A Northern Girl in the Deep South: Dissertation research in Mississippi

Welcome to Mississippi

Welcome to Mississippi

Post by Lydia Michie – 3rd year BA Geography student

After studying Population and Societies in my second year, alongside some sociology modules, I developed an interest in the changing trends in relationships and in particular the changes surrounding the sexual relationships of today’s younger generations. After watching a documentary on The Silver Ring Thing (a religiously based youth organisation that advocates abstinence amongst teens) in a sociology lecture, I began to wonder about the various ways in which society (and religion) are reacting to these changes in sexual attitudes. A simple google search about abstinence and teen sex brought up masses of media talking about the problems in Mississippi. As a travel addict, I decided that this would be an interesting way of combining my love of my degree with my love of travel and set about planning my final year dissertation research abroad and in June this year I headed out for a three month trip across the USA, stopping in Mississippi for a month mid-way.

Skeet shooting like a true American

Skeet shooting like a true American

Telling people on the East coast of the US that I was travelling down to Mississippi to do research into Abstinence and Sex Education was usually met with either one of three reactions; a wince of pity, a polite warning that I’ll “hate it down there” or simply a snort of laughter. Suffice to say, after a month of this I had become pretty wary of what to expect when I finally got there.

View on my journey through the South

View on my journey through the South

After a mammoth 34 hour hellish train journey from Washington D.C to Mississippi I was too tired to even think about what the following month was about to bring me. The following morning, when I woke up in my little closet that had been converted into a temporary bedroom (perhaps they thought all English people lived like Harry Potter), it soon became clear that this place was going to surprise me. Much in contrast to the ‘hillbilly’, ‘redneck’, ‘uneducated’ stereotype that had clouded my judgement of the South whilst on the East coast, I found myself surrounded by books on feminism and sociology, a sort of miniature Human Geographer’s library. Proudly hanging on the porch above the front door was the Gay Pride rainbow flag (a sight I had not imagined I would see in such a conservative and right wing state) and I was both relieved and admittedly a little shocked to find my new home to be filled with “a bunch of liberals”; a male feminist, a gay black man and an artist. Straight away I knew I had found myself somewhere unlike any other place I’ve experienced.

My Mississippi family: my housemates on the porch

My Mississippi family: my housemates on the porch

Despite being a big city, it didn’t take long for word to spread that there was an English girl in town and people were intrigued as to why a Brit would want to be there. The minute I mentioned my research project, I was bombarded with opinions and offers to be interviewed. The ball was in motion and I knew straight away that I wasn’t going to get the results I had anticipated.

Rural Mississippi

Rural Mississippi

Mississippi has the strictest abstinence policies in its high schools meaning that Mississippi teens are being taught next to nothing about sexual health and relationships other than to wait until they are “ready” or married. Sexual health services are sparse to say the least, or at least much more hidden than would be the case in other states and the stigma surrounding such services is often so negative that it may unfortunately put people off going. Despite the push for abstinence-based education and the flaws in the state’s offering of sexual health, Mississippi has some of the highest teen pregnancy and STI transmission rates in the USA, making it one of the worst in the Developed World. When looking at the economic and religious background of the state the trends would seem to show an obvious reasoning for the local Government’s sexual education choices but I wanted to explore this further and to see if there were any other factors aside from or running parallel to “The Bible Belt factor” that caused people to be in support of such policies.

A 'typical' Southern Home

A ‘typical’ Southern Home

Although finding interviewees proved quite easy, finding a means to interview them proved slightly more difficult. With no public transport, taxis or driving licence, I was reliant upon the generosity of the locals to ferry me about the city (an experience that certainly proved that Mississippi’s reputation as ‘The Hospitality State’ was nothing short of the truth). With each interview came new questions, new answers, new surprises and new perspectives. I found myself becoming more and more passionate about the subject and it was refreshing to find that, once they got going, my interviewees shared that passion. Although I think a lot of people are aware of the debate and have strong opinions, it doesn’t seem to be a regular topic of discussion and people jumped at the chance to vent some of their frustrations or to argue their point of view. One interviewee even said it was “like a therapy session”.

Leaving Mississippi

Leaving Mississippi

Although I’ll save the results for the actual dissertation, it’s safe to say my 7 hours’ worth of interviews, although having left me exhausted,  have also opened my mind to many factors that I could never have understood without actually travelling there and experiencing that Southern lifestyle. Although it can be expensive and stressful, I couldn’t be happier to have chosen to do my research abroad and I would recommend anyone who is debating giving it a go to just do it! If you take yourself out of your comfort zone you’ll be pleasantly surprised by how much it can teach you. But be prepared to never want to leave! I got some interesting results and along the way saw some beautiful places and made some beautiful friends. Mississippi and what I saw of the rest of the South is such a hard place to describe. It is one huge, humid, beautiful but messed-up contradiction of a state but that’s all part of its charm. It’s everything you might expect from the South but at the same time, it’s nothing like you’d imagine!

Quiet Party Political Conferences Amid Continued Austerity: Time for Cities to Fight Back?


This Department’s Peter North has recently published a book on Liverpool in the 1980s co-authored with Sociology’s Diane Frost.   Back in the 1980s a radical socialist Liverpool city council challenged the then Conservative Government’s austerity, initially with much support in the city, but later with mixed results.


The then Labour Party Leader, Neil Kinnock famously denounced the then Liverpool Council for “playing politics with people’s jobs and people’s services”.  He argued that it was wrong to act illegally to defend jobs and services in the face of government cuts –  watch here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bWLN7rIby9s

Thirty years on the city again faces difficult choices, and there has been some early signs of a fightback from the recently formed Merseyside Peoples Assembly (http://merseysidepeoplesassembly.org/)  – although the current Mayor is not organising such a fightback: he agrees with Neil Kinnock that this would be “toytown politics” : http://www.liverpoolecho.co.uk/news/liverpool-news/joe-anderson-militant-sacrificed-liverpools-3572529

Peter was recently interviewed on the BBC, discussing the legacy of the past council’s actions: http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b03b4scw

He argued that Liverpool today is a much revitalised place attracting the best and the brightest to the city, especially to study Geography at the University of Liverpool, and the city’s revitalisation started back in the 1980s when people of this city said “enough is enough” and started to do something about the city’s problems. How much more could have been done if the private sector had been investing in the city, central government had been providing the funds the city needed, and if the great public support for the city’s fightback had been maintained?  Without it, would the city have gone the same way as Detroit, eventually going bankrupt?


This, and many other contemporary issues, will be studied by the students we welcome to Liverpool this week

The Anthropocene Review – a new, peer-review international journal.

 The Department of Geography and Planning, School of Environmental Sciences, is the base from which a new journal has just being launched – The Anthropocene Review – to be published by SAGE. The Editor is Professor Frank Oldfield (oldfield.f@gmail.com). Current Geography and Planning PhD student Dan Schillereff (dns@liv.ac.uk) has the role of Editorial Assistant, with special responsibility for Social Media, in particular developing and maintaining the blog: http://anthropocenerev.blogspot.co.uk/.

The blog provides much more information on the aims and scope of the journal, the Editorial Board and includes a Hub Bibliography for those interested in delving further into the notion of the Anthropocene.

The Editorial, authored by members of the Editorial Board, is available Open Access from the SAGE website: http://www.uk.sagepub.com/repository/binaries/pdf/ANR-abstract.pdf

Anyone with suggestions, ideas or is interested in contributing to the blog is welcome to contact Frank and/or Dan. Authors seeking to submit a manuscript to The Anthropocene Review are advised, in the first instance, to contact Frank (or another member of the Editorial Board) and submit a short proposal (no longer than 300 words). Proposals should allow non-specialist members of the Editorial Board to understand the aims, scope and content of the intended contribution.

Frank Oldfield

QuanTile Launch at the RGS

The teaching of quantitative methods in the social sciences especially has been of particular interest to the ESRC, British Academy, HEFCE and the Nuffield Foundation. Chris Brunsdon and Alex Singleton (of the Department of Geography and Planning here at Liverpool) have been part of a group investigating this topic,  producing this report https://www.researchgate.net/publication/256191493_Quantitative_Methods_in_Geography_Making_the_Connections_between_Schools_Universities_and_Employers . The group had a session launching  the report at the RGS/IBG international conference at the RGS in Kensington Gore – with short presentations from Rich Harris and Chris Brunsdon (shown in photo). Among other things, a series of video case studies of the use of quantitative methods in geography were produced – these can be viewed here: 
http://www.youtube.com/channel/UCK7Yo59yF3VnV5ePAFy2nnA?feature=watch and also at www.quantile.info which contains other resources and case studies for those interested in using or teaching quantitative approaches.Image