Hmm

Over the course of my, still relatively short, life span I have been interested in many things. When I was little I wanted to be a ballet dancer. For a long time after that it was boys and clothes, with a long running interest in the written word bubbling away in the background. GCSE RE introduced me to Buddhism and orientalism, and through that, conversely, to Christianity and the big three Theistic faiths. Then I found semiotics at college, and worked the two interests together looking at symbol and mythology in religion, which spilled over into the role of myth in sociology.
I didn’t really want to go to Uni, but then I got into Cambridge, and while I was there I loved bits of my Theology course, but was never passionate about it. Instead, I got really passionate about rowing, and drinking, and found out so much about my friends, who were so different to those I’d grown up with, and that was great. I did an international development research project in Bangladesh in 2008, which taught me about research, which was fun and heart-breaking at the same time. In my last year I started getting into politics, nominally through a politics and religion course I did; this, not having grown up in a political home, was a learning curve.
Over the last two years, I’ve got into running too, rediscovered a love for ballet, continued to row, started reading properly again, and also discovered that I sort of like watching films more than I like going clubbing. Working in research has taught me so much about different industries; I know that I love doing social projects, comms projects, concept and brand development, typologies and large scale quant segmentation. I don’t like FSCG, technology or media research. I love behavioural economics.
I’m developing my understanding of the history and geography of politics, and through moonlighting with Age Uk and dabbling with writing some position papers for a London mayoral candidate I’m learning about the practical applications of policy and charity.
But what do I want to do? I’m fed up with being ok at a lot of things. Ideally of course I’d like to be good at lots of things, but in lieu of that I feel like I need to focus in and actually “apply myself” (in the words of my GCSE Maths teacher – horrible man). Hopefully writing it down makes it more real and seemingly more achievable, and although the point of this blog isn’t for anyone to read it but to push myself to work at formulating opinions and ideas, this is a good place to start..

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Work Related Blog from a while back #2

Shadows of Liberty is a 2012 documentary tracing the expansion of corporatism in the American media. Some may describe myself and Jess as the most “politically active” in the office (some might say “ridiculously cynical”). In any case, it seemed like an interesting and enlightening documentary and debate to go to on a surprisingly sunny Thursday afternoon.

Shadows of Liberty addresses several broad reaching themes, weaving examples from recent history – FBI whistleblowing, the super mergers of the late 90’s and 2000’s, the dubious morality of Dateline “To Catch a Predator” and the various corporation backed rulings of the FCC – with the overall assertion that the “free” press is anything but. Held at the LSE, the debate was obviously going to attract a certain type of audience, and the overriding atmosphere in the room was definitely that of liberal outrage. This was tempered slightly by the straight talking Charlie Beckett of POLIS, who offered a more mainstream look at the changes in corporate involvement in the media (cue a highly passionate debate about the virtues of American cable chat shows) to counter the poetic ramblings of the aristocratic -looking director Jean-Phillipe Tremblay.

Ridiculously incendiary comments from some student attendees lurking at the back of the room rather deflated the shell-shocked atmosphere after the film had been shown, and all in all I found the “documentary” to be too much hyperbole and too little substance. At several points we rolled our eyes at the leading questioning and the inductive arguments presented throughout the film to back up the points being made, and I’m pretty sure Tremblay wouldn’t be allowed within 10 feet of a Discovery presentation. However, it did address some interesting subject areas, especially interesting in the light of the on-going Levenson enquiry. The impact of corporate culture on the free press will surely have a massive impact on all our lives (if it doesn’t, it should), and questions about the morality of corporation sponsorship and patronage of the free press and the arts must be something that we all think about, as individuals, but also in our line of work. To what extent should our knowledge about corporate activity affect the nature of projects we take on; how far should segment readership demographics be relied on to present attitudinal and lifestyle typologies when we know exactly how much money is spent on pushing a tabloid agenda? Probably not questions that we can address in the day to day of our research work, and not issues that were dealt with satisfactorily in the documentary, but food for thought, none the less.

Work Related Blog from a while back

Bill Bratton hit the headlines last year when he was invited to the UK in the aftermath of the London riots, and was touted as a potential new head of the Metropolitan Police. He lectured at LSE in October last year, providing an interesting look at the importance of context in understanding crime and changing behaviour.

Throughout his time as head of transport and chief commissioner of both the NYPD and LAPD in the 1980’s and 1990’s, Bill Bratton was one of the main practical proponents of “Broken Windows Policing”. Referenced in some detail in Malcolm Gladwell’s ‘The Tipping Point’, the general principle of the theory is that a focus on small, environmental changes, in this case cracking down on petty crime and anti-social behaviour, can have a demonstrable effect in changing attitudes and behaviours within these environments.

At this time of Bratton’s leadership, crime was booming in both New York and Boston, with phenomenal levels of gang violence, murder and burglary. Bratton’s approach in both cases was to reprioritise police resources, with a focus on smaller crimes and antisocial behaviour – fare avoidance at the subway, graffiti, the eponymous broken windows – to create a zero-tolerance environment from ground up; once police departments demonstrated their success with ‘petty’ crime, serious crime began to clear up too. It’s a markedly low-key approach to tackling murder and violence, and one that requires phenomenal persistence – in both cases it took weeks and months of cleaning train carriages and chasing fare dodgers through the subways – but the levels of serious crime declined steadily.

The theory is that, in developing the power of the police to deal with more nebulous problems, belief in the police as a force for justice and social change began to slowly re-emerge in communities and criminals alike. There was a practical element to the method – the majority of fare dodgers pulled out of subway ticket halls were wanted for violent crimes, which led to their successful conviction – and it also coincided with an internal shake-up of the police force, which had lost a lot of its credibility and integrity due to internal corruption and ineffectiveness.

Underlying this, though, both in Bratton’s speech and Gladwell’s writing, is the idea that context is very important to human behaviour. Crime prevailed in both New York and Boston because people are unavoidably influenced by their environment and will react accordingly. If the streets are clean, safe and have time and money invested in them, citizens will be proud of their communities, respect social norms and each other, and act within the confines of social contracts. If windows are broken, the walls are tagged and people consistently jump the ticket barriers, people receive the message that behavioural constraints have ceased to function, societal norms have become irrelevant, and laws are unworthy of respect. Within the context of the London riots, the budget cuts in seemingly all areas of local services and the coalition rhetoric of ‘Big Society’, Bratton’s recounting of the application and effects of this method seemed extremely apt.

I know many people in the industry who believe that the Tipping Point as a piece of behavioural literature is a little too broad and generalist to be truly ground-breaking, that it fails to present a cohesive paradigm and instead creates attentional biases towards one element of a phenomenon in understanding an outcome. Indeed, when put into the context of overall socio-economic change in America – an economic boom, new legislation with a push to build more prisons, and the aforementioned reformation of the police force – the overall importance of the Broken Windows method may not be fully ascertainable, especially when it hasn’t been implemented in any other cities to test its transferability.

However, Bratton’s very entertaining and thought provoking talk did raise two research-related lines of thought for me. As researchers who can’t avoid the influence of behaviour economic theory in our work, we know that behaviour is to some degree a function of environment. The government MINDPSACE publications expound the importance of environment and social norms in creating policy and encouraging behaviours; Discovery explored this extensively with the FSA last year whilst segmenting attitudes towards financial behaviour. In more general terms, it reiterates the fact that sometimes the obvious approach is not always the right one, either in writing documents for fieldwork or analysing and delivering back to our clients.

It also underlined, for me at least, the importance of good quality research in policy, and the potential for us to help facilitate real and valuable change as we go forwards as agencies and individuals. One thing that struck me about Bratton’ approach was his emphasis on listening to communities and working with them to deal with their most pressing concerns. To those outside looking in, litter and broken windows may pale in significance next to murder and rape rates, but on the ground they play fundamental role in making people feel safe, valued and part of a functioning society.

What was clear to us with our work with the FSA, and was clear to Bratton too, is that correctly labelling and understanding the relationship between the ‘big’ and ‘little’ issues may only be fully appreciated through mediation between policy maker and communities, who naturally and essentially talk in very different languages. Some organisations, like the CSJ or the JRF, are producing fantastic publications that lead the way within the social sphere, but it’s really an issue that applies across the sectors. For me, the talk and the discussion after it really highlighted one of the most important job that we can do in any context: to work as translator and advocate for both customer and end client, and facilitate the dialogue to develop a brand, communicate ideas, or even drive wide spread behavioural change.