Monthly Archives: February 2015

President Post – Why the Social Sciences Matter

I’ve been writing and talking about why the social sciences matter over the past few days, as a result of the publication of the Academy of Social Sciences book by that title, which I co-edited. The reason might appear to be rather obvious, namely to be able to understand society, and to improve outcomes including through evidence-based policy, whether regarding education, health, housing, the economy, or the whole range of other aspects of our lives. To misquote slightly, this would appear to be a statement of the rather obvious.

Yet politicians are obsessed with the ‘STEM’ subjects. Given that Kellogg’s largest group of students and fellows are in software engineering and systems security, I’m not about to decry the importance of the STEM subjects. Indeed, I’ve been something of a fan ever since as a young child trying to understand the machine my dad had made in the very early 1960s – before computers had developed sufficiently to be useful for research into artificial intelligence – constructed out of matchboxes and colored beads, which not only played noughts and crosses, but learned how to improve its playing as it went – perhaps the earliest example of machine learning. This was what he and Alan Turing had discussed each week when they left Bletchley Park for the pub to play chess – neither of them were any good at the game, but they were fascinated about whether one might be able to build a machine that could not only play, but might learn how to improve its play.

But to get the most out of computing, we do need to understand how societies work, how decisions are made, and so forth. Indeed, a striking example was given to me recently when I was sent a transcript of my dad being interviewed about Bletchley Park, in which he relayed the well-known fact that the enigma code was broken due to a signal having been re-sent without having re-set the machine. Donald made the point that it would have been a simple matter to have engineered the enigma machine so that it could not re-transmit without being re-set. So why did the Germans not do this – especially given their excellence in engineering?

Donald’s hunch was that while the Germans were great engineers, they were also great believers in discipline, especially military discipline. So if the operators were ordered to re-set the machine between transmissions, then the machine would indeed be re-set. Nowadays it would be standard to any such innovation to be reviewed in operation, in which case this weakness in the system might be picked up. But these are matters for organizational behaviour, management decision-making and other social science disciplines – the conclusion is that we need all the relevant disciplines to be brought to bear.

To win a free copy of the book, tweet @PalgraveSoc your thoughts on why #SocSciMatters

Jonathan Michie, February 2015

Follow Jonathan on Twitter @Jonathan_Michie


More Farage, More Immigration

More Farage, More Immigration

This article, written by Senior Research Fellow Robin Cohen, first appeared in Discover Society a digital platform which is published by Social Research Publications, a not-for-profit collaboration between sociology and social policy academics and publishers at Policy Press to promote the publication of social research, commentary and policy analysis. 

This title is clearly a provocation. How can a politician who has garnered support from about 15% of the British electorate on a policy of restricting immigration, actually generate the opposite result? I’m careful to say ‘restrict’ in line with the UKIP website, which recognises ‘the benefits of limited, controlled immigration’. Perhaps it would not be too far off the mark to say that many of UKIP’s supporters are more attracted to the party’s promise to ‘leave the EU, and take back control of our borders.’ A study of UKIP voters found that ‘on immigration, hostile views were widespread, but UKIP voters were consistently the most intolerant group after the British National Party’. Why are these sympathisers of Nigel Farage likely to be disappointed?

The answer lies in Robert Merton’s law of unintended consequences. As Merton makes clear, there can be enhanced benefits as the law unfolds, but in this case we are firmly in the realm of perverse results, namely an effect quite contrary to the original intention. Migration scholars are well aware that immigration policies are unusually prone to poor outcomes or outright failure. Let me cite three cases:

  • The first is from a classic account of Caribbean migration to the UK by Ceri Peach, who demonstrated that there was an almost perfect correlation between employment vacancies and migration from the West Indies until, in the wake of Enoch Powell’s incendiary interventions, the Commonwealth Immigrants Act was announced in 1961, then passed in April of the next year. The result was a sudden increase in immigration as Caribbean migrants ‘rushed to beat the ban’ (1).
  • The second concerns the case of Dutch Guyana (called Suriname after its independence), recently re-examined by Simona Vezzoli. In 1972, the Dutch Justice Minister announced impending immigration restrictions. ‘Prospects of independence filled the population with growing anxiety,’ says Vezzoli. She continues, ‘political motives, in addition to employment and educational opportunities in the Netherlands contributed to the growth of emigration and the 1971 spike.’ So-called ‘panic migration’ ensued.
  • The third is by far the most important numerically and concerns Latin American and Mexican migration to the USA. This is a much more complicated story than the Caribbean cases, but shows essentially that a massive circulatory migration system in the 1950s was punctuated, but not interrupted, by legal restrictions in 1965. By legally capping immigration numbers, the number of illegals (now with no incentive to return to Mexico) reached some 11 million. Two leading American migration specialists conclude: ‘to say that US immigration policies have failed is an understatement. From 1970 to 2010, the population born in Latin America increased more than eleven times’. (2)

I have cited three cases, but of course there are others I could draw into the argument for purposes of comparison and illustration. However, stacking up the examples will not necessarily clinch the argument. The point is to find some general rules and to draw some reasonable inferences that might be applied to migratory behaviour. There are, it seems, important migration effects once an open system is shut down or, perhaps more potently, threatened with closure. The signal that it will not be easy to move in the future either prompts a decision to move or, if one is already in a destination country, influences a decision to stay. Again, if the system has been open for long enough, network effects kick in. Though network analysis provides a poor explanation for the commencement of migration, it gives an excellent insight into the reason for its continuation. Obviously stated, if family, friends, co-religionists or neighbours have somewhat established themselves in a new society, they provide bridges to accommodation and job contacts, and make the difficult task of adaptation much easier.

The UK and the wider European migration system furnish a good demonstration. As Mr Farage never tires of telling us, citizens of any one of the remaining 27 EU countries are free to migrate to the UK, an open system that is only used by a minority but, theoretically, could be used by many more. What, may we reasonably infer, will influence the decision of non-migrants or ‘maybe-migrants’ to change their sedentary habits and make a move to the UK? Answer: signalling that the open door may soon be slammed shut. And who has been providing the clearest indication of that intention? Well, that will be Mr Farage, who might as well have set up a megaphone in every Polish, Bulgarian or Spanish street announcing the news.

Perhaps one can argue that Mr Farage’s views can be ignored. Many EU migrants already in the UK may well be aware that his party will only win (at most) a small number of seats in the May 2015 general election despite the hullabaloo he creates. However, the Prime Minister is clearly alarmed at the prospect of losing more Conservative votes to UKIP and has, in effect, adopted a soft version of UKIP policies on immigration. When David Cameron not only announces a referendum on EU membership by 2017, if the Tories are returned to office, but talks of a possible earlier test of public opinion, the alarm bells will be ringing in the ears of intending and resident migrants.

Let us try to put ourselves in the mind of (say) a Polish worker in the UK. When the new wave of migration commenced after 2004, many Poles were in a state of what the Polish scholar Agnieska Kubal calls ‘semi-legality’. They were required to register under the Workers Registration Scheme, but many did not do so. It cost £50–£90, was not enforced and was ‘useful’ only when one wanted to claim benefits (as one of Kubal’s respondents declared). Many Poles were somewhat in two minds – living their lives as rotating transnationals, with separated families and strong links in Poland. The crucial weight loading the fulcrum away from bi-locality and towards permanent UK residence lies in a challenge to their freedom of movement.

For a ‘maybe’ migrant, signalling the closure of a hitherto open system is an invitation to move faster and to take advantage of known networks. For a resident migrant, a hint that their future mobility might be imperilled leads them to invest more in becoming legal, buying property, reuniting their families and registering their children at local schools. Ergo, more Farage, more immigration.

Ceri Peach West Indian Migration to Britain: a Social Geography (Oxford University Press, 1968).
Douglas Massey and Karen A. Pren, ‘Unintended consequences of US immigration policy: explaining the post-1965 surge from Latin America’, Population and Development Review, 38 (1), 2012, p. 24.
Agnieska Kubal, ‘Why semi-legal? Polish post-2004 EU enlargement migrants in the United Kingdom’, Journal of Immigration, Asylum and Nationality Law, 23 (2), 2009, pp. 148–64.

Robin Cohen is Senior Research Fellow at Kellogg College and Emeritus Professor, International Migration Institute, University of Oxford.

Image Credit: Nigel Farage of UKIP (Freestock photo: Wikipedia commons/8/84)

Why do the Social Sciences matter?

All readers are warmly invited to a free book launch event in London on Thursday February 19th 2015 – but spaces are limited and being allocated on a first-come first-served basis, so please book here.

The book, on Why the Social Sciences Matter, analyses some of the greatest challenges facing humanity – from climate change to economic crisis, and from food security to well-being. A key conclusion is that for many of these issues, a proper understanding requires a range of academic disciplines to be brought to bear. The same conclusion applies to the development of evidence-based policy. Invariably the disciplines required will include those from the social sciences, albeit often having to be combined with disciplines from the natural and medical sciences, as well as the humanities. So multidisciplinary and interdisciplinary dialogue and research is vital.

Few institutions do a better job at promoting this vital requirement – of interdisciplinarity – than do the Oxford colleges. And as one of the largest and most international of Oxford’s colleges, with far more postgraduate students than any of the other colleges, and with a large proportion of Oxford’s Centres for Doctoral Studies being led by Kellogg Fellows, our College is particularly well-placed and active in promoting this agenda of interdisciplinary research.

Indeed, the University of Oxford’s current Five-Year Strategic Plan stresses the importance not just of teaching, research and wider engagement, but also of global impact and interdisciplinarity. So there is a University-wide commitment.

The book, on Why the Social Sciences Matter, has been produced by the Academy of Social Sciences. But as indicated above, the authors invariably point to the need to work across disciplines, including beyond the social sciences. And certainly in the chapter on the economy, the point is made that social science disciplines themselves need to learn from other disciplines, and need to be committed to developing and learning lessons not just to inform better policy, but also to improve the theoretical and empirical contributions of these disciplines themselves, including economics.

Again, Kellogg College’s outstanding research students, innovative research centres, and wide variety of seminars, colloquiums, lectures and conferences are doing a tremendous job at precisely this – working across boundaries to advance both knowledge and theory, thus strengthening the academic disciplines themselves as well as informing policy. That’s what research impact is all about.

Jonathan Michie, February 2015

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