Becoming a communiversity: Thinking about what and who are universities for

Becoming a communiversity: Thinking about what and who are universities for

Rowland Atkinson, Lee Crookes, Andy Inch, Marion Oveson and Tom Shore

WP_20141203_001Sheffield is a civic university and, like many others, it espouses an outward-facing and connected sensibility. It is also notable for being an institution that was funded by public subscription and in this sense the university retains a debt of gratitude and a duty of care to the city. But surely we should argue this for all universities. Yet at least one of the anxieties about switching funding from direct grants to an increasingly debt-financed model* is the sense that universities will be made more exclusive. From the outside universities can seem intimidating and elites spaces far from being a common resource for the development of relevant ideas, plans and designs – spaces in which socially-relevant and useful ideas can and should be forged, alongside those outside them who might benefit. Those in the social sciences who so often feel a sense of duty and interest in the common good are however only one segment of its population and many in the social sciences are not only more or less committed to progressive social change, they are also more or less burdened by the pressures of teaching and writing which sometimes disconnect academics from the possibility of achieving real results from their endeavours – we may become too busy to care, hunkering down in survival mode, or pursuing lofty goals of excellence without reference to the immediate conditions around the university itself.

Surely this needs to change and the goals of our auditing processes be made to line-up more closely with the importance of viewing universities as organisations that form a bedrock of a stable resource for excluded communities and a source of knowledge and ideas around how to deal with local social problems. To be blunt, many of the imperatives facing academics tend to militate against them being more accessible, open and self-evidently interested in their local communities, excluded groups and civic society more broadly. How might we better ensure that the university as an institution retains and builds resources for the cities and communities it is co-dependent on? Can community groups and individuals be made to feel that they will get a hearing from academics who, it may be feared, may look down their nose at someone who has interrupted their stream of lofty thought! Even if those within the academy would welcome such contact we need to do more to appear receptive to such contact and find mechanisms by which those with questions may more easily find those who may have ideas or answers.

Social divisions are not hard to find – do universities feel they are there to help with social problems?

In Sheffield there is certainly a deep sense of commitment from many colleagues to the city we are in. As a post-industrial heartland the place remains unequal and, in many spaces, poverty stricken. Colleagues are involved in city-efforts around a Fairness Commission, profiling social problems through a series of State of Sheffield reports and spending time in organisations outside the university. These efforts have, to be sure, been with the help and interest of organisations outside the university and it has generated a sense of commitment and the idea that the university is a resource of and for the city. As many academics will recognise, the idea of somehow being brilliant in a particular field is often seen as implying work done elsewhere – excellent work is somehow something international. But are there other ways in which the privilege of universities and the privileged who benefit from its setting can be locked more closely into step with the needs and ambitions of the wider population? Our event, Communiversity, was an attempt to think through these thorny issues.

Changing community formations and structures present challenges - who is the university for, and why

Changing community formations and structures present challenges – who is the university for, and why

The Communiversity event began with little in the way of an agenda, rather it was a day in which folk from inside and out of the university were invited to discuss the challenge of what we think a university should be for its local communities. Should we engage outwards or invite inwards? What is effective and what are the barriers? More than sixty of us listened to presentations (from, we confess, mostly academics!) thinking through these issues. At the heart of this was the question of what a university is and who it is for. Not least, will fee-paying students act as a further force that stakes out university resources as being only for those paying for them? The day had a great atmosphere (a link to a series of podcasts and a write-up of the day’s proceedings will be linked to soon) and a real sense of interest in the ideas from many who find the university a rather, perhaps benignly, inaccessible place. The burning issues to come from the meeting focused on:

  1. How can the university and its staff be made more legible to those looking for support or knowledge? This proved to be a major point and one to which we will move forward with a working party to try and resolve. There are models out there but one question is the extent to which all scholars could or should be made to sign-up to being available to excluded communities outside the university (and perhaps how to incorporate this in workloads and in wider mission statements that tend to focus on the utility of knowledge for business). In other words – could there be a single point of contact for outside organisations to contact/connect with regarding their area of interest/question?
  2. It’s going to get much worse, as statutory services are being cut voluntary organisations are dealing with people with major problems – can universities help under these conditions and given their relatively more stable funding flows? Could some of this funding go towards supporting community-university partnership projects?
  3. Complexity – how do we deal with the fact that many within universities find their own institutions large and difficult to ‘know’ and may struggle to understand the range of institutions outside?
  4. How do we make large institutions that affect the economy and built environment of the city in such profound ways to be more transparent to their host cities? This proved to be a key point to which many felt passionately that there should be more engagement, despite the difficulty of consulting effectively. Even the buildings of a university and its future planning have a large and direct impact on the fabric and daily life of the city around it.
  5. Just ask the question – Many academics would really enjoy being approached directly. No doubt this remains difficult – how do you find out whether some is willing to engage and where expertise lies?
  6. Universities could/should be running spaces in which conversations about the community/public interest can be aired – a critical point and one which needs more widespread debate. Universities still receive significant public monies and their mandate as spaces of public conversations needs reinstating under conditions in which a narrowly utilitarian model of being useful to the economy prevails. How do we do this without taking ‘business’ away from community organisations who offer venues to the public and do this fairly? Similarly, how might we get the most dis-engaged members of society to; know about this, be interested in taking part, and feel able to cross multiple barriers in order to participate?
  7. Given current pressures in universities around outputs, income generation and the relatively short-term, project-based nature of research funding, can academics make space for the development of much longer term, mutually beneficial relationships with local communities that are built on principles of trust and reciprocity which don’t subside once funding is over and expectations have been raised.
  8. In opening the university up, how do we address the risk that greater engagement will privilege those who already possess much social and cultural capital; those who already know how to access university resources?
  9. How do we start a broader conversation in the city about who/what the university is for?

These points form the beginning of our efforts to continue to think about the role of the social sciences and universities to stitch together where possible mutual needs and ambitions to see these goals as paving the way for deeper social justice, sustainable dialogue and the opening-up of resources where it makes sense to do so. We hope to report back on these issues as we move forward with community partners from this first event.

DSC00940*students borrowing to pay their fees, which they pay back if they reach a certain income


Cities under a Conservative government – Stress, Division and Dissent?

What will this election result mean for our cities and for questions of inequality, social division and fairness? What will urban political life be like under a now fully Conservative-led government, without a coalition and a likely fractious relationship with the constituent parts of the UK? Will a housing crisis, migration, segregation, crime, health and education form key areas of social policy that continue to have dramatic spatial consequences? Here are some thoughts:

Urban Policy – What urban policy? We have seen very little in the way of concerted spatial planning and policies to adjust regional and neighbourhood inequalities. Is there prospect to see more action in this direction? This seems doubtful and that local social and physical conditions in the most deprived neighbourhoods will remain off the radar and worsen. A callous politics of disregard for social need is unlikely to change under a bolstered mandate for the Conservatives. Promises of a northern powerhouse economy will perhaps be renewed, if only to take some of the heat and pressure out of the south-east while offering a real chance of improving national economic prospects. Without more concerted action to act at the level of the neighbourhood conditions will deteriorate but this is not a government born of form in this area of policy, with those on the ground left to pick up the pieces.

Picture3

Housing – Will we see increased house building and a move to address the problem of intergenerational shifts in homeownership? This may be unlikely, for both practical and political reasons but there is an increasing danger of indebted middle-class entrants to the labour market finding cold comfort from this area of policymaking. The new government will have to balance being the representative of existing owners keen to maintain or build their own equity (not least to help their children have any chance of entering ownership) and representing the needs of renters desperate to escape a shoddy and predatory rental sector run for the benefit of landlords who are, in many cases, themselves homeowners. Can this continue? Unfortunately yes. Alongside this an almost stationary public housing programme and the now haunting refrain of a promise to look at a right to buy for housing association tenants will focus the attention of housing professionals and anyone interested in how to deal with housing need. NIMBYs will continue to scupper new developments, whatever their tenure, under the localism agenda. None of this bodes well and could form the focal point of a more explosive social politics in cities like London where housing stress is an all-encompassing concern, even for those on very high incomes.

Spatial divisions and inequality – The previous coalition played hard to a crowd who masochistically believed that austerity was the necessary goal of government, while privileging those who were already immune from the impact of the global financial crisis. It never seemed that there were enough, and clear enough, voices saying why this was wrong in principle and in practice. This is a rich country and in many of the ‘leafy’ constituencies that have been buoyed-up by those espousing a story of necessary pain there has been very little pain for they themselves. This kind of politics is unlikely to be tolerated without anger or protest by those who felt that Labour wasn’t strong enough in its proposals to redress inequalities and those who felt that politics (rather than political action and debate) was unlikely to do anything to change what seemed a very broken society. The spatial consequences of likely policies around tax, contracting-out, health, education, policing and crime and housing will fall heaviest on those least likely to be cared about by a newly confident administration. The traction of popular understandings of inequality, austerity and class-based revenge will however likely increase and we can expect a real anger and energy to debates about the way that the poor, precarious and vulnerable have been ignored. The longer-term emergence of a new group of precarious, damaged, stressed, futureless and the angry (and risks for a renewed rise in crime) will seem unlikely to puncture the bubble of ongoing affluence. For those in the middle, despite worries about their children’s prospects, life under the stewardship of those looking out for them will likely continue to feel like a rather cosy John Lewis advert – saccharine but also filled with nostalgia for a safer and homelier world.

Going up? High Rise Housing, Wealth and Social Alienation

Jephcott's Homes in High Flats, 1971

Jephcott’s Homes in High Flats, 1971

The politics of wealth, inequality and austerity are hotting-up in the run-up to the general election. Anger is pervasive, from all political sides but the ‘mediamacro’ presentation of the reality and need for continued austerity remains intact it seems. This is particularly depressing for those seeking to launch renewed optimism about the possibilities for reform, progressive taxation (getting those into it who should but aren’t and those avoiding it) and initiatives to address major issues like the crisis in housing affordability and provision. Cities, like London, are spaces of dramatic excess or continued social abandonment. Yet many of those renting (public or private) in London sit adjacent to massive changes to the built environment that speak of the extraordinary excesses of consumption and accumulation among the very wealthy, despite one of the largest historical economic reverses the country has known.

There have been some excellent analyses of London’s and New York’s dramatically evolving skylines environments recently, pointing out that much of this landscape is an exclusive landscape, off-limits to those distressed and upended by the property market across the city. In the context of ongoing debates about what to do about the super-rich (as though they were inseparable from the operations of an expanding, more global, neoliberal and capitalist system) this transformation is nevertheless notable. As human societies it seems curious that the possibility of such a new landscape could not be applied to the need to face-down much social need. ‘Going up’ will not mean helping out. Yet one of the most curious features of the changes happening in London is that high rise has shaken the taint that we continue to apply to tower blocks and public housing estates – it is social composition and only partially design that separates these structures.

Talking to capital, photo Rowland Atkinson, 2014

Talking to capital, Rowland Atkinson, 2014

I was particularly struck by this change when I recently picked-up Pearl Jephcott’s study of high rise living in Glasgow from 1971 (Homes in High Flats), there is much to think about here, particularly in the context of super-prime real estate that suspends residents for the scant time they spend in these homes. Even by the early seventies the story of a new utopia was facing a rapid turnaround in fortunes for a model that had initially appeared to offer good, clean living after the mess of the slums and tenements. Jephcott’s study had meticulously considered the problems (the difficulties for families with children, noise, new feelings of isolation within vertical communities and emerging anxieties about crime) including measuring the waiting times of lifts in a rather interesting appendix! Yet this story appears old now, almost as done and dusted as many of the blocks themselves and system-built complexes like Pruitt Igoe, destroyed by another administration that had done as much to fail its own experiments by defunding it as changing social conditions overtook its initial promise. But this story continues to unfold. A recent report suggests that around 50 estates have been remodelled in London to add homes of other tenures but we also know that these stories have generated evictions and net losses of affordable homes – new rounds of expulsion in the wake of cash-strapped local authorities facing the lure of investment from private investors.

Today high rise means high profits for developers on small land footprints, increasingly conspicuous displays of wealth and panoptic views of the city for the partial elite of residents who spend perhaps only a few weeks there, leave it to grow in value unoccupied or decide to let it out. In this context it isn’t surprising that high rise can be made to deliver (despite of course the obvious anxieties that followed the attacks on the World Trade Centre fourteen years ago and after which predictions quickly emerged that high rise was doomed as the potential target of future suicide bombers). What is more surprising is the dearth of imagination and means that might see public investment channelled to deliver more housing to those on more modest means in a city with such stressed physical infrastructure. These new rounds of construction spring from the ground because they are connected to flows of capital accumulated across the global economy, both because of and despite the economic downturn. Anyone who follows the FT’s How to Spend It, their property section or the websites of the elite property vendors and luxury goods houses will know that the consumption of the rich, and their number, has been one of the most recession-proof stories at a time when housing stress, homelessness, food-banks, beds in garden sheds, precarious and zero hours contracts mark the life of the capital outside the bright lights of the super prime areas.

It is interesting that we have moved from visions of the catastrophe of tower block living, widespread height reduction and demolition programmes and the block as the stand-in for social distress and crime in popular films and news media to the shiny new landscape of the world cities and their Shards (London) and Nordstrom (NYC) developments. The residents of these blocks may already have gone mad from boredom, like the residents of J G Ballard’s High Rise (1975), who descend into chaos and warfare between the levels of their brand new block. Unlikely perhaps. But the deeper commentary that Ballard was offering rings true – a concern about an alienating physical environment, the boredom of affluence and perhaps most importantly the barely concealed violence of the wealthy. Is a city that only provides for the wealthy in the face of need not pathological? The imperatives and logics of capital accumulation, purchase, investment and renting will always trump the concerns for a city more grounded in the attempt to tackle human need unless we say it is wrong. If the height and structure of the 260 plus high rise blocks in London’s centre are an index of anything it is the de facto callousness of political systems and politicians who suggest that this is the only game in town and, worse, that somehow this benefits those on no and low incomes. It may seem a rather obvious observation but surely we need more than ever before to being these ambitions back down to earth and make cities like London work better for all citizens.

View from the Shard, Rowland Atkinson, 2014

View from the Shard, Photo, Rowland Atkinson, 2014

The sonic island: Urban noise and the value of isolation

Islands have long fueled an imaginary filled with the possibilities of mental and psychic escapes, whether indeed we are able to reach them or not. The desire to disconnect is relevant more broadly to concerns about growing urban noise levels which generate an invisible, yet no less perturbing, sensory layer. Can we find ways and means of creating island spaces, in physical or sensory terms, that allow us to traverse or strategically engage with our cities in ways that allow the personal management of noise exposure and the need to get away from it all – while largely remaining put. The strategies of urban citizens used to find quieter pathways, searching out oases of reduced sound and the widespread application of noise-reducing technologies suggest a deep-seated need for new kinds of islandness even while inhabiting the maximal points of population concentration that we find in cities. A clear focus of such tactics is to find control over, and freedom from, soundscapes where these impose a burden, distraction or even psychologically compressing and damaging experience. We may like noisy music, but less so if it is someone elses and the loss of control experienced in many neighbour disputes over noisy parties and lifestyles is perhaps the clearest expression of this problematic.

In our urban imaginaries the desire for escape which may also be realised as the search for real islands (such as the author’s search for quiet in the wonderful film Caro Diario, for example, as the travellers search for ever quieter and smaller islands after escaping the city to focus on writing). These needs were also expressed by the pioneers of the ambient music movement in the early 1990s where the phrase urban isolationism was regularly bandied around, as a means of encapsulating the search for a kind of ‘sonic island’ – a space-experience in which the body was cut-off from the density and penetrating noise of the city. Now we can find a widespread use of salt tanks, headphones, sound insulated bed pods, book-lined studies and noise reducing technologies which reflect an ongoing need for a therapeutic encounter with islandness within the city; the sense that with a reduction in the symbolic and auditory noise of contemporary life might come the ability to cope and flourish, all of this predicated on a form of escape that brings with it a greater sense of autonomy, control and meaning, whether this be through access to ‘real’ or metaphorical islands.

All of us need a place to retreat to, whether it be the home or another home-like space that offers the possibility of peace, escape and a sense of control in our lives. Where noise impinges from all sides in our lives the resulting stress is profound and debilitating. The desire to escape to the suburbs was arguably as much a wish to evade ‘The nerve wracking sleep-destroying noises of the city’ (Fogelson, 2005: 119) as it was to achieve newfound space standards and amenities. Even as technologies are developed to reduce noise or allow our shelter from it what Erving Goffman called the final ‘territory of the self’ is easily assailed by sonic intrusions of various kinds. Perhaps all cities need to ensure not only that housing regulations allow our homes to be free from noise but also that the fabric of the city contains planned calm spaces as well as parks (the two are not always synonymous and parks are not often found in central city areas) that enable decompression and freedom from noise. Precisely what such calmscapes might look like is perhaps the next challenge, but one that might be very popular!

Reference

Fogelson, R. (2005) Bourgeois Nightmares, New Haven: Yale University Press.

Home invasions – A discussion of Haneke’s Funny Games

This is a brief consideration of the film Funny Games. It contains the essential plot lines and is intended for those who have already watched the film.

funnygames1

It is true to say that I did not want to watch Funny Games. Like the film, my recent work* concerns anxieties around the invasion of the home, a project which has generated unsettling images, ideas and prospects in my own life. I knew the film was about a family who seem to be randomly selected by two young men who appear without notice, initially polite, the dialogue moves to a position in which social conventions are stretched before it is realised that something is deeply amiss. The householder’s prerogative to expel intruders is dismissed by the intruders and the viewer’s stomach knots at the realisation of the frailty of the family’s situation. Haneke sets-up the affluence of the gated home, the perfect family trio and their comfortable lives against a random moment. All are ready for a great fall into terror that will puncture the assumptions that they (and we) might have about the relative safety and sanctity of domestic life. As the ‘plot’ of the pair is revealed the mask of shared manners and expectations is pulled aside to reveal a calmly executed experiment both by the director and the protagonists themselves; the ‘game’ of mentally torturing and physically destroying the household step by step.

Funny Games probes a number of contemporary issues, the story of an invasion into the home life of an affluent family might itself be taken as a story of our times, probing deep anxieties and primal fears of social intrusion (the home as a place of escape from life outside the front door) and violence (home as the key but potentially vulnerable place of refuge from danger). In fact this is only one of the levels on which the film operates, the lengthy build-up of fear and abject terror appear as an enormously cruel and surgically presented exercise (the feeling that we are being ‘wound-up’ by the director is palpable). This feature of the film pushes the viewer into a deeply uneasy position, are we not complicit with a project that offers nothing more than spite against vulnerability? What makes the film more than another project in torment of the kind increasingly on offer (Saw, Hostel, Audition) is that the direct violence of the film is clearly not an intrinsic aim. The most brutal moments occur off-screen and the sound designers are used to convey the horror of these moments. Is it possible then that the kind of visual extremity on offer in our popular culture might itself be the target of the film?

The most startling points in the film reveal the deeper project of the film through the deployment of straight ‘to-camera’ asides by one of the protagonists who asks whose side we are on, what might happen next and so on. Haneke is asking us to interrogate our motives for watching such films, to consider the banalisation of violence in our filmic culture and to initiate a searching query into the emergence of torture as an on-screen phenomenon (the archetypal terrorised female, the threat or use of extreme violence, the humiliation and power exerted over the fearful). Even a moment of potential catharsis (the use of a shotgun to kill her husband, lying off-screen in agony after being stabbed to put him out of his misery, is used to kill one of the assailants) is literally rewound by the other attacker by using a remote control. This moment of fantasy highlights the insubstantiality of images and events more generally – we are unclear as to what is real, what has or is happening, what apparent truth might be unwound in favour of another’s reading of the situation. Yet these moments come as a kind of relief, revealing the apparent objectives of the film and rendering an unbearable and persistent assault as an instance that raises wider questions about the nature of entertainment in our culture.

Images of suburban life run through the film, undermining images of idyllic lifestyles by alluding to a threat that has been placed in its midst. The presence of the two attackers is ominously foretold as we remember a socially stilted encounter with neighbours where two additional figures stand in a group on a lawn. Their faces unseen from a distance and lacklustre responses to shouted greetings are later realised to signify that they were unable to reveal their entanglement with the same impostors. So danger comes to the impregnable comes of the rich with smiling faces and plausible social connections. Violence quickly appears from behind a veneer of respectability and assumed safety. Other points are made about our urban and residential life by Haneke. The (briefly) escaped wife is unable to get help from neighbours (we may speculate that they have also been killed) or whose gates and insulated homes make it impossible for her to get assistance. These events point an accusing finger at expanding suburban and gated residential lifestyles and its apparent links to diminished social contact and neighbourliness.

Who are the pair themselves? They play at revealing broken and ‘red neck’ personal histories. Yet both appear in preppy dress, foppish haircuts and college-boy grins; all intended perhaps to make all but untraceable the social roots of their violent dispositions. Haneke himself has spoken of being unsettled at the reported violence of middle-class children who commit violent acts out of a desire for thrills, rather than for revenge or material gain. In this respect the film’s soundtrack (to the extent that there is any music at all) is provided through three punctuations of a deeply atavistic, shattering metal track in which roaring guitar riffs, screams and wails allude perhaps to the unformed emotions and anxieties that might lie behind the passive faces of the two invaders. At the film’s end the closing glance into the camera by one of them is frozen as the same music kicks-in for the last time. The suggestion in this accusing stare appears to be our complicity in seeing entertainment through suffering; an anti-Hollywood vision in which the objects of our natural sympathies are destroyed is completed. All that is left is the indication of an ongoing (unending?) cycle of yet more ‘games’ and entertainment as a new house is invaded, initiated by unthreatening smiles and requests for help. Such an ending points again to Haneke’s critique of the moral emptiness of cultural industries which provide us only with new victims and shocks as the primary means of its sustenance, with little empathy for the real daily terrors and insecurities of the world outside.

Funny Games, directed by Michael Haneke, 2007, original Austrian version 1997

* Domestic Fortress: Fear and the New Home Front, with Sarah Blandy, in preparation.

Shades of Deviance – interview

On the day the film is released that partly inspired the title, here are some thoughts on the collection and what it was intended for.

Can you tell us a bit about your academic background?

Well, my doctoral research looked at the ‘invisible’ problem of household displacement in London, I was always interested in social problems and particularly those that hadn’t really seen much attention – displacement from gentrification was often discussed but had never really been measured before. When I finished this work I moved to Glasgow as a research assistant and began to do a lot of contract related research around social exclusion and marginality in the peripheral housing estates there, and in Edinburgh. With John Flint I did work on processes of informal social control; we were both fascinated by the way that residents in poorer communities were stigmatised as being disorderly and antagonistic to the police. Though the story was more complex what we often found was that residents often saw the police as the first line of action against problems. I like to think that my work is always relevant but also trying to work with middle-range theories and ideas. Much of the work I have done on gated communities and the privatisation of public space, for example, has tried to problematize the self-segregation of the wealthy when many policy-makers and the public tend to start from the position that we should look inside poorer areas. We know from such work that many of the problems of ‘poor’ areas is not only about the lack of opportunities but also the discrimination and exit of the middle-classes from such areas as well as the way that higher income groups argue for the kind of defunding and policing measures that characterise many public approaches today.

The cover art

The cover art

What got you interested in deviance as a speciality?

I think that like many people working in and around criminology I like to see my work as being broader than the problem of crime. When Simon Winlow and I organised the first York Deviancy Meeting for forty years I remember phoning Stan Cohen (who died only this year, 2013) and when he asked what kind of things I was working on I said sheepishly that my main interest was in gated communities and that perhaps that wasn’t a key area in criminology, his response was ‘well, surely those kind of issues are absolutely central to criminology!’ I think this gave me more confidence to address the field of criminology with the voice of someone who was interested in crime and harm, but through the background of someone who had emerged out of the field of urban and housing studies, rather than perhaps the more conventional route of a criminology degree (my first degree was at Kingston University, in sociology). Yet the more I have thought on these ‘boundary’ issues I have felt that criminology is in many ways an ‘urban’ field when we look at its primary concerns, and that urban studies has perhaps tended to neglect or underplay a concern with disorder and human harm when, in so many ways, it is concerned with the harm to human potential that emerges from poverty and hardship, the geography of opportunity, inequality, low-skills and housing systems.

What sets this book apart from others in the field?

Shades of Deviance emerged over dinner conversations at the European Group for the Study of Crime and Deviance at Nicosia in 2012. Some of us were talking about the need to translate complex ideas without sacrificing too much subtlety, as well as the need to connect early students to more of the politics and critique that we find in criminology today. In my earlier work I had tried to work on applied areas in social research (such as public housing and gated communities for the wealthy) for a lay audience and so Shades of Deviance became ultimately an attempt to bring together a wide range of experts who were told – look, stop trying to write in a neutral way, write something short (this was a struggle for some of the academics of course!), energetic and authoritative that tells the newcomer something of the lie of the land as well as its political constitution; rather than pretending that complex and contested crimes and harms could somehow be explained without that kind of background. I wrote a very clear brief so that all of the authors wrote to a similar ‘recipe’ and asked each to provide the title of a film that somehow distilled many of the issues for their particular contribution. So I think these elements are distinctive but I also intended the collection to be for students leaving their first phase of full-time education and moving to a degree environment. In my institution many students will ask for some suggested reading before arriving and we often scratch our heads about what to recommend; I would like to think that thumbing through Shades of Deviance would be just a great way of preparing for a degree but I also wanted to achieve something that I hoped Routledge would price in such a way that the audience could be extended to those outside criminology completely.

How have you organised the layout of this book?

The book has 56 entries with a general introduction to the concepts of crime and deviance which says something about the complexity of the debates within the field. At first I wanted to perhaps order all of the entries from forms of social rule-breaking with no real harm, through to the most obvious problems and crimes, but I then realise how fraught with problems this would be (of course this is a great exercise to get some really heated debates going in the classroom!). So I created a series of thematic headings that reflected some attempt to bundle-up groups of crimes, forms of deviance and patterns of harm that made sense but also still retained some sense of severity. I couldn’t help adding a final word about how to be (in the widest possible sense) a student of crime and deviance that stems from the way I teach my students and my beliefs about the need to be well-informed and politically engaged as well as just getting on with studies.

Finally, what do you see as the main emerging trend in the study of deviance?

Speaking really from my interests I would have to say that I think there will be more and more to say about growing urbanization globally is producing a wide range of strains and harms for humanity generally. Not only do inequalities between regions drive many forms of crime like the drugs trade and trafficking but also see a lack of government co-ordination and investment generating problems of ill-health, poor education, unemployment and poverty that criminologists increasingly see as forms of harm that they should respond to. Those complexities come on top of the more obvious issues like urban violence and violence towards women which, I think, is beginning to finally see greater awareness and action globally. I think we will also see a major return to questions about the relationship between media technologies and the kinds of crimes and harms circulating around exposure and immersion in forms of extreme content that include pornography and violent gaming which have become ubiquitous and yet remain denied as the roots of harm by many liberal commentators and researchers. I think that our theories in this area need bringing up to speed given the leaps in processing power and complexity of networking and entertainment today. All of this is to say nothing of the links between climate change and various kind of crime and social pressures that it is generating and which seem likely to get much worse, and rapidly so. Criminologists are certainly likely to be busy in the coming years.

Any colour you want, as long as it sells the house?

Not that long ago I moved into a new home, the developer had painted the entire interior in magnolia, the natural uniform of new homes, the marginally warmer tone of most rented properties and perhaps also the colour needed to help us sell our homes. This inoffensive and warm tone, named after the colour of the petals of the plant, has become the ‘standard’ household paint. Now in the process of having the house personalised by painting it the question remains – what are my motivations for choosing particular colours? Can I be truly personal and true to my own taste (as though that itself were not influenced by social factors, forces and fashions) or should I be more careful, choosing something tasteful but which wouldn’t hinder a sale in the future? The decorator’s advice was implicitly clear on the day – did YOU choose this colour (terracotta for my daughter’s room)? The fact was this was on sale, but I did like the colour. The tone of the question however was clear – are you nuts? I was told endlessly about what how ‘people’ like to paint their homes, the steer was fairly obvious, don’t be too idiosyncratic in your choices lest you offend some assumed middle-ground of opinion. This raises an important question about the way in which social attitudes and norms spill into the domestic interior and the ironic place of our sense of individualism – we THINK this is our place, our very own taste – ok, it is not perhaps unlike that of many others but nevertheless it is ours. Yet at a more subtle level the sense of connecting with what is cool, trendy, off the wall (and therefore trendy) is very much at work in our practices indoors. In another way much interior practice is linked to some imagined future point of sale at which point our own taste may offend or conflict with those of a potential buyer, themselves scripted by ‘property porn’ and sales programmes which tell them to look out for something similarly bland. The truth is that not only are we never really fully ourselves, but our subjective in the apparently endlessly bespoke and personal space of the home is very much influenced by social tastes and by a need to ensure that the home is a maximally saleable asset at some point in the future. We may of course be interested in how we live and use this space, but we also want to make sure it is going to realise the most money if we should sell it. We are told that certain kinds of home improvement may devalue our property, no doubt we will bridle at the idea and think we are behaving as individuals and yet the logic of these influences is powerful. This is a pretty sad state of affairs and perhaps also says something about the national psyche of the UK which is probably really quit different to other nations and housing systems but, since you ask, the kitchen is cinnamon and the hall is Egyptian thread, not too close to magnolia I hope…

The Plan? Wealth, Housing Need and Austerity

I have never been quite sure where it is from but I have a copy of a cartoon in my office called ‘The Plan’. In six frames it shows the ebb and flow, back and forth, of affluent and poor-black households in US cities, first changing places in the inner city and then in the suburbs. Yet research on gentrification suggests otherwise – with tens and sometimes hundreds of thousands of urban households displaced via the attention of higher-income households and investors to areas in which poorer households congregated (these are major currents of the urban politics of cities like San Francisco with debate moving from a concern with yuppies to Silicon Valley employees and rocketing house prices, or London with its influx of super-rich and international investment capital in the new-buiold apartment market). The lack of investment in such neighbourhoods, by landlords and owners, meant that properties in these locations offered a bonus dividend – invest here and prices might align themselves with higher prices elsewhere. The search for ‘gentrifiable’ properties and ‘up-and-coming’ neighbourhoods has been a key strand in the story of property wealth in the US and UK over the past twenty years. To understand gentrification is to provide a window on the otherwise closed workings of the economy and the politics of homeownership that permeates our culture today, in short – who are the winning and losing groups in society today?

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The image of the affluent upping sticks and landing wherever suits them best in my cartoon may seem an unproblematic story, indeed one that is emblematic of what we have become as a flexible, location-maximising constituency of worker-homeowners. But who is this ‘we’? Some years ago I attended a policymaker forum in Melbourne convened at the onset of the global financial crisis. Here Australian Federal bank officials rationalised the story of low interest rates, arguing that they had benefited the macro-economy and the needs of ‘us’ homeowners. Well, even in Australia homeownership (like the US and UK) remains at just over two-thirds of households so it is not the embracing form of ‘we’ that we might want to refer to (data analysis on our project on London’s supe-rich shows that owner occupation has declined from 56% of households to 50%, the big gains going to owner-investor landlords benefitting from a rise in private renting from 17 to 26%). In all of this the self-identified role of many politicians and public bankers has been legitimated through reference to keeping things rolling nicely for ‘us’. Indeed those who would like to join ‘us’, aspirational owners seeking to get on that ladder of wealth creation and relative personal security, are also critical to understanding a large part of the banking/housing crisis – asset values rose because the architectures of the state and private finance were fundamentally aligned to fulfil the desire of existing and prospective homeowners, even as this project generated the basis for the current catastrophe as low income owners and their debt poisoned the new products built upon them.

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‘Cherish Public Housing’ – Poster on HK train.

As David Harvey (1) has eloquently argued, the crisis was underpinned by the ‘fix’ needed by capitalism to expand after ‘local’ supplies of labour and opportunity diminished. As labour and commodities came to be supplied more cheaply by countries like China and India a further stage of expansion could only be effectively generated by allowing consumers, many of them not at all well-off, to become indebted over increasing timeframes and using new products in ‘sub-prime’ deals, offered to millions of low-income households in the US. With the house of cards that this situation created now very much collapsed the costs, we were told, should not be borne by these financial institutions and, under an increasingly transparent ideological project, continue to be tackled through cutting the cost of public services. Critically, one of the many manifest outcomes of these cuts will be the way that the state provision and particular geography of public and private rental housing in major cities like London. Three key issues can be identified that need to be understood to make sense of what now appears to be happening to public housing and, by extension, to poorer households in our cities:

  1. The sense that public housing is a tarnished state project that is so stigmatised in the public eye and its households so economically marginal that reducing its costs is deemed politically desirable (by making conditions so bad that others are not inclined to want to use such services) and fiscally commonsense;
  2. Public housing, in its ‘estate’ form, represents an opportunity to contain the mad, bad and sad in spaces that can be policed and monitored by a punitive welfare regime that sees benefit uptake as a kind of deviance (literally not that which ‘normal’ or included society does) – demolition and the thinning-out of such pockets is seen as desirable and will make way for new rounds of capital investment and opportunities for international capital and high income households, and;
  3. The concentration of economic losers and social stress in public housing generates risks to included society (such as through criminality and anti-social behaviour) that higher-income groups seek to avoid by using housing and schooling systems as a means of insulating themselves from the risk of contact with poorer households (the ‘dinner party test’ is useful in establishing such practises – good schools are identified not through academic merit so much as by the ‘kind’ of children that go there, academic performance can then be used as a proxy measure for the social composition of schools).

This social, political and economic context has helped soften-up public housing for the onslaught of the current political regime. Housing benefit in the private rental sector has been capped and rents in public housing have moved closer to (up to 80%) of market rents where possible. These plans bring us back to the low status of public housing assistance in the UK. However, these new interventions should not only be attacked because they will not work and will displace poorer households, rather they should also be understood as the products of ideas and values shaped by affluent interests and lifestyles. These values are generated by the sheltered personal biographies and daily spatial pathways of policymakers who have little experience of such conditions or the impact of their proposals. Indeed our political elite are active in a process of insulating themselves; both from the risks generated by the social exclusion derived from the cuts themselves, and from paying for the current predicament. The callousness of political priorities is generated by the social pathways and deeper class interests of the wider spectrum of political elites who, for them and the constituencies they represent, refuse to allow the prospect that recent decades of massive wealth generation should be clawed-back, taxed or otherwise captured to tackle the crisis and re-build municipal and civic facilities.

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A front page from The Observer (2) brings fifty years of research on gentrification and its impact on the urban poor to the forefront of debates about the changes that will result from government commitments to erode the security of public and private tenants. Many will be displaced from high-cost neighbourhoods and, as Saskia Sassen (3) has recently argued, provide golden opportunities for accumulation by a locked-out aspirational class of prospective homeowners who so want homes at affordable prices in places that will be seen as the investment and gentrification hotspots of the future. While some commentators were aggrieved at earlier government ‘plans’ to engender local social mix as a form of gentrification in fact this plan appears to be something much more emphatically ambitious – deploying a crisis of capitalism as an opportunity to displace the poorer and middle classes and benefit investors (in much the same way that Naomi Klein (4) has described as endemic feature of our economic system). What is even more remarkable about the socially constructed parameters of current debate is that many of us have ingested the logic of cuts and requirements of corporate capital and attacking each other as the illegitimate beneficiaries of bloated state expenditure. This discursive race to the bottom of social insecurities and labour-market flexibilities will simultaneously provision a spatial switch as low-paid workers and benefit recipients make way for higher income tenants (in public and private rental accommodation) and owners (taking advantage of sales of repossessed housing). Cities like London will be for the rich, its hinterlands for a subsistence poor desperate to take work on almost any conditions in lieu of the assurances of the state (the argument that the private sector will not be capable of substituting for public employment is logical, yet we can see how highly indebted and insecure households may yet make abundant, cheap and flexible labourers for it).

There is something almost awe-inspiring in the scale of subterfuge on offer. Unashamed by their inability to predict or counter the excesses and collapse of the system many economists continue to debate and determine the direction of cuts, rather than their need. Instead of building common assurances and securities through a state that is seen as the product of a leviathan built of ‘us’ there remains massive cultural investment in a discourse of self-interest and wealth accumulation as the vehicle to personal welfare and insecurity from economic risks. This bind between property wealth and politics perhaps helps to explain the more muted response to cuts so far in the UK when compared with other countries, yet it is unlikely that so extensive a roadmap will not radicalise a much broader range of social groups and interests.

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Those spaces likely to be more resilient to a possible second economic downturn are inhabited by the lifeblood of political authority and planning today. For these groups their daily spatial circuits and friendships rarely cross with those who will see the social catastrophe and toxicity that will be sewn into many such localities for years to come (often on already lengthy histories of economic marginality and community decline). Political life has, whether it is of the left or right, largely failed to prevent the excesses of corporate-political agendas seeking the bottoming-out of wages and social benefits – for many people it is not at all clear how to respond or articulate an effective response that might challenge such alienating projects. It has also palpably failed to reduce inequalities in ways that might bring fairness and safety from the harms generated by economic secondaryness. The horrorshow of child neglect, para-criminal ambition as substitutes for legitimate careers, anti-social behaviour, incivility and the death of personal fulfilment via secure modes of work and community life will be the inter-generational gift of the ongoing plans of our political establishment.

This is an extended and updated version of a piece that first appeared as ‘Cities for the Rich’ in Le Monde Diplomatique.

Sources

  1. Harvey, D. (2010) The Enigma of Capital and the Crises of Capitalism, Profile Books.
  2. http://www.guardian.co.uk/politics/2010/oct/24/exodus-poor-families-from-london
  3. Sassen, S. (2010) A Savage Sorting of Winners and Losers: Contemporary Versions of Primitive Accumulation, Globalizations, 7, ½, pp. 23-50.
  4. Klein, N. (2008) The Shock Doctrine: The Rise of Disaster Capitalism, London: Penguin.

A statement of academic practice

In line with some of my recent posts around academic practice, ideas of the pro-social and notions of collective I am posting a statement that I drafted some time ago. In the light of recent instrumental assessments of academic work, the privatisation of the funding to universities and the backdrop of a neoliberal consensus in politics I thought this might be of interest to some readers. It seems to me that who ‘we’ are as academics in a context in which our students present and have been molded as (highly indebted) consumers presents challenges for our identity and the relationship between universities, public, corporate and political life. All of this is in a kind of deep flux but perhaps that sense of change and uncertainty is precisely the time we should be active in helping to form and retain important aspects of academic practice that, if anything, are needed now as ever they were.

A statement of academic practice

  1. Academics seek to work in an environment that offers space for new ideas, thinking and discoveries that address problems outside the space of the university itself.
  1. We understand that the academic environment exists to help us to create, discover, share and apply knowledge through both our teaching and research.
  1. As academics and colleagues we seek to measure our qualities and value by reference to our provision of research and ideas to communities outside the university and through teaching which generates graduates who will also take their ideas, skills and knowledge to those communities.
  1. This statement acknowledges the origins of universities as publicly funded, regulated and accountable institutions, some of which were also created by local subscription.
  1. We recognise the potential for higher education to transform people’s lives and welcome a diverse range of students and staff to the University’s own community.
  1. Academics remain keen and able to communicate the excitement and value of their research to people in their city, the region and the wider world.
  1. Academic work is underpinned by a number of core values that are essential to scholarly pursuit and the communication of knowledge. These include collegiality, curiosity, independence of mind, innovation, internationalism of outlook and connection, openness, reflectiveness and understanding.
  1. As academics we believe in a higher education culture built on a positive interaction between learning, teaching and research, for their students and for communities more widely. We take collective responsibility, with colleagues who have professional, teaching and research expertise, for ensuring that this culture fosters the distinctive development of graduates that are knowledgeable and skilled, and who are responsible, independent, critical and creative thinkers with a similar commitment to the social good.*

 

* Adapted from the Sheffield Academic statement

When the need for social justice is belittled as politics

Academics working in the social sciences often wrestle with how they present their arguments and data on social problems. To draw attention to housing need, violence and victimisation, family stresses, indebtedness, food banks, mental health problems and many other social problems is also necessarily to state the need for action to address issues. This takes research into the realm of the political and it is important for us to try and distinguish between the desire and recommendation for action and intervention (focused on the strategic distribution and organisation of resources to deal with social and economic problems that we might describe as the very work of the political domain) from more overt and partisan calls.

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For some this often makes social research appear to be necessarily of the political left. Certainly it can and should be for an on the marginal, the dispossessed and the excluded (though there is plenty of reasons we should include the wealthy, forms of state and corporate crime and deviance in such work). These seem self-evident truths to those working in academic research, that such work should be used to change and improve the social world around us. Yet this point raises important questions about the identity of researchers and the deeper terrain of assumptions that lie under the current political landscape. At this time, to examine one such elephantine object, we are told that we can have any policies as long as they cost less and involve doing more with fewer resources. This default position has come to occupy the mainstay of almost all assumptions within the fields of our news media and daily politics. For many on the political left this fact alone renders social science a more marginalised and apparently critical or ‘radical’ area of investigation and social commentary. The normative assumption that we cannot afford forms of social insurance, healthcare, education and so on, have arguably been one of the most effective spectacles of mass deception and our increasing collusion in an immersive framing of public life that suggests it is both unsustainable and ineffective.

This ideological invasion of our collective subjective frameworks works so very well because there is so little effective opposition and galvanising ideas on the left where we might see counter-narratives, spaces and modes of organisation that offer alternative and more egalitarian promises that challenge the unprecedented inequalities we now see at a time of such social distress. This situation is changing. Further leaps toward commodification of municipal services, privatisation of space, invasive surveillance and policing, political and corporate corruption and the self-evident land and resources grabs of monolithic business entities without social responsibility appear to generate stronger pushes back against these attempts.

Social research requires us to think, respond and advance ideas, critical views and empirical research that speaks for marginal groups and social problems that should puncture the comfortable worldviews of many policymakers – ‘right’ thinking people and those who see little relationship between private affluence and increasing public squalor. When the need for social justice is belittled by claims that it is in some way partisan, biased or ‘political’ we should be quick to say who our work is for and why – it is for all of us and to suggest otherwise is itself a form of misdirection. At a time when the social sciences face further cuts the capacity to monitor and publicly inform on social problems becomes increasingly challenging, but surely that is the point. Or is that a political argument to make?

Who loses in the war on the frail, the poor and the criminal?

After several years of on-off thinking on the topic of revanchism the resulting paper has finally been published. After the dog whistle politics of the UK on questions of immigration, demolitions of public housing, the fall-out from the 2011 riots, the war in urban Gaza, and the more general polarisation of thought and opinion the article is intended as a timely poke in the ribs to make us think about the wider reasons for attacks on the poor, the marginal and the dispossessed. For thinkers and folk keen to mark out the space of rights, access, justice and less unequal societies the ways in which policies and policing are being used to displace, dislocate, expel and destroy, by the emissaries of the wealthy and the respectable, is indeed a perplexing thing. How is it that in societies that enjoy unprecedented wealth we have also seen the erosion of welfare, the criminalisation of homelessness, the encouragement of voyeurism toward the needy (Benefits Street and the like) and the on-going use of policing and court measures to pursue those who are anti-social? While we need to be careful of liberal responses to real social problems and damaging behaviour that does destroy community life and common feelings of safety and well-being we must also be alert to the ways in which politics and policing increasingly secure our cities in ways that erode rights and safety by attacking or abandoning those who are seen as being beyond the pale.

The basic argument of my article is that those with political power have tended to create programmes and instruments by which not only are the poor and marginal further dislocated, but that such measures are drawn-up because they serve the (largely illusory) function of exorcising the fears and anxieties we have about the criminal, dangerous places and deviant social groups who are described in the media and by those with political voices as being dangerous and a challenge to the kind of society we would like to be. In this sense policy can act as a kind of social catharsis, a form of release from our fear and worry by focusing on those who we may feel are the root of our problems but may have very little to do with this. Among the many examples we can identify are the control of anti-social behaviour, demolition and removal of public housing areas, the policing of migrants and their harassment by non-state institutions (Golden Dawn in Greece, for example), anti-homeless laws (predominantly found in the US), extreme and discretionary policing and so on.

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Many policies and actions can be seen as a form of focused hate that is directed at the apparent sources of our fear and our anger at groups who are in reality intensely marginal and vulnerable groups. In the name of crime control, order and economic security we run headlong to pursue programmes that defund, delimit, coerce and even destroy individuals and communities who are the very casualties of the unequal and damaging societies we inhabit. All of this gives the lie to the promise of cathartic and many aggressive policies since it is clearly a false hope that we can really eliminate the frailty, anger, dispossession and precariousness that are features of social life. Yet these groups also create the convenient bogeymen and scapegoats of conventional politics and crude media punterism and which often act as distractions from the more necessary political actions required to make societies better and safer. The danger of such policies is that they will likely represent more of an assault on the lifestyles and conditions of the affluent and which are therefore seen as untenable.

If we might hope for one thing in the year ahead it will be that a more informed, kinder, more empathic and compassionate politics emerges; one that denies comment-boards and focus group sanction and which adopts a reasoned, defensible and reasonable position on the kind of social problems our societies face. The kind of anxiety and precariousness of our lives today, marked by gross inequality and flexibility of work, only adds fuel to this kind of politics, with the vulnerable and society at large the real losers.

A Christmas message for doctoral students

I don’t remember the final months of my phd with a great deal of fondness. Stuck in my bedroom because my campus had closed down (ok, so it was unusual as circumstances go) I cranked-out around seven hours of writing and analysis per day on a seven day week that often also ran into the evenings. I still find it hard to work at home and much prefer the relative sociability of the office. Of course it shouldn’t and doesn’t need to be this way, there is no reason why doing a phd should be the hard task that it often feels like. Here I locate a number of anxieties and fundamentals about the phd process that reflect on my own experience and those I have supervised.

I remember picking up the book, How to Get A Phd, the message that still stays with me from that was the importance of recognising that isolation is a key feature of the doctoral student experience. People’s experience of this varies a great deal of course and much may depend on how well the student culture of your institution is managed, often it may come down to a key member of staff or a student with a penchant for organising festivities in breweries. Even better than this is to take charge of the social scene yourself, bearing in mind that contact with your peers is important for your own sanity and for checking and sharing your own learning. Don’t be fooled into thinking that someone specialising in housing finance can’t talk to a Bourdieusian expert on domesticity. We have plenty to learn from each other and cross-fertilisation is essential to the creative writing process, go and speak to the nerd down the corridor, you can bet that they think the same of you but they wont half appreciate a cup of tea and a chat to relieve their eye strain.

Other aspects of exchange and contact are open to Phd students, make sure that you take part in departmental and wider university seminar series (whether or not it is in ‘your’ area – if you don’t think you have anything to learn think again) and if the chance isn’t offered make a point of offering to present your results to these forums or strike up a group of students and present to each other. These skills are not only critical but these supportive environments, even if they don’t seem it, diminish nerves, boost confidence and make these encounters more predictable. Generating the skills of an ad-libbing confident presenter is one of the great transferable skills and getting stuck-in makes a massive difference – the more you do it the less your anxiety will be. Feel the fear and do it anyway, a warning though, it really is scary – but we often need that pit in the stomach to make sure we do a good job, breath it in and go for it.

I often see post-grads burning out as a result of plugging away, analysing data or writing for long periods of time without taking a break. Routines are the death of creativity and often knock longer-term confidence. It is important to see breaks as constructive ways of getting on track in the longer term BUT this most definitely doesn’t mean extended coffee breaks. Remember that the phd is a job, but outside of doing this as a 9 to 5 (always a good mindset to be in) you need to vary your daily patterns. A key reason for this is that research tells us that varying routines and taking breaks spurs the creative process, brains straining at the seems with new information and stressing over deadlines tend to close down. If you can recognise when you are beginning to struggle and have the confidence to shift into a different mindset (take a walk, have lunch out of the office for once) you will find yourself making connections and generating ideas much more quickly. Even varying your route to work and ensuring you talk to your peers are simple strategies to get out of ruts.

At the back of your mind it is important to remember why you are doing this and what it is that you are doing. This may sound too obvious but at times when it is all too much you are going to need to be clear about why you are slaving away while everyone else appears to be having all the fun. For me I was committed to what I felt was a concealed social problem, for others there will be other conundrums, the lifestyle itself and, most likely, the prospect of a job in a related field. For all this it is essential that enjoyment is the core of the experience, obvious but central to ensuring completion and a less stressful experience. Remember that doing a phd is supposed to be a training in research methodology and expertise but that your skills will be stronger if you are able to situate your research questions and approach in a broader universe of knowledge. I still cringe at the ten minute responses I gave to the casual conference dinner question, “so what is your phd on?” It is important to get distance to the extent that an academic, and any other, career will invariably involve a much greater emphasis on broad areas of knowledge and expertise. Remember that not everyone speaks Deleuze and that not everyone may care about the latest developments in statistical techniques.

I still value the days of doing my phd (despite their significant challenges, not least analysing longitudinal data on printed A4 sheets spread across an entire room) and what was initially an opportune choice has ended-up feeling like the revelation of a vocation. My English teacher would often say, we now have the luxury of a full hour to discuss literature, it is important to remember that we have the privilege of spending three (ok, sometimes four) years concerning ourselves with the all of the minutiae of a particular topic, its important not to waste that feeling and to ensure that you are in charge of a process which is still likely to remain a core part of your identity, either as an academic or in any other career.

Public policy and public anger in a 24/7 world

For those that try to keep with international and current affairs the emerging picture of the world around us is surely a bleak one. Yet there is little that is new about this, if the advent of a new century has seen little done to address the wars on want, inequality and political instability, the century before it was little better. As Eric Hobsbawm’s masterful summary of the 20th century showed (Age of Extremes, Viking Press, 1995) the era before this was marked by genocide, political and national extremism, total war and devastating human loss. Yet, for all the advances in science and commerce, we continue to live in a world of overwhelming human suffering and unsettling changes, as the release of information about the use of torture by the US secret services surely shows.

The kind of political world we live in, by intent or its systemic forces, continues not only to tolerate the kinds of inequality and suffering around us, indeed, in many cases, social problems are ignored or condemned in their own right with fervour by mainstream politicians and lapped-up by an anxious and angry class of precarious workers and welfare recipients. It is surely curious that public conversations can be carefully shaped in such a way that the interests of the poor are made to appear as though they are united. The focus of my recent work has been the way that politicians, the media and social life tend to focus on the excluded, the marginal and the deprived and actively seek out their removal – to far away places, prisons and to segregated areas of our cities.

Anger and politics

The world of politics has long been laden with emotions. The charisma and force of political argument is often associated with motivating and convincing speeches and actions connected to big ideas about how the world worked and should be remade. Many commentators have argued for some time that the world we live in today is less driven by these big political ideas, that ideology and blind subservience to lofty goals has given way to a more practical kind of political life and policymaking.

On one level we might welcome such a change and yet the rapidity of transformations in modern social life and global economic circumstances has delivered incredible insecurity and fear. Many people now seek to throw up boundaries (national, gated communities or secured homes) and look to sanctuary within imagined local and ethnic communities. As examples we might look as much to the EU, the US or to Australia as to Rwanda, the Balkan states or to the middle East to see examples of the growing significance of these social forces.

This unpredictable and more connected world has helped to make us angrier and more emotional about the problems of the world – anger at injustice, at environmental change, at taxes, at crime and so on. Regardless of our own political affiliations there are issues that frustrate us and which often lead us to look for leadership on these issues. This bubbling social rage can generate gains for those political parties and media outlets that capitalise on these fears by providing leadership and coverage of these problems. These broad feelings of personal and communal insecurity have, in fact, generated support for those politicians who are able to project this anger onto the groups and issues that trouble us and the list of such groups is now quite long.

In this environment the media have become a key player, and if we look at the kinds of crime dramas and soaps on TV, the news headlines in our newspapers and on websites we can see how editorial decisions often tend to focus on the worst, random and most violent events. For the people who inhabit this media-saturated world, and that is a great deal of us, the world not only seems to be full of problems, but we also begin to have a rather distorted view of how often these problems take place. The kind of frustration provoked by witnessing real-life and fictional victimisation and various injustices is a deep source of the kind of pent-up frustration and fury that we see around us.

A war on the poor and helpless

We regularly hear from politicians about how they will challenge problems and particular groups (immigration, welfare ‘scroungers’ and so on) but in some cities around the world these proposals are really quite extreme. Let me give a few examples. In New York the police were directed by the then mayor, Giuliani, to clear homeless people from the parks and streets to help improve the image of downtown Manhattan. In the UK Anti-Social Behaviour Orders (the infamous ASBO) were used against traveller communities, prostitutes and the mentally ill. In many of the cities where the Olympics have been held the games have been prefaced by the removal of the street homeless. In Beijing thousands of families have seen their homes destroyed to make way for various stadia and athletes villages.

How can we make sense of the viciousness of these examples and the ways in which the most helpless are attacked, even destroyed? For some the explanation for these attacks is a sign of a backlash by high-income groups who have come to feel anxious and embittered about their loss of privileges and their growing fears about ‘unwanted’ social groups in public spaces as welfare systems neglect these groups ever further. I want to suggest that another reason for the aggressive turns in political life, in media reportage, policing, welfare, attacks on the homeless and so on are a sign of a deeper need within society to find a release from the frustration of being unable to solve or tackle these social problems through traditional routes.

In many places around the world long gone (indeed, if they were ever there) is the ambition to promote redistribution, opportunity or some reasonable level of equality (look at the UK, US, or Russia). In its place comes a kind of catharsis, or release, by attacking those groups, who are not only the most vulnerable, who are also generated by the workings of these societies – by regimes of low pay, flexible labour markets, housing tenure insecurity and so on. The tendency increasingly appears to be for us to show disgust towards those who are inevitably produced by our economies, housing systems and inequalities in wealth distribution. It is almost as if we are in denial of the fact that we would prefer to shift these problems, and problem people, out of sight and out of mind (a point that Sampson makes in his book Great American City on the destruction of public housing in the city core and subsequent gentrification).

A new dawn, for hate or hope?

Another concern raises itself at this point. If ideology no longer matters as much, then is there something about the way that our societies, political and media systems operate that will tend to produce more vicious reactions against the poor and vulnerable as they come together? In other words, is it about something more than just politics and anger? There seems to be something worth considering in such an explanation – that a 24/7 news culture produces quicker reactions (with disasterous results in the vengeful attacks on Afghanistan and Iraq) and that politicians seeking majority support will, by necessity, focus on the lowest common denominators of public opinion. Principled debate has given way to a more emotional and unstable way of delivering policies, with the risk that those we should be helping are those we turn away or deny support.

This is an abbreviated version of a journal article I have recently submitted.

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

Originally on Critical Urbanists blog, 20th November.

criticalurbanists

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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