Dementia, Sexuality and the Brain

Dementia, Sexuality and the Brain

I am currently recruiting for a fully-funded ESRC CASE 1+3 MSc. & PhD studentship in partnership with Manchester Carers Forum. The studentship is available to outstanding candidates wishing to commence their MSc. in September 2017 before moving onto the PhD studentship in September 2018. You will be based in the University of Manchester’s Morgan Centre for the Study of Everyday Lives, which is a world-leading institute for the study of personal life and for the development of creative qualitative methods. This is a great opportunity for a talented student to become part of a thriving research community, in one of the UK’s largest and most successful sociology groups.

So why this project? In recent decades dementia has grown in significance as a health condition, brought about by an ageing population, and presents challenges for understanding the complex changes which occur in the lives of people with dementia. For example, some people with dementia experience changes in sexuality and sexual activity. Such changes are characteristic of one form of dementia in particular, ‘behavioural variant frontotemporal dementia’ (bvFTD), and form one of the possible diagnostic criteria for this condition. This doesn’t always mean increases in sexual activity, sometimes it can be a reduction, as Robin describes in this video about her life with her husband. Robin’s video is a powerful example of a carer negotiating her experiences of changes in romance and love.

These kinds of changes are often explained to carers and people with dementia, whether in the medical context of diagnosis and treatment, or in the support literature provided by charities, as having been caused by chemical and structural differences in the brains of people with dementia. Of course, dementia does have important effects on the brain and it remains a terminal illness. So it is bound to cause changes in people’s capacities. However, our everyday understandings of love, sex and sexual identity do not always align with neurological explanations. This project explores how people with dementia, their carers, family and partners, make sense of changes in sexual and romantic lives by reference to the brain, or not. It examines the consequences for carers and people with dementia of explaining more of their lives through neurological evidence and ideas.

The project will use the personal life approach in sociology. This means understanding changes in the lives of carers and people with dementia as being fundamentally entangled phenomena, and exploring the ways in which the meaningfulness of everyday life is negotiated through interaction. The project will use creative qualitative methods to examine these issues. For more information on the kinds of methods the Morgan Centre works with, see some of our research projects. For example, you can see some of the sketches that Lynne Chapman has been doing as part of various research projects in the Centre, here, and in the picture below, which Lynne made as part of her work with me on my ‘Facets of Dementia’ project.


As an ESRC CASE studentship, the PhD scholarship will also involve close work with Manchester Carers Forum. The successful candidate will volunteer at the Carers Forum as a member of their team, working directly to support carers of people living with dementia. The PhD student will work there for 3 months of the year, broken down into a certain number of hours per week. S/he will also produce materials which are of use to the Carers Forum as an impact of the project, meaning that the PhD research will help to support carers in negotiating changes in sexuality, sex and romance.

Studentship Details: The successful candidate will be supervised by Dr Andrew Balmer and Prof. Brian Heaphy in the department of Sociology. This ESRC CASE 1+3 studentship will cover tuition fees for the 1-year MSc. Sociology and the 3-year PhD Sociology courses at the University of Manchester. It will also pay a stipend during these four years of approximately £14,057 per annum. Continuation of the award is subject to satisfactory performance.

Entry Requirements: Applicants must hold a Bachelors First Class (or in exceptional cases an Upper Second Class Honours) UK degree in Sociology (or a closely allied discipline such as Anthropology). Degrees in Psychology and Health Sciences will not be considered acceptable. The successful student will register first for the ESRC-recognised MSc. Sociology course before proceeding on to the PhD course. You must satisfy ESRC UK residential criteria to qualify for this studentship (see page 4 of the document here.)

Candidates meeting the following criteria will generally be given preference: above 70% in their Bachelors; some demonstrable knowledge of the sociological literature on sexuality; demonstrable interest in qualitative research methods, and the ‘relational’ approach to sociology.

How to apply

Applicants should email Dr Andrew Balmer, with:

1) a full CV, (including most up-to-date grade transcripts) and;

2) a covering letter explaining why you think the project is interesting and how you are qualified to conduct it.

Please note that applying for this PhD studentship funding is a separate process to applying for entry to the Manchester PhD programme.  The successful candidate will therefore also be required to fulfil the normal admissions criteria for the School of Social Sciences once they have been offered the NWSSDTP studentship.

The deadline for applications is 7th April 2017.

The project is a great opportunity not only to develop academic, research, writing and presentations skills through a PhD programme, but also to work with a charity for three to four years. We will be looking for someone who can produce a sophisticated, theoretically-informed, qualitative PhD, with interests which align with those of the Morgan Centre.

If you need some more information feel free to get in touch with me at:

Chance and Serendipity

Chance and Serendipity

In sociological research there are moments of chance and serendipity in which something happens that moves a project or one’s thinking into an unexpectedly fruitful direction. An event is witnessed, a phrase heard, a paper read, a person met. Suddenly an idea sparks into being or things are cast in a new light. Such moments of chance are in part a product of the messiness of research and of the way in which the world, so well-studied for so long, can still surprise us.

Andy - Lying survey
Fleeting encounters in the field

In the Morgan Centre we are quite fond of mess and disorderliness and we have been experimenting with different ways of knowing about the world that take more notice of its chaotic and surprising features. For the most part, however, sociological methods tend to emphasise orderliness. They pull things together, search out patterns, organize themes, categorise, classify and compare. You can see this in the design of qualitative and quantitative data analysis tools, for example, which often embed certain frameworks for coding, interrogating and representing data that presume a certain sense of structure and hierarchy. Our published findings also adhere to certain conventions, sometimes borrowed from the natural sciences, so that most journal articles are much the same, at least in terms of presentation of the argument and the data.


When Lynne Chapman, resident artist in the Morgan Centre, first began workshops with us she immediately set about trying to change our relationship to order, patterns and structure. She encouraged us to ‘let go’, take a chance and see what happened when we played with the paints, pens and pencils we had newly acquired. This was difficult for me, since I am not a natural artist and being bad at things is an uncomfortable feeling for most people. When I put pen to paper what I draw does not look like the thing I can see in front of me. Hence, my first forays with the freedom of the blank page produced rather uninspiring results.

But Lynne’s enthusiasm has been unfaltering and we have engaged in a range of different activities designed to make us comfortable with the fact that our representations do not look like the real thing. One example was the use of ‘wrong-hand portraits’ which forced us to abandon any hope of making a realistic representation of our subjects.

Wrong hand 1 min portrait

Eventually this started to have an effect on how I approached painting and sketching and I believe that I am starting to understand a bit more about how an artist like Lynne might observe the world and how they combine skill and serendipity in their engagements with it and representations of it. Sploshing paint about, drawing without looking, combining paint and pen and pencil has ‘freed up my hand’ as Lynne might put it.

Trying to embrace chance in a picture of tulips

The results are much improved. Of course, this is partly due to practise. But it is also due to letting go of certain constraints I had placed on myself as a novice. By learning how to make use of the limited skills that I am developing in combination with the chance afforded by the materials I am using, I have begun to feel unburdened by realism. I’m also trying to steal some of Lynne’s techniques of annotating sketches, using certain pens and pencils, and sketching quickly to try to capture some of the movement in everyday life.


Intellectually, this embrace of chance and serendipity is familiar and reminds me that an important feature of creative methods in sociology is that they are more adept at picking up some of the multi-layered nature of social reality than are standard survey techniques or semi-structured interviews. They too can capture some of the movement of everyday life, the way it doesn’t fit within boundaries, colours outside the lines, and yet holds shape, has some order and consistency.


Why ‘Practices’?

This is the second in a series of posts I’m writing about human practices. They are specifically targeted at undergraduate iGEM (International Genetically Engineered Machine competition) teams currently working on summer projects to create novel microorganisms.

Much work across academic disciplines has sought to describe and explain human life at two levels, emphasising either: natural laws, group life and social structures; or individual behaviour and personal life. When natural laws and social structure is emphasised we tend to see individual actions and meanings as being primarily determined by forces outside of individual control. On the other hand, when individual behaviour is emphasised, we tend to focus on how people make up their lives through their own free will, creatively negotiating interactions with each other in everyday spaces to maintain social organisation and order.

There are also those theories that try to make sense of both sides of the coin, individual creative freedom and social determination. Such theories try to understand how forces outside of individual control shape the patterns of social life whilst also maintaining the importance of individual differences and spontaneity. How such theories try to do this varies considerably. Indeed, within some of the social science disciplines, like sociology and anthropology, there are a wealth of approaches that can be used to think about the links between individual and group behaviour.

‘Practice theory’ is one such approach. Since around 1970 a number of scholars in sociology, anthropology and related disciplines have tried to develop accounts of how social structures shape individual behaviours whilst also attending to how those individual behaviours help to create the very structures that shape them. In this regard these thinkers have tried to explain how both levels reciprocally construct each other: how individual action and group patterns are made of the same kind of stuff. In short, it is ‘practices’ that make up the world for this approach. We can roughly understand practices to be things that individuals and groups routinely do in the world. Practices are patterns of actions that for most participants are just second nature.
Like driving a car. Indeed, although what counts as a practice is quite varied, examples often emphasise things we clearly do with our bodies, like riding a bicycle, but also extends to less clearly bodily-oriented actions, like talking to a doctor, reprimanding an infant, singing a hymn in church, buying groceries, taking a shower and so on and so forth.

Given some initial training, whether formally (through parents or teachers, for example) or informally through every day participation in group life, practices become part of how we do our lives day-to-day. So part of learning a new practice involves learning the rules so that it becomes second nature to do things in one way and not another. We rarely question the rules of how we do everyday life. Imagine if you were constantly challenging how to greet each other, eat, work or sleep. You would be hungry, unemployed and exhausted, and people would quickly get annoyed with you.  Many practices come with quite clearly legitimate and illegitimate ways of doing the practice. Like the rules of the iGEM competition that enforce how you should use the standard biological parts and how to submit your parts to the library. These rules help to shape how people do the practice and most iGEM teams don’t think to question them because they’re just essential to how iGEM is currently done.

File:UP kids-1.JPG

Theories of practices often place an emphasis on how skilful people are in their everyday encounters with each other and with the world. We seem to get by without much problem once we have learnt how to do something, even when practices are very complex, like flying an aeroplane. So theories of practice emphasise skilful routine and habit. As an iGEM team member you will become or will have already become very skilful at a whole bunch of different practices that are relatively new to you. Think about what it was like early on in your lab experiences to pipette very small amounts of fluids, at speed, from one tube to another, mixing them in appropriate quantities, in order to follow a protocol. By the end of iGEM many of you will have become so skilled at doing this that you will not need the protocols anymore, and may not even have to think about how much of the different substances you need to mix, in what order, for how long, and so on. You’ll also be far more dextrous with your pipetting.

The knowledge and skill you are acquiring is ‘embodied’ – it is knowledge that is habituated in your body through situated training. A mini-prep has likely become part of your routine and habitual behaviour. Because the knowledge involved in practices is tied up with embodied abilities, these routines and habits become part of our background or ‘tacit’ knowledge, and it is very difficult to explain exactly where that knowledge is or what it is that you know in order to be able to do it. A classic example involves trying to communicate how it is that you ride a bicycle so that someone who hasn’t ridden a bicycle can then get on one and ride around based on what you’ve told them. It is extremely difficult – and some argue impossible – to tell someone how to ride a bike without actually getting them on a bike and showing them, and indeed guiding them as they learn practically how to do it. When we are riding a bicycle there a lots of techniques that we are unconsciously using through embodied skills that can be described mathematically, having to do with how we balance and so on. But most of us would be completely incapable of producing those equations, and yet many of us can still ride a bicycle.  So the emphasis in practices is on how everyday, taken for granted skilled actions, knowledge and meanings are practical – they only make sense and can be communicated within the doing of the practice.

Putting these two last points together, we can say that some of the rules of a practice are tacit too, so we cannot always easily identify why things are done in the way that they there are, and why they have the meanings that they do, even when we are proficient in the practices in question. Mostly we don’t learn the rules of a practice by sitting down and memorising them, instead we learn by doing it ourselves and watching others do it. Just like we learn language from being within practices of using language from birth.

Moreover, there are lots of rules that shape our basic movement through the world and how we relate to each other and organise social space. Think about the rules involved in choosing a seat on the bus. It can tell us quite a lot about some of those more invisible, tacit rules of everyday living in the world. Why do you go for one seat and not another? There are variety of rules that people seem to use to make a decision that only really become visible when they’re broken. The rule that roughly goes “don’t sit immediately next to someone if there is no one else on the bus” is an important one. Imagine how the person would react! We just seem to know these rules from having been brought up within the culture that we live within. They’re just part of the accepted practices for doing life in our culture. But some of these basic rules change from culture to culture and can help explain why we do life differently in different countries. Americans, for example, are often bemoaned by British people, because although we share much of the same rules about social space, many Americans are more comfortable with physical intimacy and cheeriness in their greetings than are British people. This is clearly an embodied norm of social interaction and when these two different forms of greeting conflict it feels palpable to the participants. British people experience discomfort and Americans presumably experience rejection or offence when a warm proffered American hug is met with a frosty British handshake. But this practice is currently changing and hugging seems to be more acceptable and frequent here in the UK than it used to be. At the same time, gender norms around doing masculinity and femininity seem to be changing. There may well be connections between these shifting practices, so how men hug each other might be changing in response to or alongside changes in what it means to be a man and how doing manliness is understood. So we can begin to see how practices are connected and how changes in some practices might result in changes elsewhere. It is also true that some practices are difficult to change because of their connections to other practices.

In the context of iGEM there are a whole bunch of practices, from the lab to the wiki to the jamboree and the competition itself. In the lab, practices include doing a PCR or running a gel, designing a BioBrick or cleaning a work surface. On the wiki they involve presenting the team, describing the research in a particular way, and so on. The jamboree involves lots of practices around celebration and cheerleading. Of course the competition has all of its practices, involving presentations, judging, awarding prizes, congratulating and so forth. And these are changing slowly, so what was expected of a team to be able to earn a gold, silver or bronze medal shifted over the years that the competition has been running. The judging practices are in flux and this shapes some of the lab practices that teams engage in across the world.

In my last post I described how the meanings of human life are myriad and complex and why human behaviour is so difficult to explain. In this post I hope it is clear that these meanings are helpfully understood from within a practice theory perspective. It helps us orient our thinking to what people are trying to do, skilfully, within a given situation. So ‘human practices’ in iGEM should be about understanding the meaningfulness of human life from within the practices in which we are all engaged. Remembering, of course, that iGEM and synthetic biology are themselves human practices, too. They are made up of smaller practices, and themselves contribute to broader human practices of doing science and making knowledge and training people and so on and so on. So human practices work in iGEM can be about how iGEM practices are taught, stabilised, change or are challenged. In my next two posts I’ll begin to identify how a human practices approach to iGEM work in synthetic biology can be a powerful way to think beyond the often used notions of ‘public understanding’ and ‘social and ethical implications’. Using a human practices approach we’ll be able to ask different kinds of questions and so provide different kinds of answers to the common concerns that scientists have about how their work is understood and judged.


Technical Terminology is Necessary

Neuroskeptic argues that social science papers are badly written, largely due to their use of technical terms, which he argues might not be needed at all. I have argued that seeing the use of technical language as bad writing would apply to all academic work, including natural science. I suggested that although it can be done without too much damage in some cases, there is a limit to substituting everyday terms for technical terms in social science. I argued that the demand for such substitution was connected to a privileged position of the natural sciences in knowledge production. Since the debate is a worthy one and since neuroskeptic has been nothing less than reasonable and open to discussion I wish to respond to his most recent article. In the spirit of the subject matter, I want to take this as an opportunity to communicate and the following shouldn’t be read as an antagonistic response in the slightest.  Rather, it will be an attempt to communicate about technical terminology largely without the use of it, perhaps proving neuroskeptic right even as I seek to disagree. Though I’ve focussed on a few points and have avoided talking about a great many things I wanted to, it is still a long response, so apologies in advance (I’m still getting used to blog style). Here goes…

First, it is important that we narrow down the field of concern. The term ‘social science’ is a generic one, much like ‘natural science’. There are a great many disciplines that could be housed under the term social science, such as law, economics, philosophy, politics, anthropology and sociology. Each of these would, because of their quite significant differences in their ways of making knowledge, require a different response to the challenge posed regarding technical terminology and everyday English. Law, for instance, clearly deals with terms available to us in everyday English, like ‘guilt’ or ‘expert’. However, the law is a rule and precedent based system, and these terms have very specific meanings within those rules and precedents that do not equate to their everyday English use. This is because the law is not just the everyday life of everyday people but an expert discipline based on its own phenomena. This points me towards an important first point. There are plenty of English words that are already used in the day-to-day research of social scientists but they take on different meanings when they are used in technical argument. This in itself poses a challenge for communication of social science information.

A good example of this would be the word ‘truth’ which is used in philosophy, law and practically every other discipline one cares to name. However, even in the context of philosophy the meaning of ‘truth’ varies according to different philosophical systems in ways that do not necessarily reflect our everyday understanding of the term. For the correspondence theory of truth, for example, the meaning of ‘truth’ shares much in common with our everyday notion, since in this theory the ‘truth’ of a proposition is that it has some relation to reality and to some factual state of affairs. By comparison, a coherence theory of truth posits that the truth of a proposition lies in its coherence with other propositions as part of a set of propositions.  This points us towards a more important point. Natural scientists are, in general, committed to a correspondence theory of truth. This is true of a number of social scientists who would posit that their propositions relate directly to real objects in the world. However, there are great many social scientists who take a different position because of their philosophical and methodological disposition. I will return to this later, but it should be noted at the outset that this might be an underlying misunderstanding of which this debate over technical terminology is only a symptom.

In light of this demand that we be more specific I will focus on sociology and anthropology, since this is my primary area of expertise but also because I believe they are the disciplines to which Neuroskeptic was mostly referring. His contention is that these fields deal with explanations for everyday life and since everyday life is understood and enacted using a subset of the available English words then we should be able to use that same subset to describe and explain everyday life as professional sociologists and anthropologists.

Now, applying my first point I think it is clear that we already do use a number of English words for technical meanings. Take the term ‘culture’, which has a variety of uses in English language and has a wide variety of specific definitions in anthropology and sociology. The everyday use of this term might be to do with the beliefs and values of the community, but it might also be used to refer to the various activities associated with a certain notion of ‘high’ culture, such as the theatre, opera or classical music. I note in passing that biologists have adopted the term culture to refer to the media in which microrganisms are grown and as a noun to mean the process of growing such microorganisms using such media. Anthropologists have also adopted the term culture but have provided different definitions of it, depending on what they saw as the best methodology to be adopted for anthropological work. This, then, is my second point: the use of terms in everyday life is not set in stone, changes over time and across different spaces. This is also true of sociology and anthropology because they are not homogenous and so cannot always use the terms of everyday life to mean the same things as they do in everyday life since different groups of anthropologists might disagree over the methods to be used and the nature of the phenomena that such methods could address.

This is linked to my third point in that sociologists and anthropologists are seeking to develop sociology and anthropology and not simply to get on with the daily business of everyday living. Take E. B. Tylor’s general definition of culture as the “complex whole which includes knowledge, belief, art, morals, law, custom, and any other capabilities and habits acquired by man as a member of society.” Now contrast this with Geertz’s concept of culture which has to do with the “historically transmitted pattern of meanings embodied in symbols, a system of inherited conceptions expressed in symbolic forms by means of which men communicate, perpetuate, and develop their knowledge about and their attitudes toward life.” Geertz’ definition was intended to contrast with Tylor’s since he was arguing for a shift in the epistemology (the ways of making knowledge) of anthropology. Geertz wanted us to move away from a tradition that emphasised the ideal of being able to objectively observe culture from the outside, as it were, known as positivism, and towards a practice that emphasised the impossibility of objectively studying culture and thus focussed on its more subjective interpretation, known as interpretivism.

This latter movement of interpretivism has sought to explain human life through attention to the symbolic and conceptual schemes that are used to organise and explain everyday life by the people themselves. In this respect, some sociologists and anthropologists do pay a great deal of attention to everyday use of English or German or Balinese, whatever the case may be. They do make use of these words and explanations that are used in everyday life in their analyses. However, they also perform operations on these observations of cultural symbols. Such operations have to do with methodology and the development of theories. This is because words and explanations are used in specific contexts for specific purposes and their meaning, according to this more interpretivist strand of work, is thus defined in local spaces. Part of the work of professional sociological interpretation, then, is to connect with these localities and try to understand the ways in which English words are being used in those particular contexts.  A sociologist, for instance, might study a tattooist’s studio, a forensic morgue and a men’s health magazine and find that the use of the word ‘body’ was significantly different in these spaces, precisely because of the activities enacted in those spaces upon the body and in relation to it. In the first the body might be understood as a work of art, and thus as the ‘aesthetic body’, in the second as a source of evidence and thus as the ‘evidentiary body’, and in the third as an object of embarrassment (the ‘stigmatised body’) or idealisation (the ‘ideal body’). Because the researcher wants to understand the implications of these specific contextual uses they might invent these specific terms to refer to those specific uses in order to help discuss these different uses without having to always refer back to the context. Imagine how frustrating it would be to always have to write “the body as understood in the tattooist’s studio in which an emphasis is placed on the body as a work of art,” in order to make your point when “the aesthetic body,” would do just as nicely since you’ve previously defined it and the term ‘aesthetic’ is already established in various social science traditions.

My third point is thus that sociologists and anthropologists do not deal only with the commonly used words in everyday life because they also wish to create novel concepts in order to build theories. Over time other researchers may find that the meaning of the body is similar in the gym as it is in men’s health magazines; that its meaning in the forensic morgue is similar to that of an operating theatre, or a courtroom, etc. Many different analyses of the body might emerge from across a broad range of spaces and sociologists interested in the body would keep up with these research outputs as a new field of inquiry, the ‘sociology of the body’, gradually emerged. The body could be connected up with large social meaning systems like capitalism or gender and thus the sociology of the body would begin to need new ways of articulating these connections and thus may develop new terms that emerged from the observation of patterns across ostensibly different spaces. What might become clear is that corporations have become more focussed on selling identities using marketing than on selling the products themselves. Products designed to help change the body then have to make sense in the contexts in which the body is understood and given meaning, and so this product-oriented identity might be connected up with the meanings of the body in some of those spaces, such as the gym, the magazine, etc. Such a shift in economics coupled with changes in gender politics (feminist revolutions, LGBT movements, etc.) might mean that the notion of ‘male’ and ‘masculine’ was changing too.

These changes might connect up with the capitalist emphasis on products designed to sell masculine identities to men and all of a sudden we find that the notion of the male body is importantly tied to local, national and global shifts in the meanings of the body that can be partly articulated using everyday language and are partly understood by those men who are studied in these contexts. However, the understanding of the connections emerged from the search for patterns across different contexts, facilitated by the invention of novel terms to track changes and convergences. Such levels of observation and research work are not available to the everyday male working in a salon or trying to lose weight. He might be able to talk about the way in which he buys products because they are manly or the way in which he feels he has to live up to images in magazines in order to feel confident about his body, but he is unlikely to be able to connect this up to decades-long social transformations in capitalism and gender politics in any substantive way. This doesn’t make him a dupe and it doesn’t mean, as neurocritic argues we would have to believe, that everyday people do not understand their behaviours. In fact, it is from the everyday talk of everyday people talking about and explaining their behaviours that interpretivist sociologists built a picture of the body in what is called late-modern or postmodern capitalist society.

In this respect, sociology creates terms in order to name phenomena that do not cohere with the meaning in any individual everyday space as used by an everyday person. Such general phenomena would be discoveries, if they were material objects found in the brain that could then be named and categorised. However, because the pattern is not an object, as such, it remains in contention and new observations, new methods and new theories might replace our previous understanding of the patterns and require new terms.

Such technical terminology, then, is used to describe phenomena that are importantly tied to methodological practices and theoretical dispositions. This is the work of professional sociology. The work of public sociology is to try to bring these phenomena to life in such a way that they are interpretable for people without the requisite expertise to have conducted such a theoretically-informed piece of work. Such translation might require substituting some terms with less precise but good enough for the purpose, everyday terms. It might involve explaining the technical terms or differentiating between the everyday use of a word and its technical use. Indeed, over time, technical terms from sociology move into everyday understandings, like the term ‘social class’, for example. Policy sociology is there to ensure that professional sociological work can be translated into political spaces and used as evidence for policy-making.

Sociologists and the work of sociologists comes with commitments to particular theoretical dispositions and technical terminologies, just like physicists differ in their dispositions and terminologies according to their commitment to string theory, the holographic theory or whatever mind-boggling theory they find most convincing. Technical terms are necessary because sociologists engage in explanations for phenomena not immediately available to everyday experience.


Clifford Geertz, The Interpretation of Culture

Edward Burnett Tylor, Primitive Culture