New Frontiers in Behavioural Insights

I was live tweeting throughout the Behavioural Exchange conference, which was held in Sydney. It brings together policy-makers, practitioners and academics working in behavioural insights – the use of behavioural and social sciences to improve decision-making using evidence-based enhancements to services, programs and policies.

Day 1

Keynote by Cass Sunstein

Issues with behavioural science ‘nudges‘ (social enticements or environmental cues to optimise desired choices, especially with respect to social policy). To force people to choose when they don’t want to make a decision impacts their dignity.  This isn’t the intention of nudging.

Continue reading New Frontiers in Behavioural Insights

Marx and Auguste Comte on the Sociology of Religion

Open University puts the (animated) spotlight on two sociologists who were critical of organised religion. This first one is on Karl Marx and his enduring dictum: “Religion is the opium of the people.” Marx used this phrase to argue that religion is a mechanism to entice poor and disadvantaged people to accept suffering and inequality as part of life (through the enticement of higher rewards in the afterlife). The original quote is drawn from the Introduction to A Contribution to the Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right. Continue reading Marx and Auguste Comte on the Sociology of Religion

Marx’s Tombstone

Karl Marx’s tombstone is in London’s Highgate Cemetery. On the top, it is inscribed with his famous call for social transformation: “Workers of all lands unite.” At its base is the final line from his Theses On Feuerbach, first published in 1888 and co-edited with Engles:

The philosophers have only interpreted the world, in various ways; the point is to change it.

Republished as Marx/Engels Selected Works, Volume One.

Images via Flickr: 1) William Glen. 2) Barbara Chandler.

Foucault and Chomsky Debate Human Nature 

In this great debate from 1971, Michel Foucault and Noam Chomsky disagree about the fundamental qualities of “human nature” and the key task of social science in helping humanity achieve its collective potential. Chomsky believes that the social sciences should draw up a framework for an ideal society where creativity, freedom and scientific discovery will flourish. He sees it is our task to help to put this plan into action. Foucault argues that there is no ideal concept of social justice that can be universally applied. Instead, he sees that social scientists are tasked with critiquing social institutions and relations of power in different societies. Foucault says:

…one of the tasks that seems immediate and urgent to me, over and above anything else, is this: that we should indicate and show up, even where they are hidden, all the relationships of political power which actually control the social body and oppress or repress it. What I want to say is this: it is the custom, at least in European society, to consider that power is localised in the hands of the government and that it is exercised through a certain number of particular institutions, such as the administration, the police, the army, and the apparatus of the state…. But I believe that political power also exercises itself through the mediation of a certain number of institutions which look as if they have nothing in common with the political power, and as if they are independent of it, while they are not.

One knows this in relation to the family; and one knows that the university and in a general way, all teaching systems, which appear simply to disseminate knowledge, are made to maintain a certain social class in power; and to exclude the instruments of power of another social class. Institutions of knowledge, of foresight and care, such as medicine, also help to support the political power. It’s also obvious, even to the point of scandal, in certain cases related to psychiatry.

It seems to me that the real political task in a society such as ours is to criticise the workings of institutions, which appear to be both neutral and independent; to criticise and attack them in such a manner that the political violence which has always exercised itself obscurely through them will be unmasked, so that one can fight against them.

Read the entire transcript . Watch the debate and bliss out: part 1 and part 2.

Gifs: Zuleyka Zevallos.

The Sociological Imagination

Neither the life of an individual nor the history of a society can be understood without understanding both

Today’s sociology quote is from C. Wright Mills’ classic, The Sociological Imagination. Mills argues that people sometimes feel “trapped” by their troubles or their personal circumstances . For example, people have obligations to their families, they have commitments at work, their actions are restricted by fear of gossip in their friendship groups, or they might feel as if they have to live their lives in particular ways because society forces this upon us. At the same time, most people understand their lives as being unique. Falling in love, the type of jobs we end up pursuing or those we miss out on, the decision to live alone or the types of families we form – these are all choices that are mediated (or shaped) by the the time and place we live. People rarely think about their life choices – nor the lives of others – as the outcome of institutions and history. Societies have a tendency to view certain lives negatively: being homeless, being unemployed, teen pregnancies, addiction, incarceration – people often blame the individual for pathways that “deviate” from the norm.

Some people might think about a handful of external influences as having direct impact on their lives – religion, family or perhaps the media – but they do not always see the complex interplay between various social forces. Sociology makes this connection between the individual (biography) and broader social structures. This is why Mills says that in order to understand an individual we must understand history and vice versa.

Hat tip to Mitch Diatz on Flickr for the original photo. Graphic by Zuleyka Zevallos.

Sociology of Distinction

“There are some British people who are cool [Mick Jagger, for example], and then there are people like me who seem to be made of tweed.”

In an interview with Craig Ferguson, Stephen Fry talks about class in England and how punk changed notions of what Bourdieu calls “distinction”. That is, different classes reinforce social norms and social order through their activities and interests.

People generally tend to think of their individual preferences for music, fashion or their manner of speaking as a sign of their personality or family upbringing. Bourdieu shows that the things and ideas we like actually represent the aesthetics of our class. Working class “distinctions” not only set this group apart from upper class groups, their activities are often set up in opposition to other classes.

Popular culture nowadays might seem to transcend class, but in essence, our tastes still reflect social hierarchies.

To an outsider, Stephen Fry might represent the quintessential British culture, but as Fry actually notes, growing up in 1970s, he embodied all the aspects of British culture that the general public hated: he was highly educated, he liked Latin poetry, and he dresses in tweed. In summary, his personal aesthetic or distinction represented upper class British culture.

I thought that I was from a generation that was born at least 20 years too late. That maybe if I’d been born in the 50s, when wearing a tweed jacket and smoking a pike and talking about Catullus and Ovid was somehow acceptable and you were admired for it. Whereas I felt that I was born into a post-punk era in which the idea of even speaking in sentences that didn’t break up at the end and go “sort of”, and “like” and “oh I wonder”. Just having an articulate voice was in itself was an offence. It was like rubbing people’s faces in the dirt. And I was hated for it.

In contrast, Scotland-born Craig Ferguson embodies the opposite distinction: his casual style, self-effacing humour, his swearing and dishevelled presentation evokes his working class background, which he often references directly. Ferguson, who has often discussed his affinity to the British punk movement (he was once in a band), talks about how he disliked Fry precisely for all the things he stood for: well-spoken, widely-read, affluent charm.

The exchange is a lovely example of how Bourdieu uses distinction to analyse class systems. Fry also discusses his addiction and psychological definitions of being bi polar.

Legacy of Adrienne Rich

The radical disparities of wealth and power in America are widening at a devastating rate…A president cannot meaningfully honor certain token artists while the people at large are so dishonoured.

imageAdrienne Rich explains to then-American President Clinton (in writing) why she refused to accept the USA National Medal for the Arts in 1997.

Rich has died – RIP to this amazing and pioneering feminist. By problematising the notion that heterosexuality is natural, she left a lasting impact on science.

If you are trying to transform a brutalised society into one where people can live in dignity and hope, you begin with the empowering of the most powerless. You build from the ground up.

Image and top quote via the L.A. Times.

Correlation is not Causation

This is a nice illustration of a basic mathematical principle that the general public does not always understand when they are presented with statistics. The media in particular do a poor job of conveying the simple fact that correlation does not equal causation. (See a larger image here.)

Source: SEO Blog via Ria.