Unsound caricature

The critics are wrong, argues Rick Rylance; the AHRC is funding research into the 'Big Society', not promoting it

May 12, 2011

There is understandable interest in why the Arts and Humanities Research Council refers to the "Big Society" in its Delivery Plan for 2011-15. The short answer is common usage and reference. But let us be clear from the start: there is no intention to publicise, promote, puff, support, celebrate or otherwise boost a set of particular policy preferences, as some claim. There is a world of difference between researching a topic and "publicising" it, which is what a recent letter to Times Higher Education claimed.

The first point to make is factual. Although Big Society may have started as a one-party election catchphrase (and as such would be unworthy of mention in the plan), it has, since 18 May 2010, been public policy. It was launched by Prime Minister David Cameron and his deputy, Nick Clegg. The latter noted at the time that "we've been using different words for a long time and actually mean the same thing: 'Liberalism'; 'Big Society'; 'Empowerment'; 'Responsibility'. It means the same thing."

Lexical juggling marked the Big Society's inauguration. The theme was pursued by Labour, which criticised it as an attempt to "steal" its language of "fairness, solidarity and responsibility". As the AHRC Delivery Plan comments, this calls for clarification.

Despite a fight over terminology, the phrase caught on fast. By the time the AHRC came to publish its Delivery Plan in December, seven months later, it was in wide circulation. In November, lexicologists at the Oxford English Dictionary had named it their "Word of the Year" - the word or phrase that "expresses in shorthand" the dominant issues of the previous 12 months.

In areas from healthcare to the arts, let alone social policy, local government and multicultural interactions, it stood for a range of issues across party lines. It found its way quickly into the so-called "grey literature", which mixes advocacy and research review and frequently inaugurates full-powered investigation.

During this period, invitations to conferences and colloquia on the topic abounded and sometimes the Big Society felt like a big inbox. Some were enthusiastic about it; others sceptical. Many were deliberative. The Royal Society of Arts, for instance, launched a project on Arts Funding, Austerity and the Big Society, the title of a pamphlet by John Knell and Matthew Taylor.

This pamphlet has been widely praised. It argues: "Given the potential for the arts to help us reimagine the good life in the good society ... the Big Society discourse offers interesting new terrain for this debate."

Why the Big Society caught on so rapidly is an interesting question of some intellectual seriousness. Knell and Taylor conclude that: "After a period in which cultural relativism dominated on the Left and hyperindividualism on the Right, recent years have seen debates about civic virtue re-emerge in politics ... the question of what citizens need to believe and how they need to behave for society to flourish has become more central to political debate. The Big Society ... is the latest manifestation of this trend."

The cross-research council programme Connected Communities, led by the AHRC, has been aggressively elided with the Big Society by opponents. But it was launched in 2008, well before Cameron announced his big idea. In a sense, the programme anticipated Knell and Taylor's "trend".

It investigates, for example, the conceptual meanings of community, the history of communities and inter-community conflict: all core humanities topics and matters of pressing human and social concern. It focuses on understanding "the place of community in a pluralistic society", the theme of a recent colloquium organised by the AHRC and the US National Endowment for the Humanities. The importance of these issues is recognised internationally.

The government has policies for most areas of life, and research develops our understanding of them through informed and appropriately critical investigation. The research councils contribute to policy thinking in more areas than this piece has space to list: technology, the environment, energy, taxation, rights and justice, ethics, heritage, education and so on. The fact that excellent research is conducted in these areas does not imply support for particular decisions. It is a caricature to speak as though it does.

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