Monday, November 16, 2009

A perspective on PhDs and prostitution

It was one of those illicit pleasures, but I rather enjoyed reading the Belle de Jour blog from time to time over the years. That I did so was despite a sense that its point was lost after she stopped being a call girl. I put it down partly to the fact that she started blogging around the same time as me and for relatively similar reasons (prostitution for her, electoral politics for me!) but mainly because she wrote so well.

What I liked wasn’t just her strong opinions, but both her eye for detail combined with a capacity to stand back and look at the bigger picture. So I wasn’t too surprised to learn yesterday that she’s a PhD-educated research scientist. Her perspective is what I think sets PhDs apart from others. Having completed one myself, it’s a way of looking the world which I’ve found hard to describe to non-PhDs; I know it when I see it, but to explain it other than in general terms or in a specific case is rather difficult.

To give an example: I’m reminded of a conversation with a successful non-PhD friend over the summer when he told me that their approach to policy delivery was to identify what worked and then develop it into a model of best practice that can be applied across different sectors. My immediate response was questioning rather than positive: how could he be sure that the model would work across different sectors? Was there something in that on policy area which meant that it worked well but not elsewhere? In other words, what about context, contingency? Had he conducted before and after assessments before imposing the model? To all of this my friend’s reaction was a bit defensive; he had found the Holy Grail and it was to be applied across the board.

I didn’t think that I was being particularly negative or personal in my response. But I’d claim that our respective attitudes said much about the way we look at the world. And that was something that Belle was rather good at.

Having read Belle’s interview in the Sunday Times, I also understand the difficulty of combining a PhD while working. During my own it wasn’t easy, balancing assistant teaching and research duties for others alongside my own. And I sympathise entirely with Belle’s predicament of trying to balance completing her dissertation with the need to earn – doing something that netted a considerable amount for a few hours seemed like a good idea.

In fact, it doesn’t end only with the PhD. As I’ve been learning on my endless and fruitless job search this year, having the PhD is only one of several necessary conditions to even get one’s feet under the interview table. Aspiring candidates have to juggle writing interminable applications (letter, CV, writing samples, research statements, teaching philosophies, three letters of reference...) for academic posts while also keeping an eye on expanding their research agenda and publications list in order to become more credible. Little wonder then that another friend of mine suggested a few weeks ago that I should consider going on the game!

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

The sheep in wolf's clothing?

I don't know whether this will be appear on the LSE Ideas Centre blog today (I hope so), but just in case (not), I'm attaching it here as well.  Some reflections following my attendance at Rafael Correa's speech at LSE last night:

"Tony Blair’s star seems to be rising, not just in Europe but globally. In Europe he is currently the frontrunner for the post of EU president, despite leaving the British prime minister’s office under a cloud just over two years ago. His departure then could be attributed to his unpopularity for his foreign policy in Iraq and his close relations with George W Bush.

"Globally, Blair’s brand of Third Way social democracy also seems to be in the ascendance – and from an arguably surprising quarter. Although the LSE and its former director, Anthony Giddens, became synonymous with the Third Way in the latter half of the 1990s, it was another speaker that last night seemed to breathe new life into the concept.

"Last night Ecuador’s president, Rafael Correa, came to speak at the LSE. Having been elected in late 2006, between 2007 and 2008 he was involved in a far-reaching constitutional reform which included land redistribution, greater controls on industries and fewer monopolies and environmental rights. It also enabled him to stand for re-election, which he did successfully in April this year.

"In Latin America Correa’s attitudes and positions place him alongside Venezuela’s Hugo Chavez (since 1998) and Bolivia’s Evo Morales (since 2006). This places him at the sharper end of the supposed ‘red tide’ that has swept the region since the mid-2000s rather than among its ‘pinker’ associates in Brazil (Lula), Chile (Michelle Bachelet) and Uruguay (Tabaré Vasquez).

"Despite this fearsome reputation though, Correa’s speech at the LSE last night provided a far more nuanced and pragmatic approach than is sometimes assumed. Indeed, what was remarkable about the so-called ‘21st century socialism’ that he, Chavez and others have expounded upon, was quite how similar it was to the Third Way.

"Among the main themes Correa stressed the importance of its basis on principle rather than on dogma or particular models. In particular he stressed its adaptability to different countries and settings, rejecting a standard form. He wanted to see a greater role for the state and more public intervention in markets, since the latter are only concerned with monetary (as opposed to social) value. He noted its collective nature (as opposed to neo-liberalism’s independence and isolation) and the influence it could play in achieving justice across different dimensions, including gender, ethnicity, etc.

"Where 21st century socialism was different from the ‘classical socialism’ of the last century was not just in relation to its relative pragmatism. He criticised classical socialism’s slaving adherence to dialectic materialism and its over-emphasis on unchangeable laws governing society. This had given rise to an almost theological commitment to the ideas of a few rather than a wider discussion about how best to improve society. In contrast to classical socialism he rejected violence, saying that the only ‘bullet’ should be the vote. He took issue with absolute state control of the means of production, instead stressing that it should be ‘democratic’. But most pertinently of all, he noted that classical socialism had fallen into the same development trap as capitalism, by emphasising consumption and accumulation rather than alternative, more human and nature-oriented versions.

"What is striking about this vision though is how remarkably similar it is to the Third Way. In 1998 Giddens put forth the ideas of a ‘renewed’ social democracy that sought to update it for the age of globalisation. This meant not a return to the old way of doing things but their adaptation. Nowhere was this more apparent than in the role of the state. Instead of a dominant state role Giddens envisaged the involvement of both public and private working alongside each other, but overseen by a state that would be ‘active’ or ‘enabling’. In other words the state’s role would be pragmatic, stepping in when and where it saw it necessary. This meant that like Correa’s 21st century socialism, it could be shaped and adapted depending on local circumstances. The result was that social democracy was everywhere and nowhere, being able to include individuals who called themselves social democrats but weren’t and those who were carrying out social democratic aims while denying the political affiliation. Furthermore, underpinning these ‘social democracies’ were similar core values identified by Correa, including the rejection of violence (class conflict) and its aims to break out of the development paradigm dominated by capitalism and previous forms of socialism.

"Not only was Giddens’s presentation of the Third Way subjected to considerable criticism after 1998, but it arguably became increasingly discredited through its association with the politician most closely identified with it: Tony Blair. It therefore does seem rather ironic that just as Blair may be achieving a political rehabilitation through Europe, so might the Third Way similarly be experiencing a renaissance. That it should be gaining this recognition from a trio of Latin American political leaders who (rightly or wrongly) have been on the receiving end of negative publicity is especially surprising."

Friday, October 23, 2009

The next logical step
In some ways it was exactly what I expected.  I think it made sense to have Nick Griffin on Question Time last night as it finally exposed his and his party's loony ravings to a wider andience.  That said, that he was on effectively overshadowed the rest of the week's news and discussion.  And did it help that the other guests and audience (which seemed much less white than previous occasions) were virtually salivating at the prospect of getting stuck into him?

Tellingly, when they did get onto the question of immigration, the political parties' positions became rather weak.  The mainstream politicians' should have acknowledged their own increasingly strident language and how it's contributed to the BNP's rise.  Instead Jack Straw seemed to hem and haw while Baroness Warsi's words suggested that Griffin and his ilk was just at the more extreme end of such views.

And that's essentially the problem with the BNP that the establishment seem unable - or unwilling? - to address.  They insist on seeing it as outside the political system when I'd suggest that they're actually the nex logical step  in a politics that has become increasingly negative, fearful and intolerant.

Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Election Uncertainty

One reason for restarting this blog has been the silence from other media regarding my work. Back in June I penned a piece for the Guardian's 'Comment is Free' section reflecting on the relationship between elections and civil society but which received zero interest. Moreover, given the recent and apparent fraud in Afghanistan's election, it still seems relevant. And here I have editorial license, so here you go:
"Iran is the latest election where the result has been contested, prompting protests in the street. President for the last four years, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, claimed victory with 66% while his principal challenger, Mir-Hossein Mousavi, states that there have been vote irregularities. Thousands of mainly young people have taken to the street in arguably the biggest protests seen in that country since the Islamic Revolution in 1979.

"Iranians’ resort to the street follows several other countries that have experienced political instability after the polls ended. Last year in Zimbabwe the failure to release the results of the presidential election for more than a month prompted suspicions about the nature of the polls. This was followed by a delayed second round election during which time President Robert Mugabe sought to bolster his position against the opposition through political violence, prompting his opponent, Morgan Tsvangirai, to withdraw a week before the poll. Months earlier in December 2007, Raila Odinga claimed electoral manipulation against Kenyan President Mwai Kibaki, setting off two months of violent protest and targeted ethnic conflict against the Kikuyu people, of whom Kibaki is a member. And in July 2006 centre-right candidate Felipe Calderón beat the leftist Andrés Manuel López Obrador by a margin of 0.6%, prompting cries of electoral fraud and widespread protest.

"And it hasn’t only been in recent democracies that election results have been contentious. Although the first round result of the 2002 French presidential election wasn’t questioned, thousands of protestors took to the streets against the presence of the far-right National Front leader Jean-Marie Le Pen against the incumbent, Jacques Chirac, in the second round. And two years previously the problem of political instability was kicked off in the United States. For it wasn’t at the ballot box that George W Bush could claim legitimacy for his first presidential mandate in 2000, but rather the verdict of seven judges of the Supreme Court.

"One thing that these countries have in common is that these crises have all occurred after presidential rather than legislative elections. This is explainable for two main reasons. First, presidential elections polarise societies. Their winner-takes-all nature means that only one candidate and his or her supporters can triumph. The rest are therefore excluded. The situation is exaggerated further in cases where the difference between victory and defeat is marginal, ensuring that the difference between majority and minority is slight. By contrast legislative elections tend not to result in the same degree of social and political polarisation. While different electoral systems will contribute to more or less proportion between votes and seats, the all-or-nothing features associated with presidencies is reduced.

"Second, presidents have arguably become more powerful in practice than theory presumed. Here the American case is especially instructive as it was here that the presidential model was introduced. The Founding Fathers sought to prevent the excesses of an overreaching executive with legislative and judicial checks and balances. In contemporary political systems though, the cult of leadership has arguably grown to the extent that such constraints tend to be overlooked. Despite Bush’s questionable legitimacy such considerations were soon put aside in the aftermath of 9/11 as legislative scrutiny all but evaporated over the Patriot Act and planning for the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq.

"The response by political elites to these crises has followed two main forms. In some cases the beneficiaries of these elections have sought to brazen it out, hoping that social opposition will eventually dissipate. In Mexico and the US this largely happened following the inauguration of Calderón and Bush as presidents and their exercise of power. To a lesser extent the same occurred in France, with Chirac relying on a boosted turnout to defeat Le Pen, including from disgruntled socialists. In other cases incumbents have come to realise that the only way to achieve political stability is to establish governments of national unity with their political opponents, as happened in Kenya and Zimbabwe.

"However, while Ahmadinejad may still be able to opt for either path at the moment, neither the persistence of social exclusion of limited inclusion of rival political elites will deliver a long-term solution. The rise of social protest over the past decade reflects a more deep-rooted crisis than the institutional nature of presidential systems. Instead it suggests a more problematic issue of social incorporation into representative democracy since the 1990s when democracy emerged as the principal game in town.

"That isn’t to say that the ‘third wave’ of democratisation in the last quarter of the twentieth century was problem-free. But what appears to have changed over the past decade is the promise of what democracy can offer by society. Previously representative democracy had come hand in hand with economic liberalisation. Consequently its impact was largely procedural; while masses could vote there seemed to be an implicit acceptance that this would not lead to any substantial change.

"By contrast today the rules seem to have changed – at least for the voters if not the political elite. Increasingly public are demanding a more responsive form of democracy, a democracy that is substantive rather than procedural. It means going beyond the mere inclusion of rival political elites to accommodate the demands of the masses. It means making electoral choice more meaningful. It involves challenging the winner-takes-all mentality of presidential systems and the sustained representation of the minority in the face of the majority.

"For Iran and other countries that have experienced post-electoral instability, it seems clear that voters are taking democracy increasingly at its word. The question for political elites is whether they are prepared to dispense with their current preference for periodic ballots in favour of meeting social demands for a more engaged and participatory form of democracy."
Latin American contemplation

At the request of a friend, I've also penned a few articles, either book reviews or surveys of (Brazilian local) elections over the past couple of years.  For those who find such things of interest, they can be found here:

Viva South America!

Open Veins of Latin America

Brazil's 2008 local elections
Latin America and the 'credit crunch'

Earlier this year I had a small job taking notes and writing up a report about the financial crisis and its impact on Latin America that was sponsored by the Foreign Office and hosted by the Insitute for the Study of the Americas.  This went up on their website in July and with the anniversary of the Lehman Brothers' collapse this month, it seems appropriate to make the link available here:
Other work I've been doing

Even if some of my writings aren't easily available at the moment, I do have some other material that is up on the web.  This includes two projects that I worked on for the LSE during the three years I was doing my PhD.  They included a project on social scientists' attitudes to digital repositories (i.e. online databases which house both publications and the research used to produce them) and electronic identity management systems (meaning systems to control people logging on and accessing electronic data at universities).  If this grabs you, the material can be found here:

Social scientists and repositories:

Electronic management systems:
Other writings (and shameless self-promotion)

The past few years has also resulted in a few other publications, either online or in print that I've been working on.  Alongside the PhD I've published a few articles related to my research, including on social democracy at both state and national level in Brazil and on left-wing education policy across the region.

Last June Zed Books published a chapter on social democratic education policies in the Ceara and Rio Grande do Sul governments in Brazil in this book,, while in 2008 I published articles on education policy and the Latin American Left and differences between the Cardoso and Lula governments' educational approaches in Enfoques Educacionales in Chile and the International Journal of Contemporary Sociology respectively.  Unfortunately neither journal has updated their site in years, so once I've worked out the new-fangled (at least for me) blogger site, then maybe I can post them myself.  Until then, if anyone wants a copy, just email me!
Accounting for my absence

Since I stopped this blog I have spent most of that time researching and writing my PhD, which I passed earlier this year.  However, I noticed during the course of it that a number of my respondents had their own blogs, which suggested that I should get back to mine at some point.  One of those, Jose Joaquin Brunner, an academic and former official in the Chilean education department, very generously posted my dissertation when I sent him a copy recently.  Since he's done it I suppose it makes sense for me to do the same and let anyone who happens across know what I spent the last few years slaving over.
Return of the Blog... For Now.

Hi and welcome back.  I doubt anyone's reading this after all the three-year 'sabbatical' I've taken from this blog - although there were good reasons for doing so.  At the time I last wrote I felt the blog had lost focus.  I'd originally set it up as an election campaign blog (back in the heady days when IT was supposedly going to change politics) and eventually it shifted towards interests in Brazilian politics that I pursued prior to and during my postgraduate studies (along with observations on my fellow doctoral colleagues' work during our first year).  Eventually I lost interest and wasn't sure what to do with the blog.

So why am I back?  Who knows how long it'll last time time.  But I feel I have things to say (after all, that's what a blog's for, right?), I've now finished my PhD and I have time on my hands as I search for the right job.  And given the lack of another space to do it in, this will do - for now.