Bite-sized interviews with top social scientists
Bite-sized interviews with top social scientists
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
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 t
Ruth Wodak on How to Become a Far-Right Populist
Depending on your views, far-right populism can represent a welcome return to the past , or a worrying one. The former, argues sociolinguist Ruth Wodak in this Social Science Bites podcast, is one of the hallmarks of far-right populism – a yearning for an often mythical past where the “true people” were ascendant and comfortable.
She’s termed this blurred look backward retrotopia, “a nostalgia for a past where everything was much better,” whether it was ever real or not.
Wodak, who to be clear finds herself worrying and not welcoming, offers host David Edmonds a recipe for becoming a far-right populist. In her scholarship, she’s identified four ingredients, or dimensions, to the ideology that often underlie populist far-right parties.
The most apparent from the outside is a strong national chauvinism or even nativism. This nativism is very exclusive to a specific set of insiders, who focus on creating “an anti-pluralist country, a country which is allegedly homogeneous, which has one kind of people who all speak the same language, have the same culture, or look the same. [Having] this imaginary ‘true people’ is very important.” is very, very important. Far-right populists decide who belongs and who does not belong to the ‘true people.’”
And just as important is then having a group of outsiders to cast as scapegoats responsible for major problems – making for “an easy narrative for very complex issues.” It’s probably no surprise, then, that “conspiracy theories are part and parcel of the far-right agenda. They are very supportive in constructing who is to blame, etc., for all the complex problems.”
Another ingredient is an anti-elitism that targets elites or ‘the establishment’, i.e. managers, teachers, journalists, intellectuals, liberals or your political opponents; “all the people who allegedly don’t listen to ‘us’ and who have very different interests from ‘the true people’.”
Next comes a focus on law and order (“an agenda of protecting this true people”) enforced through a hierarchal party structure. This top-down structure frequently focuses on a charismatic leader who encapsulates the spirit of the ‘true people’ – and rejects the ‘other.’ “Along with the scapegoat,” Wodak explains, “comes ‘the topos of the savior’ … the leader who will save the true American or the true Austrian or the true British people from those all dangers, they will ‘solve’ the problems, protect the people, and they promise hope.”
The final standard ingredient is endorsing conservative values and perceived cultural touchstones, such as Christianity in Europe.
This recipe matters, of course, thanks to the rise of far-right populist politics across the Americas, Europe and Asia. Wodak herself is Austrian – she’s professor in linguistics at the University of Vienna and emeritus distinguished professor and chair in Discourse Studies at Lancaster University – has seen plenty of recent natural experiments in populism throughout continental Europe.
She cites several reasons for the popularity of far-right populism, including the end of the Cold War and the resultant increase in migration from Eastern Europe into the West. Those migrants, previously seen as refugees from communism who were welcomed and even feted, morphed into unwelcome and fear-inducing interlopers (and despite being white and from Christian cultures). Around the same time, she continues, neo-liberal policies changed labor policies in the West, creating inequalities that the right could build on – just as they did in the pro-business responses to the global financial crisis of 2008 (“saving the banks instead of the people”) and globalization.
In this podcast, Wodak also discusses how right-wing populism makes use of social media, how exploiting “otherness” helps roll over s
Richard Layard on Happiness Economics
ichard Layard remembers being a history student sitting in Oxford’s Bodleian Library on a misty morning, reading philosopher Jeremy Bentham (he of the famed “It is the greatest happiness of the greatest number that is the measure of right and wrong”). As he recounts to interviewer David Edmonds in this Social Science Bites podcast, he thought, “Oh yes, this is what it’s all about.”
And while much has changed for the current Baron Layard FBA in the years since that epiphany, his laser-like focus on seeing happiness as the key product of any successful society has remained. Much of his effort as a labor (and Labour) economist has gone into popularizing the idea of happiness as the real measure of national success; he’s written extensively about the concept, ranging from his 2005 book, Happiness: Lessons from a New Science, to his latest, just released this year, Can We Be Happier? (written with George Ward). Layard is also co-editor, with John F. Helliwell and Jeffrey Sachs, of the World Happiness Report.
The fundamental impulse of a government, he insists, should be the creation of well-being, and not just wealth.
Three basic principles underlie happiness economics, Layard explains:
“The way we judge the situation or the state of a nation is by the happiness of the people, especially the happiness of the least-happy people.” “We should try and produce the best state in the world that we can in the way that we live our lives and the people we touch or could touch. So we should be trying to produce the largest amount of happiness in the world that we can, especially taking into account the people who are least happy.” “Governments should also be trying to produce the greatest happiness in people, especially preventing misery. That was the view of Thomas Jefferson; I think it was the right view.” While not spoken about in government circles nearly as much as say gross domestic product, these ideas aren’t revolutionary – both Bentham and Jefferson were active at the close of the 18th century, after all.
“It always had some traction,” Layard says, “but I think it’s gaining more traction now, particularly because the new science of happiness is making it practical to aim at the happiness of people. And secondly, because people have become somewhat disillusioned with economic growth — even before the financial crash.” New Zealand, Scotland and Iceland – all with female prime ministers, he notes – all have budgets aimed at wellbeing.
In the podcast, Layard explains how a qualitative instrument – asking people how happy they are or are not – turns out be an excellent predictor of future lifespan, work productivity, and whether an incumbent government is re-elected. These happiness-generated predictions prove to be more accurate than predictions based on the economy. “Bill Clinton said, ‘It’s the economy, stupid.’ I’m afraid he was the stupid one. … It is pretty clear in our mental fabric that how you feel is of ultimate importance, and these other things [such as wealth or health] are a means to that end.”
In 1990, Layard founded the Centre for Economic Performance at the London School of Economics, and was director of the center until 2003. His elevation to the House of Lords in 2000 was followed by some signal policy-oriented projects on happiness, mental health and even climate change. In addition to being a fellow of the British Academy, Layard was elected a Fellow of the Academy of Social Sciences in 2016.
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