‘Feral families’ or a ‘filthy civilization’?

Re-imagining Social Work  is delighted to welcome this  guest contribution to our blog by Stephen Crossley who blogs in England about the Troubled Families Programme, looking at how the key workers (or ‘troubleshooters’ as David Cameron has called them) are enacting the troubled families agenda and if/how they are negotiating it and/or resisting it. You can read more about his work here. Stephen is undertaking a PhD in the School of Applied Social Sciences, Durham University  and is interested in how some families are constituted as a threat to society.

When I first read Liz Beddoe’s blog on ‘feral families’ (and her accompanying article) I was immediately struck by the similarities which she highlighted between the narrative she described in New Zealand and some of the more hysterical reactions to the riots in England in 2011. Back then, UK some media commentators and politicians felt at ease using the phrase. Ken Clark, the then Justice Secretary warned of a ‘feral underclass’, the ‘journalist’ Melanie Phillips wrote in the Daily Mail not just of feral children, but also feral parents,  while Max Hasting used the same ‘newspaper’ to remember a London police chief referring to ‘feral youth’ a couple of years prior to the riots. The ‘feral’ label didn’t catch on in the UK and instead, our Prime Minister David Cameron talked of ‘troubled’ families to reflect the ‘compassionate Conservatism’ that his party was all about. Paul Garrett has observed that while the Conservative party retain Thatcherite policies, they are now ‘attentive to how their policies are presented and amplified. The tone is much lighter – aching to be ‘cool’ – and intent on illuminating an inclusive and socially benign disposition’ (Garrett, 2013,p.13).

As well as the similarities between New Zealand and the UK, or to be more precise, England, there are also some differences. Whilst the discourse in New Zealand is heavily –and explicitly – racialized through the invocation of Maori parents and families in the ‘feral families’ discourse, in England, the racial currents in the ‘feral/troubled’ families narrative ebb and flow somewhat. The riots were heavily racialized via the alleged orchestrating of some of the looting by ‘street gangs’, politicians and policy-makers favourite trope for groups of young black men (and increasingly black women). And yet, the Troubled Families Programme, set up in the aftermath of the riots with the aim of ‘turning around’ the lives of the 120,000 most ‘troubled families in England, is a national programme, not just concentrated in urban areas, and race is rarely mentioned in official announcements or media reporting of the programme. It ‘feels’ very much that the targets of the Troubled Families Programme are the white working-class families who were also the targets of the anti-social behaviour and social exclusion programmes of the New Labour period in the 1990s, likely descendants of the alleged ‘problem families’ of the 1940s and 50s. When Charles Murray brought his heavily racialized ‘underclass’ thesis from the USA to the UK in the late 1980s, the issue of race was similarly stripped from his argument the moment he stepped off the plane. But a focus, in the UK at least, on white families and communities should not be understood simply as a ‘de-racialized discourse’ because, as Steph Lawler has noted, ‘whiteness’ in the UK is used as a class signifier, a lack of progress and an inability to belong to or make progress in an ethnically diverse society (Lawler, 2012).

The intense focus on the putative behavioural failings of the poor in both countries obviously helps to marginalise the structural concerns of poverty and inequality, but they also allow the behaviours of the rich and powerful to go undiscussed. However, as well as using ‘feral’ to describe an alleged ‘underclass’, the word has been appropriated by some commentators, in recent years, to describe what Peter Townsend once referred to as an ‘overclass’. Tony Blair suggested the UK media hunted ‘in a pack’ and was often ‘like a feral beast, just tearing people and reputations to bits’. But we can, thankfully, do better than Blair in seeking a moral compass on these issues. David Harvey, the Marxist geographer, reflecting on the allegedly ‘nihilistic and feral teenagers’ involved in the riots, wrote of a ‘rampantly feral’ capitalism:

Feral politicians cheat on their expenses; feral bankers plunder the public purse for all its worth; CEOs, hedge fund operators, and private equity geniuses loot the world of wealth; telephone and credit card companies load mysterious charges on everyone’s bills; corporations and the wealthy don’t pay taxes while they feed at the trough of public finance; shop-keepers price-gouge; and, at the drop of a hat, swindlers and scam artists get to practice three-card monte right up into the highest echelons of the corporate and political world’ (Harvey, 2013: 156)

When I read these words, I was reminded of what William Morris called the ‘filth’ and ‘dull squalor’ of civilization. In the UK at the present time, we are seeing some cuts in income and services to some of the poorest, most disadvantaged families whilst a conservatively estimated £35 billion tax gap remains un-discussed. Politicians with two homes paid for with public money are turning the lives of families living in social housing upside down, never mind ‘around’, via the ‘bedroom tax’. David Cameron rose from a gold chair and stood at a gold lectern a couple of years ago to announce that ‘permanent austerity’ was required, while children went hungry and food banks were used nearly 1 million times in the year leading up to the recent General Election. It is this disregard for others that, in my opinion, is closer to the definition of feral as ‘returning to an untamed state after domestication’, than the behaviour of the working classes of England or the Maori people of New Zealand, or even sections of them.

In England, the lives of our ‘trouble families’ are apparently being ‘turned around’ by heroic individual workers who are prepared to ‘roll their sleeves up’ and get stuck in to help families, solving problems that have allegedly gone on in the same families for generations and generation. All of this success is occurring while other public and social services are cut, more children are deemed to be ‘at risk’, and poverty and deprivation are increasing. It is apparently little short of a miracle. But this endeavour all seems such a waste. Barbara Wootton made a very relevant observation about the Younghusband report into the training and deployment of social workers in the UK in 1959. She argued that, if social workers did indeed possess the skills ‘to resolve the problems which have defeated the human race since the day of Adam and Eve’ then:

Surely they are wasted upon obscure members of the British working classes: would not the caseworkers do better to get their hands on some of our world’s rulers?  (Wootton, 1959,p.253)

Read Stephen’s working paper:  (Mis)Understanding ‘troubled families


Beddoe, E. (2014). Feral families, troubled families: The rise of the underclass in New Zealand 2011-2013, New Zealand Sociology, 29 (3), 51-68.

Garrett, P. M. (2013). Children and Families, Bristol: Policy Press.

Harvey, D. (2013). Rebel Cities, London: Verso.

Lawler, S. (2012). White like them: Whiteness and anachronistic space in representations of the English white working class, Ethnicities, 12 (4), 409-426.

Wooton, B. (1959). Daddy Knows Best, The Twentieth Century, October 1959, 248-261.

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