Miliband: hope, humanism, joined-up thinking and integrity.




One of Miliband’s virtues is that he re-humanises politics. For him, people’s individual experiences matter, and he always cites many examples throughout his speeches. He includes qualitative accounts from real people. It’s a particularly contrasting quality to Cameron’s unempathic, dehumanising, quantitative and negative labelling approach.

To the Tories, we are all reducible to their often cited, fake statistics. The numbers tell us what the Tories want us to “know”, and not what actually is. And we know that the Tories have never been big on free speech – see the Gagging Act, for example. They like to exclude “inconvenient” voices of truth from the grand, overarching Tory narrative. Miliband listens to accounts of people’s realities, and accommodates those accounts. Cameron imposes both accounts and realities upon us.

Hardly surprising, therefore, that the right-wing bitcherati press have taken the piss once again and tried to make Miliband’s approach to the paramount importance of everyday people look small. Littlejohn in particular is being his pernicious, old, fascist self. How anyone that writes for the Mail for a living has the cheek to criticise anyone at all is beyond me. But it shows that the right are determined to portray any strengths that Ed Miliband has as a weakness. Propaganda at its worst. But its so blatant, superficial and unsophisticated, at least.

I have criticised Tory ontology and methodology previously, using social science as a frame of reference. Politics is a social science, and not a “stand-alone” one: it draws on the disciplines of psychology and sociology, too. As a critical interpretivist, I believe that social reality is not “out there” waiting to be discovered: we are constructing and reconstructing it meaningfully. However, politically, there’s been a marked shift away from understanding the lived experiences of real people in context: a systematic dehumanisation. The Tories have depopulated social policy. This is a characteristic of authoritarianism, and other hallmarks include stigmatisation of social groups, moral disengagement, moral exclusion, impunity, and a societal “bystander apathy”, as I’ve discussed elsewhere.

In the social sciences, there was a big shift away from Cameron’s approach to “understanding the social world” from the 70s onwards. Mostly we realised that  counting people’s responses doesn’t give us any clue about meanings and intentions, it can only turn up statistics. And these are open to reductionist and determinist interpretations and inferences from the persons gathering them, as we know.

Qualitative researchers aim to gather an in-depth understanding of human behaviour and intention – the reasons that govern such behaviour. The qualitative method investigates the why and how of our decision making, rather than just what. And we get to interpret our own reality and experiences. We are each experts in our realm of experiences, and Miliband understands this. He invites our expertise, Cameron stifles it.

The social researcher and the politician do not stand apart from or outside of the intersubjectively constructed universe they wish to describe/measure: there is no “objective” vantage point, because we all participate personally within it.

Clifford Geertz, an anthropologist said: Man is an animal suspended in webs of significance he himself has spun, I take culture to be those webs, and the analysis of it to be therefore not an experimental science in search of law but an interpretive one in search of meaning.

And in Thick Description, which compared the “thin” descriptions of measurements with the “thick”, densely layered description of context and meaning that qualitative research can provide in any given situation, he said : “The difference between a twitch and a wink is vast.  From a purely physiological perspective, a wink is the contraction of the muscles of a single eye that cause the eyelid to close.  So, of course, is a twitch.  And so is a slow-motion, exaggerated parody of a wink; a fast motion parody of a twitch; and any number of parodies of parodies of twitches and winks that a group boys sitting in the back row might engage in to amuse one another on a spring afternoon”.

And any measure of the interactions that include and are driven by these twitches and winks is bound to measure the wrong things and fail to measure the right ones.

No-one but the Tories would try to argue that poverty is an intentional act of the poor, that food banks are a symptom of rising greed rather than need. I have never known a government to be so blatantly insouciant with the measurable social phenomena it causes via its policies. Or with its own credibility, for that matter.

In contrast to quantitative research, qualitative research involves the collection and analysis of information that focuses on the meanings attached to people’s actions and behaviours, often referred to as the lived experience.It defines us as active participants in the world, instead of merely reducing us to statistics and preferences.  It makes priority of our perceptions and experiences and the way we make sense of our lives.

First-hand experiences matter. And quite properly so. It puts us, the people, in the driving seat, we construct our own meanings, rather than having authoritarians like Cameron imposing meanings, definitions, convenient labels and Tory ideology upon us. Quantitative methods tend to hammer the world into a presupposed state  – as Einstein once said: the theory tells you what you may observe. How very Cameron. All quantitative studies can yield are conventionalised expressions of the experience of the author, or the one commissioning the research.

Quantitative, positivist paradigms share commensurable assumptions but are largely incommensurable with critical, constructivist, and participatory paradigms.. In other words, they don’t accommodate any critical  approaches or analysis, nor are they inclusive. How very Cameron.

Furthermore, quantitative methodology in the social sciences depends upon faith in the “verification principle”. Which is itself unverifiable…

How very  cul-de-sac, and how very Cameron.

Quantitative methodology objectifies us, whereas the qualitative method draws on a humanist, hermeneutic/phenomenological approach: understanding moves from the outer manifestations of human action and productivity (the superficial) to the exploration of their inner meanings and references. Numbers cannot convey human experiences: it is thought, language and our expression that converts experience into meaning.

Humanist thinkers within the discipline of psychology, such as Ronald D Laing, drew on a qualitative  approach, and in his earliest works, he starts from the experience of the individual ego, in “The Divided Self” (1961) and moves towards existential phenomenology , and in his later work, such as “The Politics Of Experience And The Bird Of Paradise“(1967), he manages to integrate these perspectives within a Marxist framework.

Laing, along with others who led the anti-psychiatry movement in the late 50’s and early 60’s, such as Erving Goffman and Thomas Szasz, had a profound and hugely significant impact within the field of psychology, which had been dominated by associationism, behaviourism, psychometrics and eugenics and of course, psychoanalysis.

At a time when theorists from social sciences maintained that their perspectives were premised on scientific (usually positivistic) principles, Laing offered a humanist critique of these approaches, which he said trivialised psychology and dehumanised its subjects. Laing shifted the emphasis from an experimental approach, and a searching for “facts” and “predictability” regarding human behaviours to dialogue, intersubjectively constructed and reconstructed meanings and human experience. Laing and others challenged established categories of behaviour deemed pathological or abnormal, by meaningful explorations of individual accounts of their experience of being.

Laing in particular gave a rational voice to those individuals who had experienced exploitation within family relationships, which he studied extensively, discovering sets of interactions that often involved complex tactical games, relationship knots and strategies, with family members making alliances with some and creating enmity with other members. Within the nexus of the family there is an unremitting demand for constant strategic interpersonal interaction based on mutual reciprocal concern and attention. Individuals are therefore vulnerable to existential harm. They are emotionally imprisoned via the nexus, internalising other family members, and the interaction patterns.

Laing believed that some families acted like gangsters, offering each other protection against each other’s violence. Some governments do, too.  He also believed that the internalisation of family interaction patterns becomes our world – and it restricts the development of the self, with individuals carrying the emotional blueprint of their family for the rest of their life, which may inhibit any real autonomy or self awareness. This blueprint may manifest as expression through behaviours that are clinically identified and diagnosed as schizophrenia. Laing and others exposed the negative labelling processes, and ritualised humiliation directed towards those experiencing self-fragmentation because of the internalisation of negative family interaction patterns. For Laing, madness is simply a perfectly rational adjustment to an insane world. Of course that world exists within a political framework.

In sociology, phenomenology was expressed in the work of Alfred Schutz (1899 – 1959) who studied the ways in which people directly experience everyday life, and imbue their activities with meanings. In contrast to the predominant structural and somewhat deterministic perspectives within the discipline, Schultz moved away from the tendency of subordinating everything within disaffecting, abstruse and overarching ideologies or grand narratives, and he emphasised a multiplicity of new and often spontaneously co-authored ideologies lived out day-by-day and based on common sense and intersubjectively constructed values.

Schultz expressed a vitalism that engendered an organic way of thinking, with characteristics such as intuitive insight as a way of perceiving things from within, and placed emphasis on understanding as a holistic grasp of the widely varied, often complex and subtle elements of situations, and on experience as something that is lived through in common with others.

Schultz says that we draw on a common stock of knowledge – “typifications” and common sense which orientates us, helps us navigate socially, and achieve a reciprocity of perspective with others. Socialisation processes mediate and normalise this common stock of knowledge.

Phenomenological Sociology went hand in hand with a preference for a qualitative methodology that emphasised authentic everyday accounts of social reality, with agency and meaning being the focus. Quantitative methodology, on the other hand, had primarily focused on measurement, notions of the predictability of behaviours due to these being determined by social structure for example, as was the case with many advocates of Functionalism, such as Social Darwinist Herbert Spencer, and a socially detached and “objective” researcher.

Such a researcher was evidently armed with the belief that he/she possessed the somewhat unique ability to stand outside of human experience and values, unlike the subjects of enquiry, and would thus gather “social facts” and then interpret them from this independently existing standpoint. For example, a sociologist studying drug use amongst young people may gather statistics and hand out closed questionnaires with short directive and directed yes/no type questions. From the information gathered, the researcher may conclude that anomie and alienation lead to drug use, because, for example, many young drug users singled out for study live in deprived inner city areas.

Most young drug users, however, would not use terms like anomie to explain or give meaningful accounts of their drug use. This imposed conceptual framework of the researcher demonstrates very well how detachment and objectivity is not possible, in sociological enquiry. Indeed, some have extended this criticism to scientific enquiry. We each operate within idioms of belief, and Michael Polanyi has proposed that Western Science is such a self-sustaining idiom. (“Personal Knowledge”, 1958). He compares science with Azande Witchcraft, (Evans-Pritchard’s anthropological study: “Witchcraft, Oracles and Magic Among the Azande”), noting that each conceptual framework is “segregated’ by a logical gap” (they are incommensurable), but from within each idiom, beliefs tended to be circulatory, self-confirming and self-sustaining.

This is true of all ideologies. We can make inferences from sociological research, for example, but every sociologist knows about the Hawthorne effect: that the very fact that people know they are being observed changes their behaviour and distorts the result.

Polanyi had become acutely aware of the extent to which worldviews penetrate into language, and that he had sensed that this may have important ramifications for relations between frameworks of belief. As the basis of his argument, Polanyi gives a precis of his epistemology in “Science, Faith And Society” (1946) and “Scientific Beliefs” (1951). Polanyi considers that discovery, verification and falsification of propositions in science do not obey “any definite rule” but proceed with the aid of “certain maxims” which defy both precise formulation and rigorous evaluation. The maxims are “premisses or beliefs … embodied in … the tradition of science”.

Sustained by this tradition, science is governed by the coherent opinion of its practitioners, who employ the “idiom of science” in which its interpretative framework, Polanyi concludes, is an entrenched tangled and negotiated reciprocity of perspective, and all founded on the the belief of scientists that science is true: a personal conviction which they cannot factually justify. And again, how can we verify the principle at the heart of scientific methodology: verificationism itself, for example?

It is also possible to identify imported scientific metaphors operating at the heart of social science. For example, the shift from “structure” to “events” in physics is reflected in a similar shift in theoretical focus in sociology. There was a marked shift in structural and deterministic accounts of human behaviour and a move to study small scale interactions, social events, context bound interactions and situations, which can be linked with phenomenology. Behaviour was relativised by a multiplicity of contexts, which meant that more descriptive methodologies were employed.

A phenomenologist would ask open-ended questions, preferring interviews and the use of dialogue. Responses would be directed as little as possible, ensuring that the account given is a true and meaningful reflection of the direct experience of the person/social agent. This kind of research also reflects immediacy – the here and nowness of the social world, that has a full potential yet to be explored, rather than the positivist emphasis on a narrowing predictability and replicating results to try and determine their’ “accuracy.” It is also democratic and founded on notions of equality.

The person/agent has the centre stage and is the author of the research. Furthermore, phenomenologists have pointed out that sociologists are also embedded in everyday life and cannot therefore escape the shared norms, values and meanings of the life world they inhabit. Phenomenologists value valid accounts, rather than social “facts”, as it is not possible to be “objective” when one occupies a completely intersubjective realm of enquiry.

Miliband, of course, recognises this, he values authenticity, inclusion, equality, democracy and spontaneity over and above ideology. Cameron is completely driven by ideology. and the ghastly assumptions that Tory dogma entails.

Social existence is not one dimensional; it is complex, ambiguous, poorly defined, deceptive, fragmented, emotional and often unpredictable. It is animated by a plurality of perspectives. It is often based on what we take for granted – tacit knowledge – that which is self-evident that informs our intellectual constructions. A phenomenological approach can uncover those taken for granted underpinning assumptions – quintessentially cultural phenomena, in that these assumptions are what societies are built upon.

Miliband understands this. He acknowledges that human experiences are complex, multidimensional, inter and intrasubjective, and multipersonal, many layered events, where both “verifiable statement” and valid existential account each have an important place in our endlessly creative narratives, and of the endless possibilities of our being in a social universe of expansive potential. Cameron only reduces that potential. And he really has, in just four years.

In a sense, we’ve all been doing such qualitative research our whole life, and therefore have very much to contribute to a pluralist, socially democratic society. Miliband knows this, Cameron freely chooses not to. Cameron is an epistemological and ontological fascist: he predefines what we “know”, and what is “acceptable” as “knowledge”, and he predefines social reality, excluding its’ members accounts.

Max Weber’s principle of Verstehen  is a critical approach in all social sciences, and we can see the consequences of its absence in the cold, pseudo-positivist approach of the Coalition in the UK. Their policies clearly demonstrate that they lack the capacity to understand, or meaningfully “walk a mile in the shoes of another”. The Coalition treat the population of the UK as objects and not human subjects of their policies.

My own starting point is that regardless of any claim to value-freedom in political science, we cannot abdicate moral responsibility, and cannot justify moral indifference. We see this positive approach exemplified in our laws, human rights and democratic process. We are also seeing an erosion of this tendency to a globalisation of values, and inclusion of a recognition and account of the full range of human experiences in policy making. Indeed Tory policy has become an instrument of social exclusion and increasing minoritization.

We are being reduced to little more than economic statements here in the UK. We have a Government that tends to describe vulnerable social groups in terms of costs to the State, and responsibility is attributed to these social groups via media and State rhetoric, whilst those decision-makers actually responsible for the state of the economy have been exempted, legally and morally, and are hidden behind complex and diversionary scapegoating propaganda campaigns.

Sartre once said that oppressors oppress themselves as well as those they oppress. Freedom and autonomy are also reciprocal, and it’s only when we truly recognise our own liberty that we may necessarily acknowledge that of others. Conservatism has always been associated with a capacity to inhibit and control, and never liberate. We need to take responsibility for the Government that we have. In fact we must.

Miliband is offering us social democracy. The accusations of political “cross-dressing” from the fringes of the left are utter nonsense, hence the persistent right-wing media smear campaign. Miliband is offering us inclusivity, he speaks with an obvious decency and passion, and has consistently presented us with a  comprehensive and coherent narrative, if only we will listen.

Socialism for a Sceptical Age, by Ralph Miliband was about the continued relevance of socialism in a post-communist world. Ed Miliband has said that the final few sentences of this book are his favourites of all his father’s work:

In all the countries there are people in numbers large and small who are moved by the vision of a new social order in which democracy, egalitarianism and co-operation – the essential values of socialism – would be the prevailing values of social organization. It is in the growth of their numbers and in the success of their struggles that lies the best hope for mankind.”  

“Socialism is not a rigid economic doctrine, but ‘a set of values’ It is ‘a tale that never ends’. Indeed, the strange fact is that  while there’s capitalism, there’ll be socialism, because there is always a response to injustice.” Ed  Miliband. (Source)

He’s right.

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Thanks to Robert Livingstone for his brilliant pictorial truths


4 thoughts on “Miliband: hope, humanism, joined-up thinking and integrity.

  1. Good one, Sue.
    I was just listening to the BBC/UKIP wankfest on Radio 5, and they were triumphing over how UKIP’s strength is its shambolic amateur unprepared nature… Comparing those queasy statements to how the press, as you say above, treated Miliband when HE choose a more relaxed, less showy, way of expressing himself in a speech.
    We have NEVER had such a blatantly biased media than we have now – even Kinnock had a good press by comparison.


    1. Thanks Robert. Yes, it’s never been so biased, or so blatantly right-wing and so disgustingly, rigidly authoritarian. Littlejohn is vile

      Good one putting a complaint in, when we do that, at least we’re letting them know WE know the score.


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