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Countering right wing ideology and blind prejudice

August 16th, 2011 by Graham Attwell

I have spent many years living in Pontypridd, in the South Wales Valleys. During this time I also spent several years living in social housing on a housing estate where many people were unemployed. Nealy everyone I knew who was unemployed wanted to work. True, some of them suffered from chronic illness or disability – all too often caused by depression. But most simply couldn’t get work. Many had few qualifications.There were also a considerable number of single parents, unable to work due to childcare responsibilities.

People were reliant on social benefits to feed and cloth their children – and yes to go on an occasional night out. But then as now it was very hard to survive on benefits. however families helped out plus there was generally (not always) a sense of solidarity and community support. Many people also worked on what we called ‘hobbles’ – off the cards (illegal work) – mostly for a local Christmas decoration company paying little more than £1 an hour.

But some, like me had degrees. And for two years I was unemployed. I admit I took to lying in my job applications. After endlessly being told I was overqualified I forgot to tell people about my degree. And at the same time no-one was looking for history graduates in the valleys.

None of these people were lazy. None were afraid of hard work – quite the reverse. Few people would choose to live on benefits. It is simply that within the limits of their qualifications and responsibilities there was no work.

And so I get angry when I hear ideologically driven nonsense from people like UK prime minster Cameron – who wouldn’t even last half a day on one weeks social benefits – that poor people are “culturally” unique, dependent on welfare by their own design and workshy.

And such nonsense is shamelessly peddled by the popular press who produce all kinds of spurious and inaccurate statistics to back it up. Even the Department of Work and Pensions has got in on the act, this week being forced to admit that its false its claim that there had been a 30% rise in people on disability living allowance over eight years was in fact “distorted”.

All the more welcome then that the UK Higher Education Economic and Social Data Service has released a new web page entitled “Understanding the riots: Data that can inform new research”.

The article states:

The recent street violence that erupted in parts of London and other English cities is sparking heated debates about the underlying causes.

Policy makers and the public want to know more. For researchers, there is a wealth of data to consult.

In August 2011, areas of London and towns and cities across England experienced outbreaks of rioting, looting, crime and arson unseen since the riots in Brixton and Toxteth of 1981.

While the situation has calmed for the moment, media coverage has raised many questions, for example:

  • How has socio-economic discontent and the rise of consumer culture contributed to the unrest?
  • How do young people see their lives and opportunities in an uncertain world?
  • How do the police use their powers and resources during civil disturbances and in the wider policing of communities, especially with regard to race, and how does the presence of gangs affect community life?
  • Given the role of technological and social media as an agent of communication in the riots, how has the rise of the internet and mobile technology changed society, especially among young people?

ESDS provides access to a range of qualitative and quantitative data resources that can give researchers contextual information to make analytical sense of these issues.

The article goes on to provide access to a number of relevant studies. But the ESDS also provides access to a wide range of statistical resources. And the sooner social science and education researchers start making use of these statistics the better. The problem, I suspect, is that analysing such statistics takes some skill and time.

Even more is the problem that academic researchers are not used to telling their story in a way that connects with people. Whilst I would not want to see research presented ‘Daily Mail’ style, I think there is much we can do to think of new ways of connecting with the wider world outside academia and making considered research and analysis available to counter blind prejudice and ideology (more to follow in next few days).

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