(Mis)Understanding Troubled Families (Part 4)

Symbolic violence, to put it as tersely and simply as possible, is the violence which is exercised upon a social agent with his or her complicity (Bourdieu, 1992: 167)

The social world can be uttered and constructed in different ways: it can be practically perceived, uttered, constructed, in accordance with different principles of vision and division (Bourdieu, 1992: 232)

 ‘What’s missing is love’ declared Louise Casey to The Guardian when she was interviewed last year. The article also recounts a message that Casey gave her audience at a conference on the day of the interview: ‘Remember the humanity in it. Forget which agency you are from and remember the human being’

At the end of her Listening to Troubled Families report, Casey writes:

And finally I’d like to thank the families.  I am indebted to them for their openness in recounting to me often painful and distressing details of their personal histories and wish them every success as they continue on the road to changing their lives.

The title of the report is significant. Casey may well have listened to the families she interviewed, but in publishing the report, she was also talking about them, telling their stories in a very particular way which has been criticised for the stigmatising representation of the families and the absence of any ethical procedures. Ruth Levitas wrote that  

Doubtless families with backgrounds and circumstances as difficult as Casey documents exist – although there might be quite other ways of telling their stories than in the narratives presented here.

Interestingly – and I digress a little here, it would appear that Casey has some form in this kind of ‘research’. The quote below is from a blog about a meeting with Casey when she headed up the ASB Unit

I’ve only met Louise Casey the one time. She came to speak to me in 2008 as part of a consultation exercise for what became her report, Engaging Communities in Fighting CrimeShe sat politely. Smiled at the appropriate moments. Paid no attention to anything I said and wrote a report short on evidence and long on ideology and gut prejudice.

Back to the present – the Listening report is a good example of the labour of representation that Casey and the government are involved with and the Understanding Troubled Families report is another good example. The Listening report provides narratives from the families, their own true stories, sympathetically collected and received by a down-to-earth civil servant. The Understanding report provides the hard data and the numbers which ‘proves’ the extent of these families ‘problems’.  I have tried to show with this blog series how the latter report, far from seeking to ‘understand’ troubled families, actively misrepresents them through interpretive speculations of some very weak data.

In order to listen to someone or to attempt to understand them, you do not need to publish a report or produce some statistics. However, if you want to construct a narrative, tell a particular story, or create a class of people, then you do have to put pen to paper and communicate the concept to other people in a convincing way. Bourdieu argued that the main error in Marxism was treating classes on paper as if they were real classes. And this is exactly what the Troubled Families Programme set out to do – not with Marxist intentions though. 120,000 different families, many of whom have very different ‘problems’ to deal with, who are scattered across every local authority in England, are being pulled together on paper to form, in the words of The Sunday Times, ‘a new underclass’ – a threat to the normative values and aspirations of those ‘hard-working families’ that they are discursively set against.

This ‘class on paper’ is all the more powerfully perceived and (mis)recognised because it is an official class – constructed, authorized and guaranteed by the state. Bourdieu went on to suggest that:

The power of imposing a vision of divisions, that is the power of making visible and explicit social divisions that are implicit, is the political power par excellence: it is the power to make group, to manipulate the objective structure of society

Whilst the construction of ‘Troubled Families’ sets out to impose a vision of division, we should remember that it is an entirely arbitrary concept and, in effect, there is no such thing as ‘troubled families’, at least not in the sense of there being 120,000 of them. The group may exist on paper, they may exist in local authorities data systems, but they do not exist in the real world. ‘Troubled families’ have been constructed as an official social problem with no clear definition of what constitutes a ‘troubled family’ and no research or evidence worthy of the name to support the existence of such a group.  As such, it is not possible to ‘listen’ to ‘troubled families’, nor is it possible to ‘understand’ them. They are an imaginary group. All we are left with, then, is the telling of stories.

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