Does ‘Localism’ empower the already powerful? And what do we know about how this happens?

Annette Hastings
Annette Hastings

by Annette Hastings, University of Glasgow

“To each that hath shall be given, and he shall have abundance, but from him that hath not shall be taken away even that which he hath.  The Gospel according to Matthew, 13:12.

I don’t tend to quote the Bible (or indeed any religious text) very often. This Biblical reference does however draw attention to the fact that we have been concerned about the so-called ‘Matthew effect’– or the law of accumulated advantage – for some considerable time. The research (and indeed the policy community) have been rather reluctant to devote very much time and effort to understanding how and why those who are already in positions of advantage are better able to extend that advantage, in comparison to deprived social groups,  when it comes to interacting with the local state and in particular public services.

In our free- to- download paper (further evidence that the more you have the more you get!) Peter Matthews from Stirling University and I use an understanding of class interests derived from the work of Pierre Bourdieu to try to understand how it is that public policy processes can empower the already powerful. We use a conceptual framework which those working in the field of education have used extensively to illuminate how the field of higher education and schooling works to the benefit of particular class fractions, but which has been largely absent from debates about who benefits from public services in other spheres. The framework highlights how class relations are produced through the possession of social and cultural capital, deployed by social actors via their ways of thinking, speaking and behaving (the habitus) to secure advantage from public services.

The effect of the localism agenda

We also consider how those who provide public services can be complicit in this process as they develop policies and practices that ‘normalise’ middle class problems and stigmatise the problems of poorer people. We draw attention in particular to how to the ‘localism’ agenda of the UK Coalition government can be understood as a more or less conscious attempt  by the dominant classes to adjust the ‘rules of the game’ which govern who participates and with what degree of success in decision making processes about the design, delivery and resourcing of public services. We go as far as to suggest that localism capitalismcan be understood as an attempt by the representatives of more affluent social groups to  regain the advantages they may have perceived themselves to have lost in the period when community development and community empowerment of more disadvantaged social groups was a priority for government.

This new paper is a new take on the evidence we synthesized in another paper published by Social Policy and Administration.  In this previous paper, we synthesised and reviewed 65 empirical studies from the UK, USA and Scandinavian nations on the question of middle class advantage in public service provision in order derive a set of causal theories to explain this advantage. Two of the theories focused on the role of middle class activism – distinguishing between collective and individual engagement. A third highlighted the import of a cultural alignment between service providers and middle class service users, while the fourth theory identified how middle-class needs and demands are ‘normalised’ in policy and delivery processes. Our discussion of how Bourdieu conceived of class interests allows for a richer understanding of how they operate in really practical ways in society – in particular when there is a ‘cultural alignment’ between those who provide services and those who use them.  We’ve also published another paper recently co-authored with Professor Glen Bramley from Heriot Watt university –  ‘Homo Economicus in a Big Society: Understanding Middle-class Activism and NIMBYism towards New Housing Developments’ which focuses on how nimbyism with regard to new housing developments is reflected in survey evidence and is driven by the threat to middle class groups’ identity as it is expressed through their housing choices and sense of home.

Not our problem?

In doing this and other related work, I have been very struck by the fact that middle class advantage in relation to public service provision does not tend to be considered a policy ‘problem’.  Rather policy has tended to focus on the flip side of inequalities as they are expressed in relation to public services – how  deprivation and levels of intense and multiple needs lead to services under pressure and unable to cope.  However, middle class advantage doesn’t seem to be considered as a researchproblem’ very much either. We might want to return to Bourdieu here and to his concepts of the doxa and symbolic violence. The doxa refers to the unquestioned shared beliefs which determine what is ‘natural’ practice. My reading of quite a lot of the research evidence which exists that identifies that the better off benefit disproportionately from public services, is quite accepting of the idea that the ‘sharp elbowed’ middle classes achieve this by being ‘pushy’ and articulate in ways which service providers recognise and validate. Symbolic violence refers to the self-interested capacity to ensure that the arbitrariness of the social order is either ignored, or posited as natural. It identifies the processes by which the legitimacy of existing social structures is maintained. Perhaps the relative silence on the issue in the policy and research spheres is part of this violence. Perhaps we – as predominantly middle class actors – have too much to lose if we are to pay too much attention to who benefits and how from the local state.

Read Annette and Peter’s Policy & Politics paper, Bourdieu and the Big Society: empowering the powerful in public service provision?

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