An Introduction to Culture, Socialisation, and Social Norms

In sociology, it is essential to understand the social context in which human behaviour takes place – and this involves understanding the culture in which social action occurs.

Culture is a very broad concept which encompasses the norms, values, customs, traditions, habits, skills, knowledge, beliefs and the whole way of life of a group of people.

To give two specific, and classic definitions of the term culture:

  • Ralph Linton (1945) defined the culture of a society as ‘the way of life of its members: the collection of ideas and habits which they learn, share and transmit from generation to generation’.
  • Clyde Kluckhohn (1951) described culture as a ‘design for living’ held by the members of a particular society.

To a large degree, culture determines how members of society think and feel: it directs their actions and defines their outlook on life. Culture defines accepted ways of behaving for members of society.

In order to survive, any newborn infant must learn the accepted ways of behaving in a society, it must learn that society’s culture, a process known as socialisation, which sociologists tend to split into two ‘phases’ – primary and secondary.

Primary socialisation takes place in the family: the child learns many social rules simply by copying its parents, and responding to their approval or disapproval of ‘good’ and ‘bad’ behaviour, which is taught through a variety of rewards and punishments, such as simple praise, treats, smacking and the naughty step.

Secondary socialisation takes place outside of the family in other social institutions including the education system, the peer group, the media, religion and the work place.

Many (though not all) sociologists argue that the norms and values we pick up through these institutions encourage us to act in certain ways, and discourage us from acting in others, and, just as importantly,  they ‘frame’ our worldviews in subtle ways – encouraging us value certain things that other cultures might think have no value, or discouraging us to ask certain ‘critical questions’.

Just some of the ways these institutions might subtly shape our behaviour include:

  • Religion – reinforces basic moral codes such as ‘not killing’, ‘not stealing’, and the value of monogamous relationships, sanctioned by marriage.
  • Education – teaches us the value of tolerating people with different views from ourselves, the value of teamwork and the idea of the individual work ethic – ‘if I work hard I can achieve’.
  • The Media – through advertising, it teaches us that high levels of consumption of products are normal, and through the over-representation of skinny, beautiful, young people, it encourages to spend time and money to look good.

Socialisation is not simply a process in which individuals just passively accept the values of a society – children and adults actively reflect on whether they should accept them, and some choose to actively engage in ‘mainstream’ culture, others just go along with it, and still other reject these values, but those who reject mainstream culture are very much in a minority, while most of us go along with mainstream norms and values most of the time. 

Socialisation and the process of learning social norms

Part of the socialisation process involves learning the specific norms, or informal rules which govern behaviour in particular situations.

There are literally hundreds (and probably thousands) of social norms which govern how people act in specific places and at specific times – the most obvious ones being dress codes, ways of speaking, ways of interacting with others, body language, and the general demeanor appropriate to specific situations.

Social norms are most obvious at key events in the life course such as weddings and funerals, with their obvious rituals (which would be out of place in most other situations) and codes of dress, but they also exist in day to day life – there is a ‘general norm’ that we should wear clothes in public, we are generally expected to turn up to school and work on time, to not push in if there’s a queue in a shop, and we are also generally expected to politely ignore strangers in public places and on public transport (1) (2)

Norms also vary depending on the characteristics of the person – for example, whether you are male or female, or young or old, but more of that later.

Cross cultural differences in social norms

One of the best ways of illustrating just how many social norms we have in Britain is to look at examples of other cultures which are far removed from our own – such as traditional tribes who still exist in parts of South America, Oceania, Asia, and Africa. By reflecting on how different the norms are in these other cultures, we get a good idea of just how many aspects of our day to day lives we take for granted.

For example the San Bushmen of Southern Africa have very different norms surrounding material culture – because they are hunter gatherers, they own very few items, and traditionally their economy was a gift economy, rather than a money economy. Thus, in this culture, money has no value, and ‘stuff’ is simply a burden.

San Bushmen.jpg
The San Bushmen (although their traditional culture is much changed from 100 years ago)

The Sanema, who live in the rain forests of Brazil and Venezuela, have a radically different belief system in which dreams are as important as ‘waking reality’:

The Sanema believe in a dream world inhabited by the spirits of everything around them. The trees, the animals, the rocks, the water all have a spirit. Some can be used to heal, others to bring disaster and death.

Four out of five Sanema men are practicing shamans and it is in their dreams that the spirits visit them. The main work of  the shamen is to dispel the evil spirits they believe cause illnesses, and to do this they induce a trance by taking powerful hallucinogenic drug, sakona, made from the dried sap of the virola tree.

In Sanema culture, it is perfectly usual for these shamans to be off their faces on hallucinogenic drugs, ‘warding off evil spirits’ in the middle of the day, while other people go about their more ‘ordinary’ (by our standards) business of cooking, washing, cleaning, or just chillaxing (typically in hammocks).

Sanema Tribe
Bruce Parry and a Sanema shaman off their faces on hallucinogens – it’s normal there!

There are many other examples that could be used to illustrate the extreme variations in social norms across cultures – such as differences in how cultures treat children, or differences in gender norms, the point is that none of these behaviours are determined by biology or physical environment – we’re all pretty much the same as a biological species – these cultural differences are simply to do with social traditions, passed down by socialisation.

Historical differences in social norms 

Social norms also change over time – the most obvious being how norms surrounding childhood and gender have changed, as well as norms surrounding expenditure and consumption.

The fact that social norms change over time again shows that biological differences cannot explain historical variations in human behaviour, and also raises the important point that individuals have the freedom to change the norms they are born into.

Related Posts 

(1) To illustrate just now many social norms govern our lives, you might like to read this post: how social norms structure your day (forthcoming post)

(2) Some sociologists (and sociologicalish commentators) are very critical of many of our social norms – suggesting variously that they are just not necessary, too restrictive of individual freedom, or even downright harmful – for more on this – see this post: Social Norms – the unnecessary and the harmful (forthcoming post).

Sources used to write this post

Haralambos and Holborn (2013): Sociology Themes and Perspectives

 

 

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From Pilgrim to Tourist – Or A Short History of Identity, Zygmunt Bauman

If the modern problem of identity was how to construct an identity, the postmodern problem of identity is how to avoid fixation and keep the options open. If the catchword of modernity was creation, the catchword of postmodernity is recycling.

The main identity-bound anxiety of modern times was the worry about durability; it is concern with commitment-avoidance today.

The photograph was the medium of modernity, all set in bound books with yellowing pages, the video-tape the medium of postmodernity – today’s recording only exists until something deemed more significant emerges to replace it.

Modernity built in steel and concrete, postmodernity in biodegradable plastic.

Identity as such is a modern invention – it is the name given to the escape sought from uncertainty, from the modern ‘problem’ of freedom of choice which arises with social change, and of not knowing for certain where one fits in to the order of things; the modern ‘quest’ for identity is a response to the inability of people to clearly project who they are to others so that we may all ‘go on’.

Identity is always a process, a critical projection (typically?) into the future  – it is an assertive attempt to escape from the experience of under-determination, or free-floatingness , of disembeddnsess, which is the ‘natural’ condition of modernity.

Identity in modernity is presented as an individual task, but there are experts to guide us as to what identities are possible to achieve – experts such as teachers and counsellors, who are supposed to be more knowledgeable about the task of identity construction.

Modern life as pilgrimage

Modernity gave the pilgrim a new prominence and a novel twist.

For pilgrims through time,  the truth is elsewhere, always some distance away. Wherever the pilgrim is now is not where he ought to be, not where he dreams of being. The glory of the future debases the present.

The pilgrim is not interested in the city, the houses tempt him to rest, he is happier on the streets, for they lead him to his destination. However, even these are perceived as a series of traps which may lead him from his path. The pilgrim feels homeless in the city.

The desert is the place for the pilgrim, who seeks a hermetic way of life away from the distractions of city life, away from duties and obligations. The desert, unlike the city, was a land not yet sliced into places, a place of self-creation, which is not possible when one is ‘in place’ in the city, which calls upon the individual to be certain ways (through the commitments of family and polis).

You do not go into the desert to find identity, but to lose it, to become ‘god like’.

The Protestants changed this by becoming ‘inner-worldly pilgrims’ – they invented the way of embarking on pilgrimage without leaving home and of leaving home without becoming homeless. In the post-Reformation city of modernity, the desert started on the other side of the door.

The protestant worked hard to make the dessert come to him – through impersonality, coldness, emptiness – protestants expressed a desire to see the outside world as null, lacking in value, of nothingness waiting to become something.

In such a land, commonly called modern society, pilgrimage is no longer a choice, pilgrimage is no longer heroic or saintly, it is what one does of necessity, to avoid being lost in the desert; to invest in walking with a purpose while wandering the land with no destination.

The desert world of modernity is meaningless, the bringing-in of meaning is ‘identity builiding’ – the pilgrim and the dessert-like world he walks acquire their meaning together. Both processes must go on because there is a distance between the goal (the meaning of the world and the future identity of the pilgrim) and the present moment (the station of the walking and the identity of the wanderer.)

Both meaning and identity can exist only as projects. Dissatisfaction with the present compared to the ideal-future and delaying gratification to realise greater pleasure in that future are fundamental features of the modern-identity building project, as is marking and measuring one’s progress towards one’s goal through time.

Time is generally perceived as something through which one progress, in a linear fashion, and modern pilgrims generally had trust in a clearly identified future state (however fantastical) – and saving for the future was  a central strategy of future oriented identity-building.

Pilgrims had a stake in the solidity of the world they walked, a kind of world in which one can tell life as a continuous story – moving towards fulfilment – The world of pilgrims, of identity-builders must be orderly, determined, predictable, but most of all it must be one in which one can make engravings in the sand so that past travels are kept and preserved.

The world inhospitable to pilgrims

The world is not hospitable to pilgrims any more. The pilgrims lost their battle by winning it: by turning the social into a dessert, ultimately a windy place where it is as easy to erase footprints as it is to make them.

It soon transpired that the real problem was not how to make identity, but how to preserve it – in a dessert, it is easy to blaze a trail, but difficult to make it stick.

As Cristopher Lasch points out identity refers to both persons and to things, and we now live in a world of disposable objects, and in such a world identities can be adopted and discarded like a change of clothes.

In the life-game of postmodern consumers the rules of the game keep changing in the course of playing. The sensible strategy is to keep each game short, and ‘live one day at a time’, depicting each day as a series of emergencies.

To keep the game short means to be wary of long term commitments, not to control the future, but to refuse to mortgage it. In short, to cut the present off at both ends, to abolish time and live in a continuous present. Fitness takes over from health – the capacity to move where the action is rather than coming up to a standard and remaining ‘unscathed’; and the snag is to no longer construct an identity, but to stop it from becoming fixed.

The hub of postmodern life strategy is not identity building, but avoidance of fixation.

There are no hooks on which we can hang our identity – jobs for life have gone, and we live in the era of personal relationships. Values become cherished for maximal impact, and this means short and sharp, because attention has become a scarce commodity.

The overall result is the fragmentation of time into episodes. In this world, saving and delaying gratification make no sense, getting pleasure now is rational.

In this world, the stroller, the tourist, the vagabond and the player become the key identities, all of these have their origins before postmodernity, but each comes to be practiced by the mainstream rather than being marginal in postmodernity.

In the postmodern chorus they all sing, sometimes in harmony, but more often with cacophony the result.

The stroller

In modernity this is Walter Benjamin’s flaneur – strolling among crowds of strangers in a city, and being in the crowd, but not of the crowd, taking in those strangers as ‘surfaces’ so that what one sees exhausts what they are, and above all seeing and knowing them episodically – each episode having no past and no consequence. The distinction between appearance and reality matter not. The stroller had all the pleasures of modern life, without all the torments.

In the postmodern world, the stroller is the playful consumer, who doesn’t need to deal with ‘reality’. Shopping malls are the domain of the stroller – while you can shop while you stroll. Here people believe they are making decisions, but in fact they are being manipulated by the mall-designers. Malls are also safe-spaces, where undesirables are screened out.

Originally malls were merely physical, now all of this is intensified in teleshopping, in the private domain.

The vagabond

The vagabond was the bane of early modernity, being master-less, out of control. Modernity could not bear the vagabond because he had no set destination, each place he stops, he knows not how long he will stay. It is easy to control the pilgrim because of his self-determination, but not the vagabond.

Wherever the vagabond goes he is a stranger, he can never be native, he is always out of place.

In modernity the settled were many, the vagabonds few, postmodernity reverses the ratio as now there are few ‘settled places’ left – jobs, skills, relationships, all offer no chance of being rooted.

The tourist

Like the vagabond, the tourist is always on the move and always in the place but never of it, but there are seminal differences.

Firstly, the tourist moves on purpose, to seek new experiences. They want to immerse themselves in the strange and the bizarre, but they do so in a safe way, in a package-deal sort of way. The tourists world is structured by aesthetic criteria. Unlike the vagabond, who has a rougher ride.

Secondly, the tourist has a home, the vagabond does not. The problem, however, for the tourist, is that as the touristic mode of life becomes dominant, it becomes less and less clear where home actually is, and homesickness sets in – home lingers both as an uncanny mix of shelter and prison.

The player

In play there is neither inevitability nor accident, nothing is fully predictable or controllable, and yet nothing is totally immutable or irrevocable either.

In play there is nothing but a series of moves, and time in the world-as-play is divided into a succession of games, each self-enclosed. For the player, each game must have an end, it must be possible to leave it with no consequences once it has been completed, leave no mental scars.

The point of the game is to win, and this leaves no room for compassion, commiseration .or cooperation.

The mark of a postmodern adult is to embrace the game wholeheartedly, like children do.

Related Posts 

Modernity and Postmodernity

Postmodernity and Postmodernism

What is Individualisation?

Individualisation is ‘compulsory’ rather than being about genuine personal freedom, and is an integral part of self-hood in the neoliberal (dis) order.

As Ulrich Beck and Elisabeth Beck-Gernsheim (2001/2002) have argued, individuals are compelled now to make agonistic choices throughout their life-course – there may be no guidance – and they are required to take sole responsibility for the consequences of choices made or, indeed, not made.

Individualisation is a contradictory phenomenon, both exhilarating and terrifying. It really does feel like freedom, especially for women liberated from patriarchal control. But, when things go wrong there is no excuse for anyone. The individual is penalised harshly not only for personal failure but also for sheer bad luck in a highly competitive and relentlessly harsh social environment. Although the Becks deny it, such a self – condemned to freedom and lonely responsibility – is exactly the kind of self cultivated by neoliberalism, combining freewheeling consumer sovereignty with enterprising business acumen.

Source:

The Neoliberal Self by Jim McGuigan

Mobile Phones and Digital Nomadism

Mobile phones seem to be having a profound impact on the way we interact with each other and on how we understand ourselves and our relation to place. Their increased usage has mean that many of us have moved away from ‘chance socialness’ to ‘chosen socialness’; they encourage us to not be nostalgic about physical spaces, but rather to construct our identities in virtual spaces while being mobile in physical space; and they also make communication more democratic and open, as more people are connected than ever before and communication has become more visible rather than invisible (via land-lines).

Below is a summary of Leopoldina Fortunati’s theorising about how mobile phones are changing the way some of us think about our identities in relation to our sense of place. It’s a very positive take on the impact of mobile phones on these aspects of social life.

Fortunati uses the term “nomadic intimacy” to describe how people in public situations use their mobile phones to interact with people they already know (“chosen socialness”) rather than interacting with strangers who are physically present (“chance socialness”) (Fortunati, 2002: 515-516)

mobile-phone-zombies
They’re not zombies, they’re just rejecting ‘chance socialness’ in favour of ‘chosen socialness’

Our sense of being part of social groups is no longer based on belonging to fixed
places but increasingly about belonging to communicative networks. As a consequence,
people tend to suffer less from nostalgia, the sense of loss of one’s own relationship with
‘sacred’ places like home, and familiar territory. “So, the use of the mobile phone ends up by reinforcing profane space, constructing a space without addresses, without precise
localizations, playing down the specifically geographical and anagraphical aspect….to the point that the mobile phone in itself becomes a true mobile home” (Fortunati, 2002: 520).

The mobile phone’s phatic function, that is being in touch rather than the actual content of the conversation or message, enables us to rapidly regain stability. “It is the possibility of contacting its own communicative network at any moment that has the powerful effect of reducing the uncertainty that mobility brings with it.” (Fortunati, 2002: 523).

Finally, she argues that the mobile phone favors the development of a democratic society, because “the mobile has granted the same communicative rights to nomadic persons and those that are sedentary or immobile” and in addition “it has extended individual access to mobile communication also to members of the family up to yesterday ‘invisible’ with the fixed phone” (Fortunati, 2002: 525, my addition in brackets).

For Fortunati, the digital nomad is no longer dependent on fixed places but feels at home anywhere and is always in control.

Source:

Michiel De Lange (2009) Draft of Dissertation

 

Why Fitness Instructors are Like Peasants

If you sign up to a gym this January, spare a thought for the personal trainers lurking around reception, they’re really just peasants, despite the nice pecs, at least according to some recent research by Geraint Harvey as summarised in this Thinking Allowed podcast.

Harvey offers an interesting perspective on the injustice which exists in the way gyms employ free-lance gym instructors – many instructors are not employed directly by the gym, but end up doing lots of free labour for the gym because it is in their interests as this enables them to maintain and expand their client based.

Gym instructors are generally well-qualified professionals who have at least a level 3 qualification and in many cases as sports science degree, so they have a lot of expert knowledge in their field, they also.

Despite this level of professionalism, many gym instructors are employed under very precarious conditions because although they are often based at one particular gym, they are not necessarily employed by that gym, and according to the sample in Harvey’s research the instructors actually have to pay a monthly rent ranging between £350-£450 a month, to use the gym’s facilities for personal training.

Given that the average fee is £20-30, this means that the average gym instructor has to instruct at least 10 clients before they break even, but the problem here is that the work i unreliable as it is seasonal – in January it’s easy to pick up work, but not so much in December, ‘when everyone’s out partying’, according to one respondent.

The really twisted thing about this relationship between the gym and the self-employed fitness instructors is that instructors ended up performing a customer service role (to a high standard) for the gym in order to get these clients the; they also engaged in a considerable amount of emotional labour for free – encouraging gym-goers and making them feel good about themselves in order to try and win clients; on top of this they also did a lot of basic physical labour such as cleaning equipment, and the gym benefited by being associated with the fruits of their ‘aesthetic labour’ – the instructors basically looked good and thus made the gym look good – and all of this at no cost to the gym.

NB – Most of the gym instructors didn’t see this additional free-labour as exploitative – one gym instructor actually did 30 hours additional labour, ‘touting’ for business, in addition to the hours spent doing the personal training, but didn’t begrudge this.

Harvey uses a new concept ‘neo-villainy’ (in the title of his article) to describe a parallel between the working conditions of medieval serfdom and the conditions under which the gym instructors had to work – the parallel is basically one of bondage -the serf was tied to the land, had to do physical work for landlord and yet if there was a poor crop they ended up with nothing; in a similar way the fitness instructors above are tied to the gym, have to engage in free labour for the gym, and yet if they get no clients as a result, they receive nothing.

Comment 

This is an interesting study which highlights the hidden injustice which many face in this industry.

It’s thoroughly depressing that this kind of exploitative relationship goes on when this is such a massive industry and in such high-demand. One also wonders whether the hourly rates for personal trainers might be a bit more reasonable if gyms actually paid these people for their labour!

I just wonder how many fitness instructors it applies to – how many are stuck in this exploitative situation compared to those that go it alone and try to earn money via YouTube channels etc, or just through home-visits.

Relevance to A Level Sociology?

This could be used to illustrate yet another down side of neoliberalism, or just to depress the hell out of anyone thinking of doing a sports science degree…

Related Links 

The podcast summarises aspects of Geraint Harvey’s (and others) article ‘Neo-Villeiny and the Service Sector: The Case of Hyper Flexible and Precarious Work in Fitness Centres‘, Work, Employment and Society.

 

 

 

Sociological Theories of Consumerism and Consumption

consumerism and consumptionMany of us spend a lot of time thinking about the things we might consume, and how we might consume them, and we do this not only as individuals, but as friends, partners, and families, and so intensely do we think about our consumption practices that the things we buy and the experiences we engage which are linked to them become invested with emotional significance and central (crutches) to our very identities.

The consumption of goods and services is so thoroughly embedded into our ordinary, everyday lives that many aspects of its practice go largely unquestioned – not only the environmental and social consequences have got lost on the way, but also they very notion that consumption itself is a choice, and that, once our basic needs are met, consumption in its symbolic sense is not necessary and thus is itself a choice.

In sociological terms one might say that contemporary reflexivity is bounded by consumption – that is to say that most of the things most of us think about in life – be they pertaining to self-construction, relationship maintenance, or instrumental goal-attainment, involve us making choices about (the strictly unnecessary) things we might consume.

Even though I think that any attempt to achieve happiness through consumption will ultimately result in misery, I would hardly call anyone who tries to do so stupid – because all they are going is conforming to a number of recent social changes which have led to our society being based around historically high levels of consumption.

There are numerous explanations for the growth of a diverse consumer culture and thus the intense levels of unnecessary symbolic consumption engaged in by most people today – the overview taken below is primarily from Joel Stillerman (2015) who seems to identify five major changes which underpin recent changes in consumption since WW2.

The first explanation looks to the 1960s counter culture which despite having a reputation for being anti-consumerist, was really more about non-conformity, a rejection of standardised mass-consumption and promoting individual self expression. Ironically, the rejection of standardised consumption became a model for the niche-marketing of today, much of which is targeted towards people who wish to express themselves in any manor of ways – through clothing, music, foodism, craft beers, or experiences. Some members of the counter culture in fact found profit in establishing their own niche-consumer outlets, with even some Punks (surely the Zenith of anti-consumerism?!) going on to develop their own clothing brands.

A second discussion surrounding the normalisation of consumerism centres around changes in the class structure, following the work Bourdieu and Featherstone (2000). Basically these theorists see the intensification of consumption as being related to the emergence of the ‘new middle classes’ as a result of technological innovations and social changes leading to an increase in the number of people working in jobs such as the media and fashion.

Mike Featherstone focuses on what he calls the importance of ‘cultural intermediaries’ (who mainly work in the entertainment and personal care industries) who have adopted an ‘ethic of self-expression through consumption’ – in which they engage in self-care in order to improve their bodies and skills in order to gain social and economic capital.

The values of these early adopters has gradually filtered down to the rest of the population and this has resulted in the ‘aestheticisation of daily life’ – in which more and more people are now engaged in consumption in order to improve themselves and their social standing – as evidenced in various fitness classes, plastic surgery, and a whole load of ‘skills based’ pursuits such as cookery classes (yer signature bake if you like).

A third perspective focuses on individualisation – as advanced by the likes of Zygmunt Bauman and Ulrich Beck.

ishop

In their view, after World War II, universal access to higher education and social welfare benefits in Europe led to the erosion of traditional sources of identity provided by family, traditional authority, and work. Today, individuals are ‘free’ from the chains of external sources of identity, but this freedom comes at a price. Individuals are now compelled to give meaning to their lives without the certainty that they are making the right choice that in the past had come from tradition. Individuals are forced to be reflexive, to examine their own lives and to determine their own identities. In this context, consumption may be a useful vehicle for constructing a life narrative that gives focus and meaning to individuals.

As I’ve outlined in numerous blog posts before, Bauman especially sees this is a lot of work for individuals – a never ending task, and a task over which they have no choice but to engage in (actually I disagree here, individuals do have a choice, it’s just not that easy to see it, or carry it through!).

Fourthly, Post-modern analyses of consumption focus on the increasing importance of individuals to consumption. Building on the work of Lytoard etc. Firat and Venkatesh (1995) argue that changes to Western cultures have led to the erosion of modernist ideas of progress, overly simplified binary distinctions like production and consumption and the notion of the individual as a unified actor. They suggest that in contemporary societies production and consumption exist in a repeating cycle and retail cites and advertiser have increasingly focussed on producing symbols which individuals consume in order to construct identities.

These changes have led to increasing specialising of products and more visually compelling shopping environments, and F and V argue that these changes are liberating for individuals and they seek meaning and identity through consumption, which they can increasingly do outside of markets.

Fifthly – other researches have looked at the role of subcultures in contemporary society, where individuals consume in order to signify their identity as part of a group, and doing so can involve quite high levels of consumption, even if these groups appear quite deviant (McAlexander’s 1995 study of Harley Davidson riders looks interesting here, also Kozinet’s study of Star Trek fans).

Something which draws on numbers 3,4 and 5 above is the concept of consumer tribes (developed by Cova et al 2007) which are constantly in flux, made up by different individuals whose identities are multiple, diverse and playful – individuals in fact may be part of many tribes and enter and exit them as they choose.

Finally, Stillerman points out that underlying all of the above are two important background trends

  • Firstly, there are the technological changes which made all of the above possible – the transport links and the communications technologies.
  • Secondly there is the (often discussed) links to the global south as a source of cheap production.

Very finally I’m going to add in one more thing to the above – underlying the increase in and diversification of consumption is the fact that time has sped up – in the sense that fashions change faster than ever and products become obsolete faster than ever – hence putting increasing demands on people to spend more time and money year on year to keep up on the consumer treadmill….

So there you have it – there are numerous social trends which lie behind the increase in and diversification of consumption, so the next time you think you’re acting as an individual when you’re getting your latest tattoo, maybe think again matey!

Related Posts 

Consuming Life (Bauman, 2007) – A Summary of Chapter One

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

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

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Retirement Cover5

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Erving Goffman and Judith Butler’s Perspectives on Identity

A summary of one chapter from Steph Lawler’s Book – ‘Identity: Sociological Perspectives’ – Masquerading as ourselves: Self-Impersonation and Social Life

In this chapter Lawler deals with the work of Erving Goffman and Judith Butler – for both identity is always something that is done, it is achieved rather than innate – it is part of a collective endeavour, not an individual odyssey and it is not a matter of individual choice. The world of agency and interaction takes place in a wider social order than permits some actions and disallows others.

She deals with the differences between the two too, but more of that later.

Introduction: between semblance and substance

People in the west conventionally counter-pose being an (authentic) identity against doing an identity (performing). When contestants leave the big brother house for example, they often claim that the other contestants were acting, or wearing masks, rather than being themselves.

The distinction rests on the assumption that it is possible – and indeed desirable – for one’s true self to simply emerge – when a gap is seen to exist between doing and being – or semblance and substance – then the person is liable to be accused of pretension, inauthenticity, or acting a role.

We have a social and cultural preoccupation with authenticity – illustrated through the popularity of the Cinderella story – which is acted out today in various make-over programmes – here the fairy godmother is taken by a series of experts – who help the person to match their bodily appearance to the real person trapped inside. In other words the woman (typically) becomes who she is by changing her exterior self.

However, for Goffman this idea that there is a ‘true self’ which needs to be drawn out (if it’s a ‘nic’ self) or that can be hidden (with good or evil intent) is, in reality all there is is the performance.

(At this point Lawler also notes that what we should really be asking ourselves is why we are so concerned with authenticity, when in reality there is no such thing.)

Dramas and lives (Goffman)

For Goffman, to be a person is to perform being a person. To put it simply, it is no good doing something if no one recognises we are doing it – this is ‘dramatic realisation‘. This is not to say that we are being fraudulent, rather it indicates the importance of the social group – because so much of what we act out, we act out for their benefit.

Instead of focusing on authentic and inauthentic performances, Goffman suggests we should focus on what constitutes convincing and unconvincing performances.

For Goffman, there is no essence of the self waiting to be given expression to, the self is not the cause of a social situation, it is the result of the social situation. The self is not the mask, it is the mask, there is no aspect of the self which is not touched by the social world.

Even character – the background self or the ethical self reflecting backstage on what one does front stage is a performance.

Finally for Goffman the performances we give are fundamentally shaped by social norms – there are correct ways to act, and if someone acts out of character, we try and save them, and we feel horror or embarrassment when someone acts entirely inappropriately – social norms embedded deep within our psyche – also, where gender is concerned, so constraining are norms surrounding this that gender norms take on the hue of being natural – which is something Judith Butler picks up on…

Performative identities (Butler)

The idea that there is no essential or foundational identity also characterises Judith Butler’s work. Butler focus on gender and wants to go beyond Goffman to explore why the social world creates gendered identities at all.

Butler challenges the orthodox view that we have a physical, biological sex onto which a social gender is then added, arguing that there is no physical sexed-identity which precedes the social.

There is no natural sex onto which gender is added, because our bodies are so infused with sociality.

For Butler, identities are not just expressions of some inner nature, identities are performed – they are repeatedly ‘done’ and they bring into effect what they ‘name’.

It is not inevitable that sex distinctions should exist at all – but we live in a society where most people go along with idea that sex matters and invest a lot of time in it, this creates a dominant discourse surrounding sex and gender identity which it is hard to break free from – but Butler argues that all of this social stuff calls into being the idea that sex divisions exist, and these divisions do not have to be seen as significant.

Girling the Girl: The Performativity of Gender

Boys and girls are ‘boyed’ and ‘girled’ even while in the womb – and even though they have different sets of genitals, there is no necessary reason why we need to distinguish them along the lines of these genital differences.

As the child grows up this process of girling and boying occurs continuously, they are hailed by society to ‘become’ a boy or a girl, and by and large the child-subjects generally accept how they are hailed, and in doing so come to recognise themselves as a boy or a girl, and thus actively participate in the construction of their own sexed and gendered identity.

Moreover, this process of interpellation takes place in a wider institutionalised context of a sexed and gender divided society, and in this way sex differences come to be seen as natural, and derive much of their power because of this (mis) perception.

Along with the sex-divide, Adrienne Rich (1980) coined the term ‘compulsory heterosexuality’ to emphasise the way in which heterosexuality is also largely perceived as the norm.

Butler recognises the fact that interpellation does not always work – people can disrupt the process by not agreeing to go along with pre-existing categorisations.

Compelling Performance

The idea of the sex divide and heterosexuality reinforce each other to provide a discourse on sex/ gender.

To illustrate this discourse at work Butler draws on the example of ‘you make me feel like a natural woman’ by Aretha Franklin — in this song, the natural woman’ status is established through heterosexuality – the song is presumably directed at a heterosexual man, who is able to generate feelings of natural womanhood through his desirability and desire for the woman who is the subject of the song – ‘femininity and masculinity are consecrated in the heterosexual sexual encounter’.

However, the idea that a woman needs a man to feel natural at all proves the fact that all of this is a social construct. If something was natural, it would just be natural, you wouldn’t feel anything at all – and Butler also recognises that there is a possibility to re-imagine the song in order to subvert such traditional sex-gender norms.

We might also ask why, if gender is natural, people put so much effort into being masculine and feminine – through hair removal and the like.

So in short, normal masculinity and femininity work through normal heterosexuality.

Melancholy, Sexual Identification

‘there are no direct expressive of causal lines between sex, gender, gender presentation, sexual practice, fantasy and sexuality.

For Butler, heterosexual identification is a response to melancholic loss. Here she draws on Freud to explain how heterosexual identification emerges basically because we hate ourselves – the woman becomes the woman she never loved and the man becomes the man he never loved – and because we cannot love ourselves, we look to the opposite for love and companionship.

If we just learned to love ourselves, the men could love other men, and women could love other women.

Related Posts 

The Presentation of the Self in Everyday Life – Extended Summary

Sociological Perspectives on Identity: Summary of Chapter on Focuault

Nadiya Hussain’s Gift to A Level Sociology

The Chronicles of Nadiya, fronted by last year’s Bake-Off winner Nadiya Hussain, is  a surprisingly solid piece of sociological TV. (Episode 1 is available on iPlayer until Friday 23rd Sept 2016, or on eStream until Armageddon if yer one of my students.)

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Given Bake Off’s significant contribution to the reproduction of class inequality, I was sceptical about how useful a spin-off cooking documentary might be, but the programme is actually less about cooking and more about illustrating the complexities of British Bangladeshi culture and identity and combating the stereotype that hijab wearing Muslim women are oppressed.

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In episode one Nadiya returns to her home village (95% of British Bangladeshis come from the same region in Bangladesh) and in the process discusses numerous aspects of her identity – about the complexities of being rooted in both Britain and Bangladesh, and how she never feels 100% at home in either place; about her choice to wear the hijab and what that means to her; and about why she doesn’t want to subject her own children to an arranged marriage and traditional Bangladeshi wedding ceremony basically – you get to see a distant cousin of hers getting married, and you can understand why!

The extract below is from ‘The Week’ which gives more background on Nadiya Hussain’s life… 

Nadiya Hussain’s life has changed hugely since winning bake-off. Since she won, she has met the queen, written a book and given numerous interviews and talks. In doing so, she has had to overcome her own shyness but also her family’ strict traditions.

She grew up in Luton where she went to an all girl’s school which was 85% Muslim, where she had no white friends.

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Luton’s also somewhere on both of these maps

Later, she won a place at King’s College London, but her parents refused to let her go. Instead, they set about finding her a husband, and at 19, she married Abdal, an IT consultant, 3 weeks after meeting him. A year later, they had their first child and she became a housewife.

Yet Abdal proved not to be the stereotypical controlling Muslim husband: he could tell that his wife was unfulfilled, and he didn’t like it. One day, he brought her the application form for Bake Off, with 11 pages of it filled in, and supported her every step of the way through the process.

Although her own arranged marriage has worked out, Nadiya insists that her children will choose their partners. More generally, she hopes her achievements will give other Muslim girls the confidence to pursue their dreams that she lacked as a teenager. ‘I wasn’t strong then. I’m a different person now’.

She does cook a few (very tasty) looking dishes in the programme too, so overall this is a top-sociological documentary – fantastic for showing how one individual maintains some aspects of her cultural traditions while rejecting others.

Anthony Giddens’ Runaway World – A Summary

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There has been a considerable amount of research and theorising into globalisation and its consequences over the past decade, yet little of this has filtered down to students of A level Sociology. This article aims to address this by summarizing Anthony Giddens’ views on globalisation and its consequences for culture and identity in the West, focusing on the two core themes of risk and detraditionalisation. This article is written with the new AQA AS module in Culture and Identity in mind, and should be useful to any student who wishes to better understand how Globalisation affects daily life.

Giddens illustrates how  two consequences of Globalisation, namely the rise of a ‘risk consciousness’ and detraditionalisation,  undermine the ability of institutions such as the Nation State, the family and religion, to provide us with a sense of security and stability. These institutions are no longer able to offer us a clearly defined norms and values that tell us how we should act in society. This situation has far reaching consequences for how individuals experience daily life and for how they go about constructing their identities.

Globalisation, manufactured risks and risk consciousness

The title of Giddens’ accessible modern classic ‘Runaway World’ immediately suggests to the reader that he perceives globalisation as an unpredictable, destabilsing process. In Giddens’ own words: “We are the first generation to live in global society, whose contours we can as yet only dimly see. It is shaking up our existing ways of life, no matter where we happen to be. This is…. emerging in an anarchic, haphazard, fashion… it is not settled or secure, but fraught with anxieties, as well as scarred by deep divisions. Many of us feel in the grip of forces over which we have no control” (Giddens 2002).

One aspect of globalisation is the emergence of ‘manufactured risks’ which are man made, having arisen as a result of new technologies developed through advances in scientific knowledge. Many of these new technologies, such as nuclear and biotechnologies bring about risks which are truly global in scope. The Chernobyl nuclear disaster in 1986, for example, resulted in nuclear fall out spreading thousands of miles to several countries, while the burning of fossil fuels in the United States may lead to flooding in Bangladesh.

According to Giddens, we have little experience of how to deal with these new threats as they have only been in existence for the last half a century. He argues that there is a “new riskiness to risk” in that these new technologies could have catastrophic consequences for humanity, yet we do not yet know all of the consequences associated with them. We cannot be certain, for example, of the possible effects that modifying the genetic structure of our basic food stuffs will have, and we do not know exactly how much of global warming is due to human influence.

Many of the above problems require international action, as well as co-coordinated local action; and in this context, Nation States appear ill equipped to deal with such global problems. In addition, in the context of imperfect knowledge, competing expert voices emerge, such as with the debate over whether Britain should build more nuclear power stations, or whether or not we should support Genetically Modified crops. As a result, the experts employed by politicians become just one voice amidst a field of experts citing different evidence that point to different courses of action.

Globalisation, Risk and Identity  

So what are the consequences of this situation for self identity? On the one hand, we have identity politics and on the other, we have apolitical apathy. Those who are concerned about the global problems mentioned above and who perceive the government as being ill equipped to deal with these new global risks, have gravitated towards New Social Movements such as the green movement. At the more radical end of these movements, one’s whole lifestyle, one’s whole being and identity is oriented towards addressing global problems, at the local and international level, through protesting globally and acting locally.

However, such radical action is only undertaken by the relative few, and many remain apathetic towards global risks. Political apathy can also be easily justified in the context of imperfect knowledge, in which no one can ever be certain of the full extent of these global risks.

Detraditionalisation

A second major theme of Giddens’ work is that of detraditionalisation. Giddens argues that “For someone following a traditional practice, questions don’t have to be asked about alternatives. Tradition provides a framework for action that can go largely unquestioned… tradition gives stability, and the ability to construct a self identity against a stable background.

Globalisation brings this to an end as local cultures and traditions are exposed to new cultures and ideas, which often means that traditional ways of acting come to be questioned. As a result of globalisation, societies and cultures go through a process of detraditionalisation, where day to day life becomes less and less informed by ‘tradition for the sake of tradition’.

A good example of an institution undergoing this process is marriage. Although the tradition of marriage remains, a couple is much less likely to get married simply for the sake of marriage, either  because it is ‘what people do, or what their parents did’. A typical couple today will discuss whether they should get married or not; they will think about whether it is right for them, and if they do decide to get married, they will then discuss where they should get married, and a whole range of other aspects associated with the marriage ceremony itself.

This theme of Detraditionalisation is to be found in many other areas of life. If we think back to the example of identity politics as expressed through New Social Movements, this tells us that traditional ways of political engagement are changing. Giddens also argues that globalisation has even lead to religions becoming detraditionalised, and there is plenty of evidence that he is right, as practices such as church attendance in Christianity and veiling in Islam appear to be more a matter of personal choice than of unquestioning adherence to tradition.

Cosmopolitanism and Democratisation

The positive side of detraditionalisation is the spread of what Giddens refers to as cosmopolitanism in which the individual is much less constrained by arbitrary tradition than in ‘traditional’ or pre-global societies. In a cosmopolitan society, the individual has much more freedom to reflect on already existing cultural practices such as those associated with marriage, religion and politics, and to choose which aspects of these cultural practices suit him or her.

As a result of this, culture becomes something that is more fluid, more open to debate and more open to adaptations by individuals than ever before in human history. Culture, according to Giddens, becomes more democratic as more people have more of a say in how culture will inform their lives.

Detraditionalisation and self identity

Detraditionalisation also has consequences for self-identity. According to Giddens “Where tradition lapses, and life-style choice prevails, self-identity has to be created and recreated on a more active basis than before.” Giddens further argues that individuals must engage in an ongoing process of reflecting upon their lives and adapting them in the light of new knowledge that arises in a rapidly changing, globalising world. This whole process of ongoing reflecting on one’s life and changing accordingly is known as reflexivity.

Reflexivity is necessary because many of our institutions no longer provide us with a clear set of pre-given norms and values. Modern relationships, including marriages, no longer come with a set of clear norms and values, duties and responsibilities, instead, these need to be negotiated. Similarly, for those that are religious, the ‘meaning of ‘being Christian’ or ‘being ‘Muslim’ is much more open to debate than ever before, and for those who want to get political, this is no longer limited to union membership, or party membership and voting in general and local elections, one has to choose between a whole range of political activism. The individual is faced today with a situation in which modern institutions no longer simply tell the individual how to act, or how to ‘be’, they no longer act as stabilizing forces that anchor individuals to society in clearly defined ways. Instead, we have to choose which aspects of tradition suit us, and be able to justify to others why we have made these choices.

Even once we have decided on what the rules of a relationship are, on what our religion means to us, or what kind of political action we should engage in, the rapid pace of social change, brought on by globalization means that we may well have to redefine our relationships and our religious and political identities over an over again. To give examples, a foreign firm relocating outside the United Kingdom may mean a career change, which could mean a renegotiation of the terms of a relationship; The recent decision of the government to build more nuclear power stations will lead many green activists to shift their political attentions to this issue, and the ongoing ‘threat of Islamic extremism’, exaggerated or not, has lead to a debate over the meaning of what it means to be British and Muslim.

Reflexivity, expert systems and therapy

Giddens argues that this constant need to adapt our identities in line with global changes has lead to the emergence of ‘expert systems’. These are found everywhere in British society, from the careers advisor, helping us to choose which degree is best suited to us, to the therapist and counselor, providing us assistance in the necessary task of continually reconstructing our identities.

The negative consequences of Globalisation and detraditionalisation

While Giddens is cautiously optimistic about the changes brought about by globalisation, in that he believes that global risks are something we can work together to deal with, and detraditionalisation opens up the possibility of a radical democratization of daily life, he does also point to two major problems.

The first of these is the increase in addiction in modern society. Today, people can develop recognized addictions to sex, food, gambling and even shopping. Giddens perceives this increase in addictions as being linked to detraditionalisation. In pre-global societies, stable traditions provided individuals with a link to the past, now this is gone, addiction is seen as an attempt by individuals to construct a coherent ‘narrative of the self’ through repetitive actions that provide comfort, thus linking actions today with actions to the past.

The second negative consequence of detraditionalisation is the rise of Fundamentalism, which Giddens sees as traditional practices that are defended by a blinkered commitment to ideologies and beliefs, and a resistance to engaging in dialogue about those views.

Evaluating  Giddens

Many contemporary critics, argue that Giddens’ view of contemporary societies is too optimistic.

Zygmunt Bauman essentially agrees with the fact that uncertainty in society requires most individuals to constantly engage in ‘identity construction’, but he also points out that the wealthy and powerful are the ones both creating and benefiting from an unstable, rapidly changing world, and that these people are much more able to defend themselves against the negative consequences of living in a runaway world.

Frank Furedi, who draws on Bauman,  argues that the expert systems that have emerged to assist us in the construction of our identities are not neutral institutions. He argues, amongst other things, that far from allowing individuals to be more autonomous actors, they actually encourage individuals to be dependent on expert advice.

I will summarise the work of these two contemporary critics of Giddens in a future article. Suffice to say for now that all three agree that Globalisation has far reaching consequences for the British society, culture and the ways in which we construct our identities.

You might also like…

A summary of Liquid Times by Zygmunt Bauman

Giddens’ Critique of Postmodernism – an uber-brief summary.

Bibliography

Giddens, Anthony (2002) Runaway World

Giddens, Anthony (1991) Modernity and Self Identity

Bauman, Zymunt (2007) Liquid Times: Living in an Age of Uncertainty

Furedi, Frank (2004) Therapy Culture: Cultivating Vulnerability in an Uncertain Age.

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