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. 

Is it a bit shit to be gay in the USA?

This is a blog post I should’ve written last week and posted on Monday. Oh well. I’m now wrapping up my small research project on LGBT+ housing and homelessness. I should’ve written this post last week as we launched the two reports on Monday – one for housing providers and one for homelessness service providers.

Our recommendations in both are pretty straight-forward, and should not come as a surprise to readers of my blog post – service providers should routinely ask service users their sexual and gender identity and get over their own cringe. In doing so, we would start to get decent data, but also begin a conversation with service users that is: “we are interested if you are LGBT+ because we realise it might matter to you”. One of the recommendations focusing on homelessness services might seem a bit odd though: we explicitly state that we don’t think LGBT+ specific provision, such as hostels or other supported accommodation, is required in the context of the lives of people who participated in our research in Central Scotland.

A lot of the lobbying for LGBT+ specific provision comes from two concerns. One is that LGBT+ homelessness is an enormous problem; we just have not found evidence for this. In fact, we recreated the methodology of The Albert Kennedy Trust, and surveyed homelessness services in Scotland. We got a very low response rate, and some really ropey data. If I were to make an estimate based on that, I’d say around five per cent of homeless people identify as LGBT+, compared to three per cent of whole population identifying as LGBT+.

Second is a presumption that the cause of homelessness in the case of LGBT+ is family rejection – that is, people come out as LGBT+ and then their families ask them to leave. We really did not find evidence of simple causation like this in our data. For example, two of our gender-queer participants had periods of homelessness because their families were not accepting of their gender identities, but their families were also emotionally abusive and this was just the latest example of this, so they had to leave the family home. In such complex cases, we cannot say for sure, but we could surmise that they would have ended up homeless because of leaving their abusive family whatever their gender identity. Similarly, another bisexual participant became homeless after their relationship with an abusive partner broke down and they started relationships with people of a different sex. Again, the causes of the homelessness are very complex here – we cannot say that the person was homeless because they were bisexual.

Because of these two reasons, we don’t think LGBT+ specific provision is suitable in a Scottish context. What is needed is better training among service providers to make the excellent current service provision more inclusive. 

Now, to get to the subject of this blog post – I also think that the drive for LGBT+ services comes from the USA (and to a lesser extent Canada) and, from what I’ve read among LGB studies, it looks like being LGBT+ in America is really bad. It really struck me when I was reading this paper that compares UK data to a wider literature review. That paper analyses data from the UK longitudinal panel study Understanding Society. It demonstrates that in some categories there is a small negative impact on your life from being LGBT+ in the UK. But the comparison data Uhrig pulls together from the US in particular, is far worse. To give one example that really shocked me: data from the US in 2013 showed that women with same-sex sexual attraction did far worse in terms of educational outcomes. In the UK, lesbians were three-times more likely to be educated than their heterosexual counterparts.

What’s going on then? Why do things seem to be worse in the US? I suspect there’s a lot of methodological things going on here. Firstly, data on sexual and gender identity is pretty poor everywhere, but it seems to be quite staggeringly bad in the US. The main source of data used by many researchers is the US Census, which has allowed same-sex couples to “out” themselves on their forms for a while and say they are a household. There’s three main problems with this: it misses single people, and we know LGBT+ people are more likely to be single; it doesn’t really allow for bisexual people to be recorded anywhere, and certainly ignores transgender people (but then, so do most surveys); and finally, it’s a self-selecting sample, from what I can gather, you don’t have to fill it in if you don’t want to. Whenever you create “prefer not to answer” categories in questions like this, you end up with that being your second biggest category after straight.

It seems there are very few population-level surveys which include LGB, or transgender, questions in the US. This means a lot of the US research that I’ve come across, for example focusing on homelessness, comes from a problem perspective and samples populations with problems, which as people like Prof Mark McCormack point out, leads you to find particularly troubling findings. To give one example, in my hunt for the source of that bloody 25 per cent stat (that a quarter of young homeless people identify as LGBT+), I discovered the root of one of the more bizarre versions – that a whopping 40 per cent of young homeless people identify as LGBT+ – comes from this report. You just have to read the subtitle to work out how they got that stat: funnily enough a lot of people who identify as LGBT+ use LGBT+ services. To be fair on the authors of that report, it seems that the stat has got mangled in translation.

The other methodological issue is the complex intersection of sexual identity and socio-economic status. I’ve only seen glimmers of this in what I’ve read, but I suspect middle class people in the UK feel more comfortable in their sexuality, which might explain why things don’t look too bad in our data.

However, I do wonder if there is something qualitatively different about the experience of LGBT+ in the USA, that it is a more socially conservative society. It certainly seems that social attitudes are marginally more conservative, with a small majority of people in the USA in 2014 still believing same-sex relationships were not “not wrong at all”. This compares to the UK, where in the most recent British Social Attitudes Survey, the vast majority of people think same-sex relationships are “not wrong at all”. More recent data from the US suggests that they are equally supportive of same-sex marriage as people in the UK are of same-sex relationships, however I would caution the conclusion that the US has become very socially liberal, not just because of the current POTUS, but because I think there’s some qualitatively different in the socially-sanctioned institution of marriage, and same-sex relationships more broadly.

As an aside, as I’ve commented before, I think these questions no longer collect accurate data due to social desirability bias, and we need to start asking some more, possibly more explicit questions, to get to the heart of peoples attitudes.

Finally, I think another issue is the lack of a decent welfare state in the US. For example, in terms of homelessness, one UK scholar commented that “[t]he sheer cruelty and vindictiveness of the US system, indeed, is sometimes difficult for Europeans to fathom”. To give one example, if you were a single, young, gay man in Scotland and your family kicked you because of your sexual identity, you would be unintentionally homeless, and your housing authority would have a duty to provide you with housing. I’m sure it’s not as simple as this, and housing authorities would try and wriggle out of it – one shocking example I read was of a housing authority in southern England who said a young man had made himself intentionally homeless because he chose to come out. But despite these cases, and despite the increases in homelessness and rough-sleeping in the UK over the past seven years, homelessness support is much better in the UK than it is in the US. And this cuts across a wider range of social and public services. If your welfare state is stronger, then if you come across a bump in your life, say due to exclusion related to your sexual or gender identity, then it is going to be easier to get your life back up-and-running again. So, I wonder if this is why outcomes do not seem to be as bad for LGBT+ people in the UK compared to the US, and it’s also why we don’t think LGBT+ specific provision is suitable in the UK. We have good mainstream services, we just have to make sure they are inclusive and supportive. 

Tuesday, 28 November 2017

Official stats, and how to publish them - a post with Taylor Swift

I’ve previously discussed on here how I found the portrayal of one particular set of government statistics – the Scottish Index of Multiple Deprivation – problematic. To summarise that argument – reporting, based on government press releases, called certain neighbourhoods “the poorest”, even though IMD does not measure poverty, is a relative measure, and most problematically, this added to the stigma of the neighbourhoods. I covered some of the impact of this in one of the papers I’m most proud of. So when I was contacted by the statisticians working on SIMD16 to come and have a chat with them about how they could present it in a better way, I leapt at the opportunity. When their report came out I was extremely impressed. You can download it here – it’s quite a big PDF. The things I particularly like were: 

  • The very clear statement of what SIMD measures and how it works, and can be used, on page two 
  • The case studies that demonstrate that living in a neighbourhood ranked as deprived by SIMD isn’t awful, and that it can help target resources for great things to happen 
  • The very clear “do not use SIMD for” list on page six 
  • The fact that nowhere does it say which is the “most” or “least” deprived neighbourhood. 

The team that did SIMD were nominated for a UK Civil Service Award, which they won!
I was incredibly pleased on their behalf, because they really deserve it.


And, they’ve only gone and done it again – not won an award, but produced a report that is staggeringly good.


It’s a report on a set of experimental statistics that have used new questions on material deprivation asked in the Scottish Household Survey to create a local poverty measure. Have a look at it here. It is soooooo good. 

Again, they’ve combined qualitative data with the presentation of the statistics to make the reality of lived experience come to life, but in a non-stigmatising way, for example on page six “Mary” describes how: 

“My kettle blew up, so I went and got a kettle off my catalogue. Cause I wouldn’t have been able to afford to just go and buy a kettle. And I didn’t want to say to anybody, ‘I can’t afford a kettle.’ Ken, people are coming in for a cup of tea and that, and ‘oh my kettle’s blew up, and I can’t afford another one’” 

An absolutely brilliant way to describe what material poverty means. 

And it gets better. There are bar charts throughout which show a percentage with confidence intervals. Rather than getting bogged down with complex descriptions of confidence intervals and statistical significance, the charts are simply labelled “The bars show measurement uncertainty. Where two bars overlap, there may not be a real difference between the two groups”. I mean!!!!!!


AND AND AND it gets even better. Not only do they have CI’s clearly labelled, they then go onto interpret them for you. Each chart has a very clear description of “What the data says” and “What the data doesn’t say” to ensure that people don’t misunderstand the charts.


And the data is really interesting. I just wish all official statistics documents were published this well, with this much thought put into their presentation.


With thanks to the Taylor Swift Open Data Institute.

Friday, 13 October 2017

Becoming a queer scholar

A lot of my recent posts have been about my research on the experiences of LGBT+ people in homelessness services and housing. This post is about what a revelatory journey this has been for me personally. It’s also a sort of late coming-out day post.

Some of you may have noticed that my last post – about getting married – ended up being picked up by The Times and we became national news while in Hiroshima on our honeymoon. The only way I could be more out than that would probably involve riding a unicorn across the pitch during the FA cup final wearing nothing but a gold lamé thong and a rainbow feather boa.

I came out to my close friends at school when I was 15 and was out when I went to university as an undergraduate. That was when I came out to my parents, when I was 19. So I’ve not been closeted, but like many LGBT+ people I always felt awkward; ashamed even. Earlier in the year I listened to Archive on 4 by Peter Tatchell about the decriminalisation of male homosexuality. This included clips from the House of Commons debate about lowering the age of consent between men. I was 12 when that happened in 1994, so just beginning to realise my difference. The hatred and bile that was spoken snapped me right back to the bullying and overwhelming, explicit homophobia of my teenage years. So it’s very little wonder that I was not necessarily comfortable in my sexuality.

So I was definitely not a Queer academic – my identity as a gay man was not part of my research. In fact, when I did my MSc in urban and regional planning in 2005/6, Richard Florida’s work on the creative class was just coming to the fore and my now-husband suggested I might want to do my dissertation on gay places. This was also a time when Newcastle Council had actively planned for the “Pink Triangle” to boost economic development. I rejected this idea.

Why? Well predominantly because I was being quite a bit “post-gay”, in that Nate Silver “ethnically straight”. There was a gay male lifestyle projected to me, through a particular commercial gay male culture, that I did not (and still do not) feel a great affinity too. I was never going to be Stuart in Queer as Folk. I also thought the world was “post-gay” (how naïve I was) and that most discrimination against LGBT people was declining – the fight had been won.

Because of this, my research to date, has been predominantly heterosexual, and thus (I now know) heterosexist. By doing fairly “mainstream” research, I was happily advancing my career. My identity did bump into my work occasionally, such as when I had to come out to my students to point out their own homophobia, but other than that, it did not matter that much. My journey to ending up getting messy with queer theory started with a surprise finding about non-straight people from a project I was doing. Even dealing with that, working out what it meant, and deciding to publicise, left me feeling a little uncomfortable.

The other day I was reading Michael Warner’s introduction to Fear of a Queer Planet (1993) where he writes: "Queers do a kind of practical social reflection just in finding ways of being queer. (Alternatively many people invest the better parts of their lives to avoid such a self-understanding and the social reflection it would imply.)" The bit in parentheses really resonated with me – this was what I was doing.

In doing my current research project on LGBT+ housing and homelessness I’ve had to confront queerness. On the one hand, I knew I had to engage with lesbian and gay studies, and queer theory, to understand how other people have understood queer lives. Also, I have had to read transcripts from people who have experienced horrible things, including homophobic and transphobic abuse. That was a wake-up call to the amount of work we still have to do to progress equality, and also drove me on to make sure my research helped make the lives of LGBT+ people better.

And that introduction to queer theory has been immensely eye-opening, particularly the concept of heteronormativity – as I suggested when I over-analysed my own nuptials. As ever, with critical theory, as an applied researcher it does leave me in the position of: it’s great to deconstruct society, but how do we reconstruct it again? One of the main recommendations from my research – the routine collection of sexual and gender identity data – is problematic on this score. It is suggesting the imposition of essentialist criteria, created by a homophobic world, onto a queer world. However, here I side with Kath Browne that it’s better to know so we can do something (especially about things such as hate crimes) than to not know at all.

So now, I would say I am a queer scholar. The question which emerges is how much will this impact on my research going forward? Will I queer my wider research programme on broader aspects of inequality? Will I do more research with the LGBT+ community? Will I do simple things like being more out when I present my research or making sure I use pronoun introductions? I need answers to these questions because it’s something I accuse policy studies of not doing enough of in my most recent paper!

To conclude, I am now definitely out of the closet. And I'm happy to be accused of homonormativity. 

Thursday, 14 September 2017

I’m getting gay marriaged

If you’re wondering about the title, it’s what me and my husband-to-be call equal marriage. Yes, I am to be wed this coming Saturday to my partner of 11 years. It’s all getting a bit hectic and exciting in the run-up to the Big Day. Rather fortuitously, this momentous occasion in my life has coincided with me reading a lot of queer theory for my current research on LGBTQ housing and homelessness. This literature been a bit of a revelation – I’ve dived into it like a contestant on Drag Race would dive into a dressing-up box. Part of why I’m coming to this late in my academic career is related to the broader theme of this post – in my academic career to-date I’ve ignored my own queerness focusing on mainstream policy studies which has helped advance my career. This will be the topic of another post later.

The crashing together of getting gay marriaged and queer theory has been interesting and I thought I’d share a couple of insights.



My first awareness of this was when I first announced my engagement at work the Monday after my partner proposed. I was chairing a meeting and as an ice-breaker I asked people to share an interesting bit of non-work news when they were introducing myself. I came last and my news was my engagement (I was actually trying to think of something else to share; make of that what you will). The women in the room whooped with joy and immediately followed it up with questions about the details of the proposal and when the wedding was going to be. This took up a good five minutes; the men in the meeting looked bored and had clearly mentally moved onto item five on the agenda.

And this has basically continued ever since. We had a wait a long time before actual wedding planning got going as we’re members of the congregation of the Church of St John the Evangelist on Princes Street, part of the Scottish Episcopal Church. We were waiting for the Synod of the church to change the Canon Law to allow same-sex marriage, which they did (I heard the news via Twitter on the train home from work, and cried quite a lot). As planning got going this gendered divide about wedding discussions continued – I couldn’t briefly mention it to women without getting the Spanish Inquisition treatment, whereas men, on the whole, could not give a fuck. I started mentioning this and it was interesting how heterosexuals found this irritating too. One women explained how her husband organised her wedding and she actually got very angry at the number of people who questioned this. Another male friend explained how they equally shared tasks, and similarly was angry that people were aghast. In culture, this divide that weddings are women’s work is recreated in things like Don’t Tell the Bride.

I suppose this came as such a shock to me as the discourse around marriage has changed so much. It’s all about “partnership” and the inroads of feminism have made it less of an imposition of patriarchal power in our society. The weddings I’ve attended (oh, so many weddings…) really, I thought, reflected the input of both people in the couple; I rarely considered that it was mainly a woman’s work. What my experiences have led me to consider is that this profound gendering really demonstrates how far the institution of heterosexual marriage has to go until it becomes something more equal. This behaviour, for me, demonstrates how still marriage is something women must aspire to – hence the focus on the “big day” – and it’s something that men must be subject to – hence their lack of interest.

This also demonstrates how marriage is one of the everyday ways in which patriarchal heterosexuality is remade as the norm in our society. As a young gay man I thought I would never, ever get married, let alone married in a church (I should add, I’m still an atheist). A common criticism of equal marriage from queer activists is it is just another tool of assimilation; it is part of the way LGB people are become normalised in a neoliberal society that will accept us as normal consumers, but doesn’t really want to accept our queerness.

Going on this journey to marriage, I have ended up challenging this, particularly with the insights from Celia Kitzinger’s fantastic paper Speaking as a heterosexual. In this paper Kitzinger describes the everyday ways in talk that heterosexuality is made, and key among these is through marriage and the associated pronouns – husband, wife, and the general presumption of an opposite-gender partner. Indeed, until equal marriage, just ticking the box on a form to say “married” implied heterosexuality. To be non-heterosexual had to involve awkwardly correcting people – pointing out incorrect pronouns after you spoke about your partner was a fairly regular occurrence in my life.

Same-sex marriage upsets this entirely, and therefore, although I fully recognise where critics of homonormativity are coming from, I think they underestimate the possible radical change that will come about from widening the scope of such an incredibly heterosexual institution to us queers. For a start, it gives us a new vocabulary to play with – husband and wife. It also, profoundly, means that a wedded couple cannot be assumed to be opposite-sex. If you notice someone’s wedding ring on their finger, your thought now must be “what gender is their spouse?”. My research on housing has really opened my eyes as to how much the heterosexual family unit is subtly normalised in all manner of simple interactions. This will be eroded. Ironically, the campaigners against equal marriage are right – it might destroy, or weaken marriage; but a particular form of heterosexual marriage.

I think I note this radical possibility more intensely than other LGB people might because of the religious aspect to our marriage. I’ve had a lot of time to think about this. Also my husband-to-be was heavily involved in the SEC’s “Cascade Conversation” about equal marriage and also gave an impassioned speech about same-sex marriage at the Synod back in June (people said afterwards what a big impact it seemed to have on the audience). So it’s something that’s been considered quite a lot indeed. The opening liturgy of our ceremony on Saturday emphasises how the love in our marriage reflects and reinforces the love of God and the love of Jesus when he died for us on the cross. By getting married in church, this is stating that this love is as bountiful for everyone equally; as the priest presiding at the Cathedral in Vancouver on Pride Day said: God loves us in all the ways he made us fantastically different. This liturgy could not be more radically different from the old “honour and obey” liturgy of days of yore that was saying God made man to dominate woman.

So I’m hopeful of equal marriage. I hope it will change society and make heterosexuality be questioned a bit more as the norm, and allow people to be more easily proud of their queerness in an everyday way. I’m also hopeful for our own marriage – from what I know we’ve got good odds. The same-sex divorce rate is the same as it is for opposite-sex couples (c. 45%, yes, we’re as bad at this as you straights are) but we’ve made it past the average length of the failed marriage – 10 years – already.

And trust me, as an academic, to over-intellectualise my own sodding wedding day. 

Friday, 18 August 2017

Unsolicited cock pics and some wanted attention

I’m currently doing a research project on LGBT+ experiences of homelessness and living in the most deprived neighbourhoods in Scotland – more details here. It has been funded by the British Academy and is quite small. I was aiming for 30 participants in total. I have found it really difficult to find participants, particularly young homeless people.

I did expect this to be the case – I’m working with a subset of a small(ish) population. Estimates are that a quarter of young people between 16-25 are homeless at some point, by the broadest definition (i.e. falling out with their parents and crashing on a mate’s couch). The Albert Kennedy Trust suggest a quarter of this quarter identified as LGBT+ (although there's quite a few problems with that). People often don’t realise they’ve been homeless, and might not be out, so might not define themselves within the target population. I figured using homelessness organisations would be a good gatekeeper organisations.

I contacted quite a few homelessness organisations and still struggled. So, I thought, where do gay people hang out and I might be able to recruit them? Grindr!

For those of you who don’t know, Grindr was one of the first dating apps. I believe it was actually invented by a straight guy who was impressed with how easily his gay brother managed to hook-up in the places he visited. You set yourself up a profile – picture optional, but it can’t be rude – and fill in other details (including your “tribe” [otter, twink, bear etc. I’ll leave you to Google, but don’t blame me]; your preferred sexual practices [it seems versatile bottom is where it’s at, again Google if you don’t know], as well as age and height and other usual stuff. It’s location based, so when you open the app you get the photos of people in a grid with distance increasing as you go down. There is also a “Fresh Faces” bar at the top which lists recent joiners. You don’t swipe people away like Tinder, so it’s more like a chatting app.

I hadn’t intended to use it for participant recruitment. In fact I’ve been in a long-term relationship for 11 years, long before Grindr had been invented, so I had never actually used it. I had used the precursor website Gaydar (I can almost hear the wistful sigh from gay men of a certain age when you mention that) so I sort of knew what it was like. Anyway, I had to apply for a change to my ethics permission (form here for info) from my University’s General University Ethics Panel to use it. Before I got to this stage, Mark Holton at Plymouth University mentioned I should also check the Grindr terms and conditions. These are quite explicit on not using it for marketing, or to recruit people actively, but I wasn’t going to be doing this – I couldn’t tell if anyone was suitable for my research from their profile, so this was more lurking and seeing who approached me.

When I submitted my ethics application it was the week after Stephen Port had been convicted for murdering four young men he had lured to his flat using Grindr. This meant the main focus of the application was actually the risk assessment, particularly since it was a straight male colleague who would be doing the interviews – making sure that people recruited this way were met in public places and that I’d talked to them briefly over the phone to check everything was ok. This was on top of the usual assurances, such as making sure the researcher checked in-and-out-of interviews by text message. I also had to ensure the participants were consenting properly with full information. I was also aware there was a reputational risk to the University – I could chat people up on the app as a representative of my University. Therefore I also set out that after people messaged me on the app, I would move the discussion to email as soon as possible and provide them with full participant information then. The usual participation and consent procedures then kicked-in.

So I set up my profile, example below:

I changed it from that to asking if people lived in particular neighbourhoods in Edinburgh and Glasgow depending on what I was up to and where I was. 
And, the burning question – how successful was it? Well, quite successful actually. I got 49 contacts by the time I wrote this blog post. Not all of them were interested in my research. More of that later. It took me a week to work out Grindr etiquette. I was expecting people to message me and say “I’d like to participate in your research.” However, you only ever start a Grindr conversation with “Hi”. My initial reply to these was an immediate “I’m only on here to recruit research participants”. After a couple of times it became apparent this was extremely rude, so it became a “Hi, are you interested in participating in my research?”

Quite a few of the contacts did fit the criteria, particularly people who had experienced homelessness, which was exactly the population I was looking for. The main problem was turning these into actual interviews. I found this paper about a sexual health project that had used Grindr to find people for a project about men-who-have-sex-with-men. They noted that they got a higher participation rate if they phoned people, not emailed them. I offered to phone or email in my message to people who said they would participate. They all wanted to be emailed. I would email. And then hear nothing. I have no idea why.

And yes, I did get people who just looked at my photo (I used a professional work photo where I do look quite cute) and messaged me for the very purposes Grindr was invented for. And so far, yes, this has also involved some extremely explicit messages. As a gay man, I was sort of expecting this to happen, but if you were to recreate this method of participant recruitment and went into this naïve and oblivious it would’ve come as a bit of a shock. A handful of other messages I got would’ve raised eyebrows out of the context, but with all of these I just ignored the messages, or if someone was a tad too persistent, I politely ended the conversation explaining I was only on the app to recruit research participants. 

So, is it worth the effort to find research participants? LGBT+ people are roughly three per cent of the population, so they are pretty hard to reach. I have exhausted every single recruitment technique, apart from flyering gay bars on a Friday night, with this project and have still really struggled. Unbelievably even snowball sampling only got me two other participants (and one of them was someone’s partner and another someone’s sibling). Riffing on Michael Rosen’s book Bear Hunt I’ve been joking that “I’m going on a gay hunt, got to catch a big one”* and it really has felt like that. I think, like the public health researchers, if you were looking for people who were dating, or after no-strings-fun with a 9 inch top, for your research population, then it is definitely the place to find them. Otherwise, I think my research was a little too leftfield for your average Grindr user. They’re on it for a quick shag, or to meet the love of their life, not to discuss their housing circumstances. 

I also swiftly realised there is ethnography to be done on how people present themselves on Grindr, and the rituals of introducing oneself on the app. A quick Google Scholar search identifies that this has been done. This raises the issue of how “public” social media is (as did this blog post). An ethics panel would probably not give you permission to recreate Laud Humphries’ famous Tearoom Trade participant observation of cottaging. Yet, we could probably do an ethnography of interactions in a gay bar with no issues, comparing, say, how gay men approach each other with how straight men approach women. People do not put themselves on Grindr to appear in a research project, and if I provided any more detail about some of the profiles I’d seen, people could feasibly identify them. A defence of being overly cautious on these issues is we live in a heterosexist society. As I am finding out in this project, we know next-to-bugger-all (pun intended) about the lives of LGBT+ people in very ordinary ways. As a social scientist, I believe the only way to do this is to do research, and this involves identifying people as LGBT+ and then asking them about stuff. 

Anyway, this is all I have to say on the topic so far. This will be written up as a proper methods paper, don’t fear! Oh, and as I tweeted a while back – an idea for a novel: the protagonist is one of the random people that appear in someone else’s online dating profile, and a North-By-Northwest style mistaken identity adventure then starts.

*knowledgeable readers will get the many-levels on which that joke works.