Tuesday, 28 August 2012

Academic wiriting - the theory paper

I wrote a theory paper and it got published. I thought I’d blog about the process because it’s been, well, interesting. To save you reading the navel-gazing below, I thought I’d start off with my top-tips for writing a theory paper:
  • Don’t. Well, don’t do it while you’re a busy ECR, struggling to find the time to read and write. Do write one while you’re in the midst of your doctoral literature review or when you’ve secured that research professorship;
  • Make sure the theory you’re writing about has a home in a journal.

The challenge that’s always given to academic is “can you sum up your research in a sentence". So, let’s see if I can do this with this paper. Basically it argues, you cannot hope to ever create a Habermasian public sphere in short moments of community engagement, but if you look over the longer term, especially in the built environment, you will see all the evidence of Habermasian communicative action at work.

It looks neat when written like this and other academics have expressed interest in the insights of the paper. But I’m really not happy with it. I’ll start by just telling the story of the paper. Doing my doctoral fieldwork I realised that a lot of the critical insights in my field (loosely, political science, policy analysis, urban geography, urban planning) particularly those from a Foucauldian perspective did not explain what I was observing. Whereas what I knew of Habermas’ work and his theorisation of communicative action and the public sphere did. When I read Bernstein’s Between Objectivism and Relativism I was even more sure of this view. So, Habermas became the theoretical hook for my thesis. My external examiner, Dvora Yanow, said this was the first she knew of Habermas work being applied in this way and that I should publish.

So, I finished my doctorate and like all good scholars got a publication plan sorted (three papers so far, plus one published during my phd and one on its way, possibly) and one of these was this theory paper. The trouble I had was which body of theory did it speak to? I am happily eclectic in my academic inspiration. I presented a draft of the paper at the International Interpretive Policy Analysis conference in Cardiff in 2011 and got positive feedback. I could have submitted it to that conference’s journal, Critical Policy Studies, but I already had a paper in the works for them. And it really wasn’t going to fit into any of the other political science journals I knew of.

A colleague and friend, Janice Barry, had just had a paper accepted for Planning Theory and spoke positively of the process. My paper was about planning, sort of (it was about policy and the built environment) so I thought I’d give it whirl. It needed a home. The experience with the journal was brilliant. If you’re reading this and you have a planning theory article to write, I would strongly recommend you submit here. It went through two revisions. All three reviewers asked for major changes on the first draft, but all provided 1-2 sides of A4 comments on making the paper better and references for further literature I should read (very different from this). It just needed a bit more tweaking after the second reviewers. But what with other work commitments these revisions took a long time. Eventually I had to apologetically email the editor and give myself a deadline for the first set of revisions.

Why aren’t I happy? The planning literature it fits into is the work on collaborative planning from theorists like Healey, Inness and Booher and Quick and Feldman. In fact, if you look at their work and compare it to Habermas’ theoretical work, it’s just a very small extension of this work into new empirical work. However, the work the reviewers wanted me to read was the critique of collaborative planning from an agonist perspective. This I did and reading this I felt that these theorists constructed collaborative planning as a straw man and then knocked it down with the messy realities of the real World. I now had to reconstruct the literature review section to construct a straw man of collaborative planning, to knock it down with agonist planning, to then knock this down with my empirical work. Being less than comfortable with the planning literature I was wading in, I did feel like my straw men were more stick men than anything out of the Wickerman. The paper has found a home in planning theory, but I’m pretty sure it will remain unread in the field.Or, as my colleague suggested this morning, will get cited a lot because it's so bad.

The other reason I don’t like it is I just don’t think it reads very well. It reads like it took over a year to get to the state it is now in. It reads as though I am unsure of the argument I’m making. It reads like three articles shoved together with a vague introduction and conclusion attached. In sum, it’s not a substantive contribution to theoretical work in urban planning.Frankly, it could come from the Department of Omnishambles.

But it’s out there and I’m just going to write this blog post about it and then stop beating myself up. If I ever get that research professorship I’ll have time to digest a lot more literature again and write a proper theory paper. Until then, I’m going to stick to empirical work. I don't want to dishearten other ECRs too much - if you feel you have a theory paper in you, do write. I'd give my colleague Kim McKee's paper on Post-Foucauldian Governmentality as a brilliant example of an excellent theory paper where an ECR has made their mark in the field. But, if you have a bit of an odd career trajectory like me, or you're struggling with it, I would advise you to tread carefully.

Thursday, 23 August 2012

Community empowerment and renewal

The Scottish Government are currently consulting on a Community Empowerment and Renewal Bill. I see this as a sort of Scottish Localism Act. A couple of my colleagues have done very good blog posts on the consultation and I’d recommend you read them: Dr Kim McKee and Malcolm Combe.
I thought I’d add my tuppeneth worth here as well. Most of my response is going in as part of an AHRC Connected Communities project, Reframing Citizen-State Relations (see job advert for that project here as well) so I’m not going to be answering every question here. I just want to raise three points on: community empowerment; processes of community participation in different services; and Scottish Government consultations.

Firstly, throughout the consultation document and implicit in many of the questions is the presumption that community engagement is a good thing. I have a couple of problems with this. From our work on middle-classcommunity activism I do not think community engagement and empowerment is always a good thing. In fact, it seems to me that in many ways it can just recreate and reinforce inequalities in wider society – empowering the already powerful. This comes across in the discussion around Community Councils. We know that middle-class people are more likely to join groups such as Community Councils (a bit like English Parish Councils). What is needed is much greater investment in community development resource to bring in those who wouldn’t get their voices heard. I’d also be interested in if there is community development literature on getting people to shut up. One of the most interesting bits of my doctoral research was watching an Inspector from Lothian and Borders Police calmly tell a very middle –class person that the police would not routinely patrol by their allotments to combat a spate of stealing from sheds, as every evening the police were completely stretched maintaining a level of normalcy in less affluent neighbourhoods. The police officer recommended the purchase of insurance. A much braver person than me! But an extremely valid point.

There is also the point, made quite often during the heady days of the late 1990s and early noughties of the New Labour government, of community engagement seen as a way to improve communities themselves as well as services. I ended my PhD thesis with this quote from a document produced by the Scottish Social Inclusion Network that neatly summarises my views on this:
‘…community participation should not be seen as a pre-requisite for the delivery of decent services.  People living either in poor or more affluent areas are entitled to both quality services and an acceptable living environment.  We should not accept a situation where people living in more deprived communities have to go to countless meetings or engage in endless arguments with decision makers simply to receive a level of service that other people take for granted.’
Scottish Social Inclusion Network, Strategy Action Team (1999). Inclusive Communities. Edinburgh, p. 23

Another way to put it is “you can’t eat engagement”. I see a worrying trend along these lines in the proposals for community ownership and communities being given the right to run services. What I fear is that while affluent communities will be able to choose what services they want to run public services will use these provisions as an excuse to disinvest from services only used in less affluent neighbourhoods (such as community centres) and then “offer” them to the community to run. This is not empowerment but injustice.

Secondly is the actual process of community engagement in different services. One of the proposals is to place a general duty on engagement across all public services. I disagree with this and will probably be copying and pasting this into the consultation form for my own response. I disagree from my perspective as a planner. I’ve never worked as a planner, and am still not a member of the RTPI, but I still call myself a planner. Planning in the UK is interesting as, as far as I’m aware, it was the first public service in the UK to include a statutory right for the general public to be consulted on policies and decisions. Since the Skeffington Report in 1969 a vast chunk of planning research and practice has been done on public engagement. And a lot of it is quite atrocious and the system is still balanced towards developers. But the statutory right exists and the statute, especially in Scotland since the Planning etc. Scotland Act 2006, say when the public can expect to be engaged. From this a whole host of policy on engagement, specifically focused at the planning system has been developed. My fear is that a general duty would lead to a race to the bottom on community engagement and all services would revert to worst practice (not mentioning any large organisations of three letters beginning in N and ending in S).

Finally, in a Twitter conversation between Kim, Malcolm and myself Kim mentioned how badly the consultation document has been designed. This is becoming an increasing bug-bear of mine. The document is huge, but what is even worse is there are more pages of questions than of text being consulted on – 49 questions in total. It takes someone quite dedicated (sad?) to fill in that consultation, not your average community activist. I worked on the consultation analysis for the Scottish Government’s tackling poverty framework in 2007. If I remember rightly, this was led by the Poverty Alliance and it showed – a few broad questions that produced really interesting responses (still didn’t stop my analysis being broadly slated, but hey-ho). Now, the Scottish Government approach seems to be “we don’t know the answer to a question, so we will shove that in the questionnaire” rather than actually letting us respond to the issues that might interest us within the consultation document. Something needs to change in Scottish Government Towers if consultation is going to be worthwhile.

Saturday, 18 August 2012

Social media and social research: My first foray

At the moment I have some time to spend on the fascinating AHRC Connected Communities project Ladders to the Cloud, helping to better understand the Facebook page From There to Here… and help the community organisations involved in it turn it into something, well, more. For such a social media addict (my Twitter follower count is now up to giddy heights of four figures) this is my first foray into social media research.

Back in July I was given the login details for the Facebook page and so, for the first time in my life, I got to see the back-end of a Facebook page (rather than a user profile). Because these are essentially the money-making end of Facebook they provide you with “Facebook Insights” which give you age, gender and location information for people who look at your page, comment on your page and the “viral reach” – that is the number of friend’s feeds your posts appear on after someone has commented on them. It’s great for a project like this; with the handy knowledge that the research suggests very few people lie about biographic details on Facebook profiles, the site is essentially doing half of the social science work for you. Which reminds me, this book, which I'm told makes a similar point about the Tesco clubcard data, is on my to-read list for the nearly ending summer.

So, what did I learn from all this data? Firstly, it’s a bit difficult to download what you want. I ended up having to do lots of screen grabs, print out the images, and the then input the data back into an Excel spreadsheet. This done I learnt something very interesting. In March this year a big shift occurred, which is continuing, which has meant the biggest group of people heavily engaging with the site (essentially commenting on the images) is women between the ages of 25 and 44. Before then, the gender split was even and quite a few younger and older people were also commenting.

The next question is, well, there might just be a lot more Facebook users of that demographic in Edinburgh and the UK. Here my next trick came in handy. If you have a Facebook page you can pay to advertise it. If you click on the buy an advert section you have a form where you can target who you want to see your advert. As you close in on your ideal target market a counter on the right hand side changes to tell you how many people that is. So, there are around 38,000,000 Facebook subscribers in the UK and about 8,000,000 of them (21 per cent) are aged 25-34. Of this 359,000 of them live in Edinburgh (about two thirds of the city’s population) and 100,700 of them are aged 25-34 (around 28 per cent).  From all this, I know that Edinburgh has an oddly young profile of Facebook users, with these 25-34 year olds being the biggest group, whereas across the UK it’s 35-44 year olds who are the biggest group.

As a result I would expect more users at this age, but we’re getting a lot more – we’re getting 10 per cent more of these age groups then we’d expect if they were representative of the population of UK Facebook users. And 60 per cent of them are women. Why? I suspect this is just being driven by the content – these are photos of Wester Hailes in the late 1980s and early to mid-1990s and the memories being discussed, such as this fantastic exchange of people working out who lived where, are of people of my age remembering growing up in the neighbourhood.

The trouble with all this, is that when I put out a (very successful) call on Twitter for info on social media use, the journals I was pointed too, like the Journal of Computer Mediated Communication, predominantly report on studies done on college attending young people. This is partly because Facebook was at first limited to this group; partly because they are early adopters to new social media; partly due to a social-psychology research interest in this period as one of emerging adulthood; and finally just due to the publication lag - most of these studies were done in 2006-7 (and thus I've learnt about a lot of long lost social media sites! Bebo anyone?). So it’s difficult to find studies that might help explain these trends and put them into some sort of broader context. Although, I imagine if I can get a paper off swiftly I can hit a zeitgeist wave of research on other users of Facebook.

Finally, one last little thing, which I need to be very careful about how I write because I might end up getting sued by Facebook. When I was first getting the advertising data on the number of people in each age group I did not check a little box saying “exact age matches only” (or similar). So, I got the numbers for each of the pre-defined age groups and then as a double check got Excel to work out the total population to compare with Facebook’s total number of UK users. Miraculously the number of Facebook users in the UK had almost doubled, and a vast number of these people turned up in the 25-44 age group that marketers most want to target.

And in actual fact, to be precise, at the moment I am stuffing my face with sea salt and balsamic vinegar Kettle Chips dipped in humous. You should try it, it’s very tasty.