Friday, 15 June 2018

Is public administration and public policy education in Scotland threatened?

I recently learnt from a colleague that the Master of Public Administration programme at Queen Margaret University in Edinburgh is threatened with closure. This leaves Scotland with one MPA and three postgraduate programmes in public policy. Therefore the closure of this programme brings into question the entire existence of public administration as a scholarly subject in our country. Yet in practice public administration is booming – there is more that we need skilled public servants to deliver: the Scottish Parliament is gaining more powers; Scottish communities are being asked to take a greater role in the design and delivery of public services; and the demand on our public services has never been greater. Yet many public service organisations, such as community councils, charities and local authorities do not have (individually) the budgets to support Masters level professional development.

In other parts of the UK public administration scholarship is seen as vital to the economy and to civic society and so is financially supported by Government’s, For example, the Northern Ireland Executive fund civil servants to complete the first level of the MPA at Ulster University; the Welsh Government have funded an ‘All Wales Public Services Graduate Programme‘ with University of South Wales and the Welsh Centre for Public Policy at Cardiff University; and in England there are major developments taking place at many universities including Manchester Metropolitan University, Northumbria University, Nottingham Trent University, University of Birmingham and University of Exeter.

Scotland risks being perceived in this context as being hostile to public administration research and teaching. This runs counter to the ambitions of the Christie Commission, to the ethos of our Scottish Government and to the nature of the Scottish Approach to public services. Yet currently we face the very real prospect that public administration and public policy scholarship becomes restricted to the rest of the UK. We can only hope that our elected representatives will take notice and act soon before this becomes the case.

Friday, 11 May 2018

My Big Idea by Peter Matthews aged 35-and-three-quarters

I’ve been in marking hell since the end of the period of strike action which I’ve just emerged from. I can’t read anything without correcting the grammar.

Anyway, during the strike, among all the amazing USS Strikes Tweets I saw one from the Times Higher about research that had shown that European universities spend more on getting European Research Council funding than they receive in grants awarded. This led to the usual moaning about the ridiculousness of the situation, and also the suggestion that grants should be replaced by a research basic income.

This got me thinking more about an idea I’ve had which I’ve discussed with a few people now and I now have time to tell the entire world about…
To start with, why do we have research grants? Basically they emerged (as I understand it) as there was an awareness that some research required levels of investment in people and infrastructure that were beyond the capacity of all but the largest universities. Over time, in the UK, as the other elements of state funding to universities have been reduced, they now have to account for the vast amount of research funding for universities. There are two problems (I see) with replacing grants with a fixed sum to each researcher. Firstly, is the ability to fund large-scale research particularly that which requires investment in non-staff capital resources. Secondly, it adds an odd perverse incentive for universities to just keep appointing staff even though they might struggle to cover the rest of their salary with teaching income, as you know you’ll get some money for the post.

This leaves us with a distributional problem – the pot of money to distribute for grants must always be limited. As a result complex mechanisms of measuring the quality of proposals to target funding at those which academic peers believe will be most important, have grown over time. At the same time demand for research income has grown as more researchers want to do more research; as the funding landscape for HEIs has changed; and as pressure is put on staff through HEI’s expansive strategies to bid for more funding. As a result, success rates for UK research council grants are now hovering around the 10% mark.

There are obvious massive sunk costs here. I’ve heard quite a number of people who have had “outstanding” scores across the board on research proposals which have not been funded because there’s just not enough money. The system also has massive in-built biases. At the most basic level, grants beget grants – as this recent paper shows. More problematic are the massive gender and race biases in who gets funded – what Deb Verhoeven hilariously calls the “Daversity” problem.

So, what’s my big idea? A lottery. Or actually something a bit like Premium Bonds.

How it would work is when a research-active member of staff joined a UK university you would be given a unique identifier – your research premium bond number. Every year there would be a draw for “winners”. If your number was called out you would then get £1 million to spend on research over the next few years. Within six months you would have to submit a short proposal as to what you will spend the money on. You would have to report every year on your progress and at the end of five years you would have to return any unused funds.

You could spend the money as you can spend research council grants now – employ staff, buy-out your own time, buy equipment, and share it between institutions. So, if you didn’t win, but your colleague who you had been working with on a research idea did win, you could work together using their winnings.

The advantages of a lottery for me are:

You remove most of the sunk costs in unsuccessful bids. There would be a shifting of resources to actually supporting good quality research to be developed and go ahead, and good reporting so the outcomes can be adequately captured and disseminated.

I think you would actually get a lot more innovative research funded. I imagine there’s researchers in UK HEIs who never have the time to even think about what they might do with £1 million of research money, but if they got it would probably do something really quite exciting. You would probably end up with a lovely mix of utter blue-skies, ivory-tower research and some really applied stuff from all kinds of disciplines.

It would reduce the inherent biases in a system of quality-assessed research applications. I don’t know what the research councils’ annual budget is – I’m guessing billions – divided by a million will mean enough prizes that all researchers would be equally likely to win. Also, institutions, and academic disciplines, would be equally likely to win, no matter what their level of research infrastructure.

Given the above, I reckon everyone would win at least once in their career and have a chance to do some amazing research. You might even win twice. It would be up to the random number generator.

You might say that people might just waste the money. This would be a small risk I reckon. I think the need to submit a research proposal and annual updates would negate this. Some of the current sunk costs in developing and assessing applications would have to be shifted to post-award audit. I also think if you were not a very good researcher you would also have trouble spending £1 million over five years and you would end up giving a lot of it back. Also, I don’t think you can say that our current system ensures that poor quality research doesn’t get funded – it just has well written research proposals to support it.

I think there would have to be a residual pot for the absolutely massive research projects (the big STEM infrastructure investments; humanities investments in new collections; social science longitudinal surveys etc.) and you would need a competitive funding system for that, but it would be a small part of the overall budget.

So, that’s my big idea. UKRI – hit me up.

Thursday, 22 February 2018

What it means to be on strike

Members of UCU are embarking on a substantial period of strike action with some universities over proposed cuts to our pensions. Oddly enough, as a union member at a participating branch, I’m not on strike as it is our reading week, so we start next week.

As a union member and activist, I’m not actually that left wing – I hold some views that a socialist would wince at. But one thing I do hold as very important is strike action and solidarity with strike action. This is partly because there’s a long history of trade union activism in my family. So I know the number one rule is, even if you disagree with a strike, you do not cross a picket line. It’s about solidarity.

It’s also because as a lefty, I recognise that the only right we have as wage-slaves, is the right to withdraw our labour. In the history of the labour movement, all striking workers made the bargain that they will lose out less than the boss – that the loss in wages will be less than the loss of profits to the boss. This is especially effective when everyone engages in this level of disruption. The equivalent in a public service is to cause as much disruption to service provision that bosses pay attention.

One thing that especially angers me when academics go on strike is how bad we are it. I notice this particularly among academics who profess to be “radical” and then spend the strike action tweeting about how much reading and writing they’re doing.

So here goes my outline of what it means to be on strike:

Academic reading while on strike means you are doing academic labour, have crossed a picket line and are a strike breaker.

Academic writing on strike means you are doing academic labour, have crossed a picket line and are a strike breaker.

Preparing that grant application on strike means you are doing academic labour, have crossed a picket line and are a strike breaker.

Ploughing through your inbox to clear it while on strike means you are doing academic labour, have crossed a picket line and are a strike breaker.

Preparing slides for a talk while on strike means you are doing academic labour, have crossed a picket line and are a strike breaker.

Preparing teaching while on strike means you are doing academic labour, have crossed a picket line and are a strike breaker.

The sole point of strike action is to cause disruption, not just to leave the campus ghostly empty while you work from home. Come on, if you had the chance, you’d work from home anyway.

Now the argument against these, particularly around reading and writing, I hear is that “it will damage my career”. This really smacks of the over-individualisation of academic labour that we really should be railing against in our union activism. Let’s get this straight – YOUR career success benefits YOUR employer. If you get a Chair through writing a paper during the strike period, then that’s because you’ve met the performance targets set by your employer, which benefit it in terms of REF submission and prestige, so the VC gets paid more. If you write that successful grant application, then it brings in income to your employer, and your Pro-VC research gets a nice bonus at the end of the year.

The detriment to your career is the sacrifice you are making in solidarity with your fellow workers to the collective benefit to us all. And let’s consider what that sacrifice might look like. In a former job we had a period of rolling strikes about terms and conditions. A colleague at the time worked part time and the strikes were always on days they were supposed to be at work. They basically didn’t get paid for a month. They had a young child, a mortgage, and their partner worked part time. They really struggled. But they gritted their teeth and did not cross the picket line. They did this because their father was a miner who was on strike for a year during the miner’s strike. That’s what sacrifice for solidarity looks like.

So, please, before you even think of doing any academic labour during the strike, think of solidarity with your fellow workers. We need this dispute to be successful. The cuts to pensions are truly staggering. We need to cause as much disruption as possible. Don’t be a strike breaker. Don’t cross a picket, even working at home.

Saturday, 3 February 2018

Issues with The Conversation

This morning I was reading a piece on the website The Conversation. As I got to the bottom, I noticed a bar asking for donations to fund “fact-based journalism”. I was a little taken aback by this, as I’ll explain why, so I tweeted about it.

I was struck that it really hit a nerve with a lot of my fellow academics.

For those of you who don’t know, The Conversation is a website, funded by a large number of universities and higher education organisations, to publicise academic research. When you write for it, you work with an editor to get the angle right. When you input your text into the website it has an “intelligibility” gizmo that has to be “amber” so your piece is readable. The also commission pieces; and if your institution is a partner then they come around to do communications training.

I have written for The Conversation in the past – Bulldoze Belgravia and another piece on urban design. This was in the early days of the site when what it seemed to be aiming for was academic input into current affairs issues (what do we actually know about this issue?) and also for academic takes on other societal issues – what I produced.

What I wrote was ideological – it comes from my belief that state action should maximise equality between people. From that belief I then set out a fairly straightforward, logical critique of mixed communities policies that seek to diversify tenure in deprived neighbourhoods – that they’ll never work because we need to consider tenure diversification in all neighbourhoods. It’s a fairly simple argument in urban studies you could work out yourself with some coloured tiles. The ideological tinge of the argument got me vilified below the line when The Guardian reblogged the piece and a reader referred to me as an “envy-driven” and “masquerading as an academic”. I was quite proud.

However, I now wouldn’t write for The Conversation, and I’ll explain why.


This is what got me about the “fact-checking” ask. Far too often I have read things in The Conversation that are factually wrong. This is a wider ethical issue for me, which academics need to be more reflexive on. As a social scientist, I know “objectivity” is a problematic concept, and I can give you a cracking post-structuralist denunciation of “the truth” if I want to, but in my opinion, in the public domain, academics have a duty to be absolutely clear on whether what they say is their ideological opinion, or is based on their research.

To give an example. Prior to my doctoral research, I thought that the state was generally a Good Thing, and if not necessarily Good, it was at least democratic and reasonably neutral. It should be criticised when it gets things wrong; but with this ideological position I would have said I was in favour of nationalising a lot of services that were previously own by the state, such as the railways. During my research career, I’ve realised that the state can actually be really bloody awful at delivering services, can be grossly undemocratic, and other ownership models, such as community ownership and cooperatives, can deliver the aims of social justice and a pluralistic democracy that I believe is right. When I discuss this in public forums, I try to ensure that I am clear on what is my opinion, and what is based on my research. 

Now, why am I describing this? Because, a while back I read this piece in The Conversation: Nationalising Britain’s Railways is the Only Way to Fix Chronic Problems. I’m a bit train nerd, so much so that I know a lot of the way British Rail was run was bloody awful – I’d love to do a PhD on The Modernisation Plan of 1955 which lumbered the network with brand new infrastructure designed for the 1930s and a range of new diesel locomotives of variable quality. So I clicked on the link thinking I’d get a thoughtful piece on the pros and cons of private ownership versus state ownership. What I actually read was pretty poor editorialising with factual inaccuracies. The third paragraph I thought was particularly awful. It reels off a list of the ways the private railways companies are worse than British Rail, with an impressive set of links to back it up. I bothered to click on the links. What they actually point to is a load of analysis and statistics that start in 1995, when the railways were privatised, and then show how on these indicators performance has deteriorated. None of them compare their performance to that of British Rail. The entire paragraph was making a false statement. One example of this inaccuracy – a book I got last Christmas on British Rail design had a load of old train tickets printed on the inside. Quite a few of these were “regulated fares” – season tickets and peak-time returns. I popped a few of the post-decimal prices into an RPI inflator to find out what the price would be today. When I then checked the same ticket today, the price was virtually the same.

This is just one example of the sort of editorial writing that The Conversation seems to increasingly publish, where respect for the truth is subsumed to the ideological opinion of the author. Quite a few of the replies to my tweet had similar experiences.

To get all Habermasian on you – Habermas argues we assess truth claims on three bases: their accuracy; whether we trust the speaker; and whether they fit into existing norms. Academia is, arguably, the domain of third criteria, where we debate the existing norms and paradigms of knowledge. But in wider society, the second criteria is where we, as academics are privileged and we should be much more reflexive of that, and be absolutely clear when what we are describing is based on a disputed norm. In this case, there is a broad range of scholarship on privatisation. Some of this is very right wing and says all state intervention is distorting markets; some is very left wing and asserts that capitalism as a system of ownership is wrong. There is also a chunk of empirical work in the middle that uses a range of indicators and outcomes to make judgements as to whether specific cases of privatisation were good or bad. I would expect something like The Conversation to reflect this diversity and complexity in the scholarship in its published material. If you want this sort of academic reflection on railway privatisation, I personally thought this was a better much better piece.

The crisis in journalism

My other issue with The Conversation is I think it’s a problematic intervention in a market – that for news journalism – that is in dire straits. The fact that newspapers like The Daily Hate Mail and The Scum are now seeing falling sales, falling revenues and falling profits really shows what a state the market is in. You might hate their content, but for decades these two newspapers were journalistic powerhouses, selling thousands of copies and earning millions through advertising revenue. One only has to look at MailOnline – BuzzFeed before BuzzFeed existing – and see how different it is to its paper version to understand the way things are going.

With falling revenues, and readership driven through clickbait headlines to get someone to hover on your website long enough to kick-in an advertising fee, news is in crisis. News organisations can no longer afford to pay a lot of staff to cover the sort of things that an academic might input into – social and policy commentary for example; or science stories.

You might argue that The Conversation is therefore filling a gap that needs filled – it’s allowing academics to input into news debates with “facts”. But I don’t think it does do that because it falls into the same editorial traps of clickbait and sensationalism that mainstream news organisations use which distorts the news. And, as discussed, problematically they do this with authors who are trusted in society.

In an industry that is now driven by journalists maintaining their jobs through getting clicks, I would actually suggest that by providing free content, The Conversation is putting journalists out of work and is actually distorting the market. It is making the crisis in news journalism worse. Because of its reliance on income from partner institutions that are higher education bodies, The Conversation is state-funded news. Directly, it gets its funding from organisations that are funded directly (through grants) and indirectly (through student loans) by the government. It is also funded indirectly by the government as its writers (us academics) write for free for it and have our overheads covered by our state-funded organisations. Because of this, I believe it should be far more closely scrutinised than it is. When The Conversation gets things wrong, it should be more of a scandal than when the BBC gets things wrong. And, I’m sorry, but in a lot of the material it publishes, I do not see The Conversation meeting a high bar of accuracy and impartiality that we should expect.

The real risk for this is that, in the context we live in of “fake news”, distortions of the truth, and news organisations financially unable to do their job, that The Conversation could make discourse in society worse, not better. If it continues to publish editorialising statements by non-reflexive academics, then the public have every right to not “trust the experts”. 

Wednesday, 24 January 2018

Ursula K LeGuin

I woke up this morning to the incredibly sad news that the science fiction writer Ursula K LeGuin has died. I thought I’d like to do a blog post about how important she was for me, but didn’t know if I’d have time. However, a storm has wreaked havoc on central Scotland’s railways, so I’m using the lengthy delay I’m experiencing to pen some thoughts.

I wasn’t much of a sci-fi reader under I started reading LeGuin’s work. Not long after I first met my husband, he made me watch a very good BBC2 documentary about her work. He reads loads of sci-fi and fantasy, or varying quality, and is also a massive fan of LeGuin’s work. This spent some time discussing The Left Hand of Darkness. I was fascinated by the themes it picked up and my husband encouraged me to read it. Not being a regular reader of sci-fi at that point I did find it hard work – the funny names that my brain couldn’t work out how to pronounce to itself; the descriptions of alien worlds. I’ve since realised, if you’re not regular sci-fi reader that this is a barrier you have to overcome (I’ve currently a third of the way through Iain M. Banks’ Excession and am just about understanding it now). Once I’d finished it, I knew it was a good book, but I wasn’t overawed by it.

A little while later, it was during the write-up of my PhD thesis, I then read The Dispossessed. This story of lives in anarcho-syndicalism and rampant capitalism really resonated with me. In my thesis I was grappling with how to write about regeneration policy that was more than just going “oooh, it’s bad and neo-liberal” and also write in an ethnographic way. It was in The Dispossessed that LeGuin’s background in anthropology (her parents were anthropologists) really shone through for me. She deftly used the otherness created by the genre of sci-fi to bring into sharp relief the problems, and benefits, of both the capitalist planet and its revolutionary anarcho-syndicalist moon. This helped me grapple with the fact my policy ethnography had to reveal the difficult ethical and moral decisions all actors in a policy process were making and try and draw out a compromise of “what’s the best thing to do in the situation we find ourselves in” – driving be towards Habermas’ pragmatics that still frame a lot of my thinking in policy studies.

I then delved into The Lathe of Heaven just as I was finishing up my thesis. This was brilliant for me then – this is what my policy-makers were trying to do! The utopianism of both social democratic policy and managerialism was trying to create a perfect world from their dreams without thinking of the consequences. The best bit for me was when the scientist got rid of races to get rid of racism and the world then became incredibly dull. For me, at this time, this really spoke to policies that were trying to normalise all neighbourhoods rather than accepting difference between deprived and affluent neighbourhoods and working within that frame. It also helped me further get to grips with what good ethnography (particularly policy ethnography) is trying to do – to reveal the absurdities in the taken-for-granted, such as the way in which people act within a “partnership” meeting, compared to the differing ways in which partnership was understood by the people round the table, a point I elaborate in this paper.

Over the years I worked my way through virtually all her books, including the dodgy fourth book in the Earthsea trilogy. She is one of the few authors I have re-read. I read both The Left Hand of Darkness and The Dispossessed within the last eighteen months. Funnily enough, my views from my previous readings were reversed – I found the dichotomy in The Dispossessed quite clunky, and the exploration of gender and binary divisions in The Left Hand of Darkness (plus the drama of the escape) utterly enthralling. I think this was because I am now much more attuned to issues of gender. Re-reading them also reminded me of my dream from when I first started reading her books – to run a postgraduate module on The Policy Analysis of Ursula K LeGuin.

I also think LeGuin, along with J.G Ballard (read Vermillion Sands), was one of the best short-story writers I’d read. Her wonderful short collection Changing Planes is extremely witty, and whenever I find myself spending a little too much time in an airport departure lounge I think of its central conceit with a wry smile, and a wish that I could change planes!

So, I am very upset that LeGuin has died – as a friend commented, 88 seems very young these days. But I am so glad her writing could be part of my life. Her work opened up the world of sci-fi to me, revealing what the best sci-fi, the best ethnography, and the best policy analysis do – make you look at the world askance.

Friday, 5 January 2018

This blog post is not about Toby Young

Academic twitter in the UK got very angry on New Years Day. The Guardian broke the story, just after midnight, that Toby Young had been appointed to the Board of the new Office for Students, the HE regulator in England. People were very angry indeed, and quite rightly so, and a lot of digital ink has been spilled. My main thought was that the graun had rather landed on a good way of driving traffic to their website on a dull Bank Holiday Monday.

This might seem a bit of a snarky thought – TY’s appointment is a bad decision – but it does also reflect that, outside of academia, I can’t imagine anyone really gives a shit who has been appointed to the Board of the OfS. Or even that the OfS has replaced the regulatory role of HEFCE and the Privy Council.

I landed on this thought after repeated conversations I had over the Christmas break with non-academic family and friends which started with “so when are you back at work?” and occasionally the blunt “so when are the students back?”. In answer to the first, it was “the 3rd January, and semester starts on the 15th"; the answer to the second was the reverse of that. Having been a lecturer seven years now, I’m getting used to patiently answering this question.

In polite conversation I sometimes almost hate being asked what I do – I usually just say I work at the University of Stirling. I think because of the middle-class circles I am in, this then leads onto this conversation:
“What do you do?”
“I’m a Senior Lecturer in Social Policy.”
“What’s social policy?”
“That’s a good question, don’t ask me!”
“What do you teach?”
(precis of syllabus of second year module, while hoping the conversation ends) etc.

Sometimes the conversation will drift onto my research. Then I’m torn between pinning the poor soul in the corner while I run through my elevator pitch for my next project, or just summarising it as “I’m interested in why we have poor neighbourhoods and rich neighbourhoods”. I can easily end up having to summarise how research funding in the UK works.

I can see why academics socialise with other academics, as it shortcuts a lot of this.

My mum was a social worker, and so she used to dread conversations about her work for similar reasons. For a while she worked in Bradford Council’s office in Manningham. If someone asked her where she worked she would just reply “Lumb Lane”. It was then the location of the red light district, so that would shut down this conversation completely.

The variation on this conversation I find most interesting, and tread warily around, is when people who are quite professional clearly have absolutely no idea what being an academic entails. You don’t want to patronise, but then you don’t want to end up intellectualising either.

Particularly over the summer, academic public reaction to the common comment “oh, are you off for the summer then” is rage. I used to be like that. Now I just politely explain that I take annual leave like anyone else and say where I’m planning on going on holiday.

To get to the point. I think there is quite a lot of snobbery in this response that we need to be aware of, and I will get this blog post back to TY, I promise. Even in these days of mass participation in higher education, the majority of people in the UK have absolutely no experience of higher education except for the fact it’s a big building in their city or town. Not many people will actually no any academics, and even if you have had experience of HE as an undergraduate or even postgraduate taught student, the chances are you will have no idea what academics actually do.

So, when you have no idea about something, what do you do – you reach for something you do know about: your education to-date. Which has been at schools. And school teachers do have most of the school holidays as their holidays. It’s not that big a leap of logic to presume that your teachers when you are an adult live fairly similar lives to your teachers when you were a kid. In fact to presume otherwise would be the greater leap of logic.

I told you I’d get this back to TY.

And, I think this is what we’re quite bad at remembering when things like the TY appointment happen. Yes, it is bad, but it’s particularly bad for us as academics. For most people in the UK, it is completely inconsequential. Higher Education is inconsequential for most people in the UK. This is why Michael Gove can get away with dismissing the “experts”. This is partly one of the reasons, I would suggest, that we seem to be losing the battle for our relevance against some pretty ferocious attacks. My concern has always been that focusing on specific issues like tuition fees, or the appointment of TY, we miss the bigger picture of “reducing barriers to entry to new actors in the market”, and reducing the barriers to exit, that are a key part of these reforms.

So, if you’re an academic reading this, next time someone asks you if you’re off for the summer, can I suggest that you smile and politely explain that you’ll be off on leave and recall that the person asking does not know. Can we ensure that what we do is comprehensible to a wider audience so that we don’t have to rely on liberal, middle-class Guardian-readers as our allies? For me, this is what the radical proposition of coproducing our universities should be about. Being universities in new contexts with diverse communities.

Friday, 15 December 2017

Book Review - The Cement of Civil Society

A Twitter conversation has just made me realise I never published this book review on here. The proper version is available from the journal here. In sum - the book was so dull, I literally fell asleep on a train reading it. What the author managed to completely miss was that his analysis helped explain the decline of Labour in Glasgow and the rise of the SNP. 

The Cement of Civil Society: Studying Networks in Localities
Mario Diani
Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 2015, 244+xxii pp, £64.99 (hbk)
ISBN: 9781107100008

Professor Marco Diani is a world-leading scholar on social movements. His book The Cement of Civil Society begins with the widely held proposition that the UK saw an unprecedented rise in protest activity in the 1990s, with growth in visible protest activity on the environment, animal rights, poverty, ethnicity and human rights, and peace. This also included the spread of protest to ‘unusual suspects’ (p.26). This change was paralleled by the growth of opportunities for civic groups to be involved in policy-making within the local state, especially from 1997 onwards.

By focusing on what is termed the voluntary and community sector within two UK cities – Glasgow and Bristol – Diani argues that his study offers particularly novel contributions to the study of local government and urban governance. However, the text very much emerges from a literature on social movements from political science and political sociology, a literature this reviewer is not familiar with. The key innovation is methodological, driven by theory. In his analysis Diani focuses on relational data – that is network data – about the voluntary and community sector, not aggregative data, arguing that: ‘this conceptual and methodological shift leads us to reframe some basic questions about the features of political activism, participation, and civil society in contemporary Western liberal democracies.’ (p.1)

The book begins by setting out a three-fold typology of the voluntary and community sector based on how strong their boundary work is, and the level of resource exchange they engage in: organizational, social movement and coalitional type organisations. The two-by-two grid that leads to this analysis also includes ‘Subcultural/Communitarian’ groups, but these are not a focus of the rest of the book. The second chapter sets out the methodology and mixed methods approaches and the case study choice, arguing that Glasgow had been traditionally dominated by one left-wing party (Labour at this time) and a history of class-based protest whereas Bristol has been more politically plural, with a civil society dominated by middle-class groups associated with new social movements, such as the environment. It should be noted that within each city, Diani only looks at voluntary and community sector organisations in one particular neighbourhood. Thus, Diani suggests, we should see substantive difference between the civil societies if we were to use an aggregative approach to highlight the novel insights of his relational approach.

Chapters three to eight set out the findings of his fieldwork, carried out between 2001-2, in a series of tables and short quotes from the qualitative fieldwork. Chapter three begins the relational analysis by looking at who organisations in both cities form alliances with and why, suggesting that they work with groups that are organisationally similar but who have a higher profile in civic society. Chapter four then conducts a network analysis of civil society in both areas, looking at resource exchange between organisations and social ties. This neatly suggested there were three different networks in both cities, with different levels of resource exchange and embeddedness. Chapter five succinctly relates the findings of chapter four to how organisations viewed themselves, finding congruence and shared protest repertoires among the networks. Chapter six then brings in evidence of engagement in local events to show a continuity across types of networks, protest repertoires and the sorts of events groups were involved with, and the events that link organisations. Chapter seven looks at the centrality of certain organisations in both cities’ networks, with a surprising finding that umbrella councils for the voluntary sector in both cases were not very central, but also attracted different groups in the different cities: coalitional groups in Glasgow and social movement groups in Bristol.

Chapter 8, on the links to local urban governance is probably of greatest interest to readers of this journal. However it falls short on methodological grounds outlined below. The data presented shows that most organisations had contact with the local authority in some way – which should not come as a surprise. The extent to which organisations engaged with public-private partnerships was very high, but this could be down to how they were defined in survey questions, rather than involvement in formal, contractual partnerships. The qualitative data echoes the findings of the broader work on partnerships from this era, with Diana concluding that ‘[e]ach group’s specific experience with council departments and/or partnerships seemed very much mediated by intervening factors such as quality of the civil servants concerned, or the nature of the issues addressed.’ (p.181) A good, and amusing, example of this was the close ties between peace protest groups and the police in Glasgow; the former had to rely on the latter to organise their disruptive protests including providing the police with a handy guide of how many people they expected to be arrested!

The theoretical and methodological innovations of this book will be invaluable to scholars of social movements and civil society in an urban context. As stated above, as a reviewer I am not one of these scholars, therefore the book has a number of weaknesses for a more general reader. Firstly, the data is now extremely dated. Writing from the perspective of Scotland, immense changes have occurred in the 13 years since these data were collected. The Scottish Socialist Party, who are so central to Diani’s analysis and went on to win six seats in the Scottish Parliament in the 2003 elections, are now a spent force in Scottish politics. Most obviously, the class-based politics focused on Labour has been replaced by an (arguably) class-based politics focused on the Scottish National Party, who have come to dominate politics in the west of Scotland. Thus, as studies of the two cities, Diani’s book is mainly a historical account, albeit fascinating at times because of this.

However, the analysis and theorisation offered by Diani does go some way to explain why such dramatic changes in political fortunes could occur so rapidly. The relational approach shows why these voluntary and community sector organisations are the cement of civil society because of the networks they are in. If a political party can successfully replace key nodes in these networks through working with these organisations – as the SNP and latterly the Yes referendum campaign in Scotland did – then a broader change in political outcomes is likely.

A second issue this reviewer has with the book is subjective and epistemological. Diani’s work is set within a tradition of quantitative political science and political sociology with its roots in the “normal” paradigms of North America. Here, it seems, that if a study does not include a regression model then it is not adequate as social science. I’m not fully qualified to comment on the adequacies of the statistical techniques Diani uses, yet for me when these are supported by the rich accounts of his participants the mixed methods really come alive. This is even admitted by Diani when he occasionally introduces a quote as making a point much clearer than the table of data that preceded it. While this reflects an unresolvable issue of epistemological difference, it is a shame that some more of the richness of the qualitative data does not come through in the analysis.

Finally, Diani argues that his relational approach offers new insights into local government and governance. There is no doubt that it does. However, as the discussion in the final chapter shows, suggests this is a product of research design and limitations, rather than intention. The social movement analysis the books sits in, judging by the bibliography, focuses on aggregative analyses of social movements at a national or even international level. As Diani admits in chapter two, the data for a relational analysis at a city-level would be too complex, let alone a national-level. The use of his analysis in specific neighbourhoods was thus a choice of convenience.

As such the analysis technique would be useful for people to replicate to understand the rich linkages between organisations in specific urban neighbourhoods. It would offer a richness of quantitative data to add empirical weight to what we already know about urban governance, and changes over the past 20 years. This type of work would also add to our knowledge the relationship between governance and social capital (c.f. Putnam). The insights of the book do not necessarily transform what we already know about the governance of urban contexts; rather it provides new empirical insights.

This is clear in the final chapter, which as stated draws lessons from the book for two more contemporary changes – the growth of online social networking and the wave of revolution that sped through the Middle-East. That these were national events, and international changes, testifies to the fact that this book speaks firmly to an international literature on national or global social movements. The book is therefore best suited to scholars interested in local government who wish to use its methodology to better understand the relations of governance.