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Listening to Jews

Posted on August 2, 2007 in Default

Discussed in this essay: Les Back (2007) The Art of Listening. Oxford: Berg Books.

Since last May I have been researching Jewish communal leadership in the UK since the early 1990s with Ben Gidley, my colleague at the Centre for Urban and Community Research at Goldsmiths College. Part of this project has involved an investigation into how Jewish organisations have used and commissioned social research. I have been impressed at the extent to which, broadly speaking, the Anglo-Jewish community has been research active in the last decade and a half. The Board of Deputies, the Institute for Jewish Policy Research and several other major Jewish organisations have commissioned substantial research projects and used their findings to shape policy. I myself owe my own current involvement in the Jewish community to this minor boom in research – in 1995 I was taken on by Jewish Continuity as a part-time research assistant, a position that gradually snowballed into my current level of involvement in Jewish communal life.

Inasmuch as research is a basic requirement for any community or organisation that seriously desires to understand itself and work better, the commitment to research shown by many communal bodies since the early 90s (and long before that in some cases) is admirable. At the same time though, it’s important to recognise the limitations of the research that has been carried out on Anglo-Jewry. The majority of the projects that have been initiated have been quantitative, based on surveys and statistics. There has been some qualitative research based on in-depth interviews and focus groups, but even these projects have had very specific policy goals. I do not want to disparage these kinds of projects (how could I? I was involved in quite a few of them) but it is striking that more open-ended research projects have been virtually absent in the UK. There has been little or no attempt to undertake observational social research projects that aim first and foremost to paint detailed and finely textured portraits of the way Jews in the UK live.

In reading Les Back’s new book The Art of Listening, it struck me just what we are missing. Les Back is Professor of sociology at Goldsmiths College and an expert on racism, urbanism and ethnic identity. I must declare a personal interest as he has been very supportive to me personally and a model of what an engaged academic should be. At first glance (hearing?) The Art of Listening is a book of little interest to non-sociologists, being a sustained meditation on sociological methodology and the art of social research. So why am I reviewing the book here? The reason is that Back has important things to say about the way we ‘listen’ to the world that are relevant beyond the sociological community.

Back makes a powerful case for sociology as ‘listening art’ that is well suited to ‘hear those who are not listened to and challenge the claims placed on the meaning of events in the past and in the present’ (1). Back summarises the importance of listening as follows:

Our culture is one that speaks rather than listens. From reality TV to political rallies there is a clamour to be heard, to narrate and gain attention. Consumed and exposed by turns, ‘reality’ is reduced to revelation and voyeurism. The central contention of The Art of Listening is that this phenomenon is having severe and damaging consequences in a world that is increasingly globalized and where time and space are compressed. Listening to the world is not an automatic faculty but a skill that needs to be trained. (7)

Both sociology and the everyday lives that sociologists study are shot through with both insight and ‘social deafness’ (11). Sociology may offer a systematic form of listening to others, but it is not capable of hearing all and knowing all. It requires a certain humility that ‘prizes patience, commitment to dialogue and careful and reflective claims to truth’ (20). For Back, this ‘commitment to dialogue’ means not only listening but also asking hard questions of the subjects of sociological writing, albeit in a respectful manner. He argues that ‘the political value of sociological work lies in being open to unsettling dialogues with humility’ (162). Above all, sociology offers hope in the possibilities of listening and dialogue.

The bulk of The Art of Listening consists of demonstrations of the author’s commitment to hearing and to dialogue, with a number of chapters reflecting on particular aspects of his research. Back ‘listens to’ such topics as the Immigration and Nationality Directorate in Croydon, young people’s feelings of safety and of home in East London, tattooing and the July 7 bombings. Throughout the book he draws on personal experience, particular that of the death of his father, but in a way that is never self-indulgent. Rather, there is a continual attempt to understand to draw connections between personal experiences and that of the other.

The book brought home to me just what has been lacking in social research on Anglo-Jewry. For all that all research projects since the early 90s have been initiated in order to ‘understand’ British Jews, it is a thin kind of understanding that has been achieved. Most research projects have been tied into very specific policy goals. The desire for ‘data’ in the pursuit of policy can force research into a straightjacket in which the subjects of research are only half-listened to – only that which is ‘relevant’ to the research gets heard. One of the problems of policy-oriented research is that starting with a view of what the subjects of research should be doing can lead to a certain lack of respect for them. This is a real dilemma in, for example, policy-oriented research on Jewish education. In the research on ‘moderately engaged’ British Jews that Steven Cohen and I carried out for the United Jewish Israel Appeal a few years ago (published as Beyond Belonging 2004), I hope that we managed to do justice to the dignity and complexity of our respondents; but I also worry that the desire for a more committed, engaged and educated population of British Jews might have led us to overlook some of the complex textures of peoples’ lives. Attention to what Les Back calls ‘interpretation without legislation’ (1) might have instilled in us a more creative and humanistic attitude to research.

Perhaps then the value of social research isn’t just its ‘pay offs’ for policy makers, but as a valuable exercise in its own right. Perhaps it can teach us how to listen to others in a more systematic and open way. Perhaps social research should be a more formal version of what we should be doing anyway. It is here that The Art of Listening gave me most pause for thought. It made me realise once again just how poor British Jews are at listening to each other. I’m always struck by this on my visits to Finland and Sweden – countries I love dearly – where it is rare to interrupt anyone when they are talking and listeners usually pause for a second or two before responding. I always find this hard to adapt to and until I adjust I feel crass and rude. The Jewish community (not just in the UK) is full of noise and clamour, we eschew silence. Think of how the standard way of studying Talmud is in a crowded Beth Midrash in which the student and hevrutah partner part-chant, part-talk across and around each other. Our culture of noise isn’t necessarily a bad thing; it makes for an atmosphere that can be wonderfully warm and vibrant. But the dark side is that the clamour to make oneself heard can lead to frustration and this frustration can lead to an increasing shrillness. The ‘still small voice’ can be drowned out; the voice of the marginalised can be suppressed. The recent controversy over Independent Jewish Voices is an example of how the desire to be heard can erupt in exchanges that are vituperative in their bitterness.

Perhaps then the major value of research in the UK Jewish community is as an exercise that can, potentially at least, force us to listen more clearly. We do not need to silence ourselves to do this in an illusory attempt at ‘objectivity’, but we do need to leave space for the other to be heard. Anyone with an interest in how to do this would be well advised to consult The Art of Listening as a treasury of good practice.