An Overview of the UK Labour Market (2017)

Adapted from Taylor’s ‘Good Work’ Report (2017). This report reviews the current state of work and makes (some fairly limited and piecemeal) policy recommendations about how to make work fairer for more people.

Characteristics of the UK labour market

The Review coins the term ‘the British way’ to describe the current working landscape in Britain – Full-time, permanent work remains the norm, but other ‘atypical’ arrangements are usually chosen and valued by the individuals concerned. The authors argue that this system works effectively for most people, and hence their recommendation that we should aim to improve the quality of work within this existing framework.

To back up this view (that work ‘works’ for most people, numerous evidence is given including the following:

  • In recent years the UK labour market has been characterised by strong performance, with record high levels of employment and the lowest unemployment rates since 1975. The current employment rate of 74.8%8 is the highest since records began. The unemployment rate, at 4.7%, is the lowest since 1975. The inactivity rate9, at 21.5% is the joint lowest since records began.
  • The UK is widely recognised as having one of the most flexible labour markets in the world. The UK is rated as having the 5th most efficient labour market in the World, which is seen as vital for economic productivity.
  • Full-time, permanent work as an employee continues to make up the majority of employment in the UK (63.0%). However, there has been a notable shift towards more flexible forms of working overtime, with changes in levels of self-employment and part-time working in particular.
  • Currently, almost 26.2% of employment is in part-time work, compared to 25% in 1997 and self-employment now accounts for around 15.1% of total employment.

Key trends in the way we work

‘Traditional’ full-time employment continues to dominate the UK labour market and has only declined 1.6 percentage points from 64.6% to 63.0% over the last twenty years; with the most noticeable fall occurring during the most recent recession.

This section outlines some of the trends in ‘atypical work’ of which part-time and self-employed working are the main sub-types.

Employment by type UK

Enter a caption

Part time work

  • Part time work makes up 26.2% of total employment, and has generally been on the rise for the past 20 years.
  • The majority of part-time workers (70.7%) say that they do not want a full-time job.
  • 4% of part-time workers say that they are working part-time because they could not find a full-time job.

Self-employment

  • Self-employment reached a high of 15% of total employment during 2016.
  • Self-employed people are slightly more likely work part-time than those in regular employment.
  • Joinery, plumbing and construction are the largest sectors for self-employment.

Agency work

  • There is a lack of robust data on the number of agency workers in the UK.
  • Estimates range from 800,00 to around 1.2 million.
  • The Recruitment and Employment Confederation (REC) estimate of 1.2 million is generally considered to be more reliable,

Temporary workers

  • Temporary workers, who include temporary agency workers, account for around 1.6 million of the total number of UK employees.
  • Around a quarter of temporary workers (25.5%) state that they do not want a permanent job, while 27.4% say that they are a temporary worker because they could not find a permanent job.

Zero Hours Contract

  • 905,000 people (2.8% of those in employment) are reported to be on a zero hours contract.
  • 65% of people on zero hour contract work part-time (65%).
  • Younger people, those aged 16-24, are also more likely to work on a zero hours contracts and account for one third of total zero hours contracts.
  • 18% of those on a zero hours contract are in full-time education
  • Whilst data suggests that there have been large increases in the number of people on zero hours contracts since 2012, this increase is, at least in part, due to an improved recognition of this type of contract. This means that we cannot know with certainty that zero hour contracts are on the rise and in fact reported numbers have stabilised in recent periods.

Multi-jobs

  • Approximately 1.1 million people, or 3.5% of the total number in employment, have a second job.
  • This proportion has been fairly stable at between 3.5% and 4.0% for the last ten years.
  • This official data probably doesn’t include people earning additional money in a more casual way, through the use of online platforms for example. McKinsey Global estimates that 20-30% of the working age population are engaged in independent work. This includes self-employed people but also accounts for people using sharing or gig economy platforms e.g. individuals renting out rooms on Airbnb, driving for Uber, or selling goods on eBay or Etsy.

Gig economy work

The gig economy tends to refer to people using apps to sell their labour. The most commonly used examples are Uber and Deliveroo but there are many and a growing number of platforms facilitating working in this way.

  • The Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development (CIPD) estimate that there are approximately 1.3 million people working in the gig economy in the UK, equivalent to 4% of the UK workforce.
  • 58% of gig economy workers are permanent employees, which suggests that most gig economy workers use gig work to supplement income from more ‘traditional’ employment,
  • Research suggests that the gig economy will continue to grow.

The report also notes that limitations with current survey data means that we do not know for certain how many people are undertaking gig economy work and whether they are doing so to supplement other work, or substituting employment totally with this type of work.

Why the Labour Market Doesn’t work for everyone

The key factor is an imbalance of power between individuals and employers. Where employers hold more power than employees, this can lead to poorer working conditions and lower wage levels. The relative amounts of power are linked to geographical mobility.

There are also problems pertaining to self-employment….where companies might redefine a worker as self-employed, thus denying them holiday pay and other benefits and there are many examples of increasing media and public concern in relation to worker exploitation.

Two previous recent government reviews looking at this issue are:

  • The Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy Committee’s ‘future world of work and rights of workers inquiry’, prompted by the Sports Direct scandal; and
  • The Work and Pensions Committee’s ‘self-employment and the gig economy inquiry’, focusing on bogus self-employment.

Challenges to future work:

The report lists a number of challenges to future work – including:

  • Poor real wage growth
  • Poor productivity
  • Getting the skills to match the jobs (the proportion of graduates working in low-skilled jobs increased from 5.3% in 2008 to 8.1% in 2016.)
  • New business models and platforms for working
  • Automation

At the end of this chapter the report restates its belief that the UK labour market needs to maintain its flexibility and dynamism in the light of Brexit, it also recommends that we don’t need to do anything about automation yet, and that all we need to do is to maintain a ‘value commitment’ to ‘good work’.

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Good Work – The Taylor Review of Modern Working Practices

My Summary of this recent report on Modern Working Practices fronted by Mathew Taylor of the RSA – I’ve had be selective and modified some of the chapter headings so they reflect more clearly the content of each chapter – IMO this is a pretty accurate, much briefer and more readable summary of the report…

Personally I’d label this as part of a neoliberal policy agenda (well it certainly isn’t left wing!)  – I say this because it identifies ‘flexible working’ as a strength of the UK economy and recommends that ‘responsible corporate governance’ rather than regulation is the best way to improve working conditions for the lower paid in the UK.

Chapter 2 – The Scope of the Report  

The authors of the report believe that ‘all work in the UK economy should be fair and decent with realistic scope for development and fulfilment’, and the aim of the report is to suggest some policy changes which can make work ‘work’ better for more people.

‘Good work’ (defined in the next chapter) matters for several reasons: it is crucial to ensure a decent income, opportunities for individual progress, health, productivity, trust and responsibility and enabling us to adapt to change.

The report points out more than once that work for most people is not actually that bad – most people are in full-time employment and once we factor in benefits, take home pay for households with a member in full-time employment is higher than the other G7 countries.

Where more ‘precarious jobs’ are concerned, the report actually identifies flexible working as a distinct strength of the UK labour market and does not advocate increased regulation of employers, suggesting that the problems associated with the so called gig-economy are best dealt with within the existing regulatory framework.

‘We advocate change but in doing so we seek to build on the distinctive strengths of our existing labour market and framework of regulation’.

There are three broad challenges which need to be met in order to make work ‘good’ for more people:

  1. Tackling exploitation and the potential for exploitation at work;
  2. Increasing clarity in the law and helping people know and exercise their rights; and
  3. Over the longer term, aligning the incentives driving the nature of our labour market with our modern industrial strategy and broader national objectives.

The study recommends seven steps towards fair and decent work with realistic scope for development and fulfilment

  1. We need a national strategy to create ‘good work for all’ which balances rights and responsibilities: Good work basically means
  • Everyone has a baseline of protection and there should be routes to enable progression at work (rights)
  • Taxation of labour needs to be more consistent across employment (responsibilities)
  • Work and workers need to be able to adapt to new opportunities, technology is crucial to this.
  1. Platform based working is good because it’s more flexible, but we should be clearer about how to distinguish workers from those who are legitimately self-employed.
  2. We shouldn’t increase the amount it costs employees to hire people, we also need to give ‘dependent contractors’ more protections to make sure employees don’t shaft them.
  3. The best way to achieve better work is not national regulation but responsible corporate governance.
  4. There needs to be more on the job training opportunities so people can progress in work, workers need more control over this.
  5. We need to develop a more proactive approach to workplace health.
  6. We need to maintain the national living wage and provide opportunities to help people progress out of low-paid, minimum wage work so they are not stuck there forever.

Chapter 3: What is Quality Work?

This section examines what is meant by ‘quality work’ – and identifies a number of problems in identifying what ‘quality work’ means.

  1. People are driven by different motivations at different points in their career and so what represents quality to them now may not represent quality ten years later;
  2. People have very different subjective interpretations of what counts as ‘quality work’ – the report came across examples of people doing the same job who reported that it was the ‘best’ and ‘worse’ job they had ever had.
  3. Pay is only one aspect in determining quality work; A recent British Social Attitude Survey revealed that for more than 50% of the UK workforce, a job means far more than just wages – for many people fulfilment, personal development, work life balance or flexibility are just as important to many people – and so we need to measure all of these aspects to find out what quality work is!

The Review takes the ‘QuInnE’ model of job quality, developed by the Institute of Employment Research and others, which outlines six high level indicators of quality:

  • Wages – pay is an important indicator of quality of work, which includes not just wages but also other in work benefits including pensions. The amount someone earns relative to their peers can also affect one’s satisfaction with one’s wages; and there are potential problems with wage insecurity where flexible working is concerned – higher wages may be undermined by insecurity of working hours.
  • Employment quality – covers such things as job security and whether there is a culture of unpaid overtime.
  • Education and training – upskilling is a crucial way in which people can be supported to develop their skills at work in a meaningful way, and yet the amount of people receiving in-work training decreased from 10% to just 6% of the workforce between 2010 and 2016.
  • Working conditions – this covers the amount of control workers have over their work, and the amount of autonomy at work – the increasing shift to self-employment and platform based working suggests that there is increasing demand for more autonomy at work.
  • Work life balance – 75% of workers report that they are satisfied with their ability to set their own working hours, while 68% report that they are satisfied with their work-life balance. Certain groups believe flexible working is more important – almost twice as many women as men report that flexible working is ‘very important.
  • Consultative participation & collective representation – having a greater say in the organisational decisions which shape work can result in greater well-being at work.

Quality work as a series of trade-offs

This section rounds off by seeming to suggest that workers can’t have it all – if they want greater flexibility, they are probably going to have to settle for lower wages for example – but that it’s important to give people the freedom of opportunity to decide what trade-offs they want to make.

The rest of the report outlines the ‘state of the UK labour market’ before going on to outline more specific details of how we can make work better for more people’.

‘Good Work – A Summary, Part 2 – An overview of the UK Labour Market and Challenges to Future Work.

‘Good Work – A Summary, Part 3 – How to make work better for more people.

 

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An Introduction to Ethnicity

While the idea of race implies something fixed and biological, ethnicity is a source of identity which lies in society and culture. Ethnicity refers to a type of social identity related to ancestry (perceived or real) and cultural differences which become active in particular social contexts.

For comparative purposes you might like to read this post: an introduction to the concept of race for sociology students

The concept of ethnicity has a longer history than ‘race’ and is closely related to the concepts of ‘race’ and nation. Like nations, ethnic groups are ‘imagined communities’ whose existence depends on the self-identification of their members. Members of ethnic groups may see themselves as culturally distinct from other groups, and are seen, in turn, as different. In this sense, ethnic groups always co-exist with other ethnic groups.

Several characteristics may serve to distinguish ethnic groups, but most usual are language, a sense of shared history or ancestry, religion and styles of dress.

dress islamic identity.jpg

clothing can be an important aspect of ethnic identity to some people

Ethnicity is learned, there is nothing innate about it, it has to be actively passed down through the generations by the process of socialisation. It follows that for some people, ethnicity is a very important source of identity, for others it means nothing at all, and for some it only becomes important at certain points in their lives – maybe when they get married or during religious festivals, or maybe during a period of conflict in a country.

Problems with the concept of ethnicity

Majority ethnic groups are still ‘ethnic groups’. However, there is often a tendency to label the majority ethnic group, e.g. the ‘white-British’ group as non-ethnic, and all other minority ethnic groups as ‘ethnic minorities’. This results in the majority group regarding themselves as ‘the norm’ from which all other minority ethnic groups diverge.

There is also a tendency to oversimplify the concept of ethnicity – a good example of this is when job application forms ask for your ethnic identity (ironically to track equality of opportunity) and offer a limited range of categories such as Asian, African, Caribbean, White and so on, which fails to recognize that there are a number of different ethnic identities within each of these broader (misleading?) categories.

Sources use to write this post

Giddens and Sutton (2017) Sociology

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The Sociological Imagination by C. Wright Mills

Below is an extract from the “The Sociological imagination” by C. Wright Mills (1959) – I get students to read through this in lesson 1 of A-level sociology and simply answer the two questions below: 

“Nowadays men often feel that their private lives are a series of traps. They sense that within their everyday worlds, they cannot overcome their troubles, and in this feeling, they are often quite correct: What ordinary men are directly aware of and what they try to do are bounded by the private orbits in which they live; their visions and their powers are limited to the close-up scenes of job, family, neighbourhood; in other milieu, they move vicariously and remain spectators. And the more aware they become, however vaguely, of ambitions and of threats which transcend their immediate locales, the more trapped they seem to feel.

Underlying this sense of being trapped are seemingly impersonal changes in the very structure of continent-wide societies. The facts of contemporary history are also facts about the success and the failure of individual men and women. When a society is industrialized, a peasant becomes a worker; when economies rise or fall, a man is employed or unemployed. When wars happen, an insurance salesman becomes a rocket launcher; a store clerk, a radar man; a wife lives alone; a child grows up without a father. Neither the life of an individual nor the history of a society can be understood without understanding both.

It is not only information men need–in this Age of Fact, information often dominates their attention and overwhelms their capacities to assimilate it….What they need, and what they feel they need, is a quality of mind that will help them to use information and to develop reason in order to achieve lucid summations of what is going on in the world and of what may be happening within themselves. It is this quality, I am going to contend, that journalists and scholars, artists and publics, scientists and editors are coming to expect of what may be called the sociological imagination.

 

The first fruit of the sociological imagination–and the first lesson of the social science that embodies it–is the idea that the individual can understand his own experience and gauge his own fate only by locating himself within his period, that he can know his own chances in life only by becoming aware of those of all individuals in his circumstances. In many ways it is a terrible lesson; in many ways a magnificent one.

The sociological imagination enables its possessor to understand the larger historical scene in terms of its meaning for the life of a variety of individuals. It enables him to take into account how individuals, in the welter of their daily experience, often become falsely conscious of their social positions.

Consider marriage. Inside a marriage a man and a woman may experience personal troubles, but when the divorce rate during the first four years of marriage is 250 out of every 1,000 attempts, this is an indication of a structural issue having to do with the institutions of marriage and the family and other institutions that bear upon them.

Questions 

1) Why do men feel trapped?

2) What underlies this sense of being trapped?

3) What is the sociological imagination and what does it enable its possessor to do??

4) How might the sociological imagination help someone understand their personal trouble of going through a divorce?

 

 

 

 

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Is Google Sexist?

In a memo published in August 2017 a (male) Google engineer suggested that gender inequality in the technology industry in general and Google in particular is not due to sexism, but due largely to biological differences between men and women.

The memo was called “Google’s Ideological Echo Chamber” and the guy who wrote it was James Danmore. His short answer to the question ‘is Google sexist’ would be ‘no, in fact quite the opposite – Google subscribes to a leftist ideology and actually practices unfair authoritarian discrimination in favor of women over men’.

Google's Ideological Echo Chamber

This memo is a great example of a New Right view on gender inequality – basically that men are naturally (biologically and psychologically) better suited to the demanding, analytical type of jobs that exist necessarily?) in a highly competitive tech industry.

Google CEO Sundar Pichai responded by saying that the memo suggested harmful gender stereotypes and sacked Danmore. Needless to say this whole incident has provoked a strong response from both the left and the right.

All I’m doing for now in this post is to summarise the key points of the work, to make it more accessible to students, as it’s an excellent example of a New Right point of view on gender roles. At some point I’ll get round to adding in some of the responses and criticisms of Danmore’s work.

Google’s Ideological Echo Chamber – A Summary of the Main Points

(Full Text – Googles-Ideological-Echo-Chamber)

Danmore starts off the article by outlining (crudely) the difference between left and right ideologies, before suggesting that his list of possible biological causes of the gender gap (below) are ‘’non-biased”

 It’s also worth mentioning that Danmore does qualify a lot of what he says, stating more than once that he doesn’t deny that sexism exists, he also states that there is considerable ‘biological overlap’ between men and women, so there are plenty of women who are biologically predisposed (as he would put it) towards techy jobs and leadership.

I’ve cut out quite a lot of the text, so as to just include the main arguments and evidence (there’s not much evidence cited) – anything in normal text is word for word from the original, anything italicised are my additions.

 Possible non-bias causes of the gender gap in tech:

On average, men and women biologically differ in many ways. These differences aren’t just socially constructed because:

  • They’re universal across human cultures
  • They often have clear biological causes and links to prenatal testosterone
  • Biological males that were castrated at birth and raised as females often still identify and act like males
  • The underlying traits are highly heritable
  • They’re exactly what we would predict from an evolutionary psychology perspective

Note, I’m not saying that all men differ from all women in the following ways or that these differences are “just.” I’m simply stating that the distribution of preferences and abilities of men and women differ in part due to biological causes and that these differences may explain why we don’t see equal representation of women in tech and leadership.

Many of these differences are small and there’s significant overlap between men and women, so you can’t say anything about an individual given these population level distributions.

Danmore includes the following diagrams to make his point:

Googles Ideological Echo Chamber

Personality differences

Women, on average, have more (this heading is linked to a Wikipedia article on sex differences in psychology)

  • Openness directed towards feelings and aesthetics rather than ideas.
  • Women generally also have a stronger interest in people rather than things, relative to men (also interpreted as empathizing vs. systemizing).
  • These two differences in part explain why women relatively prefer jobs in social or artistic areas. More men may like coding because it requires systemizing.
  • Extraversion expressed as gregariousness rather than assertiveness. Also, higher agreeableness. This leads to women generally having a harder time negotiating salary, asking for raises, speaking up, and leading.
  • Neuroticism (higher anxiety, lower stress tolerance) – This may contribute to the lower number of women in high stress jobs.

In this section Danmore cites two journal articles (all other links are not academic so I haven’t included them) to back up his views:

Men’s higher drive for status

We always ask why we don’t see women in top leadership positions, but we never ask why we see so many men in these jobs.

These positions often require long, stressful hours that may not be worth it if you want a balanced and fulfilling life.

Status is the primary metric that men are judged on, pushing many men into these higher paying, less satisfying jobs for the status that they entail.

Note, the same forces that lead men into high pay/high stress jobs in tech and leadership cause men to take undesirable and dangerous jobs like coal mining, garbage collection, and firefighting, and suffer 93% of work-related deaths.

  • Danmore doesn’t cite any authoritative evidence to back up the views in this section. 

The rest of the document

There are four further sections in the document in which Danmore covers:

  • Non-discriminatory ways to reduce the gender gap – actually he makes some pretty sensible suggestions here IMO, such as making work more collaborative.
  • A section on the harm of Google’s biases
  • A section on ‘why we’re blind’ – i.e. why we’re blind to the apparent ‘objective truth’ of the fact that men are leaders because they’re less neurotic etc.
  • A final section of suggestions – in which he basically suggests that we should be more tolerant of conservative views and not discriminate in ‘authoritarian ways’.

 

 

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Top Ten ‘Big Questions’ for A-Level Sociology Students

One way of introducing sociology is to introduce some the ‘big questions’ that sociologists asks. Here are just a few of them…

  1. To what extent is the individual shaped by society?
  2. Is there such a thing as a social structure that constrains individual action, or is society nothing more than a figment of our imaginations?
  3. To what extent does our social class background affect our life chances?
  4. To what extent does our gender affect our life chances?
  5. To what extent does our ethnicity affect our life chances?
  6. What is the role of institutions in society – do they perform positive functions, or simply work in the interests of the powerful and against the powerless? (a related question here is why do our life chances vary by class, gender and ethnicity)
  7. How and why has British society changed over the last 50 years?
  8. What are the strengths and Limitations of macro-scale research in helping us to understand human action?
  9. What are the strengths and limitations of micro-scale research in helping us to understand human action?
  10. Is it possible to do value free social research and find out the ‘objective’ knowledge about society and the motives that lie behind social action?
  11. Is British Society today better than it was 400 years ago?

these questions run all the way through the AS and A-level sociology syllabuses – the idea of sociology is to develop a position on each of these questions, using a range of research-evidence, and be able to critically evaluate the validity etc. of the research evidence you have used to support your ‘position. 

And so it goes on….

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An Introduction to Sex, Gender and Gender Identity

The aim of this post is to provide a very brief introduction to the very complex topic of sex, gender and gender identity. 

Sex, gender and gender identity: basic definitions

  • Sex refers to the biological differences between men and women
  • Gender refers to the cultural differences between – it is to do with social norms surrounding masculinity and femininity.
  • Gender Identity is an individual’s own sense of their own gender. Their private sense of whether they feel masculine, feminine, both or neither, irrespective of their biological sex.

Biological differences between men and women

At first glance, there appears to be some fairly obvious biological differences between men and women – most obviously:

  • Reproductive organs – women have eggs and wombs and men produce sperm which fertilizes eggs – no need to go into the joys of exactly how this is done at this stage, suffice to say that in terms of the physical reproduction of the species men have a fairly easy time of it, women are the ones who have to carry the babies inside of them, and suffer the physical trauma of childbirth.
  • Women can lactate, men can’t, meaning women are the only sex who can produce food for their young offspring.
  • On average men are physically stronger, and can run faster than women.
  • Women typically cannot reproduce over the age of 50, while men can perform the reproductive function until much later on in their lives.
  • On average, women live longer than men
  • There are also hormonal differences – most obviously men have higher testosterone levels – which some scientific studies have linked to their higher levels of aggression.

Traditional Gender Roles and Norms

In the 1950s Functionalist sociologist Talcott Parsons argued that these biological differences meant there were ‘natural’ social roles that men and women should fulfill in society –

  • women should perform the expressive role, or caring and nurturing role.
  • men should perform the instrumental role, or the ‘breadwinner’ role – going out and earning money.

Such ideas formed part of the common sense’ way of viewing relations through much of the 20th century, with most people seeing maleness and masculinity and femaleness and femininity as a binary relationship – with men being seen as the opposite of women.

Criticisms of the male-female gender divide

Successive Feminists movements have spearheaded criticisms of traditional gender roles in society, arguing that stereotypical ideas about the roles men and women should occupy, and the norms they should subscribe to, have systematically disadvantaged women.

One of the key Feminist ideas is that gender is socially constructed, that gender roles and norms are not determined by biology, but are shaped by society, and some of the best evidence of this fact lies in the enormous variation in gender roles between different cultures – simply put, if you can find just a handful of examples of men and women occupying different roles, having different amounts of power, and acting differently in different cultures, then this disproves the theory that there is some kind of ‘natural’ link between biological sex and gender.

Feminists have effectively spearheaded campaigns for greater gender equality and diversity of gender roles, and the last century has seen a blurring of boundaries between male and female roles and norms surrounding masculinity and femininity.

And, of course, the fact that gender roles and norms have changed so much so rapidly adds further weight to the fact that gender is socially constructed rather than biologically determined.

Criticisms of the binary opposition between male/ masculine and female/ feminine

Contemporary Feminism has criticized the binary opposition between male and female, arguing that every aspect of sex and gender are in fact sliding scales rather than opposites – as illustrated by the Genderbread person:

Genderbread-Person.jpg

The genderbread person was developed by Sam Killerman, who argues that gender identity incorporates not only one’s biological sex, but also one’s sexuality, one’s sense of social-identity and how one feels about one’s self – gender identity is thus fluid and complex, rather than static and binary binary, as explored further by Sam Killerman in the TED talk below.

Hegemonic masculinity and femininity in contemporary society  

Of course just because we are more accepting of gender diversity in contemporary society, this doesn’t mean that the old stereotypes have disappeared –  biological males are still ‘called upon’ to act in a typically masculine way, and biological females are still called upon to act in typically feminine ways, which at least in part explains why there are still clear gender inequalities in society today.

 

 

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An Introduction to the Concept of ‘Race’ for Sociology Students

Race is one of the most complex concepts in sociology, not least because its supposedly ‘scientific’ basis has largely been rejected.

However the term ‘race’ is still widely used and many people believe we can still divide the world into biologically distinct ‘races’.

There have been numerous attempts by governments to establish categories of people based on skin colour or racial type. However these schemes have never been successful, with some identifying just four or five major categories and others as many as three dozen. Such disagreement over categorizations does not provide a reliable basis for social scientific research.

In many ancient civilizations, distinctions were often made between social groups on visible skin colour differences, usually between lighter and darker skin tones. However, before the modern period, it was more common for perceived distinctions to be based on tribal or kinship affiliations. These groups were numerous and the basis of their classification was relatively unconnected to modern ideas of face, with its biological or genetic connotations. Instead, classification rested on cultural similarity and group membership.

Theories of racial difference based on supposedly scientific methods were devised in Europe the late 19th and early 20th centuries, and used to justify the emerging social order – in which European nations came to control overseas territories through colonialism.

Count Joseph Arthur de Gobineau (1816 -82), sometimes referred to as the ‘father of modern racism’ proposed the existence of just three races – white (Caucasian), black (Negroid) and Yellow (Mongoloid).

According to Gobineau, the white race possessed superior intelligence, morality and willpower, and these properties explained their technical, economic and political superiority, while the black race were the least capable race – possessing the lowest intelligence, an animal nature, and a lack of morality, which served to justify their position in the American society as slaves.

Such wild generalizations have today been discredited, but they have been extremely influential, forming part of Nazi ideology in 1930s and 40s Germany, as well as the ideology of racist groups such as the Ku Klux Klan in the USA.

There is a link here to social action theory as the use of the concept of race illustrates W.I Thomas’ famous theorem that ‘when men define situations as real, then they are real in their consequences’. In other words, despite the fact that there is no objective basis for racial differences, because people in power have believed these differences to exist, they have perpetuated social orders which have systematically disadvantaged (in the case of European-colonial history) non-white people.

Many biologists report that there are no clear-cut races, just a range of physical variations in the human species. Differences in physical type arise from population inbreeding which varies according to the degree of contact between different groups. The genetic diversity within populations that share visible physical traits (such as skin colour) is just as great as the genetic diversity between populations.

As a result of such findings, the scientific community has virtually abandoned the concept of race. UNESCO recognized these findings in its 1978 Declaration of Race and Racial Prejudice:

‘All human beings belong to a single species and are descended from a common stock. They are born equal in dignity and rights and all form an integral part of humanity’.

Some sociologists argue that race is nothing more than an ideological construct and should therefore be abandoned, because simply using the term perpetuates the very idea that there are significant racial differences between humans

Others disagree, claiming that ‘race’ still has meaning for many people and cannot be ignored. In historical terms ‘race’ has certainly been an extremely important concept used by powerful groups as part of their strategies of domination, as with the slave system in American history, and the contemporary situation of African Americans today cannot be understood without reference to the slave trade, racial segregation and racial ideologies – thus we still need to use and ‘deal with’ the term ‘race.

Students of sociology will come across the term ‘race’ in many text books, but often in inverted commas to reflect the problems with the concept discussed below.

Racialization

The process through which understandings of race are used to classify individuals or groups of people is called ‘racialization’. Historically, some groups of people came to be labelled as distinct on the basis of naturally occurring physical features. From the fifteenth century onwards, as Europeans came into contact with people from different regions of the world, attempts were made to explain perceived differences. Non-European populations were racialized in opposition to the European ‘white race’.

In some instances, this racialization developed into institutions backed up by legal structures, such as the slave system in the United States, or the Apartheid system in South Africa.

More commonly, however, social institutions have become racialized in a de facto manner – in other words, informal white prejudice and discrimination have resulted in a situation in which institutions have come to be dominated by white people, with non-white people being under-represented.

In racialized systems, the life chances of individuals are shaped by their position in that system – in European societies, for example, you would expect white people to have greater life chances in relation to education and work (for example), while non-white people would suffer reduced life chances .

It follows that racialization (and the ideas of ‘race’ that inform the process) is an importance factor in the reproduction of power and inequality in a society.

The concept of racialization might be a powerful tool for challenging racist ideology: because it essentially names the process for what it is – a purely subjective process used by the powerful to maintain positions of privilege, rather than the social divisions being created being based on any really existing significant objective differences  between individuals.

Related Posts

What is Racism?

Sources used to write this post include:

Giddens and Sutton (2017) Sociology

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Postmodernism – An Introduction for A-level Sociology Students

Postmodernism is an intellectual movement that became popular in the 1980s, and the ideas associated with it can be seen as a response to the social changes occurring with the shift from modernity to postmodernity.

Postmodernists claim that the classic social thinkers took their inspiration from the idea that history has a shape – it ‘goes somewhere’ and is progressive. Jean Francois Lyotard argues that this idea has now collapsed and there are no longer any ‘metanarratives’ – overall conceptions of history or society – that make any sense.

The postmodern world is not destined, as Marx hoped, to be a harmonious socialist one, and thus Marxism (along with Functionalism and Feminism) and its promise of a better future are no longer relevant to the more complex and less predictable post-modern age.

Similarly, Lyotard argues that scientific research is no longer done purely to uncover knowledge to make the world a better place (like the original Enlightenment thinkers thought was the case), but simply to empower those with the money who fund it. This could explain why we have nuclear weapons but no cure for cancer.

Lyotard Postmodern Condition.png

Jean-Francois Lyotard: A Postmodern Frenchman, or a French Postmodernist?

Moreover, it seems that the pursuit of scientific knowledge (and especially its application) has in some ways made the world a riskier, more dangerous place – nuclear weapons and global warming are both the products of science, for example.

Democracy has spread around the world, but in many developed political systems voters are apathetic and politicians reviled. In short, for many postmodern theorists, the grand project of modernity has run into the sand.

For Jean Baudrillard (1929 – 2007), the post-modern age is a world where people respond to media images rather than to real persons or places. Thus when Diana, princes of Wales, died in 1997, there was an enormous outpouring of grief all over the world. But were people mourning a real person? Princes Diana existed for most people only through the mass media, and her death was presented like an event in a soap opera rather than an event in real life. Separating out reality from representation has become impossible when all that exists is ‘hyperreality – the mixing of the two.

Zygmunt Bauman (1992) offers a helpful distinction between two ways of thinking about the postmodern. Do we need a sociology of postmodernity, or a postmodern sociology?

The first view accepts that the social world has moved rapidly in a postmodern direction. The enormous growth and spread of the mass media, new information technologies, the more fluid movement of people across the world and the development of multicultural societies – all of these mean that we no longer live in a modern world, but in a postmodern world. However, on this view there is no compelling reason to think that sociology cannot describe, understand and explain the emerging postmodern world.

The second view suggests that the type of sociology which successfully analysed the modern world of capitalism, industrialization, and nation states is no longer capable of dealing with the de-centred, pluralistic, media-saturated, globalizing postmodern world. In short, we need a postmodern sociology for a postmodern world. However, it remains unclear what such a sociology would look like.

Bauman accepts that the modern project originating in the European Enlightenment of rationally shaping society no longer makes sense, at leas not in the way thought possible by Comte, Marx or other classical theorists. However, since the turn of the century, Bauman increasingly moved away from the term ‘postmodern’ – which he says has become corrupted by too much diverse usage – and now describes our age as one of ‘liquid modernity‘, reflecting the fact that it is in constant flux and uncertainty in spite of all attempts to impose order and stability on the world.

Many sociologists reject the thesis that we are entering a postmodern age altogether, and one staunch critic of postmodern theory is Jurgen Habermas (1983), who sees modernity as an ‘incomplete project’. Instead of consigning modernity to the dustbin of history, we should be extending it, pushing for more democracy, more freedom and more rational policy. Habermas argues that Postmodernists are essentially pessimists and defeatists.

Whichever view you think more plausible, it is the case that postmodern analyses have lost ground to the theory of globalisation, which has become the dominant theoretical framework for understanding the direction of social change in the 21st century.

Sources 

Giddens and Sutton (2017) Sociology

 

 

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An Introduction to Culture, Socialisation, and Social Norms

In sociology, it is essential to understand the social context in which human behaviour takes place – and this involves understanding the culture in which social action occurs.

Culture is a very broad concept which encompasses the norms, values, customs, traditions, habits, skills, knowledge, beliefs and the whole way of life of a group of people.

To give two specific, and classic definitions of the term culture:

  • Ralph Linton (1945) defined the culture of a society as ‘the way of life of its members: the collection of ideas and habits which they learn, share and transmit from generation to generation’.
  • Clyde Kluckhohn (1951) described culture as a ‘design for living’ held by the members of a particular society.

To a large degree, culture determines how members of society think and feel: it directs their actions and defines their outlook on life. Culture defines accepted ways of behaving for members of society.

In order to survive, any newborn infant must learn the accepted ways of behaving in a society, it must learn that society’s culture, a process known as socialisation, which sociologists tend to split into two ‘phases’ – primary and secondary.

Primary socialisation takes place in the family: the child learns many social rules simply by copying its parents, and responding to their approval or disapproval of ‘good’ and ‘bad’ behaviour, which is taught through a variety of rewards and punishments, such as simple praise, treats, smacking and the naughty step.

Secondary socialisation takes place outside of the family in other social institutions including the education system, the peer group, the media, religion and the work place.

Many (though not all) sociologists argue that the norms and values we pick up through these institutions encourage us to act in certain ways, and discourage us from acting in others, and, just as importantly,  they ‘frame’ our worldviews in subtle ways – encouraging us value certain things that other cultures might think have no value, or discouraging us to ask certain ‘critical questions’.

Just some of the ways these institutions might subtly shape our behaviour include:

  • Religion – reinforces basic moral codes such as ‘not killing’, ‘not stealing’, and the value of monogamous relationships, sanctioned by marriage.
  • Education – teaches us the value of tolerating people with different views from ourselves, the value of teamwork and the idea of the individual work ethic – ‘if I work hard I can achieve’.
  • The Media – through advertising, it teaches us that high levels of consumption of products are normal, and through the over-representation of skinny, beautiful, young people, it encourages to spend time and money to look good.

Socialisation is not simply a process in which individuals just passively accept the values of a society – children and adults actively reflect on whether they should accept them, and some choose to actively engage in ‘mainstream’ culture, others just go along with it, and still other reject these values, but those who reject mainstream culture are very much in a minority, while most of us go along with mainstream norms and values most of the time. 

Socialisation and the process of learning social norms

Part of the socialisation process involves learning the specific norms, or informal rules which govern behaviour in particular situations.

There are literally hundreds (and probably thousands) of social norms which govern how people act in specific places and at specific times – the most obvious ones being dress codes, ways of speaking, ways of interacting with others, body language, and the general demeanor appropriate to specific situations.

Social norms are most obvious at key events in the life course such as weddings and funerals, with their obvious rituals (which would be out of place in most other situations) and codes of dress, but they also exist in day to day life – there is a ‘general norm’ that we should wear clothes in public, we are generally expected to turn up to school and work on time, to not push in if there’s a queue in a shop, and we are also generally expected to politely ignore strangers in public places and on public transport (1) (2)

Norms also vary depending on the characteristics of the person – for example, whether you are male or female, or young or old, but more of that later.

Cross cultural differences in social norms

One of the best ways of illustrating just how many social norms we have in Britain is to look at examples of other cultures which are far removed from our own – such as traditional tribes who still exist in parts of South America, Oceania, Asia, and Africa. By reflecting on how different the norms are in these other cultures, we get a good idea of just how many aspects of our day to day lives we take for granted.

For example the San Bushmen of Southern Africa have very different norms surrounding material culture – because they are hunter gatherers, they own very few items, and traditionally their economy was a gift economy, rather than a money economy. Thus, in this culture, money has no value, and ‘stuff’ is simply a burden.

San Bushmen.jpg

The San Bushmen (although their traditional culture is much changed from 100 years ago)

The Sanema, who live in the rain forests of Brazil and Venezuela, have a radically different belief system in which dreams are as important as ‘waking reality’:

The Sanema believe in a dream world inhabited by the spirits of everything around them. The trees, the animals, the rocks, the water all have a spirit. Some can be used to heal, others to bring disaster and death.

Four out of five Sanema men are practicing shamans and it is in their dreams that the spirits visit them. The main work of  the shamen is to dispel the evil spirits they believe cause illnesses, and to do this they induce a trance by taking powerful hallucinogenic drug, sakona, made from the dried sap of the virola tree.

In Sanema culture, it is perfectly usual for these shamans to be off their faces on hallucinogenic drugs, ‘warding off evil spirits’ in the middle of the day, while other people go about their more ‘ordinary’ (by our standards) business of cooking, washing, cleaning, or just chillaxing (typically in hammocks).

Sanema Tribe

Bruce Parry and a Sanema shaman off their faces on hallucinogens – it’s normal there!

There are many other examples that could be used to illustrate the extreme variations in social norms across cultures – such as differences in how cultures treat children, or differences in gender norms, the point is that none of these behaviours are determined by biology or physical environment – we’re all pretty much the same as a biological species – these cultural differences are simply to do with social traditions, passed down by socialisation.

Historical differences in social norms 

Social norms also change over time – the most obvious being how norms surrounding childhood and gender have changed, as well as norms surrounding expenditure and consumption.

The fact that social norms change over time again shows that biological differences cannot explain historical variations in human behaviour, and also raises the important point that individuals have the freedom to change the norms they are born into.

Related Posts 

(1) To illustrate just now many social norms govern our lives, you might like to read this post: how social norms structure your day (forthcoming post)

(2) Some sociologists (and sociologicalish commentators) are very critical of many of our social norms – suggesting variously that they are just not necessary, too restrictive of individual freedom, or even downright harmful – for more on this – see this post: Social Norms – the unnecessary and the harmful (forthcoming post).

Sources used to write this post

Haralambos and Holborn (2013): Sociology Themes and Perspectives

 

 

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