Sociological Barriers to Community Engagement with Higher Education Institutions

This is a presentation examining sociological barriers communities face in engaging with higher education institutions. Globally there is a discussion around the unsustainable ways which humans are living on the planet and everyone is told that they play an important role in meeting the challenges which are now at our doorstep.  There is international consensus that climate breakdown and the problems of unsustainable ways of living and being on the planet must be addressed on a system wide, community wide and individual level.

Life of Brian
Life of Brian


In Higher Education there is abundant discourse on involving communities in meeting the challenges which are faced by all.  Coming from an informal learning community context I am interested in exploring the issues which communities have in engaging with institutions in their sustainability thinking and projects (along with other fields of thinking).  The hierarchical nature of how Higher Education is structured ultimately results in what Elias, Scotson and Wouters (2008) refer to as an Established-Outsider configuration.


Often good relations between institution and communities are eroded by the extending of the internal hierarchy of the institution onto the world around.  This embodies a power differential where agency is held by those inside the formal hierarchy and exercised on those outside to demonstrate public engagement outcomes and ‘impact’.  This asymmetry often results in the uncomfortable devaluation of the inputs of the individuals in the community context as they have no traction within the administrative hierarchy.


As a result some individuals and communities have become cynical of the policy discourse aimed to woo individuals into engagement with the agenda set by academia.  This manifests as stereotyped judgements which give lazy representations of disinterest or lack of ability to contribute to the solution of a problem or the development of a subject field. This most adversely effects those who are situated furthest from the power of the institution.


This hierarchical structuring of the coordination of group efforts is not limited to HE institutions but seems to operate in any given collection of people (Kadir, 2016). Pete Wilkinson (2015), Co-founder of Greenpeace, spoke of leaving Friends of the Earth in order to create an organisation which allowed him to take part in meaningful activities.  He spoke of being an outsider in a classist organisation where you had to be an ‘Oxbridge’ type to get the opportunity and responsibility he felt he needed and deserved.


Sustainability issues involve everyone and requires collective action; beyond the academy there is a world of people living and dealing with the problems who have something important to contribute.  With this in mind I present an important query on the creation of hierarchies and established-outsider configurations arguing that evolutions in our social organisation (mucro, micro and macro) have to take place if the global sustainability problems are to be met with.


Sustainability understandings and finding new ways to live in the face of collectivised problems has become central in everybody’s lives. The whole of the population are being asked to take action and get involved in addressing scale problems like climate breakdown, pollution, annihilation of species, unsustainable power usage, and deforestation.


The message of personal involvement is found central in the discourse of many of the academic, institutional, third sector and professional bodies which champion the causes entangled in sustainability.  To this landscape of which many of us are familiar, I am going to bring critical perspectives on how sociological barriers to involvement are faced by people who are outside of professionalised fields.


In particular I focus on the formation of what Elias, Scotson and Wouters (2008) refer to as Established-Outsider configurations which demarcate who gets to participate in meaningful activities and how the effects of traditional means of establishing hierarchies fosters cultures of difference which act to exclude those who don’t carry certain cultural signifiers.


In their sociological study ‘The Established and the Outsiders’, Elias and colleagues document how regularly members of groups – which are in terms of power, stronger than other interdependent groups – think of themselves in human terms as better than others and how in communities “old residents are able to reserve offices in local organisations such as council, church, or club for people of their own kind, and firmly to exclude from them people who are perceived to live in the other part’.  They reported in the study how:


“They closed their ranks against the newcomers.  They cold shouldered them.  They excluded them from all posts of social power whether in local politics, in voluntary associations or in any other local organisation where their own influence dominated.  Above all, they developed as weapons an ‘ideology’, a system of attitudes and beliefs which stressed and justified their own superiorty and which stamped the people on the Estate as people of an inferior kind.” (Page 18, Elias, Scotson and Wouters (2008 )


This presentation represents an interest in analysing how collective action is shaped with a particular focus on being able to identify whether an organisation or project is meaningfully open to participation and contribution from outside of the profession. A profound question of our time is to ask if an institution or organisation can act in ways which it has not already ? Is it a human activity or is it an algorithmic process which is being driven by humans ?


I argue that for human beings as a species to be better able to meet the scale problems which are being faced, the animal behaviour of forming ingroups and outgroups around preferences of identity needs to be evolved beyond.


To bring into focus an example of the behavioural forces I am scrutinizing, I have an anecdote to illustrate part of the sociological phenomena which are, in part, structuring involvement in sustainability actions and ultimately affecting the success of the project of sustainability.


The following is a quote from Pete Wilkinson when he read from his memoirs ‘From Deptford to Antarctica’ at Edinburgh Central Library in 2015 (Dunedin, 2015).  Having got involved with Friends of the Earth, Pete Wilkinson left after three years to take a place in organising Greenpeace in its infancy:


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“I never felt comfortable with Friends of the Earth to be honest with you.  These were all Oxbridge types and I am from Deptford and I was a lorry driver. And I knew in Friends of the Earth I felt that I would never get the kind of responsibility that I needed and deserved…Anfal and Sandrid told me years later after I had left that ‘you were not going to get what you required because to be quite honest to you it is sort of a classist organisation’ – you have to be an Oxbridge type to get on back then, it is not like that now but this was the early days. This was a sort of ‘old boys club’ or ‘old mens club’; I was not going to get anywhere in Friends of the Earth and that was from the very beginnings of it.”


Here is an excerpt from his book dealing with this ingroup/outgroup social phenomenon which has to be addressed if collective problems are to be successfully met:


“It was 1975. I had stuck with Friends of the Earth for five years. It had certainly been a period of steep learning for me and an education that would stand me in good stead for the future. Friends of the Earth had grown from a small band of four people, working out of a borrowed office in Covent Garden, to a well-established and respected environmental organisation running well-organised campaigns on issues as diverse as nuclear power to land use, working from a well-appointed but modest office in the middle of Soho. It was growing in stature and was attracting a broad range of experts who supported its aims and contributed to the intellectual mass. But it wasn’t for me.


The fact was that Friends of the Earth was a club for Oxbridge types, for those with clipped accents and/or aspirations of grander things. There was a marked absence of glottlestops around the office and the fact that I was a working class boy from Deptford left me at a disadvantage in that I was given no sustained campaign responsibilities and I felt that any natural talent I had for campaigning would never be given a chance to flourish and grow in this claustrophobic atmosphere. I think working at FoE forced me into a peculiar social niche, one from which I have never really escaped. While I was in genuine awe of people like Graham Searle, whose erudition and articulation I envied, I was also scathing of what I saw as the Oxbridge approach to the environmental issues we were addressing.


Graham could strip the wallpaper with a well-chosen volley in defence of a particular point of view, but he did this in the manner of an Oxford Debating Society evening (or what I imagined one of those was like): it was all very wordy and gentlemanly, even if the venom with which his argument was delivered had to be seen to be believed. At the same time, my ire was turned on the ‘working class’ society from where I came. I had changed during my time hanging around with the FoE academics. Now I was not at home with my working class peers – too narrow and limited in their horizons, not sympathetic at all to my campaigning zeal – but neither was I happy to identify with my FoE colleagues – too snooty and not grounded in the real world of labouring and lorry driving. It is a cleft stick from which I have never really escaped”


Wilkinson P. (2014). From deptford to antarctica : the long way home. Fledgling Press. Page 102



Regularly the idea that ‘poor people are less interested in matters of sustainability’ is projected out in the media and reinforce a number of age old misidentifications and misunderstandings which have kept those worst off from participation and contribution. If we look to Greenworld – the membership publication of the Green Party – we find it asking ‘why does it appear to be so difficult for Green parties and environmental NGOs to connect with working class communities?’


We can find current Chief Executive of Friends of the Earth Craig Bennett saying that the environmental movement “cannot be stuck in a white middle-class ghetto. It can’t even be stuck in the environment ghetto…We need to make a really big effort to look at how we can reach out to different communities and create opportunities for them to campaign on the issues that matter to them”


In the Guardian we can find questions like “Why are Britain’s green movements an all-white affair?” being asked, identifying the lack of diversity found in the participation base of British climate campaigns.


Online publications like The Conversation host articles stating “Save the environment from posh crusties – it’s a working-class issue too”


The New Republic hosts headlines such as “Towards a Working-Class Environmentalism” suggesting ‘The environmental movement has somehow become synonymous with elite technocratic liberalism’


Even digital fashion magazines such as I-D float articles like ‘does the climate change movement have a class problem?’


The behavioural meem which is particularly provocative in all this are the inferences that the ‘working class’ or ‘the poor’ have not been doing practical activities or trying to get involved, are not as interested or invested in the subject, and that they have not been developing practical and intellectual understandings in the field.


Those who have least status get demarcated out of participation in organisations which are structured around status and ultimately resources.  In this way activities which the public can participate in are often structured as instruments for getting resources for professionals to do the high meaning/high status activity.  This often takes the form of donating or raising money, or for the purposes of providing ‘public engagement’.


From ten years of working in a community organisation I have been mindful of how established groups form insider-outsider behaviours even though such groups and organisations may publicise a character of open participation, profound inclusion and espouse public production as a central tenet of their practice.  My working title for this kind of behaviour has been Monty-Python-Kafka syndrome for situations where small differences have been used to gatekeep involvement in activities.


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This instrumentalisation of communities and individuals for demonstrating outcomes to feed the internal organisational purposes of the professionalised, resourced world erodes confidence of the least resourced communities, in many situations causing individuals who were keen to contribute to stay away.  The power differentials manifested in the bureaucratic administration of organisations set the scene for a convenient infrahumanization which lends itself to accounts of the pragmatic.


Infrahumanization is one of the everyday forms of dehumanization which is active in collective situations and research shows preferential attribution of positive qualities to in-groups, independent of in-group favouritism (Haslam, N., Bain, P., Douge, L., Lee, M., Bastian, B., (2005).


It is evident the damage we are causing to the world through damage to our oceans (GRID-Arendal & UNEP, 2016), deforestation (Forestry Statistics, 2018), loss of species (Millennium Ecosystem Assessment, 2005), soil erosion (Bridges & Oldeman,1999), pollution (World Health Organization, 2016), climate breakdown (IPCC, 2013)


This kind of behaviour is common and ingrained in our everyday lives and perverse incentives of professionalisation promote a rift between those active and accepted on the inside of the field and those who are active but not accepted as a part of the professionalised landscape.


This is by no means limited to the field of sustainability but seems to be a behaviour wherever power is concentrated in an organisation which offers cultural capital to those involved.  An interesting illustration comes from the work of Nazima Kadir, who has written a study about the paradoxes of hierarchy and authority in the squatter movement in Amsterdam relating to us how the squatters movement organisation PvKers organised themselves into a hierarchy which evicted squatters (Page 20, Kadir, 2016).  Here is an excerpt from Kadir’s conclusion of the book, a book which I think sheds light on deeper, more fundamental instincts active within group behaviours that pattern all corporate enterprises (corporate enterprise referring to collective undertakings):


“Returning to this book, I have interrogated the ideal of the autonomous life from a sober and perhaps, cynical academic perspective. I have explored how this community simultaneously disavows and maintains hierarchy and authority and how the contradiction structures the social world of this movement subculture. In Chapter 1, I argued that through examining squatter skills and negative classifications, one can see how unspoken status hierarchies function in this community.


In Chapter 2, I contended that authority figures should display a certain performance of “autonomous” squatter selfhood, comprising assertiveness, the capacity for highly prestigious squatter skills, such as public speaking, campaigning, and presswork, and a habitus of emotional sovereignty. Moreover, I demonstrated how their authority is reified through negative gossip around the sexuality of these figures.


In Chapter 3, I explored how hierarchy and authority manifest within internal dynamics of living groups within squatted houses. In this case, movement capital transfers into one’s status within a group. However, for the sake of cohesion and a peaceful “home” atmosphere, it is necessary to suspend the argumentative, assertive self held up as part of the autonomous ideal.


Finally, in Chapter 4, I examined the notion of activist careers in the movement, the movement subculture as a space of training and liminal adolescence, and how the autonomous self is based on a myopic construction of privileges held by entitled citizens of liberal democratic welfare states. To conclude, however, I would like to suspend this interrogative cynicism and celebrate the unspoken and sober practice of solidarity of this social movement community as illustrated by the Morris story.”


Relatedly I argue that part of the project of sustainability is to address the psychologies and sociologies which lock people out from participating in, and developing solutions to, the unsustainable ways which we are living. Understanding a rationale to this might make use of Weberian notions of what constitutes a functional hierarchy (Constas, 1958). Vitally it must involve some mechanism of recognising value beyond an organisations ability to internalise the benefits where collaboration is understood to bring about positive externalities.


These thoughts are to caveat all the excellent and imperative work which is going on within institutions and organisations all over the world. It is immensely hard to coordinate in complex subject areas with multiple actors and often the administrative structures preclude meaningful participation.


Professionals are increasingly being moved into precarious job contracts which demand that more and more time is taken up responding to the fetishes of the funding-industrial complex leaving them exhausted and with diminished capacities. Precarity is reaching into job roles which used to be underpinned with circumstances which allowed more for medium and long term planning.


Lastly, the problems which have been raised in this discussion article must be understood to happen in collective working situations whatever the scale and whatever the field (be it sustainability or clinical medicine) – be it a local book group unconstituted in any formal legal way or a cross border organisation which involves a superstructure of thousands of coordinating actors.


The drive of this paper is to open conversations before any babies in baths are approached.  These behaviours are engrained in my behaviours as much as any others and understanding how the world recreates itself begins with recognising these roots so counterintuitive behaviours can complement intuited ones.

Bibliography and References:

  • Bridges, E. M. Oldeman, L. R. (1999) Global Assessment of Human-Induced Soil Degradation, Arid Soil Research and Rehabilitation, 13:4, 319-325, DOI: 10.1080/089030699263212
  • Constas, H. (1958). Max Weber’s Two Conceptions of Bureaucracy. American Journal of Sociology, 63(4), 400-409. Retrieved from
  • Elias, N., Scotson, J. L., & Wouters, C. (2008). The established and the outsiders. (Collected works of Norbert Elias.) Dublin: University college Dublin Press.
  • Forestry Statistics (2018) Chapter 9: International Forestry Release date: 27 September 2018 Coverage: United Kingdom Geographical breakdown: Country Issued by: IFOS-Statistics, Forest Research,
  • GRID-Arendal and UNEP (2016), World Ocean Assessment Overview, GRID-Arendal, Norway.
  • Haslam, N., Bain, P., Douge, L., Lee, M., Bastian, B., (2005), More Human Than You: Attributing Humanness to Self and Others, Journal of Personality and Social Psychology Copyright 2005 by the American Psychological Association 2005, Vol. 89, No. 6, 937–950 0022-3514/05/$12.00 DOI: 10.1037/0022-3514.89.6.937
  • IPCC, (2013), Climate Change 2013: The Physical Science Basis: Contribution Of Working Group I To The Fifth Assessment Report Of The Intergovernmental Panel On Climate Change Ipcc ; Stocker, Thomas F. ; Qin, Dahe ; Plattner, Gian-Kasper ; Tignor, Melinda M.B ; Allen, Simon K. ; Boschung, Judith ; Nauels, Alexander ; Xia, Yu ; Bex, Vincent ; Midgley, Pauline M,
  • Kadir, N. (2016). The autonomous life?: Paradoxes of hierarchy and authority in the squatters movement in Amsterdam.
  • Millennium Ecosystem Assessment, 2005. Ecosystems and Human Well-being: Synthesis. Island Press, Washington, DC. Copyright © 2005 World Resources Institute
  • Wilkinson, P., (2015), Ragged University, Retrieved from Internet 31.03.19:
  • World Health Organisation, (2016), Ambient air pollution: a global assessment ol exposure and burden ot disease.


This presentation was written by Alex Dunedin and presented at the 4th Sustainability in Higher Education (SHE) Conference 2019 in Swansea