School closures and educational disadvantage

We are now getting a better idea of the impact of school closures on children’s education (as I write this some students are going back to school but the picture is mixed, it is still not education as normal). Many schools have been going well beyond what is formally expected in supporting access to free school meals, contacting children at risk and supporting children on-line but there is overwhelming evidence that children’s learning has been adversely affected.

I noted in my previous blog that I was struck by the growth in live classes during this period of ‘lock down’ – i.e. synchronous classes where the teacher tries to as far as possible teach over Zoom, Teams or the equivalent in a style that mimics as far as possible what they would do in a physical classroom. Before ‘lock down’ live classes were very rare though I do remember some initiatives for hard to reach children, for minority subjects such as Latin when there not the numbers to teach in school, and on-line classes for gifted and talented students across a cluster of schools. Live classes were rare in most other countries too but were, I believe, a feature of rural schools in China.  My own on line teaching during lock down is limited. I have mostly been working  one to one with research students while the university is closed but I have done some live classes.  It is quite doable but there is a sense of talking into a void which makes you realise how many signals you pick up in a face to face classroom in ways that are hard to do on-line, especially if you are working through a presentation on a shared screen. Live classes can also feel overwhelming if you try to follow the chat feedback while listening for on screen questions at the same time. I think this means there is a tendency to ‘overteach’, or less politely talk too long and ask fewer questions, especially as on-line break out groups can be difficult to set up. Of course most school teachers  have been teaching far more live lessons than I have, and have developed confidence and skills with time,  but most look on these as a stop gap until institutions re-open.

So how has online learning been going in the school sector in England? In spite of the best efforts of many parents, teachers and students, recent research is suggesting that it has not been going well. School children are not accessing on-line classes as consistently as they did face to face but more striking is the disparity – the most disadvantaged pupils are getting the least teaching [1]. This seems primarily due to absent or inadequate technology which means that disadvantaged students cannot access the lessons in the first place. It is clear too that disadvantage is self-reinforcing. Parents with higher levels of education and professional jobs are better able to support the children through the school curriculum, are more likely to have networks to support their children’s learning and more likely to have access to adequate technology. They are more likely too to go to schools in which teachers have found it worthwhile to develop on-line resources prior to school closures. In contrast, in many schools in disadvantaged areas teachers have not developed the same level of  innovation on-line as significant numbers of students could not access anything they produced. Educational disadvantage has become a live political issue due to the very visible inequalities during lock down. But, in truth, differentiated outcomes have been particularly stark in England over many years and require something more than a quick fix to address.  School closures have simply accentuated the problem.

[1] Two recent reports give a similar picture:

Lucas, M.,Nelson, J. and Sims, D. (2020)  Schools Responses to Covid-19: Pupil Engagement in Remote Learning, Berkshire: NFER / Nuffield.

Montacute, R. (2020) Social Mobility and COVID-19: Implications of the Covid-19 crisis for educational inequality, London: Sutton Trust.






Why do some people wear a Fitbit?

I was thinking back to a conference that took place some time ago on the theme of data capture, in particular to the presentations on wearable physical activity devices or trackers [1]. These were still fairly new at the time and I quickly picked up that the people in the audience, most of whom were much younger than me, were quite sniffy about them. This contrasted with their enthusiasm for hearing more about music streaming. We talked about this over coffee and one participant mentioned his disappointment that his partner would only listen to the same songs again and again on Spotify rather than accessing their Daily Mix (a collection designed to extend your listening based on what you had already accessed). I sympathised. In contrast there was not much talk about activity trackers; they were not cool and they were not going to take off.

Well, I don’t think trackers have turned out to be cool but they have slowly taken off, at least among certain social groups, though nothing like to the same degree as social media [2].  But it remains easier to see the limitations of the wearable devices than their advantages [3]. An obvious constraint on take-up is that users have to invest in hardware (wearable devices) to get the full benefit and this costs money and is another piece of kit you need to look after. There are doubts too about the accuracy of trackers and concerns over privacy and sharing of data.  Activity loggers can play into people’s anxiety about health and advertising can take the form of  gender stereotyping.  Ceaseless logging of physical activity can become an end in itself so that you end up gaming the system, e.g choosing your terrain carefully to increase step count. For that matter you can cheat outright – for example by attaching the device to a bike or dog! The key point, however, is that if you are comfortable about your fitness level the devices serve no real purpose; if you are naturally fairly active you just get on with it, you don’t need to measure what you are doing. This is even more the case when it comes to logging sleep activity. Those who sleep well don’t talk about it, record it or even think about it, they just do it.  In fact were they to monitor sleep they might well become more self-conscious and disrupt what was working perfectly for them in the first place.

So why trackers? They can help users who have a special need to focus on physical activity and this seems to be particularly the case as you get older and are aware of becoming less active. The evidence is fairly slim, surprisingly these are still early days in research of activity logging [4], but as Ridgers et al. (2016) put it ‘there are some preliminary data to suggest these devices may have the potential to increase activity levels through self-monitoring and goal setting in the short term’. This is not a ringing endorsement but sounds about right to me.

Aside from large scale quantitative work, we also need to know more about the experiences of wearing these devices. Again there are some papers often based on what particular types of wearer get out of it, e.g. those recovering from serious illness, using activity as part of weight reduction programme, older people. The key point made by Jarrahi et al (2018) is an obvious one, but worth repeating: if you are disposed to see wearable devices as motivating then you will find them to be, if not forget it.

Noticing gaps in the literature I spoke to people I knew who used activity trackers and asked them for their opinions. They had found the devices generally useful as they helped with focusing on activity levels. Users had particular goals in terms of improving fitness or weight watching so that if they noticed their step count was falling they would deliberately do something about it, i.e. go for a run or walk. Some spoke of friendly competition with others. The devices were worthwhile though their usefulness was linked to the short term goals they had set themselves, future use was less clear.

I don’t wear an activity tracker. However, I did once have a Garmin watch which I used for a while for tracking runs. I got some satisfaction from knowing I was improving my speed and I liked to check that I was pacing myself evenly. I got out of the habit of using the device when, as age was catching up on me, my times were getting longer rather than shorter. Of course logging might be most useful when performance is dropping but I felt knowledge of my own tail-off was only go to depress me. I also found charging the device to be a faff and worried about the power running out. At one point I was disappointed about a run because the battery had discharged half-way through and I would not get a full reading to download. This was ridiculous. Why did I need to measure it to believe I had done it and enjoyed it? However, even if I no longer use my watch, I still line up with other runners after a weekly Park Run to get my time recorded [5]. We clearly have no need to do this, so why do we do it? I found some comments by Engeström [6] useful here. Drawing on Vygotsky and Russian social constructivism, Engeström sees exercising agency (i.e. getting to do what we would know we want to do or must) as a two fold process: first design it and then do it (the execution phase). He gave the example of an alarm clock. Finding the will to get up earlier is not easy. The alarm clock helps reminds us that we must do it. However, an alarm set by someone else would not work, we need to have planned for its use, i.e. we calculate what time we need to get up and set the alarm accordingly. In fact very often the planning is enough and we wake up any way before or as the alarm goes off. I think tools to measure physical activity work in a similar way. We design the use of the tool, i.e. we personalise the device with our details, we look at captured data and we make judgments about what we need to do, and having designed it we feel encouraged to do it. We are using the device to put into effect an otherwise vague intention to take more exercise; the device is helping us do it. I don’t want to go out and buy a tracker or Smart watch but I am not as dismissive of them as my fellow conference participants once were. And I will still queue to log my time at Park Run even if the data are only pointing in one direction.

[1] Wearable devices will capture data on movement, including how far one has moved and how many steps completed. They will also do a calorie used count and may monitor heart rate, sleep length and sleep activity. Waterproof devices will do distance and strokes when swimming. Data can be shared by users.  Probably the best known companies for producing wearable devices are Fitbit, Garmin, Huawei and Withings. A smart watch is not dedicated to physical activity but will include physical activity tracking. A smart phone App such as Map My Fitness can log runs,  but does less than a wearable device.

[2] Estimates of numbers of users are in the tens of millions, e.g. 30 million estimated active Fitbit users and 55 millions Apple watch wearers, 20 million Map My Fitness users, These are large numbers but not in the same league as, say, numbers of Facebook users.

[3] There are several contributions on trackers and other devices to ‘The Conversation’ which are fairly sceptical of their value, e.g.:

Siek, K. (2020) Why fitness trackers may not give you all the ‘credit’ you hoped for [online]

Duus, R. and Cooray, M. (2015) How we discovered the dark side of wearable fitness trackers

Kerner, C., Quennerstedt, C. and Goodyear, V. (2017) Young people oppose Fitbits in schools [online]

[4] There are several systematic reviews, e.g. Ridgers et al. (2016) and Shin et al. (2019), with most concluding that there is not much to systematically review in the first place.

[5] Park run is a free 5km run held in many parks in UK [] and now around the world.

[6] Engeström’s key example concerns ‘cheating slips’ used by students. These are notes which student might access during an exam but Engeström argues it is the making of the notes rather than the access to them that make them effective.


Engeström, Y. (2006). Development, movement and agency: Breaking away into mycorrhizae activities. In K. Yamazumi (Ed.)  Building Activity Theory In Practice: Toward The Next Generation. Osaka: Center for Human Activity Theory, Kansai University. (CHAT Technical Reports #1).

Jarrahi, M., Gafinowitz, N. & Shin, G. (2018) Activity trackers, prior motivation, and perceived informational and motivational affordances. Personal and Ubiquitous Computing, 22, 433–448.

Ridgers, N., McNarry, M. and Mackintosh, K. (2016) Feasibility and effectiveness of using wearable activity trackers in youth: a systematic review.  JMIR mhealth and uHealth 4, 4: e129.

Shin, G., Jarrahi, M.H., Fei, Y., Karami, A., Gafinowitz, N., Byun, A. and Lu, X. (2019) Wearable activity trackers, accuracy, adoption, acceptance and health impact: a systematic literature review. Journal of Biomedical Informatics, 93: p.103153.





Hunting sound

I was researching technology and international exchange the other day and came across two stories in the history of technology which were new for me. The first concerned World Tape Pals [1].  This was an organisation set up in 1950 to encourage the sharing of news and perspectives from people around the world. A kind of discussion forum before its time. The technology used was recorded tapes and members not only stayed in touch with family living overseas but linked up with people they had not previous met to share culture and languages – they were ‘sound pals’ rather than ‘pen pals’. In the mid-1960s the World Tape Pals was reported to have about 25,000 members worldwide though of course many more people would have used tape recorded exchanges in informal ways.

The story of Word Tape Pals led me on to a couple of articles on sound hunters by Karin Bijsterveld [2] [3].  Simply put sound hunting was about capturing everyday life and was popular, although always a very niche activity, in the 1950’s and 1960’s. At the time people were asking what they could do with the new technology of the tape recorder. Suggestions from the early manufacturers included recording the gurgling of a new born baby; capturing conversations with family members; recording concerts; dictating letters and so on. Bijsterveld shows some of this in the publicity photographs which put out – a couple of them are reproduced below [4].

Ambitiously it was suggested that with these recorders you could produce  your own radio plays, complete with special effects, or record yourself singing or practising a foreign language. But one further unexpected use of the technology was to ‘hunt sounds’. Sound hunters took out their devices – quite large and heavy reel to reel machines  – and tried to record ‘how everyday life sounded’: the noise made by an aeroplane engine; thow laughter in the street; the song of garden birds; the ringing of church bells; in fact anything and everything. Clubs of sound hunters grew up and competitions, including a kind of sound hunter Olympics, took place in which international teams were given limited time to produce a fully documented sound collage around a common theme.  These competitions were judged by level of difficulty and Bijsterveld (2004: 624) explains how one contestant, a salesman in wristwatches, set out to record the sound of wristwatches, for his five-minute production ‘Insomnia’:

During the recording each separate sound had to be isolated and subsequently much amplified, in order for it to be audible as a separate phenomenon on the magnetic tape… We did not succeed in fully suppressing the breathing and background noises …We tried for months and probably needed over 100 hours of work to realize these recordings.

My interest in sound hunters came about as I was simply amazed that this went on, on reflection I should not have been but it just appeared so whacky. Sound hunting is also interesting as it was a precursor and became entwined with more mainstream use of sound collage. For exmaple, in UK radio and television history you can sense the influence of sound hunting in the early radio series Radio Ballads [5] which aimed to collect songs, conversations and sound effects in a story of everyday life, and in the seminal use of sound mixing in the first Dr Who theme tune, 1963 [6].

Another reason why I found sound hunting so interesting was that it exemplified two of the ways we still respond to technology. First, the desire to capture everything (something today we see in our preoccupation with taking photos and monitoring how many steps we take). Second, the belief, pushed by manufacturers, that technology use will be creative even if this comes up against the reality that what is simpler or more instantly appealing takes over. In the case of sound hunting there was not enough to hold the attention, and in any case cassette recorders replaced reel to reel tapes and these were so much more difficult to access and edit. A further parallel between sound hunting and our attitudes to digital devices today is our belief that technology will break down international barriers only to find that they can also be used for control and surveillance. Bijsterveld (2013) provides a timely account of the first international sound hunter competition in 1972 in what was then a Warsaw Pact country, Czechoslovakia. Here the enthusiasts came up against eavesdropping by the security services and covert participation. This was capturing sound but with malice. Imagine such a thing!


[1] Scribner, C. (2017) American teenagers, educational exchange, and cold war politics. History of Education Quarterly 57(4) 542-569.

[2] Bijsterveld, K. (2004) ‘What do I do with my tape recorder …?’: Sound hunting and the sounds of everyday Dutch life in the 1950s and 1960s, Historical Journal of Film, Radio and Television, 24:4, 613-634.

[3] Bijsterveld, K. (2013) ‘Eavesdropping on Europe: The tape recorder and East-West relations among European recording amateurs in the Cold War era’. In (Eds) A. Badenoch  and A. Fickers Airy Curtains in the European Ether, pp. 99-122. Nomos Verlagsgesellschaft mbH & Co. KG.

[4] The source for the first is given by Bijsterveld as Grundig Radio Handelmaatschappij J.N.J. Sieverding N.V., Amsterdam 1962. The source for the second is the Photo Archives NVG, Wassenaar Courtesy Grundig Benelux. I believe I can reproduce these photos but apoligise for any inadvertent breach of copyright. The first is an early advertisement, the second shows a sound hunter in an air field.

soundhunting1                               soundhunting2.

[5] A brief description of Radio Ballads can be accessed at the BBC site but to be honest the Wikipedia entry is fuller . It is not difficult to track down programmes on You Tube.

[6] The story of the theme tune is again covered by both the BBC but quite fully in  Wikipedia

Book of the year

I spend so much time picking apart books and articles that it is a release to look back and think about what I had enjoyed reading this year, not necessarily something published in 2019 but just something I happened to read.

In respect to big ideas I went back again to Michael Polanyi’s ‘Personal knowledge’ [1]. Above all I like to read commentators who are trying to balance the idea of social research as something personal (i.e. we need to bring our own ideas to the research and as Polanyi would have it our passion) with something ‘objective’ (i.e. you cannot make it up, you can only say what the evidence let’s you say) and for me Polanyi (at least his earlier work) occupies this middle ground.

In the field of technology research I did not find anything quite so engaging but I did appreciate one article on city life that, in the words of the authors, provided,

‘a case study of informal learning and lifewide literacies amongst Glaswegian adults using three distinct approaches to data collection: a household survey capturing rich data on learning attitudes, behaviours, and literacies; GPS trails that track mobility around the city; and the capture of naturally occurring social media’ [2].

It was the work using GPS trails that I found interesting – volunteers used trackers as well as life-logging cameras and in this way researchers could see how their volunteers moved around the city. Thus they were able not just to understand attitudes to learning but they could access and to some extent observe what individuals were actually doing. In particular researchers saw an association between deprivation with reduced learning engagement (this was not surprising), but physical movement played a part too and could arguably assist in learning engagement as well as be an outcome of such engagement.  There is much hype about the use of digital devices in social research but in this case their use worked and I expect there will be much more on the study of movement in the years ahead.

But in looking for a book that I really enjoyed reading it would have to be something more literary. One contender was Gavron’s ‘A Woman on the Edge of Time’ [3] in which the author tries to understand why his mother committed suicide, aged 29, when she had just had her first book published and had a career as a social scientist stretching out in front of her. Gavron looks for answers by tracking down the people in his mother’s life (not easy after so many years) and considers both internal make-up (e.g. his mother’s volatility) and external environment (e.g. the difficulties of forging an academic career in 1960s male-dominated academia). Gavron is not able to reach any definitive conclusions but at least he is able to make sense of his mother’s action. Thus the book is not only about a social scientist (his mother) but it is also a piece of social research (though I doubt if Gavron would accept the label) as it is asking questions about agency, gender stereotyping and how society both provides and limits opportunities.

I liked Gavron but my book of the year is Lily King’s fictional account of Margaret Mead doing fieldwork in New Guinea [4]. Mead was steely and consistent in challenging what US society took for granted and looking again at her book Coming of Age in Samoa [5] I saw more clearly that this was a comparative study of adolescence in USA and Samoa rather than a study of Samoa itself [6]. During her career Mead drew the ire of the Right for, as they saw it, undermining social conventions but she, or perhaps the tradition of anthropology she helped develop, became critiqued by the Left (and now by decolonising methodology[7] ) for doing research on people, rather than for people or with people and indeed some of her work feels very uncomfortable today (see an earlier blog on photography). We all need to find our own stance on this but I think Mead’s argument would be that she had come in good faith to describe what she saw and to talk about how her own society could learn from cultures which were much less known and so much less accessible than they are today.

Anyway to get back to the book, Lily King’s Euphoria, is about doing field work in New Guinea in 1933. Mead is working with her second husband, Reo Fortune – names have been changed (Mead becomes Nell and Fortune, Fen). Things are not going well when they meet fellow ethnographer Gregory Bateson (Bankson) at a Christmas party during a break from their work. Fen and Nell have been unable to complete their field work and Bankson, a lone researcher in another village, is lonely and out of his depth, so much so that he had already attempted suicide. Their encounter somehow spurs them, Mead and Fen find a more congenial village to research and Bankson sparks into life when he realises he is in love with Nell.

I really liked the book as it was about the doing of research. To be clear it is about privileged people, not the indigenous people, but it turns the tables by treating the researchers themselves as objects for analysis. In this way you can see Nell, Fen and Bankson’s strengths and weaknesses very clearly. For example, Mead comes over as an obsessive documenter of data and as someone who struggled with local languages so that she may have missed realising when the wool was pulled over her eyes. I particularly liked the figure of Bankson (I have presented the book as one about Mead but Bankson/ Bateson is a really important part of the story) with his buttoned up Englishness and moral seriousness.

I had some reservations not least as ethically it straddles a difficult space; it is clearly about Mead, Bateson and Fortune but names and settings have been changes and Lily King provides a very different ending for Nell (which I won’t reveal) than there was for Mead. This fictionalisation presents a particular problem in respect to Reo Fortune whose character Fen comes over as abusive in his relationship with Mead and an egoist or worse when carrying out a disastrous raid on another village in search of an artefact which would, if he could get his hands on it, make his reputation.  I don’t know what Fortune was really like but this seems to be having it both ways, i.e. you can say things like this might well have happened but hide behind the fiction if challenged.

I also had a problem with the key passage in the book when the three ethnographers were actually doing some theorising about the cultures they were studying. The original section is too long to include here but one reviewer summarises it as follows:

‘In one frenzied night the trio put it all down on paper: an exhilarating scene of creative and intellectual gestation that captures all the excitement of discovery, and the promise that we might find a way to better understand humankind. Here is the euphoria of the title; that breakthrough in understanding – a moment of sudden and exhilarating clarity in the life of the artist or scientist. Nell, with her lyrical, near-poetic field notes, is as much artist as scientist, with an infectious capacity for liberating passion in those near her’ [8].

I have asked a lot of people about theorising and yes this captures the sense of release when it all comes together but Lily King makes it look much more like the kind of brainstorming that comes in at the start of a project, not at the end. But who knows perhaps she is being faithful to Mead’s own descriptions.

However this is to quibble. The book is well written and that rare thing edited with discipline so that you end up wanting more. The sections in which the characters express their thoughts in diary format work really well as it is natural that as researchers they would do this. The problems with classical ethnography or anthropology are there to see (the danger of exploitation, the privileged standpoint, the capacity to be hoodwinked, the loneliness and destabilisation) but this is not a simple put down, there is something admirable, at least in the case of Nell and Bankson, in their commitment to understanding other cultures and the critical distance they try to put between themselves and the societies in which they have been brought up. They come over as serious and humanist in their intentions. The point is that researchers are rooted in time and place as much as the people they research.


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

[2] Lido, C., Reid, K. and Osborne, M. (2019) ‘Lifewide learning in the city: novel big data approaches to exploring learning with large-scale surveys, GPS, and social media’, Oxford Review of Education, 45, 2: 279-295.

[3] Gavron, J. (2015) A Woman on the Edge of Time: A Son’s Search for his Mother. Scribe Publications, London.

[4] King, L. (2014) Euphoria, London: Picador.

[5] Although I have cited Mead a lot during research methods course and had read ‘Growing up in Samoa’, I had not followed all the discussion around her work and the novel filled some gaps and pushed me to read further. There is quite a lot of video footage of Mead for example this BBC programme comes from 1976.

[6] Mead, M. (1928) Coming of Age in Samoa, New York: William Morrow. (This is accessible in the Internet Archive as well as via other web sites:

[7] e.g. Tuhiwai Smith, L. (2012) Decolonizing Methodologies: Research and Indigenous Peoples, London: Zed Books.

[8] Gibb, C. (2014) Euphoria by Lily King – the colourful love life of Margaret Mead, Guardian, 24 December, 2014 [online]


The ethics of social research

I teach research methods courses and when it comes to sessions on ethics we normally go over the classics: Milgram’s experiments with obedience; the Stanford prison experiment; poor Alfred and the white rat [1]. All very startling but on the whole students do not get as excited as I do. I think this is first because most have heard of these stories before and second they know they could never do something as off-the-wall as these researchers. So they don’t always see the point in talking about them. Well the point, as I try to make clear, is that however extreme we find these cases today they did not seem so when they were carried out. For example, Milgram’s experiment in obedience became championed in counter cultural politics of the 1960’s and 1970 but as far as I know few people at the time said, ‘Hey wait a minute you cannot ask people to believe they are inflicting electric shock treatment just because you want to find out if they will do it!’.

So I don’t want to throw out the classics, but I would like to broaden my examples and find something a little less obvious. So it was that the other day I looked up Garfinkel’s reporting of experiments ‘in trust and stable actions’ in the early 1960’s [2]. First thing to say is that Garfinkel’s work was insightful. His career long research theme was the maintenance of order in social interactions and the role that conversation played in keeping a tight hold on the roles we could play and how we played them. To illustrate this passion we had for order in our relationships he asked (and it is not clear whether he merely suggested or told) his students to act in unexpected ways in keeping with the old adage, ‘if you want to understand something then try to change it’.

One of his examples was asking students to enter a store (or shop), to select a customer and treat the customer as a clerk (shop assistant) while giving ‘no recognition that the subject was any other person that the experimenter took him to be and without giving any indication that the experimenter’s treatment was anything other than perfectly reasonable and legitimate’. In the examples he describes the ‘subjects’ (or, let us be honest, the duped customers) becoming ‘nervous and jittery’, one was ‘flushed with anger’ and another ‘stalked out of the shop’. For good measure one volunteer student had a friend ‘a professor emeritus of mathematics at the California Institute of Technology’ (so that is alright then) who ‘begged to be allowed to accompany the student’ and joined in an experiment of his own.

Garfinkel followed these relatively mild and short term experiments with a more well-known one in which students were asked to spend from fifteen minutes to an hour in their home acting as ‘if they were boarders (lodgers)’; by this he meant they should act the role of being ‘circumspect and polite’, using ‘formal address and speaking only when spoken to’. He writes that out of 49 students, five refused to do it and 4 ‘were unsuccessful’ (i.e. they were willing but the circumstances did not seem right). But four fifths of the students did try the experiment and Garfinkel reports that family members were ‘stupefied’ and ‘vigorously sought to make the strange actions intelligible and to restore the situation to normal’. He elaborates that students’ reports were ‘filled with accounts of bewilderment, shock, anxiety, embarrassment, and anger, and with charges by various family members that the student was mean, inconsiderate, selfish, nasty, or impolite.’

There were however  no cases in which the situation was not restorable after the student had explained what they were doing, but family members were angry. As for the students, they did not for the most part did not find the experiment difficult to carry out or particularly taxing.

For Garfinkel these examples worked, i.e. they showed we were made uncomfortable when what was taken for granted was disrupted. But were they ethical? No I don’t think so. They may have been comparatively mild cases but this was reckless for the families and for the students concerned and I would say that family members had it right when they complained that the students were ‘mean, inconsiderate, selfish, nasty, or impolite’.  And this actually makes me question the conclusions to be drawn from the experiments, people may have been angry, not so much because they were over-committed to the maintenance of social order, but because the student volunteers were taking the piss; as one family member said to a student ‘we are not rats’. But my overarching complaint is why would you ever want to do social science in this way? Yes, if you want to understand something then do try to change it, but why not try to change it for the better. For example, there is all manner of research into what goes disastrously wrong in families and relationships and really worthwhile attempts to explain what helps in redressing an imbalance [3]. Ethically this seems where social research should be positioned.

[1] In Milgram’s experiment volunteers were told they were assisting in a learning experiment and told to administer an electric shock every time a learner made a mistake in a test (in fact there was no shock and the ‘learner’ was playing a part). The shock generator was marked from 15 volts (slight shock) to 450 (danger – severe shock). The study was about how far volunteers would go. See:

In the Stanford prison experiment the psychology building was turned into a mock prison and 24 paid male volunteers were assigned roles of guard or prisoner in order to explore the impact of taking on a role on otherwise well adjusted men. Some got carried away in their role.

The third example concerned Watson and classic conditioning. Little Albert was around 9 months old and exposed to different stimuli and showed no fear of any of small animals including a white rat. However the next time Albert was exposed to the rat the researcher made a loud noise and thereafter the child associated the noise with the rat and would cry on seeing it.

[2] Garfinkel, H. (1963) ‘A conception of, and experiments with, ‘trust’ as a condition of stable concerted actions’, in O.J. Harvey (ed.) Motivation and Social Interaction: Cognitive Approaches, New York: Ronald Press.

[3] As one example, Yoshihama, M. (2002) ‘Breaking the web of abuse and silence: Voices of battered women in Japan’, Social Work, 47, 4: 389-400.

Academic writing retreats: are they worth it?

The university in which I work puts on two-day writing retreat events – these are not residential but just an opportunity to work on something in a dedicated space, in the presence of colleagues all doing their own writing. I try to go to these when I can, I find I can concentrate better in a room in which everyone else is writing too. For that matter there is nothing else to do except write, so you write.  I notice too that people tend to come back to follow-up events so something is clearly working.

In addition to these internal events I have been three or four times to a week-long residential writing retreat. This is organised independently and it attracts some academics but probably the majority are working on fiction – poetry, novels, short stories. A lot of colleagues have asked me if going away like this is worthwhile and yes I would say it is. But before saying more, the concept of writing retreat needs some clarification. Some universities put on focused, structured events – they are called retreats but they are really organised residentials – around writing for publication. It seems from reviews carried out [1] that what academics like about these events is protected time, having other people around and getting some input from mentors. There is little negative comment  in the literature but I would guess that you need to make a residential voluntary as anyone who has to go, rather than wants to go, is likely to be very grumpy. The advice given for those organising a residential is to think of it as a process, rather than a one-off. In other words: prepare; run the event; follow up with participants afterwards. This means getting participants to work something up in advance, let them discuss work in progress with mentors at the event and, crucially, go back to participants afterwards and monitor what they have done and offer more support. Little to argue against here and the kind of thing that is organised from time to time for students as well.

But what about the unstructured writing retreat, the type where people go away somewhere quiet and simply get on with it, what do people get out of them? Like the structured ones earlier I think the main attraction is protected time to work on some writing. However, there are some fairly obvious reasons why they do not appeal to many academics, in particular:

  • if you are short of time to write it may not make sense to spend any of the time you do have in travelling to a retreat.
  • some academics have very comfortable arrangements for writing at home.
  • money – if it is not organised by the university then you will need to pay for yourself, and to be honest it feels like paying for the privilege of doing your job, no matter how pleasant the surrounding are.
  • squaring it with others –  if you are away a lot for your work your family will not react kindly if you go away for another chunk of time especially if out of term time.

Added to all this, I would say that for myself a writing retreat sounded really self-indulgent and I think a surprisingly large number of colleagues would feel the same way. This raises a larger question of academic identity; being an academic is supposed to include writing but this is very hard to prioritise given all the other demands on our time.  Writing is in any case so uncertain (you don’t know for sure if it will ever be published and who will ever read it?) but teaching and administration is not (you get it done and it is there for all to see).  Certainly, I would not have gone on a retreat if I did not have some teaching award prize money I could use. It was not the money, but the legitimation I needed.

It tuned out that I enjoyed the peace and quiet of the retreat- it was a small group with masses of room in the house where we stayed – and the routine of early morning walking, breakfast, lunch, cake, dinner broke up the writing really well; instead of thinking I had a whole day in front of a screen I could work around two hour blocks. I liked the mix of writers and the thing I was most worried about (there might not be other academics, or at least no academics in my field) turned out to be the thing I most liked. I got a lot of work done, much more than I thought I would, and much more than I had succeeded in doing anywhere else. I did feel undeservedly cossetted from everyday concerns but, hey, it is surprising what you can get used to. I have been back since, I try to do so once a year in order to reinforce some of the helpful habits for writing I picked up. However I would not want to do more than that as I want it to be a bit special.

So perhaps you might want to give writing retreat some thought. If so, first work out if it is an organised or non-organised event, or perhaps something in between that you want. Sometimes organisers will suggest you share your work in progress but I don’t think that will ever happen unless expectations are clear in advance.  Plan what you want to get done. If you could really prepare thoroughly then I expect you are so well organised there might not be much point in going away to write. So realistically for most people planning will mean finding a moment to decide beforehand if you want to use the time to [a] get your head around a topic by reading around it and note taking; [b] complete a draft of something that you have already started; or [c] focus on something that has been hanging around for some time, perhaps something that is especially taxing and the retreat is a reward for getting it done.

I would also advise to ask yourself if you are really looking for a holiday rather than a writing retreat. In fact, there are many summer writing retreats on Mediterranean islands and in idyllic Nordic forests advertised on the web, these are fine as holiday destinations but if you want to go on holiday then go on holiday and if you want to write then write, both are fine but not at the same time. Finally, don’t worry about anyone else. The point of a retreat is that other people have their own things to do, they are not really interested in you or your work; you can look vacant and lost in thought but that is OK as they are similarly distracted. They won’t mind it if you talk about your work, and they might talk about theirs, but only at the right time.   I suppose good advice is finally to research places to go as far a you can – actually I did not but it turned out fine.

[1] Rowena Murray amongst others has discussed retreats over a number of years as well as issues of academic identity e.g. Murray R. (2008) Writer’s retreat: reshaping academic writing practices. Educational Developments, 9(2):14-16.


Hirsch and Education

In looking at intolerance in public debate  I found several people recommending that we went out and took time to engage with 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 inspiring 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 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 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.

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.