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.

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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

Available on iTunes, Kobo, and Barnes and Noble – Only £0.63 ($0.99)

Retirement Cover5

Also available on Amazon, but for $3.10 because I’d get a much lower cut if I charged less!

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.)

chronicles-of-nadiya

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

Nature and Nurture Explanations of Human Behaviour

nature explanations argue that biological inheritance and genetics determine human behaviour; nurture explanations argue that society, culture and social processes such as socialisation explain human behaviour.

While not denying the role of biology in explaining some aspects of human behaviour, sociology very much emphasises the role of society (nurture) rather than nature in explaining human action. The material below forms part of lesson one of an eight lesson introduction to Sociology. 

naturenurture

Nature explanations of behaviour

In Sociology, we are looking at human behaviour. Human behaviour is the term we use that refers to all of the things that people do. There are many ways of explaining why certain people do things in particular ways.

Some biologists and psychologists think that people behave as they do because they are animals who primarily act according to their instincts. This is known as the “nature theory” of human behaviour. Other scientists and psychologists are researching whether our behaviour is “genetic” i.e. certain types of behaviour are passed down from parent to child. Again, this is a nature theory of human behaviour because it supports the belief that our behaviour is pre-programmed to a large extent. For example, it has been debated whether there is a criminal gene which means some people are more likely to commit crime.

Nurture explanations of behaviour

Nurture arguments focus on the way people are brought up and how their environment moulds their personality and behaviour. Sociologists argue that some people are brought up to be kind and caring, and others are brought up to display very different forms of behaviour. An individual’s personality and identify are moulded and developed in response to their social environments and the people they meet. They are by taught others around them telling them what is right and wrong, including teachers, siblings and most importantly parents. This is why sociologists study the family and education (the two topics on the AS course) amongst other topics because it allows to investigate how these institutions effect human behaviour.

Why do sociologists believe nurture arguments are more accurate?

We have two different ways of explaining human behaviour. One uses nature to explain behaviour, the other uses nurture. The question is, which is the best explanation? If you explain human behaviour as being the same as animal behaviour, that means that humans would all behave in the same way. French cats behave in the same way as British cats. Do British people behave like French people? People in Britain do tend to behave in a similar way. They do similar things and wear certain types of clothing. Do all people all over the world behave in the same way? Sociologists tend to say ‘no’ and use three types of evidence to prove the point.

Historical Evidence against Nature theories

Nature arguments suggest human behaviour isn’t dissimilar to animal behaviour, which is based on automatic responses and pre-determined modes of behaviour or that our behaviour is pre-determined by our genes. However, human behaviour has changed significantly throughout history whilst animal behaviour has changed only slightly over a very long period of time. This suggests humans interact with their environments in a unique manner, both moulding and being moulded by it.

 

changing gender roles
Rapidly changing gender roles are one example against nature theories of behaviour

Anthropological Evidence against Nature theories

The second argument uses anthropological evidence. Anthropologists are people who study and compare societies from all over the world. If our behaviour was in our genes then people all around the world would behave in the same way. This is because other than the external physical difference between humans, the actual biological difference between people from different parts of the world is tiny. However, anthropologists show that people behave differently in different societies.

 

nature and nurture
Tribal societies with different norms and values are good evidence against nature theories of behaviour

 

So we can see that someone’s gender, ethnicity and class can strongly affect their life chances. Society, through institutions such as the family, media, education and the police effects different group’s behaviour. This is a fact, because we can very accurately make generalisations about the expected behaviour of these groups in society. Your behaviour isn’t as unique and individual as you think.

The Analaysis podcast below demonstrates the importance of nurture over nature explanations of human action…

I should be a psychopath, but I’m not?” 5:30 – 11:44 http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b010mcl1 (2011)

  1. What was the pattern in the professor’s family history? What genetic pattern did the professor have?What factors does researcher suggest prevented him from becoming a killer, criminal etc?How do the researchers view of genetics vs surroundings explanations of behaviour change?

NOTE – the Nature Vs. Nurture debate is hotly debated topic. No side can claim to provide compelling evidence that entirely disputes the other i.e. neither side can completely disregard nature or nurture in explanation of human behaviour.

Related Posts 

All of the links below take you to introductory posts designed to provide a feel for what Sociology is, and what A Level Sociology looks like. 

What is Sociology?

AS and A Level Sociology – At a Glance

Core Themes in AS and A Level Sociology

Assessment Objectives in AS and A Level Sociology

Good resources for exploring AS and A Level Sociology further

Please click here to return to the homepage – ReviseSociology.com

 

Post and Late Modern Perspectives on Society and Identity

This is intended to be an uber-brief summary, for fuller accounts please see other relevant posts. 

The postmodern view of society 

  • Globalisation destablises social structures
  • Consumer culture floats free from other institutions
  • The media and hyperreality are important
  • There is much more diversity
  • The End of Metanarratives

The corresponding postmodern view of identity

  • Individuals identities are no longer constrained by traditional norms (such as locality, social class or gender)
  • Leisure and consumption, not work are what bind us together and what we use to actively construct our identities
  • Individuals are free to construct their own identities in any way they see fit.

The Late Modern view of society 

  • Globalisation remains structured
  • Abstract Systems are important (T$E)
  • Uncertainty is everywhere
  • Institutions are reflexive
  • Therapy is important.

The corresponding Late Modern view of Identity 

  • Individuals are not so much free to construct their own identities – they have to do so.
  • This is because the lack of a stable structure and rapid pace of social change means identity is no longer provided at birth, work, or locality.
  • Thus people are forced into devoting time and money to ‘constructing their selves’ reflexively – and they have to do so continuously.

Giddens: Modernity and Self-Identity – Introduction and Chapter One (A Summary)

modernity and self identityAnthony Giddens is one of the world’s leading sociologists and one of the main critics of Postmodern thought – and should be taught as part of the second year A level Sociology module in Theory and Methods. Below is a summary of one of his major works – Modernity and Self-Identity (the introduction and chapter one). 

Introduction – An Overview of the Whole Book –

Modernity is more complex and interconnected than ever before and modern institutions are more dynamic than at any previous point in history – at both an institutional level and in terms of how they impact on the individual and intimate life.

In modernity there is an increasing interconnection between two extremes – the global and personal dispositions (extensionality and intentionality).

The new mechanisms of self-identity shape and are shaped by the institutions of modernity and Sociology is a fundamental part of the institutional reflexivity of modernity.

There is a basic dialectic between modern institutions which encourage the repression of ‘living out’ existential questions in day to day life and the emergence of life-politics which seeks to manifest them.

Late Modernity has the following characteristics:

  • It is more intensely reflexive.

  • There has been a profound reorganisation of time and space – disembedding mechanisms change the nature of day to day social life.

  • It institutionalises radical doubt – all knowledge takes the form of a hypothesis – claims which may be true are always potentially open for revision such that the self has to be continuously (re-) made amidst a puzzling array of possibilities.

  • In circumstances of uncertainty and multiple choice the notions of risk and trust become central. Trust is necessary to form a protective cocoon so that we may ‘go on’ with our day to day life. Risk is also central – in modernity the future is continuously drawn into the present by means of the reflexive organisation of knowledge environments. Modernity makes some areas of life safer, but also opens up new risks.

  • The influence of distant happenings on proximate events become more and more common place – the media is common place and is what binds us together in this (against hyperreality).

  • Because of all of the above ‘lifestyle’ becomes central – reflexively organised life planning becomes a central feature of the structuring of self-identity, which normally presumes a consideration of risks as filtered through contact with expert knowledge.

  • The Pure Relationship is the main type of relationship.

  • Re-skilling becomes central to life.

  • The construction and control of the body becomes central.

  • Science, technology and expertise play a more fundamental role in the ‘sequestration of experience’. The overall thrust of modern institutions is to create settings of action ordered in terms of modernity’s own dynamics and severed from external criteria’ – as a result action becomes severed from existential questions.

  • Mechanisms of shame rather than guilt come to the fore in late modernity. Narcissism and personal meaninglessness become the main problems of self-development – ”authenticity’ is frequently devoid of any moral anchoring.

  • Yet the repression of existential questions is not complete – and life politics emerges in response.

  • Baudrillard confuses the pervasive impact of mediated experience with the internal referentiality of the social systems of modernity – these systems become largely autonomous and determined by their own constitutive influences.

  • The construction of self identity does not float free – class and other divisions can be partially defined through differential access to opportunities for self-actualisation.

GIddens Late Modernity

Chapter One – The Contours of High Modernity

Starts with the example of divorce to illustrate the gist of the chapter.

The experience of intimate life is not separate from social life. High modernity demands that we continually remake ourselves, and so it is with many relationships – as evidenced in the persistent high divorce rate, which is simply a consequence of the ‘pure relationship’ being the main type of relationship today.

Divorce is not necessarily a tragedy – for some it is an opportunity to further develop themselves, while for others they retreat into a resigned numbness. To make a ‘success’ out of divorce, one has to mourn it, accept that the marriage is ended, and move on!

Modernity: Some general considerations:

Modernity has the following features –

  1. It is industrial – social relations are rooted in the widespread use of material power and machinery in production processes.

  2. It is capitalist – we live in a system of commodity production which involves both competitive product markets and the commodification of labour power.

  3. There are significant institutions of surveillance – the supervisory control of subject populations – both visible and in terms of the use of information to coordinate social activities.

  4. We live in the context of the industrialisation of war – modernity has ushered in a context of ‘total war’ – the potential destructive power of weaponry, most obviously nuclear arms, is immense.

Modernity produces certain distinct social forms – most obviously the nation state, or a system of nation states, which follow coordinated policies or plans on a global scale – nation states permit and entail concentrated reflexive monitoring.

Modernity is also characterised by extreme dynamism – the current world is a runaway world – the pace, scope and profoundness of changes is significantly greater than any time before.

The peculiar character of modernity consists in the following:

Firstly the separation of time and space and the emptying out of time and space – the clock being the most obvious manifestation which presumed deeply structured changes in the tissue of everyday life, which were universalising, on a global scale. This is a dialectical process – the severance of time from space allows for new formations – such as the ‘use of history to make history’ – as in the significance of the year 2000, just because it was the year 2000.

Secondly the disembedding of social institutions – the lifting out of social relations from local contexts. There are two main ways this occurs – through symbolic tokens (such as money) and expert systems (therapists) and each of these permeate every aspect of late-modern life, and both depend on trust. Trust, a leap of faith is essential – because in a disembedded system we cannot know everything. Risk is also part of this.

Institutional reflexivity is the third feature of late modernity – the regularised use of knowledge about circumstances of social life as a constitutive element in its organisation and transformation.

The local, the global and the transformation of day-to-day-life

There is a dialectic between Modernity’s universalising efforts and the actual consequences: In the attempt to know and predict everything, in fact competing knowledge systems have emerged, and there is no way of knowing with any certainty which is correct, thus uncertainty lies at the heart of daily life.

The mediation of experience

Today, virtually all experience is mediated, but this does not result in post-modern fragmentation – in fact mediation is precisely what unifies all of us – pre-modern life is what was truly fragmented. We are now all painfully and persistently aware of the various modern problems which we cannot escape.

The Existential Parameters of High Modernity

The Future is the driving force of high modernity – or rather the attempt to colonise it based on the use of knowledge. We do this in the context of risk – We are all confronted with uncertainty because the rise of competing expert systems just makes us more uncertain. Expert knowledge has failed to make the world more predictable.

Why Modernity and Personal Identity?

Because never before has there been a time when so many people have been unified into the demands to reflexively make themselves – it is the institutional context of modernity which makes this possible – Globalisation, and abstract systems demand that we engage in self-construction, and therapy becomes central to this.

Anthony GIddens
Anthony Giddens

Related Posts 

Modernity and Self Identity – Chapter Two Summary

Giddens’ Modernity and Self Identity – summarised in 14 bullet points

Some introductory questions on Giddens’ Sociological Thought – to get students thinking (dangerous, I know)

Theory.Org has a useful outline of Giddens’ thought

Giddens – Modernity and Self-Identity

A brief summary of Anthony Giddens’ work on the relationship between the self and society in late-modern age.

Self-identity, history, modernity.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

    Giddens now asks how can we connect up these ten features of self-identity to the institutional transformations characteristic of the late-modern world?

Lifestyle and Life Plans

Therapy (and it’s focus on self-identity reconstruction) is a response to the backdrop to the existential terrain of late modern life which consists of the following features:

  • it is reflexively organised

  • it is permeated by abstract systems (money/ time)

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

This has resulted in the following societal level changes 

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

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

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

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

All of this has results in the primacy of lifestyle (and thus lifestyle planning and therapy)

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

(NB Giddens also says that we do not all have complete freedom of choice over our lifestyles – we are restricted by work, and by class etc… and moreover, the lifestyle pattern we choose limits what we can do if we wish to maintain an authentic narrative of the self.

Life planning becomes essential in the above social context – life planning is an attempt to ‘colonise the future’.in conditions of social uncertainty – which is precisely what modern institutions do at the societal level.

Thus life-planning and therapy kind of ‘mirror’ a broader (globalised) social context which is itself reflexive.

Two things in particular become central to ‘life planning’– (1) The Pure Relationship comes to be crucial to the reflexive project of the self and (2) the body becomes subject of ever greater levels of personal control, which I’ll cover in the next blog post or two.

Gender Identity and Education

This post looks at how the experience of school can reinforce children’s gender identities.

Gender identity

Research on the development of gender identity has shown that children become keen to demonstrate their awareness and knowledge of gender at the age of five to six. Consequently, seven to eight year olds have a relatively well-established sense of gender identity. For children, being accepted as a ‘typical boy’ or a ‘typical girl’ tends to be important. School is an important arena in which one can act out one’s gender identity and affirm one’s masculinity or femininity and thus affirm one’s gender identity.

Sociological research shows that there is pressure in school to conform to traditional gender identities. If one is a boy, one is often expected to display aspects of traditional masculinity such as enjoying sport and being competitive; and if a male student displays traditionally feminine traits they are criticised. Similarly, girls who act masculine may be subject ridicule. This handout looks at ways in which traditional gender identities are reinforced in school

Male Peer Groups – reinforce the idea that working hard is unmasculine for boys

Mac an Ghail’s study of Parnell school (1994) found that Male peer groups put boys under pressure to not take school work seriously. There were differences across social classes

Working class boys – genuinely didn’t make an effort – part of being male for them meant being cool, and not caring about school work. For them ‘real boys don’t try hard at school’ and are more interested in dossing around (like the Lads Paul Willis studied in 1977). These boys referred to boys that wanted to do well as ‘dickhead achievers’ ‘queer’ or ‘gay’.

Middle class boys – Behind the scenes, many middle class boys would try hard to succeed but in public they projected an image of ‘effortless achievement’ – pretending they were weren’t really making any effort and being smug when they did well because of this.

In terms of identity then, not working hard is part of working class masculinity and being seen to not working hard is part of middle class masculinity

In Shaun’s story – Dianna Reay (2002) demonstrated how Shaun, an 11 year old white working class boy, struggled to redefine himself as a hard working pupil when he moved from primary to secondary school. In primary school, an important part of Shaun’s identity was being one of the toughest guys in school and being a good footballer. When he moved up to secondary school he saw this as an opportunity to redefine himself as a ‘good student’ but found this difficult because he still valued his relationship with his old friends and his identity as a tough guy and a good footballer.

Female peer groups reinforce ideas of traditional femininity

Louise Archer – Interviewed 89 young people, looking at the identities of young working class girls. She found that girls that didn’t conform to traditional gender identities (passive and submissive) were at a disadvantage because they came into conflict with the school. For most of the girls, constructing and performing a heterosexual, sexy feminine image was the most important thing to them. Each of the girls spent considerable money and time on their appearance, trying to look sexy and feminine which gave the girls a sense of power and status. The peer group policed this.

Archer also interview one Laddette – who felt as if the school had a grudge against her. Over one summer she transformed her identity to a classically feminine one and got on much better with staff at her new college as a result.

Carolyn Jackson argued that Laddishness amongst girls is on the increase – girls are increasingly loud, aggressive and drink excessively. She argued that the advantages of this behaviour are that this allows girls to seam carefree about education, reducing the risk of them losing face if they fail.

Verbal Abuse can reinforce traditional gender identities

Connell argues that verbal abuse is one way in which dominant gender and sexual identities are reinforced.

Paetcher (1996) argued that male pupils use terms such as ‘gay’ or ‘queer’ in a derogatory manner. Such labels are often given to students who are disinterested in or bad at sport or who prefer traditionally feminine subjects.

Sue Lees (1986) found that boys called girls ‘slags’ if they appeared to be sexually available and ‘drags’ if they didn’t, negatively labelling girls for being promiscuous or not. According to Lees this is one way in which male dominance starts to assert itself.

Teachers reinforce traditional gender identities

Research shows that teachers also play a part in reinforcing dominant definitions of gender identity. Chris Haywood (1996) found that male teachers told boys off for ‘behaving like girls’ and teased them when they gained lower marks in tests that girls. Teachers also tended to ignore boys verbal abuse of girls (calling them slags etc)

There is also some evidence that male teachers sometimes display a protective attitude towards female teachers, coming into their class to rescue them from disruptive pupils who display threatening behaviour

John Abraham’s research found that teachers idea of a ‘typical girl’ was of her being welll behaved and studios, whereas their ideas of ‘typical boys’ were of them being troublemakers – thus boys received more negative feedback than girls which could reinforce their notion of masculinity being associated with messing around in school.

Tutors and subject advisors

If male students want to do traditionally female subjects, tutors are more likely to question them critically asking them if they are really sure about their decision, meaning students are under more pressure to avoid those subjects that do not fall into their traditional ‘gender domains’

Gender identities can be different for different ethnic groups…

Sewell argues that African Caribbean males are more likely to form anti-school subcultures

Mac An Ghail agreed but argued that this was a response to institutional racism

Girls outperform boys in all ethnic groups at GCSE and are more likely to go to university than boys in all ethnic groups

But Bangladeshi and Pakistani girls are less likely to attend university than their male peers. Research suggests this is due to cultural pressure to stay close to home and get married

 SignPosting

This post has primarily been written for A-level sociology students and this topic comes up in the compulsory education module, part of the gender and education sub-topic.

Related posts include:

Explaining the Gender Gap in Education – External Factors 

Explaining the Gender Gap in Education – In School Factors 

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