Max Weber: The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism (Revision Notes)

Weber argued that the values of the protestant religion led to the emergence of Capitalism in Western Europe around the 17th century.

Weber observed that Capitalism first took* off in Holland and England, in the mid 17th century. He asked himself the question: ‘why did Capitalism develop in these two countries first?’

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Protestant Individualism and the Emergence of Capitalism 

Based on historical observation and analysis, Weber theorized this was because these were the only two countries in which Protestantism was the predominant religion, rather than Catholicism, which was the formal religion of every other European country.

Weber theorized that the different value systems of the two religions had different effects: the values of Protestantism encouraged ways of acting which (unintentionally) resulted in capitalism emerging, over a period of many decades, even centuries.

Protestantism encouraged people to ‘find God for themselves’. Protestantism taught that silent reflection, introspection and prayer were the best ways to find God. This (unintentionally, and over many years) encouraged Protestants to adopt a more ‘individualistic’ attitude to their religion by seeking their own interpretations of Christianity.

In contrast, Catholicism was a religion which encouraged more conservative values and thus was resistant to such changes. The Catholic Church has a top-down structure: from God to the Pope to the Senior Bishops and then down to the people. Ultimate power to interpret Catholic doctrine lies with the Pope and his closest advisers. Practicing Catholics are expected to abide by such interpretations, they are generally not encouraged to interpret religious scripture for themselves. Similarly, part of being a good Catholic means attending mass, which is administered by a member of the Catholic establishment, which reinforces the idea that the church is in control of religious matters, rather than spirituality being a personal matter as is more the case in Protestant traditions.

Part of Weber’s theory of why Capitalism first emerged in Protestant countries was that the more individualistic ethos of Protestantism laid the foundations for a greater sense of individual freedom, and the idea that it was acceptable to challenge ‘top down’ interpretations of Christian doctrine, as laid down by the clergy. Societies which have more individual freedom are more open to social changes.

Calvinist Asceticism and the Development of Capitalism

Weber argued that a particular denomination of Protestantism known as Calvinism played a key role in ushering in the social change of Capitalism.

Calvinism preached the doctrine of predestination: God had basically already decided who was going to heaven (‘the saved) before they were born. Similarly, he had also already decided who the damned were – whether or not you were going to hell had already been decided before your birth.

This fatalistic situation raised the question of how you would know who was saved and who was damned. Fortunately, Calvinism also taught that there was a way of figuring this out: there were indicators which could tell you who was more likely to be saved, and who was more likely to be damned.

Simply put, the harder you worked, and the less time you spent idling and/ or engaged in unproductive, frivolous activities, then the more likely it was that you were one of those pre-chosen for a life in heaven. This is because, according to Calvinist doctrine, God valued hard-work and a ‘pure-life’ non-materialistic life.

According to Weber this led to a situation in which Calvinist communities encouraged work for the glory of God, and discouraged laziness and frivolity. Needless to say there was quite a motivation to stick to these ethical codes, given that hell was the punishment if you didn’t.

Over the decades, this ‘work-ethic’ encouraged individuals and whole communities to set up businesses, and re-invest any money they earned to grow these businesses (because it was a sin to spend the money you’d made on enjoying yourself), which laid the foundations for modern capitalism.

Weber argued that over the following centuries, the norm of working hard and investing in your business became entrenched in European societies, but the old religious ideas withered away. Nonetheless, if we take the longer term view, it was still the Protestant work ethic which was (unintentionally) responsible for the emergence of Capitalism

Evaluations 

On the plus side, Weber’s theory of social change recognizes that we need to take account of individual motivations for action in order to understand massive social structural changes

On the negative side, critics have pointed out that the emergence of Capitalism doesn’t actually correlated that well with Protestantism: there are plenty of historical examples of Capitalist systems having emerged in non-Protestant countries – such as Italian Mercantilism a couple of centuries early.

Find out More

This post is a very brief summary of Max Weber’s theory of religion and social change. For a much more detailed account, including more specific historical details of Calvinism, please see this post (forthcoming!) 

 

*Weber recongized that features of the Capitalist system were present in other parts of Europe previous to the 17th century, but Holland and England were the first societies to really adopt capitalist values at the level of society as a whole, rather than it just existing in relatively isolated pockets.

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Religion and Science: Are they Compatible?

This post considers the arguments and evidence for the view that religious beliefs are compatible with scientific belief systems.

One argument within the secularisation debate is that the Enlightenment started a process of rationalization within society, which led to technological developments and social progress. This in turn meant that the old, traditional, irrational religious belief systems were increasingly challenged, and so there was a corresponding decline in religion.

The above view holds that religious beliefs and scientific beliefs are incompatible, and that more rational scientific knowledge has effectively replaced religious knowledge in society, because scientific knowledge is some how superior.

However, there are others who argue that the relationship between science and religion is more complex and nuanced. This is especially understandable given the trend towards religious pluralism and the increasing diversity, or sub-divisions within science.

It is highly likely that ecumenical movements, or those with new age beliefs are more likely to find common ground with science than those from highly conservative religious movements or those with fundamentalist beliefs.

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Religion and Science are compatible 

There are several different lines of argument for the view that religious belief systems and scientific belief systems are compatible.

Stephen Jay Gould argued that science and religion were concerned with different aspects of human life which deal with different human needs.

Gould argued that one human need was to understand the workings of nature, which science dealt with. The job of science was to uncover objective knowledge about the ‘laws of nature’, which could be discovered using the scientific method.

Another human need was to find a meaning for their own life and to figure out a moral code which they should live by. Such meaning and morality are subjective and so cannot be discovered through the scientific method. People need religion to help them discover meaning and to lead a moral life.

According to Gould, these two spheres of human need do not overlap, and so religious knowledge systems and scientific knowledge systems can exist side by side.

Monotheistic religions which have a belief in one, universal God are compatible with science. It is possible to believe that there is ‘one God’ who created the universe and the laws by which it is governed, and then to use science to uncover exactly what those rules are.

Some recent concepts developed in the field of physics seem to support the worldview of traditional Asian belief systems, such as Taoism. A good example of this is Fritjof Capra’s ‘The Tao of Physics‘.

Some religions are actually based on science – The most obvious example here is scientology, which has developed devices such as the E-meter to track people’s progress towards the ‘Bridge to Total Freedom’.

Sources/ find out more….

Religion in the Contemporary World

 

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The relationship between science and religion

What is the difference between science and religion? This post focuses on four areas of difference between the two:

  • The empirical versus the supernatural
  • Open versus closed belief systems
  • Evolving versus absolute knowledge
  • Objectivity versus subjectivity

These are the differences between religion and science highlighted by Dixon (2008) in ‘Science and Religion, A Very Short Introduction‘.

Before reading this post, you might like to refresh your knowledge of what they key features of science are by reading this post: Is sociology a science?

Science limits itself to the empirical, religion concerns itself with the supernatural 

Science tends to concern itself with the natural or physical world – that which can be observed and measured. If it cannot be observed or measured empirically, then it is not scientific.

Scientific knowledge is gained primarily through the experimental method: a hypothesis is formulated and then experiments designed to test the hypothesis. Experiments use standardized procedures of data collection, so that other scientists can repeat the exact same experiment in the same way and verify the data and test the findings for themselves.

In contrast religion tends to concern itself with the spiritual world, many aspects of which cannot necessarily be observed and measured in a scientific extent. For example, knowledge in many religions comes ultimately from God, and belief in the existence of God cannot be verified empirically. Belief in God is a matter of faith.

Any knowledge claims made by religions which are not verifiable by empirical observations cannot be regarded as ‘scientific’.

‘Open’ verses ‘closed belief systems 

Science is an ‘open belief system’ – the data collected by scientists are open to testing by others. Research findings can thus be criticized.

According to Popper, the process of scientists critically scrutinizing  findings of other scientists is  fundamental to the scientific method. He argued that scientists should attempt to ‘falsify’ already existing hypotheses by designing experiments deliberately to disprove them. It is this process which ensures that scientific knowledge is valid: its ability to withstand the critical scrutiny of peers.

In contrast, religions tend to have ‘closed belief systems’ – religious knowledge is generally regarded as sacred, and should be accepted as is, rather than challenged.

Evolving versus absolute knowledge systems 

Scientific knowledge is cumulative…. it evolves through a process of scientists learning about, criticizing, and improving upon the experimental work of previous scientists.

Religious belief systems, at least those based firmly on religious texts or an idea of an absolute truth are not open to change or growth. Those who challenge such religious belief systems may well be subject to sanctions.

Objectivity and value-freedom versus subjectivity

Subjective, personal feelings should be kept out the scientific process. Scientific knowledge should not be influenced by the personal opinions or biases of the researchers who conduct the experiments which provide the data to generate scientific knowledge.

In contrast, knowledge in many religious traditions is a matter of personal faith and intimate spiritual experience. Many religious experiences, prayer, for example, are highly personal, and not meant to be replicated by others.

Evaluations 

This post effectively deals with the argument that science and religion are different, and thus possible incompatible. Please see this post for some arguments and evidence for the alternative view: that scientific belief systems are compatible with religious belief systems.

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£100 Million Extra to Combat Homelessness – Simply not Good Enough?

The British government recently announced an additional £100 million of funding to tackle chronic homelessness in Britain. Chronic homelessness means those sleeping rough on the streets, rather than much larger numbers of invisible homeless: consisting of people in temporary accommodation or sleeping on friends’ couches.

The additional funding will pay for a three pronged ‘attack’ on homelessness:

  • £50 million for houses to be built outside of London, for people currently ready to move on from hostels
  • £30 million for mental health support for those sleeping rough.
  • Further funding to help people move on from prison into secure accommodation.

There is also funding available to provide more information and support to help those on the streets navigate their way out of homelessness, as well as the promise of research into the nature and extent of LGBT homelessness, currently a very under-researched area.

How effective is this social policy likely to be in combating homelessness?

Probably highly ineffective…

  • That funding is over 10 years – to 2027. There are an estimated 4751 people currently sleeping rough on any given night. If you divide £100 million by that figure, and then by 10 (10 years), the government is only committing an additional £2000 per person per year to combating homelessness. This doesn’t sound like a huge amount of money compared to the cost of housing, for example.
  • We have to understand this ‘additional funding’ in the context of the wider Tory cuts since 2010 – which have been linked to the increase in homelessness this decade…. 169% increase since 2010.
  • Finally, this policy does nothing to combat the much more widespread problem of households living in temporary accommodation -of which there are nearly 80, 000, again a figure which has increased under the Tory government since 2010.

In Conclusion…..

Maybe this is more about creating some positive news for the government rather than it being any serious attempt at combating homelessness.. £100 million is nice round, easy soundbite type of figure, yet in the grand scheme of what’s needed to tackle social problems, it is almost certainly insufficient to make a real difference to a significant number of people.

Image Source

Homeless

 

 

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What is Religion?

What is religion? How should we define religion?

There is an enormous variety of religious beliefs and practices globally, and the main problem with defining religion is to find a definition which encompasses this variety without including beliefs or practices which most people do not regard as religious.

There are two general approaches to defining religion: functional which tend to have broad, more inclusive definitions of religion and and substantive approaches which tend to have narrower, more exclusive definitions of religion.

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Functional definitions of religion

Functional definitions define religion in terms of the functions it performs for individuals and/ or society. For example, Yinger (1995) defines religion as ‘a system of beliefs and practices by means of which a group of people struggles with the ultimate problems of human life.’

Problems with functional definitions of religion

  • They are too inclusive: almost any movement with a belief system of any kind and a committed group of followers would classify as a religion – for example, communism, nationalism, and even atheism.
  • Because functional definitions are too inclusive, it makes the growth/ decline/ impact of religion impossible to measure.
  • Functional definitions are based on subjective opinions and assumptions about what the role of religion is. Rather, the role of the sociologist should be to uncover what the functions of religion are through empirical investigation.

Substantive definitions of religion

Substantive definitions of religion define religion in terms of its content rather than its function.

Emile Durkheim‘s, approach to defining religion can be regarded as a substantive definition – Durkhiem argued that religion was the collective marking off of the sacred from the profane.

A common approach to defining religion substantively is to define religion in terms of a belief in a higher power such a god or other supernatural forces. For example Robertson (1970): ‘Religion refers to the existence of supernatural beings that have a governing effect on life’.

Problems with substantive definitions of religion

They can be too exclusive. For example, definitions which are based on a belief in God would exclude Buddhism.

Substantive definitions might still be too inclusive. For example, people who believe in fate, magic, or UFOs might be included as religious according to the above definition.

Defining religion: why it matters

The definition of religion that a sociologist describes to will have a profound impact on their conclusions about the role and impact religion has in society. This is most obviously the case where the secularization debate is concerned: if one adopts a more exclusive definition of religion, then it would appear that religion is in decline. However, if one adopts a more exclusive definition of religion, this decline will not be so apparent.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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The Shallows (2010) Nicholas Carr. Summary of Chapter Three: Tools of the Mind

This is my summary of chapter two of The Shallows: How the internet is changing the way we read, think and remember, by Nicholas Carr. (For my summary of chapter two, please click here!)

Conceptualizing the evolution of technology

Our intellectual maturation can be traced by looking at the way we draw pictures. Infants scrawl down only a very rough visual representation of what they see, as we get older, we develop the ability to represent pictures more accurately, with scientific precision.

This ‘artistic maturation’ process seems to mirror Jean Piaget’s evolutionary model of cognitive development within children:

  1. In very young children’s pictures there is no recognition of perspective or depth.
  2. As children mature, they develop a greater sense of intellectual realism – pictures display a greater degree of proportionality.
  3. Finally, children develop a sense of intellectual realism – they employ abstract scientific measurements to make their pictures even more accurate.

The above process of individual development also seems to mirror the evolution of map making in society:

  1. The very first maps were simply scrawls in the dirt.
  2. Over many centuries these maps became more accurate and increasingly sophisticated scientific measurements were employed to portray regions with more precision.
  3. Finally, maps were developed to display abstract ideas in an efficient form, as with the London Tube Map for example.
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The London tube map – changing the way we perceive space?

These historical advances in cartography didn’t simply mirror the development of the human mind. They helped change the human mind. The more frequently and intensively people used maps, the more their minds came to understand reality in the maps’ terms.

The upside of this is that people are generally now more able to comprehend (unconsciously?) the unseen forces that shape their existence, because so many modern maps represent areas which we do not see in our day to day lives.

What the map did for space, the clock did for time….

For most of human history, time was experienced as cyclical phenomenon, dictated by agrarian rhythms, and it ‘flowed’ rather than being divided into abstract chunks.

All that started to change in the later half of the Middle Ages when monks started to demand more rigorous time keeping methods following an edict from Saint Benedict which stipulated that prayer should take place at specified times of the day. This spurred on the development of clocks which measured time.

As commerce, industrialisation and urbanisation took place, clock-time became increasingly important to co-ordinate the activities of business. And the units of time by which we measured things became smaller too…hours became minutes became seconds.

As clocks became smaller and watches became more popular, clock time infiltrated into our daily lives.

The clock profoundly changed the way we thought – it made us perceive reality as broken up into discrete measurable chunks, all divisible into further sub-units.

As Lewis Mumford said in ‘Technics and Civilization’, the clock ‘helped create the belief in an independent world of mathematically measurable sequences. The ‘abstract framework of divided time’ became ‘the point of reference for both action and thought’.

Categories of human technology

Carr suggests that there are four categories of human technology, divided according to how they support our amplify our native capacities.

Technologies which enhance physical strength include the plough, the ruck sack, the fighter jet.

Technologies which enhance the sensitivity of our senses – the microscope and the amplifier for example.

Technologies which reshape nature to better serve our needs and desires – such as genetically modified crops or contraceptive technologies such as the pill (heralding in the age of ‘plastic sexuality’, to coin one of Anthony Gidden’s phrases.)

Finally, there are intellectual technologies, which extend our mental powers to find and classify information, to take measurements and make calculations and even to formulate and articulate ideas. Carr provides many examples of intellectual technologies including: the clock, the map, the typewriter, the abacus, the sextant, newspapers, schools, library, the computer and the internet.

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All technologies are an expression of human will, and all change us to an extent, but is intellectual technologies which affect us the most deeply. It is these that transform the very way we perceive our place in the world, and the ways in which we express ourselves.

Technological determinism versus Instrumentalism

There is an ongoing debate over the extent to which technology shapes the individual. Technological determinists argue that by and large technology shapes the individuals. This view is like that of structuralist sociologists who argue that society shapes the individual. Exponents of this view include Veblen, Marx himself, and McLuhan.

Instrumentalists take the contrary view and argue that individuals play more of an active role in using technologies, and effectively have control over technology rather than being controlled by it.

So who is right? It depends on your analytical focus…

If you look at any particular technology at a particular time, then the instrumentalist view seems to be right. For example, the Amish have successfully resisted the use of many technologies into their culture.

However, if you take a broader, more general and historical perspective, then it is hard to argue that we choose not to use widely adopted technologies such as the clock, the map, the school or the internet.

As Landgon Winner puts it:

‘Though we’re rarely conscious of the fact, many of the routines of our lives follow paths laid down by technologies that came into use long before we were born’.

The social consequences of technology

The debate between technological determinists and instrumentalists is unlikely to be solved any time soon. This is probably because the stance one takes depends on the broad or narrow perspective which one has already subscribed to.

However, most of us can agree on the fact that that technological advances are often turning points in human history. It is hard to imagine modern civilization without technology.

Carr states that it is harder to measure the historical impact of technological developments on the neurocircuitry of the human brain. This is because, up until very recently, we simply haven’t had any way of measuring micro-level changes to the human brain.

However, the recent findings which support neuroplasticity (outlined above) suggest that the brain is extremely malleable. It is therefore reasonable to posit that with every mass adoption of a new intellectual technology such as the clock, map, or internet, there is a parallel mass re-wiring of our neural circuitry.

Each new technological development has influenced how we find, store and interpret information, how we direct our attention and how we remember and forget. New technologies have also influenced how we interact with others. In short, new technologies favour certain mental traits, leaving others to fade away.

Carr further suggests that we hand down our habitual neural patterns to our children, which are further reinforced by schooling and the media. Genetic traits matter little in establishing the general neurological zeitgeist, it would seem.

Nicholas Carr devotes the rest of the chapter to an account of how intellectual technologies may have shaped people’s mental capacities in a very broad sense.

He theorises that the development of the alphabet and of a written, rather than an oral culture represented fundamental evolutionary shifts in human social development. A literate culture (rather than an oral one) was necessary as a basis for modern science.

He generally seems to believe that writing enhances human consciousness

summary of chapter four please click here. To purchase the whole book, please click the link below…

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sociology statistics

How many students study A-level sociology in England?

In 2017, there were 32, 269 entries to the A-level sociology exam, up from 26, 321 entries in 2008.

sociology statistics

How does this compare to A-level entries overall?

Sociology has grown in popularity compared to the overall A-level numbers. Overall A-level numbers have increased less rapidly during the same period: from 760 881 in 2008 , to 828355 2017.

It’s probably worth noting that these recent trends actually have a longer history, and are shared by other ‘critical humanities subjects’ such as politics and psychology. Please see this post for a brief summary of some recent research findings from the British Sociological Association on this topic.

What kind of people study A-level sociology?

Research suggests that sociology students are significantly more awesome than students who mistakenly choose not to study sociology. There’s no actual data to back this up, but that’s what the available evidence suggests.

Girls (sorry, ‘young women’) are also more likely to study sociology than boys…. approximately 77% of students studying sociology in 2017 were female, and the proportion of girls to boys has actually increased the last decade.

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This means that if you’re a straight lad, and you’re relatively nice and mature, then you’ve got more chance of picking up a girlfriend in a sociology class than in pretty much any other subject!

What are my chances of getting an A* in Sociology?

Not great. 

Overall, 4.7% of students achieved an A* in A-level sociology in 2017. 18% 43.8% got an B or above, and 72.9% got a C or above. The pass rate was 97.5%

Sociology A-level results 2017.png

How does this compare to other subjects?

It’s much harder to get an A* or an A in sociology compared to other subjects, a little bit harder to get a B, but your chances of ending up with a C-E grade are about the same as for other subjects.

Boys seem to do much worse than girls in sociology relative to other subjects, perhaps because they’re more distracted (by the girls?)

A level grades 2017

Where does this data come from?

The Joint Council for Qualifications (JCQ) publishes all A and AS level results for all subjects. It show the results by cumulative and actual percentage per grade, broken down by gender.

Just in case you came here looking for information on ‘statistics’ you might like to check out my material on research methods – there’s some pretty good material if you follow the links, even if I do say so myself!

 

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Religion and Social Change

Does religion cause social change, or prevent it?

Functionalists and Traditional Marxists have generally argued that religion prevents social change. Neo-Marxists and the Social Action theorist Max Weber have argued that religion can be a force for social change.

There are wide variety of opinions with Feminist thought as to the relationship between religion and social change. Some Feminists tend to side with the view that religion prevents social change. Other Feminists recognise the potential for religion to bring about social change.

This post considers some of the arguments and evidence against the view that religion prevents social change.

Arguments and evidence for the view that religion prevents social change

Functionalist thinkers Malinowski and Parsons both argued that religion prevents social change by helping individuals and society cope with disruptive events that might threaten the existing social order. Most obviously, religion provides a series of ceremonies which help individuals and societies cope with the death of individual members.

Marx believed that religion helped to preserve the existing class structure. According to Marx religious beliefs serve to justify the existing, unequal social order and prevent social change by making a virtue out of poverty and suffering. Religion also teaches people that it is pointless striving for a revolution to bring about social change in this life. Rather, it is better to focus on ‘being a good Christian’ (for example) and then you will receive your just rewards in heaven.

Neo-Marxist Otto Maduro argued that historically the Catholic Church in Latin America tended to prevent social change. It did so by supporting existing economic and political elites, thus justifying the unequal social order. However, he also recongised that religion had the potential to be a force for social change (see below)

Arguments and evidence for the view that religion causes social change 

Max Weber’s ‘Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism’ is one of the best loved accounts of how religion can bring about social change. Weber pointed out that Capitalism developed first in England and Holland, taking off in the early 17th century (early 1600s). Just previous to Capitalism taking off, Protestantism was the main religion in these two countries, unlike most other countries in Europe at that time which were Catholic. To cut a very long winded theory short, Max Weber argued that the social norms instilled by Protestantism laid the foundations for modern capitalism.

Neo-Marxist Otto Maduro pointed to the example of Liberation Theology in Latin America to demonstrate that religion can act as a force for social change. He further suggested that this is especially the case where the marginalized have no other outlet for their grievances than religious institutions.

Reverend Martin Luther King and the broader Baptist Church in the Southern United States played a major role in the Civil Rights movement in 1960s America. This movement effectively helped to end racial segregation in America and secure more equal political rights for non-whites.

Martin Luther King was very much inspired by Gandhi’s religiously inspired practice of Non Violent Direct Action. This involved the use of peaceful protest and resisting of violence in order to bring about social change.

The Arab Spring which swept across the Middle East and North Africa between 2010-2014 offers a more contemporary example of the role of religion in social change. Islamic groups were very active in using social media to highlight the political injustices in countries such as Tunisia and Egypt.

This post is a work in progress, further details to be added in due course…!

Image Source 

http://ipost.christianpost.com/post/10-powerful-quotes-from-rev-dr-martin-luther-king-jr-on-faith

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The Vital Paths, The Shallows, Nicholas Carr: Summary of Chapter 2

This is my summary of chapter two of The Shallows: How the internet is changing the way we read, think and remember, by Nicholas Carr. (For my summary of chapter 1, please click here!)

Friedrich Nietzsche suffered from severe health problems through most of his life, so severe that he had to resign his university post as a professor of philology at the University of Basel when he was just 34 years old in 1879.

By 1881, he found that his vision was failing and that if tried to focus on reading or writing, he would soon be defeated by crushing headaches and even vomiting.

In desperation, he ordered a Malling-Hansen Writing Ball, basically a typewriter, but funky in the extreme, and in fact the fastest one made to date: with practice one could type up to 800 characters a minute.

The Malling-Hansen Writing Ball

This typewriter saved Nietzsche, at least for a time, as once he’d learned to use it, he was able to transfer words from his mind to the page with his eyes shut, thus avoiding the crippling headaches that came with regular writing.

But the device had a subtler effect on his work: one of his closest friends, Heinrich Koselitz, noticed a change in the style of his writing. There was a new forcefulness to it, as though the iron in the machine was being transferred onto the page.

Nietzsche agreed, stating in a letter to his friend that ‘out writing equipment takes part in the forming of our thoughts’.

Recent studies have found that neurons are both like and unlike other cells in our bodies. Neurons have central cores, or somas, which carry out the functions of common to all cells, but they also have two kinds of tentacle like appendages – axons and dendrites – that transmit and receive electric pulses.

When a neuron is active, a pulse flows from the soma to the tip of the axon, where it triggers the release of chemicals called neurotransmitters which flow across synapses and attach themselves to a dendrite of a neighbouring neuron, triggering (or suppressing) a new electric pulse in that cell.

There are 100 billion neurons in the human brain, which take many different shapes and range in length from a few tenths of a millimeter to a few feet. A single neuron has one axon, and many dendrites and dendrites and axons can each have multiple branches and synaptic terminals.

The average neuron makes about 1000 synaptic connections.

In other words, our brain is incredibly complex, consisting of millions of billions of connections.

Thoughts, memories, emotions, and basically our entire sense of who we are all emerge from the electrochemical interactions of neurons mediated by synapses.

The historically mistaken idea of the ‘mechanical brain’

Throughout the 20th century, most biologists and neurologists continued to believe, as many still do, that the structure of adult brain never changed: the brain was viewed as something which was malleable in childhood but became fixed in adulthood. The only structural change the brain would go through was that of decay.

There were a few heretics such as British biologist J.Z. Young and psychologist William James, but the mainstream scientific view was of the fixed structure adult brain.

Descartes was one of the first people to popularise this idea. For Descartes, in his Meditations of 1641 he claimed the brain consisted of two separate spheres: the material and the ethereal. Descartes saw the physical brain as purely mechanical instrument like a clock or a pump, while the conscious mind was more ethereal…

As reason became more part of the enlightenment, the idea of the ethereal disappeared and the idea of the brain as something which was hardwired took root.

This conception fitted in well with the industrial age obsession with mechanical contraptions. The brain was conceived of a machine that worked in a set way.

From the hardwired brain to neuroplasticity 

In 1968, Michael Merzenich mapped out the neural circuitry of monkey brains, using micro-electrodes.

He cut open a monkey’s skull, inserted a micro-electrode into a particular part of the brain he new to be associated with hands. He then prodded various parts of the monkey’s hand until the electrode lit up. He repeated this process thousands of times, inserting the electrode into slightly different parts of the brain, with five monkeys. Eventually he had the most detailed neural map (to date) of which specific parts of the brain registered sensation from which part of the hand.

In the second phase of the experiment, Merzenich moves on to severing some of the peripheral nerves in the monkeys’ hands, which grow back haphazardly.

He then proceeded with the prodding and electrodes in the brain to see how the brain reacts. At first the brain is confused: when the tip of the left finger is prodded (for example), the brain thinks the sensation is actually coming from somewhere else, maybe the middle finger.

However, after a few months the brain has remapped itself, and the new map corresponds to the new nerve structure which has grown back in the hands: prod a little finger, and the part of the brain associated with the little finger lit up again.

What Merzenich had discovered was evidence of neuroplasticity in mature primates.

He published his findings in April 1972 in the Journal ‘Brain Research’, but his findings were ignored, it seems, because they lay outside the dominant paradigm of the time which held that the adult brain was immutable and resistant to change.

He persisted in his research, and uncovered further evidence of neuroplasticity, but his findings were ignored for at least a decade more. In 1983 he wrote in another journal…

‘…. these results were completely contrary to a view of sensory systems as consisting of a series of hardwired machines.’

Eventually, however, Merzenich’s research gained credibility with the establishment, and a re-reading of the research-record finds a tradition of ‘deviants’, going back to Freud, that have either theorised or found evidence of the active-learning, ‘neuroplastic’ brain.

More recent evidence for neuroplasticity

From the 1980s research on neuroplasticity evolved with ever more microscopic brain probing equipment, and extensive research has now been carried out on both animals and humans. The evidence today suggests a very high degree of brain plasticity in several neuro circuits – not just those associated with physical sensation, but also seeing hearing, feeling and memory.

Our brains, it appears, are massively plastic. They may get less plastic as we age, but the ability of our brains to reform themselves and create new new neural pathways in response to new experiences carries on into our old age. Our neurons are always breaking old connections and forming new ones, and brand-new nerve cells are always being created.

Every time we perform a task or experience a sensation, whether physical or mental, a set of neurons in our brains is activated… as the same experience is repeated, the synaptic links between the neurons grow stronger and more plentiful. What we learn is embedded in the ever-changing cellular connections inside our head, forming true vital paths. This has become known as Hebbs rule – cells that fire together wire together.

One experiment which demonstrate how synaptic connections can change in relation to experience is Eric Kandel’s Sea Slug (Aplysia) experiment. This found that if you touch a sea slugs gill, it will normally immediately and reflexively recoil. However, if you repeatedly touch the gill without oing it harm, ,the recoil reaction stops.

Neuroplasticity: common ground for nature and nurture views of human development

The plasticity of our synapses brings into harmony two philosophies of the individual that have for centuries been in conflict: the nurture versus nature view of the mind.

This conflict of views stretches all the way back to very beginning of Enlightenment thought. John Locke’s Tabula Rasa empiricist view of the individual as a blank state is one of the earliest expressions of the nurture view of human development, while Kant’s rationalist view of the individual as consisting of a mental template at birth which determines what we can know is one of the earliest theories of human development which favours the role of nature over nurture.

The opposing philosophies of the empiricist and the rationalist find common ground in the synapse – our genes specify many of the connections between neurons, but our experiences regulate the strength or the long-term effectiveness of these connections.

The brain is not the machine we once thought it to be…… the cellular components do not form permanent structures or play rigid roles. There are various examples and experiments which demonstrate this:

  • If a person is struck blind, the visual cortex will be redeployed and used for audio processing to mitigate the loss of site.
  • Those struck deaf will develop stronger peripheral vision.
  • Edward Taub’s success with ‘intensive therapies’ for stroke victims whose brains have been damaged so that they have lost control over one side of their body. His therapies basically involve stroke victims repeating repetitive tasks with their ‘stricken’ limbs until, eventually their brains are reprogrammed, and movement restored.

NB Brain plasticity is not just limited to extreme cases. It seems that the map of the brain is changed in subtle ways even when we simply learn a new skill. The brain is so plastic, in fact, that it can reprogram itself on the fly, change the way it functions.

Two experiments which suggest that lived experience changes the shape of the brain….

  • The posterior hippocampus region (the bit that deals with spatial awareness) of the brain of London cab drivers is larger than a normal brain. The longer serving cab drivers had the largest posterior hippos.
  • An experiment with non-piano players got two groups of people to learn a short simple piece. One group practiced the piece 2 hours a day for 5 days, the second group just imagined practising the piece. Both improved, and both demonstrated the same brain changes.

According to Alvaro Pascual-Leone, ‘Plasticity is the normal ongoing state of the nervous system throughout the lifespan’. It may just be that the genius of our brains lies not in it’s complex structure, but in the lack of a structure.

In other words, we become neurologically what we think!

The downsides of neuroplasticity

Unfortunately, plastic does not mean elastic.

The paradox of plasticity is that for all our mental flexibility, it can also lock us into rigid behaviours. Once we have activated new circuitry in our brain, we long to keep it activated. In addition to being the mechanism for development and learning, plasticity can be a cause of pathology’.

Neuroplasticity has been linked to afflictions such as depression, OCD and tinnitus, and it works in much the same way as addictive drugs… the more we focus on these negative traits, the more we get locked into them.

A final problem is that there appears to be a rule of ‘survival of the busiest’. There is an opportunity cost associated with reinforcing any set of neural pathways. If we reinforce one set, others become less prominent. In other words, we cannot be skilled at everything!

In conclusion (to chapter 2)

It is comforting to think of our brain as existing in ‘splendid isolation’ but the research evidence suggests that this is not the case – our brains are a product of our experience. They change as we experience new things.

For my summary of chapter three, please click here. To purchase the whole book, please click the link below…

Image Sources 

The Enlightenment mind as machine image

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400, 000 children in the UK do not have their own bed

400, 000 children live in such extreme poverty that their parents are unable to afford to buy them their own bed. The 400, 000 figure is an estimate made by the charity Buttle UK. 

The charity calculated the estimated figure of 400, 000 based on a sample of the 10 000 families it helped last year. Among those 10 000 families, 25% of children did not have a proper bed of their own to sleep in.

Estimation errors aside for the moment (see below on this), I was altered to this shocking indicator of child poverty by a short item on Radio Kent, and although it has filtered through to mainstream news, it doesn’t seem to be particularly high up the agenda.

The impacts of ‘bed poverty’ 

As Buttle UK points out… one of the main problems with bed poverty is that it has a negative impact on children’s physical and mental health. If they are failing to get a decent night’s sleep, then they are less likely to be able to concentrate in school.

Then there is the rather grim fact that mattresses or pillows used as a bed, which are stored on the floor, are more likely to be infested with bugs that a mattress on a ‘normal’ raised bed. This means poor children are more likely to be infested with bugs than children with proper beds.

What are the causes of bed poverty?

Well, I guess this is down to the existence of poverty in general in the UK. A bed is one of those relatively large expenditure items that you can live without if necessary, so if you’re one of the nearly 30% of children living in absolute poverty (after housing costs) I guess it makes sense for your parents to prioritize food and heating before a bed.

The ideological choice to cut welfare payments which are part of ongoing Tory policy also obviously help to exacerbate the number of children in poverty in general and in ‘bed poverty’ in particular.

NB – Be cautious about these stats

Although I accept the fact that tens, maybe hundreds of thousands of of children live in ‘bed poverty’, I’m not convinced that the figure is as high as 400, 000. My reasoning is that the charity probably works with the very poorest, and I think that figure possibly uses ‘softer measurements’ of poverty to beef up their claim. (NB this is only a possibility, they don’t actually say in the article which measure of poverty they use to derived the 400, 000 figure!)

Relevance to the A-level sociology syllabus 

This is yet another indicator of child poverty, and also probably a new concept (‘bed poverty’) for most students. It’s also a good example of ‘hidden poverty’ – this is a good example of an aspect of poverty that most of us wouldn’t even notice, even though the consequences are severe.

It has obvious relevance to the sociology of education: as explained above, those missing out on a decent night’s sleep will not be able to learn effectively. It’s a classic example of how material deprivation can affect class differences in education.

Finally, although I haven’t discussed it any depth here, this is also a good reminder of the need to be skeptical about the use of statistics – there are different measurements of poverty (relative and absolute), and I’m not actually convinced that the 400, 000 figure is valid. This is a good example of a statistic that is socially constructed and a campaign that possible lacks objectivity, so this can even be tied in to debates surrounding value freedom!

Image sources 

Dirty Mattress

Full Fact – poverty graph

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