Nov 24 2015

Anything becomes possible at the LSE

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by Lisa Muggeridge, MSc student in the Department of Sociology at the LSE


At long last inequality is the watchword on the lips of economists, academics, politicians, and media alike. The evolution of the financial crisis into social and political crisis, has left many wondering how they didn’t notice inequality widening. Leaving them to wonder what equality meant in the first place and how inequality actually shapes the economy and society. The London School of Economics recently formed the International Inequalities Institute as a response to the growing anxieties relating to inequality. Ironically the LSE is of one of the universities in the golden triangle at the apex of the higher education and class reproduction hierarchy in the UK.

My research interests are how institutions map inequality, and how we read and understand what our social policy institutions tell us, and researching the relationship between instability and inequality. In the context of the UK, I am suggesting that using our social policy systems and the narratives that shape them, will help us to map out that relationship in the period since the financial instability of 2008.

And so here I am. One of the first graduate students at the new Inequalities Institute, hoping that next year I will have the skills and funding to start that research. My first term which I now know is Michaelmas term, has been educational to say the least.

I graduated in 2006 from the University of Bradford, a social worker preparing to work at the intersection of inequality, social policy, social life and our economic system. Inequality as I understand it is about power and abuse, and at the coal face where I worked I was trying to make those systems work in the lives of kids who were vulnerable to significant harm. Harm from their families, but also from a society where they are invisible, and social policy systems that harmed them under the guise of ‘help’. Learning to navigate the cracks being widened by privatisation and financialisation and the deepening economic inequality has been difficult. Especially when I have a theory based around the ability to critically reflect on the power of social policy and how that shapes the lives of those that wider society does not want to see.

Those who graduated with me would go on to work different inequality fault lines, older people, younger children, people with mental illnesses and learning disabilities, vulnerable to violence, abuse, vulnerability that is a by-product of being dependent on other people or the state for care. The LSE is one of those universities that will churn out the policy makers who shape the working lives of those I graduated with, and the private lives of our very vulnerable service users. Being at the LSE is thrilling, having access to the documents that gave birth to the institutions that interest me in our well-resourced library, and equally having access to brilliant minds and academics whose work I have followed for years.

The MSC Inequalities and Social Sciences course provides a rotation of lectures from academics at the top of their fields, examining different aspects of inequality. Theorising inequality and egalitarianism, law, media, organisational sociology and the studies of gender, race, and class which should shape these fields. And if that isn’t enough Thomas Piketty will be lecturing next term. We have access to courses across the institution and can create unique masters degrees reflecting the wide variety of interests in the new intake.

The recognition that studying inequality requires a journey across disciplines and institutions mirrors what I have learned in my working life and through my undergraduate degree, and yet I have found this is a new understanding for the academic institutions who educated those who shaped my working landscape. That most of these disciplines exist in silos unable to communicate and learn from each other. I don’t think I have ever felt so different. Not just because of the intangible barriers that class creates, not just because I commute here from West Yorkshire and balance my study with the care of my daughter and still live subject to the social policy systems I am studying. But because I sometimes feel like I have landed in a frosted glass bubble, with academics who know they should be able to see the world I know, but can’t.

I reflect on the policies I have delivered on behalf of the civil service and local authorities, and can see how that disconnect manifested reality.

I am trying to get to grips with statistics and quantitative research methods, and as I struggle with the basic handling of data and SPSS, I realise that if it can’t be measured, it doesn’t count. There is a great deal that can’t be measured. There have been huge problems in how we have interpreted what can be.

The distance between my life at LSE and my life outside is more than the commute, and that distance is having a more profound effect on my understanding of the world, than the essays I write and the homework I do to get to grips with statistical analysis.

We are living in a very exciting time, and the ideas formed now and at this institute, will shape generations. I believe just as the thoughts Keynes and Hayek had here in the1940s, which shaped the world over the past 70 years. It is thrilling. We have their knowledge, we have the data and the evidence that the institutions born here provide, and we have the capability to use that data for the first time in history. But part of what the LSE must do is to develop the ability to reflect on their place in this system and the impact of those ideas, so the same mistakes are not made. When the London School of Economics and other elite institutions can do that, anything becomes possible.


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Nov 16 2015

Algorithms: Neither Makers Nor Mirrors of Reality

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MSc Sociology graduand, Mira Buerger, offers a summary of the research she conducted for her dissertation exploring the role algorithms play in alternative credit scoring.


Algorithms: Neither makers nor mirrors – How basically everything can be a sociological topic

Far too often technology and finance are seen as topics of mere numbers and neutrality, free from any social touch. Why should sociology deal with these? Why not leave them to the IT and economy professionals? Put simply, because technology and finance are genuinely social and political. In my postgrad dissertation I explored some of these social and political dynamics by investigating the role of algorithms in alternative credit scoring and their relation to human actors.

Algorithms & alternative credit scoring

Algorithms surround us, with their application areas ranging from health and dating to airspace business and policing. To put it bluntly, “we’re already halfway towards a world where algorithms run nearly everything” (Hickman, 2013). Yet, their work remains for many a mysterious black box and is often actively silenced (Citron & Pasquale, 2014: 5). Sociology offers some tools for not only opening these black boxes, but also for empirically investigating the production of their walls and boundaries.

Credit scores can severely affect people’s lives, limited not only to the decision for and the conditions of receiving a loan or car financing, but also increasingly affecting employment opportunities (e.g. Bornstein, 2014; Konczal, 2011). However, algorithmic credit scoring has not been broadly researched in sociology and completely unresearched are the so-called ‘alternative’ credit scoring services, provided by ‘fintech’ (financial technology) startups. These startups develop scoring systems which differ from traditional services primarily in the types of data used, ranging from social media information to device data.

Reputation paradox

Both algorithms and credit scores are often thought of as objective, suggesting that they neutrally reflect reality. On the other hand, however, there have been examples in the news where algorithms are portrayed as powerful shapers of everyday life and creators of inequality; for instance, causing African-Americans to be tagged in picture recognition software as apes (Curtis, 2015; Nieva, 2015), and that high paying executive jobs are primarily offered to male internet users (Datta, Tschantz & Datta, 2015).

This reputation paradox of algorithms – as either impartially reflecting reality or autonomously producing it – is the puzzle I investigate. I argue that algorithmic credit scoring is neither mirroring reality nor producing it independently. By employing a Science and Technology Studies (STS) perspective, I show that both human and algorithm-based decisions are at stake when alternative credit scores are developed.

Human-based and algorithm-based inequality in alternative credit scoring

In order to demonstrate the extent of algorithmic and human action and the intertwined politics in credit scoring, I outline how human and algorithm-based decisions may lead to inequality.

Firstly, the human decisions in the development of scores include several points where inequality could arise. Already the selection of data types can have unequal effects, e.g. when wage payment history is taken into account and unpaid forms of labour, such as care or household work, often associated with female workers, may be neglected. Furthermore, the high dependence on online data may discriminate against those with low internet usage, potentially accelerating a “digital divide” (Norris, 2001). Nonetheless, it should be emphasised that alternative credit scoring may actually tackle such problems by taking into account diverse data types. Beyond the selection of data types, human assumptions can lead to selecting categories and variables that implicitly favour some population groups over others (Pasquale, 2015: 35; Barocas & Selbst, 2015: 8).

Secondly, algorithmic processes can lead to inequality. Algorithmically developed correlations might negatively evaluate variables that may be especially prevalent in minority groups, such as low-paying service jobs (Citron and Pasquale, 2014: 14). Furthermore, historical data can carry old discriminatory elements due to previous human assessment of creditworthiness. This may lead algorithms to detect ‘patterns’ that are based on previous disadvantaging treatment of minority groups (Barocas & Selbst, 2015: 1).

The relation between algorithms and humans: assemblages of power

These examples of potential inequality firstly emphasise that it is essential to consider the human agency in the shaping of algorithms and scores. However, they also demonstrate how powerful the algorithmic identification of correlations can be in its social effects. They thus underscore that algorithms are neither makers nor mirrors, but that they are intertwined with human influence. So how can we imagine the connections between algorithms and humans in the shaping of credit scoring?

I suggest that it is useful to see their relationship in credit scoring as ‘assemblages’, following Deleuze and Guattari (1987: 7). An assemblage presents a “multiplicity” of connections that can be imagined as a “rhizome” (ibid.). Similarly, algorithms and humans are complexly connected to each other, with decisions by humans affecting algorithms and vice versa. In such a multiplicity, power is executed in “power centres”, which present points “where flows are converted into segments” and thus function as “exchangers, converters, oscillators” (ibid.: 226). For algorithmic credit scoring this suggests that power is executed in practices of turning consumer information – such as social media data, online activity or device characteristics – into a score. According to Deleuze and Guattari (1987: 224), these power centres include micro-level competitions for dominating the conversion practices. This concept pictures what I observed in my research: only in some occasions is algorithmic processing the dominant form of conversion; in other cases, the human ability to convert information with the help of expertise and experience knowledge is superior and can trump algorithmic decisions.

To conclude, although it is analytically necessary to separate algorithms and humans in their ‘doings’ in order to investigate the details of decision-making processes, I argue that it is also important to see their interconnectedness as assemblages of power that can replace simplistic notions of algorithms being either neutral mirrors or determining makers. The theoretical framing as assemblage enables to understand the power dynamics in credit scoring and thus presents a first step towards tackling digital dimensions of inequality.



Bornstein, D. (2014, October 2). ‘Invisible’ credit? The New York Times. Retrieved from: <> [Accessed August 20, 2015].

Curtis, S. (2015, July 1). Google photos labels black people as ‘gorillas’. Telegraph. Retrieved from: <> [Accessed August 20, 2015].

Citron, D. K., & Pasquale, F. A. (2014). The scored society: Due process for automated predictions. Rochester, NY: Social Science Research Network. Retrieved from: <> [Accessed August 20, 2015].

Datta, A., Tschantz, M. C., & Datta, A. (2015). Automated experiments on ad privacy settings. Proceedings on Privacy Enhancing Technologies, 2015(1), 92–112.

Deleuze, G., & Guattari, F. (1987). A thousand plateaus: Capitalism and schizophrenia. (B. Massumi, Trans.). Minneapolis, Minn: University of Minnesota Press.

Hickman, L. (2013, July 1). How algorithms rule the world. The Guardian. Retrieved from: <> [Accessed August 20, 2015].

Konczal, M. (2011, June 23). Demos on credit reporting and employment: Surveillance, inequalities and the labor market. Retrieved from: <> [Accessed August 20, 2015].

Nieva, R. (2015, July 1). Google apologizes for algorithm mistakenly calling black people ‘gorillas’. CNET. Retrieved from: <> [Accessed August 20, 2015].

Norris, P. (2001). Digital divide: Civic engagement, information poverty, and the internet worldwide. Cambridge, Mass: Cambridge University Press.

Pasquale, F. (2015). The black box society: The secret algorithms that control money and information. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.

Posted by: Posted on by Jalal Movaghary-Pour Tagged with: , , ,

Nov 13 2015

The Mirage of Self-Finance in UK Higher Education; or How To Keep Non-Elites Out

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By MSc student Sociology, Leonor Prata Castelo 

Picture taken from @LondonStudent (November 4th) #GrantsNotDebt

Given recent events, namely the student march against the UK Government’s cut in maintenance grants and cuts in education, and a consultation paper presented by the Conservative Party government about Higher Education that was published two days late, the conversation about UK university fees and student maintenance has taken centre stage. The proposed government plan would, among other things, implement a ‘teaching excellence framework’ that would classify universities’ performances and according to this rating, allow them, or not, to uncap their fees. Meanwhile, the Labour party has opposed these measures, as shown by the University spokesman Gordon Marsden’s comment about this green paper -stating it “would create a ‘two-tier system'” (BBC)- and John MacDonald’s speech at the student march. After the Occupy Movement’s traction last year, the Labour leadership has supported at least some of these claims, and the new leader, Jeremy Corbyn, has announced plans to scrap university fees – following the suit of other EU countries such as Germany, the other main regional economic power. The issues go beyond fees however, as Nona Buckley-Irvine, the LSESU General Secretary states on the LSESU website:

“We are all aware that the cost of living and studying London is extortionately high. Whether it be course fees, the price of living in halls or renting privately, or basic needs like food and transport, it’s tricky to balance a budget. Increasingly, students are going into debt in order to survive London, or having to think about dropping out, taking up considerable part time work, or not even coming to London at all.”

It’s in this context that it is essential to provide and promote dialogue: whether there will be a continuation of the ‘Americanization’ of higher education with its two tier education system and record high fees; or a ‘Europeanization’, with larger state subsidies and where students aren’t treated as consumers. I chose to contribute my experiences as a part time masters student that worked on two zero hour contracts in my first year. With this, I hope to expand upon the already existing conversation started in this blog series by Ronda Daniel, by discussing a short reflection on my experience being a working student and an analysis of the problems that underlie the current state of affairs. I will concentrate on two issues that are unaddressed both by this particular university and the larger underlying mentality that considers students to be perfectly able to sustain themselves through working full or part time in the UK.

As an EU sociology graduate, I looked for a masters degree that would challenge me, enable me to develop research competencies and skills in a university whose environment was international, interesting, motivating. I found all this at the LSE, except for something that I had come to expect: conditions that would allow a student to sustain themselves. This wasn’t due to a lack of research or foresight: I knew the costs of a masters degree and life in London; that I would have to ask my family for the support they could provide in paying for my fees; and that for me to be able to work enough hours to fully sustain my stay in London I’d have to do a part time degree. I knew I’d have to organize myself extremely well and expected for it to be a complex and adventurous challenge. My organization and dedication had already been put to test during my undergraduate studies, and I had been able to balance being a trainee research assistant in an EU Comenius project and being actively involved in my university community. What I did not expect is that despite universities displaying information online stating that many students work, at the LSE it is a definite minority; that the seemingly overwhelming job opportunities were so highly competitive that despite my work and academic experience I was unable to find flexible qualified work. Long story short, during my first year in London I worked in a fast food restaurant in Oxford Street and later in the LSE SU Shop as a member of the part time Student Retail staff.

Timetables that jeopardise the self-financed pursuit of a degree:

Outside of the 10 executive MSc programmes (4 of which are part time), all of the complete degrees at the LSE are conducted in daytime schedules. These 10 programmes are targeted for mid-career and senior professionals that wish to continue working while they study. This catering is interesting on two particular fronts: while on one end, it acknowledges that there are students that cannot dedicate themselves to studying full-time due to work arrangements, it only considers mature students who have already completed an undergraduate degree and are currently working. Obtaining or maintaining a job whilst attending the normal erratic day timetables is extremely difficult. In my experience, I could only find work in areas unrelated to my skills and were precarious. Despite the similarities in terms of contract and lack of security of working hours, conditions differed significantly; whilst in the restaurant I was paid 4 pence over the minimum wage, with long and hectic shifts, in the SU Shop, due to the LSE’s commitment to Living Wage, I was able to decrease schedule and was in a calm environment.

Marginalized issues and narratives:

Much like Ronda Daniel mentioned in her post, the elitist environment exudes what some, on occasion, do spell out: ‘poor people don’t come to the LSE’. I spoke to fellow students that were, like me, working to sustain themselves and found that far from the romantic image of the working student that I was sold before arriving, many worked in similar conditions to mine. Two examples I particularly recall were one of a continuing LSE student working as a retail manager, who had risen up in an establishment he’d worked since his undergraduate days and had a flexible 40 hour work week which left him disheartened and exhausted, and another student that worked in a bar. Even though the second student stated some positive aspects, which included the night time schedule and the tips she received, the main downside was her tiredness during the day which took away a lot of the energy she needed to be attentive class and to study to her best ability.

I got to know the university from a different perspective, met many more students and made more friendships than I otherwise would have -from students in different degrees and departments to fellow LSE staff members. I was lucky that the retail managers were friendly and attentive to our issues, making our small community feel like a family away from home. However, there were downsides, like fellow students treating me like dirt in my workplace and a couple of classmates suddenly looking down on me when this issue came up. Most importantly however, much like the examples, in order for me to support myself financially, the amount of time I worked left me often tired and intermittently demotivated. I managed to keep up with my modules, but not up to the quality standard I wanted. Since I needed to work, I was unable to fully dedicate myself to studying for exams. I admit that at the most hectic of times, I was working myself to the bone and feeling that it was all for nothing.

The problem isn’t in students engaging in work or other activities, but in the needlessly high costs that are massive hurdles for non-elites, and lead to most students stacking up debt and/or toiling in precarious jobs that put their studies on the line. A system which requires privilege or undue hardship cannot truly be considered a meritocratic system that is open to all. Moreover, the current university system does not take these issues into account so that already disadvantaged students are further marginalized by policies that consider them outside the norm of what university students should be. As a sociologist, my experience in the UK in both working environments was invaluable for understanding London and the UK, immigration, service occupations, the precariat, student workers, and universities as organizations, but the degree of involvement necessary also took away my ability to truly be a part of the LSE student community and do my best in my studies.

I believe it is fitting to end this blog post by mentioning two European countries’ policy examples, which despite many differences are illustrative of possible alternatives to the systems in place. In Portugal, university fees range between €1,000 and €5,000 – which makes it one of the 9 EU countries in the ‘highest fee bracket’, where England is considered an outlier. In addition, all masters degrees are in what is called an ‘after labour timetable’ where classes start at 6pm. This allows students to maintain or obtain jobs during their studies and has the advantage of having a more heterogeneous environment. At undergraduate level, the day and night schedules normally coexist, and students have the choice of choosing or alternating between them. The second example hails from Germany and relates to nationwide policies. According to DAAD data, university fees were either scrapped completely or are an average of €450 per year. However, due to the inherent costs of living and studying, the Deutsche Studedntenwerk estimates around two thirds of students work.

In the end, this questions the current government’s ‘ambitious’ project of increasing the share of disadvantaged students by 20% by 2020: given that many are being kept out of universities currently and with a continuation of these nationwide and university-specific policies, is it viable to expect different results?

Posted by: Posted on by Jalal Movaghary-Pour Tagged with: , ,

Nov 10 2015

Art, Displacement and Sociology

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The aim of this post is to highlight the way in which sociological issues can be explored through art and non-textual form. The following is a selection of work from a project by Wilfred Lim, an artist from Malaysia, which focuses on issues of forced displacement. More details of Wilfred and his work can be found at:

Wilfred grew up in Pengerang, a small fishing village situated in the south of Peninsular Malaysia. Unfortunately, in 2011 it was decided that as part of a petrochemical project Pengerang would be demolished  in order construct an oil refinery. Apart from destroying the shoreline and marine life, this meant that all the houses in the village had to be demolished and the inhabitants relocated. The demolition of the village was completed at the end of 2013.

Commenting on this forced displacement process, Wilfred writes:

“The relocation of residential estates has brought my attention to the issue of living space as one of the basic human needs. The Malaysian government’s act of compensating villagers with a new house does not solve the problem. The destruction of habitat is able to impact one’s life radically, this issue has piqued my curiosity in the way humans define their living space.”

Whereas sociologists would usually try to investigate the impact of instances such as this through ethnographic work or by speaking to the residents, as an artist, Wilfred sought to capture and articulate the feelings of the villagers – and himself – through a series of photographic pieces. These provide an interesting and thought-provoking contrast to the way much qualitative sociology is conducted, and we hope they stimulate reflection on the role art can play in exploring sociological themes.





Posted by: Posted on by Jalal Movaghary-Pour

Nov 6 2015

What now for the precariat?

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Reflecting on the ‘Social Class in the 21st Century’ book launch and public lecture, by Ronda Daniel


Social Class in the 21st Century

For more details about the book, and Mike Savage, please see:

When questions were asked to the co-authors of ‘Social Class in the 21st Century’ during LSE’s public lecture to launch the book on Monday 2nd November, an audience member asked ‘now that we know that a precariat class exists, and who they are, what can we do about it?’ LSE’s Lisa McKenzie, who penned a chapter in the book called ‘The Precarious Precariat: The Visible, Invisible People’, had a straightforward answer; ‘end capitalism’. Certainly, when the question was asked, one word sprang to mind: mobilisation. But does the precariat have the knowledge to do so? What’s stopping them? Perhaps the government and the media’s divide and conquer strategy plays a pivotal role in this.

Fearmongering is not uncommon in the mainstream media. News in particular, and more recently, social media, is one of the most accessible ways of contacting the outside world and finding out what has been going on in the day. One key fear on everyone’s minds in disadvantaged areas, is immigration. By dividing the working class by migration and race, the current state of play for the precariat is going to perpetuate. Migration is a scapegoat for countless social problems today; such as the housing crisis, coinciding with more social housing being sold off privately than ever as well as the difficulties of accessing healthcare; coinciding with the privatisation of the NHS. With social issues and opinions around these blown out of proportion by the mainstream media, the precariat class is limited in how much it can unite. It is thought that due to social media groups and internet access now reaching 22 million households (accounting for 84%) in the UK; this is certainly beneficial for keeping informed, and mobilisation. However, internet memes and text edited into photos are regularly distributed by groups such as Britain First, are regularly believed and shared around, especially from people in disadvantaged areas. As well as migrants, the precariat is also being divided from their own in another way; poverty porn. This divides the ‘working’ class into those that are working, and those that are not, via the negative representation of benefits claimants, despite lots of families claiming benefits due to not earning enough money. Programmes such as Benefits Street, which Lisa alluded to in the public lecture, presented residents of James Turner Street in Birmingham negatively. Reflecting on the programme, residents discussed how they felt deceived, and how the positive community feelings were edited out, and the difficulties they faced such as caring roles, addiction, were completely omitted from the programmes. The initial showing of the programme caused a Twitter storm, attacking the residents as ‘scroungers’ and ‘scum’. Words like these remind me of Beverley Skeggs’ Dis-identification of Working Class Women, where women made efforts not to be labelled as working-class, because of stigmas like the above. For example, having designer handbags, and saying things like ‘they’re the ones that beat their kids’ and ‘they’re the ones that hang around the dole office’ referring to what they perceived to be working class women.

This dis-identification reminds me of an important quote made by Lisa, noting that the precariat accounts for 15% of the overall population, but less than 1% of the Great British Class Survey; ‘why would we want to fill something out only to find out that we’re no good, we’re at the bottom?’ This is why stigmatisation is important to battle; it needs to be replaced with engagement for the precariat to help themselves. Issues of social class also need to be discussed accessibly and openly; class should not be overlooked as an issue on activists’ shoulders, and it should also not be overlooked as a purely academic discussion. Including the precariat in a discussion about the precariat is critical.

Recently, there has been discussion in politics, about Jeremy Corbyn, the new elected leader of the Labour Party, as a ‘voice of the working-class’. Whilst migration and social problems aforementioned leading to the rise of splinter parties such as UKIP, in just the 24 hours after Corbyn’s election, 15,000 people joined the Labour Party, and it is rising fast, with over 370,000. As well as split opinions among the precariat about him, there is also another problem facing us: do we really have 5 years to wait to vote for Corbyn? With trade unions losing their rights and voices, more people being evicted from their homes and more social housing being sold off privately, the precariat’s situation will only worsen within 5 years if they are not given a voice or method to mobilise. As a precariat, and a sociology student, I feel that class needs to be taken seriously as a key social division in society and it is up to people with a voice, to give others a voice, and make sociology and politics more accessible.

Interesting reads:

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Oct 30 2015

Marxist Theory and the Greek Crisis

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by Riad Azar, doctoral candidate at the LSE

On the 21st of October, 2015, the first of a lecture series on Contemporary Marxist Theory was held at King’s College. The session was titled “Lessons of the Greek Crisis”, given by Stathis Kouvelakis, a Reader in Political Theory and Philosophy, former member of the central committee of Syriza and founding member of the party Popular Unity.

The lecture was organized around three central defeats suffered in the ongoing Greek crisis. However, Kouvelakis noted how each defeat carried within it further questions, a set of theses that can inspire sociological inquiry.

1) A Defeat in the Struggle Against Austerity:

There is no question that the third memorandum now being implemented by Syriza, the party voted in by the Greek people to oppose austerity, is harsher than the two that have preceded it. And there is no single source to blame, but rather a fluid alliance of organizations that change their affiliations through time and space. For example, while many would look to the Troika (the group composed of the European Commission, the European Central Bank and the International Monetary Fund), one cannot argue that they act in ideological unison. The IMF clearly edited its stance in the run-up to the Referendum (when Greeks historically voted 61.31% against austerity). As the actors that have worked to push for, draft, and implement austerity are varied, Kouvelakis noted how Greeks in Greece refer to this moment in time – characterized by a shifting political terrain – as the period of the Memorandum, assigning political agency to an agreement. How does an object come to be assigned political agency? If the Greek people themselves cannot locate an actor which is expressing the class interests of a minority, in what ways are class interests expressed and implemented in a political terrain marked by changing alliances?

Austerity, a term that has risen in popularity since the financial crisis of 2008, is really nothing new. Kouvelakis correctly pointed out that ‘structural adjustment’ has been used by the IMF to justify austerity since the 1950s. However, what is new is a shifting political geography between core and peripheral countries (to speak in the language of World Systems Theory). What we are seeing in Greece is the treatment that has historically been reserved for peripheral countries, can we speak of a changing geography between core and periphery? The socio-historical force of austerity could be a way to identify a reorganization of the world system.

Kouvelakis also spoke to the shock he felt as Syriza capitulated, giving his experience of being interviewed on Greek television with his fellow Syriza colleagues, who in a period of weeks, had radically changed their talking points to now support and legitimize the Memorandum. While the cleavage was originally cast as being between transnational versus national actors (the transnational Troika and the national representative of the Greek people Syriza), a capitulation and ideological reorganization of Syriza should point to questions of how does power manifest in varying degrees of scale, and what are the relationships between them?

Addressing the way in which the Greek people were being framed in speeches by the leaders of core European countries, Kouvelakis asked how is the consent of European populations manufactured by European leaders in core countries to support austerity? A process of stigmatization is at play; it’s not difficult to find someone on the streets of London who speaks of ‘lazy Greeks.’

2) A Defeat of Left-Europeanism:

Syriza, a coalition of the radical left, has stressed since its January 2015 electoral victory that it is a pro-European party. While many outside Greece used Grexit as a threat to force Syriza’s hand towards capitulation, Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras and various members of the party have consistently expressed their desire to cooperate and remain in the EU. This is the main reason why the Communist Party of Greece (KKE), while commanding enough votes to create a comfortable governing majority for the left, had never agreed to join the party or serve with Syriza in a coalition government.

Syriza’s position is part of a philosophy that has been termed Left Europeanism – a belief that left wing parties can reform neoliberal institutions of the European Union from the inside. Kouvelakis argued that Syriza’s defeat should be seen alongside a defeat in Left Europeanism, a point of view with devastating consequences for Syriza’s Left European counterparts such as Podemos in Spain. If this is the case, what are the mechanisms in place within European institutions that prevent, discourage, or co-opt social movements? What is the meaning of citizenship, of democracy, within polities that are not responsive to citizens?

3) A Defeat of the Party Form:

Lastly, Kouvelakis spoke of the defeat of the party form. He described the way that the internal workings of Syriza were morphed as they won power and during negotiations with the Institutions. In his account, certain circles formed within the party leadership that included the most right-wing elements of the party; namely, the economists. While Syriza was originally conceived as a broad coalition of left wing parties within the Greek political system as well as in Greek civil society, the diversity that fueled the rise of Syriza succumbed to a cult of personality being formed around Tsipras. Certain sections of the ruling faction were able to disconnect themselves from party protocol, and ultimately were able to purge those who disagreed with how they handled the situation. Kouvelakis blames this on the qualitative change that took place as Syriza evolved from a social movement into an electoral machine. What is the dialectic between content and form in regards to political parties and electoral systems? As Syriza is a social movement that combines – and credits its success on – forms of horizontalist (soup kitchens, occupations, consensus) and verticalist (the political party, hierarchical decision making) organization, what is the relationship between social movements and political parties?

Posted by: Posted on by Jalal Movaghary-Pour

Oct 27 2015

The Lost Honour of Europe

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MSc Sociology graduand, Maria-Christina Vogkli, offers her reflections on the current political situation in Europe


Last week has been a dreadful week for Europe. In Portugal, a constitutional crisis has occurred after Portugal’s constitutional president denied the anti-austerity Left-wing party to form a majority government even though it secured an absolute majority. With the aim of appeasing financial markets and satisfying Brussels, democracy has been downgraded on the grounds that appointing a left wing government would be too risky for Euro and the country’s E.U. membership.

In Poland, the conservative and Eurosceptic party Law and Justice won parliamentary elections introducing a radical political discourse around welfare spending, the possibility of banning abortion, and in-vitro fertilisation. Its leader Jaroslaw Kaczynski even claimed that migrants bring dangerous diseases with them.

These political developments take place while Europe faces a refugee crisis with tremendous consequences. The current surge of refugees crossing Europe is estimated at 630,000, while Turkey now hosts 1.9 million Syrian refugees. So far this year, 390,000 migrants have made it to Greece. However, hundreds of them have died in the waters between Greece and Turkey and 3000 have drowned in the greater Mediterranean Sea.

During their meeting in Brussels, the European Union and Balkan Leaders have agreed to facilitate the safe arrival of refugees in places such as Germany and Scandinavia before winter. Europe’s response to this crisis has been to create 100,000 places in reception centres along the route from Greece to Germany, half in Greece and half in Germany. Hungary and Croatia have closed their borders, while refugees are trapped, exposed in the cold being refused to continue their journey. Keeping in mind that 250,000 refugees have passed through the Balkans since mid-September proves how inadequate Europe’s response has been.

During his lecture at LSE, Joseph Stieglitz said that the best proxy of one’s quality of life is in which part of the world one is born. In this context, being a refugee is a completely random fact and anyone of us could be in their unhappy shoes, should we have been born in the wrong part of the world.

Coming from Greece, I follow the Greek news and particularly the refugee crisis closely. Every morning, one hears about a boat having capsized in the Aegean leading to the death of infants and young children. From a point onwards, one gets easily accustomed to that if one does not bother to fully realise the magnitude of this tragedy. Nonetheless, if one decides not to ignore this piece of news, one conceives that the Mediterranean Sea has been transformed into a water tomb for thousands who wrongly lose their lives. The same danger holds for those who managed to cross the Mediterranean Sea and are now facing extreme weather conditions in the Balkan countries.

This tragedy has become an integral part of the Greek residents living on the islands close to Turkey. These people are the ones who rescue and primarily take care of the refugees who survived crossing the water borders. Fishermen who use their boats in order to rescue refugees whose boats deflate or flip over or in the worst case collect dead bodies. Elderly women who take up the grandmother’s role when holding infants, the baker in Samos who baked bread for all refugees on the island and Greek families who accommodate refugees’ families for a period of time. In Athens, different anarchist and non-governmental organisations have squatted empty buildings in order to provide homeless refugees with a secure place to sleep and pharmaceutical care. While this functions on a micro-level, it shows a strong solidarity towards displaced people, who managed to survive horrific conditions including war, economic exploitation with the aim of assuring their travelling to better places and extreme weather conditions. It’s those people who take care of the refugees despite the fact that they are not obliged to.

However, the question remains if those who are responsible for protecting the refugees and their well-being do so. The European countries have immersed into a debate and negotiation with respect to the number of refugees they are willing to accept, while other countries close their borders. Despite the fact that their rhetoric appears to involve their intention to protect the refugees’ lives, their actual role in protecting human rights and the tremendous living conditions in the countries of origin is insufficient. This is mainly achieved by ignoring what the experience of being a refugee actually means and with its causes are.

The past week has been a horrible week for European history. Its utmost values, namely democracy, equality, the value of human life itself and solidarity have been downgraded. All the ideas which have flourished in the Enlightenment seem to have been defeated by the politics of fear, racism and the triumph of the economy over democracy. While the peoples of Europe are in most cases welcoming refugees, it is the governments of the E.U. who close their borders and do not take up the responsibility of keeping to the ideas of Europe.

This week has once more shown how feeble the European Union’s reflexes are when it comes to protecting human dignity and democracy. It is acknowledged that politics with the European Union need to comply with regulations and policies taking numbers into account. However, one of the darkest pages in the European history, namely the period of Fascism, derived from the debasement of the human life and dignity along with the abolishment of democracy. The current political developments and the refugee crisis are reminiscent of these dark pages, since within the European context democracy, equality and human dignity seem to be rather fragile as European values.

In particular, the focus on statistics that the E.U. has adopted for the management of both the financial and the refugee crisis allows for tacitly giving its consent to human lives being lost, democratic processes being cancelled and dangerous rhetoric being introduced and legitimised in the political discourse in specific national contexts. It is the European Governments’ role to restore its humanitarian ideas and in many cases educate its people not to embrace the politics of fear. Ironically, in various European countries it is the people who endorse these ideas and should become an example for their governments. Europe is facing a financial crisis, but above of all it faces a political one deriving from its having lost its honour, values, ideas and historical past which have allowed for great achievements. Conclusively, Europe has been brought to another crucial page of its history that still remains to be written, hopefully not in the darkest of colours.

Posted by: Posted on by Jalal Movaghary-Pour

Oct 24 2015

Social Class in the 21st Century: An Interview with Mike Savage

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Social Class in the 21st Century

by Rebecca Mansell and Ronda Daniel

‘Social Class in the 21st Century’ is a new Penguin book written by Professor Mike Savage in collaboration with a team of sociologists, including the LSE’s Lisa Mckenzie, Sam Friedman and Daniel Laurison. We spoke to Mike Savage, who is also head of the LSE’s sociology department, about the new book, how the team collaborated and social class in London. As well as this, as a renowned social researcher, Mike gave us some pearls of wisdom to first year sociology students at the LSE.

  • What is the difference between this new book and the Great British Class Survey?

Despite being the largest ever survey of class in the UK, the Great British Class Survey was criticised because of the significant bias towards elite and middle class respondents that took the BBC survey. The original report in 2013 was therefore forced to focus on a more nationally representative, but small, sample, overlooking the huge amount of data from the original survey. The book however focuses on the results of the BBC’s online survey and therefore has a lot of new and original findings on the elite and middle-class. The book is able to examine in detail aspects of class that have not been extensively studied before. One such issue is how attending a specific university can significantly contribute to future prospects, where we show that graduating from London universities, including LSE, King’s College and Imperial College, conveys advantages when it comes to providing their students with high incomes and economic rewards. The book discovers a ‘class ceiling’ whereby background can inhibit individuals from reaching the top of their industry, even if they make it into the industry in the first place. It also finds that the most taken-for-granted North/South divide has changed to become more of an urban/rural divide.

  • Who are the other contributors and how did you collaborate? Did you all do different aspects of class?

This was a great term effort! We involved a team of sociologists from several different universities: from the LSE, Lisa Mckenzie, who wrote about the precariat, Sam Friedman who wrote about class and culture and Daniel Laurison, who wrote about economic capital and social mobility. We also had Fiona Devine and Andrew Miles from the University of Manchester and Helene Snee from the Manchester Metropolitan University. We also had Paul Wakeling from the University of York who looked at universities and class. And we had one geographer, Niall Cunningham at Durham, who provided lots of lovely maps!

  • What are your thoughts on social class in London specifically? Do you think it is different from the rest of the UK?

This is actually a theme in our book! My background is in history, so I’ve been interested in looking at trends and issues over time and I’m very interested in the changing role of London in the class structure. Historically, going back to the early 20th century, every town and city its local elite, for example local business and professional groups who dominated local politics and the social ‘scene’. Now, these elites are primarily based in London, or have some sort of foothold here. Also, particularly in central London, there used to be a lot of public housing and there were some socially mixed areas – this has been eroded with the growth of more elite properties, shutting out and marginalising the poorer who cannot afford these properties to the outskirts of London.

  • Throughout your career and studies, did you explore other topics within sociology other than social class?

I tend to look at class in relation to other issues, and think this gives more freshness to the topic. One of the angles is around space and locality, since I have always thought that class needs to be placed in local context. I’m particularly interested in urban sociology- I think place is really important, for example, the dynamics of neighbourhoods. I’ve also looked into race and ethnicity and how this affects dynamics within neighbourhoods. I’ve studied gender; I did my PhD on the rise of the Labour Party in the first part of the 20th century, and looked at trade unions and industrialisation, and the relationship between this and women moving into labour markets, and becoming politically organised. I have also looked into banking and gender, and how banking was a largely male, pervasive, money-oriented environment, and how this traditionally male career has seen more women entering it.

  • What would be your one piece of advice to first year sociology students at the LSE?

Take it slowly. Use your first year to gain a good grounding of sociological method and theory before deciding what you wish to become your speciality. Build up the foundations before applying them. Sociology can be disorienting at degree level if you haven’t studied A Level sociology, because there is such a diversity of perspectives, and it’s not like being told ‘this is right, this is wrong’. You have to think critically and seek alternatives. Once you get the hang of this, you will realise how exciting sociology is and how it gives really powerful insights across lots of issues.

The details for the book launch are below:

Date: Monday 2 November 2015
Time: 6.30-8pm
Venue: Sheikh Zayed Theatre, New Academic Building
Speakers: Dr Niall Cunningham, Professor Fiona Devine, Dr Sam Friedman, Dr Daniel Laurison, Dr Lisa McKenzie, Dr Andrew Miles, Professor Mike Savage, Dr Helene Snee, Dr Paul Wakeling
Chair: Professor Nicola Lacey

Posted by: Posted on by Ronda Daniel Tagged with:

Oct 22 2015

Fragile future for Afghanistan’s security, and the repercussions for its neighbours

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Rabia Nasimi , MSc student in the Department of Sociology at the LSE reports on a conference held at Portcullis House, Houses of Parliament on the 19th October 2015. The conference was titled: Afghanistan’s New Reality: the Unity Government, Development, Human Rights and (In) Security.

On 19th October, the Afghanistan & Central Asian Association (ACAA) and its sister organisation, the European Campaign for Human Rights for the People of Afghanistan (ECHRA) hosted their Annual Conference at the Houses of Parliament in London. This year’s conference focused on the impact of Afghanistan’s new government, with a specific focus on human rights, security, development, and the dilemma of Afghan refugees. As an NGO they are dedicated to improving the lives of Afghans both in Afghanistan and the diaspora.

“The ACAA believe that by bringing people with unparalleled experience and expertise together, we can create an exciting platform to promote constructive change in Afghanistan”.

What will it take to regain the security of Afghanistan, has been a question many have asked over the past few weeks. The international community has sacrificed a lot and spent a vast amount of time and money to bring stability to Afghanistan. However recent events have led many to think that the Taliban are moving forward and there is a risk Afghanistan will once again sponsor terrorism.Nasimi2

Dr. Massoumeh Torfeh, research Associate at LSE and SOAS, was one of the speakers on the security panel, she stated that ‘all Afghanistan’s neighbours, especially Pakistan, share the potentially “devastating threat of Islamic extremism’. This suggests that it is important to focus on Afghanistan-Pakistan relations. Primarily because it is Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) which has the most influence on Taliban who are in turn, according to official accounts, causing a serious challenge in 25 out of 34 provinces of Afghanistan.  Taliban’s recent success in Kunduz, implies that they are capable of effective military action even in the northern areas of Afghanistan and their terror operations are not limited to the southern and eastern areas from which they originate.  It seems as though the Taliban have a much more simple yet effective strategy capable of foiling government intelligence. In some complex operations it is clear that they do not act alone.

President Ashraf Ghani’s peace talks with the Taliban generated distrust. Ghani moved too fast before ensuring his intelligence apparatus was onboard. Moreover the National Unity Government does not seem to be united over the modality of the talks and the level of cooperation with Pakistan. The failure of that initial effort now makes peace talks even more distant.  Dr Torfeh stated that ‘the most immediate danger for the region is the recent major advances made by the Taliban and the potential that they would occupy Afghanistan as they did in 1996’. She reminds us that it was the fall of the northern province of Afghanistan that led to the Taliban military take over of Afghanistan in 1996.

However, according to Dr. Torfeh it seems as though ISI has little interest in pushing for peace talks. This reluctance to enter cooperation with the new Afghan Unity Government is partly due to the fact that ISI has questioned the Government’s stability and durability questioning whether it can be considered as a long-term geopolitical ally. There is also serious distrust between Afghanistan’s National Directorate of Security (NDS) and ISI.

Ghani’s endeavour to maintain closer contacts with Pakistan, and his policy of appeasement towards Islamabad has undermined Kabul’s relations with New Dehli. Dr. Torfeh argues that ‘this was not the gratitude that India deserved after being Afghanistan’s fourth largest donor for 14 years, offering support both politically and in several infrastructure projects such as building roads, highways, transport links and schools and even the country’s parliament’.Therefore is important that President Ghani reinstills confidence with New Dehli . She also argued that President Ghani’s close relations with Saudi Arabia was not favourably regarded by Afghanistan’s other important neighbour, Iran, who regards Saudi Arabia as an arch rival in the region.

The instability in the northern parts of Afghanistan also alarmed Russia and the Central Asian republics which share over 2000 km of border with Afghanistan.  Russia regards these republics as its southern border and is seriously concerned about Taliban attacks in the northern provinces of Kunduz, Faryab and Badakhshan. It is particularly concerned about the presence of ISIL amongst the fighters in the north.  Dr. Torfeh argued that ‘the Russian and Iranian leadership must also be brought onboard for finding solutions’.

Dr. Torfeh concluded that ‘the Afghan government is in a denying mode, yet the facts are clear. Two-thirds of provinces in Afghanistan are under serious challenge, Afghan forces have lost 65 percent more soldiers this year compared to the same period last year’ . It is clear that the Taliban are posing the greatest threat to Afghanistan, and even if they accept peace talks they would demand key positions in the government, a change in the constitution of Afghanistan and a reverse to Sharia law – conditions which would set back all the achievements of the past fourteen years. Therefore the Government of Afghanistan must seek the support and cooperation of new leaders in all neighbouring countries to reverse this trend and avoid returning Afghanistan to a centre for terrorist activity.

However International NGO’s are more reluctant than ever to send their staff to Afghanistan, as it is regarded as the most dangerous country to conduct aid, the situation in Afghanistan looks very different now, and not as encouraging.

What needs to be done to prevent Afghanistan from becoming a centre of terrorist activity in the region? How much longer will it take to address the Afghan Armies basic flaws? Will the goal of a self-reliant army be reached anytime soon?


The conference was very well attended with distinguished guests from the Polish, Slovakian, Lithuanian, Kuwaiti and Afghan Embassy.


Posted by: Posted on by Sian Lewin

Oct 21 2015

Theorising Theory – Reflections on the BJS Annual Lecture

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MSc student Jalal Pour, in collaboration with Naveen Khan and Ruth Ofori-Danso, offers his reflections on the recent British Journal of Sociology (BJS) Annual Lecture.

The 2015 British Journal of Sociology Annual Public Lecture, entitled “Before Theory Comes Theorising or How to Make Social Science More Interesting,” took place on the 15th October in the Sheikh Zayed Theatre, LSE. The talk was given by Professor Richard Swedberg, of Cornell University. In his lecture Swedberg sought to make the case that we should rethink our relationship to one of the fundamental features of sociology and the social sciences: theory. In particular, and perhaps this was aimed more at those in the academy, he was critical of the way in which theory is practiced and taught. In the following, I offer a brief summary of his central argument as well as some reflections on it.

Swedberg’s point of departure was the claim that while there have been tremendous developments since World War II in methods, the other key pillar in social scientific research, this has not been matched in theory. Indeed, he suggested this has resulted in an increasing imbalance between theory and methods in sociology.

Swedberg took issue with the fact that students are often only taught what he called ‘theory on paper’, the substance of particular theories, such as Durkheim’s theory of the division of labour. For him, however, this is only the polished end product of a much longer and messier process. That is to say, theory is the end point of theorising. And for Swedberg it is precisely this role of theorising, the process that precedes text, which he referred to as ‘theorising as practice’, that is a crucially important yet neglected aspect of sociological training and research. Thus, it is this situation that he is concerned to address.

As many social science students can attest, we often take methods classes where we are taught different methodological tools, how and when to apply them, culminating in a practical project where we put these to use. Yet, in agreement with Swedberg, this is certainly not echoed with theory. With this in mind he wants social scientists, especially those in positions of teaching, to encourage students to become competent in how to use theory and how to theorise, rather than just knowing the body of particular theories. Borrowing terminology from Hans Reichenbach, Swedberg made the case that we should pay more attention to the way theory develops, through processes of theorising, in the ‘context of discovery’; or, to use the language of Goffman, ‘backstage’. In his view, a strong emphasis on theorising makes for more creative theory. As such, he called for theory to be supplemented by “(theorising) theory”.

Theorising, Swedberg maintained, is an inherently practical endeavour. It is something one must learn through experience, through trial and error, rather than be dictated by a teacher or gleaned purely from reading; like all great things, for it to work, it must be practiced. Nonetheless, this does not mean to say that teachers are not necessary. On the contrary, in a humorous quip, he suggested that like many sports trainers who are ‘too old to play themselves’, their role is to help coach the next generation. In particular, their responsibility is to help students overcome what he called the Fear of Theory, and to provide them with guidance on how to cultivate the necessary attitude and work habits required for theorising.

Following this, Swedberg suggested that learning to theorise can only be done effectively through concrete exercises, and so he spoke about how he helps students to do so in the course he runs at Cornell. Beginning with the instruction to go and observe any social phenomenon, ideally one that they are not familiar with, Swedberg listed the steps he encourages his students to work through (with the stipulation that they must ‘construct theories to suit facts not facts to suit theories’):

  • Step 1: Observe; learn something about the topic before theorising
  • Step 2: Name the phenomenon
  • Step 3: Use and develop one/several concepts; develop a hybrid concept
  • Step 4: Push further – perhaps use a metaphor, an analogy, a typology, a classification; try to build in process
  • Step 5: Come up with an explanation, rather than a description only

Ironically, given that the lecture was about theory, Swedberg’s approach was very pragmatic and practical. Undoubtedly, it provided some important food for thought for both students and academics. In terms of some brief thoughts on the lecture, in a sense Swedberg’s argument is not a particularly radical; in fact I would say it is somewhat logical and reasonable. From my experience there certainly is an imbalance between theory and methods in the way sociology is taught, not to mention a total lack of attention given to teaching theorising itself. In this sense, I commend Swedberg on his attempt to rebalance this state of affairs, and particularly like the emphasis he places on the ‘hands-on’ nature of theorising. I would certainly enjoy the course he runs at Cornell, and hope in the future to see similar ones appear in the UK.

The discipline of sociology as a whole is undoubtedly hindered if theory – and in particular theorising – continues to play a marginalised role, so I hope Swedberg’s intervention may play a part in redressing this. Not only would this make social science more interesting, as suggested in the title of the lecture, but I also think it would raise the quality of research produced.




Posted by: Posted on by Jalal Movaghary-Pour Tagged with: , , , , ,