The BS Detector System

Now that I’m teaching undergraduates, I’m supposed to come up with a “statement of teaching philosophy.” It’s a bit preposterous for me to even think about that, considering I have never taught a day in my life, nor have I been trained to do this (sorry kids). I’ve sat through enough lectures and seminars, so I suppose I should have a vague idea of how to not put a class of 20 to sleep. I just hope my students are gentle when I get them one-on-one tomorrow.

If you had to ask me what my purpose in teaching sociology is, I have a very basic answer:

I want you to be a fantastic bullshit detector.

There’s a lot of bullshit in this world. Ideologies. Politics. Sound bites. Misleading statistics. People who want you to accept their statements unquestioningly. Decisions that affect the lives of millions of people in this country alone are made on the basis of this bullshit. What I want you to gain from being in my research methods course is the skill to be able to dissect these arguments, ask the right questions, know what to be skeptical about. I want you to be able to shoot down nonsense from a mile away, and then bullet-proof your own arguments so that you can go toe-to-toe with someone who thinks they’re the business.

 

In sociology you’re always getting the side-eye from people who think it’s a Mickey Mouse subject. And yes, you grow tired of having to refute that. Tough. Sociology teaches you how to think about perpetual problems. In an election year in particular, this is crucial. You need a good bullshit detection system now more than ever. Don’t run into full-fledged adulthood without one, kids. If someone can’t charm you with nonsense, then they can’t take advantage of you. The world’s your oyster. Eat it raw only if you can be reasonably certain it won’t make you sick with e. coli from…bullshit.

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Music That Inexplicably Wasn’t More Popular, Volume 1

Geneva, “Tranquilizer” (1997)

Remember Geneva? No, you don’t, which is amazing considering singer Andrew Montgomery is cut from the same cloth of disarmingly sweet vocals and bright-eyed boyish looks as John Power, only far more soaring and Scots instead of Scouse. Melody Maker said he could sing his shopping list and still make you cry. He’s like the choirboy from hell, but I mean that politely and with more than a slight bit of awe. Grown men aren’t supposed to be able to put that much strength behind high vocals. They’re not supposed to be able to do that without sounding a LOT softer. Montgomery is able to combine vulnerability with control, soaring between his upper and lower registers, thus avoid sounding  *too* girly. It’s a shame Geneva never made it big (I reckon Travis beat them to it and there wasn’t room for two), and more a surprise because Montgomery’s voice alone is enough to blast down doors.  Even the thick metal ones at the entrance to my building, designed to keep even the most desperate tweaker out – unless, of course, said tweaker lives here. I LIVE IN THE TENDERLOIN.

Andrew Montgomery’s solo work: http://www.myspace.com/stfamous

Another Geneva tune, “Best Regrets”:

EDIT: Here’s a clip from “Never Mind the Buzzcocks” which pretty much says it all about how Geneva were sadly overlooked…

Chicago, Maps, and a Mess

Today I arrived in Denver for the 2012 annual meeting of the American Sociological Association. I’m presenting a paper on drivers of neighborhood satisfaction in London regeneration zones this Saturday. It’s my first time in Denver, and so far, this is my impression of the city: take the Chicago Loop, shrink it both in spread and height of buildings, and abandon a chunk of it, and that’s Denver. Disclaimer: I’ve been here six hours, and my taxi took me through one hell of a rough patch. That being said, ranch dressing makes sense here. The amount I put on vegetables for dinner was truly sickening and I am proud.

I’m also finishing up Robert J. Sampson’s fantastic book Great American City: Chicago and the Enduring Neighborhood Effect, which is the product of years of meticulous, large-scale research into the persistence of poverty and inequality. This is the kind of book that proves social science is a field as worthy as any other. I won’t summarise it here (GO READ IT), but I want to mention that I hold a special place in my heart for Chicago because it was where I first really became fascinated with cities in and of themselves – the start of an obsession that has led me to become an urban sociologist. I lived there for a good chunk of my childhood. All the neighborhoods Sampson mentioned are familiar, if not from actual memories then at least by name.

Chicago, despite being the third largest city in the United States, has a parochial feel to it. People cling to their neighborhoods. The city has 50 official administrative wards, each represented by an alderman who may or may not be entirely corrupt, but there are 77 “community areas,” and, depending on who you ask, nearly 200 informally designated neighborhoods. Here’s a map of the community areas. Bored in school, I memorized this map and loads of more detailed ones to the point where I was able to write out the names of 308 Chicago streets entirely from memory (and not the numbered ones, those don’t count. I mean the names that sing in your head and which tourists don’t see: Ponchartrain Boulevard. Throop Street. Menomonee, Oleander, Armitage, Seely, Ainslie, Kedvale, Caldwell, Argyle, Lamon, Laramie, Larabee, Montrose, Rosemont, Kinzie, Kedzie, Stony Island, Cottage Grove, Washtenaw, Racine. Commerce Parkway. Solidarity Drive.) Yes, I was a very bored child in school. But the point is, these places in Chicago had an intrinsic meaning in their names. For me, they represented a hell of a lot more than just the boundaries drawn by the street grid. They were each their own self-contained world.

Unfortunately, the downside to this compartmentalization is that, in Chicago, it translates to extreme racial segregation. Sampson repeatedly illustrates this and shows it to be at the heart of why so many Black Chicagoans live in the kind of poverty that barely touches even low-income White people. I lived in a neighborhood that was very White, with a significant Asian minority. My mother, a native New Yorker who never lived outside the five boroughs until she was 30, couldn’t believe how segregated it was. A working-class woman from a Polish family, she had worked as a nurse alongside women from Jamaica and Haiti in Brooklyn and Manhattan, and now she was sending her kids to a primary school that had one Black student among over 300 White and Asian. She never liked Chicago and was glad to leave. As a kid, whenever I spoke with a little too much of the nasal honking the city is known for, she would quickly correct me and make me pronounce the word properly – that is, with anything other than those Midwestern vowels. Chicago would not become my voice. I’d have to get that somewhere else.

Our sister school on the West Side was entirely Black. When the students came to ours for a day, they spoke in awe about how clean our bathrooms were, how we actually had paper towels and working locks on the doors. You know, the basic things American schoolkids should take for granted. We thought it was strange then, but hey, we were kids – we understood that they were poor and we were middle-class, that they lived West and we lived North, they were Black and we weren’t and these things weren’t a coincidence, and even at a young age we could put two and two together. But look at the data – especially Sampson’s data about where people move – and it’s clear it will take a lot more than twinning schools and throwing kids together for a couple of days each year in order to address the fact that Black and White so rarely interact meaningfully in Chicago.

Having been educated in both the US and the UK, it’s amazing how uniquely American this kind of segregation is. In Britain, a lot of people have a hard time believing that so many explanations really do boil down to the implications of race in America. “Why is everything about race?” they ask me, and then Americans ask me, “Why are Brits so obsessed with class?” While racism is of course an issue in the UK, the extent and institutionalized degree of it there was never so vast as in the United States. I truly can’t overstate that.

I’m 27 now and I still love maps. Once upon a time, a big glossy one of Chicago neighborhoods hung on my wall. The colors were arbitrary – pinks, yellows, blues, greens, all the names in the same even hand, not the slightest hint of the implications behind each demarcated place name. There’s a picture of me standing in my bedroom on a council estate in West London, and taped to the wall behind me, blurry but recognizable, is the entire London tangle of Tube and rail. Now in my San Francisco apartment there’s an old style New York subway map tacked on the wall down the little hall from where pre-war North London bus routes hang in a sturdy frame. Crouch End, Wood Green, Finsbury Park, Hornsey, Harringay – all the places you’ll go along those red lines, all the places I’ve been more times than I can remember. The buses will take you there and then who knows what you’ll find, what you’ll get up to by yourself? Then down on the floor are the great big wooden panels where I’ve been painting and sculpting and suspending scraps of maps that I’ve transfered onto sheets of acrylic and cut up with a Stanley knife until they’re just how I want them, trying to make a bit of art out of my life so far. Trying to convince myself I still have a bit of those places in my heart even though I’m not walking those streets and may not be again for a long time.

Having a specific spot in space is important to me, as is knowing exactly where I stand – literally – so that I can never be put in the vulnerable position of not knowing where I’m going. When you name a place and claim it as where you’re from, you pick up more than an address. You get a bit of tangible history, and automatically you’re a player in that story. There are some places where I’ve spent years living but which don’t feel like part of me as well as spots I’ve merely passed through in the grand scheme of things but which somehow have gotten into my bones.

I could never go back to living in Chicago. By that I mean, I’m not willing to do so. When I think of Chicago I recall small-mindedness, corruption, segregation, and really REALLY cold winters with flat grey landscapes that could not have been bleaker if they’d been illustrations from a Victorian novel.I remember how cruelly people treated my mother when she was nothing but kind to everybody. I remember how my family was resented and scorned for no fault of our own. I remember finding out that all those years when I’d been cheering on my older brother from the sidelines when he played soccer, other children’s mothers were laughing at “the Jew.” I remember wanting to get out of there so, so badly, and never looking back. Maybe some people could choose Chicago over New York or London, but I’m not one of them. I don’t want to be the capital of the middle, I don’t want to be the cozy warm heart of things – I want to be in the great big mess teetering on the edge. That being said, Chicago’s lack of pretension was refreshing sometimes. It knew it couldn’t compete with New York or Los Angeles, so it didn’t try. Nelson Algren said there was never a city so real, and I’d have a hard time arguing with that. Like loving a woman with a broken nose, you may find lovelier lovelies, but never one so real. But it’s not my reality now. Chicago was someplace I had once, and it was useful, but it outlived that role for me personally and so I’ve folded it up and put it away. I have no family there. Almost all my friends are elsewhere. It’s a place I can read about and shake my head and understand, but it’s not me.

Some people have perfect pitch. Others have uncanny photographic memories. I have perfect direction. Wherever I go, I always know which way is north. I always have at least that much of an idea where I am going and where I have been.

MARS!

Despite all the horrific things human beings do to each other every day, even with the senseless shooting in Wisconsin and the hell in Syria and the everyday acts of cruelty, when I see something like the Curiosity rover landing on Mars, I just can’t help but love the human race.

It never ceases to amaze me what human brains can accomplish when they’re not focused on killing each other. Think about it – we’re really just glorified apes, and we’ve just LANDED ON MARS. Enough clever people got together and with enough brainpower they FLEW A ROVER TO MARS AND LANDED IT SUCCESSFULLY AND NOW WE’RE LOOKING AT ANOTHER PLANET FIRSTHAND. So amazing. So many geniuses did this.

It’s difficult to reconcile how a society that elevates Kim Kardashian and Paris Hilton to stardom for doing absolutely nothing can also produce such unbelievable accomplishments. Kids should know the names of the people controlling this mission, see them in the public eye, and idolise them instead of wasting their waking hours on some narcissistic, preening wastes of space.

Absolutely loving the world right now.

Bystanders in Academia

Interesting piece in the Guardian last week about photojournalists who document violence, disasters, and tragedy in general, and do not intervene:

http://www.guardian.co.uk/media/interactive/2012/jul/28/bystanders-photographers-who-didnt-help?newsfeed=true

This is a huge ethical quandary in sociology, albeit one that I’ve seen shoved under the carpet on many occasions. When I do bring up the moral dilemma, I’m often shot down quickly by people who sound more than the slightest bit defensive about their work and their reasons for doing it.

And they do have a point. When doing ethnography, you’re supposed to try your best to not really be there. You want to be less than a fly on the wall, because flies are pests that people stop doing whatever it is they’re doing to shoo out the window. To intervene in the lives of your subjects is to essentially invalidate the reason you’re there. If your work is to have any kind of impact, it needs to be done properly. In our constant attempts to be taken seriously as a science, we strive for as much objectivity as possible. The only problem is, we’re not dealing with bacteria in petri dishes, we’re dealing with people. People who, more often than not, have been forced to live under appalling circumstances that the majority of academics could never, ever accept as their own lot in life.

We convince ourselves we’re doing it for the greater good, that without our trained academic minds documenting and interpreting all this human misery, nobody else would be aware of what’s going on, and therefore nothing will eventually change without us. While this is certainly true to an extent, it also has more than a faint whiff of narcissism.

And I don’t always buy this argument, because, like so much else in life, it comes down to money.

Social scientists become rich and famous – well, as rich and famous as you can get in academia – by documenting and interpreting human misery. You will eventually leave your ethnography site and go back to your comfortable home and cushy tenured job, whereas your subjects cannot. You are, in essence, selling their life experiences every time you publish a book based on ethnographic research. But those royalties and advances don’t go into their pockets. They go into yours. They fund your lifestyle, pad your CV, win you entry into higher eschelons of prestige. Your subjects give their stories, the raw material you use, away for free when in truth they’re a valuable commodity. You’re going to write a book that will lead to acclaim and economic gain for yourself, and you wouldn’t have been able to do it without, in essence, using people who can’t sell this form of capital.

You’re damned either way. If you pay up you assuage your conscience, but you end up with bad science that you might as well not haved pursued in the first place. If you do nothing, you have to live with that guilt. A lot of people don’t have a problem with that guilt, or they don’t feel guilt at all. After all, it’s not like people are going to heap it upon you in academia when they’re applauding your work (and the finished product is, indeed, YOUR work). We don’t have discussions like this in academia because we’d probably have a collective nervous breakdown when we realise that we, too, can be every bit as exploitative of poor people as the institutions and individuals we make a living out of criticising. Because we have a few crucial letters after our name, somehow we become exceptions to the rules we claim to detest.

Good for those people who can do it without ruffling their conscience. But it leaves a horrible taste in my mouth. I can’t help but think of Kevin Carter, the South African photographer who won the Pulitzer Prize for an image of a starving Sudanese girl being watched by a vulture. People DID raise the question of what, if anything, he did to help, and he got slated quite brutally for it. Earlier in his career, whilst documenting attacks on black people under apartheid, Carter wrote the following regarding his position as the one who documents but doesn’t get involved:

I was appalled at what they were doing. I was appalled at what I was doing. But then people started talking about those pictures… then I felt that maybe my actions hadn’t been at all bad. Being a witness to something this horrible wasn’t necessarily such a bad thing to do.

And he does have a point. We all can’t be saints, and sometimes it would be downright stupid to intervene in a situation where you would either put yourself in equal danger or even make things worse. Sometimes the most useful thing you can do is raise awareness of situations that the average person – and the not-so-average powerful person who actually has the ability to enact political or any other kind of change – may not know exists.

But:

Carter killed himself less than a year after receiving the Pulitzer.

This isn’t straightforward, and it shouldn’t be. But we should at least be discussing this frankly in academia, not deluding ourselves into thinking it’s as simple as claiming we’re in it for the greater good.

I will happily raise a stink about the ethics of ethnography no matter how many times people try to dismiss it. This needs to be discussed even if it makes us feel a little less comfortable about our livelihoods. We are not special. We are subject to the same rules as everyone else.

Maybe we don’t think about this as often as we should in sociology because the harm doesn’t seem so obvious. It’s not like it’s Kitty Genovese and the bystander effect all over again, it’s not like the “necklacing” deaths Kevin Carter documented, it’s not like someone is screaming for help in the street and you’re just shrugging and walking by. But maybe there is something to be said for the insidious effects of letting harm happen because you’re too far away to see its gradual but constant effects. As ethnographers, isn’t that exactly what we’re supposed to be drawing attention to – the not-always-blatantly-obvious processes that eat away slowly and fade into the background to the point where the people who have the ability to enact change don’t even notice they exist? (This is a big reason behind why I want to eventually work in policy, but that is another massive essay…) The small, invisible insults can be the most pernicious as well as the hardest to eliminate because people are quite happy not seeing them.

In my opinion, Rebecca Skloot (not a sociologist, but a brilliant researcher and all-around interesting person) did it right. A science journalist, Skloot turned her long-standing curiosity about the person behind the HeLa line of cells into a book that explored not only the life of HeLa herself and her descendents, but also shone a light on the uncomfortable intersection of racism and medicine with consequences that persist today. The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks became a bestseller, and a major part of the book’s intrigue was how a woman whose cells became the basis for a multi-billion-dollar biomedical industry had children who couldn’t afford basic health care for diseases strongly linked to the poverty in which they lived.  Skloot set up the Henrietta Lacks Foundation to provide financial assistance to Lacks’ descendents. A percentage of profits from book sales go directly into the foundation and are used by grant recipients to pay for educational and medical expenses.

As Skloot documents throughout the book, it was a difficult and humbling experience to enter the world of Henrietta Lacks’ family. After a lifetime of being deceived and taken advantage of by white experts who claimed to be working for the greater good (sound familiar?), the black Lackses understandably didn’t want any more exploitation. It took ages for her to gain entry and trust. Skloot dealt with this firsthand, and while I certainly can’t speak for her, I’m sure it influenced her perspective on the role of the documenter vis a vis her raw material. The Henrietta Lacks Foundation is an attempt to right a wrong by ensuring the family gets at least a fraction of the financial benefit they should have reaped a long time ago were it not for the arrogance of experts. Yes, Henrietta Lacks’ cells have led to amazing discoveries and medical treatments which definitely benefit the greater good – but at the same time, a warm and fuzzy feeling doesn’t put food on the table, and a lot of people got VERY rich and famous, however indirectly, off the Lackses. It’s only fair they get some money in return – at least enough money to meet the expenses that people in academia take for granted.

Henrietta Lacks’ cells were taken without her consent, without her family’s knowledge. At least ethnographers are bound by institutional review board constraints to make what they’re doing obvious to their subjects. And subjects do always retain the autonomy to tell the ethnographer to get lost. Maybe we need to be told that a bit more often. We are not special, not excepted from any rules, just because we’ve jumped over some academic hurdles in order to get offices, however tiny, somewhere within the ivory tower.

Hello there

I finally realised there was no good reason for me to not have a blog. In an age when social media is so important to both capturing and sustaining an audience, my usually-locked Twitter feed just won’t cut it.

Blogging – it’s a bit of a narcissistic exercise, isn’t it? When I write fiction, I’m creating worlds and personas out of thin air and attempting to make them interesting enough for people to want to read about them. But real life – oh dear, that’s a totally different animal. After all, my teenage LiveJournal experiment came to an anxiety-packed end when nasty anonymous comments left me frantically deleting my angsty/whiny/downright embarrassing-in-retrospect memoirs from the annals of the internet. Now I’m hoping that keeping a blog can be not just a way of collating and communicating things I find interesting, but also a means to force myself to continue writing and editing outside my usual methods.

I am a doctoral student in sociology at the University of California, Berkeley, concentrating on housing and urban regeneration, particularly in a comparative US-UK context. What this means is that I have lots of useless (I mean, pub quiz-worthy) knowledge about buildings and neighborhoods where people never actually wanted to live. My goal, once I have the all-important “Dr.” in front of my name, is to work in policy to improve those buildings and neighborhoods where people don’t actually want to live. In my previous role at a large social research firm, I quickly learned that the most effective way to figure out how to do this is to actually listen to the people affected by large-scale policy initiatives. (The same job also introduced me to the weird and wonderful world of stepping into the homes of complete strangers and prodding them with intensely personal questions, which I can now do with 90% less blushing!) My current research focuses on the quantitative analysis of regeneration policies that have attempted to address the psychological sense of community – with continuing detours into the ongoing debate about what “community” actually means – and determining the drivers of neighborhood satisfaction in highly deprived urban areas. It all sounds rather straightforward on paper, but I’m afraid that Everything Is A Bit More Complicated Than That, and thus you have this blog as a forum for me to make the odd post about what I find along the way.

As of autumn 2012, I will be teaching methodology to undergraduates. I am way too excited about this.

I also write. I am currently in the heartbreaking and humbling process of shopping my novel around to literary agents. You’ll probably hear a bit about that as the months continue to go by…*sob sob*

I live in San Francisco’s notorious Tenderloin neighborhood. There is a LOT of crack around here. To answer your question: it’s affordable and it’s within walking distance of the train to Berkeley, and I managed to grab a rare gem of an apartment. When people ask me where I’m from, I honestly find it difficult to answer – New York and London is the most straightforward, so that’s what you’re going to get. For consistency’s sake, I’ll be blogging in American English.

If you have never met a Polish folk dancer, well, you have now.

Other topics you will find here eventually include:

— General rants about current affairs and social issues

— General rants about the state of Tottenham Hotspur FC

— General rants about the status anxiety of a PhD student; or, what happens when you go from being financially independent in the world’s most expensive cities to feeling like a teenager again in a city you don’t particularly like.

— The odd cringeworthy pun or two

— Pictures of the ridiculous things I encounter in everyday life (If you don’t laugh, you’ll cry, etc etc)

— The strange things people yell at me on a daily basis

— Ebullient guides to my very favorite places in the world and why you should go to them

I hope I can entertain you. Enjoy!