Behind the scenes of Place revisited: class, stigma and urban restructuring in the case of Glasgow’s Commonwealth Games

By Kirsteen Paton, Vikki McCall and Gerry Mooney

Our article was based upon our Beyond Stigma: Exploring Everyday lives in the East End of Glasgow and the CWG2014 research which recorded the local lived experiences of the Commonwealth Games (CWG), as it happened, for residents in the East End of Glasgow. In terms of scale of insight, for us, what we learned through this research was incredibly meaningful. Researching Glasgow’s CWG allowed us to demonstrate the relationship between gentrification, territorial stigmatisation and austerity, within urban policy approaches. More specifically we were able to see the processes through which people and places are devalued in order make way for future land value (gentrification via mega sporting events, in the case of CWG) and how, paradoxically, in times of austerity and national cuts, the local is of increased value to anyone on low or no income. Importantly, we got illuminating insight into how East Enders received, negotiated and resisted both positive discourses around the Games and negative discourses about their neighbourhood, and the entangled everyday tensions and paradoxes from living with stigma, the Games and austerity simultaneously. But in terms of funding and resources, this was actually an exceptionally small research project. As we’ll explain, this research was born as much from our shared political and intellectual commitments as it was the institutional constraints on funding which led to us getting crafty and creative and a bit DIY and punk in our approach to sociological research.

In our work, both individually and collectively, we’ve sought to critically engage with the taken for granted claims about impacts and aims of state-led urban restructuring processes and instead foreground the new layers of uneven development which reinforces and remakes patterns of geographical differentiation within the city. Kirsteen’s ethnographic work in another neighbourhood of Glasgow, Partick, explores the relationship between urban restructuring and class restructuring in relation to the Glasgow Harbour development – which was then the flagship regeneration project in the city at the time. By exploring the dynamics involved in achieving urban transformation in the built environment, Kirsteen has argued how gentrification is more than an economic project but a cultural and moral project of urban restructuring and class restructuring. This situated state-led gentrification as more than zero sum game whereby the working class are displaced by processes but instead showed how such processes play out in and reconfigure the urban landscape as much as they do neighbourhood class practices. Gerry shared this research interest with the city having written extensively around socio-economic change in Glasgow. Gerry’s work pays particularly attention to and problematises claims as to the city’s successful redevelopment and renewal which have since the 1990s at least propagated the model of Glasgow as post-industrial ‘transformation’ par excellence. Gerry has carefully examined how such positive claims around renewal sit both alongside and entwined with territorial stigmatisation politics. In previous research on the East End, he showed how visions for the city actually reflect particular class interests and how urban policies stigmatise and marginalise neighbourhoods and people who do not fit with that vision of the city. Vikki, inspired by this approach to reading urban restructuring and regeneration, saw how this could be applied to make sense of the Commonwealth Games in Glasgow as the latest episode in a four decade-long programme to remake the city. But, more significantly, Vikki saw how taking such an approach to the CWG was a vital way to challenge the negative discourses around the East End. As an East End resident herself and with much her family growing up in areas such as Shettleston, Vikki saw first-hand the disjuncture between the stigmatising discourses which proliferated about the East End and the real lived experiences. Most famous of which was former Conservative Party leader, Iain Duncan Smith’s articulation of the figure of the ‘Shettleston Man’ who has a life expectancy of 63, lives in social housing and is ‘terminally’ unemployed. This powerful vignette was constructed to embody British society’s ills. Vikki not only found this jarring, she could how see how potent and saturating these stigmatising discourses were. The CWG provided the perfect opportunity to team up and explore this gap between lived experience and the tensions between the forms of value created via processes of urban stigmatisation and gentrification.

But our approach to doing this as a research project was born of constraint. Kirsteen recalls meeting women from the East End of Glasgow who’d formed Save the Accord Centre and Margaret Jaconelli, a resident fighting eviction via Compulsory Purchase Order on her home[1] at her research dissemination event in Partick:

‘I told them I wanted to do similar research on the impact of the Commonwealth Games on the East End if I was able to get funding. 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.’

Frustrations and constraints around the lengthy preparation and review period involved in grant preparation and well as the increasingly limitations to funding available prohibit fast reactions to urgent social and political events. The necessity of which is demonstrated by the excellent Mapping Immigration Controversy project which was supported by the (now defunct) ESRC Pilot Urgency Grant funding and enabled researchers from 7 UK universities and partner organisations to respond to the Home Office’s high-profile ‘Go Home’ advertising campaign. With our research, we didn’t have any such funding opportunity available to us and had to be creative in order to be responsive. And we were fortunate enough, thanks to Gerry and The Open University, to secure us a small amount of money via the Open University’s OpenSpace research centre to fund the entire project which we spent on diaries, tea and biscuits and bus fares. We distributed diaries to participating residents to record their thoughts and day-to-day experiences of the Games as they happened in what Les Back calls ‘live sociology’. The choice of method was practical but also political in the sense that we believed that having any more intrusive involvement in the East End at that time wasn’t ethically sound. The East End has probably received as much research attention as it has media attention and this was of course amplified during the period leading up the Games. We knew of at least two other researchers ‘in the field’ at the same time we were. With Vikki living in the East End the research did have an ethnographic element but primarily we used diaries as our main tool of research. We approached with care, visiting different community groups, hanging out in the Shandwick Shopping Centre talking to merchants and shoppers, visiting residents in sheltered housing and were able to find some dedicated participants to keep diaries for us throughout the Games period of 6 months. The beauty of this was that they enabled us to be remote and empower the residents to record their own terms. We also offered the medium of online diaries as blog. Together, these captured how residents’ thoughts and feelings evolved in relation to their experiences of the Games. Residents choose what to record and how, including spontaneous photos and poems. This DIY approach became a kind of co-production which produced a snapshot of everyday life under austerity, stigma and the spectacle and promise of the Games. The success of our budget research project was really down to Vikki who also acted as project manager, popping round collecting diaries, texting participants to check in on them and organising the focus group meetings with residents keeping diaries to catch up and reflect. We were so DIY in our approach even down to Vikki kindly letting us hold our research team meetings in her living room.

The diary method provided a fascinating lens into people’s lives throughout the Games and amidst UK austerity.  It was often the smallest of details that would strike major chords such as Bettie, in her 80s, documenting in her diary how tar from the Games related road works had ruined her best shoes when she took her daily walk to the shops. Or another resident, in her 50s describing how she could no longer go to her Zumba class as the extended road closures to support the Games construction meant that she can’t access her weekly fitness class at her local community centre as the bus she takes there can’t follow same route. What is seemingly minor is actually connected with larger scale policy discourses such as health messages which target individuals, particularly older working class women, to take responsibility for their own well-being. And of course a key proclaimed Games ‘legacy’ was improved health and wellbeing, to cure the ills that were personified by Shettleston man. This perspective also showed us how valuable the local is at a time when local services are being decimated, compounding daily struggles. Everyday details and neighbourhood events and processes are profoundly important in people’s lives and are rendered fragile under ever greater threat: ‘attention to everyday life matters because it offers the possibility to admit such ordinary virtues to serious attention’ (Back 2015). Such detail can get lost under the dominant narratives of regeneration and the Games ‘legacy’ fanfare and this research was vital in bringing this to the fore. That said, another aspect which we believe also needs equal scrutiny is those who benefit from the Games: corporate sponsors (such as ATOS the controversial company who carried out the ‘fitness-to- work-assessment’ on behalf of the Department of Work and Pensions) local government and individual councillors. These powerful groups and individuals get far less scrutiny, despite being instrumental in constructing stigmatising discourses. It is as important to cast the gaze up to those who stigmatise and profit from these discourses than it is to look downwards, as we too often do as social scientists, as Kirsteen has done in her addendum to this research, Beyond legacy: Backstage stigmatisation and ‘trickle-up’ politics of urban regeneration. Everyday life does matter and it’s in careful attentiveness to this that we can decipher bigger, structural process and reveal the political economy of stigma at work.

See also Vikki and Gerry’s latest work The Repoliticization of High-Rise Social Housing in the UK and the Classed Politics of Demolition.

[1] Photographer and Documentary film maker Chris Leslie worked closely with Margaret and you can see this work here.

Kirsteen Paton (University of Liverpool), Vikki McCall (University of Stirling) and Gerry Mooney (The Open University) won The Sociological Review Award for Outstanding Scholarship 2017 for their article Place revisited: class, stigma and urban restructuring in the case of Glasgow’s Commonwealth Games.

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