Stigma and the Unintended Consequences of Inequality

Dr Lisa McKenzie (was University of Nottingham now London School of Economics) gave a troubling and hugely insightful presentation at the ESRI seminar, on Wednesday 20th November.  The talk was slightly different to the proposed one – Belonging and Exclusion: Council estate life in Nottingham exploring instead stigmatized families and neighborhoods in terms of the unintended consequences of social inequality.  Lisa is an ethnographer, something she found herself to be like other curious and nosy individuals who become academics, and fitting of a methodology that seeks to relate complex social phenomena it was a talk built from personal narrative in relation to the content.

Lisa became an academic after joining an access course to go to university – it was either studying sociology or becoming a social worker, something that would be more likely to lead to a job. What helped her make the decision was hearing about Ken Coates and Richard Silburn’s (1983) study Poverty: The Forgotten Englishman, an ethnographic study of poverty in St Ann’s in Nottingham.  St Ann’s is a notorious council estate in Nottingham, a community in which Lisa had lived for 25 years.  That such research took place was a revelation to Lisa.  Since then she has sought to understand such communities from the inside; in comparison the tradition of white, middle-class men travelling into a community to research ‘them’, she wanted to understand why ‘we’ are like this?

lisa m

Her research agenda was to understand why there were so many white single mums with mixed-race babies and how the women living in St Ann’s found value in their lives.  To live in St Ann’s is to live in a maligned community, stigmatized by the media and citizens of Nottingham.  So how then do people living in St Ann’s come to value in their lives?  Belonging was a key dimension of the lives of the women Lisa researched.  ‘Being St Ann’s’ and claiming ‘I’m typical St Ann’s’ were repeatedly heard in conversations with the women she interviewed – but what did that mean?

Lisa found it difficult to get women living in St Ann’s to talk to her. Before consenting to be interviewed they would ask other people whether they knew her and then once they met the women would probe into her background asking who she knew, who her child’s father was, where she went to school and gradually connections would emerge and they would feel they could talk to her.  Thus part of St Ann’s is being known but also being talked about.  It was within these close networks on the estate that the women felt safe from the stigma, stereotypes and racism they experienced when as people from St Ann’s they went out into other communities and areas.  And so, St Ann’s gave stability and a place for people who’d been in care, lived in poverty or otherwise at the vagaries of a hard and uncaring world.

A deeply conservative message could be read into Lisa’s description of life in St Ann’s, with the unintended consequences of the benefit system meaning that father’s could not live with the mother’s of their children because it would cancel housing benefits and they did not have jobs to meet the bills themselves.  These were people that needed jobs and support but were not receiving it due to the way in which the welfare state engages with disadvantage.  It would be interesting to apply ethnography to understand how policies could engage with the interrelatedness and complexity of the lives of people living in communities such as St Ann’s.  However, as Lisa explained, maybe ethnography does not provide clear and definitive answers but rather makes accounts of communities more complicated, more interrelated and truer.

James Duggan

The TIPL Research Group Meeting

Cathy Lewin and Nic Whitton the co-directors of TIPL (Technology, Innovation and Play for Learning) convened the research group’s termly meeting to bring together all the academics and researchers across MMU to build relationships, meet fellow travellers and plot future research, on 19th November at ESRI.  Research meetings sometimes get lost beneath the endless personal introductions and individual discussions of research interests that get mixed up and lost as more and more people take their turn.  photo 4Not at TIPL.  We played person snap as an icebreaker and then we used post-it notes to create a word cloud of research interests.  Next came the playing cards and we were off into groups to discuss key activities to develop the research group:

  • Hands-on play sessions: game making, exploring new technologies,
  • Reading group
  • Themed ‘show and tell’ sessions around, for example, innovative research methodologies
  • Help and advice writing research proposals
  • Networking to develop collaborative funding proposals
  • Support writing publications and conference presentations
  • Hosting seminars and discussions around emerging research interests such as augmented reality
  • Developing relationships between emerging and more established researchers
  • Writing ‘dates’ where you meet another researcher and share your ideas (5 minutes each) and then you go off and write for 45 minutes
  • Using Lino It as a light touch approach to sharing opportunities and ideas across the research group
  • photo 1Developing networks and relationships beyond MMU, especially around interdisciplinary groups and research projects

So watch this space for news on developments or if you would like more information, TIPL is going to keep in contact through a Google doc and a group mailing list.  If you want to join the list, email Cathy or Nic.

James Duggan

Aspiration as a cruel attachment? Young people’s futures and vocabularies of inequality in an age of austerity

ESRI’s Kim Allen has been invited to give a keynote at the  initial meeting of the BERA Education, Youth Poverty and Social Class SIG on 22nd November at Goldsmith’s University.  For more information or to book a place, please follow this link.  The post below was written as part of this event:

The mission for this government is to build an aspiration nation. . . . It’s what’s always made our hearts beat faster – aspiration; people rising from the bottom to the top . . . Line one, rule one of being a Conservative is that it’s not where you’ve come from that counts, it’s where you’re going. . . . We just get behind people who want to get on in life. The doers. The risk takers…. We are the party of the want to be better-off, those who strive to make a better life for themselves and their families

(David Cameron, 2012)

Despite rising levels of poverty and inequality, where rising university fees, record levels of youth unemployment and a scaling back of the welfare state are already having deleterious effects on the life chances and wellbeing of young people, a powerful rhetoric of aspiration continues to abound: calls to ‘become someone’ and to ‘go somewhere’ saturate the current socio-political register.

Yet these incitements to ‘be aspirational’ are narrowly defined and individualizing, negating the broader inequalities which characterise the contemporary climate and powerfully shape who goes where in education and the labour market.  Under neoliberalism, poverty and other social-structural dimensions of class inequality are increasingly understood through the lens of individual pathologies and deficits (laziness, lack of motivation, poor choices, bad parenting) rather than the result of structural changes effected by neoliberalism (Tyler, 2013).  Indeed, as we see from David Cameron’s speech above, ‘success’ (or the lack of) has come to be become understood through notions of self-responsibility, self-management, enterprise, risk-taking and ‘hard work’.

As Stuart Hall and colleagues argue (2013), such discourses of self-sufficiency and individual enterprise do not only emerge from the mouths of our politicians but circulate across popular culture. As I have been closely analyzing over the last year as part of an ESRC funded project on celebrity culture and young people’s aspirations (with Heather Mendick and Laura Harvey), celebrity and popular culture is awash with incitements to ‘aspire’ and pursue our dreams – regardless of the barriers and challenges which may confront us.  From the emotional accounts of X-Factor contestants to the Royal wedding of an ‘ordinary commoner’, and celebrity backstories of ‘success against the odds’, we are bombarded with tales of the power of the individual to achieve their dreams – all through sheer determination, motivation and a ‘sickening work ethic’. These cultural texts operate as soft forms of power, working in chorus with political rhetoric to reproduce the neoliberal project and its ideal subject.

In an age of growing inequality, incitements to aspiration might represent what Lauren Berlant (2011) calls a relation of ‘cruel optimism’ that characterizes the social-democratic promise of post-war western Europe and the Unites States. She describes this as a prevailing orientation and attachment to the fantasy of the ‘good life’ (including the promise of upward mobility and economic security), despite living in conditions which thwart and undermine its realization.

The individualising rhetoric of aspiration that defines the contemporary has replaced or at least stifled alternative vocabularies of inequality, injustice and exploitation. As I have found in my research with young people from lower socio-economic backgrounds, this has deeply damaging consequences for those who experience class and other forms of inequality. As I argue elsewhere:

‘With only individualized explanations to hand, class inequality produces ‘ugly feelings’ (Ngai in Skeggs and Loveday, 2012) that can’t be attached to the right object – ‘to the injustices that produced the affect’ (2012: 487). Rather, without a conceptual frame of class, these experiences of exclusion and discrimination may be internalized and experienced as shame, self-doubt and lack. Or they may be projected onto phantom others (‘the ‘undeserving poor’, ‘the tasteless’) (Shildrick and MacDonald, 2013).’

(Allen, 2013)

In my keynote paper at the forthcoming BERA event on education, youth poverty and social class, I will attempt to engage with these ideas. Drawing on my experiences of conducting research with young people about their imagined futures and understandings of class, gender and racial inequality, I will interrogate how young people perceive their future and their capacity to shape it.  In considering how contemporary discourses of aspiration are lived, felt and negotiated by young people ‘making futures’ under conditions of austerity, I want to raise (rather than answer!) three questions:

Firstly, what are the consequences for young people if they can only understand and articulate their experiences, opportunities and outcomes in education and work through recourse to individualising explanations and conceptual frameworks? How might young people’s frustrations and anxieties with the toxic conditions of the present get articulated in ways other than self-blame or the ritual humiliation of ‘lesser’ others?

Secondly, as researchers and practitioners committed to social justice and equality, what dilemmas and challenges do we face when engaging young people in critical conversations about their futures? What is our responsibility to enable them to access an alternative perceptual framework for understanding their ‘success’ and ‘failure’ in education and work? In opening up a discussion about the presence and significance of class and other inequalities in shaping their opportunities, are we playing the role of critical pedagogues (Freire, 1970), providing tools that allow them to think differently and challenge the forces of oppression? Or are we ‘affect aliens’ (Ahmed, 2010), killing the joy and any optimism they may have about their future in ways that stifle rather than liberate?

Finally, if ‘aspiration’, as it is currently figured, pathologises, individualises and sustains cruel attachments to exhausting and toxic promises that can’t be fulfilled, is there a case for a politics that is ‘against aspiration’?  If so, what might an alternative political project look like which makes young lives more livable, and opens up the possibility of an alternative, more equitable and sustainable future (Levitas, 2012)?

Kim Allen 


Growing a bigger entanglement: From a Finnish cup of coffee to a special issue of QI!

Over a year ago, a couple of early ESRI blogs told the story of how the Space, Place and Social Justice in Education international seminar that we ran at ESRI in July 2012 had first emerged. They also noted some of the directions and relationships that were emerging out of it. With ‘early days’ enthusiasm,  those blogs also promised an update on any progress that the loose community established at the seminar might subsequently make in working out the theoretical, methodological, practical and political implications of their discussions for education and social research. Well, by way of freeing that hostage to fortune, we’d like to flag a special issue of the journal Qualitative Inquiry that we (Geoff Bright, our former colleague Helen Manchester, and Sylvie Allendyke) have recently edited and that is out ‘on-line first’ right now.

By way of an introduction, colleagues may remember the back story to the 2012 seminar as presented in the blog Growing a bigger conversation. The seminar had its initial germination in an informal conversation over coffee at the European Conference of Education Research (ECER) in Helsinki in 2010 where a session of papers convened by the Ethnography network of ECER had prompted a fairly ‘robust’ discussion about the use of spatial terms in ethnography of education: ‘site’, ‘field’, and such like. That discussion connected strongly to a set of urgent questions about how spaces and places – physical, social, electronic, private, collective, imaginary – impact on fairness and the distribution of power in education.  From its informal beginning, that conversation grew steadily with the help of a number of organisations: two of the official ECER ‘support networks’, the Social Theory Special Interest Group at BERA, and the journal Ethnography and Education and, after a year of ground work, the seminar duly took place with papers being heard from around 40 scholars from four continents. And, if we might be excused a moment of smugness, it felt like a great success. The difficulty, of course, was how we might sustain such a network beyond the initial energy and euphoria. In light of that concern, an intention to publish had been part of our plan from the start.  Now, eighteen challenging, stimulating and (if we’re brutally honest) sometimes frustrating months on from the seminar itself, we are pleased to draw colleagues’ attention to Qualitative Inquiry Vol 19, no 10, our special issue on Space, Place and Social Justice in Education.

The special edition

As we started to put together the SI, we started to think of growing an ‘entanglement’ rather than simply a conversation. Borrowing the idea of justice as an ongoing process of ‘entanglement’ from Karen Barad, we use the term to crystallize our editorial introduction to the papers that we’ve brought alongside each other (see Space, Place, and Social Justice in Education: Growing a Bigger Entanglement: Editors’ Introduction).  All of our contributors draw on spatial theories to spiritedly accelerate the growth of that entanglement and, in doing so, boldly disrupt dominant methods in educational studies, changing the unit of analysis and inviting researchers to look across spaces and places of learning to examine how our lives are entangled with a myriad of others, to register how artefacts and texts link different spaces, and to explore social, political, economic and material forces at work in learning.

The opening contribution sets the adventurous tone. Cardiff-based Valerie Walkerdine’s paper, Using the Work of Felix Guattari to Understand Space, Place, Social Justice, and Education, adds to a recent trend in sympathetically unsettling the received Deleuze and Guattari couplet by focussing more emphatically on the contribution of Guattari.  Walkerdine works with Felix Guatarri’s writing on territorialities to unpick notions of space, place and performances and practices of self. She draws on ideas of rhythm and refrain, linking them to the ‘affective base of experience’. Excitingly, social justice is placed well outside its conventional theoretical territory and described as a ‘cartography of a dreamed-of-future’ where there is much ‘imagination work’ to be done.

Phil Roberts and Bill Green’s paper, Researching Rural Places: On Social Justice and Rural Education, develops an Australian perspective on the political and methodological challenges involved in researching rural education. On the back of a detailed account of rural educational achievement in that country, the authors log the persistent disadvantages experienced by rural communities, noting the “geographical blindness” of conventional, distributive notions of social justice which effectively essentialise rural educational disadvantage by fixing the rural as a discrete and uniform category. In response they build on earlier work which experiments with problematizing space in relation to equity and rural education, exploring “space as an axis of social justice” and working with “place as a key reference-point for researching rural education”.

Writing in South Africa, Pam Christie investigates the way that contradictory contemporary global/local dynamics play out in the context of the historical geographies of colonialism and apartheid in South African schools (see Space, Place, and Social Justice: Developing a Rhythmanalysis of Education in South Africa). Using the Lefebvrian approach of rhythmanalysis she draws on the triad of practice, representation and lived experience to analyse the domestic education policy setting. Rhythmanalysis – a “double act of noticing and understanding [that] requires both sensual and intellectual attentiveness” – foregrounds the multiple scales and rhythms of practice that produce social space. And it does so, Christie contends, in such a way as to steer our attention towards possible pressure points for change.

In her paper, Becoming-Learner: Coordinates for Mapping the Space and Subject of Nomadic Pedagogy, Rachel Fendler (writing from Barcelona) proposes a mobile methodology that follows the ‘nomadic’ learner through the ‘eventful space’ of their life-wide learning journey. In doing so she disrupts any lingering notion of fixity within the field of educational ethnography. Drawing attention to the way in which a nomadic pedagogy frames learning as a process which occurs when subjects enter into unfamiliar territory, Fendler centralises the notion of unfamiliar territory as an issue for the social justice agenda to consider. As a nomadic subject, she proposes, a learner is involved in becoming-other, engaging in a relationship with his/her surrounding in a process of (continual) deterritorialization. Making specific reference to a/r/tography, she explores a practice that might be called “yarning” to experimentally map the rhizomatic contours of such deterritorialisation.

Indeed yarn, or ‘thread’ at least – as an instantiation of entanglement – finds itself woven into the contribution of Beth Cross and her co-researchers’ article, too. Cross and her Scottish co-participants, Caroline McFarlane, Ian Brookes and Kerry McInnes, completely embrace the mission of QI, approaching participatory research writing as a lived enactment of social justice which seeks to challenge interconnected and often invisible barriers faced by service users. Using what they term “embodied methodologies”, their practice literally weaves into visibility the practice of researching, writing and representing difference; differently (see Platforms, Plateaus, and String: A Disability Diverse Research Team’s Account of Spatial Challenges and Strategies Within Research Dissemination Spaces)

Cambridge-based Liz Taylor’s paper, The Case as Space: Implications of Relational Thinking for Methodology and Method, reconsiders case study research, questioning in particular the ‘boundedness’ of the case. By drawing on Doreen Massey’s work on the relational conceptualisation of space, she invites the QI readership to consider what she refers to as the ‘thrown-togetherness” of emergent things and the mutual constitution of the local and the global. In this article, places, rather than being points on a map, become spatio-temporal events and space is articulated as “the sphere of a multiplicity of trajectories”. Liz Taylor asks us to consider writing and analysis as a “meeting place with its own ‘spacetime’.

In School Ethos and the Spatial Turn: “Capacious” Approaches to Research and Practice, former colleague of ours Helen Manchester (now at Bristol) and Sara Bragg also work to disrupt the boundedness of the ‘case study’ – and of the ‘school’, as well – through the metaphor of capaciousness. They consider ‘school ethos’ as a moving and dynamic concept, foregrounding the following: porousness and permeability in relations between the research space, the researcher and others; identity work; emplacement in social, sensory and material geographies; and more psychoanalytic concerns such as the ‘containment’ of difficult emotions

In her article, (Dis)Orientations in Past, Present, and Future Encounters, London South Bank University-based Yvette Taylor reports on aspects of a major UK research project, Fitting into Place? Class and Gender Geographies and Temporalities (Taylor, 2012a), which charts gendered, generational transitions from the North East England industrial landscapes of one or two generations ago, to a current present and ‘regenerated’ future. In this particular paper, she focuses on young UK women’s experience of time and space, drawing our attention to the way in which gender, generation and class intersect in temporalised notions of responsibility, failure and success.

In the final paper, Spaces of Power/Knowledge: A Foucauldian Methodology for Qualitative Inquiry, Alecia Jackson – writing from the south of the US – argues that Foucault’s theory of power and knowledge is spatial in both concept and practice and that power/ knowledge provides a framework in which to situate processes of relating justly. She engages with power/knowledge as a co-implicated relation, moving from a notion of space as enclosure towards an idea of space as dynamic, mobile and creative and in doing so effectively takes us right back to the Baradian notion of justice as entanglement from which we started.

Geoff Bright and Sylvie Allendyke

New Materialisms – A ball of wool, a ball of wool, that would be so wonderful

A ball of wool, two knitting needles, a circle of chairs, several bodies, some pens, cups of coffee, and some loose knit instructions. Last week Anne Pirie of UWS (University of the West of Scotland) came to play here at ESRI, putting into practice the materiality of her talk on ‘Lost bodies in the Academy’

Anne explained that her work had recently been concerned with unpicking, and knitting with, the work of Anthropologist Tim Ingold. Here notions of wayfaring, sketching, temporality and nimbleness were, for her, in the process of becoming an alternative epistemological and ontological passage which sat in, with, and of the vulnerability of thought rather than on it, stifling it with a formally written and repeated paper.

As Anne held both our attention, and a ball of wool, she took what at first sight appeared to be a unified thread. Holding it out in front of her Anne pulled at the wool, inviting us to do the same. In the activity of pulling, layers and textures previously hidden became apparent. To pull, not simply the words, the infinitive verb form, but the activity also. To pull, to be materially in and of the process . And then she uttered the words I had feared since childhood: “hand-eye-co-ordination”.

Anne wanted to ‘throw back’, and have us join her, the narrow vision of the academic, or humanistic, intellectual whose becoming emerges only from dry or sensible activities. With this Anne looked for ‘the nod’ from a member of the circle so she might have a consenting and co-ordinated pair of hands and eyes to catch the wool. Eyes to the floor, this was my first instinct. Eyes to the floor would infer a lack of consent and therefore a lack of participation. My eyes to the floor coordination would help me in avoiding the inevitable crash position my body assumes when an object moves towards it, even if my hand-eye-co-ordination would not.

Before long a web intra actively emerged; spun of hands, eyes, coordination, techniques, gravity, wool and any other number of human and non-human actants which comprised the becoming agentic assemblage. Some of us who consciously attempted to avoid playing, becoming agentic through non participation, had the myth of human intentionality bust open before our very eyes. Having chosen not to be chosen as one of the catchers, I became aware, in that way that a body makes you aware, that I was picking up the wool from the floor behind me. I was colluding at the interstice of intent and accident in the interpellative force of the human and non human. The agentic assemblage of a human arm throwing, affects, the diameter of the circle, the infinitive to throw, a ball of wool, velocity, and gravity were no match for my, or any other shoe gazers, eye-floor coordination.

Once the web was woven the discussion began, not so much ‘stitch and bitch’, as throw and think, but perhaps throwing and thinking differently, a little untethered and undone from the idea that it is only the autonomous ‘I’ which is the agent of either to think, or to throw.

Sylvie Allendyke