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Britain in Statistics (2017)

Just a look back at what some of the official statistics and opinion polls told us about life in Britain in 2017…selected so they’re relevant to families and households, education and crime and deviance…

  • The proportion of women aged 18 who started university in 2017 was nearly 1/3rd greater than men – 37.1% compared to 27.3%.
  • Family size is declining: about 45% of children today have no siblings.
  • The ageing population: the proportion of people aged 65 and over in work has almost doubled since 1992 – 5.5% to 10.4% – there are now nearly 1.2 million over 65s in work.
  • The downsides of immigration: Of the 8008 people registered homeless in London (2015-16) only 3271 were British, nearly 3000 were from central or eastern Europe and fully 1,546 were Romanian
  • Crime and racial injustice: Young black youths are nine times as likely to be in England and Wales.
  • Class inequality: there are 59 theaters in London’s private schools, but only 42 in the West End.

I had intended to make this an all bells and whistles posts, but time, much like the year, has just about run out!

Happy New Year!

Sources:

Taken from The Week, 23rd December 2017.

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Concepts in Quantitative Sociological Research

Concepts are the building blocks of theory, and are the points around which social research is conducted.

Concepts are closely related to the main sociological perspectives, and some of the main concepts developed by different perspectives include:

  • Functionalism – social integration and anomie
  • Marxism – social class and alienation.
  • Feminism – gender and patriarchy
  • Interactionism – labelling and discrimination
  • Postmodernism – identity.

Within sociology, one might even say that there’s a more ‘fundamental’ layer of concepts that lie behind the above – such as ‘society’, ‘culture’ and ‘socialization‘, even ‘sociology’ itself is a concept, as are ‘research’ and ‘knowledge’.

Concepts also include some really ‘obvious’ aspects of social life such as ‘family’, ‘childhood’, ‘religious belief’, ‘educational achievement’ and ‘crime’. Basically, anything that can be said to be ‘socially constructed’ is a concept.

Each concept basically represents a label that researchers give to elements of the social world that strikes them as significant. Bulmer (1984) suggests that concepts are ‘categories for the organisation of ideas and observations’.

Concepts and their measurement in quantitative research 

If a concept is to be employed in quantitative research, a measure will have to be developed for it so it can be quantified.

 

Once they have been converted into measures, concepts can then take the form of independent or dependent variables. In other words, concepts may provide an explanation of a certain aspect of the social world, or they may stand for things we want to explain. A concept such as educational achievement may be used in either capacity – we may explore it as a dependent variable (why some achieve fewer GCSE results than others?) Or: as an independent variable (how do GCSE results affect future earnings?).

Measures also make it easier to compare educational achievement over time and across countries.

As we start to investigate such issues we are likely to formulate theories to help us understand why, for example, educational achievement varies between countries or over time.

This will in turn generate new concepts, as we try to refine our understanding of variations in poverty rates.

Why Measure Concepts?

  1. It allows us to find small differences between individuals – it is usually obvious to spot large differences, for example between the richest 0.1% and the poorest 10%, but smaller once can often only be seen by measuring more precisely – so if we want to see the differences within the poorest 10%, we need precise measurements of income (for example).
  2. Measurement gives us a consistent device, or yardstick for making such distinctions – a measurement device allows us to achieve consistency over time, and thus make historical comparisons, and with other researchers, who can replicate our research using the same measures. This relates to reliability.
  3. Measurement allows for more precise estimates to be made about the correlation between independent and dependent variables.

Indicators in Quantitative Social Research 

Because most concepts are not directly observable in quantitative form (i.e. they do not already appear in society in numerical form),  sociologists need to devise ‘indicators’ to measure most sociological concepts. An indicator is something that stands for a concept and enables (in quantitative research at least) a sociologist to measure that concept.

For example….

  • We might use  ‘Average GCSE score’ as an indicator to measure ‘educational achievement’.
  • We might use the number of social connections an individual has to society to measure ‘social integration’, much like Hirschi did in his ‘bonds of attachment theory‘.
  • We might use the number of barriers women face compared to men in politics and education to measure ‘Patriarchy’ in society.

NB – there is often disagreement within sociology as to the correct indicators to use to measure concepts – before doing research you should be clear about which indicators you are using to measure your concepts, why you are choosing these particular indicators , and be prepared for others to criticize your choice of indicators. 

Direct and Indirect indicators 

Direct indicators are ones which are closely related to the concept being measured. In the example above, it’s probably fair to say that average GCSE score is more directly related to ‘educational achievement’ than ‘bonds of attachment’ are to ‘social integration’, mainly because the later is more abstract.

How sociologists devise indicators:

There are a number of ways indicators can be devised:

  • through a questionnaire
  • through recording behaviour
  • through official statistics
  • through content analysis of documents.

Using multiple-indicator measures

It is often useful to use multiple indicators to measure concepts. The advantages of doing so are three fold:

  • there are often many dimensions to a concept – for example to accurately tap ‘religious belief’ questionnaires often include questions on attitudes and beliefs about ‘God’, ‘the afterlife’, ‘the spirit’, ‘as well as practices – such as church attendance. Generally speaking, the more complex the concept, the more indicators are required to measure it accurately.
  • Some people may not understand some of the questions in a questionnaire, so using multiple questions makes misunderstanding less likely.
  • It enables us to make more nuanced distinctions between respondents.

Measuring the effectiveness of measures in quantitative social research

It is crucial that indicators provide both a valid and reliable measurement of the concepts under investigation.

 

 

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What is an Indicator?

An indicator provides a measure of a concept, and is typically used in quantitative research.

It is useful to distinguish between an indicator and a measure:

Measures refer to things that can be relatively unambiguously counted, such as personal income, household income, age, number of children, or number of years spent at school. Measures, in other words, are quantities. If we are interested in some of the changes in personal income, the latter can be quantified in a reasonably direct way (assuming we have access to all the relevant data).

Sociologists use indicators to tap concepts that are less directly quantifiable, such as job satisfaction. If we are interested in the causes of variation of job satisfaction, we will need indicators that stand for the concept of ‘job satisfaction’. These indicators will allow the level of ‘job satisfaction’ to be measured, and we can treat the resulting quantitative information as if it were a measure.

An indicator, then, is something which is devised that is employed as though it were a measure of a concept.

Direct and Indirect indicators 

Direct indicators are ones which are closely related to the concept being measured. For example questions about how much a person earns each much are direct indicators of personal income; but the same question would only be an indirect measurement of the concept of social class background.

 

 

 

 

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Are female surgeons better?

New research suggests that women make better surgeons than men. For the study, a team at the University of Toronto compared like for like procedures performed by 3,314 surgeons at a single Canadian based hospital over an eight-year period.

This revealed that the post-operative death rages for female surgeons were 12% lower than for their male counterparts – a figure that equates to one less patient dying per every 230 operations a woman performs. (Clearly the death rates are very low!).

Previous research has also found that women doctors have, on average, slightly better outcomes than male ones and that they are less likely to be struck off.

How might we explain these disparities?

  • Researchers speculate that women may be more better communicators and more cautious than men.
  • However, it may also be that women face greater obstacles to entering a male-dominated profession – with the result that only the most skilled qualify as surgeons.
  • You also have to question the representativeness of the Canadian study – in only one hospital in one country, you can hardly generalise from this!

Sources

The Week, 21 Oct 2017

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The most popular A Levels of 2017

Maths wins, with 88, 000 entries, followed by English (74, 000 entries) and just to prove we truly live in an uncritical, individualised society, Psychology comes in at 3rd with 57,000 entries.

Here’s a tree map I knocked up showing this – the interactive version is at this link

A level statistics 2017

Click here for another interactive version which allows you to compare entries from between 2014 to 2017….

A quick note on some of the categories…

Basically feel free to harangue me if you don’t think PE is a social science – I just didn’t want to call it a science, and neither does it really fit anywhere else.

I also may have cut out a few of the more minor A-levels, so this isn’t exhaustive.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Explaining the Increase in Sex Crime Prosecutions

A fifth of Crown Prosecution cases are alleged sex crimes or domestic abuse. In fact, the proportion compared to all prosecutions has nearly trebled in the last decade.

Alleged sex crimes and domestic abuse offences now account for nearly 20% of cases pursued by the Crown Prosecution Service compared to just under 8% a decade ago.

Prosecutions for sexual offences excluding rape reached a new peak of 13,490 in the latest financial year, while the number of rape prosecutions completed rose from 4,643 in 2015-16 to a record 5,190 in 2016-17.

It’s also worth noting that the successful prosecution rate has increased to around 75%

Why the proportionate rise in prosecutions?

There seems to be at least three main reasons:

Firstly, there’s more reporting of sexual and domestic violence – the rise of prosecutions are in line with a sharp jump in reports of sexual abuse to police seen in recent years in the wake of high-profile investigations launched after the Jimmy Savile scandal.

Secondly, authorities are also mounting increasing numbers of investigations involving the internet, including child sexual abuse, harassment and revenge pornography cases. For example the number of prosecutions sparked by alleged revenge porn – the disclosure of private sexual photographs or films without consent – more than doubled from 206 to 465 in the last year.

Thirdly, new laws have been introduced, criminalising a broader range of offences – for example a new law introduced to clamp down on domestic abusers whose conduct stops short of physical violence, such as those who control their victims through the internet and social media: there have been 309 alleged offences of controlling or coercive behaviour charged since the legislation was introduced at the end of 2015.

HOWEVER, there are some areas where prosecutors could do better:

There were year-on-year falls in prosecutions for “honour-based” violence and forced marriage, the report shows, while there were no prosecutions for female genital mutilation – it’s unlikely that there were no cases of the later in the last year in the UK.

Sources 

The Guardian 

The data above is taken from the CPS’s 10th report on violence against women and girls (Vawg). Cases where victims are men or boys are also covered by the analysis.

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Sugata Mitra’s Hole in the Wall Experiment

In 1999 Sugata Mitra put a computer connected to the internet in a hole in the wall in a slum in Delhi and just left it there, to see what would happen.

The computer attracted a number of illiterate, slum children, who, by the end of the first day had taught themselves to surf the internet, despite not knowing what a computer or the internet were, or being able to read.

Over the next five years Mitra progressed his hole in the wall experiment to focus on delivering more specific knowledge – by posing questions via the computer in the hole in the wall. One question he asked, for example, was ‘why does hair grow’? After a few days, non-English speaking Tamil students were able to answer this question with reference to cell-biology.

Mitra then advanced his experiment even further in the UK – bringing his methods to Schools of Gateshead – where, without the English language barrier, students as young as nine were able to teach themselves about Quantum Entanglement, just from the internet.

The absence of a teacher was acting as a pedagogical  tool – with students as young as young as nine.

Mitra’s basic theory of learning is that children simply need two things to learn effectively:

  • Firstly, they need to be allowed to crowd around computers which are connected to the internet.
  • Secondly, they need the absence of a teacher.

This is the absolute opposite of our current model of education, which Mitra argues was built to meet the needs of the British Empire, when people had to do the work of machines, and the system needed identical people who needed to be taught to not ask questions, and under no circumstances be creative.

We still have this model today – which is also a ‘just in case’ model of education – we teach people to be able to do things (e.g. solve quadratic equations) just in case they need to be able to do so.

According to Mitra, this model is completely out of date and out of touch with (post?) modern times – now that all knowledge is available online, the idea of individual knowledge is simply redundant: we don’t need to know until we need to know – and we need to move to a ‘just in time’ model of education, in which kids are allowed to learn quickly from the internet what they need when they need it.

Interestingly Mitra says he finds the idea of the redundancy of individual knowledge distasteful, but he has to report what the data from his Hole in the Wall Experiment reveals.

Mitra isn’t saying that we don’t need teachers, just that don’t need the type of teacher who gives uni-directional instructions, rather you need a teacher to be a friend, for moral support and a role model, to guide you through learning.

What children need is a a self-organised learning environment – and it does help if you have an adult who isn’t necessarily knowledgeable but is admiring who spurs children on (like his own Grandmother did).

All of this raises the question of whether we actually need schools? The general consensus of the programme seems to be that we do, but primarily because they are social environments, and children benefit from the social aspect of schooling, and that we don’t necessarily need traditional teachers.

Mitra also suggests that we need to re-think about what socialising actually is, and how technology might be changing this – when you’re floating around on Facebook, for example, is that socialising, or is it something completely different?

Sugata Mitra is Professor of Educational Technology at the School of Education, Communication and Language Sciences at Newcastle University.

Sources

Summarised from Radio Four’s ‘Start the Week: Technology in Education’

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Postmodern Methods in Louis Theroux Documentaries

Louis Theroux documentaries are a great example of ‘postmodern’ research methods.

I say this for the following reasons:

  • Firstly, these documentaries select unusual, deviant case studies to focus on, which is especially true of the latest series – ‘Dark States’ which consists of three episodes about heroin users, sex trafficking and murder.
  • Secondly, they tend to have a narrative style, focusing on people’s stories.
  • Thirdly, there’s a lack of structure about the documentaries… Theroux makes a connection with people and sees where that leads.
  • Fourthly – there’s no real attempt to be critical, or provide any analyses of the role of economic and political structures which lie behind these stories. In short, they are not properly sociological!
  • Finally, these documentaries seem to be produced for entertainment purposes only – they simply invite us to marvel or gawp at the ‘fantastically fucked up’ individuals before us, without offering any real solutions as to how they might sort their lives out, or how society should deal with them.

A brief analysis of two episodes of ‘Dark States’ demonstrates the postmodern nature of these documentaries:

In the first episode in the series, Heroin Town, Theroux looks at how the over-prescription of painkillers has unleashed a heroin epidemic. Theroux says that he largely steered clear of the pharmaceutical companies, regulators and politicians who permitted the disaster…. Instead, he hung out on streets where heroin and opioid addiction is “off the scale, unlike anything I’d ever seen before” and made addicts the stars, giving them space to express themselves and showing how many are beguiled by the romance of being outlaws.

The third episode, on Sex Trafficking in Houston, focuses on the relationships between sex workers and pimps, also shows the ‘postmodern documentary method – in which Theroux deliberately avoided making any value judgments:

Theroux says that he avoided the term “sex slave”: “If you overdo the abusive dimension, you strip the women of agency – it’s oddly disempowering and kind of neo-Victorian. The women are getting a kind of emotional fulfilment in their relationship with the pimps, even though it is poisonous and often damaging.” The pimps tended to be stylish, eloquent and intelligent. “These guys are, in their own way, deeply damaged, often the children of prostitutes, who may have had dads or family friends who were pimps. The closest analogy I have is that they are living in semi-apocalyptic conditions where the police are just not an option.”

Of course there are both strengths and limitations of these postmodern methods… I guess the biggest strength is that they allow the respondents to speak for themselves, and it’s down to the viewer to interpret the information as they will, and analyse deeper if they feel the need!

Sources:

The Guardian

 

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The Internet as an Object of Content Analysis

Websites, social media posts and similar virtual documents are all forms of secondary data, and thus amenable to both quantitative and qualitative content analysis.

 

global internet use stats.png
The sheer number of internet users creating online documents makes researching them a challenge

 

There are, however, many difficulties in using web sites as sources of content analysis. Following Scott’s (1990) four criteria of assessing the quality of documents, we need consider why a web site is constructed in the first place, whether it is there for commercial purposes, and whether it has a political motive.

In addition, we also need to consider the following potential problems of researching web sites:

  • Finding websites will probably require a search engine, and search engines only ever provide a selection of available web sites on a topic, and the sample they provide will be biased according to algorithm the engine uses to find its websites. It follows that use of more than one search engine is advisable.
  • Related to the above point, a search is only as good as the key words the researcher inputs into the search engines, and it could be time consuming to try out all possible words and combinations.
  • New web sites are continually appearing while old ones disappear. This means that by the time research is published, they may be based on web sites which no longer exist and not be applicable to the new ones which have emerged.
  • Similar to the above point, existing web sites are continually being updated.
  • The analysis of web sites is a new field which is very much in flux. New approaches are being developed at a rapid rate. Some draw on traditional ways of interpreting documents such as discourse analysis and qualitative content analysis, others have been developed specifically in relation to the Web, such as the examination of hyperlinks between websites and their significance.

Most researchers who use documents accept the fact that it can be difficult to determine the population from which they are sampling, and when researching documents online, the speed of development and change of the Web accentuate this problem. The experience of researching documents online can be like trying to hit a moving target that not only moves, but is in a constant state of metamorphosis.

Three examples of content analysis of documents online

Boepple and Thompson (2014) conducted quantitative analysis of 21 ‘healthy living blogs’. Their sampling frame was only blogs which had received an award, and from those, they selected the blogs with the largest number of page views.

They found that content emphasised appearance and disordered messages about food/ nutrition,with five bloggers using very negative language about being fat or overweight and four invoking admiration for being thin. They concluded that these blogs spread messages that are ‘potentially problematic’ for anyone changing their behaviour on the basis of advice contained in them.

Davis et al (2015) conducted an analysis of postings that followed a blog post concerning a cyberbullying suicide y a 15 year old named Amanda Todd. There were 1094 comments of which 482 contained stories about being bullied, 12% about cyberbullying, 75% about traditional bullying, the rest a mixture of both.

The research found that the main reason victims of bullying are targeted is because they do not conform in one way or another to society’s mainstream norms and values, with the most common specific reason for bullying being a victim’s physical appearance.

Humphries et al (2014) conducted content analysis on the kinds of personal information disclosed on Twitter. The authors collected an initial sample of users and they searched friends of this initial sample. In total the collected 101, ,069 tweets and took a random sample of 2100 tweets from this.

One of their findings was that Twitter users not only share information about themselves, they frequently share information about others too.

Concluding Thoughts 

Researching documents online may be challenging, but it is difficult to see how sociologists can avoid it as more and more of our lives are lived out online, so researching documents such as web sites, and especially blogs and social media postings is, I think, very much set to become a growth area in social research.

 

 

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Social Experiments on T.V.

There have been a lot of T.V. productions which have run ‘social experiments’ in recent years. This post simply outlines a few examples of these and some of the strengths and limitations of social experiments run by media companies. Channel 4 seems to be the main outlet for these experiments….

Some (relatively) recent examples of televised social experiments

Return to Eden and Eden Lost

Eden social experiment.jpg

Channel 4’s Return to Eden featured 23 people heading to an island in the Scottish Highlands for a year to see what happened if a small community of people ‘started again’. They had sufficient resources to last the year, so I guess the experiment was just about of seeing how people would interact when their economic basics are sorted out.

The show wasn’t a great success: after the first four episodes (aired in spring 2016), viewing figures slumped to 800 000, and the show only returned in July 2017 as a ‘retrospective’, now called ‘Eden Lost’.

The experiment wasn’t a great success – 13 people left before the experiment ended, with only 10 left at the end. I just hope none the candidates had hopes of becoming a Fogle 2.0 who managed to segway into his media career after the BBC’s Castaway 2000.

The Old People’s Home for 4 Year Olds

This is much less ‘media manufactured’ than the example of Eden above: more of a ‘proper’ experiment with just cameras being present.

old-peoples-home-4-year-olds.jpg

The point of the experiment is to measure the effects of having children present over the course of a few weeks on the physical and mental health of elderly people.

In the experiment variables such as reaction time and mobility of the elderly residents are measured, then the home is effectively turned into a day care nursery for four year olds, with the old-people taking an active role in their day-care, and after a few weeks, their health is tested again.

The results are remarkable!

No More Boys and Girls: Can Our Kids Go Gender Free?

This sort of thing is sociology gold-dust – a school in the Isle of White is turned into a gender-neutral zone…

Boys-girls-gender-stereotypes.jpg

Some strengths and limitations of televised social experiments 

Obviously each of these social experiments have their own individual strengths and limitations, but there are also some generic strengths and limitations which stem from the fact  media companies are involved in the production of these experiments.

  • There are some obvious practical strengths to the social researcher – you can just watch the show and relay the results, this is secondary data after all.
  • There are also some obvious ethical advantages to the social researcher – the respondents have given their consent to the company involved in making, so in effect the ethics of the research are down to the media company – there are no obvious additional ethical problems which might be a barrier to research simply by using what material is made available by the media company.
  • Usually in terms of representativeness, media corps are pretty good at representing a range of classes, genders and ethnicities in these experiments.
  • Probably the biggest problem of televised social experiments is that the primary reason for making them is to make a profit, and to do this they need to be entertaining – thus the kinds of topics chosen will not necessarily be those of interest to social researchers.
  • The ‘entertainment problem’ also comes into play where ‘controlling variables’ and testing hypotheses are concerned – entertainment trumps the kinds of questions asked and the shape of the experiment
  • When it comes to validity, there are also lot of potential problems – you only get to see what the media company wants you to see.  The Hawthorne Effect might also apply – respondents may act differently because they know they are on T.V.
  • Finally, in terms of reliability, this could be difficult because there’s a chance that people doing any repeat experiments will have seen previous experiments, which could influence future results.

So all in all, while these televised social experiments may be entertaining (if that’s your thing), it might well be that they give us very little valid or reliable data about how people interact in the real world.