Marco Trentini

Marco Trentini
Professor of sociology

University of Bologna, Italy

Economics versus economic sociology

In times of world crises we see the importance of understanding Economics. According to Marco Trentini from the University of Bologna, Italy, if we want to understand Economics it is of crucial importance to look at it in a different way. Marco’s area of study is in Economic Sociology. Economic sociology is a field inside sociology, which analyses the economic phenomena according to sociological perspectives.

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Marco: I am Marco Trentini, an Italian sociologist, and I work at the department of education, University of Bologna.

Nerina: What are you working on right now?

Marco: I just finished writing a book about economic sociology. It’s a book aimed at students of economic sociology, a sort of hand book. I hope to provide critical thinking, not just revision of theory. I met a student studying economic sociology and economics; there’s a big debate about how economics is taught in University. After the recent crisis there’s some disappointment about how economics is studied in the economics faculty or school. There is a certain movement mainly from students that it is assumed that there are necessary multi-perspectives to study economics and I think economic sociology could be one of these perspectives.

Nerina: What is the book about?

Marco: The book is an overview about economic sociology, and economic sociology is a field of sociology which analyses the economic phenomena according to the sociological perspective.

Nerina: What is the difference between economic sociology and economics?

Marco: The difference is the approach you use to study economics. In the beginning economics and sociology are not very distinctive; they’ve become distinctive during the last century. Since the end of 19th century economists used a particular language to describe economics in the economic phenomena and the language was math – they used a lot of modelling and so on. Economic sociology used a different approach, and not necessarily based on math and modelling. So economic sociologists can use quantitative data in a different way. What I mean is that when you use formal modelling, you have to simplify the reality but of course you cannot describe the exact reality. You have to choose some variables to include in the model and put out some other variable. Of course economists know that the model simplifies their reality and think that the model is able to grasp their reality.

Economic sociology uses a completely different perspective because some variables that in economic analysis are out are included in the analysis. It is rather common especially after new economic sociology in an approach introduced mainly in the USA starting from the 70s of the last century. It is quite common in economic sociology to use the concept of embeddedness. Does it mean that economic action happens in a social context? If you have to grasp and understand how economy works, you have to analyse also the social context. I don’t think that there’s just one perspective to look at society. I think a good point of sociology is to think of sociology as not a paradigm, it has plenty of perspectives. This gives a wider perspective, you have a different perspective to look at the phenomena, maybe you don’t have a strong theory but it’s not a weak point because sometimes strong theory constrains your perspective or your way to understand phenomena.

Nerina: How do these theoretical approaches we are speaking about influence our reality, or can they influence our reality? Why are they important to us?

Marco: Economics affects our reality because usually economics is used to develop political economies. We have seen in the last era the great debate on how to respond to an economic crisis: austerity or no austerity. This debate is based on theory, but some of these theories are not totally right. I mean if you look at austerity, the politics of austerity is not based on good understanding of economics.

Nerina: Do you think that we need the different perspectives in order to understand our society more?

Marco: If you want to understand economics I think it’s useful to have a different perspective. The recent events show that just one perspective does not help. If you look at for instance education, of course I am interested in education. It’s quite common to think of education as sort of a human capital investment. What does it mean? You pay in order to get a return, and the return of education is in income. I don’t think it’s a good perspective to look at education because I can say in my case for instance, my return is a total failure because I have studied, I have a degree, a PhD and so on, and my return is good, but not as good as it should be after all the time I have spent studying. Anyway I don’t feel my investment in education was a failure, but if you just look at the economic return it’s a sort of failure. I didn’t maximize.

Nerina: And why didn’t you maximize it?

Marco: I prefer to be a researcher, as it doesn’t matter how much my income is.

Nerina: Tell me, what do you like doing when you’re not working on research?

Marco: I do different things; sociology is not all my work. I read the news, I listen to jazz, and I watch sports – football.

Nerina: What makes music so special for you?

Marco: Music is important to me because it fills the silence, and I think it’s something that gives meaning to life to some extent. It gives you emotion, expresses sentiments, and so it’s really important.


University of Bologna, Italy

Karina Pombo-Garcia

Karina Pombo-Garcia
Researcher at Helmholtz-Zentrum

Dresden-Rossendorf, (HZDR) Institute of Radiopharmaceutical Cancer Research, Germany

Nanotechnology and cancer diagnostics

The best cure for cancer we have today is to diagnose the disease in its early stages – but we don’t have such technology yet. The main problem with this kind of diagnostics is that the materials we use are attacked by our immune system. Karina Pombo-Garcia’s aim is to develop a new form of early cancer diagnostics which is compatible with the human body.

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Karina: Hi, My name is Karina Pombo-Garcia and I’m doing my Ph.D. in the Helmholtz-Zentrum Dresden-Rossendorf and I think I’m a little bit of a dreamer.

Nerina: And your dream is to better detect cancer…

Karina: To detect cancer at an early stage is one of the best cures that we have at the moment. That means that if we detect it very soon, we have much more chances to cure cancer than if we detect it later on. That is why detection of cancer is so important and that is very challenging.

Nerina: Why is it that difficult to detect cancer nowadays?

Karina: So, at the moment we don’t have the technology to detect it at a very early stage, and we need more sophisticated techniques that increase insensitivity that medical doctors can use in the clinic. So that is the big challenge.

Nerina: What was the goal of your PhD?

Karina: So my research is based on small nano-particles that once injected into the patient, allow the doctors to visualize much more precisely and sensitivity to cancer. The goal of my Ph.D. has been to develop a new novel system, ultra-small particles, so we’re talking about particles smaller than 5 mm, that on the surface of these little balloons, we decorated with different things. So the challenge was to put those different things onto the surface and make the whole complex still something worth trying. So, on the surface, we had like a small light that allows us to follow the tumor. We also had another substance, like another molecule that carries what we need to detect cancer via PET imaging. It also has a small key, if we imagine it’s like a key that will open the door, so that door will be the cancer cells, and that key addresses the nano-particles where they have to go, and at the same time avoid that these nano-particles go somewhere else, to organs that we don’t want them to go. So it has been a big challenge because it has been a lot of mix of biology, chemistry, bio-chemistry, physiology, in one single thing.

Nerina: Why is it difficult to find a substance?

Karina: It is difficult to find a substance but it is more difficult to bring that substance into the human body. Because in our body we have like a “police” that is called the immune system, and what this immune system does is that it will degrade any kind of substance that it doesn’t like, let’s say. So if that happens, whatever we have created makes no sense because it will never reach the cancer. That is the challenge, to inject or create something that is still compatible with the human body.

Nerina: What was the biggest challenge during your Ph.D.?

Karina: The biggest challenge was to stick to what you think is the right thing to do. You will deal with many people that will say you know, this is just not possible or how are you going to prove this, or this is too much work, so I think the biggest challenge was to say I believe in this, and I will carry on with what I have done.

Nerina: What did you discover?

Karina: Where I have reached after these four years of Ph.D. is that we have developed a new system that we have tried in-vitro and in-vivo with promising results and from the basic knowledge in front of you. It was a huge step I think.

Nerina: Is there a day that stood out in a special way?

Karina: Yes, I think that the day that we tried, two days I would say. So one day was the day that we saw the first video of how these particles internalize into cells, so we kind of see which direction they’re taking, where, and opening to many more questions such as why are they going here and not somewhere else as we would have expected. And also the day that we tried in vivo, although there were many things to improve in the results, it was so exciting to see how this system works through this living organism. It was a funny story because I sent one of the videos to my mom and although she is not in this field, she was so excited, she said: “Oh look at that, look at that”. Ok, I think I showed it to many people but I think if you’re passionate about your work, you always want to spread it around.

Nerina: Who inspires you?

Karina: My inspiration always comes from my parents; because they give me the freedom to always do whatever I want to do without asking me why are you doing this now, or think of the next step, or think of what you’re going to do. I never had that pressure as I always had 100% support from their side, and that is very inspiring because it’s like they are pushing you to develop yourself.

Nerina: What makes Nano-particles so special to you?

Karina: Nano-particles is like playing with these little Legos that kids play with, so you change something, and Nano-particles become something different completely to what it was before, and you can keep on changing and keep on investigating what else you can do with them. At the same time, it’s very challenging because there’s no methodology to characterize them so precisely yet; and that makes it a very exciting topic to research on.

Nerina: How important is communication for research?

Karina: Communication is very important for the society because society wants to know what researchers are doing in their lives. It’s a way to pay off, that they support us with their taxes; most of us get paid by government institutions, so it’s good feedback. But at the same time, and it’s a point that not many people see is that researchers are experts in whatever they do. So it means that they are the ones who have to teach people about the big challenges of the society nowadays. So, I see researchers as educators somehow.

Nerina: Is there anything that you would like to change?

Karina: I would like to believe that the only limitation that a scientist has to have is the creativity that they have, and not something else. I know that we still have to deal with other things, but I feel that the main limitation should be with creativity, and not other random things.

Nerina: What is your wish for the future?

Karina: I think we need dreamers in life, not just in research, but in any field, we need people that do things passionately and that dream very big. Especially in research, we need dreamers because in most cases we work with things that we don’t know or we don’t know how they’re going to be experienced or react. So we need, in research, to leave our creativity and freedom very free, so we need to dream.

Nerina: Thank you very much, Karina.

Karina: You’re welcome Nerina, thank you very much for this interview.


Dresden-Rossendorf, (HZDR) Institute of Radiopharmaceutical Cancer Research, Germany

Pavel Himl

Pavel Himl
Associate Professor of History

Charles University, Prague, Czech Republic

History and outsiders

We all learned about history at school, but what do we actually know about history? It’s common for us to know a lot about the rulers of the past, wars, and other important historical figures. But what do we know about the common people? And what do we know about the groups among the common people who weren’t so popular among the majority of the population? What about homosexuals, gypsies, and vagabonds? Himl’s areas of study are those forgotten groups. By studying these “outsiders”, Pavel wants to recreate the views and self-perceptions of these people, and give us an insight into their lives.

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Pavel: My name is Pavel Himl, I come from the Czech Republic and I’m an university lecturer in history at Charles University in Prague. I am interested in cultural history in the large sense of the word, and so my main research topics used to be marginalized social groups in 17th and 18th Century: vagrants, vagabonds, gypsies. I also worked on the history of homosexuality in Czech lands, and now I am working on the history of administration and state formation during the enlightenment.

Nerina:Why are these topics so important to you? Why are you so passionate about, for example, outsiders?

Pavel: Firstly, I was surprised that we can get so much evidence about these seemingly lost or forgotten people, so ‘archives’ is the reason number one. The second reason is that I think it tells us a lot about the society when we consider which groups, people, and behavior this society excludes.

Nerina:What is your approach?

Pavel: I would call my approach historical anthropology. This means that I try based on trials to reconstruct the behaviour, and self-perceptions of these groups. How did they act if they had some space to construct their lives and their activity? So I try to look at their lives through their eyes.

Nerina:Is it possible to get really close to these people?

Pavel: It is not completely possible because you don’t dispose about self-evidence. It means you don’t have diaries, memories, and letters of these people. The closest source you have are their depositions, their trials, and this is, of course, a unique situation. But I am convinced that we can still at least approach the view and self-perception of these people.

Nerina:Based on your research, do you think that there are similar reasons for being or becoming an outsider?

Pavel: It’s a good question because I could start thinking about eternal, everlasting, mechanisms which lead to exclusion, but it’s hard to say because the concrete reasons for exclusion change over time, and what remains the same is this situation of being excluded or feeling excluded.

Nerina:What can we learn from history about for example being an outsider?

Pavel: I would say we can learn, or I offer as a historian a lesson to my students and to people who read my articles and books, that we still have to examine or observe closely the situation of people who think they don’t belong to us. You know, to really consider their singular situation and to put aside these stereotypes because partly, they are different and considered the ‘other’.

Nerina:Is there something you feel that we should change in our approach to history?

Pavel: There are a lot of things already changing, and one of the most important to me is the replacement of history by histories; so this tends towards plurality. There are a lot of histories competing in our memory and our media. Perhaps we should pay more attention to this plurality of histories and be attentive to who is speaking, and who is presenting this one possible history to us.

Nerina:What is the most important lesson that you have learned from your research?

Pavel: To pay attention to detail.

Nerina:Why do we need history actually?

Pavel: We are history, and I think we are made by history. History is not foreign, but a part of us and history still influences us. We need history in order to recognize ourselves as individuals, members of different groups, and as speakers of languages. The language itself is a bearer of history which is sort of a container of history. In a language you have segmented different influences and different elements from different times because even when we speak, we are part of these histories.

Nerina:Can we say that if we change our perceptions of the past, we change our perceptions of the present?

Pavel: Absolutely. It’s not that everything that happened in the past is history. There are a lot of lives, events, and things which happened somewhere in the past, but when nobody remembers these past things, they are not part of history. History is only what we are creating for us, what we are writing about, for us. So I consider history rather as a present activity, the choosing, emphasizing, telling, and constructing of stories. In this activity, there is a present activity making history. There is no history without making history.

Nerina:This is really interesting because this means that even your work on outsiders, somehow is to bring them into our history, to make them part of our history.

Pavel: Absolutely. For me it’s also a substantial part of the work of a historian. You choose your object and you bring it to our conscience.

Nerina:What do you do when you’re not researching?

Pavel: I take part in sports, I am a member of the green party and for me, because I am basically a teacher, or university lecturer, the most important topic is education.

Nerina:A wish for the future?

Pavel: My personal wish is that the education system in the Czech Republic would be better, more inclusive, and less competitive.

Nerina:If you could send a letter to a future historian, what would you say?

Pavel: “You will perhaps have a better look on our society than we have, and you will feel that you are the master – you know everything about us in a similar way as I am thinking I really discovered the substance of the society of 18th century; but you may be wrong.”

Nerina:Thank you very much, Pavel.

Pavel: You’re welcome Nerina.

#followup with Pavel Himl | The beginning of central administration in middle Europe

We spoke with Pavel last year, in one of our first ever interviews for Traces.Dreams. He is an historian based in Prague. Last time, he explained to us about the details of his new project. Do you want to learn more? Have a watch!

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