The Future Imagination: Going Live, Getting Real, DIY

Image: Rowan Heuvel

Tuesday 24th November, 2015

Kirsteen Paton

Special Section on Future Sociologies

Today’s post-crash era of financial capitalism affects everyday life in profound and mundane ways. We are submitted to the logic and language of value, measured by big data, subject to metrics and, under austerity, we are forced to shoulder the problem of public debt, individually. All of this impacts our work in universities. It affects knowledge production and how we practice the craft of sociology and leads to what Ros Gill calls the ‘hidden injuries of the neoliberal university’. Just as many others before me have advocated, we ought to recalibrate the sociological imagination in these new conditions:  a contemporary reimagining of our craft which draws upon current pressures and uncertainties to provoke an imagined future as David Beer recently encouraged. A reimagining of our craft is critical today because, as Lisa Adkins suggests, debt defers the present by sacrificing the future. So, in Sociology, if we defer the present and don’t think about our current practice critically, we risk sacrificing a lot.  

I characterise three ways in which I recalibrate the craft in my own practice in response, which involves ‘getting real’, ‘DIY’ and ‘going Live’. This is inspired by Beer’s call for a ‘punk ethos’ in reimagining sociology; being inventive and creative in the face of austerity. There’s a mirroring of social research practice and the social world. Looking at how people manage restructuring and austerity tells us much about how we might manage our own practice. Maybe that’s more Gramscian rather than punk but Antonio Gramsci strikes me as the ultimate punk Marxist:  a pessimist of the intellect but an optimist of the will. And where there are hidden injuries to be exposed there are also hidden rewards.

Getting Real: exploring everyday life

‘Getting real’ captures my approach to sociology which is about seeking to understand capitalism by exploring the lived experience of it. In my research I try to make sense of the complex changes of global capitalist restructuring through the everyday. This is conveyed through my own biography and some recent history. I began my PhD research into the impacts of gentrification in Glasgow in 2005, so pre-crisis and under New Labour when things were said to only get better. This was ESRC CASE research which meant that I was working with third sector organisations WestGap (West Glasgow Against Poverty) and Oxfam UK who had come together with a shared concern over the impacts the luxury housing monolith, Glasgow Harbour would have on neighbouring working-class Partick. The initial research question related to displacement. My task was to chart, map and evidence this. Of course capturing displacement is no mean feat, no less because processes are often invisible. Proxy indicators are often used from census data, which in 10 year cycles would not capture the process, experience or causality of changes in Partick. Plus, social housing in the UK, then, provided secured tenancies, which protected residents in the neighbourhood from being evicted. Added to these limitations, I found from talking to residents that there was much ambivalence. The story of Sylvie became what Les Back calls a ‘primal scene’ in research. 

19 year old Sylvie was living with her gran in Partick and was registered with the local housing association for her own flat. She loved the neighbourhood. We met in one of the new bars where she sat at an outside table with a glass of wine, sunning herself. Sylvie chose the place because she liked it and rejected the more traditional locations where I usually conducted interviews. And it’s Sylvie who then presses me for details about the Harbour flats, what they are like inside and asks how much one would cost to rent which, I tell her, at the lowest end for a two bedroom apartment, £700 per month. As a flatshare this is attainable for a young person who is not debt averse. So Sylvie, raised in social housing and facing limited housing choices due to gentrification, is a potential future Harbour resident. Quite the sleight of hand.

I use this example to show the complexity of gentrification and urban restructuring which is received and negotiated by the post-industrial working class. Sylvie didn’t oppose this development nor was she displaced by it, she enjoyed its trappings and wanted to participate. The effects run deeper than physical displacement and these relate to changing lives in post-industrial cities, which people can at times negotiate on their own terms. I theorised up, drawing from Gramsci to understand why people might not resist and might sometimes consent, and negotiate the changes instead. And these voices of people living in Partick unlocked theories, solving intellectual problems such as the deadlock in gentrification between economic versus cultural explanations. This was achieved through a shift in perspective, from macro and middle-class views of gentrification to that of the working class and of everyday experiences. The importance of people’s experience in making sense of global change and the political economy cannot be overstated. 

DIY 

This perspective can also help reimagine the way sociological work can be done; with improvisational tendencies. This draws from Beers’ notion of a punk sociology with a DIY ethic of ‘finding new ways to use the opportunities which are out there to create insights […] to ask new questions, and to find new means of communication’ (Beer p57). I took the research back to Partick in 2010 for a community meeting (I had a book launch disco too but I’m not sure it’s punk to go disco?) where I met a group of women from the East End of Glasgow who’d formed Save the Accord Centre. 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. 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. 

I took a similar DIY approach to explore post-crisis conditions under the Coalition government, where things could only get worse, and did. My friend and colleague Vickie Cooper was, like me, interested in the lived impact of austerity. So in November when I was in Liverpool, Vickie suggested we visit a welfare advice clinic, Reclaim. We were invited to listen to stories and we learned that evictions were the key issue faced by clients, which was most often due to arrears, which were the result of welfare cuts and reforms. We also learned of the regularity of ‘eviction watches’ and how through group efforts, not the state, communities can protect people from evictions. These evictions could be described as state-led, induced by both a retraction of welfare benefit payments and the removal of statutory protection through secured tenancies. The lack of physical displacement in my earlier research in Partick was now clearly a reality, an injury, as the long-time buffer against displacement, social housing, is undermined in post-crash times.

Going Live

This brings me to my final aspect – going live. This speaks to a liveliness in the practice, being inventive and responsive. Today we have the opportunity to do this more than any other time in the discipline’s history with new forms of data and media and devices. By ‘live’ I also mean temporal and the possibility of more immediate research response. Social media has been central to galvanising campaigns in housing and evictions. It has also been invaluable for rallying people for eviction watches. Call outs circulate: ‘Jan and her kids are set to be evicted at 4pm tomorrow, who can be at X-address?’ and people mobilise. The immediacy lets us see these events as social researchers, learn, get involved and record. And it means we are not recording impacts after the fact as the Save the Accord Centre women rightly critiqued: we are there. And in terms of communicating the research, digital resources yield influence. Writing about this for online pieces gave legitimacy to Vickie and me as outsiders to these organisations and groups. Liveliness also means engaging with developments in data. The increasing availability of big administrative datasets presents unique opportunities to potentially map and evidence displacement that is born out of welfare reforms. Evictions today are at record levels in the UK, 115 a day, most of which are due to rent arrears. Combining datasets which show changes in housing benefits with those on postcode changes could provide hard evidence which correlates with anecdotal evidence from housing activists. It evidences the coercive phase of this hegemonic project.  And so I come full circle in exploring my initial research question about displacement through putting what Les Back has called ‘a bit of craftiness back in the craft’: getting real, DIY and going live.

Sociology is a discipline with radical ambitions in-built to its task and promise and so what I’ve outlined is not a new or futuristic imagining.  But the contours of inequality are being recast and the problems in the discipline are mirrored with those in the wider social world. Through financialisation and austerity, we are submitted to the logic of value and capital and its injuries but through opening up our practice there is scope for opportunity and resistance. We can do research under austerity and have dialogues with publics that needn’t cost money, without huge grants or through monographs. And these are often as effective and productive, if not more so. I’m conscious of the dangers of advocating that ‘research needn’t cost money’ or ‘just do it yourself’ as academic workers, many of whom are precariat. But there are ways to weather austerity, to resist neoliberal and conservative practice, to revive radical ambition and be creative in the face of such pressures. The future of sociology begins now with our creative resistance: by engaging critically with the present rather than deferring it and contesting the pessimisms of individualisation, value and indebtedness -  as optimists of the will. With a little bit of added punk spirit.

Kirsteen Paton is Lecturer in Sociology at the University of Leeds. You can follow her on twitter at @KirsteenPaton.

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