Social Science Bites

“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.”

Direct download: BilligMixSesM.mp3
Category:general -- posted at: 5:00am PDT

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.

Direct download: MadianouMixSesM.mp3
Category:general -- posted at: 2:34pm PDT

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.

Direct download: BehnetEditM.mp3
Category:general -- posted at: 9:05am PDT

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.

Direct download: BurawoyMixSesM.mp3
Category:general -- posted at: 10:49am PDT

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.

Direct download: ReicherMixSesM.mp3
Category:general -- posted at: 3:00am PDT

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>.

Direct download: CarstenMixSesM.mp3
Category:general -- posted at: 2:22pm PDT

The concept of “community cohesion” rose to prominence in the detritus of Bradford and Harehills, Burnley and Oldham, Northern English towns where 14 years ago rioting broke out between Asian and white communities. Called on by the Home Office to investigate the roots of the riots, sociologist Ted Cantle – until then the chief executive of Nottingham City Council for more than a decade and before that director of housing in Leicester City Council –led an investigation that produced Community Cohesion: The Report of The Independent Review Team, a document better known now as the Cantle Report.

The report introduced two terms into the public conversation, “parallel lives” to describe how communities could exists side by side and yet in mutual exclusion and incomprehension, and “community cohesion,” which in its most general sense is the idea of not living parallel lives.

In this Social Science Bites podcast, David Edmonds discusses one key component of parallel lives – segregation – that prevents cohesion. “[P]eople who lived in these parallel lives,” Cantle explains, “had no understanding of the other, they could easily be dealing with prejudices and stereotypes, they had no opportunities to disconfirm them, they had no opportunity to really challenge their own race’s views, or their own views about another faith.” In the podcast, Cantle adds that approaching these issues from several perspectives, specifically through different disciplines, leads to a better understanding on the underlying dynamic than any 'siloed' approach.

Direct download: Ted_Cantle_on_Segregation.mp3
Category:general -- posted at: 3:50pm PDT

Happiness, says sociologist Will Davies, is “all the rage” right now. Not actually being happy, by the way, but offering to provide happiness, or to measure it, or to study it, to legislate it, or even to exploit it.

If that sounds vaguely corporate, Davies is unlikely to disagree. The author of the new book, The Happiness Industry: How the Government and Big Business Sold Us Wellbeing, is concerned that real happiness may be getting left on the side of the road choking on clouds of neuromarketing and touchy-feely excess in the pursuit of happiness.

“I suppose I think that happiness is better than a lot of what the ‘happiness industry’ represents it as,” Davies tells interviewer David Edmonds in the latest Social Science Bites podcast. “I think that we can do better than extrapolate from studies of individual behavior, or studies of particular fMRI scans, all of which have their own merit and validity within particular scientific limits, but the reductionism of a lot of happiness science, or ‘happiness industry’, or certainly the way it then gets picked up by the business world, and some people in the policy world, is regrettable.”

For one thing, the focus on the positive attributes of being happy ignores the very real reasons people may be unhappy, which Davies also thinks should be taken seriously – even if it’s uncomfortable for policymakers or less than lucrative for the business-minded. It’s something Davies, who also wrote The Limits of Neoliberalism: Authority, Sovereignty and the Logic of Competition (published last year by SAGE), understands well from his own examination of economic psychology as a tool of governance and the politics of corporate ownership.

Davies is a senior lecturer in politics at Goldsmiths, University of London, where he joined the Department of Politics last year to develop a new politics, philosophy and economics degree. Before that, he worked for policy think tanks and at the University of Warwick’s Centre for Interdisciplinary Methodologies and Oxford’s Institute for Science Innovation & Society and its Centre for Mutual & Employee-owned Business.

Direct download: William_Davies_on_the_Happiness_Industry.mp3
Category:general -- posted at: 3:00am PDT

Unlike the character in the movie <em>The Sixth Sense</em>, we actually <em>don’t</em> see dead people. Westerners go to great lengths to excise thoughts about death (real death, that is, not movie death) or being in the presence of death. Sheldon Solomon, on the other hand, routinely thinks about the unthinkable, and how humans behave differently when the unthinkable forces its way into their thoughts.

Solomon, a social psychologist at New York’s Skidmore College, along with two other experimental social psychologists, Jeff Greenberg and Tom Pyszczynski, developed the idea of <a href="https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Terror_management_theory">‘terror management theory’</a> more than three decades ago to test out scientifically how the mere specter of mortality alters behavior.

Here, in conversation with Social Science Bites’ Nigel Warburton, Solomon specifically addresses the fear of death and how his views were derived from the earlier work of Ernest Becker. Becker, Solomon explains, called the fear of death the “main spring of human activity.” Nonetheless we don’t want to face death directly, Solomon adds, and so, “Just like most of us are unaware of the internal dynamics of the engine that drives our car, we are equally unaware of what it is that impels us to do what we do every day.”

Various experiments bear that out. When primed with the thought of death,  judges reminded of death mete out tougher penalties, American voters shifted their prospective votes from a liberal to a conservative,  shoppers shift from bargain brands to status symbols.

“And now the real work can commence,” he explains, “which is the nuances: what are the personality variables that influence how vigorously and how defensively one will react? And we know some of those. We know that insecurely-attached and highly-neurotic people respond more defensively when they are reminded of death. But now, we’re in the process, in part we’re studying people who are terminally ill in hospice settings because we know that there has to be tremendous variation - that some people are more comfortable with the prospect of the inevitability of death than others. That’s really what we want to get a handle on right now.”

Solomon earned a bachelor’s degree from Franklin and Marshall College and a doctorate from the University of Kansas. He’s taught at Skidmore, where he’s currently the Ross Professor for Interdisciplinary Studies, since 1980 after joining the faculty at age 26. (He also co-owns a restaurant in the Skidmore’s home of Saratoga Springs.) Along with Greenberg and Pyszczynski he wrote the 2003 book <em>In the Wake of 9/11: The Psychology of Terror</em>, in which terror management theory (which is not in itself about terrorism) is used to analyze the roots of terrorism.

 

Direct download: Sheldon_Solomon_on_Fear_of_Death.mp3
Category:general -- posted at: 3:00pm PDT

If anyone can lay claim to be the father of sociology, it’s Émile Durkheim. By the time of the French academic’s death in 1917, he’d produced an extraordinary body of work on an eclectic range of topics, and had become a major contributor to French intellectual life. Above all, his ambition was to establish sociology as a legitimate science.

Steven Lukes, a political and social theorist at New York University, was transfixed by Durkheim from early in his academic career -- his first major book was 1972's Emile Durkheim: His Life and Work. A Historical and Critical Study -- and has gone on to become one of the world’s leading Durkheim scholars. Of course, that’s almost a sidelight to Lukes’ own sociological theorizing, in particular his “radical” view of power that examines power in three dimensions – the overt, the covert and the power to shape desires and beliefs.”

In this Social Science Bites podcast, Lukes tells interviewer Nigel Warburton how Durkheim's exploration of issues like labor, suicide and religion proved intriguing to a young academic and enduring for an established one.

 

 

Direct download: Steven_Lukes_on_Durkheim.mp3
Category:general -- posted at: 11:02am PDT