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  • Naoimh McMahon

From comparing causal stories to disentangling the 'work' of critique

Updated: Mar 25

In my previous post, I shared how key realisations during the first half of the fellowship have challenged aspects of the original proposal and the thinking that underpinned it. I've come to appreciate, from my reading across multiple different sectors, that when people are questioning dominant accounts of inequalities, they are often doing much more than simply offering up a competing causal story. This is especially the case in 'critical' scholarship and activist movements where the aim is show that knowledge and meanings are not fixed or set in stone, that it is possible to think about things differently, and in doing so, aspire to more fundamental change. This learning has challenged me to broaden my own perspective and more fully engage with what I'm calling the 'work' of critique. In this post and the next, I set out how I'm working towards this goal and the revised framework for the research.

Asking the right questions

At the outset of the fellowship, I was guided by Entman's definition of framing [1], and the four classic questions that follow:

  1. How have inequalities come to be recognised or defined as a problem?

  2. What are identified as the causes of these inequalities?

  3. What are the proposed solutions or remedies based on this assessment?

  4. What is the justification for action?

These questions served me well in identifying 'dominant' accounts of inequalities found within government policies and reports, and the research studies they draw upon. However, these same questions worked less well when trying to capture the most interesting and important insights from scholars and activists who were providing a critique of, and challenge to, dominant framings of inequalities across sectors.

Cover photo of the Liberty report on non-policing solutions to serious youth violence

Two texts in particular have helped me to make sense of this sticking point and identify a way forward. The first is Erik Olin Wright's Envisioning Real Utopias [2]. It was in working through the structure of this book that I came to appreciate the distinct tasks of critique and the importance of going beyond diagnosing what is problematic about current arrangements, to actually offer up meaningful alternatives and how they might be realised in practice. A brilliant worked example of this is a report from Liberty on non-policing solutions to serious youth violence (Holding Our Own) [3]. Through a series of case studies, the authors systematically set out what needs to be 'dismantled' in terms of harmful knowledges and practices around serious youth violence, and paint a picture about what could be put in place, highlighting examples of good practice, and how ambitions can be realised in the short and long term.

These resources helped me to produce a refined set of analytic questions to guide the research. When working through critical accounts from across the four cases (early years, youth justice, housing, and health), I'm now asking the following questions:

  1. What dominant influences shape how inequalities get framed? (Identify)

  2. What are the problematic consequences or effects of these? (Diagnose)

  3. What explains their persistence or what sustains them? (Explain)

  4. What alternatives are offered up to overcome the identified shortcomings? (Advance)

  5. How could such alternatives be implemented or realised in practice? (Articulate)

In this post, I'll provide some examples to illustrate what I'm finding for questions one to three. In the next post, I'll say more about interrogating the alternatives.

Identify dominant influences

An important first step in my reading is getting clear on what exactly is the target of critique for different authors. While it can be causal stories around inequalities, more often than not authors are taking aim at more fundamental influences that shape what problems make it onto the agenda, and how they are ultimately framed for action. These influences might be 'intellectual' (e.g., ideas, worldviews, valued knowledges), 'infrastructural' (e.g., departmental siloes, governance arrangements), or 'political' (e.g., electoral timeframes, ministerial preferences). There is an analogy that Caroline Slocock uses that I think captures the nature and purpose of this activity very well. She talks about the importance of 'getting under the hood' of government institutions to really understand their mechanics and why they operate in the ways that they do.

Diagnose problematic effects

The second step is to pick out why certain influences are deemed to be problematic. For example, the role of target setting within public sector institutions is regularly singled out for critique. The issue is that very often there is broad recognition about the role of wider social and economic inequality in shaping outcomes. However, this perspective tends to get lost or squeezed out as the pressure mounts to agree quantifiable targets against which the performance of different public services and organisations can be measured. Inequality, as a result, gets reframed and over simplified as a problem of the individual attributes of particular social groups (e.g., knowledge, attitudes, and behaviours). This can lead to a proliferation of services and interventions to try and correct for such 'risks', but while leaving untouched the unequal social and economic conditions that give rise to them.

Explain why dominant influences persist

A valuable insight from Envisioning Real Utopias [2] is that in order to change or disrupt the 'mechanics' that give rise to particular ways of thinking and working, you first need to thoroughly understand what sustains them. One illustrative example that consistently crops up across the cases is the alignment that exists between policy 'problems' and the production of research knowledge. Researchers are increasingly rewarded (i.e., funded, promoted) based on their ability to generate 'knowledge' that meets the immediate needs of decision-makers and practitioners, thus delivering 'research impact'. Although a laudable goal in many ways, one unhelpful consequence of this is a focus on research that fits with and actually reinforces dominant ways of thinking and working rather than opening them up for scrutiny, creating space to ask different questions, and exploring alternative approaches. (Thank you Wellcome Trust for giving me the opportunity to do this!)

More in common?

The project is still ongoing but as time goes by I feel more confident in my initial sense that there is a shared experience across different parts of the public sector in how inequalities get offered up as a 'problem' to be addressed. Delving into the writings of critical scholars and activists from across the cases has helped me to see that this shared experience is symptomatic of deep-seated ways of thinking about or 'attending to' the world and how these ultimately play out in the 'mechanics' of public sector organisations. It has also shown me that these 'dominant' ways of thinking and working are not insurmountable. As Erik Olin Wright would say, there are 'cracks in the edifice' and there are also plenty examples across all spheres (research, policy, practice, voluntary sector, publics, and grass roots activists) of people trying to open up these cracks and create space for alternative perspectives and approaches. In the next post, I will say more about how I'm trying to capture examples of these alternatives and what they are trying to achieve.

[Note: This is the second post in a set of three]


Thankfully, I am not muddling through this project alone! Please have a look at this page which gives more information and due credit to the advisory group whose experience and reflections are also shaping the work.


[1] Entman, R. M. (1993). Framing: Toward clarification of a fractured paradigm. Journal of Communication, 43(4), 51-58.

[2] Wright, E. O. (2010). Envisioning real utopias. Verso Books.

[3] Liberty (2023). Holding Our Own: A guide to non-policing solutions to serious youth violence.

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