Friday, 4 May 2018

Sociological Interrogations of the Turn to Character

By Kim Allen and Anna Bull

Under the Conservative government, a burgeoning number of policy initiatives and reports have asserted the importance of nurturing character in children and young people, with ‘character strengths’ such as optimism, ‘grit’, and ‘bouncebackability’ located as key factors shaping academic and other life outcomes. This includes the All Party Parliamentary Group on Social Mobility’s Character and Resilience Manifesto (2014), and the government’s Child Poverty Strategy 2014-2017 (HM Government 2014) which outlined strategies to build character and other ‘non-cognitive’ skills among poor children as playing a vital role in addressing child poverty.  In 2015, the then-Secretary of State for Education Nicky Morgan, a passionate advocate of character education, announced a £5 million ‘Character Innovation Fund’ with the ambition to make England a ‘global leader’ in teaching character (Department for Education, 2015). 

This preoccupation with character education as a way of addressing social and educational inequality has not been confined to education but coincided with policies promoting ‘resilience’ and ‘confidence’ in areas as diverse as health and housing to employment and welfare.  Despite the government scrapping its character grant scheme in 2017 against a backdrop of wider political upheaval, this policy agenda appears to possess remarkable ‘bounce-backability’. In 2018, the new education secretary Damian Hinds used his first speech to declare his commitment to the agenda, stating that ‘character and resilience are important for what anybody can achieve in life, as well as for the success of our economies’ (Department for Education, 2018).

This investment in character education needs to be understood as part of what we call a broader ‘turn to character’ within contemporary neoliberalism. The latest special section of Sociological Research Online explores and unpicks the current manifestations of this ‘turn to character’ across education policy and provision, as well as welfare and employment, and within popular culture. Exploring how the investments in character and resilience materialise across a range of sites and practices, the articles aim to disentangle both the emergence of this turn to character and its effects. 

In the first article in this special section, Nick Taylor traces the lineage of the current agenda to moralising discourses of poverty within the Victorian era. Attending to the similarities and differences between past and current conceptualisations of character and social progress, Taylor provides a valuable historical perspective on today’s character agenda across education and welfare-to-work policy.  

The next two articles foreground education policy specifically. Through a close discourse analysis of the All-Party Parliamentary Group’s Manifesto for Character Education, Erica Burman draws out key slippages between the evidence base used in this policy document and the claims it makes. Burman’s intersectional attentiveness allows her to demonstrate how the Manifesto privileges particular gendered and classed subjects. 

Also focusing on education policy but from the perspective of policy influence and formation, Kim Allen and Anna Bull’s article investigates the key actors who have been influential in shaping the UK government’s engagement with character education as a thinkable policy solution; actors including academics, ‘policy entrepreneurs’ and philanthropic foundations. In particular they identify the influence of the US Christian neo-conservative philanthropic trust, The John Templeton Foundation, on UK policy, provision and academic research in this area. They trace how activity of The John Templeton Foundation has played a central role in the proliferation and legitimisation of discourses of character and resilience that promote a socially conservative agenda.  

While these articles demonstrate a powerful range of advocates for character education policy, the next article by Kirsty Morrin, draws attention to the uneven, incomplete and unpredictable implementation of policy ideas ‘on the ground’. Based on ethnographic research in an academy school in the North of England, Morrin argues that the school’s inculcation of ‘entrepreneurial character’ reproduces class inequalities through a deficit model of working-class children. However, Morrin also draws attention to the everyday and ‘mundane non-compliances’ enacted by staff in relation to this agenda, sometimes in ways that serve more progressive or emancipatory ends.

Finally, Rosalind Gill and Shani Orgad’s article extends this special section’s exploration of character and resilience within policy and provision to examine its presence across media and popular culture. Taking three resilience-based cultural texts as empirical case studies - women’s magazines, social media apps and self-help books – the authors demonstrate how these texts idealise the middle-class professional woman and mother as the resilient subject who bounces back from adversity and turns negative experiences into positive affects. 

Across the special section, we are alerted to the ways in which discourse of character and their associated ideas are spread and legitimated: through networks of policy entrepreneurs, character advocates and academics; through the flows of money invested through philanthropic activity; in best-selling books and popular social media apps; and in the activities of schools and universities.  Whilst the specific focus of their analyses and approach varies, the authors in this special section share a concern with how an emphasis or idealisation of character and resilience produces particular subjectivities and understandings of social problems and solutions within contexts of neoliberal austerity. 

Across these articles we can identify how character and resilience have been operationalised as both the cause and solution to social problems as diverse as educational underachievement, poverty, unemployment, the gender pay gap, and social unrest. The prominence of discourses of character and resilience across government policy involves the privileging of some explanatory frameworks and solutions whilst silencing others. As Burman’s article shows, the All-Party Parliamentary Group Manifesto draws together character and resilience by ‘individualising and responsibilising the precarity of current economic and political insecurities to render them as qualities (traits, characteristics) to be found within (primarily working class) children, and in so doing making that social context disappear’ in a ‘double occlusion of the social’. 

Similarly, Nick Taylor contends that, ‘[t]he focus on character as an explanation for and solution to issues of social mobility and employability risks ignoring or actively displacing the structural aspects of poverty, inequality and unemployment’, and his article shows that blaming individuals for poor life outcomes is far from new or unique to contemporary neoliberalism but has much longer historical roots.  By occluding the social context, individualised character ‘traits’ become located as the primary cause of social mobility or ‘success’ in life. Such character traits can then also be used to rationalise and justify unequal outcomes in life. 

Such a focus on individualised attributes is particularly insidious because it outlaws political anger at structural inequities and injustices, instead focusing it inwards. Indeed, earlier work on character education in the UK from Judith Suissa describes how character education materials ‘displace’ the political, for example Rosa Parks’ activism within the civil rights movement is narrated as an individual story rather than as part of a social movement (Suissa, 2015: 113). The articles in this special section extend and develop this critique by demonstrating how discourses of character focus on remaking or improving subject’s interiority as a way of weathering chronic hardship and worsening insecurity. As Gill and Orgad describe, it is the individualised, interior labour of self-transformation that is required rather than a recognition of wider structural inequalities and power relations and/or collective demands for societal change. In this way the current emphasis on character and resilience must be seen as part of what they call a ‘psychological turn within neoliberalism, intensified by austerity, in which new ways of being, relating, and apprehending the self are produced’.

Despite the pervasiveness of these ideas, it is important to recognise the possibilities for critiquing this ‘turn to character’. The articles in this special section - read individually and collectively - highlight fractures, tensions and slippages in how character is conceptualised, interpreted and mobilised. We hope that in illuminating these, the special section contributes not only to endeavours to resist dominant formulations of character and resilience, but to a wider project of re-appropriating these. This might usefully involve promoting other, critical ways of thinking about and with notions of character and resilience, and alternative pedagogies and approaches to character education. However, as well as these alternatives, within the current political context it is crucial to consider, as Suissa asks, ‘are there things we should not be resilient to?’ (2015: 111).


Bull, A., Allen, K., 2018. Following policy: A network ethnography of the UK character education policy community. Sociological Research Online.
Burman, E., 2018. (Re)sourcing the Character and Resilience Manifesto:  Suppressions and slippages of (re)presentation and selective affectivities. Sociological Research Online.
Department for Education. 2015. “Character Education: Apply for 2015 Grant Funding.” January 12, 2015. (accessed 22.2.18)
Department for Education, 2018. Education Secretary opens Education World Forum [WWW Document]. URL (accessed 2.12.18).
Gill, R., Orgad, S., 2018. The amazing bounce-backable woman: Resilience and the psychological turn in neoliberalism. Sociological Research Online.
HM Government 2014. Child Poverty Strategy 2014-2017. June.
Morrin, K., 2018. Tensions in Teaching Character: How the “entrepreneurial character” is reproduced, “refused” and negotiated in an English academy school. Sociological Research Online.
Paterson, C., Tyler, C., Lexmond, J., 2014. Character and resilience manifesto. AAll Party Parliamentary Group on Social Mobility.
Suissa, J., 2015. Character education and the disappearance of the political. Ethics Educ. 10, 105–117.
Taylor, N., 2018. The Return of Character: parallels between late-Victorian and twenty-first century discourses. Sociological Research Online.

Wednesday, 28 March 2018

Troubling Families?

Jane Ribbens McCarthy, Val Gillies and Carol-Ann Hooper

Troubling Families
2018, Sociological Research Online, Vol 23.1

The term, ‘troubling families’, has the scope both to trouble what we mean by ‘family’ and its continuing power,  while also asking why some particular ‘families’ may be found by some to be ‘troubling’.
Talking about ‘family’ has been controversial amongst sociologists for several decades, ever since feminists in the 1980s (e.g. Barrett and McIntosh, 1982; Carby, 1982/1996; Thorne and Yalom, 1982) started to question its ideological underpinnings, its intimate hidden (gendered and generational) dynamics of power, and its social rather than ‘natural’ basis. In Anglophone literatures, the debate about how sociologists should or should not employ the term has continued back and forwards more or less ever since, but within these contexts, there seems to be no denying the continuing central significance of ‘family’ in people’s imaginaries, and in their everyday lives, as well as in public debates and policies (Ribbens McCarthy et al, 2008/2012; Gilding, 2010; Gabb and Silva, 2011; Edwards et al, 2012 ; Ribbens McCarthy, 2012), even as families’ and households become increasingly diverse. Both significant changes and powerful continuities are apparent in how people in Anglophone and Western European countries live their families and relationships.

Paradoxically, these decades of academic scrutiny of the term, and opening up of the ‘black box’ of family, have also seen expectations of ‘family’ increasing, alongside ever expanding idealizations of what ‘childhood’ should entail. These high hopes, or fantasies, parallel the pervasive moral imperative of prioritising ‘children’s needs’, whether enunciated by parents/mothers or politicians and policy makers (Ribbens McCarthy et al, 2000; Gillies, 2014). Those who fail to live up to ‘family’ expectations, particularly in terms of the ‘care and protection’ of children, may thus find themselves increasingly subject to scrutiny and a variety of interventions from the State. One such UK initiative, for example, has formulated a category of ‘troubled families’, defined by reference to a particular set of characteristics, and constructed as a particularly ‘troublesome’ feature of the contemporary British social fabric, requiring targeted interventions (Crossley, 2016). But our discussions here (and elsewhere – Ribbens McCarthy et al, 2013; Ribbens McCarthy et al, 2018; Evans et al, 2018) seek to ‘trouble’ ‘families’ in quite opposite ways from such objectifying and categorical discourses and policies.

In these policy processes, then, we see an apparent binary between ‘families’ that are regarded as successful and un-troubled, and ‘families’ that are considered deviant and problematic. Yet this binary is partly created by the idealization of the term ‘family’ itself, since it is those households that fail to live up to what ‘family’ is meant to be which may experience shame, stigma, and potentially punitive scrutiny (whether merited or not). Furthermore, we find academic work itself helps to construct this binary, with sociologists focusing upon ‘ordinary’ families and mainstream social change, while ‘troublesome’ families are left to the attentions of social work and social policy researchers. These two bodies of research rarely inter-relate, while the researchers and academics involved attend different conferences and participate in different debates and networks.

In this special section of Sociological Research Online, we seek to move beyond this binary through a two-dimensional focus on the notion of ‘troubling families’, exploring both what may be ‘troubling’ about the notion of ‘family’, and how it is that some particular families, and family practices (Morgan, 2011), may come to be seen by some as ‘troubling’. On the one hand, then, some of the articles trouble the term ‘family’ and how the notion may itself shape people’s everyday experiences in troublesome ways, even as they may resist such perspectives and seek to re-shape them. The empirical underpinnings for these article include research with: same-sex couple ‘families’ (Brian Heaphy in the UK, exploring ‘the ordinary’ as an ambiguousdiscourse for same-sex couples, and Luke Gahan in Australia, exploring the contradictoryimplications of idealising same-sex couple families with children); the transnational ‘families’ of Lithuanian mothers living apart from their children, who both engage with and re-shape public ‘scripts’ that cast migrant mothers as ‘troubling  (Irena Juozeliūnienė and Irma Budginaitė); and the families’ of ‘looked-after’ children living apart from their parents in Scotland, where children and carers may ‘talk back’ to the categorization of their families as ‘troubling’ (Vicki Welch).  These examples, in differing ways, all challenge any easy binary divisions.

The two concluding articles address more particularly the grounds on which some ‘families’ and some ‘family practices’ may be seen to be particularly ‘troubling’, raising significant sociological issues about the basis for such problematizing, and the power dynamics involved. Michael Rush and Suleman Ibrahim Lazarus focus onthe difficult topic of parental physical chastisement of children, comparing the histories and current framings of this apparently ‘troubling’ family practice in the contexts of Ireland and Ghana, with evaluative shifts which they argue to be linked to declining patriarchal power. And then Jane Ribbens McCarthy andVal Gillies tackle head on the question of who is troubled and why in regard to what may or may not be defined as harmful to children in diverse cultural settings. While the general framework of ‘family troubles’ can very usefully serve to highlight continuities across diversities (Ribbens McCarthy et al, 2013), at the same time, where might any boundary lie between ‘normal’ troubles in children’s families, and troubles that are troubling - potentially ‘harmful’ - in ways that might be seen to require intervention? Ribbens McCarthy and Gillies argue the inevitability of living with uncertainty in the face of such conundrums, since there are no universal ‘objective’ ‘a priori’ measures for determining what is ‘harmful’ to children, whether through empirical psychological research or through logical moral philosophising. But rather than collapsing into some sort of cultural relativism in which ‘anything goes’, they draw on the philosophical work of François Julienne (2008/2014), to explore the possibilities and difficulties for developing an inter-cultural dialogue, that can at least attempt to go beyond the neo-colonial imposition of Anglophone and Western European assumptions. In this regard they briefly outline dimensions of four particular frameworks and world views: the legal approach of children’s Rights; the African tradition of Ubuntu; the Indian spirituality of Avaita; and feminist theorising of a relational ethics of care.

By troubling the concept of 'families', and asking how to interrogate the evaluative frameworks and everyday assumptions that define some families, and some family practices, as 'troubling', the special section thus raises challenging debates linking substantive issues with theoretical and conceptual questions of diversity in everyday relationships. Key sociological and social policy questions arise concerning who it is who finds particular families troubling, what responses are considered to be appropriate and by whom, and what are the historical processes and power dynamics involved. And from family members’ own perspectives, how does the view of their ‘family’ as ‘troubling’ impact upon them, and do they find ways of resisting or accommodating such processes? In these regards, the theoretical issues raised have the potential to develop insights, across a diverse range of substantive topics, generating additional perspectives. The questions raised in this process are themselves significantly troubling, requiring considerable sensitivity and patience to explore the complexities and ambivalences involved in seeking to engage with them. We are grateful to the contributors to this special section for their participation, and hope others will continue to engage and pursue these themes.

‘Troubling families’ may more faithfully and usefully illuminate contemporary family lives – whether ‘conventional’ or otherwise - in diverse contexts, and this may in turn help to avoid creating further ‘troubles’ to family members themselves. Sociology has an important part to play in this, by attending closely to the everyday meanings and practices through which people experience their family lives together and make sense of their relationships, in circumstances shaped by power dynamics, material inequalities and colonial and cultural histories.


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Crossley, S. 2016 ‘The Troubled Families programme: in, for and against the state?’ In M. Fenger, J. Hudson, and C. Needham, (eds) Social Policy Review 28. Policy Press. 127-146.

Edwards, R, Ribbens McCarthy, J. and Gillies, V. 2012 ‘The politics of concepts: family and its (putative) replacements.’ British Journal of Sociology, 63(4) pp. 730–746.

Evans, R, Bowlby S, Gottzen L and Ribbens McCarthy J 2018 ‘Family “troubles”, care and relationality in diverse contexts’, Children’s Geographies: Special issue (in progress). 

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Morgan, D.H.J. 2011 Rethinking Family Practices. London: Palgrave macmillan.Ribbens McCarthy, J 2012 ‘The powerful language of ‘family’: togetherness, belonging and personhood.’  Sociological Review, 60(1) pp. 68–90.

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