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

Monday, 25 January 2016

Cultural hybridity

We're sociologists so we know all about cultural hybridity right? So on a Burns related theme how about this for sheer intercultural weirdness?

I hae been blythe wi' comrades dear;
I hae been merry drinking;
I hae been joyfu' gathe'rin gear;
I hae been happy thinking:
But a' the pleasures e'er I saw,
Tho' three times doubl'd fairly,
That happy night was worth them a',
Amang the rigs o' barley.

Come to think of it, as a weltanschauung it takes some beating.

Scots wha hae

It's the anniversary of Robert Burns' birth today and I'm sure you've laid in a goodly supply of sheep lung and bladder.

To get you in the mood here is a little music. First a song not by Burns  himself but a confection from a 1915 dialect poem by Violet Jacob  called The Wild Geese set to  music by Jimmy Reid. It now gets performed under the title Norland Wind. It's a beautiful song, but perhaps not entirely appropriate for Burns Night as Jacob was part of a scots poetic movement that saw itself as reviving a poetic tradition that was different to Burns' own.

But of course we have to have something by the man himself so here's the late Michael Marra performing Green Grow the Rashes.

Monday, 18 January 2016

Pseudo R-Square

This is just a quick  plug for a good blog post by Brendan Halpin on Pseudo R-Squares. I don't think I've ever had any answer, never mind a good answer, when I've asked paper writers, seminar presenters etc why they have reported a pseudo R -Square measure? Yet still it turns up again and again and ritual dummheit builds on ritual dummheit.

Come to think of it I've not seen much intelligent use of plain vanilla R-Square in the context of linear models unless the problem at hand has a clear prediction flavour to it.

The taken for granted world of the freemarket elite

While driving  to Homebase yesterday I listened to Desert Island Discs. This week's guest was the bizarre Anthony Seldon now Vice Chancellor of the University of Buckingham. His father was Arthur Seldon the free market polemicist and among other things Seldon junior waxed lyrical about the parties held at his parent's home attended by such personal friends as Margaret Thatcher and Geoffrey Howe. It's at this point that he let slip a rather revealing confession (you can listen for yourself from 13.55). The story he tells is that when he (Anthony Seldon) got married, Geoffrey Howe, then Chancellor of the Exchequer, gave him and his bride two wedding presents. He then says that when the Treasury heard of this they demanded one of them back. 

Unless I've entered a parallel universe the only way this makes sense is if the Chancellor of he Exchequer was using public money to buy gifts for his personal friends. Seldon treats it as an amusing story and the interview carried on without comment. It would seem that on the political right there were indeed no free lunches because they were being paid for by you and me. What is truly telling is the lack of shame, embarrassment or any indication that this was, in effect, a bit of graft.

Thursday, 14 January 2016

Introducing Bourdieu

I've recently been rereading some of the chapters in Michael F. D. Young's edited collection Knowledge and Control: New Directions for the Sociology of Education. I imagine for most people this book has passed into oblivion. During the 1970s it was regarded as a touchstone by the kind of sociologist of education that wanted to blether about how knowledge is framed and how this  framing is connected with culture and social class.  My copy has the OU symbol on the front cover proclaiming it an Open University Set Book which I guess was good for sales.

It's a very odd collection and difficult, without some contextual information, to understand why people at the time thought it was so important. Most of the contributions, with the exception of a piece by Nell Keddie, are stubbornly abstract. This is a book written for academic sociologists, not for people who might conceivably meet a child in a classroom. Basil Bernstein's chapter 'On the Classification and Framing of Educational Knowledge' was well-nigh incomprehensible the first time I read it and I can't say that it has improved on re-reading. Perhaps the book's most important legacy has less to do with what it introduced and more to do with who it introduced to an anglophile audience. 

Chapters 6 & 7 are by Pierre Bourdieu and are among the first English translations of his work and, though not Bourdieu's first anglophone exposure, people who know and and care about such things tell me that it was these pieces  that opened the floodgates for the Bourdieu obsession that still grips the British sociological mentality and weighs down the few remaining sociology shelves in Waterstones. I thought I'd revisit one of these Bourdieu pieces  and try to understand why it had such an apparent impact.

Compared to what came later 'Systems of Education and Systems of Thought' is a model of clarity: there are very few "structured structures predisposed to function as structuring structures" type locutions. A close reading however suggests that the points being made, which are not particularly deep or indeed particularly novel, could be expressed in about a fifth of the space. Of course all the superfluous material merely illustrates Bourdieu's main point, which is that education takes place within a framework of verbal manoeuvres, rhetorical devices, tropes and frameworks that are somehow given in the culture (of a particular group) and define the permissible  or expected moves that can be made. Thus the people one wants to communicate with  know what kind of thing to  expect and hence comprehend  what they hear or read. Bourdieu sums this up with uncharacteristic succinctness: in order to disagree we have first to agree on what we are disagreeing about. No common framework, no disagreement (cf many contemporary sociological 'debates' which are usually nothing of the sort and consist mainly of assorted, mutually incomprehensible farmyard noises):

"Culture is not merely a common code or even a common catalogue of answers to recurring problems; it is a common set of previously assimilated master patterns from which, by an 'art of invention' similar to that involved in the writing of music, an infinite number of individual patterns directly applicable to specific situations are generated." (192)

So, common cultural patterns, habits of mind and so forth mean that we are able to communicate with other minds  and, more or less, understand the substance of the message. They also give legitimacy to  certain messages in as far as they conform to the (possibly implicit) rules of the game. To take a musical analogy, I begin to understand what Beethoven is doing in the Moonlight Sonata when I  notice that he doesn't really stick to the structure of the standard sonata form. I expect exposition, development and recapitulation and I don't really get that.  But what I hear isn't musically incomprehensible because I can relate it to, or contrast it with, the standard form. This gives it value. The rules are being broken, but not capriciously. There is a point to it all.

All this is pretty obvious and scarcely worth making a fuss about. I can't see anything to object to. If there is anything worthwhile in Bourdieu he must be saying more than this. So now we have to turn to what he thinks is implied by his commonplace observation.

One thing he does is endorse what seems to me to be a very strong claim by the art historian Panofsky that there is a 'genuine cause-and-effect relation' between the mental habits of Scholastic philosophers and the stylistic innovations introduced by the architects of French Gothic cathedrals. The source of this claim is  Panofsky's discussion of the stylistic contrast between the depiction of the Last Judgement  on the tympanum of the Romanesque Autun Cathederal and the equivalents at Gothic Paris and Amiens.

When I first read this I was in no position to dissent. In fact it is likely I would have had no clue as to what a tympanum was or indeed where Autun or Amiens were. Paris I had heard of and even visited once.

Bourdieu, I assume paraphrasing Panofsky, tells us that in the Gothic examples "clarity prevails through the effect of symmetry and correspondence..."  in spite of  "...a greater wealth of of motifs...". There are no illustrations, so we are invited to take this judgement on trust.

I'm no art historian and for all I know Panofsky could be right in the essentials. Maybe mediaeval architects and stonemasons were either consciously or, more likely, unconsciously influenced by Scholasticism in ways that affected the style of their masonry. Or maybe they weren't and a whole set of other influences were at work including, whim, chance and drift. How could we possibly know? At best Panofsky is making a speculative conjecture and nothing more.

If we look at pictures of the three cases it is obvious that Paris and Amiens in some sense look  similar, but there could be many reasons for that. Autun is  physically older and, as far as I can tell, the scale of the tympanum looks smaller (though this is difficult to judge from a photograph). What is indisputable is that the Autun tympanum has been damaged. In fact in the 18th century it was actually covered over with plaster  and during this operation Christ's head was  chipped off. To add insult to injury something was then superimposed on the smoothed surface. We could as well say that clarity was preserved in Amiens and Paris not because of 'symmetry and correspondence' but because they weren't vandalized two centuries ago.

It's really not obvious to me at all that this example establishes anything much about the connection between a specific intellectual framework that is part of  a society's culture and the decorations produced by its artisan stonemasons.  To be sure it would be bold  - and go beyond what can be known - to suggest that it had no influence, but to say that that influence was a 'genuine cause-and-effect relation' is so far from what can be demonstrated as to verge on the ludicrous.

Why all this attention to art history? Well Bourdieu's next move is to turn to the reception of art by different social classes. The point is again obvious: to understand art and say something intelligible about it beyond  expressions of liking or disliking requires the acquisition of some sort of conceptual framework. This is presumably what studying art  history in a formal educational context gives you and he goes on to ask rhetorically "...is taste anything other than the art of differentiating?". This is buttressed by a delightful quotation from a working man: "When you don't know anything about it, it's difficult to get the hang of it...Everything seems the same to me...beautiful pictures, beautiful paintings, but it's difficult to make out one thing from another." Indeed. I feel pretty much the same when I visit the National Gallery. I walk very quickly through the rooms that contain the seemingly vast numbers of paintings of biblical scenes. I simply don't understand the iconography and don't care to spend time learning about it. But so what? I could learn about it if I wanted to by reading a few books and  for anything other than a conversation with a professional art historian this would no doubt pass muster.

Bourdieu takes a rather different view. He asserts that the autodidact is always going to be found out because it is not just a matter of what you know but how you acquired the knowledge: "Because the order of acquisition tends to appear indissolubly associated with the culture acquired and because each individual's relationship with his culture bears the stamp of the conditions in which he  acquired it, a self-taught man can be distinguished straightaway from a school-trained man." (196)

No doubt a graduate of one of France's grandes écoles could sniff out an interloper at 30 paces just as a Wrangler would have seen immediately that Ramanujan wasn't a Cambridge man. But these feats of discernment at the apex of achievement tell us little about what happens most of the time to most of the population. In a population of bluffers I can bluff with the best of them about art history and a dozen other subjects. Of course I would come seriously unstuck if I tried it with the Head of the Ruskin School of Art or even with a moderately attentive undergraduate art historian. But it wouldn't be because I hadn't attended any formal courses, it would be because I don't know very much.

It is certainly true that acquiring the framework through formal instruction makes life easier - especially in technical subjects like mathematics where facility is acquired by practice. But most knowledge acquisition isn't like learning mathematics. A far more serious difficulty for people brought up in families without exposure to intellectual culture or 'higher learning' is simply finding out what there is to know.  But a difficulty is not an impossibility. Richard Hoggart in A Local Habitation puts it rather well:

"For many people what the public libraries gave was as near as they had come until then to a revelation of the possible size and depth and variety of life, knowledge and understanding." (173)

This certainly rings true to me. Coventry Central Library did a pretty good job of  filling the yawning gaps that were all too apparent in my rather patchy secondary education. OK, it probably wouldn't have got me into Balliol, but it was good enough:  I don't recall  when I was an undergraduate anyone being at all interested in whether I knew  Aida from Agamemnon. These kinds of shibboleths just weren't important.

Bourdieu makes a lot of the distinction generated by an academic education:

"The school's function is not merely to sanction the distinction - in both sense of the word -of the educated classes. The culture that it imparts separates those receiving it from the rest of society by a whole series of systematic differences. Those whose 'culture'...is the academic culture conveyed by the school have a system of categories of perception, language, thought and appreciation that sets them apart from those whose only training has been through their work and their social contacts with people of their own kind." (200)

Well, yes, but this is scarcely in dispute. And this is the point: Bourdieu in this article and indeed in a large part of his corpus simply tells us things that are really pretty obvious but by using all the resources of the French academic game playing repertoire makes it sound as though he is plumbing the depths of the universe. To make matters worse  he is also tweaking our noses and  he is quite explicit about what he is doing. In the first few pages of Systems of Education and Systems of Thought' he quotes Levi-Strauss on the the conventions of French academia and goes on to quote Renan on the earnestness (and comprehensibility) of German academic style:

"Will it be believed that, at ceremonies similar to our prize-givings, when in our country oratory is essential, the Germans merely read out grammatical treatises of the most austere type, studded with Latin words." (191)

The joke is on us; we are given fair warning, and by Bourdieu's later standards he tells us clearly what he is about. As John Searle has pointed out - drawing on Bourdieu's own words - at least 20 per cent obscurity is considered compulsory by the denizens of the French academic habitus. Anything less and you won't be taken seriously. The 20 per cent is not supposed to have cognitive content, those who are raised to the game know this:  anglo-saxons who insist on clarity and getting from a to b by the most straightforward route just don't get it.  We play by different  (better) rules, but we can't say that we weren't told.

Monday, 11 January 2016

With Mies in Aachen

The last few times we've been in Aachen we've stayed in the city centre and this Christmas I realized that just around the corner from our apartment was the birth place of Mies van der Rohe or Maria Ludwig Michael Mies as he was actually baptised. So, of course, I had to seek it out.

It's a handsome enough apartment building in a street that has clearly seen better days with nothing apart from a small green plaque beside the entrance to tell you that anything of note happened there.

Somewhat incongruously, across the road and behind the spot where the picture is taken from, in what looks like a tin-roofed shack, is a Kurdish cultural centre. Judging by the crowd of men gathered outside something was going on there and it was difficult to get a good spot on the pavement to take a picture.

Mies left Aachen in 1905 and there is little there that I know of that celebrates one of the city's most famous sons. It was a long journey, in all possible senses, from Steinkaulstrasse 29 to this.

David Bowie RIP

So Farewell
David  Robert Jones.

Yes. That was your
 Real name.
 Not Major Tom.

You were a hero.
But now
Your circuit’s dead.

J. Genie (13 ¾)

Thursday, 7 January 2016

Gang Leader for a Day. Not.

I'm always way behind the times with my reading. Too much that is really interesting has been written in the past for me to keep up with what is being written in the present. This Christmas I finally got round to Sudhir Venkatesh's Gang Leader for a Day  (GLD) which has been sitting on my shelves, the shelves of a bookstore near you, or more likely an Amazon warehouse since 2008.

I should say that I came to this book with mixed preconceptions. This is a trade book so I wasn't expecting to read an academic monograph, which is just as well because this really is a book for a popular audience. I don't have a problem with that. Pop sociology is good, as long as it is good sociology. 

I haven't read anything else by Venkatesh, but people whose judgment I respect tell  me that his more academic work is worth reading. I'm aware that there is a minor industry in taking pot shots at him which I guess goes with the whole trade book celebrity territory.  I know that a lot of ethnographers are upset with him - he seems to produce the same reaction as Nigel Barley does among UK anthropologists. I'm also aware that he was involved in some nasty business at Columbia involving the auditing of research spending. I've got no special insights into that and in any case it is irrelevant to evaluating GLD. 

Let me say straight off that I enjoyed the book, not as much as I enjoyed watching The Wire, but it helped pass a few hours sitting around in airports. I actually found myself counting the parallels with The Wire, especially in the cast of characters: the gang leader who studies accountancy, the ghetto entrepreneur who collects scrap metal, the bent cop, the gang member that dies in jail and so forth. Not too surprising though as GLD and The Wire deal with much the same sort of communities.

The title of the book is, of course, a big come on. In fact Venkatesh isn't made gang leader for 5 minutes let alone 24 hours. What he actually claims happens is something a bit more like being a secondary school student on work experience who is allowed to shadow the boss for a few hours. He breakfasts in a diner with the boss and a few lieutenants while they talk over some issues that have to be dealt with and then trails around after the main man for a few hours while he deals with the routine business of supervising  the people who actually distribute the product on the streets. It's marketing,  what did you expect?

Quite a few people have gotten upset with the narrative style of the book. Venkatesh belongs to the Winston Churchill school of writing. You remember Balfour's quip about Churchill's history of  WW1: "Winston has written an enormous book about himself and called it 'The World Crisis'." It's true, the book reveals whatever it reveals about the projects and the gang through Venkatesh's first person narrative of journey and discovery. This would be totally inappropriate for an academic study, but for a popular book it doesn't seem to me to be such a bad way of telling the story. I'm not going to throw any stones: I use the first person narrative too much myself.

Now we get down to the matter. What did I actually learn from the book? To be honest, not much, or at least not much more than is obvious to anyone who has watched The Wire and lives in a part of a city with a flourishing street corner drugs market. Selling narcotics and protection is a business so it's not too surprising that running a gang that specializes in these things  involves similar management techniques to running any organization. The only real difference is that because you are operating outside of a legal framework the use of violence to defend and establish reputations is pretty crucial. If one of the street dealers cheats you, you can't let them off, or fine them. If you do that, they'll all be skimming. Two blows to the head seemed to be the standard tariff for a first offence. If you cheat again, one way or the other,  you are likely to disappear from the streets.

Also not too surprising is that if you take a bunch  of economically powerless, poorly educated and dysfunctional people and dump them  all in one place you pretty much have the Hobbesian war of all against all. Unless you learn to cooperate life is going to be nasty, brutish and short. In many cases it will be anyway, but there is no shortage of hustlers, gangs and "community leaders" who, for a price, can make things a bit nicer, a bit safer, a bit more predictable for you. Of course the same guys who are selling you order are also the ones who have an interest in there being some disorder in the first place.

 It's a delicate balance, but, to take an example closer to home,  there is some truth in what people used to say about the Kray's London manor. It was in their interest to keep certain types of activity off the streets. After all, you don't want the Old Bill hanging around too much and getting interested in what you are doing. In fact the police know some of what you are doing, but they are thinly stretched and  primarily interested in the higher regions of the feeding chain: as long as you do your stuff discreetly they have bigger fish to fry. If somebody gets shot or stabbed they can't ignore it and that costs you money.

So what didn't I like about the book? I don't buy that Venkatesh was really as naive as he wants us to believe. In one episode he  causes major harm to some members of the community he is studying by passing on information about their earnings to his gang leader. It's clear that he knew that one source of the gang's revenue was a 'tax' on the black economy earnings of  people living in the parts of the project they controlled.  Yet he reveals to the gang information about illegal earnings given to him in confidence by community members. Of course they get a knock at the door and a 'request' to pay up. Venkatesh claims that it simply hadn't occurred to him that this would happen. I find that difficult to swallow. Could somebody that naive really be a plausible candidate for a PhD at a major American research university?

The implausibility of the ingenue excuse is matched by the implausibility of some of the events Venkatesh describes. Some of these verge on the incredible. The project he studied was divided between two rival gangs with a buffer zone in the middle. We are told that after a while Venkatesh could wander reasonably freely in the part controlled by the gang that had taken him in, but that it was dangerous for him to venture into the part controlled by the rival gang. However the only community centre in the project was located in that other half and he attends meetings there accompanied by a community leader that can vouch for him. At one point he is asked to leave a meeting and he tells us that he then spent two hours wandering about on his own in territory that he had earlier described as extremely hostile. Maybe he was very brave, or very stupid. Or maybe something doesn't quite add up here. 

Its easy to pick out other implausibilities in the text, but my guess is that these might be nothing more than manifestations of poetic license in the telling of the tale. Probably all of these things happened or sort of happened but not quite in the way or in the order that Venkatesh narrates them. Again I want to say that I don't have a problem with that in a popular book. Reality is often boring and the material has to be arranged to make it interesting while maintaining the core of the truth.

What I did bridle at was Venkatesh's characterization of survey research. His depiction of survey research is really quite asinine. He  shows zero understanding of quantitative sociology and the best he can do is make a few jokes that do nothing more than display his complete ignorance of what it is about. Read the account, on page 16 of the Penguin edition, of his attempt at an "interview". It's so stupid it isn't even a caricature. I don't believe that anyone would go into the ghetto with a questionnaire that had as its first question: "How does it feel to be black and poor?". The writing up of this episode is really very arch. On one level the joke is on him, but there is a nod and a wink which says: "gee, those survey guys are so stupid". There was really no need for that - and no need for the sly digs at Bill Wilson. This aspect of the book left a sour taste in my mouth.

Tuesday, 5 January 2016

In Praise of James Cameron

I'm not of the right generation to have appreciated James Cameron's journalism at the point of production. Most of it was written long before I was even born. John Pilger in the Mirror and on TV was my generation's radical hack of choice. I do remember though seeing a documentary about Cameron's career  which made me think he was a remarkable man and a few years ago I read the very good book he wrote about India. 

Over Christmas I read Cameron's autobiography Point of Departure and now I understand what a truly great man he was. For me at least, his greatness stems not just from his journalism, but from the stance he took against injustice, a stance that at least twice cost him his job. 

On the first occasion he fell out with Lord Beaverbrook over a crass attempt by the Evening Standard to smear Labour's Secretary of State for War John Strachey on the back of the Fuchs atomic secrets scandal. Cameron didn't even work for the Standard but for another paper in the Beaverbrook stable - the Daily Express. He went out of his way to pick a fight when he could have said nothing and did it because he was ashamed to be associated with a press baron for whom the tag 'power without responsibility' was coined by  Stanley Baldwin.

His second fallout was with Edward Hulton the proprietor of the Picture Post. Cameron had been reporting on the Korean War and witnessed the mass round up, mistreatment, imprisonment without trial and in some cases extra judicial execution of South Koreans suspected of having communist sympathies, and all of this under the protection of the United Nations flag. 

Cameron saw at first hand what was going on and had photographic evidence. Understandably he found it difficult to reconcile the official version of  what the United Nations - in practice the United States - was doing in Korea with the reality. The reality was that the United States was propping up the brutal, corrupt and vicious South Korean regime and would tolerate no opposition to its narrative from its allies.

Hulton personally vetoed Cameron's feature despite the fact that the brutality of the South Korean regime had already been a subject of  debate in the UK parliament. Cameron could have kept his mouth shut, but chose not to. His resignation provoked a crisis at the Picture Post which led to the sacking of the editor. The staff revolted and Cameron was reappointed. But by then, as he says himself, there was nothing left of the paper  that was worth writing for.