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Knowing Your Place

Crabs in Barrels

Recent research in the social sciences indicates the power of neighbourhoods as a key factor in the reproduction of social class differentials (poor neighborhoods key in income difference, study finds). Working in the North American context, researchers have found that “being raised in poor neighbourhoods plays a major role in explaining why African American children from middle-income families are far more likely than white children to slip down the income ladder as adults”.

This is important research that attempts to take seriously the role of location as a mediator of class and ability. But logically a neighbourhood, a geographical area consisting of houses, roads, shops and utilities cannot regulate human behaviour like
other humans can. Nevertheless, many neighbourhoods act like poorer versions of
gated communities – much less difficult to get into, but much more of a problem getting out.

It is at this juncture that the problematic (to some) phrase ‘crabs in a barrel’ rears its head. Instead of rejecting such a loaded term, however, the opportunity should be provided to discuss its parameters without resorting to cynical and thoughtless accounts of moral weakness and cultural deprivation – blaming poverty on the poor the worst blame game of all.

But what are the mechanics of this phenomenon? How does the relational world regulate the performances of others? This is where some of the more powerful weapons in the relational’s arsenal come into their own. The power in particular of reputation, respect and status, allied to the forces of resentment and envy, alongside the desire to belong and be accepted, makes for a heady cocktail of pressure and incentive. The loss of just one of these forces in people’s lives can leave a damaging trail of hurt and misery, which, in the context of poverty and economic desperation,
can be often too much to bear or even contemplate. Consideration of external regulation should also be taken into account, the dangers of rejection, exclusion and humiliation providing the other side of a double emotional whammy.

Once you start to look, this cocktail of emotions is not difficult to find, as it manifests itself in quite simple yet highly effective regulatory mantras – keep it real, don’t get too
big for your boots
, don’t forget your roots. To be perceived as thinking you’re ‘a cut above’ is social suicide. No-one can afford to be on their own, especially when they can barely afford to live in the first place.

It’s disappointing, then, that research on the sociology and geography of neighbourhoods tends to have an awkward relationship to the relational, preferring instead to offer up the likes of culture and habitus as regulatory/mediating mechanisms. Alongside the avoidance of emotions (in many cases), part of the problem lies in the fact that researchers don’t wish to resort to theories of deprivation or individual failure. But the fact is that ‘crabs in a barrel’ as a phrase can be used to illustrate the behaviour of the middle classes as much as their working-class counterparts. The level of relational regulation is just as finely-tuned and efficient, if not more so, among the chattering classes (it explains so much of the chatter for a start). Social class and the relational are not one and the same thing – it’s when they intersect, however, that the sparks start to fly.

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By Mark Murphy

Mark Murphy is a Reader in Education and Public Policy at the University of Glasgow. He previously worked as an academic at King’s College, London, University of Chester, University of Stirling, National University of Ireland, Maynooth, University College Dublin and Northern Illinois University. Mark is an active researcher in the fields of education and public policy. His research interests include educational sociology, critical theory, accountability in higher education, and public sector reform.

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