(Mis)Understanding Troubled Families (Part 3)

‘Words wreak havoc when they happen to name something that is experienced but has not yet been named’ (Sartre, 1987: 127)

‘Each society, at each moment, elaborates a body of social problems taken to be legitimate, worthy of being debated, of being made public and sometimes officialised and, in a sense, guaranteed by the state (Bourdieu, 1992: 236 original emphases)

‘Underclass’ is a symbolic term with no single meaning, but a great many applications … It represents, not a useful concept, but a potent symbol’ (Dean, 1991: 35)

Ideas similar to that of ‘troubled families’ have a long history, going back to at least the Victorian age when there were concerns about a social residuum. There have been numerous reconstructions of this idea since then, such as the social problem group, problem families, the underclass and the socially excluded. Many of these concepts have been criticised for their imprecise definitions and the general argument has been that members of these groups are easier to spot than they are to define.

I have written previously that ‘troubled families’ can be pretty much anything that local authorities want them to be, within reason. In an article in the Local Government Chronicle about the expansion of the Troubled Families Programme published yesterday, Louise Casey admitted as much, explaining that ‘I could have been criticised for drawing up narrow criteria. These are wide so that local authorities can reach those they think they need to’. The wide range of social ills associated with the label ‘troubled families’ and the use of local discretionary criteria mean that the concept operates as a sort of super social problem, encompassing a wide range of seemingly separate and sometimes unrelated problems from alcohol dependency to violent extremism. Kirk Mann described the use of the debate about the concept of ‘the underclass’ in the 1980s and early 1990s as suffering from a ‘generalised ‘catch all vagueness’, suggesting that specific policy responses to a wide range of problems was likely to fail and that ‘it may be inappropriate to subsume these disparate issues under the catch all heading of underclass behaviour’ (Mann, 1994: 85).

The Troubled Families Programme is, as we know, a specific policy response and the Understanding Troubled Families (UTF) report provides an opportunity to look at some of the characteristics of the families categorized as ‘troubled’. The official naming of ‘troubled families’ means, as Bourdieu pointed out, that the concept achieves a form of legitimacy through its ‘guarantee’ from the state. This has implications for families labelled as ‘troubled’ given the stigmatising and contemptuous language which is often used in the discourse surrounding them. Imogen Tyler has written powerfully how the ‘scum semiotics’ and ‘underclass consensus’ which surrounded the riots of 2011 were used to ‘procure consent’ for a political backlash against poor and marginalised families. The Troubled Families Programme, in its current format, emerged as a direct political response to the riots and continues to be linked with those events in the media.

I pointed out in Part 2 of this series, however, that many of the families do not correspond with the stereotypical ‘neighbours from hell’ image that was invoked by David Cameron when he launched the programme. In fact, the most common characteristics amongst the families involved with the programme appear to be that they are white, not in work, live in social housing and have a range of health and disability issues. Crime, anti-social behaviour and substance abuse all appear to be characteristics shared by a minority of families. Mann noted these contradictions and tensions in description of the underclass, noting that ‘they are nimble enough to burgle any home and can run off after a ‘bag-snatching’, but the disabled (sic) are also members of the underclass’ (Mann, 1994: 80).

Despite these contradictions, it is problematic behaviours such as crime, ASB, Domestic Violence and drug and alcohol abuse that have been used as justification for the national policy response to the problem and which members of the public most likely think of when they see the term ‘troubled’ or ‘problem’ families. Bourdieu wrote that ‘In the social world, words make things, because they make the meaning and consensus on the existence and meaning of things, the common sense, the doxa accepted by all as self-evident.’ It is, I would argue, self-evident what ‘troubled families’ is shorthand for.

The make-up of ‘troubled families, as reported in the UTF report, however, means that many families with long-standing and debilitating illnesses and/or what appear to be relatively minor crime and ASB issues may not be receiving the support and services that they need. Instead, they will receive a ‘hands on’ ‘challenging, assertive and persistent’ family intervention style approach designed to address high levels of ASB and which has been heralded as a phenomenal success in ‘turning round’ the lives of so many troubled families. This success is then used as justification for ‘rolling out’ this approach to a wider group of families with even more poorly defined ‘troubles’, whilst simultaneously cutting more specialist services. Casey has, for example, used the example of needing less Pupil Referral Units if fewer children are truanting. The logical conclusion to this example appears to be that as long as children are in school, they are officially not ‘troubled’ or ‘troublesome’. As long as they walk through the school gates every morning and aren’t committing crime and ASB, their lives – and those of all members of their family – have officially been ‘turned round’. They no longer fall into the category of ‘troubled family’. The simplicity of the classification of families as either ‘troubled’ or not stands in stark contrast to the complex, dynamic nature of most people’s lives, not least those actively targeted by the TFP.

In short, the official naming of ‘troubled families’ is a good example of words wreaking havoc. When David Cameron and Louise Casey talk to the media about ‘troubled families’, when civil servants publish official TFP documents, and when local authority workers process claims for payment-by results, the words used have an impact on those families labelled as ‘troubled’ and how they are treated by the state. This is true whether the topic is the alleged ‘intergenerational transmission of problems’ and parents ruining the lives of their children or the ‘success’ stories of families whose lives have been turned round and therefore no longer require state support.

(Mis)Understanding Troubled Families (Part 1) can be found here

(Mis)Understanding Troubled Families (Part 2) can be found here



One thought on “(Mis)Understanding Troubled Families (Part 3)

  1. Thanks Steve, fantastic as usual. I’m really surprised and intrigued to hear that those categorised as troubled are mainly white. If so there’s something interesting going on there. Also I don’t follow Casey’s argument about Pupil Referral Units – there’s a big difference between truanting and exclusion. You can’t get kids back into school if the schools won’t take them. It would be a ridiculous notion that a family worker could sort out behaviour issues in school with rolled up sleeves and common sense!

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