My recent trip to Florida, to the Social Marketing conference there hosted by USF, demonstrated some very clear things to me. Firstly, the need for behaviour change activities isn’t going anywhere. People are overweight. They eat badly. The health of the planet is in danger. The hotel hosting the conference was freezing cold from too much air conditioning, delegates and hotel guests drank bottle after bottle of water despite the water fountains on every floor, all the (often low fat and high sugar) food was packaged in plastic and the coffee takeaway cups were ‘chosen’ despite the availability of washable china ones. People behave in ways which damage their own and the planet’s wellbeing. This needs to change.
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Life as a researcher is very odd sometimes. You ensconce yourself deeply in theoretical worlds and often with every paper you read and every conversation you have you just bury yourself deeper in the thicket of your own sense-making. It’s hard to look at how your little piece of knowledge production fits with everyone else’s and how all that collective knowledge creates a collated movement towards understanding. That’s what this new book Beyond Behaviour Change is all about – it’s my chance to climb to the top of the tallest tree I could find and seeing how the land lies.
Sadly, wicked problems like obesity and climate change aren’t going anywhere fast. As such, ‘behaviour change’ has become a buzzword in academia and amongst policy makers. Research councils fund it, academics research it and policy makers do it. But like all topics of social scrutiny, behaviour change is evolving. A mind map of key issues would include things like ‘interdisicplinarity’, ‘nudge’, ‘systems thinking’, ‘individual responsibility’ and ‘rigorous evaluation’. Topics like these are the subject of discourse within centres which study behaviour change across the UK. There is no cohesive ‘field’ of behaviour change, but a disparate range of experts who continue to build a portfolio of evidence from their particular set of ideological, methodological and ontological perspectives. This book brings together a range of these perspectives from established experts across the spectrum of behaviour change approaches. The historical roots of political, legal and persuasive intervention are considered, along with the ‘nudge’ craze and softer marketing based measures. More radical thinking is tackled too, from a critique of the participatory trend to insights about the dangers of falling for the lure of corporate social responsibility. But for me, the crescendo of the book is to be found within the chapters on systems thinking and social practice theory.
“As we set off for our run, a swarm of hi-viz sweeping down the pavement, most of the group were attempting to avoid tripping over the feet in front whilst peering and tapping at their wrists to start a heart rate watch or Garmin tracker. All you can hear is ‘beep beep beep’ and the panting of runners whose minds are not focused on avoiding the puddles but rather on their cosy post-run analysis of each kilometre; armchair, recovery drink and commentary on which bit was hard, where they improved and who they beat up which hill. It’s a new kind of running” (research field notes by the author).
Dr Fiona Spotswood, senior lecturer in marketing at UWE, commentator of 'behaviour change' and researcher of the socio-cultural influences of marketing.