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

Monday, 12 November 2012


As I write a man is sitting in a prison cell in Kent for posting on the internet a picture of a burning poppy along with some distasteful remarks. I thought I lived in a state  where people value liberty and where it is understood that causing gratuitous offence is bad manners and contemptible but not something a citizen should be arrested for. Obviously I'm wrong. When it happens in Russia or China our politicians get on their high horses and (correctly) complain of human rights abuses. They  seem to be very quiet when the same kind of thing happens here.
My six year old was  keen to watch the Cenotaph service of remembrance on TV - she had been learning about it in school - and so we turned the box on at  10.55 and watched the dignitaries laying wreaths. I was rather struck by the contrast between the royal family and the politicians. More or less all of the former have some experience in the military and several have seen active service. None of the major party leaders has, as far as I can tell, any experience of military life. In fact we have to go back more than thirty years to James Callaghan to find a Prime Minister who has served his country. Of course one can feel empathy without having any direct experience oneself, but I wonder whether it is easier to send troops to war when one has never been shot at.
My own family has in recent times been fairly successful at staying out of the firing line. If  you exclude the Peninsula War and riding around Ireland in the Militia we've tended to keep our heads fairly low. Both my grandfathers were unfit for service in WWII and both joined the ARP. After the war my father got call-up papers to join the RAF, but deciding this was a waste of time, he promptly joined the merchant marine which was a reserved occupation. He should have stayed in the navy a little longer because on leaving he found, on receiving fresh RAF call-up papers, that he was still liable for National Service. This prompted him to join the National Coal Board for a few months - another reserved occupation - until he was too old to be pursued.
My great uncle George however, was in the thick of it. He volunteered in August 1915, served with the Royal Scots Guards and the Machine Gun Corps and saw action on the Somme. By the time I knew him I was just a little boy and he was a still quite dapper elderly man in the early stages of Parkinson's disease. My father later told me that prominent in Uncle George's war-time reminiscences were stories of rifling the pockets of German corpses for watches.
Also in the thick of it was my father's cousin Stalford Keith Mills. Apparently his real name was Stafford, but Stalford is how he is remembered by the CWGC and what it says on his birth certificate. He was a sergeant in the RAF flying on Whitley Bombers out of Linton on Ouse in Yorkshire. On May 12th 1941 his plane (Whitley Z6559 - probably built in Coventry less than a mile from where I grew up) was raiding Wilhelmshafen when it was damaged by a night fighter. The pilot ordered Stalford and two of his comrades to bale out into the sea near the Dutch island of Texel. Their bodies were never recovered. The Whitley, a 2 engined bomber, was notorious for being unable to maintain height on one engine, but, on this occasion, the pilot was able to regain control of the aircraft and managed to fly it back to the UK. More than thirty years later I remember listening to my grandmother with a tear in her eye telling me how Stalford had visited her on leave with one of his pals just a few days before he was killed: "They were just wee boys, sittin' in oor kitchen wi' a carrae oot". Wee boys drinking a bottle of beer about to be sent to their deaths in an aircraft that was already obsolete by the time the war had started.
Segue to Great Bircham, Norfolk in August 2012. We are supposed to be going to the beach, but a significant part of the household isn't ready so I go for a walk and end up in the graveyard of the parish church.  An older man is cutting the grass and as I walk past I nod a greeting to him. To my surprise he stops the lawn mower and we exchange a few pleasantries. He has lived in the village all his life and has looked after the cemetery for almost 60 years. As well as the ordinary graves, the cemetery has Commonwealth and German war graves and my new acquaintance tells me that he has looked after the boys for longer than their own mothers. He then tells me the story of the single German grave in the middle of a row of Commonwealth headstones. This is very unusual and all of the rest of the German graves are in a separate plot. From time to time the powers that be had apparently tried to tidy up the remembrance process by digging up Emil Rodel and relocating him with his own comrades. But the parishioners  fought to preserve the untidiness of history  and the symbol of reconciliation that is former enemies resting in peace together. Before I know it 45 minutes has gone by and my now restless family are ringing to find out where on earth I have got to.
Eric Bogle is a Scottish/Australian songwriter. He's written several quite well known songs about WWI. The Gift of Years is one of his less well known ones, but, I think, the best.

Monday, 5 November 2012

Open letter to Prof. Richard Wilkinson & Prof. Kate Pickett

Dear Professors Wilkinson and Pickett

You don't know me and are unlikely to read this letter. Even if you do, I know  you won't reply to it because you have stated publicly that you will only reply to criticisms of The Spirit Level that are published in peer reviewed journals. I think that is a mistake - what matters is the cogency and import of the criticism not where it is published - but I fully understand that you are busy and important persons, that life is short and that one has to draw the line somewhere. 
In any case I'm probably even less worth replying to than your average critic: I'm not an epidemiologist, public health expert, statistician or think-tank pundit and I have never written on public health matters for peer reviewed journals. I'm merely a  sociologist who has spent  most of  his professional life trying to make inferences from quantitative data about the structure and process of social life  while teaching his students, to the best of his ability, how to interpret numbers in sensible ways. It's a small thing but it is my own. 
I should probably also say, though strictly speaking it should be irrelevant, that I don't identify myself with the political right. In confessional mood, I admit that though I've voted for several political parties, I've always voted for parties that favour more rather than less redistribution from the relatively rich to the relatively poor and that I'm an unabashed admirer of the social and cultural arrangements found in some of  the Nordic social democracies. If one finds labels helpful I'm more Old than New Labour though I don't happen to be a member of any political party and like Keynes I'm not ashamed to change my opinions when the facts change.
Normally I would regard  wearing my political heart on my sleeve as unforgivable bad taste, but in this case I think, for the sake of clarity, it is necessary. It's easy to dismiss critics as ideologically motivated and use that as an excuse not to engage fairly or indeed at all with the points they raise. Though it is presumptuous to say so, it seems to me likely that part of the motivation of the critics that you have found the time to reply to - Christopher Snowdon, Peter Saunders and the Tax Payers Alliance - is indeed ideological. Nevertheless, as I constantly remind my students, the provenance of an idea is completely irrelevant to the evaluation of its truth and I must confess that I find many, if not all, of the points raised by this trio reasonably argued, deserving of serious attention and, in the cases where they are factually wrong, careful point by point refutation. I'm not sure that you have always held yourselves to this ideal standard, but then in the rough, tough battle of ideas, and with human nature being what it is, I'm probably just naive to expect scientists to welcome stringent assaults upon their ideas with truly Popperian equanimity.
By now you are probably impatient to learn what this is all about and I beg your indulgence for just a little longer while I explain. I thought it would be interesting to ask my students to read The Spirit Level. They are all bright graduates with a keen interest in public affairs and, given the nature of my department, a keen interest in learning how to evaluate quantitative social scientific research. They are assuredly not your average group of sociology students, and all the better for it. In order to keep our seminar within the bounds of the allotted two hours I asked them to focus exclusively on the sections relating to physical health and assigned them a number of review and commentary articles as supplementary reading. I realize that your book is about so much more than just physical health but I feared that if we were to attempt to discuss all the domains that you write about our conversation would  become unfocussed, inconclusive and pedagogically useless. In any case, unless I have seriously misunderstood you, I take it that evidence about physical health is actually central to the claims you wish to advance.
My first task was to clarify exactly what those claims are so that the students could home in on the precise evidence that is most likely to speak to them. Again I have to ask for indulgence. As an educator I'm wont to simplify things and in my quest for pedagogical clarity I may be prone to over-simplification. I hope what I said is not  so gross a distortion of  the case you wish to make as to make what I wish to say irrelevant to your concerns.
My pitch to the students was as follows. Nobody of any repute disputes the fact that for many health related outcomes there is a soci-economic gradient. For simplicity let's just say that at the individual level income predicts mortality risk. The relatively rich live longer and the relatively poor die earlier. It is plausible to believe that this predictive relationship, which may or may not be interpreted causally, is non linear. If a cut purse takes ten pounds out of the pocket of a rich man he probably won't notice and it is implausible to believe that his loss will have much, if any, discernible effect on his mortality risk. On the other hand if Robin Hood gives ten pounds to a poor man on the verge of starvation it makes quite a big difference - he lives to fight another day. This is nothing more than the standard welfare argument for equality. Up to a point, distributing income away from the rich towards the poor is likely to increase aggregate welfare because dw/dy ~=c. Whether this is true or not is ultimately an empirical issue albeit one that it is quite difficult to produce clinching evidence about, but like me I imagine you believe it is likely to be true.
The key point, for our purposes, is that this has nothing to do with the aggregate level of inequality in the society in which the rich and poor man live. If we want to know, what the direct contextual effect of aggregate level income inequality is on individual level mortality risk then we must correctly specify the relationship between income and mortality risk at the individual level. Otherwise part, though probably not all, of the apparent relationship at the aggregate level turns out to be spurious - a form of the ecological fallacy. Of course you know this and I apologize  if  in my eagerness to make things clear to my students I seem to be teaching granny to suck eggs.
The take home message to me is clear: if  the relationship at the individual level between mortality risk and income is non linear there is quite a lot of good we can do to improve the health of the least well off portions of society by spending money in ways that reduce the exposure of the poor to well known risk factors. The net effect of this, depending on exactly where the money comes from, may well also be to produce a more equal society both in terms of money income  and  in terms of welfare which is what, after all,  we should actually care about. And all this could be achieved, I conjecture, without having to give much weight to a speculative theory of the psychosocial aetiology of illness. But more on that later.
Of course we live in an imperfect world and it is particularly imperfect, as you are well aware, in terms of the data resources we can use to evaluate our empirical claims about it. Given the impossibility of carrying out a randomized controlled trial - we can't randomly select a bunch of rich Americans, force them to live in Sweden, and wait and see if they live longer than the ones we left in the US - we are stuck with observational data. I believe, and I doubt this is contentious, that if we want to know whether aggregage level income inequality has a direct effect on individual level mortality then the ideal data source would be a multi-level time series with observations at both the individual and aggregate level within one nation state - to control for all the confounding unobservable cultural and institutional stuff that makes one country different from another - while allowing us to see what happens at the individual level (after controlling for individual level exposure to risk factors) when aggregate level income inequality changes. If we could solve the serious problems of data comparability there is no reason why we shouldn't throw more than one nation state into the pot, but let's not get our hopes up, getting good quality multi-level time series data for just one country is a big ask.
So we have to go with what we have got. What you have got comes in essentially two flavours: aggregate level data on a sample of rich countries, subject to various inclusion and exclusion criteria (which have been pretty thoroughly picked over by your critics) and aggregate level data on US states. You show us in Figure 1.1 (pp 7) that your scope conditions are defined by those countries from that part of a bivariate scatterplot of per capita national income by life expectancy where the increase in life expectancy for a unit increase in national income is close to zero. Your interpretation is that for this set of countries national income has no discernible effect on life expectancy. What it tells me is that beyond a certain level of affluence different countries have different cultural and institutional ways of producing roughly similar aggregate level health outcomes  (there is no one best way) and that it would be important to take that into account when trying to explain why some do (slightly) better than others.
Of course, like you, as a paid up social scientist I find the "everywhere is different from everywhere else" of the dyed in the wool comparativist a bit unsatisfying. We've imbibed with our mother's milk the idea that the objective of cross-national comparison is to replace the names of countries with the names of variables. So enter income inequality.
You show us in Figures 2.2 and 2.3 (pp 20-21) that among countries an index of health and social problems is quite strongly correlated with income inequality but only weakly correlated with per capita national income (though you must be aware that the regression slope, which you fail to include in Figure 2.3 but boldly highlight in Figure 2.2,  is quite strongly influenced by the outlying position of the US). You then go on in Figures 2.4 and 2.5 (pp 22) to show us an apparently similar pattern for US states, or at least that is what the legends of your figures suggest. Again you emphasize the strength of the relationship for income inequality by including a bold regression slope but exclude it from the per capita income graph. Let's assume that all this is within the bounds of  allowable rhetorical exaggeration. But wait a minute. My first reaction when I looked at Figure 2.5  was that actually there is quite a clear relationship between aggregate income levels and health/social problem outcomes in US states. Richer states have better outcomes even without special pleading for the influential peculiarities of Idaho, Wyoming, Montana....
At this point I began to lose a little confidence as you appear not to be  playing it straight with your readers, not all of whom, I assume, will look too closely at the figures or be  alert to what could be considered a bit of  textual leger de main. For what do you write about Figure 2.5 on page 21? I quote: "...Figure 2.5 shows that there is no clear relation between it [the Index of Health and Social Problems] and average income levels." (My emphasis). At the very least you have contradicted yourself within the space of 2 pages. Let's extend the benefit of the doubt: these things happen, we don't always correct our proofs accurately and quite innocently forget to make corrections when the time comes for reprinting. OK, I won't hold it against you as long as you will admit that my interpretation of your figures is admissible.
Figures 2.2-2.5 show the following: there is a quite strong correlation between the Index of Health and Social Problems and income inequality; there is a somewhat weaker correlation between the Index and per capita income. This is true whether we look at rich countries or US states (but especially true in the latter case). Unless income inequality and per-capita income are uncorrelated, which seems unlikely (especially in the country data if we always include the US) then inequality and income level are confounded at the aggregate level. That means that when we  look at the way in which inequality is related to the Index it partly captures the effect of income level and when we look at the "effect" of income level it partly captures the "effect" of inequality. Thus there is an illusion of naming. Inequality in your scatter plots actually means inequality plus a bit of per capita income. The only way to sort this out is to include both variables and look at the partial slopes. As a good Popperian I would go so far as to say that you should always include per capita income even if in these small samples its partial slope is "insignificant" (significance being just a matter of sample size) on the grounds that strong theories are the ones that pass the most stringent trials, not the ones that are given a bye in the first round. We should bend over backwards to test theories to destruction for it is only then that you can persuade the skeptics that actually care about the evidence - the ones that don't care are a lost cause and we shouldn't waste our time on them. That, in my view, is the difference between doing science and doing advocacy. But then you are both scientists and I scarcely need to tell you this.
But perhaps I shouldn't have got too worked up about such a small thing - twenty pages in and already nit-picking - after all in a scientific research programme nothing usually depends on just one study, one data-set or one data-point (let's face it, genuine critical cases are pretty hard to find). I felt  more comfortable when you continually reassured me that your conclusions were based on an enormous accumulation of evidence about which there was a clear scientific consensus.  Way to go! When the systematic reviews of all the relevant evidence consider data quality, effect size, scope conditions, sensitivity to robustness checks and so forth and then pronounce in your favour  "'tis a consummation devoutly to be wished for". We can tick that one off, pack our bags, go home and prepare for the next scientific challenge.
But I do want to read the systematic reviews myself and not just rely on being told what they say. Just as well really, for if I had to rely solely on the 456 citations in The Spirit Level I would never have come across the two lengthy  articles written by Lynch et al. in (2004) for the Milbank Quarterly entitled 'Is income inequality a determinant of population health?'. Luckily I have well informed colleagues who could point me in the right direction. Of course you know what Lynch et al. conclude from their careful scrutiny of "98 aggregate and multi-level studies examining the association between income inequality and health". For the benefit of those readers  who can't penetrate the pay-wall let me quote from their conclusions (pp 81): "Among affluent countries does income inequality help explain international differences in population health? The evidence suggests that income inequality is not associated with population health differences - at least not as a general phenomenon - among wealthy nations. Do levels of income inequality explain regional health differences within countries? In aggregate-level US studies, the extent of income inequality across states and metropolitan areas seems reasonably robustly associated with a variety of health outcomes, especially when measured at the state level. In multilevel US studies, using both individual and aggregate data, the evidence is more mixed, with state-level associations again being the most consistent. For other countries, the aggregate and multi-level evidence generally suggests little or nor effect of income inequality on health indicators in rich countries...but there may be some effects in the United Kingdom." [my emphasis].
Strange that you don't mention Lynch et al.'s papers (I know you cite them in your own review article but without, as far as I can see, any serious effort to explain why they get such different results to your own). Odd in several respects: firstly it was probably the most comprehensive independent (ie not counting papers written by yourselves) systematic review of the evidence on health then published when you were drafting The Spirit Level. Secondly, because it is not completely unfavourable to your position. After all it concludes that there is some evidence of an income inequality effect in US state level data (and possibly in the UK) - though their second paper which examines time-series data casts more doubt on the US case. I simply cannot understand why you fail to mention it, or if it is flawed in some way, rebut it, refer to your own rebuttal published elsewhere (if there is one) or the rebuttals of others (if there are any). Over and over again you tell us that the weight of the evidence is on your side and that there is a broad consensus amongst experts working in the field. But this simply isn't true, is it?  At the very least your now perplexed readers could be forgiven if they find your omission, well, a little shifty.
Still, let's not dwell on what isn't there and focus on what is. I was heartened to find in the 2010 reprinting of The Spirit Level a postscript dealing with the most important claims made by your critics. I want to take just one example from this with which I have some passing familiarity. On page 276 you start a section  Inequality, Class and Status. This caught my eye because it contains precisely one reference to indicate who or what you are replying to. It turns out that the object of your reply is a rather well known sociologist who happens to be a colleague and emeritus fellow of my college. I won't cause embarrassment by naming him here - anyone with a copy of The Spirit Level can easily look up the reference and make the identification if they care to. My colleague wrote a somewhat critical review of the book which was published in a well known  peer reviewed journal. After reading your "reply"  I was again deeply puzzled. What you say has, at most, only tangential relevance to the substance of my colleague's criticisms. The casual reader of what you write would come away with the impression that some sociologist had made a rather footling objection to the effect that you hadn't paid enough attention "to the vast amount of careful work now available on social class classifications" [your words] - surely a case of the cobbler only having eyes for leather. But wait a minute, that is not at all the substance of the critique.
Anyone who is able to read what my colleague actually wrote will realize that he has a much more fundamental objection to the income inequality hypothesis. Most won't be able to check though because the review is behind a pay-wall, so let me attempt a summary.
There is an incoherence at the heart of The Spirit Level. The micro-level explanation for the purported direct effect of aggregate income-inequality on individual level health is through a psycho-social mechanism couched in terms of a rather difficult to pin down notion of social status. This is strange and incoherent, because what  it amounts to is using income inequality as an indicator for status inequality. Why is it incoherent? Because it has been established in the social medicine literature that the health gradient with respect to social status is somewhat steeper then the health gradient with respect to social class and that income is more strongly related to social class than it is to status. Now at least some sociologists have a fairly clearly worked out idea of what the difference is between social class and social status. This is not the place to go into it, but perhaps an example will help. In Japan income inequality is less marked than in many developed nations and health outcomes are comparatively good. This would seem to conform to the Wilkinson-Pickett party line. But it is also the case that Japan is a highly status conscious (in the sociological sense) society. It is obligatory to acknowledge inferiority and superiority both in terms of behaviour and in terms of the use of honorifics. In any unfamiliar social situation the initial process of figuring out who is relatively inferior to whom is a source of considerable anxiety. To put it simply, in Japan  systematic inequality is strongly structured by considerations of social status, superiority and inferiority yet health outcomes are relatively favourable. If the relevant psycho-social mechanism is to do with social status (in any sociologically meaningful use of that term) then measuring status inequality by means of income-inequality puts Japan at the wrong end of the spectrum! This is much more than a petty point about occupational coding, but you wouldn't guess that if all you had to go on was The Spirit Level.
Well, by now if  you haven't already lost patience and dismissed me as yet another enemy of equality, you are probably muttering that you have dealt with all this before if only I would care to read more of your own work. The thing is, I have read it, and I'm not the only one to notice in it a recurrent pattern. Time after time you tell critics that you have dealt with their objection in one or another of your publications but when I turn to them what I find is indeed a reference to your critics, but not an actual response to the exact criticism they make  and often a discussion of some quite unrelated issue. Why you do this is, to me, quite baffling.
And disappointing, because the way I see it, we are on the same side of an equality debate that is much more important than whether there is or is not some substantively tiny direct effect on individual health outcomes of aggregate level income-inequality. Nobody disputes that individual level health disparities are related to differences (inequalities) in exposures to risk factors that are partly indicated  by (inter alia) individual level income differences. This in itself suggests that equalization of what in the Nordic welfare tradition would be called "the level of living" will likely have some effect on health disparities without requiring any commitment to a causal view about the direct effect of macro-level inequality which will,  in its turn, be affected by such an equalization. But, for what I speculate are quite understandable, but I think misguided, reasons, you want to go further than this. I think those reasons are ultimately to do with a political judgement. Like the old Fabians I think you believe that once the facts are discovered and disseminated to the public then  part of the political battle is won and people will persuade themselves to do the right thing. Thus it is important to you to demonstrate that even those at the top of the income hierarchy will benefit - have better health or higher levels of welfare in general - in counter factually more equal societies than the one they happen to live in. But you don't actually give us any strong reasons to believe this.  The non-linear shape of the standard welfare function already suggests that redistribution from rich to poor will make the rich a little worse off and the poor quite a bit better off and, setting aside disincentive effects, the average welfare level higher. In other words there is a pure efficiency argument for more equality which does not need to evoke either moral reasoning (which in my view gives other good grounds) or highly speculative psycho-social theories. So why should we believe that in the counter factual world implied by your model the rich will be better off (Why equality is better for everyone)?
There are in fact quite good reasons to believe that this is  unlikely.  This is just an intuition, but it is one that I think needs to be addressed. If there will be gains to the rich, how come they haven't spotted them and become the cheer leaders for more equality? Those at the top of the income distribution have been fairly adroit at spotting the main chances to perpetuate their relative social and economic positions. Should we now be asking: how come you are so rich when you are not smart enough to figure out that you would be even better off (in welfare terms) if you weren't quite as rich? And that raises the question of how the greater equality would be achieved. Redistribution towards equality with a fixed pot implies taking away income from those with more of it, or in the context of growth, reducing the increase in their income below what it otherwise would be. In both cases the rich will be experiencing a loss albeit in the second case a loss relative to a potential gain, yet The Spirit Level thesis implies that they should anticipate a welfare gain from this. If they don't then the implication is that they don't know what is good for them.
But how could they ever learn? The counter factual evidence generated by observational data is scarcely relevant. We can't draw the conclusion from cross-national comparisons that forcing rich Americans to live in Sweden will make them better off. The ceteris paribus clause just doesn't apply in reality. Whatever the numbers from the linear model say, it is a non assertable counter factual. The ceteris paribus clause would apply within their own country - at least for small changes at the margin - but now the relevant counter factual involves redistribution with all the apparent consequences discussed in the preceding paragraph and only applies when we contemplate small changes.
In my Old Labour way I tend to believe that very few political conflicts can be solved to everyone's satisfaction, because most serious conflicts are actually about ultimate values, rather than disputes about the technical means to reach agreed upon ends (other than vacuous Mom, apple pie and the American Way ends). Therefore trying to pretend that everyone is a winner is unlikely to be of much use. It would be better to put your bets on economic growth making a modest effort at redistribution less painful to those who are being relieved of potential but still tangible gains.
So, in the end Professors Wilkinson and Pickett, you face a credibility gap. People like myself who want, broadly speaking,  the same things as yourselves can find the time to ferret out, read and consider the evidence you don't tell us about. Joe Public, which I take it The Spirit Level is aimed at, has neither the time nor the access to the primary sources, let alone the training to make an informed judgement. They have to take what you say on trust. That is why university professors speaking with all the lustrous institutional prestige that implies have, in my opinion, a duty to be scrupulously honest, especially when writing for a popular audience. And when the brickbats come they should not be able to get away with emphasizing the popular nature of  their writing whilst ducking behind the protective shield of peer review.  What we all need are better  reasons to believe. I'm not the only social scientist or social democrat who thinks you  haven't yet given us nearly enough.


Colin Mills

Tuesday, 30 October 2012

Say not the struggle naught availeth...

My cultural pause for this week concluded by watching Peter Strickland's Katalin Varga. It's an enjoyable Carpathian revenge tragedy - imagine Tarkovsky, crossed with Bela Tarr and a little seasoning of Tarantino. The wind moves over the long grass, there is a weird soundtrack, the camera focuses on a distant horizon for an uncomfortably long period of time and there are sudden moments of extreme violence (thankfully not too graphic). Some get what they clearly deserve but it is not clear that everyone seeking redemption will get it. Just like life really, but not, thankfully, as most of us know it.
What is amazing though is the back story to the movie which is told in one of those "the making of" interviews that now grace most art-house film DVDs. Usually these are pretty gruesome because either the director is a windbag puffed up with his/her own self-importance or they are inarticulate to the point of boredom. This one is different because Strickland comes across very sympathetically as a man on a mission - a mission that no sane person would every start out on - to realize his personal vision in a movie for €30000. Basically this guy had one shot at becoming a film-maker:  his uncle died and left him a small legacy, he had no connections with the British film industry, he had no public funding, he had no distribution deal, he had basically nothing apart from self-belief (and sometimes even that seemed like it was slipping away). The Guardian has a good write-up here
What really endears him to me is his love of the old Scala cinema. I used to go there not long after it opened in 1979 when it was in Tottenham Street. It was cheap and you could see an endless succession of classic European movies. Later it moved to King's Cross and became a bit more sleazy, but still what a cinema should be: a moment in time, a brief window on another world, a step back from reality.

Monday, 29 October 2012

Art and the Industrial Revolution

I've just finished Francis Klingender's remarkable Art and the Industrial Revolution. Why remarkable? Well it seems to me to be one of the first pieces of art history (I'm now waiting to be blown out of the water by the mass ranks of art historians more knowledgeable about the subject than I am!) to take seriously the fact that industrial workplaces and their artifacts were the subject of considerable amounts of artistic representation of one sort or another and that the attitude of the artists themselves was one of ambivalence. Of course some recoiled in horror, while others celebrated the tapping of natural resources and the taming of nature's energy that industrialism implied, without resorting to the wooden cliches of soviet style socialist realism. He also points out that in many cases the industrial artifacts themselves were things of great beauty and thought to be so by contemporaries.
The book is also a store of  inspiring tales of men (sorry they were almost exclusively men) with dogged visions tenaciously pursued.Take for instance James Sharples (1825-1893) painter of The Forge which you can see in the Blackburn Museum and Art Gallery.
Sharples was largely self-taught, could, before early adulthood, barely read and write and earned his living as a smith in the sort of engine factory that he depicts in his painting, which was completed over three years in his spare time after his 11-12 hour shifts. The representation is very matter of fact and he is quoted by Smiles as saying: "The picture simply represents the interior of a large workshop such as I have been accustomed to work in". That's what I like about it. There is nothing particularly heroic in the work itself nor is there a hint of moral condemnation. He is simply showing it as it actually was: you have to earn your living one way or another, take it or leave it.
But there is something  quite incredible about what happened next. After completing the painting he made the usual move of producing an engraving for the popular market. The common practice was to farm this out to one of the vast number of engravers who made a business out of this sort of thing. Not our man: he decided to teach himself how to engrave on steel and took ten years to produce the plate, partly because he refused to use acid and picked out all the detail of the shading with point and rocker!
The engraving was apparently a great success, but he himself made little money from it and  spent almost the whole of his working life in a foundry.
Literal as his depiction of the workplace was, he was not entirely a man devoid of allegorical imagination. In 1852 he won a competition to design an image for the membership certificate of the Amalgamated Society of Engineers of which he was himself a member. It is, in its own way, a beautiful thing and personifies a rather attractive vision of the good society:
The mechanic refuses to repair Mars' broken sword, the slaves demonstrate that a bundle is stronger than a single stick, James Watt surveys the scene in his toga and the workshops of the world get on with the business of making reality out of improving inventions. How did we get from that vision to where we are today?
By the way, Klingender, a lecturer in sociology at the University of Hull, was a rather interesting man. One of a number of CP members and fellow travellers floating around the LSE at the beginning of the 1930s. There is a recently released  MI5 file on him.

A Winter's Tale

Half-term came early to our household, too early for the usual holiday club solution; so father and daughter took themselves off to the Unicorn Theater at London Bridge for the 10.30 am performance of A Winter's Tale. This was not Shakespeare as we know it but filtered through an English translation of a Flemish play for children based loosely on the Bard's story (which wasn't his originally anyway). And very good it was too: simple production, first rate acting and everything just as it should be for the intended 7-10 year audience and their adult minders. 
It was the first time I had been to the Unicorn and I can't recommend it highly enough. It was founded by Caryl Jenner (check out her ODNB entry if you can get behind the paywall) with the wholly laudable aim of taking children's theater seriously and taking it out to the provinces literally in the back of a van). Apparently like many people with a mission she could be domineering and didn't suffer fools gladly. Sometimes that's just the price you have to pay for getting something worthwhile done.
In the evening the adult part of the household rewarded themselves by watching Nani Moretti's We Have a Pope. Not a masterpiece, but a well made enough, amusing film with a few hilarious scenes (the college of cardinal's playing volleyball in the Vatican precincts is a classic) and a bit of pathos - what happens if an all too human pontiff decides that he is really not up to the job?

Thursday, 25 October 2012

Caught on a Train

Watched Poliakoff's Caught on a Train last night and it was like finding a time capsule. I'd seen it when it first came out and remember being captivated, but I couldn't remember exactly when that was. Seeing it again took me right back to the cusp of the eighties - it was first shown  on the 31st October 1980. I must have watched it on my first weekend home from university, full of excitement about the big-wide world that was opening up. Right movie, right time. At 18 living free from parental control in a big city you are acutely aware of  cultural, social and sexual collisions. Every day is an adventure and you never know who you are going to meet or wind up drinking with  to the wee small hours. The mise-en-scene of a train journey with all that implies about claustrophobia, xenophobia, intimacy, suppressed and not so suppressed violence and border crossing is  absolutely brilliant and is  cunningly  contrasted with the dreamlike night-time scenes set in Frankfurt. You travel through Germany in The Lady Vanishes style hysteria and all that you see out of the window are the smoking chimney's of  factories. In Frankfurt you get the junkies sleeping rough under the wanted posters for Baade Meinhof terrorists and the chilly emptiness of the  Opera Cafe with the nightmarish strains of Lulu piped through the PA system. I can think of few films which capture the feel of a particular moment of European history  quite so well. Also brilliantly handled are the subtle shifts in the power relations and sympathies between the three main players. Old imperial Europe and  new imperial America meet the Brit abroad.

Tuesday, 23 October 2012

Getting all the dope

I don't normally do plugs for other people's books or papers: hell, they can blow their own trumpets if they have a mind to. But I am going to make an exception for two pieces of work that have an intellectual connection (of sorts). Firstly Ben Goldacre's new book Bad Pharma: How Drug Companies Mislead Doctors and Harm Patients. Ben's big point is that clinicians and citizens have a right to consider all the evidence - not just the evidence from selected trials the pharmaceuticals  decide it is their interest to let you see - about whether or not a drug works better than/worse than the alternatives or indeed is actually in some circumstances harmful. Despite  assertions to the contrary by richly rewarded PR machines and parliamentary fellow travellers, all trial evidence is not placed in the public domain. Basically there is a systematic pattern of repeated evasion and falsehood which government appears not to want to acknowledge. A parliamentary question was asked today about this  and evinced  the usual amount of misinformation and obfuscation.
On a similar theme you should take a look at this new paper by my colleague John Goldthorpe. If you don't have time for the whole paper you can get the gist of it from this FT blog. This time it is a story of the partial and highly selective use of data which is informing a significant policy area - social mobility. The issue is not that data is being withheld, but that relevant data is being systematically ignored or downplayed because it does not support a dominant ideological belief that social mobility chances have declined while small quantities of undoubtedly relevant, but possibly quite flawed, data are given quite unwarranted prominence. The bulk of the data rather consistently finds that social mobility in the UK has not declined either in absolute or relative terms. From this it does not follow, as  for example Peter Saunder's would have us believe, that we live in a land of meritocratic opportunity (Peter: the direct effect of origin on destination means that some have to show more merit than others to get the rewards): but it does mean that things are not getting worse.

Is sociology useless?

Something I've been meaning to blog about for a while. The Guardian's Aditya Chakrabortty has been putting the boot into  sociology for some time. With the cocksure confidence that only a degree in Modern History from Oxford University can produce he pronounces (seeming to share something of the level of scientific insight of the Italian courts): "economics has failed us" and it is up to sociology (political science seems to have got lost on the way) to explain what has gone wrong. He then has a right royal laugh at the flim flam served up at the annual buffoon's convention  known as the British Sociological Association conference. It's easy to laugh at what goes on at that dreary affair. Few of any serious standing in the discipline attend or give papers and many of the titles and abstracts do indeed read like submissions to a particularly humourless pseud's corner. 
I hold no brief for the type of sociology  purveyed by the average BSA conference delegate,  often a distressingly earnest postgraduate student fretting about identity politics, body image or reflexive modernity (whatever that is) . What has been surprising to me though is the feebleness of the response by grown up sociologists to the absurd premises of Chakrabortty's  assault. It is not self-evident - as Chakrabortty seems to think it is - that economics (as an intellectual discipline) has failed. At least as a non-economist I'm humble enough to acknowledge that though it seems to me unlikely I'm actually not in a position to venture a particularly cogent opinion (as opposed to a rent-a-mouth sound bite). I also don't see any special reasons to expect numerous  startling insights into the origins of the financial crisis from sociologists, anthropologists or indeed historians for that matter. Because something is  important - as the financial crisis undoubtedly is -  it doesn't necessarily mean that sociologists have the requisite intellectual tools to make a serious contribution to elucidating the problems and solutions.  Sociologists may contribute a lot of hot air to global warming but we don't expect them to be key intellectual players in climate science. That's not a sign of failure: it's called the  intellectual division of labour. Which is not to say that  the odd sociologist might not have interesting and important things to say about the matter - we should for heaven's sake keep an open mind. But most of us are doing other things which we don't want to drop, some of which I acknowledge are (in my and apparently Chakrabortty's opinion) silly, while others are intellectually serious and useful - but not about topics which Chakrabortty finds fashionable or of journalistic interest.
Unfortunately those sociologists that have seen fit to comment  have fallen into the  trap that Chakrabortty either wittingly or unwittingly has laid for them. They appear desperate to demonstrate "relevance" and "impact" and only succeed, to my mind, in making themselves and the discipline look as absurd as Chakrabortty evidently believes it is. Don't take my word for it. You can judge for yourself from the information contained here about a debate to be held today at the University of Lancaster. My prediction for chuckle time is the one that "...argues that the current crisis is the delayed result of the failure of capitalism after the 1970s to make a socio-technical transition away from fossil-fuel technologies". Come on Dr Szerszynski, you need to go much further back in the causal chain. How about the Big Bang?

Go to jail

Be scared; be very scared. Italy is a state (I use the term loosely) that puts scientists in jail for failing to  predict the exact timing of an event. We have truly gone back to the dark ages. What are we going to see next in Italian courts, trials of homicidal pigs, sheep and goats? Where are the protests  from the governments of  all the other EU member states  against  an obvious abuse of human rights? They seem to be quick enough to point the finger at non EU states who get a bit heavy handed with the political opposition. And, while we are on the subject, if we are going to put (real) scientists in jail for failing to predict the timing of an earthquake why not put economists in jail for failing to predict the precise timing of the the financial crisis?
Of course this  would be absurd; earthquakes, financial crises and just about everything that happens in the world are stochastic events. We know a lot about why they happen, but that doesn't mean we can predict exactly when they will happen. To expect that is like expecting a physician  at the point a baby  is conceived to predict the exact minute at which it will be born. Nobody would  demand that and only a fool would claim that because we can't predict exactly when a baby will be born therefore we know nothing about how babies are created.

Monday, 22 October 2012

To be a pilgrim

England's perfect World, hath Indies too;
Correct your Maps, Newcastle is Peru.

John Cleveland, 1613-1658

James Attlee's Isolarion is a love song to Oxford's Cowley Road. It's also about  making a  pilgrimage, a journey of self-discovery. The exigencies of everyday life prevent him from pursuing his idea to the far ends of the earth so he  settles for his own doorstep, and his own inner space.  The latter isn't exactly Conradian in its depth - Oh! the horror!  - but the book is still a pleasant enough read and I did learn a few things about the area. Did you know that Bartlemas Chapel was part of an old leper hospital,  that the now rather unprepossessing Plain was the site of  St Edmund's Well renowned in the Thirteenth Century for its healing waters, or that Iffley  had an anchorite living in the church-yard? I didn't, but then when I lived just off the Cowley Road at the end of the 1980s my attention was probably distracted by other things: the three burglaries, the senseless vandalism of my car (I could understand you wanted to steal it but why did you have to break the steering wheel off?), the harmless junkie that lived opposite  in a tiny gap between a garage and the wall of St Stephen's House. Oh and the party house in our street that insisted on musical entertainments for the whole neighborhood until 3.00 am every weekend, and the friendly neighbour with the savage dog that carried out his motor-cycle repair business on the pavement. 
Actually, it wasn't that bad a place to live if you didn't have much money and had the physical and mental resources for tolerance. At least there was diverse life there - something that Attlee quite rightly celebrates. He also has some interesting things to say about the 'consultation' process that informed the planners who created the Cowley Road as it is today. Clearly Attlee is ambivalent about the outcome. I actually quite like it, but then again I don't live there, so what I think is surely rather irrelevant. The more interesting questions he illuminates are about who exactly is consulted, who controls the self-selected tribunes of the people, how far planning decisions are made on the basis of expert evidence and who, ultimately, sets the agenda. 
Local politics can be a rough, tough and rather thankless sort of game, but it is the sort of politics that has very direct consequences for  everyday lives. Where the road crossings are and how fast the cars are moving is something that is going to make a difference: not necessarily to you, but perhaps to your neighbour's children. It would appear from his account that these sorts of things tend to attract community consensus whereas street art - what it looks like and where it is sited - are deeply divisive. Oh well, each to his own. Attlee seems to be professionally involved in the art world so as of  the proverbial shoemaker the worst I can say of him is that he might  focus a little too much on leather.

Friday, 19 October 2012


I'm currently interested (for research purposes) in boys (for that they were) who attended Clifton College, Bristol and were born between September 1888 and August 1889. Trust me, I have a good reason. There turn out, according to Clifton College Register 1862-1947, to be rather a lot of them; though quite a few didn't survive beyond 1914-18. One of  the many interesting members of this cohort is a man called Hugh Arthur Franklin. He seems to have had a pretty eventful life and was imprisoned on a number of occasions  for his activities - once for attempting to strike Winston Churchill with a whip - in support of women's suffrage. You can read about him here. The entry on him in the Women's Library link claims that due to poor eyesight he was "disqualified for war service" during WWI and served on the staff of the Woolwich Ordnance Factories. Strangely the Clifton College Register has him serving as a Lieutenant in the Hampshire Yeomanry and being mentioned in dispatches. I wonder what the story is behind these discrepant accounts. Was it that he did indeed hold a commission in the Yeomanry but served in the Ordnance Factories? But then how did he come to be mentioned in dispatches? I can find no trace of him in the army medal rolls, the surviving enlistment & pension records or the London Gazette. This doesn't mean that he didn't serve, but my experience is that most serving soldiers of the 14-18 war  turn up in the medal rolls. Two highly speculative explanations come to mind. Was he confused in the school register with one or other of his two brothers who also attended Clifton? Or was the compiler of the register just a little embarrassed by this old boy's escapades and sought to uphold the honour of the school by, shall we say, embellishing the truth? The chances are I'll never know; unless, by the wonders of Google, somebody who knows the answer hits upon this blog posting and shares it with us.

Monday, 15 October 2012

What can we learn?

In my teaching I believe in trying things out  to see whether they work. For a while I've wondered whether there might be a better way to prepare MSc students for writing their dissertation than simply meeting with them on an individual basis and saying: so what do you want to write about then? A few years ago I posted my advice about writing dissertations and a few people have told me they found it helpful, but last year I also tried a new strategy. 
It has seemed to me for some time that the  biggest obstacle MSc students face is in choosing something worthwhile to do in the first place. In a way this isn't surprising. When you start your MSc you are a million miles from the research frontier so how can you possibly know what is worth doing? In some disciplines this problem is solved by simply giving students something to work on. I believe this can work and  I have had colleagues who included it in their box of tricks. My own experience has been less happy. An essential ingredient in producing a good dissertation is a sense of ownership of the topic. If somebody just allocates you something to do then this can result in low levels of commitment and an unhealthy dependency between student and supervisor.You really don't want a student who hangs on your every word and doesn't do anything without consulting you first.
So last year I thought I'd try something different. During the first term as well as meeting my supervisees individually I also met with them for an hour a week en masse. Each was given the task of surveying the last 12 months of the top 6 generalist sociology journals in order to identify an article that a) interested them and b) we would all read and discuss. My thought was that it didn't matter what they chose, though there might be incidental benefits from our discussions, and that the real value of the exercise would be that it forced them to confront the question of the relationship between what they wanted to do/thought was interesting and what the rest of the discipline was doing/thought was interesting. To put it in a slightly pompous nutshell I wanted them to locate their own dissertation plans within an ongoing scientific research programme rather than have it appear to drop out of the sky. In my naive way I also, of course, assumed that the extra person hours put into this should help them to write better dissertations.
And so to the $64,000 question: did it work? I'm afraid I have to say that I have no convincing evidence that it did. I'm sure it was a nice experience for the students, or at least they told me so. It was certainly  a nice experience for me, partly because I got to know that cohort of students much better than I normally would have. But did they write better dissertations? I doubt it. They all passed comfortably; some did a little better then others, but on the whole the quality was on average about the same as usual and the range of marks indistinguishable from the past.
Of course the numbers are small and it was probably unrealistic of me to expect to see much of a difference; but it got me thinking about the value of "experimentation" in this particular aspect of teaching. It's really difficult to learn empirically about something like dissertation supervision. The first reason is that we only ever deal with small batches at a time - the most I've ever supervised at one time is five. Secondly, there is enormous variability in the  raw material itself ie the students and you would expect in those circumstances that the same "treatment" will produce very different results in different students. Thirdly, the "treatment" is highly idiosyncratic ie it is partly me (my expectations, experience, limitations, personality). What appears to work for my colleague won't necessarily produce the same results for me (because of all my quirks and peculiarities); and that means that it is very difficult to learn by pooling experience. I guess I'll just have to keep muddling through.

Nobel Peace Prize

So the Nobel Peace Prize goes to the European Union. That must be good news. A bit of extra cash always comes in handy when you have so many member states to bail out. Hot tip for next year is The Man in the Moon. Just think of all the benefits he has brought to world civilization...

Friday, 13 July 2012


For reasons that are likely to be of little interest to anybody I have been reading A. A. Milne's delightful autobiography It's too late now. Milne was a much more interesting man than you might think and in the 1920s was primarily a playwright writing  in the style that reached its apogee with Coward. For a boy from what Orwell would later describe as the lower-upper-middle classes Milne became extraordinarily well connected with the establishment cultural elite, mainly through the good luck of becoming the editor of  The Granta. This gave him a string of connections to the Punch Table which eventually landed him the Assistant Editorship. Marrying the God-daughter of the Editor probably also helped a bit, though he seems to have had little time for his wife's family the ueber intellectual de Selincourts.
Towards the end of the book he gets into Colonel Blimp mode and laments the decline of standards ( he is writing in the late 30s):

"...in sport you can only feel superior to the champions of the past by beating them at their own game and under their own rules. In the arts you can denounce the target, change the rules, aim in a different direction, hit nothing, and receive the assurances of your friends that you are the better man."

He could have been describing contemporary British sociology.

Wednesday, 27 June 2012

Is the Pope a Catholic?

I wonder why the Daily Telegraph thinks it is front page news that British universities have lower entry thresholds for students from outside the EU who come clutching large wads of cash? I used to work in a department with a tiny "quota" for EU postgraduates and a much larger "target" for non EU students. Failure to meet the "target" was punished by an "adjustment" to the overall  number of students we were allowed to admit. Now what would you predict given those incentives? First class degree from Bristol? Sorry we're full up. Mediocre degree from No. 3 Inner Mongolia Polytechnical Institute of  Yurt and Yak Studies, a bogus language certificate and £24,000? That will do nicely.

As we wanted others to see us

The ever observant Edmund Chattoe-Brown pointed me in the direction of this wonderful archive of British Council documentaries from the 1940s. You might save The Life Cycle of the Newt for another time but check out The Second Freedom - for the sense of optimism about the welfare state (still being planned) and The General Election - about the 1945  General Election  contest in Kettering  where the the incumbent  is none other than one Colonel John Profumo, later disgraced in the Christine Keeler Affair and then redeemed by 40 odd years of quiet  good works at Toynbee Hall.

Wednesday, 30 May 2012

Time to stand up and be counted

I have been known in my wilder moments to advocate the shutting down of some sociology departments on the grounds that they are purveyors of tripe  so injurious to mental health that their continued existence is a public health issue. However even I am shocked by the following alert from John Holmwood:

"Dear colleagues, fellow students and friends:

I don’t know if you are aware of the looming redundancies in the University of Salford, and the process for weeding out staff. People in most schools and departments (including sociology and politics) are having to reapply for their jobs (Professors are not included in this procedure, but in a different one whereby they are asked, among other things, to take a cut in salary).

It seems only few people know about the redundancy plan going on, or rather about the current phase, since there have already been previous waves of sackings in the last months and years, and a new phase is announced for next year. The Union has organised a petition calling on management to reconsider. The petition is quite weak and does not explain the process, which is very appalling, but still you might want to sign it (
https://www.ucu.org.uk/nosalfordcuts), or perhaps take a more robust kind of action, e.g. through the national associations.

About the process: people are forced to re-apply to their jobs in competition with one another (and in some cases in competition with external candidates). In sociology and politics, for example, the reapplication process consists of

·      a written submission providing evidence that what people do meets a post specification recently developed by the university (15% - deadline 31 May, when people are at the peak of marking!)
·      an oral presentation on ‘strategy’ prepared during one hour and presented in ten minutes (35%). All we know about this is: “The reference to ‘strategy’ in the context of the academic presentation has to do with the approach adopted by the School and/or its directorates in view of achieving success as an academic and financial unit”
·      and a 'competency based interview' (50%). About this we have been told: << You will also be required to participate in a competency based interview where you will be asked a series of questions which you will need to answer giving detailed and specific examples of relevant experience. It is intended that the interview will last in the region of 45 minutes to 1 hour.
You will be asked questions relating to the following competency areas: 
-        Communication
-        Team Working and Motivation
-        Decision Making
-        Driving for Results
-        Embracing Change
-        Knowledge and Experience
-        Acting Commercially >>

Presentation and interview will take place, it seems, around middle June. The members of the tribunal-panel are also unknown.

This will create a precedent – the managers who have taken over the university can do all this with total impunity, as this process is not a typical redundancy procedure (which for them is clearly not good enough), so through this procedure they need not agree almost anything with the unions and can make sure they scare people to death and definitely commodify and managerialised education."

I believe Salford is not the only UK University attempting this sort of thing. I have even heard from reliable sources that a university at the more reputable end of the spectrum is seriously trying to rewrite contracts to enable departments to summarily get rid of staff whose research interests do not please the tastes of the  managerial/professorial cabals that run the place. I would have thought that that institution's recent experience of relations with dictatorial regimes would have taught it a lesson, but perhaps I'm too optimistic about the human capacity for learning.

Clearly if Salford goes ahead with these plans then it is no longer fit to be regarded as a serious university . Self-respecting academics should boycott it.


Saturday, 26 May 2012


Here is a cracker from Michael Gove: "To suggest that antisemitism can ever be explained, rather than condemned, is insensitive and, frankly, bizarre." So that is a whole swathe of post-war social psychology in the trash can then. Strange that a substantial proportion of it was written by Jews trying to make sense of why the country their forefathers had lived in for centuries had attempted to murder them. In what way Michael is their attempt to explain their experience insensitive and bizarre? I find it bizarre that we live in a country where the Secretary of State for Education believes that there is an incompatibility between explanation and condemnation. Then again I suppose reflection on the Is/Ought distinction is probably not a major component of  an English Literature degree.

Thursday, 3 May 2012

Favourite places 2

When my much better half moved to Britain one of the many things she sacrificed was good bread. Let's face it, English bread is terrible. When we manage to spend time in London one of  our pleasures is to get in the car  on Saturday morning and make the short drive to Ham where there are two excellent German bakeries. You have to get there early; by 8.30 there is a queue and if you arrive much later than that many of the really good things will be gone. It's not exactly one of  the metropolis' best kept secrets, you'll probably find half the Germans in London there, but this article in the latest edition of Spiegel must be good for business.

The social basis of politics

It's local election day. Taking my daughter to school in leafy North Oxford I usually park in one of the area's swankier roads. A quick search on house prices suggests that when they (rarely) change hands it's for £3,000,000 and upwards. To my surprise I noticed today that the only political posters (adorning 3 very large houses, one with 2 Mercedes in the driveway)  were...for the Labour Party. Should that raise an eyebrow? Or have I just  forgotten that being wealthy doesn't necessarily imply that you want to keep it all for yourself?

Tuesday, 1 May 2012


There are a number of smart people in my Department who spend  a lot of their time thinking about the implications of signalling theory for the structure of human social interaction. It's fascinating stuff and attracts a lot of interest. Ben Goldacre links to this marvelous piece of signalling in action from the game show Golden Balls. Watch right to the end, it's a wonderful example of  deception leading to cooperation.

Thursday, 19 April 2012

Favourite places 1

I could waste my time and yours by writing about the idiocies involved in writing an ESRC grant application which is what I've spent the better part of the last few weeks doing. But let's not go there. I'm now free for the moment from that Kafkaesque experience which I think I only survived thanks to the magnificent good sense of our departmental administrator and the calm guiding hand of our research services department. 
It's much more pleasant to write about places and spaces I really like. One of my all time  favourites is the Royal Festival Hall. What I like about it is that you don't have to have any particular reason for going there. Here is a large, public, indoor space in the centre of London where you can just go and hang out. There are comfortable chairs, free WiFi, a bar, restaurants, exhibitions, foyer events and people just sitting, talking, reading and  watching the world go by. Nobody asks you what you are doing there, you don't have to buy or do anything. All this and just 35 minutes from my flat in the suburbs.The more I think about it the more incredible it is that in the 1980s somebody on the Arts Council resisted the bean counters and had the chutzpah to hold out for an open foyer policy. I take my hat off  to them whoever they are. They should get a prize for creating a magnificent urban oasis.

Wednesday, 21 March 2012

World Poetry Day and Social Mobility

Today is UNESCO World Poetry Day, so here's a poem by Tony Harrison titled Social Mobility.

Ah, the proved advantages of scholarship!
Whereas his dad took cold tea for his snap,
he slaves at nuances, knows at just one sip
Chateau Lafitte from Chateau Neuf du Pape.

Two worlds, irony, scepticism and just a hint of self loathing, all in four lines: not bad going.

Tuesday, 6 March 2012

Alan Milburn and Loft Ladders

You couldn't make it up. If you go to what appears to be Alan Milburn's  personal website  the first thing you read is a piece of marketing guff for loft ladders. Is this a shrewd piece of product placement by a potential social mobility "Czar"? Or has someone just bought the domain name?

Wednesday, 15 February 2012

What is a good idea depends on what the feasible alternatives are

Kind of obvious really, but apparently not to Martin Taylor (Eton and Balliol) currently chairman of Syngenta and a former chief executive of Barclays. In his weekend FT op piece he makes a comparison between the current standoff in Euroland and the Treaty of Versailles. The strap line sums it up:
Reparations were essential to secure French support at Versailles in 1919. This did not make them a good idea.
Said with the unshakable confidence that Eton and Balliol selects for, but nonetheless balls. My point is not deep. In hindsight reparations after WW1  appear a bad idea, but at the time there was no serious support for the alternatives. Keynes lunched out on his (correct) prediction of some of the consequences but his was not a mainstream opinion. At the time no French support meant no Treaty and no Treaty was not a politically acceptable outcome. It's a strange mentality - maybe it's common among bankers (I wouldn't know) - that leads you to find fault in not choosing  an alternative that is not available to you. If you are on top of a hill and a clever (perhaps Eton and Balliol) banker exhorts you with Olympian detachment to reach the summit of a distant mountain  without descending into the valley, then feel free to take their advice with a pinch of salt.

Friday, 3 February 2012

Misguided Journal Editors

I and a coauthor have an article under consideration at a leading British sociology journal. To her surprise she received an email from the editor of the journal  asking her to take down the  copy of the paper hosted on  the work in progress section of my website before the journal would send the paper out to referees. There is nothing sinister about this and it is, no doubt, done with the best of intentions, but in my opinion it is quite obtuse. 
Research enters the public domain in all sorts of ways, as conference papers, press releases, working-papers and so forth. Grant awarders want early dissemination and the only way to do that -   given the length of time journals take to publish - is to write working papers and disseminate them as widely as possible, which usually means electronically. To try and enforce a double-blind refereeing procedure is to stand Canute like before the waves.
The only potential victim, if they choose  to reveal  their identity by putting a paper in the public domain, is the author themselves. If they, in effect, wave their right to anonymity what business is it of the journal to try and retrospectively impose it on them? This is doubly true when this 'policy' (along with others I've brought attention to in the past) is not mentioned in the journal's guidance to authors. Personally I'm willing to trade the scientific benefits of early dissemination against the small probability of a prejudiced reviewer - and I really believe that probability is small. Referees can be many things: careless, yes; ill informed, yes; incompetent, yes. But I've rarely read a referee's report that seems to be motivated by pure malice. 
I rarely referee an article nowadays without knowing who has written it. I don't need to Google. Academic niches are small. If you only referee work in your own field - as you should - then you know who the players are and what they are up to. You probably refereed their last grant application. You certainly saw their presentation at the last conference. If you can't recognize the author then you don't know what is going on and you aren't fit to referee. 
Some months ago I discussed this very issue with an economics colleague. He told me that nobody reads the articles in economics journals. By the time they are published they are old news. Publication is just the kite mark, but everybody has read the working paper and formed their own opinion long before that. That's how things are in a serious discipline.

Monday, 30 January 2012

Reaction to latest UCAS application figures

Here is my first take on the UCAS figures released today for the 2012 round of university applications. I've done some quick and dirty work on the numbers  supplied by the Guardian. This is nothing more than a first pass, it takes the data at face value and it says nothing whatsoever about whether increased fees have differentially put off different types of potential applicants. It also does nothing to control for the size of the 18 year old birth cohort - which is obviously important. If we look at applications to all universities, on the basis of the Guardian figures alone, it looks like the average change in the 2012 figures compared to the 2010 base is -0.72% ie a decline of less than 1%. It's important to use the 2010 base because in 2011 students obviously anticipated fee rises and were less likely to take a 'gap year'. Using the Guardian data we can also see if the magnitude of the percentage change across universities is related to average fee levels. Data on the latter are missing for quite a few cases so all the usual cautions apply. However, on the basis of what data there are, it looks like the answer, at the institutional level, is no and this is true whether or not you adjust for bursary provision and fee waivers. Here is a very rough and ready graph of the relationship. The regression slope is essentially flat and the slope coefficient is non significant (but actually positive!).

I've broken all the rules about making nice graphs, but I'm pushed for time at the moment. It will be interesting to see if a rather different story emerges when somebody is able to look at these data more carefully.


I notice that several of our 'leading' departments now have slick advertising videos on their web pages. Nothing surprising about that. As I've observed before, once blowing one's own trumpet gets a foothold then the Devil take the hindmost. What is perhaps a bit more surprising is how easily sociologists adopt the locutions of management speak. For instance here is a gem from one of the promos:
"...students gain a wide variety of employability skills and one of these can be exampled by the research project..."
Excuse me, but since when has to use or make an example become a verb? I example, you example, she examples.... If we translate this into English it is obvious that the first part is banal while the second part (even if you add in what follows the ellipsis) is meaningless:
...students learn things that may be useful in the workplace (I would hope so); an example of this is the research project... (what about it? In what way is this an example of a skill that students have learned?).
OK, I'm being a tad pedantic, but this sort of thing is insidious. Consider, for example, how to make, create or state a theory became a verb in sociologyspeak. Now all you have to do to dismiss any inconevnient empirical fact is to utter the magical incantation: "Your article/paper/sentence (tick whichever is applicable) is undertheorized." This phrase absolves the utterer from ever clearly stating what the actual deficiency is. It is in most cases the equivalent of shouting bugaboo!

Thursday, 19 January 2012


Anyone care to have a go at translating this sociological gem into something resembling the English language?

"There is much to unpick here about how particular classed, racialised and gendered (young) bodies come to be (re)positioned and (re)inscribed within regenerated city-scapes. Urban ‘disadvantaged’ youth become objects of a particular luminosity, encoded as future-oriented, agentic subjects who stand for the city’s pride, hope, diversity and multiculturalism."

There is indeed much to unpick here... among the more minor, why the scare marks around 'disadvantaged'? Is this meant to be ironic? Is the author saying the youths are not disadvantaged?

I'll spare the author's blushes unless they insist on attribution.

Tuesday, 17 January 2012

Why journals do not contain a record of continuous scientific progress

The inimitable Ben Goldacre has ferreted out a useful early example of a discussion of publication bias. Fifty years on and my impression is that things are not greatly improved in some disciplines. Add publication bias to the belief on the part of some editors of sociology journals that their organs are part of the entertainment business and you have the perfect recipe for the reproduction of blah blah.

Monday, 9 January 2012


I've been too busy  to post for a while and the horizon doesn't look  much clearer but hope springs eternal. For the moment here is a link to a comment on the economic crisis which is  as insightful as any I've read and a good deal more succinct.