Tag Archives: Big Society

The Geographical Journal Content Alert: Volume 178, Issue 1 (March 2012)

The latest issue of The Geographical Journal is available on Wiley Online Library.

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‘We Need You’: Geographies of Youth Voluntarism


Sarah Mills

Over the last month, many of the stands and activities available to new and returning students at University and College event fairs will have had a voluntary aspect. Most Universities run their own voluntary schemes/RAG and there are a host of corporate organisations looking to recruit student volunteers for a summer or year abroad, as well as local organisations and charities that try and recruit new students as volunteers. Volunteer recruitment and retention has been boosted this year by the 2011 European Year of Volunteering campaign.  However, in the UK, there remains a disjuncture between the role of voluntarism in the coalition government’s ‘big society’ vision and the realties of auserity cuts and their impact on communities and charities.  Indeed, these issues around voluntarism and the lifecourse have been highlighted in diverging opinions expressed at this week’s Conservative Party conference.

Two articles in October’s issue of Transactions of the Institute of British Geographers reflect the increasing interest in the geographies of volunteering and youth voluntarism in particular. Volunteer tourism, gap years and charity work are playing a more central part in the student experience and geographers are examining these recent trends in terms of broader theorisations of youth identities, lifecourse transitions, globalisation and the ‘big society’.  In his Transactions paper, Andrew Jones (2011) draws on data with young people involved in a range of overseas volunteer placements as well as exploring how corporate recruiters understand “the value (or otherwise) of international volunteering” (p.530). Matt Baillie-Smith and Nina Laurie’s paper (2011) also examines the geographies of international volunteering but with a focus on citizenship, development imaginaries and neoliberal ideas of professionalisation. Indeed, their paper explores “discourses and practices of citizenship, professionalisation and partnership as they produce and are produced through contemporary international volunteering” (p.545). Both of these papers highlight how the complex spatialities of volunteering can illuminate broader economic and political processes, as well bringing young people firmly into the spotlight in a shifting landscape of voluntarism and philanthropy.

Read A. Jones (2011) Theorising international youth volunteering: training for global (corporate) work? Transactions of the Institute of British Geographers 36 (4): 530- 544

Read M. Baillie-Smith and N. Laurie (2011) International volunteering and development: global citizenship and neoliberal professionalisation today Transactions of the Institute of British Geographers 36 (4): 545-559

Read Conservative Party Conference 2011: Baby boom generation should do charity work says minister, Telegraph Online 4th October 2011

Explore European Year of Volunteering 2011

Big Society and Network Governance

David Cameron

David Cameron speaking on Big Society (The Guardian Online)

By Michelle Brooks

In the wake of recent comments by the Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams there has been renewed debate on the subject of ‘Big society’ the coalition government’s conceptual framework for social policy in the United Kingdom. Over subsequent days a debate ensued in various news media about the comment Williams made regarding democracy and the ‘policies no-one voted for’ which were rebutted by the government alongside careful remarks on the freedom to speak which the Archbishop had exercised. The idea of democracy in the United Kingdom being brought into question is perhaps so far-fetched that we are reticent in pursuing this argument, in attending to the question with the same vigour that we would perhaps afford to other nations whose political stability appears more precarious. However, the links between ‘Big society’ and democracy have been unearthed in the area of Governance, in particular, Network Governance .

Network Governance is a method of governance that involves the shrinking of state involvement in the governance of an organisation, project, or indeed as a wider philosophical project, the nation. Purpose-driven bodies are formed out of what are regarded as relevant stakeholders such as (depending on the project) utilities, entrepreneurs, community representatives, financiers, experts etc and charged with the task of design and sometimes implementation of initiatives to include but not exclusively, policy. Around this table should sit an elected member of parliament who is charged with the task of what is called ‘meta-governance’. However, few such people are capable of such a task and often delegate this role to another. Network Governance can be viewed as empowering in that local actors are able to have influence on governance activities and people with real expertise or experience are part of the planning process. However, the absence of a democratically elected representative does pose a problematic issue in that those we elect have to stand accountable for their actions, we know their face and the office where we can submit our democratically sanctioned right to complain, their career depends on our satisfaction. Network Governance (NG) does not afford us such transparency. Additionally in classic NG, contracts are socially binding as opposed to legislatively binding, hence whilst this means some community members are enabled in decision-making at a local level, at the same time the output and application of resources from the public purse are not safeguarded in a legal framework.  This is how Big Society can be described as a post-neoliberalist movement, however in fact it brings market influences much deeper into the nitty-gritty of community politics without the fail-safes of democracy. Put simply, we may not all agree with the views of the members of the network who have been given the power to bring change, importantly we didn’t elect them to this position and therefore they do not legally represent us or necessarily have the best interests of the nation at heart. In this way, concerns over a threat to democracy emerge. Grace Skogstad has looked at this through an EU lens considering what she terms ‘input legitimacy’ an increasing problem for purpose-driven bodies in the EU.

Indeed, there has been much work on localised governance in Geographical studies and in 1998, Imrie and Raco argued that new local governance was not in fact dissimilar in many ways to the old model, citing the presence of third sector actors on committees alongside councillors and indeed how the controlling of local governance by the central government powers was equally a threat to democracy. This shows that the critique of Big Society here as I have outlined is not itself unproblematic however, it is not one we can afford to ignore.

Those of us who have worked in the third sector know that the idea of big society is not a new one, neighbourhood and community based initiatives have long been present on the social landscape. Recently, many have argued this over and over in the media, however maybe this is not what the coalition government are advancing. Perhaps their idea of Big Society is one that is more concerned with governance and a political legacy. Big Society has never explicitly been billed as Network Governance, however there are some striking links between and the picture above is perhaps a clue. Perhaps as we watch so many nations fighting for democracy we should be reminded of the fragility of our own and the need to constantly nurture and protect it.

trans-updated2 read Imrie and Raco’s article in the Transactions of the Institute of British Geographers

read Pressurised pastoralism in South Gobi, Mongolia: what is the role of drought? read Skogstad’s article in the Journal of European Public Policy

read Pressurised pastoralism in South Gobi, Mongolia: what is the role of drought? read Rowan Williams article in The New Statesman

Small societies

I-Hsien Porter

A village shopAn article in The Daily Telegraph argues that rural areas may suffer most from spending cuts. In the countryside people already have to travel further to reach services and shops (Post Offices, doctors), while the cost of transport and petrol is rising to prohibitive levels.

However, rural society may also be the most resilient to cuts in government spending. Determined not to lose vital local services, 241 community owned shops have opened in the past 25 years, most of which are still successfully running. Other communities have taken stakes in laying high speed broadband cables or constructing wind farms.

This is part of the picture of the ‘Big Society’, which Prime Minister David Cameron wants to take up the slack of services previously paid for by government.

In a recent paper in Area, Tracey Hewett and Stephen Fletcher discuss an integrated approach to coastal management, the ‘coastal partnership’, which engages communities in managing their local coastline.

Coastal partnerships seek to integrate different policies and the interests of different stakeholders, by working across different sectors and levels of decision making. Arguably, local people are best placed to inform and implement coastal management options. By focusing on the small scale and the local, coastal partnerships are able to build consensus and empower local stakeholders. This allows locally specific policies to be identified and delivered.

Engaging in local geographies and ‘bottom-up’ approaches to government may prove a productive way of maintaining services and management, even when there is less money available to do so.

The Daily Telegraph (16th August 2010) ‘With no help from the Coalition, country folk are doing it for themselves’

Hewett, T. and Fletcher, S. (2010) ‘The emergence of service-based integrated coastal management in the UK.’ Area 42 (3): 313-327

Placing the Big Society

by Robin de la Motte

The “Big Society” is an as yet underdeveloped concept promoted by the UK’s new coalition government. A Guardian article by Luke Bretherton summarised the issues, and argued that there are “two distinct and rival anthropologies” in the coalition, one which focuses on the role of individuals, and the other, the “big society” approach, focusing on the role of social relationships. Both are intended to shift the emphasis away from the role of the state, but involve contrasting visions: one of the individual as the primary agent (with more emphasis than in the past on co-producing and co-governing public services), and one of “people power” with “co-ordinated and common action in pursuit of shared goods”. Where the former is somewhat rootless and placeless, the latter involves identifying and strengthening the places around which communities are built. Bretherton, focussing on the potential role of churches in the Big Society, argues that churches “need to decide which anthropology best reflects their vision of the good life and work out how best to strengthen it.”

A forthcoming article by Joseph Pierce, Deborah G Martin, and James T Murphy examines the nature of place-making – “place” being a key theoretical idea in geography since at least the 1970s. In surveying the literature, they identify three categories of “the politics of place”, “networked politics”, and “networked place”. The first category centres on how shared place understandings interact with political contestations, in an iterative process in which they shape each other. The second category centres on the understanding of networked communities as based on a shared identity, often across scales and locales, creating “an interlocking bricolage of (always partially) shared place understandings”. The final category to a certain extent combines these, with networks “always ground[ed]… in multiple, interconnected, multi-scalar and overlapping places”. The article draws on Doreen Massey’s (2005) concept of place as bundles of individual experiences constantly re-negotiated, creating “temporary constellations” of place which appear to have greater permanence to those who recognise and participate in their making than they do from outside. So for example the place of “Toronto” appears durable even as it expands to encompass neighbouring municipalities, and otherwise evolves, being constantly recreated and subtly changed. Featuring case studies of Bolivian forests and an American hospital expansion, the article demonstrates “the always ongoing character of relational place-making”. The authors argue that “all places are relational, and are always produced through networked politics”[emphasis in original].

Big society and the church Luke Bretherton The Guardian, 7 October 2010, “Big society and the church

View the Pierce et al (2010) article here Pierce, Joseph, Martin, Deborah G, and Murphy, James T (2010), “Relational place-making: the networked politics of place“, Transactions of the Institute of British Geographers, Early View