Surviving Conference Season…and Wedding Season

confettiThis time last year I was getting ready for wedding season, being in my late twenties I think this is how most summers are going to go for the foreseeable future last year I had four, this year I’m down to two and next year back up to three (so far!!) Wedding season means a whole range of different things: visits to various out of the way manors; barns and hotels; wondering what I’ll wear; worrying who I’ll have to sit next to and make small talk with; bets on how long the speeches will be and who will cry first. Of course it also means celebrating the coming together of two loving individuals and all that good stuff, but other than this last bit it’s struck me just how similar wedding season is to the conference season I’m currently prepping for.

This summer I’m attending and presenting at three conferences and many of my worries are similar: traveling to new places; planning trains, planes and hotels; packing a million different outfits and wondering if I’ll be too formal/casual; worrying if I’ll know anyone/who I’ll talk to/sit next to at the conference dinner; hoping that presentations I’ve chosen to attend will be interesting and entertaining.

These might seem like flippant worries but the ‘important’ worries of how and what to present have been well covered in my practice presentations, discussions with supervisors and advice from peers. It’s all the other bits I worry about, the flippant stuff that reminds me of wedding season!

It’s also these other more seemingly flippant concerns are the reasons why conferences are important. They are a chance to get yourself known and noticed with your peers, potential colleagues and employers. They offer the opportunity to meet the authors of the books and papers that have influenced and inspired your own research. Presenting yourself in these more informal and social settings is something that is important to consider.

I’ve found some really great advice from various places and thought I’d point you to some of the things that I’m hoping will help me over the next couple of months…

1. Try not to be afraid to meet new people

Don’t be afraid of meeting scholars whose work you know, either. If you’re feeling shy, ask a professor or mutual friend to introduce you. I scan the program for scholars whose work I use and then attend their sessions. I make sure to go up and meet them afterwards and I’ve found people are usually always gracious and friendly in these circumstances.

2. Ask More, Listen More, Talk Less About Yourself

Don’t you find annoying that guy that can’t stop talking about himself and the things he does? Guess what? People won’t like you if you keep talking about yourself.

Doesn’t it feel good when people ask you things and want to know more about you? Doesn’t it make you feel a bit important? That you are worth listening? Guess what? People would like the same from you.

3. Have 2 Elevator Pitches Ready

First elevator pitch: your grandma should understand it easily. This one you will use for non-experts in your field.

Second elevator pitch: include all sorts of complicated jargon and be so scientifically correct that your PI couldn’t find a single flaw in your speech. This is for experts in your field.

4. I also found this great ‘what not to wear’ blog that starts with the pros and cons of the ‘definitive white shirt’ and ends with a discussion of Pierre Bourdieu and cultural capital!

I’ll let you know how these tips work out in practice…

(p.s. I wonder how many of these would also help me get through wedding season?!)

“We have a bridge and a castle, oh Inverness is wonderful”

A couple of days ago I was in Inverness at a Social Enterprise Summit organised by Community Enterprise in Scotland (CEiS), Highlands and Islands Enterprise (HIE) and a number of other organisations.


Inverness is a lovely place to be. It was bathed in sunshine on Wednesday and it was even suggested that a break-out session be held in the leafy gardens of the conference venue. Everything seems to be on the up in Inverness: the economy, the population, even Inverness Caledonian Thistle (who’s terrace chant give this blog its title). But that wasn’t why I went, I was there to learn, predominantly, about rural social enterprise.

The event brought together over 200 social enterprise practitioners and staff, intermediary organisations, representatives from local and national government, and even the odd academic, from the Highlands, Scotland and abroad. The delegates were addresses by, among others, the Deputy First Minister, John Swinney, and a Land Manager from North Harris, and appeared equally impressed by both.

Amid discussions on community empowerment and financial sustainability it became apparent that rural organisations often see it as self-evident that solutions should derive from the community level. This element of confident independence and self-reliance has long been central to many rural social enterprises, often through necessity rather than choice or ideology. With the retrenchment of many public services from rural communities it is once again social enterprises which are stepping into the breach to assume responsibility over their provision. They do it, because nobody else will.

One consequence of this (according to my research) is that voluntary and community organisations are more trusted to deliver services, because they are perceived to care more about the community than the state does. In much of the remote periphery of Scotland, Holyrood and Westminster seem equally removed from the reality of life on the ground, local councils are considered too large, and voluntary organisations are often looked to for the delivery of relevant, coherent public service provision.

This phenomenon is clearly relevant to the discussions around the Community Empowerment (Scotland) Act currently making its way through Holyrood. Criticisms of the act relate to the deconstruction of the public sector and the potential negative impacts on communities that perhaps lack the assets or capabilities to take charge over their own development. But from some initial findings of my research, far from decrying the deconstruction of the state, local authorities are being criticised in rural communities for retaining too many services and not contracting them out to social enterprises, who are seen as more effective at delivering them.

There is no reason for me to believe that this confidence in the ability of social enterprises to better serve communities than the public sector can is misplaced. There are measures in place to ensure that communities are capable of taking on such responsibilities and ongoing support to make sure that they remain sustainable. Over the next few years there is scope for a significant reshaping of the relationship between social enterprise and the public sector. We can only hope that, following this reshaping, Inverness and the rest of the Highlands and Islands remain as wonderful.

The ‘rediscovery of public health’?


Studying the history of public health in Scotland and the UK since the 1970s I’ve been struck by periodic references to the ‘rediscovery of public health’. The 1976 report Prevention and Health: Everybody’s Business was hailed as one such rediscovery. However, the rediscovery was perhaps related to the idea that investing in public health was a cost effective means of public service delivery -a theme present in discussions of funding for public health since the allocation of Poor Law relief in the 19th Century, but also very familiar to us today. While the report did acknowledge the importance of structural factors in health inequalities, it also introduced a trend of highlighting a set of individualised ‘risk factors’ in understanding the health of the population and the promotion of ‘healthy lifestyles’ as a way of improving public health; suggesting that individuals should take more responsibility for their own health –sound familiar?

This debate between the importance of addressing health inequalities and the material structures that they are based in: poor housing, low incomes, lack of access to education and community resources, versus the need to encourage individuals to take responsibility for their own health characterised the content of public health reports throughout the 1980s and 1990s. In 2004 the Choosing Health white paper dropped explicit reference to health inequalities in what Elizabeth Dowler has described as a retreat ‘back towards lifestyle and behaviourist approaches’. Again public health was hailed as cost effective, but no systematic approach was implemented, despite this recommendation in the earlier Wanless review.

In Scotland, there have been signs of a different approach. Sir Harry Burns, appointed as chief medical officer, Scotland in 2005 has supported the role of asset-based approaches to public health. Asset-based approaches look at what existing resources people already have and seek to support them to sustain health and well-being rather than solely identifying good health as the absence of a list of ‘risk factors’. However research from the Scottish Public Health Observatory has warned that this approach could potentially widen health inequalities rather than reduce them.

What has struck me is not just the repetitiveness of the discussion and comment on public health from the 1970s, but how much it fails to take into account what we know about how people make choices about their health. In 1990 anthropologist Mildred Blaxter published her research on Health and Lifestyles. She concluded that if people lived in good circumstances ‘healthy’ behaviour had a strong influence on health, but that if circumstances were bad, then adopting ‘healthy’ behaviours made little difference. Moreover, few people’s lifestyles were either totally healthy, or totally unhealthy; some people smoke, but takes lots of exercise, while others may not smoke, eat well, but not do exercise. Thus an approach to health promotion that simply advocates a list of health do’s and don’ts is limited in its effectiveness, because it doesn’t take into account the realities of people’s lives.

I’ll leave you this week with this thought from pioneering social researcher Richard Titmuss, who established Social Policy as an academic discipline: 

‘when we study welfare systems we see that they reflect the dominant cultural and political characteristics of societies.’ 

-What kind of culture does our current system of care reflect?

The Value of Work


Recently I’ve been struck by the number of TV programmes gracing our screens that have been dubbed ‘Poverty Porn’. The premise of shows such as Benefits Street and The Job Centre seems to be that there is a whole section of the population who are ‘scroungers’ and ‘skivers’, who choose to be out of work and reliant on benefits and therefore deserve the scrutiny of the television lens. This is in contrast to the rest of us who are in work and ‘strivers’ who are obviously part of hardworking families we’ve heard so much about in the past few months.

Work has been extolled as the solution to poverty by a variety of politicians including Iain Duncan Smith who claimed: ‘In improving people’s prospects, the evidence has always held that work is the best way for individuals to lift themselves and their children out of poverty.’ (Full speech available here)

In fact the sheer volume of governmental reports relating to unemployment and the need to get people off benefits and into work is overwhelming. As I write up my PhD and reflect on the experiences of those I have worked with I’ve been thinking about what we mean by work and what we think, or want, it to do for us.

Moving away from the financial claims made by those touting the value of work (which have been questioned and critiqued here), the themes emerging from my research with the CommonHealth project has made me start to think through some of the health implications surrounding the issue of employment and quality of work .

A report from the DWP found that:

‘Work can be therapeutic and can reverse the adverse health effects of unemployment. That is true for healthy people of working age, for many disabled people, for most people with common health problems and for social security beneficiaries. The provisos are that account must be taken of the social context, the nature and quality of work, and the fact that a minority of people may experience contrary effects.’

Of interest here is the question of the ‘nature and quality’ of work and what might contribute to work that can be considered therapeutic.

The implication in the report is that it is paid work that can offer solutions to the negative health effects of unemployment. But some of my early findings suggest that the value of work and its effect on health is less related to the payment of wages and more in the satisfaction of producing something, offering a service to someone and getting positive feedback on something you have achieved.

Lorna (one of my research participants) told me about the others things, beyond money, that she gets out of her involvement with the group: ‘I’ve never had a wage from it but there are other rewards like when you finish a product and someone says ‘Oh that’s great I want to buy that!’’. Jo described to me how good it felt to run an informal lunch club and know that people enjoyed and valued the service she gave. Stacey valued the activities in her group as something that gave her a rest from the other worries in her life; she said, ‘If you’re busy doing something you relax more’.

This kind of informal (and unpaid work) is not only of benefit to those involved but also to their families and communities who will benefit from the provision of certain services and a potentially more relaxed home life. In Oxfam Scotland’s work on the HumanKind Index they found that one of the factors people ranked as most important to their quality of life was ‘satisfactory work (paid or unpaid)’.

The distinction that we need to draw here is that the kind of short-term, low paid work offered to people on unemployment benefits is not the kind of work associated with the therapeutic benefits identified in recent research. Much of the paid work currently on offer may not deliver an acceptable standard of living, yet it is still held up as the ideal activity for all in society. With this in mind it is important to question what other purposes it serves and what, in an ideal world, we want work to look like.

The social value of Social Value


From very early on in this research it was clear that a central role must be given to social enterprises themselves. There was no point in only considering theory or speaking to ‘high heid-yins’, the voices of social enterprise leaders were needed to reflect the actual work of social enterprises.

But how?

The process needed to be able to gather detailed data on what the organisation does, what it produces and for what people, while also not being so time-consuming to prevent a broad cross-section of voices being gathered. The answer lay in evaluative reports: Social Accounts/Audit (SAA), and Social Return on Investment (SROI).

For those who have never encountered one of these reports, I recommend you do. Conceived as a repost to traditional financial accounting which detail the income and outgoings of businesses in terms of financial value, Social Accounts concern themselves with the social value created by the organisation. SROI involves an almost identical process, only with the addition of a financial representation of the social value produced, using the market prices of alternative methods of achieving the same social outcomes.

The reports are written with meticulous detail, regarding the organisation’s work and the impacts it has on people and the environment. Many are more than 100 pages long, are backed-up with qualitative and quantitative research and externally ‘audited’ by certified individuals. Some organisations compile such accounts every few years, using them alongside tenders and grant applications, justifying their work to the community, and self-reflecting on the work they do and what it achieves.

Despite these benefits and potential applications, a number of respondents have warned of the dangers of engaging in this form of evaluation, sometimes described as a ‘non-core’ activity. While recognising the long-term benefits of engaging in the process, it was claimed that the time it could take to compile them could have detrimental short-term impacts in terms of both the social mission of the organisation, and its sustainability.

And then there is the issue of the financial proxies. An SROI ratio denotes the number of £s of social value produced for each £ invested in the organisation. In this way, social enterprises may be favoured by the tendering process as they claim to achieve many different targets simultaneously. One worry, however, is the validity of the proxies used to calculate the financial price of social value. For example: ‘volunteers valuing their ability to give back by contributing to society’ is represented by ‘cost to individual who volunteers in Uganda for 12 months’. This proxy may have been chosen for the purpose of maximising the financial representation of the social value produced, rather than the accuracy in reflecting the price of recreating the social value. This may be beneficial to the organisation in the short term but might have the effect of gradually reducing trust in SROIs over time.

My brief analysis of the pros and cons of these reports does not do justice to the arguments surrounding them. However, what I can say is that they have proved invaluable to me in gathering data on the work and outcomes of social enterprises in Scotland. So whatever else in the writing, reading or interpretation of them could be criticised, the social value to me and my work is substantial.

For more information on Social Accounting and Social Return on Investment, visit the following websites:

Social Audit Network-

Social Value UK-

Knowledge Exchange Forum 2015

This was the third Knowledge Exchange Forum that we’ve hosted as part of the CommonHealth research programme. Instead of the old faithful academic communication method of PowerPoint and presentation we ran a series of workshops that aimed to give participants an insight into our very different research methods and draw them into our research process. We hoped that by revealing more about what we do and how we do it, we’d gain valuable feedback from our Forum members that come from the academic, social enterprise and health policy backgrounds.

The ‘history’ workshop: Déjà vu

For my workshop on historical approaches to researching the history of social enterprise as a public health initiative I tried as much as possible to immerse participants in the archive material that I work with on a daily basis. I enlisted the help of University archivist Carole McCallum, who did a great job of dispelling the myth that an archive was a dusty old place where men with white beards went to shelter from the rain. We set the participants the challenge of reading some handwritten documents and later we looked at a series of annual reports and social accounts produced by social enterprises between the 1980s and early 2000’s.

What was great to see was that the Forum members had similar reactions to the material that I have had over the last year. From the handwritten correspondence they too found a window on a way of communicating and negotiating with funding bodies that we seem to have lost in our present-day archivecommitment to application forms. For others, currently working in the social enterprise sector, reading the reports from the 1990s provoked was an overwhelming sense of déjà vu, as many of the challenges that initiatives were facing then were the same as those being faced now. For me this was perhaps the most important lesson of the workshop, underlining why we want to engage members of the social enterprise sector in our research. If through our research we can help to overcome some of these challenges we’ll know that we’ve done our job properly.

I hope that in years to come people can look at the archive documents as ‘the way things were done back then’ rather than feel the haunting sense of déjà vu.

You can read more about ‘The History Project’ here

Dr Gill Murray

Passage From India workshop

I’ve just finished facilitating a session at our Knowledge Exchange Forum, I’m always so nervous before events like this but it could not have gone better. The aim of the session was to give people an insight into the research methods I’ve used in my PhD and for the CommonHealth programme. I showed two videos that gave a snapshot of the project I’ve been working on and asked the group to highlight what they thought were interesting issues to follow up in interviews and fieldwork (read a little more about my research here and here). The videos showed some of my research participants notebookstalking about their experiences in the groups I’ve been researching. We had some really great discussions about how to plan for interviews and periods of fieldwork. It was exciting to see that people were interested and intrigued by many of the same things that I had been when undertaking this research. We talked about the language that women used to describe themselves, ‘just a mum’ said one woman, and the way that work, jobs and employment feature in the value that women place on their involvement in groups. We discussed the nature of work, and the quality of jobs that people have available to them. These are issues that I’m seeking to explore in the analysis and write up of this research and it was comforting to know that not only do other people see these as important and interesting but that I hadn’t simply made up these issues, or misunderstood what I was seeing. It was helpful to have fresh eyes on the work I’ve been so close to for so long.

As I’m currently in the process of writing my PhD I often feel that any time spent away from this is a waste. In actual fact the Forum provided exactly what I needed- time away from writing and a renewed sense of purpose. Hearing the interest and seeing the enthusiasm for the research I had conducted reminded me that I do enjoy what I do and that there is a world out there (or at least the 15 people in the session!) who thinks that my research is interesting and important. Now, back to writing…

Clementine Hill O’Connor

Contemporary Analysis Workshop: Drawing on opinions, lines and lessons

One of the methods I have used in getting to the bottom of how social enterprises can impact upon health is to analyse evaluative reports (in the forms of Social Accounts and Social Return on Investment reports) of social enterprises in Scotland. These reports are written by the organisations themselves, before being externally ‘audited’ or ‘accredited’ to ensure accuracy. They represent a comprehensive record of the activities of a social enterprise, and what effects those activities have.

Yesterday’s workshop immersed the group in the same process, identifying the activities and outcomes of social enterprises and connecting the two through the claims of the organisations. Bringing these reports together allows an acknowledgement of the different ways in which an aim can be achieved, as well as generating a broad understanding of the potential outcomes of a specific activity. This initial Drawing linesfindings provide a welcome reminder that for every problem sought to be addressed by social enterprises, there are tried and tested methods of overcoming them. This can appear daunting as it sometimes seems that every cause could result in every effect. But the knowing look of some of the social enterprise practitioners in the room has returned my optimism, both in the validity of my findings, and in the future use of social enterprises in achieving its goals.

There are more details about the project available here

 Bobby Macaulay

“I have been speaking to people up and down the country…”


I’m writing this blog on the day of the most interesting election in decades. The old tennis match of British politics, with the ball being knocked across the net every 5 or 10 years, has been replaced by World of Warcraft- a new political landscape which the old guard doesn’t understand and are frantically asking the young people to help them with. By the time you read this there will be more claims of legitimate power than an episode of ‘Game of Thrones’ and the majority of the UK will say they are underrepresented by the resulting government, assuming there is one at all!

Representation is key to politics, candidates are voted for because they represent the views of the voter, and are then tasked with doing so in parliament. Claims of representing the views of the populace then justify, rightly or wrongly, many of the decisions made in parliament. Every party claims to represent the people, so who is telling the truth? How do they know they are representing people’s views? This issue of representation is something that I myself have been grappling with throughout my research. So let’s consider some of the ways in which this can be done.

One of the ways I am attempting to discover how social enterprises impact upon people’s health is through analysing social impact reports. After searching through all available reports, only 17 were found to be written by social enterprises in Scotland which, I would guess, forms only a tiny fraction of the sector. So can the results of my analysis be claimed to be representative?

Perhaps they can in the same way that Ed Miliband claims the existence of a labour surge, based on the people he has spoken to “up and down the country”. Ed is a busy man and can only speak to so many people. Of the total population of people that he is capable of speaking to, the vast majority have told him that they will be voting for him. I recognise that there are other factors influencing who those people happen to be but, limitations aside, is there anything wrong with the conclusion he has derived from his research?

Another method I am using is to focus on case studies of three organisations in an attempt to understand context-specific factors relevant to the work and impacts of social enterprises. This process of focusing on very few areas and attempting to garner data which is relevant to the entire country appears very similar to UKIP’s election policy. Nigel Farage tends to focus his research on certain constituencies and is truthfully told by residents there of their support for him. He then generalises those findings to the whole country. Is there anything inherently wrong with this method?

My third stream of research involves interviewing ‘industry experts’ regarding their views on the potential cross-overs between public health and social enterprise. I am considering them as interested parties who have a strategic knowledge of each sector and the ramifications of any decisions affecting them. It is not difficult to see the similarities to David Cameron’s use of the open letter signed by thousands of small business owners claiming to represent the sector and warning of the dire consequences of voting Labour. Are the Tories wrong to use this result for campaign purposes?

The answer to the above questions is no. Their methods appear valid and there is nothing to suggest the results have been tampered with. So why have they arrived at three different conclusions? The difference between me and these politicians is that I would like to arrive at one particular conclusion and I don’t know what it is yet, whereas they want to arrive at three conclusions knowing exactly what they want them to be. They are conducting research to arrive at a result which is already known. Which begs the question, how is it known? How do they know they are representing the people without knowing what the people want? One hypothesis is that they don’t know what the people want, they don’t care about representation and they are justifying their own ideological standpoints through a façade of research.

But I would need to test that hypothesis so I don’t get labelled a hypocrite, or even worse, a politician.

(Stop Press! In light of the monumental differences between the opinion polls and today’s result, perhaps it’s not just politicians that need to consider their research methods!)