Police increasingly use Oyster card data

Oh dear… All of my pet subjects come together in one story: The Freedom of Information Act, Radio Frequency Identification technology and the theory of the “surviellant assemblage”.

Journalists at the BBC have used the Freedom of Information Act to discover that police are increasingly using data collected using London Underground’s Oyster cards in their investigations.

The RFID-based smartcard tickets have a unique identifier and can be used to track users’ movements. This is very useful for transport management, but also very useful for police investigations. Police have requested data collected by the cards 61 times in January alone, compared with just seven requests in all of 2004.

The unique perspective of (NBC) television

One of the classic texts of the much-derided discipline of media studies is Kurt Lang and Gladys Lang’s 1953 study of how the selective reporting by a television camera crew distorted viewers’s perception of a parade.

By following the star of the parade along the route, Lang and Lang’s reporters gave the impression of a mile upon mile of screaming supporters welcoming General Douglas MacArthur to Chicago. Of course, the crowd only cheered as the general drove by, but the people at home saw continuous pandemonium.

Television viewers saw a very different event than those watching the parade in person. Without any intentional bias by the journalists, the medium creates a distorted representation of the live event.

Obvious as this may be to media-savvy people today, this was an important observation five decades ago.

And it’s worth recalling in light of something rather different that happened at another televised parade yesterday, when NBC sanitized a Thanksgiving Day Parade gone wrong.

NBC did not interrupt its broadcast of the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day parade yesterday to bring viewers the news that an M&M balloon had crashed into a light pole, injuring two sisters.

n fact, when the time came in the tightly scripted three-hour program for the M&Ms’ appearance, NBC weaved in tape of the balloon crossing the finish line at last year’s parade — even as the damaged balloon itself was being dragged from the accident scene. At 11:47 a.m., as an 11-year-old girl and her 26-year-old sister were being treated for injuries, the parade’s on-air announcers — Katie Couric, Matt Lauer and Al Roker — kept up their light-hearted repartee from Herald Square, where the parade ends.

Ah, the pursuit of objective truth.

(Until Google gets around to scanning that bit of the library, see Lang and Lang, “The Unique Perspective of Television and Its Effect: a Pilot Study,” American Sociological Review 18(1): 103-112.)
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The sociology of disasters

In another example of how sociology is useful for understanding events in the news, Kieran Healy looks at Hurricane Katrina from a sociologist’s perspective:

… natural disasters are never wholly natural, because some kinds of people will be more likely to suffer and die than others, depending on how life is organized when the disaster hits. As everyone knows, social order is under severe pressure in New Orleans at the moment, and the media coverage is slowly coming around to analyzing the differential impact of the disaster. The fact that those who have been left behind, or turned into refugees, are disproportionately Africian-American, poor, or elderly is simply impossible to ignore from the media coverage. Seeing pundits and commentators react to these facts is, in a way, a barometer of their sociological imagination—their ability to see the systematic relationship between social structure and individual experience.

Healy, who recently reviewed a book on the sociology of disasters, praises the sociological imagination of conservative columnist David Brooks, whose writings, including this one, often suggest he knows more than a bit about sociology.

Guardian journo gets an A-Level

Guardian journalist Tom Whipple — who is 23 and has a 2.1 in Maths from Cambridge — has the results of his participant observation into AS-Level Sociology. He got a high A.

Whipple avoids the temptation to write a hand-wringing article about A-level inflation and goes to visit Patrick Baert, a sociologist at his alma mater:

“There is a culture among journalists, a culture of targeting education and mocking education. I find it quite sad, because it is very demoralising for teachers. It is very easy for journalists to target these courses, because very few people have statistical techniques at hand to show whether it is in fact easier.”

He was quick to see the faults in my exercise. “Your experiment kind of ties in with the sensationalist way of dealing with these subjects. What you would need to have done is to take another AS-level in the same time period to make a comparison. You are now 23. You have been through a lot of education. You have maturity, so I suspect you would probably pick up other AS-level subjects quickly as well.”

There is truth in this. I may not have studied humanities for six years, but I am, as the course taught me, a product of the 1988 Education Reform Act, one of the assessed generation. Since starting school I have sat, at a conservative estimate, 60 public exams. I may not be experienced in the arts, but I am experienced in the art of exams.

And here’s the startling bit:

… I have a degree in mathematics: a proper, core subject. I have since struggled to find any everyday applications for vector calculus. Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle has remained resolutely irrelevant to my normal existence, its use confined solely to the more esoteric of pub quizzes. And yet, in the two months since completing my sociology AS-level, I have repeatedly found it useful.

When I hear news items about the underperformance of boys in exams, I now know that the differences are almost insignificant compared with those between classes. When I hear Hillary Clinton arguing that explicit computer games influence children, I now know that there is a history of research into the negative effects of on-screen sex and violence, most of it inconclusive.

This is not something frivolous — information to provide ammunition for dinner party discussions. For democracy to function, everyone should know these things. Traditional education is very good at teaching us the background to the second world war, and rightly so, but it is far less willing to provide us with the critical tools for living in the modern world.

So is sociology useful and important? Yes. Could I have just turned up off the street and passed the exam from common sense? No. And did my knowledge of revision techniques make a difference? Almost certainly. My experiment, as Baert pointed out, had many flaws.

Nevertheless, Whipple is probably lucky the AS-level exam didn’t include a section on research ethics. Sociology and journalism tend to agree that undercover research should be avoided wherever possible.

Who’s afraid of interpretivist sociologists?

As part of this summer’s installment of the annual media ritual of bashing Britain’s system of secondary-school qualifications, the Guardian has sent 23-year-old journalist (and maths graduate) Tom Whipple undercover to take the AS-Level sociology exam. Next week, the paper will reveal how he did.

As someone with a postgraduate degree in this maligned discipline, I find this tale of what’s going on at the secondary-school level rather depressing.

The article does include some funny stuff I can relate to. In the process of taking the necessary secondary school courses, he discovered he was carrying out a covert participant observation of a discipline with lots of jargon.

And then there’s this:

Think of sociology as the slightly hairy offspring of politics and economics. Perhaps the best claim it has to legitimacy is that, like any decent humanities subject, it has a good, honest academic schism; positivists on one side and interpretivists on the other (actually, this is one of many schisms, but let’s keep it simple). Positivists are the sort of sensible chaps you’d go to a pub with. They think people should be studied using scientific methods. Take, for example, the use of official statistics in research. Positivists would say they are extremely useful, thank you very much.

Interpretivists are the sort of people you would abandon your pint in the pub to avoid. If you asked them about official statistics, they would look at you and say: “What is a statistic? Isn’t it just a social construct that reflects the questioner’s prejudices?”

And then, as your eyes glaze over, a barely pubescent guy in the corner of the pub puts down his Socialist Worker and, attracted by the controversy, comes over to explain that you’re both wrong. Actually, statistics are “an instrument of the ruling classes used to propagate and legitimise an exploitative capitalist system”. He’s a Marxist.

We can safely assume that our maths graduate is a positivist (or “naive empericist”, some might put it). But we interpretivists who want to study the social construction of statistics (see, eg Best 2002) aren’t so scary and boring.

We help empericists understand why there are limits to their claim to carrying out objective research modeled on the natural sciences — why people can’t be studied like electrons.

What you probably don&rquo;t get in A-Level sociology is the idea that analyses of “social construction” aren’t about uncovering bias or “prejudices”.

All accounts and narratives are selective and an effort by people to assign meaning to phenomena. This doesn’t mean they are lying, or telling un-truths. It just means that truth is arrived at in a selective social process that is necessarily partial. The best description I know of is that the sociology of knowledge is the emperical cousin of epistemology.

Rather than uncovering the logical rules for deriving knowledge, sociologists who worry about this sort of thing examine what people who create narratives — natural scientists, journalists or government statisticians — actually do, what social constraints condition them to behave in that particular way, and what the wider consequences are.

The debate about statistics in sociology is actually a very good example of why all this is important. Statistics are central to the functioning of modern state and corporate bureaucracies and therefore understanding how they work is essential to understanding how contemporary governance works.

OK, I probably just proved his point.

Private policing: some other concerns

Eamonn Butler at the Adam Smith Institute’s blog says:

Naturally, the police, and academics at Britain’s state-funded universities, are fulminating against private security and say it doesn’t cut crime. But would residents fork out £1,000 a year if they thought there was no effect?

Perhaps. But the academic critique of private policing I’m aware of doesn’t focus at all on the instrumental question of its effectiveness. Quite the opposite, actually.

The major concern of some academic critics of private policing is that the authority of private security services is based entirely on enforcing property rights and that they are not accountable to anyone other than those who pay them.

As more and more previously public spaces are being sealed off and privately policed (think hoodie ban at Bluewater shopping centre), more and more public forums are subject to private law (ie “Do as I say or get off my land”) enforced by private police, rather than public law enforced by democratically-accountable authorities and limited by the sort of human rights legislation that civil libertarians ought to be interested in.

The dystopian scenario, expressed by Mike Davis in his study of Los Angeles, City of Quartz, would be a world in which the wealthy live in bubbles of secure, privately-policed gated communities while lobbying to reduce tax funding of the (less effective) public police services everyone else must still rely on.

Now, like every academic debate, there are many critics of this view, which is admittedly over the top. But that’s what theoretical ideal types are for: spotting the essential logic of a particular trend.

ID cards: why they matter

Thought the British blogosphere was as one in opposition to the introduction of national identity cards? Nope. Monjo provides some dissent by posting in defence of ID cards, interestingly by deploying the very slippery slope argument many use to reject the same policy:

…I wonder mostly what benefits the ID card could bring. I think there must be a lot of fake claims for social security, I think there must be a lot of banking fraud, identity theft crimes are one of the fastest-growing and economically most damaging areas or crimes we now face. I also see a lot of inconvenience in having to carry varying identity documents anyway: national insurance number, driving licence (well if I could drive), passport, documents to prove my address, etc. There is a lot of rigmarole in opening up bank accounts, applying for passports, and numerous other daily concerns for millions of Brits.

The important thing is to realise this is a mere first step. The scheme can (and will) be extended to become more encompassing over time. For instance, the cards could eventually contain digital signatures (for online purchasing), or be used, in combination with a thumb print scanner, to enter buildings, get into one’s own home, or start a car. Combined with GPS, car insurance, road taxes and car theft detection could be revolutionised.

There is the possibility for so much. And it doesn’t bother me. I don’t even care about the cost. If it is done over someone’s lifetime it may be £2500 per person in today’s money, but that’s only £30 a year. Even if we assume it may not have any direct financial savings, there will be indirect ones — things people haven’t imagined yet. The fact each card will be unique and will be linked to a centralised database should also secure the system against forgery. Though who guards the guards?

There is a lot to disagree with here. First, there is the issue of financing ID cards with a fee. Monjo may not, but I care about this cost. Paying for a compulsory ID card is the functional equivalent of a poll tax. If the Government wants to do this, they should at least pay for it out of general taxation.

More substantially, though, Monjo is right to criticise the vague Orwellian invocations used against the ID card scheme. In the age of the decentralised “surveillant assemblage”, as Kevin Haggerty and Richard Ericson called it, the notion of a monolithic Big Brother is outdated and unhelpful way to conceptualise contemporary surviellance. Far more agencies than just those of the state will make use of a centralised database.

It’s also a mistake to frame opposition to centralised databases of people around a liberal-individualist concern about privacy. The big problem with surviellance technologies today is that they facilitate “social sorting” — the use of databases to create classes of people for the purposes of precision marketing, selective electioneering, or all sorts of economic discrimination that undermine the equality of citizens. In other words, you don’t matter nearly as much as the database categories you will fall into.

A central database linked to biometric identity cards will create a definitive primary key linking individuals’ bodies to all manner of data about them. This will facilitate social sorting by making many existing databases interoperable.

David Lyon, a sociologist at Queen’s University in Canada is one of the leading academic researchers on the social consequences of surviellance technologies. Everybody should be reading his paper on ID cards and social sorting (PDF). Here’s the rub:

With the use of biometric ID cards, the codes that determine the status of those who hold (or do not hold) the cards are increasingly related to bodily and behavioural characteristics. This further abstracts from the narratives of ordinary life and struggle experienced by those who are most vulnerable. As Didier Bigo (2004) suggests, biometric ID cards produce not so much a panopticon as a banopticon. In other words, they are not meant to put all under scrutiny, but to single out the exceptions as quickly as possible. Profiling to discover differences, the banopticon channels flows of information in order to control at a distance any who deviate from the coded norms.

So Monjo is right: the ID card system will facilitate all sorts of things in the future. While some of those will be benefitial and convenient, however, some are likely to have negative social consequences. Enthusiasm about possible future applications of the centralised identity register can be an argument for ID cards, but worry about them is equally a good reason to oppose the plan.