Category Archives: Social hope

The phenomenology of aspirations

I’ve recently been reading Sara Ahmed’s book The Promise of Happiness and this has set me thinking about the phenomenology of aspirations.  In her book, Sara makes some references to aspiration and social hope, but doesn’t dwell on the effects (and affects) of those social policy interventions that have sought to work on young people’s aspirations in Britain over the last fifteen years.

As I’ve said before, aspiration (at least as it is understood and promoted in recent British social policy) is a particular expression of neoliberal social hope.  Widening participation interventions that seek to raise young people’s aspirations also function to orientate young people’s lives towards particular imagined life courses that are consistent with this expression of neoliberal social hope.  They are designed to instill in young people a wish for, and a commitment to, a future where they go to university, enter professional graduate employment and are able to be socially mobile and economically self-reliant, seeking privatised solutions for their well-being.

In practice, these widening participation interventions also seek to re-orientate young people geographically, in relation to their home neighbourhoods.  To have your aspirations raised is also to have your horizons broadened.  Young people living in the most socially deprived neighbourhoods in the country are encouraged to look beyond the places where they live to imagine how life could be different.  It is not enough to want to go to university, to have their aspirations (truly) raised, a young person is encouraged to aspire to a middle class habitus and dream of moving away to university.  Physical, spatial mobility is closely linked to the social mobility being promoted in these policies.  This is another way of denigrating (white) working class communities.  Young people from these backgrounds are being taught that there is nothing of value in their home communities.  To have one’s aspirations raised is to want to leave friends, family and home behind.  It is hardly surprising that widening participation initiatives have perhaps been least successful amongst those young people deemed most in need of intervention.

And this brings me to my final point (for now).  The effect of these attempted re-orientations differs depending on the relational geographies of the home neighbourhoods in which the young people they target live – how connected they are to other places – and on the life trajectories of individual young people and their families.  Not all socially deprived neighbourhoods, or the people who live in them, are the same.  It is possible to live on a low income, in an area that scores highly on the indices of multiple deprivation, and still have a wide range of connections with different people that extend across social difference and across space.  This is one reason why I think young people from some minority ethnic communities have done relatively well out of widening participation initiatives.  If your family experience is one of transnational migration; if you and your family sustain kinship networks that extend around the globe; or, if you attend a church, mosque or temple that brings you into regular contact with a group of people engaged in a diverse range of livelihoods, jobs and careers, you are likely to be aware that the way you live your life, here and now, is not the only option open to you. 

So, while I am suspicious about the ways in which the imperative for young people to ‘broaden their horizons’ has become enmeshed with the imperative to raise their aspirations for a privatised neoliberal future, I do also see value in having wide horizons.  Conscious experience of what Doreen Massey would call ‘place beyond place’ can serve to widen your horizon.  Wide horizons, although at times unsettling, can reveal new options and possibilities.  I am critical of how widening participation initiatives envisage only one course across that widened horizon; but I am interested in how widening our horizons may also hold the potential for fostering social relations and social hopes that exceed neoliberal aspirations.

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Opening doors, breaking barriers

With the publication yesterday of the Coalition Government’s new strategy document Opening doors, breaking barriers, we now have a clearer picture of how the present goverment will approach social mobility.  They claim that “improving social mobility is the principal goal of the Government’s social policy” and that their vision is of “a socially mobile country”.

In many ways, this strategy could have been written by New Labour.  Perhaps this is not surprising given that former New Labour Minister Alan Milburn remains the current government’s Independent Reviewer on Social Mobility.  His previous (2009) report, published under the auspices of the Panel on Fair Access to the Professions, is heavily cited here.  Of course, that report was published with all party support.  It seems there is still political consensus that social mobility is an unambiguously good thing.

As ever in government discussions, social mobility is promoted as a social good for individuals and for the nation:

The lack of social mobility is damaging for individuals.  It also leaves the country’s economic potential unfulfilled. (pg 5)

The promotion of social mobility ties the interests of individuals, in this case children and young people as future worker-citizens, to the interests of the national economy.  Every individual is expected to take responsibility for playing their part in helping the national economy fulfil its potential.  But, almost by definition, the imperative to be socially mobile rests most heavily on the poorest, most precarious sections of society.  In this way, they are expected to do even more to strengthen the economy in the national interest. 

Where there is a distinctive stamp of Conservative and Liberal Democrat policies on the political rhetoric contained in this report is in its approach to ‘fairness’.  Fairness is presented as a state where the individual receives the just rewards for the amount of effort they put into education.  Nick Clegg is quoted in the Government’s press release as saying:

Fairness is one of the fundamental values of the Coalition Government. A fair society is an open society where everybody is free to flourish and where birth is never destiny.

As the strategy document makes clear, this ‘fairness’ is the promised reward for hard work.

What ought to count is how hard you work and the skills and talents you possess, not the school you went to of the jobs your parents did. (pg 5)

With this emphasis on fair reward for hard work, it is not surprising that many of the policy recommendations contained in the strategy document relate to raising young people’s attainment throughout their schooling. Nevertheless, a concern for young people’s aspirations and an imperative to intervene to ‘raise’ them is still present in this document.  Aspiration is central to social mobility.  It is the specific form of neoliberal social hope that locates a happy future as the reward for taking individual responsibility for one’s social and economic well-being through social mobility.

The educaton system should challenge low aspirations and expectations, dispelling the myth that those from poorer backgrounds cannot aim for top universities and professional careers.  Our schools reforms are intended to raise standards across the system, narrow gaps in attainment and raise aspirations.  …  This is not just about schools or government.  We can all make a difference to raising aspirations and helping people make informed choices about jobs and careers. (pg 6)

Intervention to raise young people’s aspirations becomes a national mobilisation – not just the responsibility of schools and government.  There seems to be a shift in emphasis contained in this report concerning who is best placed to shape and influence young people’s aspirations.  Although schools and universities are still seen as having a role to play here, the Coalition envisage a greater role for businesses in this task.  Whilst the state is taking responsibility for mobilising these interventions, it is distancing itself from the delivery of aspiration-raising initiatives.  Politicians will lead by example, but the state will not be seen to provide these interventions.  Apparently every member of the Cabinet has pledged to join a national scheme to mobilise 100,ooo people to speak about their successful career paths in schools.  Promoting an aspirational orientation to the future is all about encouraging the individual to take responsibility for themselves, so what better way to promote it than through ‘successful’ individuals rather than faceless institutions.  More so than under New Labour, it seems education is being promoted, not as an end in itself or a social good, but as an instrumental stepping stone to a highly skilled professional career for the individual.  Looking out for number one is everything.

Aspiration and its discontents

I have recently submitted a bid for a new research project with Peter Kraftl and David Harvie as part of a broader application to the Leverhulme Trust for a programme of research on A fair share or an accursed share? Generating a just common future. Our project, Aspiration and its discontents in modern Britain, if successful, will critically investigate the emergent ‘politics of aspiration’ in Britain over recent decades. It will trace how these individualised forms of aspiration superseded forms of social hope based upon collective experiences of hoping/planning for the future, and examine their implications for social justice. As well as examining these changing social policy discourses, our research will study groups whose aspirations for ‘fair shares’ differ from contemporary (individualistic) norms.

Aspirations and social hope

There is an interesting article by Nic Beuret in Issue Minus 1 of The Paper .  In this piece, “Hope Against Hope: a necessary betrayal“, Beuret makes a number of very poignant observations about how ‘aspiration’ functions as the dominant form of social hope in neoliberal economies.

“There are competing versions of hope in a given society, but there is also a hegemonic form to hope. For us, living in a becoming- neoliberal world, that hegemonic form is aspiration. Not aspiration in the sense to aspire to greatness in some heroic Greek sense, or something romantic and colourful. No, for us aspiration has a particular hue and tint – it means social mobility. It means a better job, more money, more things and a higher rung on the career ladder. Hope is individual in our world, never collective – the hope of entrepreneurs dreaming of making it big. Not just climbing the ladder but also winning out over all others. We hope for social mobility. … Hope, the dominant form of hope, is to do better than your parents.”

I agree.  As I have argued in my recent writing, over the course of New Labour’s period in government, the central aim of widening participation policy shifted from a focus on promoting social equity to a more explicit attempt to discipline the hopes young people developed for their adult lives.  The aim of ‘raising’ young people’s aspirations was to instill in them a desire for social mobility and the drive to take personal responsibility for achieving this.  In the process, all other hopes for the future came to be dismissed as inappropriate – as ‘low aspirations’.