What might feminist policy look like?

This post was contributed by Mayur Suresh, an Intern at the Birkbeck Institute of Social Research

On 5 July 2013 the Birkbeck Institute for Social Research hosted the third meeting of the Feminist Policy, Politics and Practice Forum. Janet Newman, Professor of Social Policy and Criminology at the Open University, opened the meeting and tracked the linkage between feminist activism and policy change. Is there an alignment between feminist debates that occur in non-state spaces and policy changes that are introduced by governments? What do these alignments look like, and how do they happen?

She tracked four different moments in the linkage between activism around feminist issues and governmental policy. The first period she argued was from soon after the Second World War till the Thatcher years. This was a period of the early equality campaigns around causes that we would now describe as liberal feminist issues. The policy changes introduced by the governments at the time were a result of people in government who were sympathetic to feminist causes.

The second period was in the ’80s during the Thatcher years, when politics acquired a certain charge, and became more confrontational and aggressive. The feminist campaigns at the time, perhaps responding to governmental attacks on the welfare state, also acquired this confrontational edge. By and large, feminist policy came to a standstill during this period.

The third period, with the New Labour government, saw the expansion of some kinds of state practice. There was a focus on partnerships with non-governmental organisations, and other forms of public participation, and as a result policy formation became dispersed. But with New Labour, the assumption was that the problem of gender inequality had been solved – meaning that one could do feminist policy, but one couldn’t use the word ‘feminist’.

At the present moment, in which there are significant welfare cuts, there is significant feminist activism outside government, but very little of it gets translated into governmental policy, according to Prof. Newman.

Joining the discussion were Anna Coute, who worked on issues relating to child poverty, and Lisa Harker, who worked on healthcare policy. Both these speakers reflected on their work inside and outside government, and the challenges and pressures they both faced while framing policy.

The meeting was opened for discussions and questions. The comments ranged from concerns over everyday issues of working mothers, to bigger questions about how to ensure that feminist policy continues to happen even in times of government-imposed austerity. Several of the participants reflected on their own experience of working in between government and campaigns. Others spoke of their disappointments with certain feminist allies in the political parties, while some spoke about the need to build links with emerging feminist players within party structures.

While, this was the last official meeting of the forum, Prof. Newman hoped that more conversations and spaces to push for feminist policy would emerge from this meeting.

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Voluntary Sector in Transition

This post was contributed by Ceren Yalcin, an Intern at the Birkbeck Institute of Social Research.

As a Birkbeck student you sometimes end up going to events that are not related to your subject of study whatsoever (either because a friend has dragged you there or you are desperate for free wine after a hard day’s work at the library). But you always take away something that actually is relevant for your study. This was the case when I went to Linda Milbourne’s book launch last week. Two researchers and colleagues were invited to offer their thoughts on Linda’s book Voluntary Sector in Transition: Rob Macmillan, Research Fellow at the Third Sector Research Centre, University of Birmingham and Mike Aiken, Visiting Research Fellow at the Open University and an associate at the Institute for Voluntary Action Research.

Rob Macmillan began his introductory talk by pointing out the major shifts that the voluntary sector has undergone in the last few years and thus the importance of Linda’s book. The speaker stressed that the financial situation post-2008 has massively altered the operating environment for the sector, not only economically but also ideologically. As Rob maintained, “there is an ideological project going on at the moment which involves massive changes in the role of the State, and in consequence, the role of civil society”. The third sector, he maintained, is going through a process of “unsettlement”: the understanding of what the State is, what its role entails, what it can do has been uprooted with the present coalition. This is a very unsettling experience and has knock-on effects on third sector organisations. However, he also stressed that these unsettling experiences are not entirely new: “Linda’s book alerts us to the need to look for continuities as well as for change. So the May 2010 election might not be the most important date in terms of the third sector’s position.” So, some of the processes and trends affecting the voluntary sector were established before then (e.g. outsourcing of welfare services), although some of these things were intensified at the moment. Rob praised Linda’s book as a piece of work that addresses highly important questions about organisations’ survival and resilience. One of the key questions the book discusses, he said, is how organisations negotiate a fraud line between the idea of being autonomous and independent and therefore being able to speak up and developing new services and ideas in response to social needs and problems. As he said repeatedly, autonomy and survival are really important features in the book.

Mike Aiken stressed the empirical value of Linda’s book. In nine chapters, he said, the book goes through the key issues every student, researcher, activist or practitioner is facing in the field: “It is a seriously grounded book, grounded in theory and empirical work alike”. Two theories that are being used by the author are Institutional Theory and Resource Dependency Theory with some other theoretical considerations in each chapter. The reader, he said, will highly benefit from the three case studies that are being introduced relatively at the beginning of the book and referred to in each chapter. He described Linda’s book as a political and a critical book: “Linda sets out some of the key debates in the field without pretending that there are easy solutions. She shows the complexity and gives some hints here and there about what she thinks without being polemical.”

The last speaker of the evening was Linda herself. She too emphasized the rapid change of the welfare state and its consequences for the voluntary sector. As she informed the audience, some of the recent changes are mapped in the later chapters of the book whilst earlier chapters look at the transformations in the third sector over the last thirty years. Quite a lot of the book deals with the relationship between the State and the voluntary sector, and consequently with autonomy and dependency. So, a recurring theme that runs through the chapters is independence. To what extent does the voluntary sector loose autonomy when it gets incorporated into the State’s purposes and goals? Are alternatives to the current forms of organization possible in the current political environment? Her first two chapters look backwards as well as forwards, discussing the changing history and the ways in which voluntary organisations have adapted over time. The author stressed that when she was writing her book, she was very much concerned with the micro as well as the macro level. Hence what one will find in Linda’s book are the ways in which change, resistance and adaptation take place in the everyday-life of organizations. Her book contains field studies of small voluntary organizations, providing services for children and young people, but also membership organisations, advocacy and campaign groups as well as some bigger national charities. In her book, Linda looks at how organisations are dealing with the dilemmas they are facing, how tensions between professional and organisational autonomy are played out, how the emphasis on measurable performance shapes and reshapes services and, ultimately, our understanding of what welfare means. Overall, her book shows that there is a pressure towards growth, capacity building, entrepreneurism and diversification. Failure to survive as an organisation is seen to be a failure to adapt so-called ‘resilient’ behaviours. What I personally found most intriguing in Linda’s talk was that the fact that resistance can actually mean resilience. Linda’s case studies, perhaps somewhat counter-intuitively, show that those organisations that show resistance are in a stronger position to survive.

I am sure that this book will not just be relevant to those interested in the voluntary sector. But it will attract a wider, critical readership interested in the current socio-political changes that redefine our understanding of democracy and the role of the State.

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Exploring psychoanalysis with Dr David Bell

This post was contributed by Ceren Yalcin, an intern at the Birkbeck Institute for Social Research.

Following his popular lecture series about psychoanalysis, Dr David Bell, Visiting Fellow in the Birkbeck Institute for Social Research (BISR) and the Birkbeck Institute for the Humanities (BIH), answered questions at a special session for students and the wider public. The event was designed to address issues that might have remained unclear, and it generated a lively discussion with participants from various academic and professional backgrounds.

The following account does by no means provide an exhaustive summary of the event – it is rather a selection of questions and answers that I personally found most insightful.

Question 1: Did psychoanalysis retreat to the clinic?

Answer: It should be emphasised that psychoanalysis is a body of knowledge about the  mind and not “just” a form of treatment. Treatment is the application of psychoanalysis within a clinical context. The British Psychoanalytic Society, for example, has created an outreach committee in the last ten years. It is involved in the annual Psychoanalysis and Film programme. The Society also has an applied section with psychoanalysts, academics, and literary critics. Over the last ten years, the Society has put a lot of emphasis on showing that psychoanalytic thinking can be very relevant to understanding other spheres of social and cultural life.  (Those interested in this question, might find Stephen Frosh’s (2010) book “Psychoanalysis Outside the Clinic” useful).

Question 2: How does psychoanalysis understand the ‘the normal’ as opposed to ‘the abnormal’?

Answer: Psychoanalysis finds the normal in the abnormal. It sees abnormality as a perversion of normality, as revealing what is immanent inherent (is this right?)  in all of us. As Freud beautifully puts it, a breakdown is like a crystal smashing. If you drop a crystal it fragments but it does not fragment along random lines. It sheers along the lines of force that are already within the crystallized structure. In other words, the shattering shows inherent(?) immanent forces within the crystal like the breakdown.

Question 3: What is transference and why is it important in psychoanalytic treatment?

Answer: The concept of transference is not just relevant for the psychoanalytic setting (i.e. the consulting room). As Freud states, it occurs in classrooms when students develop feelings about their teachers or their peers who become like their siblings. The original metaphor Freud used to describe transference was that of a template.

We carry around templates and mould the objects around us to fit into templates. All of us have our particular tendencies. Some of us tend to idealise people, some of us tend to denigrate people, some of us tend to see things in people that other people do not see. We all invest significant people around us with powerful feelings that have their origin in our past.

These templates, called internal objects, exist within us and we project them on to other people. In the clinical setting the patient projects onto the analyst. The analyst tries to maintain neutrality without asking ‘why are you treating me like this?’. On the contrary, the analyst lets transference develop in order to understand the patient’s internal objects. Those interested in transference might want to read Freud’s papers “On Transference Love” and “The Dynamics of Transference”.

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Racial integration in US cities

This post was contributed by Mayur Suresh, an intern at the Birkbeck Institute for Social Research.

How racially integrated are US cities today? Are they more integrated today than previously? An insightful presentation at Birkbeck by John Logan, Professor of Sociology at Brown University, paints a complex picture.

Using New York City as an example, Prof Logan argued that cities in the United States have always been segregated to some extent. While in the early 1900s only 1% of the city was African-American, other recent immigrant communities such as Russian Jews and Italians were confined to specific parts of the city. By the 1920s, poverty and the persistence of Jim Crow laws in the southern US forced many African-Americans to seek better lives in urban centres in the north. This “great migration” of the 1920s saw the creation of “black ghettoes” such as Harlem in New York city.

In the 1920s, New York City’s index of dissimilarity for African-Americans was about 0.7 (0 being the most integrated, 1 being the most segregated). This index hovered between 0.8 and 0.9 for most of the 20th century, and this level of segregation of the African-American community continues today. The civil rights era and the passage of fair housing laws did little to change this level of segregation.

Prof Logan then compared this level of segregation of African-Americans with the Italian and Russian Jewish communities. In the early 1900s both these communities lived in specific areas – Italians in Greenwich Village and Russian Jews in Lower East Side. Many of the African-Americans who migrated to New York City were from different social classes – while some did blue collar jobs, others could be identified as middle class. Italians, by and large, performed manual labour and many dropped out of school. Similarly, the Russian Jewish population mostly did working class jobs, and came to be closely associated with the garment industry. Both these communities had higher indices of dissimilarity than African-Americans in the 1920s but the indices for both communities fell rapidly to about 0.3 by the 1990s. Prof Logan argued that both these communities were able to integrate rapidly by virtue of gradually being identified as “white”.

Moving on to segregation today and its relation to class, Prof Logan looked at the social and racial make up of neighbourhoods today. While it’s assumed that African-American people lived in African-American neighbourhoods because they were poor, what Prof Logan’s data shows is that racial segregation occurred regardless of class. Meaning that poor white people lived amongst other poor white people and poor African-American people lived in poor African-American neighbourhoods. Comparing the data across classes presents an even more complicated picture: the average poor white neighbourhood had less poor people than the average rich African-American neighbourhoods.

Switching to segregation in education, Prof Logan’s data showed that schools were even more segregated than neighbourhoods. The majority of African-American children went to African-American majority schools while the average white student went to white majority schools.

According to Prof Logan, the traditional model of viewing changes in racial composition of neighbourhoods has been the “Invasion and Succession” model: African-Americans enter a neighbourhood resulting in an exodus of white people (white flight) until there is a majority African-American population. Recent demographic data about immigration of Asian and Hispanic population reveals a different pattern. It was found that in neighbourhoods that start off as all white and into which Asian and Hispanic populations begin to settle, and then into which the African-American population migrated, there was no white flight. These neighbourhoods resulted in what was referred to as “global neighbourhoods” in urban areas. According to Prof Logan this is having an impact on the meaning of race for white populations in the United States today.

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