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Myths and Realities: a series of public debates

Our public debate series is open to everyone. Myths and Realities:

  • examines significant public and social issues
  • challenges common assumptions that we make
  • shows how social science research explains what is happening and points the way to solutions

Coming soon

The Myths and Events series of public debates ended with Myths and Realities 20 and has been replaced by a new series 'Enduring Ideas' which aims to look at some of the key concepts which underpin society.

Previous events

Myths and Realities 20: Challenging Myths and Understanding Society

15th October 2013, Terrace Restaurant, 1st Floor, British Library

The final event in this series examined why people continue to believe the social myths that they do, often in the face of strong evidence to the contrary.  It examined why, for instance, does research find that the general public over-estimate benefit fraud and immigration?  Why are politicians tempted to rely on anecdote not evidence?  This event will examine the role of the media in producing and maintaining myths, and will look at what social scientists can do to address the issue.  Our chair was Professor Dame Janet Finch DBE, DL, AcSS, University of Manchester.  Our speakers were Professor Ivor Gaber AcSS, City University, London / University of Bedfordshire and Professor John Holmwood AcSS, University of Nottingham and President of the British Sociological Association.  A video of the discussion is now available here.


Myths and Realities 19 - Social Media: new democracy or mass deception?

17 June 2013,Conference Centre, British Library

We were pleased to hold the 19th event in the Myths and Realities Series of pubic debates.

With the rise of citizen journalism through blogging and Twitter we are often told that communication is more democratic than ever before; but has social media really disrupted the status quo in terms of power and influence? Is social media an instrument of modern capitalism and the political elite, or a tool for changing the distribution of power? What do we know about who has access to social media and how different groups are able to use it to bring about change? What new structures of influence have been formed and which old ones remain?

Professor Helen Margetts, Director of the Oxford Internet Institute and Professor of Society and the Internet, University of Oxford and Professor David Gauntlett, Professor of Media and Communications, University of Westminster explored the different forms of evidence around access and use of social media to debate these issues. The evening was chaired by Dr Ruth Fox, Director and Head of Research, Hansard Society

Held in partnership with Academy of Social Sciences and supported by the Economic and Social Research Council.

A recording of the discussion is available on the Social Science podcast page.


Myths and Realities 18: Work to live or live to work?

29 April 2013, British Library Conference Centre

We are working longer hours than ever and are likely to remain at work for more years. The cost of living is increasing and wages for low and middle income earners may not stretch as far as they once did. Yet at the same time, there is increasing job satisfaction within many sectors, retirees become volunteers and older workers are often reluctant to retire at all. Within this context, can we really say that most of us simply work to live?  The speakers were Professor Sarah Vickerstaff, University of Kent and Professor Steve Bevan, The Work Foundation.

To listen to the debate please visit the Social Science podcast page.


Myths and Realities 17: Addictive Personality

18 March 2013, Terrace Restaurant, 1st Floor, British Library

Addictions to legal and illegal drugs, alcohol and tobacco are generally considered to be serious social problems. But what drives addiction? Are our compulsions biologically or socially driven? Are some people inevitable 'addicts'? And, what are the social problems caused by addictions?  Join us for informed and lively discussion and debate. The expert panel will include Professor Gerda Reith, University of Glasgow and Professor David Nutt, Imperial College London, and will be chaired by Claire Fox, Institute of Ideas.

To listen to the debate please visit our podcast page.


Myths and Realities 16: Are 'friends' the new 'family'?

11 February 2013, British Library Conference Centre

Changes in how we live, including increases in geographical mobility and single households, can affect the intimate relationships we form with others. For some, friendships form the key support network rather than family. But is this really a new phenomenon; are family relationships really changing? Our speakers are Professor Lynn Jamieson, School of Social and Political Science, University of Edinburgh and Graham Crow, Director of the Scottish Doctoral Training Centre in Edinburgh.

A podcast of the debate is available here.


Myths and Realities 15: Our ethnicity and identity - what does it all mean?

13 November 2012, Terrace Restaurant, 1st Floor, The British Library

Myths and Realities 15 looked at whether the public’s obvious delight and celebration of all the diverse members of Team GB, irrespective of individual ethnicities and identities, marks a significant shift in public perceptions towards ethnic identities. What does it mean to be ‘mixed race’? What does ethnicity mean for our image of ourselves and others?  The evening was chaired by Rania Hafez, columinst, author and Founder- Director of the network Muslim Women in Education.  The speakers will be Ann Phoenix, Professor and Co-Director of the Thomas Coram Research Unit, Institute of Education and Miri Song, Professor of Sociology, University of Kent.

A recording of the debate is available on the Social Science podcast page.


Myths and Realities 14: Growing Old: Something to Fear or Celebrate?

12 June 2012, Conference Centre, British Library

Images of later life take two extremes, adverts featuring glowing post-retirement couples enjoying life vs lonely singletons in need of expensive care or support. Many of us will live to a very ripe old age; in just 30 years since 1980, the numbers of centenarians have risen from 2,500 to over 12,500 and are predicted to rise to 160,000 in another 30 years. Longer lives are the result of improved standards of medical treatment, nutrition, housing and living... but most of us may fear rather than celebrate the prospect.

What does the evidence say about older lives? Will we grow old disgracefully or experience a sad decline?

The event was chaired by Fi Glover, BBC journalist and presenter and our speakers were Chris Phillipson, Professor of Applied Social Studies and Social Gerontology, Keele University and Mary Gilhooly, Professor of Gerontology, School of Health Sciences and Social Care, Brunel University.  Chris's paper was entitled 'Reinventing Ageing for the 21st Century: New institutions and solidarities' and Mary's ‘Retire and Die: Is this what the old owe the young?’

A podcast is available.


Myths and Realities 13: Security and Surveillance: Has it Gone Too Far?

Increased surveillance, security checks and CCTV are all increasingly deployed to support efforts to fight crime and terrorism. Recent reports suggest there are almost two million CCTV cameras in the UK: one for every 32 of us. The speakers  Dr Kirstie Ball, Reader in Surveillance and Organisation, Open University, and Dr Peter Fussey, Senior Lecturer in Criminology, University of Essex, discussed the complex evidence and issues surrounding the impact and effectiveness of surveillance. The evening was chaired by Professor Bridget Hutter, Professor of Risk Regulation at the London School of Economics.

You can listen to the debate on our podcast page.


Myths and Realities 12: Sustainable Lifestyles: Great Theory, Impossible Practice

7 February 2012, Conference Centre, British Library

This event explored how pressure on the world's resources means we are increasingly encouraged to consume less power, water, even food. But few of us make more than minimal efforts to change our behaviour, we expect from government and how evidence can support the development of policies which help us move towards more sustainable lifestyles. The speakers were Ian Christie, Research Fellow and Coordinator, Sustainable Lifestyles Research Group, Centre for environmental Strategy, University of Surrey and Professor Dale Southerton, Director Sustainable Practices Research Group at the University of Manchester. The evening was chaired by Drs Astrid Wissenburg Director of Partnerships and Communications, ESRC

We were pleased to hold this event in partnership with the Academy of Social Sciences and the Economic and Social Research Council.

A recording of the debate can be found on our podcast page.


Myths and Realities 11: Young People - troubled, troublesome or terrific?

1 November 2011, Conference Centre, British Library

We were delighted to hold this event in association with the Academy of Social Sciences and the Economic and Social Research Council. The event explored why is it we have such a contradictory view of young people? Fear and mistrust one minute; recognition and celebration the next. How do our perceptions influence young people, politicians and policy? The speakers were Professor Ken Roberts, AcSS, Department of Sociology, Social Policy and Criminology, University of Liverpool and Dr Mary Jane Kehily, Senior Lecturer in Childhood and Youth Studies at The Open University. The discussion was chaired by  Ross Hendry, Director of Policy, Office of the Children's Commissioner, England.

You can listen to the debate by visiting our podcast page.


Myths and Realities 10: 'We’ve never had it so good? Food and Diet in the UK'

21 September 2011, Conference Centre, British Library

This debate examined how every day seems to bring a new food scare, recommended limit on consumption, dispute about fair trade and food miles, or seemingly contradictory articles about problems of obesity and anorexia. How do we make sense of this confusing landscape? Sheila Dillon, presenter of Radio 4’s The Food Programme, chaired the debate; our speakers were Dr Wendy Wills, of the University of Hertfordshire and Professor Peter Jackson of the University of Sheffield..

A recording of the debate is available on the Social Sciences podcast page.


Myths and Realities 9: Who benefits from benefits?

18 May 2011, Conference Centre, British Library

This event examined some of the myths and realities around state benefits and benefit reform. It explored who actually gets benefits and the assumptions which underlie our system of welfare. The Chair was David Brindle, Public Services Editor at the Guardian and speakers were: Professor Jane Millar, Pro-Vice Chancellor [Research], University of Bath; Professor Stephen McKay, Professor of Social Research, Institute of Applied Social Studies, University of Birmingham and Alison Garnham, Chief Executive, Child Poverty Action Group.

You can listen to the debate by visiting our podcast page.


Myths and Realities 8: Manufacturing Matters, doesn't it?

2 March 2011, Conference Centre, British Library

This event considered how manufacturing has been seen as an increasingly unimportant part of the British Economy by politicians and the public alike.  It explored how far this picture is true and whether the recent resurgence of political and economic interest in the manufacturing sector will continue.  The Chair was Professor Sir Mike Gregory, CBE, Department of engineering, University of Cambridge.  The speakers were Professor John Bryson, Professor of Enterprise and Economic Geography, University of Birmingham; Finbarr Livesey, Director for the Centre of Industry and Government and Fiona Toye, Chief Executive of Toye, Kenning and Spencer.

Listen to the presentations on our podcasts page.


Myths and Realities 7: A property owning democracy - fact or fiction?

1 February 2011, Conference Centre, British Library

This event considered if the growth of home ownership is more of a mixed blessing than we assume.  It considered what will happen to social housing in the future?  The Chair was Julia Unwin,CBE, Chief executive of the Joseph Rowntree Foundation.  The speakers were professor Christine Whithead, Director, Cambridge Centre of Housing and Planning Research and Professor of HOusing, LSE; Professor Chris Hamnett, King' College, London and Gavin Smart, Assistant Director of Research and Futures, National Housing Federation.


Myths and Realities 6: Is class still relevant - are some more equal than others?

1 November, 2010, Conference Centre, British Library

People have been arguing about the role of class in determining life chances and life span for many years. In some ways the concept of class has become increasingly complex and fraught, until we see, for example, maps of the UK which show very different patterns of poverty, life and death. This event examined the factors that shape our identities and lives, and ask how important class is.  The debate was chaired by David Walker, Managing Director, Communications and Public Reporting, Audit Commissioner. The speakers were: Professor Fiona Devine, Head of School of Social Sciences, University of Manchester, Professor John Hills, Director, Centre for the analysis of Social Exclusion, London School of Economics, and Lee Elliot Major, Research Director, Sutton Trust.

Listen the presentations on our podcasts page.


Myths and Realities 5: Education standards - not as good as my day?

8 September 2010, Conference Centre, British Library

This event explored the issues around the debate about educational standards.  The deabte was chaired by Peter Wilby, former editor of the New Statesman.  Speakers included Sarah Maughan, Head of Assessment and Measurement, National Foundation for Educational Research; Professor Roger Murphy, School of Education, University of Birmingham and Anastasia De Waal, Deputy Director and Director of family Education, Civitas.

Listen to the presentations on our podcasts page.  


Myths and Realities 4: Are we what we eat?

 9 March 2010, Conference Centre, British Library

This event explored our attitudes to food: what we eat, what we buy what we cook and the role of the food industry and government in shaping our attitudes towards food.  The event was chaired by Mr Geoff Watts, Freelance science and medical writer and broadcaster.  The speakers were Professor Anne Murcott, Special Professor of Sociology, University of Nottingham; Professor Martin Yeomans, Professor of Experimental Psychology, University of Sussex and Mr Terrence Collis, Director of Communications, Food Standards Agency.

 Further information, podcasts and presentations.


Myths and Realities 3: Crime and Punishment in the 21st Century.

 8 February 2010, Conference Centre, British Library

This event explored the attitudes, policies and media portrayal of crime and punishment. The evening was chaired by Professor Jon Silverman, Research Professor Media and Criminal Justice at the University of Bedfordshire and former BBC Home Affairs correspondent. Speakers were: Professor Mike Hough, Director of the Institute for Criminal Policy Research, Kings College London; Professor Ian Loader, Director of the Centre for Criminology at Oxford University; and Ms Lindsey Poole, Chief Executive Officer, Thames Valley Partnership

Further information, podcasts and presentations


Myths and Realities 2: The Issue of Risk.

18 November 2009, Conference Centre, British Library

This debate focussed on the issues, misconceptions and facts around risk. The evening was chaired by Sir Bill Callaghan, Chair of the Legal Services Commission.  The speakers were: Neil Budworth, Corporate Health and Safety Manager for E.On UK and past president of the Institution of Occupational Safety and Health; Professor Jenny Kitzinger, Director of Research, School of Journalism, Media and Cultural Studies, Cardiff University; and Professor Bridget Hutter, Professor of Risk Regulation and Director of the ESRC Centre for Analysis of Risk and Regulation, London School of Economics and Political Science.

Further information, podcasts and presentations


Myths and Realities 1: Migration and Integration.

15 September 2009, Conference Centre, British Library

This, the first of the series, explored the evidence behind the headlines on multiculturalism, population change in towns and cities, and refugees in the UK. The event was chaired by Professor Avtar Brah, School of Continuing Education, Birkbeck University (chair); with presentations from: Ms Donna Covey, Director, Refugee Council; Professor Michael Keith, Director, Centre of Migration Policy and Society, University of Oxford and Professor Ludi Simpson, Centre for Population Studies, University of Manchester.

 Further information, podcasts and presentations


More information

PDF files

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