When I hear the inanity of Margaret Mead’s “never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world….” leave someone’s mouth, I want to clobber them over the head with an oversized banana. When they smugly conclude with it, like it’s the truism to end all arguments,  I want to stitch their mouths shut.

One panellist at yesterday’s ESRC/TSRC Big Society Evaluation event did just that. I had to restrain myself. It’s a shame that this sticks in my craw because it was a genuinely illuminating, optimistic but adversarial event. It might not have done what was on the tin – actually evaluate any Big Society initiatives – but it did reveal just how contested it was and what a centre-Left imagining of it might be.

English: Michael Gove speaking at the Conserva...
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Because I’m on a train and because I like the format, here’s a digest of my top 8:

1) The Big Society is as much a space for the reimagining of the state as it is of the third sector.
2) The Big Society may be biggest where it could be smaller (the most affluent areas) and smallest where it needs to be biggest (the most deprived) based on TSRC’s measures of the “civic core”.

3) A Big Society does not a strong State, able to provide the regulatory framework for local initiatives. It’s not a zero sum game by any means.

4) Cultivating the citizenry for a post-welfarist society will not happen in a single parliamentary term. It requires a generational shift of social values.

5) Social problems need economic as well as social policy solutions. General consensus on this.

6) The government suffers from a lack of “distributional realism”. Whatever objectives public and third sectors are directed towards, distributionism needs to be high on that agenda. This wil also help to address inequalities of participation and resourcing.

7) We need to reclaim investment. Billions of pounds are sitting ildly in high street banks, burned by inflation and doing nothing but propping up big banks. New models of peer to peer investment from individuals to businesses and social enterprises need to be championed and popularised. Thanks to Bruce Davis for this – I’ll be blogging in more detail soon.

8)  I don’t always agree with Matthew Taylor, but I do on this: “progressives” need to be offering solutions and innovations instead of ranting from the sidelines. Our solutions are much better than the alternative.


4 thoughts on “Down with Margaret Mead: evaluating the Big Society

  1. Nice stuff, Pathik. On 2) I think Anne Power’s counter that there is plenty of informal activity going on in deprived neighbourhoods needs acknowledgement. It raises concerns about policy only pursuing what is measurable, demonstrable. It is incumbent on academics and policy researchers in general to try harder to find ways to measure- and better publicise- the kinds of activity that provide social glue to some of the most deprived neighbourhoods, but which don’t necessarily fit into Cameron’s characterisation of what civil society is. (Back to Peter Alcock’s point about defining ‘civility’.) If we don’t do this, then we risk failing to challenge the cruel, and practically-speaking, unhelpful, victim-blaming implicit in the characterisations of the poor as feckless and society as fundamentally broken, which have fed into this latest mobilisation of the civ-soc project by the Right. Part of what aggravates me about Big Society is the assumption the we are not already good citizens, which appears to underpin it; that there is not already a great deal of good work going on, often in situations of adversity. This is precisely what members of the below the radar groups (TRAs) in my research have said to me: ‘We know what Big Society is. We are already doing it.’

    I also agree with your final point about ranting. Though it is a fine line between rejecting unconstructive anger, and failing to stimulate radical thinking by casually accepting the notion, particularly in the current fiscal climate (in the name of ‘realism’ or whatever), that those on the Left dabble only in the ‘art of the impossible’. Peter Alcock was right to illustrate the continuities with New Labour policy, which had many positives, but which never mounted any kind of thorough-going challenge to what came before. The likes of Anne Power, Bruce Davis, and Matthew Taylor did offer glimpses of what really ‘doing things differently’ might mean yesterday, and it’s these sorts of ideas that need to come to the fore- without negating the righteous anger of those seeing budget cuts and new ways of commissioning etc limit their ability to continue the good work they were already doing.

    1. I couldn’t agree more, Beth. I think part of the problem you identify about informal activity is the stress on quantitative measures which are by their nature reductionist and exclusionary. I think our methods need to catch up with the messy realities of civic activity that certainly don’t fit in conventional sociological categories.
      Our recent work with faith groups reiterates what you’re saying from your research. Is your research based in Manchester?

      You’re absolutely right as well about dismissing righteous anger. When so many in the third sector have been undermined by the CSR we can’t afford to carry on as though this is just a challenging environment. I would, however, have liked to have heard more examples of innovation and ‘creative resistance’. Hopefully something we’ll hear in future events.

  2. I agree with your point, and have mentioned that we need a long term – possibly multi-generational approach. Living as I do in a “deprived community” I am somewhat sceptical about flagship projects and calls for more cooperation.

    1. Thanks Peter. The multigenerational approach is certainly one that I’d champion. I know the Young Foundation has launched some pilot initiatives into intergenerational learning, which is a useful precursor to other intergenerational collaboration. I don’t believe in the social capital approach which suggests communities can solve their own problems through greater cooperation alone, but I do think that in some areas – but not all – there are resources which can be released through innovation co-operative structures.

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