The Politics of Kindness

by Les Back

I want to extend my deep gratitude to everyone who came to the New Urban Multicultures event on 17th May, 2016. What an extraordinary day it was. It meant so much to me to be honoured in this way by the words of so many people I admire but also by such a gathering across different generations of writers, researchers, musicians and artists. So first and foremost my deep, deep thanks to organizers, Emma Jackson and Anamik Saha, the speakers and also the attendees, many of whom travelled great distances to be there. Your presence was a truly prodigious gift.

I don’t think I have ever been at an academic event where time passed so quickly, or where I felt almost physically torn between clashing sessions that I wish I could have attended somehow simultaneously.  The generous appreciation and imaginative reading of that old book was nothing short of a marvel. It was like listening to a life summed up in a posthumous tribute without having to go through the indignity of suffering my own demise.

George Shire’s characterization at the end will stay with me always: “Listening to understand not just to respond.” That is exactly what I have aspired to in my work. George caught something deep too – as he very often does – when he named this style of thought and reasoning as a “politics of kindness.” As I looked back at you all from the podium that idea took on a kaleidoscopic human face.

At the end after a very long but exhilarating day, I spectacularly faltered in answering the question “how would I have done the research differently” or how “I would advise a student doing a similar study today?” I had to smile to myself because later I realized it was a staple PhD viva question, one that I’d exasperated many a PhD candidate with myself.   Looking down the list of speakers too, I realised that I had examined the PhDs of nine of them. It served me right. I said in response I’d “need to think about it” and indeed I have.

While New Ethnicities and Urban Culture contains nods to feminist, postmodern and postcolonial critiques of ethnography, it was written within a standard mode of anthropological realism. The lone ethnographic participant and documenting what was seen and heard. I felt a deep tension between being part of those social worlds, while the act of writing about them set me apart at the same time.

I tried to stay in contact with many of the people but by the same token I lost connection with so many. That unevenness is still haunting because of the imbalances of power, control and ultimately reward within the process of writing. Perhaps that is why I have given the royalties away to the Pete Jones Fund and why I struggled to answer ‘the viva question’.

I think one of the things I would do differently would be to have developed a deeper sense of ongoing dialogue, not just a live sociology but also a more sociable one. I am imagining an augmented ethnographic practice that would allow and facilitate a greater openness of representational space where the voices and understandings of participants can appear alongside the ethnographer’s interpretations.

Culture here would be written within but also beyond words. Texts collaged alongside pages that also become screens including moving images, still photography, soundscapes and music. A kind of ethnographic practice that would make residents into the observers of their own lives, it would generate a mode of commentary on their own lives in their own voices. Curated digitally this gallery of commentary might be linked across common questions or coded themes. These voices could be assembled and then reassembled logarithmically through the variegated dimensions of their relatedness.

While I don’t go back to New Ethnicities and Urban Culture, perhaps for some of the reasons I have mentioned already, it was truly wonderful to listen to the presenters at the conference doing so.   I was struck by how Gargi Bhattacharyya and Hannah Jones took quotations from the participants in the book to set up and support their own arguments. These voices – initially scribbled in notebooks or transcribed from tape recordings thirty years ago – sang out with such vitality and still seemed so relevant.  I was so proud of that.

So thanks again, particularly to George Shire for summing up better than I am able to. I would be happy with his words as an epitaph, perhaps etched into a Deptford pavement slab repurposed as a makeshift tombstone: “Here lies Les Back – an exponent of the politics of kindness. Rest in Peace.”


(‘back to Back’ by Alex Rhys-Taylor)


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