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The academic perspective

LSE director Craig Calhoun has led efforts to study and research global issues, such as financial market risks, inequality, climate change, and conflict.

'I think states are still very important. I don't believe in the argument that in this era of finance capital and knowledge societies, economies can run without state engagement.'

CAPITALISM and its side effects is on the mind of sociologist and academic leader Craig Calhoun, director of the London School of Economics and Political Science (LSE).

"We don't have an effective structure for rapidly responding in a globally integrated way to spreading structural risk," he told The Business Times in an interview. Within financial organisations, isolated departments or processes, or "siloing", adds to the complexity of managing risks.

As a sociologist, Prof Calhoun has authored books across a wide range of topics such as sociology theory, nationalism, citizenship and nationalism.

One of the achievements of Prof Calhoun as an academic leader in recent years is to set up cross-disciplinary research institutes at LSE to enable better research on the big issues of the day such as inequality and climate change.

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On capitalism, he worries that the world is still facing the same issues of financial stability and systemic risk that dogged markets before the global financial crisis. With much more of the world's assets held in financial instruments now, and with money moving more fluidly across borders, it is difficult for observers to understand what is happening, who is affected, and how to deal with situations that arise.

Banks no longer have a monopoly on lending money given the rise of peer to peer lending or non-bank lending activities.

Derivative calculations assume unlimited liquidity. But liquidity can suddenly dry up with serious consequences. Meanwhile, inflows of capital can make it difficult for ordinary people to get housing.

More regulation to improve transparency and reporting, imposed on hedge funds for example, is a possible solution, he says. "I think states are still very important. I don't believe in the argument that in this era of finance capital and knowledge societies, economies can run without state engagement."

Another side effect of capitalism is the sheer gap between the rich and the poor that has widened in the past decades. His own university is not immune, he told students at the Singapore Management University, where he was in late 2015 to give a lecture.

"LSE was a great university in the 1970s. It's a great university today, but it costs its wonderful students a great deal more money now . . . Investment banks don't pay for scholarships, it expect students to pay first. This affects who can attend," he says.

One of the challenges facing the school is how rich people tend to perpetuate themselves, he tells BT later. "We score better on national diversity than class diversity," he says. What he can do about it, Prof Calhoun says, is to create more scholarships and do more outreach programmes.

The role of academics

Prof Calhoun was well known in his field as the long serving president of the Social Science Research Council in the US.

He was also a professor in New York University and the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, before that.

For his fellow academics, he sees their role as providing knowledge and analysis which improve the quality of debates, so people understand issues from multiple perspectives.

Academics make key contributions in helping governments understand issues from the financing of the Islamic State, to the role of carbon markets in dealing with climate change, he says.

Yet getting enough critical mass, or to get sufficient focus on a specific issue, can be a challenge. "People have lots of different interests, they study lots of different things, and in general universities don't tightly control what people study, they just encourage or create vehicles to concentrate on these things."

Academic disciplines, meanwhile, have "internal prestige hierarchies" where some topics are deemed more prestigious to do research in. In economics, for example, "the prestige of an economist was based on showing off mathematical models", Prof Calhoun observes.

For a time, the discipline had also veered towards universal models, instead of explaining how things work in specific regions or countries.

Another gap is in basic science research, or fundamental, theoretical forms of research. Science funding by governments has been geared towards commercial applications, he notes.

Interdisciplinary studies

At LSE, Prof Calhoun has led an effort to create a vehicle for researchers from different departments to cooperate on certain social issues. He encourages groups of faculty to propose plans around cooperating on topics. What resulted was the birth of these interdisciplinary institutes.

One of the biggest successes that attracted a lot of funding and excitement was the International Inequalities Institute launched in 2015. French economist Thomas Piketty, known for his best-selling 2014 book titled Capital in the Twenty-First Century, is also part of the institute. He has an LSE connection, having been a PhD student there.

The institute aims to explore all aspects of inequality and how they interact with each other, such as gender and class inequality, or how culture matters. It also looks into whether programmes that deal with inequality work.

Inequality can also create problems for the wealthy, Prof Calhoun notes. "If you hollow out the middle class, you undercut consumer purchasing power and that creates a problem for markets."

A second newly established institute at LSE was the Marshall Institute for Philanthropy and Social Entrepreneurship. Prof Calhoun says that philanthropy is one of the least well researched areas despite foundations, such as the Gates Foundation, being endowed with plenty of money.

Beyond research around the effectiveness of giving, philosophical issues on the nature of altruism can also be addressed, he says.

Researchers need to understand the sociology of religions, for example, to research religious giving.

Others from legal or public administration backgrounds are needed to understand how states can regulate philanthropy.

A third centre that was recently set up is the Centre for Women, Peace and Security. While activists and governments have been active in helping women caught up in war, almost all academic studies of war are studies of men, Prof Calhoun says.

He adds that there is a role for universities to look at issues such as how to care for victims of sexual violence, or how to provide training for peacekeeping forces being sent to an area where there has been a lot of gender-based violence.

A global perspective

Beyond setting up institutes, Prof Calhoun says he thinks LSE can be more systematic in doing research on the world. Studies of globalisation, for example, end up being studies of North America, China and Europe, leaving out places such as South-east Asia and Latin America.

At LSE's Grantham Research Institute on Climate Change and the Environment, for example, academics can examine how policy innovations in a place such as Mexico - which has been enacting pioneering climate change laws - can be applied to other countries. Researchers are also collaborating worldwide on inequality studies in places such as South Africa, Chile and China, he says.

Other institutes that LSE is involved in include the International Growth Centre, which provides policy advice to developing countries, such as what enables better tax collection, or what incentivises people to pay for access to electricity over stealing it from a network.

Looking ahead, the most important project brewing is on healthcare systems and innovations around them dealing with costs and the changing character of health problems, he says. In Singapore, the UK, US and many other countries, health problems have shifted from infectious diseases or workplace accidents to old-age diseases. "It's heart disease, it's cancer, it's a variety of different things that change the demands on the health system."

This summer, Prof Calhoun will move from LSE to become the president of the Berggruen Institute think-tank, set up in 2010 by investor and philanthropist Nicolas Berggruen. The institute aims to improve political governance as well as enhance cross-cultural understanding, especially between Asian and Western cultures. Prof Calhoun will oversee the institute's strategy and operations.

As for his own research, it has been put on hold in the last few years. "I have to say I miss it," he says. "It's terribly frustrating. I still harbour fantasies that I will get to do research and write articles again . . . I still am continuing in the small hours of the morning to do a little bit of my own research and writing."



Director, London School of Economics and Political Science


June 1952: Born in Watseka, Illinois, US

1972: BA, University of Southern California, Anthropology, Cinema minor

1974: MA, Columbia University, Anthropology; further study in Sociology

1975: MA (Econ), Manchester University, Social Anthropology

1977: Instructor at University of North Carolina (UNC), Chapel Hill

1980: PhD, Oxford University (St Antony's College), Modern Social and Economic History/Sociology

1980: Assistant Professor, UNC

1985: Associate Professor, UNC

1989: Professor of Sociology and History, UNC

1989-95: Director, Program in Social Theory and Cross-Cultural Studies, UNC

1993-96: Director, University Center for International Studies, UNC

1994-96: Dean of the Graduate School, UNC

1996: Professor of Sociology and History, New York University (NYU)

1996-99: Chair, Department of Sociology, NYU

1999-2012: President, Social Science Research Council

2007-2012: Director, Institute for Public Knowledge, NYU

2012-present: Director, London School of Economics and Political Science

Selected books:

  • The Question of Class Struggle: Social Foundations of Popular Radicalism During the Industrial Revolution (1982)
  • Neither Gods Nor Emperors: Students and the Struggle for Democracy in China (1994)
  • Nationalism (1997)
  • Nations Matter: Citizenship, Solidarity, and the Cosmopolitan Dream (2007)
  • The Roots of Radicalism (2012) 'I think states are still very important. I don't believe in the argument that in this era of finance capital and knowledge societies, economies can run without state engagement.'

Life during Tiananmen

PROFESSOR Craig Calhoun has authored a number of books, the most famous arguably one dissecting the 1989 Tiananmen Square protests titled Neither Gods Nor Emperors: Students and the Struggle for Democracy in China.

By a twist of fate, he was in China in the spring of 1989, as a social theorist teaching comparative cultural studies at the Beijing Foreign Studies University.

Through spending hundreds of hours talking to student activists, he gave his take on how the movement started, shaped by various cultural and political forces, and spread beyond self-centred concerns by an elite group to include national concerns and universal ideals.

He wrote of students' concerns over basic questions of what it meant to be Chinese, and their shared sense of China's weakness and backwardness. He conducted two separate surveys of 112 and 109 students respectively.

One showed the student movement most wanted "an end to corruption" and "accurate news reporting", while another, on their understanding of the characteristics of democracy, showed they regarded "accurate news reporting" and "free expression" as top characteristics.

"When students talked about democracy, they often disappointed Westerners who expected them to place their greatest emphasis on multi-party elections," he wrote.

Asked for their impression of the goals of the student movement, 82 per cent of the 111 bystanders surveyed cited "an end to corruption", while 59 per cent cited "an end to official profiteering" - the top two goals they thought the movement was about.

Prof Calhoun also described how the 1989 movement gained momentum, faltered, gathered pace again through hunger strikes and other dramatic symbols such as the "Goddess of Democracy", before being ended by military force that encountered substantial civilian resistance.

The idea that there was a massacre of students at Tiananmen Square was a myth, he wrote.

Violence and deaths occurred, but not in the square itself. Rather, he emphasised, they happened in dispersed settings around Beijing. He said violence was directed mainly not at students, but against workers and other non-students.

As for himself, Prof Calhoun said in his book that he was "several miles from the heart of the struggle" and resisted the urge to go to the centre of Beijing where Tiananmen was. Each time he ventured afar from his university, an explosion or burst of gunfire would frighten him back.

Ultimately, the sense of acting on behalf of the Chinese nation was a powerful motivator for protesting Chinese students, he concluded.

As for himself, standing in Tiananmen Square on June 3, concerns for his personal safety ultimately won out. While he identified with the students after being with them round the clock for six weeks, "I had not been on hungry strike, I had not made speeches, I had not put my career in jeopardy . . . I had not been through nearly so transformative an experience."

The book has largely withstood the test of time, Prof Calhoun said in a 2007 interview by the website of the Social Science Research Council, where he was president. "Of course there is lots to say now about the implications and consequences of the movement - and about the actual paths of development, growing rule of law, and even steps towards democracy that China has in fact followed in the last 18 years."