Contemporary Sociology: The poisoning of Sergei and Yulia Skripal by the Russian State

The recent ‘russian spy poisoning’ is relevant to many areas of the A-level sociology specification, such as state-crime, globalisation and even consensus and conflict theory.

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The recent poisoning of Sergei and Yulia Skripal, allegedly by the Russian State, is relevant to many areas of the A-level sociology specification.

Details of the poisoning 

On 4th March 2018 Sergei Skripal, 66, and his daughter Yulia, 33 were poisoned by a nerve agent called Novichok. The pair were found collapsed on a bench in Salisbury in the late afternoon, following what seems to have been a pretty ordinary ‘afternoon of leisure’ involving a trip to a pub and lunch in Zizzi’s. Four weeks later, they remain in a critical condition. 

Sergie Skripal.png
Sergie and Yulia Skripal

Much of the news has focused on just how deadly the nerve agent ‘Novichok’ is – basically a tiny, practically invisible amount was sufficient to render two people seriously ill, and even the police officer who first attended Sergei and Yulia Skripal was taken seriously ill just from secondary contact with what must have been trace elements of the nerve agent.

Pretty much everywhere the pair had visited that afternoon was shut down, and any vehicles that they had been in contact with were quarantined while they were cleared of any trace of the nerve agent and total of 250 counter-terrorism officers are at work investigating the case.

Theresa May has accused the Russian State as being complicit in this attempted murder, which seems plausible as Colonel Sergie Skripal is a retired Russian military intelligence officer who was convicted of passing the identities of Russian intelligence agents working undercover in Europe to the UK’s Secret Intelligence Service, MI6. He was jailed for 13 years by Russia in 2006. In July 2010, he was one of four prisoners released by Moscow in exchange for 10 Russian spies arrested by the FBI. He was later flown to the UK. It seems that the poisoning is the Russian State passing its ‘final sentence’ on this poor guy.

HOWEVER, Russia strongly denies these allegations, so this might just be a hypothetical state-crime!

The international reaction to the poisoning has also been dramatic: to date 26 countries have expelled Russian diplomats, and Russia, which of course denies any involvement in the poisoning, has done the same as a counter-response.

Links to the A-level sociology specification

sociological perspectives russia.png

Probably the most obvious link to the A-level sociology specification is that this is a primary example of a state crime – it seems extremely likely that the poisoning was carried out by an agent of the Russian state – The UK condemned Russia at the United Nations Human Rights Council as being in breach of international law and the UK’s national sovereignty.

Secondly, this case study reminds of us that nation states are still among the most powerful actors in the world – nation states are the only institutions which can ‘legitimately’ manufacture chemical weapons such as Novichock.

Thirdly, you could use this as an example of how ‘consensus’ and ‘conflict’ exist side by side. he existence of global values allows various nations to show ‘solidarity’ against Russia and express ‘value consensus’ but it also reminds us that there are conflicting interests in the world.

Fourthly, media coverage aside, it’s hardly a post-modern event is it! Having said that, we don’t know for certain who did the poisoning, so all of this could be a good example of ‘hypperreality’.

There’s lots of other links you could make across various modules – for example, the way the media has dealt with the event (it’s very news worthy!) and the ‘panic’ surrounding it, it fits with our ‘risk conscious society’ very nicely!

Sources 

Spy poisoning: Highest amount of nerve agent was on door (BBC News)

UK slam Russia over spy poisoning (Washington Post)

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White Working Class Men

Professor Green’s fronted an excellent recent documentary on the lives of 6 white working class men for Channel Four, which aired in January 2018.

In an interview with John Snow (about the documentary), Professor Green (who is himself white working class) says the show was born out the fact that only 10% of white working class men will go to university, and this show sets out to explore some of the problems 6 of these men face in just ‘getting by’ in the world today.

It’s well worth a watch: in the first episode he follows one young man whose parents both died when he was 17, and documents how he’s effectively slipped through the welfare net; another guy whose living with his nan, and is something of an entrepreneur, and a guy who has an offer from Cambridge, and has basically re-crafted his entire image so he looks and sounds ‘posh’.

Possibly the most depressing moment is when Professor Green attends a Britain First Rally.

Britain First

He says of the experience that he didn’t want to give them a voice, but how else can you understand the white working classes without at least listening to them…. at one point he says in the documentary that maybe the reason for the growing popularity of Britain First is that ‘whiteness’ is all working class men have left, and thus they cling to it?

From a methods point of view, this is also an excellent example of Interpretivist style unstructured interviews, boarding on participant observation.

The Partition of India

The August 1947 partition of India divided the newly independent country into two new states: A Hindu-majority India and a Muslim-majority Pakistan. The later was itself divided into western and eastern sections, more than 1000 miles apart: present day Pakistan and Bangladesh.

Partition-India

In the view of most historians, the partition of India was the central event in 20th century South Asian history. It precipitated one of the largest migrations in human history, as Muslims fled to Pakistan, and Hindus and Sikhs to India. Up to 15 million people were uprooted, and this was accompanied by a vast outbreak of sectarian violence, as communities that had coexisted peacefully for hundreds of years massacred and killed each other. More than a million people are thought to have been killed.

The partition also marked the departure of the British from the subcontinent after 300 years in India

What led Britain to leave India?

India’s 30 year-long nationalist struggle had made it increasingly difficult and expensive to run, and after World War Two Britain no longer had the resources to control it. Indeed, Britain’s Labour government, elected in 1945, was firmly in favour of the idea of Indian self-rule. In early 1947, prime minister Clement Attlee appointed Louis Mountbatten as viceroy, instructing him: “Keep India united if you can. If not, save something from the wreck. In any case, get Britain out.”

Louis Mounbatten

Mountbatten proceeded at a speed that is now generally deemed to have been disastrous, but from a narrow British perspective he was fairly successful, the British marched out of the country with only seven casualties.

Why was partitioning India deemed to be necessary?

As a result of Muslim conquests dating back to the 11th century, a fifth of India’s population was Muslim at the time of partition. And thought Muslims and Hindus had been living side by side peacefully for centuries, the two groups became heavily polarised in the early 20th century. Prominent Muslims, feeling that the Indian National Congress, the main nationalist movement, was largely Hindu, formed the Muslim league in 1906. From the 1920s there were outbreaks of communal violence; and in 1940, the League, fearing the prospect of a Hindu-dominated India, committed itself to a separate Muslim homeland.

 

Muslim League India
The Muslim League of India

 

Congress initially opposed this idea, and negotiations between Congress leader Jawahatlal Nehru and Mohammed Ali Jinnah of the Muslim League became ever more poisonous. In 1946, a British mission proposed a loose federal structure, with three autonomous groups of provinces, but this was rejected and Mountbatten wen on to convince the major players that partition was the only option.

How was India divided?

A British barrister, Cyril Radcliffe, was given little more than a month of remake the map of India. His two boundary commissions, for Punjab and Bengal, had to draw a line through the two most divided provinces. He sat with four judges on each – two Muslim, two non-Muslim – but they split equally on contentious issues, leaving him the casting vote. The final borders were not agreed until two days after Independence. Few were happy. And very large numbers of people were left on the wrong side of the new line.

Why was partition so violent?

This question has been the subject of decades of historical debate. Indian nationalists generally blame Jinnah’s intransigence: the only India he’d accept would be a ‘divided India, or a destroyed India’, and the Direct Action Day he declared in August 1946 led to rioting and killing in Calcutta. Local politicians also stirred up violent prejudice, while landlords and businessmen paid and trained gangs of militias. ‘Divide and rule’ had ramped up tensions between different communities and the swift withdrawal of the forces of law and order left a dangerous vacuum. From August 1946 on, there were regular massacres across the country, which in turn sparked others, building to a climax in the summer of 1947.

Where was the violence worst?

It was particularly intense in Bengal and worst in Punjab, where there were massacres, forced conversions, mass abductions and rapes.”Gangs of killers set villages aflame, hacking to death men and children and the aged, while carrying off young women to be raped,” writes Nisid Hajari in Midnight’s Furies, his history of the partition of India. “Some British soldiers and journalists who had witnessed the Nazi death camps claimed the partition’s brutalities were worse: pregnant women had their breasts cut off and babies hacked out of their bellies; infants were found roasted on spits.”

The Punjab was effectively ethnically cleansed, of Hindus and Sikhs in the west, and of Muslims in the east. Refugee trains were ambushed and sent on to the border full of the murdered and the maimed. Karachi, Pakistan’s first capital, was nearly half Hindu before partition, by the end of the decade, almost all its Hindus had fled. Some 200 000 Muslims were forced out of Delhi.

Those who suffered the most: the women

During the partition, women were abducted, raped and mutilated in vast numbers. Victims were tattooed with phrases such as ‘Jai Hind’ (victory to India) and ‘Pakistan Zindabad’ (long live Pakistan). Stories abound of men killing their own wives and children in order to spare them the shame of possible capture and rape.

The Indian government has estimated that 83 000 women were abducted in 1947, mostly from the vast columns of refugees known as Kafilas. Some 50 000 were Muslims and the rest Hindus and Sikhs. The larger number of Muslim victims is attributed to the actions of organised Sikh jathas, or armed bands. Rather than being abandoned, writes Yasmin Khan in The Great Partition, “tens of thousands of women were kept in the ‘other’ country, as permanent hostages, captives, or forced wives; they became simply known as ‘the abducted women’.”

In the eight-year period after partition, 30 000 women were eventually repatriated to the other country. More than 20 000 Muslim women were sent to Pakistan, and more than 9 000 Hindus and Sikhs to India. The rest never returned to their families.

What were the long-term effects of Partition of India?

India and Pakistan have existed in a state of permanent hostility as a result – they’ve fought three declared wars, two of them over Kashmir, the only Muslim-majority area to stay inside India. A decades-long insurgency there has left thousands dead. Today, a large Muslim minority of some 170 million people remains in India; a far smaller Hindu minority of around three million lives in Pakistan. Both groups face persecution.

India Pakistan violence

Pakistan, as the smaller and weaker country, has been dominated by its army and intelligence services in large part due to the perceived threat of India. The Pakistan military has used its jihadi proxies to attack India, while India has in recent years elected intolerant Hindu nationalist leaders.

The wounds of 1947 have never healed.

Relevance of this case-study to A-level Sociology

  • Can be used to illustrate how religion can be a source of conflict.
  • Can be used to illustrate how conflict ‘retards’ development.
  • Can be used to illustrate the relevant of feminist theory (probably difference feminism) – women seemed to have suffered more than men due to the partition.
  • Can be used to illustrate the ‘ethnocentric nature’ the British history curriculum – most students will know nothing about the partition of India.

Sources

The Week, 12 August 2017.

Nisid Hajari: Midnight’s Furies

Yasmin Khan: The Great Partition

 

 

Ethnicity and Inequality in the UK 2017

The issue of why there are inequalities by ethnicity in the UK is a topic which runs all the way through the A level sociology syllabus. This post simply presents some sources which provide information on the extent of inequality in life chances by ethnicity in contemporary Britain.

As it stands, in 2017 it seems that:

  • ethnic minorities are less likely to be offered places at Britain’s top universities
  • ethnic minorities have higher rates of unemployment
  • ethnic minorities are more likely to be arrested, charged, prosecuted and imprisoned.

Ethnic minorities are less likely to be offered places at Britain’s top universities

Russel Group universities are less likely to provide ethnic minorities with offers of a place, even when grades and ‘facilitating subjects’ have been controlled for.

Univeristy ethnicity.jpg

White British students have the highest chance of being offered a place, with 52% of candidates receiving offers, while Black African students have the lowest chance, with only 35% of candidates receiving offers of places. (source: Manchester University Policy Blog, 2015) also see: (source: UCU research paper).

Oxford University has also been accused of being biased against Ethnic Minorities: according to Full Fact – in 2013 the Guardian revealed that only 17.2 percent of ethnic minority applicants were admitted to Oxford University, compared to 25.7 per cent of white applicants, and earlier this year (2017) MP David Lammy argued that this issue has not yet been addressed.

NB – It’s worth mentioning that the Russel Group universities, and Oxford University explain this away by saying that ethnic minority students are more likely to apply for more demanding courses for which they don’t necessarily have the grades, hence their higher rejection rate.

Ethnic minorities have higher unemployment rates

Ethnic Minorities are almost twice as likely to be unemployed compared to white people (source: ONS employment data)

In January – March 2017 the unemployment rate was 4.1% for white people compared to 7.9% for people from a BAME (Black, Asian, and Minority Ethnic) background.

unemployment ethnicity UK 2017

There are significant variations by both specific ethnic and group and age: for example, Bangladeshi and Pakistani Britons have the highest unemployment rates relative to other ethnicity in all ages.

unemployment ethnicity age UK 2017.png

This difference is at least partially explained by the relatively high levels of unemployment among Pakistani and Bangladeshi females, which is significantly higher than male unemployment, a trend on found in these two ethnic groups.

ethnicity unemployment gender UK.png

Ethnic minorities are more likely to be charged for comparable offences

According to a recent study headed by David Lammy MP, ethnic minorities are more likely than white people to be arrested by the police, to be prosecuted by the CPS, and to be sentenced and jailed by judges and juries.

A Guardian article outlining the findings of the report (link above) notes that

‘Disproportional outcomes were particularly noticeable in certain categories of offences. For every 100 white women handed custodial sentences at crown courts for drug offences, the report found, 227 black women were sentenced to custody. For black men, the figure is 141 for every 100 white men.’

NB – It’s particularly interesting to note the disparities in sentencing for black women, suggesting a truly massive ‘intersectionality effect’

Race gender crime statistics UK

Comments/ Questions 

This is just a brief ‘update post’ providing links to some recent statistical evidence on ethnic inequalities across a range of topics in A-level sociology.

You should always question the VALIDITY of these statistics – the drug offences stats, for example, do not tell us the severity of offence. It may just be that all of those black women were caught smuggling drugs whereas white women are more likely to be caught ‘merely’ dealing them… not inconceivable!

Also, even if you accept that the stats have at least some validity, you’ll need to dig even deeper to deeper to find out why these inequalities in life chances by ethnicity still exist!

Related Posts

Ethnic inequalities in social mobility 

Criminal Justice, Ethnicity and Racism

 

Social Class – An Introduction to the Concept

Social Class refers to divisions in society based on economic and social status. People in the same social class typically share a similar level of wealth, educational achievement, type of job and income.

Social Class is one of the most important concepts within AS and A Level Sociology because of the relationship between social class background and life chances (or lack of them) and the debate over the extent to which social class background determines an individual’s life chances.

Many people in the United Kingdom have an idea of what social class is, but Sociologists define the concept in more precise terms. Below I look at ‘common conceptions’ of social class before moving on to look at two ways of measuring social class – The Registrar General’s Social Class Scale and The New British Class Survey

Common Conceptions of Social Class

The classic formulation of social class in Britain is to see Britain as being divided into three classes: working, middle and upper class. Social Class, is however, open to change, and most agree that the last two decades have seen the emergence of an underclass, with little prospect of full time employment. These four terms are in common usage and we have to start somewhere, so here are some starting definitions which you should aim to move beyond.

Social Class

Definition/ Defining Features

Working class

Those individuals engaged in manual work, often having low levels of educational achievement. The classic, traditional working class jobs include heavy labouring and factory based work.

Middle class

Those individuals engaged in non-manual work, often having higher levels of educational achievement. Classic middle class jobs include everything from doctors and lawyers to clerical workers.

Upper class

The elite class that controls the majority of wealth and power in British society.

A recent 2015 survey shows that 60% of people in Britain identify as working class, which suggests that these broad ‘class divisions’ have meaning for people.

The disadvantages of common conceptions of social class is that they lack clarity – although most of us have heard of social class and have some idea of what it means to be a member of a social class, exactly what constitutes middle or working class, for example, is subjective and varies from person to person.

This is precisely why socologists have striven to develop more objective classifications of social class – and below I look at two of these – The registrar General’s Social Class Scale and the New British Class Survey

The Registrar General’s Social Class Scale (1911)

Sociologists use more nuanced categories of social class, than the common sense conceptions above. The way in which sociologists group people into social classes has changed considerably over time, mainly because of the changing occupational structure. To illustrate this just two examples are provided below.

For most of the 20th Century social class was measured using the Registrar General’s Scale. When this was originally conceived in 1911 it was based on the alleged standing in the community of the different occupational groups.

Occupations were divided into the following:

  • Manual occupations – those that involve a fair amount of physical effort. These are also known as blue collar occupations and are seen as working class.

  • Non-manual occupations – those that involve more mental effort, such as professions and office work. These are also known as white collar occupations and are seen as middle class.

Registrar General’s Scale: 1911-Present Day 

Social Class

Examples of occupation

I Professional and managerial

Accountant, doctor

II Intermediate

Teacher, farmer

III Non-manual – skilled occupations

Police officer, sales representative

III Manual – skilled occupations

Electrician, bus driver

IV Semi-skilled manual

Farm worker, postman/woman

V Unskilled manual

Labourer, cleaner

Strengths and Limitations of the Registrar General’s Social Class Scale 

The problems with the above scale is that the occupational structure in the UK has moved on – there are many more unskilled non manual jobs – in call-centres for example, and there is no room for the long-term or intermittently unemployed in the above scale either.

However, even today the majority of occupations fit pretty unambiguously into one of the categories, and six categories broadly organised along educational achievement and income is very easy to manage if we wish to make comparisons, and if we stick to these six simple categories, there does appear to be a historical relationship between these social class groupings and life chances – especially where life expectancy is concerned.

health and social class inequality

The New British Class Survey 

The New British Class Survey is an attempt to update the Registrar General’s Social Class Scale and make it more relevant to contemporary Britain.

Social Class UK

The survey was conducted by the BBC, in conjunction with The London School of Economics, recently conducted an online survey of 161 000 people. The survey measured three aspects of social class – economic capital, cultural capital and social capital.

Economic Capital – Measured by a combination of household income, household savings and the value of house owned.

Cultural Capital – The level of engagement in ‘highbrow’ and ’emerging’ culture. The amount of ‘Highbrow’ culture people consumed was measured by scoring how engaged they were with classical music, attending stately homes and so on. How much ’emerging’ cultural capital people owned was measured by scoring engagement with video games, a preference for hip-hop etc.

Social Capital – Measured using the average status or importance of people’s social contacts and the number of occupations people said they knew.

According to this survey, there are now 7 new classes in the United Kingdom…..

  1. Elite (6% of the population) – The most privileged class in Great Britain who have high levels of all three capitals. Their high amount of economic capital sets them apart from everyone else.

    Social Class Britain

  2. Established Middle Class (25% of the population) Members of this class have high levels of all three capitals although not as high as the Elite. They are a gregarious and culturally engaged class.

  3. Technical Middle Class (6%) – A new, small class with high economic capital but seem less culturally engaged. They have relatively few social contacts and so are less socially engaged.

  4. New Affluent Workers (14%) – This class has medium levels of economic capital and higher levels of cultural and social capital. They are a young and active group.

  5. Emergent Service Workers (15%) This new class has low economic capital but has high levels of ‘emerging’ cultural capital and high social capital. This group are young and often found in urban areas.

  6. Traditional Working Class (19%) – This class scores low on all forms of the three capitals although they are not the poorest group. The average age of this class is older than the others.

  7. Precariat (15%) – The most deprived class of all with low levels of economic, cultural and social capital. The everyday lives of members of this class are precarious.

    Social Class Sociology

Strengths and Limitations of the New British Class Survey 

This seems to be a clear improvement on previous class scales – it seems to describe social class divisions as they actually are in the UK (you might say it’s a more valid measurement of social class) – and the inclusion of  ‘lowest’ class – the precariat reflects the important fact that many people are in low-paid work are in poverty because of the precarious nature of their flexible and/ or part-time employment. It also includes more indicators (or aspects of class) and reflects the importance of property ownership which only typically comes with age.

However, because it includes more aspects of class and because it is more subjective, it is simply harder to ‘get your head around’ – the divisions aren’t as clear cut, and it’s more difficult to make comparisons – of which there are few available because this is such a new measurement. Still, these aren’t necessarily weaknesses if that’s the way social class really does manifest itself in reality in contemporary Britain.

Related Posts – Mostly on ‘why class matters’

Social Class, Income and Wealth Inequalities

The Reproduction of the Social Class Inequality in Education

Three ways in which family life varies by social class

Discussion Question: To what extent do you believe someone’s social class background affects their life chances in Modern Britain today?

Research Task – Use this link to do the survey and find out more about your class background (you could either enter your parents‘ details, if you know them, or think about where you think you will be in 5-10 years time and enter those details.

British Class Survey

 

Further Sources