a last post on housing

In both France and Britain, state commitment to financing housing for poorer tenants is now being radically reduced, with governments relieving themselves of responsibility for the welfare of the population in the assumption that people will take care of their own well-being, without the organised redistribution that fiscal systems allow. What do anthropologists say? We’re all for self-determination aren’t we? Doesn’t that sound like keeping the state at bay? There are still many anthropologists of the romantic persuasion who like to see themselves as vaguely left-wing yet feel that people should govern themselves on the most local level possible. Which leaves us in a fix – self-determination good, welfare good, welfare is organised by the state, state interferes in local relations. In this day and age, these views are being adopted by those who support neo-liberal small-states; ‘let people form communities and be responsible for themselves’.

Use and abuse of anthropology is not new. A big hurdle for me in approaching Das Kapital was the opening discourse about the natural state of man based on the old armchair anthropologies and missionary reports. Conservatives argue that people have become too dependent on welfare and should be encouraged to ‘take responsibility’ for themselves, the implicit assumption being that good old fashioned villages had a place for everyone, and everyone looked after each other. It’s an odd mix of old-Tory (rich man in his castle, poor man in his cottage) and neo-liberal (welfare makes you lazy), but it is buoyed up by long trails of romantic sociology which saw villages having authentic social relations and cities as anonymous. That we haven’t moved so far beyond this is evident in the need to do something called ‘urban anthropology’. But you find housing and housing-planning in both rural and urban areas, in bureaucratic and ad hoc systems, and in formal and informal contexts, and in permanent and temporary use (including holidays and tourism). Which takes me back to the beginning – in that housing for poor tenants is not a separate field. Governments have been quick to bail out the banks who frittered away money on poor property investments (etc. etc.), but remarkably less keen to bail out the poor people who can no longer afford to pay their house loans or rents. There’s a category distinction at large that is being hidden, a connection being ignored, with pretty grim consequences.


Simone is a discipline-crossing anthropologist, having worked in planning, geography and anthropology departments. She is currently Reader in Cultural Tourism at Leeds Met University, and Reader in Energy Studies at Durham University, Department of Anthropology, where she is Director of the MSc in Energy and Society.

9 thoughts on “a last post on housing

  1. “Hidden”? “Ignored”? At least in U.S.-related news, this story appears almost every day. Anger at bailing out the bankers while ordinary people suffer is palpable. The hard-to-swallow but, alas, highly plausible argument from the powers that be is that bringing down the banks means bringing down the whole economy. We may hate the bankers but we can’t live without them. The poor? It is then all too easy for members of the middle class to buy into the idea that the poor are properly damned as lazy fools. As always the angriest are those who fear losing what they have and feel that they deserve.

  2. I love this series of posts. But I have to say, I find it hard to see who exactly you’re talking about when you talk about romantic anti-statist anthropologists. I myself, for example, certainly support the idea of getting greater autonomy from the state for some sort of smaller collectivities — but that obviously entails developing alternative economies and alternative, maybe less nationalist forms of social relations, which will be a long historical process rather than a fantasy return to the tribal past. In the meantime, a provisional defense of the welfare state is obviously necessary — and I think people are perfectly capable of telling the difference between real autonomy and pauperization/state disengagement. My activist research subjects in France certainly make that distinction all the time.

    In short, aren’t we faced less with a real contradiction in “our” ideals than with a certain disjuncture in the temporal horizons of our various projects? Sometimes one has to advocate things in the short term that aren’t what one advocates in the long term, no?

  3. Hidden and ignored – perhaps an overstatement but there are evidently politicians who are quite comfortable with this paradox. ‘Financial necessity’ seems to be enough to allow them to continue to slate welfare while ignoring tax avoidance. Indeed, they may feel dependent on the backing of certain powerful agents, but then they, too, can ignore the consequences of their self-interest. So it’s an interesting conundrum for me, how people can, on the one hand preach community responsibility, and on the other hand, ensure that people are thrown into poverty. For US readers, I should apologise/explain that it has been party conference season here, which is why the post might have been a little over-egged.
    On the romantic anthropology, it’s a puzzle, but somehow I still meet anthropology students with strong opinions about indigenous authenticity and separatism. Where do they get them? Well, I hear them at conferences too, papers that argue that people should govern themselves. It sounds completely sensible for remote ethnic groups, or in situations of repression; self-determination as a human right, etc. But I think a lot of us take for granted democracy-with-exceptions as the answer, and I think we should be clearer about what that might mean.

  4. I’m posting a comment from Keith Hart, who’s having some spam-difficulties. Thanks for your comments, Keith!

    “Thanks for this series, Simone, as much for the style of your posts as their content and, of course, the topic. I enjoyed and learned from all of them a lot.

    I have edited, with Jean-Louis Laville and Antonio David Cattani, The Human Economy: A Citizen’s Guide (Polity) which is published this week. It contains some three-dozen essays on concepts that, taken singly, might inform the search for economic alternatives, but taken together, provide an incipient language for talking about a better world.

    Several anthropologists have contributed to this book, which has authors from 15 countries and has already been through Portuguese, Spanish, French and Italian editions. Thomas Hylland Eriksen, Catherine Alexander, David Lewis, Chris Hann, David Graeber and me.

    The basic case we present in some variety is that markets are indispensable, but in excess undemocratic. The voluntary reciprocity of self-organized groups must be complemented by the ability of states to secure social rights and redistribution. reconciling freedom and equality in the task of democracy in modern societies. We support our case with numerous examples of practice and theoretical reflexions on them. The book itself is an expression of a growing global social movement of which some anthropologists are already a part.

    If anthropologists have generally been content to attack ideological straw men and to stay on the sidelines themselves, it is because most of us do not engage seriously with politics. But that may be changing.”

  5. I think that one of the most interesting ideological currents of the neo-liberal project is that capitalism is somehow not a social system, or at least, not one in the sense that the liberal state is one. This is the argument undergirding conservative politics in US–calls for a return to the “real America”, reducing taxes to spur innovation, etc… Thus, removing state assistance can be seen as “setting people free”, while what it really does is turn them loose into a different set of social relations. So yeah, an urban anthropology might do some good there, and I would compliment that with an anthropology of capitalism–to show interest and intention in a social system that seems disinterested, unintentional and trans-historical.

  6. Piven and Cloward in “Regulating the Poor” talk about the historical shift in the “care” of the poor from the local level to the federal government. Interesting stuff.

  7. Great series of threads. This is something that makes me a little crazy as I have spent a lot of time straddling different social groups, ideological bubbles and geographic realities in Dallas.

    “Which leaves us in a fix – self-determination good, welfare good, welfare is organised by the state, state interferes in local relations. In this day and age, these views are being adopted by those who support neo-liberal small-states”

    My opinions on this come from on the ground experience. This is going to be a long post, and I apologize, but I think some firsthand knowledge would help. My head was once filled with the standard, liberal arts, social science views of this subject before ‘getting my hands dirty’ if you will. I have come to the tentative conclusion that anthropologists need to pick not just a research strategy, but also a clear idea of what they want to do with their work. If they want to be advocates, then they need to be advocates. If they are determined to gather high quality, empiric data so that it can get into the hands of decision makers (this includes local community people), then they need to develop a strong separation between themselves and those decisions. Then if they want to simply produce knowledge for the academy, then that’s what they should do. There’s far too much mucking about and going back and forth between these functions and more bad than good come from it.

    For example, Cloward and Piven have been mentioned, and I brought them up in a post that disappeared. They had a particular worldview based largely on stereotypes. These stereotypes that all researchers have are basically guaranteed to develop narratives of causality from open source statistical data, whether or not the narrative is valid. Their work in the 1960’s and 1970’s did as much, or more, to damage poor US communities, and especially black communities, than unscrupulous developers or dirty politicians. Now again, I never heard of these guys till I actually started to do research in poor, minority communities. The point here is that good intentions are meaningless without solid data. Someone has to gather that data, and those people can’t have overt agendas.

    Ok, so then the question becomes, which work philosophy is most needed. This again very much depends on one’s stereotyped worldview. If for example, you believe that people already have the data, and they are either ignoring it or misusing it, because of racism, capitalism, or corruption and greed. If this is the case then advocacy is the answer. The problem is that it’s just not true. I’m not saying that there isn’t a lot of corruption and greed out there; that doesn’t even need saying. I’m saying that most of the data isn’t there to benefit, ignore, or misuse. I would urge anyone interested in urban anth. to go down to their city hall and look for previous studies that give any kind of qualitative data, or good quantitative data at the community or block level.

    I’ll give just one example of a single development project in a poor community that I have experience with:

    Habitat for Humanity was putting up a bunch of houses on blocks in a poor area. This made the community look even more like a random patchwork of development than it already was. Sounds nice though right? Well, yeah, until you start talking to lifelong residents of the area. The Habitat homes were not very big, but they weren’t tiny (From 1,000 sq. ft. to about 1,400 sq ft.). To build these homes they were taking larger parcels of land and subdividing them. To many of the residents the first thing they noticed was this. “That house got such a small back yard, how you gonna keep a pet back there?” “How you gonna have a family in that house? Whose gonna move in there? As soon as they have two or three kids, they gonna have to move out, and how can you have a community with no families?”
    So, I go to the city councilman for that district and talk to him. He’s very defensive, because he was really concerned with imminent domain, and people going in and building big houses cheap, driving up the tax base, and pushing out all the residents (gentrification). So he got an ordinance that banned imminent domain, and allowed the city to manage the development of the area in a way that didn’t push people out of their homes. The residents had no idea.
    Then I talk to the environmental folks in the city and find out that many of these homes are going to be outfitted with the latest in green tech. (LEED standards), and I learn from others that the latest architectural methods are being used to make the most of smaller spaces, so they won’t feel small.
    Ok, so I then compile data and take it to the city planning department and the dept. head, asks me to organize a meeting of residents so that he can go and talk to them and find out what they want in the way of development. I organize a single meeting and the lead planner and a few of his staff show up, hat in hand. Now there are a couple of advocates at the meeting, and one of them is really loud and disruptive. (In community organizing lit. and circles, an adversarial relationship is assumed between the “people” and elites. This assumption is basically made before any details are actually known, which can produce more heat than light and can frustrate progress when there’s no reason to.) She doesn’t even live in the neighborhood, and the residents even resent her cutting in on their time. The planners devise a plan to have residents transported to their offices so that they can work with architects as they design their neighborhood. This is an ongoing collaboration that’s still happening, and I got an anth. grad. student to help out at the office.

    My point here is that there’s a bit of elitism in anthropology that assumes that other fields and disciplines are unaware that people are important, and that “human capital,” as it’s often referred too, isn’t essential. These folks in other fields are highly educated, and need quality data and practical training and help from us, more than they need us yelling at them. They need someone gathering block level data, and ensuring that information flows between different groups that are basically blind to anything happening outside their purview. This blindness creates a situation in which everyone is acting upon an environment with different stereotyped images in their heads about what is going on, what to do about it, how others feel and think, what others want, etc… The urban anth. Robert Kemper told me that doing good urban work could be compared to the Japanese movie Rashomon, in which observers of an event are able to produce substantially different but equally plausible accounts of an event. Until doing large scale urban work, I didn’t realize how true that is.

    Now, if quality data is gathered and made available, and decision makers (including residents) are aware of what’s going on, and negative decisions are still made, then the advocates not only have a much stronger case, but they have a legal one to present to courts and the media.

    “How can a citizenry function in a democracy when that citizenry is woefully ignorant of how the society works and doesn’t work; of how a citizen can “plug in” as a citizen?”

    Laura Nader, from “Studying Up.”

  8. This is a great post, thank you. One of the flies in the ointment of participatory democratic systems in the UK is that we elect representatives for each small geographical area (as opposed to PR systems where representatives are elected on a list for the whole district). Every time citizens get directly involved in policy, or ‘community advocates’ speak on behalf of ‘the people’ (residents, tenants, etc), elected representatives tend to get nervous. Because it is precisely their job to represent the interests of their constituents to publicly accountable organisations, and they are at least theoretically accountable at election time to those constituents. From their perspective, self-appointed advocates and others are not accountable. From the opposite perspective, you hear people arguing similar things (‘what do they know?’), of course, leading to a contest about who is ‘most truly democratic/accountable’.
    But any democratic process is reliant on good information – and my experience in Norwegian local government is that providing good information is the key responsibility of public servants, with a view to insuring that elected representatives are properly informed about decisions they make. In practice, it doesn’t always work out that way, but the principle is there. I don’t see why anthropologists should act as public servants, but like you say, there are choices to be made.

  9. “From the opposite perspective, you hear people arguing similar things (‘what do they know?’), of course, leading to a contest about who is ‘most truly democratic/accountable’.”

    Wow, it’s good to know that things aren’t so different across the pond. Yeah, here you get folks that are either truly selfless community organizers and advocates; folks that are referred to as “self promoters” (usually men that show up to meetings, talk a lot, and basically act like they represent a whole group and that gov’t officials have to go through them); and finally you get folks that plan on running for a political position so they mimic the first two types to get elected. The problem is that gov’t officials have no idea which is which. Actually, most residents assume that a person belongs to the latter two categories until they prove themselves, which can take years. To be honest there are prominent people that some folks love and others hate in the same area, and by going through these community leaders city officials can inadvertently promote the agenda of some groups over others without knowing it. I’ve found that there’s a kind of social conditioning of expectations, but that those exceptions should be respected as being formed from generational experience.

    I’ll tell you what I mean by this. I was working with one prominent official whose goal it was to make the city a global leader in sustainable development. He figured that the best place to start was in areas where people had old, messed up houses that were the most inefficient and needed rebuilding. He was sending reps to other cities and countries to see how they were doing it, and the city hired a master planner from Vancouver that was famous for helping design planned, eco-villages in Dubai. It was going to be my job to ensure that this development in low-income communities was all done in a way that respected the sense of place of different neighborhoods, so that people would get behind it. Etc, etc… I was frustrated that people in these communities would treat me like I was naive, that a lot of what was planned just wasn’t gonna get done, but I assured them that things were ‘different this time.’ I mean they had planned, got funded, and began building the largest, usable, urban park in the world. Three times larger than Central Park, in the middle of the city.

    Then the financial collapse finally hit the city hard, and they had to lay off a little over 300 people, with more than a hundred on top of that over a year. The city, for reasons I’m not getting into, had to let the official that was spearheading off of this go; merged his former dept. with another one, and the new dept. head not only had no idea what was going on, but had zero personal or political stake in it. He was a good guy, and didn’t get in the way of any of it, but it just wasn’t his baby or passion like with the other guy. Then there was an election and new people came in and basically a lot of agendas got reset. I learned the hard way what people were trying to teach me, and I got a few “I told ya so’s”. I also saw that it really wasn’t anyone’s fault directly. It wasn’t some cabal of capitalists. Budgets change, new folks get elected, people get sick, quit or are fired… For the first time in my life I saw the benefits of having a government by a “benevolent dictator.” It’s also made me very sensitive to how things actually get done. We need to start looking more at the details of social, economic and material practices, because too many people act like shit gets done through magic.

    “In practice, it doesn’t always work out that way, but the principle is there. I don’t see why anthropologists should act as public servants, but like you say, there are choices to be made.”

    Yeah, “in principle” is right. But, I also learned from that experience that there are still a lot of great people in the system that are working hard to maintain a progressive momentum. In reality progress is slow and painstaking.

    I also don’t think that all anthros should act as public servants, but that many who want to do something for society should. It’s completely a personal choice. Some anthros should be unashamed advocates for vulnerable groups, or should be total academics and that’s cool. Even in corporate anthropology plans fail, because of a lack of information flow. The people on top can’t figure out why their hourly employees aren’t motivated (something almost universal among salaried managers), and they could really use a business anthro to figure out where there are kinks in the system. Walter Lippmann summed it up in 1922:

    “For the troubles of the press, like the troubles of representative government, be it territorial or functional, like the troubles in industry, be it capitalist, cooperative, or communist, go back to a common source: to the failure of self-governing people to transcend their casual experience and their prejudice, by inventing, creating, and organizing a machinery of knowledge.”

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