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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, 8 December 2017

Friday Music

It's time for Friday night music, so continuing the spiritual theme here's Loudon Wainwright III telling us what heaven will be like.

The state of UK research methods

The blog that brought you IKEA wardrobes,  humour and piracy as a research method is proud to alert you to the delights that you will be able to sample at the forthcoming ESRC Research Methods Festival. Highlights include: 

Participatory Theatre as Social Research Methods; 
Walking as a Participation, Performative and Mobile Method; 
Do Participatory Visual Methods give 'Voice'?;
Writing Creatively for Academia; 
The Role of Self and Emotion within Qualitative Research; 
Comics as a Research Method; 
Somatic Toolkit for Ethnographers.

Good to see that the  UK's symphony of  social science is as willing as ever to shoot itself in the head and the ESRC is as willing as ever to pay for the ammunition.

NB After collecting your somatic toolkit and comics from registration you should walk over to the theatre where you will yourself be able to participate in a creative writing vocal performance workshop.

Wednesday, 29 November 2017

Moral Dilemma: Zwarte Piet edition

Lots of shouty stuff on twitter right now about VC pay. I've had my say and have little to add. The important question isn't about how much you should pay your VC but about how you should construct the process that determines what you pay your VC. Here's a clue: the answer to the second question isn't let HEFCE decide or let Andrew Adonis decide.

Anyway while thinking about controversial issues I was heartened to  hear of  one country  where all there is to  worry about at the moment is the colour of Santa's helper on St Nicholas' Day. In the Netherland this is celebrated on December 5th but everywhere else that I know of on December 6th. Of course we are talking about a country that is so reasonable that it can even go without a government for 208 days without anything terrible happening. And it has a sense of humour. Here is Zondag met Lubach's take on the ethics of blacking up. Luckily since I can't understand a word of spoken Dutch there are subtitles. TRIGGER WARNING. There is something in this to offend practically everyone. Enjoy.

Friday, 24 November 2017

Friday music

It's Friday, I'm off to see West Side Story but in the meantime here's Arif Lohar with some Sufi mysticism.

Wednesday, 22 November 2017

Rodney Bewes RIP

So long
Rodney Bewes.

That was your

You were a likely lad.
Keith's mum said:
Whatever happened?

No Beiderbecke.
No bloater.
No fishy on a dishy.

And now
Your boat has
Come in.

E. J. Bolam  82¼

Monday, 20 November 2017

Hannah Ryggen at Modern Art Oxford

If you are in town then check out the Hannah Ryggen exhibition at Modern Art Oxford. It's really worth  a couple of hours, not because there is so much to see, just a couple of rooms, but because you need a little time to let the woman's achievement sink in. 

She was a Swedish self-taught tapestry weaver who after marrying a painter moved to a fairly remote part of Norway and lived for most of her life on a pretty primitive but self-sufficient smallholding. There she produced a couple of hundred tapestries, spinning the fibres herself and creating her own dyes from whatever was around - urine, moss, bark and so forth.

Most of her works have overtly political themes - she was a member of the Norwegian Communist Party - like this one celebrating and memorializing Liselotte Hermann  who was executed by the Nazis in 1938.

Even after the occupation of Norway and the imprisonment of her husband she continued to weave large allegorical  tapestries embodying her political vision.

Be sure to take time to watch the documentary film on show at the exhibition (it has English subtitles unlike the link above). The impression you get is of a woman with a singular vision determined to let whatever is inside her express itself whatever the obstacles.

I rather admire people with  a calm but  assured sense of purpose. There is a real sense in which important things can get done by everyone tending their own garden and rowing with the oars they are given.

Friday, 17 November 2017

Friday music

It's Friday so what better than to listen to some cool rabbis play Neil Young? These  guys really rock. 

Thursday, 26 October 2017

Quotas for the working class?

Sonia Sodha has a piece in yesterday's Guardian advocating the introduction of quotas for working-class students at Oxbridge & (I think) other Russell group type universities. While the motivating sentiment is laudable the idea itself is terrible.

Firstly, what is the relevant population that we will use to determine what the quota should be? The whole of the 18-19 year old birth cohort? The 18-19 year old birth cohort that applies to university (accepting that a large proportion of working-class kids will already have selected themselves out)? The 18-19 year old birth cohort that applies to Oxbridge or the Russell Group (also self selected)?

And then who will decide who is and who is not working class? At the moment there are only 3 real alternatives all of which have disadvantages. 

Firstly, self-description. HEFCE collects data on the parental occupation supplied by the applicants to HE. This data is not of spectacularly high quality, large amounts of it are missing or unusable (and not in the public domain). I would imagine that if you supplied a motive for being less than honest in the self-report its validity will not improve. 

Then there is free school meals, a favourite  of educational researchers. It's better than nothing, but there are a lot of working-class kids who do not have free school meals. It is also the case that to identify the really deprived you need to know about the length of time free school meals have been received (families move in and out of poverty - and in any case being poor is not the same as being working-class).

Finally there are various geographical area based measures that are often - in my opinion quite dishonestly - passed off as being measures of individual level social class. Unless the geographical areas are homogenous in their class characteristics, which is a big if, then these would allow the children of the local GP who happened to live in the deprived inner city to be classified as working-class.

OK, so we would have to  up our game with regard to measurement but I guess something could be done. However I think there is actually a much more serious problem. Once you start introducing quotas there is no logical point at which you should stop.

At the moment a disproportionate number of females get into UK universities. Obviously that should stop. The disproportion is particularly large in the working-class, so actually we would need quotas for gender and class combined. But why stop there? 

Though some ethnic groups  are underrepresented at Oxbridge and Russell Group universities, others are not.   If you condition on A level grades it turns out that in the middle of the distribution most (but not all) ethnic minority groups are considerably more likely to attend a university than the white British population. Does that mean we need quotas for white kids with mediocre grades?

In the bad old days some American Ivy League universities had quotas for Jews (to keep them out). My guess is that  Jews are disproportionately represented in elite UK universities. I'd hazard a guess that the same is true of British born Chinese (but I'm less sure about this). In both cases the absolute numbers are tiny. But if we are playing the proportion game then what is the logical ground for saying  that quotas should not apply? 

All I can see developing is a tangled web of exceptions, special pleading and lobbying with whoever shouts loudest  getting special treatment and an ever expanding set of groups to whom quotas should be applied. And once you start to go down these lines the potential for  rather ugly stuff to happen becomes quite real.

Sodha starts off her piece with a story about the Norwegian men's football team agreeing to contribute some of their revenues to raise the remuneration of the women's team. I agree that this is a great advert for Nordic social solidarity values. Her point, which is not unreasonable is that  redistribution creates winners and losers and in a zero-sum game the losers are inevitably those at the top. The point is that quotas for the socially underprivileged also imply quotas for the socially privileged.

But there is another, more inconvenient, point about the football analogy. As far as I'm aware neither the Norwegian men's or women's football squad have quotas to make them socially representative of the 18-35 year old population or even of the population that would like to play international football.  In international football there are no arguments at the moment for contextually adjusted attainment measures. Perhaps we should seriously consider it. Anyone prepared to lobby FIFA for a handicapping system? I'd suggest making each German player wear a 10 kilo belt should even things up a bit, oh and 20 kilos for Lionel Messi.

Wednesday, 25 October 2017

We need to talk about...Oxbridge

So the annual Oxbridge bashing season has opened again. Some of the things that are being said  are sensible others are well meaning but misguided. Of course there will be some who will just dismiss anything I have to say as obviously parti pris. So be it, there are beliefs that are impervious to reason and evidence and I entirely understand that it can be a great source of emotional satisfaction to stick it to those  you think are the privileged source of everything that is wrong in the world. 

I am, unashamedly, a white, middle-class male sitting in an Oxbridge College. Put that on the negative side of the balance sheet. On the positive side, I was not an Oxbridge undergraduate (and have never felt disadvantaged by it), not from an affluent and certainly not an educated home and not from the South-East.  I have spent a significant amount of time working in non Oxbridge institutions of  higher learning . But what is perhaps my most important claim on your time is that my proposals for the UK higher education system are far more radical than anything that David Lammy is interested in. My point is that  if you are serious about tackling the inequities that people attribute to Oxbridge then you have to be serious about radical change of the whole university system. And in my view if you aren't, then you are probably just engaged in something akin to virtue signalling.

So let's start at the beginning. Let's assume that there is an ideal number of minority and working-class students that should be admitted to undergraduate degrees and that this number is consistently being undershot.  The question then is: why is this happening? 

There are broadly speaking two answers: 1) Oxbridge is doing something wrong; 2) Society (ie people, students, teachers, parents) is doing something wrong. Let's think about each of these in turn. For the first we need to focus on the admission process and for the moment we will start at the point potential students turn up at the door and treat that as given (it isn't but I want to deal with arguments about access and outreach in a moment). 

If you want to win the lottery you have to buy a ticket. If you want to know whether the admission system is fair you have to start with the (self-selected) pool that  apply. And you have to base your judgment on the information that the candidates have about the university and the admission tutors have about the candidates. Unfortunately in the vast number of cases that does not include information about the A level grades that candidates actually have. The relevant information is the predicted grades. Knowledge of actual grades is important for other sorts of judgements, like for instance whether the outcome of the whole process is in some global sense just, but that is not the question that concerns me right now. Confusing these two issues is, I think a source of much mischief and tends to promote wishful thinking. So let's get concrete. To read Natural Sciences at Cambridge you probably need to have predicted grades in the region of A*A*A to get over the first hurdle. Anyone that doesn't will, most likely, get chopped. I shouldn't need to state that there is a social gradient to predicted grades.

What happens next depends a bit on which course you apply to. For the most popular subjects, for example PPE at Oxford, there is a written aptitude test. Setting aside considerations of disadvantages in  opportunities to prepare for these tests I have little doubt that the evidence shows that these are formally fair in the sense that candidates are invited for interview on the basis of their scores and on no other basis and that the exams are marked in a way that reveals nothing about the candidate other than their performance in the test.

So up to this point there is little room for admission tutor discretion, bias, discrimination, favouritism or whatever you want to call it. Things are not so clear cut at the next stage, the interview. It is here that evidence is lacking, and probably will always be lacking. Certainly efforts are made to try and ensure that the interview process is fair. Are they successful?  My conclusion is that views differ. I have heard admissions tutors say in essence that the world would come to an end if  interviews are not carried out, that they are completely unbiased (except against the stupid) and they have an infallible ability to pick winners. For what it is worth I don't believe them and I think there is  prima  facie a good case for abolishing interviews. However even if we were to do so the numbers are such that it would hardly make any difference to the proportion of ethnic minority and working-class candidates admitted. Yes a few more will get in and every little no doubt helps, but the reality is that most have been eliminated or eliminated themselves much further back in the pipeline. By and large the admissions process works as it is supposed to. You might not like it and prefer things to work in some other way (please specify) but with the possible exception of the interview stage it is not manifestly unfair in the sense that the outcomes are arbitrary.

I can now hear a large  number of worthies groaning at my naivety. Haven't you heard of contextualized admissions I can hear them saying. Well yes I have and I'm sceptical about their ability to make that much of a difference (though of course, again, every little helps). The way I see it there are two problems. Firstly we need better data to make sensible judgments about the academic potential of those who because of manifest disadvantage are not predicted to get the top grades at the end of secondary school but who, if given a chance, will flourish at university.  And secondly we need to be realistic about what the outcome will be of admitting students below the standard tariff. 

To be clear, I have no doubt that worthy underachievers exist and that serious efforts should be  made to find them. The problem is that the information admissions tutors have to go on is imperfect. In practice it is  difficult to discern whether the AAB student studying in a school which does not routinely send pupils to university let alone Oxbridge is really a potential genius who has battled through despite multiple social and economic handicaps or is just the not especially bright offspring of the local dentist who sends his kids to the community school next door. For what it is worth, my experience of trying to recruit access students at another university has made me rather cynical. We found it very difficult to recruit such students with slightly reduced grades from obviously disadvantaged homes and were, shall we say, flexible in how we interpreted disadvantage. But that was in the 1990s so maybe things  have changed. I don't know.

The real problem is this. Without other changes, which universities may not be prepared to entertain, admitting students on contextualized grades will lead in many cases to failure. Not universally, and not in the subject areas with rather elastic and ill-defined criteria of achievement - I'm thinking about subjects in the arts,  humanities and some of the social sciences.

I don't believe that getting ABB rather than the AAA required for BA  Post-Modern Cake Making at St Joan's is going to lead to failure in the year 1 exams. But I'm pretty sure that being admitted to Cambridge to read Natural Sciences with ABB will pretty much lead to failure. The reasons are not hard to understand. STEM subjects rely on the accumulation of knowledge and the mastery of technique. If you haven't done that then you can't advance to the next level. If progress is linear then not making the grade at one point cuts you off from the next stage. Not knowing much about Paul but knowing a lot about Peter  doesn't doom your career as a theologian in the same way and failing Anglo-Saxon probably doesn't impact too greatly on your capacity to write intelligently about Jane Austen. But the STEM subjects are different and they are an important part of all our universities.

Now, of course there could be ways around this. We could for instance roll out four year degrees and insist that Cambridge provides a foundation year for ABB Natural Scientists. Who knows, maybe it would work. Other universities have such programmes, most Scottish universities have a 4 year undergraduate degree and Oxford's LMH has pioneered a small foundation year. The question is, is there the political will to fund this more generally? If we make the disadvantaged students pay for their extra year, that will undoubtedly kill it dead. 

It will also mean that Cambridge  would have to recruit a whole new bunch of staff to teach essentially remedial classes - assuming they don't make it part of the contractual duty of the Lucasian Professor of Mathematics or more likely some hapless doctoral student. It's not impossible, but it would certainly change the mission of the university and the mission of some of its staff. Opinions will differ as to whether that is a good thing.

So now we get onto outreach and access. If the problem is getting people to buy a lottery ticket then the next move is to blame Oxbridge for not doing enough to get the disadvantaged punters to join the queue.  Oxford currently spends more than £5 million per year on widening access and participation and that doesn't include the £9 million it spends on bursaries to support students from poorer backgrounds. Of course it is easy to say it should spend more. But how much more? Is £10 million enough? What about £50 million? When does not enough become enough? If it costs £300000 to get the marginal student through the door is that a good use of  endowment funds? I don't know the answer, but someone should be asking the question and unless you do the "the're not spending enough" rhetoric just isn't serious.

Well maybe it is not the amount of money, but how it is used that is the problem. They don't get out into the schools say the critics. Wrong, they do. What about bringing them to Oxford, yes they do that as well. Not enough effort to get high achieving black students, well, there is a dedicated programme for that too. 

If you look carefully  at what is done pretty much all of the obvious bases are covered. So  it is really for the critics to come up with concrete proposals rather than airy fairy generalities. The only one I've heard is from David Lammy who is quoted as saying that the problem is actually in the early years of secondary education and that the universities should be engaging with the 13 year olds. 

The first part of his diagnoses could be true but I fear the second part is about as sensible as the almost wilfully stupid idea that universities should run secondary schools.  Personally I have no confidence in the ability of the average Oxford don to get onto the wavelength of the average 13 year old. I can well recall my first experience of visiting a university - the University of Birmingham - in 1978. There was an open day for potential history undergraduates, a sort of primitive outreach activity - and I simply couldn't get over the accent of the rather tweedy middle aged professor that addressed us. In retrospect it was pretty standard RP delivered with a certain studied campness. I'd never heard anything like it in my life. Nobody I knew in Coventry spoke like that and I was too immature to ignore it and listen to what he actually said. To my mind it was all very funny. Maybe today's 13 year olds are more serious than I was when I was 16. But I doubt it.

So now we are getting close to the punch line. More or less everything that is proposed by the Oxbridge critics is just tinkering with details. What they want is a slightly more equal chance for some while maintaining the overall structure of inequality in the British higher education system. My proposal is much more radical and if implemented would remove the distorting effects of Oxbridge at one fell swoop and create a system  with a much large number of good universities with more or less parity of esteem where, as in the German system, it  wouldn't matter very much which one you studied at.

How is this to be achieved? Actually without much difficulty if there was the political will to do it. Firstly, entry would be determined by A level results not predicted grades. Special entrance exams, aptitude tests, interviews and so forth would be prohibited (medicine would become a post-graduate subject with a pre-med set of requirements). All university departments would be required to state the minimum A level tariff that  a diligent student would need to have a good chance, after three years, of graduating with at least a pass. Oversubscription would be dealt with strictly by lottery. 

A consequence of this system is that the distribution of student and probably faculty talent across universities would become much more equal than it currently is. And therefore employers would not so easily be able to use university names as a proxy for student quality. They'd then have to focus on what job candidates can actually do. It would also help if all degrees had at least one or two courses that were evaluated on a national basis - same curriculum, same exam - and marked by independent assessors,  and the results put in the public domain. But that would probably be asking for too much.

It shouldn't matter whether you go to Oxford, Cambridge, LSE, Imperial, Warwick, Bristol, Lancaster  Manchester or two dozen other equally good places. The quality of the undergraduate education should be and probably in fact is just about the same. What differs is mainly the student composition. Change that and you remove the Oxbridge problem. In fact you shift the whole game away from competing on inputs into competing on outputs and that would automatically make the absurd TEF redundant.

Would this usher in a new age of equality and justice? No. But it would solve one specific problem. And it would perhaps lead us to become a bit more grown up about what we can reasonably expect universities to do. It seems to be a peculiarly British disease that we expect education and particularly university education to solve all social problems. It can't. But if we make higher education work better and more fairly maybe then we can turn to a much more pressing problem that hardly gets any attention in the media. How should we be educating the more than 50% of the birth cohort that does not enter higher education? Now that's something I'd like to see David Lammy get his teeth into.

Thursday, 19 October 2017

The legacy of slavery

I was very puzzled the other day to receive an email from my union addressed to "..all UCU members who have self-identified as black or minority ethnic on their membership form." Shurely shome mishtake as the Private Eye Bill Deedes parody would have it. 

But then I recalled my no doubt infuriating and perverse habit of  refusing to tick any box which would define my ethnicity as "white..." (neither an ethnicity in any meaningful sense nor an accurate description of my skin tone). Faced with that invitation I routinely choose "other" and write "Anglo-Scottish-Irish" which is an accurate description of the ethnie(s) I have some reason to identify with. 

It's easy to dismiss this as the childish word-game of a privileged middle-aged, middle-class, white dude. But hey, if identities are socially constructed why  do I have to accept the box that someone else wants to put me in? I want the same freedom to identity construct that everyone else has. And why shouldn't I have it?

So by a perverse unintended consequence of bureaucratic stipulation I have become, for administrative purposes, part of an ethnic minority and apparently entitled to attend the conference for black members in November.

The more I thought about this the more intrigued I became. The UCU email has a footnote that elucidates the use of the word 'black'. The first part states: "UCU uses the word 'black' in a political sense to refer to people who are descended, through one or both parents, from Africa, the Caribbean, Asia (the middle-East to China) and Latin America." 

Bingo! My case is cast iron. My 5th great-grandmother Rebecca Delap was born in 1730 in Antigua and you can't get much more Caribbean than that. I did wonder however whether it mattered that Rebecca's father, Francis Delap (1690-1766) whose remains, as far as I know  still rest in Antigua, owned several large sugar plantations, was a slave owner and quite possibly a slave trader. That might be something I should keep to myself should I attend.

Then I read further and all hope disappeared. The UCU footnote goes on to say that 'black' "...refers to those from a visible minority who have a shared experience of oppression. The word is used to foster a sense of solidarity and empowerment." Ah. I doubt a somewhat freckled Celtic skin, that tends towards red in strong sunlight, is, in context, really visible enough. And despite the undoubtedly oppressive experience of growing up in Coventry in the 1960s and 70s I'm not sure that this is quite the sort of oppression that the drafter of the UCU footnote has in mind.

So, that's something else I can cross off my calendar. Just as well really since I instinctively dislike most forms of identity politics. But, at least for administrative purposes I remain, until reclassified, a marginalized minority.

Wednesday, 11 October 2017


I'm not often so repelled by reading something that I want to write about it. Last weekend I was a bit ill and couldn't face reading anything too demanding so I searched my bookshelves for something diverting and what I came up with was Peter Levi's memoir The Flutes of Autumn

If I'd been fitter the very title, not to mention the art work,  might have given me cause to reconsider, but all my senses were a bit blunted. I have to confess I knew very little about Levi except that he had been a Jesuit priest, a poet and a prodigious scribbler. I think I was also aware  he had married Cyril Connolly's widow.

I can  now say that I have precisely two points of sympathetic connection with the man. Firstly he was brought up in suburban Ruislip and it turns out that when I lived there in the early '90s I passed his family home every Saturday  on my way to the supermarket. By that time Ruislip was even more ghastly than he describes it.  Secondly he was on friendly terms with Richard Hughes who I think is  the most underrated English novelists of the 20th century. In all other respects Levi seems like an alien to me. Worse, I couldn't help feel repulsed by the man. 

To me he embodiies the kind of effete, dilettante, Oxford preciousness that was still common in the 1980s. You know, the sort of person that falls into an orgasmic reverie about a decaying oak tree or an ancient ditch and has definite opinions about enigmatic fragments of ancient Greek texts. I think I last  witnessed an example in All Souls about 15 year ago, but then I don't get out  much and there still may be resistant pockets hanging around.

Monday, 9 October 2017

A family with the wrong members in control

That was how Orwell described the British state. Of course people who actually want to be in control are almost by definition the ones you should keep away from the levers of power. 

It seems to me symbolic of the mess we are in that we are about to spend  £3.5 billion (which in reality means at least twice that) on the renovation of the Palace of Westminster in order to preserve its current dysfunctional state including the preservation of a debating chamber that deliberately does not have enough seats for all of the elected representatives.

Of course those wrong family members will come up with some asinine bullshit about how this is actually a good thing, secure in the confidence that they can blag their way through and pull the wool over the eyes of the proles again.

Getting the turkeys to vote for Christmas is a tried and tested British political strategy. I should think that the rest of the EU will be glad to see the back of us.

Tuesday, 3 October 2017

Tom Petty RIP

So long
Thomas Earl Petty.

You were a
And a

Keith's mum bought
Your first album
In '77.

She was an
American girl;
Fooled again.
Didn't like it.

And now it's

E. J. Zimmerman 11 ¾

Monday, 25 September 2017

Jennifer Rostock on the AfD

A satirical song by Berlin group Jennifer Rostock about AfD voters. Made for last year's Landtagswahlen in Mecklenburg-Vorpommern. Very amusing, but perhaps not quite as amusing as it was...

Symbolic violence and the art of the random citation

It is almost always nice to be cited: in fact in the era of evaluation by metrics it is in fact always nice to be cited. Nevertheless sometimes one wonders what one has done to deserve the honour. Take for instance the following paragraph from page 95 of Gillian Evans' 'Social class and the cultural turn: Anthropology, sociology and the post-industrial politics of the 21st century Britain'  The Sociological Review Monographs, 2017, 65, 1, 88-104 where I pop up as an authority right at the tail end.

"The problem, however, precisely because the research in Distinction is not ethnographic, is that the use of the social survey method has the unintended consequence of elaborating upon the project of the legitimization of Bourgeois Culture, and of lending to the set of social fields in which this process of legitimization plays out, the discipline of sociology (as evidenced in the social survey method) as another kind of bourgeois aesthetic, whose gaze on the world cannot help but act out in practice the symbolic violence of a scheme of class-ification, which renders invisible the sociality and rich cultural life of the French working classes. In other words, because of the problem of method in Distinction, the problem of bourgeois-ification in France is made worse, and, as a result, the political power of the analysis is diminished. Furthermore, this same problem has been imported to Britain, because of the attempt in British sociology to apply to the British case Bourdieu’s method of measuring social class as sets of Cultural capitals (Bennett et al., 2009). As a consequence, the symbolic violence of the social survey method is, ironically, undermining of the sociological attempt to revitalize, for good political reasons, the study of social class in Britain (Mills, 2014)."

Now I'm no anthropologists, as Dr Evans appears to be, and most of the meaning of the above seems to me to be impenetrably obscure - what kind of doing is 'elaborating upon the project of legitimization'? is it like modulation in jazz improvisation? Well, whatever.

 But my question is this. Why am I being cited here at all? I've written nothing whatever about symbolic violence though given the author's apparent beliefs about social surveys it's conceivable she might think I've committed a bit of it from time to time. 

Is the claim that all 'class-ification' or just that arising out of social surveys is bad? If it is the former how can any observational method, ethnographic or otherwise, abstract from the warp and weft of social reality "the sociality and rich cultural life of the French working classes" without some kind of of provisional classificatory scheme to tell us what is to count as sociality and richness? And if it is the latter, what is it exactly that is particularly symbolically violent about the way in which social surveys make use of classifications?

Perhaps this is all about some sort of turf war that I'm completely unaware of. At the very least, if it is some kind of playground High Noon,  I'd like to know whether my capacity for symbolic violence has been enlisted on the side of the guys with the white or the black hats.

Thursday, 21 September 2017

O brave new world, That has such people in 't!

As some of you may know I have a hobby project which uses data on the first generation of LCC Junior County Scholars. These people were born about 1881 and it is possible to trace their career histories through to 1939 - which for many was getting close to  retirement age. For good measure it is also possible to study their marriages, fertility, mortality and residential histories and make comparisons with their parents, their siblings, their primary school peers (in some cases) and a randomly sampled control group.

The process of assembling the data throws up many fascinating (and distracting) stories. Take for instance Arthur Robert Laird born in Dulwich on the 28th July, 1881. He seemed to have lived an unexceptional life. His scholarship marks were in the mid range and after leaving Wilson's Grammar School in Camberwell he became a clerk in the LCC School Board Office. In 1917 he enlisted in the Royal Flying Corps where he served for the duration as a corporal clerk.  In 1939 he was still an LCC clerical officer though he had moved out west to the bucolic sounding Ivy Cottage in Epsom and Ewell.

Just another rather dull life, or was it? The first intriguing thing about Arthur Laird is that his father, Robert William Laird, describes himself on the census returns as a lithographic artist. This probably means that he was  a commercial printer and I can find no trace of Robert's 'art' in any public collection. But to my surprise  a number of collections hold works by Arthur Robert Laird  among others Southwark's Cuming Museum, the V&A (who get his death date wrong), the British Museum, the National Gallery of Canada,  Manchester Art Gallery, Princeton University Library, and Georgetown University Library. Several of his works have recently been sold at  auction by Bonhams (see here and here).

It turns out that Arthur, though he earned his living as a humble clerk had another life as a printmaker. After leaving school he continued his studies at the Camberwell School of Arts & Crafts and at the Westminster School of Art where he studied under Harold Gilman and Walter Sickert. He was a member of the Senefelder Club - named after the creator of the lithographic printing technique - and the Society of Graphic Arists and the co-founder of the South London Art Group. During his life he exhibited at the Royal Society of British Artists, the Royal Academy and in the US.

Not such at dull life after all.

Monday, 18 September 2017

Cultural dis-integration

I was reminded of all the perplexing difficulties of  cultural integration this morning. The Today programme was doing some vox pops with the descendants of Yemenis who came to the South Shields area more than 100 years ago. One, interviewed in the pub he managed, told us in a broad Geordie accent that he wasn't a Muslim he was  C of E and that he had voted Leave because too many foreigners were coming over here and getting all the jobs and houses. 

On the face of it this doesn't seem like a great way to sell cultural integration to nervous minorities. Transpose it to Whitechapel in the 1880s. 

 "Don't you worry Mrs Goldberg, I know you've had a dreadful time with those Cossacks but you're quite safe now. I'm sure you'll fit in and before you know it your beautiful daughters will be getting married in the church down the road  to nice English boys and enjoying a lovely bacon sandwich every morning. Nothing to worry about at all."

As Joni Mitchell said:

"Well something's lost, but something's gained
In living every day."

Wednesday, 13 September 2017

Echoes of Spring

I'm reading James Lincoln Collier's fantastic The Making of Jazz. Collier is both a musician and a journalist so he  really understands the technicalities and  how to communicate them to those with only a smattering of musical knowledge. If you were to read just one book about jazz history this would be the one I recommend. And the great thing is that courtesy of YouTube you can these days instantly find and listen to the music he is talking about. Like Echoes of Spring, a marvelous synthesis of Harlem stride and European art music  written by Willie "the Lion" Smith and first recorded in 1939. We can watch him performing it at almost 70 years of age in Berlin in 1964 (you can ignore the first 25 seconds where he messes around with Ain't Misbehavin').

Tuesday, 12 September 2017

Social Class Origin and Assortative Mating in Britain, 1949–2010

The latest Henz & Mills production is out in Sociology's OnlineFirst section. By my count it is 78 in the queue for the print version which means it's unlikely to be physically hitting your shelves until February 2019 at the earliest. Makes you wonder how long this antediluvian technology can last.

For anyone that cares the abstract is  self-explanatory:

This article examines trends in assortative mating in Britain over the last 60 years. Assortative mating is the tendency for like to form a conjugal partnership with like. Our focus is on the association between the social class origins of the partners. The propensity towards assortative mating is taken as an index of the openness of society which we regard as a macro level aspect of social inequality. There is some evidence that the propensity for partners to come from similar class backgrounds declined during the 1960s. Thereafter, there was a period of 40 years of remarkable stability during which the propensity towards assortative mating fluctuated trendlessly within quite narrow limits. This picture of stability over time in social openness parallels the well-established facts about intergenerational social class mobility in Britain.

How sure are we about the things we think we know?

The latest issue of the British Journal of Sociology has some interesting content, well worth reading. My attention was caught by a piece by Paul Wakeling & Daniel Laurison called 'Are postgraduate qualifications the 'new frontier of social mobility' in which they advance the entirely plausible argument that obtaining more than an u/g degree is an important gateway to occupational success and that social class background has something to do with the likelihood that you will obtain a p/g certificate. This is not an absurd argument and it certainly fits the anecdotal evidence I have to hand. It's good that somebody has tried to look at this in a more systematic way.

Being a Devil in the detail sort of person though I was struck by one of their tables (Table 2 for those that can get behind the paywall). This gives, among other things, for both sexes and for  10 year birth cohorts the percentage obtaining at least an undergraduate degree. Naturally I was interested in my own birth cohort, which in 2014 - the year the data pertain to - was the 53 to 62 year olds. 

According to Wakeling & Laurison in that cohort 22% of  UK women & 25% of UK men had at least an u/g degree (the standard error for both figures is less than 1%). That brought me up sharp. Can this really be true? It certainly doesn't chime with my subjective experience. A back of the fag packet calculation suggested to me that in 1979 about 6% of my own school cohort transitioned at age 18 into some form of higher education (university, polytechnic or degree awarding college of higher education). Now one should be very wary of generalizing from one's personal experience and my secondary school was not noted for its academic prowess, but could my experience have been so atypical?

That sent me off in search of some facts. Now the cohort aged 53-62 in 2014 were born  between 1952 and 1961 and would have first had the opportunity to enter university (at least an English and Welsh university) between 1970 and 1979. Single year cohort specific participation rates are difficult to come by and for various reasons are subject to a good bit of approximation. The best source I could quickly find was the 1997 Dearing Report which, for good or ill, set the course on which UK HE has since been travelling. If there is an authoritative source this is it. Dearing in Table 1.1 gives the following HE participation rates for 'the standard 18 year old cohort': 1970  8% and 1980 12%.  Let's assume these numbers are broadly accurate. How can we reconcile them with the numbers that Wakeling & Laurison report for the same cohorts in 2014? The LFS numbers they rely on are roughly  twice as large. This is a truly massive difference.

There are a number of possibilities. Let's start with the least likely. It could be that net migration massively favours graduates over non graduates. Perhaps we import smart people and export the less educationally accomplished.  There could be something in this but it is unlikely to account for a difference of this order of magnitude.

Much more likely is that a proportion of the 18 year old cohort enters higher education later on in life. They take Open University courses, get sponsored by their employer or return to education after having children. This is plausible, in fact it is more or less certain that the Dearing numbers must be a lower bound.  But can it be true that something like this doubled the proportion of graduates in a birth cohort? If it did then this is a truly big story and we should be hearing much more about the success of the UK's 'alternative routes'. But again I'm sceptical. Fantastic as the OU and access courses are I just don't believe they doubled the proportion of a birth cohort with a university degree.

So have Wakeling & Laurison got it wrong? No, or not entirely. However their numbers are, I think, not quite what they seem. It's easy to go to the 2014 Labour Force Surveys (their source) and look at the numbers oneself.  The LFS contains a number of sources of information on 'university degrees'.  For example the variable  QUAL_1 tells us whether a respondent has a 'Degree level qualification including foundation degrees, graduate membership of a professional institute, PGCE, or higher'. If we look at the cohort specific rates of obtaining this level of qualification it matches pretty closely Wakeling & Laurison's numbers.

QUAL_1 is a very generous definition of what counts as an undergraduate degree. Foundation level degrees are emphatically not Bachelor levels degrees. They are, by design vocational and offered by all sorts of providers including McDonalds (I'm not joking). The requirements for graduate membership of a professional institute are  rather flexible and it is entirely possible for someone to obtain such an honour without ever darkening the doors of an higher education institution. 

It also worries me that this indicator is likely to be misleading when applied to a historical sequence of birth cohorts. When I left school in 1979  common destinations were nursing training or a non degree level training course for primary school teaching. You didn't need a degree to enter either of these professions. Now things have changed and nursing and teaching are all graduate  professions. I wonder how the LFS deals with this? Is a nursing qualification acquired in 1981 retrospectively awarded degree level status?

Fortunately there are other indicators in the LFS that more reliably establish whether someone has obtained a genuine u/g degree. DEGCLS7 for instance records the class of degree awarded and on the assumption that 'Does not apply' indicates that the respondent doesn't have an u/g degree this gives an estimate of 18% for the 1961 birth cohort. This still looks high to me, but it moves the number in the right direction. Other indicators give roughly similar numbers.

That then leaves us with the et alors? It's possible that overestimating the proportion with an  u/g doesn't do much damage to Wakeling & Laurison's argument. It's also possible that it muddies the interpretation of the social class background coefficients.  Part of the argument relies on conditioning on holding an undergraduate degree and then showing that there are still differences in the likelihood of acquiring a postgraduate qualification or a higher social class position  by social class background. If the selected subset of apparent u/g  holders actually contains a high proportion of people who don't have a genuine u/g degree and these latter are more likely to be people of working class origin then the disadvantage this reveals is not about transiting from an u/g to a p/g degree but about obtaining entry to a university in the first place.

As I said at the beginning. The Devil is in the details.

Tuesday, 5 September 2017

Oxford BusTravel and Social Dysfunctionality

Sometimes one is just left speechless. 

My daughter starts secondary school later this week. She's been going to a primary about 3 kilometers from where we live and her new school is only slightly further away. Up to now we have been lazy and like  a large proportion of Oxford's middle class parents we've done a school run twice a day since she was in kindergarten. For all sorts of reasons this is a bad idea and should be discouraged, but for us it was the least worst time efficient way of doing things.  I can live with the guilt.  

But now the time has come, we thought, for DD to go to school on the bus either on her own or with other local kids who are heading in the same direction. It's not perfect - the lack of a direct South-North route means either a change in the city centre or a bracing walk for the first part of the journey, but hey  it's good for children to get exercise right?

This should be a breeze I thought. We spend a fair amount of time in London, so we know all about the capital's transport policy for children. Children can get their own Oyster card when they are 11 and with that they travel for free on the buses and trams and for half-price on the tube and overground. It's easy to register for it & the registration system even accepted DD's German passport number. You can top it up for them at lots of convenient places and when the child uses it it takes half the adult fare. What could be simpler? It's also easy for the bus driver to see or rather hear if the card is being abused. It's not unknown for naughty adults to try and get away with using a child card but the clever Oyster people have thought of that. The yellow card reader on the bus beeps in a different way when a child and an adult card are presented to it so the driver can see if someone is trying to pull a fast one.

Now Transport for London treats children (or rather their parents) generously. There can be no argument about that. London government has the sense to see that having a relatively cheap (as these things go) and integrated public transport system is the best way to stop gridlock on the roads and the inhabitants from asphyxiating in a smog of diesel particles. Discouraging the school run by making public transport easy to use and pay for is part of that  very sensible strategy.

Now let's turn to paying for bus travel in Oxford. Unlike in London one option is always available: you can pay in cash. In principle I suppose this is a good thing, but there is a downside where children are concerned.  Money is easy to lose and it is easy to steal. These are relatively minor irritations. A greater irritation is having to have a ready supply of change every morning to dole out.

It's really so much easier to give DD a prepaid card. What could be simpler? When I went by bus to school in Coventry 45 years ago we already had a  primitive prepaid system. You bought a card valid for a certain number of trips (different colours for adults and children) and you stamped them on a machine when you got onto the bus. Many public transport systems in the world seem to get by with that sort of system: compostez votre billet! In Coventry you even got a further reduction for giving them your money up front  -12 trips for the price of 10. Those were the  halcyon days of the West Midlands Passenger Transport Executive.

Luckily Oxford also has a prepaid smart card system. It's called The Key and the Oxford Bus company (one of the two major operators in the city - just to  spice things up a bit there are also a few minor operators) has a nice web page aimed at the parents of schoolkids explaining all the great deals you can get. Hell, it's called 'Back to School!' and it says; "Young people are entitled to a number of great discounts when travelling with Oxford Bus Company." Which is true, though these deals are not necessarily  advantageous in the sense of saving you money if all you want to do is travel back and forth to school five days per week.

We looked carefully at the various deals on offer and every single one of them turned out to be more expensive than paying cash for a half-price return ticket on a day by day basis if you only want to use it 5 days per week (ie the length of the normal school week). Bizarrely this was even true if you just bought 12 trips, which turned out to be more expensive by 10 pence than paying for 6 returns with cash. That's pretty crap I thought, but we were prepared to bite the bullet for the sake of the convenience and the ability to top up the card online.

OK so after doing our research the next thing was to get a Key card for DD. I noticed that if you register for it online it's free, but if you actually go to the Travel Shop in Gloucester Green it costs you £5.  Why should I pay £5 to be served by an actual person? So I began the process of registering online. All went well until I pressed the register button. The system detected that though I had given my daughter's details I had used my own email address and that address was linked to my own Key card. Apparently you can't have multiple cards linked to the same account (an advantage of London's Oyster system is that it recognizes that adults pay for children's travel and it allows you to link parents' and children's' cards together). Oh I thought, your  company does not need my 11 year old daughter's email address: it really doesn't. I'm the responsible adult, if you want to communicate with her, you can talk to me. So off I went to buy a card from an actual person & pay £5 for the privilege.

So here is what happened. I want to stress that the person I talked to was perfectly pleasant and did their best to be helpful. It was obvious that - as far as children's fares are concerned - they were  obviously aware that they are being tasked by the management with selling a lemon. I would like to think that they were a little embarrassed.  Undoubtedly they were scrupulously honest.

The conversation went like this:

ME: Hi, I want to buy a Key card for my daughter to use to go to school.

ASSISTANT: [Slight look of incredulity] Normally we require some form of identification for a child card...

ME: What form of identification does an 11 year old normally have?

ASSISTANT: I'll let you off this time...

ME: But what form of identification is normally required?

ASSISTANT: And when they use it [I assume we are now talking about the Key card] they  should have a copy of their passport photo page on their smart phone to prove their age.

ME: But she's only 11! [Thinking  is it now normal for all 11 year old children to take a smart phone to school? What will the average Oxford bus driver make of a photo of her German passport? What do children who don't have a passport do?]

ASSISTANT: [Long explanation about the amount of wicked fraud that goes on]

ME: But can't the driver tell when someone is too old to be using a child's card? [thinking about the clever Oyster beeping]

ASSISTANT:  [Further explanation that the card might get stolen and fraudulently used by someone else and so forth].

ME: OK. [Thinking: well we are getting somewhere at least he is giving me a break and not requiring I produce the ID here. Now is not the time to point out that the whole point of the Key card is that it can be cancelled immediately if it is stolen & there is an incentive to report a card stolen because you can transfer the balance to a new card].

ASSISTANT: What kind of card did you have in mind?

ME: [Luckily I've done my homework] Just a Cityzone card with 12 prepaid trips. None of them save me any money...

ASSISTANT: Well you have the convenience...and which route?

ME: Just the number X from the city centre.

ASSISTANT: Oh, only half of the number Xs are operated by the Oxford Bus Company, the rest are operated by Stagecoach so if she wants to get on any X  the Cityzone won't work because it isn't valid on Stagecoach.

ME:  I see.  [Beginning to lose the will to live and anticipating where this is going]

ASSISTANT: To be totally honest you would be better off giving her the cash.

ME. Thanks for your help.

So Oxford Bus Company. Your advertising says:

Back to School! Young people are entitled to a number of great discounts when travelling with Oxford Bus Company.

That IMHO is  bullshit.

Friday, 7 July 2017

University Fees

I recommend this piece by Rob Ford on paying for higher education through student fees. 

One of the curious aspects of the current discussion of whether or not graduates should pay for the university education they have received (someone has to pay) is that the original thinking behind the current fee and loan system had very little to do with considerations of equity and redistribution. It was meant to solve a very practical problem: British universities were skint.  Opening the door to more undergraduates (which I assume most people agree was a good thing) could not be achieved under the existing funding arrangements without accepting an Italian or German style mass system in which all who are qualified can come but there are no guarantees there will be a seat  in the lecture theatre, or in some cases even a lecture theatre.

Nobody wanted or was advocating the Lidl version of higher education and it was clear that the Treasury would not be sending extra money in the direction of higher education. Anyone who knows anything about the way departmental negotiations with the Treasury  work  recognizes that when it comes to divvying out the cash, higher education is a very low priority. The clue is in the fact that the Minister of State for Higher Education does not sit in the cabinet. We might wish the world was different, but politics is about dealing with it as it is.

So, if universities were to expand they needed money immediately and if that money was not going to come from the Treasury the only place it could come from was the consumers. If they took out loans then the Treasury was happy to give universities the money up front and sell off the debt. 

As it happens there are also redistributive arguments for graduates paying what is in effect a graduate tax, tempered by debt forgiveness for low earners. There is also a case for financial aid for students from the very poorest backgrounds. But redistribution was not really what the current fee system was about.

Friday, 16 June 2017

Getting your tables right

It's that time of year when MA/MSc student minds turn to dissertation writing. In my neck of the woods that frequently involves communicating some numerical information to the reader. As I explain annually, at length, to anyone that cares to ask me, this is all about putting the needs of the reader first and downsizing  one's own egotistical tendencies. 

Tables that look like pieces of modern art are obstacles to understanding and demonstrate nothing more  than  a complete lack of thought by the person who constructed them. It's all about craftsmanship really, and if you can't be bothered with craftsmanship, then personally I don't feel terribly motivated to pay much attention to whatever it is you have to say. Which is possibly a pity, because what you have to say might be important. It isn't rocket science, it's just about caring enough to take a little trouble. Think of it as reciprocity. If you go to the trouble to maximize the possibility that I understand what you are saying, I'll make an effort to do the understanding, and if you don't I won't.

Well now I don't need to go on at length, because someone at Darkhorse Analytics has gone to the trouble to illustrate it  much better than I could (hat tip to Eric Harrison for alerting me to this). Happy table making and I hope you never use a colour fill or a jungle of lines again. By the way, it's all in Tufte, but those books are expensive...

Friday, 9 June 2017

Politics. It's a funny old life.

It feels a bit odd to be so pleased about the outcome of the election. The party I support, but didn't vote for, didn't win, but did  much better than I expected with a leader that I also didn't vote for, while the candidate that I voted for, whose party I don't support, stormed to victory and regained his seat. Was electoral politics so much simpler in the past?

Perhaps I'm just glad I didn't make a public prediction before the event. If I had, I would have been completely wrong, again. On the other hand I would have been in the good company of the  majority of  professional political forecasters and pundits. Talk about a ship of fools.

Monday, 15 May 2017

Kom Änglar

Also on the charming side of sentimental  are Lars Winnerbäck and Lisa Ekdahl. If you look around there is probably an English translation somewhere out there.  The first verse is roughly:

The most beautiful moment in my life is when you came (into it),
And nothing was allowed.
And everything that we did I want to go on,
Because it echoes in my mind.

You get the idea of where this is going... to inevitable tragedy. One thing though. You wouldn't take an English song seriously whose chorus began:

Come angels, come fairies...

I guess it just shows that poetic register can be pretty much untranslatable. What makes perfect sense in one language/culture does not work in another when translated literally. Yes, War and Peace in English is really not the same book it is in Russian.

Thursday, 27 April 2017

You can close your eyes

Little time to post at the moment as I try to get a few things shifted from my "to do" to my "done" list. But music is always good. I think this falls on the right side of the touching/sentimental divide. And I could listen to James Taylor play guitar all day.

Wednesday, 29 March 2017

Beam me up Scotty

I know I'm mixing my metaphors here but it's becoming increasing difficult not to reach the conclusion that I have slipped into a parallel universe where rationality works in some different and completely incomprehensible way. 

If you are applying for British citizenship you have to get your application signed by two referees one of whom should  be an "acceptable professional person". Helpfully you are supplied with a list of acceptable professional persons. It is a very interesting list. For example, medical doctors are not on it and thus I assume not regarded by the UK Border Agency as "acceptable professional persons". However, if you are a Christian Science Practitioner that's good enough for UKBA. 

Run that by me again. If you are a qualified medic you are not an "acceptable professional person" but if you believe  that sickness is an illusion that can be corrected by prayer alone then you are just the sort of person that UKBA thinks  can be trusted to certify a citizenship application.

I can't even begin to get into the mind of the person who made that decision.

Tuesday, 28 March 2017

Portes on Brexit books

Here is a rather informative interview with Jonathan Portes in which he recommends five books (actually 4 and a blog) to read about Brexit. Definitely worth the time it takes to digest it.

Friday, 17 March 2017

The liberal London tribe: Parsons or Merton?

It will take me a little time  to decode the implications of  David Goodhart's latest piece in the FT.  I think he has just declared war on liberal tolerance, but maybe that is an overstatement. I find the following sentence very odd though: 

"In 2004 I wrote an essay about the tension between diversity and solidarity, based on what I thought was the uncontroversial assumption that people are readier to share with people with whom they have something in common."

The set of people that I  (and David) share nothing in common with is empty, so to make sense his "something" must be a matter of degree. But he says nothing whatsoever about when the threshold is crossed  that means that  sharing something can  for all practical purposes be regarded as  sharing nothing. It seems to me that the great virtue of of liberalism is that it gives us some guidance, albeit mainly formal,  as to where that should be.

Anecdote time. Once when I used to regularly travel on the London Tube I was sitting in the late evening in a relatively empty carriage. The only other occupant of my section was a rather sozzled business type who was sipping from a can of beer. At the next stop two teenage girls sat down. I guess they were tourists and they began talking to each other in Italian. The business type got up, went over to them, and aggressively started to berate them for having the temerity to speak Italian in his presence in his country. Clearly they were terrified so I told him to shut the fuck up and leave them alone. Miraculously he did. Perhaps nobody else being there made loss of face more bearable. I felt I was lucky. It could have got nasty.

So who shared what with whom? I don't speak a word of Italian and the girls didn't seem to have a word of English between them. But gratitude doesn't have to be expressed in words. We all understood what happened because we shared some basic notions of human decency, let's say we endorsed  good old liberal values to do with not gratuitously threatening young foreigners who are doing you no harm. 

Unlike David I do want to say that Falangist, sorry, I meant Faragist, complaints about nobody speaking English on the train should be seen for what they are. And what they are is very ugly. As a citizen you should have a reasonable expectation that the person that sells you a ticket speaks English, that the announcements on the train are in English and that the guard that tells you you have the wrong ticket speaks English (in some countries  German, English and French or German, English and Dutch). But you don't get to dictate what language the other passengers use when holding private conversations with each other. You bought a ticket to get from A to B not to have an aural experience that satisfies your prejudices.

And what did I share with my own countryman,  the aggressor? At that precise moment not much, but I'm prepared to believe that when not pissed he was an entirely adequate husband and father. Hell he probably even took good care of his dog.

By the way Goodhart's piece is also notable for referring to Talcott Parsons. I wonder if that is a first for an FT article? Perhaps though he might have got more mileage out of Robert Merton who, as far as I'm aware, first made the distinction between cosmopolitan and local roles and identities.

Thursday, 16 March 2017

When is a debate not a debate?

I watched the live feed of last night's debate between Jonathan Portes and Michael Gove about trust in experts. To be honest it was pretty tame stuff and a great example of why these things don't really work. Both participants were impeccably polite (which is a good thing) and neither really  sought to draw blood.

I sympathized with Portes  because Gove simply refused to be drawn and used the classic tactic of  essentially denying that what he originally said was actually what he meant. He then went on to cloak himself in a position that no reasonable person could object to and nobody was opposing i.e that you shouldn't accept an argument because of who has proposed it. It would clearly backfire to call him on this. When an opponent is putting on a conciliatory face it looks bad to go in for the kill. That's basically how bullshitters get away with it.

It looked to me as though  Portes was just thinking, yeah whatever, beam me up Scotty.  If an academic or other expert uses these tactics you  would just  conclude they  are not serious and you no longer need to pay them any attention. Their credibility would be shot. But for a politician this is a much more effective get out of jail card. Nobody expects them to be anything other than evasive and thus a successful show of evasion doesn't damage them it actually makes them look as though they are masters of the political dark arts. The bottom line is that the public expects politicians to play a political game and reward them when they play it successfully. That doesn't mean they necessarily like it, just that they understand how the game works and what it takes to win it. 

If you are in any way constrained by truth, facts, evidence and consistency, then you are going to have a tough time going head to head against a first rank politician. Debate? What Debate?

Wednesday, 15 March 2017

Celebrating Coventry's Literary Heritage

The Guardian has a nice piece puffing a poetry event celebrating Coventry's "iconic" ring road. An unusual subject, I'll give you that, but if you had to sum up Coventry in terms of one structure the ring road would give the Cathedral a run for its money.  It also costs less to see now that the Cathedral has started to charge visitors six pounds a pop (in the post Christian age isn't it time for Cathedrals to be be declared national museums? The  John Piper windows and Graham Sutherland tapestry could be treated as part of the national art collection).

Coventry has never been particularly good at drawing its literary heritage to the attention of its citizens. Certainly my 18 year old self was unaware that it was the birth-place of Philip Larkin - the family home was demolished to make way for the ring road - and Cyril Connolly (who he? I would have said). Completely inexplicable was the neglect of a rather fine house (now a Bangladeshi cultural centre) in the Foleshill district that George Eliot lived in for nearly 10 years. As far as I know there wasn't even a plaque on the wall to mark the site.  It never seemed to occur to the city fathers that, if most of what you had has been destroyed you should perhaps make the best of what is left.

 We don't need to invent roots, just pay attention to the ones that survive.

Monday, 13 March 2017

Anti Anti Minotaur

I'm constantly amazed by what gets published in British sociology journals. Take this piece by Martyn Hammersley on Weber and value neutrality. My point is not to beat up Hammersley who has long been  one of the  rare voices of  rationality fighting against the forces of fashionable intellectual darkness. I agree with everything he says. My amazement is that there is a need to say it.

The first sentence of his abstract is surprising: "Weber's proposal that social science should aim to be value neutral is now widely rejected." Really? Not around here. But maybe all that shows is that out in the wild things are a bit different and I should be grateful that I inhabit a comfortable niche. 

The piece goes on to give  a more or less textbook discussion of Weber's views in much the terms it was put to me in lectures  almost 40 years ago when I was a first year sociology undergraduate. So what was then thought suitable for 1st year undergraduates is now, apparently, so rarefied that it is suitable for publication in a professional journal. 

It is bizarre, as is the view that Weber's prose is convoluted and unclear. No it isn't, unless you  happen to be a bit thick. Even as an 18 year old with no knowledge of sociology I had no trouble reading Weber. Yes, I had to read some bits more than once, but that just means that Weber writes very precisely and every word counts.  Precision is a good thing, right? His prose passes the test that when you read it more than once your understanding grows (cf Bourdieu).

I wonder what 1st year sociologists are required to read these days? Peppa Pig's Super Noisy Sound Book?

Friday, 10 March 2017

White Self-Interest

I know I should leave it alone, I know it's not wise to get involved in this sort of thing, but I keep being drawn back to wondering what on earth David Goodhart means by the term "white self-interest" in his recent FT piece (you can also find the text here).

So the gist of his argument is something like this: ethnic groups have interests; some of these interests are protected by law - predominantly the interest in not being  unjustly discriminated against; everyone (more or less) agrees that these interests are legitimate and that it is proper for the law to take them into account; whites also have interests; some of these interests are legitimate; one of these legitimate interests (the only one he actually mentions) is in not being made to feel uncomfortable "about their group no longer setting the tone in a neighborhood". 

Whether we take it literally or metaphorically this is quite a claim.

So where to begin. Firstly the idea of group interests. Certainly human beings have interests and if we follow Peter Singer so do animals, but let's stick to homo sapiens. 

I have lots of different interests which I share with  people who are similar to me in respects that have a bearing on those particular interests. For example I have an interest in not having the aircraft that will land at Heathrow's 4th runway fly directly over my apartment, an interest which a large majority of my neighbours share. I have an interest in the UK agreeing a deal with the EU about the post-Brexit  right to residence of EU citizens in the UK which I share with everyone else who is either married to or cohabits with a non UK EU citizen. I have an interest in the Mogden Sewage Works not stinking in the Summer which I share with a large number of people who live in East Twickenham. I have an interest in UCU negotiating a decent settlement in the next wage bargaining round which I share with all other UK academics (whether or not they are union members). I have an interest in the Arts Council for England restoring its funding to the ENO so that I,  and other resasonably well off middle-class people, can enjoy cheap live opera (I didn't say all interests were legitimate!).

OK, I don't have to labour the point. The interests I have are various and they are shared with only partially overlapping sets of people. Like every other citizen I also have interests, which have been given the status of rights. For instance the right not to be discriminated against on the basis of age, sexual orientation, marital status, disability, race, nationality, colour, ethnic origin, sex and so forth. These are not group rights as such, but rights that  the state guarantees to me as an individual and that I share with others by virtue of the characteristics we have in common. As a white, middlle-aged, straight male I have, at least formally,  the same interest in not being discriminated against as the proverbial one legged, black lesbian. NB I am not claiming that there is the same objective probability that someone will attempt to discriminate against me - that is a different matter and as a matter of fact quite implausible. The interests and the rights are universal and not group specific. 

I'm now struggling to think of those interests that I have and share exclusively with other whites in the UK. I'm struggling and failing. 

Consider this anecdote. In the 1990s I bought an apartment in West London in an area that was undergoing gentrification. A large freeholder was selling off the leases as and when their predominantly white older working-class tenants died. So the nature of the area changed. Out went the 10 year old Fiats and Renaults, in came the GTIs,  Mazda  two seaters,  the 4 wheel drives and the baby buggies. I remember vividly two elderly neighbours standing on their doorsteps, practically under my front window, complaining bitterly about how the neighborhood had changed, how they didn't know anyone any more, and how they hated all the yuppies that had moved into their street.

 I suppose these white people felt they had an interest in keeping people like me out of the area. I concede the interest. Was it a legitimate interest? No it was not. It was not their street, not even the bit of it that one neighbour tried to stop me parking on because they felt that it was their parking place, reserved for local people like themselves. The sort of society we live in does not recognize that sort of group interest in space no matter how entitled people feel. Likewise it does not, and should not, recognize as legitimate any interest I feel I have in not having individuals with different cultural preferences living next door to me, as long as those preferences do no significant direct harm to me. 

I have a legitimate interest in the young man who lives next door not bashing his drum-kit for two hours every evening when I am trying to sleep, but no legitimate interest in preventing the couple on the other side from praying five times a day in the privacy of their own home.

So far so liberal. Now comes the tricky part. Instead of thinking about white majorities and ethnic minorities let's think about existing citizens and immigrants that will become citizens. Do existing citizens (whatever their colour or ethnicity) have a legitimate interest in discriminating between the types of people that will be eligible to become citizens? It seems to me obvious that they do. The existing citizens are a political community and they get to make choices, some of those choices are about who gets to join the club. They will, of course, not all agree, but that is just part of the normal back and forth of normal democratic politics. 

It's not clear to me how things could be otherwise. Despite their differences the existing citizens share a large degree of commonality in their way of life, their political culture and so forth. Presumably they have some commitment to these things and an interest, not in keeping them completely unchanged, but in society developing along lines that are broadly consistent with them. That would seem to entail being concerned that new citizens also hold views, not necessarily identical to their own, but at least not incompatible in terms of broad principles. 

If you live in a secular, liberal state, you have a legitimate interest, if you are gay, in not admitting to citizenship sizeable proportions of people who, once enfranchised, will vote for stoning you to death. Likewise, if you are a woman you have an interest in not admitting people who believe in, and once they become citizens can lobby for, modesty dress codes and restrictions on what you can wear when you walk down certain streets. If you are an educated person you have an interest in controlling the number of new citizens who prefer that only the version of reality that is espoused in one or other sacred book is to be taught to children in school.

White interests? I don't know what those are. Shared citizen's interests? Those are easier to understand,  defend and rationally discuss.

Thursday, 9 March 2017

In Search of Giles Edward Michael Eyre. Postscript.

A couple of years ago I posted a piece on the author of a minor  World War 1 memoir who went by the name of Giles Edward Michael Eyre. I was intrigued as to who the author was and it turned out that he had led a somewhat colourful life. 

Searching here and there I managed to  find out quite a lot about him especially in the inter-war period.  However, inevitably, there were gaps and in particular I didn't discover much about his life immediately prior to WW1. Well, thanks to the wonder of the internet I now have a bit more information. A distant relative of Eyre, Mr Peter Gundy of Bulawayo, read my blog & got in touch. He had some very interesting information which casts more light on the character of Giles Eyre. 

 On 4th December 1913 he departed London for Brisbane on the Marathon.  We next catch up with him on the 27th May 1914 in the Victoria, Australia 1914 Police Gazette:

Good, Robert Hayes, plumber, Quambatook, reports stolen from his dwelling between Eight p.m., on the 20th inst., at half-past Elevem a.m. on the 21st inst., a silver English lever watch, key winder; a gold digger's magnifying glass; a sovereign; and a half-crown. Value £5 10s. Giles Eyre Varnier is suspected, as he was left in charge of the house, and when the complainant returned he was missing. Description :- English, emigrant, 18 years of age, 5 feet 5 or 6 inches high, medium build, dark complexion, dark curly hair, clean shaven, round shoulders; wore a grey suit and a tweed hat.

Quambatook is about 200 miles North-West of Melbourne and in 1914 had a population of about 500. It's difficult to know why Giles Eyre would land there. The town is on a railway line so perhaps he was just leading the life of a roguish drifter.

Monday, 6 March 2017

Fake News

The Guardian is running a story today about sexual harassment in UK universities which they headline as being 'at epidemic levels'.  It's topped off with as stock photograph of Oxford's Sheldonian Theatre which, given the flimsy factual content of the piece, I would say is malicious if not strictly defamatory.

Before I go any further let me say that I in no way wish to imply that sexual harassment in universities, or anywhere else, is anything other than a serious matter, which, if proven, should be dealt with in the way that the law stipulates and that organizations, including universities, have a duty to take complaints about harassment seriously (which I believe they do). I'll say more about this below, but first I just want to look at the facts.

Through a FoI request the Guardian has established that between the years 2011-12 and 2016-17 students made 169 allegations against academic and non academic staff and that a further 127 allegations were made by staff about another staff member. So let's put this in context, starting with the student complaints. There are roughly 2.25 million students at UK universities. Let's say for simplicity that we have 5 years of data (the 2016-17 year isn't finished yet so let's big the rate up by reducing the denominator a little).  That gives us 11250000 person years and a rate of 1.5 student complaints per 100,000 person years. Is that a lot or a little?

Let's take something which we know has a high incidence rate among students - schizophrenia. Universities are not a cause of schizophrenia, but because the rate of first presentation  is high among 20-24 year olds, lots of newly diagnosed schizophrenics are university students. Among 20-24 year-old  UK males the incidence rate has been estimated to be between 20 and 45 per 100,000 person years. So compared to serious mental illness, the prevalence of allegations of sexual harassment on campus doesn't look particularly alarming. But, hang on, the Guardian says it is an epidemic, so what exactly is an epidemic?

Well that depends on the underlying base rate of the disease we are considering. But take for instance flu. In the UK a flu epidemic is declared when the rate of GP consultations about flu related symptoms reaches 1000 per 100,000 consultations. Now that is a lot.

Even if every single complaint by a student of sexual harassment was well founded it would still not be reasonable to call a rate of 1.5 per 100,000 person years an epidemic. This is  fake news and all the worse for being much less transparent than the more obviously made up stories trumpeted by the Daily Hate Mail and the like.

OK, now for the caveats and anecdotes.

I haven't said anything about the staff on staff complaints. Does it happen? Yes, of course, but the Guardian presents no evidence whatsoever that rates of harassment are worse in universities than in any other working environment and it seems completely implausible to believe that they are. So this is, again, fake news.

In my 30 year career in academia I can honestly say that I've only ever known 2 cases of sexual harassment allegations  in departments I've worked in (and none I should say in my present department). One was a staff on staff allegation about an unwitnessed incident said to have taken place at a private, off campus, social event in the home of the accused. A complaint was made, in the first instance to the HOD, who in my opinion quite correctly, declined to take the matter any further. It's completely unclear to me why a private off campus matter between two colleagues should be a  legitimate concern of an employer. If what was alleged to have happened actually happened - and knowing both of the parties involved it is within the bounds of possibility - then that was a matter for them to sort out. Sometimes adults do  and say stuff that is unwise. What was alleged broke no laws and was a bit embarrassing for those concerned  but there was no reason for the employer to get involved.

The other case involved a member of staff who was 'overfamilar' with the female undergraduates. This basically amounted to spending a lot of time in the student bar and making some of the undergraduates feel 'uncomfortable'.  I have no trouble  believing that the combination of  mid-life crisis, alcohol and lots of attractive young undergraduates could have led this individual to do and say things that were, in the circumstances, unwise.  But though he might have been obnoxious - at least to some - he did not do anything illegal and there was no evidence that refusing whatever advances he might have made had any consequences. Everyone involved was an adult and they all chose to associate with each other.  I believe that in this case the person concerned was warned to be more careful about how they conducted themselves.

Sometimes the boot is on the other foot. It is not unknown for staff to be sexually harassed by students or for students to offer sexual favours in return for grades. I've no personal experience of either, though  a colleague who worked at a American university did once relate to me an 'A for a lay' story. Given the puritanical ethical codes of American universities my colleague immediately realized that he was in trouble. After rejecting the  brazen offer, he  immediately went to his Dean and reported what had happened. As it happened the Dean was realistic and  advised my colleague never ever to have a meeting with a female student with his office door closed. He was also told that an allegation alone, whether or not it was true, would be sufficient to ruin his career.

Perhaps we need a longer term perspective on all of this. I'm struck how different things used to be when speaking to older colleagues who began their careers in the 1960s. So you think The History Man is fiction? You don't know the half of it!

Sex is everywhere. Unwanted sexual advances are a small part of life: everywhere. UK universities are nothing special. I expect better of the Guardian.