Category Archives: Comment

Breadline Britain: councils fund food banks to plug holes in welfare state

Professor Liz Dowler from Sociology@Warwick comments in this Guardian article about council funding of local food banks:

“Despite their apparent ‘win-win’ appeal to some councils, foodbanks conceal realities of poverty and hunger. They let the state off the hook from their obligation to ensure all have the means to live, and from showing political leadership to grapple creatively with poverty.”

Get on the way, Pussy Riot!

This article was originally posted on the MYPLACE blog. The MYPLACE blog first reported on ”Pussy Riot’s” anti-Putin punk prayer protest, in March. Now, as 3 members of the group have been sentenced to 2 years imprisonment for “hooliganism,” the University of Warwick’s Dr Ivan Gololobov writes on the scene in Moscow which forms the background to Pussy Riot’s rise to infamy.

For more information on the MYPLACE project, visit the project’s website: HERE. Or follow the project on Twitter: HERE.

In the last few months a lot of media attention in Russia and abroad was drawn to the trial over three members of the feminist punk-band Pussy Riot arrested and charged with hooliganism for their performance ‘Punk-prayer’ that took place inside of the Christ the Saviour, the biggest Orthodox cathedral in Russia on the  21st of February  2012.  Musicians all over the world from Madonna, Paul McCartney and Peter Gabriel, to Bjork, Red Hot Chilli Peppers and Faith no More expressed their clear disagreement with the proposed sentence and showed their support to the arrested girls. Russian musicians, however, expressed surprisingly little interest to this affair. And if the silence of pop and rock stars whose careers vitally depend on good relations with the authorities is more than understandable, the absence of vocal response from underground musicians looks pretty strange.

It would be wrong to say that such reaction is completely absent, but interestingly enough it comes from rather unexpected corners of the scene. The first song produced in support to Pussy Riot was recorded by a well-known rapper Siava, famous for his colourful portraits of yobs’ life. The song was called Maliava Pussy Riot [A prison letter to Pussy Riot], it was released in April 2012 shortly after the arrest.

Since then, no one really added to this single voice until in August 2012 Elizium, an emo-core band from Nizhniy Novgorod came forward with the slogans of support to Pussy Riot on Kubana, the biggest open-air festival Kubana in the South of Russia, and BARTO, a feminist electro-punk band from Moscow recorded a track called Kis’ia eres’ [Heresy of little cats]

The silence of the Russian music underground, and what is more surprising – punk scene is, however, not that unpredictable. As a matter of fact Pussy Riot, although calling themselves a punk-band and using the sign of punk in their performances, never belonged to the Russian punk scene. They consider themselves as art-actionists, clearly place themselves in the context of contemporary Russian actionism, quoting the names of Prigov, Brener, Kulik and other art-provocateurs of the 1990s.

From the very beginning Pussy Riot was an art-project and their personal connection to the famous art-group Voina is not an accident in this regard. Ideology and actions of Pussy Riot are clearly oriented towards media reaction. The songs which appear in the internet are pre-recorded in studio, their actions are pre-rehearsed and sometimes include several takes, like the one in the Christ the Saviour, where footage from an identical action in a smaller church performed earlier was mixed in the main clip. This is, somehow, not particularly punky. In the same way as it is not particularly punky to stage a gig and to play without any audience, just for the cameras, portraying it later as a ‘concert’.

The punk-prayer is not over, it is being written now, and its after-effect appears to be much more important than the performance itself. Performance itself was not that interesting and, moreover, many found it appalling, but what happened next is by far much more appalling. This however made Russian music underground silent as it did not find the ways of reacting on this performance which appeared to be much more real than any ‘real’ punk concert, ironically suggesting that probably the only true rock and punk musician in Russia appeared to be rapper Siava, previously known for his hit Bodriachkom, patsanchiki  [Get on the way, lads], caution, explicit lyrics!!!

Social theory and social research – what went wrong?

Underlying much sociological explanation is an attempt to bridge the gap between the ‘micro’ and the ‘macro’ within the context of a specific empirical inquiry. As the authors of the paper cited below put it, “in the human and behavioural sciences, the analytical connection or co-relation between individual and social processes, between cognitive (mental) and social (group) structures, or between ‘habitus’ and ‘field’ … is often understood and elaborated as the big problem of bridging the ‘micro’ and ‘macro’ levels” (Lydaki and Tsekeris 2011: 68). The apparent diversity with which this ‘gap’ is characterised within social theory points to the intractability of the underlying issue: how do we make sense of the relationship between the individual actors we see around us and the wider social order which appears to shape but also be shaped by their actions? The dualisms which proliferate within social theory do so, in part, as a result of a failure to resolve this underlying question. An inability to establish consensus on the underlying explanatory question posed by social research has, as its flip side, the continual elaboration of a sometimes strikingly imprecise conceptual vocabulary which attempts to come to terms with various aspects of this foundational challenge: “constructivism-positivism, subjectivism-objectivism, intentionalism-functionalism, agency-structure, individual-society, or micro-macro” (Lydaki and Tsekeris 2011: 70). Depressingly large tracts of sociological discourse have proceeded from the personal investments and logical entailments which stem from occupying one side or another of these dualisms. Even as the last couple of decades have seen a variety of attempts to bridge these dichotomies, or even abandon them entirely as terms of reference, these moves have in turn bred new dichotomies (e.g. structurationist and post-structurationist) which, perhaps as the one last sign of my past life as a Rortyean philosophy student, never cease to appal me on an aesthetic level.

Drawing on the work of Nicos Mouzelis, Lydaki and Tsekeris argue that this “pluralization of approaches seriously impeded the epistemologically healthy capacity for meta-theory  – that is, for a sincere, uninterrupted and open-ended dialogue between opposing worldviews and paradigms” (Lydaki and Tsekeris 2011: 71). The proliferation of competing paradigms, often driven by technical polemics rather than practical disagreement over shared aims, worked to erode the common frame of reference within which sociologists were able to evaluate ‘theories’ as competing ways of making sense of underlying practical questions of explaining the social world. It contributed to a ghettoization of social theory, with its practical implementation too often limited to those who, having seen the explanatory gains which emerged from a particular approach, ensconced themselves within it and worked with others to elaborate it within its own theoretical terms of reference e.g. bourdieusian theory. As a consequence, social theory ossifies as, with the conceptual logics of particular theoretical approaches increasingly insulated from the practical logics encountered in the practice of social research, the point of social theory becomes increasingly unclear. Likewise the uses to which social theory is put within social research become less helpful than they would otherwise be because of this broader lack of clarity. It almost seems, perhaps, that social theory becomes something which sociologists are self-conscious about. In a way it should be. The characteristics which many find frustrating about contemporary social theory are, I wish to argue, indicative of things having gone badly wrong. They are a sign of people having talked too much, for too long, about predominately practical issues which, it seems, we might have come to some sort of working agreement on if circumstances had been different. My point is not that we should all agree on one ‘paradigm’ but simply that the fixation on ‘paradigms’ has precluded a consensus about the practical purposes which these sorts of discussions should serve.

Tsekeris, C., & Lydaki, A. (2011). The micro-macro dilemma in sociology: Perplexities and perspectives. Sociologija, 53(1), 67-82. doi:10.2298/SOC1101067T

Mark Carrigan
4th Year PhD Student

The Financial Crisis: A Way Out for Irish Youth?

David Cairns, MYPLACE Project team member at Centro de Investigação e Estudos de Sociologia, Lisbon, Portugal and Work Package Leader on his recently published paper on youth in Ireland in the economic crisis.

This was originally posted on the MYPLACE blog. Follow MYPLACE on Twitter here. For more information on the MYPLACE project, visit the project’s website here

This article was based around a recently published paper by the author available HERE.

One of the key contexts for the MYPLACE project is the importance of the financial crisis in young people’s lives. That youth face economic problems is evident in many of our partner countries, most obviously, Spain, Portugal and Greece, but what of the potential impact being made by the crisis upon the future direction of young people’s lives, particularly where there has been a dramatic collapse in the range of life chances?

Our recently completed study, now published on-line inJournal of Youth Studies, looked at the reactions of young people in two cities in the Republic of Ireland, Dublin and Cork, to the crisis. We asked a number of important questions, including whether or not they were contemplating leaving the country. Youth migration is an important, and emotive, subject in Ireland, a phenomenon which was for decades associated with economic failure and cultural backwardness; hence, there is a political meaning to such movement, perhaps not present in other regional contexts. All this was thought to have changed in the 1990s, with the advent of the “Celtic Tiger” boom. This boom was founded not so much upon government policies, but rather the existence of an unusually large youth population, who were not only tertiary educated and English language-speaking but also relatively free of dependents; one reason for this, incidentally, was the removal of restrictions on purchasing contraceptives. For over a decade, GDP soared, as did salaries and the personal prosperity of some, if certainly not all. This ended in 2008, with the arrival of the financial crisis in the wake of the collapse of Lehmann Brothers bank. The Irish property bubble burst, and the local banks who had lent recklessly were left to pay the enormous bill, or rather the Irish population were left to pay the banks’ enormous bill, which was passed onto them courtesy of the Irish government. When it realised that this wasn’t going to be enough, this government then called in the International Monetary Fund, and the rest you probably know already.

So what of youth during this economic crisis period: do they intend to stay or leave? The general assumption, certainly in the Irish media, has been that a new wave of youth migration is imminent. Many local politicians were also no doubt wishing that all those without jobs would simply fly off to places where they would no longer be a burden on the tax payer. This of course, has not happened. While there has been some increase in outward migration, most of this movement can be attributed to return migrants, particularly those going back to Poland and other Central and Eastern European countries. The youth population has for the most part remained in Ireland. Our research, with a sample of 200 tertiary educated young people, confirms this finding, also illustrating that while the financial crisis may be generating an understandable desire to leave, this is not translated into large numbers of exiting young people. There are many reasons why Irish youth don’t, or don’t feel able, to leave, ranging from a dependence upon the resources embedded in their family relationships and friendship ties, i.e. social capital, to a perception that the situations facing them abroad would be no better to what they would encounter at home. Others lack internationally transferrable skills or are limited by their lack of fluency in foreign languages.

There are nevertheless a few isolated cases emerging from our research, which show that some young people are on the verge of moving abroad, mostly to Great Britain, but occasionally to more distant places like Canada, the US and Australia. And as other researchers in the field of youth mobility have shown, it tends to be the best and brightest young people who leave, particularly those from relatively well-off family backgrounds. The family is in fact the most important factor in explaining why young people choose to leave or stay, with friends often proving instrumental.

While Ireland may not be witnessing a mass youth exodus, it still faces the prospect of losing many young people with valuable skills and marketable qualifications. This may not be as politically embarrassing as watching an entire generation of young people fly away across the Atlantic Ocean or drift across the Irish sea, but there is still a sense of young people having been let down by an older generation, who were more concerned with the prices of their properties than the future of their children. What the future hold for those left behind remains to be seen, but the results on the imminent referendum on the Treaty on Stability, Coordination and Governance in the Economic and Monetary Union should be interesting.

Is Precautionary the New Reactionary?

In recent months, both sides of the Atlantic have witnessed renewed calls to apply the so-called Precautionary Principle to limit, if not outright, stop a variety of publicly and privately funded research and development projects around the topic of ‘synthetic biology’, an umbrella term for all attempts to redesign life, either by altering existing organisms or introducing new ones. The UK’s Green Party, currently enjoying its first Member of Parliament, has even proposed a permanent precautionary branch of government with the power to refer any legislation back to committee if it fails to be properly cognizant of its potential effects on future generations. You can find out more about it here. However, the most ambitious attempt to enforce the Precautionary Principle will be unveiled next week (18th April) at Washington’s Wilson Center. 113 NGOs from across the world have signed a statement that would effectively impose enough regulations on the pursuit of synthetic biology to make it unfeasible. If you’re interested in finding out more or attending the event, go here.

Generally speaking, the Precautionary Principle proposes a version of the Hippocratic Oath for the entire planet: i.e. above all else, do no harm. At first hearing, who could disagree? However, in practice, it turns out to be a radically risk-averse strategy that mistakenly sees the wholesale arresting of scientific and technological innovation as the solution to genuine problems of social injustice, poverty, inequality, insecurity, etc. I say ‘wholesale’ quite deliberately because, while Precautionaries have been traditionally preoccupied with stopping the spread of ‘genetically modified organisms’, their arguments are typically pitched at such a level of generality and abstraction that they could be easily extended to any genuine innovation in the Schumpeterian sense – that is, a market game-changer. In short, Precautionaries are completely blind to the positive character of risk-taking, even when the risks fail. Indeed, the failures may teach us more, if the data they provide are collected and made publicly available so that others may learn and take more informed risks in the future. A truly progressive society insures against the inevitable negative outcomes of risk-taking without discouraging the taking of risk altogether.

Behind this last sentence is an alternative to the Precautionary Principle, namely, the Proactionary Principle, which has been so far promoted only in transhumanist circles. You can read its latest version here. The Proactionary Principle ties our distinctiveness as creatures to our proven capacity for taking calculated risks from which we emerge not dead but stronger as a species. The trick is to provide a normative framework that makes the Proactionary Principle attractive not only to self-styled heroic entrepreneurs and libertarians but also to ordinary, often vulnerable people who are not normally inclined to risk so much of themselves and the world for some unknown future. At the moment, Veronika Lipinska and I are writing a book that will sketch out the basis for a new sort of welfare state that is not so much focussed on preventing worst outcomes but rather encourages the taking of risks from which all of society may benefit.

Professor Steve Fuller

Advice about Academic Talks

If the audience is to get any value-added from an academic talk, then the academic should speak not read the talk. Reading the talk, at best, is good karaoke. To me it always suggests that the academic hasn’t mastered his/her material sufficiently to navigate without training wheels. Ditto for powerpoint presentations, unless one really needs to point to something for added epistemic power. A good academic talk should be more like a jazz improvisation – i.e. the speaker provides some novel riffs on themes familiar from his/her texts that allow the audience to join in, sometimes contributing some novelty of their own.

We live in economically stretched times. Why invite famous drones, whose appreciation you could more cheaply acknowledge by buying their books or citing their articles? Anyone who is in charge of a speaker schedule – be it a seminar series or international conference – should always bear in mind that, in the first instance, it is the speaker – not you – who most obviously benefits from an invitation. It is not unreasonable to request something more adventurous than boilerplate from the speaker. You might even – God forbid! – ask them to address a topic somewhat outside their comfort zone. (Youtube is beginning to provide a resource to make informed judgements about who you should (not) invite.)

The increasing specialisation of academic life is way too often used to condone a multitude of sins that hover around the concept of ‘competence’. I never ceased to be amazed how often academics are willing to speak to only a rather narrow sense of ‘what they have already prepared’, or how easily flummoxed they get when they’re told they have 20 instead of 30 (or 10 instead of 20) minutes to present. After all, we’re supposed to be in the business of conveying ideas not displaying powers of recitation.

Of course, academics are worried about saying something wrong in public. Putting aside assaults to one’s vanity, academics sometimes suggest that the public might be at risk if they misspoke. Well, we should be so lucky! In fact, academics misspeak all the time (even when think they’ve adequately prepared) and either no one is paying attention or it doesn’t matter. I do not wish to counsel complacency but simply to demystify a cheap excuse for not having to speak one’s mind in public.

And let’s say you’re caught in an outright error – you should respond graciously. There is nothing wrong with learning in public. Often the blows can be softened by retaining enough wit to realize that your fault-finder is probably overreaching because they’re motivated to find fault in what you said. In other words, they’re interested in advancing their own agenda as they curtail yours. But you can concede a specific error without conceding an entire agenda. In short, make sure you’ve got the wherewithal to do a wheat-and-chaff job on the fault-finder’s comment. (And also do try to correct the error in future presentations!)

Younger academics may think that my advice applies only to more seasoned professionals. But truth be told, we are already pretty cynical about young people. Your word-perfect presentations are taken to be a prosthetic channel for your supervisor’s thoughts – but you might still get credit (if only for academic survival skills!) if you fend off criticism effectively. What’s harder to judge – and therefore places more of the burden on us who judge you – is if you appear to be a normal person making a novel argument. Once we’re able to engage with you at that level, my advice starts to make sense. But what this means is that you need to integrate your academic message with your normal mode of being, so that you can shift with relative ease from banalities to profundities, without losing a sense of the difference between the two!

Professor Steve Fuller
Blog / Twitter 

A ‘Plentitude Economy’?

The Center for a New American Dream has created an animation analysing what is wrong with capitalism and explaining how to make the world better. Familiar? There have been quite a few similar attempts recently. As with anything in our hyper-visual age, the animation method of presentation of ideas has gone viral. What is interesting about this one is not so much the engaging package of animation, but the argument: it aims to challenge the traditional economic notion of perpetual growth as a prerequisite for a successful economy. While I very much like the idea that it is time to modify our view of economic growth, I am not so sure about their suggestions. They sound like a peculiar mix of different ideas, each of which, taken separately, is commendable, but how do they fit in one economic programme? I can see unresolvable clashes between traces of individualist liberalism and the early ‘capitalist spirit’ based on a Protestant ethic (we need to take responsibility and spend less); romanticised naturalism (let’s all brew our own beer in our back garden); Durkheimian social policy (‘commitment to social connection and community’); and vulgar Marxism (when people work less, they will have more time for DIY!). The video promotes the lifestyle of a small eco-conscious fraction of today’s young middle class in the USA and Europe as the solution to everybody’s problems all over the world (or even just in the USA). I am also sceptical about some assertions, such as that people consume less when they work less (in fact, it seems to me to be the contrary!), or that benefits are ‘easily solvable’ even if all people worked 80% of their usual time (and received lower wages, and paid lower taxes, as a result).

With all these criticisms, I still watched this twice, hoping that perhaps it will offer a viable solution to the economic growth conundrum. It is so tempting to imagine a cosy world in which everybody couch-surfs, works part-time, soup-swaps and knits their own socks, but this is ultimately an illusion. Well, see for yourself and let us know what you think:

Milena Kremakova
PhD Candidate and Sessional Teacher 

Fantastic Monsters Protecting Morality

MYPLACE team members at Centre for Youth Research, Higher School of Economics (St Petersburg) present their latest blog on the passing of a new law against the propaganda of homosexuality and pedophilia.

This was originally posted on the MYPLACE blog. Follow MYPLACE on Twitter hereFor more information on the MYPLACE project, visit the project’s website here.

On the 8th February, the St Petersburg parliament adopted a law at second reading directed against the propaganda of homosexuality and pedophilia. In his Twitter post on the 8th of February (http://twitter.com/stephenfry) Stephen Fry responded to the  deputies’ decision thus: “God damn it! We need to do something to stop these fantastic monsters! They mean that Tchaikovsky will be prohibited? ”, The law caused protest among the LGBT community and mass media at the end of last year when it was proposed for discussion by Vitaly Milonov,  a deputy of the ruling party “United Russia”. Sexual minority groups organized several street protests, signatures were collected against the law and  expert opinions mobilized to critique the claim that gays are the same as pedophiles. Since the scandal coincided with the eve of Parliamentary elections, the further progress of the law  was postponed until a more appropriate moment.

Vitaly Milonov, having secured his  place in the Saint-Petersburg Parliament, returned to this subject during the first session of the renewed parliament and clarified what is supposed to be the  “propaganda” of homosexuality.  It was defined, specifically, as the uncontrolled and purposeful distribution of information  which creates the “distorted perception of the social equivalence of traditional and non-conventional marital relations”.

“Fontanka,” the news agency journalist that was present during the second reading mentioned that the deputies preferred to discuss not the wording but the topic of the bill itself (http://www.fontanka.ru/2012/02/08/156/ ). As a result the bill was adopted by 31 votes to 6. After the third reading the bill will need to be signed by the Government who was the main initiator for its discussion in the Parliament, according to the political analyst Stanisal Belkovsky.

Whether by accident or design, during the discussion of the projected law, the Agency of Social Technologies “Politekh” distributed the results of a phone survey that was commissioned by the Public Chamber in 149 cities in Russia in November 2011http://www.interfax-religion.ru/?act=news&div=44164. According to the data, 74% of respondents regard homosexuality as a vicious perversion of human nature. 79% consider that same-sex marriages should not to be allowed inRussia. 87% support the prohibition of gay-parades. 82% think that homosexuals should not be allowed to teach and work with children or young people.

The “Politekh” report indicates that one of the purposes of the survey was to analyze which views – secular liberal or traditional religious – are supported by Russian people. The results of other sociological research are given (a quantitative survey) showing that Russians think that  morality has declined in comparison to the USSR period. The opponents of the proposed law discussed in the Parliament also mention the USSR but in another context – they  reminded us that during this period gays were considered criminals and jailed.

Response to “The ‘prestige’ of journals in a social media age”

As it turns out, our new dept head has asked us to look over the new REF guidelines for comment this week, so this issue is fresh on my mind.

What you say is interesting, especially if we’re talking about how to represent research interest and activity through journal publication. Yes, social media potentially can provide a better representation of that than the current journal bureaucracy. So no disagreement there.

Unfortunately, as exercises like REF illustrate all too well, ranking people, depts, research specialities, etc. is taken to be one of the important goals of publication, because publication is tied to resources. So the hierarchies that you decry are actually seen as a good feature of the current system. If those hierarchies were flattened as you suggest, it would be much harder to judge people and allocate resources.

So, on the policy side, you’d have to re-define the relationship between research prestige and resource allocation. So far it seems that you simply want them decoupled.

One way to look at the current fad for ‘impact factors’ is as addressing some of your criticisms of journal hierarchies by saying that what really matters is not where things are published but whether people do anything with them once they’re published. But of course, that really doesn’t address the spirit of your proposal because, in the current system, articles can’t have impact unless they’ve been published in the right journals in the first place (which is reflected in how ‘impact’ is measured).

An interesting test-case for your proposal would be the Science Citation Index, which puts out the Web of Knowledge. Those guys have always maintained that they are not in the evaluation business but are simply mapping the aggregate contours of the knowledge system. In principle, they should embrace the inclusion of all open access journals to get a more accurate representation of the research environment. But of course, in practice, SCI is quite picky about which journals it includes in its citation counts….

Professor Steve Fuller

The Concept of Prestige in a Social Media Age

Prestige:

  1. reputation or influence arising from success, achievement,rank, or other favorable attributes.
  2. distinction or reputation attaching to a person or thing and thus possessing a cachet

Journals seen as prestigious have a reputation for possessing favourable attributes: they are well managed, have high editorial standards, publish good papers. In fact all these factors are, in practice, related. They’re also seen to be related – perhaps, one might suggest, to an extent which outstrips the reality. Great faith has been placed in their capacity to filter – with high rejection rates, stringent editors, thorough review process and imposing reputations, the readership can be confident that only high quality papers make the grade (with the often implicit corollary that papers not in these journals aren’t high quality).

As a cognitive category, a presupposition which undergirds our evaluative judgements – meant in a way which encompasses this notion – it’s profoundly 20th century. But if you question it too naively, people are likely to construe this as an  attack on academic standards. Why would they leap to this conclusion? Because the conceptual architecture of alternative judgemental practices had not, until recently, emerged: this is where social media comes in.

The notion of ‘prestige’ – with its hierarchical connotations and intrinsic links to bureaucracy – rests on the assumption that filtering, as a social and culture process, relies on fixed elite organisation and, contingently, commercial motives to meet the inherent costs. But that isn’t obviously true anymore. Social media enables an ongoing process of communal filtering which, depending on the dynamics of participation, can become profoundly refined – for a trivial example, if you use Twitter in an engaged way, just look through your feed and see what percentage of the links posted are things you find interesting. For me it’s often 90% or more. Now imagine the same process, working in an organised way, with the radical difference that there are clearly delineable  communities of practice within academia (and, if you see this as a venn diagram, with specific topics and sub disciplinary areas co-existing within disciplinary and methodological clusters, the notion becomes a very sharp one) which, in principle, means the filtering process can be incredibly powerful.

…. which is what open access online journals, run non-hierarchically as collectives, organised thematically in a way which maximally connects with the values and passions of those involved would be. Thoughts?

Mark Carrigan
4th Year PhD Student 

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