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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, 18 December 2013

Comment on the GBCS

As promised I've posted the short version of my comment on the GBCS on my website. It will be available there until it is published by Sociology.

Tuesday, 17 December 2013

Sociology and Elites

My contribution  to the comments on Graham Scambler's interesting piece in Discover Society finally made it past the moderator. You can read it here (go to bottom).

Monday, 16 December 2013

Segregated Seating

Occasionally I'm glad that I don't get round to doing something or other that I intended to do. When I first heard about Universities UK's advice on the gender segregation of seating  I was ready to get on my liberal high horse and blog my (negative) views. What I actually heard was a brief report on the Today programme which, though not inaccurate, turned out to tell only part of the story. The bit that was omitted, I subsequently found out, was that segregated seating was permissible as long as non-segregated seating was also available. This little piece of information changed my view.

What will now happen is that this issue will  become a nice little earner for lawyers who will test the interpretation of equality legislation. Though obviously of  great practical importance this is less interesting to me than the issue of what I should think. Not being a great abstract thinker I find it helps to focus on a realistic example.

Let's imagine that the  Islamic Cultural Society at the University of Poppleton wishes to host a lecture about matters of interest to them. The guest speaker requests that gender segregated seating be provided. The university refuses to accept the room booking unless non-segregated seating of no worse quality is also provided. The guest speaker and the organizers accept this condition and the event goes ahead. The university's equality officer is involved in drawing up the seating plan. There are three blocks of seating, ladies on the left, gentlemen on the right and mixed seating in the middle.

This arrangement seems to me to cater for all preferences and I find it very difficult to understand the grounds on which I should object to it. OK, so let me try a little harder. 

There are two arguments that have received some airplay, but neither of these seem particularly convincing. The first  is that ladies who sit in the segregated seating area are not making an autonomous choice.  There probably is something to this. A certain proportion may make their choice because they fear the repercussions of doing otherwise. However, it seems to me a big stretch, and in fact utterly presumptuous, to assume that this is universally the case, or even true in the vast majority of cases. In a liberal society we normally assume that adults in possession of their faculties can, within the law, make their own choices and we  respect those choices no matter what our private theories are about the aetiology of the choice process. On occasion we might feel it is sensible to ask, are you sure?, but if the answer is still in the affirmative, generally speaking we leave it at that. 

Personally I find it odd that a woman should choose to wear a burqa, but this is a matter of  my cultural conditioning and as a social scientist I really should understand that people are quite capable of genuinely choosing to do this without it being a matter of "false consciousness". People live their lives in all sorts of ways that I don't approve of, find bizarre, and wouldn't choose for myself. But if they choose it and it does no harm to anyone else then I don't see that it is either my or the State's business to restrict their freedom.

The second argument directly attacks the "does no harm" assumption. It does this though in a way which is, I think, quite unserviceable. The idea  is that even if ladies genuinely and autonomously prefer and choose segregated seating, the very existence of such an arrangement does in fact cause harm to others. For example, it may give rise to feelings of hurt amongst the LGTB "community" because of an implicit categorization of the world that excludes them. Alternatively, the existence of seating, segregated along gender lines, even when non-segregated seating is also available, might be taken as an endorsement (and reinforcement) of a particular gender sterotypical view of the world which has negative consequences for (some) women and (some) men. 

I can see the point of these arguments, but even if there is something in them, I'm not convinced they give good grounds for practical action. They seem too close to  the sorts of "nosy preferences" that generally we give little weight to. Normally we require quite stringent and overwhelming evidence that the harm is other than psychic or hypothetical. No matter how disgusted I feel by the sight of a grossly obese or hideously ugly person, my personal feelings are (rightly) given no weight in the matter of whether they should be allowed to walk down my street or serve me a cappuchino. Neither is the hurt I feel that others don't share my views about the non existence of God  and Santa Claus given any weight in deciding whether the fundamentalist Christians next door can require their children to say prayers before going to bed and leave a carrot out for Rudolph.

In the real world we need to make compromises in order to  live peacably together and it seems likely that making a political issue out of the availability of gender specific seating is likely to do more harm (does anyone really believe that Cameron is motivated by deeply help liberal beliefs?) than good. The ethical principles are not clear cut and as long as nobody attending the Poppleton event is forced to do anything they don't ostensibly prefer I don't think Universities UK's advice is particularly bad.

Friday, 13 December 2013

Richard Jenkins and the Future of Sociology

I was alerted to this lecture given by Richard Jenkins  at Aalborg. I'm pleasantly surprised by how much I agree with. I wasn't expecting that. Of course there are a few things I could quibble about: where's demography as a cognate discipline?; the characterization of quantitative sociology is a bit unhelpful; the veneration of  Wright Mills. But it's a thoughtful piece that gets a lot of things right.

On metaphors - cultural and social capital again

Recently, as you no doubt know,  I've been beating up on the use of the term "capital" in phrases like "cultural capital" and to a lesser extent "social capital". One desperate last move that their defenders try to deploy is the old, "its only a metaphor" ploy, as though that was some kind of answer. Rather than say, "well that's all right then" I want to take this manoeuver seriously and ask: "so what do you expect your metaphor to accomplish?".

It turns out that there is an old discussion in the philosophy of science that is relevant. I can do little better than quote from Stephen Toulmin's The Philosophy of Science pp35-36:

"When for instance, we say that someone's eyes swept the horizon, the ancient model of vision as the action of antennae from the eye is preserved in our speech as a metaphor; but when we talk of light travelling our figure of speech is more than a metaphor. Consequently, when people say that to talk of light travelling in some sense reflects the nature of the world in a way in which to talk of eyes sweeping the horizon does not, they have some justification. For to say the 'Light travels' reflects the nature of reality, in a way in which 'His eyes swept the horizon' does not, is to point to the fact that the latter remains at best a metaphor. The optical theory from which it came is dead. Questions like 'What sort of broom do eyes sweep with?' and 'What are the antennae made of?' can be asked only frivolously. The former does more: it can both take its place at the heart of a fruitful theory and suggest to us further questions, many of which can be given a sense in a way in which the question suggested by 'His eyes swept the horizon' never could."

"How did he use his cultural capital as collateral for a bank loan?" has roughly the same status as: "What sort of broom do eyes sweep with?" It's obvious that you can't use intangible cultural resources as security against a loan because they aren't capital in a sense that any financial institution would understand. Valuable as they are to you, your cultural resources (unless they are physical objects like paintings, sculptures, opera houses) are not in themselves transferable to others. "Cultural capital" is a metaphor with nowhere to go because it doesn't, as Toulmin puts it, "take its place at the heart of a fruitful theory".

Thursday, 12 December 2013

Plomin on the radio

I caught part of Bob Plomin's interview on the Today programme this morning. I guess he is flavour of the month because of the Dominic Cummings kerfuffle. What I heard  - he was talking about genetics and variation in exam performance - didn't sound particularly controversial - though I should emphasize I didn't hear the end of  the interview, so who knows where it went.

Of course simply putting the words genetics and education in the same sentence is likely to lead to a knee jerk explosion of indignation that precludes almost all rational discussion. Though I'm against anything that simply brackets off a subject area from rational investigation I do in fact have some sympathy for the view that the faux naive: "I'm just a scientist telling it like it is, it's for the politicians to decide what to do with it" can be a thin veil for something more sinister. Jensen, Herrnstein, Murray & co were, and in the latter case, are,  not just scientists. They also had and have policy preferences they want to push.

As far as I can tell this is not true of Plomin and it seems to me that he is a much more serious scholar. I first came across his work by chance, just before he moved to the UK.  An American colleague,  a man of impeccable liberal credentials, knew  and spoke highly of him. On the debit  side you could put down the fact that Plomin was a cosignatory of the infamous Mainstream Science of Intelligence editorial in the Wall Street  Journal. Among the list of 52 signatories are a few crazies that I'd be wary of having my name linked with but guilt by association is not guilt.

I read some of Plomin's early papers but I have to confess that I'm not tooled up to follow the details of his most recent work, even those pieces aimed at a more psychological audience. To understand these papers you have to have a greater understanding of genetics than I do as well as an easy familiarity with the latest techniques for drawing statistical inferences from gene sequence data. I strongly suspect that one has to read these very closely to fully appreciate the message and it would be foolish to jump to conclusions without understanding that the devils, if there are any, will undoubtedly be in the details.

So I'm forced back on my meagre stock of knowledge, mostly gleaned through reading the polemics generated by past rounds of the genetics/IQ controversy. Still, I think you can get some of the way  towards making intelligent judgements with a little learning. So here are a few banalities to keep in mind:

1) Heritability is a population level concept ie it is about variability (differences around the average) in the population. 

2) The more you make environments similar, the greater the proportion of  trait variability that will be accounted for by genotypic variability. If, hypothetically, the environment is a constant, then the only possible sources of variation are chance (random "errors") and genes. This might be seen as a paradox for the left.

3) But, we might not give a damn about heritability. Height is a highly heritable trait, but in some populations average height has increased to an astonishing degree in the post-war era. Why? Probably better nutrition more evenly distributed throughout the population ie environmental improvement (and equalization).

4) Additive decompositions of phenotypic variance are too simplistic. It would be truly amazing if some geneotypes always produced better performing (OK I know there is a lot of baggage in that expression) phenotypes in all environments. In fact we know they don't, the literature on agricultural experiments is littered with examples of this. So when somebody tells you that they have decomposed population trait variance into genetic and environmental components remember to ask them about the interaction term (and whether it has just been assumed away?).

5) Genetic/environmental interactions are important because human individuals, unlike plants, choose, to some extent, the environments they live in and again, to some extent, make those choices on the basis of expected outcomes. People that hate reading (or never learned to love reading) are more likely to choose to live in houses without books, so whatever genetic basis reading ability has is not going to reveal itself in that sort of environment.

NB I'm not saying that Plomin ignores or doesn't appreciate any or all of these points. I am saying that other social scientists should appreciate them before they unleash their knee-jerk reactions.

Wednesday, 11 December 2013

On Popularity Contests

I've taught, in a variety of contexts since 1987. I consider myself  lucky in that for the vast majority of that time I've been privileged to teach smart, motivated students, in what, by British standards, have been well resourced institutions. I'm not just lucky, I'm very lucky.

 I think I know something about teaching, what works, what doesn't work, what to compromise on and what to remain firm about. I think I also know something about listening, though I don't confuse listening with agreeing, which is a mistake that, sadly, is all too often made by people who are just a little too cocksure about the soundness of their own opinions ("You're not listening!" "Actually, I am listening, we just don't have the same opinion."). Having said that I'm sure I've still got something to learn - any teacher who goes into the classroom and fails to learn something new each year about the craft  is either cloth-eared or brain-dead (in my humble opinion).

There are some aspects of our modern teaching regime though that I am mildly skeptical about. One of these is student evaluation surveys. To be more precise, I'm not skeptical about the surveys in themselves - they are what they are - but I am skeptical about the way the information in them can be used especially by university managers in acts of intellectual terrorism.

Let me tell you a story to illustrate what I mean. At one time, when I worked at another institution, I simultaneously held  positions and taught courses in two different departments. Commonly I would deliver courses that contained essentially the same material to two different sets of students nested within two different departmental contexts. The courses had similar content because they were meant to fulfill basically the same generic requirements that made students  potentially eligible for  ESRC funding, something that both departments were nominally committed to. They both needed to learn the same stuff and I taught them the same stuff.

Though it's not an RCT the contrast between the two groups is quite informative. One group consistently year by year trashed my teaching.  I was, apparently, an incompetent whose knuckles barely avoided scraping the ground. My lectures and seminars were boring, irrelevant and confused. I was also, apparently a mysogyinistic, racist, elitist, naive positivist who should have been put out of his misery years ago. To boot I also didn't have a good command of my native tongue and created widespread misapprehension by communicating in regional dialect and/or arcane colloquialisms.

Well everyone is entitled to their opinion. I could have become quite depressed, but I was bolstered by several contradictory pieces of evidence. Firstly, in those days we had a regime of external visitations by the Quality Assurance Agency (QAA) in which our classroom performance was observed and evaluated. On both occasions I was observed, my teaching was given the top ranking - 4 on a 4 point scale. I have to admit to vague feelings of schadenfreude when I  discovered that several colleagues who have gone on to  stardom had their classroom performances ranked as unsatisfactory (one actually boasted about it).

Secondly, I had the evidence from a 'control group'. I was teaching the same material in more or less the same way to a different group of students in a different department. Their evaluations were quite different. They liked my classes, found them interesting, well organized and useful. They found what I had to say sophisticated, relevant and clear. Their only complaint was that they wanted more time with me not less.

So what did I learn from all this? Firstly, at least according to external observation, there was nothing wrong with my teaching technique (the QAA's brief did not extend to judging subject matter content). Secondly, context and expectations make a big difference to student perceptions and these have little to do with teaching quality as judged by objective criteria. In one case I was being sent on a suicide mission and in another I was a missionary to the converted.

There is no point in being coy about it. The group that would eat glass rather than sit in a room with me were sociology students and the group that wanted to have my children (I exaggerate slightly) were students signed up for a course in social research methods. The former were actively told by some of my "colleagues" in one of the departments concerned that all this research methods  was just old-fashioned, irrelevant low-brow stuff that the department had to be seen to go along with in order to get the ESRC goodies, but should not be taken seriously and in any case was so difficult that it was unreasonable to expect any humanistically orientated social scientist to spend time on it. This message was reinforced by the simple fact that the material I taught was never mentioned in any substantive course the students took or in anything they were asked to read. Alexander, Bauman, Beck, Bourdieu, Butler, Castells, Deleuze, Derrida, Giddens, Latour and the rest of the alphabet are a little light on the details of how to link impressive sounding words to empirical evidence. It's little wonder the sociology students found what I offered irrelevant. In their ecological niche it was irrelevant.

So what the difference amounted to was that in one context I was constantly undermined and briefed against whilst in the other all colleagues sung from the same hymn sheet and supported each other (which is not to say that we agreed about everything, we just agreed, broadly speaking, about how to do science). As things turned out  I can look back on these two contrasting experiences with wry amusement. But things could have been different. 

One senior figure in the sociology department  whose demise precipitated loud encomia along the lines of what a nice decent chap he was, doggedly fought to block my promotion, ostensibly on the objective grounds that my teaching scores in sociology courses were shamefully low, but in reality because a) I had dared to disagree with him in public about a matter of opinion and b) he had a distaste for anything to do with numbers or rigorous empirical inquiry, which he regarded as the stuff of under-labourers. Again I was fortunate. Having gotten one of his creatures to delay the forwarding of my papers beyond the application deadline I was forced to play my ace which was to complain to a senior member of the institution's management, who I happened to be friendly with, that I was a victim of a dirty trick. Magically deadline's were extended and in the end I was in fact promoted with no difficulty whatsoever.

Monday, 9 December 2013

Monday morning good news

I have a feeling this is going to be a great week. Early into the office and the first things I read are emails from former grad students. One got his DPhil with us and now has landed a  contract with a leading university publishing house (you know which one I mean) to turn his thesis into a book.  Congratulations Charles! The other did an MSc with us and then went on to Chicago. He's now got a great job at Facebook and sent me a link to a very thoughtful blog post he has written about some of the perverse practices that have got institutionalized in academic research and publishing. I think he is right on the button. Cheers Michael.

I get enormous pleasure out of seeing people I've taught doing well and making a difference. Time for some happy music.

Friday, 6 December 2013

Bourdieu, BSA and Class

Sorry to see that the BSA's Bourdieu Study Group seems to have suffered a severe irony breakdown (thanks to MP for the tip-off). Oxford Sociology wishes them a speedy recovery of their rational thought processes (though I'm not holding my breath).

The report on their meeting: Measuring Social Classes: Bourdieusian Approaches  appears under the delightful Bourdieusian appercu that serves as the running head for their blog:

“I often say sociology is a martial art, a means of self-defense. Basically, you use it to defend yourself, without having the right to use if for unfair attacks.”

This elevating thought doesn't seem to have informed the attitude of one of the speakers for Dr Will Atkinson is reported as opining:

"Anything that challenges the 'strangle hold' of the Nuffield theory of class can only be good."

Great to see that  the tradition of measured, reasoned debate (preferably with a few arguments) lives on in Bristol.

On the other hand, one should perhaps spare some sympathy for Dr Will, for in the next sentence his sideman, attempting to explain his arcane reference to the uninitiated,  lets him down:

"This of course referred to the well-established Goldthorpe class schema which dates back to the early 1960s and has become a standard approach to classify class in Western sociology. "

Whoops. No. You are in the wrong decade. The first publications using the Goldthorpe class schema  appeared in the journal literature in 1977 and the book in 1980. I know British sociology prides itself on being weak on quantification, but now it seems that basic bibliographic technique is going out of the window too.

Condolences Will. You just can't get the staff these days.

At the same gig Professor Savage performed his usual set, though this time with an intriguing variation (if the report is to be believed).  We are told that:

"One of the problems and the ‘Achilles heel’ of the project [the GBCS] was that the working class were not representative, even through 13,000 people in that category completed the survey. However, the nature of the skewed sample was a finding in itself and will be built on in the research teams next phase of their work to unpick power and privilege."

If this is an accurate report (it may not be) then the good professor can give us all a lesson in how to turn necessity into a virtue by setting the knowledge bar so low that everything qualifies as a finding, no matter how banal. There's chutzpah. I've now seen the future and it is impact, impact, impact!

Turning to more cheerful news, the journal Sociology has now accepted (fair do's to them) my radically shortened critical comment on the Savage et al. GBCS article with no comments from either of the referees: make of that what you will. You can find the original long version here and I'll post the new version on my website until it goes live in the journal's online first section. The latter may take some  time. For most articles the time between acceptance and appearance in the online first section appears to be roughly 7-12 months, unless, that is, you have an inside line, then you get 2 months from acceptance to publication in the print version. Say after me: impact impact, impact!

You've got to laugh, so for all you German speakers here's Hape Kerkling as Professor Evje van Dampen: Liebe ist Arbeit, Arbeit, Arbeit!

N'Kosi Sikeleli Africa

Thursday, 5 December 2013

Political Integration of Ethnic Minorities

Check out the review by Ron Johnston of  the new book written by some of my colleagues: The Political Integration of Ethnic Minorities in Britain by Anthony F. Heath, Stephen D. Fisher, Gemma Rosenblatt, David Sanders and Maria Sobolewska. Even better, read the book.

While you are at it you might also want to look at the new volume  edited by two other colleagues: Political Choice Matters: Explaining the Strength of Class and Religious Cleavages in Cross-National Perspective, Geoffrey Evans and Nan Dirk de Graaf (eds.)

Johnston ends his review of the Heath et al. volume thus:

"It represents British quantitative social science at its very best: theoretically-driven, sophisticatedly-designed and -analysed, and excellently presented."

So that'll be a 2 then in the eyes of the Sociology REF panel...

Wednesday, 4 December 2013

Drawing the right conclusions from the numbers (again)

Posted a comment  again (scroll to bottom)  on the LSE's British Politics and Policy blog. I sincerely hope it isn't taken personally. It is not intended to be anything other than a comment on the facts of the matter and the consequences of essentially arbitrary decisions about the way to measure things (like the gap between different groups' participation rates in HE and trends therein). Our old friend the 1958 Birth Cohort features as does the degree of belief we should attach to the results for one data point and the desirability of taking into account all the relevant data, not just those bits of it that are consistent with your prior.

Monday, 2 December 2013


Sometimes the Labour Party makes it very difficult for its natural supporters to like them. Evicting  long-term tenants who made derelict Lambeth properties fit for human habitation looks like a particularly cynical and downright nasty piece of asset value realisation.

What is odd about this story is the lack of any mention of the obviously equitable way to resolve the dispute. Shouldn't the council and the (ex) tenants share the capital gain in proportion to the investment made in improving the properties? Or does Lambeth Council think it is OK to just grab all the money even when, if it had been left to them, the properties would have tumbled down or become crack cocaine dens.

It's not as if these kinds of calculations aren't made all the time. They are, for instance when you go to arbitration on the extension of a leasehold or the purchase of a freehold.

Drawing the right conclusions from the numbers

Just commented on a British Politics and Policy at LSE blog piece by Luke Martell. He presents an argument against the marketisation of British higher education, which, on the whole, I have sympathy for (the argument, not the marketisation). 

But some of the data facts he cites are not, as far as I can tell, correct. It took me about 10 minutes to check this - all the relevant documents are in the public domain and Google finds them immediately so it isn't difficult. 

I'm all for the questioning of data and the interrogation of sources. But one really has to do this properly - not rely on second and third hand accounts that turn out themselves to be misleading. If we fail to do this, or worse still, cherry pick the numbers that support the story we want to tell, then we: a)  hand the other side a first round knockout; b) perpetuate the idea that sociologists can't handle simple numbers.

We really must do better than this if we want to be taken seriously.

Friday, 29 November 2013

Economics fights back

Last month I expressed a little irritation at Aditya Chakrabortty's facile condemnation of  academic economics and expressed the hope that  an economist of  substance would step up to the plate and sort him out. Krugman is doing his bit today and links to a very nice piece by Simon Wren-Lewis. It' hard to argue that these guys are on the neo-liberal right.

Dismissing whole academic disciplines is just childish and I can't understand why the Guardian has as its economics leader writer someone who wants to promote the consumption of large doses of snake oil.

Thursday, 21 November 2013


Christian Monden drew my attention to this web-site devoted to the systematic trashing of a single paper published in a sociology journal. Though it stems from an advocacy group, it doesn't, as far as I can see, (and I haven't explored every nook and cranny) give an unfair representation of the content of the paper. 

It is a cautionary tale. Sometimes what you write can have consequences that you never intended. Loose words and imprecise formulations (to be charitable) can get you into a heap of trouble. Once the genie gets out of the bottle there is little you can do to stop the havoc. Sometimes the hoary old defense: "I was just trying to be provocative" won't prevent a world of shit falling on your head. Better be careful what you wish for.

And there is collateral damage. I don't believe for one minute that there was a conspiracy at Social Science Research to publish an anti-gay parenting paper. What is much more likely is that a busy editor was just delighted to get a paper quickly refereed and off his desk and made some bad calls. I wonder how many editorial decisions would survive this degree of scrutiny? 

How many referees of our papers are completely "independent"? If I am on record as holding the belief that Professor X's work is scientific garbage should that disqualify me from being a referee of her next paper? Is my belief a more significant or less significant disqualification than once having attended a meeting of the "steering group" for Professor X's project? Choosing at least one from each side doesn't work either in a world in which one negative referee's report is sufficient to torpedo a paper.

 I don't know what the answers to these questions are and I doubt that one could draw up a set of guidelines that would cover all eventualities. It's really a wonder that anyone wants to be an editor of a sociology journal.

And then there is the question of impact. If UoTaA were participating in the British REF would they be submitting Regnerus' work as one of their impact case studies? It fits all the criteria and has had much more "impact" than most sociology papers. I can't see anything in the guidelines that says that the impact must be positive and the science must be sound.

Monday, 18 November 2013

Darwin, Carlyle and Buckle

Another bit of recreational reading has been Darwin's Autobiography. It is a really delightful piece of writing which in its simplicity succeeds in being, matter of fact, witty and charming. 

As a young man Darwin had been quite sociable and was well connected with the leading scientific and literary figures of the day. He is not averse to telling the odd catty story about some of them.  Here are a couple of  my favourites:

"His [Carlyle's] talk was very racy and interesting, just like his writing, but he sometimes went on too long on the same subject. I remember a funny dinner at my brother's where amongst a few others were Babbage and Lyell, both of whom liked to talk. Carlyle, however, silenced everyone by haranguing during the whole dinner - on the advantages of silence. After dinner Babbage in his grimmest manner thanked Carlyle for his very interesting Lecture on Silence."

"Buckle was a great talker, and I listened to him without saying hardly a word; nor indeed could I have done so, for he left no gaps. When Effie [his wife's niece] began to sing, I jumped up and said that I must listen to her. This, I suppose, offended him, for after I had moved away, he turned round to a friend, and said (as was overheard by my brother), 'Well Mr. Darwin's books are much better than his conversation.' What he really meant, was that I did not properly appreciate his conversation."

On dissing Popper

Recently I was reading, with great enjoyment, Peter Medawar's Memoir of a Thinking Radish. In one part he discusses Karl Popper's reputation and what he says strikes me as spot on:

"... a good many philosophers are jealous of Popper, pick fault where they can, and find reasons to praise philosophers who put forward views different from his, even when those views are somewhat flimsy. I have a feeling that many lecturers on scientific method are oppressed by the sheer reasonableness of Popper's philosophy, and in taking a different or very critical line they feel that their personal identity has somehow been enlarged. Worse still, it has become the thing for literary intellectuals to pretend that there is something a little passé about Popper's philosophy and that he has been supplanted by a number of mavericks and clowns."

When I started as an undergraduate at the LSE Popper had already been retired for 10 years, but his views were still taught and, my impression was, in the main, taken seriously. Just over a decade later when I joined the faculty the mood had changed. It was fashionable to deride Popper, often for views that it was hard to demonstrate he actually held and just as frequently for views that he definitely did not hold. Attitudes towards his politics, personality, the manner in which he ran his department, how he conducted his seminar, dealt with colleagues and carried out his teaching seemed to get thoroughly mixed up, in quite absurd ways, with questions to do with the soundness or utility of his ideas. In fact to defend Popper in public more or less condemned you in some eyes as a witless simpleton.

Changing the proper name and a few nouns in the quotation would lead to an equally accurate description of certain tendencies in British sociology.

A Field in England

We watched Ben Wheatley's  A Field in England on Saturday night. I didn't know what to expect so it wouldn't be right to say I was disappointed. Still, I did find it pretentious and actually in places rather boring, though the fact I  fell asleep in the middle of it might be attributable to the early effects of the stomach bug that kept me in bed for most of Sunday. The plot is minimal and incoherent, the mood is something like an attempt at a 17th Century Sergio Leone spaghetti western and well, that's it. One of those films where there is less to it than meets the eye. Much less.

The weans are all right

The Guardian has a slightly daft story today about a primary school in Halesowen that has banned Black Country dialect from its precincts in the interest of getting the kids to express themselves in "Standard English". The usual gloom is accompanied by  laments for the loss of  linguistic diversity and connection with  more authentic modes of expression.

What puzzles me a bit is the either/or way in which this kind of argument is often put. It's perfectly possible for children and adults to adapt the way they speak to the social circumstances they find themselves in. And in any case most British dialects are not that different from Standard English so what is the great problem?

Growing up in the Midlands with immigrant Scottish parents, I spoke  differently at home from  how I did in the playground, which was different again from the way  I spoke in the classroom. Admittedly outside of the confines of the family the first was of little  practical  use, though later on it meant I had little difficulty  understanding  Gregor Fisher's Rab C. Nesbitt surely one of the finest pieces of absurdist comedy ever produced by the BBC.

In other countries, for instance Germany, regional dialect happily coexists with the standardized version of the language. Children speak Hochdeutsch in school and dialect in the street or home (if they choose). Some of the dialects are not as mutually intelligible as almost all British dialects are but nobody seems to get excited about that. And the appetite for culture in dialect seems to be enormous. Look at the size of the audience standing in the rain to watch Brings singing in Kölsch.

Friday, 15 November 2013

Q-Step not enough?

The Higher is running with a piece today quoting John MacInnes saying that though the new Q-Step Centres are a good start, they will still essentially  be a drop in the ocean compared to the UK's social science quantitative methods deficit.  Of course he is  right. 

Still, the Oxford Q-Step Centre, which will be hiring soon, will try, albeit in a modest way, to do something of benefit for the wider social science community. We will be running vacation courses, open to u/g students from outside of Oxford. So students from universities without their own Q-Step Centre won't be entirely excluded, at least not from some of the  teaching that  Oxford will provide. This outreach aspect of the Oxford Centre will be located in the Sociology Department.

Wednesday, 13 November 2013

UK Census

Here is a nice piece by Danny Dorling arguing for the retention of the Census. I'd add to it only one thought. What we actually need is a UK population register. And someone to explain that Swedes, Norwegians, Finns and even Germans are not less free than Brits because in one way or another the state (or local government) requires them to register where they live. (I'm standing by for the inevitable flaming I'm going to get from assorted libertarian crazies).

Wednesday, 6 November 2013

Bad Statistics

Nice article by John MacInnes and Sing Yi Cheung  in Discover Society about  the dishonest use of data and the credulity of the British press. These are good targets to begin with, but one can find much the same sort of thing going on within the academy...

Wednesday, 30 October 2013

Fly through 17th Century London

This is really cool. Well worth a look.

Tuesday, 29 October 2013

Chakrabortty on Economics

Aditya Chakrabortty  has another of his ill-informed rants about academic economics in today's Guardian. I don't need to defend economics, there are enough economists to do that, and it would be good if one or two would step up to the plate and give Chakrabortty the roasting he deserves. Hasn't he noticed that economists don't all agree about many fundamental issues? Krugman is different from  Fama is different from Shiller.

What they do tend to agree about is the way to do economics and that involves formal arguments (expressed in mathematics) and empirical testing with econometrics. If you don't master these tools then you can't come to the party, no matter how much Adam Smith, Karl Marx or Joseph Schumpeter you have read. There is a part of economics that is more like engineering than like social science and there is a part that isn't. But as far as I can see there is no way to make sensible judgments about the latter without learning the former. And it is not just about exclusion. What it is mainly about is maximising the chances that everyone in the discussion understands what is being talked about.

Compare this with sociology where one is never entirely sure in any discussion that everyone uses the same words in the same way. Half the time I have no idea what people are talking about. Ho hum. I suppose I should at least be grateful that, at least for the moment, Chakrabortty has ceased to exercise his ignorance on my discipline.

The Best Dennis Skinner quotes

This, from Haze, is a bit of fun, though perhaps a bit parochial. Do listen to Tony Blair's impression of the Beast of Blosover: it's hilarious. And the story is resonant. On the day, the best arguments don't always win. I recall seeing a debate at LSE between Alan Sokal, he of the famous hoax, and Bruno Latour (now a visiting Professor at LSE). Sokal was modest, measured, reasoned and failed to impress the mainly undergraduate audience. Latour was absurd, had no serious arguments and played to the gallery. The audience loved him. In this sort of situation honest folk (and I'm not necessarily including Blair in this category) have a hard time prevailing.

Monday, 28 October 2013

Clarence Rook's Hooligan Nights

Clarence Henry Rook's Hooligan Nights (1899) purports to be a piece of late Victorian London underworld reportage. It is not clear that it is anything of the sort and certainly the contemporary reviewers were sceptical. Rook tells us that it is not a work of fiction and that Young Alf his informant was introduced to him by Grant Richards the bohemian publisher. There is  an episode in one of Richards' autobiographical volumes that seems to confirm this, though perhaps the fit is too good, for it is more or less a precis of one of the chapters in Rook's book. Benny Green in the introduction to the  OUP edition points out a number of  similarities between some of the stories that Rook relates and possible fictional sources.

Rook certainly wrote some detective fiction and was very familiar with  the stories of Arthur Morrison having published a literary essay about him in 1897 in an America periodical. He also places some of the principal characters of  The Hooligan Nights - Young Alf, Maggots, Annie (Alice?) in a 1900 Paul Mall Magazine story called "The Stakes" which is clearly a work of fiction. The sheer implausibility of "Young Alf" and Rook striking up a friendship as well as the Tales of Mean Streets episodic structure make me smell a rat.

Green suggests that Rook was something of a man of mystery who had disappeared from the literary landscape without leaving many traces. Some disinformation has been published about him, for example Bill Schwarz writing in Modern Times: Reflections on a Century of  English Modernism, Nava and O'Shea  (eds.) manages to persuade himself that Rook was an American, which he wasn't. But if one looks hard enough it is not too difficult to find some basic facts about a relatively short literary life.

He was born in 1862 or 1863 in Faversham, Kent, the only son of  Henry John Rook who is recorded in the 1871 and 1881 census as a Bookseller and Post Master. The family lived above the shop at 2 Market Place but seemed to be moderately prosperous and employed 2 servants. That the family had some cash is confirmed by the fact that in 1881 Rook matriculated at Oxford (Oriel) and graduated in 1886. According to the obituary notice printed in the Guardian he also spent time in Leipzig and Bonn, which probably account for the length of time it took him to graduate. The obituary also confirms what can be inferred from the 1891 census where he is to be found in Bristol working as an army and civil service examination tutor ie he was a crammer.

In September  1893 he married Clara Wright, the daughter of an artistic decorator, and gives his profession on the marriage certificate as journalist. He is known to have worked with E.V. Lucas at the Globe and with Nevinson at the Daily Chronicle where he founded the "Office Window" column. The Punch connection is underlined by a poem penned by its editor Owen Seaman  for the edition of January, 6th, 1909. It is titled 'A Guide to Popular Emotion' and is a satirical comment on  the view expressed in the "Office Window" column about the balance in newspaper reporting between tragic events taking place overseas and trivial domestic news. Whether this is a direct comment on Rook is unknown.

What we do know is that Rook was a prolific and probably rather successful journalist. As well as writing for the Globe and the Chronicle he published in The Illustrated London News, The IdlerThe Ludgate, The Art Journal and various American publications. He seems to have been well thought of - Bernard Shaw - praised him to the skies - and well connected. Louis Frederic Austin was a personal friend and between 1895 and 1898 Rook was a member of the Argonaut's Club which seems to have been a literary dining society meeting at the Trocadero. Other members were Rudolph Lehman (another Punch connection - there is also a rather tenuous sociology connection there but I'll leave that for another time), Florence Marryat (prolific popular novelist and daughter of Frederick), Bernard Partridge (cartoonist and another Punch connection), John Alfred Spender (editor of the Westminster Gazette), George Paston (the novelist Emily Symonds), Ethel Tweedie (another author), William Henry Wilkins (a novelist) and Alice M. Williams (probably a popular songwriter). Of these the most important connection was probably with Rudi Lehman who knew everyone on the middle-brow London literary and journalistic scene and was elected to Parliament in the 1906 Liberal landslide.

In August 1904 Rook is to be found (without his wife) on the passenger list of the Grosser Kurfurst sailing from Southampton to New York. This also tells us that he was an English national, that it was his first time in the USA and that his onward destination was St Louis. In fact he writes about the trip in a 1906 piece called "American Manners".  In 1909 he again sailed alone, this time  on the Chama, first class from Liverpool to Grand Canary.

Throughout his married life Rook lived at some fairly swanky addresses in Chelsea and on the outskirts of Belgravia indicating that he did rather well out of his journalism. On his death in 1915 he left his widow £1300 which was a tidy enough sum. Green in his introduction to The Hooligan Nights points out that Rook's death certificate contains the information that for 26 years he had suffered from Locomoter Ataxy, a symptom of tertiary syphilis. Perhaps he knew even more about London's low-life than he was letting on.

Tuesday, 22 October 2013

RIP Rob Farr

Sad to learn of the death of my old LSE colleague Rob Farr. Rob was Professor of Social Psychology and one of the people who made me feel welcome at the School when I first arrived. I can't say that I was particularly enthusiastic about his version of social psychology, but I'm not a psychologist and I'll leave it to the experts to make that call. 

What I can say is that Rob was a lovely man, kind, warm and generous with his time. He devoted most of his waking hours to his  students  and to his department. You can tell the depth of regard that people feel for him from the comments left, many by former students, on the Department of Social Psychology's memorial page

One  goal of the scholarly life should be the enrichment of the lives of those that pass through your care and by that measure Rob's achievement was immense. The Ulster brogue, the cheery smile and the twinkle in the eye will  live on in the memories of those he influenced.


We all get it wrong sometimes. I know for sure that I do, but then again I know myself well enough not to expect any better. Still it is surprising what the experts let slip through. Reading David Nokes' biography of Johnson I came across the following passage about Oliver Goldsmith: "...Goldsmith, an Irishman with what were unflatteringly described as 'monkey features', had, like Johnson, undergone humiliation at Oxford where, a sizar at Trinity College, he had to wait at the Fellows' table." 

Shurely shome mishtake. Goldsmith was a sizar at Trinity College, Dublin, not Oxford and never, as far as I can find out, waited at any Oxford table. Why does it matter? Well, if you think that Goldsmith was an Oxford student then you give the impression that you don't understand anything about Goldsmith's character, his Irish background or the protestants in Ireland. Nokes wrote a biography of Swift so quite clearly this is not the case. Quite extraordinary though if your professed expertise is Eighteenth Century literature. And it makes you wonder  about the  value  of the  endorsement on the back: "A scholarly and richly documented study." John Carey.

Thursday, 10 October 2013

Undergraduate quantitative methods

Nice post on the Political Studies Association blog by my colleague Steve Fisher about the Q-Step initiative and teaching quantitative methods to undergraduate politics students. What he says applies just as well to sociologists.

Whenever I'm tempted to think that I am wasting my time, banging my head against a brick wall I think back 15 years to an aggressively unhappy student forced to take an introductory quantitative methods course. They were full of the Frankfurt School, Foucault, Giddens and worse as well as full of themselves. They thought that having to take the course was demeaning and pointless. They gave the impression that they thought the teachers of the course were morons. At the end of the last lecture the student walked up to me and said, with complete sincerity: "Thank you. I didn't think I would like this course, but actually I've been  empowered by it." 

That is success.

Wednesday, 9 October 2013

How far can you go?

I've been thinking a bit more about the issues raised by the Jesus & Mo affair at the LSE particularly about some of the dafter attempts to privilege rights stemming from feelings of offense over rights stemming from valuing freedom of expression. 

It seems to me obvious that these are not matters that can  be resolved by  appeals to first principles and that in practice decisions about what kind of actions and displays to allow in a public forum are going to be context dependent and influenced by  ideas about good  and appropriate manners, considerations  to do with the  prevention of disorder as well as with  concern for  protecting the ability of people to go about their lawful business without unwanted intrusions.

Having said that, I still find the actions of the LSE's SU and the School's administration both repressive and risible. I'm particularly surprised at attempts to assert that the Freshers' Fair has a special status as a welcoming event  that everyone should feel comfortable at, no matter how narrow their comfort zone. My memory is that in the past we assumed that the adults (for that is what they are) that attended such events had much wider comfort zones.

I seem to remember that the LSE Freshers' Fair I attended in 1979 as a first year undergraduate was more of an oriental bazaar than a vicar's tea party. And quite right too. All of the  SU societies were in the business of attracting punters by whatever means they could (several had large barrels of beer at their stalls) for more members meant a larger share of SU funds. 

I also recall that tolerance (repressive or otherwise) was in much greater supply in those days. How else can you explain the simultaneous presence of the Jewish  and the Palestinian Societies, the Iranian and the Iraqi Societies as well as the dozen or so far left societies almost all of whom had as part of their stated purpose the violent overthrow of the state. Of course, almost none of the left groups posed anything more than a theoretical threat , apart from perhaps the SWP. The Trots seemed to permanently occupy a corner of the Three Tuns bar and several of the uglier ones were  frequently ready, round about chucking out time, to strike a blow for  the revolution at  anyone within their reach.

I suppose I have been lucky in my teaching to have mostly avoided issues of student disruption. In fact I can think of only one case in which I was indirectly involved. I was the tutor of a young man, let's call him George, who had fallen into the clutches of one of the more totalitarian fundamentalist Christian sects. In the circumstances it was probably not a good idea for him to take the optional course in the Sociology of Religion, even though it was taught by one of the country's most eminent Professors. After a few weeks I began to get reports that things were not going well. George had started to monopolize the seminars with long speeches about the corrupting ways of the world in general and the Sociology of Religion in particular. Things reached a crisis point when he stood up in class and cursed the said eminent Professor denouncing her as an instrument of Satan who would lead them all to eternal damnation.

I decided I needed to have an avuncular word with George, but it quickly became apparent that he was, to all intents and purposes, beyond (normal) reason. He simply could not see that it was anything other than his bounden duty to save the class from itself. Nothing else appeared to matter. The rights of others to study in peace, to discuss things in an open minded way, to appeal to evidence, all of these were nothing to him. Worse, they were actually tricks of the Devil and it was his duty to combat Evil wherever he found it. Despairing, I had only one card left to play. I put on my severest expression and said menacingly that if he continued to be disruptive in class, I would make it my personal business to make sure that he was expelled from the School. He seemed unimpressed, but miracle of miracles, after going away and thinking about it,  for the rest of the course he registered his protest by sitting in silence. Perhaps he had reflected on the text about rendering unto Caesar what is Caesar's.

George's actions were clearly inappropriate in the sense that they violated some conventional and largely tacit norms about how to behave in situations that our culture labels "university seminars". We can argue about what these are but at the end of the day they are whatever we decide they are, with the "we" being the relevant "community" of users. Some people take fright at the mildest signs of discord, others, and I'm one of them, feel entirely comfortable with robust exchanges of views up to and including visible signs of anger (if you don't care enough about what you think the truth is to occasionally get angry with those that deny it how deep actually is your belief?). On the other hand threatening visiting lecturers with a poker is a step too far.

If a militant atheist insists on interrupting the vicar's sermon every week that would be disrespectful and ill-mannered. It would also interfere with the rights of others to be left in peace to listen to the words of whichever God they happen to follow. Removing, forcibly if necessary, someone  acting in such a way seems entirely reasonable, it's really no different than removing the rowdy drunk that decides it is a good idea to go to Midnight Mass at Xmas. If our militant atheist  stands in the street outside the church and peacefully ties to persuade the faithful of the error of their ways as they leave evensong, that may be impolite and even distasteful but it is not something that should be prohibited. It may well  be inconvenient, annoying and even a trifle upsetting but so are lots of other unwanted intrusions into our private lives.

I happen to dislike intensely receiving unsolicited calls from people trying to flog me stuff or con me into giving them access to my computer. I also abhor the seemingly endless succession of chuggers and Nottingham Knockers that are attracted to my door. And don't get me started on the half hundred-weight of pizza delivery leaflets I get every year. But much as I dislike them I have to accept them as part of the modern world and also that there is nothing I can do to stop them.

Of course that doesn't mean that  I have to cooperate in being conned or exploited. Telling Mormons and Jehovah's Witnesses that I'm a Catholic or a Jew (neither of which are true), tends to  curtail the conversation, as does hanging up on the cold callers and asking the Nottingham Knockers to produce their Pedlar's Certificate. And if all else fails a little gratuitous rudeness takes care of the rest. After all, I reason, I didn't invite them to call me, knock on my house door or start a conversation about whatever crazy thing is going on inside their heads, so why should I feel bound by the normal rules of  social interaction?

Classic Crime Novels and Cultural Distinction

I'm a great fan of Edmund Crispin and have just finished Buried for Pleasure, which though not one of his greats (I think The Moving Toyshop is his masterpiece) is still very entertaining. Towards the end is a piece of dialogue that should be of interest to sociologists. 

The scene is that Lord Sanford, who is a bit of a socialist,  has just received the news that he has got an Oxford 1st. He is with Diana, a lady friend, down by the lake in his grounds. His butler Houghton (get the joke?) approaches bearing a visiting card on a silver salver:

'And you know, Houghton,' he added, 'there's no need, when you bring a thing like this , to put it on a salver. That's only a relic of the days when the upper classes considered that things were soiled by servants touching them...There's a most interesting book' - Lord Sanford eyed his butler dubiously - 'which tells you all about things like that.'
'Would you by any chance be referring to Veblen's Theory of the Leisure Class, my Lord?'
Lord Sanford was somewhat taken aback. 'Well, yes, as a matter of fact I was. Have you read it?'
'Yes my lord. And if I might venture the remark...'
Houghton paused for the requisite permission.
'Of course, Houghton. This is a free country.'
'I had not recently observed that, my lord....But about Veblen's book, what I was going to say was that its assertions, though plausible, are wholly unproved. And in my opinion, the same author's The Engineers and the Price System is a very much more illuminating work.'
'Ah,' said Lord Sanford unhappily. It was evident that he was not acquainted with this essay; he stared, embarrassed, at the visiting-card....

'And Houghton, I've told you before that there's no need to address me as "my lord".'
'No, my lord.'
'If there are to be distinctions in society, they should be based on achievement and not on birth.'
Momentarily forgetting himself, Houghton made a low, longing, inflected sound, which Diana interpreted as 'lotofbloodynonsense'. Then recovering, 'Quite so, my lord,' he observed, bowed obsequiously and departed. Lord Sanford gazed after him in despair.

More insight into the workings of class and status than in 600 pages of Bourdieu?

Tuesday, 8 October 2013

Common sense about big data

Tiziana Nazio tipped me off about this great keynote address by Mick Couper to the European Survey Association Association. It's called: Is the Sky Falling?: New Technology, Changing Media, and the Future of Surveys. It's an important corrective to all the hype. By the way, Google thinks I am a female aged 25-34 with an interest in classic films. Well that's one in three right. Check yourself out at:


Monday, 7 October 2013

Jesus & Mo go to the Libyan School of Economics

Great to see the LSE maintaining their proud tradition of fostering and protecting free speech within the law. The Telegraph seems to be alone amongst the qualities covering the story. Jesus & Mo themselves have this comment. Perhaps it would be something to debate in the School's Programme for the Study of Religion and Non-Religion

In my idea of the good society the presupposition should be that  adults have the right to go about their private business in whatever costume they choose, Hijab, Niqab, Burqua, T-shirt with depictions of prophets, gurus, marxist guerrillas, pink fluffy jock-straps or bag on the head unless there are well defined  reasons of contract, public-health or public safety for preventing them from doing so. 

Dress codes at work are acceptable - you don't have to work for an employer with a dress code that doesn't suit you - as are bans on wearing full face head coverings when entering banks (they don't for obvious reasons like people walking in wearing crash helmets). It goes without saying that the state should restrain attempts to impose nosy preferences on others ie your claim that my clothes choice in some incomprehensible way causes you injury and therefore I should not be allowed to exercise my normal rights.

As far as I can see, all of this is discussed  and dissected with considerable subtlety in Brian Barry's Culture and Equality. Also of some interest is his contribution to the Hansard Society pamphlet Democracy and Islam. I particularly like the line:

"There used to be a sweatshirt that said ‘It’s a woman thing. You wouldn’t understand.’ But this is, considered as a slogan, totally self-defeating. If I can’t understand it, why should I pay any heed to it?"

This seems to me to spell out the limits of any pretension to serious dialogue between believers and non-believers on matters concerning the content of religious belief systems. For many believers the ultimate fall back position is "because God said so" and for the rest of us this is simply an inadmissible argument and there is nowhere else the dialogue can go.

But in my idea of the good society non-believers still defend believers' rights to believe and practice their religion (as long as it doesn't interfere with others' rights) and believer's must respect the rights of non believers to point out that they think the beliefs of believers are  incoherent. 

The role of the state should be to be scrupulously neutral in all of this. It would be a good start if we disestablished the Cof E, repealed the blasphemy laws and chucked the bishops out of the House of Lords. That would go a little way towards leveling the playing field, but I doubt I'll see it in my life-time.

Instead of a little light music here's a classic recording of Bertrand Russell discussing the existence of God.

Friday, 4 October 2013

Publisher's puff

I wonder how often academic writers are  embarrassed by the puff that publishers more or less force them to have on the back of their books. I'm not naive, I know it is all a game and you are a real party pooper if you refuse to play along, but I guess somewhere along the line my non-conformist upbringing did some severe damage to my nudge, nudge, wink, wink, let's not take all this too seriously chip. I try hard to resist it, but sometimes I just can't help feeling that academics of all people should really be expressing a distaste for bullshit and if they don't then we can't expect what we say to be taken any more seriously than the utterances of anyone else with an axe to grind. In other words, your bullshit is a negative externality for me, and I think that gives me an interest in calling you out.

This rant is inspired by reading Colin Crouch's The Strange Non-Death of Neoliberalism. Let me be clear, I liked the book. It's a decent and in places genuinely insightful  book on the political economy of Western capitalism over the last 30 years or so. The analysis is at a fairly high level of generality, but then again I imagine it is basically pitched at a fairly generalist audience. I've nothing against the book at all, in fact  I  recommend it, it's sort of  a sober and more pessimistic Will Hutton with a slightly more academic style. Please go and read it. But...

And here it is, turn to the back and the first thing you read is a piece of puff from a well known professor of political science. I quote:

"Colin Crouch has produced the most important work on the political economy of modern capitalism since Keynes, Kalecki and Shonfield."

Keynes, Kalecki, Shonfield...Crouch. Come on, let's get real. Don't get me wrong, I've a lot of respect for Colin's work, it's serious stuff, but this sort of hyperbole is so extreme it surely must qualify in the technical Frankfurtian sense as bullshit in  that it is not even meant to be taken seriously. And when you begin to think about it what kind of recommendation is it that signals, don't take me seriously...It's actually not very complimentary.

At least it is a good excuse to listen to some Peter, Paul and Mary.

Thursday, 3 October 2013

Discover Society or the Strange Birth, Death and Rebirth of New Society

Discover Society is a new online "magazine" devoted to the social sciences. It looks interesting and definitely worth keeping an eye on. The pitch seems to be to the gap in the market  vacated by New Society.

Like many people of my generation I can say that New Society is one of the reasons why I chose to study sociology as an undergraduate. The sixth-form at my school subscribed to both New Scientist and New Society (New Statesman and The Spectator were ruled out as too political)  and it was the latter that grabbed my attention. I also had the great luck to be taught in General Studies lessons by the incomparably inspiring Helena Ranson who regularly used New Society articles as an introduction to a class discussion.

The story of New Society though contains a number of ironies. It was set up and  in the early years bankrolled by Maxwell Raison the publisher of New Scientist. His son, Timothy, later a Conservative MP, was the first editor. From the off it was rigorously non-partisan. The magazine only really began to make any money when the advertising revenues rolled in - remember the pages and pages of job advertisements at the back all in some way related to the expanding welfare-state and the post Robbins higher education boom?

Yes, there was great social science journalism - not all of it  written by university social scientists - but what payed the bills was the advertising and the circulation built on the back of it. And, irony of irony, what killed it was the Guardian's decision to include once a week it's own supplement devoted to social issues. Advertisers switched in droves to the daily, New Society's advertising revenue dwindled and surely as night follows day so did it's circulation. 

So New Society was from the first the creation of a one nation Tory  with a rich daddy and eventually strangled by the liberal left's favourite daily. You couldn't make it up.

Q-Step and quantitative methods

Oxford has been named as one of the new Q-step Centres funded by the Nuffield foundation, ESRC and HEFCE that are to create a step change (upwards)  in quantitative skill levels amongst UK social science undergraduates. The lead department here will be the Department of Politics and International Relations, but one of the posts that will  be created from the funding will actually be in the Department of Sociology. It's a little disappointing that in the  information released about the  successful bidders there is no indication of the Department of Sociology's involvement in the Oxford bid. It shouldn't really matter, but in this era of loud self trumpet blowing, what's in the document tends to count as the reality, rather than what actually exists on the ground.

A footnote: One curiosity of many of the successful bids is how many feature MSc courses as part of their programme of innovation. The whole initiative was rather clearly promoted in terms of the enhancement of  the undergraduate curriculum. Examining the original documentation there were some weasel words about masters level provision that didn't entirely rule out funding for progression of a 3+1 sort, but this was clearly not meant to be a major feature of the initiative. Is this an early sign of mission creep?

Monday, 30 September 2013

Conversation with Edmund Chattoe-Brown about agent based models

A little while ago I linked to an interesting article by Edmund Chattoe-Brown about  agent based models. It stimulated me to think about the conditions under which new methodological tools are adopted. Edmund got in touch and posed a few tough questions. I think we both found the dialogue useful and enlightening. We also thought that there might be at least a few people who would be interested in our conversation. So here it is, my part is in italics:

Dear Colin,

 Thanks very much for your kind mention of my article in your blog. I think I pretty much agree with you (which is why I have been trying to publish more in "subject" journals than simulation ones.) However, I have a couple of thoughts/comments: 

1)       What would you say, in your area (however you define it) that a reasonable number of sociologists agree can't be done but needs to be?

That is one hell of a question! I'm not sure it's possible for me to imagine anything but a tiny group of sociologists agreeing about anything. If I had to point to an area where it seems to me that there is already an active interest in the sorts of things that simulation can do, I would point to the interface between family sociology and social demography. I'm thinking principally of the work of people like Rob Mare and our own Francesco Billari. The kinds of things they are interested in tend to be about how observed macro-level demographic patterns can emerge from multiple micro-level processes with lots of endogeneity (ie "mediating variables"). My guess is that there are probably lots of connections here with social stratification, mobility, homogamy etc. The basic problem with applications to the latter is that we are still struggling to accurately describe what the basic patterns are.

2)       Although it is difficult to generalize reliably from one’s own experience, at least a couple of papers I have published might fall under: "publication in mainstream journals of a few articles reporting realistic applications to substantive problems that enough sociologists care about that tell us something believable and important that we didn’t know already." My BJS article "overturned" a result from previous analysis which in turn was based on an extensive empirical literature going back to the early seventies. (Are strict churches strong? Not in a properly dynamic environment rather than a simplified partial equilibrium model.) My BJC article showed that, for poor response rates (as you would expect in criminal networks for example), unreliable qualitative "third party" data might outperform quantitative data in reconstructing social networks. (Something that both the rather formal SNA and "real" users of network ideas, police forces, might want to know.) Now, of course, one can always argue that the problems one tackles could be "more substantive" or "more popular" than they are (and these articles were considered good enough to go in reasonable journals at least) but I'm not sure the response these papers have received is really in proportion to their "substantiveness".

It seems to me you are doing the right thing and one has to live in hope that if the message is read and received by the right people and they realize that it will meet their needs then they will take it up. Build it and they will come, if they have any need for it. My guess is that road to Damascus conversions are rather rare. The basic ideas about log-linear modelling had been knocking about in the early 1960s, but it wasn't really until the late 1960s early 1970s that it got taken up in the bio-medical field and it was only in the late 1970s that it really was first introduced into the sociological mainstream. Undoubtedly a big impetus came from the dissemination of Goodman's (relatively) user friendly ECTA program. What is clear is that publication in methodological ghettos, SM, SM&R etc doesn't necessarily reach the right audience. Also one shouldn't underrate the role of arbitrage. There are some people (I won't name them!) who specialize in "translating" the technical innovations from one field into another. They are often very good at picking examples that will sell.

3) Ages ago, Robert Andersen asked me why simulation and statistical data had so much trouble "getting on". Like all good questions I have been thinking about it on and off ever since. The other day, when trying to calibrate a simulation of attitude change, I had a sudden (minor) epiphany. I needed to know (very roughly) how often people discuss political matters. One large reputable survey asks people to report ("never", "rarely", "sometimes", "often") and another, equally large and reputable reports ("daily", "several times a week", "weekly", "monthly".) Both are perfectly OK if you want to look at statistical association but one is completely useless if you want to model an underlying process. I knew I wasn't imagining that there is more to these issues that "just" data!

I agree and would go even further. I'm not even sure the use of vague quantifiers is that enlightening in  social survey applications without some serious attempt being made to understand how sub-populations understand the category labels. There are ways of modeling this, for example Gary King has been a pioneer,  but there are powerful vested interests in the data collection world that sometimes inhibit sensible innovation. And if a behaviour is well defined and the unit of time is sensibly chosen, then I can't see why  we shouldn't attempt to get frequencies. Of course, it isn't always that straightforward. What is a political discussion? Is it a discrete countable event  with somewhat obvious boundaries like say visiting your GP's surgery? Then there are questions of time units, seasonality etc. And of course well known memory effects like telescoping.

4) You talk about simulation models that should be "reporting realistic applications". Statistics has many virtues but can its uses be assessed as realistic (or otherwise?)  To take another example I've just read. Simple regression makes normality assumptions on data. Sometimes one can "fix" data that fails to be suitably normal by logging the variable. For sure that solves the technical problem but what do we conclude about an association between something and "log age" (or age squared come to that). Is there a danger that every method seems "realistic" to its advocates and what we need are standards of realism that don't presume the virtues of a particular method?

I was thinking of "realistic" here as meaning something like "a realistic degree of complexity". I think - but this is just the impression of a possibly naive but sympathetic observer - that "toy applications" don't do much to persuade enthusiastic take-up. Another dimension of this problem would be to say that demonstrating that a given outcome could be produced in a particular (simplified) way, is not the same as demonstrating that it has in fact been produced in this way. Of course this is not a problem that is any way unique to simulation. If I think about the aggregate distribution of votes between parties at an election what tends to impress me is that the reality is that this is the result of lots of different decision processes that are going on in different sub-populations. Therefore to propose a single "theory of voting" is absurd. Some people are cogitating about the relative advantages to them of voting one way or another, others are just doing what they've always done or what their parents have done, some are voting strategically and so on. All these processes are going on at the same time to produce the aggregate outcome. In some sense an adequate model would try to capture this (and perhaps produce as a by-product some sort of estimate of the proportions involved).

In terms of statistics, the way I look at it is that statistical models are just smoothing devices that permit the estimation of some quantities that you happen to be interested in. How you go on to explain whatever patterns are revealed is quite another matter (and simulation has a big role to play here). This is, of course, not the standard econometric justification - structural parameters and all that.  If economists have believable models and sensible identification techniques then they should estimate their structural parameters. My feeling is that in sociology we usually are a long way from this position, not because our statistics are
no good, but more usually because either we don't have a good (precise enough) theory and/or because we don't have data that permit identification of what we are really interested in. Problems of, course remain even when we have identification - consider the classic experimental design. We have a well defined target and we have identification via randomization. But unless we have a good theory we also have a black box! Well, that discussion will take us off in another direction...

To which Edmund replied in a follow up email:

On 1: _That's_ why we simulators find it hard to build "generally appealing" models ... :) Interestingly, I certainly have demography on my list, particularly having read with interest this http://ideas.repec.org/a/bla/popdev/v37y2011i1p89-123.html) and seeing how statisticians, modellers (and even qualis) could have a debate around what each method can contribute to this specific problem and why each thinks that the other "hasn't got it". (One needs to convene a small "fair/broad minded" group to discuss.)

On 3: This shades into "hard core" simulation methodology (which even some simulators conveniently neglect). The biggest critique I have tried to make (still unpublished interestingly) is that the average simulation paper still has nothing to do with data (even when it is virtually free) and the "field" has forgotten several old papers (particularly Hagerstrand 1965 on spatial diffusion) which have higher standards. (Bad news for "science".) To do something useful with statistical data, a simulation doesn't necessarily have to have it exactly right (because it doesn't feed straight into parameter estimation). Obviously a model that is based on the idea that people talk about politics once a year not once a day almost certainly won't produce good data but with all the other social processes represented it may be that 1.5 times per week versus 1.8 times per week won't alter the "basic qualitative behaviour"of the system (like turning points versus trend). And sensitivity analysis can tell you roughly where it is most important your data be accurate even before you "get at" any real data. 

On 4: There's a lot in this response.

1) "Realistic degree of complexity" is hard to nail down. Qualis usually say that simulations are excessively formalistic and simplistic. Quants (particularly economists) say they are needlessly complex and ad hoc. This makes me laugh in seminars.) One argument I am trying out is that we need to distinguish clearly between complexity we think exists and complexity we can show _matters_. (Again, we need less "method embedded" ways to justify the claim that a model is too simple or not simple enough: "Too complicated for my taste" is not at all the same as "Too complicated".) For sure, ethnographers can tell us all sorts of things about, for example, family size aspirations (paper above) but how do we tell that these "add up to" a particular pattern of family size (or that  one couldn't do just as well with four key variables). Conversely, quantitative researchers can't usually show that process x (differing socially reproduced family norms for family size?) _doesn't_ affect outcomes because if they don't already have the data it is a huge faff to collect and, in any event, some reasonable causes just aren't very quantifiable. As far as I know, ABM is the only way that you can say "OK, we are now going to give our agents brains - or social networks or whatever - and see how much difference it makes". This is the "simulations as thought experiments" idea. (One thing I find thought provoking is that I think that Social Network Analysis fairly convincing that "networks matter" and yet social statistics - which almost never includes network variables - also seems to achieve sensible things. So is one approach "wrong" about the fact that "networks matter" or is it that the methods just aren't geared up to adjudicate on this? Perhaps networks _do_ matter but social statistics can lose these effects in lower R2 and error terms in ways which don't "ring any alarm bells" with practitioners.) On that score, what do you think of the statistics in: http://cumc.columbia.edu/dept/healthandsociety/events/documents/Haynie.pdf (network effects and delinquency.) 

2) Mixtures of agents with different decision making processes (including "no decision") are exactly something that ABM is good at. (But you have to watch to make sure you don't get good fit by just adjusting the fractions till the graphs match!) 

All the best,