Social Science Bites (general)

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.

Direct download: MillsMixSesM.mp3
Category:general -- posted at: 3:00am PST

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.

Direct download: BaolerMixSesM.mp3
Category:general -- posted at: 2:00am PST

“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.)

Direct download: SkeggsMixSesM.mp3
Category:general -- posted at: 3:00am PST

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.)

Direct download: AlkireMixSesM.mp3
Category:general -- posted at: 12:01pm PST

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.”

Direct download: ChatfieldMixSesM.mp3
Category:general -- posted at: 2:00am PST

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).

Direct download: IoannaMixSesM.mp3
Category:general -- posted at: 12:13pm PST

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

 

Direct download: RothMixSesM.mp3
Category:general -- posted at: 4:50am PST

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.

Direct download: MarteauMixSesM.mp3
Category:general -- posted at: 2:00am PST

“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.

 

Direct download: BosworthMixSesM.mp3
Category:general -- posted at: 3:00am PST

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.

Direct download: MontageCMixSesM.mp3
Category:general -- posted at: 11:32am PST

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