Benefits Street: Territorial Stigmatisation and the realization of a (tele)vision of divisions

Benefits Street: Territorial Stigmatisation and the realization of a (tele)vision of divisions


Tom Slater and I put our heads together a little while ago and wrote a piece exploring some reactions to the initial series of Benefits Street. We examined the responses to the programme by Iain Duncan Smith, Christian Guy (Director of Duncan-Smith’s ‘think-tank’ the Centre for Social Justice) and Fraser Nelson (Telegraph journalist and Advisory Board member of the Centre for Social Justice) using Bourdieu and his work On Television and Wacquant’s work on terrirotial stigmatisation or ‘the taint of place’.

We think it’s quite a good piece, although the anonymous reviewers who saw it disagreed. Thankfully, Bev Skeggs viewed it more positively and has posted it on her Values & Value blog, which is well worth a browse in its own right. If you do read our piece and like it, or indeed even if you don’t, Bev has written a fascinating short piece on Benefits Street called ‘Legitimizing Slow Death’ which examines Benefits Street, drawing on a ‘theory of monstrosity’…..

I’m having a bit of a break from Twitter for boring reasons which I won’t go into here, so if anyone wants to make Christian Guy, Fraser Nelson and/or others involved with the Centre for Social Justice or the making of Benefits Street aware of our critique, please, be my guest…

Best wishes,


(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.

(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


Frontline and symbolic violence


Those who govern are prisoners of a reassuring entourage of young technocrats who often know almost nothing about the everyday lives of their fellow citizens and have no occasion to be reminded of their ignorance. (Bourdieu 1999, p627)

Frontline, the ‘Teach First for social work’ launched last week with the help of Richard Branson’s daughter, amid much positive media attention and much scepticism from social work practitioners and academics. I’m not going to comment too much on Frontline or its criticisms of social work. I’m not a qualified and/or practicing social worker and whilst this didn’t stop Josh Macalister believing he had the answer to its ills, I guess I’m not so self-assured. There have already been a number of thoughtful (and thought-provoking) blogs and articles which have been written by social work students, social work practitioners and social work academics (the latter raises the issue of a lack of involvement of service users in the development of Frontline). There has also been a joint statement written by and on behalf of leading social work academics (JUCSWEC & APSW) expressing concerns about Frontline.

Instead I want to try and offer a slightly more sociological perspective and focus a little bit on how it can be that someone who has been a teacher for a couple of years can write a fairly flimsy document (less than 1 side of A4 on the current policy context for social work – really?) and have it adopted and supported by government all in the space of a year or so, whilst the concerns of existing practitioners and academics are largely ignored. Drawing on Bourdieu’s concept of doxosophers, Stabile & Marooka argue that there are spontaneous intellectuals (2003, p333) who act as knee-jerk critics and providers of legitimacy(and) tend to subscribe to the doxic view of the world, repeat political slogans, and make it easier ‘to speak glibly about the world’ (p330). Bourdieu himself wrote that

Social science today is up against anyone and everyone with a claim to interpret the most obvious signs of social malaise … It has to deal with all these people, too clever by half and armed with their ‘common sense’ and their pretensions, who rush into print or to appear on television to tell us what is going on in a social world that they have no effective means of either knowing or understanding (1999, p628)

Macalister was supported by IPPR, a ‘progressive think-tank’ who have previously advocated freezing child benefit for 10 years. I have blogged about IPPR and the role of think-tanks in the development of welfare and anti-poverty policy in another guise but Wacquant sums them up better than I can. He accuses similar organisations and researchers of ‘false thinking and false science’ (2004, p99) jumping from ‘social problem’ to ‘social problem’ at the whim of media and political demand (p100).

Bourdieu highlights the role of a reassuring entourage of young technocrats and half-wise economists (1998, p5) within the right hand of the state (central government), with the left hand being workers and junior civil servants tasked with carrying out the states wishes. He suggests that

I think that the left hand of the state has the sense that the right hand no longer knows, or, worse, no longer wants to know what the left hand does

All that is somewhat shocking, especially for those who are sent into the front line to perform so called ‘social’ work to compensate for the most flagrant inadequacies of the logic of the market, without being given the means to really do their job. How could they not have the sense of being constantly undermined or betrayed?

It should have been clear a long time ago that their revolt goes far beyond questions of salary, even if the salary granted is an unequivocal index of the value placed on the work and the corresponding workers. Contempt for a job is shown first of all in the more or less derisory remuneration it is given.(p2)

In response to a question about the scope for government intervention, Bourdieu argues that their scope is less limited than they would have us believe and that there remains one area where governments have considerable scope: that of the symbolic (p3).

Viewed in this way, it is hard to argue that the development of Frontline and the very explicit support it has been given by government is anything other than an act of symbolic violence against current social work practice and training. I would argue that the choice of the term Frontline is itself an act of symbolic violence against social service users. It is unnecessarily adversarial and suggests the need for flak jackets on a daily basis. (If you google images for ‘front line’ the majority of the images are of combat situations). However, the major act of violence here is in misrecognising the causes of ‘problems’ within families by proposing that social work needs an image makeover and that ‘great people’/’outstanding graduates’ can make a real, lasting difference after spending a few weeks at Social Work Summer Camp – by extension implying that current practice and education in this area has ‘failed’, whilst ignoring the wider socio-economic factors which remain undiscussed and unchanged. Garrett highlights this when he writes

The state is apt to disappear and the resolution of issues partly rooted in (mis)recognition is almost entirely displaced onto micro-encounters. In this way, such encounters become conceptually overburdened with expectation because they are exchanges lacking the capacity to eradicate and combat structurally generated (mis)recognition. (2013, p182)

So what are social workers and academics to do? Judging by the reaction on social media and other forums for their voices to be heard, it seems like there is plenty of appetite for challenging the design of Frontline and what it represents. Bourdieu would have approved. He believed that nothing is less innocent than non-interference (1999, p269) in these matters.


Bourdieu, P. (1998) Acts of Resistance: Against the new myths of our time, Cambridge: Polity

Bourdieu, P et al (1999) The Weight of the World: Social Suffering in Contemporary Society, Stanford: SUP

Garrett, P. M. (2013) Social work and social theory: Making connections, Bristol: Policy Press

Stabile, C.A. & Marooka, J. (2003) ‘Between Two Evils, I Refuse to Choose the Lesser’, Cultural Studies, 17:3-4 pp326-348

Wacquant, L. (2004) Critical Thought as Solvent of Doxa, Constellations, 11:1 pp91-101