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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.

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.