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.

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