Volunteering is not simple and not free. Please critique this Pickle.

Today, in their latest act of rushing out policy discussions in order to correct their slight slide in the polls, the Conservatives announced that if elected they would mandate an extra three days off a year for employees to volunteer. It’s not a new policy, as Labour have already pointed out, David Cameron suggested a very similar plan in 2008, but Coalition government, not able to introduce everything, massive financial crisis, yaddah, yaddah. Let’s look at it on its merits today.

Firstly it smacks to me not only of rather banal electioneering, but another way in which volunteering and charity sector issues are thought of in such uncritical terms. Volunteering is a ‘good thing’, ergo more time to do it equals better society, better employees, more productivity, glorious nirvana for all. To an extent, we know that can be true. But as Eric Pickles’ interview on BBC Radio 4’s Today revealed this morning, we have no idea how that’s going to be funded. As Lisa Nandy has already said:

Giving every public servant three extra days off could cost millions of pounds but there’s no sense of how it will be paid for. If just half of public sector workers took this up it would be the time equivalent of around 2,000 nurses, 800 police and almost 3,000 teachers.

As over 1.3million people work in the NHS for instance, that’s an extra potential 3.9million days ‘off’ that need to be funded.

But my main gripe is about the football that is volunteering. Volunteering is not simple and it is not free. Volunteering is not a splash and dash system. It requires the hard work of professional volunteer recruiters and managers to find willing volunteers, find out their needs and interests, and match them with a proper organisation. The fact that this proposal comes with no extra funding for Volunteer Centres or infrastructure and brokerage workers shows how politicians can just go ‘Oh put some volunteering on’, and organisations like the CBI and even, for heaven’s sake, the Head of the NCVO, will just blindly accept it. Only, it seems,the Institute of Directors are asking how it will be paid for, and querying the quasi-paid nature of employee volunteering (as Eddy Hogg asks, what’s next, awake sleeping?).

The other problem is employee volunteering. Employee volunteering schemes can be great, but they are often misused. Organisations see volunteering as an opportunity for bonding, spending the day clearing a canal, organised by a charity, then decamping to the pub, to both give something back and to get to know your team a bit better. That’s all great. But that’s also what paint-balling is for, or cupcake making. If organisations want to do employee volunteering, in the view of Lynne Berry (Chair of the Commission on the Voluntary Sector and Ageing) at a recent IVR event, charities should charge for employee volunteering, as it can be costly to run. Stop taking volunteer supporting organisations for a ride.

The big society died for many reasons. The funding was thrown at a dodgy organisation. There wasn’t the public mood for it (although the Olympics showed something was possible). Cuts came to dominate, and the ‘cover for cuts’ narrative took hold. And it was trying to reinvent the wheel when we already have one. A lazy, unfunded, previously announced announcement is a bit of an insult to those working in volunteering, but has probably stopped everyone thinking about how mean Michael Fallon is for a bit.

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Who’s not punking their sociology?

After eventually getting round to reading Dave Beer’s Punk Sociology (like Lisa McKenzie’s Getting By, one of those books everyone’s been talking about) I’m feeling pleased and annoyed. Pleased because I agree with so much of Beer’s analysis, annoyed because, as is probable with any Palgrave Pivot title, I wanted more.

It’s a great read, and at only 70 pages it only took a few hours. Written with warmth (like a human!) and straightforwardly, it’s an argument for a better, less stilted and strangled, more creative, less plodding, quicker sociology. It touches on so many topics (however briefly) that it’ll be one of those things that’ll keep popping up in whatever I write over the next few years. It’s endlessly quotable as well – this on punk could be the epigraph for my work on confessional reflexive methods:

“The musicians [of punk] were not afraid to put their limitations on display” (p.46)

Yet for me, there just wasn’t enough punk in it. I wanted lyrics and stories and anecdotes and dramas, relating the experience of punk to the current state of sociology. Instead what we get are some quickly established (simplified?) facets of what punk was, which became an all-purpose, applicable ‘ethos’ which Beer argues we should apply to sociology. Dave O’Brien in his review felt that the book simplified punk a bit too much and while I don’t know the ins and outs, I also needed more context and complexity. I don’t remember punk – I needed a more detailed explanation of what it was and what it meant. So while I desperately agree with the content, the punk framing was just a bit thin.

Perhaps more interestingly Beer rightly highlights the lack of ‘how’ we improve in critiques of sociology:

“How do we reimagine the craft and promise of sociology? How do we find ways of being creative, inventive, and lively? How can we deploy the sociological imagination in inventive ways? How can we resist the restrictions of uncertainty, crisis, and measurement?” (p.12)

He lists the ways in which sociology is under attack or threatened (p.5) and questions why more isn’t done to explain how we start to counter these. That’s great, I’ve long felt the same, but in the conclusion (p.68) he writes of the book:

“It is not a ‘how to’ guide for the punk sociologist. Rather this book is an attempt to respond to calls for a re-imagined and re-invigorated sociology that faces up to contemporary challenges.”

Well, that feels a little bit like a cop out. I wouldn’t expect a set of rules carved in stone, but some examples that Dave Beer feels live up to what he wants (and I want). Everyone has their own examples and things they love (the random book that fills you with joy at it’s sheer aura) and I want to know what Beer’s are.

Because it seems to me lots of people are doing things about the perceived current lack of punk (unpunk?) sociology. Discover Society was launched in order to directly put sociology right in front of anyone and seems to be working. The Mapping Immigration Controversy project has swiftly begun to track the inhumanity of the Home Office. Sociological Research Online has asked for quick-fire responses to the Charlie Hebdo massacre. The Sociological Review’s recent re-imagining of its purpose and manifesto is beautiful and exciting. Two years ago at the BSA I met someone who was doing a PhD about animal testing through the medium of a graphic novel. There are tons of PhD opportunities to work on interesting research projects available (with the caveat that there aren’t the academic jobs to go into after). Quantitative methods are being taken seriously through Q-Step. This is similar to Emma Jackson’s point in her review: wasn’t the feminist approach to research punk sociology? Aren’t we (to some extent/ to a great extent) doing this already?

As someone who teaches in both sociology and politics, the civil society organisations and community around sociology seem much more thoughtful, imaginative and keyed in to the future than those in political science. (Even though politics has it easy because it’s such a concrete thing). Sociology feels like a discipline with a bit of flair despite its current maligned status documented by Beer.

What I suppose I want is the opposite of what Beer shies away from in his postscript. He states that he doesn’t want to and never, when requested, identifies punk sociologists, leaving it to the reader to decide (p.70). But what I want are a list of all the people/ departments/ research groups who are extensively not punking their sociology. I’m guessing they include (off the top of my head):

  • The journal editors who dismisses anything without 80 references and not in the third person.
  • The reviewer who says articles are ‘too conversational’.
  • The Head of Department who (and I have seen this) says he’d rather his academics produced four good journal articles than three amazing monographs for the purposes of the REF.
  • The person who doesn’t tweet and blog or push or even present their research to their colleagues, or the newspapers or press, and is happy for it to gather dust somewhere.
  • The sociologist who rejects a new method because it’s new.
  • The theorist who writes impenetrable prose about the nature of reality (it’s a table, get over it and yourself) that has no bearing on people’s lives, or won’t benefit the next generation of scholars who try to apply it, and couldn’t explain what they mean in a week.
  • People who nick their postgraduate students’ work, or have no interest in using their status to offer someone in a worse position a leg up.
  • The lecturer who hasn’t changed their teaching slides in 20 years.

These offenders (and I would struggle to name three, but I don’t know many people and am too nice) seem to mostly be in management positions, or running the Campaign for Social Science. As John Holmwood’s review today of the vilely titled The Business of People report of the CfSS makes clear, sociology and our ilk have to be vibrant and rebellious against this tortuous management, market-led bull. But I would love for examples of research that should not (according to the punk sociology ethos) exist.

I think Dave Beer has written what everyone is thinking, and are still worried about. But similarly to how McKenzie’s work argues that working-class people and communities should be valued for who they are and what they do, not held to some alien and elitist middle-class gold standard, we have to value what we have already and make sure there is access to it and the effort is rewarded and protected.

Hopefully while everyone I respect is doing new, interesting, valuable stuff, those people listed above will wither and fall by the wayside. As Jackson’s review points out, Beer’s vision of punk sociology sounds exhausting: but I’ve heard it’s better to burn out than to fade away.

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A short coda to the state of the state

I’ve just reviewed Bourdieu’s lectures On the State for the LSE Review of Books. It’s a great and surprising read, and not just because of the breadth of intellectual pursuit and examples he provides in trying to unpack the modern state, how it exists (as the legitimate deliverer of symbolic violence) and what it does, but because it’s a really readable example of teaching in practice. You can see how lecture builds on lecture, and the interplay between them (the pedagogical architecture if you will), and the interaction of students is made obvious, not hidden away. Two things I couldn’t fit in the review though.

One thing I was surprised by in OtS was the lack of comment on neoliberalism. This is especially true given that in the collection there is little macro-analysis of the unique brand of Western market capitalism which emerged in the 1980s. Margaret Thatcher, Ronald Reagan and neoliberalism are absent from the text. In the final pages, Bourdieu does argue that, in terms of the dismantling of the welfare state, ‘the last twenty years have deconstructed everything that has been built up since the eighteenth century’ (p.369). Knowing as we do that half a decade after these lectures were delivered Bourdieu would publish his most political work, understanding the relationship between On the State and The Weight of the World, Acts of Resistance and Firing Back could provide a highly charged intellectual response to the current (state) crises in which we find ourselves engulfed.

There’s also some further work to be done on the link between Foucault’s governmentality and Bourdieu’s use of Weber’s idea of ‘the domestication of the dominated’ (p.358 onwards) (state use of symbolic violence in practice). As someone who has struggled to find literature which examines the Foucault/Bourdieu connection, this is something added to my to-do list. Bloody to-do list.

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The long-term benefits of getting (a bit) drunk and being (a bit) annoying at academic conferences

A few years ago, Beth Breeze (philanthropy guru) and I conducted some research on what homeless people felt about the representation of homeless people in the fundraising literature used by homelessness charities. The original research is published here and here, and you can read what I have written around the issue here (p21) and here (p16) (I’m like Zizek*). Overall our focus group participants felt that while the images were a bit demeaning, inaccurate and overly staged, money maximisation has to be the primary goal of charities.

When we first raised this finding in an exploratory blog post for Third Sector magazine, we received several responses, ranging from questioning to angry (of Tunbridge Wells). One of the commenters stated (on face value not unreasonably) that:

It’s hardly surprising that a group of people who have lost all dignity and self confidence would react in this way.

Up to a point, we agreed: it is worrying that a group of rather powerless people who were relying on a charity for basic support were willing to give up any power they may have had over their own representation in order that services could continue for them and other people in the same situation.

However, the commenter’s idea that our focus group participants had “lost all dignity and self confidence” was just not accurate and showed a real lack of nuance about homeless people. The service users we met were a diverse group – bright, thoughtful, and most certainly didn’t lack confidence in giving us their opinions. The teenagers especially were a fun and lively bunch, who talked to us about being at college, applying for apprenticeships, having job interviews, and going to work. A few had done or were doing Media Studies at A-level, and it was clear they got the point of and compromises involved in advertising. Many of them understood that they themselves would not be included in such advertisements because they looked too happy and too clean (and had regular jobs or were in education). Advertisements had to include the images representing what charities thought donors thought the homeless looked like, because posters don’t have the ability to provide context and explanation – Gladwell’s ‘blink’ hypothesisLINK. Charities can worry about the education afterwards.

At the end of the preamble the point was this – if we think that (homelessness) fundraising literature has to appeal to the images that potential donors have in their heads, then:

  • What is that image in their heads?
  • How can we find that out?
  • If that image is stereotypical and inaccurate, what can we do about it?

The answers to those questions can be found here, in an article entitled ‘Drawing what homelessness looks like: Using creative visual methods as a tool of critical pedagogy‘. It may be 8,000 words long, but don’t worry, one of the benefits of the method employed is that there are pictures. I’ve also written a blog for Sociological Research Online about it which you can read here. The abstract is:

This article presents findings from a creative qualitative study, where drawing was used as a methodological tool to investigate university students’ awareness of homelessness. Previous research (Breeze and Dean 2012; 2013) has shown that homelessness charities often utilise stereotypical images in their fundraising campaigns, focusing on the arresting issue of rough sleeping (rooflessness) as opposed to other, more widespread experiences of homelessness. In drawing ‘what homelessness looks like’ the images students produce are often rooted in familiar local scenes – local roofless people they see regularly, or replications of common media images, with a tendency to depoliticise and individualise homelessness as a social issue. These drawings show striking similarities, common themes, and indicate a lack of critical engagement with the complex problems within personal homelessness narratives. The efficacy of the methodological approach is assessed, with the role creative methods such as drawing can play in stimulating critical discussion of issues, such as gender and the media, highlighted. The article also argues that such methods can play a role in critical pedagogy, encouraging deeply reflexive accounts of participants’ behaviour and knowledge. In policy terms however, this article concludes that it would be a risk for homelessness charities to utilise less stereotypical images in their fundraising materials, as the findings suggest such images align with those in the minds of potential donors.

Before I address the title of this blog (which, let’s face it, is why you came) I think SRO is the perfect place for this research. Firstly, being online the space is provided for over half a dozen images to be included, which probably wouldn’t be available in print. Secondly and more importantly, is the issue of Open Access research. With the stupid and prohibitive fees charged by academic publishers, having long-form, detailed academic research which the voluntary sector can access for free has to be a boon. After publishing in Contention last year, the vision of trying to make a sizable proportion (half?) of my publications OA seems to still be rolling.

Finally, the title of this blog comes from that hoary old issue: where do ideas come from? I presented our initial research at the ARNOVA conference (the biggest gathering of nonprofit researchers in the world) in Toronto in 2011. While there, I got annoyed at the overwhelmingly boring nature of the conference and the oddly-repetitive, characterless presentations delivered for three days straight. To compensate for this (and because I was an overly-privileged know-it-all British PhD student**), I got a bit drunk and complained loudly about the rather lousy conference to someone I’d just met who must’ve thought me rather terrible. I said we needed to do more inventive presentations. He politely asked for an example. I said perhaps in a presentation about homelessness you could ask the audience to close their eyes or lie on the floor and imagine sleeping rough, probably thinking I was being very inventive in bringing in this embodied element. He said this was really distasteful and stupid (which was, in hindsight, an excellent critique). Stunned, I quickly said, “Well, yes, but how about you give out paper and ask the audience to draw what they think homelessness looks like, and then see if it matches the advertisements, and then point out they are not accurate?” To give him credit, he thought about it, nodded, and said “Yeah, that might work”.

So there I was, a bit drunk, in a Toronto bar that was inside a shopping mall, haranguing a quite senior researcher from a prestigious US university who I’d never met before, blurting out the précis of a journal paper which would be published in Sociological Research Online three and a half years later. Funny how things work out.


* If you get that joke, congratulations, you’ve won 12 books a year for the rest of your life.

** I am now an overly-privileged know-it-all British lecturer.

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Uncomfortable truths

I’ve just finished reading Hannah Jones‘ award-winning Negotiating Cohesion, Inequality and Change, a book I bought last April but have only just got around to (sabbatical win). It is excellent, which, given the many, many reviews you’ll have read, you don’t need me to point out.

What makes it truly interesting for me is the people Jones speaks to. They are mostly policy practitioners working at the Local Government level, a role Jones herself fulfilled at Hackney Council working in community cohesion policy. Much of the book centers on Hackney, its ‘gentrification’, how it engages with the PREVENT agenda, and community relations. Jones interviews many of her former colleagues and merges the interview data, publicly available documents, and her own experience of doing the work at the time to explore the messiness of doing policy at this level. This insider status gives us so much more of the story than social policy analysis usually provides.

It is especially interesting to me, as I used to do (for a very short time) the same job. I was a policy practitioner working on volunteering and voluntary sector policy at Sandwell Council for six months, and it is astonishing to see the same themes pop up. One of the key ones is the complication and messiness of policy. Rogers Brubaker once wrote a book called The Limits of Rationality, and the title has always rung true. While we often think of policy in broad terms, and as rigidly imposed frameworks which will be carried out, one thing we always forget is that policy is thought up, legislated, packaged, and implemented by people. And people can be a bit crap. Or at least flimsily adaptable.

Jones recounts the story of Hackney Council being told to implement the PREVENT agenda to tackle extremism – an obvious example of policy as heat not light. The Council were undemocratically forced to take money they didn’t want, to deliver a policy they didn’t think would help, to tackle a problem there was no evidence existed. Even though practitioners think it’ll mess up much of their cohesion work and alienate large sections of the community, they find ways to bend it to their current agendas, and find a way of working within it which they feel comfortable with. Policy practitioners are not neutral or impartial as Du Gay (2000) hopes – this ‘useful fiction’ is an ideal type rather than ‘what actually happens’ (see page 19). I asked my Dad, who also worked in LG (but for forty years) whether it rang true, and he felt that managing the competing interests of agendas could be the most frustrating bu most fascinating bit of the job.

As someone interested in reflexivity, the book also provides an amazing example in how to do reflexivity in research – don’t be held-back by the impartiality mafia, but don’t allow yourself to narcissistically dominate. Stay smart, stay controlled, but don’t hold back as a researcher or writer if you have something personal to contribute.

I’ll be thinking a lot about Jones’ book over the coming months. It ties in very strongly to the volunteering policy as governmentality work I’ve done, my teaching on the community and local studies module, and the big society (which Jones perfectly describes as ‘slippery’). It reminds us that LG workers are so often forgotten but are so key in delivering the national ideas that are going to be (endlessly, pointlessly) rambled on about until May.

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You hear that? It’s the yawning chasm of time opening up in front of me. You smell that? Fear.

So I’ve been granted a sabbatical by my department from Sheffield Hallam University (have I ever told you how bloody great those guys are?) for this semester, but as it bleeds into the summer holidays, practically I have no teaching commitments until September. This is a departure for our department, as it’s the first academic year they’ve run them, and so there’s a little pressure to make the most of it, to ensure colleagues get the opportunity in the future. But I’m a willing guinea pig. (To be fair, I’ll probably just try and copy what Les Back did).

So the marking finished on Tuesday and so technically I’ve begun. At the risk of becoming a hostage to fortune, and at the risk of giving everything away on here and you all stealing my stunning academic ideas, I’ve decided to try and blog a bit more. This’ll be both about what I’m doing, rather than keep it secret until the research comes out, but also about how the process is going. Having this much time and freedom is like going back to the PhD.

During the PhD I’d have amazing 15,000 word weeks, and amazing four series of The Wire weeks (I honestly believe that both were vital to me completing in three years with minors). But seven months can start to feel smaller very quickly. A colleague who sabbaticaled last term said it took her two weeks to clear her head and figure out a plan. Well in the two days I’ve been doing it so far I’ve finished the first draft of a journal article on volunteering and neoliberalism which had been stagnant for months. Is that a major achievement, or a rush job? I’ve farmed it out to warm colleagues for vile, critical feedback.

What else? Well:

  • I have the BSA conference in April to plan for, by which time I want a workable article-length draft of the research I’ll be presenting on. It continues experiments with qualitative methods where colleagues and I each analysed Desert Island Discs and came together to understand our differing interpretations. A journal article on this to follow.
  • Three (three!) other conference applications which I haven’t heard back from yet, which will help order my time quite well as all will require papers and/or presentations.
  • An article on informal volunteering that has sat unloved for years which I want to get on with.
  • A revise and resubmit which I currently can’t tell if it’s a lot of work or not, but would be great to get published as it features an interview with a friend who died recently.
  • The proofing and revision of three papers which have been accepted, and will need the various prodding and annoying of publishers, and then blogging and promoting.
  • And finally the whole reason I got the sabbatical in the first place is working up a book proposal about reflexivity and biography in research methods. This is the one that’ll need a lot of time and thought, so I’m thinking of devoting the last three months to it. But I’m prepared to randomly run off, spend a fortnight in the library and get on with it at any point.

Is this list a hostage to fortune? Is it showing off? Possibly both, possibly neither. But putting it down on paper (the internet’s made of paper right?) will help me assess where I am, as, while I pretend to be all cool and relaxed, I am actually the most clearly and annoyingly organised person I know at work.

Also spending the sabb in London gives me plenty opportunity to attend fun events, like the LSE public events, the recent Guy Standing event at Goldsmiths, or the recent changes in volunteering event at NCVO.

4 new articles.

4 conference presentations.

And a book proposal?

Where’s that box set of The Wire?

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Standing room only

Last night I went to see Prof Guy Standing (SOAS) talk at Goldsmiths about the precariat – a word I hadn’t heard in 2011,* and which is now one of our most useful analytical tools for understanding the lived impacts of inequality and poverty. This is not just poverty of money – but of security, time, space, capital, education, and (financial) advice. One possible way of distinguishing the precariat from the (ever diminishing) traditional working-class is perhaps that the precariat are exploited all the time, not just at work as part of an industrial time regime – the lack of secure and consistent employment means more time is taken up by employment matters. It was a while since I’d attended an open academic lecture, Christmas and marking having taken over somewhat, but it was a joyous and very emotional evening for several reasons.

Firstly, it was standing room only (at least I amuse myself). A room suitable for 40 people had about 80 rammed inside, on window ledges, on the floor, behind the speaker. As someone who has experienced a term of asking the eternal question ‘how do we get our students to go the extra-curricular things?’ it was a revelation. A great, multi-national, multi-ethnic, cross discipline, varied mix of career stages were in attendance, hanging on every word it seemed.

Standing’s talk drew mainly on his recent book The Precariat Charter, a list of demands reminiscent of the Magna Carta (800 years after its agreement at Runnymede); demands for the precariat in order to ease the distasteful and violent things being done to this social group in the name of economic liberty and neoliberalism. While I’m going to type up my notes from the talk, and interweave them into several lectures and journal papers over the coming weeks, two things I want to highlight.

Standing’s number one point (for which he says he has been criticised, for being a bit dull) is: to reconceptualise what we mean as work. This obviously ties into well-worn debates from Jeremy Rifkin, but also the excellent Sociological Review monograph on the issue. We (or vindictive, sanctioning policy makers) have become obsessed with paid labour for a boss as the only meaningful work, leaving out all the other labour that people do. Chief among these in my view would be formal volunteering, and informal caring, alongside housework. The NHS is saved £119bn a year by 6 million carers – more than the NHS budget. It’s time to stop thinking that this doesn’t count as work, and consider rewarding it as such, or at least lessening the hardship that loving one another can cause. Alongside these Standing suggests form filling, the endless loops people who don’t have consistent employment have to jump through, causing the mental exhaustion and stress, and fawning and pleading one has to do in order to continue to exist as a member of the precariat.

His solution? A state-guaranteed national income. I used the word ’emotional’ to describe the talk earlier. Well, Standing recounted two stories from his applied research /activism. His work in villages in India and Namibia to test in pilot schemes a basic income, paid in cash to every man, woman, and child in the villages. The results of these pilots – discussed with colleagues in his forthcoming book Basic Incomemore work, more productivity, more community, and a better status for women. In Namibia, where poor women would be victims after men were paid on Friday nights after work, the basic income changed their world. “We can say No,” one told Standing – a decent income leading to a decent life.

There was no evidence that a guaranteed income created fecklessness or laziness, the argument used to stop it here. This isn’t just a Global South solution – Alaska (conservative, Palin-world) is using fossil fuel revenues to do the same – and has gone from having among the highest levels of poverty in the US to among the lowest.

I took seven pages of dense notes and quotes in a little over an hour. But the thing I will take away from it? A team of academics, going to some of the poorest parts of the world, to suggest, help implement, test, and disseminate a relatively simple social policy, in order to improve lives? That’s pretty emotional (and creates both guilt [over my own measly contribution] and belief [that hope springs eternal]).

*Interestingly, I’ve just had to add the word ‘precariat’ to my Word dictionary. It won’t be missing from new editions I’m sure.

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