(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

 

Troubled Families: a ‘super’ ‘social problem’?

Last week, Simon Hughes, the Justice Minister suggested that families who repeatedly appeared in the family courts would, in the future, be helped by the government’s Troubled Families Programme. This is the latest in a long line of ‘presenting problems’ linked with ‘troubled families’ and is entirely consistent with Macnicol’s view that

‘it is necessary for proponents of the underclass concept to lump together a wide variety of diverse human conditions (in order to make the problem appear significant), yet attribute to them a single cause (so that it appears a problem amenable to solution)’ (Macnicol, 1987: 315).

So far, we have seen ‘troubled families’ associated with a remarkably long list of ‘troubles’. To add to the three national criteria of Crime/ASB, educational truancy or exclusion and worklessness, local authorities are invited to add local filter criteria which can be whatever they choose, as long as it represents a high cost to the public purse. A number of local authorities have identified issues such as child protection and/or domestic violence whilst some have also included slightly different – and disparate – criteria such as: living in a deprived neighbourhood; having a parent with a long-term limiting illness or disability; not taking up the offer of free childcare for two-year-olds or; having ‘low parental capacity’.

Louise Casey, in her Listening to Troubled Families report helpfully listed the problems that were ‘revealed’ by her interviews with 16 families:

  • Intergenerational transmission
  • Large numbers of children
  • Shifting family make-up
  • Dysfunctional relationships
  • The anti-social family and friends network
  • Abuse
  • Institutional care
  • Teenage mothers
  • Violence
  • Early signs of poor behaviour
  • School
  • Anti-social behaviour
  • Mental health – depression
  • Drugs and alcohol

As if these three national criteria, unlimited local criteria and 12 familial issues aren’t enough, other government publications and individuals have sought to extend and ‘diversify’ the potential impact of the Troubled Families Unit. In the aftermath of the riots of 2011, the government published a report on Ending gang and youth violence stating that the work of the Troubled Families Unit would be ‘crucial’ in reducing involvement in violent crime and disorder. No mention of gang membership in any national criteria or Casey’s report.

James Brokenshire, the Security Minister has stated that he is ‘keen to ensure that the Government’s work to support troubled families is aligned to our work to support vulnerable individuals at risk of being drawn into terrorist activity’. This concern has been operationalized by at least one local authority who have included a local criteria of ‘Family member is believed to have been influenced by violent extremism.’ Again, no mention of extremist activity in national criteria or Casey’s report.

This ‘lumping together’ (or ‘pathological concentration’ as Garland called it) of a number of different ‘social problems’ under the banner of ‘troubled families’ is akin to the development of some kind of ‘super social problem’. The label of ‘troubled family’ therefore becomes an official hook on which to hang whichever social problem is in the news at the time. But the diversity of criteria demonstrate that it is disingenuous to think of a homogenous group of ‘troubled families’ and even more absurd to think that a single policy response can ‘turn round’ the lives of all of the families being discussed. Does a family with a parent with a long term limiting illness require the same sort of ‘family intervention’ as a family with a member involved in extremist or gang-related activity? Where is the evidence base for ‘family intervention’ reducing extremism? By hanging everything on the ‘troubled families’ hook, ministers, like Hughes, feel able to justify cuts to services in other areas. Who needs a comprehensive range of public services when a single ‘family intervention’ model can ‘deliver’ across a number of different family and social policy areas….

References

Garland, D. (2002). The culture of control: Crime and social order in contemporary society. Oxford: Oxford University Press

Macnicol, J. (1987) In pursuit of the underclass, Journal of Social Policy, 16 (3), 293-318

Many thanks to Debbie Key, David McKendrick and @FearlessJones for information provided for this post.