Monthly Archives: March 2008

Sarkozettes: Lost in translation or sloppy journalism?

This is slightly off topic for me, because it isn’t really about social science and its misuses, but a more simple issue of translation. Because people in different places/cultures, and even different people in the same ‘place’ see the world in different ways, use different systems and language, you have to be careful to dig behind the meanings. Today’s Observer has a feature on Sarkozettes, who look remarkably like Blair’s Babes all those years ago. At least it’s not just about Carla Bruni today! Anyway, under a photo of Rama Yade it said ’31-year old Rama Yade was working as an administrator when Sarkozy promoted her to minister of foreign affairs’. Now, I’m not knocking her achievement, and 31 is very young to get a job like this, but the Observer’s language makes it sound almost unbelievable (particularly the UK’s got a really young foreign secretary in his early 40s) and I was also surprised I hadn’t heard of her. Of course, the journalist’s turn of phrase leads us to think of the minister of foreign affairs, who is actually the Bernard Kouchne, who’s 68 and not so young. More importantly, the word ‘administrator’ has very different connotations either side of the channel. Here it usually means someone carrying out tasks in an office on behalf of someone else, and often with little pay or responsibility. ‘Admin’ staff are often in the lowest ranks of an organisation, and usually undervalued and overworked. In France an administrator is a senior member of the civil service, as seen in the name of the Ecole nationale d’administration, which is their equivalent to our National School of Government. I don’t know if Rama Yade had time there while working as a civil servant, but she’s went to Sciences Po, which educates the French political elite, and was doing a high-flying job in government. This reminded me of two issues. First, the way comparing different places, cultures or whatever is fraught with translation problems. There was a story about French and British national identity (arguing that French national identity is stronger for immigrants to France), while forgetting that in Britain we’ve got England, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland, so if some people choose these the statistics are skewed. Second, it reminded me how sloppy journalism can be. I know next to nothing about French politics and imagine the author probably knows more than me, but she left ‘government administrator’ unexplained so that whoever did the photo caption, who probably knows less than me, just took it as written. Just as a statistic or social theory gets garbled by being passed from a researcher to a non-expert journalist to the public, a simple fact gets mistranslated because of a lack of expertise and a lack of care.

Leave a comment

Filed under Gender, News, Politicians, Uncategorized

Anti-social behaviour, alcohol and public space

Although anti-social behaviour (ASB) is largely associated with ‘rough’, i.e. poor estates, there’s also a fear of similar problems in public spaces. Whereas the first venue tends to only affect those living there, and the government’s respect agenda supposedly targets this, the second venue is being talked up with reference to outdoor drinking. There’s a discourse of fear around parks and public squares, which CABE want to design out. However, there are differences of place that complicate this accepted story somewhat.

Where I live now there are few parks that are fully accessible public spaces. One park is really small, with the town museum at one end and a kids playground at the other. It’s pleasant enough, with a fairly average cafe, but you couldn’t have many people in it. At the other end of town there’s a bigger park, but this has no facilities except kids playgrounds, and is used by dog walkers and teenagers. Families do go to the playgrounds, but you wouldn’t picnic there. In order to stop ASB, the second park is subject to an alcohol ban, so if you did you couldn’t drink.

Where I used to live in Hackney, there was little fear of the two parks I lived between (Finsbury and Clissold). In both a real mix of classes and ethnicities use the space: lots of people picnic, play football, sunbathe, drink and sometimes smoke cannabis, take kids to the playground, and use the cafes. In Finsbury Park there seemed to be a small street population smoking dope and drinking special brew, but this didn’t seem to put off the middle-class parents, and this low-level disorder sits side-by-side with a playgroup and an art space. I don’t think there would be any support for alcohol bans, and at times this would kill the parks’ atmospheres.

This seems counter-intuitive: of these, the parks with the most alcohol/drug taking are far more popular. My feeling is that the London experience is caused by the sheer force of numbers. Given that the parks are extremely busy/popular, it’s hard to feel unsafe, even if there are differences in norms of behaviour. Furthermore, this force of numbers self-polices so that anti-social behaviour doesn’t happen.

Where I live now the middle-classes are conspicuous by their absence. There’s a private park in the area, that’s been developed on an estate (as in landed property, not housing estate) with formal gardens. People can get an affordable season ticket so they can have their picnics / playground time in a non-public space, and if you want to take a bottle of wine that’s fine.
There’s obviously something different between these places. I’d suggest that there is a difference in the history of how spaces are used (in Hackney some parks are like those described, and some aren’t), that may be caused by the population around them. However, there’s also a difference in how cultural divides work. I don’t think the white middle-classes in London, for example, have any more friends out of their ‘group’, than they do anywhere else. However, there is more ‘recognition’ of others, if that’s the right word. It’s harder for people to avoid the crowd if they’ve got to get the tube to work instead of driving to work. Familiarity may breed contempt, but it also reduces fear.

Leave a comment

Filed under Statistics and simplicity

Work brings freedom?

Our government’s obsession with workfare in order to prove that it’s not soft on the undeserving poor continues unabated. This time it’s an ’empowerment white paper’ from DCLG (here), which somehow makes paid employment into the most enjoyable and empowering thing one can ever do. Even call centres?

‘The Empowerment White Paper, to be published in the Summer, will set out how the untapped talent of communities can be unleashed to ensure everyone has a greater say in improvements to public services, local accountability and opportunities for enterprise’

Of the three elements of empowerment mentioned here, two are about improving democracy, and one is about entrepreneurship. However, in the ‘Unlocking talent’ discussion paper, five pages are devoted to reducing worklessness, while about one and a half cover the public services and accountability. I’m not quite sure why getting a job empowers you to be involved in participatory democracy, especially as it reduces the time you have for ‘getting involved’. Of course, getting a job does empower you by reducing your reliance on the state, and empowers you as a consumer, but I didn’t think that was the point.

Anyway, now for the bad social science. Part of their ‘evidence shows that those in employment are happier, healthier and less likely to be involved in crime’ (DCLG 2008, p.4). The truth, of course, is far more complicated.

Firstly, this short and authoritative statement is based on a number of papers (Strategy Unit 2002, Meghir and Machin 2000 and one other) that don’t really support it.

The paper (M&M) on crime showed that ‘falls in the wages of low-wage workers lead to increases in crime’, suggesting we should increase the minimum wage!

Early on, the Strategy unit paper reminds us that correlations don’t tell us the direction of causation. Given that an employer is looking for people who are fun, or at least nice to work with (I always did this), miserable people are less likely to get jobs. I can’t think of many jobs where being pessimistic is an asset.

And we should always be on the look out for spurious correlations, and in this research they are legion. The data this paper uses, suggests that workers have greater life-satifaction than non-workers. But of course, in an unequal world the workers have more money than the non-workers, they socialise more with their colleagues (’cause if you’re unemployed while all your mates are working, you’ve no-one to go out with), and they aren’t bored stuck at home with no money.

In order to research this properly, we should do either a randomised controlled trial, but my ethics committee would turn this down, or some kind of matched survey.  In the latter, instead of comparing a sample of workers with non-workers, the research would compare like-with-like. Each unemployed person would have as much money, activity and lifestyle (and so on) as the comparator employed person. Let’s see if the middle-class, middle-aged retiree on a £50k pension aged 50, is happier or less happy than his/her equivalent who still has to work to sustain the lifestyle. Or let’s compare the young minimum wage cleaner (less than £12k), with someone who get’s £12k from a trust fund. This might give a result that is consistent with the fact that almost no-one who wins the lottery carries on working full-time (NS 2005). In fact, lottery winners are happier as they ‘do what they like’ and enjoy an ‘easier life’.

Leave a comment

Filed under economy, News, Statistics and simplicity

Big savings in insurance?

A few weeks ago I received a bit of junk mail from RIAS that’s led me to the most amusing use of statistics I’ve ever seen.

I wouldn’t normally read this kind of mail, especially as I’m neither over 50, nor in the market for some new insurance, but the letter began along the lines of ‘I know that getting letters like this is annoying’. I threw it away, thinking ‘damn right’, but then got it back out of the bin in disbelief that they’d start like this… the pitch worked.

Anyway, to the numbers. When an insurance company says ‘You could save up to £182’ or whatever, it’s worth examining the small print, because the important word here is ‘could’. In their favour, this is of course a one-way bet: if you ring up and they give you a higher quote, you’ll stick with what you’ve got. When the Halifax say in a current ad, ‘you could save £99’, this is the average savings of a ‘random sample of 715 customers… by switching’. Obviously this doesn’t include those who don’t switch who might be saving a hundred quid by staying put. But at least it’s an average saving, that makes sense to the general public.

For others, it’s a different figure altogether, and one that made me choke on my cornflakes. Hastings and RIAS give figures that ‘10% of customers achieved’ were ‘achieved in 10% of quotes’. This means 90% of people (i.e. most of them) didn’t get this saving, and we don’t even know if these figures only include people who switched. Yes, they do say ‘look, this what you could get up to’, but as a headline figure it makes you think that’s your approximate gain. We’ve no idea of the distribution: maybe 10% save £150 and the other 90% save nothing.
I guess this is what those recruitment ads do when they say ‘earnings up to £70k’ when in reality very few get anywhere near that. Maybe I’ll start to measure things like this. I could offer to do ‘up to 2 hours of housework each weekday’, knowing I’ll do next to nothing except a couple of hours every fortnight.


Filed under economy, Statistics and simplicity