Statistics without tears?

The double page centre spread of the liberal-left leaning Guardian newspaper contained a series of graphics that represented aspects of social and economic division in Britain. The source of the data was a report – An anatomy of economic inequality in the UK – by the National Equality Panel headed by Professor John Hills of the LSE. The Guardian reported that: “A detailed and startling analysis of how unequal Britain has become offers a snapshot of an increasingly divided nation where the richest 10% of the population are more than 100 times as wealthy as the poorest 10% of society”.

These are, indeed, startling figures. But such revelations are startling because they interrupt the dominant story that is told time and time again that Britain is a wealthy, prosperous, increasingly socially and culturally laid-back place to live. These figures, along with the reportage of ‘poor places’ that are literally, ‘off the map’ until these types of reports are released and the media descends on them, undercut and challenge that assumption.

As a geographer, I’m in the habit of collecting these types of news stories and resources, and its recently reminded me of my early days of teaching geography in schools in the late 1980s. At that time, the enduring issue was the ‘North-South divide’ in Britain that had re-opened in the wake of the economic re-structuring and de-industrialisation of the early-to-mid 1980s. Looking back, my lessons on this topic, taught to the children of the professional and managerial classes in the ‘Deep South’ of the London Borough of Sutton, must have seemed strangely ‘out of place’, because by that time, the South-East was a region that was in the process of being  ‘re-made’  as the ‘poster-child’ of neoliberal, post-Fordist, consumer capitalism – a new geography in the making. I suspect that my earnest attempts to raise students’ awareness of this ‘other Britain’ seemed odd. At the least, my reliance on the types of statistics and maps found in newspapers and magazines probably amounted to what the geographer John Mohan vividly calls ‘cartographies of distress’.

There is a limit to the use of such ‘cartographies’ in geography lessons, since they tend to solidify and ‘fix’ the complex social processes that lead to the patterns on the map. How do you represent something as meaningful and socially complex as racial discrimination in the housing market on a map, and what theories do you use to help to explain this problem?

In a way, this represents one of the major shifts that has occured in the field of social geography over the past two decades. Whilst some would argue that geographers have tended to abandon engagement with social problems in order to undertake studies of the ‘geographies of consumption’, the wider shift is away from studies that assume that gender, social class, age, sexuality and ethnicity are fixed, ‘essential’ categories that can be counted, mapped and displayed, towards those that see these categories as ‘socially constructed’, or, if you like, always in the process of becoming. A moments thought will, I think, convince you of the importance of this to geography lessons, for the students who populate our classrooms also populate these social geographies that are always in the making. The challenge for geography teachers is how to make the statistics and the maps seem less solid, and more open to change. As David Harvey said a long time ago, geographers should stop ‘mapping man’s inhumanity to man’ and seek to explain why it continues.

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