Monthly Archives: December 2014

A Christmas message for doctoral students

I don’t remember the final months of my phd with a great deal of fondness. Stuck in my bedroom because my campus had closed down (ok, so it was unusual as circumstances go) I cranked-out around seven hours of writing and analysis per day on a seven day week that often also ran into the evenings. I still find it hard to work at home and much prefer the relative sociability of the office. Of course it shouldn’t and doesn’t need to be this way, there is no reason why doing a phd should be the hard task that it often feels like. Here I locate a number of anxieties and fundamentals about the phd process that reflect on my own experience and those I have supervised.

I remember picking up the book, How to Get A Phd, the message that still stays with me from that was the importance of recognising that isolation is a key feature of the doctoral student experience. People’s experience of this varies a great deal of course and much may depend on how well the student culture of your institution is managed, often it may come down to a key member of staff or a student with a penchant for organising festivities in breweries. Even better than this is to take charge of the social scene yourself, bearing in mind that contact with your peers is important for your own sanity and for checking and sharing your own learning. Don’t be fooled into thinking that someone specialising in housing finance can’t talk to a Bourdieusian expert on domesticity. We have plenty to learn from each other and cross-fertilisation is essential to the creative writing process, go and speak to the nerd down the corridor, you can bet that they think the same of you but they wont half appreciate a cup of tea and a chat to relieve their eye strain.

Other aspects of exchange and contact are open to Phd students, make sure that you take part in departmental and wider university seminar series (whether or not it is in ‘your’ area – if you don’t think you have anything to learn think again) and if the chance isn’t offered make a point of offering to present your results to these forums or strike up a group of students and present to each other. These skills are not only critical but these supportive environments, even if they don’t seem it, diminish nerves, boost confidence and make these encounters more predictable. Generating the skills of an ad-libbing confident presenter is one of the great transferable skills and getting stuck-in makes a massive difference – the more you do it the less your anxiety will be. Feel the fear and do it anyway, a warning though, it really is scary – but we often need that pit in the stomach to make sure we do a good job, breath it in and go for it.

I often see post-grads burning out as a result of plugging away, analysing data or writing for long periods of time without taking a break. Routines are the death of creativity and often knock longer-term confidence. It is important to see breaks as constructive ways of getting on track in the longer term BUT this most definitely doesn’t mean extended coffee breaks. Remember that the phd is a job, but outside of doing this as a 9 to 5 (always a good mindset to be in) you need to vary your daily patterns. A key reason for this is that research tells us that varying routines and taking breaks spurs the creative process, brains straining at the seems with new information and stressing over deadlines tend to close down. If you can recognise when you are beginning to struggle and have the confidence to shift into a different mindset (take a walk, have lunch out of the office for once) you will find yourself making connections and generating ideas much more quickly. Even varying your route to work and ensuring you talk to your peers are simple strategies to get out of ruts.

At the back of your mind it is important to remember why you are doing this and what it is that you are doing. This may sound too obvious but at times when it is all too much you are going to need to be clear about why you are slaving away while everyone else appears to be having all the fun. For me I was committed to what I felt was a concealed social problem, for others there will be other conundrums, the lifestyle itself and, most likely, the prospect of a job in a related field. For all this it is essential that enjoyment is the core of the experience, obvious but central to ensuring completion and a less stressful experience. Remember that doing a phd is supposed to be a training in research methodology and expertise but that your skills will be stronger if you are able to situate your research questions and approach in a broader universe of knowledge. I still cringe at the ten minute responses I gave to the casual conference dinner question, “so what is your phd on?” It is important to get distance to the extent that an academic, and any other, career will invariably involve a much greater emphasis on broad areas of knowledge and expertise. Remember that not everyone speaks Deleuze and that not everyone may care about the latest developments in statistical techniques.

I still value the days of doing my phd (despite their significant challenges, not least analysing longitudinal data on printed A4 sheets spread across an entire room) and what was initially an opportune choice has ended-up feeling like the revelation of a vocation. My English teacher would often say, we now have the luxury of a full hour to discuss literature, it is important to remember that we have the privilege of spending three (ok, sometimes four) years concerning ourselves with the all of the minutiae of a particular topic, its important not to waste that feeling and to ensure that you are in charge of a process which is still likely to remain a core part of your identity, either as an academic or in any other career.

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Public policy and public anger in a 24/7 world

For those that try to keep with international and current affairs the emerging picture of the world around us is surely a bleak one. Yet there is little that is new about this, if the advent of a new century has seen little done to address the wars on want, inequality and political instability, the century before it was little better. As Eric Hobsbawm’s masterful summary of the 20th century showed (Age of Extremes, Viking Press, 1995) the era before this was marked by genocide, political and national extremism, total war and devastating human loss. Yet, for all the advances in science and commerce, we continue to live in a world of overwhelming human suffering and unsettling changes, as the release of information about the use of torture by the US secret services surely shows.

The kind of political world we live in, by intent or its systemic forces, continues not only to tolerate the kinds of inequality and suffering around us, indeed, in many cases, social problems are ignored or condemned in their own right with fervour by mainstream politicians and lapped-up by an anxious and angry class of precarious workers and welfare recipients. It is surely curious that public conversations can be carefully shaped in such a way that the interests of the poor are made to appear as though they are united. The focus of my recent work has been the way that politicians, the media and social life tend to focus on the excluded, the marginal and the deprived and actively seek out their removal – to far away places, prisons and to segregated areas of our cities.

Anger and politics

The world of politics has long been laden with emotions. The charisma and force of political argument is often associated with motivating and convincing speeches and actions connected to big ideas about how the world worked and should be remade. Many commentators have argued for some time that the world we live in today is less driven by these big political ideas, that ideology and blind subservience to lofty goals has given way to a more practical kind of political life and policymaking.

On one level we might welcome such a change and yet the rapidity of transformations in modern social life and global economic circumstances has delivered incredible insecurity and fear. Many people now seek to throw up boundaries (national, gated communities or secured homes) and look to sanctuary within imagined local and ethnic communities. As examples we might look as much to the EU, the US or to Australia as to Rwanda, the Balkan states or to the middle East to see examples of the growing significance of these social forces.

This unpredictable and more connected world has helped to make us angrier and more emotional about the problems of the world – anger at injustice, at environmental change, at taxes, at crime and so on. Regardless of our own political affiliations there are issues that frustrate us and which often lead us to look for leadership on these issues. This bubbling social rage can generate gains for those political parties and media outlets that capitalise on these fears by providing leadership and coverage of these problems. These broad feelings of personal and communal insecurity have, in fact, generated support for those politicians who are able to project this anger onto the groups and issues that trouble us and the list of such groups is now quite long.

In this environment the media have become a key player, and if we look at the kinds of crime dramas and soaps on TV, the news headlines in our newspapers and on websites we can see how editorial decisions often tend to focus on the worst, random and most violent events. For the people who inhabit this media-saturated world, and that is a great deal of us, the world not only seems to be full of problems, but we also begin to have a rather distorted view of how often these problems take place. The kind of frustration provoked by witnessing real-life and fictional victimisation and various injustices is a deep source of the kind of pent-up frustration and fury that we see around us.

A war on the poor and helpless

We regularly hear from politicians about how they will challenge problems and particular groups (immigration, welfare ‘scroungers’ and so on) but in some cities around the world these proposals are really quite extreme. Let me give a few examples. In New York the police were directed by the then mayor, Giuliani, to clear homeless people from the parks and streets to help improve the image of downtown Manhattan. In the UK Anti-Social Behaviour Orders (the infamous ASBO) were used against traveller communities, prostitutes and the mentally ill. In many of the cities where the Olympics have been held the games have been prefaced by the removal of the street homeless. In Beijing thousands of families have seen their homes destroyed to make way for various stadia and athletes villages.

How can we make sense of the viciousness of these examples and the ways in which the most helpless are attacked, even destroyed? For some the explanation for these attacks is a sign of a backlash by high-income groups who have come to feel anxious and embittered about their loss of privileges and their growing fears about ‘unwanted’ social groups in public spaces as welfare systems neglect these groups ever further. I want to suggest that another reason for the aggressive turns in political life, in media reportage, policing, welfare, attacks on the homeless and so on are a sign of a deeper need within society to find a release from the frustration of being unable to solve or tackle these social problems through traditional routes.

In many places around the world long gone (indeed, if they were ever there) is the ambition to promote redistribution, opportunity or some reasonable level of equality (look at the UK, US, or Russia). In its place comes a kind of catharsis, or release, by attacking those groups, who are not only the most vulnerable, who are also generated by the workings of these societies – by regimes of low pay, flexible labour markets, housing tenure insecurity and so on. The tendency increasingly appears to be for us to show disgust towards those who are inevitably produced by our economies, housing systems and inequalities in wealth distribution. It is almost as if we are in denial of the fact that we would prefer to shift these problems, and problem people, out of sight and out of mind (a point that Sampson makes in his book Great American City on the destruction of public housing in the city core and subsequent gentrification).

A new dawn, for hate or hope?

Another concern raises itself at this point. If ideology no longer matters as much, then is there something about the way that our societies, political and media systems operate that will tend to produce more vicious reactions against the poor and vulnerable as they come together? In other words, is it about something more than just politics and anger? There seems to be something worth considering in such an explanation – that a 24/7 news culture produces quicker reactions (with disasterous results in the vengeful attacks on Afghanistan and Iraq) and that politicians seeking majority support will, by necessity, focus on the lowest common denominators of public opinion. Principled debate has given way to a more emotional and unstable way of delivering policies, with the risk that those we should be helping are those we turn away or deny support.

This is an abbreviated version of a journal article I have recently submitted.

A City Both Full and Empty: London and the Super-Rich By Rowland Atkinson, University of Sheffield

Originally on Critical Urbanists blog, 20th November.

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It has become hard to read the popular press without finding a newspaper article or accompanying opinion piece on the massive changes being wrought on London’s property market. There are two stories at play here. The first focuses on the many thousands of households living in housing stress – finding it hard to keep-up with their rents or mortgage payments – and those who are struggling even to get a home of their own – manifest as massive waiting lists for social housing, bidding wars for rental properties and house prices that exclude many. There are now more than 380,000 households, not people, just on waiting lists for social housing in London. This story has long been a feature of life in London, given the cost and scarcity of housing in the capital; but it is also related to a second story that is the focus here. At the same…

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Thinking the pro-social

Social researchers spend so much time considering problems of inequality, crime, poverty, ill-health and related questions that they rarely have time to pause and consider more utopian, counter-factual ideas, to step outside the ‘realities’ and constraints of needing to be policy relevant or palatable for other audiences. Many of us act in ways that are self-disciplining, if not self-defeating – we make careful pre-judgements about who will listen and this often prevents us from making proposals or running ideas that might make the world a, dare we say it, better place. This has long been the case but in the context of contemporary forms of unparalleled inequality, ecological crisis and economic instabilities the role and perhaps duty of social researchers is to draw on their evidence and intervene effectively in helping social conversations about these issues. It doesn’t strike me as a terribly partisan comment to suggest that the UK coalition government and its new round of proposed cuts is inherently anti-social (not least because the mainstream alternative/s offer much of the same). Indeed it has managed to triumph in promoting a worldview that suggests precisely any other argument around taxation, spending and investment is either loopy or some kind of powerful ultra-leftist viewpoint that would endanger civilization as we know it.

Today’s economic, political and social environment undermines everyday social life as notions of the shared, the public, the municipal and common space have been fundamentally challenged. The global financial crisis has ended-up granting energy and fresh confidence to narratives that legitimise cuts to the funding of public services, disinvestments in diversionary and creative programmes for vulnerable groups and fresh rounds of public asset stripping. The apparent logic of such attacks is that we cannot afford, do not need and should not pay for arrangements, institutions and provisions that are shared or collectively provided. Yet social investigation now tells us, through convincing and in-depth investigations (like that of Pickett, Wilkinson, Sassen, Piketty and Dorling) that gross inequalities, absences of social insurance and expulsions from citizenship and common provision generate expanding forms of hardship and social problems.

It appears increasingly evident that the kinds of social distress, climate change and other modern evils cannot be contained in convenient or cost-free ways to the wider population. We appear to be seeing the ‘escape’ of social problems from traditionally vulnerable spaces and populations to include those who have more often been able to avoid such problems has led to renewed efforts by the affluent to insulate themselves from these risks (I wrote about this sometime ago as a ‘cut’ in which the affluent are now able to insulate themselves from the costs of inequality that has diminished arguments for promoting greater equality or progressive taxation).

We now find that a number of problems (insecurity, fear, ill-health, violence, education and reducing social mobility) are being exacerbated by new rounds of value extraction from the public realm in the name of increasing efficiencies and economic growth. New forms of anxiety, hardship and concealed exclusion appear to mark this situation, with mounting concern about the long-term consequences of dismantling a variety of forms of common provision and mechanisms that might guard against extreme wealth and income inequalities (notably the NHS but also systems such as water). One critical basis for arguing against this ongoing disaster is to suggest that we are more capable and happy as private, free citizens when freed against the excesses and intrusion of such a dominant corporate-political sphere of influence. In other words, strong forms of municipal provision, affordable health, education, meaningful and financially rewarding work lead not only to some mad vision of a more equal society – they offer deeper and substantial rewards in the form of personal emancipation, freedom and self-realisation than in societies marked by declining public investments and provision. In such contexts what we find is not only troubling forms of social damage and loss (to say nothing of the revolting levels of excessive wealth and consumption by the affluent amidst poverty) but also diminished forms of self, community that ride alongside the vision of a minimal state and corporate capture of assets and profits.

With social and policy thinking often fixed on notions of the anti-social it appears timely to consider the value and limits of the social itself, of the kinds of mechanisms for community participation and self-realisation amidst these powerful social and economic forces. The position of the academy in relation to these debates and to questions of social resilience, emancipation, social justice, the nature of collectivity and forms of social sustenance and protection are also raised by this context. The real lie amidst all of this is that there are sides to choose from when the systemic logic of markets that pervades and dictates so many areas of social life is antagonistic to almost all visions of a sustainable, enjoyable, healthy life for all.

The draw of the undertow: Extremity, otherness and emergent harm in gaming and pornography

This piece relates to an article I recently wrote with the excellent Tom Rodgers at York, given the recent discussions about GTA V I thought I would repost it here.

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By Rowland Atkinson

My own interest in the cultural and social impact of videogames probably began with morally conflicted feelings while playing Grand Theft Auto III for the first time. I remember experiencing a real sense of surprise at the possibility of running over pedestrians and perhaps more so, a sense of worry at what other, younger, players might take from the game. The game felt like an incredibly violent space, a bleak vision of a city without moral codes or goodness, a space most of all where we were being goaded to bring out our more callous side, running over the homeless in tunnels, sniping at the unsuspecting or beating and stabbing to advance, or just for the sheer hell of it.

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The early work I conducted with Paul Willis, with avid players of the game, suggested that this kind of ‘ok for me, but perhaps not for…

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