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Sociological Explanations of Educational Underachievement

This post attempts to demonstrate what sociology is by examining how the discipline approaches one particular issue – why some children do worse at school than others…from a sociological perspective, educational failure is not simply down to the individual!

The easiest way to illustrate the sociological imagination, and to demonstrate how sociologists ‘do sociology’ is to look at an example of how Sociology approaches a particular social issue – such as the the issue of educational underachievement. Most Sociologists regard this as a social problem because leaving school with few or no formal qualifications is strongly related to a future of unemployment and/ or low-skilled and low-paid work.

So why does educational underachievement exist? Why do some children fail where others succeed?

The most obvious place to look for this answer is the the children themselves – either their educational failure is a matter of low intelligence or lack of aspiration and individual effort, in which case either there’s not a lot else that anyone could do (in the case of low intelligence), or it’s down to the individual student to pull their socks up (in the case of low aspiration or effort).

A second common place to look is the individual school which could be ‘letting the students down’ – either the teachers are not committed enough, or the school is badly managed, in which case new teachers or management are required.

While Sociologists do not dismiss either of the above explanations as factors related to educational underachievement, they argue that they do not look deeply enough at the underlying causes of this problem, and if you dig deeper (using statistical methods, and more of that later), you will see that there are more significant factors related to differential educational underachievement – such as the level of income of parents, the values of parents.

There is in fact a very strong relationship between the amount of income and wealth parents have and how well their children do in school. To put it bluntly, the poorer someone’s parents are, the more likely their children are to get poor GCSEs.

This is because poverty acts as a limiting factor on educational achievement. Poverty is related to such things as poor diets, which means higher levels of illness, and fewer bedrooms in the household which means there is less likely to be a private study-space, and later on, being from a poor background means teenagers are more likely to take up part-time jobs while studying A levels or degrees, which means less study time. At the other end of the scale, a higher income can mean private tuition or even private schools. Think about it – parents wouldn’t pay £10 000 a year if private schools didn’t work!

What all the above means, is that OBJECTIVELY, all other things being equal, if you take two students, one rich kid and one poor kid, and the poor kid is ill more often, can’t concentrate on homework because he has to share a room with his younger brother, and does 15 hours work a week while doing A levels, while the rich kid has none of the above barriers and has a couple of hours private tuition a week, it is hardly surprising that the rich one is going to get better results.

A second factor which influences how well a child does at school is the values of the parents – it is parents, after all, who teach their children about the value of education, or not; about the importance of sacrificing pleasure now in order to study, or not; and who inspire them to go to university (which requires decent A levels), or not! It is similarly parents who read to their children when they are young, or not; help children with homework, or not; and police children through their 11 years of formal schooling, or let them run wild on the streets – don’t forget that once you factor in holidays, weekends, and weekday morning and evenings children actually spend far more time outside of school than in it, which suggests parenting (or lack of it) is going to have far more of an impact on how well a child does than schooling.

Numerous studies have shown the importance of Primary Socialisation (the teaching of norms and values in the family) in explaining differential educational achievement – and there are significant differences in the how rich and poor, and male and female children are socialised – working class children are much more likely to grow up thinking that ‘university is not for the likes of them’ because their parents never went and thus don’t talk about it, which helps to explain why fewer working class teenagers opt to go to university, even when they get good A levels; while girls are read to more often than boys, which might explain the 10% gender-gap in English GCSE results. Ethnicity also matters. You’ve probably heard of the stereo-type of the fearsome Chinese ‘tiger parents’ who demand their children make enormous effort in school – well, research backs this up – Chinese parents are the most demanding parents, and it works, British-Chinese children outperform every other ethnic group in GCSEs.

All of the above illustrate the importance of not relying on individual level explanations for social phenomena – how well an individual does in school is not just down to their individual talents, it is partly a result of their socialisation, of their background, and social class, gender and ethnicity all have their independent, and combined influences on how well a child does in school.

Still the above isn’t enough to explain differential educational achievement – you also need to look at issues of POWER within the education system.

It shouldn’t surprise you that the education system is shaped and run by educated people, typically from wealthy backgrounds, and it is these people and their children who have benefited from various changes in policy over the past century: our education system has changed considerably since WW2, but the middle classes have always come out on top – so it seems that education is primarily about ‘the reproduction of class inequality’ – a mechanism whereby middle class children can do well and go on to get well-paid middle class jobs, while working class children are defined as failures and go on to get low-skilled, lower paid jobs.

The most obvious example of this lies in the existence of private schools, some of which cost up to £30K a year – only 7% of children go to private schools, but over 50% of all the high-paying professional jobs are taken up by these 7% – jobs such Doctors, lawyers, journalists and so on.

So to summarise the lessons from the above example – Sociologists do not accept that an individual fails (or succeeds) at school simply because of their individual talents, they succeed or fail at least partly because of their background – the amount of money their parents have, and the values their parents instil in them, which together influence how well the child can do in school, and looked at even more deeply, it seems that the education system is set up to empower the middle classes over the generations, because no educational policies have been put in place which have really broken down inequalities over the decades.

Lessons to learn from the above, and what Sociology does next…

Firstly you are better equipped to find out more about why some kids fail and other succeed – There are of course those from deprived backgrounds who do succeed, and Sociologists recognise that people are not determined by their backgrounds, rather they are steered down certain paths by them, and the question of how such children do succeed is of interest to sociologists as is the question of what we should do about the above unjust situation.

Secondly – learning the above should be empowering – because you now know that the system is not fair – don’t necessarily assume that just because someone has failed at school they are stupid or lazy, and vice-versa about someone who has done well.

Thirdly – there is the question of what we do with the above knowledge – eventually you’ll need to decide whether you work within the system to make it fairer, or whether we need complete systemic change, or whether there’s nothing we can do, and so go and do something else instead!

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Comparing Post and Late Modern views of self, society and sociology

A comparison of Post and Late Modern Views of self and society, and the corresponding purposes of social research

Postmodern View of Society and Self

-Globalisation destabilises social structures – Globalisation is an unpredictable process

-Consumer culture is free from social structure and this is what informs most people’s lives

-Hyperreality is more important than actual reality, such that it is impossible to get in touch with the real world (individual’s cannot free themselves from discourse)

-Individuals have the freedom to construct identity, this =More Diversity Tolerance of diversity is essentially utopia.

-End of Metanarratives – Because of all of the above, the idea of searching for one truth or one grand theory which can be applied to help free us from ‘want or oppression’ is out of date – there are many truths.

-Objectivity does not exist – we can only gain knowledge through discourse/ language and we cannot see beyond language.

The Postmodern View of the Point of Social Research

-Because Sociology should abandon the quest for truth, and because individuals are free, it makes sense that the focus of Sociology should be on what people do with their new found freedoms in post-modern culture – thus the focus should be on people’s stories, on exploring the diversity of identities – of special interest here is the exploration of hybrid identities.

-Also of particular interest to ‘Postmodern’ researchers is the issue of ‘transgression’ – focussing on telling the stories of those who go against traditional norms -Deviants and criminals for example.

-There is also a critical element to Postmodern research – which is deconstruction – using evidence to pick apart those theories which claim to have found the truth, in order to keep those dreaded metarratives at bay.

-To my mind most BBC Documentaries are good examples of Postmodern Research – typically narratives of transgressive individuals or groups, with little theory.

Late Modern (Giddens’) view of Society and Self

There is a global structure – e.g. it’s Capitalist and Nation States remain powerful, but it’s dynamic, constantly changing, and not predictable.

-Institutions (political and economic) are reflexive – they try to ‘steer’ events in the future in the light of existing (imperfect) knowledge.

-There are significant global problems (manufactured risks) which we all face and none of us can escape – e.g. Global Warming. These are real, not hyperreal and bind us together, even if many of us fail to accept this.

-The increased pace of change and Uncertainty are a fundamental part of late-modernity.

-Globalisation penetrates our lifeworlds through abstract Systems (money, clock time, expert systems especially science).

-The media is more important and influential in late-modern society, but Giddens rejects the concept of hyperreality – the main significance of the media is that it makes us more aware of diversity and of the fact that there are many different ways of living.

-In terms of the self – Individualisation is the major process – we are forced to look to ourselves and continuously ask the question ‘who am I’ – identity becomes a task, something we must do for ourselves, and nearly every aspect of our lives becomes something we need to reflect on as a result.

-It is for this reason that we become concerned with constructing a ‘Narrative of Self’ – A coherent life story, so that we can convince ourselves that we have a stable identity through time. Constructing a self-identity takes a lot of time and effort.

-Therapy emerges as a new expert system to help people in the process of continual identity reconstruction – especially useful at epochal moments like divorce.

– The construction and expression of the self becomes the new norm – there are many ways we can do this – mainly through consumption (buying and doing stuff), through relationships, and through developing bodily regimes (health regimes).

– An unfortunate consequence of this focus on the self is the rise of Narcissism, with very few people asking moral and existential questions about existence

– However, this process is dialectical and New Social Movements (e.g. the Green Movement) which does consider moral and existential issues – in which people attempt to incorporate moral and existential questions into the construction of their ‘political’ identities.

-Late Modernity produces various ‘Generic’ Types of Identity – The Narcissist, the Fundamentalist, both are extreme expressions of the same social system.

Giddens’ view of the purpose of social research

-Doing research to inform the ongoing process of reflexive modernisation at an institutional level

-Doing research into how flexible structures and what extent these structures are used (used by) to either constrain or empower people

-Helping people to realise that they are still dependent on ‘structures’ and dispelling the ‘myth of total individual freedom’.

-Encouraging people to consider moral and existential issues when they engage in the construction of self-identities and thereby helping people be more effective agents in the ongoing (re) constitution of society.

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Marxism – A Level Sociology Revision Notes

Karl Marx and Louis Althusser are Modernist, Structural Conflict Theorists while Antonio Gramsci is  a Humanist Conflict Theorist.

Marxism for A Level Sociology
Marxism for A Level Sociology

Karl Marx: Key Ideas

  • Two classes – Bourgeois – Proletariat
  • Relationship between them is Exploitation/ Surplus Value
  • The Base (economy) determines the Superstructure (all other institutions)
  • The ruling class have ideological control through the superstructure
  • The proletariat exist in false consciousness
  • The fundamental problem with Capitalism is that it causes alienation
  • Revolution is inevitable because the iron law of Capitalism is that exploitation must carry on increasing.
  • Communism is the final stage of societal evolution (the abolition of private property)
  • The purpose of research is to find out more about the laws of Capitalism to see when revolution is ripe.

Antonio Gramsci: Humanistic Marxism

  • Criticised Marx because he thought individuals are more active, not passive
  • Introduced the concept of Hegemony – Ruling class maintain power through Coercive and Hegemonic control
  • Ruling class hegemonic control is never complete because they are too few and they have the proletariat have dual consciousness – they can see through Bourgeois ideology.
  • To bring about social change the proletariat needs its own organic intellectuals to develop a counter-hegemony – a realistic alternative to Communism, to lead people to Socialism.

Louis Althusser: Scientific Marxism

  • Criticised Marx – There are three levels of control: economic, political, and ideological. The Bourgeois maintain control on all three levels and they all reinforce each other.
  • They maintain control through the Repressive state apparatus – the army
  • More importantly – the Ideological state apparatus – everything else, most obviously education and the media.
  • Criticised humanistic Marxism – structure determines everything, people are incapable of having genuinely revolutionary ideas within the existing Capitalist system
  • Capitalism needs to collapse before socialism comes about.

Overall Evaluations of Marxism

Eight ways in which Marxism might still be relevant today

  • Transnational Capitalist Class (Sklaire)
  • Global Exploitation by TNCs (Wallerstein’s WST)
  • Evidence of elite control of superstructure – Independent schools links
  • Ideological Control – Agenda Setting and Jeremy Corbyn
  • Advertising and False Needs
  • Alienation – Amazon!
  • Contradictions in Capitalism – David Harvey
  • Marxism Conference – Organic Intellectuals?

Criticisms of Marxism

  • X – More complex class structure
  • X – Capitalism is less exploitative (welfare state)
  • X – Relative autonomy
  • X – Postmodernism – people are free, not under false consciousness
  • X – Work is less alienating for self-employed people
  • X – Scientific Marxism is economically deterministic (Interactionism)
  • X – Failure of communism in Eastern Europe
  • X – It is a metanarrative (Postmodernism)
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Althusser’s Scientific Marxism

While humanistic Marxists see humans as creative beings, able to make history through their conscious actions, for structuralist Marxists, it is social structures that shape human action, and we should be researching structures not individuals.

The most important structural Marxist thinker is Louis Althusser (1918-90), a leading intellectual of the French Communist Party. Althusser’s version of Marxism rejects both economic determinism and humanism.

Criticisms of the base-superstructure model

Instead of being structured into two levels, Althusser argues that society has three levels, or structures:

  • The economic level – all of those activities which involve producing something or meeting a need
  • The political level – comprising all forms of organisation
  • The ideological level – involving all the ways that people see themselves and their world.

In the base-superstructure model, there is one-way causality – the economic level determines everything else. By contrast, in Althusser’s model, the political level and the ideological level have relative autonomy, or partial independence from the economic level, and instead of one way causality, we have two-way causality.

Ideological and Repressive State Apparatus

Although the economic level dominates in capitalism, the political and ideological level still perform indispensable functions – for example, workers need to be socialised into a work ethic, and those who rebel must be punished.

In Althusser’s model, the state performs political and ideological functions that ensure the reproduction of capitalism – he divides the state into two ‘apparatuses’

  • Repressive State Apparatuses – these are ‘armed bodies of men (such as the police and the army). -which can physically quash dissent and rebellion.
  • The ideological State Apparatuses – these include the media and the education system. It is, however, difficult to maintain order in this way over an extended period of time – a more effective tactic is to manipulate the way in which people think, instilling false consciousness, and avoid the necessity for physical oppression.

Althusser’s criticisms of humanism

For structuralist Marxists, our sense of free will, choice and creativity is an illusion. The truth is that everything about us is the product of underlying social structures. Society is a puppet theatre, and we are merely puppets – the unseen structure of society is the puppet master determining all of our thoughts and actions.

Thus according to Althusser, socialism will not come about because of a change in consciousness: Gramsci’s theory that organic intellectuals will spring up, develop an intellectual critique, and figure out creative ways of bringing about communism is a myth, because all of our ideas are determined by the Capitalist structure, which ultimately won’t allow any ideas to emerge that seriously threaten its existence.

Instead, socialism will come about because of a crisis of capitalism resulting in a collapse of the entire system – structural, systemic collapse needs to come about first, and only then can something new be built. Or in Althusser’s own words…

 Evaluating Althusser

For Humanistic Marxists the problem with Althusser is that it discourages political activism because the theory suggests there is little individuals can do to change society.

The theory also ignores the fact that the active struggles of the working classes have changed society for the better in many countries

Sources: Adapted from Robb Webb et Al’s Second Year A Level Sociology Text Book

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Gramsci’s Humanist Marxism

Gramsci (1891-1937) was the first leader of the Italian Communist Party during the 20s. He introduced the concept of hegemony or ideological and moral leadership of society, to explain how the ruling class maintains its position and argued that the proletariat must develop its own ‘counter-hegemony’ (or alternative set of ideas) to win leadership of society from the bourgeoisie.

Gramsci rejected economic determinism as an explanation of social change: the transition from capitalism to communism will never come about simply as a result of economic forces. Even though factors such as mass unemployment and falling wages may create the preconditions for revolution, ideas play a central role in determining whether or not change will actually occur.

This can be seen in Gramsci’s concept of hegemony. Gramsci saw the ruling class maintaining its power over society in two ways –

Coercion – it uses the army, police, prison and courts to force other classes to accept its rule

Consent (hegemony) – it uses ideas and values to persuade the subordinate classes that its rule is legitimate

Hegemony and Revolution

In advanced Capitalist societies, the ruling class rely heavily on consent to maintain their rule. Gramsci agrees with Marx that they are able to maintain consent because they control institutions such as religion, the media and the education system. However, according to Gramsci, the hegemony of the ruling class is never complete, for two reasons:

  • The ruling class are a minority – and as such they need to make ideological compromises with the middle classes in order to maintain power
  • The proletariat have dual consciousness. Their ideas are influenced not only by bourgeois ideology but also by the material conditions of their life – in short, they are aware of their exploitation and are capable or seeing through the dominant ideology.

Therefore, there is always the possibility of the ruling-class being undermined, especially in times of economic crises when the poverty of the working classes increases.

However, this will only lead to revolution if the proletariat are able to construct a counter-hegemonic bloc, in other words they must be able to offer moral and ideological leadership to society.

According to Gramsci, the working classes can only win this battle for ideas by producing their own ‘organic intellectuals’ – by forming a body of workers who are class conscious and are able to project a credible, alternative vision of what society would look like under communism.

Evaluation of Gramsci

It is true that many members of the working classes see through bourgeois ideology, for example the lads in Paul Willis’ study realised that education was not fair.

Gramsci has been criticised for under-emphasising the role of coercive political and economic forces in holding back the formation of a counter-hegemonic bloc – for example workers may be unable to form revolutionary vanguards because of the threat of state-violence.

Sources: Adapted from Robb Webb et Al’s Second Year A Level Sociology Text Book

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The Functionalist Theory of Society for A Level Sociology – Revision Notes

Functionalism as a Structural/Systems Theory – it focuses on the needs of the social system as a whole; it is a consensus theory – it sees society as based on shared values; it is also a modernist theory – it believes that research can find the truth and lead to progress. Functionalism is closely related to the New Right and Modernisation Theory.

Functionalism for A Level Socioogy
Functionalism for A Level Socioogy

Introduction/ Society as a System

  • Historical Context: the 1890s to the 1950s
  • Parsons uses the term ‘organic analogy’ to describe society.
  • Parsons sees three similarities between society and a biological organism: both are self-regulating, both have needs, both have sub-systems which perform specific functions.

Emile Durkheim’s Functionalism (1858 – 1917) – The first ever ‘Sociologist’

  • Concerned with understanding rapid social change brought about with industrialisation
  • Traditional society based on ‘mechanical solidarity’ and strong collective conscience
  • Industrial society = more complex causes change and anomie, challenge of modernity = how to achieve ‘organic solidarity’
  • Society exists as a separate entity above its members, as a system of ‘social facts’. It affects people irrespective of their individual thoughts and feelings.
  • Studied suicide to illustrate the above.

Talcott Parson’s Functionalism

  • Society is based on value consensus and social order
  • Society needs individuals to be integrated – this is achieved through socialisation and social control
  • The social system has four basic needs: instrumental (adaptation and goal attainment) and expressive (integration and latency)
  • Social change is gradual and evolutionary/ progressive – societies gradually evolve by moving from simple to more complex and larger structures.

Robert Merton’s Functionalism 

  • Merton’s Three Internal Critiques of Functionalism: Not everything is necessary; not everything is interconnected; some institutions are dysfunctional
  • Merton’s ideas of Latent and Manifest Functions: Intended and unintended (so functions may be more complex than Parson’s suggests)

Overall Evaluations of Functionalism

  • Durkheim’s study on suicide – trends still true today
  • Governments view society as a system
  • Development theorists view society as a system.
  • X – Logical Criticisms – Functionalism is teleological – it explains an institutions existence in terms of its effect, and the effect may not be necessary
  • X – Conflict Perspectives – Functionalism ignores power inequality and exploitatio
  • X – Action Perspectives – Functionalism is deterministic
  • X – Postmodernist Critiques – society is not as stable, orderly, or predictable as Functionalists suggest.

Functionalism applied to other topic areas within sociology

Functionalism Summary

The Functionalist perspective on the family

  • The four universal functions of the family
  • Functional fit theory
  • Primary socialisation
  • Stabilisation of adult personalities
  • Traditional gender role

The Functionalist perspective on education

  • Secondary socialisation
  • Social Solidarity
  • Skills for working
  • Meritocracy
  • Role Allocation

Modernisation Theory (Functionalism applied to development)

  • Aid injections and five stages of growth
  • Cultural Barriers
  • Capitalist/ Industrial model of development

Functionalist and Social Control theories of crime

  • Bonds of attachment theory
  • Positive Functions of Crime
  • Inevitability of crime

Functionalist research methods – Positivism

  • Social Facts
  • Objectivity
  • Official Statistics
  • Correlations
  • Generaliseablity
  • Science

If you like this sort of revision-thang, then why not contribute to my early retirement fund and buy these revision notes for Theory and Methods – they’re structured as in the picture below, and cost less than a pint of yer finest ale!

Functionalism notes

The notes cover the following sub-topics:

  1. Functionalism
  2. Marxism
  3. Feminism
  4. Social Action Theory
  5. Postmodernism
  6. Late Modernism
  7. Sociology and Social Policy

Related Posts 

The Functionalist Perspective on Society – Summary Grid covering the Functionalist perspective on the family, education, crime and global development (modernisation theory)

The Functionalist Perspective on Society – Class Notes

Marxist Theory for second year sociology – Knowledge Check List

 

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Robert Merton’s Internal Critique of Functionalism

Criticisms of Parson’s systems theory have come from both outside and inside Functionalist. Within Functionalism, the most significant criticisms come from Robert K. Merton (1968). He criticises three key assumptions of Parsons.

  1. Indispensability – Parsons assumes that everything in society – the family, religion and so on – is functionally indispensable in its existing form. Merton argues this is an untested assumption and he points to the possibility of functional alternatives. For example, Parsons assumes that primary socialisation is best performed by the nuclear family, but one-parent families or multi-generational families may do this just as well.
  2. Functional unity – Parsons assumes that all parts of society are tightly integrated into a single whole or ‘unity’ and that each part is functional for all the rest. Similarly, he argues that if one part changes, it will have a knock on effect for the others. However, Merton argues that some parts of society may be relatively independent from others – maybe society wouldn’t collapse if the nuclear family disappeared altogether.
  3. Universal functionalism – Parsons seems to assume that everything in society performs positive functions for society as a whole. However, Merton argues that some aspects of society may be dysfunctional for certain groups, which relates to Conflict perspectives.

Manifest and Latent Functions.

Merton also contributes a useful distinction between ‘manifest’ and ‘latent’ functions. He cites the example of the Hopi Indians who, in times of drought, perform a rain-dance with the aim of magically producing rain. This is its manifest, or intended function. From a scientific viewpoint, however, this goal is unlikely to be achieved.

However, the ritual may also have an unintended or latent function – such as promoting a sense of solidarity in times of hardship, when individuals may be tempted to look after themselves at the expense of others. Merton’s distinction is here useful for helping us to identify functions which members themselves might not be aware of.

Source: Adapted from Robb Webb’s Second Year A Level Sociology Text Book.

 

 

 

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Giddens – Modernity and Self Identity Chapter Two

A brief summary of Anthony Giddens’ Modernity and Self Identity – chapter two – in which he focuses on the psychological aspects of identity

Chapter 2 – The Self – Ontological Security and Existential Anxiety.

An account of self-identity should be based on a stratified model of the psychological make-up of the individual.

(Following Wittgenstein) to be human is to know what one is doing. Reflexive awareness is characteristic of all human action, and most people when asked can give a discursive account of why they are doing what they are doing.

The social conventions which are produced and reproduced through social interaction are reflexively monitored by individuals. However, much of what allows us to ‘go on’ with our daily lives is carried on at the level of practical consciousness – this is non-conscious, bound up with the taken-for-granted routines of daily life. We do not ‘keep in mind’ most of what we do most of the time, we just act in ways because they are conventional, we do not question many of our social conventions.

Ontological Security and Trust

Following Garfinkel, we interact in accordance with a number of conventions which essentially bracket out existential questions and allow us to ‘go on’ – we bracket out questions about the nature of time, space, continuity, identity and the self, which are fragile constructs, because if we were to subject the premises of our day to day assumptions about our attitudes to such things to philosophical enquiry, we would find that such ideas lack stable foundation.

Practical consciousness, with its day to day routines, help bracket out existential questions so that we are freed from a level of anxiety and so that we may ‘go on’ with life. We need to invest a level of trust in these routines so that we may be free from anxiety and are actually capable of living in the world. Trust involves both an emotional as well as a cognitive commitment to certain forms of practical consciousness.

Following Kierkegaard – dread and anxiety are a fundamental part of the human condition, and we need to develop a sense of trust in something in order to ‘go on’. Developing trust in routines is fundamentally tied up with the interpersonal organisation of time and space.

Giddens now switches to the development of personality in infants – he seems to be arguing that infants need to develop a ‘protective cocoon’ which is basically a bracketing out of all the things that could harm the security of the individual, which is provided by the caregiver in the early stages of life – in this sense the protective cocoon is an unreality. As well as needing the security of the protective cocoon, infants also need to be creative enough to develop an independent sense of self, a sense of space between themselves and caregiver.

Anxiety and Social Organisation

Acquiring routines and learning how to act are constitutive of an emotional acceptance of the reality of the external world, and are a pre-requisite of developing self-identity. We all develop routines for the sake of our ontological security.

Anxiety has to be understood in relation to the overall security system the individual develops. Its roots lie in the separation of the infant from the caregiver. Anxiety is a natural part of life and much of what we do can be seen as developing coping mechanisms to overcome anxiety – such as civil indifference in public spaces, and the various rituals associated with day to day life in public spaces.

Existential Questions

To be ontologically secure is to possess, on the level of the unconscious and practical consciousness, ‘answers’ to fundamental existential questions.

Anxiety stems from human liberty. Freedom is not a given characteristic of the human individual, but derives from the acquisition of of an ontological understanding of external reality and personal identity. The autonomy which human beings acquire derives from their capacity to be familiar with events outside of their immediate settings – anxiety (following Kierkegaard) is ‘the possibility of freedom’.

There are four existential questions which the individual must answer (not cognitively, but through being in the world, at the level of practical consciousness and the unconscious). These are questions to do with:

  • Existence and being

  • Finitude and human life

  • The experience of others

  • the continuity of self-identity.

It is the later which I’ll go into here:

What exactly is self-identity? It is not something that is just given, but something that has to be routinely created and sustained in the reflexive activities of the individual…. Self-Identity is the self as reflexively understood by the person in terms of her or his biography.

It is easiest to analyse SI by looking at cases where an individual’s identity has been fractured (following Laing) – where individuals either lack a consistent feeling of biographical continuity, or are paralysed in terms of practical action because of an external environment full of changes (experiencing an inner deadness) or feel a lack of trust in their own self integrity.

A normal sense of self-identity has all three of the above – a sense of biographical continuity, a protective cocoon of practical consciousness which ‘filters out’ several options of how to be in the world and finally there is sufficient self-regard to sustain a sense of the self as ‘alive’ –a feeling of being in control of things in the object-world, at least to a certain extent.

Self-identity is reliant upon the capacity to keep a particular narrative going, and presupposes the other elements of ontological security. Self-Identity is both fragile and robust and the form and content of keeping a narrative going differs enormously in late modern society.

Body and Self

The self is embodied, and in contemporary society the body is of particular importance in keeping a self-narrative going – such that we have developed regimes of control, most notably diets.

Motivation (Shame)

Shame is anxiety about the integrity of the narrative through which one sustains a coherent biography. Shame (or rather its avoidance) takes over from guilt as the primary ‘motivator’ in late-modern society – Shame is to do with integrity of the self, guilt is to do with wrong doing.

Shame derives when we cannot live up to the vision of the ideal self – when we fail to achieve our goals, but also when trust is violated and we have to go back to those fundamental questions such as ‘where do I belong’ or ‘who am I’?

Pride (of which narcissism is the extreme expression) is the opposite of shame, and derives when we have a lack of worthwhile ideals to pursue.

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Anthony Giddens on Late Modernism – Introductory Questions

A few ‘pop’ questions to introduce students to some of Giddens’ core concepts in an easy and accessible manner…

  1. Think about Globalisation – is there a ‘political, economic and/ or social structure at the global level, or is the world just characterised by random, chaotic flows?

  2. Think of the UK government – does it try to ‘steer’ global events, does it try to control people’s lives in the UK?

  3. Are there any ‘objective’ really existing global problems that the whole of humanity are threated by?

  4. Could you live without any of the following – Money, Clock Time, Experts (scientists/ technologists)?

  5. Do you have any social media profile(s) which tells your ‘life story’ up until this point in time? If so, do you intend to carry on updating this as your life ‘profresses’?

  6. How many times a day do you ‘reflect on’ your social identitiy – how many times do you think about how you come across to other people?

  7. Two parts – a. How much time and money do you spend shopping each week? b. How much time and money do you spend on modifying your appearance?

  8. What proportion of your ‘banter’ with your friends is about having fun and what propertion is about asking moral and existential questions about the nature of existence?

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Tombs and Whyte: The Cost of Health and Safety Infringements

Marxist Criminologists argue that the costs of elite crime are greater than the costs of street-crime, yet the elite are more likely to get away with their crimes. The piece of research below strongly supports this view (refs to follow!)

In the UK Safety Crime has been studied extensively by Professor Tombs, and Dr Whyte (2008). To look at just one example from recent press releases of the Health and Safety Executive: 2.2 million people work in Britain’s construction industry, making it the country’s biggest industry. It is also one of the most dangerous. In the last 25 years, over 2,800 people have died from injuries they received as a result of construction work. There were 77 fatalities last year; many more were injured or made ill.

In March 2008 the HSE reported that over one in three construction sites visited put the lives of workers at risk and operated so far below the acceptable standard that inspectors served 395 enforcement notices and stopped work on 30% of the sites. That followed the report of the HSE on over 1000 spot checks of refurbishment sites across Great Britain during February this year as part of its rolling inspection programme. Work was stopped on site immediately during approximately 300 inspections because inspectors felt there was a real possibility that life would be lost or ruined through serious injury. The inspectors were appalled at the blatant disregard for basic health and safety precautions on refurbishment sites across Great Britain. Basic safety precautions were being flouted. Last year over half of the workers who died on construction sites worked in refurbishment, and the number of deaths rose by 61 per cent.

Tombs and Whyte analyse the causes of such high rates of death and injury in the construction industry: the casualised, sub-contracted and increasingly migrant workforce; the long and complex supply chains; aggressive management; market pressures; industry norms; and problems in regulatory processes.

Weak or non-existent trade unions add to the dangers. An instructive example is a comparison between Norwegian and UK offshore oil industries. The North Sea, while an inhospitable environment, is not inherently dangerous in the sense that it necessarily produces high numbers of worker deaths and injuries. Research has shown that the improved offshore safety in Norway compared to the UK is due to rights for union representatives to stop work when they think that safety is jeopardised, as well as “the maintenance of strong offshore unions with a comprehensive network of trade union-appointed safety representatives; this is in marked contrast to the strident anti-trades unionism of the UK sector”

Tombs and Whyte also looked at the use made of powers under the Company Directors Disqualification Act 1986 to disqualify directors for health and safety failures in the management of companies. Despite the HSE’s spot checks revealing that 30% of construction sites did not meet safety standards, they were able to identify just ten directors who had been disqualified for health and safety reasons between the date when the 1986 Act took effect and the end point of their study in 2005.