Friday, 29 August 2014

More on the Big Society

Just like Lothian 22 buses – you wait for one academic paper on the Big Society to come along and then two arrive at the same time. This time it’s Homo Economicus in the Big Society, not Bourdieu with it: ‘Homo Economicus in a Big Society: Understanding Middle-class Activism and NIMBYism towards New Housing Developments’ in Housing Theory and Society. It’s for a special issue of the journal that came out of the first of a set of ESRC-funded seminars on the Big Society, Localism and Housing. I presented my work on middle-class activism at the first seminar in Sheffield and this became this paper. The final paper ended up being co-authored with Prof. Glen Bramley and Prof. Annette Hastings.

The paper is actually two bits of empirical work brought (smashed?) together. The argument is:
  • British Social Attitudes Survey (BSAS) data demonstrates alarming opposition to new housing
  • This opposition tends to be in suburban, or non-remote rural locations, the sorts of places stuffed full of middle-class community activists
  • The only thing that would really overcome this argument is if the development offered more local employment, which housing developments very rarely do
  • The logic implicit in neighbourhood planning and the associated financial incentives is that this opposition is driven by peoples’ opposition to costs that affect them individually
  • Actually, we argue that the opposition is driven by the threat to peoples’ identity as it is expressed through their housing choices and sense of home.

The two bits of work were actually done separately. Prof. Bramley had done the analysis of the BSAS data, including modelling at a local level. I’d started to think about the other theoretical analysis. We realised we could bring the two bits of empirical analysis together for this paper.

The trouble is, the paper is based on 2010 BSAS data. Since then, the 2013 BSAS data on attitudes to new housing have been published (pdf) and it shows a bit of a different story. The extremely good news is opposition has dropped from 46% to 31% and support grown from 28 to 47%. Now, if I were Eric Pickles I’d be thinking “woo, neighbourhood planning has worked! Everyone wants new housing!”.

However, I’d suggest that, as I argued a couple of years ago, the problems of never-ending house price rises and the growth of the incredibly poor quality private rented sector, means housing is becoming a middle-class issue and rising up the political agenda as little Sebastian or Tabatha struggle to get a decent home on a professional salary. And we all know that these housing problems are a combination of: a lack of regional planning, meaning the market focuses growth in London and the Southeast; low interest rates and thus the low cost of mortgages and increase in effective demand for housing; as Danny Dorling has argued, the lack of housing supply due to under-occupancy in the owner-occupied sector by older people (my mum in her four-bedroomed house); and a lack of new building.

A couple of the findings of the latest BSAS data do continue to support our thesis. Opposition among homeowners to new housing is still far higher than for renters in either private or social sectors. These are the people we suggest would have most to lose if their sense of elective/selective belonging – their identity – was threatened by 200 Barratt/Bellway boxes turning up on their doorstep. Also, although overall opposition in the highest income decile fell from 49% to 33%, supporting my housing-as-a-middle-class-problem thesis, it remained high, at around a third, in the places we’d expect – suburbs and non-remote towns.

Rather interestingly, this time around BSAS asked questions directly about the so-called “Boles bung”; or to be precise they were asked if they would support new housing if extra money was provided for local public services. Again, I’d argue, the results support our thesis: 47% said it would make them support; 50% said it wouldn’t. If homeowners were homo economicus, making rational decisions based on the immediate costs we’d expect to see much greater support if local public services were improved. These results suggest a much more pyscho-social homo democratus is at work here, positioning themselves in society with their residential choices and having and internal and external debate about anything that would affect this. 

Friday, 22 August 2014

Bourdieu and the Big Society

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.

Tuesday, 12 August 2014

My first book chapter

My first book chapter is coming out soonly. It’s entitled Time, belonging and development – a challenge for participation and research and is part of a collection edited by Nick Gallent and Daniela Ciaffi called Community Planning and Action published by Policy Press.

I was honoured to be asked to offer the chapter by Nick and Daniela. My chapter is one of the front three theoretical thinkpiece chapters and I’m in illustrious company with Nick and Daniela and Yvonne Rydin. The chapter was my first book chapter and I relished the opportunity to do a bit more “blue-skies” thinking and theoretical work in my writing. However, at the start I was slightly paralysed by fear. Some of the book chapters of this ilk I have read and have been some of the most inspiring and influential writing for me – was I up to the job? I’d also only really written my thesis and many journal articles in my academic career. At this time I was particularly into the swing of journal article writing and this style of writing is very different indeed. Luckily Pat Thomson came to the rescue after a plea from me with this very useful blog post that enabled me to frame my chapter as a contribution to a “topic based edited collections”.

The chapter itself moves some of the theoretical work I started doing in my Very Difficult Theory Paper forward. Essentially I play around with the temporal points I was making in that paper – that much as moments of community planning and engagement can be highly antagonist it seems, from my empirical work, that over the longer term debate tends towards Habermasian communicative norms, particularly in land-use planning because the tangibility of the outputs means they become part of the discourse itself; literally buildings speak. They are also imbued with meaning. This is theoretical work I’d like to take further considering the listing of modernist buildings and the controversies around this, but also the meaning-full-ness (I’m using wanky po-mo construction there deliberately, forgive me) of demolition.

(There’s also some interesting arts stuff here about “invitations” to participate and participation on a spectrum from witnessing to engagement which I learnt about yesterday, but that I’m still processing that I want to bring into this theoretical debate…)

Of particular interest in writing the chapter, and something I am definitely going to take further, was the idea of critical temporalities, which I got from Michelle Bastian’s fantastic Temporal Belonging project and the outputs of the Power, Time and Agency workshop. This is basically the idea that our sense of time – our temporalities – are highly varied, subjective, and unequal and created by power structures in wider society. These power structures can be conceived in Foucauldian or structuralist ways. If you go back to the old title of this blog – Urbanity and History – this focus on the nuances and experiences of time greatly appeals to me.

A final note of thanks has to go to Nick Gallent, the editor. He was enormously helpful in providing ample and extremely useful critical feedback on drafts of the chapter and has helped make it something that when I go back to look at it again, as I did when I was reviewing the proofs, I actually thought “hang on, this isn’t too bad at all.”

So, if you’re interested in purchasing the book – the other chapters are excellent as well – if you download this flyer you can get a substantial discount. Once I know the rules (i.e. whether I can) I’ll pop a pre-print version on my page of the Stirling institutional repository as well.

Now I just have to crack on and edit my first book with Dr Dave O'Brien. With Nick's example, this will be a very tall order to follow!