It is nearly three years since my first monograph was released, entitled Everyday Life in Austerity: Family, Friends and Intimate Relations. Austerity, as I explain, is now part of common parlance for many people in the UK and in other parts of the world. It has moved from being associated with social memories of post-war conditions and is now a shorthand to describe the inequality of contemporary UK society and economy. In its most basic form, austerity refers to the specific act of reducing public spending to pay off government debt. But is also has a dual meaning, describing a condition of severe simplicity and self-restraint. In the book, I show how these dual meanings of austerity play out in everyday life, cutting across one another and between spaces, times and relationships.
Based on two years of ethnographic research with six families in one community in Greater Manchester, UK, the book explores the idea of austerity as relational. By this, I mean that austerity can only be fully understood as an everyday experience once we can account for difference and between-ness of people, places and practices. I show how a focus on social relationships – family, friendship and intimacy – helps to reveal the very personal ways that austerity shapes lives. I also provide further evidence that austerity is a deeply gendered, classed and racialised process (also see Bassel and Emejulu 2017).
Doing this work was deeply personal and political, and in the introduction I found myself being the most vulnerable and open that I had ever been in my work. I use the example of Barbara and Chris* to articulate how austerity can be differently experienced, and particularly how it can be lived in and lived with. This example – describing the uneven ways that austerity welfare and housing policies shape social relationships of varying degrees and in often violent ways – is an all-too-common story.
My intention was to illustrate, in a not-too simplified way, how the impacts of austerity can ricochet off to affect family and friends, who in turn may need support and care from their loved ones. At the end of the story, I explain:
"This example forefronts the personal and relational lens that I apply throughout this book in another way, too. The names are changed, and the example is not taken from my ethnographic research but from my own personal life. I am one of Susan's children, and it was in witnessing this very situation from the sidelines that I started to think relationally about austerity in everyday life, and everyday life in austerity." (Hall 2019, p12-13)
Sharing this detail felt like a massive step. I checked it over and again with family members, letting time pass between so they could think about whether they were happy with the content, tone, and even being mentioned at all. I scanned my peer-review reports from the publishers, expecting to be accused of imposture. I braced myself when the book was published, hoping deep down that nobody would read it, in case they came across this section and think it brash, self-serving and inappropriate. And yet, I kept it in.
You may ask, why am I drawing attention to this now? What am I hoping to show by re-revealing these difficult and painful stories? And does centring myself as a researcher, in a piece about everyday geographies of austerity, not fly in the face of efforts to rethink and decolonise academia and academic relations?
When I was kindly invited to write this blog, I felt a bit unsure about what I would or could say. It’s been twelve years now of austerity cuts dismantling the most intimate parts of life for some of the most marginalised people in the UK. It only seems to have become, and be getting, much worse, as I write this in the midst of a cost of living scandal. I wondered what I could add, what I could say about everyday geographies of austerity, when so much has happened.
It was then I remembered just how important it is to consider not just what happens, but also what doesn’t happen. The moments lost, the stories not told, the things that don’t happen, because of austerity. While others have spoken more articulately than I can about loss and nothingness (Raynor 2018, Scott 2018), bringing to light these experiences (or lack thereof) is key to understanding the true and overbearing reach of austerity on everyday life. My intention in this blog is to share my experience of not wanting to share, and of the potential for a story or experience to be so easily discounted or lost. Because the story about my auntie Barbara and uncle Chris was so very close to not being part of the book. But sharing it felt like an important act, maybe an act of resistance even in a small way.
My reason for sharing the story in the book, and again here, is not to equate my experiences with those of participants, or to suggest that I have a deep understanding of their struggles. Rather, I wanted to show the extent of how austerity shapes social lives, how it seeps into everyday relationships and practice in so many ways. I also in part wanted to provide a counterpoint to middle-class norms within academia and education and be clear about having a personal reason for pushing back against austerity. If, as Sara Ahmed (2017) suggests, citations are like feminist bricks, then I wanted to be open on how I was sourcing the bricks I was laying, and candid about how they cemented together.
These personal experiences were an important part of laying the groundwork for the project upon which the book is based, but it was only through the writing process that I came to face-to-face with the politics of this. Being personally affected, to some degree, also served as a stark reminder of how entrenched and normalised austerity has become in the UK, and of the need to resist this process. Telling the stories not told is part of this resistance. Moreover, that personal experiences and stories can be so easily lost, untold or even dismissed (e.g. see Hall 2019 p.154-159 for a discussion of microaggression and austerity), is a reminder that austerity cuts deep into social fabrics; it shapes not just what people do or do not do, but what they can hope for and dream about. How to capture the non-things, the silences and the deeply buried stories?
The concluding chapter of the book was written as a reckoning with these thoughts about absence, loss and silence, and wondering about the ’where next’? One theme I highlight is the need to think about future lives for how the consequences of austerity play out through and over time, space and relationships; lives through austerity and the life of austerity (also see Hall 2022). In my ongoing research projectwe are exploring how austerity has shaped decisions young people make and do not make about their lives and life-courses: where to live and who to live with, the types of relationships they develop or dissolve, how they and if they make a living, and so forth.
The impacts of austerity have shaped the lives of children, young people and adults in learning spaces, whether through changing conditions for family and home life, community services, education opportunities, and more. For learners and educators reading this, I imagine many will see a sense of themselves or those they know in what is written here. Bringing this into the classroom or lecture hall, giving it a voice, and telling the story of austerity is so very important. As I put it in the closing words of my book, ‘Austerity is not just out there, it is also in here. It is lived, intimate, and so very personal’ (Hall 2019, p.206)
*As in the original, all names are changed.
Sarah Marie Hall is Reader in Human Geography at the University of Manchester. She is author of Everyday Life in Austerity: Family, Friends and Intimate Relations. She also co-chairs the Urban Justice, Gender and Social Justice feminist collective.
This article is the fifth in our series of reflections on 'everyday geographies', building up to the 2022 annual conference of the Geographical Association on this theme. You can read the first, by Gavin Brown on the Non-Stop Picket of the South African Embassy, here. The second, by Luke de Noronha on everyday racism and the violence of borders, is here. The third, by Lola Olufemi on 'everyday atrocity' can be read here. The fourth, by Remi Joseph-Salisbury on everyday experiences of racism in English secondary schools is here.
Ahmed, S. (2017) Living a Feminist Life, Croydon: Duke University Press.
Bassel, L., &Emejulu, A. (2017) Minority women and austerity: Survival and resistance in France and Britain, Bristol: Policy Press.
Hall, S.M. (2019) Everyday Life in Austerity: Family, Friends and Intimate Relations, Basingstoke: Palgrave-Macmillan.
Hall, S.M. (2022) ‘The Social Life of Crisis', ISRF Bulletin, https://www.isrf.org/2022/02/23/the-social-life-of-crisis/
Raynor, R. (2018) 'Intervention - Changing the question from "the end of austerity" to "what ends in austerity?"', Antipode Foundation, https://antipodefoundation.org/2018/11/19/what-ends-in-austerity/
Scott, S. (2018) ‘A sociology of nothing: Understanding the unmarked’, Sociology, 52(1): 3-19.