Quantum Subjectivity – Understanding the Dual Consciousness of David Cameron by Joe Crawford (University of St Andrews)


In September, Prime Minister David Cameron wrote to Oxfordshire County Council to ask what more they could do to ameliorate the very cuts that his government has imposed across the country as part of its never-ending-austerity programme.   The irony of this needs no further elaboration.

I wish to use this blog post to propose three possible explanations for David Cameron’s actions.

The first and most simple explanation is that the man known as ‘Call me Dave’ is a ‘liberal’ in the general (and worst) sense of the term.  Among a great many other problems, the liberal condition has a very strong tendency to decouple all that is inextricably linked while aligning all that is disparate.  For example, on one level (say, the liberal myth of meritocracy) there is no ‘perceived’ connection between rich and poor in the sense that the existence of one has no ‘obvious or visible’ determining effect on the existence of the other (rich people are seen as being talented and hardworking, poor people are lazy and feckless).  Yet in another sense liberalism aligns a diverse range of people (with vastly uneven and unequal volumes of economic and cultural capital) with politically motivated rhetorical sound bites such as ‘we are all in this together’, ‘we all need to tighten our belts; or ‘we should all pay our fair share’…etc.  Dave has himself produced a very useful example by recently decoupling any connection between the rise of ISIS and western military intervention in Iraq, and by aligning disparate groups of people who oppose the bombing of Syria under the broad rubric of ‘terrorist sympathisers’.  This is what liberal politicians, journalists and academics have a strong tendency to do, they decouple all that is linked and align all that is disparate.  So, in his letter to Oxfordshire council, Dave seems to have decoupled any link between his own party’s austerity measures and the cuts being made to his local council services and aligned the government, local and county councils and the public in sharing responsibility for the task of doing all they can to lessen the impact of the cuts (which his government is responsible for imposing).

The second explanation for understanding this situation revolves around the notion that Cameron is exercising a form of ‘cynical practice’ (see Crawford and Flint 2015).  This form of cynicism arises when professionals (often public sector managers) are all too aware of the distance between the reality (what can realistically happen) and the mask they wear in public (the pretence they wish to promote), yet still insist on wearing the mask (despite everyone’s acknowledgement of the distance between the two).  Carlen’s (2008: 20) example is useful’

For while ‘everyone knows’ that the chief inspector was only ‘doing his job’, ‘everyone else knows’ that in-prison programmes and decent regimes are almost certainly not in themselves going to reduce offending…So why lose credibility (or your promotion, or even your job if you are a prison officer or a prison governor) by continuing to say what everyone else always and already knows?

Perhaps then, since Cameron knows that austerity is a political rather than economic programme, his letter to Oxfordshire council could well be a cynical ploy.  He knows what he’s doing but pretends he doesn’t know.  Dave could be playing a double bluff.

Thirdly, there is what I’ve decided to call ‘quantum subjectivity’ a concept similar to the psychological  notion of ‘cognitive dissonance’ but without there being too much ‘dissonance’ involved.  Quantum subjectivity arises when an agent harbours two (mostly contradictory) positions on the same subject.  The position which emerges depends almost entirely on the situation within which the agent finds him/herself.  We don’t know a person’s position  until we engage them, an activity which always takes place within a context, located within both social and physical space.

Think Schrodinger’s cat.  Is it alive?  Is it dead?  Until you look (thus pinning it down to one state or the other) it is both at the same time.  A quantum particle can be in two places simultaneously, only once you pin it down (by observing it), does it provide its location.  In sociological terms, what a person ‘thinks’ is often determined, not by their social position (as classical sociology might suggest), but by the situation in which they find themselves when they are ‘pinned down’ to having to express an opinion.  My own research provides useful examples.  When discussing eviction practices with housing professionals, they would freely alternate between structural and individual discourses depending on the context. On one hand they would adopt a position in which structural factors played the most significant role in the causes of rent arrears (the problem was collectivised and therefore depersonalised), and in another context would adopt a position quite the opposite of that, where it was the irresponsible behaviour of the tenant which was the issue (the problem is then individualised and thoroughly personalised).  So, in short, the same professionals, from the same offices, oscillated between the same binary frames in order to deal with the contradictions contained within the practice of evicting tenants.  Quantum subjectivity, it seems, allows professionals to deal with the inherent contradictions, political tensions, and moral ambiguities which have come to characterise modern ‘public service’ provision in the UK.

The ‘quantum subjectivity’ explanation suggests that David Cameron’s position on austerity is determined by the situation in which he finds himself.  When Dave is at home, in Oxfordshire, drinking tea in the garden with his wife and children, the effects of the cuts to his local services appear to him to be so severe, he is compelled to write to the council to ask why more cannot be done to reduce their impact.  When David Cameron is in Parliament, surrounded by his Bullingdon Club chums, all braying like donkeys, manically waving their order papers as they ridicule and berate those in opposition, the government’s austerity programme seems the most sensible policy for dealing with problems, the real impact of which David Cameron appears to know absolutely nothing about.

Two entirely different positions.

Two entirely different worlds.


Pictures [from David Cameron’s (Tenant’s) special relationship with Scotland] are published with kind permission from Greg Moodie


By Joe Crawford (University of St Andrews)


The Rentier and the Lumpen by Basak Tanulku (Independent researcher based in Istanbul)

This blog post will discuss the logic and the factors behind the current dual class structure, characterised by increasing lower and upper classes and declining middle classes. In this class structure, the upper and the lower classes, i.e. the rentier and the lumpen tend to have similar aspirations of speculation and consumption. From a psychological approach, the relationship between the lower, upper and middle classes can fit into a Freudian framework of id, superego and ego. In this framework, id corresponds to the animal inside a person, which needs to be satisfied, like sexual libido, hunger and thirst. Superego is the human part above all, corresponding to the narcissistic personality, which sees the self above everything and separates the good from the bad. Ego is in between the two, the suppressed part of the human personality. In this current society, superego is the rentier, free to do anything; id is the lumpen, who is unable to control basic instincts and to be satisfied; and ego is those in the middle, pushed from all sides, living in constant debasement. In this context, it can be argued that the rentier (the superego) and the lumpen (the id) vote for the same political parties, and share the same political and ideological ambitions and sexual fantasies. However, the ego, those in the middle, is pushed from both sides, envied and debased at the same time:  ridiculed for being ordinary and conservative and isolated from mainstream life because of the power of the new rich and other parasitic forms of life that are seen to deserve the high life as the result of their material and symbolic wealth.

How have we ended up here? This psychosocial context fits into the political economy, which emerged in the 1980s, all over the world. This era has many names, such as “neoliberal”, “consumer”, or “global”, along with many more beginning with a “post-” prefix, although all these terms may have alternative meanings in different theoretical paradigms. During this period, particularly the developed countries restructured their economies through post-industrialisation, and shifted to service-based economies in which innovation and high technology became very important for any economy to be considered successful and competitive. The membership of the conventional working class has declined due to the impact of outsourced production to developing countries, a process accelerated by “globalisation”. In this process, the conventional working classes have transformed into people dependent on ‘ready’ money which prevented them from forming class consciousness. This led to the erosion of class solidarity among them, and the decline of trade unions and class-based politics. The offspring of the working classes became stigmatised through terms such as “benefit scroungers”, “chav”s or “asbo”s, which refer to the underclass or lumpen, or people with neither class consciousness nor solidarity who live in an era of consumption, celebrities, football superstars and tabloid newspapers. They become symbolised through long-term unemployment, low levels of education, and an attitude towards life which can be summarised as “no future”. Their situation is legitimised by political actors and those who profit from such a political context. In this new class structure, the conventional middle classes have also experienced a decline both in numbers and prestige, best represented by public sector workers stigmatised for their perceived “non-job” jobs. Their declining status corresponds to a declining sensitivity towards accumulation and planning for the future, since a more differentiated consumer market with many products necessitated a throwaway society, with an apathetic attitude towards the environment, people and the future. The middle classes correspond to an ordinary, conventional and boring way of life, restricted in 9-to-5 work shifts and two-up two-down households consisting of a married couple with two children and pets.

However, there are also the winners of this new economic system. Despite their small numbers in the workforce, they had a high social status and important symbolic power in society: they are the “new middle classes”, i.e. people working in financial, real estate or various service or creative sectors. Within the new middle classes, new groups emerged, such as “yuppies”, “bohos”, and “hipsters”. Their lifestyle is characterised by an urban buzz around nice neighbourhoods, independent cafes, boutiques, small restaurants, art centres, and luxurious retail, residential and business complexes. At the same time, the “new rich” emerged, corresponding to a lifestyle characterised by spending sprees, luxury brands, and seven-star hotels in cities like London, New York, Istanbul, and Dubai, which created by world-known architects became highly standardised. The new rich create money out of thin air and can be regarded as ‘rentiers’, people who derive income primarily from speculation.

These changes have created a more polarised and unequal class structure. However, many have become fascinated by the power of money and lifestyles of celebrities. And in this context, there is a symbiotic relationship between rentier (the upper classes or superegos) and the lumpen (the lower classes or the ids). In this relationship, the rentier eats most of the cake made of easy money based on a principle of profit. Meanwhile, the lumpen lives with a hope of one day catching up with the status of rentier. This continuous hope, fueled by the promise of continued consumption, kills the lumpen day by day without them ever noticing. In this relationship, while the rentier is free to do anything they want behind closed doors, the lumpen feels free to do so in streets. Because of that, we see people who we would never expect to find together in a photograph, such as aristocrats of various ranks, rentiers and celebrities who are regarded as national treasures in their countries.


By Basak Tanulku (Independent researcher based in Istanbul)

Why segregation studies are stuck in Chicago By David Manley (Univeristy of Bristol)

The way in which we study segregation hasn’t really moved forward since the 1950s. Much of the literature that we use and the measures that we employ owe their conception to the Chicago urban school of thinking.  The thing is, these traditional ways of understanding segregation do not fit the modern urban environment. Of course, they didn’t really fit the 1950s urban landscape in the United States either but that was not the point: a measure that described the proportion of people that wold need to move to gain an equal distribution of whatever characteristic was of interest was sufficient. In the US that characteristic was racial inequality, and there wasn’t really a need to debate how the segregation had come about or what drove it: what they needed to know was how much segregation was there. Recently, scholars have noted that the city of Chicago isn’t particularly representative of US cities (no surprise), but that it also isn’t particularly representative of the other rust belt cities either.  Given that our understanding of segregation comes from a unique place at a particular time frame in history it is perhaps time to rethink how we investigated segregation more generally.
The most common measure of segregation is known as the Index of Dissimilarity. The thing is, it is biased. Studies by economists which simulated urban data have demonstrated that the Index of Dissimilarity has a tendency to record higher values of segregation than actually exist – that is to say it is upwardly bias. Actually, more recent work has suggested that it is more complicated than that and that the bias in the Index tends to move values towards 0.5 (or saying that to achieve an urban landscape with no segregation around half the population would need to move home). This is troubling because it suggests that what we thought we knew about segregation is wrong – or at least not as clear as we thought. However, even if the index was not biased there is a bigger problem that pervades the studies that have used it. I mentioned above that in the US segregation studies were, rightly, concerned with racial inequality. The modern segregation literature is much more diverse than this and not only considers segregation along racial or ethnic lines but also include multiple other factors as well: class; social; economic, and; cultural to name a few and the index has been deployed to measure all of these and more beside. But in doing so researchers trying to understand how segregation is playing out in our urban environments are forced to over simplify. In the urban environment people do choose where to live (or get forced to live) purely because of their ethnicity or social status or age. There is a complex interaction between these factors (and others) which can serve to intensify or the resulting distribution of individuals within neighbourhoods. But the index has no way of help us determine which of the factors is the most important (remember that the index is bias so a higher value may not necessarily mean that there is more segregation, just that the index was bias) and nor can it help us understand how much age segregation there is once we have accounted for the level of educational segregation that occurs. Moreover, index values calculated for units of one size (say small neighbourhoods based on a couple of streets) cannot readily be compared with units of another size (say large neighbourhoods or even regions within a city) because the index is relative to the size of the units used. Crucially, this prevents us from identify the scale at which segregation is occurring.
What should we do about this, are all segregation studies doomed to repeat the same mistakes as before? No. Recent work undertaken with colleagues at the University of Bristol has developed an approach using multilevel models harnessing the idea that segregation is about the variability in the numbers of different groups within neighbourhoods, the greater the variable in the number of a group within neighbourhoods over a city the greater the segregation. Importantly, once measured in a modelling framework we are able to include multiple different types of segregation at once and even multiple scales. In doing this we might be able to further our understanding of one facet of the complex urban environment.

My Generation? The Use and Abuse of Generational Labelling By Adriana Soaita (University of St Andrews) & Beverley Searle (University of Dundee)

The ‘Lost Generation’, ‘Baby-Boomers’ and now ‘Generation Rent’ are popular labels attached to groups of people who are deemed to share particular social experiences. Such labels not only confuse distinct demographic, sociological and genealogical concepts but uncritically cast generational winners or losers. Drawing on 112 interviews from the Mind the (Housing) Wealth Gap study, we aim to clarify the concept of ‘generation’ using four key understandings. We tease out ideas of generational belonging among people aged 35-65 and reflect on generational identities and inequalities.

Demographers conceptualise ‘generations’ as birth cohorts – a population born in any one year often aggregated by decades. The examination of social change in relation to different cohorts at similar life stages through longitudinal analysis requires long term data series in order to differentiate between period, cohort and lifecycle effects. Although demographers clearly separate the concepts of cohort and age, our study indicates that peoples’ generational identities are generally not constructed within these categories:

I look around and there are older people similar to me and younger people similar to me! I don’t really see generations (male, 45).

I associate on a daily level with people of all ages, so I don’t really feel myself as part… There aren’t generations of people in society, there’s just a constant grey area, a constant flux of people (female, 40).

While rigorous longitudinal birth cohort analyses are welcome for the understanding of the enduring effects of socioeconomic events (such as economic growth or decline), cohorts need to be theoretically specified in relation to the subject of enquiry (Arber & Attias-Donfut 2007).

Mannheim’s (1927) concept of sociological generation tries to move away from simple chronological contemporaneity – ‘potential generation’/cohorts – to a more meaningful co-presence in a shared geographical location ‘where a concrete bond is created between members of a generation by their being exposed to the social and intellectual symptoms of a process of dynamic destabilization’ (182-183). As the social context is differently interpreted by different individuals, these bonds emerge from, and coalesce in, ideologically and culturally different ‘generation units’ whose members share indirect ties of exposure to similar events. Mannheim’s theoretical contribution helps to question generational labelling while raising awareness of substantial socioeconomic inequality and socio-cultural difference within cohorts. Yet the concept of sociological generation was considered to be too static given that formative learning was exclusively located in early youth. We exemplify the idea of generational units and intra-generational inequality by two contrasting views from early Baby Boomers, the cohorts most likely to accept generational labelling:

I’m a baby boomer born 1949, so we’re the ones who’d never had it so good. We had everything (male, 63).

What generation I belong to? The poor one! (female, 61).

In the context of austerity, aging societies and low economic growth, the concept of ‘welfare generation’ has permeated public discourses. By differentiating between welfare contributors and receivers, several studies documented the changing balance of public spending between the young and the old and differentiated between winner and loser generations (Thomson 1996, Kotlikoff 1992). These studies were criticised on methodological and philosophical grounds (Buchanan 2009, Piachaud, Macnicol and Lewis 2009) as well as for their disengagement with the horizontal macro-distribution of resources across socioeconomic classes (Hills 2014) and the vertical micro-distribution within families (Kohli 1996, Arber and Attias-Donfut 2007, Hills et al. 2013). Generational changes in the balance of welfare were fully recognised by our participants – as captured in the quotation below – but so were the important differences in generational opportunities arising from technical advances and broader socioeconomic changes:

I am a late baby boomer born in 1964… early baby boomers have had the best time, they’ve done exceptionally well… Late baby boom, myself, are going to have a difficult end of life… Generation X, they had a good start but struggled in the middle… Then generation Y, or Z, or where are we now? They are going to have good schooling, health service but have to pay for education, are going to start paying for pensions for previous generations and their own… And they have to try getting on the housing ladder, which is going to be difficult if not impossible (male, 50).

Finally, the concept of genealogical generation was particularly employed in sociology. Linked genealogical generations [1] are often the most appropriate unit for the study of intra- and intergenerational inequalities since family is the recognised social institution that transmits privilege/disadvantage along individual life-course (Hills et al. 2013). Sound theoretical sampling allows linking family generations to Mannheim’s (1927) generational units. Our study suggests that while individual belonging to a genealogical generation is least problematic, its role in the transmission of social inequalities is generally overlooked on the assumption that gifts/inheritances are relatively equal and universal within particular cohorts (which of course runs against the evidence):

We are the generation that will reap the rewards of inheritance that grandparents and parents are able to pass on (male, 36).

The Mind the (Housing) Wealth Gap team continue to explore the multiple ways in which housing wealth reinforces inequalities within and between families, cohorts and generational units.

Adriana Soaita (University of St Andrews) and Beverley Searle (University of Dundee)


[1] Dyads or triads of children-parents-grandparents.


Arber, S. & C. Attias-Donfut. 2007. The Myth of Generational Conflict London: Routledge.

Buchanan, NH. (2009) What Do We Owe Future Generations? The George Washington Law Review, 77, 1237-1297.

Hills, J. 2014. Good Times, Bad Times: The Welfare Myth of Them and Us. London: Policy Press.

Hills, J., et al. 2013. Wealth in the UK: Distribution, Accumulation, and Policy Oxford: OUP .

Kohli, M. 1996. The Problem of Generations: Family, Economy, Politics. Budapest: IAS.

Kotlikoff, LJ. 1992. Generational Accounting: Knowing Who Pays, and When, for What we Spend. New York: Free Press.

Mannheim, K. 1927. The Sociological Problem of Generations. In Essays on the Sociology of Knowledge. London: Routledge.

Piachaud, D., J. Macnicol & J. Lewis. 2009. A Think Piece on Intergenerational Equity. London: Equality and Human Rights Commission.

Thomson, D. 1996. Selfish Generations: How Welfare States Grow Old. Cambridge: White Horse Press.



A City Both Full and Empty: London and the Super-Rich By Rowland Atkinson, University of Sheffield

It has become hard to read the popular press without finding a newspaper article or accompanying opinion piece on the massive changes being wrought on London’s property market. There are two stories at play here. The first focuses on the many thousands of households living in housing stress – finding it hard to keep-up with their rents or mortgage payments – and those who are struggling even to get a home of their own – manifest as massive waiting lists for social housing, bidding wars for rental properties and house prices that exclude many. There are now more than 380,000 households, not people, just on waiting lists for social housing in London. This story has long been a feature of life in London, given the cost and scarcity of housing in the capital; but it is also related to a second story that is the focus here. At the same time as these households are waiting to be housed it is quite possible to purchase a single 6 bedroom house costing more than £100m. So, this is emblematic of the second story that we can tell about the kind of changes being wrought upon London over the past ten to fifteen years or so: the massive growth in those earning and generating gigantic personal wealth and their disproportionate take of housing resources in the city. How are we to make sense of these changes and their impacts?

Numerous observations may follow from an analysis of London’s property markets and the way they act as a crucible for the formation and solidification of patterns of social and economic inequality. First, we might want to suggest, as many property, newspaper and political pundits do, that this is essentially a story of success of which we should be proud. Here we have a world class urban economy positioned at the epicentre of the global processing and accumulation of wealth which highlights the essential role and the dynamism of our economy and its primary city. In this narrative, notions of economic growth, prestigious city status and national pride are clearly identifiable. More importantly, where this discourse wins-out we can see it shaping important policy decisions wherein any intervention in how the City operates or how property is bought and sold is seen as anathema to good fortunes and the basic nature of a market economy that is paying major dividends more broadly.

The second narrative is one of decline and stress in the city, and is one that is increasingly evident in discussions about what to do to improve the city for its residents. As property prices rise, welfare supports are withdrawn from those doing increasingly badly during the economic downturn (many of whom are in work but remain poor). But the most important point to make here is that these two narratives are contested and in many ways not seen to connect when it is clear that the broader changes in the city are linked to these outcomes.

To what extent can we think of the rich as a problem?  TV series like Fox TV’s Meet the Russians and Made in Chelsea have popularised life inside the bubble of extreme wealth and privilege, yet the reality is that many of us operate with impressions of the super-rich built around anecdote or (sometimes very good) journalism and this has recognisable impacts on the tenor of debate around what we should do. For sociologists something called society, a holistic entity that includes all of ‘us’, in fact tends to be only a partial and somewhat skewed analysis of its institutions and groups who form in fact only a small sub-section of the population. State-funded and intellectually driven work has always tended to focus on the poor, the dangerous and the exotic. The cost to society is that ordinary citizens are not being offered systematic, evidence-based assessments of the full range of social experience, nor are they being offered insights that build on very real concerns that profound wealth and inequality are indeed social problems that require evidence in order to challenge inequities and drive the kind of public interventions built on popular and informed public viewpoints. This is a very simple point but one that drives the ambitions of the project that we are currently leading.

So to go back to the narratives we can observe around London’s dramatic changes in recent years we can add that there is a need to get to grips with the full range of costs and impacts.  We can see that an expansion in the wealth of those at the top of the social pile not only continues within one of the worst national recessions for nearly a hundred years but has also accelerated and been transferred into the massive property investments of national and international investors and buyers. Much of this activity is driven by the sense that London is a safe bet, that its property taxes are some of the lowest among competing cities, but also that it contains some of the most important cultural events seen globally. This combination of safety and culture appears to be driving upward and unending waves of investment and the realisation of massive dividends for those who are already wealthy.  London is now home to the most multi-millionaires (the UHNWis we mentioned earlier) with 4,224 living within its boundaries (in raw numbers this is the most of any city globally) and around 70 billionaires.

But it also appears to be changing the social character of the neighbourhoods it touches (talk of ghost neighbourhoods and tax dodges) and is now being linked to broader concerns about the cost of housing more generally as property prices ripple outward and down through the hierarchy of desirable areas across the city. To put this a little poetically perhaps we can see that those struggling to buy or rent in some of the cheapest parts of the city are being affected in part by the ramping-up of prices in areas like Belgravia or Mayfair. These changes come on the top of a history of massive increases in prices in the capital fuelled by increasing real incomes for many of the best-paid service workers and, of course, the offer of mortgage lenders to give increasing offers of credit to those wanting to buy their own home. Combined with historically low rates of homebuilding the scene appears to be set for a scenario in which global accumulations of wealth, massive investment with little need for real-time social use of the city, concerns with the planning and building of housing and political attacks on welfare and support for social housing to create a perfect storm – a city full of housing stress and personal troubles on the one hand, and another glittering city of opportunity for those who have profited from the global capitalist system yet who appear to create largely empty neighbourhoods of homes that nevertheless rise dramatically in value.

These various observations highlight the need for on-going work on how the rich live, their attitudes towards and aspirations for the places they come to inhabit and the deeper links between their choices and practices, on the one hand, and the complex outcomes they produce in cities like London, on the other. There is always a danger that social research that focuses on the middle-classes and the rich can be dismissed as the self-interests of a similarly rarefied academic elite, yet there is a long history of sociologists making pleas to their colleagues to engage, despite the difficulty of doing so, with elites and wealthy groups who often not only co-ordinate responses to social problems but are also part of the problem themselves. The expansion of inequality amid social distress and economic decline is only the most recent and notable feature of such problems; there is an on-going need for social researchers to measure, profile and understand the ways in which wealth, power and social life combine.

Professor Rowland Atkinson, Chair in Inclusive Societies at the University of Sheffield (@qurbanist)