Using ‘neutral’ language to report interviews – a case of symbolic violence?

It is interesting how an informal chat over coffee can really get you thinking. I’ve just been discussing shared research concerns with a visiting colleague from Australia, who has been developing some innovative approaches to recording and analysing life histories. Somehow we turned to the question of language, and how people’s spoken words are changed through the processes of transcription and publication.

During a recent large scale life history study, I was struck by the number of participants who responded to their transcripts with horror. What they said was that they didn’t ‘realise I spoke like that’. What did they mean? The most common answer was that they sounded ‘uneducated’, and this was because the transcriber had done her best to reproduce their words as spoken, dialect and all. We offered all participants the right to correct the transcript, but they didn’t use it. Clearly, though, some were responding to the written record with shame – and this was something we hadn’t anticipated.

The decision to include hesitations, slang, swearwords and dialect also crops up when you try to publish your results. I have yet to get a paper accepted that includes the words and sentences that the research participants actually used. Invariably, referees insist that direct quotations are turned into what we usually think of as standard English. Some referees get quite indignant about the use of dialect (‘How can I be expected to understand this stuff?’ was one comment), while others gently remind you of the journal’s international readership. So the quotations are duly turned into standard English.

This is a difficult area, and there isn’t a simple solution. But I think we are committing a kind of ‘symbolic violence’ against people who give us their time and their narratives, but do not speak a socially approved version of our language. And we are also losing sight of an important body of evidence, because language never is truly neutral.

The way people express themselves is bound up with their identity and it provides a series of cues about them. And this is true for all sorts of people, including the advantaged. One woman, who ran camps for the wives of unemployed miners in County Durham during the 1930s, provides a good case in point. She came from a highly privileged background, and she spoke in a very precise, grammatical and clipped manner. By standardising all the direct testimony of my participants, I was suppressing the particularities of her speech, along with important cues about her social status and her sense of who she is.

In summary, we are imposing an invisible standard – or rather, an unheard standard – as the norm. The non-normative are not just stigmatised but written out of sight, and out of hearing as well.

Masculinity and domesticity: who did the housework in work camps?

Most work camps in Britain, as elsewhere, were run by men for men. There were exceptions, which I’ve written about, but in the main these were masculine institutions where male bodies undertook heavy manual labour. And much thought was given to feeding and nurturing those male bodies.

Cleanliness was certainly a virtue. Most camps had baths and many had showers, at a time when many working class and some middle class families made do with a tub in front of the fire. And indoor spaces had to be ket clean and tidy, usually by the inmates.

Bodies were actively cared for. Men were routinely inspected for lice, and subjected tomedical inspection. In the Ministry of Labour camps in the 1930s, they were even given free dental and eye treatment – something the men would otherwise have paid for, if they could afford it. And they were weighed, with a view to achieving a desirably stronger and heavier body.

For there was food. Diet was a big deal, for the organisers and the inmates. The authorities usually took care to nourish working bodies with substantial servings of protein and carbohydrate, washed down with mugs of tea. Yet complaints about food – lack of variety, or poor quality – were by far the greatest cause of protests within the camps.

Again, the inmates did the cooking, usually supervised by specialist staff who were also male. Interestingly, the Ministry of Labour’s camps during the 1930s were equipped with shiny metal cookers and dishwashers, set up to cater to the 200 trainees and forty staff. So in these camps at least, male domestic labour was also technologically mediated labour.

That this was of wider interest in interwar Britain is clear. The Ministry of Labour encouraged  public visits (except for supporters of the National Unemployed Workers’ Movement). In 1936, for example, the Ministry invited the public to an evening of variety in its Instructional Centre at Ardentinny, in the west of Scotland. According to the Dunoon Herald, ‘Great admiration was shown by the ladies especially in the huge kitchens and their equipment for feeding nearly two hundred and forty persons’.

Very few camps brought men and women together. Some did, including the voluntary work camps organised by the International Voluntary Service for Peace, whose endeavours included the conversion of stables into a youth hostel in Whitby, and a massive swimming lido at Brynmawr in South Wales. The Quaker-led IVSP expected male volunteers to work with ‘pick and shovel’, while the ‘sisters’ were expected to cook, clean and sew. IVSP did not place women on a formally equal footing until well after WW2.

Work camps were more or less bounded communities, whose central role was to rebuild enfeebled male bodies through hard work and nurture. Where they were solely male in membership, men did the domestic work, usually on a rota basis, just as they might have done in the armed forces. Where they were mixed, which was extremely rare, men undertook ‘hard work’, and women did domestic labour.

We must use ethnicity more clearly in social research

I’ve been thinking about the changing influence of large scale datasets on how social scientists understand difference. For the most part, it is pretty easy to analyse survey data in terms of gender; and while class and status are more complex, there several well-understood (if not always agreed) approaches to categorising people by occupation or income. But when it comes to ethnicity, we’re challenged.

Part of the problem arises because people have strong feelings about ethnicity. A storm of protest met early attempts to collect information about ethnicity in the census. Proposals to include ethnicity in the 1981 census disappeared, and although it has featured since then, there has been repeated controversy over which categories to use.

Data on ethnicity are also collected in the main longitudinal surveys that provide such rich source material for social scientists in Britain. The cohort surveys and panel surveys have informed major studies of social mobility, as well as providing the raw material for recent research into the benefits of adult learning. However, it has so far been very difficult to analyse these surveys in terms of ethnicity.

The researcher faces a dilemma. Either you aggregate the responses of people from different ethnic groups, using an umbrella category such as ‘South Asian’, in which case you will miss very important variations between them. Or you present your findings for each separate group, while making it clear that they are based on such a small number of respondent that the results are statistically insignificant.

This is likely to change in the near future. First, some of the major surveys now involve boosted samples of minority ethnic respondents. The Millenium Cohort Survey, for instance, was structured by neighbourhood, allowing for areas with high proportions of ethnic minorities to be deliberately over-represented (researchers will, of course, allow for this when analysing responses).

Second, researchers increasingly have access to large bodies of administrative data, suitably anonymised. They can then use linkage techniques to analyse information on individuals that was originally collected by the NHS, education authorities and other public bodies. This approach is being pioneered in Scotland, and offers considerable potential for detailed and robust statistical studies of small groups.

And thirdly, information processing methods allow researchers to ask extremely complex questions of large datasets. I remember carrying copies of completed questionnaires over to something called an electronic data processing centre at Warwick, which then seemed very zippy to me. It took a couple of weeks before I had the results, and longer still if anything needed running again. Now, advanced statistical processes take a laptop an afternoon.

In other words, it is going to be much easier to use large datasets to study ethnicity. We will not only be able to distinguish between smaller categories of ethnicity for minority groups, but also among those of white European origin. And we’ll be able to ask new questions and draw on new types of data – indeed, in principle, we could even link survey data with individual genetic information.

I’m not convinced that giving social researchers access to people’s genetic codes will happen any time soon. It might, as it is only a small step from exploring how people’s genetic background affects health to considering how it might affect other life chances. My point at this stage is that that our capacity for studying ethnicity has expanded dramatically, and is growing. This should be a force for enriching social science, and improving its public impact, but it won’t be an easy process.

The battle of educational ideas: the resistable rise of therapeutic education

Last night I had the great pleasure of hearing Kathryn Ecclestone present her professorial inaugural lecture at the University of Sheffield. Kathryn is well known for her work on the political and cultural rise of what she sees as a ‘therapeutic culture’ which is reflected in policies designed to promote resilience and well-being. Her lecture was concerned with the growing tendency of government, teachers and parents to present young people as vulnerable.

Drawing on her own experience of teaching unemployed youngsters at the time of the miners’ strike, Kathryn argues that the therapeutic culture is a new phenomenon that has become pervasive during the last three decades. Her writing clearly speaks to a large number of people who are worried by the turn towards introspection, emotionalism and self-analysis in our society, and who are concerned at the consequences for young people’s and adults’ education. I think that she is pointing to a trend that is widely discussed in the world at large but largely ignored within educational studies.

I do, though, have misgivings. The main one is conceptual: Kathryn situates her work within the broad body of conservative cultural critique that is most flamboyantly represented by Frank Furedi. Typically, this approach seizes on a cultural trend, and chews over it as a symptom of a pervasive societal state of anxiety and dependency.

Furedi and his supporters usually pick out interesting and topical trends. With their origins in a now-defunct Trotskyist grouplet, they tend to adopt a fairly combative style, exemplified in their online journal, Spiked, and know how to pull the tail of the political Left. Its most prominent representatives are good speakers, and have a high media profile; one of my old friends is able to work himself into a fury over their influence in programmes like the BBC’s ‘Moral Maze’.

On the whole, I find their work interesting and provocative, but shallow. Remarkably, for former Marxists, their analyses are largely ahistorical, often comprising a contrast between critique of a very specific contemporary cultural pattern and an unsupported assertion that this did not occur in the past. They rarely attend to causality; no one knows how or why any particular deplorable cultural practice or belief has arisen. And finally, they are often less than impressive on what might be done to remedy things.

People in past times certainly were concerned about well-being. During the 1930s, for example, hard-nosed Communists like John Gollan and Wal Hannington drew attention to the effects of unemployment on mental health. Of course, psychologists and other medical specialists also focused on these issues; I’ve blogged about one of these, Marie Jahoda, who studied resilience and vulnerability among the unemployed. Of course, while there was debate over young people’s vulnerability, much of it focused on the economic conditions that were undermining security and resilience.

So if there is an ‘affective turn’ in our society, what has fuelled it? One possibility is that it has arisen solely because of a successful lobby from vested interests. My impression was that last night was that this is largely how Kathryn sees the rise of political and educational concern over young people’s vulnerability – it is, she seems to suggest, largely driven by the growing army of therapists, psychiatrists and others. This seems pretty unconvincing; unless she knows something that I don’t, this is not the most powerful and united lobbying group that occurs to me.

A more convincing explanation is that well-being now matters
more. I think this is highly likely, and that in our affluent, consumption-driven society, people are far more likely to worry about their own mental state. As I’ve said elsewhere, I see much of the interest in counselling, positive psychology and self-help therapies as connected to wider tendencies towards individualisation and introspection that arise from deeply-rooted social trends, combined with the rapid expansion of post-secondary education, and growth in the importance of qualifications and skills. In short, what was once a private trouble has become a public issue as a result of deep-rooted social and cultural change.

Arguably, too, our modern world is creating more insecurity and new sources of anxiety. The well-known phenomenon of precariety is often understood to refer mainly to people who work on the economic margins, in insecure and fragmentary jobs that might end at any moment. But the experience is also felt in many other occupations that once were highly secure, from policing to sales. These occupations no longer provide a solid foundation for a secure identity – and, for many people, our intimate relationships and community contexts are equally precarious.

Finally, what should we do? I worry about our ability to develop critiques and our inability to offer solutions. For some, the affective turn means that we are moving towards a softer, more caring society. If Kathryn believes that the therapeutic culture is undermining our ability to act, and to take responsibility for our actions, then surely the onus is on her to come up with a few clear proposals. Meanwhile, isn’t a world where Andy Murray cries in public preferable to one where we absorb pain in private, but present a fixed smile to the outside world?

Does educational research stop at 18 or 21? The debate over Labour policies and Britain’s weak literacy and numeracy

There has been a massive debate in Britain over the results of the OECD’s adult skills survey. Known as the Programme for the International Assessment of Adult Competencies (PIAAC), the survey involves a series of standardised assessments for individuals in 24 countries, backed up by the collection of background data for each participant. Taken as a whole, Britain’s adults came across as reassuringly mediocre in their performance, coming just below average on literacy, numeracy and IT skills among the countries surveyed.

However, as is usual in international surveys, behind the averages were some significant variations. The sub-group which attracted the most attention were young people, whose literacy and numeracy scores came close to the bottom. The Guardian ran the story under the banner: ‘England’s young people near bottom of global league table for basic skills’. Or, as a Daily Mail headline had it, school-leavers are ‘worse at maths and literacy than their grandparents’.

Government ministers promptly seized on this figures to (a) rubbish Labour’s schools policies, and (b) support their own measures. Superficially, this is quite a reasonable claim: anyone who was aged 16-24 when the survey was administered in 2011 would have gone to school during the period 1992-2011, and Labour was in power for 13 of those 19 years. So a critic might suppose the results to reveal fundamental flaws in the education policies that dominated during that period.

Is this the case? I don’t really know, though I suspect that the answer may well be much more complex. But what worries me is that I am not expecting much light to be shed on this problem by my colleagues in the educational research community. For most education researchers, learning seems to stop when school or university ends. If you glance through the last few issues of the British Educational Research Journal or the programme of the British Educational Research Association’s latest conference, you will struggle to find any sign of interest in those who have left full-time education.

There is, of course, an obvious reason for this. Most university research into education is undertaken by people who specialise in training schoolteachers, and it is understandable that they study teachers and schools. Another group is employed in academic staff development, and they tend to study university teaching. So the question of what becomes of people when they leave full-time education is left to sociologists, economists and the occasional specialist in further or adult education.

Mind you, I still expect a few comments on PIAAC from the ‘mainstream’ educational research community. Most of them will lump PIAAC in with PISA as an example of the wider global trend towards ‘governance by data’ – a phenomenon that Alexandra Ioannidou has discussed in a journal article in 2007 and a number of subsequent papers (other scholars’ more recent accounts seem to me to add little to her analysis).

On the whole, I think I prefer governance by data to governance by opinion, anecdote and prejudice of the kind I associate with Michael Gove. And I would therefore welcome a little help from my fellow researchers, particularly those who studied British and other school systems during the period between the mid-90s and 2010, in understanding precisely how young people in England and Northern Ireland fell so badly behind.

Meanwhile, it will be left to hard-pressed practitioners in further and adult education to support these young adult learners as they try to bring their essential skills into line with the economic, cultural and social demands that they are so poorly equipped to face.

Why taking part in the OECD Skills Survey is a good idea

OECD’s Adult Skills Survey has been hitting headlines across Europe. Newspapers and magazines in France, Germany, Sweden, Ireland, Australia, Korea and Canada have been full of it – as has much of the British press. But there is a curious silence north of the border, where the Scottish Government decided that it wanted no part of this particular piece of comparative research.

For all I know, the Scottish Government has extremely good reasons. A senior civil servant told me some time ago that the budget for social research had been cut back to the bone. As a result, the Government had decided to withdraw from some existing international surveys (the 2011 wave of the PIRLS survey of schools literacy, for example), and not to take part in the OECD survey of adult skills.

Further, I would expect the Government, if anyone asks, to point out that it published its own study of adult skills in 2009. But this survey used different instruments from OECD (it adopted the same instruments as those used for the previous OECD survey in 1996). Useful though this survey was, it took a different approach from the later survey, covered a more limited range of skills, and analysed them in less depth. And it was confined to one country, thought this did not stop the authors of the report from expressing satisfaction at Scotland’s ‘creditable placement’ against other countries’ performance in 1996.

Whatever the reason, Scotland did not form part of the 2011-12 Survey, which has now been published. On the plus side, the taxpayer has saved some money – or, more accurately, the citizens will enjoy the benefits of spending being allocated elsewhere. But there is a pretty massive down side as well.

Taking part provides a massive volume of data, collected using internationally agreed instruments that have been developed and tested over four years. This allows policy-makers, researchers and the wider public to undertake an informed benchmarking of their own country’s performance and to see how it stacks up against others.

This in turn turns a spotlight onto adult learning. Berni Brady, director of the Irish adult education organisation AONTAS, appeared on prime time explaining what the results meant for Ireland, and calling for the government to recognise the needs of adult learners in its new strategy for further education and training. In Britain, the BBC’s chief business editor, Robert Peston, wrote and spoke about competitiveness and adult skills.

The Survey has also shed light on some discrepancies in national performance levels. In England, media attention quickly seized on the literacy and numeracy scores of young adults, who did notable worse than older generations. Matthew Hancock, the Coalition Minister for Skills, promptly blamed the previous government’s schools policies, neatly side-stepping the fact that whoever is to blame, these 16-24-olds are already of working age.

Incidentally, Hancock’s claim doesn’t say much about his own numeracy skills. Someone who was 24 when the survey took place in 2011 would have entered school in 1991 or 1992, well before Labour came to power. However, there is enough basis in his claim to pose a few uncomfortable questions for Labour education ministers, along with those academics and others who advised them. But at least we have the data. In Scotland, where there would be huge interest in knowing how schoolchildren fared under devolution, we simply lack comparable information.

Of course, the OECD Survey can easily become a flash in the pan. Having bowed and danced in the spotlight, adult learning could soon find itself in the familiar gloom of the margins, as all the fuss and debate moves back to schools and universities. But that is partly up to those who are interested in adult learners and the institutions that support them. The OECD’s results provide us with plenty of material to nourish debate for some time to come – if we want it.

Enrolling students: in praise of university administrators

At the start of a new term, I look at my teaching timetable, and go to the room specified at the time specified. I suspect many academics do the same, and give little if any thought to the processes by which students come into the institution. They apply, they are made an offer, and if they achieve the necessary grades and still want to come, then they show up in my classroom. So I was interested when a friend who works at another university told me about her days spent enrolling new arrivals.

Like much administration, most of the work is pretty routine, and involves little more than smiling and checking that the records are accurate. So it comes as a surprise to learn that some students – not large numbers, but more than a handful – turn up without any means of confirming their identity. Even though the letter telling them where to enrol specifically asked them to bring identification, they are of course terribly indignant when told that they cannot enrol without it. In most cases they can simply go back to their room, and then rejoin the queue, but some have to wait for their parents to drive to the university.

A second group turns out not to have the qualifications they said they had gained. For most school-leavers, who apply through the central applications shceme, qualifications are checked automatically. Others apply directly, and some of these are not able to produce evidence of the qualifications they claim to have passed. Perhaps there might be a good reason for this, but – unless you are a refugee from a war zone – I can’t think what it is. Apparently one would-be student, on learning that she could not enter without showing that she had in fact got the A-level grades she claimed, then got her parents to complain to her local MP.

Then there was the new student who turned up in the morning to enrol and was already drunk. At least he was amicable, unlike the members of the other two groups. And there’s nothing in the rules to say that you have to be sober when you enrol. I wish I’d asked which subject he was taking – law, perhaps?

This is a side of university life that I rarely see or hear of. Most of my students are adult returners or post-experience professionals, and they are mostly a pretty sober lot. So for me, this came as an interesting insight into one small aspect of the work of my administrative colleagues. Behind that calm and efficient exterior there is always a back story.