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The Human Development Index

 

The United Nations use The Human Development Index (HDI) as a summary measure for assessing long-term progress in three basic dimensions of human development: a long and healthy life, access to knowledge and a decent standard of living. It provides a useful ‘snap-shot’ of a country’s economic and social development.

Human Development Index Map 2014.jpg

The Human Development Index

The Human Development Index measures Human Development using four indicators

  • To measure health – Life expectancy at birth
  • To measure education – the average (mean) number years of adult education adults over 25 have received and the number of expected years of education children attending school can expect
  • To measure standard of living – Gross National Income per capita (PPP)

Each country is then given a rank from between 0 and 1 based on how well it scores in relation to ‘constructed minimum’ and ‘observed maximum scores for each of these criteria. The minimum and maximum scores for each criteria are as below

Minimum scores* Perceived maximums
Life expectancy at birth 20 83.2
Mean years of adult education adults over 25 have received 0 13.2
number of years of education children attending school can expect 0 20.6
Gross National Income per capita (PPP) 163 108, 211

(*This is the level below which the UN believes there is no prospect for human development!)

How does the HDI work out a country’s score? – it’s quite easy – if a country has a life expectancy of 83.2, and all the other maximums, it would score one, if it had a life expectancy of 20, and all the other minimums it would score zero. If it was half way between the minimum and maximum – it would score 0.5 – NB by the UK’s standards, this would be a pretty low level of human development!

The Human Development Index – Best and Worst Performers

Top

Rank Country IHDI
1  Norway 0.893
2  Netherlands 0.861
3   Switzerland 0.861
4  Australia 0.858
5  Denmark 0.856
6  Germany 0.853
7  Iceland 0.846
8  Sweden 0.846

Towards the Bottom 

137  Haiti 0.296
139  Liberia 0.280
140  Democratic Republic of the Congo 0.276
142  Mali 0.270
145  Burkina Faso 0.261
146  Guinea 0.261
147  Guinea-Bissau 0.254
148  Niger 0.246
149  Sierra Leone 0.241

What do the scores above mean?

  • If a country scores 1-0.788 it is classified as a ‘developed country’ with ‘high human development’ – as are 42 countries – most European countries come into this category. These are typically the countries with GNIs of $40K per capita or more, 13 full years of education and 80+ life expectancies.
  • If a country scores 0.48 or lower it is classified as having Low human development – e.g. Sierra Leonne – here you will see a GNI per capita of below $1000, 10 years or less of school and life expectancies in the 60s.

Advantages of the Human Development Index

  • It provides us with a much fuller picture of how well developed a country is, allowing for fuller comparisons to be made.
  • It shows us that while there is a general correlation between economic and social development, two countries with the same level of economic development may have different levels of social development. See below for examples.
  • Some argue that this is a more human centred approach, concerned more with actual human welfare than just mere economics. It gets more to ‘the point’ of economic development.

Two Limitations of the Human Development Index

  • Relying on the HDI score alone may disguise a lack of social development in a country – for example a very high GNI can compensate for poor life-expectancy, as is the case in the United States.
  • It is still only provides a fairly limited indication of social development – only health and education are covered – there are many other ways of measuring health and education.

 

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Economic Indicators of Development

International organizations such as the World Bank prefer to measure development using economic indicators. There are three main economic indicators which are used to give an indication of the overall economic health of a country:

Three Economic Indicators of Development

  • Gross Domestic Product (GDP) is the total economic value of goods and services (expressed in US dollars) produced within the borders of a country in the course of a year and available for consumption in the market place.
  • Gross National Product (GNP) is the same but includes the value of all services produced at home and abroad. A country such as Ghana will have a relatively similar GDP to GNP because it doesn’t have many companies which produce things abroad: most production takes place within Ghana. America, on the other hand, which is where many Transnational Corporations are based, has a much higher GNP than GDP – Think about MacDonald’s for example –all of those Big Macs sold outside of the USA won’t appear in the GDP of the USA but will appear in the GNP.
  • Gross National Income (GNI) a hideous oversimplification of this is that it’s ‘Gross Domestic Product + the additional income that self-employed people pay themselves +income received from abroad’. This matters to a lot of developing countries who don’t produce much but have large diasporas, or populations living permanently abroad. Take Gambia for example (the country Paul Mendy takes your old toys to at Christmas) – 1/6th of its GNI is from money sent by relatives who abroad, this would not be included in either GDP or GNP.

You get slightly different country rankings if you use GNP or GDP rather than GNI. Don’t worry too much about the differences between the above – with a few exceptions* most developing countries tend to have similar GDPs, GNPs and GNI*s.

GDP and GNI per capita in India
*If you look at India’s Gross Domestic Product, it is the 7th richest country in the world, but if you look at its Gross National Income per Capita, it falls to 151st, due to its enormous population, abut also due to the fact that it consumes a lot of the goods it produces itself, so it doesn’t export much, so there’s not a lot of income coming into the country.

Two further important terms – ‘Per Capita’ and ‘Purchasing Power Parity’

  • Gross National Product Per Capita – GDP/ GNP are often divided by the total population of a country in order to provide a figure per head of population, known as GDP/ GNP per capita.
  • The cost of living varies in different countries – so one dollar will buy you a lot more rice in India than it would in America. Purchasing Power Parity figures for GNI per capita factor in the cost of living which is useful as it gives you more of an idea of the actual standard of living in that country for the average person.

Gross National Income Per Capita

This section provides a closer look different levels of ‘development’ according to this particular economic indicator. Remember, global rankings will vary depending on whether you use GNI, GNP, or GDP. 

One measurement of development The World Bank uses is Gross National Income (GNI), which can be crudely defined as the total value of goods and services produced in a country in a year plus any income from abroad. If you divide GNI by the number of people in the country, you get the average amount of income per person, or GNI per capita.

GNI per capita is widely regarded as a good indicator of the general standard of living in a country, and it is a good starting point for giving us an idea of the extent of global inequalities between countries. For example, the United Kingdom has a GNI per capita of about $43 000, while India has a GNI per capita of about $1600, which is more than 20 times greater.

The World Bank’s map of countries by Gross National Income per capita map is a useful, interactive resources to easily find out how most countries fair by this indicator of development. 

The World Bank’s Four Income Categories

The World Bank categorises countries into one of four categories based Gross National Income per capita (per head): high, upper middle, lower middle and low income countries.

GNI per capita world bank 2014.png

  • High income = $12,736 or more – about 60 countries, including most of Europe
  • Upper middle income = $4,126 – $12,735 – about 60 countries, includes South Africa and China
  • Lower middle income = $1,046 – $4,125 – about 50 countries, mostly in Africa, includes India
  • Low income = $1,045 or less – about 30 countries, mostly in Sub-Saharan

 

Comparing countries by GNI per Capita and total GDP

Top ten countries – GNI per capita

Monaco.jpg
Monaco – ranked number 1 in the world for GNI per capita
1  Monaco 186,950
2  Liechtenstein 115,530
 Bermuda (UK) 106,140
3  Norway 93,820
 Channel Islands (UK) 65,440
4  Qatar 85,430
5   Switzerland 84,180
 Isle of Man (UK) 83,930
6  Luxembourg 77,000
7  Australia 60,070
8  Denmark 58,590
9  Sweden 57,810
10  United States 54,960

Top ten countries Total by Gross Domestic Product

United States.jpg
The United States – ranked number 1 in the world for total GDP
1  United States 18,561,930
 European Union[n 1][19] 17,110,523
2  China[n 2] 11,391,619
3  Japan 4,730,300
4  Germany 3,494,900
5  United Kingdom 2,649,890
6  France 2,488,280
7  India 2,250,990
8  Italy 1,852,500
9  Brazil 1,769,600
10  San Marino 64,443

Question to consider: Why do you think the top ten countries are so different when judged by total GDP compared to GNI per capita?

Evaluating the Usefulness of Economic Indicators of Development

Three Advantages of using GDP/ GNP/ GNI as an indicator of development

  1. GNI figures provide a snap-shot indication of the huge difference between the more developed and less developed countries. In 2016, the GNP per capita in the UK was $43000 while in India it was only $1600. This means that there is 20 times as much money per person in the UK compared to in India
  2. Gross National Income figures are also closely correlated with social development – generally speaking the higher the GNI per capita, the better the education and health indicators are in a country.
  3. Total GDP figures give us an indication of who the most powerful nations are on earth in terms of military power. It’s not a perfect correlation, but the USA, China, Russia and the UK are all in the top ten for GDP and they are the biggest arms producers and consumers in the world too.

Four limitations of using GDP/ GNP/ GNI as an indicators of development

  1. Quality of life (Social Development) may be higher or lower than suggested by GNP per capita.
  2. They don’t tell us about inequalities within countries. The USA has one of the highest GNPs in the world but some extreme poverty.
  3. A lot of production in developing countries may not be included. For example, subsistence based production is consumed locally in the community, and not sold in the market place. Similarly goods obtained illegally on the black market are not included in GNP measurement
  4. They are very western concepts, equating production and economic growth with development. Some countries may not want economic growth and have different goals (Bhutan)

The United States – economically developed but socially retarded? 

The USA is a good example of a country that demonstrates why we can’t rely on economic indicators alone to give us a valid indication of how developed a country is. Despite ranking number 1 for total GDP, the USA does a lot worse on many social indicators of development – See this post – ‘The USA – an undeveloped country?’ for more details.

Review Questions 

  • Define Gross National Income Per Capita and be able to identify some high income and lower income countries.
  • Explain the difference between GNI, GDP, GNP, and understand the significance of Purchasing Power Parity.
  • Outline three strengths of using economic indicators of development
  • Outline at least three reasons why GNP may not be valid measurements of ‘development’
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Defining ‘Development’

International development professionals categorize countries into ‘more’ or ‘less’ developed. This post explores the meanings and origins of these terms, looking at the concepts of first, second and third world, before looking at the criticism that such systems of classification are ethnocentric, western constructions. 

Introduction – what is meant by development?

least developed countries.gif

The term development is used in several ways, but most sociologists agree that development should mean, at the very least, improvement or progress for people who desperately need positive change in their lives.

The main debates about development are underpinned by modernity, meaning that development agencies such as the World Bank and the United Nations aim to replicate within developing societies the material and cultural experience of modern Western societies such as the United Kingdom and the United States.

Consequently, most sociologists believe that development is about achieving economic growth, and the positive consequences which have generally stemmed from that, such as improvements in life expectancy, mass education and social welfare.

This generally means that most countries in Europe are defined as being ‘more developed’ while countries in Sub-Saharan Africa tend to be defined as the ‘least developed’.

Ghana, in West Africa is a good example of a ‘less developed country’

ghana-human-developmentKey Statistics 

  • Population: 29 million
  • GDP (nominal) per capita – $1480 (153rd/ 197)
  • Life Expectancy at Birth – 66.6 years (172nd)
  •  Infant Mortality Rate – 32/ 1000 live births (52nd)
  • Literacy Rates – Male 82%, Female – 71%
  • Child Labour Rate – 36%
  • Urban Population – 56% (3% per year growth)
  • Main export – Cocoa Beans (50% of exports)
  • Best World Cup performance – quarter finals 2010

A Global Hierarchy of Development

Many sociologists and geographers today use the following four categories to distinguish between different ‘levels’ of economic and social development.

Category Key features of countries Examples
More economically developed countries

MEDCs

These are the wealthy industrial-capitalist countries which generally experience economic growth year on year. Their populations enjoy a good standard of living, which means high life expectancy of 80+ years, free primary and secondary education and access to good quality housing and consumer goods are the norm. Western European countries

 

The USA

Newly industrialized countries

NICs

These are the so-called ‘Asian-Tiger’ economies of which have rapidly industrialised in the past 40 years and which today have a large share of the global market in computers, electronics, plastics and textiles. China

 

South Korea

Less economically developed countries

LEDCs

Societies which have experienced extensive urbanization and therefor positive economic growth. However, the economies of these societies are also heavily dependent on agriculture, and extraction of raw materials. Poverty is still a big problem in many of these countries. Brazil,

India,

Mexico

Ghana

Least

economically developed countries

LLEDCs

The poorest countries in the world, mostly in sub-Saharan Africa where absolute poverty is the daily norm. These societies experience low life expectancy of around 60 years, and high child mortality rates, linked to preventable diseases such as malaria. They also lack basic infrastructure such as roads, electricity and clean water. Many of these countries also experience high levels of conflict, which is both a cause and consequences of their underdevelopment. Sierra-Leone

Somalia

DRCongo

Afghanistan

Bangladesh

Haiti

Some development thinkers from the ‘post-development perspective’ have criticised the above system of categorisation for being an ethnocentric, Western perspective on development, because it implies that industrialised, wealthy nations are superior, and less economically developed countries in other parts of the world as inferior. The implication of this hierarchy is that all countries should aim to become more like those Western countries at the top.

Questions to consider:

  • In general, do you think that it’s fair to make the generalisation that European countries are more developed than Sub-Saharan African countries?
  • Should less developed countries strive to become more like Western, Industrialised countries?

The Origins of Western Ideas of ‘International Development’

The concept of rich countries helping poor countries to develop emerged after World War II in the context of the Cold War.

By the end of the Second World War many of the countries in Africa, Asia and Latin America had failed to develop and remained poor, and there was concern amongst the leaders of the western developed countries, especially the United States, that communism might spread into many of these countries, potentially harming American business interests abroad and diminishing U.S. Power.

The conventional way of seeing the world was to split it into first, second and third worlds

third_world_map.jpg

First World Described the industrialized capitalist world – the USA, Western Europe, Japan, Australia and New Zealand.
Second world Described the industrialized communist world – The Soviet Union and Eastern Europe.
Third world Described the rest of the world and covered a vast range of countries in different circumstances and at different stages of development, but what most of them shared in common was the fact that they lacked an industrial base, they had not gone through industrialization.

From the perspective of the developed first world, it was essential to encourage the poorer countries of Asia, Africa and Latin America to adopt a capitalist-industrialist model of development in order to prevent them from forming alliances with the communist second world. In short, development was seen as essential to halt the spread of communism.

The term ‘third world’ also made sense from the perspective of many of those in poorer countries: many countries wanted to pursue their own paths to development, without the ‘assistance’ of either the United States or Communist Russia.

It was immediately after World War Two that the main international institutions of development were established – such as The World Bank, the International Monetary Fund and the United Nations, and for decades, aid money was deliberately channeled to those countries most likely to ‘fall into the hands of the communists’.

Dependency Theorists and Post-Development Theorists (covered in a future lesson) have been critical of Western attempts to help third world countries develop. They argue that aid money and aid programmes have really been about maintaining western political and economic superiority, and less about helping poor countries actually develop,

However, since the collapse of communism in the 1990s, and thanks to significant reforms in the way aid money is distributed through international institutions, ‘development’ today seems to be more about actually helping poor countries develop and less about the west maintaining its political and economic superiority.

But there are those who argue that even today the international development agenda really has a deeper, political purpose, and ‘development’ is not necessarily about helping poor countries. For example a quarter of the UK aid budget goes to the military, and much of this is spent fighting.  Islamic extremists in Iraq and Afghanistan, which clearly has a political purpose, although you could just as easily argue that eradicating extremism is a necessary perquisite for any positive change to take place.

Questions to consider

Q1: Why where the countries of the first world concerned to help the countries of the first world develop after World War Two?

Q2: What is the ‘main purpose’ of the three development institutions mentioned above?

Q3: Why were some theorists critical of western attempts to help poor countries develop?

Criticisms of Western Constructs of Development

Writer Eduardo Galeano offers a (self-identified) third world perspective on ‘development’, which serves as a useful criticism of Western concepts of development. You should be able to find three criticisms of western ‘notions’ of development below. 

eduardo-galeano
Eduardo Galeano

It was the promise of the politicians, the justification of the technocrats, and the illusion of the outcast. The Third World will become like the First World – rich, cultivated and happy if it behaves and does what it is told, without saying anything or complaining. WE CAN BE LIKE THEM, proclaimed a gigantic illuminated board along the highway to development.

However, if the poor countries reached the levels of production and waste of the rich countries, our planet would die. Already it is in a coma, seriously contaminated by the industrial civilization and emptied of its last drop of substance by the consumer society.

A further disadvantage with the Western notion of development is that it assumes that those countries that are more economically developed are better… i.e. more developed. In contrast, the developing world contains many worlds, the different melodies of life, their pains and strains: the thousand and one ways of living and speaking, thinking and creating, eating, working, dancing, playing, loving, suffering, and celebrating that we have discovered over so many thousands of years.

A further notion is that using terms such as ‘undeveloped’ implies that these countries are inferior and need help, it justifies intervention when this may not be wanted/ be perceived as interference.

Another, but substantially different, Third World approach to development was offered by the theory of self-reliance, put forward by Tanzanian President Julius Nyerere in 1967. The basic idea was self-reliance, or autonomy. It drew on the ideas of Mahatma Gandhi, who proposed a non-exploitative moral economics in which each level of society, from individual through village to state took only what was necessary and accumulation was perceived to be negative.

Case Study: The Island of Anuta

The island of Anuta, part of the Solomon Islands (population 300) seems pretty idyllic, but would these people be better off if they followed an industrial-capitalist model of development?

I first ‘discovered’ the island of Anuta thanks to the excellent BBC series Tribe, broadcast over a decade ago now. If you can track it down, the DVD is well worth a watch to see how things have changed for the islanders over the last decade.

Review Questions 

  • Outline some of the differences between the least and most developed countries on earth.
  • Explain where the terms ‘first world’, ‘second world’ and ‘third world’ came from, and some of the limitations of these concepts.
  • Outline three criticisms of ‘Western’ ideas of development

 

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Modernism and Postmodernism – What’s the Difference?

Modernism and Postmodernism – What’s the difference?

The table below is taken from David Harvey’s Condition of Postmodernity (in turn taken from Hassan 1985). Harvey suggests that its a useful tool which helps us to see how postmodernity is, in some ways, a reaction to modernity. I cut out a few of the more hectic comparisons and left in the easier to understand ones (having said that, it’s still pretty hectic!) 

Modernism

romanticism/ symbolism

form (conjunctive, closed)

purpose

design

hierarchy

mastery/ logos

 

art object/ finished work

distance

creation/ totalisation/ synthesis

 

presence

centring

genre/ boundary

semantics

paradigm

metaphor

selection

 

root/ depth

interpretation/ reading

signified

narrative/ grand history

master code

type

genital/ phallic

paranoia

 

origin/ cause

God the Father

metaphysics

determinacy

transcendence

Postmodernism

paraphysics/ Dadaism

antiform (disjunctive, open)

play

chance

anarchy

exhaustion/ silence

 

process/ performance/ happening

participation

decreation/ deconstruction/ antithesis

 

absence

dispersal

text/ intertext

rhetoric

syntagm

metonymy

combination

 

rhizome/ surface

against interpretation/ misreading

signifier

anti-narrative/ small history

idiolect

mutant

polymorphous/ androgynous

schizophrenia

 

difference-difference/ trace

The Holy Ghost

irony

indeterminacy

immanence

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Theory and Methods for A Level Sociology: The Basics

An overview of theory and methods for second year A level sociology – a very brief overview covering the bare-bones of (1) Positivism and Interpretivism, (2) Is sociology a sicence?, (3) Sociology and value freedom, (4) Functionalism, (5) Marxism, (6) Feminism, (7) Social action theory, (8) Post and late modernism, (9) Sociology and social policy. 

0-sociological-theories
Theory and Methods for A Level Sociology

1.  Positivism and Interpretivism

  • Positivist approaches to social research are quantitative, ‘scientific’, objective.
  • Durkhiem’s suicide is an example of a positivist study
  • Interpretivists criticise Positivist’s reliance on statistics (they are socially constructed)
  • Interpretivist approaches to social research = qualitative, empathetic, micro
  • Key example = Douglas’ study of the multiple meanings of suicide.
  • Positivists criticise Interpretivist research because it’s too subjective, not authoritative.

2. Is Sociology a science?

  • Key features of the scientific method = the experiment, objectivity, cause and effect relationships, making predictions.
  • Positivism = a scientific approach applied to society – Durkheim’s suicide as an example.
  • Interpretivist criticisms of the scientific method applied to society – humans are conscious actors, they cannot be understood using detached, quantitative methods
  • Criticisms of the ‘objectivity’ of science and the scientific method – Kuhn’s paradigm critique is especially important.
  • Realism – we can still usefully study society as an open system, rather than just focussing on individuals – for example we can still make general predictions about social behaviour based on statistical trends, even if we can’t predict exactly what that action will be or who, specifically will do what.
  • Postmodern views of science – the idea that ‘truth’ is no longer possible.

3. Can Sociology be value free?

  • Values = people’s own subjective beliefs and opinions. If social research is value free then it means that it is free of the personal biases of the researcher.
  • Positivism – Claimed that sociology could be value free using scientific methods which meant the researcher was as detached as possible.
  • Interpretivists criticise this – values creep into the quantitative research process – through the social construction of statistics for example.
  • Moreover – Interpretivists say we need to understand people’s values to understand how they act! However, it is harder to remain value free when doing qualitative research.
  • Weber argued that we could collect objective date on people’s values but we needed to be explicit about our own values all the way through the research process.
  • Some sociologists criticise ‘institutional sociology’ for being limited in scope, and argue we need a political, explicitly value laden sociology to counter-balance this.
  • For example Howard Becker argued sociologists should take the side of the underdog and give them a voice – this is an explicitly value-laden sociology
  • Marxist and Feminist sociology is also value laden in its choice of research topic – Sociology should be aimed at achieving political
  • Postmodernists believe objective knowledge is not possible, so all we can do is deconstruct knowledge, and criticise people who claim to have value-free, objective knowledge.
  • Late Modernists such as Giddens criticise at least one aspect of postmodernism – there are still objective social problems, such as global warming, migration, global inequality, which sociology needs to focus on.
  • However, constructing objective knowledge is a problem in contemporary sociology because knowledge is reflexive – it is part of the society it comes from – thus we need to careful to make our own value and opinions clear throughout the research process so that others can make an informed judgement about the usefulness of our research. That’s just the way it is!

4. Functionalism

  • Durkheim’s functionalism – social facts and anomie
  • Parson’s systems theory – the organic analogy and social evolution
  • Merton’s internal critique of functionalism – latent and manifest functions
  • Functionalism applied to the family – Murdock’s four universal functions, Parson’s functional fit theory and the two irreducible functions of the family – socialisation and the stabilisation of adult personalities
  • Functionalism applied to education – meritocracy, social solidarity, school as a bridge between home and society (particularistic and universalistic values)
  • Functionalism applied to Crime and Deviance – Durkheim’s three positive functions of crime, strain theory, consensus subcultural theories.
  • Functionalism and Modernisation Theory – Parson’s traditional and modern values and the evolutionary model of society
  • Functionalism and research methods – Durkheim’s Positivist approach to suicide

5. Marxism

  • Karl Marx – the basics: bourgeoisie and proletariat, exploitation, alienation, false consciousness, revolution.
  • Gramsci’s humanistic Marxism – hegemony, dual consciousness and organic intellectuals
  • Althusser’s structuralist Marxism – the repressive state apparatus.
  • Marxism applied to the Family – capitalism, private property and the family, The family as a safe haven, ideological functions, also see Marxist Feminism
  • Marxism applied to education – the ideological state apparatus, reproduction of class inequality, legitiimation of class inequality, correspondence principle
  • Marxism applied to Crime and Deviance – • Private Property and Crime, The costs of Corporate Crime, Selective Law Enforcement, Criminogenic Captialism („Dog Eat Dog“ Society)
  • Marxism applied to Global Development – Colonialism and Slavery, The Modern World System, Unfair trade rules, TNC exploitation
  • Marxism and Research Methods – Social Class, Comparative Analysis, Objectivity/ Critical Research.

6. Feminism

  • Liberal Feminism – does not seek revolutionary changes: they want changes to take place within the existing structure; the creation of equal opportunities is the main aim of liberal feminists – e.g. the Sex Discrimination Act and the Equal Pay Act
  • Marxist Feminism – capitalism rather than patriarchy is the principal source of women’s oppression, and capitalists as the main beneficiaries, through the housewife role for example; overthrowing capitalism remains the main objective.
  • Radical Feminism – Society is patriarchal, dominated and ruled by men – men are the ruling class, and women the subject class. Rape, violence and pornography some of the key tools through which men control women; separatism can be part of the solution.
  • Difference Feminism – women are not a homogenous group, they experience disadvantage in different ways.
  • Postmodern Feminism – critiqued preceding Feminist theory as being part of the masculinist Enlightenment Project; concerned with language (discourses) and the relationship between power and knowledge rather than ‘politics and opportunities‘.

7. Social Action Theory

  • Max Weber: Verstehen, and Social Change – observation alone is not enough to understand human action, we need empathetic understanding. Gaining Verstehen is the main point of Sociology, e.g. The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism).
  • Symbolic Interactionism – people’s self-concepts based on their understanding of how others perceive them (the looking glass self); need to understand meanings to understanding actions;  social roles are not specific or fixed; they can be interpreted in various different ways.
  • Goffman’s Dramaturgical Theory – People are actors on a ‘social stage’ who actively create an impression of themselves
  • Labeling Theory – the definitions (meanings) people impose on situations or on other people can have real consequences (even if those definitions are not based in reality)

8. Post Modernism and Late Modernism

Postmodernism

  • Economy and Politics = Industrial economies, jobs for life; Nation State, most people vote and are in trades unions; Organised/ Heavy Capitalism and the Welfare State
  • Society/ Culture reflects the underlying class and patriarchal structures; Nuclear family the norm, marriage for life; Identities shaped/ constrained by class position/ sex; Media – one way communication, reflects ‘reality’
  • Knowledge – The Enlightenment – Science/ Objective Knowledge/ Truth and Progress
  • Sociology – Positivism/ Functionalism – doing research to find how societies function and gradually building a better world; Marxism/ Feminism –emancipation.

Late Modernism

  • Economy/ Politics  = Post-Industrial, service sector, portfolio workers and consumption is central; Declining power of the Nation State; Disorganised Capitalism/ Liquid Capitalism (Bauman)
  • Society/ Culture – Culture is free from structure – it is more Diverse and Fragmented ; Relationships more diverse; More Individual Freedom to shape identities; Media – more global, two- way, hyperreality (Baudrillard)
  • Knowledge – Critique of the Enlightenment; Incredulity towards Metanarratives (Lyotard)
  • Sociology – Narrative histories; Deconstruction (Lyotard) and Destabilising Theory.

9. Sociology and social policy

  • Intro – Social policy = things the government does to steer society in some way. Examples include taxation which affects wealth distribution, various education policies and policies about how to tackle crime
  • There are several reasons why governments may ignore certain findings of research – e.g. lack of money; Marxists and Feminists believe governments generally have an ideological bias which mean they ignore certain research findings.
  • Positivists believe researchers should collect objective knowledge to assess the impact of social policies and to help introduce new policies
  • Social Democratic Perspectives generally agree with the above.
  • The New Right and Neoliberals – have had most influence on social policy recently – e.g. The education system/ crime policy and in International Development
  • Marxist approaches to social policy – prefer policies which favour the redistribution of wealth and promote equality of opportunity, such as the abolition of private schools.
  • Feminist approaches to social policy – prefer policies which emphasis gender equality, such as the Paternity Act.
  • Postmodernists focus on deconstruction rather than social policies
  • Late Modernists emphasise the importance and challenges of developing and evaluating social policies in an age of globalisation.

If you like this sort of thing, then you might like my social theory revision notes – available for cheap on iTunes.

social-theory-revision-notes

You might also like my ‘Theory and Methods Mind Maps’ – 11 Beautiful mind maps covering the above material, available for cheap on Selfy.

sociological-theories mind maps

 

Related Posts 

Please see my ‘Social Theories Page‘ For more links to a whole range of posts – both summary and in depth on various social theories relevant to both A level sociology and beyond!

Sources Used 

The content in this post has been derived from the four major ‘A’ Level sociology text books and the AQA specification.

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Max Weber’s Social Action Theory

Max Weber (1864-1920) was one of the founding fathers of Sociology. Weber saw both structural and action approaches as necessary to developing a full understanding of society and social change. In one of his most important works ‘Economy and Society’, first published in the 1920s, he said ‘Sociology is a science concerning itself with interpretive understanding of social action and thereby with a causal explanation of its course and consequences.’

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Max Weber – NOT a happy bunny

 

For the purposes of A level Sociology we can reduce Weber’s extensive contribution to Sociology to three things – firstly he argued that ‘Verstehen’ or empathatic understanding is crucial to understanding human action and social change, a point which he emphasised in his classic study ‘The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism’; secondly, he believed we could make generalisations about the basic types of motivation for human action (there are four basic types) and thirdly, he still argued that structure shaped human action, because certain societies or groups encourage certain general types of motivation (but within these general types, there is a lot of variation possible).

Social Action and Verstehen

Weber argued that before the cause of an action could be ascertained you had to understand the meaning attached to it by the individual. He distinguished between two types of understanding.

First he referred to Aktuelles Verstehen – or direct observational understanding, where you just observe what people are doing. For example, it is possible to observe what people are doing – for example, you can observe someone chopping wood, or you can even ascertain (with reasonable certainty) someone’s emotional state from their body language or facial expression. However, observational understanding alone is not sufficient to explain social action.

The second type of understanding is Eklarendes Verstehen – or Empathetic Understanding – in which sociologists must try to understand the meaning of an act in terms of the motives that have given rise to it. This type of understanding would require you to find out why someone is chopping wood – Are they doing it because they need the firewood, are they just clearing a forest as part of their job, are they working off anger, just doing it because they enjoy it? To achieve this Weber argued that you had to get into the shoes of people doing the activity.

 The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism

protestant-ethicIn this famous work, Weber argued that a set of religious ideas were responsible for the emergence of Capitalism in Northern Europe in the 16-17th century. Weber argued that we need to understand these ideas and how they made people think about themselves in order to understand the emergence of Capitalism. (NB The emergence of Capitalism is one the most significant social changes in human history)

The video below, from the School of Life, offers a useful summary of Max Weber’s ideas about the emergence of Capitalism

Weber’s Four Types of Action (and types of society)

Max Weber didn’t just believe that individuals shape society – societies encourage certain types of motive for action – for example, the religion of Calvinism encouraged people to save money, which eventually led to capitalism

Weber believes that there are four ideal types of social actions. Ideal types are used as a tool to look at real cases and compare them to the ideal types to see where they fall. No social action is purely just one of the four types.

  1. Traditional Social Action: actions controlled by traditions, “the way it has always been done”
  2. Affective Social Action: actions determined by one’s specific affections and emotional state, you do not think about the consequences
  3. Value Rational Social Action: actions that are determined by a conscious belief in the inherent value of a type of behavior (ex: religion)
  4. Instrumental-Rational Social Action: actions that are carried out to achieve a certain goal, you do something because it leads to a result

To illustrate these different types of action consider someone “going to school” in terms of these four ideal types: Traditionally, one may attend college because her grandparents, parents, aunts, and uncles have as well. They wish to continue the family tradition and continue with college as well. When relating to affective, one may go to school just because they enjoy learning. They love going to college whether or not it will make them broke. With value rational, one may attend college because it’s a part of his/her religion that everyone must receive the proper education. Therefore, this person attends college for that reason only. Finally, one may go to college because he/she may want an amazing job in the future and in order to get that job, he/she needs a college degree.

Max Weber was particularly interested in the later of these – he believed that modern societies encouraged ‘Instrumental-Action’ – that is we are encouraged to do things in the most efficient way (e.g. driving to work) rather than thinking about whether driving to work is the right thing to do (which would be value-rational action.

Weber believed that modern societies were obsessed with efficiency – modernizing and getting things done, such that questions of ethics, affection and tradition were brushed to one side – this has the consequence of making people miserable and leading to enormous social problems. Weber was actually very depressed about this and had a mental breakdown towards the end of his life.

Evaluations of Max Weber’s Social Action Theory

  • Positive – He recognised that we need to understand individual meanings to understand how societies change (unlike Marxism)
  • Negative – Still too much focus on society shaping the individual – symbolic interactionism argues that individuals have more freedom to shape their identities.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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My Top Ten Fictional Films with Sociology Content

Films are a great way to teach sociological theories and concepts – and there’s lots of films out there which do just that.

In no particular order…. (And links to analysis to follow)

  1. Fight Club – The most obvious reading is of this as a classic critique of the false consciousness and alienation the working classes suffer under consumer capitalism, but no doubt there are other interpretations out there.
  2. A Bug’s Life –  Useful for illustrating basic Marxist concepts.
  3. Black Mirror: The National Anthem – Charlie Brooker’s short film – The Prime Minister has to have sex with a pig live on T.V. to save the life of the nation’s princess whose been kidnapped. This is the best film, hands down, to convey the meaning of ‘hyperreality’.
  4. Catfish – About a guy that meets a girl on Facebook, and on taking a trip across the States to meets her realises she’s not as good looking as her photos suggested. Most people who’ve gone on a date can relate to this, just maybe not to this extreme. (P.S. I’m calling it fiction, I simply don’t believe it wasn’t set up, just don’t tell the kids before you show it them.)
  5. Lord of War – A nice introduction to the module on Global Development – Set over a ten year period from the mid ‘80s to the mid ‘90s Nicholas Cage plays an arms dealer who comes into own selling ex-Soviet military hard-ware to African Dictators and rebels. Quite a nice introduction to the history of international conflict post Cold-War
  6. Hotel Rwanda – A bit slow, and a not so nice introduction to Global Development – set around the Rwandan Genocide – Especially useful if you are going to teach conflict as an aspect of development given the ongoing concerns in neighbouring DRC in 2012-13
  7. The Freedom Writers – Based on a true story a teacher encourages her marginalised, mostly ethnic minority students to get into literature by telling their stories in diaries. It may be based in ‘90’s America, but you find another film that’s about education and research methods and I’ll eat my diary.
  8. Visitor Q – O.K. It’s an 18, so I’m not recommending you show this to your teenage students in class – but let’s just say if you thought gay marriage was contentious or divorce-extended families somewhat unusual, by the standards of the family in this little gem, the rest of us are all pretty much singing from the same song sheet.
  9. Threads – Really not that much to do with anything I teach, but this is simply the most harrowing movie I’ve ever seen. The fact that it’s set in the in Sheffield in the 1980s is scary enough for starters, and it gets worse as it imagines what a real life nuclear holocaust would actually be like. Unlike most other films there is no happy ending, so if you have a burning hatred for a particular class or have just had a stressful year and want to end the term by putting the students on a downer – this is the video to choose.
  10. Kung fu Panda – Simply the best film ever made period. Richly layered with many levels of meaning, and deeply, deeply moving.
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Summary of Liquid Modernity – Chapter Two – Individuality

blueI’m presently enjoying re-reading Bauman’s major works – I thought offering up my summaries might be useful to some students. I will eventually further summarise/ comment/ critique, but in the meantime.. the raw summary of chapter two of Liquid Modernity….

Bauman begins by pointing out that Huxley’s and Orwell’s dystopias were very much products of their time. Although they clearly had their differences, what they both shared in common was a fear of individual freedom being reduced to a sham ; both felt the world was heading in the direction of an ever increasing split between remote controllers and the controlled. Just like Plato’s inability to imagine a utopia without slaves, Huxley and Orwell could not imagine a world without a supreme controller’s office. Today’s Liquid Modern society, the type of dystopia imagined by Orwell and Huxley makes no sense.

Capitalism Heavy and Light

In this section, Bauman introduces his by now classic concepts of heavy and light (or liquid) modernity.

He casts ‘heavy capitalism’ as being a like Nigel Swift’s notion of the ‘Joshua discourse’ – centrally organized and rigidly bounded. In heavy Capitalism, order is all important, and to be seen as having legitimate existence, something must serve a purpose that fits the overall end. In such a ‘modern’ system – the system is like God, it is the reason for its existence, and its perpetuation is the goal. Under such a discourse, it was the capitalist managers of business who controlled things – who decided what was rational and what was not, thus determining the range of viable alternatives available to actors.

The world sustaining the Joshua discourse was the Fordist world, which in its heyday was simultaneously a model of industrialisation, of accumulation and of regulation. At a deeper level, the Fordist model was also an epistemological building site – It was about binary oppositions such as manager and managed, design and execution, freedom and obedience.

Heavy Capitalism was fixed to the ground , tied to one place (as in the Fordist factory), it seemed set to stay and it seemed as if there was no alternative to it. Despite the seemingly oppressive nature of this heavy period of history, this at least gave people a sense certainty, predictability and rootedness, and people generally had jobs for life, they knew where they stood, labour could ‘dig in’ and make deals.

All of this solidity is gone under Light Capitalism. NB Bauman here doesn’t actually say much about this concept, possibly in an attempt to mirror the ‘ambiguous nature’ of this current mode?

He limits himself to saying that nowadays capital travels light, it can stop-over almost anywhere, and is no longer has to stay put. Labour, on the other hand, remains as immobilised as it was in the past – but the place it was once fixed to has lost its solidity. Bauman characterises the passengers of ‘Light Capitalism’ as being on an aircraft who have discovered that….

‘to their horror the pilot’s cabin is empty and that there is no way to extract from the mysterious black box.. any information about where the plane is flying, where it is going to land, who is to choose the airport, and whether there are any rules which would allow the passengers to contribute to the safety of their arrival.’

(p59) Have car, can travel

In Heavy Modernity, we new what the ends were, although there may have been some level of uncertainty over the means whereby we should achieve those ends. However Liquid Modernity introduces a new level of uncertainty as we no longer know what the ends are. Furthermore, in the absence of a supreme office, it is now up to the individual to decide what these ends should be.

Since there are now more life experiences than we can experience in a lifetime, even when we achieve something, there is still more to be achieved, and thus in the Liquid Modern society, are always becoming something but never finally arriving finally.

On this note, Bauman offers up a nice quote by Zbyszko Melosik and Tomasz Szudlarek:

‘living amidst apparently infinite chances offers the sweet taste of ‘freedom to become anybody’. This sweetness has a bitter after-taste, though, since while the ‘becoming’ bit suggests that nothing is over yet and everything lies ahead, the condition of ‘being somebody’ which that becoming is meant to secure, portends the umpire’s final end of game whistle: ‘you are no more free when the end has been reached; you are not yourself when you have become somebody’.

This state of unfinishedness, incompletenesss and underdetermination is full of anxiety and risk, but its opposite brings no unadulterated pleasure either, since it forecloses what freedom needs to stay open.

Bauman uses a Buffet Table analogy to describe this world of possibilities….

‘the world full of possibilities is like a buffet table set with mouth-watering dishes, too numerous for the keenest of eaters to hope to taste them all. The diners are consumers and the most taxing and irritating of the challenges consumers confront is the need to establish priorities’ – which dishes to forgo that have never yet been experienced… the means are obvious, but the question of ‘have I used my means to the best advantage’ remains.’

Bauman rounds off this section by pointing out that (or this might be inferring it!) Liquid Modern Capitalism requires consumers…. and there is no objective function of the consumer other than to carry on making choices. To make the choice between what to consume is the telos, the purpose the end goal. This means the consumer can never be wrong. If we accept this role of consumer, this means consigning ourselves to a life of perpetual choice and uncertainty.

(63) Stop Telling Me Show Me

Heavy Fordism had clear authority figures. However, in the new capitalism, these don’t disappear, it’s just there are more of them and none of them hold their power for long.

Bauman now makes the distinction between Heavy Modernity’s authorities as ‘leaders’ and Liquid Modernity’s authorities as ‘counsellors –

 

 

Leaders

Counselors

A by-product and necessary supplement to the world which aimed at the ‘good society’.

Are to be followed, demanding and expecting discipline.

Act as two way translators between individual good and the ‘good of us all’ (between Mill’s private worries and public issues).

Politics with a capital P.

Use the word ‘we’ – offers the possibility of collective solutions to social problems.

Exist in a Liquid Modern World in which there is not only no commitment to the hope of agreeing on the ‘characteristics of the good society’, but where people generally believe that there is no such thing as society.

Are to be hired and fired. Need to earn the right to be heard by currying favor with would-be listeners.

Are wary of stepping beyond the closed doors of the private, and so offer only therapeutic means to fight off private worries – life-politics

politics with a small ‘p’.

After counseling, the private individual is as alone as when he started.

The crucial thing about advice offered by counsellors is that the counselled is always referred to things he can do himself to put him in the right situation. The source of one’s unhappiness is always diffuse, never rooted in society. Solutions offered to personal worries typically come in the form of individual examples…

What people today want is a living example of how they can solve their own problems, rather than a leader to tell them. Bauman provides the case of Jane Fonda as an example of one of these ‘examples’. Fonda took responsibility for her own body, treated it like a project, and made her own way, through her own efforts. The message here is ‘I am to blame and to shame if I err.’

Other examples of popular examples are celebrities and Bauman also casts the chat show in a similar light – On chat shows, it is people ‘like me’ who explain their stories. He explains the popularity of chat shows because they are closer to me, and there are more examples to be learnt from. Ultimately, however, chat shows legitimise filling public space with private concerns (that never become public issues).

The current definition of the public sphere seems to be the right of the public to play out their private dramas and the right of the rest of us to watch. As an example of this Bauman reminds us of how we are interested in the private lives of politicians, and much less interested in their political careers and policies.

(p72) Compulsion turned into addiction

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Looking for counsel, guidance and examples becomes an addiction, because no matter how much of these we receive, none ever deliver on their promise of fulfilling us, they all have their use by date, and so we must move onto the next fix. This is similar to the short-lived satisfactions gained through the consumption of products, the satisfaction gained through each materialistic attachment eventually fades, and so we move on to the next one. As a result, we become ‘content’ that we can simply ‘stay in the race’, and abandon any attempt to reach the finish line.

The archetype of staying in the race is shopping – and today this doesn’t just mean going to the mall – pretty much anything we do today takes the form of shopping if, by shopping, we mean scanning the assortment of possibilities, testing, touching, comparing and finally choosing.

To quote Bauman directly…

‘ the avid and never ending search for new and improved examples and recipes for life is also a variety of shopping, and a most important variety, in the twin lessons that our happiness depends on our competence but that we are personally incompetent, or not as competent as we could or should be if we only tried harder.

(On a personal note this sounds like the message we give out to our students on a daily basis at our sixth form college!)

There are so many areas of life in which we now need to be more competent and Bauman now lists the type of things we can shop around for such as job skills; numerous aspects of advice to do with relationships; how to save money; how to cook (cheer’s Jamie); and how to use our time more efficiently (the discourse of time-management is probably the one I find the most irritating.)

Bauman now distinguishes between ‘need’, ‘desire’ and ‘the wish’ to describe how the nature of consumption has changed. He suggests that consumerism has for a long time been more than about just satisfying needs, but has been (for many decades) about satisfying consumers’ self-generated desires. Bauman casts needs as having some kind of objective basis, while desire is subjective, and required considerable resources to be employed by producers to generate. Desire, however, although flightier and shorter-lived than needs had specific objects as its focus, and it was at least rooted in something, but today consumerism has moved beyond this – it is now focused on what Bauman calls ‘the wish’ – which is much more gaseous and spontaneous and rooted in fantasy rather than reality.

To ‘elucidate’ the difference between the desire and the wish –

Desire – is fluid and expandable, based on half-illicit liaisons with fickle and plastic dreams of the authenticity of an ‘inner self’ waiting to be expressed. The facilitation of desire is founded upon comparison, vanity, envy and the ‘need’ for self-approbation.

The Wish – completes the liberation of of the pleasure principle, purging and disposing of the last residues of the ‘reality principle’ impediments… Nothing underlies the immediacy of the wish. The purpose is casual, unexpected and spontaneous. It has a dream like quality of both expressing and fulfilling a wish, and like all wishes, is insincere and childish.

(p76) The Consumer’s Body

The seminal difference between post-modern and modern society is that post-modern society engages its members primarily as consumers rather than producers.

Life organised around the producer’s role tends to be normatively regulated… There are bottoms lines outlining what one needs to survive as a producer, and there are realistic upper limits to ambition which one ‘s peers will make sure are kept within. The major concern in a society of producers is then that of conformity, of settling securely between the upper and lower limits.

‘Life organised around consumption, on the other hand, must do without norms: it is guided by seduction, ever rising desires and volatile wishes – no longer by normative regulation’ – Luxuries make little sense in the society of consumers because the point is to turn today’s luxuries into tomorrows necessities, and to take the waiting out wanting. There is no norm to transform luxuries into needs, and thus the major concern in a consumer society is that of adequacy, or being ever ready to rise to the opportunity as it comes, to be able to respond to new desires as they arise, and get more out of new consumer experiences.

Health was the standard of modern society, while fitness is the standard in the society of consumers.

Health implies coming up to a normative standard that is required to do the work required of you in a society. Being fit, on the other hand requires having a flexible, adaptable body, it means being ready for new, testing experiences. Whereas health is about sticking to the norms, fitness is about smashing through those norms to set (temporarily) new ones.

‘Life organised around fitness. promises a lot of victorious skirmishes but never the final victory. There is no final goal in the pursuit of health. The pursuit of fitness is the state of perpetual self-scrutiny, self-reproach and also self-deprivation, and so continuous anxiety.

The consequences of a society organised around ‘fitness’

Ever new states of the body become the target for medical intervention

second the idea of disease (dis ease) becomes blurred. It is no longer a one off by a perpetual fight.

Finally the meaning of a healthy life never stands still!

(p80) Shopping as a rite of exorcism

This never ending quest calls upon the consumer to be active in their pursuit of maintaining their health. Being healthy does not require abstinence, rather it requires ever more shopping around and staying on top of the latest ‘health trends’.

Common interpretations of shopping around are that this activity is a manifestation of dormant materialistic and hedonistic instincts, but another part, and a necessary complement of all such explanations is that the shopping compulsion-turned-into-addiction is an uphill struggle against acute, nerve-breaking uncertainty and the annoying, stultifying feeling of insecurity.

People shop because they want security, they want certainty, but it is not in the final product they seek security, it is in the very act of shopping, of picking and choosing itself.

(p82) Free to shop – Or so it seems

People think they cannot own the world fully enough, but it appears to them that other people’s lives are fuller than theirs. Distance blurs reality, and other people’s lives seems like works of art, and so we try to make our lives appear as works of art too.

That work of art which we want to mould out of the friable stuff of life is called ‘identity’. Whenever we speak of identity, there is at the back of our minds a faint image of harmony, logic, consistency, all those things which the flow of our experience seems – to our perpetual despair – so grossly and abominably to lack. The search for identity is the ongoing struggle to arrest or slow down the flow, to solidify the fluid, to give form to the formless. We struggle to deny or at least to cover up the awesome fluidity just below the thin wrapping of the form; we try to avert our eyes from sights which they cannot pierce or take in. Yet far from slowing the flow, let alone stopping it, identities are more like the spots of crust hardening time and again before they have time to cool and set. So there is need for another trial, and another – and they can be attempted only by clinging desperately to things solid and tangible and thus promising duration…. In the words of Deleuze and Guattari: ‘Desire constantly couples continuous flow and partial objects that are by nature fragmentary and fragmented.’

Today our identities are volatile, and because of this we increasingly see the ability to shop around in the supermarket of identities and hold it as long as I desire as desirable.

The experienced, lived identity can only be held together with the adhesive of fantasy… and fashion fits the bill here especially well… just the right stuff, at it provides ways of exploring limits without commitment to action. The ultimate freedom is the freedom to have an identity, to be different, with a nod and wink to the idea that we are all playing the game, but because this game requires us to buy into things, we need stuff to express our identities, we are not really free.

And in today’s world the fashions we use to identify ourselves have built in obsolescence, and so we are required to keep on top of things- more effort. (Lasch) As a result we have moved from a Panotopicon to a Synopticon – where spectacles take the place of observers without losing any of the disciplinary power of their predecessor. NB the few used to watch the many, now the many watch the few. This appears in the guise of freewill but it is really not!

In society we and celebrities and experts, we all construct and present fake identities – but sometimes we see interviews (possible on chat shows) which aim to get to the ‘real person’ – this is equally as nonsense, this is a myth…..

In our society notions of authenticity and inauthenticity are moot, because what is more important is the ability to choose, to be on the move, and in such a society.

There are consequences of living in such a society – on the one had there is the uncertainty and anxiety, on the other your ability to shop around depends on your local in society, which is especially bad for the poor, because in a synoptic society of shopping/watching addicts, the poor cannot avert their eyes.

(89) Divided we shop

In a consumer society with an ever faster turnaround of products -each product’s appeal is shorter-lived, this is more of a problem for the poor who cannot afford to keep up with consumer trends, less of a problem for the wealthy. Being wealthy also means you are more able to avoid the negative consequences of your consumption.

He now uses Gidden’s concepts of plastic sexuality, confluent love and the pure relationship to illustrate this – these fluid forms of relationships, when they come to an end, are clearly going to have some who come out of them better than than others, especially where children are involved.

To sum up – the mobility and flexibility of identification which characterises the shopping around type of life are not so much vehicles of emancipation as the instruments of the redistribution of freedom. They are for that reason mixed blessings.

Comments to follow…

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Zygmunt Bauman’s Consuming Life (2007) – A Summary of Chapter One

A summary of Zygmunt Bauman’s Consuming Life (2007) – Chapter One

I use paraphrasing heavily below, so a lot of this is Bauman’s own words, just cut down a lot and also simplified in places. Love the guy’s literary style but it doesn’t always result in accessibility. The chapter is broken up into about nine sub sections, but I’ve knitted a few of the ideas together below to condense these into

Chapter One – Consumerism versus Consumption

1.1 – The basic characteristics of consumer society

The chapter only briefly deals with consumption – which is part of all societies – at the beginning, the remaining 90% deals with consumerism, or the unique features of the consumer society, which emerges with the decline of the society of producers some years after WW2.

Consumerism describes that society in which wanting has become the principal propelling and operating force which coordinates systemic reproduction, social integration, social stratification and the formation of identity and life-policies.

In consumer society wanting, desiring and longing needs to be, just as labour capacity was in the producers’ society, detached (‘alienated’) from individuals and recycled/reified into an extraneous force.

In the previous society of producers desires were always, after deferred gratification, eventually meant to be satisfied.Moreover, the function of objects of consumption, once acquired, was to provided a sense of durability and long-term security. In contrast, the consumer society associates happiness with an ever rising volume and intensity of desires, which imply in turn prompt use and speedy replacement of the objects intended and hoped to gratify them.

Consumer society has the following characteristics (my numbering)

  1. An instability of desires and insatiability of needs – Consumer society thrives when we want more and when those wants have a high turnover rate – i.e when the goods we buy provide satisfaction for a limited time period only.

  2. The desire for Immediate gratification – which has given rise to a ‘Nowist culture’ – or a curiously hurried life. However, because today’s products only have a limited life span and a stigma once its date is reached the motive to hurry is only partly the urge to acquire and collect, the most pressing need is to discard and replace.

  3. Pointillist time – Time is experienced as ‘broken up, or even pulverised, into a multitude of ‘eternal instants’ episodes which are not connected to each other. Bauman suggests that these episodes are like ‘Big bangs’ – they are pregnant with possibilities of magnficent things happening, however these moments rarely live up to their promise and it is in fact the excess of promises which counters each promise not lived up to.

1.2 How the consumer society effects our worldview/ inner pysche/ general way of seeing the world.

In the consumerist economy product innovations grow at an exponential rate and there is increasing competition for attention. This results in a flood of information which we cannot cope with which manifests itself in vertical stacking (think multiple windows on the go at the same time).

Images of ‘linear time’ and ‘progress’ are among the most prominent victims of the information flood: when growing amounts of information are distributed at growing speed, it becomes increasingly difficult to create narratives, orders, developmental sequences. The fragments threaten to become hegemonic.

This in turn has consequences for the ways we relate to knowledge, work and lifestyle in a wide sense.

Firstly this results in a blase attitude toward knowledge – the essence of which is the blunting of discrimination

Secondly it results in melancholy – To be ‘melancholic’ is ‘to sense the infinity of connection, but be hooked up to nothing’ – a disturbance resulting from the fatal encounter between the obligation and compulsion to choose and the inability to choose. (This seems like an evolution of the concept of anomie)

The crucial skill in information society consists in protecting oneself against the 99.99 per cent of the information offered that one does not want.

1.3 The consumer society promises but fundamentally fails to make us happy

The society of consumers stands and falls by the happiness of its members

It is, in fact, the only society in human history to promise happiness in earthly life, and happiness here and now and in every successive now – also the only society which refrains from legitimizing unhappiness.

However, judged by its own standards it is woefully unsuccessful at increasing happiness.

Bauman now draws on research carried out by Richard Layard to remind us that once average income rises above approximately $20K per head then there is no evidence whatsoever that further growth in the volume of consumption results in a greater number of people reporting that they ‘feel happy’.

In fact a consumption-oriented economy actively promotes disaffection, saps confidence and deepens the sentiment of insecurity, becoming itself a source of the ambient fear it promises to cure or disperse.

While consumer society rests its case on the promise to gratify human desires, the promise of satisfaction remains seductive only as long as the desire stays ungratified. Clever!

A low threshold for dreams, easy access to sufficient goods to reach that threshold, and a belief in objective limits to ‘genuine’ needs and ‘realistic’ desires: these are the most fearsome adversaries of the consumer-oriented economy.

Consumer society thrives as long as it manages to render the non-satisfaction of its members (and so, in its own terms, their unhappiness) perpetual.

Necessary strategies to maintain this involve hyping a product to the hilt and then soon after denigrating it and creating goods and services such that they require further purchases to be made – so that consumption becomes a compulsion, an addiction and shoppers are encouraged to find solutions to their problems only in the shopping malls.

The realm of hypocrisy stretching between popular beliefs and the realities of consumers’ lives is a necessary condition of a properly functioning society of consumers.

In addition to being an economics of excess and waste, consumerism is also an economics of deception.

1.4 Individualised life-strategies are the principle means whereby consumer society neutralises dissent.

The society of consumers has developed, to an unprecedented degree, the capacity to absorb all and any dissent. It does this through a process which Thomas Mathiesen has recently described as ‘silent silencing’

In other words all ideas threatening to the existing order are integrated into it.

The principle means whereby this is done is through individualisation – whereby individual life strategies become the route to Utopia to only be enjoyed by the individual – changing lifestyle, not society.

To follow the metaphor used by schoolboy Karl Marx, those visions are attracted like moths to the lights of domestic lamps rather than to the glare of the universal sun now hidden beyond the horizon.

The possibility of populating the world with more caring people and inducing people to care more does not figure in the panoramas painted in the consumerist utopia.

The privatized utopias of the cowboys and cowgirls of the consumerist era show instead vastly expanded ‘free space’ (free for myself, of course); a kind of empty space of which the liquid modern consumer, bent on solo performances and only on solo performances, always needs more and never has enough.

Lifestyle strategies smack of adiaphorisation – removing sense of moral responsibility for others.

Related Posts 

Consuming Life – A Summary of Chapter 2

If you like this sort of thing – then why not my book?

Early Retirement Strategies for the Average Income Earner, or A Critique of Curiously Ordinary Life of the Everyday Worker-Consumer

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Retirement Cover5

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Gender Equality in Saudi Arabia

Saudi Arabia is well known for its high levels of gender inequality – and this week, Janice Turner pointed out that it is the only nation, in ‘flagrant disregard of the Olympic Charter, that will not be sending any women to the games. The rational for this is that exercise, according to the Saudi Religious Police, prompts girls to wear scanty clothes, mix with men and leave the house ‘unnecessarily’. (I got this from The Week – I wouldn’t post a link to The Times in any case because of its pay wall)

Turner points out that there is precedent for banning Saudi Arabia from the Olympics – as happened in 2000 with the Taliban, and as happens to any country practising Racial rather than gender apartheid.

This gender apartheid is well documented – even if not widely publicised – Just some of the ways in which women are oppressed in Saudi Arabia include

  • Women are generally expected to wear the full Hijab in public – with only the eyes and hands being visible.
  • There is a strict policy of sex segregation in public places – including work places and restaurants, with facilities often being of a lesser quality than for men.
  • Even though women’s literacy is high compared to some countries, educational opportunities are heavily gendered – with women being effectively prohibited from studying traditionally male subjects such as engineering and law – 97% of Female degrees are in education or the social sciences, which are deemed to be suitable for women.
  • Women are not allowed to travel without being accompanied by a male relative – resulting in their Being banned from driving – Saudi Arabia is the only country in the world to do so – which has actually led to a Facebook campaign and women posting videos of themselves driving
  • Finally, there is the possibility of being lashed and sent to jail for committing adultery – even if the victim of a gang rape

All of this is pretty grim from the perspective of most people in the West, and serves to illustrate numerous themes in Sociology –

Firstly, Saudi Arabia has to be one of the best examples of overt patriarchy preventing women from having equal opportunities with men – and thus shows us the continued relevance of Feminism globally.  Of course you might take issue with this and argue that there are some pros to Saudi society too, but from the straightforward perspective of gender equality – women are clearly not equal with men.

Secondly, it demonstrates the limits of ‘Cultural Globalisation’ – clearly Liberal, or any type of Feminism, hasn’t effectively penetrated the boarders of this country.

Thirdly, Saudi Arabia is a very good example of the problems of relying on the standard statistical indicators of development –  Saudi Arabia has a GNI per capita (PPP) of just over $23 000, ranking 56th in the world, and has a correspondingly high HDI (nearly – 0.8) – also ranking 56th.

However, on the ‘Gender Equality Index’, which compares the male-female rates of things such as political involvement, years in school, and the number of men and women in work, Saudi Arabia drops down to 135th (or thereabouts – I may’ve lost count!). Saudi Arabia must be the country that shows the biggest gap between its GNI/ HDI and it’s level of Gender Inequality.

I should just mention that things are on the up – women will be able to vote for the firs time in 2015, and are much more likely to be allowed to study abroad, for example, than in previous decades, but this relative liberalisation may not last forever, and, in any case, by the standards of gender equality in the west, Saudi Arabia has a long way to go until it rids itself of its gender apartheid.