate your own discussions, or in your teaching, and please feel free to share the link!


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