Materialising the Big Society
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How does tracing ‘responsibility’ (social, individual, corporate) allow us to trace the social forms and expectations that become evident in the interactions between Government, citizens, and business within the framework of concepts such as the newly proposed Big Society? In a move that aims to make these stakeholders equal in the effective governance of public life, David Cameron launched his Big Society initiative in July 2010. It is designed to ‘empower’ citizens and business alike giving them free reign to govern themselves and their own communities, and ridding central and local government of centralized bureaucracy seen as slow, stifling, and expensive. Devolved government is considered an aspect of ‘enterprise culture’ that has in recent years influenced public sector management (du Gay 2000). Whilst some consider political devolution ‘….a new modality of government, which works by creating mechanisms that work "all by themselves"…’ (Ferguson and Gupta 2002; see also Foucault in Burchell et al 1991), others avoid considering it as merely instrumental. Strathern (1992) frames enterprise in terms of a late 20th century personhood ‘…that lies in the capacity for choice’ (144). This project uses ‘materiality’ as a term to describe the contours, fabric, or composition of socio-cultural life as it is expressed in the concepts underpinning the Big Society. Rather than using it as a label to predetermine its contents, or to emphasise the role of objects over subjects (Miller 2005), materiality is used as a means of allowing distinctions to be collapsed and new forms to emerge. In a climate in which the general public appear to have lost faith in Government and businesses to be responsible ‘citizens’, what does the Big Society do for political, financial and economic (ir)responsibility? In whom or what is ‘responsibility’ to be located, and in the end, can responsibility be located in anything at all?
In a vision of the Big Society, every ‘citizen’ is responsible for themselves in their relations with others such that ‘responsibility’ is newly conceived as that which must be equally shared. For Ministers this brings the transfer of some political power to public servants thus diluting Ministerial responsibility (du Gay 2000). For businesses, this brings new obligations to create jobs, uphold the law, treat employees fairly, and avoid environmental harm in return for greater political freedom. Responsibility, here, is conceived as that which is located in or belongs to individual persons as if independent units operating in conjunction with other units. Five thousand ‘professional community organizers’ will be created to ensure that the necessary links are created between them for a broken society to be ‘mended’.
This project has two linked aims:
- to analyse the perceived fabric or composition of society in terms of the reasoning, cultural assumptions and social objectives designed into the formulation of the Big Society, by means of interviewing those involved and by analysing the documentary records. In whom or what is ‘responsibility’ to be located, and in the end, can responsibility be located in anything at all?
- to ethnographically investigate and describe actual incidences in which these perceptions are put to work, by means of researching case-studies in which the Big Society is implemented within local councils, the public, and businesses, and especially in their co-operation, and by examining the new relationships that are established. What new divisions emerge in light of these new relations, and what material form does ‘society’ take?
The proposed project hypothesises that as the perceived materiality of society becomes evident in the implementation and operation of the Big Society, its material manifestation brings unexpected consequences. As people come into new relations and new knowledge, new alliances give rise to new divisions; citizens appear both political decision-makers and skilful managers; divisions between people appear divisions within people as they take on the character of either ‘persons’ or the ‘person’ of the group; and the rhetoric of responsibility and of ‘society’ produce new concealments as, in the end, they both appear as slippery as the form of persons themselves. Does a responsible social entity require particular social relations with which to appear responsible?
An interdisciplinary workshop (May 2011) and conference (September 2011) on the Big Society will be held in association with this project. Please contact Gemma John (firstname.lastname@example.org) for more details.
Photo: stephanchrk (http://www.flickr.com/photos/stephanck/)