book review

Book Review: What Works Now? Evidence-informed Policy and Practice edited by Annette Boaz, Huw Davies, Alec Fraser and Sandra Nutley

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Sun, 15/09/2019 - 7:30pm in

In What Works Now? Evidence-informed Policy and Practice, Annette Boaz, Huw Davies, Alec Fraser and Sandra Nutley offer both a synthesis and critique of the rapidly evolving field of evidence-informed policy and practice. William Solesbury praises the timeliness, breadth and clarity of the collection.  This post originally appeared on LSE Review of Books. If you would like to contribute to the series, please contact the managing editor of LSE Review […]

Book Review: Re-Engineering Humanity by Brett Frischmann and Evan Selinger

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Thu, 05/09/2019 - 9:25pm in

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In Re-Engineering HumanityBrett Frischmann and Evan Selinger explore how the rise of new technologies and datafication grounded in machinic rationality risk conditioning humans to become more machinic-like in turn. As the book seeks to consider how the value of the human can be protected from the consequences of data creep, it will prompt readers to look at otherwise taken-for-granted technology practices differently, writes Ignas Kalpokas

Re-Engineering Humanity. Brett Frischmann and Evan Selinger. Cambridge University Press. 2019.

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It is by now uncontroversial to observe that we constantly find ourselves in the middle of a data loop whereby large amounts of data about us are collected and analysed, and the results of that analysis are then used to shape our digital environments, product offerings, etc. Meanwhile, our reactions to such customisations are themselves turned into even more data that is collected and analysed… and so on. Certainly, this has all sorts of implications for privacy, the freedom to choose, the ability of institutions to regulate and many other domains. An issue that has thus far attracted less attention than it merits is the extent to which such datafication practices end up akin to conditioning human behaviour – techno-social engineering, as Brett Frischmann and Evan Selinger call it. And it is this gap that Re-Engineering Humanity aims to fill.

Although Frischmann and Selinger’s claims of a slippery slope towards social engineering and data creep (the idea that data collection and techno-social conditioning based on it are only going to increase as we are desensitised with every step we take) may at first glance seem unabashedly alarmist, in fact the authors do a very good job in substantiating their claims with examples from spheres as diverse as the home, education and employment. While arguing their case, the authors pursue a two-pronged argument: first, that because machinic rationality becomes the benchmark against which human behaviour is to be measured, the necessary corollary is the need to make humans more machine-like – hence, techno-social engineering. Second, that although humans usually end up agreeing with such treatment (at face value, at least, with users often unthinkingly consenting by just pressing a button), this is often due to a certain lack of awareness and due to traditional contracts no longer serving their purpose. Hence, the authors present a strong case for pausing and thinking as to how the value of the human person is to be best protected or, perhaps, restored. Unfortunately, despite calling for ‘new humanism’ towards the end of the book, the authors leave this idea underdeveloped.

The book opens with a discussion of the ways in which data collection, analysis and feedback are being normalised: for example, by collecting data about exercise patterns and physical activity more generally to gather insights for making the population at large more physically active. There are several characteristics that make this an easy sell, not least the ostensibly noble aim and the ‘cool factor’ of the gadgets. Nevertheless, there is a flip side (or rather two of them) as well. First is the loss of control over one’s data and, second, loss of control over one’s life.

Image Credit: (Brett Jordan Unsplash CCO)

While the first point is relatively straightforward (once we begin trotting down the slippery path of datafication, there is no turning back), the second necessitates further explication. It is, essentially, an open challenge to behavioural economists and their emphasis on devising strategies for nudging people towards predefined choices. However, while the latter think that nudge merely represents a form of benevolent libertarian paternalism (Richard Thaler and Cass Sunstein’s bestselling book Nudge being a notable example), Frischmann and Selinger see in it the kernel of techno-social engineering: that is, humans losing their autonomy and being pushed towards becoming more machine-like. In both criticisms, the authors seem to claim – with strong persuasive power – that the mystery and unpredictability at the heart of being human are being eroded.

The chapters in the second part of this book particularly focus on tools and the peculiarities of their use. One such peculiarity is the aforementioned issue of contracts: we become less informed about our use of tools (and about our tools’ use of us) and thus increasingly less capable of truly giving consent; moreover, as these tools grow in their importance to our everyday life, this consent is less and less free. A related argument is that, as technology becomes an extension of not only our bodies but also of our minds, both our behaviour and patterns of thought unavoidably become affected. And as our environments become increasingly smart and interconnected, techno-social engineering is seen to follow suit, becoming more all-encompassing than any form of behaviour regulation before it, thereby giving the largest technology companies unprecedented power. In this context, the blurring of the line between the human and the machine appears to achieve near-complete realisation with the optimisation of everything from walking patterns to personal relationships.

Finally, the third part asks the questions of what is specific about being human and how robust this kernel is. Here the authors flip the famous Turing test, designed to check if computers have become human-like, into one geared towards demonstrating whether humans have become computer-like. At the end, Frischmann and Selinger come up with one core human characteristic that distinguishes them from machines: free will. Unsurprisingly, this is also the attribute most challenged by datafication: if humans become fundamentally knowable and mouldable (which is the twin promise of data analysis and nudging strategies based on such analysis), then humans become incapable of thinking and acting independently and, therefore, are rendered indistinguishable from computers as deterministic machines. It is here that the authors call for a new humanism, which they frame, very abstractly, in terms of a restoration of human dignity and autonomy. It would be interesting if they further develop this idea in their future work.

Overall, this is a book that makes the reader reconsider otherwise taken-for-granted assumptions and everyday technological practices that we often just perform without thinking. Indeed, this performance without thought, such as in agreeing to terms and conditions, is one of the explicit targets of the authors’ criticism. Regardless of whether you consider Re-Engineering Humanity to be overly alarmist or not (either case is defendable, although I am swayed towards the latter), it is likely that you will never look at your fitness tracker or the latest seemingly innocuous app in the same way after reading it. And that is, perhaps, the most important point – Re-Engineering Humanity serves as a re-sensitising device that makes technology creep seem less natural and self-explanatory (and less benevolent), thus enabling us to make better-informed decisions. And even if it might be tempting to debate whether new humanism is really the best way forward – perhaps some strategies inspired by posthumanist thought (see, for example, the work of Rosi Braidotti, Stefan Herbrechter, David Roden or Peter Mahon) may be more fitting – this should not distract attention from the timeliness and importance of Frischmann and Selinger’s book.

Ignas Kalpokas is currently assistant professor at LCC International University and lecturer at Vytautas Magnus University (Lithuania). He received his PhD from the University of Nottingham. Ignas’s research and teaching covers the areas of international relations and international political theory, primarily with respect to sovereignty and globalisation of norms, identity and formation of political communities, the political use of social media, the political impact of digital innovations and information warfare. He is the author of Creativity and Limitation in Political Communities: Spinoza, Schmitt and Ordering (Routledge, 2018).

Note: This review gives the views of the author, and not the position of the LSE Review of Books blog, or of the London School of Economics. 


Book Review: The Technology Trap: Capital, Labour and Power in the Age of Automation by Carl Benedikt Frey

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Wed, 04/09/2019 - 11:41pm in

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In The Technology Trap: Capital, Labour and Power in the Age of AutomationCarl Benedikt Frey explores automation and its consequences, taking the reader on a long sweep of UK and US industrial history that demonstrates the distinction between labour-enabling and labour-replacing technologies. As arguably the most comprehensive account of automation to date, this book deserves to be read widely, writes Liam Kennedy

The Technology Trap: Capital, Labour and Power in the Age of Automation. Carl Benedikt Frey. Princeton University Press. 2019.

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It seems that barely a month can pass without new forecasts of technology-induced job losses hitting the front pages. The Office for National Statistics are at it, Deloitte, PricewaterhouseCoopers, the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD); the World Bank even dedicated their most recent World Development Report to the future of work. Fittingly, it was Carl Benedikt Frey and Michael Osborne who turbo-charged the automation debate back in 2013 when their paper estimated that 47 per cent of US employment is at risk of computerisation within the ‘next decade or two’.

Frey, who now directs the Future of Work Programme at the Oxford Martin School and is considered a world-leading scholar on the impact of automation, has further explored the implications of technological change in his new book, The Technology Trap: Capital, Labour and Power in the Age of Automation. Thankfully there are no new predictions about the extent of job losses and the book reads as a tour de force of the very latest research on automation and its consequences. Ultimately, the author’s premise is simple – whether workers lose their job to robots ultimately depends on ‘the societal distribution of political power’ (xiii).

To demonstrate this, Frey takes the reader on a long sweep of industrial history in the UK and the US dating back to the onset of the Industrial Revolution. Frey’s argument rests on the distinction between labour-enabling technologies and labour-replacing technologies. As the names suggest, labour-enabling technologies complement workers, boosting productivity and opening up avenues for new employment, while labour-replacing technologies boot workers out of the labour market entirely, forcing them to re-skill or search for other opportunities.

The Technology Trap serves as a timely reminder that while technological change may benefit everyone over the long run, ‘short run’ adjustment costs can represent a lifetime for some workers. In detailing the history of the British Industrial Revolution, Frey highlights that ‘in the period 1780-1840, output per worker grew by 46 percent. Real weekly wages, in contrast, rose by a mere 12 percent’ (113). Income inequality grew and workers generally saw no improvement in their standard of living for decades. This period of history became known as ‘Engels’ Pause’ and ultimately led to the Luddite uprisings of the early nineteenth century.

However, as the book moves through time, and on to the second Industrial Revolution, we are presented with a completely opposing picture. Workers tended to benefit from the introduction of technology. As Frey notes: ‘factory electrification allowed workers to produce more and thus earn more. Instead of raging against the machine, workers and trade unions battled to maximise their gains from progress’ (190). The explanation for this reversal of fortunes rests on the adoption and proliferation of so-called labour-enabling technologies amid a general period of ‘welfare capitalism’, which is defined as ‘the era of collective economic rights created by the New Deal’ (200).

Image Credit: Female workers at the Queensland Tropical Fruit Produce Cannery, Northgate, 6 March 1948 (Queensland State Archives Digital Image ID 23023, Public Domain)

Unfortunately, this era of collective progress is unlikely to repeat itself in the current age. As Frey writes, ‘the great reversal’ has seen the percentage of men aged between 25 and 54 who go to work in the morning plummet since the new millennium while opportunities for high school graduates (those without a university degree) have diminished. The future, then, is increasingly looking like the past and, as the author writes:

If Friedrich Engels were living today, what would he have written about the computer era? Working conditions in the industrial west clearly do not have much in common with the ‘‘dark, satanic mills.’’ But the trajectories of per capita output and people’s wages look exceedingly similar. In America, labour productivity has grown eight times faster than hourly compensation since 1979. Even as the American economy has become much more productive, real wages have been stagnant, and more people are out of work; consequently the labour share of income has fallen. Corporate profits have swept up an ever-greater share of national income while the share going to workers has rarely been smaller (244)

The key question, of which I am not sure the book offers a full explanation, is what accounts for this difference? Why are we now looking at a tendency towards labour-replacing technologies when we once had a proliferation of labour-enabling ones? There is mention of growing income and wealth disparities, yet the book lacks, perhaps, a fuller detailing of the political economy of inequality since the 1980s – there is very little mention of Margaret Thatcher and/or Ronald Reagan, strict anti-union legislation, corporate governance (or lack of) and declining rates of income and corporate taxation. These all seem relevant to a context in which workers risk not benefiting from an age of automation.

For a fuller explanation, we need to arguably travel beyond two outdated paradigms in which Frey’s work seems stuck. The first is what Isabelle Ferreras has called the ‘liberal economic theory of the firm’. This theory posits that free-market economics, and the institutions that uphold them, have propagated the idea that modern firms are organisations built to pursue a single goal – to generate return for capital investors. Ferreras maintains that such a position conveniently masks the fact that workers are equal partners in firms as they invest their time and labour in them, yet are hamstrung by the ‘despotic power’ of capital investors. This vast imbalance of power between capital and labour should therefore be positioned within the democratic deficit that exists in today’s world of work.

Frey also seems to fall into the trap of believing that any job is better than no job at all. The predominant danger of automation and artificial intelligence is framed as people falling out of the labour market entirely and there is little mention of the rise of poor quality or insecure jobs. While there is reference to jobs ‘where the productivity ceiling is low’ (237), the overriding sense is a binary that dichotomises employment as good and unemployment as bad. This overlooks a growing body of evidence that bad quality jobs can be worse for our health than unemployment as well as the increasing popular demand for shorting working weeks. It feels like a big omission since there is no discussion in the book of the emergent ‘post-work’ literature or, in the words of Andre Gorz, ‘working less so everyone can work’.

Trapped in these paradigms, the final section of the book, which focuses on solutions for the age of automation, falls a little flat. Suggestions for relocation vouchers for people to move from areas of low job creation to more affluent areas seem like a sticking plaster over the gaping wound that is an economic system that ‘accumulates by dispossession’. Why, for instance, should someone have to move from Blackpool to Manchester or London? Should the focus not be on making all of our hometowns compatible with a decent quality of life in the first place?

Frey’s point, however, about the importance of education should send alarm bells ringing in the UK. In the so-called race between technology and education, current budget cuts amid a general slowdown in human capital accumulation will present workers (both present and future) with even greater troubles ahead. While The Technology Trap may leave readers with more questions than answers, it is an excellent and unique reminder that the future of work will depend on policy choices made in the present. As perhaps the most comprehensive account of automation to date, it deserves to be read widely.

Liam Kennedy is a freelance researcher and commentator whose work focuses on UK inequality, social mobility and public perceptions of them. He tweets @liamkennedy92.

Note: This review gives the views of the author, and not the position of the LSE Review of Books blog, or of the London School of Economics. 


Book Review: Eric Drummond and his Legacies: The League of Nations and the Beginnings of Global Governance by David Macfadyen et al

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Wed, 04/09/2019 - 8:59pm in

In Eric Drummond and his Legacies: The League of Nations and the Beginnings of Global GovernanceDavid Macfadyen et al show how the emergence of an international bureaucracy of civil servants and their role in the development of the League of Nations rested on Eric Drummond and the early internationalists around him. This book provides a much-needed historical and biographical perspective on the builders of modern multilateral institutions and demonstrates how their ideas continue to influence global governance today, writes Jan Lüdert.

Eric Drummond and his Legacies: The League of Nations and the Beginnings of Global Governance. David Macfadyen, Michael D.V. Davies, Marilyn Norah Carr and John Burley. Palgrave. 2019.

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Eric Drummond and his Legacies cogently shows that the emergence of an international bureaucracy of civil servants and their role in developing the League of Nations had everything to do with Eric Drummond and those early internationalists around him. The book, whose timely publication coincides with the League’s centenary, was authored by former international bureacrats David Macfadyen, Michael D.V. Davies, Marilyn Norah Carr and John Burley. The authors judiciously dissect early experiences in building global governance structures that define the functioning of the United Nations (UN) system today. They equally underscore how realpolitikal tensions inherent to multilateral cooperation are not new but hamper global governance initiatives 100 years on. The book, as such, will be of interest to academics, international civil servants, diplomats and practitioners alike.

While centrally concerned with assessing Drummond’s legacy as first Secretary-General (SG) of the League of Nations, the volume offers a historical perspective on a range of influential – yet overlooked – actors responsible for building the first wave of global institutions and their role in laying the foundations for a century of multilateralism. The book essentially delivers an agency-focused biographical assessment of how the League of Nations was ‘conceived and operated, and to appreciate the talents of its architects’, while stressing how these individuals came to shape the UN system not as a replacement, but as ‘a continuation of the earlier body’ (xxviii). Apart from underscoring the actions of early internationalists in building intergovernmental organisations (IGOs), their bureaucratic systems and rules of procedures, the authors stress how the values and moral convictions of these actors presented a counterweight to the pressures of power politics that, as is widely acknowledged, impeded an effective League in the interwar period and until it was succeeded by the UN at the end of World War Two.

The volume is divided into three parts and thirteen concise chapters. Part One contextualises Drummond’s life between 1876 to 1951. Chapter One presents fresh insight on Drummond’s upbringing in a Scottish aristocratic family, partly derived from new biographical sources which include family papers made accessible by Viscount Strathallan, great-grandson to Sir Eric. Apart from covering Drummond’s education, at which he excelled yet stopped short of a university degree, Part One offers a sense of how qualities Drummond later exhibited as Secretary-General were rooted in an ‘ever-present consciousness of family honour and personal reputation […] characterized by fierce loyalty to kin and causes’ (3). This section also illuminates that in 1916, after joining the Foreign Office (FO), Drummond championed multilateralism by proposing a ‘League of Peace’ in a paper fusing ‘British security, international organisation and legal norms into one grand synthetic view of the future international order’ (8). Three years on, Drummond bolstered his reputation at the FO as a delegate to the Paris Peace Conference where he advised US President Woodrow Wilson. Serving for fourteen years as the first SG of the League, Drummond returned to the diplomatic service as Italy’s Ambassador, ‘the most difficult British embassy posting after Berlin’ (62). After retiring from the FO at 63, Drummond took a seat in the House of Lords and spent his retirement in Sussex before succumbing to lung cancer on 15 December 1951.

Image Credit: Sir Eric Drummond (Library of Congress, No Known Copyright Restrictions)

Chapter Two emphasises Drummond’s inclusive leadership, based on extensive functional delegation that encouraged creativity and technical innovation, and which established ‘an esprit de corps that permeated the entire League’ (23). Drummond, in his farewell speech to the League’s Secretariat staff, put it this way:

The Secretary-General alone can do very little, indeed nothing. It is on you, each of you, that a great responsibility rests for the maintenance and consolidation of an organisation which is an essential organ of the League [carrying] with it the hopes of many millions of men and women, who see in the League the future salvation of the world (32).

Part One more generally clarifies, with subsequent chapters substantiating, that Drummond instituted principles for an international civil servant culture that still persist. These principles, as UNSGs Javier Pérez de Cuéllar and Dag Hammarskjöld later affirmed, embraced ‘an innate belief’ in universality and understood the Secretariat’s role as impartial mediator, standard bearer, moderator, guide, conciliator and arbiter (36-45).

Part Two draws attention to the creation of an enduring international civil service. It also provides brief portraits of other influential League staff (e.g. Jean Monnet (115); Inazo Nitobe (120); Erik Colban (196); Ludwik Rajchman (146)), whose varied impact contributed to building global governance foundations. Of interest here is that the League reflected Wilsonian policies, but a bureaucratic framework that was British. Moreover, this section draws attention to non-governmental actors’ attempts to base the organisation’s work on norms of gender as well as racial equality (73). Another crucial decision that Drummond took was that the League’s International Secretariat ‘must not be national ambassadors, but civil servants under the sole direction of a non-national Chancellor’ and aimed at evolving an international common purpose beyond state interests (74). The Secretariat’s operations extended these principles through a gradual accumulation of functions, via a process of ’defining by doing’, and in the attempt not to turn into a locus for politics but a body that served state members with objectivity and the provision of facts (80). Once established in Geneva, the League’s groundbreaking practices came to include in-country presence of technical staff; organising financial rescue packages; impartial international scrutiny; supporting the development and implementation of international norms; and bringing together experts and specialists to tackle international problems (105).

However principled the first decade of the League under Drummond unfolded, this section shows that these ideals were replaced with governments grinding particular axes and taking a firmer role in staffing decisions. Chapter Seven will be of particular interest to those studying the history of human rights by highlighting how League practices laid the groundwork for norms of human rights that were later inscribed in the UN (135-138). Chapter Eight focuses on Drummond’s commitment to a fully universal League despite this goal being ‘torpedoed by the realities of great power politics’ (159). It, for instance, draws attention to the US informal engagement over the League’s entire existence, steps towards reconciliation with Germany by securing German participation in the Secretariat and questions over the recognition and membership of Latin American states. The chapter furthermore highlights how the League came to embrace democratic values by ensuring that meetings were open to the public and the press, that members could raise any subject of concern and that a limited number of influential non-governmental organisations had access and could interact with official delegations to advocate for their causes.

Part Three assesses the League after Drummond’s tenure. Chapter Nine focuses on how Drummond’s successor Joseph Avenol betrayed ‘notions of neutrality and independence’ which, consequently, foreclosed the League revival at the end of World War Two (187). Despite this, the book shows that procedures first instituted by Drummond offered a blueprint for a new UN bureacracy (195). Indeed, while the UN’s institution builders ‘were at pains to distance themselves from the League’, the new intergovernmental organisation embraced a myriad of League values and ideas that, as Hammarskjöld later observed, needed replication (199).

Chapter Ten traces the foundations of 100 years of an unbroken international civil service to League of Nations’ rules of procedures and day-to-day management structures. Chapter Eleven discusses these continuities in the UN’s work, including humanitarian legacies, refugee protections and trusteeship functions with Chapter Twelve explaining their migration to UN agencies. Chapter Thirteen focuses on League staff that transitioned to the new IGO, compares the life of the international civil service then and now and examines Geneva’s evolution as a centre for multilateralism.

In the book’s epilogue, the authors reflect on how the League builders sowed the seeds for global governance today by attending to the parallel evolution of an international civil service. Here the authors offer a critical insight: IGOs are neither unitary organisations nor epiphenomenal agents acting solely on the behest of states; rather, through a focus on Drummond and his contemporaries, they highlight that global governance institutions are heterogenous sites which are shaped by purposeful agents confronting political and structural constraints.

Eric Drummond and His Legacies provides a much-needed historical and biographical perspective on actors responsible for building multilateral organisations. Emphasis on Drummond and the early internationalists around him is central to the work, which goes the distance in assessing the relevance of the League of Nations. While such a focus is welcome, some sections tend to be overly descriptive at the expense of providing analytical takeaways. Despite this, the authors offer a novel perspective on the builders of modern multilateral institutions and how their ideas continue to influence global governance today. As such, the book gives a counterpoint to those who contend that multilateral institutions are ineffective or but a mere extension of powerful states. Eric Drummond and his Legacies, on the contrary, emphasises that multilateral institutions, although imperfect and frustrated by state interests, remain essential in tackling complex issues of global concern.

Jan Lüdert is an Associate Professor at City University of Seattle and current World Affairs Council Fellow. His research extends into international relations theory with an emphasis on intergovernmental organisations, global governance and international norms.

Note: This review gives the views of the author, and not the position of the LSE Review of Books blog, or of the London School of Economics. 


Book Review: Rethinking US Election Law: Unskewing the System by Steven Mulroy

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Tue, 03/09/2019 - 8:49pm in

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In Rethinking US Election Law: Unskewing the System, Steven Mulroy offers comprehensive considerations of arguments in favour of and against proposed reforms of US election law. This is an excellent and engaging read that exposes the structural flaws in the US government system and provides tangible, achievable proposals to address them, writes Erica Frazier.

Rethinking US Election Law: Unskewing the System. Steven Mulroy. Edward Elgar Publishing. 2018.

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The United States has come to a political crossroads. Few Americans have favourable opinions of Congress. There is not a single third-party member of Congress, though there is widespread support for an alternative political group. Rampant gerrymandering means politicians choose their voters, and the Supreme Court has once again declined to intervene. Steven Mulroy’s book, Rethinking US Election Law: Unskewing the System, is an excellent response to what feels to many like a total impasse, exposing a number of structural problems as well as tangible, realistic proposals to address them.

Mulroy has had an impressive career in election law and voting rights, writing numerous articles over the years and serving as a voting rights litigator, elected official, election reform advocate and a Professor of Law at the University of Memphis. These varied experiences manifest in the book’s comprehensive considerations of arguments in favour of and against proposed reforms, as well as in its clear, authoritative style. Each chapter is concise and meticulously sourced and footnoted for additional reference. Mulroy also avoids the pitfall of focusing on American exceptionalism to the point of ignoring instructive lessons from other countries. The book features a well-organised index and chapters with straightforward titles, making it very reader-friendly. With a few pleasant witticisms, popular culture references and a Southern aphorism or two, this is not the dry textbook students fear, but a good resource for anyone interested in American governmental dysfunction and ideas for improvement.

Overall, the book follows a fairly classic structure of identifying and outlining problems then proposing solutions. The first half of the book highlights the ways in which the popular will is systematically thwarted. According to Mulroy, the electoral college, internal Senate rules and single-member winner-take-all districts have led to undemocratic outcomes. The evidence bears this out. The US is currently led by a president whom a majority did not vote for. There is an average difference of 6 per cent between the share of votes a party receives and the number of seats it gets in the US House of Representatives (174). In a system predicated on majority rule, a 41 per cent minority of senators, representing less than 33 per cent of the population, frequently block national legislation (174). In the second half of the book, Mulroy outlines his plan to fix the system. He argues these flaws not only can be remedied, but that there would be no need for a constitutional amendment to do so.

Image Credit: (Element5 Digital CCO)

Chapters Two, Three and Six detail the means to ensure the Electoral College follows the popular will, reforms Senate rules that lead to obstructionist hang-ups and establishes nonpartisan commissions to end gerrymandering. Chapters Seven and Eight describe the potential benefits of changing the chaotic US electoral system to one based on ranked choice voting, or RCV. (In the interest of full disclosure, I should state here that I work at FairVote, an organisation advocating the implementation of RCV across the US.)

For those who are unfamiliar with RCV, under the system voters are allowed to rank their preferred candidates. In single-winner races, if no candidate reaches an outright majority, the candidates with the lowest vote shares are eliminated and their votes transferred to the next-ranked person on the ballot. The process continues until one candidate secures 50 per cent of the vote. A similar process is in place for the multi-winner form of RCV, with the additions that the thresholds for victory are lower, and that as well as eliminating candidates with the lowest vote shares and redistributing their votes, a winning candidate’s votes in excess of the electoral threshold are redistributed.

Mulroy advocates both the single and multi-winner forms of RCV to improve elections in the US. The book claims that with the implementation of RCV, there would be improved competition among candidates, better turnout and more civil campaigns. It goes on to say that while coupling single-winner RCV with nonpartisan redistricting commissions could help combat some of the democratic deficit in the US, still more reform is necessary. To Mulroy, single-winner RCV is a transitional step towards multi-winner RCV and the benefits it provides.

While Congress is becoming increasingly diverse, it still falls short in terms of reflecting the varied political, ethnic, racial, gender and sexual identities and orientations of the American people. Mulroy claims that rather than relying on a single representative to reflect the will of thousands of diverse Americans in a district, new multi-member districts, with more representatives elected via RCV, would provide more proportional representation for all Americans while undermining the practice of gerrymandering. The author is in good company here. Other prominent scholars of American politics have also advocated instituting multi-member districts to solve gerrymandering and its attendant problems. The LSE USAPP blog features one such case study of the state of Maryland.

While Mulroy underscores the potential for single and multi-winner RCV to resolve problems at the national level, he identifies state and local governments as the primary testing grounds for such reforms. The state of Maine’s experience seems to support this conception of electoral reform bubbling upward. Single-winner RCV was first used in the state’s largest city and has since spread to the election of federal representatives. The idea of using single-winner RCV as a stepping stone to a multi-winner system has yet to come to fruition in the US, though Minneapolis uses both systems in parallel to select representatives for its Park and Recreation Board.

Since the book is premised on making changes without the need for constitutional amendments, there are limits to what it deems ‘conceivable’. Those interested in more radical changes – such as guaranteeing all Americans a fundamental right to vote, or abolishing the Senate outright – might find the book somewhat disappointing in its scope. Further, the book spends almost no time discussing who is allowed access to the ballot box or how. While acknowledging representation in the US Senate is inherently skewed due to demographic trends, it limits its recommendations to improving the body’s internal workings, such as killing the filibuster. Shifting senatorial elections to a more proportional system via two-winner RCV is written off as extremely difficult to achieve and offering little payoff. For a book dedicated to electoral reform, it seems little would have been lost in describing this sort of change as a possible though unlikely outcome of the transition from single to multi-winner RCV. These characteristics do not detract from the book’s overall value, however. They are likely due to the author’s perspective developed through long involvement in the fields of voting rights and electoral reform, and highlight the need for more research and discussion.

On the whole, Rethinking US Election Law is a timely, well-written argument in favour of electoral reform in the United States. It advances achievable solutions that could go a long way towards solving the country’s current democratic breakdown, and is an excellent read for anyone interested in ‘unskewing the system’.

Erica Frazier is Research Manager at the nonprofit nonpartisan electoral reform group FairVote. She received a joint PhD in political science from Queen’s University Belfast in Northern Ireland and the Université d’Orléans, France. Her current research interests include electoral systems, political economy and political discourses and movements in the United States, United Kingdom and Ireland.

Note: This review gives the views of the author, and not the position of the LSE Review of Books blog, or of the London School of Economics. 


Book Review: What Works Now? Evidence-informed Policy and Practice edited by Annette Boaz, Huw Davies, Alec Fraser and Sandra Nutley

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Mon, 02/09/2019 - 9:03pm in

In What Works Now? Evidence-informed Policy and PracticeAnnette Boaz, Huw Davies, Alec Fraser and Sandra Nutley offer both a synthesis and critique of the rapidly evolving field of evidence-informed policy and practice. William Solesbury praises the timeliness, breadth and clarity of the collection. 

What Works Now? Evidence-informed Policy and Practice. Annette Boaz, Huw Davies, Alec Fraser and Sandra Nutley (eds). Policy Press. 2019.

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This is the third book on evidence and policy written by Huw Davies, Sandra Nutley and colleagues. In 2000 they published What Works? Evidence-based Policy and Practice in Public Services with Peter C. Smith and in 2007 Using Evidence: How Research can Inform Public Services with Isabel Walter. Edited with Annette Boaz and Alec Fraser, this latest book, like its predecessors, offers both a synthesis and a critique of a rapidly evolving field. Like them, it also draws on the work of scholars and practitioners, and it speaks to both. Its use of many text boxes to summarise sources or arguments is exemplary. This timeliness, breadth and clarity are its essential strengths.

The core of the book is a section of three chapters by the editors on generating evidence, assessing and labelling evidence and using evidence. On evidence generation they are keen to emphasise relevance as a criterion: that is, the diverse ways in which policy and practice need to be informed necessitates a diversity of knowledge sources which may make different, but complementary, contributions. But this does not preclude concern with how data, from whatever source, has been collected and analysed. On assessing and labelling evidence they are addressing the question of what counts as good evidence, for what purpose and in what contexts. Here they argue that evidence is not a disinterested knowledge base to underpin policy or practice. Rather it gets used as a resource that commonly interests draw on in advocacy. In the final chapter in this section they review models of the use of evidence, noting regretfully that linear approaches of ‘dissemination’ are still more dominant than those focused on relational approaches of ‘knowledge exchange’ or more systems-wide approaches for which the term ‘knowledge mobilisation’ has been coined. A useful text box provides examples, drawn from across the book, of these latter approaches.

These chapters are flanked by and informed by two other sections with chapters on the use of evidence in some UK policy and practice fields and in some international experience. These are authored by experts, 22 in all, familiar with those fields. It is a major achievement of the editors that, unlike so many collected works, they have brought coherence and consistency to these individual contributions.

Image Credit: (Pixabay CC0)

The UK policy domains covered are healthcare, social care, criminal justice, education, environment and international development. Each chapter follows a similar structure under the headings of the nature of evidence in the field, the production and synthesis of research-based knowledge and encouraging and enabling evidence use. The first four fields were covered in the earlier books and here get a useful update. The last two – environment and international development – valuably bring some new experiences into the overall argument: for example, the role of international organisations, interdisciplinary contributions and the recognition of multiple perspectives.

The chapters on international experience cover, apart from the UK, Australia and New Zealand, Scandinavia, Canada and the United States. Again each is written according to the same structure as the chapters on policy fields. Some have a particular focus: for example, healthcare in Canada and education in the US. Quite a lot of similarity is on show but contextual differences, especially in political  and professional development, also figure in the accounts. These are nearly all (with apologies to Scandinavia) essentially Anglophone countries: one wonders whether other, even European, countries would have a different story to tell?

The book has moved on from its predecessors in recognising the diversity of the policy and practice settings in which evidence is sought and gets applied: not just in evaluating effectiveness, but also in framing issues for action, engaging with audiences and developing options. It summarises these nicely under the shorthand headings of ‘know-about’, ‘know-what works’, ‘know-how’, ‘know-who’ and ‘know-why’. In this respect its retention of the phrase ‘What Works’ in the book title undersells its scope. The book also acknowledges the usefulness to policy and practice of evidence aside from research. Even so, the editors admit in several places that much thinking and action remain focused on and shaped by practice in identifying, assessing and applying research-based evidence. But it is noteworthy that, despite being themselves rooted in health and healthcare research, they are disdainful of the application of the long tradition of evidence-based medicine – ‘from bench to bedside’, as it is sometimes caricatured – to other domains. Again, a contrast with the earlier books is the adoption in its title of the phrase ’evidence-informed’ rather than ‘evidence-based’.

The book’s final chapter by the editors, titled ‘Evidence-informed Policy and Practice Revisited’, is brilliant. It notes how the political and economic context has changed in the almost two decades since their first book – here namechecking Michael Gove for his infamous Brexit remark that ‘people in this country have had enough of experts’. They then recount recurring themes: the continuing dominance of the ‘what works’ agenda; dispute over what counts as evidence; the enduring difficulty of getting evidence used; and the key importance of context. And then some recurring responses: broader expectations of evidence use; greater inclusivity of types of knowledge; greater expectations of lay participation; closer integration of the generation and use of evidence; and to achieve this, the need for action at many levels and on many fronts by diverse actors. All in all, they reaffirm their belief, and convince the reader, that evidence matters.

William Solesbury trained as a town planner but most of his career was in public policy research in government, academe and consultancy. His persistent interest in cities has though led to a late career in writing, most recently Modern Cities: Ten Variations (Cambridge Scholars Publishing, 2019).

Note: This review gives the views of the author, and not the position of the LSE Review of Books blog, or of the London School of Economics. 


Book Review: The Psychology of Fashion by Carolyn Mair

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Thu, 29/08/2019 - 8:54pm in

In The Psychology of Fashion, Carolyn Mair brings a psychological approach to understanding current significant issues within fashion studies, including the role of fashion imagery and the rise of sustainable fashion. Showing that fashion is not only inseparable from the body but also highly associated with our mind and behaviour, this book offers a vision of fashion through the lens of most recent psychological theories, writes Xiaoqing Wang.

The Psychology of Fashion. Carolyn Mair. Routledge. 2018.

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You may not be into fashion, but you cannot escape fashion consumption. Fashion is an important way that we present ourselves to the world in our everyday life (Erving Goffman, 1956). As consumer culture conquers the world, fashion is not a peripheral, frivolous matter; rather, it holds more individual meanings in contemporary society. Accordingly, fashion studies is no longer a marginal research area as it was portrayed decades ago (Elizabeth Wilson, 1985). Feminists, cultural theorists, sociologists and scholars with interdisciplinary backgrounds have initiated multidimensional explorations in their research into fashion. Mair’s psychological approach in The Psychology of Fashion, however, not only brings in a new vision for understanding current significant issues, but also opens up discussions within these underexplored areas.

Fashion, with its own logic of novelty and change, is stubborn to adapt to contemporary social transformations. On the contrary, it acquires increasing ideological power to dominate our ways of dressing, looking and living in the global village (Gilles Lipovetsky, 1987). Sociologists have theorised fashion as a pursuit of class distinction or a sort of ‘conspicuous consumption’ (Georg Simmel 1904; Pierre Bourdieu 1984; Thorstein Veblen, 1899). However, Mair argues that ‘fashion became more accessible across socio-economic strata’ in the twentieth century (80). She also points out that people dress to fulfil more diverse purposes than ‘looking prosperous’ (93). In Chapter Four, Mair adopts theories of the self and social identity to explore the psychological functions of fashion, including ‘self-enhancement’, ‘self-categorisation’, ‘self-expression’ and the construction of social identity. Her analysis echoes sociological research on subculture styles as a way to negotiate social group membership as well as to express individual uniqueness (Dick Hebdige, 1979).

The meanings of fashion are therefore of keen interest for cultural theorists. Semiologists regard fashion as a sign system and endeavour to disclose the hidden meanings of fashion discourses and fashion symbols (Roland Barthes, 1967). Cultural sociologists attempt to interpret the cultural values and social identities associated with a style. However, these approaches have been criticised for subjective readings of meaning or for neglecting the multiple possibilities of interpretation by different individuals. Mair’s psychological approach sheds more light on individual differences in terms of interpreting fashion. She argues that how a person perceives a style is a result of many personal factors, from preference and personality to emotion and mood (94).

Image Credit: (Unsplash CCO)

The (mis)representation of fashion imagery and the sustainability of the fashion industry are two keen concerns in current fashion studies that are discussed within The Psychology of Fashion. Feminists have often criticised the unreal ideals represented in the fashion media as not only having damaging social impacts, such as contributing to eating disorders among the young (Naomi Wolf, 2002), but also sexually objectifying women and reinforcing gender inequality (Rosalind Gill, 2007). Mair provides diverse supporting empirical research data in Chapter Three to show how unrealistic fashion discourses of the body and beauty reinforce structures of inequality in our society, including those not only related to gender and appearance, but also age, ethnicity and economic status. Meanwhile, she employs psychological theories such as self-perception (58) and self-objectification (51) to explore the underlying psychological reasons behind the social phenomenon. Her particular emphasis on the adverse influence of the ideal body image on young children (35) is a fresh alert for the consequences of fashion (mis)representation.

The book also discusses some additional psychological problems associated with the fashion industry, involving both fashion producers and fashion consumers. Although some health problems such as the eating disorders experienced by fashion models have been noticed by both the public and academia, there is little attention paid to the mental health of fashion workers. Mair explores this issue by introducing studies on the correlation between creativity and mental health problems (25). She claims that fashion designers and models work in a challenging and stressful environment and suffer from a high risk of poor mental health due to the creativity and continuous reinvention demanded by the fashion industry (27). Mair identifies the need to improve the psychological health of fashion professionals but admits it is a challenging problem to solve.

Compulsive buying disorder (CBD) is a mental health condition experienced by some fashion consumers. Many criticise the economic waste and environmental damage caused by overconsumption, but Mair’s psychological perspective exposes a less noticed aspect of the issue: CBD as a shopping and spending addiction arising in consumer society. Compulsive shoppers typically experience ‘feelings of tension or anxiety before the purchase, and a sense of relief following the purchase’ (81). Those with CBD can obtain a sense of control but also often suffer from guilt. Like other impulse control disorders, CBD can lead to further stress, anxiety and depression (82). Given the large number of compulsive shoppers, CBD is not a trivial social problem and deserves more social intervention. The book recommends treatments such as attending therapy or support groups.

Sustainable fashion has been advocated by both environmentalists and sociologists. The movement aims to counter the overconsumption of clothing promoted by ‘fast fashion’ which leads to environmental problems as well as poor working conditions for fashion workers in less affluent regions (83). Advocates have offered suggestions such as second-hand fashion and material innovations as solutions (Kate Fletcher, 2008). Mair gives these discussions further depth. In Chapter Five, she examines various psychological reasons behind fashion adoption in consumer society. People shop for fashion not only for utilitarian purposes, but also to construct an image of the self, to pursue a particular lifestyle or social identity, to express one’s beliefs and values and sometimes also for fun. To promote sustainable fashion consumption in a society, these factors cannot be neglected. The chapter furthermore analyses the inadequacy of fashion recycling through the theory of contagion: some people refuse recycled clothing as they may associate the garment with its previous owner, or consider it an old and unwanted item. Upcycling, which involves creating something new with existing things, seems a better strategy for these consumers. Meanwhile, Mair also suggests a psychological way to solve the problem of overproduction: to construct ‘conspicuous non-consumption as the new signifier of self-worth’ (85).

Fashion is not simply a matter of clothing or physical appearance. While some fashion theorists claim that fashion is inseparable from the body (Joanne Entwistle, 2000; Malcolm Barnard, 2014), Mair manages to prove that fashion is also highly associated with our mind and behaviour. The increasing individualisation of contemporary fashion in the postmodern age reminds us of the significance of the psychological approach. By uniting psychology and fashion, this book offers a vision of fashion through the lens of most recent psychological theories. It is also a good introduction to a number of fashion theories, and students will find rich information covering classic social and cultural theories and texts relevant to fashion studies.

Xiaoqing Wang is a PhD student in the Department of Sociology at the University of Edinburgh. Her research project focuses on the semiological analysis of historical visual data in fashion discourses. She has particular interest in visual research methods, sociology of art and cultural theories.

Note: This review gives the views of the author, and not the position of the LSE Review of Books blog, or of the London School of Economics. 


Book Review: The Justice and Development Party in Turkey: Populism, Personalism, Organization by Toygar Sinan Baykan

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Tue, 27/08/2019 - 9:05pm in

In The Justice and Development Party in Turkey: Populism, Personalism, Organization,Toygar Sinan Baykan offers a sophisticated contribution to the existing literature on the JDP by shifting focus from structural analysis towards the role of party agency. This is an invaluable addition to the study of populism in Turkey, writes Nikos Christofis, opening up new ways to approach the JDP’s rise, structure and organisation. 

The Justice and Development Party in Turkey: Populism, Personalism, Organization. Toygar Sinan Baykan. Cambridge University Press. 2018.

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Toygar Sinan Baykan’s opening line in The Justice and Development Party in Turkey: Populism, Personalism, Organization that ‘Turkish politics was reshaped by a remarkable transformation at the beginning of the 2000s’ cannot be other than true. Since then a plethora of monographs, edited books and journal articles have emerged examining the rise and domination of the Justice and Development Party (JDP). Baykan notes the longstanding focus on the country’s economy and economic growth and the emphasis of several studies on the ‘Islamic bourgeoisie’ in Turkey and the relationship between this social group and the JDP (11). When it comes to populism however – a highly used and contested ism – Baykan observes that even theoretically nuanced analyses of the JDP’s populism still fail to ask whether we need to look at either redistributive tactics, ideology, discourse or strategy (or all of these) in order to define populism (11–12). In this respect, this book presents an invaluable addition to the study of populism in Turkey as it combines all of the above characteristics. Baykan’s focus on organisational agency shows that party organisation has been central to the JDP’s success: a much overlooked aspect of the JDP’s emergence into and consolidation of power. Therefore, The Justice and Development Party in Turkey is a welcome addition to the burgeoning literature on the JDP, filling as it does a glaring gap within it as it shifts its focus of analysis from structures to the neglected role of party agency.

The book is made up of eight chapters, an Introduction (Chapter One) which presents the author’s comprehensive overview of the field and a Conclusion, where the author also provides an agenda for further research. Furthermore, there are two appendices in the study, one on political parties and the other on the high-low (or anti-populism-populism) and left-right divides in Turkey. Although the second appendix makes perfect sense and clearly demonstrates the author’s intention to show where each party stands in the divide, the first on political parties offers little additional value to the study, since the information could have more readily been provided in a simple footnote.

The core strength of the book is the series of in-depth interviews (55 in total). These include interviews with JDP deputies and central elites as well as provincial and sub-provincial chairs (in Istanbul, Ankara, Konya, Trabzon, Mardin, Batman and Urfa) and neighbourhood representatives across Turkey. Other scholars have conducted interviews, of course, but few have paid attention to the ‘periphery’ as Baykan has done. To this reviewer, having reached deep into the field is a rare feat that demonstrates in its most complete form the party agency, structure and mentalité of the party members in general.

Image Credit: Recep Tayyip Erdogan on a state visit to Mexico, 2015 (Presidencia de la República Mexicana CC BY 2.0)

Chapter Two focuses on the historical, political and social background of the transformation of Islamism and the emergence of the JDP as the dominant political actor in the Turkish political scene. Borrowing from Asef Bayat, Baykan defines the JDP as a post-Islamist party as it does not adopt a top-down strategy to Islamise society, particularly through the seizure of the state. Baykan is extremely careful and meticulous – no term is left undefined, and not a single question he poses goes unanswered. The author’s sophisticated analysis can also be traced to the fact that Baykan resists easy answers. For example, he distances himself from the well-worn (if not worn out) paradigm that dominates numerous studies even today – namely, the bipolar schemes of secularism versus Islamism (i.e. religion) – to understand and explain the rise and persistence of the JDP in power. In so doing, he draws in other crucial factors, including the destruction of the leftist alternative after the 1980s and the Turkish-Islamic synthesis, the official conservative–nationalist indoctrination programme championed by the military junta following the 1980 coup (38–60; 257).

Chapter Three discusses concepts, such as cleavage, divide and populism. The JDP represents for Baykan an example of a very successful case of populism in power as it was successful in fundamentally altering the political system of Turkey from an electoral parliamentary democracy to a ‘competitive authoritarian presidentialism’. The ‘selective pluralism’, as the author calls it, of the weak liberal institutional heritage, the established way of representing socio-cultural divisions of society in politics, namely as a ‘high–low divide’, and a specific mode of agency (populism and the personalistic mass party) have helped towards this success. In Chapter Four, Baykan examines the role of President Erdoğan, who he rightly notes is ‘a product of [the] historical and structural context of Turkish politics’ (33). Here, Baykan makes in-depth use of the Weberian concept of charisma and proposes to take charismatic personalism as a genuinely rare phenomenon characterised by the robust transformational impact of the leader and their followers, supporters and organisation (106–41; 258–59). In so doing, he casts Erdoğan’s leadership as an example of ‘non-charismatic personalism’: i.e. an inventive and diligent organisation man who has exclusively focused on achieving and maintaining power.

Chapter Five argues that the JDP took a cautious stance in relation to the redistributive strategies championed by its predecessors in Turkey, and underlines the ways the JDP’s politics diverged from ‘classical centre-right patronage’. In order to remain in power for long, the long-term strategy of the JDP distanced itself from the National View tradition in terms of its communications strategy and put heavy emphasis on having a tight grip over the influential pro-JDP media (259). However, the author does not neglect to also stress the continuities with the National View tradition, especially its organisational culture. The large membership base of the organisation, inherited from the National View tradition, is dealt with in Chapter Six. What is of importance is that this was kept under the tight control of the central JDP elite through public opinion surveys, technological surveillance instruments and party co-ordinators, deputies and ministers in person, all of which was balanced through ‘controlled participation’ channels within the JDP (167–210; 260).

Chapter Seven continues with a discussion of the increasing domination of the party leadership brought about by the JDP’s intra-party governance structure. The author focuses particularly on its shift from a democratic entity – as defined in the party’s first statute – and how it slowly started to change under the direction of Erdoğan in collaboration with the party committee. Baykan demonstrates that the current concentration in the Turkish political system of extensive powers in the hands of the leader actually started a lot earlier inside the party itself, through changes in internal statutes and party organisation. This transformation took place, Baykan demonstrates with great dexterity, as the party leadership was able to select and support competent (highly educated and experienced) and, most importantly, ‘obedient candidates instead of popular local bosses by inhibiting factionalism through robust interventions into local and provincial party life’ (212).

Finally, Chapter Eight frames the party’s agency and its political manoeuvres at the elite level. Against the backdrop of Turkey’s authoritarian legacy, the author analyses the post-Islamist reaction of the JDP and the strategic and organisational orientation of the party leadership as a product of this authoritarian legacy. In this context, and totally in line with this legacy, ‘the JDP got rid of collective – and individual – power contenders within the Turkish political system at the expense of an intolerable increase in tensions among elite groups’ (261).

The Justice and Development Party in Turkey is a sophisticated analysis of JDP party agency, theoretically robust, well-researched and well-written. It not only adds to the JDP literature but also provides an intellectually succinct study that opens up new ways to approach the JDP’s rise, structure and organisation. This is definitely a work that every scholar and researcher of Turkish politics should read.

Nikos Christofis is an associate professor of Turkish history and politics at the Centre for Turkish Studies, Shaanxi Normal University, Xi’an, China.

Note: This review gives the views of the author, and not the position of the LSE Review of Books blog, or of the London School of Economics. 


Book Review: Community Power and Empowerment by Brian D. Christens

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Fri, 23/08/2019 - 8:59pm in

In Community Power and EmpowermentBrian D. Christens provides a comprehensive and insightful examination of empowerment and of how best to use social power in order to effectively promote transformative and sustained change for equity and social justice purposes. Students, scholars, community leaders and activists, among others, will benefit from this inspiring and thoughtful work, writes Jennifer Schneider.

Community Power and Empowerment. Brian D. Christens. Oxford University Press. 2019.

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Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed, citizens can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has. 

Margaret Mead

It’s rare to find anyone who questions the need for change in some context – local, organisational, community, global or otherwise. A persistent challenge, though, rests in how to successfully achieve, and sustain, desired changes, whether through policies, procedures or systems. In Community Power and Empowerment, Brian D. Christens provides a comprehensive and insightful examination of empowerment and of how best to use social power in order to effectively promote transformative and sustained change for equity and social justice purposes.

Community Power and Empowerment is part of the Society for Community Research and Action (SCRA)’s Advances in Community Psychology Series, which aims to share research, relevant theory and examples of social and community action that highlight contributions to the field and identify opportunities for ongoing research. Community Power and Empowerment fulfils the series’ mission well by offering keen insights and tools that promote both dialogue and action in response to the challenge of converting social power into social justice.

Christens shares a historical overview of power and presents empowerment as a multilevel construct with interrelated layers of analysis (including psychological, organisational and community). Readers embark upon a journey that furthers the methodological and conceptual integration of, and appreciation for, community power and empowerment. Anyone hoping to bring about change in their own work and organisations, irrespective of background or focus, will find the text a valuable resource. The book not only highlights longstanding misconceptions and ambiguities associated with community power and empowerment, but also offers practical and constructive guidance for researchers, leaders and organisers seeking more effective community-driven change.

Image Credit: (Stephanie Graves CC BY NC SA 2.0)

The book offers a collection of best practices based on well-documented empirical research as well as relevant field experiences, including the dynamic example of the Philadelphia Student Union (a youth-led, student-driven change effort that was founded in 1995 with a mission focused on improving the quality of education in Philadelphia public schools), to explore how community-driven systems change can be analysed through the lens of an integrated model of empowerment. The Introduction, in which the author reflects on experiences during the ‘Wisconsin Uprising’ and budget disputes at the University of Wisconsin throughout the winter of 2011, presents a call to action and an overview of mounting societal challenges that present on a daily basis.

The remainder of the work is divided into three sections. Section One focuses on conceptual histories of community power and empowerment, while Section Two constructs an ecological model of empowerment with an emphasis on empowerment processes. Section Three turns to outcomes and explores recommendations for future research. Here, Christens reminds readers that, in addition to ‘conceptual consensus’ and ‘methodological innovation’, additional work needs to be done in order to develop the fundamental research skills, design capabilities and evaluation techniques of community researchers to bring rich ‘contextually sensitive design’ and ‘multilevel research’ to fruition (195).

In Section One, Christens documents and analyses, with breadth and depth, the varied ways in which a multidimensional framework of power in community decision-making can be both ‘updated and augmented to provide a contemporary conception of community power on which we can base considerations of empowerment’ (15). For Christens, community power refers to and encompasses ‘the social and structural relationships among local residents and organizations that shape outcomes when disputes or competition for resources might arise’ (13). Christens traces the social and political nature of community power (defined in ways that are broadly applicable to anyone who lives and works in a community context amidst limited resources) and explores how to better understand community power so as to better understand and encourage empowerment.

Moving effortlessly between theory and practice with a consistent emphasis on the power of organisational learning, Christens explores theoretical frameworks and research from the social sciences to convey and illustrate ways of understanding contemporary communities’ power structures (39). Christens also emphasises throughout the relevance of globalisation in ‘an era of global capitalism’ with ‘a new power elite with global reach’ as well as marginalisation and exclusion, including steadily increasing economic inequalities (39). In the face of global capitalism and the reductions in autonomy and decision-making experienced by many local communities, the challenges faced by changemakers become even more pronounced. Related efforts to explore social power as dynamic and dependent upon collective action and democratic theory help formulate ‘a framework for community power that can account for the multiple dimensions of domination and oppression while also allowing possibilities for agency, development, and transformation’ (40).

Chapter Three is perhaps the text’s most memorable and immediately relevant chapter as it highlights and dispels widespread and longstanding misunderstandings of the term ‘empowerment’. Christens presents a historical overview of the term’s multidisciplinary, oversimplified and inconsistent usages (and misuses), cautioning readers against ambiguous interpretations, carefree (and careless) applications and co-optations of the term. As an example, Christens highlights inconsistencies in the term’s usage that imply an individualistic meaning or application. Other risks include confusion, ambiguity for practitioners and their adopted roles, compromised links between power and associated conceptions of empowerment and misdirected responses to pervasive inequalities. Christens describes empowerment as ‘a symbolic ideology that seeks to address inequities’ (61) and simultaneously notes the practical and very real potential for successful empowerment processes to address social inequalities, power relationships and associated distributions of resources.

This chapter prompts valuable self-reflection from which all interested changemakers and community organisers can benefit. Thought-provoking questions emerge: how often have I used the term ‘empowerment’ without truly understanding its meaning? How often have I seen the concept mentioned colloquially in blogs, advertisements, professional development sessions, university lectures, promotional health initiatives and community meetings? Most certainly monthly, if not weekly. How often has the term been defined and contextualised before use? Rarely, if at all. By emphasising the importance of clarity in language usage when discussing empowerment, Christens prompts all readers to do better in daily interactions, applied efforts and related research endeavours.

In Chapters Four through Six, Christens investigates empowerment at the psychological, organisational and community levels, with an emphasis on empowerment processes (distinct from outcomes). Christens presents a framework for organisational empowerment that draws upon both organisational characteristics and inter-organisational efforts with potential for positive impact. Chapter Six’s focus on what it means to be a part of a community (and the term’s ‘variety of connotations’) is valuable in that, like elsewhere in the work, he provides helpful clarifications and reminders involving term specificity and usage. One example includes the distinctions and similarities between collective efficacy and community empowerment – with collective efficacy focusing narrowly on neighbourhoods and community empowerment processes extending beyond the bounds of a neighbourhood level. Christens also highlights gaps in research: for example, a need for less emphasis on the psychological dynamics of empowerment and more formal studies of community empowerment processes.

Ultimately, Christens draws together various threads to demonstrate the need for a linked, holistic approach to empowerment, community power and change. Christens closes with a focus on outcomes and an associated emphasis on the need for creative design. Chapter Eight shares specific recommendations (referred to intentionally as design principles) that support and encourage praxis and related action plans, research and empowerment processes. Examples include the building of a wide variety of organisations that serve as social anchors and ‘building blocks for empowerment processes’ and where members have a sense of collective ownership (184), as well as an emphasis on imagination where those seeking change ‘resist confusing the status quo with the natural or inevitable’ (192).

The guiding words of ‘be the change you wish to see in the world’ are often attributed to Mahatma Gandhi. In Community Power and Empowerment, Christens presents changemakers everywhere with new ways of thinking about and approaching desired change. In doing so, Christens maintains a reflexive approach that explores the interrelationship of power and empowerment, noting that while in the pursuit of social justice demanding ever-increasing empowerment is insufficient, it is also ‘imperative to pursue empowerment in response to systematic injustices, stark and worsening inequality, and the associated concentration of power’ (61). Christens’s writing takes on a relentlessly optimistic and forward-focused tone. While acknowledging challenges, Christens simultaneously and effectively instills hope for future progress. Students, scholars, researchers, community leaders, organisers, change agents, strategists, organisation participants, practitioners and activists of all backgrounds, disciplines and interests will benefit from this inspiring and thoughtful work. The communities they serve will benefit as well.

Jennifer Schneider is an educator, attorney and writer. Her work appears in The Coil, The Write Launch, Anti-Heroin Chic, The Popular Culture Studies Journal, unstamatic, One Sentence Stories and other literary and scholarly journals.

Note: This review gives the views of the author, and not the position of the LSE Review of Books blog, or of the London School of Economics. 


Book Review: The Good University: What Universities Actually Do and Why It’s Time for Radical Change by Raewyn Connell

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Thu, 22/08/2019 - 8:35pm in

In The Good University: What Universities Actually Do and Why It’s Time for Radical ChangeRaewyn Connell provides a powerful and expansive critique of the current state of higher education at a variety of different geographical scales. While this lucid and important book makes clear that the global state of higher education is at a crossroads, its optimism should make it a deserved force for change and reform, writes Emma Taylor

The Good University: What Universities Actually Do and Why It’s Time for Radical Change. Raewyn Connell. Zed Books. 2019.

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A recent study by the higher education regulator in the UK found that six institutions rewarded their Vice Chancellors with a salary of over £500,000 in the year 2017-18. Average pay for those at the most senior level in the sector continues to rise, whilst at the same time support staff suffer pay cuts, early career researchers are faced with ongoing job insecurity and students are saddled with mounting debt. This state of affairs is, for all intents and purposes, a scandal. How can it possibly be the case that universities, supposedly founded to serve the public good, are at the same time making, legitimising and reproducing significant inequalities? In The Good University, eminent social science researcher and educational reformer (or ‘hard-line feminist and dangerous lefty’ as she describes herself on Twitter) Raewyn Connell shines a stark and timely light on this contentious issue, providing a powerful and expansive critique of the current state of higher education at a variety of different geographical scales.

In the book’s introductory statement, Connell makes a convincing case for the need to understand the fundamentally collective nature of the university as an institution, consisting of essential elements that work together to create a vast web of complex inter-relationships. The first three chapters of The Good University do just that, providing an expansive yet succinct exploration of universities as sites of knowledge production, teaching and learning. She goes on to discuss the often-overlooked systems of cooperation that need to exist between support staff and researchers in order for a university to thrive, arguing for recognition of the importance of organisational know-how and distinct forms of situated knowledges that grow out of long-term embeddedness within a specific institution. It is this valuable know-how that is being systematically eroded by the privatisation of support staff contracts to the detriment, Connell argues, of the future sustainability of the sector as well as the working conditions of those staff involved. The recent case of the LSE cleaners provides a stark example of this very problem, due to the consequences of the privatisation of a crucial support service without which researchers and students would be unable to undertake the work of knowledge production effectively. In 2017, the cleaning staff were taken back in house after a hard-fought unionised campaign. However, this is just one example, and as Connell states throughout the book, the issue of the privatisation of the higher education sector is global in scale and has resultant global consequences.

Image Credit: (Pang Yuhao CCO)

The past few years have seen a proliferation in student movements across the globe calling for the decolonisation of the higher education curriculum. This vital protest has developed against a backdrop of the continuing academic hegemony of the Global North, described accurately by Connell as a flagrant power imbalance resulting in the hoarding of funds, researchers, conferences and journal prowess to the detriment of the potential existence of a more equal plane upon which knowledge production could take place free of the imperial legacies of the past and devoid of classism, sexism and racism. Indeed, perhaps what is most arresting about The Good University is the sheer scale of its critical scope. In the second section of the book, focusing on the global economy of knowledge, Connell refers to countless historical and contemporary examples, scholars, philosophers and themes to illustrate her many points ranging from the ‘Russell Group’ universities in the UK to Al-Azhar University in Cairo, and from Argentinian anthropologist Hebe Vessuri to Beninese philosopher Paulin Houtondji. She seamlessly weaves together wit with concrete evidence to draw out a glaring image of the multiple ways in which universities both make and legitimise inequalities. This is a timely examination of a phenomenon that is increasingly at the forefront of social science research, as it becomes clearer that to fully understand the existence and consequent reproduction of global inequality, we must also understand the very processes and practices that propel the elite into positions of power.

The current world in which the higher education sector is operating is characterised by profit and power as universities find themselves further incorporated into the global turn to neoliberalism. There can be no doubt that the sector both in the UK and globally has undergone profound change in recent decades, exemplified by a distinct brand of precarity, poor mental health among academics as well as the intensifying privatisation of support services. And yet still huge numbers of students worldwide leave school and go on to higher education each year. Connell turns to political economy and the concept of ‘academic capitalism’ (Sheila Slaughter and Larry L. Leslie, 1997), or the increasing commodification of knowledge production and consumption, to help make sense of this paradox. The hand of academic capitalism is astutely observed by Connell as being clearly identifiable in the existence of publishing companies that now own the journals in which research is published. She highlights the profound absurdity of a situation in which these companies have ‘performed a dazzling feat, because they have turned universities into the customers for the universities’ own research’ (124). The rise of academic capitalism, coupled with the emergence of universities as sites of inequality, results in a toxic mix of strikes, protest and increasing frustration with the sector. The state of universities in their current form is, Connell argues, unsustainable.

The concluding two chapters of The Good University attempt to highlight the potential for a more hopeful future for the sector. Again, Connell utilises her characteristic clarity to give an expansive yet short overview of multiple case studies of ‘hope’, where both past and present institutions have found means and ways to subvert the status quo. Poland in the 1880s is home to one such example, where local support for the pursuit of academia in the face of opposition from the Russian Empire resulted in the creation of the underground ‘Flying University’, named after the fact that the university operated illicitly out of students’ and teachers’ homes to avoid detection by police. The vibrant study circles that formed under such conditions continued to operate secretly and in different guises until well into the 1980s, providing opportunities for women to be educated at a time when access to higher education was restricted and curriculums were heavily policed. A more recent example includes that of the Open Access movement, aiming to disrupt the market for published research and ensure public access to research outputs free of charge or any other such barriers. These case studies, amongst others, provide a backdrop to which Connell sets a clarion call for a brighter future, calling for the recognition of a good university as ‘democratic, engaged, truthful, creative, and sustainable’ (171), and underpinned by a foundation of collectivity and cooperation both within and across institutions on differing scales. The concrete examples she provides illustrate that disruption, dissent and change can occur; what is required is the foresight and will to command action.

Connell makes it very clear in this lucid and important book that the global state of higher education is at a crossroads. There is a danger that we may continue to tread down the path of no return, resulting in a dystopic realm of corporate culture and academic capitalism characterised by managers, money and the continuing perpetuation of inequality.

It is clear that there are substantial challenges ahead. But Connell does not lose her optimism that there is hope for a brighter future for higher education. Let’s hope this book is the force for change and reform that it deserves to be.

Emma Taylor is a Leverhulme Trust Scholar in the Department of Sociology at the LSE. She has also taught Geography in secondary schools in London for the past eleven years. Her PhD research engages with the work of Shamus Khan to ask further questions of the interactions taking place in elite schools in the UK. The study uses ethnography to investigate how the (re)production of privilege occurs within an independent school setting in England. Found out more about Emma here and you can follow her on Twitter here.

Note: This review gives the views of the author, and not the position of the LSE Review of Books blog, or of the London School of Economics. 


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