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?
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 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...
Last month I wrote about a new method of measuring happiness, or ‘subjective wellbeing’ as sociologists like to describe it, in our daily lives (you can read that post here if you haven’t already). My starting point was that most of us rely on our ‘evaluative self’ at the expense of our ‘experiencing self’. This means that when we are asked if we are ‘happy’ in our lives/job/relationship/location etc (or if we reflect on this question internally), we too often resort to generalisations which often have little relation to how we experience our lives, day-by-day or hour-by-hour.
Paul Dolan, in his book “Happiness by Design” points to a number of methods which might engage our usually-neglected experiencing self to find out how happy we are on a daily basis; to identify which activities maximise either pleasure and/or purpose; which people make us happier in different contexts; and thus, what kinds of adjustments we might make to our daily lives in order to maximise happiness. One of these methods is the Day Reconstruction Method, or DRM. more...
Ward’s book, Not Gay: Sex Between Straight White Men is a look at a timeless, but under evaluated phenomena. Sex between straight white men sounds like a paradox: some kind of residual heteronormative notion. Ward’s assertion is that it is not- that for time immemorial otherwise heterosexual white men have engaged in homosexual and homosocial behaviors under a variety of homosocial circumstances (fraternities, the military, pornography, bathhouses). Ward’s thesis is aligned with queer theory and the notion that sexuality is fluid and sexual identities and practices may be at odds; that primarily heterosexual men can and do engage in homosexual sex acts that do not accrue into some salient identity. Ward asserts these men are not bisexual, not closeted gay men, but rather, that heterosexuality may coexist with these behaviors and even encompass them. This subversion of dominant sexuality narratives is quite bold and Ward does an excellent job in doing so.
Not Gay is a valuable recourse for queer theorists and social scientists- it’s a reminder that categories are not social realities, that practices and identities are not tied up in neat boxes. For these reasons it is a useful tool for researchers who seek to explore this ambiguity. It’s intelligible to a general audience, although its claims may be threatening to hegemonic ideas about masculinity. One can imagine straight men writhing in discomfort while reading it.
The book spends ample time dissolving the boundaries and binaries of traditional notions about sexuality. The entry way into thinking about these men as heterosexuals is outlined in the beginning. We are challanged to think of white heterosexual men who engage in these acts as occupying a “unique erotic domain” (pg. 27) in which these acts can coexist with primarily heterosexual desire. She outlines that this sex can be thought of as “experimentation” “accident” “joke” “game(s)” or “fetish” (pg. 27, 30). Furthermore, the intersection of race (pg 120) brings in the notion that whiteness affords a social leverage that allows these men to engage in marginalized practices without being labeled as gay. White men can afford risking stigma attached to homosexuality by utilizing their privilege. In deed, white men as the symbolic “average dude” (pg. 129) and tenant of traditional masculinity can withstand the scrutiny of heteronormativity via assertions of their own hegemony. A straight white “dude” can control the narratives surrounding their own sexuality, situating themselves strongly within masculinized “boys clubs” that collectively deny any homosexual meanings. The ability to control the meanings of our actions is the privilege of social positions. (pg.53, 139).
Ward’s book pays special attention to not conflating these social spheres, however. Gay sex can occur between heterosexual men out of sexual desire, but also in homosocial rituals. Fraternities and the military play a large role in ritualized homosexual behavior (pg. 160). Men may simulate or enact homosexual or homoerotic behaviors in order to “prove” their heterosexuality. To withstand homoeroticism in these rituals while maintaining one’s heterosexual masculinity is a test created to ensure entry into masculinized heterosexual spaces. Rituals call for properly enacted “disgust” (pg. 179) in order to solidify proper narratives surrounding these acts. Ward shows that these acts may not simply be deviations from heterosexuality, but in many circumstances, a tenant of it.
The book utilizes diverse data, from popular films to personal ads, in order to illustrate its point. It provides a compelling and intriguing argument, that, rather than erasing queer identities, complicates the concept of identity itself. Social narratives may be complex, counterintuitive and at times, paradoxical to traditional modes of classification. The book is a wonderful exploration of this ambiguity, asking tough questions about the stories we tell others and ourselves and complicating a political climate in which “queerness” or “gayness” is seen as salient, innate, or homogenous. It’s in this plurality that the book finds its most fascinating observation: that sexuality is not a neat, tidy continuum, but a complicated maze.
If the book is lacking anything, it is a deeper analysis of exclusively heterosexual men: men for whom any of these behaviors would be unthinkable, perplexing and unfathomable even within homosocial spheres. Furthermore, if whiteness affords some of the privileges that allow for these ambiguities, how does this map onto other homosocial spheres that are either racially diverse, or non-white. Would these observations not apply, or perhaps, play out in other unique and complex ways?
Ward’s book is an intriguing inquiry into a difficult-or-impossible to map phenomena. That she succeeds this well is to our benefit.
With all the Star Wars hype this past month the fandom seems to have awoken once more. The newest installment of Star Wars not only reinvigorates long-time fans but inspires a plethora of new comers to the franchise. Star Wars: The Force Awakens gives the world a new hope in representation as it showcases two of its main characters, a British woman as its protagonist and a Nigerian Brit as the deuteragonist. From the many hours of fan-made footage to the canonical expanded universe of the happenings in that galaxy far, far away, Star Wars has always been about the individual and what one could take away from the adventure set forth before them. Some see it as a metaphor for political implications while others see religious metaphors within the meaning of The Force. I view the saga as a metaphor for society, its ebbs and flows, the institutions that can restrict or advantage entire groups of peoples, and even popular culture metaphors from the much revered Jedi, to the Rebel or Resistance Pilots, and even various Sith Lords. more...
Christmas. Our post-christian festival of gluttony, consumption and indulgence on a (post-) industrial scale. Office parties and festive meals are a time for living in the moment, of justifying a round of sambuccas, or a snog with your work-colleague with a disclaimer of “Oh well, it’s CHRISTMAS!”. You might feel fat, foolish and poorly the next day but for now, hang the consequences.
I always think that New Year is a follow-up of a slightly different flavour – best-of-the-year round-ups in sport, film and TV; New Year’s resolutions; an impending month of diets, detox and mild depression waiting around the corner.
Christmas is more of a time of hedonistic experience, compared to New Year’s emphasis on evaluation, taking stock and planning ahead. I write this after re-visiting one of my books of the year “Happiness by Design” by Paul Dolan of the LSE. It’s a breezy, easy read by a scholar who’s worked extensively on how we measure happiness, and how we try to get more of it. As such it offers a nice balance between a solid collection of empirical findings and a kind of self-help book – one that is thankfully devoid of wild claims it can turn you into a millionaire or an Obama-like orator. more...
In Italy during the 1970s, labour movements responding to and resisting the rigidity of assembly-line employment celebrated precarious patterns of work; precarity was something beautiful (precario bello). This, Stevphen Shukaitis observes, “is an eminently sensible thing to say when you think about what the kind of ‘security’ and ‘stability’ is created by working in a petrochemical factory or on an automobile assembly line for forty years.” More recently, popular discussions of precarity in the Anglophone world have tended to orient themselves around Guy Standing’s take on ‘the precariat’, which he understands as “a [global] class in the making, approaching a consciousness of common vulnerability.” What unites the precariat – since for Standing this class in the making may include both those on workfare and tenuously ‘self-employed’ young graduates in the digital economy – is akin to that which James H. Smith terms “temporal dispossession” or “the inability to plan, predict, or build futures in an incremental way.” Responding to these apparently divergent forms or visions of precarity, Shukaitis has elsewhere suggested that precarity ought not to be seen as a category to be applied, but as a “moment of instability in the radical political imagination that is as much a promise as a threat.”
Taking up Shukaitis’ suggestion, Martin Bak Jørgensen’s forthcoming article in Critical Sociology, ‘Precariat – What it is and Isn’t – Towards an Understanding of What it Does’, questions the notion that ‘the precariat’ is any kind of ‘new’ tendency, and objects to the academic treatment of the precariat “only as victims.” Instead, Jørgensen emphasizes movements like Freedom Not Frontex, which aligned anti–austerity campaigners and the struggles of migrants and refugees. Such movements, he argues, illustrate “how precarity becomes a mobilizing force (as a militant identity), a political analysis (condition) and strategy.” There is, however, something else that precarity does which has been subjected to relatively little scrutiny within the growing literature on a burgeoning global precariat: precarity creates new kinds of market opportunities. The intersection between growing precariousness on the one hand, and the expansion of ‘Bottom of the Pyramid’ strategies for making new markets among low-income consumers and micro-entrepreneurs on the other, was the focus of a two-day workshop last week at the University of Sussex, as part of the ESRC seminar series Doing Good by Doing Well: Capitalism, Humanitarianism and International Development.