Archive for November 13th, 2013

Web Doomsday: How Realistic Is It?   no comments

Posted at 8:30 pm in Uncategorized

Despite our modern-day dependency on services offered through the web, few of us have given thought into what the consequences to us would be if the web were to disappear. It might simply seem unlikely, and not worth planning for. However, there are many potential causes, intentional or not, for widespread loss of access to the web. I will outline some of these in this post and will argue that it is realistic and that we as a society should be prepared.

The size of the technical infrastructure required to deliver the web to our fingertips is huge. The larger a system, the more points of failure. Because the system is stretched over a large geographic area, where there are climate extremes, natural disaster is a large risk. Storms, earthquakes and erosion can easily break vital equipment. Such a large system also lead to scope for technical failures.  The Northeast United States blackout of 2003 left 55 million people without power, for many as long as two days. This was caused by a software bug.

Much of the internet infrastructure was designed before there was significant demand for the web. Technical limitations have already affected the performance of the web. We ran out of IPv4 addresses (which each person requires to connect to the internet) in 2011, and ISPs have been slow to adopt IPv6 to solve the problem. The technical infrastructure may also be prone to attack, whether it be through cyber warfare (e.g., military assault) or malicious intent (e.g., hacking commercial infrastructure).

There may be political and commercial motivations behind changing the way we can access the web. The Great Firewall of China prevents people in China from accessing a huge portion of the web. Commercial motivations include ISPs prioritising particular services (e.g., Comcast’s proposals to degrade high-bandwidth services such as NetFlix), or companies choosing to change of discontinue services (e.g., Google withdrawing Reader).

Whether it be storing our photos with a cloud service or becoming reliant on a social network for communicating with friends, depending solely on these presents a risk to ourselves, in that loss of the web or these services will potentially be detrimental to our lives. The next post will be a case study into the Northeast blackout of 2003, in which a huge power cut led to widespread panic, and will consider the societal and economic impact of the event.

Written by Peter West on November 13th, 2013

What is Anthropology Part 2: Theories and Fields   no comments

Posted at 6:24 pm in Sociology

Eriksen, T. H., 2004. What is Anthropology. London: Pluto Press.

“The raw material of anthropology – people, societies, cultures – is constituted differently from that of the natural and quantitative sciences, and can be formalised only with great difficulty…” (Eriksen, 2004, p 77). “[Anthropology’s approach] can be summed up as an insistence on regarding social and cultural life from within, a field method largely based on interpretation, and a belief (albeit variable) in comparison as a source of theoretical understanding” (Eriksen, 2004, p 81). Theory provides criteria by which to categorise data and to judge is significance. Anthropology applies theory to social and cultural data.

Fundamental questions

1. What is it that makes people do whatever they do?

2. How are societies or cultures integrated?

3 To what extent does thought vary from society to society, and how much is similar across cultures?

Anthropological theory is deeply tied to observation. Differences in approaches by region: US researchers favour linguistics and psychology and British favour sociological explanations (via politics, kinship and law).


There are 4 main theoretical underpinnings of Anthropological theory:

1. Structural-functionalism – A R Radcliffe-Brown: Demonstrating how societies are integrated. Person as social product. Ability of norms and social structure to regulate human interaction. Social structure defined as the sum of mutually defined statuses in a society.

2. Cultural-materialism – Ruth Benedict (1887-1948): Cultures and societies have ‘personality traits’.

Dionysian = extroverted, pleasure seeking, passionate and violent;

Apollonian = introverted, peaceful and puritanical;

Paranoid = members live in fear and suspicion of each other. Culture expressed seamlessly in different contexts – from institutional to personal levels.

Margaret Mead (1901 – 1978): sought to understand cultural variations in personality. Her highly influential work on child-rearing, Coming of Age in Samoa (1928) demonstrated that personality is shaped through socialisation.

3. Agency and society

Raymond Firth: Persons act according to their own will.

Pierre Bourdieu: Interested in the power differences in society distributed opportunities for choice unequally. Knowledge management: Doxa = what is self-evident and taken for granted within a particular society; Habitus = embodied knowledge, the habits and skills of the body which are taken for granted and hard to change; Opinion = everything that is actively discussed; Structuring structures = the systems of social relations within society which reduce individual freedom of choice. Important to understanding the causes that restrict free choice.

4. Structuralism – Theory of human cognitive processes.

Lévi-Strauss: the human mind functions and understands the world through contrasts in the form of extreme opposites with an intermediate stage (‘triads’). Cross-cultural studies of myth, food, art classification and religion. Based on Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s observation in La pensée sauvage: “…in order to study Man, one must learn to look from afar; one must first observe differences in order to to discover attributes”.  Post-structuralism more in favour today.

5. Primacy of the material – Strongly influenced by historical materialism (Marx). Gives primacy to material conditions of individuals above individual agency or how the mind works.

Two approaches within this area: those that favour economic conditions and those that give primacy to technological and ecological factors.

Julian Steward/Leslie White: Societies grow in complexity as a result of technological and economic change. Change happens in the ‘cultural core’ of technology, ecological adaption and property relations. The ‘rest of culture’ (e.g. religion, art, law etc) is more or less autonomous.

Gregory Bateson (Margaret Mead’s husband and one of the founders of cybernetics – i.e self-regulating systems) – all systems have properties in common: reaction to feedback (or lack of feedback) gives rise to repercussions which ensures the continuing re-imaging of the system.

6. Geertzian hermeneutics – interpretation of the world from the natives point of view.

Clifford Geertz: Thick description = a great deal of contextual description to elicit understanding of data. “…research primarily consists of penetrating, understanding and describing culture systematically the way it is experienced locally – not to explain it in terms of comparison…structuralist, materialist, or otherwise.”

Culture is expressed through shared, public symbols (communication) – so guessing the workings of the minds of those under scrutiny is unnecessary.

7. Eclecticism – a combined approach which recognises the complexity of the world and which attempts to “grasp both the acting individuals and the systemic properties constraining them”.


1. Reciprocity – the conduct of exchange, fundamental to sociality, crucial to human life.
a) Marcel Mauss – Gift-giving. The Gift (Essai sur le don, 1925). Three roles in gift-giving: obligation to give, obligation to receive and obligation to return the gift. Simplistic evolutionary view of society: i) Universal gift-giving fundamental to social integration (historical) ii) Institutions take on gift-giving role. iii) Marginal role for gift-giving in modern, alienating, capitalist societies. Exchange does not need to be economically profitable. “All economies have a local, moral, cultural element” (Eriksen, 2004, p 88). (Remnants of historical obligation are witnessed in round buying in pubs, dinner party invitations, circulation of second-hand children’s clothing among family and friends, voluntary community work, and Christmas. The potlatch institution (Boas) – where tribes seek to out-do each other in their extravagant wastefulness.

b) Karl Polanyi – Integration: reciprocity, redistribution and market principle. A radical critique of capitalism, directly relevant to ‘economic anthropology’. Rejects the view that people primarily strive to maximise utility (even if it happens at the expense of others). Psychological motivations are influenced by personal gain, consideration for others and the need to be socially acceptable. “Reciprocity is the ‘glue’ that keeps societies together” (Eriksen, 2004, p 91).

c) Marhsall Sahlins – 3 forms of reciprocity: balanced (e.g. tit-for-tat trade – close proximity ), generalised (gift-giving – family and friends), and negative (attempt to gain benefit without cost – strangers). Shows how “morality, economics and social integration are interwoven” (Eriksen, 2004, p 92).

d) Annette Weiner (Inalienable Possessions, 1992) – some things cannot be exchanged or given away as gifts, e.g. “…talismans, knowledges, [secret] rites which confirm deep-seated identities and their continuity through time” (Maurice Godlier, 1999). Cultural identity could be seen as an ‘inalienable possession’.

e) Daniel Miller (Theory of Shopping, 1998) – Sacrifice: women in buying at supermarkets purchase for others to form a relationship with them, and consider the views of others when buying for themselves.

f) Matt Ridley (The Origins of Virtue, 1996) – mathematical models show that cooperation ‘pays off’ in the long run.

2. Kinship – basis of social organisation. Not just family, but local community and work relations.

a) Lewis Henry Morgan – traditional societies thoroughly organised on kinship and descent.

b) Fortes and Evans-Pritchard – acephalous (‘headless) societies in Africa based on kinship-based social organisation. Segmentary system that expands and shrinks according to need – deeply influential in anthropology.

c) Lévi-Strauss – Alliance and reciprocity in kinship relations. Marriage in traditional societies is group-based and forms long-term reciprocity.

d) ‘Modern’ society – tension between family, kinship and personal freedom. Kinship is important in determining career opportunities

3. Nature

a) Inner nature – humans shaped by society and history, but with objective, universal human needs (Malinowski, Lévi-Strauss).

b) External nature – relationship between ecology and society, options are limited by environmental conditions, technology and population density.

c) Nature as a social construction – humans create representations of nature, which is often unspoken or not reflected upon – tacit knowledge.

d) Sociobiology – human actions cannot be be understood as pure adaption. “Research aims to establish valid generalisations about the mind as it has evolved biologically”.

4. Thought – people say what they think or express it through their acts, rituals or public performances.

a) Rationality – Evans-Pritchard’s 3 types of knowledge: i) mystical knowledge based on the belief in invisible and unverifiable forces; ii) commonsensical knowledge based on everyday experience; iii) scientific knowledge based on the tenets of logic and experimental method. Important, possibly unanswerable questions: i) is it possible to translate from one system of knowledge to another without distorting it with ‘alien’ concepts? ii) does a context-independent or neutral language exist to describe systems of knowledge? iii) do all humans reason in fundamentally the same way? Study of Technology and Science (STS) – science and technology as cultural products.

b) Classification and pollution – different people classify and subdivide them in different ways. Mary Douglas: classification of nature and the human body reflects society’s ideology about itself. What ‘pollution’, i.e. food prohibition, tells us about society.

c) Totemism – a form of classification whereby individuals or groups have special (often mythical) relationships to nature. Lévi-Strauss’ distinction between bricolage (associational, non-linear thought) and ‘engineering’ (logical thought).

d) Thought and technology

5. Identification a) The social b) Relational and situational identifications c) Imperative and chosen identities d) Degrees of identification e) Anomolies

Mind map:

Written by Tim O'Riordan on November 13th, 2013

Tagged with

Basics of economics   no comments

Posted at 9:22 am in Uncategorized

Fundamentals of economics

Looking at some early work on the subject, Adam Smith (the man with the invisible hand fetish … ‘it wasn’t me, it was my invisible hand…’) famously defined economics as “an inquiry into the nature and causes of the wealth of nations” (1776), whilst Alfred Marshall painted an attractively casual picture of the “study of mankind in the ordinary business of life” (1890).  Robbins (1932) is credited with a classic definition:

“Economics is the science which studies human behavior as a relationship between given ends and scarce means which have alternative uses.”

This does seem to capture the fundamental economic preoccupations of ideas of wants, choice, and scarcity quite well, but leaves me feeling a bit depressed about everything. Nevermind … on to the fundamentals bit:

Economists place a fundamental assumption about human nature at the heart of their discipline: that human wants are unlimited, and that people are driven by the satisfaction of these wants. The fact that the world in which we live is characterised by a limited amount of resources on which humans can draw means that humanity must compete for resources in conditions of scarcity. Scarcity is defined as “the excess of human wants over what can actually be produced to fulfil these wants” (Sloman, 2009:5). The resources for which we can compete are termed the factors of production, and are divided into three forms: labour; land and raw materials; and capital.

Economics, then, is concerned with the distribution of goods and services in these circumstances. The level of wealth among individuals or groups inevitably varies, so economics may examine how or why wealth is distributed in certain ways, or even look at methods in which different distributions of wealth might be achieved.

The interplay of the forces of supply and demand play a major role in economic analyses, to the extent that they “lie at the very centre of economics” (Sloman, 2009:5). The constant tension between these forces is expressed (in free or market economies) via the price mechanism, which responds to changes in the relationship of supply and demand (as a result of choices made by individuals and groups in an economy). If shortages occur, prices tend to rise, whereas surpluses allow prices to fall.  In an idealised model of a market, an ‘equilibrium price’ can be reached in which the forces are balanced. Various signals and incentives help the operation of the price mechanism within and between markets.

The influence of shortages and surpluses on price affects consumers and producers in various ways, as the economic model of the circular flow of goods and incomes demonstrates. In this model, households (consumers of goods and services) buy goods and services from firms (producers), whilst firms buy labour, land or capital (the factors of production) from households, who might be compensated with wages, rent, or interest, for example. This ensures that incomes and goods continue to flow in the economy in the different markets which operate within it.

An important distinction in economics is between analysis of the overall processes and levels of activity of an entire economy on the one hand, and analysis of particular aspects of the economy on the other. The former is known as macroeconomics, whilst the latter is called microeconomics.  Macroeconomics focuses on overall or aggregate levels of supply (output), demand (spending), and levels of growth (whether positive or negative) in an economy.

Macroeconomics examines overall supply and demand levels in order to explain or predict changes in levels of inflation, balance of trade (relationships of imports/exports), or recessions (periods of negative growth). In contrast microeconomics might focus on specific areas of economic activity (the production of particular goods or services), production methods, and the characteristics of particular markets. Microeconomics also examines the relationships between particular choices and the costs associated with them. Important concepts in this respect include opportunity cost, and marginal costs and benefits. When a decision is made, the opportunity cost is viewed as the best alternative to the actual course of action taken – “the opportunity cost of any activity is the sacrifice made to do it” (Sloman, 2009:8). This is an important consideration as it helps to determine the implications of economic decisions which need to be made. Economists assume that individuals make choices according to rational self-interest – making a decision based on an evaluation of the costs and benefits. This involves attention to the marginal costs or benefits of a decision  – the advantages or disadvantages of increasing or decreasing levels of certain activities  (rather than just deciding to do or not do something – the total costs/benefits).

As human understanding of the complex nature of the world and our activities within it has increased, economists have been forced to broaden the scope of their analysis to include certain social and environmental consequences of economic decision-making. Decisions which satisfy rational self-interest for individuals, groups or firms may nevertheless lead to outcomes such as pollution or extreme inequality which themselves have wider consequences for society and the economy as a whole (whether nationally or globally). Indeed, Sloman (2009:24) states that “[u]nbridled market forces can result in severe problems for individuals, society and the environment”. Growing recognition of these potential problems may help explain contemporary concern with sustainability, the role of government regulation of industry, and the creation of the concept of ‘corporate social responsibility’. As such, economists are asked to take account of economic and social goals of a society (as expressed through their government), and therefore contribute to their knowledge to help policy makers work toward these goals.


Library of Economics and Liberty (2012) What is economics? Available from: [Accessed 10th November, 2013]

Sloman, J. (2009)  Economics. 7th ed. Harlow: Pearson

Sloman, J. (2007) Essentials of Economics. 4th ed. Harlow: Pearson

Whitehead, G. (1992) Economics. Oxford: Heinemann

Written by Steven White on November 13th, 2013