Marxism and Culture

Culture is what distinguishes humans from animals, but under Capitalism culture becomes a tool of the elite used to repress the masses. However, there is capacity for individuals to rise above false consciousness and usher in communism which is where the spontaneous production of culture can happen under free conditions.

Marx argued that human labour was integral to an individual’s sense of identity and the wider culture of a society.

In the Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts Marx argued that it was work, or consciously transforming nature, which distinguished humans from animals, and it was through the creative process of work that man came to recognised himself as human.

For Marx the ideal-state of society was one in which individuals freely organised themselves into groups and collectively engaged in work, intentionally and consciously using their labour power to meet their own physical and aesthetic needs.

In fact for Marx, the origins of culture lie in the capacity of men to collectively organise and consciously produce things, especially those things which are over and above what individuals need to survive.

The material conditions and social relations of a society shape culture to an extent – in Marx’s view there is an ideal state he calls communism which is where there is no private property and under these material conditions man is the most free to use his labour power to express his humanity to its fullest extent.

Under such ‘ideal conditions’ the cultures which emerge are (in my interpretation of Marx) just spontaneous human cultures, as ‘good’ as it gets.

However under the unequal material conditions of class stratified societies, it is the culture of elite class which emerges as the dominant one which in turn becomes a tool to oppress the minority who live in a state of unfreedom and false consciousness.

Alienation and Culture

According to Marx, the ideal-state for humanity is that they live in social conditions which allow them the freedom to fulfil their material needs and aesthetic desires through the creative process of creating things using their imagination.

However, historically the emergence of the concept of Private Property and the accumulation of this property by a few gave rise to Capitalism. Under capitalism a handful of people own and control the means of production which means the majority do not own them which thus means the masses cease to exist in a state of freedom.

Under capitalism the majority lose their freedom to organise their own labour, instead they end up having to work for those who own the means of production, in places such as factories, in order to survive, and they thus lose control over their creative-productive process, and also their very sense of humanity and culture. It was this condition which Marx referred to as Alienation.

So for Marx, the ideal state is that human culture emerges through the individuals freely engaging in productive activities, but the emergence of Private Property and Capitalist inequalities distorts this process, alienating the masses because they are no longer free to organise create their own cultures through their own productive processes.

Culture as Ruling Class Ideology

Marx argued that in class-stratified societies the dominant culture came from the ruling class…..

“The ideas of the ruling class are, in every age, the ruling ideas… the dominant ideas are nothing more than the ideal expression of the dominant material relationships grasped as ideas.”

In Capitalist societies the dominant class was the Bourgeoisie (the owners of the mans of production) and they used their economic power to shape the dominant culture (norms and values) in capitalist society in the 19th century.

We see this especially in Marx’s ideas about the role of religion in society – Christianity in the 19th century was mainly a conservative force which encouraged the poor to know their place in society, respect authority, work hard and seek their rewards in heaven.

Hence Marx saw culture as part of the superstructure of society – with (for example) religious ideas helping to maintain a system of norms and values (a culture) which benefitted existing elites by preventing the spreading of more revolutionary ideas and thus keeping the existing unequal material relations in place.

Some later Marxists such as Adorno applied Marx’s theory to how the mass media works along similar lines in modern societies – with the media effectively keeping the massive passive and stupid and preventing social change.

However even Marx and Engels themselves admitted that the material infrastructure does not entirely determine culture, there is room for some alternative cultures to emerge besides the dominant culture.

Culture as a Reflection of Class Differences

One interpretation of Marx and Engels’ perspective on culture in relation to social class is that different classes will have different cultures, because culture reflects the material conditions in which people live, and there are material differences between social classes.

However Engels himself recognised that aspects of culture could transcend class origins, at least in the sphere of literature where some writers were concerned.

Using the example of Goethe Engles noted that he both celebrated German culture, which reflected his comfortable middle class origins, but he was also clearly disgusted by the wretchedness of his surroundings.

Thus Engels argues that while literature and other forms of art do generally reflect the class origins of those producing them, there is the capacity for individuals to break free of false consciousness and perceive social injustices.

This capacity for individuals and their cultural products to break free of their material conditions is in fact essential for Marx and Engels’ theory of social change to work.

The end point for Marxist Theory is the transition from Capitalism to Communism via revolution, and for that to happen the working classes need to break free from their chains, and to do that they have to break free of false consciousness and be able to see ruling class ideology as false.

Signposting and related posts

This material in this post is relevant to the Culture and Identity module, usually taught as part of the first year of study for AQA’s sociology specification.

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The bombing of the Dover Refugee Centre: An Act of Terrorism….?

The plight of migrants coming to the UK in boats has been highlighted this week with the bombing of an immigration centre by a pensioner who then went on to kill himself.

The article above by The Guardian raises the question of why the police aren’t treating this attack as an act of terrorism, as it certainly seems like it is.

For an act to be classed as a terrorist act there needs to be proof that there is political motive behind it, and given that the man drove from Buckinghamshire and seemingly deliberately targeted an immigration centre in Dover, this seems to be a violent statement against migration and against asylum seekers more generally.

This act may yet be classified as terrorist once the police complete a search of the man’s house, but it strikes me that had this been, for example, a person that looked like a Muslim throwing petrol bombs at a church, that would probably be labelled as a terrorist act immediately.

Why such extreme acts against an immigration centre…?

This act is probably a protest against the recent rapid increase in migrants coming to the UK in boats from France.

There is some underlying data that shows this kind of migrant crossing has increased rapidly in recent years…

Over the last two years there really has been a RAPID increase…

  • 10 000 in 2020
  • 30 000 in 2021 (a trebling)
  • 40 000 so far in 2022.

Historically the UK has relatively low asylum applications compared to some other European countries…..

Asylum Statistics UK

And assuming that all of those people coming to the UK by boat are going to go on and claim asylum, and these are just the people arriving by boat (rather than other means) this probably means the UK is going to see a marked increase in the number of Asylum claims in 2022, bringing it closer to Germany and France for example.

But of course this doesn’t justify violence against Asylum seekers in the form of petrol bombing migration centres.

We have to keep in mind that asylum seekers are themselves victims already – victims of persecution in their own country, victims quite simply of being born on the wrong side of the global divide and they are just trying to escape to a better life.

Why this violence against asylum seekers …?

Sensationalist reporting of there being ‘an invasion’ of refugees desperately trying to get the UK doesn’t help matters, and neither does the Home Secretary using the same emotive language.

Such discourse and portrayals of refugees only helps to demonise them and maybe helps to encourage people to engage in violent acts against them, because such rhetoric makes people think they are in the right to act against refugees.

There’s also the fact that it takes so long to process asylum claims that huge numbers of people are waiting to claim asylum and in a state of limbo… still in the statistics because they are not processed. If they were processed faster they could integrate more quickly into Britain, get jobs and there would be no problem!

However in the eyes of many immigrants themselves are a problem of course – racism is still rife in the UK and migrants are a handy scapegoat for our current cost of living crisis – someone to target someone to point to and say ‘no money for them, get rid of them, we can’t afford them’.

A brief Marxist analysis of violence against refugees…

  • Global capitalism causes global inequalities and conflict which causes crises
  • Refugees flee various crises caused by Capitalism
  • Some of them come to Britain
  • Poor people in Britain who are themselves victims of being on the wrong side of the internal inequalities caused by Capitalism blame the migrants for making their lives worse by taking up more national resources.
  • Egged on by right wing political opportunists such as Nigel Farage.

Rather what needs to happen is the many victims of the world need to come together and realise they have solidarity and work together to make the world a better place and maybe get rid of the structural inequalities that make the world such an unstable place!

The Bombing of Migration Centres: Final Thoughts…

The number of refugees probably isn’t going to go down in coming years so maybe we need to think more constructively about how refugees and asylum seekers could be useful to us – we do apparently have labour shortages in some sectors of the economy and we are facing an ageing population – most asylum seekers are young men who could help solve both of these social problems if they were just processed through the system more quickly!

Signposting and Relevance to A-Level Sociology

Events such as this bombing are a painful reminder that we are a long way from value consensus in our society, and they are also a reminder that there are many other conflict zones in the world besides Ukraine.

They remind us that Britain is forced to constantly react to global forces outside of its control.

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Socialisation

Socialisation is the process whereby an individual learns the norms and values of a culture.

Giddens and Sutton (2017) provide a lengthier definition:

For sociologists socialization is the process whereby the helpless human infant becomes a self-aware, knowledgeable person, skilled in the ways of the culture into which he or she was born. Socialization of the young allows for more general phenomenon of social reproduction – the process through which societies achieve structural continuity overtime.

Agencies of socialisation

Agencies of socialisation refer to groups, social contexts or institutions in which socialisation takes place. The main agencies of socialisation include:

  • The family
  • Friendship and peer groups
  • School (education)
  • Social Media circles
  • The mass media
  • Any voluntary groups or clubs people might be a part of
  • Religion (for those who are religious!)
  • The workplace

In post-industrial societies socialisation is a complex process involving hundreds of thousands (possibly millions) of micro-interactions on a day to day basis within the context wider power relations – such as school, work, social media, and economic and political ‘structures’.

Social interactions over the life course within all of these contexts help individuals learn the specific norms of each context and the more general norms which make up their broader culture.

Socialisation isn’t just a passive process in which individuals ‘soak up’ and passively accept already existing norms and values… individuals have the capacity to reflect on the culture presented to them and change the way other people think, feel and act and thus have the capacity to change culture through the socialisation process.

Of course different individuals have different levels of desire and ability to change the culture into which they are socialised. As a general rule children have less ability to enact change compared to adults, while adults with more money, status and visibility have more power to change cultures than others.

For the most part, individuals accept most of the basic norms into which they are socialised – such as language, dress codes in the broader sense (i.e. actually wearing some clothes), being generally polite to people, not being violent, and the concept of working for a living.

However it also true that many people will go through a rebellious phase at certain times of their lives – the most well known of these include toddlers having tantrums and teenagers rebelling, but for the most part most people end up accepting and abiding by most of our already existing norms and values.

There are a minority of individuals for whom the socialisation process is one of rejecting the culture with which they are presented, and for these people socialisation may not be a smooth process – if a child rejects school rules for example they are handed out punishments, maybe even excluded permanently; if someone rejects the social norm of ‘having to work for a living’ they may end up unemployed and living on the streets.

As a final word on this topic individuals who reject ‘mainstream culture’ often go on to form subcultures – of which there are many in postmodern society – everything from Gay Pride to prison gangs and from Goths to Furries can be regarded as forms of subculture – the existence of which offers people who don’t feel a connection with mainstream agencies (such as education or work) a chance to belong to something they actually identify with.

For further information on this you might like to explore the culture of identity further and the relevant posts under the Crime and Deviance section.

Primary socialisation

Sociologists typically distinguish between two broad phases of socialisation: Primary Socialisation and Secondary Socialisation.

Primary socialisation occurs in infancy and childhood and is the most intense phase of learning.

This first phases of socialisation primarily takes place within the family and it is when the child learns the most fundamental norms of their culture such as language, basic manners, and where they start to learn gender.

In the United Kingdom today most children spend most of their early childhoods (pre-school age) in their family domestic unit with their parents and siblings being the main influencers on their socialisation, but there is considerable variation in family structures today – most children are socialised in nuclear families, but a significant minority are socialised in single parent or reconstituted families.

There is also a lot of global variation – in many cultures around the world grandparents, uncles and aunts continue to play a significant role in the primary socialisation of children.

Secondary Socialisation

There is no clear moment when primary socialisation begins and secondary socialisation starts, but the three main agencies associated with the later are education, peer groups, the media, and work.

Education or school

In developed societies with well established education systems children spend at least 30 hours a week (during term time) at school from the age of five where their interactions are highly regulated by the school environment.

School may well be where children are introduced to formal collective rules for the first time – such as uniforms, timetables and codes of conducts.

Thus in terms of time spent during later childhood, school is certainly a main agency of secondary socialisation, especially once we factor in how the school day and week can be extended by journeys to and from school, after school clubs and homework.

Peer Groups

Most children have friendship groups from a young age, typically children who live locally, children of their parent’s friends or siblings.

It is difficult to assess the important of friends in the socialisation process, but friendship is usually one of the most important aspects in the life of individuals and shouldn’t be underestimate – people increasingly report their friends as being ‘ their family’ for example.

When a child gets to school their peer group will typically extend massively such that a child has to start to learn to ‘get on’ with larger groups most of whom they won’t have intimate relationships with, essential to get on in larger societies.

The Media

Simply in terms of time spent online, the media increasingly becomes an important agency of secondary socialisation as children get older.

Historical sociological perspectives such as The Hypodermic Syringe Model saw the media as having a direct and largely negative influence on children – teaching them to be passive consumers in a capitalist society for example, and children were seen as passive receptors.

However, it is clear today that children are much more active users of a diverse array of mainstream and social media and there is much more interaction going on and a massive diversity of experience, such that it is incredibly difficult to make generalisations about the experience of socialisation via the media.

The workplace and other institutions

Secondary socialisation continues all through adult life – getting one’s first and then subsequent jobs will usually require an individual to not only learn the new formal requirements of the job role but also the more informal norms of the working culture.

Socialisation within Sociology

Socialisation is one the major concepts within sociology, and in my experience you will usually find the concept explored in three main areas:

  • Firstly in the introductory sections of text books, it is fundamental!
  • Secondly in social theory – conceptions have changed as social theory has ‘evolved’ from Functionalism through to Social Interactionism for example
  • Thirdly in the ‘life course’ – which may have links to Child Development – Giddens and Sutton (2017) do it this way.
  • Finally as part of Crime and Deviance – socialisation being a part of social control. Abercrombie (2005) does this.

SignPosting

This post was primarily written for A-level sociology students studying the Culture and Identity option within A-level Sociology.

You might also like my introductory post on culture, socialisation and social norms.

NB – I use the correct spelling of socialisation in the title of this post and anywhere I haven’t quoted sociologists who use the incorrect American spelling.

Interestingly I doubt very much that Giddens, being English, would spell ‘socialisation’ with a Z in the middle, it’s most likely that the editors have modified this to fit in with a global American audience.

Sources

(1) Giddens and Sutton (2017) Sociology, Polity Press.

(2) Abercrombie (2005) Sociology, Polity.

What is Culture?

A simplified sociological definition of culture is ‘the whole way of life of a group of people’, which is abbreviated from Ralph Linton’s (1945) more extensive definition of the term:

‘The culture of a society is the way of life of its members; the collection of ideas and habits which they learn, share and transmit from generation to generation’.

Culture is usually contrasted to nature, with ‘culture’ referring to ‘all which is symbolic: the learned… aspects of human society’ (Jencks 1993) whereas ‘nature’ refers to everything that exists without human intervention.

According to Raymond Williams (1976) culture is one of the most complicated words in the English language, and in a deep exploration of the concept by Jencks (1993) identified four different ways in which the term culture is used in contemporary society….

Four uses of the word culture

Culture as a State of Mind

Possible usage: ‘She’s a very cultured individual’.

People sometimes describe particular individuals as ‘cultured’ as in ‘she’s a very cultured individual’.

This is an individualistic use of the word, which usually implies that ‘cultured individuals’ have more desirable traits to those who are not cultured.

Often this usage of the term refers to culture as ‘refined taste’ – the cultured individual is someone who has a knowledge of the arts and manners as is able to to distinguish themselves ‘above’ those without such tastes.

However it might also refer to an individual who has a lot of learned experience – someone who has familiarity with a lot of different cultures and has picked up a lot of skills and knowledge which enables them to function at a ‘higher level’ than most people – such as being very skilled technically or speaking many languages fluently.

Culture as Civilisation

This usage implies that some societies are more civilised than others and was a common usage among Westerners during the colonial era.

For example, the evolutionary thinker Herbert Spencer used the term ‘culture’ in this way – seeing Western societies as more ‘cultured’ than those in Africa and Asia; with the term ‘culture’ here being effectively a synonym for ‘civilisation’.

The common conception of the colonies by Europeans was that they were more ‘savage’ than the more civilised countries in Europe and thus inferior.

This of course was an entirely ethnocentric view, based largely on an inability of the colonialists to really ‘see’ the complex cultures which already existed in ‘their’ new territories.

As with the first usage this is an elitist concept.

Culture as a collective body of artistic work

This is a common sense usage of the term which you will often here in the mainstream media.

‘Culture’ in this sense is the arts – it is music, literature and theatre, for example, and is often seen as part of the domain of leisure rather than of work, and something which is done as a performance by ‘artists’ to be enjoyed by audiences.

The BBC Culture website – uses the word ‘culture’ in this way!

Culture as the way of Life of a People

This final usage is the more sociological definition of culture – referring to all of the learned habits, norms and traditions that are passed down from one generation to the next.

In this sense culture is everywhere in the social world and we find it in every social setting and institution – in schools, the workplace, politics, and more informally in leisure spaces, simply outside in the high street, on public transport, it’s everywhere.

It’s fair to say that it might be difficult to pinpoint a set of norms and values that everyone shares at the national level, although the idea of there being a distinct ‘British’ or ‘French’ culture still makes sense to most people.

However you need to be mindful that this is an extremely high level of generalisation which risks drifting into stereotyping!

Sources – Find out More!

Adapted from Haralambos and Holborn (2013) Sociology Themes and Perspectives, edition 8.

Jencks, C (1993) Culture

Williams, R (1976) Developments in the Sociology of Culture

Linton, R (1945) The Cultural Background of Personality

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Four Types of Culture

Folk culture, mass or popular culture, high culture and low culture

Culture is one of the most complex terms in the English language. This post summarises four ways in which the term is most commonly used…

  • Folk culture
  • Mass or Popular culture
  • High culture
  • Low culture

Folk Culture

Folk culture refers to the every day practices of ordinary local peoples, often rooted in long-standing traditions dating back to the pre-industrial era.

Folk cultures are usually rooted in one specific place and unique to that place.

There are thousands of different folk cultures all over the world, which have emerged from the ordinary day to day lives of ordinary peoples and their practices have been passed down, often orally (through word of mouth) from generation to generation.

The term ‘folk culture’ is used to refer to both specific cultural practices and whole cultures, and examples include Morris dancing in England, folk singing such as Mongolian throat singing, Choctaw (Native American) story telling and the whole of the Amish culture is also referred to as a ‘folk culture’…

Morris Dancing in England – a form of folk culture

Folk culture is thus about lived experience and is usually locally based, in one place rather than global.

Folk cultures are usually seen as part of the authentic, lived experience of real people, although you will often see ‘mock versions’ of historical folk culture played out for the benefit of tourists, in which case many aspects of the original ‘folk culture’s may have been changed over the years to make them more entertaining (NB this has possibly happened with Morris Dancing!)

Popular Culture

Popular culture refers to cultural products manufactured by entrepreneurs and media companies in modern capitalist societies which are produced for mass consumption, the aim being to reach a wide audience typically with the aim of making a profit.

Popular culture products are thus not organic like folk cultures, they do not emerge out of day to day to interaction between ordinary people, rather they are produced by professionals with an instrumental purpose – to entertain and make money.

Examples of popular culture include television programmes (think of the most popular shows on Netflix), box-office films, pop music and popular literature (Harry Potter), and of course the more modern forms which combine several of these into one such as the X FACTOR…

A whole 45 minutes just on their X Factor journey!

Critics of popular culture tend to refer to it as ‘mass culture‘ – for the purposes of A-level sociology you can think of ‘mass culture’ as a derogatory term for ‘popular culture’.

Critics tend to see what they call ‘mass culture’ as being formulaic and simplistic, and very easy to watch lots of it – which has the affect of pacifying people by preventing them from engaging with more complex forms of high culture or more critical content – rather an endless stream of popular culture products keep people happy and stupid, like a king of modern day ‘opium of the masses’

High Culture

High Culture refers to cultural products which are perceived by some to be the pinnacle or creative achievement and thus to have a higher status in society.

Examples of ‘high culture’ include classical music, opera and ballet, classical literature and historical works of art and sculptures…

A performance of the Opera La Boheme – an example of high culture…?

Enjoyment of such works forms part of the identity of the political and economic elite of many European societies, and the elite who patronise these types of ‘high’ cultural products tend to see them as superior to other forms of leisure and culture which are more widely enjoyed by the masses.

This notion of elitism and superiority is an important aspect of High Culture – there is an idea that such cultural forms require a high level of skill to produce and thus are extremely rare, and that it requires a certain amount of refinement and distinction to enjoy them.

Indeed, ‘enjoyment’ is not sufficient to understand the norms which surround the ‘experience’ of ‘high culture’ – in fact ‘appreciation’ might be a more accurate word because to truly enjoy the works above requires an understanding which is usually learned through many years of experience…

Opera for example may well be in a foreign language, classical literature requires a high level of reading skill and music is better understood with a personal background of having learned a classic instrument yourself.

Thus part of the experience of high culture is very much about the elite distinguishing themselves from the non-elite.

NB organisations such as the Royal Ballet and the Royal Opera house have been making attempts for many years to make opera and ballet more accessible to a wider range of people, so the boundaries between elite and popular culture may be becoming more blurred over time!

Low Culture

Low culture is a derogatory term used to refer to cultures which are seen as inferior or of low or no value.

For example the elite classes might refer to popular culture as ‘low culture’ to denote the fact that it is inferior to ‘high culture’ which they see as more refined , nuanced and/ or complex, requiring more learning and effort to fully appreciate, which thus makes it superior to the more accessible popular culture.

Historically, many folk cultures would have been viewed as ‘low cultures’ by colonialists and other agents of modernity who believed that the whole point of the modernist project was to use science and rationality to bring about social progress, effectively washing away inferior traditional cultures which were rooted in tradition and superstition .

Tasks and Find out More

You might like to visit the Royal Opera House website – have a click around the site and decide for yourself whether you think Opera is really an elite cultural form today.

SignPosting

This post should be useful for students studying the first year option in A-level Sociology Culture and Identity option (AQA)

Sources

Morris Dancing Picture – By Tim Green from Bradford – Morris Dancers, York, CC BY 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=51786023

La Boheme picture – https://www.metopera.org/season/2022-23-season/la-boheme/

This blog post was adapted from Chapman et al (2015) Sociology AQA A-level Year 1.

Feminism and Malestream Sociology

Some Feminists argue that early sociology was ‘malestream’ – meaning it was mainly focused on studying boys and men and theorising about women’s roles by Functionalists (for example) was itself patriarchal. This post explores whether sociology is still malestream today.

Malestream sociology is a term developed by Feminist theorists who argue that early sociology was dominated by men and thus produced a biased male-centred account of the social world.

According to Abbot Wallace and Tyler (2005) early sociological studies and theories variously ignore or distort (through a male lens) the experience of women and girls altogether; fail to acknowledge that women are subordinated to men; and fail to take account of the fact that women’s experience of this subordination is an important factor in explaining women’s experiences and positions in the social structure.

The material below should be useful to students studying the the theory part of the theory and methods module and is summarised from the book linked and pictured immediately above.

Five Feminist Criticisms of Malestream Sociology

Abbot, Wallace and Tyler (2005) identified five main criticisms of ‘malestream’ sociology which have been developed by Feminists.

Traditional sociology was mainly focused on studying boys and men in most fields of study.

Studies using all male samples have been generalised to all people, including women.

Areas of social life which have traditionally been part of the female-domain were neglected in early sociology – for example there were no sociological studies on housework or childcare until the early 1970s.

On the rare occasion when women were the focus of sociological studies they were often theorised about in stereotypical ways. For example Pollack, who studied female criminals argued that women tended to commit more ‘devious’ (hidden) crimes such as murdering by poison (which often went undetected) because they were used to faking orgasms from their partners which made them good at hiding crimes.

Abbot et al themselves suggest that early theorising about women’s roles by Functionalists was kind of ideological. For example, Parsons developed his social systems theory in which ‘every existing role had a function that contributed to the maintenance of the whole’ – and women’s role within the family was to be the care-givers and domestic labourers.

In the final point above, what Parsons (and Functionalists more generally) failed to consider was that their conception of women’s roles in society was itself part of a patriarchal world view which itself contributed to maintaining that patriarchy.

Feminising Sociology – Differential Progress

Abbot and Wallace accept the fact that sociology has become less malestream since the 1970s, but progress towards including the study of women and the inclusion of women in studying society has been variable, depending on the general topic areas.

Some topic areas have been more fully reconstructed from feminist perspectives – such as cultural sociology, and the sociology of the body, identity and sexuality.

In other areas ‘full reconstruction’ has not taken place but Feminism has made ‘significant progress’ – such as the sociology of the family and education.

And then there are some areas where Feminism has not made much of an impact such as social theory and the sociology of class and stratification.

Dealing with MaleStream Sociology

Feminists generally agree that something needs to be done to make sociology less male-dominated, but disagree over what strategies to adopt.

Some Feminists emphasis an ‘integration‘ approach – suggesting that Feminists need to simply fill in the gaps of existing research. However Abbot and Wallace reject this approach, arguing that any Feminist research that is ‘tagged on’ to existing malestream sociology will be marginalised. In short, this approach does nothing to tackle the subordination of women within sociology itself.

Separatism supports a ‘sociology for women by women’ which argues that women need to break away from malestream sociology and conduct their own research completely apart from established sociology. Abbot and Wallace are more sympathetic to this approach but suggest there is a risk that such a separate Feminist sociology would still end up being marginalised by the dominant malestream established sociology.

A third approach, suggested by Abbot and Wallace is that of ‘reconceptualisation‘ – in which existing sociological studies and theories are reworked to fully incorporate the experiences of women; and any future research is to be rejected unless it can explain the experiences of both men and women fully.

In this final approach, the idea is to embed Feminism into sociology such that the discipline can apply to all genders, not just men, and while difficult to achieve Abbot and Wallace believe that progress is possible.

Is Contemporary Sociology still Malestream in 2022?

Abbot and Wallace made the observations above in 2005, almost 20 years ago now, so you might like to think about the extent to which their observations are still true today.

Certainly in A-level Sociology text books if you read through the social theories sections, the vast majority of the theories are by men, but this might just be because these text books are themselves dated and contain limited material from after 2010 themselves!

Certainly there are sections on sex and gender inequalities within every major topic area, so gender issues are firmly embedded within the specification but I am not convinced they are dealt with as thoroughly as other areas.

One area that is severely lacking IMO is the broader study of sexuality, beyond just men and women but looking at the experiences of LGBTQ individuals.

This is an interesting question for A-level sociology students to consider as they progress through their studies.

Sources/ Find out More

This post was adapted from Haralambos and Holborn(2013) Sociology Themes and Perspectives 8th Edition.

Abbot Wallace and Tyler (2005) An Introduction to Sociology, Feminist Perspectives

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What is the Cost of Living Crisis?

The cost of living crisis is a social problem in Britain in 2022. It is when the cost of basic goods such as gas, electricity and food increase rapidly and faster than average wages, pushing more people into poverty. This post explores what items have increased in price, and who is affected the most.

The cost of living crisis is a situation in which the cost of basic, essential items such as food and energy bills have increased rapidly in a short period of time, and much faster than average household wages. 

This means that millions of people in the UK suddenly find themselves struggling to pay for basic items such as gas and electricity, rent, fuel for the car and food because these are a lot more expensive in Autumn 2022 than they were In Autumn 2021, while most people’s wages have not increased anywhere near as quickly. 

The Increasing Cost of Living in the UK in 2022

The Cost of Living in the UK increased by 10.1 in the year to August 2022.

The UK government measures this increase in the cost of living (known as ‘inflation’) using the Consumer Price Index (CPI) , which monitors the prices of over 800 goods and services and uses the average changes in price to provide an average inflation figure over the year.

According to the CPI to this the inflation rate was 10.1% in the UK between August 2021 and August 2022…

Consumer Price Inflation to August 2022

That means that if it cost you £1000 a month for rent, transport, food and stuff in August 2021 it would have cost you £1100 to buy the same goods and services in August 2022

If this average rate of inflation continues into 2023, which is likely, then it will cost you £1210 to buy the same products in August next year.

What items have increased in price and how rapidly?

You can actually see from the graph above that the main drivers of the increasing cost of living are:

  • Household costs including services – which mainly means gas and electricity
  • Fuel costs – the cost of filling the car or van with petrol or diesel
  • Food costs.

Electricity and gas prices have seen the most dramatic increase in recent months.

10 year trend in domestic electricity prices UK. Source: Nimblefins

Between 2010 and 2021 Electricity prices increased at around an average of less than 10% a year, and some years prices even went down compared to previous years. However prices increased very rapidly between 2021 and 2022 and are set to increase even more rapidly to 2023.

The average price for electricity was 19.6 pence per Kilowatt hour in 2021, but this is set to increase to 34 pence per Kilowatt hour by early 2023, meaning the cost of elecriticty has DOUBLED in less that three years.

The Office for National Statistics prefers to use a baseline index method to show the relative increase of both electricity and gas prices, setting the base index of 100 and showing the same trend as above: that domestic energy prices have doubled in just a couple of years:

Source: Department for Energy, 2022

In it’s September 2022 research briefing the government noted that the cost of gas had risen 96% in the year to August 2022 while the cost of electricity had risen by 54%.

Rising Petrol and Diesel Prices…

Petrol has also increased in price over the last two years, increasing 30% from £1.20 a litre to £1.60 a litre at time of writing in October 2022, having spiked to a high of £1.90 a litre in August.

Rising food Prices…

Food and non-alcoholic drinks were 13.1% higher in August 2022 compared to August 2021.

The Rising Cost of Living Research Briefing.

These figures are only for food bought from shops (mainly supermarkets) which people prepare and eat at home, they exclude restaurant and takeaway food and drink.

The price of some food items have risen more than others – the Food Foundation notes that the prices of milk and dairy, meat and vegetables have risen more than other categories of food, for example.

There is considerable variation in the rate at which different food items have increased but there are many very basic items which have increased considerably, including low fat milk which is up 34%, pasta up 24.4% and even 15.7%.

What’s happened to average wages in 2022?

Inflation wouldn’t be as much of a problem if wages increased at the same rate as the increase in cost of living, but this has not been the case recently.

According to government figures Real regular pay was negative 2.8% in March to April 2022. This figure takes into account the increasing cost of living and the effects of taxes on wages.

There are differences too between private sector and public sector wages – private sector wages have increased a lot faster than public sector wages, so the real terms decrease in wages (compared to the increase in the cost of living) is much higher for public sector workers such as nurses, teachers and our police.

Who is Affected by the Cost of living Crisis?

While the cost of living is increasing for everyone in the UK, poorer households are affected more than richer households.

The main reason for this is because poorer households spend a higher proportion of their income on gas and electricity and it is these two services which are increasing the most – thus the poor face a higher relative increase than the rich.

It is also the case that the poor tend to pay more than the rich for the same goods and services – their houses, for example, are less likely to be insulated (because they are more likely to be rented) and so heating bills will be relatively higher to achieve the same level of warmth and food costs more because the poor are less able to get to value supermarkets because they don’t have cars, and they are more likely to have to buy from local shops which tend to me more expensive.

Even before the rapid inflation we have seen 2022 so far, millions of households were struggling with meeting bas costs, already having to choose between heating or eating in colder months…

Source: Joseph Rowntree Foundation: Managing the Cost of Living Crisis on a Low Income

According a recent Guardian Article an additional one million will be pushed into poverty in the winter of 2022/ 2023 because of rising costs of gas and electricity, even with the government’s recent fuel cap.

And another recent study by York University suggests that more than 75% of households will be pushed into fuel poverty by January 2023, which means they will be spending more than 10% of their disposable income on gas and electricity bills.

What are the Causes of the Increasing Cost of Living…?

Official government sources tend to identify the following causes:

  • The Covid-19 Pandemic
  • Supply chain problems (linked to above)
  • The war on Ukraine…

However more objective observers also point to:

  • The negative consequences of four decades of neoliberal economic policies (in particular)
  • Liz Truss’ recent hyper neoliberal policy agenda has just deepened the crisis even more.
  • The Capitalist model of global ‘development’ (in general)

For a more in-depth look at this very broad question please see this post (forthcoming) The Causes of the Cost of living Crisis.

The Cost of Living Crisis is a Social Problem

The mainstream media loves to present us with stories of how people are coping with the Cost of Living crisis – putting a personal touch on the crisis which supposedly makes it easier for us to relate to and understand.

I outlined some examples of this in my recent post: Surviving the Cost of Living Crisis: Case Studies.

However, while these stories of people’s financial struggles are private troubles, it is also very obvious that the cost of living crisis is also a public issue – it is a crisis rooted in social and changes and structural problems that individuals themselves have no control over.

For example, the government’s chosen response to Lockdown the country during the Pandemic effectively shutdown the economy and de-railed econo;mic growth.

Similarly governmental responses to covid-19 around the world created supply chain issues pushing up the costs o many basic goods and causing shortages which makes it harder for economic activity to pick back up again.

Brexit has also retarded the economy by making it harder for British businesses to continue trading with Europe.

And of course the much mentioned war in Ukraine means Russia has halted its gas supply to Europe, pushing up energy prices.

In fairness the government has recognised that this crisis is social in nature, because it has stepped in with some measures such as the energy price cap and direct payments to households to help deal with the increased costs.

BUT it doesn’t seem to be accepting the fact that there are deeper structural issues at work too – such as our lack of renewables (which would make us more energy independent) and our commitment to neoliberalism which has for years allowed the private sector to drain money from the public sector, reducing teh governments capacity to spend its way out of this crisis through a massive green-infrastructural development plan, for example,

Anyway, I’ll cover the structural elements of the causes of the crisis and some of the more radical potential solutions to in a couple of future posts. For now, just keep in mind that this event, this crisis needs to be addressed with a critical mind, and you should be looking for the deeper structural causes of it and for deeper more longer term solutions than just handing out packets of money to individual households and energy companies!

Signposting – Relevance to A-level Sociology

While the increasing cost of living is only directly relevant to the Wealth, Poverty and Welfare module, which few students study as an option, I personally think students should be directed to study this topic as the main contemporary event which is affecting all of us in the UK today in 2022.

To my mind the fact that the material reality of our lives is getting harder and that this is having real consequences challenges Postmodernism especially and I’d further suggest that Marxism becomes more relevant as huge amounts of people are being driven further into absolute and relative poverty as a result.

For further insight you might like this ‘first thoughts post on how sociological perspectives relate to the crisis.

Sources/ Find out More

The House of Commons Library (September 2022) The Rising Cost of Living Research Briefing.

The Food Foundation – A charity which live tracks the price of a basket of food items regarded by the public to be a reasonable basket of items – they distinguish between a woman’s basket and a man’s basket – interestingly the man’s basket is £7 a week more expensive than the woman’s basket!

The Joseph Rowntree Foundation (2022) Managing the Cost of Living Crisis on a Low Income.

Good Resources for Teaching the Sociology of Sex and Gender

An introduction to sex, gender and gender identity 

The resources below have been selected to help A-level sociology students and teachers studying (and teaching) an introduction to the concepts of sex and gender in the very first weeks of the two year course.

However the material below should also be useful across the entire two year sociology specification, and especially in the Theory and Methods aspect of the second year of study where Feminism and gender equality is one of the main themes.

Blog Posts

How equal are men and women in the UK?

Global Gender Inequalities – A Statistical Overview 

Statistics on gender equality in the UK (historical, kept for posterity!)

Exam Style Questions

These are drawn from modules across the whole A-level course

Analyse two reasons for gender differences in subject choice (10)

Evaluate the view that the media present a stereotypical view of women (30)

Analyse two reasons why women remain economically disadvantaged compared to men (10)

Analyse two reasons why men commit more crime than women (10)

Sex and Gender In the News and social research in 2022

The Conversation (2022) – not everyone is male or female

A Few Lionesses will Get Everything – the Gender Pay Gap in Women’s Football.

Why Football needs a gender revolution – The Conversation 2022

June 2022 – LGBTQ Britons twice as likely to see themselves as portrayed negatively in the media.

Various mainly 2022 analysis and articles about LGBTQ topics based on YouGov surveys

Human Rights Watch has some depressing articles for 2022 and further back, very global focus.

Contemporary Sociology in the news/ research in 2021

Kings College – Developing a Sub-national (regional) index of gender equality in the UK

The Conversation – Why women get paid less than men

Videos and Documentaries

Tom Daley – Illegal to be Me – exploring sexuality laws across Commonwealth countries.

Regularly published Research Studies (UK and Global Focus)

Office for National Statistics – The Gender Pay Gap in the UK.

The European Institute for Gender Equality (2021 report)

EIGE UK 2020 report

World Economic Forum: Global Gender Gap Report

Less than annual or not (/sure if) annual

The Trevor Report on LGBTQ mental health 2021

The LGBTQ Survey (2018)

(lack of) Action plan since the above survey

Stonewall – Lost in Britain (2018) the Trans Report.

YouGov – LGBTQ surveys.

YouGov – How Brits Describe Their Sexuality

YouGov – Do Brits think sexuality is a scale…?

Government Organisations  

UK Gov – The Gender Equality Monitor (up to 2018)

The Gender Equality Roadmap (2019)

Non-Government Organisations

Stonewall – Facts and Figures (links to various research)

LGBT Foundation

How Has the SmartPhone Impacted Intimate Relationships?

The majority of couples in longer term relationships use their smart phones primarily to ‘keep base’ with the partners during periods when they are not together, and manage to successfully negotiate rules to minimise the use of their phones when they are together.

However, for a minority of couples excessive Smart Phone usage when together can drive the couple apart due to jealously with one partner not knowing what the other person is doing when they are on their phone.

This is according to Mark McCormack, Professor of Sociology at the University of Roehampton, who recently completed some research on this topic based on In-depth interviews with 30 people all of whom had been in heterosexual relationships for at least one year.

The sample included a wide range of ages, social class backgrounds and ethnicities. 

Below I summarise this research which is most relevant to the Families and Households module.

Keeping Couples Together when Apart and Driving them Apart when Together

Smartphones are an integral part of contemporary relationships – especially at the start of relationships. 

Private messaging on apps such as WhatsApp was especially important in the early stages of relationships (the ‘dating phase’) when someone’s chat skills were one of the factors that determined whether or not there would be a second, third, or fourth (and so on) date… 

Later on in relationships smartphones were essential for ’keeping base’ with couples who either weren’t living together or who just had long work days. 

The idea that smart phones prevent intimate couple conversations because both partners are hunched independently over their phones when in at home or in a restaurant (for example) emerged as something of a myth… 

Rather, one participant said that she didn’t know what couples used to talk about before SmartPhones seeing them as essential to keeping conversations going by checking in on what was going on elsewhere (keeping up with the gossip, maybe, for example). 

One third of respondents had done flirtatious texting, fewer had sent over more explicit material such as videos – but a significant minority said their phones helped them keep intimate when apart and helped them view sex in a different (enhancing) way. 

For a minority of participants phones had the potential for undermining trust, especially among younger females. 

Some felt that the  the phone sometimes got in the way of face to face conversations with their partners and there was some feelings of jealousy and worrying about what partners were doing online when they weren’t speaking to them. 

A few of these respondents expressed concern about the fact that the delete button is so easy, easy to hide one’s tracks online, but very few people spoke of their partners actually cheating as a result of being online.  

McCormac developed the concept of ‘Technoference’ to describe one further negative impact of phones on relationships – when phones disrupt face to face intimate conversations. 

One respondent talked of being so into Candy Crush at times that she wasn’t following conversations properly.  Another talked of playing games on hist phone behind his girlfriend’s heads while giving her a hug. 

A further downside was the experience of sitting in bed together but living in different worlds – her on FaceBook and him on a Sports App. 

Over time messages got less exciting in nature, and less frequent, and more about mundane things such as reminders about what to pick up from the supermarket, but ‘checking-in’ quickly remained constant. 

One respondent saw these quick and infrequent check-ins as sad given that in the early days of the relationship her and her partner had been exchanging a lot more texts and images 

Some respondents also talked of sex having been interrupted to answer a phone call – or using their smartphones as a strategy to delay or avoid sex. 

Many respondents had developed strategies to manage their smartphone use when together. A couple of examples of rules included buying alarms for the bedroom so phones couldn’t come up less drastic was the no phones at candle lit dinners rule.

A minority of respondents felt the conversation about management had itself caused tensions – with one partner feeling the other was trying to be more controlling. 

Ultimately, communication was seen as they key for successfully negotiating smartphone usage in intimate relationships.

Find out More:

The full research article is here: Keeping couples together when they’re apart and driving them apart when they’re together, but thanks to the totally unreasonable accessibility limitations you often get with academic articles, you have to request access so this isn’t freely available.

However you can listen to a summary of the research on this excellent Thinking Allowed Podcast, which I listened to and summarised in the form of this blog post.

Relevance to A-level sociology 

This is most relevant to the families and households module, and is a good example of how relationships are changing in a postmodern world due to technology. 

This is also a good example of in-depth micro-level research and the results demonstrate how we can’t understand the impact of technology on couples and relationships without asking people.

It also shows how couples are active agents I their lives – most seem to have been able to use smartphones to positively enhance their relationships, and to have negotiated strategies to avoid the potential negative impacts. 

So this study is a good-fit with perspectives which argue that postmodern family life is complex, diverse, negotiated – such as the late modernist Ulrich Beck and his idea of the negotiated family as the norm, and also the Personal Life Perspective

Image Source.

Sociological Perspectives and Concepts Applied to the Death of The Queen…

How might Interactionists, Functionalists, Marxists and Postmodernists interpret the death of The Queen..?

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…

Interactionism

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!

Functionalism

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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