Lisa Mckenzie: who would be a working-class woman in academia?

Even in the academy, your class background will always be a factor in how you are seen, says LSE’s Lisa Mckenzie

October 8, 2015
protest, street, march

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.    

Lisa Mckenzie is a research fellow in the department of sociology at the London School of Economics.

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Reader's comments (13)

Dear Lisa I am working class too and am using an alias here because I don't want to get a load of hassle from you or anyone else. The thing is that I am not loud and I don't swear a lot like you say all working class women do. I am shy. Also, I know some 'big words', and you probably do too because you have a phd. I am offended by the idea that you think every working class woman is like you, and that only you can say what working class women are like. i'm not like you, so stop saying that I am. I have met you at an event and you looked down and sneered at me - why? for not shouting my mouth off? Did you think I was not working class because i didn't have gold earrings in? Who knows. Your version of working class women ignores people like me and you don't seem to notice or value anyone who is not like you, so who is doing the 'othering' now? Jeany
Dear Lisa, Like jennwellsy I am working class, using an alias here because long experience with the vanguardist left has taught me to avoid people who support violence as a so called working class alternative to argument - as seen in the Class War Facebook site you support. I have a Phd and have taught in several universities, including Cambridge which your comrades in Class War threaten to burn to the ground. I find the language employed by you and our comrades in Class War vile and disgusting but I assume that is due to my working class upbringing in a Welsh mining village. You say you enjoy argument, but never argue, and for years Class War and the group that preceded it have heavily censored and blocked alternative views or disagreements. But worse, your comrades slander as racist and call for no platform anyone whose political opinions dissent from those held by the centralised leadership of Class War. You might take the trouble to look around the universities and meet hundreds of PhDs from working class backgrounds who are capable of presenting rational evidence based arguments - which is so very far from the imaginary working class you appear to represent.
She is neither working class or an anarchist as far as I can work out. Middle class and anarcho communist maybe. I was an anarchist living on a council estate before I went to university and look back at the absurdity of benefiting from the Welfare State whose legitimacy I questioned Her characterisation of working class manners is insulting . She makes the mistake of generalising from her own limited experience.
Well I see where you are coming from to a point. However, your own personal attitude has massive bearing on how you are viewed by others. Yes, the issues you have faced are there but reading your piece, the overall view presented is one of a very large shoulder chip. I do not say this without experience. I come from a mining community background, leaving school at 15 and becoming an apprentice engineer. After working in industry for 30 years, I gained teaching qualifications and proceeded to teach in FE colleges. Yes, I met with some of the prejudice you describe and no, I did not like it, but I ignored it and used my persuasive, rather than combative talents to attain Principal level, fairly quickly. It is too easy to generalise and react to people (who are probably afraid of your competence), rather than assessing why your own actions are not achieving the things you aspire to.
The comments above contain examples of the usual liberal bullshit - 'angst' perhaps. See here "I have met you at an event and you looked down and sneered at me" - oh boo hoo! AS if it happened!! I think that's personal insecurities masquerading as evidence myself. The other evidence from a self anonymised female who did so cos they want to avoid people who "support violence as a so called working class alternative to argument - as seen in the Class War Facebook site you support" and who "You say you enjoy argument, but never argue, and for years Class War and the group that preceded it have heavily censored and blocked alternative views or disagreements. But worse, your comrades slander as racist and call for no platform anyone whose political opinions dissent from those held by the centralised leadership of Class War." Needless to say, there are some readers here (but not enough) who know that this is lies, or delusional fantasy at best. There is no centralised leadership of Class War for a start, and I speak as somebody with 30 years experience of it, and the stuff about Facebook just proves that you do not know anything about the workings of Class War, and that you ignore the evidence that is circulating on Facebook. I could destroy these comments further, but dear me, you flaky liberals couldn't take it and you don't half whine whilst doing nothing meaningful in the political arena.
Dear Dr Mckenzie, I have read your article and also the posted comments. I wholeheartedly agree with what you are trying to communicate in your piece. I'm not sure every reader can sympathise with your arguments, but I can. Though I am a shy, and reserved academic. I work in both engineering and medicine. I support the notion that as soon as your social class is exposed you stand at a disadvantage, and that there is prejudice against the working classes that has an impact on progression. The playing field is by no means level. Regards, Ph.D, MBMS
To the person who claimed the following. 'There is no centralised leadership of Class War for a start, and I speak as somebody with 30 years experience of it, and the stuff about Facebook just proves that you do not know anything about the workings of Class War, and that you ignore the evidence that is circulating on Facebook.' I put it to you to refute any or all of the points that you reject. Or maybe, in the spirit of this discredited organization, you believe that denial is sufficient for refutation. I happen to have considerable knowledge of the origins and antecedents of Class War, and of the individuals who make up its highly centralised leadership. Not the Leninist Democratic Centralism, but the leadership of the key players who make all the decisions, formulate strategy and policies. I have yet to hear of any democratic accountability from the leaders, or of any working class involvement in decision making. Disagreement is shortly tolerated and met with abuse followed by removal. It is not a working class organization and its key leader, from earliest days, has never had a job. CW supports violence on every topic and still boasts of its broadsheet called Hospitalised Copper, proudly highlighting injuries sustained by police officers. CW plays the race card, frequently and wrongly accusing people like myself of racism without a shred of evidence. I shall not quote from its Facebook site, but simply observe how opinions and actions are determined, with the unquestioned leaders outlining their own position regarding class objectives and blind obedience from the mob. You speak of liberals like myself doing nothing meaningful in the political arena. But how do you know this? I have frequently informed people in Class War of my work, meaningful in the sense that it is aimed at advancing the ability of working people to control their own destiny, including the class struggle, which for the anarchist movement should not be directed by others. And this means we do not daub paint on a local shop because the leader tells us to do so. I strongly advise Dr MacKenzie to break with these thugs and focus her research skills and intellectual talents in other directions than promoting the interests of a bunch of violent losers.
"I am in the unusual position as a working-class academic to be able to speak to many publics at many levels" The thing I'm always curious about is (and this is a general question not really specifically about the author) - How long do you get to be a working class academic? I grew up on a council estate and my first job was in a meat packing factory after failing all my exams. All my family still live what you would call a "working class" life, my brother for example is a binman. However, how long can I really claim that I am still working class or understand the lives of working class people as a lived experience? Here's a really simple example - I was explaining to my brother that I don't have to go to the office everyday and that by and large I am left alone to do my thing - he doesn't understand that experience - so how do I understand his day to day grind?? I start my day with a bit of yoga and a espresso from my bean to cup before a gentle stroll to work where I sit and drink more coffee. I spend my evenings not worrying if I can pay the gas bill but trying to work out the most tax efficient wrapper for my investments. Does that make me more or less a working class academic or is it all a bit patronising if I told people I was a working class academic? I'm interested to know how people from a similar background see themselves?
TO dlam0642_236239 - I did refute your positions, because they are the usual liberal rubbish, and liberals can do nothing useful by definition. I have watched the political arena avidly, and call me an old cynic, but you are offering nothing new, and therefore I expect the usual political irrelevance which is common for your ilk. SO you say Class War is a ‘discredited organisation’, and at what point did it have credit then, as your lazy formulation suggests it did, once. I am curious. You say that you have knowledge of Class War, but it appears that you have lifted all the evidence you use from the media, which as we all know is far more discredited than anything Class War would say. For example, and contrary to your argument, Ian Bone has worked in different jobs at different times, community worker, postman etc. Your rhetoric has much in common with the corporate media too, calling Class War "thugs" and "violent losers" indeed. You may as well work for the corporate media as you are doing their divide and rule work well. There is no ‘highly centralised’ leadership, this is pure fantasy. Class War, in common with activist groups, use participatory democratic accountability. One example would be the conference I attended, which was held in LARC last year, and Class War used discussion based consensus decision making, in common with the decade plus old global social movement meetings. I think you are generalising from your solitary engagement with Class War on Facebook too, and there are and have been many pages, so I appreciate it is difficult to the outsider to tell which is genuine Class War, and which is an opportunist or political charlatan. It is fantasy to think Class War tells people to do things “this means we do not daub paint on a local shop because the leader tells us to do so”. It just doesn’t happen as you are arguing. As for telling Lisa Mckenzie to dissasociate from Class War, I think she will tell you to procreate elsewhere.
Thank you dr23743 Unfortunately describing an argument as 'usual liberal rubbish' is not a refutation. It's just name calling. We used to do better than that in the early days of Class War and the anarchist movement. Today I am looking for alternatives to the tired old Tory/Labour bashing and street violence that is emerging with the second coming of Class War. It is time to build new structures that match political reality. I am familiar with Class War and that which preceded it, and possess every publication and leaflet going back to the Swansea Anarchist's Alarm, which I contributed to as well as distributed in the streets. I concede that Mr Bone held a couple of shortly lived jobs, such as a postman, before opening a bookshop in the Uplands Swansea, called Revolt, which lasted a few weeks. That was before he joined the Welsh Nationalist Free Wales Army. I am part of that history and know every detail, which is why I urge the followers of Class War not to repeat its mistakes in accepting a central (albeit informal or structureless) leadership which seeks thoughtless action, like the Cambridge swan (Mr Asbo) nonsense which betrayed complete ignorance of animal welfare, thus insuring that no one joined the twelve activists who participated in the event. I did try to warn them at the time to save the ridicule which followed. I call upon Dr Mackenzie to dissociate from the irrationality that is Class War, and as an academic with abilities, not to support an organization that wants to abolish- not reform - institutions in higher education. But I assume she will, for the moment, accept the advice in your final sentence. I do hope you have an opportunity to read some of my publications if they are available at the Anarchist Bookfair. Some of us are trying to make a difference, not cater to some of the ridiculous kill the rich imagery of the Class War Facebook page, which is not a place for a serious politicized academic.
Lisa, I appreciated your views. I'm 'working class' and have had a successful career in the male-dominated industry of software development. I have also stopped and started a Doctoral in Business studies a few times over the past six years before stopping for good. I wanted to challenge my own thinking and bring new insights to business at a practical and accessible level. However, I struggled to find the motivation to conform to the 'academic way' and to apply a notion of 'academic rigour' that seems to have been established centuries ago. I wanted to think, challenge and analyse in a way that brings value to others. I had no aspirations to be part of 'the club'. The club of academics that seemed to revel in inaccessible language, and publishing oneupmanship with little discussions about practical application. The bar patrons inflated with superiority whilst they critique the decisions of the football players on the field. The tentacles to the real world seemed tenuous at best. It wasn't for me. Thankfully, we live in a world where we have access to seemingly infinite resources to read, analyse, critique and share - in a way that suits us. We can challenge ourselves mentally; not solely to be a member of an exclusive club, but to improve ourselves and make a wider contribution. The possibility that all people - working class and otherwise can belong to a wholly inclusive club of thinking, challenging and knowledge sharing is exciting indeed. I may never be called 'Dr.' but that won't stop me from sharing what I learn in a wholly accessible way. Indeed, without the credential to cloak me, I expose myself to greater criticism than I would otherwise; but I'm happy to be a pioneer if it means I can share and challenge my ideas with a far larger and richer club. I applaud your willingness to unapologetically share your views in an accessible way.
Have you had any good ideas recently?
Well, dear, let’s start by considering whether it’s “strong” or “brave” to conspire with a brainless rabble of depraved losers in a Munich Bier Keller, or its generic equivalent, to terrorise an entirely peaceable neighbourhood. Unkind, I guess, to point out that beholding ones past executioners would require a Ouija board but you might at least let-on as to whether you intend to behead us personally, summon a firing squad, or embark on a crash programme of gas-chamber construction. Perhaps you could give a few examples of genocide bringing about Utopia? Cambodia? The gulags and the “great leap forward”? Last century saw a hundred million slaughtered in the name of various brands of socialism and billions condemned to pointless lives of impoverished serfdom, so we really don’t need to plough through the mindless drivel that passes for transcendental wisdom among the Class War acolytes, any more than we need to peruse Mein Kampf, in order to dismiss such ideologies. As a onetime labourer in a Merseyside brickworks I defer to none when it comes to working class credentials but, having studied or been employed in several universities, from Warwick’s white tiles, through a couple of red brick, to the somewhat more venerable Oxford, I can report that neither my pronunciation nor my vocabulary has ever prompted the slightest hostility. At UT Tyler they “just love [my] accent” – probably because it evokes the Beatles (so there’s ethnography for you). Of course, I don’t see obscenities as essential to communication. Nor do I regard crudely offensive attempts at humour as part of my culture although, judging from the on-line publication Discover Society, there are sociologists who would award them preservation orders among certain classes of student. The expression “left-wing intellectual” has been pretty much an oxymoron since the 1940s. After Popper’s Road to Serfdom, it’s made no more sense to base a society on socialist principles than to build a chemical engineering works using the phlogiston theory of combustion while Hayek’s Road to Serfdom makes clear what will happen should anyone be stupid or wicked enough to try. Unlike the predictions of Marx, those of Hayek are entirely reliable. No socialist society has ever been anything but an unmitigated disaster with the poorest suffering the most. Sociology is almost the last redoubt of the ideology, which might explain why its graduates are among the least employable on both sides of the Atlantic (although they just beat fashion design in the US). It seems entirely reasonable to some, although evidently not all, within the discipline to expect something resembling objective research from disciple of Class War in the field of poverty and social mobility. In the real world, it looks like putting a bigot from the Ku Klux Klan in charge of the community relations investigation. No, dear, it isn’t your accent or any “ism” that has led to the distain but the chip on you shoulder, your chronic cornflake aversion, and the fact that you’re clearly as crazy as a box of frogs.

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