What do aid agencies need to do to get serious on changing social norms?

How Change Happens

It is one of the big questions of our time: how should we react to the rising tide of nationalism and populism (not just in the UK and the US, but also in India and the Philippines)? The issue gives rise to the question of how aid agencies should best engage with social norms – the deeply held beliefs of what is natural, normal and acceptable – that underpin a lot of human behaviour, including how people treat each other and how they vote.

It’s quite common to hear progressive types (in which category I include Oxfam, for which I am a strategic advisor for Great Britain) to worry that while they have been busy having conversations on the evidence on this or that intervention/project, or the case for this or that policy change, they have ignored the tide of disillusionment with politics-as-usual that underpins the rise of populism. We need to engage the public in a wider conversation aimed at encouraging progressive norms, or opposing exclusionary ones.

Fair enough, but what strikes me in such conversations is just how much would need to change for that to become reality. What would a ‘guide to shifting norms’ cover? Here are a few thoughts.

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There doesn’t seem to be much evidence on how to change norms, such as what lies behind the increasing acceptance of the rights of people with disabilities, the age at which we deem childhood to end, or even why dog owners routinely pick up their pooches’ pooh in my local park, something that was unimaginable a generation ago? How do deliberate attempts at change interact with the forces of demographic, technological or cultural change that also help drive norm shifts? This is one area where we really do need more research, both historical and current.

One of the areas of research I have come across is on violence against women, and a fascinating paper that showed that independent feminist movements are one of the strongest explanatory factors behind progress in this area. A Filipina activist memorably described the best way to change laws and policies on gender rights as being like cooking a rice cake – you need simultaneous heat from the top (via the machinery of the UN) and heat from the bottom (from women’s movements).

Up until now, a lot of work on norms has revolved around legislative change, whether through international laws and conventions, or at national level. One way of looking at the current populist backlash is that such a legal approach has overreached – the laws on issues such as racism or hate crimes have become so removed from the actual norms inside people’s heads that they are prompting a backlash, like that against ‘political correctness’. We need to find other, non-legal ways to close the gap.

We also need to involve more people from the disciplines that really ‘get’ norms – those that delve inside people’s hearts and minds, like psychology and anthropology, rather than the current intellectual dependence on economics, law and political science, which seem to have an impoverished understanding of what goes on inside people’s heads.

What those disciplines could help us do is completely rethink our approach to ‘power analysis’. Although we pay lip service to ‘power within’ in terms of people’s sense of individual rights and agency, the kind of power analysis we use to design our projects and campaigns usually reverts straight back to the formal power of money and political influence.

A ‘power within’ analysis would look at the moments in people’s lives when norms are formed or reformed, and the crucibles that forge them. I suspect that would lead us to give priority to three arenas in particular: the family, faith organisations, and early years education As Aristotle said, “Give me a child until the age of seven and I will show you the man”.

Action

How to put this knowledge to good use? Engaging seriously with norms would require different research, different messages, and different partners.

Firstly, it would mean moving beyond the standard approach to trying to persuade the public by amassing a pile of statistics and evidence (memorably satirised by an Australian critic as ‘bad shit; facty, facty’ papers). One Oxfam leader suggested: ‘start with the emotion, then follow up with the evidence’. Guiding or influencing emotion and narrative is a whole skill in itself, and would require its own brand of evidence in terms of testing to identify the narratives that actually succeed in getting through to people. We do that in fundraising, and a bit in campaigns, but we have to become more imaginative on our narratives and more rigorous in our testing of them.

We also need far more engagement with faith organisations, parents (especially mothers) and early years teachers. Our traditional partners (media, civil society organisations and academics) could also play a role, perhaps more in changing norms rather than in their initial formation, but this would definitely entail a big shake-up of our partners. One example from Oxfam’s current work is the Female Food Heroes TV programme in Tanzania, which works to change norms around the roles of women in agriculture. Elsewhere there is evidence of the impact of soap operas on gender norms. More of that please!

Beyond the individual, societal norm shifts are often linked to critical junctures such as the impact of war on women’s rights. Getting serious about norms would mean developing the ability to sense and respond to such moments as windows of opportunity.

OUP author Duncan Green is in Australia to promote How Change Happens

Oxford Word of the Month: April – Thongophone

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noun: (also thongaphone, thong-o-phone) a percussive musical instrument formed by a series of hollow PVC pipes of varying lengths, the ends of which are struck with a rubber clapper such as a thong.

THE STORY BEHIND THE WORD OF THE MONTH

In a 2014 posting on the video-sharing website YouTube a man can be seen playing the theme song from popular television series Game of Thrones on what is captioned as a ‘thongophone’. What immediately stands out is that the musician plays the instrument with a pair of thongs, traditional Australian footwear otherwise known as flip-flops, jandals, slides, or slaps. The thongophone looks something like a pipe organ, and the thongs are used to strike the open ends of the pipes to produce low resonant sounds. The novelty of the instrument is apparent in one of the first pieces of evidence for the term:

What’s a thongaphone? I hear you ask. For those who can’t make it to the Merry Muse, I’ll describe the thing. It looks like a cross between a xylophone, a giant set of pan pipes and a plumber’s nightmare and when hit with thongs provides a tuneful bass line. In fact, considering it’s fashioned from PVC piping, it’s surprisingly melodious. (Canberra Times, 4 February 1990)

Much of the evidence for this term highlights the peculiarity of the instrument, its makeshift nature, and its appearance as a do-it-yourself instrument at school events. The earliest reference so far located comes from a 1990 newspaper article in the context of a Circus Oz performance. In this instance the word takes the form thong-o-phone, one of a number of variant forms.

The evidence indicates that the term thongophone is originally Australian, although the instrument itself can be found in South-East Asia, including Papua New Guinea. Another clue to its Australianness is the use of the word thong for the rubber sandal acting as a clapper. While the word thong is also used in North America for this kind of footwear, it is ubiquitous in Australian English and culture. In other varieties of English, thong usually means a narrow strip of leather (or other material), a skimpy bathing garment, or a style of underwear like a G-string.

The existence of two earlier Australian terms for makeshift musical instruments that also end in –phone (lagerphone and Fosterphone) is another pointer to the thongophone’s Australian pedigree. The combining form –phone denotes an instrument using or connected with sound, as in megaphone and xylophone, and ultimately derives from Greek phōnē, ‘sound, voice’. The lagerphone is another improvised musical instrument made by loosely fitting rows of beer-bottle tops to a pole, which is then struck to create a jingling sound. This term goes back to the 1950s and the instrument is commonly found in Australian bush bands. A more recent instrument is the Fosterphone, which is a cardboard beer carton drummed with the hands to create a percussive sound. The term is derived from a blend of the proprietary name Foster’s Lager and lagerphone, with evidence from the 1980s. Thongophone is also likely to have been modelled on lagerphone.

The relative ease of making this instrument from different lengths of PVC pipe, with a cheap pair of thongs as clappers, makes the thongophone a favourite with children. Its novelty and deep resonant percussive sounds see it continue to pop up at festivals and workshops across Australia:

It’s hard not to have fun when you’re banging out a rhythm on a wheelie bin or discovering funky bass riffs on a thongaphone. (Warwick Daily News, 30 March 2011)

Even the Australian Chamber Orchestra is aware of its musical possibilities, here in collaboration with Sydney schoolchildren:

[Richard] Tognetti and ACO musicians will help music teacher and cellist Rachel Scott include students in on a composition for strings, xylophones, chimebars and thongaphone… . (Sydney Southern Courier, 24 May 2011)

 Australia’s thongophone—destined one day for the concert hall?

 Thongophone will be considered for inclusion in the next edition of the Australian National Dictionary.

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Government seeks input into nationwide phonics assessment and numeracy check

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The Federal Government has called for feedback to inform the development of a new nationwide phonics assessment and numeracy check.

A questionnaire on the Department for Education and Training  website is the next step in the staged implementation of the checks, announced by Minister for Education and Training Simon Birmingham in late January.

The assessments of Year 1 students’ literacy and numeracy skills aim to identify students who are behind so they can be targeted with interventions to prevent an achievement gap from widening. It follows three significant national and international reports in 2016 that revealed Australia’s education performance had plateaued or declined.

The questionnaire will inform an Expert Advisory Panel, consisting of principals, teachers, speech specialists, academics and researchers, which will report to the Education Council in mid-2017.

It asks respondents their opinions on the potential benefits of the checks, ways of maximising their effectiveness, the challenges associated with their introduction and the use of the information gained through the checks in the classroom.

The questionnaire is open until 17 March, 2017, and any persons interested have been asked to respond.

Celebrity activism: do we really need another hero?

In Media and Society (6th ed. pp. 380–382), we discuss the pervasiveness of celebrity activism, particularly in recent times, considering social media’s ubiquity. Celebrity activists, including celanthropists (celebrity-philanthropist) and other cause endorsers and advocates locate themselves under multiple ‘issue’ banners. Some of these include humanitarianism, feminism, and political activism. Such celebrity engagement is not a new phenomenon. Now, though, it seems that connection to a cause is almost an expectation of celebrities as a method to leverage individual celebrity ‘brand(s)’. However, the explosion of celebrity activists providing opinions on various social, economic, environmental, and cultural issues, and pursuing charity and aid as self-interested pursuits can be problematic.

Critiques of celebrity activism include that it oversimplifies issues when celebrities lecture the public by assuming authority about complex matters, and that such activism tends to centre on the celebrity and their brand while diverting from substantive issues. By reflecting on some examples of celebrity activism aimed at counteracting the success of Donald Trump during the latter stages of the 2016 American Presidential campaign, we can briefly contemplate these critiques of celebrity activism in political and media landscapes.

We saw many politically motivated speeches, memes and videos by celebrities become ‘viral’ during the US election campaign. Some celebrities spoke out in the mainstream media, while many also regularly took to their social media platforms such as Facebook and Twitter to discuss politics. Further, they often spoke about the candidates personally – Donald Trump and Hilary Clinton, in particular – in both positive and negative ways. Often, sharing opinions and having these opinions re-shared on social media amplifies the celebritisation of politics. Whether such activism achieves its intended political goals may be questioned. However, what can’t be disregarded is the way these uses of social media and celebrity attract mainstream media attention. This, therefore, reinforces the perception of celebrities as effectual activists, and the tools of social media as politically valuable ones.

One of the viral videos during the Trump campaign featured Hollywood royalty, Robert De Niro, declaring: ‘I’d like to punch [Trump] in the face’. In another of the key anti-Trump videos, celebrities such as Mark Ruffalo and Robert Downey Jr. used humour to mock their own fame in an to attempt to encourage people to vote. Since Trump’s election, Meryl Streep, also a member of Hollywood’s elite, took the stage of the 2017 Golden Globes to accept a lifetime achievement award, and used her time to discuss Trump, without actually naming him, but drawing attention to Trump’s behaviour in imitating a disabled journalist, and how this might be indicative of his future leadership style.

Each of these instances of celebrity activism received varied reactions. De Niro’s allusion to violence was considered troublesome, the ‘shit ton’ of celebrities in the Ruffalo campaign were regarded as incompatible with everyday Americans, and Streep was rebuked for misusing and misunderstanding her privilege to allege that those in the room at the Golden Globes ‘belong to the most vilified segments of American society right now’. This last critique represents perhaps both problems raised above: the distraction of celebrity (in this case drawing attention to Streep herself), and the oversimplification of issues. Streep’s statement about the vilification of celebrities failed to recognise the distance between elite ‘outsiders’ such as celebrities and the sectors of American society less able to protect themselves from condemnation and marginalisation because of their absence of wealth, status and power. None of the celebrity activism resulted in Trump’s defeat, due to a myriad of other concerns and forces at play in democracy, although it’s worth considering what such activism that resulted in mass media attention did achieve. Does the attention it brings signal that many people feel alienated from traditional politics?

Celebrity activism, as noted, can be controversial for several reasons. However, celebrity political activists can sometimes articulate what others cannot by using their privilege to speak up and out in mainstream and online media cultures to mass audiences. Therefore, even for this reason alone, there can sometimes be a place for celebrity activism in the quest for social and political change in the current cultural climate. Celebrity activism thrives during this time of dissatisfaction with traditional politics, and it is unlikely that this will be the last election that celebrity activists take to the stage to perform supporting roles.

9780195597240Sarah Casey  works at Griffith University and is an author on the sixth edition of Media and Society (2016).

Beware the Drop Bear

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It is large and predatory, ambushing its prey from above. It targets tourists and finds Vegemite repellent. It is the mythical Australian drop bear.

‘Drop bear’ was one of 300 terms added to Oxford Dictionaries’ free online dictionary of current English.

OxfordDictionaries.com described the drop bear as, “A mythical marsupial resembling a koala, said to live in trees and attack people by dropping on to their heads from above.”

The entry includes the example of usage, “someone told him that he needed to put Vegemite behind his ears to ward off the drop bears”.

So, where did the myth of this fierce marsupial, supposedly repelled by the scent of Vegemite, come from?

According to the Australian National Dictionary Centre, in 1980 Nancy Keesing provided the first recorded mention of the drop bear. She suggested the term emerged in the Second World War period for the benefit of gullible American servicemen.

As the new entry in OxfordDictionaries.com reveals, the legend is showing no signs of fading.

Earlier this year, Tamworth Regional Council approved the idea of giving a previously unnamed road the name ‘Drop Bear Lane’, while some of Australia’s most respected cultural and environmental organisations and companies have warned tourists of the dangers of walking through forested areas where the drop bear lives.

An official page of the Australian Museum describes the drop bear, or Thylarctos plummetus as:  “a large, arboreal, predatory marsupial related to the Koala.”

“Bush walkers have been known to be ‘dropped on’ by drop bears, resulting in injury including mainly lacerations and occasionally bites.”

The South Australian Government Department of Environment, Water and Natural Resources warned travellers of the risks of the drop bear, while a National Geographic study revealed international tourists were most likely to be targeted by the ferocious marsupial.

For the full record of drop bear in Australian English, see the Second Edition of the Australian National Dictionary.

Visit OxfordDictionaries.com to find out about other words in its latest update, including ‘yas’, ‘haterade’, ‘fitspo’ and ‘craptacular’.

Yarning Strong author Ali Cobby Eckermann wins one of the world’s richest literature awards

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Oxford University Press Australia & New Zealand congratulates Yarning Strong: His Father’s Eyes author, Ali Cobby Eckermann, on winning one of the world’s richest literature prizes for her poetry.

The celebrated Indigenous poet and writer was one of eight recipients of the 2017 Windham-Campbell prize, who each received $215,000. The prizes were awarded to writers of poetry, fiction, nonfiction and drama.

Eckermann wrote His Father’s Eyes, part of the OUP ANZ and Laguna Bay Publishing Yarning Strong series. The Indigenous education series is aimed at young Australians aged between 10 and 14 and their teachers, introducing readers to the experience of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people in Australia. A committee of Indigenous educators guided the development and content of the series, which have all been written by Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander authors.

His Father’s Eyes touches on the themes of absence of family, life changes, loss and fear of loss, and the discovery of strength through family.

Eckermann’s writing career began in 2009 with her first collection of poetry, Little Bit Long Time. Since then, she has published three collections of poetry, verse novels Ruby Moonlight and His Father’s Eyes and memoir Too Afraid to Cry, drawing on her experience as a member of the Stolen Generation. She is also the founder of the Aboriginal Writers’ Retreat.

The Windham-Campbell prize, established in 2013, aims to call attention to literary achievement and provide writers with the opportunity to focus on their work, independent of financial concerns.

English language writers from anywhere in the world are eligible, with recipients nominated confidentially by leaders in the literary field, and judged anonymously.

His Father’s Eyes is available from Oxford University Press.

 

 

 

Oxford Word of the Month: March – Corflute

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noun: a temporary sign or poster made of corrugated plastic sheeting.

THE STORY BEHIND THE WORD OF THE MONTH

Another election and another spate of corflute crimes in Gladstone. (Gladstone Observer, 31 May 2016)

2016 was a year of elections, here and elsewhere. It was also a year in which the corflute gained extra traction in our vocabulary.

The corflute is an essential campaign tool. It is a lightweight waterproof sign, usually printed with a candidate’s image, name, and party affiliation (if any). It can be found in shopping centres as a billboard, or cable-tied to trees and fences, or attached to a stake and stuck into the ground alongside roads and highways for the attention of passing motorists.

The word corflute derives from a proprietary name for the corrugated plastic sheeting used for temporary signage, and signs made from this have been a feature of Australian campaigns for many years. However, evidence of corflute in the sense of ‘a temporary sign’ is relatively recent, and dates from about 2000. It occurs chiefly in election contexts.

An early use of the word refers to a couple of disappointed Queensland car thieves:

The thieves, trying to find something of value, had pulled out the back seat to see what was in the boot. … All it contained was two corflutes the car’s owner had souvenired from Premier Peter Beattie and Member for Woodridge Mike Kaiser’s campaigns. (Brisbane Courier-Mail, 17 July 2000)

This item points to a problem associated with the use of corflutes—the ease with which they may be stolen. It is a recurring headache for political candidates. In 2004 the Cairns Post noted that:

Cairns candidates are counting the cost of stolen election signs, with some runners out of pocket more than $500. With still four days to go until the local government polls, corflutes across the city are disappearing daily by the dozen. (24 March)

Partisan vandalism is often suspected: ‘Member for Fisher Peter Slipper released a statement yesterday accusing the LNP and its supporters of conspiring against him by stealing and destroying corflutes.’ (Sunshine Coast Daily, 31 August 2013)

More recently the overuse of campaign corflutes has been regarded as a blot on the landscape:

The Hills Shire Times wants your help to clean up our district. It’s been more than a week since the election but political advertising boards, or corflutes, are still strewn across the Hills. (Hills Shire Times, 5 April 2011)

In the 2016 ACT election voters had to choose from a record number of candidates for an expanded Legislative Assembly. This meant many more signs were put up than usual, and public tolerance was pushed to the limit. It was described as ‘a war of corflutes’ and, post-election, an outlet for public frustration was planned:

In what had been billed as ‘the first ever post-election stomping of the corflutes’, the Like Canberra party called on Canberrans to gather their ‘legally obtained surplus corflutes’ to destroy them in what would be a cathartic experience for many people. Corflute whacking party organiser … Richard Tuffin said there had been a lot of anger about the density of corflutes. (Canberra Times, 16 October 2016)

Not surprisingly, evidence for the word corflute spiked significantly in 2016. With more elections ahead, the ‘stomping of the corflutes’ may catch on.

Corflute will be considered for inclusion in the next edition of the Australian National Dictionary.

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Oxford Word of the Month: February – Black Caviar odds

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nounvery short odds; strong favouritism.

THE STORY BEHIND THE WORD OF THE MONTH

Black Caviar odds first appears in print in 2011 referring to a possible Reserve Bank cut in the official interest rate on Melbourne Cup Day:

We are now headed for a Cup Day official interest rate cut and the banks will pass it on in full and quickly to borrowers. Both these predictions are at Black Caviar odds and just as certain. (Melbourne Herald Sun, 7 October)

The term refers to the champion racehorse Black Caviar, undefeated in 25 races between 2008 and 2013. Betting on Black Caviar entailed very short odds. This first evidence clearly links the transfer of the literal odds on a horse to anything that is likely to be strongly favoured, and hence not likely to bring in a good return on a bet.

In 2013 the Coalition was seen as the likely winner of the Australian federal election, with the Gold Coast Bulletin reporting that the Coalition was ‘getting into Black Caviar odds of $1.16 to take government in September’. (19 February) Although the term appears here in reference to an election—many Australians are keen to bet on the outcome of any contest—it is more often found in the sporting and horse racing worlds, as in the following examples.

In 2015, Australia faced Afghanistan in a World Cup cricket match and were strongly favoured to win:

Australia will start at Black Caviar odds but have been impressed by Afghanistan’s performances this tournament, most notably pace duo Hamid Hassan and Shapoor Zadran. (Canberra Times, 4 March)

And in 2016 we see it in a horse racing context:

[Trainer Stephen] Lee would be Black Caviar odds to lead in at least one winner from his five starters at his home meeting with every chance the triumph will come early. (Sydney Daily Telegraph 30 April)

Black Caviar odds is a variation of an older Australian English term with the same meaning, Phar Lap odds: ‘Whichever is successful will carry the proverbial ton of money and start at “Phar Lap” odds.’ (Cessnock Eagle, 23 November 1933). Phar Lap is Australia’s most famous racehorse. He won numerous races including the Melbourne Cup, and his success captured Australia’s imagination during the Great Depression. We will have to wait and see if the term Black Caviar odds has the staying power of Phar Lap.

Black Caviar odds will be considered for inclusion in the next edition of the Australian National Dictionary.

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Oxford Word of the Month: January – turbo chook

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noun: a jocular name for the Tasmanian native hen, Tribonyx mortierii.

THE STORY BEHIND THE WORD OF THE MONTH

The Tasmanian native hen is a flightless moorhen endemic to the island of Tasmania. Although it is unrelated to the domestic hen, it was named a ‘native hen’ by the early European settlers, who applied the epithet ‘native’ to many Australian indigenous animals where they saw a resemblance to a familiar European species—hence terms such as native bear (koala), native hedgehog (echidna), and native pheasant (lyrebird).

In 1924 a scientific work gave this description of the Tasmanian native hen: ‘Runs exceeding fast, and many native dogs cannot catch a native hen even in open country.’ (Lord & Scott, A Synopsis of the Vertebrate Animals of Tasmania, 1924) A similar observation was made in 2004: ‘Despite their plump, chicken-like appearance, the Tasmanian Native Hen is estimated to reach speeds up to 50 kmh when its little legs wind up.’ (Launceston Examiner, 17 July) The comments about its speed and appearance suggest why it has recently been given the colloquial name turbo chook.

The first evidence for turbo chook occurs in a 2003 travel article about Maria Island, Tasmania, in which the writer mentions that native hens are called turbo chooks, ‘though these ones seem to have lost a few revs’. (Australian, 1 March) The turbo element of turbo chook is an abbreviation of turbocharged, referring to something that operates at an accelerated speed or goes at a fast pace. The second element, chook, is an Australian colloquial term for a domestic fowl dating from the 1850s. It is derived from a British dialect word, chuck(y), with the same meaning. There is some evidence from the early 20th century of the term chook being applied to other birds, including the emu, but this is rare.

In recent years the term turbo chook has become more widely known in Tasmania, as these examples show:

Tasmania now has its own official flower and animal emblems. May I suggest the black currawong as our bird. It is large and robust, a great image, but also friendly. The only other contender in my opinion is the native hen or ‘turbo chook’ but it hasn’t quite got the image or what it takes. (Launceston Examiner, 15 June 2015)

I just dodged a turbo chook and hit a telegraph pole after eating some crayfish and flatties. (Hobart Mercury, 4 September 2016)

Turbo chook was probably used informally in Tasmania for some time before it occurred in the written record in the early 2000s. Although usage is largely confined to Tasmania where the bird is found, its appearance in the title of a popular 2013 children’s picture book, Sonia Strong’s Tazzie the Turbo Chook Finds Her Feet, indicates that the term may become more generally known in Australian English.

Turbo chook will be considered for inclusion in the next edition of the Australian National Dictionary.

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Australian Word of the Year 2016

Democracy sausage has been named Australian Word of the Year 2016.
he_word_of_the_year_infograpihc_sausageDemocracy sausage: A barbecued sausage served on a slice of bread, bought at a polling booth sausage sizzle on election day.

The Australian National Dictionary Centre, based at The Australian National University, selected democracy sausage because of its increased prominence in Australia in a year of election campaigns.

Democracy sausage was chosen from a shortlist which included census fail, smashed avo, shoey, deplorables and Ausexit.

For more information on the Australian Word of the Year click here.

The 2016 Word of the Year and shortlist are selected by the editorial staff of the Australian National Dictionary Centre, who with Oxford University Press publishes the Australian National Dictionary of words and phrases unique to Australia.

The Australian National Dictionary Centre undertakes research into Australian English in partnership with Oxford University Press, and edits Australian dictionaries for Oxford University Press.

The Word of the Year is based on extensive research as well as public suggestions. Vote for your 2016 Australian Word of the Year:


Oxford Dictionaries’ Word of the Year 2016 is post-truth. For more information read their blog post.

View the previous Words of the Year on the ANDC blog page:

2015 – sharing economy
2014 – shirtfront
2013 – bitcoin
2012 – green-on-blue

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