Research, Thoughts



Yesterday, I went to a conference on food education, co-organized by my graduate school. I was mainly interested by a professor who came all the way from Hawaii and who wrote one of my seminal books (dealing with scientific knowledge, postfeminism, neoliberalism in the aftermath of 3.11). I was excited to listen to what she had to say about food education in Japan and its implication on gender roles within the family, class, and race. The conference was interesting, even though I thought that it went somehow too smoothly, as very little people addressed frontally the system as it is.

And then, in the afternoon, the horror. A consultant in risk communication started talking about risk/hazard and how people were not able to make the difference. Her job was to explain people that hazard is qualitative, while risk is quantitative: an increasing amount of hazard makes risk. And to go on with the situation in Fukushima. She had been a contamination advisor in Iitate, Fukushima Prefecture, explaining the population what radioactivity is, how it interacts with the human body and what are the hazards linked to it. She had this very infuriating way of saying that lay-person knowledge is biased, irrational and non-scientific, while well… science is science.

I am sure she is a very smart lady. But it does not require to be particularly educated in radioactivity related matters to see that NO, science is not neutral. The government and TEPCO did not communicate transparently after the accident, creating a trust crisis and a knowledge void the population had to deal with. Currently, there is no study that says that long-term exposure to low-level radiations causes cancer. But there is no study that proves the contrary: that it does NOT cause cancer. However, the government decided to put the now famous “precaution principle” aside, asking people to live in areas  more than 20 times more contaminated than where they used to live. Children were supposed to go to schools with contamination going up to 20 mSv/year, a threshold that applies to workers of the nuclear industry (mainly men in their 40s, weighting 70kg, not 10 year-old 30kg kids). Psychologists were sent to the region to advise the residents: “Do you know that worrying causes more harm to your body than radioactivity?”

The presenter was talking about risk communication. I went to an event at the UNU in Tokyo in November 2015, focusing on this topic. It was dry, dehumanized, uninteresting. Researchers talk about this top-down relationship between the administration and the population, without understand what communication really means. I guess it comes from this “positivist idea of science” (science as a neutral, universal truth) that science is something that “normal” people cannot understand and that has to be explained to them. Layperson knowledge is discarded, disregarded, looked down upon. But communication means “to put in common” in latin. Communication is not a one-way relationship, it’s about exchange, discussion, debate. Why calling risk communication something that is simply produced and distributed by one side? Why should that type of communication be legitimized, and lay-person knowledge thrown away?

If you go to Fukushima Prefecture, and more generally talk to evacuees from the region, you will be surprised as how much knowledge they have gathered. I am not saying that all people have the same level of knowledge and care the same way. After all, if you cannot evacuate (for 1000 different reasons), you might prefer burying your worries if you want to stay sane… But the people I met through my two fieldworks taught me a lot about radioactivity, its effects, how to measure it and how to counter it. I received pamphlets, was advised to read certain books and newspaper articles, was invited to accompany them to make measurements on the streets and to see how certain NPOs measure contamination in food. It was striking to see how layperson knowledge was developing, spreading, evolving, in parallel to official knowledge. The reality is really far from “objective science & irrational, emotional people”. It takes a few hours to realize that. You just need to push a few doors, walk down a few streets and open your eyes and ears. I am a baby researcher, at the beginning of my study. I only have been on the field for a total of two months. But it was enough to show me that science is not a unified, unbiased entity. It is always situated in political, social, economical and cultural settings, which shape the way it is interpreted, but also done. It would be good if advisors and professionals going to “reassure” people in Fukushima knew about this, instead of shaming people who think differently through the use of words such as fūhyōhigai or shinkeishitsu.

Academics, Our World UN


Jukka Pirttilä (2015.02.06)

Interesting article talking about the relationship between being poor and intellectual capabilities. Being under a lot of stress (especially for budget reasons) prevents people from using their whole intellectual potential. As the article states, “poverty takes up our attention, and our intellectual capacity is limited in the same way as our budgets are”.

In the past, I’ve read an article about race and exam results. It was a really interesting study that established that racial prejudices often have an impact on minorities’ test results. Asking people what “ethnicity” they belonged to before an exam was actually influencing their results. African-American tended to have less good grades when writing their ethnic identity on the test, while Asian people were generally doing better in maths.

Also, the idea of “low aspiration” is a issue that was talked about in my school. In France, country where the education system is terribly elitist, the main issue is the one of “aspiration”. When kids are raised in a neighborhood where little people went to university, the idea of applying for an Institute for Political Science is not really natural. Some kids might not even know that such an institution does exist. It does not mean that they do not have the potential to go to these kinds of schools, just that they do not imagine themselves going there. Therefore, I also agree that aspiration is a key to allow people to access better education. It is a good thing to imagine new entrance exams which allow people from different backgrounds to enter the school. But if the people you’re targeting do not even know about your school (or do not picture themselves applying for it),then it is useless. There is a much deeper problem that needs to be taken care of and I think that we tend to forget that easily.


Listening to: 15& – 사랑은 미친짓 (Feat. 칸토 of 트로이)



Annette Lareau (2003, 2nd edition in 2011)

I am currently reading a book about education and social classes in the US. It is an interesting study from an American scholar who adopted an extremely European way of doing sociology. It’s rare to find American researchers who base their studies on social class. It’s certainly linked to the fact that ‘social classes’ do not have the same history in the US than in Europe, where people fought countless times for less or more privileges.

In France, the link between education and social classes is often taken into account. With the work of Bourdieu, no student studying sociology can escape the famous theory of social reproduction, while many newspapers publish about how some elite schools are filled with elite students coming from… upper-middle class families. (Here is a study from INSEE explaining access inequalities to elite schools in France: Les Inégalités sociales d’accès aux grandes écoles, Valérie Albouy, Thomas Wanecq) Therefore, I was not really surprised by the main idea, saying that middle-class kids tend to have a social capital that is much more valuable on the market. What was more interesting was to see in a detailed way what they are taught and how. Why are children living in poverty less likely to go to an Ivy League university? Why can middle-class boys ask questions to their doctors while lower-class boys tend to avoid talking when going to the hospital? How different are their schedule? How do they interact with their families and other institutions?

I really enjoy reading this study and I would love to have more of my American housemates reading it. Education is not only a matter of schools; families are extremely important in the process of socializing and preparing the children to face the outside world, shaping their view points. I sometimes recognize myself and my family in those lines. Sometimes, I recognize friends or acquaintances. Even though there are clear differences in education patterns (for example linked to different sets of institutions or values), some patterns are there, reproducing themselves in families all around the world. I am fascinated by this study. I am now reading what the kids became more than 10 years after, when they became adults. Their paths are different, but generally defined by their social class. Their occupation, their familial situation, their social life… everything seems heavily influenced by their social background. Sad assessment.

That is why life is so unfair. Sometimes, I have the feeling that I am going to an elite school in France because my parents had the right cultural, social, economic and political capital. I am actually going to the same kind of school as my own father, walking on the same path 30 years later. I would not say that I didn’t study. As Annette Lareau says in her book, I went through an intensive concerted cultivation, asking and being asked questions, having a heavy schedule. I remember being in junior high, looking anxiously at the TV while they announced that Jean-Marie Le Pen, an extreme right wing bastard, was going to the second round of presidential elections in 2002. We talked about the implication of having Le Front National (his party) being so powerful in France. I asked who would vote for them and why; my parents talked about political strategies and people’s disbelief in politics. Studying in school was much easier for me than for people coming from a less privileged background, simply because we would talk about what I had to learn in our everyday life conversations. That is why elite schools are filled with elite kids who went to elite high schools. Because we have enough capital to push away other kids. So is it fair that I am going to an elite school? I am not saying that I am simply lucky. I just say that I had all the cards in my hands from the moment I was born.

That is why schools have to rethink the way they teach. The second edition of this book is even more interesting because it takes into account a summary of how the kids became adults, what they became and how schools could change the way they interact with kids, especially kids from lower social classes. If school (for example in France) is an instrument of social reproduction, it can also be a tool for social ascent. The program PEI of my home school is a good example of how you can try to help kids studying in difficult conditions passing the exams for elite schools. We should not lose faith in the possibility of a better system, even though social realities are tough.


Listening to: Vanilla Acoustic – 고백 (From. 김지수) (Confession)



Maryline Baumard, Le Monde, 14.12.03

Apparently, France has dropped again in the PISA ranking. Seriously, it is not a big deal. We lost 2 spots, while Asia just took over the 7 first ones. It is much more interesting to look into the social implications hidden behind the numbers. France has a some serious problems:
1/ The quality of education varies a lot, depending on where you live. Therefore, the results are also extremely different. It is better to go to a posh high-school in Paris 6ème if you want to get into Sciences Po Paris, no doubt.
2/ France has a very elitist and socially reproductive education system. The ones that have an important social, economic and cultural capital generally succeed while the less favored do not have the same chances of succeeding.
3/ French students suffer from stress and anxiety, in a meritocratic system that ostracized less talented kids.

But what is also extremely interesting is to read people’s comment. Especially on newspapers that you would normally not read. I was looking at comments on Le Figaro (why did I do that to myself?) and got horrified. How racist are people? Really? Our ranking got worse because of all those bloody illiterate immigrants, who also steal our jobs (tell me how they do that, if they can’t even read…) and make us feel that France is not France anymore. I know that it is much easier to find a scapegoat and to avoid looking at the reality. But this makes me nauseating. Just disgusting. Also, I am pretty impressed by how bad is the grammar of some of the people posting about education. Just saying.


Listening to: Block B – HER