In this interview for the TCS Website, Vicki Dabrowski interviews Lisa McKenzie about her recent book ‘Getting By’: Estates, Class and Culture in Austerity Britain (2015).
Vicki Dabrowski: This book is a result of nine years of ethnographic research, telling the story of working class life on a council estate (St Ann’s) in Nottingham. Written to tackle prejudice and stereotypes directed at working class people and to explain the complexity of working class life, you discuss the ways people are ‘getting by’ within the current context of austerity. Within the book, you draw on your own perspective as a working class woman who has lived in St Ann’s for most of your life. Your own personal trajectory is very important to this research; can we start by discussing how and why you came to undertake the research?
Lisa McKenzie: My own personal story is important to my research personally but also politically. I am a working class academic and I need to say this loudly that I am challenging the class rhetoric that if you have a degree/PhD/read a book/understand a long word/appreciate art-music/or have a nuanced political view that you are no longer working class, you have been accepted into the middle class. Well I am not middle class, I am proud and working-class, I swear, I like brown sauce, I don’t know what the difference is between borrow and lend but I have a PhD and can read Bourdieu. I believe in collective politics, collective action and I hate individualism. I am working class. Consequently writing as a working class woman and defending that is important to me and to my work, it makes me an outsider in academia but I like that, and academia needs that. I think about the recent work of Alice Goffman and I am very angry that academia continues to allow the middle class to pruriently watch us, write about us, and lie about us. And if that means I am not welcome here then so be it. This is why my own personal story is both political and personal.
VD: There are several themes that run throughout this book – value and exclusion and how those on the estate know themselves, recognize and imagine themselves. This is seen in both positive and negative terms, on the one hand, the residents are proud of their community and find value in local culture, but on the other hand, experience shame and stigma from the wider population, which often makes them feel ‘valueless’. Can you further discuss this complex relationship and theorists that have helped you to make sense of this?
LM: The concept of value has been with me most of my life although I didn’t know that’s what it was. I didn’t have the legitimate words to describe what it is like to be demeaned and looked down on. I suspected all of my life that my failure was bigger than my own actions and had something to do with how society was structured but until higher education I didn’t have the confidence to say this out loud. Bev Skeggs’ Formations of Class and Gender allowed me to articulate this, and has become a bible, her later book Class, Self, Culture had a big impact on me, especially understanding how race, gender and class is articulated. Bev also helped to understand Bourdieu. Mike Savage’s work has also been an inspiration. I have read his work since I was an undergraduate, and I would attend CRESC events in Manchester and never dare talk to anyone there. Les Back still inspires me, I have used his work a lot mainly because I read how insecure he is in academia between his words, and I know how that feels despite him being brilliant and me being loud and appearing confident.
VD: Your work takes place within the context of austerity, in which poorer neighborhoods have become disproportionately impacted by the measures. From your experience of both researching and living in the area, can you discuss some of the changes you have seen in the everyday lives of the people living in St Ann’s with the gradual implementation of austerity measures as well as the affects this has had on the community as a whole.
LM: Austerity has devastated poor communities, New Labour added a lot of ‘sugar to the tea’ basically making a bad situation feel a bit better, they did this through funding community projects, youth clubs, trips, and voluntary organisations nothing substantial like tackling housing, wages, education, and jobs the real pain and damage in working class neighborhoods. Consequently during the change in Government in 2010 and the removal of the sugar gradually from the crash of 2008 and immediately in 2010 has been devastating in a few months low paid council workers were given notices their jobs were under threat, services closed. The sugar disappeared and so did the tea. The last 5 years has been cruel and vicious, nasty and vindictive, and I have no doubt it is getting worse. My next book will tackle this.
VD: You discuss how you are often asked what policy interventions are needed to help estates like St Ann’s. You argue that interventions are usually inadequate, as they are too prescriptive, in which they fail to understand the complexities and nuances within these communities. How might we better understand this? What are the alternatives ways of thinking about such communities and their residents?
LM: Policy drives me mad – tinker here and there but do nothing in reality. I want a revolution of ideas, local communities working together, tackling the greedy and the needy simultaneously seeing no difference in the two. Profit stopped, poverty ended in a rich country. People valued for what they really do – caring for your community, your family need valuing, banking, retailing should be seen and valued for what it is, the support systems for those who value society not the other way round. I’m writing a ranting activist book I want a new charter for the people based on valuing people and the community. This sounds utopian, it probably is, but I’m prepared to put myself on the line. I’m angry and it’s important to me.
VD: One of the things that struck me about the book was the particular positioning of you as a researcher who is simultaneously both inside and outside the research. As we discussed earlier, you wrote yourself into the book and it was this ‘insider’ status on the estate that enabled you to hear stories from the community, which might otherwise have been impossible for another researcher. You described the difficulty you had in ‘telling’ these stories, due to your worry in how these might be interpreted and used. You also describe the difficulty in negotiating your insider/outsider status. Firstly, how have you dealt with such a difficulty and secondly, how do you negotiate the issue of such a politics of representation?
LM: The politics of representation for me are complicated, it sits side by side with my own values and politics, my life melts into each other, I cannot be just an academic, I am a working class activist and a working class academic. In St Ann’s I am an insider, I have lived and experienced the same things as everyone else there, homelessness/poverty/crime/ violence and from the state. It’s important I keep hold of these. I also know that it doesn’t matter what I do in academia, I haven’t had the leg up I came into this late. My son is 26 and also struggling with his class identity at Goldsmiths, nothing makes you understand that you are working class than seeing your son hurt by class prejudice, and class inequality at an elite university, its broke me and I feel guilty like all working class families who think they should have been better. This is the reality of class inequality its deep and pervasive and it never fucking goes away. I suppose this is why I am angry and often uncomfortable in academia as I know if my name was Goffman and I was ignorant and self righteous enough to think its okay to live and watch poor black people, and write a dubious book ‘about them’ I might be more successful, I might have a permanent job, but I don’t, I’m self aware, reflexive, and critical and I know if I hurt my community or people that I have real connections with, it hurts me and my family. Goffman and her like Sudhir Venkatesh and Simon Harding (status dogs) have no fear of contaminating themselves with their words because they can distance themselves, I use the same language of the people in my book, and I react with just as much emotionality/anger.
VD: Finally, what sort of direction do you intend to take the work following your book? Do you plan to work further with the community of St. Ann’s?
LM: I’m not working with St Ann’s at the moment I’m giving them a break from me, I live in London now and I’ve been working with some women and a few men in East London and looking at how austerity is fucking over London working class people. Unfortunately because I see and know what is happening here I cannot ignore it, in Nottingham people had nothing but each other and this was important in the face of austerity in London working class communities are being cleansed out they are losing the only thing they have, each other. I cannot ignore this or merely research it, so I have been stuck into class politics I have been on the streets stopping evictions and fighting against an oppressive and cruel city. I have one year left in London. Who knows where I will be next year.
Lisa McKenzie is a research fellow in the Department of Sociology at the London School of Economics and Political Science, working on issues of social inequality and class stratification through ethnographic research. Lisa brings an unusual and innovative approach to research by means of her extensive experience of bringing the academic world and local community together. Her book Getting By: Estates, Class and Culture in Austerity Britain is published by Policy Press: http://www.policypress.co.uk/display.asp?K=9781447309956&
Vicki Dabrowski is currently undertaking an ESRC funded PhD in Sociology at Goldsmiths College, University of London. Her research explores the lived experiences of young women in the context of austerity in different regions of the UK.
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