Thursday, 30 October 2014

Futures of social policy

So, teaching at Stirling has so far been very different from at Heriot-Watt. So far most of my teaching has been on an enormous second year module called "Understanding Social Policy" - I'm module coordinator on what is essentially social policy 101. It's good fun, but as it has 367 enrolled students I have to use the tried-and-tested lecture and tutorial method rather than my preferred class activity-based method.

However, it's giving me some great public speaking experience. I've recently discovered that the lecture theatre has radio lapel mics and roving mics, so I've been doing a bit of interaction which has mainly involved me running around the lecture theatre a lot. 

I've also been playing around with the number of slides in lectures following a twitter conversation with some colleagues. For a lecture (well, political rant really) on poverty, I reduced the slides right down to a few graphs the students needed to see, but provided them with a full set of slides on the VLE which were essentially my speech notes. At the end of the semester I'm doing a future, blue-skies, "Future of Social Policy" lecture. For this I'm going PowerPoint less. However, this has meant I've had to produce something for me to speak to, so I don't just ramble on too much for an hour, and also for students who have accessibility challenges. So, I thought I might as well make my essay on Futures of Social Policy available for the rest of you. Enjoy. All errors and omissions my own.

Friday, 24 October 2014

Gender and HE

I had to make a very difficult decision recently. In the summer I’d agreed to speak at an event organised by a professional body. I said yes and confirmed things as the date was approaching. With a month to go I had a little niggle at the back of my mind. A movement has started among feminist men where they refuse to take part in panels at conferences and similar events where all the panellists are men. The first I read of this idea, I recall, was from feminist women suggesting men should do it. My niggle was that this event was an all-male panel. I checked the agenda and I was right so I decided, with a month to go, to leave the organisers in the lurch and pull-out suggesting they get a woman to speak instead. In doing so I made it very clear that I was happy to help them find a woman speaker (I know of many more knowledgeable women in Scotland who could speak on the topic) and if they were completely left in the lurch I would speak, but would mention the gender balance issue in my talk. It was a very difficult decision to make and I asked around quite widely, posting my suggested letter on Facebook. There in particular I was overwhelmed with the positive support from female friends from all walks of life who agreed that I was doing the right thing for the right reasons.

A couple of them rightly pointed out that maybe they had asked women and the women couldn’t make it. It turns out, when I got the reply, that this was the case. This made me feel a bit bad, but I’ve stuck to me guns because, firstly I had agreed to help them find a suitably qualified woman and secondly because, as a feminist scientist pointed out in something I read once, that, yes, it might be more difficult to get a woman to speak because they might have care responsibilities (you may have to pay for their care for the day), or be less confident because of societal gender norms, but that means you should just try harder, not give up and choose men.

Someone on Facebook suggested that it should be “a person replaces another person”. I really wish this was the case and that I didn’t care this much. I wouldn’t care as much if, when you took a survey of all panels in world and found out that on average, allowing for people being ill or dates clashing, that there was equal gender representation. But we know this is not the case for a vast number of reasons: women cannot find the time to present because of competing responsibilities often care and family; women feel more nervous in social roles such as public speaking because of pre-existing gender norms; just the other day I read a study that showed women academics are more likely to select shorter speaking engagements and spoke for a shorter amount of time at conferences; and finally because of unquestioned bias among conference organisers. And this would just be equal representation across the piece; the really big challenge is to ensure a panel of nurses is not all women and a panel of engineers is not all men. Which I shall return to…

This has given me an awful lot to think about and crystallised a lot of thoughts I’ve been having recently about patriarchy, inequality, and employment in higher education.

Internalising patriarchy

The first thing that struck me was my emotional reaction to the whole situation. I found it extremely difficult to send the original email – I felt very guilty and did think “am I just causing a fuss about nothing”. I also cried with the positive response from my female friends. This really was a smack-in-your-face striking example for me of the way I have internalised patriarchal oppression. What I was doing was one small, practical act to challenge something that was clearly unfair. Having breasts and a vagina does not stop you speaking about the topic I was invited to talk about. There was absolutely no reason why the panel could not have had better gender balance. And yet I felt guilt, as though I was doing something horribly wrong, about pointing this out and imposing a minor imposition on the event organisers.

This also raised in me a bit of a thought that what is the point of my small protest? Chances are the space will actually be taken by a man. But maybe the organisers will ensure in future that panels are more gender balanced. Or consider saying at the start of a conference with an all-male panel that they apologise for the gender imbalance and they will be working to rectify it in future. Hopefully more small acts like mine will do a bit to start challenging structural inequalities in society?

I am superman

The second thing I dwelt on was male grand-standing. This came up in a twitter conversation recently which got nowhere because, well, twitter. Basically, the point being made was that just like when men do gender work like housework they expect massive praise for it, when men make feminist statements or stands they also expect enormous praise for it. I am completely guilty of this in this case. But to write my way through this as an argument I want to explain my feminist journey. My mum gave up work for about six years when my older brother and I were born which really held back her career. I remember at about the age of four I made a sexist comment along the lines of “women can’t do x” and she pulled me up on it and explained mummies can do these things. It obviously stuck with me. As a teenager, modelling myself on Adrian Mole, I read my way through the Female Eunuch after watching Germaine Greer on Late Night Review on BBC 2 and then dragged my mum and a friend along to hear her do a public lecture at Bradford University. I then read the Whole Woman. My feminism then lay fallow until the end of my doctoral studies and has been reawakened by the emergence of third wave feminism over the last decade. My stance now, informed by radical feminism, is that patriarchy is a system that creates false binary gender divisions in society and this impacts on everyone and has an enormous negative impact on women. Ultimately, in my feminism I want a society where the only time sex matters is when we’re talking about things to do with breasts, vaginas and penises.  The fact I feel I have to act “manly” in some situations, and the vast numerous petty oppressions of women I see all the bloody time just because they are women, means we are no way near attaining this.

So, I’m a “victim” of patriarchy because it shapes what I think my manliness should be like. I’m also a “victim” of patriarchy (boohoo, poor me) because I can’t help but grandstand when I do good things. Society tells me, as a man, that when I do a good thing I should brag about it and bragging about it will make me feel better and reinforce my sense of superiority in society. I don’t do it to downplay the centuries of activism by oppressed women, and I definitely don’t want to overshadow that. But I want to write about it because I feel bloody passionate about it. I want to live in a better society where gender ceases to matter. So I will openly shout out about the things I do to further that, mainly in the hope that other men will do the same. As I suggested above, hopefully if enough men put the interests of women first and refuse to be on all male panels, then we’ll see fewer all male panels.

And higher education

I’ve written on here before about the working hours culture of academia here and here. I’m enormously critical of the idea that you’re only a good academic and you’re only working well when you’re leaving the office at 9pm and working 60+ hours a week. But here I want to go a bit further and write out something I say quite openly if you’ve ever heard me rant speak about the subject in person. The working hours culture in higher education is misogynistic. I’m using this stronger word rather than sexist because I truly see it as an implicit loathing of women. In the society we have the expectation of working responsibilities on academics has to negatively impact on women more than men.

What is more is this model is predicated on a very male model of academic labour practices – basically the male professor going off around the world leaving a dutiful wife to look after the home and bring up the kids and generally deal with the emotional fallout of this family member never being there. This hit me hard, again, reading a report of a research project I’m involved with which is being launched next Tuesday in which a woman spoke of the career sacrifices she had made just so she could be with her family. Paul Cairney has written brilliantly in the past as well. I know of male colleagues who have had similar career sacrifices because they actually wanted to be part of the process of raising their children.

This post so far is horribly self-reflexive and naval gazing, and I’m afraid it’s not going to get much better. Because, what’s struck me recently, is that because I am a childless gay man I am basically, the male-professor of yore. I have no care responsibilities so I have incredible freedom over my time and can commit myself to my work in a way other people cannot. Ironically, whereas in many domains my sexual orientation might be a barrier to advancement in a career, in academia I have to be very open and honest and acknowledge that it benefits me.

But as I’ve stated before, I take the choice not to be such as selfish bastard – I take time to be with my partner who’s not an academic and also a big chunk of time training as part of my real passion of swimming (current freestyle PBs: 25m 13.5; 50m 31; 100m 1:07.5; 200m 2:42; 800m 11:08) because it keeps me sane, healthy and I prefer it to a lot of work.

Ultimately, as well it’s because I recognise the big structural issue in academia, at least in the UK, is that there is more work than there is people to do it. The employers make millions out of the overworked, tired academics, doing tasks in what should be their time, because of that wonderful phrase in our contracts “hours will be those required to fulfill the duties of the post”.

And I’m angry about this, and we should all be angry about this. We should also be angry that this means that academia is ablist as well. So, to bring it back to the start of the post and me pulling out of the panel, I have to use the utterly overused phrase of Ghandi – be the change you want to see in the world. I want to see a world with fewer all-male panels, where women are given opportunities to excel. I want to work in a sector where you can succeed by working 38 hours a week not 60. In terms of inequalities this involves people who are in privileged positions – and I have enough of them – to give up these privileges. The way I always think of this is when there are organisational discussions about the lack of women in senior roles, I always ask “what are you doing to ensure men are in low paid administrative roles?”. The UK population is roughly 50/50 male and female, therefore if we are to have equal gender representation in senior roles, then we must have equal representation in junior roles. And this is a much more difficult proposition but one that must happen. Stepping down from all-male panels is a small step in this direction, I feel. 

And I recognise (as hopefully you will) that I have privilege, so I do welcome feminist feedback from women on this. 

Friday, 19 September 2014

Scotland decides

And it’s a no.

As the campaign entered its final weeks, particularly after YouGov gave the yes campaign their single percentage point lead, it all got a bit unpleasant at times. I removed my “yes” Twibbon from my Twitter profile after a while as I was so shocked by some of what I saw. On the eve of the poll I almost wrote a Ewen Morrison-style “why I’m now a no voter” post. There were three things that I found particularly problematic.

Firstly, was the endless accusations of BBC bias and the demonstrations outside Pacific Quay. These got to me for a number of reasons. Most importantly was the basic issue of the BBC is biased. It doesn’t take a genius to work this out. Just try watching any of their coverage of industrial disputes as a trade union member; or consider their coverage of the Middle-East from any perspective beyond that of Israel or the US. I also could not understand why it was an issue for Yes – if their campaign was so powerful, so grassroots and honest, if the BBC were not fully reporting how overwhelming it was, why did it matter? Surely Yes was beyond the BBC? I was also fairly impressed with the BBC coverage overall. It was atrocious before the start of 2014, but it is the British Broadcasting Corporation – the vast majority of its viewers were not interested in IndyRef before then. This is also why the endless questions that had already been debated in Scotland, kept being re-aired; the rest of the UK had not heard them. The rest of the UK only woke up when that YouGov poll was published. And in those final two weeks there was some very impressive coverage – Robert Peston in particular was very good; the Big Big Debate got massive plaudits across the political spectrum. Even Nick Robinson moved away from being his usual right-wing ignoramus to doing some good reporting. On the eve of the vote, he could have, quite rightly, reported how he was booed out of Perth Concert Hall, but he didn’t. That wasn’t the news story.

The second thing that made me absolutely livid and frankly ashamed to be associated with the whole process was that video of someone on a rickshaw following some Labour MPs, including Ed Milliband through the streets of Glasgow playing the Imperial War March from Star Wars and saying things like “welcome imperial masters”. This was followed by people in Darth Vader and stormtrooper outfits waving Yes flags. This disgusted me. It was utterly ignorant of Scotland’s major role in the making of the British Empire. Scots were disproportionately active in the slavery and cold-blooded ruthlessness that made the British Empire for two centuries. The empire made the wealth of Edinburgh, Glasgow and Dundee. To pretend Scotland is somehow an oppressed country overpowered by imperial overlords is an insult to this history of suffering. We have had this debate; we have had this vote; we are not oppressed.

The final thing that got to me was something I mentioned briefly in my post about being a swithering Yes voter – the na├»ve, blind optimism of those on the political left who supported Yes, with their unflinching idea that somehow an independent Scotland would become a socialist utopia. This became only more ludicrous once the English left started to chip-in. It utterly ignored the facts of the social attitudes of the Scottish population – a point made all the more apparent to me when I was preparing some slides for later today. In the 2013 results of the Scottish Social AttitudesSurvey, 75% of compassionate, left-leaning Scots who believe in social justice agree or strongly agree that the majority of people who claim benefits claim them fraudulently (a staggering 48% strongly agree); 52% of the same Scots either think taxes and spending should be lowered (4%) or stay the same as they are at the moment (48%). Oh, and those free university places that Scotland is so proud of boasting about because they demonstrate how socially just we are? 72% of Scots disagree with them.  

Now, there are two responses to this I can expect. One is quite ridiculous, but I actually have some time for – all these people are Daily Mail readers who have had their views polluted by a right-wing press. To be fair, if you compare the news agenda in countries with more tolerant views on such things, like our Scandinavian chums, their press reports them less negatively. But we’ve never been voting whether we’d get a radically different press ownership with different editorial views. We’ve been voting for constitutional change.

The other response is, ahh, but Scotland successively elects left-of-centre representatives in elections. Firstly, you have to agree that the Labour party is currently left-of-centre, which I doubt many on the Yes left would do. Secondly, and a much further stretch, you have to count to SNP as avowedly left-of-centre. They are not. They are a nationalist umbrella of the right-of-centre and the left-of-centre that find their locus around the hollow signifier of “Scotland”. Promises to reduce corporation tax and policies currently that aim to do nothing but deliver “sustainable economic growth” reflect a party as pro-business and wedded to the neoliberal conventional wisdom as the Tories. Free university places, free personal care to the elderly, the council tax freeze etc. have all been at the cost of services to marginalised people throughout Scotland (just ask all those whose projects closed down from 2008 onwards). These are regressive policies that win votes that you can easily dust with some social democratic icing.

This is where I end up agreeing with the Guardian and CarolCraig, who both argued beautifully for a no vote. To claim Scotland is more left wing is nationalist. You are saying these people who live in this nation are different to those people who live in that nation. This is a nationalist argument; you cannot deny that. The only way out of that logical trap is to point out Scotland is more like the rest of northern Europe (and thus, actually, quite right-wing) and it’s England that’s odd because its politics are more aligned with those of north America. However, this begs the question, why independence? Couldn’t we become another bit of the Netherlands instead? No. because Scotland is different. It's nationalism is different, it's not nationalist. And this morning I’m witnessing an ugly side of this – tweets appearing on my timeline from Yes campaigners blaming proud No voters for damning Scotland and the Scottish to more years of Trident; more years of poverty. Because this was a nationalist campaign, somehow no voters are not “Scotland” or “Scottish”. May I remind you again, the majority of Scots would not wish to see taxes rise to pay for more generous welfare benefits.

As the debate raged and got more heated in the final days this was a view I came to agree with more and more. I expressed it on Facebook as I know a lot of my followers were proud No voters. There was absolutely no way I was going to openly express these views on Twitter. The vilification of the Guardian piece – a very well-reasoned, social-democratic, liberal argument for No – on Twitter was a sight to behold. Being “nationalist” was too difficult a brush to be tarred with. I tentatively mooted some points of criticism of some of these arguments on Twitter and did elicit some of the wall of positivity of the Yes campaign, but I basically censored myself.

For this reason I did agree with Ewen Morrison when he “cameout” as a Yes voter who had switched to “No” because of this relentless positivity, because there was no argument behind the Yes other than incessant optimism and a suggestion that you were wrong to even suggest that life in an independent Scotland might be tough; or it might even be quite right wing? This wasn’t across the board, and there were a lot of very good discussions, but there was a palpable sense that debate had been closed down by many in Yes.

And this brings me to my final worry – that Yes was essentially just an empty signifier. With its relentless optimism – the big white Yes on a blue background was a design masterstroke – anyone could write their hopes for the future onto it. I thought of this whenever I stood on a “Keep the Tories out forever” Yes leaflets on the pavement in Leith, or when I heard the fallacious “save the NHS vote Yes” argument. In many respects this was the great strength of the Yes campaign – like Obama’s message of “Hope” (in what?) it got the grassroots out, and very impressive they were too. I walk across the Foot-of-the-Walk in Leith every Saturday morning and at the start of the campaign back in 2012 Yes and Better Together took it in turns each weekend. Then Better Together stopped around the end of 2013. Then it was Yes every weekend. The most recent time I saw No Thanks was with ten days to go, the weekend after that poll. As one No campaigner suggested to me, they felt like they’d been given up on. Whereas the hollow signifier of Yes could bring everyone to its cause – an independent Scotland will be a truly wonderful place because I say so. The wounds of dented pride are going to be difficult to heal over the next few years and I hope the UK’s politicians have the skill to do so.

And yet, oddly, the one argument that was never made much was the one I made in my blog postthe constitutional point. Yes, some on the left suggested that independence would revive democracy, but with very few concrete plans of what that new democracy would look like. The draft constitution impressed me, but there were no firm plans of how a continuing constitutional convention would operate. There was a real opportunity to invest resources in a radical participatory democratic programme and cement this in the ongoing running of the country.

We now have the much bigger, more challenging and arguably more exciting job of reforming the UK. I found myself agreeing with that despicable man Nigel Farage this morning as he argued that the whole constitution of the UK needs looking at again. However, in this process I am scared of two things. Firstly, that the timetable set out is just too fast. It will not allow the issues to be properly debated across the UK and it will leave more tensions within the UK settlement than we have at the moment. Secondly, I fear the path dependency of the UK. I don’t have much time for path dependency – as someone with a background in history, I often read it as social scientists playing bad history. But two areas in this constitutional debate have all the hallmarks of path dependency – the Barnett Formula and reform of the Palace of Westminster.

The Barnett formula because it’s about money and any change to it effects those bits of the UK who have done worst from the current constitutional settlement. But it needs to go. It enables the centralisation of power in the hands of the UK treasury. We need a new financial settlement across the UK where local government in England cannot have its budget cut by 30% at the whim of a Whitehall minister; and where the nations and regions can shape their futures. The Yes campaigners have to accept this as well. If we had gone independent the Barnett formula would have been gone once and for all – we would no longer have benefited from the ways in which it allows money to flow across the nation counteracting spatial economic differences.

On reform of the broader institutions of Westminster – we need, and I hope we will get – a coalition of all those enthusiastic Yes and No voters with those disenchanted in the rest of the UK; with those in the north of England who feel even more left behind by political events; with those in the South East who feel aggrieved about the way transfer payments across the nation operate; with the Welsh and Northern Irish who would have been left high-and-dry by Scottish independence.

We also have so much to do in Scotland itself. The process of government has rumbled on here while this debate has been happening and it demonstrates we need change. The Yes votes in Dundee, Glasgow, North Lanarkshire and West Dunbartonshire show how we need to reengage with the poorest in Scottish society and make their lives better. We need to remove all local authorities from the straitjacket of the council tax freeze and give them the power to deliver what their people clearly want. We need to implement the recommendations of the Commission of Local Democracy. We need to stop living in a Scotland where Edinburgh Council can no longer afford routine maintenance of its school estate; where Police Scotland seem immune to democratic scrutiny. These are big, and small, policy issues we need to get on with debating.

The hope of the empty signifier of Yes was a reaction to trends we’re seeing across the industrialised democracies of the world: the rise of global capitalism, where Apple is bigger than some countries' GDP and nation-states cannot pin down companies to pay their taxes; growing income and wealth inequality across the globe; the very terrifying threat of climate change about which we seem unwilling to act; and poverty and social exclusion. This is manifesting itself in our political institutions: in the growing power of small elites of career politicians and media moguls in countries (Scotland very much included); in the declining voter turnout and membership of political parties; and in the growth of protest parties, from the Tea Party, UKIP, the far-rightin Sweden and the Yes campaign. All of these are empty signifiers, offering to disenchanted voters “down with this sort of thing” (what?) and “we can change things” (how?). Constitutional change in Scotland would have given a very small kick against these global challenges – we might have seen a boost in political participation that would have lasted beyond the first election. Now we have to deliver a much bigger kick across the UK and across the international left-wing movement.

This morning, another sad theme in tweets from Yes campaigners is, that after all those weeks of saying how great this process of democratic debate was, they’re now dismissing it out-of-hand since they have lost the argument, for now. The view is now that is was a victory of “fear” and “global capitalism”. This saddens me greatly. Democracy has happened; it has been witnessed in greater numbers in Scotland than for 50 years. People who have never voted before headed off to the polls. Can we not be vindictive about the result and just get on and deliver a new UK for everyone?

And if you are a Yes supporter and you’re reading this spitting tacks, thinking “I’m not a nationalist”, “how dare he tar me with this brush” don’t bother commenting. I won’t respond as you’re just proving my argument. Firstly, go to bed, then step back, and then set to work making the UK better. 

Tuesday, 9 September 2014

This post is not about #IndyRef

Well, the above tweet has got 36 RTs at the time I write this, so it gives an impression of what the ferment of the #IndyRef debate on social media is like at the moment. Therefore, I'm not optimistic that a blog post about my recent paper will have much success. But here goes...

Most of my research and writing outputs to date have been on urban policy and urban regeneration with a distinct interpretive policy analysis approach (here, here and here) with some dabbling in discourse analysis (here and here) and most recently in my work on middle class community activism with Prof Annette Hastings (herehere and here). My most recent paper is dabbling into the world of urban sociology a bit more, published in Housing Studies.

In this post I want to shamelessly promote my writing by producing a synopsis of the paper, but also reflect a bit more on the process of peer review, as I am wont to do. The paper comes out of the AHRC Connected Communities project, led by Prof Chris Speed at Edinburgh Uni that was involved in called Ladders to the Cloud, along with RCAHMS and community partner organisations in Wester Hailes. You’ll have probably heard about this project before because of the totem pole that was partly a result of it.

The paper essentially takes further the analysis and argument made in blog posts for the social history blog From There to Here, here and here. If you look at the comments on the photos on the From There to Here Facebook page, I argue, you see residents and former residents of Wester Hailes collaboratively writing stories. There’s two main formats: “Do you remember this?”, “Yes, it was X in Y”; or “Is that you and X”, “Yes and that’s X we were doing Y”. These stories add a little more evidence as to how working class people understand their sense of home and place.

In the first version of the paper I focused on two aspects of sense of place in particular – firstly, coming out of the coproduced fieldwork and my research background, was how these stories resisted widespread stigma to Wester Hailes and reframed the neighbourhood in a positive light. Secondly, I drew on the concepts of selective and elective belonging to explore how committed these commenters were to their neighbourhood, or former neighbourhood.

The very positive, useful and extremely in-depth comments from the peer reviewers also allowed me to bring in a broader literature on working class sense of home from Chris Allen among others. This massively improved the paper, though due to work commitments at the time, it did delay the process of producing the revisions.

The process of peer review was very good indeed (although a little bit lengthy, but hey-ho). The original paper focused much more on the aspects of stigma, but also tried to bring in the broad literature on social capital, social class and community activism. I sort of knew it wasn’t working, but thought the paper was ready for peer review. The reviewers comments made me realise this part of the argument really wasn’t working and I just dropped it and focused on a much slimmer argument.  And luckily, mashing together the chopped stuff with some stuff from this paper that was rejected by a journal with some quite staggeringly bad comments, has left me with another paper ready(ish) to go to a community development journal.

However, what was most surprising was the paper went from “Reject and resubmit” to “accepted” following one set of revisions. I was absolutely gob-smacked. The last time this happened was with my first ever paper from my MSc dissertation. Anyway, I can’t complain as reading through the paper to correct my proofs, it isn’t half bad, if I say so myself. Also, unlike some reviewers (me not included) my reviewers focused on improving the broad sweep of the argument being made, rather than providing corrections line-by-line. As a result when I submitted corrections I’d almost run out of my 50 spaces manuscript central would allow me.

Anyway, I hope you do read the paper and enjoy it. To summarise the argument, it is:
  • If we look at historic, naturally shared narratives of working class belonging then they are complex and nuanced with various degrees of selectiveness to their belonging; 
  • Facebook sites can be a really good source for “natural” talk about neighbourhoods and belonging;
  • Facebook is media and the content of it shapes responses - beware the algorithms.

Tada! As ever, copies available if you drop me an email.

Wednesday, 3 September 2014

Poverty and social networks

I don't usually put images on this blog (I know I should) but for once I have one to hand that is very appropriate:




Regularly readers of this blog might recall back earlier this year I was writing about doing my review on the evidence around social networks and poverty for the Joseph Rowntree Foundation (including this handy guide to key concepts). Well, it’s finally had the sign-off, so as requested by the JRF I’ve published it myself here, with all the “findings” of the reviews collated into one document here (big PDF).

I’m very glad I got the opportunity to do the review. It really expanded my knowledge and understanding of what poverty is, particularly the difficult dividing line between economic inequality and poverty. The position I now find myself in intellectually is understanding that economic inequality drives poverty, but the two are distinct concepts.

As I was applying for the review I had a few discussions about doing research for the JRF with other researchers. One thing that was emphasised was that the JRF want two things that scholars often find very difficult to deliver – unequivocal findings and practical recommendations on what could be done now to make things better. And this is very much the case, I found out, particularly with these reviews that were designed to feed into a strategy to tackle poverty in the UK.

One aspect of this was an invite down to the JRF office in London earlier this year to present my headline findings I five minutes. To brag about myself shamelessly, I think I did rather well here, managing to get through them in three minutes. I presented them in “slide-pack” format: a slide packed with information that you can use as a sort of precis, available here. I managed to summarise my findings so briefly because there was so little to talk about, essentially the main finding was, in the short term, if you want to tackle poverty don’t bother focusing on social networks.

What was extremely reassuring at the JRF event was one of the panel members wholeheartedly agreed with me and summarised the point better than I could. Intrinsically you want to think social networks must matter for tackling poverty – it’s not what you know, but who you know, right? If you know richer people, they’ll give you money at the most basic, right?

Not really; or there’s no evidence to show that’s the case. Poverty is most likely to exclude you from social networks due to shame and financial exclusion. The idea of strong working class communities of poorer people rallying around to support one-another just doesn’t seem to be supported by the evidence.

However, one frustration with our review was because it was one of the smaller reviews and was very tightly circumscribed we had to miss out lots of evidence we could see was there. For example, the evidence around social networks, health and wellbeing, and poverty are extremely strong indeed, but these could not be included within the scope of the review.

It wasn‘t all negative though – one thing that did come through clear from the evidence was the importance of passive interaction. This article in Discover Society about my favourite public space in the world, City Park in my home city of Bradford, exemplifies this excellently. Freely provided, open and accessible spaces such as schools, parks and libraries provide areas for us to rub-up against difference, including poverty. This is more likely to make us understand poverty a lot more and be more sympathetic to policies to tackle poverty and integrate people into society. So, alas my main finding was actually the usual one provided by lefty academics – don’t cut expenditure on public services.

Friday, 29 August 2014

More on the Big Society

Just like Lothian 22 buses – you wait for one academic paper on the Big Society to come along and then two arrive at the same time. This time it’s Homo Economicus in the Big Society, not Bourdieu with it: ‘Homo Economicus in a Big Society: Understanding Middle-class Activism and NIMBYism towards New Housing Developments’ in Housing Theory and Society. It’s for a special issue of the journal that came out of the first of a set of ESRC-funded seminars on the Big Society, Localism and Housing. I presented my work on middle-class activism at the first seminar in Sheffield and this became this paper. The final paper ended up being co-authored with Prof. Glen Bramley and Prof. Annette Hastings.

The paper is actually two bits of empirical work brought (smashed?) together. The argument is:
  • British Social Attitudes Survey (BSAS) data demonstrates alarming opposition to new housing
  • This opposition tends to be in suburban, or non-remote rural locations, the sorts of places stuffed full of middle-class community activists
  • The only thing that would really overcome this argument is if the development offered more local employment, which housing developments very rarely do
  • The logic implicit in neighbourhood planning and the associated financial incentives is that this opposition is driven by peoples’ opposition to costs that affect them individually
  • Actually, we argue that the opposition is driven by the threat to peoples’ identity as it is expressed through their housing choices and sense of home.

The two bits of work were actually done separately. Prof. Bramley had done the analysis of the BSAS data, including modelling at a local level. I’d started to think about the other theoretical analysis. We realised we could bring the two bits of empirical analysis together for this paper.

The trouble is, the paper is based on 2010 BSAS data. Since then, the 2013 BSAS data on attitudes to new housing have been published (pdf) and it shows a bit of a different story. The extremely good news is opposition has dropped from 46% to 31% and support grown from 28 to 47%. Now, if I were Eric Pickles I’d be thinking “woo, neighbourhood planning has worked! Everyone wants new housing!”.

However, I’d suggest that, as I argued a couple of years ago, the problems of never-ending house price rises and the growth of the incredibly poor quality private rented sector, means housing is becoming a middle-class issue and rising up the political agenda as little Sebastian or Tabatha struggle to get a decent home on a professional salary. And we all know that these housing problems are a combination of: a lack of regional planning, meaning the market focuses growth in London and the Southeast; low interest rates and thus the low cost of mortgages and increase in effective demand for housing; as Danny Dorling has argued, the lack of housing supply due to under-occupancy in the owner-occupied sector by older people (my mum in her four-bedroomed house); and a lack of new building.

A couple of the findings of the latest BSAS data do continue to support our thesis. Opposition among homeowners to new housing is still far higher than for renters in either private or social sectors. These are the people we suggest would have most to lose if their sense of elective/selective belonging – their identity – was threatened by 200 Barratt/Bellway boxes turning up on their doorstep. Also, although overall opposition in the highest income decile fell from 49% to 33%, supporting my housing-as-a-middle-class-problem thesis, it remained high, at around a third, in the places we’d expect – suburbs and non-remote towns.


Rather interestingly, this time around BSAS asked questions directly about the so-called “Boles bung”; or to be precise they were asked if they would support new housing if extra money was provided for local public services. Again, I’d argue, the results support our thesis: 47% said it would make them support; 50% said it wouldn’t. If homeowners were homo economicus, making rational decisions based on the immediate costs we’d expect to see much greater support if local public services were improved. These results suggest a much more pyscho-social homo democratus is at work here, positioning themselves in society with their residential choices and having and internal and external debate about anything that would affect this. 

Friday, 22 August 2014

Bourdieu and the Big Society

Writing this I’m thinking “if my A Level Sociology teachers could see me now”. I studied sociology in school but really didn’t think I’d return to it, but now it seems a lot of my academic output wrestles with social theory.

The latest output from my work with Annette Hastings on middle-class community activism has now hit the presses – Bourdieu and the Big Society: empowering the powerful in public service provision? In Policy and Politics(£). And very good it is too, in my humble opinion. I really cannot claim that much credit for it. Annette did the hard theoretical work (including all the reading of Bourdieu), and it was a lengthy process of rewriting and bashing it back-and-forth between us. At one point it was a 13,000 word unruly beast and I recall sending an email stating that we weren’t trying to write a book. Editing out a third of it and responding to the excellent comments from Bourdieuan scholar Pat Thomson and from the reviewers has made it a very nice final polished paper.

Essentially the paper riffs from one of the four causal theories we identified in our overall review and published in our paper for Social Policy and Administration.* This was that the alignment between the cultural capital of service users and service providers means that middle class people benefit disproportionately from the state. We return to a richer discussion of how Bourdieu conceived of class interests and how they operate in society and then bring the range of evidence we review to this theoretical structure to demonstrate it in action.

The title including the words “The Big Society” might seem a bit odd or dated, but essentially this was just a policy to hang our ideas off and give the paper salience. However, what did interest us was the continued move towards local empowerment in policy, as implemented in Big Society ideas and practically in localism and the Localism Act in England, without concomitant investment in community development, might lead to greater empowerment of middle class groups. The evidence we reviewed showed pretty conclusively that it is very likely it will.

I remember just at the time we were going to submit the paper a conversation on Twitter along the lines of “does anyone even talk about the Big Society anymore”. And it is a very good point. After the umpteenth relaunch failed the government stopped talking about the Big Society and now the policy is increasingly mired in scandal.

However, as you’ll see from the reference list, for once, when the coalition government, with its commitment to localism and the Big Society, academia actually did quite well at getting a swift response out to these policy moves. I think partly because there was a lot of stuff in the pipeline about former community policies by the Labour government which could easily be changed, but also because community engagement and participation had become such a substantial area of research in the UK, people were ready to step up to the mark fairly swiftly and offer strong theoretical and evidence-informed critique.

Further, I think that the Big Society and the associated localism policies caused such an immediate response because at its kernel there is a lot of interesting stuff to get at. The most shallow level of analysis would suggest that it uncomfortably combines a one-nation Tory belief in the power of civic society in the tradition of the Primrose League and Rotary Societies, and a more Thatcherite, neoliberal redistribution of responsibility and risk to individuals, albeit recognising they are in communities. Because of the coalition it also brings in a liberal attitude to government more generally. Much as the label “the Big Society” has died a death, it’s a good metonym for all of this sort of stuff, including policies such as the Scottish Government’s Community Empowerment and Renewal agenda (which I discussed in relation to this research back here).

Further, and this is the crux of our argument in our paper, there is the very real and present danger that community empowerment initiatives just empower the vociferous middle classes. As many of the critiques of the government policy highlight, this is particularly the case in our current period of austerity when, apart from the community organisers programme, very little investment in community engagement is going into the most deprived neighbourhoods. It is an example of middle-class norms dominating policy-making to the benefit of the middle-classes themselves; the middle-class state.

We believe that using a Bourdieusian understanding of social class adds to our understanding of policy-making and the unequal operation of the state. Hopefully our paper will lead to a broader research agenda along these lines, moving beyond education policy, the traditional focus of Bourdieusian analysis.

*as ever, most journal articles by me available in my institutional repository here though in this case you’ll have to wait a year. Do email me if you want a copy though.