Why I have joined Y Lab: Introducing Dr Steve Garner

6 November 2019

We are delighted to welcome Dr Steve Garner to the team. In his first blog for Y Lab, he shares his research background and what he plans to focus on next. 

I am a sociologist who specialises in inequalities and identities, especially those to do with ‘race’, ethnicity, class and nation, and they ways in which they intersect with each other. I have published a lot on these areas; in particular, white identities.

I have joined Y Lab having already been at Cardiff for a year, working part-time on an ESRC-funded project about the governance of Further Education in the UK, carrying out Welsh fieldwork.

What relevance has my work to public policies? The ways in which people perceive their own and other people’s group identities impacts on how they feel toward them, and what ideas they hold about them. Ultimately, this feeds into support for and/or opposition to policies: on education; housing, welfare, and immigration, for example.

The ways in which people perceive their own and other people’s group identities impacts on how they feel toward them, and what ideas they hold about them.

Strong feelings about belonging, entitlement to resources (who deserves what and why) comprise the basis for many responses to public policy. Senior leaders and politicians usually try to make policy changes they think will be popular. Attention to such patterns informs leadership and strategic decision-making. However, unless the relevant social relationship is understood properly, the assumptions underlying the policy response will be flawed. Effective policy won’t result from it. A current example is the patterns of experience and outcomes generated by racism within Higher Education. This week’s publication of another report identifying racism as widespread within UK HE brings discussion back to the same rather tired position where the key concept is not clearly understood, even by the state agency carrying out the research. Like discrimination based on gender, sexuality, religion or class, for example, racism is a power relationship. It is not just about interpersonal relations, but longstanding structures and institutional behaviours that produce recognisable patterns. These patterns are expressed in different ways, such as who feels entitled to dictate what is normal, and who has the power to make any challenge to those norms seem ‘unreasonable’ or even ‘threatening’. The type of detail required to make sense of this terrain should not only be quantitative.

I found that in the hundreds of interviews in my research projects about identities in provincial England over the decade prior to 2016, particular patterns cropped up repeatedly in terms of how immigration is understood as a public policy issue, and how people identify with different local and national communities, especially in terms of integration, for example. Public policy researchers need to be aware of the ramifications of the concepts they use, and the social relations in which they make sense of them.

I am looking forward to working on two main areas to begin with. First, helping with the evaluation of the Innovate to Save project, which involves getting to grips with the data collected over the course of the project and sharing the learning from it . I will also be able to contribute through my experience in the use of qualitative methods. Second, I will be having some input into developing research and publishing capacity at Y Lab, by working with colleagues on their plans to turn excellent research into equally excellent publications.