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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, 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?