“An accessible introduction to a field that tackles some of the biggest issues of our time”
— Prospect Magazine, December 2012
The social world is a world we create, that we all have in common. In this series of illuminating podcasts, hear leading social scientists present their perspectives on how our social world is created, and how social science can help us understand people and how they behave. Each podcast includes a downloadable written transcript of the conversation.
Social Science Bites is brought to you by David Edmonds. He and Nigel Warburton produce the enormously successful Philosophy Bites podcast. Warburton, who describes himself as a freelance philosopher, was part of the Social Science Bites team for its first four years.
Edmonds is an award winning documentary maker for BBC radio. He is also a senior research associate at Oxford’s Uehiro Centre for Practical Ethics. He is the author co-author or editor of 10 books which have been translated into 25 languages. They include, with John Eidinow, the bestseller Wittgenstein’s Poker – for which Bill Clinton has acted as (unpaid) promoter. His latest books are Would You Kill The Fat Man? (Princeton University Press) and Philosophers Take On The World, which he has edited for Oxford University Press. Other books – also written with John Eidinow – include Bobby Fischer Goes to War (on the notorious chess match between Bobby Fischer and Boris Spassky) and Rousseau’s Dog, which dissects the famous quarrel between David Hume and Jean-Jacques Rousseau.
Social Science Bites is produced in association with SAGE Publishing – the world’s leading independent academic and professional publisher and the parent of Social Science Space. In the fall of 2013 the series received an APEX Award for Publishing Excellence in the category of Special Purpose Electronic Media.
With the Gary King on Big Data Analysis podcast in March 2017, Social Science Bites reached its 50th episode. David Edmonds reflects on that milestone HERE.
And now there’s a Bites book!
In January 2016, SAGE Publishing released Big Ideas in Social Science, a collection of 18 Social Science Bites podcasts presented in written form.
The question-and-answer chapters feature sessions with experts from many disciplines — sociology, politics, economics, criminology and geography — which are divided into four general areas: “Fields of Enquiry,” “Births, Deaths & Human Population,” “Social Science Through Different Lenses,” and “Politics and Social Science.” Each chapter also includes a further reading section for those excited to journey deeper into any particular topic.
Fore more on the book, click here.
Depending on your views, far-right populism can represent a welcome return to the past, or a worrying one. The former is one of the hallmarks of far-right populism – a yearning for an often mythical past where the “true people” were ascendant and comfortable. She’s termed this blurred look backward retrotopia, “a nostalgia for a past where everything was much better,” whether it was ever real or not.
“[Happiness economics] always had some traction, but I think it’s gaining more traction now, particularly because the new science of happiness is making it practical to aim at the happiness of people. And secondly, because people have become somewhat disillusioned with economic growth — even before the financial crash.”
With each new year comes a wave of good intentions as people aim to be better. They want to lose weight, exercise more, be nicer, drink less and smoke not at all. They want to change behavior, and as Susan Michie knows well, “behavior is related to absolutely everything in life.”
“[Tajfel] made this really significant discovery that one doesn’t need very much to invoke inter-group discrimination and prejudice. Simply being told that you’re in one group or another seems to be enough to trigger that discrimination.”
Michele Gelfand on Social Networks
“Culture is this set of values, norms, and assumptions about the world that we’re socialized into from the time we’re babies. We follow social norms and we need social norms to navigate. It’s really an incredible human invention that helps us predict each other’s behavior and coordinate on large-scales on a regular basis.”
“I wanted to understand, because I felt this was missing from judges’ understandings, what actually is happening to these children while their mothers are in prison… most of the children that I met… have this huge grief, whether it’s a disenfranchised grief where you’re almost unentitled to it, or an ambiguous loss because of the uncertainty – a person hasn’t died, but you don’t know when they’re coming back and you can’t talk about it in the way you might if your parents separated or divorced.”
“[Rituals] are that way simply because by cultural convention and general stipulation that is the done and proper way to carry out the behavior.”
“I think the debate about why people use the foodbanks has become really politicized to the point where apparently individual faults and failings are the reason why people are using them … People really did use the foodbank as a last resort; it wasn’t something they enjoyed doing.”
“I cannot count the number of people who’ve told me on Twitter, ‘Of course immigrants increase British unemployment! Of course immigrants drive down wages. It’s just the law of supply and demand.’ And it’s an almost infallible rule that people who say that do not understand basic economics and do not understand supply and demand, because immigration adds to both supply and demand.”
Sam Friedman on Class
“Education,” says sociologist Sam Friedman, “doesn’t wash away the effects of class background in terms of allocating opportunities. That’s quite profound – I believe there are a lot of people who believe quite strongly that these sorts of educational institutions can and do act as sort of meritocratic sorting houses.”
Monika Krause on Humanitarian Aid
NGOs focus on meeting the metrics they set at the beginning of a project, which may not serve the entirety of an affected population in crisis. And so, “beneficiaries can become a means to an end rather than an end in themselves.”
Erica Chenoweth on Nonviolent Resistance
You and a body of like-minded people want to reform a wretched regime, or perhaps just break away from it and create an independent state. Are you more likely to achieve your goals by a campaign of bombings, assassinations and riots, or by mass protests which are avowedly peaceful? Your first step should be to schedule a sit-down with Erica Chenoweth.
Gina Neff studies how the digital you, your doppelgänger, gets shared widely, whether you want it to or even if it’s an accurate depiction, at times making the difference in decisions of whether you worthy of that job or ought to be insured.
“So this is not really just a migrants’ story; it’s the story of London but told through and eyes, ears and attentiveness of 30 adult migrants from all corners of the world.”
“You can inject into that process an understanding of behavioral science and how people make decisions, and then we can collectively choose rather than just a few clever folks out in Whitehall or in Washington.”
Metrics on the average living standards from the best-off countries in the world (say, Norway) to the worst-off (such as the Central African Republic) vary by a factor of 40-50. So notes James Robinson, the Reverend Dr. Richard L. Pearson Professor of Global Conflict at the University of Chicago.
Fake news, whether truly phony or merely unpalatable, has become an inescapable trope for modern media consumers. But apart from its propagandist provenance, misinformation and disinformation in our media diets is a genuine threat.
The word ‘randomista,’ Andrew Leigh tells us about partisans of randomized controlled trials, was coined by Nobel laureate Angus Deaton (also a Bites alumnus) “as “a term almost of abuse – but I’ve turned it into a compliment!” (It’s also the title of his new book, Randomistas: How Radical Researchers Are Changing Our World.)
“I had to fight not to be in the bottom set; I was told that girls like me don’t go to university,” Diane Reay, now a renowned Cambridge University education professor, explains. “I think that spurred a strong interest in class inequalities and I became, like many working-class girls of my age, a primary school teacher.”
Mahzarin Banaji, Richard Clarke Cabot professor of social ethics at Harvard University explains her work on implicit bias and the efforts she and her colleagues made in creating the widely recognized implicit association test, or IAT, which helps ferret out this thumbprint of the culture on our brain. “Even though you might reject an explicit bias, you actually have the implicit version of it.” – Mahzarin Banaji
Social epidemiologist Richard Wilkinson lays out the case that inequality should be fought specifically because it fosters a litany of ill effects. “We showed that in more-unequal countries, with bigger income gaps between rich and poor, there is more of a whole range of health and social problems. Life expectancy tends to be lower, more obesity, higher homicide rate, more people in prison, more drug problems, more mental illness.” – Richard Wilkinson
How did humans diverge so markedly from animals? Apart from physical things like our “physical peculiarities,” as experimental psychologist Celia Heyes puts it, or our fine motor control, there’s something even more fundamentally – and cognitively – different. “I suppose at the broadest level we differ from animals because we are so ultra-social, so intensely cooperative. And as a result, we’ve transformed our environments, for good or ill…” – Celia Hayes
Director of the Institute of Criminology’s Prisons Research Centre, Alison Liebling believes what makes a prison good is first and foremost the existence and the practice of trust. In this social science bite she shares how her research has helped determine what makes for a successful prison. “A good prison is one where prisoners feel safe and the environment is not threatening – and therefore they can concentrate on their own personal development.” – Alison Leibling
Good and bad guys are everywhere, in stories, in politics and even in statistics. The bad ones who misrepresent data and the good guys, like President of the RSS David Spiegehalter, who try their best to combat the dishonest use of numbers. “People might still think that statistics and numbers are cold, hard facts but they’re soft, fluffy things. They can be manipulated and changed, made to look big, made to look small, all depending on the story that someone wants to tell.” – David Speigelhalter
In this Social Science Bite, Social Psychologist Sander van der Linden details to host David Edmonds how he studies the phenomenon of ‘viral altruism’. “When someone acts altruistically online, you catch that behavior as a social contagion, which then causes you to adopt that behavior and encourage other people in your network to also engage in that behavior, which then spreads quickly and rapidly.” – Sander van der Linden
Combining sociology and genetics, Melinda Mills and her collaborators abandon the nature v. nurture controversy for empirical research on family formation, inequality, child-rearing, etc., leading them into ‘sociogenomics.’ “Wellbeing, depression, reproductive choice – [social scientist] are very good at measuring that. We then work with biologists and geneticists, who determine genetic loci, and then with biologists, who determine the biological function of those genes.” – Melinda Mills
With enlightened teaching we can all become adequate at math, or maths, and should set expectations accordingly. Stanford Professor Jo Boaler debunks myths that are associated with the field of mathematics. “The neuroscience is showing us petty clearly that there’s no such thing as a maths brain, even though so many people believe that, particularly in the Western culture. If you were taught the right way… you could excel at all levels of maths in school.” – Jo Boaler
In this Social Science Bites podcast Bev Skeggs explains to interviewer David Edmonds of the accidental lesson she learned during research on how social networks were structuring, or restructuring, friendships. “Most people think they’re using Facebook to communicate with friends. Basically they’re using it to reveal how much they can be sold for, now and in the future, and how much their friends can be sold for.” – Bev Skeggs
In this Social Science Bites podcast, Alkire explains to interviewer Dave Edmonds the need to have a consistent and reputable means of measuring poverty over time. “I’m not at all against income poverty level measures or consumption poverty measures, but it doesn’t tell the whole story. A person is also poor if they’re malnourished, and if their house is decaying and they don’t have a job and they’re not educated or their children are not attending school or if they’re victims of violence.” – Sabina Alkire
Philosopher Tom Chatfield’s media presence is often directly linked to his writings on technology. His new book on Critical Thinking showcases an old technology and humanities oldest computer, the brain. “What I mean by critical thinking is our attempts to be more reasonable about the world. And so this tends to involve coming up with reasoned arguments that support conclusions, reasoned explanations that seek to explain why things are the way they are…” – Tom Chatfield
Play is innate, necessary and ultimately informal. Palaiologou has identified five types of play — physical, with objects, symbolic (such as drawing), pretending/dramatic, and games with rules – and adults may have a role. But that role is not dominant. “Instruction is fine, but we actually need play to interact with the environment and to make sense of the world with our own senses, our own minds, and to internalize that.” – Ioanna Palaiologou
In this Social Science Bites podcast, Roth explains to interviewer David Edmonds some of the ins and outs of market matching, while also contrasting them with commodity markets, starting with a quick and surprisingly simple definition. But while the definition is simple, creating a model for these markets is a tad more complex. “So matching markets are markets in which you can’t just choose what you want even if you can afford it – you also have to be chosen.” – Al Roth
Under normal circumstances, if something was hurting you, you’d likely stop doing it. Except when it flows from behavior. “It’s quite a common idea that if people only understood better how they might be damaging their health, then they would tackle it. Governments invest an amount of money in trying to communicate the risks to you and your health of engaging in these behaviors… and while it can raise awareness, it’s not that effective at changing your behavior.” – Theresa Marteau
These detention centers are “very painful places for all the people concerned” – whether detainees and the officers. The officers themselves often “don’t fully understand what they’re doing” and “don’t have a clear narrative” of the population they are detaining, which runs from criminals to visa over-stayers to people who just don’t have any papers.
What is an “organization?” According to Chris Grey, the guest in this Social Science Bites podcast, in many ways it’s a moment in time. “An organization,” he tells interviewer David Edmonds, “is also a momentary crystallization of an ongoing process of organizing.”
For more entertaining and enlightening interviews from David Edmonds and Nigel Warburton, sign up for their Philosophy Bites podcasts series. The pair have also tackled free expression issues for Social Science Space partner Index on Censorship with their Free Speech Bites series. They have produced three anthologies of Philosophy Bites interviews: Philosophy Bites Again, Philosophy Bites, and Philosophy Bites Back (all published by Oxford University Press).
David on Twitter: @DavidEdmonds100