This post was originally written for the BCMCR (Birmingham Centre for Media and Cultural Research) blog.
On 4th December I ran the Craft Economies: Inequalities, Opportunities, Interventions conference, as part of my AHRC Innovation Fellowship project Craft Expertise. The aim of the conference, which took place at STEAMhouse Birmingham, was to highlight and discuss issues around diversity and inequalities in the craft sector, and give presenters a space to share their work on various aspects of craft. We welcomed speakers from around the world and overall were delighted to see the connections being made among a diverse audience of makers, academics and organisations. You can download a PDF of the programme here.
The day began with the keynote from Deirdre Figureiredo (left) of Craftspace in Birmingham. Deirdre, who is also involved with the Craft Expertise project, discussed her journey into craft and the challenges she has faced in the arts and cultural sector. She highlighted some of the recent work Craftspace is doing to explore alternative pathways into a craft career which sit outside of the traditional routes through higher education, such as the Women’s Maker Movement project with Shelanu. The examples show that by working with communities and delivering craft skills training, women in marginalised and diasporic communities can engage with craft, develop skills and explore opportunities to make money from craft. Deirdre ended with a call for individuals and organisations in the room to pledge to get involved in a working group to start addressing issues around inequalities in the craft sector. We were pleased in the end to get 12 people signed up to the working group, so there will be more information released about that in due course.
Deirdre’s keynote was followed by a panel on Craft in the Community featuring Julia Bennett of Crafts Council UK (right), Fiona Hackney of Manchester Metropolitan University and Roberta Comunian of King’s College London. Julia talked about future opportunities in craft, such as the idea of inclusive growth as an alternative mode of craft entrepreneurship which is not necessarily driven by economic imperatives. This had some connections with Deirdre’s call for alternative pathways into craft, and the idea of more social, community-driven models of craft was a recurring theme throughout the day. Fiona’s work on the ‘Maker-Centric’ project and edge places of creativity provided useful insights into community-led craft practice with local and global connections, and the idea of ‘place as process’ when thinking about such projects. Roberta provided a fascinating insight into the role of craft intermediaries in Cape Town, South Africa. She provided more examples of the social and community aspects of craft entrepreneurship which are distanced from market logics.
After lunch I chaired a panel on Global Craft with Charlotte Waelde from Coventry University and Ya-Chao Tu (left) from King’s College London. Both came at the subject of craft in different ways – first Charlotte discussed the important issue of copyright and intellectual property in craft, then Ya-Chiao looked at the relationship between tourism and the craft industry in Stoke-on-Trent and in the Yingge district of Taiwan. Rose Sinclair of Goldsmiths was also scheduled to present in this panel but she unfortunately couldn’t make it. She did kindly record her presentation, which you can listen to here. Rose discusses Black women’s textile practices and the concept of empathic activism as a way of thinking about more inclusive craft economies.
The third panel on craft and sustainability featured presentations by Lauren England of King’s College London, Geetanjali Sachdev (right) of Srishti School of Art, Design and Technology in Bangalore, and Iain Taylor of BCMCR. All discussed the subject of craft and sustainability from very different perspectives. Lauren talked about how early career makers negotiate between balancing passion for craft with sustainability. Geetanjali discussed the role of botany in Indian craft practices, and potential pedagogical benefits. Finally Iain Taylor presented a different take on craft practice using the case of Riffs, and the process of making the journal and its zine editions in short timeframes at events.
The final panel was another chance to explicitly address the issue of inequality and diversity in craft. Rajinder Dudrah chaired a panel which included myself, maker Majeda Clarke, Lorna Hamilton-Brown and Jeanette Sloan of the website BIPOC in Fiber.
We talked individually for 5 minutes each about our take on diversity in craft. I discussed my research so far on the Craft Expertise project, including the experiences some of my interviewees have had of racism and microaggressions in craft. Majeda talked about how when she was growing up, she was discouraged from pursuing a craft career because her family did not consider it a ‘real job’. Lorna described how she was once told that “Black women don’t knit”, so she decided to write about how Black women do knit for her MA dissertation with the Royal College of Art. Jeanette Sloan then introduced the website she founded, BIPOC in Fiber, which provides a platform for BIPOC (Black, Indigenous People of Colour) working in fibre crafts to showcase their work and be part of a community. Jeanette launched a crowdfunder for the website which raised over £32,000 in just 28 days. We finished with a discussion about what could be done to make the craft sector more inclusive. Lorna finished by saying “I have never been invited to the table [of the major arts/cultural organisations]. So I’m just going to make my own table”. Stormzy was often referenced as an example of someone who made his own table and is now reaping the rewards.
The discussion highlighted that there is a lot more to do to make the craft sector more inclusive, and that organisations need to step up and take active steps towards doing this. The Craft Expertise project will continue to work towards providing the evidence base for practical steps and interventions to this end.
A huge thanks to everyone who attended, participated and helped throughout the day. I would particularly like to thank the presenters, BCMCR colleagues Annette Naudin, Rajinder Dudrah and Craig Hamilton, the staff at STEAMHouse, BCU School of Media students Holly Payne, Thomas Sayers and Ollie Hambrook for recording video and photography throughout the day, and the caterers Digbeth Works.
Catch up with Tweets from the day on the hashtag #crafteconomies.
Photography by Ollie Hambrook.
Now that my UKRI/RCUK Innovation Fellowship, Craft Expertise (short name) is off the ground and the first round of interviews and ethnography have been completed, I’m able to share some initial thoughts.
First a quick recap – this project is in collaboration with Crafts Council UK and aims to support greater diversity in the UK craft economy. It follows on from my initial postdoctoral project with the Crafts Council which explored the potential role of social media for supporting diversity in craft. The current project seeks to build on the practical and intellectual contributions of the initial project.
A clear theme emerging from my first 15 interviews with women makers of colour is how their craft is valued. I’ve interviewed women who are relatively well established, as well as women taking part in jewellery beginner courses with a view to potentially starting a small craft business in their community. These are seemingly two opposing ends of the craft practice spectrum, thus the way in which crafts are valued in this context manifests in two different ways. First, in the case of the women who are relatively well established, there is a sense that they have had to work very hard to get their expertise recognised, if it has been recognised at all. In my PhD (to be released as a book next year) I argue that while it is important for cultural workers to be able to signal their expertise, it is imperative that their expertise be recognised an legitimated as such. Only then can they work towards establishing themselves. The problem is, what if entrenched structures mean that your expertise can’t be recognised? Furthermore, what is the point of signalling expertise if cultural leaders and decision makers cannot, or do not want, to see you?
This idea of expertise being dismissed is in evidence among the interviews I have done with the established makers. In many cases their presence at certain makerspaces, or at craft events, has been questioned because of their ethnicity. Some have even been asked if they were there to “tick a box”. Such experiences are discussed in the first episode of the Maker Stories podcast series produced as part of this project, in which I interview London-based designer-maker Jasmine Carey. Many of the women working in craft professionally have been through higher education and developed a level of expertise in their craft. Yet their experiences in a predominantly white, middle class sector are shaped because of the colour of their skin. Their craft expertise is not recognised as expertise, instead they are made to fight for recognition, made to feel as if they don’t belong, or dismissed as a ‘token’, a result of diversity policies which as Sara Ahmed has shown, merely pay lip service and do little to address inequalities.
On the other hand, the women I have been interviewing who took part in a jewellery making course were predominantly migrants from Bangladesh or Pakistan, who live in Birmingham. They fundamentally think of craft as an important practice for wellbeing, mental health and socialising, as well as a useful skill. The free courses enable them to see craft practice as a potential way to make money from small scale enterprise. Primarily for them, craft is a practical skill akin to cooking and cleaning, but with much more potential for self-fulfilment. In this sense the cultural perceptions of craft come into play, whereby the domestic connotations of certain crafts mean that they are not commonly seen as a suitable career choice, as discussed in my report from the previous project.
While perspectives slightly differ across the two participant groups, the commonality is that the valuing of craft is gendered, racialised and arguably, classed. The work on cultural value by Kate Oakley and Dave O’Brien suggests a link between cultural value and inequality, whereby “specific types of cultural consumption are intertwined with who is able to succeed in cultural production” (2015:3). As professional craft in global north contexts has traditionally been associated with white men (because they made up the majority of the membership of craft guilds), women, and especially women of colour, do not inhabit the long-standing norms of this space. Thus, their ability to develop their craft expertise and get it recognised, is made all the more difficult because of these entrenched assumptions about what a craftsman entails. This is evidenced by the fact that according to Crafts Council UK figures, the majority of those working in secure, full-time craft work are white men. These structural issues are compounded by long-standing perceptions of certain types of craft as amateur, domestic and not a viable career choice.
I have more analysis to do on this and my interviews and ethnography will continue into the new year, where I hope to learn more about individual experiences in craft. With participants, collaborators and through further research I hope we can work towards addressing how the craft expertise of minority groups is framed and valued.
As of March 1st I began my new AHRC Leadership Fellows project, continuing my collaboration with Crafts Council UK. The project seeks to develop an empirical and theoretical account of the nature of craft expertise among primarily black and minority ethnic (BAME) women in the UK.
As I have detailed in this blog over the past few years, I have been interested in the nature of expertise in creation, or aesthetic expertise – which I understand as a knowledge of aesthetic codes and classifications, and skill in appropriating that knowledge to produce a work of aesthetic value. I argue that the notion of aesthetic expertise can help us to re-conceptualise and re-imagine what expertise is in cultural work. In turn, I hope this could potentially help to address issues of inequalities and lack of diversity in the sector, because it can help us to understand forms of aesthetic expertise taking place in spaces not traditionally considered ‘creative’ – for example, the domestic space. Indeed craft is often associated with domestic, feminised, ‘amateur’ pursuits. Furthermore, in this ‘post-Etsy’, maker movement-inspired surge in craft practice and enterprise, online spaces tend to be dominated by white, middle-class, western makers and aesthetics. The recent race row in the knitting community as documented on Instagram illustrates the underlying assumptions about who gets to freely position themselves as a potentially ‘expert’ maker, able to make a living from their work. The result is a contemporary craft sector which is not diverse, yet craft practice has been taking place within communities around the world for generations. For some, it is as routine as cooking or cleaning.
Because of craft’s traditionally domestic location among BAME families, it is almost inconceivable that one could forge a career out of making, because it does not represent a secure or prestigious job. Many of the women I have spoken to in my previous research with Crafts Council UK indicate that their parents encouraged them to study law, accounting or medicine instead. The perception of craft within certain communities as a feminised, precarious and primarily domestic pursuit is at odds with the idea of the ‘expert’ – a traditionally masculinised, privileged and powerful figure. How can the idea of the ‘expert’ be claimed (or reclaimed?) in craft? Could the (re)claiming of expertise among women makers of colour – the idea that their work involves practical skills which produce work of aesthetic value – help to address issues around the visibility of diverse crafts and makers? These are the questions directing my thinking throughout this project.
In a practical sense I will be working with Crafts Council UK to produce social media resources for makers, podcasts and policy recommendations. I will be interviewing makers from all over the UK and carrying out ethnography at various maker spaces. I’m looking forward to engaging with more makers over the next two years and hearing about their stories and expertise.
The Creative Economy Engagement (CEEF) project in collaboration with Crafts Council UK is now coming to an end, and there are some exciting outputs from the project which will be posted on the Crafts Council website soon. The most recent blog post updates about the final workshop and next steps are here.
I am delighted to announce that I have been awarded a two-year AHRC Leadership Fellowship which builds on the CEEF project and extends the existing partnership with Crafts Council UK. The funding will allow me to revisit my thinking on expertise and develop a theoretical account of aesthetic expertise in the contemporary craft economy. More details to follow soon.
This is an update on my AHRC funded project with the Crafts Council originally posted on their website.
I am now almost three months into this AHRC-supported Creative Economy Engagement Fund project in collaboration with the Crafts Council. For this project we are looking at how digital technology, mainly social media, could support diversity in craft practice. As stated in my previous blog post, I am looking for women makers from Black and Minority Ethnic (BAME) backgrounds to participate in an interview and a free social media workshop ran by myself. I am still recruiting participants, so if you are interested, or know anyone who is, do get in touch at the email address below.
So far I have carried out eight interviews with makers from London and Birmingham, and already some interesting themes have emerged about the role of social media in craft practice and the specific experiences of BAME women.
Below the main themes emerging from the research so far:
- For the women makers of Asian origin in particular, family and cultural expectations have sometimes made it difficult for them to make a career out of craft initially, because it is expected they would go into a more ‘secure’ or prestigious job. This raises questions about how craft practice, particularly by women, is valued in some cultures.
- Many of the participants are wary of appearing too ‘sales-like’ or ‘pushy’ on social media. Also, some do not feel confident with revealing aspects of their practice or personal lives online, and prefer to keep their social media presence ‘strictly professional’. Such sentiments are also evident in my PhD, my paper with Annette Naudin (Naudin and Patel, 2017) and in accounts of women’s self-promotion by Genz (2014) and Scharff (2015). The lack of confidence with self-promotion may be even more apparent among BAME women, which I am looking to explore further.
- Some participants discussed the tensions between using social media and the nature of their craft practice. Some makers become immersed in the slow pace and detail of making, and for them this is at odds with the fast pace and brevity of social media. This is an interesting theme emerging which raises questions about the role of social media use in craft practice.
- The next steps are to continue recruiting participants for interviews and the workshop, and then arrange and devise the London workshop which will take place in June. I will also be holding a workshop in Birmingham in the autumn. The workshops will involve me sharing some social media skills and tips from my own professional experience working in social media. I also want to work with makers to tailor social media guidance for them, with a view to creating some useful resources.
For more details about this project and if you are interested in participating please contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Since late 2017 I have been working with my colleague Dr Annette Naudin and Professor Jenny Phillimore of University of Birmingham on a report which maps diversity in cultural leadership in the West Midlands. This is part of a larger project on diversity in leadership by the West Midlands Leadership Commission, led by Mayor of the West Midlands Andy Street and journalist Anita Bhalla.
For the report I collected and analysed data on employment and leadership in the cultural industries in the region, focusing mainly on the subsidised arts sector. In the report I suggest that more needs to be done to collect data on cultural leadership in the region, as there are some problems with reporting. Initiatives such as RE:Present16 and ASTONish, both programmes in Birmingham designed to support diverse cultural leadership, are held up as case studies of good practice.
It has been a while since I have posted on this blog and that is because I was busy finishing my PhD thesis and preparing for the viva. That is all done and minor corrections have been submitted, so now I am waiting for that official letter!
Just before Christmas I was delighted to have been awarded an AHRC Creative Economy Engagement Fellowship, working with the Crafts Council. Full details are in this blog post and call for participants but essentially I am looking at how women makers from diverse backgrounds use social media. This is building on initial insights in my PhD research relating to the potential benefits of signalling expertise on social media. The women in particular found the mutuality and aspects of community on social media valuable for their career in creative work, however such online spaces appeared to be quite homogeneous. Focusing on the specific area of craft and working with the Crafts Council to address their priority of diversity, I want to look at how social media can support diversity in craft practice. The project incorporates a knowledge exchange approach comprising interviews and social media workshops with makers.
During this project I also want to think about notions of expertise in craft practice, which I touch on in the thesis but there is much more scope for further exploration. The project is running until the end of October 2018, so keep an eye on my Crafts Council blog for further updates as the project progresses.
Last week I had my final review for my PhD, which is the formal meeting at my University to ensure I am on track and ready to submit by this September. At that meeting I presented my research in five minutes, and I wondered how on earth I could condense my thesis into such a short space. In order to gain some distance and ‘see the wood for the trees’ I borrowed Annette Naudin’s idea to write about your thesis as if someone else is quoting you in their literature review. I found it strange at first but ultimately very useful for presenting three years of work in a few minutes.
So below is my attempt at gaining some distance from my own work. I changed it back to first person for my final review, but this first iteration was crucial for helping me get there in the first place.
Patel (2017) explores expertise in cultural work in greater depth, specifically how cultural workers signal expertise on social media. Her thesis, titled ‘The Politics of Expertise in Cultural Work’, highlights the contemporary relevance of expertise debates in political and popular culture, and uses this context to demonstrate the necessity of individual, everyday expertise in mitigating the risks of an unstable and volatile economic, social and political climate in the West. Focusing on the everyday expertise of cultural workers, including writers, painters, sculptors, composers and craftspeople, Patel provides a novel and timely account of the everyday skills, mastery and technique practised by cultural workers and how their expertise is presented, mediated and negotiated on social media platforms.
She offers a methodological framework for analysing how expertise is signalled on social media, drawing on the signalling expertise framework of Candace Jones (2002) and adapted for a qualitative analysis of expertise on social media. In her research Patel highlights the implications of signalling expertise on social media for cultural labour – such as its role in cultural workers’ everyday practice, how cultural workers negotiate their presentation of self and their expertise on social media, and gendered strategies for signalling expertise.
Patel offers a general definition of expertise which is: “the possession of specialised knowledge or skill, which is recognised by others as legitimate, and accumulated, mobilised and signalled within a particular social context.” Patel also acknowledges the specific forms of expertise required in cultural work, most notably, aesthetic expertise. Drawing on the history of aesthetics as outlined by Martha Woodmansee (1994) and Paul Oskar Kristeller (1951; 1952), she proposes that aesthetic expertise comprises knowledge of aesthetic codes and classifications, and skill in mastering the tools and techniques to produce a work of aesthetic value. Patel demonstrates how aesthetic expertise can be signalled on social media by cultural workers who confidently reveal aspects of the artistic process and discuss it in detail, whilst effectively managing their relationship with their online audience at the same time. A cultural workers’ ability to demonstrate and describe their process and techniques can be enhanced through the affordances of social media platforms by providing work in progress, creating tutorials, or interacting with the audience to produce testimonials and positive feedback which add to their profile.
Some of the implications revealed through the analysis include the pressure cultural workers experience to maintain an online presence, which for some punctuates and adds to daily work pressures. Cultural workers also need to negotiate what to reveal, and what not to, on social media in order to balance the maintenance of their presence with managing the imagined audience. Rather than just promoting their work, Patel reveals that the women cultural workers engaged with other women online more, sharing work and collaborating to attempt to facilitate a wider raising of visibility, which is a much more relational strategy for signalling expertise than the more one-way, promotional tactic of the men.
Patel raises questions about cultural value on social media – as cultural production online is increasingly motivated by engagement and getting the online attention of users. What could a preoccupation with numbers mean for cultural value? While social media platforms present positive possibilities for wider engagement and lowering barriers to access to cultural production, Patel argues that the democratising potential of social media is misleading – those who really want to make a living from cultural work still need the social, cultural and economic capital to make that happen, and social media will not change that. Overall, Patel provides useful insights into the individual experiences of cultural workers, and the politics of expertise in contemporary cultural work.
The distance really helped me to reflect on the key take-away points of the thesis, and of course its contributions to knowledge. It will be interesting to see how much it changes between now and the viva.
In the past week I have had the pleasure of attending two events at the Research Institute for Media and Cultural Economies (CAMEo) at the University of Leicester: Literature, Writing and the Creative Economy on 24 Feb and Co-working Dynamics and the City on 1 March. The themes of both events do not immediately appear to relate to my PhD on artists and expertise, however now that I am approaching the end (I am due to submit this September) I am beginning to think of ways in which I could extend my research or take it in new directions. Both of these events were incredibly useful for that.
Literature, Writing and the Creative Economy
I was interested in this event for a variety of reasons – the opportunity to discuss ideas in a workshop, the fact that a couple of my PhD participants are writers, but mostly because there was going to be a talk by Claire Squires (pictured above) on diversity in the literary economy. Diversity is a theme which I’m sure will influence much of my future research; I’m particularly interested in diversity and expertise. Claire highlighted the entrenched inequalities in the publishing industries around race, class and gender. The most striking point for me was even though the publishing industry is made up mostly of women, men get paid 16% more. Clearly, more men are in ‘expert’ positions in publishing, so what can be done to address that imbalance? (I’m well aware that gender inequality affects most industries).
Claire also highlighted some of the efforts to build diversity in publishing (such as the Jhalak Prize) yet at the same time publishing industry norms continue to reproduce and play up to stereotypes, using this example from Anamik Saha’s work on the rationalising/racialising logic of capital in cultural production. The book covers all depict variations of Asian stereotypes, mainly involving veiled women and the Taj Mahal. This example made me wonder how conscious publishers are that they are adhering to such stereotypes, whether there are guidelines and templates they follow without questioning them, and whether deadlines and workloads constrain their ability to do anything differently?
Rick Rylance discussed the literary economy, revealing that it is among the largest in the world, generating £2bn of the £10bn from the UK’s creative industries annually. He suggested that the literary economy should not be thought of as ‘special’ and a marginal activity, it is very much mainstream. Barriers to access were mentioned and particularly the ‘internship culture’ of the creative industries as one of the contributing factors towards a lack of diversity in publishing at least. Someone in the audience pointed out however that government efforts are too focused on a career ‘pipeline’, which is too linear and not reflective of creative careers. This resonates with my own research in that many of the artists I interviewed went into art and writing as a career change, once they had made enough money in another job to begin a career in cultural work. This is interesting in itself and could be one area for further exploration.
The main takeaway from this event was that though it is a huge industry there are stark inequalities in publishing. As academics we need to think of ways to address this. I think the internship culture does not work – it is not viable for working class people who cannot afford to work for free and it contributes to the class inequalities in the cultural industries. One person suggested apprenticeship schemes instead, which is a potentially more appealing solution because at least people won’t be working for nothing (or next to nothing). I suggested to my workshop discussion group that diversity is linked to social justice – and until wider societal injustices and inequalities are addressed, a lack of diversity will continue to be a feature across the cultural industries.
Co-working Dynamics and the City
I have maintained an interest in co-working and collaboration during my PhD and have written a chapter in a forthcoming book about collaboration, so this event held much appeal for me. The keynote was Melissa Gregg (above) of Intel, and author of Work’s Intimacy (2013) among other publications which have had a huge influence on my own work. Melissa discussed the increase in temporary and contingent jobs in the USA and Europe, and how co-working spaces look to support the ‘digital nomad’. She identified initiatives and forms of co-working in the USA and around the world, and also discussed the ‘gig economy’ (e.g. Uber, Air BnB), crowdsourcing (Amazon Mechanical Turk) and digital freelancing (Upwork) are all a part of flexible yet highly contingent ways of working. Most crucially, Melissa mentioned how some co-working spaces harvest user data, to build user profiles and help determine which ‘type’ of worker they should market their space to.
Melissa’s presentation set up the themes and discussion for the rest of the day extremely well. There were presentations about community and co-working spaces, how co-working space managers act as curators and mediators, (both for me raised questions about diversity and barriers of access to co-working spaces) and some specific examples of co-working initiatives from Birmingham and Leicestershire. What struck me most were the parallels between artists in art studios, and co-workers in these spaces. I was reminded of Angela McRobbie’s (2016) point that nowadays, the cultural worker (the artist) is the model for all workers – self-managing, able to handle precarity, flexible, adaptable and so on. Tied in with the self-management ethos is the growing emphasis on productivity exacerbated by the freelance economy and encouraged through productivity apps to ‘get things done’ as highlighted by Melissa Gregg (2015).
McRobbie argues that the self-management ethos is symptomatic of neoliberal capitalism – the state’s way of placing all responsibility for work and life on the self, so that welfare support can be withdrawn. While those are the similarities between the artist and freelancer, I see similar parallels in terms of space – between the artist studio space and these co-working spaces – they both appear ‘open’ to ‘anyone’ yet can be exclusionary, they can be sites of collaboration, they can be a place to go for people and a marker of ‘professionalism’, there are cost implications and they can have a certain aesthetic designed to appeal to a certain type of person. Like the artist is the model worker, the studio is the model space, and both form the beacon of neoliberal capitalism’s ideal worker and work situation – precarious, flexible and self-managing.
In the final talk I found many crossovers with my own work. The presentation by Carol Ekinsmyth (above) on home working resonated with the experiences of the women artists in my research. She discussed home working as increasingly ‘the norm’ as a way of working yet there is very little support for home workers, even less than those in co-working spaces. Carol identified how women home workers in particular experience extra challenges when trying to negotiate childcare with work – experiences also felt by some of the artists in my research. I had come across Carol’s work on ‘mumpreneurs’ previously so it was good to see her talk about her more recent research.
The themes and issues raised in this particular event have inspired me to think about giving a paper on co-working/collaboration and expertise at my University’s upcoming research conference, RESCON.
Gregg, M. (2015). 12 Getting Things Done: Productivity, Self-Management, and the Order of Things. Networked Affect, 187.
Gregg, M. (2013). Work’s intimacy. John Wiley & Sons.
McRobbie, A. (2016). Be creative: Making a living in the new culture industries. John Wiley & Sons.
I’m coming to the end of a first full draft of my PhD, and in the introduction I attempted to situate my work within the wider context, my work being about expertise, and the wider context being debates around ‘post-truth’ and the denigration of experts. I mention it briefly in my introduction but if I expand on it there it doesn’t make sense, so I will do so here because I think it points to some further research which could be done in the future (and not necessarily by me).
First, the rise of populism and ‘post-truth’ politics. This is discussed by Hadley Freeman in her article about “bullshitting culture”. She points out that the denigration of expertise is a component of this bullshitting culture, “because expertise provides a bulwark against nonsense”. This nonsense includes whatever comes out certain politician’s mouths, and the “figurehead of the clean eating movement” Ella Mills. Freeman takes aim at both, claiming that both the U.S. President and Ella Mills come under “the umbrella of bullshit”. Ella in particular is heavily criticised for claiming in an interview that she is “shocked that some of her followers have ‘taken healthy eating to extremes’ and insists she ‘can’t take responsibility’. Then, in the next breath, she talks enthusiastically about how, for Christmas dinner, she ate just carrots and brussels sprouts.” Freeman argues that:
“We live in a blog culture where it’s pitched as a triumph of democracy that everyone can claim authority, which means anyone who says that, actually, there is an objective truth is condemned. Feelings rather than facts are what matter, these purveyors of bullshit claim”
Freeman’s critique demonstrates how on social media, it is becoming more and more difficult to distinguish expertise. When experts do offer insight and facts, they are dismissed by politicians. While the author is right to point this out and be critical, she is assuming that experts are always right.
In the same newspaper 11 days later, another article emerged about the ‘clean eating’ fad and once again Ella Mills was the target of criticism for trying to distance herself from the movement. The author of this article, Ruby Tandoh, shows how some of the ‘clean eating’ pioneers are desperately trying to distance themselves from the fad after a recent BBC documentary Clean Eating – the dirty truth. Tandoh describes how some of the most popular advocates of clean eating based their approaches on the findings of doctors who were later widely discredited or even facing jail time for practicing medicine without a licence. Tandoh calls out the advocates themselves for peddling misinformation, and the book publishers which sell and help to legitimise such fads which are not underpinned by robust medical evidence. Tandoh also points out a gendered issue:
“Behind the pretty public face of wellness is a far bigger beast. With the exception of fitness guru Joe Wicks, the overwhelming majority of wellness personalities are young women, and it is these women who rise to and eventually fall from grace in the public eye. And yet the machinery of these fads is constructed largely by a small group of men. These are the doctors – self-styled or otherwise – who spin questionable academic studies, patchworks of data and sometimes little more than fanciful anecdotes into best-selling diet industry manifestos.”
These two articles demonstrate how complicated expertise can be. I believe here there is opportunity for further important research which looks at expertise, social media and contemporary aspects of popular culture which rely on ‘expert’ input – from nutrition, to fitness, wellness, mindfulness and other forms of self-help. It’s January and everywhere I go I see books, magazines and videos on these subjects, and their very popularity and the ‘expertise’ behind them could do with further critical engagement.