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    Archive for the 'Social & Historical Sciences' Category

    From blurred lines to legal loop holes: how McMafia presents globalised entrepreneurship

    By Natasha Downes, on 15 February 2018

    Written by Natasha Downes, Media Relations Manager, UCL

    The BBC drama McMafia has been the talk of the moment. So much so, that Security Minister Ben Wallace recently admitted to exploiting the success of the programme to raise public awareness of transnational crime, and announce that oligarchs would have to explain the sources of their income.

    When government officials jump on a fictional TV drama to announce a crackdown on Russian oligarchs, the implication is that Russian’s really are at the heart of organised crime. A message further reinforced by media headlines such as ‘McMafia is a documentary, not a drama’.


    But is McMafia really art imitating life?

    On Wednesday 7 February at the Darwin Lecture Theatre of UCL, I attended McMafia: The Reality, chaired and organised by Dr Ben Noble (UCL School of Slavonic and East European Studies), to hear four academics he brought together discuss the scope of whether McMafia is a work of fiction or a work of reality.

    Dr Mark Galeotti (Institute of International Relations, Prague) opened up the session by discussing the origins of the emblematic Russia mafia narrative. He talked of the ‘original gangster’ which many associate with the Chechens due to the successful scaling of their franchise of fear.

    With the break-up of the Soviet Union in the late 1990s many newly rich oligarchs moved their money somewhere safe, and this is more or less, when the boundaries between business, crime and politics became imperceptible.

    But this narrative of mafia is not so simple, because organised crime is essentially transnational. It may happen in Russia, but it also takes place all over the world. Businessmen and businesswomen, gangsters and corrupt state representatives operate within their own districts and national networks, and link up to form an international system of organised crime. Dr Alexander Kupatadze (Kings, Russia Institute) calls this the continuous loop of transnational trade.

    In McMafia, Russians are depicted as the wholesalers; the one-stop-shop for criminality. They are the service providers blending upper world legal forces. According to Dr Philippa Hetherington (UCL School of Slavonic and East European Studies) this is a narrative that exploits negative stereotypes. Speaking on the panel she called for a more critical viewer. She highlighted how easily McMafia slips into worn stereotypes of Slavic women being trafficked by Russian men of Jewish descent to the ‘Middle East’. When in fact sex trafficking is a global problem, affecting women of all nationalities.

    Dr Hetherington warns of the dangers of allowing these stereotypes to prevail. These are what she calls cultural and radicalised stereotypes, which feed into the notion of otherness about Russia and the Middle East. It negatively reinforces the trope that foreigners bring us problems.

    Professor Alena Ledeneva (UCL School of Slavonic and East European Studies) attributed this to the media’s difficulty in communicating complexity.  Speaking on the panel, she carefully peeled away the narrative; exploring what McMafia alludes to rather than explicitly portrays.

    Professor Ledeneva discussed how McMafia arouses the tensions of globalisation. Alex, McMafia’s central character, handles global transactions from his almost clinical London office, but he also travels and has a lot of international partners. So, she asks, why do we refer to Russians?

    McMafia is a series that highlights what Professor Ledeneva calls the political roof of organised crime. The monopoly of legitimate violence. The blurred lines of globalised entrepreneurship – where what we see may be unethical and immoral but is in fact ‘legal’. Here we see that organised crime has surpassed the capability and capacity of law enforcement, and it’s a difficult message for audiences to swallow.

    Professor Ledeneva seemed to suggest that modern capitalism depicted in McMafia, and the real world City of London which we associate Alex with, doesn’t provide a view on morality.

    The McMafia event helped the audience to think more critically about the grey areas. The line between formal and informal, family and business, strategies of survival vs strategies of the system. In McMafia Alex says he is a broker for survival, but he is also about competitive advantage and creating a level playing field.  Strategy is essential for the successful operation of McMafia.

    We travel between a set of standards which are fluid, and choice is a central motif of the McMafia narrative.  Arguably Alex has a choice, many choices in fact, but as Professor Ledeneva highlights these are complex choices, and ones in which social structures and cultures may come into play.

    These attempts to contextualise McMafia help us to better understand individuals but also the system of organised crime. Professor Galeotti importantly emphasised that we mustn’t conflate organised crime with corruption; the people at the top moving money don’t sit down with gangsters despite what McMafia portrays.

    McMafia is gripping television at its finest, and academic insight helps to remind us that we should be careful blurring fiction with reality, because the reality is always more complex.



    The hidden gems of studying a degree in Archaeology

    By Jo Harris, on 21 June 2017

    Written by UCL Archaeology Graduate, John Bilton

    As I relaxed in my scratch-built sauna in the middle of the West Sussex countryside, I decided there were worse things in life than studying archaeology. It was a week into my first year and I was at ‘Primtech’, a four-day retreat every new undergrad at UCL’s Institute of Archaeology (IoA) goes on to get a hands-on introduction to early technologies (flint knapping, pottery making, bronze casting, etc.), and to get to know the people they will spend the next three years studying with. I had made the sauna that afternoon with another first-year and a couple of second-years, who came to Primtech as supervisors, out of some sticks, tarpaulin and burnt flint. It was a nice way to wind down after a morning of landscape walking.

    70 days of fieldwork

    IoA students need to get used to being outside, because the undergrad course requires them to complete 70 days of fieldwork. What this actually involves varies hugely: I spent six weeks in Greece and Macedonia, examining various museums and archaeological sites; a friend of mine spent a month excavating in Israel. Another spent two weeks in Uganda. The IoA is Britain’s largest and most well-regarded archaeological department: its archaeologists conduct fieldwork all over the globe, on some of the most famous archaeological sites on Earth.

    Easter Island

    A good example of the IoA’s global reach is its work in Rapa Nui, known more colloquially as Easter Island, home to the colossal stone ‘moai’ sculptures. The ‘Rapa Nui Landscapes of Construction Project’, led by Professor Sue Hamilton (Director of the IoA), works with Rapa Nui elders and students to provide resources and training to help them present Rapa Nui’s past, and extended a bursary to bring Rapa Nui archaeology students to the UK to join in the IoA’s field training course.

    As well as engagement, the Project seeks to develop a new understanding of how the moai fit into the wider landscape of the island. The Project is carrying out an excavation of the Puna Pau quarry, the source of many of the pukao (‘hats’) that some of the moai wear – large, squat cylinders made of a coarse, dark red lava. It is also looking to unify strands of investigation that have thus far remained isolated, such as the ‘ahu’, stone ceremonial platforms upon which the moai once stood, and transport roads. The Project’s central theme is the way construction of the moai unified the island, with the resources, locations and construction elements that went into making the moai linking the different areas of Rapa Nui, from the quarries where they were constructed to the roads that they were transported on and their final destinations.

    The Terracotta Army in the Museum of Emperor Qin Shihuang’s Mausoleum  Source: Wikimedia Commons Terracotta Army

    Another example of UCL’s global focus is its work with the Terracotta Army. The IoA is undertaking a research project in collaboration with the Museum of Emperor Qin Shihuang’s Mausoleum to research the Terracotta Army, a group of 2,000 warrior statues crafted over 2,000 years ago as a part of the tomb of Qin Shihuang, the first Emperor of China. The Terracotta Warriors were an undeniable symbol of the unimaginable wealth, military power and artistic achievement of the Qin Empire. Each of the individually crafted warriors was equipped with state-of-the-art bronze weapons, some so well preserved that they would still be lethal today. The assemblage includes over 40,000 bronze arrowheads, as well as swords, lances, crossbow triggers and more.

    Since 2006, the IoA has been collaborating with the Museum to transfer students and specialists between Britain and China, and to investigate the logistics of technology and labour organisation behind the construction of the Terracotta Army. They have analysed the distribution of the Warriors and their weapons, and have learned a great deal about the way the Qin military was organised. For example, they have discovered a great deal about Qin battle formations: lower-status robed warriors stood on the front lines, followed by armoured soldiers and a smaller number of officers or generals towards the rear. Crossbowmen were placed primarily along the front and flanks of the army, and chariots were placed at the core.

    The IoA also works closer to home. Undergraduate students can take part in the Thames Discovery Programme, a community archaeology project run by UCL. The Thames Discovery Programme involves IoA archaeologists and students engaging the public about the fascinating archaeology of the River Thames, home to the debris of London’s almost 2,000 year history, from Roman pottery to Tudor jewellery and the remnants of Victorian warships. People are led on surveying walks along the banks of the river. Public lectures are held in local archaeological societies, in community centres and at academic conferences and museums. The project has been featured on television several times, including on a special episode of Time Team.

    University Archaeology Day

    So, if travel, community engagement, the opportunity to be trained in advanced scientific and analytical methods and the chance to build your own sauna in the middle of the English countryside appeal to you, come and check out the IoA’s ‘University Archaeology Day’ on June 22. It’s an event for prospective students, parents and teachers to learn about the many archaeology programmes available in the UK, to hear about some of the latest cutting-edge archaeological research, and to discover the huge range of career opportunities a degree in archaeology can lead to. We’ll have representatives from most of the UK’s top archaeology departments, as well as a range of organisations that work with and employ archaeologists.

    Find out more about University Archaeology Day, including details on how to register:

    Want to know more about how you can turn an archaeology degree into a career? Read this article from UCL News.

    Radically changing food habits with new undergraduate course

    By Guest Blogger, on 10 June 2017

    ­Written by Francis Lecomber, student on UCL BASc2096

    csfoodHow can we change our relationship to food? That’s been the central question for the new UCL Arts and Sciences BASc course “Citizen Science for Radical Change: Co-design, Art and Community” (BASC2096), which ran for the first-time last term. At a pop-up exhibition this week, selected students from the course showcased final projects exploring the factors that affect our decisions over what to eat.

    The course brought together multiple disciplines to explore food, based on an open source interdisciplinary method developed by our lecturer Kat Austen for her project Vital. Incorporating elements of chemistry, citizen science, community co-design and philosophy, the course encouraged students to think both analytically and creatively in their approach to learning, whilst embracing the overarching theme of food as a unifier of different peoples. The learning process itself is studied throughout the course, as we were encouraged to investigate the many different forms of knowledge and the hierarchical structure in which they exist – a structure that often places quantified data far above sensory perception in terms of value. This overarching theme continuously shaped and changed our approach to knowledge acquisition.

    Throughout the course, we worked with students from Newham’s NewVIc Sixth Form College, where we ran workshops and scientific experiments. At the end of the term, we co-designed exhibits and performances with the NewVIc pupils, which helped inform our personal designs for our final projects.

    In these final projects, the diverse threads of the course are woven into a major design piece. These designs were exhibited here, at the UCL Art Museum, on Monday 5th June as a part of the university’s theme of Transformative Technologies. In their diversity, they capture the multiple meanings food has to us, and the effect of engaging with it in an interdisciplinary way.


    The Forgotten Slave Owners: Tracing British history before the abolition of slavery

    By Natasha Downes, on 9 June 2017

    Written by Natasha Downes, Media Relations Manager, UCL

    Most British history has focused on the abolition of slavery, forgetting 200 years that preceded it where Britain played a lucrative role in the transatlantic slave trade.

    But a team of researchers at the UCL Centre for the Study of the Legacies of British Slave-ownership (UCL project) have been working to uncover a history that Britain has been quick to forget; the story of slave owners.

    Curious to know more I attended the UCL Festival of Culture event entitled ‘Bloomsbury’s Forgotten Slave Owners’, to hear more about the UCL project and watch an excerpt of the BAFTA-winning documentary series, Britain’s Forgotten Slave-owners.

    Why focus on slave owners?

    Focusing on Britain’s slave owners may seem like an odd concept but as Dr Nick Draper (UCL History and Director of the project), points out it’s by “rethinking these aspects of British history that we can think about how wealth has been distributed economically, physically and socially.”

    Over almost 10 years the UCL project team have been unravelling the vast records of information kept on British slave owners at The National Archive, Kew, which they have curated into an accessible online database. Here, there are the names of 46,000 slave owners that were recorded after the abolition of slavery in 1838.

    Through the documentary we hear the uncomfortable story of how the abolition of slavery brought about the compensation of those 46,000 slave owners to the sum of £17 billion in today’s value, which Dr Draper highlights as “the biggest bailout since the banking bailout in 2009”.  Those that were enslaved were not rewarded compensation, and still to this day the contention over repatriations remains.