Research Social Sciences

What does a Pandemic mean for the social sciences?

A few months ago, I had the privilege of chatting with a student of public policy at one of the leading universities in the UK for science and disease. He was telling me about the postgraduate course he was on, and how public policy is a discipline based purely on science. I thought briefly, and then double checked. You don’t study anything resembling a social science at all then? No ethics, no law, no economics, for example? No no, public policy, he assured me, is based solely on scientific evidence.

I shelved my doubts and put any skepticism down to my natural bias as a social scientist and my tendency to argue for the wider understanding and valuing of the social sciences in any scenario.

And then COVID-19 happened. Of course, this is a scientific conundrum, and scientists, chemists, biologists, immunologists, epidemiologists, mathematicians, and the like are working together globally like never before to test, trial, model, and to keep the rest of us as safe as possible.

But then a strange thing happened. A trend appeared in the Covid19-related deaths, which, frustratingly has been inadequately recorded by the official statistics, but which is pretty plain to see on any photograph wall of “victims”. Deaths of those from a BAME, or those from a black or minority ethic background, exceed the numbers expected if these things were to be in proportion to the population. So what is going on?

A recent paper in The Lancet identified the issues surrounding ethnicity, stating “Ethnicity is a complex entity composed of genetic make-up, social constructs, cultural identity, and behavioural patterns.2 Ethnic classification systems have limitations but have been used to explore genetic and other population differences. Individuals from different ethnic backgrounds vary in behaviours, comorbidities, immune profiles, and risk of infection, as exemplified by the increased morbidity and mortality in black and minority ethnic (BME) communities in previous pandemics.” This can be represented in the following chart:

From Pareek et al, “Ethnicity and COVID-19: an urgent public health research priority”, available at

This “complex entity” of “ethnicity” straddles the natural and social sciences as well as the arts and humanities, and there has never before been such a huge need for the disciplines to work together. Could there be any correlation between being a front-line worker and BAME? Is there any truth in the statements that those from a minority ethnic background are more likely to live with extended family in smaller, more cramped housing? Or is the answer down to genetic susceptibility to co-morbidities? The research here is, surprisingly, still in its infancy, although projects like the UNESCO dialogue offer hope that society may be forced to confront the inequalities that COVID-19 has laid bare.

Once again, we are not all in this together. The virus is not a great leveller, and we are not all suffering equally. The statistics bear this out in black and white. But science can only carry us so far down the road investigating this. The rest must be in combination with the insights of lawyers, economics, psychologists, sociologists, anthropologists, and geographers, as well as historians, ethnographers, artists, musicians and – well, as much of society as possible if we really want a representative dialogue. And this means hearing voices that are usually silenced by inequality and minimised by power imbalances.

Interestingly, Germany may be already setting off down this road, enlisting scholars in the Arts and Humanities in that country to help establish a new normal and to ask how society can make sense of the changes. How can we forge meaningful relationships from a “socially-distant” 2 metres? And what might a post-COVID-19 society look like? Sound like? Behave like? Which social values and interests will be prioritised? These are questions that will require the full range of inputs, styles and learning from across the academy.

What is the new normal? And how do we figure out how to get there? This is something that will require the close cooperation of all disciplines.

Despite the fact that we are facing a viral enemy, arguably we have never needed interdisciplinary research more, specifically combining insights from the social sciences, arts and humanities to interpret, process, disseminate and enhance understanding of the work of the natural sciences. COVID-19 has highlighted inequalities that society had previously been able to ignore. The role of the social sciences, arts and humanities in elevating those voices and interests will be critical not only to the successful implementation of vaccines and treatments (community dialogue and involvement is essential for engagement with health services), but for the reconsideration of social priorities and equality more generally.

economics PhD

“Oh God, the Economy!” (or how a meme can sum up my PhD thesis)

Who doesn’t love a meme? And when a couple of these come along that just happen to sum up your doctoral thesis, it’s both impressive, depressing, and a funny feeling of having come full circle.

Thanks, internet.

Elon Musk, king of many things but also of the art form that is The Meme, was widely panned for his early laid-back response to the pandemic, preferring to worry over the economy instead. And then there was this:

Admittedly, this is open to interpretation, and Musk hasn’t clarified how many layers of sarcasm are at play here but judging by more recent tweets, he seems to mean this literally. The image, of an astronaut on the moon watching the destruction of the planet earth while worrying about the fate of the economy is perhaps a fitting metaphor for some of the narrative around the Covid19 pandemic. Some have suggested that Musk was actually referencing the real role of the economy in human health, and the mutual dependence of the two rather than the “lives versus economy” binary that has defined the pandemic discourse. Alternatively, the image could beg the question of whether we are sacrificing the planet to satisfy the gods of economy. More on this later. In the meantime, the internet responded magnificently:

Humorous, yes. But there are two points to note here that relate to the relationship between economy, society, and the planet.

Memes are metaphors

Firstly, these make great visual metaphors for our preoccupation with the economy at a time when lives are being lost to a virus. James Geary cites metaphors as essential for framing a subject, which in turn defines how we think about something. His book “I is an other” notes that:

“We think metaphorically. Metaphorical thinking is the way we make sense of the world, and every individual metaphor is a specific instance of this imaginative process at work. Metaphors are therefore not confined to spoken or written language.” (Kindle Loc. 219-221)

Perhaps the originator of work into metaphor and its effects on framing and cognition, George Lakoff highlights the importance of metaphor and its role in how we perceive, conceive and understand something that then gets wired into our neural circuitry. See “Don’t Think of an Elephant“, as well as Lakoff & Johnson’s “Metaphors we live by“.

A metaphor is a way of likening one thing to something else. In this case, the pandemic is represented by the destruction of the world, with the distant astronaut concerned over the fate of the economy. Is the implication really that the pandemic is a looming apocalypse? This would probably strike most people as extreme, but the similarities include the fact that we have not faced a global pandemic in living memory, that our way of life or “normal” probably has met the same fate as the meme-planet, and that the fate of the earth and the climate crisis has been unceremoniously bumped down the order of global priorities.

Much of the discussion about our responses to the pandemic seems to have polarised debate into a “lives versus the economy” binary. Of course, the world is not as simple as this. In previous posts I’ve emphasised the need to bring economics back into the social science and reorient it around people, highlighting the fact that without humans interacting, there is no economy. This fact seems to have been largely ignored in the discourse – if people are sick, the economy suffers. If the economy suffers, people will too. They are two sides of the same coin – another metaphor for trying to explain that the economy (itself a metaphor for a collection of human behaviour) benefits when we are fit, healthy, and productive, and vice versa. Pitting the one against the other is, admittedly humorous but erroneous and ultimately unhelpful.

Metaphors frame our thinking

Secondly, how (you ask) does Elon’s meme sum up my PhD thesis? Interpreted literally, it’s wide of the mark. But seen ironically, the meme captures a Polanyian interpretation of the economy-society duality.

We use metaphor to think, and our ways of thinking about the law and the economy are as steeped in metaphor as any area of life; in fact, possibly more so. We attribute human qualities to the economy (it’s “gathering strength”, it’s “taken a tumble”, etc), and neoclassical approaches have tended to prioritise the free market as a self-regulating mechanism that can regulate human behaviour accordingly.

This encapsulates Karl Polanyi’s assertions about the relationship between the economy and society. In more recent debates after the 2008 financial crisis, the question tended to be “is the economy embedded in society, or is society embedded in the economy” (both of these are readings of Polanyi’s thesis, and yes, they are contradictory). The point is, when we use “the economy” as a metaphor to start talking about collections of human behaviour, we can begin to personify these, and start talking about the economy as if it were a living, breathing thing. While we might think that “economy” should function for the benefit of society, there are those who argue that society now functions for the benefit of the economy. Some commentators have argued that the metaphorical aspirations of the economy have taken over the narrative, to the extent that society works to serve economic goals. We strive to increase GDP, growth, productivity, and so on.

And so, Elon’s meme neatly sums up the subordination of society, and the earth, to economic goals. At the same time, it hopefully asks us to reconsider the relationship between the economy and society, economy and the planet, and how we can move forwards in a mutually beneficial manner.

3D interactive methodology Visualising ESL

ESL in 3D (the first steps)

What if we could visualise frames and concepts in 3D and move around to see the impacts of those frames?

With the help of a little 3D modelling software called Blender, this is possible.

How can we visualse a frame – literally and metaphorically?

This is the very first step towards making a 3D version of my thesis. There is a lot more to learn, and a lot of work to be done, but the possibilities here are extremely exciting. Currently, this is compressed and uploaded as a GIF, meaning that the sequence is shorter, the frame rate is reduced and there’s quite a lot of noise. But you get the idea… what if we can visualise the frames, concepts and theories that we talk about in the social sciences? How could the visual assist in exploring how we do, talk, and think about law and economics?

acoustic jurisprudence economics Embeddedness methodology methods Research Visualising ESL

Diving in to an ESL frame…

This mini animation, with sound, asks what the reintegration of the economic, legal and social might look like and sound like.

This is relevant for each and every interaction that occurs – there are always legal and economic aspects to every interaction, but we tend to forget that talking about the legal and economic in isolation from the social is a metaphor, or fiction.

How might we think about integrating legal, economic and social phenomena conceptually?

How could frames or lenses like ESL help us to remember the social basis for any legal or economic aspects of interactions?

economics Embeddedness Free market PhD Research Thesis Uncategorized

“Embeddedness” (and why we need to stop saying it)

Is the economy embedded in society? Is society embedded in the economy? Is the law embedded in society? Or is society embedded in a set of rules and regulations?

Have the law and economy become “disembedded” from society, and is this why the financial crisis in 2008 came as such a surprise? Would it help to “re-embed” the economy?

This post explores the use, misuse and abuse of the concept of embeddedness in the context of econo-socio-legal interactions.

Coinage of the term in the context of economic sociology and ESL is attributed to Karl Polanyi in his 1948 book The Great Transformation. Polanyi had reportedly been reading about the coal mining industry in the UK, and had taken the term “embeddedness” from descriptions of coal embedded in the walls of a mine. Thus, to Polanyi, the term was likely a relational descriptor and metaphor. Interestingly, despite earlier documented usage, Richard Thurnwald’s use of “embeddedness” has gone largely unremarked, enabling him to dodge the bullet of origination foisted on Polanyi. The term only appears twice on page 60 of Great Transformation, and then on pages 68, 73 and 135. There is no great overarching theme of embeddedness. Nor is there a definition offered. It is probably safe to assume that the word was a throw-away term of description that came to hand, and was then never given much more thought.

Little did Polanyi realise that 70+ years later, scholars would be puzzling over his meaning and even writing doctoral theses on the matter! One catalyst for the development of embeddedness into the core concept of sociological lenses was Mark Granovetter’s accidental revival of the term. Granovetter’s theory of networks, published in 1985, described the actor as embedded in networks. He has since admitted that at the time of writing, he had forgotten Polanyi’s usage of the term. Nevertheless, the success of Granovetter’s paper revived the career of embeddedness, but at the same time created confusion. Polanyi had been referring to the macro-level embeddedness of economy in society, although his “always-embedded economy” is more a theoretical proposition than empirically-proven reality. Conversely, Granovetter had used the term at the micro-level to describe the embeddedness of the individual in networks of interaction. Thus, development of the concept of embeddedness already straddled the micro and macro, giving rise of the question; “what are we talking about”?

Here’s the rub. When discussing the extraction of coal from a mine, for want of a better example, “embeddedness” is a perfectly adequate relational descriptor. It implies the co-existence of two conceptually separate phenomena in time and space; the coal, and the rock from which it is hewn. There is no problem with saying that one is embedded in the other.

Where difficulty arises though is where we also want to investigate the possibility that the two phenomena described not only share characteristics but might even be two aspects of the same phenomena. For example, we can say that the economy must be re-embedded in society if we accept that the economy and society are two distinct entities. This is clearly nonsense. An economy cannot exist outside of a society. An economy necessarily implies human interaction of a specific nature (economic). The same is true of law. We cannot imagine a legal system without a society behind, underpinning, and performing it. A legal system implies human interaction of a specific nature (legal). Therefore, stating that one is embedded within the other – whichever way round you phrase it – clearly does not make sense.

My research puts this in the context of ESL, which aim to reintegrate social science dialogue and which ultimately takes a constructivist approach. In other words, economic and legal phenomena (the econolegal) are performed through social interactions. All social interactions have econolegal aspects or flavours. There’s no escaping this, just as there is no way to have an economic exchange without it being between people (I’m excluding high frequency trading between computers here for argument’s sake, but will return to this in a future post).

Why is this important? Well, the response to the 2008 financial crisis is something we, in the UK, are still living with. Austerity, as the main policy response, was based on a particular understanding and framing of the economics that led to the crash. This is an economics that sees the discipline as somewhat ‘apart’ from society. Neoclassical economics sets out a version of ‘economic man’ on which complex economic theories are modelled. There has been recognition of the limitations of this approach. But in turn, those who criticise mainstream neoclassical economics frames tend to (with or without the help of Polanyi) argue that we need to “re-embed” the economy in society.

If we take this approach, we deny the possibility of ever seeing the economy as an aspect of society, the same as the law. We cannot hope to reorient the economy and its regulation (the law) towards real people if we talk about society, economy and law as separate entities. Speaking of one being embedded in the other simply reinforces their difference, their separation, and their disunity. It reinforces existing ways of doing, talking and thinking, which are predominantly shaped by neoclassical economics. It prevents us moving forwards.

So, what to do? We need to move beyond embeddedness, and how to go about that is the subject of a future post.

Copyright note: animation by me using ProCreate 5 on iPad Air 3. Please ask before you take!

Development economics methodology methods Research Vignettes World Bank

Vignettes as method… both an input and output tool

Vignettes can be an invaluable tool for generating, controlling for, interpreting and contextualising research data in a variety of fields. They can be both input and output methods of research. Finally, they can also frame, and be framed by, the research raising important questions about comparability, use, and ability to measure culturally relative norms. This post discusses the use of vignettes, when they might be appropriate, some relevant literature, and matters to be aware of.

Gourlay et al define vignettes as “short stories about a hypothetical person, traditionally used within research (qualitative or quantitative) on sensitive topics”. They can be used to gain insight into people’s beliefs, and can be a way of discussing sensitive or personal topics freely by projecting these on to a third person. Vignettes can be constructed through text or images, and Hughes and Huby set out a guide to constructing and interpreting vignettes as a methodology in the social sciences.

Vignettes can both generate or refine data. As the GIF above shows, they can be an input tool, generating and shaping the data gathered. Similarly, they can be used as an output tool, contextualising and illustrating research findings. Kandemir and Budd note that, given the debate ongoing about the precise definition and use of vignettes, simulations, real-life stories, anecdotes, or simply a narrative form of presenting research findings have all been referred to as vignettes.

In development economics, vignettes are not commonly deployed, but can respond to a specific methodological problem. For example, the measurement of intangibles such as happiness or subjective wellbeing or satisfaction can suffer from cultural relativity. Concepts, words, and their ultimate meaning can all vary by country or culture, making comparative studies in their area particularly tricky to undertake. However, in an era when the value of measurements like GDP have been questioned as inadequate, being able to measure satisfaction, happiness and similarly intangible attitudes is especially important for those working in development.

Reviewing the literature on what constitutes happiness between cultures, Uchida et al find that there are a variety of factors that determine an individual’s likelihood of declaring themselves happy, and that these requirements are culture-specific. What constitutes a good life in Japan includes emotional support from others, while personal achievement and self-esteem feature more prominently in the United States.

There are also cultural differences in the way we describe our happiness. Research by Minkov cited here notes that responses from Middle Eastern respondents tends towards extremes of happiness and unhappiness, while Asian and Western respondents tend towards moderation. Minkov and Bond have also examined the genetics of happiness as well as the impact of local climate, finding that certain genetic traits have a far greater impact on perceived happiness than factors such as recent economic growth or the rule of law.

King et al examined the incomparability of survey results when measuring subjective wellbeing and explored the use of vignettes as a way of measuring the incomparability. They find that “[b]ecause the actual (but not necessarily reported) levels of the vignettes are invariant over respondents, variability in vignette answers reveals incomparability. Our corrections require either simple recoded or a statistical model designed to save survey administration costs. With analysis, simulations, and cross-national surveys, we show how response incomparability can drastically mislead survey researchers and how our approach can alleviate this problem”.

One technique to measure and make sense of the variables in to anchor survey results to vignettes. This method is used by Angelini et al in their cross-country comparison of subjective wellbeing in 10 European countries. Standardised vignettes on life stories were included in each of the ten national surveys, and the vignette responses were included through econometrically rescaling self-responses according to how the respondent rated the standardised vignettes. This reduces disparities in life satisfaction across nations, and changes the ranking across counties from the original unadjusted cross-country data.

While the anchoring vignettes method has the potential to improve welfare comparisons and reporting, it relies on certain assumptions like vignette equivalence. This means that a particular vignette is capable of being interpreted and have the same cultural ramifications across the populations surveyed – for example, is a large family a blessing or a burden? There are ways of testing vignette equivalence, but this also usually requires some degree of interpretations and relativity.

Jed Friedman remarks that “[v]ignette anchoring can indeed improve the inter-comparability of different samples so where researchers have the opportunity to add meaningful vignettes to a planned survey then they should do so. But the assumption of vignette equivalence is not guaranteed, especially when comparing dramatically different populations in terms of culture and custom. If we have any doubt about vignette equivalence there may be no alternative to more focused mixed-methods research into the interpretation of [subjective wellbeing] concepts specific to the populations studied”.

While vignettes anchored to subjective wellbeing analyses can measure the incomparability of data, there are limitations to their use that also need clear explanation. The problems with language, interpretation, translation, and cultural norms remain, and there is the possibility that use of a vignette as a methodological tool to control for variability and comparability is still simply testing cultural frames. As noted, vignettes can both be used as a tool to output (explain, contextualise and understand) data, and as a tool to input (gather, frame, collect) data. Kandemir and Budd note that, to be of value, the vignette must be specific enough to guide the respondent, but not too specific as to nudge the respondent into an “expected” answer. In short, vignettes can both frame, and be framed by, the cultural norms in which they are constructed and deployed, and any researcher must be mindful of, and reflexive about, the use existing frames within vignettes when these are used both as research method inputs and outputs.

acoustic jurisprudence

Musical representations…

Josie Long’s Gambit on chess aired on BBC Radio 4 this afternoon. Not being a chess fanatic, I was only half listening. However, the second half of the programme grabbed my attention when it explored whether a beautiful game of chess could be turned into beautiful music. The composer Erland Cooper explored the sounds you can get from a chess board and pieces, and then set about combining these – with the aid of a computer, bass drum and glockenspiel – into an acoustic representation of a game of chess. You can hear the results in the programme. All of a sudden, the description of the game of chess being played in real time came to life. It had colour, excitement, and layers upon layers of musical description.

While this may not have been the highlight of everyone’s Sunday afternoon, for me this demonstrated the possibilities of describing phenomena acoustically. In fact, it was a masterclass in the potential of musical representations.

What if we use techniques like this to describe economic and legal phenomena? How could we describe economic and legal phenomena? From the example here, the possibilities are endless but also hugely exciting and informative.

Multitrack recording
Multitrack recording image exploring acoustic representations of interactions

I have recently been exploring these possibilities using basic multitrack software to “acoustically imagine” econo-socio-legal interactions. Multitrack recording allows for layering of sounds, in the same way that interactions throughout society form layer upon layer as we zoom out and take a macro look. Early renditions have taken one note to represent one interaction between two actors. However, what if we use an interval like a minor third to represent power relations in an interaction? A falling minor third might represent a detrimental power relationship, while a rising minor third might indicate a positive power relationship. Could an unstable interval, such as a fourth or seventh, indicate unease in an interaction? Stay tuned (no pun intended) for updates about acoustic representations of economic and legal phenomena.

economics Maps Research Visualising ESL

Maps and mapping…

Sean C Jackson is an artist who draws maps and mazes. The Guardian featured his work recently, and you can see it here. His maps are mostly imaginary, but ask the viewer to dive into the world he has created and puzzle through it. Most of the works sit somewhere between 2 and 3 dimensions, which can make for some disorientation at times, and asks you to engage with the work by turning either your head or the page.

Topography and mapping can be useful ways of visualising ESL, interactions, and social phenomena. Like a map, an ESL can highlight the relevant and hide the irrelevant. Like a map-maker, the researcher using an ESL must choose what is relevant and important and why. Like a map, an ESL lens can also zoom in on areas that are more important, while identifying but minimising others. As a result, we can appreciate the whole landscape in all its complexity and understand the context of the research.

If we were to map out current mainstream approaches in law, economics and sociology, how might it look? The picture below is a (stylised) suggestion that the academic silos of law, economics and sociology would look be islands of research endeavour. They are separated by sea, and generally have their own languages, cultures, and traditions. Some brave interdisciplinary scholars traverse the seas and work on two or more islands, but many do not.

Map of current mainstream disciplines
Current mainstream disciplines as islands of endeavour

How might it look if we were to draw an ESL as a response to these islands? Would they converge? Would we need bridges, ships, or loudspeakers? Would this enable inter-island dialogue, or just increase competition? And what could a map of the topography of ESL tell us about the lens?

economics Procreate Research Thesis Visualising ESL

Visualising interactions in colour

What if we visualise interactions according to their type? Legal aspects of interactions are red, economic are yellow, and social or other aspects are green.

The first GIF here imagines what interaction patterns might look like if we use yellow for economic phenomena, red for legal phenomena, and green for social, political and/or power-oriented phenomena. They are presented separately, performed between actors represented by the red dots.

The following GIF asks what this might look like when these phenomena occur simultaneously.

The colours show the various phenomena as they are simultaneously performed through interactions.

It is worth noting though that by using colour to separate out the economic, legal, and social phenomena, we are using “embeddedness-based” ESL lenses. In other words, we are accepting that legal, economic and social phenomena are separate.

As I argue elsewhere on this blog, if we really want to talk about, think about, and do the econolegal better, we need to move beyond embeddedness.

Future posts will explore what this might look like.

Visualising ESL

The Art of Innovation (Part 1)

There’s currently a very interesting exhibition on at the Science Museum in London called “The Art of Innovation”. It’s about the links and dialogue between the (natural) sciences and the arts.

Given my interest in the dialogue between the social sciences and the arts (have a scroll through some of the other posts in this blog if you’re new), the first part of the exhibition was a little wide of the mark. The artistic side of the first few exhibits included architecture, dress-making and textiles.

However the real showstopper for me was a piece designed by Theodore Olivier in 1830 (see below) in the section on “Meaningful Matter”. These were built to convey complex 3-dimensional ideas to a wide audience. The coloured strings could be adjusted using weighted beads in the frame, meaning that different surface shapes could be modelled according to the mathematical equation at question, revealing a number of surfaces and shapes simultaneously. These frames and models were eventually produced in significant numbers and sold across the world. The one in the picture below was made by French company Fabre de Lagrange.

Exploring surfaces and mathematical equations in 3 dimensions

However, as ideas progressed, these models fell out of favour with the mathematical and scientific communities. After the First World War, the models were displayed in museums as curios where they found a new audience; avant grade artists. The string models represented not the abstract thinking of the original mathematical equations, but the ability to explore shape and form in a new way.

Among those who drew inspiration from these models were Barbara Hepworth and Henry Moore. Hepworth modelled her sculpture on the mathematical models that she had seen at Oxford (see below).

Barbara Hepworth Sculpture inspired by mathematical equations
Barbara Hepworth sculpture inspired by mathematical equations

As a member of the St Ives set, it was therefore no surprise to see Hepworth joined on the opposite wall by a set of sketches by Henry Moore.

Sketches by Henry Moore
Henry Moore sketches inspired by equations

Moore’s sketches drew inspiration from the string recreations of maths equations that he encountered on display at the Science Museum when he was a student in the 1920s. Moore immediately recognised the structural and artistic possibilities the models presented, noting that “it wasn’t the scientific study of these models but the ability to look through the strings as with a bird cage and to see one form within another which excited me”. The sketches on display in the exhibition eventually inspired several wooden string figures of his own.

There are similarities with some of the work I’ve been doing with zentangling interaction patterns, as you can see in my previous posts. I’ve also built 3 dimensional string models using the colours of strings to represent economic, legal and “other” aspects of each interaction, overlapping these to build complex patterns. Some of the questions I’ve been pondering are how models like these could help us explore complex patterns of interaction in the context of the social sciences? How could we visualise economic and legal aspects of interactions using colour to build up overarching patterns of interaction?

Stay tuned for more from the exhibition in Part 2….