Symbolic violence and poverty porn

I’ve been thinking off and on about Pierre Bourdieu’s concept of symbolic violence. His well-known book on Reproduction in Education, Society and Culture started with a discussion of ‘a theory of symbolic violence’, which defined it in terms of the power to ‘impose meanings and impose them as legitimate by concealing the power relations which are the basis of its force’. He went on to describe all ‘pedagogic action’ as ‘symbolic violence in so far as it is the imposition of a cultural arbitrary by an arbitrary power’.

While never returning to the idea in such depth, Bourdieu continued to use it in broadly similar terms. But it has never had the same currency as the other key ideas that he helped to generate. A search of the British Journal of Sociology of Education returned 53 papers which used the concept in some way, compared with 331 which referred to cultural capital and 247 which referred to habitus. Even social capital, with 159 mentions, fared better than symbolic violence. A quick check of the British Education Index confirmed my hunch that it is less popular than these other typically Bourdieusian concepts.

While I have drawn on Bourdieu in my own work, I have never warmed to the idea of symbolic violence. I can see what he is getting at, but I find it excessive. Even as a metaphor, it is a hyperbole which is good at capturing the attention but bad at explaining anything. Worse, it can distract us from the role of actual, physical violence, whether in the form of dangerous working conditions that cause direct or indirect damage to people’s bodies, or in the form of deliberately inflicted harm of the kind that is all too common within families.

Still, Bourdieu was on to something. Elsewhere he talked about the insults that the respectable feel free to heap upon the marginalised and poor, as well as the gentler disdain of the ‘culture of condescension’ found between different strata of the bourgeoisie. And of course people can then internalise these demeaning and scornful attitudes, seeing themselves as somehow worth less than other people. I was particularly struck by this while reading Vicky Duckworth’s excellent study of adult literacy learners in Oldham, which is one of the few sociological studies in our times to use Bourdieu’s idea.

And our times are certainly prompting me to think about how we – the comfortable and respectable – relate to the marginalised and dispossessed in our own society. Duckworth’s book made me think about the way in which different people are responding to Benefits Street, the Channel Four series which portrays people living on benefits in a single Birmingham street. For some conservative commentators, the programme has triggered opportunities to quote exactly the sort of language that Duckworth notes in her study: the street is ‘filthy’, a ‘moral cesspit’ inhabited by ‘scrounging vermin’. Against that we have the equally stigmatising disdain of those who turn their backs on ‘poverty porn’ – the mirror image of the shame that the stigmatised experience when confronted by the respectable.

Television documentaries like Benefits Street and The Scheme are double-edged. They reinforce a culture of blame, yet at the same time they force viewers to contemplate fellow citizens who otherwise they avoid seeing. For after all, we live in cosy suburbs and dormitory villages, we commute to work by car, we shop in anonymous warehouses – what are these behaviours about if not avoiding those parts of our society that we prefer not to see?

I have never come across a writer who bemoans ‘poverty porn’ yet who then goes on to explain what kind of documentaries on poverty they would prefer to see – or how they would reach a popular audience. It seems pretty reasonable to conclude that these critics are therefore saying that documentary film makers should avoid poverty; and that audiences, if they must contemplate these things, should turn to fiction. I strongly disagree; I loved such films as Ken Loach’s Sweet 16 or Peter Mullan’s Neds, but there is also a place for documentary film. I am afraid that simply scorning it as ‘poverty porn’ is also a distancing technique.

Pierre Bourdieu and Jean-Paul Passeron, Reproduction in education, society and culture, Sage, 1977 (original French edition 1970)

Going to the pub as an investment in social capital

pintMedically, there are plenty of reasons to suppose that alcohol harms the human body and produces damaging behaviours. However, I’ve come across a couple of pieces of research in recent weeks that might help remind us that drinking can also be related to social capital, which in turn has some benefits.

These positive effects of alcohol first came to my attention when I was writing the second edition of my textbook on social capital. A friend sent me a copy of a paper – available online – that found higher earnings among social drinkers than among either non-drinkers or solitary drinkers. This finding was based on analyses of the US General Social Survey, controlling for other factors such as full-time/part-time work and qualifications; interestingly, the study showed some differences between the effects of drinking for the two genders. Overall, the authors suggested that this gain arose because social drinkers formed networks that then gave them access to knowledge of opportunities that were denied to non-drinkers or solitary drinkers.

This seemed to me interesting enough to look at this literature again, for a third edition of the text. I found some refinements to the analysis of drink and earnings, with one particularly persuasive study of US panel data showing that both abstinence and heavy drinking were associated with lower lifetime incomes than those enjoyed by light/moderate drinkers.

The Crown Liquor Saloon, Belfast. Image copyrighted by Albert Bridge, licensed for reuse under the Creative Commons

The Crown Liquor Saloon, Belfast. Image copyrighted by Albert Bridge, licensed for reuse under the Creative Commons

I also came across some qualitative research on health and drinking among men. This study drew on group interviews with middle aged men in Scotland. The authors found that while beer drinking in a pub was very much part of masculine culture, it also helped men to define ‘some non-hegemonic behaviours as forgiveable – and indeed acceptable’. This included open discussions of emotions and mental health issues while drinking beer together, so that while the men might engage in damaging behaviour – excessive drinking – they also provided social support that could improve health outcomes.

Finally, there are studies of the influence of social capital on drinking levels. These tend to show that those with higher levels of social capital are less likely to indulge in binge drinking. It is, though, difficult to know what weight we can place on these studies. They tend to be based on samples of university students, who might well be untypical of the wider population. And they tend to measure social capital in terms of the time spent volunteering, which of course may include activities undertaken on behalf of a faith organisation that disapproves of or forbids alcohol. So I am not really persuaded that these studies are of wider significance.

But one study, based on English survey data, and using a wider range of social capital indicators, found that those who lacked social support tended not to drink at all, while civic participation at individual level and social capital community level were both associated with moderate alcohol consumption. Note that this was an association – with cross-sectional surveys, it is hard to draw any conclusions about causality. Again, I’m not inclined to rush to generalise, but these findings seem on the face of it to be compatible with those showing that moderate drinking can have some beneficial effects.

In practical terms, I am faced with two decisions. Fascinating though this is – and reassuring for me as a sociable drinker – I have to decide whether it really merits inclusion in a textbook. And when it is published, where should I take my partner to celebrate?

Adult learning and the Great War


The centenary of the Great War is attracting a remarkable amount of attention. Probably some people are now tweeting that they are sick of hearing about it, as though it were just another celebrity scandal. But for most people, the War was a turning point in modern history – and because of the way that ordinary men and women were involved, it is a highly evocative experience in which family and community memories are threaded through our own lives.

For historians, particularly if they are committed to sharing their research with a wider audience, this controversial centenary presents a fabulous challenge. There is already plenty happening for adult learners wanting to improve their understanding of this tragic, heroic conflict. I reckon the BBC really is on top of its game, with a series of online presentations – like Ian Macmillan’s discussion of poetry and perceptions of the War – that are really mini-MOOCs.

I’m equally impressed by the programme of activities organised by the Yorkshire and Humber region of the Workers’ Educational Association. This includes courses on the causes and consequences of the Great War to family history workshops exploring relevant source material. Not to be outdone, the Whitstable branch of the WEA is running a course on women’s experiences with the evocative title ‘From suffragettes to munitionettes’ (listed in the hot courses guide, madly, under ‘Fun and Careers’).

Then there are museums, libraries and archives services, starting with the National Archives, which is recruiting ‘citizen historians’ to help tag entries in unit war diaries. In Gloucester, the county archivists are supporting a project led by the Everyman Theatre to provide training and learning resources so that local learners can contribute to community commemorations.  Bishops Stortford Museum is leading another project on crime and disorder during the War.

As well as funding a major programme led by the Imperial War Museum, the Heritage Lottery Fund is supporting local studies. University of the Third Age groups are researching the impact of the war on their local communities, or tracing the names on village war memorials. Huddersfield rugby league fans are examining the impact of the War on their club and its players. And the Arts and Humanities Research Council is encouraging researchers to undertake community engagement activities to connect academic and public histories of the First World War and its legacy.

All this is pretty encouraging, particularly as it is hard to find any examples of mindless jingoism or simplistic dismissal. Nevertheless, I wonder whether it is right that most of these activities, valuable though they are, are taking place within a local or at best a national frame. The exceptions, such as the family history roadshows being ordganised through the Europeana crowd-sourcing project, remind us that the Great War was a
Europe-wide conflict.

We can also learn from links with others who are marking the centenary from very different perspectives. In Germany, the Volkshochschulen have drawn up a handbook of ‘tips for practice’ in dealing with the Great War. It suggests examples ranging from discussions of source material around family history or everyday life in 1914 to group visits to major exhibitions and places of memorial, and also encourages tutors to ask whose history is being discussed (Germany in 1914, of course, being a colonial power which also had influential allies in the middle east).

In Austria, the Society for Political Education is supporting proposals that shift the focus away from such major events, asking applicants to consider such questions as: What events flow into the cultural memory and endure as part of the culture of remembrance? Why these events and not others? What part does the politics of history today play in shaping the political domain and political education?

I suppose Mr Gove would be pleased that the film series planned by the Volkshochschul in Offenburg includes neither Blackadder nor Oh What a Lovely War. But I’m confident he would be horrified by the idea of bringing together various World War I related activities provided by adult education organisations across Europe in order to create dialogue, research and discussion. That’s what the European Adult Education Association is planning, and it would be good if others did the same.

Legal advice on the EU and tuition fees in an independent Scotland

The debating chamber in the Scottish Parliament

The debating chamber in the Scottish Parliament

I’ve been banging on for a bit now about the Scottish Government’s belief that the EU would allow it to charge fees to students from the rest of the UK in the event of a Yes vot in September (I’m assuming that the independent monarchy of Scotland would be an EU member, mainly because I can think of no good reason why it would not be, and if the UK is still a member, I’m certain that it would be arguing strongly in support of Scotland’s membership).

The Government’s White Paper on independence guarantees free tuition for Scottish higher education students, while charging tuition fees to students from the rest of the UK. This proposal has been challenged by a number of European officials and former officials. Huw Lewis, the Welsh education minister, has predicted that he will have to join a queue of people wanting to sue the Scottish Government if it attempts to proceed with its plans.

The Scottish Government’s response has been to repeat the claim in the White Paper that it has been advised that it will have an ‘objective justification’ for exempting Scotland from EU law on equal access to higher education for all European citizens. It claims that this is consistent with the legal advice it has received (but which it will not publish), and that ‘This is a point made by Universities Scotland too’.

Universities Scotland commissioned its own legal advice, which is now in the public domain. It received eight pages of cautiously worded advice in April 2013. I’ll happily discuss it in greater detail if anyone is interested, but I imagine most people will be satisfied with the conclusion, which consists of the following two paragraphs:

As a matter of EU law it would appear that it may be possible to rely upon a residency requirement for access to preferential fees and grants regimes so long as that requirement is applied to all students regardless of their nationality and can be objectively justified.

It will be for the government seeking to introduce such a regime to establish, on evidence, that there is a legitimate aim which can be objectively justified which would allow them to derogate from the overriding principles of freedom of movement and non discrimination.

Decide for yourself whether this suggests any realistic prospect of the Scottish Government persuading the EU to over-ride its core principles of non-discrimination and free movement of labour.

Why the Scottish Government is wrong about tuition fees and the EU

>If Scots vote to leave the UK in September, the Scottish Government plans to continue to charging tuition fees for students from England, Wales and Northern Ireland, but not for anyone else in the European Union. I’ve argued before that this is unlikely to happen, and today a former EU Commissioner for Education and Training is quoted as saying that all EU students would have to receive ‘the same treatment’.

Only in Scotland, and only this year, would anyone think this news. The legal position is quite clear. European legislation on free movement of labour – one of the central founding principles of the EU – covers higher education, which is treated legally as a form of vocational training. There have been challenges in the past to the definition of higher education as a form of vocational training, and the courts have always rejected them.

If you’re interested in reading about the origins and rationale of this rather quirky legal status, you can always get a library copy of my now rather dated book on European education policies. But the main consequence was that it allowed the EU to develop a series of mobility schemes and collaborative projects, and still underpins such programmes as Erasmus+.

So under current European law, the Scottish Government must treat all EU citizens equally in respect of access to higher education. Of course, the Government can try to get the law changed, and it might well wish to have higher education redefined as an area of national rather than European competence, but it has not said it will do so. And at present I can’t see how a small, new member state will be able to gather together enough support for the European Commission to change its current stance.

In its White Paper on independence, the Scottish Government effectively says that it will seek an opt-out. It doesn’t use that phrase, of course, which is popularly associated with the Coservative Party. Rather, it says that it will if necessary present an ‘objective justification’ for an exemption, based on the unique and exceptional position of Scotland in relation to other parts of the UK, on the relative size of the rest of the UK, on the fee differential, on our shared land border and common language, on the qualification structure, on the quality of our university sector, and on the high demand for places.

Michael Russell, Scotland's Secretary for Education and Lifelong Learning

Michael Russell, Scotland’s Secretary for Education and Lifelong Learning

Will this wash? Well, I think it just about possible, but highly unlikely. If accepted, it would open up a massive boîte de Pandore. And here are just a few of the most obvious reasons why.

At the most general level, it runs against current EU policies on higher education, which aim at improving professional mobility by increasing the numbers of students who attend a university in another European country than their own, and aligning the qualifications structures of universities in different European countries. More particularly, it would present a precedent for other countries in similar situations (eg. Denmark/Sweden, Wallonie/France, Netherlands/Flanders, Luxembourg and everyone). It would also annoy the socks off higher education ministers and rectors who have persuaded university staff to teach in English. The practical consequences elsewhere would also be significant, starting with the effects in our neighbouring island of Ireland.

So you can just imagine how other ministers of education will react when Mike Russell, Scotland’s Cabinet Secretary for Education and Lifelong Learning, sets out his plans to the European Council on Education. I would like to be in that room.

Polishing off my MOOC

I’m feeling a bit smug. If we academics know one thing about MOOCs, it is that only a tiny proportion of those who start the course actually make it through to the end. And I’ve polished off my MOOC with four days to go.

Having decided that I wanted to actually take a MOOC before pontificating about them, I set myself three criteria: practicality, ignorance and irrelevance. This one – on England in the Time of Richard III – met all three. It was planned to take up two hours a week, and would run for six weeks, so it was manageable. I don’t know much about pre-modern history (I tend to think of anything before the Reformation as having to do with either Normans, Vikings or Romans). And it was nothing to do with my day job.

I’ve found it a thoroughly enjoyable experience. I learned a lot, much of it unexpected (by me at least), about society, culture and the economy in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries; the changes wrought by the Black Death were far more extensive than I’d supposed. I was interested particularly by the revolution in publishing, fuelled partly by technology, but also by new demands from what was clearly a more literate society than I’d supposed. I didn’t learn as much as I’d expected about the political conflicts that erupted periodically into armed conflict; for me, they;re still vague palace intrigues and dynastic rivalries (or “those naughty Normans at it again”). And the final unit, on the archeological and forensic work in Leicester, was predictably fascinating.

For the purposes of dietary restrictions, the church defined beavers (and ducks) as fish.

For the purposes of dietary restrictions, the medieval church defined beavers (and ducks) as fish.

Do I think MOOCs will revolutionise education in our lifetime? Like a lot of people, I don’t think they are game-changers just yet. Partly this is down to economics. My MOOC was provided by the University of Leicester, working with the Open University and other partners through FutureLearn. It provided a mixture of resources – audio clips, video clips, downloads, an app, a student forum – and, of course, text. These are costly, and participation is free. Then there are equally important questions about equity and access, pedagogic support, quality assurance, and learner assessment.

We need to treat MOOCs less as a uniquely thrilling or appalling game changer, and more as part of a long term process in which teaching and learning are redefined. It includes the foundation of the OU (highly successful) and the founding of e-university collaborations in England and Scotland (both expensive failures). Digitisation has transformed publishing (including academic publishing), broadcasting, the recording of music, and the processing of massive volumes of information; of course it will affect education, in ways that are still evolving rapidly.

We can probably see MOOCs as exciting, worthy but slightly peripheral ventures at present – a sort of contemporary form of extra-mural education. Yet something has changed with their introduction. The ‘game’ may not have changed, but the way we play it has been shifting steadily for some decades, and it will continue to do so.

Carstairs: work camp and high security hospital

View of Lampits Farm from the  old railway bridge, part of a line that linked the centre with Carstairs Junction

The old railway bridge, part of a line that linked the centre with Carstairs Junction, with Lampits Farm in the distance. Taken on a dreich day.

Fiona Watson, the well-known Scottish historian, interviewed me recently for the BBC’s Making History programme. We met in the small Lanarkshire village of Carstairs, known mainly as a very busy railway junction and above all as the site of one of the UK’s four high security hospitals. Not far away, a local eccentric has converted an old water tower into Hagrid’s Hut.

In July 1928, the Ministry of Labour bought 507 acres just outside the village for the sum of £7,500. And that is why Fiona and I were standing in a lane leading up to Lampits Farm, where the Ministry opened a centre for emigrant training in early 1929.

Most of the trainees came from North Lanarkshire and Glasgow, where they had often worked in industries such as mining; they came to Carstairs in the hope that a few weeks of rough farm work and good food would prepare them to leave Scotland for Canada or Australia. The centre hit the headlines shortly after opening, when William Young Todd, the ploughman instructor, was killed by the corn threshing machine (his widow was duly evicted from their tied cottage).

Australia recruitment poster

Demand for harvesters and labourers was high, particularly in Canada, until the 1929 crisis. Faced with a pool of unemployed workers at home, the Dominions governments were reluctant to accept half-trained and poorly fed Scots. The Ministry intended to close the centre, and sell it as well as the nearby Colombie Farm, which it had bought with a view to expanding its emigrant training programme.

In 1929, though, the British voted in their first Labour government. Margaret Bondfield, the new Minister of Labour, was an enthusiastic advocate of training, and she approved plans for a new type of residential training. Carstairs became one of Bondfield’s new Transfer Instruction Centres, and set about training unemployed young men, who on pain of losing their benefits were prepared to transfer out of the old distressed regions to one of the areas where new industries were developing.

As elsewhere, training in the TICs largely consisted of heavy manual labour, supported by a heavy diet and a small amount of basic adult education. Reports vary over the conditions. The Glasgow organiser of the building trades union visited Carstairs in 1930, reporting reassuringly that the men were training ‘in ideal surroundings and under ideal conditions’. His main interest, though, was making sure that the trainees would not compete with his members for jobs.

Some evidence suggests a less rosy picture. Sixty men walked out of the TIC in July 1930 in a protest over the food; the trainees went on strike three years later, and ninety were dismissed or resigned. By then, the Ministry was trying to sell off its land and buildings and transfer its operations to new camps on Forestry Commission land at Glenbranter and Glentress, as there was little more serious labour to be done at Carstairs.

Failing to find a private buyer, the Ministry eventually handed the land over to the Special Areas Commissioner, who used it as a showcase for training the unemployed to become crofters. Meanwhile, the trainees at Lampits were sent to help the Prison Department prepare the land across the road for the more skilled builders who erected what was initially called the Criminal Lunatic Asylum and State Institution.

Carstairs was a good place for Fiona and I to talk about the ways in which ideas about the land and rural labour came together with proposals for disciplining unemployed bodies, while trains rattled past on the junction and visitors drove into the hospital car park.

Getting along with my MOOC

Thank goodness for Christmas. A nice fortnight’s break, punctuated only by hearty walks and bouts of over-consumption, provided the ideal opportunity for catching up on my MOOC. It’s only a six week course, with an estimated study time of two hours a week. But it’s surprising how quickly you get behind.

Or perhaps it isn’t surprising. Finding two hours in an already crowded schedule was always going to be a challenge, mainly because the two hours are not timetabled. The very flexibility that makes a MOOC such an attractive proposition is what also makes it easy for learners to fall by the wayside. You can engage with the course materials at any time, any where (as long as it has Wifi).

But like old friends, you can also easily forget it for days at a time, and plan to catch up ‘later’. And my MOOC has started to feel like a friend, but a very distant one. There is space for sociability among the various learning activities, with a very lively forum for chatting. But MOOCs are massive, and there are too many names for any individual to stand out, or to get any sense of the people behind the names. On the other hand, you do form an attachment to the course director, who appears regularly on audio recordings.

I’ve found it especially easy to forget my MOOC during the working week. This is partly due to an underlying feeling that it ‘isn’t really work’, because I chose to study a topic that interested me, rather than something related to my job. And an academic’s job has fuzzy borders, spreading over into all sorts of ‘spare time’. While this is not nearly so exceptional as some of my colleagues seem to think, it does mean that I have explicitly to remind myself that, actually, taking a MOOC is a form of professional updating.

I’ve learned to negotiate a splendid app on a medieval abbey in Norfolk, and have reflected on the bundle of learning activities that the course designers have used. I’ve wondered how the academics have got on with the learning technology people, and whether they’ve encountered challenges and difference of opinion along the way. And I’ve contrasted and compared the ‘student experience’ of a MOOC with that of teaching an evening course.

Of course, it isn’t a formal training programme, and I think it unlikely that any of my senior managers will know or care that I’m taking a MOOC. Like many in higher education, they will worry about MOOCs as and when MOOCs have an impact on their own institution. And that is why it matters that people like me, who claim to be specialists in learning, should be open-minded and curious about MOOCs, rather than either yodelling about the ‘next big thing’ or dismissing them as a technologically-driven fad.

The continuing value of access courses

In a society which seems to stifle so many opportunities for social mobility, I find it remarkable that access courses continue to thrive. Initially promoted by the Home Office as a means of improving minority ethnic access to the professions, during the 1908s locally-designed access courses were developed across the UK by college and university lecturers who were determined – and were able – to provide a pathway suitable for adult returners aiming to enter higher education.

I’d be surprised if access courses hadn’t changed since then. For a start, they have become ‘normal’; while the excitement and innovation of the pioneers have long gone, so are the insecurity and improvisation that characterised much of the early access provision. Some of the founding principles – accumulation and transfer of academic credit among them – were adopted by managers and policy makers across entire sectors of further and higher education and training. And the courses themselves are now formally regulated, albeit by the relatively ‘soft-touch’ hands of the HE sector’s Quality Assurance Agency.

QAA’s annual statistical reports provide a brief overview of the scale and nature of access provision, and also say something about the students. In 2011-12, 42,150 people in England and Wales were registered on one of the 1,140 courses that were offered that year. Colleges are by far the largest providers, though there is also a healthy showing by adult education providers, and universities are still delivering a significant minority of courses directly.

Following the recession, demand for places has risen by one third. Some 31,860 took an access course in 2007-8, followed by a sharp rise to 39,835 in the next year. Interestingly, though, there seems to have been little change in the student profile: three quarters are female, just under a third are non-white and one third are aged 30 or above. There has been little change in the number of younger students – in contrast to what I often hear said of similar courses in Scotland. Consistently, the male learners are on average younger than their female fellow students.

The main message to emerge from this quick overview, then, is that access courses are flourishing, and are in greater demand during the recession. Importantly, the QAA figures also show that they are still recruiting predominantly from less advantaged socio-economic groups, so we can conclude that access courses are making some contribution to social mobility. So these courses clearly have a continued role to play, and in the current context are probably worth expanding.