Dr. Stephen Crossley: Studying up, reporting out, and support from within

Stephen Crossley is a Senior Lecturer in Social Policy at Northumbria University. His PhD thesis, a Bourdieusian analysis of the ‘troubled families’ field can be found here and a short summary of it can be found here.

He has a book out, published by Pluto Press, called In Their Place: The Imagined Geographies of Poverty, which examines the way that spaces and places associated with poverty and impoverished communities are portrayed by people in positions of power.

He tweets sporadically at @akindoftrouble

 

I am what some people might call an Early Career Researcher (ECR), having just finished my PhD and in my first long-term academic post. I am, however, 41, have had at least 25 different jobs, and am hopefully more than halfway through my working life. The empirical evidence suggests that the last aspiration is unlikely to be realised, but no-one want to be accused of lacking aspiration or ambition nowadays, so I’ll cling to it. I also don’t have much time to do any research at the moment, so I’m never quite sure what the moniker ECR actually means. It appears, at times, to be little more than a label applied to junior members of staff that allows some of their senior colleagues to dispense unsolicited advice on which journals they should be aiming to publish in: ‘The best in the field’, in case you’re wondering.

Prior to starting my ‘research career’, I worked in community development, youth work and neighbourhood management roles in housing organisations and local authorities in the North East. I worked primarily with young people, community groups and tenants’ organisations on social housing estates. Many of the young people I worked with would, in the current parlance, be members of ‘troubled families’, and it was the government’s Troubled Families Programme that I did my PhD on. I also worked on a regional child poverty project in the North East, trying to ensure that practitioners and policy-makers were informed and kept abreast of social research around child poverty, so that this could inform their work.

My experiences as a street-level bureaucrat, tasked with implementing – and negotiating, subverting and resisting – government policies and strategies I ostensibly disagreed with undoubtedly informed my research interests. Likewise, my experience of the pressures of ‘frontline’ work and my awareness of the yawning gap between much social scientific research and government social policy also contributed to the development of my research approach. So, the transition from street-level bureaucrat to street-level researcher appears fairly straightforward, but the background and trajectory of this transition need acknowledging and explicating. Bourdieu (Bourdieu & Wacquant, 1992: 219 original emphasis) suggested that discussing one’s own research was ‘a discourse in which you expose yourself, you take risks’ and that ‘the more you expose yourself, the greater the chances of benefitting from the discussion and the more constructive and good-willed, I am sure, the criticisms and advice you will receive’.

I chose to, in the nicest possible way, ignore ‘troubled families’ in my research, and ‘twist the stick in the other direction’ (Bourdieu 1993:269), ‘studying up’ as Laura Nader (1972) put it, to interrogate the actions of the state in creating and sustaining the official social problem of ‘troubled families’. I also attempted to draw inspiration from sociologists who have argued for new, more dynamic forms of sociological enquiry to address contemporary issues. Michael Burawoy famously called for a ‘public sociology (2005), Back and Puwar (2012) called for ‘live sociology’, Dave Beer (2014) has called for a new ‘punk sociology’, there have been separate calls for ‘DIY sociology’ (Carrigan, 2014 and Paton, 2015), and Celia Lury (2012) has called for a move towards what she calls ‘amphibious sociology’. In Bourdieusian terms, I attempted to report across the ‘troubled families’ field, to practitioners, academics, and the wider public, whilst I was still in it, rather than attempting to report upwards to politicians and civil servants once I had left the field.

I realise, as others have done before me, (see Jones, 2015) that in attempting to subvert the insipid impact game that we are expected to play, I have ended up just playing it differently and, ultimately, profiting quite nicely from it. This is an ambiguity that I struggle with. I am also acutely aware that I benefit from many structural advantages (I’m white, male, English as a first language, heterosexual and in reasonably good health. I’ve also got a northern accent but that probably just adds a bit of ‘distinction’) and the reception that my research has received outside of academia and the opportunities it has brought with it, might not be extended to many others who look, or sound, different to me.

I am aware, and reminded on a daily basis, that academia is not perfect by any means. But I have been supported by some incredible academics and post-grad students – sociological and otherwise – at various stages of their ‘research careers’, and I think it is important that they are aware of the impact, for want of a better phrase, of that support on me, and others who have similarly benefitted from it. It is also important that other post-graduates are aware that such solidarity and collegiality exists, in what can often seem a highly individualised, competitive and unforgiving environment. At the current time, then, pursuing my own individual ‘research career’ seems much less important (and, if I’m honest, achievable or desirable) than supporting, and working with, undergraduates, postgraduates and colleagues interested in developing their own research projects, or thinking about collective endeavours with people outside of academic institutions. If I can show some solidarity to researchers in the even earlier throes of their careers, in the same way that others have shown it to me, I’ll consider that to be a very appropriate next chapter, and maybe even a happy ending, to this particular research story.

 

References

Back, L. and Puwar, N. (2012) A manifesto for live methods: provocations and capacities, The Sociological Review, 61 (S1): 6-17.

Beer, D. (2014) Punk Sociology, Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan.

Bourdieu, P. (1993) Sociology in Question, London: Sage.

Bourdieu, P. and Wacquant, L. (1992) An Invitation to Reflexive Sociology, Cambridge: Polity.

Burawoy, M. (2005) 2004 Presidential address: For Public Sociology, American Sociological Review, 70 (1): 4-28.

Carrigan, M. (2014) An Invitation to DIY Sociology #1, April 14. Available at https://markcarrigan.net/2014/04/14/an-invitation-to-diy-sociology/

Jones, H. (2015) Sociology as ‘progress’ and ‘passion’: a debate, Discover Society, Issue 27. Available at http://discoversociety.org/2015/12/01/focus-sociology-as-progress-and-passion-a-debate/

Lury, C. (2012) Going live: towards an amphibious sociology, The Sociological Review, 60 (S1): 184-197.

Nader, L. (1972) Up the anthropologist: perspectives gained from studying up. In D.H. Hymes (Ed.) Reinventing Anthropology. New York, Pantheon Books, pp284-311.

Paton, K. (2015) The Future Imagination: Going Live, Getting Real, DIY, 24 November. Available at https://www.thesociologicalreview.com/blog/the-future-imagination-going-live-getting-real-diy-1.html

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