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Summary of Liquid Modernity Chapter Five – Community

Posted by Realsociology on 1st November 2013

Bauman starts of the chapter summarising the liberal-communitarian debate about the relationship beetween the individual and society.

He reminds us that the individual according to the likes of Kant, Descartes and Baccon, could come to truth by using pure reason, and that all individuals if just left alone from the distortions of community would arive at the same notions of truth.

Communitarians criticised this by pointing out that the individual could never be free because individuals are socialised – e.g. through language.

But Bauman points out that it was never clear whether the critiques were saying that the image of the self-contained individual was untrue or just harmful.

Today, says Bauman, the liberal-communitarian debate concerns whether or not liberating the individaul from communal constraints is good or bad. Also today, communities are more like a light cloak rather than an iron cage and the reason why we are concerned for community is because it is in decline. Furthemore, communities when spoken about are postulated – we can comment on them because we are not really bound by them, they are a choice.

Sociologically speaking, communitarianism is an expected reaction to the liquification of life…. yet today the word community is used loosely… the community in today’s communitarian gospel is not that of Gemeinschaft, it is to be chosen (and we have no choice but to choose) – a choice between different identity reference groups.

However…. the communal world is complete in so far as all the rest is… hostile – a wilderness with enemies. The inner harmony of the communal world shines and glitters against the background of the obscure and tangled jungle outside. It is there, to that wilderness, that people huddling in the warmth of shared identity dump (or hope to banish) the fears which prompted them to seek communal shelter. In Jock Young’s words ‘The desire to demonize others is based on the ontological uncertainties’ of those inside. An ‘inclusive community’ would be a contradiction in terms. Communal fraternity would be incomplete without that inborn fratricidal inclination.

(172-176) Nationalism, mark 2

The community of the communitarian gospel is an ethnic community – the choice is either between being at home or being homeless – it is an essentialising idenitity, (a master identity?).

Here Bauman argues that the nation state was the only success story of ‘community’ in modern times.  he discusses the similarities between nationalism and patriotism (both are basically agressive, not gentle) before suggesting that both are based on exluding others – nationalism is closed, and relies on the vomitting out strangers approach, but at least patriotism is more open ended, it invites people in – but only with the aim of ingesting their difference, still leaving others outside.

(176 – 182) Unity – through similarity or difference?

Both Nationalism and Patriotism depend on ‘othering’ – Unity comes from setting up a boundary and then emphasising the difference between us and them.

He now draws on Bernard Crick to propose another type of unity – that based on unity and conciliation – were people pursue self-identification in a multitude of ways and the ‘polis’ is one of onging negotiation and conciliation of differences.

This later, argues Bauman is the only one which is compatible with liquid modernity (so nationalism is no longer relevant?) – Now that disembededness/ individualisation etc. are so advanced, we must either construct a society in which different people can live together collectively, negotiating and reconciling their differences, or we create a society in which we basically avoid eachother and those who are different to us.

We seem to be in the process of creating the later, at least those in power do….. as evidenced in cyber-enclaves and gated communities, which are privatised solutions to insecurity which cost (while we leave the poor outside in ghettos).

He now sites Sennet who puts a pyscho-sociological gloss on this….

The image of the community is purified of all that may convey a feeling of difference, let alone conflict, in who ‘we’ are. In this way the myth of community solidarity is a purification ritual…. What is distinctive about this mythic sharing in communities is that people feel they belong to eachother, and share together, because they are the same… the ‘we’ feeling, which expresses the desire to be similar, is a way for men to avoid the necessity of looking deeper into each other.

Bauman goes on to say that this is also a bid to avoid confronting vexing questions such as whether the self, frightened and lacking in self-confidence is actually work loving in the first place and whether it deserves to be the basis of a design for society.

In another place (In search of politics 1999) I have discussed the unholy trinity of uncertainty, insecurity and unsafety… each one generating anxiety… with the access to the sources of these out of reach, the pressure shifts elsewhere, to the realm of bodily, domestic and environmental safety. As a result the ‘safety problem’ tends to be chronically overloaded with worries and cravings it can neither carry away or unload. The unholy alliance results in the perpetual thirst for more safety, a thirs which no practical measures can quell since they are bound to leave the primary and perpetually prolific sources of uncertainty untouched.

(182-184) Security at Price

Communitarianism assumes that the cost of increased security is individual freedom. The two cannot be increased simultaneously. Also, the vision of communitarianism is one of an island that protects against the stormy sea, the idea of mastering the sea itself is already abandoned.

Bauman now draws on Durkheim – Society for Durkheim (a view credible at the time) is that body under whose protection we shelter from the horror of our own transcience…. he cites the following quote to emphasise how irrelevant Durkheim’s vie are today… ‘Actions which have a lasting quality are worthy of our volition, only pleasures which endure are worthy of our desires’.

The body and its desires are now longer lived than in Durkheim’s day, but nearly everything else is more transcient – hence the body (along with community) is the only place we can look to for security.

He rounds off this section by suggesting that the body and the community are the only places where we might find security and certainty, and they are lonely places. This has happened because the Nation State has dissolved itself of the responsibility of providing security, or of guaranteeing the security of its citizens.

(185-192) After the Nation-State

There is little hope of salvaging the security and certainty servicecs of the state. This has been erroded by the new global powers (of capital) with the awesome extraterritoriality, speed of movement and evasion/ escape ability; retribution for violating the new global brief is swift and merciless. Indeed, the refusal to play the game by the new global rules is the most mercilessly punishable crime, which the state powers, tied to the ground by their own territorially defined sovereignty, must beware of committing and avoid at all cost….. More often than not, punishment is economic. Insubordinate governments, guilty of protectionist policies or generous public provisions for the ‘economically redundant’ sectors of their populations’ would be refused loans or denied reduction on their debts; local currencies would be made global lepers, speculated against and pressed to devalue, local stocks would fall head down on global exchanges… global investors would withdraw.

Sometimes actual war is necessary, as was the case with Yugoslavia….

Bauman now outlines how history up until heavy modernity was a war over space….. between the settled and the nomads, bewteen the bigger and the smaller,  no longer, today the war is between the quick and the slow. He then argues that what global capitalism wants is the right to be free from commitments, while leaving the tricky issue of security to local goverments, at whatever level these exist.

Four pages are now devoted to outlining the failures of NATO’s attempts to police conflicts. Bauman argues the trend is likely to be to less engagement in local conflicts (the let the war burn itself out approach), before rounding off the chapter suggesting that globalisation has lead to increasing conflicts between communities rather than promoting the peaceful coexistence of communities.

(192-199) Filling the Void

Following Hobsbawm – TNCs would prefer a world with no nation states, or at least smaller states, because these are less powerful and easier to buy. Bauman likes Gidden’s juggernaut analogy, and further suggests that nation states desperately try steer it competitively – they have no choice but to try and attract economic forces favourably because votes depend on it.

The future is one of either supranational regulatory institutions or increasing precariatisation (following Bordieu) – Either way the NS will decline… If this continues, and possibly loses its monopoly on coercion (one if its defining features according to Weber and Elias), it is not at all certain that less violence would be the result. We might just see violence descend to the neo-tribal level.

What could fill this void are what Bauman calles explosive communities, which are born in violence and require violence to continue.

Bauman now draws on Rene Girard’s work on the role of violence in community. Gerard argues that a violent urge is always seeting beneath any community….. To deal with this it needs to be channelled and it is channelled outside of the community – Boundaries are drawn, others created, and unity of the community is periodically enforced by choosing victims from the others to sacrfice. (NB this is all very abstract!)

He now makes a few qualifications, but to be honest I only skim read the rest of this section as I’m not especially interested in this aspect of Bauman’s work at this time, although the point seems to be that explosive communities require violence to define themselves.

Cloakroom Communities

Bauman rounds off by saying that such explosive communities are also cloakroom communities – I’m not sure the word works, it’s supposed to capture their addiction to spectacle the high emotion. He also calls them carnival communities, a better choice of word.

Finally, Bauman mentions that such communities offer no means of grounding the individual, they do not adequately address the destabilising forces which give birth to them!

Posted in Book reviews, summaries and excerpts, Capitalism, Globalisation, Postmodernism, Sociological Theory | No Comments »

Work in Low Pay, No Pay Britain

Posted by Realsociology on 30th October 2013

In this latest Thinking Allowed podcast on ‘Low pay, no pay’ Britain Laurie Taylor talks to the sociologist, Tracy Shildrick, about her prize winning study of individuals and families who are living in or near poverty. The research was conducted in Teesside, North East England, and focuses on the men and women who’ve fallen out of old working class communities and must now cope with drastically reduced opportunities for standard employment. To my mind, this is a good in-dept illustration of what life is really like for a section of the Precariat (although Shildrick would be more cautious).

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The research is based on the book (published in 2012) – Poverty and insecurity Life in low-pay, no-pay Britain by Tracy Shildrick

This book explores how men and women get by in times and places where opportunities for standard employment have drastically reduced and where people exist without predictability or security in their lives, the book shows how poverty and insecurity have now become the defining features of working life for many.

Work may be ‘the best route out of poverty’ sometimes but for many people getting a job can be just a turn in the cycle of recurrent poverty – and of long-term churning between low-skilled ‘poor work’ and unemployment.

Based on unique qualitative, life-history research with a ‘hard-to-reach group’ of younger and older people, men and women this research challenges long-standing and dominant myths about ‘the workless’ and ‘the poor’, by exploring close-up the lived realities of life in low-pay, no-pay Britain.

Below is a summary of the main points of the podcast

  • The low-pay no-pay cycle is much more common than long-term unemployment. Most people intreviewed were committed to work, even though the jobs they did were not ‘comfortable’ jobs. This was one of their most consistent findings…. which in part explains why these people go back time and time again. This of course is the opposite to what we here in the media about people ‘languishing on benefits’.
  • It is not a guarantee that taking up employment will mean an individual is going to better off than on benefits. Most people were ashamed at having to claim benefits.
  • Jobs typically did not last long enough to take workers away from poverty.
  • In work-poverty is – 66% of poverty live in households were at least one person is in-work.
  • The types of work include factory jobs, bars, customer service, often run through agencies.
  • For the people interviewed these type of jobs are not stepping stones to something better – they get one foot on the rung of the ladder, get knocked off, and have to climb back on again.
  • Shildrick is not convinced that the term ‘Precariat’ is accurate enough to describe adequately the experience of all people who are sometimes put into this category. She argues that the experiences of the people she interviewed are different to those of a graduate working for a few years in similar jobs (although the people she interviewed do seem to fit into the definition of the Precariat used by the GBCS below)
  • In response to the idea that better training is the solution to helping people in these jobs, Shildrick suggests we need to look at the bigger picture – society needs these jobs – we need to think ahout how to reward them more appropriately.

Shildrick suggests that it is ultimately employers who have the power to help people out of this cycle. Unfortunately, the trend seems to be of employers being increasingly inflexible while demanding that employees be more flexible.

Links -

1. This seems to be a good in-dept illustration of what life is really like for a section of the Precariat

2. Also a nice illustration of the effects of living in liquid-modernity – The reality is actually bleaker for them than the above research might suggest – As Zygmunt Bauman reminds us (in Liquid Modernity)- ‘The bottom category are the easeist to replace, and  now they are disposabe 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.

Winner of the British Academy Peter Townsend Prize for 2013 How do men and women get by in times and places where opportunities for standard employment have drastically reduced? Are we witnessing the growth of a new class, the ‘Precariat’, where people exist without predictability or security in their lives? What effects do flexible and insecure forms of work have on material and psychological well-being? This book is the first of its kind to examine the relationship between social exclusion, poverty and the labour market. It challenges long-standing and dominant myths about ‘the workless’ and ‘the poor’, by exploring close-up the lived realities of life in low-pay, no-pay Britain. Work may be ‘the best route out of poverty’ sometimes but for many people getting a job can be just a turn in the cycle of recurrent poverty – and of long-term churning between low-skilled ‘poor work’ and unemployment. Based on unique qualitative, life-history research with a ‘hard-to-reach group’ of younger and older people, men and women, the book shows how poverty and insecurity have now become the defining features of working life for many. – See more at: http://www.policypress.co.uk/display.asp?K=9781847429100#sthash.8EnqVw5J.dpuf
Winner of the British Academy Peter Townsend Prize for 2013 How do men and women get by in times and places where opportunities for standard employment have drastically reduced? Are we witnessing the growth of a new class, the ‘Precariat’, where people exist without predictability or security in their lives? What effects do flexible and insecure forms of work have on material and psychological well-being? This book is the first of its kind to examine the relationship between social exclusion, poverty and the labour market. It challenges long-standing and dominant myths about ‘the workless’ and ‘the poor’, by exploring close-up the lived realities of life in low-pay, no-pay Britain. Work may be ‘the best route out of poverty’ sometimes but for many people getting a job can be just a turn in the cycle of recurrent poverty – and of long-term churning between low-skilled ‘poor work’ and unemployment. Based on unique qualitative, life-history research with a ‘hard-to-reach group’ of younger and older people, men and women, the book shows how poverty and insecurity have now become the defining features of working life for many. – See more at: http://www.policypress.co.uk/display.asp?K=9781847429100#sthash.8EnqVw5J.dpuf
Winner of the British Academy Peter Townsend Prize for 2013 How do men and women get by in times and places where opportunities for standard employment have drastically reduced? Are we witnessing the growth of a new class, the ‘Precariat’, where people exist without predictability or security in their lives? What effects do flexible and insecure forms of work have on material and psychological well-being? This book is the first of its kind to examine the relationship between social exclusion, poverty and the labour market. It challenges long-standing and dominant myths about ‘the workless’ and ‘the poor’, by exploring close-up the lived realities of life in low-pay, no-pay Britain. Work may be ‘the best route out of poverty’ sometimes but for many people getting a job can be just a turn in the cycle of recurrent poverty – and of long-term churning between low-skilled ‘poor work’ and unemployment. Based on unique qualitative, life-history research with a ‘hard-to-reach group’ of younger and older people, men and women, the book shows how poverty and insecurity have now become the defining features of working life for many. – See more at: http://www.policypress.co.uk/display.asp?K=9781847429100#sthash.8EnqVw5J.dpuf

Posted in Book reviews, summaries and excerpts, Capitalism, Changing Britain, Neoliberalism, social class, Wealth and Income Inequality | No Comments »

Summary of Liquid Modernity Chapter Four – Work

Posted by Realsociology on 29th October 2013

Chapter Four – Work

Bauman begins by citing, amongst others, Henry Ford as an example of someone who epitomised 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.

(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 seperates 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 excercise – ‘Excercise 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 llive in a world of universal flexibility… under conditions of acute and prospectless 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 freeding labour from the land, only to be tied to the Fordist Factory, but at least unionised Labour and Capital were equally as tide to eachother – 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  unilaterial,,,, 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 extraterratorial, lighter than ever.

To an unprecented degree politcs 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 disinvesment, 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 manipualtors

The reproduction of labour

Personal services

Routine Labourers

The bottom category are the easeist to replace, and they now they are disposabe 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 posititons – 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 ambigous and chaotic world where knowledge ages quickly.

He rounds off by saying that those who are in charge are viritually networked and for them information moves at an incredible pace…. the life expectancy of knowledge is short, they live in a world of the perpetuality of 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 ott, 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 signficance derived from the new meaningfulness of time, from time having a history, from time being history.

Procrastination is what makes life meaninful. 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 alllowed the time to reflect on where it is they are going, thus the pilgrimage is meaningful. The pilgrim’s life is a travel-towards-fulfilment, 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/ behavourial 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 disatisfaction 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, entightlements, livelihood

uncertainty – about continutation and future stability

unsafety – 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 somthing of the self-fulfilling prophecy about this!

Perceiving the world, complete with its inhabitants, as a pool of consumer items makes the negotation of human bonds exceedingly hard. Insecure people tend to be irritable, they are also deeply intolerant of anything that stands in the way of thier 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, unertainty, 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 incresingly subject to the whims of capital, which the state is unlikeley to regulate.  I think his point at the end is that the old labour movements are dead (again it’s not that clear).

Posted in Book reviews, summaries and excerpts, Sociological Theory | No Comments »

A Brief History of International Development Aid

Posted by Realsociology on 7th February 2012

I’m in the middle of writing a critique of Dambisa Moyo’s Dead Aid - mainly because the book uses highly selective evidence to promote neo0liberal ideology – but I will concede that the way Moyo conceptualises the history of development aid from the 1940s is a fairly useful teaching tool for A level Global Development – so here’s a brief summary of the second chapter of the book – (NB I said useful conceptually for A level, I’m not actually implying that her account is factually accurate – thankfully when you’ve got an exam board that lives in a 1980s timewarp, the actual facts aren’t necessarily that important for the exam)

Moyo splits ‘the history of aid’ up into ‘seven phases’ – starting with the earliest days of Bretton Woods in the mid 1940s – which saw the establishment of institutions such as the IMF, then outlines details of the Marshall Plan in the 1950s – but I’m going to start my brief summary with the third phase in the 1960s -which are followed in each successive decade with next four phases.

The 1960s – The decade of Industrialisation -

The Kariba DamHere there was a shift to to the development of large scale industrial projects, with funding going directly to governments in African countries and coming primarily from the  USA, but also from European governments.

A good example of this is the Kariba hydroelectric dam that straddles the boarder between Zambia and Zimbabwe – began under British colonial rule in the 1950s and finally completed in 1977 at a cost of $480 million.

While pointing out that records from the 1960s are not perfect, Moyo sites the following stats for country receipts of aid by the mid 1960s -

  • Ghana – $90 million
  • Kenya, Malawi and Zambia – all having recieved an averge of about $315 million

The 1970s – the shift to a poverty focus

This historical period starts with the 1973 Arab embrago on oil, which lead to oil price rises, followed by food price rises and recession across Africa. In 1975, for example, Ghana’s eGDP contracted by 12% and inflaction had risen to more than 100% by 1977.

In practical terms this lead to aid being redirected away from large infrastructure projects and towrds rurual projects in agriculture and rural development and social services – such as innoculation programmes, housing and literacy campaigns. By the end of the 1970s, the proportion of aid allocated to social service had increased from 10% (in the previous decade) to over 50%. Much of this aid came in the form of concessional loans which would need to be paid back.

Moyo also notes that despite the increasing inflows of aid, increasing numbers of people in Africa were falling into poverty.

The 1980s: Neoliberalism, Structural Adjustment and the lost age of development

Moyo begins – By the end of the 1970s, Africa was awash with aid. In total, the continent had ammassed around $36 billion in foreign assistance. This decade saw a shift away from governments giving aid and towards multilateral aid – with the World Bank and the IMF playing a more central role. Also, aid became focussed less on poverty reduction and more focussed on assisting (some may read coercing) developing world governments to adopt free-market policies.

The 1979 oil spike, precipitaed by the Iran-Iraq war lead to more financial problems for Africa as Western financial institutions responded to the corresponding price increases by raising interest rates – which meant that Africa’s debt service payments reached around $8 billion in 1982, while at the same time, worldwide recession meant declining income from exports, meant that in the 1980s, 11 African countries were eventually defaulted on their debts.

The solution to this crisis was to ‘restructure the debt’. Thus the IMF formed the Enhanced Structural Adjustment Facility – to lend more money to defaulting nations to help them. Of course this in itself did little to actually alleviate Africa’s problems – it was still dependent on concessionary loans from the West.

At the same time as this restructuring – there was also an ideological shift amongst donors – towards ‘neoliberalism’ – and aid now shifted so that when governments received it they had to agree to instigate ‘free-market reforms’ – minimising the role of the state, privatising previously nationalised industries, liberalising trade (less restrictions on private companies and exports/ imports) and reducing the number of government employees.)

Between 1986 and 1996 six African countries – Benin, the CAR, Guineas, Madagascar, Mali and Uganda shed more than 10% of their civil workforce, and overall across Africa, many industries were privatised.

The 1990s – A question of good governance

By the end of the 1980s, emerging-market countries’ debt was at lest $1 trillion — and the cost debt servicing had become so substantial that from 1987-1989 there was a net outflow of money from poor to rich countries of $15 a year.

Having seen the failure of aid in previous decades, donor institutions now laid the blame for Africa’s economic woes at the door of weak political leadership and institutions and there was an increased focus on the need to link aid to the promotion of good governance – in other words, credible institutions, transparent rule of law and freedom from corruption. There was also a growing belief that African countries needed a dose of Western Democracy in order to develop.

Moyo also notes that the increasing link between aid and democratic accountability was aided by that fact that in the 1990s, the cold war was thawing, which meant an end to the US and Russia providing aid to politcally dubious regimes in Africa for military purposes.

Finally, the later part of the 1990s saw the rise of ‘donor fatigue’ – ODA peaked in 1992 at a high of $17 billion and then fell to £12 billion in 1999.

The 2000s – the rise of glamour aid

While I think her overview of the preceding decades of development aid is useful, her casting of ODA in the most recent decade is flippant. She

Bono (pronounced Bohnoh) 'feeding the world'

fails to even mention that aid targetting came to be better informed by the 8 Millennium Development Goals, or the new philanthropy headed up by Bill Gates. Instead Moyo simply casts the 2000s as the era in which a new army of moral campaigners took to our TV screens – most noteably Bono, who not only wrote the forward to Jeffrey Sach’s 2005 ‘End of Poverty’ but also met with world leaders to discuss development issue and campaing for more aid to combat Africa’s problems. The only other substantive example she mentions about aid in the 2000s is the ‘Jubilee debt campaign.

So there you have it – with the exception of the last decade, a useful, if somewhat generalised account of the history of Western Development aid over the last half century.

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Do we have an innate sense of fairness?

Posted by Realsociology on 28th August 2011

This provides a potential missing link between system and agency in explaining why inequality leads to violence such as riots… How Growing Inequality Hurts the Middle Class by Robert H. Frank (2007) – Even though it’s not focussed on those suffering real deprivation – if inequality hurts those in the middle this much – it can surely be applied to help explain why the really deprived in unequal societies might occassionally display signs of anti-social behaviour… Of course you may have seen this, but it’s relatively new to me, even though it’s four years old…

Frank offers up considerable evidence that human beings have an innate sense of justice – they care about their position relative to others and feel that if they are not getting their fare share in relation to their peers, then a sense of injustice and negative emotions arise – most notably anger… (taken from the text)
Do you teach kids to care about relative position or do they just discover it on their own?

Why not try the 'orange juice' expt. on your kids?

I was curious and did an experiment with my two older boys when they were young. David was seven and Jason was five, and it was a three day experiment. I gave them each a full glass of orange juice on the first day. I watched them each day. What did they do? Nothing on the first day! I cut them back to a half glass on day 2. Did they complain? “Why did we get only half a glass?” No, they again drank their orange juice without comment. The pay-off was day 3. David got 7/8 of a glass, Jason ¾—what psychologists call a “just noticeable difference,” where you need to carefully make sure there is a difference. Sure enough – I could see Jason’s eyes go back and forth between the two glasses. He could tell it wasn’t going to play out well if he complained, but he just couldn’t bottle it up any longer. He finally blurted out “That’s not fair. He always gets more than me.” We don’t teach them to do that, they just do it.

He goes on to provide an excellent account of evidence for greater equality leading to greater pyschological well-being  

So this is basically to pyschology what the Spirit Level is to Sociology – and I believe that Will Hutton in ‘Them and Us’ builds a similar arguement…although I’ve only just skimmed that book thus far – but while the war against the unread pile may be unwinnable, I think we are making ground in the war against neoliberalism in general and the Tories in particular…Check out the latest Yougov polls for some encouraging signs on this.  

 

Posted in Book reviews, summaries and excerpts, Wealth and Income Inequality | No Comments »

Good Economic Policy Does Not Require Good Economists

Posted by Realsociology on 2nd August 2011

Hi, just a brief summary of the penultimate chapter of ’23 Things They Don’t Tell You About Capitalism’

The key point of this chapter is that many economic success stories are to be found in countries where economic policy was not run by ‘expert economists’ – East Asian countries  in the 1980s are cases in point – especially and most obviously China.  It is only since the rise of neoliberal economics and the Chicago School (of economics, not sociology!) especially that economic experts and policy has basically screwed the majority.

This chapter also offers a good summary-critique of neoliberalism. I thought I’d just share a few choice sections – It’s nice to see such a succinct, potted critique – reminds you of just how horrific neoliberalism is!

‘During the last three decades the increasing influence of ‘free- market’ economics has resulted in poorer economic performance all over the world – lower economic growth, greater economic instability, increased inequality and finally culminatingin the disaster of the 2008 world financial crisis. Insofar as we need economics, we need different kinds of economics from free-market economics.’

Chang then points out that many of the fastest growing economies of the last 5 decades did not practise free market economics – [most obviously China], and he goes on to say that ‘there are reasons to think that [neoliberal free market] economics may be positively harmful for the economy… Over the last three decades, economists played an important role in creating the conditions of the 2008 financial crisis (and dozens of smaller financial crises that came before it since the early 1980s, - the 1982 Third World debt crisis, the 1995 Mexico peso crisis, the 1997 Asian crisis and the 1998 Russian crisis) by providing theoretical justifation for financial deregulation and the unrestrained pursuit of short term profits. More broadly, they advanced theories that justified policies that lead to slower growth, higher inequalty, heightened job insecurity and more frequent financial crises that have dogged the world in the last three decades.

‘On top of that they pushed for policies that weakened the prospects for long-term development in developing countries. In the rich countires these economists encouraged people to overestimate the power of new technologies, made people’s lives more and more unstable, made them ignore the loss of national control over the economy and rendered them complacement about de-industrialisation. Moreover, they supplied arguments that insist that all those economic outcomes that many in the world find objectionable – such as rising inequality and poverty in poor countries are really inevitable, given selfish and rational human behaviour.”

In short, says Chang, economists (most of whom who have any policy-power subscribe to neoliberalism) has done a huge amount of harm to our society…

The message of hope, and coming back to the title of the post, is that we don’t need expert economists to turn our economy round – so trust ye in the little the guys – such as the E.F. Schumacher brigade, the New Economics Foundation and the guys at http://falseeconomy.org.uk/- the peops therein may not be as well trained as those versed in classical and neoliberal economics, but if they were running the economy, we’d probably all be a lot more prosperous and secure right now.

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23 Things they Don’t tell you about Capitalism

Posted by Realsociology on 1st August 2011

Just a few notes and key points from this excellent book by Ha-Joon Chang -

The book basically busts a lot of neoliberal myths. It’s worth noting from the outset that Chang isn’t a Marxist, he accepts that market systems are basically sound, and argues that what we need is a more globalised – Keynsian style of regulation to prevent neoliberal strains of free market fundamentalism.

The book is, unsurprisingly, split into 23 chapters – each chapter briefly outlines ’one thing market fundamentalists tell us about Capitalism’ and then looks at criticisms of what we are told, thus myth busting neoliberalism and showing it up for the flawed ideology that it is.

To my mind, this is an excellent book, that finds the right balance between an academic and populist tone – the criticisms of Capitalism are made using both easy to understand analogies and stories as well as hard historical – statististical data.

Teachers of A level Sociology can use elements of this in the Global Development Module, or even to illustrate Marxist ideas of ideology (although I imagine more than half of your students just wouldn’t get it!)

Just a few of my favourite myth-buts of neo-liberalism (I’ll add in a more details later!)

Thing 1 – There is no such thing as a free market – Even today markets are regulated at both an international and national level – the most obvious example of this being immigration controls, which, if removed, would lead to mass migrations and significantly lower wages for people in the developed world. Other examples include there not being markets in people (no slavery), organs, and the fact that child labour is illegal.

We regulate some markets to such an extent that we ban trade all together, and thus it is clear that what counts as a ‘free market’ is a political decision. The ‘free market’ today isn’t something that just exists independently of the political sphere – freedoms are restricted when trading in certain goods and services are deemed too harmful or morally unacceptable. This of course lays the foundation for arguing that we should regulate speculative financial and commodity markets given the harm that they cause.

Thing 2Companies should not be run in the interests of their owners – what Chang means by this is that companies should not be run in the interests of shareholders – because shareholders are always after short term returns on their investment – and thus companies are run by managers in order to maximise short term returns (year on year dividends) rather than longer term productivity growth. – Later on in the book (see thing 18) Chang outlines how General Motors recently failed to invest in new technologies to make better cars – which would have made them more competitive with foregin companies, but instead invested billions in setting up new financial services because the short term return on the later was greater – thus pleasing shareholders. The end result of this is that what was once the biggest and most productive company in America was transformed in the space of three decades into a basket case that had to go begging to the US government for a bail out – but the shareholders did very nicely, and now their money’s elsewhere – it’s just the workers and the tax payer that suffered!

In this chapter Chang also provides a brief overview of the development of the Corporation – essentially it emerges that three innovations in Corporate development since the the beginning of last century have lead to the disaster that is modern capitalism – firstly, limited liability, secondly the rise of the managerial class (rather than individual Capitalists) running firms and finally the rise of shareholder ownership – these three things combined, which on their own are not necessarily in themselves bad and were in fact either necessary or desirable to keep Capitalism profitable, these three things combined have created the conditions that make companies work against the interests of the country – because now we have managers who are covered by limited liability and thus free to take risks that are beholden to shareholders to make short term gains. Chang’s not a Marxist, but I’d say this looks like a fetter situation!  

Thing 7 – Free-market policies rarely make poor countries rich

Chang points out that, with only a few exceptions, all of today’s rich countries have become rich through a combination of protectionism, subsidies and other policies that they advise developing countries not to adopt.

Looking at China as a case study – until a decade ago, China was highly protectionist, with an average industrial tariff rate well above 30%, and very visible trade restrictions still remain. The country has restrictions on cross-border flows of capital, a state owned and highly regulated banking sector, and numerous restrictions on foregin ownership of financial assets. Foreign firms often complain about being discriminated against. The country has no elections and is riddled with corruption and has complicated property rights. In particular, its protection of intellectual property rights is weak, making it the piracy capital of the world. The country also has a large number of state owned companies which are propped up with subsidies!

Chang then goes into a wonderful section in which he looks at the economic policies put forward by the previous American Presidents that appear on the different bank notes – many of them protectionist – policies correlated with economic growth throughout previous decades. This deserves a post on its own so I’ll save this for later!

America and China are not exceptions (even if they were – these, along with the UK  are the two most significant  economic powerhouses to have shaped history -OK with China I’m getting a bit Futerist – sorry about that – as a rule I don’t trust Futerists – and neither should you) – there are many countries in different situations that have witnessed economic growth while practising protectionist economic policy – Finland, Denmark, Germany, Taiwan, Korea and Switzerland are all examples.

Most importantly for early econmic development is the protection of ‘infant industries’ – virtually all of today’s rich countries did this early on, and most of them severley restricted foreign investment.

There are essentially three reasons why developing countries should adopt protectionist economic policies rather than opening themselves up the international free market forces -

1. Developing countries are, by definition, undeveloped, they are thus in no state to compete on the world stage with devleoped economies and their advanced technologies and managerial efficiencies. In a similar way, you would not send your 6 year old son out to compete with 26 year olds, you would protect him from the labour market and send him to school, so that when he reaches his 20s he is better educated and thus more competitive. Developing countries should protect their infant industries in a similar way.

2. In early stages of development, markets are especially vulnerable to manipulation by big (read here foreign) actors – and so the government needs to restrict thier behaviour.

3. the govt. needs to do many things itself because there are not enough private sector firms capable of providing what is needed for development.

Despite the above, the IMF has encouraged developing countries to open up their borders and expose their economies to the full force of global competition, using the conditions attached to aid. It’s been a case of ‘do as I say, not do as I did’.

Developing countries have seen a slow down in economic growth since the introduction of free market economic reforms in the 1980s – the 1960s to 70s saw annual growth of 3% while the era of free market reform 1980 -2000 saw growth, but this declined to 1.7%.

To summarise, few countries have become rich through free-trade, free-market policies and few ever will.

Thing 9 – We do not live in a post-industrial age

On the service it appears that manufacturing in the UK has declined hugely in significance – as evidenced by ‘deindustrialisation’ – in the 1970s 35% of the workforce were employed in manufacturing, but this has now dropped to just over 10%. The general line on this is that this doesn’t matter because we are now a post-industrial economy with more people employed in R and D and the service sectors.

However, if you look at things in terms of production and consumptin – it becomes apparent that the decline in manufacturing has not been as rapid as it at first appears – even though we spend more today on services (haircuts for example) – and we spend relatively less on computers – or we might spend as much as we did ten years ago but buy more of them – this is because computers are relatively cheaper than they were ten years ago while haircuts are relatively more expensive. This, in turn, is because computers, and most other industrial products, have become cheeper to manufacture because of productivity growth – technogical innovation meens you can get more computers per worker and so the cost goes down – something which simply cannot happen with haircuts and other face-to-face service jobs to anything like the same extent.

The problem a country like Britain has now got is that many service jobs depend on the industrial sector (most service jobs invovle working with stuff that’s been manufactured somewhere) – but we now have less control over the stuff we produce. Also, it’s difficult to see where our service sector can grow – as services, compared to physical products, are harder to export – consider the lanuguage barriers for a start – and this may well explain our declining rate of econmic growth – in other words, the idea that a service sector economy can carry on growing is pretty much a myth – there are huge barriers to this happening.

Thing 10 – The US does not have the highest living standard in the world

 

Thing 13 – making rich people richer doesn’t make the rest of us richer

Thing 23 – Good economic policy does not require good economists.

As always, there are some great reviews on Amazon!

Posted in Book reviews, summaries and excerpts, Global Development, Things I like | No Comments »

Unjust rewards by Polly Toynbee and David Walker- a Summary

Posted by Realsociology on 22nd May 2011

unjust rewardsUnjust Rewards – An Exploration of the extent of inequality in Modern Britain that looks at the contrasting lives of the rich and the poor is yet another book I should’ve read when I bought it over 2 years ago! Still it serves as an interesting basis for researching the differences between the rich and the poor, and their values and attitudes towards their situation.

Chapter one outlines some well touted stats on inequality in contemporary Britain – I won’t go into details, but one thing that stood out (actually from chapter 2) Looking at executive pay – between 2000 – 2007 average earnings in the UK grew by 30%, while chief executive pay among the FTSE 100 companies rose by 150%; in the United States, by 2007, the average chief executive was earning 600 times the average manual worker, I will update these at some point!

Chapter two, based around interviews with those in the top 0.1% of earners who work for city law and finance firms and earn between 500 000 and 1 million, outlines what the wealthy know about wages in modern Britain and how they justify their own worth.  NB – Toynbee found it difficult to gain access to this group – and they would only speak on the basis of anonymity.

These people, who have massive economic power and speak with authority on economic issues, have no idea about average incomes in the UK – firstly, they tend to underestimate just how wealthy they are – putting themselves closer to the average than they actually are – they thought that you would have to earn 162 000 to get into the top ten percent of earners, and that the poverty line stood at 22 000 – in reality the official figures stand at 40 000 and 11 000 respectively . They then offered the following justifications for their huge earnings –

  • They are the economic benefactors of the country
  • They are paid so much because they are competing with a global elite, so are top of the game globally rather than just nationally
  • If they weren’t paid so much they would take their huge talents elsewhere
  • They have worked hard for it – citing examples of pulling heroic all nighters to finish off contracts
  • On taxation – they believed they shouldn’t be taxed more because government can’t be trusted to spend money efficiently, and that their cash shouldn’t go to those on benefits because they are essentially feckless – basically citing the daily mail line.
  • They also believe they need their money to maintain a lifestyle equivalent to that of other people they mix with. This of course is a result of wealth and status inequality, Danny Dorling’s Injustice is good on this.

Of course, in reality, the above are myths – these people are not competing globally – most of them are British born, and have networked their way into their jobs via elite schools and universities – they are not interested in competition – they and their firms make their money by creating an image that they are the best at what they do and then selling their services for a huge profit, and they maintain their wages by blocking the majority of people from competing for their positions.

Chapter three investigates why Britain’s chief executives get paid so much money – basically those at the top are not especially talented people – and there is no correlation between company performance and executive pay – for every Alan Sugar there are dozens of bureaucratic pen pushers who just go with the flow. Worryingly old boy’s networks restrict access to the boards of the FTSE 100 companies – how else could it be that, in the age of globalization, 85% of CEOs of the FTSE 100 companies are British? Also, If there was true competition for these jobs the field would be much more international, and if there was genuine competition for these jobs, wages and bonuses would be driven down! Instead CEOs get paid as much as they do because they demand it – and they base their demands on what other CEOs are demanding – and their demands for ever increasing wages get pushed through at board meetings because of recommendations by consultants who make their recommendations for wage and bonus increases by looking at other CEOs salaries. Toynbee doesn’t analyse where the wage increases started from, which is an omission.

Chapter three…  ‘the discrete anxieties of the Bourgeoisie’ doesn’t hold together that well – it starts off by outlining how wealth differences within the top 0.1% of earners make those at the bottom of these 30 000 or so individuals feel relatively deprived compared to those at the top – the super rich – and it is these super rich who have pushed up property prices in London by being able to pay millions of pounds for the most exclusive properties. This sense of relative deprivation then filters down to ‘middle England’ who compare themselves to the richest 0.1% and some of whom may really struggle to have what they regard as a good quality of life (holidays etc.) on their 40 000 wage packets – especially if they live in the south east and if this is per household and they have family to support.

The next section of chapter three outlines a piece of research by the Fabian Society in which middle income earners were interviewed about the attitudes to taxation and poverty – initially they didn’t think anyone was really poor, but that those at the bottom were poor because of their own fecklessness – again, classic daily mail stuff – but once they were informed about the real situation, their attitudes softened and the groups agreed that an increase in income tax of 2 pence in the pound would be worth it to alleviate this poverty.

The next sections of the book look at the lives of the poor, and then policies that might help resolve inequality in modern Britain – will be forthcoming!

Posted in Book reviews, summaries and excerpts, Sociological Theory | No Comments »

How the West was Lost

Posted by Realsociology on 27th January 2011

51bhO2JkrDLA new book by Dambisa Moyo – about how Asia will rise and the West will decline in coming years. Although I hated her last book (Dead Aid), and I hate the fact that she used to work for Goldman Sachs – with this book she’s got a point. NB – Some of the material below is summarised from Paul Collier’s review…  

I especially liked the point that our standards of education are dropping compared to countries like China and her analysis of why -

Collier summarises ‘Among [Western] parents Moyo points out that parents collude in their children’s fantasies of becoming sporting or entertainment celebrities rather than getting down to the hard grind of learning how to be productive: in east Asia children spend many more hours doing schoolwork than they do in the west.’

My comment – an excellent point – parents are way too indulgent of their children’s every whim in our society – children have too much of the wrong sort of freedom. Especially in education, teachers have to bend over backwards to ‘entertain’ children rather than children having to adapt and do the bloody hard work of learning how to think for themselves and apply themselves academically. To any of my students reading this – life after college will not be the endless roller coaster ride of fun that you think it will be! Life will be a lot harder – and work will not bend to suit your ‘preferred learning style’.

According to Moyo, our focus on children’s rights and excessive commitment to (the wrong kind of ) individualism is just one reason why the west will lose out in the scramble for finite resources, and so as “the rest” rise “the west” will decline, not just relatively but absolutely. Read the rest of Collier’s review to find out more.

Posted in Book reviews, summaries and excerpts, Global Development | No Comments »

On the benefits of burning your children’s stuffed animals

Posted by Realsociology on 22nd January 2011

Amy Chua and her daughters - who had a TV free chilhood

Amy Chua and her daughters - who had a TV free chilhood

Amy Chua’s latest book – Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother - argues against the weak, cuddling, Western parenting style, making the case that the much stricter approach of Chinese parents is superior. Some of the rules she subjected her own daughters to included -

  • Never letting them attend sleepovers
  • Never having ‘playdates’
  • never watching TV or playing computer games
  • Practising musical instruments 2-3 hours a day.

If their standards ever dropped, she called them garbage and threatened to burn their stuffed toys. There is a good overview of the main themes of the book here and she discusses the book in this video

This is a great example of a biographical piece of research giving us an insight into Chinese parenting and one that can easily be related to education…. while this is an extreme case study, and we need to be cautious of operating in stereotypes, there is wider research that suggests Chinese (and Indian) parents are stricter with their children and place a greater emphasis on the importance of educational achievement than parents of other ethnic backgrounds  - and they make greater efforts than white British parents, for exmpale,  to police their children to make sure they are doing their homework. Their children’s social lives are also policed to a higher degree – and Chinese and Indian children generally have less freedom.

One such piece of evidence is Francis and Archer (2005) –  in their study of British Chinese students and parents, similarly point to the high value placed on education by parents, coupled with a strong cultural tradition of respect for one’s elders, which facilitates the transmission of high educational aspiration from parents to children, and that students derive positive self-esteem from constructing themselves as good students.

There is a distinct correlation between stricter parenting and exam results – it is Chinese students who get the best GCSE results in English schools.

ethnity and educational achievement

Also, if you look at things cross nationally, according to OECD league tables, they come top in academic standards for reading, maths and science, while the UK comes 25th, 28th and 16th respectively, even though we spend considerably more per head of population on education.

What isn’t clear from the data (and also what you won’t get from one book about one family!)  is what exactly it is about the relationship between parents, children and education that makes Chinese students so good at exams. Is it that they put in more hours out of fear or guilt, or is it that they use thes time they do spend on education more effectively either because they are more focussed due to less TV or because they have better learning techniques… or because of something else?

It’s also worth considering whether this type of parenting is more or less conducive to producing children who  capabable of independent thought and action in later life than the more liberal parenting we typically get in the west.

Posted in Book reviews, summaries and excerpts, Education, Ethnicity | No Comments »