Mar 26 2014

Cybernetic regulation in the age of algorithmic finance

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JP Pardo-Guerra reflects on a proposal by Professor Andrei Kirilenko on the Socialising Finance blog.

http://socfinance.wordpress.com/2014/03/26/cybernetic-regulation-in-the-age-of-algorithmic-finance/

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Mar 24 2014

Researching Court Interpreting

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Doctoral Researcher, Anna Matczak, discusses her research into court interpreting.

Although I have always wanted to pursue an academic career, a few years ago I completed a translation course at one of the London’s universities and decided to advance this knowledge further. I passed an interpreting exam and since then I have been working as a court interpreter alongside my doctoral studies at the London School of Economics. What I have realised rather late is, that probably since the very beginning, I have been unwittingly researching the subject of court interpreting, the profession of court interpreters, and myself in the given context. As this short piece is a single account of my personal opinions and experiences, a blog post feels the appropriate form to share these observations.

The origins of court interpreting in the UK are rooted in community-based interpreting. What this means is that for many years it has been a specific mode of interpreting that flourished due to the presence of large numbers of ethnic minorities in this country. The longer I analyse the subject the more I realise how important it is to mention a specific context surrounding each profession, especially when discussing any type of interpreting. For instance, the background of the profession is unquestionably different than the one for interpreters who work within the European Institutions. I presume that the beginnings of court interpreting in England and Wales must have been somehow unregulated; however this has definitely changed over time. Firstly, a number of qualifications were established in order to confirm the ability of public service interpreting, including court interpreting (e.g. Diploma in Public Service Interpreting and Diploma in Police Interpreting – previously known as Metropolitan Police Test). Secondly, a number of organisations and institutions have become available to accommodate and register those court interpreters who have obtained the required qualifications and experience (e.g. National Register for Public Service Interpreters, Association of Police and Court Interpreters). Following this, court interpreters became the subject of scrutiny and various checks (e.g. DBS Enhanced Certificate, Counter Terrorist Check) and last but not least, the profession has been privatised and managed by Applied Language Solutions in the first place and then Capita Translation and Interpreting. At first glance one can notice that these changes have, to a certain extent, mirrored the broader situation in the criminal justice system in England and Wales. In my view, a similar path of developments can be observed with Probation in particular. Although the field has recently been monopolized and there is only one provider of court interpreters at the moment, there have been certain attempts among some of the interpreters to take the profession to a business-like level and approach it from the marketing perspective.

In reality, the profession consists of various individuals from various backgrounds and perspectives. There are some who have made a conscious decision about public service interpreting; but there are others who recognise it as a pathway to join the legal profession or just the opposite. In my case, a research student with an interest in criminology and for whom a temporary employment position became an opportunity to interact with the justice system and take in a great deal of socio-legal knowledge on a daily basis. What we all have in common is the fact that we are all self-employed, agency-managed ‘bilingual electrons’ constantly checking our mobile phones, as this is the way we receive work. Nevertheless, everyone brings something original to the pot and takes away whatever is individually appropriate.

What I have started to deliberate on is the feeling of disorientation that an interpreter might experience once in a courtroom and how this affects our role. My court observations were further inspired by Linda Mulcahy’s article on the use of the dock in criminal proceedings. I began to wonder what the court interpreter’s place in a courtroom is. In simple terms, our role is to convey legal cultures from one language to another. As speakers of two languages and with qualifications in legal interpreting, this indicates that interpreters are in the courts to provide language interpretation between the defendant and the court staff. Through sociological lenses though it almost always feels like a process of comprehending and translating facts, legal jargon, and personal opinions with the sole purpose of describing a ‘stolen conflict’ that has occurred from the person in the dock and the victims: still quite invisible persons in court proceedings (see Christie 1977). Furthermore, the architecture and design of the court imposes that the interpreters are placed beside the defendant, which also means being placed in the dock as well. As a consequence, these settings account for, not only the increased fortification and marginalization of the defendants, as meticulously discussed by Mulcahy (2013), but also the interpreters.

In this context, the relationship between the defendant and the interpreter is therefore more intense than would normally be expected. The role to interpret is therefore intermingled with the role of a personalised filter that allows words to be conveyed. However, these skills cannot transfer feelings of shame, remorse (or lack thereof), strangled anger, symptoms of mental illness, sharp practice or complete incomprehension of why certain behaviour can be criminalized in this jurisdiction. Therefore, with the court interpreting experience I have gained thus far, it was not surprising to learn that native tongue is more grounded in the emotion system as opposed to using foreign language which creates a possibility of developing a distancing mechanism that disassociates from emotions (see Pavlenko, 2005).

In light of the recent cuts to the legal aid scheme that have, or will very shortly, affect the availability of solicitors and barristers in courts, I anticipate further disorientation to the role of the interpreters in the criminal justice system. When there is no legal representative in a courtroom to speak on behalf of the defendant, certain questions may be addressed to us, the ones who are still looking for a place and a full understanding of our role in English courtrooms. It is an interesting phenomenon to observe sociologically, however I fear that at the practical levels, these recent changes in the criminal justice system may only bring another wave of chaos to the profession of court interpreters in the UK.

 

References: 

Christie, N. (1977) Conflicts as Property. British Journal of Criminology, 17, 1-15.

Mulcahy, L. (2013) Putting the defendant in their place. Why do we still use the dock in criminal proceedings? British Journal of Criminology, 53, 1139-1156.

Pavlenko, A. (2005) Emotions and multilingualism. New York: Cambridge University Press.

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Mar 17 2014

Rising Political Participation: Popular or Populist?

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by PhD Student, Vangelis Georgas

“They call us populists. We are proud of that, and angry too.”
Beppe Grillo, 5 Star Movement’s demonstration in Genoa, December 2013

The 2008 financial crisis and the austerity that is implemented as a policy reaction to it has inaugurated a new era of contention and of increased pressure from below. This is evident not only in developing countries, but also in many developed and prosperous countries of the West. In most cases discontent takes the form of resentment against elites, political and economic. It is expressed mainly through voting for anti-systemic political parties, and through participation in movements, which once again focus on materialist issues, until recently thought to have been irrevocably resolved in the developed countries of the world.

In this new political and economic environment, political struggle in many countries increasingly revolves around a debate on whether popular reaction should be described as populist, a condemnatory term used in most contexts in a pejorative way, or as popular, a term with positive connotations due to its relation to a democratic imaginary. In Europe, this debate is most heated in peripheral countries strongly affected by the crisis, and most of all in Greece and Italy: is the Coalition of Radical Left (SYRIZA), the main opposition party in Greece, equally populist as Golden Dawn? Is Beppe Grillo in Italy the leader of a populist party, or of a popular movement? Or should we understand populist as meaning popular, as Grillo is repeatedly suggesting in front of his party’s supporters lately?

Social scientists are joining the debate, by attempting to clarify the meaning of “populism”. Most students of the phenomenon agree that at the heart of the problem lies an inadequate conceptualization of the term “populism” in the academic debate. This however is hardly convincing. The meaning of the term is reasonably unambiguous and, in fact, uncontested. At the heart of the controversy lies a much bigger stake than just a linguistic controversy in everyday interaction, or a lack of analytic rigor in an academic debate. Much more than anything else, this is a real social struggle, at the heart of which lies the question of what is, and what should be, the role of “the people” in politics and social life. And eventually, what is the meaning and the political significance of “democracy”. I will try to clarify my point by first showing why the meaning of the term “populism” is less problematic than most social scientists tend to think. After identifying what I see as the heart of the controversy, I will then examine some of the implications for social research.

The criteria for applying the term “populism” to a specific situation are relatively uncontested. It refers to a style of politics characterized by a political discourse that dichotomizes citizens in two broad groups. On one side stand the vast majority of the population, “the people”, which are portrayed as representing a unity and as having common interests, despite differences which are played down as non politically significant. On the other side of the divide stands a tiny elite, which is corrupt and self-serving, and thus is preventing “the people” from achieving their potential for full freedom, material well-being and happiness. If “the many” could sidestep that elite, their problems would be resolved.

If these are the criteria for applying the term “populist”, then it is easy to show empirically that all three parties that I mentioned earlier, Golden Dawn and SYRIZA in Greece, and 5 Star Movement in Italy, do produce a discourse that divides political space in exactly these terms. In fact, the leaders and supporters of these parties would easily accept that. They would add, however, that they see nothing problematic with this; quite to the contrary, they find it as the best indicator of the democratic character of their political project. This is because, surprising though it might seem to those who see populism and democracy as radically opposed to each other, the existence of a united and sharing common interests “people”, the subject of populism, is implied in the very concept of democracy, understood as popular sovereignty.  What distinguishes the two terms, “popular” and “populist”, is not different conceptualizations, but the evaluative stance towards the relation between citizens and their government. On one side stand those who see popular will as the only criterion which should inform and direct political decision. On the other side stand those who claim, first, that the unity of the people is nothing more than a rhetorical claim; in fact people disagree on the ends they want to pursue, and even more on the appropriate means for achieving their aims. Second, they object that even if people were united in their wants, there are limits on what they can legitimately aspire for, and even more, on what they can plausibly achieve.

The linguistic debate and the theoretical controversy over the meaning of populism, are in fact demonstrations of a substantive social struggle between two competing ways of classifying reality, which lead to different practical decisions about who should decide and what can be decided on crucial social issues. Understanding the issue in these terms is reach in implications for the role of social research in understanding and possibly affecting political reality.

For a descriptive and explanatory approach, it means that in order to understand why specific social outcomes occur, we need to examine how political space it divided by political actors, what links do they make trough discursive practices between events, causes and effects, interests and identities. Social outcomes are not produced mechanically out of forces acting regardless of actors’ consciousness. They are the product of complex interactions between actors who are guided in their decisions by contingent and inherently political articulations of the social. The distinctively sociological question here is why among competing discourses some prevail over others at specific junctions? In my research I am investigating how the interaction between party framings and popular receptions of the crisis in Greece lead to the radicalization of politics, or the electoral rise of specific parties instead of others.

The most important question however is whether we can have a prescriptive role to play in this social conflict. Do we have anything to offer beyond useless expressions of personal preferences? Do we possess theories or methods that enable us to make more informed decisions among available alternative solutions, or our choices are as capricious and subjective as anyone else’s. Does, eventually, anything go?

We first need to acknowledge here that practical reasoning is definitely not an exact science. It should however be self evident that some means are more effective in achieving given ends under given circumstances. The political problem then is first how to identify those with reasonable plausibility, and then how to convince others to adopt them.

A first step towards choosing the most appropriate means is having a description of the world which is as accurate as possible. Starting from the important insight that everything in the world is relations and processes, not essences and things, we should use the method of comparison for specifying how things relate with each other. Comparison gives us the only measure available for deciding on the plausibility of competing discourses. In order to evaluate for instance the discursive claim that corruption is the main cause of the financial problems of Greece, one has to compare the governmental practices and the social relations underpinning them in Greece not with an abstract, normative model of how ideal government or democracy should be working, but with relevant practices and their effects in other countries of the world. Comparison should provide us with a reasonably credible sense of proportions, which is indispensable in the process of decision-making.

The next step is to take into account the rules of practical reasoning, so often overseen by political actors, as guiding lines for decision-making. We have to be aware that often choosing some end limits automatically the means available for achieving it, when there are necessary means for achieving this specific end; that previous decisions might limit our autonomy at latter stages; and, finally, that there are objective limits on what any political community can plausibly achieve. In the modern world, the most important limits on national sovereignty are the ones set by competition in an international capitalist economy.

Eventually, however, all these theoretically and practically rational processes, even if ideally followed by social scientists for making optimal decisions, are not going to produce any effect in practical politics, if the ideas thus produced are not communicated to the public in a way which is emotionally engaging and capable of catching the imagination and inspiring hope. This is the lesson that political realists need to learn from the successes of populist politicians, as a middle way between utopia and pessimism is once again urgently needed in national and international politics.

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Mar 10 2014

The Disappeared

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Doctoral student, Daniel James, describes the subject of his fieldwork in Chile and Argentina.

Death – like birth – has a time and a place. We mark each. Societies and cultures around the world have devised (invented?) an elaborate array of rituals to close the chapter of a person’s life in a way that signifies meaning. In obituaries, on tombstones, at a funeral or a wake, it is customary to note where and when someone was born, and died. Touchingly, it is sometimes even the same place that is recorded; a tantalising envelope that hints at the life led in-between, or a gesture perhaps to the lived experience before today’s globalised age? But what if the time and place of someone’s death are not yet known? What if there is even still uncertainty about whether somebody is really dead at all? This is what my research looks at.

On the wall of the memorial in the Santiago cemetery in Chile, the names of those executed during the period of General Pinochet’s military rule are accompanied by their birth date, the date they died, and their ages at the time they were killed. Many lives were cut woefully short; there is even a figure of ‘0’ carved on the wall denoting the death of an unborn child.

SC1 (3)

The names of those who were detained-disappeared, however, those who were abducted by state security forces before being tortured and presumably killed but whose whereabouts are still unknown, are accompanied only by the dates of their birth and disappearance. There is a subtle but profound difference. The disappeared, as they have come to be known, seem to exist outside time. Or in a parallel time, a liminal space. They are the not-quite-dead but-the-not-still-here. In a sense, they are ageless.

Forced disappearance has reached a certain purchase in social discourse. Watching an episode of Fox21’s popular series Homeland recently, I was startled to hear one character joke about another being “the magician.” “He liked to make people disappear,” he explained. It has become all-too-frequent to read on the news about the latest person/s to have been disappeared; taken from the streets in Syria, discovered to have been dumped in a well in México. Activists in Spain meanwhile now argue that there are 114,000 ‘desaparecidos’ as a result of the Civil War there, a term that wasn’t used in its original context in the 1930s.

State-sanctioned killing is nothing new, of course. The history of nation-states is inseparable from a grisly genealogy of death, as states (as well as non-state bodies) have asked their people to give themselves up for the greater cause in civil wars, world wars, wars of liberation, revolutions and ‘wars against terror.’ How sad that state-led killing now counts with, and is understood to count with, such a malevolent practice as detaining someone, torturing them, and then making their bodies disappear. And that when this happens, these cases are now routinely brandished with the moniker of the ‘disappeared.’ For a practice that appears to undermine the carefully crafted order of the social world, this seems our best attempt at beginning to understand what’s happening; at beginning to etch these people back into their (social) existence.

And yet, forced disappearance cannot surely be the latest category into which we insert the latest victims of atrocity? For me, a line is transgressed when someone is not only taken, tortured and (almost certainly) killed, as was sadly ever thus, but when their loved ones are denied the epistemological certainties of the physical body or details as to the time and place of their death. But what line? A line of space, or place, with their still being out-there-in-the-world, and not in a carefully marked and tended grave as a point of reference for those they left behind? A line of time, with the disappeared person not yet having been allocated their place in the passage of chronological time? Is this what we mean when we talk, prompted by the literature on memory studies, of a rupture? And if so, is this enough?

When a group I am working with posted on facebook that I had gone to see them to inquire about the everyday lives of families of the disappeared, one respondent posted: ‘GO TO THE MUSEUM!’ Perhaps they were right. But recent scholarship has taught us to challenge the idea of a museum as the repository of truth, to undermine that Truth a little by questioning whose truth it really is, and who it serves. (Did you know that the Argentine military junta had their own Museum of Subversion?) Another contact I spoke with described the plight of relatives of the disappeared as that of a choice. When someone you love disappears, he said, you can put it in a box marked ‘memory’, put it away, and take it out when you need it, or you can let it destroy you.

I’m not so sure. Through fieldwork in Santiago and Buenos Aires, this is the kind of notion that I want to investigate, and interrogate. What claims can a society make in the face of the massive state-led disappearance of its people? What is lost with the continued disappearance of these individuals? And how can society represent the absence of those who are missing – if it can represent them at all?

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Mar 3 2014

Sociology Retreat at Cumberland Lodge – Part One

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A Weekend to Remember

This post reflects on MSc student Tanya Anne Pinto’s experiences of the LSE Department of Sociology annual retreat at Cumberland Lodge, 24-26 January 2014.

When I first received an email informing me of an ‘academic’ getaway at Cumberland Lodge, I was wary of it. Already entrenched in coursework and essays, I didn’t think life could get any more ‘academic’. Luckily, I followed my instinct and decided to book a place on the trip. The refreshing experience that I followed to have made it the best decision I could make.

On 24th January 2014, staff and students across various years met up at Cumberland Lodge in the outskirts of London. It was a pleasant coach ride to our destination, with the travel transforming into an impromptu icebreaker session with other students who were attending the conference. It was interesting to speak to classmates outside of the classroom setup. Often we are so caught up with readings and lectures; we hardly have the time to get to know our classmates better. Though we reached the lodge only in the evening, its majestic architecture and royal heritage were unmistakable. As soon as I had stepped into the entrance lobby, I was swept into an era of luxury. The satin covered walls were adorned with oil paintings that were valuable enough to be kept in a museum.CumberlandLodge_486x248

The theme for this year was, ‘Methods and Methodologies in Sociological Research’. The weekend programme had a schedule of interesting sociological seminars and events. PhD students presently pursuing their studies at the Sociology Department of LSE presented their work, the challenges they faced during research and also encouraged questions from the audience. For a Master’s student like me, it was a wonderful learning experience as I had an insight into the field of academic research at the doctoral level. The talks covered a broad range topics- right from studying international borders to the way emails impact workplace dynamics. There was also a diversity of research methods – ethnography, qualitative interviews, mixed methods and discourse analysis – all of which require different considerations in terms of rigour and validity.

There were some lectures by faculty also,, throwing open interesting discussions about research ethics and methodology. An interesting debate about the strengths and weaknesses of Qualitative vs. Quantitative research methodology left an impression on me. Professors involved in ethnographic work and those involved with quantitative research shared their concerns about the limitations of these domains. Eventually, however, both conceded that there was no ‘right’ way of conducting research. Both methodologies had their own pros and cons and depend to a large degree on the nature of the research question.

On Sunday morning we also had the opportunity to attend a service at the royal chapel, which is otherwise restricted to common public. It was a surreal experience, knowing that this place was regularly visited by HRH Queen Elizabeth as well. Some of the students chose to visit Windsor Castle, which is neatly tucked away in the Great Park not far from the Lodge. During lunch, students had the opportunity to interact with faculty and peers, which helped form stronger friendships.

Overall, the weekend at Cumberland Lodge was an excellent learning experience. Being a Master’s student, it is the sole platform to interact with more senior students and staff. This helps to explore study and research opportunities to follow at a later stage. This weekend is a memory that will stand out from my time at the London School of Economics.

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Mar 3 2014

Sociology Retreat at Cumberland Lodge – Part Two

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This post by doctoral researcher, Paz Concha, summarises the presentation and main discussion of the Ethnography panel chaired by Suzi Hall.

Mona Sloane (first year PhD) started the session by presenting an ANT-critique developed in her MSc dissertation (Culture and Society 2011/2012) and how this critique has informed the main research questions for her PhD project. Core to the presentation was the question of how to bring materialities to the forefront of ethnographic research, in her case ethnographic research in an urban design practice.

The main focus was how to bring the sensorial experience of materiality when doing ethnographic work. image1
She used an object (palette, image below) for the audience to be able to use their sight and touch to sense the materiality of the work of interior designers and the relevance of ethnography to obtain information, but also to understand the relationship between subjects and objects in their everyday practices.

Lisa McKenzie, Research Fellow at the Department, presented her work in St. Ann’s community (a social housing estate in Nottingham) called ‘Going in’ The Role of Ethnography and Community Studies in Sociology” focussing on how she started to think about the ethnographic lenses from a community studies perspective.
She showed the work of classic authors and talked about “getting in”, how she began her journey working in St. Ann’s, image2at first with a gender perspective on the role of women in this area, and then extending her research project to work the male inhabitants of St. Ann’s. Her extensive ethnographic work for over 7 year has led to many publications, and she is preparing a book which will be published later this year.

Her presentation motivated the discussion about how to gain distance from the field; Lisa lived and worked many years in the same community, and she explain how the academic world, the theoretical discussions and even the University itself were elements that kept her at an objective distance.

I also had the chance to present my preliminary work for my research on street food markets in London. I focussed my presentation on the preparation of fieldwork, the use of Twitter, following markets, traders and consumers, literature review of blogs, Facebook pages and websites, visits to street food markets in London, mapping and choosing the sites. I also presented the experience of street food markets production through videos, such as Kerb Saturday, from the sites that I´m planning to work on.

An interesting discussion was on the many forms that the urban experience might take and how street food markets are an expression of the constant rebuilding and reimagining process of urban space. Also, there was much attention on the advantages of doing fieldwork in a pleasurable space where eating is involved as part of the participant observation!

Final comments on our presentation were focussed on the prevalence of community in the ethnographic perspective of our three different research topics; professional community, communities of practice or urban communities. This was a point that merited further discussion about how ethnographies make visible the particular and bring back stories about people wanting to gather together, stay together, transform practices and places into social experiences. This was a good illustration of how ethnography can be understood as a long term process that can begin in the first year of PhD study but could continue as ongoing research for several years, even post-PhD as an early career researcher.

The benefit of the weekend at Cumberland Lodge was to stimulate such discussions in a relaxing environment, bringing together staff and post-graduate students, and taking time to really enjoy exploring sociological research as a process, as an intellectual endeavour and as means of breaking down barriers.

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Feb 28 2014

Update on the Great British Class Survey

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Professor Mike Savage describes the progress that is being made on the Great British Class Survey by the Stratification and Culture Research Network.

Read about it here.

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Feb 13 2014

Bitcoin: Alternative Currencies Reloaded, Part Two

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The Sociology Forum event held in January 2014 attracted a large audience to hear the panel discussion on Bitcoin and what is sociologically interesting about this alternative cryptocurrency. This post summarises the lively debate that ensued.

by Sian Lewin, Paz Concha, Mona Sloane and Reuben Message.

Garrick Hileman, an economic historian and commentator on Bitcoin, began by highlighting the two aspects of Bitcoin that have resulted in the media hype – the fact that its price (in terms of US dollars) has increased exponentially and because it has solved the so-called “double spending problem”, it cannot be duplicated (unlike analogous currencies) and therefore cannot be spent twice.

Alternative currencies are not a new phenomenon, they can be dated back to the 17th century when copper ‘Merchant Tokens’ were minted by merchants to overcome a shortage of change. Fast forward to the Great Depression of the 1930s, and an Austrian town called Wörgl which issued Freigeld to kickstart the economy, a project that was eventually shut down by the Austrian Central Bank. More modern times have seen ideas such as LETS, a UK-based bartering system which started in the late 1980s but is now in decline. According to Hileman, these three cases illustrate the three most common causes of the death of alternative currencies: death by technology, death by regulation and death through lack of demand.

Bitcoin is currently very far from dead, but does face a range of challenges from the threat of regulation to uncertainty to specific technical challenges (e.g. it takes ten minutes to update after every transaction). Perhaps the greatest challenge of all is the risk that it is seen as an an asset for speculation asset rather than as a unit of exchange, mostly due to the inbuilt deflationary character of the currency (Satoshi’s code allows for a finite amount of Bitcoins to be produced). Notwithstanding these challenges, however, more merchants are signalling their willingness to accept Bitcoin as a means of payment and it has even attracted attention from the fourth largest bank in the US.

Brett Scott, author of The Heretics Guide to Global Finance: Hacking the Future of Money has first-hand experience of using Bitcoins. He has received them in payment for his book (in addition to other alternative currencies such as Dogecoin and Brixton Pounds) and has also used them to pay his bills. He contends that Bitcoin, as opposed to many other alternative cryptocurrencies, owes its success and renown to the mystery and mythology surrounding its creator, Satoshi Nakamoto. This creates the emotional dimension which currencies need for us to literally ‘buy in’ to them. Fiat money, such as sterling, also has emotional resonance, tied up in notions of patriotism, sovereignty and even imperialism. He observes that in explanations and discussions of Bitcoin are shrouded in terms of the technicalities of mining, blockchains and algorithms rather than in the context of ordinary currencies which can make it seem opaque and tricky to understand.

However, if it is compared to ordinary currencies, what is distinctive about Bitcoin is the lack of reliance on a central authority, such as central banks in the case of fiat currencies. This is pushing towards Rousseauian notions of trust as being the glue binding the social together, as opposed to the requirement of centralised authority as espoused by Thomas Hobbes.

In contrast to this view, Nigel Dodd, an expert on the sociology of money argues that Rousseau isn’t present when considering Bitcoin as a currency. There is no trust, he suggests. It seems as if the intention of Bitcoin is to remove the ‘human’ from the currency, to substitute confidence in central banks for confidence in machines as the new intermediary in a step which is both central to Bitcoin’s appeal and perhaps points to a wider appeal to those who distrust social institutions such as politics.

Therefore, there is nothing social about the intentions of Bitcoin. It is, in Dodd’s view, a call-back to the old and conservative monetary theory that money is a ‘thing’ in itself as opposed to Simmel’s notion of money as a claim on society, as a social relationship, stemming from the fact that Bitcoin is a finite resource, like gold. Indeed, Bitcoin celebrates in this ‘thingness’, as do those who mine and hold Bitcoins as assets.

Can we go as far as to say, therefore, that there is nothing sociological about Bitcoin? The ensuing discussion about the gendered nature of the Bitcoin ‘community’ would suggest that there is, however, something of sociological interest in the alternative currency world. Brett Scott’s observations that it is a world dominated by men, with aggressive undertones and macho posturing, may indeed echo the ‘thingness’ of Bitcoin, that it is something to be possessed. He argued that women are put off by the lack of practicality in using Bitcoin as a means of exchange for goods and services, and that there are other more significant barriers to women that echo the gender imbalance in other areas of social life such as technology and the wider financial industry. The very fact that we can talk of a Bitcoin ‘community’ would indicate that indeed there is something social going on – whether it is to do with Bitcoin as money or as a process is still an open question.

The discussion concluded with the question of how threatening Bitcoin really is to fiat money and the existing payments systems that rely on banks as intermediaries. One way in which it was suggested Bitcoin could gain in legitimacy would be if it was somehow accepted either for the payment of state imposed taxes or if it itself was taxed. The legal and regulatory status of Bitcoin is yet to be determined in many jurisdictions, though this recent survey by the US Congress shows that it is attracting global attention from tax authorities and regulators. Indeed, it could be argued that it could well be regulation and the formalisation of the tax status of Bitcoin that actually ensures its continuation, therefore contradicting the very principles on which it was founded – the bypassing of the state, politics and the entrenched financial system.

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Feb 10 2014

Relying on Untested Execution Drugs Raises Important Health, Safety and Human Rights Concerns

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In her piece for the Huffington Post,  lawyer and Sociology PhD Candidate Tara Lai Quinlan outlines the consequences of using untested drugs for lethal injections in carrying out death sentences in the US.

http://www.huffingtonpost.com/tara-lai-quinlan/untested-execution-drugs_b_4490351.html

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Feb 5 2014

Researching the Elite

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Qualitative approaches to the study of elite practices: LSE workshop 28th November 2013

Nell Beecham and Georgia Nichols

Emerging from Mike Savage et al.’s recent work on the BBC’s Great British Class Survey  (GBCS) this workshop, run at the LSE, aimed to address the future for studies on elite class practices in contemporary society. The quantitative findings from the GBCS outline that the elite social class have highest levels of every type of capital. They are set apart economically from their class counterparts, but notably they also have the highest number social contacts, in addition to high scores in both traditional forms of highbrow cultural capital and newer forms of emerging cultural capital. Equally, they dominate in fields of power, such as the workplace and education. An underdeveloped area of class analysis for many years, the scale of the GBCS (and in particular its unusually high elite respondents) allows the study of elites to be brought back into the class studies framework. Utilising the finding from the GBCS, the attention now turns to painting a more vivid picture of elite practices through qualitative means.

The workshop elaborated on the move from the elite as a category centered narrowly on income and occupation to attention to elite practices and experiences. This recasting of approach moves away from a static, rigid and distinct concept of an elite, outdated both empirically and in theory, and allows the consideration of diverse constellations and spaces of elite practice, both new and longstanding, in which the (re)production of elite culture occurs. In doing so, the workshop emphasised the variety in the approach to the study of elite constellations – through geographical space, cultural and educational institutions, financial status and profession.

Shamus Khan (Columbia) opened the discussion, outlining his current research into the New York Philharmonic Orchestra. Khan drew upon his previous research, which observed elite cultural reproduction in education, highlighting that whilst access to elite groups was difficult, it was not unfeasible. Khan experienced the elite as unique participants – they are often comfortable talking to professors, and are acutely aware of the need for academic research. Khan noted that he frequently encountered the view that previous research had not reflected accurately their position. Importantly, Khan noted that interview methods often proved ineffective when researching elite groups. Given a tendency to be confident in articulating opinion, and the inconsistency between attitude and behaviour, Khan observed it was more fruitful to encourage participants to talk about others rather than themselves, and to juxtapose these interviews with experience. Khan also identified that he holds a privileged position regarding the study of this elite group: having attending an elite private boarding school and taught at an Ivy League institution, his access and ability to build rapport with participants was made easier.

Where Khan was perceived to be ‘speaking the same language’ as his participants, it was Luna Glucksberg’s (Goldsmiths) position as an international outsider that granted her greater access to her participants. Her research explores elite spaces in and around London in order to account for the constitution, experiences and practices of inhabitants/members, and their interaction with and impact upon the urban space and communities within it. Drawing on their desire to ‘educate’ her, Glucksberg was able to foster relationships with her participants which have granted her access to elite social clubs otherwise inaccessible to the researcher. Glucksberg’s research identifies two distinct branches of elites – those of the established elite and new elite groups. An important cultural distinction is seen in these two groups – the new elite group tended to be more preoccupied with material items and were acutely conscious of the potential for downward mobility, while the established elite tended to have less regard for material items and instead place greater value on high culture pursuits and social connections.

Glucksberg’s work picks up on a key theme of the discussion, that of the conversion and reproduction of capital as identified by Bourdieu (1984). Bourdieu outlined three forms of capital (1) Economic Capital (2) Cultural Capital and (3) Social Capital and his work explores how possession of varying stocks of these capitals enables certain advantages. Bourdieu highlights that although these three capitals are distinct, they can be converted. For example, high stocks in cultural capital are likely to enable the individual to reap rewards economically; maintaining social position is reliant on the parent transferring their stocks of capital to their offspring.

Glucksberg’s exploration of these two groups reflects the current rethinking of the status based models of elites taking place in sociology. As emphasised by the findings of Savage et al. (2013), the elite class is increasingly dynamic in its structure. Although entry into the elite classes is highly skewed towards high status groups, it is now considered less impermeable than previous studies have indicated. Glucksberg noted that this fluidity also posed certain perceived dangers for those in the elite class: many of the women that Glucksberg spoke to showed concern over the precarious nature of their social position, and emphasised the work that accompanied the maintenance of status. For Glucksberg’s participants it was felt necessary to perform elite status ‘correctly’ in order to ensure its preservation.

The notion of enacting class status was also picked up by Sam Friedman (City) in his presentation on mobility into the British social elite. Friedman focused on the role of Bourdieu’s notion of habitus and the emotional experience of performing class. Friedman’s study of movement into the elite classes marks a new development in elite research. Where previous research has focused on the study of those well-established in elite culture, Friedman explores the emotional experience of mobility between classes and into the elite, and the symbolic baggage that people carry in the navigation of class.

Elisabeth Schimpfossl’s (Manchester) work centres on the lives and practices of individuals in the Russian male business elite, and raises interesting issues of visibility. Prominence in public life, she found, was not an impediment to her research as one may suspect, and it tended to facilitate, in practical terms, access to interviewees. Like Khan, she observed that an interest in and appreciation for scholarship and academic pursuits motivated the participation of many individuals. Schimpfossl also highlighted the (often acute) visibility of power relations in carrying out her interviews. The perceived unequal position of researcher and respondent, particularly reinforced along gender lines, created a dynamic which could be both instructive and disquieting.

Similar to Schimpfossl’s work, the group discussed by Georgia Nichols (LSE) is predominantly male. Her research centres on profession and concerns the culture of high-tech knowledge work in Europe. In contrast to the conventional ‘gentlemanly’, anti-industrial understandings of the traditional British elite, and its associations with high-brow culture and conspicuous consumption, constellations of practices here crystallise around technical expertise, engineering and manufacturing. While sharing a strong emphasis on meritocracy with other contemporary elites, as in Khan’s work, the centrality of craftsmanship and manual skill to identity sits at odds with both the narratives of these groups and that of traditional elites.

Building on these contributions, the workshop highlighted the need to move away from the traditional conceptualisations of elites – with its aristocratic motif and status based formation – that appear outdated both theoretically and empirically. Instead it emphasised a fluidity in which ‘eliteness’ is no longer ascribed, but performed, and appears in a diverse array of constellations and spaces of practice. In particular, the workshop suggested that we need to pay attention to micro-skews – who, where, why – and questions of elite participation in research. Is there a coherence in mentality that promotes participation, and what links may this have with political engagement and scientific inclination? In general terms, the participants of the workshop agreed on the importance of careful continued attention to the conversion of capitals and the reproduction of class in pursuing the study of elites.

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