Thursday 2 August 2018

Reflections on 'Sociological Interrogations of the Turn to Character' – Pt. 2

by Akane Kanai

This blog series is adapted from talks given at the launch of the SRO special section 'Sociological Interrogations of the Turn to Character', 2nd July 2018, Goldsmiths College. The articles in this special section (published June 2018, Vol. 23 Iss. 2) query 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 authors highlight fractures, tensions and slippages in how character is conceptualised, interpreted and mobilised. 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. 

When I was invited to respond to the recent special section ‘Sociological Interrogations of the Turn to Character’, I was very much struck by several key themes that the contributors bring so clearly to the fore in problematising the ‘turn to character’. To provide some context to my response, my work focuses on the connections between gender, affect, and digital media. A key concern of mine, which I think is shared with the authors in this special section, has been to think through the narrow, and highly interventionist ways we are asked to constantly adjust, modulate and makeover our subjectivity in line with neoliberal and post-Fordist goals. I want to outline three of the key insights the special section presented for me, and detail the way it connects to concerns across scholarship that I have been drawing on. At the end I’ll make some brief comments as to how this issue has raised further questions for me in a current project exploring contemporary feminism, subjectivity and digital culture. 

First, the emphasis on the masculinisation of soft or emotional skills, particularly noted by Erica Burman, and the continuing expropriation of women’s work. In following sociological interventions such as that of Lois McNay (1999) and Lisa Adkins (2003), we see continuing inequalities in which the ‘feminisation of work’ or rather the entry of middle class women into paid work, relies on the affective labour that women carry out while simultaneously de-gendering and devalorising that labour. In studies of digital culture I am particularly concerned with the way in which concepts such as immaterial labour and affect are used in ways that are completely divorced from analyses of gender and women’s work of social reproduction. It is vital to foreground this gendered dynamic, as this special section does so well. Moreover, I see applications of this kind of analysis in the valorisation of ‘resilience’, ‘vigour’, ‘grit’ and ‘non-fluffy’ feelings in the ways in which emotion in digital cultures is also valorised along gendered lines. For example, we might think of the ways in which feminist and antiracist campaigners are vilified as ‘snowflakes’, too emotional, too ‘soft’ compared to ‘trolls’ whose humour you just have to be ‘tough enough’ to withstand. 

Second, the articulation of the turn to the standardisation and measurement of emotion and corresponding character traits. The special section highlights a calculated sameness that aims to erase the existence of structural inequalities, particularly in the entrepreneurial subjectivities that are cultivated as Kirsty Morrin points out. To me, outside of formal educational contexts and policy spaces, this raises the question of what kinds of relationality and sociality such governmental grids produce. I have learned from scholars like Arlie Hochshild (1983), Sara Ahmed (2004) and Carolyn Pedwell (2014), amongst others, that affect and emotion must be understood as a relational phenomena that locates us in relations of inequality and dominance. As such, in seeing such patterns in the production of character extended in neoliberal culture in general, I am preoccupied by the standardisation of affective communication seen in varying mediated settings as well. These include the social platforms that extract value from users’ struggles to format themselves into shareable, likeable form, as well as the simplification and decontextualisation of affects such as aspiration, determination and hope. For example, one disturbing trend that Ros Gill and I have recently been thinking about is the way in which discourses of diversity in brand culture condense multiple differences of race, gender, disability into a single discrete obstacle that must be overcome by the individual through sheer ‘grit’. 

Third, and perhaps the most evident contribution of the special section is the focus on character itself. While I’ve been working in the area of gender, affect and digital media for a little bit of time now, the naming of the turn to character was a powerful articulation of the need to critically interrogate the production and intensification of certain moral subjectivities. As Kim Allen and Anna Bull state in their paper, across many contexts of austerity in post-industrial economies, we see concerted efforts to attach a socially conservative heart to neoliberal market principles. This was one of the most significant insights for me in creating conceptual links around the emotional landscape of the production of human capital in a context of social, political and economic crisis. And, in this special section and particularly in Nick Taylor’s piece, I observed resonances with the work of Stuart Hall (1988) in documenting the twinned discourses of Thatcherism and authoritarian populism some time ago, identifying the links between so-called Victorian values, crisis, economic transformation and abject and demonised subjectivities. The special section makes clear that in times of austerity, minoritised individuals are increasingly asked to lean in, bend, adapt to a society that gives little. In doing so it provides connections to the historical, nationalistic and imperialist histories that such a turn to character reinvokes, condensing, in Hall’s terms, the political and the moral in particular ways.

I want to conclude with some brief comments on some further connections with my current project that explores how self-identifying feminists are using digital spaces to learn about and participate in feminism. I think that this ‘turn to character’ is something of which we need to be cognisant, not simply in formally neoliberal state-based settings, or corporate culture, but also in the everyday mediated and even social justice settings in which we work. Here I’m also drawing on Ros Gill and Shani Orgad’s observation of mediated spaces as key to the proliferation of character discourses. In this project, feminist participants discussed their everyday social media use in explicitly pedagogical ways- that is, as spaces where a feminist curriculum could be learned outside of the classroom. But this learning dovetailed with significant work on the self. My feminist informants expressed a clear commitment to social justice causes. But it was equally evident that for many of my informants, perhaps because it felt too daunting to address larger structures, often the main ways in which feminist practice felt achievable and practicable was through ‘character work’. That is, by continual labour on the self, one’s disposition, and relations with immediate others. In the digital social spaces in which my informants participated, there was a sense that one’s individual feminism needed to be continually refined and improved as a personalised character trait. This dovetailed with the way in which feminism was at times conflated with moral notions of virtue and goodness; evidently, these are idealised traits historically associated with white middle class femininity.  

I hope I’ve been able to give a very brief account of some of the extremely insightful and useful connections this scholarship has allowed me to make in connecting the emotional and the moral with questions of gender, labour and digital culture. I want to thank the authors and especially the editors, Anna and Kim, for the opportunity to engage with this special section. 

About the author:  Akane Kanai is a Lecturer in the School of Media, Film and Journalism at Monash University. Her research on youthful femininities and digital intimate publics has been published in outlets including Feminist Media Studies, the Journal of Gender Studies, the European Journal of Cultural Studies, and Social Media and Society. Her first book, Gender and Relatability in Digital Culture: Managing Affect, Intimacy and Value is forthcoming with Palgrave Macmillan.

Adkins, L. (2003) ‘Reflexivity: Freedom or Habit of Gender? Theory, Culture & Society 20(6): 21–42.
Hochschild, A. (1983). The Managed Heart: The Commercialisation of Human Feeling. Berkeley: University of California Press.
Ahmed, S. (2004). The Cultural Politics of Emotion. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press.
Hall, S. (1988). The Hard Road to Renewal: Thatcherism and the crisis of the Left. London: Verso.
McNay, L. (1999) ‘Gender, Habitus and the Field: Pierre Bourdieu and the Limits of Reflexivity’, Theory, Culture & Society 16(1): 95–117.
Pedwell, C. (2014). Affective Relations: The Transnational Politics of Empathy. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan.

Reflections on 'Sociological Interrogations of the Turn to Character' – Pt. 1

by Val Gillies

This blog series is adapted from talks given at the launch of the SRO special section 'Sociological Interrogations of the Turn to Character', 2nd July 2018, Goldsmiths College. The articles in this special section (published June 2018, Vol. 23 Iss. 2) query 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 authors highlight fractures, tensions and slippages in how character is conceptualised, interpreted and mobilised. 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. 

Let me start off by saying many thanks for asking me back to act as a discussant once again. I’ve been able to stand on the sidelines and watch this project develop since the first seminar the guest editors held, and out of which this special section developed. It’s been a privilege to see it take shape in this way.  It’s a really important collection and I’m glad it’s being properly celebrated.  Well done to everyone involved and particularly to Anna and Kim for taking the initiative and guiding it through to publication

I was a bit shocked when I dug out my original comments to realize the first seminar was all the way back in July 2016. A whole two years ago! It was just after the Brexit vote and everything seemed so uncertain and unstable then. But that’s just become the new normal now. The Government’s been teetering for years, ministers come and go and the country lurches from one crisis to the next. Yet the same stale, hoary old narratives around character and resilience still hold sway, making the papers in this special section as relevant as ever.  Various character infused programs, interventions and buzz words have waxed and waned over time, but the core ideology of the concept is deeply embedded. 

A real strength of this collection is its ability to hold on to and critically describe the amorphous, nebulous but highly contingent nature of character as a powerful trope. The authors show how there are different manifestations in different contexts but trace them back to the same genus and show how they accomplish similar aims and objectives. For example, the authors discuss ‘resilience’, ‘entrepreneurialism’, ‘grit’, ‘positive mental attitude’, ‘moral responsibility’. It’s almost like a neoliberal dot to dot and the picture it creates of a mythical creature. An ideal, invincible subject who toughens up in adversity, takes it on the chin and is all the stronger for it. 
But as we know this ideal is being pushed while the human misery caused by late capitalism piles up all around us. We’re being sold the trope of character in the context of rising rates of destitution, hunger and malnutrition, even homeless people dying on the streets. The solution to acute social need and political failure is, we’re told, for us to become stronger as individuals.

As Nick Taylor’s insightful paper points out there is a striking echo here from the 19th century when an orthodoxy of liberal individualism last reigned supreme. The parallels and the differences he teases out are absolutely fascinating and very telling. I found it particularly interesting because he discusses the role of the Charity Organisation Society, a historical institution I know a bit about. I’ve spent many hours buried in the COS archives as part of a recent project tracing the history of ‘troubled families’I’m very aware of the role character assessment played in determining who did and didn’t get help during this period. These decisions were often ruthless and cruel. One of the case studies we drew on concerned the desperate Thorpe family and their starving children who were denied help in 1888 because they were deemed to lack self-reliance. So we know where a preoccupation with character led to in the past. And given the current political context there’s no reason to believe it will be any less brutal second time around.

But, perhaps more hopefully, we also know that the hard liberal virtues espoused by the 19th century elite came to be widely reviled and mocked. COS were colloquially dubbed as ‘Cringe or Starve’ while the Christian socialists filled out hilarious mock COS applications for Jesus Christ (he was rebuked for his utter want of thrift, industry, temperance and for the bad company he kept). And even as Alfred Marshall was writing the Principles of Economics, COS were fighting a losing battle with the Fabians. Character then has always been a controversial and contested concept. Moreover, with organized opposition ‘character’ was excised from the political lexicon for the best part of a century (though blaming the poor for their own misfortune merely assumed other guises). 

It is no coincidence that the tarnished vocabulary of character has been buffed up and redeployed at a time when capitalism is once again in crisis, squeezing us ever harder, while having to account for the increasingly visible moral vacuum at its centre. Political and economic elites desperately need to mobilize some legitimacy at the moment.  As Kim Allen and Anna Bull’s excellent network analysis shows, they are the ones behind the curtain, pulling the strings and building the apparent consensus behind character education. Kim and Anna’s paper skillfully strips back all the policy and practice rhetoric to reveal the global flows of power, influence and money that are directed towards the character infused version of ‘just desserts’ that we are now so familiar with.

Erica Burman’s paper provides a perfect case study of how an evidence base for character education is produced through papering over contradictions, elisions and gaping holes in the logic. She also neatly and perceptively reveals how the hardening up of the ‘soft skills’ agenda associated with the turn to character re-inscribes old gender hierarchies between agency and relationality. This is a crucial observation, not least because gendered representations in school initiatives are so blatant and uncritical. My daughter is in Year 1 at infants school and gets to play with brightly colored puppets designed by the ‘You Can Do It’ program, featuring ‘Ricky Resilience’, ‘Pete Persistence’, ‘Oscar Organization’ – and two for the girls ‘Connie Confidence’ and ‘Gabby Get Along’. The gendered dimensions are far from subtle.

Pictured: the ‘You Can Do it’ puppets in action illustrating ‘British values’ in a London infants school corridor (even though they’re actually Australian). Connie and Gabby have exaggerated eyelashes and hair bows to feminize them. 

But as Rosalind Gill and Shani Orgad’s paper astutely notes, Ricky Resilience later morphs into the face of the empowered middle class woman who ‘leans in’ through the career knocks and stays strong. They highlight the unsettling cultural saturation of resilience strategies and the self-investment this demands, particularly from women. What strikes me most about their analysis is the way that challenges to, or subversions of, prevailing power dynamics are seamlessly co-opted, defused and put to work to undergird the status quo. The psychological turn they identify within neoliberalism reframes and tames any resistance to the model, then flogs it back to us as a personalized prescription for overcoming its hurdles and triumphing.

And that brings me on to Kirsty Morrin’s excellent analysis of an entrepreneurial education program in a secondary academy school. I saved that one until last because it explores resistance in a really sophisticated and nuanced way and the potential for resistance is something I’m thinking a lot about at the moment. Also the very subtle resistances she documents are very familiar to me - I’ve seen the same dynamics in my own work in schools. Kirsty references Stephen Ball’s ‘politics of refusal’ in her paper. This is a concept I really like because it foregrounds the capacity we all have to disrupt and unsettle even the most totalizing logics we find ourselves incased within. Small acts on a mass scale can render some things unworkable, meaning we all have more power than we perhaps always recognise. Some, in social work have gone further and call for a form of ‘guerrilla warfare’, ‘a small-scale subversion of institutional strictures that disadvantage and misrepresent’ (Ferguson 2009).

Of course what Kirsty describes is not at all consciously political in this way. But the point is it could be. Our work as critical scholars can (and does) contribute to and support a politics of refusal. At the very least it troubles easy assumptions and opens up alternative perspectives. This special section does exactly that - I hope it’s widely read. Congratulations again to everyone involved.

About the author: Val Gillies is Professor of Social Policy and Criminology at the University of Westminster. Her research interests include family, parenting and social class, marginalised children and young people, home school relations, critical social policy as well as historical sociology. Her most recent books include Pushed to the Edge: Inclusion and Behaviour Management in Schools’ (Policy Press, 2016) and Challenging the Politics of Early Intervention: Who’s Saving Children and Why (Policy Press 2017) with Ros Edwards and Nicola Horsley.

Ferguson, I. (2009) Another Social Work is Possible!’  Reclaiming the Radical Tradition, in V. Leskošek (Ed.), Theories and methods of social work, exploring different perspectives (pp. 81-98). Ljubljana: University of Ljubljana.

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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Carby, H.V. 1982 ‘White woman listen! Black feminism and the boundaries of sisterhood’, Centre for Contemporary Cultural Studies, The Empire Strikes Back: Race and Racism in Seventies Britain, London: 

Hutchinson. Re-printed in in H.A. Baker, M. Diawara and R.H. Lindeborg (eds) 1996 Black British Cultural Studies: A Reader, London: University of Chicago Press.

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). 

Gabb, J and Silva, EB. 2011 ‘Introduction to critical concepts: families, intimacies and personal relationships’, Sociological Research Online. 16(4)23

Gilding, M. 2010 ‘Reflexivity over and above convention: the new orthodoxy in the sociology of personal life, formerly sociology of the family’, British Journal of Sociology 61(4): 757-777.

Gillies, V. 2014 ‘Troubling families: parenting and the politics of early intervention’, in S. Wagg and J. Pilcher (eds) Thatcher's Grandchildren?: Politics and Childhood in the Twenty-First Century. Basingstoke: Palgrave macmillan pp 204-224

Julienne, F 2008/2014 On the Universal, the uniform, the common and dialogue between cultures, Cambridge: Polity Press. (Translated by Michael Richardson and Krzysztof Fijalkowski.) 

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.

Ribbens McCarthy, J. Doolittle, M. and Day Sclater, S. 2008 Family Meanings, Milton Keynes: Open University. Revised version published 2012, Understanding Family Meanings: a Reflective Text. Bristol: Policy Press.

Ribbens McCarthy J, Edwards R, and Gillies V. 2000 ‘Moral tales of the child and the adult: Narratives of contemporary family lives under changing circumstances’. Sociology, 34(4) 785-803

Ribbens McCarthy, J, Hooper CA, and Gillies, V (eds) 2013 Family Troubles? Exploring Changes and Challenges in the Family Lives of Children and Young People. Bristol: Policy Press

Ribbens McCarthy, J, Hooper CA, and Gillies V. (eds) ‘Family troubles and troubling families’, Journal of Family Issues, special issue (in progress)

Thorne, B and Yalom, M 1982 Rethinking the Family: Some Feminist Questions. London: Longman.

Friday 23 March 2018

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It is vital to hook and excite the reader from the start. The first paragraph should stimulate interest. 

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All blogs should be academically grounded and supported by evidence. Referencing within the text should be done using hyperlinks to the online source. If possible, also use evidence that is open access or available through an online repository (such as 

3. Word Count

Blog pieces have to be short and sharp and therefore the word count is between 600 and 800 words. 

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7. How to Submit

Please submit your blog in a Microsoft Word format (.doc, .docx) to the Editorial Office:

8. Current Themes

The SRO blog has a range of themes that we ask authors to write about. 

Current theme: ‘The Sociological Inspiration

This series offers reflections, from scholars of all career stages, on 2-3 papers from Sociological Research Online that have inspired, motivated or informed their own thinking and research. Up to two papers from other British Sociological Association Journals may also be included.

Wednesday 21 February 2018

The Sociological Inspiration: Part 1

By Carli Ria Rowell

Over the course of my doctoral degree I have engaged with myriad sociological texts relating to the theoretical, empirical and methodological and I have spent much time discussing with my doctoral peers those texts that have sparked a passion for, interest in and commitment to sociological research. On a theoretical and empirical level, for me, it is those sociological texts that explore, validate, and enlighten my own experiences and the experiences of those around me, and on a methodological level it is texts pertaining to various methodological and ethical problems and possibilities that have been of greatest guidance.

As an ethnographer, researching the experiences of working-class students at an elite UK university a core focus of my study sought to explore participant’s experiences of transitioning, spatially, affectively and metaphorically between the elite sphere of the university and their working-class locale. Here, I was concerned with attending to social spatialisation and placed-images exploring the way(s) in which, if at all the physical, material and topographical site of the elite university and working-class locale worked to include or exclude participants; positing them as both in and out of place in both an actual, embodied, emotional and metaphorical sense. Recognising that “vision does not dominate the way we experience our environments” (Pink 2009:12) I adopted a somewhat visual approach to ‘data collection’. I conducted a number of photo elicitation interviews, walking and driving tours and it was through the utilisation of said research methods that I was introduced to participants’ home locales, often these locales were council estates. 

From the outset of my research a sub-set of participants shared with me their experiences of navigating their way through formal educational institutions that had rendered them, within the imaginaries of formal educators as ‘problem people’ from ‘problem places’. It was thus, in this vein that I compelled to explore the way in which the now educationally and spatially mobile working-class first-generation students experienced the constant transition from a vilified council estate to the geographical site of the elite UK University. However, questions pertaining to the practice and ethics of doing so pervaded. How am I to amble to sociologically explore such phenomenon? What methods might I draw upon? What are the ethical issues inherent in such line of enquiry? And how am I best able to manage these? Importantly, do I have the right to enter into such spaces for the purpose of my doctoral research and subsequent personal gain? These were the questions that the three Sociological Research Online articles discussed here helped me think through and what I discuss in this post. I attempt not to provide a comprehensive overview of said papers but instead discuss the way(s) in which they shaped my research theory and practice.

Welfare Commonsense, Poverty Porn and Doxosophy by Tracey Jensen

At the time of conducting my fieldwork there had been the proliferation in the mainstream media of what Sociologist Tracey Jensen has termed ‘poverty porn’. Poverty porn typically ‘documents’ the experiences of the poor, exploring the lives of families and individuals as they attempt to get by on welfare. As Jensen notes:“It is through the explosion of 'poverty porn' television that welfare discourses of political elites have become translated into authoritarian vocabularies. Poverty porn television is not simply voyeurism, but performs an ideological function; it generates a new 'commonsense' around an unquestionable need for welfare reform; it makes a neoliberal welfare 'doxa'” (2.2).

Typically, such antagonistic programmes are set on 'sink council estates' with a stark visual imagery of architectural decay, vandalism and environmental degradation and are accompanied by a narrative of intergenerational worklessness, petty criminality and anti-social behaviour and a lack of aspiration. Jensen’s paper sensitised me to the new forms of 'commonsense' of welfare and some of the stigmatising stereotypes that a number of my participants were subject to as a result of the narrative of poverty porn that was (and is) circulating in lay, political and media commentary.

 A Walk in Thirdspace: Place, Method and Walking by Kate Moles

The second article published by Sociological Research Online that has been central to the formation of my research methodology was the aforementioned paper by Moles. The paper foregrounds walking as a mobile methodological tool. In doing so, it engages with debates and discussions surrounding mobile methods, “methods employed that embrace and celebrate the different engagement with spaces that being mobile produces” (1.10). The purpose of the paper, as Moles herself writes, is “the demonstration of what Thirdspace methods might look like” (7.1). The paper draws upon the author’s experience of conducting in-depth research over three years in a park in Dublin. It begins by guiding the reader through spatial theory, engages with the concept of Thirdspace and argues for the inclusion of spatial practices within sociological research, before setting out the methodological act of gathering data through walking drawing upon anecdotes and vignettes from her fieldwork to illustrate the arguments being made.

Throughout the article Moles recognises the importance of pertaining to issues of place and space in a way that accounts for and encompasses its mobility. Moles foregrounds the importance of “recognizing the affinity between personal narratives and the movement through place" (Hall et al. 2006) and attends to a thirdspace of epistemology (1.5). It was through reading ‘A Walk in Thirdspace: Place, Methods and Walking’ that I was introduced to the cultural concept of bimbling, the act of wondering aimlessly through “a co-ingredient environment, which can be harnessed to prompt theretofore unstated or unrecalled knowledge of the life-world” (4.3). Blimbling became a central component within the numerous walking tours that I conducted with and alongside participants and the act of blimbling brought with it numerous methodological gains. Just at Moles notes, blimbling provided space by which dialogue between both the body and mind and the individual and the place can emerged (Anderson 2004). This enabled me to explore the way in which the place, the personal and the cultural interlinked and combined to shape participants' subjective experience of transitioning spatially, affectively and metaphorically between the elite sphere of the university and their working-class locale. Spaces and places mean different things to different peoples in different epochs. Thus the experience of moving within and between is dependent upon the idiosyncrasies of a particular participant and mediated by the social, cultural, political and historical. Familiarising myself with the concept of blimbling and executing said cultural practice within the various walking tours I conducted thereby enabled me to explore the way in which the special practices of participants contributed to their experience of being a working-class student in an elite British university.

Furthermore, through the method of blimbling I was able to translate my pledge to feminist research ethics into practice, most notably the commitment to dismantling hierarchical research relationships insofar as possible. As Hall et al. (2006 cited in Moles 2008) acknowledged, mobile interviews shift the balance of control away from the researcher. Finally, through the method of blimbling, the way in which participants experienced their working-class locale per se was uncovered. This enabled me to access meanings that seldom exist in dominant discourses surrounding working-class localities, council estates and council housing.

The Dereliction Tourist: Ethical Issues of Conducting Research in Areas of Industrial Ruination by Alice Mah

Mah’s ethnographic research was focused upon illuminating the way in which individuals live in and among sites of industrial ruination. Specifically, the research focus “was on places that were caught between being left behind and moving forward” (1.4) in relation to the unequal geography of capitalist development. The research was conducted in areas of industrial ruination in Russia, the UK and North America. In each case study location Mah undertook approximately 20-30 interviews, driving and walking tours of neighbourhoods with research participants, and informal visits with residents in their homes, at community centres, and at various meeting places in their communities. The average time spent in each field site was two months and it is in this vein that Mah noted that the relatively short period of time in each field site “contributed to the sense of being not only an outsider but 'just' a tourist, passing through” (1.5). This, coupled with the fact that the original inspiration for the research derived from Mah’s experience of a cross-country road trip through Chicago, Detroit, Buffalo, in addition to her personal fascination with industrial ruins and the subsequent enjoyment of research, led Mah to feel as if she were a “dereliction tourist traipsing around the globe chasing the aesthetics thrills of ‘ruins porn’” (Mah 1.5) as opposed to a sociological ethnographer committed to, and conducting, social justice research. This led Mad to interrogate the role of the 'dereliction tourist' as a way of reflecting critically about the various ethical issues inherent in 'outsider' research. In doing so, the article explored the ethics of “voyeurism, romanticization, and the reproduction of negative stereotypes about marginal people and places” (Mah abstract) and discussed critically the role of an outsider researcher. 

Throughout the article there is the critical engagement with the notion of 'ruins porn' (Clemens 2011, Mullins 2012), which Mah summarises to be “a metaphor for the aesthetic, sensory and self-satisfied pleasure of dereliction tourism” (1.1). However, Mah argues, “industrial ruins are only fascinating for some people, typically outsiders, passing by, snapping photos” (1.1). It was at this point that the parallels between the ethical and moral dilemmas inherent in Mah’s fieldwork and that of my own became apparent. I could not help but call into question the ‘enjoyment’ that I had for my doctoral thesis. Here I was especially concerned with interrogating my fascination with my doctoral participants' experiences of transitioning between the elite sphere of the university and their working-class locale, and the moral and ethical implications that were inherent and Mah’s article provided me with the sociological thinking to do so. 

One of the seminal luxuries of doctoral research, I am frequently told by those more senior than myself, is the luxury of time and the subsequent opportunity of endlessly immersing oneself in sociological texts. However, as a doctoral researcher near to submission, I have since reached the point where I am encouraged (or rather told) to read only that which is central to my thesis. My supervisors and peers are often hesitant to recommended readings for fear that I will ‘read the entire thing’. Whilst the skill of instrumental reading is nonetheless one that I am yet to master, for those who possess the luxury of time, I urge you to immerse yourself in wide-ranging sociological texts and when doing so I encourage you to take note of the lessons learned and guidance gleamed…

Carli Ria Rowell is currently a final year ESRC doctoral researcher in the Department of Sociology at the University of Warwick and a full time teaching fellow in the Department of Sociology at the University of Sussex.

Tuesday 20 February 2018

The Sociological Inspiration

The editors of Sociological Research Online are pleased to announce the start of a new series that will feature on the SRO blog: ‘The Sociological Inspiration’.

This series offers reflections, from scholars of all career stages, on articles from the journal's back catalogue that have inspired them in some way - perhaps by changing their thinking, motivating their research or improving their teaching.

What’s been your Sociological Inspiration? We’d love to hear from anyone willing to write a reflection of approx. 800 words that highlights at least 1-2 articles from SRO, and up to one more from any of the BSA journals. For further details, or to submit a proposal, please contact the Editorial Office at


The Sociological Inspiration: Part 1