Marketing practices and public action

segmentNick Mahony and I have a new paper published in Policy and Politics, on their ‘fast track’ page, entitled Marketing practices and the reconfiguration of public action. The paper draws on a project for the NCCPE and ESRC that Nick and I worked on a while back when were both at the OU, on the use of segmentation methods in the public sector, charities, and campaign sectors. This paper seeks to open up some interpretative space for exploring what is going on when marketing practices get used in non-commercial sectors, without presuming in advance that what is going on is something to be called ‘neoliberalism’. It is a light-touch elaboration of some ideas about problematization developed in different ways in my piece on that topic at nonsite.org as well as a forthcoming Article Forum on ‘security’ in Dialogues in Human Geography.

Here is the abstract of the Policy and Politics piece:

“Market segmentation methodologies are increasingly used in public policy, arts and culture management and third sector campaigning. Rather than presume that this is an index of creeping neoliberalisation, we track the shared and contested understandings of the public benefits of using segmentation methods. Segmentation methods are used to generate stable images of individual and group attitudes and motivations, and these images are used to inform strategies that seek to either change these dispositions or to mobilise them in new directions. Different segments of the population are identified as bearing particular responsibilities for public action on different issues.”

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Doing Theory Slowly: more on media, practices and urban politics

9484-aldabra-giant-tortoise-1920x1200-animal-wallpaperFollowing up on the link to the Society and Space page with the podcast of a discussion between myself, Scott Rodgers, Allan Cochrane and Tim Markham, I thought it would be useful to recall the ‘arc’ of the conversations that Scott, Allan and I have been having since 2007. The podcast mentions the idea of ‘slow theory’ (an idea we might have stolen from a former OU colleague, Mike Saward), which is one way of capturing the process of collaborative thinking that we have been involved in that time.

– This all started when Scott was an ESRC-funded post-doc at the OU, from 2007-8, and then in turn working at CCIG at the OU.

-As part of the initial project, we held a workshop on the theme of Mediapolis, in June 2008.

– That generated the first published output of the collaboration, an edited section of the International Journal of Urban and Regional Research in 2009, containing papers on the connections between urban thinking and media thinking by Gary Bridge, Kurt Ivesen, Kevin Ward, and ourselves (here and here).

– Then, in 2009, we organised a set of sessions at the Annual Meeting of the Association of American Geographers, on the theme of ‘Where is urban politics?’.

– This was the basis of the Symposium of the same title in IJURR, published at the end of last year.

– The Society and Space paper on Mediated practices and urban politics is something we have been working on across these other activities, and has gone through various iterations. This paper is our attempt, I guess, to draw together the animating concerns that the three of us have bought to the collaboration.

– The podcast is a record of us talking through some of the background hang-ups that shape the paper.

Overall, I think that’s a decent return on the initial ‘investment’ – not so much in terms of quantity of outputs, but certainly, for me, in terms of the quality of the ongoing discussions we have engaged in while organising, convening, editing and writing together.

 

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.

ESRC International Benchmarking Review of Human Geography

IMG_0487Over the last few years, the ESRC has undertaken a series of benchmarking reviews of the international research standing of different social science disciplines in the UK. They have just published the International Benchmarking Review for Human Geography. Here is the take-home paragraph:

“Our unanimous conclusion from the evidence presented to us is that human geography in the UK is innovative, vibrant, and in most sub-fields is the world leader. Its students and staff are gifted and committed, its research outputs are disproportionately influential, read and referenced throughout the English-reading world – and, in translation, beyond. It is radically interdisciplinary and with the spatial turn in the humanities and social sciences has become an exporter of ideas and faculty to other disciplines. In the 1960s and 1970s the overseas export of geographers was substantial, and though slower today and more likely to be two-way, this trade in academic knowledge continues. UK geographers have an art not only for innovation but also for synthesis and a large number of the seminal publications (books as well as articles) continue to have a UK origin. So too among the major disciplinary journals – the UK publishes more than its share. Bibliometric indicators reveal that both in volume and in citation impact UK human geography exceeds the scores of other countries and almost all UK comparator social sciences. Cumulatively, this evidence supports the conclusion that human geography as a whole in the UK ranks first in the world.”

Say it loud, say it proud.

What is social science? The official answer

The ESRC has posted two new videos answering this question (it’s more than sociology, which is good news for some of us). Beyond the general line about usefulness and relevance, and ‘making things better’, there is an interesting sub-text about social science as central to the whole scientific endeavour. Interestingly assertive. 

They also have a new Facebook page, which seems to be pushing things a little (they’re already on Twitter).

Nobody I know thinks of the ESRC as a ‘friend’.

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.

Local Politics I: Take This Town

Two years into the Swindon stage of my life-long ethnography of the M4 corridor (eight years in Reading, eight in Bristol; where next?), and I’m growing fonder of the place. There is in fact, as my OU colleague Allan Cochrane reminded me before we moved here, a venerable tradition of urban studies research on Swindon – by Michael Harloe in the 1970s (a ‘town in transition’ then, an aspiring transition town now); subject of one of the ESRC Locality projects in the 1980s (Swindon really did have a proper ‘growth coalition’, once upon a time, apparently; and also an active Communist Party); and further work by Martin Boddy and others, who went so far as to suggest that Swindon might be the ‘city for the twenty-first century’. Not quite a ‘school’ like LA or Chicago’, not even the sustained history of case work that exists on places like Vancouver, or Columbus Ohio, or even Durban; in fact, Swindon is not even an ‘ordinary city’. It’s not a city. It’s a town. Very much so, a town.

It’s not a ‘post-political’ town, mind.

There is lots of politics here. And it’s not hidden, it’s quite open, and very much part of a vibrant little local public sphere.

One story rumbling through the local press (OK, the one local paper, the Swindon Advertiser, or ‘the Adver’) is about the plan for the Honda plant on the outskirts of town, one of the main employers and key to the economic success of the town over the last two decades, to build wind turbines on its site. This has aroused opposition from residents living close by to the plant. But the plan is supported both by the controlling Tory group on the Borough Council, and also by the opposition Labour group, on the grounds that it’s important to keep the Honda plant competitive (the Swindon plant lags behind other Honda plants on renewable energy targets, apparently).

None of this is necessarily is out of the ordinary (it fits with the image of local policy and political elites that emerges from those academic analyses of Swindon’s post-war development), it’s the sort of issue one can find all over the place (and it’s likely to become more common if and when proposed changes to planning regulations are introduced).

There is another story running alongside this one, which revolves around Honda’s relationships with UNITE, the union which represents some 1000 ‘associates’ at the plant. For some months, there has been noises about Honda seeking to de-recognise or minimize the influence of the Union at the plant.

The union story in particular has been very publicly sustained by reporting in the Adver, very sympathetic reporting one should say, that led in turn to a story with a slightly different inflection on BBC’s Points West yesterday.

As I say, none of this is terribly novel, although the juxtaposition of the wind turbines story and the union story is revealing of some of the ordinary political tensions that revolve around this kind of locally embedded link in a ‘global’ production system. I have been struck by the quality of the reporting on these sorts of issues in the local paper – which retains a much more obvious ‘civic’ orientation than I remember being the case with the equivalent daily papers in Bristol or Reading.

So, local politics, for local people only perhaps, but lots of it, and you don’t even have to look that hard to find it. No sign of the post-political, not here.

AHRC and ‘Big Society’: What’s the story?

There has been lots of comment about the story in yesterday’s Observer suggesting that the AHRC had been ‘ordered’ by the government to fund research on the Big Society in order to secure it’s funding settlement. Lots of complaints, lots of gnashing of teeth about infringements of academic freedom, the erosion of the Haldane Principle, and the like. But something about this story doesn’t quite ring true. Firstly, there is an odd delay involved – the Research Councils received their settlements before Christmas, when they published their Delivery Plans. So why it took humanities scholars so long to notice the substance of the AHRC’s delivery plan is a little unclear. Second, the agendas around community, cohesion, fairness, and the like are not new, post-election issues, and nor is the impact agenda – again, it seems like some people haven’t noticed the general drift of funding policy which has been going on for a while. 

But the main thing lacking from the discussion I’ve seen so far is any acknowledgement that the ESRC’s delivery plan hardly mentions the Big Society at all – one mention, in passing. The relevant ‘priority’ area is dubbed ‘A Vibrant and Fair Society’. Now one might suppose that the social sciences would be more likely to be targetted to deliver research knowledge on the Big Society if there was such a coordinated intent by ‘government’ – the difference between the two Research Councils in this respect seems to suggest that this might be about the internal decisions at the AHRC, who reject any suggestion of undue influence. One might still bemoan the fairly brazen aim of the AHRC to ‘contribute’ to ‘government’s Big Society initiatives’, without having to buy into the idea that this reflects an inappropriate meddling by politicians. The credulity invested in The Observer story seems to indicate a naivety on the behalf of some academics about how research funding does work, and specifically a lack of awareness amongst people in the humanities about just how proactive the arts and humanities bodies have been with ‘instrumental’ agendas of public engagement and impact for some time now

A couple of final thoughts. First, isn’t this a story about the way in which University issues are reported, which might be a matter worth discussing in more detail. And second, what would be so bad with funding research on ‘the Big Society’ – wouldn’t that be an opportunity to do lots of research on Alinski, the histories of mutalism and co-operatives, the relevance of inequality to civic participation, and the like?

Oh, and where I live, of course, the Research Councils are one of the major public sector employers in town, after the Borough Council and the NHS, suffering like the rest of us from funding cuts and efficiency savings.