Category Archives: Social Science

Alan Dronsfield: A chemical, medical and social history of cocaine

On Tuesday 3rd November, the Williams Project welcomed back Professor Alan Dronsfield from the University of Derby to give a talk on the historical uses of cocaine. As we had learnt from his previous talks at the WP, Professor Dronsfield is a clear, experienced speaker whose keen interest in his topic is infectious.
Professor Dronsfield opened his talk by showing us six pictures of famous historical people who had taken cocaine in some form; Thomas Edison and even Queen Victoria among them. This helped him make the point that cocaine was once a common thing, before we were fully aware of its dangers. He told us that teas containing cocaine were common, and that the original form of the drink Coca-Cola contained a form of cocaine. However, he also explained that one form of cocaine had incredible medicinal value, specifically for dentistry purposes. For in the time before the mouth-numbing injection you can get today, you had to have your fillings done without anaesthetic, which was very difficult for the dentists. However, some scientists discovered that, by injecting cocaine into the patient’s mouth, they wouldn’t feel any pain and would even be a bit euphoric. This became common practice for quite some time before better methods were discovered which didn’t have such effects on the brain. Professor Dronsfield finished his talk by showing us a graph of lots of common recreational drugs and how they compared in terms of harmfulness. Cocaine was actually found to be less harmful than heroine, crack and, surprisingly, alcohol.
Professor Dronsfield’s talk was well-presented and very interesting, and we look forward to having him back again in the future.

Thomas Lockley

Alan Dronsfield

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Lynne Russell (Restorative Justice 4 Schools): resolving conflict, telling the truth, taking responsibility

Lynne Russell spoke about how her organisation works with schools to help young people manage their behaviour. Restorative justice ‘not only allows the harmer to see the impact of their behaviour but also allows the “harmed” person the opportunity to see if they contributed to the conflict in anyway by their own behaviour. Both participants are then able agree their own joint contract of how they are going to treat each other in the future, this gives them a personal stake in the success of the contract.’ Hard-hitting videos from offenders who had had to confront their victims reinforced the power and effectiveness of this approach. A really interesting, and moving, afternoon.

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Jamie Smith and Param Sura: Conspiracy Theories

Some months ago these two members of the UV asked if they could run a WP meeting on conspiracy theories: this was it. It was a slick presentation, clearly and powerfully delivered, and with deft handling of questions. They covered a series of conspiracy chestnuts: the Illuminati, JFK, Michael Jackson’s death, Osama bin Laden’s “death”, the Boston bombings, and of course 9/11. Carefully steering the line between scepticism and gullibility, they explained and illustrated the reasons why some suspect that the orthodox version of these events is not the truth. An exciting and thought-provoking way to end the year.

Angela Findlay: Getting out of prison with a paintbrush: is prison punishment or rehabilitation?

Angela Findlay (www.angelafindlay.com) gave two really excellent talks to the Williams Project, based on her twenty years’ experience encouraging prisoners to paint and draw. After a shocking introduction to the demographics of the prison population (particularly the huge proportion of prisoners with mental health issues), she described how she worked, for example, with two prisoners sharing a canvas: it was fascinating to observe (and, for the prisoners, revealing and therapeutic) the different responses to borders – how much would they genuinely share the space, and how much would they mark off half-way and stick to their own side?

Sue Cunningham: Heart of Brazil

Sue and her husband Patrick are photographers who do lots of work for the Indigenous People’s Cultural Support Trust, which seeks to raise awareness of issues affecting tropical forests and their indigenous  inhabitants. Sue is also a Fellow of the Royal Geographical Society, and her photographs have been exhibited at the Brazilian Embassy in London and in lots of other places; she’s also travelled to the Amazon with Sting and Anita Roddick.

Sue and Patrick are also both lovely and engaging people, and excellent communicators of their knowledge of and insights into the lives and traditions of indigenous peoples in Brazil. In particular they spoke about their ‘Heart of Brazil Expedition’ project, which involved travelling the 2,500 kilometres of the Xingu river in a small boat, visiting 48 tribal villages, and recording how the Indians are being affected by climate change and the conversion of rain forest to cattle pasture and agricultural land. They clearly showed us see the impact these changes are having on their traditional way of life and cultures.

Rupert Read: How Scientific are the Social Sciences?

WP-regular Dr Rupert Read, from UEA in Norwich, outlined the argument from his recent book (Amazon) that the social sciences’ insistence on “scientific” methods and status was misguided. Economists are wrong to rely on unrealistic models of human economic behaviour, firstly as they are bound to be erroneous, and secondly because such approaches lead to an immoral treatment of real people. Social science should be conducted more as a humanity – researchers should meet, get to know and discuss their questions with real people, and use skills like imagination and empathy to develop their insights.

Miss C. Cantopher: Post-structuralism and gender theory

A special end to the year: Miss Cantopher led us through the intricacies of sex and gender – beginning with the usual starting point – that sex is biological, and gender social – but then teasing this simplistic idea apart with statistics about how many people are born with no simple biological sex (about 1%), and images of how the performance of social gender roles is much more complicated than we first thought. She ended with a discussion of online gender performance – how, on sites like Facebook, and in online gaming, people can, and do, take on quite different and subtly nuanced gender roles: a burly (male) lorry-driver might play Skyrim as an androgynous elf; a young woman’s Facebook profile might show her as an old man. Miss Cantopher’s perturbing conclusion is that, if most of our waking hours are spent in such performance, which role is more real? We were left puzzling over and discussing informally this de(con)struction of the self.

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