Popular Posts

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.