Thu, 1 August 2019
In the most recent 12-month period for which is has data, the Trussell Trust – the largest foodbank trust in the United Kingdom – the trust passed out 1.6 million food parcels, with 500,000 of those going to children. More than 90 percent of the food donated came from the public, often though prompts seen supermarkets, and the remaining 10 percent came from corporations.
Social scientist Kayleigh Garthwaite wanted to know more about the people behind those figures. Spurred on by numbers cited by politicians in a debate over foodbanks, she wondered, “What was it like for people to go to the foodbank? Why did they go there? Was there any stigma or shame?
“I think the debate about why people use the foodbanks has become really politicized to the point where apparently individual faults and failings are the reason why people are using them,” tells interviewer David Edmonds in this Social Science Bites podcast. To find out, Garthwaite engaged in some immersive sociology and volunteered to work at a Trussell foodbank. She went to the foodbank in northern England’s city of Stockton, deploying ethnographic methods to learn from the workers and the food recipients.
While Stockton was close to where Garthwaite earned her bachelors, masters and doctorate – in sociology, social research methods and human geography respectively -- at Durham University, Stockton also has the highest health inequalities in England. Statistically, those living in the city core will on average live 17 fewer years than someone in an affluent area just a few miles away.
After 18 months at the foodbank, with 40,000 words in filed notes already, Garthwaite decided to write a book, and in 2016, Hunger Pains: Life inside foodbank Britain, came out. The book is unique, both an social scientific investigation of foodbank and a diary of Garthwaite’s journey, sprinkled at various times with her trenchant observations about those who judge the hungry and those who hunger.
And getting food isn’t automatic. Someone wanting a parcel of three days’ worth of emergency food – mainly processed, long-life foods, with fresh fruits and vegetables part of the package when available – must be referred by a so-called “referring care professional” like a teacher or social worker.
“When you get into the foodbank you realize there is that bureaucracy of access in the red voucher in the first place, so people can’t just turn up and say, ‘Please give me food.’” Some have criticized the moral outsourcing involved in this vetting: “This voucher system already has that deserving or undeservedness built into it.” There was a benefit to Garthwaite as an academic; “Me, as a researcher, I didn’t want to be in that position of deciding whether somebody should or should not be receiving food.”
Rather than finding that most people spent their disposable cash on cigarettes and alcohol and then decided to hit up the local foodbank, Garthwaite says there are structural reasons that lead people to sue foodbanks. Even if people are buying cigarettes, she added, “that doesn’t mean they don’t have a right to food.” She cites ‘Paul,’ who visited her foodbank at least nine times – and who spent his ready money on alcohol, drugs and food for his dog, But his “complex problems,” including being an ex-felon and having mental health issues, defied simple strictures on being deserving or not.
“People really did use the foodbank as a last resort; it wasn’t something they enjoyed doing.”
Garthwaite is currently a Birmingham University Fellow in the Department of Social Policy, Sociology and Criminology. Off campus, she is a trustee of Independent Food Aid Network, a member of the Oxfam UK Poverty Policy Advisory Group and of the Trussell Trust ‘State of Hunger’ Advisory Board.
Mon, 1 July 2019
“I cannot count the number of people who’ve told me on Twitter, ‘Of course immigrants increase British unemployment! Of course immigrants drive down wages. It’s just the law of supply and demand.’ And it’s an almost infallible rule that people who say that do not understand basic economics and do not understand supply and demand, because immigration adds to both supply and demand.”
So recounts Jonathan Portes, a professor of economics and public policy at the School of Politics & Economics of King's College, London and the former chief economist at the Cabinet Office, in this Social Science Bites podcast.
Portes is explaining to interviewer David Edmonds how the “lump of labor fallacy” -- that there’s only a certain number of jobs to go around when in fact the number of jobs in an economy is not fixed – often plays out in the popular debate on immigration. “The key here,” Portes adds, “is that immigration leads to demand as well as supply.”
The economist has a long and storied career in British economics, having been chief economist at the Department for Work and Pensions before his stint in Cabinet and then director of the National Institute of Economic and Social Research from February 2011 until October 2015. His latest achievement is the release of What Do We Know, and What Should We Do About Immigration, one of three books in the debut release of SAGE Publishing’s new ‘What Do We Know’ series of social science explainers. (SAGE is the parent of Social Science Space.)
One of the things that he definitely knows is that for anyone who sees immigration as an unalloyed evil (or boon, for that matter) is certainly mistaken. He likens immigration to trade, which is generally reckoned to be a good thing. “Trade and immigration are in some way very closely analogous and that the results that you get about the overall benefits – with the possible issue of distributional consequences – are very similar.” Those ‘distributional consequences,’ of course, often get the outsize headlines.
“The UK has always been a country of immigration in some ways, going right back to the Norman conquests, if you like” Portes observes. Pre-European Union, surges in immigration often came from refugees like the Huguenots or from commonwealth countries. “Step change,” he adds, did not accompany immediate entry in the EU, but did in the 1990s. “It coincided with Tony Blair’s government and some of the policy changes that Blair introduced, but it wasn’t driven by that, but by globalization.” The number of arrivals tripled from about 50,000 a year net migration to 150,000 a year. Another jump came in 2004, when workers in the new Eastern European member states in the EU – Poland, Hungary, the Czech Republic, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Slovakia, Slovenia – flocked to an open UK labor market.
He offers quick correlation to test the direst worries about the continuing influx. He looks at two decades of heavy immigration into the UK, in particular in the last five years, and then at the unemployment figure, at 4 percent the lowest since the current way of measuring joblessness were instituted. “It doesn’t prove anything, because of course there are lots of other things going on. But it does sort of tell you that if immigration really had a big negative effect on the employment of natives, that’s not really consistent with the aggregate data.”
Portes admits that there’s more to immigration that employment and wages; those just where the good data reside. “It’s much harder when you’re looking at more complicated issues – business startups, productivity, innovation. There is some evidence that immigration has had positive impacts ... but its more suggestive and more qualitative.”
So ever the academic, he does caveat. But being the former bureaucrat, he also interpolates. Portes offers Edmonds the example of British higher education. “Instinct tells me that [immigration has] been good. Would we have the world-leading universities that we have in London if we had to solely rely on Brits to fill the jobs? I think it’s almost inconceivable that we would.”
Wed, 5 June 2019
Is education, by itself, the great equalizer? Will having the same education erase the benefit someone from a higher class has over someone from a lower class? “Education,” says sociologist Sam Friedman, “doesn’t wash away the effects of class background in terms of allocating opportunities. That’s quite profound – I believe there are a lot of people who believe quite strongly that these sorts of educational institutions can and do act as sort of meritocratic sorting houses.”
Friedman, an assistant professor at the London School of Economics, doesn’t deny education has some role – and some successes – in this role, but believes that education is not sufficient to achieve the goal of unbinding Britain’s class system.
Friedman tells interviewer David Edmonds in this Social Science Bites podcast that “it’s a very long and protracted discussion that we could have about the meaning of class.” He sees two ways to discuss it in sociological terms: the dominant model of what work do you do, and the Pierre Bourdieu-influenced idea of what resources -- or economic, cultural and social capital -- can you draw upon.
Friedman’s work tends to use that first definition: “What’s the nature of that work in terms of both your level of autonomy at work as well as your earnings potential, and what is that work’s nature.” In turn, he focuses a lot on elite professions, as suggested by the title of the book he co-authored with Daniel Laurison, The Class Ceiling: Why it Pays to be Privileged.
“You know, a lot of the emphasis in terms of understanding social mobility has tended to be on this ideas of ‘access to the professions,’” he explains. “These are traditionally an area that have been the preserve of people from fairly privileged backgrounds and there’s been a sort of enduring policy emphasis on opening them up, making those areas accessible to all based on merit, based on talent. I suppose we wanted to interrogate that in a way that was new and fresh and brought to bear new evidence.”
The goal, he adds, is to answer that question always lurking in the background of discussions by Britons about Britain: What sort of society do we live in?
One where class still affects outcomes. While that might seem intuitive, Friedman’s research has helped unpack exactly what’s going on here, even when opportunity at the educational level evens out. His metric for measuring the residual disparity in classes is the pay gap – stubborn and measurable – in which people from working-class backgrounds who do score ‘elite’ jobs make 84 percent of what their coworkers from privileged backgrounds do.
In this podcast, Freidman describes some of the reasons he’s found for the persistence, including the ability of the well-off to draw from ‘The Bank of Mum and Dad’ throughout their lives, a financial lifeline which often gives them the flexibility to take chances that poorer colleagues fear. He also describes how sponsorship opportunities often go to not to the top performers but to people who share a cultural affinity with their potential mentor, or how behavioral codes tend to push down on people who weren’t raised to be conversant in them.
In addition to The Class Ceiling, Friedman has written widely on these issues of social mobility and inequality, including the 2014 book Distinction: The Cultural Currency of a ‘Good’ Sense of Humour. In 2015 he co-wrote Social Class in the 21st Century for Penguin. In the public sphere, he sits on the government’s Social Mobility Commission. He’s currently working with Aaron Reeves on analyzing the data contained in the 120 years of British Who’s Who listings.
Wed, 1 May 2019
Humanitarian aid organizations often find themselves torn by reasonable expectations – to address a pressing crisis and to show that what they are doing is actually helping. While these might not seem at odds, in practice, says Monika Krause, they often do.
Krause, an assistant professor of sociology at the London School of Economics, is the author of The Good Project: Humanitarian Relief NGOs and the Fragmentation of Reason, an award-winning book from 2014. In her research, she conducted in-depth interviews with “desk officers” across a range of transnational non-governmental organizations (NGO) that respond to emergencies around the world distributing aid to save lives. (“For me,” she tells interviewer David Edmonds in this Social Science Bites podcast, “headquarters themselves were the field.”)
While she found that NGOs were “relatively autonomous,” their donors put pressure on them “to demonstrate results, and that pressure to show evidence, measurable results, may incentivize NGOs to do projects that are relatively easy to do. It certainly encourages NGOs to do kinds of work, and kinds of projects, where the success is more easily measured rather than other ones.”
While they may resemble businesses in some respect – and some use that observation as a pejorative, Krause notes -- they don’t distribute aid by purchasing power, as a private sector organization would, but rather by need.
The mechanics of this has meant that NGOs have become more focused on being accountable to the beneficiaries “rather than focus on more abstract and large-scale indicators” such as gross domestic product or greater employment which may ultimately improve the beneficiaries’ ecosystem. It also means, in practice, that NGOs focus on meeting the metrics they set at the beginning of a project, which may not serve the entirety of an affected population in crisis. And so, “beneficiaries can become a means to an end rather than an end in themselves.”
That people outside an NGO feel comfortable critiquing them reflects the unique role that NGOs, as opposed to say private businesses, occupy. “[NGOs] seem to represent or speak for our highest ideals as individuals and as humankind,” Krause says, which in turn can foster a sort of cynicism when the ideals the larger community expects aren’t met.
This tension has always intrigued the researcher, who had earlier won an ESRC Future Research Leaders Award to explore how organizations with values-based missions make decisions on how to deploy resources and who to help. In studying NGOs for The Good Project, “I was interested in the middle space, figuring out exactly how they do their work, how they confront the dilemmas that they must be facing ... about what to respond to and what not to respond to.”
Krause came to the London School of Economics in 2016 from Goldsmiths College, and at LSE is co-director of LSE Human Rights, a center for academic research, teaching and critical scholarship on human rights. In addition to her work on the logic of humanitarian aid, she is interested in the history of the social sciences and in social theory. Krause was a Poiesis Fellow at the Institute for Public Knowledge at her alma mater of New York University and a member of the Junior Fellows’ network at the Centre for Interdisciplinary Research at the University of Bielefeld. She was a core fellow at the Helsinki Collegium for Advanced Studies 2016-17.
Tue, 2 April 2019
You and a body of like-minded people want to reform a wretched regime, or perhaps just break away from it and create an independent state. Are you more likely to achieve your goals by a campaign of bombings, assassinations and riots, or by mass protests which are avowedly peaceful?
Erica Chenoweth, a professor of public policy at Harvard Kennedy School and a Susan S. and Kenneth L. Wallach Professor at the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study, has studied this question in depth, her latest book being Civil Resistance: What Everyone Needs to Know. (And people do listen: In 2014 she received the Karl Deutsch Award, given annually by the International Studies Association to the scholar under 40 who has made the most significant impact on the field of international politics or peace research.)
Starting in 2006, she and Maria Stephan, and later other colleagues, have collected and cataloged mass movements – those with at least a thousand participants and with repeated actions—since 1900, trying to see whether violence or nonviolence help bring reform.
“Turns out,” Chenoweth tells Dave Edmonds in this Social Science Bites podcast, “that the nonviolent campaigns in the data had about a two-to-one advantage in success rate over the violent campaigns.” This isn’t to say that violent movements have never worked, or that nonviolent ones always work (they fail as often as they succeed); it is saying that nonviolence tends to work better.
One contributing factor seems to be that nonviolent campaigns are generally larger – 11 times larger, on average—than violent ones. “That allows them to activate many different elements of political power,” Chenoweth notes.
Success comes in various forms. In anti-dictatorial movements, the strongman’s departure within a year of the peak of the movement—and with the movement being an obvious factor—would be considered a success; same for kicking out an occupying power or seceding from a larger entity
Some notable nonviolent mass movements that succeeded were the Iranian Revolution (although a violent consolidation of power did follow the removal of the Shah) and the 2000 “Bulldozer Revolution” in Serbia which toppled Slobodan Milosevic.
“There are hundreds if not thousands of techniques of nonviolent action,” she explains. “It’s any form of unarmed conflict where people actively confront an opponent without threatening or directly harming them physically. So it can be a protest, a sit-in, but it can also be a strike, a withdrawal of economic cooperation (like a boycott), a withdrawal of social cooperation (like refusing to wear a certain prescribed attire).” This is a subset of civil resistance movements, what Chenoweth calls “maximalist” movements, while the bigger tent of civil resistance would include the reformist efforts or Martin Luther King, Jr. or the Suffragettes.
Chenoweth says she “errs on the conservative side” by classifying protests that involve destruction of property as violent, although she does study hybrid campaigns which are generally nonviolent but have “violent flanks,” as long as those fringe actions are not inherently adopted, or are specifically rejected, by the larger movement.
Chenoweth has worked diligently to spread her message outside of academia. In addition to her books and journal articles, she co-hosts the blog Political Violence @ a Glance, hosts the blog Rational Insurgent, and blogs occasionally at the Washington Post’s The Monkey Cage. She directs, with Jeremy Pressman, the Crowd Counting Consortium, which has examined American political mobilization during the Trump years.
Her 2012 book with Stephan, Why Civil Resistance Works, won the 2013 Grawemeyer Award for Ideas Improving World Order and the American Political Science Association’s 2012 Woodrow Wilson Foundation Award. Some of her other books include the edited volume, The Oxford Handbook of Terrorism, with Richard English, Andreas Gofas, and Stathis N. Kalyvas; last year’s The Politics of Terror with Pauline Moore; and the 2013 SAGE book Political Violence.
Chenoweth is currently a research associate at the Peace Research Institute Oslo, a fellow at the One Earth Future Foundation, and a term member at the Council on Foreign Relations.
Fri, 1 March 2019
Data about us as individuals is usually conceived of as something gathered about us, whether siphoned from our Facebook or requested by bureaucrats. But data collected and displayed by the tracking applications on our iPhones and Fitbits is material we collect by ourselves and for ourselves.
Well, maybe, says sociologist Gina Neff, who with Dawn Nafus (a senior research scientist at Intel Labs) wrote the recent book, Self-Tracking. In this Social Science Bites podcast, Neff tells interview David Edmonds that such information – your information -- is widely available to the device or software maker. Now combine that with social network data – and many apps essentially require you connect those dots – and what results is an unintentionally rich portrait of the user. And that digital you, your doppelgänger, gets shared widely, whether you want it to or even if it’s an accurate depiction, at times making the difference in decisions of whether you worthy of that job or ought to be insured.
Neff said she thinks of tracking devices as a sort of “bait and switch,” since their outputs aren’t wholly your own. As anthropologist Bill Maurer has said, data doesn’t have ownership so much as having parents.
But Neff doesn’t approach smart devices as a Luddite or even that much of an alarmist; she bought first-generation Fitbit when they were brand new and virtually unknown (all of five years ago!). She approaches them as a sociologist, “looking at the practices of people who use digital devices to monitor, map and measure different aspects of their life.”
Many people with and without activity trackers feel they already track their lives – through a tally they keep in their head. Think of the item of clothing – say those ‘skinny jeans’ - you wear when you feel you’re particularly slim. “One of the things that motivated us in thinking about the book were these qualitative measures that help people understand their lives and give them a sense of tracking that is more empowering in some ways.” And one of the findings is that a low-common-denominator approach to the devices can prevent people from really taking control, or customizing the collection, of their own data. “For too many people,” Neff says, “they can’t access and control their own data on the devices in order to begin to frame the next question.”
Her findings on smart devices surprised her several times. For example, she explains, many of today’s digital artifacts are anchored in much older sociological practices. She cites Lee Humprheys’ examinations of how Twitter use lines up with how diaries were used in the 19th century: “Lo and behold, some of those same short entries – ‘Had breakfast late,’ ‘It rained today’ – that we think of as disposable and part of the digital era really are much older.”
Neff was also taken aback at who the audience is for self-tracking. “I thought I was going to study just these kind of geeky, West Coast, Silicon Valley, male types who wanted to engineer everything about their life. And boy, was I wrong.” Users are much more diverse, and often less self-absorbed; some people are using the devices to stay on top of medical concerns, and other just want to be more productive in everyday life. And their devotion can be ephemeral – Neff said studies find 60 percent of activity trackers get disused within six months.
Neff is an associate professor, senior research fellow, program director of the DPhil in information, communication and the social sciences at the Oxford Internet Institute. Self-Tracking, which reviewer Simon Head at The New York Review of Books described as “easily the best book I’ve come across on the subject,” is her third book. Earlier volumes were 2012’s Venture Labor: Work and the Burden of Risk in Innovative Industries, which won the 2013 American Sociological Association Communication and Information Technologies Best Book Award, and 2015’s Surviving the New Economy (with John Amman and Tris Carpenter).
Fri, 1 February 2019
Sociologists Les Back and Shamser Sinha spent a decade following 30 migrants in London, a study that forms the narrative in their new book, Migrant City. But the book, which includes the names of three of their subjects as additional co-authors, doesn’t focus the lives of 30 characters, but 31.
“In the end,” Back tells interviewer David Edmonds in this Social Science Bites podcast, “Shamser Sinha and I learned so much about not only the experience of migration, but about London as a space and a place that is made through migration. So this is not really just a migrants’ story; it’s the story of London but told through and eyes, ears and attentiveness of 30 adult migrants from all corners of the world.”
Given the focus on immigration at present – whether into the European Union from the developing world, into Britain from the rest of pre-Brexit Europe, or into the United states from points south – Edmonds inquires whether the immigrants were in London legally or not. They were both, although Back notes that migrants in general often pass between the two states. The question itself allows Back to expound on the way that that binary colors so much of the conversation about immigration.
“The idea of the immigrant itself holds our thinking hostage very often; that’s one of the big points we wanted to make. It’s so coded, it’s so symbolic in our political culture, particularly the legal/illegal ones that bear down on the public debates – the good migrants vs. the unwanted ones.”
Sinha and Back’s work was part of a larger European Union-funded seven-country study of migration in Europe. The pair’s longitudinal ethnography In, and of, London was accompanied by a conscious effort not just to “mine” the 30 migrants of their personal experiences and data; the sociologists were “doing research alongside people, instead of just in front of them and on them.”
Many of the migrants were happy to become more than mere subjects, hence the writing credit for three of them.
“To say that the participants are co-authors, on the one hand, is an attempt to honor their contribution,” Back recounts in explaining the unique two-plus-three byline. “On the other hand, we felt there was a bit of sleight of hand, because at the end of the day Shamser and I spent 10 years listening to people, thinking about the way they documented their own lives and observed their own lives and the way we made sense of that. At the end of the day, Shamser and I pulled this piece of writing together and shaped it. So it would be wrong to not acknowledge that.”
Back describes both the alienation the migrants experienced, but also their “enchantment” with being a London, a city which had often loomed large in their lives well before they set off to live there. “Very often, those young people were here because British interests, or London’s interests specifically, had been alive in the places where they grew up, their hometowns and their far-off places. ... They are here because we were there, or continue to be there.”
A native Londoner, Back is a professor of sociology at Goldsmiths, University of London. He is both a student of Goldsmiths, having done undergraduate and postgraduate studies there, and since 1993 has been on the faculty there.
In that time he’s written number of books, including 2007’s The Art of Listening; 2002’s Out of Whiteness: Color, Politics and Culture (with Vron Ware); and 2001’s The Changing Face of Football: racism, identity and multiculture in the English game (with Tim Crabbe and John Solomos). In 2016, his Academic Diary: Or Why Higher Education Still Matters, was the first book ever published by the then new Goldsmiths Press.
Wed, 2 January 2019
Placing more nutritious food on a more visible shelf, informing lagging taxpayers that their neighbors have already paid up, or asking job seekers what they plan to do next week (instead of what they did – or didn’t – do last week) – these are all well-known examples of behavioral spurs known as ‘nudges.’ Much of the reason such examples are known is because they emanate from the work of the Behavioural Insights Team – the so-called nudge unit. The United Kingdom’s government set up the unit in 2010 (two years after Cass R. Sunstein and Richard H. Thaler’s Nudge was published) to address “everyday” policy challenges where human behavior was a key component.
Experimental psychologist David Halpern, the unit’s chief executive, has led the team since its inception and through its limited privatization in 2014. In this Social Science Bites podcast, Halpern offers interviewer David Edmonds a quick primer on nudging, examples of nudges that worked (and one that didn’t), how nudging differs between the UK and the United States, and the interface of applied nudging and academic behavioral science.
“We tend to use mental shortcuts,” Halpern explains, “to figure out what’s going on. Now most of the time those mental shortcuts get us to where we want to go, it looks like, but they are subject to systematic error.” This can matter, he continues, because humans don’t always act in their best long-term interests, even as many policies are built on the assumption that they will.
Enter the nudge, “A gentle instrument that is not a financial incentive or a legal mandate or a requirement – a much gentler prompt or intervention.” Looking at the tax-payment nudge, he notes, “It doesn’t infringe on your basic human rights; it just reminds you that other people are more virtuous than you thought they were.” And as a result, more people pay up than would if they received a more-traditional scolding letter.
While the prompt may be low-key, the applications – and results -- often are not.
“These are actually big social policy issues,” says Halpern. “My own view is you try and create almost collective mechanisms to set up. You can inject into that process an understanding of behavioral science and how people make decisions, and then we can collectively choose rather than just a few clever folks out in Whitehall or in Washington.”
He spends some time discussing the difference in nudging between those two hubs. What he terms the “North American view” the focus is on “choice enhancing, while in the UK “we take a slightly broader perspective, which is trying to introduce a more realistic model of human behavior.” This is further demonstrated by the enactment process on each side of the Atlantic. In the U.S. version of the Nudge Unit, the Social and Behavioral Sciences Team, executive orders were used to enact nudging policies that had worked in experiments. In the UK, “We went down the route of “God, we don’t actually know if this stuff works, so why don’t we run – wherever we could – randomized controlled trials.”
“Our work,” Halpern concludes, “is very hard-edged empirical. In fact, history may judge that the most important thing the Behavioural Insights Team brought was actually a very, very strong form of empiricism.”
Before leading the Nudge Unit, Halpern was the founding director of the Institute for Government and between 2001 and 2007 was the chief analyst at the Prime Minister’s Strategy Unit. In 2013, he was appointed as the national adviser to What Works Network, which focuses improving the use of evidence in government decision making.
Describing himself as a “recovering academic” (although he does have a visiting professorship at King's College London), before entering government, Halpern held tenure at Cambridge and taught at Oxford and Harvard. A fellow of the Academy of Social Sciences since 2016, Halpern has written or co-authored four books, including 2005’s Social Capital and 2010’s The Hidden Wealth of Nations.