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Truth and falsehoods in the Trojan Horse scandal

Shereen Fernandez

“And yet the work of reporting on the Clarke report, aka Britain’s official narrative of the case, was emptying. Sitting there surrounded by documents, I struggled to imagine what other group of people you could do this to in Britain and get away with it. Trying to come to terms with how worthless people must think we are, that they’ll be comfortable assembling an official report riddled with errors and mistruths, submitting it to parliament, sharing it with prominent journalists to write articles about, all with no expectation that people wouldn’t believe them.” Hamza Syed, Trojan Horse Affair, Serial/ NYT podcast

These are Hamza Syed’s reflections on the Clarke report, commissioned by the Department of Education to assess the allegations about Birmingham schools made in the ‘Trojan Horse’ letter. Peter Clarke was the former head of counterterrorism at Scotland Yard and was selected by Michael Gove for this job. An anonymous letter informing Birmingham City Council about a plot to ‘Islamify’ schools was now in the hands and realm of counterterrorism, despite the overwhelming opinion (including of Clarke himself) that the letter was a hoax. You can hear Hamza’s frustration with the report but also the overall handling of the Trojan Horse scandal. And as he rightly says, what other group of people could you do this to in Britain and get away with it?

The Clarke report is just one of many reports which has dictated the relationship between Muslims and the state in an era of counterterrorism. The UK’s counterterrorism infrastructure depends on documents. To quote Hamza again, we are surrounded by documents. Documents which outline how Muslim communities have failed to integrate, reports that Muslims are driven by an ideological violence that potentially leads to terrorism, and guidance for schools and other public institutions on how to handle the issue of extremism and radicalisation, again largely perceived to be a Muslim problem. It’s often hard to keep track but the narrative is well established. Nevertheless, it took a podcast from Serial and the New York Times to sift through the countless documents and confirm the toxic relationship between Muslims in Britain and the state which continues to grip communities.

As you listen to the podcast, it’s clear that the truth did not matter to the authorities. It did not matter that the letter was a hoax, it did not matter that it wasn’t clear who wrote the letter and for what purposes. These schools were infested with power-driven individuals who would do anything to cling onto the power they had at the expense of staff considered more inferior to them. At the end of the day, it is the children who suffered from the fallout of the scandal and continue to do so, with many former students reluctant to put the names of their schools on their CVs due to any possible repercussions. Being a Muslim in these spaces associated you with potential extremism, whether you were a student or a staff member. Muslim staff members who were driven out of schools even before the Trojan Horse affair came to light refused to speak to Hamza or Brian, the other co-host of the podcast, for fears of what could happen. Their refusal to engage was to protect themselves from the brutal British media who were adamant that an Islamist inspired takeover of schools took place. 

Of course with the rollout of the Prevent Duty since 2015, this had wider consequences for Muslims in the education sector. It was no longer confined to Birmingham. Officials within Prevent will cite that the Duty is about all forms of extremism, including the Far Right. The purpose is to show that those racialised as Muslims are certainly not being singled out by this measure which aims to safeguard individuals from the threat of terrorism, which again is legislated towards the mass. They will argue that it is about vulnerability rather than race.

I often think about Nadya Ali’s (2020: 580) piece on Prevent’s racialised borders, in which she argues that “Prevent operates through racialized understandings of radicalization and extremism that ‘border’ (van Houtum et al., 2005) Muslim populations as a suspect community representing a threat to white Britain, while individualizing the violence of white supremacists as the work of ‘lone wolves’”. This was certainly the issue in the Trojan Horse Affair, which collapsed Muslim identity in Britain to ‘Salafi’, ‘extremists’ and ‘Islamists’. Again, it didn’t matter that the allegations were disputed; it was merely the strong possibility that these educators could be all of the descriptors above, as influenced by political rhetoric and understandings of terrorism and extremism in a post-9/11 world.

I was a primary school teacher when the Trojan Horse affair was unfolding. As a recent hijab-wearing Muslim, I became conscious of my more visible Muslim identity. I was teaching 4 and 5 year olds at the time who were always so curious about my hijab and yet I would have to take several steps back as a ‘just in case’. This became a sort of insurance policy for Muslims who are teaching, working and learning in an era of pre-emptive policing. Ultimately I didn’t trust that I would be supported if a claim was made against me, especially considering how vague the term ‘extremism’ is. I’ve heard from many other Muslim practitioners who have acted in the same way, given how Muslims in public and private were demonised. This didn’t get any easier as time went by and it certainly was not an isolated incident.

Tarek Younis and Sushret Jadhav (2019) have documented how Prevent operates in the NHS, with specific attention given to how Muslim medical practictioners manage the policy. In their article, they found that Prevent training and Prevent in general depoliticised Muslim identity and disciplined Muslims to essentially ‘keep their mouths shut’. It did not matter if those Muslims in the Prevent training knew that they were being told falsehoods about their identity and beliefs. There are of course other Muslims who are willing to attest to the truth of these claims, that Islam is a violent religion, that there is an extremist problem in the community and so on.

So it is not at all surprising that there is an issue with trust. Our ability to trust authorities and public narratives was hindered further for Muslims by the the raft of measures and policies aimed at curbing the so-called ‘Muslim threat’. Trusting our nearest and dearest was compromised by the Prevent Duty, as reported by Open Society, and other Government initiatives such as parents reporting their children for potential extremism, following the travels of Shamima Begum, Amira Abase and Kadiza Sultana to Syria. The reason why Hamza embarked on this podcast project was because he simply did not trust the official narrative. How could he, when he’s being told that the city he lived in was littered with Muslim extremists waiting to take down schools?

In Part 6 of the podcast, we hear how conflicted Hamza is as a journalist but more importantly a Muslim journalist when investigating this story. Hamza keeps saying ‘I never believe…’ and is adamant to change the narrative which shaped counterterrorism and education policy in the UK. Distrust is a common feeling for many Muslims encountering the security state as a result of the War on Terror. From Prevent in the UK to the detainees held at Guantánamo Bay, it is far easier to distrust, than it is to trust, officials. In the latter case, there were guards force feeding detainees through tubes in their nose in the name of ‘healthcare’. Muslim chaplains, like James Yee, were brought into Guantánamo to act as a sounding board for distressed detainees but he was then imprisoned for espionage, spying and aiding the enemy because the US administration believed he had ulterior motives. He was released after spending 70 days mostly in solitary confinement. Even working alongside the state does not entitle you to being trusted. As Muslims caught in the webs of the War on Terror, we both distrust and are not trusted.

After listening to the podcast, I picked up Rizwaan Sabir’s book called The Suspect. Sabir was arrested whilst an MA student at the University of Nottingham in 2008 for possessing an Al Qaeda training manual as part of his research. The police believed its intended purposes were for terrorism, hence his arrest under Section 58 of the terrorism law which ‘criminalises the collection of information that is said to be useful to somebody who is preparing or committing terrorism’ (Sabir, 2022: 53). Although Rizwaan could prove this was not the case, he said that ‘a Muslim did not have to do much wrong to be viewed with suspicion or classified as a terrorist and disappeared into the matrix of counterterrorism…the only thing that seemed to matter was my Muslimness and how that connected me to terrorism in the eyes of the police’ (2022: 30).

This made me think a lot about the Trojan Horse Affair and how in some ways, it’s an expected response of the War on Terror. The suspicion that Muslims are faced with invades our everyday spaces, from our universities to schools to our GP surgeries in the UK. If you are believed to be affiliated with an organisation deemed to be ‘controversial’ or ‘untrustworthy’ by the Government then that is enough to deem you as suspicious. As mentioned earlier, even former students of Park View were scared to include the name of the school on their CVs. As Brian says in one of the episodes, “​​they don’t want potential employers to know where they went to school. They actually keep it off their resumes”. Affiliation to an ‘untrustworthy’ organisation for Muslims is risky business.

In her book Tangled in Terror (2022), Suhaiymah Manzoor-Khan recounts how the Henry Jackson Society felt her appearance on BBC Radio 4 was inappropriate because of her ‘affiliation’ to the organisation CAGE (2022: 149). Nothing ever came about but it was enough to show that Muslims are not free to work or engage in various work without scrutiny.

The Trojan Horse scandal (or hoax as many refer to it as) did not care much for the truth but what is true is that Islamophobia on the back of this affair continues to rage. Rather than see this affair as an isolated incident in Birmingham schools, it must be included in a broader conceptualisation of racism and policing. To deny these accounts, to deny that there is a problem with Islamophobia in society is to accept only one version of the truth, and that is that Muslims are not to be trusted.

But the Trojan Horse podcast did reassure listeners that there is space for truth and accountability, even if the ‘official’ narratives suggest otherwise. There is a desperate lack of transparency and accountability as the War on Terror continues to be experienced even 20 years on. Yet through our prodding and questioning, these official narratives – which have constructed Muslim communities as radical, risky and in need of securitisation – will start to unravel. Since the release of the podcast, I’ve noticed a revival in Muslim communities demanding justice for the wrongs of the Trojan Horse affair. From Twitter Spaces to social media posts, this is a community who have felt unheard because of their unfair dismissal and stigmatisation. There is a dire need to hear these voices, to listen to concerns and testimonies which speak against the narrative. And we too must help create and nurture those spaces.


Manzoor-Khan, S. 2022. Tangled in Terror. Pluto Press: UK

Sabir, R. 2022. The Suspect. Pluto Press: UK

Younis, T. and Jadhav, S. 2019. ‘Keeping Our Mouths Shut: The Fear and Racialized Self-Censorship of British Healthcare Professionals in PREVENT training’. Culture, Medicine and Psychiatry. 43: 404-42. DOI

Shereen Fernandez is an ESRC Postdoctoral Fellow in the Department of Sociology at LSE. She researches the impacts of counterterrorism and counter-extremism legislation on Muslims in Britain and is currently looking at the legal infrastructures of the War on Terror.

Header Image Credit:


Fernandez, Sheree 2022. ‘Truth and falsehoods in the Trojan Horse scandal’ Discover Society: New Series 2 (2): 

‘Secularism’, ‘religion’, and the public disciplining of nonconforming Muslim civic activism

Khadijah Elshayyal

Muslim civic activism has a history of posing challenge and discomfort to the British establishment. Back in 1989, at the height of the Rushdie affair, British Muslims were organising politically on a coordinated and highly visible national platform for the first time. Responding to their sustained protests and representations, the then Home Secretary, Douglas Hurd, delivered a speech at Birmingham Central Mosque. He acknowledged the pain that Muslims felt at gratuitous insult to their faith and sensibilities but the predominant emphasis of his speech was to lay down what acceptable and unacceptable forms of political engagement were. In his speech, protests were somewhat begrudgingly conceded to be legitimate, but, he declared, if Muslims really wanted to succeed, their priority was to eschew protest and ‘have a clear understanding of the history and institutions of Britain, of its democratic processes’ (Cited in Weller 2009).

By positioning violence and irrationality as the unacceptable alternative to adherence to the rule of law, Hurd’s overarching message was a call for Muslims to leave their (default) backwardness behind, and to toe the line that had been demarcated for them. Essentially, Hurd’s speech was a statement of ‘this is how we do things here’, an assertion that was echoed emphatically in the mainstream press and policy discourse (see, Thomas 2011). Their message was that public Muslimness is fine, so long as it doesn’t disrupt our (rational) liberal and secular sensibilities.

This is a theme which has endured and sharpened over time. Yet we can note that an irony of the British political class which promotes the impression that it doesn’t ‘do God’, is that actually, it does. We reassure ourselves that ours is not a militant secularism (as in France), and that neither are we overbearing or bombastic about it (as we perceive to be the case in US public life). Yet to think that the secularism of our public and political life is a guarantor of fairness or neutrality, is to ignore the foundational connection that the very notion of secularism has with justifying white supremacy.

Can we understand secularism, or indeed, European notions of ‘religion’, without considering their role in justifying European colonisation as a civilising mission, and how western Christianity was promoted as a superior worldview to the regressive ‘backwardness’ of the east? (Manzoor-Khan 2022)How does this inextricable connection bear out in the ways that civically active Muslims are received and their aspirations and arguments engaged with?

The Trojan Horse Affair (THA) presents us with an instructive and compelling case study affirming the longstanding reality of how the options and possibilities for Muslim civic activism are subject to exceptional preconditions – and that any departure from these constraints carries the threat of punishment in the form debilitating public humiliation and/or sanction.

Let us take for an example a key argument presented by barrister acting for the government in the legal cases against teachers implicated in the affair, namely that they were going “too far in inculcating their own vision of the cultural identity they wish these children to have.” (Trojan Horse Affair podcast, part 6)

This charge is built on an inaccurate and unaddressed assumption that state schools in England and Wales are supposed to be neutral spaces when it comes to religion and culture, and that these teachers were contravening this neutrality by promoting too much (Muslim) religion and culture. The assertion that these were ‘secular’ state schools was repeated throughout the Clarke report, and was most recently reiterated by Nick Timothy, who in the wake of the affair was successively Downing Street’s Chief of Staff and then a columnist at the Telegraph, and asserted that these were ‘secular state schools’.

But there is a glaring disingenuousness in this portrayal. Aside from the obvious complication that no critically honest observer of any curriculum or educational environment would concede its neutrality, we are left again with the question of what this highly prized value of secularism actually looks like. Since we are not like France or the US, there are no hard-and-fast rules about ‘secularism’ in non-denominational state-funded schools, schools like those in Birmingham’s Alum Rock, that were caught up in the THA. There is, however guidance about the nature of mandatory collective worship at such schools. This provision for regular worship stipulates that it should be ‘wholly or mainly Christian in nature’, unless individual schools are granted the ‘determination’ to depart from this arrangement.

Unsurprisingly, considering the overwhelmingly Muslim local populations that they serve, the schools implicated in the THA had sought and received such a determination. Park View had a ‘determination’ in place since 1997 and Islamic assemblies had long been an established element, receiving high praise in inspection reports of 2007 and 2012 (see Holmwood and O’Toole, 2018),  Deemed by recent Ofsted inspections to be highly successful, Park View and other schools’ converted to academy status that afforded them a greater degree of autonomy in curriculum and governance. School leaderships understood that their approach of validating and celebrating their pupils’ faith and culture was a legally uncontroversial way of building a safe, nurturing and motivational environment. On this understanding, activists such as Tahir Alam (then chair of governors at Park View) and others describe the decades of community service they had given to their local schools as driven by the hope and determination to lift their children out of a systemically predetermined track towards academic failure – one that they themselves had experienced and felt fortunate to have escaped against all odds.

Yet regardless of this background and context, inspectors and investigators operating under the unforgiving conditions of a hysterical witch-hunt were predisposed to understand the environment within the schools as being subjected to what the Clarke Report called, ‘undue religious influence’ and a ‘sustained and coordinated (ideological) agenda’.

Who could say which was the correct assessment? Who is to say what constitutes religious influence? Is it the provision of communal prayer facilities, accommodations made for fasting in Ramadan? Is it the content of assemblies, sensitivity or awareness shown to cultural or religious norms in class delivery or content? Is it the provision of Arabic and Urdu in the modern foreign languages curriculum? Who is to say what the parameters of ‘due’ and ‘undue’ in any of these areas would be? The answer to these questions is what tests the apparently widespread understanding among press and policy voices of secularism as neutrality.

Further, this question carries even sharper relevance in the Trojan Horse Affair if we consider revelation about the active role played by Humanists UK (HUK) in supporting ‘whistleblowers’ with their testimonies and grievances. HUK by its own account, is emphatically committed to secularism, adopting the same uncritical stance – that separation of religion and state is a guarantor of neutrality – that I mention above. It therefore had a vested interest in the portrayal of ‘Muslim influence’ in schools as harmful and negative. HUK’s commitment to the myth of secularism as some kind of great leveler amidst our messy diversity is oblivious to the structurally embedded exclusion and marginalisation that Muslims and other minoritised groups face. Thus, removing ‘religion’ from the public sphere, leaves us with a public sphere that has historically developed around presumptions of white and Christian normativity, and by extension, their superiority Goldberg 2006)– in short, one which has not intentionally interrogated its colonial past and present. Even the act of defining what constitutes ‘religion’ (and what should therefore be extricated from our public sphere in the process of secularisation) is one which is reserved to the very same state structures and authorities which have historically marginalised and excluded both in empire and in metropole.

We see this lack of self-awareness unfold spectacularly in the account given by Sue Packer, one of the whistleblowers supported by HUK. Built on a self-styled mission to save Muslim women from their oppressive menfolk, Packer herself trips and stumbles as she is confronted with the shoddiness of her own creative licence – admitting that she had not once consulted or even engaged with the Muslim women she was supposedly advocating for:

“I think it’s just because the women aren’t very good at speaking out.

I shouldn’t say the women, sorry.

A lot of women perhaps aren’t confident to speak out in that community, especially female Muslims.

I think there’s just sort of fear about speaking out.” Trojan Horse Affair podcast, part 5

Let’s zoom back out a little and consider David Cameron’s 2015 speech at Ninestiles Academy, also in Birmingham, which set out the imminent implementation of the Prevent Duty and to which a direct line can be drawn from the THA. Cameron’s discourse reiterated the framework and parameters for legitimacy and acceptability of Muslimness in the public space – a framework that had been set out time and again by preceding governments. Dissent and grievance were characterised as ideologically driven extremism – ‘the root cause of the threat we face’, and compliance with the policy direction of the security state tied to notions of loyalty and belonging.

The deployment of a duty to promote fundamental British values in schools as a yardstick with which to measure loyalty to the state (and therefore acceptability in the public space) was consistent with a longstanding state tactic of disciplining nonconforming civic actors who dare to imagine that they can engage and contribute to civic life in ways other than those which have been delineated for them by the political elites. Presented as well meaning, Cameron’s statements in 2015, like Hurd’s in 1989, were laced with patronising undertones and coloured by the power differential between an old Etonian government minister and a socioeconomically marginalised working-class Muslim community.

In the intervening years between 1989 through to the THA in 2014, these conditions for acceptable civic engagement have haunted Muslims time and again. Whether it is thrust upon them via the familiar periodic niqab ‘debate’, moral panics about gender segregation or ‘child hijab’, as innocuously as it might be framed, the demand to separate religion and state is impossible because it requires a sanitisation of one’s Muslimness as a precondition.

Civic engagement and activism are fine if they embody an unquestioning reverence to state institutions and the policy directions that inform them. Activism which isn’t alive to these parameters, or chooses to test them, is deemed a threat, and something to be ostracised. In the context of the THA, we can rephrase this: community engagement in the leadership and management of local schools was encouraged and applauded by the Conservatives’ academies programme, but when such engagement was found to have a Muslim ‘flavour’, it was considered a subversive threat. So we can see that the prejudice and unease around Muslim civic activism which primed the establishment to unquestioningly believe the hoax from which the THA mushroomed, was not exceptional. Rather it is a par for the course feature that Muslims active in the civic space routinely come face to face with.

A notable feature of this unease is how liberal politicians and commentators agonise over the question of what to do about Muslims who wear their faith on their sleeve. Muslim civic activism, in all its diversity, cannot help but resist the neat (if inaccurate) categorisation of the public sphere as neutral and the expectation that faith is left at the door. It might do so actively – by deliberately contesting received norms or the dominant direction of travel in politics and public life. Campaigns against the incursion of securitisation in the public and private lives of Muslims (and society more generally) offer many such examples.

Or it may resist this categorisation inadvertently and in spite of its best efforts. Again, we have countless examples of British Muslim public figures who may themselves make little of their Muslimness, or may downplay its relevance, even as they themselves support policies that demonise and target Muslim individuals, institutions and communities. Nonetheless, their mere presence in the civic space as identifiable with Muslimness otherises them, arouses suspicion and invites prejudice and discrimination.

This is a dilemma which continues to plague Britain and will persist, as long as these colonially rooted notions of ‘secular’ and ‘religion’ frame our discourse and policy. Ultimately, as understated and sensitive as we may believe our secularism to be, it remains a secularism that does not really know what to do with Muslim civic actors.

What can be done about a faith community that doesn’t play by the rules? A community whose religious belief and practice cannot be compartmentalised in ways that reassure and make us comfortable, and whose faith will not be depoliticised, in defiance of our best efforts? The ubiquity of such questions – expressed overtly or otherwise – means that Muslim civic actors are problematised before they even open their mouths – are they moderate or extreme? Are they native or foreign? Are they loyal or disloyal?

The persistence of such anxieties around Muslim civic activism, of a ‘Muslim problem’, if you will, means that any indicators of Muslim organising or networking can be met with a presumption of ulterior motives. The report authored by Peter Clarke on the THA includes a spider diagram, which depicts Tahir Alam as a hyper-connected mastermind. His various extensive connections to professional and community bodies are insinuated to be conspiratorial and sinister and are used to argue that he has had ample opportunity not only to influence at the policy level, but also to bring about change at the local through delivering training and membership of governing bodies.

As the podcast presenters mention – similar diagrams could be drawn around the associations and interests of serving government ministers and ideological think tanks, lobby groups and media outlets – the difference being that the former are disenfranchised, their citizenship conditional, a case needs to be made for their voices to be heard… and when they are, demands are made that their voices be shorn of anything which makes them distinctive, that they moderate the tone and content of their voices so as to be palatable to the sensitivities of an anxious establishment. As for the latter, they form part of a minority who wield disproportionate power – power which is inherited and bequeathed through centuries-old institutions and the wink, nudge and handshake of the old boys’ club.

The Trojan Horse affair will be remembered in our history not only as a moment that exposed how embedded colonial attitudes in our political and press establishments remained, but also one which was used to justify further the idea of Muslim exceptionalism. It was a public inquisition of an alleged Muslim fifth column within our schools and public spaces that needed to be subdued, contained, and made a cautionary example of.


Goldberg, David Theo (2006) ‘Racial Europeanization’, Ethnic and Racial Studies, 29:2, 331-364, DOI: 10.1080/01419870500465611

Holmwood, John and O’Toole, Therese (2018) Countering Extremism in British Schools? The truth about the Birmingham Trojan Horse Affair, Policy Press.

Manzoor-Khan, Suhaiymah (2022) Tangled in Terror: uprooting Islamophobia, Pluto.

Thomas, Elaine, R. ‘Rereading the Rushdie Affair: The Contested Terms of Being British,. Immigration, Islam, and the Politics of Belonging in France: A Comparative Framework, Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2011, pp. 214-244.

Weller, Paul (2009) A Mirror For Our Times: ‘The Rushdie Affair’ and the Future of Multiculturalism, Continuum.

Goldberg, David Theo (2006) ‘Racial Europeanization’, Ethnic and Racial Studies, 29:2, 331-364, DOI: 10.1080/01419870500465611

Khadijah Elshayyal holds research fellowships at Edinburgh and SOAS. A specialist on Muslims in Britain, she is General Secretary of the Muslims in Britain Research Network and author of Muslim Identity Politics: Islam, activism and equality in Britain (IB Tauris, 2019). She tweets @drkelshayyal.

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Elshayyal, Khadijah 2022. ‘‘Secularism’, ‘religion’, and the public disciplining of nonconforming Muslim civic activism’ Discover Society: New Series 2 (2):

Competing discourses of the Trojan Horse affair

Kamran Khan

In the first episode of the Trojan Horse Affair podcast by NYT/ Serial, Hamza Syed asks, ‘Why, up to this point, has no one cared about who wrote this letter and where this letter came from?’ This is the focus of the podcast series.  We still refer to this series of events as ‘The Trojan Horse Affair/Hoax’ yet we know there was no plot. In a sense, the letter is everything and nothing at the same time. Evidentially it proves very little, almost nothing yet narratively it is everything and more.

What is clear from the podcast series is that the events covered and those thereafter rely more on particular narratives which have to be defended and maintained than evidence is itself.  If it was about evidence, there would be more follow up about a credible theory over who wrote the letter and to seek justice for teachers and teaching assistants affected by this letter.  If it was about the weight of evidence, members of parliament would be seeking investigations to scrutinise how things could be done better, to seek redress so that our education system is never ever one letter away from being disrupted.

The power of narratives is always present. The Russian literary theorist, Mikhail Bakhtin’s work on discourses, specifically competing discourses, can offers ways of analysing ’the affair’.  I will focus on three areas where he can guide us. First, I will outline the dependence on the ‘selective authority’ of the letter itself. Then, I will focus on the atmosphere and environment in which such discourses are lent credibility. Finally, I will argue how the authority of established discourses can be disrupted through what Bakhtin refers to as ‘internally persuasive discourses’.

The selective authority of the letter

It may be easy to think of the affair as a series of narratives, all clashing with each other, with authoritative discourses as the most powerful. Within the affair, there are three main documents which are especially important.  There is the letter itself. This is what precipitated the series of events in the first place. The other two documents are the subsequent Kershaw report for Birmingham City Council and the Clarke report for the Department for Education  The latter two reports are what Mikhail Bakhtin refers to as ‘authoritative discourses’. They are essentially discourses which are imbued with power and authority, held above other discourses.

Of course, the strength of the reports is directly related to the original letter. What the podcast does, is to question the authority of the discourses based on the letter.  Here things become murky in as much as these discourses very quickly become  ‘selectively authoritative.’ That is to say, they are powerful enough to have real consequences, yet malleable enough that they can be dismissed as irrelevant.  We know the letter was believed to be a hoax, even by those who acted upon it, yet its underlying claims of a ‘five step plan’ to takeover schools were held to be true.

Even to this day, the Trojan Horse letter is involved even though there was no Trojan Horse plot as detailed within it. At one point in episode three, former leader of Birmingham City Council, Albert Bore, states, ‘These steps were having the desired effect in a number of schools’ in relation to the five step plan for a takeover outlined in the letter. The Kershaw Report, for example, outlined how each of the five steps in the takeover applied to the schools he reviewed.

In seeking the author of the letter, Hamza Syed and Brian Reed effectively shake the authority and credibility of the letter as a source for raising alarms about an Islamic takeover. Framing the hoax as deriving from an employment dispute is very different to understanding it as providing evidence of a credible Islamic plot. In fact, the narrative would change entirely. However, the Clarke report, which Syed and Reed investigated as problematic, and the Kershaw report lend credence to the letter by consolidating the power of the letter.

This is significant since the Casey Review 2016 about integration and the Counter-Extremism Strategy in 2015 re-affirm the legitimacy and findings of the Clarke report and Kershaw report. Thus, we are stuck in a cycle of re-affirmations produced in official reports, each building on the other. This is why allowing space for the letter to remain semi-credible and ‘selectively authoritative’ works. It was used as a basis for a significant re-direction of security and education policy in England (and the UK, more widely), yet it is also held to be not credible in itself, while its provenance is considered irrelevant.

What always remains intact is a narrative that there was enough suspicion, evidence and wrongdoing to fundamentally change policy. Yet as Syed notes in episode 1,

“[Investigators] had found no plot called Operation Trojan Horse. They had seen no signs that anyone had been radicalized, no evidence of violence or planned violence. They didn’t bring any terror charges against anyone working at the schools they’d looked into. But despite all of that, despite finding no plot, investigators still concluded that something terrible was happening in Birmingham schools. The letter helped them uncover that Muslims had influenced the schools in a dangerous way.”


For some, these allegations of a takeover and extremism were revelatory which could be believed or not, but for others, they were already confirmatory. The hoax confirmed the most deeply held anxieties and appealed to the prejudices of some. It was effectively a green light for many to say: ‘we were right, these Muslims are a problem’. The allegations about the schools found fertile grounds for suspicion.

All of this points to what Bakhtin refer to as ‘ideology’. These are the formations of worldviews that we possess, shaped by past discourses and conditioned by anticipating how words may be interpreted and accepted by others. In a sense, the hoax was years, decades and centuries in the making.  This feeling of anxiety can cloud judgments. This is not simply an instinct for danger but, according to Nicole Nguyen, shaped by ‘racial formations, cultural histories, and social memories [which] inform who and what are considered suspicious and trigger our “uh-oh feeling.” In effect, these ‘uh-oh feelings’ are based on the volume of representations, tropes and discourse about Muslims. It is often more comfortable to draw on the ‘uh-oh feeling’ these than to presume innocence and question why and how we see things the way that we do.

Former Park View teacher, Steve Packer captures this discomfort and anxiety in episode 5. He explains, ‘There are some things you can’t describe in solid facts. When you talk about the atmosphere in a place, when we talk about how oppressive it was, there was not necessarily anything tangible about that.’ Similarly, former Lord Mayor Albert Bore is at a similar loss. Brian Reed explains in episode 3, ‘But when we asked Albert Bore what from those investigations had shocked him, it was telling that apparently nothing was disturbing enough that it stayed with him. He could only point to how governors and staff in East Birmingham had created what he called, ominously, an atmosphere. When pressed, Albert Bore is unable to speak specifically of examples of extremism

BRIAN REED: You’re saying “certain matters” and “certain objectives.” What’s the inappropriate thing that was actually happening? Because words like “things” are a little vague.

ALBERT BORE Well, yeah, well, sure, they’re vague.

But if you read these reports, it’s quite clear that things were — things were happening which was against the run of what should be happening in that school.

Bore is able draw on the authority of the report rather than specific instances. In fairness, Bore eventually relents and points to single-sex Physical Education classes which he attributes to the Islamic ethos being introduced. However, contrary to what Bore states, gender segregation for PE is not at all unusual in British schools.

In a sense, perhaps this is the nature of how Bakhtin’s ideology/worldview conditions perceptions of Muslims.  Through such a lens, any display of outward Muslim identity can appear a sign of a takeover, a threat, extremism and ultimately a danger. It is these conditions and histories which shape why a Muslim child explaining they would give ‘alms to the oppressed’ is readily interpreted as ‘arms to the oppressed’ leading to a referral under Prevent.  The Trojan Horse affair is a microcosm of how suspicion and risk is distributed towards Muslims and tells us even more about the anxieties and prejudices of wider society.

Persuasive discourses

Ultimately, the podcast offers cautious hope. Perhaps most significant is that for some Muslims it has been cathartic. It provided an outlet of what many felt to be true yet lacked a coherent narrative about the hysteria at the time. The podcast has shaken the narratives that many had by drawing attention to the details of the case.  Most tellingly, what it achieved was in bringing in voices perhaps not heard beyond the ‘they are potential terrorist’ narratives.

Hearing students talk first hand about their experiences, as well as teachers, helped place the contexts they were working and living within. In episode 1, we hear from former students at Park View and even a former teacher speaks about the perceptions of local parents as ‘ignorant’ and failed by the educators at the school prior to its success. In episode 6 we also heard the effect the affair had on the teachers implicated in it. Their lives turned upside down by the hoax. Some were also subject to an employment tribunal. The weight of pressure was not alleviated by the collapse of the misconduct hearings and they remain affected to this day, personally, emotionally, financially and of course, professionally. This is a fact that far too many are comfortable with as a cost of this affair.

According to Bakhtin, the extent to which we are willing to listen to and be convinced by new discourses and voices as ‘internally persuasive’ can determine the extent to which authoritative discourses are accepted. Words belong partly to those who utter them and half to those interpreting them. This is the success of the podcast. It shakes the foundations of the established narratives and unflinchingly places a mirror to wider society to reflect how and why the hoax was so easily able to influence British politics, education and media.

The objective of the podcast was to find out who wrote the letter but perhaps a more apt question would be: why does no one care who wrote the letter? Perhaps the greatest success of the series was that it has made people care and underlined the structural forces at play in avoiding the issues that arose, particularly around the audit report and employment disputes. Rather than allowing the ‘selectively authoritative’ discourses to frame debates, other voices and discourses, Syed and Reed included, were allowed to interact with what were considered to be undisputable facts.

Now there are others willing to engage. Some will remain silent in order to maintain authority, some will smear in order to preserve the central narrative but some will challenge. At the end of it: who did write the letter?  And why are some more invested in maintaining the authority of the narrative than wanting to know the author and arriving one step closer to the truth? The next step perhaps is to demand the truth.

Kamran Khan is a Marie Sklodowska-Curie Fellow at the University of Copenhagen. He has been researching the intersections of language and security/securitisation for over 10 years. Twitter handle: @securityling

Header Image Credit:


Khan, Kamran 2022. ‘Competing discourses of the Trojan Horse Affair’ Discover Society: New Series 2 (2): 

Islamophobia at Daybreak: a critical reading of Stephen Packer’s fictional account of the Trojan Horse affair

Asim Qureshi

‘A Study in Scarlett’, episode 5 of the Trojan Horse Affair podcast released by Serial and the New York Times, contained a reference that I wasn’t really able to stop thinking about. The hosts interview Steve and Sue Packer, two former teachers from Park View Academy (the school at the centre of the Trojan Horse scandal), who had spoken to the media – effectively acting as whistle-blowers against the school’s administration – and given evidence at hearings against their former colleagues, highlighting what they felt was an overt agenda to Islamise the school.

What struck me, in particular, was Steve Packer’s admission that he had also written a fictionalised account of the whole affair. It’s worth reproducing the transcript from the episode to fully understand how Steve Packer himself framed the novel:


This is my telling of the story of what happened to us at school.

I’ve written it as an Animal Farm type story.


So is this fiction?

Is it non-fiction?

How would you describe it?


It’s a difficult one.

It’s fiction, but it tells the story.”

The key, for me, is Steve Packer’s insistence that this was, “…the story of what happened to us at school” and, further, that, “…it tells the story.” What Packer was admitting to, was that, while being told through a fictional device, this book represented his understanding of the events that had taken place.

I am a fan of George Orwell’s ‘Animal Farm’ and so I was immediately interested in reading the book to gain an understanding of how Steve Packer framed the events at Park View Academy in his own mind. On searching for the book online, the self-published e-book had been delisted from Amazon. This happened after its existence was made public by the podcast.

Fortunately, I managed to get a hold of the book from other sources, and was able to read it, live tweeting my thoughts as I went through the text. From the prologue, it seemed clear that Packer is very much steeped in a narrative of liberal Islamophobia, one which decries overt sentiments of racism, yet takes issue with the way in which Muslims practice their faith. The problem isn’t the cultures of being Muslim, but rather Islam in the way they practice it. From the second page of the novel, Packer writes:

“It was because we wanted, as a society, to be tolerant and open-minded that we allowed the intolerant, dogmatic and fanatical to flourish.” (Packer, 2)

Part of an ever-entrenching European political discourse on the place of Muslims and Islam has very much been framed of their being intolerant of tolerance. The central concern on the Muslim question in this discourse, as Mudde argues, seeks to show how their own values would allow Muslims to behave in a manner that would enable them to live unquestioned within wider society. Packer frames his novel in the binary of liberal values of enlightened rationalist animals, against dogmatic religious ones. He worries that tolerance towards the dogma of the religious will change the very nature of their society (Packer, 5).

The world Packer presents is largely split into two sets of animals, those that are poultry and those with cloven hooves. The poultry seemingly represent British, or at least a European culture, while the cloven hooved are seemingly representative of Muslims. He explains that the majority of the farm society – Daybreak Farm – on which the poultry live are chickens, with a few other birds as minorities. The key feature of the farm, is the tolerance with which they all live alongside one another. Steve Packer and Sue Packer are represented through the chickens Croaker and Scarlett respectively. While the rest of the poultry believe in the deity Gallus, Croaker and Scarlett are presented as independent and critical thinkers, chickens who are able to use their rational senses to realise that there is no such thing as a deity-controlled world (Packer, 20).

The tolerance of Daybreak Farm is interrupted by the sudden arrival of the cloven-hooved animals. Bizarrely, Packer uses two separate sets of animals to make a distinction between genders – unlike the chickens who remain one species. Packer presents Muslim men as bearded goats, and Muslim women as sheep (one can only imagine that the metaphor of Muslim women as sheep was too powerful for him to keep Muslims as a single species). The goats and sheep are effectively presented as refugees, coming from farms that were ruined, to the happiness and tolerance of Daybreak Farm:

“We’ve had to travel a long way to get here. We’ve all come from the same farm, which was in the high hills many miles to the west. Conditions there were harsh, it rained a lot and the winters were very tough. Last winter many of our friends died when they were trapped in a blizzard and they all froze to death. In the end, the fanner decided to close down the farm, so we were moved here. On the journey, the truck stopped at one point and the goats joined us.” (Packer, 41)

There are all sorts of indicators that the goats and sheep are a stand-in for Muslims. For example, they follow the cycle of the moon over the sun in relation to their religious devotion to the deity Magnus – one that is similar to Gallus, but seems to be far more controlling over every aspect of the cloven-footed animals’ lives. Packer attempts to separate Croaker and Scarlett from the other poultry who are disconcerted by the arrival of these new animals – he wants to let the reader know that he’s not against immigration per se – but rather the way that these animals express themselves (Packer, 45).

Croaker is shown to be happy at the arrival or the new creatures, but when the goats take against the alpacas who are also on the farm, he is concerned that he cannot criticise the belief system of the goats out of fear of being seen as xenophobic. This circles back to one of the central anxieties that Croaker expresses from the very prologue, that by calling out the faith of the goats, he will be seen as a xenophobic.

This narrative has been peddled for a long time in Europe by those who have been central to the perpetuation of Islamophobia within the mainstream media. The views that Packer is presenting are not dissimilar to that of the right-wing commentator Melanie Philips who wrote in The Times that ‘Islamophobia is a fiction to shut down debate’, a view that has become mainstream through amplification in the media. The reality is that no religion is as routinely criticised as Islam within the public space. The most explicit example of this appears on page 79, when Packer coins the unoriginal term clovenophobia – by doing so, he is directly relating his concerns to the same ones raised by Philips and others.

It seems that Packer is aware of the wider discourse from right-wing think tanks and other media on the ‘threat’ of Islamic groups being entryists into UK politics – a discourse particularly focused onthe Muslim Brotherhood. Packer is again quite unoriginal in presenting the formation of The Goathood, who use entryist tactics to take over the farm. This narrative presents the idea of Muslims having and obtaining political power that will change the landscape of British society – akin to the narratives of white replacement theorists that have been an inspiration for attacks against Muslims, Black communities and other racially minoritised groups.

The intolerant views of the goats aside, Packer’s book rests on two problems. The first is that the goats attempt to use the tolerance of the wider society in order to impose their own version of religion on the animals at Daybreak Farm. The other is that the sheep are being denied their own freedom by being under the control of the goats, and the doctrine of Magnus. The chief architect of all this is the goat Blister – who seems to be a stand-in figure for Tahir Alam, the governor of Park View Academy. Blister uses the system of governance and tolerance to connive his way into positions of authority:

“He would have to bide his time, take it slowly, be patient. He would also need to be careful, clever, manipulative, scheming.” (Packer, 53)

The novel takes more sinister turns as Blister’s machinations take over the farm more fully – animals go missing and the voices are all shut down (Packer, 78). The novel goes into the realm of extreme dystopia, but perhaps speaks more to Packer’s own anxieties about Islam than it does about anything that was actually taking place at Park View Academy. Ultimately, as evidenced by the collapsed case against the teachers at Park View, the accusation of manipulation did not stand up to scrutiny. Indeed, no teacher was charged with extremism, only with ‘undue religious influence’.

When it comes to the power of the state, Packer institutes the figure of Farmer Cobb. He is a benign force who doesn’t really understand what is happening on his farm and is happy for things to just swim along as they are, regardless of what is really taking place (Packer, 82). Even during an inspection of Daybreak Farm by the Ministry of Animal Development, the farm is given a glowing appraisal as no one really want to speak about what is going on, and would rather present a good picture of their daily life (Packer, 84).

This view, as a reference to the way that the government does not investigate Muslims, is not only wrong, but egregiously so. Muslims are constantly surveilled and made the subjects of all manner of investigations, and Steve Packer’s presentation can only be described as that of a conspiracy theorist.

Ultimately, Steve Packer exposes his own views as being bigoted against Islam, as he sets out the problems he has with the belief system of the Magnus religion, referencing a Day of Judgement and Afterlife in terms that are very similar to that of the eschatology of Islam (Packer, 109).

In the podcast, the Packers, explained that they were only concerned about a very narrow interpretation of Islamic practices being implemented in the school. The passages in the novel indicate that they had a problem with a predominant Muslim view on the afterlife. Further though, one might argue that Stephen Packer is more than bigoted, as he indicates his own belief system which poses as rational thinking, but replicates the narratives of white replacement theories – his conspiratorial thinking validate his fears.

To what extent was this motivated by a personal grudge, especially as we learn from the podcast that Sue Packer’s letters to those within the education sector highlighted an acting vice principal who was passed over for a promotion – that vice principal was her husband Steve Packer. Was there an element of the Packers settling scores through raising an alarm? This does seem to be replicated within the pages of the novel, except without the element of any potential personal grudge indicated.

When Sue Packer is questioned by Brian Reed on her claims about the operation of Shariah law, she exposes her limited knowledge at the time of writing her alarmist letter:

“This was an anonymous letter that I did after having the allegations made against me. I certainly wasn’t being treated properly.I wasn’t being treated fairly. And obviously, I was just doing some research into Sharia law.”

There is a great deal wrong with the book and the way that it presents the Trojan Horse hoax, but in reality this novel does the work of revealing Packer’s bigoted views. One can only wonder what it must have been like for his Muslim colleagues, students and their families to have to work alongside a husband and wife couple at the school who saw them – not as people who were uplifting their communities – but as dangerous individuals who were trying to change the face of British society.

With the entire fallout of the Trojan Horse hoax letter, Steve Packer is not only aware of the impact that his testimony against his former colleagues had at the Park View Academy, but on Muslims across the country:

“The events that occurred at Daybreak Farm continued to be discussed by animals across the whole country. They opened up a whole debate, not just about how farms were being run, but about the whole concept of tolerance and respect for diversity across all aspects of life. Questions were asked about who should really speak on behalf of groups of animals and to what extent doctrine should rule their lives. The Ministry even introduced the concept of ‘Animal Values’.” (Packer, 247)

The emphasis on ‘British values’ as part of the UK government’s Prevent strategy has resulted in tens of thousands of Muslims being unfairly targeted for their beliefs and practice of Islam. Even now in 2022, Muslim students are being told by police officers to regulate their belief system due to what the state now determines as its own central values. This is one of the consequences that has flowed from the bigoted actions of the Packers, a consequence that will forever hold them in infamy. 

Asim Qureshi graduated in Law (LLB Hons, LLM), specializing in International Law and Islamic Law. He completed his Ph.D. in International Conflict Analysis from the University of Kent. He is the Research Director at the advocacy group CAGE, and since 2003 has specialized in investigating the impact of counterterrorism practices worldwide. He has published a wide range of NGO reports, academic journals and articles. He has written the book Rules of the Game: Detention, Deportation, Disappearance (Hurst, Columbia UP, 2009); a chapter in What is Islamophobia? (Pluto Press, Chicago UP, 2017); and A Virtue of Disobedience (Unbound, 2019). He is the editor of the book I Refuse to Condemn: Resisting Racism in Times of National Security (Manchester UP, 2020). Since 2010, he has been advising legal teams involved in defending terrorism trials in the US and at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.

Header Image Credit: Asim Qureshi


Qureshi, Asim 2022. ‘Islamophobia at Daybreak: a critical reading of Stephen Packer’s fictional account of the Trojan Horse affair’ Discover Society: New Series 2 (2):

Underclass in Purdah: Britain’s never-changing relationship with its Asian Muslims and the creation of the Asian Muslim

Fatima Rajina

The Trojan Horse Affair podcast, produced by Serial Productions, has reignited a conversation on the long-standing effects of the hoax and its impact on the Muslim community in east Birmingham as well as the wider British Muslim community. The podcast did many things: for some, it re-opened old wounds, while, for others, it provided clarity and a form of vindication; a vindication that has been long denied as a result of the War on Terror and its associated  rhetoric and logic where Muslims either had to be with ‘them’ (the alleged organisers of the Islamist plot), or stand firmly against them.

For me, it laid bare the truth of what happened, how it happened and how a whole narrative had been intentionally constructed to vilify the Muslim community. I was doing my fieldwork for my PhD in Tower Hamlets at the time where the very same journalists who reported on Birmingham were attempting to concoct a similar narrative about the schools in this London borough. In this regard, Syed and Reed’s revelations about the Trojan Hoax embodied the state’s roused hunger to relentlessly hunt Muslims and punish them punitively wherever they may be a significant majority and have access to some local power.

The podcast succinctly articulated the inner machinations at play during the Trojan Horse affair, which many Muslims were already aware of, even if this was denied by key players. Its thorough and critical investigation is what provided some solace, a form of reckoning. However, Serial’s legitimate questions around the affair were met with silence from the media class and the political class. The lack of engagement from the government with the facts and questions raised in the podcast was duly noted, particularly from individuals like Michael Gove, who during the Trojan Hoax was the Education Minister.

Although I could write and dissect much more about the podcast and its reception, I would like to think about a documentary cited in the podcast. In the first episode, Tahir Alam, former chair of governors at Park View Academy, and Moz Hussain, the first Muslim teacher to be employed at the school, mention the BBC Panorama documentary provocatively titled Underclass in Purdah broadcast in 1993. Tahir Alam explains how this documentary captured his attention, mainly focusing on the academic underachievement of Pakistanis and Bangladeshis in Bradford and Birmingham with a specific focus on the Pakistani community. One of the two schools featured was Park View, the school that Tahir Alam had himself attended.

Tahir Alam has this to say to Hamza Syed, one of the presenters of the podcast, about the documentary and how it made him feel:

“Archived recording: But for Pakistanis and Bangladeshis, an astonishing 50% hold no qualifications whatsoever.

Hamza Syed: 50%, half of us, were basically failing school. That hit Tahir hard.

Tahir Alam: That the extent of education failure was so bad that we were at risk of creating an underclass of Muslims, who were, basically, uneducated, prone to crime and unemployment.

So I kind of sat there, and it made me feel guilty, actually, guilt because I was one of the few people who made it from my family, one of the first ones to make it to university and to have a good job and so on.

But there was also a sense of humiliation, really, because I was from this community.”

(The Trojan Horse Affair Podcast, Serial Productions, 2022: episode 1)

It was this that stirred him to push for educational reform in Alum Rock, his east Birmingham neighbourhood, home to a large Pakistani community. As a result, he became an avid advocate for raising the educational aspirations of young Muslims in Alum Rock and giving them access to opportunities that were hitherto unavailable to them.

The Asian or Muslim Asian?

The most striking element about Underclass in Purdah is the title itself. But, before I come back to it, I will provide a brief overview of the documentary and its alleged insights. The documentary claims to widely explore the economic and educational experiences of Pakistanis and Bangladeshis in Bradford and Birmingham though much of the focus is on the Pakistani community across the two cities, with a few minutes given to explaining differences with the Bangladeshi communities. Nonetheless, the documentary feebly characterises the two communities’ supposed failures and juxtaposes them against the wider Indian and East African Asian communities.

The presenter of the show, Nisha Pillai, a South Asian of Indian descent, bizarrely introduces the documentary with the following line:

“The stereotype “Asian” is the hardworking businessman or doctor doing well for himself [sic] but for the majority of Muslim Asians, that stereotype is a myth. A new generation of Pakistanis and Bangladeshis, potentially the biggest ethnic group in the country, is growing up angry and alienated from white society. In tonight’s programme, we lift the veil on this new underclass.”

‘South Asian’, it should be pointed out, is a category that signifies very little. However, even when it is flattened despite its multitude of languages, cultures, customs, clothing, religion and much more, the term evokes a set of imageries and narratives of ‘a people’ to the average person. Indeed, this signifier is as dynamic as any other, but the deeply ingrained habits of perception are why such collapsing is made possible. Having noted that, though, where we notice a shift and a deviation from the term, especially in this documentary, is the continuous use of ‘Muslim Asians’. This category alludes to the material and political circumstances of Bangladeshis and Pakistanis.

The repurposing of ‘Asian’ taps into a different set of established fears, particularly around the Muslim. It facilitates, heightens and inflates the importance of how ‘these Muslims are a menace’. At the same time, those who are non-Muslim who hail from the same geographical region are placed in a unique position: to uphold the boundaries of what makes a good ‘other’ citizen. This became ever more defined following the Northern mill town uprisings in the summer of 2001 where ‘…Hindu and Sikh activists had published warnings against the dangers of Islam’ (Bagguley and Hussain 2008: 55) and that those participating were all Muslim Asian boys and men (read: not our boys!). Kundnani elaborates on how such mixed-class snobbery from non-Muslim Asians, especially The World Council of Hindus, came out to publicly ‘disown the Muslim rioters, hoping to make clear to whites that Hindus should not be tarnished with the same brush. Asian solidarity had died’.

It is important to note that although these events happened in 2001, a similar tone is utilised to demarcate the apparent splintering along religious lines in Underclass in Purdah. The example used in the 1993 documentary was the Salman Rushdie Affair and the burning of effigies by some Muslims. Again, the emphasis here was that the Asian Muslims are the trouble-makers while the non-Muslim Asian, rather insipidly, ought to be rewarded and not be infringed upon with the diatribe of Muslim Asians. The Muslim Asian becomes the pariah, expunged into a permanent pathologised frame, corresponding with the tropes and fear-mongering employed by the Trojan Hoax.

Underclass in Purdah – a pathologisation

It is essential to consider the language deployed to discuss Muslims, and here the title of the documentary warrants some attention. Purdah, in its most basic definition, means curtain in Farsi. Within the social context, it refers to the socio-religious and cultural practice of South Asian women, primarily Hindu and Muslim women, secluding themselves through their sartorial choices in ensuring their skin is covered and concealed, including their body form. The practice of purdah also extends to the physical segregation of men and women. Importantly, purdah is also a term used within the UK political landscape before any election to emphasise the specific restrictions while canvassing.

Mobeen Hussain, who focuses on colourism and practices of skin-lightening and examined how bodies were racialised in colonial South Asia, however, argues that the historical practice of purdah went ‘far from fitting into binary narratives of veiling/unveiling and traditional and primitive versus modern and progressive’ but that they were ‘often about navigations of space, familial hierarchies, and changing public roles’ (Hussain 2021: 163). Its use in the documentary title implies that this underclass, Bangladeshis and Pakistanis, are in hiding. They are yet to appear in society. The ominous accompanying music also adds to this tension of why these communities are ‘unwilling’ to get themselves out of poverty and why they continue adhering to their ‘strange’ customs, locating the responsibility on those impacted by the structural violence.

The primary problem with the way the two communities are (re)presented is that they are projected as inherently lacking the desire to want change and achieve good grades or give their children a good life. Yet we witnessed how Alam transformed the schools by paying attention to the particular needs of young Muslims in schools in east Birmingham and raising their aspirations, as previously this was non-existent:

‘The racism was pervasive. Razwan Faraz, a former governor and math teacher, says at one of his first governing body meetings, he was shown a list of places the students had been given work placements through a program at the school. And it was all restaurants, supermarkets, clothing stores.’The Trojan Horse Affair Podcast, Serial Productions, 2022: episode 1

In the documentary, though, there is no treatment of structural factors with much of the focus on the families alone and their choices. There is also little recognition of meeting the needs of the young Muslims, articulating the claim that they are making it difficult to ‘escape the ghetto’. The families are captured through a monolithic pattern, thereby pathologising them. For example, in the scenes with Muslim women, they are presented as passive individuals who are not invested in their children’s future but are bound by their customs and adhering to their men’s commands.

McLoughlin affirms this by noting how the documentary’s structure alludes ‘to an essentialist set of assumptions about Muslim Asian women as necessarily the confined bearers of traditional izzat (family honour) and sharm (shame) in contradistinction to the goals of a democratic and secular society.’ (McLoughlin 1998: 91). This perfectly illustrates the limits of thinking about the Muslim Asian woman, of continuously relying on prescribed, orientalist-induced workings. These racist fantasies are on repeat within the cultural and political terrain and determined how the political and media class discussed the Trojan Hoax. In the podcast, we hear references made by Sue Packer in episode 5 about her concerns about young Muslim women, including her colleagues, and that they were culturally and religiously trapped, and she wanted to facilitate a way out for them.

As ever, when there are stories specifically about racially minoritised communities, there will always be those from within those communities who present themselves as the alternative. Those who have proven capable of proper, unweird human behaviour (read: leveraging a proximity to whiteness) and substituting the usual patterns of consumption to ‘help’ those left behind. Such individuals project a vilification of the Muslim Asian that is a different form of violence to reassert their sense of awakening, of holding a superior position. The Panorama documentary deliberately seems to avoid discussing, and I would argue is a glaring omission, how there is little discussion around the de-industrialisation of the cities these Asian Muslims are in. The lack of economic opportunities is a critical factor because we see this raised in multiple scenes, including the one where a burglar is interviewed who discusses the lack of opportunities available that pushes many to turn to criminal activities.

The tenuous attempts to link the ‘anger and alienation’ felt by young Muslim Asian men to essentialist cultural behaviours are fraught. Addressing the current political and social imaginings during and following the Trojan Hoax, the Muslim Asian bears an arbitrary sense of justice. What I mean by this is how the sheer fear that reverberated within the political class, abetted by the media class, was all willing to sacrifice the Muslim to legitimate the ever-expansive surveillance apparatus. After all, the Muslim, especially the body of the Asian Muslim man, is ostensibly the site through which the national identity and image are asserted. Such exclusionary practices were a way for non-Muslim Asians to part ways with their peers.


Ultimately, the documentary provides a shallow analysis for several reasons: firstly, the diluting of the structural; secondly, the over-reliance on crude, essentialist framings of the Muslim borrowed from colonial vernacular in conjunction with using purdah nefariously, including the idea that the documentary aims to ‘lift the veil’ of these communities. The Asian Muslim’s positioning has changed very little since the release of Underclass in Purdah with a more intensified hyper-vigilance and focus on this subject. Its claims are deeply grounded in historical and contemporary (re)configurations of the Asian Muslim who requires regular intervention by the state. This imagining activates the need to brazenly unveil these communities to make them whole, to learn to embody civility and enter modernity. The inferring is that the Asian Muslim simply cannot, and will not, escape their ‘cultural trappings’.

The documentary ends with a quote by the Carlton Bolling College headteacher, Mervyn Flecknoe, that ‘our city centres will become as difficult as American city centres’. This analogy posits the idea that the violence is outsourced to these otherwise progressive cities by outsiders, the internally racialised ‘other’. These impenetrable anxieties around the Asian Muslim defy any pragmatism. The discourse has remained stagnant, and even with the podcast exposing the affair as a hoax again, the lethargic non-response remains, particularly in Birmingham. The lack of engagement or even acknowledgement of an error actually serves to heighten the dismembering of the Asian Muslim. The Asian Muslim is either hypervisible or remains invisible. The caricaturing of the Asian Muslim as an underclass, requiring a necessary intervention to make them unhidden, exposed means their mere existence haunts the imagination of the state. Whether hypervisible or invisible, the Muslim occupies the mind of the oppressor. In this regard, the disciplining of Muslims, through whatever means possible, will endure in the long run.


Bagguley, P., & Hussain, Y. (2008). Riotous Citizens: Ethnic Conflict in Multicultural Britain (1st ed.). Routledge.

Hussain, A. M. (2021). Race, Gender, and Beauty in Late Colonial India c.1900-1950. (Doctoral thesis). , p.163.

McLoughlin, S. (1998). ‘An underclass in Purdah?’ Discrepant representations of identity and the experiences of young-British-Asian-Muslim-women. Bulletin of the John Rylands Library, 80(3), pp.89-106. DOI:

Fatima Rajina is a Legacy in Action Research Fellow at the Stephen Lawrence Research Centre at De Montfort University. After completing her MA in Islamic Societies and Cultures at SOAS, she went on to do a PhD after successfully securing a Nohoudh Scholarship with the Centre of Islamic Studies, SOAS, University of London. Completing her PhD at SOAS, Fatima’s work looks at British Bangladeshi Muslims and their changing identifications and perceptions of dress and language. She has also worked as a Research Assistant at the Institute of Criminology, University of Cambridge looking at police and counter-terrorism. Fatima was also a Teaching Fellow at SOAS, Research Fellow at UCL IoE, and, additionally, she worked as a Lecturer in Sociology at Kingston University London.

Header Image Credit: Alum Rock Road, Birmingham, K. Khan

Bio Image Credit: Ellie Kurttz


Rajina, F. 2022. ‘Underclass in Purdah: Britain’s never-changing relationship with its Asian Muslims and the creation of the Asian Muslim’ Discover Society: New Series 2 (2):

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.

Edginton, B. (1997). Moral architecture: the influence of the York Retreat on asylum design. Health & Place, 3(2), 91-99. (97)00003-8

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.  

Krause, M. (2019). What is Zeitgeist? Examining period-specific cultural patterns. Poetics, 76, 101352.

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):