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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, 19 December 2014

The wartime generation of statisticians

If you haven't already seen it there is a great article in The Economist about the generation of British statisticians that cut their intellectual teeth during World War II.

Random REF thought

I can't help think that the REF has a number of features in common with the Deutsche Demokratische Republik.  

Few, apart from the apparatchiks with their snouts in the trough and those compromised by the Stasi  actually wanted it to carry on. Nobody really believed in it any more, but nobody wanted to say so. So everything just carried on until one day some brave people had the courage to say in public: "I don't believe in this any more" and amazingly they found that they were not alone. 

Ask a political sociologist. When legitimacy leaks away and people don't believe then it doesn't matter how many tanks are parked on the lawn. When the honest men and women massively outnumber the arse-lickers and lick-spittles then it is possible to say; "No, we are not going to take this any more, we want to do things differently".

Thursday, 18 December 2014

REF 2014

So the waiting is over, the results are in and they are what they are. Congratulations to the winners and commiseration to the losers. As Brucie used to say "Good game, good game! 

A few weeks ago I posted on the  Mrygold, Kenna, Holovatch and Berche (MKHB) predictions for the Sociology sub-panel 2014 rankings based on the Hirsch (H) index. Just to remind you, the H index basically trades off citations against volume of production. So, it is no use producing a lot that nobody cares enough about to cite. To do well on H you have to produce work that people read.

So how did their predictions work out? Here's a graph I quickly ran off this morning. It plots 2014 REF GPA against  MKHB's H index score. Looks like an impressive relationship there, but in fact the Pearson correlation is only 0.15 (the Spearman rank correlation, to be fair is 0.65). 

What is  interesting is who is above and below the prediction line. The top 4 according to the 2014 REF ranking, York, Manchester, Cardiff and Lancaster, as well as Essex who come in at number 7 are all punching above their weight in H index terms. Another way of putting it is that the panel rated their outputs more highly than the research community (assuming that citation reflects, in the main, positive appreciation, significance, impact etc etc). Then there is the group that did less well than their H index suggests they should have, the OU, Warwick, Sussex, Brunel, Leicester and Queen's. If there is to be great wailing and gnashing of teeth then there is some justification for it from these guys.

Looking at this picture what strikes me most is how the H index really brings out three clusters of institutions: 1. Oxford, Manchester, Edinburgh, LSE and Cambridge where broadly speaking the H index and the REF evaluations agree in rating the institutions highly; 2. City, Goldsmiths, Manchester Met., East London and Roehampton where H index and REF agree in rating the institutions (relatively) poorly; 3. The crap shoot in the middle where the H index rates everyone about the same and where whatever it is that the REF panel members are thinking about , trading off and  higgling over makes all the difference. It would be really nice to know what that was, but I guess nobody is telling...

Other snippets of information that may be worth knowing: 

The Pearson correlation of REF GPA with number of staff submitted is 0.11  but the rank correlation is 0.60 ie  roughly the same as  with the H index. Having at least one  member of the REF panel from your institution is also correlated (modestly) with GPA (Pearson = 0.09, Spearman = 0.52).  And if you want to predict REF GPA without any direct measure of research quality then the  way to go is to use number of staff submitted plus whether you have a REF sub-panel member. The multiple correlation with these two measures is 0.19 ie you get a better prediction from this than from knowing the institution's H index score. Now that is food for thought.

So champagne for some and sack-cloth and ashes for others. But actually we are all losers from this ridiculous  and demeaning process. It's time for those who have come out of it smelling of roses (this time) to stand up in solidarity with those who have the faint whiff of the farmyard about them. There but for the grace of God etc.

And by the way, casting an eye over the rankings in a few cognate disciplines makes me think wtf!...

Tuesday, 16 December 2014

Causality fascism

While in Turku I heard a term that was new to me "causality fascism". Actually, in the usage, there is an important distinction to make. 

It could be used to designate someone who believes that the only useful social scientific work to be done involves the rigorous identification of some sort of average treatment effect. This view is beginning to take hold in some of the social sciences  - political science seems to be particularly prone to colonization - and is clearly dumb, dumb, dumb. 

It's OK to have other objectives, as long as you are absolutely clear about what they are. What the balance should be between uncovering heterogeneity and serious causal analysis will depend on the state of knowledge in the field. Frankly, if we are still struggling to establish what the facts of the matter are, then it is  a little premature to put too much emphasis on causality.

On the other hand, if somebody starts to use words like "effect", "impact", "influence" etc rather than "differences", "heterogeneity" and so forth  and has no viable strategy to identify  real causal effects, then a little "causality fascism" is surely a good thing. In this context forcing people to really address what the numbers they estimate actually mean in terms of the relevant counterfactual gives some sort of protection against the propagation of bullshit.

All of which gives me an excellent excuse to link to the classic Seinfeld Soup Nazi.

Monday, 15 December 2014

With Lenin in Turku - and on social mobility in Britain

I'm just back from Turku where I was participating in an excellent workshop hosted (very generously)  by Jani Erola and Elina Kilpi-Jakonen as part of their INDIRECT project. We were kept pretty busy in the conference room  during the day and in other ways during the evening so I didn't have much time for sight-seeing until the morning of my departure when I took a quick look around the city.

Turku is a charming place with a lot of elegant Jugenstil buildings in the vicinity of the central market square. The Swedish influence is still evident and the Svenska Teater was advertising a forthcoming production of  Ronja Rövardotter. Love of Astrid Lingren is a part of North European culture that Britain doesn't really share. To be sure Pippi Långstrump is  known over here but that's about it. My own daughter's love of Astrid Lingren comes from her mother reading the stories to her in German and Ronja Raubertochter is one of her favourites.

My wandering took me to the Turku Art Museum - a fine building in Nordic Romantic style - where there was an  exhibition of the work of the controversial Icelandic collage artist Erro. I'd never seen anything by him before and the  juxtaposition of incongruous images - the People's Liberation Army marching through New Jersey - was amusing and at the same time slightly unsettling.

Just opposite the museum is a  bust of Lenin who apparently stayed in the building behind it in 1907 when he was on the run from the secret police. It doesn't say on the plaque how long he was there, but it turns out that it must have been less than five hours as he was pretty anxious to get on a boat to Stockholm - well you would if the alternative was a lengthy stay in Siberia. 

 And what was I doing there? Well I was giving a paper on long-term trends in social class mobility in the UK. If you take the care to assemble as much of the broadly comparable evidence as you can it turns out that (at least for men - hold the headline for women) there is a pretty convincing case for believing that over the last 50 years - and possibly longer - there has been a continuous decrease in baseline levels of association of very roughly 1% per year ie relative rates of social mobility have increased. Trimming the data and applying all sorts of data exclusions doesn't alter the story much. 

Social mobility crisis? What crisis? You can find the slides from my presentation here.

Saturday, 29 November 2014

Oxford predicted first in 2014 REF!

So, as reported in the THES, Oxford sociology is predicted to come top of the Sociology (subpanel 23) REF assessment. This is the conclusion of a paper published in arXiv by Mrygold, Kenna, Holovatch and Berche in which they use the Hirsch (H) Index to forecast the 2014 REF rankings in 4 subjects: biological sciences, physics, chemistry and sociology.

The inputs to the H index are the number of publications and the number of citations and essentially it balances one against the other. A department that publishes a lot that nobody pays any attention to would get a low H index, but a department with a more modest output that is cited a lot (and presumably consists of higher quality publications) would get a higher number. In the case of the prediction exercise, for the calibration period - the last RAE, the fact that only 4 outputs per person were submitted is taken into account.

Well,  I like this result, but then again I would wouldn't I?!At the very least it gives some independent evidence to support my conviction that two departments I have been a member of have been hard done by in the past by the UK's research assessment exercises.

Nobody should claim that a single metric could tell you all you need to know about research quality. But it seems to me equally foolish to ignore this evidence. After all the actual procedure allegedly used by REF panels treats us as though we are idiots.

This time round there were about 30 submissions to the Sociology subpanel.  Let's assume an average of 30 staff per submission each with 4 REFable publications. So that gives us 3600 publications for the panel to read. Let's assume that each output has to be read by two panel members (surely fairness would require that?) There are 20 members of the panel so each must read 2x180=360=pieces of work. If we assume that the reading goes on for a whole year then that would mean that each panel member would have to read and reach an opinion about almost 7 outputs a week.

That doesn't sound so bad. I could easily read 7 articles a week if I had nothing else to do. But an unknown proportion of outputs will be monographs. I couldn't read 7 monographs a week even if I got leave of absence from my day job. Most REF panel members will also have a day job to do ie they are doing their REF work in their spare time. During term time I probably read about 2 new articles a week, usually things that are directly related to my research or teaching. Unless I gave up sleeping it is not obvious how I would be able to do my day job and at the same time read  and reflect on 7 outputs that are for the most part unrelated to my professional interests.

The conclusion is clear: either the REF panel members are selected for their superhuman reading capacities (to which hypothesis I assign a low prior probability) or the process is in part bogus.

 I don't doubt for one moment that REF panel members take the job seriously. I also don't doubt that they pass at least some of the text of each output before their eyes. I do doubt that they read a substantial proportion of the submissions in anything like the common sense use of that word. No doubt a lawyer would be able to defend what they do as "reading" in some emaciated and purely formal sense of that word, but really that would be a rather pathetic and dishonest response.

In reality we all suspect what is really going on (and conversations with people that actually know lead me to believe that these suspicions are not without foundation) but nobody wants to break ranks and say the Emperor has no clothes. To mix my myths and metaphors we all know what happened to Cassandra.

When the real REF results are published on December 18th we will know how accurate the predictions have been. Of course I'm hoping for the best, not least because I know that the colleague responsible for our submission did a quality job. It's not beyond the bounds of possibility however that the results for the sociology panel will differ to a marked degree from the H index predictions. And if they do then somebody should be asking some hard questions about the REF process as it applies to sociology.

There has already been a bit of comment in the twittersphere to the effect that the H index is in some way biased towards elite institutions. A moment's thought suggests that this is rather unlikely. To produce that sort of bias would require  conspiracy on a fairly monumental scale. This conspiracy would have to involve the editors of journals, the  referees of journal articles and, even more implausible, scores of people, many personally unknown to the authors of the outputs, conspiring to inflate citations.

It's not impossible, but compare that just so story to one that involves a largely self-appointed clique that operates in the proverbial smoke filled room to reward, with no serious scrutiny, the type of sociology they like while pursuing vendettas against whoever and whatever they dislike. They don't even have to discuss doing it. A nod and a wink across a table and a tacit agreement not to stab my kind of sociology in the back if I leave your kind alone is sufficient.

During the course of writing this I became curious to know what my personal H index was. It's easy to find out - I did it with Google Scholar. Getting the numbers is one thing, but what do they mean? Rather conveniently there is an LSE publication that gives information about average H index scores for a number of social scientific disciplines. It turns out that the average sociology Professor has an H index of about 3.7. That made me pretty happy. My personal score for any sensible periodization is, to adapt Harry Enfield, considerably larger than that. And I should add, that I'm probably at the lower end of my department's  score distribution.

Wednesday, 19 November 2014

Careful, careful...

It occurred to me only after I had written my last post that there is a danger in admitting professional ignorance. In David Lodge's Changing Places there is a dinner party game called Humiliation in which Eng. Lit. professors compete over which canonical classics they haven't actually read. A particularly obnoxious and ultra competitive character called Ringbaum wins by confessing that he hasn't read Hamlet. He is then sacked by his university.

Far fetched? Well, there are many peculiar practices going on at British universities these days.

Monday, 17 November 2014

What have you been reading?

Kieran Healey has produced a fascinating graphic of the number of citations of the 10 most cited sociology journal articles in each decade from the 1950s onwards. He has a nice discussion of it which I won't repeat here. Several things struck me though. Of the 14 journals  that produced top 10 articles over the last 60 years or so 13 are American and 1 is British. Perhaps not too surprising but food for thought when and if metrics become used in the UK  to measure research quality. 

What did surprise me a little though is how few of the 60 articles I've actually read. I counted 13 that I've read with a modest degree of seriousness and 7 of those are "classics" from the 50s (and before) and 60s. That leaves just 6 from the last 40 years. These are supposed to be the moving and shaking articles and I've never heard of most of them.

So what should I conclude from this? One possible conclusion is that I'm an ignorant fellow who doesn't keep up with the literature. I'd be interested to know exactly how ignorant. Would anyone else like to reveal their own personal tally ? Be honest.

Another possibility is that American and European sociology are actually quite different intellectual worlds with rather different preoccupations and hence rather different reading and citation patterns. It would be odd to talk about American and European economics - or at least I've not heard my economics colleagues discussing their discipline in that way - in a way that it might make sense to talk about American and British sociology.

I'm primarily interested in my own society and that is reflected in what I read.

Friday, 14 November 2014

Sociology down the plughole

Just when you think things can't get any worse you can always rely on the journal Sociology to prove you wrong. At the beginning of last year I was shaking my head in disbelief when they published a poem (in case you haven't heard of Sociology it is supposed to be a serious academic journal). 

Now they have gone one better (or worse) and published a piece by John Holloway  - A Note on Hope and Crisis - that seems, in nine numbered paragraphs, to be a text originally intended for Radio 4's "Thought for the Day" or perhaps for an obscure marxisant literary journal. I don't think it is too extreme to say that it has zero social scientific content. 

What are the editors thinking about? What possible sense for instance can be made of paragraph 8 which consists of two sentences?

We are the crisis of capital and proud of it: that is our dignity, that is our hope. And our joy.

Well at least the editors have done some really serious editorial work as we can see from paragraph 9 where Holloway informs us: "The editors of Sociology have kindly suggested that it would be helpful to clarify my use of 'We'": Good to see they are earning their keep and maintaining linguistic if not intellectual standards.

So where are we going next? I dare someone to submit a photograph or the score of a musical composition. How could they possibly refuse it?

Social Mobility Grinding to a Halt?

I was at a half-day seminar yesterday sponsored by ESRC and the National Centre for Research Methods on the theme of: Social Mobility Grinding to a Halt? New Evidence from the Census and Birth Cohort Studies. There were four excellent papers and Jo Blanden and myself acted as discussants. Thanks to Pat Sturgis for organizing the event. It was good to see that a number of representatives of Whitehall departments were in attendance. Maybe there is some hope that they might eventually decide to collect some decent data. 

For anyone who is interested, my comments on two of the papers are here (minus the figures and tables that contain Crown Copyright material).

Wednesday, 12 November 2014

Oxford Q-Step Centre

The Oxford Q-Step Centre has got up a nice web-site with an excellent introductory video. Looks like there will be all sorts of goodies on it in the future.

Thursday, 6 November 2014

Here we go again - more quantitative self-hatred

So, here we go again. Discover Society has decided to publish another piece of quantitative self-hatred, this time by the American sociologist Brian Castellani. It covers similar ground to David Byrne's piece in Sociology that I wrote about here, which is only to be expected as Catellani and Byrne seem to be close associates. It repeats the same old contentious claims  about the alleged deficiencies of the standard toolbox of quantitative methods and combines them with a complete lack of understanding of the actual state of affairs in British sociology departments. On the plus side Castellani's piece is less intemperate than Byrne's ridiculous polemic so every cloud has a silver lining I suppose. 

Still, we should probably feel a bit of sympathy for Castellani because as a student he seems to have suffered from the intellectual equivalent of child-abuse. He tells us that: "...my quantitative professors argued, statistics (and pretty much it alone) made 'sense' of the complexity of social reality." If they really forced that kind of garbage down his throat then I genuinely feel sorry for him. What can I say? He was clearly taught by people who didn't know what they were talking about and it has soured his whole understanding of statistics. That would explain sentences like: "And being a good quantitative social scientist, you would develop as simplistic a causal model as possible, what Capra and Luisi (2014) call mechanistic or reductionist social science." We're not pulling our punches then. People doing conventional  quantitative social science prefer simplistic models - I assume Castellani is aware of the difference in nuance between simple and simplistic - and what they are doing is mechanistic and reductionist (cries of boo and hiss from les enfants du paradis). Jesus, those quant guys are so primitive it's amazing they can stand on two legs (not like us super evolved complexity guys because complex is always better than simplistic right?).

Well, maybe, but it doesn't seem to imply an ability to stick to the point or to follow a coherent line of argument. What for example is the point of the figure, culled from Wikipedia,  showing various Gaussian probability density functions? It has no clear relationship to anything that Castellani is discussing at the point it is presented to us. Is the idea just to serve up to the home crowd some totemic figures attributable to the enemy  that they can focus their hatred on? Who knows? Who cares? Well, in a complex world seemingly anything goes,  after all Castellani tells us that students, instead of being force fed that quant methods hogwash should have been following a curriculum stuffed with post-positivism, post-structuralism, eco-feminism, deconstruction, constructionism, constructivism, qualitative method and post-modernism. But hang on, isn't that what most British undergraduate sociology courses actually consist of? Come on Brian, pay attention.

There are however, apparently, beacons of hope. Though Oxford, Harvard, Stanford and Cambridge feed their undergraduates a diet of "...mechanistic and reductionist experimental or quasi-experimental design" - Oh the brutes! - the School of Political and Social Science at the University of Melbourne, Science Po in Paris and, the BSc in Sociology at the LSE are held up as examples to us all. In these enlightened institutions, we are told, "...undergraduates are given courses in critical thinking, applied research and interdisciplinary and mixed methods." The gods be praised!

Well, fair dinkum to Melbourne, I can't gainsay 'em because I don't know what they do. Science Po I should know something about because my own institution has an exchange programme with them and I've supervised one or two students on it. I must say, they seemed perfectly normal to me. Not especially enlightened nor especially disdainful of the thin gruel they are obviously being served up in Oxford. And then the BSc in Sociology at the LSE. Well, there's something I do know about. Having been an undergraduate on it 35 years ago, I actually then taught on the degree for ten years - albeit over a decade ago - and am still in intimate contact with sources currently involved in delivering it. Let's say I have a pretty good idea of what the reality looks like on the ground. The rules of good manners and the UK's libel laws prevent me from saying at this point all of what I actually believe to be true. But let me put it this way: the department that hosts the degree is also home to that monument to absurdity resting on a  pedestal of  incompetence called the Great British Class Survey. If the future of quantitative methods  in the UK relies on the skills and understanding of the people associated with that, then God help us, we're doomed.

What we're doomed to is however not entirely clear from Castellani's account. Of course he has his diagram that explains everything. It's a fantastic green and white web of names that starts with Issac Newton in the top left-hand corner who apparently was working in the 1940s  and 50s (you might have to brush up the periodization of your  history of science a little there Brian) and ends up with Emma Uprichard in the bottom right hand corner. In between is more or less everything and everybody plus the kitchen sink, serious thinkers and doers along with notorious bullshit merchants. 

This actually tells me nothing and there's the rub. If you are going to persuade me that I need to learn a new set of tools - let's call them complexity science - to answer the questions I'm interested in then I think I'm entitled to say, OK, but first show me the money. Please show me, by producing convincing empirical evidence, that these tools give better answers to the sorts of questions I and other social scientists are interested in. I don't mean by this demonstrations that the GLM is an inappropriate model for understanding weather systems or the swarming behaviour of birds and fish. I know that. I also don't want a philosophical disquisition about ontology. I want to see the pay-off for standard social science questions. I also don't want demonstrations that RCTs and linear regressions are not appropriate for all questions . Nobody in their right mind thinks they are. In other words cut out the endless - in some cases book length - chat and demonstrate the empirical value of complexity tools when it comes to the sort of questions that most quantitatively oriented sociologists are interested in.

If the answer is that they add little or no value for the conventional questions, then that's fine. If your question is about networks then you need network models - nobody is going to dispute this. I went to my first course on social network analysis in 1989 and very good it was too. Since then I've not worked on problems that involved the analysis of network data so there was no particular pay-off other than gaining an appreciation of what can be done. I also have colleagues whose substantive work involves the use of network models, who develop the statistical theory to make inferences about networks and write the software to do it. None of them feel the need to disparage conventional quantitative methods or feel the need to shroud what they do in a sea of verbiage. I could say much the same sort of thing about colleagues whose work involves the use of agent-based models or system dynamics models. They have these things in their tool box and they take them out when they are the right tool for the job and when they can be shown to work.

Though he doesn't present any in his article probably Castellani has a whole bunch of convincing applications that he can pluck from his CV.  I don't know, I haven't looked at it. I'm less sure that Byrne and associates could do that. Let's face it, this is a guy who tries to tell us that whatever it is we're doing is all wrong yet is  unable to work out correctly the size of his state space (he's out by a factor of 10). In all serious disciplines that would earn you a one way ticket to Palookaville. In sociology it get's you a chair. It also seems that in practice complexity science for Byrne comes down to QCA and cluster analysis. That's odd, for when I look at what seems to me to be the serious stuff on complexity in the social sciences  - for instance at the Santa Fe Institute -  it's all differential equations and random matrices. I think it would be great if we taught our sociology undergraduates that. But then again given that most have given up maths at 16 and break out in a cold sweat if you show them a summation sign this would be a tall order. Probably better to go for rubbishing the modest but tangible achievements of conventional quantitative methods and give them a bit of waffle from Luhmann, Latour, Castells, Urry, Thrift and so on. Then they'll really understand what is going on in the world.

Wednesday, 5 November 2014

Crime and Punishment

I'm getting to the age where I don't remember  what movies I've seen. A few weeks ago we started to watch a DVD borrowed from the library and only after watching for 10 minutes did it suddenly dawn on us that it looked terribly familiar...I suppose I'd have more to worry about if I didn't  notice.

But the last two weekends have been a triumph of cinematic consumption. Last week we watched John McDonagh's Calvary and the week before Lav Diaz's Norte, the End of History. Both are about crime and punishment and both in their very different ways are masterpieces.

Calvary, set in contemporary Ireland, is essentially a retelling of the Christian myth. Someone has to pay for the sins of the fathers  and who better than somebody who is good? Of course the twist is that the bad guys and the good guys all belong to the same institution - the Catholic church and that this exploration of the crisis of trust in the Irish Church is conducted with a considerable amount of deadpan black humour.

Norte starts off from Dostoyevsky's premise that there is only one thing worse than being punished for your crimes and that is not being punished. The film is four hours long and contains a very large number of long shots from a stationary camera which will not be to everyone's taste but I found it increasingly enthralling. In fact the last two hours just fly by as you get drawn into the descent of one the principle characters into  a  hell of insanity and violence.

The central message of both  films can be summed up as: the fathers have taken too little care of this, and that redemption entails tragedy.

Friday, 31 October 2014

Warwick University PLC 2

Fair play, decency, contrite apology, isn't that what you would expect from Warwick University? Not a £50,000 legal bill for defending a frivolous disciplinary case you have successfully rebutted. I think  I'll add Warwick to my growing list of UK "universities" that I don't want to have anything to do with.

Thursday, 30 October 2014

Strike! (or action short of)

November 6th will soon be upon us. That is the date upon which UCU members have voted to commence industrial action over the latest round of changes to their pension arrangements. Initially it will be action short of a strike involving a refusal to take part in assessment related activities.

My feeling is that this is going to be a very unpleasant dispute with a good chance of escalation into an all out strike. Personally I'd rather not be involved in it. But I don't see any alternative, other than for employees to  simply say and do nothing as the employers take away up to 25% of the pension that they were encouraged to believe they would get when they entered the profession. I don't understand how anyone with a modicum of self-respect could do that.

In essence the employers have presented their proposals as a fait accompli. They have the voting strength on the USS Board to simply impose their will. Given this fact it is not surprising that they are not willing to negotiate. They are also apparently not willing to discuss or even in some cases reveal the details of the assumptions they have made in their projections of the scale of the USS deficit. Employees have to like it or lump it even when it is revealed that some of these assumptions are absurd (you can translate that as chosen to support the course of action they are committed to).

At the root of the problem is the current yield on gilts. USS wants to reduce future risk (to the employers) by gradually shifting the balance of its holdings from stocks to government securities. In an era of 'quantitative easing' yields on gilts are currently negative in real terms. If you want to make the size of the funding gap look scary then this is an excellent time to assume that the current state of affairs will continue into the future. It also helps if you assume that wage growth will be twice the historical average. 

It seems obvious to me and many other colleagues that the employers as a whole are not acting in good faith. To be fair, some employers - and my own is one of them - have questioned the figures and have requested more  transparency but I doubt this will make much difference.

What UK universities can or cannot afford in terms of pension arrangements for their staff is not ultimately determined by the market for the simple reason that their income is not, for the most part, determined by the market. It is a matter of politics, argument and discussion rather than technical imperatives.

In all industrial disputes people suffer, that is regrettable but unavoidable. It is what happens when negotiation and compromise are unilaterally  abandoned. It is highly likely that some testosterone fueled employers will seek to impose punitive sanctions on staff who take action short of striking. Most likely this will take the form of refusing to pay any salary at all to those that refuse to perform any part of their contractual duties. 

Pinsent Masons have been advising the employers on the legal aspects of their likely responses to industrial action. You can read their advice at the bottom of this document. It makes fascinating reading. 

 Part of their opinion reads as follows:

"...one crucial factor for the total withholding of pay is that the employer must tell the employee that he/she is not expected to attend work if he/she is not prepared to undertake his/her full duties."

Thus if an employer  withholds 100% of an employee's salary because of their participation in an assessment boycott and then claims in court that their attendance at their place of work and the performance of all their other duties was purely voluntary, they are unlikely to get away with it, unless they can show that they explicitly instructed the employee to stay away from work and desist from performing all their duties.

So the price of punitive sanctions is likely to be escalation of the dispute. In effect the employers will be forced to declare a lock-out of part of their workforce. Given the number of hot headed macho managers ensconced in Senate Houses around the country you will appreciate why I think this dispute will become very unpleasant.

Tuesday, 28 October 2014

A Fortunate Man 2 - RIP Chelly Halsey

After reading the John Berger book I mentioned in my last post I looked up his age and was surprised: born in 1926 he is just three years younger than Chelly Halsey who died two weeks ago. Yet to me they seem to be part of completely different generations. 

How odd is our sense of time and how odd is our perceptions of class.  Berger's  plummy tones, now suffused with occasional gallic notes, still mark him out as a minor public schoolboy, as indeed he was (St Edward's, Oxford). I'd wager that Chelly's accent was unplaceable except to a linguistic expert. Educated, certainly, but not exactly BBC English, nor obviously regional. Maybe that is the fate of all us that come from the Midlands south of Birmingham, neither one thing nor the other. I've only ever met one person that could accurately place my accent. He was a professional linguist & identified my hometown with uncanny accuracy.

I've good reason to be very grateful to Chelly as he interviewed me for a studentship at Nuffield College. Turning up at the lodge I was directed to the office of the Bursar's secretary - at that time Chelly combined a University Professorship with the role of College Bursar and Keeper of the College Gardens! There I gave myself away. I had no idea how to pronounce Chelly's surname, so I opted for my regional default, Halsey with a short 'a'. The lady behind the desk looked down her nose at me and affected not to understand. After a short pause she said: "Do you mean Professor Hawlsey?". I knew I had failed the first part of the entrance test.

After that things could only get better. I sat in Chelly's room, Chelly behind his desk in jacket and tie and John Goldthorpe almost at right angles to me in a safari suit. The room was impossibly large - LSE and Imperial College academics inhabited rabbit hutches - but they seemed to have me trapped in a pincer movement. But then something strange happened. Chelly talked and talked and talked. I don't remember now what he talked about but I do remember thinking: "When is this going to end?" and "When will they ask me some questions?". They did eventually ask me a few questions but I don't remember what they were and then it was all over. Chelly saw me out and we chatted for a minute or so in the entrance to his staircase. It was a wonderful Spring day, the sun was shining and Nuffield looked like a Cotswold picture postcard. I think we were talking about student accommodation and suddenly he said: "And when you come here...". Only later did I realize the significance of that sentence. In Oxford things were done obliquely and the right sort of chap should understand  what is said and what is not said.

We were all in awe of Chelly. He and Eric Batstone presided over the Wednesday afternoon Sociology seminar which in those days was aimed mainly at MPhil students. Both were smokers and the upper reaches of the room quickly filled  with dense clouds of tobacco smoke. When Chelly gave a paper he talked without notes, in complete sentences without hesitation. His style was authoritative yet conversational. Listening to him was not quite like listening to a favourite Uncle, but there was an air of intimacy about it that drew you in and made you feel he was addressing you personally. Of course part of it was theatrical, but there was hard earned craft in it nonetheless and even in his eighties he could still give a pretty impressive performance.

As a student I didn't actually have much to do with Chelly and he retired shortly after I left the college. When I came back to Nuffield from time to time we'd share a lunch table and talk about LSE in the 1950s,  Palo Alto, Ed Shils, Cobbett and Conrad.

With the exception of George and Teresa Smith's appreciation, none of the obituaries capture much of the essence of the man and several contain glaring inaccuracies. The Daily Telegraph's unsigned effort is little more than the kind of bitter polemic one would associate with the Daily Hate Mail. Though several mention his work with Jean Floud and F. M. Martin none manage to refer to the fundamental insight of that work, that the fairness of selection for secondary school based on objective tests of ability is undermined as soon as schools start to  supplement test scores with interviews. An old battle in a long forgotten war? Admissions tutors at Oxbridge Colleges would like you to think so.

Monday, 27 October 2014

A Fortunate Man 1

On Saturday I picked up for a trifle a copy of John Berger and Jean Mohr's A Fortunate Man. I'd not come across the book before but I've a soft spot for John Berger and had a few loose coins in my pocket. In this collaboration Berger wrote the text and Mohr took the photographs which, as you might expect, don't just illustrate the words but constitute a visual essay in their own right.

The subject, the fortunate man,  is a GP  with a practice in the Forest of Dean called John Eskell (given the name John Sassall in the book) that Berger got to know while living in St Briavel in the late 50s and early 60s. Berger writes about Sassall's life as a naval surgeon, a country doctor, the community he serves, his approach to general practice and  gives his interpretation of what makes him who he is and do what he does. It is, in a sense, a sociological study of the general practitioner with an N of 1. Of course being Berger there is more to it than that. Some of it is Sartrean hokey with an admixture of Freudian bunkum, though the latter is more defensible because Eskell/Sassall is a believer in psychotherapy himself and sees it as one of the weapons he uses to treat the whole patient. Some consists of outlandish comparisons with Conrad's novels of the sea.

In both text and photographs we are allowed to accompany Sassall on his rounds, sit in his consulting room and learn about his hopes and fears. He sees people into the world and some of them he sees out. In a telling metaphor Berger calls him the clerk of the community's records. 

There are one or two revelations in these records like the story of being called  by an elderly woman's husband who is worried that his wife is bleeding down below. Sassall has known the couple for years but on attendance he discovers  that the "wife" has male genitalia and that her problem is haemorrhoids. Nothing more is said just as nothing had ever been said in the traditional, inward looking, community itself. 

The last photograph in the book shows Sassall walking up a steep track to his isolated house. He has his back to us and appears to be exiting stage left. Nothing is really  concluded and he is given the last words: "Whenever I am reminded of death - and it happens every day - I think of my own, and this makes me try to work harder". There is a terrible poignancy about this. In 1982 Eskell shot himself. He was 63 years of age.

I  was astonished to learn that A Fortunate Man is regarded by the medical profession as one of the most insightful accounts of the GP's life. You can see some of the photographs here.

Thursday, 16 October 2014

Freudian Slip

The Wiki on Baron Freud of Eastry makes very interesting reading. It tells you most of what you need to know about the man the Conservative Party believes is a fit and proper person to be an Under Secretary of State for Work and Pensions. You couldn't make it up (assuming Wikipedia hasn't).

Friday, 3 October 2014

Warwick University PLC

It's hardly a secret that the management of Warwick University have returned to what is more or less the founding creed of the institution, divide, rule and suppress dissent. If you thought that universities were islands of free expression in a world of corporate bullshit think again. Dennis Hayes explains here. And make sure you control that subversive body language.

What surprises me is how little we've heard from Warwick faculty about all of this. Has the university imposed a campus wide gagging order? Or is fear enough?

So who is going to win? Macho management or common sense? Let's give Sparks the last word.

Thursday, 2 October 2014

How sociologists make themselves absurd

I'm struggling to articulate a half-formed thought in this post so you may prefer to skip it and wait  until I manage to state it more sharply.

I was struck yesterday when I was skimming the replies to Lucas and Szatrowski's (LS) article on QCA  by the unwarranted assumptions that were being made about what LS believe about  quantification in empirical social science. It reminded me a little of some aspects of my exchange of views last year with David Byrne (here, here and here) though I'll readily admit that the intellectual quality of our "debate" was not nearly so elevated as the one that LS are involved in. I also see a connection with  some of the highly polemical pieces on the use of statistics in the social sciences written by Stephen Gorard (see for instance here and here).

The common thread is something like this:  the protagonists are not necessarily anti-quantitative but they seize on some aspect of poor practice that is widespread in the journals - inappropriate applications of  RCTs, unbelievable instrumental variables, misunderstandings of the meaning of confidence intervals, silly conclusions drawn from  null-hypothesis testing, giant fishing expeditions, enormous variable races, fatuous assumptions about causality - and then instead of drawing the conclusion that students and researchers need to be better trained, referees better informed and editors more sophisticated in their appreciation of what applied statistics can and can't do, they infer that the problem is not with the users or with the misapplication of the standard tools but is with the tools themselves which must be discarded and replaced with something else. 

Thus we get remarks like:

 "This paper confirms that confidence intervals are not a generally useful measure or estimate of anything in practice." Gorard

"The conventional quantitative programme in the social sciences has told us very little of real interest." Byrne

So the baby gets chucked out with the dirty bath water and the innocent are encouraged to reject the conventional tools before they have even had an opportunity to learn what they are good for.

So my puzzle is this:  why do apparently intelligent people choose to espouse such extreme views?

Let's set aside one possible explanation - that they are blathering about things they don't really understand. Maybe it's true, maybe it isn't: I'm not going to go there.

Another possible explanation is the incentive structure in social science publishing. All the incentives point in the direction of making big bold statements that catch the eye, contradict established positions and have a clear novelty take home message. Recommendations for cautious, incremental changes and improvements tend to be ignored  in favour of the shock of the new. Thus an article that argues quite a few people don't really understand what confidence intervals are good for is not as attractive to an editor as one that argues confidence intervals are completely useless. If you want to catch the eye in sociology then waving a banner declaring 'Revolution Now' is more likely to help you build a career than one that says 'Let's try to improve things a little bit'.

Wednesday, 1 October 2014

QCA gets pounded...ouch!

I've not been paying too much attention to the journal literature over the Summer but I just checked out the 2014 (August) issue of Sociological Methodology. It contains a major article by Lucas and Szatrowski evaluating  Ragin's Qualitative Comparative Analysis (QCA) methodology.  I've not had time to read it carefully enough but my preliminary impression is that they have severely disabled if not sunk a capital ship. All the QCA cronies manage in reply are a few feeble smears and some rather unseemly howling about how it is all so unfair. 

Sam's reply to the responses effectively buries the responders and dances on their graves in a way that I'm not sure I've ever seen before in an academic journal. I've long thought that QCA was a zombie technique and it will be interesting to see how it's going to survive this pounding. 

Clearly I'm going to have to read the article, responses and reply much more carefully. So might my students as they're candidates for inclusion in the revised reading  list for my Hilary Term Research Design course.

Incidentally Lucas mentions in passing that their manuscript went through five rounds of  R&R before final acceptance.  I guess that's the difference between publishing in a genuinely world class sociology journal and in the ones that the UK RAE panel pretends are world class.

Tuesday, 30 September 2014


Opening my mail this morning I found a flyer puffing Sociology in Pictures by one Michael Haralambos. The series appears to have ringing endorsements from, amongst others,  the University of Leicester, Cardiff, the Open University, Xinjiang Univesity and the University of Karachi. In case you were wondering Wikipedia informs me that Xinjiang is "...one of the major universities in the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region, People’s Republic of China". I didn't check what it had to say about Leicester, Cardiff etc. 

Strangely none of the endorsements were attributed. Prof Cardiff opines: "An incredibly exciting book..." Perhaps he/she should get out more, or at least try reading some books with words in. I'm told  that even the ones with just a few words on each page can be quite thrilling. 

Perhaps the best comment is from Richard Thompson who in Fast Food gives us the delicious line: "Pictures on the register in case you're a moron".

I'm looking forward to the next offering in the series. Rumour has it that it will be a sociology bath book.

Friday, 26 September 2014

I want to see the bright lights tonight

It's Friday afternoon & not long to knocking off time - no protestant work-ethic guilt here. So what better way to prepare than listening to Richard Thompson. I've always loved this song it expresses something really important about the lives of most of the people where I grew up. Get out of the factory gates on Friday and have two days of freedom. The blonde is his daughter Kami who, unsurprisingly, looks just like her mother.

Another tune with something of the same theme, though in a slightly melancholic mood is Tom Waits' The Heart of Saturday Night. I'm sorry,  I can't abide Waits' "singing", but he is a great songwriter and Shawn Colvin does a decent job here.

Nick Cohen on PPE

In this week's Spectator Nick Cohen manages to make a bit of an ass of himself in a misguided attack on Oxford's PPE degree.  I'm not a great fan of PPE myself but not because of its far ranging content, but because of the way it & most other Oxford humanities and social science degrees are taught ie via the ubiquitous tute. 

In the course of his diatribe Cohen manages to say  that St Anthony's is Oxford's postgraduate college for the study of politics rather than an Oxford college for the study of politics. I think Nuffield might have something to say about that.

More seriously he seems to have a rather tenuous grasp of political history. I quote: "Career politicians with no interests outside politics have always existed, as the lives of Pitt the Younger, Lloyd George and Asquith show." I know nothing about Pitt the Younger so I'll have to defer to his superior knowledge there, but he couldn't be more wrong about Lloyd George and Asquith both of whom, coming from relatively humble backgrounds, had to make their own way in the world.

Lloyd George made a career for himself outside of politics as a solicitor, a profession he pursued even when he was in Parliament, though to be fair his brother did more than his fair share of keeping the family business going. LG also, as is well known, was extremely active in other sorts of extra-parliamentry and indeed extra-marital affairs.

Asquith was a practicing barrister, a classical scholar with a 1st from Balliol (the only classics first Balliol produced in his year) and an intellectual snob of the first order. In fact the chief complaint of his adversaries and of his own party is that he often gave the impression, even when premier, of regarding politics as a hobby that interfered with the real business of enjoying life. Like LG he was also not averse to a little extra-parliamentary business.

Going to war again

Once when I was an undergraduate I heard Simon Jenkins' father preach a sermon. He was, apparently, a renowned theologian in the Reformed tradition. All I remember is that it was, as you might expect, dull. 

Dullness is not a word you would associate with Jenkins fils. Miserablist, contrarian, polemicist but not dull. Normally I don't pay much attention to what he writes and even find some of it a bit obnoxious. But his piece in today's Guardian about the rush to show-off our aerial prowess in Iraq is spot-on. 

What are our representatives thinking of? Aren't they capable of learning anything? What good has all our interventions in the Middle-East done? I'll let Joschka Fischer have the last word.

This paper is so bad it is not even wrong

For a long time I've been toying with the idea of  post publication review. It seems to me that, at least in British sociology, peer review is so badly broken that  though nuggets of gold undoubtedly exist, the dung heap of illogicality, nonsense and  muddleheadedness is so huge that they can be difficult to find. The consequence is that zombie research lives on, is among us, and frequently gets cited, often by people who should know better and probably would know better if they actually bothered to read and think about the things they cite.

But how to do it? One idea I have is from time to time to take an issue of a journal, read all the articles in it, and  for each  one post a  paragraph  precis in plain unadorned English somewhat in the spirit of Jim Crace's pomposity busting Digested Read. My intuition is that many, when treated in this way, will, sans bullshit,  turn out to be assertions  of the "bleeding obvious" or just incoherent.

Of course this won't cover all bases. It's possible to have a perfectly coherent question but  treat it in an inadequate or incompetent way and by doing so end up with the wrong answer. Dealing with that sort of thing requires more space  than a single paragraph. It also requires more patience from the reader. 

I'm convinced that the reason so much bad quantitative work is published in British sociology journals is that there are so few consumers whose critical faculties extend much beyond name checking  whether a particular recipe has been used. I usually call this the "That's not the way we learned to do it in grad school" syndrome. Reaching that sort of reader is hard, because it assumes the ability to follow a chain of reasoning which is a little more subtle than: it's a binary response so therefore a logistic regression is correct.

I'm still at the stage of wondering whether any of this is a good idea or a real dog. One thing is clear, it wouldn't make me many friends; well, I'm used to that, but even I recognize that there are psychological limits to how many battles can be fought simultaneously.

But if I do go ahead I'll have to think carefully about a catchy title for the series. At the moment I have three contenders,  all from  Wolfgang Pauli:

This paper is so bad it is not even wrong.

I don't mind you thinking slowly; I mind your publishing faster than you think.

The setup...as far as printing and paper are concerned is splendid.

Wednesday, 24 September 2014

James Ramsay Macdonald

Last week I had some business at the LSE and after lunch took the opportunity to satisfy my curiosity about something by taking a walk in Lincoln's Inn Fields. 

I've been reading David Marquand's excellent biography of Ramsay Macdonald from which I learned that Macdonald and his family lived at 3 & 4 Lincoln's Inn Fields from 1896 until at least 1915 which is the last trace I can find of him in the electoral register  at that address.  

Incidentally in the 1911 Census return which records him living in an apartment with 7 rooms (the Macdonalds had 6 children one of whom had recently died)  he states his occupation as "Secretary and Writer" under which a census official has written in red ink "This is the Leader of the Labour Party". Macdonald's apartment was also  the de facto  headquarters of the Labour Representation Committee and thus can reasonably be regarded as the birthplace of the British Labour Party.

The rather ugly 5 storey building is in the north western corner of the square, just a few doors  away from the Soane museum and is now occupied by lawyers. In 1896 the rear of it would have overlooked the back of what became the Holborn Empire. I must have walked past the address hundreds of times, strange that I've never noticed the ubiquitous blue plaque. Not so strange: there is no plaque and nothing at all on the building to indicate its  connection with British political history not to mention the history of the British working-class.

Macdonald became, of course,  the most despised  figure in the labour movement and is conventionally  branded a sell-out as well as a social climbing lackey. The truth is  more complex as was the man himself. 

If anyone organized the early Labour Party it was Macdonald.  He was the first Labour Prime Minister and came to power at a time when most observers supposed that his political career was finished. He was also someone of considerable political and personal courage. He endured vilification by the right-wing press for his illegitimacy, for his  stand against both the Boer War and the First World War and for the disastrous post-war reparations policy. His command of foreign policy issues was the equal of any British politician of the day and he built a parliamentary party out of the rough brick and straw that was to hand, supported in places by a few Liberal converts. Prior to the National Government the worst that can be said of him is that he was better at getting the Labour Party into a position where they could credibly wield power than at knowing what to do with it. Then again, it's not clear than anyone in the Labour Party during the 1920s knew what to do with power.

I find it incredible that Macdonald's contribution to British politics is not noted on the building where so much was achieved. Maybe the LSE can mount a campaign to have the site recognized. After all as a young man Macdonald aspired to be a lecturer at the new school of economics. Apparently the Webbs, being colossal intellectual snobs, were determined to keep him out.

Friday, 19 September 2014


So, big changes in Scotland then with an overwhelming majority of Royal And Ancient Golf Club of St Andrews members voting to let in women. I gather things didn't quite go to plan for the Yes campaign in that other Scottish vote which is dissected by my colleague Stephen Fisher in his latest blog post. He must have been sitting up all night!

So it's Scotland the Brave  for the No campaign and  Floo'ers o' the Forest for the Yes campaign. Time in England for Roots and branch reform? Anyone for a written constitution?

Thursday, 18 September 2014

Decision Day

That's right the big day of decision: is the Royal and Ancient Golf Club of St Andrews going to allow women members? Oh and some other thing about Scottish independence. To keep you in the mood here's Andy Stewart - somebody really should do an in depth analysis of that postmodern classic  Donald Where's Your Troosers? On reflection perhaps all that's needed is  Billy Connolly on Scottish singers.

Wednesday, 17 September 2014

Identity Politics

One day to the referendum so if you are still perplexed here's Michael Marra singing If I was an Englishman.

Monday, 15 September 2014

Meanwhile at home...

We've a little electoral business of our own to keep an eye on this week. Is it going to be Ae Fond Kiss or We Can Swing Together? And if it's the latter where, geographically, is Devo max going to end?

Three days before the Scottish referendum the polling  numbers suggest that the result is too close to call. It could easily go either way and  I won't  be wagering the family silver on it. 

A quick look at the bookies seems to suggest that the betting public is favouring No with the current odds at  about 1/4.  Of course most of the punters won't be voting so there is no reason to believe that they have any special insight into how things are going to turn out.  On the other hand my colleague Stephen Fisher has a very interesting blog piece on the tendency of polls to over predict Yes votes.

With nothing personal at stake and no reputation as a political pundit to damage  it's a small risk for me to say that my gut instinct is that the Scots will say No and that the difference will be 3-4 per cent.  We shall see.

Sweden moves to the left...or is it the right?

The outcome of the Swedish election is that the Social Democrats will try to form a government in coalition with the other left and centre left parties. But as is clear from DN's front page graphic the aggregate result is actually indicative of a shift to the right. The left block maintained their overall position, while the centre right lost ground to the  xenophobic populist Sweden Democrats (does this  suggest a possible scenario over here in 2015?). At the moment neither the left nor the right block want to touch the Sweden Democrats with a barge pole. 

That was easy to say when the SwDs only had 6 per cent of the votes. Now they have 13 per cent and are the third largest party with  just less than 50 seats. Still, a party that refuses to have an integration policy because it doesn't want any integration is going to be difficult for the mainstream parties to do business with.

So unless the left block can attract one of the smaller centre right parties to join the coalition they are going to have to rely on ad hoc deals done on an issue by issue basis. Clearly there is going to be trouble ahead. I've a feeling I've seen this before - wasn't it called Borgen...?

Tuesday, 9 September 2014

The ruling ideas (again)...

This is weird. So according to the Independent the BBC's live coverage of yesterday's speech by TUC General Secretary Frances O'Grady was interrupted to bring the nation the joyous news that the Duchess of Cambridge is pregnant again. 

But hang on, I knew that already. The pregnancy was already being reported in Neue Welt two weeks ago. For the less media savvy of you Neue Welt is a picture magazine aimed at German pensioners with a special interest in the more trivial doings of European royalty, domestic film stars and schlager singers (I'm not a subscriber, but my mother-in-law is).

A more cynical observer might wonder why the champion of the working classes was removed from our screens for a story that was already stale in the rest of Europe. Panem et circenses.

Monday, 8 September 2014

Call It Sleep

Over the weekend I've been racking my brain. In my last post I mentioned cornflowers. I wonder if you ever get that feeling, you know, something sparks off a dim association, really no more than a feeling, but you can't quite make the connection? I knew that I had read or seen something recently in which cornflowers play a pivotal role, but for the life of me I couldn't remember what. Try as I might I couldn't get it into  focus. Was it a film? or something on TV? or something I've read? 

And then it came to me: Henry Roth's minor masterpiece Call it Sleep. If you've read it you'll know that a painting of cornflowers has pivotal plot significance - again a symbol of longing in this case for something that is long past. I won't spoil your enjoyment by saying more.

I know of no better account of the immigrant experience, the fact that it is Jewish Lower East Side immigrant experience just adds specificity. There is some Joycean stream of consciousness which  I could take or leave and the last fifth of the book drags a bit towards a slightly contrived conclusion. But the first half is so good that it's not ridiculous to claim that Call it Sleep is one of the greatest American novels and that Henry Roth deserves to be better known over here.

Friday, 5 September 2014

Die Andere Heimat

No trip  to Germany is complete without a visit to Saturn to  pick up  DVDs. This time we came back with Edgar Reitz's Die Andere Heimat: Chronik Einer Sehnsucht

It's a prequel to his Heimat trilogy and deals with the same Simon family in the same Hunsrueck village but now set in the hungry 1840s. Life is hard, the Prussians are oppressive - there are some gay memories of the French occupation - the local Baron is unsympathetic and the children drop like flies. But life goes on. Jakob the son of the blacksmith is a hopeless dreamer immersed in books about  Brazilian Indians (and not much use to his family). His older and more worldly brother Gustav returns from military service, gets on with life, builds a steam engine, gets Jakob's girl pregnant and has to marry her. Naturally the child is snatched away by diphtheria and the young couple decide enough is enough and join the hundreds of others who are emigrating to Brazil. The first letter home which takes more than a year to arrive comes too late for the mother  - she has just been laid in the ground. Jakob makes his peace with his father & uses his bookish learning to improve his brother's steam engine by adding a regulator.

And that's about it as far as plot goes. It doesn't sound much, but actually it is more than enough to fill four hours. It's beautifully shot in black and white with very occasional bits of colour - often cornflour blue, symbolic of longing. A fair bit of the dialogue is in dialect which was too tough for my ropey German, but the more pedestrian Hochdeutsch subtitles meant I could follow most of it. I guess it will make it to British screens soon. Here's a taster.

Thursday, 4 September 2014

Make me smile (come up and see me)

Just realized (apropos my last post) that this is  the perfect musical comment on the current state of UK universities.

The ruling ideas...

Henry Farrell hits the nail on the head at the end of his latest Crooked Timber post:

"One of the least appreciated problems of economic inequality is that it tends to filter out ideas that are uncongenial to rich people, and to heavily overweight ideas that they like. Universities like to think of themselves as removed from all of this. More and more, they are not."

Indeed, and UK universities are just as vulnerable to this threat as those in the US.

Occasionally however even the most supine and craven of managements realize that they have gone a tad too far. I once worked at an institution where it was seriously proposed by the hi' heid yins that a well healed celebrity chef who happened to be an alumni should sit on the board tasked with appointing a professor of sociology. Eventually they were persuaded that this might, perhaps,  er... lead to the appointment becoming an object of ridicule. With some reluctance the plan was dropped. What was interesting was that sociology was chosen for this stunt. I doubt they would have tried it on with the economics department.

Tuesday, 2 September 2014

On Social Class: annus horribilis

Extended debates are boring, eventually even for those that  have a taste for them. They grow stale and take on the character of a pantomime routine:  'Oh yes you did’ ‘Oh no I didn’t’. Journals, quite rightly, tend to have a thrust, parry, counter rule with the original authors being allowed the last word.

In a world of blogs and post-publication commentary there is no such constraint, and only the exercise of self-control, or exhaustion can  limit the back and forth. But even I like to move on. I currently have a piece  with referees at Sociological Review which comments on the latest shenanigans of the GBCS boys and girls as they rapidly attempt to shift ground from the quicksands of class to what they think is the firm rock of 'elites'. I don't think they'll find it very comfortable reading, but I'm not going to reveal my hand here.

This is going to be my last extended blog post on Savage et al.’s 2013 GBCS paper and it’s occasioned by the OnlineFirst publication of their reply to their critics -On Social Class, Anno 2014 (OSCA2014). If you are already tired of this topic then don’t read any further. I understand and sympathize. 

So, having given fair warning, I hope what I have to say will be nuanced enough to satisfy both my readers and the rarefied tastes of Savage and his colleagues. I can’t promise to lessen the intensity of my hostility, but to be clear, it is not aimed at them personally. I don’t dislike any of them; I don’t even know half of them; what I dislike is what they  write and choose to disseminate. And I dislike it because I think, for reasons I will give, that large amounts of it are demonstrably nonsense. And what are academics for but to point out nonsense when they see it? We’re not supposed to be a mutual support club dedicated to propping up fragile egos or indeed fragile disciplines.

In the interests of brevity I've sacrificed style to content. I simply don't have the energy or interest to write another piece of joined up prose about the GBCS. Instead I've gone for a simpler format. I quote directly from OSCA2014  (all quotations in italics) and then follow up with my reply.

So here we go then.

1) What they say:
Whether these seven classes are analytically useful forms the focus of Bradley’s reflections, whilst Mills expresses doubts about the point of developing this classification in the first place (since the NS-SEC is a well-tested and validated measure of class already).

1) What I say:
I certainly have doubts about the point of developing the GBCS’s 7 class classification, for reasons that I’ve given elsewhere, but the mere existence of the NS-SEC is not one of them. This should really be obvious and it’s a big stretch beyond the facts to say otherwise. People are free to while away the hours inventing as many class schema as they like. The only sensible question to ask is: what are they good for? I’ve asked that question of the GBCS scheme and received no coherent answer. There’s really nothing more to say.

2) What they say:
…it is striking that none of the response articles makes any reference to the value of the ‘capitals, assets resources’ approach which informed our work. In particular, many of Mills’ questions about how we see the nature and scope of class analysis have been amply outlined in this literature, which he does not address (even though much of it is cited in our reference list).

2) What I say:
This is, to say the least, disingenuous in the extreme. Savage et al. know full well that in my original blog, in the longer critique I submitted to Sociology (which was desk rejected with the editorial comment: “…we do not want article length responses to Savage et al.”) and elsewhere I do take up the issue of the ‘capitals, assets, resources’ approach. Stripped of all the pretentious Bourdieusian verbiage there isn’t much to say, especially when, as now seems to be the case, the point has been conceded that ‘capitals’ is, in practice, just another word for resources. By the way Geoffrey Hodgson has just published an article in CJE which makes many points about the vacuous use of the word 'capital'  in sociology and economics much more clearly than I can.

3) What they say:
What is now at stake is the monopoly of the NS-SEC, institutionalised through the Office of National Statistics, to be the only public measure of class. We take this to be one of the reasons for the aggressive tone which Mills adopts in his response, which does not appear to be explicable as a reaction to the tone of our article which is respectful to different parties, including the proponents of NS-SEC, throughout.

3) What I say
Wow, that first sentence is portentous…and inaccurate. ONS has no such monopoly. Users of data – even ONS data - are free to code it up to any class schema they desire. Nobody is preventing them from doing so. As the national statistics provider ONS will obviously choose to use certain standard tools – like the NS-SEC  - that are the product of a carefully considered process of development and validation. A process, by the way, that involved extensive consultation with end users some of whom were even sociologists. This is what a national statistics provider does –develop measures of things where the details of how the measure was constructed are in the public domain. Sure, lots of people use the NS-SECs, why shouldn’t they? But they are not compelled to do so and the invocation of the word ‘monopoly’ is just a shabby rhetorical device employed in the service of what appears to be little more than self-aggrandisement. 

There is literally nothing at stake here and can’t be until such times as Savage et al. place in the public domain sufficient details about how to code data to their schema. That means, in case they are wondering, revealing the parameter estimates from their preferred latent profile model, something they so far seem remarkably reluctant to do. Potential users will also be interested in seeing the standard errors for these estimates (now I’ve got my tongue in my cheek for I know full well that there is no coherent way of producing them) so they can make a sensible evaluation of the reliability of the resulting classification. Oh, and of course, users will also have to have a data-set containing all of the variable, measured in exactly the same way, that go into Savage et al.’s statistical model.

Let’s face it chums, this isn’t going to happen. Quixote has tilted at his windmill and the NS-SECs are safe.

4)  What they say:
Firstly, and amply marked in Mills’ article, is the emphasis on (1) class as a ‘discrete’ variable, which needs to be delineated and differentiated from any other property with which it might be contingently affiliated. This endeavour to define class as a unitary variable can then lead to a broader project of empirically assessing its significance for other outcomes through using various kinds of multivariate model. It follows that, for this perspective, class needs to be differentiated from anything else with which it might be associated (status, gender, age, ethnicity, residential location, or whatever) so that it is stripped bare as a unitary phenomenon and its net significance registered. Much of Mills’ hostility to our article appears to be – no doubt deeply and genuinely held – bafflement that class could be anything other than a discrete, validated variable of this kind.
However, as we thought we made clear, our preferred definition of class is different to this. We are seeking a measure of class as (2) class formation. Here, the crystallisation of different properties renders a class as having a social existence over and above the different factors which make it up. It is in this sense that historians have been interested in classes, not as ‘pure’ variables stripped of contaminants, but as distinctive social formations.

4) What I say:
The important words here are ‘contingently affiliated’.  Let’s back up a little bit and make things concrete by talking about some examples. 

When a class schema was being created for the Oxford Social Mobility Survey – way back in the middle of the 1970s – an important strategic choice confronted the investigators. How should apprentices be treated? To understand this you have to appreciate that the class categories were constructed by combining (cross-classifying) occupational titles (actually OPCS occupational groups) and employment status. But what was the employment status of an apprentice? Were they simply an employee, like other employees? And, what for that matter was their occupation? Was an apprentice fitter the same occupation as a fitter? 

These are questions which have no obviously correct answer. They require a judgment that involves considering the purposes to which the schema would be put. In this case the study of social class mobility. Once the purpose is established it becomes a little easier to think about these issues. What would happen if we created a class schema in which an apprentice fitter automatically changed social class on completion of his apprenticeship? Well, given the number of people who at that time had served apprenticeships, one consequence would be that one would appear to observe large amounts of social class mobility. Clearly something does change when people completed their apprenticeship – for one thing they got a higher wage – but did they change social class? It is not immediately obvious that they did so. The OMS investigators decided that apprentices should be coded to the occupation/employment status combination of the job they were training for.

Another example. In the 1980s there was a lot of discussion about whether the proper unit for ‘class analysis’ was the household or the individual. Furthermore, if it was the household, should equal weight be given to both partners of a conjugal pair?  One proposal was to say yes in answer to this question and propose that a household’s class position changed when the work status or the class position of either a husband or a wife changed. Again there is no correct answer to the question, there are simply logical consequences of doing things one way rather than another. The joint household definition never really took off because of one of these consequences. In a world where women’s connection to the labour market is discontinuous households would change social classes as the hours of female labour market participation rose and fell generating an enormous amount of apparent social class mobility. Now, nobody would deny that levels of household welfare might rise and fall to mirror this, but is this the same as saying that people change their social classes? 

The point is this: conceptualisation implies choices and choices have consequences. Whether these consequences are acceptable or unacceptable depends upon the purpose of the conceptualisation. Not everything can be in focus at the same time. But if you don't spell out what the purpose of your conceptualisation is then you can't really be taken seriously because you are essentially just allowing yourself to say and see whatever you want  or whatever suits the needs of the current argument. We all cut ourselves some slack from time to time, but this approach is right off the lead!

Now what about 'class formation'?  Without further elaboration it is difficult to know exactly what Savage et al. have in mind. But let me make a guess that the spirit is captured in Edward Thompson's words:

" I do not see class as a 'structure', nor even as a 'category', but as something which in fact happens (and can be shown to have happened) in human relationships."

I also don't see it as a 'structure' , but I do see it as a category - or at least a concept - for the simple reason that this is what it is. It's a tool that  we use to organise our understanding of things that have happened to real people in real human relationships. Their experiences are real as are their relationships and they may or may not have characteristics which we choose to label class experiences or class relationships. Whether the individuals themselves do so or not is in one sense irrelevant - if workers die young of industrial diseases it matters not a jot to the sociologist of health whether the dying recognize themselves and their fellows as workers - and in another sense highly relevant - ie if they recognize themselves as a class or use a vocabulary of class this may have consequences in the real world for how they organize themselves to pursue their interests. This however has nothing whatsoever to do with whether of not some abstract category is 'stripped of contaminants' and the introduction of this argument by Savage et al is nothing but a red herring.

5) What they say
The alternative path was pursued by Goldthorpe who sought to pull the concept of class clearly apart from any reference to exploitation at all (e.g. Goldthorpe, 2000b; Goldthorpe and Marshall, 1992). Increasingly indebted to economists’ analysis of the nature of labour and employment contracts as a means of monitoring their workers, he specifically insists that there are no ‘zero-sum’ conflicts between classes.

5) What I say
Go back and read the relevant passages. For example here is Goldthorpe & Marshall (1992):

“Secondly, class analysis as we understand it implies no theory of class exploitation, according to which all class relations must be necessarily and exclusively antagonistic, and from which the objective basis for a critical economics and sociology can be directly obtained. Although exponents of class analysis in our sense would certainly see conflict as being inherent within class relations, this does not require them to adhere to a labour theory of value, or indeed any other doctrine entailing exploitation as understood in Marxist discourse. Nor must they suppose, as is suggested by Sørensen (1991:73) that what is to the advantage of one class must always and entirely be to the disadvantage of another. In fact much interest has of late centred on theoretical discussion of the conditions under which class relations may be better understood as a positive-sum (or negative-sum) rather than as a simple zero-sum game. And this interest has then been reflected in substantive studies in a concern with the part that may be played by class compromises in for example, labour relations or the development of national political economies and welfare states (cf. the papers collected in Goldthorpe (ed.) 1984).”

And here is Goldthorpe (2000b)

“I am puzzled by Sørensen’s use of the concept of exploitation—a word that I would myself gladly see disappear from the sociological lexicon—since it is not clear that it plays any vital role in his arguments. Its function in Marxist thought was to allow a fusion of normative and positive claims in a way that I would find unacceptable, as also, I believe, would Sørensen. For example, it is evident that he would regard the elimination of rents, and thus of exploitation, from labor markets as tending often to have highly negative human consequences. If invoking exploitation is no more than a way of flagging the presence of structurally opposed class interests that lead to zero-sum conflicts, then its use is innocuous but scarcely necessary.”

Professor Savage really must do his homework more carefully. Goldthorpe does not insist that “…there are no ‘zero sum’ conflicts between classes”. How he (Savage) could have come to persuade himself otherwise must remain a matter for speculation, but there is really no substitute for reading carefully what other people write, making a serious effort to understand it and most importantly representing it correctly. Clearly these are not fashionable practices or ones that will bring glittering prizes but I would have thought that it was required of any academic with a modicum of self-respect.

6) What they say
According to Mills, and to other critics such as Goldthorpe (2013), our findings are simply a ‘data dredging exercise’. Now, as we emphasised in our article, it is definitely the case that our analysis is as good as the construction of the variables, and hence ‘rubbish in, rubbish out’ definitely applies. Because our latent profile analysis has established seven classes out of the mix of measures which were used to construct them, it does not follow that we have defined seven ‘formed’ classes. For this to be the case, we need to reflect on whether they appear to make sociological sense, and whether they might be identifying a group which potentially has some coherence. Mills is of the view that the classes are partly an artefact of our variable construction. In our defence, let us firstly explain why we think our measures of capital are sociologically robust, and then go on to consider the plausibility of the kind of class groupings that the latent profile analysis produces.

6) What I say
I'm certainly critical of the way in which Savage et al. translate their concepts into measurements and it must be the case that what comes out of an inductive exercise is a function of what goes in - including the amount of information (N is arbitrary). My feeling is that any sociologist that couldn't construct a plausible sounding account of whatever comes out of a  sausage machine is probably in the wrong profession. We all know how easy it is to come up with just so stories. If you  had specified before hand what you expected to find and then demonstrated that you found it, I'd have taken you more seriously. But that's not what you did. Please can you tell me what the fine sounding phrase 'sociologically robust' means? Robust to what?

7) What they say
Similarly, our thinking about cultural capital is informed by extensive previous research, notably that reported in Culture, Class, Distinction (Bennett et al., 2009) and we are surprised that few of our critics, notably Mills, seem to have sought out this book to inspect more fully the underpinning of our thinking. We briefly repeat some especially salient points.

7) What I say
Vanity oh vanity! It is obviously inconceivable to Savage et al. that anyone could have read Bennett et al. (which I have, I even inflicted it on some of my students last year, though I’m not entirely sure they all enjoyed the experience) without finding much in it that illuminated anything terribly pertinent.  I certainly didn’t find their discussion of ‘capitals’ very persuasive or in fact coherent. How they can claim to know what I have or haven’t sought out is a bit of a mystery to me.

8) What they say
Mills’ argument is that the questions on cultural practices (for instance, a taste for certain kinds of music) conflate age and class, but he seems to assert an almost ‘naturalist’ view that being young or old necessarily imparts a pre-disposition to certain cultural practices.

8) What I say
Of course I say no such thing and this whole sentence is just a sly smear. I don’t know what a ‘naturalist’ account of cultural tastes would look like (do they mean to imply I think that cultural tastes are genetically programmed?) but the use of the term is obviously selected to produce a knee-jerk reaction of the boo-hiss type. 

It is a fact that tastes for certain types of music are strongly correlated with age. Bennett et al’s and Savage et al’s data clearly show this and it is no way surprising. So are tastes (or the capacity) for certain types of pastime – for example going to the gym, participating in sports, etc. So, to a lesser degree, are eating out choices and watching Disney movies(when you have young kids you don’t eat out as much as you used to and  when you do you tend to go to places that will make the kids happy, McDonald's, Pizza Express or the branch of Giraffe at the local Tesco).

 In my view the association with age is most straightforwardly described in terms of cohort, period or age differences. I simply can’t see what is to be gained from saying that someone who stops playing Sunday League football at age 40 because they’ve become  too slow, or that someone who takes advantage of the kids growing up to go out for a curry and a pint on Friday night, has changed social class. This is what my understanding of the logic of Savage et al’s approach implies. They can define the word ‘class’ in any way they want. But if they wish to be taken seriously they must then acknowledge the consequences of their definitional decisions wherever these may lead. If they lead to the original conception collapsing under the weight of absurdities then that should tell them that their conception wasn’t fit for purpose in the first place.

9) What they say
Secondly, Mills claims that the cultural tastes and practices revealed in our Figures 1 and 2 (Savage et al., 2013) are actually the product of the NS-SEC class divisions which we are supposed to ‘disdain’. We would never deny – and indeed have ourselves argued that – NS-SEC classes are associated with these patterns (as are income, educational qualifications, and other indicators of social hierarchy, see Bennett et al., 2009). However, it does not follow that occupational class is the best predictor of such cultural patterns, and indeed there is extensive research which we cited in our article (such as by Chan, Goldthorpe, as well as by ourselves) which argues otherwise. Our own comment, which he cites, was a discussion of these other sources.

9) What I say
Firstly I challenge Savage et al to show where exactly I say that cultural tastes and practices “…are actually the product of the NS-SEC class divisions”. They won’t be able to do that because the statement is a figment of their imagination. I hope they have the common courtesy to retract a claim that is blatantly false. Secondly they say( pp 222 of the original article):

 “..the schema[referring to the Goldthorpe class schema and derivatives thereof] has been shown to be of less use in explicating the wider cultural and social activities and identities (see generally Devine, 1998; Savage, 2000), which do not appear to be closely linked to people’s class position, as defined by the Goldthorpe class schema [my emphasis], and alternative schemas have been proposed to explain patterns of cultural consumption (Le Roux et al., 2008)”

Rather self-evidently they are not referring to discussion in the work of others as they only cite themselves. QED their new claim directly contradict their own words -  compare: “We would never deny …that – NS-SEC classes are associated with these patterns” versus  “…which do not appear to be closely linked to people’s class position”. It’s difficult to know how to have a rational conversation with people that insist on maintaining two contradictory positions and then appeal to one or the other as they find convenient.

10) What they say
But it is quite erroneous to see our classes as simply the product of age divisions, as in Mills’ claim that ‘(L)ife cycle plays a role in distinguishing what Savage et al. term the “elite” and the “established middle class”’. Because the elite are 11 years older than the established middle classes, he thinks this will explain the superior economic capital which the older ‘naturally’ accrue. But in fact, at least as far as household income is concerned, Goldthorpe and McKnight (2004) show that 57-year-olds in class 1 and 2 are actually likely to have marginally lower income than 46-year-olds.

10) What I say
Again Professor Savage needs to make a better job of his homework. Goldthorpe and McKnight (2004) say nothing at all about household income. What they examine is individual earnings from full-time employment. Household income and individual earnings from employment are not the same thing (obviously). So the citation is completely irrelevant. Honestly, I expect higher standards from my MSc students. 

11) What they say
It is a striking point that none of the four responses, with the partial exception of Bradley, reflects on whether or not the seven classes we delineated might be sociologically resonant.

11) What I say
I’ve no idea what ‘sociological resonance’ is: it doesn’t ring a bell. Perhaps it’s a close relation of that mainstay of rogues and charlatans – the appeal to the ‘sociological imagination’

12) What they say
 Mills implies at various points that it is easy to change cultural practices (for instance, in his comment about how changing Facebook friends might entail a change of class) and therefore that these are not sociologically salient.  Given the extent of sociological research which emphasises the powerful social structuring of cultural practices, it would be helpful for Mills to have produced sociological evidence for his alternative view. 

12) What I say
This is a remarkably silly comment. For starters I don't know what sociological saliency means in this context and secondly the validity of my argument doesn't depend on the citation of examples. It shouldn't take a genius to see that if you define a movement between social classes as being a movement between jobs that have different contractual employment conditions attached to them then a precondition for social class mobility is that somebody gives you a job. This is not something that is just a matter of will. No matter how much I might want to be an investment banker if I can't persuade a bank to hire me then wishing won't make it so. On the other hand if going to Abigail's Party means that I have to affect a liking for Demis Roussos I can easily go to Amazon & download a few MP3s so that I know what I'm letting myself in for. Becoming an investment banker involves surmounting a solid obstacle. Saying you like Demis Roussos or even learning to like him does not (though admittedly the latter is not without its challenges).