New NHS Food Scanner: Handy government diet “hack” or virtual reality nightmare

Natalie Partridge is a third year Sociology PhD student at Newcastle University, researching food policy. Adding to our longstanding thread of blogs on food, Natalie tries the NHS Food Scanner App: the UK government’s latest addition to the Better Health campaign.

New year, new me! I’ve been jogging, had salad for lunch at least twice and subscribed to a 30-day yoga ‘journey’ (cringe) on YouTube. So, on the 9th of January when the launch of the new NHS Food Scanner App was announced, I thought I’d better have a look.

I’m not really the NHS Food Scanner’s target market. The app is designed for parents and children to use, ideally while they’re out doing their food shopping. The promise is simple: “hack” your diet with mostly like-for-like food swaps to reduce sugar, salt and fat intake. On the face of it, that sounds benign. The promotional video even contains the sunny phrase: “actually, you can make a healthier choice and it’s still pizza!” What could possibly go wrong?

– Credit: Better Health Campaign’s NHS Food Scanner App – the introductory pages.

I downloaded the app. The Google reviews are a little menacing, but it’s straightforward to get going with an encouraging four-step introduction slideshow (above). I can’t be bothered to go to the supermarket, so I head to the kitchen, grab a few typical breakfast ingredients and set them out on the table. I’m partly looking for positive reinforcement of my attempt at a super-virtuous January diet, so I pull out crunchy peanut butter, wholemeal bread, fruit (none of which is barcoded, disastrously) and coffee. I’m a bit irritated when the scanner doesn’t recognise the barcode on my bread, but it’s brown bread, so probably fine? My coffee is a “Go Go Green!” option, containing 0.8 sugar cubes per pack, whatever that means. The little green cartoon from Change4Life does a victory dance under a sprinkling of confetti.

– Credit: Better Health Campaign’s NHS Food Scanner App

It all starts to unravel when I scan my peanut butter. I don’t eat peanut butter all that often, so I’m more motivated by taste than price, although it is a little salty. It takes a long time for the scanner to work. I stand next to the window to make the best of the dull, grey daylight. I suppose the lighting is better than this in supermarkets. When the Food Scanner does eventually find my peanut butter, I wish it hadn’t. I’m whisked straight to a page with an angry army of little grub-like fat blobs advising me that each pack of peanut butter (an utterly useless measurement) contains 35.9g saturated fat. I’m then invited to “see it to believe it” in a virtual reality world where the grubs chase and overpower a poor blue cartoon character and jump on the corpse. Disheartened and a bit indignant, I check out the swaps, all of which, oddly, are sugar-free jams. Even if I were to want jam, which I don’t, I can’t find the top item on any supermarket website. A similar product has a warning that it’s “best to eat less than 44g per day” to avoid a laxative effect from the sorbitol, the main ingredient. There is no mention of the recommended daily intake for children, so let’s hope it’s the same. I also notice the jam is over double the price of the (sugary) equivalent supermarket own-brand jam. I think I’ll stick to my peanut butter. Or at a push, marmite, which the app doesn’t recognise, or cream cheese, which I am advised to swap for lower fat but higher sugar, and differently flavoured, alternatives.

– Credit: Better Health Campaign’s NHS Food Scanner App

Has Better Health missed the mark with this app?

All this has left a bad taste in my mouth. I used the Food Scanner for 10 minutes and it failed to scan half the foods I wanted it to. I’m glad I’m in my own kitchen. But I spare a thought for parents with their children, in busy supermarkets, squeezed by price increases and shrinkflation, understandably worried about health not least because we’re in a pandemic, all while trying to navigate these messages. Despite the glossy promotional material, I’m not expecting this to be overly positively received or particularly widely used. Although maybe I’m just being hypercritical of a well-intentioned, free tool designed to make it easier to eat healthily at home – most newspapers so far have covered its release but reserved comment.

So, let’s bypass for a moment the strange, expensive ‘swaps’ you can’t find at the supermarket. Let’s also overlook the negative messaging reminiscent of the “Eat Them to Defeat Them” fruit and vegetable campaign (which some argue did actually work), and the fact the Food Scanner is aimed, at least indirectly, towards children. The most concerning aspect of this app might be the sheer unwillingness to query the consumption of highly processed and convenience foods. This feels unsurprising from a government that resists use of the descriptor “ultra-processed” in food policy contexts, potentially rightly, as the debate plods on. In any case, those interested in a more ambitious policy approach to improve nutrition outcomes will likely be disappointed by this addition to the Better Health campaign. I mean, the app’s promotional video tells viewers that large 2L plastic bottles of artificially sweetened lemonade are a “good choice”, without even a cursory attempt to suggest a swap to water. While the toddler in the video might be delighted by that, an alternative strategy might be to avoid the Scanner, buy as much fruit and veg as possible, and hope for the best with everything else.

Editor’s note: Having tested the app for five minutes it recognised almost none of the items I scanned and was difficult and clunky to use. I would agree with Natalie, probably avoid and just try and buy fruit and veg!

Hope and Resistance in the Anthropocene event reflections

Audrey Verma is a Leverhulme Early Career Fellow whose research revolves around the connections and frictions between humans, nature and technology. Her current research asks what it means to be human and a citizen in the digital Anthropocene, and the next project she is piloting examines heat inequalities. In the fourth post in our Imagining Better Futures mini-series, Audrey shares some of the context and motivations behind her event, Hope and Resistance in the Anthropocene, co-convened with JC Niala in February 2021. 

Much of my research has been a search for hope where there appears to be little. This goes a long way towards explaining why I chose to research digital environmental activism at a time when both the digital and the environmental are depressing domains. It is why I do research that has me doom-scrolling on social media for hours each day, with bad news broken up only rarely by concessions hard-won by tireless activist communities. My search may also explain the Hope and Resistance event. From one perspective, the event was borne out of a shared disaffection between my co-organiser JC and myself, with unrelentingly declensionist narratives on the Anthropocene. 

As necessary, paradoxically comforting, and even titillating as dystopian imaginaries can be, my sense has always been that the more challenging and critical task is to move past repetitious identification of the problems. Much as identification of issues is a strength of sociology, we need to move toward imagining and enacting change. The latter is frequently far less within the grasp and will of sociology.  

The atrophied imagining of alternatives (Fisher 2009) when it comes to current environmentally devastating modes of production and social organisation is also not simply down to the neo-liberal colonisation of thought and meaning. It increasingly resembles a series of political and agential choices that excuse action and facilitate ongoing opportunism with destructive projects. Heavily westernised dystopian visions of environmental ends can border on tasteless too. For colonised groups and species already gone or on the brink, there are multiple inhabited, real worlds that have already ended or been irreversibly altered (Danowski and De Castro 2017). 

Silverweed (Potentilla anserina) a common edible plant from the rose family with distinctive silvery underleaf. The plant grows well perenially on many habitats, including sand dunes, and its yellow flowers are a source of nectar. With thanks to Dr Tom Dargie. 

Our shared principles and vision for the Hope and Resistance event followed from these senses and were threefold: First, we hoped to move away from modes of resignation and decline discourses. We wanted instead to nurture the conceptual and empirical seeds of hope not in any banal sense, but in ways that ‘acknowledge catastrophe while imagining and enacting possibility’ (Tsing et al, 2019). Our focus was on the spaces of ecological hope and environmental practices that sustain us, to reflect on what it means to be citizens and humans in these times. Second, we wanted to create an event sensitive to unequal levels, flows and intentions of current consumption and extraction. The event would recognise and respect the differing capacities and impetuses of the Majority World to grieve, hope and resist compared with Euro-America (Head, 2016). Third, we wanted to create calm, collective thinking times and spaces, with research, stories and art from across a wide range of disciplines, perspectives and locations. We sought contributions that would bear witness to the many ways in which we cope, counter and confront life and loss in the Anthropocene. 

Creating spaces of hope 

The response to our call was humbling, generating a programme and participation we are proud to have drawn together. The excellent contributions we received serendipitously fit under four connected thematic sessions:  

1. Messy Worlds, with contributions that spoke not only to the actual stuff of mess, sewage and waste, but also to the complicated and complicating political and conceptual factors surrounding resistance and hope. 

2. Experiencing Worlds, which featured empirical entanglements with extinction, climate change, grief and the possibilities that come with the resurgence of life and rethinking our relations to the natural environment.  

3. Imagining Worlds, which revolved around the roles of literature, art, film and speculative fiction in actively shaping environmental futures. 

4. Growing Worlds, with vibrant engagements on plants, re-wilding and practices of growing.  

The shape of the event was itself a valuable experience too. It had a sense of glorious un-disciplinary unruliness. The spirit of sharing and collegiality was present throughout the day’s active discussion, and there were multiple digital interfaces facilitating conversations before, during and after the event with participants from across the globe. 

Across the lively event, several threads stood out for me: I found myself thinking about the varying scales of hope. My attention was drawn to the small actants and nano-utopias (McKnight 2020) often overlooked. From children in Yan Gao’s reflection on the changing shape of East Asian environmentalism to the beauteous detail of plant growth depicted by Michelle Lai in  Plantopia. The unexpected spaces of hope came across strongly, from the heterotopias of the Korean DMZ discussed by Myung-Ae Choi, Kolkata’s wastewater wetlands described by Jenia Mukherjee, conflict-fraught waste management sites in Kerala detailed by Ashish Prabhakar, and the charred earth in the aftermath of the Australian fires discussed by Helena Bender and Andrea Rawluk. Reflections on the timespans of hope and change emerged with Greta Schiller’s film The Land of Azaba and Katy Davis’ research on North American Arctic communities living with climate change.  

Kelp-rafting is an important way in which aquatic material and life circulates. With thanks to Dr Tom Dargie. 

Hope still feels like an airy, abstract and inadequate concept for the times we find ourselves in, especially when compared to intellectually profound ideas such as utopia, as Lisa Garforth articulated brilliantly during the event and in preceding posts. When JC and I first came together to start thinking about the event, the rank inequalities highlighted by the pandemic and gross extractive opportunism in its wake were starting to come into full view. My own ethnographic fieldwork was (and continues to be) marked by the palpable exhaustion of the environmental activists and communities I work with. Hope seemed to be one of the few things we could latch on to at the time; it still is. The difficulty of holding on to hope when the end of the world is easier to imagine than the end of capitalism (Jameson 2003) can be instructive. Hope is the spark for activism and perhaps change, but it is itself an active doing, a habit and practice that requires care, cultivation and the creation of communities. 

If you would like to get involved in follow-up event activities or request resources from the day, please email Audrey (audrey.vermajames@gmail.com). 

References 

Danowski, D. and de Castro, E, B. V. (2017) The Ends of the World. Cambridge, UK: Polity. 

Fischer, M. (2009) Capitalist realism. Hants, UK: Zer0 Books. 

Jameson, F. (2003). Future City. New Left Review. https://newleftreview.org/issues/ii21/articles/fredric-jameson-future-city 

McKnight, H. (2020). ‘Chaos and Hope: nano-utopian moments of activist self-organisation’ Excursions, vol. 10, no. 1, pp.33-60.

Tsing, A, L., Mathews, A. S., and Bubandt, N. (2019) ‘Patchy Anthropocene: landscape structure, multispecies history, and the retooling of anthropology’ Current Anthropology, vol. 60 (S20), pp.186-197. 

Anthropocene futures: Living with, and in, ‘more-than-human’ communities

Dr Lisa Garforth is a senior lecturer and the Postgraduate Research Director for Sociology at Newcastle University. Recently, our colleague Audrey Verma and her collaborator JC Niala ran the Hope and Resistance in the Anthropocene symposium. In the second of two related blog posts, Lisa links themes from the event to her work on imagining green futures. This post is based on a conversation with Natalie Partridge who transcribed it and helped frame the ideas.

My work has for a long time explored how we imagine better futures in relation to nature and the environment and how sustainable societies might look. Although a lot of environmentalism is about crisis, loss and fear for the future, there have also been philosophies, policies, polemics and fictions trying to envision a different model of human wellbeing and a different relationship with nature. Much of radical ecopolitical thought and writing since the 1960s has said that there can be better ways of living with, and in, ‘more-than-human’ communities – with a focus on connection, care and caution rather than the emphasis in much of the global North on consumption, commodities and economic growth.

The idea of the Anthropocene is a moment of realisation or recognition that what we conventionally call ‘nature’ has been thoroughly made and remade by social actions and systems. In scientific terms, the Anthropocene marks the point at which humans supposedly become geological actors and when the outcomes of human impacts become threatening to all planetary life. So, older ideas about saving or caring for nature, or saving ourselves, by getting closer to nature, become problematic in two main ways. The notion of a separate nature becomes extremely unstable, and the idea that we can make or remake the future is undermined by the earth system threats already in train.

The climate-changed future

There’s something about the physical dynamics of climate change, in particular, that erodes the space for imagining better futures. The emissions that are probably going to cause global temperature rises, sea level rises, and climate chaos have already happened. Without major geo-engineering this can only be mitigated, not removed. The climate changed future is already unfolding in the present. The climate modelling that explains these dynamics induces a constant sense of belatedness: the right time to act for a better or at least liveable world has always already passed. The solutions currently proposed by technoscience entrepreneurs and neoliberal government policy tell us that all we need is more of the same: technology, economic expansion, efficiency logics.

So what kinds of utopian imaginary are possible in relation to climate change and the Anthropocene?  I think speculative fiction has done a lot to speak to us about alternative Anthropocene futures with utopian dimensions. The cliched image of contemporary futures in science fiction is dystopian blight and post-apocalyptic ruin. It can be easy to dismiss darker future visions as nihilistic or failing to inspire action. But that flattens all dystopias into a monolithic pessimistic message and assumes that post-apocalyptic scenarios are literal predictions. Good speculative fiction is much richer and more complex than that – and so are its readers.

Dystopias and utopias: A different way of thinking

A different way of thinking about speculative fiction is as a kind of lay sociology of what John Urry calls “probable, possible and desirable” post-carbon futures. Speculative fiction creates alternative worlds in text. As readers, we can use them to explore what it might feel like to live in very different kinds of societies. In the last thirty years, many of the best science fiction writers have been the most utopian, and also the most sociologically astute: Kim Stanley Robinson, Ursula K Le Guin, Octavia E. Butler. Between them, they have written compelling social-ecological futures – often apocalyptic or dystopian, but always insisting that we can, and should, imagine better ways of living and being.

Butler was one of the earliest science fiction writers to extrapolate the social and political implications of climate change in the context of social and racial injustice, anticipating current tensions emerging in California over land and water use and contemporary authoritarian and populist politics. Kim Stanley Robinson has approached environmental and climate challenges with an unflagging but always adapting utopianism in his fiction over the last 30 years. ‘Utopian’ here doesn’t just mean formal visions of sustainability and security.  It means refusing the anti-anti-utopianism that says things can only stay the same or get worse. Thinking about hope and resistance for the Anthropocene, we are going to need all the positive resources we can get to change an unsustainable, climate disrupted global capitalist system. These novels can help both publics and sociologists imagine it otherwise.

Utopia: Looking for hope for a better future

Dr Lisa Garforth is a senior lecturer and the Postgraduate Research Director for Sociology at Newcastle University. Recently, our colleague Audrey Verma and her collaborator JC Niala ran the Hope and Resistance in the Anthropocene symposium. They drew together interdisciplinary, intersectional and diverse papers to reflect not just on “life and loss in the Anthropocene” but also on “what sustains us and what it means in practice and theory to be citizens and humans in these trying times.” In the first of two related blog posts, Lisa links this with ideas from contemporary utopian theory. This post is based on a conversation with Natalie Partridge who transcribed it and helped frame the ideas.

One of the real pleasures of Hope and Resistance in the Anthropocene was hearing anthropologists, systems ecologists, biologists and many other researchers thread conceptual ideas about prospects for making better more-than-human societies and communities through their work. We heard from Matthew H. John about how concerns over the loss of natural beauty might stimulate better thinking about environmental challenges (‘Radical relationalities, possible futures: Reimagining experiences of beauty-of-place in nature’), and from Lyn Baldwin about using place-based learning and art to mobilise new forms of connection and care in relation to bee conservation.

It was exciting to hear about projects looking empirically for hope for a better future and resistance to current Anthropocene realities. It can be helpful to think about these issues in relation to utopia – which I see as encompassing a range of cognitive and affective imaginaries and desires for things to be different.

Defining utopianism

I define utopianism broadly. It can include individual ideas and feelings that collective life can and should be different (however weak or fleeting). It includes more worked up visions of better collective futures, like formal utopian novels. In relation to politics, it can encompass the desires for change that so often infuse activism and social movements. And there are multiple social sites where people try to live everyday life differently that we can think of as utopian.

I find Ruth Levitas’s idea that utopia can be a method or hermeneutic helpful – a practiced and disciplined way of understanding social life oriented towards better futures. It’s a way of understanding the world rooted in everyday social experiences in worlds that are far from perfect. This method can also be taken up by social theorists trying to understand both how the world is and how it could be. That critical and creative tension between what is and what might be, between present and the future, is where utopia works.

Staying playful and creative

Often utopia is criticised as a way of trying to impose rigid social structures on people – blueprints and totalitarian regimes. At the other extreme it is written off as unrealistic and silly – daydreams and fantasies. Contemporary utopian theory celebrates utopia as process, journey and critique rather than endorsing specific endpoints and blueprints. Sometimes social scientists’ thoughts are either dismissive of utopia’s wild dreaminess and lack of realism or seek to domesticate it by only valuing realistic utopias.   But for me, this risks missing the value of utopianism which lies in the playful, creative and excessive character of imagining otherwise – in its refusal of reality and realism.

This can and should often have an otherworldly or fantastical character.  A creative refusal of realism is also often a moment of social critique, enriching the progressive imagination. Utopian visions can inform and enliven policy proposals. But you can’t reduce utopia to policy proposals – and policy proposals can’t and shouldn’t be utopian. So that raises the question of what utopia might have to do with sociology.

Speculative thinking in sociology

In my experience contemporary critical and qualitative sociology is primarily concerned with people’s experiences and struggles in current social circumstances. In the discipline’s formal origins, there was, by contrast, the ambitious confidence of Comte that it could predict and manage the future. We are rightly sceptical of this positivism now. In the post-war period critical social theories have maintained a broadly utopian interest in understanding contemporary social structures and dynamics by insisting things could be otherwise. But I share with Ruth Levitas a sense that sociology as a discipline has not often engaged with explicitly speculative thinking.

Levitas’s answer is to encourage sociologists and sociology to become overtly and committedly utopian, to get involved with imagining and describing proposals for better societies, not just exploring what is wrong with how we live now. She argues for a utopian sociology that would work in what she calls the ‘architectural’ mode – building and making visionary alternatives. But I am just as interested in a sociology of utopia, linked with what Levitas calls ‘archaeological’ utopianism, or the digging up and examining of utopianism in the wider society. Sociology – social thought, making critical sense of the social world that we’re in – is not constrained to professional or disciplinary practice. Undisciplined, creative, speculative sociologies can be infused with a utopianism and resistance to the real in ways that might complement and extend academic sociology in vital ways in the face of the climate crisis.

Hope and Resistance in the Anthropocene: Some takeaways from the event

Natalie Partridge is a second year Sociology PhD student at Newcastle University. Here, Natalie introduces a forthcoming mini-series of posts by Dr Lisa Garforth and shares some insights from the event Hope and Resistance in the Anthropocene, hosted by Audrey Verma and JC Niala.

Greenhouse gas emissions, plastic pollution, deforestation… These familiar yet hopeless images beam into our living rooms and mobile devices on an increasingly regular basis. Anyone who has watched a David Attenborough documentary recently will have come away with the uncomfortable sense that human beings are affecting the planet in multiple, unpredictable ways.

Image credit: andreas160578, Pixabay

For many, though, the word “Anthropocene” might not mean very much. In a quick canvas of some friends about whether they’d heard the term, responses ranged from “no, I don’t think so,” to sarcastic, frowning-face gifs.

This is a rich and complex concept which I am conscious not to oversimplify. The Anthropocene is a proposed geological age, the ‘human’ age, if you like, borne of the suggestion that humans’ (relatively short) time on earth has been impactful enough to warrant definition as a distinct epoch. The shape of the Anthropocene remains contested. Some argue that it began in the 1950s. For others, it doesn’t exist at all. Many debates about Anthropocene life also problematise human existence as conflictual with the world we live in. Within this, ‘nature’ might be conceptualised as separate from the human world. This can feel jarring and destructive, evoking dystopian images of the future.

It’s good, then, to find ways to talk about hope.

 Feelings of hope and resistance

The symposium Hope and Resistance in the Anthropocene, organised by Audrey Verma and JC Niala, was held online on the 19th February 2021. The day was divided into sixteen short talks pinpointing reasons for hope and examples of resistance in the face of ‘climate disaster’. Speakers and attendees tackled topics such as ecological grief and loss, inequalities, the reponsibilisation of individuals and local communities, the role of structural issues and the impact on policy interventions, political and economic ideologies and systems like neo-liberalism and capitalism, colonial pasts, social connections to land and vulnerability. All practitioner contributions were also fantastic, including creative arts-based research, poetry, and botanical illustration to the event.

Each talk was vivid and question-generating: What do we mean when we talk about social justice? How do we understand human relationships to the non-human world, including ecological grief and ecological loss? In which ways might we collectively process and reflect on climate change and other overlapping challenges? How do we conceptualise a shared future for humans and non-humans? How do we recognise each other’s needs as our own?

The Hope and Resistance presenters also consistently challenged narratives which oppose humans and non-humans. Discussions explored the reconceptualisation of the human-non-human relationship as something reciprocal. In fact, for Matthew H. John, “the Anthropocene is nothing if not a crisis of relationship” between humans and the planet. John argued that natural beauty has relational capacities, and the ability to create space for relationships to form between the self, others and the beautiful.

Image credit: Pexels – Pixabay

Through her work on crane conservation in and around the Korean Demilitarized Zone, Myung Ae Choi explored the ways in which the lives of cranes, farmers, ornithologists, conservationists and computer engineers are entangled in and amongst the rice field ecosystem. Myung Ae Choi addressed the perception that nature is something to be “squeezed out for our own benefit”, or something to be cared for or saved. Instead, her work explored surprising visions of a shared future, prompting co-host JC Niala to suggest that perhaps shared vulnerability can be a source of shared hope.

Imagining better futures

Our Postgraduate Research Director, Dr Lisa Garforth, also gave a conceptual talk tying together threads from sociology, fiction, green utopianism and radical eco-philosophy to explore the idea of ‘utopia’. I caught up with Lisa afterwards to find out a little bit more about how imagined futures might offer a way for sociologists (and others!) to reflect on their place in the Anthropocene. Our conversation covered more ground than we could hope to condense into a single post. So, in the two posts that follow, Lisa shares her impressions of the Hope and Resistance symposium, and insights from her work on speculative fiction and utopianism. Lisa’s focus is one important aspect: imagining better futures.

Mental Health: A Different Approach

Jake Pointer is a second year Sociology PhD student at Newcastle, studying the experiences of migrant workers in the British meat processing industry. Here he writes about something external to his research but just as important to him – mental health and how it can be approached through a sociological lens.

In general, there are two social issues which I seriously care about. I’m sure most people who know me can guess the first, it begins with a V and involves eating lots of grass if the latest internet memes are accurate. The second is perhaps not so easy to decipher as I rarely talk about it: mental health problems (MHPs). The reason, which I imagine is the reason for most people who take an interest in this area, is because I suffer, sometimes quite severely, from MHPs, specifically the D-word (I dislike that word, I’m not sure why). Here are my thoughts on some things that can be done about it at a societal level.

First, it’s worth taking a few moments to consider what mental health is and what happens when it goes wrong. Everyone has mental health, but I think it’s only when it starts to deteriorate that people give it much thought. As MHPs have been kicking down the societal door for some time now it is affecting us more though, I’m sure most people at least know somebody with a mental ailment. Here’s what an MHP might look like based on what I know and my own experience. The individual with the D-word will likely spend much of their time in bed, often due to an inability to get up and disruptions to sleep patterns. Their appetite may drastically increase or decrease. Socialising and working become harder, perhaps impossible. Things once interesting become mundane. Jokes are no longer funny. Anhedonia, the inability to feel pleasure, will likely have a strong grip on the individual’s psychic windpipe. To put it lightly, it’s not a great place to be.

Figure 1: Can these hands be stopped? Credit: Zarina Situmorang

A New Approach

The current method for dealing with these ills is to focus on treatment, that is, waiting until people become mentally entropic and then addressing the problems. This may involve medications, therapy, diet changes, exercise, mindfulness practices, diary keeping and so on.  These are all effective tools, but, in my opinion, more focus should be on prevention. It is clear that MHPs are more likely to arise when people are exposed to certain influences. These include, but are not limited to, an unstable homelife, childhood abuse, loneliness, over exposure to social media, traumatic events and unemployment. More focus should be on neutralizing these. A new field of psychology is investigating whether nutrition can affect mental health. This also holds promise. Additionally, I believe that MHPs have been romanticised somewhat; with narratives of ‘battling’ or ‘overcoming’. Viktor Frankl might identify this as making meaning in suffering, but it would be better to allow people to find meaning whilst in a state of mental flourishment. One example of how prevention could be implemented is a ‘mental health day’ at school, giving children the knowledge and tools to not only cope with any issues, but to identify potential influences before they start to wreak havoc. Everybody now knows smoking is bad, thus many people have now chosen to not smoke in the first place – an example of prevention via education. Perhaps the same can be done for MHPs. I’d even like to recommend a potential reading for school students, Flow: the psychology of optimal experience by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi. I read this recently and it is overflowing with researched-backed information on how to have a deep impact on your own mental welfare and those around you in many areas of life.

Figure 2: Could this process have been avoided? Credit: John Holfcroft

With all this in mind (excuse the pun), it is perhaps unrealistic to believe we can have a hundred per cent mentally healthy society. Either way, I’m convinced the best way to stop MHPs arising is to prevent them from getting a foothold in the first place because once they do it is no easy task to repeal them. I don’t like it when people say mental health is the same as physical health, because I think they are quite different. Nonetheless, we have successfully eradicated plenty of physical diseases in the past. Can the same be done for MHPs though? I’d like to think so, but this is up for debate. We’ve always known that mental health rates fluctuate depending on certain social influences, something Durkheim demonstrated back in the early day of sociological thought. If we can identify the influences in the 21st century, perhaps we can start to take steps to reduce them. It is a success when an individual removes the Atlasesque weight of an MHP from their cerebral shoulders. But whilst it may not be recognised as such, it is an even greater success when those same shoulders never have such a load on them in the first place. That should be the goal.

References

Csikszentmihali, M. (1990) Flow: the psychology of optimal experience, New York: HaperPerennial.

Durkheim, E. (2006) On Suicide, London: Penguin.

Frankl, V. (2004) Man’s Search for Meaning: The classic tribute to hope from the Holocaust, London: Rider.

https://www.boredpanda.com/depression-through-art/?utm_source=google&utm_medium=organic&utm_campaign=organic

A blog not so much on plan Bs, but endurance

Dr Anselma Gallinat is a Reader in Social Anthropology at Newcastle University and PI on the AHRC-funded project: ‘Knowing the Secret Police: secrecy and knowledge in East German society’. Here she writes about her team’s experience of planning around (and powering through) the COVID-19 pandemic.

The project ‘Knowing the Secret Police: secrecy and knowledge in East German society’ explores not ‘what the Stasi knew of society’, but what ‘society knew of the Stasi’ and how such knowledge developed and circulated. We would conduct interviews with people belonging to four spheres of society (‘networks’): members of the East German protestant church; literary authors; staff at two East German plants (‘at the workplace’), and former anti-fascists. In addition, all studies and strands would involve research in 3-4 different archives.

Pastor Dr R Gallinat.
Pastor Dr R Gallinat. Image credit – Dr Anselma Gallinat

Problems? Not yet

We submitted our request in July 2017, just a year after the British EU referendum, which didn’t bode well for us. In the last few months of 2020, I often wished we could go back to a time when Brexit was our only problem.

Now we have a problem

When the COVID-19 pandemic began to rise in Europe, the project was stranded with half the staff in one country and half in another. All three of our RAs were in Germany. Grit Wesser had been conducting fieldwork in the town of Gera since October 2019 and had begun to view files at the BStU (Federal Agency for Stasi-documents). Tara Windsor had moved to Germany in February and was just beginning archival research and interview recruitment among literary authors. Alex Brown, a German resident, had also begun archival research at the BStU. The half in the UK were now at home with their kids and (often desperately) ‘trying to work’, while the pregnant wife of one RA developed symptoms and the COVID-19 test took weeks to return.

Building of the BStU (federal archive of Stasi-Documents) in Berlin.
Building of the BStU (federal archive of Stasi-Documents) in Berlin. Image creditBStU/Dronebrothers.de

No fieldwork, so read and write…?

Archives were closed for nigh on five months. Interviews were impossible under lockdown rules. There was literature to read, but this required brain space, energy and interest. As Grit put it once in our monthly virtual project-coffees: “it’s not particularly cheery literature either” (that literature about oppression and surveillance by the Stasi). There were things to write and think about, but this also required brain space, energy and interest in a context full of news about threat, death and disastrous politicians. As a therapist pointed out to me, “COVID-19 re-traumatised us all”. So, different members were able to do different things during lockdown.

(Re)Starting

In May, it became apparent that lockdown rules in Germany were beginning to ease. For any further fieldwork, Newcastle now required a renewed ethics application, but the website stated this needed to conform to UK social distancing guidelines. We re-wrote our ethics requests and argued this should meet the guidelines of the country where the fieldwork was to take place. The faculty ethics committee, thankfully, agreed. There was not much to be said about archival work, which would be regulated by the archive. We chose to persist with face-to-face interviews, as the majority of our interviewees are elderly and not au fait with technology. Moreover, two studies took an at least partial ethnographic approach, which required us ‘being there’ to garner tacit and sensual knowledge. We also felt online interviews wouldn’t allow us to do so or allow us to build sufficient rapport around a potentially (not always!) tricky subject. But we thought much about our interviewees’ and interviewers’ safety and made risk mitigation plans. These included conducting interviews outdoors where possible, with masks, and signing consent forms etc using privately owned pens so they wouldn’t be exchanged.

Book signing in East German times.
Book signing in East German times. Image Credit – Bundesarchiv, Hartmut Reiche 1974

Best laid plans…

However, this was easier written than done, and our safeguards have only been used partially. Interviews with masks didn’t really work out, nor had we mitigated against lunch invitations… At this point Grit was mostly interviewing retired clergy. These (predominantly) men and their wives had devoted a lifetime to care-giving and hospitality. Of course, any guest would receive coffee and/or whatever meal was due to be served. Rejecting commensality would always threaten any budding relationship. This was however key for long, in-depth Oral History and life-story interviews. Moreover, face masks conceal non-verbal communication and clues, making understanding much trickier, which is a problem in an interview situation.

Plan B?, or plan A+ (and fingers firmly crossed!)

So, in June, fieldwork resumed. We had lost five months in real time, plus at least another five months in terms of the time the Co-Is/PI would have spent contributing to data collection. While archives had re-opened, access was much reduced due to social distancing in reading rooms. But all studies had begun, our RAs had been hired for their expertise in each distinct area. While some studies will now be slimmer, it wasn’t possible to drop any in full. So we have persevered, and our exceptional RAs have been able to develop a range of fascinating case studies. Grit, Tara and Alex are now all thinking about future publications. The three Co-Is/PI are coming to terms with losing their own access to fieldwork, although 2021 may bring a final opportunity(?). We keep going with our monthly all-team virtual Kaffeeklatsch (German, directly: ‘gossip-over-coffee’) which keeps us connected and thinking together, about concepts as much as lunch invitations in the COVID-19 era.

The rollercoaster ride: Plan Awesome and beyond

Gemma Molyneux is a second year PhD student in Sociology at Newcastle, studying high school girls’ everyday experiences and consumption of STEM subjects at school. In the second post in our Plan B series, Gemma writes about adjusting her research in schools during COVID-19. She reflects on the changes she has made to the project, and the new questions and insights these have brought about. 

Let’s get it out of the way first: COVID-19 came along and I am not going to get to do the research project I had planned.  My planned research project involved exploring girls’ consumption of Science Technology Engineering and Maths (STEM) through a focus on everyday life. The project was intended as an ethnographic study within a high school. The aim was to observe first-hand the day-to-day lives of girls within the school environment, as they interact with their friends and the teachers, within class and break times. From this I would then have been able to develop some rich data that would have shown me the girls’ consumption of STEM within their day to day lives. But now, that’s not going to happen! On the other hand, life would be boring if everything went to plan!

So, what now? Let the roller coaster begin

Image credit: I-ing/Shutterstock.com

The first bump began in March, when I started to consider: how long will this lockdown be? What shall I do with my project plan? Being positive, my supervisors and I decided to delay the start of the ethnographic fieldwork from September to January, allowing extra time for additional data to be collected (Plan B).

Second bump at the end of summer: will January be realistic? How long do you wait on the uncontrollable and when do you make a change and take control? Ok, we decided, ethnography (where you need to be around people) in a pandemic is not going to work, just move on. Hence, the decision to use virtual group interviews with students with photograph/vlog elicitation was made.

Let’s not go through the alphabet: Plan Awesome is born

In October the ride starts to change direction again: will/won’t the schools close? Along with the constant adrenaline rush of the possibility of the group of students or the coordinating teacher being isolated,  will the interviews be affected? (still sticking with Plan Awesome!)

Just because it’s different does not make it wrong

Putting the roller coaster imagery aside, the truth is that the challenges brought about by COVID-19 on my research have been present, but not insurmountable. Changing methods changes the type of data you get, so being clear whether this data will answer the research questions has been important. They do say there is more than one way to skin a cat. Ensuring the alternative data collected from group interviews aligns with my research questions establishes that the change of plan still meets my objectives. Being open minded and generating many ideas for every possible method I could think of was helpful. I used a SWOT analysis  to understand what all the different ideas meant to the project and whether they would answer the research questions. In creating the SWOT analysis I wrote down every method I could. Thinking through how these could be used or combined with others made me consider data generation in a more creative way. In addition, evaluating the methods’ negative aspects required creativity in generating possible solutions that could be put in place to mitigate these issues.

Image credit: Ravennka/ Shutterstock.com

Changing the project has reduced the richness that a long-period study of students would have brought. However, now, the research includes a wider range of data sources with the potential opportunity to gain observations from students from more than one school and interviews with a range of teachers. Already some of the additional data sources that have been explored are giving interesting (and unforeseen) insights.

Being able to be flexible has allowed my project not to be derailed

It’s December in year 2 of my PhD and I have completed 5 teacher interviews and have started the school group interviews. Have I made the right decisions and the right changes? I am still prepared to be flexible for the probable additional bumps to come. I have to be positive and confident and remember ♫ Everything is Awesome ♫.

Documents as data: My experience of transitioning to a documentary-based PhD

Angela Plessas is a third year PhD student in Sociology at Newcastle, studying polycystic ovary syndrome as a diagnostic category. Like many students, she has had to adapt her research project in light of the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, shifting from interviews to a document-based approach. This transition has been challenging, but ultimately rewarding.  

Documentary research methods are generally considered the realm of the Historian, not the Sociologist. Although they don’t necessarily have a ‘bad name’ in social research, they are certainly misunderstood. The precise steps for carrying out documentary research are seen as vague, and the resulting analysis prone to bias. Documentary research is usually considered, at best, complimentary to a researcher’s main choice of methods, but never the main method itself.

I was once guilty of these misconceptions myself, until COVID-19 changed everything. When the country went into lockdown in March, I was about to start interviewing GPs who have cared for women with polycystic ovary syndrome (PCOS). I knew these interviews would be challenging, but I felt ready. I had ethical approval, my interview schedules had been tried and tested, and I was in the early stages of recruitment. A few days into lockdown though, when communication with potential GP participants completely dried up, it became obvious that things had changed.  

What is PCOS?

PCOS is a common endocrine condition, thought to affect 1 in 10 women around the world. My original ambition for this study was to ‘shed light on the true lived experiences of women with PCOS’, with a focus on experiences of diagnosis. However, thanks to my supervisors and their experience in in-depth research with medical documents, I began to realise that there was much more to PCOS diagnosis than that which takes place in a GP surgery. Many of these trends and practices are rooted in medical literature – its ambiguities, controversies and debates. 

Image credit: Torrenta Y/Shutterstock.com

How my research changed

During lockdown, many GPs were working remotely and had to prioritise the most essential tasks over others. Even now, routine care remains severely disrupted, and GPs are tackling a huge backlog of care for those who had treatment postponed during lockdown. Recruiting and interviewing GPs in this environment seemed near impossible. Like most PhD students at a similar stage to myself, I needed to consider alternative options.

For my study, documentary-based research methods offered a practical way forward and an opportunity to conduct an entirely original study of PCOS-literature. Since adopting these methods, I have realised how rich and ripe for analysis PCOS medical literature is. PCOS has had numerous names throughout its history. It was once named after the researchers who ‘discovered’ it – Stein and Leventhal – before being known as polycystic ovary disease, and more recently, polycystic ovary syndrome. Although this name refers to ‘multiple cysts’ and to ‘ovaries’, many women with PCOS have no ovarian cysts whatsoever. Equally, many women who do have ovarian cysts, do not have PCOS. The fact that a huge and expansive body of PCOS medical literature exists, and that significant diagnostic dilemmas remain, also indicates a host of unanswered questions which need exploring.    

These include questions like:

  1. What happened to Stein and Leventhal?
  2. Why does the name of the condition revolve around ‘cysts’ and ‘ovaries’?
  3. How many PCOS symptoms ARE there?
  4. How many PCOS ‘phenotypes’ ARE there?
  5. What makes it a syndrome?

There are a number of advantages to using documentary research. From a practical perspective, this approach is extremely COVID-safe. A documentary-based study also allows for a detailed and focused examination of the stories and debates which exist in relevant literature. These stories often go untold and unexamined and could help provide answers for the dilemmas and difficulties experienced by professionals in the field, as well as by women living with PCOS.  

Doing documentary research should not be considered an ‘easy’ option. It must be systematic and rigorous. Narrowing down large samples of documents involves meticulous sorting and searching. The work is entirely desk based and I spend a LOT of time staring at documents on my screen. I occasionally experience ‘medical language overload’ where, as someone with no medical background, I start to feel overwhelmed by the new and unfamiliar terminology. Below is a good illustration of what this looks like!

Image credit: mypokcik/Shutterstock.com

My advice for others thinking of changing their projects is to talk to your peers and supervisors as much as possible. Many of us across Sociology and the HASS faculty have now been through significant project changes, some of which have been much more dramatic than this one! Try to stay positive and know that your project can still be truly engaging and enjoyable, even if it’s not what you originally had in mind.

I quickly learned to love and enjoy my newly adapted project. Although I’d still like to interview PCOS professionals, I am finding that using only documentary research methods is a truly effective way to understand the nuances and complexities of the PCOS diagnostic category. If it had not been for having to change my project due to the global pandemic, I would never have discovered this.  

Towards sanctuary: Reflecting on clients’ stories and the June 2020 WERS webinar: Lifelines, lockdown, imagination, and trust

Alexandra Bannon is a 2nd year Undergraduate Sociology student at Newcastle University. She reflects on the role Newcastle’s West End Refugee Service has played in supporting refugees in Newcastle, following participating in an eye-opening refugee week webinar.

Taking part in the WERS refugee week webinar and reading the highly emotive personal stories of some of their clients has sparked some reflections about the refugee week theme of ‘imagine’. It became evident from the accounts that for many individuals who find or are referred to WERS, their first encounter with the service is that of a crucial lifeline amongst the chaotic and volatile nature of their situation. For many, it is a last resort, beginning their relationship with the organisation as a one-way form of support but results in clients staying and developing a rich relationship with the organisation, creating a culture of hospitality and leaving clients wanting to help others in the same way. In addition, after experiencing the ever-growing commitment, community and trust, WERS becomes a place of sanctuary, safety and family, instilling hope and providing a place for people to begin to imagine a better life for themselves within Newcastle.

The success of the befriending scheme transcends the accounts, exhibiting it as an invaluable part of the client’s lives. This well-established initiative provides one-on-one support to the clients through dedicated volunteers, aiding them in everyday activities, reading letters, phone calls and day trips. It is evident from the accounts that the consistency of this project is a way for clients to feel empowered and in control of their lives in Newcastle and indeed allows them to imagine a life for themselves within the city. The hope instilled through this programme and through Ali as not only a support worker but as an example of a fulfilled future in Newcastle, shows the potential for this city to become a place of sanctuary for many. The webinar exhibited the organisations commitment to this scheme, showing how due to the current pandemic the need for befrienders has become even more necessary and so a remote befriending scheme has been implemented. This consists of regular phone calls between volunteers and clients, enriching activities, and remote meet ups. The unprecedented times that we find ourselves in, becomes even more volatile in the context of refugee lives, therefore this scheme enables clients to have some routine and consistency within their lives and actually becomes a simultaneous support network for both the clients and volunteers, enabling them both to imagine a life outside of lockdown.

The term intersectionality was coined by legal scholar Kimberlé Crenshaw (1989) to explore the multitude of oppressions that African American women face as a result of their intersecting identities of race and gender. The concept’s ability to adapt to differing forms of social oppression makes it a successful framework to use to understand and support refugee lives. This concept significantly resonated with me whilst reading these accounts, particularly in the context of refugee mothers who use WERS services and is something I am increasingly interested in as a soon to be third year Sociology student. Often the norms and values of host countries contradict the culturally sanctioned customs of refugee’s home countries, rendering women significantly marginalised within host countries and in need of additional support.

One particular account expressed the importance of WERS providing the Bititi project to mothers and their children who are trying to navigate parenthood in an unfamiliar setting. This initiative empowers women and administers access to services within their houses when they need it most. It is clear from the accounts that this project is a crucial lifeline for these women as it successfully recognises them as doubly oppressed victims and enables them to reach their full intersectional power. Furthermore, COVID-19 has put substantial pressure on all parents and the multifaceted intersectional nature of refugee mothers has made them doubly isolated, as mentioned by Hannah, WERS’s volunteer project manager, during the webinar. The lockdown has seen WERS identify women in need through the remote befriending scheme and working closely with welfare education services they have provided activity packs for families. Relieving pressure for refugee mothers to entertain their children in this challenging time. I believe the continuation of this dedicated support both normally and during this health crisis is what it takes to encourage refugee mothers to recognise their power and WERS as an organisation not only provides a space to empower them as intersectional subjects but enables them to imagine and believe in their own potential.

All in all, participating in the webinar, crafting specific questions for Ali and Hannah and reading the clients stories has been a hugely enriching and insightful experience for me. Something that particularly resonated with me was the ever-growing networks surrounding WERS and their extended community. Whether that be the refugee communities who inform newcomers of WERS services or the interdisciplinary nature of WERS relationship with local organisations in order to identify and provide the upmost support for their clients. In short, it is evident that although there is always more work to be done, Newcastle, with WERS at its heart really does have the potential to be a place of imagination and sanctuary for all who need it.


Crenshaw, K. (1989) “Demarginalizing the intersection of race and sex: a black feminist critique of antidiscrimination doctrine, feminist theory, and antiracist politics.” University of Chicago Legal Forum, issue 1, article 8, 139-167. Available at: http://chicagounbound.uchicago.edu/uclf/vol1989/iss1/8