Photo by Nathan Keay, (c) MCA Chicago: William Kentridge (1995-96), 'Drawing for the film History of the Main Complain'
Photo by Nathan Keay, (c) MCA Chicago: William Kentridge (1995-96), ‘Drawing for the film History of the Main Complaint’

Writing for the Guardian’s Comment is Free blog yesterday, David Graeber warned that we may be heading towards yet another crisis of the kind we saw in 2007–08. In his Comment, Graeber takes to task George Osborne’s 2015 Mansion House speech (or rather the logic underpinning it), in which Osborne made a commitment to run a budget surplus in ‘normal times’, much to the consternation of dozens of academic economists. It seems that the utterly misleading and moralizing analogies so frequently made between well–disciplined householders ‘tightening their belts’ when times are tough, and the national government cutting its spending to pay down its debts – part of the mythos termed ‘mediamacro’ by Oxford macroeconomist Simon Wren-Lewis – simply won’t go away. And yet, as Graeber shows, “the less the government is in debt, the more everyone else is…If the government reduces its debt, everyone else has to go into debt in exactly that proportion in order to balance their own budgets.” Everyone cannot simultaneously ‘balance their budgets’ and continue to interact, because all money is debt, as the Bank of England ‘revealed’ in January 2014: “Rather than banks receiving deposits when households save and then lending them out, bank lending creates deposits.”

Similarly, at last week’s launch of his new book Between Debt and the Devil, Lord Adair Turner, who took over the Financial Services Authority as the 2007–08 crisis began to unfold, suggested that the UK has reached a position in which our debts are not being paid down, but simply shuffled back–and–forth between the public and private sectors – though the vast majority of ‘private sector’ lending is going into a game of property speculation played by the wealthiest, at the expense of the most vulnerable. For those seeking to make sociological sense of this scenario, the recent work of Stefano Sgambati, at the University of Naples Federico II, provides one of the most powerful pathways to making political and theoretical sense of money, debt and finance in the modern economy.


"Natural Afro American Hair" by AveryScott - Own work. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons -
“Natural Afro American Hair” by AveryScott – Own work. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons –

The term “natural hair” is used in the African American community to differentiate between hair that has been left in its natural state and hair which has been permed (which is to permanently straighten the hair follicle with chemicals). African American hair in its natural state appears tightly coiled or kinky and is often socially stigmatized. Social stigmas are any idea that individuals associate with negative connotations. Many individuals would agree that hair is a prevailing symbol of one’s self and self-expression, contributing much stake towards one’s identity. As social norms change over time, so do the effects of symbols that an individual imposes on their social reality; as a consequence of being symbolic in society, hair speaks to a person’s status, power, beauty and beliefs (Bellinger 2007). Hair speaks to one’s character and is representative of their status in society. Hair is also a measure of beauty and how one styles their hair affects one’s level of beauty in society more...


Doubtless I am not alone among the contributors to Sociology Lens in having been exposed, during my first year as an undergraduate, to an array of foundational thinkers in sociology (and anthropology) who present human history as a movement away from ‘traditional’, ‘face–to–face’ or ‘kinship–based’ societies, towards those in which interaction and identity is less relational, and more individualized. Such theorizing is not only limited to the classical sociologists who wrote in the 1900s, like Ferdinand Tönnies and Émile Durkheim; it resurfaces again in the sociology of the 1990s. In the writings of Anthony Giddens, “the self” is seen less as a product of interactions and relations with others, and more as a matter of individual “self–fashioning.” Or, as Giddens (now Baron Giddens) wrote in 1991, “in the context of a post–traditional order, the self becomes a reflexive project” (p. 32).

And yet, this literature on individualization and self–fashioning as the signature mode of existence in ‘modernity’, associated not only with Giddens but also with Ulrich Beck and Zygmunt Bauman, becomes increasingly difficult to square with the ongoing proliferation of apparently ‘social’ measures and projects: from ‘social enterprise’ or ‘social business’ and ‘social return on investment’, to the even more ubiquitous social media platforms and social marketing initiatives. In the UK, the National Centre for Social Marketing describes social marketing as an approach that uses behavioural economics (see Roger Tyers’ post for Sociology Lens here) to change behaviour for the benefit of “society as a whole.” Similarly, the UK’s national body for social enterprise describes such enterprises as businesses that “trade to tackle social problems…when they profit, society profits.” And the New Economics Foundation’s vision of social return on investment tools are described as alternatives to conventional cost–benefit analysis, which “does not consider anything beyond simple costs and price.” Social return on investment tools thus incorporate “social factors” when accounting for the value generated by an investment. more...

(Photo from Flickr user thisisbossi)
(Photo from Flickr user thisisbossi)

I recently came across an article on my Facebook feed about high school senior Ronald Nelson, who was accepted into all 8 ivy league colleges (among other highly competitive schools). The article discussed how, despite this amazing opportunity for Nelson to attend arguably one of the better colleges in the nation, he ultimately chose to attend University of Alabama (which is still a decent school). According to Business Insider, “After some thought and consideration of all the schools’ offers, Nelson decided it wouldn’t be worth the financial strain to use this money on his undergraduate education.”

Talk about the rising costs and burden of affording college is everywhere. The Wall Street Journal just announced that the graduating class of 2014 has the highest student debt in history, with the average student owing $33,000 after college. So for Nelson, attending a less competitive school that offered him a full ride scholarship was a strategy, as he plans on attending graduate school (where that debt only accumulates…). Seems like a smart choice, right?

Not according to Sociologists of Education who study and believe in undermatching theory.


By ENERGY.GOV (Delphi Automotive Systems) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
By ENERGY.GOV (Delphi Automotive Systems) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

In early April, 2015, a self-driving car completed a 9 day cross country tour from San Francisco to New York City.  During the 9 day adventure, the car was fully automated for 99% of the trip – relying on its humans only to enter and exit the interstates.  The Audi car supported technology made by Delphi which uses a combination of advanced features already on the market including collision mitigation, integrated radar and camera systems, forward collision and lane departure warning.  While the company certainly used the trip to promote its products the more pressing purpose was to collect data – a lot of data – more than 3 terabytes of data over the nine days (about 30% of what’s on record at the Library of Congress) because the car’s technology needs to learn. more...

Photo by: Lori Stamm, used with expressed permission of photographer
Photo by: Lori Stamm, used with expressed permission of photographer

I am a traditional parent and I began my parenting journey while in graduate school.  I am traditional in that boring two-parent household, two incomes, one dog, two children and a whole mess of bills, kind of way.  What makes us interesting however is how we partner in our parenting and household maintenance.  I know, I know – what’s new or progressive about being partners, isn’t that more of the same old style?  Not quite.  I’m serious when I say we are parenting as equals and it mattered A LOT to my work/life balance while earning a PhD.


 Graduate Student Advice Month

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Nobody really knows what is like to do a PhD until they do one. I am half way through mine and I still only half know what it is like to do one very specific PhD: my own. Everyone’s experience is unique to their own research topic, their own field site and their own personality, but many of the challenges, pressures and anxieties we encounter are more similar than we realise. We all seem to spend most of our time oscillating between contradictory emotions (hope and despair, enthusiasm and exhaustion, excitement and frustration), hoping that eventually all of this turmoil might (miraculously) become something worthy of calling a thesis.

I wouldn’t really call the following five things ‘advice’, and they are by no means a description of how I have been approaching my own research so far. At best, they are a few things that I now know I need to keep reminding myself of, and that other researchers might be able to identify with. more...

Is cash on the way out? In my own daily routines, I find myself using coins and notes less and less, to the point when I am often stuck for a pound coin to use the lockers at the swimming pool, or I audibly ‘tut’ when shopkeepers tell me there’s a charge for using my card. I just don’t carry cash very often. In fact, I don’t even physically use my debit card very often. I’ve got so used to using my phone or computer to buy stuff that I’ve learnt my 16-digit card number off by heart – a ‘skill’ which is either impressive or just a bit worrying.

Maybe this is a sign that I’m moving up the social hierarchy. After all, using less cash is associated with higher socio-economic status according to the Payment Council, so perhaps I’m moving up the foodchain. Or, as I’ve often feared, I’m not that special at all. This is a change which is affecting most people as we move into a world of contactless payments and methods of moving money around which might shake up those much-beloved institutions: The Banks. more...

Bulletproof Coffee Pic

At a health food café in central London, I recently drank my first ‘Bulletproof Coffee,’  a surprisingly ingestible blend of espresso, butter and coconut oil which has a texture not dissimilar to yak butter tea. To be precise, Bulletproof® Coffee ought to be made with a blend of grass-fed butter, Upgraded™ coconut oil (from and low-toxin Bulletproof® Upgraded™ Coffee Beans. And it is indeed no coincidence that Bulletproof Coffee tastes a little like yak butter tea. Dave Asprey, the ‘Bulletproof Executive’ was struck with the inspiration he needed to develop the drink during a yak butter tea break on a climb of Tibet’s Mount Kailash. As for why I found it in a health food café – and why all the concern with the quality and composition of the ingredients? Well, Bulletproof Coffee enthusiasts overlap significantly with fans of the ‘paleo diet,‘ which is designed to imitate as far as possible the pre-neolithic dietary ecology to which our hunter-gatherer ancestors were adapted.

There is indeed some good anthropological evidence showing that diets of contemporary hunter-gatherers – including those that are high in animal fats – reduce the risk of chronic ‘diseases of civilization’ like diabetes and cardiovascular disease. There are however equally good reasons to question the notion that we and our food species ended our evolutionary relationship before the neolithic revolution. (And using studies of contemporary hunter-gatherer populations to make claims about ‘paleo’ lifestyles can easily slip into ahistorical retellings of what Adam Kuper terms the myth of primitive society.)  So what really intrigues (and frankly disturbs) me about Bulletproof Coffee is precisely the extent to which it comes wrapped up in a discourse that you might term ‘paleo-primitivism.’ In telling the story of Bulletproof Coffee’s origins, Dave Asprey marries his enthusiasm for the paleo diet with a depiction of Sherpas as ‘ubermen’ or ‘a race of Bulletproof genetic freaks.’ Asprey’s fascination with both yak butter tea and the genetics of the Tibetan ‘ubermen’ is presented on his website in terms of his interest in biohacking. The biohacking discourse surrounding Bulletproof Coffee seems to reveal quite neatly something about the idea of the ‘hacker’ that Brett Scott recently discussed in a piece for STIR Magazine. The figure of the hacker exemplifies collective possibilities for creative and mischievous subversion of contemporary capitalist organization – but it can also reflect an avowedly individualistic, masculine libertarian drive towards self-empowerment through those same stifling structures. more...

Protestors gather outside the headquarters of CONAIE (The Confederation of Indigenous Nations of Ecuador) in Quito, Ecuador.
Protestors gather outside the CONAIE (Confederation of Indigenous Nations of Ecuador) in Quito, Ecuador.

Yesterday, in Quito, Ecuador, hundreds of Indigenous people from around the country, including those from the Amazon, the Sierra and the Coast, gathered outside the offices of CONAIE (the Confederation of Indigenous Nationalities of Ecuador), in the north of the city, to continue the fight against a government plan to close the organisation’s headquarters. CONAIE is among the largest and longest standing Indigenous organisations in Ecuador, and its work focuses on defending the rights, territories, culture and lives of millions of Indigenous people who make up approximately 25% of the country’s population.

I am writing this blog post to encourage academics and activists from around the world to sign the open letter, drafted by CONAIE, in support of the organization and the indigenous peoples that it represents in their struggle to maintain control of the building, which is a key strategic part of the indigenous political community. more...