The New T Levels

T Levels are vocational A-levels for 16-19 year olds focussed on general career areas. They run over two years and are mainly taught in colleges and including 45 days on the job training.

They have been developed in collaboration with businesses and are designed to give students the knowledge and skills they need for work or further study. One T-level qualification is equivalent in UCAS points to three A-levels.

The introduction of T-Levels represent a significant effort by the UK government to improve both the standard and status of Vocational Education In England and Wales.

There are several T-Levels currently available, with more to be released for first teaching in September 2022 and they are very broad in scope, with qualifications being offered in such areas as:

  • agriculture, land management and production
  • building services engineering for construction
  • catering
  • craft and design
  • education and childcare (now available)
  • finance
  • hair, beauty and aesthetics
  • legal
  • management and administration
  • media, broadcast and production
  • science

A full list of T Level Qualifications, 2021

T Levels are designed to give students a third option of study after GCSE, alongside Apprenticeships and A-levels, in fact they seem designed to fit mid way between the two, being more academic than apprenticeships (more classroom based learning) and more hands-on than A-levels.

Design and Delivery

The content of each T-level varies a lot, and there is a lot of content in each – the Digital Production T level specification, designed by Pearsons has a 100 page specification, for example.

The content will be delivered primarily by FE colleges, but also local employers will have to get involved for the 45 days work experience component.

Interestingly there are no national requirements to get onto T Levels, the government has left it to individual colleges to decide on entry requirements.

Each T-level has three components:

  • General competencies – English, Maths and Digital Literacy
  • A Core component – focussing on Business related content/ legal issues which are common across several different T-levels
  • A subject specific component – specific to whatever the T level is!

Assessment

This might vary from T level to T level but the ones I have reviewed have a mixture of assessment by examination, coursework and project work.

For more information the government web site on T-Levels is a good starting point.

T Levels: Positive Evaluations so far

  • T Levels seem to be a good compromise between purely academic A-levels and Apprenticeships which are much more on the job and much less academic.
  • The fact that businesses have had a say in designing the specifications means students should leave college at 18 better prepared for work, which could be good for the economy.
  • The ones I’ve looked at seem to have rigorous specifications and assessment, which should give these new vocational qualifications status.
  • They offer students more flexibility than either and apprenticeship or pure A-levels when they finish – either to work or to university.
  • The fact that there are components common to several T Levels means it’s easier for colleges to deliver them.

Personally I’m more inclined to see T-Levels as a net positive, but there are some potential problems…

T-Levels: Potential Problems

  • These are asking students to specialise from a very young age, at the age of 16, and once they’re a few months in they are pretty much ‘locked into’ that path.
  • There might be something of a shortage of employers willing to provide training places for 45 days, or three months.
  • There could be a shortage of teachers in colleges capable of delivering some of the subject specific knowledge. For example, one of the T-levels has modules in ‘data science’ – most data scientists are working in industry, they aren’t going to take a 50% pay cut to go teach in a college.
  • Many industries move very quickly. It could be challenging keeping teachers in college updated with the relevant knowledge and training to deliver appropriate content in some of these career areas.
  • Some of them probably won’t be very popular – Human Resources in particular springs to mind!

Signposting

This is a useful update for students studying the compulsory module in Education, usually taught in the first year of A-level Sociology.

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

Voices of Guinness: Oral Histories of Work in Modernity

Voices of Guinness: An Oral History of the Royal Park Brewery (202) is a recent academic work by Tim Strangleman which explores the experience of work in one Guinness Factory from the 1940s to the early 2000s.

The research took place over several years and consists of oral histories (presumably based on in-depth structured, or even unstructured interviews) with people who used to work in the factory and the use of a range of secondary documents such as photos, pictures and the Guinness factory magazine.

Strangleman puts together a kind of collage of life histories to present various stories about how workers made sense of going to work: what work meant to them and how they coped with its challenges.

This is a useful example of ‘work in modernity’ – Strangleman describes how the Guinness company established a kind of ‘industrial citizenship’ – their aim was to build workers who were fully rounded humans who had a sense of ownership over their work, a concept which many seem very alien now with ‘zero hours contracts’.

The workers for the most part in the 1940s – 1970s at least bought into this – they felt at home in the workplace and because of this, they felt able to criticize the management, a situation which may have been uncomfortable for them, but helped them to keep the workers happy enough.

In the 40s-60s – leisure was broadly focused around the factory and with work colleagues – there were several social clubs such as sports clubs, even theatre clubs, but this started to change in the 1960s when rising incomes led to more privatised forms of leisure.

The workers in late modernity also expected to be employed for life, which is one of the most notable changes to date – most students today don’t want a job for life, and you see the idea of ‘temporary employment’ built into the modern day site of the factory – NB the Guinness Factory is now closed, it has been replaced with ‘Logistics’ wharehouses, the kind of temporary structures which stand in contrast with the more permanent nature of work in modernity.

For details of the book please click here.

You can find out more about this study through two useful podcasts:

Relevance to A-level sociology

This is an excellent study to show what work used to be like in Modernity, and as Strangleman says, it reminds us what we have lost in Postmodernity.

It’s also interesting to contrast how the solidness of the factory then ties in with the stable idea of ‘jobs for life’ whereas now people no longer expect or even want jobs for life, we see more temporary buildings forming the basis for working class jobs, most obviously the prefab Amazon warehouses.

In terms of methods this a useful example of a study that uses secondary qualitative data and interviews for oral histories.

Theoretically, there are definite links here to what Bauman would have called more solid forms of Modernity!

McDonald’s – Are they really offering their employees a better deal?

McDonald’s is one of Britain’s biggest employers, employing 115 000 workers in over 1300 stores. It is also one of the biggest users of zero hours contracts.

However, following a series of protests over these contracts, the company has recently offered all its workers the choice of staying on ‘zero hours contracts’ or moving onto a fixed contract, with varying hours in length on offer (from 8 to 35 hours a week in line with the average hours they worked). (News article here.)

Based on an initial trial of 23 stores, McDonalds reported that 80% of the workers opted to remain on zero hours contracts, rather than shift to the guaranteed hours contracts.

Personally, I’m suspicious about this. It just doesn’t sound right that 80% of employees would choose to stay precariously employed.

Could it be that the offer of fixed-hours contracts weren’t that appealing – maybe they came with a total lack of flexibility, with workers only being allowed flexibility on zero hours contracts. Maybe the contracts offered some employees the kind of hours that they could not work – early mornings for those with children, for example. Again, a non-starter.

This would fit in some recent survey research conducted by McDonalds which revealed that

  • 60% of people wanted to start earlier than 9 a.m.
  • Nearly 60% saw flexibility as an important aspect of their job
  • 50% of employees would rather work longer days 4 days a week and get a longer weekend.

(Based on a sample of 4000 people, 1000 of whom were McDonald’s employees.)

Or it could be that many of these workers were only getting an average of 16 hours a week or less, which is not enough hours for them, so having a guaranteed contract of 4, 8, or 16 hours, with the possibility of no additional hours, was not a viable option.

Of course, McDonalds are now bragging about the fact that they offer their workers the choice of guaranteed hours, or zero-hours contracts, but we don’t know is how viable those guaranteed hours contracts are for the workers offered them.

Personally, I’m suspicious. It’s probable that those fixed hours contracts had a combination of insufficient hours, or the wrong kind of fixed hours, and thus the workers offered them had no realistic choice at all!

Another thing McD’s may have done is deliberately select those stores with high numbers of people who want zero hours – those with a lot of further or higher education students working in them, for example, thus skewing the stats. (That’s what I would have advised them to do, if I was evil enough to work in the business of manipulative market research.)

In any case, this is a great example of some research that probably isn’t value free, and also a great example of biased media reporting.

Related posts

If you like this sort of thing then you might like my summary of Mathew Taylor’s review of modern working practices, which very much focuses on flexibilization.

Top five worst explanations for not appointing women to company boards…

While some progress has been made to breaking down near total male control and dominance of our top companies, the move towards greater gender equality at the top end of the economy is slowing, and today almost a 100 out of the top FTSE 250 companies still have only 1 woman on the board.

It would seam that for the leaders of our most powerful companies, promoting women is still a bit of a pain in the male ass, at least according to the recent government backed Hampton-Alexander Review of the attitudes of the Chairs and CEOs of Britain’s 350 FTSE 350 companies…

Some of the worst reasons for not appointing more women to the boards of the top companies included:

  1. ‘There aren’t that many women with the right credentials and depth of experience to sit on the board – the issues covered are extremely complex’
  2. ‘Most women don’t want the hassle or pressure of sitting on a board’
  3. ‘Shareholders just aren’t interested in the make-up of the board, so why should we be?’
  4. ‘My other board colleagues wouldn’t want to appoint a woman on our board’
  5. ‘I don’t think women fit comfortably into the board environment’

NB – these are my own rankings, I’ve gone with order because of the following logic:

  1. Based on the assumption that women are less capable of dealing with complexity than men.
  2. Based on stereotype of the ‘delicate female’.
  3. Based on the ‘denial of responsibility’ – ‘we’re not appointing because other people don’t want it’.
  4. Denial of responsibility again.
  5. We shouldn’t appoint women because there aren’t any women already. You might actually want to rank this first, because it also suggests that ‘women can’t handle unpleasant environments’.

Why are trades unions in decline? And does it matter?

Trades Unions membership is in decline in the UK, but why is this, and what is the social significance of this seemingly depressing social trend?

The Trades Unions Congress celebrated its 150th anniversary recently, but it seems there is little to celebrate: Frances O’Grady, the TUC’s general secretary has admitted that the union movement needs to ‘change or die’ in the context of declining membership and action.

Membership levels among the under 30s fell to 15.7% last yea, down from 20.1% in 2001, and industrial action is also declining: last year there wre only 79 stoppages, the lowest figure since records began.

decline trades unions UK.png

According to Zoe Williams in the Guardian, the reason for the declining membership among the young is because they are increasingly employed in low-wage sectors where unions are not recognised: and when people are on zero-hours contracts, working in the gig-economy, or trying to get on the first step of the career ladder by doing an unpaid internship, it is difficult to find the support, time or energy to get organised.

As a result, Kenan Malik, writing in the observer, has suggested that unions are increasingly becoming clubs for professionals – as people with degrees are twice as likely to be part of a union than those who have no qualifications.

However, there are also deeper reasons for the decline in industrial action including the following: there are new laws restricting trade union power; technological advances which facilitate more home-working and flexible working hours mean that day strikes and picket lines less effective.

It might also be that working conditions have generally improved: last decade saw the introduction of the minimum wage and then the national living wage, and there have been new laws to tackle discrimination and improved health and safety legislation.
It could just be that unions in general and strikes in particular have had their day

Relevance to A-level sociology

  • Probably the most obvious application is that this is one of the dimensions in the shift towards post-modernity – maybe unions, with their mass membership and place-based day-strikes were more relevant to the modernist era, while in a postmodern age of flexibalised working they are just not the appropriate vehicle to effectively improve the working conditions of the precariat?
  • It also serves as a reminder of the class and age divide around unions – generally older more educated people are in them (the established and technical middle class?) while the younger and less educated are not (the precariat especially)

Sources:

Summary of Liquid Modernity Chapter Four – Work

A brief summary of Zygmunt Bauman’s Liquid Modernity, chapter 4: Work.

liquid-modernityBauman begins by citing, among others, Henry Ford as an example of someone who epitomized Modernity’s attitude towards work in relation to time. Work, done in the present, was valuable because it was driving history forwards. Those in power had such a belief in their hold over the present that they could look forward with confidence, feeling they could plan the future, control it. Progress, says Bauman, is a declaration that history is not relevant.

NB – you might want to read my summary of the intro and chapter one first, as well as the two chapters below:

(132 – 140) Progress and Trust in History

Progress stands not for any quality of history, but of a self-confidence in the present. Faith in progress stems from two things – the belief that time is on our side, and that we are the ones who make things happen. As Alain Peyrefitte put it – the only resource capable of making mass transformations is trust in society now and in the future we will share.

Are we propelled into the future by the horrors of the past, or are we dragged towards it by the hope of better things to come? The sole evidence by which to make a judgement is the play of memory and imagination, and what links or separates them is our self confidence or its absence. To the former, progress is an axiom, to the later the idea is laughable.

Aside for H. Ford quote about exercise – ‘Exercise is bunk. If you are healthy, you don’t need it; if you are sick, you won’t do it.’

Today, we have lost our self-confidence and thus our trust in progress because….

Firstly there is a lack of an agency able to ‘move the world forwards – this is because the state remains fixed to a locality, but power flows well beyond its reach, and thus power has flowed from politics – thus we no longer know who it is that is going to move society forwards (thus our main question is not what is to be done, but who is going to do it)

Secondly, the idea of the ‘great society’ is dead – The ones that were planned (Marxism and economic liberalism) have both failed to live up to their expectations, and anyone who proposes a grand plan today is laughed out of court.

However, the modern idea of progress, even if there can be no salvation by society, is not one that is likely to end soon….. the life of modern men is still understood as a task, something to be worked on, it is something to be made…. The question  is, what might progress actually look like in the age of ‘no salvation by society’?

The idea of progress has been deregulated and privatised – deregulated because the offers to ‘upgrade’ present realities are many and diverse and whether something counts as an upgrade is open to contest, also we can’t be certain if what we do will result in upgrading) , and privatised because individuals are called upon to use their own individual wits to improve their lives.

He now quotes Beck’s risk society – The tendency is towards the emergence of individualised forms and conditions of existence….. one has to choose and change one’s social identity as well as take the risks of doing so…. The individual himself or herself becomes the reproduction unit of the social in the lifeworld.

The problem is that the feasibility of progress rests on our hold on the present but we live in a world of universal flexibility… under conditions of acute and prospect-less Unsicherheit, penetrating all aspects of individual life – the sources of livelihood as much as the partnerships of love or common interests, parameters of professional as much as cultural identity, modes of presentation of self in public as much as patterns of health and fitness, values worth pursuing as much as the way to pursue them. And we all know from experience that plans may not work out like we plan them.

Bauman now suggests that Chaos Theory in science fits the mood of liquid modernity perfectly.

Where science and work use to anchor us to the present and guide us to the future (basically giving us structure), now they do not, and as we lose hold on the present, the less the future can be embraced… Stretches of time labelled future get shorter and the time-span of life as a whole is sliced into episodes dealt with ‘one at a time’. Continuity is no longer the mark of progress, life has become much more episodic.

Jacques Attali suggest that the labyrinth is the image which illustrates our ideas of the future. Chance or surprise rule in the labyrinth rather than pure reason.

Today work does not offer us a secure route to the future, it is more characterised by ‘tinkering’, and it does not have that fundamental grounding feature it had in the heavy modern period. For most people work is now judged on its aesthetic value – how satisfying it is of itself…. it can no longer give us satisfaction on the basis of ‘driving the nation forwards’, instead it is judged on its capacity to be entertaining or amusing.

(140-147) The rise and fall of labour

This section is simply a classic statement that industrialisation lead to freeing labour from the land, only to be tied to the Fordist Factory, but at least unionised Labour and Capital were equally as tide to each other – and came to be backed up by the welfare state. All of this gave some measure of stability.

(148 – 154) From marriage to cohabitation

The present day uncertainty is a powerful individualising force. It divides instead of uniting. The idea of ‘common interests’ grows ever more nebulous and loses all pragmatic  value.

He now follows Bordieu, Granovetter and Sennet to flesh out how changes in the conditions of unemployment have led to workers seeing traditional unionisation as being inadequate because of episodic, temporary work placements – there is little change for mutual loyalty and commitment to take root and this goes hand in hand with disenchantment. The place of employment now feels like a camping site.

Bauman likens this loosening of ties between labour and capital as being like cohabitation…. in the background is the assumption of temporariness….. but this disengagement is  unilateral,,,, capital has cut itself free from the needs of this particular bunch of labourers. Capital, of course, is not as volatile as it wants to be, but it is extraterritorial, lighter than ever.

To an unprecedented degree politics has become a tug of war between the speed with which capital can move and the slowing down capacities of local powers to ward off the  threat of capital disinvestment, and paradoxically, one of the ways local authorities can keep capital in place is by allowing it freedom to leave.

Today, speed of movement has become perhaps the paramount factor of social stratification and the hierarchy of domination…. The main sources of profits seem to be ideas rather than in material objects… and the objects of competition here are the consumers, not the producers.

He now cites Reich’s four categories of work…From top to bottom – decreasing status.

  • Symbol manipulators
  • The reproduction of labour
  • Personal services
  • Routine Labourers

The bottom category are the easiest to replace, and they now they are disposable and so that there is no point in entering into long term commitments with their work colleagues…..  this is a natural response to a flexibilised labour market. This leads to a decline in moral, as those who are left after one round of downsizing wait for the next blow of the axe.

At the other end of the pole are those for whom space matters little – They do not own factories, nor occupy administrative positions – Their knowledge comes from a portable asset – knowledge of the laws of the labyrinth…. to them novelty is good, precariousness is value, they love to create and play and embrace volatility.

Bauman now relays a tale of being in an airport lounge and seeing two business men spend and hour and a half each on their phones conducting business as if the other did not exist – such people, he says, exist in outer space – they are not connected to any particular locality.

He now turns to Nigel Thrift’s essay on soft capitalism who focuses on its vocabulary – surfing, networks, coalitions, fuzzy logic…. this is an ambiguous and chaotic world where knowledge ages quickly.

He rounds off by saying that those who are in charge are virtually networked and for them information moves at an incredible pace…. the life expectancy of knowledge is short, they live in a world of the perpetual new beginnings.

However, such people are ‘remotely controlled’ – they are dominated and controlled in a new way – leadership has been replaced by the spectacle, and surveillance by seduction.

(155-160) Excursus: a brief history of procrastination

Cras, in Latin, means tomorrow. To procrastinate is to manipulate the possibilities of the presence of a thing by putting off, delaying and postponing its becoming present, keeping it at a distance and deferring its immediacy.

Procrastination as a cultural practice came into its own with dawn of modernity. Its new meaning and ethical significance derived from the new meaningfulness of time, from time having a history, from time being history.

Procrastination is what makes life meaningful. To illustrate this, Bauman spends some time outlining the meaning of the pilgrim in modernity. The pilgrim is someone who is going somewhere, but they are allowed the time to reflect on where it is they are going, thus the pilgrimage is meaningful. The pilgrim’s life is a travel-towards-fulfillment, and travelling towards fulfillment gives the pilgrim’s life its meaning,but the meaning it gives is blighted with a suicidal impulse; that meaning cannot survive the completion of its destiny.

Procrastination reflects this ambivalence…. the pilgrim procrastinates in order to be better prepared to grasp things that truly matter.

The attitudinal/ behavioural precept which laid the foundation of modern society and rendered the modern way of being-in-the-world both possible and inescapable was the principle of ‘delay of gratification’… without this, there is no idea of progress.

Procrastination, in the form of ‘delay of gratification’ (he’s pushing the definition of procrastination here!) says Bauman ‘put sowing above harvesting, and investing above creaming off the savings, but this delay also elevated the status of the end product to be consumed…. the more severe the self-restraint, the greater would be, eventually, the opportunity for self-indulgence. Do save, since the more you save, the more money you will be able to spend. Do work, sine the more you work, the more you will consume.

Owing to its ambivalence procrastination fed two opposite tendencies. One led to the work ethic another led to the aesthetic of consumption…. however, today we no longer value delay of gratification, this is just seen as hardship plain and simple!

Today we live in a ‘casino culture’ – we don’t want to wait for our pleasures, we want them immediately, in this moment, and moreover, each moment of pleasure lasts for a shorter and shorter instant… thus procrastination is under attack – under pressure are the delay of gratifications arrival, and the delay of its departure.

I think this might be the most importat bit….

In modern society, the ethic of delayed gratification justified the work ethic, and we may need something similar to in the consumer society…. we need the principle of dissatisfaction to justify the central role of desire….

To stay alive and fresh desire must, time and time again, be gratified, yet gratification spells the end of desire. A society ruled by the aesthetic (NB not ethic) of consumption needs a very special kind of gratification, akin to the Derridean phamakon – the healing drug and poison both at the same time, administered slowly and never in its final dose…. a gratification not really gratifying.

Today, our culture wages a war agains procrastination, a war against taking distance, reflection, continuity and tradition, a war against what Heidegger’s ‘modality of being’.

(PP160-165) Human bonds in the Fluid World

The feeling of our time summed up in works such as ‘Risk Society’ involves a combination of the experience of…

insecurity -of position, entitlements, livelihood

uncertainty – about continuation and future stability

un-safety – of one’s body, one’s self and their extensions… possessions and neighbourhoods.

Bauman now suggests that, in terms of livelihood, unemployment is structural and all we need do is look around to see that no one is in a really secure job…. and in this context, immediate gratification is rational. It makes even more sense when we know that fashions come and go (enjoy it now or the moment is gone) and that assets can become liabilities.

Precarious economic and social conditions make people look at objects as disposable, for one off use…. the individual should travel light.. and we apply this to things as well as to human bonds (which rot and disintegrate if not worked at).

Partnerships today tend to be seen as things to be consumed, not produced. In the consumer market, the ostensibly durable products are as a rule offered for a trial period, return promised if the purchaser is less than fully satisfied. If the partner in partnership is conceptualised in such terms, then it is no longer the task of both people to make the relationship work – til death do us part no longer applies, as soon as our partner ceases to give us pleasure, we look to discard and replace them. This leads to temporariness in relationships.

There is also something of the self-fulfilling prophecy about this!

Perceiving the world, complete with its inhabitants, as a pool of consumer items makes the negotiation of human bonds exceedingly hard. Insecure people tend to be irritable, they are also deeply intolerant of anything that stands in the way of their desires, and since quite a few of their desires are bound to be frustrated, there are plenty of things and

people to be intolerable of. (NB I think he’s arguing that it is lack of face to face stable human bonds that leads to insecurity, uncertainty, unsafety, and then that leads to insecurity). He rounds off the section by suggesting that consumption is also lonely, unlike production which requires co-operation towards a joint goal.

(165 -167) The self-perpetuation of non-confidence

Alain Peyrefitte suggested that the common, uniting feature of modern capitalist society was confidence – in oneself, in institutions and in others. They all sustained one another. Together, these three formed the foundational structure of modernity – enabling investment in the future. Employment-Enterprise was the most important of these.

This is no longer the case… no one expects to be in the same job ten years from now, and many of us would prefer to risk our pensions on the stock-market. Bauman also reminds us again of the power imbalance – the precariat especially, bound to the local, are increasingly subject to the whims of capital, which the state is unlikely to regulate.  I think his point at the end is that the old labour movements are dead (again it’s not that clear).

The Declining Value of A Degree?

More people are doing degrees, yet they are less likely to give us the skills future employers need, so is it worth doing a degree in the first place? Or are you better off saving £50K?

In this thought-provoking article Zak Slayback argues that the value of a degree has declined for three main reasons:

  • Firstly, he cites the increasing number of people who achieve degrees compared to 50 years ago – Today’s degree, in some ways, is like like the old high school diploma.
  • Secondly, he cites evidence of ‘degree inflation’ in many sectors. For example 25 percent of people employed as insurance clerks have a BA, but twice that percentage of insurance-clerk job ads require one. Among executive secretaries and executive assistants, 19 percent of job-holders have degrees, but 65 percent of job postings mandate them
  • Secondly, despite the increasing number of people with degrees and the increasing requirement to have one to get your foot in the door, almost 40% of U.S. employers report difficulties in finding graduates with the right skills, which means (somewhat ironically) that many of the above degrees are useless in actually preparing people for work.

Slayback argues (pretty convincingly I think) that a degree is no longer sufficient to guarantee you a job; he also suggests that it may not actually be worth doing one (and in terms of getting you ready for work, I think he’s right, but not necessarily so in terms of the intrinsic worth of the uni experience and knowledge gained).

According to Slayback, in order to be successful, graduates need to get better at signalling their skills through social media, rather than relying on the simple fact that they’ve got a degree to so that for them. He even goes so far as to suggest that the internet itself is actually undermining the value of a degree.

He gives the example of a young man who connected with him on Linked In, and through a Google search, managed to get an insight into what he’d actually achieved, which made the fact that he didn’t have a degree irrelevant.

Personally I think Slayback has a point about the virtues of social media in signalling your skills – if you’re looking to go into a sector that requires you to produce content in any form, them it’s an obvious idea to have a social media platform where you show off that content, through which you can demonstrate your skills.

I’m not so convinced that it’s worth risking not doing a degree, maybe you’re better off doing one, but from day one thinking about how to leverage every essay you write or every project you do into something that you can use in the future to make you more employable…. two birds with one stone and all that….

The Capitalist Mode of Production

Understanding the Capitalist Mode of Production is crucial to an understanding of both Modernisation Theory and Dependency Theory – I thought the passage below did a nice job of summarizing what the ‘capitalist mode of production’ is.

A a special treat for my American readers, I have used the correct, British spelling of ‘labour’.

‘Today we think of Capitalism as the normal way of organising economic activity and tend to take it for granted, but it is a very different mode of production to previous feudal economies and hunter gatherer livelihoods…

Capitalism is based on private ownership of enterprises such as factories, plantations, mines, offices or shops and the operation of these assets for profit. Other elements of the means of production such as labour, land, technology and capital are also privately owned and can be bought and sold.

Labour is the most important input for production. Under capitalism, labour, the work of men and women, has become a special type of commodity which is sold in the marketplace. Capitalists use their money to buy labour and combine this commodity with other inputs, such as land, raw materials etc. to produce new goods and services. In profitable businesses, the economic value of these new goods and services are greater than the other inputs required to produce them.

Workers’ labour generates a surplus value greater than the workers’ wages. When the capitalist sells the finished commodities on the market they extract surplus value from the labour of the workers by paying them less than the value of the work they have completed. Capitalists are able to profit from the labour of others because they control the means of production.

The capitalist mode of production was different to earlier feudalism because of the role for waged labour and the importance of capital and markets for acquiring wealth. The important transition which lead to the expansion of capitalism around the globe through colonialism was the concentration of capitalist power through the fusion of state authority and capital.”

Source – Brooks, Andrew (2017) The End of Development 

What is Alienation?

Working definition: the separation or estrangement of human beings from some essential aspect of their nature or from society, often resulting in feelings of powerlessness or helplessness.

Today, the concept of alienation has become part of ordinary language, much used in the media. We may be told, for example, that who groups are becoming alienated from society, or that young people are alienated from mainstream values.

With such usage of the concept we get the impression of the feeling of separation of one group from society, but the concept has traditionally been used in sociology, mainly by Karl Marx, to express a much more profound sense of estrangement than most contemporary usage (IMO).

Origins of the concept

Sociological usage of the term stems from Marx’s concept of alienation which he used to develop the effects of capitalism on the experience work in particular and society more generally.

Marx developed his theory of alienation from Feuerbach’s philosophical critique of Christianity – Feuerbach argued that the concept of an all powerful God as a spiritual being to whom people must submit in order to reach salvation was a human construction, the projection of human power relations onto spiritual being. Christianity effectively disguised the fact that it was really human power relations which kept the social order going, rather than some higher spiritual reality, thus alienating from the ‘truth’ of power was really maintained.

Marx applied the concept of alienation to work in industrial capitalist societies, arguing that emancipation for workers lay in their wrestling control away from the small, dominating ruling class.

Later, Marxist inspired industrial sociologists used the concept to explore working relations under particular management systems in factories.

Marx’s historical materialist approach began with the way people organise their affairs together to produce goods and survive. For Marx, to be alienated is to be in an objective condition which as real consequences, and to change it we need to actually change the way society is organised rather than changing our perception of it.

Work in the past may well have been more physically demanding, but Marx argued that it was also less alienating because workers (craftsmen for example) had more control over their working conditions, work was more skilled and it was more satisfying, because workers could ‘see themselves in their work’.

However, in 19th century industrial factories, workers effectively had no control over what they were doing, their work was unskilled and they were effectively a ‘cog in a machine’, which generated high levels of alienation – or feelings of powerlessness, helplessness, and of not being in control.

It doesn’t take too much of a leap to apply this analysis to late-modern working conditions – in fast food outlets such as McDonald’s or call centers, for example.

Marx’s theory suggests capitalist production creates alienation in four main areas:

  1. Workers are alienated from their own labour power – they have to work as and when required and to perform the tasks set by their employers.
  2. They are alienated from the products of their labour – which are successfully claimed by capitalists to be sold as products on the marketplace for profit, while workers only receive a fraction of this profit as wages
  3. Workers are alienated from each other – they are encouraged to compete with each other for jobs.
  4. They are alienated from their own species being – according to Marx, satisfying work is an essential part of being human, and capitalism makes work a misery, so work under capitalism thus alienates man from himself. It is no longer a joy, it is simply a means to earn wages to survive.

Marx’s well known (but much misunderstood) solution to the ills of alienation was communism – a way of organizing society in which workers would have much more control over their working conditions, and thus would experience much less alienation.

Critical points 

Marx’s concept of alienation was very abstract and linked to his general theory of society, with its revolutionary conclusions, and as such, not especially easy to apply to social research.

However, in the 20th century some sociologists stripped the concept from its theoretical origins in order to make the concept more useful for empirical research.

One example is Robert Blauner’s ‘Alienation and Freedom (1964) in which he compared the alienating effects of working conditions in four industries – focusing on the experience of the four key aspects of alienation: powerlessness, meaninglessness, isolation and self-estrangement.

Blauner developed ways of measuring these different types of alienation incorporating the subjective perceptions of the workers themselves, arguing that routine factory workers suffered the highest levels of alienation. However, he found that when production lines became automated, workers felt less alienated as they had more control over their working conditions.

Blauner’s work ran counter to existing theory that technological innovation and deskilling would lead to ever greater levels of alienation. It also suggested alienation could be reduced without destroying capitalism.

Continuing Relevance

While the collapse of Communism suggests that Marx’s general theory of alienation is no longer relevant, many firms today seem to have taken on board some aspects of the theory – for example, it is well establish that increasing worker representation and participation reduces worker ‘alienation’, as outlined in the Taylor Review of Modern Working Practices. Another example of how firms combat alienation is the various media and tech companies which design work spaces to be ‘homely and comfortable’.

Other sociologists have attempted to apply the concept of alienation to criminology (Smith and Bohm, 2008) and even the study of health and illness (Yuill 2005).

Signposting

Alienation is one of the key concepts of Marxism, one of the main sociological perspectives taught across the A-level sociology specification. This post should be most relevant to the Theory and Methods module, usually taught in the second year.

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Sources

Giddens and Sutton (2017) Essential Concepts in Sociology

Do bad exam results matter?

Results day tomorrow, and I predict that Social Media will be full of comments by celebrities telling students that exam results don’t matter that much because ‘I failed my exams, but I still found success’.

This happened last year during The Guardian’s live chat following the release of  the 2016 GCSE results. The chat even supplied a link to a list of ‘famous school flops‘, which include the big three examples of ‘success despite educational failure’ – Alan Sugar, Richard Branson and Simon Cowell, but I can’t really see the relevance of these examples to today’s youth – all they demonstrate is that white men born before 1960 had a chance of being successful if they failed their exams, hardly representative.

There are a few comments from younger celebrities who claim that getting bad exam results are not the end of the world, because despite bad exam results, they have managed to build successful careers. 

From radio presenter Darryl Morris (no, I’d never heard of him either, although I do recognise him):

Daryll Morris.jpg
Darryl Morris – with 10 year’s of hobby-experience, a cheeky-chappy personality and a lot of luck, you too can be successful, even if you failed your exams!

I missed out on my desired GCSE results because I spent most of my revision time practising at the school radio station. I have no English qualifications and dropped out of a college that reluctantly accepted me to pursue a radio career – now I am a presenter and writer….You don’t need anybody’s permission to be successful – it comes from your passion, commitment and ambition.

From Ben Fogle, presenter of every outdoor program the BBC has made this century:

‘Exams left me feeling worthless and lacking in confidence. The worse I did in each test, the more pressure I felt to deliver results that never came. When I failed half my A-levels, and was rejected by my university choices, I spiralled into a depression.

The wilderness rescued me. I have been shaped by my experiences in the great outdoors. Feeling comfortable in the wild gave me the confidence to be who I am, not who others want me to be… it strengthened my character and set me back on track.’

Ben Fogle.jpg
Ben Fogle – If you’re independently schooled, screamingly middle class and very lucky, then you could also network your way into a TV presenting career, even if you fail your exams

Finally, Jeremy Clarkson tweeted: “If your A-level results are disappointing, don’t worry. I got a C and two Us, and I’m currently on a superyacht in the Med.”

The problem with the above is that every single one of the above examples may well be talented and passionate about what they do, as well as hard-working, but IN ADDITION, they either exploited what you might call ‘alternative opportunity structures’, they networked their way to success, or they were just plain lucky, in the sense of being in the right place at the right time: 

Morris was presenting radio from a very young age, so already had lots of experience by the time he was snapped up by the BBC at 16 – so this guy’s ‘alternative opportunity structure’ was through school and local community radio – a very niche way to success.

TBH I don’t know whether Clarkson networked himself onto Top Gear – but he went to the same fee-paying private school (Repton School) as the executive producer of the program, so even if the old-school tie wasn’t part of it, he would’ve oozed cultural and social capital because of his class background.

As for Fogle not only was he independently schooled (so culturally well prepared for his future at the BBC which is chock-full of the privately schooled), -he was also lucky enough to have been at the right age/ fitted the profile for the BBC’s Castaway 2000 series, which catapulted him into fame, he’s also quite charming, which no doubt helps!

So all these case studies show us is that if you want to be successful, then exam results don’t matter IF you have alternative opportunity structures to exploit, AND/ OR you have sufficient social and cultural capital to be able to be able network your way into a job. 

This important qualification (excuse the pun) to the ‘exam results don’t matter argument’ is backed up by Frances Ryan who points out that such comments tend to come from upper middle class adults, for whom as teenagers, poor exam results mattered less because their parents’ wealth and their higher levels cultural and social capital opened up other opportunities for them.

However, Ryan argues that for teenagers from poorer backgrounds, getting good exam results may well be the only realistic opportunity  they have of getting into university and getting a graduate job, which, on average, will still pay you more over the course of a life time than a non-graduate job.

A classic way in which this inequality of opportunity manifests itself is that wealthy parents are able to support their 19-20 year old teenagers to either do another year of A levels, or an access course, or an unpaid internships for a few months or a year to give them a second chance, poorer kids don’t have these options, not unless they want to go into crippling levels of debt.

So – do bad exam results matter? Judging by the analysis above, it matters more if you’re from a working class background because education and qualifications provide the most likely path way to social mobility…..but less so from an upper middle class background.

Having said all of that, if you’ve woken up to the idea that a normal life is basically just a bit shit, then exam results don’t really matter at all. Trust me, jobs aren’t all that! Why not try one of the following alternatives instead:

  • Do voluntary work
  • Become an eco-anarchist
  • Become an artist
  • Go travelling
  • Go homeless
  • Become a monk
  • Live with your parents for the rest of your life.
  • Learn to live without money.

For more ideas about alternative career paths, you might like this post: alternative careers: or how to avoid working for a living.