This is the first of an occasional series of posts where we ask inequalities researchers about what they want to achieve from academic research. In this post, I speak to Ruth Lupton, a Senior Research Fellow in CASE at LSE. Her work has focused on spatial inequalities, neighborhood renewal, and on schools and social justice.
What do you want to achieve from your research?
I’ve always wanted to use my research skills to change the world for the better. Over the last ten years or so I’ve felt that this was achievable. There’s been an abundance of research money, the UK government has been receptive to research findings, and UK social policy has been going broadly in the right direction, so I think to some extent I have became rather complacent in thinking that my research was ‘working’. One result of this is that I’ve spent rather more time on things that are theoretically and methodologically interesting. So for example, I became interested in whether it is possible to measure neighbourhood effects, and the process of international policy transfer over mixed communities Although I’ve continued to work on applied projects, more of my work has been addressed to other academics or students.
With the change of government in the UK, my priorities have shifted. Understanding how society works, how we measure inequalities and social processes, and how policy is made are all obviously important, but my sense now is that the most pressing task now is to gather empirical evidence of policy impacts and to tell opinion formers – and more generally, the public – about what’s really happening. In the long run, we have to hope that policy will eventually change back in directions that produce fairer outcomes. [BB – interestingly, several people have spoken to me about how their research priorities have changed in the last year. I’ll come back this in a future post]
How much impact can research actually have?
CASE [the Centre for Analysis of Social Exclusion] is in the fortunate position of often being asked for advice by Government. So I feel our research has been quite influential when we’ve been working with civil servants and ministerial advisers over the past few years. Programme evaluations in particular were listened to. For example, in education we’ve seen a gradual shift from area-based initiatives to targeted programmes focused on individual children, largely because of research that showed that it wasn’t necessarily poor children who benefited from programmes in disadvantaged schools. So I think research has made a difference, and policymakers were listening to research.
But now with the change of Government, I think influence through direct conversation is going to be much more difficult. Instead, our influence will be through making sure that what we already know isn’t forgotten, to fill the gap that Government is vacating in monitoring its own policies – and to speak to much wider audiences that we were doing before. Just on its own, research on inequality can remind people that inequality exists. The National Equality Panel has laid down the picture at the present time, so if we keep updating this work then it keeps the language of inequality alive.
What are the priorities for inequalities research in the next few years?
I think there are two priorities. Firstly, more narrowly, we need to do empirical work on the impact of policy on overall patterns of inequality – the winners and losers from the Coalition’s actions. We need to do this because Government won’t do it; they won’t commission another National Equality Panel, for example.
More broadly, the Government is stealthily recasting our understanding of what the welfare state is for, persuading us that state support is a bad thing. As an example, I recently saw someone citing a statistic that three-in-four workless people in poor areas are receiving some kind of state benefit, to illustrate a point that people are too dependent on welfare. But state benefits are supposed to help people who are out work. From another perspective this could be evidence of a system that’s working. So I think a key priority is to conduct and publish research that keeps the debate open, rather than letting people think that the current Government’s view is the only approach to social policy. This might mean historical and comparative research to remind us that there are other models and to compare outcomes under different regimes. Or it might mean empirical work which is explicitly linked to theoretical work on the relationships between state and society, and between social values, inequalities and outcomes. For example, Danny Dorling’s recent book Injustice, claims that inequality, and government policies which exacerbate it have been sustained by a shift in public discourse. We need empirical work to test some of his propositions and provide some hard evidence of the links between economic change, political discourse, public values and inequality and social polarisation.
Finally, what advice would you give to inequalities researchers at earlier stages of their careers?
The biggest problem for many researchers has always been sustaining employment! It’s the nature of the beast that it’s hard to maintain a job in academic research. At the start of my academic career, I gave up and went into local government in search of a secure job, and it took me twelve years to realise that I really wanted to be in academia and to get back here. Even now I’m still in the situation of continually having to raise funds to pay for my own post. Ultimately, though, I do believe that I can make a bigger contribution to society doing solid academic work in a university, and disseminating it to people who can make and influence decision, than being directly in local government myself, where the field of influence is smaller. So my advice is stick to your goals and try not to give up unless it is absolutely necessary!
 See for example, Lupton, R. and Kneale, D. (forthcoming ) Theorising and Measuring Place in Neighbourhood Effects Research: The Example of Teenage Parenthood in England in M.van Ham and D.Manley Neighbourhood Effects, New Perspectives. Springer
Lupton, R., and Tunstall, R., (2008) Neighbourhood regeneration through mixed communities: a ‘social justice dilemma’? Journal of Education Policy 23 (2) pp 105-117