Bite-sized interviews with top social scientists
Alondra Nelson on Genetic Testing
Sociologist Alondra Nelson calls it “root-seeking” – individuals wanting to know their ethnic background. Knowing who your people were as a way to know who you are verges on being a human need – witness the Hebrew Bible or the carefully tended genealogies of royal houses.
In her own seeking, Nelson has studied the rise and use of direct-to-consumer genetic testing as made popular by companies like 23andme, Ancestry.com and AncestryDNA. Those firms and others promise to decode, at least in part, stories found in your own chromosomal makeup. As Nelson achieved other career milestones, including being the current president of the Social Science Research Council and the Harold F. Linder Professor at the Institute for Advanced Study, she’s also spent close to two decades unraveling the story of consumer genetic testing, accounts of which resulted in two of her books, Genetics and the Unsettled Past: The Collision of DNA, Race, and History and the new The Social Life of DNA: Race, Reparations, and Reconciliation after the Genome.
In this Social Science Bites podcast, Nelson describes her particular interest in those root-seekers whose journeys usually aren’t captured in antebellum church registries or in tales passed down in the same hamlet through countless generations. She's focused on the descendants of people 'stolen from Africa' in the slave trade, who make up so much of the African diaspora.
In surveys and later in extensive interviewing among the African-American community, Nelson found a great deal of interest among Black Americans in DNA testing despite some historical misgivings.
“Marginalized communities, and in the context of the U.S., African-Americans in particular, have a very understandable historic distrust of genetic research and medical experimentation,” she explains to interviewer David Edmonds. “So the fact that African Americans were early adopters in this space is surprising given that history. What’s not surprising is the genealogical aspiration that many African Americans are trying to fulfill – a profound and pronounced and often very living and present longing sense of loss and longing about identity, original family names, of points and places on the continent of Africa where one’s ancestors might have come from.”
She also learned, as her investigations branched out from surveys of the genealogical community to interviews with test-takers, that “getting the test results was really the beginning of the endeavor, rather than the end.
“What in the world did you think you could do with this information, besides filing it away in a drawer and telling your family that we now know that we have Ibo, Yoruba, whatever the test provided for ancestry?” Answering that question meant Nelson’s own approach must evolve.
“That transformed the methodology to a kind of ethnographic methodology that I call the ‘social life of DNA’ in which I followed what happened with the test, what happened with the information, what did they think that these genetic inferences could do with the world. That really opens up a whole other space of thinking about the importance of genetic testing.”
Part of that space she explored is uniquely American. For much of (White) America, one’s ethnic ties to the ‘old country’ – to be Irish or Italian, say -- are a linchpin of identity. “That’s not been available to African Americans,” she notes, whose roots are assigned to an amorphous blob of sub-Saharan Africa, since specific roots were eradicated when now enslaved peoples arrived in the New World. “People lost their given names, lost the languages of their foremothers and forefathers,” Nelson said.
“[P]art of the work of what slave-making entailed was taking people from often very different places on the continent of Africa, with different langu
Heidi Larson on Vaccine Skepticism
As the toll from the COVID-19 pandemic increased, polling suggests counterintuitively that resistance to a future vaccine has also risen. Anthropologist Heidi J. Larson identified several likely drivers of this, including political polarization, a focus on being ‘natural,’ the undercurrent of mistrusting the so-called elite. But in this Social Science Bites podcast, she tells interviewer Dave Edmonds that there’s another driver.
Families who have some expertise in running their own affairs can come to resent “the elitism of science, the language of science, the ‘we know better’” which dismisses their experiences and more importantly, their questions. “A lot of parents feel very strongly feel that they have their own evidence of vaccine problems,” she notes, and the medical establishment has often not invested a lot into bringing the public along – even as the number of vaccines and the expectation of being vaccinated grows.
“[The public is] saying, wait a minute – we want to have say in this, we want to be able to ask some questions … [W]hen they feel like the door in closed on the questions, that shuts down the conversation. I think in order to become unstuck, we need to have more dialog and be open.”
Stuck is the name of Larson’s new book. Besides the obvious pun in the title, Larson explains Stuck: How Vaccine Rumors Start -- and Why They Don't Go Away also refers to being “stuck in the conversation, why the public health community has been losing some of the public enthusiasm for vaccines.”
These are questions and concerns Larson routinely addresses in her role as director of the Vaccine Confidence Project, a World Health Organization (WHO) Centre of Excellence that addresses vaccine hesitancy, and as a professor of anthropology, risk and decision science at the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine’s Department of Infectious Disease Epidemiology.
The first organized opposition to compulsory vaccination arose in the United Kingdom in the late 1800s, she explains, as a reaction to mandatory smallpox vaccinations. “To this day that is one of the persistent themes that has fueled some of this resistance.”
Nonetheless, as vaccinations remain one of the most remarkable health interventions available, the resistance that might be expected to erode in the face of a global health emergency hasn’t faded.
“Strangely, in the context of the pandemic, the already amplified skepticism has taken another level of resistance, which is surprising to many of us. You’d think with such a serious disease and a pandemic it would be a time where people would say, ‘Wow, this is really an example of why we really need a vaccine.’”
And the resistance, whether to a coronavirus vaccine or to vaccine in general, can be seen globally. In fact, Larson is seeing resistance groups linking up across borders – and an a most inopportune time. “I see the whole increase in the anti- and skepticism as being kind of a tipping point … We’ve always had all these other issues that have been challenging in getting enough people vaccinated, both from the supply of the vaccine and the access, logistics and all the rest. But this additional factor – we’ve stagnated in our global vaccination coverage and just can’t seem to get above a certain amount.” And those coverage levels in some cases fall below the thresholds needed for “herd immunity,” which in turn means we can expect more cases, whether or COVID, measles or even polio.
Social media has helped skeptics get their messages disseminated, and Larson notes that the Wakefield autism scare arose the same year as the start of Google. “The sentiments are not new,” she says, “but the scale and intensity of them is.”
In addition to her position in London, Larson is also a clinical professor in the De
Sherman James on John Henryism
Have you always felt that you could make of your life pretty much what you want to make of it? Once I make up your mind to do something, do you stay with it until the job is completely done? And when things don’t go the way you want them to, do you just work harder?
And one last question – are your poor, or working class, or live in a highly segregated area?
If you strongly agree with the first questions, and answer yes to the last one, your coping is likely putting you at greater risk for a raft of health problems. That’s a key finding of Duke University epidemiologist Sherman James, who describes what he terms ‘John Henryism’ in this Social Science Bites podcast.
The health effects, which James has studied since the 1980s, have come into sharper focus as the Coronavirus pandemic exacts a disproportionate toll on communities of color in the United States. Based on the John Henryism hypothesis, James tells interviewer David Edmonds, members of those communities are likely to develop the co-morbidities which help make COVID more deadly. And since many of them have to physically go to work, John Henryism helps “elucidate what some of these upstream drivers are.”
James defines John Henryism as “strong personality disposition to engage in high-effort coping with social and economic adversity. For racial and ethnic minorities … who live in wealthy, predominantly white countries – say, the United States – that adversity might include recurring interpersonal or systemic racial discrimination.” It can be identified by using James’ John Henryism Active Coping Scale, (JHAC12, pronounced ‘jack’), which asks 12 questions with responses from ‘strongly agree’ to ‘strongly disagree’ on a 5-point Likert scale.
High-effort coping, over years, results in excessive “wear and tear” on the body, damaging such things as the cardiovascular system, the immune system, and the metabolic system. Focusing on the cardiovascular system, James notes that this “enormous outpouring of energy and release of stress hormones” damages the blood vessels and the heart.
James notes that the damage doesn’t occur solely because someone is a Type A personality – it’s the interaction with poverty or segregation that turns someone from a striver to a Sisyphus (with the attendant negative effects on their cardiovascular health). In fact, James says, research finds that having resources and a John Henry-esque personality does not lead to an earlier onset of cardiovascular disease.
The eponymous John Henry is a figure from American folklore. The ‘real’ John Henry probably was a manual worker, perhaps an emancipated slave in the American South, James explains. His legendary doppelganger was a railroad worker, “renowned throughout the South for his amazing physical strength,” especially when drilling holes into solid rock so that dynamite could be used.
A boss challenged John Henry to compete against a mechanical steam drill. It was, says James, “an epic battle of man – John Henry – against the machine. John Henry actually beat the machine, but he died from complete mental and physical exhaustion following is victory.”
A folk song memorializes the battle. As one version (there are many, but all telling the same story) recounts:
John Henry he hammered in the mountains
His hammer was striking fire
But he worked so hard, it broke his heart
John Henry laid down his hammer and died, Lord, Lord
John Henry laid down his hammer and died
That narrative – dying from the stresses of being driven to perfection but in a dire environment – the Jim Crow South – gave its name to James’ hypothesis.
James himself grew up in small town in the rural American South, beginning his higher education in the early 1960s at the historically Black Talladega College near Birmingham, Alabama. Birmingham was the
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.”
Ashley Mears on the Global Party Circuit
It’s a scene you might recall from a music video or TV shows where a young alpha male goes to the club with his crew. They’re parked at a table, order bottle service while flanked by a bevy of attractive if faceless young women, and after some overindulgence start spraying Cristal like dish soap in a squirt gun.
That’s life as Ashley Mears documents in a neat little ethnographic study just released in book form as Very Important People: Beauty and Status in the Global Party Circuit.
Mears, an associate professor of sociology and women's, gender, and sexuality studies at Boston University, describes her 18 months of field work, and her findings, to interviewer David Edmonds in this Social Science Bites podcast.
Their talk starts with a description of club life at the VIP level and the Veblen-esque conspicuous consumption, its “ritualized squandering” in Mears words, that is its hallmark.
Addressing ‘bottle service,’ in which a customer essentially rents a table for the night and buys expensive alcohol by the bottle (and not drink-by drink), Mears offers a vivid picture:
“The real action of the night happens when these bottles are bought in excess. The crowd will start to cheer and take pictures. The club has kinds of theatrics for the display of big purchases: DJs stopping the music to make an announcement, bottles and bottles coming out with these fireworks, really large bottles that come out and require really strong people to be able to carry them. Some people buy so many bottles of champagne that they can’t even drink them – they’ll gift them to everybody in the club, so everybody gets a bottle of Dom Pérignon champagne. They can’t drink it, it’s too much to be consumed, so people will start shaking the bottles up and spraying them and spraying each other, turning them up in the air and just dumping them – it’s ritualized waste.”
It’s a ritual that costs the “bread and butter” type VIP customers a couple thousand dollars an outing, but where a “whale” – one of the cadre of super-rich who often travel the party circuit around the planet – often drop substantially more. Mears cites the exploits of Low Taek Jho, a Malaysian businessman popularly known as Jho Low (and now on the run for allegedly looting his country’s sovereign wealth fund) who spent more than a million U.S. dollars in just one night in San Tropez.
It is, she explains, an esoteric world that has “made it into the mainstream as a sort of emblem of elite consumption.” Still, she adds, it’s a subculture of a subculture; the mobile and transnational whales represent a “very small, rarefied tribe of people that are partying together.” And yet “most elites in the world wouldn’t be caught dead in these places!”
Mears describes an ecosystem with three main species – the rich men who do the spending, the pretty girls who draw the rich men, and the promoters who find and display the pretty girls (and ‘girls’ is the term used). Mears’ own entry into the scenes came through associations with promoters – she interviewed 44 for the book – and tagging along on their peripatetic gyrations through New York, Miami and San Tropez.
“The way that I got into it was by following this group of mostly men that work for the clubs to bring a so-called ‘quality crowd’ – mostly beautiful women – to sit at their tables. The idea is that the beautiful women will attract the big spenders. The ‘quality’ of a crowd comes down to two gendered components: men with money and women with beauty.”
That beauty is “the kind championed by the fashion model industry”: young, thin, often white, and with that certain look championed by the fashion industry. And while the promoters do get paid, the women do not. Their compensation is the night on the town, or possibly a trip to some exotic place for a
Anne Case on Deaths of Despair
Political violence aside, the 20th century saw great progress. Looking at health progress, as one example, Princeton University economist Anne Case notes it was a century of expanding lifetimes.
“Just to take one particular group,” she tells interviewer David Edmonds in this Social Science Bites podcast, “if you look at people aged 45 to 54 in the U.S., back in 1900 the death rate was 1,500 per 100,000. By the end of the century, it was down below 400 per 100,000.
“The risk of dying just fell dramatically and fairly smoothly. There were a couple of spikes -- one was the 1918 flu epidemic -- and a little plateau in the 1960s when people were dying from having smoked heavily in their 20s and 30s and 40s. But people stopped smoking, there was a medical advance as antihypertensives came on the scene, and progress continued from 1970 through to the end of the century.”
Even stubborn health disparities – such as the life expectancy gaps between say whites and blacks, or between the rich and the poor - narrowed in the century’s second half.
“We thought that sort of progress should continue,” Case says. But as she and fellow Princeton economist Angus Deaton found as they sleuthed through the data, starting in the 1990s progress had reversed for a fairly large demographic in the U.S. population.
“[W]hat Angus and I found was that after literally a century of progress, among whites without a college degree – these would be people without a four-year degree in the U.S. – mortality rates stopped falling and actually started to rise.”
The trend was clear: looking at figures from the 1990s to the most recent data available from 2018, mortality among middle-aged, non-college-educated white Americans rose, stalled, then rose again.
“This was stunning news to us and we thought we must have done something wrong because this never happens, or if it had happened, it would have been reported,” Case admits. But it was news, and Case and Deaton’s findings and analysis – that controllable behaviors like drug addiction, suicide and alcohol addiction were driving the numbers – created a furor. Citing sociologist Emile Durkheim’s argument that suicide is more likely when social integration breaks down, Case explains, “We think of all of these as a form of suicide – not necessarily that a drug addict wants to take him or herself out, but that it leads to that eventually.”
Meanwhile, Case and Deaton’s shorthand expression ‘deaths of despair’ entered the common –not just the academic social science – lexicon. (It helped that they were speaking publicly about this “group that just wasn’t on anyone’s radar” at roughly the same time that a demographic both similar and similarly ‘unknown’ was seen as a surprise well of strength for the political maverick Donald Trump.)
Deaths of Despair and the Future of Capitalism is also the name of the new bestselling book that Case and Deaton, her husband, have written for Princeton University Press. (Deaton, a Nobel laureate in economics, has also appeared on Social Science Bites.) The book looks at the physical and mental causes of these deaths – Case and Deaton count 150,000 of them in 2018 alone – and how aspects of America’s unique medical and pharmaceutical system have resulted in this unique tragedy.
Case explains that these deaths of despair didn’t suddenly arise in the 1990s, but they had been obscured by advances made in treating heart disease (and obesity, despair, drugs, alcohol are all hard on the heart). “As deaths of despair got larger and larger, it would have taken more progress against heart disease for this to continue to fly under the radar. Instead what happened was we stopped making progress against heart disease.”
Also in the 1990s, prescription opioids became widely available in the United States – “a self
Customer ReviewsSee All
Informative and easily digestible. Particularly the Danny Dorling interview is worth checking out. Perfect delve into a critical part of academia.
Blue church theology
Orthodox blue church theology. Borderline insane. So stupid only an intellectual would believe it. Wouldn’t recommend.