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Class and Gender Struggles in a Dublin Estate
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This ground-breaking and compelling book takes us deep into the world of a public housing estate in Dublin, showing in fine detail the life struggles of those who live there.

The book puts the emphasis on class and gender processes, revealing them to be the crucial dynamics in the lives of public housing residents. The hope is that this understanding can help change perspectives on public housing in a way that diminishes suffering and contributes to human flourishing and well-being.

Combining long-term research into residents’ lived experience with critical realist theory, it provides a completely fresh perspective on public housing in Ireland and arguably, beyond.

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This is the opening ethnographic chapter of the book and immerses the reader in a world that is changing in that the estate is undergoing a process of physical and social change, where what was fixed for a period of years is now mutating into another form. We see how residents respond to such change and their positioning within a restricted and public housing field as they try to attain the best housing outcomes for themselves and their families. Residents who have spent their lives on the estate must decide now whether they will remain or whether they will leave and seek to move off the estate altogether. We meet two women, Michelle and Maxine, as they try to negotiate this process of transition. The reader gets a sense of the importance of place and the integral nature of it to the lives of residents and the emotional pull that it exerts in such times of change. We first get a sense here of the physics and architectonics of the place that is Bridgetown Estate and the critical places within the estate such as ‘the steps’ that still function as crucial places for talk and chat and the sharing of important information.

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This chapter tells the story primarily of two men who live on the estate. One is coming to the latter stages of his paid working life while the other is just beginning. There are common threads in their stories of alienation and distancing from the work they are engaged in, despite their age differences. After the economic crash Frank has not been able to get work for a period of six to seven years and has just got his first steady job in construction, building new housing on the estate, and he is discovering how the work has become more difficult and more poorly paid both at the same time. Karl, meanwhile, is working for a big-box retailer and despite his own best intentions finds that the work offers little by way of stimulation or innate satisfaction. Despite his desire for something more fulfilling, he finds himself locked into a work routine and life that he cannot change and is constantly asking himself why this is the way things are. Both of these vignettes show the strong connections between estate residents and the world of paid employment and the broader economy.

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This chapter tells the story of two women from the estate who are separated by a significant difference in age. They are both mothers and have been employed in various jobs over the course of their lifetimes, as well as providing care for their children. Nadia finds herself one of the last remaining residents in a block that is being de-tenanted and has been living in a one-bedroom flat for almost 40 years because she squatted in the estate initially and the council refused to give her a bigger flat because of this. Michelle, a younger woman, has a long family history in the estate and she describes her own struggles both of trying to get back to the estate from private rented accommodation and to raise her children while trying to find paid employment. Both of these women are engaged thoroughly in the double day of trying to manage paid work while trying to raise children generally without the help of men. The burden of such work takes it toll over time and is visible once again in bodies that break down and contort under such pressures.

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In this chapter we meet a group of people for the first time and with whom the rest of the ethnography will engage. We get a sense of movement in and beyond the estate, of people walking and talking and sharing stories about their lives past and present. This chapter focuses on an activity and practice of visiting a religious house that happens once a week and all that goes with that visit. In this chapter we enter the world of the informal food bank and the practice of charity. The importance of the practices of sharing and solidarity among people who are struggling to put food on the table is central here. This visit and practice occurs on the same day each week and it is on this journey meet Rosy, Charlie, Steph, Tina and Teresa and others as they seek out resources that might make life a little bit less difficult. We begin to get an insight into their lives both past and present as they go to what they call ‘the other place’.

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This chapter continues the exploration into the lives of the group as they discuss and try to navigate day-to-day life with very limited means and resources available to them. Having little money focuses the mind, and here we see how much this is the case with the constant thought as to the cost and prices of everyday items, whether they be food or clothes or cigarettes. Life and consciousness are thoroughly permeated by ideas of price and cost, and people are implicitly thinking all the time as to how they will manage from day to day. Practices of borrowing and lending are integral to the functioning of life on the estate and function as systems of financial solidarity and support. Lives are circumscribed very tightly by the minimum of resources available to people, and they must creatively work out how to live under such conditions.

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‘What comes around goes around’; this phrase is one of two that occurred in conversation on a number of occasions. The second, and the one that became the title of the book, is ‘It’s not where you live it’s how you live.’ The first refers to an idea of the world having an inbuilt propensity to a levelling-out sort of justice in which, as one of the people says, ‘if you do good to people they will do good to you’. One of the people in the group has the phrase tattooed on her arm. The other phrase delves deep into questions of respectability and how sees oneself in the world and of how one thinks the world sees you back. Both statements reflect the fact that residents are thinking constantly about issues such as those of justice and respectability. The phrases raise fundamental questions about the difference between the belief and the reality, as it were.

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This chapter explores the theme and issue of ‘dis-ability’ as it has arisen in the course of conversation and everyday life and how it affects members of the group, and what the term means for people as a concept and as something that is present corporeally in the mind and the body. There is ongoing debate between members of the group about being officially accepted or designated by the state as ‘disabled’. To be officially categorised as disabled gives some moderate benefits for things such as fuel and travel allowances, which are welcome, but the designation is rejected at another level by some of the group, who refuse to see themselves as disabled. The relations between body and mind, between physical capacities and the soft tissue of comprehension and understanding, are very much part of the conversation here. The chapter explores how these issues have developed over the course of a lifetime and are connected to people’s participation and experience in and with the institutions of the state. We learn how bodies and minds change and deteriorate over the course of a life and what this means to the people in the group.

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This chapter explores the nature and form of language in the estate as it arises in multiple forms. We hear a priest say to an assembled funeral audience that Jesus’s nickname was ‘The Word’ that is the title of this chapter. The chapter explores the importance of ‘the word’ in the profane everyday lives of people of the estate. The story form carries the history of the estate through its residents. Stories of the estate’s history, of death, of lost inheritance, of love, of family, all pour forth, sometimes in a torrent and other times hesitantly. A lot of talking and speaking takes place in the daily flow of life when people are unselfconscious and they are relaxed. Language is something to be played with and to be playful with. Words have presence but they are also absent in the struggles people have and had with language over the course of a lifetime. For all of the presence that the word has in people’s lives, there are profound struggles over learning and speaking. The history of the estate and the people who live there is kept alive and transmitted in these words and stories of deeds and happenings.

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This chapter opens Part II of the book and connects the manifest phenomena of the ethnographic chapters to the causal mechanisms and structures that play a pivotal role in shaping and making the estate what it is. Such structures are more often than not unperceivable, and only visible in their effects, but are critically important. Forces such as the winds of global capitalism, the policies of austerity, the influence of patriarchy and the state’s housing policies all feed in and out of the estate, shaping it, moulding it, changing it. Jobs, work, housing, life, all are affected by such generative structures and hence the need for a causal criterion for understanding life on the estate. I use a theoretical framework of transcendental critical realism that argues, as well as what we can see and what happens in events, as it were, we also need a causal understanding of how things come to be the way they are. To have a critical realist understanding of public housing means acknowledging the realms of the empirical and the actual, but also, importantly, understanding the ‘real’ of the mechanisms and structures that align and realign the lives of estate residents.

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