I’ve done a reasonable amount of the lockdown socialising over the last few weeks: emailing people I haven’t been in touch with for a while, calls with family and friends, a couple of Zoom birthday parties. In the latter, there have been both verbal and visual of the realities of being stuck in the house. We see the inside of kitchens and living rooms, and we talk of how glad we are to have a garden, a bit of space. Children come in and out of shot, doing their thing, and where grown adults have ended up back at their parents, they are sat in spacious conservatories or kitchens. Lockdown isn’t too bad if you have room.
Both Coronavirus and the response is deeply regressive. At work, those at the bottom of the pile are more likely to have to continue going out to work, delivering, emptying bins, driving buses, staffing shops; the managers are working from home because they can. Up to the median earnings, the more people earned before, the more resource the government will use to help them. Many at the bottom have been made redundant, with income dropping to the minimum benefits levels. Even the US has a more progressive system here. In the long-term, the lockdown’s effect on the economy will cause more job losses, again disproportionately for those in the lowest paid sectors (think waiters, cinema attendants and so on). We already know that being poor, or black means your more likely to get seriously ill or die. Children’s education will suffer, but the poorest kids will suffer the most. Those working from home with space and facilities will be more productive than those without. The post-lockdown ideas on transport will also reproduce these inequalities.
Where I lived as a young person, and where my family are from and still are, represent examples of this (even though they are by no means the worst). In my 20s, after a period of sofa surfing, I got a foothold in London in a ‘house in multiple occupation’ in Leytonstone. This was a bottom-floor, kind of a flat but not, consisting of a living room, a bedroom, and a fragile lean-to built onto the back with a sink and cooker: the bathroom was upstairs, shared with two other households. Two of us were in the bedroom, and for a time two more in the living room, and all had to walk through the bedroom to get to the ‘kitchen’. Neither social distancing nor working from home would be in any way practical in this.
As a teenager in the 1980s and 90s it was little better. The house I grew up in (above, just before it was knocked down as part of the 2000s slum clearance programmes) was a 60 square meter or so terrace opposite a derelict mine: even in the 1990s and 2000s houses could be bought there for less than £10k. There were five of us, and sometimes seven, and at first all the children shared one room. Smaller bedrooms were created by splitting one of the two upstairs bedrooms and converting what would have been the small back kitchen into a bedroom, while the kitchen was now in the living room. My room had room for a bed, but no desk or wardrobe. I didn’t have a space for doing homework, and all three children couldn’t have done homework in the kitchen at the same time: we didn’t have a dining room or dining table, but a breakfast bar style section that could seat 3 or 4 to eat. In fact, I never did homework at home, but did it at school before the main day started. We didn’t have a garden, and most socialising was done on street corners: I would be one of those described now as ‘feral youths’, who are now being policed for lockdown offences.
At the same time, my grandparents were in another example of poor housing unsuitable for lockdown. After working their whole lives in the pottery industry, they were in a council flat on the 10th floor of a tower block, with no access to green space at all. Indeed, photos of this block are now used to show the problems of inner-city Britain (see the Guardian), and are now where the council houses refugees and asylum seekers. Weirdly, some of the photo agencies have photos of these blocks as being ‘built to accommodate the local housing crisis and to fulfil the social housing requirement’ or representing ‘the increasing population, housing crisis and over crowding [and] immigration’, as though these new poor migrants were the first to find themselves in this unsuitable accommodation.
For both adults and children, then, the effects of the lockdown will hit hardest on the poorest. There is a digital divide: some have the kit at home to work or learn from home, and some don’t. Some children will have home schooling with parents that have lots of time and energy, but some will be home alone every day. Some have space, and some are trapped in tiny homes in abusive relationships. A fairer lockdown would take all this into account.
P.S. And so on it goes, with the new plans (10 May) that those in factories and so on should go back to work, while those who can work at home should stay at home. This appears to suggest even more of the poorest people required to go out, while middle-class people continue to work at home.
What happens to their children isn’t answered: are we to assume that they can be left at home unsupervised? At what age, and what about other safeguarding issues? From the very beginning, it has not been clear what employers will do if they need staff in, but those workers are stuck at home because the schools are shut. The employee can ask to be furloughed, but the employer doesn’t have to offer this, and can offer unpaid leave instead (see Working Families). For this to be done safely and fairly, the home conditions described above will have to be taken into account: leaving a child at home to be schooled by a nanny, or a teenager alone in a suburban semi to get on with school work is one thing, leaving a teenager alone in a tower block or sink estate is another entirely. Will any of those making the decisions care to swap places?
My current work is on child migrants and integration. While I’m uncomfortable with some of the terminology (especially integration), there are interesting things to be said. Here, though, I want to make a ‘signal and the noise’ argument about the way that religion or other ideas of ‘cultures’ isn’t always the most important thing going on.
I go back a few years here, to the arrival of two migrant families in my street. Both were in the UK for education of a male adult, and both had kids. One family was from a place that was once part of the British Empire, where English is an official language. The other was from the middle East, with Arabic as the home language, and the family had enough adherence to religiosity and cultural norms that the dad was a regular mosque attender and the mum stuck to Arabic attire. Further, the mum didn’t speak a word of English. On paper, the former would have been a far safer bet for integration into the local community. In the end, the opposite was true, so what else was going on?
I’d argue two things were key here, life-stage and personality. The first family had their first child not long after arrival, and were staying in. There may have been some engagement with parenting groups, but they kept themselves to themselves. The second family, however, already had two kids in nursery and key stage 1 age. This meant that the parents were doing the school runs, and having to engage with their kids’ integration. So as the children made friends, and learned English organically, the mum ended up learning some English too. Being outgoing, she also was chatty to other parents, even when her English was at its most basic, and was apologetic for this. She quickly made friends too, and the whole family were regular visitors to other homes on the block.
When the two families left to return home the difference could not have been more stark. The first family moved out without fanfare. The second family had multiple leaving parties, at their home and others, with much food shared.
I’ve used the football transfer analogy before in a university context, critiquing the previous REF’s system of rewarding universities for work their staff have done in the past, even if done for another institution. While that was a bit contrived, the analogy is certainly right for contextual admissions – basing university entrance on more than A-level results – where potential is a key factor in deciding who gets a particular opportunity.
First, a disclaimer. Despite growing up in one of those places visited by sociologists when they want to examine urban despair, and being the only person in my family to not leave school at the earliest opportunity, I did go to an elite university, and before that an ex-grammar fee-paying school, both times on a government-funded scholarship. I do wonder if some form of contextual admissions happened then, via the interview and other means.
Anyhow, I digress. Last week the head of Stowe school called foul of contextual admissions, complaining that taking background into account, and so perhaps having lower entry-grade requirements for those going to less good schools, was social engineering and discriminating against his richer clientele. Notwithstanding the fact that public schools are the most obvious form of social engineering the UK has, the teacher seems to have forgotten that organisations are (mostly) free to work out their own criteria for maximising their impact. I assume, like most employers, that he doesn’t recruit his staff solely on the basis of their exam results.
The football recruitment market is a fine example for thinking about this, because it’s in the public eye with a degree of transparency. There aren’t many industries where we know who has been taken on, what their wages will be, where they worked before and what their past achievements look like. And accredited past achievements are part of, but by all means not the whole of, what a scout or manager would think about… because it’s the short to medium-term future of the club that are important.
Most obviously, a club isn’t going to recruit on only how many world cup winner’s medals a player has. They might be about to retire, and the most famous players cost more anyway. It’s also teams that win trophies, not individuals. An amazing player in a less good team will win less than a good player in an amazing team: sounds like what we could say about kids with good A-levels after going to an average comprehensive.
Alongside this, we should always note that how good a player looks now relates to the team and opposition: getting the best crosses does wonders for goals from inside the area. But a player’s skill now is a result of their training. A player not picked up for the premiership at a young age – often because they were small – will be training with lower league coaches, will spend less time training and so on. But if, at 18, they look streets ahead of the other players in the league, then a scout could see potential for great talent, once the right training is in place.
Finally, we have the question of fit. Does the player’s style or potential style (after more training) fit with the team’s style of play? What of their personality, and will it clash with other players or staff? And, most obviously, is there a space at that position, now or in the near future?
If A-levels (or formal qualifications generally) were the only way to make a judgement for recruitment, shouldn’t this be the case more widely. I’m willing to bet that I got better A-level results than the Stowe headmaster, and I look forward to him stepping aside for me to take the position.
One difference between myself and my more privileged friends and colleagues is the ability to go back to a childhood bedroom or equivalent. Following work on intergenerational mobility, the role of the family in social mobility and home ownership and social mobility, I use this as jump off point to think about the role of assets or Bourdieu’s capitals and the way such resources help people to get even more ahead.
My own childhood bedroom is long-gone. I was a teenager in the 80s, and lived a few hundred metres from the council estates my parents grew up on. I won’t go into the wider disorder and split life of my childhood – that can wait for another time – but I’m relatively sure that I was one of very few Cambridge students to return, after graduation, to a miner’s terrace on a sink estate, which had already been scheduled for demolition as part of Stoke-on-Trent’s slum clearances. A few years later it was demolished, after decades of social decline: I returned for an hour or so to watch my childhood room be destroyed.
This kind of environment is one where teenagers have to live their social lives on the street, in bus shelters, working mens’ clubs and sitting on garage roofs: I learnt later that others had friends round to visit. I didn’t realise at the time, but it is unbelievably disheartening to have tasted privilege and then have to return to this. A few months later I fled for good, and two decades later I can count the number of hours I’ve spent in my mum’s current house, on the council estate at the end of this same street, on one hand.
And this, then, is where the first of those asset issues arises. I’ve been lucky with my education, timing wise, as the government paid my way into an independent school (the Assisted Places scheme) and I had fees paid and a maintenance grant for university. I also gained some forms of cultural capital via education and leisure, but had no social or economic capital to speak of. Everyone else in my family left school at the school leaving age - my mum did return to education and move into teaching while I was a kid – and we knew no-one who had done any different, or lived anywhere else. My university cohort, by and large, could return to affluent homes in London and the Home Counties, could stay with their parents, find a job and begin a career. I slept on floors and sofas, living out of a rucksack, when I arrived in London, and like many others took the first work that could pay the rent. It took seven years and another degree to get a first job in the kind of work I’d wanted when I graduated: for others, connections or the possibility of working for free in an internship quickly opened doors that I had to keep knocking at. Indeed, it was only because I’d spent years earning in a retail job that I could afford to do the internship at the age of 28.
And of course, this late start also impacts on that next stage of economic accumulation. It’s easier to save with a well-paying job, especially if you can live rent free. And even in the 90s and 2000s, the bank of mum and dad was available to the more privileged. Others inherited from grandparents, but mine were all in social housing before they died (young, of industrial diseases). Thus, while the data show that working-class graduates hailing from the north earn substantially less than middle-class graduates who grew up in London, there’s an additional head start with accumulating resources that provide for long-term stability and a safety net: we should also be measuring wealth in this way.
As time goes on there become other lucky breaks to consider. In academia, where I work now, it’s the permanent job, promotion to professor, or research fellowship that play this role. Not for nothing is such progression called ‘getting ahead’. Two lecturers can be appointed at the same time, with equivalent talents and dispositions, but if one gets the three-year fellowship they are suddenly catapulted ahead. At year four of this timeline, one lecturer has had 12 months of research time, while the other has had 36, and so at the next application, the latter is valued far higher as it’s research that counts. Thus, success in the future is predicated on success in the past, despite the line between success and failure being wafer thin.
And so it goes on. Those with privilege disproportionately get the lucky breaks, and so privilege is reproduced. As with my previous post, the greater the degree of inequality, the more entrenched this becomes. That house my childhood bedroom was in was worth a quarter of the national average, and so about a 10th of the London average. No amount of cutting back on other stuff (‘sacrifices’) can bridge this gap, so it is next to impossible for someone living in working-class Stoke to think it is possible to live at the heart of the country. In the past, when differentials were lower (the early 90s, say), those with more income and wealth would have had it easier, but at least it was possible for me to live in the same city as them.
This, then, can be boiled down to two components. First, the difference in family or background wealth (starting point), high income inequality (producing very different speeds of accumulation) combine to make wealth, and capitals more general, far more unequal than mere income. See Killewald et al. for a broad brush look at this. Second, when wealth inequality gets wider, it becomes more difficult to bridge the gap. Investment, whether it be forgone income, paying for education, or making a expensive move to the big city, requires a sizable chunk of capital: wider wealth inequality can make this simply out of reach. Talk of housing or career ladders is problematic once some of the rungs are removed.
As part of the Extinction Rebellion event, Emma Thompson joined the protest, spoke to the media from XR’s pink boat, and this week defended herself from charges of hypocrisy, having flown from LA to London to do so. On Radio 4’s Today Programme, she argued that we’re all guilty of some hypocrisy – and when we consider that most if not all the listeners will have environmental footprints bigger than the global average, I guess she’s right – and then that ‘We should all fly less. We’re all going to have to fly less.’ (Evening Standard 25 April). It’s this that I want to focus on, as it prompts a question of what this would mean, how this relates to individual and international justice, and then onto what form of equality we want. It takes me back to an argument I was having with a friend back in 2005: does addressing poverty imply redistribution from rich to poor, or keeping the share of the cake the same while the size of the cake is growing?
I don’t know how far, or how many times Emma Thompson flies each year. I assume it’s a great deal more than me, and I fly more than many in the UK and more than most in the world… I also assume she flies less than some others too. Using data from the UK in 2014, we know the distribution is skewed: 52% of adults had taken no flights, 22% had done one trip by air, 11% had done 2, 5% had done 3, and 10% had made 4 or more trips. 70% of all trips were made by the last 15% (DfT 2014). Let’s assume Emma made 20, and for arguments sake we’ll assume that all flights are equally far. We can also assume that at least some of that first 52% do sometimes fly, just not every year.
So if ‘we’re all going to have to fly less’, what would this mean? I presume that the overall aim is less total flying (so less carbon emissions). This could be achieved by the same reduction to everybody: that is, each person taking one flight a year less (a). Or perhaps by a proportional reduction, with each taking 25% fewer trips (b). Or those flying most often reducing their flights more than that of those who fly least (c). Obviously, for option a, people can’t take fewer flights if they don’t take any now, and those who take one a year would then be prohibited from flying at all. Option b would require Emma losing five trips a year, but someone who flies once a year being reduced to a foreign holiday three years from four. It’s hard to see how either of these can be justified: the 85% who take two trips or fewer can ask why they should be limited when some others have far more.
And this, in essence, is the question we must ask when it comes to both emissions and material inequalities in general. We cannot tell China (in aggregate) that they should have lower emissions per capita, when Western emissions are far higher. In the long run, the population of the world (in aggregate, ignoring preferences) want what we have, that is a quality of life that includes cars, technology, good food and housing, and the middle-class lifestyle takes up resources that are finite. This, though, is also the problem with addressing poverty by growing the cake as opposed to making the slices more equal. Whether we look at the UK, or the globe, it’s the case that the growing of the cake means that a lower percentage of people are going to die of malnutrition now than they did before (see Rosling’s Factfulness). However, as the sum total of stuff, resources, ‘commodity bundles’ or perhaps ‘wellbeing’ and ‘utility’ grows, the expectations of what is reasonable and fair also increases. The problems with that cake analogy is that, at any one time, the size of the cake is finite and we must ask how justifiable it is that some people have far bigger slices than others.
Drawing on Anne Philips’ work on egalitarianism, this is not to be dismissed as the politics of envy, or differences generated by choice such that the artist chooses time to paint as more important than money. If the differences created by choices, dispositions and capabilities were small they would matter less. In a society (or even world) where the difference between rich and poor were small, then the person choosing to be a frequent flier would be giving up something else, like the big house in a nice neighbourhood or a luxury car. With the levels of inequality we do have, however, we instead have 15% of people who take 3 flying trips a year, and have nice homes, cars and so on, while some others take no flights, own no homes or cars: perhaps one way to see this is in the vastly different environmental footprints between the rich and the poor, and equalisation of these is a route to a more just society.
Hearing Jim Al-Khalili being interviewed about his own life this morning reminded me to finish this. He began by talking about his upbringing in Iraq, with an English mother and Iraqi father, and speaking English at home, and then toning down his RP accent when he came to the UK in ’79, as a refugee from Saddam Hussein. Still, if it were now, he may well have been noted as EAL by the school…
Take my friends, J and G. Neither speaks English as a first language, one is from the Americas and the other is from the Middle East. Being bright and ambitious, they had the opportunity to pursue academic study in an English-speaking institution, married, became academics, moved to the UK and then had children. These children are trilingual, but you can probably guess which they speak most of, given that the parents also have English in common. Or another friend, D who is English, and her partner, who is from one of those ex-Empire places where a local language is present, but there’s some officialdom done in English, and elites that use English. Their children have also been in the UK since birth. Another family, arriving in the UK as students, learnt to operate in English in high level jobs, but still speaking Urdu at home, then had a child who went to the local nursery and then to primary school.
Each of these children is noted as an ‘English as Additional Language’ pupil, in school returns and assessments. None of them, however, have any trouble with their English. Like the category of Pupil Premium (or Free School Meals), the administrative category is a crude measure of the extra barriers a child may have, and consequently a crude measure of additional assistance they might need. None of the children above need extra help, whereas a child who arrives alone aged 14, seeking asylum and with little English, is going to need a whole lot of help (for more than one reason).
The problem here is that schools have a double incentive to make the category inclusive. First, there’s any funding associated with the EAL tag: it’s not a lot, but all money counts. More important, though, is the assessment of schools through various attainment or progress statistics. The aim, from government and via Ofsted, is to ensure children with EAL don’t fall behind and stay behind, and so schools get feedback on the difference between the EAL cohort and the others (presented in various aggregate formats). A school does well if the EAL cohort gets similar SATS grades to the other kids, and this is highly likely if a good proportion of those with an EAL tag are the children of professionals with better English (especially re. vocabulary) than many native speakers.
Indeed, we know that the vocabulary of the most deprived children is much lower than that of better off children, and that vocab aged 5 is the best predictor of whether deprived children can ‘buck the trend’ and eventually escape poverty (Blanden 2006). This suggests that some of those kids who don’t get a great deal of communication may well have similar problems, even if parents are native speakers, and this is why we have Pupil Premium. I think there is an argument for rolling the two together.
Like Pupil Premium, then, EAL statistics should be taken with a pinch of salt. Some schools think it gives others an unfair advantage in the data, as some pupils are noted as unlikely to do well and then their (actually likely) success bumps them up. But there will be other schools, for one reason or another, who will get a cohort of EAL children with far bigger problems, and they will be below average on this particular measure. Few of these statistics come with the kind of comparison that really helps (see EEF for an exception): not only does the kind of EAL matter, but also any other barriers that are also present. I haven’t seen any research that matches each EAL child to an equivalent with the same other problems and attributes (e.g. social background, learning difficulties, school type) AND distinguishes between the level of the EAL barrier too. And, of course, what the statistics have never shown is what would happen if the EAL assistance wasn’t there.
That said, in this instance schools are likely to direct help where it is most needed. If a child tagged EAL doesn’t need help anymore (or never did) it is holding them back to insist on language lessons. Presumably, this is also the case for Pupil Premium, but because the funding is ring-fenced (see Allen 2018), it creates an incentive for doing extra work with children who don’t need it, while restricting how much can be done for those who do.
Why having a school system that is less racist than the employment environment results in white free school meals pupils doing worse at school than other FSM children
Discussions about the ‘white working class’ come and go, and being part of (or, at least from) that demographic I take an interest especially when they becomes culturalist and start to blame people for their own misfortune/failure. The debate about schooling, seemingly about whether ‘white working class boys’ (me again) are at the bottom of the pile, is ripe for some rethinking that takes in process and a critical realist take on causation. Counterintuitive it may at first appear, but it is to be expected that if:
I recently had the pleasure of hearing David Gillborn speak, and was reminded once again of the slippage in a lot of talk of the white working class and academic underachievement. Two parts are important here. First, we should note how some of this debate posits ‘white working class’ as an ethnicity, which could usefully be compared to all black Britons, as opposed to ‘black working class’. Regardless of how we want to think the status of ethnicity and culture – and I find these concepts problematic for such work because of their fuzziness and their not being a straightforward causal independent variable – this approach doesn’t help us untangle the various constituent parts. Second, we should also note that FSM status is not the same as ‘working class’, but is an administrative status with specific causes.
This, however, made me think about the problems of comparing even the free school meal cohorts that are noted as, on the one hand ‘white’, and on the other ‘BME’ or any subgroups. After all, for any robust comparison we should be looking at samples that differ only according by white v BME, or only FSM v non-FSM, and that’s something we can’t be sure of. Indeed, there are good reasons for believing that they are not. In this particular case, it only takes a racist employment environment to make these FSM groups not properly comparable. There are complications we could add to this – thinking about who migrates, for instance – but these are unnecessary. What we are studying, in these comparisons, is groups of pupils that are sorted by a prior process, that is the way that some pupils get FSM and some do not.
To get free school meals, a family has to have a low income. Indeed, under the Universal Credit system it will be less than £7400 per year after tax, before benefits. In essence, you can get FSM if income is so low that the state is making a benefit payment due to having a lower income than it believes people can live on. Now remember that unemployment rates are higher for BME people, even if they are graduates. Sadly, this data lumps all BME people together, while in reality there are differences across the groups, but this is enough for this argument.
This racism in the employment system means (all other things being equal) that the parental background of BME free school meals will be skewed towards a slightly better educated cohort. A higher proportion of those in a ‘BME unemployed’ group will be graduates than is the case in the white unemployed group. Therefore, if the education of parents has any influence (through whatever mechanism) on how well kids do at school, then the overrepresentation of graduates in the unemployed BME parents means that it is to be expected that their cohort of kids will have better results than that of the unemployed white parents. Indeed, given that one named route to FSM is that of asylum seeker benefits (support under Part VI of the Immigration and Asylum Act 1999) and many seeking asylum are highly educated but not allowed to work, then this relationship will be even stronger.
Of course, what this approach also suggests is more thinking not only about the process of who is in the free school meals cohort, but also what might cause them to do worse at school, and so what can be done about it. This can go hand-in-hand with thinking about why other groups do worse at school too: it’s pointed out in the official statistics that ‘the Gypsy/Roma ethnic group had the lowest percentage of pupils achieving A* to C in English and Maths GCSE (10% did so)’ but looking at the tables you find that FSM/non-FSM makes little difference here. Apart from in that case, FSM seems to always make a big difference in a negative direction, and makes most difference for White Irish pupils. Apart from Irish travellers/Roma/Gypsy, it’s the Black Caribbean cohort that has the lowest percentage.
What I find most disheartening about the public debate on this is that these ‘social facts’ are then taken as read, with the combination of ethnic identity, alongside FSM or class, given a more or less causal status that can be responded to as is. As in much work on extremism, the area I normally work on, this approach sometimes end up saying it’s about ‘their’ culture. Most obviously, if it is just about culture then why do many pupils still succeed despite being members of these cohorts. Those gaps described above are cohort figures, not individuals. As Becky Allen writes about the Pupil Premium – the extra per-pupil funding schools get alongside the free school meals – the targeting is crude because it uses the demographic indicators as opposed to checking who has more barriers to education and what they are. There is plenty of research on this, and a long list of factors including: parents that are not engaged with education because of their own experience; drugs and alcohol issues; a lack of settling because of school moves; poverty that makes getting to school with the right kit harder; teachers with low expectations of particular pupils; other priorities; assumptions that education isn’t needed for the expected job; and so on and so on. Perhaps it is time to reread Paul Willis’ Learning to Labour.
None of these factors are about ‘whiteness’, ‘working classness’, ‘blackness’ per se. A large part of the real story is that the pupils whose parents (for whatever reason) don’t invest as much in education tend to do less well. This is something we can address by identifying this, and working on it… Becky Allen’s approach is even more specific:
‘Categorising students as a means of allocating resources in schools is very sensible, if done along educationally meaningful lines (e.g. the group who do not read at home with their parents; the group who cannot write fluently; the group who are frequently late to school)’
Whether ‘reciprocal radicalisation’, ‘cumulative extremism’ or ‘interactive escalation’, a key question for policy makers as well as researchers is how new people get drawn into conflict. After all, at any one moment the number of British citizens or residents actively involved in extremism (whether violent or non-violent) is a miniscule proportion of wider society.
In my own research, where I spent time doing ethnographic and interview research with radical Islamist (mostly al-Muhajiroun associated) and far-right (BNP, EDL, and others), there were around 20 or so committed activists in total, with a few dozen other less so, in a city of a quarter of a million. I used to think that the solution to the choreographed confrontations between the EDL and al-Muhajiroun, was to send the small number of people involved to an island to fight it out. This would leave the rest of us, probably 99.9% of the population, to get on with life, rubbing together in a messy multiculturalism. However, at face value it appears that theirconflict is connected in some way to wider social conflict: the question is how?
I have come to an answer to this by thinking about radicalisation journeys, and particularly by thinking about what I and Phil Edwards have described as ‘microradicalisations’. This terminology is used because state and society (and, of course, research) is not only concerned with the change in behaviour from being an ‘upstanding’, ‘normal’ and entirely peaceable member of society to a lawbreaking ‘extremist’, as though these were two mutually exclusive and homogenous categories. As the term escalation implies, the processes we are examining include small conflicts getting bigger and as such includes activity that is not subject to legal constraint or response. In much the same way, two children bickering or adults arguing in the street is not illegal, but it could escalate into something that is. Furthermore, given the role of state and society in reacting against extremism whether through action or rhetoric, where this takes the form of fear, anger and a need to ‘do something’, then this is itself an escalation of conflict, another microradicalisation.
This is not to say that such escalations are inevitable. Most low-level conflicts can stay small or blow over, with escalation and de-escalation continuing as an iterative process. As Marc Sageman argues, “do not overreact… [many will] move on with their lives”: even in the world of the far-right and radical Islamism, it is possible to ‘flirt’ with ideas and behaviours that the rest of us find distasteful and perhaps dangerous, and then leave them behind. Furthermore, we can also include here a far wider range of conflict behaviours, including those based in gangs and territories, anti-authority sentiment, and even generational and other family disputes.
Here, then, I argue that the overbearing nature of a narrative that connects small scale extremisms, travelling jihadis, a ‘clash of civilisations’ and communal division, means that every instance of any conflict can be interpreted as contributing to this particular conflict. This is ever more the case when individuals’ beliefs and activities are explained in this common sense narrative as being attributable to community membership. Thus, in this model, one person is homophobic because they are Muslim, another is racist because they are white and working class, whereas the middle-class racist or homophobe is this way for their own individual reasons. Further, society’s response, including academic analysis, can support this narrative and generate more conflict.
I interviewed K in 2010, after he had come to the attention of the police for radical Islamist activism, but before terrorist activity for which he received a lengthy prison sentence. He told me he hadn’t been particularly religious as a child, and it did not sound like his family was either. However, he was a naughty kid, often in trouble with teachers at the comprehensive that was very working class, with mainly white British and a sizable minority of pupils with Asian (mainly Pakistani) backgrounds. I saw the beginnings of his Islamist identity in a blow-up with teachers, after he told me:
“I was fasting that day. That is the only day I fast. Like I wasn‘t practicing but I, I really wanted to fast this day. I woke up in the morning to fast and I said I‘m never, not going to break my fast. No. I said to my teacher no I said to her I‘m fasting I don‘t want to… We were making cakes or something. She said you have to make it. I said I don‘t want to you know what I mean bro? I don‘t want to. Because I‘m fasting. She said go to your own country and fast. Go there and do the fasting. I got angry. I got angry. I was an angry kid them days. I started throwing stuff. I got very, very angry. Then the head teacher came and like the senior head came in and they all… I said she said go to my own country. And why didn‘t they say nothing to her because she was an authority.”
Here, K’s microradicalisation is not informed by a radical Islamist ideology, but is rooted in a fairly unformed Islamic identity mixed with the anti-school and anti-authority sentiment common in working-class boys, echoing Paul Willis’ Learning to Labour. Teachers, having a similarly unformed Islamophobia or national chauvinism responded in a way that made the Islam/Britain relationship into a dichotomy.
In each direction, then, behaviour and attitudes that are not necessarily components of extremism or communal conflict are interpreted as though they were. England flags could be a sign of the world cup, or because the residents inside want immigrants to go home. Hijab could be a fashion statement, or a statement of religious superiority. As the dominant explanation of extremisms is that they are outgrowths of particular ethno-religious, or other ‘communities’ – a problematic term that could mean anything from the set of people sharing one attribute, to a set of people sharing everything – then small and unproblematic cultural forms are then interpreted as the pre-cursors to the most serious problems. Our current obsession with risk (reduction) makes this ever more important. Even young Asian boys playing football in a war memorial park can be interpreted as part of the conflict, even if they themselves do not see it that way, as they are seen as exemplars of a culture (Islam) that does not respect another (Britishness).
Thus, those that are genuinely part of extremist subcultures are then seen as a part of a threat that is imagined as those that belong to those ‘communities’ they are stereotyped as being rooted in. The threat is therefore magnified from a few thousand to few million. This, I argue, is how the accumulation of conflict operates, with the white noise of a potentially infinite number of microradicalisations, some connected and many not, being crystallised into communal conflict, as they are all examined through the lens of a ‘clash of civilisations’, or its local equivalent in ‘community cohesion’.
Originally published as part of CREST, Lancaster's 'Reciprocal Radicalisation' themed report, with contributions from me, Joel Busher and Graham Macklin, Tahir Abbas, Sean Arbuthnot, Paul Jackson and Samantha McGarry, and pulled together nicely by Ben Lee, Kim Knott and Simon Copeland.
Brunswick Street, Hanley (Mikey/Flickr CC BY 2.0). The building to the right was for a long time home to Mike Lloyd Music, where I spent much of my time and money.
In an idle moment at work the other day, I picked up a recent issue of a high-ranking journal. I knew a few of the contributors, so had a read, and found my own words reproduced. I’d been a research participant a few years ago, interviewed in the home, and long ago lost touch with the researcher. Now the article had finally been published, and I found that it misrepresented me in fairly serious ways, and if it hadn’t been anonymous I’d have been pretty cross. More important, though, this raises questions about how sociological research makes claims to knowledge, how participants’ words are interpreted by researchers, and how it is difficult to understand someone or something without a huge amount of contextual knowledge, something we can’t have now because we don’t have the time.
I am not going to quote from the article, or even provide a reference. First, this is in order to preserve the anonymity of participants. Second, because it would not be fair to the researcher, who only has the spoken words and his own theory of the world to understand it. As you’d expect, the work was on the things I have an interest in – why else get involved? – and covered aspects of locality, class and leisure. The misrepresentations were related to class and local knowledge. The first came in an argument about class that assumed I was a particular kind of middle-class person, and so disconnected from other currents of knowledge and culture. The second was related, in that it was arguing that I’d made a claim of knowledge about the local area that was not true. Because it’s about Stoke, this latter part is what felt most like a personal affront.
Indeed, this second argument seemed to have come from a basic misunderstanding of what I was talking about, which can be attributed to the researcher’s shorter-term engagement with the city than my own. So while I talked of the decline of a particular street in town as being a recent phenomenon, the researcher felt I was wrong because to him it had always been full of empty shops.* However, my use of the term recent meant the last two decades, whereas it seems he thought I meant in the last few years.
The first argument is much more deep, however, and comes from what is not said as well as what is said. As I’ve pointed out recently, I’m now firmly middle class but certainly wasn’t when I grew up in one of the most deprived neighbourhoods in a very deprived city. So while on the one hand I know have taken on some very middle-class ways, on the other I remain connected – in numerous ways – to the working-class environment I grew up in. Depending on the audience, I have often presented very different faces and in some circumstances I would not talk about any of this. I don’t remember the interview, but I doubt I will have talked about my upbringing or family. What I said in the interview was written up as a middle-class snob, being disparaging of a local working-class culture that I know nothing of, the very stereotype of the privileged not understanding what it is like not to be privileged. When I showed this to friends and family, the response was ‘that doesn’t sound like you at all’.
I presume the quotes attributed to me are accurate reflections of the words, although I know from experience that small errors made by transcribers (especially missing words) can make a great difference to the meaning. Even if accurate, though, the quotes are partial. An assessment made on other quotes from the interview would be different. On another day, I might have formulated my thoughts into words differently.
From some perspectives this does not matter. If the words were said they were said, and they are part of, and evidence for the way that ‘we’ represent what is going on ‘out there’. So whether the words express my beliefs or not, they can be seen as connected to a societal discourse on class. This, however, makes sociology merely journalism with theory. The research that is funded, the questions that are asked, and the use of parts of the interview transcript are chosen because they fit with sociology’s (and at least part of wider society’s) theories about the way the world works. I’m certain I’m also guilty of this practice too. The problem is, another theory could just as easily be supported by other words, interviews, or individuals. Just as computer algorithms stand accused of taking a problematic social reality and making it solid, so sociology runs the risk of reinforcing its own theories by only using data that supports them. Despite claims of radicalism, some sociology is then deeply conservative as the writing is more reflective of researcher bias than the mess of social reality, and this bias reflects the traditions and backgrounds of the discipline and researchers.
So what should be done? There is no view from nowhere, and my biases are surely similar. A plurality of voices may help, as would openness in methods, data and analysis. Mostly, though, we need to pay more attention to context and process, not imagining each individual person, interview or statement as a ‘data point’ (unless under experimental conditions). This, though, would require different methods, somehow holistically seeing the wider picture. Sometimes I think historians have got it right – with a method of read, think, talk, repeat.
*Example is changed to preserve anonymity
Recent talk of extremism and universities, the Prevent duty and so on reminded me of something I wrote back in April 2001. It feels odd now, especially given that some of the explanation of the online was done because it was all so new (imagine that!).... this first appeared in a Goldsmiths publication:
In the week of the first UK Holocaust Memorial Day I watched as a Goldsmiths’ student attempted to purchase a Hitler Youth Armband. Regrettably I did not attempt to talk to her and so at this point I can only guess her motives. I cannot also be fully sure of the reasons behind my own actions and inaction. The situation throws up questions of ethics, authority and political action. However, without talking to the student these questions cannot be answered.
I’m not a particularly nosy person. When the student sat next to me in the first floor computer room to do her email I noticed her red hair, boots and fishnet tights my only thought was that there are always new punks to replace the retirees… much the same as the goths. I took more notice of her when she was browsing the online catalogue of Data records, a Coventry record shop specialising in old and new punk. Working in a record shop myself and for a long time being responsible for this shops online catalogue I am always curious about competitors. So as I thought about planning my essay I took occasional glances at the next screen.
The student’s record browsing told me that her main interest was Skinhead and Oi!. Although the skinhead movement is widely perceived as being white, working class and racist this image has been contested since its beginnings. Many bands resent being categorised as racist and describe themselves as ‘anti-racist Oi!’. Apart from the notorious Skrewdriver the overt stance of most bands is either anti-racist or ambiguous. In addition, this straight translation of political affiliation from band to fan is problematic even if one is in the audience. This is also more often the case with fandom at a geographical or temporal distance. As with the current goths, many punks in London are from other countries in Europe and so do not have the same background influences as the stereotypical white, English, working class punk or skin.
It was what happened next that surprised me. The student began browsing listings of Nazi memorabilia on Ebay (www. ebay.com), an online auctioneer. She spent between thirty minutes and an hour browsing through photographs and descriptions of medals, armbands and signed photographs amongst other souvenirs of the Third Reich. At first it looked like youthful curiosity but all the way through the browsing the student was using a calculator to convert currency (into UK pounds or her ‘home’ country’s currency?). And then it happened. She saw a Hitler Youth Armband at the right price and made a bid of 15.50 for it. I have tried to think of explanations for this behaviour. Research? But why actually buy an item. Fashion? Medals maybe, but in what circumstances would you wear the armband? And it’s hard to see how signed photos of prominent Nazis could be a fashion accessory. As a prop for a play? She would have been looking for a specific item and not comparing prices of medals AND armbands. As part of a historical collection? Surely she would have looked at memorabilia from other wars.
It was the requirement for authenticity that really closes off these possibilities. For fashion purposes the painting of a swastika onto a ripped T-shirt would be enough. It is hard to imagine a situation in which this level of authenticity would be a requirement. A trip to an army and navy store would usually suffice.
At this point I felt a need to speak to her. But I also knew that in the library I do not have the authority to tell others what they can or cannot do. I also knew that as soon as she knew I was watching her behaviour would change. A warning would also enable her to find an explanation for her potential purchase. However, I needed to know that I could find out who this student was before leaving the library. In the end I decided to speak to whoever was manning the computer helpdesk. I was informed that there is an ethical policy regarding the use of Goldsmiths’ computers. He was sure that pornography was banned but did not know whether the purchasing of Nazi memorabilia was permitted (the purchasing of Nazi memorabilia is legal in the UK but banned in France, Germany, Austria and Italy). He also assured me that the records of who is logged on where and any network traffic is stored. I knew at this point that any conversation or confrontation could wait.
I left the library a little confused. I felt that I needed to talk to someone and ask advice about what to do next. I also felt disappointed that I did not take the opportunity to talk to her and would probably not follow it up with more research. In some ways that is why this is being written. As it is now in the open it compels me to finish the story, to find the student and discover her motives.
Technical Note: When using the Internet your activities are recorded in many places. Your computer keeps a copy of the material (a cache) in order that it does not need to be retrieved again if it has not changed. Your web server at your Internet Service Provider (e.g. Goldsmiths or Freeserve) can log any page requests and may also keep a cache of data to speed up access to commonly requested pages. In addition the server that hosts the website keeps records of which computers have requested the pages. If I was browsing the BNP website from the Goldsmiths’ library the creator of the website would have a record of goldsmiths.ac.uk requesting pages. In commercial circles this is used to see how popular the site is and from where people are looking. Of course the BNP webmaster has no way of telling whether the user was a supporter, an enemy or just indifferent but even by browsing the site you inform him that he has had an influence.