Posts Tagged ‘relationships’


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.


more presentations

December 22, 2008

I’ve been a bit slow on the blog writing recently – I’m bursting with stuff I need to write down but the last couple of weeks have been quite a blur one way or another. At least one reason for this is a round of presentations that have dominated the last few days… so here are some slides about ethnography and policy that Robin-the-anthropologist and I used at the annual Social Research Association conference:

And here are some that I used to speak to the National Foundation for Education Research about our work on ‘just coping’ families in Kent.

And finally (phew!) here are some ones I used at an Innovation Catalyst event about how to communicate and influence local councils when you’ve got an innovative project on your hands…


mindapples: a wonderful idea

November 29, 2008

A good friend of mine is kickstarting a debate about mental health via the rather lovely concept of ‘mindapples‘ – asking people to talk about what their mental equivalent of 5-a-day is. It’s fitting for an idea like this, that *just makes sense*, that Mindapples is beginning to generate all sorts of interest.

I find it oddly moving to read other people’s submissions. There’s a Theodore Zeldin-esque quality* to what people say: we gain new insights about aspects of people’s minds and emotions that usually remain hidden. Making these things public leaves us readers with a warm glow about being human (well, that’s what it does to me anyway).

Visit the website to find out more, and to submit your own 5-a-day. A has asked that we all share our own 5-a-day, so for what it’s worth, here are mine.

  1. Having my hair stroked
  2. A teenage-length phone call with an old friend
  3. Telling someone they are brilliant and amazing
  4. Exploring new stuff – ideas, places, people
  5. Reading in bed with tea, in blissful silence

If I could have a sixth it would have to be some combination (but not together) of porridge/wine/coffee…

* to illustrate what I mean, I can’t resist posting Zeldin’s chapter headings in my all-time favourite book of his, The Intimate History of Humanity:

  1. How humans have repeatedly lost hope, and how new encounters, and a new pair of spectacles, revive them
  2. How men and women have slowly learned to have interesting conversations
  3. How people searching for their roots are only beginning to look far and deep enough
  4. How some people have acquired an immunity to loneliness
  5. How new forms of love have been invented
  6. Why there has been more progress in cooking than in sex
  7. How the desire that men feel for women, and for other men, has altered through the centuries
  8. How respect has become more desirable than power
  9. How those who want neither to give orders nor to receive them can become intermediaries
  10. How people have freed themselves from fear by finding new fears
  11. How curiosity has become the key to freedom
  12. Why it has become increasingly difficult to destroy one’s enemies
  13. How the art of escaping from one’s troubles has developed, but not the art of knowing where to escape to
  14. Why compassion has flowered even in stony ground
  15. Why toleration has never been enough
  16. Why even the privileged are often somewhat gloomy about life, even when they can have anything the consumer society offers, and even after sexual liberation
  17. How travellers are becoming the largest nation in the world, and how they have learned not to see only what they are looking for
  18. Why friendship between men and women has become so fragile
  19. How even astrologers resist their destiny
  20. Why people have not been able to find the time to lead several lives
  21. Why fathers and their children are changing their minds about what they want from each other
  22. Why the crisis in the family is only one stage in the evolution of generosity
  23. How people choose a way of life, and how it does not wholly satisfy them
  24. How humans become hospitable to each other
  25. What becomes possible when soul-mates meet


reflections on visiting prisons so far

November 23, 2008

I’m doing a small piece of work at the moment with the design team at the RSA on prisons, looking in particular at the experience families have of visiting their loved ones when they’re inside. It’s fascinating so far, and I’m excited about my trip to Newcastle tomorrow to meet the students at Northumbria University who are participating in the project. So I thought I’d get my thoughts in order about what I saw when I went to HMP Wandsworth last week.

The thing I find most shocking is that visits are still part of behaviour incentive programmes at many prisons – in other words, you get fewer visits if you behave badly. This surely flies in the face of large amounts of evidence that maintaining family ties is key to reducing the likelihood of reoffending. Having seen how visits work now I am stunned that anyone can keep any semblance of family life going with two hourly visits a month – so to make them part of an incentive programme seems plain bonkers to me.

Still, the demands on the family members themselves are almost certainly enough to put people off visiting. Once you’ve gone through the rigmarole of securing a visit (not every prison has an email facility yet, and many have just one phone line that is not always staffed), each visit lasts between an hour and two hours, depending on how busy the prison is. But often prisoners are not near home – they get moved around quite regularly to prevent them from forming relationships (hmm, positive relationships are another factor in reducing reoffending so here’s another perverse thing) – meaning that families often have to travel a long way, at some considerable expense, to even get there in the first place.

Once they arrive, they go to the visitor’s centre, usually housed outside the prison walls and run by excellent organisations like PACT. From here they are walked over to the prison, checked in – you cannot take anything into the visits hall except baby food and loose change to buy refreshments – and then taken to the holding room. Here all the visitors are lined up, and searched by officers and by dogs. At the prison I went to last week this holding room was probably the most depressing place I’ve been to for a long time: broken chairs, a stench from overflowing toilets, no tables or anything to occupy kids during the waiting game. Once inside the visits hall, visitors are allocated a table, and the prisoners are brought up from the cells. Prisoners must stay sitting and cannot move around during the visit.

Once the visit is over, the visitors are escorted back to the holding room. From here they are taken out in small groups, back to the visitors centre to collect their stuff and then back into the real world. Depressing stuff.

Still, it’s not all bad. The PACT staff I’ve met treat visitors and prisoners with genuine respect. In fact, the person who showed us round last week worked hard to correct many of the Daily Mail-esque attitudes of some of the students towards prisoners, reminding the group that ‘life’s tough and shit happens: prisoners and their families are no different to us, they’re just people, they’re not evil and sometimes things just happen’. Some officers clearly work hard to make the visit as positive as possible; however many still struggle with an institutionalised mindset that sees visits as ‘soft’.

It seems to me that visits are woefully under-used and undervalued as part of the process of rehabilitating the vast majority of prisoners who will be released again. No use is made of the time to help prisoners and their partners renegotiate their relationships, to deal with the anger that is likely to have been caused by getting banged up. There are erratic links made to advisory services who could help couples work out issues around housing, benefits, jobs and skills together. I hope that the students participating in this project spot those as opportunities and make some suggestions about this.

Finally, so what did the design students think of the visit? ‘It surprised me’ said one. Another said ‘it felt like being in a hospital – like you shouldn’t be there, that you couldn’t touch anything’. Still, reflecting on their decision to get involved in the project, most of them were resoundingly positive, feeling that it had really challenged their design skills, and, my favourite comment of all, ‘it’s made me think about whether I want to design more crap stuff for people to buy and then throw away’. Hurrah for that.


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?


i am because you are

September 4, 2008

the title of this post is my favourite line from my favourite novel, What I Loved, by Siri Husvedt. It sums up my view that few of us can or do define ourselves as individuals alone: our sense of self is as derived from our relationships with others, the love we give and receive and the feeling we have that we belong in some way.

A lot of the stuff I’ve been reading on the consumerisation of society in the past few weeks argues that the throw-away culture of ‘supercapitalism’ (in Robert Reich’s words) has seeped into our personal relationships too. We have a much more ambivalent relationship to the notion of ‘commitment’, and to its implication that we might have some degree of responsibility for another person. It frightens us now in a way that, even just 50 years ago, commitment was a form of security, a guarantee of a partner in crime needed for when times were tough. Now it is feared as a form of entrapment.

As Charlie Leadbeater has written recently,

Happiness and well-being does not come from our freedom to break free of bonds but instead to commit ourselves to relationships.

How does this sit with the constant exhortations to ‘find yourself’, to ‘be free’? How does it sit with rising divorce rates and high rates of sexual activity?

Looking at the figures, I suspect that the problem is not that we no longer believe in commitment, but that we are forgetting how to do it. Even in this world where commitment can feel like a dirty word, people’s behaviour suggests it’s still important. 70% of single parents go on to have another relationship, staying single for an average of just four years. Re-marriage is rising as fast as divorce. Six times as many people provide unpaid care for relatives and friends as those people being paid to do so.

The work I did with teenage parents in Kent uncovered some deep ambivalence about commitment. On the one hand the women recognised their dependence on the men – as father figures and sources of essential emotional and financial support for the family. But on the other hand they saw them almost as commodities, to be thrown away when no longer useful or desirable. It’s not a simple story but one I’d love to explore more deeply.

Connected to all this is a great conversation I had with my friend who works at Relate. We got talking about the way love and relationships are portrayed publicly. In most cases, we choose to strip out the hard work of successful relationships – the painful negotiations, disagreements and compromises that are so important – in favour of the thrill and romance of love at first sight, huge sleb-esque weddings and portrayals of easy relationships that require no effort.

At the very least, if commitment and relationships remain – as I think they do – essential to our individual sense of self and sense of wellbeing – then we need to start rebuilding the stories we tell about love and partnership to match.