Popular Posts

Caveat Emptor

The opinions expressed on this page are mine alone. Any similarities to the views of my employer are completely coincidental.

Thursday, 20 November 2008

Posdoc Research Fellowship

We have just advertised a 2 year post-doctoral research fellowship in connection with the new Oxford Network for Social Inequality Research. This is essentially a research centre that will build on the already substantial amount of research on social inequality going on in and around the department. For somewhat inscrutable intra-university political reasons we were not permitted to call it a "centre" - but a centre is what a centre does and the name doesn't matter too much. Its first director is my colleague Dr Tak Wing Chang and the fellowship is a really great opportunity to join us and help shape the future of social inequality research in Oxford. Further details about the post can be found here

Tuesday, 4 November 2008

Statistical Significance

In a world of uncertainty it is nice to have the illusion that something is solid. We spend a lot of time in our introductory quantitative methods courses teaching our students about statistical techniques that were designed essentially for situations where making a decision is the object of the exercise. Reject or fail to reject the null with such and such a probability of making a reject decision when the null is in fact correct. What could be more solid than that? Unfortunately most of the time, at least in the social sciences, decision making is largely irrelevant and a judgment about statistical significance is only one of the things that should go into a proper evaluation of the evidence for or against a particular scientific proposition. Regrettably scientific institutions, like journals, often get into the hands of people who don't appear terribly thoughtful about the publication criteria they establish and enforce. Their psychological need for what they think of as clear rules often gets the better of their scientific judgment - at least that is the charitable interpretation. For why paying too much attention to significance levels isn't a great idea follow this link http://www.demogr.mpg.de/papers/working/wp-2007-037.pdf

Tuesday, 21 October 2008

New Students

I spent a significant part of last week meeting my new graduate advisees or supervisees as we call them over here. It brought to mind Burn's couplet: O wad some Power the giftie gie us/ To see oursels as ithers see us!
When I was an undergraduate I thought one of my tutors - it was the sort of college that aped a shabby form of Oxbridge tutorial - was truly marvellous. Every two weeks I wrote an essay and we met to discuss it. Actually I have no recollection whatsoever of the discussion and the relics - a few dog-eared pages with the odd tick, question mark, and fussy remark about the inadequacy of my referencing - contain few clues as to how we spent the time.
I doubt that I had much to say for myself as I came from a home where idle speculation about things one knew nothing much about wasn't a valued pastime. My naive belief was that the assiduously quarried nuggets on the page spoke for themselves.
My only real memory is of awe at being allowed into the presence of one so obviously eminent and kindly - my tutor rang me up after I had gone AWOL a few weeks before exam time to make sure I hadn't hung myself from Blackfriars bridge. In fact I just wanted to be left in peace to sit in the library and read according to my own lights.
A decade or so later I was on the faculty and my old tutor was a colleague. But surely this wasn't the person I remembered. Hadn't I noticed that they were an egotistical bully whose main interest was in the maintainance of a self-aggrandising cult? The oracle was gone and in its place was a tedious bore portentously repeating the blindingly obvious to a crowd of adoring groupies.
Had my old tutor changed? Probably not. The difference was that the angle I now observed them from cast a crueler light and revealed the feet of clay. The public side of academic life has, like many professions, more in common with acting than we care to acknowledge. But it is chastening to realise that insofar as it is an act eventually somebody will see through it.

Thursday, 2 October 2008

More Ways of Seeing

Last night BBC4 - really the only channel worth watching these days - repeated David Hockney's Secret Knowledge: Rediscovering the Lost Techniques of the Old Masters in which he explains what has come to be known as the Hockney-Falco thesis. The question he addresses is why after roughly 1420 did the objects depicted in European paintings suddenly look so much more like the things they were meant to be? Was it just that artists became better at painting? Well, in a sense, yes according to Hockney, but not because they simply improved their skill in handling the brushes. His argument is that artists like Van Eyck used mirrors as lenses to project images of objects onto paper or parchment which could then be traced. The limitations of the technology explain the relatively small size of many paintings in this era and the somewhat strange, apparently section by section, construction of some larger canvasses. They also explain otherwise curious 'out of focus' patches in the depiction of highly decorated cloths and fabrics. I'm no art historian and I gather that the thesis is controversial - though less so for the 16th Century where there is apparently documentary evidence of optical lenses being used by artists. Nevertheless I found the programme gripping for the way it showed a highly intelligent man hitting on an intriguing idea and then following up leads wherever they took him. OK it isn't Popperian science and there is surely a lot of confirmation bias in his hunt for evidence, but it is plausible conjecture which is the starting point of all knowledge discovery and great television to boot.

For more on the Hockney-Falco thesis see: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hockney-Falco_thesis

Wednesday, 1 October 2008

Ways of Seeing

I happend to catch the 3rd part of John Berger's Ways of Seeing on BBC4 last night. It's a repeat from the early 1970s. I was too young to be interested in Marxist art history when it was first shown, but I read the book that accompanied the series when I was an undergraduate. It was recommended by the class teacher of my Sociology 101 course, the cheroot smoking, leather safari jacket wearing, Bally booted Alan Dawe. He was a taciturn, enigmatic man who hinted of radical chic and whose reading suggestions were extraordinary - things like Cobbett's Rural Rides or Agee and Evan's Let Us Now Praise Famous Men - in fact mostly things that appeared to have nothing very obvious to do with the course we were taking. Once he came into class with a cassette player and played us a recording of himself reading a lecture. He muttered something about how it gave him a new angle on things and then went and sat at the back of the class. Chutzpah! On another occasion he amazed me by giving an apparently impromptu 30 minute lecture on Hegel - complete with diagrams - in response to a vague question about influences on the thought of Karl Marx.
I read Ways of Seeing several times - it isn't very long - and probably feigned some understanding of it which I certainly didn't have. The extrordinary thing about seeing Berger on TV is the earnest didacticism of his presentation - face to camera, impassioned quasi Shakespearian delivery - think Olivier as Richard III. It looks like he really cares about what he is talking about. No post-modern irony here, he is the intellectual proletarian at the coal face who needs us to understand that 500 years of oil painting is really all about commodity fetishism. Today it seems both artfully mannered and ridiculously oversimplistic - a cross between Open University parody and agit-prop. It could almost be a Harry Enfield sketch - 1970s cultural studies lecturer, big hair and appalling taste in shirts. And yet there is an intellectual seriousness about Berger that seems to have disappeared from some of the modern day equivalents. Nowadays in place of head to camera we have arch, knowing scripts and plenty of decorative location shots. Something of value has got lost along the way.

Wednesday, 24 September 2008

Oxford Sociology

So finally at the grand old age of 47 I have entered the blogging world. My intention is to post about things that grab my attention in the academic world, the media, politics and whatever I happen to be watching or reading - both professionally and for pleasure. That doesn't leave much off topic, but since I'm paid to teach sociology at a 'leading' British university I guess there will be a lot of sociology and social science related stuff. By the way, I feel a rant coming on: is there any British university that does not nowadays portray itself to the world as 'leading'?
In Orwell's Politics of the English Language one of sins he points to is the use of meaningless words. His examples, from artistic criticism, are things like: romantic, plastic, values, dead, sentimental, and he goes on to say "...they are strictly meaningless in the sense that they do not point to any discoverable object...". Moreover, he says, the reader doesn't actually expect them to have any objective reference and differences of opinion about whether a poem or painting is or isn't sentimental are thought to be just that - differences of opinion which can't be resolved by reference to external facts.
So all universities are 'leading' which can only be translated as: "Well I think it is a pretty swell place." And which media organization would want a soundbite from somewhere that was not 'leading'?