Tag Archives: society

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


Prisoners’ books: a ban on reading?

Tara Stubbs, Kellogg Fellow and University Lecturer in English Literature and Creative Writing at Oxford University’s Department for Continuing Education, writes a comment piece on the recent press coverage about government measures to restrict the access to books for prisoners. Leave a comment and join the debate.

In recent days academics, writers and prominent prison literacy campaigners have reacted with horror to new government measures restricting prisoners’ access to books, underwear and other items we might deem as necessities. An online petition has been launched against the measures and well-known authors, including Mark Haddon and, Patron for the Kellogg College Centre for Creative Writing, Philip Pullman, have voiced their concerns.

Such topics are always fraught with tension. To what extent, we might ask, is the government really restricting prisoners’ access to books? Is it the case that, as Conservative ministers have tried to explain, it is merely that books can’t be sent in to prisoners – partly because banned substances can be smuggled in such packages? And isn’t it true that prisons have their own libraries?

But the evidence, unfortunately, points to the fact that the Secretary of State for Justice, Chris Grayling, and his colleagues might have gone too far this time. The ban on receiving parcels is not merely imposed on violent prisoners, but on all prisoners, including women and children held in detention centres: Grayling has defended the measures (put into place last November) to ensure that prisoners of any type can receive only letters from outside as an example of treating fairly all those who are interned. Now prisoners can ‘earn’ books, and money for books, through the prisoners’ incentive and earned privileges scheme. But it seems inevitable that literacy rates, and the possibility for prisoners to rehabilitate, will decline as a result of these measures. Books should be a necessity, not a luxury.

The situation is best summed up by Richard Armstrong, a prison literacy researcher from Newcastle Universty (as reported in an article in The Guardian on 25th March): ‘There is no evidence [that] the incentives and earned privileges regime will improve behaviour. But there is lots of evidence that removing the means to increase literacy reduces rehabilitation’. That, surely, is an outcome that no British citizen would support.

Tara Stubbs, 25 March 2014