Regaining trust in political campaigns

On Thursday the UK voted to pull out of the European Union. Usually, we would anticipate a country making a collective decision, whatever the majority, to be celebrating. But the main focus in the media has been widespread confusion and a sense of questioning what exactly we’ve done. There is a sense that people have only understand the implications of leaving the EU now that it has happened.

One thing I’ve noticed over the weekend is the media have been much more informative of the implications now that we have voted to leave. Many people are wondering why they weren’t made aware of the implications prior to voting. I’d suggest there are two reasons for this.

Firstly, there are no incentives for politicians to tell the trust as there are no penalties when they intentionally mislead. For instance, the Vote Leave Battle Bus contained a claim about membership fees which an independent factchecking organisation have shown to be false. Despite this, the claim was repeated as the campaign wished to get that (inaccurate) figure etched into people’s memories. This was a tactic used by both sides, as it has been in previous elections, and reduces the public’s ability to trust any claims. Indeed, a lecture by Professor Michael Dougan explaining why the UK-EU relationship was important was viewed more than two million times, yet made little apparent difference to the result, presumably due to people not trusting experts to be neutral. Hence, when warnings are given to the public they are often dismissed as political scaremongering rather than informing people’s decisions.

And, secondly, broadcasting regulations means that certain media companies much be impartial in their coverage. This means they are required to transmit messages, irrespective of their accuracy and have to give equal coverage to both viewpoints on subjects. An example of this is a BBC story which reports 13 Nobel Prize winning scientists talking of the negative impact of Brexit on UK science funding which then, for balance, contains a Vote Leave comment about it being a myth that we receive funding. Although the full article enables readers with critical skills to assess the scale of each assertion, the digested read is essentially that experts say something but politicians dismiss it as false.

Hence, now the referendum is over, the public believe the experts again and the news channels can present their interprets of the implications. Given the levels of distrust over how both campaigns were conducted, I’d like to see cross-party talks to ensure what public trust in political campaigns is improved. This would be a positive change which would not benefit one party over another.

Full Fact is an independent, neutral factchecking charity, which examines statements from political figures for transparency. It examines comments from across the political spectrum impartially and without accusations of bias. An independent organisation of this nature (whether Full Fact or a new entity) could conceivably gain trust from the political world to uphold standards.

Broadcasting regulations determine how much coverage different sides within a campaign are entitled to. If politicians or campaigns were shown to be making incorrect claims, they could have this time lowered. Alternatively, in local campaigns spending limits could decrease if misinformed comments are being made. This would require politicians to uphold standards, but without making any undue punishments which limit the process of democracy. Campaigns would continue to be able to make any claims they like, but limited in terms of how those measures would be communicated. If parties or campaigns want to be represented on Question Time, they should demonstrate they do not intentionally mislead.

This would need to relate to facts rather than opinions, to avoid discriminating against political viewpoints. Different people can interpret the same information the same way, and the important thing is we understand the evidence underpinning claims. Similarly, only intentional use of incorrect evidence should be penalised. Often, there can be contrasting claims made, legitimately, about the same point – for instance, if a region was responsible for collecting high business taxes than the rest of the UK, it could be simultaneously claimed that the region claims more public spending per head than the rest of the UK, and also that it receives a smaller portion of public spending than it places into the public purse. In such scenarios, selecting one viewpoint is not about misleading but presenting favourable evidence – a website which provides a transparent overview of such claims would be beneficial for allowing people to make reasonable decisions.

One of the many, many things we should learn from the EU Referendum is how dangerous, and disenfranchising, it can be for the public to be misinformed on important areas. We should be looking for ways to uphold democratic principles but also regulate fairly and neutrally how campaigns conduct themselves to ensure that people are making decisions based on evidence, not emotion.

Dave Griffiths, 27 June 2016

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The other elephant in the room on the Sun’s front page

I awoke this morning to see my Twitter and Facebook feeds dominated by criticism of the Sun’s front page. Realistically, this was going to the case today irrespective of how they handled the Hillsborough inquest. There are, quite rightly, thousands of blogs, social media posts and news stories which illuminate why the Sun, Hillsborough and the condemnation of a city and football fans more generally is such an important issue. Indeed, if you’ve no idea what I’m talking about, you should read more about the subject.

I’m fascinated not just by the lack of coverage of Hillsborough, but also the stories they decided to run given they were surely aware it would be the focus of so much attention. I would have imagined, had the inquest not delivered its verdict yesterday, that the two main stories would be either the continuing doctors strike (which isn’t featured) and the financial dealings which lead to the administration of BHS (which receives some focus).

However, the main story is about Cameron using social media to discuss EU referendum tactics which is portrayed as dishonest given there will be no historical record of the discussions and the messages can be destroyed to avoid any Freedom of Information requests.

There are two interesting considerations of this choice of story. Firstly, on a day when there was bound to be lots of coverage paid to their front page, they selected a story criticising the Remain campaign and attempts to portray it as undemocratic. It is easy to see why an out supporter, like Murdoch, might want that image subtly placed in people’s minds and it perhaps demonstrates how important Brexit is to his interests.

But, more importantly, if the Sun is determined to put pressure on government ministers to reveal what was discussed in important meetings which are off the public record, perhaps it could turn its attention closer to home. It’s a shame the paper didn’t reveal the content of discussions between Murdoch and high ranking public officials. We shouldn’t let the condemnation of the Sun’s refusal to acknowledge the Hillsborough verdict overshadow questions of just how sincerely it believes ministerial conversations which affect us all should be made public.

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Pounding the footpaths: Parkrun’s business model

There has been a lot of debate recently about Stoke Gifford Parish Council’s decision to charge the local Parkrun event for use of a public park to stage a free weekly 5k run. As a runner, and Parkrunner, myself, I agree with the thousands of runners who believe we should be protecting Parkrun as free weekly events. But, as a sociologist, I think the issue is slightly more complex than some commentators have made it seem. My Facebook and Twitter feeds have been full all week with comments about charging money to a free service, which has entertained me given the business models of the social media sites such comments are posted on. This has lead me to thinking over these issues, and whether a public health initiative, in a publicly funded park, should be free, or whether an alternative model could be more beneficial.

What is Parkrun?

Parkrun, as an event, is a weekly Saturday morning 5k organised in public parks across the UK (and beyond). There are currently 395 events taking place each week, in which people of any age and ability can just turn up and run. Locations are added when a community gets together and organises an event in their local park, with support provided by Parkrun Ltd to make that happen. Runs are timed, marshalled by volunteers and each runner has their own barcode (available for free by creating an account on their website) which is scanned at the finish. It’s intended to both be as informal and welcoming as possible, but also professionally organised. The website provides details of all runs than an individual has taken part in, and some statistics about performance over time. There is no requirement for runners to do anything other than turn up, run, and go home. There is encouragement to volunteer at an event if you attend regularly, which varies from standing at key junctions to show the way, scanning barcodes at the finish and ‘sweeping’ behind the last runner to ensure everyone gets to the end safely. Thus, they operate like paid-for runs, but at no cost to the runners.

Parkrun Ltd, as an organisation, is essentially a social enterprise. It has a paid staff and income, mostly derived from sponsors. It sells merchandise, generally t-shirts and hoodies with either the Parkrun branding or as exclusive clothing celebrating having attended or volunteered at an impressive number of events. As a social enterprise, its board members are unpaid (and are required to have participated in events prior to appointment) and any surplus income must be fed back into it’s social purpose. This is similar to a large number of other social enterprises, including charities, housing associations and credit unions.

I’d argue you could also see Parkrun as a social movement. It is essentially a network of small events, holding a common purpose of providing inclusive opportunities for people to encounter exercise in a supportive environment and has many devoted followers. Parkrun aims to provide weekly runs to people who might feel excluded from the performance-related connotations of a race, and presents itself as a timed run in which people are competing solely with themselves. Many people feel Parkrun is much more than just a running event, but a public health revolution which allows people to take control of their exercise through events organised by their peers and within which they have a real voice. Being free is central to that ethos.

Why the controversy?

Stoke Gifford Parish Council have now decided to charge the organisers of the Little Stoke Parkrun for use of their park. This is an event which has been staged 170 times since it’s inception in December 2012, averaging 266 runners at those events staged so far in 2016. The Parish Council have issued a statement as to why they feel the need to charge the event, these include:

  • The fact that it’s operated by an organisation with national sponsors
  • The use toilet and washing facilities, which generate a cost to the council
  • The effect on other users as the park is dominated by the event for two hours each Saturday morning
  • Parking issues with operating an event of that size and the implications for residents
  • Increased wear and tear of park facilities due to the large weekly event
  • And that a large proportion of the participants are not from the local area and therefore are not contributing to the upkeep of the park.

Further to this, the council’s chair has made comparisons to the football teams who use the park and have to pay to hire the pitch. These claims have been rejected by supporters of Parkrun, who believe there should be encouragement for people to exercise and utilise public spaces. They also argue that Parkrun is a fantastic public health initiative and support be encouraged. Indeed, some events have received funding from their local council towards running costs due to the benefits they deliver.

Academic research into Parkruns has agreed there is a benefit. A quantitative study suggested a quarter of participants regarded themselves as ‘non-runners’ when they first signed up, of which 45% believed they were overweight. A qualitative study suggested the events are seen as accessible, inclusive and supportive and provide an easy gateway for people to move towards reaching recommended levels of weekly exercise. Public health researchers have seen Parkrun as offering opportunities for helping to get people fit and, therefore, should be encouraged.

Are the benefits of Parkrun purely down the fact they are free?

This is the question which is impossible to sensibly answer. There are many things which are carry health benefits and a cost to the user – local authority leisure centres would be a good example.

Whilst Parkruns have an ethos of free provision, there are many other running events which charge runners to take part. Some of these, such as the Race for Life series, combine both charges for runners with a desire to encourage people into taking part in a 5k. There are also many events organised by running clubs, which often do have to pay local authorities for use of public land. This is despite, like Parkrun, those clubs operating effectively as social enterprise in terms of reinvesting their surplus into their own aims or public benefit. For instance, I’m a member of a club who donates 10% of the surplus from the Crieff 10k and Strathearn Marathon to local charities, in addition to their coaching of local children. Many clubs and other social enterprises organise events but charge a small fee to attend. In the age of corporations such as Twitter and Facebook, we need to move beyond looking at finances being based on the cost to the user and rather the income generated. Although it’s difficult to get an income figure for Parkrun Ltd, their Companies House returns imply they spent at least £300,000 last year.

There is an argument that Parkrun provides a benefit in terms of encouraging people who wouldn’t otherwise run into the activity. For comparison, we could look at the distribution of runners in 5k events both before Parkrun was brought to the UK and in the last few weeks. These races have been selected simply as they are events I know and believe are comparable, rather than being representative of anything. These are:


Perth Parkrun does seem to differ to the other events in a few ways. Only 29% of people were members of running clubs, compared to 47%-58% of the other events. 26% took over 30 minutes and just 9% under 20 minutes, suggesting a different clientèle to the other races. However, how much of this is due to the event being free and how much is due to the well-marketed branding of the events warrants debate. Indeed, paid events usually have a £2 reduction for UK Athletics members, which was what encouraged me to join a running club.

Parkrun has obviously done a lot to encourage people into exercise, but it’s unclear how much that is connected to fees. The qualitative article into Parkrun does include quotes saying that being free is a benefit, but focusses much more on the ease of just turning up and running as being important. One thing I enjoy is being able to turn up at 9:25 on a whim and start a 9:30 race – being required to register on the day would compromise that sphere of the moment feeling, whilst any requirement to have funds (however small) on people’s account to take part and pay through barcodes being scanned would be off-putting for many.

A potential business model

Parkrun has an ethos of encouraging people to take part in exercise, for free, in the great outdoors. Running 5k once per week will not meet recommended exercise levels, so people should feel inspired to run around the same parks on other days. Hence, provision of safe running facilities across the UK should be part of Parkrun’s ethos.

I would regard the ‘Freenium’ business model utilised by other websites as perhaps being the way forward for Parkrun. This involves providing a service for free, but an improved service for those who pay. The music streaming site Spotify offers a good example of this – everyone can listen to the same music, but only those who pay can avoid the adverts. This exact method wouldn’t work for Parkrun, with its ethos of equality, but a variation upon it.

The running website Fetcheveryone recently introduced a voluntary subscription fee, which nobody has to pay, or gets much benefit from, but which helps towards running costs. A discussion on the forum suggests many fees have been paid. This is, essentially, the same system as used in museums throughout the UK and also how Wikipedia funds itself.

I believe Parkrun would move to the next level of its social movement if it introduced an annual voluntary donation scheme, requesting people make a donation to the ‘Friends of‘ group associated with their local park. This should be entirely voluntary and anonymous, as it to give no identification of who might not have donated. This would maintain the ethos of running for all, but actively encouraged to contribute towards the public spaces they enjoy.

The debate is currently focusing on why Parkrun should be free, rather than exploring whether, now it is established, there are potential opportunities arising from the issues raised by the parish council. Whilst it’s currently possible to donate to Parkrun, I’d see encouraging people to give back to the public spaces which have provided something to them as a nice extension of the movement. This would allow for environmental as well as public health benefits to emerge from getting people into the great outdoors.



Dave Griffiths

14 April 2016

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Blur’s Great Escape and the non-fall of the Tory party

In the last few months I’ve been listening to Blur’s 1995 album The Great Escape quite a lot. It’s often overlooked as a socio-political album, but always reminds me of the fall of the previous Conservative government in 1997, holding a number of themes relating to that particular period. I suppose one reason why I’ve listened to it a lot in recent months was the hope of the current Conservative government being kicked out of power. Sadly, this year May was the cruellest month, which has led me to question what led to the Tories success. As often in life, it turns out the answer could be found in Blur’s music.

The gulf between rich and poor is discussed throughout the album. Perhaps the best known song, the chart-topper Country House, tells the tale of a man whose riches cannot aid his quest for happiness. Charmless Man, similarly, deals with the delusion of a privately educated man who cannot see how lowly others perceive him. Mr Robinson’s Quangos, meanwhile, discusses a seemingly well-functioning quangocrat who is suffering from sexual repression. This theme of sexual frustration is also evident on the opening track, Stereotypes, which describes wife-swapping parties in suburbia.  The divide between rich and poor is further represented on It Could Be You, suggesting the newly created National Lottery is advertised as making any of us millionaires, but references how Conservative MPs benefitted from it.

Many of the songs describe the loneliness associated with economic success. Ernold Same is the story of a man whose routine is ingrained to the point of boredom. Globe Alone charts the futility of chasing commercialisation. Fade Away charts a couple’s alienation after attaining their desired lifestyles.  Closing track Yuko and Hiro further laments work-life balance.

These themes relate well to the decline of the 1990’s Conservative government. Several sex scandals, corruption cases and general sleaze led Tory MPs to be seen as ‘Folk Devils‘,  disliked and distrusted by the electorate. Inequality was seen as ‘us’ against the ‘rich bastards’, who might have all the money but lacked wellbeing. Whilst The Great Escape might have been a Britpop album, it reflected in many ways the themes which summed up how I remember mid-90’s politics.

Those themes should, also, characterise contemporary politics, and before the election I assumed they did. But, with hindsight knowing the outcome, it seems the contemporary Folk Devils aren’t the same. The expenses scandal has caused all MPs to become distrusted and seen as favouring personal interests. The financial crisis has led to bankers being seen as the ‘them’, but enjoying luxury lifestyles whilst the masses regress. The popular narratives in the press today aren’t the Tories and stereotypical Tory voters, but rather the super-rich and MPs in general. Given debates around immigration and welfare claimants, it appears it’s the traditional Labour voters who continue to be portrayed as the Folk Devils, potentially being a decisive factor for swing voters. Sadly, we appear to have a society in which the poor are viewed as the cause of social problems – if we’re unable to change that narrative, the consequence could well be continued Conservative election success.

Dave Griffiths

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Artists vote for capital; capitalists vote for art?

It has been interesting times living here in Scotland over the last months, as a referendum on whether Scotland should be an independent country was held on 18th September 2014 (see e.g. The referendum dominated news media within Scotland for months, and became a major national and international story in its last two weeks, as opinion polls suggested a tight contest. In the event, the opposition to independence won by a fair margin (55% to 45%), as they had long been predicted to.


An emergent picture from voting patterns seems to be of quite dramatic socio-economic differences in the profiles of voters – it seems that opponents to independence were much more likely to be relatively advantaged in the stratification structure (I am basing this on speculation and regional patterns, not upon reliable microdata at this stage). The secure, affluent and educated seem to have mostly voted ‘no’; the precarious, deprived, criminalised and uncredentialised seem mostly to have voted ‘yes’. There also seem to be other important dimensions to voting patterns, including of religion, region, nationality and ethnicity, but the stratification dimension seems to have been a substantial factor.


In my opinion – and again, I don’t have data to back this up, just speculation – there was a major disparity between the public agenda of discussion over voting preferences, and the reasons used by individuals to make their choices. The public debate was overwhelmingly addressed towards socio-economic issues and questions of political power: which model, Scotland as part of the UK or as an independent country, would deliver the better prospects economically to different groups of people, and under which model would power be more effectively administered? Ironically, the dominant politicians from both sides of the debate said that they were motivated by much the same objectives in these domains (broadly equating in socio-economic terms to improved standards of living and reductions in social inequality, and in political terms to more political administration within Scotland). For this reason, the socio-economic and political debates turned in practice more upon which of the two models was felt to have a better chance of delivering such objectives, rather than on differences in underlying priorities. Still, whilst both issues are important, and I’m sure influenced plenty of people in their voting preferences, I believe that a different, cultural factor was really behind the voting choices of even more individuals. I think that many Scots evaluated what amounted to their image of the cultural landscape of Scotland under independence or as part of the UK, and chose accordingly. Indeed I think both political campaigns prior to the vote missed a trick in not paying more attention to this.


Why might this claim be tenable? First, analyses of long-term social trends that we conducted in our ‘Is Britain Pulling Apart’ project suggest that socio-economic social circumstances are very slow to change and haven’t changed much over many years. Extrapolating forward, it might be hypothesised that the socio-economic impact of independence compared to membership of the UK for Scotland would in all probability be minimal. Of course, there is a risk of unpredictable shocks associated with constitutional change (a worry that surely swayed some voters against independence), but by and large I suspect that most people intuitively recognise that we have had long term socio-economic stability, and that it is likely to last long term in the future. I have less expertise on whether similar stability might be associated with the administration of political power, but again my intuition is that, recognising the global political landscape, importance of the EU, and the common foundations of values and systems in Scotland and the rest of the UK, the extent to which Scots voting in the referendum really believed that a major change in the workings of political structures would arise dependent on the outcome was probably exaggerated. By contrast, I would argue that the ‘cultural landscape,’ is much more visible to more people, and much more widely believed to be susceptible to short term social change (through mechanisms such as the withdrawal of the BBC from Scotland; changes in compositions of shops and businesses, leisure companies, sporting arrangements; transformations of the educational curriculum; etc).


Second, the connection between long-term socio-economic structure and social distance patterns, as is highlighted in our project, emphasises how different cultural preferences characterise social groups in different long-term positions in the stratification structure. ‘Middle-class’ individuals, for example, go through very different objective socio-economic conditions as they move in and out of different life-course circumstances, but they retain more or less the same cultural orientation throughout their lives, as is evident, for instance, in their social distance patterns. So, the fact that the vote in the Scottish referendum is (or rather, seems to be) substantially stratified by socio-economic circumstance is not inconsistent with the hypothesis that cultural values were a dominant force driving voting preferences. On the contrary, it is actually more compatible with quite a strong split in voting preferences by socio-economic characteristics (that seems to have occurred), than is a model where the split is based on differences in views about social equality or about political power (both of which do not coincide as neatly with socio-economic circumstances).


So, more attention to (beliefs about) cultural preferences might be needed if we want to understand voting preferences on the referendum. It is possible that many privileged Scots baulked at the prospect of a culturally more ‘Scottish’ Scotland, the oft-parodied perception of a parochial wasteland of fried pizza, Irn Bru, Robert Burns and Celtic v’s Motherwell. Scots from less affluent circumstances may have been less put off by such images, and indeed were probably attracted to their anticipation of different aspects to the cultural landscape of an independent Scotland – featuring less of the London media, less English cricket, less David Mitchell, and no more Eastenders.


At first sight one hole in this reasoning might be in the public support for Scottish Independence expressed by many people from one very privileged group, the existing cultural elites or ‘creative sector’ within Scotland. Much publicity was given to the high levels of support for independence from many prominent painters, poets, writers and actors within Scotland. These should seem to be exactly the sort of group that would value the stereotypes of Bloomsbury rather than Bernistoun. However, there are some plausible caveats. First, those creatives located in Scotland probably don’t accept the disparaging portrayals of a Scottish culture referred to above (whilst they would also probably have a few things to look forward to from being key players in the cultural realm of a newly independent Scotland). Second, every expression of support for independence made by this group that I witnessed was presented on socio-economic terms rather than cultural issues, being almost universal in the position that greater social equality and progressivism was possible in an independent Scotland. Oddly then, in the recent referendum, it seems that the culturalists tended to vote on socio-economic grounds, but that the voting choices of those for whom socio-economic circumstances matter relatively more, might substantially have been on issues of perceived cultural landscape.

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Tax avoidance and charitable donations

The opening question on last night’s Question Time concerned whether Gary Barlow should retain his OBE. Whilst I’m personally care little about that precise issue, the wider debate about tax avoidance, privilege and charitable work was very interesting. Some audience members sought to defend Barlow, pointing to his charitable work. I suspect the claims may have been that his charitable giving should serve to protect his reputation rather than be seen as a credible alternative to paying tax. It was unclear from the comments whether Barlow was being credited for personally donating money or for his fundraising efforts which has encouraged others to give. However, this notion of not paying tax being acceptable if you pay charitable work instead is believed by many rich people, including celebrities, living in tax havens to avoid their national tax laws. I previously worked for a charity researching charitable trusts and came across many grant-making bodies which were linked to individuals living outside the UK and suspect for many donations were a form of rationalisation for their undersized tax bills.


I don’t see an argument that charitable donations could be viewed as a proxy, which is sometimes put forward. If an individual gives as much money in donations as they would it tax it might financially appear to be a form of equity, but there are very different meanings to the payments made. Taxes are paid and applied as our elected politicians see fit, giving us relatively little control over how our money is spent. Donations are provided to specific causes, aligned to the interests of donors, and therefore give much control to individuals on what sort of social benefits their money can bring. Therefore, there can be large inequalities in terms of how people see their money being used. Therefore, when rich people use tax avoidance schemes we should congratulate on them on the money they voluntarily provide to charitable causes, but we shouldn’t allow that to justify the funds they are keeping out of the public purse.


These issues can be compounded by Gift Aid, a system which enables individuals to make their donations the levels they would be if given before income tax was applied. Put simply, for every £1 a basic rate taxpayer donates, the receiving charity can apply for the extra 25p they could have received had the payment been made before income tax was applied to the donor. For higher-rate tax payers the charity receives the extra 25p in the pound, but the donor can apply to be repaid the extra 25p/31.25p.


Gift Aid can only be claimed by income tax payers and therefore, it might appear irrelevant to a discussion on tax avoidance. However, my understanding is that the schemes mentioned in the press are about limiting, rather than removing, the amount of income tax paid. Thus, many who are donating to compensate for tax avoidance will be benefiting from not only determining what their charitable giving funds but also legally diverting part of their tax payments to those causes.


I’m very supportive of Gift Aid, but there are a couple of issues with the system. If a basic rate tax payer gives £100 that’s worth £125 to the charity, but if someone who earns too little to pay income tax donates the same amount it’s worth £25 less to the charity. It’s unclear to me why some people’s donations should be financially worth less than others. Similarly, if a charity receives £125 in total from a basic rate tax payer it costs the donor £100, but receiving the same amount would only cost a higher-rate payer £75 and the highest band payer £68.75. It is argued that repaying the richest givers will encourage them to donate larger amounts, but it does seem odd that donations should cost higher earners less money.


A quick scan of the indexes of a few recent popular books on inequality and social difference in the UK (Chavs, Injustice and Revolting Subjects) show no reference for ‘Gift Aid’, ‘donations’ or ‘charity’ and a quick online search shows little discussion of this issue amongst the inequality literature. It’s arguable that these inequalities are socially beneficial in terms of soliciting larger donations from the richest, which in turn reduces wealth inequality. Such trends, however, appear lacking in the inequality literature.


People should be congratulated for their charitable donations. However, I don’t support the argument that donations are a substitute for paying tax as they are two very different things. People don’t generally believe tax-avoiding companies are justified if they have strong corporate social responsibility programmes and I struggle to see why individuals should be viewed differently.

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Within-household newspaper consumption

In our Is Britain Pulling Apart? project we’re interested in social interactions between different types of social groups. One characteristic I’m particularly interested in is social connections by newspaper choice. Within the UK, newspapers can reveal elements of both our social status and social attitudes. Earlier this week, for instance, I noticed this tweet which juxtaposed attitudes towards welfare claimants between two popular papers.


This difference in editorial position is what makes social connections by newspaper readership interesting. If people are only reading the Daily Express/Daily Mail positions about people on benefits they might harness a different perspective to someone reading a paper such as the Guardian. If people are surrounded by people who read very different papers to themselves, they are perhaps exposing themselves to a variety of positions, attitudes and statistical evidence. Newspapers might aim to tell the truth, but are selective in which truths they tell.


Looking at the demographics of newspaper readers shows they are attracting different markets. The graph below shows the proportion of readers who are graduates (commonly associated with the broadsheet/tabloid distinction) on the vertical scale, whilst the horizontal scale shows the proportion voting Conservative, with the Guardian and Mirror to the left and Mail and Telegraph towards the right. Many readers of this blog might broadly have guessed which paper was which even if they weren’t labelled. Such distinctions aren’t as obvious amongst television news; indeed, those identifying as mostly receiving news from a particular channel are much more similar in their demographics than those reading specific papers.


Demographics of newspaper readers (UKHLS, wave 3)

Demographics of newspaper readers (UKHLS, wave 3)

Characteristics of viewers of TV news (UKHLS, wave 3)

Characteristics of viewers of TV news (UKHLS, wave 3)

Within our current project we’ve presented several papers which have looked at the social mixing between consumers of different types of newspapers (see our website for slides). Homophily, the effect of birds of a feather flocking together, is central to our analysis and we are interested in whether people tend to associate with those reading similar, or different, newspapers to themselves. This is a non-trivial question, given the different perspectives and viewpoints associated with papers. However, due to the availability of data, this has usually been within-household social connections by newspaper readership. Commonly, one of the questions we’ve received has asked whether studying within-household newspaper is appropriate as often the household will read the same paper. In this blogpost I’ll outline why using a household survey, such as Understanding Society (UKHLS) is appropriate for newspaper connections.


A few practical notes should be made. Firstly, that this blogpost ignores households consisting of just one person, given there can be no sharing in those homes. Secondly, this analysis uses UKHLS data, which asks how people most commonly obtain news and, if they state via newspapers, which paper they most commonly read. Therefore, this discussion is only of the 55% of nearly 50,000 respondents who named a newspaper. It is likely some people read multiple daily papers, and also some whom get most of their news from the internet or television are also newspaper readers but such people are excluded from this analysis.


Our presentations often receive a question about whether all residents within a household read the same paper due to physical access to it. It is easy to think of circumstances where this will be true, especially for the bulkier Sunday papers. However, there are also many situations where people living in the same home might not have access to the same paper, for instance, through one resident reading a colleague’s paper during their lunchtime at work, or through leaving the paper on the train at the end of the commute. Similarly, there might be circumstances where parties have little interest in papers within their home – perhaps a father who reads the Financial Times and a son who reads the Daily Star will have little interest in each other’s newspapers.


Across all households with two or more respondents (UKHLS, wave 3), 91% live with at least one other who shares their newspaper status, if no affiliation in included. However, when we look solely at those who read a newspaper, 48% live with someone who reads the same paper. The highest levels of homophily are for the Herald (63%), Telegraph (56%), and Daily Record (55%). The lowest is for the Financial Times (16%). Identifying as reading a specific newspaper doesn’t necessarily mean you live with others with the same identity.


Newspaper readers living with someone who also reads same paper (UKHLS, wave 3)

Newspaper readers living with someone who also reads same paper (UKHLS, wave 3)

Of course, it’s plausible this lack of homophily is caused by people not identifying as a reader of any newspaper. This is often, but not always, the case. In 14% of two-person households the residents read different newspapers. At least 2 different papers are read in 29% of three-person households, 35% of four person households and 48% of homes with five or more people.

Papers per household (UKHLS, wave 3)

Papers per household (UKHLS, wave 3)

Similarly, it’s not necessarily the case that couples read the same newspaper, with the differences occurring outside of partners. In around one-third of cases where couples both identify as newspaper readers different papers are selected. A simple logistic regression can show this trend, using those in relationships from UKHLS wave 3. The first model predicts readership of newspaper based on age, gender, education (three categories) and occupation (microclass). The pseudo-R2 (basically, proportion of variance explained) ranges from just .021 for the Mirror to .14 for the Sun. The second model adds a variable of whether the partner reads that paper. This always provides a notable improvement in the models, but generally an improvement of between .14 (Mirror) and .23 (Telegraph), aside from a much smaller effect for the Financial Times (.06). Finally, adding information about type of paper the partner reads (broadsheet, tabloid, Scottish, regional, or ‘other’) provides a further small increase. Clearly knowing what paper someone’s partner reads improves prediction of what paper they will read, but it only explains a small part of the story.


Pseduo-r2 of newspaper read (UKHLS, wave 3)

Pseduo-r2 of newspaper read (UKHLS, wave 3)

Therefore, it appears there is a justification for analysing newspaper readership using within-household social connections. We have mapped this in various ways, using social network analysis, log-linear modelling and multiple correspondence analysis in our presentations thus far. Whilst we are happy that within-household patterns can be mapped, there are several other factors which need to be controlled for. Social network analysis provides an interesting framework for looking at combinations of newspaper readers and demonstrations some of these issues. The first is the distinction between newspaper patterns in certain areas. For instance, the two sociograms below show the patterns of overly connected newspapers for England (top) and Scotland (bottom).


Network of over-represented within-household newspapers in England (UKHLS, wave 3)

Network of over-represented within-household newspapers in England (UKHLS, wave 3)


Network of over-represented newspaper combinations in Scotland (UKHLS, wave 3)

Network of over-represented newspaper combinations in Scotland (UKHLS, wave 3)


Newspaper patterns are different generally in England and Scotland, as evidenced by the large number of Scottish newspapers such as the Daily Record, the Herald and the Scotsman and decreased readership of English-based papers. Within England the Daily Mail (a right of centre paper) is most popular whilst in Scotland the Daily Record (a left of centre paper) is the most read. Similarly, evening and regional papers in England appear to be read in households which also get right-wing or News UK papers, whereas in Scotland there are more common in households reading the Guardian than the Times. The Guardian is also more strongly connected to other broadsheets in England than in Scotland. Therefore, analysing readership connections needs to take into account not only are different papers available in England and Scotland, but also that patterns of homogamy by readership differs also.


Similarly, there are age-cohort effects associated with consumption patterns. The two sociograms below show the networks for younger couples (both partners under 50, top) and older couples (males over 50 and females over 45, bottom). The greater number of ties for the younger cohort signifies a great diffusion of multiple newspapers between partners.


Network of over-represented newspaper combinations for younger Scots (UKHLS, wave 3)

Network of over-represented newspaper combinations for younger Scots (UKHLS, wave 3)

Network of over-represented newspaper combinations for older Scots (UKHLS, wave 3)

Network of over-represented newspaper combinations for older Scots (UKHLS, wave 3)


For the older cohort, patterns identifying with different papers commonly refers to the Daily Record and one other, or an evening/regional paper and one other (aside from the Herald/Times connection). Removing the Daily Record would cause the composition of the network to break down. For the younger cohort, removing the Daily Record would maintain a well-connected network, with the Sun, Mail and an evening paper at its centre. Thus, whilst an alternative viewpoint for older Scots usually includes receiving the Daily Record’s editorial position, for younger Scots there is a greater blend of attitudes and opinions being addressed. Therefore, incorporating age-cohort effects is also important.


An area I was concerned with when first using the newspaper variable in the UKHLS was the possibility of interviewer bias. There is an argument the US General Social Survey has suffered from interviewers being inconsistent in gathering the number of friends individuals hold, and there is potential for the same to occur with asking people about newspapers of choice. However, there is no evidence that some interviews were more, or less, likely to obtain valid newspaper data.

Interviewer effects for valid newspaper data (UKHLS, wave 3)

Interviewer effects for valid newspaper data (UKHLS, wave 3)

There appears to be no empirical rationale why studying within-household newspaper patterns should be problematic. Whilst instinctively it might sound like those who live together have physical proximity to the same papers, there is little evidence that people who live together identify themselves together. There are many cases where people, and partners, living together identify with different papers and mapping these, using a variety of methods, can identify important social trends. Given the widely differing social outlooks portrayed by newspapers, studying homogamy and homophily patterns enable us to see whether people’s social connections exposes themselves to people who share their values and attitudes or provides diversity of opinions and arguments. Whilst across-household data might preferable, this is difficult to obtain and existing social surveys provide within-household information which enables us to see such trends.


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Can you ‘know’ big data?: Jeffery C. Johnson’s Sunbelt keynote address

This week sees the 34th Sunbelt Conference, an annual week-long conference on social network analysis. Running since 1981, the conference brings together researchers from all career stages and encompassing all aspects of network analysis, incorporating sessions on both methodological and empirical applications.

Each year, Sunbelt provides a keynote presentation from one of the very leading experts in the field. This year, that honour was given to Jeffrey C. Johnson from East Carolina University.  Johnson’s presentation was entitled ‘Knowing Your Social Network Data and Measures’ and argued that it’s important when Analyzing Social Networks to have a strong understanding of both the data and techniques used.

Johnson has a background in anthropology and argued that he always brings an ethnographic perspective to his network analysis. He provided a detailed account of how his research findings have been shaped by the diligent attention paid to gathering strong and valid data. He famed his discussion around his research of South Pole stations and the relationship between team composition and morale.

Johnson argued that research design is highly important, showing diligent consideration of deciding both what data to collection and how to analyse it. He discussed the thoughtful consideration of what precise questions to ask, showing how giving slightly different options (ranking or rating of potential friends) can influence not only what sort of analysis can be operationalised, but also hold consequences for building rapport with research subjects. Similarly, he outlined the careful process of determining which precise measures to use rather than blindly selecting an existing technique. He demonstrated how a combination of multiple correspondence analysis and multi-dimensional scaling provided a valuable understanding of identifying if a core-periphery or clique structure was observed. The talk highlighted that a sound network analyst requires exploring the composition of the data and methods to the same degree that a detailed ethnographic study attempts to understand a community.

This brought Johnson to query whether the growing trend for analysing big data can provide as detailed an analysis as is possible with small data. He argued that, hitherto, big data analysis has been exploratory and atheoretical, providing only a descriptive account and being largely data-driven. They have focussed on, for instance, providing visualisations, identifying patterns providing rankings rather than theorising about what those patterns actually mean. Johnson argued that this is the next step for big data, but questioned whether it is possible to ‘know’ big data in the same way we can with smaller datasets. Johnson was not arguing from the position of a big data sceptic, but rather as someone who has actively explored big data in studies on textual information, news reports on Sudanese violence and the Reuters tracker.

During the introduction to the presentation, Russ Bernard stated that for as long has he’s known Jeff Johnson he’s always had the ability to turn the research he’s imagined into grants and publications. Let’s hope that he’s successful in his charge to add increased theoretical output from big data analysis.

Dave Griffiths, 20 February 2014

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UKHLS and social connections data

The latest wave of Understanding Society, or the UK Household Longitudinal Study (UKHLS), includes the first module on social networks. The UKHLS was first run in 2009, emerging from the previous 1991-2008 British Household Panel Survey (BHPS), providing detailed information on all individuals in 30,000 UK homes. Those individuals in Wave A, or who entered from the BHPS, are tracked every year and interviewed along with all others within their household. Therefore, when households are stable across time (i.e., a married childless couple who always live together)  the same individuals are interviewed each year. But, when  households change (i.e., a married couple whose grown-up children move out of the parental home and have flatmates, partners and children of their own) different people become eligible for inclusion.

Individuals are interviewed annually, covering a wide range of subjects including, amongst others, employment, politics, health, income and education. In addition, there are various modules which are included once every three years, including cognitive ability. The most recently released wave, C, contains the first data from the social networks module. This is something I’ve been looking forward to immensely since hearing Raj Patel discussing what was included last May.

Wave C provides a range of variables which explore different elements of social networks. There is a particularly interesting set of questions relating to homophily, or the concept that ‘birds of a feather flock together’. Participants were asked what proportion of their friends are:

  •  of a similar age
  • of the same ethnicity
  • have a similar level of education
  •  have a job
  • have a similar income
  • live in their local area
  •  are also family members.

Respondents have five options: all similar; more than half; about half; less than half; or none. These categories perhaps introduce uncertainty surrounding the boundaries between categories, for instance, what proportion is required to move from about half to move than half? 60% could be viewed as about half if you have 10 friends (6/4 split) but less so if you have 30 (18/12 split). If 19 of our 20 friends have a similar level of education does that count as ‘all’ and, indeed, does the strength of relationship with that one other influence people’s choices.

Also, it is somewhat arbitrary what counts as ‘similar’. Should people who are 40 view those who are 49 as a similar age based on a similar position in the lifecourse, or limit the criteria to within 5 years? Do people with a PhD and a university degree have a similar level of education? If the graduate sees similar as those with a degree and the postgraduate sees it as someone with a higher degree, two people could easily differ in whether their friendship is homophilous. Therefore, such data should be seen as how people perceive their friends rather than necessarily subjectively measuring levels of homophily in society.


The data show trends we might have predicted. It appears that the youngest and oldest respondents were most likely to have all their friends of a similar age, perhaps indicating that those in maximal years of employment (20 to 59) have connections across the age range. Similarly, the social isolation of those in the least advantaged occupational groups can be seen with a greater tendency to have mostly friends with a similar level of income. Similarly, those with the lowest educational qualifications are most likely to have friends who with the same levels. Many of the social trends we might expect to see are observable.

Social isolation, as well as social connections are explored in the wider survey. Nearly 14% of respondents stated they never go out socially with friends. Nearly a third of those who don’t socialise claimed they were too busy and around a quarter stated health, illness or disability reasons. Caring responsibilities and financial reasons were also common causes of low sociability. Similar data is in the survey for why people don’t visit their families.

  • Too busy  32.7%
  • Health  24.5%
  • Caring responsibilities  18.6%
  • Financial reasons  18.3%
  • No-one to see  8.4%
  • No access to public transport  7.0%
  • No access to a car  6.3%
  • Anxiety/lack of confidence  6.0%
  • Nowhere to go  5.0%
  • Fear of crowds  2.7%
  • Fear of crime  1.7%

Other social capital related questions include sense of belonging to the local neighbourhood, attitudes and opinions towards neighbours, membership and activity within in a range of social organisations and also whether people are a member of a social media website, and if so how long they engage with such sites. Perhaps unsurprisingly there is a marked effect of younger people being more likely to use social media, with much lower engagement with such websites for older people.


The BHPS regularly asked for basic demographic information on up to three friends, with more detailed depictions of the best friend asking about occupations and other information. This appears to have been dropped from the UKHLS. However, both surveys offer a range of within-household social connections which can be operationalised to ascertain patterns of homophily within homes and, as households change, potentially homophily between members of connected households. Therefore, a survey like Understanding Society offers far more opportunities for analysing social networks than what is incorporated within the networks module.

Dave Griffiths, 19 Februrary 2004

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Social Stratification Research Seminar – 2013

September saw the 2013 edition of the long-running Social Stratification Research Seminar, at the University of Cambridge. As discussed in an earlier blog, this is an event which has been running annually since 1968 and brings together researchers with diverse interests in the area of stratification. The event always has an international scope and, this year, included presenters from Italy, Canada, the Netherlands and Sweden alongside many UK-based researchers.

A nice feature of this year’s seminar was the wealth of data sources discussed, with presentations utilising nine UK social surveys, two European multi-country surveys, Canadian data and utilising the range of sources available through the Minnesota Population Centre. A theme running through many of the papers was that empirical findings from survey datasets did not support the rhetoric commonly claimed by politicians and social commentators, with a number of speakers making the point that popular view was not supported by the evidence.

In keeping with the spirit of open access, below follows a description of all 15 papers presented. These are my comments and reflections of the papers and any misrepresentations are mine. As always, please correspond with the authors of the presentations if you’re interested in their research, rather than allowing my appraisal of their papers to reflect their work.

Roxanne Connelly opened the seminar with her paper ‘The Micro-Meritocracy: The distribution of ‘merit’ throughout ‘big’ class, ‘micro’ class and gradational representations of the social structure’. Connelly examined the relationship between occupation, parental occupation and cognitive ability using the 1970 British Cohort Study, utilising newly released fine-grained occupational data. These unit groups were converted to microclass and compared with big class and CAMSIS effects.

Cinzia Meraviglia, Deborah de Luca and Harry Ganzeboom discussed the construction of the ICAM scale in their paper, ‘Social distance, status and prestige: Towards a unique measure?’. Meraviglia used data on household income and cultural consumption from the European Social Survey to provide sensitivity analyses of the ICAM (international CAMSIS) scale, ISEI and national CAMSIS schemes. She argued that despite the theoretical rationales for stratification schemes differing they essentially pick up the same underlying effects and therefore the selection of the occupational measure is more trivial than the literature suggests. The principal message of the presentation was that if different scales are achieving broadly similar results we should rethink the theoretical contribution each measure attempts to convey.

Yaojun Li and Anthony Heath discussed The social mobility of ethnic minorities in Britain (1992-2011): changes over time and across generations. Using data from the General Household Survey, British Household Panel Survey (BHPS) and Understanding Society they explored the social mobility outcomes for members of minority ethnic group, broken down by generation of migration. They argued the patterns of migration differed to that suggested by the tabloid press with an over-representation of salariat workers. Overall, they found that social mobility is declining by slow degrees for all ethnic groups, although at differing rates by ethnicity, gender and migratory status.

Marina Shapira presented ‘Do you speak your grandma’s language? Intergenerational communication and attainment of immigrant children in Western countries of immigration’. Shapira used PISA data to explore the educational attainment of immigrant children across Europe, examining the languages spoken in the home and migration status. She argued there was much variation between countries, and types of country studied, finding much difference in attainment levels between native and immigrant schoolchildren, largely with a small but important difference between the 1st and 2nd generation immigrants. The relationship between living with grandparents and attainment appeared to interact with migration status and languages spoken.

Included with the first day was a strand from the ESRC-funded project ‘Is Britain Pulling Apart?’. The first paper in this strand was Paul Lambert Dave Griffiths, Richard Zijdeman and Erik Bihagen’sSocial distance of family and friends: Socio-economic and socio-demographic patterns‘. Lambert provided correspondence analysis and associational models on a range of variables from both the BHPS and from national censuses over time from IPUMS-I data. He argued that it is possible to differentiate between the effects of stratification and other socio-economic and socio-demographical effects through using such methods. He ended by suggesting the data shows that Britain isn’t pulling apart and that internationally the data doesn’t suggest society is as complex and ever-changing as sometimes suggested.

Vernon GaylePaul Lambert, Dave Griffiths and Mark Tranmer presented ‘Measuring the influence of others: Exploring social connections in contemporary Britain‘. Gayle argued that survey analyses frequently miss out intra-household connections which can appear in panel studies, exploring the differing types of ties which can be found within homes. It was argued that incorporating household ties can provide strong improvements to models and it cannot be known a priori which types of connections, or means of measuring them, is most appropriate without performing a sensitivity analysis of the potential methods.

Mark Tranmer discussed ‘Methods for the analysis of social distance patterns and trends’. Tranmer argued that ignoring a level in statistical analyses can be consequential and applied this logic to occupational analysis. He modelled the difference in CAMSIS scores between husbands and wives, using the BHPS, between 1992 and 2008. His initial findings suggest the difference in stratification positions between couples were increasing, but warned further analysis is required into these trends.

Dave Griffiths and Paul Lambert presented ‘Domains of social distance’, which looked at various methods for measuring levels of social interactions between groups. The preliminary and exploratory analysis utilised Understanding Society to construct networks of social groups more likely to interact and used methods such as QAP regression and E-I Index analysis to test levels of cohesion in contemporary Britain.

The second day saw presentations from researchers representing institutions in Canada, the Netherlands, Switzerland and the UK, providing both analyses of those countries and international comparisons.

The first Friday presentation was ‘Gender and the pay of university graduates: Evidence from Canada’s National Graduate Survey’ by Mike Smith. Smith used data from the National Graduates Survey to build a longitudinal dataset of destinations of Canadian graduates from 1986 to 2000 to explore gender differences in their careers two and five years after graduation. He found for Bachelors students that the field of study for first degrees made a large difference to gender pay gaps, although as these pointed in different directions this is often missed as it can be evened out across the whole workforce. He argued that part of these differences can be accounted to differences in the Canadian economy over the 20 years studied, with differing employment rates and GDP at different time-points and a dot-com boom in the 1990’s which increased salaries in the male-dominated computing sector. He also argued that during the 1990’s women were more likely than men to be outside of employment and education, thereby acquiring less human capital to complement their university qualifications. This was presented as evidence that the gender pay gap can affect those in advantaged occupations and early in their careers, contradicting arguments that pay discrimination is generally found amongst low and un-skilled workers.

Nichola Shakleton critiqued ministerial claims about child obesity in her paper ‘Is there really a link between low parental income and childhood obesity?’. Using the Millennium Cohort Study she found poverty was only associated with childhood obesity when there was an absence of contextualising variables studied. Shakleton showed that incorporating parental education, social class and other demographical factors eliminated the association between low pay and obesity. Comparison with data from Growing Up in Scotland supported the findings, suggesting that the income effect claimed by politicians was created by an underlying effect of parental education.

Harry Ganzeboom and David Nikoloski considered stratification measures in their paper ‘Occupational Homogamy and occupational mobility as measures of occupational stratification’. They argued that intergeneration and homogamy measures of stratification, such as ISEI and CAMSIS respectively, are created through measuring entirely different processes yet produce broadly similar results. Using the European Social Survey, they compared intergenerational mobility models (which should be linked to socio-economic status and measures such as ISEI) and homogamy models (which should be linked to social distance and measures such as CAMSIS). It was argued that analysis of high residual off-diagonal combinations could aid understanding of whether processes of homogamy or reproductions were dominant forces of stratification.

Franz Buscha and Patrick Sturgis addressed the differing views on mobility in their paper ‘Inter-cohort trends in intergenerational mobility in England and Wales: Income, status and class (InTIME)‘. They looked at the debate between economists and sociologists regarding relative levels of social mobility, using the ONS Longitudinal Survey to build a large longitudinal dataset of the occupations of individuals and their parents, which was matched to the New Earnings Survey Panel Dataset to imputed likely income levels. They argued that the ‘by slow degrees’ argument of increasing social mobility was found when looking at the CAMSIS scores of individuals, but the income-derived measure was more consistent with a ‘constant flux’ of changing levels of mobility rather than an increase in social reproduction.

Robin Samuel explored ‘How cognitive and different non-cognitive characteristics affect labour market outcomes in Switzerland’. Using PISA data he looked at how cognitive and non-cognitive characteristics related to job satisfaction and earnings. Samuel argued that cognitive ability was often a stronger explanatory than non-cognitive controlling variables. He argued that both cognitive and non-cognitive processes were important, although the non-cognitive effect was smaller than other studies have suggested.

Lindsay Richards presented ‘Patterns of Connectedness, Economic Hardship and Psychological Effects, exploring the relationship between life satisfaction, financial situation and connectedness’. Latent class analysis of social capital from the BHPS identified six classes of social supported. Household income and satisfaction scores were compared for these groups, showing an effect for social capital with regard to other wellbeing positions. The effect of higher income upon satisfaction was shown to differ by latent class.

Dave Griffiths, Richard Zijdeman and Paul Lambert provided the final paper of the seminar,’Bakers’ sons aren’t butchers: Analysis of microclass mobility in the 19th century‘. Making use of the linked 19th century census in Norway and the USA from NAPP, they explored whether contemporary microclass theories could be observed in historical datasets. Expanding on the HISCO, HISCAM and HISCLASS developments in historical occupational analysis, a microclass scheme sensitive to 19th century occupations was discussed.

The seminar has been running since around 1968, usually in Cambridge although which visits to Cardiff, Stirling and Utrecht. Next year’s seminar will, again, be organised by Bob Blackburn and Paul Lambert  in early September.

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