School book knowledge…

School books can be gems… here’s a timeline of important events, apparently. Quite a particular perspective on the world, and a particular perspective on science and inventions, where the typical case is one person (usually a man) single-handedly achieved something.

Young World 4, Activity Book, © 2015 Klett und Balmer Verlag

Like “James Watt invented the steam engine.” James Watt shares the honour with Matthew Boulton on the £50 note. For inventing the steam engine? Nope, for making “revolutionary changes to the efficiency of the steam engine”, and Boulton to “market steam engines”.

Wikipedia knows of historical precedents from the first century AD, and Thomas Savery as the first to use a steam engine commercially.


I recognize that school books need to simplify and leave out details, but we can also simplify in a way that doesn’t pretend that history is the act of “great men”. A language book is maybe not the place to nitpick about stuff like whether a railway line in 1845 that ended in Switzerland should be counted, rather than the first internal line in 1847 which is mentioned, or discuss that there are other ways to count the length of World War II.

But why is there Ferdinand Magellan all on his own, who didn’t actually complete the circumnavigation, and none of the 200+ staff (some of whom actually did sail around the world)?

Hopefully, I need not say much about “1492 Christopher Columbus discovered America.” But it struck me how Columbus is greatly under-credited in history: Not only did he “discover” America (never mind indigenous peoples, never mind Norse colonization), but he can obviously see into the future (I’ve never seen him credited for that…!): when he discovered those lands, he already knew that 15 years later two German cartographers would name those lands after Amerigo Vespucci and the name will stick. ⸮⸮⸮

OK, we’ll probably want to leave irony out of school books in primary school, but can we try harder? I’m all for simplification, but perhaps a less Eurocentric one where we don’t celebrate individuals and ignore everyone else who contributed…?!

Decolonizing [insert your discipline here]

Reading up on decolonizing sociology — and other disciplines of the social sciences — I often come across the objection that it “would not make sense to have an African/Asian (etc.) physics”.

This objection implicitly focuses on human universals, and often is rejected on the grounds that the context is different — arguing for unique interactions between context and human universals. Thinking about this a bit, it struck me that we don’t have to argue for (potentially) unique interactions or different contexts — even if they most probably exist: an African/Asian (etc.) physics actually is not problematic as implied by the objection! Why? Because local physics would identify the same regularities! It might not be efficient to build parallel systems, but in terms of discovery it wouldn’t be as bad as normally implied.

Out Now: Hiring discrimination on the basis of skin colour? A correspondence test in Switzerland

I’m very happy to announce a new publication in JEMS on hiring discrimination of Blacks in Switzerland (joint work with Rosita Fibbi, Eva Zschirnt, and Robin Stünzi). Sometimes it’s funny how events unfold — the decision to run this correspondence test to measure hiring discrimination on the basis of skin colour was taken in 2014, and we went into the field in 2018. Then, in 2020, the Black Lives Matter movement gained momentum and increasingly people in Western Europe started talking about racism and discrimination against Blacks. In this sense, we‘re very happy to make our contribution to document discrimination as an undeniable fact, regardless of the fact that some keep claiming that without formal colonies Switzerland could not be affected by racism (I’ll leave the “happy” for times when things get better).

We show that Black jobseekers in Switzerland must send around 30 per cent more applications than White candidates in order to be invited to a job interview.

Not entirely by coincidence, we can compare the results with other recent correspondence studies in Switzerland that cover immigrants from Kosovo, and we can show that the level of discrimination is substantively equivalent for applicants with a Kosovo-Albanian name. This suggests that in the Swiss case there is on average no additional penalty for skin colour. Explorations, however, reveal significant differences in discrimination rates between urban and rural settings, opening new avenues for understanding why ethnic and racial discrimination vary across geographical contexts.

Rosita Fibbi, Didier Ruedin, Robin Stünzi & Eva Zschirnt (2021) Hiring discrimination on the basis of skin colour? A correspondence test in Switzerland, Journal of Ethnic and Migration Studies, DOI: 10.1080/1369183X.2021.1999795