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Sociological Perspectives on the Royal Wedding

Just a few thoughts on how you might apply Functionalism and Marxism to the Royal Wedding!

Functionalists might interpret the wedding as one of those symbolic events which brings people together – enhancing a sense of national identity, and possibly social solidarity. You certainly get this impression from Sky News’ Live Stream which is already in full swing – showing footage of the massing crowds, bunting and al.

HOWEVER, if you dig a little deeper,  it seems that this interpretation just doesn’t stack up… for starters, 50% of ‘us Brits’ were indifferent to the royal engagement:

 

And there’s also small but significant undercurrent of anti-royalist sentiment:

On the question of belonging, this New York Times article is well worth a read, on what Black Britons think about Meghan and the royal wedding – it’s an odd one, given the very whiteness of the royal family, FINALLY including a mixed-race woman into the ‘bloodline’…..

Maybe a Marxist interpretation might be more appropriate…..?

Despite the continued existence of royalty being one of the most obvious reminders of the class divide in the UK, there is some evidence that the state (in the form of the police) are very much inclined to work for the elite class, and suppress those who would oppose it, or even just make it look a bit untidy:

For example, it’s unlikely that the homeless of Windsor probably will celebrating the event, given that the local police have been involved in seizing their Belongings Before the Royal Wedding in an attempt to ‘clear up the area’, maybe so ‘brand Britain’ looks its best for the global media

You also have to wonder how many anti-royalist protesters have been arrested and locked up this morning: the video below shows some anti-royalist protesters on their way to do some ‘street theatre’ being arrested for ‘pre-crime back in 2011 a few hours before Kate and Will tied the knot.

 

Then there’s the apparent disdain with which the royals are treating the ‘commoners’: despite her £400 million fortune, the Queen isn’t even prepared to stump up a free lunch for the 2000 ‘commoners’ who have been invited to Windsor Castle to celebrate the big day – the ‘normal’ guests have [been advised to bring a picnic lunch](https://www.theguardian.com/uk-news/2018/may/03/bring-your-own-picnic-royal-wedding-guests-bemused-by-lack-of-catering).

So while I wish Harry and Meghan as individuals all the happiness in the world, maybe we should wish that the institution surrounding them would just whither away?

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Rich House, Poor House – Spreading the Myth of Meritocracy

In this Channel 5 series, one family in the ‘wealthiest 10%’ of Britain swap lives for a week with a family in the ‘poorest 10% of Britain’. As I see it this programme performs an ‘ideological control function’ – spreading the myth of meritocracy.

They two families swap houses, budgets and leisure-timetables for a week – in episode two for example, the poor family, living on the rich family’s typical weekly disposable income, have to live off about £3000 per week, while the rich family, have to live off just under £200 per week, and in this episode, both families seem to be genuinely hard working and just, well, nice.

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The ‘Poor House’

The meat of the programme consists of watching the families hanging out in their respective houses, doing whatever activities the other family would normally do, and meeting their respective friends/ work colleagues, including some running reflections on how ‘nice’ it is to be rich, and what a ‘struggle’ it is to be poor.

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The ‘rich house’

Here’s how the programme performs the function of ideological control – basically it spreads the ‘myth of meritocracy‘.

  1. It misrepresents what the top 10% look like – the narration keeps talking about how the rich family is in the top 10%, they are, but their weekly disposable income of over £3K, and the fact that they own 12 restaurants and employ 60 odd people, puts them easily in the top 1%. This fact alone really annoys me – it is the extreme minority that lives like this. I worked this out using the IFS’ income calculator)
  2. The family in the top 1% are further unrepresentative in that the father genuinely worked his way up after failing school, cleaning toilets and then getting into restauranteering. This is most definitely NOT how the majority get into the top 1%, especially since social mobility has been declining in recent years.
  3. The working class father keeps saying ‘I want my children to see this and want this’ – he seems to take the experience of his week in the rich mans world as evidence that anyone can make it if you try hard enough – in fact there is LESS CHANCE TODAY HIS KIDS than he would have had to climb the career ladder.
  4. Maybe the same point as above – the working class guy has 4 kids – I wonder what the actual chances of all four kids from one working class family independently becoming millionaires actually are? It’s probably lottery odds.
  5. The ‘luck’ word is mentioned once, apparently it’s all about hard work. NO – this view is just plain wrong, Malcome Gladwell convinced me of this in his book ‘Outliers’

Personally I think this series (if it carries on this vein) is lazy and appalling television – it wouldn’t take much to add in some depth analysis, have some commentary or stats overlying how likely it is for someone to go from working class to millionnaire, for example.

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The Poor Family – now none the wiser as to how they’ve been shafted by 30 years of neoliberalism

There’s also absolutely no mention of the sheer injustice of the fact that both sets of parents are doing similar amounts of ‘work’ but the rewards are so incredibly different, and no mention of how good it is that we’ve got social housing so at least the poor family have a decent house.

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The rich family – nice enough, but so few these days climb the class ladder. 

In short, my intense dislike of this show stems from the misleading portrayal of the richest 1% as representing the richest 10% and from its total lack of analysis of the actual chances of social mobility occurring.

NB – It was also quite dull viewing. If you think it sounds a little like Wife Swap, it’s much less entertaining as it’s the whole family doing the swapping, so there’s much less conflict.

 

 

 

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What is the difference between Functionalism and Marxism

Functionalists have a very general analysis of the role of education in society, simply looking at how it contributes to the maintenance of social order, whereas Marxists analyse the role of education by focusing on how it performs different functions for different social classes.

As I see it, Marxists offer a ‘deeper layer’ of analysis compared to Functionalists, although critics of Marxism may say they seeing class divisions where there are none.

Below is a basic comparison of Functionalist and Marxist perspectives on the role of education in society:

Functionalism: Education serves the needs of an industrial society by providing it with an advanced, specialised division of labour

Marxism: Education part of the ideological state apparatus, and works for the Bourgeois

Functionalism: Education serves the needs of the social system by socialising new generations into shared norms and values which provide harmony and stability

Marxism: Teaches us the ‘myth of meritocracy’ – we believe we fail because it’s our own fault, thus put up with inequality

Functionalism: The formal and hidden curriculums helpsprepare children for service to society

Marxism: Correspondence Theory – Hidden Curriculum makes us accept authority without question

Functionalism: Education provides the means for upward mobility for those prepared to work hard

Marxism: Education reproduces class inequality – middle class kids more likely to succeed and get good jobs

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The Capitalist Mode of Production

Understanding the Capitalist Mode of Production is crucial to an understanding of both Modernisation Theory and Dependency Theory – I thought the passage below did a nice job of summarizing what the ‘capitalist mode of production’ is.

A a special treat for my American readers, I have used the correct, British spelling of ‘labour’.

‘Today we think of Capitalism as the normal way of organising economic activity and tend to take it for granted, but it is a very different mode of production to previous feudal economies and hunter gatherer livelihoods…

Capitalism is based on private ownership of enterprises such as factories, plantations, mines, offices or shops and the operation of these assets for profit. Other elements of the means of production such as labour, land, technology and capital are also privately owned and can be bought and sold.

Labour is the most important input for production. Under capitalism, labour, the work of men and women, has become a special type of commodity which is sold in the marketplace. Capitalists use their money to buy labour and combine this commodity with other inputs, such as land, raw materials etc. to produce new goods and services. In profitable businesses, the economic value of these new goods and services are greater than the other inputs required to produce them.

Workers’ labour generates a surplus value greater than the workers’ wages. When the capitalist sells the finished commodities on the market they extract surplus value from the labour of the workers by paying them less than the value of the work they have completed. Capitalists are able to profit from the labour of others because they control the means of production.

The capitalist mode of production was different to earlier feudalism because of the role for waged labour and the importance of capital and markets for acquiring wealth. The important transition which lead to the expansion of capitalism around the globe through colonialism was the concentration of capitalist power through the fusion of state authority and capital.”

Source – Brooks, Andrew (2017) The End of Development 

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What is Alienation?

Working definition: the separation or estrangement of human beings from some essential aspect of their nature or from society, often resulting in feelings of powerlessness or helplessness.

Today, the concept of alienation has become part of ordinary language, much used in the media. We may be told, for example, that who groups are becoming alienated from society, or that young people are alienated from mainstream values. With such usage of the concept we get the impression of the feeling of separation of one group from society, but the concept has traditionally been used in sociology, mainly by Karl Marx, to express a much more profound sense of estrangement than most contemporary usage (IMO).

Origins of the concept

Sociological usage of the term stems from Marx’s concept of alienation which he used to develop the effects of capitalism on the experience work in particular and society more generally.

Marx developed his theory of alienation from Feuerbach’s philosophical critique of Christianity – Feuerbach argued that the concept of an all powerful God as a spiritual being to whom people must submit in order to reach salvation was a human construction, the projection of human power relations onto spiritual being. Christianity effectively disguised the fact that it was really human power relations which kept the social order going, rather than some higher spiritual reality, thus alienating from the ‘truth’ of power was really maintained.

Marx applied the concept of alienation to work in industrial capitalist societies, arguing that emancipation for workers lay in their wrestling control away from the small, dominating ruling class.

Later, Marxist inspired industrial sociologists used the concept to explore working relations under particular management systems in factories.

Marx’s historical materialist approach began with the way people organise their affairs together to produce goods and survive. For Marx, to be alienated is to be in an objective condition which as real consequences, and to change it we need to actually change the way society is organised rather than changing our perception of it.

Work in the past may well have been more physically demanding, but Marx argued that it was also less alienating because workers (craftsmen for example) had more control over their working conditions, work was more skilled and it was more satisfying, because workers could ‘see themselves in their work’.

However, in 19th century industrial factories, workers effectively had no control over what they were doing, their work was unskilled and they were effectively a ‘cog in a machine’, which generated high levels of alienation – or feelings of powerlessness, helplessness, and of not being in control.

It doesn’t take too much of a leap to apply this analysis to late-modern working conditions – in fast food outlets such as McDonald’s or call centers, for example.

Marx’s theory suggests capitalist production creates alienation in four main areas:

  1. Workers are alienated from their own labour power – they have to work as and when required and to perform the tasks set by their employers.
  2. They are alienated from the products of their labour – which are successfully claimed by capitalists to be sold as products on the marketplace for profit, while workers only receive a fraction of this profit as wages
  3. Workers are alienated from each other – they are encouraged to compete with each other for jobs.
  4. They are alienated from their own species being – according to Marx, satisfying work is an essential part of being human, and capitalism makes work a misery, so work under capitalism thus alienates man from himself. It is no longer a joy, it is simply a means to earn wages to survive.

Marx’s well known (but much misunderstood) solution to the ills of alienation was communism – a way of organizing society in which workers would have much more control over their working conditions, and thus would experience much less alienation.

Critical points 

Marx’s concept of alienation was very abstract and linked to his general theory of society, with its revolutionary conclusions, and as such, not especially easy to apply to social research.

However, in the 20th century some sociologists stripped the concept from its theoretical origins in order to make the concept more useful for empirical research.

One example is Robert Blauner’s ‘Alienation and Freedom (1964) in which he compared the alienating effects of working conditions in four industries – focusing on the experience of the four key aspects of alienation: powerlessness, meaninglessness, isolation and self-estrangement.

Blauner developed ways of measuring these different types of alienation incorporating the subjective perceptions of the workers themselves, arguing that routine factory workers suffered the highest levels of alienation. However, he found that when production lines became automated, workers felt less alienated as they had more control over their working conditions.

Blauner’s work ran counter to existing theory that technological innovation and deskilling would lead to ever greater levels of alienation. It also suggested alienation could be reduced without destroying capitalism.

Continuing Relevance

While the collapse of Communism suggests that Marx’s general theory of alienation is no longer relevant, many firms today seem to have taken on board some aspects of the theory – for example, it is well establish that increasing worker representation and participation reduces worker ‘alienation’, as outlined in the Taylor Review of Modern Working Practices. Another example of how firms combat alienation is the various media and tech companies which design work spaces to be ‘homely and comfortable’.

Other sociologists have attempted to apply the concept of alienation to criminology (Smith and Bohm, 2008) and even the study of health and illness (Yuill 2005).

Source

Giddens and Sutton (2017) Essential Concepts in Sociology

 

 

 

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The Illusion of the Equality of Opportunity

Marxist sociologists Bowles and Gintis argue that capitalist societies are not meritocratic. Against Functionalists, they argue that it is not the amount of ability and effort an individual puts into their education that determines how well they do, but rather their class background.

The simple reality is that being born into a middle class family means that middle class children benefit from material and cultural capital which give them an advantage in both school, and in the job application process, which gives them an unfair advantage compared to working class children.

However, the education system disguises this fact by spreading the ‘myth of meritocracy‘ – the idea that it is solely the ability and effort of the individual which determines the qualifications and the job they get, rather than their class background, and thus individuals end up blaming themselves for their failures rather than inequality of opportunity in the education system.

Intelligence, Educational Attainment and Meritocracy

Bowles and Gintis base their argument on an analysis of the relationship between intelligence (measured by IQ), educational attainment and occupational reward. They argue that IQ accounts for only a small part of educational attainment.

Bowles Gintis Myth Meritocracy

They examined a sample of individuals with a wide range of IQs and within this sample, they found a wide variation of educational attainment within that sample and concluded that there was hardly any relationship between the two variables.

Bowles and Gintis found a direct relationship between class background and educational achievement – the higher and individual’s class background, the higher their level of educational achievement.

So how do we explain the fact that individuals with higher IQs tend to have higher qualifications? they explain this as a by-product of length of stay in education – the longer an individual stays in education, they more their IQ develops. However, it is still family background which mainly determines educational attainment.

Bowles and Gintis also apply a similar analysis to the relationship between occupational reward and IQ – again, in their sample of average IQ individuals, there was a wide variety of incomes, which suggested there was no significant relationship between IQ and income.

As with educational success, what explains high income is family background – the combination of an individual’s class, gender and ethnicity are much better predictors of someone’s income rather than their IQ – educational qualifications are of much more value to the white, middle class male, than to the black, working class female.

Bowles and Gintis conclude that ‘education reproduces inequality by justifying privilege and attributing poverty to personal failure’. The education system effectively disguises the fact that economic success runs in the family, and that privilege breeds privilege. Bowles and Gintis thus reject the functionalist view that education is a meritocracy.

Related Posts 

The other major contribution Bowles and Gintis made to the sociology of education was their work on the hidden curriculum and the correspondence principle.

This is a summary post of the Marxist perspective on education which includes a briefer version of what’s in this post, and the one in the link above.

Paul Willis’ ‘Learning to Labour’ is often used to criticize the determinism found in Bowles and Gintis.

Sources used to write this post 

Haralmabos and Holborn (2013) Sociology Themes and Perspectives

 

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Goldman Sachs Worried About Rising Wages….

In this recent post ‘ America is getting a raise and Goldman Sachs is freaking out about it ‘ Nick Casella cites an extract from investment bank Goldman Sachs’ daily newsletter ‘ Global Markets Daily’ which indicates that they think rising wages in America will be bad for corporate profits.

“Wages are rising. The ‘wage tracker’ maintained by our US economics team — a composite measure of wage growth based on the four main wage indicators — hit 3.0% year-on-year in the first quarter for the first time in this expansion…. And as our colleagues in equity strategy have recently pointed out, rising wages are a threat to corporate profit margins” (1)

This news letter is an example of a private document as it is only sent to high net wealth investors, who invest in Goldman Sachs’ financial services, and was never meant for public eyes, not being available in the public domain of their web-site.

It’s a nice example of how private (ish) documents can give you an insight into the simple logic of these companies – and this insight seems to suggest that Marxism is still relevant today… this really does seem to be a simple case of the Capitalist class panicking about the working classes (those who receive wages) earning more and thus taking a greater share of wealth they generate.

(1) “Labor Costs and US Equities: Stocks Confront Rising Wages with Economy at Full Employment”, Portfolio Strategy Research, May 9, 2017).

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Bowles and Gintis: The Correspondence Principle

Marxists sociologists Bowles and Gintis (1976) argue that the main function of education in capitalist societies is the reproduction of labour power.

They see the education system as being subservient to and performing functions for the Bourgeoisie, the capitalist class who own the means of production: the Bourgeoisie require a workforce that is hardworking, accepts authority, and who won’t kick up a fuss if they are exploited, and the main function of school in capitalist societies is to indoctrinate children into these norms and values.

The education system does this through the hidden curriculum – which consists of the things pupils learn through the experience of attending school, rather than the stated education objectives in the ‘formal curriculum’.

Bowles and Gintis: the correspondence principle

The correspondence theory is the idea that the norms and values pupils learn in school correspond to the norms and values which will make it easy for future capitalist employers to exploit them at work.

Correspondence Principle

Bowles and Gintis say that ‘work casts a long shadow over school’.

There are four ways in which the norms and values of school correspond to the required norms and values of work in capitalist society:

One – It helps to produce a subservient workforce of uncritical, passive and docile workers

In a study based on 237 members of the senior year of a New York high school, Bowles and Gintis found that the grades awarded related more to personality traits rather than academic ability: low grades were related to creativity, aggressiveness and independence, while higher grades were related to perseverance, consistency and punctuality.

The education system was creating an unimaginative and unquestioning workforce through rewarding such traits.

Two – encouraging an acceptance of hierarchy and authority

Schools are hierarchical organisations – pupils have little say over what they learn, or how the school day is organised, and in day to day life, pupils are expected to obey the authority of the teachers. Later on at work, workers are expected to obey the authority of managers.

Three – motivation by External Rewards

This is where pupils are taught to be motivated by the qualifications they will receive at the end of school, rather than the ‘joy of learning’ itself, while at work, workers are motivated by the wage packet at the end of the month rather than ‘the joy of working’ itself.

This is probably the most important aspect of the correspondence principle:

In Marxist theory, if people have control over it,  work is actually enjoyable: many people engage in ‘work’ as part of their hobbies: if left to their own devices, people will naturally engage in work because it gives them a sense of satisfaction: as an example think of a car-fanatic who will happily spend hours putting together a car engine, or the whole car itself in his garage, or an allotment owner who will do the same when ‘growing their own’ – if people control the whole process of work, and can ‘see themselves’ in it, they will happily work, even for no pay.

However, work in capitalists societies becomes alienating and exploitative – Capitalists require workers to be like machines, working as part of a ‘production line’ for example, because this means production is more efficient and their profits are thus greater – so rather than individuals or small groups of individuals each setting up their own garages to make cars, or small scale farms growing food for a few dozen people, work becomes larger scale, organised into massive factories, and workers become part of the ‘machine’ of production, where the worker has no control, and work is repetitive and dull. In this industrial-capitalist system of work, workers have no intrinsic motivation to work, they need to be motivated externally, by wages.

Because this is such an unnatural and miserable situation, there needs to be a long process of convincing people this is normal – which is where school comes in – school is about learning to put up with boring lessons, and the motivation for this is at the end – through the qualifications.

Thus capitalism requires school to teach people to not be inquisitive, to just ‘learn what I tell you to learn’ and put up with boredom, to work hard now (study) in order to achieve the grades at the end of the year… there is no reward in education for those ‘doing their own thing’, because this is not what future employers require.

Four – the fragmentation of subjects at school

Learning at school is fragmented into different subjects, split up into maths, English, history, sciences, with lessons lasting only 45 minutes to an hour. Knowledge is thus fragmented into different academic subjects, rather than being holistic’.

This corresponds to the fragmentation of the workforce in later life – workers specialise in particular tasks in the office or the factory, without having an appreciation of the whole.

This fragmentation makes workers easier to control because they are divided, which makes it more difficult for them to unite and challenge their exploitative conditions.

Evaluations of Bowles and Gintis’ Correspondence Principle

More detailed evaluations to follow, but for now….

Ken Robinson’s TED talk about schools killing creativity (look it up!) seems to offer broad support for the idea that school doesn’t reward creative thinking.

However, on balance, much of this theory seems out of date – relevant maybe to the 1970s, when there were more factory jobs, but not so relevant to today’s more child-centred and entrepreneurial society.

 

 

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Why workers aren’t benefiting from the automation of jobs…

The increasing automation of jobs could (should?) result in us all working less – but instead, most of us seem to working just as longer hours as ever, why is this – a little dose of Marxism actually goes a long way to explaining this…

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The automation of jobs – no longer limited to the manufacturing sector

What’s below is taken from the LSE blog (Jan 2015), written by David Spencer….

Technological progress has advanced continuously over the past century, pushing up productivity. But not all the gains in productivity have fed through to shorter work hours. At least in modern times, these gains have been used to increase the returns of the owners of capital, often at the cost of flatlining pay for workers.

The lack of progress in reducing time spent at work in modern capitalist economies reflects instead the influence of ideology as well as of power….

David Graeber makes the provocative claim that technology has advanced at the same time as what he calls “bullshit” or pointless jobs have multiplied. This is why we have not realised Keynes’ prediction that we’d all be working 15-hour weeks in the 21st century, as a result of technological progress.

Instead, we are living in a society where work gets created that is of no social value. The reason for this, according to Graeber, is the need of the ruling class to keep workers in work. While technology with the potential to reduce work time exists, the political challenge of a working population with time on its hands makes the ruling class unwilling to realise this potential. Working less, while feasible and desirable, is blocked by political factors.

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Philip Green, the Collapse of BHS and the Continued Relevance of Marxist Theory

This is a useful documentary on the role of billionaire Philip Green in the  collapse of British Home Stores, which demonstrates the relevance of some key concepts within Marxism.

British Home Stores was one of the best known high street retail stores in Britain for many decades, employing thousands of people, but in 2016 it went bankrupt, with a massive £550 million deficit in its pensions fund, and it seems Philip Green has a lot to do with this.

Philip Green bought British Home Stores in the year 2000, for £2 million. At the time, the store was failing, mainly due to its inability to keep up with the retail competition. Philip Green (in fairness to him) did turn the store around from being a failing company to a profitable enterprise in the early years of his ownership, but then he went to extract more money out the company than it was actually making, causing its ultimate collapse a decade later.

In total, over the next 15 years, Philip Green and his family extracted almost £600 million from the store in dividends, rental payments and interests on loans, £100 million of which went to fund their new super yacht named ‘Lion Heart’.

Green was very clever about the way he extracted money – it was technically his wife’s companies which owned most of BHS, and so it was his wife who received the millions of pounds in dividends payments , and because his wife was based in Monaco, a tax haven, she (and thus he) effectively paid no tax on those dividends. Between 2002 and 2004, shareholders extracted just over £422m in dividends, most of which went to Green’s wife.

Another strategy Green used was to sell off all the freeholds on which the BHS stores stood – to another of his wife’s companies, which were based in Jersey, another tax haven. This company then charged BHS rent for being on the land that BHS had previously owned. This amounted to several millions of pounds over the years, and again, all of this was tax free because Jersey was another tax haven. In total, the Green family collected £151.4m in rent using this strategy.

Things started to go pear shaped after the financial crash of 2008,, following which the pension fund had a £140 million deficit, which had grown to £225 million by 2015.

It was at this point that Green sold British Home Stores to a little known investment company for £1 – he agreed to pay in £40 million to the pension fund and gave then tens of millions in other sweeteners, knowing that he was effectively saving himself at least £150 million by passing on the pension-debt to this new company.

Retail Acquisitions failed to keep the company afloat, resulting in the eventual bankruptcy of the company, the closure of every single BHS store in the UK, thousands of job losses and, after a further year of no-profit, a massive £551 million deficit in the pension fund, which 20 000 people are members of.

Meanwhile, Philippe Green continues to enjoy the benefits of the nearly £600 million he extracted from the company during his time in charge, and it’s estimated that his wife’s property company is still currently earning about £20 million a year in rentals from the old BHS freeholds.

Sources 

The Guardian