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To What Extent Can a Gramscian Analysis Help Us Understand the Processes and Outcomes of Self Help Housing?

Part 1 Dissertation 1999
Mark Gowdridge
University of Lincoln | UK
This dissertation provides a critical analysis of self help housing drawing upon ideas developed by the Italian political theorist Antonio Gramsci. Many authors have considered whether self help housing can provide a solution to the widespread problems of homelessness and housing inadequacy. The question has been explored from two opposed positions, both of which are limited in outlook. Positivist writers have concentrated on the use-value of self help aid to the individual without giving sufficient thought to issues of social context and economics. They see self help as a solution to housing deficiencies when in fact problems of shelter tend to reflect deeper social pressures confronting vulnerable communities, pressures such as unemployment, racial discrimination and gender conflict. At the other extreme, Marxist authors have focused on economic issues to the exclusion of all else. They see self help as no more than a palliative mechanism, a device often used by the state to distract people from more fundamental processes of class exploitation. Gramsci's work enables us to move beyond these two perspectives and consider how self help housing contributes to ideological struggles happening in a wider social context than merely class. His concept of cultural hegemony would seem to suggest that social action in the housing arena can provide a successful ground for movements working against gender and racial exclusion, identities that do not have an essential class character but intertwine with capitalism in complex ways. To test this hypothesis, this dissertation looks as the experiences of two different self help housing groups, a women's group in Liverpool and a black housing group in Leeds. Self help housing, it concludes, can provide a means for communities to address problems other than housing need. It can help people to build community solidarity around beliefs that challenge hegemonic ideologies in civil society, which in turn means that housing oppression - in the widest understanding of the term - can be reduced.
Mark Gowdridge

This dissertation boldly brings together three complex and difficult areas - self-help housing, community and the development of a Gramscian analysis. It demonstrates that Gramsci provides an alternative tool, more critical than positivism and more sensitive than Marxism, for analysing the processes and outcomes of self-help housing. The case studies in Leeds and Liverpool illustrate how the analysis cuts through to the key issues and establishes criteria against which self-help or community housing proposals may be tested. The key lesson demonstrated by the dissertation is that housing is never isolated from other issues of individual employment, community empowerment, gender or race. Its success is that it appears to be the first attempt to apply a Gramscian perspective in this area, and the paper demonstrates its usefulness with clarity. The project has been pursued with enthusiasm and commitment.

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