Wednesday, 14 March 2012

More on middle-class community activism

I've been dribbling out the findings of our AHRC Connected Communities scoping study on middle-class community activism over the past year, see my previous blog post that linked back to more of them here.

The AHRC has now published the scoping studies and ours in available here. We should also have a paper out in Social Policy and Administration later in the year. The findings of the review are actually very concerning - the evidence we have (and there's not a great deal of it) seems to suggest that, overall, our public services are delivered in such a way that the middle classes will always get a disproportionate benefit from them. We identified four key causal mechanisms:
  • Firstly the middle-classes are more likely to be in organisations, and also to be in organisations that matter in policy terms - parish and community councils, PTAs etc.
  • Secondly, middle-class people do shout louder and get more when accessing services. They complain more and their complaints are more likely to be listened to and responded to.
  • Thirdly, middle-class people are engaging with middle-class professionals. This means that cultural capital is often aligned and any processes of co-producing services, such as negotiating to a positive health outcome in a doctor's appointment, will be better for the middle-class service users.
  • Lastly, it seems that in service design, there is a general pre-disposition to develop policies that will particularly benefit the middle-classes.

The tricky thing for us in conducting the review, and a key area where we need more evidence, is understanding how these mechanisms then translate into outcomes on the ground in terms of differential service provision, expenditure or socio-economic outcomes.

The review also raises two important questions. The first is one we want to explore more in another journal article. This is the question as to why this subject of middle class activism and middle class benefit is not researched more, or why is so much of this seemingly unquestioned? We use Bourdieu's concept of doxa to understand this as symbolic violence. If the welfare state has eroded people's ability to use economic capital to accumulate more capitals, then it seems to have opened up opportunities for people to use social and cultural capital - through the services afforded by the welfare state - to accumulate more capitals. To question this, in Marxian terms, is to venture into class consciousness.

The second question is for policy - what does this mean for the distribution of services? One obvious end to the logic of our review is we have to stop having universal services as they just maintain inequalities that exist. However, I do believe in the state and its transformatory potential. There's also the old adage that "services for the poor are poor services". So, what to do? I think, from my perspective, a key challenge is that we can no longer say to deprived communities: engage more with public services to get better public services. There needs to be much more work by public services to find out the needs of these neighbourhoods without expecting community engagement. Our evidence suggests that community engagement of this sort is a sysephean task - any gains by deprived communities will not, probably, be at the loss of affluent communities. This is the argument that I make in my CLES New Start blog.

Any coproduction, or "Big Society", in deprived neighbourhoods therefore probably has to start from the presumption of a deficit model on the part of public services - they do not provide enough, or understand enough, about the communities they serve. It is up to them to make this difference.


  1. I think this is a really interesting and important discussion.

    I've touched on it in this short piece I wrote on Proportionate Universalism (

    I'm also interested in your point about how this colours debates about co-production (i.e. is this what the middle classes are already good at)but also how it might get us to rethink community regeneration as something which addresses the 'service deficit'. I might have some thoughts on that but I might just wait to see what you have to say on the topic first!

    Looking forward to future publications on this!

  2. My main thought on this is that this seems to be a zero-sum game, so it's not as if we can take away from affluent neighbourhoods or middle-class communities and give to deprived neighbourhoods or individuals. Therefore I think we have to accept that any ramping up of expenditure in deprived neighbourhoods will also, probably, benefit the middle classes to a greater or lesser degree. The case of middle class mum's using Sure Start centres for free childcare is one example of this (though I don't know if that story is apocryphal).

  3. Is it always a zero sum game though?

    Your sure start example is right as it refers to competition for a limited resource. But what about your first mechanism? If people in less affluent areas improve what they get from their school through involvement in the PTA I don't think this effects schools elsewhere. Similarly your third category suggests that it is the quality of the relationship that generates value rather than necessarily the time spent.

    So, don't we have to think about the type of service and the way in which it is delivered before deciding if it is a zero sum game or not?

    I'm not even sure it is always a question of resource although exactly what it is a question of I'm not sure.

    Anyhow, I think it is really useful that you have identified specific mechanisms as it makes this kind of debate possible!

    Hope this makes some sense...

  4. Funny you say that - as I point out, we have no real evidence for the outcomes, but the evidence we looked at does suggest it's a zero-sum game. The middle classes were benefiting and other people were not.

    We need to have this debate and also get the evidence (funders? anybody?)