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Expert opinion from IOE, UCL's Faculty of Education and Society


UCL’s new BSc Social Sciences graduates offer a global perspective on social change

Blog Editor, IOE Digital4 July 2019

Image 04-07-2019 at 12.33

Claire Cameron, Ann Phoenix, Ashly Fuller, Charlotte Cook, Miya Baldwin.

We live in interesting times. News reports from every continent are by turn puzzling, alarming and heartening, particularly as it is increasingly clear that there are deep divisions in how any new event is received.

In the UK, Brexit and the Extinction Rebellion, the Syrian War and various migration crises are dramatic examples, raising fundamental issues about the relationship between individuals, society and international perspectives. It has never been more urgent to have the analytic tools to understand social currents and to be able to make informed decisions about how and where to take a stand. It is here that the new UCL BSc Social Sciences degree makes a distinctive contribution. (more…)

Can well-being be measured?

Blog Editor, IOE Digital26 June 2013

John White
Well-being has shot up the Institute’s research agenda in recent years. It has figured in work on health policy and childhood, as well as the workplace, the aims of education, music education and the lives of older people.
While – as a participant myself – I welcome this, I do have one unresolved question.
How far is well-being measurable? You can understand why policy makers would like it to be. If national data can show that people’s well-being has been increasing or decreasing in this respect or that, it can be used to justify government policies or to call for improvements. Richard Layard built his 2005 book Happiness around the now well-known claim that ‘as Western societies have got richer, their people have become no happier’ (p3).
We have good reason to be wary of measurability claims about personal qualities. Look at intelligence. Human beings, like some other animals, but in language-dependent ways, have the ability flexibly to adjust the ways they go about pursuing their goals according to changing conditions and beliefs. It is a quality we rely on in all our activities, academic, practical, personal. What has been measured in traditional intelligence tests is something far less central to our existence: the scores we get in answers to various largely logical and linguistic questions.
It is doubtful whether the notion of measuring the deeper sense of intelligence makes sense. How could we put a whole population on a scale, given the complexity of human goals and variations in circumstances and beliefs? Yet it has suited some policy-makers in the past – those looking for a rationale for selective education – to simplify reality by redefining the inner attribute in terms of something that can easily produce a rank order.
There are also problems with measuring another inner quality: understanding. Our former IoE colleague Ray Elliott has written wonderfully about the virtues it comprises, about how it has at its best to be ‘true, comprehensive, profound, synoptic, sensitive, fertile, critical, firm and justly appreciative’ [1]. ‘A’ level and other exam boards claim to be able to rank candidates’ understanding in different areas. But, especially outside the exact disciplines, how can they deal with such apparently incommensurable qualities? The temptation is, once again, to resort to simplifications – methods designed to increase consensus among examiners, extending in some cases even to the use of multiple choice questions. Again, it suits politicians and others to rely on perversions of the real thing – often, again, for purposes of selection, but also as a sign of how well their policies are working or need changing.
Like intelligence and understanding, well-being is now in danger of measurement blight. It may indeed be possible to measure some of its necessary conditions –adequate shelter, food and drink, income etc – that is, what social scientists working in the area call ‘objective well-being’. But problems multiply when you go beyond this to well-being as such. What counts as a flourishing life has exercised philosophers since before Plato. Is it an endless succession of pleasurable feelings? If so, would this mean that a doctor working in stressful conditions cannot be leading a flourishing life? Is it, as some economists claim, a life in which you broadly succeed in reaching the goals you’ve set for yourself? But what if you reach them and are bitterly disappointed? And would it matter if your main goal were to get blinding drunk twice a day? And can I lead a flourishing life if I my goals are immoral?
In a fuller treatment, I try to answer these questions, and argue that to lead a flourishing life, at least in a society like our own, you need to be wholeheartedly involved in self-chosen pursuits of a worthwhile sort – from loving, intimate relationships to activities like teaching, gardening, reading poetry, or ethical banking [2]. Wellbeing is a notion full of complexity, touching the deepest layers of our lives. Its components give every impression of being incommensurable.
Psychologists and social scientists claim to have quantified what they call ‘subjective well-being’ (to supplement the ‘objective’ variety described above). They do this by rating people’s reports of how satisfied they are with their lives, or of how happy or distressing their experience has been over a period. But is satisfaction or feeling happy necessarily a sign of well-being? The questions raised two paragraphs back come back in full force. And is a slave (or a wage slave) living a life of well-being if she has been manipulated to believe her life could not be happier?
I am not claiming that there could never be any value in work on subjective well-being. If Layard is right that increased wealth does not go with an increase in self-reports of feeling happy, this calls for empirical explanation. But I am concerned that politicians and other policy makers might use the data to argue, for instance, that people are leading more flourishing lives under their régime or worse ones under others. We have been misled enough over the years by intelligence testers, and examination boards claiming insight into the quality of students’ understanding. We don’t want to go down the same road with well-being.
[1] In Brown, S.C. (ed) (1975) Philosophers Discuss Education London: Macmillan pp. 47-8
[2] White, J. (2011) Exploring Well-being in Schools London: Routledge, Chapter 11
John White is Emeritus Professor of Philosophy of Education at the Institute of Education.

Women publish less than men in the social sciences. Or do they…?

Blog Editor, IOE Digital22 August 2012

Karen Schucan Bird
We in higher education all know how important it is to publish our research. Recognition and reward are granted to productive scholars and their universities. But is there equal opportunity for all to succeed? With growing evidence from the material and life sciences that women publish less than men, I wondered whether other female social scientists and I were publishing less than we would expect. I sought to investigate.
To do so, I compared two sets of data: 1) demographic data of UK academics (pdf) to identify the proportion of social scientists that were women (in 2003/4, this was 40%), and 2) a random sample of 202 journal articles published at a similar time, so that I could identify the proportion of articles authored by UK-based women. The logic that drove my analysis was simple: if 40% of social scientists were women, then we could expect that 40% of publications would be written by women.
I analysed the social sciences as a whole as well as focusing on particular disciplines: political science, economics, social policy and psychology. Traditionally, these disciplines  are gendered subject areas. Economics, for example, has tended to represent a “harder”, masculine area of social science, with high proportions of male academics and students. In contrast, social policy is traditionally considered a feminine field,  with high levels of female scholars and students.
My findings
Across the social sciences as a whole, women did not publish as many articles as we might expect. Whilst representing 40% of the social science community, women only contributed 32% of the sampled articles. A similar discrepancy was found in the more “masculine” disciplines. Whilst women made up 24% of political scientists in the UK, they only contributed 8% of the articles sampled. In economics, women constituted 22% of academics whilst writing 13% of the sampled articles. This latter finding, however, was not statistically significant (whilst the other reported findings were).
There were more optimistic findings elsewhere. In the “feminine” disciplines of social science, women’s publishing levels were proportionate to their representation in the field. In psychology, women constituted 43% of the discipline and wrote 43% of the sampled articles. Similarly, women made up 46% of social policy academics in the UK and contributed 53% of the articles sampled. In these disciplines it seems that women were able to publish at a level comparable to their male peers.
So, it seems, there were differences in men and women’s publication productivity. With the 2014 Research Excellence Framework (REF) looming over us, I can’t help but feel troubled by some of my findings. In the last quality assurance process (The Research Assessment Exercise, 2008), men were almost 40% more likely than their female colleagues (pdf) to be entered. If women are publishing less than men then a similar outcome may be repeated in 2014. How can we explain this and what does this say about the academy?
I speculate about three possible explanations:

  • Women’s research is not sufficiently recognised or valued by our universities or the academy. Understandings of “knowledge’’ and “scientific quality” privilege traditional, more “masculine” approaches to research that are more commonly undertaken by men. Particular disciplines such as social policy and psychology may provide a space in which alternative research approaches are accepted, valued and published.
  • Female academics may take on a greater proportion of the teaching and administrative roles within the academy. Thus, they have less time to dedicate to research and its publication than their male colleagues.
  • Women are actively seeking new opportunities to undertake research and dissemination activities that do not involve publishing in the standard ways. Perhaps journals and other conventional outlets for research are being replaced by new media (such as blogs) and alternative platforms.

Publishing is absolutely central to the academic world. If women are not publishing at a level comparable with their male peers, for whatever reason, then surely they are at a career disadvantage? I urge us all to watch and see whether our male and female colleagues fare differently in the forthcoming REF.
For more details see, “Do women publish fewer journal articles than men? Sex differences in publication productivity in the social sciences” Schucan Bird, K. Nov-2011 In : British Journal of Sociology of Education. 32, 6, p. 921-937.