“Joining the dots”? The role of research in the ‘troubled families’ agenda

“Joining the dots”? The role of research in the ‘troubled families’ agenda

Stephen Crossley, Durham University

When Boris Johnson eventually cut short his holiday to return to London to deal with the fallout from the riots in London in 2011, he warned that it was ‘time that people who are engaged in looting and violence stopped hearing economic and sociological justifications’ for what they were doing. A few days later, in his ‘fightback’ speech David Cameron suggested it was only necessary to ‘join the dots’ to realise that bad parenting lay behind young people’s involvement in the riots.

If sociological justifications are unhelpful and all that is required to understand the cause of the riots is a simple ‘joining of the dots’, what role, if any, does social scientific research have in one of the government’s most important and high profile programmes?

In tracing the history of the ‘underclass’ thesis from ideas about the Victorian residuum through to the current concern surrounding ‘troubled families’, John Welshman has noted that a recurring feature of that history has been a belief amongst interested parties that more research was necessary to better understand or, in some cases, prove the existence of an ‘underclass’ or ‘problem group’. Perhaps one of the best examples of this, is the large research programme set up by the Conservative MP Keith Joseph in the 1970s to study the idea of a ‘cycle of deprivation’. As well as being seen as a way of supporting such ideas, research has also been used to refute them. Indeed, no researchers have been able to find, or prove the existence of, sizeable groups of individuals and families who are ‘cut off’ from the mainstream, despite many people looking for such groups. This hasn’t, however, prevented 120,000 ‘troubled families’ being singled out and targeted for intervention by the coalition government.

The ‘troubled families’ agenda shares many similarities with previous constructions of problem groups, but the views on the role of research represent a break with previous narratives. Now, it would appear, we know all we need to know about the ‘troubled families’. The Prime Minister, in launching the Troubled Families Programme in December 2011, said ‘we’ve known for years that a relatively small number of families are the source of a large proportion of the problems in society’. He also claimed that we had ‘always known’ that these families cost an extraordinary amount of money and that we now had the ‘actual figures’.  Louise Casey, the Director General of the Troubled Families Programme,who once famously threatened to deck ‘No. 10’ if they said ‘bloody evidence based policy’ to her once more’ has also claimed that ‘we have known that there is a group of families who didn’t work in the boom times and won’t work in the bust times.’ 

Fortunately, despite these statements ‘closing off’ the need for research in this area, some academics haven’t been put off too easily. Ruth Levitas and colleagues in the Poverty and Social Exclusion team have highlighted that the figure of 120,000 ‘troubled families’ originally came from research looking at families experiencing multiple disadvantages’.  She has further argued that the idea of 120,000 ‘troubled families’ is a ‘factoid – something that takes the form of a fact, but is not’ and that the government ‘deliberately conflates families experiencing multiple disadvantage and families that cause trouble’. In responding to these criticisms, Casey has sought to downplay the issues stating that ‘I think a lot is made of this, in retrospect, which needn’t be.’ In her interview with The Guardian, Casey went on to say, “I could have said, let’s get a university to spend the next three years studying, who is criminal, not in work, with kids not in school. I tell you what they will show – probably that a lot come from disadvantaged backgrounds” (emphasis added).

We again see that further research is deemed to be not necessary by the government, because it can only tell us what we already know. Part of this ‘knowledge’ has been gained by Casey undertaking her own investigations. She published a report called ‘Listening to Troubled Families’ which included information gleaned from interviews with sixteen families. When a Freedom of Information request was issued by Nick Bailey of Glasgow University, asking for details of the ethical approval process, the Department of Communities and Local Government (CLG) wrote back explaining that such a process wasn’t necessary because the report did not meet the definition of government research and was instead ‘dipstick/informal information gathering.’ A spokesman for DCLG went on to highlight that they were focused on delivery of the programme and ‘not engaging in academic debate’. In giving evidence to a Commons Select Committee, Casey herself said that she ‘never pretended that that was research with a capital ‘R’. I said it was policy, and I am very clear about that.’ A ‘conscious decoupling’ of research and policy is thus made, with the latter apparently not being informed by the former.

Some research is valued by the government, however. Research published by the Department for Education on the day the Troubled Familes Programme was launched showed, according to David Cameron, that Family Intervention Projects (FIPs) were able to ‘get to grips’ with these families and that many such projects were ‘doing brilliantly’. Louise Casey, apparently, is also impressed by the strength of the evidence in support of FIPs:

“What we know works is this thing called family intervention … we know it works because we’ve already looked at studies that show that this works, basically, and also I’ve met countless families that have been turned around”

These studies have largely been government commissioned evaluations. The Department for Education publication that Cameron mentioned at the launch weighs in at over 150 pages, but the reader need only make it to page 7 before the following statement, relating to an ‘Impact Assessment’ of FIPs, can be found:

“There is however limited evidence that ASB FIPs generate better outcomes than other non-FIP interventions on family functioning or health issues, although FIPs do appear to be at least as effective as these alternatives” (emphasis added)

Improvements for families in some areas of their lives are attributed to involvement in a FIP, but, in some cases, these are not statistically significant and it is certainly not possible to suggest that we know that FIPs work, full stop. In truth, a summary of the evidence in relation to FIPs might read something like this

FIPs, according to the outcomes reported by workers involved with some of the projects, appear to sometimes work for some families in some areas of their lives, at least for the time that they are involved with the project.

Such ambiguity, complexity and uncertainty is, however, rarely helpful in selling a flagship social policy aiming to ‘heal the scars of a broken society’, as Cameron said in ending his speech at the launch of the programme.

In tracing some of these responses (and non-responses) to research linked to ‘troubled families’, we can, perhaps, see a pattern beginning to emerge. Decades of research which suggests that there are no distinct, static groups of ‘troublemakers’ at the bottom of our society has been systematically ignored – a clear case of what Tom Slater has called ‘agnotology’. Further research is unnecessary, because we already know about these families and research therefore can’t tell us anything new. Another reason why research may not be necessary is the particularly narrow view that appears to believe that research should not be linked to policy development, but should be there to ‘evaluate’. Government published research relating to families with multiple disadvantages and the effectiveness of Family Intervention Projects appears to have been misrepresented to produce both an estimate of the number of ‘troubled families’ and an off-the-shelf policy fix for them. Requests for clarifications by researchers expressing concerns at the use of research in the Troubled Families Programme have been ridiculed as ‘academic debate’, with their concerns trivialised – ‘a lot is made of this’.

The consistent and deliberate devaluing of social scientific research, past and present, represents a change from previous constructions of the underclass thesis, where the possibilities offered by more research were welcomed by those involved in debates. Unfortunately, at the present time, the government’s position leaves little room for such debate, satisfied as they are with their ‘knowledge’. We can still learn much from the past, however. Richard Titmuss, writing a foreword to a book about the ‘problem families’ of the 1940s and 50s wrote:

“the debate about the ‘problem family’ has been conducted in a singularly uncritical manner. Precision in the use of words and in the observation of phenomena has been generally lacking; heterogeneity has been mistaken for homogeneity; biological theories have obscured the study of psychological and sociological factors; the classification and counting of ‘abnormals’ has proceeded regardless of the need to set them in the context of contemporary social norms; in short, what knowledge has been gained from all these inquiries has not accumulated on any theoretical foundations.” (A.F.Philp and Noel Timms The Problem of the ‘Problem Family’, 1962).

Stephen Crossley is a PhD student in the School of Applied Social Sciences at Durham University. His research explores the discursive construction of ‘troubled families’ as a ‘social problem’. He can be found on Twitter as @akindoftrouble and blog of the same name which can be found here.