Human Geographers Take The Lead In Social Policy

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People - abstract (small).jpgHuman geographers have offered many insights into equality and the effects of socio-economic policy in recent years, but social processes require a different research perspective to understand fully what is happening. In the 1950s and 60s sociologists such as Willmott and Young told us about the dynamics of communities, for instance, in the East End of London; and this perspective is now beginning once more to illuminate these changes and their challenges. There is nonetheless still little general understanding of how difficult it is to 'get things right' in such complex settings.

Professor Danny Dorling is, in the words of Mary O'Hara (The Guardian, 8 February 2006), 'the man who maps the social reality behind raw data'. His work has, we are told, demonstrated that where a person is born remains the primary determinant of their status, health and wealth in later life.

This is important work, though hardly a new finding. What marks it out is the directness of the communication of these critical facts of life, of, again in Mary O'Hara's words, 'publicising important findings beyond the pages of academic journals.... of humanising abstract facts'.

Processing data, explaining process
For Danny Dorling, the 'key thing' if we want to make the world a better place is that we 'recognise what's happening'. He's been very effective in helping policy makers and politicians to do this, one way or another. And his latest project is an even bigger picture: www.worldmapper.org seeks to show what's up across the whole of the world.

This is excellent stuff. Nobody could deny that the facts and figures are critical ... and here, along with some other geographers such as those at the Local Futures Group, Professor Dorling serves us well. The relentless pursuit of empirical data by which to examine the outcomes of political and other developments is essential to learning how to do it better.

But there is another aspect to all this. We have considered before in this weblog the work of Willmott and Young, begun almost a half-century ago in the East End of London.

During the Thatcher years of the Conservative Government (1980s especially) there was little appetite for studying social process. Margaret Thatcher may or may not have actually pronounced that 'There is no such thing as society', but few failed to grasp the idea that looking at social issues like equality was not the thing to do. This had severe effects on social science in the UK, - one result of which, it could be argued, is that geography had to step in where sociologists then feared to tread.

The 'facts' can take us to the actions
There has been for some while a shortage of social statisticians in the UK, and this is recognised to be a continuing problem. Nonetheless, the analysis of social trends is, as specialists in all disciplines would readily acknowledge, an issue to be addressed from many different persepctives.

In this sense, it is especially interesting that the very same edition of The Guardian which carries the article about Professor Dorling also carries one about a current follow-up to the original Willmott and Young studies in the East End of London. Professor Geoff Dench and Kate Gavron, both Fellows of the Young Foundation, have produced a book co-authored by the late (Lord) Michael Young entitled The New East End - Kinship, Race and Conflict.

Geoff Dench and Kate Gavron discuss in their Guardian article the unanticipated consequences of 'well intentioned welfare policy'. They suggest, for instance, that supporting newcomers (in this case, from the Bangladeshi community) who experience racial discrimination must go hand in hand with addressing the exclusion and hostility faced by poor white communities. If we do not examine how well-intentioned policies apply across the board we will, they argue with some reason, find that things don't work out as we'd all like.

Multi-disciplinary is best
At some level it feels as though the wheel has now turned full circle. There are many social and policy researchers who strive to examine and support the extension of 'what works' (see e.g. the ODPM and Civil Service positions on diversity and disadvantage). The more that human geographers, social scientists, economists and others can collaborate on all this, the more hope there is that we can get it right.

But in the meantime it might be helpful just occasionally if certain parts of our society - for such it is - recognised that the aims of social cohesion, sustainability and the rest are at best challeging and at worst almost unachievable in our imperfect world.

Why can't we think of the journey as one where inevitably mistakes will be made, and where it's OK for policy makers and politicians to change tack when the evidence that we need to do so is compelling? Change is fundamental to progress, as much in social policy as anywhere else.

'Permission' for decision-makers to listen, learn and act
Giving politicians 'permission' to listen and learn is essential in the drive to change the circumstances of people who really need support, encouragement and new opportunities. This is positive social engineering with the very best of intentions. It must succeed, in the interests of us all - disadvantaged or not.

Flexible but determined policy making is not easily achieved when the evidence for policy change becomes instead, in the hands of the media, 'evidence' that politicians always get it wrong, and maybe nothing should be done at all.


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