Gurminder K Bhambra on Postcolonial Social Science
“I grew up in this country,” says Gurminder K Bhambra, a professor at the University of Sussex’s School of Global Studies, “and [yet] I always thought I was an immigrant. School told me I was an immigrant; the media told me I was immigrant; everything around me was that I was immigrant. When the Brexit debates were happening, I was talking to my dad about this. He keeps things, so he pulled out his old passports, my grandparents’ old passports, and all the passports were British.” “So I’ve always been a British citizen, my parents have always been British citizens, and my grandparents have always been British citizens – not because we lived in Britain, but we lived in those parts of the world that were the British Empire at the time. Britain came to us, incorporated us within its polity, within its understanding. We were seen to be British, and yet when we traveled within the imperial polity and ended up in Britain, somehow we became migrants.” This account and its summary – “people constructed their Britishness in opposition to me, as opposed to inclusive of me” – encapsulates Bhambra’s academic field: postcolonial and decolonial studies. In this Social Science Bites podcast, she discusses with interviewer David Edmonds why we should speak about the Haitian revolution in the same breath as the contemporaneous American and French revolutions, how former empires conveniently forget the contributions of their colonies now that those empires have downgraded to mere ‘nations,’ and what lessons we should draw from the current iconoclastic impulse toward imperial statuary. (Bhambra says she’s less focused on statues themselves than in “the histories that are embodied within them, and the extent to which people know and understand those histories and what it means for us, in the public sphere, to be defined by them.”) Their talk begins with a quick primer of the origin of the complementary fields of post-colonialism and decoloniality. Each examines the legacy and lasting effects of European colonialism, but use different times and places as their starting points. Postcolonialism emerged after the publication of its “keystone text” - Edward Said’s Orientalism – in 1978. “I don’t think Said necessarily thought that he was setting out to create a field when he wrote this book,” Bhambra explains. “But it was so influential – initially within English literature but then the humanities more generally – that it built up a body of scholarship in its wake that came to be understood as post-colonial studies.” Initially, postcolonialism was interested in the interplay between the Middle East and South Asia and of Europe, generally starting around the 19th century. Decoloniality, in contrast, initially explored Europe and Latin America and the Caribbean beginning with Columbus encountering the Americas. As these fields expanded throughout the humanities and into areas such as historical sociology, scholars sought “what the place of the colonial was within their disciplines, find it missing, and seek to explain that absence.” One absence that Bhambra herself explored in her own studies and her book Rethinking Modernity: Postcolonialism and the Sociological Imagination is how ‘the modern’ came to be seen as the province of Europe (and its North American domains) and their three revolutions, the American, French and Industrial. Her research quickly showed here that while sociologists might disagree on some particulars, they fully agreed that the modern world began with a dramatic break “between a pre-modern agrarian past and a modern industrial present, and that that temporal rupture could be located spatially within Europe, and that Europe (and North America is often encapsulated within this) marked a cultural separation from the rest of the world.” That historical take is, she argues, a distortion. Modernity wasn’t manufactured in Manchester or drafted in a salon in Paris; it arose from existing colonial connections. “Modernity isn’t something that emerges endogenously and autonomously within Europe, from which it then spreads around the world. There were already global connections, and those connections were through processes of colonization, enslavement, imperialism, and so on. Those processes are the condition for things that we call modernity.” The bill for that modernity, she adds, has yet to be paid in full. “There is no institution in Britain or France to which colonial wealth has not contributed ... anybody who has an historical connection to the empire has a right to the wealth and benefits of what is now the nation.”
1 Jul 2020
Linda Woodhead on the New Sociology of Religion
For years, social scientists who studied religion tended to see it as the study of something fated to decline and therefore the key, and almost only, question in their hymnbook was, "Do you still go to church?" But as societies modernise, religion has not gone away. It has, however, changed, mutating into something more institutional than spiritual for some, more fundamental for others, and generally more complex for all. Enter Linda Woodhead, a sociologist of religion at Lancaster University. The author of such books as 2013's Everyday Lived Islam in Europe, Religion and Change in Modern Britain and The Spiritual Revolution, she looks at how religion is lived in current societies, and how the new forms interact and contest with the traditional ones amid the context of broader social conditions. Take the case of Britain (and the narrower story of the "spiritual laboratory" of the town of Kendal): "The historic religions like the Roman Catholic Church or the Church of England – which is still the established state church – have been in very rapid decline in terms of attendance, in terms of the number of people who call themselves Catholic or Anglican – all those things are declining," Woodhead tells Nigel Warburton. "And yet, that’s not the only picture. So in some ways, they remain very central in life. For example, they run schools, and there’s a huge demand for faith schools." Looking just at Kendal, she continued, "we looked at how the churches were declining, but we found to our astonishment, even in 2000, this huge proliferation of alternative forms of spirituality: of mind, body, spirit care. We found 126 different practitioners in this one small town. And, since then, those sorts of things have continued to grow, and, of course, we’ve become more multi-faith." Between 2007 and 2012, Woodhead directed the AHRC/ESRC Religion and Society Programme, a £12m research investment which embraces 75 separate projects.
5 Nov 2014
Mahzarin Banaji on Implicit Bias
Explicit statements of prejudice are less common than in the past (even if they are still easily found). “I see that as a mark of progress,” says social psychologist Mahzarin R. Banaji, the Richard Clarke Cabot Professor of Social Ethics at Harvard University. But peer a little below the surface, she adds, “even though you might reject an explicit bias, you actually have the implicit version of it.” “The brain is an association-seeking machine,” she tells interviewer David Edmonds in this Social Science Bites podcast. “It puts things together that repeatedly get paired in our experience. Implicit bias is just another word for capturing what those are when they concern social groups. “So, when I see that my mom puts out butter when she puts out bread, the two are associated in some way. But I also see other things in the world. I see as I walk down the street who the poor people are and who the rich people are, and where the one lives and where the other lives.” Banaji explains her work on implicit bias and the efforts she and her colleagues made in creating the widely recognized implicit association test, or IAT, which helps ferret out this "thumbprint of the culture on our brain.” (See and take the test here.) That thumb imprints on Banaji herself. She relates a time when she was scheduled for surgery and just assumed the young woman next to her wouldn’t be her anesthesiologist and must instead be a nurse – even though Banaji if asked would readily say that young women absolutely could be any sort of doctor. Still, she asked the “nurse” to relay a message to the anesthesiologist, only to learn the “nurse” was the anesthesiologist. “As I always tell my students when I came back from surgery, these stereotypes are not good for us: you do not want to be in surgery with an angry anesthesiologist working on you!” She credits the genesis of the IAT with a “stroke of genius” by her colleague Anthony Greenwald (with whom she wrote 2013’s Blindspot: Hidden Biases of Good People). “It’s based on the idea that two things that are routinely thought of as linked together will be easier to pair as a result, while things that aren’t commonly – or ever -- linked will require longer to pair them. The pairing in the initial implicit association test was with a deck of cards that include four suites – two with sets of faces, dark- and light-skinned, and two with words, positive and negative. In the classic result, test-takers can pair the white faces with positive words faster, as they can the peoples of color faces with negative words. Switch it up – people of color with good words, say – and there’s a measurable delay. It’s also been applied to many societal concerns, such as biases related to gender, body size, age, sexuality, and others. The IAT has shown some predictive power about how biases translate into action in individuals, but it’s no ‘test for racism,’ she stresses. “I would be the first to say that you can never use the IAT and say, ‘Well, we’re going to use it to hire somebody,’ or ‘We’re going to use it to put someone on the jury.’ One can have these implicit biases and also have a big fat prefrontal cortex that makes us behave in ways that are opposed to the bias.” Banaji’s contributions to society have been widely recognized in a number of notable fellowships, such as the Society for Experimental Psychologists, Society for Experimental Social Psychology, the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, the American Academy of Political and Social Science, and in 2016, the Association for Psychological Science’s (APS) William James Fellow Award for lifetime contributions to the basic science of psychology. (She was president of APS in 2010-11.)
2 Aug 2018
Gina Neff on Smart Devices
Data about us as individuals is usually conceived of as something gathered about us, whether siphoned from our Facebook or requested by bureaucrats. But data collected and displayed by the tracking applications on our iPhones and Fitbits is material we collect by ourselves and for ourselves. Well, maybe, says sociologist Gina Neff, who with Dawn Nafus (a senior research scientist at Intel Labs) wrote the recent book, Self-Tracking. In this Social Science Bites podcast, Neff tells interview David Edmonds that such information – your information -- is widely available to the device or software maker. Now combine that with social network data – and many apps essentially require you connect those dots – and what results is an unintentionally rich portrait of the user. And that digital you, your doppelgänger, gets shared widely, whether you want it to or even if it’s an accurate depiction, at times making the difference in decisions of whether you worthy of that job or ought to be insured. Neff said she thinks of tracking devices as a sort of “bait and switch,” since their outputs aren’t wholly your own. As anthropologist Bill Maurer has said, data doesn’t have ownership so much as having parents. But Neff doesn’t approach smart devices as a Luddite or even that much of an alarmist; she bought first-generation Fitbit when they were brand new and virtually unknown (all of five years ago!). She approaches them as a sociologist, “looking at the practices of people who use digital devices to monitor, map and measure different aspects of their life.” Many people with and without activity trackers feel they already track their lives – through a tally they keep in their head. Think of the item of clothing – say those ‘skinny jeans’ - you wear when you feel you’re particularly slim. “One of the things that motivated us in thinking about the book were these qualitative measures that help people understand their lives and give them a sense of tracking that is more empowering in some ways.” And one of the findings is that a low-common-denominator approach to the devices can prevent people from really taking control, or customizing the collection, of their own data. “For too many people,” Neff says, “they can’t access and control their own data on the devices in order to begin to frame the next question.” Her findings on smart devices surprised her several times. For example, she explains, many of today’s digital artifacts are anchored in much older sociological practices. She cites Lee Humprheys’ examinations of how Twitter use lines up with how diaries were used in the 19th century: “Lo and behold, some of those same short entries – ‘Had breakfast late,’ ‘It rained today’ – that we think of as disposable and part of the digital era really are much older.” Neff was also taken aback at who the audience is for self-tracking. “I thought I was going to study just these kind of geeky, West Coast, Silicon Valley, male types who wanted to engineer everything about their life. And boy, was I wrong.” Users are much more diverse, and often less self-absorbed; some people are using the devices to stay on top of medical concerns, and other just want to be more productive in everyday life. And their devotion can be ephemeral – Neff said studies find 60 percent of activity trackers get disused within six months. Neff is an associate professor, senior research fellow, program director of the DPhil in information, communication and the social sciences at the Oxford Internet Institute. Self-Tracking, which reviewer Simon Head at The New York Review of Books described as “easily the best book I’ve come across on the subject,” is her third book. Earlier volumes were 2012’s Venture Labor: Work and the Burden of Risk in Innovative Industries, which won the 2013 American Sociological Association Communication and Information Technologies Best Book Award, and 2015’s Surviving the New Economy (with John Amman and Tris Carpenter).
1 Mar 2019
Most Popular Podcasts
Craig Calhoun on Protest Movements
Social scientist Craig Calhoun, Director of the LSE, discusses protest movements including the 1989 Tiananmen Square protests in this episode of the Social Science Bites podcast. The interviewer is Nigel Warburton. Social Science Bites is made in association with SAGE.
4 Feb 2014
Susan Michie on Behavioral Change
With each new year comes a wave of good intentions as people aim to be better. They want to lose weight, exercise more, be nicer, drink less and smoke not at all. They want to change behavior, and as Susan Michie knows well, “behavior is related to absolutely everything in life.” Michie is a clinical and health psychologist who leads the Centre for Behaviour Change at University College London. She specializes in behavior related to health – for behavior or health practitioners, patients and population as a whole – and in looking at how behavior impacts the natural environment. And while you might think that the essentials of human behavior are pretty similar, one of the things Michie quickly tells interviewer Dave Edmonds in this Social Science Bites podcast is that it can be unwise to jump to conclusions when studying behavior (or trying to change it). She notes, for example, that lots of behavioral research is done in North America, where there’s relatively abundant funding for studies, “but the biggest need [for research] is often where there’s the least investment. There’s no point in developing an intervention based on research evidence conducted in parts of the world that are very far away from the type of context we want to implement the findings in – only to find out it’s not going to work.” So yes, she says, do look at both the rigour of the research, but also base any potential application of the findings on deep understanding of local conditions and using local knowledge. Michie and her team describe this using a model, COM B, to account for the ‘capability, ‘opportunity’ and ‘motivation’ necessary to change behavior. Changing behaviors is important – “In order to solve any of these big social challenges we need people at different positions in society to change their behavior” -- so these considerations matter. But that begs the questions of what behaviors need changing – and who decides what those selected behaviors are.. “There’s a big issue about who decides what the key issues are,” Michie says. “But I think there are certain problems which are very self-evident – there are people dying unnecessarily as a result of smoking, obesity but also environmental conditions – poor housing, etc. There are areas where the social consensus is that things needs to change, and I’d say those are the ones we start with.” In the interview, Michie also addresses the ethics of behavior change and how algorithms and machine learning will be “absolutely vital” to parse through all the relevant data . Her own Human Behaviour Change Project is a collaboration between behavioral scientists and computer scientists combing the global literature to see what works, with an initial focus on smoking cessation. A comprehensive tobacco control strategy, she details, involves those infamous “nudges” beloved of policy makers, but also the legislation, services and taxation, that need to work synergistically to effect real change. Michie had a long career as a research fellow and clinician before joining the Psychology Department of University College London in 2002. She’s a fellow of the Academy of Medical Sciences, the Academy of Social Sciences, the Academy of Behavioral Medicine Research, the Society of Behavioral Medicine, the European Health Psychology Society, the British Psychological Society and a Distinguished International Affiliate of the American Psychological Association.
7 Jan 2020
Bruce Hood on the Supernatural
Remember the amazing, spoon-bending Uri Geller? Bruce Hood does. And while Geller is, well, to be kind, controversial, Hood is a quite recognized and reputable developmental psychologist at Bristol University. But he does share one trait with the self-described mystic who fascinated him as a boy -- an interest in the supernatural and how individuals process the potentially paranormal. Rather than collect ectoplasm, Hood focuses on why human beings, starting as children, offer supernatural explanations for natural occurrences. In this episode of the Social Science Bites podcast Hood discusses the subject via his study of essentialism, "the attribution of a hidden dimension to things giving them their true identity." By the broader definition, it not only includes mystical feats like Geller's but includes attaching sentimental value to an object, being superstitious, or even being religious. Social Science Bites is made in association with SAGE.
4 Jun 2014
Hetan Shah on Social Science and the Pandemic
The current pandemic has and will continue to mutate the social landscape of the world, but amid the lost lives and spoiled economies in its wake has come a new appreciation of what science and scientists contribute. “You don’t have to go back many months,” says Hetan Shah, the chief executive of the British Academy, “for a period when politicians were relatively dismissive of experts – and then suddenly we’ve seen a shift now to where they’ve moved very close to scientists. “And generally that’s a very good thing.” In this Social Science Bites podcast, Shah details how science, and social science in particular, has come to be deployed, how it’s been a force for good throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, and how it can help policymakers understand and shape a better tomorrow. Arguably, even before coronavirus the British Academy, a national body of humanities and social science scholars, has served in similar roles. In addition to its well-known body of fellows, the academy funds new research and serves as a forum to discuss humanities’ and social science’s role and impact beyond academe. Shah took the reins of the academy in February, having headed the Royal Statistical Association for the eight years previous. Given that his time at the academy roughly mirrors COVID’s arrival on the world stage, he’s had to hit the ground running. “It’s also been very interesting to see the government using the term, ‘We are following the science.’” This has been a prime opportunity for social science to show its importance for the public, but also a chance for the public to consider what science is and isn’t. “There isn’t a single monolithic thing called ‘The Science,’” Shah explains, adding, “I think governments have recognized that the pandemic is not just a medical phenomenon but a social and economic one.” But even within the subcommunities of science there’s no single ‘Answer’ to any given challenge. “It does feel to me the public has seemed to cope quite well and understood the level of uncertainty of the science. It’s an argument for treating the public as grown-ups. “We are making decisions at speed. That data are limited and being gathered as we speak. This is how science happens. There may well be settled science on these matters [someday] – but that might take really quite a lot of time. “This is why none of us envy our decisionmakers. They’re having to make decisions on imperfect knowledge.” Even without those capital-A answers, established social science has been deployed to good effect already, Shah says. “Anthropologists who wouldn’t have been surprised at all by the panic buying of toilet paper. They have known for a long, long time, rooted in the work of people like Mary Douglas, the cultural and symbolic importance of things like cleanliness and security in times of crises. “ As other examples he offers the campaigns detailing how best to wash your hands, the crafting of the United Kingdom’s economic package along needs rather than party lines, and how to enforce social distancing. It was social science that shows that rather than shaming – in essence, promoting -- the few people who are breaking rules, compliance increases if you praise those who are keeping the rules. And social science also helps address wicked problems that predate COVID but which now have new facets, such as the unequal impact the disease has on ethnic minority communities. There’s even a lesson in how science gets applied, he suggests. Like those anthropologists … “[A]nthropology seems like it’s for other people -- ‘Other people have strange customs; we’re normal in the West and what we do is normal’ – but I think the key is to bring an anthropological lens to our own behavior. What are the practices that we have and how can we change them?” Arenas like critical thinking and psychology are also brought to bear tellingly on the home front: “Our leaders share our biases,” he tells Edmonds, before detailing a number of logical traps policymakers and the populace currently share. The podcast closes out with a look to the future, both through specific initiatives Shah is part of, and in general. “I think there will be all sorts of fascinating data about how the pandemic has affected us,” including, he made clear higher education and academic research itself. Shah, meanwhile, is acting chair of the Ada Lovelace Institute, which while looking at technical solutions to COVID also draws on social science insights, i.e. in digital contact tracing, it was revealed that those most vulnerable to COVID were also least likely to have a smart phone. And the British Academy itself, he noted, has a group of scholars assembled who will provide a rapid response to government inquiries and needs, as well as looking at some of the other implications of the future “that the government doesn’t have the bandwidth for.”
28 Apr 2020
Gregory Clark on Names
Surnames predict social status with surprising accuracy. In this episode of the Social Science Bites podcast Gregory Clark discusses this phenomenon with David Edmonds. Social Science Bites is made in association with SAGE. A transcript of this and other episodes is available from Social Science Space
1 Apr 2014
Saskia Sassen on Before Method
Here's an idea: social scientists should reflect critically on the prevailing concepts and categories before launching into empirical work with an existing framework. In this episode of the Social Science Bites podcast, sociologist Saskia Sassen discusses that concept, called 'before method,' with Nigel Warburton. Social Science Bites is made in association with SAGE. A transcript of this and other episodes is available from Social Science Space
1 May 2014
David Goldblatt on the Sociology of Football
With the arrival of the quadrennial World Cup, the whole world turns to football fandom. And that alone, independent of what actually happens on the pitch, is exciting to David Goldblatt, the soccer sociologist. “The point is that absolutely no other human behavior can gather these kinds of crowds,” he tells David Edmonds of Social Science Bites. “And if you're a sociologist and you're interested in the origins and consequences of collective action, you really can't beat that.” In this podcast, Goldblatt—who has taught the sociology of sport at the University of Bristol but who’s best known as a broadcaster and sportswriter who penned the definitive volume on football, 2006’s The Ball is Round: A Global History of Football -- outlines why he thinks cocking an academic eye at the beautiful game is important.
12 Jun 2014
Rupert Brown on Henri Tajfel
Henri Tajfel’s early life – often awful in the living, exciting in the retelling – gave the pioneering social psychologist the fodder for his life’s defining work: understanding the roots of prejudice. Born one hundred years ago into a Jewish family in the dawn of an independent Poland created from the detritus of three disintegrated empires, he left Poland to study chemistry in France in the late 1930s. When the Germans dismembered Poland, Tajfel joins a Polish unit in the French army, and is ultimately captured by the Germans. He survived the war as a POW, even as the Nazis exterminated most of his family. “From that moment on,” his biographer Rupert Brown explains to Dave Edmonds in this Social Science Bites podcast, “one of his driving pre-occupations was to understand how could something like the Holocaust ever have happened.” After the war, Tajfel worked in orphanages in France and Belgium and then in a displaced persons camp in Germany. At this time he met, and eventually married, a German Jewish woman who had emigrated to England before the war. This led him to move to Britain, where he studied and then taught psychology. His research at Oxford, and later and most notably at Bristol, focused on researching the cognitive roots of prejudice, discrimination and nationalism. “[H]e made,” said Brown, “this really significant discovery that one doesn’t need very much to invoke inter-group discrimination and prejudice. Simply being told that you’re in one group or another seems to be enough to trigger that discrimination.” Using a technique known as ‘minimal group experiments’ – creating kinship based on as little as what sort of abstract painting you like or what colour you prefer – Tajfel determined that “if you imposed categories on anything you are viewing or are living, people start exaggerating the differences between the two groups. He wondered, ‘Could we observe the same thing in a real behavioural situation?’” Such questions conflicted with many of the then-prevailing notions of how prejudice arises, which Tajfel saw as too generic and too idiosyncratic. Based on the individual, they didn’t account for the clear historical precedent, Germany in the 1930s, that Tajfel saw firsthand (nor current examples like Islamophobia). Can that come down a particular personality or a particular level of frustration, Brown recounts Tajfel thinking. “He just thought that didn’t wash.” As others have built on his insights, Tajfel’s own work now sounds much like conventional wisdom, even if Tajfel himself didn’t push into applications and left out issues like emotion and gender in his theorising. “In itself, social identity theory is rather an impoverished explanation for things like genocide, things like inter-group slaughter,” Brown says. “Because what does it say – ‘We want our group to be a little better than the other group,’ ‘we‘re looking for positive distinctiveness’? In trying to understand hatred, intergroup violence, we have to go beyond positive distinctiveness. There must be something else that drives people’s anger and hostility.” Of late, Tajfel’s behaviour has overshadowed his contributions. He died in 1982, and in the 1960s and 1970s he was a serial sexual harasser of young women in his lab and elsewhere (and a difficult and demanding professor overall, as Brown, one of his former PhD students, confirmed). That legacy was known but ignored for years, and the European Association of Social Psychology instituted an important award for lifetime achievement in Tajfel’s name the year he died. This autumn, however, the Association rethought that decision; “naming an award after a person suggests that this individual is a role model as a scientist and beyond,” the organization stated as it announced renaming the award. Brown does not shy away from the conduct in this podcast or in his new book, Henri Tajfel: Explorer of Identity and Difference. Nor does he defend it, although he does question the renaming: “The prize wasn’t given to recognise moral probity; it was given for contributions to the discipline.” (Brown’s research and his book were supported by a major research fellowship by The Leverhulme Trust and the European Association of Social Psychology itself.) Brown is an emeritus professor of social psychology at the University of Sussex and himself won a Tajfel medal in 2014. Among his achievements are writing several important texts on social identity and prejudice, including co-authoring Social Identity Processes in 2000 for the parent of Social Science Space, SAGE Publishing.
2 Dec 2019
Alison Liebling on Successful Prisons
In determining what makes a successful prison, where would you place ‘trust’? Alison Liebling, a criminologist at the University of Cambridge and the director of the Institute of Criminology’s Prisons Research Centre, would place it at the top spot. As she tells interviewer David Edmonds in this Social Science Bites podcast, she believes what makes a prison good is the existence and the practice of trust. As this recording makes clear, these aren’t starry-eyed recommendations from a novice observer. Liebling has years of going into dozens of individual lockups, and believes that good prisons are possible. “A good prison,” she details, “is one where prisoners feel safe and the environment is not threatening – and therefore they can concentrate on their own personal development.” That environment means inmates are “reasonably decently treated, not worried about getting from A to B, the regime works in a fairly predictable and clear way, and the staff are approachable,” among other things. While she has met with ‘why bother?’-type resistance from hard-boiled staff and prisoners surrounding her research, her retort is quick and usually effective: “There isn’t any better method than research for authentically describing this invisible world.” The best prisons, she says, are the ones that “see prisoners as people first.” This isn’t a prescription to be naïve, and she subscribes to what Onora O’Neill describes as “intelligent trust” in dealing with prisoners. Good corrections officers already intuit the concept, she adds: they are “subtle readers of human behavior ... making fine judgements about gradations of trust.” For her research, Liebling has adopted “appreciative inquiry,” which she came too almost accidentally while trying to discover a way to describe what works in a prison and how do prisons differ from each other. (“It wasn’t a research tool, or at least it wasn’t until I corrupted it!” she jokes.) Just as plants follow the sun, appreciative inquiry also follows the heliotropic principle, trying to identify and then support what gives life energy to people or organizations. “So instead of telling me about your offending,” she would ask, “tell me something you’re most proud of.” Talk about working in the prison environment (“I always felt really at home”), the idea that prisoners themselves my feel vulnerable, how to build trust, and how prison policies have improved over Liebling’s career – and how that improvement has stalled Liebling has published several books on these topics, such as 1992’s Suicides in Prison, 2004’s Prisons and their Moral Performance: A Study of Values, Quality and Prison Life and The Effects of Imprisonment with Shadd Maruna in 2005, and Legitimacy and Criminal Justice, an edited volume with Justice Tankebe, in 2013.
1 May 2018
Les Back on Migrants
Sociologists Les Back and Shamser Sinha spent a decade following 30 migrants in London, a study that forms the narrative in their new book, Migrant City. But the book, which includes the names of three of their subjects as additional co-authors, doesn’t focus the lives of 30 characters, but 31. “In the end,” Back tells interviewer David Edmonds in this Social Science Bites podcast, “Shamser Sinha and I learned so much about not only the experience of migration, but about London as a space and a place that is made through migration. So this is not really just a migrants’ story; it’s the story of London but told through and eyes, ears and attentiveness of 30 adult migrants from all corners of the world.” Given the focus on immigration at present – whether into the European Union from the developing world, into Britain from the rest of pre-Brexit Europe, or into the United states from points south – Edmonds inquires whether the immigrants were in London legally or not. They were both, although Back notes that migrants in general often pass between the two states. The question itself allows Back to expound on the way that that binary colors so much of the conversation about immigration. “The idea of the immigrant itself holds our thinking hostage very often; that’s one of the big points we wanted to make. It’s so coded, it’s so symbolic in our political culture, particularly the legal/illegal ones that bear down on the public debates – the good migrants vs. the unwanted ones.” Sinha and Back’s work was part of a larger European Union-funded seven-country study of migration in Europe. The pair’s longitudinal ethnography In, and of, London was accompanied by a conscious effort not just to “mine” the 30 migrants of their personal experiences and data; the sociologists were “doing research alongside people, instead of just in front of them and on them.” Many of the migrants were happy to become more than mere subjects, hence the writing credit for three of them. “To say that the participants are co-authors, on the one hand, is an attempt to honor their contribution,” Back recounts in explaining the unique two-plus-three byline. “On the other hand, we felt there was a bit of sleight of hand, because at the end of the day Shamser and I spent 10 years listening to people, thinking about the way they documented their own lives and observed their own lives and the way we made sense of that. At the end of the day, Shamser and I pulled this piece of writing together and shaped it. So it would be wrong to not acknowledge that.” Back describes both the alienation the migrants experienced, but also their “enchantment” with being a London, a city which had often loomed large in their lives well before they set off to live there. “Very often, those young people were here because British interests, or London’s interests specifically, had been alive in the places where they grew up, their hometowns and their far-off places. ... They are here because we were there, or continue to be there.” A native Londoner, Back is a professor of sociology at Goldsmiths, University of London. He is both a student of Goldsmiths, having done undergraduate and postgraduate studies there, and since 1993 has been on the faculty there. In that time he’s written number of books, including 2007’s The Art of Listening; 2002’s Out of Whiteness: Color, Politics and Culture (with Vron Ware); and 2001’s The Changing Face of Football: racism, identity and multiculture in the English game (with Tim Crabbe and John Solomos). In 2016, his Academic Diary: Or Why Higher Education Still Matters, was the first book ever published by the then new Goldsmiths Press.
1 Feb 2019
Celia Heyes on Cognitive Gadgets
How did humans diverge so markedly from animals? Apart from physical things like our “physical peculiarities,” as experimental psychologist Celia Heyes puts it, or our fine motor control, there’s something even more fundamentally – and cognitively -- different. “I suppose at the broadest level,” Heyes tells interviewer David Edmonds in this Social Science Bites podcast, “we differ from animals because we are so ultra-social, so intensely cooperative. And as a result, we’ve transformed our environments, for good or ill, more radically than any other species through things like agriculture, technology, science, but also, law, trade to the point of economies and finance, fine arts, sports, all of these things.” Heyes, a senior research fellow in theoretical life sciences at All Souls College, University of Oxford, argues that we’ve evolved those differences, or “innate modules.” That may sound like evolutionary psychology, which suggests that many of these traits are pre-coded into humans -- “we get them for free,” as Heyes translates -- and therefore are minimally dependent on what we experience in childhood. While Heyes appreciates the evolutionary aspect of natural selection and agrees there is some sort of genetic starter kit,” but she says the locus of evolution is not genetic but cultural. She points to things like cross-cultural differences in beliefs and behavior or the ability to read, which hasn’t had time to be genetically encoded (even if it can be observed lighting up only certain parts of the brain) but it can have evolved culturally. Heyes’ research and theories place her all over the academic map, but she describes herself as “part biologist, part philosopher, but I am first and foremost a psychologist.” A fellow of the British Academy and president of the Experimental Psychology Society, her latest book is the brand new Cognitive Gadgets: The Cultural Evolution of Thinking from Harvard University Press.
1 Jun 2018