Challenging Homophobia and Homophobic Bullying through Children’s Literature: a Parliamentary event

On July 16th 2013 I hosted an event supported by ESRC/CASS and the Lancaster University FASS-Enterprise Centre on Challenging Homophobia and Homophobic Bullying through Children’s Literature.

The event aimed to start a conversation about the use of children’s literature as a resource for effectively challenging homophobia and homophobic bullying and included attendees ranging from MPs and charity spokespersons to prominent academics and educational practitioners to children’s publishers and literature retailers. All who attended were experienced in issues of homophobia and homophobic bullying or with issues relating to inclusive children’s literature.


The 2-hour event, which took around 6 months of organisation to bring together, included 6 presentations and a roundtable discussion, and turned out to be a success both in terms of an opportunity for knowledge exchange and networking.


The presentations were structured into 2 sessions. The first session focussed on issues of homophobia and homophobic bullying. The second session focussed on issues of using children’s literature as a means for addressing issues of inclusion.

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Official launch of the ESRC Centre for Corpus Approaches to Social Science

The official opening of the £4.1 million ESRC Centre for Corpus Approaches to Social Science (CASS) took place on Tuesday, 23 July 2013, at the start of the seventh international Corpus Linguistics 2013 conference attended by more than 300 delegates. Delegates representing dozens of universities around the world convened with civil servants to honour the past, promote the present, and celebrate the future of corpus methods in the social sciences.

Former Home Secretary Charles Clarke was among several special guests at the launch event including representatives from the Ministry of Justice, the Home Office and the Environment Agency. Mr. Clarke said a few words to the audience of scholars and other users of research, stressing the importance of investigating language in the context of society, as well as continuing to foster and nurture interdisciplinary collaborative links in social science research.

With such a large and influential crowd gathered, we took the opportunity to showcase a variety of new and exciting research featuring corpus methods applied to the social sciences to a wide network of people. A range of researchers from Lancaster and much further afield were invited to give poster presentations highlighting their current work, which offers a variety of exciting contributions ranging from methodological advances to increased social understanding, and greater emphasis on interdisciplinarity in academia. Poster presenters included Mike Scott, Alan Partington, Ute Römer, Kevin Harvey, Elena Semino, Veronika Koller, Ramesh Krishnamurthy, Alan Partington, Alison Sealey, Andrew Salway, Paul Rayson, Steve Young, Jonathan Culpeper, Paul Baker, Rachelle Vessey, Charlotte Taylor, Anna Marchi, Catherine Chorley, Costas Gabrielatos, and Robbie Love. The posters proved great fodder for stimulating conversation about the future potentials of corpus linguistics and corpus approaches to social science.

Click below to see the full gallery of photos from the evening.

Two approaches to keywords

On July 4th, 2013, I gave a presentation on keywords at a meeting of the Keywords Project at Jesus College, Cambridge University. The Keywords Project uses Raymond Williams’ concept of keywords as being socially prominent words (e.g. art, industry, media or society) that are capable of bearing interlocking, yet sometimes contradictory contemporary meanings, and the group meets a couple of times each year to discuss new keywords that have emerged in society. The group carry out analysis using a variety of different methods, involving deriving etymologies from the Oxford English Dictionary, making use of Google n-grams, referring to academic research on particular concepts and investigating corpora.

I was invited to give an alternative (or rather, complementary) perspective that was more focussed on around corpus linguistics. I discussed how the concept of keywords differs greatly in CL, and how keyness can be extended to include tagged words, semantic or grammatical groups of words, multi-word units or even punctuation marks. Using various reference corpora, I showed how keyness techniques could be used to aid the identification of potential emerging keywords, while concordancing and collocational analysis could help to to identify the range of meanings around a word at a given point in time.

For more information, see

Challenging Homophobia & Homophobic Bullying through Children’s Literature

Homophobic bullying, whether verbal, physical, or cyber, is a significant and prevalent issue in schools 1. Stonewall, a leading charity in campaigning for lesbian, gay and bisexual (LGB) rights, reported in 2012 that 55% of LGB children in British schools experience bullying 2. They also reported earlier in 2007 the results of a YouGov survey of over 2,000 primary and secondary teachers who suggest that it isn’t just LGB young people that experience homophobic bullying and harassment but that it is a wider issue that is experienced by young people regardless of their sexual orientation. 3

Bullying is sadly still a ubiquitous element of many students’ school experiences 4 which has immediate and long-term detrimental effects for the victims of bullying 5

Those who are bullied are affected in terms of their physical, psychological and social health and well-being: loneliness, depression, anxiety, low self-esteem; psychosomatic symptoms such as headaches, abdominal pain, and sleeplessness; poor school grades; premature alcohol and tobacco consumption. These are all generally associated with children being bullied.

So important is the specific issue of homophobic bullying that the independent children’s services inspectorate, Ofsted, which is responsible for the regulation of quality in maintained schools and academies in the UK, recently implemented ‘exploring the schools actions to prevent homophobic bullying’ to its list of briefings used during school inspections; a very positive move in the prevention of homophobic bullying.

Children’s literature is a key educational resource

Children’s literature is already almost inextricably linked to education. Literature is already used in schools to encourage and teach literacy as well things like sex and relationships education (SRE), citizenship; and Personal, Social, Health, and Economics (PSHE) education. In recent years, children’s literature has also been recognised as a credible and useful resource for preventing homophobic bullying and creating inclusive culture 6, although LGBT-inclusive books are yet to become a staple of school libraries. So, why not integrate or produce LGBT-inclusive resources that help schools prevent homophobic bullying?

Doing something about it

There is a growing recognition of the need, want, and support for resources aimed at young people to promote inclusive, anti-homophobic practices but there is still little being done to address the lack of resources. So, with the help of the FASS-Enterprise Centre and the ESRC Centre for Corpus Approaches to Social Sciences (CASS) at Lancaster, on July 16th a day event will take place in the Palace of Westminster. At this event, I host a number of key spokespersons from the diverse areas of politics, publishing, retail, charities, and academia where recent work relating to homophobia, homophobic bullying and children’s literature will be shared and discussed in order to better challenge homophobia and homophobic bullying through children’s literature.

Work to be presented on the day

Stonewall’s head of Education, Wes Streeting, and Professor of Human Development at Brunel University, Ian Rivers will present recent work on homophobic bullying in schools. Paul Baker, Professor of English Language and Linguistics at Lancaster University, will present the results of work done using corpus linguistic methods on changing representations of homosexuality in the British press. Mark McGlashan, PhD student at Lancaster University, presents work on current representations of same-sex parent families in picturebooks. Beth Cox presents on her work as part of Inclusive Mind, a collaborative network of consultants and campaigners which aims to increase socially inclusive representations in children’s literature. Finally, teacher trainer, consultant and writer Mark Jennett presents work on using children’s literature as resources for inclusion in schools.

Funded by




  1. Rivers, Ian. (2011) Homophobic Bullying. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
  4. Poteat, V. Paul., Mereish, Ethan. H., GiGiovanni, Craig. D. & Scheer, Jillian. R. (2013) ‘Homophobic Bullying’. In, Rivers, Ian & Duncan, Neil (Eds.) Bullying: experiences and discourses of sexuality and gender. Oxon: Routledge. Pp. 75-90.
  5. Cowie, Helen. (2013) ‘Immediate and long-term effects of bullying’. In, Rivers, Ian & Duncan, Neil (Eds.) Bullying: experiences and discourses of sexuality and gender. Oxon: Routledge. Pp. 10-8.
  6. No Outsiders Project Team (2010) Undoing Homophobia in Primary Schools. Staffordshire: Trentham Books Ltd.

Beyond ‘auto-complete search forms’: Notes on the reaction to ‘Why do white people have thin lips?’

As Paul Baker reported yesterday, a paper that we co-authored entitled “‘Why do white people have thin lips?’ Google and the perpetuation of stereotypes via auto-complete search forms” (published 2013 in Critical Discourse Studies 10:2) has recently been garnering some media attention, being cited in the Mail Online and the 18 May 2013 print issue of The Daily Telegraph (image below). Our findings — that “the auto-complete search algorithm offered by the search tool Google can produce suggested terms which could be viewed as racist, sexist or homophobic” — come as a German court “said Google must ensure terms generated by auto-complete are not offensive or defamatory” (BBC News, 14 May 2013).  Similar, earlier, cases of (personal) libel and defamation were recalled by both Paul and me during the process of our investigation, but — serious as it may be — the thrust of this study was not the potential for damage to individuals, but rather to entire social groups. We found that:

“Certain identity groups were found to attract particular stereotypes or qualities. For example, Muslims and Jewish people were linked to questions about aspects of their appearance or behaviour, while white people were linked to questions about their sexual attitudes. Gay and black identities appeared to attract higher numbers of questions that were negatively stereotyping.”

The nature of Google auto-complete is such that the content presented appears because a relatively high number of previous users have typed these strings into the search box. We argue, then, that the appearance of such a high frequency of (largely negatively) stereotyping results indicates that “humans may have already shaped the Internet in their image, having taught stereotypes to search engines and even trained them to hastily present these as results of ‘top relevance’.” This finding has been somewhat misinterpreted by the press; the short title revealed in the URL for the Mail Online article and used in the top ticker — ‘Is Google making us RACIST?’ — actually reverses the agency in this process, as we have argued that, in fact, users may have made Google racist.

This ties in to the main suggestion that we make in the conclusion of the article, that “there should be a facility to flag certain auto-completion statements or questions as problematic”, much the same as the ‘down-votes’ utilised in the Google-owned and -operated site YouTube. The argument here being: if auto-complete results have been crowd-sourced from Google users, why not empower the same users to work as mass moderators?

The other main point in our conclusion section was that this was not (and could not have been) a reception study “in that we are unable to make generalisations about the effects on users of encountering unexpected auto-complete question forms in Google”, but that this was an area ripe for further research.

“Hall’s (1973) notion of dominant, oppositional and negotiated resistant readings indicates that audiences potentially have complex and varying reactions to a particular ‘text’. As noted earlier, we make no claim that people who see questions which contain negative social stereotypes will come to internalise such stereotypes. A similar-length (at least) paper to this one would be required to do justice to how individuals react to these question forms. And part of such a reception study would also involve examining the links to various websites which appear underneath the auto-completed questions. Do such links lead to pages which attempt to confirm or refute the stereotyping questions?”

In short, we had found that Google auto-complete did offer a high frequency of (largely negative) stereotyping questions, and did not offer a way for users to problematise these at the point of presentation. What we did not find was that “Google searches ‘boost prejudice'”, though we did hope to spark a discussion on the topic, and to indicate that the field is open for researchers willing to conduct reception studies.

Daily Telegraph 18.05.13

Nic Subtirelu, a PhD student in the Department of Applied Linguistics and ESL at Georgia State University, wrote an interesting blog post on his site Linguistic Pulse beginning to do just that. After following the links presented from a sample search of “why do black people have big lips”, he says:

“So what happens when you do type in these searches? Well if you’re genuinely interested in the question enough to actually read some of the first results you find, my own experience here suggests that what you’ll be exposed to are sources that would not be considered credible in academic communities (and whose scholarly merits may be questionable) but nonetheless contain information designed to answer the question honestly using scientific theories (in this case evolutionary biology) and which often also acknowledge the over-generalization of the original question or the ideological norm that the question assumes (that is the question assumes Africans have ‘big’ noses only because they are being implicitly compared to ‘normal’ European noses).”

Nic does come across some traces of pseudo-scientific, white supremacist discourse, and misogynistic ideologies in the websites linked by auto-suggestion, but summarizes that “While [Google auto-complete] clearly suggests we live in a world of stereotyping and particularly negative stereotyping in the case of historically oppressed groups, it may also indicate the potential for challenging these stereotypes” and enters his own suggestion for further work, urging that:

“people who generate content critical of racist, homophobic, or sexist ideologies should attempt to make that content searchable by popular questions like ‘Why do black people have big noses?’ as well as accessible to broad audiences so that audiences relying on these stereotypes can have them challenged.”

In the press: Google and the perpetuation of stereotypes

The findings of a paper published by myself and Amanda Potts on the implications of Google’s auto-complete search function have been reported in Mail Online and The Telegraph (18 May 2013).

The paper examined what happens when the beginnings of questions about different identity groups are entered into Google’s search form. For example, typing “why do black”, “do gay people” and “should jews” results in Google offering auto-complete suggestions which could be considered offensive or perpetuating stereotypes.


The paper’s aims were to raise questions about the appropriacy of such auto-completes but also to investigate which sorts of stereotyping questions tend to be associated with different identities. We categorised 2,690 such questions as they occurred across 12 social groups, finding that the groups with the most negative stereotypes associated with them were male, black and gay people.


Our paper does not argue that people reading such questions will automatically internalise such stereotypes (although younger or uncritical users of Google may do so, and people who hold those stereotypes may feel that they are validated) but we believe that there should be an option for certain suggestions to be flagged as offensive and removed or hidden if they reach a certain level of complaints, similar to YouTube’s commenting system.


Baker, P. & Potts, A. (2013) “Why do white people have thin lips?”: Google and the perpetuation of stereotypes via auto-complete search forms. Critical Discourse Studies. 10:2, p. 187-204.

Available here.

Call for Participation: ESRC Summer School in Corpus Approaches to Social Sciences

We are very pleased to issue the first call for participation for our ESRC Summer School in Corpus Approaches to Social Sciences, which will take place at Lancaster University 16th-19th July 2013. This event takes place under the aegis of CASS, a new ESRC research centre bringing a new method in the study of language – the corpus approach – to a range of social sciences. CASS is investigating the use and manipulation of language in society in a host of areas of pressing concern, including climate change, hate crime and education.

Who can attend?

A crucial part of the CASS remit is to provide researchers across the social sciences with the skills needed to apply the tools and techniques of corpus linguistics to the research questions that matter in their own discipline. This event is aimed at junior social scientists – especially PhD students and postdoctoral researchers – in any of the social science disciplines. Anyone with an interest in the analysis of social issues via text and discourse – especially on a large scale – will find this summer school of interest.

Note: This summer school is aimed at beginners who have little or no experience using corpus tools in their work. Those  who have at least some introductory experience of analysis using language corpora, and who wish to expand their knowledge of key issues and techniques in cutting-edge corpus research, will be more interested in the UCREL Summer School in Corpus Linguistics.


The programme consists of a series of intensive two-hour sessions, some involving practical work, others more discussion-oriented. Topics include: Introduction to corpus linguistics; Corpus tools and techniques; Collecting corpus data; Foundational techniques for social science data – keywords and collocation; Understanding statistics for corpus analysis; Discourse analysis for the social sciences; Semantic annotation and key domains; Corpus-based approaches to metaphor in discourse; Pragmatics, politeness and impoliteness in the corpus. Speakers include Paul Baker, Jonathan Culpeper, and Elena Semino.

The CASS Summer School is part of three ‘Lancaster Summer Schools in Interdisciplinary Digital Methods’, see the website for further information. There are additional daily plenary lectures shared with the other two Summer School events, each illustrating cutting-edge digital research methods using corpus data. The confirmed plenary speakers are Tony McEnery, Ian Gregory, and Stephen Pumfrey.

How to apply

The CASS Summer School is free to attend, but registration in advance is compulsory, as places are limited. For more details, see the website.