The accusation of being an ivory tower academic is a painful one, yet ‘getting out’ can also mean we look like we are seeing the lives or places of the poor and excluded as somehow different, wrong, abnormal even. Doing research on poor Scottish housing estates the strong sense that I often came away with was how keen people were to present life as very ordinary, despite what the crime, education and health statistics told me. Should I accept this insider’s view or impose some other designation – that the area had deep problems? If I didn’t use the language of exclusion or poverty how would those with power over resources know that these were areas and people that desperately needed the investment of public resource? Alternatively, were the people of these places going to be further stigmatised and included by precisely these labels? The moral bind seemed impossible to break through.
The last thing that any university sociologist can bear is the charge that they don’t know how ‘it’ is out there, that they are out of touch. Certainly the abstractions of statistical models, surveys and the promise of ‘big data’ continue to push us away from real-world experience. So how can we better see the world around us, understand how it works, who lives there and the problems it holds? To understand social problems, to really work in such a way that we might change the world for the better, we need to get into it, watch how people act in practice and talk to them. But doing this also presents a problem – whether we stay in our offices or get out into communities it is easy to see what social researchers do as a kind of voyeurism. The spectacle of poverty, if we might call it that, is something that generates huge interest from those not immersed in its hard reality. Similar things can be said of dangerous places where we see organised poverty tours alongside the forays of researchers, only for both to return to the safety of life in included or mainstream society.
Is this a fair assessment? What would happen if we voted with our feet and joined as activist neighbours in such communities? More provocatively – would we be helping or taking advantage of low-cost housing as middle-class gentrifiers? I have been on numerous tours of public housing across the world, often organised as part of a conference and as much as I felt enriched and educated by these experiences it was sometimes hard to shake the feeling that these visits presented places as human zoos where residents were unable to decline access in the way that professionals can via secretaries or closed doors. The question this raises is how are we to know the world and its problems in order to do something about them without exploiting or degrading those we are trying to help? We need to avoid the naïve position that if we can relay the voices of the excluded to the powerful we will improve the conditions or resources of the excluded. While things have got better to some extent over the past five decades since the Community Development Programme the problems of poverty and exclusion remain with us. The more I reflect on the nature of research the more I see that that its real promise is less about the potential for change and more about the need to present problems as an unpleasant intrusion in the conscience of the powerful. There is something to be said for all politicians having to visit the kind of places and talk to people that would rarely figure on their own social circuits. The trick for researchers, it seems to me, is in finding the ways and means by which their encounters can be made to show the contradictions of poverty in a nation of plenty so that it is seen as morally untenable. To do this we still need to get out and about, but we need to think carefully about how and why we do this.
This piece was part of an edited collection on engaged learning, Facing Outwards, edited by Brendan Stone at the University of Sheffield.