The Handmaid’s Tale – Possible in Real Life?

The Handmaid’s Tale is a dystopian novel written by Margaret Atwood in 1985.

This might be a novel, but it’s a useful way to introduce social policy and the family! It’s also an example of a type of secondary qualitative data!

The novel is set in the United States and imagines a future where the majority of women have been rendered infertile because of environmental toxins, and the few women left who are fertile and able to bare children have become ‘handmaids’.

‘Handmaids’ are given to elite families, required to have ritualistic sex with the male heads of households so that they can bear the families children.

The country is run by a totalitarian state (called ‘Gillead’) which subscribes to a conservative christian ideology and maintains tight control over many aspects of people’s lives, but especially the Handmaids – these are brought up in ‘convent like’ schools, and educated into their role as ‘breeders’ – they effectively get passed around from elite family to elite family to bear multiple children for them.

The novel is told through the eyes of the main character, Offred. What is particularly bleak is that Offred remembers life before Gilead, when things were relatively normal – declining fertility rates eventually lead to a slide into this totatlitarian control over women.

The novel is nicely summarized in the video below.


You can also watch the TV adaptation on More 4 here.

Social Policy and the Family in the Handmaid’s Tale

Government policy towards families is extremely controlling of women in htis novel. The Gilead Theocratic State has near total control over women’s reproduction – fertile women effectively have no right to control their own fertility – that right is given to the elite families.

Fertile women also have no right over their children, these are given away to the families the Handmaid belongs to.

Could this level of control over women happen in real life?

Atwood refers to her novel as ‘speculative fiction’ – a situation which could happen in the future.

The book was a commentary on the political and social climate of the United States in the 1980s, with the widespread embrace of conservatism, as evidenced by the election of Ronald Reagan as president, the increasing power of the Christian right and its powerful lobbying organisations such as the ‘Moral Majority’ and ‘Focus on the Family’, as well as the rise of televangelism.

Commentators such as Joyce Carol Oates and English professor SC Neuman have suggested that the book is a Feminist crititique of the attempted restriction of women’s reproductive rights which various Christian Fundamentalist lobby groups were trying to bring into law – such as giving civil rights protections to foetuses, which would have effectively made abortion illegal.

Atwood herself says that the Handmaid’s Tale was inspired by two real world social polices:

  • Nicolai Ceausescu’s preoccupation with boosting female birth rates in Romania, which led to the policing of pregnant women and the banning of abortion and birth control
  • The idea of ‘giving’ the offspring of lower classes to the ruling class came from Argentina, where a military junta seized power in 1976, subsequently ‘disappearing’ up to 500 children and placing them with selected leaders.

The Handmaid’s Tale: Even more relevant today?

The handmaid’s tale might be even more relvant today given the recent shift in US politics with the election of Donald Trump dovetailing with fears of Trump’s authoritarian tendencies and his vice president’s anti-gay and anti-abortion beliefs.

Handmaid costumes even became common at protests of laws intended to limit women’s reproductive freedom.

Sources: Some of this post was adapted from this blog post.

Social Policy and the family in Global Context

How do policies on family life vary from country to country? This post explores some of the cross national variations in policies on the following aspects of family life:

  • Marriage
  • Divorce
  • Benefits for single parents
  • Maternity and paternity pay
  • Gay marriage

This post should be relevant to the social policies topic within the A-level sociology families and households module, and there’s also some possible relevance to the religion module too, as some of the variations in family-policies are due to religious traditions.

International Variations in Marriage

Marriage policy seems to be the one which varies least – the majority of countries have 16 as the lowest legal age for marriage, with a few countries having set the age at 15.

There seems to be a problem (from the Western perspective) in Iran which has a policy of allowing temporary marriages – which several families use to marry off children much younger than 16 years of age.

Iran seems to be an issue!

Source: Wikipedia

International variations in Divorce Law

The Philippines remains the only country on earth where divorce is illegal

The worst affected people here are the victims of domestic violence, who are mainly female, who can only escape an abusive marriage through a legal separation, a status which prevents them from remarrying should they so wish.

Japan is also an interesting case in relation to equality, because women have to wait six months after divorce to get remarried, whereas men can get remarried immediately after a divorce.

(source)

International variations in Maternity and Paternity Pay

There is significant variation across the developed world in the number of weeks of full-time paid maternity and paternity leave new mothers and fathers are entitled to – ranging from over 80 weeks to less than 10 weeks – and in the case of the United States of America, women are entitled to no weeks of mandatory paid maternity leave at the Federal level – that’s left to individual states and employers.

NB – with 12 weeks of full maternity pay and only 2 paid weeks for paternity, the UK comes very near the bottom for its quality of state support for new parents.

Source: Unicef: Are the World’s Richest Countries Family Friendly?

International variations in Gay Marriage

30 countries allow same sex marriage

72 Countries still have laws against gay relationships

NB: The above map is taken from a blog called ’76 crimes’ – 76 must have been the number of countries where there were laws against homosexuality at the time the blog was initially set up – however now there are only 72 countries.

I guess this shows progress, it also shows you how not to name a blog!

Sources:

International Variations in Child Benefit

Most Northern European countries pay parents for having children, through ‘universal child benefit’ – parents get paid no matter what their income. Payments vary from around $2000 in France to over $8000 in Luxembourg.

The United Kingdom is one of the few countries which means-tests its child benefit, so higher income households do not get it.

Most less developed countries such as the United States have no child benefit allowance for new parents.

Source: Vox

Some Questions to consider:

  • To what extent do family policies vary from country to country?
  • Which countries have the most ‘progressive policies’? (You’ll need to say what you mean by progressive!)
  • Which countries have social policies which are the most oppressive to women and children?
  • Why do policies vary from country to country?

Timeline of Social Policies which changed childhood

Below is a timeline of some of the social policies which changed childhood, from the early 19th century through to the present day.

Most people would adopt a ‘March of Progress view‘ and argue that these polices improved the lives of children, however there are some sociologists who see these policies as placing too many restrictions on children.

The main types of social policies which have changed children’s lives are those relating to work, education and child welfare and protection.

This post was written primarily for A-level sociology students studying the families and households module.

The 1833 Factory Act

Made it illegal for textile factories to employ children under the age of 9, and they had to provide at least twelve hours of education a week for children aged between 9-13.

The 1867 Factories Act

Made it illegal for any factory to employ children under the age of 8, and they had to provide all children aged between 8-13 with at least 10 hours of education a week.  

Thomas Barnardo also opened his first children’s home in 1867.

The 1870 Education Act

Mass Education for children aged 5-12 was introduced

This is effectively the introduction of national primary education in Britain, although it wasn’t made compulsory for all 5-12-year olds until 1880, and the quality of education could be very poor indeed in some areas until the Education Reform Act of 1944.

The 1878 Factories and Workshop Act

Banned the employment of children under 10 in Factories.

The 1880 Education Act

Schooling in Britain made compulsory for every child up to the age of 10. Local Education Authorities

1889 – The Prevention of Cruelty towards Children Act, commonly known as the Children’s Charter

This Act gave the State the right, for the first time, to intervene in relationships between parents and their children. The Police could now enter a private residence and make arrests if a child were being mistreated. 

The National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty Towards Children (NSPCC) was established in the same year.

This policy and new institution together laid the foundation for modern child welfare, and the idea that the state could intervene if parents were not being responsible.

The 1908 Children’s Act

This established juvenile courts, so that children would be prosecuted according to different standards from adults.

It also introduced a formal register of Foster Parents, formalising the idea of State approved Foster Parents taking over from ‘removed children’ who had suffered abuse from their biological parents.

The Punishment of Incest Act was introduced in the same year – this made sexual abuse within families a matter for state intervention and punishment, previous to this the Church had been responsible for dealing with this.

1918 – School Leaving Age Raised to 14

The 1944 Education Act

While students of sociology should be familiar with this date as the year in which the Tripartite System was introduced (and students probably familiar with criticising this act!), at the time this was a huge leap forward in the rights of children.

The 1944 Education act was the first time the State really took responsibility for education at a national level, rather than leaving education to Local Education Authorities. The act saw a huge increase in funding for education funding for education and a massive building programme of new secondary modern schools.

The School Leaving Age was also raised to 15.

The 1948 Children’s Act

This established a children’s committee and a children’s officer in each local authority and represents the emergence of ‘child protection and welfare’ being a major responsibility of each Local Authority.

A series of legislation throughout the 1960s and 1970s, often in response to high profile deaths of children at the hands of their parents or foster parents, consolidated children’s social services and safeguarding strategies in Local Authority in the UK.

1973 – School Leaving Age raised to 16

1989 – The Children’s Act

Gave children the right to protection from abuse and exploitation and put child welfare at the heart of everything the Social Services did. It also reinforced the central principle that children were best looked after, wherever possible within families.

1991 – The Child Support Act

This gave children protection in the event of Divorce – it emphasised that prime concern of family courts in a Divorce should be the welfare of the children.

2003 – Every Child Matters

This was a government report following the death of Victoria Climbie

It outlined five key principles that every child should have the right to:

  • Be healthy
  • stay safe
  • enjoy and achieve
  • make a positive contribution
  • achieve economic well-being

The idea was that everyone working within children in any capacity should be ensuring these principles guided their interactions with children.

2013 – Children were required to remain in education or work with training until at least the age of 18.  

Further Legislations

The history of child labour, education and welfare legislation doesn’t stop here, there is more, but I am!

NB Safeguarding is now a big policy agenda, but to my mind it doesn’t really do anything new, it’s just refining and rebranding Every Child Matters and previous policies.

Sources used:

Please click here to return to the main ReviseSociology home page!

The consequences of cutting bursaries for student nurses…

Cutting free tuition and bursaries for student nurses seems to be a good candidate for the one of the worst social policy decisions of the decade…

The NHS is currently critically short of nurses, with 42 000 posts in England unfilled.

This seems to be due to a decision by the Tory party in 2015 to remove free tuition and bursaries for those undertaking nursing courses, requiring nursing students to take out loans to cover their fees and costs of living while studying.

It appears that the prospect of starting a nursing career up to £50K in debt has but people off applying for nursing in droves. Since 2016 nursing applications have dropped by one third, and they are down 40% among mature students.

There seems to be a direct correlation here between the removal of bursaries and people deciding to not do nursing courses, which makes sense given that nursing is a low paid, stressful and low status career: who would want to start out £50K in debt?

In 2015, it was projected that the policy would have saved £1 billion a year, but this is almost certainly not going to be the case as it is estimated that nearly 50% of loans to student nurses will be written off because they will never earn above the repayment threshold, and because of the requirement to hire nurses through more expensive agencies.

It is estimated that replacing agency nurses with regular full-time nurses would save the NHS £560 million a year.

Why did the Tories introduce this policy?

It could be due a total disconnect between elite Tories and the kinds of people doing nursing degrees. Most Tories will have no idea what it’s like living on marginal wages and  the difference bursaries can make down at the bottom of the pay scale.

Or it might be ideological – deliberately done to put the NHS in crisis and make it more expensive to run, justifying (in a downward spiral) the further outsourcing and selling off for profit later. Tories don’t need it after all, they have private health care.

It can’t be due to any rational decision making as this policy clearly makes no financial sense on any level.

Sources 

https://www.rcn.org.uk/news-and-events/news/removing-the-student-nurse-bursary-has-been-a-disaster

The Week

 

 

 

How does social policy affect family life – Summary Grid

A summary grid of how five social policies might affect different aspects of family life. Designed to help students revise for A-level sociology – the families and households topic.

Picture below and then text version after!

Policy First Thoughts – How might this policy affect family life in the UK? More specifically will this support or undermine the conventional nuclear family?   Who does this policy benefit?

 

The 1969 and 1984 Divorce Acts  ·      Increases divorce and thus single parent, single person and reconstituted households

 

·      Undermine ·      Women (in abusive relationships)
Maternity and Paternity Acts ·      Should make relationships between men and women more equal

 

 

·      Undermine ·      Women (encourages men to become primary child carers)

·      And men – easier for them to be stay at home dads)

The Civil Partnership and Gay Marriage Acts ·      Reduces stigma against same sex relationships

·      Encourages more same sex families

 

·      Undermine ·      Same sex couples (reduction of stigma)
Universal Child Benefits ·      Encourage (poorer) parents to have more children, larger families

 

·      Support ·      Families with children

·      children

Income Support for Single Parents ·      Reduce the number of single parents

 

 

 

 

·      Support (recent changes make it more difficult for single parents to claim benefits) ·      (losers) single parents

£100 Million Extra to Combat Homelessness – Simply not Good Enough?

The British government recently announced an additional £100 million of funding to tackle chronic homelessness in Britain. Chronic homelessness means those sleeping rough on the streets, rather than much larger numbers of invisible homeless: consisting of people in temporary accommodation or sleeping on friends’ couches.

The additional funding will pay for a three pronged ‘attack’ on homelessness:

  • £50 million for houses to be built outside of London, for people currently ready to move on from hostels
  • £30 million for mental health support for those sleeping rough.
  • Further funding to help people move on from prison into secure accommodation.

There is also funding available to provide more information and support to help those on the streets navigate their way out of homelessness, as well as the promise of research into the nature and extent of LGBT homelessness, currently a very under-researched area.

How effective is this social policy likely to be in combating homelessness?

Probably highly ineffective…

  • That funding is over 10 years – to 2027. There are an estimated 4751 people currently sleeping rough on any given night. If you divide £100 million by that figure, and then by 10 (10 years), the government is only committing an additional £2000 per person per year to combating homelessness. This doesn’t sound like a huge amount of money compared to the cost of housing, for example.
  • We have to understand this ‘additional funding’ in the context of the wider Tory cuts since 2010 – which have been linked to the increase in homelessness this decade…. 169% increase since 2010.
  • Finally, this policy does nothing to combat the much more widespread problem of households living in temporary accommodation -of which there are nearly 80, 000, again a figure which has increased under the Tory government since 2010.

In Conclusion…..

Maybe this is more about creating some positive news for the government rather than it being any serious attempt at combating homelessness.. £100 million is nice round, easy soundbite type of figure, yet in the grand scheme of what’s needed to tackle social problems, it is almost certainly insufficient to make a real difference to a significant number of people.

Image Source

Homeless

 

 

Nudge Politics: a sociological analysis

‘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.

It’s been 10 years since economist Richer Thaler and law professor Cass Sunstein published ‘Nudge: Improving Decisions About Health, Wealth and Hapiness‘.

Nudge book.jpgThe 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.

Relevance to A-level sociology

The most obvious relevance is to the social policy aspect of the theory and methods specification.

Find out more…

Image sources 

Nudge book cover

This post will also be published to the steem blockchain. 

What should we do about childhood obesity?

Some arguments for the government’s recent policy proposals to tackle childhood obesity.

The governments new plans to tackle childhood obesity hit the headlines this weekend, but how much of a ‘problem’ is childhood obesity, and is the government right to try and tackle this at all?

1 in 3 children in the U.K. is either overweight or obese by the time they leave primary school, with those from deprived areas twice as likely to be affected.

childhood obesity UK 2018.png

There are some pretty obvious downsides to childhood obesity to both the individual and society – such as the increased risk of obesity related illnesses such as diabetes, and estimated annual cost to the NHS of > £billion/ year.

The government today announced a set of measures designed to halve the number of children suffering from obesity by 2030, which included

  • A ban on the sale of energy drinks to children.
  • A uniform calorie labeling system to be introduced in all restaurants, cafes and takeaways.
  • Shops are to banned from displaying unhealthy food at checkouts and entrances
  • Shops are to banned from including unhealthy food in special offers.
  • Primary schools would be asked to introduce an “active mile” to encourage children to be more active, including daily running sessions and an emphasis on walking and cycling to school.

The plan forms the second chapter of the government’s childhood obesity strategy. The first chapter was criticized for being too weak when it was published two years ago.

Given the increase in childhood obesity, this seems to be like a timely intervention:

childhood obesity stats UK.png

Arguments for banning advertising junk food to children

There is strong evidence that children who are more exposed to advertising are more likely to eat more junk food, which is a starting point argument for banning the ads.

Even if you argue that is is the parents’ responsibility to control what their kids eat, the fact that in reality, it is simply impossible for parents to regulate every aspect of their children’s lives: kids are going to go online and be exposed to whatever’s there: better that junk food adverts are not.

This move ‘fits into’ the general movement towards more child protection. In fact, I think it’s odd that junk food manufactures have been exempt from doing harm to children (by pushing their products onto them) for so long.

It might help make childhood a little less ‘Toxic’, and help reduce pester power, making adult-child relations a little more harmonious.

Arguments against…

Those of a liberal persuasion would probably be against even more state intervention in the lives of families, however I personally don’t see these policies as ‘intervening’ in the lives of families, they are more about forcing companies to restrain their marketing of unhealthy food to children, so personally I can’t think of any decent arguments against these government policies…… suggestions welcome in the comments!

Sources:

Solutions to the ‘Crisis of Masculinity’

In the final section of Zimbardo and Coulombe’s ‘Man Disconnected’ the authors outline a few suggestions about how to combat the crisis faced by young men around the world. The post summarizes chapters 16-21).

Before reading this you might like to read the following posts:

  1. Man Disconnected, which summarizes the evidence that young men are in crisis (chapters 1-7)
  2. Man Disconnected summary part 2: why are young men in crisis? #1 (chapters 8-10)
  3. Man Disconnected summary part 3: why are young men in crisis #2 (chapter 11) – technology enchantment and arousal addiction
  4. Man Disconnected summary part 4: why are young men in crisis? #3 (chapters 12-15)

Solutions to the Crisis of Masculinity

Zimbardo and Coulombe break down their solutions to focus on what governments, schools, parents, men, women and finally the media can do…

What governments can do:

  • Support the role of the father
  • Limit the use of endocrine-disruptors
  • Get more men into grade school teaching positions
  • Get junk food out of schools
  • Improve how schools prepare students for their lives ahead

What schools can do:

  • Teach life skills
  • Incorporate new technology for more interactive learning
  • Quash grade inflation

What parents can do:

  • Teach children to be resilient by letting them organise their own play and take risks
  • Give children responsibility for important tasks within the family
  • Encourage children to think about a future career, and to explore vocational options
  • Discussing taboo topics like sex
  • Fathers need to priorities fatherhood
  • Get children to track how much time they spend on different activities

What men can do:

  • Turn off the porn
  • Track your activity and consider what else you could be doing!
  • Play sports
  • Make your bed (small accomplishments lead to bigger accomplishments)
  • Discover your inner power
  • Make a few female friends
  • Don’t call women sluts
  • Find a mentor, be a mentor
  • Vote

What women can do

  • Mothers and sisters basically need to encourage the strength and hardness associated with manhood, while having the depth of character and emotional sensitivity to help men become better communicators.
  • Don’t be promiscuous – because this just sends out the message to men that they will always have a string of available sexual partners
  • Choose a ‘good partner’ rather than a ‘flash partner’ – there are plenty of ‘good men’ (who want long term relationships) being overlooked because they are ‘drowned out’ on dating sites by better looking men who have no genuine interest in commitment.

Zimbardo’s final chapter is a brief one on what the media (especially the porn and gaming industries) can do to help stem the crisis of masculinity.

 

Russell Brand’s Wedding Present for Harry and Meghan

A Windsor counsellor recently suggested that the homeless of Windsor should be cleared off the streets in time for Harry and Meghan’s wedding.

One person (probably among many others) that’s not happy about this is Russell Brand, who pointed out that yet again it’s the marginalised and powerless who are being made to suffer so that the elite can have a ‘jolly nice time’.

He outlines his views in this brief, 5 minute video clip:

One of this suggestions is that Slough Council should hand over one its buildings to SHOC ‘Slough Homeless Our Concern’, so at least there is some real, tangible, extra support being made available for the homeless in the area.

You can sign an online petition in support of the idea here>

Relevance to A level sociology

I thought this was a cheeky little example to highlight how the marginalised get treated in this country, also illustrates elements of the social construction of crime – in that ‘homelessness’ becomes more of a problem when the context (the impending wedding) approaches.

Also – here we have celebrity Russell Brand, a ‘moral entrepreneur’ spearheading a very specific, niche, social policy campaign (/suggested intervention) via his YouTube channel – there’s something very postmodern about all of this…