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TCRU@50: A listening, thinking and hopeful vocation

By Blog Editor, IOE Digital, on 2 March 2023

Illustration of book covers, by TCRU artist in residence Nora Wuttke

Illustration of book covers, by TCRU artist in residence Nora Wuttke.

Les Back, Glasgow University, with an introduction by Mette Louise Berg.

2023 marks the 50th anniversary of the Thomas Coram Research Unit, a leading centre for research into children, parenting and families. Throughout the year we will be running a series of events and activities to reflect on the unit’s past, present, and future. For our first anniversary event we were delighted to be joined by former TCRU colleague, now Professor of Sociology at Glasgow University, Les Back. In conversation with former TCRU co-director Professor Ann Phoenix (UCL) and Dr Sivamohan Valluvan (Warwick University), the three speakers reflected on race, multiculture, and conviviality in the shadow of Brexit, COVID, and the Windrush scandal. Here we publish an abridged version of Les’ comments at that event, sharing his reflections on the ground-breaking work carried out by TCRU on race and identity, its formative influence on his own scholarship and career, and the importance of hope and listening in research.

Les Back.

Before joining TCRU in 1988, I was languishing as an unfunded part-time PhD student and youth and community worker, hustling to try and make a living and do research. Across the two, I was trying to find ways to make sense of what it meant to be young in that moment within urban multicultural districts like South-East London. Social division and racism coexisted in the same streets with kaleidoscopic forms of urban culture that could not be reduced to unitary or singular identity labels. It was then that I heard about a project being conducted by Barbara Tizard and Ann Phoenix at TCRU on the experience of mixedness that was in many ways stimulated by the debate about transracial adoption. This would later result in Ann and Barbara’s historic study Black, White or Mixed Race? Race and Racism in the Lives of Young People of Mixed Parentage, originally published in 1993 and still in print today. The clue to this style of critical research was in the title; identity and subjectivity are treated less as a ‘fixed fact’ but an open and undecided question.

I was delighted to subsequently join the TCRU team. I remember Ann introducing me to colleagues on my first day: ‘This is Les, he’s an urban ethnographer’. I remember thinking silently ‘that sounds cool’. I have been trying to live up to that vocation ever since. My contribution at TCRU was in providing ethnographic portraits and fieldnotes on young people’s experience of identity, racism and exclusion. By then I had been doing fieldwork for almost four years, and for most of that time I wasn’t sure whether I was going to write about these communities or work within them. Getting this opportunity really was a turning point and without it I would have never finished the project that I eventually published as New Ethnicities and Urban Culture: racisms and multiculture in young lives, in 1996.

I want to make a few observations about TCRU as a place of crafting knowledge but also comment on why those ideas mattered and their enduring significance. From Ann, I learned the virtue of painstaking attention, and to see the process of doing research as not merely collecting ‘data’ but attending to the complex human texture of experiences through listening, listening, listening, and listening again. This crafted attentiveness is not a matter of just being there or recording on a device the voices of people, but living with the fruit of that proximity and life passed in living. It takes time, there are no shortcuts.

The research ethos at TCRU cultivated an attentiveness to the human complexity of multicultural lives and identities, but also a search for more adequate ways to theorise and explain those experiences from communities of thinkers who were close to them or part of them. I want to celebrate the fearlessness of many of those thinkers like Ann, but also Parminder Bhachu – who also worked at TCRU – and in 1985 had written a brilliant ethnography of South Asian experiences called Twice Migrants. Also, Paul Gilroy, who was on the advisory board of Ann and Barbara’s project. All three were incredibly encouraging colleagues and they instilled conviction and purpose. It is important to say that this brave generation of researchers made what has come after them within the academy possible and TCRU was a place where this was happening.

At that time, minority communities were subject to pathologizing ways of being researched. Racism was often expressed through cultural terms and academic knowledge was sometimes complicit with them. As Gilroy commented in his influential book There Ain’t No Black in The Union Jack, young people were cast as either ‘victims’ or ‘problems’, caught ‘between cultures’ or suffering from an ‘identity crisis’. In the era of the ‘Tebbit test’, many writers were trying to find ways to conceptualise emergent popular forms of multiculture through notions of ‘cultural hybridity’ (Bhabha) or ‘cultural syncretism’ (Gilroy) and different conceptions of selfhood. This might be characterised as replacing ‘either/or models of identity’ and the sense that young people of migrant heritage were ‘caught between’ with a sense of ‘and/and’ selfhood and patterns of culture that are made, not between but across place and time. Another aspect of what TCRU’s work anticipated was the complexity at the heart of how racism worked. We were exploring how racism can work as a filtering and ordering form of power that both assimilated and excluded difference simultaneously.

In reflecting on the research craft and political sensibility of TCRU, including its openness to the new theoretical and political intellectual voices emerging out of multicultural life, it would be misleading to remember this as a seamless, easy, progressive process. These ideas were not always popular and were challenged from across the political and cultural spectrum, within and beyond the academy.

Looking back, I think the style of attention that I learned at TCRU is hope’s work: to attend to those experiences that are unremarked upon and ignored and try and give them a name that both honours those experiences and changes the terms of understanding. I think of what Ann said as another aspect of ‘co-hoping’, as Ghassan Hage puts it: to note and notice the accumulation of this legacy in the generations of scholars who have followed. This to me is represented in the literature reviews of PhD students – two I’ve read in the last few months – that feature extended engagements with Ann and Barbara’s study Black, White or Mixed Race?. This, to me, is a realisation of scholarship as a shared commitment to being socially attentive, and the vocation to listen, think, and hope.

Listen back to our TCRU@50 roundtable ‘Race, multiculture, and conviviality in the shadow of Brexit, COVID, and the Windrush scandal’, or launch this podcast in your preferred podcast listening app.

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