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Zygmunt Bauman’s Liquid Times – A Summary

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Zygmunt Bauman is one of the world’s leading sociologists. He is particularly interested in how the west’s increasing obsession with ‘individualism’ actually prevents the individual from being free in any meaningful sense of the word.

In  ‘Liquid Times (2007), Bauman argues that there are a number of negative consequences of globalisation such as the generation of surplus people who have no where to go in a world that is full; of increasingly visible inequalities as the rich and the poor come to live closer together; and of a world in which it is increasingly difficult for communities and nations to provide collective security.

According to Bauman, the ultimate cause of negative globalisation is due to the fact that the owners of Capital are invisible and shifting, having the power to invest locally without making commitments, and even to ignore international law if they deem it in their interests. The global elite are globally mobile, they are not stuck in one place, and they are free to move on if there are better investment opportunities elsewhere. The elite are seen as creating an unstable world as they move from place to place, seeking to maximise their profits. Meanwhile, the experience of ‘negative globabalisation’ for the rest of us who are ‘doomed to be local’ is one of increasing anxiety, fear, and suspicion, which derive from living in an unstable and unpredictable world over which we have no control, and we are compelled to develop strategies to counter the unstable, unjust, unequal and ‘risky’ and ‘dangerous’ world that the forever shifting elite leave in their wake.

The strategies adopted depend on the specific experience of negative globalisation, but they nearly always involve putting up barriers to protect us from ‘dangerous others’, or they involve escaping from a world that is perceived as no longer worth living in.

Those that ‘run away’ include everyone from refugees fleeing a war torn country to the millions of people in the West who continually reinvent themselves selves through seeking out new life experiences rather than rooting their identities in involvement in local and national institutions.

‘Barrier strategies’ include the emergence of fortress Europe to keep refugees out; the development of gated communities and the move towards zero tolerance policing policies in many cities.

For Bauman, these strategies are always ineffective, because they do no address the root cause of our anxiety, which is the fact that our national and local institutions can no longer provide us with security in the wake of instabilities brought on by advanced global capitalism. Instead, these strategies end up increasing the amount of anxiety and fear and segregation and eventually serve to justify our paranoia.

The remainder of this article looks at three elements of ‘negative globalisation’: The generation of surplus people; Increasingly visible inequalities; and the undermining of national and local institutions.

Surplus people

 Bauman argues that ‘When the elite purse their goals, the poor pay the price’, seeing the instabilities and inequalities caused by global capitalism as creating the conditions that can lead to ethnic nationalisms, religious fanaticisms, increased civil wars, violence, organised crime and terrorism, all of which do not respect national boundaries. As a result, there is a new ‘global frontier land’ occupied by refugees, guerrilla armies, bandit gangs and drug traffickers.

Focussing on refuges, Bauman points out that they are outside law altogether because they have no state of their own, but neither are they part of the state to which they have fled.  He points out that many Palestinians, for example, have lived in ‘temporary’ refugee camps for more than a decade, but these camps have no formal existence and don’t even appear on any maps of the regions in which they are situated. To make matters worse, refugees often have no idea of when their refugee status will end, and hence Bauman argues that they exist in a ‘permanent temporary state’ which he calls the ‘nowhere land of non humanity’.

Refugees in camps can be forgotten, whereas if they were amongst us, we would have to take notice of them. In these camps, they come to be seen as one homogenous mass, the nuances between the thousands of individuals living therein becoming irrelevant to the outsider. Refugees, in fact, go through a process much like Goffman’s mortification of the self, as many of them are stripped of all the usual things they need to construct an identity such as a homeland, possessions and a daily routine. Unlike the mentally ill who Goffman studied, however, refugees have no formal rights, because their self- mortification takes place in a land that doesn’t formerly exist. Bauman’s point is that one of the worst consequences of globalisation is the absolute denial of human self expression as experienced by refugees.

While Bauman’s work provides us with an insight into why refugees may want to escape their permanent temporary camps, there is little chance of this happening. For a start, Europe is increasingly developing a ‘fortress mentality’ in which we try our best to keep refugees out the European Union through offering aid to countries that boarder international crisis zones in order to help them, rather than us having to deal with the ‘refugee problem’ ourselves.

Those refugees that do make it to the United Kingdom and other European countries have an ever slimmer chance of being awarded Asylum, and are increasingly likely to be locked up in detention centres. In the United Kingdom, Asylum seekers are not allowed to work or to claim benefits, which in turn makes it incredibly difficult for such individuals to ever integrate into what is to them a new and strange country. Thus even for those who escape, their reward is further experience of marginalisation.

Bauman also deals with why the general populace of the West are so scared of Refugees. Firstly, and very importantly, he reminds us that the real underlying cause of our fears, anxieties and suspicions is that we have lost control over the collective, social dimensions of our life. Our communities, our work places, even our governments, are in constant flux, and this condition creates uncertainty about who we are and where we are going, which is experienced at the level of the individual as fear and anxiety.

This experience of fear and anxiety means that we are unnaturally afraid of a whole range of things, but a further reason that we might be especially scared of Asylum seekers in particular is that they have the stench of war on them, and they unconsciously remind us of global instabilities that most of us would rather forget about. Asylum seekers remind us, ultimately, that the world is an unjust place full of tens of millions of people who, through no fault of their own, bear the consequences of negative globalisation. Asylum seekers remind us of the frailties of a global system that we don’t control and don’t understand.

Rather than looking at the complex underlying causes of our irrational sense of fear, the Media and Politicians see people such as Asylum seekers as an easy target: They are confined to camps, and hence stuck in one place, and they will obviously look different and hence are more visible. Keeping Asylum seekers out, or sending them back in droves, becomes a political tool, with politicians winning points for adopting ever greater levels of intolerance towards the desperate.

The consequence of this for refugees is bleak. A major theme of Bauman’s work is that once fear of a group in society has been generated it is self perpetuating, whether or not that fear is justified. The very fact that we are afraid of Asylum seekers means we are less likely to approach them, it means that were are less likely to give them a chance, which in turn leads to a situation of mutual suspicion in which both parties seek to keep as much distance between themselves as possible.

The experience of Global Inequality

The radical inequality between citizens in the United Kingdom and refugees living in the no where land of non humanity is stark, but, for most of us, easily ignored. Much more visible are the inequalities that exist within International cities such as London, New York, and, even more obviously Mexico City and Rio Di Janeiro.

Bauman points out that cities used to be built to keep people out, but today they have become unsafe places, where strangers are an ever looming presence. The underlying reason why the modern city is a place that breeds fear and suspicion is because they are sites of some of the most profound and visible inequalities on earth, where the poor and rich live side by side. As a result, those who can afford it take advantage of a number of security mechanisms, such as living in gated communities, installing surveillance cameras, or hiring private security. The architecture of the modern city has become one of segregating the haves from the have nots.

For the poor, this ‘fortification mentality’ is experienced as ‘keeping us excluded from what we can never have’ and they effectively become ghettoised in areas which will always seam undesirable compared to the places they are prevented from being. Thus the poor are permanent exiles from much of their city. Lacking economic capital, sub cultural capital becomes the only thing the excluded can draw on in order to carve out some status for themselves. This, argues Bauman, is the reason why there are so many distinct and segregated ethnic identities. These are the strategies adopted by the poor to carve out some freedom for themselves, the strategies of those who are doomed to be local.

 This strategy, however, breeds a culture of difference, and separatism. It breeds a city in which we are surrounded by strange others whose territory will always seam unfamiliar, which in turn breeds yet more suspicion, fear and insecurity. Islands of difference rather than an integrated city are the result, a city populated by unfamiliar people who we do not know.

Bauman points out that, once visited on the world, fear takes little to keep it going. Social life changes when people live behind walls, wear handguns, carry mace and hire security guards. The very presence of these things makes us think the world is more dangerous, leading to increased fear and anxiety. It doesn’t actually matter if the ‘others’ are actually, or ever were, dangerous, the fact that we put up defences against them is proof enough of the fact that they must be a threat.

Insecurity, anxiety, and the inadequacy of identity…

 While Globalisation creates instabilities which creates surplus people and stark inequalities, Bauman also argues that Globalisation erodes the ability of the state and local communities to provide genuine stability and security for individuals. Social institutions such as the family, education and work dissipate faster than the span of one’s life, and it becomes difficult for individuals to construct a coherent life-project.

 This situation results in what Bauman calls ‘existential tremors,’ where individuals do not have a stable sense of who they are, or what they belong to, resulting, as we have already come across, in increased feelings of anxiety, fear and uncertainty.  As evidence of this, Bauman points out that most of us do not generally perceive the future as a bright place of hope and of ‘better things to come’, instead we see the future as a series of challenges to be overcome, of risks to be managed, and of threats to our security. In short, the future is a bleak, dark, and uncertain place.

In the absence of collective security, individuals and families are left to try and develop strategies to find security and stability themselves, and our goals become limited to the managing risks, and our horizons limited to the every narrowing sphere over which we still have some measure of  control! Thus we invest in pensions, become very protective of our children, and become increasingly suspicious of strangers. We are obliged to spend our time doing things to minimise the perceived threats to our safety: checking for cancers, investing in home security, and monitoring our children. Our life-project becomes not one of developing ourselves, not one of striving for a deeper understanding of what it means to be human, but, instead, our life goals become limited to avoiding bad things happening to ourselves.

Bauman also has a pessimistic take on the common practice of the continual reinvention of the self. Bauman argues that the process of constructing an identity is sold to us as something that is fun, as something that should be pleasurable, and as something that is indicative of individual freedom. One only needs look at the various networking and profiling sites to see that the expression of self identity is something associated with pleasure and leisure. It has become a normal part of daily life to spend a considerable amount of time, effort, and money on constructing, maintaining and continually transforming one’s self.

Bauman, however, reminds us that although we may think we are free, we are actually obliged to engage in this process of continual reinvention because our social lives are in continual flux. Furthermore, many identities are not rooted in the local, the social or the political, they are much more floating and transient, based on fashion, music, and interests, and Bauman interprets many of these strategies as an attempt by individuals to try and escape from a world over which they have no control.

Following Joseph Brodsky, Bauman is rather scathing of the range of shallow strategies many of us adopt to escape from the world, and ultimately argues that they are all pointless….

“you may take up changing jobs, residence, company, country, climate, you may take up promiscuity, alcohol, travel, cooking lessons, drugs, psychoanalysis…. In fact you may lump all these together and for a while that may work. Until the day, of course, when you wake up in your bedroom amid a new family and a different wallpaper, in a different state and climate, yet with the same stale feeling toward the light of day pouring through your window.” (105)

Bauman seams to be arguing that individuals will never find peace of mind, never find ‘who they really are’ unless they have stability and security, and in order to have that, people need to root themselves in local and national institutions, otherwise, our attempts to find ourselves through the reinvention of the self will always be less than satisfactory.

Conclusion and Evaluation

Bauman’s work is important as it reminds us that there is inequality in the way we experience risk and instability. On the one hand, the global elites who cause our global society to be unstable benefit from this instability and are able to avoid the worst effects of it, through, for example, moving away from war zones, or retreating into gated communities. Meanwhile, the poorest are the ones who suffer, having lost, in the extreme example of refugees, the very right to be regarded as human beings.

As a final perverse twist, the elites that created this situation in the first place end up either retreating to expensive enclaves that are well secured, or they profit from our fears politically and financially.

One cannot help but feel incredibly pessimistic after reading Bauman’s work. It is as if hegemonic control has penetrated so far into the hearts and minds of the populace that the huge effort required for people to reassert localised, communitarian politics against global capitalist hegemonic power is simply too much to ever hope for.

But for those that are inclined to join Social Movements, at least Bauman’s work identifies an elite to position oneself against, and reminds us this elite continually flout the principles of genuine freedom, equality, in the pursuit of their self interest. Bauman’s work also offers a useful counterpoint against what some would regard as the pointless relativism of post-modernism and the mediocre third way quiescence of Anthony Giddens.

 You might also like…

A summary of Liquid Modernity by Zygmunt Bauman

A Summary of Runaway World by Anthony Giddens

Bibliography

Zygmunt Bauman (2007) Liquid Times

This summary was published in the Sociology Review in February 2009

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Defining the Family

Functionalist Sociologist George Peter Murdock used the following definition of the family as a starting point in his classic cross national study of families in more than 250 societies.

A social group characterised by common residence, economic cooperation and reproduction. It includes adults of both sexes, at least two of whom maintain a socially approved sexual relationship, and one or more children, own or adopted, of the sexually cohabiting adults’ (Murdock, 1949).

Defining the family

Today, many Sociologists criticise the above definition of the family as being too narrow because (both today and historically) too many groups of people who regard themselves as a family would not be included in the above definition, such as reconstituted or step-families and same sex families.

One way around the problem of defining a family is to distinguish carefully between different ‘family arrangements’ when we talk about them. Some of the most common family types in modern Britain include.

The Nuclear Family – two parents with biological children living in one household

The reconstituted family – two partners living in one household sharing parental duties for one or more children, but only one of them is the biological parent.

The single parent family – one adult with one or more children living in one household

The extended family – where relatives such as uncles/ aunts or grandparents reside permanently in the same household as those making up the nuclear family

Because of the diversity within family life in contemporary Britain, post-modern thinkers suggest that it is better to use a broader definition of ‘the family’, which includes a range of family types – one suggested definition of the family is ‘a group of people who are related by either blood or marriage/ similar form of committed relationship

Because of the problems of defining the family it is often easier to analyse families in terms of households (NB – The module you’re all studying is called families and households, we just tend to abbreviate it to the ‘families’ module)

A household is much easier to define than a family – A household is simply a group of people who share a residence in common and share such things as meals, bills, facilities or chores, or one person living alone. Of course, families can spread themselves across many households!

Case Study – The Rainbow Family of Light

definition family

The Rainbow Family was created out of the Vortex gathering in Oregon from August 28 to September 3, 1970. Inspired in large part by the first Woodstock Festival.

Those who attend Rainbow Gatherings usually share an interest in intentional communities, ecology and new age spirituality. Attendees refer to one another as “brother”, “sister”, or the gender neutral term, “sibling.” Attendance is open to all interested parties and decisions are reached through group meetings leading to some form of group consensus.

The organization is a loose, international affiliation of individuals who have a stated goal of trying to achieve peace and love on earth. There are no official leaders or structure, no official spokespersons, and no formalized membership. Strictly speaking, the only goals are set by each individual, as no individual can claim to represent all Rainbows in word or deed.

Question – would you define this group of people a ‘family’?

Think carefully about this – if you do then it means that practically any group of friends with close emotional ties should be called a family, but is this really what me mean when we use the term ‘family’? Or should sociologists limit themselves to studying families in the more traditional sense of the word?

Why this matters…

You can only really get your head around perspectives on the family if you understand how different perspectives define the family differently!

Ultimately, how you define the family will determine how you conclude any essay within the families and households module!

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Zygmunt Bauman’s Liquid Modernity – A Summary of Chapter One

Postmodern MarxismA brief summary of Zygmunt Bauman’s Liquid Modernity, chapter one. A level sociology labels Bauman as a postmodern Marxist.

Chapter One – Emancipation

The chapter begins with Marcuse’s complaint (writing in the 1970s) that most people don’t see the need to be liberated from society, and of those that do, relatively few are prepared to take action towards liberation, and most of those have little idea of how a more liberated future might be different to our current situation. 

Next Bauman outlines his conception of liberation, noting that ‘to feel free means to experience no hindrance, obstacle, resistance or any other impediment to the moves intended or desired’. He then argues, following Schopenhauer, that feeling free from constraint means finding a balance between one’s wishes (or imagination) and the stubborn indifference of the world to one’s intentions. This balance might be achieved in two ways – through either expanding one’s capacity to act or through limiting one’s desires (imagination).

Distinguishing between these two strategies of emancipation makes possible the distinction between subjective freedom (to do with how one perceives the ‘limits’ to one’s freedom), and objective freedom (pertaining to one’s capacity to actually act). This highlights the fact that people may not be objectively free but feel free because they either fail to realise they are not free, or, more worryingly for Bauman, because they dislike the idea of freedom given the hardships that come along with that freedom, which brings him onto the ‘mixed blessings of freedom’. 

(P18) The mixed blessings of freedom

This section begins with an episode from the Odyssey in which Odysseus manages to trap a sailor who had been turned into a hog by Circe. Odysseus (through the use of a magical herb) manages to release the sailor from his bewitchment. However, the released sailor, Elpenoros, is far from grateful and complains:

So you are back you busybody? Again you want to nag and pester us, to expose our bodies to dangers and force our hearts to take ever new decisions? I was so happy, I could wallow in the mud and bask in the sunshine, I could gobble and grunt and squeak, and be free from doubts… Why did you come? To fling me back into the hateful life I led before?’

Bauman now poses two questions (NB this isn’t that clear from the writing!) – firstly, why has freedom been slow to arrive? Secondly, when freedom does arrive, why is it so often seen as a curse?

Bauman explores one type of answer to the first question, which is that men are not ready for freedom. These types of answer tend to be accompanied by either pity for the men duped out of their freedom or anger at the masses unwilling to take up their liberty. Such answers are also accompanied by attempts to explain why men do not perceive the need to be free, with the blame being laid variously at a modern culture which replaces ‘having’ with ‘being’; the embourgeoisement of the underdog, or a culture industry which makes us thirst for entertainment rather than spiritual fulfillment.

A possible answer to the second question (the answer that Elpenoros would have given) is that men are not prepared to face liberty because of the hardships it brings. This type of answer criticises libertarian notions of Freedom such as those outlined by the likes of Charles Murray in which happiness is related to individual resourcefulness. Murray argues that what fills an event with satisfaction is that ‘I’ did it, but this is flawed, Bauman points out, because being thrown back on one’s own resources also portends a paralysing fear of risk and failure without the right to appeal and seek redress.

On a personal note, I would generally agree with this critique of libertarian notions of freedom. The thought of working on projects such as moving house, or clearing my allotment,or, on a larger scale, building an eco-village are much less daunting, and actually only made possible with the co-operation of others.

Bauman now draws on the legacy of Hobbes and Durkheim to argue that we are right to be sceptical about the benefits of libertarian notions of freedom. He seems to sympathetic with the Durkheimian idea that a degree of social coercion is actually an emancipatory force. To quote Durkheim:

The individual submits to society and this submission is the condition of his liberation. For man freedom consists of deliverance from blind, unthinking physical forces; he achieves this by opposing against them the great and intelligent force of society, under whose protection he shelters. By putting himself under the wing of society, he makes himself also, to a certain extent, dependent upon it, But this is a liberating dependence, there is no contradiction in this.’

In other words, there is no way to achieve freedom other than to submit to the norms of society – the individual needs society to be free. Total freedom from society means a perpetual agony of indecision and uncertainty about the will of those around you, whereas patterns and routines condensed by social pressures give us road markings, inform us how to act, and give us a sense of certainty in this life.

Bauman now outlines arguments which support the view that an element of routine is necessary, citing Fromm’s notion that we need certainty, Richard Sennet’s notion of character, and Giddens’ concept of habit.

Having established that the individual needs social norms, some sense of routine to ground himself, Bauman rounds of this section by introducing one of the central problems of living in a postmodern society – that such norms and routines are much less stable than they once were. Citing Deleuze and Guatari’s and Alain Touraine’s ideas he points out that the time has come when we no longer have a social definition of the self, and individuals are expected to define themselves in terms of their own psychological specifity and not society or universal principles.

The individual has already been granted all of the freedoms he could have ever dreamed of, and that our social institutions are more than willing to cede the worries of self-definition to individuals, while universal principles which might guide our lives are hard to find.

Bauman rounds off this section by suggesting that Marcuse’s pining for communitarianism is outdated because there is no social aspect in which we can re-route the individual, all that is left is the psychologist’s couch and motel beds. The individual has become disembedded and there is nowhere to re-embed.

(p22) The fortuities and changing fortunes of critique

Bauman’s main point here is that our society is still hospitable to critique, but the focus of critique has shifted from criticising society and positing viable ways of changing that society to  criticising ourselves and our life-politics. Today, we are reflexive beings who constantly question what we are doing and express dissatisfaction with various aspects of our lives.

The problem is that at the same time as us becoming more self-critical, we have lost control over the agenda which shapes our life-politics. Our reflexivity is shallow, it does not extend in any meaningful sense to our having control over the system in which we are embedded.

Bauman now provides a ‘caravan park’ analogy to describe the way we tend to interact with society today. According to Bauman, we are mostly content to limit our concerns to what goes on in our own individual caravans, and we only want to engage with other caravan dwellers occasionally and in a non-committal manner, reserving the right to up and leave when we choose. We only ever complain about the caravan park when certain services break down, such as the electricity or water supply, otherwise we are happy to let it run itself, without feeling any need to to commit to it, or question the way it is run.

This is very different to the type of social engagement that was the norm when Adorno developed his critical theory. At that time, Bauman suggests, many more people treated society as if it were their house, and acted within it as if they were permanent residents who could, if necessary, alter the structure of that house.

Moving onto one of the central themes in Bauman’s work, he now argues that this changing mood of critical engagement with society (or lack of it) is because of the shift from heavy to light modernity which has resulted in a profound transformation of public space and, more generally, in the fashion in which the modern society works and perpetuates itself.

Bauman notes that heavy modernity was endemically pregnant with the possibility of totalitarianism – the threat of an enforced homogeneity, the enemy of contingency, variety and ambiguity. The principal icons of the era were the fordist factory, with its simple routines, and bureaucracy, in which identities and social bonds meant nothing. The methods of control in this period were the panopticon, Big Brother and the Gulag. It was in this period of history that the dystopias of Orwell and Huxley made sense to people (which they no longer do) and that the defense of individual autonomy and creativity against such things as mass culture offered by critical theory appealed to a wide body of citizens.

However, in liquid modernity, we are no longer constrained by industry, bureaucracy and the panopticon, and Orwell’s dystopia no longer seems possible. Liquid Modern society, however, is no less modern than it was 100 years ago, because it is still obsessed with modernising, with creative destruction… with phasing out, cutting out, merging, downsizing, dismantling, becoming more productive or competitive, and, just as with heavy modernity, fulfillment is always somewhere in the future.

But two things make the Liquid Modern Era different to the Heavy Modern Era: –

Firstly, the end of the idea of perfectibility: we no longer believe that there will be an end to the process of modernisation – it has become a perpetual process.

Secondly, we are now expected to find individual solutions to our problems. Gone is the idea that reason applied to social organisation can improve our lives, gone is the ideal of the just society. No longer are we to solve our problems collectively through Politics (with a capital P), but it is put upon the individual to look to themselves to solve their life-problems, or to improve themselves.

(p30) The Individual in Combat with The Citizen

Bauman starts off with something of a homage to Norbert Elias (and fair play, History of Manners was a terrific read!) for shifting the dualist sociological discourse of self-society to one which focuses on a ‘society of individuals.’

Casting members as individuals is the trade mark of modern society and this casting is an activity re-enacted daily. Modern society exists in its incessant activity of ‘individualising’. To put it in a nutshell, individualisation consists of transforming human identity from a given into a task and charging actors with the responsibility for performing that task and for the consequences (also the side effects) of their actions.

Bauman now points to another difference between heavy and liquid modernity. In the period of ‘heavy modernity’, having been disembedded from previous social-locations, people sought to re-embed themselves in society, through, for example, identifying as a member of a stable social class. By contrast, in today’s modernising society, we have no stable beds for re-embedding, we just have musical chairs, and so people are constantly on the move. In the liquid modern world, there is no end of the road, nowhere for us to ‘re-embed’.

Having established what individualisation is, Bauman now goes on to make three further points –

  1. In the age of liquid modernity the option to escape individualisation and to refuse to participate is not on the agenda -Individualisation is not a choice – to refuse to participate in the game is not an option.

  2. In the Liquid Modern society, how one lives becomes a biographical solution to systemic contradictions – risks and contradictions go on being socially produced; it is just the duty and the necessity to cope with them which are being individualised.

  3. A gap is growing between individuality as fate and the ability for genuine self-assertion. The self-assertive capacity of men and women falls short of what genuine self-constitution would require..

Bauman now distinguishes between the citizen and the person – the former seeks their well-being in the city (read ‘society’), while the later is unconcerned with collective well-being. and basically makes the argument that part of individualisation is the ending of citizenship.

Another unfortunate aspect of the Liquid Modern era is that, rather than being used to discuss public issues, public space is brimming with private problems – where people’s individual problems and their individualised biographical solutions are discussed, without any consideration of the social conditions which gave rise to those problems.

Bauman rounds off this section by pointing out that in today’s society, the chances of being re-embedded are thin, and this means that new communities are wandering and fragile, and he alludes to the fact that newly-emerging networks with low commitment are not sufficient to empower individuals.

 He ends with a rather bleak quote from Beck ‘On the Mortality of Industrial Society’… ‘

What emerges from the fading social norms is naked, frightened aggressive ego, in search of love and help. In the search for itself and an affectionate sociality, it easily gets lost in the jungle of the self.. Someone who is poking around in the fog of his or her own self is no longer capable of noticing that this isoloation, this solitary confinement of the ego’ is a mass sentence’.

(p38) The Plight of Critical Theory in the Society of Individuals

The modernising impulse means the compulsive critique of reality, and the privatisation of that impulse means compulsive self-critique, and perpetual self-disaffection. It means that we look harder and harder at how we can improve ourselves.

I’m in two minds about what to make of Bauman’s idea of perpetual disaffection – On the one hand I’m impressed by the sympathy for the basic plight of the individual – it is, after all, an experience of the perpetual suffering that accompanies the human condition; on the other hand I’m concerned that what Bauman’s going to try and argue later on is that this disaffection will disappear once individuals gain some greater degree of control over the process of their self determination. In Buddhism, the fact the individual seeks to self-determine in the first place is the source of the disaffection, so this won’t be remedied through merely reinventing one’s relations with one’s social context (although this is part of the process in Buddhism – through right livelihood) – this disaffection is probably better seen as individuals en mass realising their true nature – and this needs a deeper solution, which will combine the various factors found in the Noble Eightfold Path.

The problem with this is that there are no ‘biographical solutions’ to systemic contradictions – except for imaginary ones, and as a result, there is a need for us to collectively hang our fears on something – and so we scapegoat ‘strangers’, and go along with moral panics, it is these kind of fears which fill the public space voided of properly public concerns.

The job of critical theory is now to repopulate the public sphere – to bring back politics with a capital P – to bring back the two groups of actors who have retreated from it – The person and the elite.

People do not engage because they see the public sphere as merely a space in which to private troubles without making any ‘public connections’. The elite meanwhile now exist in ‘outer space’ and remain for the most part invisible, their favourite strategic principles being escape, avoidance and disengagement.

The job of critical theory is to figure out how to empower individuals so they have some level of control over the resources which they require for genuine self-determination.

(p41) Critical Theory Revisited

Bauman starts with a section devoted to Adorno’s view that the act of thinking is itself freedom, but that any attempt to give thoughts a market value threatens the genuine value of thought.

He then talks about the tension between ‘the cleanliness of pure philosophy’ – drawing on the notion of the withdrawn intellectual contemplating life and refining systems of thought and the problem of then applying the ‘truths’ found to the ‘dirty business’ of getting involved with the world of politics as one attempts to enact one’s ideas. He essentially argues that thought in isolation from society is useless – In order for it to have any value at all, thought has to be applied to society.

Bauman concludes this section by pointing out that the unfortunate corollary of this is that whatever truths come to power will inevitably be tainted by those in power.

(p48) A critique of life-politics

In this summative section Bauman points out again that it is up the individual as an isolated actor to themselves find individualised solutions to social problems… He points to a range social situations, from us being called upon to adapt to neoliberal flexibalisation at work, to our efforts in seeking romance, and he rounds of my reminding us that any search for liberation today requires more not less public sphere, so any critical theory today must start from a critique of life-politics – a critique of the paucity of individualised solutions to systemic contradictions.

Zygmunt Bauman

Part Two – Individuality

Part Three – Time/ Space

Part Four – Work

Part Five – Community

Bibliography

Bauman, Z (2000) Liquid Modernity, Polity Press.

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Why Nations Fail: A Summary

Why Nations Fail: The Origins of Power, Prosperity and Poverty (2013) by D. Acemoglu and J.A. Robinson

why nations failOverall Summary

Developed countries are wealthy because of ‘inclusive economic institutions’ – Basically a combination of the state and the free market in which:

  1. The state creates incentives for people to invest and innovate through guaranteeing private property rights and enforcing contract law.
  2. The state enables investment and growth through providing education and infrastructure..
  3. The state is controlled by its citizens, rather than monopolised by a small elite. Crucially, there needs to be a democratic principle at work in which people in politics establish institutions and laws which work for the majority of people, rather than just working to benefit the rich.
  4. The state also needs to maintain a monopoly on violence.

 

In contrast to those countries which develop ‘inclusive economic institutions’ which encourage development, the authors suggest the opposite ‘extractive economic institutions’ (think corrupt dictator and his clique stashing money into a Swiss bank account) can generate growth in the short-term, but in the long term result in poverty.

They also suggest that there has been ‘a vicious circle’ at work in many underdeveloped countries over the last three to four centuries: Extractive institutions were first established by a colonial power (typically built on already existing internal extractive institutions), which, on independence, became even more extractive under postcolonial rulers, which in turn lead to civil war as competing factions fought for control over the extractive institutions – which then led to a decent into chaos and failed states. The authors see little hope for such countries.

In contrast, developing countries such as the US and the UK have benefited from three to four centuries of a virtuous circle in which institutions have become gradually more inclusive, which has created increasing incentives for entrepreneurs and economic growth.

The authors come to this conclusion through a number of comparative studies of countries which are in close geographical proximity to each other such as

  • Mexico/ America
  • South/ North Korea
  • Botswana/ Zimbabwe

They argue that the crucial difference between these pairs of countries is the institutional infrastructures which have been established through the last few decades/ centuries, and it is this that explains their relative development/ underdevelopment.

The gist of the book is, handily enough, covered in the intro and chapter one….

Introduction

Countries such as Egypt are poor becuase they have been ruled by a narrow elite that have organised society for their own benefit at the expense of the vast mass of people. (This also applies to North Korea, Sierra Leonne, Zimbabwe)

Countries such as Great Britain and The United States are wealthy because their citizens overthrew the elites who controlled power and created a society where political rights were much more broadly distributed, where the government was accountable and responsive to its citzens and where the great mass of people could take advantage of economic opportunties. (This also applies to Japan and Botswana).

Chapter one – so close and yet so different

Starts with a comparison of the two sides of Nogales, half of which lies in Arizona, in the US, the other half in Mexico.

Nogales inequality

In the Arizonan half the average income is $30 000 U.S dollars, the majority of adults are high school graduates, the roads are paved, there is law and order, most live until over 65. In the Southern half, the average income is three times less and everything else is similarly worse.

The authors point out that the difference cannot be because of environment or culture, it must be because of politics and economic opportuntities.

They also argue that in order to understand the difference, you need to go right back to early Colonialism in the 16th and 17th centuries.

Mexico was the first to be colonised, under a system of slavery and extraction. In the 15th century, the Spanish basically used already existing systems of slavery to their own benefit and extracted mountains of gold and silver, leaving a legacy of elite-governance and a dearth of politcal rights for the majority.

In North America, settled by mainly the English 100 years later, the absence of slavery amongst indiginous populations and much lower population densities meant that slave systems simply would not work, although this didn’t stop them trying for the first twenty years or so. Eventually, however, the orginal settler company (The Virginia company) back in England realised the only way colonialism was going to work was to provide incentives for the settlers – So they offered them land in return for work. It was this that set the basis for the democratic constitution and congress of the US, which then went on to create problems for the English government.

The rest of chapter goes on to argue that the next 300 years of history are crucial to understanding why the US is now so wealthy, and why most of Latin America is so poor.

America has had 300 years of political stability, where poltical institutions control economic institutions, at least to an extent (the authors cite the breaking up of the Microsoft Monopoly as an example) broadly making them work for everyone. Other factors such as the patent system, credit systems, and education provide opportunities for anyone to make it rich and enjoy the benefits of the wealth.

By contrast in Latin America (Mexico), up until the 1990s most countries saw political turmoil and a series of dicatorships where a series of small elites ruled for their own benefit. This instability has lead to the rise of monopoly power, and it acts as a disincentive for anyone to try and do well and become rich (the next dictator might just take all your money away), also lack of finance and education prevents competition anyway.

Crucially, historical good fortune appears to be central to explaining why a country is rich now, so figuring out how a current poor country can develop is not that straight forward if a culture of monopoly, corruption and lack of political rights are the norm…..

Chapter three – the making of prosperity and poverty

This chapter contrasts North and South Korea, divided along the 38th parellel after world war two. In the late 1940s these had similar levels of development, today, however, their economies have diverged.

South Korea has living standards 10 times higher than North Korea, the former being similar to Portugal, the later similar to sub-saharan African countries. People in North Korea also live ten years less than those in South Korea.

North and South Korea at Night
North and South Korea at Night

The differences cannot be explained by anything other than institutions.

In the South, private property and markets were encouraged (albeit by dictators initially) and thus investment and economic growth were encouraged. At the same time, the government invested in education and new industries took advantage of a better educated population.

In North Korea, privated property and markets were banned, and a centrally planned economy instigated. This simply led to stagnation.

Extractive and Inclusive economic instiutions

Countries differ in their economic success becasue of their different institutions – the rules influencing how the economy works and the incentives that motivate people. Crucial is private property rights – which needs to be backed by the state…. In South Korea, people know that they will be rewarded for their efforts, in North Korea, there is no incentive to innovate and invest because the state will expropriate the benefits of any such initiatives.

In order to develop a society needs to have ‘inclusive economic institutions’ – A state that guarantees prosperity for the massess – Such a state provides a degree of infrastructure that is necessary for economic growth – for example enforcing private property rights, contract rights for all, not just a minority, and providing education and physical infrastructure such as roads. Private enterprise uses and needs such institutions.

What doesn’t work for development is extractive insitutions – where the state is used to extract wealth from one subset of the population to another…. Such as slave and colonial systems (and the Tories in the UK today?)

Engines of Prospertity

Education for the masses is crucial for innovation in an advanced technological world – This is what all developed nations have, and what many undeveloped nations lack. Education needs to be well financed and parents need to have the incentive to send their kids to school.

Inclusive and extractive political institutions

A state needs to be inclusive for economic growth to occur – that is, it needs to both be chosen by its citizens and have a centralized control over legitimate violence.

Extractive political and economic insituttions tend to support eachother (which then means the masses don’t support them…. there is disincentive!)

Why not always choose prosperity?

The simple fact is that where technological change is the engine of economic growth, this means social change, and with change there are winners and losers… Thus existing elites may resist changes that make institutions more inclusive even if this means greater prosperity for all, because it will mean less prosperity for them. (Think industrial revolutions in Europe).

The long agony of the Congo

The Congo has not developed since independence because it has not been in the interests of the ruling elite to build a centralised state which includes all voices, or in their interests to use the state to provide public services which will benefit the masses – instead the institutions remain extractive.

As an independent polity, Congo experienced almost unbroken economic decline and poverty under the rule of Jospeh Mobutu between 1965 and 1997. Mobutu created a set of highly extractive economic insitutions. The citizens were impoverished but Mobutu and the elite around him (known as the Grosses Legumes or The Big Vegetables) became fabulously wealthy. Mobutu built himself a palace at his birthplace, Gbadolite, with an ariport large enough to land a supersonic Concord jet, a plane he frequently rented from Air France for travel to Europe. In Europe he bought castles and owned large tracts of the Belgian capital Brussels.

The simple truth is that if Mobutu had introduced more inclusive economic institutions he would not have been as rich.

Growth under extractive institutions

Growth can occur under extractive instiuttions – as in Russia and South Korea at first and China today but this is unlikely to be sustained unless both economic and political insitutions become inclusive.

Chapter twelve – the vicious circle

The authors paint the vicious circle as starting off with extractive institutions established by a colonial power (which builds on previous extractive institutions), which, on leaving, becomes even more extractive under corrupt post-colonial rulers, which in turn leads to civil war as competing factions fight for control over the extractive instittions – which then leads to a decent into chaos!

1914 - British Colonies in Red
1914 – British Colonies in Red

Or in more detail… The British Colonial Authorities built extractive instititions which many post independence African politicians were only too happy to continue in order to enrich themselves. This happened in countries such as Sierra Leone, Ghana, Kenya and Zambia. The postcolonial rulers used their wealth to build personalised security forces which were answerable to them and also to rig elections – money thus became essential to maintain power, with only those who have money able to maintain power. This creates incentives among the opposition to depose the existing leaders in order to gain power and wealth themselves, and to protect themselves from being killed off by the said existing leaders. The point here is that power has become an end in itself rather than as a means to developing a country.

This is best illustrated through the example of Sierra Leone –

All of the West African nation of Sierra Leone became a British colony in 1896. The British identified important rulers and and gave them a new title – paramount chief. In Eastern Sierra Leone, for example, they encountered Suluku, a powerful warrior king, who was made Paramount Chief Suluku.

In 1898 the British tried levying a hut tax of five shillings, which resulted in a civil war known as the hut tax rebellion. It started in the north, but was strongest and lasted longest in the South.

In 1904, the British stopped construction of a railway line from Freetown to the North East and instead diverted it south, to Bo, in Mendeland, to give them quick access to put down this rebellion.

When Sierra Leone became independent in 1961 the British handed power to to the SLPP, which attracted support from the South, and in 1967 this party lost the election to the opposition party, the APC which drew support from the North.

Though the railway line was initially established to rule SL, by 1967, its role was economic – it allowed transportation of the country’s exports – coffee, cocoa, and diamonds, which came mostly from Mendeland in the south.

The then leader of the APC, Siaka Stevens, who drew his political support from the north, ripped up the railway line and sold off the track and rolling stock in order to weaken the oppostion in the south and consolidate his political power. This decimated the SL economy, but when it came to a choice between consolidating power and economic growth, the consolidation of power won out. Today, you can’t take the train to Bo anymore.

There is continuity between Colonial rule and Steven’s government – both extracted wealth from the people.

The Colonial rulers did this through agricultural marketing boards – farmers had to sell their goods to these boards, which typically paid much less than the market price (impovershing farmers and enriching the elite). When Stevens took power, he kept these marketing boards in place, but it got worse – under colonial rule, the colonialists extracted about 50% of the value of agricultral products, under Stevens, the rate of extracting rose to 90%.

Along with marketing boards, the old system of Paramount Chiefs remain in place today…. They control local politics at the village level, and local land rights and taxation – Paramount chiefs are elected, but only members of the ruling house can stand – and in 2005 the victor was Sheku Fasuluka, King Suluku’s great, great grandson.

The combination of these two institutions means there is very little incentive for farmers to increase productivity – because they have insecure land rights due to the paramount chief system and are the victim of extractive insitutions in the form of the marketing boards.

Thirdly, there was the control of the diamond mines – The British essentially set up a monopoloy for the entire country and handed it to DeBeers in 1936, and shortly after independence, Stevens simply nationalised this arrangement, through which he effectively personally controlled 51% of the diamonds in SL.

Stevens used his vast fortune to buy political influence and to set up his own private security forces – the ISU (known locally as the ‘I Shoot You’ and the Special Security Division – known as Siaka Steven’s Dogs).

All of this set the scene for the brutal civil war, outlined below….

Chapter 13 – Why Nations Fail Today

In the year 2000 Zimbabwe held a national lottery for everyone who had kept more than 5000 Zimbabwean dollars in their bank account (following a period of hyperinflation). The fact that it was Robert Mugabe who won this lottery just goes to show the extent of his control over Zimbabwe’s institutions and just how extractive those institutions had become.

mugabe corruption zimbabwe

The most common reasons nations fail today is because they have extractive institutions – and Zimbabwe illustrates the economic and social consequences of these…. By 2008 its per capita income was half that when it gained its independence, and 2009 the unemployment rate stood at 94%.

The roots of the political and economic instiututions lie in the colonial period. Orginally apartheid institutions were establised for a white elite to extract wealth from the country, but when Zimbabwe gained its indendence, these institutions were simply maintained by Mugabe. Eventually (because of lack of inclusivity) his support waned until by the year 2000 he had to find further resources to buy political support – so he expropriated the farms owned by white people and when that wasn’t enough he printed money, which led to massive hyperinflation.

Nations fail today because their extractive institutions do not create the incentives to save, invest and innovate. In many cases politicians stifle economic activity because this threatens their power base (the economic elite) – as in Argentina, Colombia and Egypt. In the cases of Zimbabwe and Sierra Leone this led to total state failure and economic stagnation. The countries in which this has happened include…

  • Angola
  • Cameroon
  • Chad
  • DRC
  • Haiti
  • Liberia
  • Nepal
  • Sierra Leone
  • Sudan
  • Zimbabwe

And the civil war, mass displacement, famines and epidemics that accompany them… in terms of development many of these countries are poorer today than they were in the 1960s.

A children’s crusade…

This section outlines the causes of the civil war in Sierra Leone. The authors put this down to decades of extractive institutions by the tyrannical APC government (the economy was collapsing by 1985, and they use the example of the TV transmitter being sold by the minister of information in 1987 and in 1989 the country’s main radio antena collapsed, ceasing radio transmissions.) By this point, the army had been dispanded because of the ruling elite feared it might overthrow them, which meant by the time Charles Taylor’s RPF crossed the boarder in 1991 there was no one there to stop them…. And then that brutal and chaotic civil war carried on for a decade – in which competing factions competed over resources in order to keep fighting each other – diamonds/ children (soldiers) and weapons.

Charles Taylor
Charles Taylor

So in summary, the historical precendent of the SL civil war is extractive institutions… the hollowing out the state to the point that was incapable of fending off rebels.

The authors now go on to outline three other countries which have suffered from different types of extractive institutions – Colombia, Argentina and Egypt, and then Uzbekistan…. a country languishing under the absolutism of a single family and the cronies surrounding them, with an economy based on the forced labour of children….

Child Cotton Labourers in Uzbekistan
Child Cotton Labourers in Uzbekistan

Cotton accounts for 45% of the exports of Uzbekistan. When the country was created in 1991, its first and still only president Islam Karimov, divided up the land among farmers, but each was required to devote at least 35% of their land to cotton, a valuable export crop. However, because the farmers themselves receive only a fraction of the world market price of the crop, they had no incentive to maintain, let alone invest in, cotton harvesting machinery.

No matter, however, because the country has turned to children to harvest the cotton, and every September-November the schools are emptied of approx. 2.7 million schoolchildren. Teachers, instead of being instructors, become labour recruiters.

Each child is required to pick between 20-60KG a day, depending on age, and the lucky ones who live close to their allocated farms can walk or bus to work, but the unlucky ones have to sleep over in sheds, with no toilets or wash facilities. And it’s BYO food.

While the market price for cotton was $1.40 in 2006, the children were paid somewhere in the region of $0.01 per kilo.

All of this has come to pass because Karimov has established a regime where opposition is repressed and there is no free media or NGOs allowed.

Why do nations fail?

What all of the countries loooked at in the book have in common is that they have an elite who have designed economic instiututions in order to enrich themselves and perpetuate their power at the expense of the vast majority of people in society.

Despite differences the bigger picture is that in each of these countries extractive political institutions that have created extractive economic insitutions which transfer wealth and power toward the elite.

The solution is to transform the extractive institutions into inclusive ones…

Chapter fourteen – breaking the mould

This chapter looks at three case studies – Botswana, The South of America, and China, which all managed to move from, or negotiate their way around (in the case of Botswana) extractive to inclusive political institutions which encouraged econonomic development.

Of particular interest to me is the case of Botswana – which today has the same level of development as some Eastern European countries, despite being as poor as most of the rest of Sub-Saharan Africa in the 1960s (at which time there were less than 100 graduates in the entire country).

What’s especially interesting about Botswana is that in that particular region of Africa a broadly inclusive political system was in existence pre-colonialsm – in the sense that any individual could rise up to become head of one the various different chiefdoms in the region, and so chiefdom was not hereditory, it was meritocratic, and someone could only be chief with the will of the people. Thus the principal of ruling with the will of the people, and on behalf of the people had been established for generations.

Another factor which promoted development was the fact that the English weren’t particularly interested in Botswana. In fact in the 1890s, three Twsana chiefs visited England and negotiated with the government to be part of a British Protectorate (different to a colony) – In return for protecting the region against Rhode’s South African expansionary policies (the guy who colonised Zimbabwe and Zambia, and look how they turned out!) all Enlgand wanted was enough land to build a railway in order to open up the intererior. For this the Twsana were pretty much left alone, crucially unextracted and without interefering institutions which had been set up to allow the extraction to take place.

Also signficant is that, following Colonialism and the discovery of diamonds, the Tswana chiefs passed a law that all diamond wealth was to be national property, rather than giving the rights to individuals or Corporations (like neoliberals would claim should be done, and like what happened in Sierra Leone). The effect of this was masses of public money which was then used to pay for public services. Hence development……

Something else emphasised in this chapter is that in all three cases certain key actors made important decisions at crucial junctures in the country’s history (when an existing leader died, such as Mao, creating a power vaccum, or when Independence was gained in Botswana) – The decisions taken at these crucial points in history in these countries involved either fighting the power of entrenched elites (as in China) or establishing laws which would prevent political corruption (like nationalising the diamond supplies in Botswana) – it was these decisions, in contrast to decisions in countries like Sierra Leone where a national railline was sold off to benefit an elite, which led to economic development.

Chapter 15 – understanding prosperity and poverty

The most interesting section of this concerns the predictive power of the theory – which is limited given the role of agency and contingency in said theory. However, the authors do predict that…

America and Europe are likely to get even richer than countries in most of the rest of the world, because these are the most inclusive institutions (I’d beg to differ given Tory Policy). Nations that have undergone no signficant state centralisation such as Afghanistan, Somalia and Haiti are unlikely to witness any development. Some Latin American countries are set two grow – most noteably Brazil, Chile Mexico as are some African countries – Tanzania and Ethiopia for example. Growth will not be sustained in China.

The irresistible charm of authoritarian growth…..

This section reminds us that modernisation theory is flawed – economic growth (more Mcdonalds as Thomas Friedman might put it) does not necessarily lead to to more inclusive political institutions.

Plenty of repressive regimes have pursued and achieve very rapid economic growth in the last 60 years – Germany, for example, Russia, and China.

This chapter also deals with what probably won’t work in terms of development… Firstly, any attempt at engineering policy changes such as those attempted by neoliberalisation throughout the 1980s and 90s – Because if a country is politically corrupt, they just subvert the policy changes – Privatisation happens, but the people winning the contracts are the brothers of the ministers for example, or the country says it implements a policy but they just carries on as normal!

You can’t engineer prosperity

…because the actors within developing countries are constrained by their institutions, and if these are extractive then any programmes designed to engineer change will ultimately result in further extraction.

This is true of two approaches to foreign aid preferred by the West – both the neoliberal ‘restructure your economy’ type approach and the micro-economic approach which focuses on specific institutions.

The failure of foreign aid

As above, any aid money going into a country with extractive institutions will ultimately end up being extracted. The authors do argue, however, that even if only 20% of aid money reaches its ultimate destination then it’s worth it!

What works….?

The chapter and book round off by going back to the English and US revolutions which resulted in institutions becoming more inclusive – what is required for development is a plurality of voices demanding to be heard by government and actually being heard. This cannot be imposed from above, but seems to have to become from below.

In this sense, any attempt to engineer growth and provide aid seem pointless – the only things that make any sense are programmes oriented towards empowerment and making sure media is free because the later fosters the former.

Thoughts and comments….

Positives

The comparative analysis of countries and territories in close geographical proximity does seem to rule out the role of environmental and cultural factors in explaning divergent patterns of development, leaving only political and economic institutions.

It fully recognises the importance of the legacy of extraction identified by dependency theory, however, it also puts more emphasis on the already existing extractive institutions which the early colonisers extracted and it recognises the continuation of extraction post-colinalism, acknowledging the fact that corrupt elites also play a role.

This seems to deny the validity of neoliberal theory – the state seems to be crucial in helping development, and the absence of the state seems to be crucial in explaining the descent into chaos and civil war.

This isn’t a deterministic theory – it stresses the importance of agency and contingency at crucial historical junctures.

Limitations

This is  quite a generalist analysis – ‘extractive’ and ‘inclusive’ institutions are very general, broad terms, and there’s lots of variation possible within these voluminous concepts.

The book only draws on a relatively few case studies – and lacks the statistical rigour of, for example,  Paul Collier’s Bottom Billion Theory.

The book doesn’t seem to deal with the globalised context of the nation state today within a ‘world system’ – There is no mention (as far as I can see) of the role which TNCs, trade rules, the World Bank might play in allowing a global elite (rather than nationalised elites) to extract regions of the world.

As a final word, what’s maybe most timely (or not timely?) about the book is its suggestion that some kind of political infrastructure which allows a plurality of voices to be heard and wealth to be distributed so it benefits all is crucial to development – it’s time more of us started asking how we might do this at a global, rather than a national level.

Further Reading

The blog based around the book

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Social Class – An Introduction to the Concept

Social Class refers to divisions in society based on economic and social status. People in the same social class typically share a similar level of wealth, educational achievement, type of job and income.

Social Class is one of the most important concepts within AS and A Level Sociology because of the relationship between social class background and life chances (or lack of them) and the debate over the extent to which social class background determines an individual’s life chances.

Many people in the United Kingdom have an idea of what social class is, but Sociologists define the concept in more precise terms. Below I look at ‘common conceptions’ of social class before moving on to look at two ways of measuring social class – The Registrar General’s Social Class Scale and The New British Class Survey

Common Conceptions of Social Class

The classic formulation of social class in Britain is to see Britain as being divided into three classes: working, middle and upper class. Social Class, is however, open to change, and most agree that the last two decades have seen the emergence of an underclass, with little prospect of full time employment. These four terms are in common usage and we have to start somewhere, so here are some starting definitions which you should aim to move beyond.

Social Class

Definition/ Defining Features

Working class

Those individuals engaged in manual work, often having low levels of educational achievement. The classic, traditional working class jobs include heavy labouring and factory based work.

Middle class

Those individuals engaged in non-manual work, often having higher levels of educational achievement. Classic middle class jobs include everything from doctors and lawyers to clerical workers.

Upper class

The elite class that controls the majority of wealth and power in British society.

A recent 2015 survey shows that 60% of people in Britain identify as working class, which suggests that these broad ‘class divisions’ have meaning for people.

The disadvantages of common conceptions of social class is that they lack clarity – although most of us have heard of social class and have some idea of what it means to be a member of a social class, exactly what constitutes middle or working class, for example, is subjective and varies from person to person.

This is precisely why socologists have striven to develop more objective classifications of social class – and below I look at two of these – The registrar General’s Social Class Scale and the New British Class Survey

The Registrar General’s Social Class Scale (1911)

Sociologists use more nuanced categories of social class, than the common sense conceptions above. The way in which sociologists group people into social classes has changed considerably over time, mainly because of the changing occupational structure. To illustrate this just two examples are provided below.

For most of the 20th Century social class was measured using the Registrar General’s Scale. When this was originally conceived in 1911 it was based on the alleged standing in the community of the different occupational groups.

Occupations were divided into the following:

  • Manual occupations – those that involve a fair amount of physical effort. These are also known as blue collar occupations and are seen as working class.

  • Non-manual occupations – those that involve more mental effort, such as professions and office work. These are also known as white collar occupations and are seen as middle class.

Registrar General’s Scale: 1911-Present Day 

Social Class

Examples of occupation

I Professional and managerial

Accountant, doctor

II Intermediate

Teacher, farmer

III Non-manual – skilled occupations

Police officer, sales representative

III Manual – skilled occupations

Electrician, bus driver

IV Semi-skilled manual

Farm worker, postman/woman

V Unskilled manual

Labourer, cleaner

Strengths and Limitations of the Registrar General’s Social Class Scale 

The problems with the above scale is that the occupational structure in the UK has moved on – there are many more unskilled non manual jobs – in call-centres for example, and there is no room for the long-term or intermittently unemployed in the above scale either.

However, even today the majority of occupations fit pretty unambiguously into one of the categories, and six categories broadly organised along educational achievement and income is very easy to manage if we wish to make comparisons, and if we stick to these six simple categories, there does appear to be a historical relationship between these social class groupings and life chances – especially where life expectancy is concerned.

health and social class inequality

The New British Class Survey 

The New British Class Survey is an attempt to update the Registrar General’s Social Class Scale and make it more relevant to contemporary Britain.

Social Class UK

The survey was conducted by the BBC, in conjunction with The London School of Economics, recently conducted an online survey of 161 000 people. The survey measured three aspects of social class – economic capital, cultural capital and social capital.

Economic Capital – Measured by a combination of household income, household savings and the value of house owned.

Cultural Capital – The level of engagement in ‘highbrow’ and ’emerging’ culture. The amount of ‘Highbrow’ culture people consumed was measured by scoring how engaged they were with classical music, attending stately homes and so on. How much ’emerging’ cultural capital people owned was measured by scoring engagement with video games, a preference for hip-hop etc.

Social Capital – Measured using the average status or importance of people’s social contacts and the number of occupations people said they knew.

According to this survey, there are now 7 new classes in the United Kingdom…..

  1. Elite (6% of the population) – The most privileged class in Great Britain who have high levels of all three capitals. Their high amount of economic capital sets them apart from everyone else.

    Social Class Britain

  2. Established Middle Class (25% of the population) Members of this class have high levels of all three capitals although not as high as the Elite. They are a gregarious and culturally engaged class.

  3. Technical Middle Class (6%) – A new, small class with high economic capital but seem less culturally engaged. They have relatively few social contacts and so are less socially engaged.

  4. New Affluent Workers (14%) – This class has medium levels of economic capital and higher levels of cultural and social capital. They are a young and active group.

  5. Emergent Service Workers (15%) This new class has low economic capital but has high levels of ‘emerging’ cultural capital and high social capital. This group are young and often found in urban areas.

  6. Traditional Working Class (19%) – This class scores low on all forms of the three capitals although they are not the poorest group. The average age of this class is older than the others.

  7. Precariat (15%) – The most deprived class of all with low levels of economic, cultural and social capital. The everyday lives of members of this class are precarious.

    Social Class Sociology

Strengths and Limitations of the New British Class Survey 

This seems to be a clear improvement on previous class scales – it seems to describe social class divisions as they actually are in the UK (you might say it’s a more valid measurement of social class) – and the inclusion of  ‘lowest’ class – the precariat reflects the important fact that many people are in low-paid work are in poverty because of the precarious nature of their flexible and/ or part-time employment. It also includes more indicators (or aspects of class) and reflects the importance of property ownership which only typically comes with age.

However, because it includes more aspects of class and because it is more subjective, it is simply harder to ‘get your head around’ – the divisions aren’t as clear cut, and it’s more difficult to make comparisons – of which there are few available because this is such a new measurement. Still, these aren’t necessarily weaknesses if that’s the way social class really does manifest itself in reality in contemporary Britain.

Related Posts – Mostly on ‘why class matters’

Social Class, Income and Wealth Inequalities

The Reproduction of the Social Class Inequality in Education

Three ways in which family life varies by social class

Discussion Question: To what extent do you believe someone’s social class background affects their life chances in Modern Britain today?

Research Task – Use this link to do the survey and find out more about your class background (you could either enter your parents‘ details, if you know them, or think about where you think you will be in 5-10 years time and enter those details.

British Class Survey

 

Further Sources 

 

 

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Research Methods Essays – How to Write Them

Essay planning and writing for the AS and A Level sociology exams – hints and tips

The research methods section of the AS sociology 7191 (2) exam (research methods and topics in sociology) consists of one short answer question (out of 4 marks) and one essay question (out of 16 marks).

You should aim to spend approximately 20-25 minutes answering this essay question

This longer methods question will nearly always ask you to evaluate either the strengths or limitations of a particular method, for example ‘Evaluate the strengths of using social surveys in Social Research’.

This means that you will need to evaluate either the strengths or the limitations of the particular method as directed in the question.

You should always use the following structure whether talking about strengths or limitations of the method. Remember that you will need to emphasis the relevant sections depending on whether you are asked to evaluate strengths or limitations.

  1. Define the method

  2. Explain why Positivists like or dislike the method

  3. Explain why Interpretivists like or dislike the method

  4. Validity – explain why the method has good or bad validity

  5. Reliability – explain why the method has good or bad reliability

  6. Representativeness – explain how easy it is to get a large, representative sample

  7. Practical factors – explain what practical strengths or limitations the method has

  8. Ethical issues – explain any ethical problems associated with the method, or talk about the ethical strengths as appropriate

  9. Say what kind of topics this method is useful for researching and why

  10. Say when you wouldn’t use this method and why

  11. Compare the relative strengths and weaknesses of different types of the method.

  • It is good practice to use examples of actual examples of research studies that have used the method under examination, preferably woven into the body of the essay.

  • It is also good practice to distinguish between different ways of doing the method throughout, as you are asked to do in number 11.

  • You can remember the above 11 point plan by memorizing the handy acronym DPIVRRPETTC

If you like this sort of thing, then you might like to purchase more of the same…

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AQA Assessment ResourcesAS paper 2 has an example of a pure research methods question.  

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Research Methods – Key Terms for A Level Sociology

Definitions of core concepts covered as part of the research methods component of AS and A Level Sociology. Organised in alphabetical order – so effectively this is a research methods A-Z. If this is too much for you, then have a look at my ‘top ten research methods concepts‘ first!

For more information about research methods in general please see my main page of links to posts on research methods in sociology!

Research Methods Concepts Sociology

Anthropology – the study of humans, past and present. Historically, anthropologists mostly studied traditional (e.g. tribal) cultures using participant observation as its main method, however, more recently anthropologists have increasingly focused much a greater array of aspects of culture within modern and post-modern societies using a more diverse range of methods. One of the key aims of anthropology is to explore and explain the enormous diversity as well as the commonalities within and between human cultures.

Attrition rate – the percentage of respondents who drop out of a research study during the course of that study. This can often be a problem with longitudinal research.

Bias – where someone’s personal, subjective feelings or thoughts affect one’s judgement.

Case study – researching a single case or example of something using multiple methods, for example researching one school or factor

Closed Questions – Questions which have a limited range of answers attached to them – such as Yes/ No or Likerhert Scale answers.

Confidentiality – the idea that the information respondents give to the researcher in the research process is kept private. This is usually achieved through anonymity.

Covert research – where the researcher is undercover and respondents do not know they are part of a research study. The opposite of covert research is overt research – where respondents know they are part of a research study.

Dependent and independent variables – a dependent variable is the object under study in an experiment, the independent variables are what the researcher varies to see how they effect the dependent variable.

For example, if you grow tomato plants as a hobby and wanted to find out the effect which the amount of water, the temperature, and the amount of light has on the amount of tomatoes each plant produces you could design a series of experiments in which you varied the amount of light etc. and then measure the effects on the amount of fruit produced. In this example, the amount of tomatoes produced is the dependent variable and the water, the temperature and the amount of light are the independent variables.

Ethnography – an in-depth study of the way of life of a group of people in their natural setting. Ethnographies are typically long-term studies (over several months or even years) and aim for a full (or ‘thick’), multi-layered account of the culture of a group of people. Participant observation is typically the main method used, but researchers will use all other methods available to get even richer data – such as interviews and analysis of any documents associated with that culture.

Ethics/ ethical factors – ethics means taking into consideration how the research impacts on those involved with the research process. Ethical research should gain informed consent, ensure confidentiality, be legal and ensure that respondents and those related to them are not subjected to harm. Ultimately research should aim to do more good than harm to society.

Experiments – experiments aim to measure the effect which one or more independent variables has on a dependent variable. Experiments typically start off with a hypothesis, and a good experiment will be designed in such a way that objective cause and effect relationships can be established between variables, so that the original hypothesis can verified, or rejected and modified.

Extraneous variables – undesirable variables which are not of interest to the researcher but might interfere with the results of the experiment.

Field diary – A notebook in which a researcher records observation during the research process. One of the key tools of Participant Observation.

Field experiments – experiments which take place in a real-life setting such as a classroom, the work place or even the high street. See experiments and related terms for a fuller definition.

Focus groups – a type of group interview in which respondents are asked to discuss certain topics.

Formal content analysis – a quantitative approach to analysing mass media content which involves developing a system of classification to analyse the key features of media sources and then simply counting how many times these features occur in a given text.

Going native – where a researcher becomes biased or sympathetic towards the group he is studying, such that he or she loses their objectivity.

Group interviewswhere an interviewer interviews two or more respondents at a time.

Hawthorne effect – where respondents alter their behaviour because they know they are being observed. This is one of the biggest disadvantages of overt laboratory and field experiments.

Hypothesis – a theory or explanation made on the basis of limited evidence as a starting point for further investigation. A hypothesis will typically take the form of a testable statement about the effect which one or more independent variables will have on the dependent variable.

Imposition problem – the imposition problem limits the validity of social surveys. It is where respondents may not be able to express their true feelings about the topic under investigation because the questions (and the range of possible responses) which have been pre-chosen by the researcher limits what they are able to say, and may not reflect the issues that respondents themselves feel are important.

Independent variable – see dependent variable.

Informed consent – where the respondent agrees to take part in a research study with full awareness that research is taking place, what the purpose of the research is and what the researcher intends to do with the results.

Interpretivism – an approach to social research which tries to understand human action through the eyes of those acting. Interpretivists want to know the meanings actors give to their own actions, what their own interpretation of their action is. They thus emphasise respondent-led qualitative methods to achieve insight, in-depth explanations and empathy, in order to realise a humanistic, empathetic understanding from the respondents’ point of view.

Interviews – a method of gathering information by asking questions orally, either face to face or by telephone. Interviews can be individual or group and there are three main types of interview – structured, unstructured and semi-structured.

Interviewer bias – where the values and beliefs of the researcher influence the responses of the interviewee. If an interviewer feels strongly about a subject, then he or she might ask leading questions, or even omit certain questions in order to encourage particular responses from a respondent.

Interview schedule – A list of questions or topic areas the interviewer wishes to ask or cover in the course of an interview.

The more structured the interview, the more rigid the interview schedule will be. Before conducting an interview it is usual for the researcher to know something about the topic area and the respondents themselves, and so they will have at least some idea of the questions they are likely to ask: even if they are doing ‘unstructured interviews’ an interviewer will have some kind of interview schedule, even if it is just a list of broad topic areas to discuss, or an opening question.

Laboratory experiments – experiments which take place in an artificial, controlled environment, such as a laboratory. See experiments and related terms for a fuller definition.

Leading questionsquestions which subtly prompt a respondent to provide a particular answer when interviewed. Leading questions are one way in which interviewer bias can influence the research process, reducing the validity of data collected.

Life documentswritten or audio-visual sources created by individuals which record details of that person’s experiences and social actions. They are predominantly qualitative and may offer insights into people’s subjective states. They can be historical or contemporary and can take a wide variety of forms.

Longitudinal studies – a study of a sample of people in which information is collected from the same people at intervals over a long period of time. For example, a researcher might start off in 2015 by getting a sample of 1000 people to fill in a questionnaire, and then go back to the same people in 2020, and again in 2025 to collect further information.

Likert scale – used to measure strength of opinion or feeling about a statement in social surveys. For example respondents might be asked whether they strongly agree, agree, disagree, or strongly disagree with a particular statement.

Multistage samplingwith multistage sampling, a researcher selects a sample by using combinations of different sampling methods. For example, in Stage one, a researcher might use systematic sampling, and in Stage two, he might use random sampling to select a subset for the final sample.

research methods key concepts

Non-participant observation – where the researcher observes a group without taking part with that group. This method can either be overt or covert, and data may be recorded quantitatively or qualitatively. Probably the most commonly experienced example of non-participant observation is the OFSTED inspection.

Objective knowledge – knowledge which is free of the biases, opinions and values of the researcher, it reflects what is really ‘out there’ in the social world.

While most sociologists believe that we should strive to make our data collection as objective as possible, there are some sociologists (known as phenomenologists) who argue that it is not actually possible to collect data which is purely objective – the researcher’s opinions always get in the way of what data is collected and filtered for publication.

Official statistics – numerical information collected and used by the government and its agencies to make decisions about society and the economy. Examples include the UK National Census, police recorded crime and data on educational achievement.

Open-ended question – questions for which there are no set answers. Open questions allow individuals to write their own answers or dictate them to interviewers. For example ‘have you enjoyed studying Sociology this year?’

Operationalising concepts – the process of defining a concept precisely so that it can be easily understood by respondents and measured by the researcher. The term may also be applied to the process of determining variables in experiments.

For example, rather than ask a respondent ‘are you religious’, which is a vague question with many interpretations, a researcher might operationalise the concept of religion by using a range of more precise questions such as ‘do you believe in God’, ‘do you believe in the idea of heaven and hell’, ‘ how often do you pray’, and so on.

Overt research – see covert research.

Participant observation – involves the researcher joining a group of people, and taking an active part in their day to day lives as a member of that group and making in-depth recordings of what she sees.

Participant Observation may be overt, in which case the respondents know that researcher is conducing sociological research, or covert (undercover) where the respondents are deceived into thinking the researcher is ‘one of them’ and do not know the researcher is conducting research.

Personal documents first-hand accounts of social events and personal experiences, which generally include the writer’s feelings and attitudes about the events they think are personally significant. Examples of personal documents are letters, diaries, photo albums and autobiographies.

Pilot study – a test study carried out before the main research study and on a smaller scale, to uncover and iron potential problems which may occur in the main programme of research.

Positivism – an approach to social research which aims to be as close to the natural sciences as possible. Positivists emphasise the use of quantitative data in order to remain detached from the research process and to uncover social trends and correlations which are generaliseable to society as a whole. Their ultimate aim is to uncover the objective social laws which govern human action.

Practical factors include such things as the amount of time the research will take, how much it will cost, whether you can achieve funding, opportunities for research including ease of access to respondents, and the personal skills and characteristics of the researcher.

Pre-coded, or closed questions – questions where the respondent has to choose from a limited range of responses. Two of the most common types of closed question are the simply yes/no questionnaire and the Likehert Scale (a strength of feeling scale).

Primary data – data collected first hand by the researcher herself. If a sociologist is conducting her own unique sociological research, she will normally have specific research questions she wants answered and thus tailor her research methods to get the data she wants. The main methods sociologists use to generate primary data include social surveys (normally using questionnaire), interviews, experiments and observations.

Public documents – are produced by organisations such as government departments and their agencies as well as businesses and charities and include OFSTED and other official government enquiries. These reports are a matter of public record and should be available for anyone who wishes to see them.

Qualitative data – refers to information that appears in written, visual or audio form, such as transcripts of interviews, newspapers and web sites. (It is possible to analyse qualitative data and display features of it numerically).

Quantitative data – refers to information that appears in numerical form, or in the form of statistics.

Quota sampling – In this method researchers will be told to ensure the sample fits with certain quotas, for example they might be told to find 90 participants, with 30 of them being unemployed. The researcher might then find these 30 by going to a job centre. The problem of representativeness is again a problem with the quota sampling method.

Random samplingin random sampling everyone in the population has the same chance of getting chosen. A simple example of random sampling would be picking names out of a hat.

Rapporta close and harmonious relationship between researcher and respondents, such that both parties understand each other’s feelings and communicate well.

Reliabilityif research is reliable, it means if someone else repeats the same research with the same population then they should achieve the same results.

In order to be reliable, research needs to be easily repeatable. Self-completion questionnaires have high reliability because it is easy for another researcher to administer the questionnaire again. More in depth methods such as participant observation, where the researcher can spend several months or even years with a small group of respondents are not very reliable as it is impossible to replicate the exact procedures of the original research. More qualitative methods also open up the possibility for the researcher to get more involved with the research process, with further detracts from the reliability.

Representativenessresearch is representative if the research sample reflects the characteristics of the wider target population that is being studied.

Representativeness thus depends on who is being studied. If one’s research aim is to look at the experiences of all white male AS Sociology students studying sociology, then one’s sample should consist of all white, male sociology students. If one wishes to study sociology students in general, one will need to have a proportionate amount of AS/ A2 students as well as a range of genders and ethnicities in order to reflect the wider student body.

Research sample – the actual population selected for the research – also known as the respondents.

Sampling – the process of selection a section of the population to take part in social research.

Sampling frame – a list from which a sample will be drawn.

Secondary data – data that has been collected by previous researchers or organisations such as the government. Quantitative sources of secondary data include official government statistics and qualitative sources are very numerous including government reports, newspapers, personal documents such as diaries as well as the staggering amount of audio-visual content available online

Self-Selecting Sample Bias – where individuals choose whether they take part in the research and the results end up being unrepresentative because certain types of people are more willing or able do participate in the research.

Semi-structured interviews – those in which researchers have a pre-determined list of questions to ask respondents, but are free to ask further, differentiated questions based on the responses given.

Snowball samplingwith this method, researchers might find a few participants, and then ask them to find participants themselves and so on.

Social surveys – typically questionnaires designed to collect information from large numbers of people in standardised form.

Social surveys are written in advance by the researcher and tend to to be pre-coded and have a limited number of closed-questions and they tend to focus on relatively simple topics. A good example is the UK National Census. Social surveys can be administered (carried out) in a number of different ways – they might be self-completion (completed by the respondents themselves) or they might take the form of a structured interview on the high street, as is the case with some market research.

Socially constructed – Interpretivists argue that official statistics are socially constructed – that is they are the result of the subjective decisions made by the people who collect them rather than reflecting the objective underlying reality of social life. For example Crime Statistics do not reflect the actual crime rate, only those activities which are defined as crimes by the people who notice them and who then go on to report those activities to the police.

Stratified sampling – this method attempts to make the sample as representative as possible, avoiding the problems that could be caused by using a completely random sample. To do this the sample frame will be divided into a number of smaller groups, such as social class, age, gender, ethnicity etc. Individuals are then drawn at random from these groups. If you are observing doctors and you had split the sample frame into ethnic groups you would draw 8% of the participants from the Asian group, as you know that 8% of doctors in Britain are Asian.

Structured or formal interviews – those in which the interviewer asks the interviewee the same questions in the same way to different respondents. This will typically involve reading out questions from a pre-written and pre-coded structured questionnaire.

Subjective knowledge – knowledge based purely on the opinions of the individual, reflecting their values and biases, their point of view. See also ‘objective knowledge’.

Systematic sampling – an example of a systematic sample would be picking every 10th person on a list or register. This carries a similar risk of being unrepresentative as random sampling as, for example, every 10th person could be a girl.

Target population – all people who could potentially be studied as part of the research.

Textual analysis – involves examining how different words are linked together in order to encourage readers to adopt a particular view of what is being reported.

Textual analysis also involves the use of semiology – which is the analysis of signs and symbols.

Thematic analysis – involves trying to understand the intentions which lie behind the production of mass media documents by subjecting a particular area of reportage to detailed investigation.

Theoretical factors – validity, reliability, representativeness and whether research is being carried out from a Positivist or Interpretivist point of view.

Positivists prefer quantitative research methods and are generally more concerned with reliability and representativeness. Interpretivists prefer qualitative research methods and are prepared to sacrifice reliability and representativeness to gain deeper insight which should provide higher validity.

Transcription – the process of writing down (or typing up) what respondents say in an interview. In order to be able to transcribe effectively interviews will need to be recorded.

Triangulation – the use of more than one method in social research. For example a researcher might combine structured questionnaires with more in-depth interviews. Triangulation is often used to verify the validity of other data sources and is a good way of improving the reliability of research.

Unstructured interviews – also known as informal interviews, are more like a guided conversation, and typically involve the researcher asking open-questions which generate qualitative data. The researcher will start with a general research topic in and ask questions in response to the various and differentiated responses the respondents give. Unstructured Interviews are thus a flexible, respondent-led research method.

Validityresearch is valid if it provides a true picture of what is really ‘out there’ in the world.

Generally speaking, the more in depth the research, the fuller picture we get of the thoughts and feelings of the individuals acting, so the more valid the data; and the more the researcher stands back and allows the respondents to ‘speak for themselves’ the more valid the data. In more quantitative research, such as social surveys, validity may be lacking because the researcher has decided on what questions should be answered by respondents, rather than letting the respondents decide on what they want to say for themselves, as is typically the case with more qualitative methods.

Value Freedom – where a researcher’s personal opinions, beliefs and feelings are kept out the research process so that data collected is not influenced by the personal biases of the researcher.

Verstehen – a German word meaning to ‘understand in a deep way’ – in order to achieve ‘Verstehen’ a researcher aims to understand another person’s experience by putting themselves in the other person’s shoes.

Interpretivists argue that to achieve Verstehen (or empathetic understanding) we should use in-depth qualitative research such as participant observation.

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Research Methods – Top Ten Key Terms for A Level Sociology Students

Definitions of the most important concepts you need to know for A Level Sociology research methods. Start with these and then move on to learning the more comprehensive list of concepts. NB – There are actually 14 concepts below!

NB If you want the full list of concepts then you’ll find that here:

Research Methods Key Terms – To be on the safe side I’ll say that this covers most of the concepts you’ll need for the methods aspects of AS and A Level sociology.

Research Methods Key Terms Definitions

Ethics/ ethical factors – ethics means taking into consideration how the research impacts on those involved with the research process. Ethical research should gain informed consent, ensure confidentiality, be legal and ensure that respondents and those related to them are not subjected to harm. Ultimately research should aim to do more good than harm to society.

Interpretivism – an approach to social research which tries to understand human action through the eyes of those acting. Interpretivists want to know the meanings give to their own actions, what their interpretation of their action is. They thus emphasise respondent-led qualitative methods to achieve insight, in-depth explanations and empathy, in order to realise a humanistic, empathetic understanding from the respondents point of view.

Positivism – an approach to social research which aims to be as close to the natural sciences as possible. Positivists emphasise the use of quantitative data in order to remain detached from the research process and to uncover social trends and correlations which are generaliseable to society as a whole. Their ultimate aim is to uncover the objective social laws which govern human action.

Positivism sociology

Practical factors include such things as the amount of time the research will take, how much it will cost, whether you can achieve funding, opportunities for research including ease of access to respondents, and the personal skills and characteristics of the researcher.

Primary data is data collected first hand by the researcher herself. If a sociologist is conducting her own unique sociological research, she will normally have specific research questions she wants answered and thus tailor her research methods to get the data she wants. The main methods sociologists use to generate primary data include social surveys (normally using questionnaire), interviews, experiments and observations.

Qualitative data – refers to information that appears in written, visual or audio form, such as transcripts of interviews, newspapers and web sites. (It is possible to analyse qualitative data and display features of it numerically).

Quantitative data – refers to information that appears in numerical form, or in the form of statistics.

Reliabilityif research is reliable, it means if someone else repeats the same research with the same population then they should achieve the same results.

reliability sociology

In order to be reliable, research needs to be easily repeatable. Self-Completion questionnaires have high reliability because it is easy for another researcher to administer the questionnaire again. More in depth methods such as participant observation, where the researcher can spend several months or even years with a small group of respondents are not very reliable as it is impossible to replicate the exact procedures of the original research. More qualitative methods also open up the possibility for the researcher to get more involved with the research process, probing respondents for very detailed information.

Representativenessresearch is representative if the research sample reflects the characteristics of the wider target population that is being studied.

representativeness social research

Representativeness thus depends on who is being studied. If one’s research aim is to look at the experiences of all white male AS Sociology students studying sociology, then one’s sample should consist of all white, male sociology students. If one wishes to study sociology students in general, one will need to have a proportionate amount of AS/ A2 students as well as a range of genders and ethnicities in order to reflect the wider student body.

Sampling – the process of selection a section of the population to take part in social research.

Secondary data – data that has been collected by previous researchers or organisations such as the government. Quantitative sources of secondary data include official government statistics and qualitative sources are very numerous including government reports, newspapers, personal documents such as diaries as well as the staggering amount of audio-visual content available online.

Theoretical factors – validity, reliability, representativeness and whether research is being carried out from a Positivist or Interpretivist point of view.

Positivists prefer quantitative research methods and are generally more concerned with reliability and representativeness. Interpretivists prefer qualitative research methods and are prepared to sacrifice reliability and representativeness to gain deeper insight which should provide higher validity.

Validityresearch is valid if it provides a true picture of what is really ‘out there’ in the world.

validity sociology definition

Verstehen – a German word meaning to ‘understand in a deep way’ – in order to achieve ‘Verstehen’ a researcher aims to understand another person’s experience by putting himself in the other person’s shoes.

Interpretivists argue that achieving Verstehen (or empathetic understanding) by doing in-depth qualitative research such as participant observation.

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Research Methods The Basics Flash Cards

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