Rehearsing “why” and “how” to not drink alcohol during social occasions may help promote safer student drinking

2014 photoThis post was contributed by Dr Dominic Conroy, a Research Fellow in the Department of Psychological Sciences at Birkbeck. Dr Conroy is currently working on an NIHR-funded study with Professor Jonathan Smith to explore adolescents with conduct disorders’ experiences of multisystemic therapy. 

Students-drinking1Understanding how to successfully encourage university students to understand and heed government drinking recommendations remains one of the holy grails of health promotion research. One aspect of these drinking recommendations is to encourage individuals to take two ‘dry days’ per week where they do not drink any alcohol at all (National Health Service, 2014). In research recently published in the British Journal of Health Psychology, my research colleagues Dr Paul Sparks and Dr Richard de Visser and I were interested in assessing an exercise designed to explore how students might be encouraged to consider how occasional non-drinking during social occasions could be thought of as a more beneficial, achievable behaviour.

Students-drinking2This experiment involved a  ‘mental simulation’ exercise in which 211 undergraduate student participants were encouraged to ‘mentally simulate’ possible benefits of socialising without drinking alcohol and/or possible strategies which might make not drinking during a social occasion more straightforward. Findings indicated that compared with maintaining a drinks diary, mentally simulating benefits led to reduced overall weekly consumption, and mentally simulating strategies involved in non-drinking led to reduced episodes of heavy episodic drinking. Findings also suggested that all participants held more favourable perceptions of non-drinkers than they had at baseline, though not significantly so.

Several indicative areas for future research were clearly identified from this study. Options for delivering health promotion messages containing a non-drinking mental simulation to encourage young people and/or students to consider the achievability and possible advantages involved in periodically not drinking during social occasions are currently being explored in collaboration with DrinkAware. It would also be useful to understand whether improving perceptions of non-drinkers might offer one route toward promoting safer levels of alcohol consumption. So for example, measuring self-reported perceptions of ‘the typical non-drinker’ might provide a useful screening tool for identifying those most at risk of harmful drinking. However, future research might also help clarify how different strands of ‘perceptions of non-drinkers’ are implicated in alcohol-related perceptions and behaviour. For example, it would be useful to understand how beliefs about non-drinking as a behaviour  chosen by others or as a personal behaviour imagined or enacted by the respondent may hold links with drinking behaviour, just as ‘perceptions of the prototypical non-drinker’ seem to.

Students face a wealth of social opportunities involving alcohol consumption during their time at university. In this context research must continue to explore ways of encouraging students to think about drinking less during occasions when alcohol consumption is inevitable. This said, findings from my PhD research favour the view that efforts to successfully promote moderate drinking among students may benefit from greater consideration over how to encourage individuals to re-appraise non-drinking as a periodic behavioural option available to them personally. This might include instilling more positive appraisals of non-drinking as a social behaviour in others as well as prompting students to consider non-drinking at some social occasions as something more achievable and holding more distinct benefits than they may had previously thought. At a health promotion guideline level, this would be consistent with recent recommendations to take two ‘dry days’ each week provided by the House of Commons Science and Technology Committee.

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A reflection on the Research Excellence Framework 2014

TStephenFrosh_2014his post was contributed by Professor Stephen Frosh, Birkbeck’s Pro-Vice-Master for Research. In December 2014 the UK higher education funding bodies published the results of the Research Excellence Framework (REF), a peer review process which evaluates the quality of research in the UK’s universities.  Funding decisions based on the REF results will be announced this spring.

The results of the 2014 Research Excellence Framework (REF) were published in December 2014 and have been widely reported. While the official results of this six-yearly audit of university research take the form of institutional ‘profiles’ made up of outputs, impact, environment and an overarching narrative, there has also been strong  interest in where each institution sits in the various informal league tables that have followed.

Birkbeck did well in the REF. In keeping with the rest of the sector, our results improved significantly since the last such research assessment in 2008, when 56% of our research was rated as ‘world-leading’ or ‘internationally excellent’, the top two categories. This time, 73% of our research was judged in those categories. Unlike many universities, our performance was not inflated by a strategic decision to include only our most research-active academics in the assessment. Birkbeck submitted 83% of eligible staff to the 2014 REF, well above the national average. This led to the College’s strong performance in league tables which take into account the percentage of staff, rather than just the overall grade point average (GPA) of research, submitted. Birkbeck achieved a ranking of 30th in the UK for its research by the Times Higher Education – placing the College above Russell Group institutions such as Cardiff, Leeds, Liverpool, Queen Mary, Sheffield and York.

Of the 14 subject areas that Birkbeck submitted, half were rated in the top 20 nationally. Our science submissions performed exceptionally well, with Psychological Sciences rated 5th in the UK and the College’s two joint submissions with UCL – Earth Systems & Environmental Sciences, and Biological Sciences – rated 6th and 11th respectively.  Our outstanding subjects in the Times Higher Education’s ‘research-intensity’ league tables  include Law, ranked 6th overall (putting it among the top 10 law schools alongside the LSE, UCL, Oxford and Cambridge) and History, ranked 7th.

Similarly, the College performed strongly in league tables based on the percentage of research judged to be ‘world-leading’, indicating the very high quality of much of our research. I am also particularly pleased that – in addition to the outstanding performance of some of our top disciplines – we can celebrate the good performance in the REF of new areas such as Sociology and our reconfigured Modern Languages group, reflecting the College’s ability to build new research areas over time.

The 2014 REF threw up new challenges for the sector. For the first time, it required universities to demonstrate the impact of their research beyond academia. The College responded very well to this challenge, with good ratings in most areas and outstanding results in three subject areas – History; Art and Design; and Psychology, Psychiatry and Neuroscience – where 100% of Birkbeck’s submissions were rated in the top two categories for impact. The broad scope of our research and its impact are showcased on the College research webpages under six themes: arts, history and culture; conservation and heritage; learning, education and development; politics, society and the law; science and biomedicine; and work and the economy. This demonstrates how closely Birkbeck’s research relates to many aspects of our everyday lives – whether influencing policy-makers in their thinking about early years education; working with major companies to educate parents about their child’s development; or trialling new drugs for the treatment of cancer.

The results of the REF are important for many reasons, including the credibility of our claim to be research-intensive, our reputation with the public and our strong standing within specific disciplines. Importantly, from a financial perspective, the likelihood remains that HEFCE research funding will be allocated according to a formula based on proportion of 4* and 3* overall outcomes multiplied by number of staff submitted, with 4* more heavily weighted.  What this means for Birkbeck will be clearer when funding decisions based on the REF results are announced in spring 2015. At the moment, we expect to earn about the same amount College-wide (though with a somewhat different distribution between disciplines within the College) from the REF as we have done from the RAE (well over £6m in 2014-15) – but we shall have to see whether the funding formula changes, and also whether the UK’s spending on research and development as a proportion of GDP, which is very low by international standards, continues to fall. Birkbeck’s results also show the enormous amount of hard work that has gone on in recent years by our academics. At a time of turmoil in the higher education system, they have continued to produce top-quality research.

The REF was a stressful experience for many people in the College and I am especially grateful to them for the work they put into Birkbeck’s submission. As might be imagined, we have been poring over the results and thinking about how to build on them for the future. We have a new Research Strategy that aims at facilitating the creativity of our research community. We are looking closely at issues of research leadership and we are reviewing the policies and provision we have in relation to postgraduate research students. There is, as ever, plenty to do, but the REF has confirmed our own self-perception as a highly active research-based institution of genuinely international standing.

Listen to a podcast with Professor Frosh about the REF 2014 results.

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Are older people a burden? – Challenging the myths

This post was contributed by Dr Penny Vera-Sanso, a Senior Lecturer in Birkbeck’s Department of Geography, Environment and Development Studies. It is taken from her contribution to Facing the Facts: the truth about ageing and development, a campaigning publication launched today by Age International, a UK charity working for and with older people in developing countries.

Age-UK-blog-imageHow we see old age in developing countries does not reflect the diversity of older people’s experience. We often assume that older people in these contexts are being made more vulnerable by changing family values. We also accept the ageism implicit in concepts such as ‘the old age dependency ratio’ that assumes all people over the age of 60 do not work and everyone between the ages of 15 and 59 does. None of these capture the realities facing many older people in developing countries, nor the contributions that they make.

Rather than treat older people as dependants or blame old age poverty and vulnerability on failing family values, what is needed is a new approach to understanding later life; one that shifts the focus from what older people need to what they do. Such an approach dispels ageist stereotypes and convenient ‘blame-the-family’ attitudes; finding instead that older people’s work, whether paid or unpaid, is critical to household economies and plays a significant role in helping a nation to carve out a place within the global economy.

Households and economics

It is economics and government policy, more than culture and family values, that determine the size of a household – the people who share accommodation and living expenses. We are familiar with the idea of large extended households in developing countries comprising several generations, but this is not the only way in which older people and their families (if indeed they have extended families) live. Large extended households need substantial economic resources to support and maintain themselves. This is not always possible.

Where people only have access to low incomes, large extended households are not feasible. Families in this situation tend to form close-knit networks of smaller households. In these poorer settings, older people are not able to ‘retire’ from direct or indirect work because of both the demands of maintaining their own households and the help that related households might need.

The need for better data

Tracking older people’s contribution to the economy is hampered by poor data collection, including differing assumptions of what counts as economic activity. Often, older people’s efforts are merely characterised as ‘helping out’ or ‘passing time’ and do not cover the full economic contribution they make. A much wider perspective is necessary, one that looks at the economic effects of what older people do. Through their low-paid work, self-employment or unpaid work in family businesses, older men and women provide low-cost inputs to industry and low-cost services to workers. This, in turn, enables national economies to offer low-cost services and products in the global market place. Older people are also subsidising national budgets, by taking on caring roles that younger women would otherwise do, and releasing them into the labour force. In other words, for the very lowest costs they are creating a condition that is critical to achieving economic growth – the expansion of the female workforce.

The economic realities of older people are not explained by old age dependency or declining family values. These stereotypes of later life are obscuring the recognition of older people’s paid and unpaid work and undermining their rights. Alongside recognising their value to the economy, what is urgently needed now are measures to put older people in the driving seat – that is, recognition of their rights as workers; their right to work and their right to a pension that is sufficient to allow them the choice of whether to work, what work to do, and for how long.

Read more about Age International’s campaigning work.

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Scratching Surfaces: Attractions and Pitfalls of Using Ads as Historical Sources

Jess-Borge-2-croppedThis post was contributed by Jessica Borge, a PhD student in Birkbeck’s Department of Film, Media and Cultural Studies.

Old adverts for contraceptives fascinate, illuminate, offend, perturb and delight. My own Doctoral research project, ‘Communicating Contraception in the Age of the Pill’, unravels obscured marketing practices for commercially traded birth control in the 1960s. As such, I have spent a lot of time looking at contraceptive ads from this period. But using advertising as source materials is a complex business.

c.1968. Physician's circular / Searle, 'Ovulen'. By kind permission of Pfizer. Courtesy of Julia Larden, and the Wellcome Library, London. Photography by J Borge 2014 CC BY 4.0

c.1968. Physician’s circular / Searle, ‘Ovulen’. By kind permission of Pfizer. Courtesy of Julia Larden, and the Wellcome Library, London. Photography by J Borge 2014 CC BY 4.0

Unlike non-commercial material from the archives, dusted-off remnants of ad campaigns are possessed of a particular mystique, which might justifiably be described as a sort of ‘faded power’.

At one time, any given advert almost certainly sought to cajole, inform or to inspire action. But, removed from the conditions that engendered their creation and dissemination, impotent old ads no longer sell as powerfully as they might have done in their original setting.

For the researcher, immunity to ‘the sell’ can be an empowering invitation to step in. With the added benefits of historical distance and 21st-century savvy, defunct ads are particularly emasculated by the passing of time, leaving the stage open for involved analysis.

In the case of 1960s contraceptive ads, bonus layers of intrigue expand the potential for fun decoding games beyond the semiotician’s wildest dreams. For one thing, contraceptive products obviously involve sex somewhere along the line. And sex is always interesting. For another, contraceptive manufacturers have long been regarded as, well, ‘a bit dodgy’, which was always part of the challenge of contraceptive communication. An annoying cultural association with wartime prostitution and general grubbiness, for example, marred the image of the condom in post-war Britain. Regulatory barriers also impeded the public use of contraceptive trade names in some advertising (top tip: don’t give your condoms and rubber gloves the same handle – it only makes things worse). For ‘the Pill’, a prescription pharmaceutical contraceptive, print ads were ostensibly intended for the eyes of medics rather than laypeople. Sex – believe it or not – was frequently left out of these ads all together.

But how would you choose? More to the point, how would you be persuaded?

c.1970. Physician's tri-fold circular / Parke Davis, ‘Orlest’ and ‘Norlestrin’. By kind permission of Pfizer. Courtesy of Julia Larden, and the Wellcome Library, London. Photography by J Borge 2014 CC BY 4.0

c.1970. Physician’s tri-fold circular / Parke Davis, ‘Orlest’ and ‘Norlestrin’. By kind permission of Pfizer. Courtesy of Julia Larden, and the Wellcome Library, London. Photography by J Borge 2014 CC BY 4.0

Recovery of the advert’s mechanism of persuasion is, for some researchers, the ultimate goal. When this is the reason ads are used as sources, a salvage of probable intentions and effects is – more often than not – conducted by sweeping an imaginary net over the surface, scooping up symbols of interest, and subjecting these to the mill of theory. What or whom is represented here? With whom do these representations resonate? How do such signs govern, or attempt to govern, the roles of those subjects represented, in real life? What does this mean in terms of power and authority? These are all important questions, for sure, and reminiscent of motivational cues known to be employed in creating advertising campaigns in the first place.

But the problem with ads, past and present, is that they are the most available expression of long, labour-intensive processes that are themselves difficult to recover. In portfolios and in archives, as in magazines and on screens, the ad is showcased in isolation. An ad’s workings (i.e., brand history, strategy, rationale, brand objectives, targeting) are concealed, discarded or forgotten. Of course, that is part of the enigma of advertising; it is always very difficult to identify which elements (or combinations of elements) ultimately make an ad effective. Furthermore, many ads that exist in archives are the sole surviving components of bigger, multi-faceted marketing campaigns, minor elements that did not lead campaigns, but rather rode on the coat tails of numerous (unrecorded) promotional activities.

If, as researchers, we primarily regard the surface of a campaign, and consider the visual ad the most choice cut of the marketing mix (primarily because it is more readily available), we risk further obscuring the already illusive apparatus of production and communication. This is regrettable, because production circumstances and processes yield potentially important information. Marketing strategies are conceived not within vacuums, but within complex environments, in which influences and meanings ebb and flow, accrue and evaporate. Like a jigsaw puzzle, it is useful to start with the edges, rather than the middle; in the end, it is surprising how things come together.

With thanks to Alison Payne, Julia Larden, Bryony Merritt, Janet McCabe, Suzannah Biernoff, the Wellcome Library, London, and Pfizer.


Related websites:

About Jessica:

Formerly a backstage technician in Musical Theatre (electrics, lighting, stage and video), Jessica Borge decided to undergo a significant career change in 2011 by pursuing research interests in 20thC History at an academic level.

Following an MA in Historical Research from the Institute of Historical Research, Jessica won AHRC funding for her PhD project, ‘‘Communicating Contraception in the Age of the Pill’,’ on which she now works full-time.

She is currently conducting primary research, which includes extensive original archival work undertaken in the UK and the USA.

Jessica can ordinarily be found at Birkbeck School of Arts, where she is supervised by Drs Janet McCabe and Suzannah Biernoff. Jessica is also a Smithsonian IPS Fellowship awardee [for 2015] and sub-edits for Dandelion.

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