Does politics matter? Answers on a beer mat, please

University of Sheffield project to leave 4,000 coasters in bars to gather data on public attitudes to politics and democracy

April 23, 2015

A University of Sheffield centre devoted to “promoting the public understanding of politics” is using beer mats to raise its profile and take the temperature of current attitudes.

The Sir Bernard Crick Centre, in Sheffield’s department of politics, was formally launched last September. It combines public engagement, research with a strong “real-world” focus, and training for academics in how to “translate” their research for other audiences, particularly political processes such as select committees in Parliament. It was also responsible for a pilot third-year module in parliamentary studies that has been rolled out to universities across the country.

“We are looking at different ways of sparking political interest and developing political literacy,” explained Kate Dommett, a deputy director at the centre.

“It is about promoting politics rather than a particular political position. [Founding director] Matt [Flinders] spoke to The Wall Street Journal at the time of the Scottish referendum, looking at the lessons of the enthusiasm it showed for democratic participation. Underlying the devolution and nationalist debates was a latent democratic potential, and the question is how to tap it. All this is very different from the cynical narrative often told by political scientists.”

As an example of an attention-grabbing marketing initiative which will also serve as “a very rough and ready research tool”, the centre has developed two beer mats. On one, the text says simply: “Politics. What do you think?” and, on the other, “Democracy. What do you think?” A space on the back of both beer mats asks people to “draw or write what comes to mind”, photograph the results and tweet the image to @crickcentre.

The mats were initially distributed in the bar at The Crucible theatre when Sir David Hare’s satire on New Labour, The Absence of War, was playing. Others were made available at the Political Studies Association annual conference and through the Sheffield students’ union. Since the aim is to reach out beyond universities, Professor Flinders has decided against the option of involving the National Union of Students and instead “hopes to hook up with a brewery to distribute them across the UK”.

“You wouldn’t necessarily expect politics on a beer mat,” Dr Dommett told Times Higher Education before the launch, “so they should generate some innovative discussion” which could then be analysed in blogs on the centre’s website.

“Big data says people love democracy but hate politics,” added Professor Flinders, “so we were keen to see if responses to the two beer mats would differ.”

These are still early days, with only about 600 of the 4,000 printed beer mats actually out in bars. Yet the project is proving almost too popular – with the distribution process hampered by some individuals picking up handfuls of mats for themselves. Festivals have asked if they can incorporate their logos and use them at their events.

Any serious analysis is a long way off and Professor Flinders thinks it will take a research grant to gather and study data more systematically. Nonetheless, he is already impressed by what has come back. Instead of predictable comments on the lines of “They are all bastards”, the centre has been getting responses which are “surprisingly visceral, aggressive and imaginative in how people express their ideas about politics without using text”.

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