The middle-class academic elite is totally out of touch

Universities must support and help the next generation of working-class researchers come through academia, says Lisa Mckenzie

September 2, 2017
Class divide
Source: Alamy

Over the past year and a bit, I have watched the academic world (in all disciplines) flail around at Brexit, at Donald Trump and, this summer, at the Grenfell Tower fire. “How could these tragedies have happened?” they cry.

It is clear that this middle-class, liberal, highly educated section of society did not see these events coming. 

I have written previously on how academics – for all their erudition and knowledge – do not see the everyday troubles of working-class people. They have strongly denied this, blaming “poor polling” and inaccurate responses from people who have taken part in their surveys. But the truth is clear for any of us who have come from working-class families and communities: the middle-class academic elite are totally out of touch. And no balancing of their surveys is going to change that. 

As a working-class academic and ethnographer, I was not at all surprised when Brexit happened, when the vote – especially in working-class communities – swung to “Leave”. In fact, if it had gone the other way I would have been shocked. I have spent years in working-class communities in Nottinghamshire and in London with people who just cannot take any more excuses, lies and empty rhetoric from their supposed political representatives.

Being told that change will come, but in five years, or two years, with the next general election, is not good enough when even one year is too far away for women who are facing immediate eviction from London and being moved away from their families. The people who live in the Nottinghamshire mining communities have not seen their elected representatives for years because those MPs have been far too busy in Westminster. Meanwhile, their communities are being taken down to the lowest level of dignity, having to work in warehouses for Sports Direct and Amazon – and they can’t stomach voting for any political representative who they feel is not physically or spiritually present in their communities.

And as Grenfell Tower burned in June, those of us who work within grass-roots and community campaigns in housing in London knew and feared this outcome. Many in my profession, however, did not. As I listened to a sketchy news bulletin at 2am on 14 June, reporting a fire at a tower block in West London and people jumping out of windows to escape, all I could think was that the building’s inhabitants were considered by large sections of society to be “not good enough”. They were not valued.

I have researched council estates and the views that both officials and wider society have held against people who need social housing. I knew that this lack of care, and the contempt for working-class people living in council tower blocks (especially in London, which is undergoing industrial-scale class cleansing), would eventually end in a disaster. 

However, I was aware that the academic community in general did not see any of this coming. I have asked myself why the experts at our most prestigious universities fail to think about and write about the lives of the poorest people in our society. Does the constant march forward by a neoliberal university sector that is obsessed with metrics, scores and a false prestige mean that they are missing the small stories that ethnographers take years to build up?

The constant competition to publish mostly unfinished work in academic journals means that the wider story, the bigger issues that are affecting society, can never be thought through properly. And saddest of all is that working-class students, who are rooted in their communities and people and who could help to highlight the topics important to them, see nothing but the high, unjust prices now demanded by our universities – especially at postgraduate level. 

If we value academic research, and if we want to know what is happening to the poorest people in our society, academia needs to change, and change significantly. The pressure to publish or perish before our work is properly thought through needs to end. The narratives that are collected with care and over years by ethnographers need to be valued far more highly than they are now. After all, it was the ethnographers who saw Brexit and Trump coming. But most importantly, we must support and help the next generation of working-class researchers to find a place in academia. Without them, we are irrelevant.  

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

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Reader's comments (2)

It's not so much that academics are unaware of poverty, but more that the 'solutions' that so many voters find for their problems are not so easy to predict and countermand. Voting to leave the EU makes a lot of sense if one opposes the European courts being able to rule on domestic British issues, but it doesn't make much sense if one is worried about unemployment and inequality. As this article notes, the Trump and 'Leave' votes have a large component of roulette - a desperate hope that upending the system will lead to a good outcome. This is not something that will change if more working-class students become sociologists.
The article confuses cause and effect, appearing to blame 'academia' for all of society's ills. Have academics in the political and social sciences (as well as other disciplines) railed against the failure of UK 'democracy' - of course they have. Have they criticized the ineptitude of the political class? The vicious iniquity of Neoliberal ideology? The failures in housing policy? The unjust cruelty of tax evasion and the destruction of public goods? The untrammeled greed of Thatcherite consumerism? Of course they have. Have they condemned the marketisation of our universities, the ghastly insidiousness of league tables, endless pressure to publish in top ranked journals, the disproportionate salaries of university CEOs, the destruction of the values that used to underpin our institutions, our teaching and our research? Of course they have. What has led us to this grim financially driven market dominated state of affairs? The answer is not we academics. It is government policy, dictated by narrow cabals of self interested ideologues in positions of power at the head of our rotten so-called democracy. Academics, many of them, are also victims in the creeping destruction of public goods and communitarian values. Change will only come when we reform UK politics, and deal with who uses and abuses power. Academics are not to blame for this mess. Where I would in part agree with the article is that too many of us are too passive. We should protest more loudly and more often through every channel available, including new ones. We are living through a right-wing coup without tanks. We should unite in opposition to what is happening, and fight it tooth and nail.

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