In this TED talk, Sir Ken Robinson argues that our current educational systems are still based on a industrial paradigm of education – education is increasingly standardised and about conformity, and kids, who are living in the most stimulating age in history, fail to see the point of going to school, which is about ‘finding the right answers to pass the tests’ rather than about stimulating divergent thinking.
One of our major solutions to the plague of distracted kids (alienated by a system the don’t identify with) is to medicate them to get them through school, whereas what really needs to change is the system itself – we need a paradigm shift, rather than mere reform.
Current Education systems are not fit for the future
Every country on earth is in the process of reforming its education system. There are two reasons for this:
The first is economic – countries are trying to figure out how to prepare children for work when we simply don’t know what work will look like in the future.
The second is cultural – countries are trying to figure out how to pass on their ‘cultural genes’ while at the same time having to respond to globalisation.
The problem with current processes of educational reform is that we are trying to tackle the future by doing what we did in the past and we are alienating millions of kids in the process, who simply can’t see the point of going to school.
When generation X when to school, we were motivated by a particular story: that if we worked hard and got good grades, we could get to college, get a degree and get a good job. Today’s children do not believe this, and they are right not to: getting a degree means you will probably get a better job, but is no longer guaranteed to get you a decent job!
The education system is rooted in an industrial paradigm
The problem with the current education system is that it was conceived in the cultural context of the Enlightenment and the economic context of the industrial revolution. It emerged in the nineteenth century, which was the first time which compulsory public education, freely available to all and paid for by taxes was established.
The Modern education system was originally founded on an ‘us and them’ mentality as many thinkers in the 19th century seriously believed that ordinary street kids could not cope with it, and it is also founded on an Enlightenment concept of the mind – which favours a knowledge of the classics and deductive reasoning, what we might call ‘academic knowledge’.
The system thus divides people into ‘smart people’ (academics) and ‘non-smart people’ (non-academics) and while this has been great for some, most people have not benefited from this system, in fact Ken Robinson argues that the main effect is that it has caused chaos.
We medicate our kids to get them through education
Statistics on prescriptions for Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) suggest that America is suffering from an ADHD epidemic – we are drugging our kids with Ritalin as a matter of routine. However, Robinson suggests that this cannot be an epidemic as the rates of prescription vary from West to East – they are much higher in the East of America, which suggests that this is a fictitious epidemic – it’s the system that’s choosing to medicate a ‘problem’ which is only a problem because the system has labelled it thus.
What’s really happening is that our kids are living through the most information rich age in history – they are bombarded with information from many sources through T.V. and the Internet – they are in a way, hyper-stimulated, and yet our response is to punish them for getting distracted from ‘boring stuff’ in school.
Robinson suggests that it is no coincidence that the incidents of prescriptions for ADHD corresponds closely to the rise in standardised testing.
The increasing use of drugs such as Ritalin to medicate kids means that we are effectively getting our kids through school by anaesthetising them.
The school system is run for the benefit of industry, and in many senses along industrial lines, mirroring a factory system of production in at least the following ways:
We still educate children by batches (‘as if the most important thing about them is the date of their manufacture’).
Increasingly education is about conformity, and you see is in the growth of standardised curricula and standardised testing. The current paradigm is mainly to do with standardisation, and we need to shift the paradigm and go in the other direction.
The education system kills creativity
There was a great study done recently on divergent thinking. Divergent thinking is an essential capacity for creative thinking – it is the ability to see lots of possible ways of interpreting and answering a question; to think laterally and to see many possible answers, not just one.
An example of this simply to give someone a paper clip and to get them to think of as many different uses for the paper clip as possible – someone whose good at this will be able to think of hundreds of uses for the paper clip by imagining that it can be all sorts of sizes and made out of all sorts of different materials.
Cites a Longitudinal study (taken from a book called ‘Break Point and Beyond) in which Kindergarten children were tested on their ability to think divergently, and 98% of them scored at ‘genius level’; the same children were retested at ages 8-10, but only 50% of them scored at genius level, and again at 13-15, where hardly any of them scored at genius level.
This study shows two things: firstly, we all have the inherent capacity for divergent thinking and secondly it deteriorates as children get older.
Now lots of things happen to these kids as they grow up, but the most important thing is that they have become educated – they’ve spent 10 years being told ‘that there’s one answer and it’s at the back, and don’t look and don’t copy’.
The problem we have is that the industrial-capitalist mode of education is deep in the gene-pool of the education system, it is an educational paradigm which will be hard to shift.
Shifting the Education Paradigm
We need to do the following to shift the industrial-capitalist education paradigm:
Firstly, destroy the myth that there is a divide between academic and non academic subjects, and between the abstract and the theoretical.
Secondly, recognize that most great learning takes place in groups – collaboration is the stuff of growth, rather than individualising people which separates them from their natural learning environment.
Finally, we need to change the habitual ways of thinking of those within the education system and the habitats which they occupy.
Relevance to A-Level Sociology
This can be used to criticise New Right approaches to education, as well as New Labour, The Coalition and the present Tory government – because all of them have kept in place the basic regime of testing introduced in 1988.
Robinson seems to be suggesting we have a more post-modern approach to education – freeing schools and teachers up so they can encourage more creativity in the classroom rather than being constrained by the tyranny of standardised testing.
Modernism and Postmodernism – What’s the difference?
The table below is taken from David Harvey’s Condition of Postmodernity (in turn taken from Hassan 1985). Harvey suggests that its a useful tool which helps us to see how postmodernity is, in some ways, a reaction to modernity. I cut out a few of the more hectic comparisons and left in the easier to understand ones (having said that, it’s still pretty hectic!)
Many 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.
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!
A Summary of Anthony Giddens’ Modernity and Self Identity, Chapter 4 – Fate, Risk and Security
Fate, Fatalism, Fateful Moments
To live in the universe of high modernity is to live in an environment of chance and risk. The future is seen as a place which can be shaped by human intervention, and thus, within limits, can be regulated by risk-assessment. However, notions of fate and destiny have not entirely disappeared.
As a sweeping generalisation, there is no non-modern culture which does not have at its centre notions of fate and destiny – an individual’s future is not seen as chaotic, but rather as part of some cosmic plan, specified by a person’s fate, or destiny.
Unlike in the past, the idea that we can control the future is central to modernity, and thus the notion of risk becomes central. Today, fate has been replaced with the idea of Fatalism – which is refusing modernity – a refusal to control the future, to let events come as they will (and, to an extent, this is seen as morally abhorrent). In other words (I think he’s saying) – attempting to colonise the future is now the norm, rejecting this is Fatalism – which is a perceived inability to colonise the future, and is still thus future-oriented, rather than seeing the future as determined by the past as would have been the case in pre-modern times. NB I also think this can’t be universally applied!
The future is new terrain, a place to be colonised by risk assessment, but the calculation of risk can never be fully complete.
The intrusion of abstract systems and the dynamic nature of knowledge means that risk seeps into the actions of almost everyone. We live in a society when most of us will face what Giddens calls ‘fateful moments’ – such as what A levels to do, whether to get married or divorced, or to start a business – these are moments which carry significant consequences, moments when then protective cocoon of business as usual is threatened, risky moments for the individual – at these times we will typically draw on experts to help us engage in risk assessment.
In contrast to fateful moments, stands ‘dead time’ – time which has no consequence.
The parameters of risk
Since risk, and attempts at risk assessment, are so fundamental to the colonising of the future, the study of risk can tell us much about the core elements of modernity.
Preoccupation with risk in modern social life has nothing to do with the actual prevalence of life-threatening dangers. We live in one of the most risk-free societies in history. The list below records some of the most important risk-reducing advances relevant to health which occurred during the years 1907-77:
Safe drinking water
Sanitary sewage disposal
Hygienic food preparation
Scientific principles of nutrition widely applied
scientific principles of personal hygiene widely applied
Eradication of major parasitic diseases, including malaria
Rodent and insect control
Continually improving parental and postnatal care
And so the list goes on!
Against such risk-reducing changes, we have to place a number of negative influences – two world wars, more car crashes, more drugs which have been inadequately tested, increased consumption of alcohol and tobacco, environmental pollution, food additives, exposure to natural disasters, chemical fertilisers.
Nonetheless, in terms of basic life security, the risk-reducing elements seem to substantially outweigh the new array of risks. There are various ways this can be assessed – the strongest piece of evidence being that of increased life-expectancy.
Risk concerns future happenings – as related to present practices – and the colonising of the future therefore opens up new settings of risk, some of which are institutionally organised. Today, institutionalised systems of risk affect virtually everyone, regardless of whether they are ‘players’ within them.
Two very different areas of risk are the stock market and health profiling – both involve expert systems, and both involve ‘laymen’ having to make decisions about their futures based on their judgement of what competing experts advise them to do.
In addition to these ‘everyday risk arenas’ there are more high-profile risks associated with new technologies and globalisation – such as the threat of nuclear melt-down – and here we don’t know necessarily how bad the consequences of an accident could be.
Thus, living in the world today is not riskier than in the past, but thinking in terms of risk is more part of our day to day experience, and there is a certain uncertainty to this. Hence we have developed a kind of ‘risk consciousness’.
This is an inevitable part of modernity – the more we try to colonise the future, the more expert systems there are, and the more competing voices – and the greater one’s consciousness of risk – this risk climate is unsettling for everyone, no one escapes.
NB – Sixth form education today is increasingly about socialising kids into this risk consciousness and providing them with the tools to ‘colonise the future’.
The Active Courting of Risks
Not all risks are voluntarily undertaken – for example some of us have no chance but to drive to work, while even activities such as smoking and drinking can develop a compulsive character and so may not be entirely a matter of free-will.
People do not tend to evaluate the risks associated with individual events, but rather do risk assessment in terms of the package of events associated with their overall life-plan.
Although much risk assessment is not conscious, but rather takes place at the level of practical consciousness (certain avenues being blocked off by the ordinary assumptions of day to day life), being ‘at ease’ in late modernity is much more difficult because so many of our relationships have been reflexively achieved – that is, they are a matter of choice.
Risk, Trust and the Protective Cocoon
The uneventful character of much of our day to day life is only the result of long schooling and skilled watchfulness – this is why things such as using a knife and fork or walking have no ‘fateful consequences’ in our adult life.
These phenomena can be usefully analysed using Goffman’s concept of the Umwelt – a core of accomplished normalcy with which individuals surround themselves – in the case of humans the Umwelt extends beyond immediate physical surroundings. It extends over indefinite time and space, and corresponds to the system of relevancies to the individual’s life.
In terms of risk – the Umwelt orders events in relation to risks, and tells us which we should be alarmed about – there are generally two types of future event – those over which we have control, and those which we don’t (designed and adventitious happenings).
As mentioned earlier, the protective cocoon (developed through childhood) enables us to bracket out the bulk of what ‘goes on’ as non consequential, with little chance of anything bad happening – however, as the abstract systems (of time and money and experts) have penetrated more into our Umwelt, the capacity for developing trust becomes seriously reduced.
‘In modern social conditions, the more the individual seeks reflexively to forge a self-identity, the more he or she will be aware that current practices shape future outcomes. Assessment of risk becomes the core element of the personal colonising of future domains.
Of course we do not always calculate risk using purely quantitative methods – people are generally more afraid of flying than travelling by car even though the risks of dying in a car accident are far greater, because the idea of the magnitude of an air disaster is so much more horrifying, and distance in terms of time and space can affect risk assessment in relation to action too – as with young people smoking – the thought of a cancer related death is so far in the future you can ‘discount it’ in your youth.
Notions of fate do not disappear altogether – most of us trust governments and scientists to steer us through global problems, such that we can forget about them in regards to our day to day lives.
Fatalism is part of our lives – two coping mechanisms at the level of identity are ‘pragmatic acceptance’ – taking one day at a time and ‘Cynical Pessimism’ – world weary humour about how bad everything is. However, Fatalism is only likely to be reserved for select areas of our lives (a Blasse attitude?) given the social importance of being creative and innovative.
Our lives are frequently punctuated by fateful moments – some are not called for, in which case we have to draw on a range of strategies to cope, some are deliberately cultivated, and allow us to demonstrate some level of skill and resourcefulness in shaping our future.
As to the later of these, the risk takers, it is the capability more and more people now have to engage in risk in order to disturb the ‘fixity of things’ that is part of modernity’s unsettling character.
Risk taking is an experiment with trust – it goes back to the ‘power to be’ which we first encountered with early childhood – it has consequences for our self-identity, and the costs or benefits may not be felt for years afterwards.
Risk, Trust and Abstract Systems
‘The abstract systems of modernity create large areas of relative security for the continuance of day to day life. Thinking in terms of risk certainly has its unsettling aspects, but it is also a means of seeking to stabilise outcomes. The more or less constant and rapid momentum of change of modern institutions couples with structured reflexivity mean that on the level of everyday practice as well as philosophical interpretation, nothing can be taken for granted. What is acceptable/ recommended behaviour today might be different tomorrow in the light of new knowledge. Yet at the same time, many activities are successfully routinised across time-space (on a scale never achieved before).
Two examples of abstract systems Giddens now provides are those of money and the division of labour, using the food supply as an example of the later…. so long as an individual invests a level of trust in money and the division of labour, these allow for greater security and predictability than at any previous time in history. He also provides the examples of the provision of food, water, power and lighting and travel.
However, the penetration of abstract systems into day to day life also open up the individual to high consequence risks (because of the system of which we are a part). Giddens also points out the fact that the control of nature has been a key part of the above, to the extent that we can even talk of the ‘end of nature’, which is what adds to the potential for high-stakes negative outcomes. Just some of these which we face include>
The vagaries of the global economy
Prolonged droughts caused by centralised water systems
Security, Deskilling and Abstract Systems
Abstract systems deskill – not only in the workplace, but in all aspects of life they touch. This is an alienating and fragmenting phenomenon. It is alienating because expert systems undermine pre-existing forms of local control. It is not just lay people who lose power in this sense, but also experts, because experts are only experts in one narrow field, in all other fields, they are also lay-people.
Against Braverman, this is not a one-way process, but rather a dialectical one. Some people gain from the process of deskilling and reskilling, and in so doing reinforce new (dynamic) structures (NB this is part of structuration, I think!). In an important way, the invasion of expert systems into day to day life can be empowering, increasing the quanta of power. Loads of new spaces open up between the realms of lay and expert knowledge.
Empowerment and Dilemmas of Expertise
Here Giddens uses the analogy of seeking a solution to a back problem to show how there are numerous available diagnoses available as solutions – which means no one expert in the field can be said to have a universal solution to everyone’s back problems.
Summary: authority, expertise and risk
No one can disengage completely from the abstract systems of modernity. An individual experiences these most acutely in the form of expert systems when going through fateful moments when identity needs to be reconstructed – here, when an individual comes into contact with counselling or therapy we find expressed some of the central dilemmas to which modernity gives rise.
Jock Young (2002) argues that we are now living in a late modern society characterised by instability, insecurity and exclusion, which make the problem of crime worse.
He contrasts today’s society (since the 1970s) with the period preceding it, arguing that the 1950s and 60s represented a golden age of modern capitalist society, a period of stability, security and social inclusion, characterised by full employment and a well functioning welfare state. There was also low divorce, rate, strong communities and a general consensus about right and wrong, and crime rates were very much lower.
Since the 1970s, however, society has become a lot more unstable – de-industrialisation and the corresponding decline of unskilled manual jobs has led to increased unemployment, underemployment and poverty, especially for young people. These changes have also destabilised family and community life and contributed to rising divorce rates, as have New Right policies designed to hold back welfare spending. All of this has contributed to increased marginalisation and exclusion of those at the bottom.
However, just as more and more people are suffering from the economic exclusion described above, we now live in a media saturated society which stresses the importance of leisure, personal consumption and immediate gratification as the means whereby we should achieve the ‘good life’.
The media today generally informs us that the following are normal and desirable – in in order to belong to society we are required to do the following:
– We need to have high levels of consumption – and buying now, paying later, and debt are seen as legitimate strategies for maintaining our consumption levels.
– We need to have active leisure lives and publicise this – in effect we should turn ourselves into mini-celebrities – in short, we need to be somebody.
– We should strive to achieve success ourselves rather than depending on others – anyone can be successful if they try hard enough is the message.
Young now essentially applies Merton’s Strain Theory to this situation – he argues that today there are millions of people (just in the UK) who will never earn enough money to live a high-consumption, celebrity lifestyle, and this results in many people suffering relative deprivation, and frustration (basically anomie).
However, Young goes beyond Merton by arguing that deviant and criminal behaviour become a means whereby people can not only attempt to realise material goals, but crime can also the means whereby they can seek to achieve celebrity, or simply to seek a temporary emotional release from the anomic-frustrations of coping with the usual contradictions and pressures of living in late-modernity.
Two further consequence of the trend towards economic exclusion combined with the media message of ‘cultural inclusion through consumption and celebrity’ are firstly that crime is more widespread and found increasingly throughout the social structure, not just at the bottom, and secondly crime is nastier, with an increase in ‘hate-crimes’.
Examples of attempts to achieve celebrity through deviance include extreme-subcultures, or any form of extreme ‘one-upmanship’ videos on YouTube, while examples at escapism include binge-drinking and violence at the weekends. Young also argues that the anomie and frustration generated in late-modernity also explains the increase in more serious crimes such as hate-crimes against minority groups and asylum seekers.
Evaluating Jock Young’s theory of crime in Late Modernity
These ideas can add a new dimension to our understanding of the causes of crime and deviance – particularly with regard to the non-economic reasons why people commit crimes – those acts which seemingly have no monetary reward, by focusing on the emotions and feelings involved in offending.
Young argues against the idea that crime is committed when there are available opportunities (rational choice theory) or lack of controls against criminal behaviour. He says that crime here is depicted as quite a routine and logical act, and something which we, the victims, have to protect ourselves against.
Young argues that these approaches do not explain why why crime is such an attractive option for so many young people (particularly young men). He says that there are many crimes such as drug use and vandalism, joyriding and even rape and murder, which clearly involve much more than a simple rational choice. There is obviously something much more appealing for those involved in crimes such as street robbery than the promise of (very small) profits on offer.
A brief summary of Steph Lawler’s ‘Identity’ – Chapter One – Stories, Memories, Identities
Introduction: living lives and telling stories
‘We endlessly tell stories, both about ourselves and others, and it is through these stories that we make sense of ourselves.’
This chapter explores the perspective which sees people engaged in a creative process of producing identities through assembling various memories, experiences and episodes within narrative. From this perspective, identities are not seen as ‘fake’ in any way, but as creatively produced by selecting from an enormous range of raw materials.
Paul Ricouer identifies three things as crucial to narrative – characters, action and plot. The plot is what brings together everything into a meaningful whole, and both narrator and audience take part in emplotment – through a shared cultural understanding that these events have a place in this narrative.
A sense of time is crucial to understanding our identities – narratives link events in sequence through time – thus we come to understand ourselves as developing from a certain point and moving forwards to a future point, this is crucially a process which involves interpretation, and thus is creative.
However, the narrative cannot stand alone, in order for it to make sense it must stand in relation to broader cultural frames of reference.
Sociological thinking about narratives
Stanley and Morgan (1993) identify five trends which have led to an increasing focus on narrative within sociology –
1. A turn to textuality – where texts are increasingly seen as products rather than reflecting reality
2. A questioning of the distinction between structure and agency
3. An examination of referentiality and lives – attention to the relationship between representations of lives and the lives themselves
4. An increasing attention to time
5. A turn to intertextuality – we increasingly draw on other texts to tell our stories
What is a narrative?
A narrative is a synthesis of heterogeneous elements brought together through the interpretive process of emplotment.
According to Paul Ricouer, there are three main forms of synthesis at work in emplotment:
– between many events and one story
– between dissonance and concordance
– between open time and time as something which is over with.
Through the process of emplotment, we turn events into episodes, but this is an interpretive processes, because by looking back at the past self, we have no more direct access to that person than any one else.
Narrative and identity
Emplotment configures a self which appears as the inevitable outcome and actualisation of the episodes which constitute a life. The self is understood as unfolding through episodes which both express and constitute that self. Identity is constituted over time and through narrative, and the whole processes is profoundly social.
Identity is not something foundational, but it is something produced through all of the above processes.
In narrating stories, we interpret memories, but these memories are themselves interpretations.
Evidence for this lies in an experiment carried out by Frederic Bartlett in 1932: white north American college students were asked to read a Native American legend and then recall the events as accurately as possible. Bartlett found that students tended to forget those parts of the story which did not fit their cultural framework or expectations.
We engage in what Ian Hacking calls ‘memero-politics’ – we reinterpret past events in light of present knowledge. Thus (according to Ricouer) the process of constructing a narrative is teleological – the story we tell is that we are who we are because of past events, but in ‘reality’ the events we select to explain how we got here are selected because they seam meaningful now.
As Kiekergaard said ‘live is lived forwards, but understood backwards’ – but it might be better to understand life as being both lived and understood both forward and backward – in a spiral movement of constant interpretation and reinterpretation.
Self and other
A focus on narrative challenges the concept of the atomised individual and replaces it with a concept of a person enmeshed in and produced within webs of social relations – this is for two major reasons – first because life stories must always contain the stories of others and second because the social world can itself be seen as storied.
Two early ways this happens are through the teaching of literature and history in school – the former encourages us to identify with characters and reflect on our inner selves, and the later offers us a way to understand our own personal history in relation to the social world.
Identifying with the subjects of pain
Carol Steedman argues that identifying with the pain and suffering of others is a common way of developing self-understanding. This has been the case since the 18th century, identification with someone worse off than we are is common place.
This may go some way to helping us understand the current fascination with trauma narratives – such as those who suffered abusive childhoods.
Identifying with victims of suffering is one way in which those in power can obtain authority – however, this can only ever be imagined and it can backfire dramatically. There are limits on the stories we can borrow from.
Nb – I’m not convinced that this is that significant – the powerful only choose to identify with certain types of suffering others (not the poor, disabled or refugees for example) and I’m sure there’s more of an identification with those who are self-made despite social disadvantage?
A Summary of chapter three of Anthony Giddens’ Modernity and Self-Identity
Self-identity, history, modernity
Drawing on a therapeutic text – ‘Self-Therapy’ by Janette Rainwater – Giddens selects ten features which are distinctive about the search for self-identity in the late modern age:
The self is seen as a reflexive project for which the indivdual is responsible. Self-understanding is relegated to the more inclusive and fundamental aim of rebuilding a more rewarding sense of identity
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.
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.
The narrative of the self is made explicit – in the keeping of an autobiography – which requires continual creative input.
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.
The reflexivity of the self extends to the body. Awareness of the body is central to the grasping of the moment. The point here is to establish a differentiated self, not to disolve the ego.
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
The moral thread of self-atualisation is one of authenticity… Personal growth depends on conquering emotional blocks and tensions that prevent us from understanding ourself – recover or repeat old habits is the mantra
The life course is seen as a series of ‘passages’. All such transitions involve losss.
The line of development of the self is internally referential – it is the creation of a personal belief system by which someone changes – one’s first loyalty is to oneself.
The next question Giddens asks is how can we connect up these ten features of self-identity to the institutional transformations characteristic of the late-modern world? (Well, he is a sociologist, after all!)
Lifestyle and Life Plans
Therapy is a response to the backdrop to the existential terrain of late modern life which consists of the following features:
it is reflexively organised
it is permeated by abstract systems
the reordering of time and space has realigned the global and the local.
All of this has resulted in the primacy of lifestyle – A lifestyle may be defined as a more or less integrated set of practices which an individual embraces because they give material form to a particular narrative of self-identity. A lifestyle implies a plurality of choices – it is something which is adopted rather than handed down (and should not merely be conflated with consumerism in this instance).
(NB Giddens also says that we do not all have complete freedom of choice over our lifestyles – we are restricted by work, and by class etc… and moreover, the lifestyle pattern we choose limits what we can do if we wish to maintain an authentic narrative of the self.) (NBB – If you’re an A level sociology student, a recent podcast by the AQA criticises Giddens for not saying what I’ve he’s just said in this book that he wrote, thus that particular podcast is wrong.)
The plurality of choices which confronts the individual in this derives from several influences:
We live in a post-traditional order, the signposts offered by tradition are now blank.
We have a pluralisation of lifeworlds – the millieu to which we are exposed are much more diverse.
Experts do not agree, so there is no longer a certain source of knowledge.
The prevalance of mediated experiences – the collage effect of the media – we have new communities and shed loads of new possibilities
Life planning becomes essential in the above social context – life planning is an attempt to ‘colonise the future’ under conditions of social uncertainty – teenagers who ‘drift around’ today are increasingly going against the norm!
Two things in particular change in this context – (1) The Pure Relationship comes to be crucial to the reflexive project of the self and (2) the body becomes subject of ever greater levels of personal control – both become attempts by the individual to sustain a ‘narrative of the self‘.
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.
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.
A brief summary of Zygmunt Bauman’s Liquid Modernity, chapter one. A level sociology labels Bauman as a postmodern Marxist.
Chapter One – Emancipation
The chapter begins with Marcuse’s complaint (writing in the 1970s) that most people don’t see the need to be liberated from society, and of those that do, relatively few are prepared to take action towards liberation, and most of those have little idea of how a more liberated future might be different to our current situation.
Next Bauman outlines his conception of liberation, noting that ‘to feel free means to experience no hindrance, obstacle, resistance or any other impediment to the moves intended or desired’. He then argues, following Schopenhauer, that feeling free from constraint means finding a balance between one’s wishes (or imagination) and the stubborn indifference of the world to one’s intentions. This balance might be achieved in two ways – through either expanding one’s capacity to act or through limiting one’s desires (imagination).
Distinguishing between these two strategies of emancipation makes possible the distinction between subjective freedom (to do with how one perceives the ‘limits’ to one’s freedom), and objective freedom (pertaining to one’s capacity to actually act). This highlights the fact that people may not be objectively free but feel free because they either fail to realise they are not free, or, more worryingly for Bauman, because they dislike the idea of freedom given the hardships that come along with that freedom, which brings him onto the ‘mixed blessings of freedom’.
(P18) The mixed blessings of freedom
This section begins with an episode from the Odyssey in which Odysseus manages to trap a sailor who had been turned into a hog by Circe. Odysseus (through the use of a magical herb) manages to release the sailor from his bewitchment. However, the released sailor, Elpenoros, is far from grateful and complains:
‘So you are back you busybody? Again you want to nag and pester us, to expose our bodies to dangers and force our hearts to take ever new decisions? I was so happy, I could wallow in the mud and bask in the sunshine, I could gobble and grunt and squeak, and be free from doubts… Why did you come? To fling me back into the hateful life I led before?’
Bauman now poses two questions (NB this isn’t that clear from the writing!) – firstly, why has freedom been slow to arrive? Secondly, when freedom does arrive, why is it so often seen as a curse?
Bauman explores one type of answer to the first question, which is that men are not ready for freedom. These types of answer tend to be accompanied by either pity for the men duped out of their freedom or anger at the masses unwilling to take up their liberty. Such answers are also accompanied by attempts to explain why men do not perceive the need to be free, with the blame being laid variously at a modern culture which replaces ‘having’ with ‘being’; the embourgeoisement of the underdog, or a culture industry which makes us thirst for entertainment rather than spiritual fulfillment.
A possible answer to the second question (the answer that Elpenoros would have given) is that men are not prepared to face liberty because of the hardships it brings. This type of answer criticises libertarian notions of Freedom such as those outlined by the likes of Charles Murray in which happiness is related to individual resourcefulness. Murray argues that what fills an event with satisfaction is that ‘I’ did it, but this is flawed, Bauman points out, because being thrown back on one’s own resources also portends a paralysing fear of risk and failure without the right to appeal and seek redress.
On a personal note, I would generally agree with this critique of libertarian notions of freedom. The thought of working on projects such as moving house, or clearing my allotment,or, on a larger scale, building an eco-village are much less daunting, and actually only made possible with the co-operation of others.
Bauman now draws on the legacy of Hobbes and Durkheim to argue that we are right to be sceptical about the benefits of libertarian notions of freedom. He seems to sympathetic with the Durkheimian idea that a degree of social coercion is actually an emancipatory force. To quote Durkheim:
‘The individual submits to society and this submission is the condition of his liberation. For man freedom consists of deliverance from blind, unthinking physical forces; he achieves this by opposing against them the great and intelligent force of society, under whose protection he shelters. By putting himself under the wing of society, he makes himself also, to a certain extent, dependent upon it, But this is a liberating dependence, there is no contradiction in this.’
In other words, there is no way to achieve freedom other than to submit to the norms of society – the individual needs society to be free. Total freedom from society means a perpetual agony of indecision and uncertainty about the will of those around you, whereas patterns and routines condensed by social pressures give us road markings, inform us how to act, and give us a sense of certainty in this life.
Bauman now outlines arguments which support the view that an element of routine is necessary, citing Fromm’s notion that we need certainty, Richard Sennet’s notion of character, and Giddens’ concept of habit.
Having established that the individual needs social norms, some sense of routine to ground himself, Bauman rounds of this section by introducing one of the central problems of living in a postmodern society – that such norms and routines are much less stable than they once were. Citing Deleuze and Guatari’s and Alain Touraine’s ideas he points out that the time has come when we no longer have a social definition of the self, and individuals are expected to define themselves in terms of their own psychological specifity and not society or universal principles.
The individual has already been granted all of the freedoms he could have ever dreamed of, and that our social institutions are more than willing to cede the worries of self-definition to individuals, while universal principles which might guide our lives are hard to find.
Bauman rounds off this section by suggesting that Marcuse’s pining for communitarianism is outdated because there is no social aspect in which we can re-route the individual, all that is left is the psychologist’s couch and motel beds. The individual has become disembedded and there is nowhere to re-embed.
(p22) The fortuities and changing fortunes of critique
Bauman’s main point here is that our society is still hospitable to critique, but the focus of critique has shifted from criticising society and positing viable ways of changing that society to criticising ourselves and our life-politics. Today, we are reflexive beings who constantly question what we are doing and express dissatisfaction with various aspects of our lives.
The problem is that at the same time as us becoming more self-critical, we have lost control over the agenda which shapes our life-politics. Our reflexivity is shallow, it does not extend in any meaningful sense to our having control over the system in which we are embedded.
Bauman now provides a ‘caravan park’ analogy to describe the way we tend to interact with society today. According to Bauman, we are mostly content to limit our concerns to what goes on in our own individual caravans, and we only want to engage with other caravan dwellers occasionally and in a non-committal manner, reserving the right to up and leave when we choose. We only ever complain about the caravan park when certain services break down, such as the electricity or water supply, otherwise we are happy to let it run itself, without feeling any need to to commit to it, or question the way it is run.
This is very different to the type of social engagement that was the norm when Adorno developed his critical theory. At that time, Bauman suggests, many more people treated society as if it were their house, and acted within it as if they were permanent residents who could, if necessary, alter the structure of that house.
Moving onto one of the central themes in Bauman’s work, he now argues that this changing mood of critical engagement with society (or lack of it) is because of the shift from heavy to light modernity which has resulted in a profound transformation of public space and, more generally, in the fashion in which the modern society works and perpetuates itself.
Bauman notes that heavy modernity was endemically pregnant with the possibility of totalitarianism – the threat of an enforced homogeneity, the enemy of contingency, variety and ambiguity. The principal icons of the era were the fordist factory, with its simple routines, and bureaucracy, in which identities and social bonds meant nothing. The methods of control in this period were the panopticon, Big Brother and the Gulag. It was in this period of history that the dystopias of Orwell and Huxley made sense to people (which they no longer do) and that the defense of individual autonomy and creativity against such things as mass culture offered by critical theory appealed to a wide body of citizens.
However, in liquid modernity, we are no longer constrained by industry, bureaucracy and the panopticon, and Orwell’s dystopia no longer seems possible. Liquid Modern society, however, is no less modern than it was 100 years ago, because it is still obsessed with modernising, with creative destruction… with phasing out, cutting out, merging, downsizing, dismantling, becoming more productive or competitive, and, just as with heavy modernity, fulfillment is always somewhere in the future.
But two things make the Liquid Modern Era different to the Heavy Modern Era: –
Firstly, the end of the idea of perfectibility: we no longer believe that there will be an end to the process of modernisation – it has become a perpetual process.
Secondly, we are now expected to find individual solutions to our problems. Gone is the idea that reason applied to social organisation can improve our lives, gone is the ideal of the just society. No longer are we to solve our problems collectively through Politics (with a capital P), but it is put upon the individual to look to themselves to solve their life-problems, or to improve themselves.
(p30) The Individual in Combat with The Citizen
Bauman starts off with something of a homage to Norbert Elias (and fair play, History of Manners was a terrific read!) for shifting the dualist sociological discourse of self-society to one which focuses on a ‘society of individuals.’
Casting members as individuals is the trade mark of modern society and this casting is an activity re-enacted daily. Modern society exists in its incessant activity of ‘individualising’. To put it in a nutshell, individualisation consists of transforming human identity from a given into a task and charging actors with the responsibility for performing that task and for the consequences (also the side effects) of their actions.
Bauman now points to another difference between heavy and liquid modernity. In the period of ‘heavy modernity’, having been disembedded from previous social-locations, people sought to re-embed themselves in society, through, for example, identifying as a member of a stable social class. By contrast, in today’s modernising society, we have no stable beds for re-embedding, we just have musical chairs, and so people are constantly on the move. In the liquid modern world, there is no end of the road, nowhere for us to ‘re-embed’.
Having established what individualisation is, Bauman now goes on to make three further points –
In the age of liquid modernity the option to escape individualisation and to refuse to participate is not on the agenda -Individualisation is not a choice – to refuse to participate in the game is not an option.
In the Liquid Modern society, how one lives becomes a biographical solution to systemic contradictions – risks and contradictions go on being socially produced; it is just the duty and the necessity to cope with them which are being individualised.
A gap is growing between individuality as fate and the ability for genuine self-assertion. The self-assertive capacity of men and women falls short of what genuine self-constitution would require..
Bauman now distinguishes between the citizen and the person – the former seeks their well-being in the city (read ‘society’), while the later is unconcerned with collective well-being. and basically makes the argument that part of individualisation is the ending of citizenship.
Another unfortunate aspect of the Liquid Modern era is that, rather than being used to discuss public issues, public space is brimming with private problems – where people’s individual problems and their individualised biographical solutions are discussed, without any consideration of the social conditions which gave rise to those problems.
Bauman rounds off this section by pointing out that in today’s society, the chances of being re-embedded are thin, and this means that new communities are wandering and fragile, and he alludes to the fact that newly-emerging networks with low commitment are not sufficient to empower individuals.
He ends with a rather bleak quote from Beck ‘On the Mortality of Industrial Society’… ‘
‘What emerges from the fading social norms is naked, frightened aggressive ego, in search of love and help. In the search for itself and an affectionate sociality, it easily gets lost in the jungle of the self.. Someone who is poking around in the fog of his or her own self is no longer capable of noticing that this isoloation, this solitary confinement of the ego’ is a mass sentence’.
(p38) The Plight of Critical Theory in the Society of Individuals
The modernising impulse means the compulsive critique of reality, and the privatisation of that impulse means compulsive self-critique, and perpetual self-disaffection. It means that we look harder and harder at how we can improve ourselves.
I’m in two minds about what to make of Bauman’s idea of perpetual disaffection – On the one hand I’m impressed by the sympathy for the basic plight of the individual – it is, after all, an experience of the perpetual suffering that accompanies the human condition; on the other hand I’m concerned that what Bauman’s going to try and argue later on is that this disaffection will disappear once individuals gain some greater degree of control over the process of their self determination. In Buddhism, the fact the individual seeks to self-determine in the first place is the source of the disaffection, so this won’t be remedied through merely reinventing one’s relations with one’s social context (although this is part of the process in Buddhism – through right livelihood) – this disaffection is probably better seen as individuals en mass realising their true nature – and this needs a deeper solution, which will combine the various factors found in the Noble Eightfold Path.
The problem with this is that there are no ‘biographical solutions’ to systemic contradictions – except for imaginary ones, and as a result, there is a need for us to collectively hang our fears on something – and so we scapegoat ‘strangers’, and go along with moral panics, it is these kind of fears which fill the public space voided of properly public concerns.
The job of critical theory is now to repopulate the public sphere – to bring back politics with a capital P – to bring back the two groups of actors who have retreated from it – The person and the elite.
People do not engage because they see the public sphere as merely a space in which to private troubles without making any ‘public connections’. The elite meanwhile now exist in ‘outer space’ and remain for the most part invisible, their favourite strategic principles being escape, avoidance and disengagement.
The job of critical theory is to figure out how to empower individuals so they have some level of control over the resources which they require for genuine self-determination.
(p41) Critical Theory Revisited
Bauman starts with a section devoted to Adorno’s view that the act of thinking is itself freedom, but that any attempt to give thoughts a market value threatens the genuine value of thought.
He then talks about the tension between ‘the cleanliness of pure philosophy’ – drawing on the notion of the withdrawn intellectual contemplating life and refining systems of thought and the problem of then applying the ‘truths’ found to the ‘dirty business’ of getting involved with the world of politics as one attempts to enact one’s ideas. He essentially argues that thought in isolation from society is useless – In order for it to have any value at all, thought has to be applied to society.
Bauman concludes this section by pointing out that the unfortunate corollary of this is that whatever truths come to power will inevitably be tainted by those in power.
(p48) A critique of life-politics
In this summative section Bauman points out again that it is up the individual as an isolated actor to themselves find individualised solutions to social problems… He points to a range social situations, from us being called upon to adapt to neoliberal flexibalisation at work, to our efforts in seeking romance, and he rounds of my reminding us that any search for liberation today requires more not less public sphere, so any critical theory today must start from a critique of life-politics – a critique of the paucity of individualised solutions to systemic contradictions.
Culture is free from structure – it is more Diverse and Fragmented
Relationships more diverse
More Individual Freedom to shape identities
Media – more global, two- way, hyper reality (Baudrillard)
There is a clear global, modernist institutional structure -Heavy Capitalism still exists, in the developing world, service sector economies are dependent on it.
Against postmodernists, Giddens argues that Nation States remain powerful -Nation states are more ‘reflexive’ today – they try to ‘steer’ events in the future in the light of existing and continually updating (imperfect) knowledge.
Against Postmodernists Giddens argues that In Late Modern (not Post-modern) Society, there is a ‘duality of structure’- people are not just ‘free’ to do whatever they want – their freedom comes from existing structures
In terms of the self – Identity is no longer a given –identity becomes a task
Giddens rejects the concept of hyperreality – the main significance of the media is that it makes us more aware of diversity and of the fact that there are many different ways of living.
Ideas about Knowledge
Critique of the Enlightenment (Foucault)
Incredulity towards Metanarratives (Lyotard)
We need scientific and sociological knowledge to ‘colonise the future’ – to reduce risks from things such as global warming and terrorism for example –
however, knowledge can never be perfect, but we still need to use knowledge in order to ‘steer society’ forwards, thus we just have to do our best to be as objective as possible when doing social and scientific research and to use the most reliable, valid, and representative data there is to try and address social problems.
Research Methods Implications
Criticise Positivist research which aims to be objective
Deconstruction and Destabilising Theory
Foucault researched the history of deviance (transgression) to highlight the arbitrary nature of ‘normal’ and ‘deviant’ categories –
Foucault argued that research should be about ‘mining’ history to find ideas which are useful to you personally, and which help you to choose how to live now.
Research topics and methods should be diverse and experimental
No one is in a position to claim one research topic or method is more valid than any other can be anything the researcher wants or finds personally useful.
Research should not attempt to generalise.
There are significant global problems (manufactured risks) which we all face and none of us can escape – e.g. Global Warming. These are real, objectively existing problems, not hyperreal, and they bind us together, even if many of us fail to accept this. The role of Sociology could involve –
Doing research to help solve complex global problems (links to Positivism, also see Beck’s Risk Society)
Helping people to realise that they are still dependent on ‘structures’ and dispelling the ‘myth of total individual freedom’ (links to Functionalism)
– Encouraging people to get more involved with identity politics – (links to Marxism/ Feminism)
Unfortunately grids don’t cut and past that well into WordPress. A much neater version of the above grid can be found in my Theory and Methods Revision Notes, along with summaries of all the other perspectives too…
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