Classed Intersections: Spaces, Selves, Knowledges

November 18, 2010

Classed Intersections is the outcome of five years of reflections on the theme of "Our working-class lives", a debate that drew together "new researchers" from a range of disciplines to explore why being working class in academia is, as its editor claims, "a fraught, challenging and uneasy process".

The book offers insights into a wide range of studies on related themes undertaken by its contributors, exploring diverse topics such as lesbian parents' responses to and decisions about where they live, gay men's experiences of and attitudes towards tourism, young people's stories about "coming out", and working-class schoolgirls' perceptions of higher education. Most of the contributors situate their chapters within recent theorising around the "cultural turn" in sociology, variously engaging (with mixed results) with important concepts including intersectionality, identity and individualisation.

Despite some strengths and valuable contributions, this is an uneven collection. It contains some well-written contributions that extend knowledge, adding evidence and analysis to the literature on identity, gender, sexuality and class, and their interconnections. As its title suggests, space, place and Pierre Bourdieu's habitus are concepts that many of the contributors use to structure and analyse the material they have assembled, often (and at times frustratingly) presented as "quotes" whose origin, context and significance it is difficult to discern.

Notable here for its clarity, well-constructed argument and lucid style, Paul Wakeling's chapter, "Is there such a thing as a working-class academic?", will appeal to and entertain the general academic reader, particularly those whose own biographies leave them, like the academics whose accounts he draws on, "caught" through their experience of education-based social mobility in the kind of "academic purgatory" he describes.

Enjoyable, too, is Jody Mellor's contribution, based on her small, thoughtful study of young Muslim women in northern England. She explores their experiences of negotiating the transition to university, emphasising the relative importance of different kinds of social capital and exploring how class, ethnicity and faith interlock through her analysis of these women's networks. Critiquing Robert Putnam's views on social capital, she argues that "bonding" (as well as "bridging") capital was available to these women through their religious obligations and "tight-knit ethnic networks", playing an important role in smoothing their paths into university.

Another original contribution is Emma Clavering's account of the "everyday worlds" of two poor lone mothers in Newcastle's well-known Byker district. She explores the meanings they attach to a garden and a new buggy to carefully tease out, in a detailed analysis, issues of identity, status, performance and values, arguing that these and other commodities play an important part in poor women's "expressions of cultural and social identity".

Yet despite some strong, original and thoughtful contributions, this is a book that could have been so much better. This is not just because concepts central to understanding class - power, control, exploitation, alienation - are often missing. The book also needed a stronger editorial steer, and many readers will find the writing in some chapters impenetrable and irritatingly jargonistic, with the language chosen rendering some potentially interesting ideas inaccessible. Some chapters also display a rather casual approach to method and to the presentation of research material, which I found troubling. Good qualitative research requires clarity about context: readers cannot judge the significance of evidence or whether it is appropriately interpreted without understanding how the individuals studied (and what they say) have been selected.

The range of these "new" researchers' contributions is welcome, and it is good to see an editor giving space to original, new and sometimes risky work, but this volume needed both editor and publisher to apply more exacting standards to the presentation of their work.

Classed Intersections: Spaces, Selves, Knowledges

Edited by Yvette Taylor. Ashgate, 2pp, £60.00. ISBN 9780754675624. Published 23 April 2010

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