Author - Discover Society

Editorial: Rurality

Sam Hillyard

Welcome to this special issue of the online journal Discover Society.  The general editors have generously elected to feature rurality on the reinvigorated journal’s agenda.  The authors of this collection have sought to contribute both to what we know about rural issues and how we think about them, too.  This is the ambition for this special issue and merits greater explanation.

Rural sociology in the UK remains a marginal subdiscipline.  It is not seen as an exciting field, or where innovative and dynamic way of grasping the complexity of the social world may arise.  The reason for this, of course, lies with the history of the discipline – the catalyst of the industrial revolution prompting the growth of the city and a seismic change in the where and how most of the population live.  The rural harks back to old ways of living.  Yet, and as the general editors of this journal are fully cognisant, rural areas remain sites of inequality, poverty and neglect.  Such areas are subject to a set of circumstances that both underpin and recreate these inequalities.  On that basis alone they merit serious sociological attention.

The question therefore becomes, how best to approach and understand – and to unlock – rural circumstances?  That question underpinned my thinking in pulling together this issue’s contributors.  They have all approached a rural issue in a distinctive or innovative way.  Not all authors on my wishlist were able to submit in the end – some authors were keen but found that the issue they wanted to discuss proved (or perhaps confirmed) that rural matters can be too complex to capture in short-format articles.  I am therefore pleased and grateful that all authors featured here have elected to signpost their work further – their ideas and further publications can be followed up in greater detail.  Also, and extremely pleasingly, there is a breadth of disciplinary backgrounds reflected in the papers.  This is when sociology performs something special.  It makes a space for dialogue and perhaps new ways of seeing things to emerge.   Now, to outline the editorial approach to this SI collection and to overview the contents of the papers.

As stated above, the core ambition was to offer some new angle, light, perception, to inform or surprise about rurality.  The paper by Anne Matilainen and Merja Lähdesmäki takes the not-particularly-remarkable – even banal – product of moose meat as the focus of their analysis.  They outline its status as a product – and pivotally a non-commercial product.  Their discussion then follows on to explain why this is the case and the status and role of hunting cultures in their native Finland.  To discuss moose meat is therefore to begin to unravel complex – and longstanding – patterns of landownership, control and interaction with rurality.  It is a paper that begins to show that rurality has a cachet beyond its intrinsic value.  This is theme is also found in Ed Lord’s article.

Drawing upon extensive ethnographic research, Lord seeks to discuss the intangible – the benefits of occupying rural spaces and how this has permeated the contemporary zeitgeist.  Using an array of commentaries and literatures, he traces how we have reached this point.  While the exact therapeutic benefits of using rural spaces are difficult to pinpoint, there is a growing consensus that the great outdoors is good for us.  Moreover, this appreciation – whilst dominant now – is not new.

In the wake of the global pandemic, which has seen in the UK context an increasingly emphasis upon access to green spaces, Lord’s work is an important contribution towards our understanding of why.  His analysis traces back some roots underpinning the emergence of this zeitgeist.  Lord asks difficult questions – how to see afresh what has become culturally taken-for-granted?  Furthermore, his conclusion asks what will occur if such values become commodified?  Again, the theme of equity emerges and how can rural spaces – in all of their diversity –be enjoyed by all.

Rowan Jaines’ article is perhaps the most speculative and provocative.  It can be read as a provocation for us to think afresh about rurality’s status in society.  It does so by stripping back the status of the rural vis-à-vis the earliest formation of the city.  Present-day patterns of both ownership and also the cultural status of the rural are shaped by this background.  Jaines’ argument is provocative because it argues we have stopped thinking and reflecting upon what the rural is.  Indeed, what it could become.  Yet we remain dependent upon its produce.  She concludes with a call for greater ontological status to be accorded to nature. 

Finally, my own contribution tries to explore what is not there –  specifically, the shortfall in vets.  A global and longstanding issue, the article looks into what the vets have had to say and also specific work on vets by academics.  They concur that a vet’s work is complex – both technically and emotionally – and hence difficult to fully grasp.  Here we might apply Matilainen and Lähdesmäki and also Jaines’ research strategies.  That is, to see the situation in a broader landscape.  Vets are subject to global trends and forces.  There is a move from large to small animal practice and also the role of service work they inevitably are involved in performing.  The sociology of work literature is brought in to try to see this important rural profession in a new light.  Pivotally for vets, is the status of non-human animals and the article calls for their greater inclusion in our analyses. 

To conclude, the collection is a varied one – and deliberately so.  They can be approached in any order, but the issue remains more than the sum of its parts.


I would like to thank the contributors and also the general editors for the opportunity to showcase a rural theme.

Sam Hillyard is Professor of Sociology in the School of Social and Political Sciences, University of Lincoln, UK, where she teaches sociological theory and methods.  She is series editor of Studies in Qualitative Methodology (Emerald) and a member of the editorial board of the journal Qualitative Research.  Her current research includes work with rural GPs and colleagues in Lincoln’s International Institute for Rural Health.

Header Image Credit: Valley Farm, West Wratting. Andrew Stawartz


Hillyard, Sam 2022. ‘Editorial: Rurality’ Discover Society: New Series 2 (1): 

Hunted wild game meat – sustainable option for meat consumption?

Anne Matilainen & Merja Lähdesmäki

Food consumption increasingly raises ethical questions amongst contemporary consumers. These concerns are related, for instance, to animal welfare and negative environmental effects of food production. Particularly conventional meat production has received criticism concerning the living conditions of animals as well as the contribution of the production methods to greenhouse emissions and climate change. Consequently, the demand for more ecologically and socially sustainable food is acknowledged as one of the leading consumer trends at the global level.

Expanding organic production is one means to mitigate food related ethical concerns, including animal welfare issues. Accordingly, the European organic meat products market is experiencing a strong growth as, for example, the production of organic beef, mutton and pork meat is increasing.

Another option for more sustainable meat consumption is hunted wild game meat. Indeed, according to recent studies, consumers perceive game meat as more ‘green’ when compared to farmed meat. Furthermore, free roaming and following their natural grazing behavior is often associated with meaningful life for the animals (see Matilainen et al. 2021).

Hunted wild game meat does not only provide an option for environmentally sustainable livestock system but wild game meat is also considered to retain high nutritional values with a low fat and cholesterol content. While consumers’ increasing health awareness is one of the predicted consumer trends globally, hunted wild game meat may appeal to modern consumerswhen purchasing meat products. Furthermore, from an environmental point of view, there is also an ecological “surplus” of hunted wild game meat. In many countries, it is a necessity to control overgrown game populations in order to avoid damages to fields and forests as well as to avoid traffic accidents. Thus, to some extent hunted game meat is a side product of wildlife management aiming to control damage. In the Finnish context, an example of this kind of game is the European moose (Alces alces), which is the most significant game animal concerning meat provision.

In Finland, moose hunting is strongly embedded in rural traditions and based on a specific hunting culture. The hunting rights belong to landowners, often private non-industrial forest owners, who make the decision whether to allow hunting or not. According to rural tradition, forest owners typically rent their forests as hunting areas for local moose-hunting clubs, free of charge or for nominal compensation.

In addition to the permission from landowners, each hunting club must purchase a license from the State. Game management authorities annually estimate the number of licenses that can be sold to the hunting clubs in various regions to ensure the ecological sustainability of hunting. Accordingly, 58 000–65 000 moose are shot annually, which leaves the winter population at 60 000–80 000 animals.

Moose hunting has traditionally been a joint activity of the whole rural community and local moose-hunting parties still play a significant role as one of the last remaining social communities in rural areas.  Strongly rooted social practices and norms typically dictate the ownership of game meat. These norms are often based on close social proximity between landowners, hunters, and local residents.

While the annually hunted moose in Finland equals 8.1–8.5 million kg of meat, less than 2 percent of this ends up in commercial markets. Thus, currently it is challenging for consumers to purchase moose meat unless they have close personal contacts to the hunting clubs. But what kind of perceptions do consumers hold in relation to moose meat in the first place?  Here, we examine Finnish consumers’ perceptions of moose meat and compare them with the perceptions they held of chicken meat. The consumption of chicken meat in Finland has significantly increased during the last decade, thus representing a rather common and mundane protein in Finnish diets.

Hunted wild moose meat vs. chicken meat – consumers’ perceptions

To analyse consumers’ perceptions on the moose meat, an e-survey was conducted in the autumn 2018 (n=199). It was targeted to the consumers that have registered to the food panel of the organization implementing the e-survey. Thus, they were potentially more attuned to food related issues than typical consumers. Consumers’ perceptions of moose meat were measured by using 13 food meaning -constructs that were based on the work of Renner et al. (2012) and Januszewska et al. (2011).

These attributes were taste, health, convenience, affect regulation, tradition, sociability, price, naturalness, societal norms, appearance, weight management, ethicality and impression management. Affect regulation measures whether certain food brings joy and positive feelings to consumers.  Sociability, on the other hand, refers to how well consumers estimate the food material to fit to be offered on social occasions. Societal norms describe how socially acceptable consumers consider the food material to be and, finally, impression management in turn estimates whether certain food is considered to bring social prestige to consumers.

A similar survey was also conducted concerning consumers’ perceptions of chicken as food (n=201). Chicken is one of the most popular meat choices in Finland. However, the ethics of chicken meat production has been challenged widely due to the production conditions. Thus, it was considered as a relevant comparisn with moose meat. Consumers’ opinions on chicken and moose meat are summarized in figure 1.

Figure 1. The food meanings associated with moose and chicken. *) construct measured with one item. Valuation of the food meaning -construct 1= low, 6= high.

The differences in the consumers’ perceptions on moose and chicken meat were statistically significant, except for three food meaning -constructs: taste, sociability and impression management. According to the results, consumers’ perceptions on chicken meat seem to be fairly high. Only with regard to tradition, ethicality and naturalness, was moose meat valued more positively than chicken meat.

The biggest factors in favouring chicken meat were convenience, price and weight management. These findings are unsurprising, as chicken meat as “white meat” has been highlighted as lighter meat alternative when compared, for example, with pork or beef. Furthermore, because obtaining moose meat often necessitates hunting oneself or having close connections to the moose-hunting club, it is no wonder that chicken meat was perceived as cheaper and more convenient.

Interestingly the perceived ethical issues involved in chicken production did not seem to impact on impression management or sociability. There were no statistical differences between the two forms of meat concerning these food meaning -constructs. Nevertheless, moose meat was clearly seen as a more natural and ethical meat choice and thus, it could potentially be seen as being of interest to those consumer groups that emphasise ecological and ethical food choices. According to Matilainen et al. (forthcoming) nearly 70% of the Finnish consumers would be interested in moose meat availability as a food product. However, only 34% of the respondents reported currently having access to it.

Resenting hunting but valuing game meat?

One issue influencing consumers’ perceptions on game meat is their opinion on hunting. Game meat is typically harvested through hunting and consumers’ attitudes towards it can be very controversial. Negative attitudes towards hunting are increasing in many countries, especially among consumer groups that otherwise value ecological and ethical food choices. At the same time, slightly paradoxically, research has found that game meat is valued as food also among non-hunters with negative attitudes towards hunting in general (Matilainen et al., forthcoming).  The results of this study support these findings.

When consumers’ perceptions were analysed based on their attitudes towards hunting (negative, neutral and positive), even respondents with negative attitudes towards hunting valued moose meat fairly highly, although their perceptions were lower than those with positive attitudes towards hunting. The differences between the groups were statistically significant except concerning impression management, tradition, price, affect regulation and convenience constructs. Thus, there may be consumer groups that are interested in moose meat, but have a less positive attitude towards hunting in general (see figure 2).

Figure 2. Consumers’ perceptions on moose meat based on their attitudes towards hunting. *) construct measured with one item. Valuation of the food meaning construct 1= low, 6= high.

This interesting mismatch raises also a question whether the public acceptance of hunting could be increased if the benefits of hunting, i.e. game meat, would be made available to non-hunters. Expanding the supply of wild game meat to urban non-hunters has, indeed, been proposed as a way to maintain and increase support for hunting and wildlife management. More particularly, the role and significance of enhancing the general availability of wild game meat in increasing the acceptance of hunting has been found to be even greater than that of social relationships and having friends or family members who hunt (Ljung et al., 2012). Furthermore, this impact appears to be similar in both rural and urban contexts, even though consumers’ access to game meat is typically greater in rural areas.

Traditional hunting culture as an obstacle in increasing the hunted meat consumption?

In Finland, moose meat is very difficult to find in shops, as the commercialization of moose meat is as yet undeveloped. The selling the meat by hunting clubs has both cultural and operational obstacles. According to the hunting traditions in Finland, the moose meat is considered to be the property of the hunters who participate in the moose hunting. As the landowners typically lease the moose hunting rights to the hunters for free or against a very nominal compensation, the hunting clubs are very careful in commercializing their hobby. They are afraid that this would cause conflicts with the landowners and jeopardize the moose hunting rights granted to them.

At the same time, the hunting clubs do sell moose meat occasionally in order to build or improve their club’s facilities or cover the costs of hunting licenses. Thus, the hunters feel entitled to have the costs of their own recreational activity covered by selling the meat.  Presently, however, selling to consumer markets is rare and is not part of the Finnish hunting cultural norms.

Moose hunting culture in Finland has traditionally been based on close social proximity between the local hunters, landowners and residents. Due to the general demographic changes in rural areas, an increasing number of landowners and hunters are not as tightly connected to rural societies as was once the case. Almost a half of both groups now live in urban areas, far away from their hunting grounds or land property. Thus, critical voices have been raised concerning the legitimacy of the current hunting practices and speculation regarding who has the right to economically benefit from the value of moose meat. Is it the landowner, who bears the costs of wild roaming moose or the people living in rural villages surrounded by moose?

Even though it seems that commercial markets for moose meat exists, the broader commercialization of moose meat faces significant social challenges. Indeed, commercialization would require significant changes in the traditional hunting culture and the social meanings attached to moose meat (Matilainen and Lähdesmäki, 2021).


Januszewska, R., Pieniak, Z., and Verbeke, W. (2011), “Food Choice questionnaire revisited in four countries. Does it still measure the same?” Appetite, 57, 94-98.

Ljung, P. E., Riley, S. J., Heberlein, T. A., & Ericsson, G. (2012). Eat prey and love: Game‐meat consumption and attitudes toward hunting. Wildlife Society Bulletin, 36(4), 669-675.

Matilainen, A., & Lähdesmäki, M. (2021). Who does the moose belong to?–Legitimation of collective psychological ownership. Journal of Rural Studies, 86, 236-246.

Matilainen, A., Luomala, H., Lähdesmäki, M., Viitaharju, L. & Kurki, S. (2021) Resenting Hunters, but Appreciating the Prey?  – Identifying Moose Meat Consumer Segments. (Manuscript submitted for a publication)

Renner, B., Sproesser, G., Strohbach, S., & Schupp, H. T. (2012). Why we eat what we eat. The Eating Motivation Survey (TEMS). Appetite, 59(1), 117-128.

Anne Matilainen (PhD) is a researcher at the University of Helsinki Ruralia Institute. Her research interests are sustainable use of natural resources, nature tourism, wildlife and psychological ownership of natural resources.

Merja Lähdesmäki (PhD) is a senior researcher at the University of Helsinki Ruralia Institute. Her research is focused on sustainable business, business ethics and ecological and ethical consuming.

Header Image Credit: Metal Moose by Henry Söderland


Matilainen, Anne & Merja Lähdesmäki 2022. ‘Hunted wild game meat – sustainable option for meat consumption? Discover Society: New Series 2 (1): 

Unpacking the nature and human health zeitgeist

Ed Lord

“Human perspectives on nature have always been coloured by connotations of recovery and restoration. But in the present century we have been especially busy – obsessively busy – in teasing out and delineating these connotations” (Smyth, 2019)

The intersection of human health and nature has a distinctly zeitgeist feel about it currently. Barely a week seems to pass without a news media piece extolling the health benefits of going outdoors or viewing the coast, gardens, parks and countryside. New terminology has proliferated in this domain: Biophilia, Shinrin-Yoku, forest bathing, ecotherapy, to name a few.

Networks of people focused on specific types of nature based self-care have been formed; for example, Mountains for the Mind and Mental Health Swims in the UK.

In a March 2020 commentary essay published in The Guardian Review the natural history author Patrick Barkham suggested that the nature and health theme is fast becoming its own literary genre – as he put it: “a rapidly growing forest of new books that examine cures found in nature” (Barkham, 2020). Particularly of note in this ‘new’ genre are a number of mass-market books with high global sales, these include Florence Williams’ The Nature Fix: why nature makes us happier, healthier, and more creative from 2018, and Richard Louv’s Last Child in the Woods: Saving Our Children From Nature-Deficit Disorder from 2005.

Three such works were released by popular publishers in the spring of 2020 alone, with prescient timing given unfolding self-care discourses related to the pandemic; The Natural Health Service: What the Great Outdoors Can Do for Your Mind by the journalist Isabel Hardman, Losing Eden: Why Our Minds Need the Wild by Lucy Jones, also a journalist, and The Well Gardened Mind by Sue Stuart-Smith, a psychiatrist by profession.  As familiar social and economic rhythms fell away during those early months of the pandemic, people searched around en masse for every tree, every last socially distanced blade of grass, in their locality, looking for a balm to soothe the burgeoning stress and anxiety. It seemed that after slowly building momentum since the turn of the century the awareness of nature’s contribution to human health had reached its zenith at the perfectly opportune moment.

Allied to, and frequently cited in support of, the nature and health themes in these more popular media outlets and grass roots networks, there has also been much empirical, in-depth and ‘heavyweight’ material produced. This includes government departments, quangos, transnational agencies, and third sector organisations publishing multiple reports on the topic, papers in peer reviewed journals accruing at a notably increasing rate (Ives et al., 2017), and a number of ambitious academic textbook projects such as first editions of the “Oxford Textbook of Nature and Public Health” in 2018, and “The International Handbook of Forest Therapy” in 2019.

Could this phenomenon, however, really be seen as a “period-specific cultural pattern,” to use Krause’s (2019) definition of a zeitgeist? If it could, then what would be the utility of such a status anyway? This article aims to open up an initial inquiry into these two questions.

If assessed quantitatively, using the crude measure of the amount of academic papers published on the topic, it would seem that there is indeed a growing research interest. In a 2017 multidisciplinary review of what they call “Human-Nature Connection (HNC)” literature the authors found a dramatic upswing in the numbers of papers published since the turn of the millennium, and this growth was particularly marked after 2010 (Ives et al. 2017). For example, their search parameters found less than 10 HNC papers published in 2001, 20 papers published in 2009 and over 80 published in 2015. A 2014 review also noted this increase in the number of papers published, this time by referencing just the term “greenspace and health”: “Growth in this field of research is shown clearly by the increase in publications. For example, a search in the Web of Knowledge on just one term, “greenspace and health,” yielded 2 hits for 1990–1999, 34 for 2000–2009, and 45 from 2010 to June 2013” (Hartig, Mitchell, de Vries, & Frumkin, 2014, p. 209)

Leaving aside the possibility that the absolute number of all research outputs may have increased in this time period, thereby making these figures less striking, for such a quantitative accounting to inform us of cultural patterns would require delving into the social, cultural and organisational arrangements within which such research practices, their funding, and dissemination, are embedded.  

In assessing the claim of any cultural pattern to be a zeitgeist Krause (2019) proposes that certain properties need to be delineated: duration, scope, course, and media and carriers. Many of the factors related to scope, and media and carriers have been introduced above. In looking at the nature and human health domain in terms of duration it can be seen how a zeitgeist is framed by an interplay between newness and continuity: this ‘thing’ has not sprung forth fully formed from a void, but neither is it simply an indistinguishable continuation of older ‘things.’

As suggested by the opening quote there is a long-standing narrative – something of a ‘common-sense’ claim – associating nature with physical and mental restoration. The work of Hippocrates in ancient Greece entitled “On Airs, Waters, and Places” is frequently cited as an illustration of the point that linking health and nature is nothing new. Many healthcare professions – Occupational Therapy and Nursing are key examples –  have long organised and promoted nature based interventions like gardening; indeed a notable assertion by Florence Nightingale describes the foundation of the nursing role being “to put the patient in the best condition for nature to act upon him” (Nightingale, 2020 [1859]).

In relation to mental health specifically, narratives around an intertwining relationship between nature and ‘madness’ are a recurring theme stretching back centuries (for example, Shepard, 1982). As a physical manifestation of this intertwining thought there are many examples internationally (particularly in Western countries, settler colonial states and former colonies) of the use of formal tended gardens at mental asylums/hospitals as a therapeutic, calming and ‘taming’ influence on the ‘wild’ unreason of the inmates; this can be seen to prefigure the contemporary interest in ‘biophilic design’. As Edginton (1997) reports in relation to the famous York Retreat founded in 1796: “Design, then, would enable those who lost their sanity to recall their former serenity by being placed in an association with a natural, healthful environment.” (p. 91)

These ideas can be argued to be part of a wider orientation characteristic of the European Enlightenment and emergence of modernity, often summarised as ‘romanticism’ and explicitly associated with certain philosophers, including Jean-Jacques Rousseau, and artists, such as William Blake. In these schools of thought and expression nature is frequently set in binary opposition to human society and culture; in Thomas Hobbes’ orientation to this binary society and culture transcending nature in the progressive unfolding of the Enlightenment, in the romantic orientation of the binary this ‘progress’ acting as a debasement of the natural condition. The binary formulation itself – setting humans and nature as ontologically separate – can, however, be critiqued as simply representing the European Enlightenment as a particular spatially and temporally located culture in no way generalisable to the beliefs of any other human culture.   

If contemporary notions of the health-giving benefits of nature are simply about the continuation of these much older orientations, however, then how can a claim to zeitgeist be supported? In other words what are the claims to newness and novelty that can be separated as distinct from this continuity?

First, a potential answer to this is the intensification of interest in this topic across diverse fields (scope); a practice assisted by the increasing acceptance of interdisciplinarity working in some academic disciplines.

Second, there is a receptive audience in policy making arenas, with numerous levels of government seeking novel approaches to meet a convergence of complex population health, environmental, and budget challenges.

Third, the urgency of the climate crisis, and wider knowledge of environmental degradation caused by the economic activities of contemporary society, has taken concern for nature from being a niche ‘single issue’ concern to a mainstream consideration infusing debate in all sectors.  

Developing the first assertion; a wide variety of academic disciplines can be seen to have an interest in investigating the human health and nature intersection, even though definitions, scales, actors, and methodological approaches frequently differ markedly between these disciplines. on a pragmatic level the application and integration of knowledge from different disciplines is essential to navigate many complex contemporary challenges. Numerous attempts have been made to integrate research from different disciplines, these “field developments” include “Ecohealth”, “One Health”, “Ecological Public Health”, and, most recently, “Planetary Health” (Buse, et al., 2018; Haines, 2017)

This interdisciplinarity and ‘silo crossing’ is not the only factor in play, shifts within disciplines are also creating a conducive atmosphere to the nature and health theme. For example, in disciplines directly related to human health there has been a movement collectively summarised as ‘the new public health.’ This has its genesis in the growing acceptance of the inherent limitations to focusing on the individual alone and the need to include the social and environmental determinants of health. This refocus is also encouraged by a notional shift to preventative healthcare in response to population morbidity becoming dominated by non-communicable diseases, often related to lifestyle; this shift was heralded by the WHO Ottowa Charter in 1986.

Another addition to this ‘new public health’ nexus of discourses are ideas related to wellbeing, and the maximisation of positive health, sometimes called the ‘salutogenic approach’. Concrete outputs from this shift in emphasis include practices like social prescribing, and the activation of ‘community assets’ in which a social and natural environment is appraised in terms of its strengths and potentials as well as its threats as a container of risks. Implicit, and frequently made explicit, in the prevention and wellbeing focused ‘new public health’ is that the bounds of health stretch beyond the traditional domain of healthcare. This has led to a call for developing new partnerships – most obviously with social care – but also beyond the ‘usual suspects’. This is where the second claim to newness and novelty in the nature and health zeitgeist can be found: the policy arena.

There are a number of ways in which these ideas of meeting complex challenges through the application of concepts associated with the ‘new public health’ (like assets activation and non-typical partnerships) can be seen to be playing out in the policy agenda; here using Wales as an illustrative example. Included in areas of jurisdiction devolved to the Welsh Government are both health and social care, as well as departments associated with landscape and ‘space’ including environment, agriculture, forestry, rural development, culture, and town and country planning. 

The activation of ‘assets’ such as particular landscapes in the service of health and wellbeing is well summed up in this quote from a report commissioned by the Welsh Government into the designated landscapes (such as National Parks and Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty) in its jurisdiction: “The designated landscapes are now far more than passive ‘green lungs’ for the urban populations; they are as we state in our vision, the new, dynamic and productive ‘factories of well-being’” (Marsden, Lloyd-Jones & Williams, 2015, p. 5) 

These partnerships are intended to contribute to the aforementioned public health goals of the health and social care sector, while attending to things like the move away from a single focus in the forestry sector on the ‘bottom line’ of timber production from plantations to a more complex emphasis on habitat development and protection, and a wider array of social and environmental outputs to be gained from woodland and forests.

Wallace (2019) argues that all of the UK devolved legislatures – Wales, Scotland, and Northern Ireland – have explicitly tried to operate differently from the central government. Specifically this has been through developing a “‘whole of government approach’ to public policy, underpinned by a framework that sets a single vision and tracks progress towards it” (p. 3). In Wales the ‘whole government’ approach to a single vision is most recently exemplified by the Wellbeing of Future Generations (Wales) Act of 2015.

The central organising principle of policy making going forward from this is ‘sustainable development’ through linking environmental, social, economic and cultural wellbeing. It does not take a large leap of the imagination to see how operationalising the field of nature and human health is a pragmatic way to meet these policy aspirations in multiple fields simultaneously without a large budget uplift.

The third contributory factor pointing towards newness emerging from continuity in the nature and human health field at this particular point in time is the mainstreaming of environmental awareness. To be concerned about the catastrophic risks presented by things like climate change, air pollution, and biodiversity loss has gone from being a niche interest to something infusing all areas of life. In this context of awareness society is arguably not only concerned with managing threats from nature (natural disasters and vectors of disease transmission, for example), but now has to acknowledge threats to nature, and in doing so the previously assumed affordances provided by nature gain a new visibility and scarcity value.

The utility of taking an approach like the zeitgeist suggestion in this article is that it puts the excitement and energy that is palpable in much of the nature and health domain in a context. In appraising how this represents a continuity of older trends, in what ways it displays novelty, newness and departure, and what the carriers of all this are, potential future directions of travel for this cultural trend can be identified.

Connecting nature and human health has a pragmatic appeal to policy makers, and an ideological appeal among numerous interest groups, and it is instructive to identify the contested imperatives and objectives in play in these different orientations. Will nature as a resource for human health become as commodified, enclosed, reduced, reified, and damaged, as it has in every other extractive process that keeps modernity running? Looking at many other domains of contemporary culture and society it is possible to see a risk of “technological drift” in which nature becomes simply a “technical solution to a technical problem” (Lord & Coffey, 2021).

This reductionist and commodifying trend, if unanalysed and unchallenged, will also likely lead to exclusion along pre-existing lines like race, class and gender, through a mixture of legal, economic, and normative means; both within regions and globally as a continuation of colonialism. Seeing this field as a zeitgeist can uncover the historical processes that have led to the dislocation of human society from a rich intertwined relationship with a healthy, diverse, and thriving natural world; a dislocation that is itself intertwined with so many of the complex challenges facing human health and the environment in the current century.


Barkham, P. (2020). Green Prozac. The Guardian Review. 14th March 2020, Issue 113, pp 6-11.

Buse, C.G., Oestreicher, J.S., Ellis, N.R., Patrick, R., Brisbois, B., Jenkins, A.P., McKellar, K., Kingsley, J., Gislason, M., Galway, L. and McFarlane, R.A (2018). Public health guide to field developments linking ecosystems, environments and health in the Anthropocene. Journal of Epidemiology and Community Health, 72(5), 420-425.

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Haines, A. (2017). Addressing challenges to human health in the Anthropocene epoch – an overview of the findings of the Rockefeller/Lancet Commission on Planetary Health. International Health, 9(5), 269-271.

Hartig, T., Mitchell, R., de Vries, S., & Frumkin, H. (2014). Nature and health. Annual review of public health, 35, 207-228.

Ives, C. D., Giusti, M., Fischer, J., Abson, D. J., Klaniecki, K., Dorninger, C., Laudan, J., Barthel, S., Abernethy, P., Martin-Lopez, B., Raymond, C. M., Kendal, D., & von Wehrden, H., (2017). Human–nature connection: a multidisciplinary review. Current Opinion in Environmental Sustainability, 26, 106-113.  

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Lord, E. & Coffey, M. (2021). Identifying and resisting the technological drift: green space, blue space and ecotherapy. Social Theory and Health 19, 110–125. ; (Free read only access: )

Marsden, T., Lloyd-Jones, J., & Williams, R. (2015). National Landscapes: realising their potential. The review of designated landscapes in Wales: Final Report.                                                                                                                                              

Nightingale, F. (2020 [1859]). Notes on Nursing: what it is & what it is not. Bristol: Read & Co Books.

Shepard, P. (1998 [1982]). Nature and madness. University of Georgia Press.

Smyth, R. (2019). In search of the “nature cure”. New Humanist Online 23rd December 2019. 

Wallace, J. (2019). Wellbeing and Devolution: reframing the role of government in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. London: Palgrave Macmillan

Ed Lord is a lecturer in mental health nursing at Swansea University. His research interests are in the intersection of social theory, environmentalism, and mental health. He completed an MSc by research in geography and social theory prior to commencing a PhD in 2016. Ed’s PhD research was funded by a fellowship from RCBC Wales and used ethnographic methods to explore the experiences of people taking part in ecotherapy as an intervention for mental health in South and West Wales. Before his move into research and education Ed worked as a clinical nurse in National Health Service (NHS) acute inpatient mental health settings in England and Wales for over a decade.

Header Image Credit: Yoga pose on Mount Peg. Marsh-Billing-Rockefeller National Parks


Lord, Ed 2022. ‘Unpacking the nature and human health zeitgeist’ Discover Society: New Series 2 (1): 

The Social Life of Agriculture: History Passes into Setting

Rowan Jaines

In the mid-sixteenth century, William Herbert the Earl of Pembroke expelled villagers from long standing settlements on the boundary of his estate. Herbert had a vision of an arcadian country park, landscaped in the vision of a bucolic and well-ordered England, ruled over by a noble upper class. To achieve this vision, the labourers in the village just outside the estate were ordered to leave. 

In anger at their expulsion from their homes, the villagers invaded the park. In retaliation Herbert travelled to his Welsh  estates and ordered an army of tenants whom he marched to Pembroke. This army, at Herbert’s order, hunted and slaughtered the invading villagers leaving the grounds clear for the development of a harmonious and beautiful country park (Wood, 2007).

A generation later Herbert’s son Henry married Mary Sidney, whose brother Philip Sidney wrote ‘The Countess of Pembroke’s Arcadia’. The pastoral images in this book, inspired not only by Herbert’s estate but also by his political philosophy, defined literary depictions of the English countryside for the next two centuries, influencing writers from Shakespeare to John Milton.

Monocultural arrangements

This category of territory; the rural, the pastoral, the agricultural, the arable, or the countryside – is slippery, never fully or accurately described by any of its possible names. Neither reducible to, nor attainable by discourse, the very act of agricultural production is always simultaneously, over and underdetermined. The monocultural arrangement, by which I mean, the tending of a crop within a delimited space, whilst creating a hostile environment for all other life, can be understood as a counter transcendental category.  It literally embodies the immanence of existence in its emphatically mundane, earthbound, and corporeal form. It is the site that shows the field of force between nature – at once a tyrant and a martyr – and sovereign power, the rule of bounded territory.

Sociology was created and named as a discrete discipline in 1838 by the French philosopher of science, Albert Comte. This initial vision was of a positivistic science of social life, using, mainly urban focused experiments and observations to understand the behaviour of ‘society’.  The idea of ‘society’ as a delimited, bounded entity is analogous to, and in part generated by, the conception of the city-state. This urban environment was named the polis by ancient Greek thinkers of the 4th century BCE, most notably Plato and Aristotle.

In short, since the birth of the ‘political philosophy’ the urban has been imagined as the situated body of society. This is a model of thinking that obscures the relational significance of rural life. The ancient Greek polis was distinguished from other types of community through the presence of distinct activities, such as: commercial exchange, judicial proceedings, and public deliberation. These systems imagined arable land as part of the polis, rather than its life sustaining force.

Standard accounts of the history of sociology see the roots of the discipline as originating in classical Greek thought, and this theoretical orientation has provided many of the bases of the social analyses of ‘classical’ sociologists such as Emile Durkheim. Contemporary sociologist Mark Shucksmith (2010) has raised the issue that the agency of people in rural areas frequently goes not only unnoticed but is actively neglected in sociological research. Rural areas are understood, even in contemporary research, as lacking in ‘social life’. In other words, by imagining the urban as the location of ‘society,’ the sociological discipline has neglected some fundamental conceptual problems.  Pivotally, the place of the rural in the social whole.

It seems we have forgotten the fundamental importance of agricultural operations to social life, even as forces of production diversify.  Mid twentieth century mechanisms for understanding rural life were derivative rather than critical or radical. Indeed, the first annals of the Rural American Sociological Society published in 1936, made the case for a rural sociology which viewed agriculture as a ‘primitive’ mode of production.

This first issue is revealing, its analysis of agricultural communities labelled them foetal cities and the postcolonial indigenous rural community “parasitic” (Zimmerman et al 1936).  In this paper, the scholars identify a rural site which had been colonised by European settlers who had moved on after having altered the ecosystem entirely through monocultural farming practises, and the commodification of the land. In doing so, the earlier settlers had alienated the Indigenous population. Despite this, the authors of this paper, characterised the Indigenous population as parasitic, because they received government assistance. 

In sum, the early attempts of rural sociology to understand the countryside, are bound up with the same Kantian flaws that have provoked criticism within the medical sciences and the associated disciplines of anthropology and geography. Kant follows the Aristotelian project in imagining a hierarchy of beings in which the white male body, and the urban site appear as ‘most developed’. The early development of rural sociology suggests that the corporeal body is separate to psychic life. The body here is understood as a phenomena synonymous with the rural, the physical manifestation of common ancestry and inheritable traits that are perpetuated through generations; the life of the mind on the other hand, is imagined as an urban phenomena, a cultural category of being that is capable of transcending and overcoming corporeal constraints.

The rural as an analytical category

There is an alternative way of interrogating the rural as a site of social life. Instead of imagining the rural and the urban as two poles on an evolutionary spectrum – we might instead imagine the city as always shot through with the agricultural. When conceived of in this manner, agriculture is neither a starting point, nor an end destination – it is rather an interminable force, a relationship with nature that is reproduced within social and political life.  When we think of commodities, this task is fairly simple: of course plants make up 80 per cent of the food that humans on the planet eat and of course they are grown in farmers fields, and of course they are sold to people in the city. The task gets more difficult as we begin to think about philosophical, economic and political products and issues. It is nevertheless an important task, enabling us to see assumptions about the rural afresh.

Long before Aristotle and Plato, in the 8th century BCE, the philosopher farmer Hesiod in Works and Days  warned that the life of the polis sails upon the sea of a dangerous and unstable nature. A farm, Hesiod explained, is a part of nature that human beings take as their own and try to direct towards expedient ends. Humans cannot however, control the movements of nature within their bounded plot. The agricultural field is not understood as a tamed patch of earth by Hesiod. It is rather the site where we can see in action the relationship between human social organisation and the dis-ordered, chaotic force of nature (Nelson and Greene, 2002).

For Hesiod this is a bond that is at once co-operative and hostile. Nature is the force that both causes the crop to grow and destroys the self-same crop, through the actions of insects, diseases and storms. The farmer can perceive nature’s actions but cannot control its force entirely – even with the best planning. It is here, I propose, in the relationship between society’s need for food and the untamable earth that a radical rural sociology may emerge. This requires an understanding of the world that does not see human life and subjectivity as having primacy even within human society- indeed within sociology.

The pre-Aristotelian theory of arable land found in Hesiod’s Works and Days suggest that rather than being distinct from social life, the organisation of ‘nature’ that is used in arable arrangements is always indelibly entwined with the management of human life.  The arable field is the ground on which we find the dialectic between history and necessity, autonomy and nature. In the following section I consider the dual issues of land ownership and food production and explore the conspicuous absence of the rural from English public knowledge and the UK’s democratic tradition.

The rural is haunted

In the opening scene of Caryl Churchill’s (1983) play Fen, a Japanese businessman “Mr Takai” introduces the audience to this specific landscape in which, he explains, he hopes to invest his money and in which the audience will invest their time for the duration of the drama. Mr Takai explains that this land was once underwater. The Fens squirmed with fish and eels in reed-ridden currents until; “In 1630 rich lords planned to drain the Fen, change swamps into grazing land, far thinking men, brave investors.”

The Fen people, he continues, had “no vision”. They claimed to be content with their writhing mire and actively opposed the drainage. Despite this, for Mr Takai, the story ends happily ever after; “In the end” he tells the audience “we have this beautiful earth. Very efficient, flat land, ploughs right up to the edge, no waste”.

Mr Takai’s monologue describes a Fen community which is intractable and aggressively resistant to progress. In his account the Fen-dwellers are less than human, ignorant and indolent in the face of technological progress; – “they refused to work on the drainage, smashed dykes, broke sluices” he tells the audience.

From Mr Takai’s prospector’s viewpoint both landscape and history are broken into parcels of investment, arranged in a logical movement forward, but the bounded space of the stage allows Churchill to counter this narrative. Using temporal slips and spectral traces the audience is made aware that this progress narrative is dependent on myriad omissions, or perhaps more precisely, repressions. Ghosts walk upon the stage.

The labour of working-class bodies and the land itself only feature in Mr Takai’s narrative at the point in which they threaten to interrupt material accumulation. The compliance of labouring bodies is framed as natural within this temporal schema. The ghosts who appear on stage during Fen expose the violence of this myth, for example the spectre of an unknown woman appears and tells Tewson the farmer, that she is starving and that ‘you bloody farmers could not live if it was not for the poor, tis them that keep you bloody rascals alive.’ At the end of the play, the character Val who has died in the final scenes returns as a ghost and recounts tales of violence that namelessly bleed across temporal boundaries.  ‘I can’t keep them out’ Val cries as unseen spectres proliferate around her: ‘Her baby died starving, she died starving, who?’. These ghosts act as both the sign and effect of voices displaced from history because the recognition of these experiences would disrupt the claim of history as progress.

The agricultural labourer, like the midwife, is a constant social form that appears across history and geography.  (I make a distinction here between the labourer and the farmer, though some farmers are also labourers on their own land, not all make this connection with the soil and vegetative matter.)  In the richest as well as the poorest of countries, seed needs to be sown, stones need to be picked, and produce harvested. Despite myriad technological advances this is one job, that like the midwife has remained a constant reminder of mortality and human dependence upon the physical realm. Long before companies like Uber and Just Eat combined the gig economy model with mobile technology, the shifting seasonal demands of agriculture meant that short-term and ‘payment by task’ labour relations were standard practice.

In the East of England during the agrarian revolution, service providers called ‘Gangmasters’ provided landowners and farmers with workers at peak times. These labourers, have through history been ‘non-citizen’ individuals, people without suffrage or rights, many who are ‘just’ legal enough to pass inspection, many who are not.  In the late 19th century this population was made up of children and traveller and gypsy communities as well as the rural poor. In the mid 20th century gangmasters used the labour of rural working-class women.

After the expansion of the European Union in 2004, a web of employment agencies began to operate between some of the poorest areas of a newly expanded Europe and the furthest back waters of the rural UK. Modern slavery emerged in the small market towns that punctuate wide rural expanses in places like Cambridgeshire and Lincolnshire. The figure of the agricultural labourer is the image par excellence of the labour that underpins the formal choreography of alienation – it is in rural social organisation that political forces and agri-technology constellate, always in motion and in relationship. The study of the arable is not a side pursuit, rather it anticipates and helps us grasp the dark present.

Agricultural oligopsony

In our present moment the horrors of the impending climate crisis appear in the interminable cycle of twenty-four-hour news across multiple devices. We find ourselves standing in the nexus of myriad ‘monocultural arrangements’ – precisely management systems that use technology to resist diversity and contingency. In these systems more and more of the same is produced. Human use of natural resources to produce goods currently affects more than 70% of the global, ice-free land surface. Between one quarter to one third of this available land is used by society for the primary production of food, feed, fibre, timber and energy.

This is a situation that came to fruition during the twentieth century, though it has a longer pre-history. Data shows that since 1961 global population growth and changes in consumption patterns have together caused unprecedented rates of land and freshwater use. Agriculture currently accounts for two thirds to three quarters of global fresh-water use. Areas under agriculture and forestry have expanded dramatically during this period and have contributed to increasing greenhouse gas emissions, and widespread loss of natural ecosystems and biodiversity.

About a quarter of the Earth’s ice-free land area is currently subject to human-induced degradation. Soil takes a long time to form and conventional farming practises are eroding the soil at a rate more than 100 times faster than the soil formation rate. Drought and desertification are becoming steadily more commonplace. In 2015, the UN estimated that around 500 million people lived within areas which experienced desertification between the 1980s and 2000s. The effects of climate change and land degradation disproportionately affects areas in the Global South, and this process is resulting in exponential loss of diversity, and impending food crises in areas such as South and East Asia, North Africa and the Middle East.  

Since the mid twentieth century the incessant production of more of the same has been facilitated by the limited attention given to the social and economic arrangements of rural communities and land use. This is a form of alienation that leads to the acceptance of apocalyptic events as everyday inconveniences, whilst simultaneously we accept day to day conveniences in return for climacteric conditions – the interminable by-product of splitting of the sensuous form from value.

Land ownership remains a key underpinning component of rural land use. Property rights are used to control the way that land is used or not used in rural areas and this has implications for sustainable development, resilience and ecosystem services. In the United Kingdom the right to private property is central to the idea of citizenship and trumps the right to public knowledge regarding the use of land. This becomes particularly pertinent when considered through the lens of agricultural land, because data protection laws mean that it is often impossible to find out which areas of land are home to specific crops and farming practices.  Due to privacy laws concerning land, particularly inherited land, knowledge about the production and economics of agriculture in the UK has long been obscured. Much of the history of rural policy and practice can be understood as a struggle between the rights and privileges of private landowners and state intervention in the public interest. These tussles have however, produced far less change than at one time seemed inevitable.

When it comes to land ownership, the UK is currently a more unequal country than Brazil – where there are regular land riots. In Europe only Spain is more unequal in terms of land ownership than the UK, through the maintenance of land patterns imposed by General Franco’s fascist regime.  English land ownership laws themselves date back to 1066 when William the Conqueror claimed all of England for the Crown, then leased estates to lords and nobles, who in turn leased the land to tenants and farmers. Today, England and Wales remain among the last countries on earth which continue these ancient patterns of landownership. Because these hereditary estates make up a large portion of the UK’s agricultural land, this means that the machinations of political and economic systems are obscured within UK food production and farming.

It is almost impossible to work out the extent of the assets and political influence enjoyed by the UK’s largest land owning families.  Whilst all land in England and Wales is required to be registered at Her Majesty’s Land Registry following any significant change in title, this does not apply to land that has not changed hands since registration was made compulsory. The Land Registry currently estimates that 20% of the land mass in England and Wales remains unregistered: most of this unregistered property is rural land.  Accurate statistics on the identity of landowners and the nature of land holding in the UK are therefore very difficult to produce. The aristocratic landowners exercise a huge amount of control over rural England. British land ownership and agricultural subsidies have been painstakingly kept out of the public eye by successive governments under the duress of the House of Lords. This is the non-elected arm of the British parliamentary system which is still dominated by hereditary peers whose families form the English land-owning class – referred to variously as the aristocracy or the nobility.

In 2016 Unearthed – an investigative journalism project run by the environmental organisation Greenpeace – ran an investigation into the top 100 recipients of direct EU farming subsidies. They found that UK hereditary land- owners as a group, received a total of £87.9m in agricultural subsidies in 2015, of which £61.2m came from the single payment scheme – this is more than was paid to the bottom 55,119 recipients in the single payment scheme combined.

The payments take up the vast majority of the farming subsidy pot. At least one in five of these single payments went to businesses owned or controlled by members of aristocratic families, including; the present Lord Rothschild (also known as a previous BSkyB director and the long-term friend of the monocultural media mogul Rupert Murdoch), and the Conservative MP Richard Drax.  Rumoured to be the UK’s richest parliamentarian, Mr Drax has a fortune that exceeds £150 million. Much of this wealth was accumulated through his family’s sugar plantation in Barbados established in the seventeenth century and run using slave labour for over two hundred years.

Richard Drax has consistently used his family’s wealth and his resultant position in the House of Lords to restrict support, education and individual freedoms to working people, as well as voting against environmental and democratic measures. This organisation of the landowning aristocracy and privilege of private property, is a germinate gem that has refracted, bent the force of the farmers field into another oblique source of force.  The global agri-food system can trace its origins back to the last quarter  of  the  19th  century  in  Britain,  which was then the world’s  dominant commercial power. In our current moment, although our supermarket shelves burst with culinary variety, the production, supply, and distribution of food is increasingly pooling in a handful of corporations, most notably in the hands of Associated British Foods, Cargill, Unilever and Nestle.

This pooling of force creates a dual process. On one hand these corporations operate an oligopoly—precisely a market with a small number of sellers; on the other, they also control an oligopsony – a market with few buyers. It is not only hard to grow grain, it is now difficult to sell it as well. Tenant farmers and other non- landowning agricultural workers grow poorer and less powerful each year. Max Weber’s (1918) classic definition of the state describes ‘a human community that successfully claims the monopoly of the legitimate use of physical force within a given territory,’ we have forgotten that issues regarding the production and distribution of food are a primary source of force and its uses.  Colonialism is usually understood in terms of the establishment of rule over a distant territory and the control of its people. However, the arable shows how colonial organisation grounds, founds, and exceeds itself ‘at home’ in the farmer’s field. 

Towards a radical rural?

The rural holds the accrued material of centuries of political and legal domination over subordinate people, the exploitation of human and natural resources and the construction of racial and cultural differences that privilege the nobility over the populations they rule. In other words, by identifying the urban as the primary site of social life we have understood the fruit of our social organism as the ‘evolved’ or ‘cooked’ form rather than as part of a wider organic form.

Put a different way, the rural does not underlie the city in an evolutionary manner. Society cannot evolve beyond the requirement of the organised production of food, and this need cannot be met predictably over a long term due to the inherent inconsistencies of natural forces. In other words, the foundation that the rural provides for the urban is always unstable and inconsistent.

In our current moment, economic and political spheres increasingly congeal in petrified unrest. Yet it is in the arable that the forces of nature that may provide an unsettling drama to halt the production of more of the same. Nature is frequently violent, and always generative.


Churchill, C. (1990) Plays 2:”Softcops”; “Top Girls”; “Fen”; “Serious Money”. London: Methuen World Classics.

Nelson, S., & Grene, D. (2008). God and the Land: the Metaphysics of Farming in Hesiod and Vergil. New York: Oxford University Press.

Shucksmith, M. (2010). Disintegrated rural development? Neo‐endogenous rural development, planning and place‐shaping in diffused power contexts. Sociologia ruralis, 50(1), 1-14.  

Weber, M.  (2004). ‘Politics as a Vocation’ in Owen, D. S., & Strong, T. B. The vocation lectures. Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing.

Wood, A. (2007) The 1549 Rebellions and the Making of Early Modern England. New York: Cambridge University Press.

Zimmerman, C. C., Useem, J. H., & Zeigler, L. H. (1936). Littleville: a Parasitic Community During the Depression. Rural Sociology, 1(1), 54.

Rowan Jaines is an ESRC sponsored doctoral candidate in the Department of Geography at The University of Sheffield. Her thesis Landscapes of Discontent: Petrified Unrest in the Fens of Eastern England interrogates the Fen region as site that reveals the discontinuities and disruptions inherent to the formation of Western political thought. Her work more broadly focuses on nature as a contested concept, as well as the use of creative methods in social research.

Header Image Credit: Author’s own


Jaines, Rowan 2022. ‘The Social Life of Agriculture: History Passes into Setting’ Discover Society: New Series 2 (1): 

Rural vets: what has happened to them all?

Sam Hillyard

What is the work of vet’s work and why are they in short supply.  Vet professionals have long acknowledged there is a staffing shortfall. The Covid 19 pandemic has exacerbated the problem.  Here I look at vets in a global context, as subject to consumer capitalism, and through an examination of the minutiae of their – dangerous and dirty – everyday practice. 

Of all the weird and not-so-wonderful consequences of the global pandemic, Barnard Castle tourism aside, a rise in animal ownership has been one.  This pet boom has led to a crisis within the veterinary profession as they struggled to meet the surge in demand.  The veterinary profession is well-established.  The Royal College of Veterinary Surgeons was granted its royal charter in 1844 ( and some of the oldest universities in England, Scotland and Ireland provide training (  The British vet is also much loved, as the popularity of (both) series All Creatures Great and Small (1978-1990, 2020) based on the novels by the late vet Alf Wight testify.  So, why the dearth of vets?  What has happened to them all? 

Pet boom

The president of a Canadian veterinary association argued the shortage problem is not new but has existed throughout her career and is now of global concern (Stiles 2014:441).  The reasons are not a straightforward issue, but represent a ‘wicked problem’ of overlapping issues.  Some of these sit outside of the profession (rising incomes and population = more pets), but she dismisses accusations from within that young vets are workshy.  

Indeed, data from her own organisation showed early career vets worked the longest hours.  Scottish vets have concurred, highlighting how long hours lead to a problematic work/ life imbalance and poor mental health (Stephen et al. 2020).  Old working practices involving a 60-hour week and being on-call for six of them is, as Stiles quite rightly puts it, is “OVERDOING IT” (Stiles 2021:442), original emphasis).  

The knowledge that a quarter of vets had considered suicide in the last year compared to a population average of 10% is sobering.  Solutions from within the profession have included streamlining and efficiency, including the utilisation of supporting professions and a consensus that more vets need to be trained.  Some have delivered tangible mechanisms to aid retention, such as a Scottish study which produced a smartphone app designed to help intervene when negative aspects of everyday practice outweighed the positive. 

The insiders view of the profession serves to make it clear that vet work is extraordinarily diverse.  It includes a wide variety of species (great and small) and hence treatment (inoculation and testing; and diagnosis/ treatment).  Vets’ working conditions vary enormously (consulting room to cow byre) and emergency service hours are inherently antisocial.  Such variety makes up the small triumphs and disasters, as Alf Wight put it, of everyday life as a working vet. 

The need to recruit more vets and the complexity of their work are therefore two sides of the same coin or ‘wicked problem’.  One clear tension is the rise in small animal practice.  As one vet put it, “I swapped over to the dark side and am a very happy, satisfied, non-stinky smallies vet” (Adam et al. 2018:5).  Indeed, Alf Wight’s former practice recently transitioned to specialise in small animals.  This move led to one of Wight’s trainees to leave the practice. 

So to understand vets is hence to grasp the corporeal nature of their work, the ‘intangibles’ of practice life and vets’ own values.  Vet Remnant (2021), in a solutions-focused piece, is clear on the latter.  Vets’ work sits inside the delivery of a safe and affordable food chain.  Recruitment therefore needs to include outreach work in schools and advocacy of both the farming and the veterinary professions – including to those with non-farming backgrounds. 

Inside the vets’ worlds

Vets’ working lives need to be understood as part of a wider canvas.  Rural geographer Enticott (2019:720) captured this assemblage as the “veterinary world of work” after Becker.  They are a profession working alongside supporting professions (veterinary nurses and technicians) and benefit from new technologies (i.e. pregnancy testing).  Vets’ worlds and careers are subject to global forces and inevitably Brexit.  Enticott suggested a new kind of language to capture this interplay – disease ecology:

In this historical work of the veterinary profession, disease ecology is […] similar to assemblage thinking and the kind of relational theory found within post-structural analyses of animal health […] [Disease ecology] allows veterinary professionalism to be conceived of as a relational achievement, emergent from and produced by a range of human actors, animals, technologies and institutions that are held to together in a ‘veterinary world of work’ (see Becker 1982). The focus becomes one of understanding the processes and practices […] this veterinary world of work attends to, the multiplicity of different forms of veterinary knowledge and subjectivity, the contests between them, and the characteristics and capabilities of different actors (Enticott 2019:720, emphasis added).

Vets’ worlds therefore merit sociological scrutiny beyond the possibilities of their own professional reflexivity.  Such scrutiny may yield a different kind of knowledge.  By way of example, Enticott (2012) studied bovine tuberculosis testing procedures.  He found, of over 77,000 bTB tests conducted by nearly nine hundred vets, gender was the only social variable:

Overall these data suggest that male vets are more likely to identify infected cattle than female vets during a bTB test […] disease reporting could vary considerably simply because of the gender of the vet conducting disease surveillance (Enticott 2012:563). 

In the same way sociologists of law have found that the apparel of a defendant and the timing of hearings matter, vets’ subjective judgement and organisational cultures vary and matter, too.  In the context of the wake of a global pandemic, sensitivity towards and confidence in testing and the professionals who carry out that testing has never been more acute. 

Sociologists of work have established that 21st work is no longer bound by time or location.  Work permeates our non-cognitive occupation of space and discretional effort and corporate responsibility are now commodified.  For example, Lyon and Back’s (2012) study of two fishmongers market stalls saw them vis-à-vis their communities and, too, communities undergoing change.  The veterinary profession has inevitably been exposed to these shifts, the question is with what specific and impact.

Enticott discussed emotional labour, after Hochschild (1983), and noted the lack of relational distance between vets and farmers.  Whilst not a new concept, emotional labour must now be linked to present-day consumer culture (Pettinger 2011).  Indeed, the Royal College of Veterinary Surgeons homepage includes the link ‘want to raise a concern about a vet or a vet nurse?’ ( Paying for/ valuing authenticity the most, as it were.  In 21st century work, the power of the service user must be recognised, even for non-human exchanges:

‘Good workers’ are labelled professional precisely when they do more than just the job, in offering gifts beyond the market. Customers may expect workers to know what their desires are without these being fully verbalised.  This reflects customers’ implicit presumption of their own sovereignty and belief that they are themselves straightforward. […] service encounters are managed by customers as well as workers and management, and that customers’ judgements, which draw on gendered norms, affect market practices. […] Customers, in their interactions with service providers, are demanding and judgemental, and ‘make’ the encounter. We cannot understand the experience of service work without knowing this. (Pettinger 2011:239, emphasis added).

Vets’ worlds are corporeal, involve human and non-human actors and are often out in the natural environment:

Decentring humans to understand them as part of natural, technical, informational and economic entities is essential to relearning the position of the human.  Decentring unmasks the idea of autonomous human activity and reveals human dependency on nature.  Nature affects everyday life in dramatic ways through ‘natural’ disasters and in routine and habitual ways. It is not a pre-given entity on which humans act.  Nature has temporalities and material effects, it incorporates the existence and effects of human and nonhuman bodies, and it brings the unpredictability of weather, the transforming power of soil, coal and rare earth minerals (Pettinger 2019:157, emphasis added).

Vets are, perhaps more so than any other profession, inside this nexus.  Sociology can also be used to mine down into the nuances of the social setting – and reposition the vet within this assemblage. 

Chicago interactionist, Sanders (2010) has explored the nuances of companion animal-human interactions.  His exploration of the social world of large veterinary clinics showed the consultancy room had a sad and dangerous character and, too, involved an investment of self.  A dog owner himself, Sanders (2010) detailed the highs and lows of veterinary work firsthand.  The dirty work of handling treated and infected animals and dog waste and disposal (he described washing his hands when he leaves and his worry that he might bring a disease home to his own young puppy).  Plus, the decision-making process to euthanise an 11-year-old German Shepherd cross bitch after a series of treatments.  Too, he captures the ‘high’ of little ‘runty’ shepherd pups being brought to life during a caesarean. 

This work was inherently interactive and an accomplishment of social rituals and routines interlocking both human and non-human actors.  The emotional work was performed by both the vets’ and their technicians’.  Their occupational worlds involve managing such encounters and also doing some of their work backstage (i.e. cremations, autopsies). Their work involves the management of emotional highs and lows and coping strategies.  Working dog literature has long discussed this partnership (Moxon 1978, Cox 2014).  There is scope to explore this further in veterinary contexts.

The rural dimension

And to finally muddy the waters, vets work often takes place in rural spaces.   The localities of workplaces used so far in the article have been fishmongers and sex work, but the rural dimension has proven critical for other rural professions.  Rural professionals’ status inside their workplace communities is distinctive and nuanced.  My own work on headteachers of rural primary schools showed how much had changed for rural teachers and that they too face a recruitment problem.  Tied accommodation and long service have disappeared (Hillyard and Bagley 2013), but some welcomed more professional distance (and the anonymity to put their rubbish out in their dressing-gown, as one head put it).  The intensity of role vis-à-vis salary scales has led to federated headteachers who oversee a number of schools. 

Local spatial contexts are critical, too.  Remoteness and climate vary considerably.  In Nordic countries, remote summer homes are inaccessible in the winter months, very different to the 80% second-homes villages of England’s rural coastline.  The former are unreachable, the latter ghost towns outside the season.  The rural community within which veterinary work takes place is therefore nuanced.  Whilst the spatial layout of a village would be of less relevance to vets than the local head, are vet’s community relationships inherited and what of their own organisational cultures and relationship with the local economy?

To end on the thorniest of debates, there is the enduring question of what is the rural?  This Special Issue had the ambition to look at rural issues afresh.  What is all-too-dominant (monocultural vistas), what is less-than-tangible (ecotherapy) and territorial domains of food sources (wild or produced).  All are rural, but too demonstrate the sheer diversity of practices and processes. 

In recent work, drawing upon both W.I. Thomas’s theorem and Halfacree’s threefold architecture, I argue that definitions of the rural are plural.  That is, metaphorically, they are in the eye of the beholder.  Regardless of their accuracy, they are acted upon.  As one village ‘old boy’ describe of newcomers to the village when he greeted them on the street, “sometimes they speak, sometimes they don’t.”  The discussion as highlighted the new importance of the audience (the consumer) for the veterinary profession and situated their work on a wide, global canvas.  We need, too, to explore the possibility of taking all players seriously, including the non-human actors.


Cox, G. (2014) The gun’s dog.  Cheltenham: Pernice Press.

Enticott, G (2012) “Regulating animal health, gender and quality control: a study of veterinary surgeons in Great Britain.” Journal of Rural Studies 28(4):559-567.

Hillyard, S. (2020) Broadlands and the new rurality: an ethnography.  Bingley: Emerald.

Hillyard, S. & Bagley, C. (2013) “‘The fieldworker not in the head’s office’: an empirical exploration of the role of an English rural primary school within its village,” Social & Cultural Geography, 14:4, 410-427,

Moxon, P.R.A. (1978, 12th edition) [1952] Gundogs: training and field trials.  London: Popular Dogs.

Pettinger, L. (2011) “‘Knows how to please a man’: studying customers to understand service work.” The Sociological Review 59(2):223-241.

Pettinger, L. (2019) What’s wrong with work? Bristol: Policy Press.

Remnant, J. (2021) “How can we create a sustainable future for farm animal veterinary practice?” Veterinary Record, 189(9):371-372.

Sanders, C. (2010) ” Ethnography as dangerous, sad, and dirty work” In Hillyard, S. (ed.)  New Frontiers in Ethnography. Bingley: Emerald.  Pp. 101-124.  (2010)0000011009

Stephen, K., Henry, MK., Baughan, J., Duncan, AJ., & Bishop, HKB. (2020). An exploration of how vets cope with the daily challenges of farm animal practice and how best these coping mechanisms might be developed into tools which can be easily accessed by the livestock veterinary community. Sarah Brown Mental Health Research Grant. Available at:

Stiles, E. (2021) “The “wicked” problem of our workforce shortage.” The Canadian Veterinary Journal 62(5):441. PMCID: PMC8048204

Sam Hillyard is Professor of Sociology in the School of Social and Political Sciences, University of Lincoln, UK, where she teaches sociological theory and methods.  She is series editor of Studies in Qualitative Methodology (Emerald) and a member of the editorial board of the journal Qualitative Research.  Her current research includes work with rural GPs and colleagues in Lincoln’s International Institute for Rural Health.

Header Image Credit: BBC: Cast of All Creatures Great and Small (TV series)


Hillyard, Sam 2022. ‘Rural vets: what has happened to them all?’ Discover Society: New Series 2 (1): 

Care Crisis Continued: Logics of the New Levy

Emma Dowling

In September this year, UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson announced a new Health and Social Care Levy to address the crisis in social care made tragically apparent by the COVID-19 pandemic: as homecare workers struggled to get hold of adequate personal protective equipment, COVID-patients were released from NHS hospitals to nursing homes that did not have the necessary facilities to treat and shield them. The priority given to the NHS meant that it was it only after media reports of high numbers of infections and deaths among care home staff and residents that any attention at all was paid to social care.

Yet, for anyone paying attention, and for those directly affected, reports of understaffing, overwork, lack of equipment, low pay and lack of occupational sick pay came as no surprise. The erosion of working condi­tions has relied on two factors. First of all, the inequalities of class, gender and race that push people with less bargaining power in the labour market into the kinds of low-paid and precarious jobs to which frontline care work belongs. Second, the goodwill, commitment and sense of responsibility of those working in the care sector to continue doing so against the odds. 

Despite the immense importance of care for our lives, caring carries little value in contemporary society

Despite the immense importance of care for our lives, caring carries little value in contemporary society. Overall, we can see how the responsibility for caring is systematically handed down a societal care chain of underpaid and unpaid caring labour based on a core structural feature of capitalist economies: the systemic imperative to expand markets in the pursuit of profitability, which goes hand in hand with a devaluation of the work of care, either by making this work invisible or by offloading its cost.

The systematic underfunding of social care is long-standing and entrenched in Britain, and it has been exacerbated by years of austerity. At the same time, care needs are rising due to demographic changes. Demographic changes mean more of us are living longer, often also with complex care needs, and over the next twenty-five years, the popula­tion above the age of eighty-five will almost double. All the while the price for unmet care needs is paid by the estimated one in seven older people already unable to access adequate care, along with the unpaid carers in households and communities, for the most part women, who keep everything going against the odds, often at great expense to themselves.

For many informal carers who faced extra burdens during the pandemic the recent introduction of the right to one week of unpaid leave will not address the continuous challenge of managing work and caring responsibilities while facing economic inequalities. What is more, an already understaffed care sector faces an exodus of staff no longer willing or able to cope, care homes have even been contemplating taking on volunteers to compensate.

Every so often, the social care crisis makes headlines and politicians tinker with the funding. Yet so far, nothing has come anywhere near to closing the funding gap, currently estimated at an annual £1.34 billion at the very least. The new levy is no different. Funded by a 1.25% rise in National Insurance contributions, along with a 1.25% rise in dividends tax, which is a tax on earnings from investments, it is supposed to make new financial resources available for social care by 2023. However, the bulk of this will actually be spent on health and not on social care, as most of the funding will be used to deal with shortfalls in the NHS.

Moreover, nearly half of the allocated funds will actually go towards paying for the reforms themselves (the costs of which will continue to rise in future as more people reach the cost cap). All in all, there will still be funding shortfalls for local authorities, who are the ones responsible for providing social care, and considerable pressure will remain for councils to generate revenue through raising council tax and business rates.  Not only does this drive a wedge between those cities and regions that can afford services and those that cannot, the shift toward online retail intensified by the pandemic makes it more difficult to rely on income from local businesses.

And while good quality care depends on good quality employment, only a tiny fraction of the new funding is earmarked for workforce development, which includes things like staff training. There are no funds at all being made available to remedy staff shortages, low-pay and inadequate working conditions in the care sector. Moreover, nothing is being done to address the failures of privatisation, such as the competitive procurement practices that incentivise a race to the bottom and the kinds of financialised business models that extract profits and cause instability, which include private equity firms intent on creating profitable economies of scale, real estate investors interested in the value of care home properties, and offshore corporate structures that enable tax avoidance.

With the new right for those paying privately for their care to have the council organise this for them so that they benefit from the lower rates charged by providers to local authorities, there could well be even more pressures on pricing and less option for providers to cross-subsidise. All the while, the care sector continues to lose staff who can no longer bear the conditions, while it is also beset by the knock-on effects of post-Brexit restrictions on migrant labour.

The political thrust of the new levy in the area of social care is personal financial protection, not fundamental reform of the way that care is funded, provided and regulated. The government is responding to voter concern over the cost of care in old age, and addressees are care recipients fearful of losing financial assets. Central here are two promises. First of all, the introduction of a cap of £86 000 on the amount of money an individual must pay privately for the cost of care across their life-time. Second, changes to the means thresholds for financial support claims.

To date, one can only apply for support with the cost of your care if one’s total assets amount to less than £23 250. In future, those with assets below £20 000 can apply for the cost of their care to be covered entirely. At the other end of the income spectrum, individuals with assets up to £100 000 will be able to claim some support. However, these policies are premised on the fact that a person’s care needs first have to be deemed eligible before even qualifying for the means-test.  

Yet here, the direction of travel has already been set: in response to the long-standing problems of underfunding, local authorities have had to significantly tighten eligibility criteria and enforce such criteria more stringently in order to reduce the amount of claimants, leading to a decrease of the number of older people receiving community-based support by over a quarter between 2009 and 2013, even as the older population increased.

the reforms are for the most part geared towards helping a small number of wealthier households and families protect their assets

As a result of the changes, more people will indeed be entitle to state funded support, but critics have pointed out that all in all the reforms are for the most part geared towards helping a small number of wealthier households and families protect their assets, while taking the money from all working people. In fact, these working people include the many underpaid and unpaid carers for whom the levy will not bring much of a change for the better. Moreover, younger people,  particularly of the millennial generation, will have to pay more while being less well off than their predecessors at the same age. In particular, property price inflation leaves young adults facing high rents and locked out of homeownership, and makes inheritance more important.

There are three facets to this logic of welfare. First of all, it is divisive. The financial anxieties of care receivers over the cost of care are played off against the needs of care workers for adequate employment and working conditions. Second, it is residual. The idea that care is viewed merely as help for those without the economic means help themselves sits deep within the psyche of a liberal individualism. Third, it is extractive. Neoliberal reforms have built on individualism to further elevate personal responsibility to primacy, while the simultaneous marketisation of care enables the further extraction of much needed financial resources through the privatisation of profit.

All the while this system is upheld by the underpaid and unpaid feminised, racialised and classed labours of care. The reliance on families means that women are for the most part picking up the tab, especially where households cannot afford to buy in expensive services. Alternatively, the work of caring (along with other domestic work) is off-loaded to lower-class women, often women colour or migrant women employed in precarious or informal arrangements. These dynamics will only become more entrenched as the government returns the responsibility for care to the home with renewed vigour, while too little is done to really change the structural conditions for caring.

Emma Dowling is a sociologist at the University of Vienna. Previously she has held academic positions in the UK and Germany. She is the author of The Care Crisis – What Caused It and How Can We End It? (Verso, 2021), out in paperback with a new afterword in February 2022; contact:

Header Image Credit: Dominik Lange on Unsplash


Dowling, Emma 2021. ‘Care Crisis Continued: Logics of the New Levy’ Discover Society: New Series 1 (4):

Care chains and social reproduction of privilege before and after Covid-19

Sonja Avlijaš

Britain has gone through comprehensive marketization of welfare and care services over the past 40 years. The result of this process is a strongly gendered and racialized care economy that mostly employs low earning women, non-whites and migrants to offer personal care services for the professional and affluent classes, and their elderly and children.

The more affluent have also been increasingly relying on private childcare, schooling and healthcare services, the costs of which have skyrocketed over time. In contrast, the unpaid care burden has increased in the personal lives of those who cannot afford the private services.

a significant share of the British population is facing a crisis of care

Today, a significant share of the British population is facing a crisis of care, as many families are squeezed between the growingly unaffordable private care services and the continually deteriorating public ones, along with their own longer and more unpredictable working hours. Informal communal and family networks offer a coping mechanism to some.

These changes in the daily experience of life in Britain have been shaped by the big transformation of the country’s economy which started under Margaret Thatcher. Economic restructuring towards financial services as the new engine of growth started during the 1980s. It was meant to boost the country’s international competitiveness in the context of its waning influence of the postcolonial era, accelerating globalization and emerging manufacturing competition from the cheaper global South.

In other words, financialization of the British economy, which was declaredly driven by economic concerns, has not only affected the world of formal work. It has profoundly reshaped everything that concerns the realm of social reproduction, from how people access basic life reproducing services such as health and education, to how they care for themselves, their children, their elderly, and how they interact with their communities.

Financialization and marketization of welfare

The dynamics of social reproduction were changed by a reconfiguration of the country’s welfare system. In fact, privatization and marketization of welfare and education were key policy tools that were used continually over the past 40 years to underpin financialization. But, as I go on to show, these policies were not implemented without the consent of the British public which has been prioritizing its consumer power over little else.

My colleagues and I established this relationship between financialization and the transformation of the British welfare state at the backdrop of a broad social science tendency to either ignore or banalize the relationship between economic processes and welfare state reforms (see Avlijaš, Hassel and Palier, 2021). Scholarship has habitually associated the demise of the publicly funded welfare state with demographic trends such as ageing and immigration, and the associated changes in political cleavages. Those who do associate the rise of neoliberalism with retrenchment of the welfare state have a tendency to present neoliberalism as an abstract exogenous force that is taking away agency from national governments and their constituencies.

By highlighting this relationship between voter preferences and public policy in Britain, we are pointing to a perhaps uncomfortable truth that we do have agency over our national logics of welfare formation, even in the neoliberal era

Our argument that governments are actively directing welfare state reforms in order to feed a specific economic model is particularly conspicuous in the case of the UK, given its global leadership in carving a financialization driven growth strategy which has allowed it a new position of dominance in the rapidly changing global economic landscape. Moreover, the median voter has been benefiting from these reforms as they have led to an amelioration of material conditions for a certain majority. By highlighting this relationship between voter preferences and public policy in Britain, we are pointing to a perhaps uncomfortable truth that we do have agency over our national logics of welfare formation, even in the neoliberal era.

Complete privatization of the pension schemes which was envisaged by the Thatcher government was not politically feasible, given public resistance to privatization of basic and complementary public pension systems. Yet, the government’s aim of expanding private pension funds in order to boost financialization of the economy was pushed through by offering attractive fiscal exemptions to those with a public complementary pension who chose to ‘opt out’ from public schemes.

Extensive privatization of social housing and deregulation of the housing market were also an important part of the wider plan. The Thatcher government eased access to credit for the middle classes during the 1980s and created a new constituency of homeowners by introducing a national ‘Right to Buy’ policy. This policy particularly benefitted low and middle income groups who purchased homes cheap and benefitted from the skyrocketing prices afterwards.

Housing thus became an additional source of savings for retirement. The expanding housing market has also fuelled financial product innovation, making access to mortgages easier for the poorer and less creditworthy households. This is how interest rates and access to credit became a more salient political issue in the UK than labour rights.

The rising demand for education, to access high paying jobs in financial services, was recognized by the Blair government as another opportunity to feed financialization. The government started to encourage marketization and financialization of the higher education system through withdrawal of state funding and introduction of educational loans.

Since the majority of people were not exposed to long spells of unemployment, due to economic growth and an increasingly dynamic and flexible labour market, demand for social protection was reduced, allowing further retrenchment. Moreover, only a minimal safety net against poverty favours the existence of a low wage labour market, which boosts the productivity of highly skilled workers, as they can outsource many of their non-work-related responsibilities to cheap service workers (Morel 2015). Higher rates of homeownership also increased public support for welfare state retrenchment because government borrowing to finance public welfare expenditures could end up raising interest rates.

The state has also continued to maintain the consumption capacity of the lower wage workers through cheap state interventions such as income tax credits on earnings or the minimum wage. This was important economically, a not only politically, because domestic demand is a key driver of financialization, so reducing people’s capacity to consume below a certain level can have a negative effect on growth.

Last but not least, through extensive outsourcing of government services to the private sector in a publicly supported ideological attempt to spend less on public welfare and provide cheaper and more efficient public services, UK has allowed a deterioration of public services including health, while actually spending more of the taxpayers’ money and syphoning it off into the pockets of private companies (Innes 2021). Therefore, pressures for short-term material gains of the median voter have trumped longer-term interests of the society as a whole.

Enter gender, race and immigration

This direction of transformation of the British society been made possible by the well-established historical habit of offloading social costs onto the more marginalized groups. As most of us are aware nowadays, a disproportionate share of women and minorities are typically in charge of social reproduction, the unpaid or underpaid labour that takes place in households, schools, hospitals, eateries, communities. Since there is no capitalist production without the daily and generational renewal of the worker, social reproduction has been referred to as the invisible engine of capitalism (see Bhattacharya, 2017).

With the growing empowerment of the predominantly white women and their entry into the professional classes, along with the concurrent deterioration of public services, social reproduction responsibilities become increasingly marketized and passed onto the low earning women, often of migrant and non-white background. This group has also included Eastern European immigrants, which Blagojevic (2010) has referred to as ‘non-white whites’.

The bottom line is, migrant labour is cheaper.

The disproportionate reliance on migrant female labour force to provide personal and care services to the more affluent professional classes has been reinforced by geographic inequalities across the UK. For those in smaller communities, incentives to move to London and care for the more affluent are not very high because they rely on their own communities and intergenerational family networks to compensate for the deterioration of the welfare state. Housing ownership and cheaper lifestyles are also making them less mobile. The bottom line is, migrant labour is cheaper.

While immigrants are overrepresented in the lower skill personal and care services sector, the Migration Observatory at the University of Oxford shows that the high skilled immigrants, especially those from Africa and parts of Asia, are also disproportionately working in the healthcare professional sector, as doctors and nurses. This is another disbalance that has been reinforced by the financialization of the educational system. UK students are incentivized to seek the better paid jobs in finance to pay off their educational loans.

Moreover, public funding cuts over the past decade have pushed British universities even further towards capital markets. This matters because university rankings, which determine their access to capital markets, are increasingly based on graduate earnings indicators, which offer universities’ a strong incentive to prepare students for highly lucrative careers in the financial services, rather than careers in healthcare, education and other sectors which support social reproduction.

The future is here

Social organisation which depends on the exploitation of personal and communal resources along the lines of race, gender and citizenship to provide wellbeing to its population is not only socially unjust, but also unsustainable in today’s world which is realizing that there are limits to prioritizing current consumption over little else.

People’s prioritization of current consumption capacities over longer run sustainability is starting to catch up with them and closing off their futures

The comprehensive withdrawal of the state from the realm of social reproduction, and the growing personal burden of unpaid care is making it impossible for a growing number of people to invest in their futures, and in the futures of their children. People’s prioritization of current consumption capacities over longer run sustainability is starting to catch up with them and closing off their futures. The migrant labour force, whether low or high skilled, is also increasingly constrained by the growing costs of their own social reproduction in the UK, making jobs in the British care economy less attractive to them.

The chance ofowning a home in the UK has also more than halved between the early 1990s and now, while no new stocks of social housing have been built. Younger generations are thus no longer having the same opportunity to accumulate wealth as the older constituency of homeowners who purchased housing during the Thatcher era. Social spending is thus gaining more political salience than interest rates.

The pandemic has also highlighted the importance of social reproduction by showing to all of us how much work needs to be done when care provisioning institutions are not able to function and when one cannot rely on external labour to support their caring responsibilities (see Avlijaš, 2021). It has also emphasized the importance of essential workers and the broader undervalued sectors that are linked to social reproduction through provision of food, health, education, and even leisure and arts.

People are also beginning to see that personal and communal resources are key for surviving any downturn. In the absence of progressive and continual social investment that would replenish these social ‘stabilizers’ and make them more resilient for the longer run, each new crisis will simply lead to their further depletion. Furlough schemes and absence of commuting have also opened up possibilities for people to establish a different relationship to social reproduction, by cooking healthier meals for themselves, tending to their gardens, or spending more time with their children.

Growing labour shortages in the care sector, offset by Brexit and exacerbated by the pandemic, will likely increase the value of these services, and reinforce social innovations in the organisation of social reproduction. Ageing is another challenge which adds urgency to these processes.  

These multiple factors are coming together and creating a window of opportunity for new political coalitions that could make Britain transform its relationship to social reproduction. A turn to a more sustainable model of socio-economic organisation will depend on the society’s ability to face its own cost of social reproduction and to redistribute it more evenly. In all weathers, we should expect a growing salience of social reproduction and the economy of care in the post-covid arena of ‘noisy’ politics.


Avlijaš, Sonja. (2021). “Security for whom? Inequality and Human Dignity in Times of the Pandemic”. In Pandemics, Society and Politics: Critical Reflections on Covid-19, edited by Gerard Delanty, De Gruyter, Berlin. Pp. 227-242.

Avlijaš, Sonja, Hassel, Anke and Palier, Bruno. (2021). “Growth Strategies and Welfare State Reforms in Europe”. Chapter 12 inGrowth and Welfare in Advanced Capitalist Economies. How Have Growth Regimes Evolved?,edited by Bruno Palier and Anke Hassel, Oxford University Press. Pp. 373-436. DOI: 10.1093/oso/9780198866176.003.0012

Bhattacharya, Tithi. (2017). Social Reproduction Theory: Remapping Class, Recentering Oppression. London: Pluto Press.

Blagojevic, Marina. (2010). “Non-‘White’ Whites, Non-European Europeans and Gendered Non-Citizens: On a Possible Epistemic Strategy from the Semiperiphery of Europe”. In Scherrer, C. & Young, B. (eds.) Gender Knowledge and Knowledge Networks and International Political Economy,Baden-Baden: Nomos. Pp.183-197.

Innes, Abby. (2021). The limits of institutional convergence: why public sector outsourcing is less efficient than Soviet enterprise planning, Review of International Political Economy, 28:6, 1705-1728, DOI: 10.1080/09692290.2020.1786434

Morel, Nathalie. (2015). “Servants for the knowledge-based economy? The political economy of domestic services in Europe.” Social Politics: International Studies in Gender, State & Society 22(2): 170–92. DOI: 10.1093/sp/jxv006

Sonja Avlijaš is a Marie Sklodowska-Curie Fellow at the Faculty of Economics, University of Belgrade and a research associate at Sciences Po, Paris. She holds a PhD in political economy from the LSE. Interested in the secrets of modern capitalism, Sonja researches what life at the European periphery can tell us about the international political economy of globalization, financialization and digitalization. She is devoted to supporting subalterns in their efforts to interpret the complexity of their experiences in today’s world. She will be completing her book on gender, work, social reproduction and the post-1989 world order during her 2022 Wayne Vuchinich fellowship at Stanford University.

Header Image Credit: Flickr, creative commons license (Michael Summers)


Avlijaš, Sonja 2021. ‘Care chains and social reproduction of privilege before and after Covid-19’ Discover Society: New Series 1 (4):

The Legacy of Colonial Social Welfare Legislation

Courtney Hallink

Following the end of apartheid in 1994 and South Africa’s first democratic election, the country gained international attention for the rapid expansion of its social grant system and the inclusion of the right to social assistance in the new constitution. As of 2018, roughly 44 per cent of all households receive at least one social grant every month – a non-contributory cash transfer funded by government revenue (South Africa Social Security Agency, 2018).

the focus on inclusion has distracted from the ways in which South Africa’s social grant system is also necessarily a system of exclusion

However, the focus on inclusion has distracted from the ways in which South Africa’s social grant system is also necessarily a system of exclusion. Social grants are provided to low-income caregivers with children, the elderly, and differently abled individuals. Working-age adults who are unemployed are excluded from the grant system, despite the constitutional right to social assistance for all and the exceptionally high unemployment rate. Individuals who are formally employed have access to the Unemployment Insurance Fund; however, it only provides individuals with short-term unemployment benefits and excludes informal workers.

Long-term unemployment accounts for 75 per cent of the unemployed, while informal employment accounts for about 17 per cent of the work force (Rogan & Skinner).  This is approximately 9 million people, or 15 per cent of the population. Black South Africans are disproportionately represented in both these categories.

The racialized nature of unemployment in South Africa is perhaps most obvious through the country’s unemployment statistics. In the first quarter of 2021, the unemployment rate for ‘Black’ South Africans was 48 per cent whilst the unemployment rate for ‘Coloured’ South Africans was 24, 14 for ‘Indian’ South Africans, and 9 for ‘White’ South Africans (Statistics South Africa, 2021) (1).

I trace these exclusions back to South Africa’s colonial period, beginning with the adoption of the Unemployment Benefit Act in 1937 which established the Unemployment Insurance Fund. The unemployment insurance system was established alongside the implementation of racial segregation and suited the objectives of both capitalist expansion and the extension of colonial power. It was a part of a larger project of separating urban ‘citizens’ from rural ‘subjects’ – ‘modern’ from ‘pre-modern’ and ‘civilized’ from ‘uncivilized’.  

While the legislation has been amended and repealed several times, the core structure of the fund has stayed the same, even after the end of apartheid in 1994. Although the insurance legislation was ostensibly de-racialized following the end of apartheid, it continues to reproduce stratification along the same dimensions it did throughout the colonial period. This points to the limits of inclusion – however limited that inclusion might be – in systems that were fundamentally built on exclusion. We must be more creative in the ‘post’-colonial present when imagining new systems that are truly emancipatory and capable of reducing socio-economic inequality.

The Colonial Origins of South Africa’s Unemployment Insurance System

Between 1937 and 1949, the foundations for South Africa’s unemployment insurance system were laid. The fund was first established with the 1937 Unemployment Benefits Act, which excluded all casual workers and ‘native’ mine workers. In 1946, the act was repealed and replaced with the Unemployment Insurance Act. The new act introduced the exclusion of all rural Black South Africans. It also excluded Black South Africans working on gold and coal mines, individuals employed in agriculture, and domestic workers.

In 1947, a Commission of Inquiry was established to make recommendations for the system of unemployment insurance. Members of the commission pushed for the exclusion of all Black South Africans, not just Black South Africans working in rural areas. The Act was eventually amended in 1949, one year after the National Party won the 1948 election. However, no substantive changes were made.

In 1949, eligibility for the Unemployment Insurance Fund for Black South Africans was excluded to individuals working in fully urbanized, formal employment. Black South Africans in rural areas, and all individuals in casual employment, were made ineligible. Few substantive changes were made following the 1949 amendment act.

In the 1980s, the legislation was amended several times to account for independence granted to the ‘Bantustans’ or ‘homelands’ (although their independence was never recognized by any other government), which were geographically secluded and administratively separate regions that Black South Africans were forcibly moved to according to ethno-linguistic groupings. The legislation replaced the exclusion of rural workers with the exclusion of individuals in the Bantustans – the logic being that neither were citizens of South Africa and therefore were ineligible for state assistance.  

I locate these exclusions within the South African Marxist tradition which situates the development of racial segregation in the demands of capitalist expansion. In 1972, Harold Wolpe, a South African exile who escaped prison after the Rivonia Trial in 1963, wrote what would later be considered a key text in the South African tradition of radical political economy (Wolpe, 1972). Drawing from Rosa Luxemburg’s dual economy thesis, Wolpe theorized the development of segregation and apartheid in ways that we would now understand as racial capitalism – a term which was first used by South African exiles Martin Legassick and David Hemson, and famously theorized by Cedric Robinson in his magnum opus, Black Marxism: The Making of the Black Radical Tradition.

Wolpe posited that racial segregation enabled the demands of capitalist expansion by allowing the capitalist economy to exploit the subsistence economy in the ‘reserves’ by fixing wages below the level of subsistence, owing to the presumption that the worker’s subsistence could be met through support from the extended family (whether or not this was actually true in practice). This underpinned the migrant labour system which was a cornerstone of the South African economy.

This process was necessarily gendered in that it was almost entirely men who were engaged in migrant work while women were forced to fill the subsistence roles in the reserves. This logic was used by the colonial state to justify the exclusion of migrant and rural workers from the unemployment insurance system. The cost of labour would be lower if neither employers nor the government had to contribute to the unemployment insurance on their behalf.

Mahmood Mamdani’s Citizen and Subject is particularly useful in grappling with how social welfare legislation fit within the larger colonial project of racial segregation beyond the demands of capitalist expansion (1996). Mamdani describes the colonial state as a bifurcated power where individuals in urban areas were seen as citizens and were fully incorporated into the state’s institutions, including unemployment insurance, whereas individuals in rural areas were viewed as subjects and ruled through customary law.

This involved a racialization of individuals in urban areas and a ‘tribalization’ of individuals in rural areas

This involved a racialization of individuals in urban areas and a ‘tribalization’ of individuals in rural areas, or the reserves (and later, ‘Bantustans’). This created a distinction between ‘modern’ and ‘pre-modern’; ‘civilized’ and ‘tribalized’; and formal and informal. In all cases, the latter was perceived as the former’s negation.

Post-1994 Unemployment Security System

The exclusions laid in the period between 1937 and 1949 largely characterized the unemployment insurance system until it was revised in 2001, seven years after the end of apartheid. The 2001 legislation incorporated all employees, regardless of whether workers were in rural or urban areas. However, it did nothing to incorporate informal employees. The state also resisted efforts to include unemployed adults in the social grant system.

As early as 1998, a universal basic income was raised by the Congress of South African Trade Unions (COSATU) – the trade union which makes up one of the parties of the governing Tripartite alliance with the African National Congress and the South African Communist Party. After the idea was raised by COSATU, the government commissioned the Taylor Committee in 2000 to investigate gaps in the cash transfer system and deliver policy recommendations.  In 2002, the Taylor Committee proposed a Basic Income Grant of R100 to be paid each month to all South African citizens. The proposal had considerable support from civil society and led to the creation of the BIG coalition. Yet, the proposal was ultimately rejected due to concerns about ‘dependency’ and questions about affordability.

Following the rejection of the BIG, the debate about basic income has been largely absent from policy discussions (Hallink, 2021). However, with the onset of Covid-19 pandemic, working-age adults were suddenly made eligible for a cash transfer under the ‘emergency coronavirus grant’. It would provide R350 to all unemployed adults not currently receiving a grant. Individuals who had been unemployed far before the onset of the pandemic were suddenly made eligible for a cash transfer, albeit temporarily.

Once there was a ‘legitimate’ external cause for South Africans’ unemployment status, social grants were considered appropriate for the unemployed (Ibid). The emergency Coronavirus grant was set to be replaced by a basic income grant; however, the emergency grant lapsed on the 30th of April 2021 and no announcements were made about the introduction of the promised basic income. The SRD was reintroduced after nationwide unrest in July and currently remains in place. However, the grant could be ended at any time without a warning.

Until we reckon with the legacies of colonial social welfare legislation, the existing unemployment security system will continue to reproduce stratification and socio-economic inequality

The urban/rural division that was institutionalized during segregation and apartheid was not about the geographical division simply put but was a shorthand for separating fully ‘modernized’ or ‘urbanized’ Black South Africans from so-called ‘tribal’ Black South Africans, both ontologically and physically. The division between formal and informal remains, but it transcends the geographical distinction made by colonial policy-makers. Until we reckon with the legacies of colonial social welfare legislation, the existing unemployment security system will continue to reproduce stratification and socio-economic inequality in post-colonial South Africa.


(1) The apartheid state introduced four racial categories. The categories ‘Black’, ‘Coloured’ (a category with a complicated history that is now often simplistically reduced to mean ‘mixed race’), ‘Indian/Asian’ and ‘White’ are still used today.


African Social Security Agency. “A statistical summary of social grants in South Africa, February.” Pretoria: SASSA, 2018.

Hallink, C. “South Africa’s time for a basic income grant has come – but the ANC is still apprehensive and non-committal.” Daily Maverick, 2 February 2021. Retrieved from

Mamdani, M. Citizen and Subject: Contemporary Africa and the Legacy of Late Colonialism. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1996.

Rogan, M. & C. Skinner, “The size and structure of the South African informal sector 2008-2014: a labour-force analysis.” In The South African Informal Sector: Creating jobs, reducing poverty, edited by F. Fourie, 77-102. Cape Town: HSRC Press, 2018. Retrieved from .  

Statistics South Africa. “Quarterly Labour Force Survey, Q1: 2021.” Pretoria: Republic of South Africa, 2021. Retrieved from .  

Wolpe, H. “Capitalism and cheap labour-power in South Africa” in Segregation and Apartheid in Twentieth-Century South Africa, edited by W. Beinart & S. Dubow, 60-90. London: Taylor & Francis, 1995.

Courtney Hallink is a PhD candidate in the Department of Sociology at the University of Cambridge. She previously completed her master’s at the University of Cape Town. Courtney’s research examines how the legacy of colonial unemployment insurance legislation affects the racialization of social citizenship in post-colonial South Africa. In other words, she asks how social welfare policies implemented during Segregation and Apartheid continue to create and reinforce stratification (both intentionally and unintentionally) in the post-1994 era. Courtney’s research is situated in current debates about the extension of South Africa’s social grant system to unemployed adults and the implementation of a basic income.

Header Image Credit: Jason Leung, Unsplash


Hallink, Courtney 2021. ‘The Legacy of Colonial Social Welfare Legislation’ Discover Society: New Series 1 (4):

NHS Apartheid: On resisting NHS charges for overseas visitor healthcare

Kathryn Medien

Following the 2014 Immigration Act, there was a broadening of pre-existing National Health Service charges for ‘overseas visitors.’ This expanded the group of people deemed chargeable for secondary health care, made provisions for charging at 150% of the cost to the NHS, and saw the introduction of the ‘immigration health surcharge’ for those applying for a visa to live and work in UK.

For residents with insecure immigration status, the entrenching of border controls within the NHS and the attendant financialisation of healthcare has functioned as deterrent, preventing migrants from accessing necessary medical treatment for fear of subsequent debt collector and Home Office involvement.

Indeed, not only do many NHS trusts outsource debt collection to private agencies but, through the stipulation that patient details can be passed on to the Home Office if healthcare debt is outstanding for more than two months, accessing vital medical care can now lead to visa refusal, detention and deportation.

These passport checks and charges, which form part of the broader hostile environment policies, have been fiercely critiqued and resisted by patients, medical practitioners, and other campaigns and organisations, where calls have centred on ending this policy and abolishing the hostile environment more broadly. However, less discussed is how current charges for NHS secondary care draw upon on an earlier iteration of NHS passport checks and charges for migrant health care, first introduced in October 1982.

activists framed their resistance such that it allows us to draw out the connections between internal bordering within the British welfare state and the ongoing legacies of empire and colonialism

This short article recovers this earlier policy and details how it was understood and resisted by migrant organisations and community activists. Drawing on archival research, I suggest that activists framed their resistance such that it allows us to draw out the connections between internal bordering within the British welfare state and the ongoing legacies of empire and colonialism, both here and elsewhere. Such understandings may help us better grapple with how passport checks and charges within the British welfare state today inherit their logics from colonial governance.

Health Charges for Overseas Visitors, 1982

In 1981, the UK Government announced their intention to introduce passport checks and charges for overseas visitors’ NHS treatment, with responsibility placed on healthcare providers to recuperate outstanding debt. This was to be done through an amendment to Section 121 of the NHS Act 1977 and, similar to current charging regulations, excluded various treatments including sexually transmitted and contagious diseases, treatment for those detained under the Mental Health Act, and treatment in accident and emergency departments. The announcement was justified through claims of alleged widespread abuse of the health service by foreign nationals. As a result, the government suggested that the policy would save the NHS £5 million a year.

While the introduction of NHS charges for overseas visitors was officially framed through discourses of health tourism, a discourse more recently described as a racist ‘baseless myth to support the supposed need to exclude people from accessing the NHS’, they were also situated within a broader context in which the rights of racialised migrants in Britain were being eroded through the Nationality Act 1981.

The 1981 Act built on previous immigration acts (1962, 1971) and sought to recreate British citizenship through abolishing birth right and making citizenship dependent on direct descended connection to the UK. In effect, the Act removed former citizens of British Empire from the category ‘British’, thus characterizing citizenship in Britain as racialized (Tyler, 2010). As a result, a number of restrictive policies were introduced that sought to make services conditional on citizenship and residency, introducing passport checks into healthcare, social security, housing, and elsewhere.

the move to restrict certain migrants from healthcare provision also functioned to deny them access to resources derived from colonial extraction

In the specific context of the NHS, which had and continues to benefit from the labour of Commonwealth migrant workers, the move to restrict certain migrants from healthcare provision also functioned to deny them access to resources derived from colonial extraction. Indeed, as Gurminder Bhambra has argued, ‘taxation in colonial dependencies and resource extraction and appropriation continue to be part of the explanation for the growth of the resources available for the establishment of the domestic welfare state’. The implementation of passport checks and charges for NHS care, both in the 1980s and now, should be situated within this broader colonial history, and understood as both instances of racist surveillance and restriction and as a policy that facilitates continued colonial dispossession (El-Enany, 2020).

The 1981 announcement of NHS passport checks and charges was met with widespread criticism from trade unions, medical practitioners, migrant organisations, and law centres. The National Union of Students (NUS) and the United Kingdom Council for Overseas Student Affairs (UKCOSA) called for international students to be treated as a ‘special case’ and exempted from NHS charges.

A report published by UKCOSA in December 1981, Overseas Students and the NHS: The Wrong Prescription, called for NHS charges for overseas students to be scrapped, claiming that they would be racially discriminatory in practise and that they would be ‘a first-step in an insurance-based health service for all’ (1981, 19). The report also noted that ‘the saving of £5m is calculated to be less than 0.04% of the health budget and the Health Authorities themselves have expressed scepticism as to whether any saving will be made’ (1981, 14).

The NUS International Students Campaign called a day of action against the charges, held on January 29th 1982. The day included picket lines outside hospitals, the lobbying of MPs, and evening gigs to raise awareness and campaign funds. In February 1982 Norman Foster, then Secretary of State for Social Services, announced an amendment to the original NHS charging proposal whereby all visitors, including international students, who had resided in the UK for over a year would exempt, as would international students already residing in the UK.

However, despite these concessions, on October 1st 1982 NHS charges for overseas visitors came into effect.

No Pass Laws to Health!

In response to the introduction of NHS charging regulations, a number of local campaigns arose that sought to resist them. One such group and the focus of this section, No Pass Laws to Health, formed as a coalition of law centres and migrant organisations in North London and sought to document and resist passport checks and charges.

The campaign took their name – No Pass Laws to Health – from the pass law regime of Apartheid South Africa, a system of governance that has its roots in British colonialism. Requiring Black and other racialised workers to carry pass books with them at all times in order to access employment and land, the pass law regime sought to maintain racial segregation and dispossession within a white supremacist state, while also securing the provision of cheap Black labor. In other words, pass laws functioned to produce and maintain a system of racial capitalism.

The use of pass laws as a frame to apprehend internal border controls within 1980s Britain, in my view, allowed important connections to be drawn between tactics of racialising and colonial governance in post-colonial Britain and elsewhere. This is an important framing in the context of the Nationality Act 1981. Indeed, if we understand NHS charging regulations to be part of a larger state project functioning to deny citizenship and rights to certain formerly colonised populations and to prevent those populations from accessing resources derived from colonial extraction, then colonialism, racial capitalism and anti-colonial resistance are vital frameworks within which to situate and resist internal border controls in post-colonial Britain.

the No Pass Laws to Health campaign argued that passport checks and charges within the NHS were racist and anti-working class

In their public facing materials, the No Pass Laws to Health campaign argued that passport checks and charges within the NHS were racist and anti-working class; they functioned to divide the workforce along lines of race, resulting in the creation of a colour bar within the health service. They raised concerns that the policy functioned to turn health workers into agents of the Hone Office, ushing in a in a regime of racial profiling. The group also noted the disproportionate impact that the policy would have on migrant women because of the gendered nature of reproductive labour; women ‘have to go to the hospital more often then men, not only for reasons of their own health but the responsibility for ensuring that sick and injured children generally falls on their shoulders’.

Working with trade unions, migrant organisations and individuals effected by the policy, the campaign’s work was varied. On December 12th 1982 they held a conference at City Hall, London, which brought together trade unions medical professionals and community organisations. Through law centres they collated instances of charging and supported cases. The campaign also created information and advice leaflets, which were translated into Arabic, Bengali, Greek, Spanish, Tagalog, Turkish, Urdu, among other languages.

As the campaign continually argued, the NHS charges for overseas visitors were unlikely to generate significant revenue. And unlike todays hostile envionment, this earlier iteration of NHS charges were not a statutory duty. Thus, burdened with the signifcant costs of administering the passport checks and charges, along with continued resistance from unions, healthcare workers, and the affected pateients, by 1984 many hospitals had dropped the charging regime having made a fianncial loss.  


While the 1980s fight against border controls within the NHS wasn’t ‘won’ in any spectacular way, the support that campaign groups provided undoubtably played a role in helping those affected navigate the charges. Moreover, in the context of the No Pass Laws to Health campaign, the framing of passport checks and racialised welfare restriction as akin to colonial and apartheid systems of governance offers us fertile ground through which to connect and analyse struggles against border controls and racialised surveillance globally. Indeed, while South Africa’s pass law regime officially ended in 1986, scholars have traced its many afterlives to a variety of systems of racialised governance that seek to control movement such that exploitation and appropriation are facilitated – from the Israeli ID card regime used to classify and control Palestinian movement, to the US guest worker visa programme and European visa regimes (Clarno, 2017; Hahamovitch, 2013).

it is vital that we frame our demands for universal healthcare outside of a nationalist frame

At a time when ‘NHS nationalism’ – the widespread public supporting and celebrating of the NHS as a patriotic symbol of modern Britain – is prevalent, it is vital that we frame our demands for universal healthcare outside of a nationalist frame, recognising the active role that British empire played in determining the very existence of the NHS, who is excluded from healthcare and where those tactics of exclusion inherit their logics from. In recovering this 1980s history of health charges for overseas visitors, we are reminded that current internal border controls are not new, but rather that they build on earlier restrictions and Britain’s colonial legacies. Moreover, in connecting Britain’s internal borders to other forms of racist restriction and control, we must remain vigilant that the fight against racist governance is not a nationalist fight, but rather one in common with subjugated populations globally.


All images were taken at the Joint Council for the Welfare of Immigrants (JCWI) archives located in the Hull History Centre. They are printed with permission from JCWI.


Bhambra, G.K. (2021). Colonial global economy: towards a theoretical reorientation of political economy. Review of International Political Economy, 28(2): 307-322. DOI:

Clarno, A. (2017) Neoliberal Apartheid: Palestine/Israel and South Africa after 1994. University of Chicago Press. DOI: 10.7208/chicago/9780226430126.001.0001

El-Enany, N. (2020). (B)ordering Britain: law, race and empire. Manchester University Press. DOI:

Hahamovitch, C. (2013) No Man’s Land: Jamaican guestworkers in America and the global history of deportable labor. Princeton University Press. DOI: 10.23943/princeton/9780691102689.001.0001

Tyler, I. (2010) Designed to fail: A biopolitics of British citizenship. Citizenship Studies, 14(1): 61-74. DOI:

Kathryn Medien is a Lecturer in Sociology at The Open University.

Header Image Credit: Joint Council for the Welfare of Immigrants


Medien, Kathryn 2021. ‘NHS Apartheid: On resisting NHS charges for overseas visitor healthcare’ Discover Society: New Series 1 (4):

Welfare, Improvement, Reparations

Stefano Harney & Willem Schinkel


In 1936, Dutch legal scholar A.H. Böhm published a dissertation titled The Right to Colonization (Het recht van kolonisatie). In it, he deals with Francisco de Vitoria’s legitimation of Spanish colonial conquest in the early 16th century. Vitoria occupies a crucial position in the legal justification of colonization, invoking, according to many for the first time, a formulation of jus gentium – the law of nations – as its underpinning of that justification.

As Vitoria argues, there can be no justification of conquest on the basis solely of religious arguments, or on the basis of the idea that the colonized are not human, or are human to a lesser degree. The colonized could not be considered ‘natural slaves’ in the Aristotelian sense, as Sépulveda would argue soon after Vitoria’s death in the (in)famous Valladolid debate with Las Casas.

The manoeuvre Vitoria performs is to include the indigenous populations of the Americas (so called, barbari) not only in his definition of humanity, but also in the jus gentium or law of the peoples. The latter is especially important, because it has the effect of binding them to recognition of the right to free passage of Europeans, the ius peregrinandi et degendi. It also means that Europeans, once being (in Vitoria’s view) legally enabled to set foot on indigenous lands, they could also have the right to any resources they accessed first.

For Böhm, writing in the 1930s, Vitoria provides a way to justify the Dutch conquest and continued colonial domination of the Dutch East Indies, but he does so in a way that modifies the argument in his conclusion. There, the ‘wellbeing’ of both colonizer and colonized is argued as being crucially at stake in the continuation of colonization. As Böhm says:

“The colonial relation in modern society finds its legitimation (…) solely in the demands of public wellbeing. First in the wellbeing of the colonized people, which could not maintain and further develop its established cultural and economic standing (…) While this people has the obligation to effectively pursue its own wellbeing, it also has the obligation to accept the only means to do so, namely the lead of the colonizer, and in this same fact the colonizer finds the right to lead” (1936: 186)

Wellbeing is understood by Böhm as encompassing both material wellbeing, and (Christian) cultural and moral wellbeing. In consequence, it involved both labour legislation and education and family policies.

It is not difficult to discern in this image of the colonial state the contours of the modern welfare state. Indeed, as Ann Laura Stoler (2010) has shown, the Dutch Indies were a testing ground for what would now be called welfare policies – in particular those related to moral hygiene – later implemented in the Netherlands, and this is a more general feature of European colonial conquest.

In 1818, Dutch general Johannes van den Bosch founded a number of ‘colonies’ in the north of the Netherlands to house and discipline the poor. These colonies, where Dutch urban poor were placed to work the rough peat soil, were called the ‘Society for Benevolence’ (Maatschappij van Weldadigheid). They would be taken over by the Dutch state in 1859.

In 2021, several of them (including one that continues to operate as a prison) were raised to the status of a UNESCO World Heritage site, in part, according to the provincial government of Drenthe, because they represent the beginnings of the welfare state. As a provincial politician said:

“The colonies were a social experiment in fighting poverty. They can be a sign of hope for humanity in trying to improve the circumstances of the poor and vulnerable.”

Accounts of these ‘domestic’ colonies take care to distinguish between ‘free’ and ‘unfree’ colonies – a distinction likely relevant for those who associate liberalism with freedom – but the more fundamental issue is the attempt at subject formation by way of improvement. Johannes van den Bosch didn’t come up with a plan for the colonies out of nowhere: he came up with it in the colonial Dutch East Indies, where he had served between 1798 and 1808, and to where he would return in 1827, ultimately to become governor general.

These two sketches highlight the role played by ideas and practices of ‘inclusion’ and ‘improvement’ in the connections between welfare and coloniality. What Vitoria provides is the pharmakon of property, that comes with a poisoned gift of inclusion. The recognition of always already having had the natural right of property, dominium civile et verum dominium, involves a disingenuous generosity of not being named natural slaves in the Aristotelian sense. Vitoria held that nothing could take away the dominium of the indigenous. So, too, did Vitoria include indigenous Americans in the ‘virtual consensus’ (virtuali consensu totius orbi), the tacit agreement of all men that established the jus gentium, the law of nations or of peoples.

In what Denise Ferreira da Silva (2007) calls a ‘scene of regulation’, the law of peoples establishes the universality of dominium, of the propertied self. Inclusion in this Stoic cosmopolitanism, a cosmopolitanism Ashley Bohrer (2018) has called ‘color-blind’, means suffering the consequences of the imposition of the idea of a single world, a single humankind. It involves the imposition of subjectivity not merely as natural law, but as something to be developed and improved, a propertied subjectivity that commits one to imposing on earth and others the activity of governance and improvement.

This pharmakon of inclusion in a universal order of property is a manoeuvre repeated again and again. Another example would be the ‘imposition of severalty’ in the United States, the breaking up of communal land and the introduction of individuated property titles, giving rise to a fractionation of land and, ultimately, the dispossession of native Americans precisely as a consequence of being given the gift of possessive individualism. Improvement, here, is the name of something that proves to be genocidal, something that configures itself as inevitable, and as all-inclusive.

The argument from improvement – or development – is of course very much alive today. The trap here is to get sucked into such discourse, to weigh the scales and assess the balance, or even to argue against improvement, which means to still reside in the orbit of improvement, necessarily having to accept all that it entails.

Welfare and/as improvement

Welfare is of the order of this pharmakon of inclusion and improvement or, as its neoliberal version has it, of ‘activation’: a poisoned gift, a ruse that sweetens the raw deal of the destruction of solidarity across lines drawn by race and class, lines historically constituted by ongoing colonial divides. Welfare is one mode of racial capitalism’s suppression of class-conflict. In the West, welfare included workers in racial capitalism as ‘middle class’, a name for the acceptance of what is considered inevitable, or as Anthony Reed (2021: 107) says: middle class is “less a relationship to the means of production than an affective relation to the current order of things.”

This is why welfare states start to become subject to retrenchment when non-white populations start to benefit ‘disproportionately’ – a retrenchment in steady step with the revamping of welfare state as a punitive and carceral state, which, however, does come equipped to process surplus lives.

Welfare, built on the riches of colonial conquest, is one name for the historically particular settlement that white workers, in Du Bois’s account (1962 [1935]: 700-701), struck with capital: break up solidarity across racial lines, and participate in accumulation, however slightly and mostly through a ‘psychological wage’. That settlement, which did not involve enrolling race into the workings of capital but was a historically particular configuration of race and/as capital, has been undercut by neoliberalization.

In this reconfiguration, welfare is increasingly recoded not as racialized pacification of class struggle but as the racial economy through which colonized and postcolonial populations are managed. But still, whether as welfarist ‘participation’, ‘activation’ or ‘(immigrant) integration’, improvement lingers on, as an imposition on lives marked by a lack, as if it is not incompleteness we share. But what if we didn’t consider welfare as improvement, but rather as a particular historical configuration of what has been stolen from us in the first place?

Welfare in Marxism

Let’s recall the analysis of welfare and the welfare state we inherit from Marxism. There are two ways of looking at welfare based on the undoubted insights of a Marxist analysis with all its features, including attention to class struggle, to historical change and specificity, and to the inseparability of the political and the economic at the moment liberalism separates them ideologically, which is to say, also our moment. Broadly speaking, one insight foregrounds the economic in relation to the political, and the other the political in relation to the economic and at their most piercing, political economy retains its integrity.

From the privilege of the political, a Marxist analysis will offer us two diagnoses. First, that whatever welfare rights or entitlements exist are not in fact the result of a political process at all, understood in the liberal sense. Rather, whatever welfare state exists, that state exists as a truce in a war, a war between the classes.  It is a settlement, a result of both the capitalist class suing for peace, and the exhaustion of the armies of the workers. This insight – that the welfare state is nothing as beneficent as a social contract nor much less the result of a disputation of the public sphere – is one of Marxism’s enduring critiques. It reaches its apex in the work of Nicos Poulantzas (1978) who subsumes the state as a whole in this war, subsumes it in a class struggle ‘on the field of the state.’ Poulantzas also allows us to situate this battle stilled by the welfare truce within the larger war over society versus property. Nonetheless this critique sits somewhat uneasily with Marxism’s other political insight.

In the second of its political critiques, again welfare does not appear as either a policy initiative of the modern state, nor a modernized paternalism. Instead, elements of the welfare state are put in place to prevent a war on society itself. We say this critique sits somewhat awkwardly with the first because it risks veering in one of two directions. Retaining its sense of antagonism this critique has been pioneered and developed by Marxist feminists who point to the struggles around domestic social reproduction. Scholars in the black radical tradition join Marxist feminist scholars in seeing social reproduction as the prime site, expanding the social reproduction of capital to its base in the crucible of forced labor camps of enslaved Africans, and the iterations of these camps throughout the colonial world.

This change of protagonist raises questions for the first critique, as has been justly well-rehearsed. But so too does veering in the other direction. This other direction is the direction of Keynesianism, of bourgeois sociology more generally, and emphasizes the necessity of the welfare state for the functioning of capital, to secure further accumulation of both labor and capital. It obviously veers in functionalism but at the same time it would wrong to deny any agency to the capitalist state, which does indeed, however ineptly and with however diminished a capacity, function. The place of the wages of whiteness critique, first advanced by W.E.B. Du Bois, also operates in this ambiguity, leading some to think of race, against Du Bois’s historicization, as functional to capitalism, and thus also to welfare state capitalism. Cedric Robinson (1983) famously corrects this functionalist error. Race may appear to function for capitalism. Robinson shows us instead it functions as capitalism.

Finally, there is the Marxist insight achieved by focusing on the economic. Here welfare benefits and rights come to be understood, like the vote, as something returned to workers having been stolen from them in the workplace. The socialized labor of the worker, like the social control of the worker, is expropriated for private gain and private power. Rather than seeing benefits at work, or welfare from the state, as gains, they are in a sense always losses. Some fundamental sociality is first forced into a social relation for capital, and then robbed both of its originary, though not original, sociality, and of its latest version in the workplace and in its forcefully rearranged social reproduction of the worker in that workplace. Welfare and benefits of any kind can then only be seen as an inadequate compensation for this loss.


There is of course a word for the inadequate compensation for fundamental loss. That word is reparations. Scholars of domestic social reproduction and slave revolts alike already point to the incalculable loss, the uncountable debt of both sides of capital’s movement. In its ongoing primitive accumulation and in its ongoing socialization, its fist and its glove it destroys ways of life, even the ones it encourages. The scholars of reparations begin from another impossibility than that of Marxist analysis. It is not the impossibility of settling for welfare. It is the impossibility of settling.

The great insight we gain from the scholars of reparations is that to win is not to get back everything owed, everything stolen, or even to take what is yours, including when what is yours is the state. What it would mean to win is to be able to dwell in the incalculable, the impossibility of accounting either for loss or for love. In order to press for that victory, scholars of reparations make the case for the necessity of being repaid, being compensated, at the very time they make the argument that this debt can never be either calculated or repaid.

This is the brilliance of Sir Hilary Beckles’ report on and tireless commitment to reparations for Caribbean nations. He demands an accounting of horrific historical theft, and at the same time preempts the settlement of an account by insisting that nothing could be adequate. He thus makes it impossible for anyone delivering reparations to receive credit for matching the debt.

Something similar is playing out below the surface and superficiality of the politics of education in the United States today. Members of the Republican Party in the US are appealing to white supremacist parents of children in schools, claiming that schools are teaching ‘critical race theory’ and teaching white children to see themselves as oppressors. Journalists note that no such curriculum exists in the many places the political disputes arise. Journalists report again and again that the claims by Republicans that teachers are teaching critical race theory are unfounded. 

But the journalists are wrong. Critical race theory is being taught in the schools, just not in the curriculum, as it is, and always has been, taught in the family, the neighborhood, and in popular culture. Those parents have every reason to fear for their white supremacist ideology. And indeed, it is being taught the way it should be taught, without school credits, as part of a perpetual debt, and as a debt that cannot be calculated or resolved. Critical race theory is the other side of the Movement for Black Lives, the undercommons of that movement. While the movement demands justice, in the undercommons of that movement, there will never be anything like sufficient justice, sufficient reparations.

What the scholars of reparations and the critical race theorists of black social life teach us is something more than a correction or relocation of the war itself, though correction and repair also animate their daily struggles. And indeed, this incalculability is often to be found below the surface of those who appear to be only correcting or relocating the antagonism. Perhaps nowhere is it found more fruitfully than in the studies of the welfare rights movement in the United States in the 1960’s and 1970’s, a movement led by black women, many of them recipients of welfare benefits.

Their stories are told by scholars like Premilla Nadasen, Annelise Orleck, Mary E. Triece, and, of course, Francis Fox Piven. The beauty of their leadership, their struggle, and their demands is that they retain the affect of an incalculable debt, but also offer the demand of a compensation in welfare benefits that defies the moral framework of credit and debt. Even when they appeal to the logic of the welfare state, they also insist they need what they need. Theirs is a call to bring the incalculable into the daily struggle.

And the call is this: that social life will gather under the sign of the incalculable both of loss and of love, as indeed it already does under unthinkable duress amongst those who both seek repair and reject its settlement as inadequate to what they know they have even when they do not have access to it.


Böhm, A.H. 1936. Het recht van kolonisatie. Francisco de Vitoria’s lessen over het recht tot koloniseeren in verband met de Spaansche kolonisatie, het optreden der pausen en het internationale recht [The right to colonization. Francisco de Vitoria’s lessons on the right to colonize in relation to the Spanish colonization, the action of the popes and the international law], Utrecht: Oosthoek’s Uitgevers-Maatschappij.

Bohrer, A. 2018. ‘Color-Blind Racism in Early Modernity: Race, Colonization, and Capitalism in the Work of Francisco de Vitoria’, Journal of Speculative Philosophy 32(3): 388-399. DOI:

Da Silva, D. 2007. Toward a Global idea of Race, Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.

Du Bois, W.E.B. 1962 [1935]. Black Reconstruction in America, 1860-1880, New York: The Free Press.

Poulantzas, N. 1978. Classes in Contemporary Capitalism, London: Verso.

Reed, A. 2021. Soundworks: Race, Sound and Poetry in Production, Durham: Duke University Press.

Robinson, C.J. 1983. Black Marxism. The Making of the Black Radical Tradition, Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press.

Stoler, A.L. 2010. Carnal Knowledge and Imperial Power. Race and the Intimate in Colonial Rule, Berkeley: University of California Press.

Stefano Harney is Professor of Transversal Aesthetics at the Academy of Media Arts Cologne, Germany

Willem Schinkel is Professor of Social Theory at Erasmus University Rotterdam, the Netherlands

Header Image Credit: ‘An administrator’s house in the Veenhuizen colony with the edifying statement ‘kennis is macht’: ‘knowledge is power’.’ Wikimedia Commons


Harney, Stefano and Willem Schinkel 2021. ‘Welfare, Improvement, Reparations’ Discover Society: New Series 1 (4):