Westminster Sociology Open Talks 2017/18: Changing Bodies: Fatness, Surgery and Choice

Westminster Sociology Open Talks in 2017-18 bring together Sociology staff with external speakers to explore a shared topic of interest. In the first talk of the academic year, Dr Francis Ray White is joined by Dr Samantha Murray from the University of New South Wales to discuss questions around fat embodiment in relation to trans experience and weight loss surgery.

Surgical tools for blog

Date: Thursday 5th October 2017

Time: 5pm

Location: Room 604, 309 Regent Street, University of Westminster, W1B 2HW

This event is free and open to academics, students and anyone else who’s interested in this important topic. Please register on Eventbrite.

Choice or Assent? The Neoliberal Subject and/of Weight Loss Surgeries

Dr Samantha Murray, University of New South Wales

In the midst of a global ‘obesity epidemic’, where dieting regimes and pharmacological solutions have failed as curative therapies, bariatric (weight loss) surgeries have been held out as the ‘gold standard’ in treating clinically determined morbid obesity (Faccio et al., 2016). However, despite the categorisation of obesity as a disease, the individualist politics that defines our neoliberal context continues to position fat subjects as personally responsible for their ‘affliction’, via their unmanaged excesses.

Against this backdrop, over the last decade, there has been a massive increase in the number of weight loss surgeries (WLS) carried out, often as elective procedures (Drew, 2011; Angrisani et al., 2015). However, the ‘choice’ to undergo these surgeries can be experienced as ‘assent’, rather than ‘consent’, and further, the lifelong management of post-WLS embodiment remains invisible. In other words, the medico-cultural value of weight loss overshadows the complexities attendant on the allegedly simple ‘choice’ to undergo bariatric surgery and live a fat-free life. Drawing on an autoethnography of WLS, here I offer a phenomenological account of the problematic lived (dis)connections between health and bodily appearance in obesity treatment protocols, and the role of ‘choice’ in neoliberal medicine.


Backrolls Vs Gender Roles: The Fat/Trans Intersection

Dr Francis Ray White, University of Westminster

Critical thinking around fat and transgender has thus far existed in largely separate spheres and each remains ignorant of the others’ insights. This has resulted in a failure to account for the embodied experiences of people who are both fat and trans. This talk will focus on the medical gate-keeping around gender reassignment surgeries for trans people in terms of the weight restrictions imposed on candidates and the assumption that they can, and will, lose weight in order to access surgeries. This example raises key issues around the ‘malleability’ of the body, specifically the tensions between transgender activism predicated on the idea of the body’s inherent malleability, and fat activism that has politically insisted on the body’s non-malleability and its right to exist as fat. Caught between these conflicting approaches, fat trans people have often been excluded by both sides. In asking questions about how fat activism can help challenge fatphobia in trans communities, and how fatness shapes the experience of being trans in both everyday incidences of passing/misgendering and in interactions with healthcare professionals and gender identity clinics, this talk will attempt to move beyond existing approaches and imagine new ways of thinking the fat/trans intersection.

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Westminster Sociology Anthology 2017

At this year’s graduation ceremony at the Royal Festival Hall, Dr Naomi Rudoe presented graduating students with the third edition of the annual Westminster Sociology Dissertation Anthology, which showcases some of the outstanding and innovative research produced by final year Sociology students at the University of Westminster.

The aim of this anthology is to reward good dissertations, to provide an example of quality work for future dissertation students, and to promote more widely the achievements of our students in Sociology at Westminster.

The anthology includes Mark Armstrong-Wood’s work on community libraries in Austerity Britain, Kate Taylor’s work on tattoos in the workplace, Rhianna Bedi’s work on sexual double standards, Sonia Kamili’s work on war and gender roles, and Shivani Pandya’s work on migration and Brexit.

While these five projects are incredibly diverse, they all have qualities that make them distinctive of the kind of work our students produce in Sociology at Westminster: they engage creatively and passionately with some of the urgent issues of our time, they use a finely tuned sociological imagination to challenge taken-for-granted assumptions, and they are motivated by a desire to understand and challenge social inequalities.

Mark, Kate, Rhianna, Sonia and Shivani are not alone in producing great dissertation projects. The Sociology team had the pleasure to read some really excellent work this year. In particular, we would like to commend work by Yasmin Siddika, Aneesah Rehman, Sannah Iqbal, Fareena Akram, Latifah Stone, James Shipley and Olivia Lovelock.

Click here to download a PDF copy of the Westminster Sociology Dissertation Anthology 2017

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To our students, on the Teaching Excellence Framework

Year after year in Sociology at Westminster we receive consistently high levels of student satisfaction (90-100%) in the National Student Survey. Individual Sociology staff have won awards for their quality teaching, and most recently were awarded a team Excellence Award in recognition of our innovative teaching programme. We have specialist teaching qualifications which mean our work is informed by the latest thinking in Higher Education. External examiners reported only last week how impressed and inspired they are by what we do.

While it does not come as a surprise, we are disappointed to find that our university has been ranked ‘Bronze’ – the lowest category – in the national Teaching Excellence Framework (TEF), published this morning. Although the stated aim of the TEF is ‘to recognise and reward excellence in teaching and learning’ the outcome for Sociology at Westminster has been the direct opposite: the TEF result says, quite plainly, that we’re crap at our jobs.

This is why I’m writing to you, our undergraduate students. You know as well as I do that the TEF result is just not true. You know that in Sociology you’ve got a really dedicated teaching team. You know how much work we put in to developing super interesting modules (spending many more hours on this than the university asks us to). You know how much one-to-one support we provide to develop your knowledge and skills. You know how intellectually transformative our critical, socially engaged teaching can be.

We’re confident that you know how good our teaching is, but we don’t want the TEF’s insinuation to shake that. We want our graduating third year students to know (as our examiners tell us) that your hard work is comparable to that produced at the UK’s most elite institutions. Because the TEF is telling you, quite plainly, that you’ve had a third-rate experience, it’s important to explain why the TEF is a fundamentally flawed mechanism.

While there is variance in student satisfaction across our University, the issue with the TEF is not that Sociology is being dragged down by poor results in other subject areas. That would be unfair on our colleagues who work very hard in increasingly difficult circumstances to provide excellent teaching.

The most obvious problem with the TEF is that it doesn’t engage with teaching at all. Nobody has observed a single lecture, seminar, or workshop. In the very simplest terms, the TEF is a lie. Instead of this, the TEF uses proxy data, and alongside student satisfaction it includes metrics like drop-out rates and graduate employment data.

It is no wonder, then, that the more elite institutions like Oxford and Cambridge have generally obtained a ‘gold’ rating in the REF.  These universities continue to be populated by disproportionate numbers of privately-educated students whose privilege goes on to secure them the UK’s top jobs. This isn’t because these students have experienced excellent teaching: it is because elite institutions continue to play a significant role on reproducing preexisting social privileges. The advantages conferred by social class are invariably consolidated by white privilege.

The TEF also needs to be understood as part of a wider and ongoing process of the marketization of the university sector. The TEF is according the author of a recent report, ‘not so much about teaching excellence as raising fees’. The TEF promises to give elite institutions the right to raise fees (and so further reinforcing class distinction); it will force lower-ranking institutions like Westminster to reduce fees, with a predictable knock-on effect on future student expenditure and the resourcing of teaching. In short: the TEF is going to make things a lot harder for non-elite universities like Westminster.

In the General Election students and young people put the injustice of tuition fees firmly back on the political agenda. There’s increasing recognition that neither university staff nor students are benefiting from the market in UK Higher Education. In Sociology at Westminster we will do our best – in collaboration with our amazing, talented students – to struggle against its injustices, and that includes the faulty verdict of the TEF.

Ben Pitcher is Co-Leader of the Sociology BA Honours at Westminster. @Pitcher_Ben

Image from the University of Salford SU ' there's more to excellent teaching than statistics'

Image from the University of Salford Student Union: https://www.salfordstudents.com/student-voice/campaigns/tef



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Sociology team win teaching excellence award

sociology team

In a Ceremony at Marylebone on 23 May 2017 the Sociology team at Westminster received a Teaching Excellence Award. Award holders make a significant contribution  to learning and teaching at Westminster through contributing learning resources, promoting learning and teaching development at faculty level and more widely. Complementing the individual Teaching Fellowships awarded in previous years to Dr Celia Jenkins, Dr Ben Pitcher and Dr Naomi Rudoe, the Excellence Award recognizes the work of the whole team in developing an innovative and inspiring teaching programme.


Receiving the award on behalf of the team, Dr Hilde Stephansen gave some background to the Sociology team, the work we do, and our plans for the future:

Sociology at Westminster is one of three disciplinary groups within the Department of History, Sociology and Criminology. We have a diverse student body, the majority of whom are non-traditional students from local working class and ethnic minority communities, especially women. The application was based on the work that we do as a team to support our non-traditional students and deliver an innovative degree programme that responds to a diversity of interests, experiences and needs.

Our approach to teaching and learning is informed by principles of critical pedagogy and based on an understanding of sociology as a transformative discipline that develops students critical thinking and enables them to connect personal troubles to public issues, to quote the sociologist C. Wright Mills. Our non-traditional students are particularly affected by structures of inequality linked to class, ethnicity, gender and sexuality, and we use our subject expertise in these areas to develop research-informed teaching that links issue they face in their personal lives to sociological theory.

A key feature of our degree programme is the high level of support we offer to our students. Recognising that our non-traditional students have specific support needs, we have consciously integrated study skills and information literacy within our core curriculum – making sessions on academic writing, referencing, finding and evaluating sources part of our core provision. We offer high levels of support with assessments and we work especially hard to provide high-quality, constructive assessment feedback.

Finally, we take a holistic approach to the student experience and work hard to make students feel part of an academic community. We have a Facebook page and a blog, a student forum that offers an informal space for students and staff to discuss the course together, and we organise social events and fieldtrips to London museums and exhibitions.

We know that much of the work we have done is successful but we have also identified challenges. These include an apparent increase in the number of students experiencing mental health issues and a lack of confidence among some students in their skills and abilities. We therefore plan to use award for a student consultation exercise to identify support needs in areas including mental health, academic skills and employability, which will inform further improvements to our curriculum and teaching practice. We also plan to use the award to support our professional development as a team by drawing on the expertise of professionals working in these areas.

excellence award

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New video about Sociology at Westminster

Take a look at our new video showcasing why students should come to study Sociology at the University of Westminster. Thanks so much to our fabulous students who took part!


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Sociology Food Walking Tour of Soho

As part of the Level 6 module Food, Taste and Consumption, Dr Emily falconer and Dr Francis Ray White led a student walking tour of Soho, stopping to explore the cultural history and changing landscape of food and taste (and yes, we also enjoyed some snacks!)
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LGBTQ Studies at Westminster

lgbtq-handbooks-picThis semester sees the launch of the Sociology-led Westminster elective module in LGBTQ Studies. The module is one of a range of interdisciplinary option modules that students from any course or faculty can choose in their second year of study (this year there are students doing everything from biomedical sciences to illustration taking the module). Module leader Francis Ray White said ‘lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer studies is inherently interdisciplinary, so the module works really well in this format. We’ve got lecturers and researchers from all sorts of academic backgrounds giving lectures in their specialist fields over the course of the semester’.

As well as lectures the module is hosting a range of field trips, film screenings and workshops as part of the overall programme. ‘Being in London really makes this aspect of the module both possible and exciting,’ said Francis. ‘I know I’m really looking forward to going to things like the Museum of Transology and the Tate’s Queer Art exhibition with the students.’


Francis Ray White

The module aims to introduce a range of debates around contemporary LGBTQ lives and politics. It asks questions about shifting identities, about representations and about equality and justice, both in the UK and internationally. ‘I want this module to make students think critically about LGBTQ issues and about which kinds of LGBTQ lives have, and have not, become more liveable in the post-same-sex marriage era,’ said Francis. ‘I want to be able to celebrate the rich diversity of LGBTQ life and culture at the same time as recognizing how dominant definitions of gender and sexuality can be limiting, culturally specific and at times exclusionary’.


From the second week of the semester lectures on the LGBTQ Studies module are open to all students and staff at the University of Westminster. Lectures are at 5pm on Wednesdays (except 8th Feb) in Regent St UG04. The programme is as follows:

1st Feb – LGBTQ Movements for Social and Political Change
(Hilde Stephansen, Sociology)

8th Feb (4pm) – What’s the T? Thinking Transgender
(Francis Ray White, Sociology)

 15th Feb – Queer as Folk: Telling LGBTQ Stories
(Matthew Linfoot, Media Studies)

22nd Feb – Queer Literature
(Simon Avery & Kate Graham, English Literature)

1st March – LGBTQ in Education
(Naomi Rudoe, Sociology)

8th March – The Business of Sexuality
(Olimpia Burchiellaro, Westminster Business School)

15th March – LGBTQ Space
(Adam Eldridge, Sociology)

22nd March – Travelling Sexualities: International LGBTQ Rights
(Oliver Phillips, School of Law)

29th March – LGBTQ Asylum Seekers
(Lea Sitkin, Criminology)

 5th April – Sexuality and Religion
(Shamila Ahmed, Criminology)


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