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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: M.Sarkar@leeds.ac.uk;  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

Steel in Crisis: Restructuring for People

ChrisMacpicture
Chris McLachlan, Leeds University Business School.

The construction of an industrial strategy for UK steel is essential. Within the debate over this requirement and as part of its development, it is important to have an understanding of what happens at plant level when restructuring and redundancy occur. A plant that is of key focus in the current steel crisis is Tata Steel’s long products site in Scunthorpe. The plant has undergone successive restructuring processes in recent years, with ‘Project Ark’ in 2011, ‘Path to Profit’ in 2013, and now the decision to sell the long products division.

Some 2,600 job losses have been announced over this 4 year period, which leaves the Scunthorpe site with approximately 3,000 employees. Since the divestment decision the security of the entire site has been under threat. The recent announcement of the potential sale of the long products division to UK based investment firm Greybull Capital provides hope for the Scunthorpe site, but for its employees a worrying period of uncertainty remains. This contraction of the UK steel industry workforce has, of course, been in train since the 1980s. Amidst the prevailing industrial context, the recent bout of restructuring is having profoundly negative effects on not only the lives and careers of individuals but also the communities affected by the restructuring. Banners at recent Save Our Steel events in Scunthorpe and Sheffield simply stating ‘HELP OUR TOWN’ (image below) are testament to the extensive impact of the current steel crisis. How might firms maintain their social responsibility to workers and communities in the face of these job cuts? Indeed, do organisations have a social responsibility for their employees?

Tata Steel Demo

At Scunthorpe, a notable step in attempting to develop a socially responsible approach to restructuring was the Project Ark process in 2011. This process was framed around a broader commercial strategy that reduced the volume of steel produced at the site, and further justified through a focus on producing higher quality, higher value added steel products along with a plan of investment in skills and training that sought to create a more flexible workforce. The consequence of this, however, was the announcement of 1200 job losses due the mothballing of the bloom and billet mill. The Project Ark strategy was a critical moment between Tata and the affiliated trade unions, as the job losses were essentially agreed by both parties to on the promise of future investment in skills and the broader commercial plan that promised to ensure the survival of the plant. Evidently, these promises were not upheld by Tata. At Save Our Steel rallies, senior union officials and MPs continue to bemoan the Project Ark process, with the subsequent Path to Profit process (500 job losses announced) perceived as a residual restructuring from the failures of Project Ark. Meanwhile, the HR team were rewarded for their efforts in managing the job losses, receiving an internal CEO award for their efforts in conducting a socially responsible restructuring process. Therefore, it is clear that Tata appreciate the need – the requirement, even – to ensure their restructuring practices are conducted in this way, with the process also being used as benchmark across the rest of their UK operations.

Tata claims a social responsibility to ameliorate the impact of these job losses for affected individuals and the local community. This commitment is laid out in its most recent Annual Report (2014-15). The socially responsible restructuring processes at Tata Steel UK have typically been characterised and managed through the avoidance of ‘hard’ (compulsory) redundancies – through redeployment practices such as cross-matching affected individuals in vacant positions internally – a close working relationship with the trade unions, and the provision of basic employability support in CV writing and interview training for those made redundant. As long as people who wish to leave do so voluntarily, this allows those wishing to remain to take up alternative employment within the organisation. The joint management-union goal of plant survival, has always been the key rationale underlying these processes. Amidst the prevailing industrial context the threat of restructuring within Tata seems more imminent than ever. The announcement of more job losses (18.1.16) at Tata UK’s Port Talbot site is clear evidence of this. In this context, the sustainability of this socially responsible approach to restructuring is subject to increasing amounts of pressure. The coming negotiations between Tata and its trades unions will prove historically significant not only for the fate of the Scunthorpe site but for the UK steel production more broadly. The feet of steel workers are being held firmly to the blast furnace fire.

Up to £6m has been pledged by UK Steel Enterprise (a CSR-based subsidiary of Tata that supports steel areas affected by restructuring) and the government to aid regeneration and job creation in Scunthorpe, along with another £3m aimed at funding retraining for affected individuals. Supportive measures like this, however important and in real terms quite limited, become devalued when CEO of Tata Steel Europe Karl Koehler claims that the long products division has no future beyond the end of the financial year. Moves like this further disillusion the workforce, creating a reluctance to engage with the range of support measures on offer. Additionally, recent changes in organisational structure in order to prepare the plant for being a ‘standalone’ business, then the subsequent decision to sell the division off, has put further pressure on the Scunthorpe plant to control costs and hence pressure on jobs. Given that previous restructuring processes have been necessarily framed around the survival of the plant, the imminent threats that these events pose bring into question any notion of a socially responsible approach. What is crucial in the negotiations around restructuring, job losses and sell off, is for Tata to continue to engage with trade unions in order to ameliorate, and where possible limit, the amount of job losses so as to ensure the process is conducted in a socially responsible fashion.

Chris McLachlan is a PhD student at Leeds University Business School and a member of the Centre for Employment Relations, Innovation and Change.

 

 

 

How do we know what works in active labour market policies?

Julia Salado-Rasmussen WEB

Julia Salado-Rasmussen is a Doctoral Researcher, Centre for Labour Market Research (CARMA) & Research Centre for Evaluation (FCE), Aalborg University, Denmark and was a Visiting Researcher at CERIC in May 2015.

jsr@dps.aau.dk
@juliasalado

Active labour market policies (ALMPs) continue to be a hot topic in Danish politics, as well as in many other countries. Despite a substantial amount of resources spent on ALMPs there is still a lack of results, especially when it comes to the disadvantaged unemployed. The disadvantaged unemployed have problems besides being without a job (e.g. health, economic or social problems) and are often long-term unemployed. This blog examines the results of ALMPs and discusses the challenges of evaluating ALMPs. I also present my PhD research design, which sets out how I will evaluate ALMPs by using realistic evaluation techniques.

Across OECD countries, Denmark has the highest level of public expenditure on ALMPs. Denmark spent 2.3 per cent of GDP on ALMPs in 2011. In comparison, the second biggest spender is Belgium (spending 1.6 per cent of GDP), followed by the Netherlands and Sweden (both spending 1.1 per cent of GDP in 2011). The total amount spent on ALMPs in Denmark was around DKK 13.5 billion in 2013 (around £1.3 billion). It has been pointed out in several papers that the practice of evaluating ALMPs is much less developed in Europe than in the United States. In light of the relatively high amounts spent on ALMPs in Denmark, and in Europe in general, compared to the US, this seems rather paradoxical.

Evaluations of ALMPs in Denmark show little consensus about what approaches seem to work. There is particular lack of knowledge about the disadvantaged unemployed as a group, something which is mirrored in the wider international literature. The studies undertaken in Denmark indicate that there is an overall positive effect of ALMPs. However, a number of programmes have no effects, or have directly negative effects during recessionary periods. The Danish Economic Council goes as far as to conclude that all ALMPs prolong unemployment under recession due to ‘locking-in effects’. Locking-in effects mean that in the period when the unemployed participate in a programme, they may seek jobs less actively, because they want to complete the programme they are attending or because they have less time to search for a job. Nonetheless it seems that programmes that take place at real companies, using private wage-subsidies and internships (virksomhedspraktik), work for the disadvantaged unemployed as well as for other groups. Employers receive up to 50 per cent of wage costs when they hire an unemployed worker via the wage-subsidy scheme, and they get the labour for free when they hire an unemployed worker via an internship, since the unemployed person continues to receive their income through benefits from the Jobcentre.

Research shows that results depend on the state of the economy (boom or recession), the target group, the area of implementation and also, crucially, the evaluation method and design (e.g. whether the ‘motivation effect’, which refers to the pattern of increased job search activity and employment just before the unemployed are forced into a programme), is included or excluded). Furthermore there is a tendency to rank evaluations in a hierarchy, where studies based on randomized controlled trials (RCTs) are considered the ’gold standard’. The uncompromising and typically narrow focus of studies based on RCTs means that evaluations based on other methods are often excluded from meta-analyses, thus leaving out potentially fruitful knowledge. RCTs are suitable for explaining whether an intervention leads to an outcome or not, but typically cannot explain the causal relations between interventions and outcomes, which then become a “black box”. Why did the intervention work and how? Moreover, to make experimental studies possible programmes are often pooled into larger categories, thus obscuring the nuances between different programmes. All these circumstances make it hard to transfer the results into political action.

The black box approach makes it hard to replicate successful programmes. Since there is limited evidence on why the programme works, programmes which seem to work may be copied in their entirety to ensure no essential parts are left out, which in practice can be difficult. This issue is especially interesting in a British context, and the current Work Programme’s ‘black box’ commissioning approach, where providers can personalize the support for each individual and are paid by results. At some point one would expect that politicians would be interested in knowing what the high-performing providers which help more unemployed people into sustained work do and what types of programmes they offer.

In my PhD project I advocate for a more open-minded approach to evaluating ALMPs. The project applies realistic evaluation and evaluates a number of selected programmes directed towards the disadvantaged unemployed. Working within the framework of realistic evaluation, the research project incorporates a mixed-method approach that allows for an opening of the ’black-box’ and thus deals not only with ‘what works’ but also for whom, why and in what context. As Ray Pawson writes in his latest book from 2013: “Why does a programme work in Wigan on a wet Wednesday and why does it fail in Frinton on a foggy Friday?”

The research design is based on qualitative data including interviews with the unemployed and practitioners and quantitative data on employment from the DREAM-register system held by the Danish Ministry of Employment. The aim is to focus on the underlying programme theory (assumptions) about how ALMPs work. What mechanisms make the programme work? When the programme theory is the unit of analysis, instead of the active labour market programme as  such, it becomes easier to generate learning from one programme to another. Thus the same programme theory often repeats itself across different types of active labour market programmes and national settings. By using realistic evaluation it will hopefully be possible to get a deeper understanding of what works in ALMPs.

Pension Reforms and Economic Restructuring: Policy Tensions and Implications for Older Workers

Martin O'Brien

Martin O’Brien is the Head of Economics at the University of Wollongong, Australia and a visitor to CERIC during May 2014.

Apprehension surrounding globalisation and the speed in which crises spread and linger had led some countries to consider or reimpose various forms of protectionism in the post GFC years in the hope of insulating their economies from future adverse shocks. However, a few years on and it looks like Free Trade Agreements (FTAs) are back in vogue, at least for Australia, who have announced or formalised agreements with Japan, South Korea and China over the past month. Coinciding with this, Australia’s Treasurer just announced in the May 2014 Budget that Australians will have to work until the age of 70 in the future before they can receive the Age Pension.

On the surface, this makes perfect sense to the neoclassical economist. FTAs are assumed to take advantage of a country’s competitive advantages and abundant resources, allowing an increase in the production and export of goods and services they produce relatively efficiently, reducing the need to produce goods and services in which they are relatively inefficient, and allowing cheap imports benefiting consumers in all participating countries. Similarly, pension reforms advocated by the OECD such as an increase in the age of pension eligibility are intended to combat future strains on government budgets and debt associated with ageing populations. These reforms are high on the agenda of most developed nations’ policymakers, especially in the brave new world of austerity.

A typical byproduct of FTAs is that they are likely to be a catalyst for economic restructuring, generally entailing the demise of traditional manufacturing in developed countries. Numerous studies of workforce redundancies in the manufacturing sector have shown that older workers tend to experience the poorest labour force transitions in terms of the likelihood and speed of re-employment. Yet they are being told at the same time that they must now work until an older age.

Results from a study of the post-redundancy experience of BlueScope steelworkers from Port Kembla in Australia reinforce the uphill battle that policymakers will face in forcing older workers to remain in the labour force until older ages. In August 2011 BlueScope Steel announced that due to record financial losses they were exiting the steel export market, shutting down one of two remaining blast furnaces, and resulting in the loss of 800 BlueScope workers and approximately 400 contractors who regularly worked at the site. BlueScope cited high exchange rates and raw materials costs as contributing factors to the decision, ironically linked to the mining boom experienced in Australia with record exports of coal and iron ore to Chinese steel producers.

Survey results showed that only 40% of the workers redundant from BlueScope were employed 6 months later, 26% unemployed, with the remainder mostly retired. Looking at the statistics by age group we saw that only 31% of those aged 55-59 were re-employed, sinking to 19% for those 60-64. Of the unemployed, 83% attributed age as the major barrier to their re-employment, followed by unavailability of jobs in the local area. In addition, almost half of those that retired expressed a desire to be employed if a suitable job was available. Another survey conducted about 18 months after redundancy showed that 17% were still unemployed, all of whom were above the age of 45. At this stage their average duration of unemployment over the 18 month period was 16 months. Not surprisingly, 78% believed that their unemployment would be long term.

The ex-steelworkers had been provided with relatively costly assistance by various government agencies, obviously to no avail for the hard core unemployed. A fund of $10m (= approx. £5m) had been set aside by the Federal Government to Job Service Providers with the workers automatically placed on “stream 3” which entailed an individual case manager, $3k jobseeker account for tools, equipment or retraining, $9k relocation allowance, and subsidies to employers taking them on. In addition, a $30m fund had been set up to create sustainable jobs in the local region in an attempt to diversify the economy and job base. In a controversial twist, a media report by the national broadcaster ABC blasted the effectiveness of the $30m scheme, with only 2 of the 30 companies receiving funding employing any ex-BlueScope workers.

It therefore appears as if there are significant barriers to be addressed in the labour market if we are to extend the working lives of the older population. Other research in OECD countries shows that pension reforms have a very limited effect on increasing older worker labour force participation rates (LFPR) compared to labour market variables and that there is an asymmetric relationship between older worker LFPR and the state of the labour market. That is, when unemployment in an economy increases, older worker LFPR decreases by a larger margin compared to the increase in LFPR derived from a decrease in unemployment. This implies that there is a large discouraged worker effect present in many countries and a significant amount of older worker hidden unemployment concealed behind official statistics.

In summary, economic restructuring will likely increase in intensity as countries like Australia pursue further Free Trade Agreements and associated trade liberalisation. The Shumpetarian concept of creative destruction implies that there will be both winners and losers from this process. However, we have seen that older workers in declining industries are most likely to be the losers in terms of labour force transitions. In conjunction with pension reforms aimed at increasing labour force participation until later ages, older workers are in a particularly vulnerable state. We are likely to observe more older worker displacement and difficulties in labour mobility at a time when increased participation is being called for. Unless due attention is paid to this situation and segment of the population, we shall observe increasing problematic and inequitable outcomes for those approaching retirement and also well into retirement years, largely as a consequence of neoclassical economic ideology.