This is the website and blog of Dr John Lever.

Friday, 20 December 2013

The genealogy of the academic paper that changed my career

In 2003 I was working for Oxfam. I had just completed an MSc in Applied Social Research in Bristol and I had a forthcoming interview for 3 year PhD bursary. At the time I was reading a new collection of essays - The Civilized Organization: Norbert Elias and the future of organization studies - and I decided to base my interview presentation on a chapter in the book. The chapter by Tim Newton - Elias, organisations and ecology - fused insights from Actor Network Theory (ANT) with Figurational Sociology in what he called an Interdependency Network Perspective (INP).

I was offered the bursary but dropped the theoretical model during my PhD for a pure figurational approach. Yet I was always intrigued by the fusion of ideas and I continued to use an INP in talks and presentations. During 2007 and 2008, I worked on a project of Ian Smith's, which set out to explore how planners and built environment professionals changed the ways they worked in order to meet the challenges of New Labour's Knowledge and Skills Agenda on the building of sustainable communities. I decided that an INP framework offered a useful way to present our findings and we subsequently submitted a paper to a prominent planning journal. This was the start of a long and at times tortuous process. In general, academic planners were keen on ANT, but not so keen on Figurational Sociology - this did not sit easily with me.

The ideas next resurfaced in my first post doc position at Cardiff, where I developed a greater knowledge and understanding of ANT through work with Mara Miele. In 2009, I presented a paper - Farmers vs. animal scientists: an assessment of welfare quality - based on an INP at the British Sociological Association Annual Conference in Cardiff. Still frustrated by my continuing inability to get the ideas into print, in 2010 I sent the origional paper to a new colleague for review, who subsequently used the ideas (if not the theory) to get a paper published. This increased my determination to get our initial paper published.

In subsequent years, Ian adopted the approach for teaching purposes. Work pressures meant that he also took the lead on the first paper and Mara and I began the process of fusing our ideas in various publications. But we still had no luck getting the original paper into print. Earlier this year, with my new job as a lecturer in sustainability at the University of Huddersfield in sight,  I decided to give the paper another go. The final published version is available here.

Thursday, 19 December 2013

Learning to build sustainable communities: an interdependency network perspective

People, Place and Policy On-line, Volume 7 (3)

Abstract: This paper explores the production of sustainable communities from an interdependency network perspective (Newton, 2001). Drawing on fieldwork that examined how planners worked collaboratively with other professionals to address the challenges of delivering New Labour’s Growth Point Initiative, the paper fuses insights from Actor Network Theory with Figurational Sociology to examine the requirements of the skills agenda for building sustainable communities (ODPM 2004). Through an exploration of the ways in which planners adapted their working practice to facilitate the dual task of delivering growth and sustainable development, we argue that the learning and skills agenda is problematic for understanding how new knowledge and learning emerges.

Keywords: interdependency network; networked agency; knowledge; learning; sustainable communities.

Monday, 9 December 2013

The postliberal politics of halal: new directions in the civilizing process?

Human Figurations: Long term perspectives on the human condition, Vol 2 (3) November 2013

Abstract: This paper examines the emergence of postliberal halal politics in European societies. Building on research undertaken during the EU funded Dialrel project, it examines how the Malaysian state is inserting hegemonic claims into transnational space in order to dominate the international halal market. Moving beyond the idea of horizontally aligned networks of transnational power as the dominant framework for understanding social and economic change, the paper explores the complex interweaving of the large-scale macro processes and everyday micro practices underpinning the rise of Malaysia’s postliberal halal strategy. It is argued that the processes of social and economic differentiation emerging as a result of these processes have the potential to be an important step in the global civilizing process. In conclusion, the paper discusses the implication of these developments for figurational sociology.

Keywords: civilizing process; halal; identification; knowledge; postliberal; transnational

Thursday, 31 October 2013

New report on migrant Roma in the UK

A new report published by the University of Salford’s Sustainable Housing & Urban Studies Unit (SHUSU) has estimated the population of recent Roma migrants in the UK at around 200,000. Findings also suggest that:

  • The majority of Roma reside in urban areas in England 
  • The population is likely to be comparable to the size of the indigenous Roma population (e.g. Romany Gypsies, Irish Travellers etc.) 
  • A complex interplay of factors underpin health, education and housing problems
  • UK experience is punctuated by experiences of entrenched discrimination in their countries of origin 
  • Local authorities and partners work well together, but Roma communities are hampered by lack of access to resources

Funded by the Joseph Rowntree Charitable Trust (JRCT), the full report can be downloaded here: 'Migrant Roma in the United Kingdom: Population size and experience of local authorities and partners'.

Wednesday, 31 July 2013

Civilising Processes Exhibition

28 September 2013 - 2 November 2014

A programme of exhibitions and events inspired by the work of Norbert Elias (1897-1990) is to be held at the Gasworks in South London. Elias's work on the civilising process examines the changing social practices and structures through which - from the Middle Ages onwards - Europeans came to express and embody there own self-confidence through the notion of civilisation. From September 2013 until November 2014, there will be five exhibitions and a programme of interdisciplinary events based on collaborations with invited artists, designers and researchers to tackle and discuss the relevance of the issues raised by Elias's work for contemporary debates and practices. Visit Gasworks for more details.

Friday, 5 July 2013

Attitudes towards crime and stricter social sanctions

An article in The Guardian today used the example of John Venables and Robert Thompson to illustrate how attitudes towards criminality have changed and hardened. Zoe Williams argues quite rightly that any any civilised system of justice should be based on the possibility of redemption. The case and treatment of Venables and Thompson therefore illustrates, she argues, how attitudes towards criminality have changed and hardened in a relatively short period. Zoe Williams is correct on this point too, but as Cas Wouters has shown, we need to look further back - at least to the end of post war period - if we are to fully understand the contemporary relevance of these trends.

As individuals were released from traditional forms of authority and control during the post war period, Wouters (1999) argues that things once forbidden absolutely became exciting, dangerous and possible. As more people gave in to temptation and certain crimes began to increase, Wouters shows that civilised attitudes towards poverty amongst the middle classes began to decline. This process came to a head during the 1980s. As the enterprise culture boomed and outbreaks of public disorder began to increase, identification with rising outsider groups, that had peaked during the during the 1960s, was gradually replaced by identification with the establishment.

As crime increased form the late 1950s onwards it was generally explained away by reference to social inequality and relative deprivation. This was a sign of the times, Wouters argues, where strong moral indignation about expressions of authority and demonstrations of social superiority dominated. From the middle of the 1970s however things began to change. Unemployment grew, profits declined and people generally felt more dependent on authority. As identification with the establishment grew and it became less acceptable to identify with outsiders, moral decay became the dominant narrative. Yet as Wouters points out, 'however strong the impression of moral decay may be, its explanatory power is limited', not least because the pressure towards a continuous rise in the moral standard is based on policies that require ever higher levels of mutual consent and negotiation. Departures from civilised standards are therefore, as the case of Venables and Thompson demonstrates, now more likely to be met by stricter social sanctions.

Wednesday, 15 May 2013

The supermarket as ‘client’ is king.

I was motivated to blog on this issue after attending a stimulating round table discussion on the horse meat scandal - 'What's the Beef?' - in the School of Planning and Geography at Cardiff University (CPLAN) yesterday. Chaired by the Director of the Sustainable Places Research Institute Terry Marsden, a panel of experts examined the upsurge in sales at local farmers and butchers and tried to shed some light on questions of responsibility for the scandal. Whilst the panel recognized that consumers are not entirely blameless, some of the participants - although stating that they were not acting as apologists for supermarkets - suggested that supermarkets could not be held responsible for the origins and quality of the meat they sell. Supermarkets, it appears, lack any control and/or power over supply chain actors below them.

Over recent years, the power of the 'big four' UK supermarkets - Tesco, Asda, Sainsbury's and Morrison's - over supply chain actors has expanded rapidly and there are lots of reasons why this view is questionable. 'Just in time' strategies are now widely used by the 'big four' to connect different parts of the production process in order to deliver products to them at very short notice. Our own research in CPLAN has highlighted the pressure farmers are placed under by these developments. During the early days of the economic downtown, chicken farmers in our sample were asked by supermarkets to change from growing outdoor (high welfare) free range chicken breeds - which they had invested heavily in to produce over many years - to indoor (low welfare) breeds at very short notice; this was extremely controversial and led many farmers to consider their future as free range chicken farmers.

Further up the supply chain, food processing companies are placed under similar pressure to deliver products to supermarkets at very short notice. British workers view work in the food/ meat processing sector as ‘dirty, dangerous and difficult’ and many positions are filled by migrant workers. Recent work by the Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC) found that the ability of meat processing firms to offer migrant workers permanent employment is directly is affected by unpredictable fluctuations and short delivery schedules set by supermarkets. This situation is compounded by the extreme working conditions experienced by migrant workers, including verbal/physical abuse and the poor treatment of pregnant women. As EHRC stated: 'The supermarket as... ‘client’ is king.'

At a time when Government will not regulate or invest in the food industry, it is perhaps not surprising that supermarkets are outlining plans to make supply chain ethics more transparent; how transparent remains to be seen.

Tuesday, 14 May 2013

Civilizing the market for welfare friendly products in Europe? The techno-ethics of the Welfare Quality assessment,

Geoforum 48 (2013) 63–72, Miele, M. and Lever, J.

Abstract: Greater attention to and anxiety about farm animal welfare emerged at the end of the 20th century, as worries over food safety and food quality (connected to the BSE, FMD and other epidemics) pushed farm animal welfare into public discourse and political debate. The creation of a transparent market for animal friendly produced foods is one of the strategies currently envisaged by the EU to meet the widely recognized challenge of promoting animal welfare without threatening the economic competitiveness of the animal farming industry in Europe (EU Animal Welfare Strategy, 2012–2015). 
          This paper aims to contribute to debates on STS and food standards within the geographies of food literature. Empirically it draws on research carried out during the EU funded project Welfare Quality, which has proposed a protocol based on scientifically validated measures for assessing the welfare of chickens, pigs and cattle both on-farm and at slaughterhouse, in order to making ‘accountable’ the (ubiquitous) welfare claims’ on animal products. While these developments have the potential to improve the life of farm animals by rewarding the most ‘animal friendly’ producers on the market, we address the matters of concern that arise from the implementation of the protocol by looking at a case study of UK based free-range chicken producers. Drawing on STS insights and especially on the work of Callon et al., (2002, 2009) we look at the controversies that emerge about the ‘welfare friendliness’ qualification of free-range chickens and we discuss the role and partial achievements of this market for civilizing animal welfare politics and science. 

Key Words: Civilizing markets, STS, Geographies of food consumption, Animal welfare standards

Tuesday, 7 May 2013

The food processing industry & the reality of migration

As the next general election draws ever closer and the main political parties jostle for the popular vote, migration has once more emerged as a contentious political issue in the UK.

Migration expanded rapidly in the aftermath of EU expansion in 2004 and 2007, with some sectors of the economy drawing on increasing numbers of migrant workers to alleviate labour shortages. This is nothing new. The food processing industry has drawn on itinerant/ migrant labour for centuries and recent trends are more an intensification of old trends than the emergence of new ones. Temporary hard to fill vacancies are a central feature of food production and migrant workers have always been moored firmly to the bottom of the UK labour market.

Over recent decades, however, as power has drained away from food producers towards retail corporations and large supermarket chains, there has been a corresponding increase in the split between desirable and undesirable/ hard to fill jobs. Just as food production has intensified, so too have employment practices, with much work in the sector now paying less under worse conditions than it did previously. As food producers have been squeezed on price by the ‘big four’ supermarkets, and consumers have demanded ever more sophisticated, low-priced food, workers have in turn been squeezed by new management techniques and surveillance strategies that have made jobs in the sector less appealing.

Not surprisingly, the sector remains one of the most migrant dense in the UK. While domestic workers view work in the sector as ‘dirty, dangerous and demanding’, migrant workers take up opportunities to earn relatively well and improve their status in their home country. Even at a time of high unemployment, many recruitment agencies and employers continue to prioritise migrant workers over and above unemployed British workers because of differences in attitude. Despite attempts by the Coalition Government to relocate the long term unemployed to areas where there are jobs, it appears that the food processing sector will remain dependent on migrant workers for some time to come.

Thursday, 7 March 2013

Roma inclusion/ exclusion and integration

The University of Salford this week launched the final report of the Roma SOURCE project. The research explored:

1) Roma experiences of social inclusion/exclusion
2) The extent to which Roma and non-Roma communities lead integrated lives

Based on focus groups in Bulgaria, Greece, Hungary, Italy, Spain and the United Kingdom the report examines the extent to which Roma and non-Roma live segregated and integrated lives. The research provides insights into the social inclusion/exclusion of Roma grounded in the everyday experiences of European citizens. Click here to read 'The Limits of Inclusion? Exploring the views of Roma and non Roma in six European Union Member States'.

Thursday, 31 January 2013

Correct the misperceptions which persist in our society

The 'Report of the Parliamentary Inquiry into Asylum Support for Children and Young People' launched yesterday unsurprisingly found that the asylum system is in urgent need of reform. The report paints a picture of a hostile environment in which things are made difficult for asylum seeking families in the belief that this will force them to leave the UK. This situation has serious repercussions for children’s well-being and the report argued 'that there is an urgent need to address the public discourse around asylum and refugee issues, and correct the misperceptions which persist in our society'. Read the full report here.

Friday, 4 January 2013

The impact of multi-agency work supporting Roma children in education

BHA for Equality in Health and Social Care have published 'A report into the impact of multi-agency work supporting Roma children in education'. Click here to download the report in full:

The research found that: 

– Historical tensions between Roma and non-Roma migrants often reemerge when the communities have to interact in the UK.

– Multi-agency work with Roma is hindered by a lack of cultural awareness amongst a range of professionals.

 Strategic direction and leadership is needed if the work of disparate agencies at all levels is to be coordinated effectively at the local and district level.

 New forms of organisation and smaller operational teams must focus on leadership and ownership of partnership work.

 A commitment to collaboration from agencies at all levels across all sectors is a crucial aspect of successful multi agency work with Roma.

 Provision of support and training opportunities for the Roma community is fundamental for sustaining independence and increasing the attainment of aspirations by Roma pupils.

 The skills and knowledge developed by specialist traveller teams and services over recent decades may be lost.

 Despite cuts to funding, there is still some flexibility over how budgets can be used in innovative ways to commission services through partnership work.

 Changes to the school funding system are likely to hinder future provision for Roma children, both in maintained schools and schools that opt out of local authority control.

The report also makes a number of recommendations.

Download the full report: 'A report into the impact of multi-agency work supporting Roma children in education' here:

Thursday, 3 January 2013

Report - 'Routes ten year celebration 2002-12: From there to here'.

This report explores the work of the Routes Project at BHA for Equality in Health and Social Care in Manchester over the last 10 years. Originally commissioned by Manchester Children’s Fund, the Routes project is based on a professional and committed approach that builds relationships by drawing on the strengths of services users to help them pick themselves up off the floor. The report describes how the service has changed in the past 10 years and provides insights into the experiences of some of their earliest service users. Click here to download the report 'Routes ten year celebration 2002-12: From there to here'.