Thursday 2 August 2018

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.


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