Tuesday, 18 July 2017

A Woman's Work

The most recent book I finished reading was Harriet Harman’s A Woman’s Work. I was interested in reading it after it had been trailed in The Guardian. I wasn’t going to “review” it much at all; I was mainly going to recommend people buy it, and give my copy to my mum. But two things made me thing again. First was the “anniversary” of when, as stand-in leader of the Labour Party in opposition, Harman advised her MPs to vote for welfare reform in 2015. This is symbolically portrayed as when the tide turned in favour of Jeremy Corbyn in the Labour leadership race. Harman became the totemic “Blairite”. Ironically, for the theme of the book, I’d argue there’s an inherent sexism in there – the presumption is Harman, as a woman cannot have her own views; she is just the stooge of the men around her. Secondly, I asked my Twitter followers if they’d like a review, and I got overwhelmed

I just want to pick up on three aspects of the book that were noteworthy to me. Firstly, life was really quite exceptionally bad for women before 1997 and it’s quite a bit better now. It’s not perfect, but thanks to Harriet Harman and her allies in the women’s movement, it’s quite a bit better. This seems to come from something that only a woman could really do – listen to women’s concerns, empathise with them, and make the practical changes needed. For example, being a naïve man I was not aware how stupidly moralistic and patriarchal the rules regarding lone parent benefit were. It was designed on the presumption women should not be in work. They should be in a relationship with a man who would earn the money for the household. Even if he was abusing her. As Secretary of State for Social Security, Harman changed that through the New Deal for Lone Parents.

Another good example this this approach, and the pragmatic challenges it led to, is the minimum wage. The men-dominated trades unions had pushed for this to be half the median wage. Harman realised that this rate would be good for men in full time work, but probably lead to thousands of low-paid women losing their jobs. She argued forcefully that such work was not “pin money” for households, but a vital part of their income, the freedom of these women, and that many of these women were lone parents who would lose their only income. She pushed this argument with the support of the trade union that represented poorly paid women workers in the textile industry the National Union of Knitwear, Footwear and Apparel Trades. The result was the Low Pay Commission. Of course, this led to her gaining enemies in the trades unions

It sort of goes without saying that Harriet Harman (or “Harperson” as she was *hilariously* referred to) has received endless sexist, misogynist abuse in her life. The reporting associated with the book’s launch focused on her being sexually harassed by a lecturer at the University of York. This was early-on, and shocking, but arguably not the worst. Taking on a men-dominated labour movement through advocating for women workers, and all-women shortlists, Harman was subject to truly shocking abuse and exclusion, as were many other women. The story of the introduction of all-women shortlists should make many men in the Labour movement utterly ashamed and should lead to public apologies at the way women were treated. Of course, it won’t.

The third reason I liked the book came to me at the end – it’s tucked away in the acknowledgements. She writes:

I’d always denounced political memoirs as male vanity projects and vowed never to write mine – so this book requires an explanation. I read the mounting pile of memoirs of the men who’d been my Cabinet colleagues. They wrote about themselves and each other but there was nothing about women.” (p.383)

She goes on:

Because I didn’t plan to write my memoirs, I never wrote a diary during my time in politics. I thoroughly disapproved of colleagues who sat in meetings writing theirs; I thought they should have been focusing on getting things done in the here and now, rather than anticipating their place in history.” (p.383)

There’s a wonderfully humility and passion here. After I read it I just thought "go Harriet!" She got into politics to change women’s lives for the better. The book is not a memoir, or a biography. It is a book about the progress the women’s movement had made over the past 50 years, from Harman’s perspective, and it is a joy to read because of that, and incredibly informative. The only weakness is she is not a brilliant writer and the prose can be clunky. I imagine it’s how I might write a book – I’m very good at reports and reasonably good at extended academic writing, but would struggle in the genre of this type of book. But it’s definitely worth reading. Being the first Mother of the House is a richly deserved accolade for Harman for all her work in her 25 years in Parliament. 

Friday, 7 July 2017

What don’t straight people like?

As I’ve blogged about before here, an emerging finding from my current research on LGBT housing and homelessness is the reticence of heterosexual-identifying staff in organisations to ask service users their sexual identity. In 20 days’ time, it will be the 50th anniversary of the decriminalisation of sex between two men, in private, in England and Wales when the Sexual Offences Act 1967 received royal assent. The Hansard record of the debates relating to the parliamentary bill given an interesting, if alarming, insight into social attitudes at the time.

This has led to quite a bit of focus on changing social attitudes to same-sex relationships. For example, the National Centre for Social Research tweeted this graph from the British Social Attitudes Survey demonstrating how we’ve become more accepting of same-sex relationships.

Yet my lived experience, and also my research findings suggest something different – an acceptance, but a remaining discomfort. I’ve got to think through this because one of the ways I was thinking of “queer-ying” policy, and to hit home my point that it should be normal to ask people their sexual identity, was to do a cartoon gently mocking the assumption that asking people if they are straight, gay or bisexual, is asking a question about what they get up to between the sheets (or anywhere else they may choose to have sex). I still think this will work, but I’ve realised I’ve got to do some more work on it.

As part of making sense of my data from my project I’m reading into queer theory. I’m not an expert – in a disciplinary sense, I live in policy studies – so I’ve been going to “readers”. It’s interesting for me with my historians perspective on as a lot of the texts in them are quite dated and pre-exist much of the legislative progress of the last decade in the UK and elsewhere. Here, I want to draw on the excerpt from Ahmed in the Routledge Queer Studies Reader, ‘Queer Feelings’. She focuses on the discomfort generated by being “queer”, or non-normative, and the way this rubs up against a heteronormative society. I read a lot of the chapter thinking of Panti Bliss’ famous speech on oppression.

It has also got me thinking a bit more about the discomfort people say they would feel if they had to ask people their sexuality. As I wrote previously, I do empathise with this discomfort a lot – I would probably feel a little bit apprehensive. Reading Ahmed though has got me focusing on what exactly is discomforting? Arguably, marriage equality has garnered such support because it is assimilationist – it is gay people doing what straight people do, pairing up, settling down, and having sex just with one another.

So is it the sex that a heteronormative society finds so discomfiting? I did a little experiment on this myself because I noticed that my tweets regarding LGBT issues got very little attention. Searching for a GIF once I found one that was from a gay porn film. It didn’t take much to find quite a few others on the Twitter GIF search. So I posted a hard core gay porn GIF, the obliquely showed a sexual act between two men, every day for a week. I got two likes, and one of them was for a GIF that was a passionate kiss. This suggested, to me, at least an ambivalence towards sexual acts between men.

Particularly in the UK we find all sex discomfiting. However, we are getting better at having open discussions about heterosexual sex – just not necessarily the right discussions with the right people. But we’re happy to accept lesbian and gay couples, and indeed celebrate them through marriage, yet when we consider them actually having sex, I suspect we’ve got an awful lot further to go on social attitudes. 

Wednesday, 5 July 2017


I read a 500-page biography of Jürgen Habermas so you don't have to. Actually, it's quite a good read, better than I feared. There were times when I actually couldn't put it down, and I'm not a fan of biographies generally. I was read this tome to review for Local Government Studies. Given the book was so long, I asked the book reviews editor to give me the equivalent of two reviews, but he didn't think it was of sufficient interest to the readers of LGS to warrant the full version so it got brutally edited down to 800 words. I don't mind, this was what we agreed when I went in to write it. The shorter version will be published soon, and in the mean time, you can read the 1,600-word version. 

Habermas: A Biography
Stefan Müller-Doohm (tr. Daniel Steuer)
Polity Press (Cambridge)
Hardback: 978-0-7456-8906-7

As an undergraduate studying history, a Professor was attempting to explain Habermas’ thesis in The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere in a lecture I was attending. They described how, like all German intellectuals, Habermas “dived in deeper, and came out muddier”. For many in the English-speaking academic world, this is one caricature they hold; for others Habermas is seen as an irrelevance, with his utopian vision of uncorrupted discourse being empirically disproved by a “post-truth” world of discursive conflict. Yet, when we look at the emphasis put on deliberation in governance reforms (the latest trend being co-production) or the campaigns for rational discourse in society to counter “fake news”, arguably, we are seeing the enduring impact of Habermas’ philosophical and political project, and his ever greater relevance in the present day.

Stefan Müller-Doohm’s biography of Habermas, now translated into English, gives an incredibly rich insight into Habermas’ intellectual project, but more importantly the personal drive behind it. Born in 1929, and growing up in the west German town of Gummersbach, Habermas’ cleft palate marked him out as different all his life. From 1933 this difference became of greater importance as it marked Habermas as a “degenerate” within the Nazi regime. However, like many of his generation, he was a member of the Hitler Youth, and trained as a first-aider and is photographed in marching to the frontline in August 1944 in the book.

What is very apparent from this biography is the deep impact these early experiences had on Habermas for his entire life. From the mid-1950s, Habermas started down the road to becoming the public intellectual he is widely known as within continental Europe. Writing with the milieu of the new democracy of the Bundesrepublik, he was committed to creating a critical, public discourse. This was within a country that had a very fragile democracy, of the sort even now we can barely imagine – where de-Nazification had been partial so as to leave some functioning bureaucracy; any alignment with Marxist doctrines ran the risk of individuals being accused of being sympathisers with the Demokratische Republik. This was a country where it was not until 1969 that Willy Brandt became the Social Democratic Chancellor, and the CDU/CSU dominance seemingly teetered on the brink of become authoritarian.

With this background illuminated by Müller-Doohm, the drive behind Habermas’ intellectual project become apparent. In sum, it is the recognition that democracy is fragile, historically contingent, and it needs explaining by social science. What is more, democracy also needs supporting, pragmatically and theoretically. This drive to use critical theory to embed a deep democracy that delivers equality, was in a context where Habermas had to negotiate between conservative university authorities and the warring factions that had emerged from the Frankfurt School. It is these moments, where the ideals of critical theory, or of contemporary left thought, bang up against the reality of navigating the contradictions of liberal capitalism, that are the most interesting of the book, and produce some page-turning sections.

In this review, I want to mention two, both occurring around the same time in that period of revolutionary fervour 1968. A thread running through the book is Habermas’ close collaboration with the publisher Suhrkamp and close friendship with Siegfried Unseld, owner and director, who turned it into an intellectual powerhouse in post-war West Germany. This included Habermas’ role in editing the Edition Suhrkamp book series. In a closely described section, Müller-Doohm explains how Unseld’s editorial staff, inspired by wider revolutionary fervour, presented an editorial charter to Unseld asking for the publisher to be “socialized” (p.151). Alarmed and supportive of Unseld, Habermas travelled to Frankfurt in October 1968 and, as described by Unseld:
using all his theoretical armour, presented the thesis that it would be nonsensical if a publishing house that brought out the right kind of progressive literature…was exposed to an experiment that would put the publisher’s present impact at risk.” (p.152)
The irony of one of the greatest critical thinkers of modern Europe negotiating against workers’ rights, in favour of a capitalism that could afford to publish his works and make them widely read across Germany, and the world, is somewhat pointed.

The second incident which highlights Habermas’ ambiguous position, is his response to student rebellions at this time. In the mid-1960s Habermas was at the heart of protests against the CDU-CSU-led Grand Coalition and its authoritarian tendencies. Along with protests against the Vietnam War, Habermas became embroiled in student demonstrations. It is clear Habermas’ was deeply committed to reform of higher education in West Germany. One of his earliest pieces of research had been on higher education students, considering the potential of them to drive social change. Habermas’ regularly spoke at student occupations (although it seems he was a little less keen when it was his own university being occupied). In 1969 Habermas’ collected writings on university reform were published as Protestbewegung und Hochschulreform (Protest Movement and University Reform).

However, in June 1967 the students’ union of the Freie Universität in Berlin protested against a state visit by the Shah of Persia. In the resulting brutal police break-up of the protest, a 26-year-old student Benno Ohnesorg was shot and killed. As student protests developed, Habermas supported the protests “but at the same time he also warned against an activism at any cost and against the danger of ‘provoking a transformation of the indirect violence of institutions into manifest violence.’” (p.141). Habermas’ was heavily criticised by the leader of the students’ movement Rudi Durschke, and in-turn, he denounced their ideology as “left-wing fascism”. This led to the tide to turn against Habermas, with student groups now distancing themselves from him.

These stories from formative years for Habermas, going onto Habermas’ period as director of the Max Planck Institute for the Study of the Scientific-Technical World in Starnberg, are the most interesting. It was at the Max Planck institute where Habermas wrote the Theory of Communicative Action and Müller-Doohm does a sterling job summarising the main thesis across a few pages. 

From the period of the late 1970s, the biography, unfortunately, becomes a little formulaic and something of a hagiography. Endless visiting professorships, prizes and the spreading importance of Habermas’ thought through the world are narrated. On reflection this could just be the result of where Habermas’ career had got to – this is the life of a global scholar. It could also be a result of a more careful curation of his public profile by Habermas, as his fame grew.

Why should a reader of Local Government Studies be interested in this (enormous) book? Participatory initiatives have now become a norm in governing practices at a local level. In manuals of good governance, countries are exalted to bring citizens into decision-making processes to make them better. In our scholarship we can focus on the policy initiatives that led to such participation institutions – for example, the Skeffington Report into participation in the planning in the United Kingdom. It is easy for us to get swept up in a critique of such initiatives as utterly failing to meet the utopian goals they set themselves, for example, using a Foucauldian critique to portray citizens as dupes doing what government wants them to do.

Yet very few of us would now question that such initiatives should exist, and that good quality discourse is essential to a lively democracy. Our revulsion to the use of “fake news” and ambiguity in what we count as the “truth” belies a deeper tradition from the enlightenment to seek the truth. Underlying these concerns is Habermas’ concept of a rational discourse among free and equal actors. In the English-speaking context, this remains implicit – we don’t get to read Habermas’ numerous contributions to Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung and De Welt that make him a very public scholar in Germany.

As already touched upon, it is clear from this biography that Habermas himself could not, necessarily, always live up to his own ideals. Another theme, is that throughout his career Habermas has benefited from many structural privileges that his critics, particularly Iris Marion Young, have suggested mean that his ideal speech situation can never come to pass. Put simply, the only woman who really has a role in this book is his wife Ute Wesselhöft, and then as an academic spouse, rather than a person in her own right. All the other key characters in Habermas’ life were men. His career was developing during a period when structural inequalities were much more likely to hold-back women and minority groups, so this is partly understandable as a product of the time. However, in the positions of authority he has had, such as founding the Max Planck institute, Habermas seems to have done little in terms of practical action, as his theoretical position would suggest he should, to address such structural issues. One would hope as a leading critical thinker Habermas was aware of such issues, but this is never apparent from the book.

To conclude, this book is an astounding overview of the life, and intellectual development, of one of Europe’s greatest thinkers, and one who is neglected in English-speaking social science. Müller-Doohm’s archival research is awe-inspiring. Reading the book from the perspective of the UK, with dominance of the tabloid media; a referendum that was recently won on a blatant untruth (the pledge Brexit would lead to £350 million for the NHS); where we are “tired of experts”, it is easy to scoff at Habermas’ ideal speech situation. What becomes clear from the book though, is that Germany does seem to have this – through the scholarly debates on the pages of the leading newspapers, major issues of the day are discussed. The continuing legacy for all of us from Habermas’ work is that we must keep our fragile democracies, at all levels, alive with discourse. 

Monday, 3 July 2017

What do we actually do when we do impact?

A long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away (well, when we had a UK Government that was thinking about localism and “The Big Society”) the Arts and Humanities Research Council’s Connected Communities programme funded three projects, along with the UK Department for Communities and Local Government (DCLG), to see how the research the programme had invested in so far could help policy. Skip forward a year and the teams involved in doing these reviews concluded that they had not, exactly, gone to plan. So, I ended up joining them on a project called Translation Across Borders to try and find out why.

Well, I have a paper out based on this project in Evidence & Policy. I’ll attempt to summarise it here.

Now, there is absolutely oodles of research out there, across numerous disciplines, on how and why policy-makers use evidence in their decisions, and the barriers to this. The unique value-added of this project was that it was co-produced with a civil servant who was actually involved in policy-making. Our co-author, Robert Rutherfoord, is a Principal Social Research at DCLG, and did fieldwork with me.

My role was to interview all the academics who had participated in producing the original policy reviews, with Robert, and find out what they had done and the barriers they found in taking their evidence into a policy-making environment. Our literature review found that doing this is remarkably rare – us academics seem to love asking policy-makers what they think the barriers are, and how they use evidence, but we don’t ask us academics what we think the barriers are. This is all the more surprising given all the wailing and gnashing of teeth regarding the Research Excellence Framework’s measurement of socio-economic impact since 2013.

What did we find? In the interpretive approach we took to analysing the data, three things stood out. Firstly, as academics, we construct our identities as biographies (like everyone else on the planet). These are key meaning-making devices for us and help situate us, and our practices in the here-and-now. Secondly, these biographies are strongly linked to disciplinary identities. Unsurprisingly, some disciplines – like policy studies – more commonly do work with policy-makers, or attempt to affect change in policy, than other disciplines. This is a bit of a “no shit, Sherlock” finding, but surprisingly it is not dealt with a lot in the literature, perhaps because the need for diverse disciplines to affect policy-making has only emerged in the last decade and they are only just beginning to self-reflect. On this count, I find the delightfully naïve debates in mainstream political science interesting when you compare them to policy studies, who have been concerning themselves with this issue for the last 70 years. The final insight was that institutional pressures, particularly the demand to produce 4* journal articles for the REF means that the sorts of activities that are recognised to help deliver “impact” – developing working relationships with policy-makers and networks of influence – are not prioritised or encouraged within internal performance management systems.

Now, a lot of this will come as no surprise to many academics. Indeed it didn’t necessarily come as a surprise to us. What did come as a surprise to us, and why this research is important, was that this our civil servants we were co-producing with did not know about much of this, particularly things like the impact of the REF on behaviour and incentive structures. Therefore, our recommendation as to what should be done better is a bit different to most other similar projects. Whereas a lot of “toolkits” and other training focused on getting academic evidence into policy-making focuses on “knowing your audience”, from a variety of different perspectives, we instead focused on the need for academics to know themselves better. Because, basically, academics are weird. We behave in a lot of ways that are completely alien to those outwith academia. And we need to pause and think about this every now and then. And also, policy-makers who want to work with academics would do well just to spend a short amount of time learning about what makes them tick, and understanding that there is diversity in what academics do, and how they do it.

To this end we did create some tools from this project to try and make this process a bit easier. One of these is some fun “academic archetype” cards that can be used to prompt reflection, and also help policy-makers understand academics a bit better. If you want to use these, please drop me an email, and this can be arranged. I’ll be presenting them at a “Research Bite” seminar in the University of Stirling Library Enterprise Zone on 2 August at 12:30. I’ll also probably bring them out at a session at the Australian National University on 11 October at 13:00, and possibly when I’m at the Department of Social Policy and Intervention, University of Oxford from the 13 November for a week.

We’re just organising Gold OA or Green OA for the paper, but in the meantime drop me an email if you want a copy and you don’t subscribe to E&P.