Aug 25 2015

Sociology is discomforting

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Sociology undergraduate, Harry Crumless on his sociological journey so far…

A little over three years ago, I went to an open day at Goldsmiths.  At a taster session with one of the department heads, sociology was described as the art of “questioning everything”.  I didn’t end up at Goldsmiths; instead I chose LSE, but this description of the discipline has stuck with me.

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In my final year at school, I took criminology, as anything to do with the social sciences just clicked with my way of thinking.  My teacher was fantastic and really encouraged me to dig deeper and understand the way that society operates.  One of the key ways to do this was to reconsider everything that I’d ever thought I knew about crime.  In fact, even the term ‘crime’ had to be put in scare quotes and problematised in order to open it up and explore what it actually means.  That final year of school acted as a taster for what was to come at LSE.

I didn’t really have any idea of what I might be taught or introduced to at LSE.  In the first week we had a lunch with the academics from the department.  To say I was terrified would be hyperbolic, but I just didn’t know what to say to any of them, as I was a newbie, very much aware of the fact that this was my first day of school, so to speak.  I spoke to one academic and asked him what he taught, his response was along the lines of ‘cities and urbanisation.’  I didn’t quite know how to respond to this.  The idea that you could study cities was very new to me.  Hindsight is 50/50 vision, but I can now see that this is a fascinating area of study, and one of the ways that sociology can help us ‘question everything’.  If I remember correctly, at that time I made my excuses and meandered closer to the sandwiches.

Very quickly, we were forced to battle through a selection of works by Durkheim, Weber and Marx.  An arduous task that I have now pushed to the back of my mind.  The whole point of this was to consider the concepts and ideas that they had written about a hundred years ago, and try and apply them to society today.  At that time, we were two years into austerity-ridden Britain, and the Occupy protests had ended a only few months before, so Marx’ theory of alienation and class strife were hardly difficult to contextualise.

There’s a certain level of discomfort that sociology evokes in you –  or imposes on you, depending on the way you want to see it.  Suddenly you have to go from ‘I’m Harry, I’m an individual and choose the way I live my life’, to, ‘I’m Harry, I’m part of a class-ridden society, have gender-norms imposed on me on a daily basis, and don’t quite know how to solve this.’  Suki Ali’s first lecture on gender debunked just about every myth that I had taken as fact.  Similarly, a lecture by Fran Tonkiss highlighted the ludicrous idiosyncrasies of the British class system, that are so deeply engrained in our every action.

By about January of Lent term I felt that we lived in an impossible world, where you couldn’t even get a coffee without considering the exploitation and alienation that had gone into that Americano – or if the company you were buying the coffee from was paying any tax, but I digress.

The purpose of this blog-post is to consider ‘why sociology?’, so I will get a bit more to the point with that.  Sociology has not only afforded me a different perspective on society, it has allowed me to forge my own way of thinking, and my own sociological approach.  Over the past two years I have been able to carry out research on a vast range of topics.  I’ll start with the slightly more conventional ones.  As a group, we looked into student employment and wellbeing at LSE.  This Easter I carried out a comparative study of two gay couples after the legalisation of same-sex marriage.  Now, to the less conventional ones.  In second year, I spent a large chunk of Michaelmas term researching public toilets in London.  And, finally, my dissertation, titled ‘The Symbolic Nature of the Curtain’ explored the way in which the notion of class is constructed within British Airways.  Safe to say, I will never board a flight again without first considering which ‘class’ I have been labelled.

Excuse the cliché, but without the tools that Sociology equips you with, there’s a whole side to the world we live in that is shut off.  After three years of studying at LSE, I would definitely opt to do it all again.  Yes, there are times where I would like to walk into a coffee shop without any of the politics; or use a public toilet without considering the way in which the space has been constructed so we self-regulate our behaviour.  But, it certainly makes conversation more interesting.

From the people I’ve met who study sociology, it is a discipline that suits those who always want to reject the first answer they’re given.  If everyone in the world spent a year studying sociology, we’d be in a much better shape.

Posted by: Posted on by Sian Lewin

Aug 24 2015

BSA Bourdieu Study Group: Capital in all its forms

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On Tuesday 30th June 2015, the BSA Bourdieu Study Group held a workshop exploring Pierre Bourdieu’s extension of the traditional sociological concept of capital.

It featured presentations from Professor Mike Savage and Dr Lisa Mackenzie from the LSE Department of Sociology.

Read a full report from the event here.

 

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

Aug 18 2015

Sociology opens your eyes

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Sociology undergraduate, Ronda Daniel, on her reasons for studying sociology.

Sociology is so very often confused with psychology. Whilst the two are closely linked, they are very different. Sociology is a very difficult thing to define; whilst with psychology, one can simply say ‘it is the study of the mind and behaviour’, sociology is certainly ‘the bigger picture’. It comprises of relationships, between individuals, groups and institutions; how society survives, and whether this is for the greater good or the benefit of a few.

Sociology is one of the most eye-opening disciplines, much like philosophy. It helped me understand why society, and its economic bases and governments and institutions have perpetuated and maintained each other. Whilst it helped me understand the positive and cohesive aspects, sociology also made me more aware of politics; studying this in London for a year, the political epicentre of the United Kingdom, certainly had an impact, seeing strikes and protests on a regular basis. Especially being at an age where I grew up with a very mediated childhood, I realised once I saw true statistics and relatable sociological theories that there were biases, and we weren’t being shown the full picture.

For example, I remember discussions on the news and social media during the 2011 London Riots after Mark Duggan, a young black male was shot, much of them calling the riots ‘glorified looting’, and ‘opportunistic burglaries’. Whilst this was true for a lot of areas further away from Tottenham, sociologists noted that the political motives were incredibly overlooked. It made me realise that news companies had a bias towards the police and government, and very few networks were willing to portray the fact that people were angry at racism within the police force.

Ronda 1

A 100-year-old family furniture shop on fire during the 2011 London Riots.

This focus on the media has since lead me to look to social class, an issue very close to my heart, coming from a very impoverished background, and from an ‘underclass’ that is so very often looked down upon and blamed in society, and the media. Again, studying sociology opened my eyes: I read a study conducted by Ipsos MORI, where it compared statistics based on representation in media stories and people’s subsequent estimations of them, against the true statistics. For example, benefit fraud was estimated at 30% by members of the public and the media, the true statistic, however, was 0.07%; teenage pregnancy was estimated at 15% but was in fact, 0.6%. It made me realise how oblivious the media can make people, and its vital role in control and distortion of reality even though its job is to inform. Finding this not only made me more interested in theorists such as Jean Baudrillard and Michel Foucault, but it furthered my interest in social class, which it is very often argued is an outdated division in British society, as well as race and ethnicity; and families, on a human level, and how they are affected by the other societal institutions and their implementations on the family such as policy.

Following this, it made me want to not only go to a top university, but also to study a subject that would enable me to change people’s perceptions. Upon beginning the module ‘Key Issues in Contemporary Societies’, I was introduced to ‘standpoint theory’. Primarily regarded as a feminist theory, this means to take up the perspectives, and empathise with groups that are marginalised. This interested me in sociology further, in that it represents everyone and not just the theorists or the people within the powerful institutions. This, and Weber’s Verstehen, the principle that a sociologist or researcher should empathise with and understand subjects of study, also interested me in methodology.

Ronda 2However, this is not to say that I haven’t shied away from studying statistics, and how to work with numerical data myself. As someone that was used to writing essays, studying sociology as a science has been challenging- but interesting. My statistics teacher recommended a text called ‘The Impact of the Social Sciences’ (Dunleavy and Tinkler), linking all of the reasons I was interested in sociology, such as the aforementioned, to how methods has helped uncover all of these truths, and develop and support the theories I was interested in. Dunleavy and Tinkler discuss the usefulness of quantification and methodology for businesses, education and charities, which was particularly interesting; how charities assess the extent of an issue before making targets for their cause and determining ways to go about them.

To summarise, the 3 main reasons I chose to study sociology, and love to study sociology, are:

  1. It’s practicality, and application to every aspect of society, and social life.
  2. Sociology impacts everyone, and it gives everyone a voice- not just the intellectuals that theorise.
  3. The different paths sociology can take you on- it’s not all about the theory!

(And although I was hesitant at first, I am seeing the relevance and significance of methodology, and I am growing to like it!)

Posted by: Posted on by Sian Lewin

Aug 11 2015

Sociology as a Pandora’s Box

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by Helen Traill, Doctoral Researcher in the LSE Department of Sociology

Capturing quite what is so enriching in sociology is difficult. It’s the idea soup: the zing, the thrill of fitting things together; the frustration at past theorists when it doesn’t; the possibilities of new research paths; the opportunity to pursue your curiosity about the social world. But I knew this as a master’s student and then purposely left sociology, albeit for a mere 2 years. The reason I came back? Because sociology ruined me. That rich experience and exposure to a serious craft infiltrated my imagination and left an indelible stain.

I worked a handful of not particularly engrossing jobs in between, but the clincher was digital communications. I was working in a charity that I believed in, doing a job I didn’t. I had a stronger curiosity in why it was that my job had come into existence given the current technological and social environment, in the culture of a third sector organisation, in the self-important discourse of “digital age” communications, than I did in metrics, websites and social media management. Do you see the problem? I was committing sociology[1] but instead of this being a joy it was a hindrance to me actually getting my job done.

But I’d left sociology for a reason: a question of representational politics, in one sense of the story. I was faced with my inability to answer the rebuke against my age (how can you represent the social world when you’ve spent so little time in it?), my lack of ‘world experience’ (you’ve never worked a real job, what do you know about labour?) or the isolation of the ivory tower from the ‘real world’. I hit a sociological-existential crisis that I couldn’t find a way around. So I left, like Dick Whittington off to seek my fortune in the world, except with rather more to my name than would fit in a handkerchief on a stick (damn you capitalist materialism).

Pandora--1896Returning to academia a few years later doesn’t mark the resolution of this crisis, but its development into maturity. It marks instead the way that awakening my sociological imagination was akin to opening Pandora’s box. All I really learned was that that ‘life experience’ was a chimera that people will wave at you in your twenties whatever your occupation. I did realise though that if I had a problem with my potential to misrepresent the social world, the answer probably lay in sociology itself. If someone were to suggest (in jest, naturally) that sociology was prone to a kind of belly button contemplation that we’d usually call reflexivity, then it’s likely the answer might have turned up among the fluff. In an abuse of the dialectical metaphor, sociology might hold both the problem and its antithesis.

 

The potential for misrepresentation, to talk over the heads of people who are living the realities we so assiduously study, continues to trouble me. But what I needed in order to represent the social world in my work was dependable, ethical, reflexive, methodologically sound research, not some nonsensical experience of the world. The researcher cannot become a single mother, a financier, a street seller in the global south but she can find ways of researching these subjectivities without doing symbolic violence to their realities. This for me is one of the real questions raised by the Alice Goffman furore[2]. The challenge, the gauntlet, is to produce research that doesn’t produce a discomfort over its representational politics.

[1] I greatly like this idea borrowed from the Sociological Imaginations blog

[2] And I think that Michaela Benson is quietly and unsensationally on the mark with the ethics of the case.

 

Posted by: Posted on by Sian Lewin

Aug 4 2015

Sociology is kind

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Aisling Sweeney, a Sociology undergraduate at the LSE reflects on her reasons for studying Sociology.

I hear sociologyI decided that I wanted to study Sociology at University about 2 months into my A-Levels. Prior to that, I hadn’t really known much about it, but pretty much immediately, I loved it. When reflecting on why I fell so hastily in love with it (when I was writing my personal statement), I guessed that it was perhaps because it took all of the aspects of History that I loved (basically, studying humans and how they’ve impacted on the wider world, and vice versa), but without any of the ‘boring’ stuff, like opposing historians’ views on the importance of the conservative faction in the downfall of Cromwell. Yawn.

Plus, Sociology had a cool new feel about it that History didn’t. To me, History conjures up an image of a stuffy old white man in a tweed jacket with round glasses giving a monologue about some centuries-dead royal. Perhaps, on reflection, I am just thinking of David Starkey. Nevertheless, with Sociology in mind, I picture someone cool, dynamic, controversial, and with a strong will for change, and for me that feels exciting in a way that not a lot of the subjects I studied at school really did.

However, regardless of how exciting Sociology is to me, I think it was always a sound choice in my head because I knew it would equip me to decide the way in which I wanted to help better societies, and to do it. This, of course, was the only clear goal I really had for my career, partly because helping as many people as possible seems the most consistent way to find job satisfaction, and partly because I can’t think of anything more important to do with my life. Following my first year at LSE, I want to do this by researching and campaigning for women’s rights- so I’ll see you for my masters, Gender department!

Sociology, to me, is a subject that is there to help those people who want to help other people. Obviously, you get your Durkheims who just want to be right all the time, (“I know the real facts about society, Pick me!”), but on the whole, sociologists seem pretty occupied with making the world better, as best they can. Often a sociologist’s skill, in my view, lies in being able to identify the causes of social problems, and provide enduring solutions- rather than just patching up issues with short-term fixes. And for that reason, I’m in.

Finally, on the subject of ‘why Sociology?’, I will say, Sociology because… it makes injustice, inequality and discrimination transparent, and it makes holding opinions, proving your views and changing the status quo almost prerequisites of success in the field. To me, that is what makes Sociology such a uniquely brilliant, enjoyable, and obvious degree choice. Regardless of whether you think it’s exciting, or ‘academic’, Sociology is undoubtedly one of the kindest degrees. By that, I mean, it enables us all to step back and see what it is that’s wrong with the world, and gives us the experience and innovativeness to start identifying and solving these problems through theory or independent ideas. So, to conclude, I really do love Sociology, because it’s kind, and it lets me be kind. Hopefully, when I graduate, for the living wage.

Posted by: Posted on by Sian Lewin

Jul 28 2015

To study sociology is to study oneself…

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This is a fundamental understanding I have developed since I started studying Sociology at degree level just under a year ago. Motivational speaker, Jim Rohn, has suggested that a person is the average of the five most prominent people in their lives; even if not entirely accurate I believe the sentiment, that our behaviours, mannerisms and life choices are largely the result of socialisation is valid. Sociology can look at influences that range from structurally maintained privilege to micro aggressions, so it is difficult to quantify just how much of what we are is passed on directly to us though socialisation. However, the joy of sociology to me is that it attempts to go beyond the individual and, some might say, the arbitrary.

Having grown up in a reasonably liberal environment, I was always troubled by the existence of social ills such as racism, poverty, gender inequality, heteronormativity (not that I knew it was called that at the time) etc. Why did such injustices and inequalities exist? Why could we not just fix them and make the world a better place? Sweet naivety.

sunrise

Studying sociology was like a slow sunrise as the light gradually began to hit me, almost blinding me with both painful and exciting realities. It is a beautiful discipline as it makes the student aware of the tangled web of power structures in which they exist, and exist so obliviously at that! I look back now and think how the simple ignorance of my various privileges, for example being white and educated, meant I could never experience certain things no matter how objective I wished to be.

Equally, sociology in a more morality based sense, allowed me to be angry. I could now see that certain struggles I and others had faced were not simply coincidences or bad luck but the consequence of systematic oppression. Sociology is knowledge, is awareness, is justification for that anger. Some of the more classically thinking sociologists wish to maintain the notion that any sociological research conducted should only aim to study society “sui generis” and not apply it in the hope of implementing positive change. I see sociology as a tool that gives the most oppressed in society back some degree of power to change their social environment.

In short, to study sociology is to study oneself. That does not mean it is limited to the self, after all it is not social psychology, but I defy any conscientious student to study this wonderful discipline without experiencing some degree of introspection. We may study large groups, societies, national populations, but in doing so a sociologist is always unconsciously asking how they relate to those around them. I make no exaggeration when I say sociologists are the single most socially aware group of people I have ever met, and I am more the better for it. When you not only think about “social facts” that you may have previously taken for granted, but also discuss your knowledge gains with incredibly open-minding peers who are on the same journey as you there can be few limits to what can be achieved with regards to the liberation of social understanding.

I’m sure all children of the discipline have had that uncomfortable moment when asked “So what actually IS Sociology?” Many students I know have simply replied with “I don’t know” or “the study of society” to avoid the long explanation, which unfortunately can often reinforce the academically elitist attitude that Sociology is “not a real subject”. I cannot deny either that this hasn’t been my response on occasions. What I would like to say is something more along the lines of this: Sociology is more than me, you or even everyone in the world. Some people say it is nothing but I say it is everything, from the systems of exchange that exist, to power structures that oppress. It is liberation, restriction, obligation, even life and death. It is what we call history and what we will do tomorrow. It is contested, inescapable and incomplete.

I then check if they’re still there or if they’ve mysteriously disappeared during my rather poetic rant. But that’s the thing with sociology. So many of those who follow it can be no less that passionate about it, because that is the strength of feeling it evokes in so many. I can never regret choosing Sociology for my degree and I think even 10 years from now I still will not fully understand the magnitude of what I have gained from it. I think everyone could do with a little Sociology in their lives, but I accept not everyone will be as fanatic about it as me. All I can hope is that when future students come to study this discipline, they will realise that Sociology is not just in the words of books; it is in the real world, real people, every second of the day.

Written by Perdita Blinkhorn, BSc Sociology student in the LSE Department of Sociology

Posted by: Posted on by Sian Lewin

Jul 23 2015

Why it’s always sociological….

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LSE Sociology alumnus Phil Woodford on his reasons for studying sociology in the 1980s.

The growth of media studies over the past 25 years was probably the best thing that could ever have happened to sociology. There always needs to be a subject which is the butt of everyone’s jokes and back in the 1980s, I guess sociology was it. Despite its reputation and associations with bearded 1960s Marxists, I was still pretty determined to study it.

My motivations were wildly naive, to be honest. I was a fresh-faced 18-year-old when I first arrived at the LSE in 1987 and I believed that sociology was a subject that provided answers to the world’s questions. In many ways, I felt it to be the epitome of the School’s motto of Rerum Cognoscere Causas.

Alumni

Phil even made it to the front page of The Beaver

After three years of undergraduate study, I realised that unfortunately there weren’t any answers. Just more questions. But when I arrived, I was full of anticipation.

I had lived through the Thatcher era as a teenager and was actively involved in various left-wing causes. Long before I became a student at LSE, I had been banning the bomb and campaigning against Apartheid in South Africa. I’d pushed against lines of riot police at Wapping in east London when the printers were involved in their bitter dispute with Rupert Murdoch. I’d supported Arthur Scargill and the miners from the comfort of a semi-detached suburban home in south-west London.

When I came for my interview, I was probably full of chat about the state of the country and I doubt that I made a great deal of sense. Maybe the academics who interviewed me – Dr Chris Husbands, an expert on the far right in British politics, and Dr Eileen Barker who specialised in new religious movements – thought that offering me a place was the best way of shutting me up.

So what did sociology give me? Well, it may sound very trite, predictable and clichéd, but it certainly encouraged independent and critical thought. I remember writing a rather feeble paper in the first term and being pleased when the German PhD student who ran our seminar group told me that it showed ‘sociological imagination’. (I’m not sure that C. Wright Mills would have made too much of it, but it was a start.)

Even though there may ultimately be no definitive answers, it does make sense to go looking for them. Sociologists always dig beneath the surface of what is superficially apparent. I like that.

If crime is falling, we might quite happily believe that people are better natured than they were previously. But one sociologist will ask whether we’re recording crime differently. Another might postulate that policing tactics have changed. A third might point out that most crime is committed by young people, but populations in the developed world are ageing.

I was given a good grounding in methods, which makes me pick holes – probably unfairly – in virtually every academic study I see quoted in newspapers and magazines. I was forced to study statistics, which was probably good for my brain at the time, but I confess that I retain virtually nothing of the detail today.

From a personal point of view, however, the thing that meant the most to me in the study of sociology was the subject’s all-encompassing nature. Virtually no aspect of life is left untouched. I remember being fascinated by the idea that Georg Simmel might extend the discipline to investigate an area such as fashion, for instance.

It was good that I came to sociology relatively fresh. My A-levels were actually in government & politics, history and law. There was an advantage in having studied subjects which were relevant to the sociological endeavour, but not having my head crammed full of Lockwood & Goldthorpe and the other stuff that was part and parcel of the sociology A-level syllabus.

The bible used by A-level students at that time was written by Michael Haralambos. They were pretty sure that if they stuck to this worthy text at undergraduate level, nothing much could go wrong. My tutor, however, was rather bemused at their determination to quote from Sociology: Themes and Perspectives.

‘I’ve heard of Marx,’ she confided in me, ‘and I’ve heard of Weber. But who is this Harry Lambos that everybody talks about?’

We were very much left to our own devices back in those days and I don’t really know how it would compare to a degree course today. There were only a few hours of formal lectures a week and a few hours of seminars. Perhaps if I’d been paying £9,000 a year in tuition fees, I would have demanded more. The culture, however, in the late 1980s was one of gratitude for being given the opportunity to study. Many of my fellow sociologists were mature students and had taken a very deliberate break from their roles as homemakers, customs officers and psychiatric nurses.

In terms of my career in advertising and marketing, the fact that I went to the LSE probably counted for more than the specific subject I studied. Nevertheless, I know just how much I owe to a subject which frames the way I look at the world. Remember, something is usually going on beneath the surface. And it’s always sociological.

Posted by: Posted on by Sian Lewin

Jul 13 2015

The “Why” that Made Me Discover Sociology

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Doctoral researcher, Isabell Loeschner, explains what brought her to Sociology in the second of our series of blog posts on ‘Why Socoiology?’.

Why

Sociology does not always have a good reputation in society and we sociologists don’t always do a good job at improving this reputation, because we like to keep to ourselves. In fact, many people don’t even know what Sociology is. The word resembles the word social, so it must have to do something with social work, many think.

In this post I don’t want to judge people for what they know or don’t know about Sociology. In fact, coming from a management and business studies background, not too long ago I was one of these people who considered Sociology to be what we Germans call “Brotlose Kunst” (i.e. work that won’t pay you enough to buy you your daily bread and butter). Instead I want to tell you the story of what got me interested in Sociology and why I have found fulfilment in a discipline that has the study of society with all its facets at its core.

You could say I was the complete opposite of the typical rather left-wing sociologist. Already back in school I had enjoyed economics and business and felt that I had a deeply ingrained entrepreneurial spirit within me. It then seemed as a natural step for me to study management upon graduation. I was also very lucky to be accepted onto a programme at Lancaster University that required a large amount of work placements and practical experience throughout my undergraduate degree.

So it happened that I was able to explore 5 different organizations of varying sizes within the corporate world as an intern and to my surprise I was very quickly faced with a lot of very puzzling questions that I couldn’t find an answer for. There was a sheer endless numbers of “Whys”.

Why are women treated differently in the labour market? Why do people choose to work 16 hour days? Why do the same sort of people always end up in senior management roles? Why do some people choose insecure but autonomous self-employment over a more stable, possibly more secure corporate job? Why do we have ever better technology to help us get our work done but don’t seem to be able to enjoy more leisure time?

These and many more questions made me seriously reflect on my own motivations, morals and life goals and made me develop a curiosity that I just couldn’t seem to be able to satisfy through work in a corporate job as e.g. a banker, financial auditor or marketing specialist. I soon realized I didn’t want to spend my efforts on maintaining and optimizing the existing system. Instead I wanted to step out of it in order to study it, understand it and criticize it. This realization was like a revelation to me. I had discovered Sociology.

Once I had realized this there was no way back. I applied for a PhD in Sociology at the London School of Economics, hoping for the very best. Yet, on my first day in the Sociology department at LSE I was in panic. What am I doing here? I don’t know enough about Sociology to complete a PhD in it! This is not my peer group! I don’t know what they are talking about! These are only a few thoughts that crossed my mind before and on that very first day; but in fact the more I heard about my fellow PhD students and their work, the more I realized what Sociology was and did.

The sheer breadth and depth of the topics I was surrounded with was breath-taking and my own interest in every single one of them showed me that I would be able to answer and discover “Whys” for a lifetime.

When I got home on that very first day at LSE I was excited and motivated and I felt that I had truly found my peer group. The coming weeks and months did not change this first impression. These people all went through the world with their eyes wide open, discovering “Whys” everywhere and they all had found their first “Why” that they sought to answer in their PhD.

The longer I was part of this community the more I was sensitized to the inequalities existent within our society, be they related to gender, race, age, wealth, education or many others and I realized the value of developing an awareness for these in my own life and for society more generally. Studying our society in its many facets gives me a deep sense of purpose that I hadn’t yet found in the corporate world.

It was at this point that I decided to stop searching and instead embrace my new identity as a sociologist. I asked myself can I see me working as a social scientist in 10, 15, 20 years time and the answer was a clear YES, TOTALLY. The thought of being able to answer some of the “Whys” and to discover new “Whys” provides me with an immense sense of fulfilment and it gives me deep satisfaction to see how my research can be applied to the real world and make a difference in our society.

So with all this talk about “Whys” and my personal sense of fulfilment through the study of our society what does Sociology actually do for us? It helps us sharpen our eyes for issues such as inequalities, social and technological change, and exploitation. It helps us see structural forces that constitute the society we live in and opens up spaces to changes these structures and with it, society. The “Whys” can have impact. Knowing answers to these may not completely change the world but it can influence and shape society as we know it.

I think the value this can bring is so obvious that we sociologists should really stop keeping the answers we find to ourselves and our peer group. We would quickly find that our findings have greater effects when we share them with the world.

Posted by: Posted on by Sian Lewin

Jul 7 2015

Putting the T in Sociology

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This first in a series of blogs posts on the theme of Why Sociology? is from Mira Buerger, an MSc student in the Department of Sociology at LSE.

Many T smaller

I study sociology. And I did and will work in the business world. For many people this sounds like an oxymoron. But sociology provides me what is so often demanded by today’s recruiters: T shaped expertise. Both IBM and Ideo’s CEO Tim Brown called for the T-shaped employees already back in 2010.

I personally love sociology for its creative, sometimes mind-twisting theory and for the curious insights in everyday life it offers, which make me understand why I dislike the new craze for gin connoisseurship but somehow still find myself holding a glass of gin and tonic with a fancy cucumber slice while standing in a craft distillery pop up store in Dalston, London. This knowledge is not getting you a job, they say. This is not business-relevant, they say. It is, actually! Because this is part of the T, the T in sociology.

The horizontal stroke of the T is often described as the ability to empathetically collaborate with people from other fields and to be a constructive part of a creative, interdisciplinary team. Empathy is seen in this context as the ability to step in someone else’s shoes, to adapt to other skills, and to explore problems from different perspectives.

What sounds like a natural given gift can be learned: sociology is a great trainer of empathy. Plus, it provides me with an analytical lense towards the world. Sociology = Empathy + Critical Analysis.

This critical analysis applies to a horizontal breadth, enabling sociological scholars to examine social phenomena in diverse fields ranging from vaccination to shopping malls, power plants and finance, the art of baking, algorithms or time. Within these fields, sociology enables to grasp the complexity of a situation, to realise that there is never the ONE truth but multiple realities and to create compelling solutions for diverse problems. After all, the solutions are most often found outside the field in which the problem arose. ‘Think out of the box!’ they say. That is intrinsically sociological thinking. It’s this generalist perspective that I can put on like sunglasses to every single topic I come across, from sitting at the dinner table to a discussion in parliament. That is not to say that there are no other nice pairs of sunglasses out there that provide another view on the world. Sociology is just the one pair I cherish since many summers and that just gives me this special colouring I like so much.

Then there is the vertical stroke of the T. It refers to depth of a specific skill and expertise. This can be found in the sociological specification in on social field to reveal multiple causes, interdependencies and future scenarios. Depending on the topic focus of a sociological scholar, we can present multidimensional causes and deep rooting relationships which explain why banks but not Greece are too big to fail, we investigate how technology is shaped by social relations and how it shapes us, and we tell you why everyone stares at the digital numbers in the elevator as if there is going to happen something unexpected. And don’t get me even started on the deep vertical skills of research methods sociologist have to offer.

More than ever, generalist analytic skills are necessary for today’s business world because former distinct fields of expertise become more and more intertwined; democracy and finance, health and technology, consumption and politics, business negotiation and culture. This comes to show in product design, customer and client relation or business strategies and we sociologist can pull strings together to make sense of the messy interconnectedness of today’s world.

Posted by: Posted on by Sian Lewin

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: , , , ,