Assumptions made about social class, accent and identity, and the links between them, have long been understood as a form of geographical referencing, a way of placing ourselves and of being placed by others, both socially and spatially (Donnelly et al, 2019; Savage, 2015; Skeggs, 2004). In this chapter I reflect on this form of identity making and social positioning in the context of research engagement with families, academic communities and policy makers alike, in an attempt to speak back to these various stakeholders. As I discuss, by locating people socially and spatially according to accent and dialect, leaps in understanding can be made about whether and how as a researcher your lived experiences are similar to those whom you research, and the extent to which you may be able to speak for others – if this is ever even preferable (also see Chapter Four in this volume).
To do this I draw upon relevant literatures alongside insights from two ethnographic research projects in the north-west of England. Both studies explored everyday family relationships
As I discuss here, while an accent associated with a northern, working-class, peripheral region became a research opportunity, a space for discussion and similarity, it also presented obstacles. I begin with a discussion of literature on the links between place, class and accent, couched in geographical, anthropological and sociological debates, before moving on to discuss the place of class, accent and dialect in research encounters. In the closing section, I argue that further discussion of class and accent is much needed, as a less often acknowledged but nonetheless significant form of social positioning in spaces of research – fieldwork, academia and engagement – and indeed in UK society today. Throughout I adopt a broadly intersectional perspective to class that draws on accent and dialect, as well as at times gender and whiteness, in social identity and social structures.
Place, class and accent
Within geography as a discipline, place occupies a particular, special role. It is argued that place is subjective, sensed and experienced, part of the essence of what it means to be human (Holloway and Hubbard, 2001). At the same time, place is also shaped by power relations and social identities, which in turn shape our sense of being in or out of place (Donnelly et al, 2019; Savage, 2015). Places are also represented – to what
Taking northern England as an example, the locale of my research and geographical focus in this chapter, representations of place have a strong cultural resonance. Whether through L.S. Lowry’s distinctive paintings of industrial landscapes, also known as ‘lowryscapes’ (Waters, 1999, p 122), or the cobbled streets of TV’s longest running soap opera, Coronation Street, certain representational features stand firm: gritty northern life, tight-knit white working-class communities and distinctive regional identities.
The last example, the soap opera, is a poignant and useful case in point. A sense of place is constructed by and within soap operas – for characters and audiences – of familiar and particular spaces, practices and relationships. As Rose (1993, p 57) explains, ‘soaps offer one of the most influential images of community in the contemporary UK. They depend on a range of female characters holding the community together … and they also often have a detailed sense of place.’ This is particularly the case for Coronation Street, which has been hailed as an excellent example of how geographers and social scientists more broadly conceptualise place, and the socio-cultural associations with which place is bound: ‘the drama of personal relationships within a homogenous community which was the hallmark of Coronation Street, establishing a sense of geographical place so strongly that it over-rode the boundaries of the family’ (Geraghty, 1992, p 133). These ideas are also mirrored by ‘classic’ community ethnographies in the UK, such as by Young and Wilmott (1962) in east London, by Edwards (2000) in Lancashire and by Pahl (1984) on the Isle of Sheppey. However, it is not only social relations that are
In representing ‘typical’ northern life, such forms of cultural expression can become enrolled in and reify place myths and stereotypes. One of the most commonly cited examples of place myths is the ‘north–south divide’ in the UK. Situating the north as marginal, bleak, industrial and working class, compared to its central, middle-class, high-culture southern counterpart, Holloway and Hubbard (2001, p 161) argue that such place myths are indicative of ‘important social, economic and cultural rifts, perpetuating distinctive stereotypes of people from both regions’. These place myths and socio-economic imaginaries also need to be understood in relation to representations that exist on various spatial scales, whether of streets and neighbourhoods, of towns and cities, or of regions and nations.
The ‘Crap Towns’ book series is an excellent illustration of the stereotypes of place and how such representations are also implicit within place making. First published in 2003, the series has seen three editions of the so-called 50 worst places to live in the UK. Towns in the north of England feature prominently in these publications. Despite media and public backlash and despite being positioned as comical, the series in many ways epitomises the pitfalls of representations of place, and the damaging associations this can have for people and communities. This begs the question ‘What makes “crap towns”, and who do we associate with them?’ What imaginings of place do we draw upon, and what are the geographical impacts of this?
This strikes at the very heart of geographical concerns about place, inequality and social difference, for, as Skeggs (2004, p 15) explains, ‘geographical referencing is one of the contemporary shorthand ways of speaking class’. Geographical associations are tied up with complex notions of social class;
Indeed, one key form of geographical and social placing is through accent, though it is rarely discussed in these terms. It is recognised that ‘locatedness, a geography of placement, becomes a way of speaking class indirectly but spatially, through geography and physicality’ (Skeggs, 2004, p 50). However, the literal or rather embodied elements of this ‘speaking’ have elided many discussions of place and class to date. Pinpointing where somebody is ‘from’, in terms of where they were born and raised (with its implicit links to their socio-economic background) is a ubiquitous form of placing in the UK, a country known for having a rich set of geographically dispersed accents and dialects.
However, it is important to distinguish between the two. Where accent refers to the pronunciation of language depending on geographical origin (and ultimately tied up with educational and class background), dialect refers to the variety of vocabulary and grammar within a particular language. Accent and dialect therefore have inherently spatial and social qualities, since they change across terrain and time, and vary between people and groups. For Kanngieser (2012, p 336), ‘how we speak and listen is political’, including accent and dialect. She explains that ‘what is heard as accent or dialect is imbued with sociopolitical connotations’ as to the ‘geographical background, class, race, nationality and education’ of the
An ongoing outreach programme and research study undertaken by Erin Carrie and Rob Drummond, both sociolinguists at Manchester Metropolitan University, have been exploring these very links between location, place, accent and social class. Using blank maps of the Manchester local authority (one of the ten boroughs of Greater Manchester), people living across the area were asked to draw boundaries on the map to illustrate different accents and dialects, and to use words to describe them. The researchers then mapped the most commonly used words in each area (that is dialects), with the size of the typeface for annotations indicating the frequency with which descriptors were used. The results are highly illustrative of the placing of class and accent. Accents associated with geographical locations are labelled on a map, with descriptions such as ‘broad’, ‘poor’, ‘rough’ and ‘posh’ being most prevalent.1 A literal example of geographical referencing and representations, this nevertheless illustrates how accents are used to place people, both physically and culturally (also see Donnelly et al, 2019). The study also indicates what social scientists have long been arguing – that class is not simply an economic condition, but rather it has distinct social and cultural elements too.
There is real depth to the geographical variation of class. Understandings of class in the UK are often thought to be more particular than in other parts of the Western world, and that in the majority world issues of caste, religion and ethnicity are more pertinent to everyday and structural inequalities, although there is emerging literature suggesting the contrary (see Dowling, 2009). Class is considered to be ‘hardwired’ (Savage, 2015, p 375), a more than material concept that can be very personal given its connections to identity and community. Although it is an important element in geographies of
While class has been defined as ‘a lens through which people interpret their worlds’ (Dowling, 1999, p 511), Wills implores scholars ‘to avoid the banality of arguing that class processes are simply differentiated by class’ (2008, p 26). That is to say, class identities, encounters, processes and relations have spatial dimensions, and this should be the starting point for discussion rather than the concluding note. In a similar vein, Stenning (2008, p 10) makes the point that, while class can be considered a ‘dynamic and relational category’, a space for expression and interpretation, it is ‘simultaneously economic and cultural’, rested in symbolic as much as in material values and practices. Stenning (2008, p 10) also notes ‘the mutual constitution of class and place through the everyday’, that it is ‘performed and constructed within communities and, in turn, shapes the spaces of community, economy, politics and much more’. Likewise, for Savage (2015, pp 376–7) class is ‘in the minutiae of discussions about everyday life’, where boundaries are drawn between people and places that in turn work as ‘markers when thinking about their own place in the world’.
Within this boundary making and place marking, class, accent and dialect are closely connected. For, if ‘implicit, class-based references are used by people in order to position themselves within the social structure’, so too are ‘language and accent … frequent implicit markers of class identity’ (Savage,
Class, accent and dialect in research encounters
the families asked questions about my personal life (e.g., where I was from and where my family lived, where I lived, what my parents did for a living, whether I was in a relationship), and also about aspects of daily life such as what I did the day before, or how my research was going. This helped the families to ‘place’ me in their lives. (Hall, 2014, p 2180)
This work of being ‘placed’ – socially, politically, economically – is also relational, whereby we are placed in relation to something, someone else. Placing is therefore used as a way to articulate similarities and differences, in and out groups, togetherness and otherness, and can also occur along multiple social fault lines: gender, race, class, sexuality and so forth. In fieldwork, this can be a blessing and a curse. Being perceived as an ‘insider’ can open doors to spaces and conversations of communities that might otherwise appear clandestine. And yet on the other hand an ‘outsider’ can be more likely to be given access into communities and everyday lives, with participants
One of the ways in which this placing, or geographical and social locating (Skeggs, 2004; Stenning, 2008; Wills, 2008), occurs is in how accent and dialect are heard by the listener (also see Kanngieser, 2012). I identify as being from a working-class background, and this was more often than not assumed by participants once they heard me speak, commonly followed by some questions for confirmation purposes. Of course, my current class position is somewhat murkier given my education and employment as an academic, though this seemed to be secondary in participants’ interpretations of my identity and positionality. Many of the assumptions about my working-class identity were based on how I talked (and partly what I talked about), the delivery and content of my spoken words and how they were interpreted or ‘heard’ by recipients. More specifically, assumptions were made as to my class and upbringing because of my accent and dialect.
A Yorkshire accent conjures up all sorts of imaginaries, associated very firmly with the northern, parochial, uneducated stereotypes noted earlier (see Holloway and Hubbard, 2001), even though Yorkshire is a large region in the UK with much linguistic diversity. In South Yorkshire, where I grew up, the most distinctive element of the regional accent (and frequent within my own speech) takes the form of a glottal stop, ‘a voiceless stop sound made in the throat often replacing a “t” in spoken English’ (Loughran, 2018, p 258). Participants would mimic this, since it tends not to be used in north-west England (where the aforementioned projects took place), and so confirming my outsiderness. This was accompanied by jokes about regional dialect, and where this intersected with accent. As noted in earlier writing, ‘participants would laugh at my pronunciation of words and my “flat vowels”. They also remarked upon the terms I used for everyday items (for example, that what I called a “breadcake” was instead a “barm”)’ (Hall, 2014, p 2181). This was further confirmed in
Here, class, accent and dialect cannot be set apart from other elements of social identity, and where they intersect (also see Binnie, 2011; Dowling, 1999; Stenning, 2008). Gendered and generational norms around working-class practices, for example, can infuse interactions with research participants, such as discussions about favourite childhood foods or household chores performed for pocket money, or the working-class tradition of never turning up at someone’s house empty handed (also see Hall, 2017). On one occasion, I was asked by a gatekeeper from the local Church of England school whether I used my middle name, which was displayed on the front of my project information leaflets. The question was prefaced with a comment about there being “lots of Catholic schools in Yorkshire”. Here, my background as a young woman from a working-class Catholic family was presented to me, drawn from what seemed to be scraps of evidence – a middle name and an accent – but that apparently provided enough information to create a fuller picture for this gatekeeper. These descriptors also marked me as being from outside the community, in terms of both physical locale and faith network, which shaped my access to local families in ways I may never fully know.
The place of class, accent and dialect within academia has also infused a small but noteworthy set of discussions, and likewise emerged in my own research encounters. It has been argued that ‘one possible reason for the absence of the classed body is because of the personal backgrounds and characteristics of those in the academy’ – that ‘relative privilege’ has the potential to ‘distance us from the markings of class’ (Dowling, 1999, p 511). Academia is predominantly white, male, middle class, heteronormative and able-bodied, which is also reflected in the topics deemed suitable and worthy of academic interest (see Binnie, 2011; Hall, 2018).
An example that speaks to this issue comes from one of my earliest research encounters, my first presentation at an academic conference targeted at doctoral students. It was only on the morning of the event that the organisers announced how the audience would have an opportunity to provide anonymous feedback to speakers. I was unconvinced that this would be all that useful an exercise, but with no opportunity to express this opinion a pile of feedback sheets was handed over to me at the end of the day. Right beforehand, in the last session of the conference, someone was giving a talk on their research with working-class families. Showing a photograph and accompanying quotation, the speaker paused what they were saying to make a joke: “Why do they all have big TVs and big dogs?” This comment took me by surprise, and even more so when the room erupted into laughter. I looked around and there was one other person who looked as shocked and appalled as I felt. We shared a taxi back to the station not long
Meanwhile, the feedback sheets were sat in my backpack. Once settled on the train, I took them out of my bag, expecting to give them a cursory glance before staring mindlessly out of the window for the rest of the journey. My heart sank when I started reading, and going through the stack of 30-odd pages I experienced a whole array of emotions: rage, shame, irritation, amusement and pride. Among the pile were a handful of vitriolic comments that were specifically about my accent and the way I spoke. Supposedly ‘helpful’ suggestions included that I enunciate ‘properly’, that I speak slower and breathe more because my accent was ‘quite thick’, scribbled alongside comments on my ‘lack of confidence’ and inability to ‘project’ my voice. I threw the comments away soon afterwards, on the advice of a friend, but over ten years later I still remember those comments and the way they made me feel. The feedback, combined with the conference laughter, made me reflect on my place in academia, or rather my placelessness – caught somewhere between ‘us’ and ‘them’. Only a few years ago did I reconnect with the person with whom I had shared both disgust at the comments and a taxi ride. It was at a conference where by complete coincidence she was due to give a presentation on academic sisterhood which included reflections on that very same conference and that very same comment: “Why do they all have big TVs and big dogs?” (see Mannay and Morgan, 2014).
Public and policy engagement is another research engagement space in which accent and dialect can be a means of placing and social differentiation, and one of growing importance given the emphasis now placed on research impact by academic institutions. There are a number of relevant research encounters I want to highlight here. The first is from a recent research project I developed and toured, the Everyday Austerity exhibition, a collection of objects, field notes, interviews and drawings presenting key findings from around Greater
When I took these findings into more formalised engagement settings, such as meetings with local city councils or national policy makers, additional and sometimes different forms of geographical placing occurred. Those with an untrained ear would commonly assume that, because my research was in Greater Manchester and I have a ‘northern’ accent, that I must be from Greater Manchester too. I was assumed to be familiar with all the acronyms for reports, council departments and details about certain communities and their background, local knowledge that would have taken me a lifetime to learn. Conversely, when I was presenting or discussing findings with people from outside Greater Manchester, who did not pick up on these dialectical nuances, huge assumptions would be made – I was from within the community I studied, right? I was the first in my family to go to university, surely? Leaps in understanding can be made about how our experiences as researchers are similar to those of the people we study, and the extent to which we may be able to ‘speak for’ others, particularly when intersected with gender and race too. And, on the flip side, parameters are placed around what subject we are deemed eligible to talk about and research, based on embodied identity, which is also an obstacle to our research.
Another pertinent example of accent as geographical and social placing comes from a meeting with a national media broadcaster, where as part of a team of academics I was asked to pitch ideas for new educational programmes. Although I was seated in the centre of the group (made up of white
To situate oneself … within changing climates of class(less)ness can be rather fraught: difficultly read as a claim to knowledge through experience (or dismissed via an excess of experience, in being the ‘wrong’ person in the ‘right’ space), or uneasily ‘performed’ and perhaps (re)produced through personalised ‘outness’, where
confession and admission may nonetheless be unsustainable and unsuccessful as a ‘reflexive’ currency.
Speaking out in these encounter spaces can be a fraught experience, with my questions and the ways in which they were delivered (through accent and speech) outing and producing classed-based assumptions about knowledge (see Dowling, 1999; Kanngieser, 2012). Furthermore, Binnie (2011, p 21) asks ‘what scripts are available for queer academics from working class backgrounds’, and I have to also acknowledge here my relative privilege and position. Nonetheless, in the last example, with the media company, I came away with a sense that I was perceived to have a working-class ‘chip’ on my shoulder, and so attempts were made to unravel my working-class identity by refuting my claims of generalisability. Place, power, position and privilege loomed large.
As with all elements of everyday life, in research encounters our bodies and identities are placed according to gender, class, race, age, dialect and likely other social markers too, including where they intersect. This chapter has explored the intersections of class, accent and dialect, along with gender and whiteness at times, and the ways in which they can work as opportunities and obstacles within different elements of research. In doing so, it makes two key contributions. First, it sheds light on the lesser discussed role of class, accent and dialect in identity making, and, second, it acknowledges social positioning within research encounters (an overall concern of this volume), particularly as it relates to class.
Unpacking the relationship between class, accent and dialect in research encounters reveals ‘the way in which space and place [impact] on class formation and distinction’ (Binnie, 2011, p 24), as a move against current engagements with class as typically ‘abstract, even ungrounded, and often
Nonetheless, and borrowing from Ahmed and Swan (2006), I am mindful that the work involved in diversity work can be a form of emotional labour (see also Chapter Five in this volume) that falls unevenly, when in fact it should be a collective endeavour within institutions and across society. On a practical level, this could involve open acknowledgement by chairs of meetings, organisers of conference panels and researchers in the field that accent and dialect matter, and that class status and background should not be assumed about any group members. This is not to say that participants of these spaces should have to ‘out’ themselves in these spaces. Rather, equality and diversity remits, training and procedures would benefit from the explicit inclusion of class, accent and dialect as important elements of personal identity. By stating and reinforcing the (often overlooked) obvious point that people come from different backgrounds and social positions, and that lived experiences should be valued without being assumed, spaces of academic, public and policy engagement can move more towards being spaces of intersectional inclusion.
See www.manchestervoices.org for more.
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