What do economists know?

A couple of years ago, John Cassidy of The New Yorker interviewed leading economists from the Chicago School and related institutions, in the wake of the financial meltdown. It’s an interesting set of conversations with a group who collectively didn’t quite see it coming, and can’t quite manage to adjust to the fact that it did. By way of a contrast, I just came across this piece, originally from 2009, by James Galbraith, naming names of those economists who, as he puts it, ‘got it right’. This includes Marxists like Harvey, Brenner, and Meiksins Wood (‘habitual cassandras’), as well as more mainstream economists such as Wynne Godley and Dean Baker. The older I get, the more I think the only useful qualification I have is A-level Economics (as taught by a Guardian reading, William Keegan recommending teacher). Speaking of which, here is Galbraith being rude about Milton Friedman and the legacy of monetarism.

Talking about practices

There is an interesting paper now online in Area by Russell Hitchings titled ‘People can talk about their practices’. Now, you might think that the immediate response to that assertion is ‘Of course they can’. After all, if they couldn’t, we certainly wouldn’t be able to. But Hitchings’ paper is intervening against what has become an orthodoxy of sorts, at least within the weird world of social and cultural geography, to the effect that interview methodologies, and talk-based methods more generally, are irredeemably ‘representational’ and therefore unable to ‘capture’ all that is most fecund about everyday, routine, habitual practices. Here is the abstract of the paper:

“This paper considers the value of using interviews to research routine practices. Interviewing could easily be framed as inappropriate for this task, either because such practices are too difficult for respondents to talk about as a result of having sedimented down into unthinking forms of embodied disposition or because this method is out of step with a current enthusiasm for research styles that do not focus unduly on the representational. The discussion starts with how some key proponents of social practice theory have characterised the possibility of talking with people about these matters before turning to my own experience with two interview projects that attempted to do so inside city offices and older person households. I conclude that people can often talk in quite revealing ways about actions they may usually take as a matter of course and offer suggestions about how to encourage them.”

Whatever happened to make an entire sub-discipline of human geography, supposedly one of the most important ones too, follow a theoretical and methodological path that leads to a point where an argument like that of Hitchings in this paper has to be articulated at all, and somewhat tentatively at that? I have to say that I have shared the same ‘unease’ that Hitchings mentions in his piece about having invested time in interview-style research – but then I remembered the problem isn’t really mine. We wrote about some of these same issues in our book on ethical consumption, in the chapter grandly called ‘Grammars of Responsibility’, which seeks to make sense of how interactive talk-data (i.e. focus groups) can help to throw light on everyday practices. I think the ‘non-representational’ prejudice that provoked this chapter, and seems to have provoked Hitchings’ piece too, revolves around three related intellectual moves:

1). One of the oddest, yet most resilient, themes of recent discussions about theory and methodology in human geography is the idea that ‘discourse’ and ‘textuality’ and ‘language’ have been thought of as ‘representational’ mediums until, roughly speaking, about 1996, when geographers discovered the joys of ‘non-representational’ styles of thought (i.e. finally got round to reading Deleuze). Needless to say, this is deeply silly. Doing things with words, indeed.

2). One of the recurring motifs of discussions about exciting and creative methodologies in this strand of human geography for more than a decade now has been the idea that some approaches can’t quite ‘capture’ aspects of practice, process, emergence, becoming – life itself. And some other approaches – non-textual, non-discursive ones, often ‘visual’ methodological approaches, by extension are presented as a little better, if not a lot better, at ‘capturing’ things that are in motion, emergent, inventive. Needless to say, no methodology is meant to aspire to capture anything, one way or the other. Social science is not best pursued on the assumption that what most matters is elusive or evasive.

And the idea that visual methods somehow avoid the ‘representational’ – let’s call it the ‘interpretative’ for clarity’s sake – is based on a massively embarrassing philosophical error (and that’s leaving aside obvious points about technical mediation and framing): just looking at an event, an action, a scene, is not enough to tell you what that event, action, or scene actually is (i.e. what practice it belongs to). Knowing what some embodied sequence of movement is depends on ‘getting’ something about it, something about context, about intention, about meaning.

To presume otherwise – to presume that knowing the full significance of an observed action or interaction or sequence of events can somehow do without or marginalize the shared understandings expressed in the things that participants might have to say about them – is, again rather oddly, not only to negate the interpretative competency of ‘people’ who are the subjects of social science research, but is to reproduce a very old-fashioned preference amongst social scientists for third-person, externalist, causal accounts of action over and above those provided by first-person perspectives of participants.

3. There is a kind of ‘political’ failure involved in the denigration of language/discourse/textuality in the name of the non-representational. Geographers of a culturalist inclination have spent a decade or more worrying about the ‘symmetry’ between humans and non-humans. In the process, they have managed to forget about the more fundamental ‘symmetry’ that underwrites any such ontological levelling – the symmetry between academic/expert discourse and lay discourse. This is the symmetry at play in Luc Boltanski’s attempt to reconstruct the grounds of critique in social theory; in other terms, it’s also at stake in Andrew Sayer’s otherwise rather austere account of ‘why things matter to people’. John Levi Martin, in what is without doubt the funniest book of grand social theory I have ever read, The Explanation of Social Action, says the following about the suspicion of first-person perspectives in social theory: “Social science rejects the possibility of building on first-person explanations because, to be blunt, it distrusts persons and their cognitions”. Quite. Just because this attitude can come wrapped in protestations of it’s own political significance, sprinkled with avant-garde post-Marxist populism or anti/post-humanist self-righteousness, doesn’t mean that the basic point doesn’t still hold: the disdain shown towards the viewpoints, opinions, perspectives – the words – of ordinary informants in cutting-edge cultural theory these days carries its own political imprint, one which denies the shared, levelled conditions of the very possibility of social science description in its assertion of the self-centred authority of the academic voyeur, freed by theoretical fiat from accountability to the utterances, the contra-dictions, of their research subjects.

Local Politics V: ‘Boffins get grant to investigate sex entertainment’

That’s the front page story in today’s Adver, Swindon’s local paper. It’s a wonderful example of badly written local journalism, trying to suggest an element of controversy where there isn’t any. The story refers to an award by the made by ‘the Swindon-based’ ESRC to Phil Hubbard and Rachela Colosi, to study the impact of ‘sex entertainment’ (i.e. lap dancing clubs) on local communities. The hook for the story is a claim that this is a waste of money (although the project seems to have quite ‘respectable’ objectives, of course). 

In principle, of course, every single research award made by RCUK could count as a local story, in so far as they are all made by ‘Swindon-based’ organisations. Every so often, one of these sorts of stories does crop up in the Adver. Not the sort of ‘impact’ one suspects the ESRC is primarly seeking to generate. Swindon actually has a long history of trying and failing to establish a University presence of some sort, which is still seen as a key element in future local economic development strategy. There are not enough ‘boffins’ actually living here, it seems.

And what else makes this a ‘local’ story? Might have something to do with the fact that Swindon seems to have a thriving ‘Gentlemen’s Club’ sector all of its own. At least two, in fact, one of which has opened since we have been here, bucking the downward economic trend in the midst of recession. And in fact, I think the imaginary geography of nighttime Swindon  would stand as a good case study for the project reported in today’s paper – there is a clear divide between the town centre and ‘Old Town’ as nightlife destinations, based on age certainly, class too – the latter area has seen three or four Bars and Gastro Pubs open in the last two years as it consolidates it’s reputation as the ‘safe’ and ‘nice’ part of town to go out in. 

So I’m told. I haven’t had a night out in ages.

Non-Stop Against Apartheid blog

Just came across an interesting research-led blog, based at Geography at Leicester and led by Gavin Brown, on the Non-Stop Picket of the South African embassy in London in the late 1980s, the project explores the spaces, sites and temporalities of transnational social movement activism. Very timely, in an historical sort of way.

Compacted doctrines

One reason to have a blog, of course, silly to pretend otherwise, is shameless self-promotion. Or, to put it another, slightly more edifying way, to try to ensure that the things one has to say are made accessible and available in new ways. Like other Universities, the OU has an online repository for research publications – it’s great, it’s called ORO, Open Research Online. But they can be a bit sniffy about including publications that do not meet strict criteria of what counts as research. I have spent a lot of time over the last few years writing Dictionary and Encyclopedia entries, and these don’t get on ORO. 

It’s an interesting experience, being forced to write short, concise, didactic summaries on  topics like deconstruction, or fair trade, or foundationalism. I have mentioned before that I wrote a bunch of entries for the latest edition of The Dictionary of Human Geography. One reason this was an interesting experience is because it brings home how things you write are likely to be read in fundamentally different ways from how you might have intended. This is, of course, true of any writing, but the thing about the pieces I did for the Dictionary, I now realise, is that I wrote them as a group, just because I was working on them all at the same time, even though they were on seemingly disparate topics. But I wasn’t necessarily writing the entries for ‘adjacent’ topics. So in my head, at least, there is a riff running across these pieces that reflects something I was thinking about back then (I wrote my entries at the end of 2005, but they weren’t published ’til 2009). Of course, this is emphatically not how these entries will be read, because of the nature of the book they are published in – nobody reads one of these multi-author Dictionaries by tracking the contributions of particular authors (do they?). My entries contain strong links to related entries which I didn’t write, of course, and which might well not align exactly with the ‘line’ I thought I was trying to express on a particular issue. 

This is all a long-winded way of saying that here they are, all in a line, for anyone inclined to read them like that – these are the pre-published versions I initially submitted. There is a little entry on the Cultural Turn, then longer ones on Essentialism, Foundationalism and Deconstruction which sort of play off each other I think – the first two of these were really difficult to write, not so much because they are difficult topics, more because I realised how poorly defined they generally are in geography, serving really as terms of abuse. And these two are my favourites. Another cluster links Culture, Ideology, Media, and Rhetoric (I would really have quite liked to have been offered the Discourse and Representation entries too, just to nail home the point). Democracy and Theory are a bit more free-standing, I suppose, but still kind of overlapping with these.

I’m going to post these as downloads on the ‘Things to Read’ page too, and will add some other ‘occasional’ pieces as and when I have the time.

Local Politics IV: wind, water and writing

For anyone out there interested in political politics, it turns out that Honda’s application to build 3 wind turbines on its site in Swindon, to meet environmental standards for reducing its carbon footprint, was rejected by the planning committee last week, after objections by local residents. 

Meanwhile, another long running local campaign, this one to stop housing development on and around Coate, on the outskirts of town, garnered some national attention at the weekend. The Guardian’s Review section on Saturday had a little story about the campaign to ‘save Coate‘. The venue for the story, in ‘The Week in Books’ section, was notable – the campaign is spearheaded by the Jefferies Land Conservation Trust, and the campaign revolves around the link between this large area of green space and the Victorian writer Richard Jefferies – “who was arguably the founding father of environmentalism in Britain”, and maybe even the US (who knew!). Jeffries was born at Coate, so Swindon now gets to claim him. Coate Water is a popular local amenity, centred on a huge nineteenth century reservoir which was the headwater for the Wilts and Berkshire canal – so there is an interesting loop between this modern campaign to save local green space and Swindon’s pre-railway position within an industrialising economy (Swindon is actually great for amateurish historical geography). And because lots of Swindonians visit Coate Water for some reason or other (for the pitch and putt, paddling, or picniking), the campaign has a certain ‘reach’ across the whole town. If you ever find yourself whizzing along the M4 towards Junction 15, or along the A419 to or from Cirencester or Marlborough, you will be passing by – and you should stop off, the best thing is the miniature railway.

Local Politics III: public life in the digital city

Once upon a time, long long ago, I was tangentially involved, mainly as a researcher of sorts, with something grandly called the Oxford Motor Industry Research Group, which was actually a group of academics with links with shop stewards galvanised in the summer of 1989 by plans to close the car works in Cowley. The group was led by the activist-scholar Teresa Hayter (author of, amongst other things, Hayter of the Bourgeoisie). I seem to remember that part of the politicking around the future of Cowley, which dragged on well into the 1990s, involved plans to transfer all car production to Swindon. The Oxford plant wasn’t closed completely in the end. I, on the other hand, have indeed ended up in Swindon.

Twenty years on, there is a big mini hanging on a wall outside the BMW plant, locally referred to as Pressed Steel (good name for a band). Swindon used to build trains, now it builds cars. Even the major architectural landmarks in the town are car-related: the Magic Roundabout; Norman Foster’s Renault Building (now home to a fantastic soft-play centre for kids); the defunct speed cameras; the switched-off street lights.

What with the speed cameras covered, and the street lights turned off, it’s boy-racer heaven here. Turning things off and failing to gets things to work has become a bit of a signature of recent local council initiatives. In November 2009, shortly after we moved here, it was announced with great fanfare (locally, that is, though it made national news too) that Swindon was to become the first place in the UK to offer free wireless internet to all households. A scheme funded largely by the borough council was to be rolled out across the whole town, apparently, by April 2010. This was hailed by the controlling Tory group on the Council as an innovative public-private commercial venture. “Trailblazing Swindon Council is working with the private sector to make Swindon the first town in the UK to provide free internet access for all its residents”, they said.

Needless to say, things haven’t turned out quite as planned. The deal struck between the Council and Digital City Ltd, the company set-up to develop the free wi-fi scheme, has been mired in controversy from the start. The £1.5million project was leveraged by a loan from the Council to the tune of £450,000, but the loan deal was characterised by a lack of transparency and accountability, related to the specific type of cabinet system adopted in Swindon, which meant the deal was basically signed-off by a couple of senior Tory council leaders.

After countless delays, earlier this year Digital City was dissolved and the leading business figure behind the scheme declared bankrupt, amidst calls for the resignations of the leading Tory councillors who had signed-off on the deal. Meanwhile, everyone is wondering what happened to the money, and whether the loan will be repaid.

This has been the hottest political story in town for almost two years now, and it revolves around questions of proper procedure. The general complaint around the scheme has revolved around the level of scrutiny involved in loaning public money to the Digital City venture. The story has attracted regular attention in the local paper, but has in particular been kept alive by Swindon’s vibrant little blogosphere (you can track the story over two years here and here for example). And it even became a regular-ish feature in Private Eye, here and here, as a model of dodgy local government dealings.

The MP for South Swindon until 2010, Anne Snelgrove, raised the issue in Parliament shortly before the last election, when she lost her seat. She publicly acknowledged the role of local bloggers and websites in subjecting the Wi-Fi deal to scrutiny and making it into an issue (the Tories, meanwhile, complain that the deliberate ‘politicizing’ of the scheme is part of the reason it has struggled to get off the ground, or, should that be into the air?).

The latest twist in the story is the recent announcement that a new investor has been found for the scheme, although just who this is remains a big secret for now. But the Council assures everyone that the money invested in the Digital City venture will be recouped under the new agreement: “The council will also receive a share of the profits from the multinational company which is stepping in to run the new wireless internet system, although for “commercial reasons” its identity is still a secret.”

This is now dubbed Wi-Fi 2 locally. At the moment, ‘free Wi-Fi’ has still yet to be materialised in Swindon.

I like this little local story because of the neat relation it exposes between the promise of everyday hi-tech communication and the dull ‘materialities’ of lampposts (suddenly peculiarly central to political issues in the town), council procedures, and local journalism. But also because it illustrates how ‘new media’ can bring a new dimension, a certain sort of dispersed keenness of scrutiny, to very local issues – Swindon’s public realm these days includes bloggers poring over Council minutes and/or taking the mickey out of local politicians’ promises and excuses.

Welcome to the occupation

The protests associated with Occupy Wall Street are already generating some interesting more-or-less theoretical reflection and analysis – from Judith Butler, McKenzie Wark, and Naomi Klein for example. Oh, and also lots of first hand accounts of course, including one from the lovely Mark Ruffalo.