How do you study a culture that is far from your own? I don’t mean, in this instance, geographically far. The cultures that I’m trying to understand are close to home: in the north of England, Scotland and Northern Ireland. But they could be – as I physically am as I write from the University of Toronto – thousands of miles away from my reality, as a comfortably-off professor of EU law in a northern English university, and from the realities of the people whom I know and love. What I’m talking of is social distance, and in particular the distance that is labelled, fuzzily, social class.
Of course, one answer to this question is that it is impossible, in any meaningful sense, to understand someone or something that is too ‘foreign’, removed, or remote from what I already know. I think – and I hope that I am right – that this answer is overly defeatist.
There is a valuable warning in it, though, that goes to the ethics of claiming to understand any ‘other’. We can’t ever claim to really understand, not from the inside. And so it behoves us to be circumspect with our claims, and explicit about our biases and assumptions – at least, as explicit and self-aware as we can be, as well as constantly seeking to check and question what we perceive we have discovered or understood. In ethnography, ‘the ethnographer – a living, breathing, feeling individual – is the primary instrument of data collection and interpretation’ (Forrest Stuart, in Colin Jerolmack and Shamus Kahn Approaches to Ethnography: Analysis and Representation in Participant Observation (OUP 2018) p 211). Further, we need to attend to the relational in our research: to understand that knowledge ‘draws from relationships, interactions, interpretations , and appreciation of the Other’ (Douglas Harper ‘People and Places’ in Colin Jerolmack and Shamus Kahn Approaches to Ethnography: Analysis and Representation in Participant Observation (OUP 2018) p 113). To do otherwise would be unethical – it would be to lean on our privilege in order to claim a hegemony of knowledge that is not rightfully ours.
But I want to insist– this ethical obligation of reflexivity or ‘ethnographic comportment’ (Anthony Kwame Harrison, Ethnography (OUP 2018) p 28-33 and throughout the book) aside – that we in the social sciences and humanities (and I include law here) can and should seek ‘to discover and understand’ as my university’s motto has it. One of the things Mark Flear, Matt Wood, Ivanka Antova and I are studying in our ESRC Health Governance after Brexit project is communities in the north of England and Northern Ireland, and how people there feel about Brexit, the NHS and what a legitimate post-Brexit health law and policy would look like to them.
Let’s start with one way of ‘discovering and understanding’, reading the words of the ‘foreigner’. I’m thinking here of memoires such as McGarvey’s Poverty Safari (London: Picador, 2017). This isn’t the only memoire about social class I’ve read in recent years (I learned a lot from Lynsey Hanley’s Respectable (London: Allen Lane, 2016)), but this one is explicitly about politics, and about (lack of) communications across the class divide. Writer and rap artist McGarvey (aka Loki) takes us through a biting and visceral account of poverty in Glasgow’s south side. One of the things I liked best about this book is how explicit and honest McGarvey is about the compromise that it costs him to communicate with his (middle class) audience, and about himself as a reflexive learner. The account of the interaction with artist and activist Ellie Harrison (pp 183-195), and McGarvey’s eventual realisation that ‘in all her middle class glory’ (p 195) Harrison is in fact an ally, not an enemy, is compelling in its ruefulness. Its opening pages describe McGarvey’s inability to read books. In a bizarre way, it reminded me, in reverse, of the parlour game in the David Lodge novel Changing Places, where you win by admitting that you haven’t read one of the most classical of ‘the classics’. McGarvey writes about the feelings of harsh judgement that come from his early interactions with other social classes.
‘Those botched attempts to move among the affluent became the germinal events that eventually led to my deep sense of grievance with anyone I perceived as well-off … my simmering resentment … lay with those in society who appeared to be doing much better than the rest of us … those who were gliding through life unimpeded by the constraints of poverty … ’ (p 29)
McGarvey is thoughtful about the way that jargon, especially the jargon of government, reinforces assumptions driven by social class. These assumptions are held on either side of the social divide. He writes,
‘Whichever side of the track you come from, it is likely that you harbour unconscious beliefs or attitudes about the issue of class: about yourself and the people across the way. For me it was this idea that middle class people have it easy, are born with a silver spoon in their mouth and benefit from a plethora of unseen advantages that I do not. For you, maybe it’s a belief that poor people stay poor because they don’t work hard enough, or that the system is fair and it’s people’s negative attitudes that are holding them back.’ (p 50)
Now, I don’t subscribe to either of those assumptions, but of course the people in the communities that I’m trying to understand may well believe that I do, and that I’m ‘exploitative and patronising’ (p 50) or a ‘chancer, careerist or charlatan’ (p 115). They may believe all kinds of things about my intentions in seeking to understand the world as they see it. These kinds of beliefs, perpetuated through generations, are what makes dialogue, especially in the realm of political participation, so difficult. ‘When attempting to express our thoughts and opinions across vast gulfs in social and cultural experience, nuance gets lost in translation’ (p115).
And, as McGarvey points out forcefully, botched attempts at dialogue make matters even worse (p 51; p 79; p 115). People involved in well-meaning third sector interventions into working class communities run the risk of acting ‘like an imperial power; poorer communities are viewed as primitive cultures that need to be modernised, retooled and upskilled.’ (p 79). This insight weighs heavily on me. I have found myself, when ‘in the field’, or reading the team’s fieldwork notes from our project, repeatedly thinking thoughts to the effect of ‘this person would be more effective/better off if they had a better understanding of the EU/the NHS/domestic politics’.
McGarvey’s account concentrates on interactions between material deprivation, (mental) ill-health, addictive behaviour, and criminality. But there is a running thread through it about democratic legitimacy – not just about political activism (which is very much part of the book), but about not being heard, and the political apathy that ensues.
‘This is the other deficit we rarely talk about or acknowledge. The deficit in our respective experiences when we come from lower class or higher class backgrounds. The deficit in how that experience is represented, reported and discussed. This deficit, which appears to be widening, has led to a culture that leaves many people feeling excluded, isolated or misrepresented and, therefore adversarial or apathetic towards it. And it’s often based on people living in run-down social conditions, with little money, in stressed-out, violent communities, turning on the television and making observations [about people from upper/middle classes]. It’s the belief that the system is rigged against you and that all attempts to resist or challenge it are futile. That the decisions that affect your life are being taken by a bunch of other people somewhere else who are deliberately trying to conceal things from you. A belief that you are excluded from taking part in the conversation about your own life. This belief is deeply held by people in many communities and there is a good reason for it: it’s true.’ (p37)
In the parts of the book where he reflects directly on the EU referendum vote, McGarvey wonders whether it can be understood as what happens ‘when people who are rarely heard decide to grab the microphone and start telling everybody how it is’ (p 119). McGarvey describes the disjuncture between the investments for the Glasgow Commonwealth Games (public WiFi, multilingual signage and so on) and the deprivation of nearby Glasgow communities (summarised as the library having ‘a WiFi service that would make the 90s blush’ p 127). He goes on:
‘People sitting in their homes watching the carnival on television could have been forgiven for thinking: am I living in the same world as these people? … When you live in these communities, it always feels as if your concerns are regarded as narrow-minded, short-sighted and parochial; the story that ascends is the story that meets the needs of the many. Which, coincidentally usually aligns with what many in those areas would regard as ‘middle class’. …
‘Perhaps that would explain why some people, in the aftermath of Brexit [sic] began referring to an ‘elite intelligensia’. … They were, perhaps clumsily, trying to describe the phenomenon whereby the accepted culture, comprising news, politics and entertainment, which they were presented with every day, was contradicted and undermined by the reality of their own lives. Perhaps they were trying to express how the vast contrast between the world they were being presented with as reality and the one they were actually living in was so stark that they could only conclude it was a deliberate fabrication.’ (p 128)
‘Brexit Britain, in all its disfunction, disorder and vulgarity, is perhaps a glimpse of what happens when people start becoming aware of the fact they haven’t been cut into the action but have no real mechanism to enfranchise themselves beyond voting … When people vote against their own interests because they don’t think it’s going to matter either way. People who are then called ‘arseholes’ and ‘scum’ by middle class liberals for expressing genuine shock that their vote actually did bring about change – for the first time in their lives. … When the full wrath of working class anger is brought to bear on the domain of politics, sending ripples through our culture, it’s treated like a national disaster.’ (p 129)
‘The morning of Brexit [sic] multiple crises were announced simultaneously by middle class liberals, progressives and radicals, who were suddenly confronted with the vulgar and divided country the rest of us had been living in for decades. A country filled with violence and racism. A country where people had become so alienated by the mainstream conversation that they were beginning to create their own parallel cultures and even their own ‘alternative facts’. It was infuriating to witness one hyperventilating Guardian subscriber after another, lamenting how a once-great nation had gone to the dogs.
Of course, by ‘dogs’ they meant the working class.’ (p 130)
McGarvey goes on to describe how, for the communities he visited in late June 2016, after the referendum vote, it was calm ‘business as usual’. Violence and racism are part of everyday reality. Yes, there was anxiety from foreign nationals about what their position in the UK would be. Many BME people were on the receiving end of racial abuse, who used the vote as an excuse for such behaviour. In another part of the book, McGarvey captures this unthinking racism perfectly, describing a conversation with two challenging teenagers in an additional needs school (p 146-147). He doesn’t shy away from tackling racism and immigration in the book, pointing out that the conditions of poverty and exclusion from political voice feed racist feelings towards migrants and that a politics of shaming such lack of inclusion simply won’t be enough to change people’s emotions (p 148-153). But in the context of the referendum, ‘[i]t was perfectly appropriate that communities moved quickly to acknowledge those fears and to show unconditional solidarity with those affected. But much of the outrage that was flying around had nothing to do with what immigrants actually thought or felt; it was about people using those issues to conceal their own naked classism’ (p 130). In fact, for McGarvey, Brexit, like Trump, is ‘just another side-show that detracts’ (p 142) from poverty.
McGarvey doesn’t believe poverty can be solved by politicians, party politics, or the political system as it stands. For him, this is because it has become too politically difficult to have an honest conversation about what it will require. That really resonated with me: an honest conversation from the Labour leadership about the costs of Brexit to the poor, and whether their policy is to be a poorer, but more equal, country, is something I’ve been hoping for in vain for months.
The issue of poverty is ‘far too complex to blame solely on ‘Tories’ or ‘elites’.’ (p 107). In fact, no one group can be the scapegoat for poverty, although political conversations are structured so that the blame for poverty is apportioned to the ‘outgroup’ that enables and benefits from poverty. Left wing circles, in McGarvey’s experience, don’t want to hear that they are also complicit. Communities like McGarvey’s are ‘just as hacked off with the left as they are with everyone else’ (p 142). He calls for a ‘new leftism’ which goes beyond ‘railing against the system’ to scrutinizing its own thinking and habits, and which reclaims ‘the idea of personal responsibility from a rampant and socially misguided right wing that has come to monopolise it’ (p 112), recognising that ‘part of the solution lies with the individual’ (p 177). When I read that, I thought about the data from our street conversations about responsibilities and the NHS.
Some of the people we talked with very much agreed that individuals need to take more personal responsibility for their own health, rather than thinking of health as a collective responsibility, institutionalised through the NHS. One example McGarvey discusses is Castlemilk Against Austerity, a community group which ‘doesn’t spin a ‘poor us’ narrative. Instead, as well as organising to resist the system, they challenge the community to examine its own shortcomings and false beliefs. Whether it is blaming immigrants for social problems or paying lip-service to wanting change while sitting on your hands and doing nothing, CAA are on the front line, calling out bull***t wherever it is found’ (p 143). Bullshit reminded me that this metaphor recurs in our street conversation data: whatever one might think, the ability of working class communities to spot it and call it is clearly present in the places we are studying.