“Where the fuck do they get their shit from!?”: Reality Television, Austerity Politics and Digital Public Sociology

It was with some trepidation that I found myself  watching Nick and Margaret’s We All Pay Your Benefits. This unspeakably contemptible show is presented as an “ambitious experiment” in which Nick Hewer and Margaret Mountford (who weirdly enough finished a PhD in papyrology at UCL last year) “want to discover how much benefit is enough to live on and if work is worth it”. As the BBC describes their show:

As the economy struggles and everyone feels the pinch, the country is more divided than ever about how much of our taxes should be spent on benefits for the unemployed. In an ambitious experiment, Nick Hewer and Margaret Mountford want to discover how much benefit is enough to live on and if work is worth it. Four claimants and four taxpayers come face-to-face to explore each other’s lives, examine their values and speak their minds. Will the tax payers feel that benefits are too high, or not enough? And will the claimants decide that hard work is good for them, or will the sacrifice be too much? Set in Ipswich – a town with typical figures for unemployment – this first episode sees the taxpayers spend time shopping, socialising and going through the claimants’ spending to see exactly how their hard-earned taxes are being spent. They must decide if they think the claimants are given enough benefits money or not enough and, with the battle lines drawn between ‘scroungers’ and ‘strivers’, this series brings the two sides together to discover if any of them can agree.

I think chunkymark nails it in the quote which I’ve used as a title for this post: It’s pointless to waste energy on mapping all that is conceptually and empirically wrong with this show. It’s also pointless to waste energy on condemning the hosts, no matter how much I wanted to [politely disagree with] Nick Hewer as he opined that “this whole debate is fuelled by emotion not fact”. But it’s nonetheless worth reflecting on how deeply sinister this show is. Tracy Jensen’s work on austerity chic is useful for understanding the politics of this show. She describes how,

repeated distinctions are drawn between the out-of-control  indebtedness of the past and the ‘necessary’ lean fitness of the future. These distinctions have  been mediated through a range of metaphors, specifically around the ‘solvent family’, the  hardworking family, and above all the responsible family which lives within its means and saves  in order to spend, rather than borrows in order to spend. http://www.mamsie.bbk.ac.uk/documents/Jensen_SiM_4(2)2012.pdf

The case for austerity rests upon sustaining the experienced plausibility of these metaphors. If these metaphors lose their intuitive power, if the rhetoric of “there’s no money left in the kitty” ceases to resonate with the mundane day-to-day experience of enough people to preserve a vague constituency reluctantly in support of what is, in essence, a class project of retrenchment then the politics of austerity will begin to fragment. These metaphors coalesce around an underlying equation of  the finances of the household with those of the state: an almost palpably absurd conflation which only continues to have purchase on people’s minds because of the relative abstraction which unavoidably characterises any argument to the contrary and crucially because the political deployment of these asinine metaphors is continually buttressed by the distressing tendency within popular culture of which We All Pay Your Benefits is surely the most distressing example yet.

‘Personal responsibility’ is absolutely key to understanding how the financial crisis is being  discursively circulated on multiple levels as an individual (not collective) failure. The individual  family’s ‘failure’ to be responsible for itself is cast here as a sickness of dependency, for which the remedy is austerity. Just as the late Victorians considered ‘fecklessness’ to be a marker of undeserving pauperism – caused by individual moral failures – so too does contemporary underclass discourse equate poverty with personal irresponsibility. http://www.mamsie.bbk.ac.uk/documents/Jensen_SiM_4(2)2012.pdf

TV shows of this sort work to sustain the mythology of ‘Broken Britain’ and, through doing so, sustain a political project which presupposes that enough people can be led to

ignore the politics of unemployment: the global impacts of  neoliberal policy, regional de-industrialisation, global migrations of capital, tax evasion and  consolidation of wealth by a new class of super-elites, the wilful destruction of organised  labour, and new topographies of work which normalise insecurity. ‘Broken Britain’ rhetoric  ignores the intensified precarity of all labour – the rise of short-term contracts or contractless work, underemployment, low wages, the threat of outsourcing, diminishing returns on  maternity pay and sickness pay, the failure to recognise caring responsibilities, ‘flexploitation’,  the shift of education and training costs and risks to the individual and so on (Ross 2009;  Weeks 2011; Standing 2011). By locating blame for unemployment in a ‘generous’ welfare
state, these myths fail to recognise how important the welfare state has become in  supplementing low paid and precarious work. For example, sixty-one per cent of British children who are officially ‘in poverty’ have at least one parent in work (Joseph Rowntree
Foundation 2011), a statistic which seriously troubles the attribution of poverty to worklessness.


What is disturbing about the show is how knowingly it co-opts the veneer of social scientific intervention while using it to conceal something which is highly staged even by the standards of reality TV. Startlingly brief fragments of interview, as the camera wobbles in a circular motion around a stationary interviewee, near immediately cut into Nick and Margaret on the move – as we should all aspire to be – being driven by their taxi driver while dispensing quasi-sociological insights into the inner motivations of their participants. The veneer of facticity which the show carefully cultivates works to cloak the comparatively clumsy staging of inter and intra-class antagonism which constitute the show’s raison d’être. Its framing as an ‘experiment’ constituted through fact-finding interventions into the lives of individuals skivers, assessment by the benignly patrician and politically neutral hosts and confrontation with the ever so justifiably frustrated strivers, constructs the individuals subjected to this as case studies of failure in personal responsibility and the sicknesses of dependency culture. The class politics of the show are simultaneously so transparent that they could only be missed by the most reactionary idiot imaginable and yet weirdly invisible, subsumed into the tropes of reality television in a way which indefinitely defers the moment of explicitly Political judgement towards which every second of the show is so palpably leading the viewer.

The mobilisation of ‘common sense’ domesticity to denigrate the skivers reminds me of a well spoken woman on Radio 4’s Broadcasting House earlier this year who, without a hint of hostility in her voice, suggested that those on low incomes might be more able to balance their budgets if they learned to make mash and ate toast, as she did in her student days. The air of innocuousness with which people are willing to offer such judgements abstracts them from the context they share with those so judged, as if their own position within the social world is unrelated to any other. It collapses the frame of reference, as does reality TV as a whole, into one subject’s apprehension of another’s life – with all the unreliability that implies – thus denying its own status as a contentiously ideological cultural product. If the present government were to make a “structured reality TV programme” like The Only Way Is Essex, showing “real people in modified situations, saying unscripted lines but in a structured way” it would surely look very much like We All Pay Your Benefits.

It would free the government from the constraining need for consistency which characterises other forms of political communication, as the mockumentary style confrontations enable any and all characteristics of those playing the role of ‘skivers’ to be denigrated: Liam may be receiving support from his family (Tories like families, right?), he may be volunteering as a youth worker (I seem to remember something called the Big Society) but given that he is unemployed then any and all facets of his life can be deployed to construct him as an embodiment of what is implied to be a pervasive social trend. The way that reality television allows typicality to be established cinematographically rather than argumentatively (with the pesky factual dialogue that entails) makes this a deeply powerful form of political communication, easily marshalled for the project of building and sustaining a new common sense to underpin the politics of austerity (as Owen Jones has, for instance, convincingly argued about the way that characters from Shameless entered the contemporary political imaginary).

The appearance of John Hills, social policy professor at LSE, is indicative of how irrelevant to the show’s purposes these ‘experimental’ trappings are. In a 1 min fragment from what was presumably a much longer interview, he explains the scale of the public’s miscomprehension about the significance of unemployment benefits as part of the entire welfare bill. Both presenters recognise this, Margaret tells Nick that the problem are “pensioners, like you!” and then the show continues as if this never happened. For a moment the act is dropped, as Margaret and Nick have a private laugh about their own social positioning in relation to the show’s topic, but then it is just as quickly resumed. In her discussion of contemporary rhetoric surrounding parenting, Jensen observes how

policy has moved away from structural explanations of inequality, and towards behavioural explanations which focus on conduct and skills (Jensen 2010). The  explanatory power that is attached to individual family’s ‘good parenting’ has intensified since  the economic downturn, particularly through an extended discourse of ‘tough love’: the elusive, correct balance of discipline and warmth which is said to guarantee educational and social successes. Tough love names the crisis of social immobility as one of parental indulgence,  failure to set boundaries, moral laxity and disciplinary incompetence.

Shows like We All Pay Your Benefits function as a sort of empirical case study sitting in a quasi-evidential relationship to the political explanation of inequality.  Occasionally, as Owen Jones has observed with Shameless, these characters are actually cited explicitly. But such absurd invocations are only possible against a background where these modes of representation have become so common place that their cultural articulations are recognisable elements of the political imaginary, even for those who disavow them. It’s perfectly possible to construct alternative modes of representation and establish them as similarly common place such as to disrupt the reproduction of the tiresome and pernicious tropes of austerity politics. For example this is how we could understand the political significance of Cathy Come Home in an earlier social context.

Perhaps public sociology has a role to play here? To “occupy public debate and make inequality matter” as John Holmwood put it earlier this year. I’m not suggesting that social policy researchers start producing mockumentaries but only that multimedia experimentation in the presentation of research, rethinking the craft of communicating sociological knowledge, is a more politically pressing issue for those whose research seeks to understand the social facts of austerity Britain. The way in which We All Pay Your Benefits affects, albeit superficially, the trappings of research is indicative of an opening for, as well as a threat to, sociology. If sociological knowledge fails to effect the change in the social world for which we may have hoped, it’s important that we don’t mistake a communication problem for a problem with the knowledge itself. It’s not simply a problem of academic books and journals, or the technical language contained within, though that doesn’t help. It’s also an issue of how the nature and purpose of communication are understood and how the potential interest of a public is characterised. Someone like Owen Jones uses sociological and social policy research to much greater political effect than the great majority of academics I can think of. Books about social science are frequently in international best seller lists, millions of people watch videos which convey academic ideas and yet sociologists are conspicuous by their absence from what little involvement academic social scientists (usually psychologists, economists and neuroscientists) have in this public activity.

However there’s a limit to the value of the ‘broadcasting’ model of public intellectualism, both in terms of the efficacy of communication and how widespread an activity it can ever be. This is not to denigrate it for a moment, I’m the biggest supporter you’re ever likely to meet – well presumably outside of those involved – of projects like the Great British Class Survey and Reading the Riots which could be taken as emblematic of what public sociology looks like when it reaches the national (and international) level of communicating sociological knowledge, not to mention innovating in its production. I also find it strange and frustrating that Malcolm Gladwell has sold more books about sociology than, I imagine, any sociologist has. Likewise that there’s no obvious sociological equivalent to someone like Steven Pinker. But what really excites me about our present circumstances is the possibility which digital tools present for forms of ‘narrowcasted’ public sociology, as part of a broader set of opportunities to rethink the craft of social research. As will be no surprise to anyone who ever talks to me about this stuff or reads anything I write about it, I think Les Back’s arguments about our present opportunities for creatively rethinking our practice are extremely powerful:

While it is a cliché to say that digital technologies and new media impact pro- foundly on our everyday lives, little attention has been paid to opportunities that digital photography, mobile sound technologies, CD ROMs and online publishing opportunities might offer the social researcher and the practice of research itself. It is still the case that most social scientists view the research encounter as an interface between an observer and the observed, producing either quantitative or qualitative data. Equally, the dissemination of research findings are confined to conventional paper forms of publishing, and research excellence is measured and audited through such forms, be it in monographs or academic journals. It remains the case that in social science the inclusion of audio or visual material in the context of ethnographic social research has been little more than ‘eye candy’ or ‘background listening’ to the main event on the page. The relatively inexpensive nature of these easy-to-use media offers researchers a new opportunity to develop innovative approaches to how we conduct and present social research. There are more opportunities than at any other moment to rethink the craft of social research beyond the dominance of the word and figure and to reconsider our reliance on ‘the interview’ (often taking place across a table in particular place) as the prime technology for generating ‘data’.


What’s important though is that we see these opportunities in a political context, in terms of the various threats currently facing sociology in particular and the public university as a whole, but also more proactively in terms of our own placement within that political context and our potential role in reproducing or transforming specific elements which can sought through concrete projects enacted either individually or collectively. Digital sociology presents us with new opportunities for what Bourdieu describes as a “scholarship with commitment” – new tools naturally invite discussion about the ends to which they may be applied and, in a communicative context which increasingly foregrounds the ‘backstage’ aspects of scholarly practice, we should strive to capitalise on this fortuitous conjunction of circumstances to think through these possibilities in a deliberately political and public way. Or in other words: if we share a contemptuousness about shows like We All Pay Your Benefits then we can think of collective projects, loosely related to the institutionalised notion of ‘public engagement’, which seek to deploy sociological knowledge in creative ways to ameliorate the ideologically driven diminishment of social solidarity towards which toxic popular culture like this leads. I have no idea what form such a project might take but what I’m suggesting is that the possibilities are literally far greater than they have ever been – we just have to realise the opportunities available to us and construct modes of collaboration which can lead to such commitment driven political interventions.

Incidentally I’ve realised that this discussion in Bourdieu’s Firing Back of ‘public scholarship’ and ‘private commitments’ was actually the spur for the first Call for Papers I did for SociologicalImagination.org and it’s taken me three years to catch up with why the idea occurred and articulate how I see digital engagement (communicating sociological knowledge through digital media) as something which is, potentially, deeply political. I’m not 100% sure in retrospect if I didn’t misread this part of the book (I intend to reread soon) but I found it interesting to realise how I made this connection back  but then seemed to lose it for a long time, until my recent involvement in setting up the digital sociology group.

Why do you care about your research? What is it that makes you want to  spend your time exploring this area of the social world? What does it  mean for you to gain understanding of these aspects of social life?  Our answers to these questions often encompass the biographical, ethical and political. However these aspects of our involvements are often relegated to the background, as the factors seen as relevant to scholarship are too frequently construed in narrowly intellectualising ways.

The Social Imagination is intended as a space in which private  commitments can be reconciled with public scholarship. Therefore we
are soliciting contributions which explain how the two are linked and thus  address the aforementioned questions. This could entail an explanation of your research, an intellectual biography, a political polemic or something else entirely.

Contributions should be between 500 and 1000 words.


Categories: Outflanking Platitudes

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