When you are an academic who is also a political activist, being attacked in the tabloid press for your political activity will come as no surprise. Lisa Mckenzie, who stood for the Class War party against Iain Duncan Smith in the May 2015 elections and who has participated in street protests against gentrification and the East End’s controversial Jack the Ripper Museum, knows this well.
But how does it feel when you write about your ethnographic research in deprived communities and attract nearly as much criticism from fellow scholars – on the grounds of racism, for reporting the views of those you research – as your politics elicit condemnation from the Daily Mail?
Mckenzie, a London School of Economics research fellow whom the eminent sociologist Mike Savage has called “one of Britain’s leading researchers of the precariat”, was pictured prominently in coverage of a recent march in East London, which made headlines after the area's Cereal Killer Cafe was targeted.
Her book Getting By: Estates, Class and Culture in Austerity Britain focuses on the lives and views of the inhabitants of the so-called sink estate in Nottingham she inhabited for many years, and in this blog she explains that even in the academy, your class background will always be a factor in how you are seen.
Who would be a working-class woman? To be honest, only a working-class woman. We are the only ones who have the balls for it.
It’s hard work defending ourselves and protecting our profiles against those who judge us, look down on us, sneer and laugh at us.
They laugh when we get it wrong, when we try to be like them – when we don’t know about wine, geography or politics. They deride us when we wear big gold earrings, speak loudly, laugh loudly, or swear; our honesty is misrepresented as stupidity, they shout over us, they silence us, and they use big words to intimidate us. They wait for us to say the “wrong thing”, to make a mistake, to get confused, to feel scared; they shout at us “you are stupid”, “you are aggressive”, “you should be locked up” ,“you should be sacked”.
This is what it is to be a working-class woman. These are things that they have said to researchers who “study” them – and that includes me with my research.
When academics, politicians and the chattering classes from the middle-class liberal Left read what working-class women have to say, they “understand”. They are empathetic, they care, they care about “the other”. But what when that “other” is you? And it is me.
I call myself a public sociologist. I want my work to be relevant to a wider public, I want to initiate a wider debate. I am strong and I am brave and I have experienced inequality, class prejudice, misogyny and racism at a very personal level, and I am in the unusual position as a working-class academic to be able to speak to many publics at many levels. And I want to. I have broad shoulders, and a political axe to grind.
However, telling the story and being the story are difficult to negotiate, especially when what you are saying affects you in a personal capacity. I research and write from a place of pain and of violence – both symbolic and actual. This is what makes my voice and my work distinctive.
However, this personal engagement, this storytelling, the way I open up myself, my thoughts and my arguments in the public domain, carries risks. I am left unguarded, and because I speak plainly, I am unprotected by the obtuse language that academics normally use when they are being “objective” or countering their subjectivity with dense theory. My gender, my class and my background is exposed: the way I speak, the way I use words, my research respondents, their stories, their lives and mine are no longer reduced to flat words on a page hidden in a ream of impenetrable panegyric fence-sitting. We become animated, in hyper colour, with hyper sound; we are multi-dimensional and consequently easy to see, and easy to target.
This is my experience of being a public sociologist, of being in the limelight, of having only a very limited number of plain words to make the argument, to raise a debate. Those of us who do this are shouted down immediately, and are critiqued through the lens of the elite academic structure that is trying to keep us out.
In the academic world, our disciplines, our work and our voices too often become simply echo chambers saying the same things over and over, using increasingly complicated language in order to differentiate us from the last scholar who studied something similar in our field.
I welcome debate, and I love argument, which is why I work in a university. However, I find it limited and frustrating when we academics speak only to each other.
I want to know where my thoughts, arguments and theories lie within a general and larger public. I am curious. I am a sociologist. I have no apology.