Joel Spring – Education Networks: Power, Wealth, Cyberspace and The Digital Mind

A summary of one thread within this excellent book….

The DFES (2013) has an overwhelmingly positive view of the future role of ICT in schools and colleges, noting that it has transformed other sectors, that parents and pupils expect it, and that pupils need ICT to equip them with future-work skills. In DFES literature, digital media seems to be presented as a neutral technology through which individual students can be empowered, with emphasis on the benefits such technology can bring to schools, such as more personalised learning, better feedback, a richer resource base and the possibility of extending the learning day. This discourse further constructs not only technologically reticent staff and lack of access to ICT resources as a potential problem, but also centralised government itself, with the forthcoming renewal of the ICT curriculum being fully endorsed and authored by Google, Microsoft, and IBM, with the vision being that 16 year olds will be able to write their own apps by the age of 161.

There are, however, those who are skeptical about the neutrality ICT, the claimed inevitability of its expansion and the supposed benefits of the increasing digitisation of education. One such skeptic is Sociologist Joel Spring who, in a recent book, Education Networks: Power, Wealth, Cyberspace and The Digital Mind, draws our attention to the increasing control of education systems around the world by global corporations, a process which he refers to as Educational Corporatism.

The Nature and Extent of Global Educational Corporatism

According to Spring, a global shadow elite network is responsible for encouraging the growth of Information Communications Technology in state education programs in the USA and increasingly in other countries, something which is unsurprising given that the global education market is a $7 trillion industry, greater than the value of every other information industry combined (WEF 2014).

This network consists of a relatively small number of IT and communications company executives who have close links with senior policy makers in governments, who together have overseen an increase in the use of ICT for the surveillance and education of students. Spring characterises this network as a ‘Flexnet’ because the key actors, or ‘Flexians’, move between government departments and education, media and ICT companies, spending a few years working respectively for one government department before moving to an ICT corporation, and then back to the public sector to spearhead technological initiatives drawing on their corporate contacts to do so, and finally moving back to a more senior Corporate role, supposedly to take advantage of the profits generated from said initiatives.

The Corporate takeover of New York City’s Schools

The means whereby Flexians within the global shadow elite operate is illustrated by the Corporate takeover of New York City Schools.

In 2001 billionaire and superlcass ICT mogul Michael Bloomberg was elected mayor of New York City. After lobbying for and gaining control of New York schools, Bloomberg appointed as school chancellor Joel Klein, a lawyer from another ICT conglomerate, Bertelsmann. Technically Klein lacked the legal requirements to head NYC schools, but this requirement was waived by the state commissioner for education.

Klein initiated changes that centred on student testing and data collection (echoed in education ministries around the world). To aid in this, he contracted with the company Wireless Generation to use their ‘ARIS’ system of data collection and management. Klein then left his position as chancellor to become executive vice president at Rupert Murdoch’s News Corporation, which bought 90% of Wireless Generation for $360 million.

In addition to the above, while Klein was chancellor, Murdoch’s New York Post also supported Klein’s efforts to establish more charter schools and undermine protection for teachers.

The Global Neoliberal Agenda for Education

At a global level, the shadow elite influence governments through The World Economic Forum and The United Nations, which both voice considerable optimism about the future role of ICT in meeting the world’s educational needs in the future. As an example of this optimism, Spring points to The World Economic Forum’s Global Information Technology Report 2010-11, authored by prominent members of the Shadow Elite.

Where education is concerned, the report anticipates ‘Transformation 2.0′, a process in which educational institutions will make increasing use of analytic software tools which convert data into actionable insights. This not only means the now well established use of data on students’ past test results to predict the probability of their passing or failing certain subjects and then directing resources more efficiently to those in need, but the report also predicts the increasing use of ‘data exhaust’, or more qualitative information collected on students throughout their school careers, for the same purposes which in the future might mean increasing surveillance of the number of and length of virtual interactions students make each term in in order to inform educational interventions.

Individual schools and universities do not possess the resources to develop and maintain the kind of software required to collect and collate such ‘Big Data’, so ‘transformation 2.0 might see educational institutions becoming locked into long-term data-analytics contracts with global ICT companies: The future of education might be one where schools do the teaching at a national level but informed by data analysis carried out by global corporations using global data sets.

The WEF report makes several other recommendations:

  • To use ICT to make education more engaging and better suited to the needs of each student through making greater use of data analytics and what Spring calls ‘edutainment’ software, which special emphasis being given to promoting STEM subjects.
  • To better link technology to assessment.
  • To support access to online instruction in and out of school.
  • To increase ‘productivity’ in the education sector: ICT is seen as a relatively const-efficient means whereby schools can accelerate student progress, rather than employing more teachers.

According to Spring’s analysis this vision is ideological and it represents a global Neoliberal agenda for the progressive privatisation of education through governments spending more public money on data analytics, online instruction and assessment delivered by global ICT corporations. It is already the norm in the US for IT and communications companies to develop educational software which are provided to schools for a profit, a practice which the ICT elite wishes to see replicated in other parts of the world.

The ICT Shadow Elite’s ambitions are not limited to developed countries, they are also targeting the education sectors of developing countries, and as an an example of this Spring cites the Microsoft-UNESCO agreement established in 2009 regarding ICT and Higher Education. As part of this agreement, Microsoft offered £50 million of ‘seed money’ to introduce a range of educational technologies to a number of countries – such as DreamSpark, MicrosoftLive@edu, Digital Literacy Curriculum, and The Microsoft IT Academy Program. Spring’s theory is that such an initial seeding will reap dividends in the future as public education sectors expand they will spend increasing sums of money on upgrading software and buying related ICT educational products from Microsoft in future years.

Potential Problems with Increasing Educational Corporatism

Spring points to several possible negative consequences of global companies effectively having more control over national education systems.

Firstly, this is likely to further reduce educational management to the employment of data mining and analysis to predict how student test scores and graduation rates relate to social characteristic information and identifying which limited interventions can be made to improve examination results, with the effectiveness of teachers further reduced to how efficiently they can enhance these measurable results.

Secondly, it is likely that there will be an increasing level of control of knowledge by ICT corporations. The concern here is that this will lead to the further standardisation of knowledge into a form which can be easily assessed through technology, which potentially means preferencing quantifiable knowledge over more qualitative and critical knowledge which require more human intervention to asses. In addition to this, schools are increasingly likely to be seen as institutions whose job it is to provide a 21st century workforce for ICT firms, meaning the preferencing of STEM, ICT and business related courses.

Thirdly, the corollary of greater control being handed to global ICT corporations is declining autonomy of individual schools and teachers. This actually seems to be an explicit goal of the global shadow elite: the WEF (2011) states that the main barrier to extending technology in is ‘human’, with ICT, rather than more teacher-time being (quite literally) sold as the most effective means to personalise learning in order to meet the needs of each learner.

Another idea which potentially undermines teachers which is widely publicised by prominent Flexian Bill Gates is that we should have least one good course online for all subjects rather than lots of mediocre ones. This idea seems both sensible and inevitable but its manifestation might come in the form of a core of highly skilled experts constructing corporate-approved online content for a global education market, with for-profit companies responsible for managing testing and tutoring replacing much of the work teachers currently do.

A final possible consequence is an increasing inequality of educational provision. As governments struggle with finances in the age of ideological driven Neoliberal austerity, it might be that cash strapped schools move towards providing online only tuition for some courses while students at better managed and funded schools retain more formal ICT-supported lessons. This is precisely what happened in Florida in 2010-11 when 7000 students in Miami-Dade county were placed in virtual classrooms in order to beat the state’s class size mandate, which specified a maximum of 25 students per class, but did not apply to virtual classrooms.

Conclusion:

While the increasing use of ICT in education appears to offer many benefits, such as enhanced personalisation of learning and increased teacher productivity, the importance of Spring’s analysis lies in reminding us that while technology itself is neutral, the way in which it is deployed is not given the corporate networks and which are currently lobbying for the further digitisation of state education, and the neoliberal agenda of which this is a part.

At present it is difficult to see how anything can halt the spread of Educational Corporatism: there is a clear demand from today’s students and their parents for digitised education and global ICT corporations are clearly well positioned to play an increasing role in the delivery and management of virtual learning environments; and with further government cuts likely, the viritualising of learning seems an obvious way to save money in the education sector by reducing the number teachers.

Whether or not the future of education will be one of reduced teacher autonomy with for-profit Corporations having greater control over national curriculums and thus even more access to students, and what the effects of this will be remain to be seen.

Bibliography 

C. Paucek et al (2014) Chapter 8: Online Education: From Novely to Necessity, in World Economic Foundation: Education and Skills 2.0: New Targets and Innovative Approaches. Geneva: Switzerland.

DFES (2013): Digital Technology in Schools. http://www.education.gov.uk/schools/teachingandlearning/curriculum/a00201823/digital-technology-in-schools accessed 16/01/2104, updated 18 October 2013. Archived at http://webarchive.nationalarchives.gov.uk/20130123124929/http://www.education.gov.uk/schools/teachingandlearning/curriculum/a00201823/digital-technology-in-schools

Spring, J (2012) Education Networks: Power, Wealth, Cyberspace and The Digital Mind. New York: Routldege. Kindle Edition.

WEF (2011) The Global Information Technology Report 2010-11: Transformations 2.0

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Tyranny of the Moment (A Summary/ Notes)

A summary of/ notes on Tyranny of the Moment: Fast and Slow Time in the Information Age by Thomas Hylland Eriksen (2001)

The general focus of the book is on why social life has become so hurried and accelerated and what the (negative) consequences of these changes are for family life and leisure-time.

Preface

We face a double paradox – Despite the proliferation of time-saving technologies we seem to have less time to spare than ever, and the information revolution has not created a more informed population, but a more confused one.

The book stems from a sabbatical in which the author got very little work done, because his time seemed to filled with lots of minor tasks – he had no time to sit down to a long project. So it seems with life today – we seem unable to think a thought more than two inches long.

This book is not luddite, it is an attempt to create understanding of the unintended consequences of the information society.

The general focus of the book is on how life is hurried and accelerated – how working days are overloaded, leisure-time is chopped up and the consequences of these changes for family life.

Chapter One – Introduction – Mind The Gap

A central claim of this book is that the unhindered and massive flow of information in our time is about to fill all the gaps, leading as a consequence to a situation where everything threatens to become a hysterical series of saturated moments, without a ‘before’ and ‘after’, a ‘here’ and ‘there’ to separate them.

We seem to live about two seconds in the future. When one is on the receiving end of a mass of information, the scarcest resource is slow, continuous time.

In the information age it could be that more flexibility makes us less flexible and more choice makes us less free – Why do most of us have less spare time, and why does more information result in less comprehension?

Chapter Two – Information Culture, Information Cult

We need to understand the move from an industrial to an informational society – a term which can be traced back to The Frankfurt School, MacLuhan and of course Toffler.

The move to the informational society is only one of many trends leading to greater complexity, uncertainty and individualism.

The twenty first century began in 1991 with three major events – firstly the collapse of the USSR, secondly the emergence of geopolitical instability, for example the Balkan Wars and the USA’s New World Order – heralding more wars in far flung places.

The third major event was the emergence and rapid growth of the Internet, which changes knowledge through linking chunks of it together differently and leads to constant updating, which heralded the move to an informational society, which is a society in which IT is integral to all production, as it is in many other spheres of social life.

Information has now become the new scarce resource – Information processing is increasingly integral to many jobs.

In the information society, freedom from information is a scarce resource. The skill we really need to learn is to learn to filter out the 0.001% we actually need.

Many of us are coming to see living in a world of colourful fragments of knowledge – and engaging with this knowledge without being able to grasp everything in its entirety as not being a problem. People used to worry about knowing everything – now they don’t.

however, even though we do not regard this as a problem this represents a profound transformation of knowledge.

In information society, the gaps are being filled with fast time (NB Mgraine has something to say about this).

For those on the supply side of the economy, they are competing for attention – and they want our attention NOW because information can quickly become obsolete. For those of us who are consumers, freedom from information is our scarce resource. (Interesting).

People are uncertain of who they are, where they have to re-invent themselves on a day to day basis. People are free to choose but not free not to choose.

In Information society – The point of gravity in the global economy has moved from things to signs. The sign economy changes at astonishing speed, and requires other organisational forms and a greater flexibility than the economy of things, since signs float more freely than things…. The free availability of ideas simultaneously implies that many of them compete for the free spaces in our heads, leading to confusion and uncertain identities – identity has become disembedded from tradition, or major, continuous narrative. Hybridity and blurred boundaries are the norm.

Another feature of the 21st century is that freedom and vulnerability are synonyms – the bipolar world has been replaced with a unipolar world. That pole is called market liberalism and indivdualism, and its beats the drum with catchwords like flexibility, freedom and openness. Resistance is scattered and uncoordinated. New tensions result and new types of scarcity might emerge as a result:

  • Slow time
  • Security
  • Predictability
  • belonging, stable, personal identity
  • Coherence and understanding
  • Cumulative, linear, organic growth
  • Real experiences.

What matters is not whether any of this is new, what matters is the fact that our age is the information age.

What is the relationship between technology, time and culture? You have to understand this by looking at the recent past… which is where we go back to in chapter 3…

Chapter Three – The Time of the book, the clock and money.

Skimread

Acceleration is at the heart of the last 10000 years of cultural history – Writing lasted 4500 years, the printing press 500, while radio only had a few decades of dominance before the TV. Today, it is feasible that a product can be obsolete before it hits the shelves.

He now apologies for making some general comparisons of the traditional, the modern era and the information era…..

In this chapter Eriksen looks at five technological innovations which indicate those ‘peculiar institutions’ of modern society which are precursors of the information society: Writing, clocks, money, and notation,

Writing – Has been an essential tool in the transition from a concrete society based on intimate, personal relationships, memory, local religion and orally transmitted myths, to an abstract society based on formal legislation, archives, a book religion and written history.

The emergence of Clock Time – Time used to be event-determined – Something would happen when everything else was ready – You find this in some traditional societies today – where trains arrive when they arrive, not at a pre-given time. With the invention of the calendar and especially the clock, time becomes external and something which we are expected to sign a contract to stick to from cradle to grave – It becomes something objective which can be chopped up. It also now becomes something which can be used to coordinate us – the basis of modern business.

Bergson in ‘Time and Free Will’ has criticised how quantitative empty time now regulates us from outside rather than letting tasks at hand fill time from within.

Money does roughly the same thing to payment, value measurement and exchange as clocks and writing do to language and time. They make the transaction abstract and impose a standardised grid on the whole world. They place individual, mundane transactions under an invisible umbrella of abstraction. Money renders personal connections and trust redundant, as long as we agree on the value of the digit.

Musical Notation is his final example – manuscripts make music abstract, separate them from the individual. He argues that classical music would not have been possible without musical notation.

All of these changes together lead to a small-scale society based on local knowledge to a large scale society based on an abstract legislative system and abstract knowledge founded in logic and science.

The printing press and the industrial revolution were also necessary to pull all of the above together in modernity – a society where external abstract systems regulate huge people into being part of of one machine in which they are expendable. ‘Particular individuals are expendable because language, economy, memory, morality and knowledge are all externalised’.

Linear time is not part of the problem…

In addition to all of the above, possible because all of the above, a key feature of modernity was faith in progress – that things were getting better – however, now we are living in a postmodern age. People think things are about to go horribly wrong. This is not caused by linear time, but by a time perception which is not sufficiently linear. Time has been partitioned into so many pieces that the only time in existence is a single, manic, hysterical moment which is continuously changed, but which does not point to anything other than the next moment.

This could well be an unintended consequence of the efficient society concerned with speed.

Chapter Four – Speed (and the consequences of time speeding up!)

The chapter starts off by drawing on Paul Virilio, a theorist of speed (dromology)

Virilio studies the military – pointing out that invading a country used to take another country months to organise, then weeks and now possibly minutes – even more rapidly if we include the potential of cyber-war.

In response to Mcluhan’s global village, V prefers the term global megacity – characterised by anonymity and disintegration – Where everyone communicates to everyone and nobody really speaks with anyone. Time dominates place, everyone is close by in an instant.

The chapter now goes into an interesting description of how acceleration took place in the industrial revolution which was caused by the IR and new productivity demands in commodity production.

This acceleration was aided in the second half of the twenty first century by Information Technology – IT is simultaneously catalyst, source of coveted goods and economic powerhouse.

There are eight consequences of acceleration which are unique to post-modernity:

One – Speed is an addictive drug…

Because it is easier to communicate today, we communicate more – previously, the labour in writing a letter precluded the writing of unnecessary letters, emails are easier to write, and we we can be contacted anywhere, so we send more emails. Also, we are now more impatient in waiting for a response. In the age of email, we now expect, demand, a rapid response to our communications –

Because we demand a rapid response, this interrupts slow time.

It is not just email, everything moves faster now.

Two – Speed leads to simplification…

For example paintings to photos, and summaries of books in Readers Digest (actually the reference to Readers Digest dates this a bit!)

Three – Speed creates assembly line effects….

Quite a weak section – speed leads to a reduction in quality generally, but sometimes fast products are OK and especially better than nothing!

Four – Speed leads to a loss of precision…

Today decisions have to be made almost immediately. Those who pause for thought are overtaken by those prepared to act immediately. This can lead to bad decisions and uncertainty – unsurprising maybe when we no longer stop to reflect.

In politics, politicians react immediately and short termism is in fashion – those who play the long game get nowhere (the greens?). While in financial markets, ripples in one country rapidly domino to others.

Finally he turns to Journalism where accuracy and complexity have been replaced by speed and what’s interesting. What matters is beating the other guys to getting something published.

Erikson notes that this is correlated with declining trust in journalists – an interesting dialectic where increasing freedom = increasing distrust.

Five – Speed Demands Space…

Because they complete over our attention, every spare moment is precious in the information age – There are less empty spaces, less time for the free flow of thought, messages on mobile technologies fill every gap.

Six – Speed is Contagious…

Short wins out over long – and what’s lost along the way is context and understanding and credibility. We also speed up…. Plays are faster…

A political scientist recently studied the development of the annual financial debate in the Norwegian Parliament, comparing the speed of speech in selected years from 1945 to 1995 – Looking at Phonemes per minute…

584 in 1945

772 in 1980

863 in 1995

In other worlds the average politician spoke 50 percent faster in 1995 compared to 1945.

Increasing speed also makes us more impatient – If a plane journey takes an hour, a delay of 15 minutes is less bearable than if the same journey took two hours. Similarly we are now impatient when it takes a computer 30 seconds to log on.

Seven – Gains and losses tend to equal each other out…

For example — Although computer processor power doubles every 18 months, so does the complexity of the software.

Worse, more complex software means more chances of crashing.

Also it means more choice, and more time spent negotiating these choices, and hence less efficiency.

Eight – Technology leads to unpredictable changes

Who could have thought that time saving technologies and more information could have made time scarcer and us less enlightened?

Chapter Five – Exponential Growth

Basically involves the doubling of a number over a certain time period – Growth is slow at first, and then there is a sudden leap upwards, leading to a qualitative shift in a very short time – for example when a village becomes a town.

Exponential growth creates scarcity of space…

There is now a dearth of information – and when there is more information, we spend less time looking at any one piece of it…. And thus the producers of info change the info to fit in with this – Movies are more action packed and commercials shorter for example. Speed is also a narcotic, it is easier to speed up the info rather than to slow it down.

Side effects become dominant –

Quantitative growth leads to qualitative change – For example Bateson’s Polyploid Horse and the tendency to larger institutions towards Bureaucratisation. Basically larger organisations are less efficient, and more time is spent in wasteful activities.

There is more of everything – he now spends some time outlining the rapid growth of books and journal articles (most of which are never read?) and air traffic. Before stating that the growth rates in cyberspace surpass everything (p97)

Changes in cyerbspace represent compression in time – more and more information, consumption, movement and activity is being pushed into the available time, which is relatively constant. When the growth line hits vertical, time has ceased to exist – this happens when news is outdated the moment it is published.

When more and more is squeezed into each moment, the result is stacking…

Chapter Six – Stacking

We have moved from the relatively slow and linear to the fast and momentary – novels and old style dramas evolved based on passed events and assume you read progressively. The internet and new style dramas (Dynasty) stand still at enormous speed – the web is not hierachical and new dramas despite the cliffhangers do not generally progress – you can pick up the narrative thread after being away for several episodes.

The most important part of navigating the web is filters, but filters do not remove the fragmentation .

We are forced to customise the content in the internet – this gives us freedom of choice but we lose internal cohesion, meaningful context and slowness.

In the Informational Society pieces replace totalities…

Industrial society

Informational Society

CD/ Vinyl record

Book

Sinlge channel TV

Letter

Stationary Telephone

MP3

WWW

Mutli-channel TV

Email

Mobile Telephone

Lifelong Monogamy

Lifelong work

Depth

Linear Time-saving

Scarcity of Information

Serial Monogomy

Flexible Work

Breadth

Fragmented Contemporariness

Scarcity of Freedom of Information

The tidal waves of information fragments typical of our kind of society stimulate a style of thought that is less reminiscent of the strict, logical, linear thinking characteristic of industrial society than of the freely associating, poetical, metaphorical thinking that characterised many non modern societies. Instead of ordering knowledge in tidy rows, Information Society offers cascades of decontextualised sings more or less randomly connected to each other.

Contemporary Culture runs at full speed without moving an inch

The close cousins of acceleration and exponential growth lead to vertical stacking. Since there is no vacant time to spread information in, it gets compressed and stacked in time spans which become shorter and shorter.

He also uses music to point out that nothing new has been created since about 1990. The new now emerges from stacking – new combinations of old phenomenon. This has consequences for human creativity.

When this happens it becomes increasingly difficult to create narratives. The fragments threaten to become hegemonic. This has consequences for the way we related to knowledge, work and lifestyle. Cause and effect, internal organic growth, maturity and experience are all under threat in this situation.

The law of diminishing returns strikes with a vengeance

Media appeal is the most important thing politicians can have – their ideas are less important. Those who take time and prefer complexity have less influence.

Today, there are diminishing returns of media participation following information explosion… Basically the more channels, the less valuable a media appearance. Also, a stronger effect is needed to get the message across.

News has a decreasing marginal value – the first ten seconds is valuable, and after that…?

Information destroys continuity….

A section on today’s typical HE student who has to vertically stack activities – a lecture is something one goes to between many other activities – slow learning is marginalised – and universities adapt – they teach faster. This is like his own life, but his is because of information lint.

Very few academics today have five years to spend writing a book – especially since the marginal value of new information is next to zero, and so easier to produce something rapidly that grabs attention, even if it is cut and paste from a conference paper.

Because of all this stacking, the moment is ephemeral, superficial and intense. When the moment dominates, everything must be interchangeable with everything else in the immediate NOW – even if some things only make sense with duration.

Chapter Seven – The Lego Brick Syndrome

The relationship between time and space has undergone dramatic transformations in the IS –

  • Baudrillard talks of the implosion of the time/ space axis
  • Giddens says there has been a collapse of time and space
  • Castells talks about how the space of flows has been replaced by the space of places
  • Harvey of Time Space Compression.

It is no longer viable to pretend that a certain duration corresponds to a certain distance, and for this reason delays, gaps, slowness are threatened.

When time is chopped up into sufficiently small units, it ceases to exist as duration but continues to exist as moments about to be overtaken by the next moment.

The same pattern can be observed in many apparently unrelated fields…. We used to receive a set of lego bricks at birth with a number of sets of instructions to choose between – now there are no instructions – this must have been what Giddens meant when he spoke of the self as a project – it is not a given entity, it has to be created again and again.

He now looks at how fixation on the moment, stacking and the lego brick syndrome influence labour, family life, leisure, and consumption.

An accelerated professional life offers flexibility but leads to a whole host of other negative consequences….

In the Corrosion of Character, Richard Sennett describes how successful people in the emergent economies of the 1990s – flexible, adjustable, technologically capable people – experienced a vacuum in the very centre of their lives. They work in sectors such as finance, web design, e-commerce, advertising and journalism, in sectors which have been radically transformed in the information age.

New technology in many ways makes up the backbone of these industries, but at the same time it also forces the labour market to adapt to it. Old-timers with long and vast experience do not have much value in this new setting.

Sennett describes people who have been liberated from the monotonous drudgery of the labour market, but they live under constant pressure to reinvent themselves, update and change their perspective on the job they are doing. There is little of routine in their work, and they enjoy the opportunities on offer, but they experience serious problems in attempting to make their lives hang together as something other than a discontinuous series of events, career moves, and so on.

Some of them are virtually burnt out by the time they are 35. He now quotes some stats (30% of the workforce report mental health issues in the UK) and early burn-out is already in a good position to contend for the title of the civilizational disease of the new century.

Also, long-term planning seems to have disappeared as a concept in the world of work. Short-term stays in jobs are much more common than they used to be and contract work has increased enormously. (I guess this means more intense working?). This means job security is reduced.

This new world of work also favours a particular personality type – adaptable, opportunistic etc, which helps to explain why teaching is now seen as a low-grade profession.

Finally, these changes result in increased uncertainty, not least because the present is opaque but also because the demands of this moment are terrorised by the next.

The effects on family life and leisure-time

Given that fast time beats slow time, when the concept of working at home was introduced, the former was bound to win. Workers may not be expected to be on time any more, but they are expected to be online.

Work has invaded our home lives, and one of the most profound effects is that our family lives have become ‘Taylorised’ (following Bateson) – because increased flexibility in one area of life means less in other areas:

We now have to negotiate how to keep the kids busy so I can fit in with the flexible demands of work. We have lost the sense of slow time in which we just live for the sake of living, family life has become a tit for tat process of negotiating.

Family life is not particular labour-intensive, or capital-intensive, but it is time-intensive – and this is precisely what is absent in today’s society, hence these changes

Furthermore, family life in general is by nature slow and fits the current era badly – frequent changes of life partners are clear indications of the spread of the tyranny of the moment into the intimate sphere. The number of failed marriages and the number of Peter Pans and Bridget Jones are also testimony to this.

Serial Monogamy is a good example of standing still at great speed – the same debates in relationships had over and over again.

Marriages are also under direct pressure from the Tyranny of the Moment in which ever more exciting things are just around the corner, and there is no sense of continuity. Duration and continuity lose out, spontaneity and innovation win.

The Cult of Youth is Caused by the Tyranny of The Moment

When knowledge changes quickly, what role for the older generation? They lose at least some of their relevance and the youth are minded to fashion their own values from fragments – from a mixture of the older generation and X box!

Until quite recently 15 year olds were quite happy to start their adult life – to become properly independent persons – while at the other end of the scale, with age came established certainty and authority.

Today, however, youth, or that ambiguous phase between childhood and adulthood, has extended in both directions – through marketing to the very young and those in their 40s to remain younger. Lasch’s ‘The Culture of Narcissism’ is now truly relevant.

Two of the most serious symptoms of the tyranny of the moment are the cult of youth and the crisis of knowledge transmission – A society which does not value ageing has no interest in where it has come from – and thus no real handle on where it is going.

Our society values spontaneous energy over historical experience (in the new economy) and this is often blamed on advertising and pop culture, but it is all of the above that is really to blame.

Leisure-Time becomes a stressful rush to get more things done…

Staffan Linder talks of The contradictions of Capitalism – a healthy growth rate requires us to produce more efficiently and consume at a faster rate. Leisure time thus turns into a mad rush for intensified consumption. Leisure time becomes like work – we have to organise it, learn to multi-task and stack, to consume more efficiently and spend less time doing just one thing.

The fragmentation of work, consumption, family life and the public sphere brings us to a world where each must construct their own identity – but is such a task manageable or is life inevitably becoming collage-like and filled with singular events and impressions, arbitrariness and spontaneity with no over-arching direction, is the fast-mode becoming hegemonic rather than a mix between fast and slow modes?

Finally, the further social consequences of a life in fragments…

Bauman is far from alone in publishing books such as life in fragments – the dividing of time into ever decreasing units and the lost of internal coherence lead to….

  • Fundamentalism
  • Extreme Opportunism
  • Burn-Outs
  • Politics devoid of vision.

Does the Information Revolution actually increase efficiency?

Obviously with more complex technology we are required to go on courses to learn how to use their functionalities.

But also when we have mobile technologies, the quiet times disappear because we are expected to be always on! When emails reach a certain threshold, we loose convenience and they become oppressive. Similarly he argues that many transport connections designed to speed travel up are cancelled out by traffic jams and queuing….And now we have impatience, which is the transition between fast and slow time , and journeys are filled with things we should be doing.

Chapter Eight – The Pleasures of Slow Time…

Not everyone is affected by the pressures of fast time – but a growing number of people in the developed world are and because fast time affects the production of culture the majority is exposed to such pressures – when you switch on the TV for example.

A brief summary of the main points in Tyranny of the Moment

  1. When there is a surplus, and no scarcity of information, the degree of comprehension falls in proportion with the growth of the amount of information. The more you know, the more you do not know.
  2. The main scarce resource for suppliers of any commodity is the attention of others
  3. The main scarce resource of the inhabitants of an IS are well-functioning filters
  4. Acceleration removes distance, time and space.
  5. When fast and slow time meet, fast time wins
  6. Flexible work causes a loss of flexibility in the non-work areas of life.
  7. When time is partitioned into sufficiently small units it ceases to exist as duration.

There are many academics who write about exponential growth, stacking and acceleration – Giddens and Beck are the figureheads but also Bordieu, and their theme seems to be that there is now a generalised inability to get a coherent overview of everything in this fast moving world.

There are few solutions offered to acceleration and information overload:

Castells just warns against ‘building castles’

  • Giddens talks of dialogic democracy but provides no substance about how this might be achieved
  • Bordieu – simply suggests we hit the off button
  • Baudrillard escapes into dark humour
  • Virillio says he has no solutions

So what to do? Some suggestions:

  • What can be done fast should be done fast
  • Remember that dawdling is a virtue as long as no one gets hurt
  • Recognise that slowness needs protection
  • Treat delays are a blessing in disguise
  • The logic of the wood cabin needs to be globalised
  • All decisions need to exclude as much as they include
  • It is necessary to switch consciously between fast and slow time
  • Recognise/ accept that most things one will never need know about
  • We also need to put the breaks on fast time by….
  • Establishing press rules for the slow production of more types of news.
  • Establishing the rule of less is more – quality over quantity.

He finishes with a number of fairly obvious public/ work level policies for introducing slowness, which I won’t go into.

Age of Absurdity – Why Modern Life Makes it Hard to be Happy

Michael Foley: The Age of Absurdity – Why Modern Life Makes it Hard to Be Happy (2010)

age absurdity foleyMost of what modern society tells you about how to be happy is wrong – at least according to a wealth of psychological and sociological research, most modern philosophers and the the insights of pretty much every religious tradition.

This book slates the messages about how to be happy that we get from the mainstream media – from consumer culture and advertising, and from the self-help industry – there is no simple easy-step guide to happiness, and it certainly can’t be achieved through shopping (at least not meaningful, lasting happiness); instead happiness can only be achieved through introspection and damned hard-work, basically, happiness worth having is a painful process of adjustment.

There’s a lot of sociological themes running through this book, it’s especially relevant to the sociology of emotions (it deals with happiness, but also anxiety and depression), hence why I’m summarising it here.

Part One, which consists of chapter one is just the introduction, which I read but haven’t summarised as everything in it’s covered below!

Part Two – The Sources (of unhappiness) 

Chapter 2 – The Ad and the Id

Executive Summary

The ‘Id’ is the unconscious, untamed aspect of ourselves – the root of our (irrational) wants and desires (opposed in Freudian terms to the more conscious, rational ego) – modern consumer culture stimulates our unconscious desires (for stuff, for sex, for whatever) through advertising and suggests to us that the way to realise happiness is to satisfy these wants, mainly through shopping.

In effect, consumer culture presents to us a norm – let your irrational, unconscious desires lead the way – don’t fight them, give into them, satisfy them through shopping.

However, most religious traditions and the findings of modern neuroscience hold and have found evidence for the validity of the opposite view of unconscious desires – religion tends to see wanting/ desire/ lust as bad, as something to be suppressed or overcome if we are to realise deeper, more meaningful happiness, and neuroscience has demonstrated how we make sub-optimal (bad or wrong) decisions when the unconscious rather than the rational parts of our brain are stimulated.

In short, modern consumer culture tells us that we should give into our desires in order to be happy, yet religious and scientific world-views and evidence tells us that doing so will not make us happy.

shopping-happiness
Shopping won’t make you happy!

More detailed summary

The ad appeals to the ‘Id’ – it appeals to the unconscious, emotional aspects of ourselves through flattering, impressing and stimulating.

Never have adverts been more numerous, ‘entertaining’ and subtly aggressive; and they now infiltrate more corners of our lifeworlds, they are more personalised, and increasingly demand that we interact with them rather than just passively watch them.

This suits the contemporary id, which is rampant, and in no mood to be tamed. Never have so many wanted so much so badly, and never have these wants been so indulged by the advertising industry. Consumer culture (shopping centres and advertising) give us the impression, in fact, that it would be churlish to not want to buy things, and the Id in general embraces this.

Once upon a time, in fact in most religious traditions and many classic and modern philosophies, the id was despised, was seen as something to be suppressed, tamed or overcome. Buddhism is the most obvious example of this – where unconscious desiring is seen as one of the roots of all human suffering. In Buddhism, self-knowledge is applied to generate a method to ‘consciously overcome’ the wanting id.

In Buddhism, the ‘truth of the self’ is that consciousness has no substance – it is merely flux, so all wanting (when it becomes conscious) is fickle – and part of the Buddhist strategy towards happiness is to realise this through meditation – to watch desires rise and then fade, without acting on them, and in this way desires lessen and the ‘mind’ becomes more at peace (less subject to the whims of desire). (NB this is easier said than done!)

Similar ideas of this ‘two-part’ self – the unconscious, emotional wanting side as ‘bad’ and the rational, reflective conscious side as ‘good’, are found in Western philosophies too,– such as Spinoza, Schopenhauer and Nietzsche, but these ideas have not been well-received by a wider audience. Most recently, a similar idea of the self is to be found in Freud’s theory of the self.

Modern Neuro science suggests that the rational brain generally makes wiser decisions than the emotional brain*, as demonstrated by the following experiment:

The neuroscientist Jonathan Cohen put subjects into a scanner and gave them the option of receiving a gift certificate immediately or a certificate for a larger amount in a few weeks time. The prospect of receiving a certificate right away activated the emotional brain, while the prospect of a larger certificate in the future activated the rational brain, the pre-frontal cortex – and the area with the strongest activation decided the choice. Most people opted for the smaller certificate immediately.

Here the chapter ends, somewhat suddenly for my liking, but that’s the way it goes I guess!

*Foley does also point to research showing that the brain isn’t simply divided into the emotional and the rational, the two are interconnected and overlap.

Chapter 3 – The Righteousness of Entitlement and Glamour of Potential

Executive Summary

We live in a culture which suggests to us that the individual is hugely important, and in which we believe that self-fulfilment is not only a basic right, but thoroughly deserved (the righteousness of entitlement) – ‘I believe I have the right to be happy’.

We also believe happiness is easy to achieve – as easy as going on a cruise – realising happiness is not that difficult (the glamour of potential).

However, all of this is an illusion and we need to get over these myths. Here Foley draws on existentialism and suggests that we need to realise the truth of our own individual insignificance, and accept the fact that achieving real happiness is a never ending chore of taking responsibility for our own choices in life, and that there is no guarantee that any of the choices we make will ever lead to true happiness (i.e. we are entitled to nothing).

Having said this we can take some comfort in embracing an absurdist position towards modern life (as do existentialists) – by relishing the fact that living modern life means realising that individual freedom means not happiness but hard-work and uncertainty.

Finally, there is at least some hope of transcendence/ change and great happiness in modern-life, we just need realise as a starting point that these things are not deserved and not easy to achieve, and that I am not that important.

Commentary – My way of looking at this is that modern western culture encourages us to pursue ‘shallow happiness strategies’, while Foley seems to be suggesting that we should pursue what I call ‘deep happiness strategies’ – as I outline in this post – What is Happiness?

More detailed summary

We are all influenced by culture, and over the last couple of centuries the demand for specific rights has degraded into a generalised demand for attention and anger at injustice into a generalised feeling of grievance and resentment, the result is a culture of entitlement, attention-seeking and complaint.

Today we believe that fulfilment is not only a basic right, but thoroughly deserved, and that attaining it requires no more thought, effort or patience that an escalator ride to the next level of the shopping centre.

The following shift in values has occurred – we now prefer:

  • Change over stability
  • Potential over achievement
  • anticipation over appreciation
  • opportunism over loyalty
  • transaction over relationship
  • passivity over engagement
  • eloping over coping
  • entitlement over obligation
  • outwardness over inwardness
  • cheerfulness over concerned

Examples of some of the above lie in the following:

  • Our sense of entitlement is seen in our culture of complaint, and the practice of ‘taking offence’.
  • Shopping has become an end in itself and there is an increasing tendency for shopping pleasure to become detached from the actual goods
  • We are obsessed with travel – which increasingly based on expectation of the promise of the next place.

NB – Foley doesn’t state it explicitly at this point, but he obviously disapproves of the above cultural norms and practices – being constantly on the move and feeling entitled do nothing to foster meaningful happiness. Interestingly, a lot of these themes seem to chime with Zygmunt Bauman’s theory of liquid modernity.

What is to be done about this?

After a quick trip through the Stoics and Christ to demonstrate that we can live in a wealthy world without withdrawing from it, he lands on existentialism as offering us a viable strategy to cope with life in the modern world.

Following Satre, Camus and Kierkegaard Foley now argues that realising and even celebrating the absurdity of modern life is one way we can cope/ thrive in this society.

Two of the absurdities of modern life emphasised by the existentialists =

(1) Just as we realise that we are free, we also come to realise our complete insignificance – applying this to modern times, the absurdity of our culture is that it tells us that we are somebody special and that we deserve recognition (in reality, this simply isn’t the case).

(2) Freedom brings with it the responsibility of unremitting choice, but this does not lead to happiness – choice is unsettling, hard work, and full of uncertainties, but it also brings with it the potential for transcendence. Again applying this to our contemporary culture – the message we get is that we should be happy and that this is easy to achieve, in reality the only way to true happiness is struggle.

So I guess what Foley is saying here is that we should realise the truth of existentialism (not dissimilar to Buddhism) and then adopt all or any of the following attitudes towards this absurdity – enjoy it? Relish it? Play with it? Or (ideally maybe) take part in it and take advantage of the real potential for transcendence?

It strikes me that Charlie Brooker does a very good job of pointing out the absurdities of modern life… especially in this clip!

Chapter 4 – The Old Self and the New Science

‘You can have anything you desire and become anyone you wish to be, and there are no limits to potential, achievement and reward… such are the seductive claims of the frenziedly cheerful self-help industry.

The self-help industry has three basic assumptions:

– Fulfilment is a consequence of worldly success

– There are a number of simple steps for achieving fulfilment

– Anyone who follows such steps will discover vast, untapped potential.

However, the message of serious psychology is the opposite of self-help – fulfilment is not easy, but exhaustingly difficult. Self-help insists on transformation, but psychology shows us how difficult transformation is – the id prevents us from making changes through self-deception, self-righteousness and self-justification.

Foley identifies the following barriers to changing ourselves, these are six reasons why most self-help books won’t work (I’ve put the numbering together myself, I think it adds clarity.)

1. Psychological and sociological research show us we are deluded about our current state of happiness

For example:

– Everyone reports an above average level of happiness, this can’t be possible

– Most people in the west report above average levels of performance at work (this isn’t the case in Asian countries)

– Most us think we are less selfish than we are.

If we don’t have realistic ideas about our starting points, then it is impossible to measure genuine change.

2. It isn’t easy to achieve happiness, it takes sustained effort

Firstly Foley wheels out the old happiness survey research to remind us that happiness levels do not improve with increased income in a country, once average income raises above about $20K/ year.

There is, however, evidence that resisting immediate gratification can bring long term fulfilment as evidenced in Walter Mischel’s 1970 marshmallow experiment:

Mischel sat a succession of four year old children in front of a marshmallow on a plate and explained that he had to leave the room for a moment but that, if the marshmallow was still uneaten when he returned, the reward would be two marshmallows instead of one. Only a third managed to resist the urge to ear it and when Mischel surveyed the children fifteen years later he discovered that those with self control had turned out to be more successful in every way, while the most ‘immediate scoffers’ were more likely to be low achievers and to have drug and alcohol problems.

Next Foley cites some interesting sounding research by Richard Easterlin who surveyed young people about what they thought they needed to leave the ‘good life’ and then surveyed them later in life – the one’s how had realised their aspirations, had just developed new, higher materialistic aspirations. This is the problem of the headonic treadmill – when we get the things/ states/ people we want, we quickly adapt to them and get used to them and the just want more – we up our level of wanting, suggesting that simplistic strategies of acquisition do nothing to improve our actual levels of well-being.

3. We justify our own beliefs to ourself (which tells us it’s OK to carry on just as we are)

-A classic example of this Leon Festinger’s research based on his infiltration of a UFO cult in America – the followers believed that a UFO would save them from a doomed world on 21st December 1954 – but when it failed to turn up, the leader convinced them (and/ or they convinced themselves) that this must be evidence of the truth of their believes – their faith in salvation had in effect saved the doomed world, or at least so they believed.

Foley also cites the examples of violent people in relationships and violent political leaders, who justify their violent atrocities in numerous ways (kind of like Matza’s techniques of neutralisation)/

4. We have a ‘set point’ of happiness, which we revert back to after change occurs

The reality about the future is that it is never as amazing or as bad as we expect it to be – we get used to pretty much any state pretty quickly – we adapt, thus the hopes of self-transformation touted in self-help books are extremely likely to be exaggerated compared to the experience of actually realising the transformation.

5. Our position relative to others effects our happiness (so if everyone’s status changes, so will our level of happiness)

Here Foley cites the classic example of bronze medal winners being happier than silver medal winners because the later compare themselves to fourth place, while the former compare themselves to first place.

Foley also suggests that there is cultural pressure towards being better than the next person – and we live in a society where we invent new ways of being superior – he cites ‘coolness’ as an example – but the numerous forms of cultural capital proudly displayed by the middle classes would be better illustrative to my mind.

6. The asymmetry of emotions

The negative effects of going through a painful process, for example, taking a wage-cut, are greater than the positive effects of going through a pleasurable process, for example getting a pay rise. This suggests that any gains we make are more fragile than we might think – we might get a 10% pay increase this year, but if we then get a 5% pay decrease the year after, we’ll probably feel worse off, even though we’re still better off than our starting point!

As a solution to these 6 delusions Foley suggests CBT, or Cognitive Behavioural Therapy – he draws here on Albert Ellis who further developed Rational Emotive Behaviour Therapy – which was intended for the multitude suffering from unrealistic expectations – Ellis’ unholy trinity was the three crippling musts – ‘I must succeed’; ‘everyone must treat me well; ‘the world must be easy’ (he called the three together musterbation’ – related to the three curses of perfectionism, neediness and stupidity. Foley now suggests that we should have balloons floating above cities saying such things as ‘ failure is more common than success’; ‘many will dislike you, no matter what you do’; and ‘the world will not oblige’.

He finishes the chapter by pointing out that a few quick sessions of CBT may help change a few thought patterns, but probably won’t help us overcome the delusions of modern life – The Buddha for example realised that realising genuine happiness would necessarily involve a very long and painful process of introspection.

Chapter 5 – The Quest and the Grail

There are many meta narratives still competing for our attention in the ‘life-explanation and strategy market’ – from religion to politics to evolutionary psychology. There is a temptation to surrender to one belief system, there is evidence after all that believers are happier, but many of these BIG solutions involve too much commitment for most people, and many of the big thinkers who developed strategies for self-transcendence didn’t actually lead regular lives in ordinary society.

So we are left with a situation in which we are forced to pick and mix a strategy of ‘how to live’ from many different systems of thought, and the big question is what do we choose and how?

The American pyschologists Peterson and Seligman observed many cultures and tried to extract the universals for how to live well. They found that the following six elements kept turning up:

– Humaneness

-Temperance

-Wisdom

– Justice

– Courage

-Transcendence

While acknowledging that finding that ‘transcendence’ was surprising, Foley actually dismisses the above research as not really finding anything that interesting, and being too platitudinous.

He suggests that we should instead see what the great thinkers say about how we should seek to live well – and here the problem is that what they say is in contradistinction to what modern society suggests the good life should be about.

Many of the great thinkers (religious and philosophical mentioned earlier) emphasise the importance of (a) an awareness of our own mortality and thus relative insignificance and (b) the importance of striving and struggling to achieve transformation via detachment, struggle self-knowledge.

He also points out that most of these thinkers did it for themselves, none of them passively accepted the existing order of things, and none of them wanted an easy life.

Next Section – The Strategies (by which we’ve been duped into thinking that being happy is easy)

Sociological Perspectives on Identity (1)

A brief summary of Steph Lawler’s ‘Identity’ – Chapter One – Stories, Memories, Identities

Introduction: living lives and telling stories

‘We endlessly tell stories, both about ourselves and others, and it is through these stories that we make sense of ourselves.’

This chapter explores the perspective which sees people engaged in a creative process of producing identities through assembling various memories, experiences and episodes within narrative. From this perspective, identities are not seen as ‘fake’ in any way, but as creatively produced by selecting from an enormous range of raw materials.

Paul Ricouer identifies three things as crucial to narrative – characters, action and plot. The plot is what brings together everything into a meaningful whole, and both narrator and audience take part in emplotment – through a shared cultural understanding that these events have a place in this narrative.

A sense of time is crucial to understanding our identities – narratives link events in sequence through time – thus we come to understand ourselves as developing from a certain point and moving forwards to a future point, this is crucially a process which involves interpretation, and thus is creative.

However, the narrative cannot stand alone, in order for it to make sense it must stand in relation to broader cultural frames of reference.

Sociological thinking about narratives

Stanley and Morgan (1993) identify five trends which have led to an increasing focus on narrative within sociology –

1. A turn to textuality – where texts are increasingly seen as products rather than reflecting reality

2. A questioning of the distinction between structure and agency

3. An examination of referentiality and lives – attention to the relationship between representations of lives and the lives themselves

4. An increasing attention to time

5. A turn to intertextuality – we increasingly draw on other texts to tell our stories

What is a narrative?

A narrative is a synthesis of heterogeneous elements brought together through the interpretive process of emplotment.

According to Paul Ricouer, there are three main forms of synthesis at work in emplotment:

– between many events and one story

– between dissonance and concordance

– between open time and time as something which is over with.

Through the process of emplotment, we turn events into episodes, but this is an interpretive processes, because by looking back at the past self, we have no more direct access to that person than any one else.

Narrative and identity

Emplotment configures a self which appears as the inevitable outcome and actualisation of the episodes which constitute a life. The self is understood as unfolding through episodes which both express and constitute that self. Identity is constituted over time and through narrative, and the whole processes is profoundly social.

Identity is not something foundational, but it is something produced through all of the above processes.

In narrating stories, we interpret memories, but these memories are themselves interpretations.

Evidence for this lies in an experiment carried out by Frederic Bartlett in 1932: white north American college students were asked to read a Native American legend and then recall the events as accurately as possible. Bartlett found that students tended to forget those parts of the story which did not fit their cultural framework or expectations.

We engage in what Ian Hacking calls ‘memero-politics’ – we reinterpret past events in light of present knowledge. Thus (according to Ricouer) the process of constructing a narrative is teleological – the story we tell is that we are who we are because of past events, but in ‘reality’ the events we select to explain how we got here are selected because they seam meaningful now.

As Kiekergaard said ‘live is lived forwards, but understood backwards’ – but it might be better to understand life as being both lived and understood both forward and backward – in a spiral movement of constant interpretation and reinterpretation.

Self and other

A focus on narrative challenges the concept of the atomised individual and replaces it with a concept of a person enmeshed in and produced within webs of social relations – this is for two major reasons – first because life stories must always contain the stories of others and second because the social world can itself be seen as storied.

Two early ways this happens are through the teaching of literature and history in school – the former encourages us to identify with characters and reflect on our inner selves, and the later offers us a way to understand our own personal history in relation to the social world.

Identifying with the subjects of pain

Carol Steedman argues that identifying with the pain and suffering of others is a common way of developing self-understanding. This has been the case since the 18th century, identification with someone worse off than we are is common place.

This may go some way to helping us understand the current fascination with trauma narratives – such as those who suffered abusive childhoods.

Identifying with victims of suffering is one way in which those in power can obtain authority – however, this can only ever be imagined and it can backfire dramatically. There are limits on the stories we can borrow from.

Nb – I’m not convinced that this is that significant – the powerful only choose to identify with certain types of suffering others (not the poor, disabled or refugees for example) and I’m sure there’s more of an identification with those who are self-made despite social disadvantage?

The Hidden Privileges of Identity: On Being Middle Class

A summary of Steph Lawler’s ‘Sociological Perspectives on Identity’, chapter 7

During summer 2000 and in January 2001, there were two separate community-protests over the housing of child-offenders in the local community, one in a working-class area, by working-class people, another in a middle class area, by middle-class people.

The first protest took place in a working class housing estate in Palsgrove, Portsmouth, in which local residents were demanding the removal men believed to be sex offenders already living in the area; the second protest took place in middle-class Balham, London, where locals were protesting against a proposition to build a residential centre for sex-offenders, including child sex-offenders.

Both received press coverage, but both the amount and the tone of the reporting differed.

The working-class protest received an enormous amount of coverage, and commentary, with the women involved presented in dismissive and disgusted terms and not a single broad sheet newspaper reported their protest as rational or understandable, preferring to cast the protesters as a mob of rioters. In addition, frequent reference was made to personal aspects of their lives – such as their appearance, how they furnished their homes, their relationship status, as well as details of their past relationships.

In contrast, the middle class mothers in Balham were almost entirely sympathetic – they were presented as ‘vigilant’ rather than vigilante, and identification was invited so they became part of an imagined ‘we’ uniting against the sex-offenders; there was minimal reference to their personal lives – other than details of their children’ ages and their jobs, which were all ‘solidly professional’.

The Paulsgrave women were vilified across three different axes:

  • Their bodily appearance
  • Their ignorance or lack of understanding
  • Their inadequacy as mothers

And through this vilification their protests were rendered ridiculous through assumptions of immorality, incompetence and ignorance.

Lawler now asks what can these representations tell us about identity? They tell us nothing about the subjectivities of the people involved – but they do tell us something about how class is conferred on people: there is a long tradition of representing the working class as a mob, against which middle-class individuality is asserted, but it is doubtful that anyone identifies subjectively as part of a mob, so mob-identity is conferred on the working classes rather than coming from them and/ or how they feel about themselves.

One of the subtlest ways this works is through the middle classes claiming to ‘know’ the working classes, thus claiming the right to identify them (when in reality, they don’t know them at all).

One of the ways class works is through marking identities as ‘wrong’ or ‘right’, pathological or healthy, normal or abnormal, and classed identities are part of the stakes in class politics – working class people don’t know the right things, they don’t value the right things, they don’t look right and they don’t act right, while the middle classes silently pass as normal.

This chapter looks at how middle class identities are normalised, and defined as ‘right’ against a working class identity which is defined (by the middle classes) as wrong. This is important for two reasons

1. We have traditionally understood class in economic terms, but increasingly cultural markers matter.

2. Class still matters as a source of identity but recently it has taken a back seat as academics have focused on other aspects of identity – such as sexuality.

‘What we read as objective class divisions are produced and maintained by the middle class in the minutiae of everyday practice, as judgements of culture are put into effect’ (Skeggs, 2004, 118).

The persistence of class

Class divisions and distinctions have not disappeared, class has not ceased to be a meaningful frame for analysis, instead it has become an absent presence – it circulates socially while being unnamed.

The drawing of class distinctions has become displaced onto individual persons and families who are approved or disapproved of.

As Bourdieu has demonstrated ‘taste’ is now one of the primary means through which class is configured – that which is tasteful is seen as middle class, and vice-versa for vulgar working class taste – the problem here is that there is nothing natural about taste – it is simply what the middle class say it is.

Expressions of disgust at working-class existence remain rife among middle class commentators and middle classness relies on the expulsion and exclusion of (what is held to be) working classness.

(Lawler thus adopts a relational approach to class and sees it as dynamic, rather than static categories dependent on economic position).

She effectively argues that the public bourgeoisie (mainly journalists and academics, and social commentators), those who are low in economic capital, but high in cultural capital, use their voices to express contempt for the working classes, and at the same time position their middle class selves against them.

Together this group, what Bourdieu refers to as the ‘dominated section of the dominant class’ construct a doxic understanding of class – they have a shared understanding of what working class and middle class means, and this is largely goes undiscussed.

This is ultimately all about power, about the middle classes trying to position themselves above the working classes by defining them as inferior along the axis of taste.

Having the knowledge

Lawler begins by quoting a definition of cultural capital form Johnson (1993)…

Cultural Capital refers to a specific form of knowledge which ‘equips the social agent with empathy towards, appreciation for or competence in deciphering cultural relations and cultural artefacts…. cultural capital is accumulated through a long process of acquisitions or inculcation which includes the pedagogical action of the family or group members (family, education), educated members of the social formation (diffuse, education) and social institutions (institutionalised education)’

For Bourdieu, it it is only the cultural capital of the middle classes which is legitimised and becomes symbolic capital – around which prestige and status are conferred – it is only middle class tastes, knowledges, and dispositions which are encoded as inherently ‘right’.

However, the fact that all of this is social in origin, and the fact that power is operating here is obscured, because

– part of this process of constructing middle-class ness (converting cultural capital into symbolic capital) involves using knowledge itself

– because the cultural capital is marked as ‘normal’ the fact that it is classed at all is obscured.

– the competencies and knowledges associated with the middle class are not generally seen as social mechanisms because they are believed to be part of the self, and thus class is not seen as an objective position but it becomes configured into ‘who we are’.

On this final point, Sennet and Cobb (1977) famously observed that class inflicts hidden injuries – in terms of the ridicule, shaming, silence and self-scrutiny which go along with a position of pathology.

What Lawler’s basically describing above, I believe, is the process of individualisation – the cultural capital dimension of class is social in origin and circulation, but part of that circulation involves sending out the message that these tastes are all down to the individual – thus if someone has ‘superior’ ‘middle class’ tastes they believe they have chosen this, and vice versa for those with vulgar working-class tastes – they are invited by the middle classes to feel a sense of shame about this and to blame themselves for their own inferiority.

Habitus and the subject

Bourdieu’s concept of the habitus is central to his analysis of social identity and is his attempt to theorise the ways in which the social is incorporated into the self.

Bourdieu’s concept of the habitus has been described as ‘second sense’, ‘practical sense’, or ‘second nature’ that equips people with ‘know-how’. Habitus refers to both physical and psychological aspects of the self – it is the way we stand, how we move, how we look and how we feel, and it is our dispositions, attitudes and tastes, so it is a concept which cuts across traditional mind-body splits, with much of its force deriving from non-conscious elements.

In short, the habitus is not only something someone has, it is learned in the mind-body, it is what one is.

The habitus has also been referred to as ‘socialised subjectivity’, or ’embodied history’, a result of ‘deep socialisation’. It is learned, but we have forgotten that it is learned and so as far as we are concerned what we do and who we are ‘just natural’.

What all of the above suggests is that ‘taste’ is not innate but learned through deep socialisation of the habitus, furthermore what gets to count as ‘tasteful’ is what the group with the power to name things as tasteful decide is tasteful.

Habitus is not determining, but generative. It is dynamic, so it does not reproduce itself perfectly.

Central to the concept of habitus is relationality – habitus only makes sense in the context of specific local contexts or ‘fields’ – a field is a network of objective relations between positions. Fields are the games for which the rules of the game equip us.

Habitus are also relational in another sense – they exist in relation to one another – they carry the traces, or the lines along which society is divided – class, gender, ethnicity, the whole lot.

Habitus are also hierarchical – some are normalised, some pathological and they clash, and part of the embodied sense of habitus is the judgement of other habitus – however, only some people have the power to make judgements stick.

What gives habitus its power is that it’s not about what you do, or how you act, but about who you are, and some people (the middle classes) have more ability to make judgements about legitimate taste stick than others.

Disgusting subjects: narratives of lack…

Savage et al (2001) found that people were frequently uncomfortable and evasive when talking about class as a system, but middle class people consistently characterise working class people in the most horrific terms. The working classes being talked about are rarely named in class terms, but it is clear who the targets are.

Lawler now gives an example of Les Back (2002) who, when giving a paper on white working class youth was asked by an academic member of the audience whether ‘he was going to do the voices’ – imagine the outrage if this had been asked in relation to a study on an ethnic minority group, yet there was no such outrage surrounding ‘parodying’ the working classes.

Back observes that not only do the working class not deserve to be taken seriously, it is also assumed that they are easy to read and know, although they are seen as unable to know themselves.

The working classes are probably most obviously marked out by their appearance – their clothes and general demeanour – in the UK references are made to shell suits, large gold earrings and tightly permed hair – such easy signfiers do a great deal to code class difference and it is left to the reader (or viewer) to fill in the gaps by understanding that such appearances are the result of pathology.

Some commentators also comment with awed horror on the environments where working class people live and are often surprised that ‘people live there’, forgetting that for working class people these environments are completely normal.

There is also a discourse which has coded such working class areas as high-crime areas, given legitimacy through crime-mapping software.

Landscape and inhabitants are frequently described in terms of lack, but it in these discussions it is not so much money they lack, but taste.

On top of criticising working class landscapes and dress, character traits are also part of the construction of the working classes – Lawler now summarises the ways in which the working classes are demonised –

‘As cigarette-smoking teenage mothers, rearing children in deprived and arid backgrounds of instability, emotional chaos, parental strife, of moral vacuum.. whose children will grow up as socially autistic adults with little expectations and even less talent.’

Above all, she says they are held to lack everything perceived as having value.

This discourse of lack defines social policy – which mainly focuses around tackling social exclusion where social class is concerned.

Lawler is very critical of such accounts – especially of Simon Charlseworth’s (2000) account of working class life as picture bleak and empty, devoid of meaning – we have to ask – is this about working class life, or about a way of looking at it?

Two sociologists who argue coherently against such narratives of lack are Beverly Skeggs and Angella McRobbie

And narratives of decline…

Where discussion of the working classes is concerned, narratives of lack are accompanied by narratives of decline.

The narrative of decline is the tale that the working class used to be respectable, but that the decline of heavy industry has lead to the working class either moving upward to become middle class, or behind, effectively no longer having any value.

The working classes are also seen as suffering from outdated political values, or cultural lag, while progress and reason are on the side of the government and the middle classes. The characterisation of the underlcass has done little to change this.

All of this is worse for working class women get a double negative-label – not only working class but also characterised as unfeminine – and those who try to be feminine are themselves disparaged for it.

The move from working class to underclass also has a gendered dimension.

Representations of the working classes of the past emphasise masculinity – and radicalised, politicised male workers at least having respectability.

However, representations of the new underclass are feminised – with the teenage mother being the symbol of spite – hence we have a gendering of the ‘lower’ classes, all fundamentally tied into middle class attempts to empower themselves don’t forget.

We get the impression from current representations that the wc used to be OK but now they are a problem.

Savage argues that this is not the case – only a few wc members manage to claim the noble WC identity referred to above – the middle class have always seen an attempted to portray the WC as something problematic.

All that has changed is that today we don’t talk explicitly about ‘class’; instead the ‘disgusting’ traits are presented as the outcome of individual and familial pathology… representations of working class people are marked by disapproval or disdain not for the ‘objective’ markers of their position, but for (what are perceived to be) their identities. Their clothes, their bodies, their localities are all seen as tasteless, and faulty.

Lawler now notes that exactly how disgust comes to operate through class is relatively underexplored, but it is so important because it is an emotion which is literally experience in the body, so is very much part of us, but it is also social, because it needs collective affirmation – disgust is thus very much where the personal meets the social.

Lawler now reminds us that disgust does not arise because of something intrinsic within the object, but out of a relation between the disgusted and the ‘disgusting’ object.

Disgust is also bound up with identity – it works to push away others and establish one’s own identity as non-disgusting.

At the end of the day disgust is the opposite of taste, and the two are flexible – forever changing – what is tasteful today may not be so tomorrow – consider the way the middle classes adapt in the face of popularisation through mass consumption. This change however only serves to highlight the fragility of these classes boundaries via good taste and disgust – one is always aware that one can become the other, and hence the crucial importance of working on maintaining boundaries.

Concluding remarks

Basically a reminder that there lies an anxiety at the heart of all identities.

Sociological Perspectives on Identity

Identity LawlerA summary of Michel Foucault’s work on identity, deviance and normality, governmentality, subjectification and technologies of the self, taken from Steph Lawler’s ‘Identity’ (2014) – also includes Nikolas Rose’s development of Foucault’s work.

If there’s one central idea in this chapter (IMO) it’s this – ‘In today’s society, we have little choice but to be tied into a project of the self in which the self becomes something to be worked on – and it is in this way that power works through us.’

Becoming ourselves: governing and/ through identities

In the contemporary West it is hard to avoid the idea that the self is a project to be worked on. We see this everywhere, but especially in self-help books, therapy, the various experts promising to guide us through different stages of our lives and, of course, in the media: in chat-shows and ‘make-over’ programmes for example.

All of this is presented as freeing, as if working on the self involves freeing us of the oppressive influences of others.

What Nikolas Rose calls the ‘norm of autonomy’ has become an orthodoxy in many discussions about identity – but we should consider the argument that when we are incited to be ‘free’, we are then the most enmeshed in in the workings of power – the relationship of the self to itself within a contemporary project of self-actualisation, self-awareness and self-improvement has become a norm which ties us to relentless self-scrutiny, in which we watch ourselves for signs of deviancy and wrong doing.

We can only perceive such a project of the self as being about autonomy if we perceive power as a repressive and denying force.

An alternative perspective, associated with Michel Foucault, envisages power as a force which works positively through our desires and our selves, which sees categories of subject as produced through forms of knowledge.

(A legitimate question to ask would be why are we so obsessed with the idea of individual autonomy when we live such complex, interdependent lives.)

Power/ knowledge

MIchel Foucault
Michel Foucault – ‘Power Produces Truths’

The Enlightenment view = ‘knowledge is power’ – if we obtain knowledge this will free us from the workings of power. This assumes a true self which lies outside or beyond power and self-knowledge, realised through reason.

Foucault – opposes the view that knowledge is power – one of the ways in which power works is through producing ‘truths’ about the world. These truths come to seem obvious, necessary and self-evident, they form part of the coherence of the social world and place the self within it.

Foucault argues that there has been a gradual shift in the uses and forms of power in the last 150 years in the West –

From juridical, or law-like power – which uses the language of rights and obligations.

To forms of normalising, or regulatory power – which uses the language of health, normality and self-fulfilment.

Juridical power says ‘obey me or you will be punished’, regulatory power says ‘obey me so that you can be happy’. This is a form of power which doesn’t rely on coercion, but one in which we scrutinise and regulate ourselves, the self comes to act on itself.

For Foucault, power is at its most powerful when it is its least repressive – power works not just though denying but through offering ways of being and pleasure.

As Tom Inglis puts it – ‘power announces truth’ – its truths are forged on the basis of knowledge, but this refers not to knowledge about a set of facts but rather to what might be termed ways of knowing, or in Foucauldian terms discourse.

Discourses define what can be said and thought, and how these things can be said and thought. – they are verbal or non-verbal ways of organising the world, creating ways of conceptualising that are seen as axiomatically obvious – they are epistemological enforcers (Said, 1991). (I guess they’re sort of like paradigms!)

An example of a discourse today is to understand present emotional problems as stemming from a troubled childhood, rather than because you’ve been cursed by a witch-doctor – the later would just not be taken seriously, it is outside of the discourse of understanding negative emotions.

Discourse differs to the concept of ideology because ideology presupposes a real which is beyond ideology which the ideology obscures – to speak of discourses is to speak of the knowledges which produce the truth. Foucault, in fact talks of the politics of truth.

What this line of questioning opens up is the possibility that who we and who other people are is an effect of what we know ourselves and others to be, that it is discourses which have produced categories of person and that this is how we understand ourselves.

Making people up

A good example of how categories of people are produced can be found in the way many Westerners think about sexuality – many people don’t just think of sex as something they do, they think of sex as something they are.

Foucault argues that this way of brining together sexuality and identity is relatively recent. In the 19th century, same-sex relations occurred, but there was no special consideration given to ‘being homosexual’.

It was throughout the 20th century, along with the new pseudo-science of Sexology in which people categorised the minutiae of sexual activity, that the category of the homosexual became created as a subject, and thus the identity of the homosexual was produced (or you might say, invented/ constructed). Alongside this, the category of heterosexual also needed to be produced, because homosexuality has no meaning without it.

These new categories of knowledge in fact produced what they aimed to describe – categories of person.

Foucault wants to challenge the ‘sexual liberation’ discourse – especially the idea that new apparent sexual freedoms bring with them an absence of power and control. With increased interest in sexuality in the 20th century came new forms of scrutiny as more experts emerged – and while the invention of sexual subjects has clearly been liberating for some, it has also become a means whereby we increasingly scrutinise ourselves for signs of abnormality and unhealthiness.

This legacy goes beyond sexual identity to extend into every area of our lives and our identities.

Technologies of the self

One way in which power works is through categorising people in terms through which they come to understand themselves – in this sense subjectivities are created in regimes of knowledge and power.

In explaining the relationship of the self to itself, Foucault uses the term subjectification. There are two meanings of the word subject – subject to someone else through control and dependence and tied to one’s own identity by a conscience or self-knowledge. Both meanings suggest a form of power which subjugates and makes subject to, according to Foucault.

Through subjectification, people become tied to specific identities, they become subjects, but they also become subject-ed to the rules and norms engendered by a set of knowledges about these identities.

We have little choice but to be tied into a project of the self in which the self becomes something to be worked on – and it is in this way that power works through us.

We are subjected subjects across many forms of identity – parent, worker, citizen, for example, all of which demand a level of scrutiny to maintain. The way government works today is through establishing normal-abnormal categories along these various dimensions of identity and then people employ technologies of the self in order to stay within the boundaries of normality (usually) – (the struggle is to keep up, or stay ahead, if you like!)

Psy knowledge, expertise and authority

Psy knowledges includes such disciplines as medicine, psychiatry, psychology and pedagogy, which produce ‘truths’ about the self and its relation to others. These have gained ascendancy in the West, especially since these knowledges have escaped the boundaries of academia and inform a whole of host of professional practices (social work and teaching for example) and our daily lives through such things as chat-shows and gossip magazines.

Nikolas Rose argues that it is hard to conceive of person-hood today without reference to ‘psy.’

Psy governs through using regulatory or normalising power – not working in spite of our desires, but through them – and generating specific kinds of desire in the first place.

This process started about 150 years ago through the development of ‘technologies of responsibilisation’ – when the home became perceived as the counterweight to the state, new experts in the fields of medicine and education emerged to regulate private life – and these experts govern through making assertions about the way we should act as subjects, which go largely unquestioned.

Over the years subjects have come to understand themselves as people who should be morally responsible for their own actions by monitoring the minutiae of daily-life – two examples of how this is achieved in the context of education are the teaching of English literature in schools and more recently circle time – both of which encourage the development of a self-reflecting, moral, responsibilised subject.

The norm of autonomy and the scrutiny of the soul

Rose argues that we now live in a psychotherapeutic society in which the self is understood as an inner state, to be sought out, understood, and actualised. This doesn’t so much manifest itself as narcissism, but is rather something we are stuck with – most of us can’t imagine attempting to understand ourselves without the discourses of psy.

Therapy has now become the norm for many areas of social life – that is reflecting on inner states is seen to be a cure for all sorts of social ills. Rose’s task is show how this therapeutic culture which stresses autonomy actually ties us more closely to the workings of power.

Foucault suggested that abnormal and normal manifestations of sex became axes around which people’s behaviour could be judged – Rose has broadened this out – now it is not normality which is the goal, but rather autonomy, and he applies this to much more than the sexual dimension of identities.

We live in an era where dependency now means pathology – but the path to autonomy means adhering to the strictures of psy expertise and watching and monitoring ourselves more closely.

Rose argues that there are four principle sets of concern around the goal of autonomy:

  1. A subjectification of work – work is understood as significant in terms of identity
  2. A pyschologisation of the mundane – life events such as marriages and births are seen as having a potentially transformative role in life.
  3. A therapeutics of fininitude – chapters in our life ending are now seen as times of potential danger but also possibility for personal growth.
  4. A neurotisation of social intercourse – social ills have come to be understood in terms of problems stemming from the ways we interact with others.

Across these four dimensions, we see the production of a particular kind of self – ideally autonomous, self-actualising, exercising choice, and a project to be worked on.

For Rose, in a therapeutised culture, social ills become personal problems to be worked on. We are not necessarily free, because we are now obliged to live our lives as projects.

The state of the therapeutic

States still exercise regulatory, normalising power through the deployment of expertise. This is most notable in expert knowledge surrounding the child.

The state takes a special interest in producing the right kind of citizen – citizens who believe themselves to be free and who believe there are equal opportunities. This is primarily done through exploiting the desire of parents to be ‘good parents’, especially mothers. For example:

– parents are enjoined to turn learning into play

– they should evoke reason and rightness

– states employ numerous professionals which subject parenting to scrutiny

Parents are encouraged to engender a sense of autonomy in their children, but this autonomy is a myth – the belief that children can do anything will not reduce structural barriers to their achieving certain goals in life.

The state also retains its ability to use coercive measures, though these are rarely deployed, such as:

– parenting orders

– parenting contracts

– ASBOs

– Those who are subjected to these things fall into the category of ‘failed parent’ (or ‘failed human’) and if people are subject to these things, the failures are understood as their own or their parents’ fault, not because of social ills. The discourses of psy rest on these categories of exclusion.

Resisting these discourses is not straightforward – Foucault offers no straightforward method, other than to constantly question the desirability and legitimacy of such categories.

Evaluations of this perspective

The strength of this perspective lies in highlighting the myth of individual autonomy and the fact that your ‘identity’ isn’t really your own – you are a product of social categories, which in turn are products of power relations.

One problem is that this perspective cannot explain why people make such intense investments in their selves.

Lawler finishes the chapter by recommending Barry Smart’s ‘Michel Foucault’ (1985) and Michele Barret’s ‘The Politics of Truth: From Marx to Foucault’ (1991) as good introductions to Foucault’s work.

Giddens – The Trajectory of the Self

A Summary of chapter three of Anthony Giddens’ Modernity and Self-Identity

Self-identity, history, modernity

Drawing on a therapeutic text – ‘Self-Therapy’ by Janette Rainwater – Giddens selects ten features which are distinctive about the search for self-identity in the late modern age:

  1. The self is seen as a reflexive project for which the indivdual is responsible. Self-understanding is relegated to the more inclusive and fundamental aim of rebuilding a more rewarding sense of identity

  2. The self forms a trajectory of development from the the past to the anticipated future. The lifespan rather than external events is in the foreground, the later are cast as either fortuitous or throwing up barriers which need to be overcome.

  3. Reflexivity becomes continuous – the individual continuously asks the question ‘what am I doing in this moment, and what can I do to change?’ In this, reflexivity belongs to the reflexive historicity of modernity.

  4. The narrative of the self is made explicit – in the keeping of an autobiography – which requires continual creative input.

  5. Self-actualisation implies the control of time – essentially, the establishing of zones of time which have only remote connections with external temporal orders. Holding a dialogue with time is the very basis of self-realisation, and using the ever-present moment to direct one’s future life course is essential.

  6. The reflexivity of the self extends to the body. Awareness of the body is central to the grasping of the moment. The point here is to establish a differentiated self, not to disolve the ego.

  7. Self-actualisation is understood as a balance between opportunity and risk. The individual has to be prepared to take on greater levels of risk than is normal – to change is to risk things getting worse

  8. The moral thread of self-atualisation is one of authenticity… Personal growth depends on conquering emotional blocks and tensions that prevent us from understanding ourself – recover or repeat old habits is the mantra

  9. The life course is seen as a series of ‘passages’. All such transitions involve losss.

  10. The line of development of the self is internally referential – it is the creation of a personal belief system by which someone changes – one’s first loyalty is to oneself.

    The next question Giddens asks is how can we connect up these ten features of self-identity to the institutional transformations characteristic of the late-modern world? (Well, he is a sociologist, after all!)

Lifestyle and Life Plans

Therapy is a response to the backdrop to the existential terrain of late modern life which consists of the following features:

  • it is reflexively organised

  • it is permeated by abstract systems

  • the reordering of time and space has realigned the global and the local.

All of this has resulted in the primacy of lifestyle – A lifestyle may be defined as a more or less integrated set of practices which an individual embraces because they give material form to a particular narrative of self-identity. A lifestyle implies a plurality of choices – it is something which is adopted rather than handed down (and should not merely be conflated with consumerism in this instance).

(NB Giddens also says that we do not all have complete freedom of choice over our lifestyles – we are restricted by work, and by class etc… and moreover, the lifestyle pattern we choose limits what we can do if we wish to maintain an authentic narrative of the self.) (NBB – If you’re an A level sociology student, a recent podcast by the AQA criticises Giddens for not saying what I’ve he’s just said in this book that he wrote, thus that particular podcast is wrong.)

The plurality of choices which confronts the individual in this derives from several influences:

  1. We live in a post-traditional order, the signposts offered by tradition are now blank.

  2. We have a pluralisation of lifeworlds – the millieu to which we are exposed are much more diverse.

  3. Experts do not agree, so there is no longer a certain source of knowledge.

  4. The prevalance of mediated experiences – the collage effect of the media – we have new communities and shed loads of new possibilities

Life planning becomes essential in the above social context – life planning is an attempt to ‘colonise the future’ under conditions of social uncertainty – teenagers who ‘drift around’ today are increasingly going against the norm!

Two things in particular change in this context – (1) The Pure Relationship comes to be crucial to the reflexive project of the self and (2) the body becomes subject of ever greater levels of personal control – both become attempts by the individual to sustain a ‘narrative of the self‘.

Neoliberalism in India – The Consequences

neoliberalism IndiaA brief summary of part of Arundhati Roy’s ‘Capitalism: A Ghost Story’ – In which she explores some of the consequences of privatisation (part of neoliberalisation) in India.

‘Trickle down hasn’t worked in India, but gush up certainly has’

The era of the privatisation of everything has made the Indian economy one of the fasted growing in the world and most of this wealth has gushed up to India’s Corporate Elite.

In India today, a nation of 1.2 billion people, one hundred people own assets equivalent to 25% of the GDP, while a 300 million strong middle class live among the ghosts of the 250 00 debt-ridden farmers who have killed themselves and the 800 million who have been impoverished and dispossessed and live on less than twenty Indian rupees a day.

The most egregious expression of this inequality is Antilla, a building on Altamount Road in Mumbai which belongs to India’s richest man Mukesh Ambanni. It is the most expensive dwelling ever built: it has 27 floors, including 6 for parking, 3 helipads, 600 servants and a 27 story vertical wall of grass. Ambanni is worth $20 billion dollars and his company, Reliance Industries Limited (RIL) has a market capitalisation of $47 billion.

Antilla Mumba

Ambanni’s RIL Corporation is one of a handful which run India, some of the others being Tata and Vedanta, the later of which are truly global in scope – Tata, for example, runs more than one hundred companies in 80 countries.

The consequence of this concentration of wealth, is an increase in corruption, or as Roy puts it – ‘As gush up continues, so more money flows through the institutions of government’. As an example, in 2011, a corrupt minister of communications and information undervalued 2G phone licences by $40 billion dollars, to the benefit of the telecommunications companies which now profit from them, effectively costing Indian taxpayers $40 billion of revenue.

How the Elite in India Benefit from Neoliberal Policies

The way this typically works is that a corrupt government official signs a ‘Memorandum of Understanding’ (MoU) with a Corporation which privatises a chunk of publicly owned land, giving that corporation the right to use that land to establish a business – this either takes the form of mining the raw materials from under the land, or establishing a range of other projects such as Agribusinesses, Special Economic Zones, Dams, and even Formula One racing circuits.

Taxes are typically kept very low in these deals – often sow low in that local people see little of the financial benefit of the new business.

Chhattisgarh
Chhattisgarh

This is especially true were mining is concerned. In 2005, for example, the state governments of Chhattisgarh, Orissa, and Jharkhand signed hundreds of memorandums of understanding with private corporations, turning over trillions of dollars of bauxite, iron ore and other minerals for a pittance – royalties (effectively taxes) ranged from 0.5% to 7%, with the companies allowed to keep up to 99% of the revenue gained from these resources. (Allowing people like Ambanni to build their 27 story houses, rather than the money being used for food for the majority of the Indian population.)

In a third strand of Neoliberal policy, companies are subjected to very little regulation. It seems that they are allowed to develop their projects without protecting the environment or paying any compensation to people who are negatively affected by these projects, as indicated in the case study below:

Tata Steel in Chhattisgarh, North East India

Only days after the Chhattisgarh government signed an MoU with Tata Steel, a vigilante militia was established (known as the Salwa Judum). Organised by the state government and funded by Tata Steel the Salwa Judum initiated a ground clearance operation to eradicate the local forest peoples so Tata could set up its steel plant.

The Salwa Judum
The Salwa Judum

The Salwa Judum burned, raped and murdered its way through 600 local villages forcing 50 000 people into police camps and displacing a further 350 000. To keep these displaced persons in check, the government then deployed 200 000 paramilitary troops to the region to make sure that it remained a stable climate for investment and economic growth.

An Adivasi (local tribal group) protest
An Adivasi (local tribal group) protest

According to Roy the government has labelled these people ‘Maoist Rebels’, but in reality they are just displaced peoples.

Find out More

Corporate Watch – Stolen for Steel: Tata takes Tribal Land in India

The Spirit Level – A Summary

The-Spirit-LevelThe Spirit Level – Why more equal societies almost always do better – Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett

This book is relevant to both the module on Crime and Deviance and Theory Methods

Based on thirty years of research – Its findings are that almost every modern social and environmental problem is moire likely to occur in a less equal society (where the difference between rich and poor is greater). This is one of the most important areas of social and political research – the issue of inequality goes to the heart of the political divide between left and right.

Wilkinson and Pickett use a wealth of statistical data to compare inequality in several European countries (the research mainly focuses on Europe with a few other countries thrown in too) and the reserachers use different measurements of inequality to increase valdity. The main section of the book outlines the ‘costs of inequality’ in which the authors show that greater levels of inequality are positively correlated with higher rates of ill- health, lack of community life, violence, drug problems, obesity, mental health problems, long working hours and big prison populations. The final section, which I haven’t read yet, goes on to suggest some policy solutions.

Check out this video for a humorous overview of the book –

The book has its supporters -see  http://www.equalitytrust.org.uk/resources/slides – where you can download slides of the book as an education tool to help spread the word about the ills that inequality ’causes’

Also see http://unrepentantcommunist.blogspot.com/2009/06/spirit-level-by-pickett-and-wilkinson.html for an interesting supportive blog and interesting discussion thread about the virtues and otherwise of equal/ unequal societies.

Have a look at this video where Wilkinson discusses some of the details of the book –

However, the book has come under some heavy criticism – see http://spiritleveldelusion.blogspot.com/ which refers to a recent book called ‘The Spirit Level delusion’ – with ’20 questions for the Wilkinson and Picket’ – to which they respond.

If you click on this link, it takes you to a criticism of the Spirit Level by a guy called Peter Saunders (a right wing sociologists, a rare breed!) – http://www.thersa.org/events/audio-and-past-events/2010/the-spirit-level

To give you a gist of the criticisms – one arguement is that the relationship between inequality and some factors such as homicide is skewed dramatically by a few exceptional countries – such as the USA in the case of Homicide. You can listen to a debate between the authors of these two studies at the link above. A second similar arguement is that some countries have been left out of the cross national comparisons.

This debate shows you an interesting example of how even ‘scientific’ quantitative sociology – in the form of cross national comparisons struggles to be objective – because when you are dealing with cross national comparisons, there are so many variables to choose from, one has to be selective – and these selections are open to bias (in this case which countries to include and exlude.

One interesting thing worth thinking about  is that although the debate is all about whether the relationship between inequality and social problems can be scientifically proven – one can also make a moral arguement against inequality -perhaps it is fair to say that wealth inequalities like we have in modern Britain are wrong just because no one human being is so talented or so productive that they can legitimately end up being thousands of times wealthier than the average person.

At the end of my ‘brief review’ I’ve realised that I don’t really know whether to believe the spirit level’s data or not – it seams to me that those on the left, commited to fighting inequaility, are likely to believe it, while those on the right are more likely to criticise it.

Zygmunt Bauman’s Liquid Times – A Summary

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Surplus people

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The experience of Global Inequality

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

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

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

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

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

Insecurity, anxiety, and the inadequacy of identity…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Conclusion and Evaluation

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

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

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

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

 You might also like…

A summary of Liquid Modernity by Zygmunt Bauman

A Summary of Runaway World by Anthony Giddens

Bibliography

Zygmunt Bauman (2007) Liquid Times

This summary was published in the Sociology Review in February 2009