Richard Courtney reflects on the decade since his PhD, and in the light of Brexit and Trump, asks whether the social sciences have forgotten the white English working class.
It was ten years ago that I finished the field work for my PhD in sociology here at Leicester. It was a study of Thurrock in Essex titled: ‘This is England: Class and Ethnicity in Non-Metropolitan Spaces’. A typical Post-Industrial landscape that was neither totally rural, urban or metropolitan. The local area was littered with the disused remnants of its industrial and maritime past, such as the former Bata Factory in East Tilbury.
Throughout the 1980s and 1990s the architecture of consumer capitalism was super-imposed upon this landscape. Lakeside Shopping Centre and the Chafford Hundred housing development provided shopping and housing for commuters into London for work. From the outside, Thurrock could be regarded alongside places like Basildon, Daventry, or Nuneaton – as geographical illustrations of Marc Auge’s non-spaces. However, for the people living in these areas they were their spaces. It was also my space, because I was born and raised there.
I thought that these spaces were inhabited by a people who no longer knew who they were or what their relationship was to London, the UK, and the rest of the world. They exhibited a ‘dual consciousness’ where they used ideas about class at the same time as narratives of ethnicity and whiteness. Rather naively, I thought sociology would explain this. As I completed my PhD and moved into an academic life, I became increasingly interested in public sociology. This seemed to be the principle means by which social science could impact upon society. However, with Brexit, fake news and post-truth, I can’t help but think I failed and, more to the point, that social science has failed.
I felt sociology could expand understanding when it comes to issues of diversity and inclusivity. Thurrock was traditionally a ‘white area’ where diversity existed in the minds of local residents as something that applied to inner cities. Residents routinely used metaphors of hygiene, dirt, and garbage to describe the character of ‘immigrants’. In Thurrock these were often second generation Nigerians who worked in the public sector, IT, and other skilled occupations. However, in the minds of residents they were strangers whose personal intentions and culture was viewed with mistrust.
In 2005-6 by the then most prominent British right wing political party circulated a leaflet entitled: ‘Africans 4 Essex’. Its basic premise was that the new community had been offered a deal by Haringey Council, which meant that they were bought out of their council houses and used the money to move to Thurrock. None of this was true and it took Barking MP Margaret Hodge to demonstrate that it was false. However, many residents I interviewed still believed it, reasoning that everything you read in the media is a lie. Many people’s beliefs were so fixed that no amount of evidence to the contrary was plausible. They were already ‘post-truth’.
The people of Thurrock identified as local, as English, and in many instances ‘white’. At the heart of their lament for the decline of their former social status as ‘the British Working Class’ was a sense of resentment that ‘others’, namely migrants and cosmopolitan liberals had stolen their identity, not to mention their occupations, solidarity and space. They felt left behind, excluded, and that they were treated badly by a metropolitan multi-culturalism. They would claim that if minorities could celebrate their identity then why couldn’t the white English? They showed no understanding as to why something like ‘Empire Day’ wasn’t really something that could be celebrated equally alongside Black History Month.
Locals were not essentially racist or divisive; they just didn’t talk about themselves and others in the ways that social scientists would. However, during the mid-noughties, before Brexit, it was difficult within social science circles to discuss this world view without damning them for everyday racism and locating them in terms of predictable conceptions of class. This made understanding difficult. It’s difficult to empathise with a young woman telling you that they think all Asian people should be packed onto a boat that is then sunk. Does the fact that the young woman left school at 15, had never had a job, had no training or skills, had three children and was teetering into homelessness make a difference to your understanding?
I think that the current political situation is in part an outcome of the social sciences’ inability to impact positively and sensitively upon society over the past 30 years or so. And the reason is because we’ve shied away from confronting the challenging and often harsh realities of normal ordinary white British people – the self-identified ‘silent majority’. There has also been an over reliance on secondary data in much social science research that focussed on social characteristics that had little relevance to these people’s reality – an obvious example is the fact that these people couldn’t identify in the UK Census as English. From the late noughties onwards there were journal articles here and there, but no consistent position or intervention. This meant that post-truth got greater traction in the minds of ordinary people than social science.
In part this was a geographic problem because these people lived in places where little ethnographic research was occurring. Fake news has been rife for years in insecure economic spaces at the rough end of the economy, where ideas about knowledge, evidence, data, and perspective familiar to universities and the public sector simply do not exist. The Brexit result is an eruption of this world into the public sphere, and a widespread sense of a people who have been forgotten.
I’m not saying its social sciences’ fault that this is happened, I’m saying that it happened ‘on our watch’ and we should reflect on this fact. It is therefore our responsibility to engage with it and try to impact on the conditions that push people towards rejecting openness and internationalism. Without social science providing an empirical and conceptual compass for public issues, fake news and post-truth fills that space. We shouldn’t let an embarrassment that public opinion trumped our influence force us to abandon our normative commitments. We need to do more than hold more conferences and seminars, we actually need more engaged ethnographies. This will enable us to re-acquaint ourselves with society, because ultimately ‘Brexit’ shows just how much we’re estranged from it.
I might have been naïve when I was doing my PhD, but current events will not dent my resolve over the enriching role of social science in everyday life.