In praise of theorising

[This entry supports a recent talk on the subject to research students] 

Over the last couple of years I became interested in theory and theorising in social research. I have done this not because I started with a great deal of confidence, or indeed background knowledge, of theory as a concept but, quite the reverse, an awareness of a gap in my understanding. However as I got into the topic I noticed that other colleagues struggle with the concept too and this gave me the push to continue looking into this area. [1]

A logical starting point in trying to understand theory was to get an idea of the core claims made for theory and for me this comes back to language; theoretical concepts provide the language we use to organise our thinking about something. This seems quite slight a contribution but it isn’t, for once you can name a thing you can think about and act on it. For example when you visit another country and don’t understand the language  you cannot express thoughts,  share ideas, or enter into a social world. Of course the frustrating thing here is that you have the concepts but cannot express them, but imagine not being able to give name to the concepts in the first place. Language is absolutely core to what we are as human beings and theorising is a language activity.

Of course when it comes to theorising we can get by without the kind of obsession that social researchers often bring to naming and debating theories but theses obsessions comes from a desire to push boundaries. Theories can be bigged up  but this does not need to be the case.   For example in education research Vygotsky introduced the idea of a zone of proximal development (ZPD) – the difference between what a learner understands at present and what a learner can do with the support of a more knowledgeable other [2]. This concept helps organise the work of a teacher by focusing attention on the gaps in the learners’ understanding, what is the learner ready to grasp and how can the learner be best supported.  Setting it out in this way you might say isn’t a ZPD obvious as a concept? Well yes, but it only appears obvious as someone named it in the first place.

Theories come in different forms [3] and much of the problem many of us have with theory is that the same word covers different ideas. Theory could for example be about introducing a new concept, but for some it could also be about modelling relationships between variables. Theoretical contributions can also cover the study of key thinkers, ideas about  how we should see the world or how we should carry out research into understanding the world [4].

One of the problems, or at least challenges, that arises in talking about theory is that people do not understand that other people might use theory in a different way to themselves. For some researchers explanatory theory is about noticing and explaining cause and effect, if X then people tend to do Y. In contrast, other researchers might want to understand why people behave as they do and, rather than say what causes such behaviour, they are interested in explaining the  consequences –  if people act like X then Y is likely to be an outcome. Thus it not surprising that we all struggle with the word theory and in vivas the question ‘what is your theoretical contribution?’  is such an unsettling question as the student is having to second guess what the examiner means [5]. [Of course the examiner can help here by clarifying what he or she has in mind by theory, but the student can also be proactive and set out what they see as a theoretical contribution before answering the question]. Theory can end up becoming a stick to beat up other researchers (you don’t understand X, you have misapplied Y, you have not read Z) which can be quite misplaced as few theories lend themselves to easy interpretation.

In spite of its different associations I think when it comes to theory there is a common idea that theory should explain and not be ‘merely’ descriptive. Just as in natural science, the models and formulae that some social scientists put forward can offer good representations of what is happening but they are not properly theories if they don’t say how it all fits together [6]. In putting forward  an explanation theorists should have a broader idea about the way that human being behave – as sociologists put it an engagement with agency and structure. For example Bourdieu’ s idea that there are different kinds of capital (social, cultural and economic) which shape social activity would be a model, a useful model but an underdeveloped one,  without the accompanying ideas of habitus (how our life experiences develop within us habits, skills, and dispositions) and field (implicit and explicit rules of behavior, and valuations put on that behaviour in particular sites of activity) [7]. Likewise  Bronfenbrenner’s ecological systems approach (the idea that the individual exists within interlocking micro, macro, exo, meso systems, some of which are directly experiences, some are not)  would be much less without Bronfenbrenner’s view that the point of social development was to develop personal agency [8].

Another point about theories is that they are transferable. Theorists seek to abstract out what is important in a situation and so let others apply and of course reinterpret these theories in other contexts. Theories seem to integrate different findings and there is, in both natural and social science, a view that theories should often provide the least complicated explanation, for example Einstein’s theory of relativity is so thought provoking as it is expressed so simply (E=MC^2) and more recently in economics Piketty’s (cited earlier) formula r>g  (where r is the rate of return on capital and g economic growth)  captures something about wealth and inequality so elegantly  that Piketty has an audience beyond the field of economics. Maybe we exaggerate the value of simplicity but at a pragmatic level theories which try to tell too much are difficult to apply.

If theory is complicated then so too is theorising. According to Swedberg, theorising is what you do when you make a theory.  For Swedberg theorising is speculating and theorising calls for a mix of logic, intuition and  creativity – a different way of thinking [9].  Swedberg draws on the pragmatic thinker Peirce who introduced the term abduction to capture the kind of intuitive guesswork we use when reaching for an explanation. The metaphor of the detective is irresistible here and indeed Peirce’s account of guessing draws on his experience of tracking down a watch – a very expensive watch that had been loaned to him. In his account Peirce seems to have a sixth sense as to who stole the watch and relies more on a hunch to identify the thief rather than on logic or deduction. [10]

Conan Doyle provides another metaphor for guessing, that of detective work. Famously, on meeting Watson for the first time, Holmes says ‘ah you have come from Afghanistan’. Watson imagines that Holmes already knew this but he did not and wants to know how he guessed. Holmes explains:

Here is a gentleman of a medical type, but with the air of a military man. Clearly an army doctor, then. He has just come from the tropics, for his face is dark, and that is not the natural tint of his skin, for his wrists are fair. He has undergone hardship and sickness, as his haggard face says clearly. His left arm has been injured. He holds it in a stiff and unnatural manner. Where in the tropics could an English army doctor have seen much hardship and got his arm wounded? Clearly in Afghanistan.  [11]

Here there is a leap of imagination that brings various observations together around a broader idea. The problem here is that the account is fictional and indeed the Holmes stories are popular as they are comforting (truth will come out) when  in reality  many different hunches or guesses are possible based on the same data.  Indeed there were many other ways to account for the appearance of  Watson than he had just come from Afghanistan. An additional source of confusion in Holmes is that his methods are described as deduction, but they read more like abduction in Peirce’ sense [12].

A further metaphor for theorising is that of the investigative journalism. Stacey Dooley as a documentary film maker models the reflection needed for theorising very well. She also asks the  difficult questions which a social researcher  needs to do  without antagonising her interviewees. Once the interviews are over she steps back and questions the significance of what she has heard. She often finds no easy solutions or conclusions [13].

Detective work and investigative journalism only take you so far as metaphors, social researchers may too make hunches, be obsessive about their inquiries, and go round in circles but a crucial difference is that social researchers have to engage in a very self conscious way with what has been said about a topic or an idea in the past. In discussing their methods researchers such as Wright Mills [14] and Eco [15] show how much they value past literature and take detailed notes on all that they have read. They see theorising as a kind of shuttling between the data they have collected and the theories they have explored.

The idea of comparing data to theory is helpful to describe theorising in academic contexts and Michael Polanyi sheds further light. Polanyi believed that in coming to know something we need  to switch between focal (the goal of the activity) and subsidiary awareness (the particular features of an activity).  (Focal awareness might be the message we want to convey, and subsidiary awareness the grammatical structures we use to construct the message).  Polanyi suggested that we can only really  engage with the focal once we have worked really hard on the particulars – the paradox is that we need to put a great deal of effort into mastering the particulars if we want to  background them.  However, once we have gained a focal attention it is very difficult to look back. This is the idea of tacit knowledge, things we know but find difficult to say – for example the experienced driver who cannot tell you what he or she does when driving a car, or the native language speaker who uses but cannot explain the grammatical forms they are using when speaking. [16]

Polanyi is useful as he shows that theorising is a huge challenge as it requires a step change in the way we think. However, this step change cannot be forced as we need to know in detail what we are theorising about. Perhaps because theorising is such a challenge, and to a degree a process of forgetting, researchers often describe theoretical breakthroughs as a revelation –  they get very excited when it all falls into place. As a example a recent review of Silent Spring  [17] cites Rachel Carson reflecting on her ‘aha moment’ – this is the moment when she can see the disparate data she has on environmental destruction fits into a pattern – the over use of pesticides such as DDT. Carson, like others, uses the metaphor of the jigsaw puzzle:

Recently some of my thinking on all this has begun to fit together like the pieces of a jigsaw puzzle … a great light is breaking in my mind’

and she adds

I have a comforting feeling that  what I shall now be able to achieve  is a synthesis of widely scattered facts, that have not heretofore been considered in relation to each other. It is now possible to build up…a really  damning case against the use of these  chemicals as they are now inflicted upon us.’ [18]

I don’t think it is possible to legislate for the kind of thinking that theorising captures but I can make some suggestions. If trying to theorise it is surely a good idea to step back physically from the data, literally go outside and just think what is the central idea in all you have been looking at. Try to notice what lies behind what you have found out.  Try talking to other people about your ideas, they wont listen to you, but rehearse what is running through your head. Be kind on yourself, don’t assume what you have found is unimportant or not worth knowing, it usually is. Compare your central idea to the literature but be critical of the literature. Try to notice the gaps or things that are not being said. I hear a lot from students who say they have not really understood something and they don’t quite get it. But it could be that they don’t get it because there is something  in the ideas that is missing, not ‘getting it’ might  be a really important step to some new insight.  If you want to be more organised in theorising try looking too at the same data through different perspectives, a kind of theoretical triangulation. Few people do this but it can be illuminating [19] .

Finally whatever you do, be kind to yourself, this is hard.  Try to be gently assertive, put forward your ideas and be open about how you came to reach your conclusions. Argue persuasively but with kindness. Accept there are other ways to look at the data. It is not self-indulgence to theorise if you are a social researcher it is the job.

[1] I have written about this in Hammond, M. (2018). An interesting paper but not sufficiently  theoretical’: What does theorising in social  research look like?Methodological Innovations May- August 2018: 1-10.

[2] See for example Van der Veer, R. and J. Valsiner (1994). The Vygotsky Reader. Oxford, England, Blackwell.

[3] See for example Abend, G. (2008). The meaning of ‘theory’. Sociological Theory,26(2): 173-199 and Krause, M. (2016). The meanings of theorizing. The British Journal of Sociology,67(1): 23-29.

[4] Most articles will fit into these categories, in the talk I gave we looked at Davis, F. (1989). Perceived usefulness, perceived ease of use, and user acceptance of information technology. MIS Quarterly, 13(3), 319–340 as an example of modelling;  Fuchs, C. (2015). Reading Marx in the Information Age: A media and communication studies perspective on capital. London: Routledge as an example of interrogating key thinkers; Piketty, T. (2015). About capital in the twenty-first century. American Economic Review, 105(5), 48-53 as an example of drawing attention to a relationship between variables; Rawls, J. (2009). A Theory Of Justice.MA: Harvard University Press as an example of speculating on what should happen; Reay, D. (2004). Gendering Bourdieu’s concepts of capitals? Emotional capital, women and social class. The Sociological Review, 52(2_suppl), 57-74 as an example of developing a new concept.

[5] See for example the aptly titled Kiley, M. (2015). I didn’t have a clue what they were talking about’: PhD candidates and theory. Innovations in Education and Teaching International, 52(1): 52-63.

[6] Here we looked as an example at Banerjee, A. V., Cole, S., Duflo, E., & Linden, L. (2007). Remedying education: Evidence from two randomized experiments in India. The Quarterly Journal of Economics, 122(3), 1235-1264. This was a study about using support teachers to support children falling behind in schools in India. It was well written and drew out data on achievement. Unlike some experimental studies it did offer an explanation for the success of an intervention but this was underdeveloped.

[7] There is a mass of work on Bourdieu but on forms of capital see for example Bourdieu, P. (1986). The forms of capital in J. Richardson (ed) Handbook of Theory and Research for the Sociology of Education. NY, USA: Greenwood  241-258 as well as examples of applying the theory creatively in for example Reay earlier and Williams, S. (1995). Theorising class, health and lifestyles: can Bourdieu help us?,  Sociology of Health & Illness 17(5): 577-604.

[8] Bronfenbrenner, U. (1979). The Ecology of Human Development, MA, USA: Harvard  University Press.

[9] Swedberg is insightful throughout see for example:

Swedberg, R. (2015). “Before Theory Comes Theorizing or How to Make Social Science More Interesting, British Journal of Sociology 2015 Annual Public Lecture.” [online]

Swedberg, R. (2016). Before theory comes theorizing or how to make social science more interesting.The British Journal of Sociology 67(1): 5-22

Swedberg, R. (2016). Can you visualize theory? On the use of visual thinking in theory pictures, theorizing diagrams, and visual sketches. Sociological Theory34(3): 250-275.

[10] Peirce’s ideas of guessing can be found in his collected works ( 1907, ca., Guessing. MS 687) and the account of the watch is in a republished article Peirce, C. (1929) Guessing, The Hound and Horn, 2, 267-282

[11] Conan Doyle (1887) see also discussion in Sebok (1981) and Walton (2015).

Conan Doyle, A. (1887). A Study in Scarlet, Project Gutenberg [online].

Sebok, T., & Umiker-Sebok, J. (1981). You Know My Method; A juxtaposition of Charles S. Peirce and Sherlock Holmes. Indiana, USA: Gaslight Publications and more analytically Walton, D. (2015). Argument Evaluation and Evidence. Cham, CH: Springer.

[12] The fashion now is to show the detective can overlook what is important, and does not get it right without a great deal of backtracking, as in Wallender, Spiral, The Bridge



The Bridge:

[13] For example The Billion Pound Party – Stacey Dooley Investigates The DUP [online]

[14] Mills, C. W. (1959). The Sociological Imagination. Harmondsworth: Penguin.

[15] Eco, U. (2015). How to Write a Thesis. MA: MIT Press.

[16] Polanyi, M. (1958). Personal knowledge: Towards a Post-Critical Philosophy. Chicago, USA: University of Chicago Press.

[17] Crist, M. (2019). “Rachel Carson’s Forebodings.” London Review of Books 41(11).

[18] Carson, R. (1962). Silent Spring. MA, USA, Houghton Miff.

[19]   Jackson, A. Y. and L. Mazzei (2011). Thinking with Theory in Qualitative Research: Viewing data across multiple perspectives, London: Routledge is unusual in looking at the same data from different standpoints (including Derrida; Foucault; Butler; and Delueze). Mol (2002) The Body Multiple, Duke University Press is an interesting example as the authors separate out the empirical and the theoretical in a study that looks at the day-to-day diagnosis and treatment of atherosclerosis in a Dutch hospital.

Is it few or less people?

I have to read a lot of essays and theses recently and notice that I am getting a obsessive about the ‘correct’ use of language. I don’t like myself for it as I consider myself as flexible and tolerant about the way that language is used. More specifically, I think language rules should be descriptive rather than prescriptive, i.e. they should describe how the language is used rather than how it is used. This means that if I was a rich man is normal (rather than the subjunctive if I were), and less peopleis OK now that fewer is falling into disuse. There is always power bound up with language, and over zealous interpretation of language rules is an effective way of those with cultural power to discount the voices of some people – for if people cannot express themselves correctly why should we listen to them? [1].

So it is no good being too pedantic but following rules is important for it is really quite disruptive when a writer breaks the rules. Inconsistency can be a problem, for example the switching of US and English spelling such as practice / practise and program / programme or numbers written as both digits (10) and in full (ten) at different points in a text.  But it is also the breaking of the rules in the first place. For example I know academic colleagues who are quite OK about contractions in a text (isn’t, couldn’t, won’t) but for me I find  contractions in academic writing holds me up – I suddenly notice the form of what is being said rather than the idea itself. And of course being stopped in your tracks is frustrating.  I realise, of course, that if we all stuck rigidly to  expectations around language then nothing would change and that would be wrong. After all, it does not really matter in terms of meaning whether you contract is not or could not and, going further, would it really matter if we got rid of apostrophes completely as we could understand the meaning from context. But for the moment I want to follow the rules.

Typos are disruptive too but they a different matter. They are not about wanting to change the rules but just things you missed. They are inevitable [2]. For example with a colleague I have just finished writing a book about education research, as writers we checked each other’s work and later my partner kindly read the whole thing.  The book was then proof read formally by the publisher, yet when it came back there were still a number of typos and for that matter one ‘howler’. These have been amended but there will be others we missed even after all this combined checking. I try not to worry as most people will miss them too and will be forgiving but it is distressing how typos leap of the page when you finally read a finished text. The good thing about Blogs is that mistakes are forgiven, they can also be rectified.

[1] One of the interventions I recall reading came from Labov (1972) Academic Ignorance and Black Intelligence writing about value judgements on the way that inner-city children in USA speak. This is archived in several places including  


[2] A recent blog Academic Oscura makes me feel better [online]

Hirsch and Education

In looking at intolerance in public debate  I found several people recommending that we went out and took time to engage in ideas that we know, or think we know, we will disagree with. In this spirit I wanted to look at conservatives on education and I turned first to Hirsch.

It was easy to identify Hirsch as one of the key voices in conservative thinking. His best seller ‘The Schools We Need’ [1] was a key text and was often seen as what inspired Michael Gove when he was in charge of the education in England. So what did Hirsch say?

Like most critics who want us to radically change something he felt he had to make the case that it was all going pear-shaped. Here he is writing about USA but it is the kind of thing that is repeated time and time again by anyone proposing change in any system:

Take a young boy or girl from a typical American family who goes to a typical American school, and imagine that child growing up in France or Germany, Japan or Taiwan. Few would choose to make the experiment. Most Americans believe, as do I, that this country, with its traditions of political freedom and its generous optimism, is the greatest country in the world. But the evidence is strong that that very same young child would grow up more competent in those other countries than in the United States–through having learned much, much more at school in the early grades. Although our political traditions and even our universities may be without peer, our K-12 education is among the least effective in the developed world. Its controlling theories, curricular incoherencies, and what I call its ‘naturalistic fallacies’ are positive barriers to a good education. Scholars from abroad who study American schools are astonished that our children, who score very low in international comparisons, are actually as competent as they manage to be.

What is going wrong for Hirsch is an achievement gap; USA children are falling behind children in other countries and as he later argues it is more socially disadvantaged children who are falling even more behind. Why is this? For Hirsch education in the USA is overly influenced by ‘discredited’ theories of education based on a romantic view of childhood and an anti-knowledge culture in schools.

This is playing to his conservative audience. However what makes Hirsch a powerful protagonist is that he tries to make a pragmatic case for reform. For example he calls out the knee-jerk responses that both political conservatives and liberals make about education and argues that it is possible to take arguments about education on their merits; he describes himself as socially liberal but educationally conservative. He also claims his agenda is concerned not with selection but with underachievement among the socially disadvantaged, including disproportionate numbers of black children, and wants all children to succeed. He proposes a common curriculum, rather than free market solutions such as Charter schools. Hirsch argues too that all children need to gain the ability to read write and communicate clearly, and unless they have the same kind of core knowledge of nature and culture, then they will not be able to participate fully in society and will not enjoy better economic prospects.

Core knowledge is the key thing for Hirsch and teaching this core knowledge is more important than so called generic skills, or higher order skills. Hirsch argues that all advanced skills rest upon prior knowledge and without grounding in core knowledge children do not have a hook on which to hang new ideas. Not surprisingly he is critical too of the argument that technology has made memorisation and knowledge of facts redundant; there are things we do need to commit them to memory. Finally, he argues that on practical grounds that schemes of work should be specific as to content so that children have a common experiences on which to build on when they move classes or, as often happens, when they move school.

Hirsch is at his most persuasive when he is pragmatic. He agues, at least at times, not for one approach instead of another but a rebalancing so that there is more direct teaching and less project work. He is open to change in the curriculum to reflect multi cultural society but such change should not detract from rigour or undermine a common curriculum. He values memorisation but he is not basing his educational ideas on the kind of crass behaviourism beloved by some conservative thinkers and recognises that the mind is a complex thing; teaching approaches such as phonics are not an end in themselves but needed for other academic skills to develop.   He accepts that learners ‘construct’ their ideas, they subjectively interpret what they are given and actively try to make sense of it for themselves. However such constructivism does not mean there is a particular pedagogical approach that should be followed, you can be a good constructivist learner in an instructional class as easily as in a project class.  He does not like individualisation or new fangled ideas such as personalisation of the curriculum and does not like the idea of learning styles.

So what was it worthwhile to explore something I knew I would not agree with? Well, yes as I learnt not to lump conservatism in education with the specific political programmes put forward by Conservative parties, particularly in UK and USA. I discovered that conservatism is really about handing down the past to a new generation. As such it can cut across the political divide – for example Hannah Arendt [2] who was a liberal philosopher was unexpectedly conservative on education matters and had no truck with ‘progressive’ education. Her point was that she wanted teachers to be in authority and feel their authority in the classroom. What I liked in Hirsch was a passion for education and a reaffirmation of the importance of academic knowledge as something that really helped you to think and achieve in life. What I didn’t like was the idea that it was all going wrong – really everywhere and every day?.

I didn’t mind the hard-headed approach when it came to knowledge but you can see how Hirsch could be taken as advocating a diet of rote learning, which is very wrong. He needed to say how the kind of instructional teaching he likes can engage children and what kind of balance should there be between instruction and more flexible guided practice. We also need to know how all this instructional teaching can lead later to free expression of ideas. He is pretty much hands-off as regards curriculum reform, but why not move the curriculum into areas which have more relevance or hold more interest to young learners.

Hirsch is least persuasive when cherry picking evidence and making sweeping generalisation. That was just annoying. For him education professors are fighting battles of long ago: they are all of one mind, they have little intellectual rigour and standing, and  they do not tolerate dissent. I have not lived in USA but the US education academics I have met were, like most academics everywhere, geeky and obsessive about teaching and learning rather than consistently ‘progressive’.

So the exercise in this case was worthwhile. I could see much better what lay behind Hirsch’s ideas but I was not a convert.

[1] Hirsch, E. D. (2010). The Schools We Need: and Why We Don’t Have Them. NY, USA, Anchor.

[2]Arendt, H. (1961 / 1977). Between Past and Present. London: Penguin.

Does Virtual Reality work for education?

Back to more familiar territory: technology. The other week our research centre put on a morning event about virtual reality. Much of it was new for me but the questions it posed about what to do with new technology were familiar ones.

So what is VR? One definition I liked came from Lavalle [1] for whom VR was about tricking our senses to feel we were present in a computer simulated world. I liked the idea of ‘tricking the senses’ as this suggest that there is something more intense going on than if you were playing around within a ‘two dimensional world’ in, say, Second Life or the Sims.  But it also suggests that there is, with the best will in the world, a deceit going on. Key to understanding this deceit is that VR provides a world with depth (technically the three dimensional feel works by a process of ‘stereopsis’ – presenting a separate picture to each eye) and one without boundaries (objects remain stationary while you interact and move around however you like). A good question is ‘who is the ‘you’ in all this?’. Are you yourself or are you a mental model of yourself, perhaps an Avator or other form of on screen presence.

To get the idea of VR find someone with an appropriate Smart phone and head set. Alternatively there are thousands of examples  on YouTube – presented in flat 2D video clips but they give the idea of what is possible. For example:

Clouds of Sydria:

VR Goggles Gender Swap Experience: 

Our First Look at Kraken Unleashed VR Coaster: 

Birdly: The Dream of Flying:


BeAnotherLab experiments with gender identity

Of these examples two – the Clouds of Sydria and gender swap – were about stepping into the shoes of ‘the other’. These intrigued me, though how far you can be tricked into really taking on another identity, even temporarily, is an open question. One, the theme park idea, crossed over into the world of augmented reality as the computer experience was meant to work synchronously with the physical roller coaster ride.  It was probably close to the very last thing I would want to do but I could see the enthusiasm it promoted. The birdly example was about experiencing something in a 3D world that was impossible in our physical world. I liked it and wonder how far it could give us the sensation of flying. The chess example was about showing off the technology but I think any chess player would find it distracting and pointless. What is missing in my examples are more conventional online game environments and for that matter sex industry applications which in their separate ways figure significantly in the early adoption of technology, but I wanted to focus on the more mainstream. In fact VR is increasingly mainstream as you can see in the ways it is sold  by Smart Phone providers, for example the Samsung Ostrich Commercial [2].  It is also interesting to see  big budget films, most recently Speilberg’s Ready Player One [3], engaging with the concept of VR.

So is VR relevant for education?

It struck me how discussion of VR in education feels similar to discussion of any technology in the past. That is to say the technology is generally developed in the wider world and then educators react by finding things to do with it. This is not meant as a criticism. It would be sad if educationalists were not thinking about how the world is changing, and how those changes can be put to use, but it does suggest that the cross over into education is not straightforward. As regards VR we are at the stage of ‘early adoption’ and you can see early examples of VR applications in an education context [4] as well as a number of Ted talks promoting VR as a (possible) solution to engagement of young people [5]. Much of the rhetoric around VR, as with other technologies in the past, refers to young people’s supposed preference for technology and the sheer range of contexts that would not be accessed without VR (e.g. via VR you can visit an ancient civilisation, go up into space, travel around  the human body). There is also the idea that VR experiences are more intense and thus more memorable than other online ones or even ones in the physical world. Put like this we may expect to see VR taken up more and more.  But in practice technology, and there is no reason for VR to be any different, runs up against considerable barriers including ones of access, curriculum and training. All this leads to a growing realisation that the visions for technology held by enthusiasts are not universally held.

So what future does VR have in education?  First it is going to take a while to overcome access issues. Even if many learners bring their own smart phones this is not creating a classroom where everyone has kit which is fast, reliable and compatible with the software. You cannot as a teacher turn up assuming everything is in place, you are still talking of niche contexts for the foreseeable future. But supposing you really could access VR as and when you wanted to, would it be worth it? I can see possibilities. For example short episodes of VR that would give a unique insight into an environment. But the key thing to remember here is that education is not about the experience but telling a story about the experience. So what you are after is not a class that had memorable experiences of, say, walking with dinosaurs [6] but students who can ask questions such as: does  this VR application offer faithful representations of prehistoric worlds? Do these animals bear likenesses to ones we see today? How do animals adapt to change ecologies?

I would also like to see more questioning of claims about the intensity of the experience. For example via VR you can step into someone else shoes but, let us face it. it is not for real.   You may be more aware of what it is like to be a refugee and that might be important and valuable to your developing sense of who you are, but it is all temporary. Finally, VR adoption is not helped by health concerns. Of course such concerns have always popped up with new technology. I remember teaching spreadsheets years ago and there was always someone who said that the screens made them feel dizzy.  It was easy, if wrong, to dismiss this. But  VR headsets do seem to create problems on a wider scale and these might not be so easy to ignore.

[1] Lavalle, S. (2016) Virtual Reality [online]

[2] The Samsung Ostrich Commercial

[3] Ready Player One trailer at

[4] You can see some thinking about VR in higher education at:

[5] This Ted talk, led by Michael Bodekaer looks at VR in  Science education

[6] VR dinosaurs at


Do the drugs work?

I was struck the other day by the reporting in the press of an academic paper on antidepressants and their impact [1]. According to these reports antidepressants were now officially verified as very effective and should be taken by more people. But was this really what the study was saying? This is the story.

In the paper Cipriani et al (2018) argued, on the basis of a systematic review of the evidence, that: ‘All antidepressants were more efficacious, though some more efficacious than others, than placebo in treating adults with major depressive disorders’.  There were important qualifications. The review was looking at short-term effects; it was not being claimed that anti-depressants worked better than other treatments; gains came with side effects; the gains were at times modest. But nonetheless there was an impact. There was less about implications for practice in the paper so I went to the press release from the University in which the lead author was based to see if I had missed something. In the release the implications were summed up as:

‘Antidepressants can be an effective tool to treat major depression, but this does not necessarily mean that antidepressants should always be the first line of treatment. Medication should always be considered alongside other options, such as psychological therapies, where these are available. Patients should be aware of the potential benefits from antidepressants and always speak to the doctors about the most suitable treatment for them individually.’ [2]

The reporting in the press was however quite different from this press release and can best be described as victory narrative about the power of science to solve whatever ails us, in this case major depression. This narrative was carried across the UK press and, I think, was taken up internationally as well. To turn to the UK, the left leaning Guardian proclaimed in an opinion piece: ‘It’s official: antidepressants are not snake oil or a conspiracy – they work’. The author of the piece summed up the research by saying ‘we should get on with taking and prescribing them’ [3]. The Times led with ‘More people should get pills to beat depression. Millions of sufferers would benefit, doctors told’ [4]. The Independent went further ‘Doctors should prescribe more antidepressants for people with mental health problems, study finds’. And the same article went as far as to claim ‘Research from Oxford University, which was published in The Lancet, found that more than one million extra people would benefit from being prescribed drugs and criticised “ideological” reasons doctors use to avoid doing so.’[5]. This left the Mail, which can usually be relied upon to offer the most far-fetched take on evidence based practice, looking quite mainstream. It suggested that ‘Millions MORE of us should be taking antidepressants: Largest-ever study claims the pills DO work and GPs should be dishing them out. [6]

I have nothing of value to say about the treatment of depression [7] but I am familiar with systematic studies, particularly in education. Their obvious value is that they tell you something really useful about the sweep of evidence (here that antidepressants tend to work better than placebos) and their scope makes their findings intuitively convincing (Cipriani et al aggregated over 500 studies and included over 100,000 patients). Systemic reviews are not however reliable guides as to what to do in individual cases as they are focused on the general picture. Further, systematic review might establish a measure of correlation but doesn’t tend to engage deeply in saying why doing X might work better than doing Y. Systematic reviews are only as good as the studies they aggregate. Here some argue that the whole field of medical research is distorted by pharmaceutical funding which makes any reported research unreliable. However this was not the stance of Cipriani et al and their research was independently funded. Instead a more widespread criticism of systematic review is that the case studies they access are often stilted to showing impact quite simply as the ones that show no impact are a lot less interesting to write, let alone publish. At least this is how it often looks in education.

Whatever we think about systematic review, the press went way beyond what was presented in the Cipriani et al paper and, in doing so, exaggerated the strengths of systematic review. We can put forward different reasons why this happened. Some [8] would see this as the influence of vested commercial interests but more likely in this case is that a big and wild claim was more likely to catch readers’ attention than a small and balanced one. I also think that reporting of anything that comes out of academic research is distorted by a desire to believe that there are simple solutions to complex problems when clearly there are not. So in one sense over-inflation of academic findings should be expected but what most disappointed me was the uniformity of the response. A head of steam was built up around the unqualified efficacy of antidepressants which was not the story in the original research.

Before moving on from this story, I became interested in the way that the press reports had been discussed in the online comments sections. The comments turned out to be civil and insightful, at least more so than I had predicted. There were blanket statements condemning pharmaceutical companies and accusations that the authors were part of a conspiracy to have us take drugs for private profit. However there was no shortage of people giving balanced and insightful accounts of their own experiences of antidepressants. In fact these experiences tended to be positive though writers were at pains to say this was their personal experience and they could not generalise for others. It was a case of the comments doing a better job than the reporting and I wonder whether this was because the politics of the issue did not follow predictable lines and this allowed a greater degree of openness.


[1] Cipriani A, Furukawa TA, Salanti G, et al. Comparative efficacy and acceptability of 21 antidepressant drugs for the acute treatment of adults with major depressive disorder: a systematic review and network meta-analysis The Lancet. Published online February 21 2018

[2] University of Oxford Antidepressants more effective in treating depression than placebo,

[3] Rice-Oxley, M. (2018) It’s official: antidepressants are not snake oil or a conspiracy – they work. Guardian [online]

The paper’s regular health correspondent (Sarah Bosely) concluded along the same lines that ‘The drugs do work: antidepressants are effective’. Guardian [online]

What I found misleading here, and in other press reporting, was that commentary about the Cipriani et al paper was mixed up with a comments by other experts on the widely acknowledged lack of support for people with depression. The implication was that to be critical of the study was to condemn people to untreated depression.

[4] Smyth, C. (2018) More people should get pills to beat depression, Millions of sufferers would benefit, doctors told. Sunday Times [online]

[5] Khan, S. (2018) Doctors should prescribe more antidepressants for people with mental health problems, study finds. Independent [online]

[6] Pickles, K. (2018) Millions MORE of us should be taking antidepressants: Largest-ever study claims the pills DO work and GPs should be dishing them out. Mail [online]

[[7] If you have a special interest then go to the NHS Choices Review of Evidence aimed at practitioners and the general public. They conclude from reading Cipriani et al that:

People are more likely to see their symptoms improve if they take an antidepressant than if they take a placebo. The researchers said the effects of the drugs were “mostly modest” and noted that antidepressants are just one of several evidence-based treatments for depression.

They also comment that Cognitive behavioural therapy, rather than antidepressants, remained the first-choice treatment for people with mild symptoms. This however was  not a concern of the study itself.

NHS Choices (2018) Big new study confirms antidepressants work better than placebo [online]

[8] A full on critique of the research and its reporting was offered in particular by Dr Joanna Moncrieff who appeared on television and wrote to the papers offering her objections. To get a flavour go to the blog Mad in America below where she is interviewed by James Moore. [online]


It does not make the job very appealing

Although my work focuses on education and technology, rather than party politics, the book I enjoyed reading the most last year was Harriet Harman’s biography [1], or more accurately her reflection on a career as a leading Labour politician in UK. The book is largely about being a woman in a man’s world. Harman was the first candidate to fight and win a by-election while pregnant and joined a House of Commons which was 97 per cent male. She went on to bring up three children while working all hours in Westminster and in her constituency.

Harman’s book is unusual in political memoirs as having a focus on women and the challenge of changing attitudes, not just by taking on the Conservative governments but also entrenched sexism in the Labour party. Although she achieved much in advancing women’s rights on a national stage, when just to be a committed constituency MP would have been an achievement in itself, what shines through is her vulnerability. In particular she was very firm in her feminist principles but acknowledged that she felt it much more difficult to stand up for herself than to stand up for others. She had to be persuaded to fight her constituency by-election in the first place and was worried in case her campaigns for more family friendly working hours in parliament might be seen as about her. Not surprisingly she needed encouragement to stand for leadership positions. The photo chosen for the book cover conveys this vulnerability well. It shows the young Labour candidate looking rather out of her depth, and this provides a sharp contrast to the conventional steely gaze on the dust jackets of most political biographies.

The book has been reviewed sympathetically. Interestingly these reviews have nearly always been written by women. McNicol [2] in particular provides a good description of the book and begins by saying that Harriet Harman ‘doesn’t make being a female MP sound very appealing’. In fact it does not make the job of an MP in general appealing and Harman was only ever able to go on and achieve what she did as she was part of a network of women who were determined to change the system. The surprise for me was that I had seen Harman as a rather inconsequential political figure, worthy but not very effective but I realized that I was reading this wrong. She was consistent and determined. She found the everyday sexism she encountered demoralising and at times it got through to her. She could have walked away. I had underestimated her leadership. She was offering a kind of servant leadership, though this is not a term she used herself. As a politician she put her ego backstage and tried to articulate the wishes of her network of women colleagues, it is a collective leadership though of course does not rule out standing up for your beliefs or making difficult decisions.

I was particularly interested in the early part of the book. She described her difficulties in fitting in at school (she went to a school which was academically very successful but was ‘carrying a smug sense of superiority’ quite out of tune with the changing times). She benefitted from the expansion of higher education in the 1960’s and went to York University where again she asked herself what she was doing there. In the reviews much is rightly made of a story she tells of a lecturer who, told her if she slept with him he’d make sure she got a 2.1. She turned him down and got a 2.1 anyway.

After university she found herself beginning legal training, encountering more sexism, and none of it making much sense. She started volunteering in her spare time in a legal rights centre in Brent, London. This was part of a network of centres offering legal advice and support for those who could not afford to pay for it. She found herself becoming involved with tenants associations, trade unions and radical lawyers. She felt at home and became committed to women’s rights and by extension to support for the Labour party. This led to working for the national Council for Civil Liberties, becoming deeply engaged with feminist politics.

Harman’s story of Labour in Parliament follows an arc that is well known to those following UK politics over the last 20 or 30 years. There was a right wing Prime Minister, Thatcher, opposed by a sectarian militancy that almost wrecked the Labour party. Next came the movement to make Labour more mainstream and electable. This was followed by three terms of successful labour government which only fell apart due to external events – the world financial crisis 2008 / 9. We now have had three conservative (led) governments and the unpicking of what Labour had achieved with the danger of left sectarianism re-emerging. There is a lot in this version of events but did Labour leaders like Harman end up losing the plot at least as far as their supporters were concerned? There are two events that stand out. The first was the Iraq war. Harman explains she supported the war on the grounds of there being weapons of mass destruction. She was wrong and the decision taken had tragic consequences for everybody concerned. Labour supporters and women became particularly critical of the decision, at least in its aftermath [3].

The second incident was local and purely symbolic. It was the decision she took as stand- in leader of the Labour party after the lost election of 2015 to have the party abstain on the conservative government’s welfare bill that included cuts to social security. To abstain on what was the first reading of a bill was not unusual and to vote against would have made no practical difference. However to Labour supporters it signalled that the party had lost focus in fighting the cause of the people they represented. Jeremy Corbyn was the only leadership contender that voted against the Bill and went on to win the Party leadership. It is difficult to comprehend why Harman had got this so wrong.

Harman’s book makes a timely contribution to the debate on gender and sexism, but I would recommend the book as much for its tone as for its content. She does that rare thing of showing modesty and humility at the same time as conviction and persistence. I would particularly recommend it to anyone not enjoying higher education or over committed to getting a ‘good degree’ as well. Looking at her account of volunteering in the Law Centre, she shows life will fall into place, you don’t need a first class degree to see it, just be alert enough to notice.

[1] Harman, H. (2017) A woman’s work London, Allen Lane.

[2] McNicol, J. (2017) The Angry Men, London Review of Books, 39, 24, 13-16

[3] Dahlgreen, W. (2015) Memories of Iraq: did we ever support the war?, You Gov

[4] Wintour, P. (2015) Anger after Harriet Harman says Labour will not vote against welfare bill, The Guardian, 12 July 2015



In praise of Kazuo Ishiguro

Last week the Nobel prize for literature was awarded to the writer Kazuo Ishiguro – Ishiguro was born in Japan but grew up, and continued to live, in England, and took UK nationality. The news of his award was covered widely in the papers and on television and Ishuguro himself appeared well regarded by his peers and popular with the British reading public. However Ishiguro did not stay in the news for very long – though, to be fair, longer than Richard Henderson who shared in the Nobel prize for Chemistry. Ishiguro was newsworthy, the award was well received but it was all a long way from dancing in the street. This muted response seemed to say quite a lot about British attitudes to literature.

Other countries do it differently. I remember years ago in Costa Rica when García Márquez, a Columbian and ‘leftist’, got the Nobel literature prize. It was headlined on the front pages of all the papers and seen as an honour for the American continent – even though the press was conservative and Columbia was a long way from Costa Rica. I don’t know how they celebrated in, say, Iceland when Halldór Laxness got the prize or in Germany when Gunter Grass won it, but we were told that if it had been Haruki Murakami this time his Japanese fans would have hit the roof, though they found plenty to cheer about in the choice of Ishiguro, with his Japanese heritage.

I wondered how Ishiguro’s prize went down in other European countries, with British insularity being such a live issue. What struck me was the interest and seriousness with which the award was discussed, albeit in the more liberal arts centred press. In Italy, La Republica [1] had several online articles and a long discussion of Ishiguro contribution to literature. In Spain, El Pais also offered a literary breakdown of Ishiguro’s work [2] and in France, Le Monde dealt with it in less depth but helpfully reminded readers that France had the most recipients for the literature prize. Most strikingly Deutsche Welle, a German portal aimed at an international audience, led their news of the day with a twenty minute discussion of Ishiguro [3].

I don’t have much to offer about Ishuguro as a writer. Most commentators describe his writing as intelligent and accessible and an ex-editor describes it as a ‘weird mix of classic English and minatory Japanese prose’ (weird is a good thing in this context) [4]. I can recognise this description in the books I have read.

I am more interested in how literature talks / or does not talk to social research. A friend of mine believed that there was no point in reading social research (at least that part that dealt with how we live) when fiction was much more interesting and covered most or all of what could be said. Ishuguro provides a good example of this.

Ishuguro’s two most well-known books are the Remains of the Day and Never Let Me Go – both made into films. Both covered, amongst other things, the capacity we have for self-deception. In the first, a butler (Mr Stevens) reflects back on his life in service to a ‘great family’ and we can see that in the telling this is a story of denial: denial about the pro-Nazi sympathies of his employer; denial that there was anything emotionally absent in his relationship with his father; denial that there was an opportunity for love or at least companionship with the housekeeper [5]. Through Ishuguro’s subtle telling we can see the deception and by the end the Mr Stevens comes tantalisingly close to seeing it himself. It is a gentle account and we are sucked into sympathy and understanding – Mr Stevens has hung on to what he calls his dignity by turning his back on other ways of living. In sociological terms he entirely inhabits the role of butler; he has closed down any inner voice telling him that there was any other way of seeing the world.

In the second, Never Let Me Go, we are also given an unreliable narrator, this is Kathy. The story is about the experimental cloning of children for donations of body parts. What I really liked about the novel was that it countered expectations: you imagined that this was going to be about the ethics of cloning or a kind of horror fantasy. Instead, it was recognisably about the everyday. The setting was very different from Remains of the Day but Ishuguro had the same concern to show how we rein in our ambition and accept the life that is mapped out for us [6]. Again he does this with subtlety and considerable compassion.

Of course the Nobel prize has generated a fair amount of controversy both for the choice of particular awardees; for a general male white bias; and for being funded by Alfred Nobel, who made his money in arms manufacturing. However, at least in literature, the Nobel prize is the highest accolade for writers and in the main, I don’t think we made enough of Ishuguro’s achievements.

[1] Know How Nobel Letteratura – La vittoria di Ishiguro at
[3] Literaturnobelpreis an Kazuo Ishiguro: Stiller Meister der Seelenerforschung
[4] My friend Kazuo Ishiguro: ‘an artist without ego, with deeply held beliefs’
[5] This is a well known clip of Mr Stevens retreating in the face of his housekeeper’s teasing. I think it is a bit more melodramatic than what Ishuguro intended:

[6] The children are brought up in a kind of 1950’s private school, here a sympathetic teacher tries to tell the children the grisly future that awaits them.