Posts Tagged ‘anthropology’


not sure Britain’s broken yet…

January 10, 2009

picture-1for a while I’ve thought there’s a fundamental misalignment between two of the key strands of Cameron’s brand of Conservatism. On the one hand, they talk of a civic renewal – not exactly rolling back the frontiers of the state, but rather a notion that communities can do more for themselves, and better, than bureacratic, uncaring public services. On the other, they espouse a view that Britain is broken. Here, the analysis is that societal norms are evaporating, and that this leaves our young people in particular lost in a sea of individualism without a sense of a clear moral or social compass to guide their behaviour. The two just don’t sit comfortably with me, seeming to present two very different views of British life today.

A brilliant and insightful book I’ve been reading recently has made me think again about this stuff. The Comfort of Things by anthropologist Daniel Miller explores the meaning of the relationships people have with material things – their houses, computers, ornaments, clothes – and argues that through exploring this, we can understand more about how individuals relate to the world around them. Part of his analysis is that it is true that there are fewer social norms to guide behaviour these days; but that this does not automatically lead to the conclusion that all that can remain in the absence of society is a set of fragmented individuals.

Far from it, he argues. His book shows us that it is a constant, lifelong project for people to seek to create meaningful relationships with others, and with things, in order to make sense of the world. People’s definition of a ‘full’, rather than an ’empty’, life seems to be determined by the degree of success they have in creating such relationships. As well as being a set of stories about the resourceful way in which people make meaning, his book also suggests that anthropologists, accustomed in the past to studying ‘cultures’ and ‘societies’, may find they need to shift their ethnographic eye to households, networks of relationships, and those very intimate interactions between each of us and the world around us. In other words, it’s not that society’s broken, but that in order to see it, we need to shift our focus to individuals – not as atomised beings but as fundamentally social and engaged with things beyond themselves.

Anyway all of this is probably to read far too much into Miller’s work (you can read his own take on the book here); this aside, I can’t recommend it enough as a read that leaves you feeling touched and moved, and hopeful about human nature.


‘evidence based’ policy

December 29, 2008

thanks to JW over at Mastersvo for a link to the clip from Yes Minister about how government is so very good at building an evidence base for, well, pretty much anything really. Here’s the video, worth a watch:

It reminds me of the infamous speech Louise Casey made, where she eloquently expressed her frustration at the government’s desperation to find the ‘truth’ in evidence, in order to work out what to do. I can’t say it better than her:

There is an obsession with evidence-based policy … If No 10 says bloody ‘evidence-based policy’ to me once more I’ll deck them one and probably get unemployed…

I think that ever since I studied history, I’ve been intrigued about how the truth is presented. I was probably a deeply annoying student in my constant quest for ‘evidence’ that might add up to a rather different reality. In many ways what I was trying to do with Kent was to encourage the council to expand its definition of evidence: of course, basing policy on the realities of people’s lives is vital, and difficult; but it becomes almost impossible if evidence is too narrowly defined and constrained to consultation results, polling and anecdotes from the politicians’ doorstep conversations. All of these things are useful but we need a broader way of contextualising evidence about attitudes – situating them both in a wider social and economic environment, and coupling what people say with actual behaviour or implicit needs or issues.

One particularly memorable moment I had a few years back was presenting a local project, where we’d used systems thinking to elicit insights, to a government department. The Director got more and more agitated, demanding to know what our ‘evidence’ was. After an extended and deeply uncomfortable conversation it became clear that his definition of evidence involved what the academics thought, and polling data. In my view, government will always be an art rather than a science, and to that end, we need to get much better at marshalling all sorts of different evidence – polling and consultation still have their place, but ethnographic and design techniques, modelling and systems thinking need to become more important. Many social issues are now recognised as being about how we relate to one another, as well as how we as individuals relate to government, so those techniques that take account of context as well as beliefs should be much more significant than they currently are…


radical roots of the everyday

November 26, 2008

I had a long train journey yesterday, and despite the free wifi on offer, I decided to indulge myself and read solidly all the way home. Despite definitely bordering on impossible to read (thanks cultural theory), I have been feeling quite excited by Philosophising the Everyday.

The basic argument is that far from being ‘ordinary’, the everyday is full of radical potential. John Roberts (the author) looks back at the roots of ‘the everyday’ in Marxist thinking, the writings of Russian revolutionaries such as Trotsky, the work of the early psychoanalysts and the French situationists of the 1950s and 1960s (no wonder it’s not exactly an easy read). In doing so he challenges the more recent cultural theory that makes the everyday all about consumption, routine, and the unextraordinary stuff of life.

For many of the thinkers Roberts examines, the everyday was the place where culture and politics come together. For Trotsky, it was where the revolution is defended and deepened. For Marx, it was the place where thought, action and consciousness were forged and where they interacted with the potential to lead to transformation of society.

I haven’t finished reading it yet, but two passages in particular that stand out for me:

‘The everyday is once thought of as empty, featureless, and repetitive, but is now the source of extended collective engagement, intervention, and transformation’

and this one, from Maurice Blanchot:

‘The everyday is no longer the average, statistically established existence of a given society at a given moment. It is a category, a utopia, and an idea, without which one wouldn’t know how to get at either the hidden present, or the discoverable future of manifest beings.’

The reason I like this last one is that it seems to hint at how we need to understand the everyday in order to understand how societies work, and how they might be transformed. Just as Freud saw the language his patients used, and the behaviours they exhibited as maps to their inner world, the everyday has within it the clues to the transformation of society at large.

This has all sorts of implications for how we go about understanding the everyday – through ethnographic approaches, through what Walter Benjamin called the ‘arts of propinquity’ – photography and film – as well as how we go about connecting these understandings with the forms of agency and consciousness that Marx was so interested in. More on this once I’ve finished the book…


just coping: low income families

October 21, 2008

OK, so I’ve finally worked out how to upload files to this blog, so am taking the opportunity to put up the report I did earlier this year with the wonderful Robin, founder and director of ESRO, on the lives of low income families living in Kent. You can download it here. It was one of those projects that I found deeply interesting and very challenging. Last night I found myself talking about it again with C, who has just read it for a report she’s writing.

In particular we were discussing how little we know what to do with people who exist in the category our report describes – ‘just coping’ – people who are not in serious need, but whose lives could be turned upside down by just one small crisis. Families who are just coping are often invisible in every way. They are invisible to formal public services – they actively avoid social workers, for example. They are invisible to the world beyond public services too: the families we met had very small informal support networks to rely on in times of need.

If invisibility is one striking feature of the families we met, gender dynamics was another. Poverty and old age are notably gendered in how they are experienced. Although public policy has become deeply concerned with fatherhood in recent years, actually it is the mums who are under tremendous pressure to keep some semblance of family life going in the face of huge challenges like overcrowding, poor housing and violence. How we support those mothers, many of whom are coping with a form of low-level depression, is surely as important as how we re-engage fathers as active members of the family?


what script writers can teach social policy people

October 21, 2008

Over the weekend JW and I attended an inspiring ‘masterclass’ with Peter Morgan, the writer behind The Queen, The Deal, and of course the incredible Frost/Nixon which I was lucky enough to see at the Donmar, and about which I now find myself in a state of heightened anticipation, as I await the release of the film in January next year.

It was a great talk despite some rubbish interviewing. Morgan clearly felt uncomfortable talking about his work – preferring not to reflect too deeply on what he does for fear of becoming self-conscious about it, or a parody of his former self. I was really struck by his view that you never know what you’ve written, until you’ve written it. For him, this was important: focus on the story and the themes will identify themselves. I am interested in this for writing in my own world. As I edit this publication currently, I am struck by how often people write to show how clever they are, rather than to tell a story to the audience. I suspect Morgan’s determination to tell a story first, themes second, is part of his appeal.

He also talked a lot about the fact that many people believe he’s written a sympathetic treatment of both the Queen and of Blair. He disagrees – arguing instead that all he did was strip away the assumptions people make about these characters – as he said, you need to detox the characters, and challenge yourself about all the baggage you bring to writing about such well-known public figures. Again, the idea of stripping away assumptions – and the need to actively do so, to know yourself and your own ticks – seems highly significant for my world.

Linked to this was another observation that Morgan made – about the fact that the more flawed he writes his characters, the more people seem to like them – the fact is that humans don’t trust ‘perfect’ people – they like to see that on the inside people are as incomplete and inconsistent as we all know ourselves to be.

Finally – despite my disappointment at how the interviewer handled this – Morgan talked about the distinction he makes between truthfulness and accuracy, arguing that people don’t expect transcripts from him, but rather a sense of the truth. I think this is really interesting when it comes to understanding individuals and communities: we can have a whole load of accurate data on any given area and still not understand it. Sometimes, empathy, pattern recognition and deep insight as opposed to mass research, can give us a better sense of the ‘truth’.