Monthly Archives: December 2011

New York Stories: The Lives of Other Citizens

by Andrew Irving,  Social Anthropology, University of Manchester

“It is only shallow people who do not judge by appearances. The true mystery of the world is the visible, not the invisible”
Oscar Wilde

As Oscar Wilde suggests, because there is so much to be gained by observing surfaces, their study is not to be concerned with the shallow, superficial, and trivial. However, after making this declaration Wilde cautioned “those who go beneath the surface do so at their peril”. Consequently, I would argue it has become necessary for the social sciences and humanities to place themselves in greater “peril” by venturing beneath the surface to try to gain a better understanding of the interior dialogues and imaginative lifeworlds that constitute people’s experiences of urban life.

The capacity for a multifaceted, imaginative inner life encompassing internally represented speech, random urges, unfinished thoughts, inchoate imagery and much else besides—is an essential feature of the human condition and a principal means through which people understand themselves and others. Simply put, without people’s inner expressions and imaginative lifeworlds there would be no social existence or understanding, at least not in a form we would recognise. And yet, while early modernist writers, such as Joyce, Dos Passos and Celine, strove to represent the ongoing streams of inner dialogue and expression that mediate the city, the social sciences and humanities find themselves without a generally accepted theory of how interiority relates to public expression, nor an established methodology for accessing interior expression, and are thus at risk of only telling half the story of human life.

The Limits of Science

Manchester: Monday 12th December 2011

Here is a photograph I took this morning in Manchester and I have an extremely simple question about it that nevertheless places us far beyond the limits of science and other modes of understanding.

The question is what are these people thinking?

What for example is the man in the red coat thinking as he walks towards us? Or the man immediately to his right? Or the two women in red coats walking away from us? What is the empirical content of their thoughts? As with any crowded city street, people may be engaged in diverse, or even radically different, forms of inner speech and imagery, with one person trying to remember if they locked their front door while others are respectively fantasising about an actor, deciding where to go for lunch, communing with a dead spouse or negotiating a major life change, such as having lost their job. In Ethnography, Art and Death (Irving 2007) I try to enter into the consciousness of a man walking around a city looking for a place to commit suicide, while Dangerous Substances and Visible Evidence: Tears, Blood, Alcohol Pills (2010) and Strange Distance: Towards an Anthropology of Interior Dialogue (2011) both concern persons who have received an HIV diagnosis and attempt to understand the experience of someone confronting the radical uncertainty of their own existence in public: a person who remains a social being and is required to act accordingly as they walk along the street, but whose inner dialogues and lifeworlds are not always made apparent to the wider world. The extent to which the people we see in streets, parks, cafes, bridges and vehicles are engaged in the same practice remains an open question but once urban life is understood as a whole-body phenomenon—indivisibly combining inner speech and imagery, muscle movement, the circulation of blood, heart-rate and the nervous system—it reinforces the idea that the seemingly congruent social activities we observe in a city are differentiated by diverse inner lifeworlds that remain uncharted across the social sciences and humanities.

Random Encounters

What would it be like to enter into other people’s heads and find out what they are thinking: the person sitting next to you on the bus; the girl sitting in the corner of the café; the man staring at the pigeons in the park. What would it be like to be able to listen to the inner conversations, hopes, fantasies and worries of the people we see in the city? What daydreams, ideas and opinions would we uncover? What would we learn about human-beings?

For New York Stories, funded by the Wenner Gren Foundation (Grant No. 8046), I collected more than 100 interior dialogues of random strangers as they moved around the city. The method was very simple: I stood at different points in the city and asked people what they were thinking about in the moment immediately before I approached them. I then invited them to wear a small microphone and narrate the stream of their thoughts as they continued their journey. I found it surprising not just the level of interest in the nature of the project but by the amount of people, from all walks of life, who said yes. Below are 3 short excerpts of people randomly encountered in the city taken from the full-length recordings that range from 15 minutes to 1.5 hours.

Meredith: Soho


Thomas: Manhattan Bridge


Tony: Chelsea

The above videos can only offer the tiniest glimpse into those realms of experience that can be articulated and approximated through words and images within a public, narrative encounter, and thus cannot claim to provide a comprehensive approach to people’s lived experiences of the city. Not all thought processes take place in language and routinely incorporate various non-linguistic and non-symbolic modes of thinking and being that operate beyond or at the threshold of language. The narrations are necessarily subject to many layers of self-censorship and the act of recording would have substantially influenced the content and character of the material in indeterminate ways.

Nevertheless, as the person walked through the city narrating their thoughts it soon becomes apparent that there are as many ways of thinking as there are of speaking. Meredith’s thoughts stretch from the trivial to the tragic over a few short steps as she begins by looking for a Staples stationary store to buy CD covers, then shortly after is dwelling on a friend’s cancer diagnosis she learnt about the previous night. Meanwhile, she looks over the road and notices a cafe she likes to watch people in. Thomas is concerned with people’s prospects in the current social and economic climate and his thoughts are organised as a sustained social analysis and argument about the position of working people and the historical migration of black workers from the agricultural south to the industrial north. Tony, a writer and video artist, walking from his boyfriend’s house, his thoughts emerging in staccato bursts: as he walks quicker and his blood circulates faster he begins to get more argumentative with himself as he negotiates a significant life event and keeps returning to the same words suck it up or let it go.

Inner expression is a shared phylogenetic capacity that is constitutive of a broad range of experiences ranging from routine and mundane interactions to extraordinary moments of existential crisis. To strengthen our truth claims about human experience and action, I argue it is necessary to develop new ways of researching and understanding how the contents of people’s inner dialogues might relate to extrinsic, audible, and observable expressions, which accords with general processes of knowing and cognition. As there is no objective, independent access to another person’s consciousness or experience, this presents a deep-seated difficulty for evidence based disciplines first, because it is primarily a methodological and practical problem rather than a conceptual one, and, second, because conventional social scientific methods and measures are often too static to capture the unfinished, transitory, and ever-changing character of people’s interior experiences and expressions as they emerge in the present tense. Developing practical approaches to knowing, theorising and representing the interior dimensions of being and its relationship to social life and would provide empirical data for investigation rather than rely upon abstract theoretical debates and exegesis remote from people’s lives. Such approaches will necessarily involve establishing new criteria for what constitutes evidence and require a rethinking of the ontological status accorded to people’s experiential interior. And although such an imperiled anthropology may not ultimately succeed in getting beneath the surface, as Oscar Wilde and his fellow writers and artists know, failure is necessary to the creative process—to which anthropologists might add that failure is equally necessary to field research, entering new social worlds and learning about people’s lives.

 “Between thought and expression lies a life time”

Lou Reed and the Velvet Underground


Irving Andrew, 2011 “Strange Distance: Towards an Anthropology of Interior

Dialogue”. in Medical Anthropology Quarterly. Vol 25: 1

——– 2010     “Dangerous Substances and Visible Evidence: Tears, Blood,

Alcohol, Pills” in Visual Studies. Vol 25: No. 1

——— 2007. “Ethnography, Art and Death” Journal of the Royal

            Anthropological Institute n.s.13(1), pages 185-208

Wilde, Oscar. 1992. The Picture of Dorian Gray. London: Wordsworth Classics.

Some independent thinking on the Academies Programme

by Helen Gunter, School of Education.

The ‘independent’ school continues to dominate thinking about the appropriate way to educate children. It remains iconic in ways that show how publicly funded schools are always in deficit and how reform needs to learn from this successful approach to education. For the past thirty years the independent school has been used as a model for experimental reforms to publicly funded education:

  • In 1986 the Conservative Government launched the City Technology College initiative. The plan was to establish CTCs as ‘state-independent schools’ in urban areas, sponsored by business and with an emphasis on practical and technical education. 15 were set up, and the majority have now converted to Academy status.In 1988 the Conservative Government enabled schools to obtain Grant Maintained Status (GMS) by opting out of Local Education Authorities. A total of 1196 schools opted out, and they were brought back into the system by New Labour in 1997 as Foundation Schools.
  • In 2000 the New Labour Government launched the City Academies Programme where in urban areas schools deemed to be ‘failing’ would be closed and relaunched as Academies free from Local Education Authorities. In return for sponsorship of up to £2m, sponsors took control of the school, curriculum and workforce. The Academies Programme changed, notably the emphasis on ‘City’ was dropped in 2002, and from 2006 sponsorship was dropped. In 2010 the Conservative led Coalition expanded the Academies Programme as a system wide reform, offering academy status to schools that were officially outstanding. At the time of writing 629 Academies as state independent schools have been created.
  • In 2006 the New Labour Education and Inspections Act allowed for parents, cooperative groups and private businesses to run schools. The Conservative led Coalition from 2010 see this as their preferred option, and have launched Free Schools as demand led (by parents, teachers, businesses) state independent schools. At the time of writing 24 Free Schools as state independent schools have been created.

This emphasis on the independent school has its origins in a neoliberal and neoconservative alliance. Neoliberal in the sense of bringing private interests and private business cultures and practices into public services, and as the reform of schools shows through the dismantling public services as a means of opening up provision to the market. Neoconservative through the control of the curriculum, student behaviour, and workforce terms and conditions of service, with an emphasis on either a traditional academic curriculum for those deemed suitable, and a vocational curriculum for the labour force.

I will focus specifically on the Academies Programme, and in examining the literatures there are accounts that are pro-Academies, an indeed are written by insider apologists for the dominance of elite and powerful private interests, e.g. Astle, J. and Ryan, C. (eds) (2008) Academies and the Future of State Education. (London: CentreForum). There are oppositional accounts that have opened up the way in which pro-Academy interests have used public money and systems to gain advantages in ways that border on corruption, e.g. Beckett, F. (2007) The Great City Academy Fraud. (London: Continuum). There is the Anti Academies Alliance that operates as a national activist campaign against the undemocratic way in which schools are being closed.

Official accounts of the Academies Programme have recognized gains, but in the main reports have identified the problems associated with this huge investment, and the PricewaterhouseCoopers five year evaluation for the Government showed that there is  no “Academy Effect”. In other words, operating as an independent school with all the advantages generated by the Academies Programme has not created an identifiable and distinctive impact on teaching and learning. The irony being that Academies depended on the very professionals, children and families that the predecessor schools had, but through the market the composition of these schools and the educational product they offered has changed.

I recently edited a collection of papers from people directly involved in the Academies Programme: The State and Education Policy: the Academies Programme (London: Continuum) where professionals; researchers; a lawyer; consultants; and activists have examined the evidence and recounted their experiences. Over all, the general view is that the Academies Programme is highly problematic. This is on a number of levels: first, the Academies have not been successful on their own terms – they have not improved on their predecessor schools. There is important evidence that the curriculum has been dumbed down in order to enable Key Stage results to improve, and there is evidence that Academies are now teaching different children to those in the predecessor schools, with claims that the composition of Academies have been manipulated in order to exclude children and parents who don’t, or won’t, or can’t play the game. Second, there are bigger picture issues about the state of the polity. The stories of how parents, children and communities have been ridden roughshod over are plentiful, and in the name of choice people have been denied a choice.

It was and remains a policy without a robust and convincing evidence base – the Gove mythbuster document is a selection of soundbites rather than a detailed analysis of data. It is a policy that is framed on the basis of giving children in disadvantaged areas more of an investment, but in reality it is about promoting markets and generating a labour force. I did research in a city academy and it was turning what had been two improved comprehensive schools into a ‘secondary modern by the back door’: the sponsors were helping the school to buy a garage so that the boys could train as car mechanics, and a hairdressing salon so that the girls could train in beauty therapy! One of the sponsors insisted a House system be set up as their son was at an independent school and the sponsor liked this system. It seems that education is being determined by the whims of rich people and out of date ideas about the curriculum, and about education!

I used to teach in a very successful 11-18 comprehensive school and I currently work as a researcher in a very successful 11-18 comprehensive school. The country is full of successful comprehensive schools, including our inner cities. But these schools are being forced to convert to Academy status. I used to own a share in the two comprehensives in my town: as a tax payer I funded the schools and I support this as a citizen. I now no longer have this shared and communal ownership as one of the schools is now an academy and is no longer under local democratic control. Interestingly academies are grouping together as Chains, with owners able to control a number of schools. It seems that the discredited idea of a local authority is being recreated, but the taxpayer cannot remove the people who own or run the chain. While currently there is a not for profit approach in England, we need to ask how long this will last as this does exist in the US where much inspiration for the Academies come from.

The emphasis has been on centralized regulation of publicly funded education through testing and performance management. Independence in the form of CTCs, GMS schools, Academies and Free Schools, is presented as a reward for good behaviour. Direct and centralized control through testing remains, and the role and powers of the Secretary of State continue to grow so that schools are directly controlled. Even though these experimental school types usually fail, it does not seem to prevent the idea of independence being repackaged and promoted in new ways. While the voucher system was deemed not to be appropriate in the 1980s, the situation is such that vouchers may be seen as a viable option in the privatization process.

The opportunity for the democratic renewal in the public provision of education continues to exist, and there is evidence through the opposition to Academies that parents and communities want to be involved in productive ways. People have been politicized through the process. New and innovative ways of being involved could have been generated. So there are important issues to discuss about the purposes of education, and what a publicly funded SYSTEM as distinct from schools as autonomous businesses means. It is clear that both Blair and Cameron want the dismantling of a public system – after all they are both beneficiaries of the independent sector – and that they will dress this up as being in the interests of children like me who grew up and went to school in an urban area. I am a beneficiary of the comprehensive system – I failed the 11+ and went to a secondary modern school, and then the school went comprehensive and all of a sudden we had new investment, new teachers with degrees, and a sixth form. So my commitment is to the common school where all can learn together – we may not have got it right in the 1960s, but this was no reason to abolish it by stealth.