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The Department of Sociology at Warwick runs a successful research seminar series during the academic year. In 2013-2014, it was organised by Dr Amy Hinterberger. The series was recently featured in Exchanges: the Warwick Research Journal. This is what Dr Hinterberger had to say about the series:
This year the Department of Sociology at the University of Warwick organised an exciting and lively research seminar series. Speakers featured in the series such as Suzanne Hall (LSE), Jennifer Curtis (Missouri) and Nisha Kapoor (York) asked pressing questions about the changing landscape of contemporary social research. What are the lived realities of allegiance, participation and belonging from the base of a multi-ethnic street in south London? Is love a human right? What can be said of the state of race, or more specifically about the nature of the contemporary state which has declared racism is a relic?
In order to celebrate the recent arrival of seven new sociologists at the University of Warwick, the seminar series also featured the work of new members in the Department. In the newest issue of Exchanges: the Warwick Research Journal, I interviewed Hannah Jones who delivered a research seminar entitled ‘Uncomfortable positions in local government: negotiating cohesion, inequality and change’. The seminar addressed inequalities of power and discrimination at the local government level in the UK. Hannah recently joined the Department in October 2013 as an Assistant Professor having previously worked as a Research Associate at the Open University. The full interview with Hannah Jones is available to read in Exchanges here.
There is a clear disconnect between young people and political institutions: the Electoral Commission’s proposals to boost engagement will not address this problem
Martin Price is based in the Departments of Sociology at the Universities of Manchester and Warwick and is the Project Manager for MYPLACE, a large scale EC-funded project. In this post, which was first published on the LSE British Politics and Policy Blog, he argues that recent Electoral Commission proposals will fail to re-connect young people with Britain’s political institutions:
The Electoral Commission released a report outlining changes, such as same-day voter registration and e-voting, they believe will make citizens more engaged with the democratic process. However, research shows the motivations underlying young people’s participation in political processes is more rooted in people not seeing the point of voting for individuals and institutions rather than not being able to work out how. It would seem to be something of a red herring to pursue the proposed ‘fixed’ when actually the issue is one of hearts and minds, writes Martin Price.
In the news recently, I read coverage of the Electoral Commission’s report on its review of modern voting. The emphasis in this coverage has been on the recommendation that e-voting would would help young voters to engage with the process: “Whether it is the ability to register to vote on the day of the election, or voters being able to use any polling station in their constituency, or the introduction of advance voting, or even more radical options such as e-voting, we plan to look at a variety of options assessing how they will help citizens engage more effectively,” said Jenny Watson, quoted in The Guardian‘s article. I would like to challenge this, and particularly I would like to challenge this report’s notion of what constitutes “engagement.”
My opinion on this topic is heavily influenced by the evidence we found in a project I currently work on. MYPLACE (Memory, Youth, Political Legacy and Civic Engagement) is a major social research project, funded by the European Commission which employs a combination of survey, interview and ethnographic research to provide new empirical data that will not only measure levels of participation but capture the meanings young people attach to it, and thus examine the motivations underlying young people’s participation, in both formal political processes and other forms of social and civic activity.
A core part of the project is measuring young people’s participation using a survey delivered in 14 countries with 17,098 respondents and understanding that participation using 900 in-depth follow up interviews.
In the UK, this work was carried out across two field sites in the West Midlands: one comprising two wards in a multi-cultural regional city, and the other a smaller, relatively ethnically homogenous former industrial town. Across these sites, 1,092 people aged 16-25 completed a detailed face-to-face questionnaire survey, providing an overview ‘synopsis’ of the beliefs, attitudes and values of young people in these locations towards a variety of themes, including political interest, political participation, citizenship, social networks, gender & sexuality, religion, minority groups, understanding of democracy and history and memory. These issues were then explored in 61 semi-structured follow-up interviews with survey respondents.
As part of my remit for non-academic dissemination, I recently prepared a written evidence statement to the Parliamentary Select Committee on Political and Constitutional Reform on just this subject. You can find the full report here and I won’t repeat that analysis in detail.
The findings of our research point to a clear disconnect between young people and political institutions. This is characterised by a breakdown in communication, expressed by one of our respondents:
The language of politics… can be damaging, I think it stops some people from getting involved, if they don’t understand the terminology, I think it can make it quite difficult, for some people, to interact with it.
There was also dissatisfaction with politicians who are referred to in interviews as out of touch, privileged (rich, posh), out for themselves (corrupt, interested in their own wealth and career), hypocritical or not keeping their promises, and ‘not listening to people like us’. Notably, “politics” and “politicians” are almost always conflated. In the survey data, 43% in one research location (the larger regional city) and 47% in the other location (the smaller post-industrial town) state that they disagree (disagree and strongly disagree on a five point Likert scale) with the statement that “Politicians are interested in young people like me”
In another survey question, respondents were asked to rate thirteen institutions in terms of how much they trust them; the army was the most trusted institution, followed by the police and the courts. The media and political parties scored the lowest levels of trust, followed by The Prime Minister and Parliament. Respondents to in-depth interviews often suggested that politicians are ‘out of touch’ with ordinary people. I could go on, and of course I would recommend our research outputs as further reading. In the end though, the crux of my argument is this:
It would seem to be something of a red herring to pursue the idea that the ‘fix’ is technological, when actually the issue is one of hearts and minds. I’m pretty sure most young people could figure out how to vote if they were motivated to do so. The notion that young people aren’t voting because they can’t work out how is quite patronizing, particularly when so much evidence exists to suggest that the issue is more rooted in people not seeing the point of voting for individuals and institutions they see as (at worst) corrupt or (at best) irrelevant. In that context, e-voting seems to me like a pretty superficial way to address a deep-rooted problem.
More disturbingly, it doesn’t seem a huge leap to wonder whether simplifying the process might ultimately mask the problem. It does seem plausible that more people might vote if they could do it from their smartphone on the bus, or by a couple of clicks on links from social media. Would those new voters really have engaged more meaningfully with the democratic process though? In that sense, might we not reasonably conclude that voter numbers in a given demographic are too crude a metric to use if we really want to assess engagement?
Earlier this month, Warwick Emeritus Professor of Sociology Robert Fine participated in a debate at Leeds University on the provocative topic ‘This house believes that UK academics should boycott Israeli academic institutions until Israel ends the occupation and abides by international law.’ Professor Fine argued against the motion. This is his second and final post outlining what he had to say:
Let us turn to the controversial antisemitism question. We should be able to agree that antisemitism is like any other racism something that progressive movements must be against. In my union, UCU, proponents of an academic boycott of Israel always couple their calls with more or less categorical declarations that criticism of Israel is not or not ‘as such’ antisemitic. Supporters of BDS in the States declare categorically that the charge of ‘antisemitism’, when levelled against them or other critics of Israel, is not only mistaken but also raised for dishonest reasons. I have often heard it said – look for example at Alain Badiou’s recent polemics on antisemitism – that while antisemitism was a real problem in the past, it is no longer a problem of the present and has now been converted into a mere ideology of Zionism. What I see is a disturbing reluctance on the part of proponents of boycott to take seriously the problem of antisemitism. To reduce concern over antisemitism to a way of censoring critical thought about Israel is insulting to those of us who are concerned about antisemitism and have no wish to censor critical thought. We should surely understand by now that it is racism and antisemitism, not opposition to racism and antisemitism, which constitute the restriction of free speech.
Criticism of any country can be racist – whether it is criticism of Zimbabwe on the grounds that Africans cannot rule themselves, or criticism of India on the grounds that Asian values are essentially authoritarian, or criticism of the Arab Spring on the grounds that democracy and human rights are foreign to the Arab mindset, or criticism of Ireland on the grounds that the Irish are not intelligent, or even criticism of apartheid South Africa on the grounds that whites are genetically primed to infantilise Blacks. Criticism of Israel is no exception. It can be antisemitic and it is a moral obligation we ought to honour post-MacPherson to take very seriously the fear that the academic boycott encourages antisemitism because its effect is to exclude Jews and only Jews from the global community of academe.
I am not against all boycotts, but I am against an academic boycott linked to a political doctrine that treats Zionism as a dirty word. Zionism is a kind of nationalism. Like other nationalisms it has many faces – at times socialist, emancipatory, in search of refuge from horror; at other times narrow, chauvinistic, exclusive and terroristic. It depends which face we touch. For most Jews, Zionism simply means commitment to the existence of a Jewish state and is compatible with a plurality of political views. Zionism is not fundamentally different in this respect from other national movements born out of opposition to colonial and racial forms of domination. Most show the same Janus-face. Consider, for example, the ANC’s African nationalism: on the one hand, it has overthrown apartheid and achieved constitutional revolution; on the other, it reveals its own proclivity to authoritarianism, corruption, violence and class politics. The murder of 34 mineworkers at Marikana was only the most visible sign of a new order in which profits are still put before people. What I object to is heaping onto ‘Zionism’ all the wrongs of nationalism in general, as if this nationalism were all bad while other nationalisms are off our critical hook. It is deeply regressive to turn ‘Zionism’ into an abstraction — abstracted from history (the Holocaust in Europe), abstracted from politics (conflict over land with Arab countries and Palestinians), abstracted from society (including the exclusion of most Jews from Middle East and Maghreb societies). It seems to me that there is some line of continuity between the abstraction of ‘Zionism’ today and the abstraction of ‘the Jews’ in the past.
The argument is put forward that Palestinian civil society has called for a blanket boycott of Israeli academic institutions. There is an empirical question concerning how true this is – to the chagrin of BDS this call is not supported by Mahmoud Abbas and the Palestinian Authority – but the more fundamental problem is present in the idea that Palestinian civil society is one homogenous bloc with one opinion. To work on this assumption is to diminish the subjectivity of Palestinians, to deny plurality within the Palestinian people, to attribute to Palestinians a single voice that is in fact an echo of your own voice. Palestinians are certainly victims of Israel but they are not only victims and they are not only victims of Israel. Racism is a versatile beast and I would contend that most Palestinians have no more interest in antisemitism than do Jews. Usually it is fellow Palestinians, not Jews, who are the first and main victims of antisemitic political forces within Palestinian society. The academic boycott offers little tangible support for Palestinian academics.
Israel has a definite political responsibility that goes with its current power, and like many other Jews in Israel and the diaspora I feel a frustrated yearning for Israel to fulfil its responsibilities. However, Israel’s power is relative, not absolute. It looks like Goliath when compared with the Palestinian David, but it looks more like David when compared with other state powers. There is something very disturbing in the totalising images of Zionist power associated with the boycott movement and in the innocent vision of peace and harmony that will prevail once this power is broken. Closer to home this self-same image of Zionist power manifests itself in the repeated refrain of resisting ‘intimidation’ we hear from advocates of the boycott.
Solidarity with Israeli and Palestinian academics should have as its aim the building of trust, the surrender of the occupied territories, the establishment of an independent Palestine alongside the Jewish and other Arab states, and above all the humanisation of all parties. In this spirit I would offer our solidarity to the 165 Israeli academics who support a boycott of Ariel University in the occupied territories and the 11 academic institutions that have publicly condemned giving Ariel university status. The problem with ‘the academic boycott’, however, is that it blocks our ears to points of view we don’t want to hear, or don’t want to admit might exist, or indeed to anything that questions our own self-certainty. It grants us licence to invent what we assume others think, in this case Israeli academics, rather than hear what they actually say. The principle of academic freedom is not absolute but it is something. It contains norms of openness, understanding, inquiry, criticism, self-criticism and dialogue, which we abandon at our peril. In any event, we in Europe must face up to our particular responsibility not to project onto one side or the other all the sins of racism, imperialism, ethnic cleansing and genocide of which Europe itself has been so very guilty. The boycott of Israeli academic institutions is by contrast the tip of a reactive and regressive political turn.
Earlier this month, Warwick Emeritus Professor of Sociology Robert Fine participated in a debate at Leeds University on the provocative topic ‘This house believes that UK academics should boycott Israeli academic institutions until Israel ends the occupation and abides by international law.’ Arguing against the motion and in the first of two posts, this is what Professor Fine had to say:
This is not the first time I have been embroiled in a boycott debate. In the 1980s I was involved in solidarity work with the fledgling independent trade unions in South Africa. They were a living expression of non-racial democracy across so-called national lines. Solidarity included establishing direct links between South African and British unions at official and rank and file levels. As a result of our solidarity activities we were pilloried by leading figures in anti-apartheid, the ANC and the South African Communist Party for breaking the boycott! When we invited a South African academic, a leading advocate of the new unions and anti-apartheid scholar, to speak at our Comparative Labour Studies programme at Warwick University, a demonstration was organised by a couple of SACP stalwarts to prevent him from speaking. When we wrote a trade union solidarity pamphlet, we were told that unions could only be legal in South Africa if they collaborated with the regime and that we were in effect collaborationists.
Beneath the argument about boycott what was also going on was a political battle between a progressive socialist politics and a quite reactionary nationalist politics. It is a battle that has not stopped and is rising to the surface in contemporary South Africa. I grant there is no direct analogy between the boycott of apartheid South Africa and that of Israeli academic institutions, but I contend that a similar political battle is taking place. It is a battle over the future of our own political life.
The normal practice of international solidarity is to make contact with and support individuals and associations that are critical of an oppressive power. Depending on the circumstances, I am thinking of trade unions, women’s movements, community organisations, peasant associations, some religious institutions, human rights activists, individual writers and academics – all who find themselves oppressed by and / or in struggle against oppressive powers. As far as Israeli and Palestinian academics are concerned, we should find ways of speaking to one another more, not less. We can do this in the normal way: by establishing links between our professional and union organisations, supporting campaigns for decent conditions, defending academic freedom and freedom of movement, by facilitating academic links across the national divide, and so forth. A boycott directed at Israeli academic institutions and Israeli academic institutions alone shifts our focus away from international solidarity and toward a refusal to have anything to do with one nationally defined section of our fellow academics.
The academic boycott fails to make a distinction crucial to all radical political thought: that between civil society and the state. The academic boycott punishes a segment of civil society, in this case Israeli universities and their members, for the deeds and misdeeds of the state. The occupation of Palestine and the human rights abuses that flow from the occupation are to my mind simply wrong, but there is something very troubling in holding Israeli universities and academics responsible for this wrong. Israeli academics doubtless hold many different political views, just as we academics do in the UK, but the principle of collective responsibility applied to Israeli academe as a whole sends us down a slippery path. The motion calls for Israel – and I would hope all other parties to conflict in the Middle East – to abide by international law, but the essential point of international law is to get away from categories of collective guilt and affix personal and political responsibility where it is merited. It is wrong to hold academic institutions and academics responsible for the actions of the Israeli state – even if many of the universities in question are, like most British academic institutions, rather lacking in political bottle.
It is as discriminatory to boycott any academic institutions or any academics on the basis of nationality, as it would be to boycott on the basis of race, religion or gender. This would be true not only of Israel but of any other country. It is wrong to penalise academics because of the nation to which they or their universities belong. It is also discriminatory to impose a political test that academics of one particular nation must pass in order to be allowed to speak and work with us – as if we are arbiters of all that is allowed to pass muster. Worst of all, I am sure we would agree, would be to base a decision to boycott or not to boycott Israeli academics on whether they are deemed Jewish, Arab or Muslim, but the cases I know of actual boycott have been directed against Jewish Israeli academics.
A selective academic boycott aimed only at Israeli academic institutions and not at universities and research institutes belonging to other countries with equally bad or far worse records of human rights abuse, is also discriminatory. I admit that the wrongs done by ‘my own people’, in this case fellow Jews, grieve me more than the wrongs done by other peoples, but this is a confession, not a principle of political action. An academic boycott directed exclusively at Israeli academic institutions generates a quite realistic sense that Israel is being picked on – not because it is different from other countries but because it is the same. Given the slaughter currently occurring in Syria, including that of Palestinian refugees, given the repression currently imposed by the military government in Egypt, given the slave-like conditions currently endured by migrant workers in Qatar, it is increasingly eccentric to select Israel alone for boycott. This is not to say that the Israeli occupation should be normalised, certainly not, but it is all too easy to hold some other category of people, the larger and the further away the better, as the embodiment of absolute culpability.
The absence of good reasons to boycott Israeli academic institutions has led to ever more wild and hyperbolic depictions of Israel itself. Pascal once said: if first you kneel, then you will pray. Marx translated this aphorism into the notion that being determines consciousness. In this case, those who call for an academic boycott of Israel end up offering increasingly Manichaean images of Israel’s evil essence in order to justify their practice. We are told that Israel is just like the apartheid state in South Africa, that Israel treats Palestinians just like Nazis treated Jews, that Gaza is just like the Warsaw ghetto, that the Israel lobby controls American foreign policy just like antisemites used to say that the Jewish lobby controlled the nations of Europe, that Zionism is responsible for all that is wrong in Palestine or the Middle East or the world. The existence of these projections of course preceded the boycott, but the boycott encourages us to search everywhere for evidence of Israel’s criminality that will then justify the boycott itself.
Gender Studies is an increasingly established and influential area of study and research, however, it continues to be the object of sustained mocking within (and beyond) academia. This allegedly ‘innocent teasing’ has significant and negative effects, says Warwick sociologist Maria do Mar Pereira in a Blogpost that reprises her contribution to openDemocracy for International Women’s Day last year.
During the last decades and in several countries, there has been significant growth in the numbers of Women’s and Gender Studies (WGS) scholars, departments, programmes, journals, books and conferences. It is now an established and vibrant field of knowledge production, making significant contributions to our understanding of how societies’ norms about gender shape the experiences and identities of women and men, constrain the opportunities and resources that each can access, and continue to produce pervasive and damaging forms of gender inequality on a range of levels.
The field’s contributions to the advancement of knowledge (and to progressive social transformation) are numerous and undeniable; and yet, since its inception it has had to deal with a constant and persistent questioning within (and also outside) academia – is WGS really ‘proper’ knowledge?
In 1973, the influential feminist author Adrienne Rich wrote that in the US ‘women’s studies are [considered] a “fad”; (…) feminist teachers are “unscholarly,” “unprofessional,” or “dykes”’. More recent analyses of the status of the field indicate that WGS continues to be seen as less credible or relevant than other academic disciplines. Studies have shown that WGS is perceived by many scholars and students as too ‘trivial’, not very academically demanding and too ‘soft’, or nothing more than consciousness-raising. WGS scholars with dazzling CVs and best-selling books report being dismissed by colleagues as not properly qualified or academically sound, and hence not worth reading or quoting. This dismissal of WGS occurs in different ways and degrees in each country, discipline or institution, but the overall picture is a clear one: WGS is not always taken seriously and this limits the opportunities for the study of gender and has a detrimental impact on WGS scholars’ career progression and access to funding and publishing opportunities.
If one considers only the claims made about WGS in public spaces and official speeches or documents, such an assessment of the situation may seem harsh and disproportionate. Indeed, most contemporary universities describe themselves as spaces of equality and of open and diverse academic inquiry, and in many Western academic communities explicit and unequivocal public denigration of WGS has become rarer and less acceptable (although it regularly surfaces in the media in the declarations of religious authorities, politiciansand other public figures). And yet, this public climate of openness does not always match what happens in university ‘corridor life’, as I discovered in a recent study.
Through ethnographic observation of academic work and interaction in Portugal and the UK, and interviews 35 scholars working within and outside WGS, I found that claims that WGS is not proper knowledge are frequently made informally and in humorous tone, creating what one of my interviewees called a ‘culture of teasing’ around WGS. A senior WGS scholar explained to me that ‘colleagues will sometimes make teasing remarks and laugh at me and my colleagues. Feminism is seen as something which is ridiculous, something that is laughable, that does not have academic quality.’ Scholars in other institutions reported very similar experiences. One junior scholar in another institution told me: ‘My colleagues make jokes about our Gender Studies degree all the time. Whenever I invite a Gender Studies scholar to speak at a seminar, one of them says “there comes another one of your feminist friends. I wonder if she shaved?”. He’ll describe this as just a joke, nothing to take seriously, just innocent teasing, but this shows that they attribute less importance and value to Gender Studies than to other fields, which are never the butt of these kinds of jokes.’
This interviewee notes that the teasing is often described as ‘nothing to take seriously’. This is a recurring feature of this culture of teasing across institutions, and one that I and other authors would argue plays an important role. The social psychologist Michael Billig has noted that the disclaimer that one is ‘just joking’ can enable the making of problematic or offensive claims that sidestep criticism and accountability. ‘A “friendly tease” seems to deny hostility. (…) The rhetoric (…) can be used to dissipate the negatives, like an air-spray freshening up a bathroom. (…) [It is a] “Tease-Spray”. Just squirt on your own humorous talk, and (…) nasty, critical names will become undetectable’, he wrote in his book Laughter and Ridicule: Towards a Social Critique of Humour, published in 2005. This culture of (so-called innocent) teasing means that even when it is formally institutionalised as an equal field, WGS can be invested with a halo of unscientificity, lack of credibility and ridiculousness that works to position it as inferior to supposedly more serious fields.
Laughter and humour is also used in public to dismiss feminism. While conducting this research project, I attended a lecture for an undergraduate social science course in a British university and listened to a non-WGS lecturer describe a range of theories put forward to explain a particular social phenomenon. At the very end, he mentioned WGS approaches. These are approaches which have been recognised by many scholars as indispensable for a full understanding of the nature and effects of the phenomenon in question; however, that was not how they were presented. One Powerpoint slide summarised how WGS scholars theorise this phenomenon; the next slide had the title ‘Maybe, but…’ and offered two points that framed those theories as limited and easily dismissible. Each point was introduced with a sexist and heteronormative joke that elicited much laughter from the students.
The lecturer’s jokes work to portray WGS as risible, something that the students should not take too seriously, in contrast to the other approaches mentioned, all of them presented in a balanced, admiring and non-mocking tone. In this and other similar situations, humour plays a powerful role. As anthropologists John Carty and Yasmine Musharbash suggest, ‘laughter is dangerous. Laughter is a boundary thrown up around those laughing, those sharing the joke. Its role in demarcating difference, of collectively identifying against an Other, is as bound to processes of social exclusion as to inclusion. Indeed, the two are one’.
Understanding the current status of WGS within the academy therefore requires an examination of humour. It requires analysing how humour makes it possible to maintain old prejudice in apparently modern and progressive institutions. It requires asking how it enables scholars to ridicule WGS in conferences, classrooms and corridors, while at the same time claim that they accept WGS and that the problem is feminists themselves, who ‘just don’t have a sense of humour’. It requires thinking of humour as something with powerful, and extremely problematic, social and political effects. It requires taking these powerful effects of academic humour very seriously indeed.
A new book by a Warwick sociologist, Negotiating Cohesion, Inequality and Change: Uncomfortable positions in local government, has been shortlisted by the British Sociological Association for this year’s Philip Abrams Memorial Prize. In a short post based on an extract from her introductory chapter, Hannah Jones explains what her book is about:
How are multiculturalism, inequality and belonging understood in the day-to-day thinking and practices of local government?
Working in policy and government can be uncomfortable. It can be uncomfortable to recognise inequalities of power and discrimination, to challenge these inequalities, and to find limitations on what can be changed. As someone working on policy, it can be uncomfortable to recognise that one is in a relatively privileged position compared to many of the people for whom one is working. People working in local government can think of their work to meet public needs as separate from their own personal lives. But, as I show in my book, they are often constantly aware that their own lives outside of work are bound up in what they do, and vice versa.
Examining original empirical data, my book explores how local government officers and politicians negotiate ‘difficult subjects’ linked with community cohesion policy, including diversity, inequality, discrimination, extremism, migration, religion, class, power and change. I argue that such work necessitates ‘uncomfortable positions’ when managing ethical, professional and political commitments. Based on first-hand experience of working in urban local government and extensive ethnographic, interview and documentary research, the book applies governmentality perspectives in a new way to consider how people working within government are subject to regimes of governmentality themselves. It also demonstrates how power operates through emotions.
My book examines these relationships through a focus on community cohesion policy in the UK. This is a set of ideas and interventions that became significant in England and Wales in 2001 in response to concerns about the fragmentation of society, particularly along ethnic lines. Its meaning is fluid and shifting, and context-specific, but it circulates with ideas about identity, belonging and local government in ways that are recognisable in policy discussions in other times and places.
Starting with the questions provoked by community cohesion policy is a way of getting at a number of different concerns – how identity and belonging are understood in (local) government; how individuals relate their own personal struggles to the broader institutions in which they are embedded; the importance of feeling and emotion in how policy operates; and how power and inequality interact with each of these concerns. Using community cohesion policy as a focus highlights the importance of shifting and unstable meanings in policy, and creates space to engage with larger themes including the nature of society, identity, inequality, migration and belonging.
On a final note, I would like to think that my book’s exploration of how ‘sociological imaginations’ are applied beyond academia will interest those arguing for the future of public services and building connections between the university and wider society. These would include scholars and students in sociology, social policy, social geography, urban studies and politics, and policy practitioners in local and central government.
Is it possible for us all to eat fairly and well in the UK today? Is charitable food the answer to food poverty? (PART 2)
In the second of two posts, Professor Liz Dowler from the Department of Sociology at Warwick University considers how best to respond to food poverty in Britain today:
The answers to these urgent questions are ‘yes’ and ‘no’. We know times are tough: people face recessionary cuts in jobs, wages and welfare, together with challenges to the global food system which, among other things, have led to higher food prices – it’s a pincer movement of impoverishment, but ensuring people have enough daily food seems to be no-one’s responsibility.
Government has had evidence for some time – Defra’s own data show that since 2000, average incomes of low-income households have risen by 22%, but food prices have gone up 33%. Our 2010 research for Defra showed that many were finding it much harder to afford the food they wanted, that food costs were a serious source of stress. This was before austerity measures, including all the changes to social security benefits, kicked in. So inevitably, things have got worse.
The Government’s response so far has been to individualise the problems and the solutions – or to ignore them. It has been left to local-level charitable food redistribution efforts to help people in increasing need. But, as many who do this know well, the quantities are too small and too piecemeal to meet systematic need, and the work is very hard to sustain, particularly for volunteers. Institutionalising the response in this way depoliticises the problem, and fails to tackle structural causes. We discussed this at a meeting in Warwick in July 2012, with evidence from across the world.
Our more recent work for Defra, highlighted in the previous blog, , challenges us all to take the ideas further, and to act. We can all eat fairly and well, but we need creative imagination and communal values to do so.
Is it possible for us all to eat fairly and well in the UK today? Is charitable food the answer to food poverty? (PART 1)
In the first of two posts, Professor Liz Dowler from the Department of Sociology at Warwick University considers how best to respond to food poverty in Britain today:
On February 20th, UK church leaders challenged the Government to listen to people’s stories on the ground of struggling to manage in tough times, and to their own experiences in trying to help. At the same time, the Government published our long-delayed research from the Department of Sociology at the University of Warwick and the Food Ethics Council for Defra, on the use of food aid: . This research, reviewing evidence to March 2013, reports that ‘crises’ in household income from loss of jobs or problems with social security benefits, often underpinned by on-going problems of low income, rising food and other costs and thus increasing indebtedness, are the main reasons why people are increasingly asking for food help. For many food insecure households, asking for food assistance is a strategy of last resort, and the international evidence suggests many more who need help do not ask for it. The research also shows that, where food provision is adequate and appropriate for health and cultural needs, it can offer short-term support over not having enough money. But informal food aid does not address the underlying causes of household food insecurity and thus does not solve the major problems – however well intentioned and systematic.
There is growing urgency to proclaim the realities of many people’s lives, and local groups can work with local government to provide this voice. We need to understand and monitor problems more systematically. We need wider adoption of the Living Wage and proper work contracts, so that people can have sustainable livelihoods, rather than charity. Most of all, we need to lament a wealthy country which has allowed a relatively small, long-standing problem to become an urgent, crying shame.
In this blog post, I continue to engage with the report ‘In the goldfish bowl: science and technology policy dialogues in a digital world‘ (authors: Susie Latta, Charlotte Mulcare and Anthony Zacharzewski), which was commissioned by Sciencewise and published in 2013. This is part 3 (of 3) of my critical review of this report. This part of my review focuses on the authors’ recent response to Part 1 of my critique, and my conclusions about their ‘goldfish bowl’ model of online public dialogue.
First, to directly address the authors’ recent response to Part 1 of my critique, I do think that ‘not to engage digitally’ has to be maintained as an option. A ‘digital by default’ model applied to public dialogue could ensure that large swathes of the most disadvantaged and disenfranchised in the population are excluded from having their voices heard in the context of science policy. The claim that conducting a public dialogue exercise without an online component ‘would disenfranchise all those who are digitally active’ is not accurate for two main reasons: (1) many who are digitally active would not participate in an online public dialogue as they are not engaged in democratic activities online [see democratic divide discussion in Part 1 of my critique] and (2) all of us, whether ‘digitally active’ or not, are in principle free to participate in offline democratic activities. Therefore, offline should remain the default starting point and a case for moving public dialogue into the digital realm needs to be made for each specific topic and context for which it is proposed. I would reject the false dichotomy between ‘policy to be made in the open online by the digital many [versus] behind closed doors by a few ‘experts’’. Nevertheless, I am not arguing against digital approaches to public dialogue per se. I am arguing that policymakers and scientists should go in with their eyes open when they choose social media or other digital means of facilitating public dialogue. The limitations (and benefits!) of such approaches should be acknowledged and accounted for to limit the risk of systematic exclusion of those without access to the internet or specific digital platforms, or who do not engage in democratic debate online.
Conclusions: in or out of the goldfish bowl?
The report provides very little elaboration of the ‘goldfish bowl’ metaphor that is included in the title. It articulates the metaphor as follows: ‘The core benefit of digital engagement as an enhancement to dialogue is that it allows dialogue to take place in a ‘goldfish bowl’ – visible to the outside world but separate from it. In the world outside the fishbowl, separate discussions and communications take place that boost the impact of the exercise.’ (p. 13). The authors are certainly onto something with this metaphor, but this metaphor has limitations.
Firstly, it is important to consider who becomes the focus of attention (i.e. who is inside the goldfish bowl) in a public dialogue, including one taking place online. Contrary to the authors’ recent response to Part 1 of my critique, I don’t think the weighting they place on digital technology is the most important limitation of their report. Rather, it is the differentiated nature of digital exclusion that is not acknowledged, and which could most undermine the credibility of online public dialogue. The 73% of the UK population who are accessing the internet are not evenly distributed across the population: Poor, older and less educated individuals are less likely to have access. That is, it is very important where the spotlight shines in online (as well as offline) public dialogue. Whose voices are heard? Which discussions are included, and why? These kinds of inclusion/exclusion dimensions are essential to understanding the validity of online public dialogue in practice (i.e. not just its potential).
Secondly, we cannot take for granted the level of permeability of the membrane between what has been deemed to be the site of online public dialogue on one side and the grand cacophony of voices that is the broader social web on the other. Simply saying discussions outside of the boundaries of the online public dialogue will ‘boost the impact of the exercise’ begs the question of how precisely a two-way stream of communication can be maintained in this circumstance.
Policymakers setting up online public dialogues should consider whether it really makes sense to create separate space or pathways to input into policy, or whether policymakers should go to where dialogue is already happening on the web to gain insights into non-expert perspectives on science and technology issues. Such a ‘naturalistic observation’ approach to incorporating public perspectives on issues could be more systematic and more inclusive in terms of the number of participants. It would place effectively no demands on participants’ time, and be far cheaper and more straightforward to conduct. There are certainly limitations to such a naturalistic observation approach to gathering public feedback. It may be particularly difficult to achieve for issues that are not yet widely known about. However, given the greater cost of managing a dialogue ‘within the goldfish bowl’, the burden of proof lies with those advocating such a managed ‘goldfish bowl’ approach to demonstrate its superiority. Of course, it would be feasible to employ both approaches within a single digital public dialogue initiative. Qualitative analysis of naturalistic observations on-going social media discussions could inform the issues raised in a managed public dialogue. The findings from analyzing on-going discussions could also help place the findings from the managed deliberative exercise within a broader context.
In this blog post, I continue to engage with the report ‘In the goldfish bowl: science and technology policy dialogues in a digital world‘ (authors: Susie Latta, Charlotte Mulcare and Anthony Zacharzewski), which was commissioned by Sciencewise and published in 2013. This is part 2 (of 3) of my critical review of this report. This part of my review focuses on the report’s conclusions about the benefits and limitations of digital methods for public dialogue.
Structural benefits and limitations of the medium
The headline claim in the report that ‘dialogue is an approach, not a delivery mechanism’ is problematic. ‘Approach’ and ‘delivery mechanism’ are not opposing ideas: Digital public dialogue methods can be both an approach and delivery mechanism at the same time. It is important to consider the structural benefits and limitations of particular delivery mechanisms (including social media), as the authors have started to do in this report. Below, I address each of the averred benefits and limitations identified in the report.
A key section of the report highlights the authors’ assessment of the particular benefits and risks of using a digital approach to public dialogue.
The benefits identified are as follows:
Digital engagement fits with the way science works today: Scientists are digitally adept. This may be true compared to the mean level of digital tool use in the general population, however the move from using digital technologies to serve technical purposes to using digital communication approaches for dialogue purposes may not be straightforward for some scientists. I am not aware of any evidence that scientists have a greater propensity to use digital communication methods more than other professionals.
Digital methods allow time-shifting: Allows greater public involvement by enabling flexibility about when and where a person contributes. This is a particularly good point. The potential flexibility surrounding digital methods could enable those who are currently blocked from participation due to constraints on their schedule, location or physical disability. Not all approaches to digital engagement allow for time flexibility as some involve synchronous communication. Nevertheless, these approaches still benefit from location flexibility, which could substantially extend public involvement.
Digital information can be infinitely deep. This is another important point: digital communications straightforwardly allow for a layered communication approach, which allows people to opt in to getting further and more detailed information.
Digital methods are more direct and personalise complex issues. The idea that social media offer ‘disintermediation’ (bypassing traditional media to directly connect scientists and publics) is important. However, the examples cited to make this point in the report are not the most relevant to dialogue as they do not demonstrate the two-way communication that this medium affords. They instead return to the traditional idea of only broadcasting ideas outward: ‘Celebrity scientists who tweet, researchers who blog, and academics who develop outreach projects are all disseminating directly to the public; this makes research personalised and personal’ (p. 5). This orientation towards one-way communication is also replicated in the authors’ recent response to Part 1 of my critique, which evidences the claim that digital engagement practices have been universally adopted by institutions by saying ‘all universities […] disseminate knowledge online’. I would strongly resist the implication in this response that institutions that ‘use computers or the internet’ are necessarily ‘engaging’ or promoting public dialogue. Indeed, far too many scientists and institutions are being drawn into a public relations approach to online communications, which involves speaking but not listening.
Digital tools can allow you to understand your participants better. I agree that social media offer the potential for policymakers to develop a greater understanding of the perspective of individuals outside the policy context. The authors however signal an interest in identifying individuals who are powerful online in order to give their views more weight: ‘social media profiling tools such as Klout and PeerIndex are crude but improving means of assessing the influence and authority of social media users’ (p. 6). Gerlitz suggests that these tools can be opaque, reductionist and potentially deleterious. The suggestion that their use could guide digital engagement practices is concerning. Using such tools would enact a problematic understanding of the nature and purpose of public dialogue. It would frame public dialogue in terms akin to what marketers call ‘cool hunting’, where one seeks to identify what popular individuals in a demographic category want.
Digital engagement can open the conference centre doors. The authors argue that making expert deliberations more visible online is an inherent good that automatically “creat[es] broader links that increase openness, approachability and transparency” (p. 6). This argument, although valid in principle, does not acknowledge the complexities of making expert deliberations visible in a way that the public can engage with. Without knowledge of where to find these deliberations online and some mechanism for responding to what they see, it is hard to pinpoint the benefits to most people of this ‘openness, approachability and transparency’. Moreover, if this engagement process is managed in ways that are inaccessible or difficult to access, the overall impacts from the exercise could ultimately be negative.
The risks highlighted in the report give the impression that the goal of digital engagement is to transmit information in one direction. It is worth noting that none of these ‘risks’ is unique to digital methods of public dialogue, although they are still worth considering in this sphere.
Risk: Information quality. ‘Information can easily go ‘viral’ – particularly where inaccurate information has a strong simple story, and the reality is complex.’ (p. 6). The authors are correct here: As with traditional journalism, simple stories and explanations tend to get the greatest play. However, this is primarily a concern if one is working in a public relations office, trying to push messages out. In a two-way dialogue, there are opportunities to clarify one’s meaning. In such a two-way dialogue, scientists and policymakers should focus at least as much attention on ensuring they understand public perspectives as on concern over their own views being simplified or misunderstood. Understanding why online publics hold specific viewpoints would open the space for negotiating a shared understanding on the topic.
Risk: Translating complexity into public debate. ‘Simplifying complex findings without losing accuracy is fundamental to supporting open debate’ (p. 6). Certainly, the ability to speak in plain language about the technical details of a topic is important to public dialogue, both online and offline. However, competent jargon-free science communication does not always translate into a better or more open debate. However, particular social media platforms for dialogue can make such good science communication practice challenging. Twitter, for example, places strict limits on message length, which in turn increases the importance of background knowledge individuals bring to the conversation. Dialogue on a site such as Twitter can inadvertently create parallel conversations because of the limited space for explanations. Therefore, it is important to ask for clarification when ambiguous statements are made.
Risk: Creating a ready audience. ‘Enhancing dialogue with digital tools should aim to give participants a baseline of knowledge, not a baseline of opinion’. It is important that policymakers and scientists are honest about the boundaries and limitations of the available evidence on a topic. However, this point seems to be based on the idea that the public must first reach knowledge threshold to be deemed ‘informed’ and therefore worthy of engaging. This can be a problematic line to draw as everyone is informed and ignorant about different topics and different elements within the same topic. In practice, publics are often interested in hearing the opinions of experts. Rather than avoiding opinion, it is probably more useful to explicitly acknowledge when one is speaking based on evidence (of what kind) and when one is speaking based on personal views unrelated to the evidence.
Risk: Building trust, online and offline. On this point, the authors express concern that ‘the views of a trusted member of a chat- room, online group or social network may command more weight than that of an official spokesperson or expert scientist’ (p. 7). Indeed, this is a general feature of social reality (offline as well as online): The views of an interpersonally close individual will often be given greater weight than an official or expert. When members of the public (often rightly) suspect that officials and experts do not understand them or their situations, it is understandable that expert views are not given paramount consideration. Experts should work to make themselves worthy of trust and to maintain an on-going humility about the boundaries of their knowledge, and the value of non-experts’ knowledge and experience.