Last week, Laura and Kim were invited to speak at a brilliant one-day conference organised by CRESC and the University of Manchester, entitled ‘A sense of inequality’.  They drew on findings from the project to  attend to young people’s everyday negotiations and understandings of inequality. In this short blog post, Laura and Kim give a brief report on their presentation and the day itself.

‘A Sense of Inequality’ – organised by Wendy Bottero and Helene Snee – brought together a range of speakers from sociology to explore the significance that people place on questions of inequality in their day to day lives and what shapes these everyday ‘views’ or framings of inequalities.

gatesIn our presentation (‘Extraordinary acts and ordinary pleasures: the role of celebrity culture in young people’s interpretations of inequality’), we located young people’s talk about celebrity as a novel and interesting way in which to explore how people think about inequalities in the present conjecture. Our starting point was that, despite the last two years seeing record levels of youth unemployment, rising tuition fees, and growing numbers of young people in low paid and precarious work, there are no shortage of images of wealth and consumption in mainstream media and popular culture – particularly within celebrity culture.  How then do young people make sense of this disparity?

beyDrawing on group and individual interview data from the project,  and developing Michael Billig’s work on ordinary families talking about the Royal Family – we argued that  in comparing their lives with those of the rich and famous, young people are actively making sense of the massive disparity between them.  Specifically, by replacing envy or anger with pleasure in being ‘ordinary’, young people’s talk about celebrity serves a social function by naturalising social inequalities.  Taking a fine-grain approach to young people’s sense-making practices, we identified and talked through the different rhetorical strategies young people used when talking about the wealth and status of celebrities, interrogating the justifications and judgements made by young people as they make sense of different forms of wealth and privilege. This included talking about celebrities doing extraordinary things and celebritiesmaintaining their ordinariness within extraordinary circumstances.  We also drew on Steve Cross and Jo Littler’s work on schadenfreude to consider how locating celebrities as disgusting and inauthentic operated as a response to inequality, and considered the gendered and classed nature of these attempts at ‘levelling through humiliation’. You can view and download our presentation here.

It was great to share our work with delegates and to hear five other fantastic papers.  These included Sam Friedman’s (City University / LSE) paper on subjective experiences of social mobility. Using Bourdieu’s  work on habitus, Sam revealed the tensions and emotional ‘trauma’ that accompanies class ‘movement’. In this way, Sam’s paper powerfully interrupted and challenged the banal and overly celebratory discourses of social mobility that dominate the political and social register. Constantino Dumangane (University of Cardiff) gave a fascinating paper from his PhD research about the experiences of British Black men in elite universities. Constantino examined how race, class and gender intersected in different ways to inform these men’s access to higher education and feelings of belonging (or not belonging). Most revealing were the men’s accounts of experiencing micro-aggressions of racism and subtle forms of classed and raced misrecognition from staff and students, reminders that the spaces of elite higher education continue to privilege whiteness despite claims of ‘doing diversity’.

Bridget Byrne (University of Manchester) presented work on (mainly middle class) parents’ school choice and the ways in which class and race were negotiated as parents contemplated ‘the right mix’ for their children. Bridget attended to the ways in which racial difference and class disgust were manifest in parents’ talk about ‘bad families’, ‘rough areas’, and ‘avoiding the scum’.  At a time where the school market is being increasingly fragmented by Gove’s education policies, and where parental choice remains a key mantra of neoliberalism, Bridget’s work revealed both the considerable burden parents experienced in this process and the ways in which these decisions inevitably contribute to the reproduction of inequality.  The final two papers – from Sarah Irwin (University of Leeds) and Wendy Bottero (University of Manchester) – focused on the methodological and theoretical challenges of exploring how people make sense of their social location, and how they might respond to feelings of constraint, anger and resentment at inequality in ways other than explicit political protest. You can read a Storify of tweets from the day here.

The day ended with a rich discussion of both how we understand  and can attend to forms of ‘resistance’ beyond the obvious, and on our role and responsibility as academics in challenging inequalities beyond simply writing about them. Ending on a positive and apt note given the theme of the day, the speakers and delegates posed for a picture to show our support for Lambeth College UCU members who are striking indefinitely to protect their pay and conditions (find out more about Lambeth here).


We’d like to thank the organisers for inviting us to attend and present our work, and for all those who contributed to the discussion.

Kim Allen and Laura Harvey 

Kim is currently working on the ESRC funded project Celebrity and Youth project with Heather Mendick (Brunel University) and Laura Harvey (University of Surrey). This was originally posted on the CelebYouth blog.


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