Bringing Social Science into the Community: Surrey Sociology and the ESRC Festival of Social Science

By Kate Burningham, Paul Hodkinson and Katherine Hubbard

Colleagues in the Department of Sociology recently played a big part in Surrey’s contributions to the ESRC’s Festival of Social Science. The idea of the festival is to bring academic research to new audiences within our communities and enhance the impact of our work. Sociology’s contributions to the week involved performances of a play relating to climate change to audiences of young people in local schools, a workshop for the public on ink blots and queer history and a discussion with local new parents on how to navigate the pressures and anxieties created by multitudes of advice. 

Climate change and the future

With increasing awareness of the climate emergency, the need for alternatives to our currently un-sustainable ways of living is clear. Surrey’s Centre for Understanding Sustainable Prosperity (CUSP) aims to understand – and prompt discussion about – what living well within environmental limits might mean in practice. The group’s events for the Festival of Social Science, organised by sociology’s Kate Burningham, took this issue to students at two local schools in the form of a professional play which CUSP helped fund and develop.

We put the play on for year 10 students at Broadwater School, Godalming and A-Level students at George Abbott School, Guildford. Both performances were followed by discussions exploring how the play made students feel and what action they identified as necessary and possible to address climate change. Students’ and teachers’ feedback was overwhelmingly positive, suggesting they had ‘really enjoyed it’ ‘learned a lot’ and found the play an ‘inspiring’ ‘interesting’ and ‘fascinating’ way of engaging with these urgent social issues.

Rorschach ink blots and gay liberation 

Sociology colleagues form a substantial part of an important new Sex, Gender and Sexualities research centre at Surrey. A key member of this group, Katherine Hubbard’s work centres on queer histories and combines historical, sociological and psychological perspectives. Drawing on this work, Katherine’s workshop for the festival combined academic public engagement and screen printing – two things joined by messy ink blots. The workshop aimed to ignite an interest in the queer history of ink blots, including how they have been used for both pathologising and homophobic ends, but also as a tool to aid gay liberation.

Following a talk where this history was outlined and the queer women involved in Psychology at the time were discussed, the group then moved on to making their own ink blots. Just like in 1921 when Hermann Rorschach made the original 10 ink blots, everyone designed their own and then screen printed blots onto posters, tea towels or tote bags to take away as a souvenir. The final part of the session involved more ‘interpretation’ of the ink blots – so everyone tried their hand at a second version of printing where they used exposed screens to stencil a word or phrase into the ink.

The workshop received some great feedback from participants and was so much fun that Katherine might be running another event like it in the future! The Boileroom was a fantastic space for the workshop too: as a community space and accessible venue the atmosphere was really welcoming and inclusive. 

New parents and the maze of advice

Research on families, parenting and grandparenting has become a key area of expertise within Sociology at Surrey. In this event, sociology colleagues Paul Hodkinson and Ranjana Das combined with Jo Blanden from economics and critically acclaimed author, Rebecca Asher, to engage with local new parents about the difficulties that can be created by pressures and advice.

Held in Guildford central library, the event sought to ask what research tells us about the role of proliferating information and advice in the experience of early parenthood – and how new parents can navigate their way through while keeping pressures and anxieties under control. The lively session began with an engaging talk from journalist and author, Rebecca Asher (author of Shattered and Man Up) on the range of pressures that mothers in particular can find themselves facing during and after pregnancy and the impact these can have.

Ranjana Das then explored the ways in which the pressure that new parents can inadvertently put on one another has its roots in broader gendered structures and institutions. Such pressure also featured in Jo Blanden’s contribution, which assessed the evidence behind prevailing advice for new parents, suggesting the benefits of some commonly advised approaches or precautions may be less clear-cut than often assumed. Finally, Paul Hodkinson considered how new fathers can sometimes struggle with mental health issues amidst advice that can place them as marginal figures expected only to be steadfast, solid ‘rocks’ for their partners who ought not to need support themselves.

The brief talks were followed by a lively discussion among the parents and others who attended. The event itself received enthusiastic comments from attendees, including one who said ‘more parents need to hear this!’

Engagement and impact

Engaging with the communities that surround us and ensuring that our research has an impact on the world are increasingly essential parts of what we do as a Department and a University. Importantly, this has not just been about disseminating our work to new audiences, but also about how illuminating it has been for us to venture outside the univerisity and listen to how different groups of people understand and engage with the issues we are researching.