Friday 28 March 2014

The failure of civic education

By Nathan Manning & Kathy Edwards

Popular themes in recent self-examinations of sociology are concerns about the ‘decline’ of sociology and its contemporary relevance. These discussions segue with others about the declining relevance and role of ‘public intellectuals’. They also intersect with Burawoy’s ideas about the potential of ‘public sociology’ to provide a nexus between the academy and the public. We need go no further than the previous issue of Sociological Research Online to find powerful, and poignant, discussions about the role of sociology in interpreting, understanding and providing alternative discourses of contemporary events, in this case the London Riots. Rogers (2013) considers the role of sociology in intersecting with the community and McGeeney (2013) reminds us of the need to consider ways of taking sociology beyond the academy in ways that ‘disrupt’ the increasing dominance of neoliberal ideas. McGeeney also reminds us that (despite neoliberal incursions into the academy affecting us as intellectuals and as workers), the spaces we do have to pursue our intellectual lives are privileged ones. For those of us engaged in youth sociology, this often means providing voice for young people who are, with increasing frequency, the subject of neoliberal discourses and policies that seek to blame, coerce or ‘label’ young people.
The London Riots provoked (yet another) moral panic about ‘modern youth’ and their declining citizenship and community connections. Young people’s apparent disregard for ‘citizenship’ has long been of concern to governments and policy-makers, and has been a feature of sociological inquiry as well. We’ve both worked on such inquiries, specifically addressing young people’s involvement with politics. Individually, we’ve contributed to research arguing that young people are often excluded from, and marginalised by, politics. We’ve also both had a stake in arguments about the ways in which young people might be doing politics differently. Whilst working in this field we’ve both felt frustrated by the recalcitrance of the dominant discourse which constructs young people as non-participative and apathetic and proposes civic and citizenship education as a remedy for these perceived deficits. This view tends to impose a narrow definition of politics whilst ignoring the valid reasons why young people might be turning away from electoral politics, as well as questions about whether they are ‘turning away’. Moreover, the focus on ‘youth apathy’ and young people’s apparent lack of knowledge about politics has meant little play is given to the numerous ways in which young people are excluded from and marginalised by electoral politics.

To this end, a couple of years ago, Nathan thought it would be a good idea to see if there was any evidence to show that civic education could increase young people’s electoral participation (voting, signing petitions etc).  Not frequently used in sociological research, systematic reviews are widely used in disciplines like healthcare to bring together all the existing evidence on the effectiveness of a particular intervention. They use explicit criteria to search for, identify and evaluate existing research on a specific question. In healthcare this is typically along the lines of, ‘is treatment A better than treatment B or placebo?’ In evaluating the effectiveness of an intervention these methods are far superior to a traditional literature review because they should involve extensive searching of the literature and each step in the process (how the searching was done, how studies were selected etc.) should be made explicit and transparent. While the method’s origins are with healthcare, it has increasingly been picked up within the social sciences and used to evaluate public policy (see Sundberg’s piece in the special section of this edition of SRO). Kathy Edwards readily agreed to help apply these methods to examine the evidence for civic education increasing young people’s political participation.

To find evidence on the effectiveness of civic education for increasing political participation we searched numerous electronic databases, which yielded over 7,000 potentially relevant sources. Independently, we sifted through these titles and abstracts to identify those studies which actually measured the effect of civic education upon young people’s electoral behaviour. In the end we agreed that 9 studies met our inclusion criteria. Given the small number of studies we found, it is clear the evaluation of civic education has not kept pace with the implementation of civic education policies. Despite some studies using large nationally representative data sets, the review found little evidence for civic education having a positive effect on voting/registering to vote, but did identify modest positive effects on forms of political expression (e.g. signing petitions). While the evidence base is slim, it would seem civic education has not been able to increase young people’s electoral participation.
The evidence confirmed our hunch that young people’s (alleged) lack of participation in electoral politics seems to have little to do with a lack of education, but we still had a job to do in explaining why civic education seems to have failed in key areas like voting. Here, we return to our opening theme: the contemporary relevance of sociology. To address our question, we considered some of the research drawing upon a more sociological approach to young people and politics. Looking at this body of work we highlighted the range of barriers and obstacles which confront young people wanting to participate in politics. At the same time, young people have been involved in various activities which are reshaping the meaning and practice of politics, making electoral participation just one way (an increasingly unattractive way in the eyes of many young people) of doing politics.

Assuming that policy makers desire to promote genuinely meaningful political participation amongst young people, rather than use citizenship education as a tool of governance, to impose a narrow definition of politics and blame young people for voting with their feet, there is much they could learn from the sociological literature, or, put differently, much that sociology could teach. While the neo-liberal order lurches from one crisis to the next and new political forms and ideas continue to percolate, it is our view that sociologists must maintain their stake in public debates and policy – not for the sake of social ‘impact’, but for the sake of ensuring politics in its broadest sense.
This is based on the article by Nathan Manning and Kathy Edwards published in Sociological Research Online in February 2014. Read the full version here.

Tuesday 11 March 2014

A Fresh Look at the Success of the Occupy Movement

By Clare Saunders, University of Exeter, Silke Roth, University of Southampton Cristiana Olcese, London School of Economics

The Occupy movement has been seen as emblematic of protest in a global age. Throughout 2011 and 2012, Occupiers in more than 700 cities in 80 countries had set up camps to protest against the financial system, its inherent inequality and the failure of democratic and undemocratic regimes alike to deal with associated problems. Occupy camps have been considered to be motivated by the increasingly apparent unfairness of austerity measures, which governments brought to bear in the wake of the global financial crisis, which were spurred, in turn, by the collapse of Lehman Brothers in 2008.
Occupy was heavily reported in the media throughout 2011 and 2012, and it would be hard to have not noticed the movement take off. Now, in 2014, it has largely dropped out of the media spotlight. At the same time, the economic system remains, firmly to date, unchanged by this significant wave of dissent. Even when it was gaining significant media attention, Occupy was sometimes caricatured as a rather disorganised ideas factory: its openness, transparency and emphasis on participatory and deliberative forms of democracy meant that it lacked a discrete goal or any concrete plans for how we might create a better alternative to the current global financial system.

Does this mean that Occupy failed?
Not necessarily. No-one ever thought that thousands of tents alone could shut down a corrupt banking system, or create an equitable financial system – at least not in the short-term. In London, Occupy attracted support from broad swathes of the populace, most notably bank workers, including a Bank of England official, and prominent members of the Church. Canon Giles Fraser famously resigned from his position at St Paul’s Cathedral in disgust that the Church would be implicated in a violent eviction of peaceful protest on the Cathedral’s steps. So it did succeed in getting broad support and public sympathy.

Occupy lives on
Although Occupy London – at St Pauls and Finsbury Park – was evicted back in 2012, the movement lives on through various related enterprises and initiatives. It is, for example, behind an initiative called ‘RollingJubilee’, which, in its own words ‘buys up pounds worth of debt for pennies and then writes it off’. In addition to gathering the support of people from many different walks of life, Occupy was a huge success encouraging people to engage in politics as a day to day activity: that is, in academic speak, in ‘prefigurative politics’.

A peak on the inside
Only by looking inside Occupiers’ tents can we understand what Occupy really meant for its participants and who those participants were. Our research did exactly that. We conducted in-depth interviews with participants – many from inside the tents – and analysed data from a survey of participants to illustrate the very concrete success of Occupy. Our survey was part of the pan-European ‘Caught in the Act of Protest’ project, which has surveyed protests across Europe. We reveal how Occupy was much more than just a protest, and much more still than an unsuccessful protest. Indeed, for some, it was a way of life. For many of those, it represented a better way of life.

A diverse range of participants
In terms of diversity, we found that participants were from a wide range of backgrounds, although most were highly educated. What many had in common was a sense of the need for a new direction in their lives: many were in between jobs, or looking for a new place to settle. Some were homeless and/or mentally ill and in need of types of care not readily available in the City.

Living outside of capitalism
One significant success of the London Occupy camps was that they revealed to its participants the possibility of existing outside of the confines of the everyday capitalist system, unearthing and attempting to resolve issues thrown up by the capitalist system in the process. For some homeless and mentally ill people, the place was a panacea: food, shelter and the creation of humane and highly supportive community were part of Occupy London’s success story. Whether or not one was vulnerable in day to day society, it was possible to live at an Occupy camp on very little money. At the same time, it was possible to learn from and make use of mutually supportive community systems, including food provision and inclusive decision-making. Those participants who had previously been involved in more organised forms of politics (e.g. through formally organised NGOs) found Occupy to be a breath of fresh air: it was less exclusionary, more participatory and generally more rewarding than many of their prior political experiences.

Tensions in camp life
This is not to suggest that life at the Occupy camps was plain sailing. As in any fledgling community, the bringing together of a diverse body of people created tensions. Amongst other incidents, there were allegations of sexual abuse and complaints about drunken people. These incidents made it difficult always to  present the camps as respectable places for political dissent, especially to the well-to-do folk of the City. Despite these very real challenges, Occupy still managed to get itself cast in a largely positive light in the media. As our research illustrates, Occupy London also succeeded in interweaving on-line and off-line forms of political action.

A success?
So, in many ways, Occupy was a huge success. Unravelling the global financial system and instituting a more equitable alternative is no small feat. It is so challenging that it would be unfair to set that as a bench mark against which to measure the success of a protest movement. Successfully bringing together a diverse range of people in a temporary community to explore possible alternatives is no simple task, either. To succeed at that whilst gaining largely sympathetic press coverage, and to have sparked a host of follow-on political initiatives suggests that Occupy did not, not by any means, fail. It succeeded. And its legacy will doubtlessly endure.

This blogspot piece draws on a research article written by Silke Roth, Clare Saunders and Cristiana Olcese, ‘Occupy as a Free Space: Mobilization Processes and Outcomes’, published in Sociological Research Online, 19(1).

Tuesday 4 March 2014

Stigma and Teenage Mothers

By Kyla Ellis-Sloan
Teenage pregnancy and parenthood are often cited as causes of a number of social problems in the UK. For example, it is pointed out that teenage pregnancy carries health risks for mother and baby and that teenage parenting leads to poverty and low educational outcomes. Consequently, teenage parenthood (and particularly motherhood) is considered to be a significant concern for policy makers in the UK. The previous Labour government responded to these concerns by implementing the Teenage Pregnancy Strategy. This aimed to reduce the incidence of teenage pregnancy and to support those who became teenage parents. In 2011 Sarah Teather (then Minister for Children and Families under the current government) stated that the prevention of teenage pregnancy remained a priority for the coalition but policies would be now implemented through an integrated localised approach rather than a centrally led and funded strategy.
Interestingly, these concerns and policy responses have emerged despite considerable debate as to the causes and consequences of teenage pregnancy. For instance, educational failure and poverty are argued to be causes rather than consequences of teenage pregnancy (see for example Arai 2009 and Duncan et al 2010). Furthermore, academics point out the significance of socio-economic status on poor outcomes. In other words, teenage pregnancy and parenthood is not inevitably nor inherently detrimental to mother and child. Nonetheless this body of work remains overshadowed by the negative associations noted above. Furthermore, dominant representations of teenage parenthood position the teenage mother herself as a social problem. This stems from long held and oft repeated assumptions that becoming a teenage mother brings with it an entitlement to housing and welfare benefits. Pregnancy is therefore often seen as a choice motivated by greed, immorality or laziness. It should then be of little surprise that there is a stigma attached to teenage motherhood.

Experiences of stigma became particularly apparent during an ethnographic study with young mothers. The research was conducted over a year at three separate teenage parent support groups and examined decisions made by young women as they become teenage mothers. In-depth interviews and observations at support group meetings were used to uncover motives, influences and constraints on key decisions such as those around contraception use. The research also focused on young mother’s interactions with support services and so considered decisions relating to education and employment following childbirth. These methods also, however, elicited reports of negative assumptions, hurtful judgements and sometimes ill treatment based on the women’s age and linked to the stigma attached to youthful parenting.

Drawing on Erving Goffman’s work (1963), stigma is defined here as being a characteristic or trait which brings an individual into disrepute. Stigma is applied to people who don’t meet the norms and values of society or who are believed to have behaved inappropriately. So, a pregnancy marks a teenager out as being ‘prematurely’ sexually active. The continuation of that pregnancy, when considered in conjunction with negative understandings of teenage pregnancy, marks teenage mothers out as being wantonly ignorant or even immoral. This article demonstrates that young mothers are keenly aware of the way in which teenage pregnancy and parenthood are publically perceived. The young mothers discussed in this article try to avoid this stigma by presenting their lives and decisions in ways which challenge dominant assumptions. For instance, they emphasise how they were not at fault for their pregnancies but have nonetheless taken responsibility and become good mothers.

The impact of stigma on teenage mothers and their families is an important field of study.  In a recent article, The Daily Mail drew on data from the Office of National Statistics to highlight stigma as a potential factor in the reported decline of teenage pregnancy (Chorley and Doughty 2014). Whilst it is possible that this is a contributing factor, we do not know whether stigma has been at the heart of declines which have been evident for some time. Moreover, I would urge caution in welcoming this outcome of the stigmatising of teenage motherhood. We know that in previous decades, shame attached to unplanned or unwanted pregnancy (for instance in the case of illegitimacy) often led women to extreme and horrific decisions about their own and their babies lives. I am not suggesting that this is likely to reoccur, not least because of the advent of contraception and abortion, but we do need to consider the implications for women driven to abortion through shame. Furthermore, we also know that stigma has important consequences for women who do become young mothers. For instance, we know that good quality ante-natal care is important to the well-being of both mother and baby. Where this has been accessed, many health risks associated with teenage pregnancy are reduced if not eliminated (Macintyre and Cunningham-Burley 1993; Irvine et al 1997; Botting et al 1998; Kaufman 1999). Yet stigma can deter young mothers from accessing support services during and after pregnancy. This brings into question whether stigma, rather than being a teenage mother per se, is at the heart of some of the poor health outcomes of teenage pregnancy. Stigma should not, therefore, be applauded as a way to reduce teenage pregnancy and parenthood. Indeed, this article recommends that greater efforts need to be made to challenge misconceptions surrounding young motherhood and thus reduce stigma.

This piece is based on the article by Kyla Ellis-Sloan published in the February 2014 issue of Sociological Research Online: Teenage Mothers, Stigma and their 'Presentation of Self'.


ARAI, L. (2009) Teenage Pregnancy: The making and unmaking of a problem. Bristol, Policy Press.

BOTTING, B., M. Rosato, et al. (1998) Teenage Mothers and the Health of Their Children,  Population Trends 93: 19-28.

DUNCAN, S., R. Edwards, et al. (2010) What's the Problem with Teenage Parents? In: S. Duncan, R. Edwards and C. Alexander (eds) Teenage Parenthood: What's the problem? London, The Tufnell Press.

GOFFMAN, E. (1963) Stigma: Notes on the management of spoiled identity Harmondsworth: Penguin.

IRVINE, H., T. Bradley, et al. (1997) The Implications of Teenage Pregnancy and Motherhood for Primary Health Care: Unresolved issues, British Journal of General Practice 47: 323-326.

KAUFMAN, M. (1999) Day-to-Day Ethical Issues in the Care of Young Parents and Their Children in: J. Wong and D. Checkland (eds) Teen Pregnancy and Parenting: Social Ethical Issues. Toronto, University of Toronto Press.

MACINTYRE, S. and S. Cunningham-Burley (1993). Teenage Pregnancy as a Social Problem: A view from the United Kingdom, in: D. Rhode and A. Lawson (eds) The Politics of Pregnancy: Adolescent Sexuality and Public Policy. New Haven, Yale University Press.