Neo-Tribes

Neo-tribes based on chosen lifestyles and reflect the shift to postmodern society,

Neo-tribes are associations of consumer groups (such as consumers of dance music) who come together in particular settings where they express similar tastes. They do not form coherent groups outside those settings, but when they are together they are influenced by one another.

For example, at a rave, a person will assume the identity of a ‘raver’ for the night, and then resume an ordinary, mundane identity as a ‘worker’ Monday to Friday.

From subcultures to neo-tribes

Andy Bennett (1996) argued the term subculture is not useful for describing groups of young people who share similar tastes in style and music. Clearly defined youth subcultures do not exist among contemporary youth. Instead, young people assume identities in particular settings.

“There is very little evidence that even the most committed groups of youth stylists are in any way as ‘coherent’ or ‘fixed’ as the term ‘subculture’ implies. On the contrary, it seems to me that so-called youth ‘subcultures’ are prime examples of the shifting cultural affiliations which characterize late modern consumer societies”. (1)

There is more cross-filtration of styles these days, so that styles overlap with many different so-called ‘subcultures’. For example, dance music might sample aspects of reggae or even heavy metal, which leads to a breakdown in style-boundaries and more people identifying with each other from different style groups, which challenges the idea that there are distinct ‘subcultures’.

Dance music especially breaks down these barriers and encourages consumers to pick and mix from a range of styles and so youth identities are more multi-faceted than they once might have been.

The concept of ‘clubbing’ also challenges the idea of fixed, style based identities. Most ‘clubbers’ go to several different types of club night, and so ‘clubbing’ is a series of fragmented temporal experiences in which clubbers move through different crowds on different nights and assume different identities depending on the venue and theme of the night.

Postmodernism and Neo-tribes

The concept of neo-tribes reflects the move from modern to postmodern society, as people move from having a ‘way of life’ to choosing ‘lifestyles’.

During modernity, identities tended to be based on ‘ways of life’ which were handed down through the generations based on locality, class and gender.

Bennet (1999) believes that contemporary identities in postmodern societies are based on ‘lifestyles’ rather than ‘ways of life’. Lifestyles and the identities expressed through them are chosen based on consumer preferences.

Neo-tribes are an example of such lifestyle choices, and people to move between different neo-tribes, expressing different identities.

People might choose a neo-tribe that reflects their social class background but this isn’t something shaped by society, it is a choice.

For example, Bennet argued that fans of the band Oasis adopt an image consisting of training shoes, football shirts and duffle coats, which is designed to illustrate their collective sense of a working class identity, however these individuals are not working class, this is a purely chosen, constructed and temporary identity.

Signposting

This material is mainly relevant to the culture and identity module, normally taught in the first year of A-level sociology.

The concept of neo-tribe is derived from the work of Michael Maffesoli (1996) who coined the term ‘tribus’ (or tribes) to describe contemporary youth.

Sources

Bennett, A (1999) Subcultures or Neo-Tribes? Rethinking the Relationship between Youth, Style and Musical Taste.

Ethnicity in the 2021 UK National Census

The government added 2 additional options for ethnicity in the 2021 Census: ‘Roma’ and ‘Black British Other’. However, they rejected 53 out of 55 requests for more categories!

Following the 2011 Census the government engaged in a consultation in 2015 with several organisations and individuals over whether they needed to increase the number of ethnic categories. Based on feedback from 46 organisations and 86 individuals, most of them found the existing categories acceptable, but they received 55 requests for more categories. 

Some of the examples of requests for new categories included Somali, Jewish and Kashmiri. 

Of these 55 requests, only two changes were judged to be worth including in the 2021 Census:

  • Including a separate ‘ROMA’ tick box under the ‘White’ category, rather than putting this together with GYPSY. 
  • Including an ‘other’ BLACK category besides AFRICAN and CARIBBEAN, and allowing respondents to write in details.  

The board of Census experts made their decisions to accept the above two changes for new ethnic categories. They used a standard evaluation procedure in which each category was scored the basis of:

  • User need: was there a need to gather more specific information (easily) on the specific new categories of ethnic group?
  • Lack of alternative information: was there no where else information could be found out about the suggested new group? (This was the case with the Roma category).
  • Clarity of data collection: some categories were rejected because of too much overlap. For example, offering a ‘Kashmiri’ option would probably reduce the number of people ticking ‘Indian’ or ‘Pakistan’. Some of the people who ticked ‘Kashmiri’ would identify as BOTH Pakistani and Kashmiri, or both Indian and Kashmiri. 
  • Consistency with the 2011 Census: taking reliability and comparison with previous data into account. 

In many cases the Census team decided ethnicity information was already covered already in the ‘religion’ section or by simply allowing respondents to write in their responses would yield sufficient information compared to a fresh tick box.  

Current list of ethnicity options in the 2021 UK Census…

list of ethnicity options in the 2021 UK census

Analysis of changes to ethnicity options: disrespecting Diversity?


It feels a little like The Census paid lip service to this process rather than seriously considering increasing the number of available categories.

They sampled less than 100 individuals outside of formal organisations. Of these, 40% of respondents requested a change, which is significant, and then rejected most of these. 

I imagine the reason for this was practical: once you start increasing the number of ethnicity options the form rapidly becomes impractically long. For example, if you included ‘Somali’, it seems a bit unfair to not include every African subcategory, which would mean dozens more boxes, and so on for every other suggestion. 

Having an ethnicity section with possibly 200 options would simply be off putting. Allowing respondents to write in their responses means they’ve already covered the ‘inclusion’ aspect. 

In terms of data analysis, when the Census is online, it’s easy enough to filter by written-in responses.

Having said that it is worth noting that the Census probably tells us very little about identity. It doesn’t tell us what ethnicity means to the respondents.

Signposting and sources

This material is mainly relevant to the Culture and Identity option, usually taught in the first year of A-level sociology.

To return to the homepage – revisesociology.com

Modern and Postmodern Subcultures

modern subcultures have strong boundaries and high commitment, postmodern subcultures are weaker and more fragmented.

Modern subcultures have a strong sense of group identity with high degrees of commitment demanded from members, and a homogenous style with the subculture providing the main source of identity for members. They also tend to be political, social class aligned, anti-media and are seen as authentic by members.

Postmodern subcultures on the other hand have a fragmented sense of identity, require low commitment, have a mixture of styles and and are are only one of multiple identity sources for members. They tend to be apolitical, pro-media and focused mainly on style and image only.

ModernPostmodern
Group identityFragmented identity
Stylistic homogeneityStylistic heterogeneity
Strong boundary maintenanceWeak boundary maintenance
Subculture provides main identityMultiple stylistic identities
High degree of commitment Low degree of commitment
Membership perceived as permanent Transient attachment expressed
Low rates of subcultural mobilityHigh rates of subcultural mobility
Stress on beliefs and valuesFascination with style and image
Political gesture of resistance Apolitical sentiments
Anti-media sentimentsPositive attitude towards media
Self-perception as authentic Celebration of the inauthentic

These two ideal types of subculture were developed by Muggleton (2000) to test whether subcultures today were more postmodern.

Muggleton carried out interviews with 57 young people (43 male, 14 female) who were approached in pubs or clubs in Preston and Brighton between 1993 and 1995 to determine whether we have modern or postmodern subcultures today.

Postmodern 1990s Subcultures

Muggleton found that most young people were concerned to express their individuality and did not express strong affiliation to any one subculture.

They saw belonging to a subculture as primarily about expressing their individuality, how they were different from other people within that apparent subculture – standing out was important.

Those interviewed also fitted more to postmodern subcultures in terms of their ideas of the self, commitment and appearance, but many had a long term commitment. to their subcultures and there was little evidence of switching between them.

People did change identities over time, but this wasn’t constant switching, rather gradually transformative.

Muggleton found little evidence of there being divisions between subcultures, mainly because the boundaries had become blurred, and all seemed to share a resistance to the mainstream, although they were generally apolitical.

The media was also an important part of constructing the subculture.

Overall subcultures in the 1990s were best characterised as neo-tribes.

Not purely postmodern

Subcultures were modern, but still seen as authentic sources of identity by members, they weren’t just seen as being about artificial play!

Authentic Identity was seen in terms of the way one felt, rather than dress, so one was a true punk if they felt like one, it wasn’t about dress or appearance.

Subcultures were liminal: in between social identities – they were collective expressions and celebrations of individualism.

Standing out was important, but so was fitting in.

rave culture
Rave culture: fitting in while standing out!

Evaluation

Sampling was poor – there was no attempt to identify committed members.

Blackman (2005) examines Muggleton’s own data and believes he underplays the extent to which there is modernist regulation and rules of subcultures and he also failed to see the political agenda adopted by much of rave culture against the 1996 Criminal Justice Act.

Signposting and Sources

This material is usually taught as part of the Culture and Identity option within A-level sociology.

Part of this post was adapted from Haralambos and Holborn (2013) Sociology Themes and Perspectives 8th Edition.

Muggleton, D (2000) Inside Subculture: The Meaning of Style

Image Source.

Sarah Thornton: Club Cultures

Club cultures in the early 1990s are maybe best characterised as neo-tribes.

Sarah Thornton’s (1995) Club Cultures (1) is an ethnographic study of dance clubs and rave culture in the early to mid 1990s.

She found that club cultures were a youth culture, being mainly made of up 15-24 year olds and made the following observations.

  1. Clubbers came together at specific dance events, but didn’t have much in common or hang out outside of these events (my interpretation: they can thus be classified as a neo-tribe).
  2. Club cultures are not oppositional to a mainstream culture
  3. Class was not important in shaping club cultures.

Thornton’s work seems to criticise the view of Centre of for Contemporary Cultural Studies.

Her theoretical starting point was Bourdieu, from whom she developed the concept of subcultural capital.

Club Cultures, Sarah Thornton

Subcultural Capital

The most important aspect of club culture is the way it is used by young people to differentiate themselves from each other, and they do this through subcultural capital.

Subcultural capital refers to the appropriate, fashionable tastes and styles and local knowledges specific subcultures

Fashionable haircuts, well assembled record collections, being ‘in the know’, using current slang and dancing the latest dance styles like a natural are all examples of ‘subcultural capital’.

picture of ravers in the early 1990s

The main purpose of subcultural capital is to provide status to the clubber. Demonstration of good taste, or ‘hipness’ provides clubbers with social approval and recognition.

Subcultural capital can be used to gain economic capital. For example, D.J.s can make a living out of performing the correct sets.

Clubbers have to keep up with the latest trends to maintain their subcultural capital: they need to know which clubs are in fashion and go to them to keep up appearance and avoid being too associated with mainstream popular music.

Tastes within subcultures change over time, and members needed to keep up. For example, by the end of 1989 the media had made Acid House too popular, and acid house fans came to be seen as sheep, mindlessly following media trends as dismissed as ‘mindless ravers’ or ‘acid teds’ and were looked down upon.

Class, age, gender and clubbing

Clubbers were predominately young, mainly 15-24, and this was the major broad identifier of clubbers.

Thornton saw club culture as part of youth-transition where people could have freedom to experiment and grow up away from their parents.

There was no clear link between class and clubbers, and club culture was more of a rebellious way of escaping the class conferred onto the individual by their parents.

Gender was an important social division. Although more girls went clubbing than boys, the masculine was afforded more status in club culture than the feminine, and clubbers tended to look down on working-class girls especially, who they saw as the most likely to like mainstream music and fashion.

Thus dance cultures looked down on working class girls especially, thus dance culture didn’t challenge ruling class structures.

Evaluation

Thornton provides a useful criticism of the CCCS, as her work suggests that dance cultures had little to do with resisting mainstream culture.

She identified that dance culture was linked to youth transitions to adulthood.

She found that dance cultures varied and changed rapidly and that clubbers tended to change with them, suggesting dance culture was more of a postmodern neo-tribe rather than a modern subculture.

One criticism of Thornton is that she didn’t draw out links between the rise of dance cultures and wider social changes such as the shift to postmodernity.

Signposting

This material is mainly relevant to the culture and identity module, usually taught in the first year of A-level sociology.

(1) Thornton (1995) Club Cultures: Music, Media and Subcultural Capital

Rave Picture Source.

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Neo-marxist theories of youth subcultures

A summary of the Birmingham Centre for Cultural Studies neo-marxist approach to youth subcultures.

The Birmingham Centre for Contemporary Cultural Studies (BCCS) developed a Neo-marxist theory of youth subcultures in Post War Britain.

The BCCS published its most influential research in the 1970s and 1980s.

BCCS Theory of Culture

Hall and Jefferson argued that material circumstances imposed limits on the development of culture, and so culture reflected class divisions in society. However culture was not entirely determined by material factors, but rather an active and creative response to the material circumstances or class positions in which people found themselves.

The broader culture an individual is born into shapes the way they see the world, creating a kind of flexible map of meaning which shapes or limits the kind of cultures they create.

Cultures exist in a hierarchical relationship with one another. The culture of elite groups will always be more powerful than others, but is insufficient to be totally dominant and all controlling.

Hall et al used Gramsci’s concept of hegemony, arguing that the dominant ideology of elite culture can be opposed by less powerful classes. Subordinate groups struggle to win space and make room for their own styles, away from the influence of the dominant culture.

Youth Subcultures

The BCCS saw youth subcultures as creative attempts to win autonomy from dominant cultures. They seek to carve out cultural space for themselves within local neighbourhoods and institutions.

Youth cultures create their own distinctive styles of dress and music which solve in an imaginary way some problems which at a concrete, material level remain unresolved.

Youth subcultures tend to emphasise authenticity, it is important the culture comes from the ground up rather than being a creation of the media.

One of the main works outlining the BCCC’s theory of youth subcultures was Hall and Jefferson (1976) Resistance Through Rituals: Youth Subcultures in Post-War Britain.

Tony Jefferson: Teddy Boys

Jefferson (1976) argued that Teddy Boy culture was an attempt to recreate a sense of working class community which had come under threat in postwar Britain due to urban redevelopment and the growing affluence of some sectors of the working class.

Unskilled working class youth felt their social status was being undermined by a combination of urban redevelopment and increasing ethnic minorities in their neighbourhoods.

They responded by developing Teddy Boy culture: with a strong style of dress incorporating Edwardian-style jackets, bootlace ties and suede shows, with groups having a strong sense of loyalty to each other and being prepared to fight over territory.

According to Jefferson the various elements of their chosen styles were an attempt to signify status, drawn from different sources. For example the Edwardian jackets were appropriated from upper class dandies and the bootlace ties drawing on slick city gamblers from U.S. Westerns signifying that they saw themselves as outsiders, living by their wits.

Teddy boy culture was not an effective means of stopping the social changes that were undermining working class status, but it at least made its members feel as if they were doing something and they were an authentic expression of the contradictions being felt by the working classes.

Dick Hebdige: Subculture The Meaning of Style

Subcultures define themselves in opposition to mainstream culture and reject the shared lifestyle and culture of most of mainstream society, and they express resistance to the mainstream creatively through clothing, music and art.

Each youth subculture develops its own style and transforms the meaning of everyday objects. Apparently ordinary, every day objects are appropriated by subcultures and made to carry secret meanings only known by members of that subculture which expresses a form of resistance to the social order,

For example, Teddy boys transformed the meanings of Edwardian suits and boots, punks transformed the meaning of safety pins and ripped jeans.

However although this resistance or opposition is an important source of identity for the members of subcultures, resistance tends to remain only at the symbolic level, which guarantees their continued subordination.

Punk Culture

According to Hebdige, Punk culture almost rewrote the rules of semiology, in some ways changing the way signs were used to convey meaning.

Punk emerged in Britain in the late 1970s and was popular into the early 1980s. It drew some meaning from Rastafarianism and Reggae, for example the Clash incorporated reggae rhythms into their music and some punks wore the red gold and green of Rastafarians.

Punk also adopted an opposition to being British, being anti-monarchy, as exampled in the S*x Pistols classic song: God Save the Queen.

Punk also defined itself against the empty commercialism of pop music, and tried to break down the barrier between performer and artist, encouraging anyone to form a band even if they could only play a couple of chords.

There was a claim to speak for the neglected white working class youth, acting out the alienation associated with the experiences of unemployment, living on poor housing estates and feeling abandoned by the system.

However, with punk there was often no solution to the social malaise of early 1980s Britain , no future.

Punk and Chaos

For Hebdige, punk subculture signified chaos at several levels. A lack of identifiable values was the main value of Punk culture.

Some symbols they used were highly detached, showing a lack. of meaning, for example the swastika was a popular punk icon, despite the fact that Punks were mostly anti-nazi and anti-racist.

Conventional semiotics can’t deal with punk, where signifiers are separated from signified. To understand punk culture, Hebdige developed the idea of signifying practices: the relationship between langue (the structure of language) and parole (individual usages of language) is reversed. Rather than meaning deriving from the overall structure of the language, meaning derives from the position of the person using it.

For example, the swastika’s meaning derived from the fact that punks were punks and nothing deeper.

Hebdige also applied Marxism seeing punk subculture as a form resistance to the experienced contradictions within ruling class ideology.

Ultimately punk posed no major threat to the ruling class but it did produce ‘noise’ – an alternative source of idea which interferes with the ruling classes attempt to create the sense of harmony in society.

Evaluations of the BCCCs and Hebdige

There is no evidence that any of subcultures Hebdige studied interpreted their own cultures in the same way he did, his theory is just one interpretation and there are many ways of interpreting subcultures.

It is possible that in the 1970s and before subcultures were class based, but from the 1980s the growth of consumerism meant that subcultures cut across class divisions, being based mainly on taste and style rather than stemming from any kind of opposition to the system.

The CCCS seemed to assume that subcultures were national, but in reality they may have had regional variations.

It could be that Teddy Boys and Punks were never as oppositional to mainstream culture as the CCCS suggested.

Postmodernist reject the view that well-defined subcultures ever existed. In the past, as today, they were rather more fluid and people kind of dipped into them rather than existed entirely within them.

Signposting and sources

This material is mainly relevant to the culture and identity module, usually taught in the first year of A-level sociology.

To return to the homepage – revisesociology.com

Part of this post was adapted from Haralambos and Holborn (2013) Sociology Themes and Perspectives 8th Edition.

Image Source (and find out more about Punk Culture).

Types of nationalism

There are many different types of nationalism in the world today: from old nation-state civic nationalism to postcolonial, post-communist and neonationalisms.

Nationalism remains one of the strongest sources of identity in the world today, but there are many different varieties of nationalism and national identities, so it might be useful to distinguish between different types to help understand this complex concept.

A starting point for this is to distinguish between civic and ethnic nationalisms

Civic and ethnic nationalism

Civic Nationalism is where nationalism is tied up with the idea of being a citizen of a particular nation state, rather than ethnicity.

An example of this is the United States where several different ethnic groups are united through citizenship to the same nation. This makes sense in modern America, as the State was formed out of a long history of migration, and America is often described as a ‘nation immigrants’ and something of a ‘melting pot’ for different ethnic groups.

Ethnic nationalism is where ethnicity is the principle form of belonging to the group rather than citizenship.

There are many examples of where ethnic national identity can come into conflict with civic national identity.

An example of this is the Serbs and Croats in the former Yugoslavia. Their sense of ethnic nationalism (rather than a sense of civic nationalist belonging to the former Yugoslavian state) eventually led to conflict and the formation of two states for each ethnic group: Serbia and Croatia.

Even in Britain, supposedly one of the most tolerant and inclusive civic societies in the world, there is widespread racism between different ethnic groups, and even evidence of institutional level racism, as evidenced with the Windrush Scandal and more recently the Metropolitan Police have been found to be STILL racist.

Types of Nationalism

McCrone (1998) Mcrone (1998) argues that while the above distinctions might be a useful starting point, nationalisms today are more complex and he distinguishes between four types of nationalism in the world today:

  1. The ‘old’ modern nation state
  2. Postcolonial nationalism
  3. Neonationalism
  4. Post-Communist nationalism

The Modern Nation State

Most Western European nations and the United States of America emerged out of modernity, with the Enlightenment, and the decline of religious thinking.

Various historical factors in the 17th to 19th centuries contributed to the formation of these ‘old nations’ such as capitalism, industrialisation and economic growth and the breakup of the Ottoman and Russian Empires.

In many cases new civic nation states were formed along the lines of shared ethnic identities but these were never enough alone to establish a modern nation: it was a combination of ethnicity, and the social changes brought about with modernity.

Postcolonial nationalism

In colonies and postcolonial countries elites often appealed to national identity to try and gain support and unify populations around new nations, as was the case in many countries throughout Africa and Asia.

In many cases, however, this proved difficult as the populations of such countries were ethnically diverse and thus divisions and sometimes overt conflict was the result.

In some cases, such as India, the transition to a secular state unified (to an extent) around democracy was successful, in other cases, such as Iran, the secular state failed to deliver what people wanted a religious state unified around Islam emerged after the Iranian revolution of 1979.

McCrone refers to the ‘dialectic with the other’ to describe the process of nation-building in many postcolonial societies:

Early states would define themselves against the coloniser (the other), but then themselves become authoritarian like the original colonising power, in which case an opposition movement (or movements) would emerge along religious or ethnic lines defining themselves against that new state-power.

Neo-nationalism

Neo-nationalism refers to nationalist independence movements in Western stateless societies such as those found in Scotland, Quebec or the Basque country.

This type of nationalism tends to emerge in societies with strong civic-states and can often be given a boost by strong economies, as with the case of Scottish nationalism and the discovery of North Sea oil.

They also tend to emerge in countries which are embedded within more global institutions such as the European Union or the North American Free Trade Association, and they may not want full independence, rather calls for more devolved powers so they have more political and economic freedom are just as likely.

This is a modern type of nationalism, more civic and pragmatic than being based on a shared sense of ethnic identity.

Post communist nationalism

Nationalism became the focus for the dissatisfaction felt by many living under Communist regimes in the mid to late 20th century and with the collapse of the Soviet Union, dozens of new nations were formed, although many of these witnessed tensions and in some cases over conflicts in the years and decades to come.

In some cases nations formed on the basis of shared ethnic identities which had been ‘suppressed’ under communism, and in other cases opportunist leaders sought to engineer a sense of national identity, and in most cases new nations formed out of a mixture of these two things.

Brubaker (1996) identifies three types of post-communist nationalism

  • The nationalising state – This is where a new nation state tries to persuade its new citizens to share a common identity based on citizenship
  • National minorities – these are groups which have a primary sense of identity with another, typically neighbouring state. For example, Hungarians in Romania.
  • National homelands – these are the territories which people who have a particular sense of nationalistic identity identify as their home. For example Romania is the national homeland for Romanians who live in Hungary.

There is not a perfect fit between all three of these which helps to explain the many conflicts around nationalism in this region since the collapse of the USSR.

map of new countries in former Yugoslavia
The formation of several nation-states out of the former Yugoslavia illustrates the complexity of post-communism nationalism.

The future of nationalism

Nationalism remains the strongest political identity. It is more important today to more people than socialism, for example and has not declined in importance like many commentators suggested it would.

Nationalism is a flexible ideology, and so possibly we can expect it to remain and become even stronger as one of the main responses to a globalising world where forces tend to undermine already existing identities.

Signposting

This material should be of relevance to anyone studying the Culture and Identity module as part of A-level sociology

To return to the homepage – revisesociology.com

Sources

McCrone (1998) The Sociology of Nationalism

Brubaker (1996) Nationalism Reframed: Nationhood and the National Question in the New Europe

Part of this post was adapted from Haralambos and Holborn (2013) Sociology Themes and Perspectives 8th Edition.

Functionalist Perspectives on Age

Talcott Parsons developed a Functionalist perspective on age and ageing in the 1950s. He argued that society mainly functioned around working age adults with children being socialised smoothly into their adult roles within the nuclear family, and adolescence being a rebellious phase of life, but a functional necessity for the reproduction of new nuclear families.

He recognised that old age was a problem for industrial societies given the isolation of the elderly from mainstream social roles and structures.

Childhood

Parsons believed that childhood was a universal stage of life in all societies when young people were socialised into the pre-existing norms and values of their society.

Gender role socialisation was an important aspect early socialisation with girls being socialised into housewife and mother roles and boys into work and breadwinner roles.

In line with the Functionalist perspective on the family, socialisation of children was seen as a mostly one-directional passive process in which children soaked up norms and values from mainly their parents, but also school.

According to Parsons there was less differentiation in socialisation by gender in the USA compared to other, more traditional societies, meaning there was more equality between the genders: both girls and boys received a similar education, for example, and women did have the opportunity to do paid work. However, gender role segregation throughout childhood and into was still the norm.

Adolescence

Parsons saw adolescence as the period in the life-course when children began to develop a sense of independence from their parents.

This stage was crucial so that new nuclear families could be formed across the generations: at some point children had to break free from loyalty to their parents and shift their primary loyalty to their new (heterosexual) partners and form new families.

This fits in with Parson’s theory of the family: nuclear families, rather than extended multi-generational households, are essential to industrial societies because they are smaller and thus more mobile so they can more easily move into new jobs as industrial capitalism evolves and develops new industries in different geographical areas.

Youth culture did involve an element of rebellion but this deviance was in fact ‘functional’ as it helped individuals to develop the independence from their parents that the system required.

Old Age

Parsons believed that old age was a problem in industrial society: society tended to centre around work and the nuclear family, which both rely on people of working age.

Once people hit retirement age in the USA, Parsons noted that the elderly were relatively isolated from the most important social structures and interests.

He didn’t really seem to have any solutions to this.

Evaluations

Parsons has been criticised for seeing the ‘life course’ as entirely about meeting the needs of society, the theory is too neat and doesn’t reflect the reality of how ageing works.

Children and adolescents are much more active in constructing their identities than Parsons suggests: children today develop very diverse identities, especially in terms of gender identity, and this simply doesn’t fit with what Parsons says.

Similarly youth culture is an extended phase of life for many, with a signficant minority of people not ‘growing out’ of it until their mid 20s, and many of them don’t go on to form nuclear families at all.

With old age it is hard to argue all retired people are just redundant as Parsons suggests. For a start retirement ages differ, and many old people contribute massively to society either as consumers or volunteers, it seems incredulous to write off an entire large age-cohort as playing no useful function!

Signposting and Sources

This material is primarily relevant to the Culture and Identity module, usually taught as part of the first year in A-Level Sociology.

Part of this post was adapted from Haralambos and Holborn (2013) Sociology Themes and Perspectives 8th Edition.

To return to the homepage – revisesociology.com

The Precariat

The precariat are generally in low-income, insecure employment, rent rather than own their own homes and have low levels of social and cultural capital.

The precariat refers to people living and working usually in a series of short-term jobs without recourse to stable occupational identities or careers, social protection or relevant protective legislation.

The variety of jobs the precariat does varies enormously as this can include any type of agency work such as cleaning, or factory work, anyone working on a zero-hours contract doing delivery work for the likes of Amazon or Sports Direct and also technically self-employed ‘gig-economy’ workers such as Uber drivers or anyone working for Deliveroo.

The precariat from the Great British Class Survey

The precariat includes a mixture of local people and migrants and the average age profile of this class is 50, according the Great British Class Survey.

Incomes are usually low for people in the Precariat, and crucially incomes are often not secure, meaning that people can go without work for days, weeks or even months and may have to periodically supplement their (lack of) income with benefits.

This class is also the least likely to own their own homes, the most likely to rent and they have the lowest levels of cultural and social capital.

The term Precariat links its members vulnerability to their structural location in society and the structural instability of a global labour market. It recognises that there is mobility and overcomes the idea of them being fixed outside ot the class system.

The precariat includes benefit claimants, most of whom claim temporarily in between periods of precarious short term work, the kind of work that is increasing rapidly in neoliberal Britain, and increasingly less of a stepping stone to more secure and better paid employment.

Many members of the precariat are caught in a cycle of entrapment: they are unable to find work which is long term enough and with prospects of progression for them to gain skills and progress up the career and income ladder, rather they move from one low-status job to a period of no job and then back into another low-status job.

The Underclass: misleading and derogatory

Charles Murray famously developed the concept of the ‘Underclass’ in the 1980s to designate a group of people beneath the class system and excluded from the social mainstream.

According to Murray the main features of the Underclass were a long-term dependency on benefits which spanned across generations such that younger people were socialised into an anti-work, high-crime and teen-pregnancy culture.

Research in the UK has shown that the existence of the Underclass is a myth, mainly because very few benefits claimants claim benefits long term, most are in either part-time or intermittent employment and claim to top-up their small incomes or short-term between periods of unemployment, so there is no group of people beneath the class system.

However the mainstream media has a long history of perpetuating the myth that there is a ‘dangerous class’ of poor people who are work shy, criminal and abuse the benefits system.

When the Great British Class Survey was conducted, for example, there were a lot of documentaries about benefits claimants such as Benefits Street which reinforced the idea that there was an underclass of lazy, determined welfare spongers.

The Precarait/ (mislabelled) Underclass are also loathed and laughed at by some in other sectors of the population, and we see this most obviously through the derogatory use of the Chav label.

The Precariat are seen as old fashioned, rigid and inflexible, and their ways of being are devalued, with many people believing that foreigners are better at filling low paid jobs in Britain rather than poor lazy British people.

It maybe because of the breaking down of the clear class boundaries between middle and working class that we denigrate the poor with more vigour – as if rallying against the bottom unites the rest of us and shores up our own identity as not one of them.

Culture, Identity and the Precariat

Despite the fact that many of the negative associations are due to right-wing bigotry and media stereotyping, the precariat know they are looked down on and they would rather stay among their own which unfortunately makes it more likely that the Precariat do, indeed, become something of an isolated and segregated class.

Many in the Precariat manage this by close identification with the local and through complicated and voracious notions of belonging which may manifest in what they wear, what they like and strong connection to their local communities.

The Precariat are so painfully aware of the level of social shame associated with their class that only 1% of Great British Class Survey respondents were from the Precariat, besides them making up 15% of the population. They wanted to avoid a process that involved putting them at the bottom.

The precariat have the lowest levels of cultural capital, they have a lot less knowledge about ‘high’ culture especially and would rather NOT go out to public venues to conspicuously consume such cultural products.

Rather they prefer to engage in activities either at home with close friends and families or in their local communities: cultural activities are more about the people less about social display.

Signposting and Sources

This material should be relevant to anyone studying the culture and identity option as part of their A-level in sociology.

This post was summarised from Savage (2015) Social Class in the 21st Century.

To find out more about the Precariat you might like to do the Great British Class Survey.

To return to the homepage – revisesociology.com

The Transition from Youth to Adulthood in Modern Britain

youth transitions in postmodern society are full of uncertain choices and constrained by government policy and social class.

The transition from youth to adulthood in modern Britain is a very gradual one, spanning a period from 15-24 years of age if we take the United Nations definition of youth and longer in some cases.

This gradual transition isn’t natural, it is a consequence of structural changes associated with the shift to postmodern society and government policies which have largely been a reaction to these societal level changes.

There are three main transitions associated with moving from youth to adulthood (following Furlong and Cartmel, 2006):

  1. The transition from school to work: from compulsory GCSEs through further and possibly higher education or training to full time paid employment.
  2. The domestic transition away from one’s parental family to establishing a primary relationship with one’s own intimate partner
  3. The housing transition which involves moving from the family home with parents to living alone or with a partner.

The period of youth involves a lot more than just these three transitions, it is also a time when one ‘grows into’ or finds one’s own independent self-identity.

Transitions to adulthood involve young people in making more choices today than ever, but these are not necessarily entirely free choices for every individual: social class, gender, ethnicity, sexuality and locality can all limit opportunities and make certain transitional choices for some impractical, undesirable or just impossible.

(For example if you fail your GCSES, you probably aren’t going to be able to choose to become a medical doctor!)

Structural changes affecting youth transitions

Economic globalisation since the 1970s have resulted in significant changes in the labour market in the UK. Cheaper labour costs abroad have resulted in manufacturing moving to countries such as China and India and meant a decline in the number of factory based jobs for life which many working class youth could have expected to go into.

Instead of jobs for life young people today are facing the prospect of being portfolio workers, and can expect to change jobs many times throughout their working lives, and this is especially true early on in their careers. There are also many more informal gig economy jobs in the service sector which are often filed by young people.

As a result the experience of work today is a lot more fragmented and a lot more uncertain than it used to be.

Cultural globalisation has meant a huge increase in both the amount of knowledge, information and leisure products purely for entertainment and the consequences of this are that young people have to make choices about what knowledge and products to consume.

In education this means relying on advice to make choices at 16, 18 and 21 if you pursue the ‘standard’ school, further education, then higher education route, but even that is a choice, alongside vocational options such as apprenticeships.

Outside of education there is a fantastic array of leisure options available… music, style, travel, who to watch and follow on instagram, gaming, sports, so many options to shape one’s identity and also possible routes to making money if you position yourself well.

The cost of housing in the UK is also a factor, not helped by the recent cost of living crisis and increase in interest rates: this makes the prospect of living at home with one’s parents a financial necessity for many which can shape the experience of youth.

Finally there is the continuous reality of global crises: if it’s not a financial crisis (2008, 2022-23) it’s a pandemic, if it’s not a pandemic, it’s a war or wars, and even without any of these we’ve got an ongoing environmental crisis, and on top of this a political elite in Britain that seems incapable of managing these problems.

All of these structural changes mean that young people today face a lot of more uncertainty but also a lot more choice, and (following Giddens) they have to be a lot more reflexive: finding one’s way in the transition from youth to adulthood involves a lot of reflection, constructing one’s identity becomes a constant project which requires constant effort.

Society also becomes a lot more individualised. Experts (for example careers advisors) and ‘self proclaimed not really experts’ on YouTube may well offer advice but it’s on the individual to make their own choices in life. There are no clear, objective right decisions that anyone can make, individuals have to decide what is right for them, and this means we are operating under conditions of risk and uncertainty (following Ulrich Beck).

In the postmodern transition from youth to adulthood you are free (within reason) to choose your life course and identity, but you also have to accept the consequences of bad decisions that you make: that’s on you!

Government policy and youth transitions

Government policies today prevent youth from transitioning into adulthood before 18 and encourage youth to stay in a state of semi-dependence on their parents until their early 20s:

  • full time education in school is compulsory until the age of 16, and while 17-18 year olds are allowed to move into full-time work this has to have a training element and so will have a very low wage, which will be insufficient for independent living.
  • Free provision of education for 16-19 year olds encourages youth to stay on in full-time further education until 18.
  • The national minimum wage is teired by age so that you cannot earn the full wage until you are 23.
  • Under 25s are entitled to less Universal Credit than those aged 25 or over: £290 a month compared to £370.
national minimum wage in the UK by age, 2023.
16-17 year olds can be paid 50% less than 23 year olds!

The transition to adulthood as a journey

In the 1960s and 1970s young people boarded trains which set off for different destinations, largely shaped by social class. and gender, and once on these trains they had limited opportunities to change direction because they were already on set tracks.

However, while on these trains the occupants tended to bond with people similar to them (based on class and gender) and could work together to change change the direction they were going if they didn’t like the look of the destination.

The above analogy describes typical youth transitions in the 1960s and 1970s: predictable career paths and class solidarity, but these days are now gone.

Today’s youth get into cars and the driver of the car has no set destination because there are no rails, there is a complex road network and the drivers. of these cars (which are more diverse than the old trains) have to make decisions as they go which will affect the final destination.

Moreover, not all cars are equal: some are much better designed to stay the course, others will crash off and end up with shorter journeys than initially intended.

The later analogy describes the more diverse and uncertain routes young people must negotiate between further education, higher education, and early stage careers.

The school to work transition

Further education has greatly expanded since the 1970s and it is now expected that everyone will stay in education or training until at least age 18, and government policy encourages this by setting the minimum wage for under 18s at a very low rate and making it extremely difficult for under 18s to claim welfare benefits, and also by making education free until the age of 19 (allowing for some flexibility for those who fail GCSEs).

There is also a lot more choice of courses available in 16-19 education, with vocational options such as apprenticeships having expanded greatly over the last two decades, since the year 2000.

On top of this around 50% of the UK population now go on to higher education, usually in university, financed through student loans for both maintenance and fees.

This means the normal time of educational transition to full time paid employment last up until at least age 21 in most cases, longer given that it can take several months to find a graduate job, and indeed many graduates have. to settle for non-graduate jobs for a year or more before finding their way in to a career of their choice.

While there is a lot of diversity within this transition, social class and gender still have an impact.

The domestic and housing transition

This is rarely a straightforward process of people moving out once and into their own home or with their partner for the first time.

It is increasingly common for young people to move into intermediary households in young adulthood, such as student accommodation, and then move back in with their parents when they graduate for a year or more, and then possibly into their own first home as independent adults.

There has been a recent trend towards young adults staying living with their parents for longer. At age 23 60% of males and 44% of females still live with their parents.

Some couples will also go through the unfortunate experience of breaking up and then having to move back into the parental home afterwards.

None of this is helped by the increase in property prices. Only 41% of 18-35 year olds own their own homes today, down from 67% in the 1990s.

Conclusions and evaluations

There is a lot more diversity within youth transitions to adulthood in postmodern society, which reflects the increase in choices that young people have to make.

However this isn’t simply a matter of individuals freely choosing… following late modernism they HAVE to make choices under conditions of uncertainty: they are compelled to choose and face the consequences of any bad decisions they make.

Class and gender continue to shape transitions, especially social class: the middle classes have a lot more opportunities than the working classes.

Government policies also encourage youth to remain in state of at least semi-dependence on their parents until well into their 20s.

Signposting

This material is mainly relevant to the culture and identity module, normally taught as part of the first yer in A-level sociology.

To return to the homepage – revisesociology.com

Sources

Furlong and Cartmel (2006) Young People and Social Change: New Perspectives.

Part of this post was adapted from Haralambos and Holborn (2013) Sociology Themes and Perspectives 8th Edition.

Gov.Uk National Minimum Wage

Gov.UK Universal Credit

Old Age

sociological perspectives on when old age begins and the norms surrounding later life.

There is no universal biological age at which ‘old age’ or ‘later life’ begins, rather there is variation across societies and historically within societies, so the concept of old age is at least to some extent a social construction.

mind map on the social construction of old age.

The social construction of old age

In Europe before the industrial revolution old age began whenever individuals reached that stage in life when at which physical or mental deterioration reached the point at which they became dependent on others to look after them, and thus ‘old age’ didn’t begin at a particular age, rather it varied from individual to individual. (1)

The concept of a universal retirement age/ old age which started at the same biological age for all people came much later…

European societies started to introduce state pensions in the early 20th century and over time the age at which people qualified for a pension came to mark the point at the ‘old age’ started, and so from this point forwards we’ve had something of a social consensus about when a ‘universal’ stage of life known as ‘retirement’ begins

The concept of retirement based on pensionable age marks out ‘later life’ or ‘old age’ as the time at which individuals are no longer required to do paid-work, rather they are entitled to sate -benefits based on their biological age, the amount they receive being dependent on what they have paid in to the pension pot during their working lives.

The retirement age is subject to change depending on social policy. For example in Britain the state pension age stood at 65 for men and 60 for women for many decades, but today the state pension age is being put back, depending on what year you were born in.

Similarly, the state pension age is now being increased: it is currently 66 and will increase to 67 for those born after April 1960, from 2026, and then it is set to increase to age 68 in the 2040s, and all of these ages and dates are subject to possible change in the future.

screen capture of pension age calculator UK

All of this demonstrates that the concept of the final stage of life is a social construction because:

  • It is mainly based on government defined notions of when people are formally allowed (though not obliged) to quit work.
  • The retirement age has changed overtime and is subject to potential age in the future.

Of course the concept of the retirement age is not the same as old-age, only related to it and one problem with conflating the two concepts is that most people live 20 years beyond the state retirement age and some live 40 years beyond it.

For this reasons some sociologists break up the stage of ‘old age’ into further sub categories. For example Jane Pilcher distinguishes between:

  • Young old – aged 65-74 years
  • Old elderly – aged 75 84 years
  • Very elderly – aged 85 years.

Laslett (1989) distinguishes between the Third Age at which retirement begins and people have fewer responsibilities and the Fourth Age when you become limited physically and or mentally.

One problem with this later conception of old age is that ‘decline’ is often gradual and by degree so there is no clear dividing line between third and fourth age.

Variations in old age between societies

Every known society on earth defines some people as old, but the age at which ‘old age’ begins varies, based on either biological age, physiological and/ or mental conditions/ capacities or generation.

The social norms and expectations of old age also vary. There are variations in how active/ passive old people are expected to be, how dependent or independent and whether they have high or low status within a society.

image of village elders having a meeting
Older people are often treated with more respect in traditional societies.

Why does ‘old age’ vary between societies?

Social organisation: nomadic societies tend not to value the elderly (based on their physical capacity) as they may be a burden when the group has to move on, and thus may be abandoned or encourage to commit s**cide for the good of the group. Non-nomadic societies tend to value older people more as physical capacity isn’t as essential to survival.

Preliterate societies tend to value the elderly more as they are repository of knowledge and skills and are vital to the passing down of those skills and knowledge to younger generations. In literate societies knowledge and skills are stored in text form and so this function of the old becomes redundant, thus they are valued less.

If society is organised in such a way that it is mainly the elderly who control wealth and resources then they may gain more respect if the younger generations have to pander to them to benefit from their wealth.

Cultural attitudes towards death and the afterlife also affect attitudes to ageing. in some societies withe ancestor belief systems the very old are seen as being closer the the spirits of the dead and so may gain status because of this. However in more secular societies which value life over death and there is no belief in the afterlife the old are more likely to be seen as more useless because their ‘best days’ are behind them!

Variations of Ageing within societies

Social class, gender, ethnicity and cohort all affect the experience of old age, and according to conflict perspectives there are stratifying effects based on these factors.

These stratification effects accumulate over the life course and so the effects of being in a relatively disadvantaged social class, cohort, ethnicity or gender will be greatest in old age.

Social class and old age

There is considerable variation in the income of pensioners across the UK (3).

Pensioners are spread fairly evenly across the income distribution, with a slight tendency to be richer than working people.

  • 20% of pensioners are in the richest fifth
  • Approximately 22% are in the next richest fifth and third richest fifth
  • 21% are in the fourth quintle.
  • Only 14% are in the poorest quintile.
pension income distribution UK 2021

Those in the richest fifth are more likely to have had careers in professional occupations and to have private investment incomes.

Those lower down the income scale are more likely to have spent a life in temporary or insecure employment and so are going to be dependent on just the state pension for their income.

Life expectancy also varies by social class and so not only do the higher classes have higher pensions, they stay alive longer to enjoy them.

Gender and old age

Sexism and old age can combine to make the experiences of older women especially difficult.

Older women are more likely than men to be characterised as unattractive, and dependent and helpless victims, for example.

Sarah Arber (2006) notes the following differences in the social positions of older men and women.

  • Women live longer men and so tend to outlive their partners which means they are less likely to have a spouse to care for them in older age and are more likely to end up living in care homes than men.
  • Older women are more likely to be in poverty than men because of lower levels of economic activity during their working lives because of more childcare duties.

In contrast men are more likely to have partners to care for them in later life as they die younger, but those who end up single tend to have higher levels of pension wealth.

Older women have become more independent over time, and more are finding intimate partners in later life, although they tend to opt for living apart for them to avoid caring duties.

Ethnicity and old age

Minority groups tend to have lower occupational pensions. The average gross weekly income for pensioners in 2021 was £556, but for Black and Asian pensioners income was only £391 and £412 pounds per week respectively.

pension income by ethnicity bar chart, UK 2021

Despite their lower pension incomes members of all ethnic minority groups live longer than white pensioners (5):

Older members of minority groups tend to have more social contact with family members which may reflect the higher rates of multi generational households and they also stronger social networks so are less likely to be isolated.

Variations in the experience of age by Cohort

The current generation of pensioners were born mostly in the 1940s and 1950s and are most likely to be enjoying a long and well funded retirement which started at age 65 or earlier for many of them, and most have no mortgage payments as they own their own houses outright.

In contrast today’s Gen Zers are unlikely to get on the property ladder until their late 30s and face a possible retirement age of 70 or later, and the possibility of their mortgages carrying on into their mid 70s.

It is much more likely that a higher proportion of pensioners in 40 years time are going to be in poverty than today.

Signposting

This material is mainly relevant to the culture and identity module, one of the options usually taught as part of the first year in A-level Sociology.

To return to the homepage – revisesociology.com

Sources/ find out more

(1) Featherstone and Hepworth (1990) The Mask of Ageing and the Postmodern LIfecourse.

(2) Pilcher (1995) Age and Generation in Modern Britain.

(3) Gov.uk (accessed May 2023) Pensioner Income Series.

(4) Gov.uk (accessed May 2023) Ethnicity Facts and Figures: UK Pensioner Income.

(5) Office for National Statistics: Life Expectancy by Ethnicity.

(6) Check your State Pension Age.

Arber et al (2006) Changing Approaches to Gender and Ageing.

Part of this post was adapted from Haralambos and Holborn (2013) Sociology Themes and Perspectives 8th Edition.

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