A five-week US tour

I’m in the US for five weeks, giving the following papers:

Columbia, Wed Oct 3 – ‘How (not) to use history of political thought for contemporary purposes’.USUKflag2
Stanford, Fri Oct 12 – ‘The logic of inference of thought experiments in political philosophy’.
Berkeley, Tue Oct 16 – ‘Hobbes’s failed political science’.
Association for Political Theory conference, Bryn Mawr/Haverford, Sat Oct 20 – ‘Post-truth politics and the rise of bullshit’.
Arizona, Thu Oct 25 – ‘The logic of inference of thought experiments in political philosophy’. (I’m also teaching a class on ‘Corruption and conceptual analysis’ on Mon Oct 22.)
University of Texas at Austin, Fri Nov 2 – ‘The logic of inference of thought experiments in political philosophy’.

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The strike: a message for my students

This is a very scary situation. The university system has long exploited our good faith, and now seeks to repay us by savage cuts to our welfare in retirement, of about £10,000 a year on average. This is equivalent to a major salary cut now, after years of our salaries falling in real terms. Yet the empirical basis for the cuts remains unclear, with poor-quality modelling of future scenarios. The vote by the universities which sparked the strike appears to have been unfair, giving Oxbridge colleges with 300 students the same weight as universities with 50,000 students. I’ve never felt so worried about how little universities care about us. The whole thing is extremely troubling and genuinely scary. For more details, see here.

students support strikeIf dedicated lecturers in DPE (the Department of Political Economy) have chosen to strike, you should realise that this is a very, very, very serious matter. I know your education is important to you, but it is important to us as well. Most of us love to teach, and choosing not to do so has been an agonising decision for many strikers. (Our salaries will also be cut by £1000 or so for striking.) But the people who run Universities UK, the umbrella organisation for British academia, have not been taking us seriously.

If we do not stand up collectively now, many people will leave the UK academic system, or academia entirely, and future students will suffer. DPE students are members of a community over time, and the threat to our livelihoods is challenging the future of this community – not just 14 days of your education this term, serious though that is.

A significant majority of current students supports the strikes. Whether or not this includes you, I hope you will try to see things from our perspective, consider sending us a message of support, and write to the university to encourage them to reopen negotiations. You can find a link for how to do that at the end of this article.

But all of us hope that the universities will see sense, the strike will be called off, and your education will continue as before.

Why so many UK academics are striking

Like many UK academics, I’m striking because of the astonishing attack on our pensions by Universities UK, after poor governance of our pension scheme. Exeter pensions

This will hugely affect our welfare in retirement – about £10,000 every year on average to academics and many professional services staff (more in my case).

We’ve asked for our views to be addressed; this strike is our last resort. At KCL, the strike will be on Feb 26-28, March 5-8, March 12-16, and March 19-20. We’re all hoping it will be over soon, of course.

 

Who is under threat?

Despite newspaper rhetoric, it isn’t just lecturers who are scared by the proposed changes: also threatened are the pensions of non-teaching research staff, many professional services staff, and huge numbers of potential academics (including TAs and current students!) who may not want to become academics as a result.

So, crucially, if the proposed attack on our pensions happens, many people will leave UK universities, and the education of students will suffer further.

 

Why are we striking?

There’s great accounts by my colleague Alice Evans in the Guardian, by Waseem Yaqoob in the LRB – see especially the paragraph beginning “The rationale for the changes is dubious” – and by David Smith on Twitter. UPDATE: The Observer puts the pension cuts in broader perspective (although I myself am not too bothered by high pay for Vice-Chancellors).

The indefatigable Mike Otsuka has carefully charted a series of errors and faulty claims by Universities UK, including the questionable role of Cambridge colleges – significantly inflating the apparent support for the move that instigated the strike – and Universities UK’s false claims and incoherent position. As he puts it, “You break it, you own it”. Mike’s work in uncovering the problems and errors deserves immense credit. It’s clear how badly managed our pensions have been (see e.g. here – and this revealing BBC article).

The National Union of Students supports the strike, as does a significant majority of students.

 

How will this affect my students and colleagues?

I will spend the time doing my own research at home. (Technically, I shouldn’t do work that the university pays me for, but research is the only thing that gives me a sense of well-being right now; I’m doing it for me, and so I’m in a better position to move to a university in another country if things continue to go wrong in the UK.) UPDATE: I hadn’t intended to join the picket line, but I’m wavering.

USS Pension SchemeMy striking will mainly affect my admin role (Director of Education in my department).

I’m not teaching much this term, but I won’t hold office hours during the strike, read draft dissertation chapters, answer student emails (except if my personal tutees have emergencies), or answer emails involving the university or administration. A lot of meetings and emails will then have to be packed into non-strike days, further affecting students who want to meet or who need me to answer emails.

(In addition, I won’t work weekends again. I’ve just had 37 days work with only 2 days break, including a 21-day nightmare of continuous stress with no break. Not working weekends again is unrelated to the strike; I just don’t want to live like that any more! So I won’t be dealing with my email/admin backlog at weekends.)

 

What should students do?

Some people say that if students cross the picket-line, this disrespects striking academics and rejects our position. I don’t myself agree with that.

Personally, I would prefer students to go to what lectures and seminars they can, and complain. (The first part of this is not the official union position, of course!) UPDATE: Why? Because students are paying so much for their education, are often intellectually engaged with their courses, and don’t want their assessments to be affected (and potentially their job prospects as a result). Not going won’t make a difference, except to them, and going doesn’t show disrespect, in my view.

UPDATE: It would also be nice if students sent strikers a message of support, and showed some empathy about the scary situation we are facing.

 

What should Universities UK do?

Universities UK can’t win – they should get back to the negotiating table immediately. Many universities already want to do so (e.g. Newcastle, Essex, Warwick, Birkbeck).

Cognitive corruption and deliberative democracy

I’m heading to California for a conference on corruption, to give a paper called ‘Cognitive Corruption and Deliberative Democracy’. I gave a version at the European University Institute, Florence, a couple of weeks ago.

Hermosa_BeachAbstract: This paper defends deliberative democracy by reviving a largely forgotten idea of corruption, which I call ‘cognitive corruption’ – the distortion of judgment. I analyse different versions of this idea in the work of Machiavelli, Hobbes, Bentham and Mill. Historical analysis also helps me rethink orthodox notions of corruption in two ways: I define corruption in terms of public duty not public office, and I argue that corruption can be by and for political parties. In deliberative democracy, citizens can take off their party hats and may be more influenced by the force of the better argument than is likely in electoral/party democracy.

History of Political Thought teaching this year

I’m very excited to be teaching history of political thought again this year! This time we’re covering Machiavelli, Hobbes, Rousseau, the Federalists/Anti-Federalists, and Bentham, with half-hour mini-lectures on corruption, gender, methods of interpretation, parties, public opinion, religion, and tyranny/totalitarianism. In the first half of term there’s also practical exercises e.g. how to deal with ambiguity in texts (applied to Machiavelli), and how to break down and analyse arguments philosophically (applied to Hobbes). We do other exercises in seminars, e.g. how to use historical evidence (applied to Rousseau), how to apply modern conceptual frameworks (applied to the Federalists/Anti-Federalists), and how to draw contemporary insights (applied to Bentham). It’s a wide-ranging module which I love teaching. This year my TAs will be Caroline Ashcroft (Cambridge) and Max Skjönsberg (LSE), who are both giving two of the mini-lectures, with Sarah Wilford (KCL) returning to give two other mini-lectures.

Here’s a two-minute video of me summarising the module:

 

Thought experiments: scientific parallels

I’ll be giving a controversial paper at two conferences: the American Political Science Association (Sept 1-4, in Philadelphia), and the European Consortium on Political Research (Sept 7-10, in Prague).

My paper draws parallels between thought experiments in political theory and philosophy, and controlled experiments/comparisons in the natural and social sciences. Some of these parallels have been noticed before, by people like Frances Kamm, Tamar Gendler, and (in the book on political theory methods that I’m editing) Kimberley Brownlee and Zofia Stemplowska. But no one I’m aware of has taken advantage of the powerful toolkit that social and natural scientists have developed. I thus use ideas like internal and external validity, controlled comparison, omitted variable bias, interaction effects, spurious correlations, testable implications, and parsimony.

This helps us see better how to do thought experiments, and how much we can learn from them.

Thought ExperimentOf course, some readers will be more interested in my broader claims about the relationship between political theory and science. But note that I don’t equate the two: there are parallels, but also important differences. By contrast, I do argue elsewhere that some textual interpretation is essentially scientific: we often ask empirical questions (like what Locke meant by ‘rights’ or why he wrote what he wrote), and scientific ideas are the best tools we have yet developed for answering such questions. (See here for the most explicit version of the argument, and here for the most details account of what a scientific approach to textual intepretation involves.)

This isn’t really what’s going on in political theory thought experiments – which are, furthermore, only one part of political theory, and a part that many authors don’t use. Nonetheless, this casts some light on what some philosophers of science mean when they discuss ‘naturalism’, defined here as philosophy and science being ‘continuous’.

Although I’ve been thinking about and teaching some of these ideas for many years, my paper was written quite quickly, and needs more work. In particular, I cannot yet say how widespread the problems I discuss are.

The paper is here. Any comments and criticisms would be much appreciated!

My top 10 Hobbes articles

On the European Hobbes Society website, I’ve posted a list of my top 10 Hobbes articles. It’s open for comments there if you want to suggest your own list, or challenge any of my suggestions!

Nortonx8

 

The methodology of political theory: can political science help?

I’m in the Netherlands to give a paper tomorrow to the Faculty of Governance and Global Affairs at Leiden University (at their campus in Den Haag/The Hague).

Because the audience will mainly be empiricists, I’m talking about what political theorists can learn from political science (and a bit of the reverse).

The first part of the talk will summarise my past work on history of political thought. In five articles and book chapters, I’ve implicitly or explicitly argued that much textual interpretation can benefit from scientific ideas.

The second part of the talk is more speculative, as it’s on something I’ve only been working on for a few weeks (although I’ve taught the key idea for nearly a decade). I’m going to extend France’s Kamm’s insight about normative thought experiments being like scientific experiments, and see what else we can take from the analogy.

Assuming the ideas about thought experiments are not demolished tomorrow, I’ll be giving a more polished version of this argument at APSA in Philadelphia and ECPR in Prague in September.

Causality symposium at King’s College London

What does it mean to say that X caused Y? How do philosophical ideas of causation relate to the practice of social science, and vice versa? We discussed such questions in a day-long symposium in the Department of Political Economy (DPE) at King’s College London on Saturday April 30th. The event was organised by DPE PhD students Irena Schneider and Matías Peterson. In attendance were PhD students studying political economy, political science, political theory, philosophy, and economic history, from KCL, UCL and the LSE. I chaired the event, which was kindly funded by the King’s Interdisciplinary Social Science Doctoral Training Centre (KISS-DTC).

A kCausalitySymposium5ey insight was that we can easily be the slaves of an idea of causation if we do not think about ideas of causation – and that means ideas, plural. There are several different ideas of causation, each of which has weaknesses. And different social-science methods sometimes use different ideas of causation. If we knew more about different ideas of causation, we might not be so quick to reject some social-science methods.

We read the following texts:

Session 1, 10am-11:30am

Philosophical notions of causation

  • Mumford, Stephen and Rani Lill Anjum (2013). Causation: A Very Short Introduction. Oxford: Oxford University Press. 1-84.

Singular versus general causation

  • Hitchcock, Christopher (1995). “The mishap at Reichenbach fall: singular vs. general causation”, Philosophical Studies 78.

Session 2, 12pm-1:30pm

What can a statistical model say about causation?

  • Holland, Paul (1986). “Statistics and Causal Inference”, Journal of the American Statistical Association 81 (396).
  • Pearl, Judea (2012). “The causal foundations of structural equation modeling”, in Handbook of structural equation modeling, ed. Rick H. Hoyle.

Session 3, 3pm-5pm

What can qualitative comparative analysis (QCA) say about causation?

  • Lucas and Szatrowski (2014). “Qualitative comparative analysis in critical perspective”, Sociological Methodology 44.
  • Ragin, Charles (2014). “Comment: Lucas and Szatrowski in critical perspective”, Sociological Methodology 44.

CausalitySymposium1

 

CausalitySymposium2

CausalitySymposium3a

CausalitySymposium4

I still don’t understand this!

 

 

‘Methods in Analytical Political Theory’ sent to Cambridge University Press

Marthe Donas, Le Livre d'imagesI’ve now sent the manuscript of Methods in Analytical Political Theory to Cambridge University Press.

Each chapter gives ‘how-to’ advice, explaining how to use the method or approach being discussed.

The lineup is as follows:

  1. Introduction: a ‘how-to’ approach (Adrian Blau, King’s College London)
  2. How to write analytical political theory (Robert Goodin, ANU)
  3. Thought experiments (Kimberley Brownlee, Warwick, and Zofia Stemplowska, Oxford)
  4. Reflective equilibrium (Carl Knight, Glasgow)
  5. Contractualism (Jonathan Quong, USC)
  6. Moral sentimentalism (Michael Frazer, University of East Anglia)
  7. Realism (Robert Jubb, Reading)
  8. Realistic idealism (David Schmidtz, Arizona)
  9. Conceptual analysis (Johan Olsthoorn, KU Leuven)
  10. Positive political theory (Alan Hamlin, Manchester and King’s College London)
  11. Rational choice theory (Brian Kogelmann, Arizona, and Gerald Gaus, Arizona)
  12. Interpreting texts (Adrian Blau, King’s College London)
  13. Comparative political thought (Brooke Ackerly, Vanderbilt, and Rochana Bajpai, SOAS)
  14. Ideological analysis (Jonathan Leader Maynard, Oxford)
  15. How to do a political theory PhD (Robert Goodin, ANU, and Keith Dowding, ANU)

The book should be out in 2017.

Talk at NCH: ‘History, Political Theory and Philosophy: Different Questions, Different Answers?’

On Tuesday March 22 I’ll be talking to the History of Political Thought Society at the New College of the Humanities, on ‘History, Political Theory and Philosophy: Different Questions, Different Answers?’

I’ll be arguing that while historians, political theorists and philosophers often end up asking different questions, many of their tools are the same. Historians have in effect won the battle to get political theorists and philosophers to think historically and consult historical research, but political theorists and philosophers need to do more to convince historians to think philosophically and consult philosophical research. This can be a valuable means even to primarily historical ends!

Time: 6:30 pm – 8:00 pm. NCH Bedford Square

Location: Drawing Room, New College of the Humanities, 19 Bedford Square, London, WC1B 3HH. (N.B. Someone will need to let you in, so if possible please arrive by 6.30.)

RSVP: joanne.paul@nchlondon.ac.uk

 

Visiting Professor at Charles University in Prague

The Charles University

From Wednesday I will be spending a few days as a Visiting Professor at Charles University in Prague, the oldest university in the Czech Republic and one of the oldest in Europe.

I’m working hard while I’m there:

Wed March 16: lecture on ‘Passions, Corruption and the Maintenance of Institutions:
From Machiavelli to Today’.

Thu March 17: seminar on ‘How (Not) To Use History of Political Thought/Philosophy for Contemporary Purposes’.

Fri March 18: Hobbes seminar. Part 1: ‘Interpreting Hobbes Philosophically and Historically: Different Questions, Different Answers?’ Part 2: discussion of my chapter on ‘Reason, Deliberation and The Passions’ in the just-published Oxford Handbook of Hobbes.

Sat March 19: ‘Academic Essays’ workshop for students and staff.

(Details here.)

I will also see two Mozart operas (Don Giovanni, and Cosi fan tutte), in the Prague Estates Theatre – where Don Giovanni was premiered in 1787.

Let me know below if you have any suggestions about where I should go or what I should do/eat/drink. I’ll be back in Prague again in September for the ECPR conference so can tick more items off the list then!

Call for Papers: Methods in Political Theory, at ECPR General Conference, Prague, 7-10 Sept 2016

Keith Dowding and I are organising at least seven panels on Methods in Political Theory at the ECPR General Conference in Prague, 7-10 September 2016. Details are below.

 

The deadline for paper abstract submission is 15 February 2016.

 

In order to apply you need a MyECPR account (http://ecpr.eu/Login.aspx). This is free if your university is an ECPR member institution. Then upload a paper abstract. Feel free to contact me (Adrian.Blau@kcl.ac.uk) or Keith Dowding (keith.dowding@anu.edu.au) if you have questions about your abstract or anything else.

 

FURTHER INFORMATION:
Read the full post »

A new kind of self-interest

Social scientists typically see self-interest in terms of individuals satisfying their interests/desires. I’m going to discuss another kind of self-interest: individuals who in conversation are only interested in themselves!

arrogant-guyI’ve met many people like this. (I’d be lying if I pretended I too wasn’t sometimes guilty of this!)

Some such people will answer your questions but won’t follow up with questions of their own. I once waited in silence for a whole minute before giving up and talking to someone else at the table. This was someone with so little grasp of how conversations work that he couldn’t even see how to turn back the previous question at me. Similarly, someone who used to be a very close friend subconsciously thinks himself so superior to me that when we discuss things that we both do, he simply doesn’t try to ask me about my approach. This is not just impolite: it’s disrespectful.

Other people will close down a line of conversation that doesn’t interest them. For example, if you say “I was just watching Downton Abbey”, the response might just be “I don’t like historical dramas”. There’s no attempt to engage, to find out more, even to feign interest: what you say goes only into the part of the brain that asks “do I like or dislike X?”, and the answer to that goes straight into the mouth.

Whether conscious or not – usually not, I suspect – both approaches can end up making conversations purely about the other person.

I suspect there’s many possible reasons for this kind of self-interested conversation:

  • sometimes these people are a bit insecure, and feel more comfortable talking about things they know about;
  • sometimes they have a lot of worries/stresses/problems, and need to talk about themselves;
  • sometimes they’re used to people dominating them in conversation, and this is a deflecting tool they’ve picked up;
  • sometimes they haven’t picked up quite as many social skills as one might like;
  • sometimes they don’t really care what others think of them, unlike people who are more polite in conversation because they don’t want others to think badly of them;
  • sometimes they arrogantly assume that other people want to know about them;
  • sometimes they genuinely aren’t interested in what you say;
  • sometimes they don’t respect you as a person;
  • sometimes they’re just a tosser.

 

My most rewarding term of teaching ever

This term has been really hard: I’ve had a great deal of teaching to do, papers to write, and a book to edit – while trying to sell my house (and succeeding), and trying to juggle many other balls (and failing!).

But thankfully, the teaching has been incredibly rewarding, thanks mainly to the calibre and engagement of the students I’m privileged to teach at King’s College London. Most of these students are from my department, the Department of Political Economy, but this year I’ve also been privileged to teach students from Law, Liberal Arts, Management Studies, and even the Social Science, Health and Medicine department.

Here are the teaching highlights:

  • Adrian Blau lecturingsuperb engagement from my first-year ‘Studying Politics’ students. As ever, most students took a bit of time to get the hang of this module, but especially in recent weeks, some of the ideas discussed in the seminars have been incredibly penetrating. My wonderful students are seeing issues and problems in the readings that I and my TAs haven’t spotted before, and the seminar discussions have been fascinating. I’m particularly pleased when students who start off rather shy or reticent end up making some of the most incisive contributions in discussion;
  • some stunning interpretations from my second-year ‘History of Political Thought’ students. My own seminar group has been awesome: I’ve been pushed hard on my readings of Machiavelli, Hobbes and Rousseau (although I’m not yet convinced by the quantum physics reading of Hobbes!). The essays were superb as well: a quarter of students got Firsts. This is a hard course – one in ten students dropped out in the first few weeks – but the response has been wonderful. If you set the bar high, some students will slink off (to another kind of bar), but most respond very positively;
  • some impressive dissertation drafts, as ever, although I suspect I’ll see even better next term. But again, the engagement is better than I’ve seen before: in the past, about half of my dissertation students have been very much under the radar – this is the first term that I’ve seen every dissertation student regularly;
  • a wonderfully enjoyable MA research design/philosophy of social science module, taken by students on the MA in Public Policy, the MA in Political Economy, and the MSc in Public Services Policy and Management. Each week I’d test their grasp of the ideas with specific research-based exercises, and the quality of suggestions was the best I’ve yet seen;
  • introductory lectures on writing well, in my ‘Academic Writing Skills’ module – DPE is the first department in the university to run a term-long module on academic writing skills, and I know a lot of students in other departments are jealous of this course;
  • great progress from my super PhD students Donald Bello, Irena Schneider, and Elena Ziliotti – all brimming with clever ideas;
  • and bits and bobs of teaching in the Doctoral Training Centre (on research ethics), the Graduate School (on publication strategy and tactics), and some ‘taster’ lectures for school students thinking about studying at King’s.

It’s also been a huge pleasure to work with my outstanding TAs: Alex Chadwick, Simon Kaye, Liz Morrow, and Sarah Wilford.

More generally, the Political Economy community seems more positive than in previous years. My first-year tutees are happier than ever – something in the drinking water?! My colleagues, like me, are tired and overworked, and we know that there’s still ways to improve our teaching; but most students appreciate our efforts (even if most of them have no idea how hard we work, or that we are researchers not just teachers). Our great students respond so well to the way we push them. That means an incredible amount to me.

Disappointing (non-)response by Arthur Melzer to my and other people’s criticisms

Perspectives on Political Science16 of us wrote reviews of Arthur Melzer’s important book about esoteric writing, Philosophy Between the Lines, in the June and October issues of Perspectives on Political Science. Melzer has now written a 10,000-word response. Unfortunately, he did not engage with most of the reviews. His wording is curious:

In the space allotted me for rejoinder, it would clearly not be possible to reply to each of the essays individually, and it would be unbearably tedious if it were. Most of the essays, at any rate, stand in no particular need of reply.

I’m not sure about any of those three claims!

For what it’s worth, my review made the following points:

  • Melzer misinterprets, or interprets partially, some evidence about esotericism, e.g. in Machiavelli and Rousseau;
  • Melzer is not clear about whether contextualist/Cambridge-School interpretations are esoteric;
  • Melzer works with a straw man when he discusses “strictly literal” readings, as opposed to esoteric ones;
  • Melzer does not respond to the most important critiques of Strauss’s methodology.

 

 

 

CSI Cambridge: history of political thought as detective-work

UPDATE: This article has now been published, in History of European Ideas 41:8 (2015), pp. 1178-94.

My paper ‘History of Political Thought as Detective-Work’ has now been accepted by History of European Ideas. The paper uses a detective analogy (following Collingwood and others) to give practical principles for textual interpreters on how to draw plausible inferences from incomplete, ambiguous evidence about what authors meant and why they wrote what they wrote.

david-caruso-csi-miamiI used a different analogy in the versions of this paper I gave at York, Reading, Durham, KCL and Kent in 2010-2012, but that analogy was too controversial to get published, and I only make it explicit in a forthcoming chapter in Winfried Schröder, ed., Reading Between The Lines (de Gruyter, forthcoming). But those who read between the lines of the current paper will see what I’m really arguing. For what it’s worth, the different analogy was also present in the original version of my ‘Anti-Strauss’ article, but the referees rightly made me take it out. Still, it’s there implicitly. My critique of Strauss has always been a vehicle for far more important ideas.

Here is the abstract of my History of European Ideas paper:

This paper offers practical guidance for empirical interpretation in the history of political thought, especially uncovering what authors meant and why they wrote what they wrote. I thus seek to fill a small but significant hole in our rather abstract methodological literature. To counter this abstraction, I draw not only on methodological theorising but also on actual practice – and on detective-work, a fruitful analogy. The detective analogy seeks to capture the intuition that we can potentially find right answers but must handle fragmentary evidence that different people can plausibly read in different ways. Placing the focus on evidence, and on combining different types of evidence, suggests that orthodox categories like ‘contextualist’ and ‘Marxist’ too often accentuate differences between scholars. This paper instead highlights core principles that unite us – ideas that underpin good textual interpretation across all ‘schools of thought’.

The use and misuse of history of political thought for contemporary purposes

I’m giving a paper on how (not) to use history of political thought for contemporary purposes, at the Cambridge Centre for Political Thought on Monday Oct 26, and at the Exeter Politics Department seminar on Wednesday Nov 4.

My paper praises scholars like Julia Annas, Michael Frazer, John McCormick and Quentin Skinner, for successfully using the history of political thought to ask new questions or offer new answers. But I also criticise scholars like John Dunn, Raymond Geuss and Quentin Skinner for overstating what we can learn from the history of political thought, or for not engaging sufficiently with contemporary issues or authors. Such overstated claims, indeed, risk damaging our efforts to draw contemporary insights from history of political thought, if political theorists or philosophers look at failed efforts and conclude that it is not worth studying history of political thought.

I gave an earlier version of this paper at the Institute of Historical Research in February 2015. But I did not have a paper to circulate then – now I do.

If you want to read a copy of this paper, please email me at Adrian.Blau {at} kcl.ac.uk. Comments and criticisms welcome, however critical!

Abstract: We lack methodological principles for how to draw contemporary insights from historical texts. As a result, many efforts to do so have failed – more than most people realise. One key principle is to get historical authors right, by reading them accurately, and by improving their ideas if needs be. This can help us challenge false claims to historical authority, debunk parochial contemporary explanations, ask new questions, or suggest new answers. The second main principle is to get contemporary authors and issues right. This is where scholars err most. Some scholars fail to demonstrate a gap in the literature, over-generalise, misread contemporary authors, underestimate the complexity of contemporary issues, or use outmoded ideas: just as history of political thought can liberate us, so too it can constrain us. Overall, I suggest, some of the boldest claims for the contemporary value of history of political thought come from scholars whose own contemporary insights are not as convincing as they think. Far from highlighting the contemporary relevance of history of political thought, this risks making it look irrelevant. A less disdainful approach to contemporary political theory and philosophy is vital.

Bashing UCL – but only when it’s funny

Bentham lantern UCL smallThere’s meant to be a big rivalry between my university, King’s College London, and UCL. I’ve always found this a bit ridiculous: I have the greatest respect for UCL, and its political science, philosophy and history departments in particular. But I’m very weak-willed, and I’ll do my unfair share of UCL-bashing when it’s funny.

So here, once more, is a short clip of me taking the piss out of UCL in one of my recent standup performances. At UCL.

Because that’s what women do: the dangers of stereotypes in kids’ toys

I’ve found some troubling gender stereotypes in the Playmobil range of toys. I love Playmobil: I had lots of their toys as a kid, and still enjoy them with my niece and nephews. The toys are fun, robust, varied, and interchangeable.

5491_product_detailBut like many toys, their boxes portray worrying stereotypes. As I show in more detail below, Playmobil boxes are much more likely to show women than men looking after kids, and often depict women cooking, cleaning, shopping, or in caring/nurturing roles. And among the child Playmobil figures on the toy-boxes, it’s often the boy who is portrayed as independent and the girl who is being looked after.

Does this matter? Such stereotypes, in combination with similar stereotypes in adverts, TV programmes, computer games, and other toys, can influence some kids. True, real life often conforms to these stereotypes, but that is itself part of why we should challenge these stereotypes: if from an early age kids see women doing most childcare, for example, many people will have that same expectation later on. It’s how we end up with female political candidates being told that they aren’t fit for public office because they haven’t done their job of having children.

This is precisely why the hashtag #EverydaySexism is so important: the images we see and the words we use affect what we think and, sometimes, what we do.

Women buying handbags. Because that's what women do.

Women buying handbags. Because that’s what women do.

Here are the details of my test. After spotting the stereotypes a couple of days ago, yesterday I ran a search for ‘Playmobil City Life’ on Amazon.co.uk, and looked at the first three pages only. I found 64 toys, of which 32 had gender stereotypes on the boxes and 32 did not. (There were a handful of Playmobil toys in other ranges, some with and some without gender stereotypes on the boxes; I haven’t listed these below.) These numbers are approximate: the judgement-calls were not always easy, so I’ve tried to give Playmobil the benefit of the doubt where I can, although other people might code things a bit more or a bit less favourably to Playmobil. But the sheer number of boxes showing gender stereotypes is a concern.

Almost 100 adults were featured in total. 24 women were shown looking after children, cooking or cleaning, compared to only 11 men looking after children or cooking (and the one man cooking is cooking on a barbecue, of course). Women are shown shopping or going to the beauty salon 9 times, while 0 men do the same (but 1 man brings flowers to a woman – groan). Only 3 woman have an ‘action’ role, compared to 9 men, and in each case the woman’s role is less action-based than the men on the same toy-box: the female co-pilot is outside the airplane (the male pilot is in the pilot’s seat), the female Coast Guard worker is a lookout (the male Coast Guard workers are either in charge or doing the rescuing), and the female rescue-boat worker has a nurturing role (doctor) whereas the male rescue-boat workers do the rescuing. Many kids won’t pick up these subtleties, but some surely will.

(Playground)

A woman looks after two boys and a girl. The boys do active things by themselves, the girl needs help.

Even the portrayals of children on the toy-boxes are sometimes biased: I counted 5 toy-boxes where boys were portrayed as independent while girls were shown being helped by an adult.

Thankfully, there are equal numbers of women and men being portrayed caring for animals or working as vets: 5 women, 5 men. I counted 8 cases of women and 9 cases of men in fairly neutral jobs (e.g. waiter). And I counted 7 women and 5 men in leisure situations (e.g. sunbathing, dog-walking). So, I’m only claiming that the stereotypes are common, not universal.

(There might be a bias in the above numbers, by the way, if Amazon has put the most popular toys to the top of the list and toys with stereotyped boxes are bought more often. So, at some point I may have to test the complete sets on the Playmobil website.)

In summary, then, a lot of the toy-boxes are fine, but a lot are not – more than half, on my count. The simplest solution would be for Playmobil to vary their depictions of women and men for new toys. They could perhaps repackage some of the existing toys. They needn’t change everything: it’d be crazy not to depict some women looking after kids. But we need more boxes depicting more varied gender roles, among adults and to some extent the kids too. And I haven’t even touched on ethnicity (nearly everyone in the City Life series is white) or age (there were almost no old people portrayed). I discuss the problems with those and other stereotypes here.

Here are the specific toys I found in the test described above, listed in the Read the full post »