On loneliness

I just returned to my office after teaching an introductory session on relationships to our MA Human Geography students to find a Twitter link to this article by Aditya Chakrabortty in The Guardian.

Chakrabortty reflects on this government’s record on fighting loneliness, in the light of Health Minister Jeremy Hunt’s recent speech. Chakrabortty argues that “Such stats [about the health hazards of loneliness] should make tackling isolation a public-health priority for any government. This one, however, seems to be doing its best to increase loneliness: its bedroom tax and housing-benefit cuts are wrenching families out of their communities and driving them into other neighbourhoods, even other cities.”

But having just been talking to our MA students about relationships and about nature and value of relationships in the city, I was drawn to Chakrabortty’s discussion of the desperately sad story of Joyce Vincent, a 38 year old Londoner found dead in her flat in 2006, three years after she had died. Chakrabortty writes that “she had sisters, mates, former colleagues and ex-boyfriends. Those social circles appear to have failed her.”

Joyce Vincent’s life and death became the focus of a documentary film by filmmaker Carol Morley, Dreams of a Life. According to Chakrabortty (I haven’t seen the film yet), Morley’s film “shows city living as a series of weak links, forgettable friendships and single people getting by in their single housing units. By the end of it, you not only understand how a person can disappear from view; you wonder how many others suffer the same fate.”

The reviews and discussions of Morley’s film (see Philip French, and two pieces by Peter Bradshaw here and here, for example) pick up on many of the same themes and questions. And Carol Morley herself talks about them here.

I don’t have much to add at this stage but this story and these questions of loneliness in the city struck me hard as I returned from teaching about these very things.

 

A bit more information about interviews for possible participants…

This is just a quick post with a bit more information about what interviews for this project might involve.

If you’ve just arrived here from a link, tweet or FB message, please first have a look here, where you’ll find more information about this research project.

I’m looking for low-to-middle income families or individuals (the ‘squeezed middle’) living in Cullercoats or on the Marden estate. If you fit the bill, then please read on. 

Ideally, I’d meet you twice over a few weeks (maybe with an additional meeting at the start, just to meet each other and talk about the research in a bit more detail). Each interview will take about an hour, but it depends on how much you have to say.

The first interview will focus on your family – who lives with you, how long you’ve lived in Cullercoats, what jobs you have, if you have other family living locally, for example – and on your experiences of recession – on your jobs, on shopping, on your budgets and so on. I won’t ask for details like your salary or what benefits you receive. I won’t ask many questions, but will leave you to talk about the things you want to tell me.

In the first interview, we’ll also talk about your friends and family, to get an idea of who is important to you. To help do this, I’ll ask you to fill in a diagram (a ‘personal community map’) like the ones below:

At the end of the first interview, I’ll ask if you’re interested in filling in a diary for a week, noting down which of your friends, family, neighbours and acquaintances you meet and what you do with them.

If you do agree to do this, then we’ll arrange another interview for when you’ve finished and talk about these relationships in more detail, focusing particularly on if and how they help you cope with the effects of recession on your family. Again, I’ll try not to ask too many questions and let you tell me what you want me to know.

We can meet anywhere that suits you. This may be your home, or someone else’s home, or your workplace, or a public place such as a café or even a park. We can also meet at a time that suits you.

With your permission, I would like to record the interviews but anything we do discuss will be anonymised before I use it in any presentations or publications. I will keep all the information you give me safe.

As a thank you for participating, after our final meeting, I’ll give you £20 worth of high street vouchers.

If you are interested in being interviewed, please contact me by email, phone or text.

Mobile: 07580 386874

Email: alison.stenning@ncl.ac.uk

 

Updates and more information about the project can be found at:

blogs.ncl.ac.uk/alisonstenning

www.facebook.com/researchingcullercoats

Twitter: @alisonstenning

 

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 the “Squeezed Middle”?

The ‘squeezed middle’ is a term which has attracted a great deal of attention since Ed Milliband’s struggle to define it on the BBC’s Today programme in November 2010 (it even has a Twitter hashtag: #squeezedmiddle). Miliband ummed and aahed and got tied in knots by Nick Robinson, but in a piece in The Telegraph explained himself a bit better. Using a phrase we’ve heard repeatedly since (most recently, from George Osborne as he launched the 2013 Budget), Miliband described the “people who work hard and want to get on”. He seemed reluctant to define the ‘squeezed middle’ further but depicted an evocative emotional landscape of dashed dreams, anxieties, and fears.

Miliband took the idea of the ‘squeezed middle’ from the Resolution Foundation, a think tank established in 2005 to improve the living standards of low-to-middle income households (low-to-middle earners, LMEs). In a series of audits (the latest published in 2010), the Resolution Foundation described the 15 million Britons who live in low-to-middle income households. These households live below the median income but above the income of the poorest 10% of households. For a couple without children, that means their household income sits between £12,000 and £30,000; for a couple with three children, between £19,200 and £48,500. These are not poor families, but nor are they well-off. They are often too rich to get much help from the welfare and benefits system, but not in a position to really flourish in a market economy.

Most own their own homes, though a significant minority live in the private- or social-rented sectors. Most are in employment, full- or part-time, though many women are stay-at-home mothers. Some of the 15 million have degrees, but many more are educated to GCSE or A-level standard. They are particularly likely to have skilled or semi-skilled jobs and to work in sectors such as retail, health and social care, hospitality, manufacturing, construction and public administration.

The ‘squeezed middle’, then, echoes with other keywords such as low pay, the living wage, and the working poor (households with one or two adults in low paid jobs, even those paying just the minimum wage, would find themselves included).

What the ‘squeezed middle’ isn’t is the traditionally understood middle class. It maps on to what might previously have been described as social classes C1, C2 and D, the skilled working and lower-middle classes. It’s also not ‘middle England’, with all the conservative (big and little ‘c’) baggage that that phrase carries.

In 2011 the Oxford English Dictionary identified the ‘squeezed middle’ as their Word of the Year, defining it as “the section of society regarded as particularly affected by inflation, wage freezes and cuts in public spending during a time of economic difficulty, consisting principally of those on low or middle incomes.” This is a succinct and helpful definition which connects both to ‘objective’ issue of income, and to the more ‘subjective’ question of experience.

Notwithstanding the term’s popularity, there are a number of criticisms that can be leveled at it. Without doubt, Miliband and other politicians, on the right and left, have identified the ‘squeezed middle’ with swing voters whose ballots they are keen to attract. And with the hard-working, deserving ‘strivers’ we’re supposed to support, in opposition to the undeserving, feckless ‘skivers’ we’re supposed to view with contempt. Miliband’s and Osborne’s attachment to the idea of the “people who work hard and want to get on” belies a troubling moral distinction which need not be at the heart of debates about recession and austerity.

Ian Jack in The Guardian argues that the “‘Squeezed middle’ is far too cuddly a term for the damage being done to British and American wages by changes in global trade, and the lack of any serious political challenge to free-market theology.” For Jack, the idea of the ‘squeezed middle’ is not political enough. It doesn’t allow for an appropriate critique of the neoliberal agendas which enable low and stagnant pay.

For others, all the attention paid the ‘squeezed middle’ (not least in the media) draws attention away from those who really find themselves at the blunt edge of austerity, the poor. Even the Resolution Foundation acknowledges that these aren’t the most deserving households.

Yet, for me, there is still something provocative about the idea of the ‘squeezed middle’.

The idea of the ‘middle’ connects to a range of sociological debates about the ‘missing middle’ and our academic tendency to study the most vulnerable or the most powerful. Steve Roberts and Robert MacDonald explore this in the context of youth studies; they draw attention to the need to think about the ordinary, the ‘invisible majority’, those who find themselves between the middle class youth who seemingly make their transitions to adulthood with relative ease and the excluded poor, who find themselves outside education, employment or training. For Roberts and MacDonald, researching the ‘missing middle’ gives us a fuller and more diverse picture of social change. They argue that this middle may appear to be ‘getting by’ but suggest that more may be going on, under the surface. These unseen, undocumented experiences of struggle, to find and keep a job, to further education or training, to juggle work and family life, and so on, echo with my concerns here.

Roberts and MacDonald build on the arguments of David Byrne (2005) who in turn connects to the work of Michael Zweig, writing in the US about the ‘working class majority’. For Byrne and Zweig, the majority of US and UK households find themselves neither in the middle class, nor in what is most commonly identified as the working class (the dispossessed, the excluded, the most vulnerable). This ‘missing middle’, with jobs in which they have little autonomy, but living in their own homes with little visible deprivation, are barely understood: as Byrne argues, “The absence here is of knowledge about people like these. How do they live? Statistically we know a lot – they fill in census forms and Neighbourhood Statistics yield up the data cited above. But we know very little about how they think, how they feel about work, about their identities in these places, about their schools and about their hopes for the future.”

Pieces by journalists, activists, and others are beginning to sketch out some of the contours of life in ordinary families, in the context of the the ongoing recession and the austerity measures I described in a previous blog. These range from reduced food spending and the turn to discounters such as Aldi and Lidl, to the need to turn down heating to cut fuel costs, or to giving up a family car, or to delaying retirement.

What these pieces hint at – and what really interests me – is the position of these families ‘on the edge’, ‘struggling’, ‘juggling’ ‘vulnerable’, ‘unstable’. These are families who are doing OK, are ‘getting by’ but for whom a single knock (reduced working hours, rising food and fuel prices, rent increases, ill-health, family separation) might be enough to push them into poverty. They are living on edge of security, a few degrees from insecurity, threatened, at risk.

What I’m trying to understand in this project is how these risks and insecurities are lived and negotiated, and the focus of my project is on relationships. In their best form, relationships help us to feel secure, ‘contained’, or ‘held’ and to fend off anxiety; my question then is how do relationships help the ‘squeezed middle’ to negotiate these social and economic challenges and to achieve (or maintain) material and emotional security.

In his Telegraph piece, Ed Miliband explained: “The squeeze on family life is not just financial, but it is also a squeeze on our time, our relationships and our communities.” I’m not so sure that Ed Miliband is taking his own words seriously, but it is this concern that is at the heart of my project.

Geography, relationships and the ‘bedroom tax’

Although most of those affected by the so-called ‘bedroom tax’ are not what we’d identify as ‘squeezed middle’ households (since, by definition, they’re in receipt of housing benefit), exploring the effects of the government’s clampdown on what it sees as ‘under-occupation’ gives an insight into some of the issues at the heart of this project.

What the ‘bedroom tax’ belies is a determined attempt by the Coalition and its thinkers to ignore the importance of everyday relationships and their geographies, within and beyond the home. The determination to cut the housing benefit bill by ‘taxing’ recipients who have one or two spare rooms threatens the relationships which protect families and individuals, which help them to feel secure and looked after.

How does it do this? In two primary ways, I think.

One, it disregards the complexity of family relationships within the home. For example, the insistence that siblings share rooms (depending on age and gender) fails to acknowledge a raft of circumstances that might make this difficult, including special needs or disabilities, or time and space for study, or even radically different personalities. Forcing siblings to share in some of these circumstances might put so much pressure on relationships in the home that they begin to break. Similar arguments could be made about the expectation that couples must share a bedroom, regardless of circumstance. Or consider the numerous cases where a sister or a nephew or a cousin provides unofficial care for an adult family member with an illness or a disability; under the new regime, those sisters, nephews or cousins don’t count as ‘family’ and so wouldn’t be entitled to a room of their own in the house where they’re providing care. Finally, think of those families whose circumstances have suddenly changed, through separation, estrangement, death, or even just an adult child leaving home. The ‘bedroom tax’ would mean that, unless they choose to pay the penalty, those families will have to move before they’re had time to get used to the changed circumstances or to come to terms with the loss. Polly Toynbee in The Guardian recounts the desperate case of a family who recently lost their seven year old daughter to cancer and who, as a result, are seen to ‘under-occupy’ their home.

Two, it fails to value the place of embedded, long-term, local relationships and their contribution to people’s wellbeing. In another Guardian piece, Amelia Gentleman talks to residents on the Bushbury Hill housing estate in Wolverhampton, but their tales will be replicated nationwide. Dozens of residents are being forced to choose between paying the ‘tax’ or relocating and losing the relationships they’ve built from living on the estate for decades. Those relationships, with friends or neighbours or local shops and services, might be offering all kinds of support: community, conversation and friendship, childcare, loans of money, food, equipment, a watchful eye on each other’s homes, to name a few. In short, these kinds of relationships are invaluable, and especially for more vulnerable and isolated households. Their loss may have a real impact on welfare, in ways that may be impossible to quantify but which are nevertheless costly. The head of Public Health England recently argued that “Being isolated and living alone shortens life and increases disability. It is equivalent to 15 cigarettes a day.”

An additional irony, if you can call it that, is that many who do relocate will end up in homes which, though smaller, are more expensive, such that the housing benefit bill increases rather than decreases.

It’s a terrible policy, one with a potentially enormous human cost. Relationships matter and we need to take care of them.

Reports from the field I

Slowly but surely the project is getting going. I’m starting by trying to make contact and build relationships with key actors in Cullercoats, with church leaders, head teachers, community leaders and so on. These early meetings are about getting a better sense of Cullercoats, its geography and history and the challenges it’s facing.

I’m slowly building up a map (both mental and ‘actual’) of the community – you can have a look at that here. One of the first things that has become clear is that what is adminstratively Cullercoats (Cullercoats ward of North Tyneside Borough Council, the blue boundary on the Google Map) is more commonly understood as (at least) two distinct places, Cullercoats village and the Marden Estate.

Cullercoats village is an historic community with its roots in fishing and its location on the sea front, historically just thirteen streets, many of which were destroyed in a poorly conceived and poorly received ‘redevelopment’ in the late 1960s and early 1970s (with links to and echoes of the work of T Dan Smith and John Poulson in Newcastle, fictionalised in the BBC’s Our Friends in the North). Just one street of fishermen’s cottages remain, on Simpson Street, but there are other reminders of the village’s fishing heritage, in the Watch House, the boat yard, and the Fishermen’s Mission, all on the seafront. For many who live in the village, Cullercoats extends only as far inland as the Metro line – ‘over the bridge’ is not Cullercoats.

The Marden Estate dates from the post-war period when the then Tynemouth Borough Council began to develop an estate of council housing for families from the western parts of the borough (such as Balkwell and Chirton). It’s bounded on its eastern, southern and western edges by quite major roads (and on the north by Marden Quarry), making it a fairly contained and defined place. It seems to inspire a quite considerable sense of attachment and belonging, especially amongst those residents who have lived on the estate since their houses were built and who were proud to make the ‘step up’ (to quote one of my interviewees) to the bigger houses and wider streets of ‘the Marden’. Some houses were built privately but most were council houses, though these were largely bought by tenants with the right-to-buy. The estate has changed quite considerably in the last twenty or so years as the right-to-buy has enabled much more movement in and out and as the estate’s houses attract new families, drawn to the coast from across the region and beyond. This newer geography is something that I expect will be quite important as my fieldwork progresses.

The separation of Cullercoats village and the Marden isn’t quite as clear-cut as this suggests, however. At funerals, church leaders tell me, the webs of relationships that connect the two parts of the ward become very clear: family roots lead back from the Marden to the seafront and belie a intertwined geography of family and friendship. Church parishes, school catchments, pub and club locations, and community activities all draw people across the streets and spaces of Cullercoats and the Marden. How these relationships work as the communities change is a question at the heart of my research.

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.

Welcome!

As I start a new research project, I thought I’d start a blog too and see if and how it helps me to think about my research.

The project is funded by the Catherine Cookson Foundation at Newcastle University, where I work, and is focused on building a long-term, collaborative research relationship in and with communities in Cullercoats, North Tyneside.

In doing this, I’m hoping to explore how the personal relationships that shape communities (between family, friends, neighbours etc.) enable so-called ‘squeezed middle‘ households to negotiate social and economic challenges and achieve emotional and material security.

Both academic and more popular accounts of contemporary society suggest that the value of local, personal relationships (with, for example, family, friends and neighbours) is being reduced. Yet relationships remain at the heart of our everyday lives. They create an environment that ‘contains’ us, allows us to keep going and to tolerate stresses of various kinds, and the value of such relationships is increased, not decreased, at a time of economic crisis. Insecurity, vulnerability, loss and anxiety are experienced by many as they face the considerable economic, social and emotional challenges of austerity, and the contribution that local, personal relationships might make to weathering these challenges is a critical concern.

The effects of over four years of economic crisis have been widely felt but they have also been uneven, socially and geographically.

Socially, the so-called ‘squeezed middle’ has been identified as being particularly susceptible to ongoing crisis and cuts. Although definitions of this class are vague, the Resolution Foundation suggests that it consists nationally of some 6 million working, home-owning households with a gross income of £12-30,000. These households are not living in poverty but are increasingly insecure and vulnerable to the threat of labour market, cost-of-living, and tax and benefit changes.

Geographically, the UK’s northern regions, and in particular the North East, have been disproportionately affected by job loss, public sector cuts and pay squeezes.

Cullercoats can be seen as a very ‘average’ place socio-economically, with a significant number of ‘squeezed middle’ households: in the 2007 index of multiple deprivation, it ranked at 4505 (out of 8836) and in the 2001 census, 57% of the population were classified as social classes C1, C2 and D. It has a dense and long-standing network of community groups, reflecting its historical development as a port and fishing community, a relatively well-defined geography, and an existing relationship with the University, through the Dove Marine Laboratory.