The increasing cost of Christmas

25% of people say they can’t afford the Christmas they want in 2022, double the number from 2021.

The cost of Christmas is up by around 20% in 2022, and almost 40% say the cost of Christmas makes the event too stressful, but despite these woes, 70% say that ‘cancelling Christmas is not an option’.

These are some findings from a recent YouGov survey and in this post I consider how all of this might be relevant to sociology!

How much does the average person spend on Christmas…?

The average person in Britain plans to spend £642 on Christmas in 2022, which is down only slightly on 2021 when the average person spent £670. (These are Mean, not median averages).

However given inflation, people will be getting a lot less for their money this year even though the reduction in raw expenditure isn’t that significant!. According to The Guardian the cost of our various Christmas expenditures – mainly presents, food and, for some, travel have risen by more than 20% this year compared to 2021….

This basically means everyone’s going to be having one less slice of turkey, maybe a couple of less potatoes, and, worst of all, fewer pigs in blankets (yes, things really are THAT bad!)

25% of people can’t afford the Christmas they want

Given that the cost of Christmas has risen sharply it’s not surprising that the number of people saying they cannot afford the Christmas they want has doubled to 25%.

This proportion sounds about right based on the poverty stats: about 20% of the UK population are in relative poverty and I imagine most of the people responding positively to that question are going to come from this 20%.

Of course not all of them will, several people on low incomes budget for Christmas by saving all year round, and some of those responses will be more middle-income families having to cut down on their usual more affluent Christmas.

I do find it interesting that 75% are happy enough with their finances to be able to afford the Christmas they want, suggesting that people aren’t that sucked into the consumerist hype – the average figure of £650 seems to be adequate.

Maybe that’s a fail for the Christmas hype-machine, further suggesting that people aren’t as passive as you might think?!?

40% say Christmas is too Stressful

This is depressing – a significant minority of the population find the event too stressful because of the money…

This means that maybe that the veneer of Christmas is something of a lie, while underneath at the micro-level there’s a lot of suffering going on.

Value Consensus around Christmas?

Besides the increasing cost of Christmas and the increasing numbers of people feeling stressed about it and going into debt to fund it, nearly 70% of Britons say that ‘cancelling Christmas is not an option’

And it’s very rare these days that you get that many people to agree on anything, and so celebrating Christmas is maybe one of the few points of value consensus that we have.

Or is this value consensus at the level of society? Christmas is one of the few periods of the year where we all get to retreat from the world of work and society and spend some time with our families, so maybe here Britain is saying ‘we value being able to retreat to our private households’, so one could interpret this as being anti-social.

Signposting

This is really just a bit of annual Christmas fun with statistics!

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Culture, Class and Distinction

Recent sociological research criticises Bourdieu’s theory that social classes are divided by taste

Recent sociological analysis by Bennet et al (2009) analysed the extent to which cultural tastes vary by factors such as social class, age, gender and ethnicity.

They found that while social class explained 48% of the variation in tastes, gender and age were also important, but not so much ethnicity.

There was also evidence of a lot of cultural omnivores who had tastes that spread across the main class, gender and age ‘divisions’ and also a number of taste subcultures.

Overall they concluded that Bourdieu’s theory of the habitus in which tastes vary mainly by social class does not apply to society as whole, but there is a signifiant division between elite cultural tastes (and cultural capital) and everyone else.

Multivariate Analysis on social divisions by taste…

The National Centre for Social Research conducted survey research in 2004/5 to find out more about cultural divisions in the United Kingdom and test Bourdieu’s theories about social class and cultural capital.

The research consisted of questionnaires sent to a random sample of 1564 respondents, with the questions having been designed with the help of focus groups. An additional 224 respondents from ethnic minority backgrounds were also sampled. 44 respondents were then selected for interviews to collect more in-depth data.

They collected data on which activities people participated in and the frequency of their participation and then analysed that data using multiple correspondence analysis to see which tastes and cultural practices were correlated with each other.

The results were analysed and findings published in Tony Bennet et al (2009)

Variations in Culture by social class, gender and age

Bennet et al wanted to examine whether there really were distinctive class cultures as Bourdieu had suggested.

Their theoretical starting point (their hypothesis if you like) was that other factors such as gender and ethnicity would have more of an impact on cultural divisions and that divisions would not be as clear cut because of the impact of globalisation. Globalisation, they thought, has led to a transnational culture which undermines national conceptions of social class.

Bennet et al also examined whether the tastes of individuals were connected across different cultural fields such as art, music, media and sport.

Bennet et al found that there were four quantifiably distinct axis of taste – people ranked along the same axis for art and literature tended to have the the same tastes in other areas such as television. Altogether these four axis accounted for 82% of the variation in tastes.

Variations in cultural tastes by Social Class

Axis one distinguished groups in terms of levels of participation in ‘high culture’, which accounted for 48% of the distinctions between taste groups.

On one side of this axis were those who who went to the opera and museums frequently, preferred eating at French restaurants and disliked fish and chip restaurants, had lots of books at home appreciated impressionist art

Those on the other side of axis one liked fish and chip restaurants, Western films and snooker, had no books at home and never went to museums or the opera.

Does liking fish and chips mean you’re working class?

The taste-divisions above were highly correlated with social class, especially with levels of education, and on the basis of the above Bennet et al actually found there were three classes depending on the frequency with which they engaged with activities such as those listed above:

  • the working class
  • the intermediate class
  • the professional-executive class.

Variations in taste by age

Axis 2 revealed that there were taste differences by age.

Young people expressed a preference for more commercial forms of culture: they were were more likely to enjoy horror, science fiction and fantasy films, and preferred going to nightclubs.

Older people showed a preference for more traditional forms of culture: they preferred westerns, costume dramas, musicals, cartoons and documentaries and were more likely to visit stately homes and art galleries.

Variations in taste by Gender

Axis three found that there were variations in taste by gender:

Females expressed a preference for self-help books, soap operas, romantic fiction and television dramas while male preferences included sport and westerns.

Cultural Omnivores

The final axis focused on the extent to which people engaged in a wide range of cultural activities compared to a narrow range.

Here Bennet et al found that more highly educated and younger people were more likely to be cultural omnivores – picking and choosing from a range of ‘high’ and ‘popular’ cultural products.

They found that higher education lecturers and people who worked in the media were especially omnivorous.

Support for Bourdieu’s cultural capital theory

Bennet et al’s findings found that there was some support for the existence of a small cultural elite culture which valued high cultural practices such as the opera, classical art and going to the theatre and that knowledge of such tastes did confer social capital.

There are certain tastes which professionals look down on – such as watching lots of T.V, especially reality T.V. shows and reading tabloid newspapers, and they don’t like country and western music.

These cultural distinctions may form the basis of a class divide along social class lines, but it is nowhere near as significant at a societal level as Bourdieu suggested.

Criticisms of Bourdieu’s cultural capital theory

Bennet el al’s findings demonstrated that cultural tastes were not as influenced by social background as Bourdieu had theorised. There was a lot more variety in tastes across social class lines. There were enough people from working class backgrounds enjoyed museums and enough people from professional backgrounds liked football (for example) to show that cultural tastes were not ‘determined by social class background’ .

However social class did still have an influence on cultural tastes, but it acted more like a forcefield which steered people towards particular tastes, but within limits and not in a deterministic way.

There was little that was distinctive to working class culture. And one of the things the middle class valued was an openness to experiment with new cultural pursuits meaning the middle classes were increasingly adopting aspects of traditionally working class cultural pursuits. Football is a great example of this.

All of the above means that cultural divisions along class lines are not significant enough for there to be a distinctive habitus.

Bennet et al also found that there were significant variations in cultural practices along the lines of age and gender, but not by ethnicity.

Taste subcultures

Bennet et al argued that ‘taste subcultures’ were more important than social class

Familiarity with national cultures – belonging to a national culture is more important than social class for generating a sense of belonging (kids TV shows) and lack of familiarity with a national culture can prove a barrier

Subcultures are important for small groups but only small groups – draws on Thornton – but rave culture only gives status during the weekend.

emotional cultural capital is an additional form of cultrual capital – the ability to empathsis with others based on shared cultural experience.

Relevance to A-level Sociology

The material above is most relevant to the culture and identity topic, usually taught as part of the first year of A-level sociology.

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Sources

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

Global Population at 8 Billion People

the world population hit 8 billion on 15th November 2022, but the growth rate is slowing and the UN doesn’t present this as too much of a problem!

The global population hit 8 billion people on 15th November 2022, and is projected to reach 9.7 billion by 2050 and 10.4 billion by 2100, according to the latest United Nation’s World Population Prospects 2022.

While landmark 8 billion figure may sound alarming, the rate of global population growth is actually slowing, and is currently only at 1%.

Global Population Growth by Region

Population growth varies by region.

Sub-Saharan Africa and Central and South Eastern Asia are the two regions of the world which will see relatively high population growth between now and 2050, but most other regions will see either only relatively limited population growth or population decline.

Regions with high population growth rates still have relatively high fertility rates – as high as 3 to 4 per woman in some countries, but this is considerably lower than was the case in past decades and is falling in the majority of countries.

Conversely 61 countries are predicted to have lower populations in 2050 than they currently have now, and so are in population decline.

Future Population growth is based on past growth

Interestingly the report notes that all of the population growth to 2050 is already ‘locked in’, assuming development continues at a steady pace and there are no unforeseen catastrophic global events.

What this means is that future growth is based mainly around current young populations living longer, which seems to be a kind of last-gasp for the demographic transition.

There is no reason to expect population growth to carry on growing significantly after 2100 because the average fertility rate is now 2.1 per woman, which is just over replacement rate and increases in life expectancy are slowing.

In other words, there is no real need to panic, and the discourse around the 8 billion mark seems to suggest that while population growth will make other sustainable development goals harder to achieved, we are unlikely to see a mind of Malthusian meltdown.

Population Growth and other Sustainable Development Goals

The report suggests that there is little need to focus attention on reducing fertility rates in most countries, because these have been falling rapidly in recent years, rather the international development community should focus its attention on poverty alleviation and education of the young.

Ageing Populations a future problem?

Another thing the report highlights is that the global dependency ratio is going to increase going forwards and so there will be fewer people to care for the old.

The share of the global population over 65 is going to increase from 10% today to 16% in 2050, and the report suggests that countries which are projected to have higher proportions of old people need to put in place policy measures such as adequate health care and social security measures to accomodate for such changes.

The impact of Migration

The report notes that for high income countries net migration had more of an impact on population than net gains from the number of births (once deaths have been taken into account).

Between 2020 and 2022 high income countries experienced net migration of 80 million and 66.2 million people added by net births.

However, it’s worth noting that we are taking about relatively small figures for immigration – 80 million spread over 20 years is only 20 million a year spread over all high income countries.

And immigration of young and working age populations could help solve the challenges rich countries face from ageing populations, so happy days.

Signposting and Relevance to A-Level Sociology

This report is most relevant to the Global Development and Globalisation module, and it seems to suggest that the Malthusian view of population growth is simply no longer relevant today.

Sources

United Nations: World Population Prospects 2022.

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Raymond Williams

Williams was a neo-marxist cultural theorist who argued that while economic structure and class position do influence culture, the economic base did not determine culture, and that people weren’t just passively subsumed by ruling class ideology.

Raymond Williams is one of the most influential cultural theorists of the modern era. He developed theories of culture from a broadly Marxist perspective, although he was critical of many aspects of traditional Marxism.

For the purposes of A-level sociology Williams is classified as a Neo-Marxist.

Culture and Society

In Culture and Society (1961) Williams criticised the traditional Marxist conception of economic base and superstructure and the relationship between them.

Williams argued that Marx and Engels mistakenly saw economic infrastructure as determining the superstructure (or culture), whereas in reality culture is much more complex and diverse and can change significantly even if the economic base remains the same.

Williams argued that a new Marxist theory of culture needed to take account of the relative autonomy of the superstructure from the economic base, seeing the economic base as ‘the guiding string on which a culture is woven’ rather than something which determined it in a fixed and predictable way.

Cultures were not the automatic product of economic structures, people respond to their class positions consciously and create their cultures actively, thus culture is much more dynamic than Marx and Engels believed was the case.

Williams also criticised Marxist cultural theorists such John Berger for having too narrow a focus purely on the arts. He argued that contemporary marxism should focus on the interdependence of all aspects of social reality and thus examine culture more broadly, treating culture as a ‘way of life’ rather than just focussing on art and literature.

Working class culture and bourgeoise culture

The working classes did not develop much art and literature during the industrial revolution but they did develop their own distinctive institutions and lifestyles.

Williams argued that the main basis for working class culture was a commitment to collective action because the working classes realised that they could not progress in life as individuals because the life chances of individuals were too restricted throughout the 19th century.

It follows that the key working class institutions which developed historically were trades unions, co-operatives and also the labour party which focussed on collective action for change.

Williams saw bourgeoise culture as more individualistic – the key defining aspect here being that members of the bourgeoisie sort success as individuals, in contrast to the collectivist culture of the working classes.

However Williams also argued that there was not a hard and fast dividing line between working class and bourgeois culture

Challenging the Dominance Ideology

There may well be a dominant ideology in a culture, but it also likely that there will be challenges to this dominant ideology.

Challenging ideologies can be either residual or emergent and either alternative or oppositional…

  • residual ideologies – are those of a declining culture, but which is still important in a society
  • emergent ideologies – the ideas of new social groups outside of the ruling class.

Residual and emergent ideologies can either be alternative or opposition

  • oppositional ideologies oppose the dominant ideology and may challenge it overtly.
  • alternative ideologies co-exist with the dominant ideology without challenging it

Hence for Williams the dominant ideology doesn’t necessarily impose itself on people and create a false consciousness.

In fact it is likely that several people in a culture will develop cultures of their own that challenge or overlap with the dominant ideology.

Evaluations of Williams

Williams work is an improvement over traditional Marxist theories of culture because it is less deterministic and recognises the active role individual humans play in creating their own cultures.

Postmodern theorists criticise Williams arguing that there is no such thing as working class culture today, and especially not a collectivist working class culture.

SignPosting and Relevance to A-Level Sociology

This material should be relevant to students studying the Culture and Identity option within the AQA specification.

Sources

Sources/ Find out More

Adapted from Haralambos and Holborn (2013) Sociology Themes and Perspectives, edition 8.

Raymond Williams: Wikipedia entry.

John Berger

John Berger was a marxist cultural thinker who argued that art reflects ruling class ideology.

John Berger was an artist, novelist, cultural thinker and art critic who developed a Marxist inspired theory of art.

His best known work is ‘Ways of Seeing’ (1972) in which he explored the ‘hidden ideologies’ in historical works of art.

Berger argued that art reflects the political and economic system in which it was produced and that “the art of any period tends to serve the ideological interests of the ruling class” (1)

Berger is an extremely influential Marxist critique of the arts who is also credited with introducing the concept of the Male Gaze to visual analysis.

John Berger in 2009

Berger: Art and Ruling Class Ideology

Oil painting was the dominant medium for painters between 1500 to 1900.

The ruling classes were more able to impose their view of the world through art simply because oil paintings were expensive and they had the money to commission them.

Berger argued that oil paintings had unique properties that made them especially suitable for portraying ruling class ideology during the Renaissance years and into modernity.

These were the years of emergence of Capitalism when acquiring private property and earning money through trade were becoming increasingly central to the world-view of the ruling class, and most oil paintings during 1500-1900 were concerned with depicting the accumulation of such wealth and property, reflecting the interests of the ruling classes during that period.

Oil paints were particularly suited to making what they depicted seem tangible, or ‘real’ because of the texture, depth and lustre of the medium.

The depiction of wealth in oil paintings changed as modernity developed.

Oil paintings had always portrayed items of value, but in early periods these items were usually linked to the glorifying God. However, as capitalism developed paintings focussed increasingly on portraying the wealth and power of the ruling class, effectively suggesting that money was more important than religion.

Another change was that older works portrayed wealth as a symbol of a fixed social or divine order, reflecting the traditional nature of religious power structures, while oil paintings during modernity portrayed wealth as something more dynamic and linked to the successes of the individuals who had acquired it.

Interestingly many of the works commissioned by the wealthy elites during modernity were of poor quality, or ‘hack work’ as Berger calls it.

This was because it was more important to the elites to have their art showing off their wealth in the way that they wanted rather than for them to have high quality works.

In short there were many more mediocre artists prepared to ‘paint to demand’ than there were excellent artists prepared to do so! So even here the market influences the quality of work that is produced.

The Portrayal of the Ruling Class in Art

Landscape paintings portrayed the property of the rich, and sometimes the property owners insisted on being in the landscapes themselves, to demonstrate that it was them who owned the land.

Berger uses the example of Mr and Mrs Andrews by Gainsborough (circa 1748 to 9). In this landscape painting the husband and wife are in the foreground and Berger argues that their ‘proprietary attitude to what surrounds them is visible in their stance and their expression’.

Mr and Mrs Andrews by Gainsborough

Other still-life paintings during modernity portrayed expensive furnishings in houses and tables laden with exotic foods as symbols of wealth. Animals were also featured, but not animals in the wild, rather domesticated livestock with a rare pedigree, so that their monetary value was clear.

The Portrayal of the Lower classes in Art

Paintings representing the lower classes were also popular among the ruling classes.

A common theme in portrayals of the lower classes was that of the common people being drunk and debauched in taverns which suggested they were immoral, feckless and lazy.

Such portrayals served to foster a kind of ‘myth of meritocracy’ – the idea that the poor were to blame for their own poverty because they preferred to drink and party rather than to work hard, while it was the hardworking who prospered and thus deserved their wealth.

And of course it was the ruling classes who saw themselves as hard working and deserving the wealth displayed in their own paintings of themselves.

NB – it’s worth noting the following difference:

  • the ruling classes controlled what went into the paintings of themselves that they commissioned.
  • the working classes had no control over this – artists drew them without any input from them.

Some artists break free of Ruling Class Ideology

While most works of art reflect ruling class ideology, Berger accepts that some artists break free from such ideological constraints.

One example of someone who did this is the artist Rembrandt.

Berger points to an early painting of Rembrandts: Self-Portrait with Saskia (circa 1635) in which Rembrandt is painting within ‘ruling class ideology’ – the painting depicts himself showing off his wife as a form of property, a symbol of this own wealth and success.

However, 30 years later when he produces ‘self-portrait of an old man’ (circa 1664) in this painting he just sitting on his own in a sombre and reflective mood with no symbols of wealth depicted.

In Berger’s interpretation of Rembrandt’s journey he has undergone a struggle over the course of his life to throw off the shackles of ruling class ideology and succeeded in producing a piece of art that is more authentic.

Evaluation of Berger’s theory of art

John Berger’s work has been extremely influential, with Ways of Seeing being described as ‘revolutionary‘.

Berger’s work has become a standard edition to cultural studies and history of art courses the world over and he is responsible for encouraging students and anyone else who reads his work to think critically about the role of power and money in influencing art and culture.

Even if you you do not entirely agree with Berger’s analysis, at the very least you should appreciate the fact that he is encouraging us to ask critical questions about the processes which lie behind the production of art.

It is possible that his analysis isn’t that systematic and thus alternative interpretations maybe just as valid. For example do the expressions of the Andrews really demonstrate that they own the land in the background…? Does Rembrandt’s old man portrait really show that he’s been through a life-time of personal struggle to break free from ruling class ideology, or is he just showing that he’s ‘old and sad’…?

Even though Berger devoted some time to how women are portrayed as being owned and controlled by men in Ways of Seeing he has been criticised for not giving female analysts more of a central role in discussing this.

Sources/ find out more

Brtannica: John Berger

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

John Beger image.

Mr and Mrs Andrews

Signposting

This material is primarily relevant to those studying the Culture and Identity option within A-level Sociology.

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Marxism and Culture

Culture is what distinguishes humans from animals, but under Capitalism culture becomes a tool of the elite used to repress the masses. However, there is capacity for individuals to rise above false consciousness and usher in communism which is where the spontaneous production of culture can happen under free conditions.

Marx argued that human labour was integral to an individual’s sense of identity and the wider culture of a society.

In the Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts Marx argued that it was work, or consciously transforming nature, which distinguished humans from animals, and it was through the creative process of work that man came to recognised himself as human.

For Marx the ideal-state of society was one in which individuals freely organised themselves into groups and collectively engaged in work, intentionally and consciously using their labour power to meet their own physical and aesthetic needs.

In fact for Marx, the origins of culture lie in the capacity of men to collectively organise and consciously produce things, especially those things which are over and above what individuals need to survive.

The material conditions and social relations of a society shape culture to an extent – in Marx’s view there is an ideal state he calls communism which is where there is no private property and under these material conditions man is the most free to use his labour power to express his humanity to its fullest extent.

Under such ‘ideal conditions’ the cultures which emerge are (in my interpretation of Marx) just spontaneous human cultures, as ‘good’ as it gets.

However under the unequal material conditions of class stratified societies, it is the culture of elite class which emerges as the dominant one which in turn becomes a tool to oppress the minority who live in a state of unfreedom and false consciousness.

Alienation and Culture

According to Marx, the ideal-state for humanity is that they live in social conditions which allow them the freedom to fulfil their material needs and aesthetic desires through the creative process of creating things using their imagination.

However, historically the emergence of the concept of Private Property and the accumulation of this property by a few gave rise to Capitalism. Under capitalism a handful of people own and control the means of production which means the majority do not own them which thus means the masses cease to exist in a state of freedom.

Under capitalism the majority lose their freedom to organise their own labour, instead they end up having to work for those who own the means of production, in places such as factories, in order to survive, and they thus lose control over their creative-productive process, and also their very sense of humanity and culture. It was this condition which Marx referred to as Alienation.

So for Marx, the ideal state is that human culture emerges through the individuals freely engaging in productive activities, but the emergence of Private Property and Capitalist inequalities distorts this process, alienating the masses because they are no longer free to organise create their own cultures through their own productive processes.

Culture as Ruling Class Ideology

Marx argued that in class-stratified societies the dominant culture came from the ruling class…..

“The ideas of the ruling class are, in every age, the ruling ideas… the dominant ideas are nothing more than the ideal expression of the dominant material relationships grasped as ideas.”

In Capitalist societies the dominant class was the Bourgeoisie (the owners of the mans of production) and they used their economic power to shape the dominant culture (norms and values) in capitalist society in the 19th century.

We see this especially in Marx’s ideas about the role of religion in society – Christianity in the 19th century was mainly a conservative force which encouraged the poor to know their place in society, respect authority, work hard and seek their rewards in heaven.

Hence Marx saw culture as part of the superstructure of society – with (for example) religious ideas helping to maintain a system of norms and values (a culture) which benefitted existing elites by preventing the spreading of more revolutionary ideas and thus keeping the existing unequal material relations in place.

Some later Marxists such as Adorno applied Marx’s theory to how the mass media works along similar lines in modern societies – with the media effectively keeping the massive passive and stupid and preventing social change.

However even Marx and Engels themselves admitted that the material infrastructure does not entirely determine culture, there is room for some alternative cultures to emerge besides the dominant culture.

Culture as a Reflection of Class Differences

One interpretation of Marx and Engels’ perspective on culture in relation to social class is that different classes will have different cultures, because culture reflects the material conditions in which people live, and there are material differences between social classes.

However Engels himself recognised that aspects of culture could transcend class origins, at least in the sphere of literature where some writers were concerned.

Using the example of Goethe Engles noted that he both celebrated German culture, which reflected his comfortable middle class origins, but he was also clearly disgusted by the wretchedness of his surroundings.

Thus Engels argues that while literature and other forms of art do generally reflect the class origins of those producing them, there is the capacity for individuals to break free of false consciousness and perceive social injustices.

This capacity for individuals and their cultural products to break free of their material conditions is in fact essential for Marx and Engels’ theory of social change to work.

The end point for Marxist Theory is the transition from Capitalism to Communism via revolution, and for that to happen the working classes need to break free from their chains, and to do that they have to break free of false consciousness and be able to see ruling class ideology as false.

Signposting and related posts

This material in this post is relevant to the Culture and Identity module, usually taught as part of the first year of study for AQA’s sociology specification.

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Culture: Functionalist Perspectives

Functionalists Durkheim and Mauss argued that social structures shaped human cultures. Aboriginal societies with simple structures had simpler (‘primitive’) cultural classification systems, industrial societies had more complex cultures.

Writing primarily in the late 19th century, Functionalists such as Mauss and Durkheim subscribed to an evolutionary view of culture and developed theories about how cultures changed as societies ‘evolved’ (as they saw it).

Functionalists have theorised extensively about ‘culture as a social system of norms and values’, but their theories of ‘the arts’ are much less developed than their theories about societal cultures more generally.

Primitive Classification

Primitive Classification was a book (1963 English language, first published in 1903) written by Emile Durkheim and Marcel Mauss in which they theorised about how human culture first developed.

They argued that human culture is only possible once humans develop the capacity to distinguish between things and classify them.

When a child is first born, it does not have the capacity to classify things, rather the newborn child merely experiences a continuous flow of experiences that merge into one another. At this point culture is not possible as there is no distinguishing clearly between things and thus no classification system can be developed.

As the child develops its ability to classify things evolves so that it can order things with higher levels of complexity. Functionalists apply a similar idea to how cultures get more complex as societies get more complex.

The Origin of Classification Systems

Durkheim and Mauss theorised that cultural classification systems came from the differentiated structure of society. As they saw it, social structures were based upon divisions between social groups and the cultural classification systems of a society reflected the number of social divisions in the social structure.

Durkheim and Mauss developed this theory based on examining existing anthropological evidence on the social structures and cultures of Australian Aboriginal peoples, who they believed had the most primitive societies.

The Port Mackay aboriginals were divided into two broad social groups known as moieties. These were called the Youngaroo and the Woobaroo, and their cultural classification system also divided everything in the natural and social world into two groups.

For example, alligators and the sun were classified as Youngaroos while kangaroos and the moon were classified as Woobaroos.

The Wakelbura of Queensland had a more complex social structure which was divided into four groups: There were two moieties – the Mallera and Wutaru, and then each of these was further subdivided into two marriage groups:

  • Mallera moiety: Kurgila and Banbey marriage groups
  • Wutaru moiety – Wongu and Obu marriage groups.

The Wakelbura cultural classification system reflected this four way subdivision structure – everything was first classified into one of two primary categories and then further classified into a sub category.

Interestingly this could be quite restricted: what one could eat was determined by one’s sub-classification – the Banbey were only allowed to eat certain types of food, for example, and forbidden from other food types which people in other moiety-marriage groups were allowed to eat.

Complex Classification Systems

As the complexity of social structures increases so does the complexity of cultural classification systems.

For Durkheim and Mauss, the pinnacle of societal evolution was modern industrial civilisations which they saw as having the most complex social structures based on a very complex division of labour, and it was these complex social relations which lay the foundations for a complex cultural classification system which incorporates a scientific world view.

Social Relations then Cultural Classifications

Durkheim and Mauss speak out against Biological determinism:

“The first logical categories were social categories; the first classes of things were classes of men” (Durkheim and Mauss 1903).

They are against the view that any underlying logical relations between things form the basis of social relations – social relations come first, then classification systems and from this our worldview or culture.

Religion and Classification

Durkheim later developed the theory of the evolution of classification systems by applying it to religion in society.

In The Elementary Forms of Religious life (first published in 1912) Durkheim argued that religion is based on a basic division of the world into Sacred and Profane.

Durkheim argued that totemic religions in ‘primitive’ societies formed the basis of a shared collective conscience (like a shared culture) based on what he called mechanical solidarity (or high levels of similarity).

Durkheim argued that while the totem did classify people into different groups, it also emphasised that they were part of the same ‘spiritual whole’ – totemic religions viewed togetherness and whole society solidarity as more important than social differences.

Thus in totemic societies a relatively simple system of religious classification reinforced ‘social solidarity’ at the societal level – there was very little specialised division of labour in totemic societies.

As society evolves the division of labour becomes more complex as job roles become more specialised (scientists/ engineers/ teachers/ politicians and so on) and collective conscience becomes less strong.

As a result modern industrial societies can encourage excessive individualism and anomie (a sense of normlessness), but individuals still need to rely on each other for society to carry on functioning.

In advanced industrial societies religious systems no longer automatically create a collective conscience (or shared culture) based on ‘mechanical solidarity’ – society evolves to produce specialist institutions which do this – such as professional associations and education (according to Durkheim).

For Durkheim maintaining a sense of shared culture in complex societies was an ongoing problem but one which must be addressed (and engineered through social policy) for societies to continue, which he believed was beneficial compared to societies collapsing through revolution.

Evaluations of the Functionalist Perspective on Culture

Durkheim and Mauss have been criticised because there is empirical evidence which doesn’t fit their theory. They simply ignore evidence which doesn’t fit.

For example Needham (1963) has pointed out that the Port Mackay aboriginals are actually further divided into two marriage clans and so on that basis should have a four-fold cultural classification system rather than the binary one they do have.

Durkheim has been criticise in general for over emphasising the importance of social structure in ‘determining’ cultural world views. His theory doesn’t account for the existence of deviant individuals or subcultures which exist in many societies, suggesting individuals have more agency than his theory allows for.

Signposting and Related Posts

This post was written primarily for A-level sociology students studying the Culture and Identity option as part of the AQA specification.

The most closely associated material relevant to this post is Durkheim’s perspective on religion.

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Sources/ Find out More

Adapted from Haralambos and Holborn (2013) Sociology Themes and Perspectives, edition 8.

Emile Durkheim and Marcel Mauss (1953) Primitive Classification, Routledge 201 edition.

Marxism applied to Rishi Sunak

Rishi Sunak, the choice of the Global Elite for British P.M..?

On Monday 24th October just under 200 Tory M.P.s decided Rishi-Sunak would be Britain’s new Prime-Minister.

This move seems to have ended the recent Tory psychodrama which saw Boris Johnson ousted, Liz Truss (herself voted in by an extreme minority of Tory party members) who then went on to crash the economy and then stepped down to leave the door open for Rishi, the only viable candidate left.

Rishi’s coronation seems to signify a temporary suspension of democracy in Britain – there is no way anyone can strain their analysis far enough to claim this is democratic – it’s the coronation of a multimillionaire by a party of millionaires.

This post explores the relevance of the marxist perspective to the coronation of Rishi Sunak.

Marxism applied to Rishi’s Coronation

Rishi Sunak is a member of the global elite and he is now British P.M. without having been elected.

Rishi may well be from East-African Asian heritage but his father was a Doctor and mother a Pharmacist and they paid for him to attend a private preparatory school and then to go on to Westminster College, which helped to hot-house him into Oxford University and and then a job with Goldman Sachs.

So while he thinks of himself as a self-made man this isn’t true – he is from a highly privileged background having benefitted from his parents’ material capital – they paid for him to have the best education and he leveraged this into the qualifications that eventually got him a job with an immoral global investment bank: Goldman Sachs.

The combined wealth of the Sunaks (Rishi and his wife, Akshata Murty), is £730 million, which means they are in Britains’ top 250 rich list.

It’s worth noting that Rishi Sunak’s wife is the daughter of an Indian billionaire, Narayana Murthy, who established a company called InfoSys which is worth around $75 billion.

NB note that Akshata Murty spells her surname different to her fathers, the most likely explanation of this being that she doesn’t want people to know she is an heiress and pretty much all of her success can be attributed to her father’s extreme wealth.

All of this means that Rishi Sunak is now one of the richest political leaders in the world – he is richer than every leader in functioning democracies but not quite as rich as many leaders in dictatorships and autocracies and whatever Britain should be classified now it isn’t a democracy any more.

The Global Elite Wanted Rishi all Along!

Rishi Sunak must be well known among the global economic elite with his marriage connections to one of the richest tech company founding billionaires in the world.

And he’s the perfect man for them to run Britain’s economy so that it can go on extracting wealth upwards from the ordinary people to the global elite for many years to come.

He is a young face that knows how to manage his media image, he is Britains’ first Asian Prime Minister which gives the feeling that this is progressive, he ticks a lot of ‘public acceptability’ boxes, but he is also part of the global elite, make no mistake.

Rishi knows, unlike Liz Truss, that the global elite have to play the long game in this extraction process. Britain went into massive debt during Covid and it simply can’t cut taxes in the short term – the ordinary people have to be made to pay for this first, Britain’s macro economic situation needs to be made sustainable as a priority and this may take many years to sort out.

International Capital clearly doesn’t want more tax cuts or Britain to be turned into a basket case of an economy as Liz Truss’ policies would have done. Rather it makes sense for Capital to be patient – keep tax relatively high, pay off the debt and then, after a few years, more tax cuts, more privatisation, more neoliberal extraction.

Liz Truss’ plan would would have meant too many tax cuts and then just cuts to public services -and there’s no profit for international capital in that. They’ve had it good from Britain, and there’s more profit for them to come in the next decades, nothing to be gained from policies which trash the British economy!

Rather what International Capital needs for maximum profit is a man like Rishi who will ensure Britain’s financial stability and then probably instil a GRADUAL programme of stealth privatisation of the health and education and maybe even policing sectors so that tax payers money can keep feeding the wealthy abroad, while the public suffer from subtly decreasing quality of public services.

What will Rishi Sunak’s Social Policies Look Like?

‘The Market’s have already decided he can’t cut taxes yet – so he’ll probably just stay with taxation as it is and look to make public service cuts where he can.

What I am expecting from this new Tory government is LOTS of privatisation of health and education – but through the public-private partnership model where more and more tax money gets siphoned off to global companies.

Don’t forget that Rishi has no commitment to Britain, he doesn’t even formally live in Britain, he’s got non-domicile status, him and his wife don’t even pay most of their tax here, they themselves don’t rely on public services either.

What other perspectives and concepts can you apply to Rishi’s Coronation…?

This post was primarily written from a Marxist perspective.

There are plenty of others but for me Marxism is the main one, it’s so relevant that I don’t want to divert attention away from it by putting in anything else!

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Four Types of Culture

Folk culture, mass or popular culture, high culture and low culture

Culture is one of the most complex terms in the English language. This post summarises four ways in which the term is most commonly used…

  • Folk culture
  • Mass or Popular culture
  • High culture
  • Low culture

Folk Culture

Folk culture refers to the every day practices of ordinary local peoples, often rooted in long-standing traditions dating back to the pre-industrial era.

Folk cultures are usually rooted in one specific place and unique to that place.

There are thousands of different folk cultures all over the world, which have emerged from the ordinary day to day lives of ordinary peoples and their practices have been passed down, often orally (through word of mouth) from generation to generation.

The term ‘folk culture’ is used to refer to both specific cultural practices and whole cultures, and examples include Morris dancing in England, folk singing such as Mongolian throat singing, Choctaw (Native American) story telling and the whole of the Amish culture is also referred to as a ‘folk culture’…

Morris Dancing in England – a form of folk culture

Folk culture is thus about lived experience and is usually locally based, in one place rather than global.

Folk cultures are usually seen as part of the authentic, lived experience of real people, although you will often see ‘mock versions’ of historical folk culture played out for the benefit of tourists, in which case many aspects of the original ‘folk culture’s may have been changed over the years to make them more entertaining (NB this has possibly happened with Morris Dancing!)

Popular Culture

Popular culture refers to cultural products manufactured by entrepreneurs and media companies in modern capitalist societies which are produced for mass consumption, the aim being to reach a wide audience typically with the aim of making a profit.

Popular culture products are thus not organic like folk cultures, they do not emerge out of day to day to interaction between ordinary people, rather they are produced by professionals with an instrumental purpose – to entertain and make money.

Examples of popular culture include television programmes (think of the most popular shows on Netflix), box-office films, pop music and popular literature (Harry Potter), and of course the more modern forms which combine several of these into one such as the X FACTOR…

A whole 45 minutes just on their X Factor journey!

Critics of popular culture tend to refer to it as ‘mass culture‘ – for the purposes of A-level sociology you can think of ‘mass culture’ as a derogatory term for ‘popular culture’.

Critics tend to see what they call ‘mass culture’ as being formulaic and simplistic, and very easy to watch lots of it – which has the affect of pacifying people by preventing them from engaging with more complex forms of high culture or more critical content – rather an endless stream of popular culture products keep people happy and stupid, like a king of modern day ‘opium of the masses’

High Culture

High Culture refers to cultural products which are perceived by some to be the pinnacle or creative achievement and thus to have a higher status in society.

Examples of ‘high culture’ include classical music, opera and ballet, classical literature and historical works of art and sculptures…

A performance of the Opera La Boheme – an example of high culture…?

Enjoyment of such works forms part of the identity of the political and economic elite of many European societies, and the elite who patronise these types of ‘high’ cultural products tend to see them as superior to other forms of leisure and culture which are more widely enjoyed by the masses.

This notion of elitism and superiority is an important aspect of High Culture – there is an idea that such cultural forms require a high level of skill to produce and thus are extremely rare, and that it requires a certain amount of refinement and distinction to enjoy them.

Indeed, ‘enjoyment’ is not sufficient to understand the norms which surround the ‘experience’ of ‘high culture’ – in fact ‘appreciation’ might be a more accurate word because to truly enjoy the works above requires an understanding which is usually learned through many years of experience…

Opera for example may well be in a foreign language, classical literature requires a high level of reading skill and music is better understood with a personal background of having learned a classic instrument yourself.

Thus part of the experience of high culture is very much about the elite distinguishing themselves from the non-elite.

NB organisations such as the Royal Ballet and the Royal Opera house have been making attempts for many years to make opera and ballet more accessible to a wider range of people, so the boundaries between elite and popular culture may be becoming more blurred over time!

Low Culture

Low culture is a derogatory term used to refer to cultures which are seen as inferior or of low or no value.

For example the elite classes might refer to popular culture as ‘low culture’ to denote the fact that it is inferior to ‘high culture’ which they see as more refined , nuanced and/ or complex, requiring more learning and effort to fully appreciate, which thus makes it superior to the more accessible popular culture.

Historically, many folk cultures would have been viewed as ‘low cultures’ by colonialists and other agents of modernity who believed that the whole point of the modernist project was to use science and rationality to bring about social progress, effectively washing away inferior traditional cultures which were rooted in tradition and superstition .

Tasks and Find out More

You might like to visit the Royal Opera House website – have a click around the site and decide for yourself whether you think Opera is really an elite cultural form today.

SignPosting

This post should be useful for students studying the first year option in A-level Sociology Culture and Identity option (AQA)

Sources

Morris Dancing Picture – By Tim Green from Bradford – Morris Dancers, York, CC BY 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=51786023

La Boheme picture – https://www.metopera.org/season/2022-23-season/la-boheme/

This blog post was adapted from Chapman et al (2015) Sociology AQA A-level Year 1.

What is the Cost of Living Crisis?

The cost of living crisis is a social problem in Britain in 2022. It is when the cost of basic goods such as gas, electricity and food increase rapidly and faster than average wages, pushing more people into poverty. This post explores what items have increased in price, and who is affected the most.

The cost of living crisis is a situation in which the cost of basic, essential items such as food and energy bills have increased rapidly in a short period of time, and much faster than average household wages. 

This means that millions of people in the UK suddenly find themselves struggling to pay for basic items such as gas and electricity, rent, fuel for the car and food because these are a lot more expensive in Autumn 2022 than they were In Autumn 2021, while most people’s wages have not increased anywhere near as quickly. 

The Increasing Cost of Living in the UK in 2022

The Cost of Living in the UK increased by 10.1 in the year to August 2022.

The UK government measures this increase in the cost of living (known as ‘inflation’) using the Consumer Price Index (CPI) , which monitors the prices of over 800 goods and services and uses the average changes in price to provide an average inflation figure over the year.

According to the CPI to this the inflation rate was 10.1% in the UK between August 2021 and August 2022…

Consumer Price Inflation to August 2022

That means that if it cost you £1000 a month for rent, transport, food and stuff in August 2021 it would have cost you £1100 to buy the same goods and services in August 2022

If this average rate of inflation continues into 2023, which is likely, then it will cost you £1210 to buy the same products in August next year.

What items have increased in price and how rapidly?

You can actually see from the graph above that the main drivers of the increasing cost of living are:

  • Household costs including services – which mainly means gas and electricity
  • Fuel costs – the cost of filling the car or van with petrol or diesel
  • Food costs.

Electricity and gas prices have seen the most dramatic increase in recent months.

10 year trend in domestic electricity prices UK. Source: Nimblefins

Between 2010 and 2021 Electricity prices increased at around an average of less than 10% a year, and some years prices even went down compared to previous years. However prices increased very rapidly between 2021 and 2022 and are set to increase even more rapidly to 2023.

The average price for electricity was 19.6 pence per Kilowatt hour in 2021, but this is set to increase to 34 pence per Kilowatt hour by early 2023, meaning the cost of elecriticty has DOUBLED in less that three years.

The Office for National Statistics prefers to use a baseline index method to show the relative increase of both electricity and gas prices, setting the base index of 100 and showing the same trend as above: that domestic energy prices have doubled in just a couple of years:

Source: Department for Energy, 2022

In it’s September 2022 research briefing the government noted that the cost of gas had risen 96% in the year to August 2022 while the cost of electricity had risen by 54%.

Rising Petrol and Diesel Prices…

Petrol has also increased in price over the last two years, increasing 30% from £1.20 a litre to £1.60 a litre at time of writing in October 2022, having spiked to a high of £1.90 a litre in August.

Rising food Prices…

Food and non-alcoholic drinks were 13.1% higher in August 2022 compared to August 2021.

The Rising Cost of Living Research Briefing.

These figures are only for food bought from shops (mainly supermarkets) which people prepare and eat at home, they exclude restaurant and takeaway food and drink.

The price of some food items have risen more than others – the Food Foundation notes that the prices of milk and dairy, meat and vegetables have risen more than other categories of food, for example.

There is considerable variation in the rate at which different food items have increased but there are many very basic items which have increased considerably, including low fat milk which is up 34%, pasta up 24.4% and even 15.7%.

What’s happened to average wages in 2022?

Inflation wouldn’t be as much of a problem if wages increased at the same rate as the increase in cost of living, but this has not been the case recently.

According to government figures Real regular pay was negative 2.8% in March to April 2022. This figure takes into account the increasing cost of living and the effects of taxes on wages.

There are differences too between private sector and public sector wages – private sector wages have increased a lot faster than public sector wages, so the real terms decrease in wages (compared to the increase in the cost of living) is much higher for public sector workers such as nurses, teachers and our police.

Who is Affected by the Cost of living Crisis?

While the cost of living is increasing for everyone in the UK, poorer households are affected more than richer households.

The main reason for this is because poorer households spend a higher proportion of their income on gas and electricity and it is these two services which are increasing the most – thus the poor face a higher relative increase than the rich.

It is also the case that the poor tend to pay more than the rich for the same goods and services – their houses, for example, are less likely to be insulated (because they are more likely to be rented) and so heating bills will be relatively higher to achieve the same level of warmth and food costs more because the poor are less able to get to value supermarkets because they don’t have cars, and they are more likely to have to buy from local shops which tend to me more expensive.

Even before the rapid inflation we have seen 2022 so far, millions of households were struggling with meeting bas costs, already having to choose between heating or eating in colder months…

Source: Joseph Rowntree Foundation: Managing the Cost of Living Crisis on a Low Income

According a recent Guardian Article an additional one million will be pushed into poverty in the winter of 2022/ 2023 because of rising costs of gas and electricity, even with the government’s recent fuel cap.

And another recent study by York University suggests that more than 75% of households will be pushed into fuel poverty by January 2023, which means they will be spending more than 10% of their disposable income on gas and electricity bills.

What are the Causes of the Increasing Cost of Living…?

Official government sources tend to identify the following causes:

  • The Covid-19 Pandemic
  • Supply chain problems (linked to above)
  • The war on Ukraine…

However more objective observers also point to:

  • The negative consequences of four decades of neoliberal economic policies (in particular)
  • Liz Truss’ recent hyper neoliberal policy agenda has just deepened the crisis even more.
  • The Capitalist model of global ‘development’ (in general)

For a more in-depth look at this very broad question please see this post (forthcoming) The Causes of the Cost of living Crisis.

The Cost of Living Crisis is a Social Problem

The mainstream media loves to present us with stories of how people are coping with the Cost of Living crisis – putting a personal touch on the crisis which supposedly makes it easier for us to relate to and understand.

I outlined some examples of this in my recent post: Surviving the Cost of Living Crisis: Case Studies.

However, while these stories of people’s financial struggles are private troubles, it is also very obvious that the cost of living crisis is also a public issue – it is a crisis rooted in social and changes and structural problems that individuals themselves have no control over.

For example, the government’s chosen response to Lockdown the country during the Pandemic effectively shutdown the economy and de-railed econo;mic growth.

Similarly governmental responses to covid-19 around the world created supply chain issues pushing up the costs o many basic goods and causing shortages which makes it harder for economic activity to pick back up again.

Brexit has also retarded the economy by making it harder for British businesses to continue trading with Europe.

And of course the much mentioned war in Ukraine means Russia has halted its gas supply to Europe, pushing up energy prices.

In fairness the government has recognised that this crisis is social in nature, because it has stepped in with some measures such as the energy price cap and direct payments to households to help deal with the increased costs.

BUT it doesn’t seem to be accepting the fact that there are deeper structural issues at work too – such as our lack of renewables (which would make us more energy independent) and our commitment to neoliberalism which has for years allowed the private sector to drain money from the public sector, reducing teh governments capacity to spend its way out of this crisis through a massive green-infrastructural development plan, for example,

Anyway, I’ll cover the structural elements of the causes of the crisis and some of the more radical potential solutions to in a couple of future posts. For now, just keep in mind that this event, this crisis needs to be addressed with a critical mind, and you should be looking for the deeper structural causes of it and for deeper more longer term solutions than just handing out packets of money to individual households and energy companies!

Signposting – Relevance to A-level Sociology

While the increasing cost of living is only directly relevant to the Wealth, Poverty and Welfare module, which few students study as an option, I personally think students should be directed to study this topic as the main contemporary event which is affecting all of us in the UK today in 2022.

To my mind the fact that the material reality of our lives is getting harder and that this is having real consequences challenges Postmodernism especially and I’d further suggest that Marxism becomes more relevant as huge amounts of people are being driven further into absolute and relative poverty as a result.

For further insight you might like this ‘first thoughts post on how sociological perspectives relate to the crisis.

Sources/ Find out More

The House of Commons Library (September 2022) The Rising Cost of Living Research Briefing.

The Food Foundation – A charity which live tracks the price of a basket of food items regarded by the public to be a reasonable basket of items – they distinguish between a woman’s basket and a man’s basket – interestingly the man’s basket is £7 a week more expensive than the woman’s basket!

The Joseph Rowntree Foundation (2022) Managing the Cost of Living Crisis on a Low Income.

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