Researching Relationships: Family, Friendship and Community in Cullercoats

Guest post by Professor Alison Stenning

Both academic and more popular narratives suggest that the apparently individualising impulses of neoliberalism, together with increasing geographical mobility and connectivity, erode the value of local, personal relationships (with, for example, family, friends and neighbours). Yet relationships remain at the heart of our everyday lives. They create an environment that ‘contains’ us, allows us to keep going and to tolerate stresses of various kinds, and the value of such relationships is increased, not decreased, at a time of economic crisis. Insecurity, vulnerability, loss and anxiety are experienced by many as they face the considerable economic, social and emotional challenges of austerity, and the contribution that local, personal relationships might make to weathering these challenges is a critical concern.

 The effects of over four years of economic crisis have been widely felt but they have also been uneven, socially and geographically.  Socially, the so-called ‘squeezed middle’ has been identified as being particularly susceptible to ongoing crisis and cuts. Although definitions of this class are vague, the Resolution Foundation suggests that it consists nationally of some 6 million working, home-owning households with a gross income of something like £12-40,000. These households are not living in poverty but are increasingly insecure and vulnerable to the threat of labour market, cost-of-living, and tax and benefit changes. Geographically, the UK’s northern regions, and in particular the North East, have been disproportionately affected by job loss, public sector cuts and pay squeezes.


This new research project seeks to explore how, in the contemporary context of crisis and austerity, the personal relationships that shape communities (between families, friends, neighbours etc.) enable so-called ‘squeezed middle’ households in Cullercoats, North Tyneside to negotiate social and economic challenges and achieve material and emotional security. This might be through the moral support they offer, or because they give time, or money, or other kinds of help that make it easier for families to get by. An innovative psycho-social approach is being developed, placing emphasis on and exploring the intertwining of social and emotional dynamics in everyday life.

This focus on relationships has developed out of previous research. In a project on households and neoliberalism in Poland and Slovakia (with colleagues Adrian Smith, Darek Swiatek and Alena Rochovska), we concluded that the families that struggled most with tough economic circumstances were those without good relationships with family, friends and neighbours, who found themselves isolated from all sorts of support networks, through which information, money, and love, amongst other things, might flow.

This idea led me to the work of the British object relations school. As far as I understand, the British object relations school of psychoanalysts (including Melanie Klein, Ronald Fairbairn, Donald Winnicott, John Bowlby, Wilfrid Bion and others) argued that the primary human motivation is relationship-building (not sex or death, as Freud would have it). They argued that humans need important others and seek relationships to build a sense of self and identity and to feel secure, ‘contained’, or ‘held’ and to fend off anxiety. For these psychoanalysts, our relationships create a ‘holding’ or, later, ‘facilitating’ environment that, hopefully, is good enough to enable our well-being, within which we can be and be ourselves. Our ‘natural’ state is one of (inter)dependence. This idea is linked primarily to our earliest intimate relationships, with our mother, and then our father, and then our other close family and friends. But the idea of a holding or facilitating environment might be extended, to the community, our friendship networks, clubs and teams, workplaces and, even, the social world of the state. This is an idea that other social scientists (such as Martha Nussbaum and Valerie Walkerdine) have developed in different ways and, in this project, I’m interested in exploring it further, both conceptually and empirically.

To do this, I’m exploring psycho-social methodologies (such as those developed by Wendy Hollway, Simon Clarke, Paul Hoggett and Valerie Walkerdine) with the hope that they might allow me to think about the conscious and unconscious dynamics at play in the everyday lives of my interviewees, to think about their hopes, desires, anxieties and identities and how these are shaped by the interplay of their experiences of austerity and their relationships. At the moment, this means I’m setting up narrative interviews with ‘squeezed middle’ households in Cullercoats, aiming to achieve something approaching free association around the theme of relationships and austerity, coupled with personal community mapping (following Liz Spencer and Ray Pahl) and a relationship diary exercise. And I’m also trying to think more about my place in the research process, scrutinising what I bring to the research and what I have invested in it.

This is very much pilot research at this stage. I’m trying out new methodologies and pushing myself in new ways, and I’m also beginning to think through new ways of representing my research in new places (hence my blog and my first foray into Twitter). I’m very keen for feedback, for contacts and for suggestions about this research: this is just the beginning….

Alison Stenning

alison photo may 2013

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