Friday, 21 October 2011

Middle class places, normal places?

We're coming to the end of our AHRC Connected Communities research on middle class engagement with public services now and it's proved very interesting. In line with the realist synthesis methodology we've employed we have four mid-range theories which explain quite a lot of how the middle classes might be able to capture a disproportionate amount of the benefits of the public services.

We've workshopped the findings at my old department in Glasgow and will be presenting them at the Urban Geography Research Group conference at University of Edinburgh on 10/11 of November. We'll also be presenting a seminar at Heriot-Watt on 16 November (details to follow). Finally, I've been invited to talk about middle class places to the Edinburgh School of Architecture and Landscape Architecture (I think that's what they're called these days...) next Friday. Which is what this post is about.

My doctoral research focused on "so-called deprived neighbourhoods" and a great deal of my critique of regeneration policy stemmed from the way so much of the problem is the social construction of deprived neighbourhoods as a "problem". I've got an article(£) in Housing Theory and Society about how, over nearly 40 years of regeneration policy in Scotland, policy documents still stigmatised deprived neighbourhoods and all that changed was the terminology used. All of it was still pretty negative. One of my research findings was also how residents of "so-called deprived neighbourhoods" felt this stigma on a day-to-day basis in terms of feeling looked down upon and treated differently, especially by service providers like the local authority (some of the comments I overheard from officers while I was waiting to go to interview participants certainly showed how widespread this problem is).

I think indices of deprivation are really useful in targeting resources at those neighbourhoods that need them most (see the nifty new ONS Atlas of Deprivation) but every time an index is published there's the endless discussion in the press about the "poorest" neighbourhood and the "wealthiest" (the latter ignores that it's an index of deprivation, so it's not the wealthiest, but the least-deprived). This reinforces this stigma and also completely ignores that the fact of very wealthy and very deprived neighbourhoods existing is linked and also ignores the majority of neighbourhoods in the middle.

Towards the end of my doctoral research, and even more now I've completed this review, I'm much more interested in what makes perfectly dull neighbourhoods, those suburbs we all hate, so perfectly, mind-numbingly normal. I suspect that many private organisations like Tesco, the credit reference agencies and tools like the ACORN Classification can tell us more about these neighbourhoods than a lot of social science research because these neighbourhoods matter to these organisations as customers. What I'm getting from the review we've done of middle classes and the public services is the hard work carried out on a regular basis by people in normal neighbourhoods to keep them perfectly normal. This extends from joining formal groups like the Parish Council or PTA to activities in co-production like attending parents evenings as an active parent or being an active patient in interactions with health care practitioners. A lot of policy targeted at deprived neighbourhoods suggests they need community development because they lack this sort of activity, but there was not a body of evidence to support this.

More worrying, however, if that the broader context of public service delivery supports this sort of activity, specifically from middle class people with their cultural capital. Therefore, if you did increase participation from deprived neighbourhoods to be on a par with affluent neighbourhoods they'd be struggling between two competing tides: the greater severity and range of problems to be dealt with in their neighbourhood and their middle class neighbours are more likely to get a positive outcome from service providers.

Even more worrying is how this is treated as the status-quo. The usual reaction when I say "I'm researching whether the middle class complain more and get more" the reaction is a laugh - we all know this to be true, so why bother researching it. There's nothing we can do about it. Well actually, we don't really know it to be true and if we do know more about it maybe we can do something about it? But, as a middle-class academic, living a comfortable life supported quite remarkably by the welfare state, do I really care? 

And if you want my article, drop me an email and I'll send you a copy. Details here.


  1. Most interesting...

    For my PhD research I'm heading in the direction of discursive analysis. I'm interested of how people construct their relationship to place in terms of attachment and identity. Similar to yourself, I'm taking a historical (dare I say 'Foucauldian') perspective because I'm interested in how these relationships are encouraged over time in the sense of supporting ideological agendas.

    I've downloaded your article for closer inspection and ideas. I may come back with questions at a later date ;-)


  2. Feel free to. And I'd go for a historical approach rather than a Foucauldian approach myself - I don't rate Foucault as a historian! One of the most interesting books I read during my PhD was this:
    Which demonstrated how a lot of our concerns about stigma and deprivation are very historical.

  3. The book I refer to is Tucker (1966) Honourable Estates, in case that URL isn't working...

  4. I'll be reading your article and enjoyed this post. My own research looks at cultural regeneration, which is often actually about transforming working class neighbourhoods into middle class ones. Culture is a powerful weapon in this transformation as cultural activity often misrepresents the broader cultural and social capital that sustains it. I wonder how middle class 'urban pioneer' types benefit disproportionately from their ability to navigate public services in areas of intense public sector activity, when they move into deprived areas where there are often a wide range of public and third sector bodies active?

  5. You might be interested in looking at the 'Red Queen Effect' - a metaphor for describing co-evolving entities. Its a metaphor taken from Alice Through The Looking where Alice has a race with the Red Queen, "It takes all the running you can simply to stand still." So, oneof the key features that sharp-elbowed middle classes may have, is the ability to adapt and set the pace.

    I've applied it to enterprise development considering how this differentiates across areas with difference levels of deprivation indicators and reading your blog I thought it may a useful diversion for you.

  6. Any references to that literature anonymous?

    And, James Kennell - interestingly, there is some evidence of gentrifiers benefiting disproportionately from schooling. Some of the early gentrification scholarship in the UK was about this. But, I'm told, interestingly middle-class in-movers to neighbourhoods that are constructed as "mixed communities" (i.e. pepper-potted with owned and socially-rented housing) don't complain much and drive up local public service standards at all.

  7. Hi. I have only just been led to your blog by a message on the network from a guy who has just discovered pnuk. I have not had a chance to read your posts yet, but wondered if you have a definition of what exactly being 'middle class' is?

  8. Only just catching up with comments, but thanks. Re. defn of middle class. In this synthesis we relied on the definitions researchers used - which was actually quite an issue when we searched for US literature as middle class means something quite different.

    The actual definition of middle class more generally is theoretically difficult and is actually something we want to explore in the research more. We think, perhaps, that the ability to use cultural capital to extract value out of the state's services might actually be one of the defining characteristics of the middle classes.