When Jim Scott mentions ‘resistance,’ this recovering political scientist isn’t usually talking about grand symbolic statements or large-scale synchronized actions by thousands or more battling an oppressive state. He’s often referring to daily actions by average people, often not acting in concert and perhaps not even seeing themselves as ‘resisting’ at all.
The ‘problem’ with political scientists, he tells interviewer David Edmonds, in this Social Science Bites podcast, “is that when they’re talking about resistance they’re tending to talk about overt declarations – protests in the streets, marches, or potentially armed combat. What I’ve found is that throughout history, open resistance of this kind is impossible or suicidal. The result is a lot of what I call ‘unobtrusive forms of resistance.’”
There are, he notes, “very many different kinds of resistance: forms of resistance that announce themselves publicly and forms that are more subtle and unobtrusive in order to protect the people who are protesting from massive retaliation.”
He offers several examples of this unobtrusive resistance, such as poaching, squatting, and desertion - “common weapons of people who don’t have formal power.”
In this podcast, Scott draws on the year and half he spent in a Malaysian village, in the late 1970,s to discuss insights he gained about resistance (and which resulted in his Weapons of the Weak: Everyday Forms of Peasant Resistance). Scott learned the Malay language, acquainted himself with the local Kedah dialect, and studied first the rich and then the poor in this village. Mechanized, combine harvesters had taken over rice harvests in the area, leaving many people out of work and many tenants homeless. While there was no organized public protesting – that would have been foolhardy – he witnessed sabotage in the fields and ousted tenants killing the chickens of those who had evicted them.
In a “a subtle showing of contempt,” people who felt badly treated would look the other way when someone they hated crossed their path. “The kind of shunning was extraordinarily effective and humiliating in a face-to-face community of such a small size.” It reflected, in turn, the psychic violence done to the poor -- “Inequality and injustice almost always is reflected in a loss of cultural dignity and standing.”
Scott sees resistance from several vantage points in large part because he’s untethered himself from many academic restrictions, “defecting” from a discipline when he finds its approaches miss the point. He trained as a political scientist, for example, but as he saw how it studied elites and mass populations differently -- conducting social science “behind their backs,” as he put it -- he decamped to anthropology. ( But he argues every anthropologist should come with a historian strapped to their back.
“James Scott has taught us to see how art can fuel resistance, how social planning can undermine social justice, how anarchic principles inform everyday acts of resistance, and how agriculture led to the rise of state control,” said Tamar Szabó Gendler, the dean of Yale’s Faculty of Arts and Sciences, when the Social Science Research Council awarded him the Albert O. Hirschman Prize last year.
The study of stigma, , says Michèle Lamont, is a “booming field.” That assessment can be both sad and hopeful, and in this Social Science Bites podcast the Harvard sociologist explains stigma’s manifestations and ways to combat it, as well as what it takes for a researcher to actually study stigma.
Lamont defines stigma “as the negative characterization of any social attribute,” and offers examples such as mental illness, social status, or obesity as conditions routinely stigmatized. And while stigma can attach itself to an individual or to a group, stigma requires intersubjective agreement for it to function.
As that intersubjectivity would suggest, the specifics of stigma varies by culture, a point brought home by Lamont’s own research among stigmatized groups in the United States, Brazil, Israel (and which saw her 2016 co-authored book Getting Respect: Responding to Stigma and Discrimination in the United States, Brazil, and Israel). The work involved more than 400 interviews, conducted by members of the stigmatized groups, in the three countries, and Lamont offers insights into how stigma plays out.
The project paid people $20 in the U.S. to be interviewed, but the Brazilian team said Brazilians would be insulted if they were offered money to participate. In Israel, Palestinians being surveyed didn’t trust Tel Aviv University, so that created obstacles even though the team members were themselves Palestinian
Lamont cites the work of Erving Goffman, who studied this experience of having a negative mark. (See this earlier Social Science Bites podcast for a look at Goffman’s legacy.) One key concept is that of “front stage” and “back stage,” where someone manages their life in a public way (the domain of stigma) but also in a private way.
Lamont, professor of sociology and of African and African American studies and the Robert I. Goldman Professor of European Studies at Harvard, directs the Weatherhead Center for International Affairs. She was president of the American Sociological Association in 2016-17 and chaired the Council for European Studies from 2006-09.
She received a John Simon Guggenheim Fellowship in 1996, a Gutenberg research award in 2014, the 2017 Erasmus Prize, and an Andrew Carnegie Fellowship for 2019-21.
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Zijn er afleveringen die ontbreken?
What we tell people about ourselves is not exclusively, or often not even majorly, what comes out of our mouths. A host of nonverbal messages emanate from us, many of them intentionally sent to create or reinforce a narrative for a recipient who is left trying to judge the veracity of the sum total of the information. The study of this signaling in the content of an asymmetry of information is known as ‘signalling theory.’
In this Social Science Bites podcast, Diego Gambetta, a professor of social theory at the European University Institute in Florence, discussing his research around signaling theory and the applications of his work, whether addressing courtship, organized crime of hailing a cab.
“The theory,” he tessl interview Dave Edmonds, “has to do with the unobservable qualities of interest. The question is, how much scope do we have to con each other, to cheat each other. … What I would like to know about you is more than is what is apparent. The things that we are interested in are not written on our foreheads.”
Signaling theory’s value, he continues, comes in “trying to establish when truth can be communicated even in conditions that are difficult, in which we expect the interests of the parties communicating to diverge, or to not completely overlap.”
This gives the theory a wide range of applications, which is reflected in its own birthing. Initially formalized by economists, particularly Nobel Prize winner Michael Spence. Who used it to show how can an employer can determine if a job applicant in likely to be highly productive or not. At roughly the same time, Gambetta explains, there was a “an intuitive expression of the theory” by an animal behaviorist, Amotz Zahavi.
In the social and behavioral realm where Gambetta works, signally theory shows in utility whether the parties are in conflict – hence his work examining the Italian mafia -- or cooperation – studying taxi drivers in Belfast and in New York City.
“In a conflict,” Gambetta details, “I may want to persuade you that I am really, really tough. If this is true, and you believe me, then we may sort the conflict out cheaply for both of us because we don’t enter into a damaging fight.” And in cooperation, how do you accept the accuracy of someone’s representations (or convince someone of your own honest representation) that they do indeed possess the qualities they feel, or say, they have.
Given the current mass trial of alleged members of the 'Ndrangheta crime syndicate in Italy, perhaps Gambetta’s work among the mafiosos is is most salient at the moment. “I was alerted to the importance of symbolic communication in the mafia by the way they communicated with each other, and also, on a couple of occasions, with how they communicated with a researcher, myself included. They display a subtlety in communication that surprised me. We tend to expect an organized criminal to excel at brutality and intimidation, but we can’t really expect them to be a lot subtler than we are in communicating.”
He gives the example of a Canadian researcher who announced plans to research the mafia. The researcher’s car was burglarized, his dirty laundry stolen, and a few days later the laundry came back, cleaned and ironed, with a note that said, “Goodbye.” It was, Gambetta noted, “a more enthusiastic rendition of ‘I know where you live.’”
“Violence,” he adds, “is known to us because it leaves a body on the ground, it attracts attention. But there is a subtlety in threatening.” And in Palermo, for instance, there is “an obsessive search for meaning” – the workaday side of the signaling theory coin.
Another workaday aspect revolved around his work studying taxi drivers, who had to determine which passengers they would pick up based on the drivers’ perception of the person hailing them being a fare that was safe and trustworthy. These instant assessments can rely, however, on short-cuts that reek of racial profiling. In New York, for example, Gambetta that even Black drivers wouldn’t pick up young Black people. This essentially removes the service from that population – “the cost of proving your bona fides, that you are a real passenger despite your age and color, is too costly, is too complicated.”
In addition to his professorship at the European University Institute, Gambetta is the Carlo Alberto Chair at the Collegio Carlo Alberto in Turin, and an official fellow at Nuffield College, University of Oxford. Among his books are 2016's Engineers of Jihad, Codes of the Underworld: How Criminals Communicate from 2009, and 1993's The Sicilian Mafia. The Business of Private Protection.
Consider two different, but similar situations. In the first, children are asked to pull ropes together. Candy cascades down, but in unequal distribution – three for one child and one for the other. In the second situation, the children come across the sweets but without joint labor, and again find an uneven distribution.
What usually happens next differs between the two situations. When the kids work together, they tend to willingly share the proceeds so everyone ends up with an equal share. But when the candy was discovered through individual serendipity, the children tend to accept the uneven outcome and don’t equalize shares.
The first situation involves what Mike Tomasello, the James F. Bonk Distinguished Professor of Psychology at Duke University, would call joint commitment; “When children produce sweets collaboratively they feel they should share them equally.” There’s no explicit promise of an equal share, but there is an implicit one that’s just as recognizable and genuine.
As Tomasello details to interviewer David Edmonds in this Social Science Bites podcast, “I can say I don’t like it when you keep all the sweets – that’s my personal opinion – but when I say ‘you shouldn’t do that, you mustn’t do that, you must do this, you have to do that,’ this is not my personal opinion. This is something objective.”
While this might be a normative bond that helps glue humans together, it’s not a bond he finds in our closest relatives. Tomasello points out that among chimps – with which the longtime co-director of the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology has a deep background researching - the dominant partner takes the spoils in almost all cases. The “we-ness” that can mark human behavior is replaced by the “me-ness” of other primates.
That difference between primates and people is the basis of much of Tomasello’s career (see the work of the Tomasello Lab at Duke: “studying the development and evolution of social cognition, communication, and cooperation“) and of his 2018 book, Becoming Human: A Theory of Ontogeny. Much of his effort has focused on great apes, our closest primate relatives, following a line of research that started with Jane Goodall learning that apes make and use tools. Great apes share many qualities with human beings – they understand causal relations, can work with the concept of quantities, can predict what others might do based on what they see and what their goal is, are good social learners, can communicate with gestures (and can learn new ones), and can work with one another in some cases.
But Tomasello notes a key area in which apes and people differ. “Humans put their heads together, as a general phrase, to accomplish things that neither one can do on his or her own. So if you look at all the things you think are most amazing about humans – we’re building skyscrapers, we have social institutions like governments, we have linguistic symbols, we have math symbols, we have all these things – not one of them is the product of a single mind. These are things that were invented collaboratively at the moment or else over time as individuals build on one another’s accomplishments.”
Great apes and other creatures – ants and bees do offer a limited counter-example -- don’t do that. Understanding this evolved capacity – Tomasello doesn’t like using terms like “hard-wired” or “innate” – isn’t just a matter for academic interest. While he shied away from talking about the normative implications of his research and theories, Tomasello noted the benefits of cooperation and collaboration (and also some of its less-welcome artefacts such as creating out-groups to discriminate against), whether in sports, or work, or society. While he wouldn’t develop public policies, “If you want a more cooperative society, I can tell you some things that would help.”
Forensic psychologist Belinda Winder, who founded and heads the Sexual Offences, Crime and Misconduct Research Unit at Nottingham Trent University, wants society to understand one key aspect about pedophilia.
“Many people understand pedophilia to be both a sexual attraction to children but also the act of committing abuse against children,” she explains to interviewer David Edmonds in this Social Science Bites podcast. “And that’s wrong.” Those are two different things, she continues.
“Pedophilia is sexual attraction – enduring and sustained sexual attraction. Not something that someone wakes up with one day, but something that people have come to realize, sometimes over many months, that they have a sexual attraction, maybe a sexual preference, for pre-pubescent children.”
Of course sexual abuse against children does occur, and Winder explains that’s not pedophilia but pedophilic disorder, “where someone acts on their interests.” The disorder also covers the significant mental difficulty, such as guilt or embarrassment, that having this attraction may cause. (And it’s worth noting that Winder reports that more than half of the people convicted of committing sexual abuse against pre-pubescent children are not pedophilic.)
Winder’s research, conducted in the United Kingdom, United States, Canada, Australia and New Zealand, shows this distinction between urge and action matters greatly for addressing pedophilia. This is especially true in an environment where its merest whiff results in instant condemnation – and where the angry ornaments of that condemnation serve none of the victims of pedophilic disorder, whether the children or the offender.
“Until we as a society can see there is a difference between a sexual preference for children which we cannot change and cannot do anything about and we did not choose, versus committing sex abuse against a child — which absolutely people should take responsibility for, which they do have control over and which they can change — then I think the world is going to be quite a difficult place for anyone who wants to step forward and say, ‘This is me, what a most unfortunate sexual orientation to have.’”
That awareness helps in therapies that have been shown to successfully address pedophilic disorder offenders. “It’s taking the blame for the preference and the interest from people but putting the responsibility for their behavior squarely back with the person.”
Winder set up the Sexual Offences, Crime and Misconduct Research Unit in 2007 to build upon the collaborative relationship between Nottingham Trent’s Psychology Department and the British prison Whatton, one of Europe’s largest sex offender prisons with more than 830 convicted male sex offenders housed there. She is also co-founder, trustee, vice chair and head of research and evaluation for the 6-year-old Safer Living Foundation, a charity that conducts and evaluates initiatives that help to prevent further victims of sexual crime.
In this podcast Winder discusses the prevalence of pedophilia, how it can be viewed as a sexual orientation, and what responses work – and which don’t – in addressing the disorder. On the latter, Winder sees some popular responses to offenses as ineffective at best and harmful at worst. Imprisonment, Winder says, is appropriate for the crime but does little to deal with the underpinnings of why people committed child sex offenses.
But some of the programs set up to address those underpinnings, like Britain’s former Sex Offender Treatment Programme, don’t work. “[SOTP] was carefully evaluated and some of the aspects of that which really didn’t seem to work at all was the idea that we needed to encourage more empathy in people, the idea that empathy was important – if we encourage more empathy then people wouldn’t offend – that’s just too simplistic and has not been shown to work. Part of the SOTP was getting people to go through every minutiae of what they had done and the offense they had committed, and again, I think that’s more to encourage shame, and shame can be very counterproductive. If you are dwelling in a pool of shame, then it may be you feel you are beyond saving.”
Exclusion also doesn’t help, which is why Winder has a special scorn for sex-offender registries, which she calls “actively ineffective." "If what you need is to connect with other people – this is what helps you not offend again in the future. … Once you’ve been brought to task for your sexual offending you are highly unlikely to commit another one. But the thing that might push you to re-offending is not having people to talk to, not having a place to stay. So really we need to allow people to resettle.”
There’s an intuitive attraction to the idea that if we could just spend some quality time with someone from another group, we’d both come to appreciate, and maybe even like, the other person and perhaps even their group. Enormously simplified, that’s the basis of contact theory, which Gordon Allport posited in the 1950s as the United States grappled with desegregating its public schools.
If differing groups could be brought together cooperatively – not competitively – in a manner endorsed by both groups and where each side met on an equal footing, perhaps we could, as Salma Mousa puts it in this Social Science Bites podcast, “unlock tolerance on both sides and reduce prejudice.”
Mousa, currently a postdoctoral research fellow at Stanford University’s Department of Political Science, tells interviewer David Edmonds that since Allport’s heyday, “We have [had] a lot of studies about contact, but we need experimental tests of contact.” She’s been working to address that need, sometimes using the football pitch as a field site, with work that’s caught both the public and the scientific imagination.
One experiment she was part of examined the incidence of hate crimes once Mohamed “Mo” Salah, the talented Egyptian soccer star, signed with Liverpool Football Club. The results were heartening; Merseyside, where the club is located, experienced a 16 percent drop in hate crimes while anti-Muslim tweets from Liverpool’s fans dropped to half the number compared to fans of other Premier League clubs.
In this interview, Mousa details another experiment involving football and otherness, albeit an experiment made under harsher conditions: “We set out to learn if positive, social contact across social lines can reduce prejudice, can build friendships, can overall improve relationships between groups even in postwar settings, like Iraq.”
The experiment was conducted along the faultlines of northern Iraq where there’s a Kurdish enclave. Working with a Christian community organization which was helping Christians and Muslims displaced by ISIS, the researchers recruited Christian amateur soccer players for a football league. They then added three or four players to each team, randomly adding either all Muslims or all Christians as the newcomers, and tracked player attitudes and actions on the field and off for a half year after the season ended.
Amid some “really profound friendships” that formed, survey results and observed behavior showed that the Christian players came to be much more accepting and welcoming of their Muslim teammates. But that warming did not make the leap to their attitudes towards Muslims in general, suggesting some underlying prejudices remained in place.
While her promising findings nonetheless were not the “home run” people of good will would have liked, the research earned the cover of the journal Science, and left Mousa feeling optimistic about further possibilities of contact theory. Given the difficult context of postwar Iraq and subjects scarred by their flight from ISIS, “to find some evidence that these guys actually became friends and we changed something in these communities, I think is positive, especially given that these communities are persecuted and highly distrustful.”
Fostering tolerance and eroding prejudice, especially in the Middle East, matters personally to Mousa, an Egyptian-Canadian who grew up in Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Qatar and Canada. She’s focused on helping “fix” the region’s ethnic and religious divides: “I think of myself as an engineer but with a social science background.”
Mousa has held fellowships at the U.S. Institute of Peace, Stanford’s Immigration Policy Lab, the Freeman Spogli Institute, the Stanford Center for International Conflict and Negotiation, the McCoy Center for Ethics in Society, and the Stanford Center on Philanthropy and Civil Society. Her work has been supported by the Abdul Latif Jameel Poverty Action Lab, the Innovations for Poverty Action Lab, the King Center on Global Development, the Institute for Research in the Social Sciences, the Program on Governance and Local Development, and the Abbasi Program in Islamic Studies.
Sociologist Alondra Nelson calls it “root-seeking” – individuals wanting to know their ethnic background. Knowing who your people were as a way to know who you are verges on being a human need – witness the Hebrew Bible or the carefully tended genealogies of royal houses.
In her own seeking, Nelson has studied the rise and use of direct-to-consumer genetic testing as made popular by companies like 23andme, Ancestry.com and AncestryDNA. Those firms and others promise to decode, at least in part, stories found in your own chromosomal makeup. As Nelson achieved other career milestones, including being the current president of the Social Science Research Council and the Harold F. Linder Professor at the Institute for Advanced Study, she’s also spent close to two decades unraveling the story of consumer genetic testing, accounts of which resulted in two of her books, Genetics and the Unsettled Past: The Collision of DNA, Race, and History and the new The Social Life of DNA: Race, Reparations, and Reconciliation after the Genome.
In this Social Science Bites podcast, Nelson describes her particular interest in those root-seekers whose journeys usually aren’t captured in antebellum church registries or in tales passed down in the same hamlet through countless generations. She's focused on the descendants of people 'stolen from Africa' in the slave trade, who make up so much of the African diaspora.
In surveys and later in extensive interviewing among the African-American community, Nelson found a great deal of interest among Black Americans in DNA testing despite some historical misgivings.
“Marginalized communities, and in the context of the U.S., African-Americans in particular, have a very understandable historic distrust of genetic research and medical experimentation,” she explains to interviewer David Edmonds. “So the fact that African Americans were early adopters in this space is surprising given that history. What’s not surprising is the genealogical aspiration that many African Americans are trying to fulfill – a profound and pronounced and often very living and present longing sense of loss and longing about identity, original family names, of points and places on the continent of Africa where one’s ancestors might have come from.”
She also learned, as her investigations branched out from surveys of the genealogical community to interviews with test-takers, that “getting the test results was really the beginning of the endeavor, rather than the end.
“What in the world did you think you could do with this information, besides filing it away in a drawer and telling your family that we now know that we have Ibo, Yoruba, whatever the test provided for ancestry?” Answering that question meant Nelson’s own approach must evolve.
“That transformed the methodology to a kind of ethnographic methodology that I call the ‘social life of DNA’ in which I followed what happened with the test, what happened with the information, what did they think that these genetic inferences could do with the world. That really opens up a whole other space of thinking about the importance of genetic testing.”
Part of that space she explored is uniquely American. For much of (White) America, one’s ethnic ties to the ‘old country’ – to be Irish or Italian, say -- are a linchpin of identity. “That’s not been available to African Americans,” she notes, whose roots are assigned to an amorphous blob of sub-Saharan Africa, since specific roots were eradicated when now enslaved peoples arrived in the New World. “People lost their given names, lost the languages of their foremothers and forefathers,” Nelson said.
“[P]art of the work of what slave-making entailed was taking people from often very different places on the continent of Africa, with different languages, cultural norms, religious backgrounds and to create out of a multicultural and multiethnic diverse group of people of different backgrounds a ‘caste’.” The dark-skinned newcomers were henceforth categorized as a race, and that race was assigned the caste of enslaved person.
Genetic testing, in turn opens up that ‘Black box’ of lost identity and reveals what place and culture forebearers were likely ripped from. (Nelson, for example, had her own code analyzed and discovered a component of her heritage was from what is now Cameroon.)
In this podcast, Nelson also talks about how Black Americans may respond to their growing awareness of their specific genetic identities, how this might impact the reparations debate in the United states, and why people are primed to be emotional at reveals of their genetic heritage.
In addition to her two books on genetic testing, Nelson writes extensively at the nexus of science, technology, and social inequality. Her publications, for example, include the books Body and Soul: The Black Panther Party and the Fight against Medical Discrimination and Technicolor: Race, Technology, and Everyday Life. She is also editor of “Afrofuturism,” an influential special issue of Social Text.
As the toll from the COVID-19 pandemic increased, polling suggests counterintuitively that resistance to a future vaccine has also risen. Anthropologist Heidi J. Larson identified several likely drivers of this, including political polarization, a focus on being ‘natural,’ the undercurrent of mistrusting the so-called elite. But in this Social Science Bites podcast, she tells interviewer Dave Edmonds that there’s another driver.
Families who have some expertise in running their own affairs can come to resent “the elitism of science, the language of science, the ‘we know better’” which dismisses their experiences and more importantly, their questions. “A lot of parents feel very strongly feel that they have their own evidence of vaccine problems,” she notes, and the medical establishment has often not invested a lot into bringing the public along – even as the number of vaccines and the expectation of being vaccinated grows.
“[The public is] saying, wait a minute – we want to have say in this, we want to be able to ask some questions … [W]hen they feel like the door in closed on the questions, that shuts down the conversation. I think in order to become unstuck, we need to have more dialog and be open.”
Stuck is the name of Larson’s new book. Besides the obvious pun in the title, Larson explains Stuck: How Vaccine Rumors Start -- and Why They Don't Go Away also refers to being “stuck in the conversation, why the public health community has been losing some of the public enthusiasm for vaccines.”
These are questions and concerns Larson routinely addresses in her role as director of the Vaccine Confidence Project, a World Health Organization (WHO) Centre of Excellence that addresses vaccine hesitancy, and as a professor of anthropology, risk and decision science at the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine’s Department of Infectious Disease Epidemiology.
The first organized opposition to compulsory vaccination arose in the United Kingdom in the late 1800s, she explains, as a reaction to mandatory smallpox vaccinations. “To this day that is one of the persistent themes that has fueled some of this resistance.”
Nonetheless, as vaccinations remain one of the most remarkable health interventions available, the resistance that might be expected to erode in the face of a global health emergency hasn’t faded.
“Strangely, in the context of the pandemic, the already amplified skepticism has taken another level of resistance, which is surprising to many of us. You’d think with such a serious disease and a pandemic it would be a time where people would say, ‘Wow, this is really an example of why we really need a vaccine.’”
And the resistance, whether to a coronavirus vaccine or to vaccine in general, can be seen globally. In fact, Larson is seeing resistance groups linking up across borders – and an a most inopportune time. “I see the whole increase in the anti- and skepticism as being kind of a tipping point … We’ve always had all these other issues that have been challenging in getting enough people vaccinated, both from the supply of the vaccine and the access, logistics and all the rest. But this additional factor – we’ve stagnated in our global vaccination coverage and just can’t seem to get above a certain amount.” And those coverage levels in some cases fall below the thresholds needed for “herd immunity,” which in turn means we can expect more cases, whether or COVID, measles or even polio.
Social media has helped skeptics get their messages disseminated, and Larson notes that the Wakefield autism scare arose the same year as the start of Google. “The sentiments are not new,” she says, “but the scale and intensity of them is.”
In addition to her position in London, Larson is also a clinical professor in the Department of Global Health at the University of Washington and a guest professor at the University of Antwerp. She previously headed global immunization communication at UNICEF, chaired the Advocacy Task Force for the Gates Foundation-sponsored Gavi, the Vaccine Alliance, and served on the WHO Strategic Advisory Group of Experts Working Group on vaccine hesitancy.
Have you always felt that you could make of your life pretty much what you want to make of it? Once I make up your mind to do something, do you stay with it until the job is completely done? And when things don’t go the way you want them to, do you just work harder?
And one last question – are your poor, or working class, or live in a highly segregated area?
If you strongly agree with the first questions, and answer yes to the last one, your coping is likely putting you at greater risk for a raft of health problems. That’s a key finding of Duke University epidemiologist Sherman James, who describes what he terms ‘John Henryism’ in this Social Science Bites podcast.
The health effects, which James has studied since the 1980s, have come into sharper focus as the Coronavirus pandemic exacts a disproportionate toll on communities of color in the United States. Based on the John Henryism hypothesis, James tells interviewer David Edmonds, members of those communities are likely to develop the co-morbidities which help make COVID more deadly. And since many of them have to physically go to work, John Henryism helps “elucidate what some of these upstream drivers are.”
James defines John Henryism as “strong personality disposition to engage in high-effort coping with social and economic adversity. For racial and ethnic minorities … who live in wealthy, predominantly white countries – say, the United States – that adversity might include recurring interpersonal or systemic racial discrimination.” It can be identified by using James’ John Henryism Active Coping Scale, (JHAC12, pronounced ‘jack’), which asks 12 questions with responses from ‘strongly agree’ to ‘strongly disagree’ on a 5-point Likert scale.
High-effort coping, over years, results in excessive “wear and tear” on the body, damaging such things as the cardiovascular system, the immune system, and the metabolic system. Focusing on the cardiovascular system, James notes that this “enormous outpouring of energy and release of stress hormones” damages the blood vessels and the heart.
James notes that the damage doesn’t occur solely because someone is a Type A personality – it’s the interaction with poverty or segregation that turns someone from a striver to a Sisyphus (with the attendant negative effects on their cardiovascular health). In fact, James says, research finds that having resources and a John Henry-esque personality does not lead to an earlier onset of cardiovascular disease.
The eponymous John Henry is a figure from American folklore. The ‘real’ John Henry probably was a manual worker, perhaps an emancipated slave in the American South, James explains. His legendary doppelganger was a railroad worker, “renowned throughout the South for his amazing physical strength,” especially when drilling holes into solid rock so that dynamite could be used.
A boss challenged John Henry to compete against a mechanical steam drill. It was, says James, “an epic battle of man – John Henry – against the machine. John Henry actually beat the machine, but he died from complete mental and physical exhaustion following is victory.”
A folk song memorializes the battle. As one version (there are many, but all telling the same story) recounts:
John Henry he hammered in the mountains
His hammer was striking fire
But he worked so hard, it broke his heart
John Henry laid down his hammer and died, Lord, Lord
John Henry laid down his hammer and died
That narrative – dying from the stresses of being driven to perfection but in a dire environment – the Jim Crow South – gave its name to James’ hypothesis.
James himself grew up in small town in the rural American South, beginning his higher education in the early 1960s at the historically Black Talladega College near Birmingham, Alabama. Birmingham was the heart of the civil rights struggle in the Civil Rights era, and James was an activist, too. He decided then that “whatever I did would have to have some bearing on social justice, on working to make America a more just society in racial and social class terms.”
He trained as a social psychologist with a special emphasis on personality, earning his Ph.D. Washington University in St. Louis in 1973, and focused his career on identifying social conditions that drive health inequalities.
His own studies conducted amid the farmers, truckers and laborers of eastern North Carolina provided early, and strong, confirmation for John Henryism. While John Henryism seems focused on African-American men, other research – in Finland, on African-American women, and more – bears out John Henryism’s premise in the global population.
In the podcast, James discusses a real John Henry – John Henry Martin – he met while doing research, and offers some societal prescriptions that would allow African Americans and others to “pursue their aspirations in ways that do not accelerate their risk for cardiovascular disease, morbidity and mortality”
James is the Susan B. King Distinguished Professor Emeritus of Public Policy and a professor emeritus in the Sanford School of Public Policy at Duke, where he is also a core member of the Center for Biobehavioral Health Disparities Research. He was elected to the National Academy of Medicine of the National Academy of Sciences in 2000. James was president of the Society for Epidemiologic Research in 2007-08. He received the Abraham Lilienfeld Award from the Epidemiology section of the American Public Health Association for career excellence in teaching epidemiology in 2001, and in 2016 received the Wade Hampton Frost Award for outstanding contributions to epidemiology from the same section.
He is a fellow of the American Epidemiological Society, the American College of Epidemiology, the American Heart Association, and the Academy of Behavioral Medicine Research. In 2016, he was inducted into the American Academy of Political and Social Sciences as the Mahatma Gandhi Fellow, and in 2018 was a fellow of the Center for Advanced Study of Behavioral 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.”
That historical take is, she argues, a distortion. Modernity wasn’t manufactured in Manchester or drafted in a salon in Paris; it arose from existing colonial connections. “Modernity isn’t something that emerges endogenously and autonomously within Europe, from which it then spreads around the world. There were already global connections, and those connections were through processes of colonization, enslavement, imperialism, and so on. Those processes are the condition for things that we call modernity.”
The bill for that modernity, she adds, has yet to be paid in full.
“There is no institution in Britain or France to which colonial wealth has not contributed ... anybody who has an historical connection to the empire has a right to the wealth and benefits of what is now the nation.”
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 night on the town. That may sound like another profession … “It looks like sex work,” Mears says, “even though [the promoters are] very clear that it’s not.” The promoters insist they are not pimps by another name, and while hookups do happen, that’s not how they generate income.
That said, the women in this triangle trade are, in essence, the coin of the realm.
What turns Mears’ work into more than an HBO series is the sociological lens she brings to the proceedings. She cites the roots of study into displays of wealth from Thorstein Veblen and Claude Lévi-Strauss to more modern scholars like the late Pierre Bourdieu and Gayle Rubin. She also discusses some of the methodology of ethnography, and how she opted for ‘participatory observation’ at some points to fully understand the terrain.
She took a similar approach for her first book, 2011’s Pricing Beauty: The Making of a Fashion Model, which drew on her own experiences in the industry.
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-inflicted wound,” Case says that made the existing trend “horrifically” worse. “In the U.S. in the mid-1990s Oxycontin was allowed onto the streets. Any doctor with a script could prescribe it. It’s basically heroin in pill form with an FDA label on it, and they sprinkled it like jelly beans. It landed on very fertile soil.”
Between opioids and existing problems with America’s mostly private health care system, deaths from despair keep rising.
What might end this cycle? Something dramatic, Case says. And perhaps something already creating drama …
“We think something is going to have to break, and break badly, in order for us to see reform. Maybe, possibly, COVID-19 is breaking things really badly and this might be a time when enough people in the middle of the distribution start talking about reform, then it might be possible to see change.”
Anne Case is the Alexander Stewart 1886 Professor of Economics and Public Affairs, Emeritus at Princeton, where she directs the Research Program in Development Studies. She’s received numerous awards for her work on the nexus between economic health and physical health, including the Kenneth J. Arrow Prize in Health Economics from the International Health Economics Association and the Cozzarelli Prize from the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. She is a research associate of the National Bureau of Economic Research, a fellow of the Econometric Society, and an affiliate of the Southern Africa Labour and Development Research Unit at the University of Cape Town. Case is a member of the National Academy of Medicine, the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, and the American Philosophical Society.
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 them?”
Arenas like critical thinking and psychology are also brought to bear tellingly on the home front: “Our leaders share our biases,” he tells Edmonds, before detailing a number of logical traps policymakers and the populace currently share.
The podcast closes out with a look to the future, both through specific initiatives Shah is part of, and in general. “I think there will be all sorts of fascinating data about how the pandemic has affected us,” including, he made clear higher education and academic research itself. Shah, meanwhile, is acting chair of the Ada Lovelace Institute, which while looking at technical solutions to COVID also draws on social science insights, i.e. in digital contact tracing, it was revealed that those most vulnerable to COVID were also least likely to have a smart phone.
And the British Academy itself, he noted, has a group of scholars assembled who will provide a rapid response to government inquiries and needs, as well as looking at some of the other implications of the future “that the government doesn’t have the bandwidth for.”
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 self-interest, what the role of a social scientist is in exploring fraught ideologies, and how someone might counteract malign politics.
Wodak has studied right-wing discourse for years, work that is covered in 2015 book The Politics of Fear: What Right-Wing Populist Discourses Mean, which will see a second edition later this year. At present, she is senior visiting fellow at Vienna’s Institut für die Wissenschaft des Menschen where with Markus Rheindorf she is examining “repoliticization from below.”
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.
With each new year comes a wave of good intentions as people aim to be better. They want to lose weight, exercise more, be nicer, drink less and smoke not at all. They want to change behavior, and as Susan Michie knows well, “behavior is related to absolutely everything in life.”
Michie is a clinical and health psychologist who leads the Centre for Behaviour Change at University College London. She specializes in behavior related to health – for behavior or health practitioners, patients and population as a whole – and in looking at how behavior impacts the natural environment. And while you might think that the essentials of human behavior are pretty similar, one of the things Michie quickly tells interviewer Dave Edmonds in this Social Science Bites podcast is that it can be unwise to jump to conclusions when studying behavior (or trying to change it).
She notes, for example, that lots of behavioral research is done in North America, where there’s relatively abundant funding for studies, “but the biggest need [for research] is often where there’s the least investment. There’s no point in developing an intervention based on research evidence conducted in parts of the world that are very far away from the type of context we want to implement the findings in – only to find out it’s not going to work.”
So yes, she says, do look at both the rigour of the research, but also base any potential application of the findings on deep understanding of local conditions and using local knowledge.
Michie and her team describe this using a model, COM B, to account for the ‘capability, ‘opportunity’ and ‘motivation’ necessary to change behavior.
Changing behaviors is important – “In order to solve any of these big social challenges we need people at different positions in society to change their behavior” -- so these considerations matter. But that begs the questions of what behaviors need changing – and who decides what those selected behaviors are..
“There’s a big issue about who decides what the key issues are,” Michie says. “But I think there are certain problems which are very self-evident – there are people dying unnecessarily as a result of smoking, obesity but also environmental conditions – poor housing, etc. There are areas where the social consensus is that things needs to change, and I’d say those are the ones we start with.”
In the interview, Michie also addresses the ethics of behavior change and how algorithms and machine learning will be “absolutely vital” to parse through all the relevant data . Her own Human Behaviour Change Project is a collaboration between behavioral scientists and computer scientists combing the global literature to see what works, with an initial focus on smoking cessation. A comprehensive tobacco control strategy, she details, involves those infamous “nudges” beloved of policy makers, but also the legislation, services and taxation, that need to work synergistically to effect real change.
Michie had a long career as a research fellow and clinician before joining the Psychology Department of University College London in 2002. She’s a fellow of the Academy of Medical Sciences, the Academy of Social Sciences, the Academy of Behavioral Medicine Research, the Society of Behavioral Medicine, the European Health Psychology Society, the British Psychological Society and a Distinguished International Affiliate of the American Psychological Association.
Henri Tajfel’s early life – often awful in the living, exciting in the retelling – gave the pioneering social psychologist the fodder for his life’s defining work: understanding the roots of prejudice.
Born one hundred years ago into a Jewish family in the dawn of an independent Poland created from the detritus of three disintegrated empires, he left Poland to study chemistry in France in the late 1930s. When the Germans dismembered Poland, Tajfel joins a Polish unit in the French army, and is ultimately captured by the Germans. He survived the war as a POW, even as the Nazis exterminated most of his family.
“From that moment on,” his biographer Rupert Brown explains to Dave Edmonds in this Social Science Bites podcast, “one of his driving pre-occupations was to understand how could something like the Holocaust ever have happened.”
After the war, Tajfel worked in orphanages in France and Belgium and then in a displaced persons camp in Germany. At this time he met, and eventually married, a German Jewish woman who had emigrated to England before the war. This led him to move to Britain, where he studied and then taught psychology. His research at Oxford, and later and most notably at Bristol, focused on researching the cognitive roots of prejudice, discrimination and nationalism.
“[H]e made,” said Brown, “this really significant discovery that one doesn’t need very much to invoke inter-group discrimination and prejudice. Simply being told that you’re in one group or another seems to be enough to trigger that discrimination.”
Using a technique known as ‘minimal group experiments’ – creating kinship based on as little as what sort of abstract painting you like or what colour you prefer – Tajfel determined that “if you imposed categories on anything you are viewing or are living, people start exaggerating the differences between the two groups. He wondered, ‘Could we observe the same thing in a real behavioural situation?’”
Such questions conflicted with many of the then-prevailing notions of how prejudice arises, which Tajfel saw as too generic and too idiosyncratic. Based on the individual, they didn’t account for the clear historical precedent, Germany in the 1930s, that Tajfel saw firsthand (nor current examples like Islamophobia). Can that come down a particular personality or a particular level of frustration, Brown recounts Tajfel thinking. “He just thought that didn’t wash.”
As others have built on his insights, Tajfel’s own work now sounds much like conventional wisdom, even if Tajfel himself didn’t push into applications and left out issues like emotion and gender in his theorising. “In itself, social identity theory is rather an impoverished explanation for things like genocide, things like inter-group slaughter,” Brown says. “Because what does it say – ‘We want our group to be a little better than the other group,’ ‘we‘re looking for positive distinctiveness’? In trying to understand hatred, intergroup violence, we have to go beyond positive distinctiveness. There must be something else that drives people’s anger and hostility.”
Of late, Tajfel’s behaviour has overshadowed his contributions. He died in 1982, and in the 1960s and 1970s he was a serial sexual harasser of young women in his lab and elsewhere (and a difficult and demanding professor overall, as Brown, one of his former PhD students, confirmed). That legacy was known but ignored for years, and the European Association of Social Psychology instituted an important award for lifetime achievement in Tajfel’s name the year he died. This autumn, however, the Association rethought that decision; “naming an award after a person suggests that this individual is a role model as a scientist and beyond,” the organization stated as it announced renaming the award.
Brown does not shy away from the conduct in this podcast or in his new book, Henri Tajfel: Explorer of Identity and Difference. Nor does he defend it, although he does question the renaming: “The prize wasn’t given to recognise moral probity; it was given for contributions to the discipline.” (Brown’s research and his book were supported by a major research fellowship by The Leverhulme Trust and the European Association of Social Psychology itself.)
Brown is an emeritus professor of social psychology at the University of Sussex and himself won a Tajfel medal in 2014. Among his achievements are writing several important texts on social identity and prejudice, including co-authoring Social Identity Processes in 2000 for the parent of Social Science Space, SAGE Publishing.
Living in a loosely regulated society, the very term “social norms” can be vaguely threatening, as if these norms are a threat to freedom always lurking on the periphery. But cultural psychologist Michele J. Gelfand says norms are not the enemy – they are one of our most important inventions.
“Culture,” she says, “is this set of values, norms, and assumptions about the world that we’re socialized into from the time we’re babies. We follow social norms and we need social norms to navigate. It’s really an incredible human invention that helps us predict each other’s behavior and coordinate on large-scales on a regular basis.”
That said, Gelfand definitely understands that social norms can seem threatening – or reassuring – based on your perch. That’s the basis of her substantial body of scholarship, and it’s a concept neatly encapsulated in her 2016 book, Rule Makers, Rule Breakers: How Tight and Loose Cultures Wire Our World.
In her work and her book, Gelfand explores the continuum between “tight cultures,” which strictly enforce and adhere to social norms (think Singapore), and “loose cultures,” which are much more permissive (such as the United States). But in all cultures norms, are, well, normal. We’re constantly following norms – Gelfand points out how people always face the door of an elevator as they ride up and down – and it’s only when we break them that we realize how important they are.
“Social norms are the glue,” she tells interviewer David Edmonds in this Social Science Bites podcast, “that keep people together.” How much glue do we need? Gelfand describes the “simple tradeoff” between tight and loose cultures: tight opts for more order and so reaps some of the hallmarks of that, like less crime and more uniformity and more self-control, while loose aims for openness, which can result in more creativity, tolerance for differences, and openness to change.
Gelfand also discusses factors that cause the evolution of these differences. One major contributor is the degree to which groups face ecological and human threats (think constant fury from Mother Nature or the threat of invasions). Groups that have a lot of threat need more rules to coordinate to survive—so they tighten, while groups that have less threat can afford to be more permissive. Other factors that promote the need for coordination also lead to tightness (like working in agriculture versus hunting and gathering).
Asked if her depiction is a little too neat, Gelfand tells Edmonds she “love[s] the exceptions ... no theory can be a one-to-one prediction.” Plus, her descriptions are “dynamic constructs – they are not static – they can change over time.” As an example, during times of external threat, looser cultures may tighten up (although it takes much longer, she notes, for tight cultures to get demonstrably looser when pressure wanes).
While Gelfand avoids saying one direction is better or worse than the other (and it is a spectrum, not a binary), the extremes of both – tight to repression, loose to chaos – are a concern. She notes that people experiencing either extreme, whether in a company or a country or a household, become dysfunctional. She calls this “the Goldilock’s principle of Tight-Loose”—and argues that groups that are getting too tight need to insert some discretion (what she calls “flexible tightness”) while groups that are getting too loose need to inserts some structure (what she calls “structured looseness”).
Gelfand is a Distinguished University Professor in the Department of Psychology and affiliate of the RH Smith School of Business at the University of Maryland, where she runs the interdisciplinary Culture Lab in the school’s the Social Decision and Organizational Sciences group. As she says on the lab’s ‘About’ page, “We work with computer scientists, neuroscientists, political scientists, and--increasingly--biologists to understand all things cultural.”
In addition to her best-selling book, Gelfand has seen outside validation, such as from the American Academy of Arts and Sciences which elected her to membership in 2019; from the American Psychological Association, which named her the 2017 Outstanding International Psychologist; and the Society for Personality and Social Psychology, which gave her its Diener Award in 2016 and Outstanding Cultural Psychologist award in 2019; or the Alexander von Humboldt Foundation, which bestowed its Annaliese Research Award.
When a mother with minor children is imprisoned, she is far from the only one facing consequences. Their children can end up cared for in multiple placements, they’re often unable to attend school and they’re stigmatised.
These effects on the children of the incarcerated, although predictable, have been poorly understood precisely because almost no one has done that. But Minson, who practiced both criminal and family law before entering academe, did. Following up on issues she’d seen in her work as a lawyer and after taking a master’s at the University of Surrey, she interviewed children, their caregivers and members of the Crown Court judiciary to see both how having a mom locked up affected children and how sentencing decisions that created those situations came about.
Furthermore, she shared her findings with the authorities. “I didn’t realize,” she tells interviewer David Edmonds in this Social Science Bites podcast, “that academics didn’t normally try to change things.”
And while that action might have been somewhat out of the ordinary , what happened next is even more unusual: the authorities listened. After telling the Parliamentary Joint Committee on Human Rights about her findings in March 2018, the committee held an enquiry centered on the rights of the children of the imprisoned, and on Tuesday, 1 October, new guidelines were released with the aim of strengthening female offenders' family and other relationships. Existing systemic problems, she believes, can be “more of a blind spot than a deliberate dismissal of these children.”
While the policy affect was likely the most gratifying reward, she also received this year’s Outstanding Early Career Impact Prize awarded by the Economic and Social Research Council in association with SAGE Publishing (the parent of Social Science Space).
In this podcast, Minson explains that the lack of research into the children of imprisoned women echoes scant data on the mothers themselves. No one knows exactly how many mothers are locked up in England and Wales because that information isn’t collected, but a “best” guess follows by multiplying the results of a 1997 study that found 61 percent of women in prison were mothers by the rough daily headcount of 3,800 women in prison. Of that estimated maternal population of 2,300, most are single mothers incarcerated up to 60 miles from home, leaving their children in the hands of a variety of carers, ranging from grandparents to friends to, as a last resort, a local authority.
“Most people don’t want their children to go into the care system,” Minson relates, “because it can be very, very difficult to get them back again. And often short sentences are given women ... so if they lose their children into care at that point, it can be years before they have them back even though they’ve only been in prison a few months.”
But those informal arrangements are also fraught, with children often living in multiple places during their mom’s confinement. And because these particular children are not recognized as ‘children in need,’ they get no priority in school places – so carry-on issues with not being in school, stigma because their mother is in prison, and resulting damage to education all plant seeds for future problems. And some not so-future ones ...
“Most of the children that I met just describe themselves as sad,” Minson says. “They have this huge grief, and therapists have written about this, whether it’s a disenfranchised grief where you’re almost unentitled to it, or an ambiguous loss because of the uncertainty – a person hasn’t died, but you don’t know when they’re coming back and you can’t talk about in the way you might if your parents separated or divorced.”
In this podcast, Minson discusses why she chose not to interview the imprisoned mothers for her research, the surprising lack of knowledge about child issues she saw in the judges she talked with, and how new court rulings are opening up non-custodial sentencing options for some mothers.
Minson is currently a British Academy post-doctoral fellow at the Centre for Criminology at the University of Oxford, where she is continuing to study children’s rights, this time in the wake of both custodial and non-custodial sentences.
One of the most salient aspects of what generally makes a ritual a ritual is that you can’t tell from the actions themselves why they have to be done that way – and that fascinates anthropologist Harvey Whitehouse. By his own admission, what intrigues the statutory chair in social anthropology and professorial fellow of Magdalen College, University of Oxford is that ritual is “behavior that is ‘causally opaque’ – by which I mean it has no transparent rational causal structure.
“[Rituals] are that way,” he tells interviewer David Edmonds in this Social Science Space podcast, “simply because by cultural convention and general stipulation that is the done and proper way to carry out the behavior.”
Rituals can range from collective events like funerals, initiations, political installations and liturgies to private acts like bedtime prayers or self-crossing before a crucial meeting. One thing that unites all of these is that they are faithfully copied and passed down through the generations.
While the psychological causes of the ritual impulse are inherently interesting, Whitehouse’s work also examines the consequences of ritual, and how rites can produce different intensities of social glue depending on their frequency and emotionality.
For example, painful or frightening initiations tend to produce very strong “social glue,” “fusing” individuals into a larger whole. This insight, partially derived from a visit to Libya in 2011 to study the groups engaged in the effort to overthrow Moammar Ghadafi, has implications, for example, in addressing extremism.
By contrast some groups use “high frequency but relatively dull and boring rituals in order to establish a set of identity markers that can be maintained without radical mutation”. Here the focus is more on ensuring conformity across a large population.
Whitehouse’s own journey into studying religiosity (“I’m not religious myself but deeply fascinated by what makes people religious”) and ritual also are covered in the podcast. As a young academic, Whitehouse started by doing fieldwork in Papua New Guinea focused on economic anthropology. “The people I ended up living with for two years, deep in the rain forest, were very interested in telling me about their religious ideas and ritual practices. They were the ones who got me into the topic.”
It was less, he added, that they wanted to proselytize and more that “they got bored with my questions about production and consumption and exchange and all these boring economic things. I think people were starting to want to avoid me when they saw me coming with my notebooks.”
Whitehouse has created a number of academic research groups and is co-founder of the Centre for the Resolution of Intractable Conflicts at Harris Manchester College in 2014 and is the founding director of the Centre for the Study of Social Cohesion established last year.