Department of Sociology

The blog of the Department of Sociology at the University of Surrey

Internet Studies in China

By Christine Hine

Last month I taught at a summer school focused on “New Media and Justice Communication in the Information Society” at Fudan University in Shanghai. This was the fifth in an annual series offered by the School of Journalism at Fudan, taking graduate students from across China for an intensive week of teaching by guest scholars, focused on this year on: political economy of the media; gender sexuality and queer theory; and online ethnography (observational study of online cultures). Students on the summer camp are keen to access perspectives rarely taught at present in China, including the research methods for ethnographic study of the Internet that are my specialism. In turn, I was also keen to learn. Having taught at Surrey for a number of years a module on “Internet and society” that tries to recognise different Internet cultures and governance regimes around the world, this trip offered an opportunity to put some meat on the bare bones of my existing understanding of the Internet, and Internet Studies, in China.

Any consideration of the Internet in China has inevitably to reference ongoing government control and filtering of online activities, to the extent that many familiar online services from other parts of the world remain unavailable to many ordinary people in China and certain things are effectively unsayable in Chinese cyberspace. It is important, though, to recognise that this does not mean that the Internet in China is therefore under-used or under-developed. On the contrary, the Chinese equivalents to familiar services are growing apace, with Baidu, Alibaba and Tencent vying with Google, Amazon, Facebook and Uber as online commercial giants. . In the urban context of Shanghai, online and offline live seemed to be seamlessly woven together and I, the poorly connected visitor without my familiar social media and search engine, found myself feeling marginalized by lack of technology and language skills and very much dependent on the kindnesses of my hosts to steer me around and organize me. Just like students in the UK, or maybe more so, the Chinese students I met used their phones in almost every situation, chatting, calling and paying for taxis, taking and sharing photos, looking up scholarly information and song lyrics, moving seamlessly between academic activities and conducting their social lives.

Given this vibrant yet constrained online culture, training students in China on how to conduct ethnographies of Internet use raises some interesting questions on how far established approaches transfer from a British context. The question of what online activities mean, when we can see that people are investing huge amounts of time and energy in them and yet at the same time we and they are conscious of the multiple layers of filtering, manipulation, self-censorship and evasion that characterise online social worlds is a troubling one to unpack. Then again, while the regimes of oversight and governance of the Internet are quite different between Britain and China, in both cases the online domain does not just reflect ordinary life as lived. In either country, we should be cautious in treating what we see online as being simply “what the public thinks” as in both cases many (often ultimately unknowable) layers of commercial and government surveillance, algorithms, cultural pressures, conscious performances and self-censorship shape how we portray ourselves and what we see. Finding out what the internet means to people, whether in UK or China, demands that we look for the bigger picture and interrogate the back stories behind the obvious features of online life. Neither should we expect social media to be experienced in the same way everywhere even within the same country, as two recent ethnographies of the Internet in China demonstrate. Methodologically speaking, many of the familiar principles of an open-minded ethnographic exploration that assumes nothing in advance still apply.

One key difference that I encountered was in the treatment of research ethics. Social science research ethics are not as culturally or institutionally embedded in China as they have become in a British context in recent years. While in the UK we have become used to discussing concerns around how to properly respect participant privacy and wellbeing in online studies and how to handle informed consent for materials found online, such discussions are in relative infancy in China, and have little to draw on in terms of established social science research ethics debates. I therefore felt it important, whilst highlighting to students the exciting possibilities of online studies, also to explore some of the areas in which to tread sensitively and to highlight that the Internet makes possible an intrusion into the lives of others that sometimes as researchers we should not exploit.

 

 

Please note: Blog entries reflect the personal views of contributors and are not moderated or edited before publication. However, we may make subsequent amendments to correct errors or inaccuracies.

The materiality of university campuses: the role and significance of students’ union buildings

By Rachel Brooks

In the literature on higher education, there is an increasing emphasis on the importance of virtual spaces in terms of both pedagogic practice and wider aspects of university life. It has also been argued that online spaces, and social media in particular, are playing a key role in facilitating the political engagement of students. In our research on contemporary students’ unions, however, much greater emphasis was placed by our respondents (students’ union officials and senior institutional managers) upon the physical spaces of the campus than on the virtual spaces available to students and/or students’ union officials for both academic and social activities. Indeed, the students’ union building itself was discussed, at great length, by many of the students’ union officials and senior managers who participated in our focus groups. Several respondents described how changes had recently been made to the buildings used by the students’ union, which, they claimed, had had a positive effect. For senior managers at one of our higher education institutions (HEIs), for example, a shift to a more central location on campus was thought to have had a significant influence on the visibility of the union, and the propensity of others to engage with it:

It’s much more visible, the [students’ union] is just a much more open place, it’s more centrally located, it’s better connected with other parts of the university. It’s actually a place where people are wanting, not just the students, but people want to do things in it. And I think, so it’s more valued by the university than the temporary place that was there before. And I suppose that, the effect on the student unions it’s just to make its business, its existence much more public…..I think that’s made a big difference because the student union is far more visible, not just for students, but it’s also visible for staff as well.

Similarly, union officials at another HEI claimed that the improvement in the union’s space – making it more open and welcoming – had had a direct impact on its use:

We have had this fantastic space this year, so we have been able to even engage with people that don’t have problems, all they want to do is to find a nice place to sit … To chill out, yeah. … and to play Scrabble and to …. You know the glass front, when you first walked in, that used to be a brick wall with a little window, could knock on and speak to someone in reception in the corridor. So it wasn’t even nice sort of …It was awful.

In these accounts, an emphasis on the materiality of the campus is clearly evident. In particular, the nature and location of the students’ union building is claimed to have a direct impact on the extent to which the wider student body engages (or does not engage) with the union.

Although there is currently little academic research on the role of students’ unions in the UK, a notable exception is that carried by Andersson and colleagues, which analysed the role of the union as part of a broader project that examined ‘geographies of encounter’ between different social groups at a UK HEI. They argue that while, in theory, the students’ union can be seen as a key arena for bringing students from different backgrounds together to pursue a range of social, political and leisure activities, in practice, the increasingly commodified nature of union activity militates against social mixing. Here, they point to the impact of unions letting out space to private enterprises, which then often offer a range of highly-gendered commercial activities (such as beauty salons, hairdressers and nightclubs). The students’ union, in their analysis, is a space in which students from diverse backgrounds are ‘thrown together’ but which does not take the shape of a Habermasian, egalitarian ‘public sphere’; instead it is a space that is heavily mediated by commercial interests, and tends to reinforce some forms of inequality.

Our data, however, suggest a more complex reading of the spaces of students’ union, and a more ambivalent relationship between unions and processes of commodification. Although commercial activities on campus were clearly important to senior managers and were valued by some students’ unions as means of preserving some independence (through having an income stream in addition to the block grant from their institution), in none of our ten case studies were they viewed (either by managers or union officers) as the key focus of the union’s activity. We suggest that market pressures on universities (such as competition with other institutions, and the emergence of various ranking systems) have caused unions to place less emphasis, rather than more, on their commercial activities, which, in turn, has implications for the physical spaces that students’ unions occupy. While HEIs are clearly concerned with revenue generation and ensuring financial sustainability in an increasingly competitive higher education market, the importance of measures of ‘student satisfaction’ in stimulating demand for courses has encouraged senior managers to work closely with their students’ union and, often, to value highly the contributions unions can make to improving the quality of ‘the student experience’ and ensuring ‘the student voice’ is represented effectively.

Such pressures have encouraged unions to foreground their representative function, often at the expense of campaigning activities and also, in many cases, to the detriment of commercial ventures. This has, inevitably, had a direct impact on the use of physical space on campus, with a decline in the number of bars and clubs. The same pressures have also been an important driver of institutional investment in the physical infrastructure of students’ unions – particularly a desire to increase the visibility and use of the union by the wider student body. Indeed, union officers in our research believed they had been ‘rewarded’ by investment in their buildings for their support of university priorities. In some cases, respondents also linked this type of investment to the substantial increase in tuition fees for domestic students in England and Wales from 2012 onwards:

And my view is that the university’s very much aware of the fact that the fees have gone up to £9,000 … and they’re very keen to invest in facilities for students and provide additional resource to support the student experience, and [the union is] very good at actually tailoring their message to sort of like address that particular lead. (Senior managers’ focus group)

Nevertheless, our data indicate that while institutional investment in students’ unions buildings may have had a positive impact on both the use and visibility of union space, it was not always entirely unproblematic. Indeed, some of the factors that had motivated the investment were also those that created tensions. For example, one group of students’ union officers described a struggle over the extent to which the union should look similar to the rest of the university and an insistence by senior management that they should use the same colour schemes and branding. Such tensions provide support for those who have argued that university campuses are often ‘paradoxical spaces’ in which competing, and sometimes contradictory, discourses prevail – in this case, the marketization of higher education appears to have substantially limited students’ unions’ focus on commercial activity.

 

A fuller account of this research is given in this article.

 

 

Please note: Blog entries reflect the personal views of contributors and are not moderated or edited before publication. However, we may make subsequent amendments to correct errors or inaccuracies.

Six Sociologies

By Graham Scambler

Sociologists will be familiar with Michael Burawoy’s ‘four sociologies’, namely, professional, policy, critical and public. Professional sociology encompasses the bread-and-and butter tasks of the discipline, asking and endeavouring to answer ‘how’ and ‘why’ questions about social phenomena of interest. Policy sociology aspires to support the formulation and implementation of policy across such domains as education, jobs, welfare and health by constructing usable evidence bases. Critical sociology demonstrates a reflexive concern with the discipline’s modus vivendi. And public sociology, Burawoy’s favoured project, seeks to inform and stimulate engagement and discussion in civil society and the public sphere.

I have previously suggested that professional sociology might be said to be represented by the scholar; policy sociology by the reformer; critical sociology by the radical; and public sociology by the democrat. Furthermore, each sociology/sociologist might be associated with a distinctive mode of discursive engagement. Thus, the scholar’s mode of engagement via professional sociology might be characterized as cumulative, the aim being to furnish an ever more comprehensive narrative of social order and social change. The reformer’s mode of engagement via policy sociology is cast here as utilitarian, the object in this case being to improve the way things are organized and accomplished with the interests of greatest number in mind. The radical’s mode of engagement via critical sociology is meta-theoretical, a form of sociology oriented to reflexivity and self-interrogation. The democrat’s mode of engagement via public sociology is communicative, the aim here being to insinuate sociology’s project and accounts into the public sphere to provoke rational discussion, debate and decision-making.

It is the purpose of this short blog to introduce two further types of sociology to add to Burawoy’s four. There are ‘foresight sociology’ and ‘action sociology’. Foresight sociology is committed to exploring institutional and organizational alternatives. How might greener technologies be most effectively deployed? What is the best model for a fit-for-purpose housing programme? What might a better health service look like? Action sociology follows up on public sociology, contesting ideological opposition to evidence-based conclusions and recommendations. I have suggested that it is the visionary who pursues foresight sociology, deploying a communicative mode of engagement; and that it is the activist who fights sociology’s battles under the rubric of a strategic mode of engagement. These ideal types – and remember that this is what they are – are outlined in the Table.

Table: The Six Sociologies

SOCIOLOGIES SOCIOLOGISTS MODE OF ENGAGEMENT
Professional Scholar Cumulative
Policy Reformer Utilitarian
Critical Radical Meta-theoretical
Public Democrat Communicative
Foresight Visionary Speculative
Action Activist Strategic

I have offered an important qualification in addition to stressing the ideal typical status of these concepts. I am certainly not recommending that all sociologists contribute to each of these six sociologies. What I am arguing is that the sociological community as a whole should cover all six bases.

 In a published piece on the sociology of health inequalities I gave examples of key questions that might be posed of each type of sociology. Thus:

  1. Professional sociology/scholar: which social structures or mechanisms are causally critical for health and longevity through each phase of the lifecourse?
  2. Policy sociology/reformer: how might evidence-based research on health inequalities most effectively be translated into telling interventions?
  3. Critical sociology/radical: what obstacles indicative of relations of power contaminate/neutralize sociology’s comprehensive array of contributions to research on health inequalities and its dissemination and impact?
  4. Public sociology/democrat: what kind of routes and media offer the best prospects of participatory engagement via the protest sector of the public sphere in decision-making pertaining to health inequalities?
  5. Foresight sociology/visionary: how might different types of organizational and/or institutional change deliver a more equal distribution of health and longevity?
  6. Action sociology/activist: how might sociologists best resist being ‘rubbished’, ignored or side-lined on health inequalities by those with a vested interest in a status quo conducive to their widening or deepening?

 

References

Burawoy,M (2005) For public sociology. American Sociological Review 70 4-28.

Scambler,G (2015) Theorizing health inequalities: the untapped potential of dialectical critical realism. Social Theory and Health 3/4 340-354.

 

 

Please note: Blog entries reflect the personal views of contributors and are not moderated or edited before publication. However, we may make subsequent amendments to correct errors or inaccuracies.

The thin bruised line: injuries on duty and reductions in police service strength

By Graham Hieke

In 2010, the coalition government’s spending review indicated that funding for the police service in England and Wales would be reduced in real terms by 20% between 2011 and 2015 (HMIC, 2014). Whilst savings were anticipated to be made through collaboration between forces, the public and private sectors, as well as increased back-office efficiency, austerity has also had an impact on police service strength. As a consequence, since 2010, the number of frontline police officers has fallen by nearly 20,000, a drop of -14% (Home Office, 2016).

Determining the impact of austerity on policing is challenging. In 2014, HMIC identified concerns about the erosion of neighbourhood policing services and the possible adverse effects of increased workloads on the ability of the police service to prevent crime and protect the public (HMIC, 2014). In response, at the Police Federation conference (2015), the then Home Secretary Theresa May sought to offset many of these concerns, including those about reduced spending and the decline in frontline service strength, by highlighting the drop in crime as measured by the Crime Survey for England and Wales (May, 2015).

However, using recorded crime statistics as a means to understand the impact of austerity measures within the police service has the potential to mask other important issues. For instance, notwithstanding known limitations with crime survey data, these figures are unlikely to reflect the diverse range of work associated with frontline policing, the changing nature of crime, or the new challenges and pressures this presents officers with on a daily basis. The nature of frontline police work and the pressure it entails means that the risk of physical or psychological injury is estimated to be higher than compared to many other occupations (Health and Safety Executive, 2015). The online blogs of Constable Chaos[1], Mental Health Cop[2] and Nathan Constable[3] (to name but a few) provide compelling accounts of these pressures and are well worth a read.

One issue that is receiving growing attention is the psychological impact of police work. Whilst rates of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) are estimated to be higher within policing than compared to the general population (Green, 2004), a recent freedom of information (FOI) request submitted by the BBC (2016) revealed a 35% increase in the number of police officers taking long-term sick leave due to issues with mental health. Similarly, evidence has also been presented which suggests officers may be attending for duty at times when they feel they ought not to have done so due to concerns about their mental health or well-being (Police Federation, 2016).

The notion of coming to work when unfit to do so, or presenteeism, is detrimental for a host of different reasons. From the perspective of officers, it may exacerbate existing medical conditions, lower quality of life, or give the impression of ineffectiveness due to declines in productivity (Jones, 2010). Clearly, reduced productivity may also have implications for both the police service and the communities they serve in terms of quality of service and demand reduction. However, perhaps problematically, presenteeism may also be viewed as an act of organisational citizenship (Jones, 2010) as officers experiencing physical or psychological injuries may decide not to report, downplay, or hide them to avoid letting their teams down by taking sick leave. Such concerns accord strongly with the notions of mission, solidarity, camaraderie and loyalty often associated with policing and highlight how any meaningful change will have to navigate not only budgetary constraints, which have seen forces scale-back or out-source occupational health services, but also overcome cultural attitudes towards ill-health and the stigma that may be attached to mental health issues.

Therefore, if we are to ask the police service to do the same (or more) with less resource we must be prepared to invest in services to help support those officers in dealing with the challenging nature of frontline police work.

 

[1] https://constablechaos.wordpress.com

[2] https://mentalhealthcop.wordpress.com

[3] https://nathanconstable.wordpress.com

 

References

BBC (2016) Police psychological sick leave up 35% in five years. Available at: http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-35965223 (accessed 20 July 2016)

Green, B. (2004) ‘Post-traumatic stress disorder in UK police officers’, Current Medical Research and Opinions. 20(1): 1-5.

Health and Safety Executive (2015) Police Service – Statistics. Available at: http://www.hse.gov.uk/services/police/statistics.htm (accessed 20 July 2016).

HMIC (2014) Policing in Austerity Meeting the Challenge. Available at https://www.justiceinspectorates.gov.uk/hmic/wp-content/uploads/policing-in-austerity-meeting-the-challenge.pdf (accessed 24 July 2016).

Home Office (2016) Police Workforce, England and Wales, 31 March 2015. Available at: https://www.gov.uk/government/statistics/police-workforce-england-and-wales-31-march-2016 (accessed 21 July 2016)

Jones, G. (2010) ‘Presenteeism in the workplace: A review and research agenda’, Journal of Organizational Behavior, 31: 519-42.

May, T. (2015) Home Secretary’s Police Federation 2015 Speech. London: Home Office. Available at: https://www.gov.uk/government/speeches/home-secretarys-police-federation-2015-speech (accessed 20 July 2016)

Police Federation (2016) Mental health affecting more and more officers. Available at: http://www.polfed.org/newsroom/3402.aspx (accessed 19 July 2016).

 

Please note: Blog entries reflect the personal views of contributors and are not moderated or edited before publication. However, we may make subsequent amendments to correct errors or inaccuracies.

Intoxicated and Irresponsible Politicians: A Brief Reflection on the EU Referendum

By Paul Stoneman

Remarking on the British political tradition, A. H. Birch outlined its ability to protect civil liberties, satisfy ideas about justice and fair play and, above all else, ensure political stability. [1] In doing so, political elites balance effective decision-making alongside a periodical assessment of public opinion; in short, responsible government tempered by representative government.

The British political tradition thus requires politicians to possess certain virtues of character. In balancing responsible and representative decision-making, a certain level of objectivity is required. ‘Daily and hourly’, Weber notes, ‘…the politician has to overcome…a quite vulgar vanity’, a type of vanity where political power ‘becomes purely personal self-intoxication’.[2] When this is the case, the ‘populist’ representative elements of democratic governance begin to crowd out the responsible elements.

The recent EU Referendum in the UK testifies to a self-intoxication amongst political leaders that has led to irresponsible government. Ostensibly a highly democratic process to ensure greater representativeness, this ‘democratic’ mechanism in both its inception and its implementation neither fulfils the demands of representative or responsible government.

Inception
Its inception is best explained in terms of political strategy rather than democratic principles. The EU issue previously split the Conservative Party under Heath, Thatcher, Major, and Hague. Coupled with the recent electoral threat of UKIP, David Cameron thus decided it was time to end this long-standing rift between the pro- and anti-EU elements of the party for once and for all by asking the British public to settle the debate for them.

Intoxicated with a desire to ensure future Conservative Party rule, then, complex constitutional issues of governance were presented to an electorate as a binary choice. ‘Elevating internal party rows to a national plebiscite is not good enough’, argues Nick Clegg, ‘especially since we had already enshrined into law in 2011 a referendum trigger to ratify future EU Treaties.’[3] Thus prior to the referendum, the UK was in a position where the vast majority of elected representatives assumed a ‘responsible’ position of maintaining EU membership, whilst safe-guarding the demands of representation through blocking any future treatise changes until the public, via a referendum, had approved them.

Implementation
A referendum, nonetheless, directly places power into the hands of the electorate. But the outcome of such a democratic process is not legitimised purely because such a direct voting mechanism was used. Take the 1979 referendum on devolution to Scotland, for example. The result was markedly similar to the recent EU referendum – a split of 51.62% (for devolution) versus 48.38% (against devolution). But on a turnout of 64%, devolution failed since less than a third of the Scottish electorate approved the Act – the referendum required that at least 40% of the total registered electorate approved.

One of the most perverse aspects of the EU referendum was the absence of thresholds, both in terms of turnout and in terms of the size of the winning majority. Constitutions are often designed to prevent the ‘tyranny of the majority’ to ensure that policy outcomes are adequately legitimised. Currently, 1.9% of the voting electorate swung the decision in favour of Brexit. On a turnout of 72%, this equates to just over 1% of the total electorate deciding the fate of the biggest constitutional change to UK governance we have seen for hundreds of years.

Socially sorted and politically divided, the fallout from this referendum result will deepen divisions within British society. Potentially greater unity within the Conservative Party is no saving grace, whatever your political allegiance. It would be irresponsible to think otherwise.

 

 

[1] Birch, A.H. (1964) Representative and Responsible Government: An Essay on the British Constitution. Toronto: University of Toronto Press. 1964

[2] Weber, M., (1958). ‘Politics as a Vocation’. In From Max Weber: Essays in Sociology, pp. 77-128. Ed. and trans. by H. H. Gerth and C. Wright Mills. New York: Oxford University Press.

[3] Financial Times, “Brexit: Cameron and Osborne are to blame for this sorry pass”, June 24, 2016. https://next.ft.com/content/6044d4e8-3a03-11e6-a780-b48ed7b6126f

 

 

Please note: Blog entries reflect the personal views of contributors and are not moderated or edited before publication. However, we may make subsequent amendments to correct errors or inaccuracies.

The UK housing crisis, not only a social problem but an environmental one as well

By Thomas Roberts

The housing market in the UK is changing. Currently, 63% of UK households are owner occupied, 19% are privately rented and 18% are social rented (both local authority and housing association properties) (DECC 2015). These figures already point to a major shift from social housing (18% today, down from 25% in the 1990s) to privately rented housing (19% today, up from 13% in the 1990s). Furthermore, if current trends continue, two decades from now, the majority of Britons will rent their home for the first time since the early 1970s. By 2032, 49% will own their home, 35% will rent privately and 16% will be in the social rented sector (DCLG 2015).

These changes have been well documented in both the media and academic literature, where the focus has predominately been on issues of welfare and social justice.

There is however another, less developed, angle on the changes in the UK housing market: the impact on energy consumption and the government’s drive to reduce domestic energy demand from residential properties.

The UK government’s 2011 Carbon Plan highlights that 25% of the UK’s emissions come from domestic properties and that reducing their demand for energy is the cheapest way to cut emissions. However, at present the vast majority of demand reduction initiatives are focused towards social housing and owner occupiers and this is reflected in the figures on the efficiency of domestic properties. According to DECC (2015) using the Standard Procedure (SAP) system where properties are given a rating of between 1 and 100, privately rented properties have an average rating of 59, compared to 65 for local authority properties, 66 for housing association properties and 62 for owner occupied properties (DECC 2015). Consequently, if these targets are to be met, policies related to improving the efficiency of domestic homes need to shift to reflect changes in the housing market.

Research undertaken as part of the Whole Systems Modelling (WholeSEM) project has enabled us to highlight what these figures mean in reality for people living in privately rented homes and the implications for reducing domestic energy demand. Forty walking interviews were carried out in people’s homes, in which the participants were asked to walk the researcher through a ‘typical’ daily routine. During the interview participants were asked to describe how and when they used various energy intensive appliances and about the way they maintained a comfortable temperature in their homes.

The inability to make any significant changes to their homes presented particular challenge as they were not able replace windows and doors or modify cavity wall installation. Nearly all the tenants interviewed stated that they felt the central heating systems were far less efficient than they could be and that their landlords were unwilling to make any significant changes to the property beyond the most basic maintenance. Furthermore, the vast majority of tenants surveyed were in furnished or part furnished properties where all the large domestic appliances were provided. With a few exceptions, the tenants felt that the landlord had provided them with the cheapest possible appliance which were not particularly efficient.

At present there are virtually no incentives for landlords to provide tenants with thermally efficient properties containing good quality appliances. This is in part due to the fact that in the majority of cases the tenants are responsible for paying the utility bills so there is little direct financial incentive for landlords. Furthermore, all of the tenants interviewed stated that either the efficiency of the property or the appliances was a factor when deciding on where to live so it is unlikely that by providing efficient properties they would be able to command higher rents.

Consequently, it may well be necessary to re-evaluate the way in which rental properties are regulated and also provide greater incentives for landlords to improve the efficiency of their properties. This will become even more important in the future as the balance between owners occupied properties, social housing and privately rented properties continues to change.

 

DECC, 2015. Annual Report on Fuel Poverty Statistics 2015. Department of Energy and Climate Change.

DCLG, 2015. English Housing Survey: HOUSEHOLDS Annual report on England’s households, 2013-14 https://www.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/461439/EHS_Households_2013-14.pdf

 

Please note: Blog entries reflect the personal views of contributors and are not moderated or edited before publication. However, we may make subsequent amendments to correct errors or inaccuracies.

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