Taking society seriously - my new progressivism, part two - RSA

Taking society seriously - my new progressivism, part two


  • Social brain

Yesterday I offered a new progressive view of the individual. I argued for an explicit commitment to significant advances in human development and well-being, delivered primarily by creating the kind of society conducive to such progress. I recognise the paternalistic, if not arguably authoritarian, overtones of such an argument. My answer to this lies, in part, in the need for a new democratic discourse, something I intend to return to later this week.

As progressives understand the individual as inseparable from the society he or she inhabits I wanted today to make some comments about how new progressivism implies taking society more seriously. More specifically this means three shifts in our ways of thinking and of making policy:

First, we need a credible social evidence base. An important starting point for modern public service reform was the need to develop reliable and useful metrics. Even today, the Government is unveiling a new source of information by encouraging patients to comment on the performance of NHS professionals on an officially sanctioned website. There has been also the development of much more fine grained information about key social indicators; we have access to demographic information and measures ranging from crime levels to morbidity right down to the level of polling districts.

However, this quantitative data is not matched by qualitative insights into the way in which communities (whether local, ethnically, religious or interest based) operate and generate capacity and meaning. It is only when something shocking like the London bombings occur that we get insight into how little we know about the web of subcultures that shape our communities and the attitudes and aspirations of those who live within them.

As I say when I am invited to speak to local authorities, councils should think about switching most of the money they spend on pointless opinion research (asking people things they don’t think about and getting answers that are as likely to reflect ephemeral influences as underlying beliefs) into employing ethnographers or social network analysts (the subject of an important upcoming RSA project). The national and local state spends huge amounts of energy and money blundering about in deprived communities about which they know little beyond the bare statistics.

Second, new progressives should promote an organic understanding of society. This is, of course, an essay in itself. Suffice to say here that the state tends towards a mechanical view of society and the communities within it. Arguably, the left has traditionally been most guilty of a mechanical approach, on the one hand, putting too much faith in the logic of planning while on the other, being insensitive to the impact on community cohesion of changes like rapid inward migration. The state’s (or the third sector’s) intentions in seeking to address problems, add resources and create capacities is commendable. But because this is too often done without an appreciation the way in which behaviours arise from, and changes impact upon, the social ecology, the consequences are at best disappointing and at worst counter productive.

Third, we need a social equivalent of the slow food movement. It is not that taking time is a good in itself but that sustainable and benign change in the ways people live their lives together (changes they themselves are fully part of) can rarely be delivered in a handful of years. By insisting that enduring improvements in community capacity and well-being can be delivered time limited programmes (and even a ten year programme is in fact six or seven years if set up and wind down times are factored in), and by translating this insistence into crude targets, progressives set themselves up to fail and to discredit the very idea of intervention or even social progress.

These points may seem more methodological than political, much less visionary. But people can only be expected to take ideas seriously is they make sense and seem that they might work. New progressives cannot expect successfully to make the case for social strategies to achieve a step change in human capacity and well-being if our account of society itself is shallow, insensitive and unrealistic.

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