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?


Members of the 86th Airlift Wing base honor guard conduct a flag-folding ceremony during the Ramstein Honor Guard Appreciation Day, Sept. 11, 2009, at Ramstein Air Base, Germany.   (U.S. Air Force photo/Staff Sgt. Charity Barrett)
Members of the 86th Airlift Wing base honor guard conduct a flag-folding ceremony during the Ramstein Honor Guard Appreciation Day, Sept. 11, 2009, at Ramstein Air Base, Germany. (U.S. Air Force photo/Staff Sgt. Charity Barrett)

The U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs handles the claims, benefits, and memorial services for veterans as well as provide services for their spouses and dependents. However a long-standing problem with this office is the expected turn around with claims processing that often leaves many veterans and their families without adequate healthcare or other benefit support. Given the debate in the United States with the Affordable Care Act and its comparability to other Western Hemisphere countries that have initiated universal healthcare, the U.S, Department of Veteran Affairs offers juxtaposition to U.S. healthcare and other countries’ initiatives as well. With the public support for the troops in Operation Enduring Freedom (OEF) and Operation Iraqi Freedom (OIF) wars it seems there should be an equal amount of support for veterans’ benefits and policy implementing access to said benefits. more...

I was in London the other week. It was late on a Saturday night. I was at a house party and wanted to get back to a friend’s house. It was about a fifteen minute walk but we were tired, possibly a little drunk, and we uber-ed it home. Natch.

You know that a word or an idea has really entered the zeitgeist of popular culture when it’s used as a verb and people (and even Microsoft Word) recognise it. ‘Google it’, ‘Netflix and Chill’ or ‘F*ck it, let’s Uber it home’ are all signifiers of a modern lifestyle that is fast, convenient and cheap. What’s not to love about Uber? I never, ever took taxis in London before Uber came along and completely shook up the way Londoners (and New Yorkers, Chicagoans and Sydneysiders for that matter) get around. In that sense, Uber and other taxi apps like Lyft have ‘democratised’ city transport and allowed more people to enjoy what used to be an elitist activity. more...


Yesterday, for only the second time since 1975 (the first was this January), junior doctors in England went on a 24-hour strike. The strike action was the culmination of a series of disputes and breakdowns in negotiations that have been ongoing since late 2014, when the Review Body on Doctors’ and Dentists’ Remuneration recommended a new contract. The contract threatens to have a significant impact on doctors’ pay, and on the extent to which they are protected from working excessively (and so dangerously) long shifts. Media coverage in the run-up to the strike was, as might be expected, rather polarised, with pro– and anti-government publications making their positions clear. Most of the coverage, including from the BBC, focused on the government’s offer of an 11% pay rise towards the end of last year, and the British Medical Association’s counter that the pay ‘rise’ will be offset by a reduction in pay for weekends and anti-social hours.

A now-controversial paper published in the British Medical Journal last September, and which hinted at excess mortality levels on weekends, has also received considerable (though largely uncritical) attention in the press. This followed the Health Secretary enlisting the paper’s claims as justification for reducing junior doctor’s pay on weekends while expanding the National Health Service into one that operates fully, seven days a week. The argument is that paying overtime on weekends gives “hospitals a disincentive to roster as many doctors as they need at weekends, and that leads to those 11,000 excessive [sic] deaths…According to an independent study conducted by [sic] The BMJ, there are 11,000 excess deaths because we do not staff our hospitals properly at weekends.” In fact, the study in question does not make the claim that there are excess deaths because of low staffing; in connecting their mortality findings to the question of weekend cover, the authors simply note that “There is evidence that junior hospital doctors feel clinically exposed during the weekend and that hospital chief executives are concerned about levels of weekend cover.”


A ‘stupid cartoon image’ of public/private polarisation… via:

A couple of years ago, in a meeting hall adjacent to the Houses of Parliament, I sat in the audience while fund managers spoke alongside officials from the UK’s Department for International Development (DFID) and representatives of the Private Infrastructure Development Group (PIDG), an organisation funded by DFID and other donors with a mandate to “encourage private infrastructure investment in developing countries.” (PIDG was praised by DFID in their 2013 Multilateral Aid Review for “catalysing private investment in infrastructure,” but was subsequently hauled over the coals in Parliament for posing “risks to taxpayers’ money” with its “wasteful travel policies and poor financial management”.) At that meeting, one of the fund managers in attendance challenged a presenter who had spoken about the importance of government involvement when building key energy and power infrastructure: “government in the nicest sense spends money and the private sector generates wealth, and it’s not sustainable with only government involvement.”

Now while the second half of that sentence may contain some truth (although precisely what is meant by ‘sustainable’ in this instance is unclear), the first is highly problematic. And yet that notion – that the ‘private sector generates wealth while the public sector spends it’ – is near ubiquitous in contemporary policy discourse, as pervasive as it is stultifying and specious. It was, however, subjected to a sustained attack by Mariana Mazzucato in her much-discussed The Entrepreneurial State: Debunking Public vs. Private Sector Myths. Here Mazzucato traces out the role public institutions have played in enabling and funding high-profile, profitable innovations (including pretty much every component of the iPhone – see this review at Rethinking Economics). But as Mazzucato – a member of the Labour Party’s Economic Advisory Committee – argued in her recent public lecture on ‘Economic Policy: From Market Fixing to Market Making and Creating’, there simply isn’t an available language for talking about the role that the public sector plays in shaping and creating markets. There is no ready vocabulary available with which to discuss the many “mission-oriented” public sector interventions in innovation, entrepreneurship and product development that are discussed in The Entrepreneurial State; no public discourse which goes beyond viewing the public sector’s role as one of ‘fixing’ failing markets, tinkering around the edges, or just plain getting out of the way so the private sector can function ‘freely’. more...