Council housing has, since the start of the 20th century, transformed the lives of millions of people across Ireland.
Whether provided by Local Authorities, Approved Housing Bodies or others, non-market housing has enabled working-class people and communities to overcome disease, homelessness, insecurity and poverty.
Indeed, public housing has played a vital role in helping working-class people build vibrant communities and great places to live, work and play.
Despite these undisputable facts, Council estates and the people who live in them are too often demonised in mainstream political and public discourse. This is particularly the case with our inner-city flat complexes.
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Too little is written about the lived reality in these estates. Even less is written by residents themselves.
Equally ignored are the decades of neglect, poor management and bad policy by the state and its agencies and the impact this has had on the wellbeing of working-class communities.
John Bissett’s new book, It’s Not Where You Live, It’s How You Live seeks to correct all of this, exploring the way in which class and gender dynamics shape the lives of residents in one Dublin inner city flat complex.
He also seeks to go further, teasing out the broader gender and class relations between the flat complex and its residents and the wider social, economic and geographical realities of the city.
Bissett is a veteran community worker, with decades of experience in youth, drugs and regeneration projects in south inner-city Dublin. He is also an academic, a writer and a housing rights campaigner.
All of this places him in a unique position to observe, recount and analyse life on one of the estates which, through his work, he has built up an intimate knowledge of and empathy with.
Bissett approaches his task from two vantage points. He uses ethnography to observe, engage and tell the stories of the residents of the estate. Then he employs critical theory, sociology and political philosophy to interrogate the residents’ narratives about themselves and the world they inhabit.
Some of the most compelling sections of the book come from the authors conversations with ‘labourers, care workers, make-up artists, hospital workers, factory workers…’ to name but a few.
His conversations with Maxine, Michelle, Frank, Sean and others capture the ordinary, the mundane, the humorous, the tragic, the profound and at times the traumatic moments of their lives.
Bissett is particularly interested in drawing out the residents’ experiences of work and caring and how the dynamics of class exploitation and gender inequality shape people’s sense of self, their relationship with their neighbours and with wider society.
These chapters also deal with the harsh reality of people living with scarcity, of work, food, clothes and money. Bissett, through his conversations, allows the residents to reveal their coping strategies for living with real poverty.
With an eye for small details and turns of phrase, Bisset tries to get underneath regularly used cliches by residents like ‘what goes around comes around’ and ‘its not where you live its how you live’.
He wants to understand, and for his readers to understand, how the residents themselves understand and explain their world on their own terms.
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When Bissett shifts from ethnographer to critical analyist the book – its language and tone – shifts register significantly.
Readers not conversant with the opaque language of critical realism and post-structural theory will struggle with the authors mobilisation of writers such as Roy Bhaskar, Henri Lefebvre and Jacques Rancière.
Much of this theory provides Bissett with a valuable interpretative framework for asking questions about the way in which class, gender and geography shape and limit the lives of the residents.
However, at times the reader is left feeling that Bissett could have done more to make this highly specialised academic discourse accessible to a more general readership.
At various points in these sections of the book Bissett seems to get a little lost in the seductive language of cultural theory and phenomenology.
As a result, he loses sight of his stated aim, namely to bring to light the social, economic, political and cultural relationships between the estate and its residents and the wider context of our late capitalist patriarchal society and geography.
This really is a pity, because the questions Bisset asks, and at times struggles to answer, are important, not just for social scientists but for the people whose lives are shaped by scarcity, inequality and the harsh reality of political and economic power.
Despite this, It’s Not How You Live It’s Where You Live, provides us with a valuable insight into the lives, challenges and ultimately the resilience of residents in one inner city community who for too long have been ignored. That in itself is a valuable outcome.
Eoin Ó Broin is a TD and Sinn Féin spokesperson on housing