Sunday 18 October 2009

Research @ ISCRI

I’ve been trying write the organisational cv for part of my school at UCLan: ISCRI (the International School for Communities, Rights and Inclusion). The challenge is to try to put as succinctly as I can the two dimensions of overlap that characterises it.

At the level of research methods, ISCRI has three overlapping approaches:

1) a practically innovative but theoretically minimal (ie adopting no particular social science research method) approach to community engagement. The approach is ideological rather than theoretical: the communities researched are treated as partners in the research, subjects for rather than objects of, perhaps.
2) a psycho-social research method. Not only is the interaction of the psychological and social of interest but it is (often) approached according to models drawn from the psycho-therapeutic literature.
3) philosophical, phenomenological and conceptual research: the kinds of issues researched are philosophical as much as they are empirically complex and thus conceptual clarification is a necessary aspect of inquiry.

At the level of research subject, the broad concerns are with the nature and norms governing community interaction and cohesion. This might vary from a bespoke inquiry into the needs of a particular and perhaps excluded social community (an ethnic grouping in a particular northern town) to the fundamental norms that should guide our interaction with the natural environment as a whole. (My own research in philosophy of mental healthcare connects to this agenda through understanding the interactions between clinicians and service users. Of course, not everything I do, nor others within ISCRI, fits this. But it a shared central area of research.)

Discussing this yesterday with David Morris (pictured), of NSIP, he asked what role philosophy could have in his own work for social inclusion. I should add that, as an elder of the Institute for Philosophy, Diversity and Mental Health at UCLan, he asked this with a twinkle of the eye (the same ocular twinkle which, together with his silver locks, strongly suggests that he will be giving us his Father Christmas in many an ISCRI panto to come).

David’s work concerns not just issues of social inclusion but also ‘recovery’, construed along the lines of the recovery model in mental health. David expressed an interest in the question of whether intervention (via social policy) aimed at individual recovery was likely to increase inclusion at community level. (Not an a priori truth, it seems to me.) But this, immediately, prompts philosophical as much as empirical questions. What conceptions of inclusion and recovery are in play? And even if one is thought of as a matter for individual subjects and the other for communities, can social inclusion be thought of as individual community recovery?

But more interestingly, if the uber value at the heart of recovery/inclusion is autonomy, and if policy aimed at inclusion aims to track the particular values of individual subjects or communities, is this just a matter of preference satisfaction? And, if so, this prompts the question of the status of those particular values. Surely any decent model of inclusion should include a role for a normative investigation of the values espoused?

(An example: very few people from the Asian sub-continent visit the Lake District National Park despite significant populations within striking distance. Now, there may be active barriers preventing this. But it might also be the result of a lack of education as to just how beautiful and accessible the Park is. And if so, policies for inclusion should challenge those values that help block the thought that the Park is a natural place to go.)

Thus one ought to augment any evaluation of the success of policies of social inclusion with a critique both of individual values and of the models of inclusion and evaluation in play.

David expressed some worry that this might result in direct criticism of the policies. Whilst I am not sure why that would be a problem, if policy agencies are such delicate creatures, one might simply provide a kind of conceptual articulation of the explicit and implicit models being used, the assumptions and values on which they are based, and how other possible assumptions might lead to other possible models. Either way, I can’t see how one could attempt seriously to assess social inclusion without hiring a philosopher for, say, half a day a week at professorial rates.

PS: One result of this lunch time chat was this presentation at Lisbon, and thus this draft paper.