An observatory scrutinizes inequalities in Belgium

In March 2015 a new information initiative was launched: the Inequality Observatory. Since then, with a metronome regularity, he presents us the results of his work, linked to the university research and the Brussels associative world.
These authors, from different disciplines, are concerned about the persistence and growth of social inequalities in Belgium. Through the convergence of information on this theme, their ambition is to create a database, centralized and easily accessible, intended for the general public and social movements(1). We led a discussion with Alice Romainville, geographer and unemployed person, Xavier May, economist at the Institute of Environmental Management and Land Use Planning (IGEAT) at the Université Libre de Bruxelles (ULB) and Joël Girès, assistant in sociology, also at ULB. Meeting.

Kairos: Why did you create an Inequality Observatory? Are they not visible enough in our society?

Observatory of Inequalities: The starting idea clearly comes from a militant desire to present and defend our conception of a society as it should be organized. Belgium does not have many alternative media, so to accompany them we have come up with this initiative, which we feel is necessary. An important element is also our dismay that the academic community is very reluctant to disseminate its knowledge and information to the general public. On site at the university, we have access to all this data to write about the Observatory’s favorite topics. So at our level, we are also trying to fill the gaps in the university system.

The idea is certainly not to adopt a pamphleteering style, but to present short, descriptive and very explanatory texts. We know that our society is unequal, but how unequal is it? The general idea is to create a media that spreads in other circles, producing information to be used as weapons by social movements, media…

We conducted discussions among colleagues, then we launched, and after a year and a half of preparation work, the process culminated with the site going live on March 2, 2015. We feed it with two new themes every month and have material in reserve for several months.

What are the research disciplines of your members?

Most of us are researchers, in sociology, geography, economics… but that is certainly not the most important thing. Our disciplines define us in part, but above all we are bearers of diverse and varied personal experiences. The subjects we want to write about sometimes have nothing to do with our training. The important thing, according to us, is not to remain confined to the scientific space, and in fact we are joined by people without any link with the academic world. Our CV can be used as a strategic weapon to gain access to the media, which is now, more than ever, looking for « experts ».

Our desire, above all, is not to create any division based on professional status or previous training, we want to get out of the academic jargon and be accessible to all. External people can propose their texts to us, based on the few format instructions available on the site. Our editorial line aims at avoiding the simple realization of a map of the Belgian social inequality to propose weapons of reflection and possible actions for the victims of the inegalitarian system.

Your initiative is part of a European network of Observatories, what can you tell us about it?

For the basic idea, we were inspired by the French Observatory of Inequalities, a different initiative however, presenting more descriptive articles, sometimes consisting only of commented statistics. On our side, we try to put more content and express a point of view. They spread the word about the launch of our site, we are referenced and members of the European network « Inequality Watch »(2) but in fact we are totally independent. We have chosen to be volunteers, where the French receive subsidies, notably to publish important annual reports. In our Belgian field, we do not intend to explore this kind of axis, because it would be redundant with other organizations, for example the Observatory of Health and Social of Brussels-Capital. Their work is very rich, and could eventually be useful to us: we could take a precise information, put it in relation with a personal study to end up with a striking data. We are complementary, but this type of organization is linked to the political world, oriented towards the Brussels administration. We certainly don’t want to do « business experts/politicians ». On the other hand, we do not feel that the authorities need to be informed about inequalities!

The Observatory was born in a form of opposition to the academic world, how do you explain such a frontier between the people posing the findings of inequalities and the places where they manifest themselves?

Researchers working in an academic setting do not have too many incentives to move towards the field, towards concrete things. They are asked to be excellent, to publish in English journals with an « Impact Factor »(3), a ranking. Within its discipline, the goal is to be able to present itself « in the first X of the world ». The institution and the university system push towards these considerations, and do not value the diffusion of information, of « knowledge », towards the general public. We contacted academics working on topics of apparent interest to the Observatory, but we had few responses and these made no effort to avoid academic jargon.

The logic is clearly to produce scientific articles, in listed journals to extend one’s CV, a logic intrinsic to the university because budgets and contracts are evaluated on this basis. The goal is to obtain a permanent contract — the Holy Grail at the University -, and the researchers therefore enter into a series of partnership contracts with outside organizations with this hope. To do this, you need to have a solid track record, such as two years of study at Berkeley, a monstrous list of publications, in major journals, in English, internationally, etc. The scientific activity is directed towards this goal, but the pressure is not direct: the researcher simply has the certainty of the inevitable departure if he does not conform to these criteria.

Being in this race means a mind-boggling pace of work! At the University, we can observe people constantly stressed, in a life devoted to their work, with no more border between their private and professional life. We do not consider this life project as a fulfillment. Most researchers tend to work twelve hours a day to achieve the goals of these competitions, so they won’t work a thirteenth for the Inequality Observatory! In their system of thought, it is worthless!

Could we evoke a certain « instrumentalization », in effect, of poverty and inequality in this university system, towards goals of personal merit.

The instrumentalization is probably not conscious. Just publish, but not just anywhere. The paradox of this system lies in the existence of a truly incredible amount of information produced, but read by no one! The scientific literature is really extremely prolific, but does not go beyond the academic framework. Let’s take this opportunity to point out an obvious democratic problem, because these researchers producing millions of articles are very largely financed by the community! However, in the end, their work is not only inaccessible to the vast majority of the population, because it is in English or very long and jargonous, but in addition, the work is published in paying journals!

Isn’t your goal to fill in some of the gaps in the traditional media?

We gather information with this red thread of inequalities, without positioning ourselves a priori in opposition to the media. Many are indeed reluctant to move away from consensual positions and be critical of the current political system but, and this is certainly unfortunate, they often simply do not have the time to do the research. Here the themes are more specialized, we offer them more specialized things, because often a lot of information is simply not available to them. We ourselves are sometimes surprised by the magnitude of the events we present. For example, we have made a collage of different data on health inequalities at the level of the municipalities and the Brussels Region. We find that in Belgium the richer municipalities have a significantly lower rate of premature children than the poorer municipalities. However, the communes have some diversity in their territory, the rich communes have a part of poor population and vice versa, but by classifying by rich commune/poor commune, the differences were impressive in terms of prematurity rate! Similarly, in the Brussels Region, the risk of dying before the age of one is twice as high for a child born in a household with no earned income as in a household with two incomes(4).

Can you imagine initiatives to reach the general public who are unaware of the extent of these inequalities?

We think a lot about how to reach the general public, but as it is, we don’t have the time or the means to carry out a work of debate, animation, etc., even if we would find it interesting. We focus on the site, to feed it regularly and to improve it. Everyone can take initiatives, we will respond to proposals according to the possibilities. We hope to be joined by people interested in developing things with us. For example, people are busy thinking about the placement of video clips, to make the site more lively.

There is a huge network of associations, certainly constituting part of our readership, whose daily work involves the populations concerned by our information. For example, we were invited by the Université Populaire d’Anderlecht to talk about the over-representation of children from disadvantaged families in special education, our article on the subject having provoked an echo among the families concerned. During the evening, we talked about many very difficult situations of children who are abusively sent to the specialized program, children who simply speak poor French, living in poor families, with family problems… The audience was satisfied with the exchange that evening, allowing them to objectify their observations. The evening confirmed their beliefs and may have motivated them to act. If we can have been a milestone in their understanding of their problem, and especially in a possible response, then it will have been helpful.

The essence of our project is to precisely objectify situations of inequality and to accumulate information showing how they are maintained. This accumulation, through the global knowledge of the inegalitarian phenomenon, demonstrates the existence and the characteristics of the system that generates them.

CANDIDATES AND ELECTED OFFICIALS IN BRUSSELS: A DEMOCRATIC CHALLENGE

We have collected the words of a member of the Observatory, Gilles Van Hamme, about his study on the social origin of candidates and elected officials in Brussels.

What are the conclusions of your study?

The main observation concerning the observation of the geographical origin of the totality of the candidates is the existence of a rather homogeneous distribution on the whole territory of the 19 Brussels municipalities. On this question, there is therefore no strong discrimination in terms of income between neighborhoods. On the other hand, for the four main parties (PS/MR/CDH/Ecolo), we already observe a fairly clear difference in relation to the districts of origin, with an over-representation of candidates from the most favored districts. If you look at the origin of the elected officials, it becomes even more spectacular: the elected officials, after polls, are very over-represented in the most affluent districts and under-represented in the poorest districts.

What do you think is the reason for this?

The reason for a good social and territorial distribution of candidates, over the whole area, is the important presence of some parties in poor neighborhoods (small Muslim parties, the PTB,…), functioning as a balancing element. Secondly, within the major parties, we already see a social selection within the parties, which is more important for the MR and the CDH, two parties that recruit a lot of people from the city’s affluent neighbourhoods. Moreover, between the candidates of the major parties and their elected representatives, a form of social selection also seems to develop within the organizations. Of the total number of people on the lists, elected candidates are more likely to reside in wealthy neighborhoods than non-elected candidates. Knowledge of the nature of the socio-political mechanisms within parties would require further investigation, particularly with respect to social selection in the allocation of list positions. There are a number of small overlapping things that lead to this result: parties select good speakers, these speakers have high degrees, are perhaps driven by greater ambition, itself the result of family encouragement, etc. We are not necessarily seeing a premeditated plan on the part of the parties.

The article: « Candidates and elected officials in Brussels: a democratic challenge », is available at this address: http://inegalites.be/Candidats-et-elus-a-bruxelles-un

Notes et références
  1. Tous les textes sont disponibles en français et en néerlandais sur http://inegalites.be
  2. http://www.inequalitywatch.eu
  3. Le facteur d’impact est un calcul estimant la visibilité des travaux, par le nombre moyen de citations des articles présents dans la revue. Les facteurs d’impact servent de critère d’évaluation, définissant un supposé niveau d’excellence de la revue. Ils sont publiés annuellement, dans le «Thomson Reuters Journal Citation Reports».
  4. Article: «Les inégalités sociales de santé à la naissance», Observatoire des Inégalités, 12 mars 2015. http://inegalites.be/Les-inegalités-sociales-de-sante‑a. Un autre article sur une thématique proche, «Les inégalités d’espérance de vie», par Gilles Van Hamme, Isaline Wertz et Taïs Grippa, 3 août 2015. http://inegalites.be/Les-inegalites-d-esperance-de-vie
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