Stratification is one of the core themes within A level Sociology and Sociology more generally. One of the major sources of stratification is found in differences between wealth and income within the UK. According to various sources of statistics (of course you should always question where these come from!) the UK is one of the most unequal countries in the developed world, and this is something I like to bang on about a lot. Below are a few handy infographics which illustrate the extent of wealth and income inequality in the UK.
This first infographic from the excellent Equality Trust (authors of The Spirit Level) provides a nice general overview. The headline figure is quite easy to remember – the top o.1% earn about 100 times more than the bottom 90%, and the ratio is roughly the same for the earnings of a CEO of a FTSE 100 company compared to the average UK income.
2. This infographic from Income Inequality Briefing reminds us that the wages of the richest have increased, while the relative wages of the poorest have decreased in real terms.
3. This third infographic, again from the Inequality Briefing, looks at things regionally – Basically I think it tells us that the wealthiest region (London) is twice as wealthy in terms of wages as the poorest (up north somewhere or Welsh valleys). It also reminds us that the UK is one of the most unequal countries in Europe. Basically the average income in London is double the average income in the West Midlands.
4. This final infographic from the Office for National Statistics at least reminds us that taxation and benefits do help to reduce income inequality to an extent. Before tax and benefits the richest 20% of households are 14 times richer than the poorest, but after tax and benefits, the ratio reduces 4. NB1 – If you were comparing the richest 10% with the poorest 10% the difference would be larger. NB2 remember that most people who receive benefit are actually in work, and benefits (e.g. housing benefit) tops up their low wages.
Argues that crime is a result of people being socialised into expecting success but not achieving this success due to limited opportunities.
Strain Theory argues that crime occurs when there aren’t enough legitimate opportunities for people to achieve the normal success goals of a society. In such a situation there is a ‘strain’ between the goals and the means to achieve those goals, and some people turn to crime in order to achieve success.
Strain Theory was first developed by Robert Merton in the 1940s to explain the rising crime rates experienced in the USA at that time. Strain theory has become popular with Contemporary sociologists.
Merton argued that the cultural system of the USA was built on the ‘American Dream’ – a set of meritocratic principles which assured the American public that equality of opportunity was available to all, regardless of class, gender or ethnicity. The ‘American Dream’ encouraged individuals to pursue a goal of success which was largely measured in terms of the acquisition of wealth and material possessions. People were expected to pursue this goal through legitimate means such as education and work. The dominant cultural message was if you are ambitious, talented and work hard, then income and wealth should be your rewards.
However Merton pointed out that these goals were not attainable by all, that the structural organisation of the USA mean that the means to get on were not fairly distributed and it was difficult, if not impossible for some to compete an achieve financial success.
Merton developed the concept of ‘anomie’ to describe this imbalance between cultural goals and institutionalised means. He argued that such an imbalanced society produces anomie – there is a strain or tension between the goals and means which produce unsatisfied aspirations.
Merton argued that when individuals are faced with a gap between their goals (usually finances/money related) and their current status, strain occurs. When faced with strain, people have five ways to adapt:
1. Conformity: pursing cultural goals through socially approved means.
2. Innovation: using socially unapproved or unconventional means to obtain culturally approved goals. Example: dealing drugs or stealing to achieve financial security.
3. Ritualism: using the same socially approved means to achieve less elusive goals (more modest and humble).
4. Retreatism: to reject both the cultural goals and the means to obtain it, then find a way to escape it.
5. Rebellion: to reject the cultural goals and means, then work to replace them.
Explaining the Higher Rates of Offending Among Lower Social Classes
Merton developed his theory from a well-established observation from official statistics – that a higher proportion of acquisitive crime is committed by those from unskilled manual backgrounds (or ‘lower social classes’).
Merton noted that American society promoted material success as a ‘legitimate goal’, and encouraged self-discipline and hard work as the ‘legitimate means’ of pursuing that goal, with the idea that any individual, irrespective of their background could, with sufficient effort, achieve material success.
HOWEVER, Merton argued that for those from lower social classes, this ‘dream’ had become an ideology, masking the fact that the legitimate opportunities are not available to all, and worse, those who failed to achieve success via legitimate means were condemned for their apparent lack of effort.
This situation puts great pressure on people to achieve material success by illegitimate means (acquisitive crime) to avoid being branded a failure.
In short, Merton argued that America was a highly unequal and divided society which promoted goals that only some of its population could realistically hope to achieve. Many young, working class men especially had internalised the desire to achieve material success (they wanted cars and nice clothes for example), but the only way they could meet these goals was through crime.
Thus, it is not so much the individual’s flaws that lead them to crime, but rather ‘anomie’ in society – the combination of the pressure to be materially successful and the lack of legitimate opportunities to achieve that success.
Criticisms of Strain Theory
Firstly, not all working class individuals turn to crime, and so we need something else to explain why some of them do and some of them do not. Subcultural theorists argued that the role of working class subcultures plugs this gap in the explanation – deviant subcultures provide rewards for individuals who commit crime.
Secondly, Merton’s reliance on official statistics means he over-estimates the extent of working class crime and underestimates the extent of middle class, or white collar crime.
Thirdly, Strain theory only really explains economic crime, it doesn’t really explain violent crime.
Marxists point out that lack of equality of opportunity is at the heart of the Capitalist system. (Elites make the system work for them, which disadvantages the lower classes).
The Continuing Relevance of Strain Theory
Merton’s strain theory is an important contribution to the study of crime and deviance – in the 1940s it helped to explain why crime continued to exist in countries, such as America, which were experiencing increasing economic growth and wealth.
Baumer and Gustafson (2007) analysed official data sets in the USA and found that instrumental crime rates were higher in areas where there was a ‘high commitment to money success’ alongside a ‘weak commitment to legitimate means’..
It is possible to apply Merton’s theory of anomie to explain White Collar Crime – white collar criminals (those who commit fraud at work, for example) might be those who are committed to achieving material success, but have had their opportunities for promotion blocked by lack of opportunities – possible through class, gender or ethnic bias, or possible just by the simple fact that the higher up the career ladder you go, the more competition for promotion there is.
The (2009) applies Merton’s strain theory to explain rising crime rates during a period of economic growth in Malaysia, suggesting we can apply this theory to developing countries and that a ‘general theory of crime’ may thus be possible.
Philip Bourgeois (1996) In search of respect shows us that some of the most despised criminals have actually internalised Merton’s success goals.
Carl Nightingale: On the Edge – Carl Nightingale developed Merton’s Strain Theory, applying it to inner city youths in the 1990s
Giddens and Sutton (2017) Essential Concepts in Sociology
This post offers a useful discussion and evaluation of Strain Theory
While most sociologists agree that modern society is more fragmented and uncertain, they disagree with some elements of post-modernism
a. Lyotard’s idea about the collapse of grand narratives can be criticised because it is itself a ‘grand narrative’
b. Frederick Jamieson argued that Post-Modernism is the ‘cultural logic of late capitalism’ – In the same way as modernist social theories are products of modernity – so post-modernism is a product of advanced capitalism – Capitalism has produced a world of fantastical objects and lifestyles – which invites those of lucky enough to be able to afford it to play rather than worry about the conditions under which our goods and services are produced – Post-modern thought which focuses on ‘how we play’ rather than worrying about the big problems that face us (poverty etc) could be seen as being similar to what the Transnational Capitalist Class want of us – that we identify ourselves as consumers and play rather than worry about the ‘dual logics of exploitation’ (people and planet) that lie behind the productive processes of late-Capitalism.
c. Zygmunt Bauman argues that it is Capitalism that has produced this unstable post-modern world in which we live…And It tends to be the poor that experience instability in a negative way (think refugees) while the rich experience it in a positive way (we can ‘play in our consumer playground and avoid the worst bits of the world). If we want a better world we need to figure out a way of being more in control of what kind of world we are creating, rather than just accepting our fate as consumers and playing like little children. Lyotar’ds idea that now we are ‘free from the tyranny of metanarratives’ that’s as good it gets’ denies our capacity as humans to act collectively for the common good.
d. Building on the above – thinkers on the left argue that p-m is a middle class, intellectual view point – a luxury of the chattering class – the new proletariat in the developing world may not see the relevance of post-modernism to their lives.
e. Social thought that focuses on how we construct our identities in a world of hyper-reality is uncritical. One might argue that it suffers from a ‘myopia of the visible’. Just because the world appears more fragmented, and just because our media-mediated world is removed from reality doesn’t mean there isn’t a reality out there that needs to be understood – Lets face it once the oil runs out and three quarters of the planet is dying because of global warming ‘actual reality’ might once again begin to seem to be more real than hyper reality.
Neoliberalism is a pro-capitalist economic theory which believes that the ‘free market’ in capitalist economies is the best basis for organising society. Free market economies are based upon the choices individuals make when spending their money. The general principle is that if you ‘leave everything to the market’, then businesses will provide what people demand – because businesses want to make a profit and they can’t make a profit if they don’t provide what people want.
Market forces also encourage competition – when people see high demand for a product, they are encouraged to produce and sell that product – and the better product they can make and the cheaper they can sell it for, then the more profit they make.
According to Neoliberalism – the advantages of a free-market system are as follows:
Individual Freedom – They are based on the principle of allowing individuals to be free to pursue their own self-interest – this is seen as the best way to pursue the maximum good in society.
They are efficient – businesses try to be efficient in order to maximise profit.
Innovation – Competition and the profit motive encourage people to produce new products to stimulate demand – we probably wouldn’t have had the iPad without Capitalism!
Economic Growth and jobs – The end result of leaving businesses free to do do business is more wealth and more jobs.
Neoliberalism and Social Policy
Neoliberals believe that governments should play a reduced role in managing the economy and in controlling people’s lives. In Neoliberal thought, the free market knows best, and individuals should be allowed as much freedom as possible to go about their businesses should be allowed more freedom to compete with each other in order to make profit.
Deregulation – Removing restrictions on businesses and employers involved in world trade – In practice this means reducing tax on Corporate Profits, or reducing the amount of ‘red tape’ or formal rules by which companies have to abide – for example reducing health and safety regulations.
Fewer protections for workers and the environment – For the former this means doing things like scrapping minimum wages, permanent contracts. This also means allowing companies the freedom to increasingly hire ‘flexible workers’ on short-term contracts.
Privatisation – selling to private companies industries that had been owned and run by the state
Cutting taxes – so the state plays less of a role in providing welfare – social security, education and health for example.
IMPORTANTLY – In most neoliberal theory, the state does have a minimal role to play – it needs to protect private property – given that profit is the main motive, the system won’t work if anyone can steal or vandalise anyone else’s property – and so the state needs to maintain control of law and order.
The New Right
The New Right is a political philosophy associated with the Conservative Government (1979-1997 and 2010 to the present day). The New Right adopted and put into practice many of the ideas of Neoliberalism, but there are some differences (indicated below).
There are Five Key Ideas associated with New Right thinking:
The introduction of free market principles into many areas of life (Like Neoliberalism) – The best example of this is the Marketisation of Education, and we also see it with academies.
Reduced Spending by the State (Like Neoliberalism) – The 1979 Conservative government cut taxes on the highest income earners and the current conservative government is cutting public services massively.
An emphasis on individual freedom and responsibility (Like Neoliberalism) – The New Right have cut welfare spending enormously – believing that welfare breeds dependency. Similarly, tax breaks for the rich are seen as promoting self-interest.
A strong state in terms of upholding law and order – we see this in ‘Right Realist’ ideas of crime control – with Zero Tolerance Policing and increasing use of Prison as a form of punishment – this links with the above idea of holding people responsible for their own actions (rather than blaming their backgrounds like other perspectives might).
A stress on the importance of traditional institutions and values(unlike neoliberalism). The New Right believe in maintaining some traditions, as they see this as the basis for social order and stability – they strongly support the traditional nuclear family as the backbone of society for example, and still support the idea of a National Curriculum, set by the government, which sets the agenda in education.
Post modernists argue that we need new ways of thought to understand and conceptualise this new ‘post-modern society’ – the age old theories of modernity are no longer relevant!
Lyotard – the abandonment of the Enlightenment Project
Lyotard refers to post-modernism as‘incredulity towards metanarratives’. A metanarrative is a theory that holds that it is the universal truth, or it contains within it a great hope of salvation if only everyone would go along with it! Science, religion, political ideologies are all metanarratives. According to Lyotard, in the postmodern world, people have seen all of these metanarratives turn to ashes, the promises they once held have turned out to be disastrous.
The greater diversity and freedom of the post-modern age means that individuals abandon the search for one universal truth. Lyotard argues that this is a good thing, because the search for universal truths has led to such terror and oppression in the past. Hence post-modern diversity is good because it should promote tolerance!
In a nutshell, Modernists tend to believe that if we can find the truth, then we can apply this to society and it will enable us to be free; while according to post-modernists, in order to be free, we need to be liberated from the concept of truth!
Michel Foucault1 – Knowledge is not objective – rather it is distorted by power
Michel Foucault argued that the modernist Enlightenment project is a myth – throughout history knowledge has not been objective and it has not necessarily been used to make the world a better place. This is because the knowledge we collect about the world is shaped by the subjective views and values of those with power. Foucault illustrates this through exploring how societies have dealt with insanity and criminality throughout history. He basically argues that those in power define their own behaviours and values as ‘normal’ –and then those most unlike them as mentally ill or criminal – once these basic categories have been established, experts then emerge to construct ‘expert knowledge’ about why people are insane and how they are best treated. The labels ‘sane’ and ‘insane’ according to Foucault are subjective.
To illustrate this, in the 1940s the social norm was to have children within marriage. Women who had children outside of wedlock were labelled as insane, and sometimes put in mental institutions and subjected to study by experts. The point here though is that there is nothing objective, value free, or progressive about the original categories of ‘sane’ and insane’ – these are simply a function of power.
Jean Baudrillard – Hyper reality is more important than actual reality
The post-modern era has witnessed a huge expansion in media technology. One consequence of this is that our society has an increased reliance on the media to tell us what is going on in the world. Jean Baudrillard argues that the media creates something called ‘hyper reality’ where what we see in the media is different from and yet more real than reality. Baudrillard argues that the media coverage of war for example is different to reality, yet is the only reality most of us know. The media is thus a world different from reality, and thus a modernist project that focuses on how ‘reality’ influences people’s lives and how we should try to ‘improve’ society seams irrelevant in a society where most people have not lived experience of this social reality.
A Sociology of Post-Modernity
Post-modernism has influence Sociology….
For Zygmunt Bauman2, the central feature of post-modern society is that we are all consumers. Rather than basing our identities around work (and hence class), we are much more likely to define ourselves through the products that we buy. It follows that post-modern sociology is much more focussed on how people use consumption to define and understand themselves. There is much more of a focus on how people construct their identities in a world of huge potentiality. Post-modern sociology is thus much more interested in describing the diversity of life and looking at how people cope in the hectic, post-modern world around us, and much less interested in social structures and how these shape people’s identities. The Sociology of post-modernity is also very interested in deviance and subcultures and in individuals and groups transgress ‘normative boundaries’
Transgression….. Because post-modern society is different, and as culture has become more important, it means that new areas have opened up for study. Such new areas include studies of rave culture, the study of new genders and the development of ‘queer theory’, and the emergence of cultural and media studies as sub- disciplines of sociology.
Narrative – Much of this new post-modern sociology limits itself to a description of the ways of life of these groups, and at best tentative attempts to theorise specific to that group under study. Post-modernists are not interested in constructing generalise able social theory as they believe such a mission is flawed.
1 Strictly a post-structuralist, but for A level we can let that distinction pass!
2 KT thinks the term ‘critical late modernist’ is a better way of categorising Bauman’s work
The third of three posts on Marxism for A2 Sociological Perspectives – Arguments and evidence for the continued relevance of Marxism
Contemporary Marxists argues that Marxist analysis is still relevant to an understanding of modern society. A considerable amount of contemporary Marxist thought focuses on how Capitalism has become globalised and emphasises the injustices of the global capitalist system; another strand of contemporary Marxist theory focuses on how the values of capitalism (in the form of ‘neo-liberal hegemony’) have penetrated Western culture to the detriment of us all.
You might like to think about what Marxist concepts are illustrated by these cartoons
Some Sociologists argue that a class based analysis of global society is still relevant.
Leslie Sklaire argues that recent decades have seen the emergence of a ‘Transnational Capitalist Class’. These are the leaders of global corporations, certain politicians and their bureaucrats who control billions of dollars of assets and financial flows. They wield their power through undemocratic international economic institutions such as the World Bank, The International Monetary Fund and the G20. These institutions were established after World War Two to help co-ordinate the expanding global economy and facilitate redevelopment after the war. However, many left wing theorists such as Joseph Stiglitz argue that since the 1970s these institutions have forced dozens of developing countries to adopt neo-liberal economic policies. Neo-Liberal policies include such things as privatising public services, cutting taxes and regulating industry less, thus allowing Transnational Corporations to open sweat shops, pollute local areas, and take all the profits away without giving very much back. The basic idea here is that the global economy is run by Corporations and Politicians for the benefit of Corporations and their high powered political supporters (One of whom is ‘Gideon’ Osborn)
There is considerable evidence that exploitation still lies at the heart of the Capitalist system.
Corporations are frequently criticised for exploiting workers and the environment – through sweatshop labour and pollution, where they can get away with it. Some of the most obvious examples include Shell and oil pollution in Nigeria; Coke’s legacy of draining water local water supplies in India to produce Coke, which results in drought in local areas and Apple’s use of sweatshops in China to produce the ipad.
There is some evidence that those with economic power still have disproportionate influence over the superstructure.
Marxist Theory is still relevant because…. There is some evidence that those with economic power still have disproportionate influence over the superstructure.
I should just point out that the point of this post is to provide soundbites that you can use in an exam (or an arguement with a Tory supporter of the neo-liberal state apparatus) rather than a comprehensive or balanced account of evidence for or against (the variety of) Marxist theory.
Evidence of Elite control over the government
By far the best example of state putting the interests of Capital before the interests of the majority of people is how the government has responded to the present ‘economic crisis’.
Simply put, the state is making the poor pay for the economic problems caused by the Transnational Capitalist Class. The average guy on the street is getting poorer while the rich are still getting richer! Consider also the recent case of Ireland, where the minimum wage is being cut by one euro, VAT is being increase, and public sector jobs axed, while Corporation Tax remains at an incredibly low 12.5%
Getting back to the cuts in Britain, this is no surprise if you actually look at the characteristics of those who make up the cabinet and the wider Tory Party; you actually find that many of them are themselves extremely wealthy. The prime minister, deputy prime minister and Chancellor are all millionaires – They are the Transnational Capitalist Class – and they are hardly likely to hurt themselves.
Evidence of Elite control over the Criminal Justice System
Another example of the elite class having control over the superstructure lies in the differential treatment of white collar crime and street crime. Even though White Collar Crime costs more to the economy than street crime, White Collar Criminals are still less likely to get punished. According to Tombs and Whyte, this is partly because the government invests fewer resources into investigating fraud and health and safety crimes (the types of crime Corporations are most likely to be guilty of) than it does into working class street crime.
Evidence of Elite Control over the mainstream Media
Greg Philo argues that it is simply crazy it is that the agenda in the media is about ‘what services should the government cut’ rather than ’should we tax the wealthy or make cuts. Philo points out that there are other solutions to the current economic crisis – there is enough property wealth in the country – we could just take it off them, but the government is making the average man on the street pay instead. In his film,
Evidence of Elite Control of the Education system
Evidence for elite control of the education system lies in the fact that if you are wealthy, you can buy your children a private education, which gives them a much greater chance of getting into a top university and high getting a highly paid, prestigious job. The statistics make for extremely uncomfortable reading… Intelligent children from the 20% of richest homes in England are seven times more likely to attend a high-ranking university than intelligent children from the poorest 40%’.Looked at another way, of 80,000 15-year-olds who’d been on free school meals in 2002, only 45 had made it to Oxbridge- compared to the high-end private Westminster school which averages 82 successful applicants every year.
People from upper middle class, public school backgrounds dominate every economic sector except those – such as sport and hard science – in which only raw ability counts. Through networking, confidence, unpaid internships, most importantly through our attendance at the top universities, we run the media, politics, the civil service, the arts, the City, law, medicine, big business, the armed forces, even, in many cases, the protest movements challenging these powers. The Milburn report, published last year, shows that 45% of top civil servants, 53% of top journalists, 32% of MPs, 70% of finance directors and 75% of judges come from the 7% of the population who went to private schools.’
There is evidence that we are still under ideological control – but we don’t realise it.
Antonio Gramsci, A humanist Marxist writing in the early twentieth century first pointed out that what he called ‘Hegemonic Control’ plays an ever important role in advanced Capitalist societies. Hegemonic control occurs when the intellectual and moral leadership provided by the dominant class provides the fundamental outlook for the whole of society.
Greg Philo points to one very good recent example of this in recent years – the fact that we are so willing to accept cuts to public services when the richest ten percent of the country own so much wealth that if we just took one fifth of their wealth we would clear the national deficit, yet this idea doesn’t not even appear in the media. Agenda Setting has removed it and so we do not even consider it.
Capitalism is kept going by creating ‘false needs’ –
Successful companies today spend billions on advertising campaigns to convince us that we need the products that they make. Looked at objectively much of what we buy we don’t need, yet the Capitalist class invests billions convincing us to buy things that we do not need.
Worse that ideological control – More generally, numerous Sociologists such as Richard Wilkinson and David Garland point out that the more unequal a country, and the more a country has adopted neo-liberal policies – the higher the prison population. It would appear that the closer a country is to ‘pure capitalism’ the more punitive the elite class is.
We in west have become so obsessed with consumer culture that we end up defining ourselves through the products we consume, and how we ‘pick and mix them’ (this means fashion, holidays, houses, cars, mobile phones). From a Marxist point of view this is incredibly shallow – Marx believed that we are only fully human when we are fully engaged with the political and economic processes of our society. From the Marxist point of view, Capitalism just encourages us to be childlike and define ourselves through our styles and our hobbies and to forget about politics and economics. In the truest sense we are alienated from our productive base while our identities become more and more dependent on material goods.
David Harvey argues that economic crises are inherent to the Capitalist system and that in recent years these crises have become more severe and more frequent.
Capitalist exploitation is so bad in some parts of the world that there is vehement resistance to it – especially in Latin America – President Hugo Chavez of Venezuela, for example, perceives himself as an anti-Capitalist, as do many people of Latin America. The Zapatistas in Mexico is another good example and the World Development Movement also has Marxist undertones.
See the first 20 mins or so of John Pilger’s ‘War on Democracy’ to here Hugo Chavez talk in Marxist terms – on stream
Although you don’t see it in the media there are tens of thousands of people who call themselves Communists and who sympathise with Marxism and the wider anti-capitalist movement. Left Wing criticisms and the anti-capitalist movement are still very much alive today.
The class structure today is more complex than Bourgeois-Proletariat. In most Western Nations and increasingly in developing nations there is an extensive middle class who have stocks and shares invested in Corporations run by what Marxists would call the ‘Capitalist Class’. Also in Britain 70% of people own their own homes and see these homes (our private property) as ‘economic assets’ so many of us are, in a sense, petit-capitalists.
Capitalism today is less exploitative – Two historical examples of this are when Henry Ford, the famous car manufacturer, realised that paying his workers good wages would generate demand for the cars he produced – a process which lead to workers being less exploited and ‘buying into’ the Capitalist system. A second example is the move towards ‘Keynsian Economics’ in which the state came to play a more central role in regulating Capitalism to ensure that worst excesses of exploitation, inequality and insecurity that pure Capitalism generates were minimised. Part of this involved the introduction of the welfare state in many European Countries after the Second World War. In the United Kingdom the state now provides universal health care, education, pensions and social security, as well as guaranteeing a minimum wage. All of these things acts as a safety net to ensure that the worst excesses of Capitalist exploitation are ameliorated.
Marx argued that those who control the economic base controlled the economic superstructure – yet many of our institutions today have at least relative autonomy from Bourgeois control – it is quite obvious, for example, that huge sections of the press are critical of the Elite and many popular music artists are extremely critical of the Capitalist system.
Given the above three points, it seems ludicrous to argue that the superstructure is controlled by the Bourgeoisie and is used to create false consciousness. Firstly, post-modernists argue that culture (mainly the media) exists independently of Bourgeois control and is used by people in different for a variety of different purposes. If institutions are not controlled by the Bourgeois, then there can be no False Consciousness. What we really have in post-modern society according to Post-Modernists is free individuals who correctly see class as irrelevant and who do not feel exploited and who are happy to identify themselves through the products they buy – products that are themselves the final outcome of a successful Capitalist system of production.
There is much less Alienation in modern companies. Workers have a lot more say, partly due to unionisation and partly due to enlightened management techniques. In addition, there are four million self employed people who directly control the terms and conditions of their working lives.
Classic Marxist theory has been criticised for being economically deterministic. Marx argued that ‘economic laws’ determined not only the shape of society but also the direction of history itself. On reflection, however, it is clearly the case that other factors shape history too – different societies have responded differently to the global spread of Capitalism – some have pushed neo-liberalism (America and Britain under Thatcher and Bliare) others have taken a social democratic line and used the state as a buffer to protect citizens from the worst excesses of Capitalist exploitation (Scandanavian countries); China has developed a form of autocratic- capitalism and other countries (Cuba and more recently Venezuala) have rejected it in favour of a Socialist dictatorship.
The Communist Revolutions in Eastern Europe did not lead to greater equality and freedom as Marx would have hoped. Given the failures of communism it is difficult to see what the alternative to Capitalism might be. NB – As a counter critique, contemporary Marxists would argue that the state communism of Eastern Europe was hardly true communism.
Finally, many sociologists today would argue that Marx’s ‘grand theorising’ about the world is no longer relevant – rather than researching with the intention of creating the perfect society, we should really be focussing our attention of much more specific and localised social issues.
Includes some of the Key Ideas of Karl Marx, including Bourgeoisie/ Proletariat, exploitation, false consciousness, ideological control, and revolution.
This is a simplified version of Marxist Theory designed for second year A level students
In order to fully understand Marxism, you need to understand the work of Karl Marx, who produced most of his writing between 1840 and 1870.
Under Capitalism there are two basic classes- The Bourgeois and The Proletariat
The relationship between these two classes is exploitative because the amount of money the employer pays the worker is less than the total value of goods that worker produces. The difference between the two is called surplus value. Marx thus says that the capitalist extracts surplus value from the worker. To Marx, Profit is basically the accumulated exploitation of workers in capitalist society.
Control of the Economic Base means control of the superstructure… According to Marx those who have economic power control all other institutions. During Marx’s day there was some evidence to suggest this was true – Voting was restricted to men with property; Press Barons used their papers to spread propaganda; and only the children of the wealthy could get to university.
The Bourgeois use their control of institutions to keep the masses ignorant of their exploitation – this is known as ideological control. According to Marx this was mainly done through the Mass Media and Religion. Ideological control results in False Consciousness – individuals not being aware (conscious) of their true class position or their exploitation by the ruling class. They are in a state of illusion.
Capitalism causes alienation- Under Capitalism the worker becomes alienated from the process of production, from the people he works with and from the products they produce. This is because he lacks control over his work and becomes a ‘machine’, and thus work appears as ‘alien’ to him.
Marx’s ideas on Capitalism and social change – Competition leads to increasing levels of exploitation – Marx argued that the Capitalism had within it the seeds of its own destruction – it would eventually create the social conditions that would lead to its downfall. In order to stay competitive, Capitalists would have to sell goods at lower prices, which would mean reduced profit. This would then encourage Capitalists to seek to reduce wages and increase efficiency– making the working conditions of the proletariat ever worse. Marx theorised that increasing numbers of increasingly exploited proletarians crammed into ever expanding cities (where factories were based) would eventually lead to a violent revolution – in which the proletariat would throw off their oppressors.
Revolution and Communism – Marx argued that following the overthrow of the Bourgeois – society would eventually organise itself along Communist lines – where the means of production are collectively owned (no private property) and everyone has equal wealth. Marx was vague about exactly what the Communist society would look like but argued that in this society ‘each would give according to their ability and take according to their needs’ and that there would be a lot more free time for all.
The point of ‘Social Research’ according to Marx – Marx spent the last decade of his life sitting in the British Library analysing how Capitalism worked and discovered that over time, the degree of exploitation of workers increased. He thus theorised that Capitalism would gradually lead to an increasing amount human misery and exploitation and that it must, one day come to an end.
As far as Marx was concerned, he had realised the truth, and he believed that political action was necessary to ‘wake up’ the proletariat and bring them to revolutionary class consciousness. He spent much of the middle and later parts of his life engaged in efforts to bring about revolutionary change.
Related Posts (for A2 Sociology – criticisms and counter-criticisms)
The Marx and Engels Archive – This is a comprehensive site which provides access to Marx’s major works, as well as biographies and articles about Marx, and a picture gallery!
The Communist Manifesto – Published in 1848 this is Marx’s most famous work – the one which contains the classic line ‘Workers of the world unite, you have nothing to lose but your chains’.
Marxism 2016 – Ideas for Revolution – This is the homepage of the latest Marxism festival, which is held in London every year over several days, where you can go to hear contemporary Marxists speak and argue amongst themselves.
The Victorian Slum is a BBC recreation of slum life from the 1860s, which was one of the decades when Marx was writing and conveys some of the privations working class slum dwellers had to endure – basically wages just about covered lodging and food. NB – According to this article, the level of squalor was almost certainly worse than in the video. There’s a good level of sociological commentary running through this.
In order to understand what post-modernity is, one has to understand what modernity, or modern society was! Somewhat confusingly ‘modern society’ refers to European society between roughly 1650- 1950 (ish) and post-modern society refers to European and many other ‘advanced’ ‘post-industrial’ societies from around 1950 (ish) onwards.
Post-Modernists argue that post-modern society is different to modern society, so much so that it requires new methods of study and new theoretical frameworks. Essentially, what is different, according to Post-Modernists, is that those stable institutions which used to bind us together have much less influence now, and with the rise of globalisation and New Media technologies, individuals are much more free to construct their culture and identity that they once were. Sociologists disagree as to exactly when post-modernism started. For some, the roots of it lie in early modernity, for others, post-modernism does not properly begin until the 1970s, still others argue (Giddens) that we don’t even live in a post-modern society at all!
Now it’s important for you to get your head around what post-modern society is, because theorists of post-modernity argue that the traditional structuralist theories of Marxism and feminism are no longer relevant and suggest new ways of ‘doing sociology’.
In order to understand what post-modern society is, one has to understand what modern society was
What was (is?) modernity?
Modernity is the term used by sociologists to describe the “modern” period which began in Europe several hundred years ago. Some of the key features of modern societies are:
Economic production is industrial and capitalist, with social class as the main form of social division. Social classes are based on people’s social and economic position. Marx’s view for instance, was that industrial society people were divided into two main classes, those who owned businesses and those who sold their labour to them.
The growth of cities, or urbanisation. During the 18th, 19th, and 20th centuries thousands of people moved to cities to find work and make their homes.
A powerful central government and administration, known as a bureaucratic state. Local and central government have played an ever increasing part in our lives, the development of compulsory education, public housing and the welfare state for example.
People’s knowledge is derived from scientific and rational thinking rather than religious faith, magic or superstition. During this period people have looked to science and logical thinking to explain the world. Natural disasters such as earthquakes, for example, have tended to be explained scientifically rather than as an “act of god”.
A widely held faith in scientifically based progress. An associated view has been that the more we trust in science and technological progress, the better our society will be.
Most of the “great” sociologists have attempted to find ways of understanding “modernity” and the “great transformation” which created it. Writers such as Marx and Durkheim attempted to create theories and concepts which could help explain the workings of societies and answer basic questions such as “what holds societies together?” and “what makes societies change?”
What is Postmodernity?
Post-Modernity refers to the view that the institutions and ways of living characteristic of Modernity have been replaced to such a profound extent that our society is fundamentally different to the ‘modern’ society. In contrast post-modernism is a term that refers to new ways of thinking about thought. Post-modernists believe that knowledge itself needs to be understood in a different way to modernists sociologists such as Functionalists and Marxists. It follows that not all theorists of post-modernity are post-modernists.
Five Key features of the post-modern society
A world in Fragments (due to Dynamism: Rapid social change)
Consumer society: Individual freedom to choose one’s lifestyle
Cultural diversity and hybridity
A simple definition of Globalisation is the increasing connectedness between societies across the globe. Globalisation means there are more flows of information and ideas, money, and people moving across national boundaries.
The increasing importance of the mass media
The post-modern era has witnessed a huge expansion in media technology. The rise of digital media, especially the internet, has lead to a massive and unprecedented increase in the number of people using the media; a huge increase in the diversity of media products both factual and fictional; an increase in the number of people creating their own music, videos, profile sites and uploading them for public consumption, greater interactivity, more flexibility. All of this results in much more complex patterns of media usage, more picking and mixing
One consequence of this is that our society has an increased reliance on the media to tell us what is going on in the world. Some sociologists argue that the media creates something called ‘hyper reality’ where what we see in the media is different yet more real than reality. Baudrillard argues that the media coverage of war for example is different to reality, yet is the only reality most of us know.
New networks also emerge through the use of media, most obviously through profile sites such as Facebook. One consequence of this is the breakdown of local communities, as people increasingly network online in the privacy of their own homes, and don’t communicate with their next door neighbours.
A world in fragments
In post-modern society, the pace of change is much more rapid than in modern society. Post-modern society is thus more dynamic, more fluid if you like. The post-modern society doesn’t sit still, it is like a fidgeting child, and as a result, it lacks any coherent, stable social structure. This can be evidenced in the following areas:
Work: Gone are the days of a ‘Job for Life’, today is the era of the ‘portfolio worker’ who is much more likely to move jobs and change career several times throughout his or her working life. Working life is also characterised by much more uncertainty as businesses are quick to move to other regions or countries if they can find cheaper labour abroad. One very good illustrative example of this is Dyson, which recently closed down a factory in South Wales to seek cheaper labour in China. From the perspective of the South Wales workers, Dyson came and went in a very short time frame. Also, companies are now increasingly likely to employ workers through recruitment agencies which can fire at short notice, and much work is temporary, part time and characterised by flexible working hours. There are of course good sides and bad sides to all of this, but the upshot is that working life is much less stable than it used to be. See Richard Sennet: The Corrossion of Character chapter 1 and Polly Toynbe: Hard Work for an insight into the post-modern world of work.
Fashion and Music: Two of the most visible examples of the fast pace of change lies in the fashion and music industries, which are constantly evolving with new styles and musical forms constantly emerging, and with many artists having to continually reinvent themselves to stay in the spotlight. At the extreme end of this, the pop-idol genre of shows demonstrates how individuals are made stars for a month and then forgotten.
The breakdown of local communities: The increased flexibility of labour associated with the world of work means people move more often in their lifetimes, meaning that people are much less able to put down sable roots in their local communities. This has lead to a decline in ‘social capital’ (pretty much like trust) according to Robert Putnam. Look him up on Google, go on, you know you want to. Do something different instead of wasting your time surfing for information on…
4. The Consumer society
According to post-modernists one Fundamental difference between the post-modern society and modern society is that our society is consumer oriented, rather than work oriented. This means that consuming things, and leisure activities are more important today than work. The image of the post-modern society is thus one of a shopping mall, rather than a factory.
Post modernists argue that we live in a ‘Pick and mix’ society. Individuals today are free to pick their lifestyle and life course, from a wider range of options than ever before, just as if they were picking and choosing products in a super market! Importantly, post modernists argue that individuals are much less shaped by their class, gender and ethnic backgrounds today. Women, for example, are not expected to become housewives and mothers, just because they are women and work is much less gendered than it used to be. Society is no longer divided along class lines, or gender lines, or even ethnic lines. Being born working class, being born a woman, or being born black, does not, according to post-modernists, pre-determine one’s future, or shape one’s consciousness (identity) as it did in modernity (and the extent to which it did was often exaggerated by the classical sociologists).
5. Cultural diversity and hybridity
The ever increasing pace of globalisation has lead to an increase in cultural diversity and ‘hybridity’, which refers to the mixing of different cultural traditions. If we compare society today to that of 100 or even 50 years ago we see a bewildering increase in the diversity of social and cultural forms. Some of the more obvious examples include:
Goods and services: A simple trip to the supermarket or shopping mall reveals a huge range of products one can buy, and the same is true of services.
Fashion and Music: Once again, one can spend several hours in a week simply choosing what to buy or wear, or sorting MP3s on one’s MP3 player (once you’ve chosen one of those course!)
Pretty much every other sphere of life is more diverse than it was 50 years ago: Education, work, family life…..
In a post-modern society, we have much more consumerism choice, what are the consequences of this for individuals?
Briefly explain two key features of the modern society
What is ‘Globalisation’?
What is meant by the term ‘hyperreality’?
Briefly explain what is meant by the fragmented society
What is cultural hybridity, illustrate with an example
Postmodernists stand against universalising education systems – it there is no one truth, then it is not appropriate to have a one size fits all education system.
Modernist education is oppressive to many students – students give up their freedom for 11 years in order to learn knowledge which will improve their life chances – this does not work for everyone.
Ideas of education which fit with a postmodern agenda include –
Liberal forms of education (Summerhill School)
Adult Education and Life Long Learning (because adults can make more of a choice)
Education outside of formal education (leisure)
The Late-Modernist View of Education
At an Institutional level education (mainly schools) become a fundamental part of the reflexive institutional landscape of Post-Fordist late-modernity
Education policy is one of the things which the New Right and New Labour governments can and have used to ‘colonise the future’ by (a) providing opportunities for reskilling in an ever changing global labour market and (b) to keep under surveillance students ‘at risk’ of future deviance.
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