The Origins of HECAT – Part Two: More WUERC

To briefly summarize, the WUERC project was an unemployment research project that took place in the summer of 2012, several of its members would go on to the HECAT project and so it forms an important part of HECAT’s history.

By mid-June 2012 we had met and received some guidance on what the different parts of the project entail. Rather than investigating unemployment as a monolith, the project would be broken up into discrete work packages, each of which would be led by a different member of faculty. The soon-to-be-unemployed students would cycle through several of these work packages, though some students were also attached permanently to a particular work package. I cannot recall exactly how many of these there were, but I believe there were five.

In no particular order, these were dedicated towards: a media analysis; focus groups; a geographical analysis; interviews; a study of spaces / places. These last two were strongly interrelated.

From the outset it was apparent that it would be easiest to begin with a study of the spaces and places of unemployment. As previously mentioned, all of the students were just about to become unemployed. Thus we had an ideal opportunity to examine the interior of Ireland’s unemployment offices while having good reason to be there, and so we began with the study of spaces and places. We received some basic training on what we should be looking for and paying attention to. Ray played his ‘look around you’ video, encouraging us to adopt an anthropological and sociological perspective in an attempt to see how these familiar things could be strange. We were encouraged to look at signage, the layout of the rooms, to pay attention to the staff and what they were doing, to examine how people were instructed to line up and so on. Even at that time it was not permissible to take photographs inside an Intreo office, so we had to make do with written and spoken descriptions.

Image Credit: Waterford News & Star

Each student visited their local office to apply for jobseekers allowance, we each recorded our thoughts and gave the rest of the WUERC group a PowerPoint presentation. I still remember being struck by how similar each of the presentations were. We each reflected on how hostile the space was. The signage which instructed individuals not to take any photographs under penalty of legal action, the staff who spoke to you from behind the safety of a plastic shield, the discomfort of being on the other side of said shield and trying to explain your situation loudly enough that the staff member would hear you, but quietly enough that the people standing behind you in line could not hear you, and finally the dreadful hushed silence that fell over the whole building. Aside from the occasional cough to clear one’s throat, I distinctly remember that no conversation took place between the unemployed people who simply shuffled forward in line, waiting patiently for their turn to whisper-talk to the plastic shield.

Together with this was a forensic analysis of the ‘UP1’ application for jobseeker’s allowance, or jobseeker’s benefit. Such documents have their own organic stories which emerge through the bureaucratic histories of which they are a part. The UP1, we noted, was heavy on details required by the applicant along with vague veiled threats not to engage in deception. Interspersed were occasional rays of sunshine and hope (such as the question where you identify which post office you would like to collect your payment at).

We then decided to pursue interviews and focus groups with people who were unemployed. While I am making it seem as though this took place in a neat step-by-step manner, anyone who has done research in practice will know that research is a messy thing. We often went back and forth between the different elements of the project as is normal in any research process. Each student & faculty member tried to find 1-3 unemployed individuals who we could conduct a semi-structured interview with for approximately an hour. Through this, I think we truly learned for the first time the power of numbers in such projects. Every member of our project found at least one person to interview, but with almost twenty project members this meant we easily got over twenty interviews within a month or two. The psychology students, working with Jennifer Yeager (now Jennifer O’Mahoney) managed to assemble two or three focus groups, each composed of 5-6 unemployed people. This gave us a huge body of data to work from and analyse.

The substance of what we found through these focus groups & interviews will be covered in more detail in a future post, but briefly, as Tom Boland liked to say there was ‘nothing to be said’. Unemployment was like a null zone, an empty signifier, an absence of experience. Our questions began along the usual route when doing such studies: how did you become unemployed, how long have you been unemployed, what are your aspirations for the future? Such questions were generally easily answered, in the sense that our interviewees knew the answers, even if it was sometimes painful to share them. However, when we moved on to the meat of the interview, things became harder: what is it like to be unemployed, what is the experience of unemployment (etc.)? At first it was difficult to get an answer to these questions, our interviewees did not like to think about such things. However over time we were able to assemble the answers into something workable and revealing. Unemployment was boredom, it is learning to ‘do’ nothing. It is interminable waiting, punctuated by irritating mandatory meetings with agents of the state. It is destructuring and disempowering, and though it produces a great abundance of free time, nobody feels able to enjoy it. As I said, this will be covered in more detail in a future post.

En attendant Godot, Festival d'Avignon, 1978 f22.jpg
Waiting For Godot, a play by Samuel Beckett about interminable waiting became a useful metaphor for the experience of unemployment
Image Credit: Wikipedia

Lastly we had the media and geographical analysis. The media analysis of unemployment was very interesting because it showed a sharp demarcation between two very different aspects of unemployment. In the first case, the overwhelming majority of articles in the media were tedious pieces which were fixated on the % of people which were unemployed. How many people are unemployed? Where do they live? What is the age range? How has this changed since the most recent article? The unemployment figure was the focus of ritualistic obsession. In the second case there were occasional supplementary articles focusing on some kind of human-interest angle of unemployment. These were, of course often negative: a suicide, emigration, an interview with someone who ought to have a job but doesn’t.

The geographical analysis was led by John O’Brien and we carried forward much of what had been learned in other parts of the project to this element of it. There were essentially two components to this part of the project. The first was a literature review looking at unemployment geography as it already existed. This mostly turned up data on unemployment ‘black spots’ areas where large percentages (generally over 30%) of the local populace were unemployed. This fed into the second part, where we used Google Maps Street View function to quickly map out Waterford and look for signs of inequality, beginning in the ‘black spots’ and moving out towards areas of privilege. We found that there were stark visual differences, even at the most basic level. The amount of unrepaired damage to the physical and environmental area was more than triple when we compared privileged areas to black spots. This included pot holes which hadn’t been filled, graffiti which hadn’t been cleaned, grass which hadn’t been cut, and in one case a tree which had been partly cut down and was now obstructing a foothpath (this was eventually fixed). Thus was the geography of privilege made apparent to us. There is much more to say about each aspect of the project, but those things will be reserved for future posts.

The WUERC project went from June – August of 2012, and though I think most of those who participated in it thought it would be a once-off thing, we were all to be proven very wrong. It taught us about a whole new world that was existing in parallel to us at all times, about the experience of unemployment, and how that experience is not neutral but rather is created by the decisions of government’s, local authorities, journalists, and even the public itself. Though the data were analysed at the time, we would return to it again and again to discover new insights on old problems.

Phew! That was a long one. Future posts will be a little shorter if at all possible. This marks the end of part two of HECAT’s history, if you would like to read part 1, you may find it here.

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