media owners are driven by profit, journalists are free from direct control and audiences control content through consumer demand.
Pluralists argue that power in democratic, free market societies is spread out among diverse competing interest groups, and not concentrated in the hands of a minority economic elite, as Marxists suggests. According to pluralists media owners are driven by profit, and journalists are free from direct control, providing audiences with the content they want. They thus see media content as determined mainly by consumer demand.
Media content driven by profit
Pluralists argue that in democratic, free market economies different media companies must compete for customers, and so they must provide the kind of content those customers want in order to make a profit and survive. If a company fails to provide the kind of news and entertainment that people need and want, customers will simply stop buying their media products and go elsewhere, forcing that company out of business.
It follows that control over media content ultimately lies with consumers, not the owners of media, because the owners need to adapt their content to fit the demands of the consumers.
Media owners primarily want to make money and so they would rather adapt their media content to be more diverse and keep money coming in, rather than use their media channels to publish their own narrower subjective views and opinions.
Media content thus doesn’t reflect the biased, one sided views of media owners, it reflects the diverse opinions of the general public who ultimately pay for that media content. The public (being diverse!) generally don’t want one-sided, biased media!
Consumers determine content
From the pluralist perspective audiences are active rather than passive and not easily manipulated. They are free to select, reject and re-interpret a wide range of media content, and they increasingly take advantage of new technologies and new media to produce their own content.
It is thus ultimately the consumers of media/ the wider audience who determine media content rather than the media owners.
Journalists not controlled by owners
Finally, pluralists point out that on a purely practical level media owners of large global corporations cannot personally determine the content of all their media products, there are too many products and too many global-level management issues to keep them occupied. Thus producers, editors and journalists have considerable freedom to shape media content, free from the control of the big bosses.
Criticisms of Pluralism
Ultimately it is still owners who have the power the hire and fire journalists and they do have the power to select high level editors who have similar views to themselves, which may subtly influence the media agenda.
It still requires a lot of money to establish a large media company, and ownership remains very concentrated. There is relatively little journalism which is both independent and widely consumed.
Owners, editors and most journalists share an upper middle-class background and a conservative worldview.
The pressure to maintain profits has led to narrowing of media content – more towards uncritical, sensationalist entertainment and less likely to be critical and independent.
Signposting and related posts
This content has primarily been written for students of A-level media studies and those studying the media option as part of their A-level in Sociology.
If sociologists refer to religion as being ‘ideological’, they typically mean the beliefs and practices of that religion support powerful groups in society, effectively keeping the existing ruling class, or elites, in power.
The idea that religion is ideological is usually associated with Marxist and Radical Feminist Perspectives.
This sub-topic overlaps with ‘religion as a conservative force’.
Marx argued that religion creates false consciousness – it teaches that social inequality is God’s will and thus mystifies the real cause of inequality and misery which is exploitation by the Bourgeoise
Religion is the opium of the masses – religion prevents change and keeps the elite in power by providing spiritual comfort for the poor – by making a virtue out of poverty, and promising a better life after death if people obey the rules now, for example.
There are direct links between the church and the bourgeoisie – the bourgeoise fund the church, and the church support (ideologically) the bourgeoisie
Neo Marxist Otto Maduro argued that the Catholic Church in Latin America was relatively autonomous from the state and the bourgeois – i.e. they were not directly controlled by them. Thus, there was some degree of freedom for some priests to interpret Christianity in a way that was pro-poor and anti-elite, and not ideological. As with the example of Liberation Theology.
Mary Daly argued that Christianity was as set of Patriarchal myths. She sees the Catholic Church as especially bad: it downplayed the role of women in the bible and legitimated sex role segregation for example.
Simone de Beauvoir argued that religion is used by men to compensate women for their second-class status – it provides them with spiritual rewards for accepting inferior social roles.
El Saadawi suggests that Islam itself has been hijacked by Patriarchy in many countries, but is not necessarily ideological: women can fight back.
Carol Christ’s work shows that religion does not have be ideological: her idea of ‘embodied spirituality and focus on women ‘finding their Goddess’ stands against monotheistic religions. It is empowering for women and challenges existing power structures.
Further examples and evidence for and against the view that ‘religion is ideological’
Religion is ideological
Religion is NOT ideological
· Marxists and Feminists generally point to established churches as the most likely institutions to support elites.
· The New Religions right in America tends to support white, male wealth – e.g. it supports the Republican Party.
· Max Weber… over hundreds of years Calvinist believes lead to social changes which undermined religion.
· Postmodernism – people are free to pick and choose which aspects of religion they like. Thus, it cannot be ideological.
· Some sects challenge the existing order – e.g. The Nation of Islam.
‘nudge politics’ involves governments implementing small social policy measures to help people make the ‘right decisions’. This post considers some of the pros and cons of this type of social policy agenda.
The idea behind ‘Nudge’ was that by exploiting traits of ‘human nature’ such as our tendencies to put of making decisions, or to give into peer pressure, it was possible to ‘nudge’ people into making certain decisions.
10 years on, it seems that government all over the world have applied ‘nudge theory’ to achieve their desired outcome. They have managed to implement some relatively ‘small scale’ social policies and make huge savings at little cost to the public purse.
In the U.K. for example, David Cameron set up the Behavourial Insights Team (or Nudge Unit) which seems to have had some remarkable successes. For example:
Reminder letters telling people that most of their neighbours have already paid their taxes have boosted tax receipts. This was designed to appeal to the ‘heard instinct’.
The unit boosted tax returns from the top 1% (those owing more than £30K) from 39% to 47%. To do so they changed their punitive letter to one reminding them of the good paying taxes can do.
Sending encouraging text messages to pupils resitting GCSEs has boosted exam results. This appeals to the well-recognised fact that people respond better to praise.
Sending text messages to jobseekers reminding them of job interviews signed off with ‘good luck’ has reduced the number of missed interviews.
As with so many public-policy initiatives these days, the Behavourial Insights Team is set up as a private venture, and it now makes its money selling its ‘nudge policy’ ideas to government departments around the world.
The Limitations of Nudge Politics
Methodologically speaking there are a at least three fairly standard problems:
Firstly, the UK’s nudge unit hasn’t been in place long enough to establish whether these are long-term, ’embedded success’.
Secondly, we don’t really know why ‘nudge actions’ work. The data suggests a correlation between small changes in how letters are worded and so on and behaviour, but we don’t really know the ‘why’ of what’s going on.
Thirdly, I’m fairly sure there aren’t that many controlled trials out there which have been done to really verify the success of some of these policies.
Theoretically there are also quite a few problems:
The book and the ‘team’ above both talk in terms of ‘nudging’ people into making the ‘right decisions’… but who decides what is right? This theory ignores questions of power.
It also could be used towards very negative ends… in fact I think we’ve already seen that with the whole Brexit and Trump votes….. I’m sure those campaigns used nudge theory to manipulate people’s voting outcomes. It doesn’t take a massive swing to alter political outcomes today after all!
Finally, I cannot see how you are going to be able to ‘nudge’ people into making drastic changes to save the planet for example: I can’t imagine the government changing the message on its next round of car tax renewal letters to include messages such as: ‘have you ever thought about giving up the car and just walking everywhere instead? If you did so, the planet might stand a chance of surviving!’.
Final thoughts: the age of the ‘nudge’?
I think this book and this type of ‘steering politics’ are very reflective of the age we live in. (The whole theory is kind of like a micro-version of Anthony Giddens’ ‘steering the juggernaut’ theory.) This is policy-set very much favoured to career politicians and bureaucrats who would rather focus on ‘pragmatic politics’. It’s kind of like what realism is to Marxism in criminology theory: not interested in the ‘big questions’.
I just cannot see how this kind of politics is going to help us move towards making the kind of drastic social changes that are probably going to be required to tackle the biggest problems of our times: global warming, militarism, inequality, refugees for example.
Nigel Thrift (2005) developed the concept of ‘knowing capitalism’ to denote a new form of global economy which depends not only on technologies which generate large amounts of digital data, but also on the commodification of that data: a big data economy in which power operates through modes of communication, and
Digital data have become especially valuable as forms of knowledge, especially when they are aggregated into big data sets, and are seen as having huge potential to offer new insights into a range of human behaviours, and to disrupt various industries: from health care to education.
One key change in the age of ‘knowing capitalism’ is that there has been a shift from commodifying workers’ physical labour to profiting from information collected on people’s preferences – which online users willingly give when they create and upload digital content online, download and use geolocation apps, shop online, and like various content.
In this digital age, prosumption is the new norm – people simultaneously consuming and generating online content and In commercial circles, the user of online technologies is ‘the product’, because the information they give off when online is so valuable.
This is why so many applications, such as Facebook, are free to use – because they are really just platforms to harvest valuable data (why charge?)… and the Four big tech companies excercise huge power by virtue of the sheer amount of big data they have already, and continue to collect on their users.
Central to portrayals of the digital data economy is the idea that digital data are lively, mutable, and hybrid. Metaphors of liquidity are very commonly used:
In the digital data economy flows of information are generated and engage in non-linear movement, and according to THrift (2014) new hybrid beings emerge with the mixture of data, objects and bodies….and bodies and identities are fragmented and reassembled through a process of reconfiguration.
Furthermore, digital data and the algorithmic analytics used to interpret them are beginning to have determining effects on people’s lives, influencing their life chances and opportunities.
There is a mobile dimension to how we interact with data too.
Data can become stuck, for example when a company hoards it, or when people do not know how to use it!
Data materialisations constitute an important dimension of knowing capitalism – data is lively, in flux, but it needs to be frozen to be used – in 2D (infographics) or 3D… through printers.
Where 2D data visualisations are concerned, a lot of emphasis is placed on their aesthetic quality, and how the meaning of the data is structured.. And behind this process lies decisions about what to include and what to exclude, and limitations on what can be shown due to software used…. This there are many contingencies framing the way we understand big data in knowing capitalism!
Lupton, Deborah (2017) The Quantified Self, Polity
I thought it’d be useful to do a little post on the sheer scale of global corporations, so below I simply list the top 10 by revenue and then in italics next to them I’ve put the countries who rank immediately below them by nominal GDP* at 2016 figures.
State Grid (China) – $315.1bn (Denmark – $306 bn, GDP rank 24 )
Sinopec (China) – $267.5bn
China Natural Petroleum (China) – $262.6bn (Chile – $247 bn, GDP rank 44)
Toyota Motor (Japan) – $254.7bn (Finland – $246 billion, GDP rank 45)
Volkswagen (Germany) – $240.2bn
Royal Dutch Shell (Netherlands) – $240bn
Berkshire Hathaway (US) – $223.6bn
Apple (US) – $215.6bn
Exxon Mobil (US) – $205bn (Portugal, $204 billion, GDP rank 47)
(The 10 poorest countries in Africa – approx combined GDP = $190bn)
The top 10 companies in the list above consists almost entirely of Chinese and American firms – just three are from different countries: Germany, Japan and The Netherlands. The largest British firm on the list by revenue – BP – comes in at number 12.
More than a fifth of those on the latest list – 109 companies – call China home, up from only 29 companies a decade ago.”
Banking was the industry with the most number of companies on the list, at 55, followed by automakers/parts suppliers with 34, and petroleum refiners with 28.
In terms of countries, all of the very large population countries are way more economically powerful than any of the TNCs, and nearly every relatively large population Western European countries are richer than those TNCs.
However, there are plenty of European powers which are mixing it in with these corporations and only TWO African countries which mix it with the top ten TNCs – Nigeria and South Africa.
*I know there are problems comparing GDP and Revenue! I covered that in a previous post…
Just for contrast… the Top 10 Largest UK companies by revenue are:
BP – $186,606m
Legal and General Group – $105,235m
Prudential – $96,965m
HSBC Holdings – $75,329m
Aviva – $74,628m
Tesco – $74,393m
Lloyds Banking Group – $65,208m
Vodafone Group – $58,611m
Unilever – $58,292m
SSE – $37,813m
It’s probably worth noting that 5 out of 10 on the above list are finance related companies (banking or insurance), while the rest really just provide ‘basic’ products – energy, communications and retail products. So the top end of the UK economy consists of a wierd combination of companies producing ‘the basics’ and ‘the evil dark arts of finance’. Thus you might say that our economy is 50% tangible or real.
Are Corporations more Powerful than Nation States?
This is all very well and good, but what does all this tell us about the power of TNCs compared to countries? Are TNCs actually more powerful, or is using revenue and GDP misleading? While they do both provide a measure of money flowing into a Corporation or a country on a yearly basis, they don’t take into account the nation state’s power of taxation and its (supposed) monopoly on certain forms violence…
Of course if we take the countries which rank above the top 10 companies – the USA, China and so on, it seems sensible to suggest that these two entities work hand in hand (Rex Tillerson being just the most obvious example), but when it comes to African nations, who barely register among the big boys, do they have any chance of standing up to such huge TNC entities?
Or is all of this moot with the rise of alternative economies, given that all of the above is measured in dollars?!?
Does society shape the individual? Do class, gender, ethnicity influence our life chances? How and why do societies change?
One way of introducing sociology is to introduce some of the ‘big questions’ that sociologists asks. These questions get students thinking sociologically before they even start studying sociology!
Big Sociology Questions
To what extent is the individual shaped by society?
Is there such a thing as a social structure that constrains individual action, or is society nothing more than a figment of our imaginations?
To what extent does our social class background affect our life chances?
To what extent does our gender affect our life chances?
To what extent does our ethnicity affect our life chances?
What is the role of institutions in society – do they perform positive functions, or simply work in the interests of the powerful and against the powerless? (a related question here is why do our life chances vary by class, gender and ethnicity)
How and why has British society changed over the last 50 years?
What are the strengths and Limitations of macro-scale research in helping us to understand human action?
What are the strengths and limitations of micro-scale research in helping us to understand human action?
Is it possible to do value free social research and find out the ‘objective’ knowledge about society and the motives that lie behind social action?
Is British Society today better than it was 400 years ago?
OK there are 11 questions in fairness, but top ten makes for a more classic title!
Getting Students thinking about Social Theory
The questions above get students thinking critically about social theory, social inequalities, research methods, social change and social progress.
Questions one to six introduce students to the main sociological theories: Functionalism, Marxism, Interactionism and Feminism, and to the basic stratifications in society: class, gender and ethnicity.
Depending on how they answer (even before they start studying sociology) you can explain to them either ‘this is what Functionalists think’ you clearly disagree and get them involved in some early days critical dialogue.
The later questions move on to social change and progress (questions 7 and 11) and this brings up the topic of postmodernism.
Finally there are some questions on research methods – and yes, these are a little dry, but I think it’s good to be up front about the centrality of social research in sociology!
When to ask these questions…?
I used to use these at Open Evening events for prospective A-level sociology students.
Typically at these events there’d be too many students for staff so these questions (among other things) could be something for them to ponder while waiting to chat with a staff member – and then you’ve got something to ask them about when you have a discussion.
You can basically use the questions to introduce the main themes of sociology.
And of course you can return to these questions at the end of the course too, to see what students think about them after almost two years of studying!
Hopefully their responses would be more critical and nuanced than two years earlier!
These questions run all the way through the AS and A-level sociology AQA specification – the idea of sociology is to develop a position on each of these questions, using a range of research-evidence, and be able to critically evaluate the validity etc. of the research evidence you have used to support your ‘position.
I use these questions at the end of the very first lesson of my Introduction to Sociology, and return to them frequently during the two years of study. They’re quite a good place to start and end!
Racism is discrimination based on the idea that some groups are biologically superior to others.
Racism is prejudice and discrimination against individuals or groups based on the historically discredited idea that they are biologically inferior.
Racial discrimination can be individual, institutional or structural and may involve everything from overt violence agains others based on their race, unfair policies which discriminate agains a particular group, such as excluding them from educational or work opportunities or at the societal level it may involve a whole hierarchy based on the idea of race.
The concept of race is historically tied up with power, and for Europeans the most well-known historical manifestation of racism is the global slave system in which white power, wealth and privilege was built on the exploitation of mainly people from Africa and Asia.
While today modern slavery based on the concept of race is long behind us, there are still many ways in which American and European societies appear to be racist.
What is Racism?
Racism = Race Prejudice + Power
A specious classification of human beings created by Europeans (whites) which assigns human worth and social status using ‘white’ as the model of humanity and the height of human achievement for the purpose of establishing and maintaining privilege and power. The idea of Race, is based on the ideas of white supremacy and white privilege.
A prejudice is a pre-judgment in favor of or against a person, a group, an event, an idea, or a thing. An action based on prejudgment is discrimination. A negative prejudgment is often called a stereotype. An action based on a stereotype is called bigotry.
Power is a relational term. It can only be understood as a relationship between human beings in a specific historical, economic and social setting. It must be exercised to be visible.
Five key aspects of power are:
Power is control of, or access to, those institutions sanctioned by the state.
Power is the ability to define reality and to convince other people that it is their definition.
Power is ownership and control of the major resources of a state; and the capacity to make and enforce decisions based on this ownership and control;
Power is the capacity of a group of people to decide what they want and to act in an organized way to get it.
(In terms of an individual), power is the capacity to act.
Structural Racism, Institutional Racism and Individual Racism
These are best seen as different levels of Racism – structural racism being TOTAL historical and systemic racism, institutional, is the next level down, at the level of institutions such as the police, and individual is obviously just at the level of the individual
Structural Racism in the U.S. is the normalization and legitimization of an array of dynamics – historical, cultural, institutional and interpersonal – that routinely advantage whites while producing cumulative and chronic adverse outcomes for people of colour.
It is a system of hierarchy and inequity, primarily characterized by white supremacy – the preferential treatment, privilege and power for white people at the expense of Black, Latino, Asian, Pacific Islander, Native American, Arab and other racially oppressed people.
Structural Racism Structural Racism lies underneath, all around and across society. It encompasses:
history, which lies underneath the surface, providing the foundation for white supremacy in this country.
culture, which exists all around our everyday lives, providing the normalization and replication of racism and,
interconnected institutions and policies, they key relationships and rules across society providing the legitimacy and reinforcements to maintain and perpetuate racism.
Structural Racism is the most profound and pervasive form of racism – all other forms of racism (e.g. institutional, interpersonal, internalized, etc.) emerge from structural racism.
Indicators of Structural Racism
The key indicators of structural racism are inequalities in power, access, opportunities, treatment, and policy impacts and outcomes, whether they are intentional or not.
Structural racism is more difficult to locate in a particular institution because it involves the reinforcing effects of multiple institutions and cultural norms, past and present, continually producing new, and re-producing old forms of racism.
Institutional racism is discriminatory treatment, unfair policies and inequitable opportunities and impacts, based on race, produced and perpetuated by institutions (schools, mass media, etc.). Individuals within institutions take on the power of the institution when they act in ways that advantage and disadvantage people, based on race.
These are private manifestations of racism that reside inside the individual.
Examples include prejudice, xenophobia, internalized oppression and privilege, and beliefs about race influenced by the dominant culture.
White Supremacy, Whiteness and White Privilege
An aspect of Racism which often goes unconsidered is the idea of ‘whiteness’ as being the baseline from which everything else is judged. As with everything else in sociology, this idea started somewhere in history and is a social construction.
The term white, referring to people, was created by Virginia slave owners and colonial rulers in the 17th century. It replaced terms like Christian and “Englishman” (sic) to distinguish European colonists from Africans and indigenous peoples. European colonial powers established white as a legal concept after Bacon’s Rebellion in 1676 during which indentured servants of European and African descent had united against the colonial elite.
The legal distinction of white separated the servant class on the basis of skin color and continental origin. “The creation of ‘white’ meant giving privileges to some, while denying them to others with the justification of biological and social inferiority.
A privilege is a right, favor, advantage, immunity, specially granted to one individual or group, and withheld from another. White privilege is an historically based, institutionally perpetuated system of:
(1) Preferential prejudice for and treatment of white people based solely on their skin color and/or ancestral origin from Europe; and
(2) Exemption from racial and/or national oppression based on skin color and/or ancestral origin from Africa, Asia, the Americas and the Arab world.
White supremacy is an historically based, institutionally perpetuated system of exploitation and oppression of continents, nations and peoples of color by white peoples and nations of the European continent; for the purpose of maintaining and defending a system of wealth, power and privilege.
In a white supremacy system, white privilege and racial oppression are two sides of the same coin. “White peoples were exempt from slavery, land grab and genocide, the first forms of white privilege (in the future US).”
The concept of Racism is central to understanding differentiation and inequality in society, and it is a fundamental key concept in sociology. It is especially relevant to explaining differences in imprisonment rates and educational achievement, and why some countries are less developed than others.
All of the definitions above are taken from one source, which is US based, source below, so don’t forget to be critical of the ideas here:
Chronic Disparity: Strong and Pervasive Evidence of Racial Inequalities POVERTY OUTCOMES Structural Racism By Keith Lawrence, Aspen Institute on Community Change and Terry Keleher, Applied Research Center at UC Berkeley For the Race and Public Policy Conference 2004
A summary of Michel Foucault’s work on identity, deviance and normality, governmentality, subjectification and technologies of the self, taken from Steph Lawler’s ‘Identity’ (2014) – also includes Nikolas Rose’s development of Foucault’s work.
If there’s one central idea in this chapter (IMO) it’s this – ‘In today’s society, we have little choice but to be tied into a project of the self in which the self becomes something to be worked on – and it is in this way that power works through us.’
Becoming ourselves: governing and/ through identities
In the contemporary West it is hard to avoid the idea that the self is a project to be worked on. We see this everywhere, but especially in self-help books, therapy, the various experts promising to guide us through different stages of our lives and, of course, in the media: in chat-shows and ‘make-over’ programmes for example.
All of this is presented as freeing, as if working on the self involves freeing us of the oppressive influences of others.
What Nikolas Rose calls the ‘norm of autonomy’ has become an orthodoxy in many discussions about identity – but we should consider the argument that when we are incited to be ‘free’, we are then the most enmeshed in in the workings of power – the relationship of the self to itself within a contemporary project of self-actualisation, self-awareness and self-improvement has become a norm which ties us to relentless self-scrutiny, in which we watch ourselves for signs of deviancy and wrong doing.
We can only perceive such a project of the self as being about autonomy if we perceive power as a repressive and denying force.
An alternative perspective, associated with Michel Foucault, envisages power as a force which works positively through our desires and our selves, which sees categories of subject as produced through forms of knowledge.
(A legitimate question to ask would be why are we so obsessed with the idea of individual autonomy when we live such complex, interdependent lives.)
The Enlightenment view = ‘knowledge is power’ – if we obtain knowledge this will free us from the workings of power. This assumes a true self which lies outside or beyond power and self-knowledge, realised through reason.
Foucault – opposes the view that knowledge is power – one of the ways in which power works is through producing ‘truths’ about the world. These truths come to seem obvious, necessary and self-evident, they form part of the coherence of the social world and place the self within it.
Foucault argues that there has been a gradual shift in the uses and forms of power in the last 150 years in the West –
From juridical, or law-like power – which uses the language of rights and obligations.
To forms of normalising, or regulatory power – which uses the language of health, normality and self-fulfilment.
Juridical power says ‘obey me or you will be punished’, regulatory power says ‘obey me so that you can be happy’. This is a form of power which doesn’t rely on coercion, but one in which we scrutinise and regulate ourselves, the self comes to act on itself.
For Foucault, power is at its most powerful when it is its least repressive – power works not just though denying but through offering ways of being and pleasure.
As Tom Inglis puts it – ‘power announces truth’ – its truths are forged on the basis of knowledge, but this refers not to knowledge about a set of facts but rather to what might be termed ways of knowing, or in Foucauldian terms discourse.
Discourses define what can be said and thought, and how these things can be said and thought. – they are verbal or non-verbal ways of organising the world, creating ways of conceptualising that are seen as axiomatically obvious – they are epistemological enforcers (Said, 1991). (I guess they’re sort of like paradigms!)
An example of a discourse today is to understand present emotional problems as stemming from a troubled childhood, rather than because you’ve been cursed by a witch-doctor – the later would just not be taken seriously, it is outside of the discourse of understanding negative emotions.
Discourse differs to the concept of ideology because ideology presupposes a real which is beyond ideology which the ideology obscures – to speak of discourses is to speak of the knowledges which produce the truth. Foucault, in fact talks of the politics of truth.
What this line of questioning opens up is the possibility that who we and who other people are is an effect of what we know ourselves and others to be, that it is discourses which have produced categories of person and that this is how we understand ourselves.
Making people up
A good example of how categories of people are produced can be found in the way many Westerners think about sexuality – many people don’t just think of sex as something they do, they think of sex as something they are.
Foucault argues that this way of brining together sexuality and identity is relatively recent. In the 19th century, same-sex relations occurred, but there was no special consideration given to ‘being homosexual’.
It was throughout the 20th century, along with the new pseudo-science of Sexology in which people categorised the minutiae of sexual activity, that the category of the homosexual became created as a subject, and thus the identity of the homosexual was produced (or you might say, invented/ constructed). Alongside this, the category of heterosexual also needed to be produced, because homosexuality has no meaning without it.
These new categories of knowledge in fact produced what they aimed to describe – categories of person.
Foucault wants to challenge the ‘sexual liberation’ discourse – especially the idea that new apparent sexual freedoms bring with them an absence of power and control. With increased interest in sexuality in the 20th century came new forms of scrutiny as more experts emerged – and while the invention of sexual subjects has clearly been liberating for some, it has also become a means whereby we increasingly scrutinise ourselves for signs of abnormality and unhealthiness.
This legacy goes beyond sexual identity to extend into every area of our lives and our identities.
Technologies of the self
One way in which power works is through categorising people in terms through which they come to understand themselves – in this sense subjectivities are created in regimes of knowledge and power.
In explaining the relationship of the self to itself, Foucault uses the term subjectification. There are two meanings of the word subject – subject to someone else through control and dependence and tied to one’s own identity by a conscience or self-knowledge. Both meanings suggest a form of power which subjugates and makes subject to, according to Foucault.
Through subjectification, people become tied to specific identities, they become subjects, but they also become subject-ed to the rules and norms engendered by a set of knowledges about these identities.
We have little choice but to be tied into a project of the self in which the self becomes something to be worked on – and it is in this way that power works through us.
We are subjected subjects across many forms of identity – parent, worker, citizen, for example, all of which demand a level of scrutiny to maintain. The way government works today is through establishing normal-abnormal categories along these various dimensions of identity and then people employ technologies of the self in order to stay within the boundaries of normality (usually) – (the struggle is to keep up, or stay ahead, if you like!)
Psy knowledge, expertise and authority
Psy knowledges includes such disciplines as medicine, psychiatry, psychology and pedagogy, which produce ‘truths’ about the self and its relation to others. These have gained ascendancy in the West, especially since these knowledges have escaped the boundaries of academia and inform a whole of host of professional practices (social work and teaching for example) and our daily lives through such things as chat-shows and gossip magazines.
Nikolas Rose argues that it is hard to conceive of person-hood today without reference to ‘psy.’
Psy governs through using regulatory or normalising power – not working in spite of our desires, but through them – and generating specific kinds of desire in the first place.
This process started about 150 years ago through the development of ‘technologies of responsibilisation’ – when the home became perceived as the counterweight to the state, new experts in the fields of medicine and education emerged to regulate private life – and these experts govern through making assertions about the way we should act as subjects, which go largely unquestioned.
Over the years subjects have come to understand themselves as people who should be morally responsible for their own actions by monitoring the minutiae of daily-life – two examples of how this is achieved in the context of education are the teaching of English literature in schools and more recently circle time – both of which encourage the development of a self-reflecting, moral, responsibilised subject.
The norm of autonomy and the scrutiny of the soul
Rose argues that we now live in a psychotherapeutic society in which the self is understood as an inner state, to be sought out, understood, and actualised. This doesn’t so much manifest itself as narcissism, but is rather something we are stuck with – most of us can’t imagine attempting to understand ourselves without the discourses of psy.
Therapy has now become the norm for many areas of social life – that is reflecting on inner states is seen to be a cure for all sorts of social ills. Rose’s task is show how this therapeutic culture which stresses autonomy actually ties us more closely to the workings of power.
Foucault suggested that abnormal and normal manifestations of sex became axes around which people’s behaviour could be judged – Rose has broadened this out – now it is not normality which is the goal, but rather autonomy, and he applies this to much more than the sexual dimension of identities.
We live in an era where dependency now means pathology – but the path to autonomy means adhering to the strictures of psy expertise and watching and monitoring ourselves more closely.
Rose argues that there are four principle sets of concern around the goal of autonomy:
A subjectification of work – work is understood as significant in terms of identity
A pyschologisation of the mundane – life events such as marriages and births are seen as having a potentially transformative role in life.
A therapeutics of fininitude – chapters in our life ending are now seen as times of potential danger but also possibility for personal growth.
A neurotisation of social intercourse – social ills have come to be understood in terms of problems stemming from the ways we interact with others.
Across these four dimensions, we see the production of a particular kind of self – ideally autonomous, self-actualising, exercising choice, and a project to be worked on.
For Rose, in a therapeutised culture, social ills become personal problems to be worked on. We are not necessarily free, because we are now obliged to live our lives as projects.
The state of the therapeutic
States still exercise regulatory, normalising power through the deployment of expertise. This is most notable in expert knowledge surrounding the child.
The state takes a special interest in producing the right kind of citizen – citizens who believe themselves to be free and who believe there are equal opportunities. This is primarily done through exploiting the desire of parents to be ‘good parents’, especially mothers. For example:
– parents are enjoined to turn learning into play
– they should evoke reason and rightness
– states employ numerous professionals which subject parenting to scrutiny
Parents are encouraged to engender a sense of autonomy in their children, but this autonomy is a myth – the belief that children can do anything will not reduce structural barriers to their achieving certain goals in life.
The state also retains its ability to use coercive measures, though these are rarely deployed, such as:
– parenting orders
– parenting contracts
– Those who are subjected to these things fall into the category of ‘failed parent’ (or ‘failed human’) and if people are subject to these things, the failures are understood as their own or their parents’ fault, not because of social ills. The discourses of psy rest on these categories of exclusion.
Resisting these discourses is not straightforward – Foucault offers no straightforward method, other than to constantly question the desirability and legitimacy of such categories.
Evaluations of this perspective
The strength of this perspective lies in highlighting the myth of individual autonomy and the fact that your ‘identity’ isn’t really your own – you are a product of social categories, which in turn are products of power relations.
One problem is that this perspective cannot explain why people make such intense investments in their selves.
Lawler finishes the chapter by recommending Barry Smart’s ‘Michel Foucault’ (1985) and Michele Barret’s ‘The Politics of Truth: From Marx to Foucault’ (1991) as good introductions to Foucault’s work.
The Radical Feminist viewpoint is that relationships are the primary means through which men control women and maintain their power over them in society.
Probably the most shocking evidence which supports this view is the continued prevalence of domestic violence. According to the Crime Survey of England and Wales (2022) 7.9% of women were victims of domestic abuse in the year ending March 2022. This compared to only 3.5% of men.
The radical Feminist explanation for Domestic Violence is that it is an inevitable feature of a patriarchal society. It is part of a wider system that helps maintain male power over women, the key division in society.
Just to demonstrate that this Radical Feminist views didn’t disappear in the 1980s. Here is a recent Radical Feminist view on domestic violence…
“Domestic violence against women by men is “caused” by the misuse of power and control within a context of male privilege. Male privilege operates on an individual and societal level to maintain a situation of male dominance, where men have power over women and children. Domestic violence by men against women can be seen as a consequence of the inequalities between men and women, rooted in patriarchal traditions that encourage men to believe they are entitled to power and control over their partners.”
Criticisms of the Radical Feminist view on Domestic Violence
1. Wilkinson criticises Feminists by arguing that it is not so much Patriarchy, but poverty that causes stress which leads to DV, so this is much less common in more equal, middle class households.
2. Men are also victims of Domestic Violence with some statistics suggesting that men are the victims in as many as 40% of cases of abuse.
3. There is a historical trends towards women having more freedom and control over their sexuality, especially compared to traditional tribal societies, a point elaborated on below.
Women have more sexual freedom today…
In many traditional tribal societies, there is little notion that women should gain any satisfaction out of sex. As one British witness to sexuality amongst the Himba of Namibia put it ‘when the husband wants sex, the woman just opens her legs, he gets on with it. When he’s finished, he just roles over and goes to sleep. There’s no sense of pleasure in it for the woman’.
Moreover, in some societies, especially in East Africa, women’s sexuality is tightly controlled. In extreme cases through Female Genital Mutilation, which removes much of the pleasure associated with sex, and sex remains very much about reproduction only.
The above example stands in stark contrast to modern notions of female sexuality. Since the heyday of Feminism and the sexual revolution in the 1960s, and helped by modern contraception, we now live in the age of what Anthony Giddens calls ‘plastic sexuality’. This is where sex is primarily about pleasure for both sexes rather than just being about reproduction.
Today, women increasingly demand sexual satisfaction as an ordinary part of their relationships, and cultural products such as the recent best-selling novel – ‘50 Shades of grey’ and programmes such as ‘The Joy of Teen Sex’ certainly suggest there is much more open and honest discussion about sex between partners in relationships.
Female sexuality is discussed more today. One 2016 TED talk on the topic by Sarah Barmark has over 40M views.
Further evidence that suggests modern relationships are equal and that women are more empowered lies in the proliferation of advice and discussion sites about relationships. Advice magazines such as seventeen.com suggest girls are more empowered in their relationships than they used to be. Such magazines even have quizzes so girls can assess whether their boyfriend’s up to scratch.
Blogs such as the good men project suggest that men are more prepared to discuss ‘what it means to be a man’ and ‘modern relationships’. This further suggests more equality between the sexes where intimate relations are concerned.
Domestic finances are more equal today
Pahl and Volger (1993) found that ‘pooling’ of household income is on the increase. Pooling is where both partners have equal access of income and joint responsibility for expenditure.
50% of couples pooled their income compared to only 19% of their parents, showing a movement away from ‘allowance systems’ in household expenditure’
Evidence against the view that there is equality in sexual relations
women are more likely to be harassed than men.
women experience less sexual satisfaction.
the mainstream media don’t advertise vibrators.
Decision making between men and women may not be equal.
Women are more likely to be sexually harassed than men
According to a 2020 UK government survey women are more likely to be victims of sexual harassment than men. 84% of women said they had experienced sexual harassment in their lifetime compared to 60% of men.
Women experience less sexual satisfaction than men….
Indiana University’s survey found that 91% of men had an org**m the last time they had sex, but only 64% of women did. These numbers roughly reflect the percentage of men and women who say they enjoyed sex “extremely” or “quite a bit”. 66% of women and 83% of men. Only 58% of women in their ’20s had an org**m during their latest sexual encounter.
30-40% percent of women report difficulty climaxing and 33% of women under 35 often feel sad, anxious, restless or irritable after sex, while 10% frequently feel sad after intercourse.”
The mainstream media refuses to advertise vibrators
According to one Feminist blog…“Vibrators still are such a big taboo. The media and films (ie. American Pie) glamourise women’s sexuality. However, they refuses to run ads for vibrators which are very useful tools for helping women understand their sexuality. Yet Viagra ads run on all of these platforms with no problem.
All of this serves to reinforce ‘heteronormativity’, or the idea that women need men to give them sexual satisfaction. The problem with this is that the evidence suggests that men are failing to provide satisfaction. Many women report a lack of satisfaction in the bedroom.”
Feminist criticisms that decision making is becoming more equal
While some decisions concerning money are made jointly, these tend to be less important ones – such as what clothes to buy. Men still tend to have the final say in more important decisions such as changing jobs or moving house.