New Series: Volume 1, Issue 3

22 September 2021

Editorial: Expertise, ‘Publics’ and the Construction of Government Policy

John Holmwood

This issue of Discover Society is about the role of expertise and professional knowledge in democracy. In the UK, the vexed nature of the issue was, perhaps, best illustrated by (then Justice Secretary) Michael Gove’s comment during the Brexit campaign that he thought, “the people of this country have had enough of experts.” The comment is oft cited, and derided, especially in the context of the Covid-19 pandemic, where the public has, or so it is argued, found a new respect for a science that can guide public policy and deliver solutions.

Yet, Michael Gove’s point was more nuanced than is usually credited. It wasn’t scientific advice that he claimed people were fed up with, but “experts with organisations with acronyms saying that they know what is best and getting it consistently wrong.” In other words, his complaint was about specific organised advocacy groups and their intervention in public debate and reporting in the media.

… the Government has consistently mobilised the claimed expert opinion of organisations in justification of their policies

Michael Gove’s extended comment was disingenuous. After all, the Brexit campaign, no less than the Remain campaign, drew upon arguments from think tanks and lobby groups. Moreover, since the referendum, the Government has consistently mobilised the claimed expert opinion of organisations in justification of their policies. Indeed, as Layla Aitlhadj and John Holmwood in this special issue argue, they have deliberately ‘managed’ civil society groups and supposedly independent reviews, such as that currently underway into the Prevent counter extremism policy.

In fact, there is nothing straightforward about the relationship between expertise and democracy as Stephen Turner (2003) has observed. The development of liberal democracy involves the rise of professional and expert knowledge which underpins the everyday governance of public institutions. At the same time, wider publics are asked to trust that knowledge even where it impinges directly upon their preferences; they are not in a position to evaluate it, except through the mediation of other experts. Elected politicians and governments, in turn, are dependent on expert knowledge to guide their policy choices, which are duly constrained by what is possible on the basis of technical judgements.

… government consultations are increasingly events where different positions are staged, rather than evidence organised and evaluated

The standard model of liberal democracy presents the role of wider publics as involved intermittently in the determination of policy through electoral choices based upon party manifestos. This introduces a pragmatic constraint upon each potential governing party, that the cycle of electoral politics will also moderate the direction of politics through the replacement of governing parties. Elections may tend to polarise for their duration, but office brings the governing party back closer to the centre ground and a narrowing of the ‘Overton window’ (that frames political possibilities). It is this process that may now have broken down with polarisation increasingly a mode of governing, especially in the context of populist appeals to a claimed majority ‘common-sense’. As Michaela Benson suggests in her piece for this issue, government consultations are increasingly events where different positions are staged, rather than evidence organised and evaluated. But, let us stay with the standard account.

According to it, advocacy groups operate in terms of a general orientation – ‘progressive’, ‘liberal’ ‘centre-right’, ‘conservative’ – but tend to focus on a specific range of interests. For example, those interests may be in social care, pensions, health, education, or any other of the public functions of government. Advocacy groups may be organised as think tanks, or directly as civil society organisations, but they tend to be established as charities, defined by their public mission. Together, they contribute to the public debate through research, reports, and campaigns. However, no less than political parties, they are constrained by their need to get their voices heard, which they do by adapting them to the needs of government.

In Turner’s view, the institutional arrangements of democracy tend to favour the incorporation of advocacy into the established political process with, in consequence, an attenuation of the involvement of wider publics. Governments, political parties, listen to lobbyists and justify their policies on the basis of the evidence supplied by their favoured think tanks (who, in turn, are interconnected with other lobbying groups). What is democratic about that? Certainly, it is far from any participatory model of democracy.

In the UK, Brexit was a disruption of this model in that Michael Gove’s complaint about ‘experts’ was a direct appeal to a wider public supposedly alienated from politics as usual (an ‘alienation’ assiduously cultivated in the campaign process). I will return to the implications of populism for liberal democracy and our understanding of democracy.

… the standard mantra of ‘science’ – both natural and social science – is that research is ‘disinterested’

So far, I have suggested that the standard model of liberal democracy implies a particular kind of expertise in which evidence is ‘interest-based’, that is mobilised to support particular policy outcomes. Yet the standard mantra of ‘science’ – both natural and social science – is that research is ‘disinterested’. On this view, it is about providing the sound evidence on which proper policy in the public interest can be based; in other words, the objective is evidence-based policy, not policy-based evidence. This was evident in Richard Portes’s dismissive response to Michael Gove’s comments, for example, where he argued that advocacy groups had a vested interest in undermining experts precisely because they were interested in policy-based evidence and not evidence-based policy.

There is detailed work in the sociology of science that challenges the easy assumption of the neutrality of science, but I want to make a more mundane point here. The public funding of science, especially, in the UK has shaped it in the direction of becoming interest-based. This is the consequence of the so-called ‘impact agenda’, which has required publicly-funded research (until recently in the process of applying for funds, but also in the evaluation of research and its ex post funding through the Research Excellence Framework) to be directly engaged with user beneficiaries. Indeed, in guidance to researchers it is recommended that research should be ‘co-produced’ with users and their interests should be engaged with in the design of the research and not simply in its application after design and execution.

… much policy research … has adapted to government preferences for ‘behavioural’ over ‘structural’ solutions to problems

At best, this involves an instrumentalisation of research, but more profoundly it involves its politicisation. Much science, of course, can be addressed to commercial uses, but most social science is necessarily directed toward the policy realm, where its users are advocacy organisations, or indeed, government itself. The criteria by which research is evaluated in the REF involve a hierarchy of significance where adoption and implementation by national (and international) bodies is superior to influence on local groups or communities. In effect, government is in the position of selecting knowledge/ evidence as fitting with its purposes and, in doing so, confers ‘value’ within academic systems of reputation and revenue. Indeed, as Kat Smith argues in her contribution, much policy research over the last few decades – whether by advocacy groups, or by academics – has adapted to government preferences for ‘behavioural’ over ‘structural’ solutions to problems.  

Let me complicate things with one further step. The language of publics encourages the idea that there is a ‘public interest’ and that it is the task of government to conduct itself with the public interest in mind. This is a convenient fiction among many scientists and is part of the complacent reflection that, in the face of Covid 19, the government has come to recognise the value of science. Yet, as Reiner Grundmann argues in his contribution, it is difficult to separate science from commercial interests and the development of vaccines, however significant for public health, is bound up with the private interests of pharmaceutical companies which create particular path dependencies for future development.

… international fora aggregate national interests and the differential power of existing nation states

These problems are compounded both at ‘global’ and at ‘local’ levels. As the Covid pandemic has illustrated, the developments in the international context of the disease have consequences for national policies and plans. So, too, for the other great challenge facing us, that of climate change. As Mark Harvey argues, international fora aggregate national interests and the differential power of existing nation states. Indeed, the most powerful nations, as well as those most powerful within them, are the most polluting. This is also a problem for the social sciences which are themselves organised nationally and oriented to influence the same powerful actors.

If national policy processes confound international cooperation, the specific nature of some policy regimes also undermines ‘local’ engagement. For example, the neo-liberal approaches to governance favoured by Anglophone political regimes propose that markets embody the public interest, such that policies over the last several decades have involved the transfer of many public services to private providers. Grundmann offers an expansive definition of expertise, to include ‘lay expertise’ and that embodied within ‘communities of practice’. However, for that expertise to be available within the public domain, it needs to be in circulation and privatisation decreases circulation.

Let me provide one example by way of illustration. Schooling in England used to be the responsibility of local educational authorities under elected councils. Local authorities organised educational services and facilitated exchanges across LEAs and with parent associations, trades unions and professional associations, through to the responsible government ministry. Around 75% of secondary schools are now academies and outside the responsibility of local authorities. They are organised within Multi Academy Trusts, which need have no geographical contiguity of its schools. Communities of practice are disrupted and fragmented, and that disruption is the specific aim of government policy.

In effect, while ‘marketisation’ is ostensibly a dispersal of decision-making to individual ‘consumers’,  in the field of public services it involves a centralisation of political power. It is precisely the centralisation of that power that has serious consequences for the standard model of expertise and liberal democracy.

… ‘diversity conservatives’, individuals from black and ethnic minority backgrounds denying structural inequalities

First, it provides government with many more levers for the influence of public debate and provides a strong incentive to use them, since the capacity for civil society to generate counter arguments is diminished. For example, many of the bodies that are assigned an ‘arms-length’ role in the evaluation and regulation of the conduct of government are increasingly filled with appointments of commissioners favourable to the government. This is a process that extends from the Equalities and Human Rights Commission, through the National Trust, the Charity Commissioners and Ofcom. This was most clearly illustrated in the Commission on Race and Ethnic Disparities and its report, which denied institutional racism, notwithstanding the weight of evidence presented to it’ It is also evident in the appointment of William Shawcross as Independent Reviewer of Prevent (see Aitlhadj and Holmwood in this issue). Frequently, as Les Back argues, these commissioners present themselves as ‘diversity conservatives’, individuals from black and ethnic minority backgrounds denying structural inequalities. 

The criticism of the Race and Ethnic Disparities Report by the Runnymede Trust gave rise to a group of conservative MPs requesting that the Charity Commissioners should investigate it for a breach of rules governing its charitable status. This had followed a decade of similar investigations of Muslim charities and civil rights organisations that had criticised the Prevent, as well as lobbying by advocacy groups close to the government to further restrict charities in receipt of public funding from political commentary. Just as the impact agenda shapes publicly-funded research towards government agendas, so a clause in funding bids by charities for public support restricts their critical engagement in the public sphere. The shaping of independent bodies is also extended to proposed new ministerial powers over the Electoral Commission.

In 1967 Howard Becker posed the question to social researchers, ‘whose side are we on?’. His purpose was not to advocate partisanship, but to make the point that research could not avoid being seen as partisan and, therefore, it was important to understand the politics and sociology of expertise. There was, he argued, a hierarchy of credibility where the understandings of elites were normalised and those of the less powerful were marginalised. Social research that aligned itself with the former was also assigned credibility and warranted as ‘objective’. In contrast, social research that sought to address the circumstances of the marginalised was seen as ‘partial’.

… power and privilege always hold their shape and refuse to be impacted upon unless forced to do so

The solution to this latter situation cannot be a retreat to a claim to professional expertise in order to reinforce credibility with gatekeepers, as Ben Baumberg Geiger finds in his interviews with authors of impact case studies for submission to the 2014 REF sociology panel. Back suggests that power and privilege always hold their shape and refuse to be impacted upon unless forced to do so. Academic researchers need to engage more directly and collaboratively with publics and participants, rather than setting their expertise apart from them. Indeed, there are pitfalls in a simple adoption of a ‘social justice’ standpoint. This represents a seemingly different claim to credibility, but without collaboration can involve marginalised communities and activists experiencing the claim to expertise seemingly mobilised on their behalf as oppressive.

If, as Grundmann and Harvey each argues, community groups and the knowledges of protesters are necessary voices, they may also come into conflict with the claims of sociologists and reveal the hidden operation of power. Our final contribution is by three members of the ‘Stansted 15’ who faced imprisonment under counter-terrorism laws for having obstructed a Home Office flight to deport migrants deemed to be ‘illegal’. Mel Evans, Emma Hughes and Ruth Potts write about the experience of being researched and represented in the context both of their risk of imprisonment and the significance of their cause. Their contribution raises serious substantive issues of research practices and knowledge-making, but also ethical issues. The constraints of ‘impact’ impinge whether the researchers regard themselves to be within or outwith hegemonic arrangements.


Becker, Howard (1967) ‘Whose side are we on?’, Social Problems, 14(3): 239-47. DOI:

Turner, Stephen P. (2003) Liberal Democracy, 3.0 Civil Society in an Age of Experts, London: Sage. Geiger, Ben Baumberg (2021) ‘Performing Trustworthiness: the ”credibility work” of prominent sociologists’, Sociology, 55(4): 785-21. DOI:

John Holmwood is emeritus Professor of Sociology at the University of Nottingham. He is the author (with Therese O’Toole) of Countering Extremism in British Schools: The Truth about the Birmingham Trojan Horse Affair (Policy Press 2018) and (with Gurminder K. Bhambra) Colonialism and Modern Social Theory (Polity 2021).

Header image credit: ydant


Holmwood, John 2021. ‘Editorial: Expertise, ‘Publics’ and the Construction of Government Policy’ Discover Society: New Series 1 (3):

Covid, Expertise, and Society: Stepping out of the Shadow of Epidemiology?

Reiner Grundmann

There are still many unknowns about the virus and its diffusion. No matter how developed the scientific knowledge base is, there is a political imperative to take decisions. While science provides knowledge about facts, experts make judgements about what to do. They do this in the face of scientific uncertainty. Unlike scientists who strive to reduce uncertainty, experts try to answer the question of what we should do, given the knowns and unknowns.

In the UK, and many other countries, governments have set up advisory bodies to address the pandemic. Their advice was sought as the virus was new and little was known. The advice has been used to justify policy interventions designed to steer the country out of the crisis. These bodies are usually composed of scientists from a relatively narrow disciplinary range. Epidemiology is the leading discipline. It provides the epistemic core, the logic and rationale for decision-making. This choice is seen as proper and adequate by most commentators, given the nature of the problem.

Because the problem has already been framed in epidemiological terms, we do not question the central role of epidemiology itself

But the choice has deep consequences in terms of framing the problem. Framing is here understood to comprise defining a problem, attributing causality and blame, and identifying remedial action (Entman 1993). Because the problem has already been framed in epidemiological terms, we do not question the central role of epidemiology itself. Even the appointment of experts for advisory bodies is not seen as a choice, where another choice could have led to other courses of action. It is seen as a ‘natural’ reflection of the problem.

This is not to say that epidemiology is not important. Of course it is, and it was most instrumental to alert politicians to the exponential nature of the pandemic in early 2020. However, it is time to recognize the consequences that arise from its privileged position in the process of producing and delivering expertise for what is necessarily political decision-making, and what other perspectives could be useful that have been pushed into the background.

Not only has a particular academic discipline been privileged, but academic research as such. But expertise is far broader than science based. As I will argue below, there are important sources of expertise in civil society, and in the professions. These sources need to contribute more vigorously to a debate about how we should deal with the pandemic, what principles should guide us, and what society we want to build.

Hulme et al. (2020) cogently argue that “because decisions with far-reaching consequences are being made now, it is precisely the right time to call for a greater plurality of knowledge. This entails bringing in broader sources of knowledge to the decision-making process, promoting more transparent decision-making processes and dismantling unhelpful ‘hierarchies of knowledge’. In these ‘hierarchies’, certain forms of knowledge (e.g., certain disciplines within natural sciences) are seen as inherently superior, rather than as complementary. Such a diversification of knowledge would benefit both the effectiveness of decisions made, as well as the legitimacy of those decisions among publics.” (Hulme et al. 2020).

The necessary but insufficient role of epidemiology

My argument is that Covid-19 has been framed as a problem by, and for epidemiology. Several countries have seen epidemiological knowledge as the only legitimate and relevant knowledge when it comes to making decisions. Other forms of scientific knowledge, and other forms of expertise, have been marginalised.

The dominant, epidemiology-based approach has three salient elements (which were developing over time, with overlaps). First, it emphasized the crucial role of diffusion of infections, measured by the reproduction rate R, and the need to reduce this via non-pharmaceutical interventions (NPIs). Social distancing, hand hygiene, mask wearing, and isolation were the tools for the job. Then pharmaceutical treatment options were discussed, and recommendations about effective medicines were made. However, the main method to eradicate the disease was the development of an effective vaccine. This would be the game changer in the pandemic, allowing us all to return to social life as we knew it. Research and investment in effective treatment has paled in comparison.

Waves of new infections are recurring, even in countries with high rates of vaccination

Surprisingly, vaccines became quickly available, if extremely uneven across the globe. But they did not prove the game changer they were expected to be, and it is an open question if they ever can be. To avoid misunderstanding, all of the above measures have contributed to a significant amelioration, but the trend of infections, hospitalisations, and deaths has not been uniformly downward. Waves of new infections are recurring, even in countries with high rates of vaccination. This indicates that we need to talk about the limits of the epistemic model which provides the foundation for these strategies and hopes.

It is no surprise that the epidemiological model has come under pressure from its nemesis, vaccine critical voices. They represent different social groups, and it is tempting but futile to dismiss them as irrational and irresponsible. To be sure, higher vaccination rates lead to fewer infections, severe cases, and deaths. But based on current evidence, the vaccines will not lead to an eradication of Covid-19. There are several reasons for this. The virus has become endemic, and it is present in several animal species. There are new variants against which existing vaccines may be much less effective.

The virus, and its ever-evolving mutations, is present in all countries and can move from a high incidence country to a low incidence country. Medical researchers from the USA put it this way: “Rather than die out, the virus will likely ping-pong back and forth across the globe for years to come. Some of yesterday’s success stories are now vulnerable to serious outbreaks. Many of these are places that kept the pandemic at bay through tight border controls and excellent testing, tracing, and isolation but have been unable to acquire good vaccines. … But even countries that have vaccinated large proportions of their populations will be vulnerable to outbreaks caused by certain variants. That is what appears to have happened in several hot spots in Chile, Mongolia, the Seychelles, and the United Kingdom.” (Brilliant et al. 2021).

The authors make the perhaps provocative statement: “The virus is here to stay. The question is, What do we need to do to ensure that we are, too?”

… what makes Covid-19 so difficult to combat is that it is an airborne illness with so much asymptomatic transmission

Their answer is informed by the epidemiological model, too. The main recommendation is to vaccinate in, and around hotspots of infections, something practiced in the 1970s smallpox outbreak in African countries and India. Such ‘ring vaccinations’ would solve the problem of shortages of vaccine supply. The authors acknowledge the challenge to their approach but remain optimistic: “Of course, it was a different disease, a different vaccine, and a different time. Part of what makes Covid-19 so difficult to combat is that it is an airborne illness with so much asymptomatic transmission. Today, however, epidemiologists have the added benefit of powerful new tools for detecting outbreaks and developing vaccines. They can use these innovations to build a twenty-first century version of surveillance and containment for the battle against this pandemic.”

Asymptomatic transmission of Covid-19 is what makes the virus so persistent. While this was known early on, the fact that it was also airborne came as a later insight. Both elements combine to make existing models of prevention so fragile. This would also be the case with ring-vaccinations. Even vaccinated people can become infected and transmit the virus without showing symptoms. As we have also learned, electronic surveillance systems have not delivered what they were hoped to do.

While the above-mentioned approach recognizes the challenge, and is cognizant of many social variables that are important to consider (including the need to build effective international institutions to deal with this, and other pandemics), it still is heavily influenced by the epidemiological paradigm.

The role of science, expertise and decision-making

Above I have pointed out that science scientific advisors in the pandemic tend to be epidemiologists. Other forms of expertise need to be identified. I specifically draw attention to commentators, professional specialists, and lay experts (Grundmann 2017, 2018, 2022). They all bridge the gap between knowledge and decision-making, but do this in different ways. While policy advisors are usually working behind the scenes, in close proximity to government, other scientists are speaking up as commentators in public debate, communicating their views of the problem, sometimes suggesting solutions. Professionals have specialist knowledge of relevant technical aspects or social practices, and the scope for intervention. Lay experts offer views from civil society based on experience, and reflecting social concerns. It should be noted that the WHO advocates the inclusion of communities; they should have a voice, be informed and engaged, and participate (Habersaat et al. 2020; Marston, Renedo, and Miles 2020; WHO 2020).

Governments have pursued different policies in the their fight against Covid-19 (Stevens 2020). Where we see relative success, this does not seem to be due to better scientific understanding, but due to preparedness in public health administrations, especially via functioning test and trace and systems, vaccination programmes, adherence to distancing rules, and hospital treatment. It is still unclear how close the link is between government regulations and success in fighting the disease.

A commentator in the Financial Times wrote, “a few countries, it is true, have almost unambiguously good stories to tell. But it is some feat to spot the values and institutions that link Israel, the United Arab Emirates and Mongolia. As if to tease us, when a theme does emerge — the heedless ‘neoliberalism’ of Anglo-America — it wilts on further evidence. That is, we have learnt less and less over time. The past 18 months are so haunting in part because they lack all pattern and meaning.” Even this assessment looks doubtful one month after publication (I am writing this on 31 August).

The dominance of epidemiology has led to a focus on eradication of the Covid-19 virus

The dominance of epidemiology has led to a focus on eradication of the Covid-19 virus. This seemed plausible with the unexpectedly fast development of vaccines. A technical solution seemed in sight which would allow societies to return to normality in the course of months.

However, the vaccines have their own problems, they are not 100% safe, nor effective. As with all vaccines they come with side-effects. They also lose effectiveness after months, and are perhaps not effective against mutations of the virus. Pharmaceutical companies are going to benefit from booster vaccinations, maybe for years to come. At the same time they reject all liability for side-effects, pushing it onto the purchasing countries, as leaked documents show. Their rent-seeking strategy has been rewarded with vast sums of government money, which overall reduces the appetite to spend on other forms of treatment.

Such news gives further support to vaccine critical groups which, in turn, poses a serious problem to the epidemiological paradigm, as a certain percentage of immunity needs to be achieved in order for the epidemic to recede. Statisticians Spiegelhalter and Masters reckon this to be around 86% of the population.

Some authors argue that the problem is lack of information, and the pernicious effect of disinformation campaigns. For example,  Baldwin & Lenton (2020) emphasize the eminent role of scientific consensus v disinformation. As several studies have shown, vaccine hesitancy is a more complex phenomenon (Hobson-West 2003; Reicher and Stott 2020). Issues of trust vis-à-vis the government and its public health institutions are crucial in this respect. Information campaigns will change very little, especially if they are ‘talking down’ to those who are not convinced.

National responses

The spread of the virus is uneven across the world. No matter how much progress one country makes with vaccination programmes, new variants can appear in other countries and spread across the globe. The is no global governance institution to co-ordinate the response measures. The powers of the World Health Organization (WHO) are limited and its advice to governments has been disregarded in the past. Attempts at international co-ordination and co-operation are minimal (Brown and Susskind 2020; Buck et al. 2020; Grundmann 2021), although some collaboration has been underway in the search for a vaccine (Kupferschmidt 2020).

… rich countries have secured the lion share of vaccines, leaving large parts of the rest of the world without

National responses have been the standard mode of operating, and this will continue to be the case. Vaccine nationalism has been evident in the procurement and distribution of vaccines, and in the politics of recognizing vaccination certificates across borders. Most importantly, rich countries have secured the lion share of vaccines, leaving large parts of the rest of the world without. Ethical debates have emerged about the prospect of having booster jabs or vaccinations for children in rich countries while the poor go without.

All this points to the question of how we, as a society, and as an international community, could deal with the challenge. What is our aim? What is the strategy? As soon as we pose these simple questions, we realize that the answers are far from clear.

Sometimes some governments have stated the eradication of the virus as their goal (‘zero-Covid’). More modest goals are: contain the spread of the disease, reduce hospitalizations and severe cases, or keep the health system going. Others argue that ‘living with Covid’ is the only realistic option as the problem will not go away any time soon (Brilliant et al. 2021). This requires several measures, like continuing with social distancing, mask wearing, and providing effective treatment in severe cases. For some, disrupting social life is not legitimate, especially when the number of severe cases and deaths reaches low levels comparable to other diseases.

Wicked problems

‘Wicked problems’ only can be managed better or worse, not be solved once and for all (Grundmann 2016; Rayner 2006; Rittel and Webber 1973). The verdict is still out if Covid-19 falls into this category of social problem. The quick development of vaccines has given hope that successful vaccines will solve the problem. Initial enthusiasm has given way to a more sober assessment as the virus has shown several mutations which may hinder the vaccine effectiveness (Vogel and Kupferschmidt 2021).

Nevertheless, the availability of vaccines could be seen as a ‘technological core’ which can be refined over time (Sarewitz and Nelson 2008) so that herd immunity can be achieved. Cheap vaccines that can be easily stored and administered would help. However, as the above has shown there is not enough supply of vaccines across the world, new variants are likely to emerge, and vaccine hesitancy may be a force that could limit such efforts. Wicked problems have no stopping rules; if zero Covid is not a realistic prospect we will see different definitions of success come and go.

Given these parameters I am convinced that the involvement of all forms of expertise will be required so we can discover ways that work to keep the problem at bay. A broad range of expertise is required, from advisors, professionals, commentators, and civil society. This will help to develop and support social practices that are embedded in our daily lives. We already have become frustrated by the on-off logic of large lockdowns that are based on territories and industries. Engineers may develop standards for well-ventilated rooms in which it is safe to congregate for prolonged periods of time. Community leaders may develop early warning systems that allow for timely interventions. Policy-makers need to find solutions to the competing jurisdictions between private and public bodies, and between different levels of government. They also need to incentivise efforts to find effective treatments. Health professionals may develop testing regimes that are quick and reliable and allow targeted responses. Global institutions need to ensure that resources to fight the pandemic are distributed fairly among countries. Pressure groups could campaign against the rent-seeking behaviour of big pharma. In sum, the governance of Covid-19 is something that needs to be established as a problem. Only when it is recognized as such will we be able to get away from an important but overly narrow definition of the problem, and open new avenues for intervention.


Baldwin, Mark P. and Timothy M. Lenton. 2020. “Solving the Climate Crisis: Lessons from Ozone Depletion and COVID-19.” Global Sustainability 1–6. DOI: 

Brilliant, Larry et al. 2021. “The Forever Virus. A Strategy for the Long Fight Against COVID-19.” Foreign Affairs.

Brown, Gordon and Daniel Susskind. 2020. “International Cooperation during the COVID-19 Pandemic.” Oxford Review of Economic Policy 36:S64–76. DOI:

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Grundmann, Reiner. 2016. “Climate Change as a Wicked Social Problem.” Nature Geosciences 9:562–63. DOI:

Grundmann, Reiner. 2017. “The Problem of Expertise in Knowledge Societies.” Minerva 55(1):25–48. DOI:

Grundmann, Reiner. 2018. “The Rightful Place of Expertise.” Social Epistemology 32(6):372–86. DOI:

Grundmann, Reiner. 2021. “COVID and Climate: Similarities and Differences.” WIREs Climate Change (e737). DOI:

Grundmann, Reiner. 2022. Making Sense of Expertise. New York, NY: Routledge.

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Reiner Grundmann is Professor of Science and Technology Studies at the University of Nottingham (UK). He holds a first degree in Sociology (FU Berlin), a PhD in Social and Political Sciences (EUI Florence), and a Habilitation from Bielefeld University. He has a long-standing interest in social theory, sustainability issues and global environmental problems. His current focus is the relation between knowledge and decision making. He has published on the nature of expertise in contemporary societies in various journal articles, and this is also the topic of his forthcoming book, Making Sense of Expertise. For Frontiers in Climate, he is chief editor of the special section Climate and Decision Making.

Header image credit: Pixabay


Grundmann, Reiner 2021. ‘Covid, Expertise, and Society: Stepping out of the Shadow of Epidemiology?’ Discover Society: New Series 1 (3):

Is COVID-19 Ushering in a ‘Golden Age’ of Scientific Expertise in Policymaking?

Kat Smith

One of the many consequences of COVID-19 has been a renewed emphasis on the role of scientific experts in policymaking. For those of us committed to improving the use of evidence in policymaking, it is tempting to hope that we may be achieving a substantive step forward with efforts to ensure policy decisions are, if not evidence-based, then at least evidence-informed. When it comes to the visibility of scientific expertise, it certainly feels like we are in a very different era to the UK of 2016, when Conservative minister Michael Gove famously responded to an interview question by saying that he thought people in Britain had ‘had enough of experts’.

… we need to do much more to promote a democratically grounded approach to evidence use, in ways that make better use of a wider range of expertise

Yet pandemic-provoked government commitments to ‘follow the science’ are no guarantee that we are entering a golden era of evidence-informed policymaking. Indeed, the approach that policymakers in the UK have taken to scientific evidence, and scientific experts, during the pandemic may not even be desirable. Here, I outline four reasons to be hopeful, and four reasons be cautious, for those seeking to improve the use of evidence and expertise in policy. I close by reflecting on some of the opportunities there are to learn from the unique experiences of this pandemic, arguing that we need to do much more to promote a democratically grounded approach to evidence use, in ways that make better use of a wider range of expertise.

Four reasons to be hopeful

The high policy profile of scientific evidence: The value of scientific research has rarely been more obvious to policymakers than it has in the past 18 months. Research has played a crucial role in helping UK policymakers respond to COVID-19, helping them to understand: how the virus spreads; the health, economic and social consequences of the virus and of policy response; and how it can be treated, tracked and potentially prevented. The value of scientific advice for pandemic policymaking was almost immediately apparent. Just a few weeks into the COVID-19 outbreak in the UK, Prime Minister Boris Johnson described policy responses to COVID-19 as ‘guided by the science’. A few months later, an Institute of Government report reflected that Ministers were consistently keen to emphasise that they were ‘following the science’. These claims have persisted, despite mixed assessments of the extent to which the UK government has drawn on science and expertise, and public trust in science appears to remain relatively high in the UK, despite high infection and mortality rates. All this suggests we have strong foundations on which to build a better long-term relationship between evidence and policy.The high public profile of (some) experts: The crucial role of scientific research during the pandemic has contributed to the emergence of some high profile scientific experts who are skilled at translating the constantly evolving evidence-base for policy, media and public audiences. From those holding high profile government roles, such as Chief Medical Officers and Chief Scientific Advisers, to the senior academic experts who have taken on advisory roles, such as Linda Bauld, John Edmunds, Neil Ferguson, Susan Michie, David Spiegelhalter and Devi Sridhar, to those who have opted to provide more arms-length advice via Independent SAGE, the media and Twitter, such as Anthony Costello, Trish Greenhalgh and Christina Pagel. Being able to explain the societal and policy implications of emerging data and evidence for audiences who do not all have postgraduate scientific or statistical training is a distinct skill from being able to use this training to gather and interpret data. The current pandemic has provided a platform for individuals who have the relatively rare ability to do both and, in so doing, seems likely to be raising the societal profile and accessibility of scientific evidence and expertise. If we want to maintain this interest, and counter misinformation, then this genre of scientific capability is likely to be essential.A renewed spotlight on social and economic inequalities: The unequal impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic, both in terms of the virus itself and the various policy responses, have brought a renewed media and public interest in social and economic inequalities. As well as shouldering a higher burden of death and illness, many of those in positions of financial precarity have been pushed to the brink and beyond. Meanwhile, a wealthy elite has accumulated shockingly high increases in wealth by betting on the recovery of particular firms, while a broader set of households with high levels of disposable incomes have managed to increase their savings during the lockdowns, having had fewer options for spending their disposable income.There is growing evidence that the British population are unhappy with these inequalities. The simultaneous emergence of a UK arm of the Black Lives Matters movement with evidence that black and minority ethnic groups have experienced higher rates of COVID-19 infection and relatively worse health outcomes has, at the same time, shone a spotlight on Britain’s ethnic inequalities. All of this presents an opportunity for evidence and expertise concerning inequalities to gain public and policy traction.The potential to discuss previously ‘off the table’ policies: During the course of research exploring the impact of evidence about health inequalities on UK policy over the past 15 years, I consistently found that macro-level, structural policy responses (e.g. using policy levers to achieve more egalitarian distribution of wealth) were deemed so unpalatable (to policymakers and publics) that even researchers and policy actors who favoured them often saw little point in advocating their uptake. Consequently, even though many of the researchers and policymakers I spoke to were persuaded that there were structural causes to Britain’s health inequalities, they often put forward proposals that helped sustain ‘a ‘cargo cult’ of health behaviourism’. The dominance of this behavioural, individualised way of responding to health inequalities did not always appear to be grounded in empirical assessments of public views. However, the roots of this way of thinking can be traced back to the policy paradigm firmly embedded by the Thatcher-led governments of 1979-1990, in which the role of government policy in tackling many social and economic issues was limited to issuing guidance and pushing individuals to achieve behavioural changes. In the New Labour era (1997-2010), the state’s role shifted into setting targets and mechanisms for performance assessment but, still, the idea that governments might need to take more substantive policy action to tackle and prevent social problems remained unpopular. Since 2010, the creation of the ‘nudge’ unit within the UK government (under the Cameron-led Coalition government) further cemented the policy influence of behavioural science.

… the policy responses to COVID-19 could create spaces in which we can have evidence-informed conversations about policy interventions that were, until recently, ‘off the table’

In the face of a global pandemic, however, we have witnessed the structural power that still resides with policymakers working at the national level. All of the national level governments in the UK have introduced measures to tackle the pandemic that were previously deemed unimaginable. This opens up the potential to ask questions about why similar interventions are routinely ruled out in ‘normal’ times, given that inequalities are responsible for even greater – more sustained – levels of death and illness. In the UK (and other countries such as New Zealand and Finland), the Wellbeing Economy Alliance are framing the pandemic as ‘an opportunity to transform economies and societies in radically positive directions’, noting the lack of popular support for a ‘return to the way things were’. In the face of growing inequalities and a climate emergency, the policy responses to COVID-19 could create spaces in which we can have evidence-informed conversations about policy interventions that were, until recently, ‘off the table’.

Four reasons to be cautious

The narrowness of scientific expertise gaining public and policy traction: Much of the expertise, and many of the experts, gaining public and policy traction over the past 18 months have emanated from biomedical and statistical disciplines and from scientific advisers inside the policy process. Although social scientists are better represented on some of advisory groups than others, the continuing supremacy of behavioural thinking is unmistakeable (e.g. a key advisory group is the Scientific Pandemic Insights Group on Behaviours, dominated by psychologists and behavioural experts). Advisors bringing more societal and structural perspectives (including, perhaps surprisingly, public health experts) are, while not completely absent, vastly outnumbered on these advisory groups. Appearances also suggest many of these experts share a relatively narrow cultural and demographic background. Put bluntly, although substantive in number, Britain’s current scientific superstars appear to be predominantly well-off, white scientists from high-income Anglophone settings who have trained in disciplines that promote broadly positivist or behavioural epistemologies.Beyond this, the more influential advisers appear to be those who understand, and are willing to follow, ‘the rules of the game’ (i.e. those working as policy insiders who are willing to limit criticism, at least in public). As Cairney reflects, in the UK context, ‘guided by ‘the science’ means ‘our scientists,’ and usually a small group of government scientific advisors.’ This relatively narrow set of experts almost inevitably results in a relatively narrow set of scientific advice, which has been a key criticism of the UK’s approach. Missing from this (or, at least, much less well featured) are social science voices that bring societal and structural perspectives to understanding the pandemic and policy responses. This is an importance gap given, as Pickersgill and Smith argue: ‘Many of the questions that policymakers […] are dealing with in relation to COVID-19 have significant social, economic, and ethical dimensions’.The problems caused by drawing on a narrow set of expertise are significant. Ensuring front-line workers had access to PPE – an area in which the UK did not perform well – immediately required advisors who understood procurement, supply chain management and logistics, and voices who recognised that ‘front-line’ workers were not only doctors and nurses working in hospitals but also care home staff, retailers, cleaners, porters, social workers, food processing staff, teachers, midwives, delivery drivers and so on. To avoid substantial increases in social and education inequalities and worsening mental health among children and young people – an other area with a concerning prognosis – policy decisions around school closures needed to be informed by a broad array of expertise (e.g. social workers, child psychologists, childhood behavioural experts, ethicists, teachers, sociologists of education, families and intersectional inequalities) as well as by those trying to model and understand the impact of school closures on viral transmission and hospital admissions.To be well-positioned to overcome the unequal impacts of COVID-19, including the wealth of misinformation about COVID-19 and available vaccines – yet another area in which the UK is struggling – scientific experts in the UK needed to represent (or at least to be drawing on) a much more diverse demographic spectrum. Instead, we saw 10 Black academics calling for a review of the UKRI’s systems and processes ‘after it emerged that none of the principal investigators on Covid-19 grants awarded for research into death rates among people from Black, Asian and minority ethnic backgrounds were Black’ and claims that working class voices were being routinely side-lined.A lack of democratic engagement: While scientific advice can help decision-makers working to tackle major societal problems, such as pandemics and climate change, to identify potentially effective policy proposals, they also need to attain sufficient democratic legitimacy for proposals to be viable. Here, the UK’s current approach seems especially wanting; although there have been multiple efforts, for more than two decades, to promote the use of evidence in policymaking (on the assumption evidence-based policies are more effective), and multiple initiatives to promote stakeholder/public engagement (on the assumption engagement enhances democratic legitimacy), surprisingly little work considers how evidence, publics and policies interact.The importance of this gap was evident from the early stages of the UK’s pandemic policy response when early modelling of COVID-19 reportedly excluded policy responses that were later pursued because they were not initially deemed publicly acceptable. The need to understand (and listen to) public beliefs, experiences and preferences, and to consider how these are shaped by (and have the potential to shape) research and policy should come as no surprise since this kind of intelligence has been previously identified as important in efforts to tackle infectious disease outbreaks. As Rubin and colleagues note, ‘The public’s compliance is essential for response efficacy, as well as enhancing the democratic legitimacy of the pandemic response’.Yet, reflecting the narrowness of the scientific expertise on show in the UK, policymakers have often seemed surprisingly unwilling to consider what they might learn from publics or from other contexts. Without this kind of insight, policymakers inevitably struggle to understand or respond to the public pushbacks against COVID-19 prevention efforts. Moreover, and especially in the context of the narrow social backgrounds of the UK’s ruling elites, without democratic engagement in discussions around evidence and policy, the unequal impacts of the pandemic are unlikely to be mitigated and inequalities will continue to worsen.Confusion surrounding the boundary between science and politics: Although claims to be ‘guidance by the science’ may sound reassuring, such accounts of policymaking risk muddying the distinction between the decision-making responsibilities of elected governments and the scientific advice of independent experts. As Max Weber famously reflected in Science as a Vocation, the role of science is not to tell us (or our political leaders) what we (or they) should do, or how we should live, but rather to make more meaningful choices possible. Yet, faced with pressure to make unpopular decisions, obscuring this distinction may be strategically and symbolically useful to decision-makers but potentially damaging to the credibility of science. For if policies ‘based on science’ are unpopular, or if they turn out to be ineffective or to have unintended consequences (here, Rubin et al remind us that experts are notoriously bad at forecasting), the public pushback may focus on scientists rather than decision-makers, eroding the authority of science.This explains both why some of the most high profile scientific advisors have sought to emphasise the distinction between providing scientific advice and making policy decisions. Longer-term efforts to strengthen and improve the use of evidence in policy depend on the ability of scientists and other academic experts to maintain public credibility and authority, even where this expertise has informed potentially unpopular or unsuccessful policy decisions. This, in turn, requires efforts to ensure that academic work is sufficiently independent of government policy not to cast scientists as decision-makers or to result in academics self-censoring and telling policymakers what they think they want to hear. Yet, as the UK’s research funding landscape increasingly prioritises research that is responsive to policy needs, we are witnessing an ever-smaller gap between the expertise of those working at universities and those based at think tanks and private consultancies.The ‘emergency’ framing of the pandemic policy response: While pandemic policymaking has certainly enabled policies (such as the furlough scheme) that were previously unimaginable in contemporary Britain, these efforts have consistently been framed as one-off policy responses to an unprecedented emergency. If unchallenged, this framing may quickly shut down opportunities to seriously consider the kinds of transformative policy proposals that evidence on tackling inequalities and climate change suggests are required.

What might a more democratically-engaged approach to supporting evidence and expertise in policymaking look like?

It would be unreasonable to assume that the higher profile of scientific expertise during the COVID-19 pandemic will last beyond the immediate pandemic crisis. Indeed, the narrow profile of scientific expertise at play, the fallibility of scientific evidence and the limited democratic engagement all mean that sustaining this approach is unlikely to be desirable. Yet, this experience does offer opportunities to learn and to reflect on the kinds of evidence and expertise policymaking might benefit from. Pre-pandemic research on evidence use was often constrained by a focus on particular areas of policy, or specific contexts, stymying efforts to understand, and learn from, different ‘cultures of evidence’.

Both the devolved nature of policymaking in the UK and the global character of the pandemic offer opportunities for insightful comparative analysis. Given the complexity and seriousness of the challenges currently facing humans, we need to examine how different governments approached and drew on the complex array of potentially relevant evidence and expertise and how these decisions shaped policy outcomes. The inevitable uncertainty and fallibility of scientific evidence means we also need to explore how different governments sought to frame the role of science and expertise in policymaking and to understand how this, in turn, shapes public trust in science. Finally, if we can use the experience of pandemic policymaking to identify means of enhancing democratic engagement in conversations about evidence-informed policy options to address major societal challenges (recognising that publics are multiple and unequal), we will be contributing to addressing a much longer-standing impasse between ‘science’ and ‘politics’.

Kat Smith is Professor of Public Health Policy in the School of Social Work & Social Policy at the University of Strathclyde. Her main research interests are the dynamics of policy change and the relationships between evidence, expertise, policy and practice, particularly for issues relating to public health and inequalities. She held the Philip Leverhulme Prize in 2014.

Header image credit: Steve Rotman


Smith, Kat 2021. ‘Is COVID-19 Ushering in a ‘Golden Age’ of Scientific Expertise in Policymaking?’ Discover Society: New Series 1 (3):

Climate Emergency: International and National Political Institutions Misfit-for-Purpose

Mark Harvey

The pandemic has stimulated many political leaders to benignly pronounce that ‘no nation is safe unless all nations are safe’, while notably pursuing national self-protection at the expense of international collaboration. The meagre achievements and funding of Covax illustrate how vaccination of the domestic nation has taken overriding priority, everywhere, as have the use of vaccines as instruments of national soft-diplomacy.

Climate change has become the climate emergency because, likewise, but with a far greater and more complex challenge, political institutions and, in particular, the institution of the sovereign nation state as underpinned by the United Nations, have failed to meet it adequately or rapidly enough. As we approach COP26, the political process of negotiation and deal-making appears to be stuck in the rut of institutions misfit-for-purpose, unable to challenge the rights of nations to exploit their resource environments, especially of fossil fuels and land. As a consequence, there is little prospect of addressing the inequalities within and between nations that are driving the generation of greenhouse gases.

No nation is safe unless all are safe

As political scientists have noted, climate change poses ‘the wickedest of problems’ of creating a planetary common good in the face of the pursuit of national self-interest, notably for economic growth and development (Coen, et al. 2020). No nation is safe unless all are safe, but the huge inequalities between and within nations for generating climate change pit national economic self-interest against environmental common interest.

Climate change also requires a change in optic for the social sciences. We now need to consider how different societies, in different historical epochs, are instituted in the resource environments over which they have control. Much of the discipline of economics treats the economy as if it existed outside nature. There is a whole sociological literature on varieties of capitalism without any recognition of the importance of differences arising from nations’ control over environmental resources (oil, coal, land, etc). Aside from the changing cultures of food we eat, almost every social practice is now energised by electricity, gas or oil: cooking, washing, heating, moving, refrigerating, communicating, entertaining. Yet, these social practices have been treated as if they were abstracted from interactions with the resource environments on which they depend.  Societies have to be re-planted in the resource environments within which they grow. We urgently need a concept of the sociogenesis of climate change to complement the natural science concept of anthropogenesis (Harvey, 2021).

Climate Inequalities, present and historical

Social scientific accounts of climate change demonstrate that wealth inequalities between and within nations are dynamically related to the unequal generation of climate changing greenhouse gases, whether from industry or agriculture, or indeed, their combination. Economic inequalities, too simplistically caricatured as between developed and developing countries, are widely recognised as having impeded international agreement under UN auspices.

There is a second dimension of inequality, equally important to the climate emergency challenge, namely the unequal distribution between nations of environmental resources – coal, oil, fertile land, water, sun, minerals, etc. Nations control and interact with different resource environments, especially within their own national territories, or through colonisation or trading power.

In September 2021, scientists revised their estimation of how much of existing economically viable fossil energy reserves must remain unextracted if goals on reducing global warming are to be met: 58% of oil, 59% of fossil methane gas, and 89% of coal (Welsby et al., 2021). As natural scientists they could not be expected to say how this is to be achieved, politically, economically and socially. And nor did they. But this presents perhaps the most fundamental challenge to what has been the dominant paradigm of economic growth for all countries for the past century or more: the sovereign right of a nation to exploit its own territorial environmental resources.

… unextractable reserves are unequally distributed between nations

These unextractable reserves are unequally distributed between nations, as a source of wealth, but now also recognised as a source of imperilment of the planet. Above all, it is therefore a challenge to the political institutions, international and national as established since the Second World War. The United Nations enshrines this principle of national sovereignty, and no nation appears ready to relinquish its determining rights over national territorial resources. And that is by no means the end of it. What applies to fossil energy also applies to land and water resources. The rain forests of Amazonia, Indonesia, or Africa have to be preserved from further deforestation and agricultural extensification to meet the 1.5C target. That is equally a challenge to national sovereign rights.

This second dimension of inequalities is intimately connected with the first, characterising different historical trajectories of growth. Societies differ dramatically in how they generate climate change as a consequence of differences between their exploitation of resource environments. So, quite apart from the challenge to the political institution of the nation state, the climate emergency is also a challenge to social scientific understanding.

Historical pathways to climate change

Before turning to an analysis of international and national institutional ‘misfit-for-purpose’, a brief cameo to demonstrate the dynamic connection between inequalities of wealth, environmental resource inequalities, and climate change. Reviewing the histories that condition the present requires a different optic. The ‘great divergence’ that resulted in an historically novel level of wealth inequalities between nations was spearheaded by the United Kingdom’s industrial revolution. And it was that process of unequal wealth creation that also marked the rapid acceleration of climate change. The UK led the world in the shift to burning its coal for energy, first for domestic heating then for industrialisation, of which the steam powered textile factories were iconic exemplars. By the mid-19th century the UK was burning three times more coal than Germany, Belgium and France combined, which still relied on wood, charcoal and peat.

Britain’s industrialisation depended substantially on the colonisation of the New World

Although much emphasis has been placed on coal-burning Britain, its industrialisation depended substantially on the colonisation of the New World, first with its own slave plantation economies producing sugar as an increasingly important source of calories for the industrial proletariat, and then, above all for the cotton supplying the textile industry. The UK commanded the expansion of slavery into the Deep South of North America, from the late eighteenth century through to the Civil War. Through its mercantile and financial capital, by mid-nineteenth century UK textiles captured 70% of the US slave cotton crop, which supplied 88% of all cotton textiles produced in the UK. The UK economy was more dependent on the three million enslaved in the US after emancipating its own enslaved than it ever had been from its own Caribbean plantations.  Industrialisation in the metropolis thus combined with land conversion and extensification in the New World, both climate changing forcers.

Indeed, the expansion of territorial control through settler colonisation and slave plantations in the United States gives the American historical climate changing trajectory its distinctive character. Cosmologists have argued that, from 3000 BC, the spread of agriculturalism through hybridisation of crops and livestock, deforestation and ploughing up land, was a slow burning climate changing phenomenon over centuries prior to industrialisation. That same process in the US was accelerated over a matter of decades, with the genocides and ethnic cleansing of subsistence agriculture and hunter-gatherer Native Americans. It was primarily a crime against humanity, but also a climate changing appropriation and conversion of environmental land resources on a continental scale.

Commercial capitalist agriculture of plantations and cattle ranching swept across the continent, celebrated in the Western film genre. This was the formation of a distinctive meat-eating culture: Texas, a slave state, fed its cattle into Chicago, to be then transported as beef in chilled railway carriages (iron and steam), to East Coast cities and the world. Chicago boasted to be the ‘bovine capital of the world’, and today the US eats more meat per capita than any country in the world.

Although here is not the place for detail, the next two major waves of climate changing economic development, the electrification of societies and the motorisation of spatial mobility, were equally marked by major societal differences. The development of electricity grids and motorways were conditioned by available national spatial and environmental resources. As Green New Deals are now much discussed, exemplary in this respect is the Tennessee Valley Authority, the totemic project of New Deal. Initially, if unintentionally, it was characterised by the massive dam systems of ‘green’ hydropower. But this was rapidly overtaken by the exploitation of its proximate environmental resource of the Appalachian coal fields. By the mid-1970s the Philadelphia Power Company was using five times more energy from coal than from hydro-power, and became the largest coal consumer in the world. Successive waves of accelerated climate change were driven by such interactions between societies and their resource environments, at the core of the concept of sociogenesis (Harvey, 2021).

These historical glimpses show how the great divergence in wealth inequalities between nations and the exploitation of resource environments have been responsible for successive waves of acceleration in the societal dynamics of climate change. As a consequence, the close linear relationship between per capita Gross National Product and climate change is hardly surprising. As the wealthiest society in the world, the US stands almost in a league of its own.

As a consequence of near energy self-sufficiency, the luxury of space, and strategic investments in the Interstate Highway system, the average American consumes between 4 and 5 times more petrol than the average European. The average weight of an American car is 30% higher than a German one, and a massive 55% more than a Japanese one. As an indicator of electricity consumption, the size of US refrigerators is on average double that of Japanese or European ones, and 90% of American households have air-conditioning units, as against 10% in Europe, or 60% in China.

… the richest within the richest countries are the primary forcers of climate change

Not all societies, or those within societies, are equally electrified. So, the richest within the richest countries are the primary forcers of climate change. The top 10% income group in the US produce 24 tonnes of CO2 equivalent per capita per year, compared with 14 and 13 tonnes by the top 10% in Germany and France respectively. The threshold of purchasing power for the top 10% in England is $71,000 compared with $155,105 in the USA, and purchasing power translates into the command over environmental resources generating climate change. The majority of the world’s population produce less greenhouse gases per capita than is required to meet the 1.5C global warming target (Oxfam, 2021).

International and national political institutions: misfit for purpose

These are just some of the stark statistics of the links between unequal wealth creation and greenhouse gas generation, linking production with consumption. That climate change has become a climate emergency is in significant part a consequence of the misfit between international and national political institutions and these dynamics of climate change. The United Nations was born out of the world-shattering shocks of two world wars, designed in significant part to preserve peace between sovereign nations and promote de-colonisation. So constructed, it enshrines the principle of national territorial sovereignty.

It was never designed, even with Millennium Development Goals, to confront the sovereign rights of nations to generate wealth in their own national self-interest, exploiting their own national territorial resources. Where there are international ‘common goods’, such as the regulation of international waters under the Law of the Sea Convention (1982), it at the same time confirmed national sovereignty over territorial waters. Cod wars are now followed, post-Brexit, with migrant wars.

One case of the UN establishing some supra-national authority, the Responsibility to Protect (2005) when a nation threatened a part of its population with genocide or ethnic cleansing, has been exposed for its limitations, whether in Rwanda or Myanmar. These examples of the limitations of United Nations powers to override national sovereignty, for all their complex political reasons and internal institutional obstacles, only serve to highlight how the United Nations is misfit for purpose when it comes to climate change.

Three major phases of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change confirm this misfit: the Kyoto Protocol (1997), the Copenhagen Accord (2009) and the Paris Agreement (2015).  The Kyoto Protocol, following success in dealing with the ozone layer, adopted a ‘top-down’ approach of legally mandatory carbon reduction targets, with provisions for enforcement.  However, enforcement was never credible. States like Canada pulled out when not meeting their target, major countries (China, India, Brazil) were excluded – and finally the United States refused to ratify. Copenhagen proved to be more discord than Accord, and already marked a retreat from supra-national global mandates.  So this governance model was abandoned for a ‘bottom-up’ approach, in which each sovereign nation state independently set its own commitments, subject to monitoring and review. As a reflection of national sovereignty, these commitments were called Nationally Determined Contributions (NDCs).

… there is no global solution achieved by the sum of all national solutions

The Paris Agreement established these NDCs under international treaty, signed by 179 countries. It has been heralded as ‘the most important treaty to be reached by the global community’ in relation to climate change (Held, 2018). Undoubtedly, it was a step forward from the preceding failures, but, given the continuing rise of global GHG emissions from almost every country in the world, its promise now rings hollow. And that was before Trump and Bolsonaro had pulled out. In particular, by conforming and reinforcing the principles of national sovereignty, it directly obstructs any attempt to significantly address the inequalities of responsibilities for climate change between countries noted above. It is every nation addressing its own problem, where there is no global solution achieved by the sum of all national solutions.

The Agreement has signally failed to raise anything approaching significant financial flows to support green transitions of developing countries, to even begin to modify wealth inequalities and command over resources. By only treating nations as producers of GHG, it evades entirely the interdependencies of trade between countries arising from inequalities of environmental resources, whether for food or energy. So, Japan’s increasing reliance on Australian coal for energy, or Europe and China’s dependence on Brazil for soyabeans for animal feed, or the US importing Chinese manufactures, escape its remit. One nation’s production side is disconnected from another nation’s consumption side. And the World Trade Organisation resists all attempts to regulate international trade for environmental sustainability. And finally, there is no supranational legally binding process of enforcement (Bodansky, et al. 2017). The Paris Agreement is indeed the product of Nations United by their independent sovereign nationhood.

At the national level, the alternative prospects of Green New Deals are still largely bounded by every-nation-for-themselves politics, and, so far, however laudable, they are political projects confined to the wealthiest countries. Most ravaged by world wars, the European Green New Deal stands out as the only global example of transnational policy. But it too is confined to a limited set of wealthy, advanced economies, failing to address the inequalities across the nations of the world. Moreover, with Nord Stream 2 and new coal-fired power stations in Germany, and increasing European reliance on energy from Russia and Kazakhstan, Europe is continuing to travel in the wrong direction. Neither Poland nor Russia appears remotely committed to reducing their extraction of fossil fuels, as required to meet 1.5C.


If it took the shock of two world wars to lead to the establishment of the United Nations, how extreme and how many climate change shocks will it take to induce a shift out of the paradigm of national sovereignty over the exploitation of the planet’s environmental resources?

And will it take a climate catastrophe to shake disciplinary boundedness and nation-parochialisms, and stimulate a reconfiguration of social science?


Bodansky, D., Brunnée, J. and Rajamani, L., 2017. International climate change law. Oxford University Press.

Coen, D., Kreienkamp, J. and Pegram, T., 2020. Global Climate Governance. Cambridge University Press.

Held, D. and Roger, C., 2018. Three models of global climate governance: From Kyoto to Paris and beyond. Global Policy, 9(4), pp.527-537.

Harvey, M. 2021. Climate Emergency. How societies create the crisis. Emerald.

Oxfam, 2021 Confronting Carbon Inequality.

Welsby, D., Price, J., Pye, S. and Ekins, P., 2021. Unextractable fossil fuels in a 1.5° C world. Nature, 597(7875), pp.230-234.

Mark Harvey is emeritus professor in the Sociology Department at the University of Essex. He joined the department in September 2007, following a decade at the ESRC Centre for Research in Innovation and Competition (CRIC) at the University of Manchester, as a Senior Research Fellow and Professorial Research Fellow.

Header Image Credit: Shutterstock


Harvey, Mark 2021. ‘Climate emergency: international and national political institutions misfit-for-purpose’ Discover Society: New Series 1 (3):

Reflections on Doing Sociology Live in Lively Times

Michaela Benson

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.

The Brexit inquiries have been so unlike any other parliamentary inquiry

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.

… 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

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.

There would be people who would fall between the gaps as rights and entitlements changed

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 France and 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.

… importantly, the research was not driven by an advocacy agenda

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.

… this also meant being attentive to silences, noticing whose voices were not being heard

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.

Michaela Benson is Professor in Public Sociology at Lancaster University, Editor-in-Chief at The Sociological Review and Co-investigator of the ESRC-funded project Rebordering Britain and Britons after Brexit (MIGZEN).

Header image credit: Puckpics


Benson, Michaela 2021. ‘Reflections on Doing Sociology Live in Lively Times’ Discover Society: New Series 1 (3):

Diversity Conservatism and Sociable Sociology

Les Back

What kind of public need is there for sociology today? In the political sphere, the Conservative government under Boris Johnson’s leadership is unguardedly hostile to social science. Ten years ago Johnson spoke disparagingly of what he called ‘sociological justifications’ in the aftermath of the 2011 London riots. As prime minister he was consistently flippant. The Spectator reported in 2020 that his cabinet committee on crime chaired by himself with Priti Patel as his deputy would root out ‘lefty criminologists’.

Thatcher’s ghostly shadow has become political common sense

Thinking about society is reduced to bleating or offering excuses and social ills are ultimately understood as the responsibility of individuals. Margaret Thatcher’s famous pronouncement in the pages Women’s Own Magazine in 1987 that there is ‘…no such thing as society. There are individual men and women and there are families. And no government can do anything except through people, and people must look after themselves first.” Thatcher’s ghostly shadow has become political common sense. Society is not something to be discovered because for her disciples it simply does not exist.

For all of our radical affectations and promises, a close look at the public portrayals of sociology have been bent towards self-justification. The bluntest examples of this are the demand to prove social ‘impact’, that we are contributing to political solutions. The UK university sector is holding its breath for the outcomes of the latest Research Assessment Exercise that will be announced in April next year. This kind of reformist approach to the value of knowledge puts us on the side of the political elite, Ministers of State, JobCentre Managers, Immigration Officers, and the apparatchiks of prevailing government policy. Looking closely at the submissions of the last exercise in 2014, I was clear that this way of approaching public value puts academic sociology on the side of the powerful. In the current political climate where information is managed and reduced cynically to public relations, do the powerful even care that we are siding with them? I think the short answer, is no! They don’t care and they have another kind of political project.

… we have seen the drawing of people of colour into the machinery of government to be the spokespeople for an increasingly draconian and nationalist post-Brexit conservatism

This late Thatcherite brand of conservativism conceives the polity in ways that are incommensurable with the forms of knowledge created in the social sciences. This is not just a matter of Conservative ideology. The New Labour of governments of the nineties viewed social science to problem solve policy and develop pragmatic social engineering. What is distinctive about late Thatcherite conservatism is that they have no shared sense of society or social imaginary. What we have also seen is the drawing of people of colour into the machinery of government to be the spokespeople for an increasingly draconian and nationalist post-Brexit conservatism. This brand of conservatism has taken on a postcolonial mask in ways that the great anti-colonial theorist Franz Fanon anticipated. Through figures like Home Secretary Priti Patel or Sajid Javid, Secretary of State for Health and Social Care, and Kwasi Kwarteng, Secretary of State for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy, government takes on the appearance of diversity. While at this same time this form of diversity conservatism is presiding over an openly anti-immigrant border policy and resisting broader pressures to address racism domestically and globally.

In our present moment, hostility to teaching ‘critical race theory’ or ‘gender identity’ is the way diversity conservatism expresses its ire for sociological ideas. Kemi Badenoch, Minister for Equalities, who was born in London of Nigerian heritage, commented that teachers who presented the idea of white privilege as a fact to their students were breaking the law and she described critical race theory as ‘an ideology that sees my blackness as victimhood and their whiteness as oppression.’ Diversity conservatism is also producing forms of knowledge fit for its own interests and commitments. This is itself nothing new and the right has always had its own intellectuals and ideologues. What is distinctive in our moment is the way intellectuals of colour are in the foreground of this process.

The findings of the Commission on Race and Ethnic Disparities (CRED), part of the Race Disparity Unit of the Cabinet Office, is a good example. Commission members were chosen by political adviser Munira Mirza and included black educationalist Tony Sewell, space scientist and science educator Maggie Aderin-Pocock, Aftab Chughtai, former police officer and chair of the Youth Justice Board Keith Fraser, and global economist and author Dambisa Moyo. Prior to the commission, Munira Mirza was on record as denying the existence of structural and institutional racism.

The commission published its report in March 2021, the content of which caused considerable controversy. The report concluded that the “claim the country is still institutionally racist is not borne out by the evidence”. It also emphasised ‘immigrant optimism’ in entrepreneurship and celebrated immigrant social mobility and success while stressing that “family is also the foundation stone of success for many ethnic minorities.” Here we see the legacy of Thatcherite logic in which societal and structural inequalities are disavowed while emphasis is placed on individual responsibility and valuing conventional (two parents heterosexual) model of family life.

… diversity is foregrounded ideologically as a vehicle to reinforce the free-market individualism

In 2020 Conservative Minister Liz Truss said in a speech entitled The Fight for Fairness, citing her own experience growing up in the 1980s that her peers in Leeds were taught about racism and sexism, before basic forms of literacy. “These ideas,” she said, “have their roots in postmodernist philosophy – pioneered by Foucault – that put societal power structures and labels ahead of individuals and their endeavours.” It is not just that Conservative politicians dismiss and discredit sociological ideas. Rather, diversity is foregrounded ideologically as a vehicle to reinforce the free-market individualism within a political morality centered around family values and national loyalty.

This challenges the legitimacy of academic sociology but begs the question of the kinds of audiences we are trying to engage with. Ben Baumberg Geiger recently published in the journal Sociology a fascinating study of how leading sociologists present themselves publicly. Here sociologists perform ‘trustworthiness’ and ‘credibility’ through ‘non-partisanship’ and ‘dispassionate advocacy’ rather than traditional ideas of scientific objectivity. The question that remains is with whom are we trying to be credible? I think we might seek a different kind of public role amid the grim political scenario I have sketched. Shamser Sinha and I have called this a sociable sociology.

Our book Migrant City is an attempt to realise a different form of knowledge production. It took us ten years to research and write. It is the story of London told from the vantage point of young migrants living in the capital through the torrid anti-immigrant decades of the early 21st century. We started research in 2008 and it was completed in 2018. The book is also an experiment with researching in a more sociable ongoing way so that the participants can also become authors and commentators that are also acknowledged and credited explicitly.

We wanted to create vivid insights generated out of the everyday experience of living in the migrant city

We have repeatedly circled back, arranged more meetings in café and informal urban spaces to pick up the conversation. For some, it has also been part of their journey to becoming observers and chroniclers of the city be it through storytelling, painting, and poetry. In writing the book we wanted to portray the participants who taught us so much as rounded human beings and not disembodied interview experts. If we reduce a person to a condensed quotation, then we reduce their life in human terms too. Unfolding complex life is transcribed and squashed into a flat transcription. We aimed for something else. We wanted to create vivid insights generated out of the everyday experience of living in the migrant city.

In summer 2021 the book was translated for publication in Japan. The years that have followed the book’s publication in 2018 have been no less dramatic and difficult to interpret. The Covid 19 global pandemic has added new dimensions to the experience of migration and city life. In the spirit of our way of doing research, we have returned to some of the key voices in this book to try and fill the gap between where our story ended and now.

For the author participants being involved in the writing of Migrant City has brought them into the sociological conversation as active knowledge producers. Some like Charlynne Bryan who you’ll hear from shortly have become published authors. Their lives were not merely used as evidence to be presented through sociological ventriloquism. Through the process of dialogue, it made them active readers, interpreters, and contributors to theory construction too.

For Charlynne, one of the deep lessons of the pandemic is how to live in the face of possible infection and premature death

We met Charlynne again in the summer of 2021 at Westfield Shopping Centre in East London, a regular place for us to catch up over Costa coffee and cake. For Charlynne, one of the deep lessons of the pandemic is how to live in the face of possible infection and premature death. She explained: “And everybody knew that they could die from it. And that’s all they focused on the death… COVID kind of brought that to the forefront of our mind that we’re not going to live forever, that there is an end. And we don’t know when that end is; it could be any minute.” This, for Charlynne, poses moral or philosophical questions about how to live in the face of this. For many, it brought out the worst fears and phobias about others. She explained: “And so the reaction wasn’t a reaction of “Oh my goodness, I’m going to do my best and live the best life that I can”. It was an “I’m going to be suspicious of everybody that can threaten that life that I’m living now and potentially bring about my end quicker”.

Covid 19 has exacerbated the fear of the stranger. Charlynne described an experience that showed how the pandemic has thrown the way people interact in the city: “I was walking through Mile End station once going to work, and I coughed, and it was at the beginning of the pandemic, nobody was wearing masks as yet and all of that, but there was one man who covered his face and started running on the platform because I coughed.” The idea that the pandemic is a consequence of immigration amplifies the ‘hostile environment’ that migrants experienced in London before it.

For Charlynne, there is another impulse and that is to live a better more open-hearted life. Charlynne wrote poems as part of her contribution to the research which was published in Migrant City. She published a collection of poems during the pandemic entitled Letters to My Soul. Throughout the pandemic, Charlynne continued with her poetry group that is based in East London. “And so my poetry group moved online and so all of the Colombian people, and you know the Jamaican people and the Trinidadian people, all of us were coming together and the Bangladeshi people as well and sharing our poetry and talking about what COVID did to us and how we were affected by it and what we would prefer instead and whether or not this was normal that we were going to be subjected to for the rest of our lives. And it was really nice to see that even within that where there was so much isolation, and there was still so much community.” So, in the face of death during the pandemic, Charlynne points to how to refuse isolation and fear and choose connection and community as a better way to live.

… this pandemic has definitely proven that, though as migrants we are ostracized in so many ways, we’re needed in so many ways that we can make it in so many ways

Living in the migrant city through this pandemic for Charlynne has left her with a deep sense of pride. “I generally don’t like to generalise, but when I think of my people, and… I’m using my people as a general term to talk about migrants, be it migrants, from the Caribbean, or migrants from Europe or migrants from Africa. And my people know how to make things work when things aren’t working. And that’s one of the things that’s always struck me about migrant communities is that they… you put them in a situation where they have nothing, and they will magic, something out of nothing, you put them in a situation where they’re illegal, and they can’t work to get money, but they will find some way to make it work for their family, you put them in a situation where it’s hard, and there’s a pandemic, and they will find a way to make something out of that so that it doesn’t become something that destroys them. You know, and this pandemic has definitely proven that, that even though as migrants we are ostracized in so many ways, that we’re needed in so many ways that we can make it in so many ways. And that’s been the beautiful thing for me… I’m kind of proud of my people, you know, really proud of my people for that.”

We asked Charlynne what message she would send to Japanese readers. She thought for a moment, “You know, so I would say to Japanese readers… read the book, and read what’s being said, by the real people that are involved in Migrant City, London, and try to understand, from their point of view, what being a migrant really is, instead of hearing it from somebody else.” The reason for offering the research fable is that, for us, this is the ultimate measure of credibility: firstly, the people with whom we have collaborated with recognise themselves on the pages of this book; secondly, that this mode of sociable sociology offers participants to be the authors of their own lives.

It is pointless to seek to influence government or powerful institutions in the current climate. Diversity conservatives have closed their ears to sociology. The great folly of the ‘impact agenda’ is the idea that structures of power and influence are open or even amenable to being changed through knowledge. Why would they be? Power and privilege always hold shape and refuse to be impacted upon unless it is forced to do so. Academic journal articles and reports of the like submitted to the 2021 Research Assessment are not going to change that.

We need to find alternative ways to do our craft in more sociably public ways. This opens up wider involvement in knowledge-making but also the opportunity for us as researchers to be part of a public conversation about the key issues of our time with greater humility and deeper engagement with the people most affected by them.

Les Back is a sociologist working at Goldsmiths, University of London. His main fields of interest are the sociology of racism, migration, popular culture and city life.  In 2018 with Shamser Sinha he published Migrant City (Routledge) a book that attempted to re-design social observation so that participants not only observe their own lives but also become credited authors too.

Header image credit: Charlynne reading


Back, Les 2021. ‘Diversity Conservatism and Sociable Sociology’ Discover Society: New Series 1 (3):

Preventing Evidence: ‘Rights’ and the Wrongs of Government Policy Reviews

Layla Aitlhadj and John Holmwood

In 2011, the Home Office undertook an internal review of its Prevent strategy. It was extended to include measures directed against non-violent extremism; that is, against “organisations that oppose our values of human rights, equality before the law, democracy and full participation in our society” (2011: 1). The measures were further extended in 2015 with the introduction of safeguarding duties on schools, further and higher education institutions, health services, prisons and other providers of public services to protect children and other vulnerable individuals from ‘radicalisation’ under the influence of extremist ideologies. This included (published in the previous year) a statutory duty on schools to promote ‘fundamental British values’, now codified as commitments to the rule of law, democracy, individual liberty, and tolerance of different views (religious and non-religious).

Many civil society groups saw the measures as being themselves a threat to civil liberties, especially those associated with free speech; they as also viewed them as contributing to the idea of British Muslims as a ‘suspect’ community. The latter charge was countered by the claim that the measures were also directed against  threats other than possible terrorism conducted in the name of Islam, such as the potential violence of the ‘far right’. At the same time Muslim advocacy groups that opposed Prevent were represented as ‘extremist’, both by government and by right wing think tanks such as the Henry Jackson Society and Policy Exchange.

… none of these extensions of Prevent place a specific community under suspicion

As feared by civil rights groups, the government has recently given indications (for example, in the new guidance to schools about curriculum material) that it seeks to include other forms of ‘extremism’ under the lens of Prevent, such as that associated with environmental activism, Black Lives Matter protests and ‘far left’ groups. Unlike the focus on Islamic extremism, however, none of these extensions of Prevent place a specific community under suspicion.

The 2011 Home Office Review occurred at the same time that the then prime minister, David Cameron, made a speech at the Munich Security Conference repudiating ‘state multiculturalism’, by arguing that, “we have encouraged different cultures to live separate lives, apart from each other and apart from the mainstream…  We’ve even tolerated these segregated communities behaving in ways that run completely counter to our values”. The claim was problematic even in its own terms. Human rights involve respect for difference and, thus, for multiculturalism – in Britain, within a liberal framework – as was set out in 2000 in the Parekh Report and the Runnymede Trusts Commission on the Future of Multi-Ethnic Britain.

… the government’s aim was to promote an assimilationist idea of ‘collective identity’

Instead, the government’s aim was to promote an assimilationist idea of ‘collective identity’, but it sought to do so without addressing British Muslims and their legitimate criticisms of the inequalities and discrimination they faced. Indeed, sociological research has consistently shown a high level of commitment to the values identified by the government (Karlsen and Nazroo 2015). At the same time, the government has resisted the adoption of a formal definition of Islamophobia (once again supported by the Henry Jackson Society, Policy Exchange, and the British Secular Society).

Indeed, most government policy developments are accompanied by the trumpeting of Britain as one of the ‘most successful multi-ethnic societies’ in the world. This is alongside appointments of commissioners across a range of supposedly independent bodies who have repudiated the idea of ‘institutional racism’ (as set out in the MacPherson Report), or with a record of hostility toward British Muslims centred on the view that the latter have failed to integrate.

In February 2019, the government finally conceded an Independent Review of Prevent (to be completed within 18 months) at the tail end of Theresa May’s minority government. It was part of a ‘deal’ necessary to pass a new Counter Terrorism and Border Security Bill. The latter introduced  ‘stop and search’ measures at UK borders, and it removed the requirement that there should be reasonable suspicion, as well as restrictions on the posting and accessing of images (for example, of flags and clothing) that might indicate support for terrorist groups. Notwithstanding their concerns about these measures, the announcement of an independent review of Prevent was welcomed by the human rights and civil liberties groups that criticised the new act.

Ben Wallace, the Security Minister, announced the review with a challenge to critics of Prevent to provide solid evidence, accusing them otherwise of ‘spin and distortion’. It was left to his successor, Brandon Lewis, to announce the appointment of the reviewer, Lord Carlile. The latter was hardly independent; he had, in fact, endorsed the 2011 Prevent Strategy that was at issue.

Following the threat of a legal challenge by Rights Watch, Lord Carlile stepped down. The review fell into abeyance, until, finally, William Shawcross was appointed by the new government of Boris Johnson in January 2021. Shawcross had been a Director at the Henry Jackson Society, a Senior Fellow at Policy Exchange and was Chair of the Charity Commission between 2012 and 2018 when it carried out investigations of Muslim charities (Scott-Baumann and Perfect 2021).

… ‘spin and distortion’ would certainly seem to be the approach of government, not that of its critics

The immediate response by Muslim organisations and civil society advocacy groups, alike – for example, MEND, CAGE, Rights Watch, Liberty and Amnesty International – was to call for a boycott of the review. Seventeen organisations signed up, which has now grown to 500 organisations and individuals. Other reviews have been criticised for their partisan character and the selective use of evidence – for example, the recent Commission on Racial Disparities review was the most egregious. It has been widely criticised, including by the UN Office of the High Commissioner on Human Rights, as well as by the Equalities and Human Rights Commission in a dossier of critical comments prior to its publication, notwithstanding that the EHRC welcomed it on publication. Taking all of this into account, ‘spin and distortion’ would certainly seem to be the approach of government, not that of its critics.

Of course, it is possible that some ‘independent’ evidence will be supplied to the current ongoing review of Prevent chaired by William Shawcross, specifically from academic researchers. Policy Lab – a policy design group within government – put out a call for evidence on UPEN (the Universities Policy and Exchange Network). The latter is a collaboration across universities to increase the impact of academic research and provide ‘a dedicated contact point for policymakers, and a collective response to requests for evidence’.

… government policy generates its own self-justifying knowledge base

This is in the context where public-funded research is assessed for its contribution to users, with status and revenue deriving from that contribution. Despite claims for academic independence and objectivity, academic research is shaped toward providing policy-based evidence by the nature of how impact is measured and rewarded. This is especially so with regard to research relating to national security, as has been argued by Mills, Massoumi and Miller. This means that government policy generates its own self-justifying knowledge base.

It is ironic that much of the government’s promotion of the Prevent strategy mobilises human rights against those who threaten ‘our values’. The policy that schools should promote ‘fundamental British values’, for example, is based on a misconception. The ‘rule of law’, for example, is not primarily a constraint upon the public, no matter that any breaches of the law will give rise to sanctions upon them. Properly understood, it is a constraint upon government in the exercise of its authority.

Equally, the Equalities Act 2010 which sets out protected characteristics (including, race and ethnicity, sexual orientation, gender, disability, and religious belief), and which must be respected, is a requirement on the provider of services; its primary purpose is to ensure they do not discriminate. It is not a set of ‘values’ that must be inculcated, notwithstanding its incorporation in some schools into their ‘whole school’ curriculum for promoting fundamental British values.

As Massoumi (2021) has argued, an inversion in the relation of government and publics and in the role of civil society groups is a central part of the Prevent strategy. The dominant understanding of civil society is that it is a domain of social movements that express social solidarities and seek to influence government policies from outside institutionalised arrangements. Under Prevent, the government has set up, or funded, civil society organisations within communities in order to promote its policies; that is, it establishes quasi-social movements as an expression of state policy, rather than as a challenge to it.

This strategy was set out in the Conservative Party Manifesto for the 2017 election, where it was stated that, “extremism, especially Islamist extremism, strips some British people, especially women, of the freedoms they should enjoy, undermines the cohesion of our society and can fuel violence. To defeat extremism, we need to learn from how civil society and the state took on racism in the twentieth century… We will support the public sector and civil society in identifying extremists, countering their messages and promoting pluralistic, British values.” (page 55).

The strategy has involved the setting up of the Commission for Countering Extremism, as well the placement of commissioners favourable to government on a series of independent bodies otherwise intended to monitor its actions. In the context of challenges to the idea of institutional racism, for example, the policy is breath-taking. After all, that was precisely one of the successes of civil society in the 1970s directed against the Conservative governments of the day.

How should civil society today address an increasingly draconian government, one that already has a record of misrepresenting and distorting any evidence presented to it that challenges its intentions? A boycott of the Shawcross Review of Prevent was necessary to communicate the deeply dysfunctional nature of reviews, consultations and other checks on government policy. However, the Shawcross Review is also charged with making recommendations to which the government must respond. It is unlikely that it will recommend anything different to what the government seeks to implement. It is important that those concerned about civil liberties be in a position to respond, and to respond with evidence.

… we propose to ‘learn from how civil society took on racism’ in the 1970s

In this context, we propose to ‘learn from how civil society took on racism’ in the 1970s and apply it to the government’s Prevent strategy. In April 1979, there were serious disturbances in Southall, West London, following a National Front meeting at the Town Hall. These involved a violent response by police to demonstrations against the meeting in which Blair Peach died (another young man, Gurdip Singh Chaggar had been killed three years earlier in a racist attack). In the face of official indifference to the need for an inquiry, an Unofficial Committee of Enquiry was set up under the direction of Sir Michael Dummett, QC. Its report was published by the National Council for Civil Liberties (1980).

To this end we have established the People’s Review of Prevent, which will gather evidence and publish a report for dissemination to the public, media, and civil society groups. Details of the People’s Review are on the website. It is an opportunity for the presentation of arguments and evidence that challenge the policies of an increasingly authoritarian government that scapegoats ethnic minority citizens and those professing minority religious beliefs.


Massoumi, Narzanin (2021) ‘The role of civil Society in political repression: the UK Prevent counter-terrorism programme’, Sociology, Online first. DOI:

National Council of Civil Liberties (1980) Southall 23 April 1979: The Report of the Unofficial Committee of Inquiry, Nottingham: NCCL.

Karlsen, Saffron and Nazroo, James Y.  (2015) ‘Ethnic and religious differences in the attitudes of people towards being “British”’, Sociological Review, 63(4). DOI:

Scott-Baumann, Alison and Perfect, Simon (2021) Freedom of Speech in Universities Islam, Charities and Counter-Terrorism, London: Routledge.

Dr Layla Aitlhadj and Professor John Holmwood are Co-Chairs of the People’s Review of Prevent. Those wishing to submit evidence should do so by September 30th to preventreview<at> Where possible please do so accompanied by a one to two page summary.

Layla Aitlhadj is the director of Prevent Watch, a charity that supports people who have been directly impacted by the government’s Prevent strategy.

John Holmwood is emeritus Professor of Sociology at the University of Nottingham . He is the author (with Therese O’Toole) of Countering Extremism in British Schools: The Truth about the Birmingham Trojan Horse Affair (Policy Press 2018) and (with Gurminder K. Bhambra) Colonialsm and Modern Social Theory (Polity 2021).

Header image credit: FullFact


Aitlhadj, Layla and John Holmwood 2021. ‘Preventing Evidence: ‘Rights’ and the Wrongs of Government Policy Reviews’ Discover Society: New Series 1 (3):

The Making of Critical Knowledge Claims: Research, ‘Allyship’ and Politics of Representation

Mel Evans, Emma Hughes, and Ruth Potts

We write as three individuals who are part of the group that became known as the Stansted 15 (S15), wrongfully prosecuted for stopping an unlawful Home Office deportation charter flight from taking off. We are writing in response to an article by Graeme Hayes, Brian Doherty and Steven Cammiss, ‘Disciplinary Power and Impression Management in the Trials of the Stansted 15’, published open access on 11 November 2020 in Sociology, a week before the appeal of our conviction under terror-related legislation was heard at the Court of Appeal.

… the authors have not only misunderstood our activism, but have contributed to reinforcing the very structures of power we were working to undermine

We disagree fundamentally with the authors’ central findings, and consider that they failed to meet appropriate ethical standards in conducting their research in relation to the subjects of their study: a group of people facing serious, potentially life-altering charges in an unprecedented criminal trial. The authors’ description of their methodology as ‘ethnographic’ creates the impression that their research yields insights into S15 strategy, behaviour and subjectivity which are not otherwise available in the public domain. However, the authors have not only misunderstood our activism, but have contributed to reinforcing the very structures of power we were working to undermine.

Our actions at trial, viewed as an extension of our activism in solidarity with a group of asylum seekers facing deportation, sought to maintain the focus on the UK government’s actions and its impacts on non-citizens as a way of problematising the notion of citizenship, to whom it is granted and by whom. The authors, in contrast, construct our trial as being about ‘us’ as citizens subject to the processes of the state, an event separable from the action we were being tried for, which was about ‘them’, non-citizens at risk of deportation.

Indeed, the motivation for our action – namely that of protesting the hostile environment, stopping deportations and preventing the removal of individuals due to be on the flight we stopped – is barely mentioned in the article, which fails to make any connections between our actions on the tarmac and our actions in the courtroom. Had the authors undertaken a sustained and thorough ethnography, it would have been difficult for them to come to conclusions which so fundamentally misconstrue our motivations.

Further, we argue that the authors’ conclusions are potentially dangerous for activists who might find themselves in a similar situation, facing serious criminal charges for protesting, especially in the context of new government legislation in its Police, Crime and Sentencing Bill designed to further criminalise protest. As researchers ourselves, we offer this critique of their methods and conclusions in the hope that it will inform the authors’ future research and to encourage broader critical reflection among academic and activist communities.

Compliance and Resistance in the Courtroom

The authors contend that courts are viewed by activists as a place where they can ‘speak truth to power’, but we never viewed it as that. For us, the courtroom was a place where we were, at times, able to centre the brutality of the UK’s deportation and detention regime, but it was not the most significant place where we did that. Far more meaningful for us were events like the demonstration outside the Home Office the day after the verdict, where thousands of people protested against the government’s brutal hostile environment, and defendants spoke – in terms of their choosing – about the action and the issue. Our trial provided a rationale for commentators and academics, including Hayes et al., to explore the issues of border brutality and charter flight deportation in print, blogs and broadcast media. By failing to acknowledge the wider political context and the public arena in which the trial played out, the authors construct the trial as not ‘about’ these issues.

They interpret the fact that people weren’t imprisoned as being reflective of the intention of the state, rather than a position that the state was forced into

Hayes et al. refer to their previous analysis of the Heathrow 13, who were told to expect a three-month jail sentence for aggravated trespass by a judge who later handed down community orders. They fail to recognise that rather than “disarming radical critique so that leniency can be applied”, it was the work of the social movement around those defendants that generated so much media attention on their prospective imprisonment that the judge felt unable to hand down the harsher sentence she had previously committed to deliver. They interpret the fact that people weren’t imprisoned as being reflective of the intention of the state, rather than a position that the state was forced into. We argue the opposite: that the tactics of activists during our trial both inside and outside the courtroom, are precisely what ensured we avoided jail time, just as in the case of the Heathrow 13.

The authors fail to understand the shifting circumstances in which activists operate and deny the possibility that social movements are able to influence what happens. In a later piece, they assert that our victory at appeal was limited because AMSA (the Airport and Maritime Security Act 1990, a ‘Convention offence’ for the purposes of the Terrorism Act 2006) had never been used against activists before. The victory was important precisely because it meant that AMSA couldn’t be used again (several people had already been charged under AMSA after our conviction), and because of the light it shone on the criminalisation of protest, particularly migrant solidarity. The outcome was important, but so was the process. Hayes et al. dismiss both.

They fail to examine the offence we were charged with in any detail. They consider this a ‘standard’ protest case, exploring only the necessity defence which is frequently used in protest cases. But for the Stansted 15 it was not our central defence (and indeed not the ground that we successfully argued on appeal). The necessity defence enabled us to explain in court why we did what we did. The other central pillar of our defence was that AMSA should never have been used in what was clearly a protest case, and was an attempt to escalate the criminalisation of migrant solidarity. As the Lord Chief Justice wrote “the appellants should never have been prosecuted under this extremely serious offence….There was in truth no case to answer”.

Put simply, our case was markedly different from most protest cases, the penalties we faced were markedly different, and the legal strategies we pursued had to be markedly different.

Instead of acknowledging this context, Hayes et al. describe our actions through the lens of ‘script compliance’. This is Zoettl’s (2016) notion that “the defendant’s body plays an important part in the validation of criminal procedure through disciplinary ‘script compliance’: the unspoken rules that regulate bodily posture and movement serve to ‘visually acknowledge the court’s authority to deliver a sentence over the person accused and thus the validity of the sentence itself’”. Hayes et al. argue that the defendants’ dress, body language, and behaviour were examples of this alleged disavowal of our own agency and political identity, and consequent acceptance of the court’s rulings and sentencing.

The authors fail to differentiate between what was said in the courtroom, and how it was said. The politics of our action were displayed in the courtroom. Multiple images of the defendants wearing sweatshirts bearing the words “no-one is illegal” and “mass deportations kill” were on display, while video footage replayed the chants “no borders, no nations, stop deportations”. Looking back from the witness stand at our co-defendants, we often saw half-hearted attempts at public presentation with slouching or belligerent body language towards the court, coats slung across chairs and the witness box in disarray.

Defendants who took the witness stand were admonished by the judge for being ‘political’ as they sought to explain the cruelty of the deportation and detention regime to the jury. They may not have used the words “abolition” or “dismantling the border regime” but their testimony was entirely congruent with those positions. The accounts were simply rendered intelligible to those outside elite groups of activists through their choice of language.

The authors single out the behaviour and language of Mel Evans, an author of this response who self-represented in court, as emblematic of ‘script compliance’. Yet Evans’ ‘behaviour’ in court produced a range of immediate outcomes which could as easily be argued to be effective resistance to the court and government. As a self-representing defendant, Evans was the only member of the legal defence team able to elicit admission from a police officer that officers had instantly recognised the Stansted 15 to be protesters rather than people intent on violence. Evans also succeeded in confirming that our concerns regarding the Home Office’s unlawful deportation was something we had discussed with officers. These are defence claims which otherwise would have remained unconfirmed by any prosecution witness.

Rather than engaging with these points, the researchers support their construction of ‘script compliance’ with quotes from interviewees, including “I really regret that…So everyone was disciplined and to not, like, have a reaction when the verdict happens.” This quote reveals suggestive questioning on the part of the researcher. ‘That’ presumably refers to the proposition put to the interviewee, which Hayes et al. do not quote or contextualise in their piece. We think it unlikely that interviewees would have spontaneously used the word ‘disciplined’ without it being put to them by Hayes et al.. Furthermore, the depiction is inaccurate: there were loud and expressive responses to the verdict from the dock, recorded in several media articles penned by defendants which the authors appear to have failed to cross reference with the quote they employ for the purposes of their article.

Matsuda’s point is precisely that activists who call for the dismantling of laws nonetheless need to strategically engage with law on its terms in order to survive when its violence is being directed against them

Further, Hayes et al. misinterpret academic commentators de Noronha and Chowdhury, implying their analysis is that “defendants have (at least potentially) considerable agency to engage the court ‘as a space in which to air a radical critique’.” In fact de Noronha and Chowdhury are citing Mari Matsuda (1988: 8) here, whose point is more complex: “There are times to stand outside the courtroom door and say ‘this procedure is a farce, the legal system is corrupt, justice will never prevail in this land as long as privilege rules in the courtroom.’ There are [also] times to stand in the courtroom and say, ‘this is a nation of laws, laws recognizing fundamental values of rights, equality and personhood.’” Matsuda’s point is precisely that activists who call for the dismantling of laws nonetheless need to strategically engage with law on its terms in order to survive when its violence is being directed against them. In reference to our case, de Noronha and Chowdhury were recognising the need to defend the human rights of others in a criminal court, rather than bluntly dismissing the court process itself as a political farce, as Hayes et al. invite their readers to do.

The authors conclude, “We see these trials therefore as a normalising procedure whose goal is not the repressive application of custodial sentences, but rather a disciplinary disarming of radical critique so that leniency can be applied.” This is a dangerous lesson to be drawn from our trial. There are many reasons why we didn’t receive a jail sentence: the brilliant work of our lawyers, our own actions and tactics in court, the huge public scrutiny the trial received, and the broad public support from establishment figures to ‘ordinary’ members of the public. The Frack Free Three – jailed for Obstruction of the Highway, a lesser charge, in the opening days of our trial (a sentence later reduced as excessive following a political campaign and highly resourced legal appeal) – showed that without media attention many judges are only too willing to hand out prison sentences.

Centring Whiteness and Activism

The analysis described above ignores the particular concern of the Stansted 15 to focus the story of our trial in the public arena on people bearing the brunt of the Home Office’s racist and frequently unlawful immigration system, rather than on ourselves. The attention the authors paid to our dress and courtroom behaviour misinterpreted our agreed intention to avoid drawing negative public attention onto us as ‘deviants’ which could be reflected back on migrants whose precarity makes them much more vulnerable to the state. Any dramatic resistance to court procedures would have drawn attention to us, rather than the people whose lives were on the line through brutal treatment at the hands of the government. The authors’ analysis fails to grasp this crucial aspect of our strategy, and instead serves to subvert this strategy and draw attention to us rather than those with whom we acted in solidarity.

Hayes et al. therefore do not recognise that the decentring of whiteness was fundamental not only to the actions for which we were charged, but also to the approach we took in courtroom testimonies, the media and at public rallies. For Hayes et al., as for the UK Home Office, the deportees are not subjects, and what this trial is about is a domestic drama of protest regulation played out by liberal subjects, defined implicitly as white citizens.

Rather than substantiating their claim that the Stansted 15 became the ‘ideal disciplined liberal subject’, their analysis relies on a white, macho projected ideal of their perfect political activist. They establish a critical frame of our supposed presentation as ‘caring activists’. This in itself is a misogynist critical frame which, in failing to see or understand the political power of ‘care’, itself reinforces the dominant neoliberal frame in which it is considered irrational, or not even possible, to care for those outside immediate kinship groups.

… the people due to be forced onto the plane do not appear as characters at all

Their ideal, implicitly white, citizen, macho-heroic political activist seemingly cares only about the performative politics of self-expression, and not the impacts of such on others. This mythologised figure is part of the metropolitan liberal elite, and his performativity and blindness to the impacts of his actions is deeply neoliberal and conservative in nature. For Hayes et al. this character of the activist is central – the people due to be forced onto the plane do not appear as characters at all.

The authors misread our actions as much as they misread us. The heroes of the authors’ imaginations are also, implicitly, part of an urban liberal elite. They wrote that Chelmsford seemed alien to us. The reality is we walked the streets commenting on how much it was like the towns we grew up in – Epsom, Croydon and Stockport. They claimed not to want to explore intersectionality ‘because that would be a much bigger job’, but made assumptions about our race and class that didn’t bear any relation to reality, lumping us all in a blanket ‘from London’, ‘estranged by working class people’ when that would be an analysis only applicable to, at most, one or two defendants.

They made a very obvious error stating ‘only two of the defendants were non-white’, strange given their declared constant presence in the courtroom for them to fail to see colour in the defendants’ box. There were three people of colour in the group, as well as a number of identities differing to ‘white English’ including Romany, Spanish, Irish and Jewish, with obvious connections to issues of migration and asylum. Multiple defendants testified to being the first person in their family to go to university, and the actual class backgrounds of the group stretch widely across society’s demographics.

The authors state that they ‘have not fore-grounded questions of intersectionality in our analysis, not because we think they are unimportant (indeed, they are likely to be central to further work on protest trials), but because our primary focus here is on the situational relationship between defendants, individually and as a collective, and other actors in the court’. It is deeply questionable to what extent the authors can meaningfully engage in questions of power, subjectivity and situational relationship while failing to contend with intersectional dimensions of gender, race, and class.

Instead, they note that some of us wore remembrance poppies in court, or made reference to holidays, and describe these as attempts to normalise ourselves in the eyes of the jury, as part of their so-called script compliance. They fail to countenance that a) many of us might actually be ‘normal’ as such (see ‘Give Up Activism’, Andrew X, 1999)  and that b) it is a valid political strategy in any trial, activist or otherwise, for a defendant to build on possible points of commonality with a jury rather than merely railing at or against them.

… all effective activism relies on its ability to build commonality with others

It is arguable that all effective activism relies on its ability to build commonality with others. This is not hollow performative allyship, but a recognition that change requires the development of coalitions of shared interests. In attempting to connect with the people due to be on the plane, with the jury and with a broader public through media coverage of the trial, it was such a commonality of interests that the defendants were attempting to create. The researchers use these examples to fortify their depiction of our script compliance, and in so doing they fail to see the potential resistance of these acts: the invitation to care about other ordinary people like ourselves – in all of their complexity – such as those due to be forced onto the plane we lay underneath.


The core issue, we contend, is not as the authors conclude, ‘the transformation of the transgressive activist into the ideal disciplined liberal subject’. Far from it. We identify multiple and creative assertions of agency within the confines of the court process, constantly shifting balances of power in the courtroom in spite of what was at stake. These include the dynamic interplay of coercion and resistance, the multiple identities inhabited by defendants, legal team, jurors and judge and the politics of the “caring activist”. Given these strategies ultimately resulted in our success at appeal, as well as significant public discussion of the issues we sought to draw attention to on multiple occasions it may now be clearly evident that there were a great number of strengths in this approach.    

We close by drawing on feminist legal critique and its fundamental lesson: Don’t victimise the victim. It does not assist those who have been subject to a greater power, state or otherwise, to merely emphasise their victimhood without any scope for empowerment and resistance. In this case, the very moments the authors define as our subjugation also contained our greatest resistances. It is much more accurate and interesting, we contend, to consider how coercion and resistance operated within the same moments. Moreover, the authors assume that we accepted the court’s authority to pass judgement on us, an authority we challenged every step of the way and more fundamentally never accepted.

The flawed methods of Hayes et al. meant that they couldn’t see, let alone understand what was happening inside the courtroom and its impacts and ramifications in the wider political arena. We have raised significant questions regarding their outdated and limited ethnographic methodologies that treat participants as the ‘objects’ of research, rather than participants in the research process. The intention of the researchers showed scope for a nuanced account of a protest trial from which valuable conclusions could have been drawn, contributing to academic understanding of agency and of value for the wider movement. Theirs however simply wasn’t it.


Hayes Graeme, Cammiss Steven, Doherty Brian (2021) ‘Disciplinary Power and Impression Management in the Trials of the Stansted 15’, Sociology, 55(3):561-581. doi:10.1177/0038038520954318. Published online first, November 11, 2020

Matsuda, Mari J. (1989) ‘When the First Quail Calls: Multiple Consciousness as Jurisprudential Method. A Talk Presented at the Yale Law School Conference on Women of Color and the Law, April 16, 1988’, Women’s Rights Law Reporter, ll (1): 7-10.

Mel Evans has a BA in Sociology and Theatre Studies from the University of Glasgow, is author of Artwash: Big Oil and the Arts (Pluto: 2015), has chapters in The Routledge Handbook of Radical Politics (Routledge: 2019) and ArtWork: Art, Activism and Labour (Rowman and Littlefield: 2018), and multiple articles published in peer reviewed journals including Performance Research and the Scottish Journal of Performance as part of art-activist collective Liberate Tate.

Emma Hughes has a PhD in Media and Communications from the University of Cardiff and worked for four years as a Research Associate at Cardiff University. She has multiple articles published in peer reviewed journals (e.g Environmental Politics, Journal of Public Affairs), including on the representation of protest. 

Ruth Potts has a BA in Modern European History from Warwick University, an MSc in Latin American Politics from the University of London, previously a senior lecturer in Ecological Design Thinking, Schumacher College and is a co-author (with Dr Jyotsna Ram) of an essay in Asylum for Sale: Profit and Protest in the Migration Industry (PM Press: 2020). 

All images, credit: Kristian Buus


Evans, Mel, Emma Hughes and Ruth Potts 2021. ‘The Making of Critical Knowledge Claims: Research, ‘Allyship’ and Politics of Representation’ Discover Society: New Series 1 (3):

Appendix: Methodological concerns, ethics and potential harm of research

The research methods Hayes et al employed raise important questions about ethnography. In the fields of sociology and anthropology, ethnography is a rightly contested practice in which practitioners debate the ethics of both methodology and the positionality of researchers in drawing conclusions about their subjects. The authors assert theirs is “the first ethnographic account of a protest trial.” However, we argue that this claim is wholly unearned. The authors infer they had special access to the inner workings of the S15 trial strategy, presumably by building relationships of trust with us, their informants and subjects. In fact, their methods consisted mainly of court observations supplemented by short interviews with only half of the defendants, under conditions which were arguably constrained and unethical. Their flawed methods meant they were not able to understand the reality of what took place in the courtroom, let alone draw out wider implications of our trial and defence strategy.

The authors claim to have produced an account of the “internal dynamics” of a “protest trial” yet they were privy to none of the “internal dynamics” of our trial. They did not attend a single group meeting, any of the multiple daily meetings with our legal team, the media team meetings, the support group meetings. Nor did they engage with us beyond pleasantries or casual conversation in the court’s public waiting room. This is why the article relies so heavily on the testimony we delivered in the open courtroom.

Although they approached some – but crucially, not all – individual defendants in an ad-hoc way requesting ‘a chat sometime’, at no point did they seek a meeting with the whole group, or distribute copies of their information sheet and consent form to all defendants, which would have been easy to do at any point during the eleven-week period they were present at Chelmsford Crown Court. The authors sent two emails about their research to individual defendants and a defendant group email address; we deem this as a totally inadequate explanation, failure of a duty of care and, at best, a half-hearted attempt to seek full group consent, as they should have. Both emails were missed by most defendants in the deluge of emails regarding our case, and received no reply from the entire group.

As the three of the defendants whose actions the authors cite the most, it is notable that during the eleven weeks of our trial/s, the authors did not once engage any of us in a single conversation.  Although they asked Ruth and Mel for interviews (at a time when we were just about to enter the courtroom), Emma was never asked for an interview or spoken to directly by the authors. The authors’ research was never introduced or explained to Emma during the eleven week duration of both trials. Some of the eight out of 15 defendants who did provide an email address to be contacted about the research were emailed an information sheet, but without direct reference to the need to sign a consent form. Three of the eight interviews seem to have consisted of single 45-minute meetings, with only one person being interviewed twice; two of what are presented as interviews were taken from a public presentation made by two defendants.

There is confusion for several defendants who spoke to the authors: one appears to have been considered an interview for the purposes of the article but the defendant interviewed thought it was about something else, and two wonder if court waiting room conversations were considered interviews. The three formal interviews were arranged in cafes during or immediately after the trial. Seven out of eight of the defendants considered to be participants have no recollection of signing a consent form, and the single defendant who did sign a form did so in July 2017, for an earlier, different, piece of research, separate from their second interview following trial which presumably provided the bulk of material for the article. Following a Freedom of Information request, the School of Languages and Social Science Research Ethics Committee at Aston University, which approved the research, refused to, or could not, provide documentation to show how many participants had given informed consent for this research.

The informed consent of the entire group was never sought. In their research outline sent to those who gave interviews, the authors state “It is up to you whether you decide to participate or not”, but also that “informed consent will not be sought where action is undertaken, or opinion expressed, in non-confidential public actions.” However, their research is dependent on observations, described as ethnographic, of all S15 members and while interviewees are granted anonymity in the published article, defendants who gave evidence are not. The failure to seek the participation of the whole group meant that the possibility of deeper engagement and a process of reviewing the findings ‘with’ the participants was precluded.

We were 15 people with different perspectives, backgrounds and present situations which meant we inevitably had contrasting perspectives on the legal strategies being pursued. These differences were discussed at length by the group and understood by all of us, including the fundamental difference between those who gave evidence and those who did not. The authors’ failure to understand us as both individuals and a group is demonstrated most clearly in their inaccurate depiction of who testified during the trial. Of the seven defendants who testified, not one of them was interviewed by the researchers. Hayes et al. assert that “The eight with prior convictions did not give evidence, dispossessing them of their expressive autonomy, and denying them an opportunity to resist the framing of the trial narrative, for the entirety of proceedings. This also had a broader political effect, hiding the wider political connections and histories of more than half the defendants.” 

This statement is not correct. The three authors of this response have multiple previous trials or convictions related to acts of protest, and all of us testified. Several of the defendants who testified referred specifically to their previous convictions on the witness stand. One of the three of us has such a long list of misdemeanours that the prosecution spent a full hour outlining them at sentencing. This example demonstrates how Hayes et al feel confident to draw sweeping conclusions about us, our trial and the broader political impacts of it based on insubstantial evidence and basic errors.

These conclusions include that “the defendants’ self regulating calibration to the disciplinary regime of the courtroom served to limit their subjectivity and obscure their political motivations” and “the defendants performed their participation in court in highly legalistic, non-transgressive, ways”. Further, they write that “combining macro and micro approaches”  reveals “the interplay of agency and structure in situ”, “providing important insights into how actors make sense of their social world, and how agency is constrained by structure.” Not only did they fail to understand our sense making, but this failure produced partial and flawed analysis that failed to adequately position the ‘micro’ context of the ‘disciplinary regime of the courtroom’ with ‘macro’ considerations of racialised power that structured our participation in the courtroom as part of our wider political goals.

The research received ethical approval from the School of Languages and Social Science Research Ethics Committee at Aston University, and the authors claimed “The study is designed to adhere to the guidelines set out in the British Sociological Association’s Statement of Ethical Practice”. A Freedom of Information request revealed that the Committee paid scant attention to the ethical approval process. There was no formal confirmation letter of ethical approval nor was there a meeting of the Ethics Committee. In fact, ethical approval was granted in a rush over a weekend in correspondence with one colleague, evidently a familiar relationship, in a chain of emails titled “Ethics emergency!”

In this email chain there is no discussion of the serious criminal proceedings we faced, nor any regard given to the potential impact of the research on participants. The ethical approval appears to have been dismissed as paperwork, with one correspondent protesting “it seems…rather bureaucratic and unnecessary…and inappropriate for our discipline.” They agree a “soft version” is sufficient. The overwhelming concern seems to have been with the researcher’s career rather than the participants’ safety, epitomised by the prioritisation of research outputs: “If they could withdraw at a very late stage, it could fuck up any publication.” The authors did not offer to share their prospective publication with us for comment and, in fact, they published it online with no prior warning a week before our appeal was heard at the Court of Appeal at the Royal Courts of Justice

We question whether full consideration was given to the vulnerability of the participants in view of the serious criminal charges they faced, and the implications of conducting (and publishing) the research while the criminal proceedings were ongoing. Defendants were experiencing extreme anxiety and distress. Our physical and mental health, relationships and jobs were all put under incredible strain by the trial process and potential custodial sentence. Rather than have this position of vulnerability recognised and treated with appropriate levels of care, we were turned into two-dimensional research objects in the authors’ empirical engagement with us and in their published article.

The authors do not consider the personal impacts of the trial and threat of serious punishment, be that fear and anxiety or the loss of employment, homes and relationships experienced by some of the defendants over the course of the trial, despite these being the three pillars of many people’s lives, which prison is designed to deny and disrupt. Our lawyers had told us to prepare for a significant custodial sentence following the imprisonment of the Frack Free Three on lesser charges immediately before the start of our second trial. No consideration is given to whether and how the researchers’ presence and research activity, including note-taking and interviews, might have influenced the defendants’ experience of the trial and perspective on the defence strategy, or how their lines of questioning, and selection – intentional or otherwise – of only those defendants who didn’t give evidence – might have contributed to discord within the group.

Research often fails to do what it sets out to achieve and researchers who have set out complex methodologies in theory scale back their methods in practice. This is acceptable so long as the methods deployed are not disingenuous or harmful, and the research aims and conclusions are set out clearly and correspond to one another. The participant information sheet stated “We will ensure that the study is conducted according to ethical principles structured around our duty of care to participants, and that no harm will come to any participant as a result of their participation in the research.”

In our view, harm has been done through this research on a number of levels. Firstly, the defendants who participated in the research were treated as the ‘perfect neoliberal research subjects’ – sources of data and not people. They were given consent forms and information sheets for what appears to be a previous research project and rather than being taken seriously, participants right to withdraw from the research was to viewd by the researches as a threat which could “fuck up publication’. Harm was inevitably done to the internal process of the group of defendants as the researchers separated defendants from the group as subjects to be interrogated and drawn by lines of questioning, potentially disrupting carefully navigated strategies. Harm was done to the wider community of activists facing protest trials and their collective understanding of the very real risks posed to their liberty. Finally, harm was done to the academic and wider political and intellectual community’s understanding of the political strategy of the Stansted 15 defence in relation to the protection of the human rights of non-citizens.

The decision to fully attribute statements made in court is also ethically questionable. While technically the court transcripts can be publicly accessed, the authors have significantly amplified the visibility of the defendants’ names and statements without the prior consent of those defendants. While this is technically permissible, it suggests a lack of compassion and regard for the defendants, particularly as minimal attempt was made to interview the named defendants, or to explain the context in which their words and actions were to be analysed, for instance by way of an Information Sheet distributed among all members of the Stansted 15.

A more ethical, and also, we suggest, productive approach would have been to fully engage all participants, and to discuss their analysis with us. Such an approach is not uncommon in ethnographic research, particularly where the researcher has a relationship with participants. While the authors may claim this would have harmed their independent analysis, it would in fact have enabled them more effectively to consider our actions at trial through a better understanding of our strategies and motivations.