Leeds GATE

Working to improve the quality of life for Gypsies and Travellers

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On Buzzwords and Played Out Terminology

Helen Jones's picture
By Helen Jones |  November 2, 2016 |

The technical term for what I might call a ‘buzzword’, whose usefulness has expired is to say that the word has become an ‘empty signifier’.  It’s original meaning has been scooped out by overuse, or misuse, and it becomes a degraded brand even though the original concept or principle that the word describes might remain as important as ever.  People are potentially steered away from the principle because the describing word or phrase has become devalued.  Sometimes the word actually does somehow capture more currency than the idea behind it deserves, or is simply a catchy re-naming of a tired method.  It may also be that phrases which capture a very important principle can be quite deliberately subverted so that it’s power is diminished (think Careless Society becomes Big Society).

Whilst at GATE we recognised this dynamic since our early days, our current Asset Based Community Development (ABCD) and Co-production project has given us an opportunity to focus and reflect on the dilemma of adopting, or indeed inventing, new ‘buzz’ words or phrases to describe something you are doing, or a concept you identify, but accepting the risk that the concept will be undermined if the ‘buzz’ becomes an empty signifier.

Long before our ‘ABCD’ project Leeds GATE actually invented a signifier of our own.  In 2010 we proposed to Leeds City Council that they should pilot a new approach to management of unauthorised encampment.  We called this approach Negotiated Stopping.  Simply it meant that instead of taking a blanket ‘remove as fast as possible’ approach to camps, the authority and camp residents should engage in dialogue, make reasonable agreements and that the authority would then allow camps to ‘stop’ for longer periods of time and provide sensible waste disposal services.  Since that time, and spurred on by the success of Leeds’ approach, Negotiated Stopping is happily evident in the national debate about encampment, several Local Authorities have used the catchphrase to adopt a change of approach and Travelling families are beginning to ask for ‘negotiation’ with local authorities.  The term has been used on official documents and discussed in Parliament. 

Progress towards widespread adoption of this approach is slow, and even maintaining the approach in areas where it has been applied is challenging.  This does have to be seen however in the context of an ongoing ‘running sore’ issue in UK society for many decades, if not centuries.  The words we have created have created a genuine opportunity for change.  The time, when many local authorities simply do not have the funds to keep chasing Gypsies around, is perhaps as ripe for change as it has been for a long time.  Our work has been recognised in national awards and by charitable trusts who support our ongoing efforts and by every commentator who has chosen to use our little common sense phrase.  Wonderful! The power of words whose time is ripe.

But every fruit has its season.  How do we recognise the dangers of buzzwords becoming empty signifiers?  How do we avoid the words becoming tired and effectively degrading the power of the good idea?  How can we stop the words being misused by local authorities wanting a cheap sticking plaster and without the vision of a proper long term, just, solution? Powerful vested interests, particularly politicians, whatever they may say, are addicted to the status quo.  The image of the local politician ‘battling’ on behalf of their electorate requires a mythical demon and Gypsy people have long been a convenient cypher.  Justice for Gypsy Travellers, especially when on the roadside, ie not chosing to live according to a narrow status quo, would set a dangerous precedent for justice for many of us who don’t quite fit into a so-called majority.  There is good reason for power to disempower ideas like Negotiated Stopping. (think Careless Society vs Big Society again).

Leeds GATE is full of creative thinking.  Recently within asset mapping for our ABCD project my colleague recognised the limitations of thinking about bridging social capital.  We are familiar with the idea of well travelled roads between majority communities and the services they need.  We may also recognise the need for bridges that assist minority groups to access wider public society, even if we acknowledge that bridges have limited effect on ensuring that everyone can travel the same road and are vulnerable to being removed via, for example, ideological funding decisions.  The gap in this thinking that my colleague recognised led to her coining the term ‘tunnels’ to describe solutions to accessing services which individuals use to by-pass the barriers they face, especially in situations where there is neither accessible road, nor visible specific bridge.  You can read more about this here

This concept of tunnels accurately describes a reality which exists and can be recognised.  I think the concept and the word used to describe it will ‘take off’ and we will find it cropping up in a variety of health and other related fields.  Whilst it speaks to minority experiences it is universal to individuals in many different circumstances and can be helpfully adopted to explain and respond to something that whilst hidden, is recognizable.

Whether Negotiated Stopping will have the same ‘legs’ as the concept of ABCD ‘tunnels’ remains to be seen.  Our challenge is to ensure that the phrase remains consistently applied so that its meaning remains secure and consistent, and, importantly, is universally understood to have benefit to all (ie settled people as well as camp residents).

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