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 or out of the goldfish bowl of online public dialogue (PART 3)

In the third of a series of new posts published at Sciencewise, Warwick sociologist Eric Jensen explores the challenges of digital engagement:

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.

Outside the Goldfish Bowl: facing up to the challenges of digital engagement (PART 2)

In the second of a series of new posts published at Sciencewise, Warwick sociologist Eric Jensen explores the challenges of digital engagement:

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.



Outside the Goldfish Bowl: facing up to the challenges of digital engagement (PART 1)

In the first of a series of new posts published at Sciencewise, Warwick sociologist Eric Jensen explores the challenges of digital engagement:

This set of blog posts comprise a review and critique of the Sciencewise-commissioned report entitled: ‘In the goldfish bowl: science and technology policy dialogues in a digital world‘ (authors: Susie Latta, Charlotte Mulcare and Anthony Zacharzewski), published in 2013. While the authors make some useful points, they exaggerate the ubiquity of digital technology, overstate the benefits of adopting digital dialogue approaches and understate the potential downsides. I argue for an understanding of the role of online technologies for dialogue in contemporary societies that is better grounded in sociological research.

Overstating digital ubiquity and potential From the start the report, the ubiquity of digital technology in public dialogue is overstated: ‘Technology is changing the way that all engagement between institutions and citizens is undertaken’ (pg. i). This hyperbolic statement is clearly inaccurate. Many institutions are engaging (or not) exactly as they always have done, impervious to the changes going on around them. Other institutions have explicitly decided to continue with their traditional engagement practices to limit the risk of disenfranchising those who are not confident users of digital technology.

At a general level, the report’s conclusions about the potential upside of digital approaches are largely sound:

‘We believe that a digital approach can support good dialogue in two ways: firstly, online engagement around science-based policy will increase the ability of the public to participate in democratic discussion. Secondly, where specific exercises are planned, digital methods can expand the footprint of dialogue, involving more people and broadening the conversation’ (pg. 1).

However, this optimistic perspective focused on the ‘potential’ of social media underplays the  limitations that can be seen empirically from current research on the digital divide and evidence on the structural limitations of social media as a site for public dialogue. Indeed, there is an emphasis on the future in the report (e.g. 2020) when the level of diffusion of digital technologies is expected to be sufficiently advanced that the issue of social inequalities in technical access and ability will be solved. This utopian future-orientation enables the authors to largely sidestep or caveat the unpleasant reality of digital inequalities. Public dialogue and policy online The report authors make an excellent point, highlighting the fact that dialogue about current scientific issues amongst publics online is on-going:

‘On any issue, people are already talking about policy, sharing experiences and anecdotes, and spreading information of varying quality. Every dialogue exercise, whether digital or not, is undertaken against a background of digitally-mediated information and conversation’ (p. 4).

Therefore, policymakers’ efforts to curate a public dialogue on current scientific issues will always be interjecting into a continuous conversation that began before the policymakers arrived and will continue after they leave with their assessment of public views on the topic. This raises the idea of more radically re-conceptualising the methods for gathering public views (if this is the aim of public policy dialogues).  For example, for issues that are already widely discussed, why not simply commission an analysis of conversations already taking place rather than policymakers constructing an artificial context for dialogue?

The digital divide The Goldfish Bowl report acknowledges that digital engagement ‘can disadvantage non-users and unconfident users’ but does not pursue this point any further to identify its implications. The report cites the general statistic that 73% of the British population currently use the Internet’, and for social media it only (selectively) highlights the rate of weekly social media usage (80%) for under-25s (pg. 2). However, these general, undifferentiated statistics fail to capture the ways in which people are using social media. Pippa Norris’s groundbreaking work on the ‘digital divide’ highlights three forms of digital divide: global (between rich and poor nations), social (inequality within a nation) and democratic (between those who use digital technology for political purposes and those who do not). It is important to bear each of these divides in mind as we consider the potential value of social media for public dialogue. However, the ‘democratic divide’ is of particular interest for this blog post.

The Democratic Divide The report’s claim that ‘It is impossible to ignore the trends that the Internet is becoming central to all of our lives’ is simply empirically inaccurate in saying ‘all’ our lives’. It is also problematic because it hides the real digital inequalities that persist in contemporary societies. The democratic divide in how those who are online make use of the democratic opportunities the web affords is particularly salient to the present discussion. Just because people are online or are given the opportunity to engage in public dialogue does not mean they will take up those opportunities. There is rational disengagement and intentional ignorance in the face of disenfranchisement and disenchantment with the political system. There are political and sociological reasons for non-engagement amongst internet users. For example, there may be systematic bias within the online public sphere in who is sufficiently networked and encouraged to participate in democratic dialogue.

At this point, it is worth pausing to consider who public dialogue should be aimed at? Should it be representative of the broader population, or just those who are politically engaged and technologically networked into political systems?

In my next blog post, I will continue to engage with the report ‘In the goldfish bowl: science and technology policy dialogues in a digital world‘, focusing on their conclusions about the benefits and limitations of digital methods for public dialogue.

With seven months to go, the battle over Scotland’s constitutional future just got tougher

As the dust settled on the Scottish local Government elections in 2012, Warwick sociologist Alex Smith , who has conducted an ethnographic study of the Conservative Party in Scotland, published an article at the Warwick Knowledge Centre on the two-year struggle that was about to begin over the constitutional future of Scotland.  With just over six months left before the referendum on Scottish independence, opinion polls appear to be shifting markedly in favour of the Nationalists.  Whether or not today’s speech by Prime Minister David Cameron succeeds in arresting this trend remains to be seen.  But if the ‘Better Together’ campaign now appears to be faltering, what went wrong?  What follows is an extract from what Dr Smith wrote a couple of years ago, in which he outlined the risks that the ‘No’ campaign in the debate over Scottish independence faced at the time, risks they appear to have failed to properly address:

Supporters of the constitutional status quo cannot afford to be complacent. For now, ‘No’ campaigners may have public opinion on their side. But a lot could change before the 2014 referendum.

Leading figures from Scotland’s three main Unionist parties will feature prominently in the campaign to keep Scotland part of the United Kingdom. Although former UK Prime Minister Gordon Brown will be conspicuous by his absence from the front ranks of the ‘No’ campaign, his former Chancellor of the Exchequer Alistair Darling will be leading the charge for Labour in Scotland. He will be joined by the well-regarded former Liberal Democrat Leader Charles Kennedy as well as the relatively-popular (for a Scottish Tory) Annabel Goldie, who led the Conservatives in the Scottish Parliament until 2011.

Whether these three contrasting political personalities can agree to share the media spotlight and successfully work together over the next two years to secure Scotland’s place in the United Kingdom will prove fascinating to watch. Indeed, it may prove particularly difficult for the ‘No’ campaign to maintain a united front when the SNP at Holyrood rails against austerity and the budget cuts being handed down by the UK Conservative-Liberal Democrat Coalition Government. Sharing a platform north of the English border with both the Tories and the now-reviled Liberal Democrats could be especially challenging for Labour politicians sitting on the opposition benches at Westminster.

And in Alex Salmond – the undisputed leader of the ‘Yes’ campaign – they will continue to face one of Britain’s most astute, charismatic and emotionally intelligent politicians. In recent weeks, he has capitalised on confusion amongst the Unionist parties in the run-up to the launch of the ‘No’ campaign and will no doubt mercilessly exploit divisions amongst his opponents over the next two years.

Salmond will be hoping that the enthusiasm many Scottish voters feel for his government at Holyrood will translate into support for independence. He also knows that to win this argument, he must articulate a positive vision for the future and tell a story of a Scotland capable of standing – and prospering – on its own two feet. To derail his arguments, Unionist politicians may be tempted to run a negative campaign that seeks to exploit anxieties amongst Scottish voters over the economic uncertainties facing Scotland and the UK as a whole. They will likely point to the recent experiences of small countries and fragile economies on the periphery of Europe, such as Iceland, Ireland, Greece or Portugal. And they will ask whether Scotland can really fend for itself financially, especially if as an independent country it can no longer rely on the Barnett formula or lucrative UK defence contracts to subsidise its economy?

In addition, the ‘No’ campaign could muddy the waters for the Nationalists further, distracting them with wearying questions of constitutional banality, such as what passports Scots would carry or whether customs would have to be paid at the English border. While it is likely that a focus on the negative consequences and practical uncertainties of independence may help ‘No’ campaigners win the referendum, it is also true that they need to make an equally positive case for Scotland remaining within the United Kingdom.

Without doing so, Unionist politicians may risk sounding overly negative against a confident, clear-eyed and optimistic narrative from Alex Salmond, who will champion the promise of an independent Scotland able to decide and act for itself on the world stage. This could alienate Scottish voters and, in turn, further entrench the SNP as the natural party of government in Scotland – even if it loses the 2014 referendum.

The stakes remain high for both sides.

The role of social media in public dialogue and policy

In a post recently published at Sciencewise, Warwick sociologist Eric Jensen talks about his interest in social media and the role it plays facilitating dialogue on public policy:

As social media expand, policy makers and practitioners are increasingly considering what the role of platforms such as Twitter and Facebook should be in informing public policy. There are important limitations, as well as opportunities, involved in using such media as sites for dialogue and these are not well understood. Using social media to gain insights about public views and to host public dialogue offers the potential for involving a much larger number of participants. It also enables on-going participation from individuals over time, and even the possibility of unobtrusive consultation by drawing upon conversations that are already taking place online. In all these cases, the cost barrier for hosting public dialogues or consulting public views would be substantially lowered, when compared to the main alternative approach: face-to-face events with small numbers of people in one location.

Despite such potential benefits, social media-based approaches to public dialogue should not be embraced without careful consideration. However, the limitations of social media such as Twitter as a site for public dialogue and participation in policy deliberations are not well established. This leaves a number of important questions to be addressed:

• How does the rapid global expansion in social media usage affect our understanding of the available means for conducting public dialogue?

• Based on existing research and theory on the concept of the online public sphere (and deliberative democracy more generally), what is the potential for public dialogue to be conducted effectively within the context of social media? Where might social media-based public dialogue fit into a broader deliberative system?

• What can be learned from existing research on efforts to conduct public dialogues online, and through social media in particular? For example, what is gained (e.g. lower costs) or lost (e.g. less depth) from moving public dialogue into this setting? To what extent is such dialogue already occurring within social media?

• What are the particular characteristics of social media discourse, and what are the implications of these characteristics for public dialogue?

This blog post describes the Sciencewise-commissioned project I am currently undertaking to address these questions relating to social media’s role in public dialogue. I will be conducting a critical review of relevant theoretical accounts (especially focusing on the online public sphere) to identify the potential role for social media in a broader system of public dialogue, as well as reviewing existing research literature on online public dialogue (especially focusing on social media such as Twitter).

This project aims to establish a basis for policy makers’ decision-making about the use of social media in public dialogue as well as highlighting important directions for future research and evaluation. The project will be carried out using existing research and theory, which will be critically applied to the present topic and extended. So if you know of any research, relevant theoretical arguments or real life examples, you think I should take account of in my reviews, please do let me know by e-mail ( or tweet (@JensenWarwick). The next blog post for this project will be a critical response to the previously published Sciencewise commissioned report on this topic, entitled ‘In the goldfish bowl: science and technology policy dialogues in a digital world’. If you have any thoughts on this paper, do please let me know through Twitter or by commenting on this blog.

Why I am interested in this topic

I am an Associate Professor (Senior Lecturer) in the Department of Sociology at the University of Warwick. Most of my published research is in the fields of media sociology, public engagement and impact evaluation methodology. I lead a Master’s module on ‘Researching Science, Media and Public Policy’, an undergraduate module on Media Sociology and I convene the department’s Social Research Methods module.

Employment can mean one hour’s paid work a week

In a letter to the editor published in the Financial Times on 24 Janury 2014, Warwick Professor of Comparative Public Policy Noel Whiteside wrote about the decison of the Governor of the Bank of England Mark Carney to link decisions about the future interest rate levels to the unemployment figures.  She was responding, in particular, to an editorial titled ‘Much ado about forward guidance’ (23 January 2014).  This is what Professor Whiteside said:

What, in this day and age, does unemployment mean?  According to the Labour Force Survey (the most common measure) anyone who undertakes one hour’s waged work per week is not ‘unemployed’ (even if dependent on state support as a working tax credit claimant).  It follows that, the more employment is structured in 40-hour (or whatever) work weeks, the more likely the unemployment statistics to measure the fluctuations in economic activity.  Conversely, the more disorganised and casualised the labour market, the less likely the unemployment rate to measure such changes with any accuracy.  As the UK now boasts one of the most ‘flexible’ labour markets in Europe, both the failure of unemployment to rise as much as expected following the 2008 crash and the recent bizarre movements of the rate over recent months become understandable.  Unemployment is no longer simply an economic variable as your editorial suggests, and quite why economists are stuck with the Keynesian mode of its construction I cannot fathom.

Should the UK voting age be lowered to 16?

Warwick sociologist Alexander Smith recently contributed to a debate sponsored by the Warwick Knowledge Centre on whether the UK voting age should be lowered to 16.  This is what he had to say:

Throughout the history of electoral reform, in the United Kingdom and elsewhere, the minimum age from which someone has the right to exercise a vote has been the subject of debate. With the passage of the Representation of the People Act in 1969, the legal voting age was lowered from all adults over the age of 21 to those 18 years and older. This reform reflected changing attitudes towards young people in wider society. It also signalled a larger transformation in how people understood the rights, roles and responsibilities of young adults in their late teens.

This, then, is where the question of whether or not to reduce the voting age below 18 properly resides. In twenty first century Britain, a 16 year old can consent to sexual activity and get married; obtain a National Insurance Number or join a trade union; leave home and apply for a passport without parental consent; choose a GP and consent to medical treatment. And with parental consent, a 16 year old can also join the British Army and run the risk of being sent abroad to fight.

But one of the very few rights currently denied to 16 year olds is that to cast a ballot in a UK General Election. This, in my view, is unjust.

It seems contradictory – even hypocritical – for society to deny the vote to 16 year olds who are already entitled to participate fully in many parts of civil society, such as the trade union movement. More importantly, this fails a simple ethical principle given that, denied the right to vote, 16 year olds in the military cannot hold to account the very political leaders who could decide to deploy our Armed Forces around the world to defend our national interest.

With all these ‘rights’ come responsibilities, and these responsibilities cut both ways. If as a society we believe young people are old enough to join the Army when they turn 16, we have a responsibility to treat them in the same way as every other adult. To do otherwise is wrong and diminishes us a society.

In a handful of countries, those aged 16 and over already have the vote. These include Argentina, Austria, Brazil, Cuba, Ecuador and Nicaragua. Closer to home, the three self-governing British Crown Dependencies of the Isle of Man, Guernsey and Jersey allow 16 year olds to vote. Furthermore, next year, my daughter will be 16. She lives in Scotland and will have the right to vote in the 2014 referendum on Scottish independence. I believe that this is a good thing. More importantly, I also think it is her right.

The New Social-ism? Reflections on a conference

In the following post, which first appeared at the Authority Research Network, Dr Claire Blencowe reflects on a recent conference she attended at Warwick University.

Yesterday I attended a conference run by Warwick colleague Will Davies, at the Centre for Interdisciplinary Methodologies. The idea of the conference was to explore the relation between two senses of the term ‘social’. On the one hand there is ‘the social’, which framed political aspiration and policy interventions through much of the twentieth century, and which constitutes the object and ideal of socialism and social democracy (alongside, as Nik Rose pointed out later, nationalism, welfare-capitalism and all the attendant arts of normalisation). ‘The social’ is related to caring about ‘social issues’ such as inequality, public health, alienation and demography; and with locating the causes of the most important things in human life (both good and bad) in the realm of collective, transindivdual, forces and contexts. Many believe that ‘the social’ – at least as an ideal – is dead (Rose, 1996); and that both socialism and sociology are in crisis as a result.  On the other hand there is ‘social’ as adjective, in social media, social finance, social marketing and the like (summarised by Will as ‘the social economy’). These forms are burgeoning. At the same time, the ‘hard sciences’ and the ‘life sciences’ are adopting much more social, or sociological, modes of explanation. For example, neuro-scientists describe the brain as social. Contemporary physicists and biologists emphasise the complexity, sociality and contextually of matter. Relationships – not essences – are the centre piece of scientific investigation and causal explanation. The conference was asked to consider if there is a link between the two senses of the term ‘social’ – is there a new socialism, or social ideal, that is emerging within the new social economy?

Speakers included Nikolas Rose, Yuval Millo, Nick Taylor, Liz Moor, Adam Arvisson, Evelyn Ruppert, Noortje Marres and David Stark. Most of the papers concentrated on outlining aspects of the ‘new  social’ that is being constructed in the context of social media, social finance and the like. The papers departed from the usual angle of the critical social sciences – which is be to denounce all aspects of the social economy as components of ‘neoliberalism’.  Such a broad brush characterisation of everything as neoliberalism (and thus basically evil) was set-aside as unhelpful and inaccurate. Instead the papers attempted to give an empirical outline of the ontologies – the relationships, knowledges and modes of evaluation – that are becoming established in contemporary practices of governance. Whilst the social economy might deploy aspects of market logic or ignore the domains of transindividual life associated with the social; they are not necessarily just about exploitation and commodification and might even do some good (see Ferguson 2011 for a good statement of this case). Generally the speakers didn’t say much, however, about the more difficult question of what the positive, ‘socialist’, aspects of the new social might actually look like or how we could identify them.

The key note paper by Nikolas Rose set out a narrative of shifting forms and figures of governmental knowledge of recent decades. He was keen to point out that, in 1996, he had proposed the idea of the ‘death of the social’ as a question not a conclusion.  At the time it appeared that ‘community’ had replaced ‘society’ as the spatialisation and ideal of government (see Powers of Freedom, 1999), but today ‘community has lost its allure’ – so what now? What is the new social? Rose offered some speculative reflections. Whilst the new socials are very much geo-political, and bound up with the geo-political problems of security and inequality, he claimed, they are ‘deterritorialised’ – unlike the old social which was firmly terrotrialised on nation-state borders. In the new social, he added, ‘traces’ have replaced ‘public opinion’. In the 20th Century ‘public opinion’ was a key ‘thing’ in the creation of the political subjects of the ‘old social’. From the 19th Century idea of public opinion as the coffee-shop chatter of the bourgeois classes, there was a ‘democratisation of the opinionated attitude’ in the 1930s as sample survey techniques were used for producing/recording the opinion of the masses (Osborn & Rose, 1999). In this context ‘experiential opinion’ acquired a kind of ‘super-objectivity’.  Today, in the new social, a new type of objectivity (or ‘objectivity effect’) is emerging. This is the traces of activities recorded in ‘big data’ sets, including records of online activity, consumption practices recorded by shops, and digitalised records of interactions with health services (see Uprichard, 2013). The question is whether these traces are mere aggregations of individual experiences or if they can constitute a new collective, political subject – like public opinion did? Is there a new political subjectivity based on traces, that could replace the failing form of the political party?  Rose went on to link the issue up with his more recent work on the neurosciences (The Politics of Life Itself, 2007;Neuro 2013). The governance of society through psychological theories and forms of knowledge, what he calls the ‘psy-complex’ (Governing the Soul, 1990), is being supplemented or displaced by a ‘neuro-complex’. Governmental practices (such as child protection services) are no longer concerned with the attempt to access the deep underlying psychology of subjects, rather they refer to the theories of neuro-science and ‘go straight to the brain’. Rose stressed the existence and importance of social neuro-science. Whilst neuro-science is materialist it is not (or not always) reductive, individualist or deterministic. Rather there is the idea that the human brain is ‘evolved for sociality’ and programmed for and through interaction with other people and environments. Contrary to popular social-science opinion, Rose maintains, the neuro-sciences do not simply treat people as ‘dividuals’ (sub-parts of people). In the new forms of subjectification, created through social neuro-science, people are seen as ‘emergent collectivities’ existing within complex networks of relations. The real difference between the old social and the new social (of the neuro-complex) is not about a shift from collective to diviudal, but from trans-individual categories and forces to network-collectivity that is emergent from multiple dyadic (one-to-one) relations.      

Whilst I found Rose’s paper fascinating (especially for what it says about the multiplicity of objectivity effects), I am, as ever, skeptical of the epochalising periodization implied in his narratives of changing modes of governance. The differences that Rose draws between forms of knowledge (such as psychology and neuro-science) and the types of intervention they make possible are hugely incisive. But I struggle to see the rationale (beyond that of providing a nice narrative) for treating these as historically distinct stages in a linear sequence of ‘modes of governance’ – even if they do mark different periods in the history of UK health care. The invention of new forms of power/knowledge, new techniques of subjectification, or authority production, does not magically do away with and replace all previous forms. Rather new forms exist alongside old forms, sometimes working with them, sometimes against them, sometimes coexisting in state of oblivion and indifference – and this is true of the ‘new’ and ‘old’ socials. Indeed, throughout yesterday’s discussions of ‘the new social’ speakers were constantly referring to the concepts and categories of early 20th Century sociologist Georg Simmel. We were able to do that because ‘the new social’ has been in existence for a very long time alongside ‘the old social’. Moreover, it is all too obvious that ideas, identities and emotional investments associated with the ‘old social’ and transindivdual investments continue to be immensely important  – for example the issue of nationalism and its attendant demonization of immigrant populations.… Narratives in which a new form of power/knowledge is assumed to replace a previous form, always confuses our comprehension of the specificity of each, effacing the specific contexts and struggles from which they emerged. Positing different types of power as equivalent always implies, at some level, a reductive functionalist analysis, and it always does violence to history –  generalising the specific with all the ‘centric’ implications that entails. Of course Rose knows this really, and before he sat down at the end of his talk stressed the import of detailed empirical analysis and the not-necessarily generalizable nature of his account. Nonetheless, he does keep telling those stories! He gets away with it because the ‘specific’ from which he is generalising is health care, which is draws upon such an enormously pervasive and persuasive set of values (biopolitical values of caring for life). Rose’s ephocalising narratives have the effect of eclipsing political questions that are not to do with health, and, in the process, obscuring the need for pluralistic, genealogical/critical reflexivity about the value of values associated with health itself. See my book (Biopolitical Experience 2012) for a detailed critique of Rose’s problematic epochalisation of forms of biopolitics and an alterantive account of recent developments of transindividual biopolitics in the UK (pertaining to cultural racism) – pdf of the relevant chapter here.     

Noortje Marres paper ‘what is social about social media’ was especially interesting for sociologists (see her book Material Participation, 2012). She stressed the fallacy of accounts that posit a move from sociological knowledge to digital computation. In fact sociological knowledges and theories are central to the modes of reasoning deployed in computing. In computing (like biological science) there has been a ‘rise of sociology as a paradigm’. This means that we sociologists need to take some kind of responsibility for the modes of sociality that are being produced through computing – computing is partly down to our paradigms! As such it is partly down to us to engage critically and reflexively with computing. More controversially (!) Marres argued that we sociologists might actually learn something from computing. In particular she suggested that we could learn from social media, amazon and the like how to engage with the social in a style that is more open – leaving the question of what the social is open to constant redefinition and constitution by its users. I understood this to mean, that we might learn something about how to work critically and reflexively on the social without applying rigid categories of sociological analysis, which presume-in-advance what is important and interesting in the things we investigate.      

Closing remarks from David Stark were some of the most interesting of the day – and perhaps the first real attempt to address  the question the ‘two socials’. The question, as he framed it, is ‘what’s socialist about the new social?’ Challenging some of the claims made throughout the day, Stark argued that ‘the social’ within the new disciplines of network analysis, computer science, physics etc is precisely not the reductive forms of dyadic relations, quantification or surface traces. For the staff at Google, ‘the social’ is what escapes obvious analysis, it is what emerges, what we can’t see, what we need a sophisticated methodology to even begin to grasp. This sense of ‘the social’ as that which escapes easy perception, is in fact very similar to the way that Durkheim and Marx used the term social. In ‘suicide’ Durkheim was trying to establish the idea of the ‘social fact’, because the social was precisely the not-obvious, not-apparent dimension of the reality in question. The social is not psychology, not individual rationality, not obviously apparent and not-reducible. Further, Stark suggested that it is the fact that the social is not reducible, especially not reducible to market logic, that makes it so valuable – not only as a value in socialism, but also as valuable to capitalism. The social is always escaping and beyond commodification, as such it is always valuable to the capitalist market – because markets are always seeking new things, outside the market, to commodify and capitalise. Stark’s comments here were (as he noted) reminiscent of Marx, but made me think also of A.N. Whitehead, the philosopher of science for whom everything (animal, molecule, human) is composed as society and sociality is something like the creative capacity of the universe (see Process & Reality). Stark suggested that the conference had rather missed the most crucial aspect of the new social, which is to say the ‘intensified socialisation of production’. Digital media, big data and network analysis make sociality itself (being connected) an object of commodification. Contrary to general opinion, Stark concluded that when it comes to thinking critically about the new knowledge technologies we should be talking about privatisationnot obsessing about invasions of privacy. The intensified socialisation of productive is happening – that is the ontological transformation and it brings with it enourmous potential. The political question is whether the results (the data sets, the knowledges, the insights) are being privatised (in the service of pharmaceutical companies etc), or being put into public service. 


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