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Between practice, policy and academia: The difficult space of the housing researcher Dr Rowland Atkinson UTAS.

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Presentation on theme: "Between practice, policy and academia: The difficult space of the housing researcher Dr Rowland Atkinson UTAS."— Presentation transcript:

1 Between practice, policy and academia: The difficult space of the housing researcher Dr Rowland Atkinson UTAS

2 Student: “I’m studying X, what theory should I use?” Practitioner: –“The last thing we need is more theory, I say just get on with the research” Or: –“I already knew that” or “That is wrong, in my experience Y is the case…” Policymaker: “What you say is very interesting but what we need is to have practical results that we can use” Academic: “How can I do policy work that is critical, and engages with theory and explanation in a final report?”

3 When theory meets policy research


5 Context Housing research is under-theorised: –‘Epistemic drift’ and ‘conceptual decomposition’ in the face of policy application –An engagement with policy forces deconceptualisation upon us (Kemeny) Where do we as housing researchers locate ourselves? –In terms of our social philosophy of research practice –Our mediating role between policy, practice and academia –In debates about the relative centrality of theory

6 A research machine? Questions selected by policy-makers Research undertaken by academics in bureaucratic and business-oriented environments Research serving the function of sealing the closure of policy interventions Possibilities for innovation and explanation are limited by short-term research horizons

7 Social construction of housing problems Our engagement with ‘housing’ is guided by the identification of problems We are not separate from the social world that we study and can act on our object of study –In doing research we are also making an intervention into the social world and potentially changing it To what extent is the identification of problems the result of: –A sociological imagination, or; –A policymaker-led agenda? –The internalisation of the parameters of key debates?

8 Theory-dependence of observation (Keat and Urry) An example – Gentrification and household displacement Explanation of gentrification – –supply/political economic vs demand-side/cultural explanations Def: the rehabilitation of working-class and derelict housing and the consequent transformation of an area into a middle-class neighbourhood (Smith and Williams, 1986) Based on these explanations and definitions we are already guided in the operationalisation of the concept and measurement of the social world So what do we make of new-build gentrification?

9 Guiding frameworks Grand theory as ‘milieu’ Examples – ANT, Bourdieu, Foucault, Giddens, Bauman, Castells etc etc The language of housing research and parameters of debates are affected by these theorists The function of theory in research may be clouded by branches of theory which are difficult to apply empirically

10 Theory or theorising? Need to make explicit how we conceptualise our objects of study Need to make explicit how we interpret and understand phenomena – the idea of ‘commonsense’ erodes these needs Clear, communicable thinking is essential – anticipating lay responses to theory are important in thinking about its role for housing research: –Understood –Socially meaningful/relevant –Capable of application


12 Theory is for everyone This includes practitioners who are experts in theorising ‘small’ epistemic domains – the housing estate or patch, the GPs surgery etc Positions of academics and practitioners is not incommensurable – both use forms of theory as structured understandings of how the world works

13 Practitioner & policymaker theorists Traditional view is of an a-theoretical group Yet role of theory in practice is evident: –“Why do these particular groups engage with my services?” –“Why are these people produced by the society around me?” –“Are anti-social tenants born or made?” –“Why do my clients all come from the same kind of area?” Limitations of this view: –Inductive theory-building may be based on limited contexts –Tends to lack structure and empirical evidence generated by systematic or cross-case insight

14 ‘The attitude to work is different…they don’t have a work ethos and they don’t see the purpose of education and training and that happens more here than other similar schemes [i.e. housing estates] in Glasgow in my professional experience…It’s long-term dependency on the state, it develops an ethos of dependency and an ethos of “why should I do that”? People don’t take responsibility’ (Community Care Worker, Deprived area) Atkinson and Kintrea, 2005 - Practitioner Experiences and Explanations of Area Effects and Life Chances, Sociology.


16 The difficult space of the housing researcher Academic housing researcher: –Addresses multiple audiences –Fundamentally located in a ‘field’ in which there is a primacy attached to theory i.e. the academy New pressures – RQF, research funding, need for impact, community engagement etc

17 Housing researcher PractitionersPolicymakersPoliticiansThe publicAcademia

18 Cycles of investigation and insight Research timeframe/ Theoretical depth ShortMediumLong Shallow Policy work, evaluations, academic as impartial ‘hired gun’ Moderate Projects, articles and chapters Deep Books, reflective commentary, academic as public thinker

19 Tyranny of the research moment? Housing researchers need to engage with all three intersections Short-term engagements may challenge aspects of our role within the academic field Short-term work may also yield rich cumulative theoretical work Yet policymakers tend to focus on one dimension of academic research practice

20 Avoiding the envelopes Our challenge is to: –Avoid epistemic envelopes (discipline based knowledge for other academics, not for social change), and; –Policy envelopes (short term and non-cumulative thinking) Policy logics are both cumulative and cyclical – ‘big ideas’ may make an impact –Debates about social mix – yes –Affordability and public housing – ?? In policy research environment process is both formalised and restricted e.g. AHURI and ARC research agendas Theorising, intuition and broader investigation - criticism (Kemeny) and imagination (Mills) should be our starting points

21 Domus academicus Methodologist (qual and quant principles) Strong theoretical orientation and search for explanation and criticism over description Expert in N areas of empirical enquiry Expert in intersecting/complex research and theoretical literatures crossing disciplinary boundaries – geography, sociology, economics, politics, psychology, social policy On top of current debates operating in lay, practitioner, policy and academic areas A writer/speaker to multiple audiences and at different ‘speeds’ e.g. media (quick/live) - (developmental/slow) Educator – preparation of materials, evaluation of students at multiple levels Engagement with all three research/theory loops Media and policy savvy

22 Some proposals 1.Social theory is implicitly involved in housing research, whether acknowledged by the researcher or not 2.Ideas should be made explicit in sympathetic exchange between policy, method and theory savvy researchers and policymakers 3.Role of housing researcher implies a more advanced and multiple set of skills than that of the ‘ordinary’ academic 4.The ‘added value’ of academics doing policy work is the long, disinterested and deep view

23 Closing messages Researchers are located in a difficult space between competing audiences, agendas and targets Housing researchers work to multiple timeframes - often able to stress the role of theory and insight (academia) and quick/operable messages (policy) Since theory is about the role of structured explanation our search should be for research (questions and agendas) that facilitates deeper engagement The ‘under-theorised’ charge probably holds less weight today, yet these tensions (between policy, practice and academia) will probably increase under a climate of increased ‘community’ application, the RQF and market- oriented solutions to public problems

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