Tue, 3 January 2017
For Alex “Sandy” Pentland, one of the best-known and widely cited computational social scientists in the world, these are halcyon days for his field. One of the creators of the MIT Media Lab and currently the director of the MIT Connection Science and Human Dynamics labs, Pentland studies ‘social physics,’ which takes a data-centric view of culture and society.
In this Social Science Bites podcast, he tells interviewer Dave Edmonds about the origins of social physics in the barren days before the advent of widespread good data and solid statistical methods and how it blossomed as both a field and for Pentland’s own research. Now, with both plentiful data and very sophisticated statistics, “we can revisit this vision of understanding society, understanding culture, as an alive, evolving animal using these modern techniques.”
The key change, he explains, has been in the amount and the diversity of data -- even if that’s a scary thought from a privacy point of view, “But from a social science point of view it’s Nirvana. For the very first time you can look at complicated, real-time continuous interaction of many different groups carrying out real activities.”
Pentland’s own experimental trajectory reflects those advances, with his early work mediated as much by what was lacking (a good way to deal statistically with language) as what was at hand. This led him to study how much of an individual’s behavior was due to older, pre-language signaling and how much due to more modern linguistic structure. But with time and computational advances, his work ramped up to study how groups of people interact, even up to the scale of a city. That in turn created some fascinating and widely cited insights, such as the more diverse a city’s social ties the more successful, i.e. rich, e city will be.
Some of the methodology involved in doing computational social science is also explored in the podcast, as Pentland describes giving an entire community new mobile phones as one part of the data-gathering process (with privacy protecting institutional controls, he notes) even as “we pestered them with a million questionnaires of standard social science things” during the same study period.
Pentland is well-known in both the public and private spheres as a leading big data researcher, with Forbes recently dubbing him one of the "seven most powerful data scientists in the world." In addition to his work at MIT, he chairs the World Economic Forum’s Data Driven Development council and has co-founded more than a dozen data-centered companies such as the Data Transparency Lab, the Harvard-ODI-MIT DataPop Alliance and the Institute for Data Driven Design. Among his disparate honors are as a 2012 best-article award from the Harvard Business Review, winning the DARPA Network Challenge run as a celebration of the 40th anniversary of the internet, and being honored for his work on privacy by the group Patient Privacy Rights.
Thu, 1 December 2016
Between a series of high-profile shootings of black men by police and the election of Donald Trump by a bifurcated electorate, the racial divide in the United States has achieved a renewed public prominence. While discussion of this divide had faded since the election of Barack Obama, it’s an issue that has always been at the forefront of the scholarship of Harvard’s Jennifer Hochschild.
In this Social Science Bites podcast, Hochschild explains to interviewer David Edmonds some of the pertinent data points from her years of using quantitative and qualitative analysis to map the racial, ethnic and class cleavages in America’s demography.
The issues are devilishly difficult to address in, well, black-and-white terms, it turns out, as Hochschild repeatedly answers “yes and no” to various questions. Academics, she explains, tend to generalize too much about these issues, to focus too much on the role of the federal government to the detriment of state governments, and don’t pay enough attention to spatial variations: “Los Angeles doesn’t look like Dubuque, Iowa.”
She depicts a racial continuum of acceptance and opportunity, with whites and Asians at one extreme, blacks at the other, and other communities, such as Latinos and Muslims, populating the expanse in between. While the distance between the extremes seems to be as wide as it’s been for the last half century, she sees some hopes in the middle. She draws parallels for the modern Latino community with that of immigrants from Eastern and Southern Europe at the turn of the last century: they arrived as ‘lesser whites’ but at this point have full membership in the larger dominant community.
Hochschild talks specifically about the Muslim immigrant community in the U.S., with its wide range of homelands and ethnicities but a generally high level of education. She expects the community’s traditional low level of political activity to change dramatically in the near future. “My guess is that’s going to change over the next decade as they increasingly feel not only beleaguered but in real trouble. From my perspective, I hope there will be more alliances with other groups, but that remains to be seen”
Hochschild is the Henry LaBarre Jayne Professor of Government at Harvard University, where she focuses on African and African American studies. The author of several important books on race and politics, she was also the founding editor of Perspectives on Politics, published by the American Political Science Association, and was a former co-editor of the American Political Science Review. Earlier this year she completed her one-year term as president of the APSA.
Tue, 1 November 2016
Imagine if we could find the secret to romance and love, the real secret, one vetted by science. Wouldn’t that be … well, what would that be. According to Anna Machin, an anthropologist who actually does study romance, it would be disheartening.
“I don’t want to find the formula for love,” she tells interviewer Dave Edmonds in the latest Social Science Bites podcast. “I think that would be incredibly depressing.”
But Machin, a professor at the University of Oxford and part of an experimental psychology research group run by another Social Science Bites alumnus, Robin Dunbar, is nonetheless fascinated by how evolution has created this thing we call love, using the tools of neurochemistry and qualitative social science. Her research ranges from “our primate cousins” to popular dating sites. And before you insert your own joke here, know that these two examples have more in common than you might think.
Distinct primate-centric patterns quickly emerge in dating site profiles, Machin explains. For men, it’s displaying their value – their status, resources and good genes. For women, it’s their fertility, including youth, and good genes – regardless of their own wealth or status.
Not, she cautions, that we’re exactly like the rest of the menagerie. “The relationships we build, the reproductive relationships, our romantic relationships, are categorically different to those in other animals,” she says. “They persist for much longer, the cognition involved is much more complex,” and the neurochemistry doesn’t explain how we can stick together for such an incredibly long period of time.
Machin’s own academic background is varied, beginning with bachelor’s work in anthropology and English and leading to a PhD, in Archaeology, from the University of Reading (her thesis was on Acheulean handaxes). As an academic, she delights in explaining her work to the public, an avocation that has including working with the TV show Married at First Sight, where she’s used her own scholarship to help participants find life partners.
Mon, 3 October 2016
The culture of dance clubs has a way of popping up in policy debates around the world. In September, for example, the closure of London’s Fabric nightclub – called “one of the most influential and internationally renowned electronic music venues on the planet” by a major newspaper half that planet away – created a huge debate. In Los Angeles in July, the deaths of three people at the Hard Summer Music Festival -- on the heels of more than two dozen drug-related deaths at raves across the U.S. Southwest in the past decade -- saw enormous (but unsuccessful) efforts to ban the electronic dance music festivals.
Dance culture, then, isn’t just frippery, it’s policy.
That’s no surprise to Karenza Moore, the guest of the latest Social Science Bites podcast. Moore, a lecturer in sociology at Lancaster University, has for more than a decade studied and written about the dance clubs, the music they play, and the drug use she says the culture has “hidden in plain sight.” Her interests are purely academic; Moore describes herself as a “participant observer” with at least 20 years standing on the dance floor.
In conversation with David Edmonds, Moore makes no bones about the prevalence of drugs in the club scene – even if alcohol is the most used drug in the post-rave era. MDMA, whether known as ecstasy , E, Molly, is used as a matter of routine, which she says “needs to be acknowledged.” Her sociological ethnography of the scene and its drug use sees her reject purely prosecution-oriented responses to that acknowledgement. Drawing from what she calls ‘critical drug studies,’ sees, Moore suggests that violence attributed to the clubs is linked to the underground drug trade, not the more-or-less open drug use. “Prohibition causes more harm than good,” Moore tells Edmonds, by placing a matter of public health in the hands of people who have no regulation to abide by.
In the podcast, Moore also talks about the mechanics of interviewing club-goers – seems many have a desire to overshare their exploits – and how long ‘participant observers’ can keep observing in a culture that’s generally reckoned to focus on youth.
At Lancaster, Moore runs the aptly named Club Research as a hub for research on all the drugs, legal, illicit and novel, in the scene, as well the various subcultures and the larger “night-time economy.” A lot of that work appears at her blog, http://www.clubresearch.org/, and is covered in her contributions as co-author to the 2013 book from SAGE publishing, Key Concepts in Drugs and Society.
Thu, 1 September 2016
“One of the values of the social sciences,” argues Michael Billig, “is to investigate what people take for granted and to bring it to the surface.” In this Social Science Bites podcast, Billig, a professor of social science at Loughborough University since 1985, discusses a particular strain of something taken for granted, what he terms “banal nationalism.” That refers to the idea that much of what we would consider markers of the nationalistic impulse pass without notice, the “unwaved flags” we’d only notice if they disappeared.
In his conversation with interviewer David Edmonds, Billig dives more deeply into one particular example of nationalism, the British royal family, and what the British themselves think about the royal family and the place of the royals in British ideology.
Drawing on what he learned while supervising the qualitative surveys of average British citizens that formed the basis of his 1992 book Talking of the Royal Family, he suggests that the British people, while much less deferential to the royals than outsiders might think, tend to accept that the RF is a good thing and therefore sympathize with them – as long as the public perceives the family as publicly suffering from their privilege.
As he tells Edmonds, it was while doing that project that he realized he in fact was writing about nationalism when he write that book, which started him down the road to his 1995 book, Banal Nationalism. Since then he’s addressed a number of other topics, including laughter, rock ‘n’ roll, and how to write badly – a topic that concludes the podcast. He also defends the role of social scientists – trained as a social psychologist he prefers to describe himself using the broader term by citing the ephemerality of the findings. “The idea that you may get eternal truths from social science is a bit of a mythology,” he insists. “This is why you always need social scientists.”
Wed, 15 June 2016
It's often remarked that technology has made the world a smaller place. While this has been especially true for those with the wherewithal to buy the latest gadget and to travel at will, but it's also true for economic migrants. Those technological ties are one of the key research interests of Mirca Madianou, a reader in the Department of Media and Communications at Goldsmiths, University of London.
In this Social Science Bites podcast, Madianou details several foundational shifts "transnational families," those families where breadwinners -- and prospective breadwinners -- head far away to help support their family members back home. She's charted both an intensification of global migration, and also the feminization of migration -- women are as likely to migrate as men. And in the last decade, communication allows those women to "mother at a distance," a very signal change from the days when the only contact a family member might be able to muster at will was a fraying photograph.
In conversation with David Edmonds, Madianou also addresses "humanitarian technologies" -- the ability to reunite people pulled apart by crisis or disaster. While these technologies serve as beacons and also monitors of charitable response, they also provide a forum for emotional discharge, she explains. "... [T]his digital footprint, this digital identity, ... became the focal point for mourning rituals and for grieving, and that was a very important function that social media played."
Madianou joined Goldsmiths in 2013, and for two years before that was a senior lecturer at the University of Leicester. From 2004 to 2011 she taught at the University of Cambridge, where she was Newton Trust Lecturer in Sociology and Fellow of Lucy Cavendish College. She wrote 2011's Migration and New Media: transnational families and polymedia (with Daniel. Miller) and 2005's Mediating the Nation: News, audiences and the politics of identity, in addition to be an editor for 2013's Ethics of Media.
Tue, 10 May 2016
While intentional bias generally is an ugly thing, it's also relatively easy to spot if the will exists to do so. But what about bias where individuals or institutions haven't set out to discriminate -- but the net effect is bias? "[M]uch of discrimination is in fact based on unconscious or implicit bias," says Iris Bohnet, a behavioral economist at Harvard Kennedy School, "where good people like you and me treat people differently based on their looks." At times, even the subjects of implicit bias in essence discriminate against themselves.
The Swiss born Bohnet, author of the new book What Works: Gender Equality by Design, studies implicit bias in organizations. In this Social Science Bites podcast, Bohnet tells interviewer David Edmonds that even good-faith efforts to address this bias has so far found little evidence that many of the structural remedies tried so far do in fact have an effect on the underlying bias. This doesn't mean she opposes them; instead, Bohnet works to design effective and proven solutions that work to "de-bias" the real world.
Bohnet received her Ph.D. in economics from the University of Zurich in 1997 and joined the Harvard Kennedy School in 1998, where she has served as the academic dean of the Kennedy School, is the director of its Women and Public Policy Program, the co-chair (with Max Bazerman) of the Behavioral Insights Group, an associate director of the Harvard Decision Science Laboratory, and the faculty chair of the executive program “Global Leadership and Public Policy for the 21st Century” for the World Economic Forum’s Young Global Leaders. She serves on the boards of directors of Credit Suisse Group and University of Lucerne.
Mon, 4 April 2016
Michael Burawoy is a practitioner of what we might call 'extreme ethnography.' Since earning his first degree -- in mathematics -- from Cambridge University in 1968, his CV has been studded with academic postings but also jobs in manufacturing, often with a blue collar cast, around the world. Copper mining in Zambia. Running a machine on the factory floor in South Chicago - and in northern Hungary. Making rubber in Yeltsin-era Russia. All with an eye -- a pragmatic Marxist sociologist's eye -- on the attitudes and behaviors of workers and the foibles and victories of different ideologies and resented as extended case studies. Decades later he's still at it, albeit the shop floor is changed: "No longer able to work in factories," reads his webpage at the University of California, Berkeley, "he turned to the study of his own workplace – the university – to consider the way sociology itself is produced and then disseminated to diverse publics."
In this Social Science Bites podcast, Burawoy tells interviewer Dave Edmonds about his various factory experiences, and some of the specific lessons he learned and the broader points -- often unexpected -- that emerged from the synthesis of his experiences. "I am definitely going with a Marxist perspective and it definitely affects what I look for," he says. "But it doesn't necessarily affect what I actually see."
He also goes in as a "sociological chauvinist" who nonetheless draws from whatever discipline necessary to get the job done. "I was trained as an anthropologist as well as a sociologist, [and] I've always been committed to the ethnographic approach to doing research. Studying other people in their space and their time, I am quite open to drawing on different disciplines. I do this regularly whether it be anthropology, whether it's human geography, whether it's economics."
Burawoy has been on the faculty at Cal since 1988, twice serving as sociology department chair over the years. He was president of the American Sociological Association in 2004 (where he made an explicit push "For Public Sociology" in his presidential address), and of the International Sociological Association from 2010-2014. He's written a number of books and articles on issues ranging from methodology to Marxism, with some of his stand-out volumes 1972's The Colour of Class on the Copper Mines: From African Advancement to Zambianization, 1979's Manufacturing Consent: Changes in the Labor Process Under Monopoly Capitalism, and 1985's The Politics of Production: Factory Regimes Under Capitalism and Socialism.
Social Science Bites is made in association with SAGE Publishing.
Fri, 26 February 2016
There is a school of thought that groups often bring out the worst in humankind. Think only of the Charles Mackay book on “Extraordinary Popular Delusions and the Madness of Crowds,” the U.S. Founding fathers’ visceral fear of ‘mob rule,’ or the influential social science of Gustave Le Bon and others during the French Third Republic.
And yet, as a university student future social psychologist Stephen Reicher often witnessed sublime behavior from collections of people. He saw that groups could foster racism – and they could foster civil rights movements. What he saw much of the time was group behavior “completely at odds with the psychology I was learning.”
“In a sense, you could summarize the literature: ‘Groups are bad for you, groups take moral individuals and they turn them into immoral idiots.’
“I have been trying to contest that notion,” he tells interview David Edmonds in this Social Science Bites podcast, “[and] also to explain how that notion comes about.”
In a longer-than-normal podcast, Reicher explains how group mentality can bring out the best in individuals and reviews the history of crowd psychology and some of its fascinating findings that have enormous policy implications in a world of mass protest and terroristic threat.
For example, in discussing studies on the escalation of violence, Reicher explains how indiscriminate responses by authorities can create violence rather than defuse it, a useful lesson for Western countries dealing with generally peaceful populations that may still produce a few terrorist inductees from their ranks.
Reicher is the Wardlaw professor at the School of Psychology and Neuroscience at the University of St. Andrews. A fellow of the British Academy, his most widespread recognition outside the academy comes from his work with Alexander Haslam on the BBC Prison Study, or The Experiment. He is also the co-author of several books, including 2001’s Self and Nation: Categorization, Contestation and Mobilization, with Nick Hopkins, and 2014’s Psychology of Leadership with Haslam.
Tue, 12 January 2016
The study of kinship, long the bread and butter of the anthropologist, has lost a bit of its centrality in the discipline, in large part, suggests Janet Carsten, because it became dry and fusty and associated mostly with the nuclear family. But as one of the leading exponents of what might be called the second coming of kinship studies, Carsten, <a href="http://www.sps.ed.ac.uk/staff/social_anthropology/carsten_janet" target="_blank">a professor of social and cultural anthropology at the University of Edinburgh</a>, has (literally) brought new blood into the field, exploring kinship’s nexus with politics, work and gender.
Kinship, she tells interviewer Nigel Warburton in this Social Science Bites podcast, is “really about people’s everyday lives and the way they think about the relations that matter most of them.” Whether those are siblings, in-laws or office-mates, those relations are the new focus of the academic investigation into kinship.
For her part, Carsten – a fellow of the British Academy and of the Royal Society of Edinburgh – has studied kinship, as well as ideas about ‘blood,’ both medically and metaphorically, from fishing villages in Malaysia to the affairs of the British crown. She’s also studied the legacy of an early proponent of kinship studies, the late Claude Lévi-Strauss.
Carsten completed her Ph.D. at the London School of Economics, was a post-doctoral research fellow at the University of Cambridge, and a lecturer at the University of Manchester before she joined the faculty in Edinburgh. Her books include the edited collections <em>About the House: Lévi-Strauss and Beyond</em> (with Stephen Hugh-Jones) and <em>Blood Will Out: Essays on Liquid Transfers and Flow</em>, as well as 2004’s <em>After Kinship</em>.