Reflexivity, researching close to home, and A.N. Announcement

A few Fridays back, I attended a BSA Postgraduate Regional Event on the complexities of reflexivity in social research. It was a really good day, full of a series of interconnected and flowing discussions about power relations in research, the subjectivities of research practice, managing complicated ethical landscapes, and, generally, the tortured nature of doing postgraduate research which doesn’t always fit into existing rules and structures.

Organised with care and warmth by Nell Beecham and Carli Ria Rowell, two PhD students at the LSE, it was a warm and forgiving event, where the process of research, so often smoothed over as researchers like Shane Blackman and Anne Oakley have written, was laid bare. There was some challenge to individual’s chosen research practices, but also a lot of understanding, of the difficult choices that have to be made and the recognition that this is a learning process, for all of us, not just postgraduate students.

I went to try and get a handle on what postgraduate students in the social sciences are still asking about when it comes to reflexivity. The conclusions to draw are that the R word still causes a hell of lot of frustration and confusion, but does provide some room for joy and love at both the singularity of experience, and the knowingness of recognition. The key questions that dominated attendee’s discussions over the day seemed to be:

  • What is ‘right’ when it comes to reflexivity?
  • How much reflexivity is too much?
  • How do you write it?
  • Will I look self-obsessed or narcissistic?
  • Are ethics committees and processes flexible enough to understand the concept?
  • How is the researcher’s emotional labour accounted for, and what support/protection is there for this?

ALL THESE QUESTIONS AND MORE will (probably fail to) be tackled in my forthcoming book, Doing Reflexivity: An Introduction, to be published in January 2017 by Policy Press. Here are the prospective cover and blurb:

Dean, Doing Reflexivity, January 2017

Dean, Doing Reflexivity, Jan 2017

Reflexivity is vital in social research projects, but there remains relatively little advice on how to execute it in practice. This book provides social science researchers with both a strong rationale for the importance of thinking reflexively and a practical guide to doing reflexivity within their research. The first book on the subject to build primarily on the theoretical and empirical contributions of Pierre Bourdieu’s reflexive work, it combines academic analysis with practical examples and case studies, drawing both on recent reflexive research projects and original empirical data from new projects conducted by the author. Written in an engaging and accessible style, the book will be of interest to researchers from all career stages and disciplinary backgrounds, but especially early-career researchers and students who are struggling with subjectivity, positionality, and the realities of being reflexive.

As I work on editing it, and getting the final manuscript in place, I’ll probably be posting cuts and ideas on here, so the three of you who read this blog can find out what’ll be in it.

At the day conference a few weeks ago, it was clear that there are so many people much smarter than me who struggle with this side of collecting data, analysing it, and communicating it. Hopefully this can be my small contribution to offering some guidance; and reassurance, that doing reflexive work is enjoyable, vital, a scientific necessity, and about so much more than self-importance masquerading as investigation.

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Dog-whistles: So high-pitched yet everyone can hear them

*Note: I wrote the following last week, and proposed it as a local newspaper column, but it hasn’t been accepted for print: this hopefully explains its rather explanatory/overview nature and the fact I couldn’t go into every avenue of discussion. I just thought I’d stick it up here, content for contents sake.

What is the point of winning power if you’ve had to set the country on fire in order to do it? That should be the question put to Boris Johnson, Zac Goldsmith and David Cameron after a string of increasingly dispiriting moments in British politics over the last week.

Zac Goldsmith, MP for Richmond, is the Conservative candidate for Mayor of London. An apparently charming, independently-minded and serious man, he has allowed his campaign to appeal to the worst instincts of his potential voters. He is running against Sadiq Khan, the former Labour Minister and MP for Tooting, and the first Muslim to attend Cabinet. Khan is a moderate: a solicitor, he was Minister for Transport in Gordon Brown’s government, and holds middle-of-the-road policies on almost everything, although he did nominate Jeremy Corbyn for the Labour leadership.

Goldsmith’s campaign has in recent weeks stepped up its attacks on Khan. Labelling him a ‘radical’ and ‘divisive’, without pointing to any policy proposals which even come close to deserving such rhetoric, Goldsmith has argued that Khan has given a “platform, oxygen and cover to people who are extremists”. His campaign targeted Hindu and Sikh voters with leaflets suggesting Khan will put an extra tax on their family jewellery. In Prime Minister’s Questions last week, David Cameron brought up Khan’s sharing of a platform with a controversial London imam as an example of his bad judgement and tolerance of extremism. Such baseless accusations stick to Muslim politicians in a very specific way.

As the Labour MP Chuka Umunna put it, the Goldsmith campaign is seeking to punish Khan for “committing the crime of being a Muslim and having been a human rights lawyer.” Khan has received significant opposition from conservative Muslims for his support of same-sex marriage, and is widely credited across the board for his work in trying to counter extremism.

But such guilt by association is a growing trend. If you are a leader in anti-racist or marginalised causes in poorer inner-city communities you will occasionally end up sharing a platform with people whose views are more extreme than your own. But surely it goes without saying that to sit next to them on a panel does not mean you support their views. Perhaps in a time of social media and instant guttural reaction, people hoping for political careers should be more careful, but such an approach will only make our politics more bland and narrow than it already is. (This was written before Naz Shah’s anti-Semitic statements were revealed, which is a whole other avenue of crap).

While these problems are dominant on the left, we should remember that the Conservative Party sits in the same European Parliament grouping alongside the True Finns and the Danish People’s Party, elected politicians with consistently despicable views. It should also be pointed out that the controversial imam in question, Suliman Gani, is a Conservative Party supporter.

In a similar tone, the campaign for Britain to leave the European Union has increasingly utilised such dog-whistle tactics. Those of us who follow British politics closely have come to expect such language from UKIP, but given the momentous decision to be made on July 23rd and the profound impact it will have on our society, the two official sides of the referendum are upping the ante.

The Remain campaign has been labelled Project Fear for the way it has sought to portray the potential economic ruin done to Britain in the wake of a Leave vote. But last Friday’s intervention in the Brexit debate from Boris Johnson, the current Mayor of London, was a disgusting attempt to use the history of colonialism as a weapon to discredit the Remain campaign.

After President Barack Obama, who visited the UK last week to both honour the Queen’s 90th birthday and to intervene in the referendum campaign argued in the Daily Telegraph for Britain to vote Remain, Johnson wrote an article in The Sun in which he wrote of the “part-Kenyan” President’s “ancestral dislike of the British empire”.

To use the imagery of Obama’s Kenyan heritage as a driving reason for his hatred of Britain displays not only mystifyingly bad logic, but simply appeals to the lowest common denominator. It is akin to saying that Obama has African heritage and is therefore not worth listening to on the matter. Reducing the world’s most important man to his race is what we expect of Donald Trump supporters, not the current Mayor of London.

The London Mayoralty matters. While in Yorkshire we often rightly feel that the South dominates our political, economic and cultural life, and that the country would be a much healthier and spirited place to live in this power was more evenly spread, we cannot deny London’s position as a global powerhouse. It is perhaps the world’s premier city.

And for London to be led by a Muslim man at a time when the division between the West and the Islamic world has never seemed more precarious, and when a putrid inversion of Islam is being used as an excuse for genocide across Iraq and Syria, could there be a better symbol of our moral superiority over the butchers of Daesh? This isn’t mere tokenism or diversity for diversity’s sake: Khan would genuinely be a better Mayor than Goldsmith, someone who seems to understand both the challenges and opportunities offered by Britain, especially to younger, diverse communities in the twenty-first century. But we cannot deny the symbolic potential of such a victory.

In politics, fighting a good fight is important. The battle of ideas, played out in public, is good for democracy and good for education. Thankfully, recent polls have shown Khan with a 20-point lead over Goldsmith. London’s position as a place of tolerance looks assured. It’s a city with a lot of problems, many of with Khan’s party helped create, but in a two horse race, it’s clear who we should want to gallop to victory.

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Leading questions: On social science and journalism

I teach a module on qualitative interviewing. The assessment requires students to complete a single in-depth, semi-structured interview, and design a research project around it; a journal article if you will, based on one interview.

For many students it is their first time doing this sort of research work, and obviously some have worries. One that comes up a lot is the issue of ‘leading questions’, asking a question which in some way is likely to generate a certain response, thereby affecting or biasing the data. The Media College website has some great examples of how this works: ‘Tell me about problems you have with your boss’ will lead a respondent to assume there are problems which can affect the tone of their thinking and general direction of the discussion, whereas (at least starting with) ‘Tell me about your relationship with your boss’ allows them to drive the conversation into both positive and negative territory. Neither question may be answered truthfully or accurately, but in the example of the latter it’s not the questioner’s fault.

I got thinking about this when I read an article about the upcoming US Presidential election in a story from The Times (paywall) about candidate Senator Marco Rubio (R-Florida) ‘giving his blessing’ to the UK to leave the EU. Rubio is quoted in the story as saying:

“Irrespective of what decision the UK makes … they’ll continue to be certainly our best friend in the world and one of our strongest alliances…Part of us being a strong ally [of Britain] is for us to respect its sovereignty and its right to make its own decisions…I don’t think it’s proper for an American president…to tell the UK what is right for them, any more than it would be right for the UK to tell us that they wanted us to sign Nafta [the North American Free Trade Agreement] or some other agreement.”

I know he said this, although the quote has been tidied up somewhat, because the audio of the press conference has been published on AudioBoom. You can listen back to the interaction yourself where Tim Montgomerie, currently covering US politics for The Times after previously being editor of its Comment section, asks Rubio about his view on UK membership of the EU. But he doesn’t just say ‘Senator Rubio, are you in favour of the UK leaving the EU?’, or ‘What are your views on the UK’s membership of the EU?’. Montgomerie asks (and I have transcribed this):

“President Obama has said that he would like Britain to stay part of the European Union, and I wonder whether you have a view yourself? It’s a big issue for many of us and we wonder whether America would accept open borders with its neighbours as Britain currently has, with other judges from other countries deciding your laws, and some of us would perhaps like an American President to be more open to the possibility that an independent Britain, freed from being part of a European Superstate may actually be a better ally for your country?”

The first sentence is acceptable from a social science perspective: grounding the question in what an opponent/key figure thinks is generally fine, although as a Republican politician (and former Tea Party favourite) Rubio is always likely to pivot  and want to do the opposite of what the Obama thinks. But if Montgomerie had just asked “President Obama has said that he would like Britain to stay part of the European Union, and I wonder whether you have a view yourself?” it would have been just fine, and interesting to know what Rubio would have said.

But he sets up the question so much, using such loaded language (Superstate! Open borders! Freed!), that Rubio almost has no choice but to pander to him. As Montgomerie has said of one of Rubio’s opponents Senator Ted Cruz (R-Texas), “Few have pandered more than the junior Senator from Texas. I haven’t noticed a single occasion when he’s told a conservative audience something that they didn’t want to hear. That’s followership, not leadership.”* Well what’s the difference here? Rubio clearly ends up repeating Montgomerie’s talking points back at him. This isn’t Rubio’s fault particularly, but neither, it seems to me, does it meet the high standards we should expect of broadsheet journalism (I know).

At no point does the article say, “After being fluffed up by a questioner who made clear to the Senator exactly where his own sympathies lay, Senator Rubio agreed with The Times that the EU was evil, etc…” I don’t know Montgomerie’s position at The Times; if he is ostensibly a columnist then it’s perfectly reasonable for him to express his views. But his name appears on the byline of the piece in the paper (screenshots below), which to me, the humble reader, suggests he’s coming at this with journalistic neutrality.

I am sure this happens a lot. There will be plenty examples of this in the media, from across the political spectrum, including (god forbid) The Guardian, of cosy answers being given and written up without the suitable context and full facts. But this one has the audio, and we can hear the sausage being made. And it’s left me pretty pleased about the standards we try and uphold in social science.

In the assessment, I get my students to submit a fully annotated transcript of their interview. Montgomerie’s would have big red pen all over it.


*Montgomerie is absolutely right on this point by the way. For an example watch Cruz’s speech to the Republican Jewish Coalition Forum: urgh.


After I asked The Times about this issue, Tim Montgomerie (quite generously and within an hour) replied to my points thus:

It was clearly a loaded question and it came from me, a columnist rather than a news reporter. I would argue that most questions are loaded in some way. On the Today programme politicians will be asked to justify the enormous cost of a policy initiative or will be given other facts to put their question in context. I did the same – only more pointedly.

On the substance I think it was clear from Marco Rubio’s answer that he’d thought about the issue – putting his answer in the context of America’s membership of Nafta – the nearest US equivalent to our membership of the EU. Like many Republican politicians he sees the EU as a bit like the UN – a supranational body that limits nation states. Perhaps he wanted to give me an answer I wanted to hear but I doubt it. I suspect – if he was to be influenced by anything – he would have been more conscious that he was answering questions to an audience of 100 leading American CEOs – many, like big British businesses, will favour any political status quo. I guess he gave the answer he believed in. He has dedicated a lot of time to foreign policy questions as a member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.

Firstly I’m grateful to (and frankly surprised) that I got a response so quickly.

In his reply, Montgomerie is quite upfront about his ‘loaded question’.  I hope that in the original blog it didn’t seem like I thought Montgomerie was putting opinions in Senator Rubio’s mouth. I am sure Rubio is largely against organisations such as the EU, in favour of the UK making its own decision, and would have answered such however the question had been phrased.

Yet I would disagree about the Today programme point – generally that programme plays devil’s advocate in order to test politician’s own positions. If a politician on the Today programme – from left or right – was given such a loaded or softball question, both I and Tim Montgomerie would both have been shouting at our radio’s for them to be held to account, not given the opportunity to push their talking points. There may be a big difference between starting your question ‘Some people would argue that…’ and ‘I think that…’.

However, a relatively minor issue, but food for thought, and a great example to use in the classroom.

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Death rattles: Sound in journal articles; sounds in a dying building

A few years ago I wrote a blog detailing a new research group here at Hallam, the Space/Place research group. I don’t do a great deal to do with space or place, but new shiny things attract me, and the group was an interesting bunch of interdisciplinary academics, from education, law, planning, cultural studies, art, architecture, sociology, performance studies, and geography. What we did initially was to study a building at our Collegiate Campus – the Southbourne Building – a rather dilapidated crumbling wreck where our department used to be housed. The group’s initial day was to each study the building, test different methods and theories, and come together to share ideas about how space and place can be thought about. It was meant to be light, introductory, welcoming, and gently innovative, and it was.

And the small study I did that day has now been published in Qualitative Inquiry. Entitled “Submitting, love?” A sensory sociology of Southbourne it reports on the ‘fieldwork’ I did, a one day observation project of the Helpdesk area in the building, where, on the busiest day for students handing in work that term, I sat in the Helpdesk area and watched them hand their work in. I also recorded the day (quite badly) on my digital recorder, and the data is presented as both an auditory soundscape, an audio collage of the general hum of the day (printers whirring, doors slamming, machines beeping) and a literary collage of events that happened during the eight hours I sat there watching. (The soundscape can be found on Youtube here; the idea being you listen and read at the same time). The narrative is semi-fictionalised, as stories are merged and blended just to give a sense of what went on. The abstract is thus:

This article seeks to remember the Southbourne building of Sheffield Hallam University, UK, which housed students, academics, and administrative staff until August 2014. Data was collected from an ethnographic observation study of students handing in completed coursework. Findings are presented in the form of an audio ‘soundscape’ and a literary narrative. It is argued that these hypermodal tools should form a growing part of qualitative inquiry as sensory social research. The historic application and practical impediments of such sensorial and aural techniques are discussed, alongside the challenge they provide to the received practices concerning how journal articles can be experienced.

The reasons for doing this are several-fold. I wanted to do something quick and about students; I’d been loosely interested in how we think about sound in academic work; I wanted to flex my literary muscle a bit as sometimes I’ve felt quite stymied by my sociological policy analysis output; and I wanted to do something to remember the building as it dies. I’m not going to be nostalgic about Southbourne – I (unlike many of my colleagues) prefer our new, modern open plan office environment to work in, and it also happens to be much better for the student experience. But I did end up being nostalgic about the process of handing in coursework to a person, a process which is dying given the move towards Blackboard, Moodle, and the MOOC.

I like the final product. It’s fun, it’s different, it tests an idea which we should do more of, and ties into the work of people I really admire (Les Back, Alex Rhys-Taylor, Dawn Lyon). I also like it because of the responses to it. At Christmas we have a departmental conference where we meet up and present research to each other and then get drunk socialize. It’s a neat idea and keeps us up to date with what’s happening in the department. Last year I presented this on Southbourne, including acting out the literary narrative in my best am-dram way, with the soundscape playing in the background. Watching were some of our admin team, and our technicians. These are the guys who are the backbone to the department. Lee especially in technical resources has been here a long time and knows the student mind better than anyone: he, when setting up labs, or lending students Dictaphones, or binding their theses, acts as mentor and support worker, particularly around handing in dissertations. After I had presented, Lee told me the work was great – because it faithfully reproduced the student’s behaviours, of being nervous to hand in their work. It spoke to his experience of the department and what we do, especially when much of the research we do seems, he cheekily implied, out of touch and pointless (Academics? Never!). It’s the most valued comment I’ve ever had on a piece of work.

Finally, I want to think about Stuart Hall’s famous dictum: ‘The university is critical, or it is nothing’. While I and any rightminded person agrees with this statement, there is more to it. I don’t see any danger of the university losing its critical edge. Yes, management and admin and bureaucracy can be a pain, and we all must take guard against neoliberal…yaddah yaddah etc snore. But I don’t see a major loss of critical thinking; of more concern are the changes which atomise us, and give us less need to interact.

The Helpdesk staff in my study, on seeing a student unsure of the process and nervous about handing work in, would call out ‘Submitting, love?’ in that sing-song Northern way to put them at ease. When you submit an essay through Blackboard, the computer doesn’t offer a sympathetic and welcoming ‘Submitting, love?’ We are moving towards a world where you can do a degree from your bedroom. But what has struck me when doing this work is the importance of the university as a place where we meet like-minded and different people – people who are engaged and engaging. Reading this blog back it is about collective work and support: the diverse Space/Place study group, the students, the departmental research conference, and our technicians.

Maybe Hall’s dictum should be rethought: ‘The University is collegial, or a collective, or a community, or it is nothing.’

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The end of the sabbatical: Five things

Today I was back! back! back! from sabbatical. Actually, given the university was closed today I could’ve had another day without tackling the great admin mountain that had built up in my absence, but as I am an idiot I got straight to it this morning.

It’s been a great period of time. I am very lucky that the department decided to start offering sabbaticals and that I was one of the first guinea pigs to take one. Five quick thoughts now it’s over.

Time and space

The biggest (and most obvious) take away was the time and space to read and to learn, and to participate. I’ve been to five conferences, several of which took place on days I’d otherwise have been teaching. I’ve been able to spread my wings that little more, make contact with people I’d only ever seen or spoken to online, and meet people I’ve always wanted to talk to and fawn over. At a teaching centred university it is so much harder to get these random days off September through to June and I hope I’ve made the most of it. The BSA ECR Theory symposium especially was a good one (given I usually run 100 miles from things with ‘theory’ in the title), and unfortunately, while my paper was well received, I was too unwell to really contribute to the discussion. Same for Mark Carrigan’s excellent Design Fiction for Sociologists event. But being ill didn’t ruin the events from a personal perspective because there was always something else coming up. (And the BSA Conference this year was excellent).

A sabbatical from teaching or a sabbatical for teaching?

Reading is the other one. I’ve always got several books on the go, but being able to get back in that PhD mindset and say ‘For the next two days I have nothing to do but read this book’ is mind-blowing. While you may only have one or two hours teaching commitment and one admin meeting in a regular day, it is still hard to find this concentrated time. I have been able to make a bit of a dent in my mountainous ‘To read’ pile, to the extent that I feel able to run a sort of ‘Current Debates in…’ type module next year, centred on new stuff I’ve read over the past few months. I think this shows sabbaticals are not just about research, they are about teaching. Again, at a teaching centred university, finding time to make that teaching better is as or more important than research time. Having a sabbatical just to develop one’s teaching materials, style, or content should not be overlooked.

Thinking is best when it is slow work

Again, this one I sort of knew before, but it was nice to know it still holds true. Basically I was incredibly busy writing for the first month, achieved little (on paper) for two months, had a mad two months writing, and then slowed down again. But as I found out during the PhD, research work is a funny business. Watching The Wire for a week can still be work. Going to the gym, swimming, or listening to the Football Ramble can still be work. Thinking, thinking, thinking. It’s what we stress to students. The essay may take only two days to write, but the thoughts behind it, the small bits of reading, the ordering of the material, is better when it is given space to breathe. Spreading work out thinly works best for me. For example, the book proposal I wrote was due end of May. I’ve been thinking off and on about this proposal for two years. When it eventually came to write the thing it only took me three days for the most important document I’ve yet written, outside the PhD. Three days is less than many first years will spend on an essay. But they haven’t done the two years of prep. It (and again I come back to this book) is reminiscent of Dave Beer’s call for slow academia in Punk Sociology. Slow academia enables fast, good academia when needed.

The results (or ‘What I did on my sabbatical’)

  • Wrote a successful monograph proposal for Policy Press, provisionally entitled ‘Doing Reflexivity: An Introduction’. They all seem lovely and this is what’s going to take up most of my time for the next year.
  • Wrote three journal articles:
    • One on volunteering and neoliberalism, my most critical and theoretical work, available here
    • On informal volunteering and working-class neighbourhoods which was submitted and received positive first reviews, and which I’ll resubmit soon
    • And one on how different researchers interpret qualitative data, of which my colleagues are currently making my awful prose readable, and will be submitted somewhere soon as well
  • Oversaw, through resubmission’s and revisions, the publication of two other journal articles:
  • Managed to get some publicity here and here and here for various ideas and thoughts, and promotion of publications
  • Completed 15 really interesting long qualitative interviews with charity practitioners on the various crises affecting the sector. I’ll be presenting some initial ideas about this at the VSVR conference next week in Leeds. I also wrote a draft paper on this symbolic power of charity, which I originally thought would form the basis of an article: now I’m thinking of the book after the book.
  • And a couple of book reviews for the BSA Network magazine and the LSE Review of Books, including one on John Hills’ Good Times, Bad Times which I think is the best thing I’ve ever written

A final thought: The ivory flat

When I was at school my Dad would ask me three questions every evening: what did you do well today, what did you do badly today, and did you help anybody? The third is key (and highlights what a lovely and moral man my Dad is). Frankly I think I fail at this one a lot. Has the research I’ve done been of much use to anyone? No, not really. Am I just in an ivory flat? Probably. Lectures about volunteering – doing much at the moment? Guilty. Frankly, I must do better.The above list is quite extensive, but is it meaningful? Oh well, it’s done now.

Not teaching, which while my job is also the thing I do which I believe helps people the most and gives me the most satisfaction when it goes right, has been a real absence. I have missed that personal connection, of talking through ideas. It’ll be good to be back talking to people who are more interesting than me.

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Academic time, not like real time

How did it get so late so soon? Its night before its afternoon. December is here before its June. My goodness how the time has flewn. How did it get so late so soon? Dr. Seuss

When I was a PhD student I went to do a presentation at a homelessness charity in Canterbury one evening. One of the audience asked how long had elapsed since we’d done the research. On hearing my answer she said, ‘Oh academic work does move at a glacial pace doesn’t it?’ Since then I’ve always used ‘glacial’ as my go to word for describing the timeframes involved in academic work. The internet has improved things slightly – see the rapid response sections in Sociological Research Online, or The Sociological Review, but the research, writing, submission, peer review, rewriting, resubmission, re-review, acceptance, de-anonymisation, proofing, correcting proofs, signing copyright forms, and waiting for publication online can be a bit of a ball ache. Never mind the actual printing in an actual journal, which can be over a year later.

All of which leads me to say the article which has just been published in Nonprofit and Voluntary Sector Quarterly was first submitted on 31st March 2013. That’s 2 years, 4 months, 4 days ago. The initial review took 6 months, and my rewrites and resubmission took place on 31st December 2013 (I was fun getting ready for NYE). Then Nothing Happened To The Article For Over A Year. I was told it was accepted in March 2015, and it has now seen the light of day, OnlineFirst.

I don’t want to go into the ins and outs of the delay, needless to say there were problems, and the journal was quite apologetic. But reading a paper that was written two years ago is a disconcerting experience. The government had changed for a start, and, frankly, I’ve got better. But the journal NVSQ is the leading journal in the field, with a massive impact factor, that very good people in the area struggle to get into. I felt unable to complain too loudly or pull the article, even though the delay was infuriating, because career-wise and in terms of reaching the best audience for the article, the journal was too important.

All that said, the article should be a big one if anyone reads it and pays attention to it. It’s entitled: ‘Class diversity in youth volunteering int he UK: Applying Bourdieu’s habitus and cultural capital’. Sociologically it’s relatively simple: applying Bourdieu’s theory of habitus (and a little cultural capital) to the concept of volunteering. The idea is to think of formal volunteering as a habit, one that is trained into middle-class young people, through schools, families, and local youth organisations, means that opportunities to participate (and develop one’s CV) get hoovered up. It’s another area in which middle-class advantage gets extended and reinforced, rather than challenged.

Habitus hasn’t been used in voluntary sector studies to any great extent, and this idea was pretty much the centre of my PhD. This is the fifth and penultimate article to be published using PhD material (to anyone thinking of splitting their PhD into this many articles – don’t, write a book, it’s much easier). Hopefully it grabs you: the abstract is:

This article utilizes Pierre Bourdieu’s theories of habitus and cultural capital to offer some explanation as to why there is a lack of class diversity in formal volunteering in the United Kingdom. Recent studies have shown that participation in volunteering is heavily dependent on social class revolving around a highly committed middle-class “civic core” of volunteers. This article draws on original qualitative research to argue that the delivery of recent youth volunteering policies has unintentionally reinforced participation within this group, rather than widening access to diverse populations including working-class young people. Drawing on interviews with volunteer recruiters, it is shown that the pressure to meet targets forces workers to recruit middle-class young people whose habitus allows them to fit instantly into volunteering projects. Furthermore, workers perceive working-class young people as recalcitrant to volunteering, thereby reinforcing any inhabited resistance, and impeding access to the benefits of volunteering.

I’m unsure if the article is as fluid now as it was 30 months ago. Certainly I’d structure it differently, write slightly differently, use a different title (which wasn’t my idea, but got all the keywords in) and stop quoting the same things over and over. But 30 months ago I was still awaiting my PhD corrections to be confirmed, in the first year of my academic job, and still felt like I’d fluked my way in. Maybe it’s best to see the wait as a good way of looking back to see how far and how fast things move.

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Market logic and voluntary spirit

Another new article sees the light of day. It’s the fourth article using material from my PhD, but only very loosely. In fact it’s the most strident thing I’ve written, with most of the ambivalent caveating left on the cutting room floor (don’t worry academia fans, it could be argued that there’s still plenty of caveats).*

Entitled Volunteering, the market, and neoliberalism it’s an attempt to pull together two sets of reading which have dominated my thinking for the last few years. On one hand the empirical research on volunteering which has examined how volunteering is becoming more instrumental, with, particularly young volunteers, seeing or being encouraged to see volunteering as a means to end (employability being the main one), rather than as an act of voluntary goodness. I’ve written about my own empirical investigation into this trend in Voluntary Sector Review, but this new article seeks to correct a failing of that previous work.

During the many revisions that previous article went though, the editorial team (who I have to say are the most hands-on, thoughtful, and helpful editorial team I have come across so far in my career) asked me to cut out all references to wider social and political theory. This was to keep the article ‘straight’ and policy focused, and included removing references to Richard Sennett, Zygmunt Bauman, and others. The end of the article did include this one Bauman passage which indicated where I wanted to go though:

Bauman (2007: 4-5; 2001), writing on the ubiquity of fractured pathways faced by (young) people, states that the increased necessity for flexibility in the labour market will mean individuals are more likely to ‘abandon commitments and loyalties without regret – to pursue opportunities according to their current availability, rather than following one’s own established preferences’, supporting the conclusions of both interviewees and the previous literature on volunteering.

This new article builds on this. By combining the evidence from recent empirical studies into the marketisation of volunteering (by researchers such as Rachel Brooks, Lesley Hustinx, Angie Eikenberry, Claire Holdsworth and Georgina Brewis, me), with the theoretical insights of Stuart Hall, Will Davies, Benjamin Kunkel, David Graeber, Tony Judt, Emma Dowling and David Harvie, Michael Sandel,** and a smattering of others, I wanted to frame these social developments in the theoretical critique of neoliberalism. While critiques of neoliberalism are ten-a-penny, talking the side of these arguments which examines the damage which is done to the idea of community and the voluntary ethic, has not been fully realised in voluntary sector research. As Colin Rochester has recently argued, we need more research which “challenges the infiltration of the culture and behaviours of the market into the non-market parts of our society and reasserts the idea that voluntary action embodies/expresses important and distinctive values that are not compatible with a market society.”

The article comes from an excellent symposium organised by postgraduate researchers (Were you as motivated/capable as a PG researcher? I wasn’t) of which a Storify can be found here. The others papers look great, particularly Rob Macmillan’s intervention, in which he seeks to take on a few voluntary sector assumptions. I haven’t spoken to Rob about my paper yet, but I guess he’d think I’m being overly negative.

I hope the article is enjoyable to read and gets some attention outside of voluntary sector research. It’s published in People, Place and Policy (PPP), the in house journal of SHU’s main social policy research unit CRESR. It’s Open Access, so I’m still keeping up with the idea that I publish between a third and half of my articles in OA journals.

Reading it back now, it actually makes me quite angry, particularly the concluding sentiments which build on Dowling and Harvie’s work:

Ultimately we can conclude that we should be wary of any further attempts to reframe voluntary action for the state’s or the market’s needs. As Dowling and Harvie (2014: 882) conclude, “capital’s lifeblood is unpaid work, and the Big Society as political economy is an attempt is extend the realm of unpaid work that can be appropriated.” This appropriation, of those human activities which seek to reproduce the caring social relationships that make our lives liveable, potentially makes all our futures more precarious.



** And I’ve, ashamedly, just noticed the potentially worrying gender split between these two lists.


Dowling, E. and Harvie, D. (2014) Harnessing the social: State, crisis, and (big) society. Sociology, 48, 5, 869-886.

Bauman, Z. (2007) Consuming Life. Cambridge: Polity Press.

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