Archive for the 'Social theory' Category

What’s next for poverty?

Barry Knight 3

Barry Knight

Barry Knight, author of Rethinking poverty: What makes a good society?, explains why we need to change the way we frame ‘poverty’ in order to make progress.

“Progress on poverty has stalled, in fact the proportion of people living in poverty in the UK has remained the same since 2005. This applies both to absolute and to relative poverty.

Poverty campaigners know that they need a new language if they are to make progress. Justin Watson from Oxfam has suggested that charities are getting it wrong:

“There is growing consensus that the narratives used by the third sector, however well-meaning and ‘right’, have been rejected. Take ‘poverty’ for example, a term that is politically divisive, laced with stigma and highly contested to the point of still having to persuade people it exists at all in the UK.”

Reports on poverty may raise awareness but, as Olivia Bailey, Research Director of the Fabian Society points out, “talking about a problem doesn’t generate enthusiasm for a solution”. Leading journalist Simon Jenkins has recently written that endless research into Britain’s growing gap between rich and poor is a waste of time. We need to set aside partisan politics and act.

Yet, solutions are hard to come by. The traditional remedies of the post-war settlement – work and welfare – are no longer sufficient. Social security payments leave many people struggling to make ends meet, while economic development produces low paid jobs.

So, how do we end poverty when the traditional means of doing so no longer work?

Technocratic policy fixes treat symptoms, rather than address the complex processes that produce poverty in the first place. Moreover, such an approach wastes effort in repairing an old system that seems incapable of eradicating poverty. We can no longer rely on public and private sectors to guarantee people’s well-being and there is little sign that anything in present arrangements will make our society better.

“This approach redesigns our society so that poverty becomes obsolete.”

We need to reframe our approach. Rather than addressing what we don’t want – poverty – we need to develop what we do want – a society without poverty. This approach redesigns our society so that poverty becomes obsolete.

To do this, we need to draw on a sociological tradition originally deriving from the work of C. Wright Mills, and modernised by John Paul Lederach, in which we use our moral imagination to develop the society we want. Research by the Webb Memorial Trust shows that the society people want differs markedly from the society we have. Rather than opting for a society based on current political categories, they want a society where social factors come first, where relationships are given priority, and the economy supports people in their lives, rather than the persistent drive for ‘growth’.

The model of how we develop a good society needs to change. This can no longer come from the elites as something done to us. Rather, it involves us doing it for ourselves. ‘You can’t go around building a better world for people. Only people can build a better world for people. Otherwise it’s just a cage’, wrote Terry Pratchett in Witches Abroad. Nowhere is this truer than the ending of poverty, a process that now can and must involve the poor being their own agents of change.

“The way forward lies not in a set of transactional policies that shift resources, but rather in the development of transformational relationships that shift power.”

The way forward lies not in a set of transactional policies that shift resources, but rather in the development of transformational relationships that shift power. Young people understand this and that is why working with them to help them take power must be the first goal of social policy.

Rethinking poverty [FC]The pdf of Rethinking poverty by Barry Knight is available to download free via OAPEN. The paperback is available with 20% discount on the Policy Press website.  Order here for just £7.99.

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Indigenous peoples and a liberal politics of potential

Following last month’s call for a new formal body to represent Australia’s indigenous peoples in parliament, Dominic O’Sullivan, author of Indigenity: a politics of potential – out today – examines indigeneity and what it can achieve.


Dominic O’Sullivan

“Indigeneity is a politics of potential; a theory of human agency that provides an indigenous framework for thinking about how to engage liberal societies in discourses of reconciliation, self-determination and sovereignty. It is both political theory and political strategy. It transcends the limits of indigenous rights as a sub-set of ethnic minority politics. Instead, it claims a distinctive and enduring indigenous share in the sovereign authority of the state.

The claim is grounded in on-going and inalienable rights of prior occupancy; rights to land, language, culture, the maintenance and protection of decision-making processes, and the right to participation in state affairs as genuinely and substantively equal citizens. Unless it recognises prior occupancy, liberal democracy cannot uphold these rights as measures of justice. It cannot think creatively or reasonably about the terms of indigenous belonging to the modern state; the basic questions of citizenship – who belongs and on whose terms?

Continue reading ‘Indigenous peoples and a liberal politics of potential’

‘Politicians see the British education system as a job factory’

Policy Press author and academic Peter Mortimore’s book Education Under Siege has just been released in paperback. Nearly 18 months on from Mortimore first sitting down to write it, Rebecca Megson asks what he’s still concerned about in the education system in the UK.

peter-mortimore-photoApart from a change in education minister, Peter Mortimore says the UK’s educational landscape remains largely the same as it was when he first wrote and published Education under Siege. The focus remains on the exclusive achievement of ‘levels’ which Mortimore believes is bad news for children, parents and teachers, applying, as it does, an almost constant level of pressure.

“The idea of education having a ‘noble’ side has been written out of the British education system – the system is seen as a job factory. Ministers are too focused on targets. Once you have a target in place, then the focus on education falls away,” he says.

Despite the relentless emphasis on results, according to the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA), the UK’s international results are only average for maths and reading compared to similar countries. The 2012 report also showed little improvement in any of the subjects tested compared with earlier results.

Average results

Whilst a results-driven education agenda continues to dominate the UK debate, the PISA measurement system would suggest that system changes implemented over the past eight years have had little impact.

“I blame politicians for this situation – and all political parties too, there’s no bias in my condemnation. I’m sure they believe they are doing the right thing but they all have worked to make our system more and more competitive and have therefore created a national neurosis.”

Mortimore has worked in the education system as a teacher and researcher and was the director of the Institute of Education, University of London. He believes that when parents set out on the educational journey, they simply want the best for their children, which they define as them being happy, safe and successful at school.

Whilst this is the environment most children experience in Key Stage 1 Mortimore says it isn’t long before the system becomes more competitive. He says: “Suddenly it’s about getting into the best schools by living in the best areas – of course estate agents benefit enormously but it’s hopeless as a national strategy. More and more people fighting for limited places just creates fear, anxiety and panic.”

“Education is a powerful force in our culture: the better the system the better the society our children will inherit”

Earlier this month, education secretary Nicky Morgan denied rumours that she was on the verge of introducing compulsory setting in secondary schools. Mortimore welcomes this, warning against setting. He asks ministers and parents to look at the hard evidence, which clearly indicates that setting makes little difference. He says: “The theory that you get to focus on each group according to their ability is good. But, in practice, as soon as you stream, you lower children’s self-expectations.”

Mortimore has worked with a number of education ministers in his career. His work at the University of Southern Denmark also provided him with insight into the Nordic education. He believes the system in the Nordic countries offers an interesting alternative.

“You don’t get the same focus on competition, it’s about bringing up children to be happy and secure. Of course, life will be competitive but in the Nordic systems competition is introduced later, because it is believed that the older you are the better able you are to deal with it.”

Mortimore believes the campaign for change needs to come from the grassroots. In order for that to happen, he feels parents need to realise there are alternatives and then to put pressure on politicians to make changes. He believes the secondary school system is a disaster, creating confusion by providing too many different types of school, with funding distributed to whichever school type is most favoured by those with political power at the time.

He feels the situation could be immediately improved by simply providing schools with same basic funding, rules and powers. Through these measures Mortimore believes the system could at least return to a more level playing field.

Beyond that, he calls for ‘brave politicians’ who are willing and able to introduce a balanced intake of pupils so as to ensure that the school environment accurately reflects the diversity of people and backgrounds within modern society.

“The only method I can see that really works is a ‘lottery’ system, allocating kids pupils so that each school gets a fair intake, then every school can has a chance to be as successful as the next,” he says.“Education is a powerful force in our culture: the better the system the better the society our children will inherit. The converse is also true as the two are locked together.”

As a society, Mortimore feels we are becoming increasingly divided. The plethora of schools from which to choose from and the nature of area selection, entrenches the position of economically disadvantaged children as opposed to encouraging their potential. Furthermore, the number of different teaching unions dissipates teachers’ strength and power to challenge and change the system.

Mortimore feels more optimistic about the future. He says: “In the past year or so, as I’ve toured round the country I’ve found teachers and education officers collaborating, despite what the politicians are doing and saying. They realise it’s important for schools to work together.” He believes that in the long run things will get better, but he warns that, without thoughtful and supportive involvement from the country’s politicians, it is likely to be a slow game.

The paperback of Education Under Siege is available at the 20% discount price of £7.99 (RRP £9.99) on the Policy Press website. Click here for more details.

Related links

UK’s international results as measured by the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA)

Guardian article on Nicky Morgan

Personal brand ‘essential’ to gangland survival

Academic and Policy Press author Simon Harding’s award winning book The Street Casino is based on findings from his extensive ethnographic study of local residents, professionals and gang members in south London.

Harding’s research provides a fresh perspective and new insights on the gang world. He believes more time should be spent understanding, rather than condemning, the street gang system if we are serious about helping the young people trapped in it. Interview and report by Rebecca Megson.


SimonHarding2NEW FINDINGS show that street gang leaders actively work to build a ‘brand’ for themselves as an essential part of gang culture.

Author and senior criminology lecturer Dr Simon Harding has been researching street gangs for some years. He has found that on the street developing a person’s brand is as essential as it is in mainstream consumerist society.

Harding explains that an individual’s brand is effectively ‘capital’ on the street; capital that can be traded, exchanged, increased and reduced. Brand protection is one reason why street violence erupts and escalates so rapidly.

Harding says: “If I ‘dis’ you, I take some of your ‘street capital’. You have to act pretty quickly in order to regain it. You might do that by knifing me, in which case you have now regained and multiplied your street capital.”

It doesn’t end there, though. “If the person is knifed in front of other people the value of that action is perceived to have increased. The wider group of people then also knife the person as their way of getting a piece of the capital.”

‘Creativity and intelligence’

Harding’s ethnographic study has focused specifically on a deprived area of Lambeth, South London, SW9. He interviewed people from the area, including young people involved in street gangs.

He says: “What I found was an enormous amount of creativity and intelligence – these young people just want to get on with their lives. They are in gangs but they view it as something they have to get involved in even though they don’t really want to be. We owe the young people involved a moral and social responsibility to understand their world.”

Harding is very clear on one point that he feels needs to be addressed first and foremost: the wellspring of gangs is poverty.

“People enter gangs because there is no plausible alternative available to them. The old ways of moving from adolescence into adulthood have evaporated.”

“the gang has a strong gravitational pull”

There are few opportunities for the young people Harding talked to – something which he says is made worse in a multiply deprived area that has been effectively ‘written off’ by both local and national government.

As local services retreat, youth facilities and clubs close. If jobs exist they are sub-minimum wage and dead-end. Harding says: “These people are constantly battling the poverty trap, the gang has a strong gravitational pull.”

At this point, literally the only ‘game in town’ is the gang.

Harding says: “This is where my metaphor of the ‘Street Casino’ comes in – life is a casino for these people. They think they are going to win and win big, but the reality is very different.”

As with a real casino, there are many diversions along the way to keep people playing. They win a little, get some girls, have some entertainment.

Harding found that young people believe in the ‘game’ as their way out. They get addicted, the game becomes compulsive and people get stuck in this world. “The gang becomes the only game in town – but more than that, it becomes the only game they know how to play.”

In light of his findings Harding believes that young people need better support from local services, who in turn should work more effectively with a deeper understanding of the gang domain to provide a safer, alternative future to the Street Casino.

Copies of The Street Casino are available to purchase, with a special discount from the Policy Press website.
The Street Casino has just been awarded The Frederick Milton Thrasher award for Superior Gang Research. The award was established by the journal of Gang Research in 1992 to honour and recognise outstanding scholarship, leadership and service contributions by individuals and programs in dealing with public safety issues like that posed by gangs.

Ray Pahl, friendship and the emergence of Discover Society magazine

By John Holmwood, University of Nottingham, President of the British Sociological Association and Managing Editor of Discover Society

Discover society logo

Earlier this month a new online magazine, Discover Society, was launched. The magazine features articles on social research, policy analysis and commentary, and is supported by the British Sociological Association, the Social Policy Association and Policy Press.

The seed of the project was planted when some of us who went on to set up Discover Society met with Ray Pahl, the eminent sociologist best known for his studies of social interaction, polarisation, work and friendship in suburban and post-industrial communities, shortly before he died in June 2011. We talked about a range of topics, including the fate of universities in the face of marketisation, the financial crisis, and the increasing hardship on the front-line of austerity Britain. We also talked about the future of social research – in truth, the future of sociology and the special character of the sociological imagination and its public relevance.

Ray researched and wrote about communities, but he also wrote for communities. As part of our visits to Ray, we also helped arrange his papers. In a dusty attic space, old copies of New Society were piled up and he pointed to them and said, “That’s what we need today. Without a magazine to disseminate sociology and social policy, there will be no real engagement.” Ray had written for New Society and, like many others – as the response to Mike Savage’s article on the magazine in our first issue shows – had felt its demise in 1988 keenly. He associated its closure with the changing tenor of the times and the claim that there was no such thing as society associated with the promotion of neo-liberal policies designed to make the claim a reality.

Ray’s comment was a challenge to remember that a common strand in the plural nature of social research is a commitment to engage in and engender public debate. It is no accident that Ray wrote about communities and about friendship. The North American political theorist and community advocate, Danielle Allen, has also argued that a reinvigorated public debate needs to cultivate the arts of friendship in order to develop new solidarities.

It is out of such solidarities that Discover Society has developed. In proposing it, the first question we were asked was about our business plan (given that New Society had folded, how might we succeed?). We decided that academic friendship – collegiality, if you will – could make it happen as a common commitment to show what the disciplines of sociology and social policy could contribute to public debate. Support from like-minded friends at Policy Press has followed.

Friendship entails commitment and, in the case of Discover Society, this is also commitment to a wider purpose. Our masthead contains the phrase, ‘measured – factual – critical’, and under this rubric our contributors will document the operations of power, inequality, and the unintended consequences of policy interventions as well as their often problematic basis in social fact. However, we will also document solidarities, limits to the development of solidarities, and the means of overcoming these limits. Public debate needs more argument, but it also requires the motivation to act across differences. To understand when making common cause is the most important thing.

Choice, markets and welfare

Paul Spicker

Paul Spicker

by Paul Spicker, author of Reclaiming individualism, published today

Having ‘choice’ is assumed to be part of welfare, but when people write about it they may be referring to very different things. Part of the arguments for ‘choice’ are arguments for self-determination and freedom of action; those may not be enough to be sure of people’s welfare, but they are certainly important. In economic theory, however, choice is about something quite different – the selection of preferred options from a limited basket of goods. Choice in the second sense tells us very little about choice in the first.

Markets offer some choice, but they only go so far. In the first place, things that are being chosen have to be capable of being treated as commodities. Second, because commodities are scarce, people have to decide what they are ready to forego, as well as what they want. Third, producers have choices, too. They can decide what to provide, and who to provide it to. Producers compete, and they become ‘efficient’, because they are selective. There is often ‘adverse selection’; people who are isolated, poor or who have particular needs may not be served. The argument that markets provide choices, and that choices guarantee well-being, is contingent at best, and this is not always good enough to protect the situation of individuals. Markets might work, and they might not.

Individualisation and personalisation, similarly, are not necessarily good ways to improve individual welfare. There are some circumstances where policies ought to be tailored to the individual, usually after more general services and facilities are put in place. There are others where people need a common foundation of services and facilities, such as schools and hospitals. Where there is no road, the answer is not to issue everyone with boots.

Where governments claim to work for people as individuals, they need to engage with a wide range of activity promoting and safeguarding their welfare. Markets are not enough. Reclaiming individualism makes the case for taking individualism as a focus for actions to protect rights, extending basic security and empowering people as citizens.

Reclaiming individualism is available with 20% discount at

Why social pedagogy?

Jan Storo

Jan Storo

by Jan Storø, author of Practical social pedagogy, publishing today

When I started working full time as a teacher at Oslo and Akershus University College of Applied Sciences a few years ago, I was given responsibility for teaching social pedagogy. I was not fully up-to-date on the topic (at least not how it was understood in academia), and had to refresh my knowledge about it. I had been a student in the same institution myself, but that was twenty-five years earlier. I had spent all these years in the practice field, practicing social pedagogy. But, I have to admit, I had failed to update myself on theory.

Coming back into the university college with a large portion of practical experience in my rucksack, it was exciting to investigate the topic. In the places I had practiced all these years, mostly in residential care for young people, the term “social pedagogy” was not used frequently. We worked with young people. We were good at it. But we did not always theorize about our practice. Still, we knew very well that we were practicing social pedagogy.

This strange, double-sided relation to one of the most important terms of our profession – and to all its implications – came into focus for me almost the instant I walked over the threshold to the University College for the first time as an employee. After four days as a teacher, I took the decision that I had to go deeper into this topic. And that I would do it by writing a book about it. Only by doing a deep-dive in what I had done in the practice field and seek how this experience could be understood in my teaching,  could I hope to give the young students what I imagined they needed. That Saturday, after the first week as a teacher, I began working at the script that eventually became the book ‘Social pedagogy practice: Theories, values and tools for working with children and young people’.

To reflecting on social pedagogy is to travel in a landscape of theory and practice. From quite early in the process it was clear to me that I had to address these two concepts. It seemed  apparent to me that some of my colleagues from practice mostly were interested in…practicing, and that my new academic colleagues were more frequently focused solely on theory. I found myself in a fruitful middle-position. That gave me the starting point for the book.

Therefore in the book I have included an imagined dialogue between a practitioner and a researcher in the first couple of pages. The dialogue is meant to show how challenging it can be to speak about practice and theory within this field. This challenge is the invitation I give to my readers.

The dialogue can also be read in my article ‘The Difficult Connection Between Theory and Practice in Social Pedagogy‘ in the International Journal of Social Pedagogy, no.1, 2012.

Practical social pedagogy is available to buy with 20% discount at

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