Jun 30 2015

Can sociological thinking help to address the bad apples and rotten barrels of the financial industry?

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by Sian Lewin, doctoral researcher in the LSE Department of Sociology

banks

Source: Shutterstock

 

Recently, US and UK regulators announced that six global banks (including Barclays and RBS) will pay over $5.6bn between them in fines for the manipulation of benchmark exchange rates in the foreign currency markets. This is the latest in a seemingly never-ending series of financial scandals including the ‘London Whale’ traders at JP Morgan, the rigging of LIBOR and the alleged HSBC tax avoidance schemes. From these events, it seems that unethical or even illegal behaviour is rife in the banking industry today.

Understandably then, since the financial crisis, there has been a mounting sense of public outrage as each scandal breaks, angrily articulated in this video by Paul Mason from Channel 4 news. Standing in the middle of the City of London, he questions what the regulators are doing to both bring the individuals involved to account and to prevent such misconduct in the future. Such questions are particularly pertinent in the wake of the foreign exchange debacle, where wrongdoing at Barclays occurred after the bank committed to eliminate misconduct in reaching a resolution of the LIBOR investigation with the US regulators.

The answers to these questions, however, are not clear cut. In a speech at the LSE last year, the Deputy Governor of the Bank of England, Minouche Shafiq, questioned whether these compliance breaches in the financial markets were due to unethical behaviour of a few individuals (the bad apples) or whether there was a more systemic problem – the ‘barrel’ of the financial system itself being rotten to the core. Determining whether we are dealing with ‘bad apples’ or a ‘rotten barrel’ dictates the types of regulatory solutions required to address these transgressions.

Regulatory solutions – structure or agency?

Deciding whether to address individual conduct or implement more widespread, structural solutions reflects to some extent the ongoing sociological debate about the relationship between the individual and society. At one extreme, theorists who emphasise agency such as Weber, Parsons & Merton, contend that it is individual actions which bring about the patterns of social life. At the other, theorists including Marx and Durkheim claim that it is the structures of society that influence and determine individual action.

Relating this to financial misconduct, the structural view of society would suggest that we need regulatory solutions to deal with the structural problems within the financial markets. Measures such as the overhauling of benchmark rate setting and increasing transparency and accountability in the markets though regulations such as the European Markets in Financial Instruments Directive II have already been introduced. However, it is too early to tell whether these structural reforms have been effective.

A more agent-centric approach comprises regulatory standards and sanctions that target individual behaviour; laws that provide for individual criminal prosecution, reducing or removing remuneration incentives that drive excessive risk-taking activities and / or lifetime bans from working in the financial industry. Such responses, it is hoped, would deter individuals in engaging in wrongdoing. However, whilst there have been efforts to restrain the bonus culture in the City of London, their efficacy is questionable, given that the recent misconduct has occurred despite these new rules being in place. Similarly, to date, only twelve individuals in the UK have been charged with fraud offences with respect to LIBOR manipulation.

Bridging structure and agency by regulating “culture”?

Perhaps more promising might be regulatory solutions that attempt to bridge both individual behaviour and structural issues and get behind the more fundamental aspects of the financial system which drive (and allow) this unethical behaviour. Regulators and policy-makers have attempted this focusing on changing the “culture” of the financial industry. The Banking Standards Board has been established to promote ‘high standards of behaviour and competence’ amongst banking organisations and employees. The financial industry has also acknowledged that a cultural shift is necessary, see, for example, Andrew Jenkins’ plans for cultural transformation at Barclays. However, as a recent report by New City Agenda found, it is ‘clear that this journey towards a healthier culture is nowhere near complete. A toxic culture decades in the making will take a generation to clean up’ .

The issue here is that ‘culture’ is not problematized or defined. There are many and varied understandings of the term. Without having a clear idea of what culture is, it is impossible to create adequate prescriptions for cultural improvement. And, even when there is consensus about the meaning of culture, the report concludes that ‘you can’t regulate your way to a better culture’; the onus must necessarily be on the banks to transform themselves.

How can sociology help?

If changing ‘culture’ is problematic, and structural and individually focused solutions are insufficient, where else might we begin to look for solutions? I suggest  two ideas from sociological theory may prove more fruitful in addressing banking misconduct.

Social networks

Granovetter makes the important point that economic relationships are not abstracted from our social relationships. This embeddedness can have both positive and negative consequences. In this graphic, the Financial Times shows the social connections between a group of foreign exchange traders and their involvement, if any, in the Forex scandal. There is also anecdotal evidence that loyalties between these cross-industry tribal members are stronger than to the banks for whom they work. If this is the case, these traders will be more likely to transgress their employers’ codes of conduct, reducing the efficacy of regulatory solutions targeted at the individual organisational level. Thus, by attempting to understand the nature of these social networks, it might be possible to come up with novel cross-industry solutions to deter these various tribes from future transgressions

Normalised deviance

We could also attempt to understand how and why this type of unethical behaviour appears to be tolerated, even when there are suggestions that senior management were aware it was going on. The simple answer is that the goal of the financial industry is to make money, so a blind eye is turned to those who are using unscrupulous means to do so. However, the reality is likely to be more complex. Diane Vaughan’s study of the Challenger space disaster showed how deviant behaviour can become normalised within an organisation, to the extent that it can itself be the cause of accidents. Getting to the bottom of how and why such deviant behaviour in the banks became taken-for-granted may point to new avenues for the regulatory authorities to explore.

These are both ambitious projects but are worthwhile undertaking to be rid of the rotten barrels and bad apples that are far too prevalent in an industry that, in the public eye at least, has become a necessary evil.

Posted by: Posted on by Sian Lewin Tagged with: , , , ,

Feb 27 2015

Three Things a Year of Sociology Has Taught Me

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Frances Brill, who completed her MSc in Sociology in 2014, reflects on what she learned during that year.

Let me beginning by introducing my background and myself. I graduated from an undergraduate course trained in classical economics, law and normative urban planning processes. I spent the final year of my undergrad writing a dissertation on the intersection of class and gender and I was desperate to study Sociology. All of my friends are brilliant people who have worked very hard to get their degrees and their corporate jobs but as I was awarded my degree, I was unaware of how little I questioned the texts we read or the privilege I was surrounded by. A year in the Sociology department has changed me, it’s an ongoing process and I am not going to pretend I can fully comprehend my own privilege (or classical Sociology’s writing styles) but I am making progress.

1. The value of ethnography 

I am currently teaching second year physical Geographers their methods course. This means spending week after week debating whether ‘science’ in all its glorified ‘objectivity’ is superior to their human geography social science counterparts. I am making progress. The only reason I can debate with such determination and belief is my experience with social research methods in Sociology. My thoughts on qualitative and quantitative work are continually changing. With each new piece of work I try to strike a balance.

I learnt to love qualitative work this year though. A group ethnography project studying the Barbican opened my eyes to a whole host of challenges, including writing based primarily on qualitative observations. It was fun. I learnt a lot. Ethnographies, situating yourself in the middle- being totally immersed- is an incomparable experience that adds real value to research. Being subjective is not a bad thing and it does not undermine your work, refusing to acknowledge your subjectivity is and can.

I recognize the perceived failures of qualitative work, the idea numbers and ‘facts’ are indisputable. But more recently I have challenged this, not only can facts be easily manipulated but every element of the research that created them has some level of subjectivity. Rather, facts and stats can be used to shock and society has been taught facts and stats hold weight. Getting things changed, convincing people of a problem is helped by a few statistics. It’s all about striking a balance.

2. Neoliberalism is evil

I knew from the onset Sociology would change me. I warned those closest to me and I asked them to make sure I did not change too much. I think we would agree they have failed on their mission, or rather their mission has evolved. In developing my new views and moving on from my leanings there have been a number of challenges. By far the hardest topic to fully understand has been neoliberalism.

I tried my hardest to write in defense of neoliberalism, I questioned the alternatives and then, to paraphrase Milton Friedman, as the only person who could convince myself- I did. I convinced myself neoliberalism is not a good thing. I read Harvey, I read Wacquant. At the end of the day it was reading the original (neo)liberal texts that sold it to me: reading Friedman and Hayek and the other Chicago economists. I needed to separate the ideology and the practice. Too many times I stumbled around trying to work out how state supported financial institutions reconciled with Friedman’s dream of completely free markets. Embarking on a PhD with undercurrents of ‘neoliberalism is bad’ I think I have learnt not only the problems with neoliberalism but with the problems of lumping together different issues under the umbrella neoliberal discourse. Rather than treating the individual issues and seeing the slow changes on the ground there is a tendency to portray the global shift as a sudden unified wave of reforms. Realizing the intricacies involved and the politically grounded societal shifts are part of a pattern but one situated at a local as well as global level was key in my understanding.

3. Intersectionality should always be centre-stage

In the summer of 2012 someone I admire greatly asked me about feminism, whether I define myself as a feminist and my general thoughts on gender equality. Always keen to avoid speaking in an uninformed way I tried to deflect the conversation. Unfortunately we were away together for a month without the Internet, so there was no escape. A few days later, emerging with mixed opinions from Moran’s How to be a Woman I was (marginally more) ready for the conversation. Fast forward eighteen months and I have moved on: my shelves now support Skeggs, I’ve queued for hours to see Butler speak and I’ve written a ten thousand words on gender and class. In my academic work, having discussed intersectionality at length, I had failed to name it.

I took the Gender and Societies course with thirty-five other women and two men. Week after week we read readings lists an arms’ length long (even though only two or three were compulsory) and at the core of each topic was intersectionality. My understanding of gender inequality and its relationship with class, sexuality and race grew beyond comparison. Banded together by admiration for our professor, as students, we created an informal space on Facebook for sharing our ideas and extra-curricular readings. Outside of term time, activity levels shot up with everyone clearly having more time to pursue gender analysis of every news item. The solid combination of classic texts in seminars and the reactionary group of Facebook has kept my interest and reading on intersectionality alive as I move to study urban speculative processes. Part of this discussion has been on privilege and learning to acknowledge the privileges society has afforded me. I am more self-reflexive.

It was a rollercoaster of a year. I have learnt vast amounts and a lot of it came from my fellow students. I am still grappling with how to consolidate everything I want to achieve personally with my newly developed ideals. I will always respect the people who want to put their head down, work hard for the money they earn and want to earn money. I now understand and can justify my inherent dislike of Reagan, I can sit for hours discussing privilege and I am using qualitative methods for my PhD. A lot can change in a year.

Frances is now a doctoral researcher in Geography at UCL.

 

Posted by: Posted on by Sian Lewin

Feb 19 2015

Suspended between Armageddon and Immortality? A Sociology for the 21st Century

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Source: Jason Yan

The ‘Digital’ Panel (Photo: Jason Yan)

by Elena Denaro, PhD Student

The first evening of Cumberland Lodge kicked off to a roaring start: an inspirational opening presentation by Craig Calhoun (Director of the LSE) followed by our first panel session on ‘Digital Futures’ with a trio of professors: Lord Anthony Giddens (Former Director of the LSE), and the department’s own Judy Wajcman and Nigel Dodd. Despite the late hour, the room was buzzing with thought-provoking ideas; about the future of the world, the impact of technology, how social theory can help us address the problems of the present and future, and how sociology as a discipline could position itself in the future.

The tech triad driving the future of the 21st century

Anthony Giddens took us on a whirlwind tour of ‘digitalisation’: a phase he characterised as the most extensive period of technological advancement and change in human history. The impacts of the digital, primarily through the medium of the internet now best embodied by the smartphone, have already been pervasive and significant; for migration and communications (Giddens), but also for labour (Wajcman) and money (Dodd).

Giddens then proposed a triad of catalytic forces propelling us into a new world: the Internet, supercomputers and robotics. Much of our lives now depend upon Internet-connected supercomputers – our entire financial and monetary system, for example – and these supercomputers are already able to overtake us mere humans in many ways, from chess to musical composition. The potential consequences of continued advancements in these fields are substantial. Giddens reported a study suggesting that developments in supercomputers and robotics could lead to the loss of nearly 50% of the labour force – and given the creative capacity of supercomputers, it will not only be manual jobs that disappear.

However, the prospects are not all doom and gloom. Despite radical changes to our economic system stemming from increasing automation, humans are incredibly resilient and adaptable; in fact we rarely notice the extent to which automation has already changed our lives (Oyster cards ring any bells?). So we find ourselves in unprecedented times, in a ‘high risk, high opportunity society’, chiming with Beck’s work, which was lauded throughout the retreat.

Back to the future

All three talks referenced reactionary movements seeking to resist the digitalisation: from a revival of analogue as a protection mechanism (Giddens); to the growing rise of mindfulness, a desire for simpler times and a return to nature (Wajcman); to the metallistic view of money embedded in Bitcoin as a means of creating scarcity in digital abundance (Dodd). However, these ‘back to the future’ themes within the presentations rang deeper. Some of these digital shifts may actually reflect a modern take on older practices. The thinning of the lines between work-life and personal-life, between production and consumption (Wajcman) and indeed between the social and economic, is reminiscent of the pre-industrial age. Similarly, the move away from a monetary monoculture (a very recent and short-lived phenomena) to a pluralistic monetary system, is a return to a mode of multiplex money that extends beyond its historical plurality, entering the digital sphere as well (Dodd). Yet even within digital attempts to re-envisage our financial system, such as Bitcoin, the same inequalities play out, in fact to heightened degree. With Bitcoin we are talking not of the 99% but of the 99.9% (Dodd).

The paradox inherent within the phrase ‘back to the future’ is one social scientists should not shy away from. By acknowledging the problems with both extreme epochal thinking (as discussed in reference to patterns of social and economic inequality by Mike Savage later in the weekend), and with notions that nothing has really changed, we may unpick more nuanced understandings of the complex relationships between past, present and future. This will be crucial for critical, public sociology in the future, if it hopes to help address these problems, as well as understanding them.

Personal lives: digital worker or digital player?

Giddens argued that digitalisation is driving a revolutionary transformation in participation, all of which is happening within a very short timeframe and in a truly global way, as highlighted by the penetration of smartphones across the African continent. Through our smartphones we are constantly connected. Soon they won’t just be our calling and texting devices, our internet portals and social media access, but also our bank accounts and debit and credit cards (Dodd). They are progressively a larger and more crucial part of our identities (Giddens).

While many lament the increasing intrusion of work into our personal lives through our smartphones, Judy Wajcman aptly pointed out that the private-professional boundary is being loosened in both directions, allowing us to bring our homes to work, as much as we bring our work home. As the digital expands, it is not only the work-home boundaries that are being bent, broken and redefined: production and consumption too are blended into notions of ‘prosumption’. ‘Big data’ raises not only issues of personal privacy and security (Giddens), but as value creation is more and more embedded in the digital (think Facebook, Google and the like), serious sociological questions emerge around what is and is not work, and what should and shouldn’t be commodified (Wajcman). In the world of Bitcoin (Dodd), micropayments for micro-transactions of micro-value creation are a technical possibility, but are they a socially desirable one?

Reorganising society

With potentially drastic changes in the horizon, both social and economic, this opening panel at Cumberland lodge raised many important questions. As sociologists, we should cherish the opportunity to work on such rapidly changing worlds and harness the reflexive power of our discipline. Giddens concluded his presentation with my personal favourite, and definitely the most memorable statement of the weekend: the 21st century is “suspended between Armageddon and immortality.” On the brink of such a brave new world, we sociologists must hope to be there to document and analyse it, and maybe – dare we say – even to steer it.

 

Posted by: Posted on by Sian Lewin

Feb 17 2015

Feeding our sociological imaginations….

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Helen Traill, PhD Student, reflects on the annual Sociology retreat at Cumberland Lodge.

Walking in Windsor Great Park (Photo: Paz Concha)

Walking in Windsor Great Park (Photo: Paz Concha)

There comes a time at the end of January when the cold persists and London seems grey and dismal; when you can’t help but think grey, dismal thoughts. It is a good time to escape London for a weekend, and that’s part of what the annual Sociology department retreat to Cumberland Lodge offers. This year, our focus was on Using Theory in Sociological Research, as a complement to last year’s focus on methods. We were lucky to have a number of distinguished guests, but the value of the weekend goes much further than the experience of meeting with highly esteemed colleagues. Cumberland Lodge itself is very committed to educational work, and to be allowed to use it annually is itself a great boon to the department. But it also provided the most delightful setting–with a grand piano and grander staircases, a lot of antique furniture and tapestries, all in the peaceful setting of Windsor Park.

Friday was a bumper treat with two evening sessions that went on late into the evening. Firstly, Craig Calhoun opened with an amusing and provocative take on the purpose of theory in sociology. This naturally included a tribute to Ulrich Beck, for whom we held a minute’s silence on Saturday. Calhoun laid out three aspects of importance in the production of sociological theory. These were as the ability to surprise, to put form to that as yet unsaid; the ability to produce causal coherence, to tell a convincing and empirically viable story; and the ability to create an empirical toolkit. What was noticeable from many participants throughout the weekend was the way we returned to these ideas to draw a singular theme through the talks – allowing subjects as disparate as digital futures and the European central bank to feel thematically related.

We were also fortunate to have Antony Giddens join us, who on a panel with Nigel Dodd and Judy Wacjman, discussed the vagaries of the digital age – from our historically unique position (Giddens) through the ways it affects labour – particularly digital production (Wacjman) to digital currencies (Dodd) and the ways this might be a return to previous models of monetary systems, rather than the single currency system we have now. We thus all went to bed on the Friday with rather swirling heads – wondering if we did indeed lie poised “between Armageddon and immortality” (as Giddens claimed) and wondering what would come tomorrow, if tomorrow came at all.

Thankfully it did, and what Saturday highlighted – beside the variety of work across the department – was a lack of hierarchy. There was a distinct equality of meeting here – with Masters students questioning faculty, and staff and student alike wrangling with sociological theory. We heard from Mona Sloane on the urban design process and Paz Concha on the street food scene. Their work both draws on the urban assemblage as a construct, allowing them space to talk illuminatingly across their different fields. We also heard from Leon Wansleben on the sociology of Central Banks in our first morning session. Despite this diversity of topics, there was a distinct theme of capital in its different forms and it was one we continued in the later sessions.

Late morning, Juan Pablo Pardo-Guerra and Mike Savage took us through their respective work on difficulties in financial regulation, and why regulators might be ill equipped, and Bourdieu and Picketty, with particular reflections on how we might be returning to Victorian levels of want.

Photo: Paz Concha

Photo: Paz Concha

Having spent the morning in deep thought, we had a few afternoon hours to wander the grounds of Windsor Park and wonder at the contradictions between the wealth of our surroundings and the recurrent ideas of inequality and difference. This certainly was put into stark relief later in the evening by Lisa McKenzie, but first we were lucky to host Nick Crossley from Manchester University talking to us about his work on relational sociology – particularly his work on punk and the networks which allowed it to flourish in London and later Manchester and other cities in the North. A theoretically engaged session, it was extrapolated in clear conversation with his empirical work, recalling Calhoun’s interest in producing an empirically viable toolkit – as well as for many, a surprising new approach to sociological theory.

Tara Quinlan followed, whose work on counter-terror was provocative and thorough. Particularly helpfully for those of us just starting PhDs, she outlined her rigorous and punctual process of getting to where she is now. The space the weekend created for all of us for admitting things like trial and error, rather than complete pristine projects for presentation in more formal contexts, enhanced the experience. This is not least because, in this kind of coming together, there is much more room for creating space for dialogue between sociological imaginations.

Consider Lisa McKenzie’s contribution – a documentary made in 1969 and directed by Stephen Frears about the St Ann’s district of Nottingham, a place where Lisa both lived and researched in her own ethnographic work. In providing us with this provocative visualisation of absolute poverty, we were forced to face more starkly the empirical reality that theorisation abstracts from. The most telling response to the original St Ann’s film was from Nick Crossley’s son: who’s suggestion that the rich just give the poor more money, because they obviously need it more, received a round of applause from the audience.

Our substantive sessions ended on Saturday, but we did spend Sunday talking about sociology – simply from a different tack. How best to establish ourselves as interested parties? How best to use the influx of digital communication to our advantage? A morning discussing social media and sociology – with leadership from Sian Lewin and Tara Quinlan – let us all use our everyday experiences, previous careers and natural curiosity to ask how best we can communicate sociology to the world. We thus ended the weekend on a soft, more reflective note; where we could consider our own contributions to sociological knowledge and the best way of presenting these, and our selves, to the world of social media.

What can’t easily be elucidated in a sketch of the weekend like this is the provocative way that sustained engagement with sociology creates engaged conversations and indeed has value beyond sharing ideas around the department and beyond. The intellectual kick from dinner-time chats recalls a more noble idea of what scholarly life looks like. But the context in which this happened couldn’t be ignored – we were taken care of all weekend, meals provided, spaces cleaned, coffee and tea on demand. Perhaps this raises provocative questions, but none more so than the way the context of Windsor Park (and Cumberland Lodge has a great many portraits of the royal family) contrasted with discussions of inequality. This gave me, for one, pause for thought.

Massive thank you to Elena Denaro and Georgia Nichols for organising, with lots of support from Mike Savage. Thanks also to all who gave talks.

 

Posted by: Posted on by Sian Lewin

Feb 10 2015

Successful Societies – “Self, Individualism and Moral Communities under Neo-Liberalism.”

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Personal Reflections on Successful Societies meeting, London, January 30-31 2015 by Mike Savage.

This blog reports on a fascinating seminar held at the end of January in London, part funded by my ESRC Professorial Fellowship. This seminar was an unusual opportunity to allow interchange between eminent European and North American social scientists to address the relationship between “Self, Individualism and Moral Communities under Neo-Liberalism.” The over-arching concern was to consider how profound neo-liberal restructuring has been associated with the remaking of personal identities and how we can thus better understand the links between change at the macro and micro level as they are occurring today.

A feature of this seminar was thus the opportunity to reflect on different traditions of North American and European social science for exploring these questions, as well as the differing approaches which can be found within psychology and cultural sociology. Given the weighty issues explored, no firm conclusions were reached, but a number of fundamental themes arose out of these discussions which will help set future agendas.

1: The power and social influence of contemporary capitalism. Craig Calhoun argued powerfully that the current capitalist crisis was historically the first which had not been accompanied by major socialist opposition. He suggested that capitalism had become a machine for creating externalities which entailed a lack not just of critique of capitalism itself but of its relations to politics and other social institutions. He reflected on the institutional success of capitalist corporations and the challenges this would pose for democratic futures.

2: The issue about how this current conjuncture was associated with a fundamental break in the nature of class relationships was addressed by several speakers, including Beverley Skeggs and Mike Savage. Here the argument was that in previous periods the working class played an important role in shaping democratic capitalism, but that this has been changed radically by economic transformation, globalisation, and especially the rise of the wealthy elites. The significance of the growing profile of wealthy elites was discussed by several speakers. The extent to which changes at the bottom end of the social structure were also changing the character of working class culture was also discussed through the input of Skeggs and Duvoux, both of whom emphasised the individualising and stigmatising forces exerted towards these groups.

3. A linked stream of reflections concerned the cultural aspects of the current neo-liberal conjuncture. Calhoun’s argument implied little or no place for a ‘cultural’ reading of capitalism because of the power of its economic and institutional forces. Other presentations had different emphases. Underpinning Peter Wagner’s reflections on the different trajectories of Brazil, South Africa and Europe was an interest in the changed conditions of modernity and self-understanding in different contexts. This allowed him to recognise the diversity of experiences in these experiences and resist arguments suggesting unilinear or global trends. Skeggs further argued that there has been a profound remaking of the ‘self’ so that working class individuals felt a loss of self and personhood, with the result that they were marginalised and stigmatised, though they could find alternative strategies for seeking to gain value elsewhere. This perspective was consistent with Nicolas Duvoux’s examination of how those in receipt of welfare spending often accepted and internalised this neo-liberal ‘subjectification’. Sam Pehrson helpfully pointed to the complexity of identification processes by which people might affiliate to social groups. All these contributors point in different ways to the limited class consciousness of those at the bottom of the income hierarchies.

4. These concerns were linked also to reflections on the significance of the nation state and the city in the current context of rampant neo-liberal globalising concerns. Adrian Favell introduced a discussion on the significance, desirability and generalizability of the British case where the European free market has allowed marked immigration which could be a precursor for economic dynamism. Savage complemented his arguments by reflecting further on the way in which the case of London allowed it to develop as a distinctive elite location. Pherson’s reflections on the lack of cross national evidence for any association between attitudes to immigration and national identity were striking evidence that national forces mediate in different ways. Savage raised the issue that these trends might amplify urban distinctiveness, as large metropolitan cities became vehicles for powerful emerging socio-cultural currents which aligned wealthy elites to powerful capitalist forces.

Several contributors reflected on what new kinds of politics might be engendered by these trends, although no consensus arose. There was widespread agreement that older class politics was weakened but different views about the viability of new forms of politics linked to the accentuation of wealth inequalities.

 

Successful Societies attendees

The Successful Societies Program is funded by the Canadian Institute for Advanced Research. For more details on its intellectual agenda, see the two collective volumes produced by the group: Successful Societies: How Institutions and Culture Affect Health; and Social Resilience in the Neo-Liberal Era. See also http://www.cifar.ca/successful-societies-timeline

Those members attending were:

Peter Hall, Senior Fellow, Program Co-Director, Krupp Foundation Professor of European Studies at Harvard University

Michele Lamont, Senior Fellow, Program Co-Director, Acting Director of the Weatherhead Center for International Affairs, a Professor of Sociology and African and African American Studies and the Robert I. Goldman Professor of European Studies at Harvard University.

Gérard Bouchard, Professor in the Department of Human Sciences at the University of Québec at Chicoutimi.

Margaret Frye, Global Scholar, Harvard

Peter Gourevitch, Distinguished Professor of Political Science at UC San Diego’s School of International Relations and Pacific Studies,

David Grusky, Senior Fellow, Director of the Center on Poverty & Inequality, the California Welfare Laboratory, and Recession Trends, Professor of Sociology, Stanford

Patrick LeGales, sociologist and political scientist, CNRS research director at the Center for European Studies at Sciences Po and professor at Sciences Po, FBA.

Will Kymlicka, Senior Fellow, Canada Research Chair in Political Philosophy at Queen’s University, Kingston, Canada

Paul Pierson, Senior Fellow, John Gross Professor of Political Science University of California, Berkeley

Dr. Vijayendra Rao, Lead Economist in the Development Research Group of the World Bank

Leane S Son-Hing, Associate Professor in the Department of Psychology at the University of Guelph

Speakers

Prof Craig Calhoun, Director, London School of Economics

Prof Nicloas Duvoux, Paris Descartes

Prof Adrian Favell, Sciences Po

Dr Sam Pehrson, University of St Andrews

Prof Mike Savage, London School of Economics

Prof Bev Skeggs, Goldsmiths College, University of London

Prof Peter Wagner, University of Barcelona

LSE guests

Dr Sam Friedman, Assistant Professor of Sociology, LSE

Dr Daniel Laurison, Research Fellow in Sociology, LSE

Katharina Hecht, PhD student in Sociology, LSE

Tara Lai Quinlan, PhD student in Sociology, LSE

Bruno Baroboza-Muniz, PhD student in Sociology, LSE.

Posted by: Posted on by Sian Lewin Tagged with: , , ,

Jan 13 2015

Book Review by Philipp Degens: The Social Life of Money by Nigel Dodd

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SL Money 2

Money is ubiquitous. We all take money for granted – not in the sense of having enough money in our pockets or our bank accounts, but in the sense that we weigh objects, goods, services, claims, maybe even time in a monetary standard. We seldom ask ourselves what money is. Yet, especially in times of economic crisis, money does increasingly become the object of debate. Part of this debate takes place within conventional economic theory and focuses on monetary and fiscal policy issues. Beyond these issues, however, there are more fundamental concerns about the very nature of money, questions about the value of money, how it works and how it is sustained. These questions evoke perplexities that seem to render money almost incomprehensible.

Nigel Dodd, social theorist from LSE Sociology, explores the social life of money and tackles many of these questions in his new book. His book expands the discussion on money, particularly by linking it to a strand of thought that is commonly regarded as being external to a theory of money. Although his own approach is sociological, he draws on economic, philosophical, anthropological, linguistic and other disciplinary concepts. This way, Dodd permanently opens up and broadens our understanding of money. By doing so, he goes well beyond (orthodox and heterodox) economic theories of money.

The book covers a few key themes that I’d like to stress here particularly. Throughout the book, Dodd challenges the idea that there is or might be money simpliciter, or just one kind of money, and particularly that such money would be an objective ‘thing’ bearing value in itself. One of his key influences is Georg Simmel’s philosophy of money. Following Simmel, Dodd explores money as a “claim upon society”. Money expresses a form of debt between an individual and “society” as a whole. Dodd then further investigates issues rising from this notion, e.g. what is the basis for such claim? And what exactly is society in this sense? He argues, drawing on Keith Hart, for a flexible understanding of “society” that resembles the scale of a particular monetary form. It might be the state or even the nation, but it also might refer to a particular community of users.

The argument, in brief, is that money is not a thing, but a process. It consists of social relations. Just like Simmel emphasized the process of sociation (as opposed to society as something fixed or stable), Dodd holds a fluid view of money and focuses on the process by which money is actively (re)created by its users. It is not an objective entity, but it has social life which rests on, for example, its underlying political, economic, and social framework. Money is never independent of social and political relations, or of culture. It is based on trust and social values. In practice, it might be materialized in precious metal, paper notes, book entries, bits and bytes, shells or whatever form it takes – yet it still derives its value and its meaning from the social relations among its users.

Dodd takes many forms and kinds of money –past, present and imagined– into account. The fact that he conceptually accepts monetary pluralism paves the way for conceiving of multiple opportunities to re-imagine and re-organise money as a means of social progress. Whereas classical social thought on money tends to regard money as malevolent and highlights, by and large, money’s capacity to threaten and erode society and culture, Dodd explores money’s progressive potential. Money, this is one of the key messages, can be organised in a beneficial way, it can be used as a means to reach economic, social, or political goals. However, not one single form of money can serve all purposes at the same time. Dodd discusses various alternatives like, for example, time banks and LETS on a local level, yet also ‘global’ alternatives like bitcoin and freicoin. This openness to and curiosity for utopian and monetary reform concepts is one of the great strengths’ of the book. Dodd asks what such conceptions might offer for a general understanding of money, yet also what they might offer from a normative perspective, how money should look like. In fact, Dodd slightly favours a flexible monetary system with various forms and kinds of co-existing monies. For him, the solution to our monetary crisis is not to develop an alternative form of money, but to develop plenty.

This original and comprehensive book is organized in eight chapters, each of which deals with a particular category. These are origins, capital, debt, guilt, waste, territory, culture and utopia. While some of the themes (e.g. capital; debt, origins, territory) seem to be necessary ingredients of any book on money (although dealt with from different perspectives), others are rather unexpected. On a first glance, the reader might even be surprised by the titles of some of these chapters. Yet Dodd unfolds their key relevance throughout the book and gives plenty of cross references to guide the reader. The chapters on guilt and waste are probably best suited to exemplify the distinctiveness of this book and how it differs from most other works on money. Dodd offers compelling insights from psychoanalytical approaches which link money to excrement and the unconscious. Then, following Bataille’s concept of the general economy, Dodd invites us not to imagine scarcity, but surplus as the fundamental economic problem. Unusual as it is, such a conceptual shift allows for a new perspective on the Eurozone’s transfer union, as the discussion in the book exemplifies thoroughly.

Dodd writes with great skill. The style is compelling and one enjoys reading the book. At the same time, it is not an easy read. It is demanding, and it takes time to follow Dodd carefully. This is something that inevitably comes with the broadness of Dodd’s approach. Dodd raises questions even more than giving answers, and he draws on a huge range of scholars of which many are not commonly regarded when it comes to money.

Some readers might miss a narrower conclusion and/or a more formal synthetisation of the complex and original discussion. Yet Dodd does not aim to offer one coherent approach to money – on the contrary, he severely doubts that such an approach might even exist. As we have seen, just like money can take various forms, there are various theories on money all of which have something valuable to say. The book proves how fruitful and intriguing it is to take different perspectives and stances on this polymorphic phenomenon. Dodd rejects overly narrow concepts of money that theorize some monetary forms out of sight (e.g. neochartalist approaches focusing on money of account as the defining feature of moneyness). In this sense, the book is a strong argument for diversity in the theory of money.

To repeat: yes, the book is demanding. But it is far more rewarding. Some might not be inclined to accept every argument Dodd develops – yet for sure this brilliant book helps reconsidering views, opinions and theoretical claims on money that might be taken for granted too easily. It is a must-read for any scholar interested in the topic as it helps to better understand the nature of money –or, of monies. Also, surely many future in-depth case studies of particular forms of money will gain enormously from this work.

Philipp is a PhD student and research fellow in the Department for Co-operative Studies at the University of Cologne and spent Lent Term 2014 in the Department of Sociology at the LSE.

Dodd, Nigel (2014): The Social Life of Money. Princeton: Princeton University Press. 456 pp. ISBN 9780691141428, £24.95

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Jan 7 2015

A Blueprint for Local Police Reform to Improve Legitimacy

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Source: Shutterstock

Source: Shutterstock

Doctoral Researcher Tara Lai Quinlan discusses the possibilities for policing reform in the US in the wake of the tragic deaths of Eric Garner, Michael Brown and Tamir Rice, and the recent shooting of the two NYPD officers. Read her thoughts in The Huffington Post,  co-authored with Deborah Ramirez.

 

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Dec 17 2014

British Journal of Sociology Special Issue on Piketty’s Capital

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Possibly the most talked about book of 2014, Piketty’s Capital in the Twenty-First Century is the subject of the December 2014 issue of the British Journal of Sociology.

This special Symposium edition of the BJS contains eleven original articles discussing various aspects and implications of Piketty’s work across sociology as well as other social science disciplines. Nigel Dodd, in his Editor’s Introduction, states that the aim was to create a space for “developing an interdisciplinary conversation about some really fundamental questions: not simply about social class and inequality, as important as these are, but also issues such as the way different social science disciplines think about history and social change, methodology, and contradiction, and about the social and political nature of capital, wealth and value”.

The entire issue is available free without a subscription, something to get your teeth into during the festive season!

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Nov 14 2014

Insights on Inequality: Danny Dorling’s Lecture on ‘Inequality and the 1%: What Goes Wrong When the Rich Become Too Rich?’

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By Tara Lai Quinlan

Danny Dorling gave a thought-provoking and insightful lecture, Inequality and the 1%: What Goes Wrong When the Rich Become Too Rich, to a packed house at LSE’s Old Theatre on 7 October 2014.  Drawing on findings from his important and thoroughly researched new book, Inequality and the 1%, Dorling examined the effects of increasing UK inequality, argued that an ‘awful lot’ goes wrong when the rich become too rich and heavily concentrated in cities like London. Dorling posited that since 2008’s Great Recession, the 1% have only grown richer with a larger gap between the superrich and the other 99%.  Dorling observed that in the UK the top 1% comprise the top 15% of nation’s total income, which is highly problematic.

Much of Dorling’s talk focused on the unprecedented state of inequality and concentration of wealth in London that has hit ‘historical peaks’.  Dorling’s lecture brought to mind the warnings of Saskia Sassen (2001), Doreen Massey (2007) and others in 1990s and 2000s that cities like London were hurtling toward severe and worsening inequality.  Dorling provided overwhelming evidence that these fears were warranted.

Dorling pointed out that the concentration of UK wealth in London has had significant Printimplications not only for the regulation of financial markets, but also for politics, housing and schools. Dorling warned that the unchecked influence of the 1% is bad for society: ‘Society does not operate very well when it treats the top 1% like they can do whatever they want’.

But Dorling was not wholly unsympathetic to the situation of the 1%. Dorling pointed out that the 1% is not a monolith, and noted that there is more inequality within the top 1% than there is in the remaining 99%.  Dorling offered sobering statistics that while nearly 500 of the top 1,000 wealthiest UK families live in London, staggeringly just 10 of those families own roughly 25% of all UK wealth.  Dorling argued that many within the 1% feel very insecure about their circumstances, noting that ‘even the super rich can feel poor’.  Dorling asserted that he has yet to meet someone in the bottom of the 1% that says they are doing well, pointing out that many are finding life ‘hard’ in London.  Thus Dorling reminded us that membership in the 1% is not a guarantee of happiness. Dorling optimistically observed that discontent within the 1% could lead to positive changes for the rest of us in the 99%.
Dorling observed that gaining entry into the 1% has changed significantly over time. Dorling noted that entry into the 1% varies by country, with the US and UK among the most difficult to enter. Household-Income In the UK, gaining access to the 1% requires that a couple earn a combined £160,000 pounds annually.

Thus while traditional occupations like doctors, lawyers and even professors may have once been society’s top earners, the top 1% is now heavily comprised of those in the financial sector including bankers and hedge fund managers, as well as chief executive officers, corporate managers and even property owners. A wealth of compelling evidence supports this finding, including the results of the recent Great British Class Survey (Savage et al., 2013).
The wealthy remain attracted to London because the city’s inequality has grown significantly over time, meaning their money is increasingly safe here thanks the extremely low rates of taxation even compared to other severely unequal cities like New York.  Dorling asserted that the concentration of wealth in London has changed the feel of the city and what constitutes ‘normal’ wealth. Dorling firmly rejected the notion promulgated by some of 1% and their political allies that the concentration of wealth in London positive because the benefits trickle down for the remaining 99%.  In his rebuttal Dorling pointed to data showing that it costs more to get into the UK’s top 1% compared to other European countries:

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Of the numerous negative effects of the increased concentration of wealth in London, Dorling pointed to London’s stark housing inequality as a particularly troubling example.  Dorling observed that much of London’s wealth is housing-based, with a staggering 60% of all London wealth generated from housing.  Dorling attributed this phenomenon to housing policies that began in the Margaret Thatcher-era, and helped not just the wealth but also Members of Parliament purchase London housing at ridiculously low costs.  Dorling estimated that 25% of UK MPs are landlords, and this has led to that the creation of housing policies favouring the interests of landlords over renters.

And UK landlords have increasingly amassed wealth in Britain. Citing 2014 data from Savills and Financial Times, Dorling pointed out that since the 2008 Great Recession, landlords have been charging higher rents, which they have channelled into purchasing more property:

DoFig2-2_Secondary-School-Spendingrling noted that this data shows that the total wealth of landlords in Britain rose by an incredible £245 billion in the last five years.  Dorling observed that the extremely high housing costs have particularly negative effects on children.  With over 25% of UK households with children now being renters, Dorling argued that parents’ perpetual renting creates instability for children, who require solid homes, familiar neighbourhoods and friends to facilitate healthy development.
Despite painting a gloomy picture about the state of inequality in the UK, Dorling is ultimately an optimist who believes changes can occur through both grassroots activism and key policy change.  For example, Dorling argued that the UK must implement rent regulations drawn from successful models in the countries including the US and Netherlands.  Dorling observed that the UK must abandon the culturally ingrained notion that rent regulation is evil.
Dorling also argued that the UK must stop giving enormous tax breaks to the rich.  As inequality has risen the UK has continued to give tax cuts to the rich, which Dorling argued is clearly wrong.  Dorling pointed to countries including Switzerland and Germany where the tax rates on the 1% have remained high over the last 40 years. Dorling observed that societies where the 1% are taxed more heavily have much less inequality than the UK.  Dorling observed that if increased taxation causes some of the 1% to leave London, this is not at all disastrous, adding that many do not currently live in London full time.
In the end, Dorling argued that major shifts in inequality require catalytic events to get them started.  Dorling observed that a second major financial crisis in Europe could be such a precipitating event.  Dorling was optimistic that change to the UK’s dramatic inequality would eventually come, and it is ‘purely a question of time’.

References

Dorling, D. (2014), Inequality and the 1%, London: Verso.

Massey, D. (2007), World City, Cambridge: Polity Press.

Sassen, S. (2001), Global City: New York, London, Tokyo, Second Edition, Oxfordshire & Princeton: Princeton University Press.

Savage, M., Devine, F., Cunningham, N., Taylor, M., Li,Y., Hjellbrekke, J., Le Roux, B., Friedman, S. and Miles, A. (2013), ‘A New Model of Social Class: Findings from the BBC’s Great British Class Survey Experiment’, Sociology, Vol. 47, No. 2, pp. 219-250.

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Tara Lai Quinlan is an attorney and PhD candidate in the Department of Sociology at the London School of Economics and Political Science.  Her research interests include criminal law, criminology, terrorism, and policing of low-income and urban marginalised communities.  Her current research examines the socio-political and socio-legal implications of the creation of post-9/11 community engagement and countering violent extremism programmes in the UK and US.

 

 

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Nov 11 2014

The Revolution: Is being Televised, Blogged, Tweeted, You-Tubed and Stood Up.

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by Lisa McKenzie, LSE Fellow

A spectre is haunting London and that spectre is the rumble of grass roots civil disobedience, activism and – dare I say –  a people’s anarchism.

brand

Karl Marx originally wrote the Communist Manifesto in 1848 as a pamphlet to be read and used by the masses in their class struggle. The Manifesto is a passionate and commanding piece of writing, which has inspired and captured the imaginations of academics, politicians, grass roots activists, and the everyday working class worker for almost 170 years. However since the fall of the Berlin Wall 25 years ago, and the defeat of the Miners by the Thatcher government in 1985, 30 years ago, it has been argued by many that class struggle has finished, its has ended, and the need for class consciousness, class politics, and class war has been rendered obsolete through identity politics, individualism, and the ‘freedom’ that Neoliberalism brings.

However, over the last few months a militant and grass roots activism has been rumbling away in the heart of our capital city. A dis-organised and responsive activism, communities reacting to the growing inequality, unfairness, and injustice they experience from living in a city where in one square mile there are millionaires working in the financial district, while next door in Tower Hamlets, 50% of children live in poverty. Communities, groups and individuals are fighting back in London without any official or mainstream politics or political figures supporting them or even knowing that they exist.

As a working class woman, and an academic working at the London School of Economics, I also consider myself to be a community and political activist. Consequently over the years I have been involved in many community projects and campaigns. Not since the 1980’s, however, have I experienced the militancy and anxiety amongst working class people and communities which appears to be happening all over London. Maybe I am a naïve Northerner who hasn’t yet got to grips with the politics of London. I might disagree with that though, because in 1984 I was the 16-year-old daughter of a striking miner in North Nottinghamshire, and I have lived through and experienced strange and difficult political times, and during that intense year of 1984-85 I saw glimpses of political revolution. However the events over the last few months in our capital city have left me feeling terrified, exhausted and weak, while simultaneously inspiring me and giving me hope for a future that definitely could be different.

My previous life in Nottingham consisted of community work, and academic research predominantly with mothers who lived on an inner city council estate, I spent 8 years researching the neighbourhood I had lived in for 25 years. I have documented the narratives of those women, their lives and the problems that are faced by working class people living in council estates in Nottingham elsewhere. However in the last 13 months I have lived in east London, and worked at the London School of Economics continuing my academic research but have also become involved in activism and campaigns in London. The energy, and the fight back in the capital has overwhelmed me and inspired me to the point where even I, a cynical lefty academic, believe that change is coming, and it’s happening now. At the same time my research in East London has shown some of the worse examples of inequalities and injustice I have seen towards working class families.

Compresed Balcony

The campaign and fight of the Focus E15 mothers have been one of those terrible examples of how working class families and young mothers in particular are being treated in austerity Britain. The young mothers with very young children were forcibly evicted from a homeless hostel in 2013 in Newham, East London; the hostel sits in the shadow of the billion pound developments of the Olympic Park and the Westfield Shopping Centre. The young mother’s evictions were treated with a severe lack of empathy and with no apparent care for their welfare by the Labour council and a Labour Mayor who seems to despise their existence. They were told that the only social housing available to them was in Hastings, Birmingham, or Wolverhampton. Places where they had no connections, or family. They have been fighting for affordable homes for themselves but also the wider community since September 2013.

Meanwhile devastated families are facing eviction after the inherited estate of Britain’s richest MP bought a stake in their homes on the New Era Estate in Hoxton, Hackney. Conservative Member of Parliament Richard Benyon’s £110million family firm is part of a consortium which bought the housing estate and announced plans for a massive rent hike. Up to 90 households fear the Benyons’ plan to charge “market rents” will treble their bills. Which will force the families who have lived there for generations to leave the neighbourhood, and the residents also know that if they lose this fight they will have to leave London as rents soar way above the affordability of any working class family.

At the same time, multimillion pound housing developments in London are segregating less well-off tenants from wealthy homebuyers by forcing them to use separate entrances. A Guardian investigation discovered a growing trend in the capital’s upmarket apartment blocks – which are required to include affordable homes in order to win planning permission. However poorer residents are forced to use alternative access, a phenomenon being dubbed “poor doors”. Even bicycle storage spaces, rubbish disposal facilities and postal deliveries are being separated.

It seems that social cleansing, social apartheid and social inequality has been accepted as ‘common sense’ by the political elites of 2014-11-06 05.28.06-1London. Through the narrative that London is a special place where the special people live, and if you cannot afford to live in London you need to leave, and leave quickly and quietly.

The unintended consequences of this hard line neo-liberal approach to the identity of Britain’s capital city is that some of the most dispossessed and powerless groups are forming their own political movements, growing in working class communities around a class consciousness centred around the precarity of low paid and insecure work, rising rents, and the onslaught of gentrification of their neighbourhoods which seldom includes them in its plans. This grass roots activism is thriving amongst those groups who are being treated harshly, and have very little or no power, they are fighting for their lives, their communities and for the future of their children as we did in 1984 against pit closures. This fight has become especially apparent amongst working class mothers, who until they faced eviction and homelessness they were not politically active, or interested. There are now campaigns all over London from Hendon to Lewisham fighting forced evictions, and the unfair inequality and struggles that Londoners are now experiencing in their everyday lives. I have met women with their children on recent protests at the TUC Austerity March ‘Britain Needs a Pay Rise’ who have never been on a political march before, and mothers with their babies are picketing outside the notorious ‘One Commercial Street’ that was investigated by the Guardian as a ‘Poor Door’ developer.

And if all of this grass roots activism hasn’t been strange enough in belly of the beast which is London, we have had an emergence in ‘celebrity’ activists bringing attention to the causes of the Focus E15 and the New Era Campaigns in the form of the self-styled messiah and agent provocateur Russell Brand, who I bump into almost daily at some community meeting, protest, or picket. The BBC3 programme ‘The Revolution will be Televised’ is also on site at most protests, filming and interviewing those who have a fight in London. The politicians of Westminster have no idea that this is happening; while celebrities are in awe of these strong and determined working class women, hanging on the their coat tails for legitimacy in their own political positions.

There is an energy in the Capital, and dare I say a class-consciousness is rising amongst people who even just 12 months ago had little interest in politics. Something is happening; a spectre? Or is Revolution in the air as Russell Brand’s new book ‘Revolution’ advocates? Perhaps, although I am doubtful Mr Brand’s book will have the impact that ‘The Communist Manifesto’ had as a call to arms to the working class to shake off their chains. Undoubtedly Mr Brand and other celebrities are adding and highlighting the rumble of discontent within the Nation that mainstream politics are failing to reach.

Compressed Baby I am hopeful and inspired that the discontent and change in working class politics are coming from the grass roots, from mothers with babies on their hips shouting ‘shame on you’ as they march for the first time past parliament.

 

 

 

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