I've been dribbling out the findings of our AHRC Connected Communities scoping study on middle-class community activism over the past year, see my previous blog post that linked back to more of them here.
The AHRC has now published the scoping studies and ours in available here. We should also have a paper out in Social Policy and Administration later in the year. The findings of the review are actually very concerning - the evidence we have (and there's not a great deal of it) seems to suggest that, overall, our public services are delivered in such a way that the middle classes will always get a disproportionate benefit from them. We identified four key causal mechanisms:
- Firstly the middle-classes are more likely to be in organisations, and also to be in organisations that matter in policy terms - parish and community councils, PTAs etc.
- Secondly, middle-class people do shout louder and get more when accessing services. They complain more and their complaints are more likely to be listened to and responded to.
- Thirdly, middle-class people are engaging with middle-class professionals. This means that cultural capital is often aligned and any processes of co-producing services, such as negotiating to a positive health outcome in a doctor's appointment, will be better for the middle-class service users.
- Lastly, it seems that in service design, there is a general pre-disposition to develop policies that will particularly benefit the middle-classes.
The tricky thing for us in conducting the review, and a key area where we need more evidence, is understanding how these mechanisms then translate into outcomes on the ground in terms of differential service provision, expenditure or socio-economic outcomes.
The review also raises two important questions. The first is one we want to explore more in another journal article. This is the question as to why this subject of middle class activism and middle class benefit is not researched more, or why is so much of this seemingly unquestioned? We use Bourdieu's concept of doxa to understand this as symbolic violence. If the welfare state has eroded people's ability to use economic capital to accumulate more capitals, then it seems to have opened up opportunities for people to use social and cultural capital - through the services afforded by the welfare state - to accumulate more capitals. To question this, in Marxian terms, is to venture into class consciousness.
The second question is for policy - what does this mean for the distribution of services? One obvious end to the logic of our review is we have to stop having universal services as they just maintain inequalities that exist. However, I do believe in the state and its transformatory potential. There's also the old adage that "services for the poor are poor services". So, what to do? I think, from my perspective, a key challenge is that we can no longer say to deprived communities: engage more with public services to get better public services. There needs to be much more work by public services to find out the needs of these neighbourhoods without expecting community engagement. Our evidence suggests that community engagement of this sort is a sysephean task - any gains by deprived communities will not, probably, be at the loss of affluent communities. This is the argument that I make in my CLES New Start blog.
Any coproduction, or "Big Society", in deprived neighbourhoods therefore probably has to start from the presumption of a deficit model on the part of public services - they do not provide enough, or understand enough, about the communities they serve. It is up to them to make this difference.