Brought up by a loving single mother within a solid group of creatively engaged and politically committed adults in a North London housing cooperative; educated in local schools. Grassroots community organisations, campaigning for social justice and against government policy were all strong features of my childhood. Not that I was either a particularly creative soul or fervent ideologue in my early years: first memories include somewhat reluctant appearances in the infamous and extravagantly plot-lined Christmas pantomimes of a local arts centre; sewing banners for invariably freezing cold demos– Greenham Common; anti-apartheid; education cuts; save the GLC! Smash the poll tax! etc. – and complaining loudly and bitterly when the worthiness of the cause became overshadowed by my frozen hands and feet.
A formative “ethnographic” experience came when a Yorkshire mining family stayed at our house during the winter strikes of 1984/5. Their son, Paul, was a year or so older than me and – once we’d negotiated initial cultural and linguistic differences – we realised we had both much in common and much to learn from one another; about Transformers, amongst other things. I liked him so much that I borrowed his first name and have never given it up.
I became interested in social research as an A-level student at Acland Burghley School. Our sociology teacher, Mr Phillips, was both an unapologetic Marxist and champion of the qualitative-interpretive traditions. He also taught us enough about Durkheim, Parsons and other positivists – or at least how to construct rudimentary critiques of them – to pass the exam with flying colours.
I wrote my coursework on ‘the changing class profile of fans at top flight English football clubs’, for which I conducted a postal survey writing to every club in the Premier League asking by how much their ticket prices had increased every season for the last decade, and what demographic data if any they held on the class by income bracket and occupational status (A,B,C1, etc.) of their season ticket holders. The response rate was predictably poor, though I did have mixed feelings when my own club, Spurs, wrote back congratulating me on my project and providing ticket prices for the last few years – which turned out to be some of the most expensive in the league – while also pointing out that PLCs have no responsibility to collect or share demographic data about their customers.
However it was in Mr Phillips’s faded, photocopied extracts from William F Whyte’s Street Corner Society (1943) and Paul Willis’s Learning to Labour (1977) that I found the answer to the question I hadn’t even had the sense to ask myself: shall I go to university, and what shall I study? Seduced and captivated by the combination of romance, poetry, gritty realism and – I felt – devastatingly accurate analysis in these two ethnographic works, I decided I wanted to read more of this type of stuff and later do participant observation myself. Some cursory flicking through UCAS booklets revealed there was a whole discipline dedicated to the method – social anthropology – and it was on the basis of this carefully thought out and well researched career plan that I ended up in Manchester, after a gap year which I divided between working in a book warehouse, interning at a community television station in Boston USA, and backpacking in South East Asia.
During my undergraduate degree at Manchester I received a good grounding in regional issues and theoretical debates in social anthropology, took supplementary courses in intellectual history, sociology, and the history of science and technology, and wrote my dissertation – supervised by Prof Peter Wade – on ‘the politics and poetics of “mixed-race” social identities’ in which I compared ethnographic, historical, and theoretical literature from the UK, USA, and Latin America. I turned out to be a pretty decent – if somewhat shy and erratic – student, finishing with the top First in my year and a £50 prize for my efforts. Crucially though, I felt I hadn’t yet achieved what I‘d come for, and the following September I entered the PhD programme with full funding from the VW Foundation Germany, and ambitions to finally conduct my own fieldwork.
My PhD project was, unusually amongst my departmental peers, one component of a wider comparative study incorporating a handful of anthropologists at various career stages across Europe. The premise of this overarching programme was to examine e-government initiatives around the world. My thesis (Manchester 2007) interrogated the competing discourses of community and participation that surrounded a flagship mid-Blair era policy experiment on an East London housing estate, where a then state-of-the-art internet and digital TV network had been installed, along with a partnership based organisational framework to hang it on.
I’d received solid research methods training in the first ever year of the M.Res programme in the faculty of social sciences. Fieldwork was as rich, challenging and rewarding as I’d hoped it would be – though perhaps not quite as romantic – and involved participant observation across said organisational network: hanging out with techies, interviewing tenants’ association leaders, local government officials and resident onlookers, as well as a separate strand working as an on- and offline youth worker. I contributed to my host organisations mainly with my time and ad-hoc labour, which included writing case-study based evaluations of computer training courses.
Returning to Manchester, by the end of my initial write-up year – and probably earlier had I paid attention to the nagging inner voices – it was becoming clear that I wouldn’t be pursuing a traditional academic career; at least not in the foreseeable. There were several interconnected reasons: personal stuff, mainly wanting to “get out into the world” after pushing straight through from my undergrad degree; disillusion with what I saw around me in the discipline and in academia and HE generally; pragmatic questions about prospects in the academic labour market, which looked a long road as I saw my older peers, many of them I felt more talented than I, chasing not enough jobs.
Once the thesis was in and viva negotiated, the “what I don’t want” was well crystallised, but hadn’t yet blossomed into a coherent alternative plan. I had a notion that, in the medium to long term, I’d seek to ply my research training to some productive end in the community development field which had comprised my fieldwork. In the short term, however, I just needed a job to help clear my overdraft.
In the event, things moved very swiftly and I was offered temporary employment by recommendation through a contact at the Centre for Research on Social and Cultural Change, on an evaluation of an arts-based criminal justice intervention in West Yorkshire. I did this for nine months in 2007-8, working as an embedded researcher within a contemporary dance project for young offenders and women prisoners on day-release. I interviewed participants, learnt to dance with them, wrote fieldnotes which fed into evaluative reporting, helped develop and coordinate the adoption of some innovative mixed-method evaluation tools, tracked ex-participants, visited them in prison and at home for in-depth interviews, and wrote case studies about their trajectories. I was named as a contributing author on a couple of public domain reports.
In the four years since then, I’ve done a number of things: I’ve lived, travelled, worked, and surfed in both South Africa and the Basque Country; taught English as a foreign language in Bilbao and London; begun building an ‘applied’ research career through a range of freelance, associate/ consultancy relationships, and – more recently – a longer employed project at the Paul Hamlyn Foundation. I’ve developed my research skills, including some additional quantitative training, as well as my knowledge of the various sectors I’ve worked in and the changes currently affecting them; joined the Social Research Association and tried to keep abreast of some of the interesting work being undertaken by others. I’ve also been involved with a number of third sector organisations in other ways, including as a volunteer and a fundraiser.
Having come to see my working life as a kind of project within a project, made up of a continually changing cast of smaller projects, I hope it will continue to be as diverse, interesting, and challenging as it has been and – above all – that it is of direct benefit to the organisations I work with and in turn the people whose lives they enrich. I’ve given up trying to answer the question “but what are you going to do when you grow up?” because, as every decent researcher understands, if you knew the answer at the outset there’d be little point spending so much time and effort trying to find out!