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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 28 May 2021

We all know social mobility has declined right? Well no, it probably hasn't.

If you study social mobility you are pretty much forced to study it through the rear view mirror, looking back, as it were, over your shoulder. You can of course pretend you are Mystic Meg and on the basis of what you know about how kids are doing in school take a punt at fortune telling (sorry, model based prediction) and if that's your thing good luck, you need read no further. Personally I find it hard enough to say what happened in the past and I'll leave speculation about the future to others.

But how far back should you go? That's a good question, but I'm going to substitute another: how far back can you go? "Can" here means something like: find a bunch of mobility tables that stretch back from more or less now a tolerable distance into the past, that cover roughly equivalent populations (though obviously not the same population) and can be coded into a reasonably disaggregated and  harmonized set of categories. 

The answer in the UK, if you are interested in social class mobility, is 1963 (other sorts of social mobility can be studied - terms and conditions apply).

I have assembled a set of 22 social class mobility tables for British men (tables for women & for households are in the pipeline) that cover the period from 1963 to 2018. All of these with the application of a little ingenuity & perspiration can be and in fact have been coded to the ONS's NS-SEC scheme. This wouldn't have been possible without the witting and in most cases unwitting help of colleagues both in Oxford and elsewhere who gave me access to, or put in the public domain, cross-walks and lookup tables that made it possible to span the decades of changing official occupational classifications. The results are not perfect but I'm as sure as I can be that diminishing marginal returns to time spent on classification set in long ago. I confess that there is one more table I could have added - the UK contribution to the 1991 International Social Justice Project -  but my nerve failed when I contemplated the effort needed to render ISCO88 codes into 1990 ONS SOC codes (I know there is an ONS lookup table - but that still leaves you with work to do). It didn't seem worth it to gain a few 100 cases when I already had several data points in the early 1990s.

So I have 141,247 observations, spread, rather unevenly, over 22 7x7 tables and a lot of caveats. Because this is a blog post and not an academic article I'm not going to go into all the caveats here. Apart from anything else I'm reasonably sure they don't affect the big picture. Suffice to say that age ranges are not always entirely consistent - mostly 20-64, sometimes 20-59, occasionally 20-49 and once 30-59. The target population varies a little - mostly GB, occasionally UK and once just England. There are minor variations in how origin class is defined. You can play endlessly with all of this, leave out tables, narrow down age ranges so everything is precisely aligned and...it doesn't seem to matter. None of this forces you to revise the prima facie obvious conclusion which staring at Figure 1 suggests.

The black dots are the multiplicative parameters from a so called "unidiff" model. As time moves forward they move downwards away from 1 (the level of association in the reference table which is the pooled and reweighted data from the 1972 English and Welsh Social Mobility Inquiry, the 1973-4 Northern Irish Social Mobility Study and the 1974-5 Scottish Mobility Survey). That means that the origin-destination association decreases over time. In other words, social class mobility increases. 

Maybe you don't like log-linear models, after all they are associated with those nasty Nuffield College guys and we know what they are like...OK, the red dots are the Altham index for each table. You would draw the same conclusion from looking at that...as you would from the Prais index, Frobenius' index, Yasuda's Index, Cramer's V, the contingency coefficient, the canonical correlation and Pullum's index 1 (remember that?). All agree that association declined - probably most rapidly in the 1970s and 1980s - ergo social mobility increased. The decline in association sees to have slowed down in the 1990s and may have flatlined after the turn of the millenium - but it is difficult to tell because we don't have many data points covering the last 2 decades.

But does any of this matter, or rather, how much does it matter? A rough and ready way of answering this question is to take  the odds-ratios from one of the early tables - the pooled 1970s English, Northern Irish and Scottish mobility Surveys and impose them on the marginal origin and destination distributions of the latest table in my collection which comes from the pooled 2014-18 Labour Force Survey (culled from Table 3.3 of this report). This gives a counterfactual 2014-18 mobility table representing what social class mobility would have been like in 2014-18 if the level of origin-destination association had been the same as it was observed to be in the early 1970s.


Table 1 shows you the observed 2014-18 "outflow" percentages ie p(D|O) x100. There is nothing very startling about it. Table 2 shows you the percentage differences between Table 1 and the counterfactual table that would have (hypothetically) been observed if in 2014-18 origin-destination association had the strength it was observed to have in the early 1970s.

Most of the differences don't look that big - but actually in proportional terms even small differences can be significant. Broadly speaking long distance upward mobility would have been rarer as would long distance downward mobility. Probably the standout difference concerns not mobility but immobility. In the counterfactual table almost 50% of those with class 1 origins have class one destinations but in the observed table it is nearer to 40%. On the face of it this is somewhat surprising. We are told that the privileged classes habitually use all their wiles to make sure their off-spring remain in the parental social class. They, like the rest of us, like the idea of social mobility but not the idea of downward social mobility. The social changes that have increased mobility could be said to have reduced the ability of  class 1 to "reproduce" itself. Why that might be will have to be a topic for a another time. But a parting thought. Could it be that the resources that are implicated in class reproduction - whatever these may be - are no longer as correlated with social class membership as they used to be (assuming that all of this isn't just some sort of measurement error induced illusion)?

Thursday 1 April 2021

Whatever happened to the working-class?

The current flurry of interest in social mobility seems to have lost sight of part of the motivation that sociologists (for, let's face it, sociologists have been consistently interested in social mobility for much longer than some other disciplines one could mention) had for studying it. Yes, estimating the probability that you can be found in a particular social class given that you started off in another class is useful. And ratios of such conditional probabilities (and even odds) can tell us important things about the "openness" of the society we live in. But there is another way of looking at things. 

Unless you have a prospective cohort study to hand you will almost certainly have to make do with a cross-sectional survey with retrospective reports on the social origins of the respondents. Rather naturally this leads you to do the conditioning the other way around and ask: given  you are now observed in this class what is the probability that you come from that class? For a previous generation of sociologists this opened their eyes to a different kind of concern. As well as mobility telling you about openness they were interested in the demographic homogeneity or heterogeneity of the social classes. If you read John Goldthorpe's Social Mobility and Class Structure in Modern Britain you will find that a lot of the analysis, discussion and speculation is precisely about this. 

One of the questions addressed in that book was whether the working class was becoming more demographically proletarian in its class origins. As rates of mobility out of the working class increased and in as far as the middle-classes were successful in making sure their progeny did not fall out of the middle-class nest it seemed to follow that the working class would increasing consist of people who themselves had working-class origins. What followed from that was speculation about the implications of this for the "classness" of the working class, the implications for class solidarity and for working-class politics.

But how have things actually turned out? The figure below reveals a rather different story.

As in my last post I'm restricted to talking about men because of the lack of  useful data about the class mobility on women in the 1970s. On the other hand I can bring the story pretty much up to date by pinching some QLFS data from Lindsey Macmillan and Luke Sibeta's Social Mobility Commission Technical Annex: Quantitative Analysis of Downward Mobility which I recommend for your reading pleasure. As an aside, though the QLFS collects data on social mobility, ONS perversely do not include father's or mother's NS-SEC in the most easily accessible public release version of the data (it isn't possible to construct the NS-SECs from the, much more disclosive, 2 digit SOC codes that they do release).

The figure shows the proportion of men aged 30-59 observed in the working-class (NS-SECs 6 and 7) at three time points: 1972-5 (the pooled England & Wales, Scottish and  Northern Irish mobility surveys), 2009-10 (Wave 1 of Understanding Society) and 2014-18 (pooled QLFS) by their class origins ( father or head of household's social class when the respondent was 14 years of age).  The pattern these data reveal is very straightforward. Compared to 1972-5 rather than becoming more homogeneously proletarian in class origins the working-class seems to have become more heterogeneous. Take for example NS-SEC 7 routine occupations. In 1972-5 around  two-thirds of the  men found in this class had fathers who themselves had either routine or semi-routine occupations. In 2009-10 this had dropped to about 55% and by 2014-18 it was less than half. In the seventies less than 5% of men in NS-SEC 7 had father's in professional and managerial occupations, but by 2014-18 just short of one-fifth had so!

If we can trust these numbers then it is no exaggeration to say that the "working-class" ain't what it used to be. Of course those who concern  themselves with electoral politics have long noted the decline of the working-class. But what they had in mind was usually its numerical decline not the increased heterogeneity of its class origins. Long ago Frank Parkin turned the conundrum of working-class conservatism on its head by arguing that conservatism should be thought of as the natural political disposition of the working class unless its members are exposed to countervailing institutions, such as trade unions or countervailing experiences such as some kind of demographic or cultural class continuity with previous generations. Maybe it is time for psephologists to take these ideas more seriously.

Footnote: The numerical results look rather solid - large samples, reputable surveys etc. But the sceptic in me does worry a bit about measurement error. Mobility is a difference variable and we all know that difference variables accumulate error like nobody's business. In particular the differences between the 2009-10 and 2014-18 surveys are suspiciously large (though conveniently supportive of my narrative).

Wednesday 31 March 2021

The post-war baby boomers: a tale of two classes

Fertility in the UK soared during the second world war peaking in the 1946 birth spike. By 1949 when the Royal Commission on Population's report was published the threat of population decline that had motivated its investigations had disappeared. Between 1946 and the mid-50s, when a second baby boom erupted, fertility plateaued at a significantly higher level than that achieved in the 1930s. Pessimism about the future gave way to optimism. 

The children born between 1946 and the mid 1950s are often  tagged the lucky generation. The first to be born into a welfare state, they all, in distinct contrast to their parents, received a  secondary education and  the lucky few  a place in the the new universities of the Robbins expansion. They entered the labour market when the economy was growing,  powerful trade unions bargained on their behalf and income inequality reached historically low levels. Their careers were established before the shock of the OPEC oil crisis, stagflation and the subsequent radical change in the UK's political economy. They were old enough to live and in some cases make the sweeping cultural change of the sixties and to see it all turn to dust in the dreary seventies. Now, in 2021, almost all will have retired. How did things work out for them?

By chance rather than design it turns out that we can answer this question, albeit for only 50% of the population.  Between 1972 and 1975  data on the social mobility experiences of men was collected in all of the nations of the UK. Pooling and weighting it appropriately gives us a large sample of men aged 20-26 in the early 1970s. These men are part of the birth cohort  that was 58-64 when the first wave of the Understanding Society survey was  fielded between 2009 and 2010.  We don't observe the same individuals , but we can observe what happened to the same birth  cohort. 

Let's look at men coming from very different backgrounds, those whose fathers had higher professional or managerial occupations and those whose fathers had a routine occupations. In terms of the standard NS-SEC classification they were nurtured at the opposite ends of the social class structure: their class origins are  solid middle and core working class. We are able to see how the social class destinations of this cohort depended on their class origins at two points in their career, first in the early 1970s when they were in their early twenties and secondly in 2009-10 when they were in their late fifties and early sixties. It's worth noting that even in the earlier observation period we are not looking at new labour market-entrants. Most of these men left school at age 15 and the youngest of these had been working for at least 5 years before being surveyed in the early 1970s. The oldest would have been in work for at least a decade.

The top two bars in the figure give the context within which the class careers of the cohort evolved. They show the male class distribution, using the NS-SEC classification, in the early 1970s and in 2009-10. In their early 20s these men inhabited a world where just under 40% of the male working population was working-class (NS-SECs 6 and 7) and roughly 25% middle-class (NS-SECs 1 and 2). By the time they were contemplating retirement per capita GDP had roughly doubled and the class distribution had changed radically: 25% were working-class and more than 40% middle-class.

The next pair of bars show how things went for men with routine working-class origins (NS-SEC 7).  In the early 1970s just under 50% held routine or semi-routine jobs (NS-SECs 6 and 7) and about 12% had risen into the professional and managerial classes (NS-SECs 1 and 2). However, these men experienced considerable work-life class mobility. By 2009-10   just over a third held  routine or semi-routine jobs and just under a third professional or managerial jobs. In addition about 15% were small employers or working on their own account. In sum, about half had experienced some form of social class mobility by their early 20s and roughly two-thirds by the time their careers were drawing to a close. It would be perverse to regard their class origin as their class destiny.

For those coming from higher professional and managerial origins it is very much a tale of two cities or a game of two halves. By the early 1970s 50% had already established themselves in middle-class occupations (NS-SECs 1 and 2) and 50% were downwardly mobile in class terms with 20% holding routine or semi-routine working class jobs. However, by 2009-10 roughly 70% held professional or managerial positions and all but 10% had avoided ending up in the routine or semi-routine classes.

 Clearly for this cohort  "counter-mobility" - the experience of an initial period of downward mobility - followed by upward moves through work-life promotion - was still an important feature of the social mobility regime just as the 1970s social mobility inquiries had shown it to be for older cohorts of men. Some of this counter-mobility was probably "pre-programmed" in the sense that it was from intermediate white-collar clerical occupations in which promotion  would be an easily  anticipated outcome. But for the fifth of men from higher  professional and manager origins that entered routine of semi-routine jobs it is not entirely obvious that promotion would follow as night follows day. And it is worthwhile remembering that it is unlikely that many of these jobs would be holiday, fill-in or otherwise temporary jobs such as nowadays might be held by students or people still in the process of "finding themselves". Overall there is an impressive amount of middle-class reproduction. But a non-negligible proportion of it is via the path less traveled by.

Clearly I've only given you half of the story. As is well known the 1970s mobility inquiries did not collect data from female respondents and there are no large sample alternatives that can plug that gap. The mobility experience of this cohort's women cannot be investigated using these methods. The same is true of immigrants. There are simply not enough sampled in the 1970s surveys to give us any leverage. One thing that can be done is to exclude from the 2009-10 sample all cases in which the respondent was born outside of the UK. Doing so makes no substantial difference to any of the numbers I've reported so we can be confident the patterns are not influenced by that particular source of compositional change. The same cannot be said about compositional change due to mortality and emigration. The influence of the former is most probably negligible. Having survived to be observed at 20 the chances were high that the members of that cohort would survive to their 60s. Emigration was an important part of demographic change in the 1950s and 1960s, primarily to the countries of the old commonwealth. In my parent's generation  two out of three of their siblings emigrated in those years, one to Australia  the other to Canada. How they would have done had they remained in the UK is not knowable. As things turned out they made a decent life for themselves in a new place, though neither were mobile in social class terms. All in all it is unlikely that the general outline of the mobility pattern would be radically altered if we were able to take compositional change into account.

This cohort was then the original OK boomers. They were succeeded from the the mid 1950s until the mid 1960s by another, even larger, boomer cohort - one which I'm part of.  Perhaps someone with time and patience can tell class mobility story of the men and women of that cohort with the ONS Longitudinal Survey (it may be that Buscha & Sturgis already have).

Wednesday 2 September 2020

Toils Obscure

I learned a couple of days ago that a man I owe a lot too died in March. He was 85 so for someone of that generation had a reasonable if not exceptional innings. His name is Brian Richie, he was my English teacher in what would now be called years 9-13.

I want to say something about him, call it a tribute if you like, but I have a small difficulty. I only ever met him once as an adult and my perspective is consequently mostly that of the schoolboy. About the man himself I know little. But I know what he was like in the classroom and I know what influence he had on me.

Brian was of that generation of secondary school teachers that had no degree, in fact he was taking an OU degree in English while he was teaching us. In class he sometimes told us things about his past, something that few of the other teachers did, and that in itself made him stand out. He'd done his National Service in Cyprus and left us in no doubt about the unheroic task of standing on guard duty on a pitch black night desperately hoping a terrorist woudn't creep up behind you and cut your throat.

Sometime after National Service he became an Anglican priest, and a secondary school teacher. Later, I gather, he went back to the Church. When he died he was the Rev Brian Ritchie and had been Rector of Hatton with Haseley between 1988 and  1997. About the Church side of his life I know nothing at all.

What first struck you about Brian when you met him in the classroom was his appearance. He must have been 1 meter 95 tall, elegantly clothed, usually in a grey suit and beard. He had remarkably long legs and did a very passable impression of John Cleese doing the funny walk.. Even though he was a housemaster as well as an English teacher he always affected an air of anti-authoritarian irreverence. He could be severe when he had to be (and could shout very loudly) but I always felt that this was just an act that an essentially kindly man  put on to keep control of some often quite out of control pupils.

So what was special about his teaching? First a step back. My first two years of English lessons at secondary school were...pedestrian. There was nothing wrong with the teacher but her teaching didn't inspire a love of literature in me. It probably wasn't her fault. She had the tough job of getting 11 and 12 year olds to read A High Wind in Jamaica (A brilliant book, but better read when you are older), A Kid for Two Farthings the Silver Sword and The Pearl. I never managed to read any of them and couldn't really see why I should. Nobody ever bothered to explain why we were doing whatever we were doing.

Brian's approach to teaching English was completely different. He decided, possibly inspired by his OU course, that what we needed and what it would be fun to do (no national curriculum in those days) was to cover as much of the development of English literature as you could squeeze into a year. But first he  gave us some tools to help us learn to learn. He was a great one for bringing a TV and VCR into the classroom and he showed us a few episodes of Tony Buzan's Use Your Head, mind mapping, speed reading, mnemonics etc. I don't know what the reputation of that sort of thing is now but to me, at the time, it was revelatory to realise that you could consciously improve how you learned. 

That year we watched  Jonathan Miller's King Lear (1975 BBC Play of the Month), listened to excerpts from Hair "What a piece of work is a man...", watched Hardy's The Withered Hand and a Hammer Horror Movie to study the conventions of the Gothic Novel, watched Monty Python as an introduction to the Theatre of the Absurd. Brian distributed his own paperback books among us. I was given Tom Jones, and the Power and the Glory. We had a few weeks to read as much as we could (I think I managed about a third of Tom Jones) and then we had to write a report on what we had read. Somehow we also managed to fit in reading some D H Lawrence short stories  the Lawrence novel that we were supposed to be studying- Son's and Lovers and Steinbeck's Of Mice and Men

For the first time I realised that people didn't just spin novels out of their heads. They were part of a literary tradition and that tradition had conventions which they either adhered to or consciously broke away from. It struck me that writers write what they do and in the way that they do for  reasons and that it was fun to try and figure out their reasons, what kind of effect they were aiming for, how they achieved their effect (or didn't) and so forth. It also started me off thinking about the merits of different styles of literature, standards of taste and how literary judgements are made.

Brian taught me for O level (Macbeth, A Kestrel for a Knave, Northanger Abbey, War & 1930s poets) and A level (The Rainbow, Rosencrantz & Guildenstern are Dead and the Unseen Crit paper). As we got older he revealed a bit more about himself. He extolled the virtues of Soft Machine, Cream, Pink Floyd and Tangerine Dream whilst disparaging the commercialism of Bowie. I still have some purple cyclostyled sheets he handed out. They are copies of Clive James's Observer column which he used to teach Lit Crit. In everything he did he opened up new worlds, revealed new vistas,showed us  things that were 'til then unseen and unimagined.

I let him down in O level English Lit by only achieving a B. Though I knew Macbeth and the poetry off by heart I had (unaccountably) only read half of Northanger Abbey which made answering questions about it a tad tricky. Learning my lesson I made sure that I knew all the A level texts thoroughly and did him proud.

After leaving school I only met Brian once. It was at some sort school reunion cultural event. He was gently charming and surprised me by bringing up something I had written for him years earlier. I was astounded that he would remember. We said we would keep in touch, but as is often the case, good intentions were not sufficient and I made no effort. 

And yet his influence is indelible. The Man's the gowd for a' that!

Monday 16 March 2020

Making an online lecture

I'm very lucky to be on sabbatical leave and living until September (hopefully) in a country that has taken a different approach to the UK to dealing with the Corona virus epidemic. That means that I've not been forced suddenly into teaching online, for which I'm very grateful. A couple of years ago though I did decide to create some online video content for one of my courses and I'll share here what I learned about what to do and what not to do.

I should start by saying that my ambitions were very limited. I wanted to produce something that was serviceable, but I had (and have) neither the skill nor the patience to uphold glossy production values. 

A little context. The original stimulus was a larger than average cohort of MSc students taking a compulsory Research Design course timetabled to take 3 hours. The format of the course was normally a 1 hour - one to many lecture - followed by two seminar sections of 12-15 students. However with 40 students each seminar section would have had 20 students which was a bit too large so I was faced with a dilemma. I didn't want to add an extra hour to my teaching load so I decided to do away with the live lecture & replace it with a video lecture  thus freeing up an hour for an extra seminar.

I started off with a few fancy but either impractical or unrealizable (by me) ideas about what I wanted to produce. The first thing I dropped was the idea of  doing a talking head to camera lecture. After a short trial I found that my webcam and the lighting in my office were not good enough to produce decent results. Particularly trying was finding a decent background to film myself against. Stripy curtains, which was basically all I could use without radically rearranging my office furniture, do not do a lot for a foregrounded talking head. Eventually I went for something much simpler - basically my power-point slides with a recorded commentary saved as a video and uploaded to my YouTube channel. 

My first efforts were made using the mic from a Microsoft headset. The sound quality was passable (just) but not brilliant. Later I  bought a decent desktop microphone and I have to say it made a big difference to the sound quality (compare the last 4 recordings with all the rest). After doing what everyone does -  read the Amazon reviews - I bought a Blue Yeti USB mic and I've been very satisfied with it.

Mastering the recording features of Powerpoint is pretty straightforward. An hour or two of trial and error is sufficient to learn all you need to know to do a basic job. What took me more time was figuring out the best workflow process to produce 50 minutes of content.

It's easiest to say what didn't work (for me). My naive first thought was that I would just "talk through" my slides much as I would do if I were giving a live lecture. Very quickly I discovered that what I  achieved by doing this was...awful. Ums, errs, verbal ticks, extended pauses while  I composed my thoughts, not to mention weird lip smacking noises and loud booms when I scratched my nose made the whole thing sound even more horribly amateurish than it actually was. 

I don't know whether this will work for everyone but what worked for me was to ditch the ideal of sparkling spontaneity and write a script. Of course this makes the whole thing a bit more theatrical (reading it out in a monotone is not going to improve things much) but it helped me to impose a bit more structure & discipline on the production process.

I normally give extempore lectures  so my first challenge was to write everything out in a style that wouldn't sound wooden when spoken to the mic. Having already produced the slides helped a lot as they functioned as a kind of story board. Early on I decided to chop up each lecture into 10-15 sections for uploading. That also helped with the structuring of the material and the delivery. Once I had my script I then did a few tests to get an impression of timing and the right pace of delivery. My normal pace of delivery is quite slow. I can get away with that when doing a live performance, but in a recording a slow pace very quickly becomes  boring. I listened carefully to the pace at which talk is delivered on Radio 4 and concluded it was at least twice as quick as I normally talk. 

Even after producing the script I still screwed up. I wasted a bit of time experimenting with  an autocue program that scrolled through the text at the bottom of the screen. This really didn't work for me and I found that I needed to see what was coming next in order to make transitions between slides relatively seamless.

In the end I went for a low tech solution: a printed script, double spaced, in 20 point Garamond with slide transitions noted in bold red. Each slide corresponded to a 2-3 minute gobbet of audio. I tended to record in short sections and rehearse each section before recording in order to iron out anything that seemed awkward in the transition from writing to the spoken word.

The rest is just perspiration rather than inspiration. I frequently rerecorded sections I had fluffed and made all the usual beginners mistakes - recording level too loud, recording level too low, recording when there is bound to be a lot of ambient noise etc.

It's a time consuming job to get even passable results. After I had written the script - which could easily take me 8-12 hours (and I already had the slides prepared) it would take 3 hours to record 50 minutes of material plus the time to turn the Powerpoints into a videos & upload them to YouTube. 

Once done though I actually thought it was worthwhile. Wasting time on 1 to many live lectures is silly. Putting that part of teaching online makes a lot of sense (as long as the material remains in the control of the producer). In the second iteration of my course with video lectures, and a reduced cohort size, I used the time that I formerly had devoted to delivering the lecture to answering student questions about the lecture material.  That means more face-to-face time focusing on the content that students actually want to talk about and more time for them to think about what they want to ask.

Tuesday 9 October 2018

Resistance through Writing

Stuart Hall did not feature on any of my undergraduate reading lists when I studied sociology in the late 1970s and early 1980s. The whole cultural studies thing might  have been going on elsewhere but it didn't touch the LSE. The nearest I got to it was taking a course with Alan Swingewood on the sociology of literature. Hoggart I'd already read. Williams I couldn't really make out, but the words seemed to make English sentences. Lukacs, Goldmann, Barthes and Benjamin, I had no idea what they were on about and secretly felt that it was unlikely to very important and that I'd get by without it. I imagine I wrote a very unimpressive exam. 

So Hall for me was a road not taken and I never really felt the need to tread it. From time to time an acquaintance would tell me how great his and the work of the Birmingham CCCS was. Occasionally I'd glance through some of the latter, but  failed to get anything out of it. It just wasn't concerned with the same sort of things that I was. I was aware that for some Hall was a cult figure, but he apparently arrived too late on the scene for me to join the cult. One place I did catch up with him was in Redemption Song a 1990s BBC documentary series about the Caribbean. It was worth watching and I certainly learned a few things from it, but I don't recall it being revelatory.

Which brings me to a chance encounter in a bookshop. I rarely enter such places these days unless it is to buy books for my daughter or sheet music, but on one of the last days of the Summer vacation, which I largely spent building two decks in two two different locations, I crossed the threshold of Waterstones in Twickenham. I had a few minutes to kill and I didn't expect to buy anything. More or less the first thing I saw was Familiar Stranger, Stuart Hall's autobiography. This is actually a slight misnomer as Hall didn't actually write an autobiography, but he gave hours of taped interviews to his friend  Bill Schwarz who put it together in autobiographical form. I looked at it, thought what the hell, and bought it. To be honest I was expecting to hate it, but at least I'd be able to say that I had actually read something that Hall had written, more or less.

So the punch line is: I was surprised. Of course about a quarter of it was written in the impenetrable and obfuscating language of cultural theory - first time I've read an "interpellation" in quite a few years. I have no idea what that bit was about. But the rest gives us a portrait of an intelligent, sensitive man  trying to make sense of a life lived simultaneously in several cultures, both in Jamaica and in London, dealing with the lived contradictions of a dying colonialism - the Halls were a rather well to do light skinned family - living in a society where skin tone was as important as class in delineating the status order. The story of his engagement with anti-nuclear politics after his emigration to Britain, student life in Oxford and the foundation of the New Left  Review are equally fascinating as are his encounters with the British class system in the marriage market. 

I don't think I learned that much about sociology, but I did get some sense of a man who led an interesting life and insight into why he became, for some, such a charismatic figure. I don't think I'll be reaching for Policing the Crisis though just yet.

Wednesday 25 April 2018

Tha Amazing Family Moshinsky

I was recently in Edinburgh giving a paper at a conference on the history of sociology in the UK. One of the characters who cropped up in my talk was a woman called Pearl Moshinsky. If she hadn't died in 1941 she could have become a major figure in British sociology rather than just a footnote, for in the inter-war years she wrote a series of quite remarkable empirical papers,  co-authored with John Linton Gray on social class, ability and education and  with J. B. S. Haldane on genetics. It was really another 25 years before anything of similar quality was produced by British sociologists yet who now has heard of her?

Pearl Moshinsky was born on the 2nd of July 1909 in Whitechapel to Joseph and Rebecca Moshinsky. Joseph's 1910 naturalization papers say that he was born at Boruslov (probably Bohuslav which had a large Jewish population) in the province of Kiev in October 1880. The 1911 Census gives Rebecca's place of birth as Russia and tells us that by that time they had been married for six years and had four children, one of whom was dead.  I can find neither in the 1901 Census so I assume they arrived in Britain during the first decade of the 20th century.

In 1910 Joseph's occupation is given as 'tobacconist' and his address as 4 Leman Street which is adjacent to Aldgate East Station. This was in fact the shop. In 1911 the family is living in 3 rooms at  34 Vallance Road, Whitechapel. Later they appear in the electoral register at Fredrick Street and throughout the 20s and 30s at 4 Leman Street (Joseph also appears in rating records as renting number 2 Leman Street).

Pearl attended Malmesbury Road Board School in Bow and then in October 1915 was admitted to Cable Street School. I know nothing more about her education except that she was admitted to the London School of Economics in 1928 and graduated BSc (Econ) in 1931. Shortly thereafter she seems to have started working in Lancelot Hogben's Department of Social Biology and wrote a PhD awarded in 1937 for a thesis on 'The relation between the distribution of intelligence and the social environment'. She published three papers before the award of her doctorate, the first in 1934 in the Proceedings of the Royal Society of Edinburgh which seems to have initially been communicated by Hogben and two in 1935, both in the Sociological Review. One of the latter was the subject of an extended report in the Manchester Guardian. I wonder how many pieces published in today's sociology journals would get that?

In December 1933 Pearl married Samuel Goldman, son of an East End tailor and like her a graduate of the LSE. Goldman was a brilliant economics student who went  on to have a career in banking  and  the civil service, eventually becoming second permanent secretary at the Treasury. They had two children: a daughter Janet, born in 1937 died shortly after birth. Their son Antony John born in 1940 went on after Marlborough and Peterhouse to have himself a distinguished civil service career ending up as Director General of Civil Aviation.

In July 1940 Pearl and her infant son sailed on the Duchess of Richmond from Liverpool to Montreal. At the end of the month they both crossed into the US at St Alban's,Vermont and made their way to New York where Pearl seems to have taken up a position as an instructor in  sociology and anthropology at Brooklyn College. One wonders what the motivation for this move was. Perhaps it was a career opportunity or perhaps it was simply  to get the child to safety.  The sojourn in America didn't last long and in December 1941 Pearl's death was registered in Islington.

You might say that given her background Pearl did well for herself. An East End immigrant upbringing wasn't an obvious route to academic success. But what is astonishing is not just how successful Pearl was but how successful a number of her siblings were. Her elder brother Israel became a physician after studying at Guy's Hospital. Sometime in the 1930s he changed his name to Ivan Rayle Marre. A younger brother Issac also became a doctor and changed his name to Leonard Marre. But perhaps the most successful of all was another younger brother Aaron Samuel. He won a scholarship to Trinity Hall and was awarded  a 1st class degree in part II of  the Classics Tripos. In July 1940 he changed his name to Alan Samuel Marre and Sir Alan Samuel Marre ended his civil service career as second permanent secretary at the Department of Health and Social Security. 

Joseph, the  tobacconist died in March 1956. By that time he had long left the East End behind and moved to a house in Oman Avenue, Willesden. The Probate Register tells us that his estate was worth almost £16,000. A tidy sum for a man who began life in a backwater of the Russian empire.