This is the website and blog of Dr John Lever.

Thursday 9 June 2016

Where have all the great sociologists gone?

Two days ago I visited the magnificent Cutlers Hall in Sheffield to witness the equally impressive Loïc Wacquant lead a conference and give a public lecture. During the course of the day, Wacquant witnessed a group of urban sociologists and social scientists present a fascinating set of papers paying homage to the conceptual finesse brought together in his latest book: The Two Faces of the Ghetto. As co-organiser and co-chair John Flint noted, it was a privilege to be there.

I first witnessed Wacquant speak as a PhD student 10 years ago in Bristol, where he set about unraveling the policy assumptions of those working in urban policy at the height on New Labour's foray into urban regeneration. At this weeks 'Rethinking urban inequality' event, organised by Ryan Powell, Wacquant was equally impressive. An intense, charismatic speaker of voluminous intellect and sociological passion, Wacquant is larger than life and in full flow an experience to behold.

At the start of the day Loic seemed unusually subdued by his long journey from California, via Paris, but as was pointed out at the start of the pubic lecture, 5pm Wacquant is very a different beast to morning Wacquant. However, the talks soon had him intrigued, perhaps epitomised by his response and feedback to Isabella Clough Marinaro's excellent talk on 'The Informal Face of the Ghetto: Ambiguities of Power and Ethnicity in Italy’s Roma Camps'. The array of papers was impressive and demonstrated the range of applications of Wacquant's conceptual apparatus, which as he has pointed out on numerous occasions, should be seen as an empirically testable model.

For me personally the day illustrated all that is good and bad about sociology. In his feedback to the papers at the end of the day, Loic took issue, controversially for some, with the final two presenters, perhaps, or so it seemed to me, because of their 'overly involved' and 'polemic' styles. In response to Adam Elliott-Cooper's intriguing talk on 'The Struggle That Cannot be Named: Violence, Space and Black Resistance in Post-Duggan Britain', he suggested that by focusing on single issues activists often miss the chance for wider engagement. Similarly, in response to Matt Clement's talk, and his criticism of Elliot's suggestion that many young people today have no idea what a trade union is, Wacquant argued that the current unrest in France linked to trade union activity is not as important as Clement claimed.

For me this illustrated the changing nature of sociology and sociological knowledge. As Kilminster (2004) has argued, the development of sociological theory can be seen as part of a changing set of attitudes towards different forms of knowledge – as evident in the rise of move involved forms of identity politics, for example – and to the evolution of the knowledge process more generally. These changes can in turn be linked, he argues, to increasing levels of functional democratization and with the need for individuals to be more reflexive and sophisticated within more complex networks of social and political interdependence. This in turn raises the intriguing issue, which I have been working on with Ryan Powell for some time, of the appropriate level of involvement for sociologists working on and engaging with the contemporary issues raised by Wacquant's work. While older sociologists often have a tendency to be more detached, younger sociologists increasingly have a tendency to be more involved.

This takes us back to where we started. What makes Loic Wacquant a sociological great, in my opinion, is that he allows us to the view the present by focussing on the past and a long-term sociological perspective that combines conceptual and empirical rigour in ways that overcome the superficial temptations of ‘presentism’ evident in much contemporary sociology (Savage 2014). As Wacquant illustrated in a discussion spanning four centuries - from the 16th century Jewish ghetto in Venice to the 20th black ghetto in the US - the ghetto is a vertical and horizontal space constructed for trade, which at once protects and stigmatises its inhabitants. Next time Loic Wacquant is in town put the date in your diary.

Friday 15 April 2016

Planning the future of local food; plotting community enterprise at the University of Huddersfield

During a recent research project on the future of local food in Kirklees a local community activist by the name of Stephen Knight drew my attention to an unused plot of land and five derelict greenhouses owned by the University of Huddersfield. Discussions and meetings soon brought a large group of volunteers together - students and staff, as well as organisations and communities from across Kirklees - to work on the development of a new project to grow food for sale on campus.

Led and coordinated by the drive of Dorota Hajdukiewicz from Students for Sustainability, enthusiasm has been high, yet we have had to wait a couple of months while Estates at the University completed the formalities required to facilitate access - we are almost ready to go!

Kirklees has a thriving community food sector and there are many innovative community food enterprises across the borough. Our hope is that this new project can add to the great work already being undertaken by these enterprises and contribute towards taking the Kirklees Food 2020: From Farm to Fork Strategy to the next level. 

I recently accompanied Dorota to a meeting with CASE Social Enterprise Development Services at the University to push forward plans to start a Social Enterprise to run the project. As well as running extra circular activities, including workshops and training opportunities for those interested in a running a social enterprise, the project will promote healthy, organic and local food to students and staff at the university, as well as creating a community engagement space for events with children and adults.

Interest in the project is growing by the day. Next week we have some important visitors. We will keep you updated on progress.

Monday 15 February 2016

A Strong and Sustainable Food Economy in Kirklees

Can Kirklees develop a Strong and Sustainable Food Economy? Today saw the launch of a new report outlining a way forward: click here for the full report:

Executive Summary

Kirklees Public Health Directorate commissioned the research on which this report is based. Between October 2014 and July 2015, fifteen interviews were conducted in Kirklees with key actors in the community food sector and the local authority. These interviews were complimented with five more at the national level.

The overall aim of the research was to provide evidence of how the current Kirklees food system contributes to the aim of making local people and the economy more resilient. The research had three main objectives:

· To explore the potential impact of local food on economic development.
· To examine possible frameworks for an independent Kirklees food partnership.
· To develop awareness and promote the significance of these issues.

A number of key findings emerge.

Key findings

1. Many community food enterprises exist in isolation and there is little to bind them together beyond small reciprocal exchanges.
2. The community food sector needs more support and Kirklees should focus on the many good things that are already happening across the borough.
3. Redefining what is meant by ‘local food’ would improve the effectiveness of local supply chains and enable better procurement.
4. Better local procurement and sourcing would enable local producers and entrepreneurs to make a more effective contribution to the local economy.
5. A system of local/ sub regional food hubs is already in place across Kirklees comprised of community retailers, farms shops and schools.
6. There is a wide support for the development of an independent Kirklees food partnership and central food hub to coordinate these initiatives more effectively.
7. The Brighton and Hove partnership provides a good model for Kirklees to follow, but the right people must be involved from the outset if any new approach is to be successful.
8. Any new agenda must ensure that all the diverse communities across Kirklees, deprived as well as affluent benefit from any new ways of working.
9. Better planning and public policies are needed if the joint Kirklees Health/Well-Being and Economic Strategies are to bring about outcomes that cut across different areas of service delivery.
10. More commitment and support for partnership working is needed across all sectors in West Yorkshire.

Five recommendations are made.


1. Provide more support for the community food sector in Kirklees
2. Initiative better partnership working and collaboration across all sectors in West Yorkshire
3. Link the local food system with local supply chains to enhance local sourcing and procurement
4. Initiative better planning and policy to link the food system to population needs across different areas of service delivery more effectively.
5. Develop a local food partnership and food hub infrastructure to drive the food strategy to the next level.