Podcast: adoption, names & identities

In this 10-minute podcast, Dr Jan Flaherty and Associate Professor of Sociology Jane Pilcher (both of Nottingham Trent University) talk about the adoption name stories project. Topics include how the adoption name stories project fits it with Jane’s other research on names, what name stories are, who can take part in the adoption name stories study, and what it is all for anyway!

Children’s consumption of clothing: determined for them & determined by them

In this keynote talk for the ‘Not Only Dressed but Dressing‘ international series of workshops funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council, I argue that children’s consumption of clothing is determined for them by discourses of childhood, the workings of the production market and the everyday lifeworld and is also determined by them in their practices of what I call ‘me-making’.

Hey, teachers! Say my name (right)!

In this narrated presentation (published on Mondonomo’s website), I talk about why the pronunciation of people’s names matters, focusing on the example of students’ names in educational contexts including universities. I look at reasons why people’s names might get mispronounced and the emotions people feel when their names are said wrongly. The planned research project I talk about in the presentation is now funded & on-going – watch this space for updates about findings & policy recommendations!

5 things my university students have taught me

I’ve been teaching sociology at undergraduate and postgraduate level for over a quarter of a century now, beginning in the late 1980s. University level education in the UK has changed massively during this period.

Here are some of the things I have learnt from my students over the years.

Lesson 1: I’m old, and my life is their ‘history’

When I first started teaching at University level, I wasn’t that much older than my students. In 2018, my first-year sociology students were the same age as my own youngest child. Nowadays, I’m likely as old (or older) than my students’ parents.

The age structuring and funding regimes of UK education means that undergraduate student cohorts are almost all aged 18-22ish. I get older each year; the students are, eternally, aged 18-22ish. Cultural references I once relied upon to illustrate a point to my students are now met with blank faces, and so I have to try and come up with contemporary ones. In this way, my students have taught me a very real lesson about the ‘generation gap’, or how the population is structured by age.

Lesson 2: It IS about the money

I didn’t pay fees for my university education, but for many years, students now do. The introduction of tuition fees, and their rapid increase, means that students ARE more focused on the quality and value of what they are paying for.

Particularly since the trebling of tuition fees in England post-2010, successive cohorts of students have taught me that it IS about the money, money, money. Understandable, for sure, given the context. Yet, too few undergraduate students realise that, the more ‘investment’ they make through their own scholarly activities, the greater ‘value’ their degree course will have.

Lesson 3: Black (& minority ethnic) lives matter

I’m white. I have spent most of my academic career working in a university located within one of the most ethnically diverse cities in England. But the majority of students in my sociology classes over the years have been white, and, even in the current cohort, are white.

Yet, in the last several years, the rows of faces in my lectures have become more diverse: the proportion of black and minority ethnic students in my sociology classes is increasing.

My students have taught me the importance of developing and implementing a more inclusive sociology curriculum. For example, I now use Stuart Hall’s  ‘the West and the Rest’ in critique of ‘conventional’ accounts of how the origin of sociology is linked to the emergence of modernity. Typically, conventional accounts  neglect how European colonialism and slavery were integral to the very growth and character of European ‘modernity’.

Frankly, I’m ashamed that it took me so long to think critically about my sociology teaching in terms of its inclusivity – or lack thereof.

Lesson 4: Pathways & life-jackets

I come from a working-class, council-house dwelling, single-parent family. My pathway within higher education via sociology was largely unplanned. But it has transformed the trajectory of my life. It has been my life-jacket, lifting me above the achievements of my primary and secondary school peers from similar backgrounds.

My students have taught me that, for some, a university education in sociology is their own life-jacket. Students have told me how their choice to come to university, to study sociology, was a deliberate, purposeful, wholly conscious choice. For some, the choice was made to divert themselves from other more accessible but less salubrious, sometimes dangerous, pathways through life. These pathways might have included settling for locally available ‘shit-jobs’. Or pathways such as getting deeply involved in criminal activities, including gangs and/or drug cultures. It’s a privilege for me to be help these students put on their own life-jackets through studying for a sociology degree.

Lesson 5: Transformative memories

For those who go, university years are likely looked back on as amongst the best times of their lives. To be sure, the ‘hard work’ of lectures and seminars, writing essays, exams and so on probably feature rather less in those memories than other archetypal student experiences.

But my students have taught me that, for some at least, experiences of sociology modules themselves can be transformative, impactful and cherished long after graduation. I’ve had an ex-student write me a letter, sending me a poem I could use in seminars on the sociology of old age. I’ve had an ex-student stop me in the street, telling me that now, years later, she worked in management in banking and that the only text book she kept from her undergraduate studies was my Age and Generation in Modern Britain – because she had so enjoyed the module it was based on. I have had a ex-student tell me that, years after graduating, the only essay she kept from her sociology degree was one she had written for my module.

It’s easy for university educators to forget that, maybe, we might be providing these kinds of long-cherished, transformative memories for our students of their university years. That’s a lesson well learnt, at least by me.

Space Invaders: Part 3

This is part three of a talk I gave before an International Women’s Day special screening of ‘Hidden Figures’ at the University of Leicester. For parts one and two of my talk, see the previous posts.

……Ann Oakley might not have helped put men on the moon, like the women did in our film this evening.

But as Oakley has herself reflected, the practical impact of scientific inquiry can occur by opening up a debate, by highlighting an issue that was not regarded as an issue before – in her case, by destabilising the masculine space that is the established understanding of what does and what does not count as work, and of what does and does not matter in the social world.

Continue reading Space Invaders: Part 3

Space Invaders: part 2 of a pre-screening talk for ‘Hidden Figures’

This is part two of a talk I gave before an International Women’s Day special screening of ‘Hidden Figures’ at the University of Leicester. For part one of my talk, see the previous post.

….Women who enter into occupations, organizations and institutions traditionally dominated by white men  – like Mary Anning, like Marie Curie, like the women in the film we are here to watch tonight – are ‘space invaders’: they are invading the masculine space, with all the attendant problems that invaders face – barriers, resistance, hostility and so on.


I didn’t grow up to be a physicist or a chemist like Marie Curie or a palaeontologist like Mary Anning – I grew up to be a sociologist instead. But I like to think that the curiosity I have about how the SOCIAL world works was inspired by the scientific curiosity about how the NATURAL world works shown by my role models, Marie Curie and Mary Anning.

As an A level sociology student aged 17 or so, I had a new role model – Ann Oakley, a rare woman sociologist included on the A level curriculum in the 1980s, and so a Space Invader herself, and now a Professor at University College London.

Earlier today, in fact, I gave a lecture to our 2nd year sociology students about Ann Oakley and her experiences as a pioneer woman sociologist in the UK in the late 1960s and early 1970s.

She was a Space Invader because in the UK at the time, only 13% of postgraduate degrees were awarded to women. She was a Space Invader because she undertook her post grad degree having already married and having had children. She was a Space Invader because of her topic of study – housework, which she argued, should be studied as WORK.

When Ann Oakley identified this topic of housework as WORK as the subject of her PhD, she was basically ridiculed and laughed at by the mostly male academics – it was not seen as a topic worthy of serious, academic study.

Anne Oakley has had the last laugh though, because her study of housework as work is now recognised by the Economic and Social Research Council as one of the most significant pieces of social research in the UK in the last 50 years. Oakley’s achievement was to have taken something widely regarded as insignificant, as a woman’s thing, so as unimportant, and to show that it is something worth examining and explaining…..

(part 3 to follow)

Hidden Figures: pre-screening talk for International Women’s Day 2017 (part one)

Hidden Figures is a film highlighting the important role played in the 1960s (and subsequently) by African American women mathematicians in NASA’s mission to put human beings in space. In celebration of International Women’s Day 2017, the Department of Physics and Astronomy at the University of Leicester put on a special showing of the film preceded by two short talks. One of the speakers was Professor of Planetary Plasma Physics, Emma Bunce, who spoke about her work in astronomy. I was the other speaker, tasked with addressing the theme of gender equality. Here is the first part of my talk, which I entitled ‘Space Invaders’. In subsequent posts, I will include the rest of the talk.

Space Invaders

The theme of my talk is gender equality, and along the way, I will be mentioning Marie Curie, Space Invaders and Donald Trump. Now, I think it’s safe to say that these three have never featured together in talk before, that this is a world first – perhaps there is a good reason for that, but let’s see how it goes!

Early in 2017, a study was published which showed that from the age of 6 or 7, girls begin to believe that intellectual smartness, genius and brilliance are qualities that boys and men have rather than girls and women.

We need women role models like the ones depicted in the film we are all here to watch this evening to counteract this kind of gender stereotyping which narrows down the world views of girls. For studies show that role models matter – social research shows that girls and women both rely on and benefit from same-gender role models, more so than boys and men do. When girls and women see other girls and women doing stuff that is non-traditional for their gender, this exposure breaks down their own gender stereotypes and gives girls and women more confidence in their skills and aspirations.

When I was a child, I had two role models that inspired me – they showed me how women can have a scientific curiosity about the natural world, and make a difference to our knowledge about it. Mary Anning, the early 19th C. fossil collector from Dorset, was one of my role models. I too collected fossils as a girl – I still have them actually, in a suit case in my loft – and here she was, a girl like me, doing the very same thing ages and ages ago.

My second role model as a child was Marie Curie, the Polish-French Nobel Prize winning physicist and chemist, famous for her work on radioactivity and radium. I vividly remember devouring, over and over again, the Ladybook book on ‘Madame Curie’, and being fascinated by her achievements – and even more intrigued by the fact that she did all that and she had been MARRIED, and she was a MOTHER!

Although I probably couldn’t have articulated it then, it mattered to me that both Mary Anning and Marie Curie were women and were successful in activities that were otherwise dominated by men.

And this is where Space Invaders come into my talk. Not Space Invaders the video game that some of you in the audience might remember. But Space Invaders in the sense of women working in occupations and activities that are otherwise dominated by men. Space Invaders in this sense is a concept developed by a former Leicester colleague, the sociologist Nirmal Puwar, now at Goldsmiths in London. It describes the experiences of women who enter into occupations, organizations and institutions traditionally dominated by white men.

(part two to follow….)

‘Synths’, ‘Robots’, ‘Cyborgs’? Rethinking similarities and differences in social relations

Have you been watching ‘Humans’, the British science fiction television series about a society (in the not too far distant future) where much of the work is done by ‘synths’ (human-like advanced robots)? You might have also seen the (2004) movie ‘I, Robot’ starring Will Smith, and more recently, the movie, ‘Ex Machina’ (2015), starring Alicia Vikander. All focus on the troubling question of what makes a human in the context of technological developments which obscure boundaries between ‘natural’ beings and ‘technological’ beings –  and especially, in ‘Humans’ and ‘Ex Machina’, the story-lines have interesting things to say about gender.

In the social sciences, it’s the concept of ‘the cyborg’ that has been used to analyse the ways that advanced technologies blur boundaries between, on the one hand, ‘natural’ human bodies and, on the other, ‘artificial’, ‘automated’ and ‘digital’ human bodies. It’s a concept especially associated with Donna Haraway, a US professor whose work has focused on science, technology and feminism. In her original formulation, Haraway defined cyborgs as ‘hybrid creatures’, composed of those ‘special kinds’ of organisms and machines appropriate to the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries (Haraway 1991). More recently, Haraway (2012) has argued that, rather than hybrids, cyborgs are best understood as ‘string figures’. In Haraway’s words, cyborgs are ‘things’ or ‘relatings’ that are ‘ontologically heterogeneous, historically situated, materially rich, virally proliferating’ and which are ‘constitutively full of multiscalar, multitemporal, multimaterial critters of both living and non-living persuasions’ (2012: 301).  As Lupton (2013) explains, this shift in Haraway’s understanding from cyborg as ‘hybrids’ to cyborg as ‘string figures’ is intended to emphasise the multiplicity and intricate complexities of the intertwinings, patternings and assemblages of technoscience, human bodies and animal bodies. Haraway’s argument is that concepts of cyborg/string figures hold promise as a way of re-thinking similarities and differences in social relations.

In gender studies, the concept of the cyborg – whether understood as a hybrid or as a string figure – has influenced analyses of relationships between nature, bodies and culture, and the theorising of identity and ‘difference’. For example, Fouché (2012) explores how the concept of the cyborg can be used to intervene in and reconceptualise commonly understood notions of gender, bodies, and identity in the world of sport. Fouché focuses on the case of Caster Semanya, an athlete whose exceptional performances in women’s track events lead to her being subjected to ‘gender verification’, via technoscience testing. In Fouché’s analysis, Semanya’s experiences show that sporting organizations have yet to develop a scientific understanding that bodies do not simply conform to the binary of female and male. Fouché concludes that embracing the cyborg in athletes has the potential to resolve deep-seated social tensions within sport around bodies and performance. ‘Specifically, the cyborg understanding of athletes can be leveraged to reconstruct competitions that are no longer based on sex or gender’ (2012: 289).

Park (2012) draws on Haraway’s cyborg concept in an examination of connections between digital communication technologies and motherhood. She argues that these technologies are integral to the practice of mothering in ways that ‘transform the maternal body, its location in time and space, and its engagement with others, making possible resistant forms of maternal agency’ (2012: 61). What Park calls ‘technologies of co-presence’ (including cell phones, email, social media and video calls) allow mothers to inhabit time and space differently, and so enable ‘presence’ with their children ‘at a distance’. Park concludes that ‘Cyborg mothering is thus a practice that enables us to resist self-sacrificing ideals of motherhood’ (2012: 71).

In Haraway’s original formulation, the cyborg was a mythical hybrid, regarded optimistically as a symbol for the development of analytical as well as practical political strategies for diminishing social relations of domination. As Lupton (2013) summarises, critics of Haraway’s approach have challenged the notion of cyborgs as disruptive and transgressive. The ‘forces of cyborgification’ (Davis-Floyd 1998) are argued by some critics to be powerfully aligned with already dominant, hegemonic cultural forces and to represent, in Lupton’s (2013) words, aggressive masculinised technophilia (for example, Squires 2000).

Whether as a source of inspiration or as a target of criticism, Haraway’s concept of the cyborg is a key reference point in a range of debates on the impact of scientific, technological developments for our understandings of ourselves, our bodies and our relations with organic and inorganic others. Who knows, maybe the scriptwriters and producers of ‘Humans’, ‘I, Robot’ and ‘Ex-Machina’ read a bit of Haraway in the development of their ideas?



Davis-Floyd, R. (1998) ‘From Technobirth to Cyborg Babies’ in Davis-Floyd, R. and Dumit, J. (eds.) Cyborg Babies. From Techno-Sex to Techno-Tots, London: Routledge.

digital health technologies’ (preprint), in Collyer, F. (ed.) (forthcoming), The Handbook of

Fouché, R. (2012) ‘Aren’t Athletes Cyborgs?: Technology, Bodies, and Sporting Competitions’, Women’s Studies Quarterly 40 (1 & 2): 281-293.

Haraway, D. (1991) Simians, Cyborgs and Women. The Reinvention of Nature, London: Free Association Press.

Haraway, D. (2012) ‘Awash in Urine: DES and Premarin® in Multispecies Response-ability’, Women’s Studies Quarterly 40 (1 & 2): 301-316.

Lupton, D. (2013) ‘The digital cyborg assemblage: Haraway’s cyborg theory and the new

Park, S. (2012) ‘Cyborg Mothering’ in Fenton Stitt, J. Reichert Powell, P. (eds.) Mothers Who Deliver: Feminist Interventions in Public and Interpersonal Discourse, New York: SUNY Press.

Social Theory for the Sociology of Health and Medicine, Houndmills: Palgrave Macmillan.

Squires, J. (2000) ‘Fabulous feminist futures and the lure of cyberculture’, in Bell, D. and Kennedy, B. (eds.) The Cybercultures Reader, London: Routledge.

My first sociological idol – Ann Oakley

In the 1980s, I came to be studying ‘A’ level sociology by accident (that’s a whole other story). My wonderful sociology teachers (first, Mavis Bayton and later, Janet Skinner) encouraged their students to venture beyond the course text (by Haralambos) and read sociological studies directly and in their original form. Through this route I discovered, amongst other things, that there were some women sociologists (who knew?) and that sociology was not just the study of activities of men – sociology included the study of women and their status and experiences in the world.

The pioneering work of Ann Oakley was important to me on both counts. I loved her focus on domestic labour in Housewife (the ‘popular’ version of her Sociology of Housework) and thought the cover so clever and memorable – looking just a like a packet of washing powder.


Her later work included studies of motherhood and childbirth – but it was her insightful analysis of housework that first got me hooked on her perspective on the gendered social world. Her work spoke to the feminist sociologist in the 17/18 year old me – and set me on the path to becoming a sociologist and undertaking my own work on gender.

In 2005, a collection of Ann Oakley’s writings were published in the The Ann Oakley Reader. In 2011 the British Sociological Association gave Ann Oakley one of their first Lifetime Achievement Awards in recognition of her extraordinary contribution to sociology. As Professor Oakley said in a recent interview (2013), ‘the point of [sociology] is not to theorize in an armchair kind of way, it’s about having some kind of practical impact, and sometimes you have that by opening a debate, by making people argue, and by highlighting an issue, like the treatment of women in childbirth, that was not regarded as an issue before’. She has certainly done that.



The Meaning of Names

For parents-to-be, choosing the forename of their baby can be both an exciting and daunting decision. For one thing, forenames have meanings. So, my forename ‘Jane’ is apparently a feminine form of ‘John’, which itself derives from the Hebrew name Johanan, meaning ‘God is gracious’. You can look up the meaning of your forename here.

I’m pretty sure my (non-religious parents) were unaware of its meaning when they chose my forename. I think their choice was more to do with trends and popularity of names at the time. In the 1960s, when I was born, Jane (along with Susan, Julie, Karen, Jacqueline, Deborah, Tracey, Helen, Diane, Sharon) was a top ten name for newborn girls in the UK. In 2013, Jane was not even a top 100 forename for newborn girls.

Names as cultural workhorses: age, sex and gender, and ethnicity and race

Sociologists are becoming more interested in the meaning of names, but not in the sense of George deriving from the Greek word ‘georgos’ meaning farmer, or Charles deriving from German and meaning ‘free man’. Instead, sociologists are interested in the meaning of names in terms of what I call ‘the cultural work’ that forenames and surnames do – what they tell us about a person’s  individual and social identity, and how names relate to people’s experiences and opportunities in society.

One aspect of the cultural work that names do is in terms of age. The fact that forenames wax and wane in popularity means there is an age distribution to forenames. Only 2% of the population aged under 20 have the forename Jane and the average age of individuals called Jane is 69 years old. In comparison, the average age of individuals called Elle is 10 years old. Forenames can be used, then, as a rough and ready guide to ‘age’ a person or to suggest their likely birth cohort.

Another aspect of the cultural work that forenames do is in terms of sex and gender. Invariably, forenames are sex and gender specific. This means they can be used as a robust predictor of an individual’s sex and gender (within particular cultural contexts).  There are very few names that are androgynous: most forenames are either exclusively girls’ names or exclusively boys’ names. Forenames, then, do important cultural work in ‘displaying’ sex and gender and are also important in helping ‘create’ gendered identities in the first place.

Names (forenames and surnames) also do cultural work in relation to ethnicity and racialized identities – and not always with favourable outcomes. Some studies have looked at the links between surnames, ethnicity and job opportunities. In the UK, a 2009 study for the Department of Work and Pensions  tested for racial discrimination in recruitment practices by sending out sets of equivalent applications to job vacancies across the UK, using names commonly associated with minority groups. It was found that, in order to secure a job interview, 74% more applications from candidates with ethnic minority names had to be sent out compared to candidates with ‘white’ names.

So, names are very important cultural workhorses: they can tell us a lot about social and cultural identities. Our forenames and our surnames matter a great deal socially and culturally, in both positive and negative ways.

What does YOUR name say about you?

Find out more

Finch, J. (2008) Naming Names: Kinship, Individuality and Personal Names. Sociology 42 (4): 709-725.

Hanks, P., Hardcastle, K. and Hodges, F. (2006) A Dictionary of First Names, Oxford: Oxford University Press.