Posts Tagged 'Social Policy'

‘Ain’t no such things as half-way crooks’: political discourses and structural duplicity in the troubled families agenda

Troublemakers FC

‘Troublemakers’ by Stephen Crossley came out in April

Stephen Crossley, author of Troublemakers: The construction of ‘troubled families’ as a social problemdiscusses the National evaluation of the Troubled Families Programme 2015 to 2020 interim findings, ‘dirty data’, his approach and methodology and the purpose of academic research.

Academics from different disciplines are often expected to demonstrate the impact of their research and this impact can be expected to relate to demonstrable changes in policy and/or practice. Such aims can lead to research being commissioned and published that is amenable to the interests of policy-makers and politicians. But there can be dangers in this, especially in the UK at the current time where many academics would not feel comfortable aligning themselves with some of the policies being pursued or advocated by our government or other powerful institutions.

The French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu railed against ‘lackey intellectuals’ (Stabile and Morooka, 2010: 329) who put themselves in the service of neoliberal governments and, along with his long-time collaborator Loïc Wacquant, referred to such individuals as ‘defector[s] from the academic world entered into the service of the dominant, whose mission is to give an academic veneer to the political projects of the new state and business nobility’ (Bourdieu and Wacquant, 2001: 1).

“Sociology should not be a ‘disinterested calling pursued for purely intellectual and aesthetic reasons’ and instead should be ‘committed to, and involved in, solving current problems’”

In studying the implementation of the Troubled Families Programme (TFP) for my PhD and for Troublemakers, I wanted to adopt a different approach. Drawing on the work of Bourdieu and Wacquant, as well as other sociologists who have urged researchers to remember whose side they are on and to ‘study up’, I decided that ‘muckraking’ sociological approach would be appropriate. Gary T. Marx argued for a ‘muckraking sociology’ which, using the tools of social science, could help to unearth ‘dirty data’. Marx, like many others, proposed that sociology should not be a ‘disinterested calling pursued for purely intellectual and aesthetic reasons’ and instead should be ‘committed to, and involved in, solving current problems’ (1972: 4).

Writing in the 1970s, but with continuing relevance, he argued that muckraking research should help to document and publicise ‘the gap between values and actual practices and in questioning established orthodoxies’ (Marx, 1972: 2), and could be of benefit to those groups seeking change. Such research, Marx argued, could ‘give us a clearer picture of our world, stripped of protective verbiage and without the usual selective perceptions (and misperceptions)’ (1972: 4–5). In a passage particularly relevant to an examination of the TFP and its emphasis on ‘hands-on’ practical support for disadvantaged families, while marginalising structural inequalities and poverty, Marx argued that muckraking research ‘can expose the fallacies in certain common sense beliefs about social problems and show how certain ideas rationalize an unsatisfactory status quo’ (1972: 5) He goes on suggest that:

Such research uses the tools of social science to document unintended (or officially unacknowledged) consequences of social action, inequality, poverty, racism, exploitation, opportunism, neglect, denial of dignity, hypocrisy, inconsistency, manipulation, wasted resources and the displacement of an organization’s stated goals in favour of self-perpetuation. It may show how, and the extent to which, a dominant or more powerful class, race, group or stratum takes advantage of, misuses, mistreats, or ignores a subordinate group, often in the face of an ideology that claims it does exactly the opposite.

Such an approach has been particularly fruitful in studying the TFP. Research by myself and other academics have unearthed a large amount of ‘dirty data’ relating to the programme ‘whose revelation would be discrediting or costly’ to the government and that goes beyond incidental or minor inconsistencies, errors of judgement or ‘soft-core discrepancies’ (Marx, 1984: 79).

“The government claimed to have evidence that there were 120,000 ‘troubled families characterised by crime, anti-social behaviour, school exclusion and ‘worklessness’. It didn’t.”

In 2011, at the launch of the programme, the government claimed to have evidence that there were 120,000 ‘troubled families characterised by crime, anti-social behaviour, school exclusion and ‘worklessness’. It didn’t.

It had evidence that, around seven years earlier, there were around 120,000 families that were experiencing ‘multiple disadvantages’ such as poverty, material deprivation, poor housing, and poor maternal mental health. The government claimed that the programme ‘turned around’ the lives of 99% of the 120,000 ‘troubled families it originally set out to work with. It didn’t.

Families that turned themselves around with no contact with the programme were counted in the TFP figures. Families could, in some circumstances, be classed as having been ‘turned around’ by a child reaching school leaving age. The effectiveness of the ‘family intervention’ model, on which the TFP is based, had, in the words of David Gregg, been ‘sexed up’. Research was carried out without appropriate ethical procedures. Statistics and surveys that formed the basis of the need for ‘radical reform’ were invented. Local authorities were effectively threatened with naming and shaming if they didn’t ‘turn around’ 100% of their families in the first phase of the project. Local authority officers on the programme complained of staff from DCLG phoning them up to complain about slow progress. It was alleged that the government attempted to ‘suppress’ the official evaluation of the programme when it failed to provide them with the support it was expecting. Researchers who critiqued the programme had their competence and their integrity publicly called into question. A parliamentary committee accused the DCLG (now the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government) of obfuscation and evasion in its lack of co-operation with an inquiry into the programme.

While I was carrying out my research, I was reminded of Mobb Deep’s assertion that there ‘aint’ no such things as half-way crooks’. In more academic terms, Bourdieu (1985: 738) argued that ‘political discourses have a sort of structural duplicity’, and the ‘troubled families’ agenda is a clear-cut example of this. It relies on deceit and duplicity at all levels, and the catalogue of inconsistencies, contradictions and falsehoods listed above cannot be put down to individual errors of judgement or mere coincidence.

Troublemakers focuses attempts to explicate and lay bare the overblown claims of the programme, the underhandedness, political chicanery and ‘structural duplicity’ that has been evident throughout the programme, and the symbolical importance of the programme at a time of wider state restructuring. It is, in short, an attempt to rake all, or as much as possible in a little over 200 pages, of the muck associated with the TFP into a single heap.

References

Bourdieu, P. and Wacquant, L. (2001) NewLiberalSpeak: Notes on the new planetary vulgate, Radical Philosophy, 105: 2-5.

Marx, G.T. (1972) (ed.) Muckraking Sociology: Research as Social Criticism, New Brunswick, NJ: Transaction Books.

Stabile, C.A. and Morooka, J. (2010) ‘Between Two Evils, I Refuse To Choose The Lesser’, Cultural Studies, 17 (3-4): 326-348.

Troublemakers FCTroublemakers by Stephen Crossley is available with 20% discount on the Policy Press website. Order here for £19.99.

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The views and opinions expressed on this blog site are solely those of the original blog post authors and other contributors. These views and opinions do not necessarily represent those of the Policy Press and/or any/all contributors to this site.

Conceptual issues in welfare debates

Exploring welfare debates [FC] rgb

Exploring welfare debates is out this week!

Lee Gregory, author of Exploring welfare debates, publishing this week, discusses the ideological and conceptual issues surrounding welfare debates.

This new textbook provides an introduction to key concepts and debates in welfare using an innovative, question-based narrative to highlight the importance of theory to understanding welfare.

There is a companion website available here.

Our daily lives are surrounded by injustices. Homelessness, poverty, destitution, health inequalities, the list can go on. If you’re a student of social policy or any social science subject you are likely angry at the injustices you see and want to do something to change them, to remove them from existence. That is exactly how I felt.

Studying sociology, politics, law, psychology during a BTEC in Public Services (I was hoping to be an Ambulance Paramedic) my desire to help people started to change. For me there was something fundamentally wrong with how society was structured if it left people destitute, hungry or homeless. If where you were born influenced how long you lived then there was a need for change. But I didn’t feel that I could find a way to pursue this until I discovered Social Policy. It was a fluke, a passing comment by a lecturer at my college, a quick read of Alcock’s Social Policy in Britain and I knew I had found what I was unknowingly looking for.

Poverty, inequality and stratification where my initial interests but I soon discovered that underpinning this, and every other social problem, are a series of debates about the nature of the problem and the appropriate solution. And this isn’t just ideological, it’s conceptual.

“I understand now that these problems exist because we cannot agree on the nature of the problem and the solution.”

This is why concepts have become such an integral part of my thinking, research and teaching. In Foundations of the Welfare State, Briggs (1984: 1) states ‘There was no single impulse behind the making of the welfare state’: rather there are multiple. Exploring conceptual debates in relation to welfare allows us to explore a combination of these impulses: need, citizenship, equality, stigma, social control, and globalisation.

What is fascinating about concepts however is that they are not static. There is no one concept of need which underpins all welfare debates, there are several. The task therefore is to consider how you define need and how you can identify and justify this definition with a longer historical debate. This is what fascinated me. Why, if we have the evidence that, for example, if 14m people live in poverty in the UK, more than 800m globally are in extreme poverty, and, according to FEANTSA, the European Federation of National Organisations Working with the homeless, homelessness is on the increase across Europe (except in Finland), do these social problems persist? That younger version of me was both fascinated and frustrated, surely this shouldn’t be? I still am both fascinated and frustrated but I understand now that these problems exist because we cannot agree on the nature of the problem and the solution.

“By exploring welfare debates you can start to understand other views, as well as your own and find the conceptual language for arguing in favour of the change you wish to pursue”

This is not just an ideological debate, but also conceptual. How we define need, equality and social rights, for example, shape how we respond to social problems. Whether we think a particular problem is something the state should be actively eradicating or if we need to rely upon other mechanisms in the market or voluntary sector.

Just as there are many reasons for developing a welfare state, there are different ideas about how we respond to welfare. Understanding these ideas, or concepts, is the essential starting point for studying social policy and for changing the world we live in.

For new students to social policy, however, these can be unsettling discussions. We all come to our studies with some exposure and experience of different insights, debates and views of social problems. But social policy requires that you develop a broader understanding. By exploring welfare debates you can start to understand other views, as well as your own and find the conceptual language for arguing in favour of the change you wish to pursue to tackle injustices and to remake the world around us. Concepts are just one of a number of tools you need to make change, but they are the starting point.

 

Exploring welfare debates [FC] rgb

 

Exploring welfare debates by Lee Gregory is available with 20% discount on the Policy Press website. Order here for £17.59.

Find out more about impact, influence and engagement at Policy Press here.

Policy Press newsletter subscribers receive a 35% discount – sign up here.

The views and opinions expressed on this blog site are solely those of the original blog post authors and other contributors. These views and opinions do not necessarily represent those of the Policy Press and/or any/all contributors to this site.

 

The Troubled Families Programme: changing everything, yet changing nothing

 

Troublemakers FC

‘Troublemakers’ is out now

Stephen Crossley, author of Troublemakers: The construction of ‘troubled families’ as a social problem – out today – examines the most recent Troubled Families Programme Outcomes report, which published last week.

 

The Evolution of the Trouble Families Programme

The Troubled Families Programme (TFP), originally tasked with ‘turning around’ the lives of 120,000 ‘troubled families’ in a single term of parliament has evolved into a different type of programme since its inception, albeit one with many enduring features. The expanded criteria for the second phase of the TFP shifted from allegedly criminal, anti-social and ‘workless’ families, to include those experiencing troubles such as domestic violence and health issues.

The ‘next phase’ of the programme, announced in April 2017, sought to bring sharper focus to the work of the TFP by emphasising the need to support ‘workless’ families into employment. The criteria for identifying and prioritising families for the programme changed, the outcomes expected by the programme also shifted, but some core, sometimes unintentional, features of the programme remain, including the labelling of disadvantaged families as ‘troubled’.

 

Disproving the ‘underclass’ theory

The most recent findings, published on 27th March, highlight some continuities with previous ‘troubled families’ publications.

“Fewer than 10% of ‘troubled families’ were involved with one or more anti-social behaviour incidents in the twelve months prior to entering the programme”

By way of example, we learn from the latest Outcomes report that:

  • Fewer than 10% of ‘troubled families’ were involved with one or more anti-social behaviour incidents in the twelve months prior to entering the programme (p24);
  • Only one in three ‘troubled families’ are classed as ‘workless’ (p20);
  • Fewer than 2% of ‘troubled families’ had ever been evicted (p21);
  • and just 2.8% of children in ‘troubled families’ had a caution in the 12 months prior to entering the programme.

The findings thus mirror two sets of evaluation data from the first phase of the programme (Final report on the family monitoring data and An interim report showing family monitoring data), and demonstrate that the stigmatising feckless, workshy, ‘neighbours from hell’ imagery associated with ‘troubled families’ courtesy of powerful individuals such as David Cameron, Eric Pickles and Louise Casey, is entirely inappropriate. Essentially, the official evaluation of the TFP is the latest in a long line of research that helps to disprove the longstanding theory of an ‘underclass’.

 

Changing nothing

The impact of the programme also continues to look problematic, considering this was a flagship social policy that was originally intended to ‘turn around’ the lives of ‘troubled families’ and change the way that the government intervened in their lives.

The impact study of the first phase of the programme was ‘unable to find consistent evidence’ that the programme ‘had any significant or systematic impact’ (p20). Since the renewed focus on tackling ‘worklessness’ was announced in April 2017, 104,809 families were worked with on the programme. Of these, just 4,807 families entered ‘continuous employment’ in the last year. In just under three years, not a single ‘troubled family’ in Newham (out of 2858 on the programme) has met the ‘continuous employment’ criteria according to the latest figures. And yet, over a slightly longer period, over 1000 families met this criteria in Liverpool. The difference between such figures (and there are plenty of other inconsistencies) is not explained.

The main finding in the Outcomes report is that a significantly smaller proportion of children were classed as children in need (a 3.9 percentage point difference, a statistically significant difference) after 6-12 months of work under the TFP, than similar families in a matched comparison groups who were not on the programme over a similar period. This improvement is to be welcomed, but given the resources allegedly attached to the TFP, the intensive, transformative approach, and the allegedly failing approach of other services, it hardly represents conclusive evidence that the family intervention model is worth the effort.

 

Deflection

The continuing focus on ‘families’ – either ‘troubled’ or ‘workless’ – and on the family intervention approach continues to deflect attention away from the quantity and quality of jobs on offer, and their suitability or otherwise for carers of young children and/or disabled or vulnerable adults. The potential consequences of poor, or insecure, or sporadic work on disadvantaged families’ lives remained undiscussed. Poor quality, poorly paid, irregular work, often at unsociable hours in the early morning or late at night, accompanied by potential or changes to benefits entitlements, does not always lead to less parental conflict, more support for ‘children in need’, or a greater, more sustainable income. The pejorative term ‘workless’ ignores the amount of domestic and caring work that takes place within ‘troubled families’, many of whom have young children and/or family members with health issues or disabilities.

“The transformation of local services that the government claims is taking place under the TFP appears to be driven more by ideology than evidence.”

 

Ideology not evidence

Despite the evidence that suggests a lack of impact in many areas, there also remains claims of the allegedly transformative aims of the TFP. As each phase of the programme has been announced, and as its profile and importance has dropped, there has been an increase in the extent to which the programme claims to be transforming and re-shaping local services. The most recent annual report claims that the programme ‘drives service reform’, ‘drives reduction in social care demand’ and ‘promotes social justice’. Problematic and/or slow progress of many families on the programme suggests that the family intervention approach might not be worth ‘rolling out’ and ‘mainstreaming’. The transformation of local services that the government claims is taking place under the TFP appears to be driven more by ideology than evidence.

 

Troublemakers FCTroublemakers by Stephen Crossley is available with 20% discount on the Policy Press website. Order here for £19.99.

Find out more about impact, influence and engagement at Policy Press here.

Policy Press newsletter subscribers receive a 35% discount – sign up here.

The views and opinions expressed on this blog site are solely those of the original blog post authors and other contributors. These views and opinions do not necessarily represent those of the Policy Press and/or any/all contributors to this site.

Co-creating impact: why universities and communities should work together

Kate Pahl and Keri Facer, authors of Valuing interdisciplinary collaborative research, discuss the value of co-production and collaboration between academic researchers and community projects. 

Valuing Interdisciplinary Collaborative Research will be launched at the Co-Creating Cities & Communities Summer Event today in Bristol #ahrcconnect #citiesandcoms2017 @ahrcconnect

Kate Pahl

Keri Facer

“Increasingly, universities are being asked to work with communities in more inclusive, collaborative and ethical ways, but their processes and practices are often overlooked, particularly within the arts and humanities.

University ways of knowing and doing are only one part of research and new conceptual tools are needed to make sense of this. This makes for a new and exciting research landscape.

“Impact isn’t just about academics doing brilliant, original research… impact is co-created.”

The ‘impact’ agenda needs to shift to recognise the nature of ‘co-produced impact’. That is, impact isn’t just about academics doing brilliant, original research which is written up in articles and then re-produced in different forms to a grateful community which draws on this research.

Instead, impact is co-created. People have ideas, in communities and in universities and they work on these together, bringing different knowledges and practices to those questions and ideas. This then produces a different kind of knowledge – richer, more diverse, more carefully located in real and everyday contexts and more relevant.

Connected Communities

The Connected Communities (CC) programme, headed by the AHRC cross-research council, has funded over 300 projects, worked with over 500 collaborating organisations and over 700 academics from universities across the UK, on topics ranging from festivals to community food, from everyday creativity to care homes, from hyper-local journalism to community energy.

‘Valuing Collaborative Interdisciplinary Research’ (Policy Press 2017), the latest volume in the Connected Communities book series, brings together a number of diverse and rich research projects that range from community evaluation, to how community values play out in collaborative research, how decisions on heritage should be made, and on what artists do when they work with academics and communities together with the role of performance in highlighting community concerns.

Many different people contributed to the projects ranging from people from the Heritage Lottery Fund and The Science Museum, to people working within communities as well as within universities.

facer-blog-pic

Some themes which emerge in the book include translation, co-production, dialogic modes of research and tacit and embodied knowledge. A key theme is the nature of knowledge and its production practices . Ways of capturing everyday knowledge, through stories, maps, material objects, conversations and performances, are discussed and considered.

In the book we attempt to map this new world out. We offer a set of helpful ideas and ways forward to articulate what is needed to do this sort of work. We argue that projects like this need to include an element of productive divergence.

“Perhaps if this kind of research was funded more often, surprises like the recent election result wouldn’t have come as so much of a shock.”

The projects are often grounded in the world materially and objects play a strong part. They often involve mess, uncertainty, complexity and a focus on practice and involve translating across different fields, as well as stories as a mode of exchange. Many of the projects draw on tacit and embodied learning that were informed by arts methodologies as well as ideas from sensory and phenomenological perspectives.

Perhaps if this kind of research was funded more often, surprises like the recent election result wouldn’t have come as so much of a shock. Universities need to become more attuned to the voices of communities, to their accounts of what is important and necessary to research. The Connected Communities programme and this book make a start in redressing the balance.

 

Valuing interdisciplinary collaborative research edited by Keri Facer and Kate Pahl is available with 20% discount on the Policy Press website. Order here for £19.99.

Find out more about impact, influence and engagement at Policy Press here.

Policy Press newsletter subscribers receive a 35% discount – sign up here.

The views and opinions expressed on this blog site are solely those of the original blog post authors and other contributors. These views and opinions do not necessarily represent those of the Policy Press and/or any/all contributors to this site.

SPA Conference Review

Image of blog authorA review of the 2012 Social Policy Association conference
By Lee Gregory, PhD Candidate Cardiff School of Social Sciences

When asked to review the recent SPA conference for the Policy Press blog I have to admit it raised some concern. How do you review something so large and diverse when you really get to see so little of everything that is going on? But I soon pulled out a couple of overarching themes from the conference, which perhaps make this year stand out from previous years.

First, of course, this year’s SPA was a joint event. Working in collaboration with the East Asian Social Policy research network (EASP) the conference brought together a wide range of perspectives, ideas and research. This was reflected not only in the range of papers on offer to delegates but also in the plenary sessions which drew out some comparative discussions between East Asia and the UK in relation to inequalities: a topic of renewed concern during a time of “austerity”. The conference ended with the ambition of future collaboration, on the basis of a joint agreement signed by the SPA and EASP, to continue working together.

The second overarching issue was the use of twitter. Whilst twitter may have been in use during previous SPA conferences, this year conference had an official hashtag #socpol2012 (for the non-tweeting readers, this is a way to label a post on twitter so posts can be collected together). The use of twitter actually addresses, to some extent, the concern that passed through my mind when first asked to write this blog piece. By following the hashtag I was able to read the key points coming out of presentations and discussions in paper sessions I couldn’t attend. Tweeting during conference also allowed a new platform for sharing ideas. Not only accessible to the public but also providing a digital record offering small insights into the conference.

Both of these developments are refreshing and encouraging. Refreshing because they provide new opportunities to connect with other academics (and the wider public), to share ideas and thinking. Encouraging, because they show a concern within the SPA to look beyond the conference to wider audiences.

One theme repeated from last year was the need to campaign and seek change not just to defend the social sciences but to challenge the ideas and policies being put forward by the Coalition Government (although I would urge a need to consider the devolved context in which policy debates now take place, I am, after all, currently based in a Welsh institution). Seeking collaboration with other organisations reminds us of the global contexts in which these issues take place, and twitter gives us a local means of engaging debate and change.

Lee Gregory, PhD Candidate Cardiff School of Social Sciences
http://ljgregory.wordpress.com/

Celebrating the British Welfare State?

The UK has recently looked back over the last sixty years in the context of the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee celebrations. At The Policy Press we have been thinking about what the last sixty years have really meant for Britain, and would love to know your thoughts – by leaving a comment on this blog, emailing tpp-marketing@bristol.ac.uk or on Twitter @policypress.

Here, author Paul Spicker (How Social Security Works, Social Policy) takes a look at what has happened to the British Welfare State over this time:

The British Welfare State was intended to be an ideal. Asa Briggs identified three key elements by which it would act:

“First by guaranteeing individuals and families a minimum income irrespective of the market value of their work, or their property. Second by narrowing the extent of insecurity by enabling individuals and families to meet certain “social contingencies” (for example sickness, old age and unemployment) which lead otherwise to individual or family crisis, and third, by ensuring that all citizens without distinction of status or class are offered the best standards available in relation to a certain agreed range of social services.”  (Briggs A., ‘The welfare state in historical perspective’, European Journal of Sociology, 1961, 2, pp.221-258)

Although he refers three times to “individuals” and “families”, the Welfare State was conceived in collectivist terms. It depended on the idea that some things are done better through collective action, that government needed to serve the public, that it should try to ensure basic universal standards, and that it should do things as best it could.

The assault on the Welfare State by the New Right, and the shift in politics that has taken place since, challenged the conceptual foundation of the Welfare State, not just its practice. The market economy is now taken as the norm. The Treasury’s Green Book advises:

“Before any possible action by government is contemplated, it is important to identify a clear need which it is in the national interest for government to address. Accordingly, a statement of the rationale for intervention should be developed. This underlying rationale is usually founded either in market failure or where there are clear government distributional objectives that need to be met. Market failure refers to where the market has not and cannot of itself be expected to deliver an efficient outcome; the intervention that is contemplated will seek to redress this. Distributional objectives are self-explanatory and are based on equity considerations.”  (HM Treasury, n.d., Green Book, at http://www.hm-treasury.gov.uk/d/green_book_complete.pdf)

It appears, then, that it is not good enough for government to justify their actions because they would benefit people, because they protect people’s rights, because the government has a moral commitment – or even because it has been elected to address an issue. We have lost sight of the fundamental principle that government is there to do things for people.

Paul Spicker.

Paul Spicker’s book How Social Security Works is available for only £15 until the end of June only. Order your copy here.

Hedgehogs, Foxes and Sociologists*

Dr. Katherine Smith                        Dr. Nasar Meer

 

Dr. Nasar Meer and Dr. Katherine Smith write:

The late Isaiah Berlin once distinguished between two types of political animal: the first was a prickly hedgehog (who views the world through the lens of a single defining idea), and the other a cunning fox (for whom the world cannot be boiled down to a single idea).  Sociologists have traditionally aspired to be neither. Motivated less by ‘normative’ positions and arguments, it is with some bemusement that many of us have encountered Aditya Chakrabortty’s recent admonishments.

Like Bill Jordan (see previous blog post), we agree that the study of economics has been found wanting, and that Chakrabortty certainly catches something of a deeper conversation amongst academics, with the important proviso that Chakrabortty’s piece on occasion conflates those who study markets with those who feverishly endorse them. True, economics has in places been stripped of its critical and holist features, but there are political economists who continue, often persuasively, to take a more direct route (see for example David Harvey’s RSA lecture on the financial crisis). We do not wish to intrude on private grief however and so will leave economists to speak for themselves and focus instead on those who have disappointed Chakrabortty most.

A prevailing strand of sociological inquiry in Britain has long sought to make our social world more knowable through a methodology of verstehen; a term employed by the German sociologist Max Weber (1864-1920).  While this can incorporate quantitative and comparative perspectives, Weber’s task was to ‘empathetically understand’ the ways in which the actions of people and groups in society are inscribed with ‘meaning’.  Through the study of this meaning, he maintained, we could observe intentional or unintentional social outcomes, as shown in his study of early capitalism in Northern Europe, and specifically the role of a Calvinist-Protestant work ethic in encouraging capital accumulation and investment.

Much has changed in sociology, and we have past many ‘post-’s, but these approaches remain familiar to students and teachers of the discipline whose research spans the seemingly banal to the most contested; the most intimate to the most innocuous topics. That is to say that there is perhaps a consensus that whatever else sociological inquiry resembles, it must necessarily be motivated by a concern with something greater than political debate. It is here that Chakrabortty’s lament that a ‘Focauladian lens’ or studying ‘the holistic massage industry’ is a distraction from what really matters comes up short; not least because he repeats the error he is critiquing by giving primacy to all that is seemingly ‘economic’. Another way of putting this is to say that economics is not the only sphere of the social world and, to reverse the problem, it is short-sighted to uncouple economics from the study of culture, gender, ethnicity, and so forth, and so miss the intersectionalities of social phenomena.

This means it is not for sociologists to ‘defeat’ economists but to engage in sociologically valid inquiry that incorporates more than economics.  This does not mean ignoring the economic crisis rather to take it in the round. Hence the core theme of the 2010 British Sociological Conference (BSA) was ‘Inequalities and Social Justice’, while ‘Sociology in the Age of Austerity’ was the core theme for our 2012 meeting. Each of these showcased important arguments that are yet to find their way into press, partly because the rigours of peer-review can entail a lag of around eighteen months between article submission and publication (we have elsewhere discussed what the implications of increased auditing of scholarship might entail) http://www.timeshighereducation.co.uk/story.asp?storycode=419128.  Nonetheless, there is a diverse range of sociological scholarship on the economic crisis that offers more than the sum of its parts and so deals with the big questions too http://tinyurl.com/6wy6jrb

In many ways Chakrabortty’s concern strikes at the heart of what has been debated widely – indeed on the pages of the journals he says ignore the economic crisis – as Public Sociology.  An important point here is that there is more than one ‘public’.  So when sociologists engage in the mass media, as is easily observed in the mediatised letters and campaigns against the NHS and Social Care Bill or the hike in tuition fees, Michael Gove’s ‘free’ schools, or the Government’s targeting of the most vulnerable, this is just one kind of public.  Sociologists also engage with other ‘publics’, many of which may be less visible to journalists such as local communities, prisons, virtual communities, and students (of various kinds, both inside and outside universities), as well as conventional academic publics. These too are sociological terrains of political economy.

It may be easy for Chakrabortty to dismiss a few (purposively selected) niche research topics as irrelevant but it is equally important to ensure that those with a public voice do not presume to know what is, and what is not, of interest to different kinds of publics. In the context of the economic crisis and its fall out, debates that take place between broadsheet commentators, academics and policymakers are just one kind of conversation (and, if we are honest, a rather elite and limited kind).

*Dr. Nasar Meer is a Senior Lecturer in Sociology at Northumbria University www.nasarmeer.com, and author of The impact of European Equality Directives upon British Anti-Discrimination Legislation, Policy & Politics, 38(2). Dr. Katherine Smith is a Lecturer in the Global Public Health Unit at Edinburgh University http://www.sps.ed.ac.uk/staff/social_policy/katherine_smith


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