Top Ten Ideas for starting points for Social Science seminars

It’s pretty much impossible to start a debate with “Topic X.  Discuss.”  An interesting, controversial or downright unusual source is a great way of getting things going – introduce it at the beginning, show it on screen or pass copies round, get everyone in the class to note down anything about it that strikes them, and away you go: who has written down the same thing? Who agrees/disagrees?  Why?  Who might have a different point of view?  A good source should provoke a response – either positive or negative – and serve as a starting point for marshalling opinions.  Here are my Top Ten ideas for discussion-starters to get you thinking:

1. Crime maps.  These are amazingly detailed and available online from the police website.  Put in a postcode and you’ll get the crime stats for the area on the right – click on “Crime and outcomes in this area” for detailed maps and a breakdown by type of crime.  Look at the stats for your local area and ask why certain types of crime occur in different areas?  Where are the “hotspots”?  Why?  Look at the types of crime listed – what occurs where?  What constitutes “anti-social behaviour”?  According to whom? Why has it become a policy priority?  Compare different parts of your town, different towns, urban/rural, university locale vs rest of city, what happens where students live?  Look at the historical data – what is going up/down?  Where does this data come from?  How reliable is it as a source?  Good for: Criminology, Environment, Social Policy.

2. Census records and the national archives.  The census records for every 10 years beginning in 1841 are online.  There’s a 100-year embargo so the most recent available is 1911.  Although most commonly used for tracing family histories, there’s a wealth of social information contained in them, particularly after the late 1800s ones when more detail was recorded.  You need to register (and pay!) to view the original copies but you can get samples for free – just do an image search for “example census page” and there’ll be material you can use.  What is recorded on each page?  Why was this data captured?  Discuss privacy and personal data.  Look at the family structure at each address – what do you notice?  How does it compare with the modern family?  Look at a few from different censuses – what is different?  Look at the employment column – what does it tell you?  How is this linked to the area lived in?  Are there regions today which are associated with a particular type of work?  Why?  Link this with the “where born” column – who moved where?  Why?  Does this still happen?  Look at the last column – for example, the 1901 census asks if the person is “(1) deaf-and-dumb, (2) blind, (3) lunatic, or (4) imbecile, feeble-minded.”  Huge amounts of mileage there for a discussion on attitudes to illness and mental health, why was this recorded, what health information is taken in modern censuses? Why?   Good for: Health/Medical Sociology, Work, Families, Education, Migration.

3. News stories.  There are vast amounts online – start with the BBC and newspaper sites, look at local newspapers, local radio, student publications, it’s easy to link to a video clip to start a seminar.  Compare coverage of a news story in different media, whose angle is it?  Are they for or against?  Why?  Is the news source impartial or does it have an underlying ideology informing its news coverage?  Who is producing/writing the story?  How reliable are news sources as factual data?  Will the story influence the behaviour of those viewing it?  How/why?  Don’t restrict yourself to UK news sources – everything is online, so see how a foreign newspaper has covered a British story, compare and contrast – especially if you’re teaching a comparative policy course.  Good for: All social science branches, Media.

4. Government departments.  All departments produce vast numbers of publications, reports, papers, press releases, etc, etc.   You can use most of it for something!  Assess both the content and the presentation: evaluate who the perceived audience is for the material, who wrote it, for what purpose?  How is the material being presented and why?  Is it successful?  Look at any statistics – are they reliable?  How do you know?  Again, what is being portrayed and why?  There’s too much to cover in much detail here (maybe a future blog post!) but a few examples of bits I’ve used are:  the Government Art Collection (How much should be spent on public art?  What is its value? How does it contribute to British culture?); weekly A&E statistics (Who sets the targets? Are they meaningful? How are they used/abused?);  Dept for Education advice on drugs (whose responsibility is it to teach young people about illegal drugs? Is the advice valid? Useful? Appropriate? How would/should it translate into the classroom? How involved should schools be in the home lives of their pupils?).  You get the idea.  Good for:  All social science branches.

5. University publicity material.  Gather prospectuses, brochures, flyers, website screenshots.  It’s instantly relatable but harder to critically assess from an objective viewpoint.  How is the University’s publicity department trying to portray itself?  What pictures are used?  Did the class use such material in deciding to apply?  Was it effective?  Does the material convey a sense of place?  Community?  How?  What language is used?  What is its effect?  How would you design publicity material to convey the campus culture?  Good for: Environment, Culture, Identity, Visual methods.

6. Mass observation material, searchable here.  Again, vast amounts of material are available here so pick one or two items and use them to start a discussion.  Try a section of personal diary from the 1930s, one of the “panel” day observations or questionnaire responses.  An interesting subsection is the Worktown Collection, a special study of Blackpool and Bolton.  Beware the website, once you get into it there’s a real risk you won’t be seen for days…  Use for a historical perspective on contemporary topics around daily life.  Find a modern cohort study and compare the methods and data generated.  Good for: Work and employment, Culture, Politics.

7. Non-news magazines.  This will cost you a few pounds and may involve slight embarrassment if you are doing the buying (Nuts magazine, anyone?), but works really well in seminars.  Buy a selection of magazines, compare and contrast.  For example, to look at sources of health advice – Men’s Health, Women’s Health, the aforementioned Nuts, Saga magazine, a fashion magazine, a teen magazine, a sports magazine.  Evaluate differences in content and presentation between Men’s and Women’s Health, look at health and wellbeing content of different magazines – who is the audience? Who is the author? Why is this material being presented? Does it work?  Good for: Health/Medical, Media, Gender.

8. Wikipedia (bear with me), here.   Not so much the content of the site, but the way in which it is constructed.  Look at a relevant topic and evaluate it in terms of content and layout.  Use the Wikipedia principle to construct an informative handout on a different topic – where does one person start in writing it?  How is it edited?  Who agrees?  Who has control over online publishing?  Who is responsible for fact-checking?  Does it work?  What about other user-editable sites (eg Wikileaks)?   What are the implications for incorrect information entering the public domain?  Good for: Most topics, Media, Education.

9. British Social Attitudes survey, hereA great resource for all sorts of data on everything from health and welfare to crime and transport.  Pick a statistic and go with it – ask Why?  Says who?  So what?  Can you identify problematisation? Look at the methods section and analyse how the survey is carried out.  What can it be used for?  How would you improve it?  Good for: Most topics, Research Methods.

10. British Library’s sound archive, searchable here.  Again, this is a website you can disappear into and not surface until your coffee alarm goes off.  Use the Accents & Dialects section to start a discussion on place and identity; use the Sound Maps to debate representations of environment and culture; use the Oral Histories on any topic you can find – this a rich source, there’s everything from a collection of children’s songs to a history of the common cold.  Go explore.  Good for: Pretty much anything.

Have you tried anything similar?  How did it go?  Any more ideas to add?  Leave a comment!

Hannah Perrin is an ESRC DTC Scholar and PhD student in Social Policy, and Assistant Lecturer in Health Policy at the University of Kent, with interests in clinical education and training, occupational socialisation and work transitions. She blogs about her research and HE topics at; or follow @HCPerrin.


2 thoughts on “Top Ten Ideas for starting points for Social Science seminars

  1. Susan

    At my son’s school they would call this a “sizzling start” – use something interesting or intriguing to capture the attention of the audience, then show how your somewhat dry academic content is related. Makes that dry academic content just so much more interesting and relevant to the rest of the room. Great ideas here.

  2. Pingback: Criminology: everything you wanted to know? | Social sciences blog

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