Popular Posts

Caveat Emptor

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

Tuesday, 1 December 2009

What happened to November?

Too busy to blog for a whole month, how is that possible? I've got a stack of things I want to blog about but also a stack of pressing and post pressing deadlines. To keep the scent hot here is a little number by Tom Lehrer about sociology. I'll be back...


Thursday, 22 October 2009

Nazis in the Neighbourhood

Following the leak of yet another BNP "membership" list I thought it would be fun to try and find out something about the social demography of our homegrown Nazis. What follows should be hedged around with a sackful of caveats. Most importantly the 2009 "membership" list may not be a membership list at all, though there seems to be less doubt about the authenticity of the 2007 figures. There is also rather little individual level information in the leaked lists that can help us draw a portrait of the average wannabe brownshirt. There is however a precise postcode for almost every name with an address in the UK. This means that we can assign them to one of the 18 ACORN groups http://www.caci.co.uk/ACORN/pclookup.asp beloved of all those firms that stuff our letter boxes full of junk mail (sorry, I meant to write - enrich our consumption experience by making us aware of additional life-style options). Being fastidious I should point out that the ACORN labels apply to the households in the geographical areas defined by the postcodes rather than the individuals themselves. But this is a blog not an academic paper so I'll cut myself a little linguistic slack. What strikes me about these numbers is that leaving aside their unhinged political opinions, socio-demographically your typical British Nazi isn't particularly distinctive when compared to the whole of the British population. They are a bit less likely to be wealthy executives, prosperous professionals or educated urbanites - rich, suave and sophisticated don't seem to be terms that are commonly used by the press to describe Nick Griffin. They are also a bit less likely to be living in asian communities which given their policy preferences is scarcely revelatory. Blue-collar roots and settled suburbanity are a little more common than average as is the burden of singledom (given their views is it surprising nobody loves them?). Overall though, BNP members look remarkably similar to you and me and that makes me think twice about the bloke living down my road with the rather retro taste in short upper-lip facial hair.

Tuesday, 6 October 2009

Lennonist cultural hybridity

I'm told that 'hybridity' and 'liminality' are important concepts in a certain type of cultural sociology. One likes to keep an open mind so here is an example that appeals to me - The Beatles in Yiddish http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6vAMgbGEDTY. And why not?

Thursday, 1 October 2009

How do we choose what children should read?

This is another post stimulated by my reading habits. I recently walked past a second-hand bookshop and saw on display this late 1950s paperback edition of Wolf Mankowitz's A Kid for Two Farthings. Well of course I had to buy it. It wasn't the rather fetching rendition on the cover of Diana Dors and Sid James drawn from a scene in the screen version that attracted me though. It was pure nostalgia. This is one of the three books that I can remember my class being set to read for English lessons during the first two years of my secondary schooling. It's a relatively slight, middlebrow sort of thing, but charming enough in its own way. The adult me enjoyed it which is more than can be said of the child that it was forced upon. Before "rereading" it I couldn't remember a thing about the story, apart from its title, because my recollection is that I hated it first time around and read barely more than a few pages. Truth be told I couldn't relate to it and my teacher certainly didn't make any effort to help me, or anyone else, understand it. I didn't appreciate the somewhat magical whimsy and the allegorical elements, such as they are, went right over my head. Eleven year olds in the West Midlands during the 1970s were not noted for their sensitive appreciation of the Jewish East End of London during the 1930s and in retrospect it seems an astonishing thing to ask us to read. Perhaps we were expected to learn something by osmosis from the writing itself which is deceptively simple but stylish.
Equally unsuccesful in firing my childish imagination was the second book inflicted on us - Richard Hughes' A High Wind In Jamaica. Hughes is now one of my favourite authors and A High Wind In Jamaica is a masterpiece but it falls squarely into the category of books about children that are best appreciated by adults. I can see that my teacher thought that her 11 year olds ought to like it but the seriousness of the plot and the sophistication of the language were a mile over my head. It just looked to me like a fusty, forty year old, adventure story about a bunch of middle-class children who are captured by pirates. But reading it as an adult you see that it is more Lord of the Flies avant la lettre than Swallows and Amazons and that it isn't the pirates that are the barbarians.
I'm left with a number of thoughts. Were we really only asked to read three books between the ages of 11 and 13? (The other was Ian Seraillier's The Silver Sword which really is a children's adventure story - needless to say I consumed it with alacrity from cover to cover). How and why were these particular books deemed suitable for us? How do you balance relating literature to the everyday lives of the kids that are reading it and persuading them to be curious about events and experiences that are beyond their personnel experience?
While still at school, but somewhat older, we were given Barry Hines' A Kestrel for a Nave as a set text for O Level. I remember that even then I felt we were being patronized. Being mostly working class kids we were meant to relate to the life of the main protagonist, a lonely, hopeless, misfit in a Yorkshire mining village who has but one thing of value in his life - his hawk. The book has a poignancy but it isn't great literatue - "it's a poor novel but a good film script" I remember my, now savvy, English teacher saying - and we certainly didn't relate to it. Sixteen year olds in an affluent Midlands factory town did not consider they had the slightest kinship with scruffy impoverished oiks from Yorkshire. None of us had seen a pit, nor a hawk for that matter and we, we thought, were definitely not headed for dead-end jobs. Just another example of how, when making choices for children, adults can get it wrong.
All this is just a preamble to my final thought. The sociology of literary taste is, as far as I know, pretty unfashionable now. But it occurs to me that for many kids their experience of literature, such as it is, begins and ends with what they are forced to read at school. It would be fascinating to see how that has changed over time. It would also be pretty easy to do. Syllabi for public examinations going back at least to the 1950s are still sitting around in libraries. With a bit of effort a more or less complete list of the novels, plays and poetry inflicted on British school children could be compiled. That would be interesting in itself. Even more interesting would be to get "experts" to rate the "flavours" of the works a bit in the manner that malt whiskies or fine wines are rated. One could then think in terms of projecting each work onto a low dimensional map of literary taste. I wonder what its dimensions might be?

Wednesday, 30 September 2009

Wie es eigentlich war

My non professional reading is, I guess, pretty random. I have far more unread books on my shelves than I will ever have time to get through but I like the idea of availability - I can pick up something that I've noted as interesting and squirreled away, just as the spirit moves me. Whatever the process is that then guides my selection I have no real idea.
It just so happens that the last two books I read for pleasure had more in common than that they were written by Germans and dealt with painful aspects of German history. Ernst Jünger's Storm of Steel (In Stahlgewittern) is an account of his life in the front line during World War I. It is extraordinary for several reasons. Firstly it was written very soon (published in 1920) after the end of the war while the experience was still fresh. By contrast most of the classic British accounts (Goodbye to All That, 1929; Memoirs of an Infantry Officer, 1930; Undertones of War, 1928; The Middle Parts of Fortune, 1929) date from at least a decade later and are in a sense refined by the simple passage of time. Secondly Jünger most definitely does not belong to the "war and the pity of war" school. He was and remained throughout his life an ardent German nationalist (though not a Nazi - he was peripherally involved in the Stauffenberg bomb plot) and one gets the sense that his war-time service was the most exilerating thing that ever happened to him. What is truly remarkable though is the quite matter of fact nature of his account. Comrades fall around him or are horribly maimed on practically every page. The shells fall within feet and he expects to die at any moment but carries on doing his duty for what else can he do? He rarely sees the enemy and spends most of his time sheltering from artillery fire in dugouts, cellars and shell holes. There is no reflection on right or wrong or the justice or injustice of the cause - the book begins after the war has started and ends before the armistice - and no poetry. In the end he survives, though wounded more than twenty times and is decorated by the Kaiser. Though the attitude that underlies his account is alien (I would imagine) to most people now, there is an honesty about the writing that made me feel, yes, that is what it was really like for an adventurous young man of his social background, temperament and time and that to still convey this long after the events have faded from living memory is an achievement of considerable merit. You don't have to like the man or what he stood for to admire his art.
Honesty is what I also admire about Peter Gay's story of the six years of his life that he spent as a boy in Nazi Germany - My German Question: Growing Up in Nazi Berlin. In fact it is about much more than this. What it is really about is his attempt to understand the impact on his subsequent life. He is at pains to make clear that as "assimilated" jews who could pass as gentiles he and his family were able to live comparatively normal lives until just months before they were able to emigrate in 1939. Many suffered much more than they did and most (though not all) of his family survived the Holocaust. To be sure life could be difficult but what were the alternatives? Gay describes his frustration (and anger) at the lack of comprehension shown by people who ask him: why did it take so long to see what was coming? Why did so many stay when their country rejected them? The answer is simple: you stay, endure the indignities and bottle up your anger because this is your home, your life is here, you don't speak a foreign language and you have no skills that have any value in a foreign country. You probably know intellectually that one day you will have to leave, but while you can still go home from work, draw the curtains and enjoy some semblance of family life you try to carry on as normal. After all, notwithstanding the gangsters that are in power, Germany is probably the least anti-semitic country in Central Europe...
Gay's honesty extends to the confession that his Berlin boyhood poisoned Gay the man. It left him with many unresolved tensions in his feelings about Germany and the Germans. He is honest in admitting that many of these feelings are irrational - the account of his projection of anti-semitism onto the wholly innocent demeanour of a woman working in a currency exchange bureau during his first post-war visit to Germany is told with complete candour. He feels only pleasure at the news of the horrific firestorms that swept through German cities after allied bombing raids killing countless innocent women and children. You are given the impression that he doubts whether they were in fact wholly innocent. Just as with Jünger you may not like what you read, you may feel repelled by some of it, but you were not there. He was and if you are prepared to listen you can learn a little of what it was actually like.

Normal and non-normal science

As a coda to my last post about the stange world of sociology journal publishing I found this short paper by Lin Freeman illuminating: http://moreno.ss.uci.edu/87.pdf. It never occurred to me that acceptance rates in hard science journals would be so much higher than in the social sciences though his explanation makes perfect sense. I wonder how it would look if you included in the sample more paradigmatic disciplines like economics or (non social) psychology?

Thursday, 24 September 2009

Students aren't the only ones...

In the quiet Summer months you could be forgiven for missing this piece in the Guardian's education section.
It concerns the retraction of an article published in the British Journal of Sociology in March 2008 by a lecturer from City University because of "substantial overlap" with an article published a few years earlier in Sociology by two completely different authors. The British laws on liable being as they are let's leave it at that.
The sorry tale caught my eye because at the time the BJS article was published I was still its Editor in Chief (though I resigned a month later after, amongst other things, expressing a "difference of opinion" with the LSE's minders - the London School of Economics owns the title - about the proper way to run an academic journal). Though the article in question came out in an issue under my name it had, to the best of my recollection, been accepted by the previous Editor and my only part in the affair was to schedule its publication. However, I should say that there but for the Grace of God go I, for I doubt very much that I would have spotted the "substantial overlap" if it had arrived during my watch and I don't think my predecessor can reasonably be blamed for being asleep on the job.
The problem is that the editors of a general sociology journal like the BJS are almost completely in the hands of their referees. They know next to nothing about the subject matter of most of the articles they receive, the purported author or authors or indeed about the "experts" they ask to referee for them. Sociology is a completely balkanized discipline not only in terms of subject matter but more crucially in terms of what counts as good scientific standards. Add to that the well known reluctance of senior established people to spend their time writing referees' reports and it is a wonder that there aren't more cases of "substantial overlap". How can you ensure that only work of the highest academic quality gets published when the content of what you receive is incomprehensible to all but a few insiders, you have never heard of the author(s) and after receiving your tenth refusal to referee all you can get are five illiterate sentences from the kind of person who will enter the refereeing they do for a journal like the BJS as one of their four RAE submissions? (OK, I exaggerate a bit - the most illiterate refereeing I've seen actually came from a "senior" academic who deigned to scribble a few sentences on what looked like the back of a napkin whilst en route to an international conference. He shares the prize for academic chutzpah with a "senior" member of an editorial board who expected a journal to publish his apparently randomly assembled bullet points as a serious article).
Students should note that plagiarism is unacceptable but their teachers should remember as the KJV puts it:
And why beholdest thou the mote that is in thy brother's eye, but considerest not the beam that is in thine own eye?

Wednesday, 22 July 2009

Bukowski on writing

I came across this poem by Charles Bukowski which expresses something important about integrity in writing. I wouldn't take it literally as good advice about how to write a scientific book, but there is something about the spirit of the thing that is relevant for aspiring academics. I see too many doctoral students in my discipline who don't really have anything they passionately want to know who then wonder why they struggle to write something that anyone else cares about. If you don't know what you want to know or someone else has to tell you, don't do it. If all you want is 'DPhil (Oxon)' after your name, don't do it...

so you want to be a writer? by Charles Bukowski

if it doesn't come bursting out of you
in spite of everything,
don't do it.
unless it comes unasked out of your
heart and your mind and your mouth
and your gut,
don't do it.
if you have to sit for hours
staring at your computer screen
or hunched over your
searching for words,
don't do it.
if you're doing it for money or
don't do it.
if you're doing it because you want
women in your bed,
don't do it.
if you have to sit there and
rewrite it again and again,
don't do it.
if it's hard work just thinking about doing it,
don't do it.
if you're trying to write like somebody
forget about it.
if you have to wait for it to roar out of
then wait patiently.
if it never does roar out of you,
do something else.
if you first have to read it to your wife
or your girlfriend or your boyfriend
or your parents or to anybody at all,
you're not ready.
don't be like so many writers,
don't be like so many thousands of
people who call themselves writers,
don't be dull and boring and
pretentious, don't be consumed with self-
the libraries of the world have
yawned themselves to
over your kind.
don't add to that.
don't do it.
unless it comes out of
your soul like a rocket,
unless being still would
drive you to madness or
suicide or murder,
don't do it.
unless the sun inside you is
burning your gut,
don't do it.
when it is truly time,
and if you have been chosen,
it will do it by
itself and it will keep on doing it
until you die or it dies in you.
there is no other way.
and there never was.

Tuesday, 21 July 2009

Look what they did to my graph Ma!

This is a follow up to my previous post. Browsing through the Milburn report my eye was drawn to the first graph above apparently based on something from one of my own publications. They have succeeded in creating a great example of how not to present statistical information in graphical form. In fact I have rarely seen so many bad practices represented in one simple figure. Compare it with my original figure below it which appeared in: John H. Goldthorpe and Colin Mills (2008) 'Trends in Intergenerational Class Mobility in Modern Britain: Evidence from National Surveys, 1972-2005', National Institute Economic Review, 5, July, 83-100. See how many foolish errors you can spot. Here is a starter for 10. The points on the lower graph labelled BHPS7 and EUSILC7 are, as is explained in the article, not derived on the same basis as all the other points and therefore comparisons of levels between these and the other points is meaningless.

Fair Access to the Professions

The final report of the Panel on Fair Access to the Professions chaired by Alan Milburn is released today. I can't pretend I have read all of it but my impression is that it doesn't contain much that is new. It does though reinforce some unhelpful confusions. Pace the report, doing better than your parents because of general economic growth doesn't have any necessary implications for equalizing relative mobility chances and equalizing relative mobility chances does imply - even if politicos don't like it - that the less meritorious sons and daughters of the middle classes are less likely to attain occupational positions as good - in relative terms - as those of their parents. Just because the pie is bigger and therefore everone's slice is bigger in absolute terms doesn't change the fact that some people's slice is twice, three times, four times...bigger than other's. And claiming that equalization of access to desirable positions implies no downward mobility is like pretending that it never rains in Britain during the Summer because you would prefer it to be sunny all the time.

Having said that, the central message of the report is broadly correct. Social background does matter for economic success in ways that are unjust and economically inefficient and whatever progress there has been towards equalizing opportunities in the last 40 years or so has been small compared to the magnitude of the inequality in life chances for children from different social class backgrounds. While the report probably exaggerates (negatively) Britain's comparative position in the world social mobility league it is true that despite our rhetoric we are a middle of the table team. If we were a schoolchild our end of term report would read: 'Could do better if she tried harder'. The report can be read at:
One thing the report makes something of is the lack of good quality survey data on the social class origins of people in the workforce. It then baulks at the cost of collecting data by monitoring recruitment to professional positions. Why not simply add a couple of questions on parental social background to just one of the quarters of the Quarterly Labour Force Survey? Response rates to the QLFS are high, the sample size is large - allowing EO monitoring at quite a detailed level - and the marginal cost of a couple of extra questions must be comparatively small. Some of us have been calling for this for years. Why is nobody in the Cabinet Office listening? If you really want to know the answers then you have to ask the questions.

Tuesday, 2 June 2009

Journey Without Maps

I am reading Graham Greene's Journey Without Maps, an account of his trek through Liberia in the mid 1930s and came across the following passage:

Legend belongs naturally to primitive communities where minds are so little differentiated, by work or play or education, that a story can move quickly from brain to brain uncriticized. But sometimes these conditions arise artificially. A common danger, purpose or way of life can very nearly destroy differences of intellect and class; then you get the angels of Mons and the miracles at a shrine.

Could he have been reading Durkheim?

Wednesday, 18 March 2009

John Martyn

I must be working too hard because I failed to notice that John Martyn had died at the end of January. It feels strangely personal and judging by the vast amount of tributes on the web I'm not the only one to take it that way. His music was the soundtrack to my student years in London and when I hear one of his songs I feel that those days are only yesterday. I can almost smell them, can almost reach out and touch the bittersweetness of experiencing everything of importance for the first time.
My flatmate was a great fan and gave me a tape with some of the songs from Inside Out on it. I had never heard anything like it. It was the music of confession, everything on display, the agony and the ecstasy. I rushed out to the Virgin Megastore on Oxford Street and bought Solid Air and Grace and Danger. The latter I can hardly bear to listen to, the musicianship is stunning, but it seems indecent to consume so much of another's pain. More recently I bought One World and was blown away. Here was trip-hop 20 years ahead of its time. With music as good as this you don't need illicit smoking substances to appreciate it.
Looking at early recordings of his performances - there are some superb Old Grey Whistle Test sets - you see a man with the good looks of a Greek god and the voice of an angel. You also see the seeds of self-destructive tragedy. I only saw him live once, in the mid-nineties at the Festival Hall. He played a mostly electric set, ear splittingly loud, punctuated by the obligatory and perfunctory accoustic rendition of May you Never. It was a magical performance without any of the drink and drug fueled incoherence that his live act was notorious for. He could have sat back on his laurels and just played the standards from his back catalogue, but he was still pushing out in new musical directions.
May you Never is one of those songs whose success partly depends on the fact that you can read into it more or less what you like without it being so full of holes that it becomes completely vacuous. I think I read somewhere that it is actually addressed to his baby step-son which makes perfect lyrical sense. It's not my favourite Martyn song but I do like the fine version with Danny Thompson and Kathy Mattea from the BBC's Transatlantic Sessions. I think the performance epitomises musical intelligence. You can judge for yourself at:

Thursday, 12 March 2009

Brian Barry

Brian Barry, who died earlier this week, was a political theorist I admired. I can't claim to be an aficianado of the genre but I enjoyed the clarity of his thought and the abrasive style with which he expressed himself. It also helped that I more or less always tended to agree with him. Culture and Equality which provoked howls of outrage from the multiculturalism lobby seemed to me to be as good a statement of the liberal egalitarian position as anyone has managed. If you are a liberal egalitarian you want, amongst other things, the same substantive rights for everybody (including the opportunities to realise those rights), not special deals for some. Though we overlapped at the LSE for several years I barely exchanged a word with him, but colleagues in the Government Department would often tell me what a good job he did as Departmental Chair. He sorted out some people that badly needed sorting out and encouraged fresh young talent.
I have a particularly fond memory of once attending the salon seminar that he held in his basement flat in Bloomsbury, just round the corner from the British Museum. The topic was, I believe, something like rational choice theory and sociology. A group of youngish men and women from half a dozen universities - some far beyond the M25 - sat around his front room, drinking red wine and discussing a paper. Brian was quiet for most of the discussion but suddenly came to life when somebody or other's latest book was mentioned. Then he interjected and said that he had read it in manuscript and it would have been rather better if it had been half the length. In itself, nothing special, but I can still remember the feeling that somehow I was participating in a significant event amongst people who thought that ideas actually mattered and were worth arguing about, even falling out over. As I get older and more cynical it is good to be reminded of the value of serious honest thought free of pose and sad that it took the death of an intellectual giant to do it.
For tributes from people who knew him, his work, or both well see:

Monday, 9 March 2009

Writing a Master's Thesis

It's that time of year when my MSc students are starting to seriously worry about choosing a dissertation topic. With that in mind here are my top tips:

1. You should choose something that is challenging enough to be worth doing, but not so difficult that you can't make any real progress with it. Significant difficulties will be: lack of data; poor quality data; so much data that you exceed the computational capacity of your hardware; data whose structure requires the application of sophisticated techniques that you don't know or can't easily acquire on your own. If any of these difficulties seem likely, think again.

2. Choose a topic that relates to something you have studied this year. That makes it so much more likely that your dissertation will be rooted in an ongoing scientific research programme that somebody around here cares about rather than looking like a 'puzzle' that fell out of the sky.

3. Have a question, preferably one that you don't already know the answer to. If you can't formulate what you are doing as a question then you probably haven't got a suitable dissertation topic. If you know the answer already then it probably isn't worth doing.

4. The English critic F. R. Leavis had some good advice on choosing a dissertation topic : choose one that gives you something practical to do on Monday morning. That way you get a sense of making progress .

5. Have realistic expectations about what your supervisor can do for you and how long it will take them to do it. If they are a specialist in the area you choose you will get more out of them than if you choose to work in an area they know little about. The choice is yours and, as in life, there are trade offs to be made that have to be lived with.

6. If you think you want to collect your own data, be realistic about how long that is likely to take, how relevant it is and how good the quality will be. Listen carefully to your supervisor's advice. A dissertation in which all your time is eaten up in data collection is unlikely to be terribly successful.

7. If you plan to leave Oxford during the Summer to collect data or for other reasons be realistic about the consequences. In principle supervision by email is possible, but it is rarely entirely satisfactory and if you choose this way of doing things then: caveat emptor!
If you are completely clueless about what to do then you could do worse than read the following paper by Gary King. It's not exactly about writing a dissertation, but a lot of the advice is transferrable as indeed is the strategy of starting off by trying to replicate a published study.

The Protestant Ethic in 2009

It's more than 100 years since Max Weber wrote The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism. I'm told that it is a long time since economic historians took the essays seriously, but that hasn't prevented the text being a mainstay of sociological theory reading lists. The main reason for this, I suspect, is probably the wilful obscurity of the text itself. Not being entirely clear about what exactly it is that you are claiming is great for the secondary and tertiary level exegetical works that flourish on the corpse of a masterwork. Usually I'm bored by this kind of thing but I was recently intrigued to see an article in a German newspaper reporting work done by a pair of economists examining the relationship between religious confession and economic success in late 19th Century Prussia. Sascha O. Becker and Ludger Woessmann use county (Kreise) level data from the 1871 Prussian Census together with a couple of similar sources to investigate whether level of economic development in Weber's time was related to the proportion of Protestants residing in a county. The answer is yes, but the relationship is spurious and disappears once level of literacy is controlled. They make the argument that whatever Luther and Lutherism may have done to theological and ultimately popular notions about 'the Calling' and the ethics of economic behaviour, a more fundamental consequence of the reformation was Luther's stress on literacy. Luther argued that Germany's Protestant princes should encourage the schooling of their subjects so that they could read the word of God. Protestant's built more school's than Catholics and Protestant's were more motivated than Catholics to become literate because salvation came not through the intercession of a priest but through understanding God's written word in His book. Literacy was, of course, also pretty useful in economic life and gave Protestants the edge over Catholics. All in all Becker and Woessmann tell a pretty convincing story, but I'm left with an uneasy feeling. After a century of worrying over Weber's text sociologists have remarkably little of real value to show for it. Two economists come along, do some spade work, unearth some relevant data, extract a remarkable amount of information from it, and without much fuss produce an answer to a very basic question. How come sociologists aren't capable of doing this?
Becker and Woessman's article will appear in the Quarterly Journal of Economics. A working paper can be found at: http://epub.ub.uni-muenchen.de/1366/1/weberLMU.pdf

Monday, 26 January 2009

Editorial Independence

This morning my PA inadvertently opened a letter that had been delivered by mistake. It appears to be be intended for the letters page of Private Eye.
I feel I must write to protest. Last night, just as Mrs Buffton-Tuffton and I were settling down to our usual Sunday supper of boiled beef and carrots we were affronted whilst listening to Radio 4's Poetry Please by lines from the so called poet Rab C. Nesbitt (surely Rabbie Burns? - ed) which must call into question the BBC's long cherished editorial independence. I quote:

Then let us pray that come it may,
(As come it will for a' that,)
That Sense and Worth, o'er a' the earth,
Shall bear the gree, an' a' that.
For a' that, an' a' that,
It's coming yet for a' that,
That Man to Man, the world o'er,
Shall brothers be for a' that.
I fear that the broadcasting of such dangerous 'humanitarian' nonsense can only raise doubts in the minds of our friends both within and outside the country about Britain's long standing commitment to keeping people in their place, unless, of course, that place is somewhere that we don't want them to be. It was all I could do to restrain Mrs B-T from shredding the wireless licence (shurely shome mistake? - ed.) with the minature assegai presented to me by my house boy on my retirement as District Commisioner of (name deleted - ed.) in 1963. To restore the balance can't we have something from that chappie who liked Mussolini - Cantos is what I think it is called?
I remain Sir your most obedient servant,
Col. R. H. Buffton-Tuffton (retd.)
The Old Glebe House
Lesser Cockswell

See Jim Malcolm perform Burn's song at


Disaster Emergency Committee Gaza Appeal


Tuesday, 20 January 2009

Blowing your own trumpet

There was a time when I often got asked to referee Research Council grant applications. Then for a few years I didn't get asked at all. I assumed that too much of the time I had made the "wrong" recommendation. Recently I was asked again and things have changed. Firstly one now does these things on line which is no big deal, but more surprisingly, at least to me, is that referees are required not only to evaluate the research proposal, but also evaluate themselves as evaluators! First you must rate yourself on several pro-forma criteria and then give a longer justification for your own self-rating. My immediate reaction to this invitation to waste even more of my time was: why would you ask me to evaluate a research proposal if you were unsure as to whether I would be any good at evaluating it? Moreover, why would I choose to evaluate it unless I had some relevant expertise? Referees give their time free and gratis, why would you make their job more onerous by requiring them to particpate in what amounts to a demeaning exercise in self-aggrandisement? Those with skill in blowing their own trumpets (and believe me there are many of these) will no doubt love it, but do we really want science to be controlled by people like that? This is what happens when academics are too pusillanimous or venal to resist the managerial takeover of British higher education.

Wednesday, 14 January 2009

Aneurin Bevan and Social Theory

My Christmas reading included the first volume of Michael Foot's biography of Aneurin Bevan which covers the period up to his appointment as Minister of Health in July 1945. The book is an unashamed piece of hagiography and is as much a testament to the fight for the soul of the Labour Party in 1962, when it was first published, as to the man that it is nominally about. Bevan was a born contrarian who spent as much time fighting the gutless hypocrisy of the leadership of his own party as he did the gutsier hypocrisy of the Conservatives. He was also an unashamed bon viveur and autodidact of extraordinary intellectual range and penetrating political insight who seems to have inspired unconditional love and hatred in almost equal measure.
I was particularly struck by a passage in which Bevan describes the Parliamentry performance of Stanley Baldwin:
"It is medicine man talk...It lifts the discussion on to so abstract a plane that the minds of the hearers are relieved of the effort of considering the details of the immediate problems. It imposes no intellectual strain because thought drifts into thought, assembling and dissolving like clouds in the upper air, having no connection with earthly obstacles. It flatters, because it appears to offer intimate companionship with a rare and noble spirit. It pleases the unsceptical, because it blurs the outline of unpleasant fact in a maze of meaningless generalities. Over and over again I have been amazed by the ease with which even Labour Members are deceived by this nonense."
Substitute 'empirical sociologists' for 'Labour Members' and you have an almost perfect description of the malign hold of 'social theory' over British sociology. It doesn't take much imagination to guess what Bevan would have made of the Third Way.

Friday, 9 January 2009

Purity, Danger and W. H. Smith

When I was an undergraduate one of my Professors was a great fan of Mary Douglas and was always urging us to read her Purity and Danger. Of course I didn't until much later and I then discovered a moderately interesting book about the social construction of order through the categorisations we use to pigeon-hole the mundane. Dirt, for example, is just matter out of place - which is a striking thought the first time you read it, but afterwards seems rather banal. But maybe that is the point. The categorisations we routinely use are in a sense the most powerful because they are the most banal. They just state what everyone knows and wouldn't think it worthwhile to question.
This stream of consciouness was prompted by something I saw in my local W. H. Smith (for non UK readers W. H. Smith is a large chain selling newspapers, books, stationary etc). Next to the rather full shelves labelled Biography - mainly containing the autobiographies of sportsmen and C list celebrities - were the equally full shelves of a section labelled Tragic Life Stories. Clearly market segmenters have identified a new type - one who gets up in the morning and rushes out to their local bookstore to fill up on the latest installment of human misery. I think there is something vaguely creepy about that.