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. 

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.