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.
Mon, 3 December 2018
Metrics on the average living standards from the best-off countries in the world (say, Norway) to the worst-off (perhaps the Central African Republic) vary by a factor of 40 to 50. So notes James Robinson, the Reverend Dr. Richard L. Pearson Professor of Global Conflict at the University of Chicago and author, with Daron Acemoglu, of Why Nations Fail: The Origins of Power, Prosperity, and Poverty.
What explains the living-standards gap?
In this Social Science Bites podcast, interviewer David Edmonds posits -- and Robinson rebuts -- several traditional explanations for this inequality.
While raw data shows that countries closer to the equator do more poorly than countries further away, Robinson acknowledges, that correlation doesn’t extend to causation. “We try to show in our research in many different ways that things like geography or climate or temperature don’t really predict patterns of economic development.” Instead, institutional factors like colonialism or the slave trade are more likely to be culprits.
Cultural factors? Robinson, the institute director for the Pearson Institute for the Study and Resolution of Global Conflicts, suggests that’s wrong on its face. Drawing on his experience researching and teaching in sub-Saharan Africa and Latin America, he hasn’t seen cultures that reward indolence. “People work pretty hard in Zimbabwe,” he offers as an example. ”They get up early and it’s a struggle to make ends meet in a place like that when there’s so many impediments to prosperity and so many blocks to incentives and opportunity.” He adds that incentives to wealth creation matter, so knowing “some elites are going to expropriate the fruits of your labor” serves as a huge disincentive.
Certainly having natural resources must play a role. “This is sort of an accounting relationship,” Robinson counters. “Yes, it’s true that Kuwait is sitting on a big pile of oil, but I guess the relevant question would be is, ‘How rich will Kuwait be when the oil disappears?’”
What does make a difference, Robinson insists, are institutions. Looking at a natural experiment like the Korean Peninsula, where a geographically, culturally and linguistically homogeneous population was walled off into two separate nations, supports his view that institutions are the key to understanding the uneven outcomes.
But that creates the question of how to define what an ‘institution’ is. “Our view is that you have to take a pretty broad view of what institutions are. ... When we talk about institutions, we mean rules that humans create, which structure their interactions and incentives and opportunities. But I think those rules can be kind of informal – almost like social norms – not just written down in the constitution.”
And the institutions best at creating economic success, he continues, are the most inclusive ones. “Inclusivity is about harnessing all that latent talent, giving people opportunities, allowing them to get loans, enforce contracts.” Given his belief in the importance of inclusive institutions, Robinson tells Edmonds nonetheless that his goal remains more to describe the world rather than to change it (a “morally fraught” undertaking). But that description, he adds, includes a possible route forward – a route signposted for those in the less-rich world to take, amend or reject on their own accord.
Trained as an economist who “deprogrammed” himself from thinking as an economist, Robinson obtained his PhD from Yale University, his master’s at the University of Warwick, and a Bachelor of Science degree from the London School of Economics and Political Science. Before coming to Chicago, he was the Wilbur A. Cowett Professor of Government at Harvard University and a faculty associate at Harvard’s Institute for Quantitative Social Science and the Weatherhead Center for International Affairs. In addition to Why Nations Fail, Robinson and Acemoglu wrote Economic Origins of Dictatorship and Democracy, and in 2013 Robinson was named one of the “World Thinkers 2013” by Prospect magazine.
Thu, 1 November 2018
Fake news, whether truly phony or merely unpalatable, has become an inescapable trope for modern media consumers. But apart from its propagandist provenance, misinformation and disinformation in our media diets is a genuine threat. Sociologist Nick Adams, in this Social Science Bites podcast, offers hope that a tool he’s developed can improve the media literacy of the populace.
That tool, known as Public Editor, allows trained volunteers to do one of seven assessment tasks within 15 minutes of looking at passages from a news article. Several volunteers will answer a series of questions based on the passage that’s meant to elicit information about the passage’s logical accuracy and critical thinking, and a ‘credibility score’ to be posted on the article results.
Public Editor, Adams tells interview David Edmonds, will display “article labels that will show and point out for a news reader, as they are reading, inferential mistakes, argumentative fallacies, psychological biases.” And because this will all be done within 30 minutes of the article arriving at Public Editor – and hence before readers can allow their biases to cement around what they’ve read -- “this is going to change how people read the news and raise their media literacy.”
While there will be naysayers, Adams defends Public Editor’s intent and structure. “This whole endeavor is about building legitimacy, building trust, through a social process. We’ve codified that social process, and substantiated it, in code, in software, in a way that’s totally transparent.”
Adams’ wider interests dovetail with Public Editor – his interest in social science technology and on social issues. He earned his Ph.D. in sociology from the University of California Berkeley, where he founded the Computational Text Analysis Working Group at the university’s D-Lab and the interdisciplinary Text Across Domains initiative at the Berkeley Institute for Data Science. He is currently the CEO of Thusly, Inc, which developed TagWorks, a web-based content analysis software for researchers.
“Right now,” he tells Edmonds, “we have more words to analyze than we’ve ever had in the history of history. That’s because we’re generating so many every single day but also because we’re digitizing ancient records going back millennia. As a social scientist,” he adds, “I’m really excited to get my hands on that data and get rich information out of it.”
Explaining that “rich data” can – but doesn’t have to be – “big data,” Adams drew an example from his own work.
“So I might be looking at something like trying to understand police and protester interactions by looking at the Occupy movement. And I can look at 8,000 news articles, which is not very much – it’s not even going to tax your laptop to process that amount of data. But when you start to put sociological concepts into the data as labels that you can count and then put into time series, multi-level models, you’re starting to talk about very rich data that afford you the ability to understand social processes like we couldn’t before.”
Mon, 1 October 2018
Andrew Leigh would take a daily a multivitamin, he says, until he learned that a randomized controlled trial, or RCT, found no increase in lifespan linked to taking them. So he stopped. Leigh isn’t a nutritionist, he’s an economist. But more to the point, Leigh is also an unrepentant ‘randomista,’ which is what he calls researchers who use RCT’s to tackle thorny issues of public concern. (Leigh is also a politician, 2010 sitting since as the member of Australia’s Parliament for the Division of Fenner, a Canberra suburb.)
The word ‘randomista,’ Leigh tells interviewer David Edmonds in this Social Science Bites podcasts, was coined by Nobel laureate Angus Deaton (also a Bites alumnus) “as “a term almost of abuse – but I’ve turned it into a compliment!” (It’s also the title of his new book, Randomistas: How Radical Researchers Are Changing Our World.)
“Deaton had noticed that there were randomized trials proliferating across development economics,” Leigh explains, “and felt that in some areas they were becoming almost theory-free. I think it’s perhaps a reasonable criticism in some parts of development economics, but certainly for most questions, I think we’re doing too few randomized trials instead of too many.”
For Leigh, the proper definition of a randomista is “someone who believes we can find answers to important questions by tossing a coin and putting people into a treatment and control group, comparing the outcome, and then using the randomization to get a true causal effect.”
Randomized controlled trials have been used for years in drug testing, but are increasingly being used in business, crime prevention, education and social science. The origin of RCTs is a matter of some dispute, but Leigh uses the scurvy trials of James Lind, whose apples-to-apples comparison of various anti-scorbutic therapies in vogue in the 18th century allowed the Royal Navy to beat its most deadly enemy – yes Bonaparte, but in reality scurvy itself.
These days, RCTs are used as much to kill bad policies as they are to save lives. Leigh offers a litany of popular social programs that actual research demonstrated had the opposite effect of what they intended. For example, trials showed the Scared Straight program not only didn’t keep nonserious juvenile offenders from committing more serious crimes, it may have increased the odds they would. Other RCTs showed that while microcredit has some benefits, it doesn’t seem to improve household income, keep kids in school or improve women’s lot in life.
“Randomized trials are where scientific literacy meets modesty,” Leigh quips.
There are, of course, success stories, too, and Leigh cites drug courts and restorative justice as two public safety wins endorsed by RCTs. Leigh even used an RCT himself in naming his book, buying ads with various titles on Google to fine which resonated most. Total cost? About $50 and an hour of effort.
“I am aware that I look a little bit like a man with a hammer ranging around hoping to find nails. If you want to know about the impact of denuclearization on the Korean peninsula, a randomized trial is probably not your best way of working it out. But there are surprising areas in which you can figure things out.”
Before Leigh ran for Parliament Leigh was a professor at the Australian National University. He is a graduate of the University of Sydney and a fellow of the Australian Academy of Social Sciences. His books include Disconnected (2010), Battlers and Billionaires (2013), The Economics of Just About Everything (2014), The Luck of Politics (2015), and Choosing Openness: Why Global Engagement is Best for Australia (2017).
Tue, 4 September 2018
Diane Reay grew up in a council estate in a coal mining part of Derbyshire in England’s East Midlands. Those working-class roots dogged her from the start of her formal schooling.
“I had to fight not to be in the bottom set; I was told that girls like me don’t go to university,” Reay, now a renowned Cambridge University education professor, tells interviewer David Edmonds in this Social Science Bites podcast. “I think that spurred a strong interest in class inequalities and I became, like many working-class girls of my age, a primary school teacher.”
She in turn taught working-class children. Her primary motivation “was to make things better for them than it had been for me as a school pupil.”
To which, she adds, “and I failed. I failed for a whole lot of reasons, but mainly to do with poor policy and an increasing focus on performativity and competition rather than fulfilling a child’s potential.”
Those experiences in turn had a big influence on her research interests into educational inequality and embrace of social justice. Some of her specific investigations have looked at boys' underachievement, supplementary schooling of black students, access to higher education, female management in schools, and pupil peer group cultures.
One thing has become clear to her across this research - “It’s primarily working-class children who turn out to be losers in the educational system.” Whether it’s through the worst-funded schools, least-qualified teachers, most-temporary teaching arrangements or narrowest curricula, students from working class backgrounds in the United Kingdom (and the United States) draw the shortest educational straws.
Reay, under the banner of Britain’s Economic and Social Research Council, is currently directing a project explores choice in education and how that affects white, middle-class identity. Her research is qualitative, albeit at a large scale (she tells Edmonds she’s done 1,170 interviews). “I recognize that qualitative research can’t tell us the entire story in toto. That’s why I’m always very keen to use statistical data and quantitative research to support my qualitative analysis.” Using that statistical material serves a check, too, on confirmation bias she might bring to a research question.
That said, she adds, “Some very important things can’t actually be counted. They can’t be enumerated. And they’re about the quality of the learning experience, the quality of the child’s engagement with peers in the classroom, and with curriculum. I think this focus on counting means we have a very reductive curriculum.”
That policymakers see education as solely a means of preparing young people for the labor market, and not as an end in itself, as “inherently problematic.” The perceived need to measure all outputs all the time and to focus on making future employees instead of future citizens are pernicious, Reay says, but there are policy-based remedies. She suggests, for example, mixed ability teaching, delaying assessment until children reach 16, collaborative learning and teaching critical thinking skills as counteracting some of the worst problems of the current system.
This year, Policy Press published Reay’s book Miseducation: Inequality, Education and the Working Classes, which draws from 500 of those interviews and a healthy heaping of statistical evidence supporting her conclusions. Reay is also an executive editor of British Journal of Sociology of Education, and is on the editorial boards of Cultural Sociology and the Journal of Education Policy.
Thu, 2 August 2018
Explicit statements of prejudice are less common than in the past (even if they are still easily found). “I see that as a mark of progress,” says social psychologist Mahzarin R. Banaji, the Richard Clarke Cabot Professor of Social Ethics at Harvard University. But peer a little below the surface, she adds, “even though you might reject an explicit bias, you actually have the implicit version of it.”
“The brain is an association-seeking machine,” she tells interviewer David Edmonds in this Social Science Bites podcast. “It puts things together that repeatedly get paired in our experience. Implicit bias is just another word for capturing what those are when they concern social groups.
“So, when I see that my mom puts out butter when she puts out bread, the two are associated in some way. But I also see other things in the world. I see as I walk down the street who the poor people are and who the rich people are, and where the one lives and where the other lives.”
Banaji explains her work on implicit bias and the efforts she and her colleagues made in creating the widely recognized implicit association test, or IAT, which helps ferret out this "thumbprint of the culture on our brain.” (See and take the test here.)
That thumb imprints on Banaji herself. She relates a time when she was scheduled for surgery and just assumed the young woman next to her wouldn’t be her anesthesiologist and must instead be a nurse – even though Banaji if asked would readily say that young women absolutely could be any sort of doctor. Still, she asked the “nurse” to relay a message to the anesthesiologist, only to learn the “nurse” was the anesthesiologist. “As I always tell my students when I came back from surgery, these stereotypes are not good for us: you do not want to be in surgery with an angry anesthesiologist working on you!”
She credits the genesis of the IAT with a “stroke of genius” by her colleague Anthony Greenwald (with whom she wrote 2013’s Blindspot: Hidden Biases of Good People). “It’s based on the idea that two things that are routinely thought of as linked together will be easier to pair as a result, while things that aren’t commonly – or ever -- linked will require longer to pair them. The pairing in the initial implicit association test was with a deck of cards that include four suites – two with sets of faces, dark- and light-skinned, and two with words, positive and negative. In the classic result, test-takers can pair the white faces with positive words faster, as they can the peoples of color faces with negative words. Switch it up – people of color with good words, say – and there’s a measurable delay. It’s also been applied to many societal concerns, such as biases related to gender, body size, age, sexuality, and others.
The IAT has shown some predictive power about how biases translate into action in individuals, but it’s no ‘test for racism,’ she stresses.
“I would be the first to say that you can never use the IAT and say, ‘Well, we’re going to use it to hire somebody,’ or ‘We’re going to use it to put someone on the jury.’ One can have these implicit biases and also have a big fat prefrontal cortex that makes us behave in ways that are opposed to the bias.”
Banaji’s contributions to society have been widely recognized in a number of notable fellowships, such as the Society for Experimental Psychologists, Society for Experimental Social Psychology, the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, the American Academy of Political and Social Science, and in 2016, the Association for Psychological Science’s (APS) William James Fellow Award for lifetime contributions to the basic science of psychology. (She was president of APS in 2010-11.)
Tue, 3 July 2018
While generally accepted that inequality is a bad thing, how exactly is that so? Beyond philosophical arguments, what is it about inequality that makes it bad? That’s a question that Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett examined at a societal scale in their 2009 book The Spirit Level and have continued at an individual level with their newest book, The Inner Level. The volume’s subtitles help explain the evolution; Spirit’s is “Why Greater Equality Makes Societies Stronger” while Inner’s is “How More Equal Societies Reduce Stress, Restore Sanity and Improve Everyone’s Wellbeing.”
In this Social Science Bites podcast, social epidemiologist Richard Wilkinson lays out the case that inequality should be fought specifically because it fosters a litany of ill effects. (In 2013, his partner Pickett laid out the case for equality in her own Bites podcast.)
“In The Spirit Level,” he tells interviewer David Edmonds, “we showed that in more-unequal countries, with bigger income gaps between rich and poor, there is more of a whole range of health and social problems. Life expectancy tends to be lower, more obesity, higher homicide rate, more people in prison, more drug problems, more mental illness. Basically what we showed was that all the problems that have what we call social gradients, problems that are more common down on the social ladder, get worse when you increase the status differences between us.”
What’s surprising, he adds, is that these negatives don’t just punch down – while the effects are stronger among the poor in fact they affect broad swathes of the population. Being well off does not inoculate you from the malign effects of inequality.
Knowing that, Wilkinson and Pickett, armed with additional research that’s taken place in the last eight years, started to look at how that occurs. Wilkinson said at the time Spirit published they didn’t feel they had enough details to lay out the cause, but their hunch was that it revolved around status, “how inequality creates, or strengthens, feelings of superiority and inferiority.”
As he explains here, based on massive and repeated questionnaires, we know that status anxiety – and its ill effects such as worsening health -- affects everyone, the super-rich and the dirt-poor, in the most unequal countries. Status anxiety, he suggests becomes an ironic unifying characteristic across an unequal landscape, which in turn leads him to speculate that if this were recognized it could an earlier step toward creating a more equal society.
The podcast concludes with Wilkinson offering advice on creating that society by addressing income inequality by developing “economic democracy,” since an egalitarian society reduces these negative effects described above and makes us happier and healthier overall.
Wilkinson is professor emeritus of social epidemiology at the University of Nottingham, an honorary professor of epidemiology and public health at University College London and visiting professor at University of York. He co-founded The Equality Trust, with support from the Joseph Rowntree Charitable Trust, and remains a member if the trust’s board.
Fri, 1 June 2018
How did humans diverge so markedly from animals? Apart from physical things like our “physical peculiarities,” as experimental psychologist Celia Heyes puts it, or our fine motor control, there’s something even more fundamentally – and cognitively -- different.
“I suppose at the broadest level,” Heyes tells interviewer David Edmonds in this Social Science Bites podcast, “we differ from animals because we are so ultra-social, so intensely cooperative. And as a result, we’ve transformed our environments, for good or ill, more radically than any other species through things like agriculture, technology, science, but also, law, trade to the point of economies and finance, fine arts, sports, all of these things.”
Heyes, a senior research fellow in theoretical life sciences at All Souls College, University of Oxford, argues that we’ve evolved those differences, or “innate modules.” That may sound like evolutionary psychology, which suggests that many of these traits are pre-coded into humans -- “we get them for free,” as Heyes translates -- and therefore are minimally dependent on what we experience in childhood. While Heyes appreciates the evolutionary aspect of natural selection and agrees there is some sort of genetic starter kit,” but she says the locus of evolution is not genetic but cultural.
She points to things like cross-cultural differences in beliefs and behavior or the ability to read, which hasn’t had time to be genetically encoded (even if it can be observed lighting up only certain parts of the brain) but it can have evolved culturally.
Heyes’ research and theories place her all over the academic map, but she describes herself as “part biologist, part philosopher, but I am first and foremost a psychologist.” A fellow of the British Academy and president of the Experimental Psychology Society, her latest book is the brand new Cognitive Gadgets: The Cultural Evolution of Thinking from Harvard University Press.
Tue, 1 May 2018
In determining what makes a successful prison, where would you place ‘trust’? Alison Liebling, a criminologist at the University of Cambridge and the director of the Institute of Criminology’s Prisons Research Centre, would place it at the top spot. As she tells interviewer David Edmonds in this Social Science Bites podcast, she believes what makes a prison good is the existence and the practice of trust.
As this recording makes clear, these aren’t starry-eyed recommendations from a novice observer. Liebling has years of going into dozens of individual lockups, and believes that good prisons are possible. “A good prison,” she details, “is one where prisoners feel safe and the environment is not threatening – and therefore they can concentrate on their own personal development.” That environment means inmates are “reasonably decently treated, not worried about getting from A to B, the regime works in a fairly predictable and clear way, and the staff are approachable,” among other things.
While she has met with ‘why bother?’-type resistance from hard-boiled staff and prisoners surrounding her research, her retort is quick and usually effective: “There isn’t any better method than research for authentically describing this invisible world.”
The best prisons, she says, are the ones that “see prisoners as people first.” This isn’t a prescription to be naïve, and she subscribes to what Onora O’Neill describes as “intelligent trust” in dealing with prisoners. Good corrections officers already intuit the concept, she adds: they are “subtle readers of human behavior ... making fine judgements about gradations of trust.”
For her research, Liebling has adopted “appreciative inquiry,” which she came too almost accidentally while trying to discover a way to describe what works in a prison and how do prisons differ from each other. (“It wasn’t a research tool, or at least it wasn’t until I corrupted it!” she jokes.) Just as plants follow the sun, appreciative inquiry also follows the heliotropic principle, trying to identify and then support what gives life energy to people or organizations. “So instead of telling me about your offending,” she would ask, “tell me something you’re most proud of.”
Talk about working in the prison environment (“I always felt really at home”), the idea that prisoners themselves my feel vulnerable, how to build trust, and how prison policies have improved over Liebling’s career – and how that improvement has stalled
Liebling has published several books on these topics, such as 1992’s Suicides in Prison, 2004’s Prisons and their Moral Performance: A Study of Values, Quality and Prison Life and The Effects of Imprisonment with Shadd Maruna in 2005, and Legitimacy and Criminal Justice, an edited volume with Justice Tankebe, in 2013.
Mon, 2 April 2018
While they aren’t as unpopular as politicians or journalists, people who work with statistics come in for their share of abuse. “Figures lie and liars figure,” goes one maxim. And don’t forget, “There are three kinds of lies: lies, damned lies, and statistics."
But some people are the good guys, doing their best to combat the flawed or dishonest use of numbers. One of those good guys is David Spiegelhalter, professor of the public understanding of risk in the Statistical Laboratory in the Centre for Mathematical Sciences at the University of Cambridge and current president of the Royal Statistical Society. Spiegelhalter, the subject of this Social Science Bites podcast, even cops to being a bit of an “evidence policeman” because on occasion even he spends some of his time “going around telling people off for bad behavior.”
There is bad behavior to police. “There’s always been the use of statistics and numbers and facts as rhetorical devices to try and get people’s opinion across, and to in a sense manipulate our emotions and feelings on things,” he tells interviewer David Edmonds. “People might still think that statistics and numbers are cold, hard facts but they’re soft, fluffy things. They can be manipulated and changed, made to look big, made to look small, all depending on the story that someone wants to tell.”
Asked at one point if he even accepts that there are ‘facts,’ Spiegelhalter gives a nuanced yes. “I’m not going to get into the whole discussion about ‘what is truth,’ although it’s amazing how quick you do go down that line. No, there are facts, and I really value them.”
Despite that policing role, Spiegelhalter explain, his methods are less prescriptive and more educational, working to get others to ask key questions such as “What am I not being told?” and “Why I am hearing this?” The goal is less to track down every bit of fake news in the world, and more to inoculate others against its influence.
One part of that, for example, is determining what communicators and organizations to trust. Spiegelhalter, acknowledging his debt to Onora O'Neill, an emeritus professor of philosophy at the University of Cambridge, argues that organizations themselves shouldn’t strive to be trusted, but to show trustworthy attributes. This goes beyond things like “fishbowl transparency,” where you lard your website with every imaginable factoid, but actively making sure people can get to your information, understand it and they can assess how reliable it is.
That ‘understanding’ part of the process is what Spigelhalter pursues as part of chairing the Winton Centre for Risk and Evidence Communication, which is dedicated to improving the way that quantitative evidence is used in society. In that role he’s become a public face of honest use of numbers, as evidenced by his role as presenter of the BBC4 documentaries Tails you Win: the Science of Chance and Climate Change by Numbers. His own research focuses on health-related use of statistics and statistical methods, and while that might include Bayesian inference using Gibbs samplinig, it can also encompass the focus of his 2015 book, Sex by Numbers.
Thu, 1 March 2018
Use social media for any amount of time and eventually you will come across something that’s designed to both appeal to the angels of your better nature and asking to make a (small) effort to support or propagate this appeal. The prime example of recent years is the ALS Ice Bucket Challenge.
When these charitable appeals take off, that’s when social psychologist Sander van der Linden perks up. He studies ‘viral altruism,’ and in this Social Science Bites podcast he details to host David Edmonds how he studies this phenomenon.
“The idea,” van der Linden says, “is that you can ‘catch’ altruism in a behavioral way. When someone acts altruistically online, you catch that behavior as a social contagion, which then causes you to adopt that behavior and encourage other people in your network to also engage in that behavior, which then spreads quickly and rapidly.”
Van der Linden observes and describes the mechanics of these processes using something he calls SMArT, breaking down the online altruistic efforts by their social influence, moral imperative, affective reactions and translational impact.
This yardstick allows van der Linden to draw conclusions from what can be a smallish data set of unique events. SMArT allows van der Linden to find shared similarities that create body of data and which can be tracked. For example, van der Linden, is currently looking at the #MeToo movement to see if it fits into his scope of inquiry.
Van der Linden is a social psychologist and assistant professor in the Department of Psychology at the University of Cambridge where he directs the Cambridge Social Decision-Making Laboratory. He is also a Fellow in Psychological and Behavioural Sciences at Churchill College, Cambridge and an affiliated researcher at the Yale Program on Climate Change Communication at Yale University.
Thu, 1 February 2018
The Western feud over “nature vs. nurture” dates back at least to an essay by John Locke in 1690. The idea that it’s an absolute binary – that our actions are determined solely by one or the other – is thankfully passé. And yet, in an academic setting, with scholars safe in their silos, the tension continues in practice if not in conversation.
For a bit of anecdotal evidence, look at Melinda Mills, the head of department and Nuffield Professor of Sociology at Oxford University. She studied the sociology and demography of families and family formation – things like when to choose to have a child, what a women’s age is when she first gives birth, or the number of children someone might have. “I was,” she tells interviewer David Edmonds in this Social Science Bites podcast, “looking at them in a very socially deterministic way. I was looking at things such as childcare institutions or gender equality or the kind of jobs that women and men have, and was childcare available and affordable and ... I was using those as explanations and predictors.
“And then I met some biologists and geneticists.”
Over drinks that day, these fellow researchers made fun of Mills: “This is Melinda and she studies fertility, but she doesn’t think it has any biological basis.” Much hilarity ensued. But the gibes bore a pleasant fruit – Mills broke free of the limits on her scholarship with which she had shackled herself. Her studies and collaborations now combined social science and molecular genetics; she now studies ‘sociogenomics,’ with a particular emphasis on how these interplay in the areas of inequality and life course. In that vein, she is the principal investigator of the SOCIOGENOME project and the ESRC National Centre for Research Methods SOCGEN project.
She notes that each part of the triad – social scientists, biologists and geneticists bring their real science to the table. “Wellbeing, depression, reproductive choice – [social scientist] are very good at measuring that. We then work with biologists and geneticists, who determine genetic loci, and then with biologists, who determine the biological function of those genes.
“As social scientists, we then create a score, your ‘reproductive score,’ and we add those to our statistical models together with the social science variables -- the usual suspects lie your family background or your partner or educational level – and we add those together with the genetic data and we look at the interaction between those.” And, as you’ll learn, there can be surprises for all concerned. Geneticists, for example, might assume that genetic loci are universal ... but are they?
The effort also harnesses the big data of genetics technology, tapping into databases like the UK Bio Bank or the direct-to-consumer testing services like 23andMe.
In addition to her sociogenomics projects, Mills is a leader of the Working Package on Childlessness and Assisted Reproductive Technology in the European Families And Societies network, editor-in-chief of the European Sociological Review, and a fellow of the European Academy of Sociology.
Tue, 2 January 2018
That some people are just naturally gifted at mathematics is pretty well accepted as conventional wisdom. With enlightened teaching we can all become adequate at math, or maths, and should set expectations accordingly. That, says Jo Boaler, who is a professor of mathematics education at Stanford University, is hogwash. Although she uses the more refined terminology of calling such thinking “a myth.”
“The neuroscience is showing us petty clearly that there’s no such thing as a maths brain, even though so many people believe that, particularly in the Western culture,” she tells interviewer David Edmonds in this Social Science Bites podcast. She doesn’t fully reject the notion about enlightened teaching, though, only the bit about merely being adequate: “If you were taught the right way ... you could excel at all levels of maths in school.”
She describes how brain pathways are formed when we learn something, and the agglomeration of those pathways are what makes one adept, and not some inherent expertise. “This isn’t to say everyone is born with the same brain,” Boaler explains, “but experiences we have much more potential to shape brains than anything we’re born with. What we’re born with is really eclipsed by the millions of experiences we have.”
Her own experiences. Apart from once having been a mathematics teacher in London comprehensive schools, include following hundreds of students over many years in both the United Kingdom and the United States. Some of those students sitting in rows in traditional classrooms, others actively exploring mathematical concepts while untethered from desks. This research has enabled to bust a number of maths myths, such as that boys are better at math than girls – turns out that boys do better at testing, but not in school performance. Boaler notes that mindset plays a key role in learning, and those afraid of making a mistake don’t benefit from one of the most productive ways of learning, which is making a mistake.
In this podcast, she also details how timed tests actually inhibit the brain from working, and that even adults use (virtual) finger in mathematics, which plays out positively for musicians.
In addition to her role at Stanford, Boaler is the faculty director of the math teaching incubator youcubed and the author of the first ‘massive open online course’ on mathematics teaching and learning. She was also the Marie Curie Professor of Mathematics Education at the University of Sussex, a fellow at the Center for Advanced Study in the Behavioral Sciences at Stanford, and has written nine books, including the 2015 bestseller Mathematical Mindsets.
Fri, 1 December 2017
“Most people,” says Goldsmiths sociologist Bev Skeggs, “think they’re using Facebook to communicate with friends. Basically they’re using it to reveal how much they can be sold for, now and in the future, and how much their friends can be sold for.”
That was an almost accidental lesson she learned during research on how social networks were structuring, or restructuring, friendships, she explains to interviewer David Edmonds in this Social Science Bites podcast. After receiving a monstrous data dump – with permission – of individual’s social media usage, Skeggs and her colleagues were “completely diverted” as it dawned on them that Facebook was trawling its users’ habits to collect information on people’s general browsing habits.
The potentially disturbing but legal practice was only the first step in Facebook’s efforts to monetize social media – and in what Skeggs argues calcifies inequality.
“They probably have the greatest capacity to experiment with social data to see who we’re communicating with, how we’re communicating with them,” Skeggs says, “but basically 90 percent of Facebook profit is made from advertising -- selling your data to advertising companies so that they can place an advert on your browser.” And in turn, algorithmically segregating web denizens – well, their composite data profiles, at any rate -- based on their perceived wealth and influence. This “subprime silo-ing” pushes sketchy advertising, in particular for high-interest loans, at people who can least afford to take on more debt.
That, she explains, is why “we really, really need to have some strict regulation” when it comes to the trading of personal data, targeting, advertising and similar practices that flow from social media.
Skeggs, who has led the sociology departments at Manchester University and Goldsmiths, University of London, has long looked at less explored vectors of inequality, as demonstrated by her breakthrough 1997 book, Formations of Class & Gender: Becoming Respectable. She was the joint managing editor of the The Sociological Review for five years starting in 2011, a period that saw the esteemed journal transition into an independent foundation “dedicated to the advancement and study of sociology in everyday life.” (She remains an editor at large for the Review.)
Wed, 1 November 2017
Is it just a low wage that conjures up the term when we talk about “crushing poverty”? Or is it really a host of other issues that likely accompany that lack of money? Economist Sabina Alkire has spent her career crafting the measures that demonstrate that latter proposition, work that with fellow economist James Foster resulted in what is known as the Alkire-Foster Method for determining level of poverty.
In this Social Science Bites podcast, Alkire – director of the Oxford Poverty and Human Development Initiative -- explains to interviewer Dave Edmonds the need to have a consistent and reputable means of measuring poverty over time. This usually entails “a monetary measurement, either income or consumption,” she details, “and a person is deemed to be poor if they don’t have enough by some poverty line.”
But as noted above, this is only half the battle – or perhaps not even half.
“I’m not at all against income poverty level measures or consumption poverty measures, but it doesn’t tell the whole story,” Alkire explains (and notes that Foster is himself architect of some of those types of indices). “A person is also poor if they’re malnourished, and if their house is decaying and they don’t have a job and they’re not educated or their children are not attending school or if they’re victims of violence.”
What’s needed is “a more three-dimensional account,” even if that new method doesn’t perfectly correlate with traditional material measures. And so she and Foster, building on work by Nobel laureate economist Amartya Sen, created method to derive the Global Multidimensional Poverty Index. That index does not include income but does look at living standards across 10 dimensions. If someone is considered ‘deprived’ in more than a third of those 10 dimensions, they are officially identified as poor.
Looking just at the globe’s 103 developing countries, Alkire says 1.45 billion people are “multidimensionally poor.” The mixed news, she adds, is that while levels of poverty are declining, the number of poor is increasing.
Knowing where people stand is important in a policy context, Alkire says, which makes having an “official permanent statistic” that will survive changes in government, and which is drawn from demographic and health surveys in public domain, important. So far, national-level multidimensional poverty indices have proven their worth in poverty alleviation efforts, with state level governors in Mexico, for example, vying to out-lower each other. (Alkire notes that national indices do vary from the global index due to regional variation: Bhutan uses a measure of a household’s distance from a road.)
Mon, 2 October 2017
Philosopher Tom Chatfield’s media presence – which is substantial – is often directly linked to his writings on technology. But his new book is on critical thinking, and while that involves humanity’s oldest computer, the brain, Chatfield explains in this Social Science Bites podcast that new digital realities interact with old human biases.
As Chatfield tells interviewer Dave Edmonds, while he defines bias as “an inaccurate account of the way things actually are,” this like confirmation, affect and recency bias aren’t automatically toxic to critical thinking.
Basic problem is the use of heuristics, which are generally necessary and definitely useful (“sparing you the burden of endless research”), can paper over the need to leave our perceptions open to refutation and challenge. “Letting our emotional reaction double as truth, and be substituted for what we think of as truth,” is the problem, and not the mere existence of mental shortcuts.
That tolerance of heuristics is baked into his definition of critical thinking. “What I mean by critical thinking,” he explains, “is our attempts to be more reasonable about the world. And so this tends to involve coming up with reasoned arguments that support conclusions, reasoned explanations that seek to explain why things are the way they are, and perhaps most importantly, doing all this as part of a reasonable critically engaged discourse, where you’re listening to other people, you’re prepared to change your mind.”
Yes, he adds, critical thinking includes the traditional tentpoles of deductive and inductive reasoning, but also something else. “More and more we also need to roll into this the scientific and empirical method of seeking explanations, forming hypotheses, testing theories and – and this is the additional bit for me – building into all this our growing knowledge about human lives, the predictable biases in the way of thinking.”
Chatfield, a former visiting associate at the Oxford Internet Institute, is currently technology and media advisor at Agathos LLP; a faculty member at London’s School of Life; and a senior expert at the Global Governance Institute. He is a regular on the BBC online and broadcast, and has written six books since 2010 exploring digital culture such as Live This Book!, How to Thrive in the Digital Age and Netymology, with a seventh – Critical Thinking: Your Guide to Effective Argument, Successful Analysis and Independent Study– being published by SAGE this month. Chatfield also plays jazz piano and by his own admission “drinks too much coffee.”
Thu, 31 August 2017
Amid all the handwringing about kids and the damage smartphones are doing them, child psychologist Ioanna Palaiologou is upbeat. “I don’t think,” she says, “we should worry as much as the media is making it. ... If the elements are there, it’s another toy for them.”
Palaiologou, an associate at the Institute of Education, University College London’s Centre for Leadership in Learning, has the background to make a judgment in that regard. Among other things, she’s an expert on children and play, as she explains in this Social Science Bites podcast.
Play, she explains, is innate - “we are mammals, and mammals do play” – necessary and ultimately informal, she tells interviewer Dave Edmonds. That doesn’t meant there won’t be rules, but that the wellspring of play in bottom-up, from children, and not top-down, from adults. “Play cannot be initiated by adults. It can be supported by adults, it can be facilitated by adults, but cannot be initiated by adults, in my view. Play can only be initiated by children.”
This doesn’t mean play is anarchy, or even that all play is the same. Palaiologou has identified five types of play -- physical, with objects, symbolic (such as drawing), pretending/dramatic, and games with rules – and adults may have a role. But that role is not dominant: “Instruction is fine, but we actually need play to interact with the environment and to make sense of the world with our own senses, our own minds, and to internalize that.”
In the discussion, Palaiologou and Edmonds also talk about cultural differences in play and how it is a vital part of children’s emotional development. All work and no play, it seems, does more than make Jack a dull boy.
Palaiologou has spent more than two decades studying education and early childhood in the United Kingdom and is a chartered psychologist of the British Psychological Society and is the treasurer (and past chair) or the British Educational Studies Association. She is the co-director of Canterbury Educational Services where she is head of children’s services.
She’s published widely on early childhood, including authoring last year’s third edition of Child Observation: A Guide for Early Childhood and editing Early Years Foundation Stage: Theory and Practice and Doing Research in Education: Theory and Practice (the latter with David Needham and Trevor Male).
Tue, 1 August 2017
Al Roth on Matching Markets
The system that runs the ride-sharing company Uber doesn’t just link up passengers and drivers based on price. It also has to connect the two based largely on where they are geographically. It is, says Nobel laureate Stanford economist Alvin E. “Al” Al Roth, a matching market.
In this Social Science Bites podcast, Roth explains to interview David Edmonds some of the ins and outs of market matching, starting with a quick and surprisingly simple definition.
“A matching market is a market in which prices don’t so all the work,” Roth details, “So matching markets are markets in which you can’t just choose what you want even if you can afford it – you also have to be chosen.” But while the definition is simple, creating a model for these markets is a tad more complex, as Roth shows in offering a few more examples and contrasting them with commodity markets.
“Labor markets are matching markets. You can’t just decide to work for Google – you have to be hired. And Google can’t just decide that you’ll work for them – they have to make you an offer.” And like say university admission, matching markets require something to intervene, whether it be institutions or technology, to make this exchange succeed. In turn Roth himself helped engineer some high profile matches in areas where the term ‘market might not traditionally have been used: kidney donors with the sick, doctors with their first jobs, or students and teachers with schools. Or even the classic idea of ‘matchmaking’ – marriage.
Roth turned to game theory to help explain and understand these markets, and his work won he and Lloyd Shapley the 2012 Nobel Memorial Prize in Economic Sciences. As the Nobel Committee outlined:
"Lloyd Shapley studied different matching methods theoretically and, beginning in the 1980s, Alvin Roth used Lloyd Shapley's theoretical results to explain how markets function in practice. Through empirical studies and lab experiments, Alvin Roth demonstrated that stability was critical to successful matching methods."
Roth is currently president of the American Economics Association, and sits as the Craig and Susan McCaw professor of economics at Stanford University. He is also the Gund professor of economics and business administration emeritus at Harvard University
Fri, 7 July 2017
Under normal circumstances, if something was hurting you, you’d likely stop doing it. Except, well, as Theresa Marteau of Cambridge University’s Department of Public Health and Primary Care has explored deeply, in some key areas, you’re likely not stopping.
In a conversation with Social Science Bites host David Edmonds, she notes that the majority of premature deaths are due to four non-communicable diseases – diabetes, cancer, cardio-vascular disease, and lung disease. In turn, there are four main causes of these diseases – smoking, overconsumption of food, alcohol, and not moving around enough. All those causes, you’ll notice, flow from behavior.
And simply tapping someone on the shoulder and pointing out the connection has not been a particularly effective way to interrupt these pernicious behaviors.
“It’s quite a common idea that if people only understood better how they might be damaging their health, then they would tackle it,” Marteau explains. “Governments and others invest an amount of money in trying to communicate the risks to you and your health of engaging in these behaviors ... and while it can raise awareness, it’s not that effective at changing your behavior.”
That’s perplexing, Marteau admits, but undeterred she’s spent much of her career at the intersection of basic psychology, neuroscience and behavioral science looking for ways that do work to change behavior. And, as this podcast explores, she’s focused on the environment.
Or rather, environments.
As director of Studies for Psychological and Behavioural Sciences at Cambridge’s Christ’s College, her research group examines how environment – and that includes the cultural, built and financial environments --buttresses short term pleasures over long term benefits.
Taking a cue from Daniel Kahneman’s Thinking Fast and Slow, Marteau finds that the ‘bad’ behaviors in question ultimately—despite any initial enthusiasm at some point to quit smoking or go to the gym – default to the so-called ‘fast‘ brain system that oversees routine behaviors. These routines in turn are shaped, or perhaps amplified, by those environments.
Ultimately, Marteau focuses on addressing these harmful behaviors, work which this June saw her named Dame Commander of the Order of the British Empire for her services to public health. That work has her collecting evidence for redesigning environments to promote healthy behavior, which touches on public and private industry issues like product pricing, availability (and proximity), portion size, excise taxes, and many others -- “conceptually simple but legally and culturally more complex,” she admits.
Thu, 1 June 2017
“Borders,” says Mary Bosworth, “are the key issue of our time.” And so, says the criminologist, “in response to the mass migration that’s happening, the criminal justice system is shifting. This shouldn’t surprise us – all other aspects of our society are changing.”
One of those changes is the creation of a new subfield of criminology, one explicitly evolved to understand immigration control and criminal justice. In this Social Science Bites podcast interview with Dave Edmonds, Bosworth talks about a field which she calls ‘border criminology.’
She starts the conversation by explaining that even the name of the field is a bit unsettled. Bosworth notes a couple of other terms making the rounds, including ‘crimmigration’ – coined by Juliet Stumpf -- and ‘criminology of mobility.’ The latter, she adds, doesn’t capture way that it’s the movement of people that’s being criminalized, and so “that doesn’t work quite so well in English.
“Border criminology as a term, I think, captures more clearly the way in which this is a field of study which is trying to understand both things that are happening at the border but also things that are happening n our criminal justice system.”
Border criminologists as a class do lots of field work in places like courts and prisons, and in Bosworth’s case much of her recent work has been in Immigration detention centers, which in the United Kingdom hold about 32,000 foreign nationals.
One of the main takeaways from her research has been that these detention centers are “very painful places for all the people concerned” – whether detainees and the officers. The officers themselves often “don’t fully understand what they’re doing” and “don’t have a clear narrative” of the population they are detaining, which runs from criminals to visa overstayers to people who just don’t have any papers.
As an academic who once did research in prisons, Bosworth finds “the detention estate is much more recent and politicized -- and doesn’t have tradition of letting researchers in.”
As someone who has been allowed in, Bosworth says she’s found policymakers are interested in hearing her results, but less so on acting on them. A “counternarraitive” on the threat posed by immigrants has created headwinds, she finds, that make reforming policy difficult despite the documented fiscal and human costs of the present system.
In this interview, she also describes the emotional toll on this sort of filed work, and some of the brighter spots of her efforts, such as creating an archive of artwork made by detainees.
Bosworth is a professor and fellow of St. Cross College at the University of Oxford and concurrently a professor at Australia’s Monash University. She’s the director of the interdisciplinary research group Border Criminologies and assistant director of the Center for Criminology at Oxford. She’s currently heads both a five-year project on “Subjectivity, Identity and Penal Power: Incarceration in a Global Age” funded by the European Research Council as well as a Leverhulme International Network on external border control.
Tue, 16 May 2017
Ask a number of influential social scientists who in turn influenced them, and you’d likely get a blue-ribbon primer on the classics in social science.
Wright Mills’ The Sociological Imagination. Ernest Becker’s The Denial of Death. Irving Goffman’s The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life. Emile Durkheim’s Suicide. Michel Foucault’s The Archaeology of Knowledge.
During the recording of every Social Science Bites podcast, the guest has been asked the following: Which piece of social science research has most inspired or most influenced you? And now, in honor of the 50th Bites podcast to air, journalist and interviewer David Edmonds has compiled those responses into three collections. This last of the three appears here, with answers presented alphabetically from Toby Miller to Linda Woodhead.
“I remember as a graduate student reading classics in epidemiology and sociology and feeling like a kid in the candy store,” recalls David Stuckler, now a University of Oxford sociologist, before namedropping? Durkheim.
Several of the guests gently railed at the request to name just one influence. “There isn’t one,” starts Mirca Madianou, a communications expert at Goldsmiths, University of London. “There may have been different books at different times of my formation.”
Social psychologist Steve Reicher said he instead liked the idea of desert Island books, which give multiple bites of this particular apple, and then named several influences, including E.P. Thompson’s The Moral Economy of the English Crowd in the Eighteenth Century and Natalie Davis’s The Rites of Violence: Religious Riot in Sixteenth-Century France, which he describes as “beautiful and rich depictions of patterns of social behavior.”
“I’m unprepared to answer this!” exclaims behavioral economist and Nobel laureate Robert Shiller before he cites Hersh Shefrin and Richard Thaler’s work that pioneered the connection between neuroscience and eEconomics.
Sometimes, though, the answer comes instantly. “Not a day that I don’t think about him or talk about him to somebody,” said Lawrence Sherman of Austin Bradford Hill, an economist whose work evaluating the use of streptomycin in treating tuberculosis created the template for randomized controlled trials.
Mon, 1 May 2017
What is an “organization?” According to Chris Grey, the guest in this Social Science Bites podcast, in many ways it’s a moment in time. “An organization,” he tells interviewer David Edmonds, “is also a momentary crystallization of an ongoing process of organizing.”
Grey is a professor of organizational studies in the school of management at Royal Holloway University in London and a fellow of the Academy of Social Sciences. And while he’s been heavily involved in management studies – he’s actually part of the School of Management at Royal Holloway – he makes clear that the rubric of ‘an organization’ extends far beyond business alone. “A huge amount of life is organized,” Grey explains, “and is therefore under the ambit of organizational studies.” In fact, the field itself, which essentially emerged from work on bureaucracy by Max Weber, was usually located in an institution’s sociology or psychology departments until the advent of business schools in the 1960s exerted a magnetic draw on the discipline.
One of Grey’s best examples of not being solely a business study is detailed in his 2012 book — Decoding Organization: Bletchley Park, Codebreaking and Organization Studies — about the (now) famous British World War II codebreaking campus. As he describes in this podcast, Bletchley Park harnessed many of the current cultural trends and personality traits of its selected workforce so well that even spouses didn’t know of each other’s wartime exploits for decades after V-E Day.
Even if organizational studies is boiled down to issues of economic efficiency, he continues, “we have to open up the question of what does efficiency mean and for who?” He adds: “We needn’t give the answer, ‘efficient for the powerful’.” And while admitting that his “take” is far from universal among his colleagues, “Fundamentally the problems of organization are not soluble and they’re not amenable to the kind of prediction and control that is sometimes promised.”
While he has wide ranging research interests and a love of detective novels, Grey remains well-represented in the management field. He was editor-in-chief of Management Learning for six years. Grey co-edited the 2016 book Critical Management Studies: Global Voices, Local Accents and was co-author of another 2016 volume, Secrecy at Work: The Hidden Architecture of Organizational Life.
His most recent book for SAGE is the cleverly named A Very Short, Fairly Interesting and Reasonably Cheap Book About Studying Organizations.
Mon, 3 April 2017
How lightly, or how tightly, do you hold your values? Are there things you hold dear, which almost automatically excite your emotions, for which you would make the costliest of sacrifices?
These are the sorts of questions Scott Atran discusses in this Social Science Bites podcast. Atran is a “classically trained” anthropologist (he was once an assistant to Margaret Mead) and is the research director in anthropology at France’s National Center for Scientific Research, a research professor of public policy and psychology at the University of Michigan, and a founding fellow of the Centre for Resolution of Intractable Conflict at the University of Oxford’s Harris Manchester College. He is also director of research and co-founder of Artis Research & Risk Modeling, Artis International, and Artis LookingGlass.
As those associations suggests, much of his research sits at the intersection of violent acts and cognitive science, and much of his fieldwork takes place on the front lines of conflict. His findings are often acknowledged as true by policymakers – even as he ruefully tells interviewer David Edmonds, they generally then refuse to recognize the sincerity with which the other side holds its values.
And yet these spiritual values often trump physical ones. And from a policy perspective, say the attempting defeat ISIS in the Middle East, it helps to understand that a devoted actor will often outperform a rational actor when the going gets tough. This helps explain the initial successes of ISIS, and the ability of Kurdish forces to battle back against ISIS. Or even of the American colonies to defeat the British empire.
Atran explains that while there are no theories, at present, about sacred values, but there are features that he has been able to test for reliability.
For example, Atran suggests that something so valued is immune to trading, discounting or negotiating, and that offering to buy your way around someone’s sacred values can result in anger or violence.
He asked refugees in Lebanon and Jordan what was the chance they would go back to Israel if they had the right of return. Six percent – one out of 16 – said they would ‘consider it.’ But then they were asked if they would give up this sacred value, the implication being that if they weren’t going to exercise it why bother keeping it. Yet 80 percent answered no. Then the researchers asked if the respondents would support the 1967 boundaries of Israel, and accept a cash payment, in exchange for permanently ceding their right of return.
“Not only did they refuse,” Atran notes, “but it went to ceiling. We tested for support of suicide bombing, skin responses for emotion and moral outrage, it went through the roof.” But this allegiance to the intangible works two ways – Atran found that when a questioner acknowledged a refugee’s right of return, support for the peace process – even without any other sweetener – increased.
Wed, 15 March 2017
The Communist Manifesto. Novelist Don DeLillo’s account of a big moment in baseball. Works by Wittgenstein and Focault. And a famous –and shocking – behavioral experiment. These are a few of the supremely inspiring works which have influenced some of the leading social scientists at work today.
During the recording of every Social Science Bites podcast, the guest has been asked the following: Which piece of social science research has most inspired or most influenced you? And now, in honor of the 50th Bites podcast to air, journalist and interviewer David Edmonds has compiled those responses into three separate montages of those answers. The second appears here, with answers – presented alphabetically – from Bites’ guests ranging from Sarah Franklin to Angela MacRobbie.
Their answers are similarly diverse. Sociologist Franklin, for example, who studies reproductive technology, namechecked two greats – Marilyn Strethern and Donna Haraway -- who directly laid the foundation for Franklin’s own work. “I would hope,” she reflected, “that I could continue toward those ways of thinking about those issues now and in the future.”
David Goldblatt meanwhile, who studies the sociology of football, picked influencers whose contributions are apparent in his work but less academically straightforward. He chose The Communist Manifesto (“the idea that history was structured and organized has never left me”) and the first 60 pages of American novelist Don DeLillo’s Underworld, which describes ‘the Shot Heard Round the World,” a famous home run from baseball’s 1951 World Series. Goldblatt terms it the “greatest piece of sports writing ever.”
Other guests in this 15-munte podcast recall important studies that set the scene for their own work, or important figures that left them wanting to emulate their scholarship. And not everyone cited academics in their own fields. Witness Peter Lunt citing Ludwig Wittgenstein and MacRobbie Michel Focault, while Jennifer Hochschild named an historian, Edmund Sears Morgan. She called his American Slavery, American Freedom “a wonderful book, everyone should read it – including the footnotes.” The book’s thesis, that “you had to invent slavery in order to be able to invent liberalism,” sticks with her to this day.
Other Bites interviewees in this podcast include Jonathan Haidt, Sarah Harper, Rom Harre, Bruce Hood, Daniel Kahneman, Sonia Livingstone, Anna Machin and Trevor Marchand. To hear the first montage, click HERE.
Social Science Bites is made in association with SAGE Publishing. For a complete listing of past Social Science Bites podcasts, click HERE. You can follow Bites on Twitter @socialscibites and David Edmonds @DavidEdmonds100
Wed, 1 March 2017
It’s said that in the last two years, more data has been created than all the data that ever was created before that time. And that in two years hence, we’ll be able to say the same thing. Gary King, the head of the Institute for Quantitative Social Science at Harvard University, isn’t certain those statements are exactly true, but certain they are true in essence. And he’s even more certain that the growth in the amount of data isn’t why big data is changing the world.
As he tells interviewer Dave Edmonds in this Social Science Bites podcast, roughly 650 million social media messages will go out today. So to someone trying to make statements about what those messages contain, he posited, would having 750 million messages make anything better? “Having bigger data,” King says, “only makes things more difficult.”
Or to be blunter, “The data itself isn’t likely to be particularly useful; the question is whether you can make it useful.” Which leads to King’s real passion: the analysis of big data. It’s not the ‘big’ or the ‘data’ that really turns the screw; it’s the analysis.
In this conversation, King, uses text analysis as an example of this big data analysis. He notes that some of the tools that text analysis uses are “mathematically similar” to another project he worked on, trying to determine health priorities in the third world by figuring out what’s killing people there. In both cases, the individual, whether someone with a disease or someone with a viral tweet, is less important than the trend.
That, explains King, spotlights the difference between computer scientists’ goals and social scientists’ goals: “We only care about what everybody’s saying.” He then talks about work examining social media and censorship in China. While the work clearly falls into an area that King, a political scientist, would be interested in, the genesis was actually as a test case for the limitations of the text analysis program. But it nonetheless gave useful insight into both how the Chinse government censors material, and why.
King is the Albert J. Weatherhead III University Professor at Harvard. He’s been elected a fellow or eight honorary societies, including the National Academy of Science, the American Association for the Advancement of Science, and the American Academy of Political and Social Science. King also has an entrepreneurial bent – he mentions the company Crimson Hexagon that was spun out of the text analysis work during this interview – and has founded or invented technology for companies like Learning Catalytics and Perusall.
And here’s some, if not ‘big’ data, at least ‘bigger’ data, to consider: This interview marks the 50th Social Science Bites podcast produced by SAGE Publishing. For a complete listing of past Social Science Bites podcasts, click HERE. You can follow Bites on Twitter @socialscibites and David Edmonds @DavidEdmonds100.
Wed, 15 February 2017
Which piece of social science research has most inspired or most influenced you?
This question has been posed to every interview in the Social Science Bites podcast series, but never made part of the audio file made public. Now, as we approach the 50th Social Science Bite podcast to be published this March 1, journalist and interviewer David Edmonds has compiled those responses into three separate montages of those answers.
In this first of that set of montages, 15 renowned social scientists – starting in alphabetical order from all who have participated – reveal their pick. As you might expect, their answers don’t come lightly: “Whoah, that’s an interesting question!” was sociologist Michael Burawoy’s initial response before he named an éminence grise – Antonio Gramsci – of Marxist theory for his work on hegemony.
The answers range from other giants of social, behavioral and economic science, such as John Maynard Keynes and Hannah Arendt, to living legends like Robert Putnam and the duo of Richard Thaler and Cass Sunstein (and even one Social Science Bites alumnus, Stephen Pinker). Some of the answers involve an academic’s full oeuvre, while others zero in on a particular book or effort. John Brewer, for example, discusses his own background in a Welsh mining town and how when he went to college he encountered Ronald Frankenberg’s Communities in Britain: Social Life in Town and Country. “That book made sense of my upbringing and committed me to a lifetime’s career in sociology,” Brewer reveals.
And not every answer is a seminal moment. Danny Dorling, for example, names a report by his Ph.D. adviser, computational geographer Stan Openshaw, who took two unclassified government reports to show the futility of nuclear war. And not every answer is even an academic work. Recent Nobel laureate Angus Deaton reveals, “I tend to like the last thing I’ve ever read,” and so at the time of our interview (December 2013), named a journalist’s book: The Idealist by Nina Munk.
Other Bites interviewees in this podcast include Michelle Baddeley, Iris Bohnet, Michael Billig, Craig Calhoun, Ted Cantle, Janet Carsten, Greg Clark, Ivor Crewe, Valerie Curtis, Will Davis and Robin Dunbar.
Wed, 1 February 2017
Human beings are social animals, notes economist Michelle Baddeley, and as such the instinct to herd is hardwired into us. And so while this has changed from (in most cases) physically clumping into groups, it does translate into behavior linked to financial markets, news consumption, restaurant-picking and Brooklyn facial hair decisions.
In this latest Social Science Bites podcast, Baddeley – a professor in economics and finance of the built environment at University College London -- tells interviewer David Edmond how modern herding often follows from an information imbalance, real or perceived, in which a person follows the wisdom of crowds. The decision to join in, she explains, is often based an astute reading of risk; as she quotes John Maynard Keynes, “It’s better to be conventionally wrong than unconventionally right.” As a real world example of that, she points to the plight of the junior researcher, whose career is best advanced by serving up their innovative insights along conventional lines.
Apart from reputational damage control, there are pluses and minuses to human herding, Baddeley notes there are advantages to finding safety in numbers: “It’s a good way to find a hotel.” But there are pernicious outcomes, too, like groupthink. In that vein, the economist says she finds partisan herding “more prevalent in a ‘post truth age,’” as individuals join thought groups that reinforce their existing world-view. And it doesn’t help, her research finds, that people are more likely to herd the less well-informed they are.
This has also had dire consequences in financial markets (Baddeley was principal investigator on a Leverhulme Trust project focused on neuroeconomic examination of herding in finance), where pushing against the grain makes for a short career for anyone other than the luckiest professional stockpicker.
Baddeley’s early education was in Australia and her first professional work was as an economist with the Australian Commonwealth Treasury. She then completed masters and doctorate work at Cambridge. Her most recent book is 2013’s Behavioural Economics and Finance and other works include Running Regressions - A Practical Guide to Quantitative Research (2007) and Investment: Theories and Analysis (2003).
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>.
Mon, 16 November 2015
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.
Mon, 28 September 2015
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.
Thu, 30 July 2015
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.
Tue, 19 May 2015
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.
Tue, 24 March 2015
The late sociologist C. Wright Mills is in the eyes of many best summed up by one incredibly influential book, The Sociological Imagination, in which he famously urges the academy to "translate private troubles into public issues." The native of Texas was a prime mover in the explosion of leftist thought that pre-occupied the West in the 1960s (he helped popularize the term "New Left," for example). His trilogy of academic books on American society -- The New Men of Power (1948), White Collar (1951) and The Power Elite (1956) -- set the tone for a critique that echoed for decades. Wright Mills himself missed this moment - he died of a heart attack in 1962 at age 45.
British sociologist John Brewer is a passionate admirer of Wright Mills, and his examination of Wright Mills's broader oeuvre includes the late academic's work on foreign policy as worthy of consideration alongside his work on of the discipline or the American way. In this podcast, Brewer, who teaches at Queen’s University, Belfast and is a former president of the British Sociological Association, discusses C. Wright Mills' background and his affinity for European-style social science but American-style life., something he describes as a "love-hate relationship."
"I describe Mills, in one sense, as the most European of American sociologists," Brewer tells interview David Edmonds, "because he does recognize the importance of history, he recognizes the importance of politics, he recognizes the importance of individual biography, and this special imagination that sociology has, this promise of the discipline that, as he describes it, is one that tries to blend an emphasis upon individuals, and their biography and lived experience upon the social structure, and upon history. In that sense, he is very, very European."
In this Social Science Bites podcast, Brewer also discusses Wright Mills as a popularizer, both of sociology as a discipline in the academy but importantly, of sociology as relevant to the wider populace as something that actually delivers a message that matters in their lives. In fact, he popularized the term "New Left"
Wed, 25 February 2015
Erving Goffman has been called the most influential American sociologist of the 20th century (although he was born and did his early studies in Canada) thanks to his study and writing centered on the social interactions of everyday life. In books ranging from 1959's The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life to the next decade's Interaction Ritual to 1981's Forms of Talk, the sociologist examined how the small things ultimately were writ large.
A quarter century after his his death in 1982 of stomach cancer at age 60, Goffman came in sixth in the The Times Higher Education Guide as the most-cited author in the social sciences and humanities, just ahead of the prolix Jürgen Habermas. As the title of Presentation suggests, the onetime president of the American Sociological Association and mid-century doyen of symbolic interaction noted the nexus of the performed with the enacted, and was the academic who brought the idea of dramaturgical analysis into sociology.
In this Social Science Bites podcast, social psychologist Peter Lunt, professor of media and communication at the University of Leicester, discusses his own inquiries into Goffman's corpus, especially how Goffman approached many of his subjects with "an ethnographer's eye."
Beyond Goffman, Lunt's own research interests often center on the public and the presented, including his widely covered work on talk shows and reality TV.
Wed, 21 January 2015
It’s an unusual approach for an academic: a hands-on approach. Literally a hands-on approach. Trevor Marchand is an anthropologist interested in how information about crafts is transferred from expert to novice. This has led him to Nigeria, Yemen, Mali, and East London and has required him to use his hands to build, among other things, minarets and homes of mud bricks.
Marchand, currently at SOAS, University of London, started his studies -- in architecture -- at Canada’s McGill University, which paved the way for field research on mud-brick building in northern Nigeria. That experience in turn spurred Marchand’s focus on an anthropological approach to architecture, a crafts-oriented approach to anthropology, and now study of how all of this plays out in a neuro-scientific context.
This unusual approach has also allowed him to build up a pile of awards resulting from his investigations. For example, hs 2009 monograph on The Masons of Djenné, written after his rise from apprentice to skilled craftsman in this Malian city, won the Elliot P. Skinner Award from the Association for Africanist Anthropology, the 2010 Melville J. Herskovits Award from the African Studies Association, and the Amaury Talbot Prize for African Anthropology from the Royal Anthropological Institute. Just last year he was awarded the Rivers Memorial Medal by the Royal Anthropological Institute, an honor that recognizes exceptional work accomplished in the field.
In this Social Science Bites podcast, philosopher Nigel Warburton asks about Marchand’s field work, looking at what ties these disparate locales together and what sets them apart, not just in techniques but how crafts [people approach their work and how it influences them.
But as he tells Warburton, Marchand has a larger agenda behind his scholarship. “I think it’s extremely important for a general public to gain appreciation for the kind of skill and the diversity of knowledge that goes into producing something with the body,” he explains. “I think for far too long we’ve made that division between manual labour and intellectual work, and it’s something that goes back centuries. Leonardo da Vinci made that distinction between manual labour and intellectual work, and that distinction too between craft and fine art. And so, it’s been kind of relegated to the side-lines; it’s been marginalised and unfortunately vocational education - not just here in the UK but in other parts of the world - is something that children go into or are steered into when their peers or adults feel that they’re not academically inclined.”
Mon, 15 December 2014
Max Weber, the German-born sociologist and philosopher, is one of the canonical figures in the creation of social science. And like any canonical figure, his legacy lies in hands of his subsequent interpreters.
Karl Emil Maximilian Weber’s current interpreter-in-chief, Oxford historian Max Ghosh, the Jean Duffield Fellow in Modern History at St. Anne’s College, insists that Weber remains his primacy -- definitely top of the hit parade, no two ways about it – whether or not his works have been read totally accurately or not. Not only does Weber, who died of the Spanish flu in his 50s shortly after the end of World War I, retain his foundational role, Ghosh argues in this latest Social Science Bites podcast, he’s still relevant in both the social sciences and in in the academic enterprise in general.
Ghosh, the author of 2008’s A Historian Reads Max Weber: Essays on the Protestant Ethic, discusses Weber through the prism of the German academic and journal editor’s own bourgeois and religious upbringing. Those touchstones give Ghosh a unique insight into Weber’s seminal work, The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism.
Direct download: Peter_Ghosh_on_Max_Weber_and_the_Protestant_Ethic.mp3
Category:general -- posted at: 4:00pm PDT
Wed, 5 November 2014
For years, social scientists who studied religion tended to see it as the study of something fated to decline and therefore the key, and almost only, question in their hymnbook was, "Do you still go to church?" But as societies modernise, religion has not gone away. It has, however, changed, mutating into something more institutional than spiritual for some, more fundamental for others, and generally more complex for all.
Enter Linda Woodhead, a sociologist of religion at Lancaster University. The author of such books as 2013's Everyday Lived Islam in Europe, Religion and Change in Modern Britain and The Spiritual Revolution, she looks at how religion is lived in current societies, and how the new forms interact and contest with the traditional ones amid the context of broader social conditions.
Take the case of Britain (and the narrower story of the "spiritual laboratory" of the town of Kendal): "The historic religions like the Roman Catholic Church or the Church of England – which is still the established state church – have been in very rapid decline in terms of attendance, in terms of the number of people who call themselves Catholic or Anglican – all those things are declining," Woodhead tells Nigel Warburton. "And yet, that’s not the only picture. So in some ways, they remain very central in life. For example, they run schools, and there’s a huge demand for faith schools."
Looking just at Kendal, she continued, "we looked at how the churches were declining, but we found to our astonishment, even in 2000, this huge proliferation of alternative forms of spirituality: of mind, body, spirit care. We found 126 different practitioners in this one small town. And, since then, those sorts of things have continued to grow, and, of course, we’ve become more multi-faith."
Between 2007 and 2012, Woodhead directed the AHRC/ESRC Religion and Society Programme, a £12m research investment which embraces 75 separate projects.
Direct download: Linda_Woodhead_on_the_New_Sociology_of_Religion.mp3
Category:general -- posted at: 1:00am PDT
Fri, 3 October 2014
Psephology, a word both charming and antiquated, is the study of elections. Ivor Crewe, also charming but not so antiquated, is a studier of elections. The current president of Britain's Academy of Social sciences and the master of Oxford's University College, Crewe has long been a respected voice on politics in the UK, US and elsewhere, as evidenced by the acclaim his recent book with Anthony King, <a href="http://www.socialsciencespace.com/2014/03/king-and-crewes-book-of-blunders-a-paddy-prize-winner/" target="_blank"><em>The Blunders of Our Governments</em></a>, has received.
Mon, 4 August 2014
Around the world, populations are growing older. But is that because people are living longer? Or could it be that there are fewer younger people to dilute the demographic pool? And what about aging itself -- when exactly is 'old' these days?
Direct download: Sarah_Harper_on_the_Population_Challenge_for_the_21st_Century.mp3
Category:general -- posted at: 9:24am PDT
Thu, 12 June 2014
With the arrival of the quadrennial World Cup, the whole world turns to football fandom. And that alone, independent of what actually happens on the pitch, is exciting to David Goldblatt, the soccer sociologist. “The point is that absolutely no other human behavior can gather these kinds of crowds,” he tells David Edmonds of Social Science Bites. “And if you're a sociologist and you're interested in the origins and consequences of collective action, you really can't beat that.”
In this podcast, Goldblatt—who has taught the sociology of sport at the University of Bristol but who’s best known as a broadcaster and sportswriter who penned the definitive volume on football, 2006’s <i>The Ball is Round: A Global History of Football</i> -- outlines why he thinks cocking an academic eye at the beautiful game is important.
Wed, 4 June 2014
Remember the amazing, spoon-bending Uri Geller? Bruce Hood does. And while Geller is, well, to be kind, controversial, Hood is a quite recognized and reputable developmental psychologist at Bristol University. But he does share one trait with the self-described mystic who fascinated him as a boy -- an interest in the supernatural and how individuals process the potentially paranormal. Rather than collect ectoplasm, Hood focuses on why human beings, starting as children, offer supernatural explanations for natural occurrences.
In this episode of the Social Science Bites podcast Hood discusses the subject via his study of essentialism, "the attribution of a hidden dimension to things giving them their true identity." By the broader definition, it not only includes mystical feats like Geller's but includes attaching sentimental value to an object, being superstitious, or even being religious.
Social Science Bites is made in association with SAGE.
Wed, 30 April 2014
Here's an idea: social scientists should reflect critically on the prevailing concepts and categories before launching into empirical work with an existing framework. In this episode of the Social Science Bites podcast, sociologist Saskia Sassen discusses that concept, called 'before method,' with Nigel Warburton. Social Science Bites is made in association with SAGE. A transcript of this and other episodes is available from Social Science Space
Tue, 1 April 2014
Surnames predict social status with surprising accuracy. In this episode of the Social Science Bites podcast Gregory Clark discusses this phenomenon with David Edmonds. Social Science Bites is made in association with SAGE. A transcript of this and other episodes is available from Social Science Space
Tue, 4 February 2014
Social scientist Craig Calhoun, Director of the LSE, discusses protest movements including the 1989 Tiananmen Square protests in this episode of the Social Science Bites podcast. The interviewer is Nigel Warburton. Social Science Bites is made in association with SAGE.
Wed, 8 January 2014
In this episode of the Social Science Bites podcast Harvard social theorist Roberto Mangabeira Unger claims that the social sciences need to reorient themselves away from retrospective rationalisation of what exists and focus instead on transformative opportunity. Social Science Bites is made in association with SAGE.
Direct download: Roberto_Unger_on_Whats_Wrong_with_the_Social_Sciences_Today.mp3
Category:general -- posted at: 2:57am PDT
Tue, 3 December 2013
There have been substantial gains in life expectancy in the last two hundred years or so, partly because of improved public health policy. In this episode of the Social Science Bites podcast Angus Deaton, whose recent research has focussed on India, discusses the relationship between health and economic inequality, and the most effective ways to alleviate the effects of poverty. He also discusses how his research sits within the Social Sciences. Social Science Bites is made in association with SAGE.
Thu, 31 October 2013
Is there a maximum number of friendships that we can maintain? Does this number apply universally? Robin Dunbar believes there are discoverable patterns in the numbers of close and less close relationships human beings can cope with and that this is reflected in, for example, the structural units of armies. In this episode of the Social Science Bites podcast he discusses this phenomenon with Nigel Warburton. A verbatim transcript of this interview is available from www.socialsciencespace.com
Fri, 27 September 2013
Maggots, vomit, faeces, sores oozing with pus, putrid meat - these evoke universal reactions of disgust. But why do we have this Yuk! reaction and how did it evolve? Valerie Curtis of the London School of Hygeine and Tropical Medicine, explains the sources and importance of revulsion in this episode of the Social Science Bites podcast. Social Science Bites is made in association with SAGE.
Thu, 1 August 2013
You might assume that deaths increase in a recession, but that doesn't necessarily happen. What is clear, however, is the relation between government austerity responses to recession and an increase in rates of death. David Stuckler explains in this episode of the Social Science Bites podcast. Social Science Bites is made in association with SAGE.
Sun, 30 June 2013
Social epidemiologist Kate Pickett, co-author (with Richard Wilkinson) of The Spirit Level: why equality is better for everyone, argues that inequality has bad social effects. She discusses her ideas with Nigel Warburton in this episode of the Social Science Bites podcast. Social Science Bites is made in association with SAGE.
Sun, 2 June 2013
Has equality for women been achieved? Feminism has apparently achieved many of its aims. Some of the obvious inequalities between men and women seem to have been removed in recent decades. But have they? Angela McRobbie from the Department of Media and Communications at Goldsmiths, University of London, discusses her research on this topic.
Direct download: Angela_McRobbie_on_the_Illusion_of_Equality_for_Women.mp3
Category:general -- posted at: 10:41pm PDT
Wed, 1 May 2013
Lawrence Sherman is a Professor of Criminology at Cambridge University and a keen advocate of experimental criminology. In this episode of the Social Science Bites podcast he outlines his approach and gives some examples of its successes. Social Science Bites is made in association with SAGE.
Sun, 31 March 2013
In this episode of the Social Science Bitespodcast sociologist Ann Oakley discusses her research into a range of questions about women's experience of childbirth based on detailed interviews with 55 women that she conducted in 1975. She has since, with a team of other researchers at the Social Science Research Unit at the Institute of Education, been able to trace some of these women and re-interview them. Social Science Bites is made in association with SAGE.
Sun, 3 March 2013
New technologies have opened up new possibilities in the area of reproduction. Sarah Franklin, Professor of Sociology at the University of Cambridge discusses this from a sociological perspective in this episode of the Social Science Bites podcast. Social Science Bites is made in association with SAGE.
Direct download: Sarah_Franklin_on_the_Sociology_of_Reproductive_Technologies_1.mp3
Category:general -- posted at: 11:45am PDT
Thu, 31 January 2013
Thu, 3 January 2013
Thinking is hard, and most of the time we rely on simple psychological mechanisms that can lead us astray. In this episode of the Social Science Bites podcast, the Nobel-prizewinning psychologist Daniel Kahneman, author of Thinking, Fast and Slow, talks to Nigel Warburton about biases in our reasoning. Social Science Bites is made in association with SAGE. Transcripts of all episodes are available from www.socialsciencebites.com
Mon, 3 December 2012
Cultural Studies sometimes gets a bad press. In this episode of the Social Science Bites podcast Toby Miller, author and editor of over 30 books on interdisciplinary topics within the Social Sciences, discusses Cultural Studies in relation to his work on the Hollywood film industry and addresses wider questions about objectivity and bias. Social Science Bites is made in association with SAGE.
Thu, 1 November 2012
Is the world getting less violent? It seems unlikely. But Steven Pinker has amassed empirical evidence to show that it is. In this interview with Nigel Warburton for the Social Science Bites podcast he explains some of the possible causes of this transformation. He also discusses some broader questions about the nature of the social sciences.
Fri, 28 September 2012
What can psychology tell us about morality? Jonathan Haidt, author of The Righteous Mind, discusses the place of rationality in our moral judgements in this episode of the Social Science Bites podcast. Social Science Bites is made in assocation with SAGE.
Mon, 27 August 2012
There is still a great deal of inequality between the sexes in the workplace. In this episode of the Social Science Bites podcast Paul Seabright combines insights from economics and evolutionary theory to shed light on why this might be so. Social Science Bites is made in association with SAGE.
Direct download: Paul_Seabright_on_the_Relationship_Between_The_Sexes.mp3
Category:general -- posted at: 6:01am PDT
Mon, 30 July 2012
Economists have in the past often treated human beings as ideally rational. But they aren't. In this episode of the Social Science Bitespodcast Robert J. Shiller discusses how behavioural economics, drawing on psychology and even neuroscience, is transforming the nature of the subject and giving a better picture of markets and how they operate. Social Science Bites is made in association with SAGE.
Sun, 1 July 2012
How are children using the Internet? How is it affecting them? Sonia Livingstone, who has overseen a major study of children's behaviour online discusses these issues with Nigel Warburton in this episode of the Social Science Bites podcast. Social Science Bites is made in association with SAGE.
Direct download: Sonia_Livingstone_on_Children_and_the_Internet.mp3
Category:general -- posted at: 12:30am PDT
Thu, 31 May 2012
Can a city have a spirit? Avner de-Shalit believes that it can. In this episode of the Social Science Bites podcast he explains in conversation with Nigel Warburton why he believes that the identity of cities matters in a global age. Social Science Bites is made in association with SAGE.
Tue, 1 May 2012
We all need to co-operate to some degree. According to the eminent sociologist Richard Sennett, author of a recent book on the topic, complex co-operation is a craft. Listen to him discussing co-operation with Nigel Warburton on this episode of the Social Science Bites podcast. Social Science Bites is made in association with SAGE. A transcript of this interview is available from www.socialsciencebites.com.
Tue, 1 May 2012
How do the social sciences resemble and differ from history and the physical sciences? Can the social sciences be impersonal? Polymath Rom Harré discusses these questions with Nigel Warburton in this episode of the Social Science Bites podcast. Social Science Bites is made in association with SAGE. A transcript of this interview will be available shortly from www.socialsciencebites.com
Tue, 1 May 2012
We live in an age of economic inequality. The rich are growing richer relative to the poor. Does this matter? In this episode of the Social Science Bites podcast Danny Dorling, a human geographer, discusses this question with Nigel Warburton. Social Science Bites is made in association with SAGE. A transcript of this episode is available from www.socialsciencebites.com