How to Spot a Liberal By Joe Crawford, University of Stirling

Quliberalestion: What is the opposite of a critical urbanist?

Answer: A liberal academic

They’re everywhere. Don’t get me wrong, they’re lovely people, and some of them do very good work. But they’re liberals, and of that fact, one must always be aware (and on one’s guard), lest one be tricked into thinking, as liberals do, that the world is just as it appears, empirically verifiable, with no hidden dimensions lurking beneath the shadowy surface.

So to help you, here’s a quick guide on ‘How to Spot a Liberal’.

Liberals are champions of commonsense thinking and see a political bias (which they perceive as a left wing bias) in critical thinkers’ refusal to accept the world as it presents itself. Liberals also tend to ignore the fact that submission to the dominant order is in itself an entirely political act[1] (early warning – if you flinched at the words ‘dominant order’, you might just be suffering from some form of liberalism).

At dinner parties critical urbanists will say things like ‘all science would be superfluous if the manifest form of things and their essence coincided’[2], or ‘commonsense is a political relation, as are the categories of perception that sustain it’[3]. Liberals, on the other hand tend to talk about ‘actual politics’ (that’s the boring stuff that goes on between people who are officially recognised as ‘politicians’ i.e. people like Dave, Nick and Ed- known in Scotland as the Three Amigos). They concern themselves with ‘real worldy’ things like policy and free-market economics.

They also tend to do much better than non-liberals when it comes to promotional prospects in the academy. While critical urbanists have to hot-desk in shared office spaces and buy their own pencils and jotters, liberal academics get entire rooms to themselves, with mahogany furniture and a regular slot as a pundit on Newsnight.

Liberals talk about things like ‘evidence-based policy’, and reproduce, often without question, the concepts created via official discourse which in effect reproduce the language of governance (Newspeak to use an Orwelian term) rather than opening a space for critical inquiry.

They equate critical thinking with ‘moaning about stuff’ and invariably avoid reading articles or attending conference papers which have the word ‘Neoliberalism’ in the title, a word they deem to be not only vacuous, but a clear indication of the author’s intention to bleat on about how rubbish everything is.

More importantly, (we’re getting technical now so if you’re losing the will to live, then, I’m afraid you’re suspicions might be well placed. Yes. YOU could very well be a liberal). Liberals derive their ‘power’ from the efficacy of the double naturalization process which arises when mental structures (the categories of perception that persons apply to all things of the world) are more or less adequately adjusted to objective structures (the external world) giving the impression that everything in the world is just as it should be, natural, right, groovy and great! What liberals fail to adequately account for is the fact that when it comes to the production of these categories of perception, these epistemological couples (individual/collective, profit/loss, rights/responsibilities, etc.) the state operates on an industrial scale churning out, through the smog of ‘official discourse’, the rules and regulations, the laws, the guidelines, on how things should and should not be done, as well as the very definition of social problems and their solutions.

As Bourdieu (1994) warns, the state creates ‘social’ problems (through official discourse and processes of problematisation), which academics do little more than ratify when they take them over as ‘sociological’ problems. Liberals (mistakenly) see a hint of cynicism in the ‘radical doubt’ (Bourdieu 1994) that critical urbanists apply to their analyses of the state, particularly to the symbolic dimension, which masks, and thereby strengthens, relations of domination and exploitation by hiding them under a cloak of ‘nature’, ‘benevolence’ and ‘meritocracy’.

So be alert. Liberals don’t see the social world in this way. That’s the difference between them and us 🙂


Joe Crawford, PhD researcher, University of Stirling



Bourdieu, P (1994) Rethinking the State: Genesis and Structure of the Bureaucratic Field. Sociological Theory 12: 1



[1] Jeremy Paxman – the doyen of liberal thought, had to publicly admit (apologise) that the BBC had the ‘wool pulled over its eyes’ regarding WMDs and the Iraq war This folly could have been avoided had Paxman bothered to read Machiavelli while at Cambridge.

[2] Marx Capital Volume Three

[3] Bourdieu Language and Symbolic Power

The Big Society: Dead or Undead – Two Perspectives

Viewpoint 1: Dr Peter Matthews, University of Stirling (@urbaneprofessor)

You may think that the Big Society is now completely dead. The last time David Cameron did a major relaunch of it was over three years ago. However, it still keeps being plugged, most recently a year ago (apologies for the link to the Daily Mail). Most recently, the Big Society hit the headlines for all the wrong reasons with the National Audit Office investigating grants to the Big Society Network (see the excellent citizen reporting of Toby Blume for more on this).

It is undeniable that the UK coalition government, and David Cameron himself, are no longer putting the emphasis on the Big Society that they once were; the endless re-launches of the initiative that marked the first three years of the coalition have ended. The rise of UKIP and the growing pressures of austerity and other policy distractions have meant that the policy idea has lost any small degree of traction it once has.

Because of this, about a year ago, I was party to a conversation which included someone musing “does anyone do research on the Big Society anymore?” Given the paper I was currently working on with my co-author Prof. Annette Hastings had the “Big Society” in the title I was left feeling a little like the apocryphal students researching real existing socialism in the DDR in 1989, bravely fighting to keep the Berlin wall standing so they could complete their fieldwork.

However, the Big Society is still useful – particularly because it has become a metonym for so much more. Although the policy was quite separate from the localism policies, the one has come to represent the other. In launching the Big Society in 2010 David Cameron stated that:

“We know that the best ideas come from the ground up, not the top down. We know that when you give people and communities more power over their lives, more power to come together and work together to make life better – great things happen.”

Accepting this, we can argue that effectively the Big Society was the delivery mechanism, or the implementation phase, of localism. The Localism Act 2011 gave communities in England power over land-use planning, the community right-to-challenge, the community right-to-buy and the community right-to-bid. It now needed civic action to fill the gap the state was proposing to leave.

As a metonym it has proved particularly influential in academia – a quick google scholar search finds over 400,000 results since 2010. Part of this is because of the breadth of what it covers: the continued attempts by governments of all hues since the 1960s to empower and engage communities; the decades-old desire of governments to “decentralise” power (while often using these processes to cement centralisation); and the growing focus in policy on co-producing policy with communities and individuals rather than imposing solutions on them. As such, many of those 400,000 google hits are papers and commentaries that use the metonym to critique these bigger ideas.

While many critical researchers have looked into these areas, the most common intellectual traditions are critical theory and critical Marxism. The former, emerging from the work of Habermas, focuses on how practices of engagement diverge from the ideal of communicative action; the latter focuses on how structural inequalities are reproduced through governance processes. However, apart from the work of Jonathan Davies, very little work on political empowerment has engaged with the theoretical work of Pierre Bourdieu.

Bourdieu’s particular influence on class analysis has been his formulation of theoretical stance to understanding class distinction as cultural practice. As social actors in classed societies, we deploy unequally distributed economic, social and cultural capital when we act through our habitus deployed in social fields. A particular insight of Bourdieu that is useful for understanding policies such as the Big Society is the way that the capitals are deployed by individuals in a self-interested way, often quite strategic; as Bourdieu and Wacquant argued:

“The lines of action suggested by habitus may very well be accompanied by a strategic calculation of costs and benefits, which tends to carry out at a conscious level the operations that habitus carries out in its own way.”

Both the unconscious and conscious action from habitus also works to hide the unequal distribution of capitals, or to make their unequal distribution seem natural, through doxa.

Arguably, this is what the Big Society does. As demonstrated in my own research with Prof. Annette Hasting, there is strong evidence that middle-class people benefit disproportionately from the state because of their active engagement with it. In particular, of the four causal mechanisms we found by which this advantage is accrued, two – the alignment of cultural capital between users and providers; and the general favourable disposition of policy – are in evidence within the Big Society.

The Big Society normalises all the patterns of behaviour found in our review: neighbourhood planning and the community right-to-bid require organised skilled groups to lead processes which the middle classes are more likely to be members of. The idea of “armchair auditors” would mean the middle classes who complain more vociferously and more successfully. The greater cultural capital, and alignment of cultural capital, will mean middle class groups will be more successful in their interactions with the state. Yet the Big Society is presented as benefiting everyone at the very least, or in the grandest statements as benefiting the poorest most as it would empower them against their previous “reliance” on the state.

While initiatives like the community organisers may lead to investment in deprived communities, the massive cuts to local government expenditure across the UK and in England in particular, mean that services to give more marginalised communities voice, are those that are being slashed. The increasing focus in policy across the UK on using coproduction to reduce the costs of service delivery also belies some of these trends. It also ignores the fact that good coproduction often requires greater investment in services; services may be redesigned through coproduction but this will not necessarily save money.

If you wish to read a fuller account of the argument in this blog post and our setting out of a new research agenda applying Bourdieu in the analysis of inequality and the state, please see our new article Bourdieu and the Big Society: empowering the powerful in public service provision? in Policy and Politics journal. Please see the author’s institutional repository entries for open access versions of the paper after a year, or drop us an email for a copy.


Viewpoint 2: Dr Andy Inch, University of Sheffield

Some recent experiences have made me think again about that widely derided slogan ‘the big society’.

The first took place during an evening meeting of a community regeneration group. Two senior officers from the local authority came along to break the news that the council was pulling funding from the community centre where the group meets. This announcement did not come as a complete surprise but it is a serious blow for the residents of this deprived estate on the edge of Sheffield. The centre is the only community facility in an area that has been largely bypassed by previous rounds of public investment.

Whilst expressing sympathy with local residents, the officers explained that the authority simply had no choice in the face of what will eventually amount to a 50 percent reduction in centrally allocated grants. The cuts mean that the community centre cannot continue to be supported, if the residents want to retain it they are going to have to find a way to run it themselves.

I have some concerns about the ways in which such decisions are often made over the heads of those affected and I wonder whether the structures imposed by standard ‘cost-centre’ accountancy don’t sometimes close off the potential for more creative valuation and management of public assets. However, I don’t want to get too far into the rights and wrongs of this ultimatum here. The level of cuts facing many local authorities are clearly massive and do necessitate precisely these kind of unpleasant decisions.

What made me uneasy was the way the officers presented the news, the tone of: There. Is. No. Alternative. TINA. Thatcher’s favourite daughter still doing her bidding from beyond the grave.

The officers sought to distance themselves from any responsibility for the situation, it wasn’t their choice they told us but the withdrawal of the local state was now a foregone conclusion that had to be unconditionally accepted. In this new world it really is up to citizens to come together voluntarily. One of the officers went so far as to tell us that, although he hated the term, this was a ‘big society’ moment for these residents.

The ‘big society’ was, of course, a keyword of the Conservative General Election campaign of 2010 and the heady early days of the con-dem government. As articulated by its more committed proponents this was a reworking of significant traditions of conservative political thought, seeking to resuscitate the ‘little platoons’ of Burke’s civil society as a response to the twin excesses of the free market and the bloated central state. For David Cameron the idea helped lay blame for the state of ‘broken Britain’ at the dirigisme of New Labour; justifying the shrinking of the state as an unavoidable response to financial imprudence, whilst presenting unprecedented cuts in public spending as an opportunity to free up a spirit of cooperation and volunteering – where the state withdrew citizens would step forward to manage their own affairs.

Even within the Conservative party, however, the label was never really accepted and it quickly became a political liability. On the left it was widely derided as a thinly veiled justification for further rounds of neoliberal state restructuring.

As a result the term largely disappeared from use. Google trends data shows a peak of interest in February 2011 followed by a fairly steep decline. Although some academics have continued to try and make sense of the big society, like many of the big political concepts of recent years it now seems little more than an historical curiosity. (A point driven home to me when a well-respected academic journal knocked back a paper that a colleague and I had submitted on the basis that the big society was no longer of any interest to its readers!)

Since that evening, however, I have heard similar ‘big society’ sentiments repeated by other senior public sector officers and several groups of citizens who are now taking on the running of facilities. This leads me to wonder whether the big society is as dead as its disappearance from public discourse would suggest and if not, what this means for sustaining resistance to the imperatives of austerity.

Early in the con-dem government it seemed that forces of resistance were gaining momentum and that real political change might be possible. Over the last two years, however, the momentum of protest seems to have stalled. The country has stumbled on, the economy kept afloat by boatloads of capital seeking asylum in the London property market, any real political effects of crisis and austerity seemingly deferred. We seem to have entered what Gramsci might have called a morbid interregnum – the undead corpse of neoliberalism staggering on.

On one level the continued, zombie like presence of ‘big society choices’ is easy to explain. The effects of any policy take time to become apparent. The implications of cuts in local government funding are only slowly revealing their full extent. However, this truth jars with the ADHD symptoms that characterise our contemporary condition, the restless switching of our attention to the next political issue or celebrity scandal (a criticism that might equally be levied at the academy with the typically short-term imperatives of funding leading a restless search for the next big thing).

Of course, the big society choices being presented to many communities are significantly different from what the rhetoric promised. For many this is not a choice at all. Rather communities are being bullied into taking on massive responsibilities. It seems a fair bet that many will not be able to sustain the effort. Meanwhile, the very valid fears that were expressed when the idea was being debated and contested are now becoming a reality. Those communities that can will take on the burden. Those that can’t, won’t. Inequalities will be strikingly reinforced. Add in the combined impacts of welfare reforms and draconian workfare sanctions that actually prevent many people from volunteering in their communities and the picture looks even more worrying.

In this context, the absence of debate about the continued roll-out of the big society raises some significant questions. The defeat, and at this stage it looks like a serious ideological defeat, seems to be related to the difficulty of sustaining political engagement through the long attritional unfolding of this crisis. In this regard, we might speculate that part of the success of the big society lies precisely in the zombie form it has taken on. It’s hard to engage politically around a concept that has been quietly killed off, even as it’s language and logic reshape the world.

And what of the officers delivering the news? Their attempts to distance themselves from the term show that they do not necessarily identify with what is happening. But happening it is, and with seemingly little resistance on the part of local government. The distaste those officers described did not prevent them from carrying out the work they claimed to find so unpalatable. Here too we see ample evidence of ideological defeat. Being charitable we might see this as a pragmatic exercise in damage limitation, accepting a defeat and seeking to tactically minimize its worst effects (acknowledging too that some public sector workers may identify with principles of community control, albeit not like this). More worryingly, however, there seems little evidence of anyone playing a longer game. TINA seems to be firmly in control.


Editor’s Note

Readers might also be interested in related publications from the editorial collective on the Big Society & Localism themes:


Debating the Issue – Neighbourhood Effects By Joe Crawford, University of Stirling

As both John Flint and Keith Kintrea can testify, there was a period of my life (MPhil over a decade ago) when I thought that ‘neighbourhood effects research’ was the most exciting prospect in the entire field of urban studies. My own research involved interviewing people who had moved from social housing into the private sector through the Glasgow Rent Deposit Scheme, and showed that the move had multiple (if modest) advantages for tenants. But then, of course it would. To my mind, the benefits of ‘social mix’ and ‘mixed tenure’ communities, and the need to pursue this as a clear policy agenda, were beyond question. Opposition was simply inconceivable. Then I happened upon the work of Pierre Bourdieu and, for me, the neighbourhood effects bubble burst.

There have, of course, been other critics of the discipline. Tom Slater (1), for example, in his critique of what he refers to as ‘the cottage industry of neighbourhood effects research’, highlights the fact that it represents a falsely depoliticised vision of urban inequality. The obsession with trying to prove the existence of these effects, empirically, using regression models and quantitative analyses, focuses only on the symptoms thus (conveniently) diverting attention from the root causes of urban marginality.

Maybe I’m being too sociologically focused (or boringly Bourdieusian), but it seems that neighbourhood effects research has two fundamental ‘issues’ which I find rather difficult to ignore:

  • The concept of ‘neighbourhood processes’ is almost always constructed in traditional ‘neighbourhood effects literature’ as a linear model (cause and effect i.e. where you live affects your life chances). However, by examining the relationship between the tenants’ dispositions; gender, ethnicity, position in social space etc. (or, if you prefer, Bourdieu’s notion of habitus) and the wider neighbourhood (field) we see not a linear process but an entirely dialectical one. People make the world that makes them. It’s a two way process with the interaction of both ‘habitus’ and ‘field’. Seeing the process as a dialectical one is particularly useful as it dissolves the false antinomies that litter the academic world (i.e. structure/agency, objective/subjective, cause/effect etc.) Surely, then, a much better position from which to understand the relationship between residents and their residential areas. The difficulty for neighbourhood effects research is that it therefore requires a subjective view (the internalisation of the external world) which regression analysis almost never includes.
  • Neighbourhood effects research fails to acknowledge the simple assertion that where there are stratified societies there will be stratified areas of residence. The notion that housing is a form of ‘sociodicy’ has been almost completely overlooked. It is widely acknowledged that, in many societies, housing (along with residential area) is a principle source of status. Housing can also function as a powerful and enduring form of negative sociodicy. (The stigmatised residents degrade the neighbourhood that degrades them – a purely negative dialectical process). This asks serious questions about the policy assumptions around notions of ‘neighbourhood mix’. As Bourdieu points out in Weight of the World;

“If the habitat shapes the habitus, the habitus also shapes the habitat, through the more or less adequate social usages that it tends to make of it. This certainly throws doubt on the belief that bringing together in the same physical space agents who are far apart in social space might, in itself, bring them closer socially: in fact socially distanced people find nothing more intolerable than physical proximity” (2)

I was somewhat surprised, therefore, that neighbourhood effects research was alive and well (if not thriving), with an entire stream all of its own at the (otherwise brilliant) ENHR conference in Edinburgh 2014.

For me the two issues above are of fundamental importance. I no longer accept that you can understand neighbourhoods by focusing only on one dimension of a complex process rather than examining the relationship between two (subjective and objective rather than taking either/or as the object of study). Housing Studies is important, which makes it expedient that our methods and theories are as robust as possible. I’m not renouncing the need to understand neighbourhood processes but I am questioning the methodological and theoretical models we employ. Critical engagement is one way of ‘honing’ our arguments and sharpening our thinking. If you wish to contribute to this debate, please feel free. The rules are simple; all contributions (emailed to Kim McKee) must be less than 750 words.

Joe Crawford, PhD Researcher, University of Stirling



  • Slater. T. (2013) ‘Capitalist urbanisation affects your life chances: exorcising the ghosts of ‘neighbourhood effects” in D. Manley, M. Van Ham, N. Bailey and L. Simpson, & D. Maclennan (eds) Neighbourhood Effects or Neighbourhood Based Problems? A Policy Context (Springer Press) pp113-132
  • Bourdieu, P (1999) Weigh of the World. Social Suffering in Contemporary Society. Cambridge: Polity Press.