Following the previous blog which highlighted problems wuth the SRUC report “Family Esates and Rural Resiliance”, I am pleased to publish the following letters written by Dr Iain MacKinnon to Professor Bob Webb, Principal and Chief Executive of SRUC and to the Scotsman newspaper in response to its article of 17 October 2013.
by Dr Iain MacKinnon
Dear Professor Webb,
My name is Iain MacKinnon. I have recently completed a PhD at the University of Ulster on the topic of the Highlands and Islands as a site of colonisation, and am currently working independently as a writer and researcher.
I have pasted into the body of this e-mail for your attention a copy of a letter that I sent this morning to the editor of The Scotsman. It is in regard to the report published by SRUC last week entitled ‘Family Estates and Rural Resilience‘. This report was publicised by The Scotsmanand after reading the newspaper’s article I am concerned that there is a substantial error of reasoning in the original SRUC report which has allowed it to be used to make political claims that cannot be substantiated. I believe this error of reasoning risks bringing the SRUC into disrepute. As these unsubstantiated political claims have been made in a public forum I have chosen to put my concerns forward in that same forum. However, I would welcome your response to my concerns.
le gach durachd / with good wishes
Letter to the Editor of the Scotsman
On 17th October you reported on the Scottish Rural Agricultural College’s newly published research on ‘Family Estates and Rural Resilience’. The research concluded that “family estates can support rural resilience”. However, the SRUC provide no tenable evidence for this claim and it risks bringing their work into disrepute.
The research report, which according to your newspaper was co-authored by the head of SRUC’s Rural Policy Centre Dr Sarah Skerratt, interviewed the landlords of 23 Scottish country estates, asking each one whether they thought their estates could contribute to rural resilience. The interviewees were all members of the landlord’s representative organisation, Scottish Land and Estates, and the research acknowledged that SLE had filtered which of its members were chosen for interview.
The SRUC report concluded: “Based on the findings of the 23 interviewed estates across Scotland, we are able to state that a vibrant and strong family estate can contribute to the on-going vibrancy of rural communities, both on or near these estates.”
However, this headline conclusion cannot be sustained by the evidence in the report. As the only evidence presented in the report came from interviews with landlords, the strongest conclusion that it could have drawn was to say that landlords themselves believe they can contribute to rural resilience.
In order to validate the report’s more general claim that a “family estate can contribute to the on-going vibrancy of rural communities” much more evidence is required. The researcher would need to investigate the perspectives of the broader range of rural community stakeholders, as well as conduct a detailed, multi-disciplinary analysis of development in rural Scotland.
The report published last week did not seek out this broader base of rural opinion and it did not offer any critical analysis of the limited range of opinions it elicited. There was no meaningful evidence in it to justify its headline conclusion and, as a result, that conclusion is at risk of becoming a propaganda tool for landowners.
Indeed, the propaganda potential of its conclusion has already been utilised by Douglas MacAdam, the chief executive of Scottish Land and Estates. Immediately on its publication he described the report as “exactly the sort of independent recognition landowners and estate owners have been looking for”. He added: “It is clear from the findings of the report that estates make a significant social, economic and environmental contribution to the communities of which they are a part.” 
The report found nothing of the sort. No general conclusions about rural resilience can be drawn on the basis of its interviews and, for the sake of its own reputation, the SRUC should acknowledge their serious mistake and disown this untenable conclusion.
In terms of best practice in research the report should also have stated that SRUC director Luke Borwick is also the chairman of SLE, the landlord’s representative organisation that acted as filter for the research interviewees. 
Dr. Iain MacKinnon
 Details of Luke Borwick’s roles at SRUC and SLE are available on the SRUC website. However, the report itself gives no indication that a prominent member of SRUC is also the leading figure in the organisation that acted as gatekeeper to the research participants. Lord Lindsay of the Byres and former NFU president and Perthshire landowner Jim MacLaren are also members of the SRUC board.
UPDATE 31 October 2013
Below is the reply by Dr Sarah Skerratt to Dr Iain McKinnon and Dr MacKinnon’s subsequent reply. This correspondence is now closed.
24 October 2013
Dear Dr MacKinnon,
Many thanks for taking the time to express your views to our Principal concerning SRUC’s recently-published report: “Family Estates and Rural Resilience”. As the editor of the report, I am contacting you in response to the points you have raised.
Firstly, given that there is no complete database of private (family) estates, any database is, of necessity, partial. Secondly, our focus was on private family estates. Given the need to maintain the confidentiality of SL&E’s members’ details contained in the database, it was necessary to identify those estates in our anonymised selection which were or were not family estates. This sampling process was robust.
Firstly, as you rightly highlight, the report states that: “a vibrant and strong family estate can contribute to the on-going vibrancy of rural communities”. It states that family estates “can contribute” rather than “are contributing”. This is an important distinction, since this means universality of findings is not being claimed. Further, in the conclusions it is stated: “Given our research focuses on a sub-sample of family estates, it will be important to identify the extent to which these findings apply across the wider estate sector” (p.14). Secondly, as you will see from the report, it is made clear that: “these findings represent the views of the interviewees.” (p.4). Therefore, as with phase one of the research, where I interviewed the Trust Boards of Community Land Trusts (not the wider communities of which they are part), it is clear that our focus is on these distinct decision-making ‘units’. This is because we are examining how and why decisions are taken, and the perception interviewees have of the influence of their decisions on wider rural resilience and vibrancy.
As stated in the report, Thematic Analysis was carried out on the data from the interviews. The analysis was “critical” in the academic sense of the word: complexity and diversity are outlined; differences in views, perceptions, values and motivations are identified; instances where landowners do not see it as their role to engage with wider development and those factors which make them less likely to do so, are also emphasised.
I recognise that others have made claims based on the research, some of which you have termed as “political” and “propaganda”. SRUC has not made those claims. Our focus, here at SRUC, is to provide impartial, sound, robust evidence, which can then be fed into debate. We cannot, and do not seek to, control how that debate evolves.
Finally, you are correct in stating that Mr Luke Borwick is a member of SRUC’s Board, and is chairman of Scottish Land and Estates. SRUC Board Members come from a diverse range of perspectives and industries from across the rural sector, in Scotland and internationally. To cease to carry out research simply because it may be of relevance to a Board Member would severely constrain our activities as a research organisation. In addition to this underlying principle, Luke Borwick did not influence in any way the course of this research.
Dr Sarah Skerratt
27 October 2013
Dear Dr Skerratt,
(c.c. Principal Webb)
Thank you for taking the time to answer my e-mail to Principal Webb and for your full and comprehensive response to it, breaking my comments down into headed sections. I will respond to your comments in each heading.
My observations on the research design were not a criticism of the design in itself. Instead they were linked to the fact, expressed later in my letter, that SRUC director Luke Borwick is also chairman of the group that, in terms of the research design, acted as gatekeepers to the interviewees. It was the perception of a potential ‘conflict of interest’ that concerned me in my letter, rather than the design of the research itself.
However, Andy Wightman has identified what he considers to be flaws in the research design and has written about these on his blog, ‘Land Matters’ where there has been an extensive debate on the ‘Family Estates and Rural Resilience’ report. It will be useful for Andy and others who have contributed to this debate to hear your defence of the research and how you have answered their criticisms, and so, in the spirit of the democratisation and dissemination of research, I intend to post your e-mail to me and my response to you on the ‘Land Matters’ blog. Please let me know if you have any objections to this. My view is that Andy’s blog is an important forum for research on land, rural and agricultural matters, and, in general, represents a useful democratisation of these debates.
On his blog you will see that Andy has also addressed the question of how a ‘family estate’ is defined.
I should begin by saying that my criticism of the report conclusions did not address the issue of ‘universality’, which you write about in your response. Instead, it addressed the question of the level of evidence that is required in order to validate a particular truth claim.
Your report’s headline conclusion states:
“Based on the findings of the 23 interviewed estates across Scotland, we are able to state that a vibrant and strong family estate can contribute to the on-going vibrancy of rural communities, both on or near these estates.”
As you noted in your response to me, the body of the ‘family estates’ report makes it clear that “these findings represent the views of the interviewees.”
My criticism of the headline conclusion is that this earlier qualification [that the findings represent the views of the interviewees] has not been applied to this conclusion and it leaves the reader with the impression that the claim that family estates can contribute to rural resilience has come from the SRUC itself and not from the landlords whose views, as you have noted, are actually being presented in the report.
From the first sentence of the executive summary to the report it is clear that the rural resilience you are researching extends beyond the landowning family to the wider rural community living on and around that family’s estate.
My criticism is that to legitimately claim that a family estate can contribute to wider rural resilience surely requires the active assent of all (or at least the noted dissent of some) of that rural community and not just the perspective of those who own the land on which that wider community lives. As the report did not include evidence from non-landowning residents on and around family estates, I do not believe you have the evidence necessary to make this more general claim.
In my view what your report has revealed is the more limited claim that some landlords believe that landlords can contribute to rural resilience. I believe its conclusions ought to have reflected that finding and that you may have avoided the present difficult political situation had you worded the conclusion:
“Based on the findings of the 23 interviewed estates across Scotland, we are able to state that some owners of family estates believe that a vibrant and strong family estate can contribute to the on-going vibrancy of rural communities, both on or near these estates.”
I am criticising this conclusion in part because it seems to me that Scottish Land and Estates has sought to make political capital from the lack of consistency between the report’s evidence and this conclusion.
I will discuss this further in a later section but I would like to say that in terms of understanding the nature of the present political dispute over the report I have found very helpful the distinction that you draw in your response to me that the report “states that family estates “can contribute” rather than “are contributing”” to rural resilience. It is helpful because this distinction makes it clearer to me how SLE has drawn on the inconsistency between the evidence in the report and its conclusions, and has deepened it to the extent that it seems to me that SLE has made exactly the unwarranted transition from ‘can contribute’ to ‘are contributing’ that you have written about in your response to me.
I am not sure that I agree with your ‘universality’ argument, but, as I’ve said, I don’t think that this is relevant to the present discussion.
I agree that my assertion of the report’s lack of a critical analysis of the limited range of opinions that the research was built on is too strong for the particular academic sense of ‘critical’ that you describe.
However, this may reflect our different understandings of the word ‘critical’. In my use of the word I am drawing on the pre-eminent work on critical theory of the Frankfurt School which, in one recent articulation of it, “seeks to give social agents a critical purchase on what is normally taken for granted and…promotes the development of a free and self-determining society”.
What my claim draws attention to is that there is no critical reflection in the report on the difference between the limited range of the evidence (which is entirely landlord based) and the general nature of the headline conclusion (which applies more broadly to rural society has been affirmed by the impartial SRUC).
To reiterate, the headline conclusion is presented as the opinion of SRUC on rural society whereas, as you note in your response to me, it is in fact merely the collected opinions of the interviewed landlords.
This is a critical point as it means that the report’s conclusion can be interpreted as taking for granted, and arguably therefore contributing to, a power relationship in Scottish society that was recently expressed as “landlords and their communities” (this phrase is from a tweet made last weekend by the SLE chief executive and is recorded on Andy Wightman’s blog which is linked to above – the emphasis is mine). The use of the third person possessive determiner in this tweet indicates the writer’s presumption that private landlords possess the communities on ‘their’ land [‘their house’, ‘their land’, ‘their communities’], and, I would argue, therefore claim a right of representation over them.
In terms of the study of evolving rural power relations over land in Scotland which is focussed around the emergence in some parts of the country of community land ownership as a self-determining alternative to private landlordism (and I regard your own work as important in this field), I would say that the inner dynamics of the relationships between landlords and communities, rather than the range of opinions about development among private landlords, is the critical issue.
My criticism here is that the report’s headline conclusion gives the SRUC’s affirmation to a general claim about the potential of private landlords to contribute to the resilience of rural communities. However the report’s evidence can only allow this claim to belong to the landlords themselves – ‘their communities’ were not asked and remain silent. Therefore, I believe that the report’s conclusion can and has been interpreted as implicitly affirming the presumption of landlord possession of community and of the normative power relationships that this presumption entails – although I accept that such an affirmation is unintentional.
I find making this kind of analysis uncomfortable and I don’t like doing it, particularly because I value much of the research work that comes out of the SRUC and its rural policy team.
However, it is precisely because, as you say in your response to me, the SRUC intends its work to feed into political debate that I have felt compelled to contribute in this way. You add that SRUC does “not seek to control how that debate evolves”. I would like to challenge you on this statement. I would argue that SRUC has a duty to its research findings beyond the moment of publication, in particular to situations where they are being misrepresented for political ends. I think that SRUC has a duty of control to the extent that it should ensure that such misrepresentations are challenged and corrected. This is a key factor that led me to comment on this report.
In this instance the SRUC sought wider commentary on its report by allowing its communications unit it publicise it. Indeed, it was reported on by many media outlets who ran alongside it the commentary on it by Scottish Land and Estates. If I am right in my reading of your argument in your response to me, the SLE misrepresents your work when it claims that the report shows that landlords “make a significant social, economic and environmental contribution to the communities of which they are a part” – that is, it turns the report’s ‘can’ into an ‘is’.
If I am right, in the interests of properly informed public debate I think it would be appropriate, in a case like this, to defend the integrity of your research by pointing out that it is being misrepresented by a lobbying group – even if you do not acknowledge that this misrepresentation is being done for political ends.
As I said, Dr Skerratt it is for this reason that I have felt compelled to criticise your team’s work in this instance, even though I value much of the SRUC’s work in this area.
It is useful to have on record your statement that “Luke Borwick did not influence in any way the course of this research”.
Thank you also for articulating the principle which guides the SRUC in relation to its directors’ outside interests.
In terms of transparency, and to help to avoid any perception of conflicts of interest in the future, I think that in any research situation where an SRUC representative has an external interest in that research, it would be useful for research outputs explicitly to mention this interest and for the principle you described to me to be articulated in the output.
I am sorry to be writing to you in such a critical way and I thank you again for your response to me.
Le gach durachd – with kind regards
Dr Iain MacKinnon