Research Projects

The 'skin' of commerce: Packaging, consumption and the public's health

(Kirsten Bell)

Visual cues like graphic warning labels and generic packaging are increasingly seen as important weapons against unhealthy forms of consumption – especially in the areas of tobacco control, and, increasingly, alcohol reduction and obesity prevention. However, public health interventions tend to ignore the physical qualities of packaging in favour of its visual attributes as a marketing tool, which may limit the effectiveness of such legislation based on misplaced assumptions about how people engage with it. A thriving array of studies in the social sciences on the material politics of packaging therefore offer new analytic directions for conceptualising its relationship with the everyday activities of eating, drinking and smoking by drawing attention to its powerful material role in shaping the circulation of goods and the meanings they hold. Funded by a 2019 Wellcome Trust Small Grant in Humanities and Social Science, this project has three objectives: 1) to map how packaging has been conceptualised within the public health and social science literature; 2) to develop new methodological approaches and original empirical data on the relationship between drinking patterns and the containerisation of alcohol; and 3) to assemble a network of scholars interested in developing new approaches to studies of packaging and public health.

Alcohol - no copyright restrictions

Addiction to prescribed drugs (Dr James Davies) 

Dr James Davies is a member of the secretariat for the All-Party Parliamentary Group for Prescribed Drug Dependence ( - a group he helped to co-found. Research undertaken by Dr Davies and Dr Todd Rae into the prevalence and costs of unnecessary long-term psychiatric prescribing in the UK, was presented by Dr Davies to the CEO of Public Health England in Oct 2017. As a result of this and other APPG activities, the Government agreed to undertake the first national review into the nature, scale and policy solutions for prescribed drug dependence. The government review was officially launched on Jan 24th 2018 and was widely covered in the national press: BBC, The Guardian, Daily Mail, The Times, Telegraph.


Linguistic laws in primate vocal communication (Stuart Semple)

A fundamental goal of the life sciences is to identify universal biological principles - the basic rules of organisation that underpin diverse natural phenomena. Working with a range of international collaborators, Professor Stuart Semple is aiming to identify such principles, by exploring the universality outside our own species of the common statistical patterns of human language, known as linguistic laws. The research has focussed on two laws - Zipf’s law of abbreviation (which predicts a negative relationship between word length and frequency of use) and Menzerath’s law (according to which longer sequences are made up of shorter constituents). Projects to date have found patterns consistent with one or both of these laws in the vocal communication of geladas, Formosan macaques and chimpanzees. The researchers have demonstrated that the common mathematical principle of compression underpins these two laws, and have argued that this may be a universal principle underlying not only primate vocal communication, including human language, but also biological information systems much more broadly.

Marine Cultural Heritage (Garry Marvin) 

A consortium of the universities of Roehampton, Nottingham (the lead), York, Ulster, Bournemouth, Uppsala and Eduardo Mondlane (Mozambique), has been awarded a £2 million research grant by the AHRC through its Global Challenges Research Fund Area-Focused Network scheme. The project is titled, Rising from the Depths: Utilising Marine Cultural Heritage in East Africa to Help Develop Sustainable Social, Economic and Cultural Benefits. Not only is the project multi-university, it is also multi-disciplinary, involving marine and terrestrial archaeology; coastal geology; environmental law; heritage studies and anthropology. The aims are several – to document East African marine cultural heritage; to understand local appreciation of that heritage; to assess the risks to it; and to explore ways in which local communities might engage with this heritage for educational, social, and economic development. Roehampton, through the Centre for Evolutionary, Social and Inter-Disciplinary Research, will be responsible for the anthropological elements of the project which will be directed by Garry Marvin and will involve the expertise of Nadine Beckman (East African anthropology and ethnography), and Jonathan Skinner (heritage studies and tourism). In the next few months a Post-Doctoral Research associate will be appointed to the project. Later in the year Roehampton will fund four PhD studentships in anthropology, and related to the project, for students from Mozambique, Kenya, and Tanzania.

Osteological study of a medieval (9th-13th century) cemetery from Surrey (Lia Betti, Todd C. Rae)

We are studying the human remains from a recently excavated medieval cemetery from Godalming, Surrey. This is a rare example of a rural cemetery from an important period in British history, and therefore of considerable importance. A total of about 350 burials have been revealed, providing an exciting opportunity to study the lifestyle and health of a medieval population of the region. Second- and third-year students can contribute to the study of the remains, and develop their final dissertation on this population. Classic osteological analysis are used to determine the sex and age-at-death of all individuals, to reconstruct the demographic profile of the population. The study of bone robusticity, dental wear and evidence of disease can help paint a picture of life and heath in medieval Britain. Isotope analyses of bone and dental samples will be used to investigate diet and mobility.


Featured publications

Geographic variation in the human birth canal

Dr Lia Betti has co-authored a recent publication showing that there is substantial geographic variation in the shape of the female pelvis across human populations, and that most of the differences can be best explained by migration of humans across the globe (aChildbirth Wellcome Trust.jpgnd genetic variation accumulated along the way). These results are important for our understanding of human evolution, especially in challenging the leading obstetrical dilemma theory. The results are also important for obstetric training and practice in modern multiethnic societies and suggest that a revision of textbooks and guidelines might be needed to include the wider spectrum of pelvic shape diversity shown by this paper. The study has been widely covered in the press, including: Science, Agence France Presse, The Guardian, The Scientist and The New York Times. It also featured as one of Science’s favourite new stories of 2018, where the coverage states that “Far from just a paradigm shift, the work could improve practices surrounding childbirth.” 


Linguistic laws in chimp gestural communication

Old ChimpanzeeProfessor Stuart Semple has co-authored a new publication providing evidence that chimpanzees’ gestural communication follows the same mathematical patterns – known as linguistic laws - as are seen in human language, indicating that the gestures of our primate cousins may be more similar to our own language than previously thought. 

Lead author of the study, Raphaela Heesen, said: “Primate gestural communication is, of course, very different to human language, but our results show that these two systems are underpinned by the same mathematical principles. We hope that our work will pave the way for similar studies, to see quite how widespread these laws might be across the animal kingdom.”

The study has been widely covered in the press, including a live interview on BBC's Today programme and articles in New Scientist, the Daily Telegraph, the Evening Standard, the Daily MailYahoo NewsThe Sunday Post, the MetroIrish News and the Royal Society Blog.