The Queen died on Thursday 8th September 2022, ending her reign as the longest serving monarch in British history.
Events like this are rare and the offer sociology students a good opportunity to practice applying perspectives and concepts to the event itself and the societal reaction to the event.
NB to be honest we are probably considering below the societal reaction to the event for the most part – both on the part of the media and the people themselves. This isn’t unusual as the Monarchy is a social construction and kept alive by people recognising its significance.
How would the main sociological perspectives understand the death of The Queen…
A good starting point for thinking about the Monarchy could well be Interactionism – the Queen, after all, is a symbol, rather than an individual that we know, even if millions of people may have convinced themselves they know the ‘person’ rather than the symbol.
In terms of symbolism The Queen, as the media have been very keen to point out, represents a ‘point of stability and continuity’ over the last 70 years, really THE ONLY person in all that time to have always been there in the public eye, an ever ‘reassuring presence’.
And of course she does represent (as a symbol) ‘Britain’ and ‘British Identity’ itself – so many symbols of the nation are linked to the Queen – obviously Buckingham Palace and her other residences, but also the Grenadier Guards specifically and the armed forces more generally, but also pretty much ANYTHNG you can point to as being British – because her role over the last 70 years has been to attend various national events, and to give awards (such as Knighthoods) to those deemed to be worthy, such as Captain Tom Moore.
Not to mention the fact that she’s on our bank notes, coins and stamps as well!
And of course The Queen as (as far as I know) always been police, apolitical (in public engagements) and attended a diverse range of events and met it could well be as many as millions of people over the last 70 years, so it’s very difficult not to ‘like the presentation of herself’ because she has come across as extremely, well ‘nice’
And she has been the most visible outward facing symbol of British National Identity – when people abroad think of Britain they probably think of The Queen as one of the most pre-eminent symbols of the nation.
So I’m not going to criticise anyone for feeling a sense of loss at The Queen’s death, we have lost our most important National Symbol, our longest serving, most continuous symbol of national unity – and even if the idea of national unity is a myth, even if people are mistakenly mourning the person rathe than the symbol (thinking they know here when they don’t) all of that doesn’t really matter – from the Interactionist point of view our society is constructed of symbols, and that’s what matters.
And it is highly unlikely that Charles can replace The Queen – he’s been too political over the years, too ‘odd’ with his views, Dianna is dead, Camilla is somehow a bit fake, and most importantly he hasn’t got youth on his side.
We could well be witnessing, with the death of The Queen, the death of the British Monarchy, effectively, something lost, never to be replaced.
One final word on Interactionism – about Impression Management – it’s worth remembering just how much backstage work has gone into prepping The Queen for her outward facing public visits – dozens of servants, hundreds of millions of pounds – and yes she has worked every day for 70 years more or less but there has been a lot of backstage prepping going on too!
The Mainstream Media seem to be interpreting the death of The Queen in classical Functionalist terms from the 1950s, but personally I think this is inaccurate.
For a start there is a TOTAL lack of criticism of the monarchy as an institution in the mainstream media in general, and especially now, and the ‘discourse’ is very much one of treating the Monarchy as if it has played a vital function in British society over the last 70 years under the reign of Queen Elizabeth.
And the main ‘function’ that The Queen has performed is that of being a symbol of national unity, helping maintain a sense of national identity and a sense of social solidarity, especially during The Pandemic, when in a now famous line she said ‘we will meet again’.
And now that the Queen is Dead it’s as if we are about to plunge into a time of radical uncertainty, of anomie, of rootlessness in a time when all in the world is chaos – political change in the UK, the cost of living crisis, the war in the Ukraine, AND NOW THE QUEEN!
HOWEVER, it might be better to view the monarchy as something of a ‘defunct institution’ – something based on ascribed status which harkers back to pre-modernity, and, in its postmodern incarnation is increasingly dysfunctional with it’s Divorced and Paedophile Princes.
One thing the monarchy isn’t is meritocratic, that’s for sure, and the one recent opinion poll from YouGov reported that only 6/10 Britons want the Monarchy to continue, so the idea that the symbol of the monarchy promotes social solidarity simply doesn’t hold up to scrutiny…
It is more likely that the media reporting on the death of the Queen and what a great loss this is for the nation is ideological – it reflects the views of the conservative and older people who set the media agenda, this doesn’t reflect the views of younger people or Labour supporters.
The Marxist Perspective on the Monarchy
One of the key concepts of Marxism is social class, and one of their key aims is develop a class-based analysis of society.
And the monarchy is just about as elite as you can get. They are among the largest landowners in Britain with a crown estate worth £14 billion and the Queen is (or was) personally one of the wealthiest individuals in the country.
The children always go to Elite schools and the boys become men do a stint as officers in the army, navy or air force, and as the Queen’s 96 years of age are testimony to, the royals are very long lived – and the higher social classes to tend to live longer overall!
And despite their huge wealth, the monarchy still receives a state subsidy from the British taxpayer, which is, for them, completely unnecessary.
The media, however, NEVER comment on this old-school-elite-class fact of life, but we have got to see this in effect with the old restored images of the Queen’s Jubilee back in the 1950s – with all the gilded pomp and ceremony.
One wonders whether there will be a toning down of this when Charles is coronated, this kind of upper-class parade seems extremely distasteful in our modern/ post-modern meritocratic society.
A final word on Marxism – you might want to think how far the Queen’s death preforms an ideological function – in that it distracts us from other MASSIVE political issues – we have a new even more neoliberal government in power, and there is a cost of living crisis that is now slipped down the agenda for a few days at least.
Post and Late Modernism
I have already considered some of these concepts above – but one additional concept worth considering in relation to The Monarchy is that of hyperreality – the media seem intent on making The Queen’s death into more than it is, ‘milking it for all it is worth’ – this is the best profit-making event newspapers are likely to see this century, for example, and they’ve probably had their ‘memorial supplements’ ready to go for years.
The Newspapers were late being delivered on 9th of September 2022, obviously because of last minute modifications being made, but that doesn’t necessarily mean the reporting is going to be any more accurate, it probably just means adding to the hyperreal construction of the event, making it more than what it is.
That isn’t to say The Queen’s death isn’t real, of course it happened, but think about it – there is a LOT of constructing the narrative around the event, creating its significance, THAT is what is hyperreal.
Individualisation is another highly relevant concept when it comes to the way the media treat The Queen – focusing on HER as an individual rather than the institution of the monarchy as a whole – thus simplifying the narrative and preventing critical discourse around the wider institution.
Finally, this is certainly a ‘reflexive event’ with the media calling on the nation to reflect on what the passing of The Queen means and where we go from here…
You can read this post on Postmodernism for a more in-depth look!
Signposting and how to use this material…
Teachers of A-level Sociology might like to use this as a refresher with their Second Year students – you could get students working in small groups each focussing on one of the perspectives above and then get them to feed back their findings to the class.
It would probably fit best with the Theory and Methods part of the course, the theory part especially.
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