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Melanie Simms on Work

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COVID-19 has changed everything, including how we work (and to be more precise, are employed). But in order to best understand how things have changed, and hopefully to grapple with how they will be, it helps to have studied how they were. Enter Melanie Simms, professor of work and employment at the University of Glasgow ‘s Adam Smith Business School, and the author – in 2019 – of What Do We Know and What Should We Do About the Future of Work?

In this Social Science Bites podcast, Simms explains that while the idea of working from home seemed to be the dominant narrative during the pandemic, it’s only one of two “real headlines.” That’s in large part because the people who talk publicly about working from home are academics and journalists, both groups that did work from home. In fact, Simms relates, in the United Kingdom about 70 percent of workers spent some or all of their time at their workplace.

The less public headline, she notes, is that there seems to be a large group of people who have left the labor market during the pandemic – often women with children. And while improving options for childcare might see more mothers in employed positions, Simms notes a different trajectory for older workers -- almost anyone over 50 who has left the workforce in the last year-and-a-half struggles to re-enter it -- regardless of kind of work they do.

In discussion with interviewer David Edmonds, Simms details that while she does look at global trends, her research mostly focuses on the United Kingdom, and thanks to the regulatory ecosystem and a skew toward the service economy, what’s true in the UK can’t automatically be applied elsewhere.

Among the subjects Simms and Edmonds touch on are the “regrowth” of the middle class female workforce starting in the 1960s; the difficulties that a lack of childcare routinely creates for working women; the aging of the workforce as young people stay in school longer (delaying their entry into the labor marker) while at the same time older workers remain active in the labor market for longer; de-industrialization; labor unions; and the gig economy, which Simms sees as more about how work is allocated than a change in work itself.

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    “I tell my students, ‘If somebody utters the sentence that starts with the words, “History teaches us” the rest of the sentence is probably wrong.’ History has no direct lessons for almost anything. Our own age is sufficiently different, sufficiently unique, from what happened in the past that any facile lessons from history are more likely to mislead than to enlighten.” That series of caveats comes from Joel Mokyr, who, perhaps counter-intuitively, is an economic historian. And in fact, the Robert H. Strotz Professor of Arts and Sciences and professor of economics and history at the Chicago-area Northwestern University shows in this Social Science Bites podcast that there’s quite a bit to learn from history if you keep your expectations in check. For example, he explains that “the good old days weren’t all that good and that the very best time to be born in human history is today. That sounds hard to believe in an age where we’re all running around with face masks and facing quarantine, but it’s still true.” For his own part, Mokyr tells interviewer Dave Edmonds, “I use economics to understand history, and I use history to understand economics.” Mokyr’s ties to economic history are deep: he was president of the Economic History Association in 2003-04, spent four years in 1990s as senior editor of the Journal of Economic History, was editor-in-chief of the Oxford Encyclopedia of Economic History, and is currently editor-in-chief of the Princeton University Press Economic History of the Western World series of monographs. From that perch, he explains, presumably with a smile, that his peers work with ‘expired data.’ Economic historians “scour the past looking for large data sets that we can use in some way to make inferences. The issue of causality becomes somewhat of an obsession in economics these days, and economic history is very much a part of this.” In this interview, Mokyr details how the improvement in the human condition he cited above is connected to the Industrial Revolution. “The Industrial Revolution is particularly important because that’s where it all started -- before 1750 almost nowhere in the world were living standards approaching anything but miserable and poor.” Economic activity before the year 1750 was mostly the story of trade, he explains, while after 1750, it became the story of knowledge. “The Industrial Revolution was the slow replacement of trade and finance and commerce by another thing, and that is growing knowledge of natural phenomena and rules that can be harnessed to material welfare of people.” To demonstrate this approach, he offered the example of steel. While it has been made for centuries it wasn’t until 1780 that anyone knew roughly why  this alloy of iron and carbon resulted in such a useful metal, and therefore could exploit its properties more by design than by chance. “If you don’t know why something works,” Mokyr said, “it’s very difficult to improve it, to tweak it.” Mokyr’s scholarship has earned him a variety of honors, including the biennial Heineken Prize by the Royal Dutch Academy of Sciences for a lifetime achievement in historical science in 2006. He has also written a number of prize-winning books, including The Lever of Riches: Technological Creativity and Economic Progress, The Gifts of Athena: Historical Origins of the Knowledge Economy, and most recently, A Culture of Growth.
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    Karin Barber on Verbal Arts

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    Verbal arts, explains Karin Barber, emeritus professor of African cultural anthropology at the University of Birmingham, are “any form of words that have been composed in order to attract attention or invite interpretation which is intended to be repeatable in some way.” They are, she continues, central to all sorts of social processes, “just as much a part of people’s lives as kinship or economic activities.” In this Social Science Bites podcast, Barber offers a specific case study of the application of the verbal arts by examining in depth some of the genres common in the Yoruba-speaking areas of Western Africa. Barber said there are more than 30 million people who speak Yoruba, with the largest number in southwestern Nigeria, where much of Barber’s own scholarship has taken place. She describes the study of Yoruba as a large field in academe, with “hundreds and hundreds” of Yoruba scholars building it up. Barber herself grew up in Yorkshire and did her first degree, in English, at Cambridge University. She next studied social anthropology at University College London and after a stint in Uganda was told that if she really wanted to pursue her examination of African theater she should go to Nigeria. Her Ph.D. – based on 37 months of field work studying oral poetic performance in everyday life in a Yoruba town - came from Nigeria’s University of Ifẹ (now Ọbafẹmi Awolọwọ University). Barber then spent the next seven years as a lecturer in the Department of African Languages and Literatures at the University of Ifẹ, where courses were taught in Yoruba. Barber’s scholarship has resulted in several notable books and monographs. The 1991 monograph I Could Speak Until Tomorrow: Oriki, Women and the Past in a Yoruba Town won the Amaury Talbot Prize for African Anthropology; 2000’s The Generation of Plays: Yoruba Popular Life in Theatre won the Herskovits Award of the African Studies Association;  The Anthropology of Texts, Persons and Publics  from 2007 won the Susanne K. Langer Award of the Media Ecology Association; and 2012’s Print Culture and the First Yoruba Novel won the Paul Hair Prize of the African Studies Association and the Association for the Preservation and Publication of African Historical Sources. In this interview, she tells host David Edmonds about two particular genres of Yoruba verbal arts: ifa, or divination poetry, and oríkì, translated as praise poetry. “Divination is how people govern and manage their lives,” she explains, “so this poetry is really central to how people analyze what’s happening to them and take steps to make sure that things work out as they wish.” Praise poetry, “strings and strings of epithets hailing the subject’s qualities,” meanwhile, “celebrates and commemorates and highlights the essential characteristics of a person or god or a family or town or an animal. Somehow it evokes the inner essence, the inner properties, and activates them, galvanizes them.” This genre, she details, has changed over the years, emphasizing wealth in the 19th century but more personal qualities and achievements today. “Changing power dynamics are revealed, not necessarily in what the verbal arts specifically say, but in the way they are formed, in the way they are transmitted, who reads them or who listens to them.” And so verbal arts matter in a social science context. “All verbal arts are produced in an economic and institutional context. You could ask, why did this new genre appear in this context, this particular moment in history. What caused people to devise this way of commenting on society and formulating ides in this particular way? It’s because of the prevailing interplay of social forces.” For her work, Barber has received a number of high honors, ranging from a Yoruba chieftaincy title - she is the Iyamoye (“mother who has insights”) of Okuku – to appointment as Commander of the Order of the British Empire in the 2012 and Dame Commander of the Order of the British Empire earlier this year.
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    Melanie Simms on Work

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    COVID-19 has changed everything, including how we work (and to be more precise, are employed). But in order to best understand how things have changed, and hopefully to grapple with how they will be, it helps to have studied how they were. Enter Melanie Simms, professor of work and employment at the University of Glasgow ‘s Adam Smith Business School, and the author – in 2019 – of What Do We Know and What Should We Do About the Future of Work? In this Social Science Bites podcast, Simms explains that while the idea of working from home seemed to be the dominant narrative during the pandemic, it’s only one of two “real headlines.” That’s in large part because the people who talk publicly about working from home are academics and journalists, both groups that did work from home. In fact, Simms relates, in the United Kingdom about 70 percent of workers spent some or all of their time at their workplace. The less public headline, she notes, is that there seems to be a large group of people who have left the labor market during the pandemic – often women with children. And while improving options for childcare might see more mothers in employed positions, Simms notes a different trajectory for older workers -- almost anyone over 50 who has left the workforce in the last year-and-a-half struggles to re-enter it -- regardless of kind of work they do. In discussion with interviewer David Edmonds, Simms details that while she does look at global trends, her research mostly focuses on the United Kingdom, and thanks to the regulatory ecosystem and a skew toward the service economy, what’s true in the UK can’t automatically be applied elsewhere. Among the subjects Simms and Edmonds touch on are the “regrowth” of the middle class female workforce starting in the 1960s; the difficulties that a lack of childcare routinely creates for working women; the aging of the workforce as young people stay in school longer (delaying their entry into the labor marker) while at the same time older workers remain active in the labor market for longer; de-industrialization; labor unions; and the gig economy, which Simms sees as more about how work is allocated than a change in work itself.
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    Whose Work Most Influenced You? Part 4

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    "That’s such a hard question,” Gina Neff, a sociologist at the Oxford Internet Institute, responds when asked what social science research or thinker most influenced her. “It’s like a busman’s holiday for an academic, because so many things have influenced my thinking.” Her answer, by the way, was Ulrich Beck’s concept of the risk society, as explained in this 1986 book. In this montage drawn from the last two years of Social Science Bites podcasts, interviewer David Edmonds poses the same question to 25 other notable social scientists. For many of the guests, the answer proves difficult to pin down to just one person or work (“That’s like asking who’s your favorite kid,” was David Halpern’s first response). For a few guests, the response is instant. “A simple answer, really,” replies Rupert Brown, naming a fellow social psychologist, Turkish-American Muzafer Sherif, and his work in the 1950s. And sociologist Les Back, too, answers instantly: “Don’t even have to think about it: WEB DuBois’s The Souls of Black Folk. DuBois is the writer who captures both the heat and the passion of life and also the cool historical perspective and analysis in the most extraordinary compound of literary expression.” Back, in turn, was mentioned by one scholar: Kayleigh Garthwaite as her great influencer. A number of the guests cited titans from the early days of social science – Max Weber, Karl Marx, Pierre Bourdieu, Emile Durkheim, while others named modern-era titans like Stephen Pinker, Daniel Kahneman, Jonathan Haidt or Jean Piaget. And many named creators of the new canon – Jim Scott cited A.P. Thompson’s Making of the English Working Class, Alondra Nelson picked Troy Duster’s Backdoor to Eugenics, and Gurminder  Bhambra tabbed Danielle S. Allen’s Talking to Strangers: Anxieties of Citizenship since Brown v. Board of Education. And no such list would be complete without a wild card, and for that we turn to Michelle Gelfand, who turned to Herodotus’ The Histories and the lessons a 2,500-year-old post-mortem of an ancient war can teach us today: “He was a brilliant cross-cultural psychologist … he also had a really interesting observation — that all humans are ethnocentric. They don’t just think that their culture is different, they think it’s better.” This is the fourth collection in this series (and the 100th Social Science Bites podcast).

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