Othering migrants and workers in British television: our article in the European Journal of Cultural Studies, and Brexit

Over Christmas I had an article published in the European Journal of Cultural Studies. In some ways, this was a new departure for me, and in others it was a return or a bringing together of different threads in my work and my life.

It was a new departure in the sense that I’ve never published in a cultural studies journal before, or even particularly identified with cultural studies. I’ve generally regarded myself as quite a ‘hard’, classical Marxist, and haven’t been particularly interested in all this ‘culture stuff’. At the same time I’ve also generally had quite an open approach to theory, drawing on different traditions and experimenting – for example in this article (Open Access version here) that developed out of my PhD, where I take rational action theorists Putnam and Coleman as a point of departure for a radical Marxist reworking of the concept of social capital, as a way of exploring processes of hegemony and resistance. I think that theoretical openness was influenced to a significant extent by my extensive engagement with Paulo Freire while studying to be youth workers – who theoretically characterised himself as sharing a ‘close brotherhood’ with Marx and Christ, in the context of 1960s liberation theology in Brazil (thanks to Tony Jeffs, Jean Spence and others who introduced me to Freire). I might some up my own approach as emobodying a sense of brotherhood with Freire and Lenin. I think there are also some shared humanist sympathies between cultural studies and my work, which can also be connected to Freire (my humanist leanings were picked up by Chris Kyriakides in his review of my book a couple of years ago, which baffled me at the time but I’m now starting to understand).

The engagement with cultural studies, and the close multimodal ‘reading’ of three television documentaries that forms the core of this article, is also a ‘return’ in the sense that my first engagement with university was studying English Literature at Durham University – a great experience but one that I left after a year to change to a degree in Community and Youth Work, as community organising had begun to occupy more and more of my time. The approaches to textual analysis that I developed through studying English literature have had a big influence on my approach to qualitative research. Although I’ve recently become aware of some drawbacks of this for social research and have been experimenting with different approaches, for the analysis of television documentaries a close reading and thematic analysis felt very natural. It was also a departure and return in the sense of beginning to elaborate a more thorough analysis of the media, before returning to my broader analysis grounded in a Marxist analysis of imperialism.

The article is also a new departure in that it is the first thing I’ve written with my partner, Annie, and it was also a return or bringing together for her, in the sense that she used some similar approaches involving discourse analysis as part of her Masters degree, and in the sense that we had been working together in anti-racist and migrant rights activism, involving some of the issues that the article addresses, for the previous ten years.

The article’s journey

The initial prompt for the article was an urgent call for short responses to the Benefits Street television series, which was put out by Sociological Research Online in early 2014, and was circulated by my colleague Jamie Harding at Northumbria University. The call had a tight deadline and we did a lot of the intensive analytical work in that early period (including a lot of watching, pausing, arguing around the screen and hunched over sheets of paper in our attic and cutting out chunks of text, rearranging them and sticking onto the wall – see picture below), alongside using Nvivo software. As the deadline approached it became clear that a) we weren’t going to have it finished in time, and b) we had far more to say about these three documentaries than would fit within the 3,000 word limit of the SRO call. We presented an early version of the paper at the annual conference of the Social Work Action Network in April 2014, including a discussion of implications for anti-racist education – this also represented a coming together of my background in youth work, my academic research, and Annie’s professional work as a youth worker and educator. We did some more work on the article and in the summer we sent it out to some critical friends who knew far more about this stuff than us – Majid KhosraviNik for his expertise in Critical Discourse Analaysis, Veit Schwab for his critical take on border and migration discourse, and Akwugo Emejulu for her knowledge and experience with anti-racist education. We got back wonderfully detailed – and sometimes very tough! – comments from all three, and we are very grateful for their input at that early stage.


We did some more work on the article into 2015 and sent it out to two journals who were encouraging but didn’t feel it was a good enough fit with their aims and readership, before getting an invitation to resubmit with major revisions for EJCS. The reviewers were very helpful in some respects but both seemed to have some pretty fundamental disagreements with our theoretical approach. Because of this I was pessimistic about the outcome of our resubmission, but we did the work (while making a defence of our core theoretical positions) and were pleasantly surprised to have the article accepted in autumn 2016, nearly three years after we started writing it. In the course of all this the article lost its more applied focus on anti-racist education, which unfortunately just didn’t fit in the end, and developed more engagement with cultural studies and the work of Bev Skeggs and others writing about reality TV and John Corner‘s work on documentary, all of which we found extremely useful. As part of the article’s development we also took up some of the ideas developed in the article on social capital that I mentioned earlier.

Final reflections

The article started off as an attempt to give a rapid response, at a key moment when restrictions on Bulgarian and Romanian migrants had just been lifted (although further restrictions were rapidly imposed) and the media was full of alarmist anti-migrant propaganda (although as we argue in the article it was a bit more complicated than that). Having the article published now, from the vantage point of Brexit, is useful in showing that the discourse which played a major role in driving Leave vote – in particular the idea that there is a conflict of interests between ideologically constructed categories of ‘migrants’ and ‘British workers’ – has been promoted for years by the very same establishment that expressed such alarm at the outcome of the vote. I didn’t vote in the referendum, regarding it as fundamentally a choice between two equally reactionary imperialist blocs, but contrary to what many people in both the Remain and Leave camps would probably say, our analysis suggests that far from a popular rebellion the Leave campaign victory was the logical conclusion of the hegemonic discourse of the British ruling class – with their racism they dug their own grave and plunged themselves deeper into crisis.

The final published version of the article is available here and if you have trouble accessing it also here. I’ll also be presenting the paper as part of the British Sociological Association annual conference in Manchester in April (9am on the first day of the conference!). As always comments, criticisms, or other responses are very welcome.


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