Author Archives: Ashley Crowson

Studying Abroad and the Neoliberal ‘Cult of Experience’ in the Youth Labour Market

By Ashley Crowson, King’s College London

Figures released this week have shown that more UK students than ever are travelling abroad as part of their degree programmes.

Last year, 15,566 UK students studied in another country as participants in the European Union’s Erasmus programme. This was a 115% increase in the number who took part in 2007, when the scheme was first extended to the UK. Large increases in students travelling to China, India and the USA have also been observed.

The figures were released ahead of the British Council’s annual ‘Going Global’ conference for leaders of international education. Professor Rebecca Hughes, British Council Director of Education, said, “This latest evidence confirms that a growing number of the UK’s students are recognising the huge value to be gained from international experience… The UK needs graduates who have the skills and confidence to compete globally, and can compete against foreign talent that may speak more languages, and have wider international experience.”

An Erasmus promotional video highlighting the professional benefits of studying abroad.

Clare Holdsworth addresses the seemingly uncontroversial nature of such statements in a recent article for Area. Holdsworth argues:

Young people are called upon to make themselves employable through engaging in a range of experiences that may include: volunteering, work experience, paid work, internships, travel, leisure and membership of organisations. This fetishizing of experience is becoming so normalised that it is rarely contested. It appears self-evident that in order to protect themselves against an absent future, young people need to not only complete more education and/or training, but they have to acquire experiences to stand out from the crowd.

Holdsworth takes issue with the commodification of experience, suggesting that experiences gained in order to guarantee a better future are ‘conventional and passive’, and have little to do with experimentation, creativity, exploration or learning. Holdworth’s main focus, however, is with the popular notion that the acquisition of experience is a solution to the difficulties of the current youth labour market:

The prevailing popular discourse of youth is one of failure against the need to do better. Thus if academic grades increase, this is because of grade inflation; if more young people are out of work, this is because they do not have the correct skills; if graduates cannot get jobs, this is because they have not acquired the right ‘experiences’… This failure to see beyond the supply side of the labour market is having profound effects on young people’s lives… Not only are young people still faced with the difficulty of finding a job, they are having to do so in direct competition with their peers in a ever-growing globalised labour supply… Thus programmes for work experience, placements, volunteering, internships etc. are rolled out in order to compel young people to invest in their own futures…The cult of experience reinforces this charging of responsibility and passes over other solutions that target the demand side of the youth labour market.

The article highlights the arms race-like nature of the neoliberal youth employment market: as experience is seen as increasingly necessary in order to compete with one’s peers, young people are compelled to engage in more and more homogenised ‘experiences’, effectively ‘running faster in order to stand still’. Invariably, those who win this experience arms race are those with the greatest financial means.

This article also raises important questions for university geography departments; fieldwork has long been seen as a crucial part of a geography degree, but how, in a neoliberal educational establishment, can the experience of fieldwork be elevated above that of a CV-enhancing commodity and turned into a ‘genuine’ learning experience, encouraging students to explore, experiment and consider their own subjectivity?

 Clare Holdsworth, 2015, The cult of experience: standing out from the crowd in an era of austerityArea, DOI: 10.1111/area.12201.

An Uncomfortable Encounter for David Cameron in the ‘Auditory Space’ of Radio 1

By Ashley Crowson, King’s College London.

The UK election campaign has, so far, been a rather dull, stage-managed affair, with political leaders tending to opt for speeches to the party faithful and heavily choreographed photo opportunities over grillings from well informed, forthright and inquisitorial journalists.

In this context, it was incredibly exciting to hear David Cameron subjected to a ‘mauling’ at the hands of a panel of young people during a Q&A for BBC Radio 1’s ‘live lounge’.

In what was arguably the toughest media appearance the Prime Minister has faced during this campaign, Radio 1’s young audience quizzed Cameron on, among other subjects, his record on homelessness, his refusal to rule out a coalition with homophobic political parties, and whether he would like to see the introduction of a living wage.

The PM’s handling of these questions does not make for comfortable listening.

The public service remit of Radio 1 is to “engage a broad range of young listeners with a distinctive mix of contemporary music and speech” and to “reflect the lives and interests of 15-29 year olds”. In the March edition of Geography Compass, Catherine Wilkinson explores radio that fulfils a broadly similar role, arguing that it offers “crucial spaces of development for young people’s identities, and a space of creative learning outside of a more formal environment of school.” (p. 127)

Wilkinson’s focus is youth engagement with ‘community’ radio, i.e. radio with a public function serving geographic, ethnic, cultural or social communities. Reviewing literature dealing with community radio, Wilkinson contends that programming created both by and for young people in an urban context allows them to “listen to discussions by their peers about how they resist the social restraints erected for them by their families and the wider society. In this scenario, radio functions as an alternative space for those young urbanites who have limited public spaces to meet and share stories about their social and cultural interests” (p.131).

Such broadcasting creates “genuine potential for community radio stations to provide young people with a space for the exploration and exhibition of voice, and a space that has inclusionary potential.” As such, “community radio… is a means of agency for young people and of negotiating marginalisation, and… is affectively central to disenfranchised urban young people in attaining civic participation.” (p.135)

The Radio 1 Live Lounge encounter with David Cameron does appear to be an example of meaningful civic participation fostered by youth-centred radio. The panel of young people articulated a political vision attentive to LGBTQ rights, and the rights of migrants and society’s most vulnerable; priorities that have not always been so prominent in less youth-centric election coverage. This encounter, then, raises some interesting questions about the capacity of youth radio’s auditory space, in the absence of the availability of traditional public spaces for young people, to act as a catalyst in the formulation and projection of a distinctive ‘youth voice’.

More broadly, Wilkinson’s paper represents a small shift within geographical research from the visual to the aural. As Alasdair Pinkerton (2014) notes, “it is important to recall that prior to the development of textual communication, human experiences of space was largely conditioned through shared oral traditions.” (p.64)

 Catherine Wilkinson, 2015, Young People, Community Radio and Urban LifeGeography Compass, DOI: 10.1111/gec3.12197.

 Alasdair Pinkerton, 2014, ‘Radio‘ In: Paul Adams, Jim Craine and Jason Dittmer, eds. The Ashgate Research Companion to Media Geography. Ashgate, pp. 53-68.

Breaking Bad, Masculinity and Media Pilgrimages

By Ashley Crowson, king’s College London

Depending on your TV viewing habits, the house below is either an entirely unremarkable suburban residence or it is the home of television’s greatest antihero, unassuming high school chemistry teacher turned underworld kingpin Walter White.

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Walter White’s house. Albuquerque, New Mexico. Image: Karl Kaktus Creative Commons 2.0

This house has recently featured in the entertainment press as Breaking Bad creator, Vince Gilligan, while discussing the show’s new spinoff series Better Call Saul, has chastised fans for repeatedly throwing pizzas on to its roof. The house, in Albuquerque, New Mexico, is home to a retired couple and was used for exterior shots in the show. The pizza throwing fans are replicating an infamous scene, in which an enraged Walt hurls a ‘party pizza’ on to the garage roof.

Walt’s infamous pizza throw. Image: funnyordie.com

Visits to the White residence, alongside many other sites used as locations on the show, have been driving something of a tourism boom in Albuquerque. Fans can take Breaking Bad tours and buy merchandise at numerous themed gift shops. This impulse to undertake a pilgrimage to locations associated with popular films and TV series is something that has intrigued geographers.

Couldry (2003) argues that such pilgrimages are implicitly connected to the symbolic authority of the media; they represent a symbolic journey in which the distance between the ‘ordinary world’ and the ‘media world’ is momentarily collapsed, giving the impression that this boundary is traversable.

Writing in Area, Stijn Reijnders take issue with this approach, arguing, “We should take into account the cultural embeddedness of media pilgrimages.” And that we need to acknowledge “the way the authority of the media is related to other power structures, such as gender and ethnicity.” Reijnders does this by focussing on the relation between media pilgrimages and masculinity, looking specifically at why fans travel to James Bond film locations.

Reijnders explains, “Scholars interpret Bond as a paragon of manliness – a paragon with a strongly conservative and hetero-normative disposition… The respondents recognise this sexual ideology, but without explicitly condemning it. On the contrary, these fans – the majority of whom are white, heterosexual men – adore the character of Bond. Exploring his world and repeating some of his actions affords these fans the opportunity to embody and act out a certain idealised masculinity.”

Breaking Bad is also a show with a lot to say about masculinity. One reading might interpret it as a cautionary tale about the foolishness of traditional notions of masculinity. In one scene, big-time drug dealer Gus Fring tells Walt, “A man provides. And he does it even when he’s not appreciated, or respected, or even loved. He simply bears up and he does it. Because he’s a man.”

This is a concept of masculinity that our protagonist seems to embrace. When Walt gets his cancer diagnosis, pride prevents him from accepting assistance from very wealth former colleagues. Instead, in a bid to ‘provide for his family’, he embarks on a course of violence, criminality, brutality and, ultimately, tragedy.

An alternative reading might see the show as revelling in the transformation of Walter White from a meek and nerdy teacher to a hyper-masculine gun-toting criminal mastermind. The audience is invited to celebrate occasions when Walt dominates and out-manoeuvres his prototypically macho brother-in-law, who previously mocked his bookish demeanour.

Reijnders concludes that media pilgrimages are about more than simply closing the gap between the ‘ordinary world’ and the ‘media world’. Imitating Bond “at the very place where he was sitting, running, fighting or making love” enables fans to “recollect the roots of their own masculinity, to refresh it and to define it.”

Unlike Bond, who arrives as a fully formed paragon of heteronormative masculinity, Walter White transforms into something not too dissimilar on screen. Many of the male pizza tossing fans, then, who travel great distances, often at considerable expense, to replicate the antics of their hero might be considered not just to be closing the gap between ‘real world’ and ‘TV world’, but to be engaged in processes of defining and redefining their own masculinity, processes in which location is of crucial importance.

 Stijn Reijnders, 2010, On the trail of 007: media pilgrimages into the world of James BondArea 42(3) 369-377.

 Nick Couldry, 2003, Media Rituals: A Critical Approach. Psychology Press.

Engineering Meaningful Encounters Across Difference

By Ashley Crowson, king’s College London

Since the attack on a kosher supermarket in Paris last month and the killings in Denmark last week in which a Jihadist gunman targeted those attending Copenhagen’s main synagogue, interfaith and inter-community relations have inevitably been in the spotlight.

With much of the media often keen to portray the relationship between Muslim and Jewish communities as one of out-and-out hostility centred on an irresolvable religious conflict, heartening acts of inter-community solidarity can often be overlooked. In response to the shootings in Denmark, for instance, a group of young Norwegian Muslims organised a ‘ring of peace’ around Oslo’s main synagogue. More than 1,000 people attended, linking hands to offer symbolic protection and friendship to their Jewish neighbours.

A paper by Lucy Mayblin, Gill Valentine and Johan Andersson in The Geographical Journal takes a look at similar forms of ‘meaningful contact’: “contact which breaks down prejudices and translates beyond the moment to produce a more general respect for others.” The authors argue that banal chance encounters with ‘difference’ in the public spaces of Western society have come to be regarded as an “unremarkable feature of everyday life”. They question, however, whether these “fleeting, unintended encounters” really work to bring about mutual respect and understanding.

Turning their focus away from the fact of encounter and, instead, towards the nature of contact, the authors investigate an interfaith cricket programme in a UK city, designed to bring about purposeful and meaningful contact between Jewish and Muslim young people. They found that, at the outset, many of the young participants held negative, stereotypical views of the ‘other’ group. One Muslim participant, for example, said that the only thing he knew about Jewish people was ‘that they are stingy’. Many Jewish participants thought that the Muslims would not be interested in listening to different perspectives because of a narrow focus on their own faith.

In the environment of ‘meaningful contact’ bonds formed around shared interests:

“[I]t was through sharing common interests in sports, video games, TV and films, that they often made connections. These non-religious interests, then, formed the basis for friendships… when they were ‘hanging out’ at The Project… they spoke of those things in their life which bonded them as young men.”

While the authors judged the scheme to be a moderate success, one area of weakness identified was the reluctance to address the intersection of religious and ethnic identities with class. Understandably, the organisers’ nervousness around this topic stemmed from an association of the issue with anti-Semitic stereotypes about the wealth of Jewish communities.

Discussing socio-economic issues, two young Jewish participants told interviewers, “we live on opposite sides of [the city] and so I don’t know if any of them [the Muslim participants] are going on to university” and “we’ve had quite different upbringings”. When asked if they had ever been to the part of the City where the Muslim participants live, both replied that they hadn’t.

It was these “geographical and social differences in the material circumstances of the young people” that, according to the authors, “hinder the ability of young people to influence wider community social relations, limit the sustainability and scale-ability of such connections.” Friendships made did not endure beyond the project and the authors found little evidence of the benefits of the programme’s meaningful encounters being transferred to the communities.

The paper highlights the benefits of and need for ‘meaningful encounters’ with ‘difference’, and also the need for those engineering such encounters to be mindful of intersectional approaches, taking into account the racialized, gendered, generational, religious and class dynamics of the ‘difference’ in question.

 Lucy Mayblin, Gill Valentine and Johan Andersson, 2015, In the contact zone: engineering meaningful encounters across difference through an interfaith projectThe Geographical Journal, doi: 10.1111/geoj.12128.

Fox News ‘no-go zones’ and British Muslim negotiations of urban citizenship

By Ashley Crowson, King’s College London

Over the past month, the geography of Europe’s Muslim population has been greatly exciting the pundits invited to talk on the conservative Fox News channel. Furore was sparked when ‘terrorism expert’ Steven Emerson, in the wake of the Charlie Hebdo attacks in Paris, told host ‘Judge Jeanine’ about the ‘hundreds’ of ‘no-go zones’ across Europe, in which non-Muslims are supposedly not welcome.

Emerson stated, “In Britain, it’s not just no-go zones, there are actual cities like Birmingham that are totally Muslim where non-Muslims just simply don’t go… In parts of London, there are actually Muslim religious police that actually beat and actually wound seriously anyone who doesn’t dress according to religious Muslim attire.”

UKIP’s Nigel Farage even turned up to tell Sean Hannity about the ‘blind eye’ that has supposedly been turned towards the ‘Muslim ghettos’ where ‘the police and all the normal agents of the law have withdrawn’ and where ‘Sharia law has come in’.

These segments were widely mocked across social media and the station eventually issued an apology, stating that there was “no credible information to support the assertion”.

Despite the apology and the ridicule, this idea of ‘no-go zones’ has been seized by the far-right. Nationalist group Britain First has, according to The Independent, restarted its ‘Christian patrols’ in parts of east London, with the stated aim to make “our streets safe for our people”.

Bobby Jindal, governor of Louisiana and a potential 2016 Republican presidential candidate, has also jumped upon the ‘no-go zones’ theme, telling a neocon think tank that, in the West, there are areas in which “non-assimilationist Muslims establish enclaves and carry out as much of Sharia law as they can.”

An article by Deborah Phillips in January’s edition of Transactions of the Institute of British Geographers is critical of these kinds of popular and political representations of Muslim neighbourhoods, which typically portray Muslim communities as made up of “dubious citizens and unassimilable others”.

The paper seeks to “complicate understandings of British Muslim citizenship” by underscoring the “salience of the neighbourhood as a performative space implicated in citizenship formation and the sedimentation of feelings of belonging.” Philips’ work involved conducting interviews and focus groups with Muslims and newly arrived economic migrants from Eastern Europe in the UK city of Bradford.

Like the right-wing pundits, freedom of movement was foremost among the Muslim participants’ concerns; the freedom to travel into ‘white areas’ was widely perceived to be constrained, with many women stating that they feel uncomfortable about moving outside community spaces because of fear of hostility and violence. Female participants described the commercialised city centre as ‘not for the likes of us’, and ‘sort of out of bounds’.

The apparent ease with which their new Eastern European neighbours traversed the city, as seemingly ‘unmarked’ White Christian bodies, was identified as a source of tension. Muslim participants suggested that this stood in contrast to their own lack of freedom to “cross the boundaries of public space without surveillance and ‘all that hassle’… or to enter white residential spaces without fear of harassment.”

One idea mooted by Phillips is that the desire to appropriate city space may be, at least in part, motivated by feelings of restriction. The sense of empowerment gained when moving through a ‘Muslim neighbourhood’ goes a little way towards compensating for immobilities elsewhere.

These debates, involving issues of citizenship, identity and appropriation of space, are inherently geographical and have so far been largely dominated by actors seeking to capitalise on anti-Muslim sentiment. Phillips’ paper is a timely contribution that works to inject some desperately needed nuance into these debates that show few signs of dissipating.

 Deborah Phillips, 2015, Claiming spaces: British Muslim negotiations of urban citizenship in an era of new migrationTransactions of the Institute of British Geographers 40(1) 62-74.

Radio Geopolitics

By Ashley Crowson, King’s College London

Last month saw the release of the final episode of the podcasting sensation that is ‘Serial’. The true crime podcast, a spin off from long-running radio show ‘This American Life’, has experienced record-breaking download numbers, spawned a number of fan podcasts, and encouraged feverish debate on a lively subreddit devoted to the show. The same month also saw the horrific massacre of 141 students and teachers in their school in Peshawar, Pakistan. The man responsible for ordering the attack has been named by the press as Taliban commander Umar Mansoor, known locally as ‘Mullah Radio’. He gained this nickname from his popular pirate radio broadcasts in Swat Valley that apparently earned him legions of followers and convinced many to join and fight for the Taliban.

radio

Image Via Wikimedia Commons

Radio, then, remains a medium with the capacity to entertain, engage and enthrall audiences with simple yet captivating storytelling techniques. It also remains a potent tool for the dissemination of ideologies, manipulation and indoctrination; it is a tool that has been used to this end on countless occasions, in the course of numerous conflicts, by both state and non-state actors.

An article by Patrick Weir in the December edition of Geography Compass seeks to review geographical approaches to the conceptualisation of radio’s role in geopolitics, an area of study that has often overlooked this medium, tending to focus instead on visual culture and visual representations.

Weir suggests that ideas of assemblage, which emphasise non-human objects, infrastructures and forces, as well as the linkages between the material and the discursive, “can provide a new frame of understanding for the geopolitics of radio”. Weir argues that just as no meaningful distinctions can be made between the material and the cultural components of, for instance, treaty negotiations, which, he suggests, consist of “a shifting landscape of technical, diplomatic and bureaucratic objects, regulations and directives, and vehicles, bodies and buildings”, no worthwhile separation of radio into its material and non-material constituent parts can take place.

As an example of the geopolitical agency of radio, Weir points to what he calls the ‘radio war’ that took place within the Algerian war of independence during the late 1950s. He cites Franz Fanon’s description of liberationist radio station The Voice of Fighting Algeria in A Dying Colonialism:

The French authorities… began to realize the importance of this progress of the people in the technique of news dissemination. After a few months of hesitancy legal measures appeared. The sale of radios was now prohibited, except on presentation of a voucher issued by the military security or police services… The highly trained French services… were quick to detect the wavelengths of the broadcasting stations. The programmes were then systematically jammed… The listener, enrolled in the battle of the waves, had to figure out the tactics of the enemy, and in an almost physical way circumvent the strategy of the adversary.

Weir cites this passage as, he claims, it ‘perfectly illustrates’ how radio’s assemblage “includes material components (batteries, transistors, aerials) interact with legalistic structures (taxes, vouchers) and ideological concepts (colonialism, sovereignty, peoples).”

As Martin Müller notes, engaging in this type of geopolitical analysis of organisations and institutions means “tracing the ways in which the non-human and the human become bound up with each other and constitute organizations as geopolitical actors”. With media and popular culture playing ever more important roles in the conduct and construction of geopolitics, the incorporation of notions of assemblage is likely to become something of a priority in geopolitical analysis.

 Patrick Weir, 2014, Radio GeopoliticsGeography Compass 8(12) 849-859.

 Martin Müller, 2012, Opening the black box of the organization: Socio-material practices of geopolitical orderingPolitical Geography 31(6) 379–388.

 Franz Fanon, 1967, A Dying Colonialism. Monthly Review Press: New York.

‘Fun gifts for boys’ and the geographies of ‘aww’, ‘umph’, ‘wow’ and ‘cool’

By Ashley Crowson, King’s College London

As manufacturers and retailers prepare to sell huge quantities of toys and gadgets in the run up to Christmas, at least one seven-year-old girl has protested this week at the marketing of such products according to gender.

Karen Cole tweeted a photo of her daughter, Maggie, next to a sign for Marvel Comics merchandise in a branch of Tesco that read ‘Fun gifts for boys’.

7-year-old Maggie not impressed with 'fun girts for boys' sign

Maggie, who is a big fan of Spider Man, Wonder Woman, The Flash and Doctor Who, spotted the sign and told her mother that Tesco was “being stupid” as “anybody can like superheroes”. The photo was retweeted more than ten thousand times, forcing an apology and the removal of the signs from all Tesco stores.

These superhero characters and toys are clearly important to lots of children like Maggie; it is this relationship, alongside the role played by popular culture characters and products in children’s lives, that John Horton seeks to examine in a recent edition of Geography Compass. The paper calls for “more direct, careful, sustained research on geographies of children, young people and popular culture.”

Horton outlines ‘classic’ works from cultural and media studies, which, he contends, have been “centrally concerned with meanings of popular culture designed for children and young people”. The likes of Barbie and GI Joe, Horton argues, have often been central to such discussions, with Barbie being widely critiqued as “a ‘condensed’ representation of normative ideals of ‘emphasised femininity’ and female body image”.

While Horton recognises the value and importance of this kind of work, he argues that “if one jumps to write about meanings of popular culture, it is all too easy to overlook how popular cultural texts, objects and phenomena matter in practice within people’s everyday geographies.”

Horton presents an analysis of ‘Toys ‘Я’ Us’ brochures old and new, but reflects that in attempting to write about their meanings and representations “I have suppressed (or at least distanced myself from) what I felt as I browsed the 1975 Toys ‘Я’ Us catalogue and other decades-old toy catalogues: feelings of ‘aww’, ‘umph’, ‘wow’, ‘cool’, ‘I remember that’, that are not easy to put into words.”

Geography, then, has an important role to play in addressing questions of both meaning and Mattering in this context. This involves examining the more-than-representational ways in which popular cultural texts, objects and phenomena are encountered and experienced by children in a diverse range of everyday spaces.

As Horton acknowledges, this raises important questions of how to conduct research attentive to both the political-representational concerns of the sort quite rightly raised by superhero-loving Maggie, and to the complex nonrepresentational materialities that constitute young people’s geographies – the ‘awws’, ‘wows’ and ‘cools’ evoked by the bodily practices of play, the meanings of which may not be sayable or may simply not exist.

 Girl, 7, gets Tesco to remove ‘stupid’ sign suggesting superheroes are ‘for boys’ The Independent, 25 November 2014

 John horton, 2014, For Geographies of Children, Young People and Popular CultureGeography Compass 726-738