School of Geography

Inspiring People - David Beckingham

David Beckingham

David Beckingham

Examining how social behaviours are regulated


How would you explain your research?

My research investigates issues of social regulation, principally drinking and drunkenness. I study how social behaviours have come to be interpreted as problems that need to be regulated. Take something like the smoking ban, or a minimum unit price for alcohol. These help us appreciate the changing regulatory reach of government.

I’m interested, historically, in the relationship between that role for government and the freedoms, rights and responsibilities of citizens. I study how those changes played out, socially and geographically. Problem behaviour was often importantly interpreted and defined spatially, to do with who was drinking, where, and in what company.

What inspired you to pursue this area?

A third-year course I did during my undergraduate geography degree. It introduced me to the Victorian expansion of institutions such as asylums, hospitals and prisons whose spectacular form can still be seen across Britain. They stand as symbols of state power. The fact that they were built at all, however, reveals something of contemporary anxieties about social change and industrial progress.

It was this much more complex relationship between power and the people that really grabbed my attention. I began to wonder if the place to understand that dynamic, for the vast majority of people, was not the spectacular prison but rather mundane, everyday places like the pub. I show how the pub became a battleground for competing ideas of what British society should be, and what role the state should play in its transformation.

What sort of impact do you hope your research will have?

I hope that my work finds audiences beyond geography and alcohol studies, speaking to the interests of public policy as well as local history societies and school groups.

Alcohol brings together a range of social, economic and political questions. One of the most valuable historical lessons is to understand how the relationship between these has changed, shaping dramatically different levels of consumption. I think this can help us develop a much more considered language around alcohol, one that doesn't default to a lazy claim that Britain has always been a nation of boozers and binge drinkers.

How does your research influence your teaching?

We pride ourselves on research-led teaching. Often it will be the theoretical ideas in my work that students meet first, with the historical material being covered in more specialist options. This year I have also coordinated a Research Tutorial module. Its distinguishing feature is that we don’t just discuss the results of our work with students, we can really drill into the design and execution of our research.

I can trace a developing strand of my work to theoretical debates I explored in former teaching. Seminars and tutorials are platforms for debate, and I am always open to having my ideas challenged by students. Maybe you can think of this as teaching-led research.

What's been the greatest moment of your career so far?

It was a really proud moment to open a box of copies of my new book, The Licensed City. It was even better being able to share them with people who shaped the work. Finishing the book also helped me get my job here in Nottingham, and it is fantastic to be in a department with such a strong cultural and historical geography group.

What's the biggest challenge in your field?

I really want to know how places like the pub functioned as social spaces, but there are precious few records that directly address the kinds of conversations people were having. The challenge is to piece together isolated traces in archive records. I relied on the records of licensing magistrates and the police. They are most detailed when addressing things that were going wrong, but by understanding the definition of the exceptional it is possible to think about the everyday.

What advice would you give to someone considering an undergraduate degree in geography?

Read. And think carefully about what you read. The Geographical Association's journal Geography is a great place to start. It will help introduce you to the format of academic writing, and more importantly to a whole range of debates in geography. You don't have to master them all, but you should meet issues that leave you asking questions and wanting to know more. That should help you know if geography's right for you, and it will be great preparation for university-level learning and research.

David Beckingham is Associate Professor in Cultural and Historical Geography in the School of Geography, and book review editor for Social History of Alcohol and Drugs.

Seminars and tutorials are platforms for debate, and I am always open to having my ideas challenged by students. Maybe you can think of this as teaching-led research.


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