Monday, 5 September 2016

What I've been reading - February 2016

OK so this is a bit after the fact but here are some thoughts on books I read in February

Corporate Responsibility by Michael Blowfield and Alan Murray second edition 

This is a text book that sets out to provide an introduction to the "key ideas and practices in the field" of corporate responsibility.  Split into 3 sections it starts by covering what corporate responsibility is and its origins.  Next, it turns to the question of managing and implementing corporate responsibility before concluding with a section on the impact it has, some critiques and some thoughts on the future.  Throughout it is an easy read with lots of examples and case studies to illustrate the points being made.

Doing a Literature Search by Chris Hart 

Comprehensive but very dated feel to the book.   Covers all sorts of data sources and where to look for a literature search but originally written in 2001 and a lot has changed since then.  For someone familiar with libraries and working with information sources there in unlikely to be much to gain from reading this book.

Learn to Write Badly, How to Succeed in the Social Sciences by Michael Billig

Some very interesting ideas in this book that looks at the style of academic writing in the social sciences.  He asks, why is the style used by social scientists routinely poor and why does it continue to get worse.   Makes some points about why academic language has evolved as it is and draws various comparisons between natural sciences and social sciences.  For me the second half of the book was less engaging as it became much more specific and less general.

In contrast to today's highly specialised language, he talks (on p15) how writers in the past, such as Adam Smith, wrote in a way that their work could be read by people from different disciplines.  Their writing was rooted in the use of non-technical words which enabled easier understanding.  As he puts it they were "writing in small words for big circles" versus today where "The words have become longer and the circles, in which they circulate, have become smaller."

In talking about league tables and how universities emphasise their research capability he picks the University of Winchester as an example and discusses at some length what their website says about the university.  Guess he had to pick somewhere but still a surprise to see Winchester featuring as the only university whose website he comments on.

When Prophecy Fails by Leon Festinger, Henry Riecken and Stanley Schachter

The first of 2 books this month where the author(s) reflects on experience of having been part of a group - in both cases, especially the first one, some real challenges around how the presence of the observer may affect the group being observed.

The experimental psychologist Leon Festinger had been working on a new theory of cognitive dissonance and how this would affect human behaviour.   In essence this says that when we have 2 mutually incompatible things in our head then we need to work out some way to reconcile them.     For example if I know that exercise is good for me and I also know that I don't exercise how do I reconcile these things?  I could start doing more exercise or I can construct a rationale to explain it away... I would do more exercise but at the moment I'm very busy at work so I can't but as soon as that is under control then of course I will do some more exercise.... that sort of thing.

This book tells how they were able to join a cult which believes that the world is set to end in the coming months.  How would the members of the cult feel when the predicted end of the world didn't occur and they were not picked up by a spacecraft as had been foretold?  

The answer is surprising at first but consistent with the theory.   When they are not picked up and the world does not end, what is beautifully labeled as the "disconfirmation event", the cult grows significantly in its efforts to recruit new members and starts proselytising in a way that they did not previously.

An easy read ( certainly compared with the books above !) and a well told and engaging story alongside the theory.  Given the small size of the cult the researchers did form quite a significant part of the group which certainly did make me wonder about their influence on the group.   This however is something that is addressed by the authors and creatively dealt with - including the time when one of them was asked to lead a session.   No way to back out of it and not wanting to preach to the group ( and hence potentially influence their thinking ) the researcher, in a stroke of genius, leads the group in silent meditation.

Gang Leader for a Day by Sudhir Venkatesh

Sociology student goes out into “the projects” and gets involved with the local gang - the Black Kings.  Befriends the gang leader JT and gains insight into the workings of the gang including different perspectives from people inside and outside the gang.   

Fascinating insight into how things work and the similarity of the challenges that leaders face, motivation, discipline etc - all be it in a different context and with very different mechanisms for implementation.

Also interesting to see challenges of observing from within the system that you are studying.   Presence there influences the situation around you so you can never observe detached from the system.

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