Poverty and Social Exclusion on TV

The first results from the Poverty and Social Exclusion UK 2012 study will be broadcast on ITV at 7.30pm on Thursday, 28 March in a special ‘Tonight’ programme on ‘Breadline Britain’. More details at the project website here – the first report from the project will be published tomorrow on the website too (any DD206 students out there might want to have a look, this is the survey used as the basis of the exercise students have participated in as part of The Uses of Social Science).


We’re Number One?

Scan 130690012-8Simon Batterbury has added a comment on the short post about the ESRC’s International Benchmarking Review of Human Geography, which found that human geography in the UK ‘ranks first in the world’. I don’t get a lot of comments on this blog (I can’t imagine why, I find myself to be a very engaging blogger), so this is an opportunity that does not come along too often to keep a conversation going. Or to just have the final word, depending on how things develop. Here are some thoughts of mine on Simon’s thoughts – I have no specific desire to defend the claim of the Review, but it is interesting to think about how one might proceed to think ‘critically’, as they say, about this sort of exercise:

–       The first thing to say is that this isn’t actually UK geography’s own judgement of itself – it was the judgment of an international panel of scholars (some of whom seem to have quite well developed skills in analysing colonial remainders in contemporary life), undertaken at the behest of the ESRC.

–       Simon repeats the canard about British geography being all a bit too theoretical. That’s right, British geography departments are chock full of people writing complex exegeses of Marx and Spinoza. I suspect that if you looked closely, you’d find that even the most obvious targets of this sort of complaint turn out to be rather more practically oriented than is acknowledged (by adherents as well as doubters): take non-representational theory and/or affect theory, for example, the most self-consciously ‘theoretical’ field which almost everybody (including me) loves to get wound up by, but which seems to be able to inform plenty of interesting research on ‘applied’ topics such as health and well-being, educational attainment, or the design of built environments; even when it isn’t being all ‘relevant’ like that, this is a field that shares a broader disciplinary hang-up on methodology – if you want to know how to do something empirical with affect theory, then you read geographers writing about this range of work, not sociologists or literary theorists.

–       Simon’s suggestion that the ‘public sociology’ agenda needs to be extended to geography seems to get things the wrong way around – it is difficult to imagine another discipline that is not more invested in various fields of application than geography, including, as I have just suggested all that woolly ‘cultural geography’. Debates about public sociology seem to be a case of that particular discipline trying to catch up with other disciplines that have, as it were, always already sold-out.

–       I’m not entirely sure that environmental studies, development studies, political ecology, or planning are ‘fringe’ fields in human geography, in the UK or anywhere else – they seem to make up a large chunk of what has been taught and researched in any department I have ever been in as a student or lecturer.

–       I’m not sure why one would think of a department like Reading (where I worked in the 1990s) or the LSE as being anomalies for being a bit ‘applied’ – again, this is a fairly standard feature of geography departments all over the UK.

–       My last thought goes back to the precise ‘authorship’, shall we say, of this particular report – it’s one of a set of reviews of social science disciplines undertaken by the ESRC, the primary public funder of social science in the UK. These reviews need to be read, one might have thought, as strategic initiatives – they tend to identify weak areas in each discipline, marked for further support or enhanced training (not enough macroeconomics in economics, hilariously!); not enough quant in sociology, that sort of thing. They are moments in ongoing games over the disbursement of public monies, in which the institutional interests at stake are not exhausted by Universities or academic disciplines. They also tend to emphasise various strengths, and they are ‘co-productions’, between the ESRC and other research councils with disciplinary bodies, like the BSA or RGS – pumping-up strong areas is a way of making moves in competitive games for further government funding, amongst other things. Such evaluations also, no doubt, enable defenders of often fragile departments to make stronger cases for further support and investment in their programmes in their own institutions – that might well be where the real significance of ‘Human Geography is Number 1’ lies, whether or not that was intended. I suppose my point is just that ‘critical’ analysis of these sorts of exercises might well benefit from a bit more social science imagination, recognising how organised fields of institutional practice tend to work.

–       No other discipline subjected to one of these reviews has been found to be ‘No.1’ in the way human geography was. One can imagine how that might invite a view that this judgement is a kind of back-handed compliment that implicates a whole international field. On the other hand, it is interesting to pause and consider how valuable it might be that human geography isn’t self-evidently dominated by the scholarly infrastructures of the USA – not least, because it might tell us something about the peculiar strengths of human geography in North America and elsewhere too.

–       There is of course a well-established tradition of ex-patriot British geographers now located in the US bemoaning how British geography is not all it should or could be (I’m not counting Simon here, since I think one is allowed to rant in blog posts, and he’s not in the US I don’t think). I have in mind pieces more or less regularly published in proper grown-up academic journals. It is impossible to imagine a similar discourse emanating, say, from American sociology or American political science. There are complex reasons for this, no doubt, including biographical trajectories, but also to do with just how mainstream ‘critical’ approaches are to international human geography agendas. Or, to put it another way, UK human geography’s elevated international status is not straightforwardly a function of the qualities of UK human geography on its own, and I mean that in the best possible way.

Deflating political ontology

Scan 130260001Looking for something else, I came across a piece by Martin Saar on the theme of
What is Political Ontology? It’s in the Dutch journal Krisis, and it is a review of the expanded, German-language edition of Oliver Marchart’s book on post-foundational political thought (it appears to have added a discussion of Agamben, amongst other things).

Saar raises three related questions at the end of his review. First, he notes that there might be more than one understanding of ‘ontology’ flying around discussions of political ontology and ontological politics – in addition to the by now rather standard Heideggerian-inflected one that Marchart elaborates, he notes a Deleuzian-materialist-pluralist style, and also a ‘social ontology’ version related to Hegelian-inflected styles (like Honneth I guess). He does not mention, but one might throw into the mix, the sense of ‘ontological politics’ that circulates around STS/ANT-inflected worlds, from Latour, John Law, Anne-Marie Mol and the like. This seems to be a quite distinctive (and preferable) notion of onto-talk, one which is more concerned with tracing the deep commitments that shape practices (as a result, it also seems to find it difficult not to find itself constrained to invent new and more complex ways of saying ‘constructed’), rather than making very grand philosophical claims about the foundationally post-foundational contingency of necessary contingency.

Saar’s second point is one about the practice of philosophy that political ontology represents – this is the theme that animates me, the sense that work of this sort is characterised by certain sorts of rhetorical and argumentative devices and conventions that might, if you look at them carefully, be somewhat at odds with proclamations about a democratic/emancipatory ethos and such things. And it relates to the third point that Saar raises, about the degree to which elaborate political ontologies premised on variants of the politics/political distinction struggle not to reduce ‘real’ politics to so many stylized facts which confirm one or other of the a priori propositions laid out by the theory – they are always cashed-out as ‘applied political ontology’ as Saar puts it.  Again, a key difference from the ANT-STS style of ‘onto-pol’ talk, which informs rather more robust, that is, tentative, empirical work than does standard philosophized political ontology, whose great contribution to methodology has been to develop a weird style of semiotized ‘Discourse Theory’ which reduces all politics to a practice of naming (I find the claim made by adherents to the ontological-difference-equals-political-difference style of political theory which Saar is discussing in this piece, to the effect that this work is distinctive because unlike other political theories it puts conflict, contestation and antagonism at the centre of things, rather unconvincing on the face of it – this is an emphasis in all sorts of work, from Michael Walzer to Bernard Crick. What might be distinctive is the insistence on deriving these facets of political life from more or less elaborate philosophical claims about contingency, or lack, or abundance; and it is this move that seems to shape the methodological pay-offs of such work, which point in the direction of looking at what, in another theoretical idiom, one might call processes of framing as the privileged focus of analysis).

Cutting neoliberalism down to size


There has been a flurry of reviews of new books on the history of neoliberalism recently – including books by geographers Jamie Peck and Jason Hackworth, as well as Daniel Stedman Jones’ Masters of the Universe. One the peculiarities of much of the debate about neoliberalism that this publishing burst reminds me of is the persistent tendency to focus on neoliberal ideas, and then to conjure up more or less elaborate accounts of how ideas have ended up shaping the world. Concepts of hegemony, discourse, the ideational, materialisation, governmentality, and the like have to do an awful lot of heavy-lifting in these stories. Excavating the histories of neoliberalism and neoliberalisation continues, it seems, to be an occasion for the circulation of some very weak social theory (for example, governmentality has come to be used as a name for a very specific form of power, more or less synonymous with neoliberalism; this may or may not be how it emerges from Foucault’s writings, but seems much less interesting than using this notion as a kind of analytical frame for asking questions about how power is exercised, rather than presuming in advance that it will conform to one of three or four archetypes identified in scattered pieces by Foucault).

Meanwhile, via Foucault News, here is a discussion by Terry Flew of the range of meanings of ‘neoliberalism’ – he identifies 6 different senses in which the term is used in contemporary critical theory. And he also discusses the degree to which invocations of ‘Foucault’, in the wake of the translation of his late 1970s lectures on biopolitics and neoliberalism, really support any of the rather expansive meanings that circulate. Colin Gordon raises a similar warning in his response to the interesting discussion between Gary Becker and Francois Ewald: “It is of course always helpful to be clear what one means by a term such as neoliberalism, if indeed it is not being used simply as a floating signifier of evil, a new signifier of the inveterately evil nature of capitalism, catering to the moral comfort of those no longer sure of their faith in the historico-economic victory of capitalism’s foe. For many Left commentators, neoliberalism seems nowadays to primarily denote the combined phenomena of deregulation, privatisation and globalisation – often perceived as developments dating essentially from the 1980s. None of these themes happen to be central to Foucault’s discussion: even Foucault was not prescient enough to cater for all our later concerns, or to leave us a full genealogy of the decades since his death”. The emphasis of both Flew and Gordon, like that of Stephen Collier, is on using the term neoliberal in a much more specified way, understood as a much narrower phenomenon, and a much less determinant one in turn.

Anyway, the Gordon and Flew pieces have got me thinking that one day it would be fun to undertake a genealogy not of neoliberalism, but of ‘neoliberalism’: a genealogy of the ways in which left-thinking in various contexts and across various traditions has been shaped by this notion, and of the methodological, conceptual, and strategic closures that have been determined by the taken-for-granted force of this preconstructed entity.

On the shelf

DSCF4340I was given a copy of My Ideal Bookshelf a week or so ago – a book of short essays by more or less famous people, explaining their choice of favourite books – it’s a whole arty project actually, there is a website, where you can order your own picture of your own ideal bookshelf. My favourite line from the book, so far, is from Thurston Moore: “Most of the books that I have in my library are unread. A lot of them are almost like pieces of art, sort of tactile – I pick them up, touch them and look at them, and get vibrations from them. The fact that I can eventually read them and glean their content is an added bonus”.


Understanding poverty

I picked this up via Matt Sparke on Facebook – one of a series of animated podcasts in which Ananya Roy addresses how to understand issues of poverty. On the same issue, here is an interview with my colleague Helen Yanacopulos in which she talks about her work on the BBC’s recent series Why Poverty?