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Caveat Emptor

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

Wednesday, 23 November 2011

Doctoral Funding Available at Oxford

My department admits between 10 and 15 doctoral students each year. There is likely to be funding to support at least 3-4 students. You can get generic information here and here. I'm keen to build up a group of research students working in  areas  I have an interest in. You can get some idea of what I am looking for by reading this. If you think you might like to work with me, get in touch. I'm happy to help you with your application  - as long as you give me sufficient time ie don't approach me a week before the application deadline and expect to get a response!

Monday, 21 November 2011

Music - times and places

I'm sure it is a banal observation - but I'm going to make it anyway: there are particular songs or pieces of music that always in my mind conjure up particular times and places. Take Joan Osborne's One of Us. For me this is a particularly melancholic stretch of the South Circular between Clapham and Dulwich that I once had occasion to drive along from time to time. Oasis' Don't Look Back in Anger is indelibly associated with 1996 and  the  interminable tube ride out  to the faceless suburbs of Ruislip and getting home just in time to watch the latest episode of Our Friends From the North. Pilot's Magic is the 13 year old me on the way to the local chippie after the church youth club hoping against hope to meet or at least get a glimpse of the unattainable beauty that lived just across the road and no clue what to say to her if I did. Be Bop Deluxe's Maid in Heaven is me two years on gradually  realizing that there is intelligent pop music. Me and Baby Brother has me in the fifth-form disco dancing with the  the friend of one of the girls in my class and enjoying a raffish notoriety because none of the cool kids had thought I had it in me. John Martyn's Sweet Little Mystery has me  living under the shadow of the Post Office Tower with a depressed Yorkshireman and a cricket mad Pakistani for flat-mates. The depressed Yorkshireman introduced me to John Martyn so I'm eternally grateful to you Bob wherever you are now. The Bach Double Violin Concerto in D Minor places me in a tiny room in King's Cross, and walking in Regent's Park while falling in and out of love with girls from the music schools who were, quite literally, out of my class when I should have been studying for my finals. And weirdest of all Wichita Lineman has me wandering slightly tipsy through the bright streets of Soho at 3 o'clock in the morning thinking: Ah, so this is freedom, this is the life of a student!

Friday, 18 November 2011

Political crisis

The Romans had a way of solving political crises. They would appoint a dictator (magistratus extraordinarius)  for a limited time rei gerundae causa or seditionis sedandae causa ie to get things done or to put down rebellion. He was the  technocrat of the day: "Trust me, I'm above politics".
Today I read and agreed with a comment piece in the Financial Times by Michael Ignatieff (which surprised me). He makes the completely obvious points that nobody else seems to be making. Why should the Italian or Greek citizens trust the unelected technocrats? (By the way isn't there a delicious irony in the name of the new Greek Prime Minister - Papademos?). Government by technocrats perpetuates the myth that the crisis is just a technical one, something that a sufficiently clever economist can, given time, sort out. It isn't. As Ignatieff rightly says it is also a political crisis and above all a legitimation crisis. The technocrats may have the (temporary) support of the political classes, but what happens when the people don't like the medicine they prescribe and react by saying: hang on a minute, who elected you? Technocrats like to pretend that there is only one choice or one best way of doing things and that their criteria of "best" is the only one a reasonable person could choose. They are not good at understanding that the Greeks, Italians and probably the rest of us before long have political choices to make. And those are about the kind of country we want to live in and how we want to govern ourselves. 

Tuesday, 8 November 2011

More of this (usually) means less of that

Yesterday I sat in a meeting  in which student representatives  are invited to raise issues about their courses and departmental life in general. I think these occasions are very valuable. Students have a big stake in university departments and it does us all good to hear what they think. The world can look very different depending on where you sit in the organizational hierarchy and it does those nearer the top a power of good to hear what those on the receiving end think about the experience. I've often thought though that  decision making at university meetings - not just ones involving students - would be improved immeasurably if all participants agreed to a simple convention. Every time a proposal is made that implies an increase in the amount of resources devoted to one activity - say extra classes in X -  the proposer should be obliged to pair it with a recommendation to devote less resources to Y. Of course if we are not near the production frontier we could decide to have more X and the same amount (or more) of Y. But it would be good discipline for everybody if we didn't begin by simply assuming that we live in a world where we can, or want, to do more of everything. University departments, in my experience, are subject to a large amount of drift. New courses accumulate faster than old courses are pensioned off and demands on students grow without adjustment to the goals that they are supposed to reach. And all this goes on in a fantasy world in which we all connive to pretend that we can have or do more of everything without affecting the quality of the output. Sometimes we can, but, more often than not we can't and then more really does mean worse.

Monday, 7 November 2011

Sociology and Social Anthropology: what's the difference?

The Royal Anthropological Institute has started an interesting website to promote the discipline. I was struck by what it had to say about social and cultural anthropology. I can't detect any serious intellectual differences between the story it tells about what anthropology is and the story that a sociologist would tell about what sociology is about. Of course the division of the intellectual landscape is to some degree arbitrary, but I can't help thinking that from time to time we should do some spring cleaning and tidy things up a bit. I know this sounds ultra rationalist as well as a tad dirigiste but one of the consequences of not doing this is firstly that people ostensibly doing the same things do not talk to each other and secondly that ecological niches evolve  which - to the detriment of good science -  insulate tribal members from  cross-border criticism. 
Here is a wild speculation: it could be the case that qualitative work in sociology would be more rigorous if it was routinely subject to the scrutiny of colleagues trained in the anthropological tradition. It could likewise be the case that much of what passes for the anthroplogical study of industrialised or post-industrialised societies would benefit from the the scrutiny of people with a more quantitative turn of mind. Just a thought (and I am, of course, aware that some universities already follow the path of enlightenment by having joint sociology and anthropology departments).

Monday, 31 October 2011

UCAS and University application

It seems to me that there is an obvious way to organize admission to English universities so that potential students can apply after they know their results: start the university year in January. There would be a lot of advantages and, as far as I can see, few disadvantages. There is no need to change the timing of A level examinations. The existing university terms could be kept with teaching in the existing Spring and Summer Terms followed by the Summer vacation and examinations in the Winter Term. Educationally I can only see benefit - students would have the Summer vacation to revise and think about the material and they would start the next academic year with it fresh in their minds. It would also give students who gain places at university an opportunity to spend an extra term at school  perhaps following a pre-university preparation course. There would, of course, be a slightly painful transition period, but it shouldn't be beyond the wit of any institution worthy of the name 'university' to be able to cope with that. Now tell me all the reasons why it can't be done.

Friday, 28 October 2011

St Paul's

Hats off to Canon Giles Fraser for having the courage of his convictions. If only  a few of our political leaders could act with such straightforward honesty and dignity... but then again they wouldn't last very long in our political system if they did.  I'm curious though how one can be guided in one's moral life by a belief system that  asserts both:

"...it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God."

"...render unto Caesar what is his and unto God what is His."

That's the problem with revealed religion, self-evidently something got garbled during the process of revelation.

Tuesday, 25 October 2011


For some reason I'm a person who finds thinking in terms of categories easier than thinking in terms of continuous measures. Maybe it's just an effect of getting into quantitative social science  without studying proper math in school - if you didn't take calculus in upper secondary school and had to mug it up yourself later thinking about continuous smooth change or differences sits uneasily on top of my instinct to chop the world up into discrete bits with distinctive labels. Maybe that piece of cod psychology is just nonsense. Anyway I'm always slightly disturbed or amused when people chop the world up differently from the way I would do it. Most of the time I come round and admit that my way is just as arbitrary as the next person's, but sometimes I just wonder what goes through people's minds.
At the weekend I was browsing the shelves of my local Waterstones (whiling away the time while partner and daughter had their hair cut) and found that they had put Philip Kerr in the general fiction section. I like Philip Kerr, but he is a genre writer and should be in the crime section! If I'd wanted to buy one of his excellent Bernie Gunther novels, which as it happened I didn't, I wouldn't have been able to find it. I know it is trivial, but worse was to come. Upstairs in the philosophy section they had put  George Polya's How to Solve it next to Karl Popper's Open Society and its Enemies. What's the matter with these guys don't they know the difference between mathematics and philosophy?
Still, there was one encouraging sign. My blood pressure always used to rise when I saw what was on the shelves in the sociology section. Problem solved. There is no longer a sociology section.

What is a university?

The Guardian today gives space in its education section to what is, in effect, an advertisement for BPP University College masquerading as a comment piece by BPP principal Carl Lygo. BPP is a private, for profit, college with degree awarding powers. Personally I've nothing against such colleges entering the market and I can see the attraction of the no frills, low cost model. What they should not be allowed to do is pretend that they are something they are not. Lyco can scarcely be accused of that. In fact I'm amazed by his candour. He writes:
"So how can we do all this and still charge only around half the fees the other charge? The answer is by cutting back on costs in areas that do not directly affect the student experience. Having underutilised real estate (classrooms, libraries, lecture theatres, breakout space) that students do not use is just a drain on cost."

Classrooms, libraries, lecture theatres and breakout space do not directly affect the student experience? Did I  read that right or have I just entered a parallel universe in which the English language no longer means what I thought it meant. Or is this just standard corporate speak which, silly old me, nobody is meant to take seriously and is "qualified" in the small print?

Monday, 17 October 2011

Rhythm of the year

One of the  things that every parent notices once their children start school is that the year  becomes much more obviously structured by the traditional festivals that for most of us long ago lost any deep significance. In a way I quite like it and for small children it is probably psychologically important to have the year marked by a succession of regular and familiar events. It's interesting though how these events can take on  very different shades of meaning.
Last year my daughter took part in her Kindergarten Harvest Festival service. It was held in one of Bamberg's Lutheran Churches - a rather splendid building that was completely reconstructed after the war. Inside a small group of parents huddled - German churches never seem to be heated - to watch the kids perform a harvest themed play. We sang a few hymns said a few prayers and the female priest - dressed in black with a splendid white ruff - preached a short sermon. One shouldn't overestimate the piety of the event; most of the parents, judging from an apparent lack of familiarity about how to behave in church,  looked as though they were far from stalwarts of the predominantly working class parish and were primarily interested in taking photographs and videos of their offspring. On the other hand the event was recognizably about thankfulness for the fruits of the earth.
This year we were back in England  and the school Harvest Festival was in an enormous Edwardian North Oxford barn of a church. Turning up five minutes before kick-off we were lucky to squeeze into the back row and those that came after us had to stand. I wonder if the church had ever been so full. We were then entertained for an hour by quite amazing orchestral and choral performances by the children. As one of the parents said to me afterward: "You had to keep reminding yourself that they are just junior school kids". Audience participation was limited to one quick verse of We Plough the Fields and Scatter which I think was quite enough for most of the parents. 
At one level what we saw was a spectacular achievement. The children had obviously been practicing hard and the performance standard was truly outstanding. In a sense, of course, this is what the parents wanted to see - the children - or in some cases their child - at centre stage. It would be wrong to be cynical or disapproving of that, but I can't escape the feeling that  even for this non-believer something important about  the meaning and significance of the festival had become obscured.

Friday, 14 October 2011

Defending Public Libraries

Public libraries that are free at the point of delivery - at least if you want to borrow books - are an important part of the sort of community I want to live in. It wouldn't be much of an exaggeration to say that up to the age of 18 I got a large amount of my education from and in Coventry's Central Library. If you came from a home like mine where there was no culture of books or reading one of the few ways you could  get any sense of the sheer  range of what there was to know  and enjoy was by visiting the library, standing in front of the shelves, and surveying their content. I was very lucky in that my father, no great reader himself, thought it was a good idea when I was round about the age of 7 to take me one day after school to our local branch library (an old two room Carnegie building)  to get me a library ticket. I can still remember the first book I chose for myself - a large illustrated volume about Carter's excavation of the Tutankhamun tomb. I think the text was too difficult for me, but I enjoyed looking at the pictures. 
My own daughter has had her own library card from the age of 3 and every other week we make a Saturday afternoon trip to get story books and DVDs. We often see the same families in the children's section of  the library and, as far as I can judge, they are not just drawn from the middle classes - though inevitably quite a few are.
I've got reasons then to feel instinctive hostility towards plans to cut library provision - my own County has quite extensive plans to make "efficiency savings" and has just concluded a "public consultation". I've personally benefited enormously from the system and I hope my daughter will too.  But, I feel uneasy. Looking at the evidence rationally rather than emotionally I can see that some of the resources devoted to the public library system are probably misallocated. Consider a county like Oxfordshire with a large rural and small town population. Library buildings last a long time and locations that made perfect sense 50 years ago may not make as much sense now. But public feeling tends to get very firmly attached to what was relevant in the distant past rather than what is sensible today. Public policy always involves making choices: more of this (or in the current climate the same of this) means less of that. If you look at spending priorities one by one in isolation it is  impossible to decide which services deserve support. They all deserve support, but that is not a choice within  the politically feasible set.

Thursday, 13 October 2011


An occasional posting inspired by the delicious column Forsooth! in  RSS News.

Which Professor of Sociology describes his understanding of our discipline in the following way?

"Sociology is for me in essence the ironic depiction of the ironies of human existence, that is, an ironic take on historical irony".


Thursday, 6 October 2011

Possibly useful methods site

By chance I came across the Methodspace website which might be useful to know about (assuming you don't know about it already). I've only briefly looked at it and will be interested to hear informed opinion about its utility. Two caveats. Firstly you have to scroll to the bottom of the page to find out that it appears to be sponsored by Sage. Nothing intrinsically wrong with that, they produce some useful books, but on the whole I prefer not to link to commercial sites and you will find quite a lot of plugging of Sage content. Secondly my very brief look at the site content suggested to me that surrounding the more serious questions and discussions there is quite a lot of artlessly disguised "can you help me with my methods 101 homework" type of fishing. Still I keep an open mind and if I  hear a lot of positive feedback I'll add it to my blog list (and if not I won't).

Incidentally my own attempt a few years ago to create a very crude version of this sort of thing in the department  was a complete and utter failure. I was always hearing from students that they were frustrated by lack of easy access to all the methods expertise (or enthusiasm)  that is widely diffused amongst us. So I set up a mail list to which any member could send  out quantitative  methods questions that were troubling them in the hope that somebody in the community could give them some advice.

The problem was not in recruiting members - plenty signed up. The problem was in soliciting questions. Literally not a single question was ever submitted. I saw no evidence to suggest that the need for advice disappeared, it just seemed to be that when push came to shove nobody was brave enough to admit in public that there was something they didn't know or couldn't figure out.

And they say education is a dialogue...

Wednesday, 5 October 2011

Academic biographies

The trouble with writing the biography of  an academic is that by and large they don't have very interesting lives. All the action is, so to speak, inside their heads and if the thought is less than riveting in the first place then the biographer really has a tough job, one that it would be  wiser not to take on. Still, some make a success of it. I enjoyed and felt I learned something, for example, from Ben Rogers' biography of Freddie Ayer and Michael Ignatieff's life of Isaiah Berlin. Two less successful exemplars of the genre I've read recently are Fred Inglis' History Man: The Life of R.G. Collingwood and Dai Smith's Raymond Williams: A Warrior's Tale.
Collingwood is  a  thinker  I suspect is oft cited  but little read. One of the reasons for this is that his thought is difficult to pigeon-hole within conventional intellectual categories: he was an archaeologists, an historian and a philosopher. Personally I find his philosophical writing an acquired taste, in fact a taste that I have never managed to acquire. He's usually regarded as one of the last of the Oxford Idealists picking up the baton from wherever the likes of T. H. Green, F. H. Bradley and a host of obscure and now long forgotten Oxford philosophy dons dropped it in the first couple of decades of the Twentieth Century. How much there is to this view I can't really say mainly because I have a profound distaste for the writing of the Oxford Idealists based on the fact that  for the most part I can't understand what their metaphysics is actually about. One mention of the Absolute and I reach for my conceptual revolver. I imagine it was an infinitely subtler version of that reaction that got Oxford ordinary language philosophy off to a flying start. (Of course in my own day we had versions of the same kind of thing. As an undergraduate I had great fun learning the arcane vocabulary of Althusserian  Marxism and could  'interpellate' with the best of them, uttering long and apparently grammatically correct, but essentially meaningless, sentences at will. The members of the sacred circle nodded their heads in sage agreement. Nobody challenged it. I might as well have been making farm-yard noises: in fact I was making farm-yard noises).
Anyway I turned to Inglis' book hoping to learn something about the man and a lot about his thought. I'm sorry to say that I learned little of either. Essentially Inglis has little to say  and he says it at great length. The reasons for this are rather plain, firstly he doesn't seem to have much to work with apart from Collingwood's books themselves. It quickly becomes apparent that the family refused him access to personal papers  in their possession and therefore one of the key sources for an illuminating biography is missing. Secondly, Inglis doesn't appear to have the sort of philosophical insight that made Rogers' and Ignatieff's books illuminating (at least to me). Beyond the few windy generalities that I already possessed I'm not much the wiser as to the significance of Collingwood's thought. What I do sense is a biographer who is out of his depth and would have been wise not to have got into the pool in the first place. What is particularly irritating are the vast number of pages devoted, not to Collingwood's, but to Inglis' opinions about this, that and the other, none of which are particularly interesting (tip - in a biography it is the subject not the writer who should be at the front of the stage). So Collingwood still awaits a serious biographer. Whether the wait will be worthwhile I can't say, but you may feel that life is too short to  fill in the time with Inglis' effort.
Raymond Williams is one of those iconic figures who for my generation of left leaning undergraduates sat at the right hand of Marx (or was it Lukacs or Goldmann?). Anyway,  he was one of those figures like Edward Thompson, Christopher Hill, Eric Hobsbawn and Rodney Hilton who were supposed to be, as far as we were concerned, beyond reproach or criticism. Of course I made the appropriate reverential noises, but actually, a lot of the time I felt guilty because although I believed that ideas about a "common culture" and "structures of feeling" should have some analytical value, I could never quite put my finger on what that value was, other than as emotional rallying calls for a particular English intellectual generation, that even by the time I was an undergraduate, had had its day. I can't say anything about his works on drama, which I've never read, but I do recall the first bewildering time I read Culture and Society. I couldn't make head nor tail of it. What did all these little essays add up to? Williams clearly believed there was a thread, there probably is a thread of some vague sort, but where did it lead? I was dammed if I knew. Later I read the book again. I got more out of the individual essays, but I still wasn't really able to understand why it had such a big impact when it was first published in 1958. I was similarly disappointed by The Long Revolution. Cultural studies types seemed to regard it as a source of endless insights but to me it just seemed to be a lot of cod sociology much of it at a level of generality which meant it was never precise enough ever to be wrong.  People whose views I respect tell me that Williams' fiction is worth reading: I'll save that pleasure for a rainy day.
Dai Smith's problem is the opposite of Inglis'. Whereas the latter had too little material to work with, Smith has too much and he never misses an opportunity to present it to the reader. On the whole Williams didn't lead an especially interesting life, unless you find drafts of syllabuses for WEA courses fascinating. An unfair, but not entirely inaccurate synopsis might be: school, Cambridge, active service in WWII (start a short lived literary magazine), Cambridge (start another short lived literary magazine), Extra-mural tutor (start various short-lived literary magazines), write a lot of novels that are never published...
Smith pads out the bare bones of the story with pages and pages and pages of verbatim quotations from Williams' largely unpublished and endlessly recycled fiction. Some of this stuff can reasonably be regarded as  subliminary evidence of biographical value, but  we really don't need so much. The story could have been told in 200 rather than 500 pages and that story, at least up to 1961 which is where the biography ends, is really that of a man very much caught up in trying to understand his own roots, and his own place in the world to pretty much the exclusion of everything and everybody else. Friends and comrades appear on the scene, some are around for years only to be suddenly dropped for the flimsiest of reasons (Wolf Mankowitz, Clifford Collins) or no reasons at all (Michael Orrom) and all the while the abiding image is of a man sitting at home in Hastings surrounded by notebooks and work in progress (which is never finished) almost oblivious to the existence of his wife and three small children. There are intriguing  references to depression, apparently keeping him in bed for days, but this does not seem to have kept him from his main occupation: scribble, scribble scribble Mr Williams (and why not start another literary magazine?). As a political actor on the left he was involved, yet not really, or only reluctantly, at the centre. Perhaps he was just too much of his own man to be straightforwardly committed to any political cause and in fact his grounds for refusing military service in the Korean War contain strong hints of this (his case was essentially that he objected to the subordination of the individual to the dictates of military authority). Williams was clearly a complex man and I suspect one with many inner demons that he could only exorcise through his writing. Whether that exorcism leaves us a legacy that is of anything but historical interest is something that I'm not sure of.

Friday, 30 September 2011

The history of sociology - as told in the UK

I'm an intermittent reader of Herb Gintis' Amazon book reviews which are interesting because  he ranges right across the social sciences and beyond. I'm not in a position to make terribly informed judgments about his take on a number of subjects -  economics, evolutionary psychology, physics - but in areas closer to my heart he is sometimes spot on and sometimes infuriatingly perverse. On the general state of sociological theory he  can be pretty sharp - ie most of it is waffle little of which can genuinely be called sociological theory - and that some fashionable attempts to remedy that situation, for example agent-based modelling, can't fill the gap (the proponents of it more often than not stand accused of mistaking a methodology  - which is undoubtedly useful - for a theory).
His admiration for Talcott Parsons, at least the early Parsons, is something I find difficult to understand. The Structure of Social Action, led nowhere theoretically - in fact Parsons went off in another direction and into an equally fruitless blind alley - and treated as an account of the genesis of theoretical thinking in sociology - as it often is  (though this is as much the fault of Parsons' readers as of Parsons himself) - it is extremely misleading. The version of Durkheim, Weber, Pareto and Marshall we get from Parsons are really accounts of what they should have  written if they had been able to foresee his  grand synthesis.
One common way in university departments of dealing with the lack of genuine sociological theory but the  need to have a course with the title "sociological theory" is to get somebody to give a course of lectures on the "classics" which in the British context tends to be interpreted as Marx, Weber and Durkheim with perhaps a nod in the direction of demi-gods like Simmel, Tocqueville, Pareto and so forth. It's easy for this sort of thing to become a sort of ersatz history of social thought and when it does it is often tempting to present it as a series of "debates" between the leading protagonists. In as far as these are understood as setting out the actual course of intellectual history - as opposed to a highly selective and post-hoc reconstruction - they are cloth eared misrepresentations.
Marx and Weber did not think of themselves as sociologists and Weber had far more corporeal  partners to debate with than das grosse Gespenst. Weber and Durkheim appear to have had little cognizance or at least little serious interest in each other's work (cf their very different understandings of the sociology of religion). Marx may have been important for the history of social thought in some continental European countries, especially Germany, but his impact on British academic sociological thought - until he was taken up by sixties radicals - was minor. What is especially interesting in the British case is what has been written out of the indigenous tradition. When I took my undergraduate course in "sociological theory" the first lecture was about Nineteenth Century evolutionism (my eternal thanks go to Anthony Smith for giving one of the best set of lectures I ever attended) but who now reads Spencer, Tyler and  Maine? Not many sociologists to be sure - and probably quite rightly - but you can't understand the intellectual origins of sociology in Britain without understanding that some of the roots lie in that relatively stony soil rather than in the apparently richer earth of the Continent on the other side of La Manche.
Stefan Collini does a brilliant job of making this point in his Liberalism and Sociology: L.T. Hobhouse and Political  Argument in England. That Hobhouse should have held the first British  endowed chair in sociology could be considered a bit of a puzzle - though being related by marriage to Beatrice Webb probably did his cause no harm. But Collini makes it clear that in the political context of the time a connection between the New Liberalism espoused, amongst others, by Hobhouse and the type of Fabian "progressive" social thought being explored at the London School of Economics seemed entirely natural. Of course this was, to some degree a marriage of convenience, and didn't last, but nobody in 1906 could foresee that after one more great flourishing Liberalism in its English sense would be dead.
There is a sense in which the first world war destroyed the intellectual foundations of Hobhouse's world - never glad confident morning again. But his influence lived on through his disciple Morris Ginsberg who was still active and influential right up to the early sixties. And their sociological ideas, now long neglected - perhaps the last influence was on Leslie Sklair whose doctoral thesis was published as The Sociology of Progress - are not inherently silly. The question of whether systems of normative ideas have an inherent tendency to develop over time along certain lines and according to a certain logic is capable of empirical investigation. As is the question of whether the normative systems of different societies tend to converge. That the process of investigation was and is  hard - not least because of the Galton problem of cultural diffusion - should not lead us to tell stories about the national origins of our discipline that are little more than the myths of the ignorant.

Thursday, 29 September 2011


I was thinking the other day about the last time I read a book that made me laugh out loud (I should perhaps add the qualification that only books that are meant to be funny count). I don't mean raised a wry smile, or a gentle chuckle, I mean a loud uncontrolled belly laugh. Too long ago I fear, but that led me on to think about the books that have ever made me laugh out loud. It is a distressingly short list  but the reason for that may be my increasingly defective memory more than anything else. Be that as it may, here  they are (in no particular order): 1) Spike Milligan's Puckoon; 2) Flann O'Brien's The Third Policeman; 3) Evelyn Waugh's Decline and Fall; 4) Waugh's Scoop. Two Irishmen (sort of) and an English reactionary. Odd bedfellows to be sure (to be sure). What was the last book that made you laugh out loud?

Tuesday, 27 September 2011

White paper on higher education

I think we can all agree that the government's white paper on higher education is a disaster. In its current form it will solve none of the (real) problems that it is meant to deal with. Nick Barr's evidence to the Business, Innovation and Skills Committee sets out clearly why the proposed policy can't work and points to how it needs to be changed so that it can work. Meanwhile, trumpeted in the Guardian today is the "alternative white paper"  In Defence of Public Higher Education (there is a link from the Guardian article) signed by some of the great and good of British universities (it is interesting to notice which disciplines are represented). 
What strikes me is that it is possible to agree broadly with all nine of the "propositions about the value of public higher education" and still believe that it is a very silly document that contributes precisely nothing constructive to the public debate - and, I think, provides wonderful evidence of much that is wrong headed in some of the social sciences in Britain.
Nowhere does this document address or even hint at answers to the relevant issues (unless you take it as implicit that the signatories believe that general taxation is a viable source of funding for current levels of enrollment and future expansion).  It would have advanced the debate if they had come up with concrete proposals as to: 1) How are you going to put money in the hands of universities now?; 2) How are you going to remove the cap on student numbers imposed by fiscal constraint?; 3) how are you going to reform the current absurd situation in which members of a cohort that gain no direct private gain from publicly funded higher education nevertheless are taxed to pay for it? 
The status quo implies redistribution away from the types of people that train (often at their own expense to be chefs, plumbers, carpenters, mechanics etc in favour of the types of people that go to university to study classics, art history, english literature, theology, film studies and so forth. And people who say that they are in favour of social mobility are in favour of that?

Monday, 26 September 2011

Culturally off centre

One of the great things that happens to you when you spend  time living in another country is that you get exposed to bits of popular culture, some perhaps even stemming from your own cultural zone, that you never noticed before. So while in Germany I watched  and enjoyed quite a few German films, but also quite a few international films that  I had somehow missed. A good example of the latter is the completely charming Irish musical film Once. You'd have to be cynical not to enjoy this modern day Brief Encounter. I also enjoyed a lot Train of Life which, believe it or not, is a comedy about a jewish village deciding to deport itself to the East before the Nazi's do the job. It sounds an unlikely subject for comedy and in dubious taste to boot, but it is extremely funny and you have to watch right to the end to get the point. Of the German productions the highlights were: Das Wunder von Bern - a sort of German Chariots of Fire but much better; Schwabenkinder a shocking costume drama about the exploitation of child labour in Southern Germany and Die Manns a "docu-drama" about the lives of the Mann family.


Listening to Radio 4 this morning while brushing my teeth I heard somebody who sounded like a  sixth-former being interviewed about the economy. Couldn't they find somebody more authoritative than that? I thought to myself as I did my usual gargle and spit. It was only after a few minutes that I realized that the person they were speaking to was the Shadow Chancellor Ed Balls. I imagine I  will  have the same reaction tomorrow if I happen to catch the Leader of Her Majesty's Official Opposition during my dental hygiene routine. 
The problem is not so much with what they are saying, or failing to say - though the lack of any meaningful parliamentary opposition to the current Government makes the shambles on the opposition benches between 1979 and 1983 look like a golden era of statesmanship. It is all about how they say it.  Miliband and Balls are not stupid, they are exactly the sort of people that a serious minister or shadow cabinet member should want to have in their team. But, regrettable as it is, they are the wrong people to front the show. So far the media have been reasonably kind to them, but that is not going to last.

Friday, 23 September 2011

Noises off

My guess is that it is a common experience to feel a bit like Rosencrantz and Guildenstern in Tom Stoppard's play. You know, you are centre stage in the spot-light, but all the really important or interesting stuff is taking place behind you, just off stage, just finishes before you enter or only kicks off immediately  after you have exited. One of my Rosencrantz and Guildenstern moments relates to Satoshi Kanazawa who was appointed to replace me at  the LSE when I moved to Oxford. I remember at the time thinking it was an "interesting" appointment: let's say that already in 2002 the man had something of a reputation. I subsequently met him a couple of times at social functions and  he seemed to be perfectly pleasant (to me at least) not that this is evidence for or against anything in particular. Since then his talent for provocation seems to have become unbounded culminating last week in a very public wrap over the knuckles from his employer.
Before I get to my main point let me make my position very clear. Personally I'm convinced by the scientific critics of Kanazawa's more controversial papers and pronouncements that the claims he makes are false and that the intellectual craftsmanship is poor. In my view he is reckless in a way that suggests that his principal aim is to court publicity rather than contribute to understanding. If this is true, he would, of course, not be unique, either at the LSE or in academe in general. I can also understand that  what he writes may well genuinely offend and distress people. Personally I find some of what he has written distasteful not least because it seems to show little respect for the rules and procedures of serious science.
Now comes the however. I find the outcome of the LSE's  disciplinary hearing  a little odd, in fact, I find it worryingly authoritarian and quite against the spirit of a university as a community of scholars in which people engage in discussion to prove (in the old fashion sense) the worth of ideas without anyone telling them what they may or may not think. The principal findings of the hearing appear to be that: a) "...a number of people had been greatly offended by the blog"; b) "...some of the assertions put forward in the blog post were flawed and would have benefited from more rigorous academic scrutiny"; c) "...the author ignored the basic responsibility of a scientific communicator to qualify claims made in proportion to the certainty of the evidence"; d) "...the article had brought the School into disrepute".
I wouldn't for one moment want to dispute that any of these findings are true, what I would question however is whether they are reasonable grounds for taking disciplinary action against an academic. a) giving offence is not a crime. It may be bad manners, but if we are going to discipline people for that then to be consistent we would have to cast the net much wider; b) amounts to saying that he was wrong, OK, so let those who can say that they have never written anything that was later shown to be wrong cast the first stone; c)  if this is grounds for disciplinary action then I would respectfully submit that to avoid hypocrisy the LSE needs to construct a much bigger dock, one that will contain most of the members of some "disciplines"; d) seems to me to be a very dangerous argument to play with and in fact is little more than a fig leaf for those who are ultimately to blame. As I mentioned above, Kanazawa's reputation was well known before he was appointed. Why was this ignored by the selection committee? I have it on good authority that the relevant people were well informed.
Universities are places in which all sorts of intellectual conversations are conducted constrained only by the law and by the conventions of reason. As far as I can see Kanazawa has broken no law, nor infringed any clause of his employment contract. Some of his writing does, in my view, not adhere to the conventions of reason, but the appropriate responses to that are: 1) scientific criticism; 2) ridicule; 3) not bothering to read his stuff. Apart from amongst a collection of rather unsavory characters on the fringes of respectable academic opinion - you probably all know to whom I'm alluding - Kanazawa's reputation is now zero, his academic capital has gone down the pan. He may get a few gigs at events put on by crazies but  he is now persona non grata as far as mainstream academia is concerned. In other words he is already reaping what he has sown and no reasonable person can have any sympathy for him on that account. But it is not the business of universities to dictate what, where and when their employees write and the LSE's witless requirement that he refrain from writing anything for a one year period except in refereed journals seems to me to be an infringement of his human rights. It would certainly be interesting to see whether such a ban would withstand a legal challenge. Regardless of the outcome of such a hypothetical the "senior academics" who made up Kanazawa's disciplinary hearing need to ask themselves whether they really understand the idea of a university.

Tuesday, 13 September 2011

Academic malpractice

Allegations of scientific fraud have been made against Diederik Stapel a Professor of Psychology at Tilburg University in the Netherlands. Science covers the story, but I think gets one detail wrong, he hasn't yet been fired, just suspended pending an investigation by the university. Andrew Gelman has been blogging about some recent cases. What is odd in a way is that Stapel is an experimentalist. Making up data from experiments is in one sense easy, but  extremely high risk. In any reputable discipline you have to specify the experimental protocols well in advance, do the power analysis, recruit people and run the experiment. If you turn up with some data but nobody recalls you ever running the experiment then suspicions are immediately aroused.

For what it is worth, in my own neck of the woods I don't believe there is much downright fraud going on. But intellectual dishonesty takes a number of forms. The pressure to publish and to produce startling findings is just too great for many to resist and when you see the pressure that people are under you can understand why they do it. Being selective about the evidence you consider; ignoring inconvenient results; making claims which aren't in any way justified by the meager empirical evidence; making a fuss about statistically "significant" differences without noticing that the "effect sizes" are of no practical interest; projecting trends on the basis of poor measurements taken at two time-points; allowing the press to run away with a sexy story that you know in your heart of hearts probably isn't true - but justifying it by saying: "well it's the best evidence we have at the moment". 
All of this goes on all the time. The reason is simple. Coming up with some genuinely novel findings in the social sciences is hard. A lot of the time the world really is just as it appears to be or is resistant to having the truth extracted from it - especially if all you have to go on are observational data. So if you do find some data that gives you a quirky result you have to be quite saintly not to rush into print with it. So "obesity is contagious" is news and "fat people seek each other out" is not. One can understand that the press is interested in the former. What is less understandable is that some reputable academic journals apparently are extremely reluctant to publish critiques of  headline papers whose claims turn out, on close examination, to have less substance than the authors would have us believe. Let's not forget, that at the end of the day one of the central institutions of  science - academic journals - is a profit making business and  that nobody has succeeded in making the  Journal of Unrejected Null Hypotheses look attractive to a publisher.

Monday, 12 September 2011

Blah blah sociology

Taking a look at the videos on the British Sociological Associations web site of  its last conference I found one nice thing - richly deserved life-time achievement awards for Michael Banton and Chelly Halsey.  Otherwise I found the rest of the content  utterly depressing. If this is the best that British sociology can do then we are doomed. As far as I could see the usual waffle merchants were pumping out the same old  empty generalities decked out as profundities - what the Dutch sociologist Wout Ultee calls "Blah blah" sociology - while firmly slapping each other on the back and telling each other how wonderful they are. Frankly I hadn't a clue what most of them were talking about or what their point was.  None of the talks seemed to have much truck with carefully articulated questions addressed with appropriate empirical evidence. That would be too boring wouldn't it? Or perhaps too difficult. My alienation from the mainstream of British sociology began a long time ago and I found nothing here that  is likely to reverse it. I wonder what Michael Banton and Chelly Halsey made of it all?

More like the movies

A propos of nothing in particular, I've been watching a fair number of movies recently, catching up on stuff I somehow missed when  first released.  I try to follow the spirit of the advice  an old friend once gave me to the effect that  every now and again  one should go to see a play that the critics have rubbished simply because the critics aren't always right. Of course this works both ways and sometimes they rave about the most appalling old tosh. Joaana Hogg's Archipelago is a case in point. I thought it was tedious and pointless. Why would anyone want to watch what looked like  home movies of the banal  mumblings of a bunch of toffs on holiday? I certainly didn't and, having lost the will to live, I couldn't watch it to the end.
I had to take Bela Tarr's The Man from London over two nights and after barely surviving the first hour it was touch and go whether I would go back to it. On the whole I'm glad I did because for a movie in which very little is happening in front of your eyes - sometimes literally nothing - it kind of grows on you. The action is mainly psychological and after a while you succumb  to the mesmeric way in which the film is shot. 
The Bill Douglas Trilogy won't be to everybody's taste, but I thought it was superb. Douglas has the reputation of being a bit of a miserablist and he certainly had a lot to be miserable about. Even by the standards of the time his upbringing was harsh and at times brutal. You can't go through that sort of childhood without being damaged in some way. To turn those experiences into an autobiographical work  of cinematic poetry is little short of redemptive. I'm lost in admiration for the man even though he could be, by all accounts, an awkward cussed bugger. Great artists are allowed to be intolerant of things and people that get in the way of achieving their vision. I also enjoyed his feature film Comrades about the Tolpuddle Martyrs. It's a simple story, simply told from complex material and succeeds in narrating the human tragedy without the political preaching that comes from hindsight.
Other things I've enjoyed recently: Capote  (brilliant performance by Phillip Seymour Hoffman); Of Time and the City (Terence Davies' love song to Liverpool); The Cement Garden (a very creepy rendition of Ian McKewan's early novel); Black Cat, White Cat (a hilarious Serbian gypsy comedy); 4 Months, 3 weeks, 2 days (grim but exceptionally well made Romanian film about illegal abortion); The Visitor (a tale about illegal immigrants in New York with superb ensemble acting from the 4 principal players).

Thursday, 8 September 2011

Economists and empirical evidence

I don't suppose that economists are less likely than any of the rest of us to make  daft pronouncements about empirical issues without appearing to bother about the empirical evidence. So the letter to yesterday's FT  signed by a gang of 20 "leading economists" arguing (I use the word loosely) that the 50 pence top tax rate should be abolished isn't a particularly surprising event. The replies in today's FT from Alan Manning and Andrew Oswald (also leading economists) seem to me so reasonable - let's look at the existing evidence and wait for the new evidence that will shortly be available - that clearly there is some flaw in their reasoning that is so subtle that I haven't spotted it.
One member of the gang of 20 is the Cambridge economist Bob Rowthorn. This is the man who said in a 2008 interview with Alan Macfarlane:  "...I wouldn't regard myself as left-wing any more. I regard myself as left-wing in the sense that, saying there are a lot of poor people in the world that deserve a better deal and that those that are better off maybe could make some sacrifice." What kind of sacrifice would that be then? Obviously not one of a financial nature. In the course of the interview he confirms the essential soundness of his judgments by  confessing that he  supported the 1968 Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia.
All arguments have to be considered on their merits, but perhaps Professor Rowthorn and his colleagues should take some advice from Oliver Cromwell: "I beseech you, in the bowels of Christ, think it possible you may be mistaken."

Wednesday, 7 September 2011

Blind to art

I'm an occasional visitor to Modern Art Oxford, mainly, it has to be said, because the promise of a cup of hot chocolate in the cafe is a guaranteed way to get the young Ms Mills out of the house and out from under her mother's feet on a rainy Saturday afternoon. A couple of weeks ago we visited Haegue Yang 's "Teacher of Dance" exhibition. OK, I'm going to have a  boorish Brian Sewell moment and I'm sorry if I offend anyone, but really it was pretentious crap. A room full of venetian blinds hung from the ceiling, a "sculpture" made from discarded light bulb packaging... To quote the gallery blurb: "Predominantly using domestic materials, Yang discloses narratives, individual portraits and her own sentiments, reflecting the balance of research and intuitive enquiry that underlies her practice." Really? Well, she didn't disclose them to me and I'd be interested to hear what exactly she "disclosed" to anyone else. And no I don't think that art has to be representational, and yes I do like abstraction in painting and sculpture (how dreadfully middle-brow) but surely whatever art is it has to communicate something to the spectator's gaze. Isn't that the difference these days between talent and bullshit?

Tuesday, 6 September 2011

Intelligence, Libya and LSE

It was really just a throw-away line but  this Guardian story  makes my original intuition about the Libya, Intelligence, LSE nexus look a whole lot more plausible.

Taking the rough with the smooth - plugging colleagues and flakes

In the same issue of Sociological Research Online I also noted an interesting review article on economic sociology by an esteemed colleague. The article looks like a useful resource and is very catholic in its definition of what is to count as economic sociology, which must be a virtue. Not catholic enough though to mention Market, Class and Employment. What lies behind that omission one can only speculate about. Honestly, what do you have to do these days to get a decent  puff from your workmates?
Clearly not much in some institutions. I noticed that the single (five star!) review  on Amazon of Mike Savage's Identities and Social Change in Britain since 1940: The Politics of Method is by ... Roger Burrows his sometime coauthor and current Head of Department at York. Way to go boys, keep blowing, it needs a lot of hot air to keep the RAE balloon inflated.
And before I leave off SRO I also noticed in it an extraordinary whinge by Peter Saunders about extreme left-wing, feminist and anti-quantitative bias in British sociology. Not everything that Saunders says is completely bonkers. Let's face it when even a former President of the BSA is indiscreet enough to write that one of the problems in British sociology is that some of our colleagues "are flakes" you might allow that there may be something for Saunders to whinge about. On the other hand he doesn't seem to entertain for one minute that his difficulties during the late 90s in getting research grants or in getting his  work published might have had something to do with scientific quality.
I don't regard myself as a man of the extreme left or as a feminist (to be honest I'm not sure what it is I would have to believe to be the latter) and I'm not generally known for my hostility to quantitative work but even I have noticed one or two things in Saunders' published oeuvre that are, shall we say, questionable, on technical rather than ideological grounds.

Taking the rough with the smooth - social mobility

My attention has been drawn to the latest issue of Sociological Research Online (apologies if you can't penetrate the pay wall). It contains amongst other things an article by Professors Li and Devine about social mobility in Britain. I was sent an early draft of the paper late in 2009 by Professor Devine and invited to comment, which I did. In brief I didn't like the paper much. They took some data that John Goldthorpe and I had already analyzed, estimated more or less the same models, obtained more or less the same results as we did but, to my mind, miraculously drew quite different conclusions - some of which were flatly contradicted by their own numbers. The published version has been improved cosmetically and a couple of the crasser errors have been expunged but otherwise most of my original criticisms still seem to hold water. Still, I should complain? At least it is a citation. For anyone with the remotest interest in the issue I reproduce below my comments on the original version of the paper (I've corrected a couple of minor typos):

Dear Fiona

Thanks for letting me see the paper. I'm a bit pushed for time right now so I have just glanced at it very quickly. If I get an opportunity before Christmas I'll try to read it more carefully. My immediate reaction is along the following lines:

In terms of relative rates - your results don't appear to differ from those that John and I get in our 2008 paper.  We find a small and marginally (statistically) significant  - as judged by the conditional likelihood ratio test - increase in fluidity for men. As judged by the approximate confidence interval around the "unidiff" parameter the difference isn't significant. We prefer to be cautious about how one should interpret such results in a two point comparison - indeed part of the point of our paper is to urge caution when drawing conclusions about long term trends based on just two data points. What our longer series shows quite clearly is that there are year on year fluctuations in the estimates of the unidiff parameter which are probably due to non sampling sources - ie differences in the way data are collected by different survey agencies using different instruments, different data processing conventions etc. Add to this the measurement error introduced by the various approximations that have to be made to produce similar occupational codings and an allowance for the fact that the data are not collected by SRS and you have to concede that all our (and your) significance tests err on the side of finding differences and all confidence intervals are too short. Incidentally what you say on page 25 in interpretation of the unidiff parameter isn't quite right: ", indicating a slight but significant increase in fluidity (the odds ratio for this would be e-.03 = .97)". This isn't an odds-ratio it is the amount by which all the log-linear interaction parameters are multiplied by in t2 compared to t1.

Contrary to your footnote 9 it is not the case that "...even the upper bounds of the 95% confidence intervals for the estimates are mostly below the 1972 benchmark (Goldthorpe and Mills 2008: Figure 7)". For the 72-92 series there are 12-1=11 relevant confidence intervals and of these by my visual inspection 9 intersect the 1972 baseline - the exceptions are 1979 and 1985. Your final sentence in footnote 9 must also be based on a misunderstanding. You say: "If the starting point of the 1991-2005 series were placed at the estimate point for GHS 1991, then the 2005 estimate and the upper bound would both fall well below the 1972 mark." But you fail to notice that our 1991 BHPS 7 class estimate has already been recalibrated so that the unidiff parameter for that year equals 0 and that is the only comparison with 2005 that is logically possible. It would be absurd to place the 7 class BHPS point at the same level as the 1991 GHS point and make a comparison with any points in the prior 1972-92 series. The point is, as I thought we  went to some trouble to explain, the two series are not comparable with respect to level.

Of course, as you know, the unidiff model is a very global test of differences between tables in that it considers all odds-ratios. I've looked in a little more detail at specific sets of odds-ratios and it is possible to find some slight evidence of a weakening in Erikson and Goldthorpe's so called "hierarchy" parameters though not in other parts of the CASMIN core model. If one really wanted to find evidence for more fluidity that is where I would look, but one still has to be mindful of the fact that one only has 2 data points. One also needs to be mindful of what the magnitude of change implies in terms of % changes in observed mobility rates. At the end of the day finding statistically significant differences just tells you about how much data you happen to have available. What you really want to know is how important substantively are  changes/differences implied by the model. That is what we do in footnote 25 of our 2008 paper and we conclude that such changes as can be attributed to an increase in social fluidity per se are of trivial magnitude when converted into percentage differences in the proportions making various transitions.

Moving on to "absolute" rates of mobility the differences in levels between your paper and our 2008 paper are  generated as far as I can see by your different way of defining upward and downward mobility. I find it odd that in your conclusions you say: "Crucially, contrary to Goldthorpe and his colleagues, we have argued that focusing on total rates of absolute mobility is misleading because it conceals upward and downward mobility." Nowhere in our 2008 paper do we focus only on total mobility rates - as is clear we also look at upward and downward mobility and you really musn't imply that we do not.  We do however use a rather conservative way of doing it - so for example moving from from NS-SEC 1 to NS-SEC 2 would not count as downward mobility in the 2008 paper (see our Table 1). There is obviously no "correct" way to do it and both ways have their merits.

Basically we seem to be in agreement though as far as women are concerned. You  however believe that you find something different for men. Broadly speaking our way of doing absolute upward and downward mobility doesn't produce any remarkable differences for men between 1991 and 2005. You find no significant difference in upward mobility (which bizarrely you contradict in your conclusions: "When unchanging total rates are disaggregated, the results show that men’s upward mobility is changing and on the decline.") , a 4.7% difference in downward mobility and  a -1.6% difference in horizontal mobility. Leaving aside how much variability we might see in these numbers if we were able to observe year on year change - these don't strike me as large differences.

However, let's assume that they are real and substantively important. I would then interpret them not, as you appear to do as evidence in favour of a Machin and Blanden -things are getting more unequal - story but as evidence of the contrary. Look at your Table IV. The mobility chances of men from 6 and 7 origins of getting into 1 and 2 destinations all improved (albeit slightly). The chances of men from 1 and 2 origins ending up in destinations 6 and 7 also increased. In other words this is consistent with the slight, but substantively trivial,  increase in fluidity result that we both find when we examine relative rates. Given that the origin and destination marginal distributions don't change that much over the two periods you would expect somewhat similar patterns in absolute and relative rates. So if there is any change over time it is in the direction of more - not less mobility. In short if you understand your own numbers in Table IV correctly I find it very difficult to understand how you can conclude that: "To repeat, these findings are similar to Blanden et al.’s research on social mobility focusing on income mobility." They most assuredly are not. They are entirely consistent with a hypothetical situation in which bright working class kids from the bottom of the class structure increased their chances of getting managerial and professional jobs whilst thick kids from the professional and managerial classes were unable to get the same types of jobs as their parents. Whilst it may be inconvenient politically for New Labour to approve of something along these lines, it is indeed  one of the things that  wanting to increase social fluidity might imply.   It is also worthwhile pointing out that Machin and Blanden's analysis of quintile tables implies a relative view of mobility rates - which we point out in our footnote 9 (2008) so the evidence of your analysis of absolute rates has little if any direct bearing on their results.

In short then I don't really see that your paper adds very much to what we did in our 2008 paper. Most of the results are very similar. You cetainly interpret your results in a different way, but I believe that your numbers don't  support that interpretation. For what it is worth I also think that in one respect our own work is not inconsistent with that of Machin and Blanden. That is that neither they nor we believe that there is terribly strong and convincing evidence that over the period from the early 1970s onward the social fluidity/mobility regime in GB has become  substantially more open. Our analysis and your analysis of class mobility show that for men (and incidently households - see our figure 9) there might be a very slight tendency in that direction - but that quantitatively it doesn't amount to much and could easily be the result of poorer quality measurement, lower response rates etc in the more recent period. What clearly is not the case in either your or our analysis is that there is any evidence of an increase of the association between class background and class destination between 1991 and 2005. Though this is not irreconcilable with Machin and Blanden's account of social mobility, they are after all taking about two specific cohorts and different destination periods, it seems just perverse to say that such a result strengthens their claim about long term trends. In short then, at the moment, in my opinion your contribution doesn't really throw any more light on the important issues and if anything, to mix my metaphors, significantly muddies the waters.
Hope this is helpful
all best

Sunday, 4 September 2011

More fictional sociologists

Janne suggests Tuesdays with Morrie by Mitch Albom. Wiki calls it a "non fiction novel' so you could argue that it doesn't really qualify (and on those grounds you'd also have to exclude Imaginary Friends), but since I have adopted a pretty generous definition of 'sociologist' let's not quibble about minor details.

Thursday, 25 August 2011

German humour

The Guardian is running a story today about the death of Loriot (Vicco von Bülow) one of Germany's best known popular comedians. As far as I can see the German sense of humour is not that different from the English, though there is a difference about when people think humour, especially irony, is appropriate - not during working hours for instance. Loriot has something of the flavour of Monty Python crossed with some of the observational humour of Not the Nine O'Clock News. My favourite sketch is the delightfully silly Weihnachten bei Hoppenstedts in which the paterfamilias spends part of Christmas assembling the son's model nuclear power station (with predictable results). I couldn't find a version with a good english translation, but the Guardian links to another classic with english subtitles, The German Yodelling School.

Sociologists in fiction

On holiday I read Eric Ambler's Send No More Roses, a psychological thriller which I can heartily recommend. Written in the 1970s, it's quite different from his classic interwar adventures which usually feature a little man who stumbles into international political intrigues that put him in imminent danger. I won't give you any plot spoilers except to say that three of the main characters are sociologists (broadly speaking). That set me wondering how many other novels I could think of that feature sociologists. Alison Lurie's Imaginary Friends is one, the grotesque Howard Kirk in The History Man is another.  The principal character in Frank Parkin's Krippendorfs Tribe is a social anthropologist (I'm broad minded). There must be a sociologist somewhere in David Lodge's university novels but  I'm too lazy to check. Can you think of any others?

Tuesday, 16 August 2011

I predict a riot

By the time we reach London half the city is apparently in flames and the  asinine media post mortem has begun. Not much action around our way: four hoodies battered down the door of a 24 hour petrol station on the Sheen Road and somebody tried to burn down Homebase. Pretty much business as usual rather than evidence of mob rule in leafy Richmond. About the only sensible commentary I've heard  was from a man called Tony Thompson who apparently writes books about gangs and was himself a London gang member in  the 1970s. He pointed out that when he was growing up there were lots of adolescent gangs, but that unless you were a complete nutter it was obvious that gang membership was not a viable adult life-style. Involvement with the drug trade was negligible and people didn't carry or wear enough valuable stuff to make systematic mugging worthwhile. To put it simply you couldn't make a living at it and therefore it was something that kids grew out of. Nowadays it is different. There are lots of money making opportunities for gangs to take advantage of which will sustain the consumer wants of their members well into early adulthood. Compared to the legitimate employment opportunities that gang members could possibly aspire to, drug dealing, mugging and the occasional bit of looting look pretty attractive.
One thing he didn't but might have mentioned is that a bit of rioting can be fun, as long as you are careful not to get caught walking home with a 32" flatscreen. All of the rent a mouths appearing on our screens  windbagging about  reasons and causes  might do well to remember a comment of Isaiah Berlin's: "...there is no a priori reason for supposing that the truth, when it is discovered, will prove interesting". Personal experience tells me that it frequently isn't. 
In the 1970s there was a  "riot" at my school, the  vague casus belli being that somebody  had, allegedly, been hospitalized by a boy  from another school. A pitched battle to defend the school's honour was to be staged, at lunchtime, on the playing fields. A few of the notorious psychos and sadists came equipped with bicycle chains and rice-flails but all that happened was that 700 children ran around the school all afternoon  refusing to go to lessons. The foe failed to turn up and my abiding memory is of the headmaster driving across the playing fields in his 3 litre Rover urging us, through the megaphone stuck out of the driver's window, to go back to our classrooms. The only attention paid to his pleadings was a few two fingered salutes.
Why did we do it? Two main reasons I think: because we could and because it was fun. Eighty teachers could not control so many childen  determined not to do as they were told and so many miscreants could not credibly be threatened with punishment. We knew they couldn't keep the whole school in detention or cane everybody. There was, in fact, nothing they could or would do and for an afternoon, we exploited that fact mercilessly. Next day we went back to our lessons - permanent anarchy  is not fun - and smirked behind our hands as  the Head rolled out all his tired cliches in morning assembly  about the rotten apples rising to the top of the barrel, the moral enervation associated with growing your hair below the collar line etc.
I think the usual suspects - the psychos, and those incautious enough not to hide themselves in the mass - were rounded up and got six of the best. But I imagine they thought it was worth it. And at the age of 12 I  learned a practical lesson. Order depends, even in an autocracy, on the consent of the ruled and sometimes they just don't feel like cooperating..