As a sociologist and ethnographer fascinated by the lived experiences of people, I was interested in reading a book that uses the research methodologies of ethnography, case studies and oral life histories to investigate class identities in three working-class housing estates in Norwich.
Class as a concept is often easy to teach, but it is the understanding of class as a form of self-identity that can be difficult for students to comprehend. Class is not simply about how individuals position themselves in terms of a particular social level, which is often determined by occupational identity, but about how identities can be viewed in terms of one's shifting relationship and self-distancing from others through conscious and unconscious choices.
Here, the main body of empirical material comes from in-depth interviews with 73 people, including 25 life histories. The strength of the oral life history research methodology lies in its ability to record voices and experiences that may otherwise have been overlooked. As Ben Rogaly and Becky Taylor claim: "Asking people to tap into their memories to relate a story can connect us to a much more dynamic set of narratives than histories based on documents."
This research could have been undertaken on any large council estate anywhere in the UK, and the authors explain in detail how their choice of research location was influenced by both personal knowledge of the area and links with development trusts established for the New Deal for Communities scheme introduced in 2000. The data cover a substantial period of time, from the Great Depression to the new Labour era.
The book is well signposted and comprises five thematic chapters and a conclusion. The chapters explore the influences of place, poverty, state, class and mobility (with particular regard to moving house) on the formation and experience of self-identity. Indeed, the authors argue that spatial immobility is just as significant as mobility in the making of personal identities. Each chapter begins with a summary and ends with a review of the themes discussed, as well as offering a linkage to the next argument. I particularly enjoyed the use of photographs in the first chapter concerned with "place", which allows readers with no knowledge of East Anglian geography to better grasp the location of the estates and the types of dwellings occupied. There were a couple of photographs of residents, and while I appreciate the difficulties involved in publishing photographs, particularly of children, it would have been interesting to see images of the key respondents if written consent had been obtained.
From a teaching perspective, the book is useful on a number of fronts. First, from the perspective of methods teaching, it is an excellent example of the use of oral life histories as a research tool. Second, it will prove useful on my second-year sociology course, which examines the shifting concepts of culture and social identity within changing structural concepts.
Clearly there may be some academics who will question the subjective, non-scientific method employed in this book, but the in-depth, personal data obtained by the authors generate a much deeper understanding of the shifting identities of predominantly white, working-class individuals in a particular location.
I will certainly be adding the book to reading lists.
Moving Histories of Class and Community: Identity, Place and Belonging in Contemporary England.
By Ben Rogaly and Becky Taylor. Palgrave Macmillan, 264pp, £52.00. ISBN 9780230219939. Published 8 April 2009