Stephen Crossley, author of Troublemakers: The Construction of ‘Troubled Families’ as a Social Problem discusses the National evaluation of the Troubled Families Programme 2015 to 2020 interim findings, ‘dirty data’, his approach and methodology and the purpose of academic research.
Academics from different disciplines are often expected to demonstrate the impact of their research and this impact can be expected to relate to demonstrable changes in policy and/or practice. Such aims can lead to research being commissioned and published that is amenable to the interests of policy-makers and politicians. But there can be dangers in this, especially in the UK at the current time where many academics would not feel comfortable aligning themselves with some of the policies being pursued or advocated by our government or other powerful institutions.
The French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu railed against ‘lackey intellectuals’ (Stabile and Morooka, 2010: 329) who put themselves in the service of neoliberal governments and, along with his long-time collaborator Loïc Wacquant, referred to such individuals as ‘defector[s] from the academic world entered into the service of the dominant, whose mission is to give an academic veneer to the political projects of the new state and business nobility’ (Bourdieu and Wacquant, 2001: 1).
In studying the implementation of the Troubled Families Programme (TFP) for my PhD and for Troublemakers, I wanted to adopt a different approach. Drawing on the work of Bourdieu and Wacquant, as well as other sociologists who have urged researchers to remember whose side they are on and to ‘study up’, I decided that ‘muckraking’ sociological approach would be appropriate. Gary T. Marx argued for a ‘muckraking sociology’ which, using the tools of social science, could help to unearth ‘dirty data’. Marx, like many others, proposed that sociology should not be a ‘disinterested calling pursued for purely intellectual and aesthetic reasons’ and instead should be ‘committed to, and involved in, solving current problems’ (1972: 4).
Writing in the 1970s, but with continuing relevance, he argued that muckraking research should help to document and publicise ‘the gap between values and actual practices and in questioning established orthodoxies’ (Marx, 1972: 2), and could be of benefit to those groups seeking change. Such research, Marx argued, could ‘give us a clearer picture of our world, stripped of protective verbiage and without the usual selective perceptions (and misperceptions)’ (1972: 4–5). In a passage particularly relevant to an examination of the TFP and its emphasis on ‘hands-on’ practical support for disadvantaged families, while marginalising structural inequalities and poverty, Marx argued that muckraking research ‘can expose the fallacies in certain common sense beliefs about social problems and show how certain ideas rationalize an unsatisfactory status quo’ (1972: 5) He goes on suggest that:
“Such research uses the tools of social science to document unintended (or officially unacknowledged) consequences of social action, inequality, poverty, racism, exploitation, opportunism, neglect, denial of dignity, hypocrisy, inconsistency, manipulation, wasted resources and the displacement of an organization’s stated goals in favour of self-perpetuation. It may show how, and the extent to which, a dominant or more powerful class, race, group or stratum takes advantage of, misuses, mistreats, or ignores a subordinate group, often in the face of an ideology that claims it does exactly the opposite.”
Such an approach has been particularly fruitful in studying the TFP. Research by myself and other academics have unearthed a large amount of ‘dirty data’ relating to the programme ‘whose revelation would be discrediting or costly’ to the government and that goes beyond incidental or minor inconsistencies, errors of judgement or ‘soft-core discrepancies’ (Marx, 1984: 79).
In 2011, at the launch of the programme, the government claimed to have evidence that there were 120,000 ‘troubled families characterised by crime, anti-social behaviour, school exclusion and ‘worklessness’. It didn’t.
It had evidence that, around seven years earlier, there were around 120,000 families that were experiencing ‘multiple disadvantages’ such as poverty, material deprivation, poor housing, and poor maternal mental health. The government claimed that the programme ‘turned around’ the lives of 99% of the 120,000 ‘troubled families it originally set out to work with. It didn’t.
Families that turned themselves around with no contact with the programme were counted in the TFP figures. Families could, in some circumstances, be classed as having been ‘turned around’ by a child reaching school leaving age. The effectiveness of the ‘family intervention’ model, on which the TFP is based, had, in the words of David Gregg, been ‘sexed up’. Research was carried out without appropriate ethical procedures. Statistics and surveys that formed the basis of the need for ‘radical reform’ were invented. Local authorities were effectively threatened with naming and shaming if they didn’t ‘turn around’ 100% of their families in the first phase of the project. Local authority officers on the programme complained of staff from DCLG phoning them up to complain about slow progress. It was alleged that the government attempted to ‘suppress’ the official evaluation of the programme when it failed to provide them with the support it was expecting. Researchers who critiqued the programme had their competence and their integrity publicly called into question. A parliamentary committee accused the DCLG (now the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government) of obfuscation and evasion in its lack of co-operation with an inquiry into the programme.
While I was carrying out my research, I was reminded of Mobb Deep’s assertion that there ‘aint’ no such things as half-way crooks’. In more academic terms, Bourdieu (1985: 738) argued that ‘political discourses have a sort of structural duplicity’, and the ‘troubled families’ agenda is a clear-cut example of this. It relies on deceit and duplicity at all levels, and the catalogue of inconsistencies, contradictions and falsehoods listed above cannot be put down to individual errors of judgement or mere coincidence.
Troublemakers focuses attempts to explicate and lay bare the overblown claims of the programme, the underhandedness, political chicanery and ‘structural duplicity’ that has been evident throughout the programme, and the symbolical importance of the programme at a time of wider state restructuring. It is, in short, an attempt to rake all, or as much as possible in a little over 200 pages, of the muck associated with the TFP into a single heap.
Bourdieu, P. and Wacquant, L. (2001) NewLiberalSpeak: Notes on the new planetary vulgate, Radical Philosophy, 105: 2-5.
Marx, G.T. (1972) (ed.) Muckraking Sociology: Research as Social Criticism, New Brunswick, NJ: Transaction Books.
Stabile, C.A. and Morooka, J. (2010) ‘Between Two Evils, I Refuse To Choose The Lesser’, Cultural Studies, 17 (3-4): 326-348.
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