Social Justice through Collaborative Action Research

I have been at the collaborative action research network conference for the last three days. A paradoxical experience – I am both delighted to be among action researcher colleagues working for social justice and painfully aware of the privilege going to a ‘conference’ represents.

The conference has offered a dizzying array of rich and wonderful papers and experiences. I have a few highlights to share in an attempt to wider the accessibility of such events.

Professor Margaret Ledwith implored us to all understand people in context: “Can we really claim to practice PAR with its commitment to social and environmental justice without contextualising that practice within the political context which shapes people’s personal experiences?”

Professor Helen Young made a call for the knowledges of arts processes to be embedded into life and research on the grounds that: “I make and therefore I think”.

Professors Sarah Banks and Mary Brydon-Miller presented erudite discussion of the complex and nuanced area of ethics in participatory action research and that there are no simple answers or checklists capable of guiding action.

Michael Wrentschur ran an image drama workshop that provided rich tools for exploring lived realities without the constraints of language.

Gary Mottam and Susan Dawson shared innovative use of WhatsApp to deliver seminars to people who cannot travel to events, to provoke professional learning, and to capture research data along the way.

Theodora Agapogolu described the challenges she has faced entering a Turkish Muslim Roma ‘ghetto’ in Greece and I was impressed by her courage to do so against the advice of advisors, supervisors and family, and the great impact that courage has manifested.

Michaela Harrison gave a theoretically dynamite presentation on using a Deleuzian and Guttarian ‘Implicated Reading’ of texts – wow! Bringing learning journals and popular culture texts together to allow for the creation of ‘possible realities by producing new articulations of disparate phenomena’ (as cited by Alvermann, 2000: 116).

Lou Mycroft and Kay Sidebottom presented their ‘nomadic ethics’ informed by posthuman ethics. This had the most impact on me out of all the sessions with the potential it promises for bringing about an alternative world through research “Posthuman research is an enactment of knowing being that emerges in the event of doing research itself. In opening new means to integrate thinking and doing, it offers an invitation to come as you are and to experiment, invent and create” Taylor, 2016.

Theory and practice, structures and agency, and speaking to power in order to achieve social justice pervaded the conference. I am leaving further rejuvenated and inspired to make a difference in my own small way with the communities I am connected to, through emancipatory practice, to bring about social justice.

Thank you to CARN for a sustaining community of practice.


Its Grim Up North

New research from the Children’s Commissioner Anne Longfield shows that life for children in the north of England is indeed grim. The year long research found:

  • Too many children starting school far behind where they should be. Often with special educational needs no one has picked up.
  • Children from disadvantaged backgrounds facing an education gap that starts before schools and widens throughout education
  • More than half of the secondary schools serving the North’s most deprived communities are judged to be less than good.
  • Large numbers of children dropping out of education before they reach 18.
  • Lack of confidence amongst children that economic regeneration will mean more jobs or opportunities.

You can read the full report here:

Please lobby your local councillors. MP’s, business hubs, and economic centres to invest more in the North for the sake of all our children and young people.

Poor Housing Can Ruin Children’s Lives – What Will You Do About It?

The Impact of Poor Housing on Child Development Outcomes
Reflections and Notes from Dr Kaz Stuart

On the 27th October 2018 I delivered a keynote to the West Cumbria Child Poverty forum on the national and international research on the link between poor housing and child development outcomes. This was delivered as part of my role at the University of Cumbria as Associate Professor of Child, Adolescent and Family Studies and was time donated to the forum.

I outlined that child development outcomes comprise:

Physical development (growth and motor control)
Emotional development (primary and secondary, attachment, self-identity, moral development
Social development (non-verbal and verbal)
Communication and speech development
Cognitive development (representation, logic and abstraction).
Bronfenbrenner’s (1979) ecological system model helps illustrate two useful points – firstly that housing is an important central influence on child development, and that it is not the only influence on child development.

Poor housing is strongly associated with poverty as it is people who cannot afford alternatives that end up living in the poorest housing stock available. There are two measures of poverty.
Relative low income refers to households with income below 60% of the median in that year.

Absolute low income refers to households with income below 60% of an (inflation-adjusted) median income set in a base year in order to understand change over time.

Despite a government commitment to eradicate child poverty by 2020, the levels of relative and absolute child poverty are higher than 2010 and set to continue to rise towards 2020 . This means that we can expect more children to experience poor housing in the future.

Poverty affects the standard of housing a family may afford and the amount of living expenses available for other necessities. The Department of Communities and Local Government calculated that home owners pay an average of 19% of their income on mortgage repayments whilst people renting social housing paid an average of 31% of their income and private renters paid an average of 43%.

This means that the people in society who have the least in effect pay the most for their housing leaving even less for essentials . Maslow’s child development model, the hierarchy of needs (shown below) , suggests that this could prevent a family living in poverty from meeting a child’s basic needs and psychological needs, preventing further development.

I turned to some statistics on the number of children who may be affected by developmental delays attributable to poor housing.

The 2004 Housing Bill defined unfit houses as: in need of substantial repairs, are structurally unsafe, are damp, cold, or infested, or lacking in modern facilities. There were 750,000 children in the UK living in unfit houses in 2006 .

Overcrowding is defined as children of different sexes over 10 years of age sharing with one another or with a parent, or where other rooms are used are bedrooms e.g. a kitchen or lounge . There were 90,000 children evidenced to be experiencing overcrowding in England in 2003 .

Calculating homelessness is more complex. There are official statistics for numbers of homeless households, some of whom will have families. In addition to this there are young people who either live on the streets, in shelters, or ‘sofa surf’ who are not captured in official statistics. Clearly living on the streets and in the hands of potential exploitative ‘sofa’ owners poses high risks for young people. The charity Centre Point commissioned Cambridge University’s Centre for Housing and Planning Research to investigate levels of youth homelessness and they estimated it affected 83,000 young people in the UK in 2017. This stands in contrast to official figures of 26,862 homeless young people released by the Department of Communities and Local Government illustrating how undocumented the issue is.

In addition to people entirely without a home, there are those who do not have a stable place to live but instead reside in and move around temporary accommodation. Government statistics show that this affected 79,880 households in the UK in 2017 .

In 2006 the National Centre for Social Research investigated the prevalence of poor housing. They found that nationally:

15% of children were living in overcrowded conditions (persistent for 13% of children)
11% of children were living in housing with poor repair (persistent for 6% of children)
5% of children were living in housing with inadequate heating (persistent for 4% of children)
25% of all children experienced one of these issues
5% of children experienced multiple forms of bad housing.
These statistics indicate the scale of children who are potentially affected by poor housing. I now turned to the literature to investigate what the impact of such poor housing is. Seven key pieces of literature were drawn on to confirm the impact on child development outcomes.

The National Centre for Social Research study showed the impact of both poor housing and overcrowding.
• 25% of children living in poor housing had long standing illness
• 29% of children living in poor housing were bullied
• 5% of children living in poor housing aged 8-18 had been in trouble with the police compared to 3% of children with short term exposure to poor housing.
• 12% of children who lived in overcrowded conditions could not do homework
• Children in overcrowded houses also reported feeling unhappy about their health.

Their summary of the impact of poor housing on child outcomes was structured around the five every child matters outcomes established in 2005 . Impact was found in all five outcome areas. Most significant were the impacts on long-standing illness, being bullied, sense of personal safety, enjoying and achieving at school, being punished at school, and all aspects of making a positive contribution.

In 2006 the charity Shelter undertook a massive literature review and collated evidence of the impact of poor housing on child outcomes.

The results of this review showed evidence of children living in poor housing:
• Have a 25% increase in the risk of severe ill-health or disability
• Are 10 times more likely to contract meningitis
• Have an increased prevalence of asthma
• Are 3 to 4 times greater chance of suffering mental health problems and behaviour problems
• Are 2 to 3 times more likely to miss school
• Longer term have an increased likelihood of unemployment of not engaging in leisure and of criminal behaviour.

In addition the research showed clear links between overcrowding and slower growth, which is linked in later life to a prevalence of coronary heart disease; and to a lower level of cognitive development.

The research evidenced a link between homelessness and lower communication skills, lower levels of attainment when other variables were controlled for, and an increase in behavioural issues and lower levels of attainment when ability was controlled for. Alarmingly half of all young offenders have experienced homelessness suggesting that living on the streets necessitates crime for survival.

A decade later, the National Children’s Bureau conducted a similar literature review drawing together more recent research . This showed compelling evidence that:
• Children in rented, older and overcrowded accommodation are known to have increased incidence of accidents at home
• Children in cold homes twice as likely to suffer respiratory problems such as asthma and bronchitis
• Fuel poverty is associated with low weight gain in infants, slower developmental progress and a higher level of hospital admissions in the first three years of life
• Overcrowding can lead to tuberculosis and meningitis
• Frequent changes in housing are associated with emotional and behavioural problems and poor academic attainment
• Overcrowding affects mental health and household relationships and poor psychological health in young children.

More recently a study in Ireland surveyed and interviewed 20 families and 45 sets of school staff . This in depth but small-scale study showed the impact of poor housing on each layer of Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs over time.

Poor housing impacts most greatly on basic needs in early childhood and primary school, although impact on security and friendships grows at this point. In secondary school basic needs are still impacted the most, but closely followed by self-esteem issues. The diagram extract below demonstrates therefore illustrates the impact of poor housing at all stages of child development.

One piece of evidence exists that contradicts the four sets of evidence reviewed to date. This is a study conducted by the University of Bristol in 2010 using data from the Millennium Cohort Study of 19,000 children born in 2000/1 and the Avon Longitudinal Study of Parents and Children which surveyed 14,000 children in Avon born in 1991/2. Housing was one of seven variables tested for their impact on child outcomes using a statistical regression analysis. The study found that housing conditions (people per room, central heating, damp and access to garden) had only a ‘marginal’ impact on child outcomes. There are, however, critiques of this study. A narrow set of statistical measures were used to compare causes and outcomes that were drawn from surveys not designed for that purpose, and using one regional data set. The weight of the previous four studies also perhaps put these findings under question.

Turning further afield, I drew on two international studies, one from the USA and one from Australia to understand if this phenomenon was solely UK related or a more global issue.

The ‘What Works Collaborative’ undertook extensive research in the USA and proposed a staged impact model. The state of the housing market, housing model in operation and housing services available had an impact on housing outcomes such as the quality of the home, affordability of the home and location of the home. These in turn affected a second set of housing outcomes including levels of health and safety, stability of housing and the quality of local schooling and social norms. These in a final turn impacted on school outcomes such as absenteeism, behavioural issues, test scores, school drop out and final qualifications.

In similarly comprehensive research, the Australian Housing and Urban Research Institute analysed national data and concluded that different housing experiences could act on physical, social emotional and learning outcomes positively or negatively. This again highlighted the deleterious impact of poor housing across a range of child development outcomes.

In summary, three key points need to be made.

Firstly, there are unacceptably high numbers of children living in poor housing comprised of living in houses in a poor condition, overcrowded condition, temporary accommodation and homelessness. The current forecasts for levels of poverty indicate that this number is on the rise.

Secondly, the evidence strongly indicates that poor housing experiences all have a negative impact on:
• Physical development (growth and motor control)
• Emotional development (primary and secondary, attachment, self-identity, moral development)
• Social development (non-verbal and verbal)
• Communication and speech development
• Cognitive development (representation, logic and abstraction).

Further, the impact in early childhood is most likely to be at the level of basic needs which can itself become a barrier to development in further areas. Many areas of developmental delay compound one another, for example, poor communication skills may impair intellectual development as language is not available for concept formation. Initial developmental issues also have a longitudinal impact for example, poor health in early life is connected to later chronic health issues and early experiences of school failure can impact on long-term earnings.

The third key point is that such issues transfer from one generation to another with poverty and debt passed down from parents to children. This entrenches this as ‘a way of life’, and increases the challenges of social mobility. Children therefore end up born into a life they perhaps would not choose for themselves and that they have little chance to change as either children or adults.

Key Points from the Other Presenters
Other presenters and the final discussion at the forum raised a number of other excellent points.

Emma Blundock and Amanda Starr from Allerdale Borough Council and Copeland Borough Council respectively reported that the boroughs properties were:
• 70% private home owners
• 19% renting social housing
• 11% renting private properties

Dem Tremelling from the local Barnardos targeted support team shed yet more of a local focus with insight that their clients were:
• 63% renting social housing
• 21% private home owners
• 16% renting private properties

It was unclear how many of these households included children.

Emma Blundock and Amanda Starr also shared statistics about the state of housing in the borough.
• 11% of properties were rated as having a category 1 hazard
• 15% – 22% of private dwellings failed to meet the decent homes standard
• 10.75 – 11.4% of houses in the borough were in fuel poverty.

Further to this there were:
• 345 people seeking housing advice in 17/18
• 184 households prevented from becoming homeless (20% of whom were families)
• 45 households were known homeless
• Of these 36%-40% had children
• 50% were made homeless due to domestic abuse.

Robert Porter from Jigsaw homes highlighted the tensions experienced by housing associations nowadays and a spectrum of response with hard nosed commercialism at one end and social and moral investment at the other.

The more hard-nosed housing associations are focussed on making profit in response to the government directive to make enough surpluses to be able to build new affordable housing stock. These housing associations also, however, have a £166K CEO salaries and £3.5Bn surpluses.

At the other end of the spectrum some housing associations are picking up the slack from austerity measures picking up welfare cuts. They support people with multiple deprivations in sensitive ways and go beyond the call of duty providing additional services.

There is obviously a lot we need to do as Robert shared the latest Joseph Rowntree Foundation research showing 365,000 children in the UK are currently destitute. Robert made the case that something has to be done.

Robert shared a model from the USA for constraint led innovation and implored the forum to avoid the victim mindset of ‘can’t do it’, the neutraliser mindset of ‘I’ll do it – later’, and to get into the transformer mindset of ‘we can if’.

Robert encouraged us to develop an integrated place-based initiative to address the impact of poor housing on child development outcomes.

I entirely agree – it is unacceptable that whole generations of children are living in unacceptable conditions that impede their development whilst many others look aside from their comfortable, warm living rooms.

So What Can We Do?

• Write to your Local Authority, councillors, housing associations, MP, Right Honourable James Brockenshire MP, the Secretary of State for Housing, Community and Local Government.
• Write to your local newspaper, parish newsletter, national newspapers
• Post messages across your social media about the issue
• Respond to the Review of Social Housing Regulations Green Paper at
• Set up a local group to discuss and move forward action in your local area
• Search for funding to develop some new solutions
• Encourage local leaders to work together across organisational boundaries
• Set up a charity to support people in need
• Provide people in poor housing with support to address the issues they face
• Put up posters around town to highlight the issue
• Give money to charities that support people who live in poverty
• Donate to foodbanks
• Volunteer, befriend some of these families, offer them support, work for a foodbank, support your local children’s centre.

There really are so many ways that we can all help individually and collectively – pick an action and go do it!

References (in order of citation)

Bronfenbrenner, U. (1979). The ecology of human development: Experiments by nature and design. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

McGuinness, F. (2018) Poverty in the UK Statistics. Briefing Paper 7096. London: House of Commons Library.

Department for Communities and Local Government (2015) English Housing Survey. London: DCLG.

National Children’s Bureau (2016) Housing and the Health of Young Children. London: NCB.

Maslow, A.H. (1943) A theory of human motivation, Psychological Review, 50 (4): 370–96.

HM Government (2004) The Housing Bill. London: HMSO.

Harker, L. (2006) Chance of a Lifetime: the impact of bad housing on children’s lives. London: Shelter.

HM Government (2004) The Housing Bill. London: HMSO.

Department for Communities and Local Goverment (2015) English Housing Survey. London: DCLG.

Centre Point

Department for Communities and Local Government (2015) English Housing Survey. London: DCLG.

Department for Communities and Local Government (2018) Households Living in Temporary Accommodation. London: DCLG.

National Centre for Social Research (2005) The dynamics of bad housing: the impact of bad housing on the living standards of children. London: NatCen.

National Centre for Social Research (2005) The dynamics of bad housing: the impact of bad housing on the living standards of children. London: NatCen.

HM Treasury (2003) Every Child Matters. London: HMSO.

National Centre for Social Research (2005) The dynamics of bad housing: the impact of bad housing on the living standards of children. London: NatCen, pp.63-64.

Harker, L. (2006) Chance of a Lifetime: the impact of bad housing on children’s lives. London: Shelter.

National Children’s Bureau (2016) Housing and the Health of Young Children. London: NCB.

Scanion, G., McKenna, G. (2018) Homeworks: A study of the educational needs of children experiencing homelessness and living in emergency accommodation. Ireland: Children’s Rights Alliance.

Washbrook, E. (2010) Early Environments and Child Outcomes: An Analysis Commission for the Independent Review on Poverty and Life Chances. Bristol: University of Bristol.

Cunningham, M., MacDonald, G. (2012) Housing as a Platform for Improving Education Outcomes among Low-Income Children. New York: Urban Institute.

AHURI (2014) What impact does a child’s housing have on their development and wellbeing? Perth: Curtin University.

Goulden, C. (2018) Destitution in the UK 2018. London: Joseph Rowntree Foundation.

Morgan, A., Barden, M. (2018) A Beautiful Constraint. Wiley and Sons.

So where do I begin?

There are many reasons why I have not ‘done’ anything about social injustice myself yet.

First off, what on earth can I do – little me? – what on earth could I do that would make a difference, the issue is so huge! I’ve finally prevented myself from using this cop out as it stands in contrast to my equally strong view every tiny pebble thrown in the pond can make wide ripples.

The second reason excuse for not doing anything is less lovely – the ‘I’m alright jack’ rationale, that if inequality does not touch me too much, then I don’t have to do anything about it. Thankfully this rarely lasts long as I do care about the fellow human beings enough to do something, and I realise that doing nothing is far from a neutral position, it is instead a collusion with social injustice, and that is something I can’t tolerate.

The third reason is knowing just where to start….. I mean which issue? Where? I found it impossible to prioritise one issue above another and to decide which place to try to affect change. To overcome this one I have decided to raise issues on a national scale and to challenge people at a national level, and to also raise the nature of these issues in Cumbria and Lancashire as that is where I live and where I am likely to have most impact. A good friend and colleague Ruth Balogh recently advised me; “start where you are!”

As for which issue, well that remains troublesome. All issues of social injustice seem to impact on one another. If you look at employment, you have to look at education, education is affected by poverty, poverty is affected my meritocracy and so on, and so on. So, ever pragmatic, I have decided it therefore doesn’t matter which one I get on with as long as I get on with something. And the first opportunity that is arising is some work for the Cumbria Child Poverty Action Group looking at the impact of poor housing on child outcomes. So that will be the first blog on an issue of social injustice in the next week or two.

Not knowing how to be an activist was my fourth and huge barrier. I do not see myself as an angry shouting protestor, I just am not that sort of person. I had to find my own way. I recently saw Michelle Fine from New York talking about how she enacts scholar activism and was impressed by the range of creative possibilities:
This list included:
• Letters
• Posters
• You tube films
• Reports
• Performances
• Art work / displays
• Installations
• Campaigns
• Protests
• Petitions
• Establish interest groups
• Education / training
• Media work / documentaries
• Online social media platforms
• Take out a lawsuit.

Michelle did, by the way, successfully prosecute the education authority in New York state for failing to provide an adequate education to youth in New York – wow!

I decided that I am very capable of doing some research and sending it to people – lots of people, over and over again. And so hence this open access blog so anyone can see what I am discovering. I will also turn each blog into a little manifesto of change to send to relevant Members of Parliament and local councillors to try to lever change.

I have therefore opted for what Charles Derber calls ‘progressive universalising resistance’. This is “non-violent and loving, but it refuses to let the system continue business as usual. Its activists refuse to be a cog in the machine; universalising resisters use their own bodies to slow down the system and to stop it spreading more poison and harm” (2018, p.4).

This works for me, who knows where it will lead, but this is my attempt at a ‘something’, connecting to the many ‘other things’, to support social change.

Here are two other equally compelling words both old and new with which to end:

“To refuse to participate in the shaping of our future is to give it up. Do not be misled into passivity either by false security (they don’t mean me) or by despair (there’s nothing I can do). Each of us must find our own work and do it. Militancy no longer means guns at high noon, it if ever did. It means actively working for change, sometimes in the absence of any surety that change is coming” (Audre Lorde, 1982).

“Those of us for whom oppression is still shocking, and privilege a tradition, would do well to learn from colleagues and allies who know well the long march to freedom and justice”. (Michelle Fine, 2018, p.81).

Some questions for you:
So what is your attitude towards social justice?
What do you want to change?
How will you do it?
Where could you do it?
What would it look like?

Wellbeing and Social Justice 3

So here we are, the third blog in a series of three. I have set out the process of empowerment and how this is situated within a structure and agency cycle.

In this blog I explain how these are also situated within wellbeing and social justice. Its a lot to take in – it took Lucy and I years of reading, thinking, discussing and gallons of coffee to get here – so take your time and revisit it all a few times.

At the end of the last blog we were here, with the empowerment process sat in the middle of structure and agency:

Screenshot 2018-09-06 08.23.43

Lucy and I realised two things and its always hard to know which one to write about first.

One: the link between empowerment, structures, agency and wellbeing.
If a young person lives in highly enabling structures they will probably also have a high level of agency. This would be likely to lead them to feel good and function well (Aked, 2001), which for us, is the definition of wellbeing. Conversely, if a young person lives in highly disabling structures they are likely to experience a low level of agency and consequently feel bad and not function well.

Wellbeing is really complex, it involves individual and social, subjective and objective factors, it combines physical, mental, emotional, spiritual, environmental and financial domains…. and so on. We acknowledge that all of these are important aspects of wellbeing and so we include them all holistically in our description of wellbeing as feeling good and functioning well (you can read more of this in our book).

Through the process of empowerment we can support all young people to have increased agency, and thus wellbeing – particularly those who started life in difficult circumstances. Empowerment, agency and wellbeing and therefore extrinsically linked.

Two: the link between empowerment, structures, agency and social justice.
Young people do not all live in the same structures, some experience more poverty than others, some have more social networks than others, some have better housing than others – and so on. Because different young people live in different structures we can say that their experiences of growing up are not socially just. Empowerment and agency are therefore also not equally distributed and so we need a range of equal and equitable support (i.e. empowerment processes) for young people who have experienced more constraining structures than others.

Social justice is also really complex. It involves the equitable distribution of resources, equal behavioural norms (criminal justice), freedom from discrimination and so on. We therefore come to a place where social justice for us is access of opportunities and resources with freedom. Again, we have a whole chapter on this topic in our book.

There is then, of course, a reciprocal link between social justice and wellbeing. The more wellbeing someone has, the more likely they are to be able to affect social justice – if they feel good and function well they might be up for supporting other people to do the same (they may of course choose to do nothing too!). The less wellbeing someone has – if they feel bad and function badly, they are less likely to be able to affect social justice. As Margaret Ledwith says: “When people have control over what is happening in their lives, their health and well-being improves” (Ledwith, 2011). Social justice also acts back on wellbeing in that the more equitable societies are, the more wellbeing experienced by everyone in that society (Wilkinson and Picket; The Equality Trust, 2018).

As a result, we draw wellbeing and social justice acting on one another around the outside of structure and agency, and the empowerment process:

Screenshot 2018-09-06 10.01.05

Fundamentally then, developing the awareness, choices and actions of young people (as per the empowerment process) supports wellbeing and social justice, and acknowledges that young people are situated in societies avoiding victim and demon positioning.

So how does that relate to this blog?

I hope to raise the AWARENESS of young people, parents, practitioners, researchers, councillors, MPS, policy makers, government, helping them to understand some of the social injustices that exist in the UK and how they lead to poor wellbeing. I hope to make them realise that we recreate these unjust structures everyday when we don’t act to make a difference. Inaction is a CHOICE to collude in social injustice. I want to challenge everyone (including myself) to step up, to ACT and make a difference.

I particularly want to show what social injustice and wellbeing looks in Cumbria and Lancashire, where I work and live, in order to support my local communities.

Please send in ideas and comments. Please get involved. Please do your bit, whatever that might look like, to make a difference.

Wellbeing and Social Justice 2

I described how Lucy developed the empowerment process in the previous blog. Here I explain how we moved from empowerment to structures and agency. In the next post I will explain how we got from here to wellbeing and social justice.

Because the seven stages of the empowerment process were quite hard to remember, we abbreviated them into three:

Screenshot 2018-09-06 07.55.44

We were aware that this empowerment process did not happen in a vacuum, people did not have complete free will to do what they wanted, they were governed by ‘structures‘. This was an area I had explored in my PhD. Classically there are two views on structures and free will.

One extreme view, called ‘structuralism’ states that people are controlled by and produced by the structures in the world – this portrays them somewhat as robots, fulfilling a determined role in the world.

Screenshot 2018-09-06 07.57.18

A contrasting view stated that all people have ‘human agency‘ a set of capabilities that involves acting in a way that will bring about a set goal.

Screenshot 2018-09-06 07.57.33

In reality the two work together. Structures such as the social norms, rules, customs and laws of our immediate family, peer group, community, region, and country act on us both constraining and enabling us to act in certain ways. We act within these structures making choices, taking actions and trying to achieve what we want. These actions may reinforce or redefine the structures that we live within. Rather than opposing one another in a dualism, structure and agency work together in a duality (Giddens). One academic calls this interwoven mutual relationship ‘morphogenesis’ (Archer, 1995:157). In this model, people are first shaped by the structures in society in a process of social conditioning. From this structured position, they take actions which are social elaborations. These actions effect the structures either reinforcing them (morphostasis) or changing them (morphogenesis). Whilst having some sort of sequence, these are also overlapping activities as shown below from Margaret’s book (1995:157):

Screenshot 2018-09-06 08.13.58

This is a significant piece of theory that affects our practice. with this knowledge we can see young people as situated within structures. Joe, for example, was in a family situation full of crime, drugs and alcohol. He had no stability growing up. His peer group were involved in anti-social behaviour and crime. One involved in crime, the criminal justice system labelled him and placed him with other criminals. These structures enabled him to adopt similar behaviours. The word ‘enabled’ signposts a structural encouragement rather than anything set or pre-determined. There was a choice to be pro-social and law abiding, but it would have been a very difficult path to take given the structures around Joe. He would have needed a huge amount of agency to resist them.

As practitioners this allows us to see young people as socially situated, their experiences contextual, shaped but not determined by structures. They make choices, and they may make bad choices due to the structures around them, but this does not make them bad. In this way the structure and agency model allows us to avoid demonising young people or viewing them as passive victims. This opens up a creative space in which the empowerment process works. Aware of structural constraints, leveraging structural enablers, young people realise they have more options than they originally thought. They make choices and commit to a course of action with appropriate support, and this enables them to use their human agency. This not only helps them to achieve what they want, but will also act on the structures themselves changing them.

Lucy and I summarised all of this with the following model:

Screenshot 2018-09-06 08.23.43

Wellbeing and Social Justice

Lucy Maynard and I both worked at Brathay Trust a national charity that supports the wellbeing of young people. We both worked there as youth development trainers and as researchers. Lucy is still there as Head of Research and I now support students to support young people’s wellbeing at the University of Cumbria.

Working at Brathay sparked our curiosity into practice. What did we do with young people? How did it work? Why did it work? What changes happened? How could we make it even better? … we wondered.

And so the empowerment process and wider wellbeing and social justice framework was born. From our practice experience, from years of study, from talking to many practitioners and young people.

We were so keen to tell other people about it we even wrote a book:

Screenshot 2018-09-05 22.17.32

This work is the foundation of this blog, so read on!

Here I explain the central part of our model, created by Lucy through years of PhD study, the empowerment process.

We started thinking about what we did as some sort of empowerment. We knew that we could not just give our power to young people, that they had to claim it for themselves, but we figured we probably created the conditions for empowerment to happen, we were enablers of empowerment. By empowerment we meant:
“Helping people gain greater control of their lives and circumstances….” (Thompson, 2007)”… in order to maximize the quality of their lives” (Adams, 2008.)

One young man’s story was particularly helpful in the development of the model. We will call him Joe.

When we first came across Joe he said:
Me upbringing; I had a bad-un. I think it was just what I was used to, so as I got older I didn’t know different. I knew now’t else and then when you start, like I knew I was in the wrong at 13 and stuff, but that was the lifestyle I was in.
Like from a young age, I used to tick school at like five! And my Dad wasn’t a very good role model, because you always wanna be like your Dad. But my Dad was in and out of jail, till I was about 11. So from a young age I was taking all that in. Like I’d be in a room with like me Mam, me Dad and all their friends and they were drinking and taking drugs, so that was what I was used to.
I was 12 [when I first got in trouble with the police] I set a bin on fire in the middle of the street. But I can remember as young as six being took home by the police, when I lived with my Mam and Dad, so… But [Grandad] went awol; give us a couple of slaps. He was strict but I didn’t listen to him.

Lucy worked out that this was a stage of reaction – the first stage of the process of empowerment. This involves young people operating from fight, flight or freeze governed by their ‘amygdala response’. This meant that they could not think properly in the moment. These responses were also often patterned or conditioned.

After Joe worked with Brathay for a while he said:
I had a light bulb moment; what am I doing, I need to change, I’m going nowhere
I thought I don’t want any more of this. And that turned into another one [light bulb moment]

Lucy figured out that this was a phase of sparking. Other people call these moments:
Interruptions (Coleman, 2007)
Critical moments (Henderson et al., 2007)
Epiphanies (Denzin, 1989)
Turning points (Mandlebaum,1973)
Breaks (Humphrey, 1993)
Fateful moments (Giddens,1991)
They are the times when we think, oh my, I want something different! or, oh my, I don’t want that to happen!

My sparking moments are usually prompted by getting on the scales!

Something had changed for Joe and he now thought that things could change, this was a huge realisation for him. he said:
I thought I’d had enough and was being good for quite a while and then the [programme] came along and I done it and got stuck in so I could be different. . Realisations are important as: “People lack insight into the way in which their social conditions undermine their well-being and therefore do not see their own actions as capable of changing their conditions”(Campbell and MacPhail, 2002). A lack of consciousness is therefore part of people’s oppression, a tool that keeps people stuck in an unjust situation hence the importance that Paulo Freire placed on developing critical consciousness (Freire, 1973).

At this point in time Joe started to also really want the change to happen – this wasn’t true for all the other participants on the programme, but thankfully it was for Joe:
I think there was only me that really wanted to change on the course
But the other guys, they were probably in that stage in their life where they didn’t want to change
So if they wanted to change the help was there. Just take the help, but they obviously didn’t want it and it wasn’t the right time for them.
It was right for me, I really wanted it.

Joe had reached a tipping point (Gladwell, 2000) where he developed an intrinsic desire for change and found his internal locus of control (Rotter, 1966), learning what was and was not under his control.

At this point Joe was all in, he was really fully committed to making the change. As he says:
I think I committed to changing, all together. But growing up as well, that was a big change. I know now I am in control, but there is always this little thing in the back of my head saying I could always go back and do something silly and make a stupid mistake. So that’s why I wanted to get away as well. I was just a teenage boy who thought life will sort itself out. But, you have to sort it out yourself.

Having committed, Joe was then hungry for the skills that would help him attain his goals. He took whatever support was on hand to help him sustain change. The staff at Brathay gave him what they could:
Skills, knowledge, understanding, self-confidence, self-efficacy, self-esteem, motivation and determination, and the ability to reflect and learn to learn.

Things didn’t always go well for Joe, just as they don’t always go well for me when I go on a diet or join a gymn. There were several ups and downs. On one occasion he said: I was doing the programme and then this time last year, [laugh] it was [festival], I had a bit too much to drink and I got locked up, for fighting, but luckily, I didn’t get prosecuted or ‘owt. So I thought right, I’m gonna have to change. I’m gonna have to use everything I’ve learnt from the programme and put it into action here and just go for it.

Lucy called this stage recycling as it seemed a more positive term than some of the others we heard. Other people called it ‘failing’, ‘setbacks’, ‘falling off the wagon’, or ‘relapsing’ (DiClemente and Prochaska, 1999). Sure Joe has messed up and returned to an earlier stage, but he was not the same person, he was reactive with more awareness, and this helped him speed through the cycle more quickly each time.

This process of empowerment is shown in the diagram below:
Screenshot 2018-09-05 22.43.41

The next blog will explain how the process of empowerment links into structure and agency, and then wellbeing and social justice – keep tuned!

The Social Justice Journey Begins

I have recently become worried that I have spent my career supporting people to overcome the issues in their lives on such a small scale that it has not changed anything in society. I now work in academia and feel even further away from local or national impact. I document some of the issues that people face, but write about them in books and academic papers that no one is really likely to read. If they’re not read, they are not changing the world, and my efforts are wasted.

At an Action Research Conference in America recently I was challenged by the keynote speaker who accused researchers of collating stories of misery and suffering on their living room floors and not really doing anything with them. This made me sit up and think what I could do. Weeks later having read many books on revolution, social action and being radical (what else do academics do!) I have realised that I do have a voice, I do have something to say, and I can have a platform for those to happen.

Here it is! The Wellbeing and Social Justice Blog.

This is grounded in a model of wellbeing, social justice, empowerment and agency that myself and colleague Lucy Maymard developed. Only recently did I realise I was not empowered to make a difference in the world.

So my pledge…. as regularly as possible I will post evidence of wellbeing issues and social injustices that affect us nationally and what these issues look like in Cumbria and Lancashire where I work. I will post these publicly and send them to local councillors, MP’s and relevant members of parliament to lobby for action on them.

I hope to hear from you about social issues that worry you, that you notice, that you want to do something about. I look forward to hearing what you think you might do to play your part.