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Research projects

Some of our current research in the Department of Sociology, including individual research and joint projects with co-researchers at LSE and elsewhere.

Above: children enjoy an activity organized by the Configuring Light project (image copyright Catarina Heeckt)

Accepting Hierarchy: How Meritocracy Breeds Inequality (Fabien Accominotti) 

Dr Fabien Accominotti latest project, funded by the LSE’s International Inequalities Institute, examines how the routine implementation of meritocracy, by making us more accepting of hierarchy, breeds inequality between those we deem deserving and others.

In a variety of social contexts, measuring merit or performance is a crucial step toward enforcing meritocratic ideals. At the same time, workable measures are bound to obfuscate the fuzziness and ambiguity of merit, i.e. to reify performance into an artificially crisp and clear-cut thing – a rating for example. This project explores how the reification of employee performance in organizations breeds inequality in employee compensation. It rests on a large-scale experiment asking participants to divide a year-end bonus between a set of employees based on their annual performance reviews. In the experiment’s non-reified condition, reviews are narrative evaluations. In the reified condition, the same narrative evaluations are accompanied by a crisp rating of the employees’ performance. The analysis examines in particular (1) whether participants are willing to reward employees more unequally when performance is reified, even though employees’ levels of performance do not vary across conditions; (2) whether reification acts by making participants more accepting of the idea that there is such a thing as a hierarchy of merit, thereby increasing their willingness to reward employees unequally. The project has direct implications for understanding the legitimacy of inequality in contemporary societies – and ultimately for working toward curbing this inequality.

You can listen to a presentation of the project’s findings here: Podcast.

Find out more about Dr Fabien Accominotti.

Changing Elites (Sam Friedman)

I am currently working on a project (with Aaron Reeves) analysing the entire 120-year historical database of Who’s Who – a unique catalogue of the British elite. In our most recent paper, published in the American Sociological Review, we draw on this biographical data to examine the changing relationship between Britain’s most elite private schools – the nine ‘Clarendon Schools’ (including Eton, Harrow, Westminster etc) - and recruitment into the elite. We find that the propulsive power of these elite schools has both diminished significantly over time and yet remains doggedly persistent. Most recently we have begun to examine the ‘recreations’ of Who’s Who entrants to explore the shifting role of culture and taste in the way elites represent themselves in public.

Find out more about Dr Sam Friedman.

You can read about Sam Friedman's recent research project on the 'class pay gap' within the UK's elite and professional occupations here: The Class Ceiling.

Care as Science (Carrie Friese)

Dr Carrie Friese has a Wellcome Trust New Investigator Award as Principal Investigator on the research project 'Care as Science: the role of animal husbandry in translational medicine.' This is a five year project (2015-2019) which uses quantitative and qualitative research methods to ask why scientists understand quality animal care as a scientific priority and how this shapes their work. 

Find out more about Care as Science.

Configuring Light (Don Slater)

All social life happens in some degree of light and darkness. Light structures the kinds of social practices and interactions we enter into at home or on the street, how safe we feel and how well we can navigate through social spaces. Today, fuelled by new technologies and urgent social and environmental concerns, light is increasingly taking centre stage in many urban discussions, especially around economic and environmental costs, safety and well-being, aesthetics and city branding. And yet, despite this centrality, there is very little knowledge and research on what lighting means to people and how they incorporate it into their daily lives and practices. And even less on how lighting designers can build social knowledges to inform their professional practices.

Configuring Light/Staging the Social, co-directed by Dr Don Slater and Dr Joanne Entwistle (Kings College London), explores the role lighting plays in our everyday life to help build a better social knowledge basis for lighting design interventions.

Find out more about Configuring Light.

Crime Information and its Impact on Public Attitudes (Ioanna Gouseti)

This is a pilot study funded by the LSE Suntory and Toyota International Centre for Economics and Related Disciplines (STICERD), and its data will inform a large-scale research project that seeks to develop evidence-based guidelines for the production, dissemination and public communication of crime information that does not damage individual and collective wellbeing.

The key question that this project seeks to address is: What is the impact of different types of crime information and its processing on affective, behavioural and cognitive attitudes to the crime-risk? Crime is an important discursive subject within political, cultural and societal contexts, encompassing stereotypes, normative assessments, images of criminals and victims. Publicly available crime information can thus determine how people view, experience and react to the risk of crime.

The timeliness of this project relates to the fact that in the era of ‘fake news’ and with the immense increase of media channels in recent years, the public are exposed to mixed-quality information about social phenomena, such as crime, which can be highly politicized, sensationalized and often lacking in direct knowledge. Criminological research has shown that as crime narratives in the media are more market-driven than data-driven, the information that they disseminate can be distorted, negatively affecting people’s perceptions of the crime-risk, and thus individual and collective wellbeing.

This research takes into account the pluralism of crime information that exists today, exploring crime statistics, crime news and crime fiction, and their impact on public attitudes to crime. The experimental methodology that the study employs enables the exploration of causal associations between crime information and public attitudes to crime as opposed to the primarily observation research that is conducted in this criminological research area.

Find out more about Dr Ioanna Gouseti.

Deliberating Inequality (Fabien Accominotti)

Deliberating Inequality: understanding the social formation of beliefs about inequality

Dr Fabien Accominotti is the recipient of two grants, from STICERD and the LSE’s International Inequalities Institute, to explore the social formation of beliefs about economic inequality. He serves as principal investigator on this project, which also involves researchers from CASE, the LSE Methodology Department, and Harvard University.

While social scientists have long studied attitudes toward economic inequality, they usually elicit these attitudes and examine their determinants at the individual level – typically through the use of traditional surveys and survey experiments. This approach assumes that attitudes toward inequality emerge from the direct confrontation of individuals with the world around them. This is at odds with evidence suggesting that our understandings of the social world are formed discursively through our interactions with others.

This project instead examines how beliefs about inequality – its extent, its causes, and what one should do about it – emerge from discursive situations. To this end it uses a new methodological approach embedding deliberative focus groups within an experimental design. Deliberative focus groups are focus groups wherein researchers introduce information or evidence at certain points in the group’s discussion. Our design experimentally manipulates this information across different focus groups in order to study its impact on deliberations between participants. This enables us to observe how different types of information shape participants’ descriptive and normative views about inequality – what it looks like, where it comes from, and what should be done about it. At the same time, our focus group approach approximates real life situations where information about inequality is not processed in a vacuum, but in social interactions between individuals.

Find out more about Dr Fabien Accominotti.

Disconnected Infrastructures (Don Slater, Co-Investigator)

Continuous and widespread violence against women in urban India highlights the challenge of delivering the UN's Sustainable Development Goals of Gender Equality and Sustainable Cities and Communities. Combined with this is an acute information and skills gap in technology use amongst urban poor women that impedes their knowledgeable and empowered engagement with urban infrastructures.

'Disconnected infrastructures and Violence Against Women (VAW): Innovating digital technologies in low-income neighbourhoods to produce safer Indian cities' is led by Dr Ayona Datta (Kings College London) as Principal Investigator with co-investigators including Dr Don Slater. The project take a rights-based approach to the challenge: how to address VAW by improving women’s knowledge of, and safe access to, urban infrastructure in the Indian city.

Find out more about Disconnected Infrastructures.

Getting Ahead (Charis Thompson)

Based on archives, interviews, and ethnographic fieldwork in the contemporary US and UK, "Getting Ahead" looks at how science, technology, and medicine are telling us our minds, bodies, and emotions/character are supposed to be in the current age of selection (prenatal screening, genome editing) and automation (AI and machine learning) so as to "get ahead".  I examine the normative imagined subject and how minds, bodies, and emotions/character are talked about differently depending on your class, race, gender, sexuality, religion, migration, and disability status. The project looks particularly at how scientific, medical, and technical understandings of minds, bodies, and emotions/character contribute to inequality being seen as "meritocratic" and how individuals do or don't take themselves or are taken by others to "belong" in their place in socioeconomic hierarchies.

In an age when automation is rapidly embedding our biases and selecting technologies are normalising the screening out of difference, pressures to be ever more prescriptive about who and how we should be keep rising. We only have a small window to make a stand for justice and difference and "Getting Ahead" urges us to seize this moment.

Find out more about Professor Charis Thompson.

Human Rights, Human Remains (Claire Moon)

Dr Claire Moon currently holds a Wellcome Trust Investigator Award for her project 'Human Rights, Human Remains: forensic humanitarianism and the politics of the grave' (2018 - 2021). This project explores the ‘forensic turn’ in humanitarianism and the effort to establish the identities and causes of death of the mass victims of atrocities such as enforced disappearance, torture, genocide and war crimes.

Exhumations and forensic identification carry enormous social force. They represent a powerful way of establishing the truth. Yet forensic identification is a social act and interacts with legal, political and humanitarian imperatives which include accountability, combatting political and cultural denial, and returning the dead to families to assist psychological closure. 

This project examines the emergence, social complications and implications of forensic investigations of atrocity. It provides the first global history of the forensic turn in humanitarianism, investigates challenges and innovations in the field by analysing a case in Mexico, and explores the hypothesis that as a result of the forensic turn we can now argue that the dead have human rights.

Find out more about Human Rights Human Remains.

Idiosyncratic Ties (Monika Krause)

Dr Monika Krause was awarded a Leverhulme Research Fellowship to conduct research on 'Idiosyncratic Ties: mission agencies and the future of transnational relations' (2018-19).

Most research on international mission agencies focuses on their historical role. Most research on NGOs discusses religious NGOs in relation to secular aims such as humanitarianism, development or world peace. Yet mission agencies today command a significant amount of resources and are an important actor in many of the contexts that humanitarian and development NGOs also inhabit, and they cannot be understood without reference to their specifically religious goal of
"spreading the word".

Based on in-depth interviews with managers in mission agencies, participant observation, site visits and analysis of reports and published materials, using case studies from India, Kenya, the US and the Ukraine, Dr Krause's forthcoming book will describe the work of contemporary mission agencies on their own terms and argue that our thinking about transnationalism needs to take into account the kind of ties they establish.

Find out more about Dr Monika Krause.

Immigrant Employment Rights and Varieties of Capitalism (Patrick McGovern, Co-Investigator)

The conventional view of immigration control is that it is a process that regulates entry to a country. However, immigration control also extend beyond points of entry to include the extent to which migrants can participate in activities that are often taken for granted by local citizens, such as engage in employment. Working with Eiko Thielemann (Government Department, LSE) we focus on two issues, namely access to employment and the freedom to change employers, in assessing competing hypotheses about cross-national differences in migrant rights. Drawing from the varieties of capitalism literature, we examine whether liberal market economies grant immigrants more employment rights than those in coordinated market economies. In addition, we ask if the more internationalized/Europeanised states (those bound by more liberal constraints entailed in international/European law) can be expected to grant immigrants more employment rights.

The project will update selected questions from the IMPALA database on immigration policy to compare British and German policies in the context of the European Union. The IMPALA consortium has already completed coding on a year by year basis for the UK and Germany for the period 1999-2008. This research will focus on any changes to labour market participation rights in the period since 2008.

This project is funded by the LSE Suntory and Toyota International Centre for Economics and Related Disciplines (STICERD).

Find out more about Dr Pat McGovern.

Income Inequality in the Mass Media (Patrick McGovern, Co-Investigator)

Pat is working with Martin Bauer and Sandra Obradovic of LSE’s Department of Psychological and Behavioural Science on a project that examines the way income inequality is framed in mass media discourse.  We examine the rise of income inequality as a social problem. Specifically, we want to know if it has been recognized as a scandalous social problem that requires new policy responses or whether it has become subsumed within existing discussions of economic policy.

Drawing on an extended analysis of UK and US newspapers we find that the coverage of income inequality came in three phases; an initial surge in the 1990s, followed by a decline in the early 2000s, and a second surge that takes off after the economic crisis of 2008. Despite this surge in media attention, the problem of inequality seems to have remained an academic concern as it does not appear to have resonated more widely. Across the three periods, we observe a shift in framing, some diversity in frame sponsors and a shift in political slant, yet public attitudes towards inequality remain stable across this same time-period. Our argument is that social inequality has not become a mobilizing social problem, at least as reflected in the print media.

This project is funded by the International Inequalities Institute's Research Innovation Fund (Round 1).

Migrant Margins (Suzanne Hall)

Dr Suzanne Hall was awarded a Philip Leverhulme Prize of £100,000 to allow her to expand her research on the ‘migrant margins’ and how global migration, urban marginalisation and human capacities intersect.

Having researched economies and spaces shaped by migrants across UK cities for the ESRC-funded Super-diverse Streets project, which explored the intersections between city streets, social diversity and economic adaptations in the context of accelerated migration, she is now researching the urban life of migrant traders in Cape Town, South Africa (two year project, 2018-2020).

Find out more about Dr Suzanne Hall.

Resilient Communities, Resilient Cities? (Suzanne Hall, Co-Investigator)

This project, led by Professor Myria Georgiou from the Department of Media and Communications as Principal Investigator, examines the role of digital communication in the making of cities of refuge. More particularly, it focusses on urban communities’ digital responses to sudden and unplanned change resulting from irregular migration into the city. The project zooms into urban neighbourhoods that receive large number of refugees and migrants. It examines how urban communities – established and new – mobilise digitally to respond and manage change in the city. From the development of local networks in support of refugees, to local training into digital skills, cities’ resilience is tested in the capacity to sustain inclusive, integrated and prospering communities.

Find out more about Resilient Communities, Resilient Cities

Risk Regulation, Resilience, Inequality and Flooding Strategies in the UK
(Bridget Hutter) 

Professor Bridget Hutter's current research developed with the UK Environment Agency’s Social Science and Flood and Coastal Risk Management teams is exploring issues of risk regulation, resilience and inequality in the context of UK flooding strategies. It aims particularly to promote a more holistic conceptualization of resilience among policy-makers and flood management practitioners, and to enhance their understanding of the relationship between risk management strategies and resilience approaches. The more broadly-conceived approaches that it promotes embrace ideas of social resilience and policy choice; encourage the inclusion and participation in flooding policy discussion of wider societal groups; and foreground issues of responsibility for flood mitigation, adaptation and reduction.

Bridget Hutter and her research assistants are currently conducting a survey of residents in at-risk areas about how local communities are involved in dealing with risks in their neighbourhood:
Engaging with Local Communities about Flooding

Find out more about Professor Bridget Hutter.

Theory and Method in the Workplace Case Study Tradition (Patrick McGovern)

This project focuses on problems of theory and method within the qualitative case study tradition in industrial relations and the sociology of work. Drawing on an analysis of studies published in eleven major journals over a fifteen year period this work is intended to open up a discussion about the current state of the art in this tradition. One paper with Diego Alburez, which has already been published, examines whether differences in the reporting of workplace case‐study research methods are associated with gender, experience, academic rank and PhD training. We find a distinct gender difference in that that women take more care reporting their research methods in the context of a general increase in methods reporting.

A second paper, which is under review, assesses the nature of theorizing in workplace case study research by examining how theory is used to inform research questions, select cases and interpret findings. Detailed content analysis reveals that workplace case study research is largely descriptive and that there is remarkably little interest in theoretical matters. A surprising amount of research is, however, preoccupied with the analysis of concepts. Exemplars of theoretical and conceptual analysis are identified and discussed. A further paper is planned on causality in workplace case studies, especially in cross-national comparative studies.

Find out more about Dr Pat McGovern.

Wealth, Elites and Tax Justice (Mike Savage)

This is a major research theme led by Professor Mike Savage within the International Inequalities Institute, active from 2019-21 with five research clusters and drawing on the expertise of numerous LSE academics from different departments, and from international partners including those in the global south.

Concerns with inequality have tended to focus on the nature and extent of income inequality, which is now well known to be growing in many nations since the 1980s. However, income inequality is only the tip of the iceberg. Following the influential arguments of Thomas Piketty, which rework Marx’s emphasis on capital accumulation, it is increasingly realised that wealth is a more fundamental driver of inequality dynamics.

Other colleagues from LSE Sociology working on this project include Dr Fabien Accominotti, Dr Sam Friedman and our research students Kristina Kolbe and Emma Taylor.

Find out more about Wealth, Elites and Tax Justice.

Women in Data Science and Artificial Intelligence (Judy Wajcman)

Professor Judy Wajcman has been appointed Turing Fellow and Principal Investigator on the 'Women in Data Science and AI' research project at the Alan Turing Institute.

Data scientists and AI professionals are in great demand. Machine learning and data science are now the fastest growing professions in the US, and as our ability to collect and analyse data improves, demand for data scientists will continue to increase. However, the explosive growth in data science and machine learning roles hides a problematic dynamic: women occupy only a minority of these new positions.

The aim of this project is to redress the gender imbalance in data science and AI. Digital technologies are changing the way in which we live our lives and it is imperative for women to be equal partners in developing the algorithms, setting the research agendas, and building the applications underpinned by data science and AI.

This research project aims to examine systematically: why so few women enter data science and AI professions; why, once they enter these professions, many women leave; which interventions work to increase the number of women in data science and AI; and the ways in which the gender deficit shapes both the research agenda and the applications of digital technologies.

Find out more about Women in Data Science and AI.