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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).