IPR Blog

Expert analysis, debates and comments on topical policy-relevant issues

Altering the foreign aid equation

📥  Foreign aid, International relations

Ali Salman is Founder and Executive Director of the Policy Research Institute of Market Economy in Islamabad, and is studying on the IPR's Professional Doctorate programme.

The West has spent US$2.3 trillion on foreign aid over the last five decades and has not managed to “get 12-cent medicines to children to prevent half of all malaria deaths, or $3 to each new mother to prevent 5 million child deaths,” writes William Easterly, the author of The White Man’s Burden: How the West’s Efforts to Aid the Rest Have Done So Much Ill and So Little Good.

Easterly believes that economic development comes not through aid, but through the home-grown efforts of entrepreneurs and social and political reformers. It could also be added that strengthening of the civil society also helps in economic development.



Criticisms of government-to-government foreign aid can be divided into two groups. One group rests its claim on the technical evaluation of aid programmes, thus raising doubts about the efficacy of foreign aid - especially in relation to poverty reduction. This group makes recommendations for improving the programme design and accountability mechanisms, but it accepts the basic paradigm of foreign aid that the poor need external help. This is aid managerialism.

The other group criticises foreign aid in terms of its probable use as a leverage to extend influence on the domestic policy of developing countries. This group raises fundamental questions about how the aid is structured and relates it with what it calls a neo-imperialist agenda.

In most cases, 75% of aid money goes back to donor countries in the form of contracts and supply of goods. Governments are often engaged in a turf war when negotiating the terms of engagement with foreign aid agencies.

The currently enforced Foreign Contributions Act 2015 in Pakistan links the use of foreign aid with transactional approval from the Economic Affairs Division. This is aid politics.

There are important actors in foreign aid – the aid professionals, consultants, evaluators and international and local contractors. They associate themselves with governments, civil society and donors. More often than not, they broker the flow of aid between donors and recipients by preparing programmes, proposals and projects. Their interest obviously lies in expanding foreign aid. This is aid business.


The problem with the first argument – aid managerialism – is that it may end up demanding more foreign aid and, just like any failed government programme, it gets more budget. This just feeds into the foreign aid cycle and increases the cost of fundamental change.

The problem with the second argument – aid politics – is that it may deny external resources when and where they are needed the most, especially for meeting challenges of the on-going humanitarian crisis including disaster preparedness and mitigation.

This argument also increases the risk of government’s increased control in the recipient country, which in turn could be utilised to further a government head’s undemocratic ambitions.

Possible remedy

An alternative scenario, a hypothetical one, can be considered in which there is no government-to-government foreign aid. In such a scenario, the recipient government declares a ban on foreign aid for publicly funded programmes and departments such as public education and health.

Instead, it creates channels and mechanisms where foreign aid can flow directly to civil society, NGOs, the private sector and philanthropic organisations, serving the same purpose of public goods delivery, albeit in a much more cost-effective manner.

An immediate consequence of this ban will be a fundamental change in intergovernmental relationships altering the power structure. At the same time, it will keep donor countries committed to the Sustainable Development Goals. This is aid globalism.

Altering the foreign aid equation by this fundamental shift will strengthen civil society and private institutions, which will also bring a positive change to social and political structures in the recipient countries.

The re-directed foreign aid will be government-light, society-heavy. Governments on both the donor and recipient sides will have reduced controls. However, this should not undermine collective efforts to make aid flows more transparent and more accountable.

Under aid globalism, less money will be flown back to donor country-based contractors and less money will be stuck in the bureaucratic gridlock of recipients. More of the aid will reach the places where it is needed the most.

This article originally appeared in The Express Tribune.

Colin Crouch: The familiar axes of politics are changing, with momentous consequences

📥  Brexit, Multiculturalism, political parties, Political sociology

The familiar axes of politics are changing, with momentous consequences, argues Colin Crouch

From the time of the French Revolution, mass politics has revolved around two core conflicts: that between preferences for more or less economic inequality; and that between conservative, authoritarian values and liberal ones. The main divisions among political parties in most countries fit into this frame, but we have become accustomed to seeing the former, raising issues of redistributive taxation, the welfare state, and the role of trade unions, as the senior partner. In western Europe, if not in the USA, this has become even more the case as organized religion, the main historical carrier of social conservatism, has declined in importance.



This situation is challenged by the growing prominence of a chain of partly associated, partly quite independent, forces: economic globalization, immigration, refugees and the assertion of Islamic identities, which includes terrorism as its extreme. Together these reassert the old struggle between authoritarian conservatism and liberalism. Many people feel that everything familiar to them is being threatened, that they are being confronted with decisions, cultural artefacts and the presence among them of persons, all coming from outside their familiar and trusted sphere.  They seek security by trying to exclude the forces and people that are doing this to them. Most affected are those whose own working lives give them little control in any case, and who are accustomed to the security that comes from the enforcement of rules that exclude troubling diversity. This response takes various forms. Many Russians become both highly nationalistic and also stress their homophobia. Many people in the Islamic world assert their religion (which is here far more important than nationality as a symbol of a pre-globalized past) and impose strict dress codes on women. Many Americans not only become fearful of Mexican immigrants and Islamic terrorists, but become agitated about abortion. A more general social conservatism, most powerfully embodied in deep-rooted feelings around sexuality, mixes with xenophobia to produce new social supports for the traditional, not the neoliberal, right.

Europe, especially western Europe, has been a partial exception. The final great battles of the 1970s in Catholic lands over contraception, divorce and finally abortion petered out, the churches, the main bearers of European social conservatism, became weak and in many cases often liberal in their social attitudes. There are today few supports for general authoritarian conservatism, and matters have narrowed down more closely to immigration and the following chain: the European Union is a super-national force that suppresses traditional national identities; in particular, it brings immigrants with unfamiliar cultures and languages; it is difficult to distinguish immigrants from refugees, who come in alarming numbers from even more unfamiliar cultures; and since these refugees are Moslems, they are likely to include terrorists who will try to kill us.

Against these beliefs and fears stands a liberal, inclusionary mind-set that sees in globalization and multiculturalism a series of opportunities for a richer life, more varied cultural experiences, perhaps new possibilities for individual advancement.

A brief history of political identity

To put this confrontation into context, we need to understand how it happened in the first place that ordinary people in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, whose daily lives were very remote from big political issues, ever came to have political identities. It occurred as they found that aspects of their social identities, which they understood very well, were engaged in struggles over inclusion and exclusion in voting and other political rights. Depending on one’s social position, one’s identity was implicated in either demands to be included, or demands to exclude others. Class and property ownership, religion, and occasionally ethnicity (in Europe normally with reference to Jews, in the USA to Afro-American people) were the key identities around which these struggles revolved. By the end of World War II and after considerable bloodshed the concept of universal adult citizenship had become accepted in almost all advanced economies. Spain and Portugal remained outside the consensus until the mid 1970s; Greece flitted in and out. In central and eastern Europe a very back-handed kind of universalism dominated, where universal inclusion came to mean universal exclusion except for a small communist party elite; but in general in the west politics became peaceful and more or less democratic.

Once universal citizenship was achieved, those identities forged in struggles to achieve or prevent citizenship began to lose their raison d’être, but so deeply rooted were they that paradoxically they became the basis of democratic electoral politics. Over time they could do this not as direct memory but only as memories of parents’ and grand-parents’ experiences. These necessarily faded, and in any case many people moved away from the social locations of their parents and grandparents. Democracy therefore began to depend for its vigour on forces that its very achievement had weakened. Their decline was reinforced by three major changes. First came the rise of the post-industrial economy and the creation of many occupations that have no resonance with the struggles of the past, and whose practitioners cannot easily relate their occupational identities to political allegiance at all. Class declined as a reliable source of political identity. Second, (in Europe but not the USA) religious adherence declined, and along with it both the power of the identity struggles surrounding it and general conflicts over authoritarianism versus liberalism. Finally, the use of ethnicity or nationality as identity resources in partisan struggles had been rendered horrifying to most politicians and ordinary people, partly as a result of the two world wars and their demonstration of the destructive force of nationalism, and partly through knowledge of the Holocaust and the passions that had lain behind it. A nationalistic fringe continued in some countries, and the separate issue of racial entitlements to citizenship continued to flourish in the USA until the 1960s, but in general this became a no-go area in political conflict.

We should not puzzle at declining voting turnout and even more strongly declining identification with political parties once we appreciate that a strong interest in politics by the mass of citizens who have no chance of being politically effective needs social supports, and that those bequeathed to us by the struggles of the past have declined in salience. There has now been such a general loosening of ties between parties and voters that it increasingly seemed inappropriate to include a discussion of voting behaviour within a discussion of identities. Does voting for a party, even repeated voting for it, necessarily imply an ‘identity’ with it any more than frequent purchase of a brand of soap implies an identity with the firm making the soap? Certainly, election campaigns increasingly resemble advertising campaigns for products, suggesting that parties do indeed consider that they bond with voters no differently from the way producers of goods bond with customers.

But this may now be changing, as economic globalization and its broader consequences start to reproduce social identities with powerful political potential. Central is revived national consciousness. While the great majority of politicians had for decades abjured using national identity in party conflict, there was no reason for them not to use it as a non-conflictual rallying call, since after all their role is to care for the nation. As a result national sentiment has been left lying around in popular consciousness, available for other purposes if occasion arose. Globalization, immigration, refugees and terrorism provide such occasions. Meanwhile memories of the appalling consequences of the political use of nationalism in the first half of the 20th century are fading. Nation is strengthening as a political force, while class and religion (unless the latter becomes implicated in conflict around Islam and therefore absorbed into nationalism) are declining.

The turnaround can be seen most clearly in parts of central Europe. The political implications of class identities had been stood on their head under state socialism, and national identity remains the only strong link that people can feel to their polity. This helps explain the puzzle of the Czech Republic, which has suddenly become the most Europhobic country in Europe after the UK. The country has benefited more than any other from the European Union, which has provided its modern infrastructure, a safe framework for the divorce from Slovakia, an easy channel for the German and other investment that has equipped an advanced economy, and a base for trading with the rest of the world that the infant country would otherwise have had to create from scratch. Then the EU asked for some payback, putting pressure on the Czechs to help bear the burden of Middle Eastern refugees arriving on the coasts of Greece and Italy. Czechs – whose nationalism historically never hurt anyone but has been a badge of resistance against various forms of foreign domination – suddenly became responsive to the wave of anti-foreigner feeling sweeping through Europe.

One major, unexpected result of these developments is that the old predominant conflict axis around inequality and redistribution is itself becoming interpreted through nationalism rather than through class politics. The new nationalist movements nearly always include the global financial elite in their attacks. Many observers were surprised when there were relatively few mass expressions of anger after the 2008 financial crisis. We can now understand why. For ordinary non-political people to take any kind of action, including voting, against powerful forces they need some confidence-boosting assurance that they are part of something wider, something rooted in a strong social identity. Given the decline of class, only national identity has been available to give them that assurance. All contemporary xenophobic movements, from Donald Trump in the USA and Mariane Le Pen in France to Geert Wilders in the Netherlands and Norbert Hofer in Austria, link their attacks on immigrants and refugees to those on the national elites implicated in the financial crisis. In turn, some protest movement that began as non-xenophobic opponents of elites, like il Movimento Cinque Stelle in Italy, find that they can get more traction if they include resentment at refugees in their rhetoric. Groups like UKIP in the UK or Alternative für Deutschland, which started life as critics of the European Union, have found success by responding to fears around immigrants and Moslems. The challenge to powerful elites is hereby made safe, because it is enfolded in attacks on the weaker symbols of globalization. One might be frightened to kick a strong man, but one might kick what one believes to be his dog.

In a recent Guardian article, Martin Jacques claimed that the successful Brexit campaign and various other instances of widespread support for populist movements around the western world constituted the return of class politics in general and a political reassertion of the working class in particular[1]. This was wistful thinking. Outside Greece, Spain and possibly Scotland, the new populism is precisely not articulating itself as class movements, but as nationalistic, anti-immigrant, anti-refugee – quite apart from the fact that a majority of Brexit voters were comfortably off Conservative voters in southern England.

The social supports of multiculturalism

Is nationalism therefore set to trump all other political forces, as its deeply rooted emotions come up against little more than voting behaviour of the soap-buying kind? Are persons holding liberal opinions anything more than randomly scattered individuals? Stalin invented the term ‘rootless cosmopolitans’ to stigmatize Jews, but the general idea that cosmopolitanism or a positive approach to multiculturalism implies rootlessness or normlessness is widespread. Some recent research suggests otherwise, providing evidence that liberal attitudes are associated with particular social locations.

The starting point is the work of a Swiss sociologist, Daniel Oesch[2]. He became dissatisfied with the idea of an undifferentiated middle class used in so much academic as well as popular discussion, given that the category was coming to mean the broad majority of occupational positions in the advanced economies. He proposed that social and political attitudes were formed, not just by the positions people occupied in organizational hierarchies (class), but by the kinds of work tasks on which they were engaged. He distinguished three of these: technical (e.g. manufacturing), administrative (e.g. banks, public bureaucracies), interpersonal (e.g. public services). If these categories were combined with hierarchical position, he found that one could account for differences in, say, voting behaviour among those occupying middle-class positions.

Oesch’s idea was applied to issues of direct relevance to us here by two German political scientists working in the US, Herbert Kitschelt and Philipp Rehm[3]. Gathering data from all western member states of the EU, they examined typical differences in attitudes among people working in different hierarchical positions and on Oesch’s different types of task along the three dimensions that I have used here: inequality and redistribution; the role of authority versus liberty; and immigration. The first of these relates to the inequality axis, the other two to the authoritarian versus liberalism axis. Unsurprisingly, they found that people at the upper and middle levels of hierarchies in all types of task held less egalitarian views than those in lower positions, though senior and middle-ranking persons in interpersonal services were considerably less inegalitarian than the others. Those at higher and middle levels in all work tasks had liberal attitudes on both general authoritarianism and immigration, though there were differences. The most liberal were professionals in interpersonal services, then those engaged in technical tasks, least so those in administration. Those at the lowest levels of hierarchies held illiberal views on both dimensions, and egalitarian views on the third dimension. These findings held true after controlling for whether people worked in the private or public sectors, or whether they were male or female.

Without more detailed research it is difficult to know to what extent people with certain social attributes are drawn towards working at particular tasks, or working at particular types of task leads people to develop the attitudes in question. From the finer details of Oesch’s and Kitschelt and Rehm’s work it emerges that the more people have discretion in their work tasks and work directly, face to face, with other human persons, the more liberal and inclusive they are; the more their own work follows rules and routines in impersonal contexts, the more they support authoritarianism and exclusion. There does not seem to be any important difference between attitudes to immigrants and those on general issues of authority. For example, people who believe that immigration should be restricted are also likely to believe that school discipline should be tougher.

It seems clear that attitudes on issues of authority and liberty are not just personal whims, but socially rooted. The Brexit referendum similarly revealed sociological regularities. Young, particularly female, well educated people living in large cities were more likely to vote to remain in the EU; older, mainly male persons in both declining industrial cities and prosperous provincial areas not much touched by the new economy tended to vote to leave. The politics of this question is more complex in the British case than elsewhere. Whereas the Brexit campaign played on fears of foreigners and implicitly encouraged isolationist tendencies, the purpose of the ministers involved in negotiating the UK’s future economic place in the world seems to be to expose the country to intensified global competitive pressure. How they will eventually reconcile that with their mass supporters is a very interesting question, but beyond our concerns here. Most important is to recognize that openness to multiculturalism and internationalism have become deeply felt, socially grounded beliefs among those parts of contemporary populations whose work and other aspects of social location lead them to reject exclusion and value inclusiveness. This determined cosmopolitanism might be based on a positive appreciation of being enriched by engagement with other cultures, or on a desire to be free of constraints on individual freedom. In either case, it is necessary to note that the revival of exclusionary nationalism is not the only popular development in contemporary politics. A major cleavage is opening between two sets of deeply held attitudes.

Long-term implications

These changes will have long-term and unpredictable consequences for all main political forces in advanced societies. The biggest challenge is to the alliance of neoliberals and conservatives, currently the world’s dominant political formation, expressing the inegalitarian end of the inequality and redistribution axis. Hegemonic as the economic ideology of an international elite, neoliberalism is rarely a powerful force in democratic party politics. When it appears virtually alone in a party’s identity, that party is usually very small (as with the German Free Democrats). More normally it appears within conservative parties, as with the UK Conservatives or US Republicans. But classic European democratic conservatism is weakening alongside its former religious supports. Its parties then face a strong temptation to rediscover the nationalism that is part of their heritage and become part of the new xenophobia. They can do this either in coalitions or deals with far-right parties (as in Scandinavia) or through shifts within the party (as with British Conservatives). But this threatens the heart of the neoliberal project, which is globalizing and highly cosmopolitan. So far the tension has been even more severe in the US, where the Christian right is far stronger than in most of Europe. The Republican Party is being torn apart between the neoliberals who have dominated it for years through their billionaire backers and the protectionist nationalism represented by Donald Trump. Neoliberalism and conservatism are allies when the main conflict axis is that around inequality and redistribution; if that is gradually replaced by one that sets liberalism and a nationalist conservatism against each other, they stand at opposite poles.

Moderate conservatives do not necessarily follow the nationalist path. Using their central position in most political systems, they can achieve simultaneous accommodations with the two main rival forms of liberalism, neoliberalism and social democracy. One sees this most clearly in German Christian Democracy – the country where the nationalist option is seen as most dangerous.  It was also there in the currently defeated Cameron-Osborne wing of British Conservatism.

Neoliberals also have the option of shifting to the left by making compromises on the inequality axis, if that axis is being dwarfed by that over conservatism-liberalism. There are certainly precedents. Blair’s New Labour, Schroeder’s Neue Mitte SPD, Clinton’s New Democrats, have all been examples, as are today Renzi’s Democratici. These may seem uncomfortable antecedents, but arguably the largest social change in recent times, the move towards gender equality, has been a shared neoliberal/social-democratic, anti-conservative project. When, following the financial crisis, the OECD and IMF began to resile from their earlier neoliberal policy stances, they were motivated mainly by the risks being posed by growing US inequality to mass consumption[4]. In the wake of the Brexit vote some global investment advisors went further and began to worry whether growing inequality was not nourishing xenophobic resentment against globalization. How far are neoliberals willing to accept redistribution and strong welfare states in order to safeguard their other achievements?

Social democrats have their own crises. As the manual working class declines in size, they reluctantly face the reality that they will never again be the assured representatives of the biggest fraction of society. Instead they fight for their share of that large middle mass of the post-industrial world. Thanks to Oesch’s analysis, we can see that this mass is no longer just the conservative bourgeoisie of the past, but includes, particularly among those engaged in interpersonal work tasks, the new constituency of the left, though where voting systems give them the chance, they often prefer environmentalist and other non-social-democratic forms of the left. These people are primarily liberal, though also favourable to redistribution, and there is growing tension between them and the old working class as the conservatism-liberalism axis grows in importance. Can social democrats reassert the priority of the inequality axis to hold their coalition together?

David Goodhart[5], Wolfgang Streeck[6] and some other observers have pointed out that the social democratic welfare state was an essentially national institution, rooted in people’s sense of shared membership in a national community. The idea is expressed most clearly in the Swedish idea of the welfare state as folkshemmet, the place where people can feel at home. These meanings could be stretched to include small numbers of immigrants, but to how many? Is the US aversion to a strong welfare state a reflection of its cultural heterogeneity? Thinking on these lines leads some to seek a national social democracy, which requires severe limitations on immigration, a rejection of liberalism, and in the case of European countries withdrawal from the EU.

Political clocks cannot be put back. The great welfare states developed under the aegis of a benign form of national identity that was not directed against outsiders. The most advanced welfare states developed in open trading nations – Scandinavia, Germany, the Netherlands, the UK. That world cannot be recaptured. To assert the limitation of social citizenship to ‘real’ nationals now can no longer be the folkshem of a people who just happen to be ethnically homogenous, but becomes symbolized by the demand of the Front National that rights be limited to français de la souche (best translated broadly as ‘true born French’), requiring active exclusion of those deemed to be outsiders. Non-aggressive nationalism is still possible in places like Scotland or Greece, where resentment against external domination does not require the victimization of immigrants and refugees. Elsewhere it has become very difficult to sustain.

Also, free trade is now nested in a regime with global rules, not a series of national decisions to choose how much free trade they want to accept. In this context the EU constitutes an opportunity to extend social policy alongside free trade, expressing the pooled sovereignty of its members, rather than the loss of sovereignty implied by the pure free trade of the World Trade Organization.

But is the direction of pooled sovereignty towards the construction of transnational social policy possible with the current politics of the EU? Today’s European tragedy has two components. First, Europeans are being asked to absorb large numbers of dispossessed people from the other side of the Mediterranean. Second, the EU is coping with both this and the free movement of labour from central Europe at a moment when EU policy makers and the European Court of Justice have experienced an extreme neoliberal turn, rendering it unwilling to provide the social policy support that these large movements of people require. The first was not Europe’s fault; the second it is fully within the power of its policy makers and jurists to change. This is again dependent on some rethinking by European neoliberals, which the withdrawal of the UK might make easier.

No political family can look forward to a comfortable future. The outcomes of these tensions and their explosive consequences for the main contemporary political currents will be very varied. A particularly important variable is the balance between the electoral (democratic) component of political systems and that which concerns lobbying, the role of big money, the bargaining power of global corporations. The latter is probably more important in shaping our politics, though since it is largely invisible we can say least about it. It is the arena within which neoliberalism mainly operates as a political force. Ironically, it is likely to be here that alliances between neoliberals and social democrats are forged. It may be easier for neoliberalism to soften in this non-democratic but dominant part of political life, because change involves rational calculation by small numbers of self-interested individuals and corporations, not the deep feelings of large numbers of people. One can already see the framework for this elite compromise in the changing approaches of the OECD and IMF. As international organizations, these can never share in the new xenophobia. Since the late 1970s they have helped forge the neoliberal hegemony and have been major protagonists of an open global trading system, but their recent fears about the impact of growing US inequality on mass consumption, and the role of big money in political lobbying marks a major shift. The OECD has also started to change its earlier hostility to the work of trade unions and collective bargaining. This could be the start of a new neoliberal/ social democratic historic compromise.

In the electoral sphere much depends on the relative sizes of Oesch’s different fractions of the middle class, on party structures and voting systems. The tensions within both conservative and social-democratic parties as the relative importance of the two great axes of conflict changes can be most fruitfully released in systems where new parties can form and then make various alliances. Electoral systems of the British and in particular US kind force everything to remain within existing parties, sometimes contorting them out of all meaning. Within all this complexity, generational change and economic restructuring seem to favour the growth of various kinds of liberalism, while every new horror emerging from the Middle East strengthens xenophobic nationalism.
[1] Jacques, M. (2016) ‘The death of neoliberalism and the crisis in Western politics’, The Guardian, 21 August.
[2] Oesch, D. (2006) Redrawing the Class Map. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan.
[3] Kitschelt, H. and Rehm, P. (2014) ‘Occupations as a site of political preference formation’, Comparative Political Studies.
[4] See, in particular, OECD (2011) Divided We Stand (Paris: OECD).
[5] Goodhart, D. (2013) The British Dream: Successes and Failures of Post-War Immigration. London: Atlantic.
[6] Streeck, W. (2015) ‘The Rise of the European Consolidation State’, MPIfG Discussion Paper 15/1. Cologne: Max Planck Institute for the Study of Societies.

Colin Crouch is a sociologist and political scientist, and is emeritus professor at the University of Warwick and an external scientific member of the Max Planck Institute for the Study of Societies, Cologne. His most recent book, Society and Social Change in 21st Century Europe, is published by Palgrave Macmillan

This essay appears in the latest edition of Juncture, the IPPR journal of ideas.


Drug and alcohol-related deaths: What of those left behind?

📥  Death and bereavement, drug policy, research

Dr Christine Valentine is Research Associate in the University of Bath's Centre for Death and Society (CDAS), part of the Department of Social and Policy Sciences.

According to popular wisdom death is the great leveller, affirming our common humanity whatever our status in life. But our recent study of people bereaved by a drug or alcohol-related death found it can also marginalise and stigmatise both those who have died and those left behind.



Our 2012-15 ESRC funded study [1] aimed to better understand and improve policy and practice for the families and individuals affected by a substance-related death. Interviews with 106 people bereaved by substance use found a failure of services to respond to the diversity of people’s experiences with particularly negative consequences for the bereaved [2]. To address this, the study engaged 40 practitioners via six focus groups to explore how better to support these bereaved people. A working group of 12 practitioners then developed best practice guidelines.

Stigma entails stereotyping and ‘othering’, recognising neither the shared humanity nor unique individuality of those belonging to certain groups. For example, press reporting of substance-related deaths is more likely to distance the reader than invite sympathy for grieving family members [3]. In defining the deceased only by their substance use, such reporting can be particularly distressing for bereaved family members in failing to do justice to the person they knew and loved. One bereaved father interviewed for our study recalled: "I just read 'Unemployed man dies of drug overdose' and read down through and it was [my son] and I don’t think the main point about him was that he was unemployed. There was more to [him] than an unemployed man."

Though increased cultural pluralism has brought greater awareness and appreciation of different ways of dealing with death, when it comes to deaths from substance use negative connotations of deviance predominate. In addition to the stigma of substance use and its association with reckless life-styles, the resulting deaths are considered self-inflicted and preventable. Reinforced by press reporting, those left behind remain particularly vulnerable to negative responses from the wider society, including pathologising or blaming the families for failing to prevent the death or even being complicit in some way. As one bereaved mother reported, “It would seem that they [mental health services] immediately went down the route of what’s going on in the family? …this is a family that aren’t functioning well together.” Such responses, while upsetting for bereaved families, are also limiting for the way we understand and manage death and loss in our society more generally.

That initiatives focus on preventing such deaths is understandable; in the UK nearly 12,000 such deaths were recorded in 2013, those relating to drugs rather than alcohol being the highest on record [4]; [5]; [6][i]. While there are no firm estimates of how many people have been affected by substance-related deaths, these mortality rates suggest a sizeable number. Yet they remain a hidden, neglected and ‘at-risk’ population in terms of the devastating effects of this kind of bereavement on health and well-being [7]. Important though treatment and prevention policies are, they are not always successful. As a bereaved father whose son died as a result of alcohol addiction said: "There are limits to what you can do… It may be that with all your best efforts the problem will still be there and … get worse and in the end it may result in death" ([8]). Do we then abandon those left behind after the death, regarding them as part of the problem rather than listening to and learning from their experiences?

To date little academic attention has been given to substance use bereavement. In contrast, a considerable body of work has highlighted the pressures experienced by families living with a member’s substance use [9], some of which has made a significant contribution to the work of drug and alcohol treatment services [10]; [11]. These pressures include the threat to family relationships, not knowing how to respond to the person’s substance use and grief for having lost that person to their substance use. From what is already known of families living with substance use it is clear they will already be depleted of resources when faced with the person’s death. As one bereaved mother reflected, "Addicted families have been bereaved for a very long time, they lost that person a long time ago...and so they have been grieving for a very long time."

Despite some practitioners’ growing awareness of what bereaved families may be coping with, austerity policies have left the organisations concerned under-resourced. While there have been some practice initiatives in both substance use and bereavement fields, such as annual memorial events, bereavement support groups and training programmes[ii], there is little in the way of evidence-based guidance for services dealing with substance-related deaths, substance use or bereavement support.

Evidence from the UK suggests that bereaved people as a whole are poorly served, often facing gaps and inconsistencies in service delivery [12]. For those bereaved through substance use, our research identified additional problems with both the system for processing such deaths and how the bereaved are treated. With regard to the system, responsibilities for dealing with these deaths and with those people left behind are split across disparate services, which can be divided into two broad categories:

1. Services focusing on the deceased, carrying out statutory procedures, such as establishing the cause of death and ensuring proper disposal of the body. This may involve paramedics, GPs, the police and the coroner (in England) or procurator fiscal (in Scotland), and pathologists. Newspaper reporters are responsible for reporting unexplained deaths, while undertakers look after the body and arrange its disposal.

2. Services for those left behind, including clergy or other religious officials providing funeral care, bereavement counsellors and support groups and drug and alcohol services where the bereaved person is in treatment for their own substance use. However, some interviewees reported that the contact they had with drug and alcohol treatment agencies when the person was alive was withdrawn and, with few bereavement services having knowledge of substance use issues, there was nowhere to turn.

Many of our interviewees encountered insensitive, judgmental and abrupt responses from a range of professionals and practitioners. Poor responses from those dealing with the death at or in the immediate aftermath (category 1) could be particularly undermining, the bereaved person being at their most vulnerable, in some cases having already experienced stigma before the death. To experience further stigma from services when bereaved is likely to be particularly distressing [13]; [14]. As one married couple conveyed, "It’s just a horrible stigma … you are labelled, especially by the police … it’s as if when he died, 'Oh another one bites the dust' … it was just horrible."

What was more, poor responses from professionals made it all the more difficult for interviewees to negotiate an unfamiliar, unwieldy, confusing and time-consuming process involving a range of separate organisations. This was particularly, though not solely, the case where the death was sudden and unexpected and drugs (rather than alcohol alone) were implicated. These unexplained deaths are more likely to involve official investigation by the police and coroner in England and the Procurator Fiscal Depute in Scotland. In such cases, the family home may be treated as a crime scene, the deceased’s body and possessions taken into custody and the funeral delayed until after the inquest. Such delays can create considerable uncertainty for the bereaved, who may feel under suspicion as well as deprived of their family member’s remains.

In being questioned about the kinds of support they needed, interviewees reported appreciating practitioners who showed compassion for their situation; adopted respectful and inclusive language; treated them as individuals and avoided making assumptions; and helped them navigate the ‘system’, in some cases working closely with other services to achieve a joined-up response. Yet, more often they reported treatment that was unkind, unhelpful, dismissive and demoralising. In response, practitioner focus groups highlighted the challenges of multi-agency working and how poor responses were, in part, linked to discrete services, each having their own particular working culture and identity. Communication between practitioners from different services was therefore often poor or lacking. Also many services remain uninformed about substance use bereavement, even those specialising in bereavement support.

There was general agreement that services should and could do more to better support those bereaved by substance use, some practitioners voicing their awareness of the difficulties these bereaved people faced. As a coroner’s officer said: "I come from a very narrow focus in terms of supporting people when they attend the inquest process, but…when I talk to people the one thing that they say is that they have absolutely no idea about what to expect, what’s going to happen, what the process will be and that’s on top of trying to grieve and...the stigma that surrounds people who have died through these circumstances". To tackle stigma and foster closer liaison between frontline services and addiction agencies it was felt that greater understanding of both the bereaved person’s predicament as well as each other’s roles was needed .

In response to our study’s findings, an inter-professional working group of twelve members developed practice guidelines [15]. Group members included a paramedic, two members of Police Scotland, a Senior Coroner’s Officer, a GP, a Funeral Director, a University Chaplain, a Senior Alcohol Policy and Research Officer, a Counsellor and Trainer in counselling and social care (who chaired the group), and three people working in the substance use field who were also bereaved by substance use. Reflecting a range of expertise and experience, the guidelines are being widely disseminated via practitioner networks across relevant services – and being enthusiastically received.

Written by practitioners for practitioners, the guidelines centralise the experiences of the bereaved people in question. They invite the reader to identify with the bereaved service user, while highlighting both the specific challenges these bereaved people face as well as the particularity of each service user’s experience. The guidelines capture both universal and diverse aspects of dying, death and bereavement, crucial for enhancing service provision. How far this will be achieved remains to be seen, but the guidelines testify to the willingness of those concerned to engage with this challenging and complex area despite its under-representation within the broader policy agenda.


[i] Actual numbers of both drug and alcohol-related deaths are likely to be far higher than official statistics suggest because some deaths are not recorded or categorised as being drug or alcohol-related and definitions of such deaths tend to vary (Corkery, J. (2008) UK drug-related mortality – issues of definition and classification. Drugs and Alcohol Today, 8(2), 17-25)
[ii] See e.g. Adfam; BTA (Bereaved Through Addiction); Cruse Bereavement Care; DrugFAM; FASS (Family Addiction Support Service); SFAD (Scottish Families Affected by Addiction).


[1] http://www.bath.ac.uk/cdas/research/understanding-those-bereaved-through-substance-misuse/

[2] Valentine C, Bauld L, Walter T. 2016a. Bereavement following substance misuse: a disenfranchised grief. Omega: Journal of Death Studies. 72:283–301. Available at: http://www.bath.ac.uk/cdas/documents/A_disenfranchised_Grief.pdf

[3] Guy, P. (2004) Bereavement Through Drug Use: Messages From Research. Practice 16(1): 43-54.

[4] ONS (2016) Alcohol-related Deaths in the United Kingdom: Registered in 2014. London: ONS; [cited 2016 Jan 29]. Available from: www.ons.gov.uk

[5] ONS (2015) Deaths Related to Drug Poisoning in England and Wales: 2014 Registrations. London: ONS; [cited 2016 Jan 29]. Available from: www.ons.gov.uk

[6] National Records of Scotland. 2014. Drug-Related Deaths in Scotland in 2013; [cited 2016 Jan 29]. Available from: www.nrscotland.gov.uk

[7] Templeton, L., Ford, A., McKell, j., Valentine, c., Walter, T., Velleman, R., Bauld, l., Hay, G. and Hollywood, J. (2016) Addiction Research and Theory, 24 (5): 341-354. Available at: http://www.tandfonline.com/doi/full/10.3109/16066359.2016.1153632

[8] Valentine C, Templeton L, Velleman R. 2016b. “There are limits on what you can do”: biographical reconstruction by those bereaved by alcohol-related deaths. In: Thurnell-Read T, editor. Drinking dilemmas: space, culture and identity. London: Routledge. p. 187–204. Available at: http://www.bath.ac.uk/cdas/documents/bereavement_project_15/12_There_Are_Limits_on_What_You_Can_Do_Biographical_reconstruction_by_those_bereaved_by_alcohol-related_deaths.pdf

[9]Arcidiacono, C., Velleman, R., Procentese, F. Albanesi, C. and Sommantico, M. (2009). Impact and Coping in Italian families of drug and alcohol users. Qualitative Research in Psychology 6(4): 260-280.

[10] Copello A, Templeton L, Orford J, Velleman R. (2010). The 5-step method: principles and practice. Drugs Education Prevention and Policy. 17:86–99.

[11] Orford, J., Velleman, R., Guillermina, N., Templeton, L. and Copello, A. (2012) Addiction in the family is a major but neglected contributor to the global burden of adult ill-health. Social Science and Medicine 78:70-77

[12] NCPC, (2014) Life After Death: Six steps to improve support in bereavement. London: The National Council for Palliative Care.

[13] Walter T, Ford A, Templeton L, Valentine C, Velleman R. 2015. Compassion or Stigma? How adults bereaved by alcohol or drugs experience services. Health and Social Care in the Community. Doi: 10.1111/hsc.12273

[14] Valentine, C. and Bauld, L., (2016) Marginalised Deaths and Policy, in Foster, L. and Woodthorpe, K. (Eds) (2016) Death and Social Policy in Challenging Times. New York, Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan. Available at: http://www.bath.ac.uk/cdas/documents/bereavement_project_15/Marginalised_Death_and_Policy.pdf

[15] Cartwright, P. (2015) Bereaved through substance use. Guidelines for those whose work brings them into contact with adults bereaved after a drug or alcohol-related death. University of Bath. Available at: http://www.bath.ac.uk/cdas/documents/bereaved-through-substance-use.pdf


Who wants to be superior? The psychogenesis of xenophobia and radical Islam in Germany

📥  defence, Germany, migration, terrorism, The far right

Dr Alim Baluch is Teaching Fellow in German Politics & Society at the University of Bath's Department of Politics, Languages & International Studies.

In July 2016, Germany was struck to the core by a wave of terrorist attacks; two were carried out in the name of radical Islam, and the most devastating one, the Munich massacre, in the name of right-wing extremism. Islamophobia and attacks on refugee homes are on the rise as right-wing Germans fear for their imagined national character. In last week’s state election in Mecklenburg-Vorpommern (Merkel’s home state), the right-wing xenophobic party Alternative for Germany (AfD) amassed a larger share of the votes than Merkel’s CDU. 21% had voted for a party which states in its program that Islam does not belong to Germany.



Many cosmopolitan Germans are deeply troubled by the current shift to the right – even among their Turkish neighbours and friends, many of whom support president Erdoğan, whose religious conservatism has turned into right-wing authoritarianism. There are even German Turks and former refugees who reproduce anti-refugee rhetoric, expressing fear that the recent arrivals may spoil the reputation of all Muslims.

Muslims in Germany are concerned about the anti-Muslim discourse, the fear of further jihadist attacks with potentially devastating consequences for their daily lives and, maybe most terrifyingly, young teenagers running away from home to Syria in order to join IS. The enemy is out there and, potentially, in one’s own family. Trust is good, but surveillance is better; there have been numerous cases of Muslim parents reporting their children to the police.

Germany is witnessing a vicious circle of fear and hostilities that can be subsumed under the notions of Islamism and Islamophobia (although both terms are not without critique, they are nonetheless used in this piece to make basic assumptions accessible). While xenophobia in Britain, for instance, is much more diverse, given the strong fear of Central and Eastern European migrants, German xenophobia is increasingly focussed on Islam, implicitly imagined as a coherent social and ideological block.

Mecklenburg-Vorpommern election results

Mecklenburg-Vorpommern election results

This blog post seeks to embed these developments into the theoretical framework of the Iranian sociologist Dawud Gholamasad (former Chair in sociology at the University of Hannover, who also taught at Oxford University between 1999 and 2003). The entire theoretical edifice, though not the historical background, of this post is based on his work – particularly on a seminal piece written in German and published on his website.

In the following, I will use Gholamasad’s process sociological perspective to discuss why hateful ideology is so attractive to a specific form of mental suffering that cannot be explained by individual trauma and childhood experience alone. History matters; culture matters; and religion matters – but not in the naively simplistic way Islamophobes have in mind.

I will attempt to make Gholamasad’s theoretical arguments more accessible by delving into history and the long-term developments that have led to an ideology of lost superiority. These long-term historic developments are not only a sequence of facts but have a profound impact on self-worth regulations of individuals in various societal settings. Finally, I will return to the context of recent violent attacks in Germany that, I will argue, are based on reasserting the remembered ideologies of superiority.

Gholamasad points out that the condition of possibility (not the cause) of Islamism – as well as Islamophobia – lies in self-worth related cognitive schemes of egocentric human beings. In other words, we unconsciously assess the differential between the apparent reality and the ideologically self-reinforcing ideal.

Islamism and Islamophobia can be best understood as aspirations to narrow the painful gap between reality and the imagined ideal. The reader may be aware of the more-or-less conscious assumptions of Western/white superiority that often underlie political discourse. What is less well-known is the Islamic version of implicit supremacy, which is rooted in an inherited sense of entitlement to superiority.

Certainly until the fall of Al-Andalus in the late 15th Century, the Muslim world had a strong sense of superiority over the non-Muslim world – including Europe. Indeed, the big caliphates of the Middle Ages were superior in natural sciences and medicine, and – just like Europe in the following centuries – that Islamic scientific superiority and military power also translated into the cynical exploitation and slavery of the 'others'. From the 9th Century on, 'white' Europeans were taken as slaves. But the reality was much more complex than this may sound.

The Arab rulers of Andalusia showed little interest in expanding their European power base further north. This allowed for more-or-less peaceful trade relations with Northerners who supplied them with slaves caught in what is now Northern Germany. The target area of slave hunters moved further east in the following two hundred years. Initially, these slaves were often Saxons who had not yet converted to Christianity (ironically, their British descendants would later create the biggest slave trade in human history).

The self-perception of Muslim supremacy had profound implications that cannot be underestimated. To further illustrate this point, we should take a step back and view the macro picture of the early history of Islam, a religion founded by members of seemingly insignificant desert tribes. This early period was characterised by a rapid expansion over half of the inhabited Eurasian world, a success which must have even surprised the followers of Islam themselves.

To understand Gholamasad’s notion of an inter-generationally remembered entitlement to superiority (there is also a British and a Turkish variety), picture an Ummayad caliph asking himself: “How on earth is it possible that we are so successful?” The answer seemed obvious: “Allah wants it. We have the right religious belief. We are unstoppable.”

This sense of superiority was engrained in the self-worth of the Muslim elite and even the wider Muslim population could tap into the self-worth supply which comes with the common group charisma of the ummah. The remembered claim to superiority as a condition of possibility for maintaining self-worth was passed on and on from one generation to the next. This superiority was manifest in the Muslim world’s ability to control the non-Muslim world, more so than vice versa. By the 15th Century, however, power relations between what was imagined as Islam and what was imagined as Christian Europe had shifted towards the latter. Christian kingdoms and empires had attained scientific and military superiority over their Muslim rivals and this superiority would increase dramatically over the coming centuries.

The disillusion of the Muslim world

The reality of the inferiority of the Muslim world in terms of control vis-à-vis the Western world did not sink in immediately. It is this delay which Norbert Elias (1991) calls the drag effect of the social habitus, ie. when the cognitive patterns and self-worth regulation of individuals have not caught up with political and social developments. This drag effect can lead to emotional pain and social conflict.

The realisation of Western superiority was further impeded by an Ottoman Empire pulling above its weight and finally navigating its slowly sinking ship between the rocks of far superior European empires. Surprisingly, the disintegration of the Ottoman Empire – which was the last big caliphate (and thus main representative of Sunni Islam) – in the 1920s came as a shock to the literate Muslim world. The cleavage between the self-worth oriented demand for superiority and the bleak political realities of the 20th and 21st Centuries generated the potential for an emotional pain that was exacerbated by Western military interventions terrorising entire nations. The “Why are we so successful?” was turned around into “What happened to us? Why are we so inferior?”

Given the traditional fatalism of Islam, the answer had to be: “Allah wants it. He is punishing us.”

The intergenerational system of self-worth regulation was malfunctioning. But if God was punishing Muslims then the question was why, and it was radical Islam which presented the most impactful answer: “Because we have abandoned him. To regain our vested right, we have to return to the old ways.”

The end of the Ottoman Empire and its secular modernisation shattered all illusions. The painful powerlessness of the 20th Century was felt by a section of the Muslim world that was literate, religious and reflected upon the new political realities perceived as a lost power struggle between Islam and Christendom. It is therefore not necessarily a coincidence that political Islam was born in the immediate aftermath of the collapse of the Ottoman Empire. It was in the periphery of the fallen empire that the Egyptian school teacher Hassan al-Bannah established a religious political movement, the Muslim brotherhood, in the 1920s.

Like any other political movement, political Islam is chiliastic. This means that it is based on the expectation of a paradise which is yet to come. In secular ideologies, this paradise takes the form of a perfect world. For national socialists, for instance, this would be the 1000-Year Reich. All the brutality and mass murder would be committed to bring about a just and peaceful world, a world that can only be established once the enemies are exterminated. This is not to say that chiliasm is necessarily pursued by violent means. Environmentalism and communism are chiliastic movements as well. The struggle can take more or less peaceful forms.

According to Gholamasad, traditional Muslim chiliasm is quietist, ie. fatalistic. The world may be unjust and, for some unknown reason, Allah lets Christians and atheists control this modern world – but there is nothing one can do about it. Accordingly, everything is Allah’s will. This attitude was conducive to augmenting self-worth gratification in a time of expansion and superiority and boosted the identification with Islam as a superior political project even further. However, the degree of emotional attachment to Islam as a relational category vis-à-vis a non-Islamic world indicates the potential for emotional suffering in a world in which this metaphysical object of identification is in decline. Since the 1920s, quietism has been notably challenged – with far-reaching consequences.

Chiliastic quietism shifted towards chiliastic activism. Thus, what is often referred to as Islamism or radical Islam is a modern phenomenon. The new activist Islam considers the old quietist passivity as precisely the reason for the dire state of affairs. Quietism can therefore be perceived as a sin. The fatalistic Muslim is hence seen as a non-Muslim, an obstacle or even an enemy who raises children in a counter-productive way.

It is no longer good enough to wait for the afterlife; a just world according to Allah’s will has to be fought for. No sacrifice is too big. The shameful passivity of the forefathers, it is argued, has allowed the Muslim world to be taken over by corrupt and sinful rulers, making the homelands vulnerable to Western looting of natural resources and military operations (to use this euphemism) that have killed hundreds of thousands. IS supporters consider organised violent activism to be the only way to reverse the emotionally painful downfall and humiliation of the Islamic world and avenge the military crimes of Western governments. Western military operations are the conditions of possibility but not the cause of IS-style radicalism. They further fuel and radicalise the still-ongoing shift towards chiliastic activism, and encourage an openness to ever more violent means.

A Perfect Storm of Necrophilic Self-worth regulation

"The time has passed when you would come to our lands and kill our women and children. God willing, you will be attacked in every street, every village, every city and every airport.”
Source: Zeit.de [translation].

17-year-old refugee Riaz Khan Ahmadzai from Afghanistan had videotaped himself announcing violence in the name of Daesh. He was not just a lone wolf; he was indeed in contact with the infamous organisation that encouraged him to use a vehicle as a weapon. But the teenager reminded his contacts that he did not own a driver’s license. Instead, he informed them of a different plan, namely that he would enter a train with a knife and a hatchet to attack the first passengers he would encounter – whoever they may be. The random victims of 18 July happened to be a family of tourists from Hong Kong. The 62-year-old father and his daughter’s boyfriend suffered life-threatening injuries. After stopping in Würzburg, the attacker left the train. Upon encountering a 51-year-old woman walking her dog, he hit her in the face with the hatchet. Shortly afterwards he was fatally shot by the police.

Process sociology helps us to fathom the emotional pain of violent extremists. It demonstrates that our mind is a communication system in a dynamic network of communicative relations. Our thoughts, emotions and conversations (ie. our individualised social habitus) can only be understood as self-worth oriented processes. Everything we do is relational; it is directed at others. Gholamasad’s research is based upon Elias’ concept of figuration (Elias 1978, 1991). Humans are fundamentally directed towards others and seek to attach valencies, which can be understood as emotional needs. These valencies are attached through establishing emotionally rewarding relationships with others, a network of family, friends, colleagues and maybe even imagined entities.


The figurational model according to Norbert Elias. Diagram taken from Elias, N. 1978. What is Sociology? New York, Columbia University Press.

The figurational model according to Norbert Elias. Diagram taken from Elias, N. 1978. What is Sociology? New York, Columbia University Press.

In a world that is perceived as inherently unjust, a world in which a young person is denied a gratifying network of self-worth inducing emotional bonds (ie. attaching valencies), he/she is likely to be more receptive to a narrative of injustice done to a group that is imagined to be entitled to supremacy. The discrepancy between the group’s reality and its rightful place taps into the emotional suffering of its potential recruits.

If the imagined order cannot be restored, the martyr’s contribution can be perceived as a meaningful way of tackling emotional suffering and injustice and helping the imagined ‘we group’, whether this may be the ummah, the Aryan race or another group. Extreme violence and upholding self-sacrifice as a virtue is an indicator of the degree of painful incongruence between the ideal and reality. In this respect, the Islamist narrative is different from – but also similar to – the national socialist narrative.

The Northern European nativism of Anders Breivik corresponds to the regional nativism of the Taliban and the pan-Islamic nativism of IS, a nativism based on the idea that the we group is under attack by intruders who are dangerous and destructive and can only be defeated by ruthless determination. Any devoted Sunni Muslim can be part of this we group, whether it is an Indonesian activist or a German convert.

Another dichotomy which helps explain the social psychological processes that lead us to hateful ideology and death cults is the distinction between necrophilia and biophilia. Necrophilia is a general affinity to death and destruction; biophilia is the affinity to a life of stable emotional bonds of positive reinforcement with fellow human beings as well as non-human nature.

Only a few days after the attacks of Munich and the Würzburg attack, the suicide bomber and Syrian refugee Mohammed Daleel – who injured 15 in the idyllic Bavarian town of Anspach – shocked Germany to the core. His story offers plenty of material to be exploited by the far right. He was staying in a hotel, and he was a refugee in contact with Isis. But the German TV audience also learned that he was mentally unstable and had previously attempted to commit suicide. The 27-year-old was about to be deported to Bulgaria according to the Dublin Agreement.

IS is inherently necrophilic, as are right-wing extremist fantasies of leaving refugees to drown in the Mediterranean – cynically suggesting that this may save lives in the long run. The worst possible outcome of the refugee crisis for Germany is a mutually reinforcing escalation of pars pro toto distortions, ie. mistaking a dangerous minority as typical representatives of a vague category of people encompassing millions.

The distorted view of “the West” is so focused on anti-Islam rhetoric and violence that all Westerners are part and parcel of an anti-Islam block. By that logic, all Western civilians are fair game. Accordingly, they are believed to hate Islam – and they voted for governments that supported war in Libya and Syria.

Likewise, all Muslims are viewed as followers of a barbaric ideology because the Quran itself is conceived of as inspiring the faithful to be violent, while conveniently ignoring similar passages in both testaments of the bible. These oversimplifications ignore the much more interesting change in the structure of Islamic chiliasm and emerging new-wave activist neo-Nazism, as seen in the extreme examples of Anders Breivik and the terrorists of the National Socialist Underground (NSU) who murdered mainly Turkish immigrants across Germany.

The Munich attacker Ali David Sonboly whose Iranian descent was neatly incorporated into his self-perception as being a German of truly Aryan descent (given that the Aryan people actually live in Iran) was a right-wing extremist. Sonboly was a bullied teenager from Munich who fatally shot 9 people who were of migrant background before committing suicide.

This example demonstrates not only the destructive potential of unattached valencies, but also that his emotional pain was susceptible to an ideological vessel which could just as well have taken the form of radical Islam.

It is therefore shallow and misleading to consider ideology as a cause for violence; violence does not need an ideology. There is no such determinism. The various chiliastic narratives of denied greatness and injustice which can only be overcome by necrophilic activism are merely options amongst a wider array of possibilities, of which some are more applicable than others according to the individual case. Empirical research is needed that focuses on the underlying emotional demand.

Given that many Syrian refugees are deeply traumatised, building a healthy biophile figuration of affective bonds in an alien environment while overcoming trauma is an important challenge. It is one that demands help from the state as well as citizens that goes far beyond the initial willkommenskultur.

Unfortunately, many German citizens already feel disenfranchised themselves by the increasing casualisation of the job market and low pay at a time when rents are already rising dramatically – even without the recent refugee immigration. Following the terrorist attacks, more and more Germans are turning away from their new neighbours. Young Germans are becoming more vulnerable to self-worth regulation based upon right-wing nativism.

In light of this, it is crucial that Germany invests a great deal of resources into therapy for traumatised refugees, language training, social integration and transforming the job market to benefit everyone living in Germany – including the already existing German precariat. This might just help prevent viewing refugees merely as potential terrorists and a further descent in the race to the bottom.

The more Europeans feel threatened in their self-worth, be it by the European Union, immigration, austerity or disintegration of their emotional bonds, the more they are likely to support ideologies of threatened superiority. Viewing Islam as primitive and barbaric provides a powerful and self-worth producing narrative which further threatens the healthy self-worth regulation of Muslims. A vicious circle indeed.



Elias, N. 1991. The Society of Individuals. London, Basil Blackwell.

Elias, N. 1978. What is Sociology? New York, Columbia University Press.

Gholamasad, D. 2015. Wie und warum sich Islamismus und Islamophobie gegenseitig als de-zivilisierende Aspekte der Demokratisierung in Europa gegenseitig hochschaukeln. Gholamasad.jimdo.com.

http://gholamasad.jimdo.com/artikel/wie-und-warum-sich-islamismus-und-islamophobie-gegenseitig-als-de-zivilisierende-aspekte-der-demokratisierung-in-europa-gegenseitig-hochschaukeln/ [retrieved on 08.08. 2016.


Defending the indefensible: France, the burkini affair and the further mainstreaming of racism

📥  France, terrorism, Women

Dr Aurelien Mondon is Senior Lecturer in French and Comparative Politics at the University of Bath. His research focuses predominantly on elite discourse and the mainstreaming of far-right politics, particularly through the use of populism and racism.

In the aftermath of the Nice attack on 14 July 2016 and the murder of a priest in Saint-Etienne-du-Rouvray on 26 July, the burkini became headline material in France when on 28 July, the mayor of Cannes introduced a ban preventing ‘access to beaches and for swimming … to anyone not wearing appropriate clothing, respectful of moral standards and secularism’.



Thirty-one communes passed a law banning the wearing of ‘religious clothing’ on their beaches. Of course, this ban really did not target all religions, but was a direct attack against women wearing so-called burkinis – and by extension acted as yet further stigmatisation of anyone associated with Islam.

As had been the case with regard to discussing the place of Islam in France, this debate has been very much one-sided. Politicians on both sides of the political spectrum have jockeyed for position to demonstrate who would be toughest against what they all saw as a threat; Prime Minister Manuel Valls described the burkini as ‘an affirmation in the public space of a political islamism’, while former president Nicolas Sarkozy denounced it as a ‘provocation’ in support of radical Islam.

Jean-Luc Mélenchon, the self-appointed left-wing alternative to the government, felt necessary to single out and essentialise Islam, noting that, while there are bigger issues to deal with, ‘all religions are a problem when it comes to the equality between men and women. With Islam, it is maybe more visible’ – for him too, the burkini is a ‘provocation’ linked to ‘a Salafist religious offensive’.

The reaction to the burkini bans beyond France was overwhelmingly negative. Photos of a woman being forced to undress on a beach surrounded by armed policemen went viral and were widely criticised in other countries, allowing for their more ‘reasonable’ forms of Islamophobia to be ignored in the face of such shameless manoeuvres.

The ban was initially upheld by the administrative tribunal of Nice before being suspended by the State Council. The decision stated what should have been obvious from the beginning, but had become impossible to consider in French politics in 2016: the ban ‘constituted a serious and manifestly illegal infringement of fundamental liberties’. It reminded mayors that the law ‘may only restrict freedoms if there are confirmed risks’, something which clearly was not the case. Despite such strong words, politicians from both sides have continued to surf the Islamophobic wave in France, calling for a blanket ban, with Sarkozy demanding that the constitution be changed to allow such a law to be passed.

Yet the ‘burkini affair’ is very much the tip of the iceberg, as the situation in France in the aftermath of the attacks has become increasingly difficult for anyone associated with Islam, no matter how loosely. Since the Charlie Hebdo attacks in January 2015, French Muslim communities have been placed in a constant state of suspicion and borne the brunt of the state of emergency. Beyond recent events, Islamophobic actions and reactions have been deeply rooted in France’s secular hypocrisy.

Defending the indefensible

While many have mentioned the state of shock and fear France has been in following the string of horrific attacks over the past two years, such an argument to justify the latest ban is moot as Islamophobic and liberticidal laws have in fact been commonplace in France for decades. The very act of unveiling a Muslim woman should have resonated as a dire warning to politicians as it was reminiscent of some of the darkest hours of French history. This poster, published in Algeria in the 1950s, shows that French propaganda there was often based on similar ideas.



The 2004 law banning the hijab in schools and the burqa in public spaces demonstrated the willingness of the French state to deny agency to Muslim women and girls on the basis that their religion made agency impossible in the first place. Listening to these women was unnecessary; the country of the Rights of Man knew best what was right for its women.

While countless laws and polemics have directly targeted loosely-defined Muslim communities in France, many of the defenders of such laws and anti-Muslim sentiment in general have argued that their stance is not based on a racist argument: it is merely about religion. Anyone who has ever denounced Islamophobia in our societies will have been confronted by a barrage of repetitive arguments about what is written in the Quran and the ‘fact’ that hating Islam is reasonable, not a ‘phobia’ (see the comments in this article).

Yet, while this theological twist has allowed many to posit themselves as progressive secularists, their claims with regard to Islam and Muslims today are for the most part rooted in typical forms of racism. Islamophobes and anti-Muslim racists, be they anonymous commentators, far-right activists or mainstream pundits, have in common their stigmatisation of anyone deemed to be part of some kind of essentialised identity.

One is applied ‘Muslimness’, and this implies certain innate beliefs/attributes. One is Muslim and, as such, innately suspicious; in turn, this makes it plausible and indeed reasonable to preclude ‘them’ from fundamental rights. In line with traditional forms of racism, it is by removing the humanity of Muslims, proved in this case by their understood innate inadaptability to fantasised (western) civilised ideals, that it becomes possible to implement laws curtailing freedoms we would never accept being removed from ‘us’.

The burkini affair is one of the most obvious examples of such racist actions based on a pseudo-liberal justification and whipped up by the elite to create tensions within French society. A semblance of belonging to a religion shared by more than a billion people in the form of a garment was enough for some French municipalities to find those wearing a burkini guilty of harbouring the potential of some insidious crime. As Saïd Bouamama pointedly noted, and as was already the case with the hijab in 2004 and the Burqa in 2011, the number of burkinis on French beaches was inversely proportionate to its media coverage:

"Every citizen is summoned to have an opinion, even though most have never seen anyone wearing such clothing. They discover this bathing suit through a preliminary question: what is it hiding? The consequence is thus the overvisibility of the burkini."

As the suspicious nature of the burkini becomes internalised through its disproportionate media coverage, it becomes possible and indeed advisable for authorities to publicly humiliate women and justify the removal of their agency with regard to their choice of clothing or practice of religion – agency enjoyed by others around them and protected by the constitution. The message: be like us or be not.

While supporters of such bans often claim pseudo-feminist motives, the result is always the further isolation and segregation of women. The racist rationale behind such laws is all the more obvious as burkinis had no links with any of the terrorist attacks or propaganda in France or elsewhere. Yet even if burkinis had been used in heinous acts such as those perpetrated in France in the recent past, punishing all those wearing this piece of cloth would have remained a racist act as it would have assumed the equation of burkini to Islam and of Islam to terrorism.

Yet anti-Muslim racism is much more insidious and widespread. In much of the west currently, being Muslim or simply appearing a certain way – whether through your clothing, the way you look, or the name you bear – is enough to invite a barrage of discrimination. Commonly, those deemed Muslim find it more difficult to find a home or a job than their peers with a similar educational background. While this has been very well documented, it has been internalised and accepted as unavoidable, as other forms of discrimination have been. In this racist narrative, it is crucial to stress that the Muslim signifier does not have to come from the individual herself.

A particular version of Muslimness, defined by the onlooker in a position of power, not the bearer of the identity, is imposed onto people through various types of generalisation, misperception and stigmatisation, such as the so-called secular and anti-terrorist laws, but also through the media coverage of Islam.

In this narrative, Muslims – whether they be defined by religion, name or appearance – are branded as such by those in various positions of power and prevented from expressing their individuality and agency as they become nothing more than what ‘we’ believe Islam is: a homogenous and impending threat. In this hegemonic narrative, the agency of Muslims as individuals is not acknowledged in its diversity but imposed in a homogenised manner, preventing any discussion from taking place.

Any denunciation of this racism or rebellion against it is automatically rebutted as being supportive of radical Islamism and thus discarded – or even punished. Just as ‘they’ are essentialised as backwards, sexist and violent, ‘we’ are essentialised as civilised, egalitarian and the defenders of human rights.

Political capital

Friday’s State Council decision should be seen as a dire warning for France. While the liberticidal laws against the hijab and burqa were ultimately passed in France, the fact that this one was repealed (for now at least) is a clear sign that yet another line has been crossed in France’s descent towards increasingly racist and even fascistic politics.

And yet French politicians have so far continued to fuel the racist sentiment they have played a major role in creating to divert the attention away from their failure to act in other areas. As the stigmatisation of Muslim communities in France has become naturalised through the openly violent state of emergency measures or the more insidious discriminatory practices in day-to-day activities (work, school, housing, etc.), emancipatory politics appear increasingly out of reach.

In the current political context, Muslims are not considered to be political and economic actors whose position with regard to growing inequalities and insecurity could place them within the political category of French worker. Instead, they are separated, marginalised, and used as a decoy allowing for the perpetuation of a deeply distrusted system – in France, 9 out of 10 respondents to polls declare they do not trust politicians.

As the presidential election campaign ramps up, it seems that Islam will be at the centre of the debates, and that such debates will only relate to the scale of the suspicion to be placed on Islam and anyone related to it. In this cacophony, Marine Le Pen remains suspiciously quiet, no doubt enjoying the mainstreaming of much of her party’s ideas and a return to mainstream politics openly based on a race.

This short article, first published on openDemocracy, is part of a larger project studying the rise and interaction of liberal and illiberal Islamophobias in France, the United States and the United Kingdom.

Policymaking, Citizenship and Democracy in a Complex World

📥  employment, future, migration, New Labour, policymaking

Professor Graham Room is Director of Research and Professor of Social Policy in the Department of Social & Policy Sciences at the University of Bath

Complexity Science

Recent decades have seen a dramatic growth in the literature on complex systems. Much of this has developed in mathematics and in the natural and computational sciences. Increasingly however it is also infusing the social sciences.

This has in many ways been a breath of fresh air. It has got social scientists drawing upon dynamic models from the natural sciences that can be extremely fertile in suggesting new insights – in terms for example of tipping points, bifurcations and co-evolving systems. It has created much greater interest in the non-linear dynamics of the social world – and in the macro-patterns that emerge unanticipated from the micro-interactions in which we are all involved.



Nevertheless, in applying these perspectives to the social world, we need to take care. How human beings interact depends on the subjective meanings which they construct and negotiate with each other. These interactions involve them in exercising and contesting power. All this also involves uncertainty – and efforts by the powerful to offload that uncertainty onto others. Yet these have been rather neglected by much of the complexity writing within the social sciences.


Evidence-based policymaking brings together robust evidence as to the outcome or impact of a particular intervention. Evidence is collected, evaluated and aggregated – ‘systematically reviewed’ – across as wide a range of contexts as possible. The gold standard remains the randomised controlled trial.

The prominence given to this gold standard can be explained in part by its high status within medical science and clinical practice. What may also be relevant is the ascendancy of the 'contract culture' for the commissioning of public services from multiple providers – contracts that need to specify the impacts against which the service providers will be judged, and which depend therefore on a well-established evidence base for such impact (and a policy research community that endorses such an approach). This may also explain why impacts which can be couched in terms of ‘behaviour change’ are especially attractive, if they seem readily identifiable and measurable.

This tends to assume that any particular intervention can be assessed in isolation from others. The complexity literature however tells us that we live in a connected world – and that these connections require us to pay attention to the dynamic interactions among policy interventions. Any new intervention is an intrusion into a dynamic policy ‘ecosystem’ and must be evaluated as such.

Government leaders warn that conventional methods of policy intervention no longer seem to work. New models of a dynamically interconnected world are needed, if they are to anticipate, steer and control its turbulent behaviour. It is just such models that the literature on complex systems affords. One of the simplest and most elegant is Schelling’s model of residential segregation in cities.[1] His agents have different addresses on a grid or lattice. Schelling posits a ‘tolerance schedule’, a preference not to have within one’s immediately adjacent neighbourhood more than a certain proportion of another race: the general racial composition of the city at large is however of no concern. Starting with an initially random distribution of households across the city, Schelling conducts repeated simulations, as households walk step-wise to an adjacent address, whenever their immediate neighbours exceed this racial threshold. He shows that even a rather mild level of racial antipathy – and concerned only with immediate neighbours – will quickly generate zones of racial segregation across the city.

Schelling’s actors react to the racial composition of their immediate neighbourhood. As they do so, their actions affect the composition of adjacent neighbourhoods, and the society as a whole moves progressively to a more segregated state. Any particular individual may find that, whatever the level of their own tolerance, the ethnic composition of their neighbourhood is increasingly likely to exceed that threshold, obliging them to move. Even the most tolerant finds that their neighbourhood steadily loses all diversity. In this way the rate of segregation accelerates, through processes of positive feedback.  What this means is that the level of social segregation that results is quite other than the individuals in question themselves anticipated or sought.

This is a simple model, but one which illustrates well how ‘macro’ emerges from ‘micro’ in non-linear ways and with counter-intuitive results. Policy interventions launched with insufficient thought, as to their interactions with the wider policy ecosystem, are unlikely to be sufficient to the task. No policy is launched onto a greenfield site: it is an intervention in a tangled web of institutions that have developed incrementally over extended periods of time and through a succession of political struggles. Complexity analysis can play a central role in the analysis of such policy dynamics.

Where much of the complexity literature is weak however is in recognising the exercise of power and interests in human societies and social interactions. What works for whom? By reference to which interests do we assess the significance of the effects of any intervention? In what ways do power inequalities ‘emerge’ from the complex social interactions to which complexity writers refer?

Of course, there is much that remains stable: otherwise we would hardly be able to live our everyday lives. Nevertheless, it is easy to take this stability for granted and not to notice the small changes that are continuously underway. It is also easy to focus on the stability that may be evident at home, while overlooking developments elsewhere. Stability and freedom of manoeuvre do not descend equally on all, as manna from heaven: they are the distributed through positional struggle.


Policymakers – and their academic policy advisers – adopt a variety of assumptions about the citizens they serve and what motivates those citizens to behave as they do. These assumptions are not immune to successive intellectual fashions.

Rational action theories remain dominant across much of social science: here social actors assess the menu of choices available to them in terms of their costs, benefits and consequences. The rational citizen deserves to be provided with clear information about the public services that are available and those services should embody variety and choice.

There is however increasing recognition of the bounds to such rationality, because of the partial information that actors have at their disposal and their limited ability to assess risk. This is true not just of the person in the street: it was also only too evident in the 2008 financial crisis, when the ‘rationality’ of the financiers produced risky behaviours that almost led to systemic collapse. The complexity literature reinforces that recognition of the bounds to rational choice. The lesson of Schelling’s model, discussed above, is that aggregating individual choices can produce counter-intuitive results for the individuals in question, as well as being non-optimal socially. This fundamentally challenges the central place that has been given to individual choice in the rhetoric of policy reform over recent decades.

Meanwhile, recent years have seen growing interest – especially on the part of economists – in behaviourist perspectives. These in some degree abandon orthodox models of rational economic behaviour, especially as far as ‘ordinary’ people are concerned, instead pointing to the biases and blunders that they display in many of their decisions. These behaviourist perspectives – based on empirical studies of individual behaviour – have increased the attention given in policy debate not only to the contribution of psychologists, but also that of neuroscientists, claiming to measure wellbeing in a far more rigorous manner than social scientists could ever offer.

This is the realm of ‘nudge’, with policymakers seeking to structure the ‘choice architectures’ that face citizens, so that even with their innate biases and short-sightedness, they will make choices that align with their own best interests. Nudge has been well-described by Thaler and Sunstein as ‘libertarian paternalism’. [2] This might however seem a very modest form of paternalism, compared with that which traditional welfare states are often accused of embodying, where the citizen is said to be left with few if any options. Nudge leaves the citizen to make the final choice: government can structure the choice architecture, but if, despite this, citizens still make the wrong choices, that is their responsibility.

What if the citizen, however – far from being lazy or short-sighted – is simply but profoundly unsure what to do, given the insecurity and instability of the world around them? It is after all not with all citizens that Thaler and Sunstein are equally concerned: their particular focus is on ‘the least sophisticated’, who they reckon to be in greatest need of such guidance. These are precisely those who are most exposed to such insecurity and instability. The citizen may want not more choices, but a guarantee of wellbeing and security instead.

Consider instead therefore an account in terms of agile actors. This depicts social actors as probing the complex and turbulent landscapes on which they find themselves, but only if they can do so from the vantage point of some stable and settled ground. In contrast to rational action theories, it sees social actors not as menu-takers but as menu-shapers, re-working and contesting the social and economic world in which they find themselves. In contrast to behaviourist perspectives, it understands any biases and blunders by reference to the settled ground from which social actors draw their routines and practices: a ground which may be extensive or shrunken, and which must be understood in terms not of psychology but of sociology and political economy. The result is a perspective on social action that sharply distances itself from the abstract individualism of much contemporary writing.

This gives a central place to uncertainty and instability and to the efforts by agile actors to offload their costs onto others. The social distribution of uncertainty thus moves to centre-stage. But of course, this is a struggle played out on unequal terms. Those already at a positional disadvantage are likely to carry a disproportionate share. They may end up with hardly any stable and settled ground from which to shape their world, and with little option therefore but to hunker down and cling to a precarious existence.

A New Social Contract

It is from this analytical standpoint that we examine the social and political conditions under which agile citizenship may be possible for all.

Citizens need to be secure, resilient and adaptable, if they are to survive and thrive in a complex world. No less than the earlier leitmotifs of rational consumer choice and nudge, our notion of agile actors suggests an agenda of policy reform. This involves public policies to provide a stable and secure ground for all – and investment in the creative energies of everyone.

The recent direction of UK social policies has been to push as many as possible into the market place, narrowing public generosity towards those who remain. The burden of austerity has fallen on the most disadvantaged, multiplying the uncertainties to which they are exposed. This is the politics of fear and surrender to the global market, of insecurity and hunkering down.

In contrast, the post-war social contract between state and citizen, across the western world, involved a pooling of risks and uncertainties through systems of social security. It set the fraternity and mutual interdependence of citizenship against the divisions and inequalities of class and against the turbulence and insecurity of an urban-industrial society. The same period saw governments confronting the economic instability of capitalist society. This has sometimes been characterised as a consensual process, the benign fruit of economic progress. Nevertheless, as T H Marshall warned: ‘in the twentieth century, citizenship and the capitalist class system have been at war’. [3]

If the social changes of the 21st Century are to be managed successfully and with public consent, they need a new social contract to underpin them. We need to mobilise the energies and talents of all sections of society, and we are more likely to pull together if the distribution of rewards is less unequal. Such a contract would need to include several interrelated elements, going well beyond traditional welfare systems:

·         Individual security against risks of income interruption: the heartland of traditional welfare states, albeit in the last half century on the defensive, across much of the industrialised world, in face of neo-liberal hostility to state welfare;

·         Investment in everyone’s capabilities, not just in those with parental wealth: what many have referred to as the ‘social investment state’. There is good evidence that for a given financial outlay, it is investment in the lowest-skilled that can produce the greatest benefit for national productivity; [4]

·         The rebalancing of our economies to provide ‘decent jobs’ which make use of everyone’s capabilities;

·         Investment in vibrant local communities, as places of education, learning and creativity for all – in particular for disadvantaged communities, which are often poorly connected to the society at large;

·         Involvement of all in the governance of social, political and economic institutions, with active citizenship and scrutiny of public policies, and of the corporate interests which might otherwise detract from such a contract.

Such a contract would involve a broad range of policies of relevance to all citizens, rather than focussing just on society’s casualties. It would need to go far beyond the notion of a basic income, which in various guises has again reared its head across the political spectrum. It would limit the risks of poverty but also promote economic growth; promote individual security but also collective resilience and adaptability. It would also go far beyond the extension of choice in public services, with the citizen seen primarily as a consumer. It would involve rebuilding local and national communities, as points where these different policies can be connected up. It would leave the market where it belongs, as the servant of the community not its master.

This would also reshape the debate on immigration. First, by investing in the skills and creativity of our own population, we reduce the need for employers to look elsewhere – for nurses, for IT specialists and others – in ways that denude poorer countries of those in whom they have invested their slender national resources. Second, by taking collective responsibility for the infrastructures of those communities to which large numbers of immigrants come, rather than ‘devolving’ this burden to the local areas in question, we reduce the risk that those communities will see immigrants as a threat.

It is not however enough for government to provide stability and security and to invest in agile and creative citizens; those citizens must also be able to hold government to account. This means government being placed under critical scrutiny by citizens, rather than vice versa. This gives a fundamental role to citizens in policymaking as well as in policy implementation. Nudge, in contrast, makes little or no attempt to engage citizens as active, critical and responsible partners; they are deemed hardly up to that.

A Self-Organising Democracy?

By the start of the new century, New Labour had in some measure joined the Conservatives in their celebration of market capitalism, with philosophical underpinnings that owed much to Hayek. The economy was a decentralised system, best left to self-organise and self-steer. Government could not expect to second-guess the market and had therefore better stay out.

In the public services, both parties sought to expand individual choice: in many cases by expanding the role of the market and its self-organising virtues. Government would nevertheless maintain its overall grip, albeit at arm’s length – and even under conditions of austerity, big data and smart government would enhance its effectiveness. Public services would become leaner and fitter and more tightly managed, so as to be better-tuned to consumer choice.

Hayek’s vision likewise resonates with many of those who have been attracted by the literature on complex systems. He describes a complex and interconnected economy peopled by a myriad of micro-decision-makers – but one which has generated wealth on an unprecedented scale. This would seem an obvious example of the processes of ‘self-organisation’ with which the complexity literature deals, and one with socially benign consequences. In contrast, the complexity literature might well seem poorly aligned with the sort of social democratic vision that has been outlined above.

There are however several important caveats.

First, the complexity literature gives little attention to uncertainty (as distinct from risk) and its implications for social actors. As argued above, uncertainty makes people hunker down. On the economic and on the social front, government has a strong role to play in building stability and confidence – on the part of businesses, communities and individual citizens. This was of course a major tenet of Keynes’ analysis of economic recession, differentiating him from Hayek. In conditions of great uncertainty, businesses would not invest; strong government action was needed, to boost confidence in the future buoyancy of the economy. Otherwise the economy would ‘self-organise’ at sub-optimal levels of activity.

Second, Hayek pays insufficient attention to power differentials among social and economic decision-makers. The same goes for much of the complexity literature, including writers such as Schelling, concerned with a mass of micro-decision-makers, each following a simple algorithm as to whether to move house. The real world of contemporary capitalism gives scope for large corporations to shape the rules of those micro-interactions in their own interests. Not least, the more powerful are able to offload the costs of uncertainty onto others. Complexity analysis must be conjoined with political economy.

Third, there is little reason to confine the vision of a complex and interconnected society to the economy and market agents alone. The complexity literature can also inform our thinking about citizens and communities, their networks of interaction and the public services on which they draw. These too we can think of as decentralised systems with distributed intelligence, connecting a myriad of agile actors, with their varied projects and visions of change. Here too we might examine the counter-intuitive outcomes that can emerge and how these vary, depending on the institutional conditions.

Finally, while the complexity literature can help us to understand the non-linear emergence of macro-patterns from micro-interactions, it helps little in evaluating those macro-patterns in terms of how socially benign or otherwise they are.


Complex dynamics can produce a tangled knot of institutions and policy interventions, with path dependencies and lock-ins which are hard to escape, and trade-offs which allow of no easy resolution. ‘Wicked’ problems of this sort are unlikely to be solved by leaving them to the market, or by improving the technical skills of those in government. What is needed instead is the distributed intelligence and wisdom of all those involved and cooperative solutions that include citizens, their communities and the public services on which they depend.

The literature on complex systems demonstrates that quite small changes in initial conditions can result in dramatically different dynamics and directions of travel. It underlines that the future is open: there is always an alternative. This chimes well with longstanding critiques of ‘futurology’. [5]  Nevertheless, faced with an open future, the more powerful do not hesitate to intervene, to ensure as far as possible that their interests are protected, their position consolidated and the costs of uncertainty displaced onto others. To expose how these powerful groups narrow the range of possible futures is one of the tasks of the social scientist.

A second is to illuminate other possible paths of development, thereby enriching democratic debate. This is no merely technical matter. These alternative futures span the different values by which citizens live their lives and express their hopes and their fears.

A third is to fix responsibility and enable powerful actors to be held to account. But is this even in principle possible, given the unexpected and unintended dynamics that can emerge from simple individual choices? Think for example of Schelling’s interconnected city residents who collectively produce a segregated city – and which in the real world may mean the dramatic narrowing of choices and life chances for some of those ethnic minorities. Complexity analysis can enrich our analytical toolkit and illuminate these tangled processes.

Nevertheless, in a complex social system it is never wholly possible to allocate clear responsibility for such effects; it is necessary for the State to take ultimate responsibility for solidarity and compensation across the society as a whole. Civility does not ‘self-organise’ – it must be politically constructed, and we cannot escape the social and political choices of our time.

This blog post draws on Graham Room’s recently published book Agile Actors on Complex Terrains: Transformative Realism and Public Policy (Routledge, 2016)

[1] T C Schelling (1978), Micromotives and Macrobehaviour, London: W.W.Norton
[2] R H Thaler and C.R. Sunstein (2009), Nudge: Improving Decisions about Health, Wealth, and Happiness (Revised edition), London: Penguin
[3] T H Marshall (1950), Citizenship and Social Class, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press
[4] S Coulombe, J-F Tremblay and S Marchand (2004), Literacy Score, Human Capital and Growth across Fourteen OECD Countries, Ottawa: Statistics Canada
[5] J H Goldthorpe, J.H. (1972), 'Theories of Industrial Society: Reflecrions on the Recrudescence of Historicism and the Future of Futurology'', European Journal of Sociology, 12: 263-88.


Trump and the "alt-right": a brief reader

📥  Trump, US Presidential Elections

Donald Trump’s candidacy for the US Presidency, and in particular his recent appointment of Stephen K. Bannon, the executive chairman of the right-wing media site Breitbart to head up his campaign, has brought fresh attention to the so-called “alt-right” in America. The term was first coined in 2008 and is commonly used to describe hitherto fringe groupings of far right activists, white nationalists/supremacists and fascists in the US.  Their closest parallels are to European far right movements, but the history of slavery, segregation and Anglo-Saxonism gives racist and ethno-facism in the US particular specificity. That any of this has been brought anywhere near the mainstream of US conservatism is a measure of what Trump’s candidacy both represents and has become.


The Guardian has recently carried a primer on the alt-right, and an excellent long read on intellectuals associated with their activities. The Spectator has also discussed the phenomenon. Here the Washington Post talks to the racists “cheered by Trump’s latest strategy”.

Trump’s anti-immigrant rhetoric may be seen as a resurrection of the Republicans’ erstwhile “Southern Strategy”, as the Atlantic outlines here, substituting Islam for godless communism. Unsurprisingly, his ratings amongst African-Americans are rock bottom.  Conversely, his support amongst conservative evangelicals is holding firm – chiefly because they see him as their only hope for preventing a liberal swing in the Supreme Court. The New York Times also examines how to think about the Latino vote here.

In a welter of comment and analysis, a couple of older pieces are also worth reading, to give historical context to Trump and the alt-right. The invention of race in the fledgling USA, as a means ideologically to justify and sustain slavery, was the subject of an essay by Barbara Jeanne Fields in the New Left Review in 1990.

And this wonderful piece by Richard Hofstader from 1964 on “The Paranoid Style in American Politics” shows just how many alt-right political themes echo paranoid conspiracy theories of plots, invasions and moral degeneracy that crop up throughout US history. Well worth a read.


No Utopian solution for future funding, but partnership offers a fighting chance

📥  funding, future, research

Professor Chick Wilson, Department of Chemistry

There is no point in hiding from the truth; an already difficult and complex situation for research funding became significantly more complicated following the Brexit vote in June. We must not lose track of the fact that the pre-Brexit funding landscape had been complicated not only by successive settlements which, while protecting science from the worst of the fiscal reductions evident elsewhere in Government, introduced new strings to much of the effective flat cash settlements with which the research community have made only tentative steps in being able to appreciate to date. It is to the credit of the previous Chancellor that, relatively speaking, he did protect research from cuts that would have severely hampered the ability of the UK to continue punching above its weight in research delivery and impact. However, this was achieved through a series of compromises that became increasingly severe as time proceeded through his Chancellorship. Having seen major research funding within the ring-fence earmarked for major investments that made for eye-catching announcements, the culmination of what some may regard as a dilution of core research funding was the establishment of the Global Challenge Research Fund (GCRF), which will ramp up to account for a total spend of £1.5 billion by 2021. This protects research funding but only by coupling it strongly with resource that can be accounted towards the UK commitment to 0.7% ear-marking of government spend for international development efforts, through DfID. The latter government department plays arguably an unexpected central role in the UK research environment; embracing and understanding that partnership will be both key and a significant challenge for the research community, particularly those not historically tuned into the international development agenda.


The history of the GCRF is interesting in itself. Rumours of a “Grand Challenge Fund” were around in 2015 both prior to and immediately following the General Election in that year. Rumoured to be a “top-slicing” of funding from the budgets of each of the seven research councils (and this idea is likely still to form part of the future landscape), there was significant engagement between the research councils and their communities, with each identifying key Challenges that could be addressed by such a fund, of order £100M per annum. Taking advantage of this opportunity would have been a challenge in itself, requiring new interdisciplinary approaches to research and targeting if existing efforts towards the unified priority areas. The GCRF that emerged as part of the CSR2015 statement was, to most of the community, surprising in the extent to which it is targeted at delivering research that focuses on producing solutions that are relevant in development contexts.  It is new, it is different, it challenges our thinking as researchers but also, crucially, challenges our funders in the Research Councils. It is obvious from the response to the modest funding available through GCRF in 2016/17 that the Councils have dramatically different views on how and where this fund could best be targeted; these differences in views will become crucial when the non-earmarked finds kick in from 2017/18 onwards. Here is where partnership with our funders will become increasingly crucial. Engaging with RCUK colleagues will enable the research community to influence approaches to the GCRF, not only to ensure that it continues to meet the needs of UK research as well as its targeted beneficiaries in the developing world. Moreover, and more of this below, such partnership can also help reinforce the case made for the importance, relevance, adaptability and impact of the UK research base, to ensure that the full extent of the GCRF can still be delivered in the post-Brexit landscape.

Of course the new elephant in this room, as is true of other funding streams for UK research, is the inevitable alteration of the landscape for EU funding into the UK. For researchers this primarily presents as the funding distributed by the European Research Council, through a wide range of often complex streams held within the Horizon 2020 framework. The UK is a substantial contributor to the ERC budget, but as is well rehearsed, is also a major beneficiary from these research funds, with funding wins for UK researchers consistently outstripping the contribution made. A situation of such “juste retour plus” is to be, and has been, celebrated and is a core element of the UK research funding landscape. The announcement by the new Chancellor on 13 August that EU funds awarded to UK researchers prior to Brexit will be underwritten by the Treasury is welcome, positive and may well have broader implications for the place of research in the new administration’s thinking.  However, this guarantee is of course limited to the pre-Brexit period, and it goes without saying that the post-Brexit destination of this funding is critical to sustaining our research; once the imperative to respect these prior commitments has been removed, it will be important not to rely on some of the more optimistic, naïve hopes and expectations about this funding. Many cling to the commitments to repatriate EU contributions “in full” to UK needs post-Brexit, of whatever true value they represent, but of the priorities for this advanced in securing the plurality for Leave in the Referendum, just think where research funding might sit with respect to the NHS, regional development, agriculture and others. Some believe that we can lobby the Government to fill the European funding gap in its entirety, and even to make the case to deliver in the future not only the UK contribution but the juste retour-plus bonus also. We can say it, but how will we make such a possibility realistic or even possible? As we move to make the case for this next stage of the argument, we must be realistic and robust in our engagement and influencing of policy, setting out the case without falling into the trap of seeking funding to be maintained “because it is what we have now” and instead make the case within the frame of the critical importance of the research base for the UK economically and societally. We must do this in partnership with those fighting the same battle, including our RCUK partners; this is also relevant to the arguably more fundamental question of what our broader relationship with EU research funding will be in future.

Assuming the new post-Brexit administration maintains continuity of approach to research funding, we in the research community have clear challenges, some of which have been noted above but also including the establishment of the unified funding body UK Research and Innovation (UKRI). Our response must be positive but not Utopian. We must work with both existing and evolving partners in fighting for the next settlement for UK research, in particular as part of Brexit negotiations and in renewing our lobbying and influencing prior to the autumn financial statement. A recent UUK meeting was addressed by one of these partners, Nicola Blackwood, Chair of the House of Commons Science & Technology Committee.  As with our RCUK partners and the GCRF, it is clear that the S&T Select Committee needs the mature engagement of research community in undertaking its important work in protecting and promoting UK research and the importance of its adequate funding. Another partnership with which we must work, offering well-reasoned but again realistic and non-naïve inputs to its consultations and evidence sessions. Being confronted with a research community that refuses to accept reality and wishes to envisage solutions that pretend that major perturbations have not occurred will do none of us any good. We will not be able to exert our influence unless we are robust, realistic and creative in our views, and produce viable alternatives that can form part of a real policy delate rather than presenting unachievable pipe-dreams.

In this, the research community must show itself to be increasingly sophisticated in engaging with those with whom we share common cause. Likewise with RCUK as it moves towards the establishment of UKRI. Long gone are the days when we could consider our relationships with the Research Councils and their committed staff as “them and us”; this relationship has changed out of all recognition in the last decade or more, and we must utilise these increasingly important partnerships to secure our funding future.



The under 30s in the UK: A generation used to not getting what they voted for

📥  Brexit, voting, young people

Dr Benjamin Bowman, Teaching Fellow in Comparative Politics, Department of Politics, Languages & International Studies

The EU Referendum underlined a clear disconnect between the ruling elites and the electorate, writes Benjamin Bowman. Disappointment with political choices is particularly marked among the younger generation, whose disaffection exemplifies a deeper depolitisation. Much can be learned from recent episodes such as the Iraq War and the increase in tuition fees if we are to prevent a further failure of the transmission belt between constituents and government. Bowman suggests a mainstreaming of youth politics, for instance by including youth branches within party lists.

young people

Britain voted to leave the EU, but now little is certain in British politics, except that more uncertainty beckons. Whether you voted Leave or Remain, you are likely disappointed with this situation. For young people the experience of disappointment and disaffection is nothing new. Britain is currently on the cusp of constitutional change: we must, seize this opportunity to rebuild the connection between everyday people and institutional politics in our modern democracy. The way recent political choices have impacted the way younger generations perceive politics offers some lessons in this sense.

Brexit, like the Iraq War and the increase in tuition fees, risks alienating the young

Our political moment is a deeply elitist one, despite the hullaballoo of the democratic mandate of the 52%, or the call to “take back control” at a national level. The referendum was criticized as a “media circus of exaggerated claim and counter claim” in which voters were called to muster into opposing camps by elite actors, rather than having the capability to make fully informed decisions. both campaigns were cursed by male-dominated (and indeed, white male-dominated) politics, as Professor Jacqueline Rose wrote last month.

Young voters may feel that “plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose”: the more things change, the more things stay the same. Brexit is another episode in a long political soap opera for young people, in which the vote represents the dissolution of complex individual concerns, needs, experiences and feelings into a binary (and non-binding) vote for one elite group or another, whether between Remain or Leave, between David Cameron or Boris Johnson, between Nick Clegg or Nigel Farage, none of whom are generally perceived to be seeking to represent voters’ needs, but simply to be hunting a democratic mandate for a plan that has already been settled.

As in the case of the Iraq War, or the Liberal Democrats short-lived pledge to oppose tuition fees, the shortening of the odds that Brexit will ever actually happen will be familiar to young people as a process of voting for one thing and getting another, a failure of the democratic transmission belt between everyday life and the representatives selected to organize it.

Young people will also likely feel that the representation of older generations has been fortified at the expense of the young. Young turnout was reportedly high with a 75% majority among 18-24s voting to remain. This, of course, didn’t stop a tidal wave of criticism aimed at young people who didn’t bother to vote (largely based on a discredited estimate tweeted by Sky, which was based on data from the 2015 General Election and had nothing do to with the Referendum itself).

Blaming young people for their own marginalization has become commonplace, to the point that the words “they should bother to vote if they care that much” is a kneejerk reaction happening all too often. The stacking of the deck against young people is thus blamed on young people themselves, while it is easily forgotten that there is now a whole generation whose experience of voting is largely that you don’t get what you voted for. On a deeper level, this represents an uncoupling of politics from governance, a failure of the transmission belt between constituents and government. The alienation of young people is just one symptom of broader depoliticisation.

All about the money: why young people are abandoning politics and vice versa

As part of a recent research project, I was working with teenagers in a small town in rural England. We discussed how they saw themselves fitting into British society and politics. The participants in the group had a good working knowledge of how the local council functioned and what the big issues in their community were. They were also very clear about the reality for everyday people who needed local government to take action: “I know what the answer will be”, said one participant, a 15-year-old girl, “it’ll be: well, we ain’t got the money”.

Young people’s experience of politics in our austerity era is a complicated relationship between citizens and everyday lives, and elite-level governance. As such, rather than a single political arena, we actually have two sets of politics in Britain – the everyday and the elite. The relationship between the two, in the words of this participant, is a question of not having the money. It is about blaming the inability to transmit popular voice into popular power due to budget constraints or the need to privatize the tools of government. This could be called a failure of the transmission belt between constituents and their representatives. “Well, we ain’t got the money” is a keen observation of the main political event of our time for the young: the breakdown of the transmission belt between the everyday and the elite level.

Everyday politics is a remarkably vibrant and accessible field for young people, who are more educated in citizenship and in methods for making a difference than ever before. They are connected to the world around them, informed about current events from the local to the world stage, and trained in tools from fundraising and volunteering to petitioning at a remarkably young age. The everyday level is about celebrating young power and raising the volume of young voices.

On the other hand, the elite level – the level at which governance is performed – is largely geared against the young participation that is so celebrated at an everyday level. Political parties continue to keep youth wings in policy silos, using them to float youth-specific policy, or as foot soldiers for handing out pamphlets, but little else. The hallmark of young politics is diverse participatory acts, and we celebrate diverse ways to give young people a voice, but mostly fail to transmit that voice into effective power. And it is not just the young who feel disheartened by British politics. We know from the decades of post-war data that there is a growing distance, distrust and even hatred that citizens perceive towards politicians. Where do we go from here?

We need broadband democracy for a broadband age

We must fix the transmission belt between everyday politics and elite governance. There is no better time than now, and no better group to bring into the heart of the process than the young. The Referendum was politics done wrong. Though we are voters with a world of information at our fingertips, we were subject to a circus of exaggerated and (at best) poorly explained claims. Though we have a wealth of tools for communication, our needs, voices and actions were boiled down into a simple In or Out decision.

The UK’s EU Referendum was thus Morse code politics in a broadband age. For young people, especially, this was a poisonous experience, since the modes of democratic activity the young most value – direct participation – were the least represented in a campaign led at a distance by male, aging elites and dominated by grandiose economic, political and social claims rather than by clear connections to everyday life. The Brexit era provides us with the opportunity for a fuller democratic relationship between everyday and elite, institutional politics.

We need to upgrade the transmission of democratic power from the everyday level to the institutional. Young people need direct avenues for participation. Practically speaking, political parties could strengthen the representation of young people directly in their Party structures: not just in segregated youth wings, but at the heart of policymaking, and on Party lists. As long as local politics was able to get things done – which, granted, may be a larger, budgetary issue – this would be especially valuable at local level where young people would be best able to make direct contact with representatives. For the same reason, MPs should be working to get young people into contact and into their surgeries.

A voice for young people must also mean effective power, and there are practical ways to do this too. Unions need to be reaching out to the young: both the working young and those out of work or on insecure contracts. Like Party youth wings, Unions can be a transmission belt by which young people can make a difference on the way society is run at an institutional level, and perceive the effects of those institutions on everyday life. The same could be true of public consultations. For one example, the LSE’s project for The People’s Constitution could teach us a lot about the value and potential for popular participation in upcoming constitutional reform.

We have a new Prime Minister, a new Government, and we are looking at a period of constitutional reform even to the possible extent of Scottish independence and the dissolution of the Union. An era of political change is on the cards. Involving young people at the heart of that change is not only practical, it is essential if we are to rebuild the connection between everyday people and the institutions that serve them.


Culture comes first: putting culture and values at the centre of public policy

📥  policymaking, political parties

Stephen Muers is Head of Strategy and Market Development at Big Society Capital. This blog post is based on his time as one of IPR's Visiting Policy Fellows while in his previous role as Director of Criminal Justice Policy at the Ministry of Justice.

The best approach to making decisions when information is dispersed and constantly changing is the subject of a central debate in public policy. Core textbooks for public policy students generally set out the arguments for and against a series of frameworks for such decision-making, each of which lead to different policy tools. More fundamentally, political leaders and senior public officials implicitly or explicitly endorse these frameworks to different degrees, shaping their favoured policy solutions. My argument is that many common frameworks fail to take sufficient account of culture and values both as a way of understanding policy change and as an explicit goal.



Tools for decision-making

Four sets of policy tools flowing from four overarching frameworks dominate policy debate.

Market tools, such as privatisation, financial transfers to enable people to purchase in the market and internal markets within public services like the NHS, will be the favoured options if you believe that the price mechanism and free self-interested agents will tend to arrive at the optimal outcome. A different – and arguably more sophisticated – variation of this is based in the Austrian rather than neo-classical school of economics: not attempting to argue that the market will necessarily optimise, but that that the price mechanism is the best proxy we have for summarising and assimilating dispersed information about the preferences of different actors.

Deliberative tools such as citizens’ juries, micro-level community control of services and the creation of new forums for public debate are the priority if you believe the interplay of unrestricted dialogue between individuals and/or groups is best suited to achieving the most desirable overall social outcome.

Rational state tools such as strategic planning, heavily regulated markets and needs-based allocation formulae will prevail if the preferred thesis is that the government is best able to assess and respond to the competing sources of information and social value. This is typically enabled by the use of bureaucratic expertise to assess options, with elected representatives determining normative issues of value and relative priority.

Informal judgements such as clan or family based networks and precedents are less often put forward as a desirable framework to aim for, but frequently posed as an empirically-based description of what actually happens. Such informal decision-making is a major feature in development studies, but is also highly relevant in industrialised societies (for example, studies of the former USSR have argued that the system was only capable of functioning because of its highly developed informal network of patronage, deals and exchange[1]).

Officials developing policy advice for ministers, MPs debating propositions, journalists commenting on policy issues and academics assessing the results spend considerable time and effort debating the merits of these frameworks and the tools they lead to. Is it better to contract out a service or plan it centrally? Should a service be devolved to local communities so they can decide the approach, or centralised to drive efficiency and fairness? Can a national formula allocate money efficiently and effectively? Should the government give people money to purchase something or provide it directly?

The importance of value systems

There is, however, a good case for saying that debating these different tools is missing the point. Anyone who has spent any time wrestling with public policy will have had the experience of changing the policy tools applied to a problem but getting the same results – or applying a tool that worked well in another locality or country and finding it is completely ineffective in a different context. If getting the right framework for understanding how to make decisions and designing tools appropriately doesn’t work, then what should we focus on?

Values and culture are the missing ingredients. Values and culture in this context refer to the set of (usually implicit) norms, ethical standards and habits shared by the actors in the relevant system. The psychological concept of ‘superordinate goals’ is useful here: the overall aims, sometimes at a broad, high level, which are shared by all the actors and which their ways of operating act to reinforce. Such goals do not need to be, and often aren’t, written down or otherwise expressed in a way that all the actors would sign up to – but can nonetheless be deduced from the way they interact.

Experience shows that values and culture are extremely powerful in determining outcomes. In the famous quote (sometimes attributed to Drucker), “culture eats strategy for breakfast”. After consuming strategy, culture then moves on to policy interventions and tools for lunch. Tools and interventions get co-opted and altered in order to serve the goals, values and assumptions of those using them.

International development practitioners are well versed in this phenomenon. Years of attempts to introduce ‘rational’ western-style merit-based bureaucracies, transparent needs-based allocations and fiscal planning in developing countries have, in many cases, seen those tools simply used to continue the extraction of rents for clan and family members. In a contrary example, similar informal networks and patronage-based approaches in China have produced impressive economic growth – one reason for this being that those networks sit within a very powerful set of superordinate goals around national prosperity and prestige. In western countries there are plenty of examples where supposedly market-based or technocratic processes are actually used to reinforce the existing position and values of elites and insiders: procurement rules that are in fact so complex that new entrants find them impossible, ‘open’ recruitment based on a set of criteria that narrowly reflects the status quo, ‘market-based’ solutions that involve little competition and the state retaining all the major risks (the failed London Underground PPP is a good example[2]).

Value systems as a policy goal

The first implication of value systems’ triumph over policy tools is that it would make sense for voters in a democracy to choose leaders on the basis of their fit with the values and superordinate goals that the elector wishes to see prevail in the country, rather than their detailed policy proposals. In this model, specific policy proposals offered by political leaders are important not so much in themselves but as ways of signalling a deeper set of cultural assumptions. There is, in fact, a reasonable amount of evidence that many voters do operate in this way. One study of the 1983 UK General Election found that many of the major policies in the Labour manifesto, the so-called ‘longest suicide note in history’, were popular. However, polling on more abstract and value-based perceptions of the two major parties (estimations of their ‘leadership’ and ‘patriotism’, for example) pointed much more accurately to the result[3]. Recently, some analyses of the UK’s EU referendum have argued that cultural values (order versus openness) were the strongest predictor of whether someone would vote to remain in or leave the EU, with attitudes to specific issues and also demographic factors emerging more as proxies for those underlying values[4]. Political campaigns often launch policies not because of their substantive merit but to ’send the right message’ about the assumptions on which their candidate operates.

Moving away from elections to decision-making in government, what are the implications of a focus on value systems? One is that it reinforces a long-standing line of argument in public policy research that having the centre determine processes across a dispersed policy system is futile. Outcomes will not be driven by centrally specified approaches, but by how the individual actors (“street-level bureaucrats” in Lipsey’s famous phrase) use and mutate those processes based on their own needs, values and desires. The process in and of itself has little force against street-level norms and values. A linked point is how to use international evidence and learning effectively. We need to move away from “can we implement the policy tool that was successful in country X?” towards “what is it about the system in country X that enabled them to develop an intervention that was so successful in their own context?”[5]

So if detailed process specification, or scouring the world for good ideas to import, won’t work, what should decision-makers be doing? The logic of focusing on value systems implies that they should be doing what they can to create a culture and value system that supports positive change, learning and evolution. If it is inevitable that outcomes are shaped by ‘street-level’ culture and the constant iteration that happens as people interact and revise their plans, are there things that can be done to help that dynamic lead to better outcomes?

Should government promote positive value systems?

First, it is necessary to address two arguments against attempts to change or create value systems. The first is that such attempts are doomed to failure. Culture is so persistent over time, and develops in such a dispersed, organic and unplanned way, that it is hubristic to think that conscious action by government, or indeed any other institution, can change it. There is a two-fold response to this challenge. The first part is to acknowledge that there is some force in this argument. Changing culture is not easy, and certainly not quick. It needs to be done with the grain of what is already there, and by building broad support rather than by top-down decree. The second part, however, is to point to the clear evidence that it can be done. The extreme example is the actions of totalitarian regimes: it is hard to argue that the Bolsheviks didn’t manage, over many years of focused effort, to change the fundamental culture and values of Russia and the other Soviet republics. The experience of Germany after WWII demonstrates the impact of government on culture through a sort of natural experiment: surveys after reunification showed that different cultures and value systems had become internalised by the populations of the two halves of the divided state. However, they also showed significant continuity, and so emphasised that government can only influence culture slowly and in part[6].

The second argument against attempts to change or create culture emerges from this last discussion: such actions are associated with dictatorial regimes and have no place in a liberal democracy. Shouldn’t a democratic government represent and embody the values of its population, rather than trying to engineer them? There are, again, two counter-arguments to this. The first is that a government cannot help influencing the values of the society it leads. Even if not done deliberately, the way government and its leaders behave and the values they implicitly or explicitly endorse will have an impact on society. If this impact is inevitable, there must be a case for consciously considering it and acting accordingly, rather than allowing the impact to occur by accident. The second is that if we believe that values and culture are central to determining social outcomes, and democratic governments are elected at least in part to deliver outcomes, then taking a position that they should not address those factors is to will the ends but not the means, and potentially condemn them to failure.

How to promote value systems

The most obvious way to create a culture that supports positive change and learning is for government to send messages through its words and actions that this is desirable. This would include launching and welcoming experiments in policy and practice and being open to learning from failure, to bottom-up innovation and to constant iteration rather than over-specifying plans from the start.[7]

Such an approach can, however, seem rather intangible. The obvious way to give it harder edges is to use incentives to reward service improvement and thereby encourage innovation that delivers such improvement across the system. This is the philosophy behind recent school reform; the changes gave schools autonomy to innovate, and strong incentives to do so, by introducing a rigorous performance regime.

However, performance incentives alone are unlikely to engender the culture of wholesale creative experimentation discussed above, for several reasons:

  • There is a long-standing body of literature which argues that it is hard to design incentives which can’t be gamed and that do not lead to distorting behaviour. There is always a risk that hard performance measures produce great innovation in the management of the measures themselves, rather than genuinely improving services across the board. Classic examples include hospitals meeting the four-hour A&E waiting time target by creating other queues elsewhere in the system[8], and schools focusing their efforts on pupils around the borderline of exam targets at the expense of the less able, who were never likely to make it[9].
  • Problems that require collaboration between lots of agencies, with the costs and benefits potentially falling asymmetrically, are difficult to address through performance incentives. While it is theoretically possible to design an outcomes framework that pulls all agencies together behind a common goal (the UK model of joint PSA targets, for example) it is hard to do so in a way that isn’t highly complex and bureaucratic. Simple measures of their own performance will tend to have more traction with service managers.
  • Measuring and rewarding performance as a way of promoting innovation has the downside of pushing innovation towards current problems that we know how to measure. The most valuable feature of a dispersed system is, in fact, its ability to react quickly to a changing situation, beginning the task of innovating to respond to new challenges before the central authority has even clocked their existence. The makers of Blackberry phones were proud of the way they encouraged employees to innovate and improve keypad mobile phones – but missed the real innovation of moving to touch-screens and disposing of keypads altogether.
  • Service outputs, or even outcomes, are not the only objective of public services in a democratic state. Such services also need to operate in a way that is recognised as fair and legitimate, and which promotes trust between citizens and institutions. While trust and legitimacy is, in some cases, measurable, it is much harder to target with performance incentives[10].

Multi-national corporations that operate with a high degree of autonomy amongst their business units face the same challenge around creating a positive culture of innovation and learning. Evidence from examples such as General Electric indicates that performance incentives alone are not sufficient. These companies have tended to find that, within a decentralised environment, the centre needs to provide an infrastructure for collaboration, mutual learning and opportunities that actively pushes people in that direction, in order to avoid narrow and immediate targets being the sole focus for their creativity. Simply incentivising people to hit performance goals doesn’t lead to a culture that is healthy for innovation in the long term[11].

What a successful infrastructure and environment for collaboration and learning looks like will be highly context specific. What General Electric does to engender innovative learning by local business managers will look very different from what the health service or the police might do. Innovation and learning will be needed to discover how best to innovate and learn, and to keep that understanding up to date. While performance incentives alone are not likely to work, there is also a long history of softer collaboration approaches (best practice networks, peer support, joint boards and shared funding, for example) draining large amounts of resources for little discernible effort. Developing better ways to promote a culture of positive change, learning and evolution is a central task for both public service leaders and the researchers who wish to understand and help them.


[1] Russia’s economy of favours, A Ledeneva 1998, CUP
[2] Blunders of our governments, Crew and King 2013, OneWorld
[3] British General Election of 1983 1984, Butler and Kavanagh, Palgrave Macmillan
[4] “It’s not the economy, stupid”, Kaufmann 2016, LSE discussion paper
[5] “What makes governments get great”, Andrews 2013, Harvard Business School discussion paper
[6] “Value Priorities in the United Germany”, Boehnke et al 1993, European Journal of Psychology of Education; “Individual Preferences for Political Redistribution”, Corneo and Gruner 2002, Journal of Public Economics
[7] “Is your policy a dodo”, Muers 2014 Civil Service Quarterly
[8] “Review into the Four Hour Emergency Access Reporting at Nottingham University Hospital Final Report”, Ken et al 2010
[9] E.g. “Quick fixes to climb league tables”, Marley and Mansell, 2007 Times Educational Supplement
[10] “Creating Public Value”, Kelly and Muers 2004, Prime Minister’s Strategy Unit discussion paper
[11] Author discussion with Monia Mtar, University of Bath Business School