Sociological Barriers to Community Engagement with Higher Education Institutions
Globally there is a discussion around the unsustainable ways which humans are living on the planet and everyone is told that they play an important role in meeting the challenges which are now at our doorstep. There is international consensus that climate breakdown and the problems of unsustainable ways of living and being on the planet must be addressed on a system wide, community wide and individual level.
In Higher Education there is abundant discourse on involving communities in meeting the challenges which are faced by all. Coming from an informal learning community context I am interested in exploring the issues which communities have in engaging with institutions in their sustainability thinking and projects (along with other fields of thinking). The hierarchical nature of how Higher Education is structured ultimately results in what Elias, Scotson and Wouters (2008) refer to as an Established-Outsider configuration.
Often good relations between institution and communities are eroded by the extending of the internal hierarchy of the institution onto the world around. This embodies a power differential where agency is held by those inside the formal hierarchy and exercised on those outside to demonstrate public engagement outcomes and ‘impact’. This asymmetry often results in the uncomfortable devaluation of the inputs of the individuals in the community context as they have no traction within the administrative hierarchy.
As a result some individuals and communities have become cynical of the policy discourse aimed to woo individuals into engagement with the agenda set by academia. This manifests as stereotyped judgements which give lazy representations of disinterest or lack of ability to contribute to the solution of a problem or the development of a subject field. This most adversely effects those who are situated furthest from the power of the institution.
This hierarchical structuring of the coordination of group efforts is not limited to HE institutions but seems to operate in any given collection of people (Kadir, 2016). Pete Wilkinson (2015), Co-founder of Greenpeace, spoke of leaving Friends of the Earth in order to create an organisation which allowed him to take part in meaningful activities. He spoke of being an outsider in a classist organisation where you had to be an ‘Oxbridge’ type to get the opportunity and responsibility he felt he needed and deserved.
Sustainability issues involve everyone and requires collective action; beyond the academy there is a world of people living and dealing with the problems who have something important to contribute. With this in mind I present an important query on the creation of hierarchies and established-outsider configurations arguing that evolutions in our social organisation (mucro, micro and macro) have to take place if the global sustainability problems are to be met with.
Sustainability understandings and finding new ways to live in the face of collectivised problems has become central in everybody’s lives. The whole of the population are being asked to take action and get involved in addressing scale problems like climate breakdown, pollution, annihilation of species, unsustainable power usage, and deforestation.
The message of personal involvement is found central in the discourse of many of the academic, institutional, third sector and professional bodies which champion the causes entangled in sustainability. To this landscape of which many of us are familiar, I am going to bring critical perspectives on how sociological barriers to involvement are faced by people who are outside of professionalised fields.
In particular I focus on the formation of what Elias, Scotson and Wouters (2008) refer to as Established-Outsider configurations which demarcate who gets to participate in meaningful activities and how the effects of traditional means of establishing hierarchies fosters cultures of difference which act to exclude those who don’t carry certain cultural signifiers.
In their sociological study ‘The Established and the Outsiders’, Elias and colleagues document how regularly members of groups – which are in terms of power, stronger than other interdependent groups – think of themselves in human terms as better than others and how in communities “old residents are able to reserve offices in local organisations such as council, church, or club for people of their own kind, and firmly to exclude from them people who are perceived to live in the other part’. They reported in the study how:
“They closed their ranks against the newcomers. They cold shouldered them. They excluded them from all posts of social power whether in local politics, in voluntary associations or in any other local organisation where their own influence dominated. Above all, they developed as weapons an ‘ideology’, a system of attitudes and beliefs which stressed and justified their own superiorty and which stamped the people on the Estate as people of an inferior kind.” (Page 18, Elias, Scotson and Wouters (2008 )
This presentation represents an interest in analysing how collective action is shaped with a particular focus on being able to identify whether an organisation or project is meaningfully open to participation and contribution from outside of the profession. A profound question of our time is to ask if an institution or organisation can act in ways which it has not already ? Is it a human activity or is it an algorithmic process which is being driven by humans ?
I argue that for human beings as a species to be better able to meet the scale problems which are being faced, the animal behaviour of forming ingroups and outgroups around preferences of identity needs to be evolved beyond.
To bring into focus an example of the behavioural forces I am scrutinizing, I have an anecdote to illustrate part of the sociological phenomena which are, in part, structuring involvement in sustainability actions and ultimately affecting the success of the project of sustainability.
The following is a quote from Pete Wilkinson when he read from his memoirs ‘From Deptford to Antarctica’ at Edinburgh Central Library in 2015 (Dunedin, 2015). Having got involved with Friends of the Earth, Pete Wilkinson left after three years to take a place in organising Greenpeace in its infancy:
8 minutes into the recording
“I never felt comfortable with Friends of the Earth to be honest with you. These were all Oxbridge types and I am from Deptford and I was a lorry driver. And I knew in Friends of the Earth I felt that I would never get the kind of responsibility that I needed and deserved…
Anfal and Sandrid told me years later after I had left that ‘you were not going to get what you required because to be quite honest to you it is sort of a classist organisation’ – you have to be an Oxbridge type to get on back then, it is not like that now but this was the early days. This was a sort of ‘old boys club’ or ‘old mens club’; I was not going to get anywhere in Friends of the Earth and that was from the very beginnings of it.”
Regularly the idea that ‘poor people are less interested in matters of sustainability’ is projected out in the media and reinforce a number of age old misidentifications and misunderstandings which have kept those worst off from participation and contribution. If we look to Greenworld – the membership publication of the Green Party – we find it asking ‘why does it appear to be so difficult for Green parties and environmental NGOs to connect with working class communities?’
We can find current Chief Executive of Friends of the Earth Craig Bennett saying that the environmental movement “cannot be stuck in a white middle-class ghetto. It can’t even be stuck in the environment ghetto…We need to make a really big effort to look at how we can reach out to different communities and create opportunities for them to campaign on the issues that matter to them”
In the Guardian we can find questions like “Why are Britain’s green movements an all-white affair?” being asked, identifying the lack of diversity found in the participation base of British climate campaigns.
Online publications like The Conversation host articles stating “Save the environment from posh crusties – it’s a working-class issue too”
The New Republic hosts headlines such as “Towards a Working-Class Environmentalism” suggesting ‘The environmental movement has somehow become synonymous with elite technocratic liberalism’
Even digital fashion magazines such as I-D float articles like ‘does the climate change movement have a class problem?’
The behavioural meem which is particularly provocative in all this are the inferences that the ‘working class’ or ‘the poor’ have not been doing practical activities or trying to get involved, are not as interested or invested in the subject, and that they have not been developing practical and intellectual understandings in the field.
Those who have least status get demarcated out of participation in organisations which are structured around status and ultimately resources. In this way activities which the public can participate in are often structured as instruments for getting resources for professionals to do the high meaning/high status activity. This often takes the form of donating or raising money, or for the purposes of providing ‘public engagement’.
From ten years of working in a community organisation I have been mindful of how established groups form insider-outsider behaviours even though such groups and organisations may publicise a character of open participation, profound inclusion and espouse public production as a central tenet of their practice. My working title for this kind of behaviour has been Monty-Python-Kafka syndrome for situations where small differences have been used to gatekeep involvement in activities.
This instrumentalisation of communities and individuals for demonstrating outcomes to feed the internal organisational purposes of the professionalised, resourced world erodes confidence of the least resourced communities, in many situations causing individuals who were keen to contribute to stay away. The power differentials manifested in the bureaucratic administration of organisations set the scene for a convenient infrahumanization which lends itself to accounts of the pragmatic.
Infrahumanization is one of the everyday forms of dehumanization which is active in collective situations and research shows preferential attribution of positive qualities to in-groups, independent of in-group favouritism (Haslam, N., Bain, P., Douge, L., Lee, M., Bastian, B., (2005).
It is evident the damage we are causing to the world through damage to our oceans (GRID-Arendal & UNEP, 2016), deforestation (Forestry Statistics, 2018), loss of species (Millennium Ecosystem Assessment, 2005), soil erosion (Bridges & Oldeman,1999), pollution (World Health Organization, 2016), climate breakdown (IPCC, 2013)
This kind of behaviour is common and ingrained in our everyday lives and perverse incentives of professionalisation promote a rift between those active and accepted on the inside of the field and those who are active but not accepted as a part of the professionalised landscape.
This is by no means limited to the field of sustainability but seems to be a behaviour wherever power is concentrated in an organisation which offers cultural capital to those involved. An interesting illustration comes from the work of Nazima Kadir, who has written a study about the paradoxes of hierarchy and authority in the squatter movement in Amsterdam relating to us how the squatters movement organisation PvKers organised themselves into a hierarchy which evicted squatters (Page 20, Kadir, 2016).
As a result, part of the project of sustainability is to address the psychologies and sociologies which lock people out from participating in, and developing solutions to, the unsustainable ways which we are living. Understanding a rationale to this might make use of Weberian notions of what constitutes a functional hierarchy (Constas, 1958). Vitally it must involve some mechanism of recognising value beyond an organisations ability to internalise the benefits where collaboration is understood to bring about positive externalities.
These thoughts are to caveat all the excellent and imperative work which is going on within institutions and organisations all over the world. It is immensely hard to coordinate in complex subject areas with multiple actors and often the administrative structures preclude meaningful participation.
Professionals are increasingly being moved into precarious job contracts which demand that more and more time is taken up responding to the fetishes of the funding-industrial complex leaving them exhausted and with diminished capacities. Precarity is reaching into job roles which used to be underpinned with circumstances which allowed more for medium and long term planning.
Lastly, the problems which have been raised in this discussion article must be understood to happen in collective working situations whatever the scale and whatever the field (be it sustainability or clinical medicine) – be it a local book group unconstituted in any formal legal way or a cross border organisation which involves a superstructure of thousands of coordinating actors.
The drive of this paper is to open conversations before any babies in baths are approached. These behaviours are engrained in my behaviours as much as any others and understanding how the world recreates itself begins with recognising these roots so counterintuitive behaviours can complement intuited ones.
Bibliography and References:
- Constas, H. (1958). Max Weber’s Two Conceptions of Bureaucracy. American Journal of Sociology, 63(4), 400-409. Retrieved from www.jstor.org/stable/2774140
- Elias, N., Scotson, J. L., & Wouters, C. (2008). The established and the outsiders. (Collected works of Norbert Elias.) Dublin: University college Dublin Press.
- Forestry Statistics (2018) Chapter 9: International Forestry Release date: 27 September 2018 Coverage: United Kingdom Geographical breakdown: Country Issued by: IFOS-Statistics, Forest Research, https://environmentlive.unep.org/media/docs/assessments/WOA_screen.pdf
- GRID-Arendal and UNEP (2016), World Ocean Assessment Overview, GRID-Arendal, Norway. https://environmentlive.unep.org/media/docs/assessments/WOA_screen.pdf
- Haslam, N., Bain, P., Douge, L., Lee, M., Bastian, B., (2005), More Human Than You: Attributing Humanness to Self and Others, Journal of Personality and Social Psychology Copyright 2005 by the American Psychological Association 2005, Vol. 89, No. 6, 937–950 0022-3514/05/$12.00 DOI: 10.1037/0022-3518.104.22.1687
- IPCC, (2013), Climate Change 2013: The Physical Science Basis: Contribution Of Working Group I To The Fifth Assessment Report Of The Intergovernmental Panel On Climate Change Ipcc ; Stocker, Thomas F. ; Qin, Dahe ; Plattner, Gian-Kasper ; Tignor, Melinda M.B ; Allen, Simon K. ; Boschung, Judith ; Nauels, Alexander ; Xia, Yu ; Bex, Vincent ; Midgley, Pauline M, http://www.climatechange2013.org/images/report/WG1AR5_ALL_FINAL.pdfhttp://hdl.handle.net/20.500.11822/18833
- Kadir, N. (2016). The autonomous life?: Paradoxes of hierarchy and authority in the squatters movement in Amsterdam.
- Millennium Ecosystem Assessment, 2005. Ecosystems and Human Well-being: Synthesis. Island Press, Washington, DC. Copyright © 2005 World Resources Institute
- Wilkinson, P., (2015), Ragged University, Retrieved from Internet 31.03.19: https://www.raggeduniversity.co.uk/2015/07/09/podcast-pete-wilkinson-co-founder-of-greenpeace-talks-about-his-life/
- World Health Organisation, (2016), Ambient air pollution: a global assessment ol exposure and burden ot disease. https://apps.who.int/iris/bitstream/handle/10665/250141/9789241511353-eng.pdf
This presentation was written by Alex Dunedin and presented at the 4th Sustainability in Higher Education (SHE) Conference 2019 in Swansea