A guest blog post by Alison Briggs
As someone who is at the very beginning of their PhD journey and taking their first tentative steps into academia, I was buoyed up with enthusiasm and expectation as I arrived at Blackburne House in Liverpool for the second seminar of the Welfare Imaginaries series. The theme of “21st Century Welfare – Understanding the Present” held a particular significance for me as my PhD research focuses on food insecurity, one of the consequences of social security reform and austerity policies. I confess to also being drawn by the stellar academics who organised this seminar series, and whose seminal work on foodbanks, welfare reform, poverty and stigma I have become familiar with during the course of my studies!
The programme for the day was divided into three separate sessions of talks by a diverse group of researchers, campaigners, activists and artists. Interspersed between these panels were activities affording the opportunity to join Paul Jones (from the Department of Sociology at University of Liverpool) for a welfare walk around the immediate vicinity, and the chance to participate in zine-making with the wonderfully creative Jean McEwan who showed us this accessible, visually colourful way to communicate messages.
Of the many interesting, poignant and thought-provoking talks given, the following had particular resonance for me. In the panel on ‘Resisting austerity’, we heard from Rachel Broady of Liverpool John Moores University and the National Union of Journalists. Rachel has been researching the myths and lies regularly perpetuated by the media about people in receipt of ‘benefits’, which through stereotypes and misinformation serve to demonise and misrepresent those experiencing hardship. Reminding us that journalists have a responsibility to report fairly and accurately, Rachel highlighted that the reporting on poverty-related issues matters because it justifies brutal austerity policies as well as having a negative impact on the lives of those affected the most. With regard to food insecurity, the depiction of people using foodbanks as ‘scroungers’ and ‘feckless’, along with political anti-welfare discourse has generated the social stigma attached to foodbanks. This reporting however, does not always originate from a position of malice but oftentimes stems from a lack of understanding and empathy, as over 50% of leading print journalists are privately educated, with a mere 11% from working-class backgrounds. Rachel’s research has been central to a campaign by Church Action on Poverty and the Manchester and Salford branch of the NUJ to challenge the current reporting of poverty, culminating in the publication of a report using comments from people in poverty (the real experts) and a set of much needed guidelines for journalists.
In the current climate of continuing austerity and the prevalence of ‘poverty porn’ it is vital to counter discriminatory political and media discourse that seeks to blame individuals for their predicament and strips away dignity. One of the ways of doing this is through research. In a thought-provoking presentation with Tracey Herrington of Thrive Teeside, an organisation tackling social injustice in Stockton on tees, Heather Mew (PhD student at University of Newcastle & Trustee with Thrive) spoke about her research looking at how working-class communities ‘fight back’ against negative stereotypes. Heather and Tracey emphasised that any action against inequality, poverty and austerity should be led by the people directly experiencing it, but the burden of resisting shouldn’t be theirs alone. For Heather, academia and activism go hand in hand and she encouraged us to think about the ways in which our work as academic researchers could benefit the communities we research in. In the coming months, as I design my research to explore the impact living with food insecurity has on relationships with family and friends in an effort to draw attention to everyday lived realities, this point will unquestionably be given due consideration.
I thoroughly enjoyed my day in Liverpool and left with much to think about, so thank you to the organisers for such a valuable seminar! Last, but by no means least, I’d like to thank the speakers whose presentations were filled with passion, anger, fight, humour and hope which both moved and inspired me. I’m already looking forward to the final seminar in Birmingham in December.
About Alison: I’ve just completed an MSc in Sociological Research at the University of Manchester and am beginning an ESRC funded PhD in Human Geography there, in SEED (School of Education, Environment and Development). I’m researching the impact living with food insecurity has on relationships with family and friends – specifically through exploring the relational character of food and families and the ways in which families support each other. My aim is to draw attention to the accounts of food aid recipients by analysing the everyday lived realities of food insecurity and its impact on personal relationships.