In the following I will assess a research article ‘No place called home: the causes and social consequences of the UK housing ‘bubble’’ by Bone and O’Reilly (2010).A short summary of the article will be included. The article will then be discussed in terms of a model from Burawoy’s typography, identifying which model seems to best fit the research paper, and pointing out the features of that model in terms of the paper. The model selected will be evaluated in terms of practising sociology, with reference to wider literature. Finally, the conclusion will summarise the reasons why the model selected is the best to explain the research paper.
Bone and O’Reilly’s paper looks at the ‘housing bubble’ in the UK, the phenomenon which saw house prices increase significantly between 1995 and 2007 (OECD 2011). Rather than the usual economic perspective, they take a sociological approach, looking at the impact of rising prices and the consequent lack of affordability of housing on society overall. They carry out an extensive analysis of a range of primary and secondary data from numerous sources. They suggest that if house prices are out of the reach of most people, the “bedrock of stable individual family and community life” (Bone and O’Reilly 2010, p. 231) is upturned. The issue is a social problem, rather than a social phenomenon, as more people are unable to afford decent quality housing, demand for social housing increases, people in low standard accommodation also increases (Riley 2005).
Some suggest that gender is a key explanatory variable for analysing the housing bubble: not only are the financial institutions responsible for the rise in prices male-dominated, the impact of the bursting bubble is disproportionally felt by women (Walby 2009). Another analysis is driven by class; from a Marxist perspective the construction worker, a member of the working class, is exploited throughout the lifecycle of the property by banks and other financial institutions (Lund 2011).
Within the UK, government policy regarding housing provision seems to be largely in tune with a “neo-classical economic orthodoxy” (Bone and O’Reilly 2010, p. 232), which translates 19th century laissez faire policies into contemporary language, and which assumes that the free market in housing is the most efficient and fair system for allocating homes. However, the free market approach has never, it has been claimed, resulted in adequate provision of housing which is affordable for low income groups (Leckie 2003), and the impact of housing ‘bubbles’ such as the one discussed by Bone and O’Reilly (2010) have a number of negative social consequences. There is a need to investigate the nature of these consequences and the impact of the housing bubble upon society as a whole.
2. Burawoy’s Model and the Paper
Burawoy wants to make sociology more relevant to a wider audience (Nichol 2007). He distinguishes four dimensions:, professional, policy, public and critical (Quah 2005). These dimensions can be seen as a matrix created by two answers to each of two questions about the discipline: “knowledge for whom?” and “knowledge for what?” (Buraway 2005, p. 269). The two possible types of knowledge (instrumental and reflexive), and the two possible types of audience (academic and non-academic) define the four types of sociology. The type which seems to most closely fit the paper discussed is public sociology, although it also has elements of the other types. Burawoy himself suggests that distinctions between the types are blurred (Nichol 2007). Public sociology is characterised by reflexive, rather than instrumental knowledge, and is written for a non-academic audience. Reflexive knowledge looks at the “value premises of society as well as our profession” (Burawoy 2005, p. 269), with instrumental knowledge having a problem-solving nature and lack of questioning of the parameters which constrain it.Burawoy also suggests that public sociology is characterised by communicative models of knowledge, consensus models of truth, legitimacy models of relevance, designated public models of accountability, public dialogue models of politics, and faddishness as a pathology.Public sociology, further, can be either ‘traditional’ or ‘organic’. Traditional public sociology occurs when sociologist’s work simply happens to make its way into the public realm. Organic public sociology occurs where the sociologist works closely with the public (Burawoy 2005).
Bone and O’Reilly’s paper reports the results of an ongoing survey into the social consequences of the recent increase inUKhouse prices. The survey includes a number of data sources including media and academic texts, internet housing forums and case histories. The rationale for carrying out the research is to show that “secure and affordable housing” is “an essential foundation of stable and cohesive societies” (Bone and O’Reilly 2010, p. 231) through an analysis of the various data sources. There are a number of key findings. Bone and O’Reilly suggest that the causes of boom are not, as has been argued, increased demand and lack of supply: rather, the banking and financial industries have played a key part in creating the rise in prices, together with the ‘buy-to-let’ movement and property developers, supported by the UK government. The social consequences of the boom have been severe, with houses seen as an investment rather than a place to live. A large number of people have been priced out of the housing market. This has led to feelings of disenfranchisement, depression and anger. Family life has been undermined, as well as the community life. Areas deteriorate physically, and people delay having families. There are also inconsistencies between government policy on housing and their wider objectives. The authors conclude that the housing boom has benefited investors at the expense of communities. Government policies around housing have a high social and moral cost. Cheaper housing, particularly for those on a low income and young families, is needed in order to restore social equilibrium, cohesiveness and fairness.
The methodology used in the research is a mixture of secondary research, drawing upon published sources, and primary research, carrying out case studies amongst those affected by the housing boom.Although there is some detail about information sources, the authors do not explicitly discuss or attempt to justify this methodology, nor discuss any possible shortfalls in collecting the data.
The conclusion suggests that the author’s hope for change as a result of the research. By offering a perspective other than an economic one on the housing price boom, they seem to want to challenge current public policy on house prices, on social, economic and moral grounds,. Their paper is a call to change policy in order to act in the long-term interests of the public overall, rather than in the interests of a small, powerful minority. It is not clear who funded the research, as the authors do not discuss it, but given the critical stance it is unlikely it is funded by government.
The model chosen as most appropriate to this paper is ‘public sociology’. The features which characterise this model are:
Communicative mode of knowing
Consensual model of truth
Relevance model of legitimacy
Designated public models of accountability
Public dialogue models of politics
Pathology – faddishness
Either ‘traditional’ or ‘organic’.
The paper demonstrates reflexive, rather than instrumental knowledge.It does not just collect views of the people interviewed or summarise the data collected about the housing market, but rather uses the data gathered to support the idea that public policy on housing needs to be revised. For example figures regarding house prices and mortgage lending are used to support the idea that “excessive and risky” lending was taking place (Bone and O’Reilly 2010, p. 236).
Although the paper appears in an academic journal, the British Journal of Sociology, which suggests the primary audience is academic, the language used in the article is straightforward and can be understood without specialist knowledge. This suggests the article is also targeted at a non-academic audience, and hence can have a life beyond the constraints of the academic world.
The mode of knowledge featured in the paper is clearly not theoretical, and theoretical concepts are barely discussed. Nor is it foundational, associated with critical sociology and questioning the theoretical tenets of the discipline. Rather, it has elements of ‘concrete’ knowledge, associated with policy sociology, as it deals with specifics, but more predominantly features ‘communicative’ knowledge, knowing as sharing and disseminating information. The discussion of the ‘buy-to-let’ phenomena, for example, does not merely state facts about buy-to-let, but aims to communicate a message about the destabilisation of the market.
In regards to the mode of truth assumed by the article, a consensual model, in which the sociologist aims to work with the public to achieve agreement about the world, is used. For example the authors use examples from case studies to draw a conclusion about the extent to which society has disenfranchised the young and less well-off.
In terms of legitimacy, the paper primarily utilises the relevance model associated with public sociology, in that the argument aims to be relevant to the current housing situation and the best interests of the majority. However, it also tries to put across a moral vision, which Burawoy associates with critical sociology, by suggesting that there is a moral imperative to provide good quality housing to all, and to some extent displays the pragmatism associated with policy sociology, in that the authors justify their conclusions on economic grounds as well as social and moral.
The accountability of the authors is c that of the ‘designated publics’ of the public sociology model: their aim is to suggest improvements in the good of the wider public and society as a whole, rather than looking to their academic peers, paying clients or intellectuals.
In terms of policy, Bone and O’Reilly’s paper displays elements of three of the four of Burawoy’s models. They are concerned with professional self-interest, but there is also an element of policy intervention, associated with policy sociology. For example, their conclusions include suggestions forUKgovernment regarding the need to address the housing crisis. While they do not explicitly articulate the ‘internal debate’ associated with critical sociology, their paper is intended to stimulate a wider debate. Finally, the paper also fits into the ‘designated publics’ model of public sociology, as they want to inform a more general audience in addition to government.
In terms of the associated pathology, the closest seems to be ‘dogmatism’, associated with critical sociology, rather than the ‘faddishness’ associated with public sociology. Occasionally the authors seem to state their case rather than clearly prove or argue it from the evidence they give. For example, in the section discussing buy-to-let and the private rented market, the authors could have considered whether it is possible to change the market typical of theUKto one more akin to the German one, rather than dismissing it as an option.
Finally, in terms of the ‘traditional’ and ‘organic’ dichotomy, the paper seems closer to the ‘organic’ type of public sociology, as the authors sought the views of the public through forums and case studies to actively engage with a wide range of opinions.
3. Evaluation of the model
There are a number of advantages and disadvantages to the ‘public sociology’ model of practicing sociology.
Public sociology offers a way for sociology to provide value to society in general and the public. In addition, by becoming aware of the complexities of the outside world, sociologists can improve their practice and the discipline as a whole (Nyden et al 2011). While the benefits offered to the discipline are not obvious from Bone and O’Reilly’s paper, it is a clear attempt to contribute something to public debate about housing.
In terms of critiques of the model, many concern the relationship between professional and public sociology. It has been suggested, for example, that there is no need to identify a unique type of sociology, but that professional sociology, for example, could extend its public face (Nichols 2007). Some also suggest that professional sociologists already take on public roles (Goldberg and van den Berg 2009). Goldberg and van den Berg (2009) also argue that the hegemony of professional sociologists depicted by Burawoy does not, in fact, exist. Holmwood (2007) suggests that Burawoy’s argument depends on seeing the sociologist as at once citizen and scientist, and that this in turn undermines the value of sociology as professional practice and also of the notion of public sociology in its entirety by compromising the professionally neutral stance. Others have also suggested that the partisan nature of public sociology is a problem: it has been said that public sociology has an ideological leaning towards Marxism, and could be seen as a way to reinvent left-wing approaches for contemporary society (Nichols 2007).From a different viewpoint, Jeffries claims that there is also little information about how Burawoy’s ideas can be interpreted into the education of sociologists (Jeffries 2009).
While these criticisms seem valid, the debate about the relationship between the professional sociologist and the public sociologist hardly touches upon the research paper in question. However, the issue of neutrality or bias to one viewpoint is a feature of the paper, which seems to reject market capitalism in favour of a left-leaning, egalitarian focus.
The above has used one of four types distinguished by Burawoy (2005) to characterise types of sociology. The model selected as most appropriate was that of ‘public’ sociology, which seems the closest fit to the paper by Bone and O’Reilly (2005), as it attempts to apply sociological perspectives to a matter of wider public concern: the negative impact of the recent house price ‘bubble’. Although the paper is written in an accessible way, and makes clear points regarding the causes and outcomes of the bubble, and also recommends addressing the issue of housing for economic, social and moral reasons, it also has elements in common with other of Burawoy’s categories.
Bone, J and O’Reilly, K (2010) ‘No place called home: the causes and social
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Goldberg, A and van den Berg, A (2009) ‘What Do Public Sociologists DoA Critique of Burawoy’, Canadian Journal of Sociology, 34:3
Holmwood, J (2007) ‘Sociology as Public Discourse and Professional Practice: A Critique of Michael Burawoy’, Sociological Theory, 25:1, 46-66.
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