Sociology in the News (2)

Application of sociology to a few recent news events.

1. The Death of the Duke of Westminster

Following the death of his father, the new Duke of Westminster has inherited a £9 bn fortune – making him the third richest person in Britain. This is clearly relevant to sociology in lots of ways –

Firstly, it’s a stark reminder of the staggering extent of inequality between the very wealthiest and the rest of us. If you want to fire up a sense of injustice – keep in mind that this wealth is unearned, this guy did absolutely nothing to earn it and thus in  no way deserves it by any stretch of anyone’s imagination. He now owns ‘half of London’ – people with properties in Mayfair will now be paying ‘ground rent’ to the Duke – just because there’s a law in place which says they have to pay him ground rent. (What was that Chambliss said about capitalism, private property and the law?)

Secondly, it’s a reminder that the law effectively applies differently to the rich compared to the rest of us – If the duke had  paid the standard 40% UK inheritance tax on his new unearned wealth, that would have given the British tax coffers a £3.5 bn boost – but instead the wealth is held in various trust funds, so the new Duke in effect paid 0% tax.

Thirdly, there’s the not insignificant fact of his sisters – the male Duke was third born, he get’s the wealth, not his two older sisters.

2. Reflections on Neoliberalism

Martin Jacque’s article on the death of neoliberalism is effectively a round up of recent news events and a convincing analysis of how they suggest that neoliberalism is no longer hegemonic (even citing Gramsci) and is actually in its death throws. (A brief introduction to neoliberalism here).

The author argues that there is a growing number of people and organisations actively seeking political solutions to neoliberal hypergloablism – that is the free movement of capital around the world. He cites the following (some are quite obvious examples others less so) as evidence –

  • Most importantly, neoliberalism has stopped bringing economic growth – we are still feeling the slowdown from the last crisis almost 10 years later.
  • Joint most importantly – the consequences of neoliberalism’s biggest failing – increasing inequality are becoming more and more evident.
  • Donald Trump’s increased political influence – he’s basically an anti-neoliberal economic nationalist
  • the vote for BREXIT
  • Jeremy Corbyn’s popularity
  • 48% of Americans now identify as working class, it was only 33% in 2000
  • The popularity of left-wing economists such as Pickerty, Ha-Joon Chang and Krugman (excuse spelling)

Jacques also notes that we don’t actually know what the alternative is yet, and the conservatives seem to be oblivious to it, but there is mounting evidence that neoliberalism as usual isn’t working.

3. The Olympics

Obviously anyone with any sense doesn’t define sport as newsworthy, but the mainstream media does and there’s been a real love-in with the Olympics over the past three weeks. Or to be more specific, the elitist upper-middle class media’s had a real love-in with the disproportionately privately-schooled Team GB.

Digging behind the rather shallow obsession with winning and league tables the Olympics actually offers us not only a painful reminder of the UK’s class divide, but also a nice illustration of the relevance of Giddens’ structuration theory – see ‘A Sociological Analysis of The Olympics’ for a few thoughts.

Meanwhile, the working classes remain sat on their sofas, eating crisps, getting fatter, being northern and just plain wrong. I’m fairly sure ITV’s switch off for an hour won’t make any difference.

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Sociological Analysis of The Olympics

The British media love The Olympics, especially when ‘Team GB’ are so successful, but there’s a lot more to individual or even team success than just the individual athletes…Team GB’s success actually illustrates the relevance of Anthony Giddens’ concept of structuration, as well as the damaging effects of class-divide in the UK (despite ‘our’ success)

The Olympics and Structuration Theory 

(NB this is applying what Giddens’ actually meant by structuration, not how the concept has been over-simplified to the point of misrepresentation in every A level text book).

Structuration refers to the fact that structures enable individual action and are necessary to empower people, or necessary for people to realise their talents, or for people to ‘shine’ as individuals – there are several ways you can put it, and the concept stands against the postmodern ideas that there is no social structure any more and individuals are totally free agents).

While it obviously takes a lot of individual effort to be an Olympic athletes, there seemed to also be quite a lot of recognition of the fact that there is a lot of ‘structures’ in place behind these individual success – for example:

  • Lottery funding
  • The team of experts behind the athletes – coaches, physios, nutritionists
  • The years of planning, training and discipline building up to the Olympics

The idea that Olympic success is merely a story of individual success is clearly nonsense, and we could take the above further – in order for there to be an Olympics at all we need to have at least the following in place:

  • Nation States (or similar groupings which mean something to people)
  • Billion dollar infrastructure such as stadiums
  • A global communications network.

Having said all this, it’s unlikely that the ‘minions’ behind the successful athletes will see any real recognition – the chances are that it’s the individual athletes who’s stories will be told and the individual athletes who will receive honours. Thus is the dominance of the discourse of individualism.

The Olympics as an illustration of the class divide in the UK

‘There are more British Olympians who have a horsey relative named Portia than there are Olympians from working class backgrounds.’

Just a  hypothesis for you -a reasonable one based on the actual social class stats on GB Olympians – According to the Independent you are more than four times more likely to be a top GB Olympian if you were privately educated – they made up 28% of the UK’s Olympic squad, while only making up 7% of the UK population as a whole – NB that 28% is up from 21% since the London Games.

This has a lot to do with private schools providing access not only to expensive elite sports such as rowing and dressage, but also providing higher quality coaching and facilities for the more accessible sports.

If you look at the medal tables, people from comprehensive schools do just as well (near enough, proportionally) compared to people from private schools, suggesting that when they get the opportunity, there is equality.

medals

It seems rational to suggest that if we could harness the full-talent pool of the United Kingdom by getting more of the 93% (non-independent) kids into the Olympics squad, then we’d win even more medals, rather than our nation being held-back by the elites?

NB – If you think this is bleak, then this pattern of independent school privilege is mirrored in both university entrance and access to the top professions such as medicine, journalism and law. Recent research from 2016 –

  • Three-quarters (74%) of the UK’s top judges went to a fee-paying school
  • Slightly more than half of leading print journalists and solicitors (51% each) attended fee-paying schools.

Of course you’re not told this in the mainstream media – the class inequality that probably limits our medal prospects and the same class inequality that probably makes our top professions less-dynamic (and certainly less-diverse) – which is probably a reflection of the fact that it is precisely those people (independently educated) who fail to report on such things – they tend to see their careers, and the Olympians’ success as mostly down to individual efforts and generally fail to tell us about the significance of structure and structuration.

P.S. I’m calling this post ‘Sociology in the News (2) – given that the Olympics dominated the news for half of August.