The problem with writing, like the problem with speaking, is that words are limited. However articulate we are; however learned, there are only so many words, and only so many ways they can be strung together. As academics, we spend torturous hours agonising over our prose. And although we are constantly subject to accusations of obfuscation, the dense and sometimes incomprehensible nature of academic writing comes from our desire for precision. Often, what we are saying is complex, controversial, nuanced and new. We want to make sure that you get it. That there’s no room for miscommunication or misunderstanding. Finding words to express thoughts nobody has had before is hard. It is physical labour and it takes endurance. During the final months of my PhD I lay my head on my desk and sobbed. It was too much – it hurt. Like a woman throwing her head onto the pillow in the late stages of labour and refusing to push, I had almost given up. Except I couldn’t. I’d come this far, failure was not an option.
The problem with academic writing – at least for the writers – is that all that labour is often in vain. If we are lucky, a few hundred people might download our latest article; perhaps a few dozen will even read it. That can be frustrating – especially when we have worked for years to discover and articulate something important and want to share it out in the world where it might make a difference. This is why many academics like to write for a public audience too. Some tweet, some keep blogs, and some academics get a platform in the popular press where they can share their ideas and enliven public debate.
On Wednesday, the sociologist Lisa McKenzie, who has carried out ethnographic research in poor working class communities for well over a decade – and who is, herself, a member of the poor working class communities she has studied – published an article about the migrant crisis in the Guardian. It was, I thought, an important, vital piece of writing. It drew on McKenzie’s ethnography and sought to begin a public debate about why people from the some of Britain’s most deprived and under-resourced wards might respond with fear and anger to the thought of refugees arriving in their communities. She wrote of the legitimate and the more troubling fears that the white working class women in the communities she had studied expressed – about access to already-stretched resources and the behaviour of the men they called ‘asylum seekers’, which they found threatening and disrespectful. McKenzie suggested that to uncritically dismiss these women’s fears as ‘racism’ was unhelpful. Indeed, such dismissal of working class experience is perhaps what has led to political apathy in many working-class communities, and the rise of parties like Ukip and the EDL in once-Labour strongholds. (McKenzie wrote a similarly illuminating piece in Discover Society last year.) Certainly, to accuse white working-class people of unthinking racism without addressing the real ways in which aspects of immigration policy place pressure on already stretched resources in conditions of economic hardship — and can create cultural tensions among those with often already limited emotional bandwidth (due to dealing with the affects of poverty), does nothing to actually address the racism these commentators (often white) purport to care so much about.
However unpleasant it might have been for some readers to hear, there is no denying that McKenzie’s article speaks to a truth about the perceptions of immigration and asylum in many working class communities. I grew up in an area of London that remains one of the poorest parts of the country and the sentiments McKenzie’s subjects articulated (and far more extreme views) are all over the Facebook statuses of my school-mates and in the discussion threads on local community forums. Reading them – especially when they veer into aggressive racism and sexism – often makes my blood boil. I don’t agree with the Britain First posts that litter my newsfeed – but I can’t deny they resonate with many of the people I grew up with. This is what people think, and we have to acknowledge it. We can’t just dismiss these views as bigoted and ‘wrong’. The cuts and austerity measures implemented by this government have overwhelmingly affected the working classes. (Of course, the ‘working class’ includes people of all races and ethnicities. Indeed, it is not only ‘white people’ who express reservations about asylum and economic immigration). And people from the communities most affected by cuts and austerity measures are likely to feel the impact of immigration most keenly. They are likely to be the people most baffled by the government’s willingness to help ‘others’, when it roundly refuses to help them.
In the area where I grew up, racial tension and anger at the politicians whose policies have made it impossible for low and average income earners to live in the city where they were born bubble dangerously through everyday exchanges – surfacing sometimes in violence and racism, sometimes in solidarity. The responses of people to the conditions of their existence are nuanced, complex and cannot be reduced to polemical right/wrong, racist/anti-racist, good/bad narratives.
We can offer up our spare bedrooms all we like, but the reality is that people arriving in this country, traumatised and fleeing war, will be housed in already struggling wards, will mostly be entering the low-wage end of the labour market, will be competing for resources with people who are already struggling to get by. It is not fair, surely, to place refugees in communities that are already struggling for access to resources, and that are likely to greet those refugees with hostility.
Mainstream politics has utterly failed to speak to huge swathes of the population. What McKenzie’s research does is begin to give a voice to those people traditionally denied any kind of public platform. The responses that McKenzie received on Twitter suggest that many people were offended. Not only by the content of her article, but by McKenzie’s refusal to condemn the views of her subjects. I was especially disappointed by the academics who tweeted criticism that she had not detailed the complexity of the intersections between race, class and gender inequality in a 1200 word article. (Surely, it would have been better to read McKenzie’s research and contextualise the article before deriding her analytical methods?)
The continued failure to address the concerns of the poorest and most disadvantaged members of society has led to widespread suspicion and mistrust. That the effects of cuts to public services and the welfare state result in division and prejudice is not a secret – it is the desired end of the ideology of austerity. It doesn’t help any group if we don’t discuss these effects and if we cannot listen to the nuances of each-others’ experience without judgement, with compassion and understanding. The more willing we (‘the liberal left’ or the ‘centre middle’, or the ‘slightly right of centre’ or whatever group you want to think yourself part of now) are to listen to alternative views, the harder it will be for the government to deny that the austerity measures are anything other than ideological. We are a wealthy nation. There is no need for any of the people who live here to go to bed hungry – to die because they are too sick to work. Or else we are in such dire straights that something drastic has to happen to the middle and upper classes too. We can’t have it all ways. It shouldn’t always be the poor who suffer.
Ultimately McKenzie’s article – and my clumsy attempt to think through it here – reminds me again of the difficulty of writing and limits of words. The seduction of polemic, in which the newspapers deal, is that it makes life easy. It lets us choose a side. We can prove that we are right thinking and right if things are straightforward. But things are not straightforward. We live in a world riddled with paradoxes. If academic research is for anything it is to help us think about old problems in new ways. It can throw light on what was once in darkness.
Naturally, the limits of ‘journalism’ meant that the complexities that characterise McKenzie’s fascinating research were somewhat lost in translation. The nuances of her argument were perhaps clearer to me because I have read much of her published research and her PhD. But it was, nonetheless, an important attempt to disseminate sociological research more widely.
I salute McKenzie’s attempts to give her research a public face, and to use sociology to enliven public debate. I hope more academics are afforded a platform in the mainstream media, so that proper research can triumph over polemic. But I also hope readers realise that writing is hard, that words are limited (especially when there’s a word limit) – and that important research should provoke debate and disagreement.