Posts Tagged ‘social science’

People Are Strange

Has the Independent Scientific Pandemic Influenza Group on Behaviours (SPI-B) read Thucydides, or Camus? The indications aren’t promising; on the basis of the publication yesterday of the evidence supporting the UK government’s rapidly evolving (sic.) strategy to handle the epidemic, this is the Scene That Celebrates Itself, with a list of scholarly literature mostly consisting of publications by members of the group (way to massage the h-index, guys!). Yes, a major plank in the case for deploying behavioural science to deal with the coronavirus outbreak is an op ed article arguing for the deployment of behavioural science to desk with the coronavirus outbreak… (more…)

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It is perfectly possible that I spend too much time on the Internet, and on social media. But there is so much amazing stuff out there – insightful, informative, passionate, provocative, brilliantly written stuff, produced not for profit but for the sake of the ideas and the wish to communicate with others – and if it wasn’t for the Twitter I wouldn’t know a thing about most of it. My ‘best of’ list seems to get longer every year, perhaps because I’ve got into the habit of making notes as soon as I’ve read something, rather than relying on my ever more erratic memory to recall things from earlier in the year – and this is as much about reminding myself and revisiting things as it as about recommending that you should read them too… (more…)

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I’ve spent the last couple of days in a fourteenth-century castle just outside Hildesheim, now the Kulturcampus of the university, at a colloquium organised by Roland Oetjen of Kiel to bring together ancient economic historians and economists with an interest in the ancient world. I originally proposed to give a paper on ‘The time of the ancient economy’, squashing together Braudelian conceptions of the speeds of historical change, patterns of intra- and inter-annual change in the environment, and Kondratieff economic cycles to see what would happen – but, predictably enough, ran out of time to do any actual work on this. Instead I offered a variant on an existing draft piece on Varro, frugality and Roman economic thought that I really, really am close to writing up for publication, honest (just in case any of the editors is reading this); which in various respects probably fitted the occasion better, but does deprive me of the opportunity to construct the opening of this post around the notion of repetitive cycles in ancient economic historiography… (more…)

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Why do we fall, Bruce? So we can learn to pick ourselves up.

Okay, so if we were concerned with causation, we might also point to the inconvenient existence of gravity, and/or to our own culpability in acting carelessly in the vicinity of a precipitous drop, but that’s really beside the point: it’s really all about the building of character, so that we head straight back out onto that ledge (perhaps now with a few helpful gadgets) rather than living in constant fear of falling again.

Why do our applications for research funding fail? Hmm. (more…)

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I’m currently trying to write a piece entitled ‘The Idea of Thucydides in Western Culture’, which aims to combine the development over the last few centuries of an idea of Thucydides as an individual authority figure (largely or entirely separate from his work) and the appearance of Thucydides in non-academic contexts; depending on how much time I get to work on this over the next week, it will either be appearing in the Handbook to the Reception of Thucydides that I’m editing (manuscript submission can’t be postponed any longer, hence pressing deadline), or will have to be developed for publication somewhere else. I’m focusing on the Western tradition because this is where I’ve found virtually all of my examples; it may be the case that Thucydides is (or at least has been) a significant figure only for writers in this tradition (even if this is now changing), or it may be that I just need to look harder, but in any case the intention of the title is not to claim that Thucydides is the exclusive property of the West but rather to emphasise that the conventional (Western) image of Thucydides is not automatically to be taken as universal and eternal.

Still, it is pretty pervasive, for obvious reasons. (more…)

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Another interesting and helpful link via a post on The Monkey Cage (which has recently moved to the Washington Post, and unfortunately seems to have become much slower and less reliable as a result), this time to a new paper in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the USA that seeks to understand global historical development via a cultural evolutionary model. It’s a nice short paper (http://www.pnas.org/content/early/2013/09/20/1308825110.full.pdf+html), so you can and really should read it for yourselves, even if you skip the equations, but in brief the authors constructed a model of the Afroeurasian landmass as a grid of 100x100km squares:

Each grid cell is characterized by existence of agriculture, biome (e.g., desert), and elevation. At the beginning of the simulation, each agricultural square is inhabited by an independent polity, and the cells adjacent to the steppe are “seeded” with military technology (MilTech) traits, which gradually diffuse out to the rest of the landmass.

Once the model was set in motion (from a starting-point of 1500 BCE), each polity had a certain chance of conquering every other polity to build a larger polity, and each conquered polity had a certain chance of taking over the ‘cultural genome’ of its conqueror – i.e. adopting its traits of military technology. The result is a pattern of the diffusion of different forms of military technology and the expansion of complex multi-cell polities (empires) from three cores in the 1500-500 BCE period (Egypt, the Fertile Crescent and eastern China) to encompass most of Europe, the Middle East and China by the end of 1500 CE. This pattern was then compared with the ‘actual’ course of imperial expansion, put together from historical atlases, and the authors claim a 65% rate of prediction of which cells would have which level of ‘imperial density’ at a given date; a re-run of the model, omitting the military technology factor, had only a 16% success rate. It is these claims that have led the study to be reported in the non-academic press as ‘explaining’ history and ‘predicting’ the rise and fall of empires. (more…)

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Over the last few years, I’ve spent an ever larger portion of my internet time hanging around different sorts of academic politics and social science blogs: partly because my Thucydides research has led me in this direction and it’s a handy way of maintaining some fuzzy sense of what’s going on in neighbouring disciplines without having to spend an inordinate amount of time skim-reading the relevant journals, and partly because the standard of debate and engagement with the world is simply rather good. The one major issue I’ve encountered is my own tendency to lapse into an instinctive discipline-bound mindset when one or other commentator engages with some sort of historical question – the historian’s reflex, inculcated through years of education and imitation, of drawing oneself up when confronted with any sort of generalisation and saying haughtily something to the effect of “I think you’ll find it’s rather more complicated than that, and CONTEXT” – to the extent that now, whenever I feel inspired to start commenting myself, I immediately ask: Are you sure this is really you? And if it is, are you sure you want to broadcast that in this forum? (more…)

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