By Simons/Staff Sgt. (according to Exif data) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
By Simons/Staff Sgt. (according to Exif data) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Back in 2006, before ‘foreclosure’, ‘credit default swaps’ and ‘double-dip recession’ became terms we needed to worry about, climate change was an issue that actually had some traction in popular culture. This was the year that An Inconvenient Truth was released, a film which, unusually for an apocalyptic documentary, actually made an impact. Not only did Al Gore’s film highlight the issue of climate change, but it also made viewers aware of they could do to make a difference.

That film, along with George Monbiot’s book ‘Heat’, also released in 2006, had quite a profound influence on me. And apparently I wasn’t the only one. 2006 was also the year of David Cameron’s famous ‘hug a huskie’ photo-op, when – as new fresh-faced Conservative party leader – he visited Svarlbard in northern Norway to witness the effects of climate change on retreating glaciers and declining arctic pack ice. While that media stunt was mocked at the time, it helped Cameron to rebrand the conservatives as modern, as compassionate, as people who understood the problems of the time.


Gender certification for María José Martínez-Patiño, a victim of the chromosomal testing era. Via
Gender certification for María José Martínez-Patiño, a victim of the chromosomal testing era. Via

It is hard to disavow the wonder and enchantment that watching the Olympics engenders. It’s easy to become engrossed by the spectacle of elite athletes pursuing seemingly impossible, barely perceptible improvements in sports that, for the next four years, you may never again consider. And spectacle is precisely what the Olympics proffer. But as Michael Silk (2011) writes in Sociology, the spectacle of sporting mega-events does far more than merely enchant. In London 2012, sporting spectacle was put to work as a tool for negotiating Britishness ‘after Empire’, sidestepping unexamined fault lines of race, class and nation. Silk describes the nation branding  strategy developed in the run-up to the Olympics, designed to present ‘Brand Britain’ as ‘Timeless, Dynamic and Genuine’: the University Boat Race and Gothic churches that populated T.S. Eliot’s image of ‘Timeless’ British culture, so beloved of the New Right, were here wedded to the entrepreneurial dynamism of Richard Branson, London Fashion Week, and Notting Hill Carnival (the latter’s history as a site of ‘bitter confrontations’ between blacks and the police duly excised). Meanwhile, as Paul Watt (2013) notes, young residents occupying marginal housing in East London felt confident that Olympic-led regeneration and redevelopment was simply not for them; the photo journals they created with Watt document the building of exclusive, luxury flats, from which they knew they would derive no benefit. In Rio 2016, a further tension is created between those who see sporting mega-events as part of a global pattern of exclusionary urban developments, and those who would project these mega-events as vehicles of ‘sport for development’.

But, while many acknowledge that the benefits accrued from hosting the Olympics are hardly distributed across a ‘level playing field’, most would more than likely cleave to the notion that ‘fair play’ prevails within the Olympic arena. And yet, as Claire Sullivan writes (2011) in the Journal of Sport and Social Issues, while ‘fair play’ is a fundamental tenet of international sport, quite how to delimit fair play has never been entirely clear. As a result, ‘fairness’ has, by and large, been enacted by policing and verifying gender difference. The question of gender verification and fair play has come to the fore once again at Rio 2016, as South African sprinter Caster Semenya prepares to participate in the Women’s 800m tomorrow. Semenya first came to prominence for vastly outperforming her rivals in 2009, after which she was subjected to a variety of humiliating and invasive gender tests. Semenya herself became the subject of an ‘ongoing spectacularization‘, and her defenders attempted (with little success) to navigate what Neville Hoad (2010) describes as the ‘long and intractable representational history of racialized and sexualized African bodies‘ on the one hand, and an ‘LGBTQ praxis of freedom that wants to render visible and celebrate gender variance’ on the other.

Writing in the Irish Times this June, the two-time Olympic silver medallist Sonia O’Sullivan objected to the idea that Caster Semenya might be able to run in the Women’s event in Rio. Deploying the same pseudo-sympathetic tone as Guy Martin, writing for The Daily Mail just yesterday, O’Sullivan argued that: more...

Picture courtsy of

“Not In my Name” they shouted. That was ten years ago, but it feels as though the same could be said today of the increasingly hate-filled, aggressive tone of public life in the UK, United States and much of Europe. “Not In My Name” was one of the slogans of the campaign against the UK’s invasion of Iraq. Although I was sympathetic to the message at the time, I thought this was a slightly pathetic, anodyne slogan, one which felt helpless, too-late, irrelevant to events. By the summer of 2003, we were already at war, the protests had failed, all we could do was shout that it wasn’t our war. It might’ve been British aircraft bombing Baghdad, and I might’ve been a British passport holder, but it wasn’t my war. That was the best we could do. more...


My Facebook newsfeed is filled with petitions to remove Judge Perksy, “the Stanford Rape judge”, off the bench.

And I am pissed.

Here is a judge who listens to a criminal defendant’s story and considers it in sentencing – doing exactly what a judge should do, and progressive America is up in arms about it! Not only did Judge Perksy order an individualized sentence that considered mitigating factors, he offers the same, holistic consideration to the accused in his courtroom regardless of their race or socioeconomic status, according to public defenders who have practiced in front of him.

My question for my progressive friends in outrage: Do you actually care about fair sentencing and mass incarceration or is it just a hip thing for you to latch on to in the age of [media coverage of] police brutality and backlash against draconian drug war polices? If you actually care, I implore that you ditch the petitions to remove this judge and consider the consequences of your demonizing the judge and Mr. Turner.

When I first heard Brock Turner’s sentence for sexual assault I thought to myself:

first time offender…

probably a horrible person but being horrible is not a crime…

did very shitty thing…very very shitty…

his life is probably ruined now that he’s a registered sex offender anyways…

he seems involved in his community…

he probably has support when he’s out of his cage…

this seems right…

wish public defender clients got the same consideration

As an assistant public defender, I represent the indigent criminal accused. My life is in misdemeanor land, so I do not handle serious cases. However, I have clients who have been sent to jail for several months for minor, nonviolent, victimless crimes. Of course, this does not include probation and being branded a sex offender and convicted felon. Additionally, my clients who have pleaded guilty to months in jail often have a lengthy misdemeanor history. My point being that affluent white men (and cops) have it pretty good – all things considered – in criminal “justice” land. I do not want white men to be thrown off their metaphorical pedestal. I would like a larger pedestal that fits my clients too. The solution to criminal justice reform is not to treat everyone like shit; it is to treat everyone – no matter what they do – with fairness, respect, and dignity.

I did not realize until recently that this was not a popular opinion. I live in a bit of a public defender bubble, so my sense of reality is always warped.  My fear is that even progressive America is promulgating a system driven by spite and anger and more focused on throwing people in cages than being fair.

Perhaps the most timely indicator of this misguided opinion that has helped create a mass incarceration crisis (among other things) is the lack of public outrage when Deputy Public Defender, Zohra Bakhtary was handcuffed in open court and chastised by the judge holding her in contempt for zealously defending her client.

Sure public defenders ran to her side –  #solidarity #notguilty – and other lawyers understood how this behavior by the judiciary is a slap in the face to the justice system, but where were you, progressive friends? Where were your petitions?

If we are more concerned about a judge seriously considering mitigation prepared by defense attorneys than we are about defense attorneys advocating for their clients, there is no hope for criminal justice. Criminal defense attorneys are the protective wall between the Government and the individual. If defense attorneys and the judges who listen to them are silenced, the Government will have free reign to use its power and its resources against the accused.

So, I beg of you, my progressive friends: spend a week or even a few days in criminal court and watch the accused walk in. They are shackled and herded like animals. Listen to how they are treated by Government attorneys. Listen to how they are humiliated in open court for their present and past actions. The only person standing next to them in that intimidating courtroom is their attorney. Sometimes it is the only person standing next to them in their life.

Consider the accused when you feel outrage over an unjust sentence. I assure you that treating the accused with dignity and fairness is not a rubber stamp for their alleged actions or the dismissal of a victim. I understand that it is easier said than done, but if we want a justice system that is actually just, we need judges like Judge Perksy and attorneys like Ms. Bakhtary and we need smart, progressive people who understand their importance to a fair criminal justice system.


Further Reading

“Debriefing and Defending the Brock Turner Sentence”

Transcript of Zohra Bakhtary being held in contempt

“Brock Allen Turner: The Sort of Defendant who is Spared ‘Severe Impact'”

Artwork: Sumi Perera RE (2015) 'White Collar' []
Artwork: Sumi Perera RE (2015) ‘White Collar’ []

In a 2014 review article for Sociology Compass, David Jancsics outlined a ‘minimal consensus’ on what constitutes corruption, drawn from his survey of literature on corruption in sociology, economics, organizational studies, political science and anthropology. The four poles of this consensus, Jancsics suggests, are that corruption is the “informal/illegal and secret exchange of formally allocated resources”; that “at least one corrupt party has to have formal membership/affiliation or at least a contractual relation with the organization from which the resources are extracted”; that corruption happens between “two or more corrupt parties” (distinguishing it from fraud or theft where there may be only one criminal party); and that “a corrupt act is always a deviation from social rules or expectations of some kind.” But the most widely cited definitions of corruption to be found in anti-corruption policy frameworks – see for instance the UK’s Anti-Corruption Plan – are those given by the World Bank (“the abuse of public office for private gain”) and Transparency International (“the abuse of entrusted power for private gain”). These definitions perhaps fall most clearly into Jancsics’ first pole (the informal allocation of formal resources). For both organizations, however, there is an explicit emphasis on corruption as something that occurs in the public sector. Here, the archetypal corrupt act is the taking of bribes by government officials, in a manner that distorts the functioning of the state, so “enabling leaders to benefit at the expense of the public good”.

With the UK hosting an Anti-Corruption Summit in London next week, and in the wake of the Panama Papers affair, corruption is again in the spotlight. Cameron has attempted to present the UK as world leaders in tackling tax evasion and tax avoidance. To this end he has cited the UK’s commitment to establishing a central registry of company beneficial ownership, and the introduction of the world’s strictest Anti-Bribery legislation (which criminalizes the failure to prevent a bribe being paid to a UK corporation operating anywhere in the world). Leaving aside for a moment the fact that, as Richard Murphy recently pointed out, Companies House has not received any new resources to support the creation of a register of beneficial ownership, it is quite clear that these moves remain for the most part wedded to the idea that corruption consists of the informal exchange of formally allocated resources – or the distortion of state functions as a result of public sector officials accepting bribes. What of the last pole in Jancsics’ consensus definition of corruption, the idea that a corrupt act is always a deviation from social rules or expectations of some kind? On these broader sociological grounds, the UK seems to be less of a world leader. more...

By Museo de la Educación - Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0,
By Museo de la Educación – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0,

Officials need to be held responsible for recognizing and acknowledging systems of inequality and injustice within their organizations. As leaders, as deans, as CEOs, as presidents, as the heads of operations for companies, educational institutions, governments, etc. individuals and teams of individuals holding leadership positions should be held accountable for the systems of inequality that are allowed to persists under their leadership. A now infamous example of such an instance is the University of Missouri’s former president Timothy Wolfe. Wolfe’s resignation came from the culmination of inaction from a series of events that promoted racial inequality on his campus. It was not until the university faced extreme financial obligations from an impending fine did Wolfe finally resign as opposed to resigning for the reasons initially called for which was the recognition of racial prejudices and overt discriminatory acts that were happening throughout the campus. more...

AN Fischer (2008) Fundament. Mapping of world GDP and global derivatives trading volume for 2008. Birch and poplar.
AN Fischer (2008) Fundament. Mapping of world GDP and global derivatives trading volume for 2008. Birch and poplar.

I was recently asked to contribute to a piece on derivatives for an economics education website – with the brief being to explain why derivatives ‘matter in daily life’ for readers with no presumed or particular interest in finance. So far, I confess, I’ve not found it particularly easy. Derivatives are a funny kind of sociological object. We’ve almost all heard of them; many will have a sense that they (or some particular use of them) were implicated in the 2008 financial crisis; and it is reasonably likely that some of us will have come across one of the countless news items (or visualizations) that asks, along with sociologist Elena Esposito: “What is sold and bought in financial markets that move a mass of capital exceeding by 20 times the entire world GDP, which then clearly does not refer to the goods?” Such news items frequently earn the ire of derivatives enthusiasts, who are keen to point out that the ‘notional value’ of the world’s outstanding derivatives is not a proper measure of the market value of outstanding derivatives (see also here and here). The notional value, they would argue, refers to the ‘face value’ of the underlying asset from which the derivative ‘derives’ its value. But the amounts for which derivatives change hands can be fairly detached from the face value of the underlying asset*. And besides, as this article for Global Finance magazine points out, since “the parties to a derivative contract are seldom required to pay out the full value of the asset”, the notional amount outstanding does not reflect the “actual risk” that traders take.

If anything, this is likely to trouble the observer even further: How is it possible that derivatives derive their value from an underlying asset, but don’t have to pay the full value of that asset – or, in the case of most exchange-traded commodities futures, don’t have to deliver the underlying asset? As Mazen Labban points out in this brilliant Geoforum article, only 2-3% of the sweet crude futures traded on the New York Mercantile Exchange were settled for actual delivery in 2002. How can you enter into a contract to buy an asset at a set price on a given day (the value of the contract being derived from the value of the underlying asset), but not have to deliver that underlying asset when the contract matures? The simple answer is that exposure to derivatives trades are now frequently ‘netted out’ between the firms who trade them. But accounting for this state of affairs in historical and sociological terms is a little less straightforward.

For some of the earliest sociological and anthropological commentators on derivatives, Edward LiPuma and Benjamin Lee, the ascent of derivatives (especially currency derivatives) since the 1970s represents a shift in ‘the globalizing process’. more...

Yuan economists Look like

In my previous post for Sociology Lens, I took a brief look at the sociological literature on ‘citizen science’ and ‘scientific citizenship’. My aim was to ask whether recent efforts to challenge the expertise of academic economists – and democratize economic knowledge – might be understood in parallel terms, as matters of ‘citizen economics’ and ‘economic citizenship’. ‘Citizen science’ has largely come to be discussed as a matter of collaboration with or working under the direction of professional scientists, although there is an earlier understanding of ‘citizen science’ as that which challenges scientific authority. As for ‘scientific citizenship’, sociologists and publicly-engaged scientists (especially those working on climate change issues) have begun to emphasize the importance of engaging in political and policy debates “not as experts but as ‘scientific citizens’.” Some, like Bruno Latour, have even argued against keeping ‘clear water’ between science and policy, suggesting instead that all scientific citizens and public experts must recognize that they are a ‘lobby’ for some kind of common future, whether they speak for the IPCC or for a multinational oil corporation. In this follow-up post, I want to take a look at a couple of emerging initiatives that might be thought of as making space for ‘citizen economics’ and ‘economics citizenship’. I also want to ask why it might be that citizen economics/economics citizenship initiatives have faced more of an uphill struggle when compared to the now fairly well-established (albeit largely domesticated) practice of ‘citizen science’.


Much academic literature has been written about behaviour change. The traditional, ‘common-sense’ view is that attitudes precede behaviours, as stated in Azjen’s Theory of Planned Behaviour (TPB). This model has influenced policy-makers to seek to change citizens’ behaviour by simply providing information or providing feedback about the impacts of behaviour – on outcomes like our health, personal finances, the wellbeing of others, or the environment – and then hoping that enlightened citizens will do the rest.

But this ‘ABC’ model of behaviour change (Attitudes->Behaviour->Change) model has come under criticism because, in reality, we often see a gap between what people think or say they should do, and what they actually do. This attitude-behaviour gap is sometimes explained by Social Practice theorists who highlight the ‘stickiness’ of practices (the ways we eat, work, travel, take holidays, socialise etc) which are slow to change, due to complex cultural or technological barriers. more...

The results of Rethinking Economics and @yuanfenyang's inquiries into how young people in the UK see economists
The results of Rethinking Economics and @YuanfenYang’s inquiries into how young people in the UK see economists

A couple of years ago, Cambridge economist Ha-Joon Chang wrote in an opinion piece for the Guardian that the “economy is too important to be left to professional economists (and that includes me).” In fact, Chang suggested, judgments made by “ordinary citizens may be better than those by professional economists, being more rooted in reality and less narrowly focused…Indeed, willingness to challenge professional economists and other experts is a foundation stone of democracy. If all we have to do is to listen to the experts, what is the point of having democracy?” Chang is hardly the only high-profile economist to have questioned, post-2008, the status of the ‘expertise’ that had been claimed for economics – typically by those who have endorsed the narrowest, most abstracted and least ‘human’ version of the discipline. Since Chang penned his column, the UK’s student-led Post-Crash Economics Society has begun to develop a ‘Crash Course in Citizen Economics’. And, last week, the Economy project, an offshoot of Rethinking Economics, launched an accessible, pluralist economics education website that is run on the principle that ‘economics can be for everyone.’ But what would it mean to try and produce ‘citizen economists’ or promote a form of ‘economics citizenship’? And how might the sociology of science and technology help us think about these initiatives?