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.