This blogpost was previously published on Discover Society New Series 1(3), Expertise, Publics, and the Construction of Government Policy.
Header image credit: Puckpics
I’m sitting in Portcullis House, nursing a coffee across the table from my Whitehall contact. He’s kindly agreed to speak to me about the processes involved in collating evidence to inform parliamentary decision-making.
Over the past few months, I’ve been watching parliamentary evidence sessions, trying to work out how to get the findings drawn from my project about what Brexit meant for the estimated 1.2 million British citizens living in the EU—the other side of the citizens’ rights negotiations concerning EU citizens in Britain—onto the right desks so that it stood a chance of feeding into the Brexit negotiations as they were ongoing. It was a task that seemed incredibly urgent. At times, it seemed as though I was spending more time trying to find ways to communicate the research to the relevant non-academic stakeholders than I was doing the research.
I ask my contact about a recent evidence session where all those giving oral evidence to the committee had been from campaign and advocacy groups. He sighs. The Brexit inquiries have been so unlike any other parliamentary inquiry he’s worked on. He explains that the mistrust of experts that had, in part, fuelled the campaign has also influenced the shape of the inquiries in the House of Commons.
Citizens’ rights—part of phase one of the Brexit negotiations dealing with the rights of those who had moved under the terms of the EU Freedom of Movement Directives—were a case in point. The publics directly affected brought in to provide testimony not alongside, but in lieu of, experts. He assures me that the research is being read by parliamentary librarians and civil servants, and that giving oral evidence is not the only way to feed into the parliamentary process.
A few months later, a report my team co-authored with the Migration Policy Institute Europe would not only be included in a joint report on the progress of the Brexit negotiations, it would also be used as evidence in correspondence between the UK and EU about securing the post-Brexit rights of British citizens living in the EU. Even further down the line, I would give evidence to the House of Lords EU Affairs committee about the progress of the implementation of citizens’ rights for British citizens living in the EU.
What more could I ask for? On the surface, it looks as though the project and its impact goals are done and dusted.
Public sociology/ sociology with publics
Recalling this exchange is a way of opening up discussions about the work and practice of making sociology public. It speaks to the some of the challenges we came up against conducting a live sociology project on an undeniably lively topic, where engaging with a range of publics was an integral feature of the research design. It also offers some insights into working against the backdrop of an accelerated impact agenda, where projects funded by the Brexit Priority Grant Scheme were evaluated on and later expected to offer public engagement and (non-academic) stakeholder engagement even as the research was unfolding.
Beyond the political scepticism about ‘expertise’—a reality that sociologists are all too familiar with—this exchange was an important reminder that for a public sociology to really succeed requires an understanding of the rules of the game as they apply in other worlds. It was only through this conversation with my Whitehall contact that the pieces of the puzzle really started to fall into place about what prospects there might be for sociological research to influence Brexit policy-making and parliamentary processes. In what follows, I reflect in more detail on entering the public debate in the context of a project that was also seeking to uncover problems associated with emergent Brexit policy.
There are many other stories I could tell that reflect on the relationships with the project’s other publics—academics, advocacy and campaign groups, Civil Society Organisations, ThinkTanks, members of the general public, journalists and broadcasters. These would offer other insights into a broader set of relationships that we had to navigate through the project. From the outset there were questions about who stakeholders and publics for the research were and on what terms our engagements with them could take place.
Writing this after the event, it is difficult to capture how the shifting stakes in the wider politics impacted the research and the relationships at its heart. But as the project got underway, we started to find our way through. First steps included building relationships with these different publics, developing our knowledge of how these relationships might work in practice. This may seem like stating the obvious. But it was only through time and patience that we developed a sense of where we might sit within the conversations about Brexit, of how the research might usefully enter public debate. Importantly, as a lively topic, this position was not fixed but dynamic, prone to shifts in the wider context and their politics. And while at times, we gained purchase with some of stakeholders and publics—often in seemingly inexplicable ways—at others, our efforts would sink without a trace.
In what follows I offer some brief reflections on the work and politics of making sociological research public through the BrExpats research project. This is not a how-to guide or a theoretical treatise about public sociology. Nor is it an account of becoming a public sociologist or ‘Brexit expert’. For me, such labels sit uncomfortably as they run the risk of tipping over into the more vacuous realm of academic celebrity and ‘talking heads’. Instead, I offer some brief reflections on the work of doing sociology publicly, in ways that foreground social justice, and are influenced by our responsibilities towards those taking part in our research.
Researching what Brexit means for British citizens in the EU
With its promise to ‘end free movement’ from the get-go it seemed likely that Brexit would have profound implications for the British citizens who had, through Britain’s membership, made homes and lives for themselves across the European Union. Yet, from the campaign through the referendum and beyond, this was not a story that was making headlines. As one of a handful of social science researchers who had worked with British citizens living abroad, their absence in public and political debates about Brexit—even as changes were introduced that would have profound implications for their lives—was unsurprising to me.
After the Referendum, talking with my longstanding co-author Karen O’Reilly, we found ourselves thinking about what would Brexit mean for those British citizens in Franceand Spain who had taken part in our original research? We knew from our earlier research, that whatever happened with Brexit, within these diverse communities people would be unevenly positioned to respond to the challenges that Brexit presented them. There would be people who would fall between the gaps as rights and entitlements changed, as the terms on which people lived and worked were renegotiated. And yet, when British citizens abroad were referred to in public and political debates, they were presented in stereotypical and monolithic ways that failed to capture the very different conditions and circumstances in which they lived.
Our conversations, taking place at a time when funding initiatives were being rapidly approved to document the impacts of Brexit, in time led to a successful funding proposal to examine what Brexit meant for Britons resident in the EU. Funded through the Economic and Social Research Council’s (ESRC) Brexit Priority Grant Scheme run by UK in a Changing Europe, the BrExpats project would document in real time how Brexit, as it unfolded, was being lived and experienced by British citizens living across the EU; with what consequences for their rights and social entitlements; and with what outcomes for their lives.
Importantly, the original call for applications had specified that ‘grant holders will be expected to undertake stakeholder and public engagement activity throughout the grant’s duration’ (ESRC, 2017: 1; emphasis added), Brexit the hook for a broader agenda aimed at demonstrating the value of social science research (and researchers) in public and political debates.
With a project focussed on generating new research, thinking about what public engagement might look like, who our publics might be, and how our engagements with them would fit with the project more generally, was at the heart of the research design. In a recent article published in Qualitative Sociology, Karen and I have written about how public engagement was part of an iterative and reflexive research design for the project that integrated digital methods and public engagement alongside face-to-face interviews and participant observation. The approach we took was intended to deepen the research in a fast-moving context, to bear witness to Brexit as it unfolded for British citizens living across the EU in all its complexities. At times our interests converged with those of the citizens’ rights advocacy groups—particularly when it came to highlighting the blind spots and absences in the negotiations and consequent policy-making. But importantly, the research was not driven by an advocacy agenda.
Our approach recognised Brexit as an ongoing process—experienced by individuals and communities on a daily basis, giving rise to shifts in policy and practice, and the resulting outcomes and responses; took account of the fact that we would working in the midst of the heightened politics of Brexit; and also took seriously the politics of social research. And while I do not have the space to go into this here, it meant working reflexively and collaboratively within the project team—Katherine Collins, Chantelle Lewis and Michael Danby, engaging contractors who could help with the production, communication and distribution of the project outputs. This work of collaboration, dialogue and co-production that is so often relegated behind the scenes, is crucial to making a project of this scale public.
Doing sociology in public
The initial work towards embedding public engagement in the project involved creating a space for dialogue with and feedback from a public who were at the heart of the project and its concerns: British citizens living in the EU. With this in mind, we built a basic platform: a website, Twitter account and Facebook page and citizens’ panel—an internet-mediated element of the research project—through which British citizens living across the EU could contribute to the project. This latter element of our platform complemented the in-depth (in person) case studies Karen and I conducted in Spain and France—which host the two largest populations of British citizens in the EU. Where our contributors agreed, some of their contributions were made public through our platforms.
Making the project public in these way, we reached out through our existing networks and social media to bring people into our conversations. In this way, we were also able to connect with groups and organisations but also individuals, listening to their concerns and considering how we might contribute in meaningful ways to the bigger conversations that were ongoing about Brexit and its implications. I should stress here, that this also meant being attentive to silences, noticing whose voices were not being heard or present in these (online) conversations and thinking about ways to amplify these through the research and through our presence in these conversations.
I want to stress here that working with those directly-impacted by Brexit and changes to their rights was a particularly close relationship. In a context characterised by misinformation, platforming the research publicly was central to developing trust in the relationship between us and our primary public. It was a way of showing that we were engaged in the conversation and that we were listening—albeit with a sociological ear—to how best to engage and work with them. The stakes, anxieties and wariness of many of those we were engaged were a regular reminder that we needed to tread carefully. As a close relationship, it was prone to friction. In the spirit of offering a frank account, we didn’t always get it right or strike the right balance. Maintaining close relationships, including those at the heart of our research projects, may require repair work.
As the project progressed, we were able to hone the key contributions that we could make to ongoing conversations—among them, our repeated challenge to stereotypical understandings of British citizens living in the EU and urgent need to recognise the uneven outcomes of Brexit within this stratified population. By the time the funding for the project ended in December 2019, we had produced a catalogue of outputs testifying to our efforts to engage with a diverse set of publics through our research. This included a policy report (co-authored with Migration Policy Institute), an end-of-project website, a 73-episode podcast series, short animations, infographics and GIFs, numerous articles and broadcast appearances in national and international media platforms.
The politics of doing live sociology of Brexit
With the benefit of hindsight I am struck by how naïvely the initial funding application reads. The ‘pathways to impact’ statement—a now-redundant element of ESRC funding applications—betrays how little I understood about the processes for achieving ‘impact’. More than anything, it underestimated the work required to build and engage with diverse publics. The well-rehearsed critiques of the impact agenda aside, in the context of Brexit, finding ways for research oriented towards social transformation to enter public debates was urgent.
Entering the fray, we had to learn how to navigate a crowded space, to find the helping hands in amongst the sharp elbows. Indeed, I first met my Whitehall contact at panel event where my abiding memory was of struggling to get a word in as two so-called ‘Brexit experts’ debated their conflicting understandings of the relationship between Brexit and immigration.
In the context of Brexit, its twists and turns, and the congestion generated through proliferation of commentary, ‘hot takes’ and echo chambers, finding a place for our research to inform public debate and balancing this with our obligations to those taking part in the research was no mean feat. Some of the wider relationships required for public engagements to take place took time to build, while others were more fleeting coming together in the moment for particular ends. Some were facilitated by the UK in a Changing Europe and other institutions with which we were connected. Our efforts at engagement sometimes led to dead ends, while platforming the project also brought unanticipated opportunities to the project.
We got there in the end. We delivered what we had promised through the initial funding application and more, despite the context. All of this is to say that doing sociology in public located the project in a complex of relationships, our position shifting as the project (and Brexit) unfolded.
To cite this item:
Benson, M. (2021) Reflections on Doing Sociology Live in Lively Times, Discover Society New Series 1(3), 22 September 2021 [Online]. Available at: https://doi.org/10.51428/dsoc.2021.03.0002