Neo-tribes based on chosen lifestyles and reflect the shift to postmodern society,
Neo-tribes are associations of consumer groups (such as consumers of dance music) who come together in particular settings where they express similar tastes. They do not form coherent groups outside those settings, but when they are together they are influenced by one another.
For example, at a rave, a person will assume the identity of a ‘raver’ for the night, and then resume an ordinary, mundane identity as a ‘worker’ Monday to Friday.
From subcultures to neo-tribes
Andy Bennett (1996) argued the term subculture is not useful for describing groups of young people who share similar tastes in style and music. Clearly defined youth subcultures do not exist among contemporary youth. Instead, young people assume identities in particular settings.
“There is very little evidence that even the most committed groups of youth stylists are in any way as ‘coherent’ or ‘fixed’ as the term ‘subculture’ implies. On the contrary, it seems to me that so-called youth ‘subcultures’ are prime examples of the shifting cultural affiliations which characterize late modern consumer societies”. (1)
There is more cross-filtration of styles these days, so that styles overlap with many different so-called ‘subcultures’. For example, dance music might sample aspects of reggae or even heavy metal, which leads to a breakdown in style-boundaries and more people identifying with each other from different style groups, which challenges the idea that there are distinct ‘subcultures’.
Dance music especially breaks down these barriers and encourages consumers to pick and mix from a range of styles and so youth identities are more multi-faceted than they once might have been.
The concept of ‘clubbing’ also challenges the idea of fixed, style based identities. Most ‘clubbers’ go to several different types of club night, and so ‘clubbing’ is a series of fragmented temporal experiences in which clubbers move through different crowds on different nights and assume different identities depending on the venue and theme of the night.
During modernity, identities tended to be based on ‘ways of life’ which were handed down through the generations based on locality, class and gender.
Bennet (1999) believes that contemporary identities in postmodern societies are based on ‘lifestyles’ rather than ‘ways of life’. Lifestyles and the identities expressed through them are chosen based on consumer preferences.
Neo-tribes are an example of such lifestyle choices, and people to move between different neo-tribes, expressing different identities.
People might choose a neo-tribe that reflects their social class background but this isn’t something shaped by society, it is a choice.
For example, Bennet argued that fans of the band Oasis adopt an image consisting of training shoes, football shirts and duffle coats, which is designed to illustrate their collective sense of a working class identity, however these individuals are not working class, this is a purely chosen, constructed and temporary identity.
This material is mainly relevant to the culture and identity module, normally taught in the first year of A-level sociology.
The concept of neo-tribe is derived from the work of Michael Maffesoli (1996) who coined the term ‘tribus’ (or tribes) to describe contemporary youth.
The government added 2 additional options for ethnicity in the 2021 Census: ‘Roma’ and ‘Black British Other’. However, they rejected 53 out of 55 requests for more categories!
Following the 2011 Census the government engaged in a consultation in 2015 with several organisations and individuals over whether they needed to increase the number of ethnic categories. Based on feedback from 46 organisations and 86 individuals, most of them found the existing categories acceptable, but they received 55 requests for more categories.
Some of the examples of requests for new categories included Somali, Jewish and Kashmiri.
Of these 55 requests, only two changes were judged to be worth including in the 2021 Census:
Including a separate ‘ROMA’ tick box under the ‘White’ category, rather than putting this together with GYPSY.
Including an ‘other’ BLACK category besides AFRICAN and CARIBBEAN, and allowing respondents to write in details.
The board of Census experts made their decisions to accept the above two changes for new ethnic categories. They used a standard evaluation procedure in which each category was scored the basis of:
User need: was there a need to gather more specific information (easily) on the specific new categories of ethnic group?
Lack of alternative information: was there no where else information could be found out about the suggested new group? (This was the case with the Roma category).
Clarity of data collection: some categories were rejected because of too much overlap. For example, offering a ‘Kashmiri’ option would probably reduce the number of people ticking ‘Indian’ or ‘Pakistan’. Some of the people who ticked ‘Kashmiri’ would identify as BOTH Pakistani and Kashmiri, or both Indian and Kashmiri.
Consistency with the 2011 Census: taking reliability and comparison with previous data into account.
In many cases the Census team decided ethnicity information was already covered already in the ‘religion’ section or by simply allowing respondents to write in their responses would yield sufficient information compared to a fresh tick box.
Current list of ethnicity options in the 2021 UK Census…
Analysis of changes to ethnicity options: disrespecting Diversity?
It feels a little like The Census paid lip service to this process rather than seriously considering increasing the number of available categories.
They sampled less than 100 individuals outside of formal organisations. Of these, 40% of respondents requested a change, which is significant, and then rejected most of these.
I imagine the reason for this was practical: once you start increasing the number of ethnicity options the form rapidly becomes impractically long. For example, if you included ‘Somali’, it seems a bit unfair to not include every African subcategory, which would mean dozens more boxes, and so on for every other suggestion.
Having an ethnicity section with possibly 200 options would simply be off putting. Allowing respondents to write in their responses means they’ve already covered the ‘inclusion’ aspect.
In terms of data analysis, when the Census is online, it’s easy enough to filter by written-in responses.
Having said that it is worth noting that the Census probably tells us very little about identity. It doesn’t tell us what ethnicity means to the respondents.
Signposting and sources
This material is mainly relevant to the Culture and Identity option, usually taught in the first year of A-level sociology.
modern subcultures have strong boundaries and high commitment, postmodern subcultures are weaker and more fragmented.
Modern subcultures have a strong sense of group identity with high degrees of commitment demanded from members, and a homogenous style with the subculture providing the main source of identity for members. They also tend to be political, social class aligned, anti-media and are seen as authentic by members.
Postmodern subcultures on the other hand have a fragmented sense of identity, require low commitment, have a mixture of styles and and are are only one of multiple identity sources for members. They tend to be apolitical, pro-media and focused mainly on style and image only.
Strong boundary maintenance
Weak boundary maintenance
Subculture provides main identity
Multiple stylistic identities
High degree of commitment
Low degree of commitment
Membership perceived as permanent
Transient attachment expressed
Low rates of subcultural mobility
High rates of subcultural mobility
Stress on beliefs and values
Fascination with style and image
Political gesture of resistance
Positive attitude towards media
Self-perception as authentic
Celebration of the inauthentic
These two ideal types of subculture were developed by Muggleton (2000) to test whether subcultures today were more postmodern.
Muggleton carried out interviews with 57 young people (43 male, 14 female) who were approached in pubs or clubs in Preston and Brighton between 1993 and 1995 to determine whether we have modern or postmodern subcultures today.
Postmodern 1990s Subcultures
Muggleton found that most young people were concerned to express their individuality and did not express strong affiliation to any one subculture.
They saw belonging to a subculture as primarily about expressing their individuality, how they were different from other people within that apparent subculture – standing out was important.
Those interviewed also fitted more to postmodern subcultures in terms of their ideas of the self, commitment and appearance, but many had a long term commitment. to their subcultures and there was little evidence of switching between them.
People did change identities over time, but this wasn’t constant switching, rather gradually transformative.
Muggleton found little evidence of there being divisions between subcultures, mainly because the boundaries had become blurred, and all seemed to share a resistance to the mainstream, although they were generally apolitical.
The media was also an important part of constructing the subculture.
Overall subcultures in the 1990s were best characterised as neo-tribes.
Not purely postmodern
Subcultures were modern, but still seen as authentic sources of identity by members, they weren’t just seen as being about artificial play!
Authentic Identity was seen in terms of the way one felt, rather than dress, so one was a true punk if they felt like one, it wasn’t about dress or appearance.
Subcultures were liminal: in between social identities – they were collective expressions and celebrations of individualism.
Standing out was important, but so was fitting in.
Sampling was poor – there was no attempt to identify committed members.
Blackman (2005) examines Muggleton’s own data and believes he underplays the extent to which there is modernist regulation and rules of subcultures and he also failed to see the political agenda adopted by much of rave culture against the 1996 Criminal Justice Act.
Signposting and Sources
This material is usually taught as part of the Culture and Identity option within A-level sociology.
Part of this post was adapted from Haralambos and Holborn (2013) Sociology Themes and Perspectives 8th Edition.
Muggleton, D (2000) Inside Subculture: The Meaning of Style
Club cultures in the early 1990s are maybe best characterised as neo-tribes.
Sarah Thornton’s (1995) Club Cultures (1) is an ethnographic study of dance clubs and rave culture in the early to mid 1990s.
She found that club cultures were a youth culture, being mainly made of up 15-24 year olds and made the following observations.
Clubbers came together at specific dance events, but didn’t have much in common or hang out outside of these events (my interpretation: they can thus be classified as a neo-tribe).
Club cultures are not oppositional to a mainstream culture
Class was not important in shaping club cultures.
Thornton’s work seems to criticise the view of Centre of for Contemporary Cultural Studies.
Her theoretical starting point was Bourdieu, from whom she developed the concept of subcultural capital.
The most important aspect of club culture is the way it is used by young people to differentiate themselves from each other, and they do this through subcultural capital.
Subcultural capital refers to the appropriate, fashionable tastes and styles and local knowledges specific subcultures
Fashionable haircuts, well assembled record collections, being ‘in the know’, using current slang and dancing the latest dance styles like a natural are all examples of ‘subcultural capital’.
The main purpose of subcultural capital is to provide status to the clubber. Demonstration of good taste, or ‘hipness’ provides clubbers with social approval and recognition.
Subcultural capital can be used to gain economic capital. For example, D.J.s can make a living out of performing the correct sets.
Clubbers have to keep up with the latest trends to maintain their subcultural capital: they need to know which clubs are in fashion and go to them to keep up appearance and avoid being too associated with mainstream popular music.
Tastes within subcultures change over time, and members needed to keep up. For example, by the end of 1989 the media had made Acid House too popular, and acid house fans came to be seen as sheep, mindlessly following media trends as dismissed as ‘mindless ravers’ or ‘acid teds’ and were looked down upon.
Class, age, gender and clubbing
Clubbers were predominately young, mainly 15-24, and this was the major broad identifier of clubbers.
Thornton saw club culture as part of youth-transition where people could have freedom to experiment and grow up away from their parents.
There was no clear link between class and clubbers, and club culture was more of a rebellious way of escaping the class conferred onto the individual by their parents.
Gender was an important social division. Although more girls went clubbing than boys, the masculine was afforded more status in club culture than the feminine, and clubbers tended to look down on working-class girls especially, who they saw as the most likely to like mainstream music and fashion.
Thus dance cultures looked down on working class girls especially, thus dance culture didn’t challenge ruling class structures.
Thornton provides a useful criticism of the CCCS, as her work suggests that dance cultures had little to do with resisting mainstream culture.
She identified that dance culture was linked to youth transitions to adulthood.
She found that dance cultures varied and changed rapidly and that clubbers tended to change with them, suggesting dance culture was more of a postmodern neo-tribe rather than a modern subculture.
One criticism of Thornton is that she didn’t draw out links between the rise of dance cultures and wider social changes such as the shift to postmodernity.
This material is mainly relevant to the culture and identity module, usually taught in the first year of A-level sociology.
(1) Thornton (1995) Club Cultures: Music, Media and Subcultural Capital
Youth is a state of transition between childhood and adulthood, and in most formal definitions the period of youth spans from later childhood to early adulthood.
The United Nations (1) defines youth as the ‘period of transition from the dependence of childhood to adulthood’s independence’, setting the age of youth for statistical purposes at the ages of 15-24.
Youth: a flexible concept
The U.N. recognises that the concept of ‘youth’ is a social construct, because the ages typically associated with this period of life vary considerably from society to society. In Nigeria for example youth refers to people aged 18-35, while Brazil uses the same age ranged as the OECD (3) which places the ages for youth at 15-29.
Youth and puberty
Youth is partly associated with puberty in all societies.
Puberty is a universal biological phenomenon involving rapid physical growth, increasing strength and endurance, the development of reproductive organs, hormonal changes and more body hair.
The age at which puberty happens varies from individual to individual, but typically in the early teenage years between 10-11 and 15-17 years of age for girls and 11-12 and 16-17 for boys.
Taking the definition of youth from the U.N. above we can see that the period of youth includes the very end of puberty but mainly occurs after puberty.
Youth and Adolescence
Youth is not the same as adolescence. The World Health Organisation defines adolescence as the period between adulthood and childhood ranging from 10-19 years of age.
Hence youth includes around half of this period but also extends several years beyond it.
The transitions of youth
There are several transitions commonly associated with the 10-15 year period from late childhood to full adulthood including, but not limited to…
Moving out of full time compulsory education which ends at 16 years of age in most Western societies.
Further and then higher education or training. Typically this means two years of further education and then three years of higher.
Low paid (relatively), varied, and maybe intermittent employment and maybe further training. (Moving into one’s first full time professional job role is often seen as one of the key indicators of having moved into full adult status.)
Living with parents or in shared rental accommodation.
Entering into one’s first long (or medium) term relationship, possible co-habitation.
Starting out on finding oneself and one’s true identity.
Importance of Leisure and lifestyle: going out, partying, music, festivals, travel.
Higher prevalence of deviance and drug usage.
The meanings people attach to the term ‘youth’ also vary considerably, and it can have both positive connotations such as youth being a time of energy and vigour and negative connotations such as moral panics over youth gangs and knife crime.
Individual variations in youth transitions
The fact that ‘youth’ spans such a long period of time: 15-29 years if we accept the time frame of the OECD, means we should not be surprised that there is a lot of variety in when young people transition to adulthood.
Some will go straight through Further and Higher Education and end up in their final, stable careers by age 23, or younger if they opt for higher apprenticeship route, others will take much longer because of time taken out before and after graduating.
It isn’t just individual factors that affect the age of transition to adulthood, social class and gender can have an impact too. For example middle class youth are more able to buy their own houses earlier than working class youth because of parental support, and moving into your own home is one indicator of transitioning to adulthood.
Transitions to adulthood in traditional societies
In some societies the transition from childhood to adulthood is clearly marked out through ceremonies.
For example the Nandi people of Kenya circumcise boys to mark them out as transitioning to men, and for the Bemba people of Namibia a girls transition to womanhood happens when she has her first period, when she is washed ceremonially and then isolated indoors for a period before she is allowed to return to the community as a woman.
The concept of youth: conclusions
Youth is much more of a social construct than other concepts associated with the sociology of age such as childhood and adolescence because it mostly encompasses young adulthood.
Hence this is a very broad concept spanning a very broad age range and we can expect there to be huge variation in the experience of youth both across and within societies.
Besides the semi-formal definitions of the concept provided by agencies such as the United Nations the term is commonly used informally, applied to young people of various ages often younger than 15, so when we use the term sociologically it is important to keep in mind and be clear about what ages we are referring to!
youth transitions in postmodern society are full of uncertain choices and constrained by government policy and social class.
The transition from youth to adulthood in modern Britain is a very gradual one, spanning a period from 15-24 years of age if we take the United Nations definition of youth and longer in some cases.
This gradual transition isn’t natural, it is a consequence of structural changes associated with the shift to postmodern society and government policies which have largely been a reaction to these societal level changes.
There are three main transitions associated with moving from youth to adulthood (following Furlong and Cartmel, 2006):
The transition from school to work: from compulsory GCSEs through further and possibly higher education or training to full time paid employment.
The domestic transition away from one’s parental family to establishing a primary relationship with one’s own intimate partner
The housing transition which involves moving from the family home with parents to living alone or with a partner.
The period of youth involves a lot more than just these three transitions, it is also a time when one ‘grows into’ or finds one’s own independent self-identity.
Transitions to adulthood involve young people in making more choices today than ever, but these are not necessarily entirely free choices for every individual: social class, gender, ethnicity, sexuality and locality can all limit opportunities and make certain transitional choices for some impractical, undesirable or just impossible.
(For example if you fail your GCSES, you probably aren’t going to be able to choose to become a medical doctor!)
Structural changes affecting youth transitions
Economic globalisation since the 1970s have resulted in significant changes in the labour market in the UK. Cheaper labour costs abroad have resulted in manufacturing moving to countries such as China and India and meant a decline in the number of factory based jobs for life which many working class youth could have expected to go into.
Instead of jobs for life young people today are facing the prospect of being portfolio workers, and can expect to change jobs many times throughout their working lives, and this is especially true early on in their careers. There are also many more informal gig economy jobs in the service sector which are often filed by young people.
As a result the experience of work today is a lot more fragmented and a lot more uncertain than it used to be.
Cultural globalisation has meant a huge increase in both the amount of knowledge, information and leisure products purely for entertainment and the consequences of this are that young people have to make choices about what knowledge and products to consume.
In education this means relying on advice to make choices at 16, 18 and 21 if you pursue the ‘standard’ school, further education, then higher education route, but even that is a choice, alongside vocational options such as apprenticeships.
Outside of education there is a fantastic array of leisure options available… music, style, travel, who to watch and follow on instagram, gaming, sports, so many options to shape one’s identity and also possible routes to making money if you position yourself well.
The cost of housing in the UK is also a factor, not helped by the recent cost of living crisis and increase in interest rates: this makes the prospect of living at home with one’s parents a financial necessity for many which can shape the experience of youth.
Finally there is the continuous reality of global crises: if it’s not a financial crisis (2008, 2022-23) it’s a pandemic, if it’s not a pandemic, it’s a war or wars, and even without any of these we’ve got an ongoing environmental crisis, and on top of this a political elite in Britain that seems incapable of managing these problems.
All of these structural changes mean that young people today face a lot of more uncertainty but also a lot more choice, and (following Giddens) they have to be a lot more reflexive: finding one’s way in the transition from youth to adulthood involves a lot of reflection, constructing one’s identity becomes a constant project which requires constant effort.
Society also becomes a lot more individualised. Experts (for example careers advisors) and ‘self proclaimed not really experts’ on YouTube may well offer advice but it’s on the individual to make their own choices in life. There are no clear, objective right decisions that anyone can make, individuals have to decide what is right for them, and this means we are operating under conditions of risk and uncertainty (following Ulrich Beck).
In the postmodern transition from youth to adulthood you are free (within reason) to choose your life course and identity, but you also have to accept the consequences of bad decisions that you make: that’s on you!
Government policy and youth transitions
Government policies today prevent youth from transitioning into adulthood before 18 and encourage youth to stay in a state of semi-dependence on their parents until their early 20s:
full time education in school is compulsory until the age of 16, and while 17-18 year olds are allowed to move into full-time work this has to have a training element and so will have a very low wage, which will be insufficient for independent living.
Free provision of education for 16-19 year olds encourages youth to stay on in full-time further education until 18.
The national minimum wage is teired by age so that you cannot earn the full wage until you are 23.
Under 25s are entitled to less Universal Credit than those aged 25 or over: £290 a month compared to £370.
The transition to adulthood as a journey
In the 1960s and 1970s young people boarded trains which set off for different destinations, largely shaped by social class. and gender, and once on these trains they had limited opportunities to change direction because they were already on set tracks.
However, while on these trains the occupants tended to bond with people similar to them (based on class and gender) and could work together to change change the direction they were going if they didn’t like the look of the destination.
The above analogy describes typical youth transitions in the 1960s and 1970s: predictable career paths and class solidarity, but these days are now gone.
Today’s youth get into cars and the driver of the car has no set destination because there are no rails, there is a complex road network and the drivers. of these cars (which are more diverse than the old trains) have to make decisions as they go which will affect the final destination.
Moreover, not all cars are equal: some are much better designed to stay the course, others will crash off and end up with shorter journeys than initially intended.
The later analogy describes the more diverse and uncertain routes young people must negotiate between further education, higher education, and early stage careers.
The school to work transition
Further education has greatly expanded since the 1970s and it is now expected that everyone will stay in education or training until at least age 18, and government policy encourages this by setting the minimum wage for under 18s at a very low rate and making it extremely difficult for under 18s to claim welfare benefits, and also by making education free until the age of 19 (allowing for some flexibility for those who fail GCSEs).
There is also a lot more choice of courses available in 16-19 education, with vocational options such as apprenticeships having expanded greatly over the last two decades, since the year 2000.
On top of this around 50% of the UK population now go on to higher education, usually in university, financed through student loans for both maintenance and fees.
This means the normal time of educational transition to full time paid employment last up until at least age 21 in most cases, longer given that it can take several months to find a graduate job, and indeed many graduates have. to settle for non-graduate jobs for a year or more before finding their way in to a career of their choice.
While there is a lot of diversity within this transition, social class and gender still have an impact.
The domestic and housing transition
This is rarely a straightforward process of people moving out once and into their own home or with their partner for the first time.
It is increasingly common for young people to move into intermediary households in young adulthood, such as student accommodation, and then move back in with their parents when they graduate for a year or more, and then possibly into their own first home as independent adults.
There has been a recent trend towards young adults staying living with their parents for longer. At age 23 60% of males and 44% of females still live with their parents.
Some couples will also go through the unfortunate experience of breaking up and then having to move back into the parental home afterwards.
None of this is helped by the increase in property prices. Only 41% of 18-35 year olds own their own homes today, down from 67% in the 1990s.
Conclusions and evaluations
There is a lot more diversity within youth transitions to adulthood in postmodern society, which reflects the increase in choices that young people have to make.
However this isn’t simply a matter of individuals freely choosing… following late modernism they HAVE to make choices under conditions of uncertainty: they are compelled to choose and face the consequences of any bad decisions they make.
Class and gender continue to shape transitions, especially social class: the middle classes have a lot more opportunities than the working classes.
Government policies also encourage youth to remain in state of at least semi-dependence on their parents until well into their 20s.
This material is mainly relevant to the culture and identity module, normally taught as part of the first yer in A-level sociology.
the idea that there is a ‘war’ between younger and older generations is a media construction.
Media narratives suggest that we are in the middle of a generational war: Baby Boomers are selfish sociopaths who are steeling the future of younger generations and Millennials are narcissistic ‘WOKE’ obsessed snowflakes.
For example, at the end end of 2019 Great Thunberg was named Time magazine’s person of the year, with the magazine calling her a ‘standard bearer in a generational battle’, but this characterisation of there being a ‘battle’ between the generations around climate change isn’t born out by the statistics: old people are just as likely to be concerned about the environment as young people.
However, while there is a growing separation between the young and the old, with resentments mainly concerning economic, housing and health inequalities, the generations share more in common than you might think and there is still a decent degree of intergenerational goodwill.
This goodwill was demonstrated during the response of the younger generations to the Covid Pandemic: the vast majority obeyed lockdown rules to protect the older generations, despite the fact that the chance of young people dying from the virus was very small.
In order to truly understand the differences in attitudes between generations, and thus the extent of any generational divide, we need to distinguish between three things:
Period effects – the effect of big events on populations
Lifecycle effects – how people change as they age
Cohort effects – genuine differences between the generations.
It is only the later where we can really talk about there being ‘generational differences’, and in fact quite a lot of differences in attitude are down to the first two above.
For example, concern about terrorism tends to increase for ALL age groups when there is large scale terrorist attack (a period effect); people tend to get fatter as they get older (a Lifecyle effect); but church attendance is truly effected by cohort: older generations are more likely to attend church than younger generations.
To examine differences between generations without taking into account period effects and lifestyle effects is to ignore two thirds of ‘age based’ analysis!
IF we take the time to do ‘synthetic cohort analysis’ we find the differences between generations are not as drastic as the media would have us believe.
A Moral Panic?
The narrative of young people against old people makes for good headlines, but it is almost certainly something of a moral panic, and we must remember that:
Young people have always been seen as a problem by older people, with moral panics about youth being recurring.
Young people have always been more likely to adopt the latest fads and fashions.
Older people have been stereotyped for decades, usually negatively
It follows that media criticism of young people as snowflakes or WOKE obsessed, and the ‘OK Boomer’ refrain from the young are nothing new: the old have always criticized the young, and the young have always seen the old as reactionary.
But there are generational differences
Having said this, there are differences in opportunities between the generations: young people do face economic, housing and health challenges that their parents and grandparents did not and do not, as a general rule.
And while the exact boundaries between the classic generational dividing lines are blurred (Baby Boomer, Gen X, Millennials and Gen Z) there are meaningful differences in life-experience between them.
However, it is NOT helpful to characterise the generations as being at war, what we need to improve the lives of Gen Z, for example, is more intergenerational goodwill of the sort we saw during the Covid Pandemic.
Sources and Signposting
This post was summarised from Bobby Duffy (2021) The Generation Divide: We We Can’t Agree and Why we Should.
ageing is socially constructed, to an extent, shaped by social norms, the age structure and generation experiences.
Ageing is a universal biological fact of life: everyone goes through physical transformations as they age: from conception to birth followed by a period of physical and mental maturation during childhood, puberty and adulthood, and finally physical decline leading towards eventual death.
While biological age and ageing are obviously linked to both physical and psychological development sociologists argue that age and ageing cannot be fully understood without looking at their social contexts: the process of ageing and the normal ‘stages of life’ which are associated with different ages vary enormously historically and across societies, and so many aspects of age are a social construction.
Norms surrounding childhood in Britain have, for example, changed drastically over the last 200 years. In the early 19th century it was regarded as acceptable for young people to do paid work, meaning that people as young as 12 were already taking on adult roles. Today people are legally required to be in school until at least 16 and most won’t take on full adult working responsibilities until finishing tertiary (university) education at 21 or 22 years of age.
Attitudes towards older people vary across cultures too: in China and Japan elderly people are treated with respect, regarded as having wisdom and worth listening to and seeking advice from. In Western European societies older people are generally seen as non-productive, dependent and out-of-touch, and the very elderly are often hidden away in care-homes, forgotten about by society.
Hence to an extent age and the life course are socially constructed, but we have to also recognise the role that biological or physical ageing plays too!
Factors affecting the experience of ageing
There are at least three broad factors which affect the experience of ageing:
Biology and the physical ageing process
The society we live in and the way society interprets the ageing process (and socially constructs age)
The age structure of a society
The historical period into which we are born (our age cohort or generation).
Biology and ageing
Although sociologists prefer to focus on how things such as ‘age’ and ‘childhood’ are not purely biological but rather socially constructed, we can’t deny that biological age has an affect on the experience of ageing.
As mentioned above human beings start off totally dependent on older human beings and as they get very old their physical and mental capacities deteriorate.
Society and the social construction of age
Most societies have norms surrounding what people of different biological ages should be doing at those ages, and these norms are often codified into laws. For example, people aged below 5 in Britain don’t have to go to school, people aged 5-16 MUST go to school (or be home-school), and from 16-18 laws change to allow the transition to adulthood at 18.
It is well established within sociology that childhood is socially constructed, but also at the other end of the life course the pension age is too because it is society that determines that (for younger people today) this starts at age 68, it is currently (for people retiring today) set at 65.
Most people would also recognise that there is a typical ‘life course’ in their society, or a broad set of norms which outline what it is socially acceptable for people to be doing at certain ages between childhood and retirement. For example in Britain we broadly have a transition from childhood (dependency) to adolescence (becoming adult 16-21) to early adulthood (21-35 dating/ renting/ finding career) to midlife (35-65: established career, home owning, children) to retirement (65+ children left home, stopped working).
Granted, the boundaries above do vary a lot, and MANY people diverge from this model, but the life course above is still possibly recognisable as ‘typical’.
The age structure of a population refers to the relative size of age groups within a population at any one point in time.
The age structure is affected by the fertility rate, life expectancy and migration.
Age structures vary enormously between countries. In Germany, for example, which has a low birth rate and high life expectancy there are relatively few young people, a high proportion of 50-60 year olds and then numbers gradually tail off after 60, but still large numbers of people aged 70 plus.
In Nigeria, there are many more younger people and relatively fewer people aged over 70 because of higher birth rates but lower life expectancy.
The typical age someone can be expected to live can have a huge impact on the social construction of age, especially the retirement age.
Age Cohort or Generation
A group born in the same historical period is known as an age cohort, and they will grow up and age experiencing similar historical events which will influence their experience of ageing.
There are no objective dividing lines between one age cohort and the next, it depends how the observer decides how to split the ages up: in schools we refer to each year as cohorts, but other research models may look at the experiences of people born in the same decades, grouping all people born in the 1970s together, all born in the 1980s together and so on.
One of the best known popular versions of this is the distinction between Baby Boomers, Generation X and so on…
Baby Boomers: 1946 – 1964
Generation X: 1965 – 1980
Millennials: 1981 – 1996
Generation Z: 1997 – 2012
Generation Alpha 2013 – present day.
You’ll have to decide for yourself whether the groupings above make sense, but the general idea is that the historical period you are born in will shape how you experience the life course.
One way this seems to be true is that Baby Boomers had an easier time buying their houses when they were cheap and are able to retire comfortably, Generation Z face much more job insecurity, global warming as more of a threat, unaffordable housing and a later retirement age (yes kids, life is getting worse, sorry!).
Life course and life cycle
Life Cycle refers to the stages of life which people usually pass through as they age, from birth to death.
There are different models of ‘life cycles’ but one example, applicable to the United Kingdom, is from Bradley (1996) who Identified five stages of life:
Childhood – when children are in a state of innocence and dependency, protected by their parents and (in the UK today) and by law. This is the stage of life when children are learning norms, values, skills and knowledge to prepare them for adulthood, but are free from many of the responsibilities of adulthood.
Adolescence – a time of transition from childhood to adulthood which takes place from puberty onwards. During this time adolescents are given more freedoms and responsibilities as they get older. This is also typically regarded as a time of experimentation, exploration of identities, and maybe deviance and rebellion.
Young adulthood – the period from leaving the adult home to full adulthood, so possibly from early 20s to mid 30s: the time when young adults find their first jobs, and find and move in with their long term partners.
Mid-life – There is disagreement over when mid-life begins: somewhere between 35 and 50. This is the ‘churn’ of adulthood – full time careers, dependent and then maybe independent children.
Old age – Formal retirement age, when you can claim your pension, is 65 in the UK, so that is the formal ‘marker’ of old age. In Britain it is the end of work which marks this point in life.
Jane Plicher argues that the concept of the life cycle is problematic because it implies that there are set stages through which all people pass.
In reality, however, there is no universal life cycle through which everyone passes, and thus Plicher prefers to use the term Life Course.
The concept of the life course recognises that in most societies there is a ‘socially defined timetable’ of behaviours generally seen as normal and acceptable for people of certain ages in that specific society, but also that people may experience their own individual life course in very different ways.
You can probably already see the above scheme of five stages is problematic because there is so much blurring between the boundaries of the stages, especially in the boundary between young adulthood and mid-life as there is so much variation in when people get established in their careers and have children.
There is also considerable variation in experience within each age-group. For example, many people retire well before 65 and some continue working into their 70s.
Ethnicity and gender can also affect people’s experiences as they age, another reason why ‘life course’ is preferable to ‘life cycle’.
The De-standardisation of the Life Course
Postmodernists argue that there is so much variation in the ‘Life Course’ today that it no longer makes any sense to talk of a life course anymore.
Not only is there huge variation in the age at which people transition from adolescence to a state of independence in young adulthood, the age at which people have their first children spans 20 years, and many choose not to have children at all. Similarly it is hard to see when young adulthood becomes mid-life: many would argue 50 is still relatively young, and incredible diversity within all of these age brackets and especially in the way people experience retirement.
Maybe there is no longer a social norm of the life course, just a series of individual choices around how to age?
This material is mainly relevant to the culture and identity module within A-level sociology, but also partly relevant to families and households.
Ernest Gellner argued that the nations, the nation state and nationalism had their origins in modernity, more specifically in the French and industrial revolutions of the late 18th century.
The origins of Nationalism and the feelings associated with it are thus not rooted in human nature, but in the social processes which emerged with the particular historical period of modernity.
Industrialisation led to rapid economic growth based on a complex division of labour and this required a large scale rational system to organise and direct it, hence the emergence of the nation state and its bureaucratic systems.
The modern state requires large numbers of people to interact with strangers, which in turn requires them to have some sense of connectedness to each other. Mass education based on an official language taught in schools helped to form the basis for this sense of unity on a large scale.
Evaluations of Gellner
Gellner’s theory is a functionalist one, and it tends to understate the extent to which modern education systems create divisions and inequalities.
His theory doesn’t explain the persistence of nationalism: national identity extends far beyond schooling and the kind of nationalisms we see in political conflicts can’t be explained by people simply having been taught in the same language at school several years or decades earlier.
The longing some people have for national identity precedes the industrial revolution by a long way, and there have been ethnic communities which resemble nations in previous periods: such as Jewish communities which stretch back 2000 years. The Palestinian minority in Israel also claim their origins in a longer historical time frame and that they have been displaced by the creation of the modern Israeli state in 1948.
Formal nation state identities in Europe are not recognised by some ethnic minority groups in many countries. A good example of this is the Basque language and identity which spans the border of France and Spain. Basques claim a unique identity of their own, neither French nor Spanish.
Nationalism is still an important part of identity
Malesevic (2019) reminds us that nationalism still has very broad appeal and argues that it is a ‘grounded ideology’ that has mass appeal and has been part of the political projects of peoples across the political spectrum: from liberals to socialists throughout modernity.
When globalisation theory started to become popular in the 1990s some predicted that the nation state and nationalism would decline in importance.
For example, Giddens thought that the Nation State was too big to deal with local problems and too small to deal with global problems. He also thought we would see an increasing importance for a global, cosmopolitan identity.
However as examples such as Brexit, Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, and the pro-American rhetoric of Donald Trump and Jo Biden show us, ideas of nationalism and national identity have remained a persistent part of modern society!
This material is relevant to the Culture and Identity aspect of the A-level sociology specification.
Many national identities do not have formal nation states with full autonomy: examples include the Welsh, the Basques, the Kurds and the Palestinians.
Nations without states consist of well-defined ethnic groups who identify together as a nation but lack an independent political community and autonomous self-governing body.
Nations without states exist within existing nation states, and sometimes across more than one already existing state. Examples include separatist movements in Israel/ Palestine and the Basque country in France and Spain.
Guibernau (1999) identifies two basic types of nations without states depending on the relationship the ethnic group has with the state or states in which it exists.
‘Nations’ recognised by nation states
An established nation state may accept the cultural differences of its ethnic minority populations and allow them some freedom to manage these. For example Scotland and Wales within Britain have the freedom to manage some of their own institutions.
Scotland has its own parliament and independent legal and education system. It also has the power to set a different rate of Income tax to England. Wales also has its own parliament and education system, and the welsh language is prominent in public institutions (formal documents are published in both English and Welsh), although Wales is not quite as devolved as Scotland.
Similarly the Basque country and Catalonia are both recognised as ‘autonomous communities’ within Spain and they have their own parliaments with some degree of autonomy.
But in both the cases of Britain and Spain most of the political power is located in the main national governments in London and Madrid: military power is controlled by these, for example, and not devolved!
Other nations without states have higher degrees of autonomy with regional bodies which have the power to make major political decisions without being fully independent. Examples here include Quebec in Canada and Flanders in Belgium.
In all of the above cases, these ‘nations without states’ have nationalist movements which advocate for full autonomy.
There is a possibility that Scotland will become fully independent in the future: there is a lot of support for the Scottish National Party who campaign for full independence, and although they lost their referendum on independence in 2014 they may well win another one in the future.
Nations not recognised by nation states
There are other examples where ‘nations’ are not formally recognised and the formal nation state in which they exist may use force to suppress the minority group.
Examples such situations include:
Palestinians in Israel
Tibetans in China
Kurds in parts of Turkey, Syria, Iran and Iraq.
The capacity for these groups to build their own formal nation states depends on many factors, but mainly the relative power of the nation state(s) within which they exist and any other nation states elsewhere in the world they may form alliances with.
The Kurds for example have a ‘Parliament in Exile’ in Brussels, and also a ‘safe haven’ in Northern Iraq which was established after the Gulf War of 1990-91 and consolidated after the overthrow of Saddam Hussein’s regime in 2003, so you might say they are on their way to establishing nationhood.
The Dalai Lama is the center of the movement for Tibetan Independence from China, based in Dharamshala in India, but the Tibetans have much less chance of having their autonomy recognised given the immense power of China, even though Tibet was once a distinct country before China took it over in 1951.
This material should be relevant to anyone studying the nationalism and identity aspect of the culture and identity module, taught as part of most A-level sociology specifications.
Giddens and Sutton (2021) Sociology 9th edition
Montserrat Guibernau (1999) Nations Without States: Political Communities in a Global Age.