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A Phenomenology of Working-Class Experience

Simon J. Charlesworth
Cambridge University Press: Cambridge
0521659159 (pb); 0521650666 (hb)
14.95 (pb); 40.00 (hb)
344 pp

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Simon Charlesworth is angry. He is appalled that academics have paid such little attention to the immense difficulties facing working class people. This book is a sustained piece of controlled passion that seeks to redress this by using the phenomenological arguments of Merlau-Ponty, Heidegger, Wittgenstein and especially Bourdieu to provide an account of working class culture and experience, drawing on interviews carried out in his home town of Rotherham which has witnessed particularly rapid de-industrialisation.

Charlesworth's argument is clear and direct. Far from working class culture being marked by solidarity or resistance, he sees it as characterised by conservatism and by enforced acceptance of the realities of the inegalitarian social order. He emphasises the way that this brute reality of working class life leads to the articulation of a culture of necessity, and to a passivity that can only be denied through the embracing of the hard realities of the everyday. Charlesworth does not so much develop an argument, but rather seeks to deepen this basic point as the book proceeds, by returning again and again to his theme of the dispossession lying at the heart of working class culture. His strategy is to make it difficult for readers to respond to the book at a purely intellectual level. Rather, by writing emotionally, by repeating themes in exaggerated ways, by returning time after time to his main point, he seeks to provoke the largely academic audience who will read this book to question their own perceptions of class. By juxtaposing direct quotation from his interviews with quotations drawn from eminent philosophers he challenges academic boundaries that differentiate the academic canon from everyday experience. This book needs to be read as a political intervention in academic debates and not as a detached account of working class culture, and in this respect it is a model that deserves to be widely read. Compared to the glibness, the easiness, of much synthetic sociology, this project is to be commended.

Charlesworth's strategy allows him to read criticism of his book as the reflex of academic elitism. All the same, I did feel that his book could have been strengthened. Charlesworth does marshall powerful and emotional interview material, which testifies to his skill in establishing a rapport with his respondents, but his lack of respect for the reporting conventions of social research sometimes makes it difficult to know what to make of his findings. He fails to reveal how he obtained his interview sample. It is clear that he knew many if not all the interviewees personally, and it is important to know what kind of sample of the Rotherham working class this represents. He is cavalier about gender. Sometimes he seems to deliberately focus on male working class experience, with provocative asides concerning feminist arguments. Yet around one third of his sample is female and elsewhere he implies that his arguments can be applied for both men and women. Similarly, given his argument that working class culture needs to be seen as arising out of the pre-discursive experience, I was not convinced that the necessarily discursive character of interview material served his purpose better than an ethnographic approach.

At times Charlesworth's apparent contempt for academic research leads him to ignore the relevant findings of the considerable amount of social science that is pertinent to his concerns. His reference points tend to be work of popular journalism or social observation such as those by Ros Coward, Tony Parsons, Will Hutton or Bea Campbell rather than academic research on contemporary working class culture, such as that by Gallie, Beynon and Skeggs (1997). Similarly his account of economic and social change in Rotherham is largely an undigested statistical summary and does not draw on the extensive work in social geography which would allow him to contextualise Rotherham's situation more thoroughly.

Finally, I thought Charlesworth's handling of his interview material was not sufficiently attentive to the specificities of the stories being told. He interprets the accounts told to him as a story of working class experience. However, none of the interviews quoted indicate that his respondents interpreted their lives in these terms: they were much more likely to refer to themselves as 'poor', for instance. This matters, since some of Charlesworth's themes are not that different to claims about the culture of poverty made by Oscar Lewis and subsequent American researchers, and more recently developed in debates about the underclass. Although Charlesworth would resist a reading of his material in these terms, it is possible that his findings could be appropriated by conservative writers within this tradition. There is a striking comparison with how Bourdieu et al report interview material with disdvantaged French people in The Weight of the World (1999). Here popular agency and intentionality is recognised even though lives are characterised by suffering and loss, precisely because the specificity of personal testimonies is retained and not appropriated to a global master narrative.

This challenging book is ultimately, in my view, weakened by these limitations. But is still interesting that there are clear signs that researchers are returning to the issue of class, without any of the utopian baggage of the 1960s, but informed by a recognition that the injustices of class inequality need to inform a critical sociology. This book will help advance this agenda and should be welcomed for these reasons.

Mike Savage
University of Manchester

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