[good stuff] Thinking Allowed by Laurie Taylor, a sociolgy podcast & radio show from the BBC

This is the first of a series of posts tagged “good stuff” — recommendations for sites, software, tools or, anything else that I keep coming back to. Thinking Allowed, one of my favourite podcasts, comes first because of the BBC’s formula for their podcasts: the feed only contains the latest episode, while the rest are available on iPlayer (for some recent ones) or in the archive as Real Media files (ugh).

The recipe of Thinking Allowed is simple: Laurie Taylor, an academic sociologist, invites other social scientists who have recently published an interesting paper, or have a new book out. Each show covers two topics, running the gamut of the discipline, and is kept in a humourous yet somewhat professorial tone, spiced up with anecdotes from the host’s life (of the “se non è vero è ben trovato” kind). The entire thing is over in under 30min — condensed thought-provoking fun at the very least, and sometimes spectacularly good. There’s a tie-in with the Open University’s net activities — the OU runs a site with additional material, which I haven’t checked out, though it looks interesting.

The latest episode, posted last week, was one that grabbed me particularly keenly. It deals with the religiosity of modern societies as its first topic, and Oxford university admissions as the second. Here’s, and the blurb:

Is it fear and hardship that makes people of one country more religious than another, or is there a mysterious third factor that can explain why some nations pray so much more than others? Laurie talks to Tom Rees and Sociologist of Religion David Voas Also, abotu new research into the links between income inequality and religiosity. Also, what are the key factors the underlie acceptance into Oxford University? Laurie talks to Alice Sullivan about her new research.

As a secular agnostic, of Catholic background as far as my family history is concerned, I tend to be unhappy about how other secularists approach the debate about the role of religion in modern (Western) societies. First of all, however much I’m personally at the margins of it, religion looks like quite a universal phenomenon throughout human history and can thereby not simply handwaved away. Second, critics of religiosity tend to be disconcertingly Christianity-centric in positing belief as their main target, even though religion is obviously so much richer, containing dimensions of culture, ritual, and the experience of the transcendental. This as a preamble. In the podcast, one researcher describes how he is looking for statistical correlations between religious behaviour and other social indicators, in particular income inequality. The discussion only gets more interesting from that point, at one point even very briefly touching on the current US healthcare debate — indeed, what do members of a society expect in terms of social/psychological security, and who do they expect it from?

The Oxford admissions topic is one of those that tend to make me angry — a diffuse anger at a certain mindset I want to characterize as specifically European, whereby reproduction of an existing social order — here: orders of class, gender and ethnicity — trumps getting the best, most hard-working, keen and vital students into the right places. It would help everyone in the end if university admissions stood for values like fairness, transparency, supporting bright minds, intellectual inquiry, diversity and originality.

Anyhow, if you’re interested in this kind of thing, get the podcast before this episode expires August 26, 2009, I expect (here’s the direct download link.)