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Caveat Emptor

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

Friday, 24 May 2013

Another Howard Beale moment...

I'm at a loss as to what to make of this conference strand. Well, not entirely. Here are a few thoughts:

Why do research methods have to be "innovatory"? Wouldn't it be good if  people learned how to use the standard tool kit properly before they thought about innovation? Let's have evidence of ability to walk before we move on to running.

Why does the session on "Innovation in qualitative and quantitative methods" have no papers on quantitative methods? Didn't anyone care enough to change the title?

And the prize for the most confused title goes to: 

"Actor Network Theory: An Assemblage of Perceptions, Understandings, and Critiques of this ‘Sensibility’ and How its Relatively Unpopular Conceptual Framework Will Help to Unravel the ‘Power Flow’ Among School Leaders in School Networks".

Well, at least there seems to be a worthwhile paper by the good Professor Chandola from Manchester. As for the rest...

And think on it, it's our taxes, directly or indirectly that go to pay for this stuff. Perhaps somebody on the organizing committee has a roguish sense of humour though. The last paper of the day has the title: "Talking Rubbish".

Say after me: "I'm mad as Hell and I'm not going to take this any more!"

Wednesday, 22 May 2013

I am the one in ten

In case you missed it, a good write up in the Guardian for an important report on wealth in the UK. One in ten households now have sufficient assets to make them nominal millionaires. Seems like an appropriate place for this great tune by UB40.

Tuesday, 21 May 2013

Inequality & economic growth

Well worth watching is this conversation between Tony Atkinson and Paul Krugman on inequality and economic growth. NB The talking begins at around 43:30.

Monday, 20 May 2013

Parallel worlds - sampling

I really must stop searching for confirming evidence, but wherever I look at the moment all I seem to see are signs that sociology as I know it is doomed. 

Looking at a recent issue of a peer reviewed journal dedicated to social research methods I chanced upon an article about sampling. I'll say no more than that - there is a limit to the number of battles I can fight simultaneously - so the author won't be named and shamed,  yet. To cut a long story short, in my opinion, it could easily merit a place in Sokal and Bricmont's Intellectual Impostures. It has all the classic signs - grand sounding philosophical vocabulary, technical words thrown in at random locations, utter opaqueness and plausible deniability. 

I don't know the journal very well and had to look up the editors - all of whom seem to hold rather exalted positions in the world of (university based) UK social research. What disturbed me a bit is that the editorial board contains the names of quite a few people I respect. These people are not fools and it is inconceivable that  any of them could have refereed the article in question and found it fit for anything but the garbage bin. 

All of which strengthens my belief in the existence of a sociological parallel world in which illogicality, pretention and pseudo-science are trumps. Surely I must be deluded. Just think what would happen if those guys ever got their hands on the steering wheel...

Friday, 17 May 2013

The country, the city and social mobility

"'Country' and 'city' are very powerful words, and this is not surprising when we remember how much they seem to stand for in the experience of human communities.". So begins Raymond Williams' The Country and the City. The increasingly ludicrous Michael Gove must have intuited something like this in linking aspirations towards social mobility with his ambition to despoil the countryside reported in today's Torygraph. And all so unnecessary. 

Continental Europeans figured out long ago - as did the Scots, Liverpudlians and Londoners - that the art of urban living involves housing people in apartments. Not hideous and alienating 24 storey tower blocks but humane and spacious 4 or 5 storey buildings (with cellars) and balconies. Why do the English insist on using their urban space so inefficiently? Why do we treat it as a given that everyone prefers their own  tiny two storey box made of ticky-tacky with a postage stamp back garden? 

Incidentally, I predict that Gove is heading for the same fate as most Tory "intellectuals" - Redwood, Joseph etc - the Royal Order of the Mad Monk.

Thursday, 16 May 2013

Health and austerity

Interesting piece in the Guardian today featuring the fascinating work of my new colleague David Stuckler

Casual observation: some of the comments from the Great British Public that follow it are downright weird. But I can live with that. The right to free speech is also a right to firmly grasp the wrong end of the stick and make a fool of yourself. What you don't have is a right to be taken seriously.

Wednesday, 15 May 2013

Higher education as grocery store

I want you to imagine a parallel world. In this world, which in most respects looks like our own, there are different types of grocery store. At the top of the pile is Fortnum & Mason purveying exquisite delicacies, just below them are Waitrose and Marks & Spencer, full of yummy high quality things. Next in line are Tesco, Sainsbury's and Asda for everyday shopping. Trailing at some distance are the discounters Lidl, Aldi etc - good in their own way, but containing lots of brands that you have never heard of.   

Before you are allowed into any of them you have to show your educational credentials to a security guard at the door. Anyone can shop at Lidl and Aldi, but to get into Tesco, Sainsbury's or Asda you must have got at least BBC at A level. To get into Waitrose and Marks & Spencer you need AAB and for Fortnum & Mason at least AAA. The strange thing is, whichever shop you go into, the price of your weekly shopping is the same. This really is an odd world, completely unlike our own. Or is it? You might want to read this story from the Guardian and think about it.

Friday, 10 May 2013

Should we adjust for month of birth?

Interesting report in the Guardian on IFS research that recommends that school tests and examinations should be age adjusted. No doubt the usual rent a mouths will be wind-bagging about the pros and cons. Perhaps a little historical perspective is in order. 
In 1893 the London Technical Education Board started offering scholarships to pupils who had attended LCC Board Schools, so that they could attend secondary schools. They were called Junior and Intermediate County Scholarships. To get one you had to sit  an examination. Guess what? The test scores were age adjusted by month of birth. 

How to think about class

Graham Scambler has posted a thoughtful piece on class and the GBCS on  the Cost Of Living blog.  He argues in favour of a Marx inspired understanding of the notion.

It seems to me that we will just go around in circles having scientifically fruitless, though potentially CV filling, "debates" about what X or Y really is unless the penny drops that we need to specify what we intend to use X or Y for. Concepts are tools and all tools involve trade-offs - they are better at some jobs than others. That implies that choices have to be made and we have to evaluate those choices in terms of their consequences for our goal. It also implies that blanket arguments along the lines of "that leaves so much out", though they may lead to nods of approval from the groupies, just won't do.

Take for instance Marx. If we are going to base our ideas about class on his, which are we going to choose? Are we going to go with the wage-labourers, capitalists and landlords of Capital vol III? Or what about the "lower strata of the middle class - the small tradespeople, shopkeepers...retired tradesmen, the handicraftsmen and peasants..." of the Communist Manifesto. And how about the various class groupings and factions identified in the 18th Brumaire and the Civil War in France? Marx talked about class in different ways for different purposes. In one way when he was writing about an abstract model of political economy and in quite another way when he was writing about politics and history. So why take on one set of ideas rather than another? Choices have to be made and justified in terms of intentions.

It's largely forgotten that the first serious attempt to study social mobility in the the UK - David Glass' Social Mobility in Britain - had as its starting point a focus on : "...the formation and structure of the 'middle classes'.". It is a quirk of intellectual history that Glass, who called himself a Marxist,  in practice worked with the notion of the social status of occupations. Why exactly he did this is not clear, but one can conjecture a pragmatic reason  - the obvious need in a study of mass social mobility to distinguish between different types of wage-labourer. From the point of view of their social mobility chances not all wage-labourers are the same and it won't be terribly enlightening to treat them as such. 

I'm not seeking to defend the particular choices that Glass and his colleagues made. But it is important to point out that criticisms of those choices would be nothing more than cheap talk if they did not seriously engage with why the choices were made in the first place.

Wednesday, 8 May 2013

That leaves so much out...

Next up is: "...your x is under-theorized" where x can be an article, a lecture, a paragraph, or pretty much any damn thing you please. If somebody with power over you says this, it is pretty much hasta la vista baby, game over. What they mean is: "I don't like you" or "I don't like the sort of thing you do".

To make their opinion more acceptable they will, if pushed, accuse you of not citing  or "attending to" whatever bag of wind is currently fashionable in the circles they move in. For extra plausibility they might  insist you  insert long meaningless paragraphs "discussing" the work of said pig's bladder along with several dozen wholly irrelevant citations of texts that neither you nor they have read, before finally rejecting your work on account of its insufficiently "problematized" assumptions.

Counter: There is no counter to this move.

Note: Attempting to argue that your opponent wouldn't  recognize a genuine theory if it stood in front of them singing the Hallelujah Chorus will not work.

GBCS again...

Oh dear, I'm turning into the sort of obsessive bore that people cross to the other side of the room to avoid... but indulge me one more time. Michael Orwell, a producer at the BBC has posted an account of the Great British Class Calculator on the BBC's website. It would be unfair to blame Savage et al. for the (mis)representations of  the PR machine -  it's possible that they are not  even aware of them -  so I'm not going to direct my scorn at them.

Though it doesn't literally say it, a casual reading of  the piece conveys the impression that the 160,000 odd cases collected by the internet survey were used to construct the new class schema. This is, of course, totally incorrect. The BBC's internet survey had effectively no role whatsoever in defining the classes.

He (Orwell) then goes on to say:

"Using complex analytical statistics Mike and Fiona’s research team were able to place all 161,000 participants of the original BBC Lab UK survey into one of the new seven classes, robustly and with great accuracy" 

 The first part of this sentence is true, but there is no publicly available information that would allow anyone to evaluate the "robustness" and "accuracy" of the allocation procedure. It's not even clear what these impressive and confidence inspiring terms mean. 

The class categories were the result of a statistical analysis of roughly 1000 cases collected by face-to-face interviews with a quota sample of respondents.  The non probabilistic sampling method means that strictly speaking it is impossible to estimate sensible confidence intervals around quantities like the estimated proportion of the population allocated to each class, but common sense suggests that if you could they would be quite wide. 

No information is available about "robustness" - one interpretation of which would be the extent to which the composition of the class categories (in terms of the defining variables) changed when we assume the existence of say six or eight rather than seven classes.

And finally it is completely mysterious what "accuracy" means in the context of this sort of avowedly "inductive" study. If you have a gold standard classification you can see how a new method performs in allocating cases to it. This works because you know what the right answer is. But to talk about accuracy when you are making the classification up as you go along makes no sense whatsoever.

My conclusion is that "robustly" and "accuracy" are just farmyard noises that are meant to convey the impression of science to a public that is not in a position to know any better. And why does this matter? Well, it tells us something about the regard in which sociology is held. It seems that sociology is of so little consequence that it doesn't really matter how you describe sociological research. Anything that sounds plausible will do. I really don't know how the discipline can survive if that is the prevalent attitude.

New Journal - Sociological Science

Recently I've been talking quite a lot with colleagues about how we need a new sociology journal  that takes advantage of the digital medium to publish quickly, counteract the frailty of the current refereeing conventions, allow genuine debate, corrections and refutations to see the light of day...yada, yada, yada.... Well, while we have been talking somebody has just gone out and done it. Sociological Science will go live in the Autumn of 2013. They have a high class editorial team, which is a key ingredient for making a success of this sort of thing and the whole setup signals credibility. Live long and prosper! Hopefully it will be one small nail in the coffin of  journal conventions that lead to this sort of thing.

Tuesday, 7 May 2013

That leaves so much out...

This is the first in what I hope will grow into a series of posts on rhetorical strategies commonly used by sociologists to avoid acknowledging inconvenient facts, avoid addressing arguments damaging to their position and generally create as much smoke as possible.  My starter is the classic: "That leaves so much out". 

Don't like where the argument is heading? Feel pinned in a corner? Can't argue your way out of a paper bag? Then "that leaves so much out" could be what you're looking for. See also the closely related: "...that is so narrow".

The counter is: 

"Well, of course any argument, definition or proposition leaves some things out. Any argument about specifics has to. The only interesting question is whether what is left out has any relevance to the point being debated. So can we get back now to the point under discussion please."

Anyone like to volunteer one of their favourites?