Author Archives: rowlandatkinson2014

About rowlandatkinson2014

Working in the area of inclusive societies at the University of Sheffield, focusing on questions of urban life, exclusion and inclusion, social change, segregation, wealth and poverty.

A City Both Full and Empty: London and the Super-Rich By Rowland Atkinson, University of Sheffield

Originally on Critical Urbanists blog, 20th November.

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It has become hard to read the popular press without finding a newspaper article or accompanying opinion piece on the massive changes being wrought on London’s property market. There are two stories at play here. The first focuses on the many thousands of households living in housing stress – finding it hard to keep-up with their rents or mortgage payments – and those who are struggling even to get a home of their own – manifest as massive waiting lists for social housing, bidding wars for rental properties and house prices that exclude many. There are now more than 380,000 households, not people, just on waiting lists for social housing in London. This story has long been a feature of life in London, given the cost and scarcity of housing in the capital; but it is also related to a second story that is the focus here. At the same…

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Thinking the pro-social

Social researchers spend so much time considering problems of inequality, crime, poverty, ill-health and related questions that they rarely have time to pause and consider more utopian, counter-factual ideas, to step outside the ‘realities’ and constraints of needing to be policy relevant or palatable for other audiences. Many of us act in ways that are self-disciplining, if not self-defeating – we make careful pre-judgements about who will listen and this often prevents us from making proposals or running ideas that might make the world a, dare we say it, better place. This has long been the case but in the context of contemporary forms of unparalleled inequality, ecological crisis and economic instabilities the role and perhaps duty of social researchers is to draw on their evidence and intervene effectively in helping social conversations about these issues. It doesn’t strike me as a terribly partisan comment to suggest that the UK coalition government and its new round of proposed cuts is inherently anti-social (not least because the mainstream alternative/s offer much of the same). Indeed it has managed to triumph in promoting a worldview that suggests precisely any other argument around taxation, spending and investment is either loopy or some kind of powerful ultra-leftist viewpoint that would endanger civilization as we know it.

Today’s economic, political and social environment undermines everyday social life as notions of the shared, the public, the municipal and common space have been fundamentally challenged. The global financial crisis has ended-up granting energy and fresh confidence to narratives that legitimise cuts to the funding of public services, disinvestments in diversionary and creative programmes for vulnerable groups and fresh rounds of public asset stripping. The apparent logic of such attacks is that we cannot afford, do not need and should not pay for arrangements, institutions and provisions that are shared or collectively provided. Yet social investigation now tells us, through convincing and in-depth investigations (like that of Pickett, Wilkinson, Sassen, Piketty and Dorling) that gross inequalities, absences of social insurance and expulsions from citizenship and common provision generate expanding forms of hardship and social problems.

It appears increasingly evident that the kinds of social distress, climate change and other modern evils cannot be contained in convenient or cost-free ways to the wider population. We appear to be seeing the ‘escape’ of social problems from traditionally vulnerable spaces and populations to include those who have more often been able to avoid such problems has led to renewed efforts by the affluent to insulate themselves from these risks (I wrote about this sometime ago as a ‘cut’ in which the affluent are now able to insulate themselves from the costs of inequality that has diminished arguments for promoting greater equality or progressive taxation).

We now find that a number of problems (insecurity, fear, ill-health, violence, education and reducing social mobility) are being exacerbated by new rounds of value extraction from the public realm in the name of increasing efficiencies and economic growth. New forms of anxiety, hardship and concealed exclusion appear to mark this situation, with mounting concern about the long-term consequences of dismantling a variety of forms of common provision and mechanisms that might guard against extreme wealth and income inequalities (notably the NHS but also systems such as water). One critical basis for arguing against this ongoing disaster is to suggest that we are more capable and happy as private, free citizens when freed against the excesses and intrusion of such a dominant corporate-political sphere of influence. In other words, strong forms of municipal provision, affordable health, education, meaningful and financially rewarding work lead not only to some mad vision of a more equal society – they offer deeper and substantial rewards in the form of personal emancipation, freedom and self-realisation than in societies marked by declining public investments and provision. In such contexts what we find is not only troubling forms of social damage and loss (to say nothing of the revolting levels of excessive wealth and consumption by the affluent amidst poverty) but also diminished forms of self, community that ride alongside the vision of a minimal state and corporate capture of assets and profits.

With social and policy thinking often fixed on notions of the anti-social it appears timely to consider the value and limits of the social itself, of the kinds of mechanisms for community participation and self-realisation amidst these powerful social and economic forces. The position of the academy in relation to these debates and to questions of social resilience, emancipation, social justice, the nature of collectivity and forms of social sustenance and protection are also raised by this context. The real lie amidst all of this is that there are sides to choose from when the systemic logic of markets that pervades and dictates so many areas of social life is antagonistic to almost all visions of a sustainable, enjoyable, healthy life for all.

The draw of the undertow: Extremity, otherness and emergent harm in gaming and pornography

This piece relates to an article I recently wrote with the excellent Tom Rodgers at York, given the recent discussions about GTA V I thought I would repost it here.

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By Rowland Atkinson

My own interest in the cultural and social impact of videogames probably began with morally conflicted feelings while playing Grand Theft Auto III for the first time. I remember experiencing a real sense of surprise at the possibility of running over pedestrians and perhaps more so, a sense of worry at what other, younger, players might take from the game. The game felt like an incredibly violent space, a bleak vision of a city without moral codes or goodness, a space most of all where we were being goaded to bring out our more callous side, running over the homeless in tunnels, sniping at the unsuspecting or beating and stabbing to advance, or just for the sheer hell of it.

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The early work I conducted with Paul Willis, with avid players of the game, suggested that this kind of ‘ok for me, but perhaps not for…

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A black Friday: The kingdoms to come?

Not long after I returned from living in Australia I picked up J G Ballard’s Kingdom Come, a further exploration of a semi-fictional suburban location, one of what he calls in the book rather nicely, the Heathrow towns. Ballard’s novel isn’t so much prescient as a kind of social science fiction that already resonated with contemporary events. After four years in one of the older quiet suburbs of Hobart the story resonated strongly with my experience upon emerging, blinking into the fast-paced lifestyle of what felt like an overpopulated, congested and disorderly urbanism of the British kind so despised by Daily Mail leader writers and expatriates. The book connected my own feelings of disorientation to the partially unfamiliar sites and feelings I experienced back in a now unfamiliar homeland.

ballard dreams of violenceFor those who don’t know the book it concerns a vast shopping centre which forms the centrepiece of the narrative and focal point for consumers bereft of alternative pastimes. Alongside this site Ballard recounts an obsession with sport and the conflation of cultural with hyper-nationalist zealotry that is turned against a scapegoated otherness of retiring Asians. The imagined future of the book is too painfully close to current events and fears to be shelved simply as a fiction that should not overly trouble us. Driving from the south of England to its to urban north to take up my new post I was struck by the red crosses of St George, on car bumper stickers, flying atop A-road burger bars and churches. Were there really as many when I left? Even articulations of such discomfort are themselves subjected to a kind of hostility and suspicion in the current climate.

As with many of Ballard’s books a key theme is how the veneer of civility in modern urban life can so easily be moved to reveal the cruelty, emptiness and violence of everyday life. Spectators in the novel move between the non-places of sports stadia, work and the shopping centre while channeling their boredom by bashing vulnerable migrants. The tone is aloof and clinical, suggesting a kind of moral ambivalence and complicity of the central character in the aggressive outpourings of the surrounding mob. We are left with the impression of a space that speaks for so many others – offering us nothing more than consumer distractions and hidden violence in lieu of the terror of facing the real emptiness of life. The pursuit of imagined or inherited identities, meaningless acquisition or vacuous tournaments between in and out groups on sports pitches are the means by which alienation is handled.

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Picture courtesy Daryl Martin, CURB.

With consumer products as cheap as chips, houses are bought and sold as much for profit as homes to live in and a merry-go-round of political distractions and scapegoating of migrants and welfare scroungers important questions are raised about the nature of our social existence. Where can we go to feel joy, surprise, intrinsic interest in the over-capitalised and under-nourishing urbanism generated in the last urban renaissance? Without improving urban design and reducing social inequalities we appear compelled to pursue personal advantages and neglect others, jockeying to avoid spaces we may deem too risky or unpleasant to go near. What political and communal voices will identify ambitions of community safety, human spaces for self-development and social contact and avoid further sell-outs to large scale private capital and to an ‘anything but’ agenda that leaves private wealth untapped and public spaces and assets shoddy or dysfunctional. The rise of the political right across Europe and the gloss of respectability among its counterparts entering mainstream politics now are not surprising in this context. Inequality, social exclusion and genuine fears about local disorder, uninhibited incivility and a vacuity at the heart of political and corporate life are the bedrock of a mild economic resurgence, even as precariousness and economic disaster mark so many urban districts nationally. Ballard achieved much by offering a mirror to our lives that showed the hollow and unpleasant core to contemporary capitalism and the kind of politics and places cast in its shadow.

Is the UK fair?

Some people may think that choosing to tax the assets of the wealthy is as random as choosing to tax water but surely there is some logic to it. One of the more interesting aspects of what has been said about the very wealthy and the institutions that they run is that they have had a disproportionate impact on the kinds of policies and currents of thinking operating in political life. Although it sounds rather like old school Marxist theories of knowledge the argument is essentially that there has been a capturing of agendas, decisions and frameworks for policymaking by financial institutions, the wealthy and the powerful intermediaries that work across these spaces. On the one hand this has meant politicians have felt the financial services sector is so important that all other decisions are secondary to the need to ensure their vitality. In short, this has lead to bailouts for banks and the collective paying-down of debt as a result. Not only has this been a slowly unfolding social disaster over the past six years or so but even more perversely we inhabit a media and political culture that has very successfully made discussion of taxation and progressive resourcing of the public realm an apparent mad house that no one should bear to entertain.

Not long ago I was invited to give a presentation at a meeting organised by the York People’s Assembly on whether Britain seems fair. I took this as a rather rhetorical opening for a debate about why Britain is broken, broke or both and this is a kind of summary of the things I tried to get across in that session.

The best social research on crime, education, jobs, housing and so on is that these remain problems, that access to opportunity is a key issue and that it is the familiar groups and places that are faring badly.

We need to decide whether the arrangements and social structures we see around us are justified, due to chance, to hard work or because we live in a rigged system that will continue to produce and reproduce low paid, sick, poorly educated, under-employed and groups deemed to be deviant and workshy by a media system looking for cheap stories or, worse, under the editorial control of uncritical or partisan news media empires (and the BBC increasingly appears to be acting in such ways too).

In Herbert Gans’ essay The Positive Functions of Poverty he pokes fun at the establishment by saying that we NEED poverty, it provides jobs for social workers and other state professionals, it gives us something to wring our hands over and ponder the morality of others and it provides energy for the politics of the left. As a community we certainly seem to enjoy moralising and pointing at the broken social wrecks of our economy and policy decisions – Benefits Street is one of several examples of the kind of voyeurism and social spitefulness that has become embedded in our culture today.

On politics – the mindset of contemporary social life is co-opted to the rhythms of indebtedness (including that generated by homeownership), resistance and protest are unthinkable, it is also often seen as futile and increasingly severely repressed, the shiny baubles of the information age distract us and reduce our energy or attention to social problems (ipads, videogames, pornography).

The position of many is to adopt what Fromm called the marketing personality, we sell ourselves and calculate our worth or failure in our successes or failures in work – keep your head down, play by the rules and hope your number isn’t called.

Implicit in the choices of many is what Iain Angell positively describes as a kind of new barbarianism – we make decisions based on personal gain, made to feel we are on our own by government (commodification of state assurances) driven by commercial imperatives. We see this culture all around us – a robbing of the social commons by political and corporate elites to take what they can before someone else does so. You better get educated, get a ticket to the right job in an increasingly precarious labour market, move to a gated community and insure yourself by investing in your health, taking those common goods that help you (good schools and public health systems) while arguing for low taxes and the dismantling of inefficient welfare systems. Just hope you don’t end up on the wrong side of the fence because then it really will be game over.

Piketty gives us the startling overview and Harvey the mechanisms underlying much of what is going on. Their apparent radicalism is to propose, in Piketty’s case, that no one can win in a system so rigged towards the favouring of those who already own so much. Countries like the US, France and UK are all similar in this. The interesting thing here is that Piketty is on the inside – he sees a core value in capitalism but he would like to be more just and, as Harvey once said in questions at a lecture, social deomocracy would be a start. In Harvey’s case the analysis focuses on the points of weakness (the contradictions) for those who argue that a system so unequal, so destructive to nature and prone to continuous and costly disaster is the only game in town. In Piketty’s case he has been picked up by the financial press and globally by those who see his incredible data and analysis, and a route map for dealing with the worst excesses, but he is no apologist, citing his own up-bringing in the communist era as a kind of education against alternatives. Harvey’s popularity lies in his dogged exposition of Marxist analysis of the system and his ‘translation’ of Marx via a chapter by chapter analysis of lectures freely placed online (to say nothing of his standing as a critical geography for more than forty years). Moreover David Harvey is gauging that theft, extortion, organised crime, financial usury and the rigged financial system is part of how the system now works and money is concentrated and reproduced in a neoliberal class. So the project of neoliberalism was an attempt to regain the returns and position of the elite that it had occupied in the early part of the century and as Piketty’s data now shows – they have got it back, and more!

For the criminologist John Lea, crime has become part of the engine as well as the exhaust of the system – well, we might also say that unfairness and inequality are also part of the engine and the exhaust of the machine – we need them to make the gains accrue to capital, even worse is that the middle classes or increasingly pervasive and can see that they have a common interest with the low and no-paid against rampant contracting-out, crony capitalism, privatisation and asset stripping. In all of this we need to remember that there is a political economy to wealth and housing – politicians continue to work towards sustaining the contradictions, offering more subsidies for the weakest buyers (instead of reducing inequalities, taxing property wealth, or programming towards a long term flattening of house prices). Do you want your house value to go up or to see other people housed? Interestingly perhaps the continued dipping of owner occupation among younger households may mean that this dynamic shifts in their favour and away from the expansion of private renting fiefdoms by those who have already done very well.

Increasing polarisation and anti sociological posturing, immigrants, benefits street style treatments, lack of recognition of money poverty and conditions – scape goating, distractions

Some suggestions

Stop focusing on the poor, turn the heat and light upwards!

Role of the universities – Orientation to policy is for the most-part a falsehood – policymakers and politicians look for justifications, rather than evidence, they may remain elite insitituions but as spaces for free thinking and for investigating our social and economic condition they remain unrivalled.

In the past the argument for reform and social investment of the kind seen in Piketty’s analysis in the post war period was that these were necessary to stifle dissent, were based on the need for principles of social investment and democracy and that ultimately we all paid the price for opting out of taxes in the kind of degraded public realm that all could see. Now the good (or bad) news is that we can retreat from the negative externalities of the system (disorder, bored youth, crime, poor public services) to private estates, gated communities and to private education and health services.

The social construction of policy-maker realities – The political elite is in many ways divorced from witnessing social difference and the effects of their own policy programmes. They are wealthy and schooled in leafy areas away from zones that had already seen massive social losses of all kinds. The danger of a socially insulated executive is the possibility not only of ideologically charged assaults on the poor, but a callous and indignant approach to inequality more generally. To go back to the beginning, the very wealthy are served by the quite wealthy and almost unconsciously collude in each other’s needs.

Raise taxes fairly on income, land and property to progressively pay down debts where and if needed. Piketty’s proposals for massive taxes on private wealth should be debated far and wide. Public housing, the NHS and other collectively funded forms of social insurance and provision that make us safer, healthier, better educated need protecting from an assault by the logic of the market that will deliver new forms of inequality just as it generates new dividends to the corporations waiting in the wings.

Exhausting places

In 1975 Georges Perec observed a public space and wrote his every observation in a very short book entitled An Attempt at Exhausting a Place in Paris. Like much of Perec’s work the engagement provides scope to rethink our relationship to place and to be more playful in our understanding of what space can offer us – does the space become more banal or exciting in its appearance as a result of trying so hard to observe its every occurrence and features? Of course places can be exhausting on a number of levels and debates about the quality of place, the lack of services, cuts to public provisions and the like generate continuing rounds of discussion about how best to allow neighbourhoods to be places that advantage and prop-up their residents in some way. The debates about area affects, the idea that it is worse to be poor in a poor place than a space that is more socially diverse, captures the idea that  neighbourhood life somehow might drain the vitality and opportunity of its residents. This can happen in numerous different ways – increased pressure on social, education and health services, the social fatalism generated by stigmatised social identities in such spaces as well as the potential isolation from work opportunities or transport connections.

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Those interested in this patchwork of disadvantage also well know that central mechanisms for reducing inequalities of wealth and income, and local, spatial programmes of intervention to off-set such effects are notable for their absence. We are doing little to nothing to challenge the regional and local inequalities generated by economic policies and structures, nor the deeper effects that massive cuts to social provisions are having. Yet the logic of these processes is much deeper than we might at first imagine, I have been struck at the usefulness of Saskia Sassen’s new book Expulsions which seems to me to provide a rather fresh and exciting perspective on how places and people are being transformed and denuded by the systemic architecture of the world economy. Notions of poverty and inequality don’t capture this fully. For Sassen we are seeing the tendentious emergence of forms that are leading to the literal evacuation of vulnerable populations – the theft of natural resources by international corporations, the massive displacement of populations and the removal of rights of citizenship for key groups living in poverty. More worryingly we can think of these forms of expulsion as being not fully intended – the systemic architecture of a globalised capitalism will produce forms of social and spatial organisation that feed this machine by destroying the livelihoods of millions while generating the positionality of corporate and state actors who unknowingly conspire to enable these forms of extraction to proceed. For some this might seem to let too many off the hook and yet I think there is a curious power to the notion that much of the social distress and dispossession is the emergent outcome of the system at work, rather than of careful planning or anti-social intent as such. This exhausting of places and people is the system at work, driven to the logical endpoint of its own unsustainability but no doubt also guided by the personal ambitions of key corporate actors able to take what they can from the commons before it is finally drained.

The barbarian manifestos

All of the major political parties operate with barbarian manifestos, all appear to represent (either through ideological fervour or the game of second-guessing what ‘we’, the electorate, apparently want) the needs of capital, private interests via the selling-off of public assets (the NHS, public spaces, security, hospitals, schools, the post office). This politically mediated theft has been pursued in lieu of a more progressive agenda that might begin to target the staggering wealth of the very few globally and nationally, and the protection of that wealth by seeking cuts to publicly funded projects and programmes instead of personal or corporate wealth. All of this arguably makes this it an easy time to be a housing or urban policy analyst since there isn’t much going on except for persistent thinking about what to do with very little or no money.

The great triumph of Big Society thinking is that deep down there are indeed many people who believe communities, rather than these kinds of government, can do a better job. So there is a real need for urban, housing and social studies to be premised more firmly on equitable forms of taxation and resourcing, instead of austerity. Despite the massive popularity of thinkers like David Harvey and Thomas Piketty we appear to have not produced either a key thought leader or mainstream set of principles capable of advancing such goals. Attempting to face-down the prospect of being portrayed as radical for stepping outside the narrow boundaries of political thinking set by government and conventional news media is a hard prospect indeed. We need to adopt an unblinking fearlessness to such views however; based on the raft of data and analysis globally that points to the condensation of wealth, the social disaster of austerity and the pursuit of short-term gains by various elites. The very moderate arguments for municipal, public and shared forms of provision and infrastructure also need to be part of such arguments. If we want to discuss problems like housing provision, health and our welfare we will need to start with prescriptions that do not start by tinkering with less resource, contracting-out or other substitutes – we need to state up-front that there is a cost and, indeed, that we as a community can bare such costs given our combined wealth. Unfortunately this position has been eschewed by many on the political left, while the media has ignored or viewed as risible those asking for tax justice. In this sense those who work to such principles are seen to be asking for the world, or as fantasists not facing-down the reality of budget deficits – even while we know that even a handful of billionaires could wipe-out poverty world-wide. Positions of corporate and individual wealth, so carefully and constructively attacked by Piketty’s detailed empirical analysis, need to be challenged or they are increasingly likely to be shamed to action by a more vocal public no longer willing to tolerate their disproportionate take, all the while aided by a subconsciously compliant political class. I doubt it is only me that feels these points are so glaringly obvious, just as they appear to be so clearly off the map of current political leadership and action.

Nothing space and nothing people

I was struck while reading Steve Hall and David Wilson’s piece about serial killing in a recent issue of the European Journal of Criminology. They make the argument that we need to develop deeper theories of motivation and the influence of social structural conditions that may shape such motivations. In a nutshell, is the inclination to do harm linked to predispositions that are hard-wired (some people are always born with violent propensities) or do the peculiarities and geographies of social and economic stress also play their role. I know where my money is, but this is a long-running argument and one which continues to need elucidation, not least because of the persistent denial of the role of social forces and increasing belief in genetic and personal factors. It is also important because, as they point out, the crime-drop has been much less marked in highly deprived areas – spaces that, as I’m sure you’ve noticed, have fared less than very well over the past six and many more years. Violence is concentrated, under-reported and internalised in the traumatised personal biographies of those living in these districts, and these stresses (pressured services, lack of employment, education and skills deficits, stigma and abuse) are pushed even harder because of the kinds of decisions about (non) investment and funding that government presides over in relation to the macro-economy.

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Packaged recycling, courtesy Daryl Martin (CURB, University of York).

Taking as their example serial killing and the kinds of subjectivity associated with such offenders they make the observation that most of these have, counter-intuitively, barely registered in the media circus because they have taken place in abandoned spaces, involving people who are valued little by society more broadly. They use a framework developed by Simon Parker and myself about the idea of autotomic space* that appears to capture the kind of spaces sought out by killers – perhaps strategically because they tend to away from any casual gaze of unwanted encounter, but also because the people we find in such spaces are capable of being treated differently. This combination of spatial and social neglect renders the inhabitants and users of these spaces available to differential treatment. It isn’t just governments and policing agencies that act to produce sch spaces by their avoidance of responsibility and the ceding of control over such areas. We can also see how people make judgment calls about avoiding certain places because they are seen as too risky or dangerous, sometimes because inhabitants also act to deter or intimidate those who don’t belong there (points made long ago by writers like Gerry Suttles in his work on slums and their reputations and social organisation as ‘defensive’). All of this perhaps renders an intensely complex phenomenon rather simple, but it does help us to say something that moves us beyond notions of citizenship/incorporation or the kind of privatisation of public space thesis that have been the polar points of discussion around urban space in recent years. If we can treat people differently, suspend ordinary rights of citizenship, because they live in a place that has seen public funding removed, policing reduced (not something that can ever be acknowledged) and services withdrawn we can then see a vicious circularity to these processes. Sites and people are stigmatised because they don’t belong, they don’t belong because they have been financially exiled and have seen services withdrawn and this reinforces a position of partial social exile (I’m reading Saskia Sassen’s book Expulsions right now which scales these concerns to a planetary level, thoughmore on this in another post).

The production of autotomic, abandoned space is connected by Hall and Wilson to the ways in which space influences the production of damaged people with ill intent, and the way in which spaces that are relegated to the status of hopeless, sink status appears to legitimate the creation of targets for predatory criminality. Meanwhile we have long-seen the kinds of discursive treatment and further relegation of estates and post-industrial areas in media treatments that try to understand why people live like this in ‘these’ areas. Something here is rather broken and such fractures are soon revealed when we look to the geography of predatory male criminality in the north of England, the Rotherham abuse revelations among many others can be linked to these ideas of autotomic spaces and exceptional conduct (click here for an earlier article on the social and economic conditions of the town that further helps to cement these points) . Clearly there is much to be said here about gender and culture (as well as deep problems in the operations of the criminal justice system) but there is also something to be said about how these spaces create patterns of trauma that stem from wider economic and policy cycles that have rendered many such towns and cities fatalistic, inwardly facing and dangerous for weaker and discriminated groups within those spaces.

The media’s persistent role in defaming and casting-out particular social groups remains important in all of this, in just last night’s evening news on the BBC prostitutes were shown in the red light area of Amsterdam using long lenses with barely post-pubescent girls looking bemusedly to the camera as though their rights to privacy can be suspended because of their occupation and, critically, the place they work where ordinary rights are suspended. Hall and Wilson seem to be onto something here and it seems worth pursuing the idea that there is a real kind of disintegration (a falling out of society and space) of the other that occurs in places of social degradation produced by the national and urban economic and political order. This helps us to understand more about the persistence of violence, its concentration in particular areas and, in part, the lack of concerted responses to victimisation. As Hall and Wilson sum it up:

In a nutshell, the autotomic process is a process of exfoliation, shedding and abandoning a former part of the urban social body that can no longer be commercially exploited or socially controlled…Perpetrators of serious violence, homicide and serial murder take advantage of the vulnerable individuals who can be found in the unprotected spaces created by capitalism’s periodic bouts of creative destruction p.649.

 * The fancy term, autotomic space, is used as a means of capturing something about particular spaces that suggests a kind of orchestrated ejection, a rejection of spaces and social groups that takes place where the cost of trying to continue to include them in mainstream society and the wider life of the city is seen to be too high. It stems from the term used to describe animals capable of shedding a part of their body in response to attack by a predator – thus a metaphor for the ejection of parts of the city in relation to the risks associated with the continued maintenance of those segments.

The sonic ghetto

Sonic ghettos

Two fifths of the respondents to the 2008 National Noise Survey indicated that their quality of life suffered as a consequence of noise in their everyday lives. The density and concentration of urban life certainly produces variable and increasing stressors and sensitivities – but is this about poor neighbours or bad building regulations? How many fewer cases of noise stress, anti-social behaviour, noisy parties and other wicked urban problems might be faced-down by better sound insulation? Could this agenda be made to mesh with zero-carbon emission ambitions for buildings? A nice idea, surely. Noise needn’t be a source of community stress or a necessary by-product of the changing urban fabric. Noise is commonly held to be responsible for many psycho-social tensions, civil disputes and the ambient unease of much urban life. Noise is a subjective defined state of affairs – passing trains can be noisy but it is quite easy to become used to (soothed even) them over time. This designation is also shaped by social and spatial factors – the territories of everyday routines, journeys to work and, crucially, homes. For noise to penetrate the home is an insidious and deeply destabilising experience. I get anxious, angry and upset very quickly if I hear music near my home after a protracted experience of loud music from thoughtless students from a flat directly opposite mine in Glasgow years ago. Much such noise is people just doing what they do, not realising that their personal freedoms may generate inwardly hating, stressed and sleepless lives in those around them – some of it, on the other hand, is due to arrogance, displays of aggression and sonic/territorial claims to space through the use of sound-power. Just as good fences are needed to have good neighbours it is quite clear that solid walls and floors may be just as important.

Do not disturb, Rome

Noise isn’t an inevitable or inescapable aspect of urban life, to state this is to deny the possibility of making better buildings or better neighbours. This might on first glance be seen as the analytical realm of the architect, planner, regulator or the environmental scientist. However, as Jacques Attali pointed out in his book Noise, there is a distinctive ‘politics’ of noise and this is most clearly understood in terms of who experiences it, in what forms and with what consequences. As this would suggest, the distribution of noise is also a sociological matter that speaks to the issues of privacy, invasiveness and the zonal distribution of housing, buildings and services. Yet there is still a need to take up Robert Merton’s challenge in one of the first statements (from 1951) about a housing sociology that this should be concerned with the psychic pressures implied by rising urban density. For Merton housing studies should be very interested in the potential compromise of personal privacy and pressure generated by the kinds of new built environment springing up at that time, notably the new housing projects. This neatly leads us to the kind of sonic ghettos being generated by poorly constructed flats in the private sector, particularly since the advent of the urban renaissance under the UK Blair government – waterfronts and central city spaces populated by ranks of low quality buildings that don’t allow their residents a sense of privacy, autonomy and control over their daily lives. Stories of noisy neighbours, hearing people urinating upstairs, coughing, placing cups on hard surfaces in adjoining kitchens and, ahem, more private acts.

The effect of creating a built environment that pressures social subjects in these ways is not only to feel a loss of control from intrusion by others (neighbours no less) but also the sense of an impinging self-surveillance as expressivity and control within their primary social zone is reduced – if we can hear them, they can hear us! With this in mind their remains a need for urbanists to map the social power relations, the production of deficient built environments and the geographies of social stress generated by these effects. The deep misery of those affected requires us to consider such problems. The themes covered offer an agenda for developing further engagement by social scientists concerned with both the intangibility yet deeply affecting qualities of sound and noise in urban life today.

The silent lounge, Copenhagen airport

The random neighbourhood: Bringing concentrated wealth into the concentrated poverty debate

rich and poor 2

The unfair distribution of wealth and income today are increasingly at the forefront of social debate. These arguments appear to be rising in intensity, largely because new media systems have made allowed data and insights to circulate more quickly and clearly. It is likely that you have heard that roughly 80 people own half of the entire globe’s wealth, and similar figures that highlight these massive disparities. But it is also important to think spatially in relation to these questions. London has become a kind of gilded ghetto, a series of positive area effects in which wealth brings more wealth and the agglomeration of unparalleled cultural and financial infrastructures drives further investment. Being wealthy in London allows access to these services and shows how space matters and its attributes drive the residential decisions of the wealthy. This is, of course, in some contrast to the conditions of many neighbourhoods and more deprived households whose position has been further distressed, not only by austerity but the almost wholesale exit of public strategies to address market failure, social and regional disparities. Where the neighbourhood was central to policy interventions it is now side-lined amidst a race to further concentrate capital investment in London and among other existing winners.

There is a palpable anger about inequality that is being channelled and given weight by the cumulative evidence of meticulous analyses. Piketty’s book on Capital in the 21st Century and Dorling’s Inequality and the 1% are good source books with which to face-down dominant ideas that circulate in political and media circuits used to justify why government debt cannot be allowed to escalate, why more equitable taxation as a means to address deficits cannot be used to resolve current conditions and how large the yawning gulf is between the majority of the population and its well-paid and wealthy elites really is. This has made these issues new-found targets that are fair game for debate and criticism.

Let’s go back to the question of how to understand these issues in spatial terms. How do places pull us back or help us to move forward? These are long-standing concerns that underpin urban policies designed to iron-out the worst wrinkles in the uneven social patchwork of market failure and social distress – tackling uneven economic opportunities and social outcomes. In all of this the idea of the neighbourhood effect, of the compounding disadvantages that people face when living side-by-side with many other people with few or no resources, was a powerful theory. Of course in such conditions it isn’t the neighbourhood itself that magically acts to hold people back, but a range of social and economic effects generated by, for example large numbers of unruly kids in a classroom, the lack of role models in the neighbourhood, the increased risk of victimisation from acquisitive criminals and so on. These ideas are not without their controversies, many have left ideas of an underclass and of concentrated poverty because of their relation to paternalistic policies and indeed regressive explanations of those problems.

Areas of concentrated deprivation are produced by at least two key factors – first, a population of households and individuals generated by the economic system we inhabit (so obvious yet so very important!) and second by the nature of public and private housing systems that sort people into estates and neighbourhoods with bundles of more or less desirable qualities and proximity to essential services, amenities and employment opportunities. One way of thinking about the impact of this social mosaic is to consider a thought experiment. Imagine twins who, at birth and incredibly cruelly, were separated and moved to the most affluent and deprived neighbourhoods in the country. What experiences, challenges and advantages do you think they would each face as a result of developing in these different contexts? Such an experiment goes some way to forcing us to think about how we might plan to tackle general levels of deprivation, but also think through how to encourage more socially diverse areas.

One possible way to imagine a template for neighbourhood planning would be to randomly allocate people to all local areas in the country. This interesting thought experiment forms the basis of an article by Danny Dorling and Phil Rees. Yet it isn’t a million miles away from the ambitions of planners to create socially diverse localities by engineering variables like housing tenure, building size and type and so on. The idea of a random neighbourhood that thereby draws in a good cross-section of people with varying incomes, class, gender, sexuality, occupations and ages can be used to think through the benefits of social mix and diversity – how they might be optimised to generate greater inclusion, lower reliance on services and a broader social base of daily contact. This image stands in contrast to the kinds of areas of concentrated deprivation and exclusion that we see in many towns and cities. This isn’t just about the lumpy areas of concentrated exclusion but also necessarily about the nature of concentrated wealth and its obliviousness to social distress.

Visions of what an optimal neighbourhood might be have arguably been stunted by the absence of interest in neighbourhoods by the current government, and no doubt the continued de-funding of policies that have been shown to make a difference at this level in the pursuit of deficit reductions. We don’t have neighbourhood policies, local programmes, forms of social investment and catalysts to mitigate against the way that capitalism will always tend to produce big winners and losers. Without recognition of the need to make concessions the kind of anger expressed at housing shortages (among many other areas of social need) are likely to become much more concerted, aggressive and generate wider appeal. Perhaps more importantly we need to look to and understand how the places and virtues of concentrated affluence and economic growth in the south-east shape the policy ambitions of our political elite. Their disconnection (from the lived reality of poor living environments, denuded public services) takes away any urgency to providing vehicles for mass employment in the post-Fordist heartlands. For those arguing that to improve our chances we should somehow get on our bikes and join the glittering economic heartlands of the south-east we need to recognise not only the segregation and distress of the capital itself but also how very broken and over-stressed that system is already. We need more imagination around local and regional planning as well taxes on wealth and income to even begin to start to redress these unacceptable gaps between rich and poor.

The poverty of urban research: London’s super-rich

The Shard

The Shard

Space matters, as geographers often like to say to sociologists – it also matters to the very wealthy who are overwhelmingly concentrated around the social asset-rich spaces of London’s super-prime property markets. Unless you have been living in a cave for the last few years this is an issue that is exercising rather a lot of people. What kind of a city has London become and who is it for? The project that I am co-leading with Roger Burrows (Goldsmiths) is focused on trying to understand the changes that the city has experienced alongside the massive increases in wealth, both from international and ‘local’ sources. Instead of looking down, as has often been criticised in sociological research, we are trying to look-up and understand the property markets, neighbourhoods, social circuits and wider impacts of these groups on the city.

For the super-rich and the merely very wealthy London works – it has relatively low levels of property taxation, unrivalled cultural and leisure circuits, sits astride the time line and is a relatively safe city, both to live and do business. But there is a much broader series of political questions that lurks in the background here – austerity, welfare cuts, stagnating housing supply, gentrification, estate demolitions and the general sense that London works for capital rather than its citizens. If anything we feel that this makes studying the rich a more urgent problematic – the displacement of low-income households in the city is by no means disconnected from the rising fortunes and investments of off-shore investors and to the insulated political lives of those making the decision to cut welfare and housing programmes. As we move into the research we are learning much more about how and why the wealthy are choosing London, as a place to live or as a place to park money for a time. Much of London’s gain has been generated by the chaos of other regions globally, or the relative intrusiveness of the state in other countries.

The social splitting-off of super-affluence represents one of the foremost challenges for applied social science. Fundamentally this relates to the lag between models of society, power and civic life and the growth, dynamics and effects of super-affluence that have not tended to be captured through these lenses. In a city like London it is clear that there are those investing in, but rarely living in, the city, but there are also many very wealthy people who seek to be in the city. What do these types of engagement and non/elective belonging imply for politics and fiscal policies?

Gaining contact and learning more is fraught with difficulty, one of the reasons ‘studying-up’ , though laudable, is so difficult in the first place. The very rich present us with difficulties precisely because they tend to challenge the ability of a public sociology to locate, understand and report on them.  In many cases the very possibility of connection with such groups has evaporated, and the state already acknowledges this. In the past the traditional imperatives of research meant that work on elite was difficult – secretaries, various defensive and other power relationships kept social investigators at bay.  But, more recently, services like the Australian Bureau of Statistics and US statistical authorities have expressed concern at what is effectively the growing myopia of the state to super rich citizens whose residential arrangements, such as gated communities, prevent their basic profiling. Instead of concern with unemployed and young males, the perennial problem group for survey researchers, we need to acknowledge the increasing opacity of affluent life – from the state and from public understandings of the full range of social life. The state sees unevenly, and appears to be predisposed to support most those it sees least.

London’s burgeoning high rise landscape appears to be driven by underground pipelines of capital flowing into the city from across the globe. London’s luck brings more luck, the longest run of a nationally-sanctioned pyramiding scheme in the form of its property market. Perhaps worst of all the city of Lanchester’s Capital is a heartless space, money talks and politicians listen. Hostility to migrants but not migrating money, to new homes but not to empty homes speak of a callous money-logic that trumps attempts at stating the case for the city as a place for communities, social life and nurturing spaces. How very old-fashioned and cringe-worthy even to suggest such things.

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One Hyde Park, ultra prime market residences.

Any basic commitment to an equitable social and economic agenda should feel obliged to encompass these changes and move beyond speculation to learn more about the extent, lifestyles, attitudes and daily life of the very wealthy. Debates about taxation, house-building, civic engagement and urban politics cannot proceed without such insights. This is not to suggest that with knowledge might come political action or condemnation, but that we cannot achieve commitments to social equity and more just cities without it.

Managing information overload

Lest people think I am slightly mad I want to start with another word I found in the Chambers English dictionary, you will notice it also starts with ‘a’, so you can see I haven’t got very far as yet. The word is (perhaps in a rather Steven Fry QI voice) abibliophobia noun the fear or anxiety that one will run out of things to read. This set me thinking as I believe I am with the majority of academics whose fear is of even marginally keeping apace of the books, journal articles (a large part of my inbox used to be journal alerts for contents pages), reports, blogs (!) and perhaps twitter as well. Surely one of the core anxieties of our times is how we can navigate this sea of information, remain informed and not be bluffers who have only read the abstract. We are in danger of being locked into Thomas Hylland Eriksen’s Tyranny of the Moment (think of your average day of repeating the same tasks over and over again and being locked into this kind of activity and you have it – for most of us its email of course, with Eriksen noting that he would go home in order to do decent work – but perhaps even that was before webmail…). The reality is of course that most such information is incredibly ‘thin’ and refers to little of consequence, a good example of this being coverage of the stockmarkets. We can almost tune-in from one day to another and be confronted either with disaster or elation at the performance of the market. This isn’t simply a function of the current crisis, it is just as much about a move away from analysis and the educative role of the media to a point at which the media apparently reflect momentary interests and data, hence we don’t see graphs for the past week or year to set things in context, never mind a proper briefing on what it all means. The project of writers like John Lanchester (check his series of articles for the London Review of Books, Whoops! and How to Speak Money) has been precisely to cut through the froth of media attention and the emotion machine of the stockmarket and offer people deeper understandings of the way markets, governments and bankers work (and often don’t). The reason I raise this is because arguing about the value and need for longer loops of thinking in the academy belies the reality that so many of us are already the kind of twitching subjects of Mark Fisher’s Capitalist Realism – plugged into headphones, phones, ipads, laptops and desktops – frantically trying to reduce the size of our inboxes or trying to boost our social media profile (ahem). This is corrosive stuff, the partial equivalent of the film The Matrix and a new reason to take critical theory seriously – we are being deeply affected by information overload, by immersion in momentary takes on social life and confronted by the ways in which big data and privately run social monitoring systems are challenging the voice and relevance of social research in the academy. There IS a kind of corporate, neoliberal, commodifying, dehumanising aspect to the way that universities and academics are being repositioned as quick voices and quicker thinkers. Say it isn’t so and then reflect on the daily pressures we all face. I hope to move on to words beginning with b soon.

Autotomically speaking

The Chambers English dictionary defines autotomy as: noun. a reflex reaction in certain animals in which part of the body drops off, especially in order to allow them to escape when being attacked, eg some lizards shed their tails in this way. Reading a dictionary is not often considered very fruitful and yet sometimes it pays dividends! Not only is the capacity of some animals to respond in this way a curiosity but it gives us a metaphor for the way in which the city (its systems of governance at least) may act towards particularly ungovernable, deprived, or disorderly spaces. I’ve called this blog autotomically because the term captures much of what I have been thinking and researching in the past few years, identifying spaces of the wealthy and the excluded that are more or less detached from the political, social and sometimes spatial, fabric of the city. Zones of exception like refugee camps, gated communities of the wealthy, no-go areas for policing authorities, reputationally damaged areas that are avoided by citizens. Simon Parker (University of York) and I have been working around these themes of ‘sensitive’ urban space for sometime now, they form the backdrop to the post-crash conference series we organised at CURB (York) and the backdrop to a series of papers (imminently to be published!) exploring these ideas. So this first note is a nod to acknowledge the ways in which lizards, worms and spiders can help us think about how cities operate and to the benefit of sitting with a cup of tea reading a dictionary looking for inspiration.