An open letter to Rachel Reeves, MP for Leeds West

Dear Ms. Reeves,

My name is Gill Mooney, you are my Member of Parliament, and on Friday 1st July I joined the Labour Party as a full member. I am one of the 60,000 new members.

I joined because of a need to try to overcome the feeling of impotence that overwhelmed me in the face of the referendum result. I joined because I need to do something, to be part of something, to be united with people who hold similar values to my own and stand with those who may not have the privilege I have in my freedom and agency to take actions such as these. I joined because of the need to unite in the face of an astonishing increase in hate crime that now affects so many across the United Kingdom, both those who were born here and those who were not. I joined because of the need to unite in an understanding that these events are the result of the work of successive governments, including your own, to divide the people of this country and give them cause to blame their own disadvantage, poverty and disenfranchisement on those around or below them who may be different, rather than looking up to the government that is truly responsible. I joined because Jeremy Corbyn is the only political figure in my lifetime that has spoken to me, that represents me and those like me, that is decent, that is honest, that I feel I can believe in.

The email you sent to your constituents, explaining your position on the current turmoil in your, our, party, troubled me greatly. I imagine that you have received several responses that deconstruct your arguments in a logical and systematic fashion (as well as a number of very personal assaults, and I stand with you against that abuse), so I will leave it to those with the inclination to do that. Rather, I would just like to say two things about your position on this matter. The first is that while offering heavy general critique of Mr Corbyn’s tenure as leader, there doesn’t appear to be anything solid around which these arguments are built, general claims to ‘weakness’ and ‘inability to lead’ are vague at best, and fail to inform anyone of what your real problems are. What is it that you are looking for instead? The ever sarcastic part of me would like to offer to bung you a fiver to get better biscuits for shadow cabinet meetings if Mr Corbyn is failing to provide sufficient chocolate Hob Nobs, but what I really want to know is what is the better alternative you would like to see? Who is the leader who can better unite the party, maintain the surge in young people’s interest and involvement with politics, and provide a genuine opposition to the damaging politics of the Right? Tell me who, tell Mr Corbyn who, and I will immediately eat my best hat with a side of sautéed potatoes and seasonal vegetables if you are right.

My second point here is really more of a lament, a kind of mourning for what could have been. Since Mr Corbyn took office as leader of the party there has been an ongoing and consistent attack, with the willing aid of the news media, on his person, on his politics and on his apparent lack of ability to lead the party. His credibility has been constantly called into question, and his own cabinet members have publicly criticised him and his actions. Leaked reports of plots to remove him as leader, now demostrated to have been calculated and part of a long term strategy to undermine his position, as well as the more recent actions of MPs in Westminster, have served to seriously damage the credibility of the Labour Party as a whole, the only party in my view that currently has any chance of undoing the abhorrent acts of the increasingly dangerous Conservative government. So, Ms. Reeves, I ask you to consider, as I have been doing, what if it hadn’t been like that? What if the Parliamentary Labour Party took on board wholeheartedly the mandate given to Mr Corbyn by the broader party membership? What if, rather than suggesting he is not fit for the job, you worked instead to find ways to work with him, to get to know his style, promote the positives of his leadership and be there to support him in areas of weakness? What if, rather than focusing on what you dislike about your leader, you developed a new way of working together as a party? What if the party had come together under and around Mr Corbyn to work together, as a team, a collective, to fight austerity, war, prejudice, to fight the Conservative Party at every turn, to unite the nation under Mr Corbyn’s banner of a new kind of politics? Imagine what we could have achieved, imagine what we could have changed, imagine where we might be now. Imagine, and then consider what it is you are looking for as a result of your involvement in this coup.

Thank you for your time,

Gill Mooney

An open letter to Rachel Reeves, MP for Leeds West

On conferences, ethics, and getting it together

On Monday I attended my first academic conference as a presenter. I was enormously nervous. Speaking in front of others isn’t something that I find especially intimidating (I’ve got 10 years of talking to rowdy classrooms full of teenagers about sexual health to thank for that), but discussing my own work in a public forum was a pretty terrifying prospect right up to the moment I started speaking. I had visions of finishing my presentation and one of the rather impressive people in the room expertly dissecting my work, and demonstrating to me how I’ve approached everything in the worst possible way and I should really just give it up as a bad job.

That isn’t what happened. At all. My presentation was warmly received, and I was asked some really interesting questions by the audience. I discussed my work with several people over the course of the day, and even managed to give away some of my swish new business cards.

The focus of the conference was on ethics in researching social media, so I talked about my experiences of developing a project that has Facebook as its topic, but also as a resource for content. Research on and in social media is an emerging field, and very few guidelines have been broadly agreed upon for how it should be carried out. The keynote speaker, Professor Susan Halford, who was also kind enough to spend some time talking with me later, highlighted some of these issues. What stuck with me was her discussion of the interdisciplinary character of social media research, and the implication for ethical practice this has in terms of different approaches. While I sit at one end of the spectrum, as a sociologist conducting qualitative research favouring a broadly feminist, very involved and cautious ethical approach, there are those who take an opposing position and have a much more relaxed approach. The availability of gigantic volumes of ‘Big Data’ on trends and behaviours involving millions of people on social media is often placed at the centre of debates around these issues, with researchers from different academic backgrounds having interest in the data but approaching it in a range of different ways. Building consensus about appropriate and helpful ethical guidelines is no easy task; finding a place where ethical practice can be maintained without stifling creativity in research of social media will surely be one of the bigger challenges facing almost all areas of the academy in come coming years.

For me, though, I’m addressing a classical sociological issue; one as old as the discipline itself: social class. I just happen to be interested in how class is known, enacted and represented on Facebook. I’m not using ‘Big Data’, I’m not researching the platform of Facebook itself really, I’m interested in the effects it’s having on our lives, how we relate to one another, and how it might be affected by, and have effects on understandings of social class. I’m using more traditional qualitative methods, albeit including Facebook content for discussion, so my ethical approach is rather closer to more familiar models. Informed consent lies at the core of what I am trying to do in terms of ensuring ethical practice, so I’ve had to develop an approach to this that maintains the values of consent but also is responsive to the particular environment of Facebook.

Preparing for the conference, and the accompanying fear and insecurity about my work, forced me to think about what really matters in my ethical approach, and what I am really trying to achieve. Placing the participant at the centre, giving them the control to be represented in the research in a way they want was reinforced to me as the approach to ethics I always favour. Preparing my conference presentation (while simultaneously writing my ethical review application) has helped me to really get into the details of what I’m going to do. When the consent process is complex, as mine will be, details are hugely important to ensure that participants have a smooth journey through and feel comfortable taking part in the work. While I certainly don’t claim to blazing trails in social media research ethics, working out how best to approach my own project was made considerably more difficult by there being very little other similar work to refer to. Rather, I attempted to keep the ethical principles to which I wish to adhere at the forefront of my thinking and try to remain true to them throughout, which I think is the approach we should adopt as researchers as the field develops and accepted ethical guidelines begin to emerge.

Delivering my first conference presentation was, in the end, a great boost for my confidence, my faith in my research, and my belief in my own ability to carry it out. It’s easy to get caught up in the anxiety of Doing A PhD, the love for learning and curiosity that underpins in can be so quickly obscured by self-doubt. Having a positive experience, as I did, has renewed my enthusiasm, and I now am itching to get my teeth into my fieldwork.

On conferences, ethics, and getting it together

On maintaining focus, thinking strategically, and asking ‘The Question’

My supervisor’s favourite question to ask me when we’re discussing my work is ‘so what?’. In the moment I am asked it, it provokes a feeling of slight consternation, and a touch of panic about how best to answer. In the broader context, however, ‘so what?’ has become my mantra in its purest sense. As I read, as I write, as I try to organise my ideas into something with which I can conduct some quality empirical research, those two words are quietly turning over and over in my mind. In my current quest to develop my methodological approach, both in practical and intellectual terms, The Question looms large over me and forces me to focus, to concentrate on what I am trying to do.

Asking myself ‘so what?’ means a constant questioning of my motivations for occupying a particular perspective, for selecting approaches and defining the means by which I will carry out the research. It is this last concern that I am currently working with, and being forced into some uncomfortable and frustrating intellectual positions in the process. I want to talk to people about how they use Facebook… so what? I want to include visual digital resources in my research encounters… so what? I want those encounters to take place face-to-face… so what?

The Question presses me, pushes me to think about what I am doing, every detail of what I am doing, and how it helps me to discover the things I want to know. It gives me nowhere to hide: The Question forces me to avoid my magpie-like tendencies when it comes to something new I have read: the new shiny thing must only be used in the research in a way that is beneficial and useful, not given centre stage just because because it’s new and exciting and I like it. Moreover, though, it requires me to think about my research simultaneously in close detail, and in terms of the ‘big picture’. When I was working as a project co-ordinator for a charity, in another life, the term ‘thinking strategically’ was of great importance and was used often. Part of strategic thinking in that setting was about understanding the place of my relatively small project’s work in the context of the organisation I worked for and, crucially, within the overall local and national strategies in which it was situated (and from which funding was drawn). In terms of my PhD, asking ‘so what?’ acts as a means through which I can achieve this kind of strategic thinking. I need to be able to think about my research at all levels, questioning how the small details of the work contribute to the immediate objectives of the particular ‘chunk’ I am working on, but also the project as a whole. If I am unable to provide a reasonable answer to The Question relating to some action I plan to take, then it is necessary to go back and think again, to think about what I am attempting to achieve and why, and come up with something more useful that addresses my immediate concerns, but is also congruent with the overall aims of the research.

So, as I organise the great pile of things I have considered to be a ‘good idea’ into a reasonable methodological approach, think of me as I return, again and again, to to The Question, quietly repeating, metronome-like in the back of my mind.

On maintaining focus, thinking strategically, and asking ‘The Question’

On class, ‘northern-ness’, and reflexivity

For a first post, a few personal words on ‘how can I begin to research class?’

Now, I’m a northerner. I am unmistakably a northerner. My turn of phrase, my accent, my disposition never fails to give me away. Not that I would have any desire to hide it, you understand, but it has an undeniable effect on me in terms of what compels me to study class and inequality.

For me, and for many others, northern identities are tangled up with classed identities. The industrial history and heritage of the North, and the images of hard-working men and hardened women are ingrained into the fibre of understandings of social class in the United Kingdom. Even as ideas of class have developed, for those of us who make it our business to think about that sort of thing, and jokes about quinoa and coconut water told by middle class comedians have dominated much of the popular conversation, it seems that the root of how class is understood remains rooted in the older understandings of class borne out of the northern working class. Working class IS an identity, it has features and characteristics in a way that ‘middle class’ does not. As Steph Lawler suggests, those occupying middle class positions may define their class by what they are not, rather than what they are. Class is spoken in this way in the language of working/middle/upper class groups, and the differences and borders between are understood in an unspoken, implicit way. Everyone understands it, but nobody talks about.

Still, beginning to delve into the research for my PhD, I have been occasioned to question what class means to me, and how I can balance this with the academic pursuit of knowledge. Class is everywhere, it is discussed through all facts of life, and permeates through the various fields through which we interact and try to make sense of our position in relation to others. Class is implicit, it is not necessarily discussed openly, but it is there, and its effects are real. I was always of the instinctive opinion that I understood class, maybe in a way that others cannot: that somehow, through being northern, through identifying with a very definitely working class background, that I had a level of understanding and insight that others might not.

I have had to consider my own class position, and what impact that has had on my understandings of class, and therefore my research. While I hold onto a sort of ‘Working Classness’, I also struggle with the idea that I am not a member of that group and I cannot claim it. While my parents certainly grew up in a working class environment, of the 40s, 50s and 60s, the social mobility available to people of the baby boomer generation afforded me with opportunities that are incongruent with working class affiliation. I received a high quality compulsory education, and was able to attend university, eventually leading to my current position of extreme relative privilege, conducting a PhD. I occupy a peculiarly liminal position, feeling that I belong to neither one class group nor another.

These are the beginnings of a kind of reflexivity I did not anticipate having to address before beginning my research, and one that will cast a long shadow across the work as it develops.

On class, ‘northern-ness’, and reflexivity