In this podcast for Street Signs, Les Back discusses his time as Director at the Centre for Urban and Community Research, Goldsmiths and I talk about my plans for the centre’s future.
Louise Rondel and I had a new piece published in The Sociological Review Magazine this month in which we ponder what water does to the research encounter.
‘Our immersed encounters with/in the river enabled us to explore not only what it is, but what it does, how it participates in urban life, prompting particular practices and formations. Being next to and in the Quaggy gave us a glimpse of how participants see it, feel it, become attached to it and care for it. It also attuned us to issues of pollution, urban planning, ecological conservation and neighbourhood change.’
Delighted to be showing ‘Bowling Together: Portrait of a League’ alongside Laura Harris’ film ‘Critical Focus: study of an arts centre’ at the University of Liverpool on September 10th, 5pm. Come along for discussion on film and social research.
Details on the attached poster below. No booking required and all welcome!
This event has been programmed to run the day before the day workshop Urban Methods on the Move II
This post first appeared on The Sociological Review Blog on 26th July 2017 here.
‘The younger generation of academic women just don’t have children.’ I’m sat in the office of an older woman professor in an elite university. I’m here as part of a job interview. This institution has moved to a more American way of doing things and part of this is having individual meetings with members of staff instead of a job interview. This is my first meeting of the day. I’m taken aback that she has mentioned children/my (correctly) presumed lack of them in this setting. She continues telling me how her students were really glad that she has children and is a professor, showing that you can do both.
What am I supposed to say here? At this point (a few years ago now) I am 35 and childfree. I have decamped my household, partner and two house rabbits from London to Glasgow for work and my ability to move without caring responsibilities has allowed me to navigate ‘the game’ of academia as a post-doc. As I have argued before, the requirement to be movable is part of an increasingly precarious employment situation for those going into the academic job market. But here in this office I can’t win. I could tell her that raising this is completely inappropriate, awkward when you are trying to get a job. I could identify myself as part of this generation of academic women without children – positioned here as letting the side down. Or else, if I agree with her, I look even more like an employment time bomb than I already do. I sit politely and smile, without commenting. Now maybe I just look passive and uninteresting.
Later that evening, it’s the horrendous ‘dinner with the other candidates’. The other candidates are from all over the world, are all young white men and mostly seem precariously employed like me. One of the young male members of staff present (everyone is male at the dinner, bar one older woman professor) starts to talk about his toddler. The others join in, swapping dad stories and showing pictures of babies on their phones. The older generation also join in with their own parenting experiences. They remember those sleepless nights too. Once again, I can’t win here. I don’t have anything to contribute. But if I was a mum with a small child, outing myself by showing their picture would be risky in this situation. While being a dad is seen in academia as a sign of maturity, having a bit of that elusive ‘work-life balance’, I would run the risk of provoking anxiety (‘Will she want another one? Will she take time off?’). Once again, I smile and nod.
Research has shown that children help men academic’s careers but hinder women’s. The structural disadvantages are obvious, including expensive childcare and the extended precarity of the post-PhD years that often coincide with a woman’s fertile years. But the kinds of more banal exchanges I’ve described above play into this too. The first example is more surprising than the second but shows how women can also be complicit in reinforcing the idea that a woman without children is less of a person, leaving the gender bias and ‘baby penalty’ in academia unchallenged. It individualises the issues and presents an attitude of ‘I managed it so why can’t you/they?’ It also shows how a move towards this US system of individual meetings in recruitment is a problem for equalities and diversity issues. There is no standardisation of questions, and things that wouldn’t and shouldn’t be raised in an interview can be brought up as part of an informal chat.
The second example shows how ‘dad chat’ is one of the ways in which male academics bond, forge and solidify networks. This is worrying in the context of the job interview dinner. No matter how informal, this too is part of the recruitment process and ‘dad chat’ here becomes part of performing being good socially. One colleague of a similar age to me working in a different institution told me that when he became a dad, he started getting invited to more social events outside of work. Suddenly there was this new world of barbecues. I haven’t heard this from my women academic friends who have children.
The radical politics espoused by many in my working world seems out of whack with the pervasive heteronormativity of academia. While I’m genuinely happy to learn about CBeebies through the dad friends I go to lunch with (‘Paw Patrol’ sounds really strange), that talk should probably stay out of the ‘dinner with the other candidates’. As well as campaigning for things that would make life easier for parents – especially women – in our workplaces, like nurseries on campus, crèches at conferences, and challenging the idea that having a baby for women isn’t the same thing as retiring or going on holiday (‘Clever girl!’ said one colleague to a friend of mine when she told him she was going on maternity leave), we also have to consider how these kinds of banal exchanges exclude.
This blog was originally published on the CUCR blog ‘Streetsigns‘
‘A friend came to see me in a dream. From far away. And I asked him in the dream: “Did you come by photograph or train?”‘ John Berger, The Seventh Man
‘We are all plotted on a continuum stretched between the poles of the “perfect tourist” and the “vagabond beyond remedy” – and our respective places between the poles are plotted according to the degree of freedom we possess in choosing our life itineraries.’ Zygmunt Bauman, Tourists and Vagabonds
In Berlin, discarded Christmas trees amass on the sides of pavements, on grit-flecked snow. In Berlin Hauptbahnhof, wreaths with golden baubles emblazoned with the Brandenburg Gate still hang from the roof. There are fairy lights, but they are not switched on. It’s a Sunday evening in January and while not crowded, trains move under my feet and above my head, East to West, North to South on ground that was once close to a national border. In the middle of the station sits ‘No Stranger Place’ an exhibition of portraits and stories of refugees and the people across Europe who have taken them into their homes, by Aubrey Wade. Presenting the exhibition in this place of movement creates a temporary disruption in the atmosphere and rhythm of the railway station. People dragging suitcases stop to look, with concentration and stillness.
Looking at these pictures – of domestic interiors, odd couples and emerging forms of family– against the accompanying noise of constant churn, train brakes and escalators, I find myself thinking about John Berger and Zygmunt Bauman. Two great recently departed thinkers who wrote extensively about the movement of people. Berger and Bauman cut very different figures – Bauman ‘If Quentin Blake drew sociologists’ and Berger, as Rema Hammimi wonderfully describes, ‘A wizard, prince, jester, charmer, sister, rake, poet, clairvoyant all in the figure of a 70-something wrestler held together by colossal kindness’– but they were both socialist sons of the Twentieth Century who lived through its darkest hours yet continued to write and speak with hope about the future until their deaths.
For Bauman, who had been twice a refugee, the tourist and the vagabond were the two definitive types of the contemporary age. The tourist who goes and consumes wherever s/he wants and the vagabond who is pushed from pillar to post. Both figures are cosmopolitans whose lives are characterised by movement, the difference is the ‘degree of freedom we possess in choosing our life itineraries’. The theme of international movement with various kinds of pushes and pulls also runs deep through John Berger’s eclectic back catalogue, from the novel To The Wedding – where two parents traverse Europe to get to their terminally ill daughter’s wedding – to The Seventh Man, a collage of Berger’s words and Jean Mohr’s photographs covering the journeys and subsequent everyday lives of migrants moving from the south of Europe to the north in the 1970s.
In the tributes made to Berger after his death, a recurring word was ‘hospitality’, even ‘radical hospitality’. In an interview shortly before his death, Zygmunt Bauman spoke of the need to develop a ‘cosmopolitan consciousness’[i] (‘we are all tied together but the trouble is we didn’t even start yet to develop a cosmopolitan consciousness which means thinking not only in terms of our direct vicinity or environment but also understand the global connections which determine the conditions under which we live’).
I head about John Berger’s death while sat on a train. With the suburban railway lands of South East London scrolling by, I thought of the piece ‘Vanishing Points’ that I saw him perform in the German Gymnasium in King’s Cross, in 2005. The piece was a collaboration with the Canadian novelist and poet Anne Michaels and was a meditation on railways, separation and immigration (‘Thousands embraced for the last time on this earth. For so many, Union Station is the place where fathers, brothers, sons, husbands were last alive.’). While the text was published later as ‘Railtracks’ the event itself was a mixture of projections, soundscapes and performance that is impossible to fully capture on the page. ‘Vanishing Points’ reflected on railway stations as places of romance and possibility, convergence and separation, enforcement and exile in the Twentieth century but these associations rumble on into the present.
In the same year that European railway stations became once again emblematic of the brutality of borders, Nirmal Puwar and Mariam Motemedi-Fraser curated ‘Migrating Dreams and Nightmares’ at Goldsmiths. The exhibition revisited The Seventh Man and displayed artists’ responses to – and original pieces from – the book. It was impossible to spend time with those photographs and words documenting mass movement, and some of the humiliating treatment that ensued, without reading them through contemporary images of the humanitarian crisis.
For Berger, the train and the photograph were both modes of transportation. Through ‘No Stranger Place’ we are transported into a range of interiors, the student kitchen, the art-studded dining room, the high-rise studio. To Berlin’s outskirts, to Vienna and to rural Austria.
One of the pairings of locals/refugees initially encountered each other on a train outside of Berlin. Inas asked Wilhelm and Brian if he was on the right train or not, and with the help of Google translate they struck up a conversation and exchanged numbers. After continuing communication via Whatsapp, Inas eventually moved in with them. Looking back, Wilhelm describes how they had wanted to do something to help during the refugee crisis but didn’t ‘get a move on’ then ‘suddenly this opportunity was presented to us on a plate, the chance to help someone.’ Inas recalls how difficult it was to come to a new country, ‘To be completely helpless, that’s the hardest thing.’
The pairings represented in the portraits did not take place on equal footing and it is good that some of the moments of awkwardness and misunderstandings were preserved in the stories (‘Ahmed was very insecure and shy but we thought he was stubborn… he later told me he was completely lost’). However, overwhelmingly, a sense of openness and dialogue on both sides comes through these stories of emerging cosmopolitan households. For example, Chaim from a host family, argues ‘Integration is not one-sided work … we should ask this of ourselves too.’
The wider climate of uncertainty and fear that Bauman outlines (animated wonderfully here) finds its way into the stories presented in ‘No Stranger Place’ through some of the reactions of neighbours. Most notably, Uta who took Hamid into her high-rise studio flat on the outskirts of Berlin found her neighbours to be hostile, one telling her ‘we don’t want foreigners here’. Her response, ‘He’s my son, you just have to get used to it.’
These personal stories sit in sharp relief to the inward looking, mean little England being peddled by political leaders at home in the UK. Last year, it was reported that the UK aim to accept 20,000 Syrian refugees by 2020 – an embarrassingly paltry number of people compared to the 484, 000 accepted by Germany in 2015, or the 2.8 million in Turkey – would not be met. For an end to the refugee crisis, radical hospitality and cosmopolitan imagination need to be taken up on an international and national level.
‘No Stranger Place’ is displayed on the ground floor of Berlin Hauptbahnhof until January 21st 2017.
[i] ‘Cosmopolitanism’ as a word comes with a lot of baggage – for example Tariq Jazeel critiques the concept as being too wedded to the idea of ‘toleration’ where a privileged agent is doing the tolerating – but here I’m reading Bauman as more in line with Delanty’s call for ‘critical cosmopolitanism’ which occurs ‘when and wherever new relations between self, other and world develop in moments of openness.’ See the introduction of this book for a discussion of this by Hannah Jones, Alex Rhys-Taylor and me.
I wrote this post for the ‘Mapping Immigration Controversy‘ blog – on how Sunderland was being used as ‘Brexit-town’.
On election night I always proudly watch as my hometown is first to declare. First to declare and always Labour, although the worrying UKIP proportion at the last election should have been a warning sign. In the referendum, though, Sunderland has taken on a different kind of symbolism. ‘Did you know it was Sunderland that threw the markets on Thursday night?’ my colleague tells me afterwards (61% Leave, 39% Remain). Later in the day I find myself in tears at a story about a neo-Nazi display at a school I used to walk past on the way to primary school, and that many of my friends attended. The story concerned an event that happened in October but it had a visceral impact on me. I think because seeing these displays on the streets where you grew up ‘hits home’ but also because over the last few weeks my hometown has become shorthand for stories of ‘the state of the nation’ in troubling ways. In short, Sunderland is being used as a marker of a narrative about Brexit as a protest vote by deindustrialised white working class people – who are then set in contrast to a metropolitan multicultured elite. The reality is that both Sunderland and white working class people are more complicated than that. And that by focusing in on Sunderland as representing this situation other stories are left out.
That Sunderland voted ‘Leave’ was not a surprise. There had been a flurry of pieces on Sunderland before the referendum. As Gary Younge has pointed out, journalists have headed into the North of England and ‘anthropologised the British working class as though they were a lesser evolved breed from distant parts, all too often portraying them as bigots who did not know what was good for them.’ If a simplistic story about a disenfranchised white working class is what you are looking for then you can find this in Sunderland. In a New York Times piece (yes, even the New York Times is sending journalists to Sunderland) a young man called John is interviewed:
“We’re segregated from the south, and the north is a barren wasteland,” he said, wearing a heavy black leather jacket with metal studs despite the summer heat. “It’s us against them.”
“The E.U. is a mystery to us,” he added. “We’ve never heard about it up here.”
‘This depressed northern city is like ground zero for the Brexit movement’ begins a piece in The Irish Times
Sunderland as location and representative of working class loss has also been explored in Grayson Perry’s programme ‘In the best possible taste’.
I do not want to trivialise the feelings of disconnect expressed through these accounts or the portrayals of post-industrial neglect that they point towards. Sunderland has been repeatedly clobbered, its shipyards and mines closed down and now it is part of one of the regions bearing the brunt of the Government cuts. If you live in a city that is a Labour stronghold (so you can’t vote the Conservatives out) and suffering from disinvestment, cuts and disillusionment with the council (see for example the wranglings over the use of the Vaux brewery site) then I can see how voting Leave does feel like exerting some kind of control or sending a message to those in power. And these are the kinds of stories that run through these newspaper accounts of Sunderland. But, and there is always a but, that is not the whole story.
Firstly, this tight focus on the deindustrialised white working class (lumped all together as a group without considering how whiteness is constructed and groups incorporated and excluded over time, see also Satnam Virdee’s excellent book) as the Brexit story misses state, elite and middle class forms of racism which may be institutionalised, more polite, or less visible. It focuses on vocal expressions of xenophobia without probing what Paul Gilroy calls ‘post-colonial melancholia’, a longing for the glory days of prosperity and ship-building that are tied up with histories of empire. It reaffirms a key argument of the Leave campaign, which as Akwugo Emejulu has argued, was the promotion of a story of ‘white victimhood’ rather than interrogate the logic and effects of austerity:
‘a key argument of the campaign was that the ‘working class’ (who were unquestionably assumed to be white) were suffering under the burden of mass immigration, which transformed the culture of their neighbourhoods and put undue strain on public services.’
Furthermore, it misses complex stories of racism and resistance that exist in places like Sunderland. The far right has tried many times to gain ground in Sunderland, and the North East more widely. Attempting to capitalise on the dispersal of asylum seekers to Sunderland and in the wake of the murder of Peyman Bahmani in 2003, an asylum seeker living in the city, the BNP tried to whip up support and contested every ward in the city that year – but failed to win any seats. And much earlier than this in the 1990s, and on a more anecdotal level of resistance, I remember my friend’s mam not only telling a BNP canvasser where to go, but chasing him down the garden path. At this time, I was part of an anti-racist youth group that used to go and demonstrate against the BNP across the North East. In 2012, a spate of demos by the EDL et al were held in Millfield, the area I grew up in, against a mosque being built – and were met with fierce resistance.
I heard more everyday and recent accounts of racism and resistance in Sunderland described by Anoop Nayak in a recent talk – if you are interested in the inter-relationships of race and class in the North East of England then read his work because this is based on years of research in the region. Racism is a real and continuing problem in the city and Anoop’s most recent work focuses on young Bengali people in Sunderland (and another coastal area in the North East). There is a small but well-established Bengali community in Sunderland whose experiences I have not seen included in these discussions of Sunderland as the epitome of ‘Leave’. The expansion of the University has also impacted on the ethnic make-up of Sunderland. The city is putting forward a City of Culture bid and has a lively music and arts scene (with many key figures coming from the ‘white working class’), best represented by the Pop Recs shop/gig space/almost community centre. I suppose what I am saying is that Sunderland is more complex, or that there are other Sunderlands. There are other predominantly working class cities too, that do not mirror these voting patterns: Liverpool, Manchester, Glasgow.
In our project ‘Mapping Immigration Controversies’ we examined how anti-immigration campaigns intervened in specific places. For example, in Glasgow, in the run-up to the independence referendum, the ‘Go Home’ campaigns were interpreted as an English/Westminster intervention in a more caring Scotland. Alongside encounters with racism and xenophobia we heard of resistance and support. If we are trying to understand the voting patterns across the UK, and if we are to challenge new iterations of old racisms, then it is crucial to examine the different kinds of spatial and social histories in which the referendum intervened. The metropolitan elite/regional whiteworkingclass division is just too simplistic to help us do that work. Meanwhile, I suspect journalists looking for a post-referendum state of the nation snapshot will continue to visit Sunderland’s tattoo parlours and hair salons. What effect will this have on the city, I wonder? And what effect on our understandings of racism and class?
My ten minute talk from the BSA Postgraduate Day, 5th April 2016 on a panel about ‘Rebellious Sociology’*
What I want to do in my 10 mins is to explore another possible route through what Dave Beer has termed ‘punk sociology’. Taking a punk ethos, perhaps best encapsulated in this cartoon from the Sniffin Glue fanzine this cartoon from the Sniffin Glue fanzine, punk sociology called for a similar boldness among sociologists in order to reinvigorate the discipline.
The book’s central argument is that ‘the attitude and sensibility of punk can productively be used to regenerate and energise the sociological imagination’. Beer argues that the lessons that can be learned for sociology from the punk attitude are: DIY ethic, the breakdown of barriers between audience and band, and open-ness to other music.
When reading the book, which I like, it struck me that feminism has being doing punk sociology for a long time and that isn’t really explored in the book. Also, if you read Viv Albertine (of The Slits) book, the experience of women in the 1970s punk movement doesn’t chime with this idealistic rendering – but that second point is for another day.
My take on punk sociology comes through a different lineage. It comes filtered through the riot grrrl movement of the 1990s which inspired me and my friends to form a band when I was 15. Riot grrrl took punk’s DIY spirit – which manifested, for example, in the fanzine culture, mode of production and aesthetic (see our debut single on the left, I’m the cat in the feather boa) – but fostered a more communal approach to music making and doing. It had feminist politics at its core, as encapsulated in the shout ‘girls to the front’. When my teenage band got together we couldn’t play our instruments but we learned how to play together, through learning from each other. The reason we felt equipped to form a band had a lot to do with a DIY sensibility that valued creativity over technical proficiency.
Collaboration – and feminism in the face of a male-dominated music scene – was absolutely key to this and that is something I want to emphasise here, following on from Hannah [who was speaking just before me of the need for non-heroic sociology and about when to speak up in public debate].
Feminist collaboration and collective working strikes me as a quiet kind of rebellious – and unheroic – sociology. I think it is important because of the individualising times we live in, both in universities and beyond. Firstly, following on from Hannah, we are encouraged by the current academic system to market ourselves as lone wolf heroic researchers in order to get jobs, to be ESRC ‘Future Research Leaders’ or British Academy ‘Rising Stars’, or even Harvard ‘Geniuses’. This is all a very individualistic and potentially seductive model of doing research. Yet some of the best work is done collaboratively. I think it’s politically important within sociology to argue for collaboration and to present collaborative work as such and not parcel it up in individual packages for the sake of presentation.
The times we are living through require sociologists to operate in different kinds of temporalities at once. Kirsteen Paton captures this beautifully in her blog for the Sociological Review on ‘getting real’ where she suggests sociologists learn from the fast organising of those who are currently resisting and use the tools we have to hand – this echoes Les Back and Nirmal Puwar’s call for ‘live methods’ for sociology that intervene in real time. We have to be quick-footed as researchers and this can often be more effectively done through collaboration with other academics and with other groups.
Two examples: the first comes from a collaborative piece of work conducted by Kirsteen, with Gerry Mooney and Vikky McCall. Kirsteen writes about approaching East End residents in Glasgow to talk about the possibility of applying for funding to study the impact of the Commonwealth Games:
‘I was swiftly put right when they replied ‘no offence, but we’d rather not have a research event like this after the fact telling us that we got displaced by the Games’. Bingo. They saw limitations of academic practice before I had. The speed of response required to understand social issues is not matched by that of funding processes. Yet I was able to get some funds through collaboration with a colleague Gerry Mooney at the Open University. This gave us enough money to buy diaries, and we asked residents to record their thoughts and day-to-day experiences of the Games. Another colleague on the project, Vikki McCall, lives in the East End and was on the ground keeping fieldwork going, popping round collecting diaries, texting participants. We even held our research meetings in Vikki’s living room; really DIY. And the beauty of the diaries and blog was that they captured how residents’ thoughts and feelings evolved in relation to their experiences of the Games. They made choices about what to report and how, such as including unsolicited photos and even poems. This DIY became a kind of co-production which produced a snapshot of everyday life in austerity Britain.’
This co-production was between the participants and the team of three. One practical reason for working collaboratively like this is it allows us to do the work that needs to be done, at the time when it needs to be done, without creating a huge workload for one person. It allows us to think on our feet and to respond.
The second example comes from a piece of work I have been involved in on ‘Mapping Immigration Controversy’. The initial impetus for this research was a Twitter conversation about what we as sociologists could do in the face of ‘Operation Vaken’ a Home Office initiative that involved immigration checks at public transport hubs and what became known as the #racistvan, the van mounted with the board reading ‘In the country illegally? Go home or face arrest’. In order to capture what people on the street thought about these interventions, an assortment of academics and activists got together and constructed and carried out a survey. Again, this was a fast response to an unfolding event. Following this, Hannah saw the new call for the ESRC ‘Urgent Grants’, marking a realisation by the funders that some research is time sensitive, perhaps. Some of us put together a proposal, working in partnership with community groups from the outset, and were successful.
We not only carried out that research together but have collaborated on a bunch of other things including a blog which tracked our research as we carried it out, public events, and we are currently finishing a book. We also commissioned a film to represent our findings.
The digital age makes it really easy to both collaborate and communicate results in different kinds of ways. I was recently inspired by an example of old school DIY – a pamphlet – but which is also circulating online.
This example comes from SARF‘s research and is based on a project examining stigmatisation and economic marginalisation of ‘white working class people in Salford and Manchester’. As well as a long research report, those involved wanted to produce something that could circulate in a different way and that was more immediate, taking inspiration from Emory Douglas, the artist of the Black Panthers. You can read more about how this booklet was generated through workshops here.
Present conditions conjure competition and individualisation among academics. I’m not suggesting people don’t apply for individual fellowships with embarrassing labels or sell themselves as a ‘rising star’ in a job interview situation. The problem is when we start believing those stories that we tell about ourselves. In order to produce the kind of research that is vital for the times we will need to work together and resist this.
Later on, after this talk, I learned via Twitter of #ResSisters, a collective of early career feminist researchers who are challenging individualised modes of production in the contemporary university – and crucially speaking up about the ways in which these modes are gendered. You can read and watch Victoria Cann’s Pecha Kucha on this here. The first point on their manifesta is ‘Embrace collectivity and embrace allies’.
This attitude also comes out very strongly in Les Back’s new book Academic Diary where Les discusses learning from feminism of the importance of ‘trading envy for admiration’. As my friend that works in fashion says ‘three is a trend’ so maybe we are all on to something here…
*I had written out the first part of this talk and free-styled the second half so the words might not be exactly the same as those used on the day…
I finally got round to putting up my current research project on the Goldsmiths Sociology Research pages.
Much more to come on this project but here’s the blurb…
‘‘The Choreography of Everyday Multiculture: Bowling together?’ is a multi-method ethnographic study of a bowling alley in the heart of a fast changing urban neighbourhood in London and is funded through the Economic and Social Research Council’s Future Research Leaders scheme.
This research starts with a seemingly ordinary place, a bowling alley, used by a diverse population in terms of age, class and ethnicity and standing on a busy crossroads in a fast changing neighbourhood at the intersection of three London boroughs. The research uses this example to examine the dynamics of contemporary leisure space in the context of processes of urban change in London and changing discourses of what makes ‘good’ urban space.
There are three inter-related layers to this research. First, through an in-depth examination of who uses the space and how, the research seeks to find out what kinds of interactions, tensions, belongings and negotiations the space engenders. Second, the research will uncover how the changing uses of this site reflect the social historical processes (including economic processes and migration histories) that have shaped the area. Lastly, the neighbourhood is set to undergo major redevelopment and so the bowling alley provides a prime location for investigating these processes of change and debates about what constitutes valuable urban space, what stays and what goes. The project thus examines how processes of neighbourhood change, including gentrification and town centre remodelling, intersect with arguments about multiculture and the city and practices of belonging.’
An email came around the Centre for Urban and Community Research mailing list yesterday advertising an event on the future of cities, or somesuch. I noticed there were more men called David on the panel than women (there was one woman on the panel of four and two Daves) but after noting this, I soon forgot about it. One woman on the panel = not a disaster. Then today my friend Ealasaid Munro posted a link on Facebook to a conference ‘Cities in Transformation’, where the list of 30 speakers were all male. I did not put all the names through Google but commentators on the Critical Geography mailing list pointed out it was also a very pale selection, i.e. entirely or almost entirely white.
I am used to going to urban events where the keynote slots are dominated by white men, but this myopia and total absence of women was particularly depressing, astounding even.
It is not difficult to find women working in the field of urbanism at all levels, although I am sure we are still under-represented. I tweeted a (not exhaustive) list of women based in the UK working on cities.
Urban studies in the UK definitely has a race problem. Aside from the overall pernicious and pervasive whiteness of the academy in general, my hunch is that the way discussions about ‘the urban’ are defined by those at the top, often white men, shape the conversation in narrow ways. I’d be interested to hear others thoughts on this. This means that discussions of the way that race and racism, sex and sexism, are reproduced in cities often get excluded and not discussed alongside the more convivial aspects of city dwelling or of other kinds of urban processes, such as gentrification. The importance of looking at those things in tandem was one of the motivations Anamik Saha and I had for organising our conference New Urban Multicultures: Conviviality and Racism.
Anyway, back to the man conference. After some Twitter reactions (including a few of my favourites)
and a lot of traffic on the Crit-Geog list, there was an apologetic response from the organisers to Ealasaid and others who raised this on the Crit-Geog list
‘You are absolutely right! Thank you for reminding us. Having nearly 30 only male speakers looks really bad. All we can say is that it of course has not happened intentionally (which is no excuse, and does not make it less bad…), and this is not yet the final list of speakers. We have of course also invited some female speakers (but they have yet to confirm), and we will now put in additional effort to get some gender representation.
We are still accepting abstracts, so submissions and additional suggestions for speakers are more than welcome.’
So on the one hand, good. Rather than meeting the criticism with defensiveness the organisers took this on board. But on the other… a. how could they send out that list without seeing the gender imbalance and pervading whiteness as a problem and b. as pointed out by Desiree Fields…
I suppose first you have to see the gender imbalance and then see it as a problem. And secondly, I agree with Desiree this isn’t about looking bad but a huge problem with the way that the conference has been put together.
I am writing about this because this conference season it seems that many are still sat fuming through #allmalepanels, or not noticing (see for example this article about the International Studies Association).*
This is also a moment for reflection as Kirsteen Paton and I are taking over as convenors of the British Sociological Association Cities Group. This strikes me as an opportunity to think about these issues within urban studies and to do better.
*In the first version of this I wrongly identified the conference as the ASA, rather than the ISA. Thanks to Gurminder Bhambra for pointing this out and apologies to the ASA!
When we were carrying out the ‘Mapping Immigration Controversy Project‘ there were quite a few press requests. Most of these were handled ably by Hannah Jones (see for example, Hannah on Sky News), our project leader. I was approached for an appearance too – ‘but are you media trained?’ asked the Goldsmiths press person. I had a flashback to my days in a band where we did countless radio and tv shows, but rather than asking ‘does being on Zig and Zag count?’ I replied ‘no’. This particular request was about a subject too far beyond our project and my area of work for me to feel comfortable, but working on this project constantly brought up questions for the team of when to say yes or no to being ‘an expert’. This was an issue that came up at the BSA post-graduate forum conference last week. When should you claim expertise, and say yes? If sociologists don’t step up, will we just end up with more horrors like David Starkey commenting on the London riots? Perhaps we need to be less reticent? Laurie Taylor, who gave the keynote at the event had a simple answer to this, ‘don’t be shy, get on the radio. Plenty of ill-informed people do. If you fuck it up, that’s ok. Get it right next time.’
(Laurie Taylor speaking at the BSA Post-graduate Conference)
There’s a difference in appearing on TV or radio as an expert to talk about a news item and going on to talk about your own work. The latter is less daunting, I’d rather mess up talking about my own work than mess up discussing immigration on the Today programme. As the host of Thinking Allowed, Laurie had some advice for those appearing on the show ‘don’t lecture. Academics are used to lecturing, but the art of radio is chat’. I also asked Laurie about how he pitches the discussion in terms of explaining to the listener. He said that the audience hate discussion of theoretical concepts ‘hegemony, liquid modernity…’but at the same time you can’t patronise the audience. ‘If you are talking about Freud say ‘Freud’ and not ‘Freud, the Viennese psychoanalyst’.
This week I had the massive luxury of hearing others chat about my work on the radio. I was honoured to be shortlisted for the BSA Thinking Allowed award for ethnography and there was a special addition of the programme this week featuring a discussion of the shortlisted books, including my own. I found it quite moving to hear the words of a research participant being read by an actor on the radio. It made me think about another issue that came up at the at the BSA post-graduate day conference. During a roundtable discussion on careers there was a question about how much the contents of PhD thesis itself mattered, in terms of getting a job. The question wasn’t answered very fully – as time was running out- but the one brief answer was that the PhD was just a necessary hurdle to be jumped before getting onto the other stuff (the papers, the job, the books). But hearing those words, that were part of my PhD thesis as well as the book, read out on the radio was a reminder of how the PhD lives on in all kinds of forms, how the thesis is such an important foundation for those other things and also the deep emotional connection I have to that particular piece of work.
I got the chance to discuss the book myself on Dave O’Brien’s podcast New Books in Critical Theory. This is a really excellent series and a great way of hearing about books you might not have time to read. A kind of extended and intense Thinking Allowed. The podcast is such a great medium for storytelling (at the moment I’m addicted to Strangers) I’m sure sociologists could make more use of this mode.
I was also called in to Radio 4 last week to appear on a tribute to Doreen Massey on The Last Word alongside Dave Featherstone and Hilary Wainwright. This invitation was on the basis of a blog about her influence on my thinking on the CUCR blog. Funny how these little pieces can travel.
(BBC Broadcasting House)