Austerity and Everyday Relationships in Low-to- Middle Income Families in the UK

This is a PDF of my recent presentation at the Nordic Geographers’ Meeting in Stockholm. I’m hoping to get this written up in the next few months, but in the meantime…

NGM Presentation

The paper’s abstract was as follows:

In the context of a research project which explores the experiences of austerity in a small number of ‘squeezed middle’, ‘just about managing’ (low-to-middle income) families in north east England, this paper focuses on the place of everyday relationships within and beyond the family in mediating austerity. It uses a psychosocial framing to foreground the importance, complexity and diversity of relationships in making sense of and negotiating changing socio-economic circumstances, attempting to think about and connect the psychic dynamics of families’ relationships and the social dynamics of austerity and recession, and to develop a psychosocial geography of everyday austerity. After setting out some ideas about the nature and value of relationships, the paper asks how and why relationships with family, friends, neighbours, acquaintances and wider communities have been invoked, used, challenged, remade, and imagined as families have navigated the transformations of austerity. As part of the ‘squeezed middle’, these are not families living in poverty, but they have all experienced real threats and losses in the context of austerity, redundancies, falling incomes, tightened budgets, and growing insecurities, for example. The paper explores the ways in which these shifts are connected, in families’ reflections and narrations, to the place of children and their futures in family dreams, the diverse support and demands of friends in crises, large and small, memories of earlier family lives, and everyday negotiations with partners, husbands and wives, and wider families. It seeks to map these shifting relationships, identifying the varying sites and spaces, within and beyond the family home, in which they are made and remade. In these ways, the paper connects to ongoing debates, political, popular and academic, about relationships, austerity, and neoliberalism more widely, to reflect on their diverse and complex articulations.

Thanks to Sarah Hall, John Horton and Helena Pimlott-Wilson for organising the session.

Street Play and Everyday Relationships

I spent yesterday at the play and playwork conference at Leeds Beckett University, my first play conference. I’ve been thinking more and more about play in the last year or so. Since December 2015, I’ve regularly coordinated with my neighbours to close my street for play about once a month, following the playing out model. In the last few months, I’ve started working with two other local street organisers to develop and promote opportunities for street play across North Tyneside. And in the last few weeks, I’ve realised that street play offers a fantastic opportunity to research the geographies of our everyday relationships, an idea that’s been central to my research and teaching for the last few years.

I love seeing kids play out in our street, I love the slightly subversive temporary displacement of cars, I love the chalk left on the street, often for days after we’ve been playing. But what I’m hoping to explore in my research is why adults plan street play, what they hope will happen, and what does happen, to them and their streets, as street play progresses.

From the very start of yesterday’s conference, the synergy between children playing and adult sociability was clear. Leeds’ Lord Mayor noted in her welcoming address that playing out is important not just for kids but for whole communities, as play builds relationships across diversity and difference, and as children’s presence in public space encourages – or even forces – adults to hang out outside too, watching their children, chatting with neighbours, and sometimes starting to play in their own ways too.

In the first workshop I attended, John McKendrick explored how we might make our cities and neighbourhoods play-friendly, and asked what it means for a place to be play-friendly, child-friendly or even family-friendly. What kinds of spaces do these different, if related, initiatives imagine?

The possibility of play is certainly at the heart of these visions, but so too is a broader idea of building relationships within communities, to draw people out into public spaces within their neighbourhoods, and to enable communities to develop shared identities and senses of belonging. The ‘play rhetorics‘ developed by Brian Sutton-Smith and cited by John might be augmented by an idea of play as relationships, as a catalyst for connection, friendship, recognition and community.

This is an idea at the heart of street play, and of my experiences of and hopes for playing out in my street and elsewhere. It is also one recognised by Helen Forman in her contribution to the conference’s street play workshop. Reflecting on the kinds of residential spaces that encourage and enable play, Helen reported that most research on the topic documents an improvement in adult ‘hanging out’ and sociability in places where children play outside.

Play is clearly at the heart of street play. This is a movement that is about kids playing out, but it is also about an idea of our streets and neighbourhoods as spaces that enable and reflect lively, hopeful, ordinary, everyday relationships. We can perhaps re-imagine play-friendly, child-friendly and family-friendly streets as relationship-friendly, streets that help us make and sustain connections which enable us to feel recognised, known, at home. It is these ideas that I’m hoping to explore, using ideas not only from literatures on play, children’s geographies, and communities, but also from theorisations of relationships, especially those which are part of and inspired by Donald Winnicott (for whom play itself was extraordinarily important) and the British object relations school. These thinkers imagine, in different ways, that our relationships, with intimate and imagined others, create the environment within which we find ways of going on being. This is the start of the idea that I hope to work with to explore and understand street play and everyday relationships.

On the Edge: Neoliberalism, Austerity and Insecurity

I touched on the idea of families on the edge, of poverty, security, certainty, anxiety, in my squeezed middle post. I want to explore that idea, of the edge, a bit more here, to think about the ways in which neoliberalism, in general, and austerity, in particular, are associated with experiences of being on the brink, and what it might feel like to be on the brink.

Of course, these are ideas long associated with neoliberalism. Pierre Bourdieu‘s 1998 discussion of the violence of neoliberalism sees the ‘absolute reign of flexibility’ create an environment of competition and individualisation: “the struggle of all against all … through everyone clinging to their job … under conditions of insecurity, suffering and stress”. For Bourdieu, the structural violence of unemployment and the ‘menace’ of job insecurity puts workers on edge.

More recently, Guy Standing has drawn our attention to the precariat, the ‘new dangerous class’, “a multitude of insecure peole, living bits-and-pieces lives, in and out of short-term jobs, without a narrative of occupational development”. A particularly pernicious and increasingly widespread form of precarity is the zero-hours contract, which forces workers (in major public sector organisations, such as the NHS, as well as large corporations) into a liminal, ‘twilight zone’, ‘on standby’, neither fully in nor fully out of the labour market, with little control over their time or their income. It’s easy to see how that loss of any sense of certainty, or predictability, might be associated with anxiety.   

The idea of precarity echoes strongly the idea of an edge, and a danger of falling. As Standing himself suggests “Many people outside the precariat feel they could fall into it at any time.”

on the edge

One of the markers of this period of recession and austerity, then, is the extension of precarity and vulnerability to ever larger parts of the population. What was, until recently, an experience associated with more marginal forms of employment, in informal economies, is now part of the mainstream, an everyday threat. More and more workers – and their families – have been brought to the edge. Media analyses, blog posts and think tank reports are full, day after day, of stories of workers in good jobs, with stable track records of employment, suddenly falling into uncertainty as they face job loss and redundancy.

But perhaps the metaphor of a cliff edge is wrong. Perhaps it’s more like a shoreline, with the edge of the labour market moving backwards and forwards through working populations, leaving people sometimes in, sometimes out. Despite myths of ‘benefit dependency’, most Jobseekers Allowance claims are very short, with many claiming for less than six months. But this in itself is troubling; life is unpredictable and unreliable. The precariousness of life under neoliberalism rests, then, to a considerable extent on the insecurity of employment, the in and out, the threat of redundancy, and the loss of the possibility of continuity.

But this is also coupled with what Rachael Peltz identified as “the absence of a containing governing authority” or what Lauren Berlant has described as a declining “infrastructure for holding the public as a public”. The erosion of welfare provision and the loss of other ‘containing’ institutions, such as unions and certain kinds of community, reinforce the sense of insecurity. The idea of social security and of the ‘safety net’ clearly assert the connection between these institutions and a sense of being contained, or held, of not being allowed to fall (off the edge).

In the context of current period of austerity, not only is welfare provision eroded still further, but the threat of further erosions and a growing sense that any benefit income is itself uncertain, subject to repeated reassessment and ever-changing criteria, provoke still more anxiety.

What is more, neoliberalism also promotes ideas of independence and self-sufficiency. It fosters an ambivalence towards, or even a wholesale rejection of, interdependency (as Judith Butler has explored). Neoliberal subjects should be self-contained, relying only on themselves to achieve success. Of course, this means, following Valerie Walkerdine, that any failure is also ‘achieved’ individually.

As I discussed in an earlier post, the sense of being contained enables us, hopefully, to go on being. In conditions of precarity, that sense is threatened; “trust in the continuity of life” (to quote Lauren Berlant) is replaced by new forms of subjectivity, insecurely balanced on experiences of vulnerability and individualisation. The loss of a secure environment of interdependency makes it difficult to ‘go on being’, to feel a sense of ontological security, as well as a sense of material or financial security. As Adam Phillips suggests, without a sense of containment, living becomes reactive, coping replaces living. Donald Winnicott explains how ruptures and breaks in the ‘holding’ or ‘facilitating’ environment, and the threat of them, erodes the possibility of going on being; when life becomes a struggle against the environment, when the environment impinges on life, then there is a psychic cost.  

Although Winnicott was working in the field of child development, and talking of the welfare of infants, it is possible to think about these ideas in a broader context of welfare. Debates about the ‘psychical effects of social injustice’ (Frost and Hoggett 2008, 442) have enriched our discussions since Bourdieu drew our attention to ‘social suffering’ and since Richard Sennett spoke of the ‘hidden injuries of class’. In this project, what I’m trying to explore further is what this sense of being ‘on the edge’ feels like for families today and, importantly, to ask who (or what) contains these families in the context of austerity.




Why relationships?

My focus on relationships has developed from a number of different directions.
Firstly, in previous research on households in Poland and Slovakia (with colleagues Adrian Smith, Darek Swiatek and Alena Rochovska) we concluded that the families that struggled most with tough economic circumstances were those without good relationships with family, friends and neighbours, who found themselves isolated from all sorts of support networks, through which information, money, and love, amongst other things, might flow. We argued: “Amongst those living in or on the margins of poverty, those without strong family and friendship networks appeared to be especially disadvantaged.” This conclusion got me thinking harder about the importance of relationships.
Secondly, becoming a mother in March 2011 drew me towards writers who have explored early childhood and, in particular, the mother-child relationship. For many, the mother-child relationship is the starting point for all relationships (for recent accessible examples, see Naomi Stadlen’s How Mothers Love (And How Relationships Are Born) and Sue Gerhardt’s Why Love Matters), influencing our ability to relate in later years.
This idea led me to the work of the British object relations school. As far as I understand, the British object relations school of psychoanalysts (including Melanie Klein, Ronald Fairbairn, Donald Winnicott, John Bowlby, Wilfrid Bion and others) argued that the primary human motivation is relationship-building (not sex or death, as Freud would have it).
They argued that humans need important others and seek relationships:
  • To build a sense of self and identity: we understand ourselves through our relations with others
  • To feel secure, ‘contained’, or ‘held’ and to fend off anxiety: others care for us in a way that makes us feel secure (hopefully)
For these psychoanalysts, our relationships create a ‘holding’ or, later, ‘facilitating’ environment that, hopefully, is good enough to enable our well-being (or “going on being”), within which we can be and be ourselves. Our ‘natural’ state is one of (inter)dependence.
As I’ve suggested, this idea is linked primarily to our earliest intimate relationships, with our mother, and then our father, and then our other close family and friends. But the idea of a holding or faciltating environment might be extended, as Steven Hyman (2012, 208) has argued:
“Besides the mother-infant relationship, there are a number of other potentially influential holding environments throughout the life span … Other holding influences are provided by the family and extended family, the community, educational, religious/spiritual institutions, friends, clubs, team, the workplace, the social/political and even the environmental/natural world around us. Each of these environments widens the holding ‘village’ in which we live. They all play a role in enabling individuals to develop and mature in ways that can allow for individuality to be nourished within the context of relating to others.”
This is an idea that other social scientists (such as Martha Nussbaum and Valerie Walkerdine) have developed in different ways and, in this project, I’m interested in exploring it further, both conceptually and empirically. In a forthcoming post, I’ll present some more ideas which try to get to grips with the geography of these ideas, building especially on the writing of Donald Winnicott, and seek to link them to the experience of austerity and insecurity.