A Class Act: interrogating privilege, development and sexual rights

Stephen WoodStephen_Wood200

Over the last quarter century, there has been a conscious shift in the manner by which researchers examine positionality within their chosen fields.  Whilst age, gender, disability, religion and sexual orientation are factors we increasingly consider when undertaking intersectional analysis, the inclusion of class has seemingly become less fashionable.  Have we, as Tony Blair once argued, become a truly classless society?

Not even close. The UK remains a heavily class-stratified society, with attendant inequalities continuing to widen and a discernable lack of representation in politics and the media of authentic working class experiences.  This diminution of working class voices in public life, coupled with the unchecked destruction of the British manufacturing industry from the heyday of Thatcherism, has herald a period in which the working class have found their identities written out of the national narrative. It has created space for the evolution of negative definitions of working class communities, such as the ‘chav’ and ‘Little Britain’ stereotypes, conspicuously the products of middle and upper class commentators and authors.

At the same time, an insidious prejudice has developed against those who attempt to make the links between class privilege and deteriorating living standards for the poorest in society, dismissing them as out of touch or purveyors of the dinosaur politics of envy. Inequality across class boundaries has become the unmentionable middle class dinner table conversation, in favour of denunciations of racial and sexual discrimination, which have become untroubled, fetishised badges of progressive modernity.

Broadening this trend out to encompass both the sexual rights and international development fields, I believe that the legitimacy of many strands of aid programming and policies find their roots in class-based ideology. For many years now, Southern academics have cogently argued that international development itself grew out of upper class dilettantism and a post-colonial white-saviour complex. Expertise within the development field has been measured and articulated through elitist language and even the respected ‘victim narratives’ of the poor (when heard) are mediated and given legitimacy through ‘objective’ Northern voices.

In many of the policies undertaken specifically around sexuality, we see prescriptive control over black and brown bodies. Take as an example the IDS working paper written by Andil Gosine, which examined how population control programmes are conduits through which the anxieties of developed countries around sexuality are rendered visible. By imposing policies to encourage women not to have too many children and instinctively prizing the traditional nuclear family as optimal, Western countries have endeavoured to control and ‘civilise’ the (seemingly) unrestrained sexuality of the Southern subject.

One of the problems the IDS Sexuality and Development Programme encounters when we convene discussion around sexuality has been the sense that it is a trivial issue compared to the core concern of poverty, but this high-minded dismissal frequently disguises conservative ideologies masquerading as evidence – and the regulation of non-normative sexualities. Paradoxically, we can be accused of concentrating upon an issue of no material relevance to development recipients, as though sexual autonomy, choice and pleasure play no part in the experience and aspirations of poorer communities.

We must not confine this tendency solely to Western countries, though. How easily can we depend upon the dominant narratives around sexual identities coming out of southern contexts as being authentic grassroots views?  Who is defining those sexual identities? Dominant elites in the Global South, such as the anti-trafficking lobby in parts of Asia, can represent the anxieties of upper class / caste communities around sex work and whose concerns dovetail with western European concern around migration, but not the lived experience of marginalised communities for whom sex work is a daily reality and for some, an informed choice. Minority sexual rights movements for whom the term LGBT has limited relevance find themselves using this Western-coined framework in order to access desperately needed resources from aid agencies and philanthropic donors.

In order to have confidence in the dialogues we undertake with individuals in the Global South, we need to interrogate our own privilege reflexively and conduct an honest evaluation of those individuals and organisations we undertake partnerships with and the decision-making process by which we decide to work with them. The risk of self-selected partnerships that reinforce our ideologies and retain old North/South power relations can go easily unnoticed, especially for veterans of the aid field. As my colleague Rosalind Eyben argued in her recent blog post around reflexivity “How does power operate to foreclose new ways of thinking and challenge our assumptions?”

In my experience, those who choose to work around sexual rights do so for a variety of motives: representing their communities, risking their physical safety to affect social change – and sometimes for legitimately economic motives, as well as political and social mobility. How can we encourage our partners to examine and share their own positionality if we fail to hold up the same mirror to ourselves?

It sometimes feels quaint or antagonistically unreconstructed to insist upon a class analysis in the way we structure and conceive our research projects, the choice of partnerships we undertake and the sites of our study, but as others within the Participation, Power and Social Change research team are the first to argue, lines of power are buried deep in everything we do, unremarked and unchallenged.

As the development industry continues to experience a crisis in democratic legitimacy, aid practitioners (and in my view, the Institute of Development Studies itself) should reflect on how to evolve and adapt to the changing global development context by undertaking a class audit of our cadre of researchers and students. We must ask ourselves whether we are truly representative of those communities we aspire to partner alongside and if not, what this might mean for us strategically moving forward. Can we truly say with confidence that the co-creation of the knowledge we undertake represents a dispassionate analysis or does class or caste continue to leave a subjective thumbprint over our research findings?

Stephen Wood is a Researcher on the Sexuality and Development Programme within the Participation, Power and Social Change research team at IDS. He can be found on Twitter as: StephenWood_UK

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3 Responses to A Class Act: interrogating privilege, development and sexual rights

  1. Sarah Jack says:

    At last!

  2. Carrie Ahrens says:

    Brilliant blog and very refreshing to read. One of the biggest things I struggle with in the development field is how (unexamined) privilege contributes to perpetuation of inequality despite being in the name of a particular anti-oppression agenda. Your comment about minority sexual rights movements adopting the Western LGBT framework to access funds is an interesting example of this.

    I was wondering if you could elaborate your thoughts on how class plays a role in trivialising sexuality. Is it a result of class interest or of identity interests? Conservative ideologies exist in all classes so it is possible for grassroots movements to have no more (or less) of an ‘authentic’ definition of sexual identity than an institute researcher. No doubt class interests play a role in the overall development agenda, but I am struggling with exploring how much of a role class plays versus how much of a role identity politics play. Are competing agendas for alleviating poverty driven by competing identities (as in how people prioritise their multiple identities)? In this particular case, are people prioritising their class or their personal views/experience of sexuality? If we were to magically resolve the issue of class, would trivialisation go away? When you refer to privilege, do you mean class privilege or identity privilege as well?

    I would love to get your input on this as it is a topic I am very interested in, and I’m very grateful for your post for inviting this kind of much-needed discussion.

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