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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, 13 June 2016

In praise of being wrong

A kindly reader of my last post pointed out  to me that  Habitus and Social Science: a Virtual Roundtable which appears on the website of the Sociological Review could supply a lot of material to substantiate what I was complaining about. Indeed it does and more. I'm not going to even try to discuss most of it for the simple reason that I don't understand large chunks.  Anyone want to have a go at translating this by Helene Aarseth into something that mere mortals can comprehend?

"Bourdieu’s concept of habitus offers a notion of a subject that escapes autonomous and transcendent conceptualizations, yet without resorting to the de-corporealization evident in much constructivist and deconstructivist approaches. Also, habitus may provide a conception of libidinal attachments that does not resort to a notion of affect as a non-signifying force or intensity, as is the case in some strands of affect theory. Bourdieu’s habitus is ‘socialized subjectivity’ that emerges in praxis, as a product of the interaction between body and environment and as a way of responding to and investing in these environments."

To me it reads like something out of the Postmodernism Generator. Before I checked whether Helene Aarseth actually existed - she seems to have at least a virtual existence at Oslo University - I entertained the thought that this name was actually a pseudonym for Alan Sokal and that in this de-corporealized form (what else would you expect from a virtual roundtable) he was treating us to another Social Text hoax. Perhaps he is. I mean, if you wanted to make your hoax really convincing wouldn't you make an electronic footprint to lend it credibility? Let's not go there, that way madness lies..

I want to try and rescue something of value from this mare's nest and I'm pinning my hopes on Sam Friedman's contribution. It seems to me that he deserves some applause for at least writing in relatively clear English. In doing so he fulfills in theory  one of the requirements of academic debate: that you should put your head above the parapet in such a way that there is a possibility that it could get knocked off. So, two cheers for Sam. At least he has some notion of  how to play the game. I'll reserve one cheer though because the company he keeps  in practice ensures that nobody is going to call him on inconvenient things like facts. That's not so great if you take the view that debate is supposed to advance matters by introducing the possibility that our errors might be corrected.

What does he get wrong? So there is no wriggle room let's do this by quoting his exact words:

1) He starts by saying that he is interested in how the concept of habitus might be useful for social mobility researchers and goes on to say: "This largely quantitative research community has largely ignored the works of Bourdieu...". Really? Let's take a representative text from this "largely quantitative research community". I don't want to be accused of citing something obscure so how about one of the two major outputs from the 1972 Oxford Social Mobility Study, Halsey et al.'s Origins and Destinations

If I turn to the index I see that Bourdieu receives 9 citations, the same number as his compatriot Boudon and rather more than Basil Bernstein (2), Samuel Bowles (4), James Coleman (1), Ralph Dahrendorf (2), Jean Floud (7),  Herbert Gintis (4), David Glass (3),  John Goldthorpe (6), Richard Hoggart (2), David Lockwood (1), J. S. Mill (1), R. H. Tawney (7), John Westergaard (2), and Max Weber (1). How can this possibly be construed as ignoring Bourdieu? In fact a large part of the book is an explicit empirical refutation of some of Bourdieu's ideas about educational reproduction. You could only claim that this text ignores Bourdieu if you construe ignore to mean something like: shows through rigorous empirical inquiry that in the British case Bourdieu's ideas about educational reproduction were of little value. 

But we don't have to stop there, after all 1980, when the book was published, is a long time ago for some people. What about the more recent work of Alice Sullivan, Mads Meier Jaeger, Paul de Graaf,  Nan Dirk de Graaf, Paul Di Maggio, Harry Ganzeboom, Adam Gamoran and even John Goldthorpe himself? What possible reading of the relevant literature could lead you to conclude that: "This largely quantitative research community has largely ignored the works of Bourdieu..."? You can only get away with this sort of claim if you confine yourself to conversation with people as uninformed as yourself.

2) Let's have another quotation:

"...habitus allows for a much more sensitive understanding of the relationship between time and social mobility. Standard quantitative mobility research usually involves inspecting standard mobility tables, comparing origin and destinations taken from two points in time, and measured with a single occupation-based variable. This approach has obvious merits, notably in allowing a form of standardisation which permits comparative analysis. However, there are fundamental limitations to rendering time in this linear way, not least the fact that it conflates occupational ‘access’ with class ‘destination’ and fundamentally elides the stickiness of one’s class origin. In contrast, habitus represents a much more temporally-sensitive tool - allowing us to conceptualise how the capitals that flow from class origin can shape mobility trajectories well beyond occupational entry. I have explored this in recent work that has highlighted the existence of significant class-origin pay gaps in top occupations."

If we strip away all the irrelevancies this can be expressed in even plainer English. Here is my précis: 

If you select a sample of people who hold professional and managerial positions and estimate a regression of their earnings on their social class origins and a bunch of control variables you will find that in some cases the coefficients for the social class origin indicators are significantly different from zero.

Indeed. I don't doubt that this is the case. However, without a making a lot of assumptions this says nothing whatsoever about the usefulness of the concept of habitus as an explanation of these findings. 

Rule number one  of serious research is that before you resort to exotic explanations you should make a reasonable attempt to discount more mundane but highly plausible reasons for finding what you find. So in this case you would want to really make sure that the ceteris paribus condition is satisfied. 

If you measure things  that you place  in an intermediate position in the  causal chain  at a high level of aggregation - for example crude measures of educational  qualifications and achievements - and then include predictors in your regression that are further back in the causal chain  - such as social class origin - which themselves predict the hidden heterogeneity in the intermediate level outcome, then it will appear to be the case that social class origin predicts earnings differences even after controlling for education when actually what it is partly doing is  capturing qualitative differences in education. 

In other words you are giving yourself an easy ride by setting things up to maximize the possibility that social origin effects appear. Is this the whole story? Probably not, but it is quite likely to be a more important part of the story than some kind of quasi mystical hand waving in the direction of  the concept of habitus. In case you think I'm being hard on Friedman I'm happy to extend the same criticism to others, for example I think the whole literature on grandparent effects tends to sweep this kind of aggregation bias under the carpet.

3) Finally let's take up Friedman's claim that: 

"...habitus allows for a more fruitful integration of the objective and subjective features of social mobility. In this way, habitus allows us to understand the long shadow of class origin not just in terms of material outcomes but also in terms of identity. Here, as my article probes, the identities of the mobile tend to always carry – at least in some form—the symbolic baggage of the past, and this historical imprint often has important consequences for how they act and feel in the present."

More fruitful than what exactly? Claims that X is better than Y  can only be subjected to rational discussion if we are given some kind of a clue as to what the Y is that the claimant has in mind.  Nothing said here in any way gives us a reason to believe that the concept of habitus aids the understanding of anything to do with the subjective features of social mobility or with identity italicized or not. 

Anyone would think that nobody had heretofore considered investigating the subjective aspects of the mobility experience. Oh, hang on a minute, there is a book  called Social Mobility and the Class Structure in Modern Britain by that arch quantifier J. H. Goldthorpe that contains a chapter called 'The Experience of Social Mobility'. Would that by any chance be of relevance? Perhaps not as it doesn't appear to once mention the concept of habitus. Thus, I guess, according to Friedman it won't be of much use. I wonder if he has read it.

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