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