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Contemporary social evils

Contemporary social evils

Edited by David Utting
Foreword by Nicholas Timmins
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  • Book Info
    Contemporary social evils
    Book Description:

    Which underlying problems pose the greatest threat to British society in the 21st century? A hundred years after its philanthropist founder identified poverty, alcohol, drugs and gambling among the social evils of his time, the Joseph Rowntree Foundation initiated a major consultation among leading thinkers, activists and commentators, as well as the wider public. The findings have now been brought together in this fascinating book. Individual contributors range across the political spectrum but the book also reports the results from a web survey and consultation with groups whose voices are less often heard. The results suggest that while some evils - like poverty - endure as undisputed causes of social harm, more recent sources of social misery, such as an alleged rise in selfish consumerism and a perceived decline in personal responsibility and family commitment, attract controversy.

    eISBN: 978-1-84742-740-3
    Subjects: Political Science

Table of Contents

  1. Foreword
    (pp. v-vi)
    Nicholas Timmins

    History is littered with exhortations from the great and the good to the aspiring to go out and solve problems.

    Forty years before he wrote the report that bears his name, William Beveridge was urged by Edward Caird, the Master of Balliol, to go forth ‘and discover why, with so much wealth in Britain, there continues to be so much poverty, and how poverty can be cured’ (Beveridge, 1953, p 9).

    The Joseph Rowntree Foundation (JRF), in setting up the trusts that bear his name, charged them with an even broader remit: to seek out the underlying causes of weakness...

  2. 1 Introduction
    (pp. 1-4)
    Julia Unwin

    When Joseph Rowntree set up the trusts that bear his name in 1904, he urged them to “search out the underlying causes of weakness or evil in the community”. Strikingly, he also advised the trustees of his considerable wealth to keep alert to the “changing necessities of the nation” and ensure that they continued to focus on investigating the underlying causes of evil, rather than the superficial manifestations. He was clear that, while there were “scourges of humanity” that plagued his own times – including poverty, war, slavery, intemperance, the opium trade and gambling – times were bound to change....

  3. 2 ‘Social evils’ and ‘social problems’ in Britain since 1904
    (pp. 5-24)
    Jose Harris

    What is meant by a ‘social evil’, and how does it differ from the more familiar and less dramatic concept of a ‘social problem’? A working definition might be that a ‘social problem’ suggests an undesirable state of affairs for which people hope to find a practical cure. A ‘social evil’, by contrast, suggests something more complex, menacing and indefinable, and may imply a degree of scepticism, realism or despair about whether any remedy can be found. In everyday speech, both terms are often used rhetorically and interchangeably. At a deeper, more technical level, however, the language of social problems...


    • 3 Uneasy and powerless: views from the online consultation
      (pp. 27-50)
      Beth Watts and David Utting

      The 3,500 people who took part in the Joseph Rowntree Foundation’s online consultation left no doubt that the concept of ‘social evil’ is one that resonates in modern Britain. It aimed to reach out and get as many diverse views as possible. The richness of the responses, as well as their volume, was impressive. Although, unsurprisingly, this was unlikely to be a representative sample of the British people, it was clear that the vast majority of those who took part in the online exercise had embraced the opportunity to consider the nature of contemporary society with care as well as...

    • 4 Truncated opportunities: eliciting unheard voices on social evils
      (pp. 51-64)
      Alice Mowlam and Chris Creegan

      The public online consultation described in the previous chapter was successful in eliciting a range of challenging opinions about contemporary ‘social evils’. Even so, it was acknowledged from the outset that individuals without ready access to the internet could be excluded from such a dialogue. These, by definition, were likely to include many people from low-income and disadvantaged groups whose voices are often neglected in debates about the condition and direction of society. To address this, the Qualitative Research Unit at the independent research organisation, NatCen (National Centre for Social Research), was commissioned to organise a series of discussion events...

    • 5 Living with social evils: further views from people in disadvantaged groups
      (pp. 65-82)
      Chris Creegan, Martha Warrener and Rachel Kinsella

      The Joseph Rowntree Foundation’s online public consultation and the specially commissioned discussions with socially excluded and disadvantaged groups – described in the two previous chapters – yielded a diverse range of views about contemporary social evils. Although people’s perspectives ranged widely, a number of themes emerged repeatedly that related to moral concepts, such as individualism, declining communal values and greed, as well as more tangible problems like poverty, family breakdown and drug and alcohol misuse. Most – although not all – of these were given renewed emphasis during a subsequent phase of the consultation project, which investigated people’s direct experiences...


    • 6 Preface
      (pp. 85-90)
      David Utting

      As will be evident from the previous section, the Joseph Rowntree Foundation’s online consultation and its series of workshops and discussion groups with people from disadvantaged groups produced a rich variety of views on the nature of contemporary ‘social evils’ and their consequences. There were inevitable conflicts in many of the views expressed. But there were a number of concrete issues in contemporary Britain that participants identified with relative frequency as well as considerable passion. These included:

      family breakdown and poor parenting;

      misuse of drugs and alcohol;

      violence and crime (especially youth crime);

      inequality and poverty;

      social diversity, immigration and...

    • A decline of values

      • 7 Has there been a decline in values in British society?
        (pp. 91-102)
        Anthony Browne

        It was once said that a Victorian who fell asleep in 1848 would not have recognised his country if he awoke in 1851. So it is not unreasonable to assume that Victorians waking up in early 21st-century Britain would not only find their country unrecognisable, but also be profoundly shocked by it. They would no doubt be astonished by the technical wizardry and stunned by social changes such as the universal franchise (even of young un-propertied women!), the demise of the peerage and the multiracial society. But changes in values would surely perturb them the most. Among the most striking...

      • 8 Social evils and social good
        (pp. 103-114)
        A.C. Grayling

        For a student of ethics and history, the Joseph Rowntree Foundation’s (JRF) consultations on social evils confirm the observation that every generation thinks that the past was a better place, and that its own time is one of crisis. Yet by almost any standard one cares to mention, contemporary Western liberal democratic societies offer greatly better lives for the great majority of people than was the case 50 or 100 years ago. In late Victorian London – whose streets swarmed with child prostitutes, where it was too dangerous to walk at night and abject poverty and suffering were a norm...

      • 9 Unkind, risk averse and untrusting: if this is today’s society, can we change it?
        (pp. 115-124)
        Baroness Julia Neuberger

        There is a rabbinic saying that sums it all up:

        If I am not for myself, who will be for me? And if I am only for myself, what am I? And if not now, when? (Mishnah, Ethics of the Fathers, 1: 14)

        Broadly interpreted, the rabbis were saying:

        “I have to look after myself, for I have to stand proud and know who and what I am. But if that’s all I do, what kind of a human being am I? Selfish, uncaring and unkind. The world needs to be made into a better place and though I may...

    • Distrust

      • 10 What and who is it we don’t trust?
        (pp. 125-134)
        Shaun Bailey

        My focus is on the lack of trust that increasingly runs through our society. I am going to start with the mistrust between different communities and races, but I also want to look at the mistrust between adults and young people, which was flagged up by many who responded to the Joseph Rowntree Foundation’s (JRF) social evils consultation. I will also comment on relationships between individuals, state and community and the effects they have on daily life that may have led us to no longer trust institutions – or one another.

        Many white communities up and down the country feel...

      • 11 Fear and distrust in 21st-century Britain
        (pp. 135-146)
        Anna Minton

        One of the ironies of contemporary British society is how little our increasingly heavy investments in security have done to make us feel safer. All over the country, people are experiencing a corrosive climate of fear, and the media’s commercial needs, rather than any mission to inform, have played a significant role in heightening it. Stories that sell fear, sell newspapers.

        The interaction between the media and policy making is critical because more and more policy is made in response to headlines rather than rigorous research. Ill-thought-out, short-term responses can then be ‘spun’ to generate the headlines the government wants....

    • The absence of society

      • 12 The absence of society
        (pp. 147-158)
        Zygmunt Bauman

        The most remarkable and insidious feature of the present-day edition of social ills is that they arise mostly from the absence of society, rather than from its pressures. They are products of a gradual, yet relentless, withdrawal of ‘society’ as an entity that defines individual obligations while guaranteeing individual rights. ‘Society’ in that sense is now conspicuous mostly by its absence. Margaret Thatcher famously declared: ‘There is no such thing as “society”. There are only individuals and families.’ Peter Drucker (1989), the influential voice of emergent neo-conservatism in America, likewise announced that there was ‘no longer salvation from society’.


    • Individualism

      • 13 A wrong turn in the search for freedom?
        (pp. 159-168)
        Neal Lawson

        Something profound has happened to society over the last 30 years, as two curious phenomena have come to light. The first is that as we are getting richer we don’t seem to be getting any happier. The second is that we feel increasingly empowered as individuals, but increasingly disempowered as citizens. We can choose more of what we want in the shops, but feel more powerless than ever to shape the world around us. These phenomena combine to create a world that feels like it is out of our control. There is a sense that society is lacking direction that...

      • 14 Individualism and community: investing in civil society
        (pp. 169-180)
        Stephen Thake

        The Joseph Rowntree Foundation’s consultation exercise has unearthed a chaos of social evils. This raises a concern that by concentrating on a multiplicity of social evils, we are focusing on symptoms rather than causes. The ‘evils’ identified – ranging from individualism and consumerism to loss of social solidarity – all strike me as symptoms of our bewildered response to rapid technological and scientific advances, climate change, globalised economic activity and the eastwards shift of economic power.

        The pace of change has accelerated in our lifetime and presents challenges to the agencies of the state, commerce, organised religion and the media;...

    • Inequality

      • 15 Opportunity and aspiration: two sides of the same coin?
        (pp. 181-192)
        Chris Creegan

        My starting point for this chapter is the notion of ‘truncated opportunities’: the idea that over the course of life, opportunities can be lost, limited or wasted through circumstances over which we have varying degrees of control. In order to address the inequalities created and exacerbated by truncation of opportunity, we need to reframe the relationship between opportunity and aspiration. And in doing so, we need not only to think about the opportunities and aspirations of individual citizens, but of society as a whole.

        The idea of ‘truncated opportunities’ is not merely abstract. It comes from eliciting the voices of...

      • 16 Five types of inequality
        (pp. 193-202)
        Ferdinand Mount

        The subject of inequality has come back to nag at our consciences and baffle our political energies. Of course, it never really went away. Ever since the Second World War, in the guise of equality of opportunity, it has been the guiding motive of successive British governments. The general sense of a shared mission led to something dangerously close to complacency. We were slowly moving in the right direction and the only argument was about the average speed and right time to change gear. Now we are not so sure of ourselves. The statistics tell us that social mobility has...

      • 17 The poor and the unequal
        (pp. 203-212)
        Jeremy Seabrook

        It is sometimes hard to distinguish between ‘natural’ inequalities, that is to say the unequal distribution of positive human characteristics – intelligence, creativity, beauty or strength of personality – and those that are socially determined – power, wealth or privileged education. Most discussion about ‘equality’ focuses on the latter, since it is virtually impossible to alter natural attributes that favour some people in the world over others.

        Attempts to reduce inequality base themselves on raising the life chances of the socially disadvantaged, so, in that tiresome cliché, they can compete on a ‘level playing field’ with more fortunate peers. ‘Equality...


    • 18 Reflections on social evils and human nature
      (pp. 215-224)
      Matthew Taylor

      It would I suppose be surprising if a project on the new social evils were to conclude that there weren’t any. But was it inevitable that there would be such agreement about what Zygmunt Bauman (Chapter 12) calls ‘the withdrawal of society’? Most of the public and most of the intellectuals consulted by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation spoke with one voice; the greatest evil is society’s retreat in the face of rampant individualism.

      It is in the explanations for this phenomenon, and the emphasis put on its different manifestations, that can be traced to familiar dividing lines. The starting point...

  7. 19 Afterword
    (pp. 225-232)
    David Utting

    To those familiar with the work of the Joseph Rowntree Foundation (JRF), but unaware of its history, this book on contemporary social evils may come as something of a surprise. Like some respondents to the public online consultation, they may feel uncomfortable that a moral dimension has been so overtly acknowledged to the factual study of social disadvantage and its consequences. Yet anyone who pauses to consider the meaning of a social policy term like ‘poverty’ – among the most consistent areas of the JRF’s research interests – can hardly fail to recognise the implications of moral unacceptability, demanding that...

  8. APPENDIX: How the ‘social evils’ consultations were organised
    (pp. 233-234)