What to call women: another language dilemma from the past

Here is another dilemma for those who write about the past: by what name should we refer to prominent women?

For much of history, middle and upper class women were routinely known by their husband’s names. I don’t just mean that they took their husband’s surname, but in public they often used his first name as well.

Lady Henry Somerset is one such. She was Lady Isabella – sometimes spelt as Isobel – Caroline Somers-Cocks before her marriage to Lord Henry Somerset. Elected President of the British Women’s Temperance Association in 1890, she was one of the principal founders of Duxhurst farm colony, which opened its doors in 1895 as a centre for ‘inebriate women’. She separated from her husband shortly after discovering that he was a homosexual, and famously won custody of their son.

By which name should we refer to her today? I’ve used both ‘Lady Henry Somerset’, which was how she was often referred to in the contemporary press, and under which she published; but I have also used plain ‘Isobel Somerset’. Is this a weaselly compromise, or – as I hope – a sensible solution which reflects modern sensibilities without sanitising the past?

A last point: my modern solution would have greatly offended Lady Somerset, who insisted throughout her life on using her title, which she held by birth as well as marriage.

Using offensive language – a user’s guide

How should we treat language and attitudes that once were common, and which we now find unacceptable? I’m facing up to this problem when describing labour colonies for people with disabilities. These colonies were fairly widespread in Britain before 1939, and a variety of terms were used by their founders and managers to describe their inmates.

I’m feeling slightly sensitive about this issue, as I recently walked into a language skirmish largely of my own making. In a presentation on higher education, I referred to Joan Bakewell’s commendable campaigning on behalf of part-time higher education. As most of the audience came from a generation who are unlikely to remember her, I briefly said who she was, and also referred to a derogatory way in which she was described by many in my own generation. At least one person was offended by this, and said so (though not to me at the time).

Language skirmishes are frequent, and easily survived, but this one made me think. How should we handle the problem in academic writing? My own research has produced many examples of terms and ideas that we would now find deeply offensive, and I hesitated long and hard about whether I should include those that referred to people with learning disabilities or who suffered from mental ill-health.

In the end, I used the terms that contemporaries used. For the most part, I was using direct quotes, so it should be pretty clear to a reader that this is the case, but I also added a very short footnote to make it explicit and ambiguous. While I added no such explanation to justify the inclusion of language that expresses anti-Semitic views, fear of the Chinese, loathing for the Irish, and racial hatred in general, I think it is clear that I am quoting, and not approving, these contemporary perspectives.

Will that stop someone getting offended when they read this material? Probably not, but at least my intention is clear. And I don’t like the alternatives. One is for me to interject on every occasion that this particular term or view is unacceptable to me; that seems utterly ahistorical. The other is to ignore completely any scheme that was developed by people who used a language for their inmates that people like me now find offensive; that seems to me utterly dishonest.

Am I entirely comfortable with my compromise? Not really, but I can live with it (and the occasional complaint that I expect to receive). I’d love to hear from anyone who has a better solution. But thinking about it today made me aware of the one body of objectionable language that I haven’t really thought about: namely, how people used to talk about people from the working class.

I’ve written about the period between 1880 and 1939, then the powerful and comfortable thought nothing of describing unemployed men in the most disparaging terms. They took it for granted that they could attack and undermine the standing and respect of those whom they saw as their moral and social, and not just economic, inferiors. The language they used about people’s bodies and dignity was just what Pierre Bourdieu was talking about when he spoke of ‘symbolic violence’.

Why didn’t I reflect on this before starting today’s blog? Is it that we once more live in a similar culture, where mockery and disdain colour so many conversations about ‘neds’ or ‘chavs’, and where the unemployed are again portrayed casually as layabouts and slobs who deserve nothing from the rest of us but contempt?

I’ve been fired! The daft side of higher education (4)

I’ve just been fired. Without any notice, the payroll and pensions section of the University’s HR department has sent me my P45, along with a polite note of thanks ‘for the work which you have done for the University’, and an account of my total pay and tax to date.

This would be very depressing news, except for one thing. The letter and P45 came from the University of Surrey. So far as I am aware, my own institution has no plans to dismiss me, at least not yet. But why on earth would an organisation that doesn’t employ me decide to give me the boot?

 The answer is that three years ago, I examined a doctorate at Surrey. Since then, nothing. As the P45 puts it, my salary since then comes to £0.00, and the University solmenly records that it paid £0.00 in tax on my behalf.

So why on earth is a rational HR specialist spending their employer’s time on this nonsense? In the words of the payroll and pensions section, ‘In accordance with HMRC and sector-wide best practice we are required formally to cease the post when the contract ends’. Anyone want to put a cost on this particular bit of ‘best practice’?

As university heads of HR hunt in packs, I suppose that I and my colleagues can now expect to be fired by quite a few universities who have asked us to serve as external examiners. But like the equally pointless practice of asking externals to show passports even when they are already employed in another university, it suggests that we are drifting towards a redefinition of the role of external examiner, as an employee.

What’s happening in workplace learning?

French labour market researchers at the CEGOS Observatory have just released their annual survey of training in Europe. It involves a reasonable size sample (2,470 workers in six countries) and the findings suggest that participation is holding up reasonably well in the recession, though the authors speak of ‘a French and Spanish sickness’. They also confirm the integration of new technologies and social media into workplace learning is increasing apace, and that those who are already highly educated continue to receive the most training.

So far as Britain is concerned, the findings broadly support those who argue that our workplace learning system is comparatively strong. Workers in Britain were most likely to:

  • report participation in distance learning and blended learning
  • receive information about training from their manager
  • say that they have benefited from training.

They were least likely to claim that training had been imposed on them, though not by much. In Italy, 38% said they generally had training imposed on them by their employer, as against 35% in Germany, 32% in France and 31% in Britain. Even though most workers said that they were able to suggest training activities for themselves, the survey finds that more training results from employer instructions than from dialogue and negotiation. This is more surprising for countries like France and Germany, where work councils are well established, than it is in Britain, whose labour market is less tightly regulated.

A summary of the CEGOS findings can be downloaded at: http://www.cegos.fr/actualites/Pages/enquete-formation-professionnelle-en-europe-2013.aspx

Aging societies: lifelong learning, immigration, and social cohesion

Japan’s population has fallen by 284,000 in a single year. And it is fast aging: as of October, the proportion of over-65s stood at 24.1%, while the under-14s accounted for 13%.

Social aging is common across much of the world, as a result of rising longevity and falling fertility rates. But these figures confirm that Japan is unusually vulnerable to demographic aging, largely as a result of the country’s stance on immigration.

While the number of foreigners living in Japan has increased in the last decade, they still comprise below 3% of the population, and they are largely treated as temporary workers, who must pass a demanding certification test that relies on high-level Japanese language skills if they wish to stay on. Fewer than one in a hundred pass, and the result is short term movement by people who are therefore poorly integrated into their host society.

Little wonder, then, that Japanese policy makers have been pondering the importance of adult learning in recent years. But what is particularly interesting for me is that policy makers have developed polifices for lifelong learning that are primarily aimed at promoting social integration, volunteering and networking, in a process that Makino Atsushi has called “community development through lifelong learning”.

Countries like the UK have relatively high levels of immigration, and are therefore relatively immune from the sharp skills shortages that would affect a more insular and protected labour market, but they have not treated social cohesion as such a priority.

Japanese society, on the other hand, is strengthening its internal social ties and continuing to make it difficult for migrants to settle. I will be very interested to see whether the Japanese way can continue to survive if, as I expect, it is faced with even greater pressures as a result of social aging.

Atsushi Makino’s very helpful description of lifelong learning policy in Japan after the 2006 reforms is available at http://pie.pascalobservatory.org/sites/default/files/Japan_MAKINO_%20Local%20Communities_0.pdf

Fun with the Great British Class calculator, and serious lessons for education

Last night, I asked my students to look at the BBC Class Survey. It was ideal for the course, as we had scheduled a session on Pierre Bourdieu’s analysis of inequality. The Class Survey uses Bourdieu’s three-part model of capitals – economic, cultural and social – as the basis for its model of stratification.

It was a fun way of getting across the basics of Bourdieu’s concepts. We particularly enjoyed playing with the two-minute Class Calculator, a much shortened version of the survey that was used to inform the stratification model. The full survey also used Bourdieu’s basic concepts and the design was led by sociologists that I greatly admire, including Yaojun Li, Fiona Devine and Mike Savage.

The findings have generated huge popular debate, and are already provoking discussion among academics as well. Some are angry that we are still talking about class at all, or interested in the existence of a ‘precariat’, or comment on the restructuring of the working and middle classes. One group has so far attracted less attention: the elite, which comes out on all three dimensions as ‘the most advantaged and privileged group in the UK’, estimated at 6% of the population.

Of course, we have always had elites in Britain. What is striking about the survey results is the degree of social closure surrounding the elite. It is the least ethnically mixed group in the survey, its origins are geographically concentrated (parts of south-east England, and to a lesser extent rural/suburban settlements like East Lothian), and over half come from families where the main earner was a senior manager or professional.

Today’s elite, in short, neatly fit Bourdieu’s original model, based on data from 1960s France, of a group that successfully excludes outsiders and is immune from social mobility. Speculating for a moment, I would add that this class is probably characterised by a weakening sense of social solidarity.

Older mechanisms of cohesion – religion, nation, civic identity – don’t much matter to people whose assets are highly mobile, and highly institutionalised through remote interests in global corporations, and whose lifestyles may be highly cosmopolitan. But if they spend their lives in ethnically homogeneous enclaves, perhaps their last remaining bonds are those of perceived race.

As I say, this is speculation. The survey is a fascinating exercise, and we can learn a great deal from the results – particularly if we remember that the seven social classes are, in the best Weberian tradition, ‘ideal types’. And among many practical lessons, here are two for education:

  • Growing social advantage at the top of our society demands that we look again at the relationship between education and social mobility. At the moment, I conclude that education is reducing levels of mobility into the elite.
  • The identification of a distinctive precariat – 15% of the population – with limited economic, social or cultural capital suggests that schools are simply not doing enough to improve the life chances of the most excluded and stigmatised, and that our lifelong learning system is too weak to provide effective second chances.

And yes,  I took the test, and found myself in the ‘technical middle class’.  The most worrying thing about this group is that while we may have lots of connections, they are mostly with people from very similar backgrounds. I’ve said this before – academics need to get out a lot more!

Here’s a link to the class calculator: http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/magazine-22000973

Here’s a link to the article in Sociology: http://soc.sagepub.com/content/early/2013/03/12/0038038513481128.full.pdf+html

We’re so good at switching people off learning

The Matthew effect is well-known among adult educators: the already well-educated get more, and the least well educated get none. So I was interested to read a recent piece of research examining the learning intentions of low-qualified workers (a link is below).

The researchers surveyed 673 workers in 39 organisations, who had few if any school-leaving qualifications. The results were analysed using methods that allowed the researchers to control for a range of variables, so that they could isolate the factors that predict intentions to learn. They also interviewed 14 workers to provide greater depth.

Two factors were clearly linked with intentions to learn in the future. The first was what they called ‘self-directedness’ in their views of work. People who had a high degree of self-directedness placed a higher value on learning. This is an interesting finding, but of course self-directedness is not an abstract and free-floating personal quality – it develops over time as a result of being involved in work and workplace relations that make you feel there is a point to positive planning.

This is why researchers like Lorna Unwin and Alan Felstead have placed so much emphasis in their recent writing on what they call ‘expansive workplaces’ that promote high levels of autonomous learning. And interestingly, one reason why some of the low-qualified workers rejected learning was that they thought it would lead them into more stressful and unpleasant roles.

The second factor was people’s earlier experiences of education.  It wasn’t just that school learning had switched people off, though that was certainly one of the findings. The researchers also reported that learning intentions were higher among those who had learned during working hours, gone on study tours, or had taken part in an innovation project or a study group. For other activities – including self-tuition through online learning and after hours taught classes – there was no positive effect on learning intentions.

In other words, bad memories of schooling are overcome by positive experiences of adult learning. The question is then how we get people back into learning – particularly if they are on the margin of the labour market, in precarious work, or on a fixed-term contract.


‘Examining the learning intentions of low-qualified employees: a mixed method study’, by E. Kyndt, N. Govaerts, L. Keunen and F. Dochy, Journal of Workplace Learning, 25, 3, 2003 http://www.emeraldinsight.com/journals.htm?issn=1366-5626&volume=25&issue=3&articleid=17085193&show=abstract