Monthly Archives: April 2017

Meenakshi Sarkar’s poem wins Best Presentation at BSA event Public sociology and the role of the researcher

Recently, the British Sociological Association organised a postgraduate and early career researcher regional event – Public sociology and the role of the researcher: Engagement, communication and academic activism on 29th March 2017, at the DeMontfort University, Leicester.

The format of presentation was a five-minute PechaKucha presentation (20 slides-20 seconds each- so 400 seconds). Given the time constraint, I decided to do mine in the form of a poem! I was a bit apprehensive, but the poem was well received by the academic audience and I won the prize for the best presentation.

Meenakshi Sarkar - groupMy research explores the employment challenges for Pakistani men in the UK and why a quarter of them work as taxi drivers?  Nestled in a social constructivist paradigm, within the structure agency debate, mine is an ethnographic study drawing upon Bourdieusian concepts- habitus, doxa, illusio and the various capitals.

As a qualitative researcher I have often comes across this call for reflexivity or being reflexive (Bourdieu, 1984). Michael Buroway calls ethnography to be a ‘reflexive science’ (2003); Finlay says its ‘a difficult path’ (1998) yet ‘essential for all research’ (2002); Some call it ‘elusive and poorly described’ (Dowling, 2006); and others see reflexivity as a major strategy for quality control (Berger, 2015). Baffled with all these propositions, I sometimes find myself at a loss when trying to ‘be reflexive’ and had the same question as Pillow (2007) – is reflexivity ‘a reflection, confession or a cathartic outburst?’

The following poem is an expression of real questions I faced while writing my methodology chapter (which I am still struggling with!).

The Reflexive Researcher: The Pain and Gains of Reflexivity

1 in 4 Pakistani men in the UK, drive taxis for a living[1]
Is it a choice or constraint, their fortune’s misgiving[2]?
How free are they to choose a job? do they really have a choice?
Or do their class, religion, and ethnicity take away their own voice?

How does being a Pakistani man in UK, affect their life chance ?
What options do they get, in a society of white dominance?
Economists have sought to answer these questions in many ways
Through human capital theories, or the role an ‘ethnic penalty’[3] plays

Many a studies have pointed to the disadvantage of Pakistanis in this land[4]
Poor education, rural backgrounds, often push them to the lowest band
Discrimination is still rampant, in spite of all the laws,[5]
How fair is Britain, boasting of its equality vows?

But then, these penalties are not the same across all groups that dwell
Indians & Chinese, in the same British labour market have done pretty well![6]
Is education then the emancipator, the key to success ?
Yet, why do some second generation Pakistani boys to taxi driving recess?[7]

Unable to find an answer, I turned to sociology too!
To Giddens, Archer[8], and Pierre Bourdieu
I found Bourdieu closest to explaining the reproduction of class
Of habitus, doxa and illusio, how they affect our life, alas!

A habitus is formed , as a ‘mental structure’ which guides our minds
A perception of only this or that could be done, which a illusio binds
The habitus is reproduced generations after generations
Yet, between structure and agency lie man’s deliberations!

Or is it the various capitals he says, that create this doxic structure
Social capital?, religious?, symbolic?, or culture?[9]
So our Class, Affiliations, Gender, and Ethnicity form a certain CAGE,
A structure one is born in, as we enter life’s stage.

We do not choose these for ourselves, but they yield their power on us
Reproducing the habitus affecting our long term prospects thus
But man is born free, a rational thinking being!
How does one negotiate this CAGE?  when does agency kick in?

Faced with these questions, I took a social justice stance
An ethnographic study, an interpretivist dance
What counts can sometimes not be counted, and what’s counted doesn’t count,
So I am presenting their voices qualitatively, in their own account

But wait, who am I in this entire scheme of things?
What’s my positionality? a question of reflexivity rings!
Am I an insider or outsider here?
What common sense of my participants do I actually bear?

I am a contrast to them in many a way
What role does my own background here play[10]?
I am an educated, Hindu, Indian, woman from the middle class
They are taxi drivers, Muslim, Pakistani, men from a working class.

So, how does one research these subjective questions of the mind?
How will I unearth the habitus of being a minority in the grind?
How do my own assumptions affect what I say and ask?
How in the glory of my own habitus does my research bask?

Is reflexivity a reflection, confession, or just a cathartic outburst?[11]
If we all affect our research uniquely, then what epistemology do we trust?
Where does the researcher draw the line to remain objective?
Between the study and real people who are subjective?

Whose story is it anyway, mine or theirs?
Am I their true representative as someone who cares?
How will this help policy and practice? what impact will it make?
Finding social justice for the community, I wish to awake

I have more questions than answers at this stage,
Perhaps I am bound unknowingly, by my own CAGE!
But these questions, however painful need to be asked for sure
Only then will I as an impactful & reflexive researcher mature

By Meenakshi Sarkar, Leeds University Business School, University of Leeds
Email:;  TWEET: @meenakshisarkar

Meenakshi SarkarCurrently in her 3rd year of PhD at the University o Leeds, Meenakshi is a Learning and Development professional with over 20 years of experience from India where she worked with various organisations such as Procter & Gamble, Bausch & Lomb, Oriflame, Metlife Insurance and New York Life Insurance as a L&D lead, leadership coach and facilitator for behavioral skills. She came to the UK as a matured student to pursue her second masters in Human resource management (the first being in English Literature) at the University of Leeds in 2012. Her research started from a simple observation that many of the taxi drivers she met during her stay at Leeds, Bradford and Manchester were of Pakistani origin. As per the EHRC (2010), 1 in 4 Pakistani men In the UK drive taxis for a living. Is it a choice or constraint?  Meenakshi set out to explore. As she is writing her thesis, she is also exploring issues around reflexivity, role of the researcher in public sociology.

The above poem was presented at a Public Sociology conference in Leicester this March.

End Notes and References

[1] Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC) Report, (2010) How fair is Britain? The first triennial review.

[2] Markus H. Schafer, Kenneth F. Ferraro and Sarah A. Mustillo (2011)Children of Misfortune: Early Adversity and Cumulative Inequality in Perceived Life Trajectories: American Journal of Sociology, Vol. 116, No. 4 pp. 1053 -1091

[3] Richard Berthoud (2000) Ethnic employment penalties in Britain, Journal of Ethnic and Migration Studies, 26:3, 389-416

[4] Mairtin Mac an Ghaill and Chris Haywood (2015) British-Born Pakistani and Bangladeshi Young Men: Exploring Unstable Concepts of Muslim, Islamophobia and Racialization Critical Sociology Vol. 41(1) 97–114

[5] F. Carmichael & R. Woods (2000) Ethnic Penalties in Unemployment and Occupational Attainment: Evidence for Britain, International Review of Applied Economics, 14:1, 71-98

[6] Malcolm Brynin and Ayse Guvelli, (2012) Understanding the ethnic pay gap in Britain Work, employment and society 26(4) 574–587

[7] Tariq Modood and Nabil Khattab (2015) Explaining Ethnic Differences: Can Ethnic Minority Strategies Reduce the Effects of Ethnic Penalties? Sociology1–16

[8] Archer, M. (2003): Structure, Agency and the Internal Conversation. UK: Cambridge University Press.

[9] Bourdieu, P. and Wacquant, L.J. (1992) An invitation to reflexive sociology. University of Chicago press.

[10] Marta Bolognani (2005) Islam, Ethnography and Politics: Methodological Issues in Researching amongst West Yorkshire Pakistanis International Journal of Social Research Methodology Vol. 10, No. 4, October 2007, pp. 279–293

[11] Wanda Pillow (2003)  Confession, catharsis, or cure? Rethinking the uses of reflexivity as methodological power in qualitative research, International Journal of Qualitative Studies in Education, 16:2, 175-196

Injustice in Post Industrial Communities

By Simon John Duffy, Centre for Welfare Reform (@CforWR).

The Centre for Employment Relations Innovation and Change and Hope Not Hate came together to run an exciting cross-disciplinary event: A Future for Post Industrial Communities? The event, organised by CERIC’s Professor Jane Holgate, was lively, stimulating and wove together a vast array of information, helped by the use of the PechaKucha format, which forced all the presenters to concentrate their presentations to an essential minimum.

The central focus of the two days of discussion was the fate of the many towns and villages across the North, the Midlands, Scotland and Wales where heavy industry or mining had once been dominant. Where once the Labour Party was strong now there was growing support for UKIP and a strong vote for Brexit.

Academic research demonstrated that, contrary to the stereotypes, in these places people work hard and took care of each other, but struggled with low pay, job insecurity, benefit sanctions and growing poverty. Today the UK is the most unequal country in Europe, and these communities are on the wrong end of that inequality.

Many also noted that that these communities also lacked power. The UK is the most centralised welfare state in the world and in these places people have minimal democratic control and minimal representation in London. They seem abandoned by mainstream politics. Moreover social structures, the meeting places, the pubs, churches, working men’s clubs and leisure facilities had all declined. People have few opportunities to meet, organise or advocate for themselves. Poverty has been privatised.

These facts are rarely discussed and the assumption is that these places are now client states, dependent on subsidies from London. The truth is very different. For instance, if you calculate public spending in Barnsley it is £0.84 billion less than what you’d expect if you divided all public spending equally by head of population.

Barnsley Public Spending

The negative consequences of these overlapping injustices are severe and include much lower life expectancy. Yet none of this is inevitable; it was encouraging to hear that in other countries, like Germany, industrial change has not led to these kinds of problems. Communities can be supported to develop and to get back on their feet.

A further concern was that racism can feed off these social injustices. Speakers from Hope Not Hate shared their experiences of successfully over-turning prejudice in local communities where racists had exploited people’s fears and anger. But this also raised the question of what comes first: racism or injustice. And if, as most agreed, injustice comes first, how were we to understand and challenge that injustice.

Over the course of these two days I found my head whirling with competing categories and different understandings of social justice. Victims and perpetrators often seem to change places and people were forced to wear or to shed the group identities that mattered to some theory, but possibly not to people themselves:

– White working class men are seen by some as a threat

– White working class men are seen by others as victims

– But do white working class men really exist?

– Whose interests does this identity serve?

– Probably not the people shoehorned into it

Clearly some identities matter because others have chosen to use those identities for the purpose of scapegoating or vile attack. Categories like race, disability or native country become desperately important if others are using these categories hatefully. Yet we may think that these identities shouldn’t be important. It is injustice itself that has made them relevant.

For some these problems are obviously a function of capitalism. For others they are a function of class and elitism. Others stressed the organisation of power and the dominance of London and the big cities. Others looked back to the securities provided by large or nationalised industries; while some looked forward about to new forms of cooperative enterprise or community action.

What is critical here seems to be our sense of what is that actual reform or action that will reduce injustice. Politicians talk about ‘investment’ in these communities; but, reasonable as this seems, the reality is more complex. Often it amounts to no more than selling off our assets, our industries and our people. In Salford increased investment led to new offices and BBC premises, but local people saw no improvements. Increasingly housing policies has disconnected people from their communities: forcing people to move out just as the money comes in. We cannot assume that places and people are connected if people have no right to stay in their home communities.

Some, but not all, were attracted to the idea that power and money must down to community. Only if people can make their own decisions, shape their communities around their own assets and goals, can communities flourish. Others preferred the idea of national industries and even greater central control. Some were understandably suspicious that governments will exploit localism and asset-based approaches in order to disguise the structural injustices created by their own policies.

Perhaps one telling trend was the agreement across a range of speakers that change must begin by listening to and empowering communities. The Labour Party, trade unions, Citizens UK and Hope Not Hate have all made community organising a central plank of their strategies.

However this reinforces the need for more thinking about devolution in the UK. If we need to listen more now then that suggests that the current system is badly designed. If local communities are given more power, but the financial settlements are unfair, then this will just increase injustice. If devolution means merging large local authorities into even large areas, under the control of one mayor, then the powerlessness of smaller communities will only increase.

This two day conference did not resolve these issues, but it was certainly one of the richest discussions that I’ve been involved in. Brexit seems an unfortunate backwards step for the UK; but if it forces us to pay more attention to the deep and underlying injustices in the UK today then it will have at least one positive consequence.