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Caveat Emptor

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

Wednesday, 11 June 2014


I was amused this morning to receive an email from PS informing me that access to Oxford Sociology has apparently been banned in Germany, or at least by his hotel's service provider. Here's the evidence (click on the image to make it larger).
I wonder what I've done to deserve this? I've been murdering the German language for years so perhaps it's payback time...

David Lockwood RIP

I don't really have much to add to David Rose's fine appreciation. I only met David Lockwood on a couple of occasions and we can't have exchanged more than a dozen words. But his work influenced me and The Blackcoated Worker was the first serious sociological study of social class and social status that I read as an undergraduate. It's symptomatic of what had already happened to sociology at the LSE by the late 1970s that it was recommended to me by Alan Dawe who was a visitor to the department. 

Solidarity and Schism is also a fine and subtle book which presents more of a serious intellectual challenge than most of the things that are today prescribed in u/g "theory" courses.  It is really a classic that is ripe to be rediscovered. It shouldn't take more than a moments reflection to convince you that problems of social and system integration are as pressing now as they've always been.

 And what a department it was that David Lockwood joined when he left Cambridge. Essex's Sociology Department in the late 60's was a Real Madrid type collection of galaticos: Peter Townsend, Dennis Marsden, Peter Abell, Patrick Doreian, Alisdair MacIntyre , Geoffrey Hawthorn, Paul Thompson, Herminio Martins. Bliss was it in that dawn to be alive...

Friday, 6 June 2014

ABCD trial

And while we are on the topic of the Guardian, why has the secret ABCD trial scandal disappeared from the headlines? Sure if you hunt around the web site  and click a few links you can find comment from Owen Jones and Simon Jenkins - in both cases readers' comments are disabled "for legal reasons" - but what about on the front page? 

One reading of it is that the following stories are more important than one of the most serious infringements of our civil liberties for centuries: Obama: US wants Scotland in UK; Osborne admits house price threat (big surprise there); Pope Francis defends Gypsies; Let British cities grow, says Labour; Africa: phone net use 'to rise 20-fold'; Race to contain new strain of malaria; A year on a Herefordshire farm.

I'm sure these are great stories and entirely worthy of our attention, but as important as a trial held in secret which, if it wasn't for legal challenge the press would not be allowed even to mention? One has to wonder: are there legal restraints on reporting  - a DA notice? Or is the press just being leaned on more informally by the boys from Vauxhall?

Time to get those old Glasgow Media Group volumes out of storage and remind yourself that we have the freest press in the world, except for when someone  - in the public interest of course - decides that freedom is inconvenient.

Payment by results

How depressing that - if we can believe the Guardian - a substantial proportion of teachers are in favour of payment by results. It just proves the resilience of zombie ideas - this one was last interred in 1897 - but it is up and running again.

If it proves to be a runner here is what you should do. Try to avoid teaching the naughty children in 3Z but also try to avoid the super bright kids in 3A. In both cases you will be on to a loser because the average marginal improvement in their scores per unit of your effort will probably be quite small compared to the impact you will have on the middle range kids in 3M.

More seriously, even if it could be shown that payment by results had, ceteris paribus, a positive effect, that is not what you want to know. All other things are not even. Payment by results also affects levels of corruption and cheating; crowds out all non assessed activities  from the curriculum; narrows the focus of education to just those skills that are tested;  affects the character and motivation of the people who are attracted into the profession; is detrimental to collegiality - who is willingly going to  teach 3A when the reward is a kick in the teeth and a good spanking for not producing enough improvement.

Come on Wayne, I know you have a reading age of 9 but that nice Mr Gove says it will be good for you to read Middlemarch. So get to it lad and remember that whether or not Mrs Smith can take her family to Corfu this year depends on how many pages you have read.

Thursday, 5 June 2014

Forsooth! The never ending GBCS saga

My response to the GBCS is out today in the print version of Sociology. So that's that then. Or is it? 

It's probably a little churlish of me to mention it, but I was a bit surprised by the editorial introduction which amongst other things says:

"In putting class back onto the agenda, we aim to highlight the explanatory reach and theoretical promise of rethinking class, including the possibilities of relational theories and hierarchical models, as Colin Mills argues."

Shurely shome mishtake. Can someone, anyone, please tell me where in the article concerned I say anything that could  reasonably be construed in these terms? 

OK I can understand a desire not to draw attention to the message of my piece - that the journal has published a severely sub-standard piece of work. I can accept silence. I can live with waffle. But to make something up and a something as incoherent as that...

Just when I thought we had plumbed the depths I find that there is still room to sink lower. In the world of BS it's turtles all the way down.


If I knew what this case (reported in today's Guardian) was about I wouldn't be able to tell you and until very recently I wouldn't even be able to tell you there was a case. 

As open justice seems to be something enshrined by custom and practice in our system and is something that some of our ancestors thought was worth fighting for, the evidence suggests to me that something magical happened overnight. 

I have two hypotheses: either I am still living in Britain but have fallen through a worm-hole and woken up in the Seventeenth Century  with Charles I on the throne or I am still in the Twenty-First Century but have been tele-ported to Russia/China/Saudi Arabia or some similar country with a less than transparent legal system.

But I'm sure everything will be all right in the end because the high heid yins never lie to the great British public do they? So hello to whoever is reading this, I'm sure it'll give you another page to index in my file and beam me up Scottie...

Monday, 2 June 2014

Quantophobia is back in town

Good manners prevents me from saying much of what I really think about this piece by Robert Dingwall: Quantophrenia is Back in Town. Disingenuous is the politest I can manage. 

He serves notice as to how he intends to proceed in the opening paragraphs - policies are "half-baked, racism (quite irrelevantly) is mentioned in passing, the quantitative deficit in British social science is "supposed", the practices of North America and Europe are "assumed", ESRC, the Nuffield Foundation and HEFCE are "seeking to ingratiate" themselves with an  elitist clique (never actually named).

And the crux of it is:

"...sociology’s great contribution is to ask exactly what is being counted and what this means for the outcome, rather than necessarily doing the counting itself. Our skepticism about quantification is a positive contribution to societies and organizations."

Good God man, have you actually read any sociology journals recently? I can see little evidence there that sociologists have greater skills in asking what is being counted than practitioners of the other social sciences and lots of evidence that many prominent sociologists  are clueless about numbers (even when they use them). 

And, perhaps you haven't noticed that the requirement to master even a modest amount of elementary statistics has been removed from the vast majority of UK sociology undergraduate degrees and where it hasn't an examination of the course content reveals that it has largely been reduced to the most dumbed down software button pushing imaginable.

Ask the students, or even better many of their teachers to explain what a confidence interval is and 80 per cent will give you an answer that implies they believe in magic.

And before you start poking me with a sharp stick, I'm all for skepticism about numbers. But skepticism without knowledge or understanding is just a pose and the last thing sociology needs is more poseurs.