The AHRC and the “Big Society”

by Chris Bertram on March 30, 2011

I wish I had time to write more about this, but a few links will have to do. On Sunday the Observer ran a story that the AHRC, the main state-funding body for arts and humanities research in the UK, had caved into pressure from the British government to include “the Big Society” (the Cameron Tories name for their attempt to hijack mutualism while cutting public services) as one of the things they’d support research into. Subsequently, the AHRC issued a vigorous denial, “refuting” [sic] the allegations. Well it looks like the Observer story was wrong, that a journalist misunderstood his informant (the actual government pressure was on the British Academy – see here) and that the AHRC had not bowed to ministers. So why, then, does the AHRC promote “the Big Society” on its website? It turns out that, rather the like the British journalist of the poem, they don’t need to be bribed or twisted but are happy to guess what their political paymasters want and publicize a party-political agenda on their own initiative. British academics are upset. See Iain Pears here and here, and my colleague James Ladyman at the New Statesman. And there’s a petition: do sign it.



Hidari 03.30.11 at 5:54 pm

This is appalling, but one must be careful not to confuse the symptoms and the disease. Doubtless there will be a fuss and the AHRC will remove the ‘Big Society’ related stuff from its website.

But that’s not really the point. The point is that the ideology of the big funding bodies (and they all do have an ideology: they are not in any sense ‘neutral’) is increasingly congruent with that of the Coalition, and that this process has been going on since the Blair Government (at least). It is now taken as read in any grant application (I’m speaking from personal experience of applying to the ESRC, and I believe the EPSRC is no better) that research is more likely to be accepted if it has ‘real world implications’ or whatever the oily euphemism is: in other words, if it can help ‘develop Britain’s economy’ or could conceivably lead to some product or service that might lead to a Uni spin-off or start up company. Also smiled upon (and I know this because I went to a seminar called ‘how to get grant money’ or similar) are ‘on the one hand, but, then again, on the other hand’ type studies that don’t offend anyone and end up with ‘at the end of the day, it’s a game of two halves’ type conclusions. ‘Market solutions’ to non-market problems are also highly esteemed. And don’t be fooled: few will admit it now, but at the time many senior academics in the social sciences were highly impressed by Third Way thinking and thought it was a fine and dandy idea: it wasn’t just Giddens.

And this has all become a lot more important since the introduction of the FEC, which also has easily seen through ideological connotations (so to speak).

And ‘refute’?


engels 03.30.11 at 8:26 pm

Oh dear. As the cliché goes, it would be funny if it wasn’t so tragic. It not, just, that they’re promoting a party-political agenda, it is that they are promoting one which almost everybody else in the country rightly regards as a joke.


Mandos 03.30.11 at 9:16 pm

The whole “Big Society” thing is so comical. I know very little about it except that it’s a Cameron Tory gimmick, but I now want to say “Our society is THIIIIIS big.”


Aulus Gellius 03.30.11 at 9:24 pm

I’m never sure if I’m missing something about the Big Society due to my American perspective. There was a very carefully evenhanded article in the New Yorker about it, which left me with the impression that the idea was, instead of just cutting a lot of spending, to cut a lot of spending, but simultaneously talk a lot about people looking out for each other. Is that basically it?


Jonathan Hopkin 03.30.11 at 9:25 pm

Labour pushed plenty of their agenda through the research councils too. This has been brewing for a while.
The best way to react to this is put in bids for projects that will piss the government off, like showing that trade unions are integral to the Big Society, or that the presence of voluntary groups is correlated with higher rates of sex offending.


hellblazer 03.30.11 at 11:12 pm

Aulus Gellius: as a Brit who left the country about 4 years ago, I think your reading of the B S is pretty much correct. “We’re going to cut you off at the knees, but we’ll encourage people to carry you up the stairs when they have time. (Can’t build an elevator, though.)”


mcd 03.31.11 at 1:59 am

We’re all on our own together.


praisegod barebones 03.31.11 at 7:18 am

Well, if quarter of a million or so marching in London to say what they think of Cameron and the coalition isn’t a Big Society, then I don’t know what is.


sloth 03.31.11 at 10:29 am

There are some very amusing entries on the twitter hashtag #bigsocietyresearchproposals , in case you haven’t seen it. My personal fave being ‘The Notorious B.I.G Society: The Influence of East Coast Hip Hop on Conservative Policy, 1992-2011’


Hidari 03.31.11 at 11:33 am

‘The best way to react to this is put in bids for projects that will piss the government off, like showing that trade unions are integral to the Big Society, or that the presence of voluntary groups is correlated with higher rates of sex offending.’

Back in the day, some of you might remember Private Eye did a spoof (Daily Mail) news story ‘Does Voting Labour Cause AIDS? In a shock discovery, top British doctors have found that voting Labour might be an important factor in contracting the killer disease AIDS….’

May I suggest that causal links between voting Labour (or being a trade unionist) and contracting AIDS might be a suitable research project for the Big Society? Given the political views of the research councils, this seems to be the sort of thing they might approve of.


Jonathan 03.31.11 at 12:04 pm

As comments have got a trifle frivolous here, I hope I can be excused posting a little off topic. As comments on the original story about philosophy at Keele University are now closed I post this news today:

Could anyone in the know let us know whether this is as good news as it appears to be? I certainly hope so. Also, if this is the case then it’s the second major u-turn by the management there after what happened with the business school there in 2008.


Bill Wringe 03.31.11 at 12:37 pm

Jonathan – from what I have heard, the news from Keels is good (at least in the short run.

This, however, is not so good.


rea 03.31.11 at 2:49 pm

I thought one of Cameron’s predecessors demonstrated that there is no such thing as society?


sg 03.31.11 at 2:54 pm

I don’t think we need to worry. If they withdraw the big society theme and lose government funding, they can always take the honourable approach shown by other institutions, and sell a PhD to a plagiarizing middle eastern strongman.


Thom Brooks 04.01.11 at 12:14 pm

I urge readers to sign the petition and forward the link to their colleagues to sign. The size and depth of support will offer the AHRC clear “evidence-based impact” on the unpopularity for their inclusion of “The Big Society” in its delivery plan. Research councils should not include political party campaign slogans within delivery plans on strategic research funding priorities. Many colleagues have commented to me that the AHRC will make the amendments called for. This is an expression of positive engagement and let us hope this transpires.


BenSix 04.02.11 at 1:12 pm

…the main state-funding body for arts and humanities research in the UK…

And yet – aaaand yet – even they cannot resist using “refute” to mean “deny”.

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