Mon, 2 May 2022
Sheila Jasanoff, the Pforzheimer Professor of Science and Technology Studies at Harvard University’s John F. Kennedy School of Government, is a pioneer in the field of STS. That acronym can be unpacked as either ‘science and technology studies’ or ‘science, technology and society.’ Jasanoff -- who describes herself as a sociologist of knowledge and a constructivist, trained in law, working in the tradition of the interpretive social sciences – is content with either use. “I think that represents two phases of the same field,” she tells interviewer David Edmonds in this Social Science Bites podcast. “First of all, it’s the field that looks in detail at the institutions of science and technology and asks, ‘What are they like?’ ‘What does it feel like to be doing them?’ ‘What do they operate like as social institutions, as cultures, as formations in society?’ The other face of STS – science, technology and society – is more about how science and technology function when they get out into the world at large.”
Amid that expansive view, some areas, of course, particularly interest Jasanoff. “The more interesting turn,” she details, “was the turn that tried to occupy the territory previously given to philosophy of science, and started asking sociological and political questions about it.”
One such question is the eternal “What is truth?” STS, a brash newcomer, took on the inquiry with gusto.
“It took a kind of arrogance, if you will, certainly a bravery, in the 1970s, to say that, ‘Hey, truth isn’t just out there. It’s not just a Platonic thing and we try to approximate it. We can actually study truth as if it was a social production.’ That,” she explains, “was the heartland of science and technology studies.”
In the interview, Jasanoff outlines how science is often presented as a capital-T repository of Truth even in an age where the ‘death of the expert’ has become a common trope.
Citing the pandemic and how scientific advice changed on mask wearing, Jasanoff argues that “people should not be surprised that in crisis mode the way we know things changes and therefore the advice may change. Science has been sold as a bill of goods for so long that it is the Truth, it is reliable, a fact is always fact the moment we assert it, that these sorts of commonsensical things that we ought to understand have become difficult for people to grasp.” (Jasanoff’s own research often looks at cross-national differences in her research, and after looking at mask-wearing in 16 nations she reports that “only in America has it become an article of faith – are you for science or against science” – based on your mask usage.)
Remember, she continues, “The expert is not an embodiment of scientific fact. An expert is a particular kind of person who is qualified in particular ways, and every time we say ‘qualification,’ something about the English language or about language in general, forces us to look at the skills that allow one to be considered qualified.
“In fact, we should look at the external periphery of the qualification; a qualification sets boundaries on what you know, but it also sets boundaries on what you don’t know.” Expertise is this double edged-thing.”
Jasanoff is the founder and director of Harvard’s Program on Science, Technology and Society. She’s the author of several books aimed at both the academy and the public, such as 1990’s The Fifth Branch: Science Advisers as Policymakers, 2012’s Science and Public Reason, and Can Science Make Sense of Life? in 2019.
The University of Bergen, acting for the Norwegian Ministry of Education and Research, awarded her the Holberg Prize in March. That was the latest in a slew of honors for her research, including the University of Ghent Sarton Chair and the Reimar Lüst Award from the Alexander von Humboldt and Fritz Thyssen Foundations, a Guggenheim fellowship in 2010, and in 2018 the Albert O. Hirschman Prize from the Social Science Research Council. She is an elected foreign member of the Royal Danish Academy of Sciences and Letters, and a fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, where she served on the board of directors.
Tue, 5 April 2022
Any work in social and behavioral science presumably – but not necessarily immediately - tells us something about humans in the real world. To come up with those insights, research usually occurs in laboratory settings, where the researchers control the independent variables and which, in essence, rules out research ‘in the wild.’
“For years,” he tells interviewer David Edmonds in this Social Science Bites podcast, “economists thought that the world is so ‘dirty’ that you can’t do field experiments. They had the mentality of a test tube in a chemistry lab, and what they had learned was that if there was a speck of dirt in that tube, you’re in trouble because you can’t control exactly what is happening.”
Since this complex real world isn’t getting any cleaner, you could conclusively rule out field experiments, and that’s what the ‘giants’ of economics did for years. Or you could learn to work around the ‘dirt,’ which is what List started doing around the turn of the millennium. “I actually use the world as my lab,” the Kenneth C. Griffin Distinguished Service Professor of Economics at the University of Chicago says.
Since an early start centering on sports trading cards and manure-fertilized crop land (real field work, a self-described “bucolic” List happily acknowledges), his university homepage details a raft of field experiments:
“I have made use of several different markets, including using hospitals, pre-K, grammar, and high schools for educational field experiments, countless charitable fundraising field experiments to learn about the science of philanthropy, the Chicago Board of Trade, Costa Rican CEOs, the new automobile market, coin markets, auto repair markets, open air markets located throughout the globe, various venues on the internet, several auction settings, shopping malls, various labor markets, and partnered with various governmental agencies. More recently, I have been engaged in a series of field experiments with various publicly traded corporations—from car manufacturers to travel companies to ride-share.”
In the podcast, List explains, “I don’t anticipate or assume that I have a ‘clean test tube,’ but what I do is I randomly place people into a treatment condition or a control condition, and then what I look at is their outcomes, and I take the difference between those outcomes. That differences out the ‘dirt.’
“I can go to really dirty settings where other empirical approaches really take dramatic assumptions. All I need is really randomization and a few other things in place and then if I just take the simple difference, I can get an average treatment effect from that setting.”
His work – in journal articles, popular books like The Voltage Effect and The Why Axis, in findings applied immediately outside of academe – has earned him widespread praise (Gary Becker terms his output as “revolutionary”), a huge list of honors, and a recurring spot on Nobel shortlists.
For this podcast, List focuses on two of the many areas in which he’s conducted field experiments: charitable giving and the gig economy.
He describes one finding from working with different charities around the world over the last 25 years on what works best to raise money. For example, appeals to potential donors announcing their money would be matched when they gave, doubling or tripling a contribution’s impact. When he started, it was presumed that the greater the leverage offered by a match, the more someone would give, since their total gift would be that much greater.
“There was no science around it … it was art, or gut feeling.” It was also wrong.
List tested the assumption, offering four different appeals to four different groups: one with just an appeal for funding, one with a 1:1 match, one with a 2:1 match, and the last a 3:1 match. And the results bore out that matching a contribution amped up the results – but the leverage didn’t matter. “Just having the match matters, but the rate of the match does not matter.”
List was later the chief economist with ride-share behemoth Uber – and then with its competitor, Lyft. He coined the term Ubernomics for his ability to manipulate the tsunami of data the company generated. “It’s not only that you have access to a lot of data,” he says, “it’s also that you have access to generating a lot of new data. As a field economist, this is a playground that is very, very difficult to beat.”
Tue, 1 March 2022
Kathelijne Koops, a biological anthropologist at the University of Zurich, works to determine what makes us human. And she approaches this quest by intensely studying the use of tools by other species across sub-Saharan Africa.
“Look at us now …” she tells interviewer David Edmonds in this Social Science Bites podcast. “We are really the ultimate technological species. And the question is, ‘How did we get to where we are now?’ If we want to know why we are so technological, and how do we acquire tool-use skills, etc., it’s really interesting to look at our closest living relatives, chimpanzees and also bonobos.
“Why do, or don’t they use tools, and what do they use tools for, and what environmental pressures might influence their tool use.”
So Koops has been studying, first as a grad student and now as director of her own lab, the Ape Behaviour & Ecology Group at the University of Zurich, several groups of wild apes. (Chimps and bonobos, along with orangutans and gorillas, are labelled as great apes, and with humans, are members of the family Hominidae.) She also directs the Swiss National Science Foundation-funded Comparative Human and Ape Technology Project, which looks at ecological, social and cognitive factors on the development of tool use.
In this interview, Koops focuses on two decades of work she and her team conducts, along with Guinean collaborators from the Institut de Recherche Environnementale de Bossou, in the Nimba Mountains in the southeastern portion of the West African country of Guinea. The field site is remote, and work takes place in 10-day shifts at one of two camps. Researchers gather data on the chimps during daylight hours – if the chimps cooperate. “If the chimpanzees want to get away they can,” Koops details, “so even though we’ve worked there a long time you cannot follow them all day like you can at some other study sites.” The researchers also use motion-triggered cameras near well-trod areas – the humans dubbed them “chimpanzee highways” – where the chimps frequent.
Among the tool-using behaviors Koops has seen in the study group is seeing these chimps use long sticks to dig up ants for a snack without being devoured themselves, and using stones and branches to open up fruit casings. What this group doesn’t do, she continued, is use “percussive techniques” to open up edible nuts, even though another population of chimps a few kilometers away does exactly that.
To see if it is opportunity or is it necessity that spurred tool use and tool evolution, Koops’ team “cranked opportunity up by a million” by scattering lots of nuts that were otherwise less common in the primary forest habitat of the Nimba residents alongside lots of handy stones good for nut-cracking. The result was … not much innovation by the chimps.
“It really seems difficult to innovate on your own,” she comments. “… They really need to see from another chimpanzee how to crack these nuts.” In general, she notes, there’s not much ‘active teaching’ among her subjects but a lot of observation of older individuals.
She cites other experimenters’ similar work on 4- and 5-year-old humans, which in turn saw similar low instances of innovation. While being careful not to overclaim, Koops says “it looks like some of the building blocks of our culture are really already there in chimps.”
Tue, 1 February 2022
The idea of walking a mile in someone else’s shoes is often trotted out as a metaphor for understanding empathy. The act of imagining someone else’s reactions may be hard, but based on the body of work by George Loewenstein, predicting how -- under varying circumstances -- we might walk in our own shoes may not be all that easier.
Loewenstein is the Herbert A. Simon University Professor of Economics and Psychology at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. His enormous range of research interests can be boiled down, after a lot of boiling, to applying psychology to economics and, more recently, economics to psychology.
His career as a founder of both behavioral economics and neuro-economics has seen him delve deeply into how we react when our “affective state” is cold – when are emotions are absent and our physical needs are currently met – compared to when our affective state is hot. The latter is when out emotions are active or when our passions, as the old philosophers might term things like things hunger, thirst, pain, sexual desire, are pulling us.
It turns out, as he explains to interview David Edmonds in this Social Science Bites podcast, “when we are in one affective state it’s difficult for us to imagine how we would behave if we were in a different affective state. … The worst mistakes we make are when we are in a cold state, because we just can’t imagine how we would behave if we were in a hot state.”
While this may seem like something we know intuitively (or after years of high-profile experiments by Lowenstein, his frequent collaborator Leaf VanBoven, and others have conducted, several described in this podcast), it’s not something we act on intuitively. “No matter how many times we experience fluctuations in affective states,” Loewenstein says, “it just seems we don’t learn about this. We are always going to mis-predict how we’re going to behave when we’re in a hot state if we’re making the prediction when we’re in a cold state.”
This, in turn, affects the products of people who make predictions (or if you prefer, policy prescriptions) as a profession, he adds, such as economists.
“According to conventional economics, when we make decisions about the future we should be thing about what it is will we want in the future. What all of these results show is that your current state influences your prediction about what you’re going to want in the future; it influences these decisions that we make for the future in unproductive, self-destructive ways.”
Mon, 10 January 2022
“I tell my students, ‘If somebody utters the sentence that starts with the words, “History teaches us” the rest of the sentence is probably wrong.’ History has no direct lessons for almost anything. Our own age is sufficiently different, sufficiently unique, from what happened in the past that any facile lessons from history are more likely to mislead than to enlighten.”
For example, he explains that “the good old days weren’t all that good and that the very best time to be born in human history is today. That sounds hard to believe in an age where we’re all running around with face masks and facing quarantine, but it’s still true.”
For his own part, Mokyr tells interviewer Dave Edmonds, “I use economics to understand history, and I use history to understand economics.” Mokyr’s ties to economic history are deep: he was president of the Economic History Association in 2003-04, spent four years in 1990s as senior editor of the Journal of Economic History, was editor-in-chief of the Oxford Encyclopedia of Economic History, and is currently editor-in-chief of the Princeton University Press Economic History of the Western World series of monographs.
From that perch, he explains, presumably with a smile, that his peers work with ‘expired data.’ Economic historians “scour the past looking for large data sets that we can use in some way to make inferences. The issue of causality becomes somewhat of an obsession in economics these days, and economic history is very much a part of this.”
In this interview, Mokyr details how the improvement in the human condition he cited above is connected to the Industrial Revolution. “The Industrial Revolution is particularly important because that’s where it all started -- before 1750 almost nowhere in the world were living standards approaching anything but miserable and poor.”
Economic activity before the year 1750 was mostly the story of trade, he explains, while after 1750, it became the story of knowledge. “The Industrial Revolution was the slow replacement of trade and finance and commerce by another thing, and that is growing knowledge of natural phenomena and rules that can be harnessed to material welfare of people.”
To demonstrate this approach, he offered the example of steel. While it has been made for centuries it wasn’t until 1780 that anyone knew roughly why this alloy of iron and carbon resulted in such a useful metal, and therefore could exploit its properties more by design than by chance. “If you don’t know why something works,” Mokyr said, “it’s very difficult to improve it, to tweak it.”
Mokyr’s scholarship has earned him a variety of honors, including the biennial Heineken Prize by the Royal Dutch Academy of Sciences for a lifetime achievement in historical science in 2006. He has also written a number of prize-winning books, including The Lever of Riches: Technological Creativity and Economic Progress, The Gifts of Athena: Historical Origins of the Knowledge Economy, and most recently, A Culture of Growth.
Fri, 3 December 2021
Verbal arts, explains Karin Barber, emeritus professor of African cultural anthropology at the University of Birmingham, are “any form of words that have been composed in order to attract attention or invite interpretation which is intended to be repeatable in some way.” They are, she continues, central to all sorts of social processes, “just as much a part of people’s lives as kinship or economic activities.”
Barber herself grew up in Yorkshire and did her first degree, in English, at Cambridge University. She next studied social anthropology at University College London and after a stint in Uganda was told that if she really wanted to pursue her examination of African theater she should go to Nigeria. Her Ph.D. – based on 37 months of field work studying oral poetic performance in everyday life in a Yoruba town - came from Nigeria’s University of Ifẹ (now Ọbafẹmi Awolọwọ University). Barber then spent the next seven years as a lecturer in the Department of African Languages and Literatures at the University of Ifẹ, where courses were taught in Yoruba.
Barber’s scholarship has resulted in several notable books and monographs. The 1991 monograph I Could Speak Until Tomorrow: Oriki, Women and the Past in a Yoruba Town won the Amaury Talbot Prize for African Anthropology; 2000’s The Generation of Plays: Yoruba Popular Life in Theatre won the Herskovits Award of the African Studies Association; The Anthropology of Texts, Persons and Publics from 2007 won the Susanne K. Langer Award of the Media Ecology Association; and 2012’s Print Culture and the First Yoruba Novel won the Paul Hair Prize of the African Studies Association and the Association for the Preservation and Publication of African Historical Sources.
In this interview, she tells host David Edmonds about two particular genres of Yoruba verbal arts: ifa, or divination poetry, and oríkì, translated as praise poetry. “Divination is how people govern and manage their lives,” she explains, “so this poetry is really central to how people analyze what’s happening to them and take steps to make sure that things work out as they wish.”
Praise poetry, “strings and strings of epithets hailing the subject’s qualities,” meanwhile, “celebrates and commemorates and highlights the essential characteristics of a person or god or a family or town or an animal. Somehow it evokes the inner essence, the inner properties, and activates them, galvanizes them.” This genre, she details, has changed over the years, emphasizing wealth in the 19th century but more personal qualities and achievements today. “Changing power dynamics are revealed, not necessarily in what the verbal arts specifically say, but in the way they are formed, in the way they are transmitted, who reads them or who listens to them.”
And so verbal arts matter in a social science context. “All verbal arts are produced in an economic and institutional context. You could ask, why did this new genre appear in this context, this particular moment in history. What caused people to devise this way of commenting on society and formulating ides in this particular way? It’s because of the prevailing interplay of social forces.”
For her work, Barber has received a number of high honors, ranging from a Yoruba chieftaincy title - she is the Iyamoye (“mother who has insights”) of Okuku – to appointment as Commander of the Order of the British Empire in the 2012 and Dame Commander of the Order of the British Empire earlier this year.
Mon, 1 November 2021
COVID-19 has changed everything, including how we work (and to be more precise, are employed). But in order to best understand how things have changed, and hopefully to grapple with how they will be, it helps to have studied how they were. Enter Melanie Simms, professor of work and employment at the University of Glasgow ‘s Adam Smith Business School, and the author – in 2019 – of What Do We Know and What Should We Do About the Future of Work?
In this Social Science Bites podcast, Simms explains that while the idea of working from home seemed to be the dominant narrative during the pandemic, it’s only one of two “real headlines.” That’s in large part because the people who talk publicly about working from home are academics and journalists, both groups that did work from home. In fact, Simms relates, in the United Kingdom about 70 percent of workers spent some or all of their time at their workplace.
The less public headline, she notes, is that there seems to be a large group of people who have left the labor market during the pandemic – often women with children. And while improving options for childcare might see more mothers in employed positions, Simms notes a different trajectory for older workers -- almost anyone over 50 who has left the workforce in the last year-and-a-half struggles to re-enter it -- regardless of kind of work they do.
In discussion with interviewer David Edmonds, Simms details that while she does look at global trends, her research mostly focuses on the United Kingdom, and thanks to the regulatory ecosystem and a skew toward the service economy, what’s true in the UK can’t automatically be applied elsewhere.
Among the subjects Simms and Edmonds touch on are the “regrowth” of the middle class female workforce starting in the 1960s; the difficulties that a lack of childcare routinely creates for working women; the aging of the workforce as young people stay in school longer (delaying their entry into the labor marker) while at the same time older workers remain active in the labor market for longer; de-industrialization; labor unions; and the gig economy, which Simms sees as more about how work is allocated than a change in work itself.
Mon, 4 October 2021
“Convict criminology,” Jeffrey Ian Ross explains in this Social Science Bites podcast, is “a network, or platform, that’s united in the perception that the convict voice has been either neglected or marginalized in scholarship or policy debates in the field of criminology in general, and corrections in particular.”
About half of the people in the field of convict criminology are either ex-convicts, have impacted by the prison system or are prison activists who have or are in the process of getting a PhD in criminology, Ross says. “Many people who have a criminal conviction try to keep it quiet,” Ross says about jobseekers in academe (or anywhere), and he’s proud of the strides convict criminologists have made. “We’ve managed to forge a beachhead and produce very impressive scholarship,” he says, all the while offering authenticity and degree of inside knowledge.
Convict criminology, he details, rests on three pillars: scholarly research, mentorship, and some sort of service or activism. All three pillars arise from a “desire and goal to make a meaningful impact on prison conditions.”
So mentorship, for example, might involve having ex-cons be mentors in re-entry programs, while scholarly research benefits from both having an inside view that pays extra dividends when interviewing incarcerated or formerly incarcerated subjects and in understanding the nuances of their accounts.
He has received a number of awards over the years, including the University of Baltimore’s Distinguished Chair in Research Award in 2003; the Hans W. Mattick Award, “for an individual who has made a distinguished contribution to the field of criminology and criminal justice practice,” from the University of Illinois at Chicago in 2018 Last year he received both the John Howard Award from the Academy of Criminal Justice Sciences’ Division of Corrections and the John Keith Irwin Distinguished Professor Award from the American Society of Criminology's Division of Convict Criminology.
Tue, 7 September 2021
Molefi Kete Asante, the chair of the Department of African American Studies at Philadelphia’s Temple University, has long been at the forefront of developing the academic discipline of Black studies and in founding the theory of Afrocentrism, “the centering of African people in their own stories.” In this Social Science Bites podcast, Asante offers an insiders view of the growth of the Afrocentric paradigm, from the founding of the Journal of Black Studies a half century ago to the debates over critical race theory today.
“Afrocentricity,” Asante tells interviewer David Edmonds, “is a paradigm, an orientation toward data, a perspective, that says that African people are subjects, rather than objects, and that in order to understand narratives of African history, culture, social institutions, you must allow Africans to see themselves as actors rather than on the margins of Europe, or the margins of the Arab culture, or the margins of Asian culture.”
While that might seem a mild prescription, it’s one that has been often ignored. Asante offers the example that the waterfalls between Zimbabwe and Zambia had a name (Mosi-oa-Tunya for one) before European explorer David Livingstone arrived and dubbed them Victoria Falls.
“Livingstone is operating in the midst of hundreds of thousands of African people – kings and queens and royal people – yet the story of southern Africa turns on David Livingstone. The Afrocentrist says that’s nonsense; here's a white guy in the midst of Africa and that you turn the history of Southern Africa on him does not make any sense to us.”
Asante then details some of his own efforts in centering the stories of Africa and the African diaspora in their own narratives, including the founding of the first academic journal focused on doing so. He details how as a PhD student in 1969, he and Robert Singleton started the effort to create the Journal of Black Studies as a forum for the nascent academic discipline. (The story sees SAGE Publishing, the parent of Social Science Space, and its founder Sara Miller McCune taking an important role as the one publisher that embraced Asante’s proposal in 1970.)
“The journal survives,” he explains 50 years later, “based on its relevance to contemporary as well as historical experiences.”
At the time the journal was founded, Asante directed the University of California Los Angeles’ Center for Afro American Studies from 1969 to 1973. He chaired the Communication Department at State University of New York-Buffalo from 1973 to 1980. After two years training journalists in Zimbabwe, he became chair of the African American Studies Program at Temple University where he created the first Ph.D. Program in African American Studies in 1987. He has written prodigiously, publishing more than 75 books, ranging from poetry on Afrocentric themes to high school and university texts to the Encyclopedia of Black Studies.
Mon, 2 August 2021
There is inequality in the United States, a fact most people accept and which data certainly bears out. But how bad do you think that inequality is, say, based on comparing the wealth held by the average Black person in America and the average white person?
First off, the facts. The Black-white wealth gap in the United States is, in Richeson’s words, “staggeringly large.” Citing figures from 2016, she notes that “the average Black family had about 10 percent of the wealth of the average white family.” The actual percentage in wealth improved slightly in the five years since, “but the important thing is that it’s a huge, staggering gap that has been persistent for 50 to 60 years.”
With the gap so large and so persistent, you might expect estimates of its size to reflect reality. You would be mistaken, as Richeson tells interviewer David Edmonds in this Social Science Bites podcast. “If you ask the average American on any given day, they will probably say the wealth gap is around 65, 70 percent. … That’s not only wrong, it’s very wrong compared to the actual wealth gap. … Part of the reason we’re so wrong is because we really believe that since the 50s, 60s, 70s, 80s, things have gotten dramatically better and are continuing to get better.”
The perception is that roughly since the Civil Rights era the gap narrowed from about half to near parity. Respondents to these sorts of questions “feel compelled to conform to this narrative of racial progress” in their estimates, a narrative that Richeson has likened to a mythology.
“No, things are not fine – they are similarly bad as they were in the 60s. That’s true for the wealth gap, that’s true for the wage gap. Income is slightly better, but not much. It’s a persistent and pervasive staggering inequality that’s stubborn, and our psychology refuses to believe that.”
Visions of this delusional economic advancement are shared broadly across the nation’s economic and ethnic strata; “Black Americans,” Richeson says, “are more accurate but still really wrong.” Her research has found that the more you believe in a just world, the more your estimate will underestimate the gap. This suggests in part why Black Americans – with daily experiences of structural inequality – give estimates that are at least a little closer to the mark. “One reason we believe there is this gap between Black Americans and white Americans is because of the differential tendency to believe that outcomes are fair and only determined by your individual effort, talent, hard work.”
This massive misperception matters. While “being this wrong about anything is interesting” academically, Richeson says, the magnitude of this misperception affects individual and societal wellbeing; it also undermines the idea behind the so-called American dream, that American society is a meritocracy. American cannot, she says, “just know the truth and do nothing about it.”
Richeson, the Philip R. Allen Professor of Psychology at Yale, received the SAGE-CASBS Award in 2020 for her work and will deliver a COVID-delayed lecture at the Center for Advanced Study in the Behavioral Sciences at Stanford University later this year. That was one of a number of honors she has accumulated, including a 2007 John D. & Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation Fellowship (known as the “genius award”), a John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation Fellowship (2015), the Mamie Phipps Clark and Kenneth B. Clark Distinguished Lecture Award from Columbia University (2019), the Career Trajectory Award from the Society of Experimental Social Psychology (2019), and a Carnegie Foundation Senior Fellowship (2020).
Thu, 1 July 2021
The twin prods of a U.S. president trying to rebrand the coronavirus as the ‘China virus’ and a bloody attack in Atlanta that left six Asian women dead have brought to the fore a spate of questions about Asian Americans in the United States.
“’Asian American,’” Lee explains, “was originally conceived as a political identity by student activists at Berkley in the 1960s who coined the term as a unifying pan-ethnic identity to advocate for Asian-American studies in university curricula and to build coalitions with other marginalized groups.” Since then, it evolved into a demographic category, and in 1997 the U.S. Census Bureau grouped together people from East Asia, Southeast Asia and South Asia under the classification of ‘Asian.’ (Those regions, of course, don’t include everyone from the continent of Asia – where are the Kazakhs and the Uzbeks, for example – and does include people from the islands adjacent to the land mass – Japanese, Malaysians, Filipinos.)
“These are groups don’t have a whole lot in common in terms of language, culture, religion, history,” Lee notes, but they are bound by various forms of exclusion in the U.S. But their presence in the United States in growing rapidly. Combined, Asians are the fastest growing demographic in the U.S.; their population is up 27 percent in the last decade to about 23 million people, or 7 percent of the total U.S. population.
Immigration is a key component of that growth, notes Lee, who herself emigrated to the U.S. with her Korean parents when she was 3. Some four out of five current Asian Americans are foreign-born, she explains, and continuing immigration replenishes the cohort of ‘new’ Asian Americans. That, she suggests, will keep the category of Asian-American alive for some time.
Immigration also contributes to the trope – a trope Lee rejects – that “‘Asians have some set of values that make them successful.” Instead, she argues that due to who has emigrated, America “engineered this idea that Asians are successful.”
Asian immigrants coming to the United States are not just a random sample of the population in their countries of origin; they are extremely educated, more likely to hold a B.A. than those who don’t immigrate, and they’re also more likely to have a college degree than the U.S. mean. It’s this ‘hyper selectivity’ that largely accounts for educational and economic accomplishments of America’s Asians, she argues here and in her latest award-winning book, The Asian American Achievement Paradox, written with Min Zhou.
Lee offers several data points during the podcast to buttress the idea that innate cultural values are not driving success. For one thing, the distribution of Asian American accomplishments are not evenly distributed: Indian-Americans have exceptionally high educational achievements while Cambodian, Laotian and Hmong Americans have relatively low graduation rates. Plus, Lee says, if ‘values’ drove the success, we’d see the same successes in the immigrants’ Asian countries of origin or in other areas where Asian diasporas are represented – and we don’t.
Lee is the Julian Clarence Levi Professor of Social Sciences at Columbia and past president of the Eastern Sociological Society. She is or has been a fellow at the Center for the Study of Economy and Society, the Center for Advanced Study in the Behavioral Sciences at Stanford, the Center for the Study of Race, Politics and Culture at the University of Chicago, and a visiting scholar at the Russell Sage Foundation and a Fulbright Scholar to Japan. She will join the board of trustees for the Russell Sage Foundation this fall.
Mon, 7 June 2021
Despite being someone who doesn’t “particularly enjoy the game,” cognitive anthropologist Martha Newson is drawn to football. “Football is one of the most exciting games to watch as an anthropologist,” she explains in this Social Science Bites podcast. “I’m not watching the ball go around the pitch – I’m watching the fans. I’m transfixed by them! You go through all the emotions in a single match.”
But studying football (or soccer) offers some pragmatic advantages to the researcher. For one, the bonding is very public and very passionate. Fused fans will tattoo themselves, for example, an indelible statement that demonstrates they’re much easier to access and observe than say a terrorist cell or secretive political group.
And football fandom is diverse culturally and geographically. One study Newson is working on currently taps into fanbases in Indonesia, Australian, Britain, Brazil and Spain. While there are differences in each country, “the love of the fans is quite consistent.” (And it is also love for the fans, Newson says, since it seems to be fusion to their fellow fans, and not necessarily the team or town, that’s the real driving force of cohesion.)
Newson has taken an innovative and interdisciplinary approach in her research, conducting surveys of fans, measuring their physiological responses and even drawing on existing and disparate databases like police records of fan violence.
And while violence or hostility may be linked in the popular imagination with extreme fandom, Newson’s research offers a more nuanced view. When someone feels their group is being threatened, like a mother bear they may wade in to defend their group. But when things are pleasant, like that same bear, so are they. “Fused fans preferred to be cooperative and altruistic to their rivals over being hostile toward them,” Newson has found. “The more fused you are, you are more likely to be violent than the less-fused fans,” she adds, “but that’s only because you’re looking out for your group in some way.”
Identity fusion research also finds that having bonded is a lifetime commitment, regardless of losses (and perhaps abetted by them!). “Once you are fused, you don’t unfuse – fusion really sticks,” Newson explains, adding that the primacy of the bond may wax and wane over time.
Mon, 17 May 2021
When human judgment enters the picture, so too will errors in human judgment. Think of this as “noise,” just as you might think of a signal-to-noise ratio in an audio signal. And just as in listening to music, this noise is not a feature, but a flaw.
In a new book, Noise: A Flaw in Human Judgment, by psychologist and Bites alumnus Daniel Kahneman, Sibony, and Harvard law professor Cass Sunstein (author of Nudge), the trio look at the lottery that noise creates in social outcomes, and discuss ways to practice better “decision hygiene” to prevent noise from infecting important outcomes.
Coinciding with the release of Noise, Sibony spoke with interviewer David Edmonds in this Social Science Bites podcast about noise as a concept, the types of noise, why acknowledging it matters, and a little on what we can do to avoid it. This is an area of great interest for Sibony, whose own research centers on reducing the impact of behavioral bias.
“Bias and noise,” Sibony explains, “are mathematically equivalent in the effect they have on error. Noise causes exactly as much error as bias does for the same quantity of noise or bias.
“And so, if you can reduce noise, you can reduce error.” Or put another way, make better decisions.
He gives the example of insurance claims adjusters. “When you look at how two of these people judge the same case, what price they set on the same insurance policy or the price they set on the same claim, and you ask them how much they expect to disagree, they say, ‘Of course we’re not going to be in perfect agreement; it’s a matter of judgment, after all. It’s still a calculation – we’re not just adding up numbers and saying, “The answer is X.” Otherwise our job would just be automated. That’s what makes the job interesting – it’s a matter of judgment. So we expect some disagreement between us. But hey! We are all highly qualified, competent people, so we are more or less interchangeable depending on who is available.’”
If you ask the adjusters, or their bosses, about how much variability they expect, the answers come back around 10 percent. And if you ask business executives in general what they would expect the difference to be – and Sibony talked to hundreds -- the answers came back at 10 to 15 percent.
But looking at the actual variability in real life, he reveals, the differences vary by as much as 55 percent.
This isn’t just some peculiarity of insurance. “This was,” Sibony said, “something we found everywhere we looked!” He offers many examples: assessments by financial professionals, x-rays read by skilled doctors, professors grading essays, and many more. What he terms “big differences” appeared repeatedly
“More worrisome, perhaps, if you look at how judges sentence people who have been found guilty of a crime … [W]hen the average sentence is seven years in prison, the average difference, the mean difference between two judges is three-and-a-half.” And so, as Sibony notes, when appearing before two judges, you’ve already been sentenced to five years, or to nine years, “just based on the luck of the draw.”
This variability, this happenstance in outcomes, matters for a trio of reasons: fairness (“when similarly located people are not treated similarly, it is unfair”); credibility of the underlying institutions; and because we’re routinely making bad (or at least not the best) decisions.
In addition to teaching strategy, decision making and problem solving at HEC Paris, Sibony is an associate fellow at Oxford University’s Saïd Business School. He writes often on strategy and decision making in the academic and popular press, and his book Vous Allez Commettre Une Terrible Erreur ! (published in English as You’re About to Make a Terrible Mistake!) received the was awarded the Manpower Foundation Grand Prize in 2019 for best management book. He is also a knight in the French Order of the Légion d’Honneur.
Mon, 10 May 2021
"That’s such a hard question,” Gina Neff, a sociologist at the Oxford Internet Institute, responds when asked what social science research or thinker most influenced her. “It’s like a busman’s holiday for an academic, because so many things have influenced my thinking.” Her answer, by the way, was Ulrich Beck’s concept of the risk society, as explained in this 1986 book.
In this montage drawn from the last two years of Social Science Bites podcasts, interviewer David Edmonds poses the same question to 25 other notable social scientists.
For many of the guests, the answer proves difficult to pin down to just one person or work (“That’s like asking who’s your favorite kid,” was David Halpern’s first response). For a few guests, the response is instant.
“A simple answer, really,” replies Rupert Brown, naming a fellow social psychologist, Turkish-American Muzafer Sherif, and his work in the 1950s. And sociologist Les Back, too, answers instantly: “Don’t even have to think about it: WEB DuBois’s The Souls of Black Folk. DuBois is the writer who captures both the heat and the passion of life and also the cool historical perspective and analysis in the most extraordinary compound of literary expression.”
Back, in turn, was mentioned by one scholar: Kayleigh Garthwaite as her great influencer.
A number of the guests cited titans from the early days of social science – Max Weber, Karl Marx, Pierre Bourdieu, Emile Durkheim, while others named modern-era titans like Stephen Pinker, Daniel Kahneman, Jonathan Haidt or Jean Piaget. And many named creators of the new canon – Jim Scott cited A.P. Thompson’s Making of the English Working Class, Alondra Nelson picked Troy Duster’s Backdoor to Eugenics, and Gurminder Bhambra tabbed Danielle S. Allen’s Talking to Strangers: Anxieties of Citizenship since Brown v. Board of Education.
And no such list would be complete without a wild card, and for that we turn to Michelle Gelfand, who turned to Herodotus’ The Histories and the lessons a 2,500-year-old post-mortem of an ancient war can teach us today: “He was a brilliant cross-cultural psychologist … he also had a really interesting observation — that all humans are ethnocentric. They don’t just think that their culture is different, they think it’s better.”
This is the fourth collection in this series (and the 100th Social Science Bites podcast).
Thu, 1 April 2021
When Jim Scott mentions ‘resistance,’ this recovering political scientist isn’t usually talking about grand symbolic statements or large-scale synchronized actions by thousands or more battling an oppressive state. He’s often referring to daily actions by average people, often not acting in concert and perhaps not even seeing themselves as ‘resisting’ at all.
The ‘problem’ with political scientists, he tells interviewer David Edmonds, in this Social Science Bites podcast, “is that when they’re talking about resistance they’re tending to talk about overt declarations – protests in the streets, marches, or potentially armed combat. What I’ve found is that throughout history, open resistance of this kind is impossible or suicidal. The result is a lot of what I call ‘unobtrusive forms of resistance.’”
There are, he notes, “very many different kinds of resistance: forms of resistance that announce themselves publicly and forms that are more subtle and unobtrusive in order to protect the people who are protesting from massive retaliation.”
He offers several examples of this unobtrusive resistance, such as poaching, squatting, and desertion - “common weapons of people who don’t have formal power.”
In this podcast, Scott draws on the year and half he spent in a Malaysian village, in the late 1970,s to discuss insights he gained about resistance (and which resulted in his Weapons of the Weak: Everyday Forms of Peasant Resistance). Scott learned the Malay language, acquainted himself with the local Kedah dialect, and studied first the rich and then the poor in this village. Mechanized, combine harvesters had taken over rice harvests in the area, leaving many people out of work and many tenants homeless. While there was no organized public protesting – that would have been foolhardy – he witnessed sabotage in the fields and ousted tenants killing the chickens of those who had evicted them.
In a “a subtle showing of contempt,” people who felt badly treated would look the other way when someone they hated crossed their path. “The kind of shunning was extraordinarily effective and humiliating in a face-to-face community of such a small size.” It reflected, in turn, the psychic violence done to the poor -- “Inequality and injustice almost always is reflected in a loss of cultural dignity and standing.”
Scott sees resistance from several vantage points in large part because he’s untethered himself from many academic restrictions, “defecting” from a discipline when he finds its approaches miss the point. He trained as a political scientist, for example, but as he saw how it studied elites and mass populations differently -- conducting social science “behind their backs,” as he put it -- he decamped to anthropology. ( But he argues every anthropologist should come with a historian strapped to their back.
“James Scott has taught us to see how art can fuel resistance, how social planning can undermine social justice, how anarchic principles inform everyday acts of resistance, and how agriculture led to the rise of state control,” said Tamar Szabó Gendler, the dean of Yale’s Faculty of Arts and Sciences, when the Social Science Research Council awarded him the Albert O. Hirschman Prize last year.
Mon, 1 March 2021
The study of stigma, , says Michèle Lamont, is a “booming field.” That assessment can be both sad and hopeful, and in this Social Science Bites podcast the Harvard sociologist explains stigma’s manifestations and ways to combat it, as well as what it takes for a researcher to actually study stigma.
Lamont defines stigma “as the negative characterization of any social attribute,” and offers examples such as mental illness, social status, or obesity as conditions routinely stigmatized. And while stigma can attach itself to an individual or to a group, stigma requires intersubjective agreement for it to function.
As that intersubjectivity would suggest, the specifics of stigma varies by culture, a point brought home by Lamont’s own research among stigmatized groups in the United States, Brazil, Israel (and which saw her 2016 co-authored book Getting Respect: Responding to Stigma and Discrimination in the United States, Brazil, and Israel). The work involved more than 400 interviews, conducted by members of the stigmatized groups, in the three countries, and Lamont offers insights into how stigma plays out.
The project paid people $20 in the U.S. to be interviewed, but the Brazilian team said Brazilians would be insulted if they were offered money to participate. In Israel, Palestinians being surveyed didn’t trust Tel Aviv University, so that created obstacles even though the team members were themselves Palestinian
Lamont cites the work of Erving Goffman, who studied this experience of having a negative mark. (See this earlier Social Science Bites podcast for a look at Goffman’s legacy.) One key concept is that of “front stage” and “back stage,” where someone manages their life in a public way (the domain of stigma) but also in a private way.
Lamont, professor of sociology and of African and African American studies and the Robert I. Goldman Professor of European Studies at Harvard, directs the Weatherhead Center for International Affairs. She was president of the American Sociological Association in 2016-17 and chaired the Council for European Studies from 2006-09.
She received a John Simon Guggenheim Fellowship in 1996, a Gutenberg research award in 2014, the 2017 Erasmus Prize, and an Andrew Carnegie Fellowship for 2019-21.
To download an MP3 of this podcast, right-click HERE and save.
Mon, 1 February 2021
What we tell people about ourselves is not exclusively, or often not even majorly, what comes out of our mouths. A host of nonverbal messages emanate from us, many of them intentionally sent to create or reinforce a narrative for a recipient who is left trying to judge the veracity of the sum total of the information. The study of this signaling in the content of an asymmetry of information is known as ‘signalling theory.’
In this Social Science Bites podcast, Diego Gambetta, a professor of social theory at the European University Institute in Florence, discussing his research around signaling theory and the applications of his work, whether addressing courtship, organized crime of hailing a cab.
“The theory,” he tessl interview Dave Edmonds, “has to do with the unobservable qualities of interest. The question is, how much scope do we have to con each other, to cheat each other. … What I would like to know about you is more than is what is apparent. The things that we are interested in are not written on our foreheads.”
Signaling theory’s value, he continues, comes in “trying to establish when truth can be communicated even in conditions that are difficult, in which we expect the interests of the parties communicating to diverge, or to not completely overlap.”
This gives the theory a wide range of applications, which is reflected in its own birthing. Initially formalized by economists, particularly Nobel Prize winner Michael Spence. Who used it to show how can an employer can determine if a job applicant in likely to be highly productive or not. At roughly the same time, Gambetta explains, there was a “an intuitive expression of the theory” by an animal behaviorist, Amotz Zahavi.
In the social and behavioral realm where Gambetta works, signally theory shows in utility whether the parties are in conflict – hence his work examining the Italian mafia -- or cooperation – studying taxi drivers in Belfast and in New York City.
“In a conflict,” Gambetta details, “I may want to persuade you that I am really, really tough. If this is true, and you believe me, then we may sort the conflict out cheaply for both of us because we don’t enter into a damaging fight.” And in cooperation, how do you accept the accuracy of someone’s representations (or convince someone of your own honest representation) that they do indeed possess the qualities they feel, or say, they have.
Given the current mass trial of alleged members of the 'Ndrangheta crime syndicate in Italy, perhaps Gambetta’s work among the mafiosos is is most salient at the moment. “I was alerted to the importance of symbolic communication in the mafia by the way they communicated with each other, and also, on a couple of occasions, with how they communicated with a researcher, myself included. They display a subtlety in communication that surprised me. We tend to expect an organized criminal to excel at brutality and intimidation, but we can’t really expect them to be a lot subtler than we are in communicating.”
He gives the example of a Canadian researcher who announced plans to research the mafia. The researcher’s car was burglarized, his dirty laundry stolen, and a few days later the laundry came back, cleaned and ironed, with a note that said, “Goodbye.” It was, Gambetta noted, “a more enthusiastic rendition of ‘I know where you live.’”
“Violence,” he adds, “is known to us because it leaves a body on the ground, it attracts attention. But there is a subtlety in threatening.” And in Palermo, for instance, there is “an obsessive search for meaning” – the workaday side of the signaling theory coin.
Another workaday aspect revolved around his work studying taxi drivers, who had to determine which passengers they would pick up based on the drivers’ perception of the person hailing them being a fare that was safe and trustworthy. These instant assessments can rely, however, on short-cuts that reek of racial profiling. In New York, for example, Gambetta that even Black drivers wouldn’t pick up young Black people. This essentially removes the service from that population – “the cost of proving your bona fides, that you are a real passenger despite your age and color, is too costly, is too complicated.”
In addition to his professorship at the European University Institute, Gambetta is the Carlo Alberto Chair at the Collegio Carlo Alberto in Turin, and an official fellow at Nuffield College, University of Oxford. Among his books are 2016's Engineers of Jihad, Codes of the Underworld: How Criminals Communicate from 2009, and 1993's The Sicilian Mafia. The Business of Private Protection.
Mon, 4 January 2021
Consider two different, but similar situations. In the first, children are asked to pull ropes together. Candy cascades down, but in unequal distribution – three for one child and one for the other. In the second situation, the children come across the sweets but without joint labor, and again find an uneven distribution.
What usually happens next differs between the two situations. When the kids work together, they tend to willingly share the proceeds so everyone ends up with an equal share. But when the candy was discovered through individual serendipity, the children tend to accept the uneven outcome and don’t equalize shares.
The first situation involves what Mike Tomasello, the James F. Bonk Distinguished Professor of Psychology at Duke University, would call joint commitment; “When children produce sweets collaboratively they feel they should share them equally.” There’s no explicit promise of an equal share, but there is an implicit one that’s just as recognizable and genuine.
As Tomasello details to interviewer David Edmonds in this Social Science Bites podcast, “I can say I don’t like it when you keep all the sweets – that’s my personal opinion – but when I say ‘you shouldn’t do that, you mustn’t do that, you must do this, you have to do that,’ this is not my personal opinion. This is something objective.”
While this might be a normative bond that helps glue humans together, it’s not a bond he finds in our closest relatives. Tomasello points out that among chimps – with which the longtime co-director of the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology has a deep background researching - the dominant partner takes the spoils in almost all cases. The “we-ness” that can mark human behavior is replaced by the “me-ness” of other primates.
That difference between primates and people is the basis of much of Tomasello’s career (see the work of the Tomasello Lab at Duke: “studying the development and evolution of social cognition, communication, and cooperation“) and of his 2018 book, Becoming Human: A Theory of Ontogeny. Much of his effort has focused on great apes, our closest primate relatives, following a line of research that started with Jane Goodall learning that apes make and use tools. Great apes share many qualities with human beings – they understand causal relations, can work with the concept of quantities, can predict what others might do based on what they see and what their goal is, are good social learners, can communicate with gestures (and can learn new ones), and can work with one another in some cases.
But Tomasello notes a key area in which apes and people differ. “Humans put their heads together, as a general phrase, to accomplish things that neither one can do on his or her own. So if you look at all the things you think are most amazing about humans – we’re building skyscrapers, we have social institutions like governments, we have linguistic symbols, we have math symbols, we have all these things – not one of them is the product of a single mind. These are things that were invented collaboratively at the moment or else over time as individuals build on one another’s accomplishments.”
Great apes and other creatures – ants and bees do offer a limited counter-example -- don’t do that. Understanding this evolved capacity – Tomasello doesn’t like using terms like “hard-wired” or “innate” – isn’t just a matter for academic interest. While he shied away from talking about the normative implications of his research and theories, Tomasello noted the benefits of cooperation and collaboration (and also some of its less-welcome artefacts such as creating out-groups to discriminate against), whether in sports, or work, or society. While he wouldn’t develop public policies, “If you want a more cooperative society, I can tell you some things that would help.”
Tue, 1 December 2020
Forensic psychologist Belinda Winder, who founded and heads the Sexual Offences, Crime and Misconduct Research Unit at Nottingham Trent University, wants society to understand one key aspect about pedophilia.
“Pedophilia is sexual attraction – enduring and sustained sexual attraction. Not something that someone wakes up with one day, but something that people have come to realize, sometimes over many months, that they have a sexual attraction, maybe a sexual preference, for pre-pubescent children.”
Of course sexual abuse against children does occur, and Winder explains that’s not pedophilia but pedophilic disorder, “where someone acts on their interests.” The disorder also covers the significant mental difficulty, such as guilt or embarrassment, that having this attraction may cause. (And it’s worth noting that Winder reports that more than half of the people convicted of committing sexual abuse against pre-pubescent children are not pedophilic.)
Winder’s research, conducted in the United Kingdom, United States, Canada, Australia and New Zealand, shows this distinction between urge and action matters greatly for addressing pedophilia. This is especially true in an environment where its merest whiff results in instant condemnation – and where the angry ornaments of that condemnation serve none of the victims of pedophilic disorder, whether the children or the offender.
“Until we as a society can see there is a difference between a sexual preference for children which we cannot change and cannot do anything about and we did not choose, versus committing sex abuse against a child — which absolutely people should take responsibility for, which they do have control over and which they can change — then I think the world is going to be quite a difficult place for anyone who wants to step forward and say, ‘This is me, what a most unfortunate sexual orientation to have.’”
That awareness helps in therapies that have been shown to successfully address pedophilic disorder offenders. “It’s taking the blame for the preference and the interest from people but putting the responsibility for their behavior squarely back with the person.”
Winder set up the Sexual Offences, Crime and Misconduct Research Unit in 2007 to build upon the collaborative relationship between Nottingham Trent’s Psychology Department and the British prison Whatton, one of Europe’s largest sex offender prisons with more than 830 convicted male sex offenders housed there. She is also co-founder, trustee, vice chair and head of research and evaluation for the 6-year-old Safer Living Foundation, a charity that conducts and evaluates initiatives that help to prevent further victims of sexual crime.
In this podcast Winder discusses the prevalence of pedophilia, how it can be viewed as a sexual orientation, and what responses work – and which don’t – in addressing the disorder. On the latter, Winder sees some popular responses to offenses as ineffective at best and harmful at worst. Imprisonment, Winder says, is appropriate for the crime but does little to deal with the underpinnings of why people committed child sex offenses.
But some of the programs set up to address those underpinnings, like Britain’s former Sex Offender Treatment Programme, don’t work. “[SOTP] was carefully evaluated and some of the aspects of that which really didn’t seem to work at all was the idea that we needed to encourage more empathy in people, the idea that empathy was important – if we encourage more empathy then people wouldn’t offend – that’s just too simplistic and has not been shown to work. Part of the SOTP was getting people to go through every minutiae of what they had done and the offense they had committed, and again, I think that’s more to encourage shame, and shame can be very counterproductive. If you are dwelling in a pool of shame, then it may be you feel you are beyond saving.”
Exclusion also doesn’t help, which is why Winder has a special scorn for sex-offender registries, which she calls “actively ineffective." "If what you need is to connect with other people – this is what helps you not offend again in the future. … Once you’ve been brought to task for your sexual offending you are highly unlikely to commit another one. But the thing that might push you to re-offending is not having people to talk to, not having a place to stay. So really we need to allow people to resettle.”
Mon, 2 November 2020
There’s an intuitive attraction to the idea that if we could just spend some quality time with someone from another group, we’d both come to appreciate, and maybe even like, the other person and perhaps even their group. Enormously simplified, that’s the basis of contact theory, which Gordon Allport posited in the 1950s as the United States grappled with desegregating its public schools.
If differing groups could be brought together cooperatively – not competitively – in a manner endorsed by both groups and where each side met on an equal footing, perhaps we could, as Salma Mousa puts it in this Social Science Bites podcast, “unlock tolerance on both sides and reduce prejudice.”
Mousa, currently a postdoctoral research fellow at Stanford University’s Department of Political Science, tells interviewer David Edmonds that since Allport’s heyday, “We have [had] a lot of studies about contact, but we need experimental tests of contact.” She’s been working to address that need, sometimes using the football pitch as a field site, with work that’s caught both the public and the scientific imagination.
One experiment she was part of examined the incidence of hate crimes once Mohamed “Mo” Salah, the talented Egyptian soccer star, signed with Liverpool Football Club. The results were heartening; Merseyside, where the club is located, experienced a 16 percent drop in hate crimes while anti-Muslim tweets from Liverpool’s fans dropped to half the number compared to fans of other Premier League clubs.
In this interview, Mousa details another experiment involving football and otherness, albeit an experiment made under harsher conditions: “We set out to learn if positive, social contact across social lines can reduce prejudice, can build friendships, can overall improve relationships between groups even in postwar settings, like Iraq.”
The experiment was conducted along the faultlines of northern Iraq where there’s a Kurdish enclave. Working with a Christian community organization which was helping Christians and Muslims displaced by ISIS, the researchers recruited Christian amateur soccer players for a football league. They then added three or four players to each team, randomly adding either all Muslims or all Christians as the newcomers, and tracked player attitudes and actions on the field and off for a half year after the season ended.
Amid some “really profound friendships” that formed, survey results and observed behavior showed that the Christian players came to be much more accepting and welcoming of their Muslim teammates. But that warming did not make the leap to their attitudes towards Muslims in general, suggesting some underlying prejudices remained in place.
While her promising findings nonetheless were not the “home run” people of good will would have liked, the research earned the cover of the journal Science, and left Mousa feeling optimistic about further possibilities of contact theory. Given the difficult context of postwar Iraq and subjects scarred by their flight from ISIS, “to find some evidence that these guys actually became friends and we changed something in these communities, I think is positive, especially given that these communities are persecuted and highly distrustful.”
Fostering tolerance and eroding prejudice, especially in the Middle East, matters personally to Mousa, an Egyptian-Canadian who grew up in Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Qatar and Canada. She’s focused on helping “fix” the region’s ethnic and religious divides: “I think of myself as an engineer but with a social science background.”
Mousa has held fellowships at the U.S. Institute of Peace, Stanford’s Immigration Policy Lab, the Freeman Spogli Institute, the Stanford Center for International Conflict and Negotiation, the McCoy Center for Ethics in Society, and the Stanford Center on Philanthropy and Civil Society. Her work has been supported by the Abdul Latif Jameel Poverty Action Lab, the Innovations for Poverty Action Lab, the King Center on Global Development, the Institute for Research in the Social Sciences, the Program on Governance and Local Development, and the Abbasi Program in Islamic Studies.
Thu, 1 October 2020
Sociologist Alondra Nelson calls it “root-seeking” – individuals wanting to know their ethnic background. Knowing who your people were as a way to know who you are verges on being a human need – witness the Hebrew Bible or the carefully tended genealogies of royal houses.
In her own seeking, Nelson has studied the rise and use of direct-to-consumer genetic testing as made popular by companies like 23andme, Ancestry.com and AncestryDNA. Those firms and others promise to decode, at least in part, stories found in your own chromosomal makeup. As Nelson achieved other career milestones, including being the current president of the Social Science Research Council and the Harold F. Linder Professor at the Institute for Advanced Study, she’s also spent close to two decades unraveling the story of consumer genetic testing, accounts of which resulted in two of her books, Genetics and the Unsettled Past: The Collision of DNA, Race, and History and the new The Social Life of DNA: Race, Reparations, and Reconciliation after the Genome.
In this Social Science Bites podcast, Nelson describes her particular interest in those root-seekers whose journeys usually aren’t captured in antebellum church registries or in tales passed down in the same hamlet through countless generations. She's focused on the descendants of people 'stolen from Africa' in the slave trade, who make up so much of the African diaspora.
In surveys and later in extensive interviewing among the African-American community, Nelson found a great deal of interest among Black Americans in DNA testing despite some historical misgivings.
“Marginalized communities, and in the context of the U.S., African-Americans in particular, have a very understandable historic distrust of genetic research and medical experimentation,” she explains to interviewer David Edmonds. “So the fact that African Americans were early adopters in this space is surprising given that history. What’s not surprising is the genealogical aspiration that many African Americans are trying to fulfill – a profound and pronounced and often very living and present longing sense of loss and longing about identity, original family names, of points and places on the continent of Africa where one’s ancestors might have come from.”
She also learned, as her investigations branched out from surveys of the genealogical community to interviews with test-takers, that “getting the test results was really the beginning of the endeavor, rather than the end.
“What in the world did you think you could do with this information, besides filing it away in a drawer and telling your family that we now know that we have Ibo, Yoruba, whatever the test provided for ancestry?” Answering that question meant Nelson’s own approach must evolve.
“That transformed the methodology to a kind of ethnographic methodology that I call the ‘social life of DNA’ in which I followed what happened with the test, what happened with the information, what did they think that these genetic inferences could do with the world. That really opens up a whole other space of thinking about the importance of genetic testing.”
Part of that space she explored is uniquely American. For much of (White) America, one’s ethnic ties to the ‘old country’ – to be Irish or Italian, say -- are a linchpin of identity. “That’s not been available to African Americans,” she notes, whose roots are assigned to an amorphous blob of sub-Saharan Africa, since specific roots were eradicated when now enslaved peoples arrived in the New World. “People lost their given names, lost the languages of their foremothers and forefathers,” Nelson said.
“[P]art of the work of what slave-making entailed was taking people from often very different places on the continent of Africa, with different languages, cultural norms, religious backgrounds and to create out of a multicultural and multiethnic diverse group of people of different backgrounds a ‘caste’.” The dark-skinned newcomers were henceforth categorized as a race, and that race was assigned the caste of enslaved person.
Genetic testing, in turn opens up that ‘Black box’ of lost identity and reveals what place and culture forebearers were likely ripped from. (Nelson, for example, had her own code analyzed and discovered a component of her heritage was from what is now Cameroon.)
In this podcast, Nelson also talks about how Black Americans may respond to their growing awareness of their specific genetic identities, how this might impact the reparations debate in the United states, and why people are primed to be emotional at reveals of their genetic heritage.
In addition to her two books on genetic testing, Nelson writes extensively at the nexus of science, technology, and social inequality. Her publications, for example, include the books Body and Soul: The Black Panther Party and the Fight against Medical Discrimination and Technicolor: Race, Technology, and Everyday Life. She is also editor of “Afrofuturism,” an influential special issue of Social Text.
Mon, 7 September 2020
As the toll from the COVID-19 pandemic increased, polling suggests counterintuitively that resistance to a future vaccine has also risen. Anthropologist Heidi J. Larson identified several likely drivers of this, including political polarization, a focus on being ‘natural,’ the undercurrent of mistrusting the so-called elite. But in this Social Science Bites podcast, she tells interviewer Dave Edmonds that there’s another driver.
Families who have some expertise in running their own affairs can come to resent “the elitism of science, the language of science, the ‘we know better’” which dismisses their experiences and more importantly, their questions. “A lot of parents feel very strongly feel that they have their own evidence of vaccine problems,” she notes, and the medical establishment has often not invested a lot into bringing the public along – even as the number of vaccines and the expectation of being vaccinated grows.
“[The public is] saying, wait a minute – we want to have say in this, we want to be able to ask some questions … [W]hen they feel like the door in closed on the questions, that shuts down the conversation. I think in order to become unstuck, we need to have more dialog and be open.”
Stuck is the name of Larson’s new book. Besides the obvious pun in the title, Larson explains Stuck: How Vaccine Rumors Start -- and Why They Don't Go Away also refers to being “stuck in the conversation, why the public health community has been losing some of the public enthusiasm for vaccines.”
These are questions and concerns Larson routinely addresses in her role as director of the Vaccine Confidence Project, a World Health Organization (WHO) Centre of Excellence that addresses vaccine hesitancy, and as a professor of anthropology, risk and decision science at the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine’s Department of Infectious Disease Epidemiology.
The first organized opposition to compulsory vaccination arose in the United Kingdom in the late 1800s, she explains, as a reaction to mandatory smallpox vaccinations. “To this day that is one of the persistent themes that has fueled some of this resistance.”
Nonetheless, as vaccinations remain one of the most remarkable health interventions available, the resistance that might be expected to erode in the face of a global health emergency hasn’t faded.
“Strangely, in the context of the pandemic, the already amplified skepticism has taken another level of resistance, which is surprising to many of us. You’d think with such a serious disease and a pandemic it would be a time where people would say, ‘Wow, this is really an example of why we really need a vaccine.’”
And the resistance, whether to a coronavirus vaccine or to vaccine in general, can be seen globally. In fact, Larson is seeing resistance groups linking up across borders – and an a most inopportune time. “I see the whole increase in the anti- and skepticism as being kind of a tipping point … We’ve always had all these other issues that have been challenging in getting enough people vaccinated, both from the supply of the vaccine and the access, logistics and all the rest. But this additional factor – we’ve stagnated in our global vaccination coverage and just can’t seem to get above a certain amount.” And those coverage levels in some cases fall below the thresholds needed for “herd immunity,” which in turn means we can expect more cases, whether or COVID, measles or even polio.
Social media has helped skeptics get their messages disseminated, and Larson notes that the Wakefield autism scare arose the same year as the start of Google. “The sentiments are not new,” she says, “but the scale and intensity of them is.”
In addition to her position in London, Larson is also a clinical professor in the Department of Global Health at the University of Washington and a guest professor at the University of Antwerp. She previously headed global immunization communication at UNICEF, chaired the Advocacy Task Force for the Gates Foundation-sponsored Gavi, the Vaccine Alliance, and served on the WHO Strategic Advisory Group of Experts Working Group on vaccine hesitancy.
Tue, 4 August 2020
Have you always felt that you could make of your life pretty much what you want to make of it? Once I make up your mind to do something, do you stay with it until the job is completely done? And when things don’t go the way you want them to, do you just work harder?
If you strongly agree with the first questions, and answer yes to the last one, your coping is likely putting you at greater risk for a raft of health problems. That’s a key finding of Duke University epidemiologist Sherman James, who describes what he terms ‘John Henryism’ in this Social Science Bites podcast.
The health effects, which James has studied since the 1980s, have come into sharper focus as the Coronavirus pandemic exacts a disproportionate toll on communities of color in the United States. Based on the John Henryism hypothesis, James tells interviewer David Edmonds, members of those communities are likely to develop the co-morbidities which help make COVID more deadly. And since many of them have to physically go to work, John Henryism helps “elucidate what some of these upstream drivers are.”
James defines John Henryism as “strong personality disposition to engage in high-effort coping with social and economic adversity. For racial and ethnic minorities … who live in wealthy, predominantly white countries – say, the United States – that adversity might include recurring interpersonal or systemic racial discrimination.” It can be identified by using James’ John Henryism Active Coping Scale, (JHAC12, pronounced ‘jack’), which asks 12 questions with responses from ‘strongly agree’ to ‘strongly disagree’ on a 5-point Likert scale.
High-effort coping, over years, results in excessive “wear and tear” on the body, damaging such things as the cardiovascular system, the immune system, and the metabolic system. Focusing on the cardiovascular system, James notes that this “enormous outpouring of energy and release of stress hormones” damages the blood vessels and the heart.
James notes that the damage doesn’t occur solely because someone is a Type A personality – it’s the interaction with poverty or segregation that turns someone from a striver to a Sisyphus (with the attendant negative effects on their cardiovascular health). In fact, James says, research finds that having resources and a John Henry-esque personality does not lead to an earlier onset of cardiovascular disease.
The eponymous John Henry is a figure from American folklore. The ‘real’ John Henry probably was a manual worker, perhaps an emancipated slave in the American South, James explains. His legendary doppelganger was a railroad worker, “renowned throughout the South for his amazing physical strength,” especially when drilling holes into solid rock so that dynamite could be used.
A boss challenged John Henry to compete against a mechanical steam drill. It was, says James, “an epic battle of man – John Henry – against the machine. John Henry actually beat the machine, but he died from complete mental and physical exhaustion following is victory.”
A folk song memorializes the battle. As one version (there are many, but all telling the same story) recounts:
John Henry he hammered in the mountains
That narrative – dying from the stresses of being driven to perfection but in a dire environment – the Jim Crow South – gave its name to James’ hypothesis.
James himself grew up in small town in the rural American South, beginning his higher education in the early 1960s at the historically Black Talladega College near Birmingham, Alabama. Birmingham was the heart of the civil rights struggle in the Civil Rights era, and James was an activist, too. He decided then that “whatever I did would have to have some bearing on social justice, on working to make America a more just society in racial and social class terms.”
He trained as a social psychologist with a special emphasis on personality, earning his Ph.D. Washington University in St. Louis in 1973, and focused his career on identifying social conditions that drive health inequalities.
His own studies conducted amid the farmers, truckers and laborers of eastern North Carolina provided early, and strong, confirmation for John Henryism. While John Henryism seems focused on African-American men, other research – in Finland, on African-American women, and more – bears out John Henryism’s premise in the global population.
In the podcast, James discusses a real John Henry – John Henry Martin – he met while doing research, and offers some societal prescriptions that would allow African Americans and others to “pursue their aspirations in ways that do not accelerate their risk for cardiovascular disease, morbidity and mortality”
James is the Susan B. King Distinguished Professor Emeritus of Public Policy and a professor emeritus in the Sanford School of Public Policy at Duke, where he is also a core member of the Center for Biobehavioral Health Disparities Research. He was elected to the National Academy of Medicine of the National Academy of Sciences in 2000. James was president of the Society for Epidemiologic Research in 2007-08. He received the Abraham Lilienfeld Award from the Epidemiology section of the American Public Health Association for career excellence in teaching epidemiology in 2001, and in 2016 received the Wade Hampton Frost Award for outstanding contributions to epidemiology from the same section.
He is a fellow of the American Epidemiological Society, the American College of Epidemiology, the American Heart Association, and the Academy of Behavioral Medicine Research. In 2016, he was inducted into the American Academy of Political and Social Sciences as the Mahatma Gandhi Fellow, and in 2018 was a fellow of the Center for Advanced Study of Behavioral Science.
Wed, 1 July 2020
“I grew up in this country,” says Gurminder K Bhambra, a professor at the University of Sussex’s School of Global Studies, “and [yet] I always thought I was an immigrant. School told me I was an immigrant; the media told me I was immigrant; everything around me was that I was immigrant. When the Brexit debates were happening, I was talking to my dad about this. He keeps things, so he pulled out his old passports, my grandparents’ old passports, and all the passports were British.”
“So I’ve always been a British citizen, my parents have always been British citizens, and my grandparents have always been British citizens – not because we lived in Britain, but we lived in those parts of the world that were the British Empire at the time. Britain came to us, incorporated us within its polity, within its understanding. We were seen to be British, and yet when we traveled within the imperial polity and ended up in Britain, somehow we became migrants.”
This account and its summary – “people constructed their Britishness in opposition to me, as opposed to inclusive of me” – encapsulates Bhambra’s academic field: postcolonial and decolonial studies. In this Social Science Bites podcast, she discusses with interviewer David Edmonds why we should speak about the Haitian revolution in the same breath as the contemporaneous American and French revolutions, how former empires conveniently forget the contributions of their colonies now that those empires have downgraded to mere ‘nations,’ and what lessons we should draw from the current iconoclastic impulse toward imperial statuary. (Bhambra says she’s less focused on statues themselves than in “the histories that are embodied within them, and the extent to which people know and understand those histories and what it means for us, in the public sphere, to be defined by them.”)
Their talk begins with a quick primer of the origin of the complementary fields of post-colonialism and decoloniality. Each examines the legacy and lasting effects of European colonialism, but use different times and places as their starting points.
Postcolonialism emerged after the publication of its “keystone text” - Edward Said’s Orientalism – in 1978. “I don’t think Said necessarily thought that he was setting out to create a field when he wrote this book,” Bhambra explains. “But it was so influential – initially within English literature but then the humanities more generally – that it built up a body of scholarship in its wake that came to be understood as post-colonial studies.”
Initially, postcolonialism was interested in the interplay between the Middle East and South Asia and of Europe, generally starting around the 19th century.
Decoloniality, in contrast, initially explored Europe and Latin America and the Caribbean beginning with Columbus encountering the Americas.
As these fields expanded throughout the humanities and into areas such as historical sociology, scholars sought “what the place of the colonial was within their disciplines, find it missing, and seek to explain that absence.”
One absence that Bhambra herself explored in her own studies and her book Rethinking Modernity: Postcolonialism and the Sociological Imagination is how ‘the modern’ came to be seen as the province of Europe (and its North American domains) and their three revolutions, the American, French and Industrial. Her research quickly showed here that while sociologists might disagree on some particulars, they fully agreed that the modern world began with a dramatic break “between a pre-modern agrarian past and a modern industrial present, and that that temporal rupture could be located spatially within Europe, and that Europe (and North America is often encapsulated within this) marked a cultural separation from the rest of the world.”
That historical take is, she argues, a distortion. Modernity wasn’t manufactured in Manchester or drafted in a salon in Paris; it arose from existing colonial connections. “Modernity isn’t something that emerges endogenously and autonomously within Europe, from which it then spreads around the world. There were already global connections, and those connections were through processes of colonization, enslavement, imperialism, and so on. Those processes are the condition for things that we call modernity.”
The bill for that modernity, she adds, has yet to be paid in full.
“There is no institution in Britain or France to which colonial wealth has not contributed ... anybody who has an historical connection to the empire has a right to the wealth and benefits of what is now the nation.”
Mon, 1 June 2020
It’s a scene you might recall from a music video or TV shows where a young alpha male goes to the club with his crew. They’re parked at a table, order bottle service while flanked by a bevy of attractive if faceless young women, and after some overindulgence start spraying Cristal like dish soap in a squirt gun.
That’s life as Ashley Mears documents in a neat little ethnographic study just released in book form as Very Important People: Beauty and Status in the Global Party Circuit.
Mears, an associate professor of sociology and women's, gender, and sexuality studies at Boston University, describes her 18 months of field work, and her findings, to interviewer David Edmonds in this Social Science Bites podcast.
Their talk starts with a description of club life at the VIP level and the Veblen-esque conspicuous consumption, its “ritualized squandering” in Mears words, that is its hallmark.
Addressing ‘bottle service,’ in which a customer essentially rents a table for the night and buys expensive alcohol by the bottle (and not drink-by drink), Mears offers a vivid picture:
“The real action of the night happens when these bottles are bought in excess. The crowd will start to cheer and take pictures. The club has kinds of theatrics for the display of big purchases: DJs stopping the music to make an announcement, bottles and bottles coming out with these fireworks, really large bottles that come out and require really strong people to be able to carry them. Some people buy so many bottles of champagne that they can’t even drink them – they’ll gift them to everybody in the club, so everybody gets a bottle of Dom Pérignon champagne. They can’t drink it, it’s too much to be consumed, so people will start shaking the bottles up and spraying them and spraying each other, turning them up in the air and just dumping them – it’s ritualized waste.”
It’s a ritual that costs the “bread and butter” type VIP customers a couple thousand dollars an outing, but where a “whale” – one of the cadre of super-rich who often travel the party circuit around the planet – often drop substantially more. Mears cites the exploits of Low Taek Jho, a Malaysian businessman popularly known as Jho Low (and now on the run for allegedly looting his country’s sovereign wealth fund) who spent more than a million U.S. dollars in just one night in San Tropez.
It is, she explains, an esoteric world that has “made it into the mainstream as a sort of emblem of elite consumption.” Still, she adds, it’s a subculture of a subculture; the mobile and transnational whales represent a “very small, rarefied tribe of people that are partying together.” And yet “most elites in the world wouldn’t be caught dead in these places!”
Mears describes an ecosystem with three main species – the rich men who do the spending, the pretty girls who draw the rich men, and the promoters who find and display the pretty girls (and ‘girls’ is the term used). Mears’ own entry into the scenes came through associations with promoters – she interviewed 44 for the book – and tagging along on their peripatetic gyrations through New York, Miami and San Tropez.
“The way that I got into it was by following this group of mostly men that work for the clubs to bring a so-called ‘quality crowd’ – mostly beautiful women – to sit at their tables. The idea is that the beautiful women will attract the big spenders. The ‘quality’ of a crowd comes down to two gendered components: men with money and women with beauty.”
That beauty is “the kind championed by the fashion model industry”: young, thin, often white, and with that certain look championed by the fashion industry. And while the promoters do get paid, the women do not. Their compensation is the night on the town, or possibly a trip to some exotic place for a night on the town. That may sound like another profession … “It looks like sex work,” Mears says, “even though [the promoters are] very clear that it’s not.” The promoters insist they are not pimps by another name, and while hookups do happen, that’s not how they generate income.
That said, the women in this triangle trade are, in essence, the coin of the realm.
What turns Mears’ work into more than an HBO series is the sociological lens she brings to the proceedings. She cites the roots of study into displays of wealth from Thorstein Veblen and Claude Lévi-Strauss to more modern scholars like the late Pierre Bourdieu and Gayle Rubin. She also discusses some of the methodology of ethnography, and how she opted for ‘participatory observation’ at some points to fully understand the terrain.
She took a similar approach for her first book, 2011’s Pricing Beauty: The Making of a Fashion Model, which drew on her own experiences in the industry.
Thu, 7 May 2020
Political violence aside, the 20th century saw great progress. Looking at health progress, as one example, Princeton University economist Anne Case notes it was a century of expanding lifetimes.
“Just to take one particular group,” she tells interviewer David Edmonds in this Social Science Bites podcast, “if you look at people aged 45 to 54 in the U.S., back in 1900 the death rate was 1,500 per 100,000. By the end of the century, it was down below 400 per 100,000.
“The risk of dying just fell dramatically and fairly smoothly. There were a couple of spikes -- one was the 1918 flu epidemic -- and a little plateau in the 1960s when people were dying from having smoked heavily in their 20s and 30s and 40s. But people stopped smoking, there was a medical advance as antihypertensives came on the scene, and progress continued from 1970 through to the end of the century.”
Even stubborn health disparities – such as the life expectancy gaps between say whites and blacks, or between the rich and the poor - narrowed in the century’s second half.
“We thought that sort of progress should continue,” Case says. But as she and fellow Princeton economist Angus Deaton found as they sleuthed through the data, starting in the 1990s progress had reversed for a fairly large demographic in the U.S. population.
“[W]hat Angus and I found was that after literally a century of progress, among whites without a college degree – these would be people without a four-year degree in the U.S. – mortality rates stopped falling and actually started to rise.”
The trend was clear: looking at figures from the 1990s to the most recent data available from 2018, mortality among middle-aged, non-college-educated white Americans rose, stalled, then rose again.
“This was stunning news to us and we thought we must have done something wrong because this never happens, or if it had happened, it would have been reported,” Case admits. But it was news, and Case and Deaton’s findings and analysis – that controllable behaviors like drug addiction, suicide and alcohol addiction were driving the numbers – created a furor. Citing sociologist Emile Durkheim’s argument that suicide is more likely when social integration breaks down, Case explains, “We think of all of these as a form of suicide – not necessarily that a drug addict wants to take him or herself out, but that it leads to that eventually.”
Meanwhile, Case and Deaton’s shorthand expression ‘deaths of despair’ entered the common –not just the academic social science – lexicon. (It helped that they were speaking publicly about this “group that just wasn’t on anyone’s radar” at roughly the same time that a demographic both similar and similarly ‘unknown’ was seen as a surprise well of strength for the political maverick Donald Trump.)
Deaths of Despair and the Future of Capitalism is also the name of the new bestselling book that Case and Deaton, her husband, have written for Princeton University Press. (Deaton, a Nobel laureate in economics, has also appeared on Social Science Bites.) The book looks at the physical and mental causes of these deaths – Case and Deaton count 150,000 of them in 2018 alone – and how aspects of America’s unique medical and pharmaceutical system have resulted in this unique tragedy.
Case explains that these deaths of despair didn’t suddenly arise in the 1990s, but they had been obscured by advances made in treating heart disease (and obesity, despair, drugs, alcohol are all hard on the heart). “As deaths of despair got larger and larger, it would have taken more progress against heart disease for this to continue to fly under the radar. Instead what happened was we stopped making progress against heart disease.”
Also in the 1990s, prescription opioids became widely available in the United States – “a self-inflicted wound,” Case says that made the existing trend “horrifically” worse. “In the U.S. in the mid-1990s Oxycontin was allowed onto the streets. Any doctor with a script could prescribe it. It’s basically heroin in pill form with an FDA label on it, and they sprinkled it like jelly beans. It landed on very fertile soil.”
Between opioids and existing problems with America’s mostly private health care system, deaths from despair keep rising.
What might end this cycle? Something dramatic, Case says. And perhaps something already creating drama …
“We think something is going to have to break, and break badly, in order for us to see reform. Maybe, possibly, COVID-19 is breaking things really badly and this might be a time when enough people in the middle of the distribution start talking about reform, then it might be possible to see change.”
Anne Case is the Alexander Stewart 1886 Professor of Economics and Public Affairs, Emeritus at Princeton, where she directs the Research Program in Development Studies. She’s received numerous awards for her work on the nexus between economic health and physical health, including the Kenneth J. Arrow Prize in Health Economics from the International Health Economics Association and the Cozzarelli Prize from the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. She is a research associate of the National Bureau of Economic Research, a fellow of the Econometric Society, and an affiliate of the Southern Africa Labour and Development Research Unit at the University of Cape Town. Case is a member of the National Academy of Medicine, the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, and the American Philosophical Society.
Mon, 27 April 2020
The current pandemic has and will continue to mutate the social landscape of the world, but amid the lost lives and spoiled economies in its wake has come a new appreciation of what science and scientists contribute.
“You don’t have to go back many months,” says Hetan Shah, the chief executive of the British Academy, “for a period when politicians were relatively dismissive of experts – and then suddenly we’ve seen a shift now to where they’ve moved very close to scientists.
“And generally that’s a very good thing.”
In this Social Science Bites podcast, Shah details how science, and social science in particular, has come to be deployed, how it’s been a force for good throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, and how it can help policymakers understand and shape a better tomorrow.
Arguably, even before coronavirus the British Academy, a national body of humanities and social science scholars, has served in similar roles. In addition to its well-known body of fellows, the academy funds new research and serves as a forum to discuss humanities’ and social science’s role and impact beyond academe. Shah took the reins of the academy in February, having headed the Royal Statistical Association for the eight years previous.
Given that his time at the academy roughly mirrors COVID’s arrival on the world stage, he’s had to hit the ground running. “It’s also been very interesting to see the government using the term, ‘We are following the science.’”
This has been a prime opportunity for social science to show its importance for the public, but also a chance for the public to consider what science is and isn’t.
“There isn’t a single monolithic thing called ‘The Science,’” Shah explains, adding, “I think governments have recognized that the pandemic is not just a medical phenomenon but a social and economic one.”
But even within the subcommunities of science there’s no single ‘Answer’ to any given challenge. “It does feel to me the public has seemed to cope quite well and understood the level of uncertainty of the science. It’s an argument for treating the public as grown-ups.
“We are making decisions at speed. That data are limited and being gathered as we speak. This is how science happens. There may well be settled science on these matters [someday] – but that might take really quite a lot of time.
“This is why none of us envy our decisionmakers. They’re having to make decisions on imperfect knowledge.”
Even without those capital-A answers, established social science has been deployed to good effect already, Shah says.
“Anthropologists who wouldn’t have been surprised at all by the panic buying of toilet paper. They have known for a long, long time, rooted in the work of people like Mary Douglas, the cultural and symbolic importance of things like cleanliness and security in times of crises. “
As other examples he offers the campaigns detailing how best to wash your hands, the crafting of the United Kingdom’s economic package along needs rather than party lines, and how to enforce social distancing. It was social science that shows that rather than shaming – in essence, promoting -- the few people who are breaking rules, compliance increases if you praise those who are keeping the rules. And social science also helps address wicked problems that predate COVID but which now have new facets, such as the unequal impact the disease has on ethnic minority communities.
There’s even a lesson in how science gets applied, he suggests. Like those anthropologists … “[A]nthropology seems like it’s for other people -- ‘Other people have strange customs; we’re normal in the West and what we do is normal’ – but I think the key is to bring an anthropological lens to our own behavior. What are the practices that we have and how can we change them?”
Arenas like critical thinking and psychology are also brought to bear tellingly on the home front: “Our leaders share our biases,” he tells Edmonds, before detailing a number of logical traps policymakers and the populace currently share.
The podcast closes out with a look to the future, both through specific initiatives Shah is part of, and in general. “I think there will be all sorts of fascinating data about how the pandemic has affected us,” including, he made clear higher education and academic research itself. Shah, meanwhile, is acting chair of the Ada Lovelace Institute, which while looking at technical solutions to COVID also draws on social science insights, i.e. in digital contact tracing, it was revealed that those most vulnerable to COVID were also least likely to have a smart phone.
And the British Academy itself, he noted, has a group of scholars assembled who will provide a rapid response to government inquiries and needs, as well as looking at some of the other implications of the future “that the government doesn’t have the bandwidth for.”
Mon, 2 March 2020
Depending on your views, far-right populism can represent a welcome return to the past , or a worrying one. The former, argues sociolinguist Ruth Wodak in this Social Science Bites podcast, is one of the hallmarks of far-right populism – a yearning for an often mythical past where the “true people” were ascendant and comfortable.
She’s termed this blurred look backward retrotopia, “a nostalgia for a past where everything was much better,” whether it was ever real or not.
Wodak, who to be clear finds herself worrying and not welcoming, offers host David Edmonds a recipe for becoming a far-right populist. In her scholarship, she’s identified four ingredients, or dimensions, to the ideology that often underlie populist far-right parties.
The most apparent from the outside is a strong national chauvinism or even nativism. This nativism is very exclusive to a specific set of insiders, who focus on creating “an anti-pluralist country, a country which is allegedly homogeneous, which has one kind of people who all speak the same language, have the same culture, or look the same. [Having] this imaginary ‘true people’ is very important.” is very, very important. Far-right populists decide who belongs and who does not belong to the ‘true people.’”
And just as important is then having a group of outsiders to cast as scapegoats responsible for major problems – making for “an easy narrative for very complex issues.” It’s probably no surprise, then, that “conspiracy theories are part and parcel of the far-right agenda. They are very supportive in constructing who is to blame, etc., for all the complex problems.”
Another ingredient is an anti-elitism that targets elites or ‘the establishment’, i.e. managers, teachers, journalists, intellectuals, liberals or your political opponents; “all the people who allegedly don’t listen to ‘us’ and who have very different interests from ‘the true people’.”
Next comes a focus on law and order (“an agenda of protecting this true people”) enforced through a hierarchal party structure. This top-down structure frequently focuses on a charismatic leader who encapsulates the spirit of the ‘true people’ – and rejects the ‘other.’ “Along with the scapegoat,” Wodak explains, “comes ‘the topos of the savior’ … the leader who will save the true American or the true Austrian or the true British people from those all dangers, they will ‘solve’ the problems, protect the people, and they promise hope.”
The final standard ingredient is endorsing conservative values and perceived cultural touchstones, such as Christianity in Europe.
This recipe matters, of course, thanks to the rise of far-right populist politics across the Americas, Europe and Asia. Wodak herself is Austrian – she’s professor in linguistics at the University of Vienna and emeritus distinguished professor and chair in Discourse Studies at Lancaster University – has seen plenty of recent natural experiments in populism throughout continental Europe.
She cites several reasons for the popularity of far-right populism, including the end of the Cold War and the resultant increase in migration from Eastern Europe into the West. Those migrants, previously seen as refugees from communism who were welcomed and even feted, morphed into unwelcome and fear-inducing interlopers (and despite being white and from Christian cultures). Around the same time, she continues, neo-liberal policies changed labor policies in the West, creating inequalities that the right could build on – just as they did in the pro-business responses to the global financial crisis of 2008 (“saving the banks instead of the people”) and globalization.
In this podcast, Wodak also discusses how right-wing populism makes use of social media, how exploiting “otherness” helps roll over self-interest, what the role of a social scientist is in exploring fraught ideologies, and how someone might counteract malign politics.
Wodak has studied right-wing discourse for years, work that is covered in 2015 book The Politics of Fear: What Right-Wing Populist Discourses Mean, which will see a second edition later this year. At present, she is senior visiting fellow at Vienna’s Institut für die Wissenschaft des Menschen where with Markus Rheindorf she is examining “repoliticization from below.”
Sun, 2 February 2020
ichard Layard remembers being a history student sitting in Oxford’s Bodleian Library on a misty morning, reading philosopher Jeremy Bentham (he of the famed “It is the greatest happiness of the greatest number that is the measure of right and wrong”). As he recounts to interviewer David Edmonds in this Social Science Bites podcast, he thought, “Oh yes, this is what it’s all about.”
And while much has changed for the current Baron Layard FBA in the years since that epiphany, his laser-like focus on seeing happiness as the key product of any successful society has remained. Much of his effort as a labor (and Labour) economist has gone into popularizing the idea of happiness as the real measure of national success; he’s written extensively about the concept, ranging from his 2005 book, Happiness: Lessons from a New Science, to his latest, just released this year, Can We Be Happier? (written with George Ward). Layard is also co-editor, with John F. Helliwell and Jeffrey Sachs, of the World Happiness Report.
The fundamental impulse of a government, he insists, should be the creation of well-being, and not just wealth.
Three basic principles underlie happiness economics, Layard explains:
While not spoken about in government circles nearly as much as say gross domestic product, these ideas aren’t revolutionary – both Bentham and Jefferson were active at the close of the 18th century, after all.
“It always had some traction,” Layard says, “but I think it’s gaining more traction now, particularly because the new science of happiness is making it practical to aim at the happiness of people. And secondly, because people have become somewhat disillusioned with economic growth — even before the financial crash.” New Zealand, Scotland and Iceland – all with female prime ministers, he notes – all have budgets aimed at wellbeing.
In the podcast, Layard explains how a qualitative instrument – asking people how happy they are or are not – turns out be an excellent predictor of future lifespan, work productivity, and whether an incumbent government is re-elected. These happiness-generated predictions prove to be more accurate than predictions based on the economy. “Bill Clinton said, ‘It’s the economy, stupid.’ I’m afraid he was the stupid one. … It is pretty clear in our mental fabric that how you feel is of ultimate importance, and these other things [such as wealth or health] are a means to that end.”
In 1990, Layard founded the Centre for Economic Performance at the London School of Economics, and was director of the center until 2003. His elevation to the House of Lords in 2000 was followed by some signal policy-oriented projects on happiness, mental health and even climate change. In addition to being a fellow of the British Academy, Layard was elected a Fellow of the Academy of Social Sciences in 2016.
Tue, 7 January 2020
With each new year comes a wave of good intentions as people aim to be better. They want to lose weight, exercise more, be nicer, drink less and smoke not at all. They want to change behavior, and as Susan Michie knows well, “behavior is related to absolutely everything in life.”
Michie is a clinical and health psychologist who leads the Centre for Behaviour Change at University College London. She specializes in behavior related to health – for behavior or health practitioners, patients and population as a whole – and in looking at how behavior impacts the natural environment. And while you might think that the essentials of human behavior are pretty similar, one of the things Michie quickly tells interviewer Dave Edmonds in this Social Science Bites podcast is that it can be unwise to jump to conclusions when studying behavior (or trying to change it).
She notes, for example, that lots of behavioral research is done in North America, where there’s relatively abundant funding for studies, “but the biggest need [for research] is often where there’s the least investment. There’s no point in developing an intervention based on research evidence conducted in parts of the world that are very far away from the type of context we want to implement the findings in – only to find out it’s not going to work.”
So yes, she says, do look at both the rigour of the research, but also base any potential application of the findings on deep understanding of local conditions and using local knowledge.
Michie and her team describe this using a model, COM B, to account for the ‘capability, ‘opportunity’ and ‘motivation’ necessary to change behavior.
Changing behaviors is important – “In order to solve any of these big social challenges we need people at different positions in society to change their behavior” -- so these considerations matter. But that begs the questions of what behaviors need changing – and who decides what those selected behaviors are..
“There’s a big issue about who decides what the key issues are,” Michie says. “But I think there are certain problems which are very self-evident – there are people dying unnecessarily as a result of smoking, obesity but also environmental conditions – poor housing, etc. There are areas where the social consensus is that things needs to change, and I’d say those are the ones we start with.”
In the interview, Michie also addresses the ethics of behavior change and how algorithms and machine learning will be “absolutely vital” to parse through all the relevant data . Her own Human Behaviour Change Project is a collaboration between behavioral scientists and computer scientists combing the global literature to see what works, with an initial focus on smoking cessation. A comprehensive tobacco control strategy, she details, involves those infamous “nudges” beloved of policy makers, but also the legislation, services and taxation, that need to work synergistically to effect real change.
Michie had a long career as a research fellow and clinician before joining the Psychology Department of University College London in 2002. She’s a fellow of the Academy of Medical Sciences, the Academy of Social Sciences, the Academy of Behavioral Medicine Research, the Society of Behavioral Medicine, the European Health Psychology Society, the British Psychological Society and a Distinguished International Affiliate of the American Psychological Association.
Direct download: Michie_Mixdown_SesM_online-audio-converter.com.mp3
Category:general -- posted at: 7:41am PDT
Mon, 2 December 2019
Henri Tajfel’s early life – often awful in the living, exciting in the retelling – gave the pioneering social psychologist the fodder for his life’s defining work: understanding the roots of prejudice.
Born one hundred years ago into a Jewish family in the dawn of an independent Poland created from the detritus of three disintegrated empires, he left Poland to study chemistry in France in the late 1930s. When the Germans dismembered Poland, Tajfel joins a Polish unit in the French army, and is ultimately captured by the Germans. He survived the war as a POW, even as the Nazis exterminated most of his family.
“From that moment on,” his biographer Rupert Brown explains to Dave Edmonds in this Social Science Bites podcast, “one of his driving pre-occupations was to understand how could something like the Holocaust ever have happened.”
After the war, Tajfel worked in orphanages in France and Belgium and then in a displaced persons camp in Germany. At this time he met, and eventually married, a German Jewish woman who had emigrated to England before the war. This led him to move to Britain, where he studied and then taught psychology. His research at Oxford, and later and most notably at Bristol, focused on researching the cognitive roots of prejudice, discrimination and nationalism.
“[H]e made,” said Brown, “this really significant discovery that one doesn’t need very much to invoke inter-group discrimination and prejudice. Simply being told that you’re in one group or another seems to be enough to trigger that discrimination.”
Using a technique known as ‘minimal group experiments’ – creating kinship based on as little as what sort of abstract painting you like or what colour you prefer – Tajfel determined that “if you imposed categories on anything you are viewing or are living, people start exaggerating the differences between the two groups. He wondered, ‘Could we observe the same thing in a real behavioural situation?’”
Such questions conflicted with many of the then-prevailing notions of how prejudice arises, which Tajfel saw as too generic and too idiosyncratic. Based on the individual, they didn’t account for the clear historical precedent, Germany in the 1930s, that Tajfel saw firsthand (nor current examples like Islamophobia). Can that come down a particular personality or a particular level of frustration, Brown recounts Tajfel thinking. “He just thought that didn’t wash.”
As others have built on his insights, Tajfel’s own work now sounds much like conventional wisdom, even if Tajfel himself didn’t push into applications and left out issues like emotion and gender in his theorising. “In itself, social identity theory is rather an impoverished explanation for things like genocide, things like inter-group slaughter,” Brown says. “Because what does it say – ‘We want our group to be a little better than the other group,’ ‘we‘re looking for positive distinctiveness’? In trying to understand hatred, intergroup violence, we have to go beyond positive distinctiveness. There must be something else that drives people’s anger and hostility.”
Of late, Tajfel’s behaviour has overshadowed his contributions. He died in 1982, and in the 1960s and 1970s he was a serial sexual harasser of young women in his lab and elsewhere (and a difficult and demanding professor overall, as Brown, one of his former PhD students, confirmed). That legacy was known but ignored for years, and the European Association of Social Psychology instituted an important award for lifetime achievement in Tajfel’s name the year he died. This autumn, however, the Association rethought that decision; “naming an award after a person suggests that this individual is a role model as a scientist and beyond,” the organization stated as it announced renaming the award.
Brown does not shy away from the conduct in this podcast or in his new book, Henri Tajfel: Explorer of Identity and Difference. Nor does he defend it, although he does question the renaming: “The prize wasn’t given to recognise moral probity; it was given for contributions to the discipline.” (Brown’s research and his book were supported by a major research fellowship by The Leverhulme Trust and the European Association of Social Psychology itself.)
Brown is an emeritus professor of social psychology at the University of Sussex and himself won a Tajfel medal in 2014. Among his achievements are writing several important texts on social identity and prejudice, including co-authoring Social Identity Processes in 2000 for the parent of Social Science Space, SAGE Publishing.
Fri, 1 November 2019
Living in a loosely regulated society, the very term “social norms” can be vaguely threatening, as if these norms are a threat to freedom always lurking on the periphery. But cultural psychologist Michele J. Gelfand says norms are not the enemy – they are one of our most important inventions.
“Culture,” she says, “is this set of values, norms, and assumptions about the world that we’re socialized into from the time we’re babies. We follow social norms and we need social norms to navigate. It’s really an incredible human invention that helps us predict each other’s behavior and coordinate on large-scales on a regular basis.”
That said, Gelfand definitely understands that social norms can seem threatening – or reassuring – based on your perch. That’s the basis of her substantial body of scholarship, and it’s a concept neatly encapsulated in her 2016 book, Rule Makers, Rule Breakers: How Tight and Loose Cultures Wire Our World.
In her work and her book, Gelfand explores the continuum between “tight cultures,” which strictly enforce and adhere to social norms (think Singapore), and “loose cultures,” which are much more permissive (such as the United States). But in all cultures norms, are, well, normal. We’re constantly following norms – Gelfand points out how people always face the door of an elevator as they ride up and down – and it’s only when we break them that we realize how important they are.
“Social norms are the glue,” she tells interviewer David Edmonds in this Social Science Bites podcast, “that keep people together.” How much glue do we need? Gelfand describes the “simple tradeoff” between tight and loose cultures: tight opts for more order and so reaps some of the hallmarks of that, like less crime and more uniformity and more self-control, while loose aims for openness, which can result in more creativity, tolerance for differences, and openness to change.
Gelfand also discusses factors that cause the evolution of these differences. One major contributor is the degree to which groups face ecological and human threats (think constant fury from Mother Nature or the threat of invasions). Groups that have a lot of threat need more rules to coordinate to survive—so they tighten, while groups that have less threat can afford to be more permissive. Other factors that promote the need for coordination also lead to tightness (like working in agriculture versus hunting and gathering).
Asked if her depiction is a little too neat, Gelfand tells Edmonds she “love[s] the exceptions ... no theory can be a one-to-one prediction.” Plus, her descriptions are “dynamic constructs – they are not static – they can change over time.” As an example, during times of external threat, looser cultures may tighten up (although it takes much longer, she notes, for tight cultures to get demonstrably looser when pressure wanes).
While Gelfand avoids saying one direction is better or worse than the other (and it is a spectrum, not a binary), the extremes of both – tight to repression, loose to chaos – are a concern. She notes that people experiencing either extreme, whether in a company or a country or a household, become dysfunctional. She calls this “the Goldilock’s principle of Tight-Loose”—and argues that groups that are getting too tight need to insert some discretion (what she calls “flexible tightness”) while groups that are getting too loose need to inserts some structure (what she calls “structured looseness”).
Gelfand is a Distinguished University Professor in the Department of Psychology and affiliate of the RH Smith School of Business at the University of Maryland, where she runs the interdisciplinary Culture Lab in the school’s the Social Decision and Organizational Sciences group. As she says on the lab’s ‘About’ page, “We work with computer scientists, neuroscientists, political scientists, and--increasingly--biologists to understand all things cultural.”
In addition to her best-selling book, Gelfand has seen outside validation, such as from the American Academy of Arts and Sciences which elected her to membership in 2019; from the American Psychological Association, which named her the 2017 Outstanding International Psychologist; and the Society for Personality and Social Psychology, which gave her its Diener Award in 2016 and Outstanding Cultural Psychologist award in 2019; or the Alexander von Humboldt Foundation, which bestowed its Annaliese Research Award.
Wed, 2 October 2019
When a mother with minor children is imprisoned, she is far from the only one facing consequences. Their children can end up cared for in multiple placements, they’re often unable to attend school and they’re stigmatised.
These effects on the children of the incarcerated, although predictable, have been poorly understood precisely because almost no one has done that. But Minson, who practiced both criminal and family law before entering academe, did. Following up on issues she’d seen in her work as a lawyer and after taking a master’s at the University of Surrey, she interviewed children, their caregivers and members of the Crown Court judiciary to see both how having a mom locked up affected children and how sentencing decisions that created those situations came about.
Furthermore, she shared her findings with the authorities. “I didn’t realize,” she tells interviewer David Edmonds in this Social Science Bites podcast, “that academics didn’t normally try to change things.”
And while that action might have been somewhat out of the ordinary , what happened next is even more unusual: the authorities listened. After telling the Parliamentary Joint Committee on Human Rights about her findings in March 2018, the committee held an enquiry centered on the rights of the children of the imprisoned, and on Tuesday, 1 October, new guidelines were released with the aim of strengthening female offenders' family and other relationships. Existing systemic problems, she believes, can be “more of a blind spot than a deliberate dismissal of these children.”
While the policy affect was likely the most gratifying reward, she also received this year’s Outstanding Early Career Impact Prize awarded by the Economic and Social Research Council in association with SAGE Publishing (the parent of Social Science Space).
In this podcast, Minson explains that the lack of research into the children of imprisoned women echoes scant data on the mothers themselves. No one knows exactly how many mothers are locked up in England and Wales because that information isn’t collected, but a “best” guess follows by multiplying the results of a 1997 study that found 61 percent of women in prison were mothers by the rough daily headcount of 3,800 women in prison. Of that estimated maternal population of 2,300, most are single mothers incarcerated up to 60 miles from home, leaving their children in the hands of a variety of carers, ranging from grandparents to friends to, as a last resort, a local authority.
“Most people don’t want their children to go into the care system,” Minson relates, “because it can be very, very difficult to get them back again. And often short sentences are given women ... so if they lose their children into care at that point, it can be years before they have them back even though they’ve only been in prison a few months.”
But those informal arrangements are also fraught, with children often living in multiple places during their mom’s confinement. And because these particular children are not recognized as ‘children in need,’ they get no priority in school places – so carry-on issues with not being in school, stigma because their mother is in prison, and resulting damage to education all plant seeds for future problems. And some not so-future ones ...
“Most of the children that I met just describe themselves as sad,” Minson says. “They have this huge grief, and therapists have written about this, whether it’s a disenfranchised grief where you’re almost unentitled to it, or an ambiguous loss because of the uncertainty – a person hasn’t died, but you don’t know when they’re coming back and you can’t talk about in the way you might if your parents separated or divorced.”
In this podcast, Minson discusses why she chose not to interview the imprisoned mothers for her research, the surprising lack of knowledge about child issues she saw in the judges she talked with, and how new court rulings are opening up non-custodial sentencing options for some mothers.
Minson is currently a British Academy post-doctoral fellow at the Centre for Criminology at the University of Oxford, where she is continuing to study children’s rights, this time in the wake of both custodial and non-custodial sentences.
Thu, 5 September 2019
One of the most salient aspects of what generally makes a ritual a ritual is that you can’t tell from the actions themselves why they have to be done that way – and that fascinates anthropologist Harvey Whitehouse. By his own admission, what intrigues the statutory chair in social anthropology and professorial fellow of Magdalen College, University of Oxford is that ritual is “behavior that is ‘causally opaque’ – by which I mean it has no transparent rational causal structure.
“[Rituals] are that way,” he tells interviewer David Edmonds in this Social Science Space podcast, “simply because by cultural convention and general stipulation that is the done and proper way to carry out the behavior.”
Rituals can range from collective events like funerals, initiations, political installations and liturgies to private acts like bedtime prayers or self-crossing before a crucial meeting. One thing that unites all of these is that they are faithfully copied and passed down through the generations.
While the psychological causes of the ritual impulse are inherently interesting, Whitehouse’s work also examines the consequences of ritual, and how rites can produce different intensities of social glue depending on their frequency and emotionality.
For example, painful or frightening initiations tend to produce very strong “social glue,” “fusing” individuals into a larger whole. This insight, partially derived from a visit to Libya in 2011 to study the groups engaged in the effort to overthrow Moammar Ghadafi, has implications, for example, in addressing extremism.
By contrast some groups use “high frequency but relatively dull and boring rituals in order to establish a set of identity markers that can be maintained without radical mutation”. Here the focus is more on ensuring conformity across a large population.
Whitehouse’s own journey into studying religiosity (“I’m not religious myself but deeply fascinated by what makes people religious”) and ritual also are covered in the podcast. As a young academic, Whitehouse started by doing fieldwork in Papua New Guinea focused on economic anthropology. “The people I ended up living with for two years, deep in the rain forest, were very interested in telling me about their religious ideas and ritual practices. They were the ones who got me into the topic.”
It was less, he added, that they wanted to proselytize and more that “they got bored with my questions about production and consumption and exchange and all these boring economic things. I think people were starting to want to avoid me when they saw me coming with my notebooks.”
Whitehouse has created a number of academic research groups and is co-founder of the Centre for the Resolution of Intractable Conflicts at Harris Manchester College in 2014 and is the founding director of the Centre for the Study of Social Cohesion established last year.
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.