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talk given at Sussex University, 2006
This paper has now been published by Power and Education, vol 1, No 1, 2009
For further developments of these ideas see:
J. F., and Schostak, J. R. (2008) Radical Research. Designing,
Developing and Writing Research to Make a Difference, Routledge: London,
Research has always, for me, had something to do with getting at the truth in the hope that in some small way this might contribute to reducing injustices. Perhaps this was naïve. However, as a beginning researcher it seemed important. And it still does. In the context of aspiring towards social justice, truth is not a mere technical problem. If only people could be made aware of the real circumstances of their lives, so the argument might go, then they will naturally seek to make appropriate changes. You have nothing to lose but your chains, as Marx and Engles wrote in the Communist Manifesto of 1848. Hence, all that is required is the appropriate method that will lead to uncovering the real circumstances allied to the appropriate political and educational strategies. Simple enough. But as Willis (1977) noted in the introduction to his still seminal work, Learning to Labour, the problem is not why middle class kids get the jobs but why working class kids let them. If nothing else, it provided a sense that people’s circumstances and their interpretations of those circumstances are too complex to be amenable to simple solutions. It’s almost as if the key socialist or democratic question is: why don’t people do what is good for them? Laclau and Mouffe in their 1985 book critiquing socialist strategies as a way of presenting their approach to radical democracy, provided insights. At the time, I knew nothing of it. Instead, I was interested in the relationship between individuality and the institutions of society: looking back on it, my question might be summed up as: how can individuals in company with others create institutions that are appropriate to their needs? It is here that for me the whole issue of freedom resides. Freedom as a member of a social grouping is, I argue, essentially paradoxical. Each individual wants to be free to express themselves, fulfil their aspirations and meet their needs. But to do so, living with others, requires foregoing at least some of these desires for self expression, fulfilling interests and needs. Radical research, it seems to me, has its place in this paradoxical hinterland between competing interests, needs, and desires. However, if it were just that, it would be no more than a political stance founding itself on the heterogeneity of the world. More than this, all people being different, having different points of view, radical research sees methodology itself as being founded upon irresolvable disagreements about the nature of truth.
Disagreement and the Law
Disagreements can be resolved in many ways. The classic Hegelian confrontation between two individuals seeking mastery was resolved either by death or by submission. Submission might mean slavery at worst or at least some sense of inferiority, positioning the loser under the command of the winner. The relation between the powerful and the weak was almost paradigmatically summed up for me in a clash between a boy of 12 and a young teacher that I wrote up for a book I called Maladjusted Schooling (Schostak 1983). Briefly, it was lunchtime, both teacher and child had finished eating. The teacher told the child to take his as well as the child’s tray of dirty dishes to the kitchen hatch. The child said no. This dispute was taken to the headteacher who was outraged at the defiance of the child. The deputyhead who had been trying for some time to build a positive relation with the child was left to sort out the problem. All the time the child protested his rights not to have to be the servant of the teacher during his own free time. Several times during the taped exchange it boiled down to the child saying ‘I’m right’ and the deputyhead saying ‘no, you’re not right’ and going on to say I know you know you’ve made a right fool of yourself’. In the end, of course power won and the boy was placed into detention. But the deputyhead said to me that it had all been handled wrongly and that all the time he had spent building a positive relationship with a difficult boy in order to get him to fit in with school demands and so benefit from lessons was now seriously damaged. There were three agendas at play. The first was simply about power, someone had to win. The second, was about justice underpinned by rational rights that would be clearly seen by all if placed under conditions of reasoned debate. The third was about reconciling the child to the compromises needed to gain the benefits of fitting in with the inequalities of the status quo.
Schools, I concluded, as then conceived, were maladjusted to the needs of individuals. Hence the title of the book. The school was not just any school. It was an avowedly socialist school with a mission in an area of massive unemployment. Teachers had a vision of working to bring about a more just society through education. In the late 1970s, it was once one of the largest schools in the country, around 3000 on roll, a leader in Comprehensive Education. In 2005 it had 881 on roll. The levels of unemployment remain as high as they had been back in the 1980s. How can these injustices, articulated at the micro and the macro levels framing everyday life, be dealt with?
Rancière (1995) contends that disagreements are fundamental to politics and that democracy is the way in which people can be faithful to these essential disagreements. Disagreement is inevitable simply because everyone is different and everyone wants what they want. To avoid killing each other over every disagreement, politics becomes a way of managing the disagreements through the development of constructed laws. For Rancière the best way of constructing these laws is through democratic processes. This represents an interesting parallel with research methodology – how are the laws of social order either discovered or constructed? If there are many viewpoints, each with their own view as to what is true, good, real, lawful, desirable which is to be trusted? It is a problem having a parallel to that of Descartes’ concern to find something that would give him a sense of certainty in terms of the knowledge required to inform his judgement and his actions. The Cartesian moment essentially began with a disagreement, a disagreement with much of the so-called knowledge produced by so-called authorities that had gone before. Upon further reflection he decided to doubt everything:
So, because our senses sometimes play us false, I decided to suppose that there was nothing at all which was as such as they cause us to imagine it; and because there are men who make mistakes in reasoning, even with the simplest geometrical matters, and make paralogisms, judging that I was liable to error as anyone else, I rejected as being false all the reasonings I had hitherto accepted as proofs. And finally, considering that all the same thoughts that we have when we are awake can also come to us when we are asleep, without anyone of them being truer than the illusions of my dreams. But immediately afterwards I became aware that, while I decided thus to think that everything was false, it followed necessarily that I who thought thus must be something; and observing that this truth: I think, therefore I am, was so certain and so evident that all the most extravagant suppositions of the sceptics were not capable of shaking it, I judged that I could accept it without scruple as the first principle of the philosophy I was seeking.
(Descartes, 2001: 53-4)
Of course, there have been many criticisms of the sense of certainty proclaimed by Descartes. Of interest are those that push the radicality of method to its limit. Two approaches make useful departure points. The first is from Spinoza. The other is from Derrida. Very briefly, Spinoza’s approach does not lead to the Cartesian split between mind and material world. For Spinoza there is the affirmation of the identity between mind, God and nature. All creatures do what is in their nature to do and they have the ‘natural right’ to do whatever it is that is in their power to be able to do. People have the natural power to think and to reason and that power is co-extensive with their rights. Spinoza puts it like this:
it is certain that nature, taken in the abstract, has sovereign right to do anything she can; in other words, her right is co-extensive with her power. The power of nature is the power of God, which has sovereign right over all things; and inasmuch as the power of nature is simply the aggregate of the powers of all her individual components, it follows that every individual has sovereign right to do all that he can; in other words the rights of an individual extend to the utmost limits of his power as it has been conditioned. Now it is the sovereign law and right of nature that each individual should endeavour to preserve itself as it is, without regard to anything but itself; therefore this sovereign law and right belongs to every individual, namely to exist and act according to its natural conditions. We do not here acknowledge any difference between mankind and other individual natural entities, nor between men endowed with reason and those to whom reason is unknown; nor between fools, madmen, and sane people.
Thus Spinoza does not accept any position privileging reason above non-reason, wisdom above foolishness, sanity above madness. It is what may be called an ultra-Cartesianism (cf. Balibar 1998) which pushes the whole method of doubting everything to its furthest extremes essentially recasting reason as simply another aspect of nature having no more rights to a privileged position than any other natural power. Reason, rights and ‘natural powers’ are enmeshed. This means in particular two things to me: 1) that anyone relying exclusively on reason to sort out the social world is doomed from the start; and 2) anyone who does not employ reason in dialogue with peoples’ different viewpoints which in themselves may for example be based on faith rather than reason or desire for power or fear of others and so on, is doomed from the start. Reason provides the hope that a method can be found that may resolve conflicts. For Spinoza the best of all methods was to be grounded in the politics of democracy. As I have argued elsewhere (Schostak 2002, 2006, 2007), emancipatory research requires a recognition not only of multiple views but also of the fact that no one view, and hence no one political order, nor one methodology, nor one Truth can encompass and ground all possible views. However, this does not mean that all is lost, nor that all is relative in that naïve sense of saying that one person’s opinion is just as good as another because there is no such things as ‘facts’ or objective Truth. What it does is place an onus on individuals in relation to each other: it means that no one can flee the need to deal with each other and the disputes that arise over how the world is to be managed by people. It also means that there can never be an exhaustive, once and for all solution. This, of course, is good news for researchers since we will never be out of business. What counts as knowledge for the purposes of making decisions about courses of action will be the subject of endless debate by methodologists each seeking to be more inclusive, more grounded in the ‘realities’ that are presumed to ground the various ‘objective worlds’ proclaimed by various people and hence more critical and radical than the other.
It is at this point that I want to introduce a touch of Derrida to provide a stepping point towards thinking about these circumstances where there is no longer an absolute point of reference. Briefly, deconstruction does not mean that ‘anything goes’. Derrida was adamant on that point even if many of his readers choose to ignore this. Deconstruction essentially means that the business of questioning and asking the big questions of life is never finished and that decisions have to be made in the face of undecidability (c.f., Derrida: in Mouffe 1996: 81-2). In the face of undecidability there can be no final set of transcendental laws or concepts since these must always be open to rejection or revision, rather in the way that Popper suggests in terms of fallibilism, that is, that theories can never be proven to be true but can be stated in such a way that they can be proven to be false. It’s not quite the same, of course since Derrida is thinking of a much wider field of operation than Popper who is focusing on a more limited area of research practice. What Derrida moves towards is a notion of quasi-transcendentals and thus quasi-stabilities and in doing so:
Do I just speak of this ‘quasi’ in an ironical, comic or parodic manner, or is it a question of something else? I believe both. There is irony and there is something else. As Simon Critchley said, quoting Rorty, I seem to make noises of both sorts. Now I claim this right to make noises of both sorts in an absolutely unconditional manner. I absolutely refuse a discourse that would assign me a single code, a single language game, a single context, a single situation; and I claim this right not simply out of caprice or because it is to my taste, but for ethical and political reasons. When I say that quasi-transcendentality is at once ironic and serious, I am being sincere. There is evidently irony in what I do – which I hope is politically justifiable – with regard to academic tradition, the seriousness of the philosophical tradition and the personages of the great philosophers. But, although irony appears to me to be necessary to what I do, at the same time – and this is a question of memory – I take extremely seriously the issue of philosophical responsibility. I maintain that I am a philosopher and that I want to remain a philosopher, and this philosophical responsibility is what commands me. Something that I learned from the great figures in the history of philosophy, from Husserl in particular, is the necessity of posing transcendental questions in order not to be held in the fragility of an incompetent empiricist discourse, and thus it is in order to avoid empiricism, positivism and psychologism that it is endlessly necessary to renew transcendental questioning. But such questioning must be renewed in taking account of the possibility of fiction, of accidentality and contingency, thereby ensuring that this new form of transcendental questioning only mimics the phantom of classical seriousness without renouncing that which, within this phantom, constitutes an essential heritage.
(Derrida: in Mouffe 1996: 81-2)
What this boils down to is an approach that continually seeks and questions the production of universal statements about the world. It suggests that in order to live with each other in a world that never ceases to be conflict ridden and volatile we need methodologies that are able to engage with and commit to philosophical notions of what is to count as knowledge, truth and well being in a universal sense while also being aware that our notions of what is or is not universal will be tested by ever changing circumstances and thus that others due to these differences in circumstances will contest any statement of universality as soon as it is stated. This is most clearly seen in the context of ‘rights’, ‘wrongs’ and ‘injuries’, a place that is haunted by myths, fantasies and accidental events in everyday life.
Rights, Wrongs and Injuries
At the beginning of this paper I mentioned a case that occurred during my research at a large comprehensive school in the early 1980s. During that time there were several riots occurring across the country creating a sense of panic. There were, of course, many explanations some of which at least referred to a sense of violation of people’s rights, in particular their rights to employment and thus a reasonable opportunity to escape poverty; others referred to a breakdown in law and order and the actions of an ‘enemy within’. The construction of a sense of enemy is a political strategy that has long been used to separate an ‘us’ from a ‘them’. It has its contemporary echo in Bush’s talk of the ‘axis of evil’. Such universalising strategies, it can be argued, have the advantage of reducing complexity. Any action that reduces the power of the ‘axis of evil’ must be good. Decision making on this criterion is thus very easy. It does not include the need to recognise the other since the other is ‘evil’ and thus requires no debate, no exploration of any sense of injustice felt by the other who by definition is regarded as ‘evil’. Of course, who and what is good or evil depends very much on who is making such definitions and setting the criteria as to who or what is to be included under the relevant universal category. Both State A and State B can appeal to the universal category of ‘Goodness’ and exclude each other from that category by claiming the other is ‘evil’. ‘We’ on the side of ‘goodness’ become the particular historical bearers of a universal Truth that ‘we’ claim to incarnate. As ‘we’ incarnate humanity, ‘They’ incarnate inhumanity. What gets to be included under a universal category is thus dependent on the relative power of the body that makes the decision. This is an insight that Laclau (1996, 2006) refers to as the empty signifier. Signifiers universalise but are indifferent as to what content is placed under them. They are thus essentially empty and it is open to people competing with each other to get their contents accepted as the ‘true’ contents of a given universal signifier like ‘goodness’, or ‘freedom’, or ‘community’, or ‘humanity’ and so on. In this context, methodology might be seen as a strategy by means of which the contents of universalising signifiers can be studied and questioned across a range of viewpoints with the purpose of increasing the range of viewpoints that can agree on including particular contents. Even if this statement is not terribly original or surprising, taking such a statement seriously (c.f., Schostak 2006) has a number of radical consequences that I would like to illustrate with reference to some recent projects.
The first involved a Housing Trust that was managing a clearly defined Estate. The Estate provides a nice image of the material signifier ‘housing’ a range of contents. The nature of these ‘contents’ is described by Joan, the Estate manager, who had commissioned a small evaluation in 2005 of a parenting course they had developed. She explained why they had developed this course and how it related to her work in the Trust:
Joan: I think when we came here the perception of the Estate was that it’s a very rough area with a lot of social problems and it was difficult to manage the estate. There were a lot of empty properties here, I think, I can’t remember the numbers cos I wasn’t here. But you know, over forty odd empty properties boarded up, some tower blocks, nine tower blocks which were definitely associated with a lot of antisocial behaviour. They’re very typical of um young transient single people who’ve not got much consideration for community. And uh, the stock was run down, needed a lot of repair work (…). Over the six years that we’ve been here we’ve done a lot to improve the physical condition of the properties. We’ve pulled down the tower blocks and the general perception ‘n feedback that I get from tenants and people coming up here who’ve not been for a while is that that process has made a considerable difference to this estate. This project started, I think in response that there was still a lot of teenage, perceptions of teenage nuisance. Uh, this particular patch of the Estate with the shops here um lots of kids hanging around in in the evenings being a general nuisance, graffiti, vandalism. And the, the statistical information about the area, the surveys that we’ve had say that people get bugged by criminal damage. And if you ask them about it it’s things like damage to cars, you know people passing by and
JFS: mm, scraping
Joan: having a quick scratch and a scrape and loitering round the shops. It’s improved a lot on this parade recently because the off-licence closed, so the little, the magnet’s gone
Joan: there’s another magnet at the top of the Estate. But generally, it has calmed down a lot. And that’s what people tell us.
(Transcript extract from interview 2005)
The interests of powerful institutions organise questions for particular purposes. They want research to be undertaken to address those questions. In this case as justification, the residents of the community are said to want strategies that reduce the degrees of violence, and the parents want a way to control their wayward children. In Laclau’s terms an hegemony is being constructed that cuts across what might be thought of say in Marxist terms, as two distinct and opposing classes: the ‘bosses’ and the ‘working classes’. As the local social worker who was involved with the project pointed out later in his interview, the community also needs employment opportunities. The young people have few prospects. Those who do find employment eventually leave the estate rather than contributing to its regeneration. Thus leaving all the problems and the structures that reproduce these problems in place. In short there is very little for young people on the estate. It is the typical complaint of nowhere to go, nothing to do and no way of getting legitimate employment. From one point of view they just hang around in the evenings causing trouble. From another, they are just having a laugh (c.f. Willis 1977). What can be done about it? One radical solution is physically to reconstruct the area as in destroying some buildings and building new ones – just as the Trust did in the expectation that changing the physical conditions would impact on social behaviour. However, this physical rearrangement was only a partial answer because the cultural and social dimensions still had to be addressed. For some these could be addressed by better policing. However, as the social worker remarked, all that the presence of more police did was to shift the problems from one place to another and back again depending on wherever the police were. For others the answer is in better parenting. This was the solution adopted by the Housing Trust in response to residents’ requests. The course was entirely voluntary. The social worker was drawn into the course in order to work with the children of the parents. His view was that the young people lacked self confidence and social skills and that his course provided them with a chance to develop themselves by building trusting relationships with each other. Despite the undoubted individual successes of the course, the structural problems remained, there was still nowhere to go, nothing to do and little employment. The course only worked with relatively few of the parents and young people on the Estate. It could not provide a wholesale solution. The name of the estate still signifies problems to those who seek to control, manage, educate its ‘contents’. From the side of power, many of these ‘contents’ are further categorised by the agency of other universalising signifiers that indicate what they lack, that is, how they are ‘other’ to normal or ‘good’ identities who behave properly and show respect to authority and their neighbours. The social worker saw his role as mediating between power and what he conceived of as the needs of these young people who lacked confidence and the right skills. Yet, he was still a representative of power seeking to modify and manage the behaviours of the young people. In order to explore young people’s views, I will move now to the second project, again a small evaluation of a programme, but this time involving creative practitioners and teachers in a school. It takes up the theme of community, what it means to transform an area composed of residential buildings into something that feels like home.
Wanting To Be At Home
The ancient world did not have to actualise individuality for people to feel at home in it, according to Hegel, but in the modern world as he understood it, in Hardimon’s (1944: 99) reading:
the social world is a home if and only if it makes possible for people to actualise themselves as individuals and as social members.
This is an important condition, the radical implications of which are essential to thinking through the nature of community and of democracy. For Hegel what distinguishes modern society from previous societies is the emergence of individuality, the desire for individuals to be free to express themselves. However, to express themselves, they need to feel the support of a community, not just for safety needs but as a nurturing resource. Otherwise they feel alienated, resentful. What could a nurturing Hegelian style community look like? Who would compose it? How could it be articulated? The concept of community can be articulated in policy terms in many forms: as citizenship courses in schools, as the management and control of immigration involving the building of national identity/patriotism, or community building can be expressed as community regeneration schemes, as community policing, as commissions addressing issues of racism, sexism and poverty. However, the essential dimension in Hegel’s formulation of what it means to feel at home in a community is the support that is felt to develop one’s sense of individuality. This implies that each individual does not want to lose what is distinctive or positive about them under the more inclusive category that unifies and identifies individuals as being members of a named community but individuals being essentially different it implies also the possibility of conflicts that have to be managed under the unifying name of community. The name of the community in a sense has the potential to homogenise due to its reputation, to say that anyone from such and such a community has particular characteristics. This can be illustrated in the following extracts from a project involving children of about 10 years old working with creative practitioners in a school. They were asked to explore their own community and to imagine their ideal community. When asked to describe their community one girl said:
Girl 2: You got to see like different cultures like ehh, black people and white people. And people like Indian people, you got to see what their life is like. (…)
JFS: Are there different sort of communities around here because I don’t know the area
G2: Yeah there’s like, like .. if you go out in a car like a 15 minute drive there’s like (place name) which is really clean. And if you go like down, this way out the school, that’s clean, but when you come onto my street, that’s real mucky. Our mum hates it there.
JFS: Why’s that then?
G2: Because there’s teens that are always like cause fights and the police are always round. And I’ve got like you know them porches outside me ‘ouse, everyone’s wrote their names on it. And me mum’s like phoned the council and the police and everythin’
There are separate communities defined by their dominant characteristics. Then there are distinctions to be made within ‘communities’ in terms of this street and that street. The sense of underlying conflict is expressed in the complaints about noise and aggression and the litter and graffiti. Their frustration, their sense of powerlessness to affect the conditions of their lives is expressed simply as ‘And me mum’s like phoned the council and the police and everythin’. None of them liked living in the area:
Boy: cos sometimes you just can’t get to sleep at night, cos like shouts ‘n you can hear bottles smashing
Next they described their ideal community ”where we worked in pairs and then we wrote like a script and we done like models (…) and there’s loads of stuff in it like banks” and “stuff that we needed like hospitals, doctors, banks, ambulance, fire brigade, police station, gyms …” and (another one of them) added “and we had different churches and different …”. and
And we wrote a script where there was a family who came from Jamaica (…) there was a racist person who was in the scrapyard (…) the police warned him and he continued being racist and he tried to capture the children and then at the end the police just arrested him, then he felt lonely at the end. But near the end it said what they had in the perfect city.
The other group did a story about a gang that came from another city called the rotten rebel gang. They burnt down the museum to steal things. A group called the cool gang informed the police.
The listings of institutions required to meet needs and the narratives of conflicts and their resolutions provide a sense of a demand for a rule of law whether by police or by gangs. And then they reflected on the comparison between ‘the perfect city’ and the actual by means of a video where “we went on a community walk around (name of place) and we had like what we needed and what improvements we could make. We saw like the library and bakers, hairdressers, like loadsa stuff like (…) and we all walked round and they video camera’d us..”. And so I asked them what they thought of the video:
Boy: They video’d all the bad parts of (name) like old derelict streets. Then afterwards I thought it was alright.
JFS; Did it actually seem like the place you lived in?
Boy: .. if you didn’t think how (place name) was and took your mind off what we were doing, if you looked at the surroundings they were like, you know ‘oh I wouldn’t like to live there’. Cos if you looked at all the houses they were all boarded up and, all the graffiti and smashed bottles (…)
JFS: So would you have done a different story, you know for (place name)?
JFS: What would you have shown?
Boy: Well I’d have shown the good bits, like the park and …….. (laugh) hmmm, there’s a point.
Girl: The good parks, the local parks are all trashed up so we don’t get anywhere to play.
To feel at home, there are institutions, public spaces and a certain kind of ethos that are necessary to nurture the sense of self, identity and safely being in community with others. There is a sense of frustration, of complaint, of wrong being committed through the voices of the children. There is also a sense of powerlessness. Although the project brought real benefits to the children and the school in terms of the children finding out more about each other and in terms of the teachers listening more to the children, the benefits did not extend into the outside circumstances of their lives. There were no ‘good bits’ about the community despite their desire to have such examples to show. In short, there was no community in the sense of it being a home. Without resources, nothing can be done. And there is no obvious way in which the children, or the adults for that matter, can engage with the structures and procedures through which resources in society are distributed. This gets us to the final project I want to mention. Its intention is to make a difference, to have a real impact on communities. It also wants to make an impact at policy levels. It thus seeks a strategy for combining the local and the national.
Corporate Power, Community and Democracy
The main initiator of the project is a Bank that is in partnership with two not for profit organisations. It is too early to report the impacts of the programme which still has another year of developmental work around the 180+ sites nationally where it is funding capital build and development projects as an impetus for the regeneration of communities ranging from around £600,000 to £1 million each for the largest sites of which there are about 20 and £50,000 each to the smallest. In contrast to the previous projects, there is a major resource here. There is a desire by the institutions both to have and show the impact of their initiatives. As a bank, the first instinct is to find some way of measuring outcomes. However, they soon realised that the very issues they wanted to have most impact upon were the most difficult, and often most nebulous and controversial. There are many policy issues that this project keys into. However, in this final section, I want to raise the issue of the power of corporations of any kind in relation to issues of community and democracy. It is here that research faces the question of emancipation, a discourse that cannot be ignored, as Derrida has pointed out, if research is to be critical and relevant to the lives of people in communities:
Emancipation is once again a vast question today and I must say that I have no tolerance for those who – deconstructionist or not – are ironical with regard to the grand discourse of emancipation. This attitude has always distressed and irritated me. I do not want to renounce this discourse.
(in Mouffe 1996 :82)
Emancipation, of course, is a grand signifier, an empty signifier in Laclau’s sense. Although it is not the natural discourse of a financial institution, market economics has its own discourses of freedom from state control, the free market and the freedom of the individual to make his or her own choices. Such rhetoric seeks to fill the emptiness of the signifier with the concreteness of market structures and processes. For many its success is self evident. Fukyama in his1992 book, proclaimed the end of history. That is to say, with the fall of the Soviet States and the globalisation of capitalism underpinned by liberal market democracies, there is no where else to go. Like Kojève (1969) before him, the argument is that the Hegelian vision of a rationally ordered society where, in terms of the big political and social ideas, there is nothing left to struggle for is close to fulfilment. Without the dramatic political struggles there is in effect no history, that is ‘history understood as a single, coherent, evolutionary process, when taking into account the experience of all peoples in all times’ (Fukyama 1992: xii). In short, the basic design of the good society and the “final form of human government” has already been produced. Only the details are to be worked out, details that must be addressed by the national and local policies of public and private sector institutions if the vision of the final form of society is to be fulfilled and not collapse. It is thus in the interests of corporations to be seen to contribute to the general process of addressing such issues beyond just making profits in their own interests. The bank is attempting to address issues of community regeneration under the name of corporate social responsibility. Is it that emancipation is tamed by such acts of corporate responsibility; or is it possible that corporate social responsibility may become a catalyst for emancipation?
The power of a major financial institution is incontestable when set alongside that of the children in my second example who could only imagine what should be in their perfect city. Unlike them, the bank has the resource to rebuild and transform the smashed up parks or waste areas in their neighbourhoods. This they are doing at the 180 sites at a cost of around £30 million. Yet, this power is also tempered by the responses of the local communities. If the proper level of consultation is not undertaken then there can be protests and bad publicity. Hence the programme team learnt quickly to insist on the participation of local residents and groups in developing the individual project plans. Often there is suspicion and competing interests at stake in a given area. In one site, the land, although an eyesore had a line of valued trees some of which were destroyed. This caused outrage. Local people organised and met with the project team. The project was modified to include a play area for toddlers as well as games areas for older children and adults. An old and much loved tree was saved. These may seem like simple moves but new associations had been built amongst the residents, local government and its departments that had not previously existed. They had been built precisely because of disagreements in order to represent those disagreements to each other as well as to the organisations involved in redeveloping the land. Out of the disagreements had come a modified plan as well as a new respect that each party held for the other. This is not to say that everyone now agrees with each other. Disagreements remain but so does the experience about how to develop forms of association in order to represent those disagreements.
Such processes are taking place in each of the 180 sites. In each case, the central issue is: who speaks for the community? For in doing so, that empty signifier ‘community’ becomes a focus for disagreements about who is to represent the interests, needs and hopes of individuals. The Bank’s initiative has begun to act as a catalyst for development beyond merely making physical transformations of otherwise waste ground. By deliberately insisting on the development of participation during and after the development in order to ensure its sustainability people in many of the sites have had to engage with each other, taking seriously their disagreements as a basis for negotiating changes and acting creatively for mutual benefits. However, it is not always easy to do so.
As one project manager put it ‘we’re beginning to see the emergence of a community infrastructure’. The land he was talking about was about the size of 5 football pitches. It occupied the central area of residential estates that had become seriously run down. It had become a dumping ground. Each night the fire engines were called out several times to put out the fires deliberately set alight on it. It was a focus for gangs and drug dealers – a very dangerous place. After five years of getting funds from various sources the land was transformed. We went to see the skateboard park that the Bank had contributed, made of durable materials that a tank would have difficulty in crushing he proudly said. I looked around, people could be seen walking their dogs along the paths, young people could be seen using other installations on the site and some young lads began using the skate park. Now, he said, people are not afraid to come here. There are no more fires. In a building adjacent to the park social services and local policing had moved in. They had not felt safe enough before. And in the middle of the newly redeveloped site he said, there we will have three football pitches. He talked of his plans to hire staff who could engage with young people and offer sports development for them. Where, it must be asked, are the residents and the young people in this process of decision making? The community infrastructure has to include individual residents – young and old – feeling able to represent their views in matters affecting their lives with each other and the institutions that impact on their lives. For this particular project site, that is still a hope for the future. Without it there is the danger that corporations, local government and local organisations will remain or become maladjusted to the real needs, interests and hopes of people. There is much more yet to do. the real economic conditions of people’s live are still not significantly affected. The question becomes: how may the emergent community infrastructures be driven deeper into the economic as well as social dimensions of life?
I feel I have just come full circle – back to the key questions I explored in my first book, Maladjusted Schooling, by which I meant schools maladjusted to meet the conditions of life experienced by individuals. Institutions, it seems to me, are maladjusted to individuals to the extent that they do not include the means whereby individuals can represent their views and engage with each other in community. Since individuals have different interests and desires there will be disagreements. Indeed, it is in disagreements that the definition of what is to be counted as a community and as an institution working for people is to be contested, debated with sufficient agreements reached to engage in creative, constructive action. Otherwise feelings of injury, wrongs and injustice that arise from having no means of representation in a community of debate and decision making will fester and alternative means of achieving desires will be found. In one of my projects, back in the 1980s, the children – between five and 9 years old – called it ‘sorting it out’. It was called the Listening and Talking project (Schostak 1988-1989). The whole school, teachers, catering staff, caretaker and the children had to engage with each other in resolving their differences. Whenever there was a dispute, they went off to talk through the dispute, what it felt like, what they wanted, and how they could resolve the issue. It is in facing up to such disagreements, such senses of wrongs being committed by someone against someone that democratic practice begins. This was an action research project began because the staff wanted to change the climate in the school. They succeeded because they decided to take seriously their desire that the children become more self responsible. Doing that meant that the children had to make decisions and resolve disputes. It is here that research played its part by creating the conditions for close reflection on the structures and processes of everyday interactions. The staff and the children had a basis upon which to decide what needed to be changed, what needed to be removed and what needed to be added.
In each of the three illustrative projects, the key dimension has been the extent to which people could represent their views and act upon them. For this some kind of community infrastructure is required through which individuals can be represented and disagreements debated and resolutions found. For Mouffe (1993) this is the very essence of democratic practice where democracy is necessarily an unfinished and unfinishable revolution. The task, therefore, is to drive research methodology down to the very ground of people’s lived engagements with each other, the disagreements they have with each other, the structures and processes that either prevent or enable resolution of felt senses of wrongs, injuries and injustices. This is where research and radical democratic practice meet.
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