A hyperreflexive blog focussing on critical sociology, infographics, Buddhism and extreme early retirement

Protected: Teaching Test 2 (also password protected)

Posted by Realsociology on February 2, 2015

This content is password protected. To view it please enter your password below:

Posted in Uncategorized | Enter your password to view comments.

Protected: Teaching Test Post 1 (using in class, so password protected)

Posted by Realsociology on February 2, 2015

This content is password protected. To view it please enter your password below:

Posted in Uncategorized | Enter your password to view comments.

Evaluating the Functionalist Perspective on Education

Posted by Realsociology on January 31, 2015

Back to A level Sociology mode for a while… Thought I’d gift this to the A level community out there….My latest experiment in ‘evidence-based evaluative bombardment’.

What does selected evidence suggest about the relevance of the Functionalist view of education today?

Before you read the material below, make sure you have a clear understanding of the Functionalist perspective on education – You should have notes, organised into at least four points which Functionalists make about the role of education in society. Once you have a clear understanding of the theory, then read/ watch the material below and annotate your notes, linking each piece of evidence to a particular aspect of the Functionalist theory of education, stating whether the evidence supports or critics that particular aspect of the theory (of course, some of the evidence might be ambiguous). You could also comment on how valid the evidence is, and suggest further evidence which you think is more valid to either support or refute Functionalism.

Firstly Cross National Comparisons suggest support for the Functionalist view that formal education and qualifications are functionally advantageous for society as a whole as they are correlated with a more developed society.

This hub site of statistics from UNESCO clearly demonstrates that there is a relationship between improved education, higher skilled jobs and economic growth. In the most developed countries such as those in Northern Europe children spend more than a decade in full time education, with the majority achieving level three qualifications (A level or equivalent) while huge numbers of children in Sub-Saharan Africa receive only a basic primary or  secondary education, with actual enrolement figures in school much lower, and only a few going on to level three education or level four (university level).

You can use Google Public Data to compare a range of Education Indicators across a number of countries

Of course as a counter-criticism, it’s worth keeping in mind that correlation doesn’t necessarily mean causation in every country. 

Secondly Exclusion statistics suggest that the education system doesn’t act as an effective agent of secondary socialisation for every child, although the numbers of exlcusions are small, with only 4% of pupils being given a fixed term exlusion and less than 0.1% being permanently exluded. However, some types of student are much more likely to be excluded – boys are three times more likely than girls, FSM students 4 times more likely than non FSM and black caribbean and mixed white and black caribbean 3 times more likely than the figures as a whole, suggesting that school works better for some types of student than others, which is something Functionalists do not consider.

Thirdly, backing up the above point, Statistics on persistent absenteeism show that slightly more pupils are routinely absent from school, with about 6 % of pupils missing more than 15% of school in any one term – however, the numbers are much higher for special schools and again for boys and FSM students.

Fourthly, Employment statistics from the ONS demonstrate a strong correlation between educational level,  employment skill level and income – those with GCSEs earn 20% more than those without GCSEs and those with degrees earn about 85% more than those with only GCSEs. This set of statistics from The Poverty Site further demonsrates that those with poor GCSCEs/ no qualifications are approximately five times more likely to either be unemployed or in low paid-work (less than £7/ hour) compared to those with degrees. This demonstrates at least partial support for the theory or Role Allocation – the higher your qualification, the better paid job you get (although this says nothing about whether this is meritocratic).

Fifthly, and criticising the view that schools are meritocratic, A recent Longitudinal Study found: ‘three years after graduation, those from more advantaged socio-economic backgrounds and those who attended private schools are more likely to be in the ‘top jobs’….

‘This research shows that even if we compare students from the same institution type, taking the same subjects and with the same degree class, socioeconomic status and private schooling still affects an individual’s chance of securing a top job,’ the report concluded.

‘An individual who has a parent who is a manager and who attended a private school is around 7 percentage points more likely to enter  the highest status occupations. Male graduates from a managerial background who attended a private school are around 10 percentage points more likely to enter the highest status occupations.

But academics do not know whether the advantage given to private school pupils is simply the ‘old boys’ network’ or whether they learn better social skills so appear more confident in job interviews.

‘Our results indicate a persistent advantage from having attended a private school. This raises questions about whether the advantage that private school graduates have is because they are better socially or academically prepared, have better networks or make different occupational choices.’

Qualitative Sources

The recent BBC documentary ‘Who Gets the Best Jobs’ uses interviews with graduates, employees and experts  and explores the reasons why wealthy and connected graduates get the best jobs and why poorer graduates lose out, suggesting our system is not meritocratic.

This TED talk by Ken Robinson (An RSA animated video of a talk) – Offers several criticisms of the contemporary education system –  you could loosley call this a post-modern/ late modern criticism of the role of modernist education, which also criticeses the Functionalist paradigm that school performs positive functions.

In short, Robinson argues that modern education lets most kids down in the following ways –

  1. It stifles their creativity by focussing too much on academic education and standardised testing – kids are taught that there is one answer and it’s at the back, rather than being taught to think divergently.
  2. It tests individual ability rather than your ability to work collaboratively in groups (which you would do in the real world).
  3. Lessons are dull – out of touch with children who are living in the most information rich age in history.
  4. It medicates thousands of kids with Ritalin – which Robinson sees as the wrong response to kids with ADHD – we should be stimulating them in divergent ways.

Tasks/ Questions

Read and watch all of the above material and match the evidence to specific points which Functionalists make about the role of education in society.

Make a contribution to the wordgarden below : – You can include concepts or evidence, keep it brief! (

Arguments and Evidence for the Functionalist Perspective on the Role of Education in Society

SupportingEvidenceFor The Functionalist Perspective on Education… at

And the following: (

Arguments and Evidence Against the Functionalist View of the Role of Education in Society

Arguments/ Evidence against The Functionalist Perspective on Edu… at

Related Posts

A2 Functionalist Theory – Class Notes

Posted in Education | Tagged: , | No Comments »

Summary of Bauman’s The Individualised Society – The Way We Are

Posted by Realsociology on January 24, 2015

Section One – The Way We  Are – Section 1/3, chapters 1-6

Chapter One  – The Rise and Fall of Labour

This chapter explains that the decline of the labour movement is due the extraterritorial power of Capital.

The industrial revolution led to labour being uprooted from its age old link to nature and then tied to Capital in commodity form, thus it could be bought and exchanged. In the era of heavy modernity, where profit derived from Fordist/ Taylorist big scale heavy production, capital and labour were dependent on each other for their well-being and reproduction because they were rooted in place,  hence the historic power of unions and the welfare state. It is was in everyone’s interests to keep labour in good condition.

All of the above gave rise to a long-term (and collective?) mentality– as illustrated in collective bargaining through unions and also through the fact that pretty much all nineteenth century thinkers thought that there would be an end point to constant change, even if the means and ends to that end point differed.

All that has changed now – we have moved from a long term mentality to a short term one. The features of work today are as follows:

Short term contracts (partners no longer intend to stay long in each others company) Flexibility Work is like a High Achieving Sport (following Geert van der Laan) – The people in it work very hard, but fewer of us actually compete. Working life is saturated with uncertainty – the nature of work is that anyone can be sacked at short notice with no warning signs, and the logic of promotions are less apparent.

Such uncertainties are a powerful indivdualising force – when work is like a campsite (not a home) there is little incentive to take an interest in the organisation, and thus solidarity is lost. We find ourselves in a time of weak ties (Grannoveter) or fleeting associations (Sennet).

This disengagement between capital and labour is not one-sided – Capital has set itself loose from from its dependency on labour, its reproduction and growth has become by and large independent of the duration of any particular local engagement with labour. Extraterritorial capital is not yet completely free of local ties – it still has to deal with governments but, paradoixcally, the only way for governments to attract Capital is to convince it that it is free to move away – and to give it what it requires.

Speed of Movement (following Crozier) now seems to be the main stratifier in the hierachy of domination – ideas are now more profitable than production, and ideas are had only once, not reproducted a thousand times, and when it comes to making ideas profitable the objects of competition are consumers not producers, and this is now Capital’s primary relation – thus the ‘holding power’ of the local labour force is weakened.

Thus (following Robert Reich) we now have four categories of economic acvitity –

  1. Symbol manipulators – For example those involved in the knowledge economy and marketers.
  2. Those who work to reproduce labour – Mainly teachers.
  3. Those who work in personal services – A whole range of things from Estate Agents to Hairdressers.
  4. Routine labourers – low skilled people who make things – these are the lowest paid and have the least secure obs because they expendable and they know it!

Following Peyrefitte Bauman now characterises Modernity as an attempt to build confidence and trust – in onself, in others and in institutions – Modernity did this and work was its primary vehicle – there was trust in the general frame – now this is gone – when delayering and downsizing is the norm, people no longer invest in it – they would rather trust (eg) the fleeting stock market than the collective bargaining power of unions.

Pierre Bordieu links the decline of politics and collective action to people’s inability to get a hold on the present (because without a hold on the present, we cannot get a grip on the future). This is especially true of today’s mass labourers who are tied to the local while capital is extraterritorial –  means they are apriori in an inferior position – when they cannot control capital, why would they engage with politics?

It is the passage from heavy to light modernity that provides the context for the decline of the labour movement. Other explanations are insuffient.

Summary/ commentary/ questions

In the postmodern era Capital has (and requires) more freedom of movement than in the modern era. The primary reason for this is the growth of consumer markets – rapidly changing tastes mean people buying and throwing away at a faster pace, and to keep up with this Capital needs to be able to shift itself around faster – free to drop old ideas and production practices as they become unfashionable or unprofitable.

As a result workers mass-labourers are powerless – they are rooted to place, as are national governments – both can only compete in a race to the bottom to try and make things as attractive as possible to globally mobile capital.

For such workers, their efforts are in vein – they are expendable and they know it, hence they are less likely to join unions and less likely to get involved in politics – neither of these make any sense when they don’t have a grip on the present – when they do not have any purchase on security of livelihood.

Speed of movement seems to be the main differentiating factor in the post-modern society.

NB – There are some workers who do OK out of these arrangements, mainly the ‘symbol manipulators’ but these have to be extremely adaptable to survive in the era of globally mobile capital!

Q: This could be an untestable theory? How does one measure the ‘mobility of Capital’ and its effects on employment?


Chapter Two – Local Orders, Global Chaos

Order is a situation where you can predict the probality of something happening. Some things are probable, some unlikely. Order suggests a degree of predictibility, and it is order which gives rise to the confidence that you can engage in an action knowing what the outcome is likely to be – order boils down to the manipulating the probablities of events.

The opposite of order is chaos – or a situation where there is always a 50-50 chance of any two events happening.

The manipulating of events and the production of order out of chaos is what culture does on a daily basis.  We speak of a cultural crisis if the order of culture is breached too often.

Culture also differentiates. This is because order is created by categorising, setting boundaries – Difference is the result of this order building activity

However, in every culture there are those who transgress boundaries, who do not fit, those who are ambivalent, and such ambivalences are unlikely to disappear because in reality no attempt to classify the complexities of the world are ever going to be able to accommodate the actual complexity of the world, and hence the more culture or order there is, the more ambivalence.

Culture may well be an attempt to distance chaos by creating order but the result is ambivalence (a self-defeating process!).

Because of their unsavoury yet intimate connections with the state of uncertainty,  the impurity of classifications, the haziness of borderline and the porousness of borders are constant sources of fear and agression, and these are inseperable from order-making and order-guarding exertions (33)

Order is also important in the global power struggle – Imposing order onto others is one way of gaining power. The more routine and predictable one’s life is, the more order, the less power. Order is something the powerless suffer and which the powerful impose, whereas they themselves (the elite) are relatively free to move as they please.

The above logic is at work in globalisation – Globalisation is a world disorder – It is presented to us as chaotic (a genesis discourse) rather than predictable (a Joshua Discourse) and order is an index of powerlessness. The new global power structure is operated by the opposition between mobility and sedentariness, contingency and routine, rarity and desnsity of constraints. Globalisation may be termed ‘the revenge of the nomads’.

Escape and volility rather than ominous presence (like bureacracy and the panopticon) are now the means of power. Normative regulation (which was costly) is no longer necessary in the age of flexibility – what keeps the precariat in check today is their vulnerability – They race to the bottom in an attempt to attract ultra mobile capital, aided in this by state policies of precariatisation. It is irrational for them to mobilise collectively because if they do capital will just take flight.

In terms of knowledge, space matters much less than it did in the past, and according to Paul Virillio, it doesn’t matter at all. In the age of instaneous global communications, local knowledges which are based on face to face interactions and gatherings have much less authority. We get our information through cyberspace, and thus actual space matters less. However, for those doomed to be local, this is felt as powerlessness.

The elite used to accumulate things, now they discard them and have to be compfortable dwelling in chaos. Bill Gates is the archetype – constantly striving to produce new things in act of creative destruction. Chaos is thus no longer a burden in the culture of the elite, who experience it as play, but this is a curse for those lower down the order, who would wish to slow down the changes that are imposed on them as a result of the elites’ creative destruction.

Those who can afford it live in time, those who cannot live in space. For the former space does not matter, while for the later they struggle hard to make it matter.

Summary/ Comment/ Questions

Culture is an attempt to create order out of chaos – and in doing so it sets rules/ norms/ boundaries. However, this is a self-defeating process, because the result of order building is ambivalence – the more a culture becomes obsessed with order buidling, the more differentiation occurs, and the more scope for the established boundaries being transgressed.

Order is important in the global power struggle – the ability to impose order on others is a mark of power, to subject them to a routine, to limit them, while the ability to avoid having order imposed on you, to be free, is also a mark of power. Having order imposed is something the weak have done to them.

However, the elite no longer have to be present to impose order – they manage to do this by being free-floating – it is volatility which keeps people individualised and thus powerless and doomed to be local. (Limited to only certain types of freedom, but not the freedom to construct a more stable society).

Furthermore, local knowledges facilitated by face to face communications are undermined by global communications networks. This further undermines the ability of the precariate to act collectively.

Those who can afford it live in time, those who do not live in space.

Question – Doesn’t this somewhat overlook Glocalism – especially Permacultural elements of the green movement – albeit extremely fringe?


Chapter Three – Freedom and Security: The Unfinished Story of a Tempestuous Union

Starts with Freud – In order to be happy man must fulfil his desires (individual freedom) but he exchanges these in ‘civilisation’ for security, so that he can be free from the suffering of his own body, other men, and nature. Security is gained when the impulses are tamed and replaced with order in the form of culture which imposes compulsive (habitual) action on individuals. However this compulsive action restricts our freedom, and human life is a situation in which the urge for freedom constantly battles against the damn put up by culture.

In other words, there is a trade-off between the need for freedom and the need for security – we need both, but to get one we have to sacrifice the other, and the sacrifice of either results in suffering. It follows that happiness can only ever be a fleeting thing as we flit between too much freedom or too much security, and finding the best-trade off is an ongoing process.

Between the Devil and The Deep Blue Sea.

Alain Ehrenberg suggests that rather than unhappiness stemming from man’s inability to live up to cultural ideals, it is rather then absence of any clear ideals which results in a not knowing how to act, this is the source of mental depression – and not knowing how to act rationally inparticular. This is the malady of our post-modern times.

Impotence and inadequacy are the diseases of our late modern, post modern times. It is not the fear of non-conformity but the fear of not being able to conform, not transgression but boundlessness which are our problems. (Unlike in modern times, big brother is gone and there are numerouses Joneses who couldn’t care less about our quests for our ‘true selves’).

This is freedom, but the cost is insecurity, unsafety and uncertainty (Unsicherheit) – We have the freedom to act but we cannot know whether our actions will have the desired result, yet we do know that we will bare the costs for bad decisions.

Individually we stand, indivudally I fall.

Following Norbert Elias’ book title ‘The society of inidividuals’ – society consists of two forces locked in a battle of freedom and domination – society shaping the individuality of its members, and the individuals forming society out of their actions while pursuing strategies plausible and feasible within the socially woven web of their dependencies.

However, it is important to note that the process of individualisation is different today from modern times.

In modern times class divisions arose out of different access to the resources required to self-assert – The working classes lacked the means to do so and turned to collectivism to assert themselves, while the middle classes were able to be more individualistic – yet they generally responded to being disembedded through attempts to re-embed.

However, individualisation today is a fate and not a choice. In the land of individual freedom of choice the option to escape individualisation and not participate are not on the agenda. We are told that if we fail it is our fault, and we must find biographical solutions to problems which are socially created.

There is a difference between the self-asserting and self-sustaining individual and the individualised individual.

Can there be politics in the individualised society?

The Self-Assertive ability of men falls short of what genunine self-assertion would require – the choices we are free to make are generally trivial.

There are two consequences of individualisation for politics – Individuals by decree do not seek to solve their problems collectively, they just look to others for advice about how to cope with their problems (e.g. chat shows), and they tend to to view committing to acting with others as too limiting on their own freedom. Individuals by decree do not see engaging in public life as a duty, they tend to see it as an investment and only do so when they can get something back, and as a result the only thing individuals by decree tend to ask of society is minimal – to protect their bodies from danger and to protect their property rights.

Hence why networks are the new norm in the postmodern society – which consist of shallow connections (weak ties) as they are easy to access and easy to leave. As a result, in the individualised society the individual is not really a citizen because they have invested so little of themselves in that society.

Togetherness, indivdual style

The gap between the right of self assertion and the ability to influence the social settings which render such self-assertion feasible or unrealistic seems to be the biggest contradiction of second modernity, and we would do well to tackle this collectively.

Short termism and selfishness are rational responses to a precarious world – We have all been hit by global econonomic forces over which we (or seemingly no one else) has control, or we know someone who has (downsizing etc.) and so the rational response to this is to look to oneself, not invest in collectivism. No one seems to be discussing the fact that this uncertain world is human made, and that what we are dealing with is the ‘the political economy of uncertainty’.

The root of the problem is the flight of power from politics – capital is extraterritorial and politics remains rooted to space – and the political solutions to the problems mobile capital creates is yet more freedom for capital – because there is no global institution that is capable of doing the job of regulating it. No one seems to have any solutions!

When individals accept their impotence en masse (following Cornelius Castoriadis) – society becomes heteronomous – pushed rather than guided, plankton like, drifting, it is like people on a ship who have abandoned any attempt at steering the vessel, and so at the end of the modern advernture with a self-governing, autonomous human world, we enter the era of mass confromity

Making the individualised society safe for democracy

Democracy is an anarchic force – one best recognises democracy when it is complaining about not being democratic enough. Democracy is a constant battle to find the right balance between freedom and security. For most of modernity the fight has been for more freedom, now we need to focus more on security. However, the biggest danger of all is that we call off the fight to get the balance right by opting out of the social process (and engage with society only as indivduals).

What is to be done? We need global instituitons to limit the flow of capital, at the state level – basic income. However, a bigger question is who is to do it?

Summary, Comment and Questions

I think Bauman is trying to say too much in this section – It’s much easier to understand some of what he says by cutting out about a third of it and reording it….

Capital is freefloating and the average person’s job is more precarious, and there are no global or national institutions capabable of controlling International Capital (power, says Bauman, has departed from politics). Because of this, people see no point people getting involved in politics, and thus we no longer seek collective solutions to social problems and we only ask society to do the bare minimum for us.

In short, structural changes in the nature of Capitalism have altered the way we perceive politics – we now see it as pointless and thus we are no longer contributing to the construction of our society.

Instead, we seek biographical (personal) solutions to these systemic problems – . Rather than getting involved in long-haul politics, we limit our range of vision, our range of options to choosing how to better surviving or cope in this precarious world – we spend our time re-training, or improving our C.V.  (marketing) to make us more employable or promotable, for example. (Bauman says that selfishness and shortermism are a rational response to a precarious world). We are spured on by our efforts because we know that if we fail in our efforts we will be held responsible for the the consequences of our inability to keep ourselves employable.

The key thing here is that this limited range of choices we are choosing between is forced on us – we haven’t actively decided to not engage with society as political beings, the social structure has changed in such a way that politcs is now (objectively?) pointless, and we don’t know how to fix it, thus we narrow our range of vision to focussing on that narrow range of events we think we can control, and doing so, Capital becomes freer, and so our lives become even more unstable.

This is why Bauman says…. The gap between self-assertion and the ability to affect the social settings which make that assertion realistic (which is required for ‘genuine self-assertion’ ) is the biggest contradiction of second modernity.This is because what we are currently witnessing is individualisation by fate which falls well short of genuine self-determination – In general the choices we are free to make are relatively trivial.


Firstly, Interestingly, this theory does not depend on there being a false consciousness  – whether we fail to see that there are systemic contradictions which are causing this need to continually update ourselves to keep ourselves employable or whether we see it but simply cannot see any alternative is moot – the point is the important thing is whether or not we perceive the systemic contradictions, we KNOW that if we do not try we will be held responsible for our failure by society, and it is this ‘responsibilisation’ which is compelling us to keep on keeping on.

Secondly, I guess this links back to why Bauman perceives the decline of the Welfare State is so bad, because it’s very existence assumes that it is not our own fault that we sometimes might suddently find ourselves unemployed.


Chapter Four – Modernity and Clarity – The Story of a Failed Romance.

When reason tells us that the world is an uncertain place, indecision of the will is the result. Ambivalence is a mixing of the doubts of reason and this indecision of the will.

The more my freedom grows in terms of the greater the range of future possibilities, then the less grip on the present I have. The less freedom I have, the greater my grip on the present.

In considering freedom we need to consider the difference between the range of viable possibilities on offer, which possibilities I wish to achieve and my ability to achieve them. If the volume of possibilties exceeds the capacity of the will then restlessness and anxiety are the result, but if I lack the means to attain a possibility I desire then withdrawel is the result.

Freedom, Ambivalence and Sceptisism seem to go together.

After a few pages outlining the historical development of sceptisism in philosophy, Bauman points out that modern sceptics were pretty much universally obsessed with order building, as exemplified in the popularity of order building – Modernity was fundamentally a legislative process.

The mission of modernity was (in Freudian terms) wasto restrain the pleasure principle with the reality principle, or (in Durkheimian terms) to socialise the individual so that they would never want what they couldn’t achieve  and would want to do what was socially useful – real freedom meant to live like a slave (to one’s desires), society’s job was to get people to agree to acceptable freedoms and duties. In short, Modernity was about cutting the ‘I want’ down to the ‘I can’. Restricting people’s desires was the way Modernity dealt with the problem of ambivalence.

Or to sum up – The modern project was about society determining what freedoms were possible and then legislating and socialising so that people internalised these legitimate wants. Here we can see the origins of modernity’s totalitarian tendencies.

Two things in retrospect – this project has failed, and it has been abandoned. One reason this battle with ambivalence failed because the powers of creative destruction and the inidvidual’s desires played second fiddle to the ‘objective’ contstraints imposed on them.

Today it is desire itself which fuels social change – Needs creation seems to be the main thing which Capitalism does (following Bordieu). The way we integrate into society is as consumers – and we can only integrate if our wants constantly exceed our current level of satisfaction. (The only exception to this is the underclass, but they are the minority – their wants are managed, limited).

(p68) The permanent disharmony between wants and the ability to achieve them is for the postmodern era functional – hence why we have a high degree of ambivalence in identity formation, social integration and systemic reproduction.

Today the market requires ambivalence and we are free to enjoy its wares, but we are unfree to avoid the consequences (downsizing etc.) because the only solutions on offer to help us deal with the downsides of the free market are market-solutions.

A second reason why modernity failed to tackle ambivalence is because modernity was always local, and it resulted in many localities with different solutions to ambivalence. Hence why we have neotribalisms and fundamentalism – these aim to heal the pain of ambivalence by cutting down choices – but the nature of these responses is that they are unpredictable.

The 300 year war against ambivalence is not over, it has just changed its form – it is no longer carried out by conscript armies but by guerilla units which erratically errupt occassionnally between the brightly lit consumer malls.

Summary, Commentary and Questions

When we have too much freedom, ambivalence is the result (ambivalence is a mixture of the doubts of reason (uncertainty over the probablity of events) and the resulting indecision)

Modernity attempted to reduce ambivalence by order building – society determined what freedoms were necessary and desirable and then socialised people into thinking in this way – restricting their freedom, replacing the ‘I want’ with the ‘I can’. People’s desires came second to the social.

With consumer-capitalism, however, things are now reversed. Needs creation is the main thing Capitalism now does – profitability requires us to desire things, and once we have those things to tire of them quickly and desire new things. Fuelling Individual desire lies at the heart of modern Capitalism.

However, there is a growing gap between our growing (unfulfilled) desires and our ability to achieve them, and this creates ambivalence, which today is functional for Capitalism.

There is nothing in mainstream society that offers us an escape from this, nothing that offers us structure and certainty and a limt to our desires – at the level of social integration, we integrate as consumers, at the level of identity construction we must make choices based on consumption, and at the level of societal reproduction, this requires people to be consumers. The message is clear – you are free to consume, free to make a choices.

However, we are not free to escape from this because the only solutions to our confused state of having too much choice are market-solutions. This is why Bauman said we are compelled to make these choices, forced into making more and more choices by a system that requires us to make choices.

There are movements which offer alternatives to consumerism – Fundamentalisms and Neotribalisms – but these do not offer the possiblity for systemic reproduction because they tend to be local, and are thus only ‘guerilla movements’ between the brightly lit shopping malls which perpetuate ambivalence at the levels of the system and the lifeworld in general.


Again I think Bauman here is extremely verbose – He’s basically saying that the system requires that we keep on buying and discarding, buying and discarding at ever faster rates and so we are sort of forced into making consumer choices. This ‘built in obsolence’ is the very basis of the system and it destabilises us, bewilders us, makes us uncertain of what we should be doing and uncertain of who we are.

I think Bauman maybe ignores elemts of the green movement and the anti-consumerist movement – these have the potential to resocialise people into constraining their desires on the basis of a global ethics of responsibility for the other, and do, in fact, specifically focus on how the local and the global intersect.


Chapter Five – Am I my brother’s keeper?

The concept of the welfare state has changed from being a safety net to a springboard. Its success is judged by the extent to which it renders itself unecessary – by getting people back into work. The unspoken assumption behind this is that dependence is something which is to be ashamed of – ‘decent people’ simply do not entertain the idea of being on welfare.

According to Levinas, our starting point should be ethics – I am my brothers keeper, because his well-being hinges on what I do and refrain from doing. He is dependent on me. To question this dependence by asking the question ‘Am I my brother’s keeper’, asking for reasons why I should care, is to stop being a moral being, because morality hinges on (internalising?) this crucial dependent relationship.

The need of the other and taking responsibility for meeting that need is the cornerstone of ethics according to Levinas. This has been the basis of the Judeo-Christian form for a long time, and the idea unrpinned the welfare state, but this idea is now well and truly under attack.

The welfare state came into being because of a conflaction of factors – simultaneously a result of ethical intentions, labour movement struggle, and the need to diffuse political tensions, but also because it was in the interest of both labour and capital. Both industry and the state benefitted from having a reserve army of labour – because profit was derived from the number of people employed and state-power was derived from the size of the reserve national-army.

However, the nature of unemployment has changed today – They are not a reserve army of labour because downsizing means they are unlikely to be recalled by industry, and they have no social function – they are not needed for work and they are not useful as consumers – because the products they need are low profit and they cannot afford anything else. Hence the recasting of them as the underclass – society would be better off without them, so best to forget them! Free floating capital has no need to keep local-underclasses nourished. To illustrate this Bauman draws on Beck’s ‘The Brave New World of Work’ – only 1 in 2 Europeans have regular, full-time employment.

We hear nothing of people’s lives turned around by social security,  but we hear a lot about the minority of welfare scroungers. The underclass in popular imagination is demonised.

Why? Because the life of the average worker is fraught with uncertainty and anxiety – as is the consumer lifestyle he adopts — Ordinary life in short is miserable – Cynically the creating of an underclass whose lot looks miserable and who we can look down on – a life even worse than our own – makes us a little less miserable. However, they do get some stability – in the form of welfare cheques and it is this that the average flexible worker perceives – rather than their suffering on account of their not being able to access the many opportunities on offer. This also means the prospects for solidarity with the poor are slim. To the average person, the welfare state gets no support.

Because there is no rational economic reason for the welfare state, we should go back and make the ethical argument for it….. I am my brothers keeper, we are all dependent on eachother and a society should be mesured by its weakest link.

What moral duty implies is inherently ambivalent – it requires constant communication, it is not open to mesurability (bureacracy etc.) – It is always asking the question what is best for that person, what do they need, without me becoming a mere tool of that person, and how do we negotiate around things when our ideas about what is good comes into conflict with theirs.

To sum up – there is no rational reason to support the welfare state, but the ethical argument does not depend on rationality – it is its own starting point – It is better to live for other other, it is better to stand in misery rather than to be indifferent – even if this does not make a society more profitable. This should be the starting point!

I don’t think this needs any translating, for once just summarising it once makes it understandable.


Chapter Six – United in Difference

Many aspects of modern living contribute to a feeling of uncertainty – the feeling that the world in which we live, and the future is uncontrollable, and thus frightening – Thus we live today in a culture of ambient fear (following Doel and Clarke).

The things which contribute to this are as follows:

  1.  The capacity of the nation state to put things in order, to classify things and set the future has dramatically declined since the collapse of communism (this is basically the collapse of metanarratives applied to politics). Moreover the rest of the world does not look to the ‘civilisational centre’ (the developed world) for guidance any more. The main relation between the two seems to be that the rich supply weapons to facilitate numerous tribal conflicts – The New Barbarism might be an apt way to describe globalisation.
  2. Universal deregulation – the tearing up of all other freedoms other than those granted to capital – so that everything else gets subjected to the irrationality of market forces. The freedom of capital benefits from weak states – this is a new world disorder. The vast majority lose out in this process – inequality increases but it is not only the marginalised who are harmed, very few of us feel secure in our homes or our jobs – human rights do not extend to the right to a job, the right to social secuirty, or the right to dignity.
  3. The self-woven safey net of the family and the community, based on people connections and indigenous konwledges (connections for the sake of connections, with long term commitments) have been severly weakened – at this level of social integration we are increasingly dependent on technologies and the market, and so such bonds reflect the uncertainties inherent to these things. Also, we increasingly cast the other as sources of pleasure, asking what we can get from them, rather than what we can do for them.  4. Culture is soft and indeterminet – human connections are cast into successive encounters and Human identities are fragmented, a series of masks. Rather than our identity being like us building a house, it is rather that we put up a series of pre-fabricated buildings, tear one down and then put up another. The fragments of life do not necessarily relate to the other fragments… In our culture the art of forgetting is more useful than remembering.

These are some, not all of the features of postmodern life which result in uncertainty – anxiety.

Modern cities are places of perpetual strangers – Strangers are by definition messy, they do not fit in with your system of order – and thus cities are patchwork places in which no one will feel comfortable everywhere. The chief stratifier in the modern city is the extent to which you have freedom of movement – the extent to which you can avoid the areas you don’t want to go into and get to the areas where you do want to get to. In other words, city dwellers are stratified by the extent to which they can ignore the presence of strangers.

For the better off the messiness of strangers can be avoided – For those in the suburbs, strangers are an occassional pleasure when they want to interact with them, and those who provide services for them. For the poor, however, dealing with strangers cannot be avoided, and they are experienced as a threat to their sense of orderliness. They live in areas where they are not able to choose, and lack the money to escape, so they vent their frustrations in other ways – everything from racism to riots for example. Following Cohen, people feel as if they are losing their sense of home because of the stranger (but the strangers are not the real cause of course, they are just a symptom).

Bauman now proposes  that specific forms of postmodern violence stem from the privatisation, deregulation and decentralisation of identity problems – the dismantling of collective institutions through which people can come together means people no longer discuss what the root causes of their shared identitity problems might be.

We have an opportunity here – of bringing to a conclusion the disembedding work of modernity – now the individual has been set free, we can move beyond nationalism and tribalism and rethink what it means to live as humanity – and here the rights of the stranger are fundamental. This will be an involved process… the sole universal guiding principle should be the right to choose one’s identity as the sole universality of the citizen/ human – we should celebrate this,and then work on how unity might be achieved with this new diversity. However, there is also ample scope for the balkanisation of politics and tribalism as a response.

We tend to see strangers as either exotic pleasure sources or as exaggerated threats… and this in turn sstems from polarisation of wealth and life chances, but also of the capacity for genuine individuality… until we sort this out the detoxification of strangers and a move forwards to genuine new global concepts of citizenship are a long way off.


I guess it’s passages like this that demonstrate Bauman’s Late rather than Post-modern attitude to a postmodern world – there is still hope for the future!

Posted in Book reviews, summaries and excerpts, Postmodernism | Tagged: , | No Comments »

Careers Advice for Teenagers Part One – Why You Can Never Do Enough to Make Yourself Employable

Posted by Realsociology on January 17, 2015


So you’re 17 going on 18 and it seems like the end of A levels are ages away, but for some reason your damn tutors keep haranguing you about about preparing for your future career NOW. When it comes to career readiness, there is no such thing as enough, even if you are going to university and possibly putting off the final choice of your ‘career pathway’ for another three or four years, there are still things you can be doing NOW to make you more employable in the future.

You know the sort of thing…

First of all there’s the ‘online careers survey’ which asks you to tick a load of boxes about whether you’re a ‘team player’ or like to ‘work independently’, on the basis of which you’re given a whole load of possible career options, most of which probably won’t sound that exciting. (Admitedly I think these surveys may lack some validity, as my ideal-career doesn’t seem to match any combination of answers I’ve tried: ‘lounging around in bed ’til about 10.00 and then strolling into to town for a Cappuccino every day’ never seems to come up as a viable option).

Once you’ve chosen a career, it’s quite likely that you’ll have to do some sort of work experience in that general area, not only to prove that you’ve got a basic level of competency, but also to provide some evidence of committment to this career-path. Alternatively, you might be lucky enough to have a part-time job in area you want to go into. I say lucky, but either option sounds pretty grim to me – the former will probably involve giving up some of that holiday time to work for nothing, which is a bit of a rub, while the later probably involves doing enough hours a week while at college to make balancing paid-work, college-work, family and social commitments something of a challenge.

Incidentally, if you’re putting this phase off by going to university, you may not escape it, given that we live in the age of the unpaid-internship, especially if you want to get into any of the higher-end professions such as journalism.

(What’s also interesting here is that it’s up to you to prove commitment to a career-path before you set out on it, while your employer, in this age of flexibilised labour, is unlikely to offer you the same.)

Thirdly, and finally for now,  you need to build a C.V. – Assuming you’ve got a decent set of qualifications and some work experience, and know your name and address, the first half a page is easy enough, but then things can get difficult because filling in the rest of it requires you to have engaged in quite a few ‘C.V. Able activities. And if all you’ve done these past few years outside of school and college is flit between Youtube, twitter and whatsapp, then you’d better get of your ass and go and join a gymnastics club, take up horse riding, volunteer with your local church, and apply for and WIN young apprentice, even though you’re probably too old for that already.

Indeed, when it comes to work readiness, there is never such a thing as enough. This is because we live in an economically insecure world, and the cause of this insecurity is that global capital is freer  today than ever to move around the globe to seek short-term profit and then uproot at a moments notice to seek greater profits elsewhere. As it stands there are no global institutions capable of controlling global capital (the Nation State is declining in power) and so this global economic context of ‘Flexibilised Capitalism’ is likely to remain.

What this means is that it isn’t just NOW that you can never do enough to get ready for your that future career (which you may not even be certain about yet), but that in the future you will constantly have to update yourself to keep pace with an ever-changing labour market. Below are a few of the key reasons why you have to spend so much time an effort making yourself employable, and why you will need to continue to do so in the future…

Firstly –  ‘Technological Dislocation’ could be set to reduce the number of jobs available in the future. A recent post from The Economist summarises the situation thus….

‘Technological dislocation may create great problems for moderately skilled workers in the coming decades… innovation has speeded up a lot in the past few years and will continue at this pace, for three reasons: the exponential growth in computing power; the progressive digitisation of things that people work with, from maps to legal texts to spreadsheets; and the opportunities for innovators to combine an ever-growing stock of things, ideas and processes into ever more new products and services. Between them, these trends might continue to “hollow out” labour markets as more and more jobs requiring medium levels of skill are automated away.”

This is the first reason you have to increase your effort to be employable now and in the future – because not only are their fewer jobs and thus more competition, it is impossible to tell what jobs are going to disappear and what new opportunities may arise (which will require retraining) because of technological change.

Secondly,  it is cheaper for employers to pay a smaller amount of employees for long hours (50-60 hours a week say) rather than to duplicate the costs of such things as training, holiday pay and pensions contributions by employing a larger workforce part-time.

This means you may well end up in a nice job that you want, but with no choice but to work hours that prevent you from having anything like a social life, let alone a family.

Thirdly, Capital today is more free-floating than ever, in other words it is free to leave this country at a moment’s (or no) notice if it can find labour cheaper somewhere else. This has already happened in the low-skilled manufacturing sector, but it could just as easily happen with higher skilled, techno and creative jobs, especially when much work today can be done in a virtual environment and the costs to Capital of uprooting and relocating are no where near as expensive when it doesn’t have to rebuild expensive ‘heavy’ factories.  The chances are, if you end up being employed by a global company (or contracting yourself out to one) your job is likely to be increasingly insecure as the years ‘progress’ – given that you are competing with millions of other employees who are just as well qualified as you from lower-income countries.

Thus, in the future, be ready for periods of unemployment as your employer moves to countries with a cheaper source of labour leaving you to seek new employment (which is likely to get harder the older you get).

Fourthly, the primary source of profit for the Capitalist Class is to encourage consumers to consume more and more products and services at an ever faster rate – thus there is pressure for technologies, software, fashions etc. become obsolete at an ever faster rate, to have an ever shorter shelf-life – thus you are unlikely to be able to rest on your laurels – The software skills you learn in university may be obsolete when you start work, and that idea that made your company a fortune today will be superceded by someone else’s idea tomorrow, leaving you in the position to have to constantly update your knowledge and generate new ideas.

Yes, all in all, sorry to say it, but I’m glad I’m not 17, even though I had hair then. And I’m also glad I’ll be retired fairly soon, spending my days drinking my real ales, smoking ma cigars and, if they still exist, leisurely leafing through some ole school broadsheets.

Don’t like the sound of your flexibilised, insecure future – then what to do???

The mainstream starting-point strategy suggests that you should position yourself into the core of highly educated, highly skilled knowledge workers. This is the best way of guaranteeing yourself a high income and relatively secure employment (and if not secure at least well-paid enough to be able to endure short periods of unemployment between contracts).

The problem with this strategy is that it is only the extreme minority of people in the UK are going to be able to get skilled up to this level – What proportion of the population? 5%, maybe 10%? Certainly no more. And even for this top 5-10%, in a globalising ‘converging world’ where more and more people are educated up to degree level (especially in Asia) there is simply going to be more competition for these types of job, so the only way for this proportion is down.

By all means, try and land one of these jobs, but in the meantime, because you’ve got more chance of not getting a decent job than you have of getting one, you should also consider how you can minimise your exposure to the labour market and can minimise your dependence on money, because you may not end up having a choice in the matter.

Forthcoming Post – A few alternatives to working in an insecure job for the next 50 years.

Posted in Alternatives, But what can I do?, Capitalism, Changing Britain, Postmodernism, Retirement - Early, Work | Tagged: , | No Comments »

Summary of Zygmunt Bauman’s The Indivdualised Society (preface)

Posted by Realsociology on January 10, 2015


It may sound odd doing a summary of a preface, but there is a lot of heavy stuff in here….

According to Bauman ‘Sociology can help us link our individual decisions and actions to the deeper cause of our troubles and fears – to the way we live, to the conditions under which we act, to the socially drawn limits of our ambition and imagination.’

This book just does this by exploring how Individualisation has become our fate, and by reminding us that if our anxieties are to be addressed, they must be addressed collectively, true to their social, not individual nature.

Lives Told and Stories Lived – An Overture

Bauman begins with Ernest Becker’s denial of death in which Becker suggests that society is ‘a living myth of the signficance of human life, a defiant creation of meaning’ and that ‘Everything man does in his symbolic world is an attempt to deny his grotesque fate’ (his eventual death).

He now goes back to Durkheim and argues that connecting oneself to society does not liberate the individual from nature, rather it liberates one from having to think about one’s nature and that genuine freedom comes from exorzing the spectre of mortality (which is ever present when close to nature) by linking oneself to (a more complex) society. It is through society that one tastes immortality – you become part of something which was there before you were born, and which will continue after you die.

(At the indivdual level) knowledge of mortality triggers the desire for transcendence – and this takes two forms – either the desire to leave something behind, a lasting trace of yourself, or the desire to live gloriously now. There is an energy (?) in this desire which society feeds off – it capitalises on this desire by providing credible objects of satisfaction which individuals then spend time pursuing.

The problem with the economy of death transcendence, as with all economies, is that the strategies on offer are scarce – and so there must be limits to how resources can be used. The main purpose of a life strategy (which involve the search for meaning) is to avoid the realisation of the truth of one’s own mortality, and given that all the various life- strategies fall short of this ultimate need-satisfaction it is impossible to call one strategy correct or incorrect.

Two consequences happen as a result.. Firstly, there is the continuus invention of new life-strategies – industries are forever coming up with new strategies for death-denial. Secondly some people are able to captalise on the energy of the quest of death-denial and this is where we get cultural capital and hierarchy from.

So to date Bauman seems to be suggesting that there is a pyschological need to escape facing up to our own mortality, and this is where society comes from. However because any life-strategy we adopt in the attempt to escape death is doomed to failure because all such strategies merely mask the truth of our own mortality which lurks in the background. Because of this, in truth, all such strategies are equally as valid (or equally as invalid) as each other. At the social level this then results in two things – a continues stream of new and improved life-strategies on offer to us from industry and secondly the emergence of cultural capital as those who are able to do so define their own life-strategies as superior which is where hierearchy comes from (and I guess this claiming of mythical superiority is also part and parcel of certain life-strategies of death-denial).

Pause for breath…. Bauman now goes on to say that…

However, just because all life-strategies are far from the truth of death-denial, this does not mean that all miss the targets by the same margin.

Some life-strategies on offer are the result of what Bauman calls ‘surplus manipulation’ of the desire to deny death.  These are at their most viscious when they are biograpical solutions to systemic contradictions (following Beck) and rest on the fake-premise that self-inadequacy is the root cause of one’s anxiety and that the individual needs to look to themselves to solve this.

The result of this is the denial of a collective solution to one’s problems and the lonely struggle with a task which many lack the resources to perform alone which in turn leads to The result is self-censure, self-disparagement, and violence and torture against one’s own body.

I think the logic at work here is (a) Society is an invention which helps us deny death, however (b) in the post-modern age society falls apart – we find it harder and/ or it is less-rational to forge the kind of lasting bonds which will help us collectively deny-death (or strive for immortality to put in a positive phraseology) this results in (c) anxious individuals who are then (d) told by certain people in society (the elite – see below) that they need to find biographical solutions towards immortality (this is the surplus manipulation bit) but in reality this is impossible and so (e) this results in them killing or harming their social selves or actual physical bodies.

Bauman seems to be saying that, in the post-modern age some people, free of society, are thrown back on themselves, their true nature, and can’t handle it, they cannot deny-death alone, and so they kill themselves.

Bauman then goes on to say….

If we look at the whole life-story’ most of are simply not able to practice agency (articulation) – we are not free to simply construct of one set of relations out of another or redefine the context in which life is created. We may be able to do this in the realm of fashion or culture more generally, but not so with all aspects of of our lives.

To rephrases Marx – ‘People make their lives but not under conditions of their choice.’ It may be that we are all story tellers today, we all exercise reflexivity, but life is a game in which the rules of the game, the content of the pack and the way they are shuffled is not examined, rarely talked about.

The problem is that the individualisation narrative seems to assume that everything we do in our whole life is a matter of the choices we have made. This is, in fact, a narrataive that only works for the elite who do have lots of choice – they have resources and are mobile and can use opportunities in today’s mobile age to their advantage.

This narrative, in fact, works for the elite, it is ideological – if everyone thinks everything is open to choice and their fate is their fault, this becomes a nice control mechanism – you don’t need panopticons when people are always trying trying trying and choosing choosing choosing.

Furthermore, what is often precluded in the individualised age are strategies which involve acting together to change the broader social conditions, which just further perpetuates the problem.

In other words if we wish to reduce human suffering and allow individuals the opportunity to get back to collectively denying their own death (or constructing their immortality) then people need to feel as if they can constitutue society, at the moment the ideology of the biographical narrative serves to prevent people from realising this.

This book seems to aim to be a contribution towards bringing about greater genuine articulation (so it’s a shame you need to be educated well beyond graduate level to appreciate it)…..

As Bauman says towards the end of the chapter… ‘Genuine articulation is a human right but perform the task and the exercise the right in full we need all the assistance we can get – and sociologists can help in this by recording and mapping the crucial parts of the web of interconnections and dependencies which are kept hidden or stay invisible from the point of individual experience. Sociology is itself a story – but the message of Sociology is that there are more ways of living a life than is suggested by the stories which each one of us tells.’

Overall Comment

Very interesting to see Bauman starting with Becker – although he doesn’t seem to go back to him at the end of the section, so I really think he’s pushing the boat out a bit too far in terms of how much he tries to include in this introductory paragraph. It doesn’t hold together that well, and you have to read things into it to an extent to complete it, maybe that’s the point?

I’m not comfortable with the idea that society denying-death is OK because it is rational, and that our goal should be to get back to a situation where individuals are free to construct society and thereby get back to affirming themselves and thus denying their own death. This just strikes me as the equivalent of papering over the cracks of a deeper human suffering which The Buddha realised 3000 years ago.

There’s probably an interesting Buddhist response to this – but I’ll post that up when it emerges, which isn’t now, unless someone else gets there first. 

Posted in Book reviews, summaries and excerpts, Capitalism, Postmodernism, Sociological Theory, Things I like | Tagged: , | No Comments »

New Year, New Bathroom, New Lock-In?

Posted by Realsociology on January 3, 2015


So I spent most of the ‘Christmas’ holiday redoing the bathroom – stemming from a leaky waste on the bath and mould growth mainly because of a broken extractor fan – It took me several days to rip out the old (partly rotted) frame under the bath, build a new one and put it back in, sort out the leak, degrout and regrout, de-seal and reseal, sand and paint (quite badly, thankfully white paint is quite forgiving), and it cost about £100 for the tools and various industrial chemical products.

Now I could celebrate the fact that I now have the whitest bathroom in the known universe, the fact that I did this extremely cheaply compared to ‘getting a man in’, and I could even celebrate my capital gains – lots more tools, some more knowledge, and a tiny bit of extra-skills. However, I don’t see it like this – I’ve come to realise that my efforts have really only been ncessary because I’m locked into what I think I’ll call a sub-optimal bathroom context:

For starters had the original housebuilders left the side panel off the bath (which is only on there for aesthetic reasons) I would have noticed the leaky waste a lot earlier, saving myself hours of ripping out the rotten frame. The waste was only loose, not cracked – so firstly I’ve been a victim of uncessary normative bathroom aesthetics.

Secondly, the mould-growth due to the fan being broken only occurs because I live in a block of flats and there are no windows I can open to allow the bathroom to air naturally. If I could afford a house, which I can’t around here, I could simply open a window and the broken extractor fan wouldn’t be as much of a problem. Thus I’m also a victim of relative poverty, albeit on a salary of £45K a year.

Thirdly, I’ve also got to thinking that the need to grout and seal stems from the fact that the bathroom is inside – A bathroom is a wet area within a dry area – This might sound like I’m stating the obvious but it’s actually quite an unnatural place for a bathroom to be – outside would make a lot more sense. It isn’t necessary to have inside bathrooms, or even private bathrooms, but I don’t really have a choice to buy a property without one, or to use collective bathrooms outside (nothing in convenient reach for me). Thus efficiency dictates that I need to use my own private bathroom – So here I am a victim of a conflation of urbanisation/ individualisation/ privatisation.

Now.. I think most people would look at the job of redoing their bathroom and feel a sense of satisfaction (a kind of meaningful agency if you like). I do sort of feel satisfied, my bathroom is now VERY white – but I’m also painfully aware that this sense of satisfaction is as thin as the layer of paint on my bathroom walls, beneath the surface of which is a bizareely sub-optimal nexus which has led me into having no choice but to spend time and money on doing up my bathroom.

What annoys me most about the above point is that I do actually want a private bathroom – even though this is not necessary – I’ve been socialised into this, the result is extremely sub-optimal, and this is a tough one to break out of.

So what’s the ultimate solution to all of this? Well long-term, once I’m done with my job, which does require me to wash every morning, I’m going do without the normative bathroom aesthetics – the bath panels, tiles, extractor fans, anti-mould paint, grout, sealant and so on, and live in a field and wash outdoors with a bucket.

After all, water falls from the sky and goes back to the earth, may as well cut out the middle men.

Update –

Having wrote this (TBH I never intended to write this, but it’s been cathartic) I find myself interested in the Sociology of bathrooms and bathing – if anyone knows of any further sources on this please do get in touch! Questions/ issues I’m interested in are…

How many times would the average homeowner redo their bathroom, how much money would they spend>? I’m more interested in spread rather than ranges.

Based on the above – what is the lock-in effect of the average bathroom? – How many months of a working life is spent paying for bathroom upgrades?

How have bathroom aesthetics evolved? Who are the main agencies at work in the social construction of bathroom aesthetics. What has status got to do with this?

How many people do their own bathrooms renovations compared to other parts of the house? I’m quite interested in this – It is more of a technical challenge in some ways than a living room or a bedroom, but then again if you cock it up you have to spend less time looking at it, so its less of a risk (plumbing aside).

Anyway, enough of bathrooms for now…



Posted in Alternatives, My 'life', Retirement - Early | Tagged: , | No Comments »

The truancy map of England and Wales (infographics evaluation)

Posted by Realsociology on December 20, 2014

A new blog-theme I’m getting into  – A critical look at infographics – Mostly going to focus on education for the coming months…

In 2012 Simon Rogers from The Guardian put together this Interactive truancy map of England and Wales which was constructed by ‘mashing together’ two data sets from the Department for Education: truancy figures and numbers of penalty notices issued to parents and carers.

Truancy in England map

(NB – The still doesn’t do it justice, click on the links above to get the full utility)

 What I like about this infographic

  • It’s representative – It appears to show data from all 152 LEAs in England and all 32 in wales.

  • The Trauncy data is clearly labelled – Total percent of persistent absentees 2010/11

  • It’s very easy to compare across LEAs – given that we are given the percentages and these are clearly colour coded.

  • You get a lot more detail when you hover over each area, including the option to download the data as a fusion table.

What could be improved

  • I’m not sure when the data for penalty notices was collected

  • The graphic doesn’t allow you to see changes in truancy rates over time.

  • The infograph doesn’t allow you to easily see if there is a correlation between penalty notices issued and truancy rates, and in any case, IF the years are the same this would probably be conincidental anway.

  • The infograph begs you to do more with slighlty different data to explore the above relationship – what you would need to do this is to include truancy data from previous years (or now later years) and show the percentage change year on year, and then compare this to the number of and type of penalty notices issued over time. Of course this alone wouldn’t allow you to attribute anything like causation.

  • It would also be informative to be able to compare these truancy rates to other local variables – the most obvious one being deprivation (FSM) indicators.

Posted in Education, Infographics | Tagged: , , , | No Comments »

Buddhism Plain and Simple by Steve Hagan – A Summary

Posted by Realsociology on December 17, 2014

This post is simply a summary of (aspects of) Steve Hagen’s ‘Buddhism Plain and Simple’

This book aims to present The Buddha’s teaching in an accessible and uncluttered way. To my mind it succeeds, and here’s my summary.

Introduction (pp1-5)

As the millennium draws to a close we have lost faith with our storybook versions of the world. The advances of science mean we see the universe as vast, beyond comprehension and perhaps meaningless. We tend to cope with this in two ways (two wretched extremes) – we either blind ourselves to our predicament by escaping via such things as drugs/ careers/ faith, in which case we tend to think ‘if only I had enough of that particular thing then I’d be happy’, or we face the woeful prospect of a meaningless (anomic) existence, in which case nothing really matters.

There is a way to move beyond this ignorance, pessimism and confusion, and to experience rather than comprehend reality as a whole. This experience is direct perception itself, seeing before the signs appear, before ideas sprout, before falling into thought. This experience is called Enlightenment and it is nothing more or less than seeing things as they are rather than as we wish or believe them to be.

The Journey into Now (pp 6-11)

2500 years ago a man named Gautama awakened from the crippling ignorance that kept him from knowing what was actually going on and became known as the Buddha,  and when asked to sum up his teachings in a single word the Buddha said ‘awareness’ – not of anything in particular, just awareness of what is going on.

This book leaves behind the cultural trappings that have enveloped Buddhist teachings in the last 2500 years and returns to the Buddha’s thought plain and simple.

Hagan now spends two pages outlining Gautama’s personal journey from prince to ascetic to his two month vigil which lead to his awakening into Enlightenment. This story provides a lesson in some of the core principles Buddhism:

1. Ultimately, The Buddha realised Enlightenment through his own efforts – and thus it is down to each individual to ‘walk the path’. Do not put blind faith in other people’s teachings, the point is to see (know) for yourself that something is wholesome or unwholesome.

2. Buddhism is the process of an open spirit of enquiry. It is about examining every aspect of life carefully, it is about seeing. It is about not being afraid to examine anything, (including the Buddha’s own teachings and our own agendas). We cannot approach Buddhism or begin any real enquiry into truth with any assumptions or belief whatsoever.

3. The notion of Awakening (Enlightenment) is just that, it isn’t anything other than being awake, pure awareness. The Buddha Dharma has no creation story, no beginning. It does not try to or ask you to explain anything, truth is simply to be seen, that is all. The notion of Awakening (Enlightenment) is just that, it isn’t anything other than awareness. –

Hagan now outlines the well-known raft analogy – In this quest for liberation, The Buddha’s teachings are but a raft – useful for getting you across to the other shore, but afterwards useless. The trouble is we tend to fall in love with the raft and we must remember that even The Buddha’s words are not truth, they merely help us get to the other side, and even these must be abandoned in the end. –

Finally, Hagan illustrates the Buddhist journey through an analogy which asks us to imagine that we have just been shot by an arrow: Being shot with the arrow is the human condition (suffering), and Buddhism involves us in attending to the arrow, the cause of our suffering, which is necessarily painful, but the only way to eliminate our suffering.   In contrast, says Hagan, what we actually do in life, is to leave the arrow in, and instead of confronting the arrow directly, we skirt around the issue by asking silly questions about who shot it, and from what kind of bow. (I’m guessing this is a critique of mainly intellectualism, but also, of the human tendancy to look for causes to our problems outside of our selves.)

Shortly after his awakening, The Buddha was asked by a Brahman named Dona, who had noticed the Buddha’s unsurpassed tranquillity, whether he was a God, to which The Buddha replied ‘no, I am awake’.


Chapter One – The Human Situation (pp15-24)

Hagan starts the chapter with a ‘banquet analogy’ – the human condition is like starving people sitting at a banquet but not eating because they fail to realise that the release from their hunger is right in front of them.

Most of us sense there is something amiss with our lives but don’t have any idea what to do about this. We long for something, we feel pain and loss etc. but we don’t realise that everything we need to resolve this suffering is right here before us.

The truth is that all of the misery we bring to ourself and others is of our own doing. It stems from our own ignorance our own inability to see things as they really are.

Buddhism does not offer a life free of problems – as outlined in the The 84th problem story:

A man came to the Buddha and explained all of his many problems. The Buddha told the man that everyone has problems, 83 problems to be exact, and that he could not help him to solve any of them, but he could help him with the 84th problem… the fact that he wanted to have no problems.

We think we need to exterminate our problems – eradicate them – but the simple truth is problems will always be with us, dissatisfaction will always be with us – weeds will grow though we hate them and flowers will fall though we love them – we need to accept this and not live our lives as if we can change this.

  • The first truth of the buddha-dharma is that human life is characterised by dissatisfaction and we need to accept this.
  • The second truth is that this dissatisfaction arises within us.
  • The third truth is that we can realise the origins of this dissatisfaction and put an end to it
  • The fourth truth is the way to end this suffering – the noble eightfold path – the way to Nirvana, or freedom of mind.

In Buddhism our journey is into here and now, but how do we do this?

In order to experience the answer to this questions there needs to be three realisations –

  1. That life is truly fleeting
  2. That you are already complete or whole
  3. That you are your own refuge, your own salvation.

Pick up a flower – it is beautiful and yet it dies. How can we deal with this, do we substitute a plastic rose? No – we want the real rose precisely because it is fleeting, precious.

Thus it is with human life – each one of us is a living thing that dies. Your body and mind are always changing. You are nothing but change itself.

Examine the body and mind – everything about it is fleeting. Every aspect of our experience is also fleeting – our wants, needs, relationships are all subject to death.

Vitality consists of this birth and death. Our lives are vibrant because of change and yet we often want to keep things the same – and it is this (clinging) that is the greatest source of woe in our lives.

You are already in reality whether you see it or not… you are already enlightened – all you have to do is attend to the moment to realise this – and stop blocking your interpretation of the moment.

In the Buddha’s final talk he said that each of you must be a light unto yourselves. No one else is the final authority – this means you have the power to wake up in the here and now – you are responsible for finding your own way.

In other words we are already prepared for anything that might come along. All we need to do is to be aware in this moment – we are already supported and sustained within this moment – there is nothing out there to get – we just need to realise this! Everything in this moment is whole, complete.

Seeing this truth is the Buddha’s noble eightfold path – it is seeing what our problem is and then resolving to do something about it. All Aspects of the path are about this moment! Morality is about this moment and meditation is about this moment.

You are already right where you need to be to start out on this path into the moment.

Chapter Two – A wheel out of kilter (pp 25 – 32)

Duhkha is the first of the four noble truths – often described as suffering but this is not a good description because duhkha also incorporates pleasure.

In sanskrit duhkha is often paired with sukha which means satisfactory, but unsatisfactoriness doesn’t quite hit the mark as a translation either.

Duhkha actually comes from a word meaning a wheel out of kilter – imagine this – if a potter’s wheel is out of kilter we make unnecessary hardship for ourselves every time we wish to make a pot. Or imagine riding on a cart with a dodgy wheel – the bumps as we go along becoming increasingly irritating.

Ordinary human life is like this – something basic and important isn’t right and with each turn of the wheel each passing day this bothers us and causes us pain.

Of course there are moments of pleasure but at the end of the day this wheel out of kilter will always. Bring us back to our pain.

What can we do about this? We can begin by seeing clearly what the nature of the problem is.

(P26) We’ve all heard the expression ‘seeing is believing’ but the fact is, seeing and believing are opposites – belief is at best informed conjecture about reality but seeing is direct, unadulterated experience – it is the direct perception of reality itself.

Once you see reality, belief becomes unnecessary. Indeed belief can stand in the way of clear, direct perception.

Truth and reality are there for you to see, only independent of you putting labels on it. We can only have truth by seeing it, not naming it or holding onto it.

Truth or reality is not something vague or mysterious. You don’t have to go to someone else to find it, and you won’t find it in a book. Truth comes through seeing and it requires no further verification.

Hagan now uses the example of an unclear picture (on p28) which looks like a man lying down, but it’s not clear – attached to this is some confusion, or uncertainty about what the picture is – this is how most of us go through life – he now asks us to look again at the picture which is actually a cow – he says that once we realise this we have an ‘aha’ moment of clarity – which is like waking up (personally the picture still doesn’t look like a cow to me, but I get the point he’s making – who cares what the picture looks like anyway!).

Seeing is absolute clarity, whereas simply having an idea involves some confusion. Enlightenment is just a profound waking up, profound realisation about the here and now!

Seeing means waking up, having a profound ‘aha’ moment, it is about the here and now. When you clearly see the situation you are in, things clear up. This waking up is called Enlightenment and it is available to everyone in every moment without exception.

Personally I find D.T Suzuki’s account of the nature of Enlightenment clearer than this. See Zen for Beginners by D.T. Suzuki for more details. (NB this other book is not as easy going as this one).

(P29) As long as we remain in our state of confusion, our minds are characterised by Dukha. In fact there are three kinds of Dukha –

  1. Straightforward pain, both physical and mental. Pain is a fact of life, the only way we can deal with it is to face it squarely.
  2. The second form of Dukkha is change. Wherever we look everything is characterised by change and if we exist in a state of confusion change is experienced as dissatisfaction. We deal with change by longing to keep things the same or by conceptualising – trying to pin things down to give things meaning. Basically any attempt to create something as I want it to be is a manifestation of Dukkha (the way out of this is simply to see reality).
  3. The third form of Dukkha is harder to see than the other two, it is the Dukkha of being. As long as you see yourself as a distinct being then you must die and this realisation carries with it Dukkha. This is also to be found in the simple realisation that I do not know the answers to some of the most basic questions such as ‘what is the purpose of life’, for example.

We cannot ourselves find answers to these questions, but we can through direct experience know the answers and thus end our suffering.

Chapter Three (pp33 – 43) Coming

The second truth of the buddha-dharma is the arising of dukha – DukKha arises from thirst – craving, wanting, trying to get the object of our desires. This craving takes one of these three forms…

  1. Physical and mental desire
  2. The desire to not die
  3. The desire for release from this life.

Name your affliction, and you will find that it is your desire, your craving, your wanting.

However, we tend not to notice this, we are ignorant that it is our desires for this or that which are the cause of our suffering. Instead, we go through life thinking ‘if I only I could get that, then I would be happy’. This is delusion, confusion, ignorance.

We are confused about what we really want, all we really want is to be awake!

If only we could deal with this 84th problem our other problems would seem less and we would be less caught up in the silly ups and downs associated with easing suffering through attachment to this or that. The ups and downs wouldn’t disappear, the 83 problems would still be there, but they would have less hold over us.

(P34) In Zen monasteries you must pay constant attention to what you are doing. All your activities are prescribed, and they’re carried out in deliberate stillness. After a time, this can get to you (as it did to one particular zen student) who went to see the master and said. ‘I can’t take this any more, I want out’ The master said ‘O.K, then leave’ As he started for the door the teacher said ‘that’s not your door’ Oh! Sorry.’ The startled fellow looked around and spotted a second door. As he headed for it the teacher said ‘That’s not your door’ ‘Oh!’ He looked around for another door. He could see that behind the teacher was a little door normally used by the teacher’s attendant. As he headed for that door the teacher screamed at him ‘That’s not your door!’ Totally bewildered and exasperated, the poor fellow said. ‘What do you mean? There’s no other door! You told me I could leave, but there’s no door I can leave by!’ ”If there’s no door you can leave by,’ said the teacher ‘then sit down’.

This means that we need to face our problems by paying attention to what is going on, face up to them rather than running away which is what most of us do.

I actually quite like this – you want to leave (your problems)  but there is no door to leave by – this is because you are the source of your problems. Our failure to realise this keeps us looking externally for solutions.

Our worst problems are not natural disasters – natural disasters actually bring us together.

Our worst problems (deep-rooted and subtle?) are created by us, as a result of our trying to create good times and avoid bad times, but these come and go of themselves.

Instead of trying to achieve this or that we should just be focussed on the present moment. Happiness is here, it isn’t there. Problems arise from our inability to see clearly the simple truth that good and bad times come and go by themselves irrespective of my desires (life is just flux). —-   Breaking the grip of ignorance rests with just seeing. You notice you want a Pizza, and you just note it, you don’t do anything about it. In this way, you stop feeding craving. (Easier said than done, I know!)

The problem is that it is hard to see see clearly. The mind has a tendency to lean – ‘I like this or that’ – craving or aversion. In the Enlightened mind there is no such leaning.

Dukkha – suffering, pain – is associated with choice. The more we fail to understand this, the more we’ll be caught up in Dukkha. And the more we’ll not see the subtlety of it.

We live in a culture where we’re taught to see freedom as the maximisation of choice. But this is not true freedom at all. In fact, it’s a form of bondage. True freedom doesn’t lie in the maximisation of choice, but ironically is most easily found in a life where there is little choice…. Consider this: often the more serious the choice, the easier it becomes to make it. _

When petty choices occupy the mind, necessity is forgotten, the mind is ill at ease for want of the petty thing. When we needlessly clutter our mind with inconsequential choices dissatisfaction is the result. (39)

(p40) Let’s consider the way intention is joined with Dukkha

The buddha-dharma is all about seeing when we act of intent, which is what most of us do most of the time by trying to bring about some desired end. Intent is important, very important!

Hagan illustrates this with a story about his going camping. He awoke to find that the roof of his car had been slashed and thought it was vandals, this caused mental anguish. Later he realised it was a Racoon who had slashed the roof to get some cookies. His anguish disappeared because there was no longer any bad intent behind the action.

The chapter ends with a reminder that walking the buddha-dharma is not about doing good because good and bad are relatives, tinged with duality (illustrated by the horse story)… The buddha-dharma is about seeing our craving (but not stopping it).

The horse story…

The horse of a wise Chinese farmer ran away. When his neighbour came to console him the farmer said ‘who knows what’s good or bad?’

When his horse returned the next day with a herd of horses following her, the foolish neighbour came to congratulate him on his good fortune.

‘who knows what’s good or bad?’ said the famer.

Then, when the farmer’s son broke his leg trying to ride one of the new horses, the foolish neighbour came to console him again.

‘Who knows what’s good or bad?’ said the farmer.

When the army passed through, conscripting men for the army, they passed over the farmer’s son because of his broken leg. When the foolish man again came to congratulate the farmer =, the farmer replied ‘Who know’s what’s good or bad’?

And so on….


Ideas of good and bad are dualistic, the point is to SEE in a way that is beyond these, not quelching your desire, just SEEing the way that mind leans.. it’s inclinations and it’s intents.

Chapter Four: Going (pp44 -52)

The Buddha’s third truth is that the cessation of suffering is possible, a state referred to by the Buddha as ‘unborn ungrown and unconditioned’, a state which we can see but which we cannot pin down.

The opposite of this, the born, grown and conditioned is everything you can conceive of, including yourself.

Nirvana is seeing completely that everything is just flux or change. Hagan uses the story of his friend dying of cancer who suddenly realises he is about to die to illustrate this. The author says to him ‘wherever we go, its always like this’ and his friend understood – meaning (I think) that his dying friend had seen that everything is change and accepted it, even his own death. (Note – that’s actually pretty hard core!)

Recall that everything is constant flux and change. Nothing endures. Yet we long for permanence and as a result we suffer, for we find none. There seems to be only this coming and going, coming and going. This is true of the physical universe, and it is true of our minds. Nirvana is seeing completely that this is so.

(P47) We do not see this – we tend to think of ourselves as distinct entities existing through time, but we cannot find a moment when we came into being – our conception is fundamentally linked to our parents, there is no ultimate separation. The truth is, you cannot find ‘coming into being’.

What we call a person the Buddha simply referred to as ‘stream’.

The same problem occurs with anything conceivable – with anything, beginnings and ends are inconceivable, there is just ceaseless flow and change, yet we perceive things to have a distinct beginning and end because we are foolish.

All three of our desires (*) arise because of our confusion (our inability to realise) that reality is just change.

Because of this ignorance we erroneously fixate on permanence, we think permance is possible – we think that if we only get this then ‘I will be happy’, but in reality, all states of happiness are impermanent (thus what is the point in fixating on them?)

Similarly, because we fixate on our own existence we desire to not die, but in reality if you are born then you will die.

Finally, because (in our ignorance) this is so unbearable, we long for non-existence. All three of these desires arise because of our confusion about change. NB This final one (I think) is the vauge sense of subtle dis-ease that resides at the back of our minds, it is the kind of dis-ease that we will only find exists if we try to sit quietly and realise that we cannot do so.

(*) 1. Physical and mental desire 2. The desire to not die 3. The desire for release from this life.

The Buddha talked of extinguishing these desires but how is this possible? There are two ways. The first the Buddha called less desire and the second forgetting the self.

We have the ability to see our situation our human condition for what it really is. A starting point would be to perceive that we overload our senses, we become addicted to all manner of sense- stimulators, we need to see this, we also need to see that we tend to overload our lives with thoughts.

A second way is to forget the self by doing things for or with others


We tend to live our lives with some idea of control… we do a task to achieve a desired end, and when we fail to do this we suffer. The buddhist solution to this is to acknowledge that we never had control in the first place.

At the centre of our desire for control is our sense of self… If we can realise that ‘I’ don’t really exist, there is profound liberation in this!

On this the Buddha said

‘Just as a man shudders with horror when he steps on a serpent, but laughs when he looks down and sees that it is only a rope, so I discovered one day that what I was calling ‘I’ cannot be found, and all fear and anxiety vanished with my mistake’.

The buddha-dharma points the way for each of us to wake up from this same basic mistake. And when we awaken, our fears and anxieties quite naturally vanish, as the night fades away at the rising of the sun.

Chapter Five – The Art of Seeing (pp53-59)

The fourth truth of the Buddha is the way to realise the end of suffering – the noble eightfold path. An odd thing about this path is that it is not a path from a to b – as soon as we step on it all aspects are realised at once.

The eight aspects of the path are

  1. Right view
  2. Right intention
  3. Right speech
  4. Right action
  5. Right livelihood
  6. Right effort
  7. Right mindfulness
  8. Right meditation

Right does not mean right as opposed to wrong – but right as in ‘this works’ or as in ‘being in sync with reality’. It refers to being in touch with reality rather than being deluded by our own prejudices. ‘Right’ means conducive to awakening.

Right view

Normally when we take a view on some aspect of life we take a snap shot picture and hold onto it and people with different views peel off into separate camps and sometimes go after each other.   The view of a Buddha isn’t like this – it is not an ordinary frozen view. Right view means not being caught by ideas, concepts, beliefs or opinions.

The view of a Buddha is of how things are , or of constant change. If we know that all is change, then how can there be fixed views?

Right view is the dynamic view of the world as a whole. It cannot come into conflict with other views because it already encompasses everything else!

Right intention

There is a story of Socrates and a youth who comes to learn from him – when crossing a stream Socrates holds the youth’s head under water and he starts to fight for air. On letting him up, Socrates says ‘when you fight for truth as you fight for air then come back and see me’ – that is right intention.

You cannot learn truth from anyone, it is seen through your own resolve. It means getting on with the job of awakening.

Right speech

This basically involves not lying not speaking ill and not chatting idly.

There are many practical reasons for practising thus – basically to awaken you need to be here and now and lying, speaking ill and chatting distract you from the here and now and disturb the mind.

All that is said on right action is that it is action that stems from a clear and unfettered mind.

Right livelihood means choosing a profession that does not not do harm to others or the planet because how can this be conducive to peace of mind?

Right effort is a conscious and on-going engagement with each moment. It is the willing abandonment of our fragmented mentality and dualistic thought moment after moment and the encouragement of healthy and wholesome states of mind.

Right mindfulness means not forgetting what our real problem is – Dukkha. Right mindfulness means being mindful of how we react to states of mind in each moment.

Right meditation means collecting the mind so it becomes focussed centred and aware.

These eight aspects of the path should not be taken on faith but tested to see if they are conducive to awakening.

The chapter ends by mentioning the precepts and that these are guidelines rather than rules. Ultimately all that there is is the context you are in and your own mind – seeing things as they are moment to moment and acting accordingly is what there is. Hard and fast rules are not conducive to this.



Chapter Six – Wisdom (pp63-76)

Our prison is in us – it is in our own mind, our own thinking. We fail to see our situation for what it really is. As yang chu says – ‘we pass by the joys of life without realising we’ve missed anything’. The path to freeing the mind is not like an ordinary path. It does not lead anywhere it has no destination. As soon as you set foot on this path you have literally traversed it in its entirety.

First you have to set foot on the path, and this is right view – the idea that there is something askew or painful about human existence. What would satisfy the aching, the craving of the human heart? Nothing outside of us can do this because as soon as one craving is satisfied another arises.

So let us take a different approach and not try to define what it is we want. We do not know what we truly want because what we truly want is intangible. In fact true happiness simply involves seeing in the moment, but because we do not see this then we fixate on a search to find something to make us happy, while the only thing that can make us happy is what’s here and now – we just need to see what is going on in ourselves.

Right view is not a fixed idea it is simply awareness of how things come to be. Right view is seeing reality in its wholeness – think of a puma and a deer – we feel sorry that the deer will be eaten by the puma, so we put bells on the deer – the puma then starves so the deer population goes up which leads to overgrazing and deers dying.

Compassion alone is not enough, you need to see the whole. In life we tend to categorise and compartmentalise – we package complex events so we can understand them. But life is messier than this – in reality things are much more fluid and this is hard work to grasp and accept. In trying to understand the world we leave things out – we fail to realise that in reality there is not a clearly defined object to observe or for that matter a clearly defined observer.

Right view is beyond categories, beyond good and bad and the only way we can realise it is to be right here and right now.

( P69) – We tend to hold a static view of ourselves too – for example – ‘I’m a nervous type of person or I’m Norwegian… The truth is that I am not anything in-particular and neither is anyone else. When we lock onto an identity all we’re doing is locking onto a rigid world view, and making ourselves easier to offend. Another way we bind ourselves is through trying to explain things – ‘a means b’ and so on.

In fact, reality in the moment explains itself and so it doesn’t need explaining. How can we explain the truth without removing ourselves from it? Yet we do not see this, instead we go on seeking ever more refined or complicated explanations, and all we ever get is more and more contradictions, while Reality itself defies conceptualisation.

Having said this, it is possible to see, to perceive reality even if we can’t conceive it.

Concepts cannot be reality because conceptualising involves putting boundaries around things that are all interconnected. Take the example of a book – in reality the book is fundamentally linked to the sun because trees require the sun.

In a famous zen story emperor Wu of China asked Bodhidharma ‘who are you’, Bodhidharma replied ‘not knowing’. There is no identity there. Bodhidharma sees reality, not a thing with a name. In other words right view isn’t in the eye of the beholder, there is no beholder there.

(P73) Right intention Is simply about being here in this moment. Being awake is actually the absence of intention, because you cannot both be here and hold any intent, any gaining thought. If we are not awake then right intention is simply to be awake – now, with no gaining thought.

Hagan now relays the story of the meditating zen student and the teacher polishing the tile – no amount of meditating will make you a Buddha. Meditation should be all the time, it does not begin or end with a bell, it begins with your intention, so start paying attention – now! Being awake is just being awake, there is no reason for being awake – other than it’s better than not being awake which consists of pain anger and delusion.

(So nb right intention is actually about being now and stopping habitual ways of action that lead to suffering)

Being awake is the mind not leaning, the mind not thinking ‘I like this or I dislike that’ – these leanings lead to greed and aversion, and gaining thoughts. How to stop the mind leaning? You simply have to pay attention to what you are doing and how your mind reacts, then the mind eventually will straighten up of its own accord, you cannot force it to stop leaning – if you try to do this it will simply lean all the more.

Chapter Seven – Morality (pp77-94)

Right speech should be directed towards awakening for self and others – when you speak consider whether you are doing it to manipulate others or doing it to assist in awakening.

Hagan quotes the Buddha on what right speech is – basically being truthful, not gossiping and speaking to promote harmony.

On listening – if someone tells you something about someone else, all they are really revealing is stuff about themselves. You should realise that as soon as something is put into speech it is skewed by the speaker – thus always withhold judgement on the thing someone is speaking about, especially if it is someone you have never met before.

Right speech should be directed towards awakening for self and others – when you speak consider whether you are doing it to manipulate others or doing it to assist in awakening.   Hagan quotes the Buddha on what right speech is – basically being truthful, not gossiping and speaking to promote harmony.

On listening – if someone tells you something about someone else, all they are really revealing is stuff about themselves. You should realise that as soon as something is put into speech it is skewed by the speaker – thus always withhold judgement on the thing someone is speaking about, especially if it is someone you have never met before.   Right speech involves right listening which means seeing the whole picture including the speaker, be careful not to swallow pre packaged stories.   We need to be careful when speaking of others – whether we are downplaying or bigging them up we are leaning and not speaking the truth. In fact, putting people on a pedestal is probably the worst because this way we must create idols and to be free we need to be free of idols (nb celebrity).

Do not talk about people as if they are saints or monsters, to do so is to fail to recognise our common humanity. It is is within the capacity of human nature to act monstrously or saintly and we can do likewise. Really good or really evil people are not essentially different to us.

Sometimes it is necessary to say things people don’t want to hear for their long term good – eg a child running to a busy road or an addict.

It is impossible to give rules on how to speak that are hard and fast – much of what needs to be said, or not said, depends on the situation. What is important than when you speak to people you examine your intention – if your intention is to help them wake up then you should be speaking compassionately and the appropriate words and tone should follow in any given situation.

Where enlightenment is concerned it is beyond conceptualisation so in truth there is nothing to say.

Ryokan, a Japanese Zen poet, wrote this poem –

Maple leaf

Falling down

Showing front

Showing back

This action exemplifies right action – how different this kind of action is to the willed, goal-oriented action we are familiar with. The maple leaf’s action is natural and unwilled yet the way we act is different, if we were leaves we would either fall off in summer (running away), hang on until winter or we would wilfully try and be unleaf like and pile down rather than drift. These two types of action have two different results.

Usually discussions of morality are about rules – but there are no rules in Buddhism only guidelines- the dharma is not about rules and regulations that have been taught and accepted it is about seeing – rules are only useful when you do not see – in seeing we act naturally.

Shunryu Suzuki says that if we try to put dots on a page in a random fashion we will find this difficult as usually patterns will emerge because our minds unwittingly follow hidden rules. If we saw the whole we could arrange dots in a random fashion. Randomness involves us being with the whole, order stems from our deluded attempts to control the whole which leads to Dukkha.

When we fancy ourselves to be a particular thing with a name we see ourselves as we would a cork in a stream. In reality there is only stream, change and flow. The recognition of this as our actual experience is utter release from Dukkha.

Seeing alone leads to greater levels of moral development (nb not all monks necessarily see) because through seeing we don’t lie because we see that lying leads to confusion. Hence this is not about rules – in fact morality is beyond rules – morality can be seen but not put into rules – even the do unto others rule is flawed because different people often need to be treated differently.

The golden rule of the awakened is in fact ‘do unto others as you would not have them do unto you’ – the problem with the usual positive formulation is that it carries prescriptions, or things that should be done and this set of rules is objectifying which takes us away from the moment – thus the awakened wants of others and wants for others no objectification, to allow for freedom in the moment and real seeing. Hence the negative prescription of this imperative. (NB in the meantime there are precepts…). This avoids the problems associated with doing good which can stem form positive formulations of morality which can breed arrogance and hostility.

Another way of looking at right action is action as free of self.

Now there’s a quick note on freedom – which is not freedom to choose – but freedom to be awake or not.

Right livelihood simply says do not judge others – look at your own situation and how you respond to it.

Finally – right action is fundamentally about examining your own life – remember the only real choice we have is whether or not we choose to wake up!

Chapter Eight – Practice (pp95-109)

This chapter deals with right effort, right mindfulness and right meditation

Sit for a moment, and try not to think of an elephant. Now try to picture a square circle You will notice that both of these exercises are impossible.

Often, though, we put our efforts into tasks very much like these – trying to achieve goals which are impossible, we think of effort as something that involves straining, forcing or pushing. But with what the Buddha called right effort, there is no straining or forcing, because right effort is cojoined with right view – when you see that putting your hand in the flame is painful, you don’t have to strain to keep yourself from doing it, it just follows naturally.

Right effort means simply being present. It means being here, staying here, and seeing what is happening in this moment. It’s not about trying to achieve or control something, which is like trying to not think of an elephant. Right effort is the naturalness of becoming this moment.

This is not normally how we understand effort – we usually understand it as to control, improve, change something – human history is full of such examples, and here we are in our improved society wondering if the earth will survive!

Right effort is cutting off the fragmented and fractured states of mind that have already arisen in us – for example we see ourselves as being separate from the world, and the world as consisting of separate things (rather than a more wholesome, holistic seeing). This leads our mind to be full of thoughts such as ‘I must do this’ or ‘avoid doing that’ – Right effort just means seeing this fragmented state, not feeding it by worrying about it or acting on it, or trying to stop it – if we just see it, it will come into full awareness of its own accord.

All you have to do in right effort is continually bring yourself back to seeing – to see is to heal.

Right effort is also bringing about and preserving aware, collected, wholesome and integrated states of mind. Hagan uses the metaphor of being able to take a horse to water but not being able to make that horse drink. If we are the horse in this analogy, being led to the Buddha Dharma, drinking is like making right effort. The problem is that, although we are all thirsty (remember that deep aching of the heart), we don’t realise it, and also, although we are standing at the water trough, we don’t realise that our water is easily in reach.

Normally, if something seems valuable to us, we feel we have to work hard to get it – in the case of awakening this doesn’t work. Hagan now relays the tale of the fellow and the Zen master…. how long will it take to become Enlightened…. 10/20/ 30 years.

Donning robes has nothing to do with being enlightened – these can actually detract you from right effort – all right effort is is being in this moment. You don’t need anything else to do this.

(p100) Now Hagan deals with the different types of mindfulness…

Mindfulness of the body is to do with how the body moves, and physical senses such as smell and taste. Thich Nat Hanh suggests we savour each sense as if we were a returned astronaut, having touched back down on earth for the first time in years.

We should also be mindful of our feelings – whether we are inclined to like or dislike things for example – over time we will be less compelled to act on these things if we become more mindful of them – feelings will have less of a hold over us.

We should also be aware of our minds – in doing so you will notice (probably) an internal monologue, often moronic, that chatters much of the time – the problem is we often identify with many of these thoughts, and this is the source of much of our suffering. In time, through mindfulness, we will realise that this internal monologue, our ideas are just as fleeting as our physical sensations.

Finally, there is awareness of Dukkha itself.

In mindfulness practise it is important not to chastise yourself – all you need to do is to see that this and that arises, and when you see that attachment to certain arisings leads to suffering, you will come to cease such attachment just naturally!

While right mindfulness is to return to actual experience right meditation is simply staying with our immediate experience, moment by moment. In sitting meditation (zazen in Japanese) the focus of our activity involves the bare minimum, just body, mind and breath. He now quotes a passage from Zen master Dogen’s ‘universal recommendation for sitting meditation’ on how to do formal breath meditation. Hagan then mentions that you can sit in a chair, or kneeling. After sorting our posture, Hagan then says… Place your focus on your breath – just follow it. As you do, thoughts will arise. Don’t be bothered by them. Don’t try to drive them away. If you leave them alone, they’ll depart of their own accord. This is how to ‘cease all the movements of the conscious mind’. You cannot do it by direct application of will. Don’t strive for some special state of mind, there is no special state of mind. Striving will only disturb you.

Sitting meditation is just awareness of breath, that is all.

How long to spend in meditation? Hagan says he doesn’t know – more important is that you do it regularly. When its time to eat, eat, when its time to meditate, meditate.

You need to allow yourself the space to have thoughts and feelings, just let them be, don’t try and stop them, and they will calm down by themselves.

Breath is the perfect vehicle for meditation because it is the boundary between internal and external, place your attention there and you will see that there is no you, and no outside.

Do not approach meditation as business as usual, meditation is not business as usual. We are not doing it to achieve anything, it is not a useful activity, it is for its own sake…. do not expect anything from it. Dogen notes that when you practice meditation you… cease from practice based on intellectual understanding, pursing words and following after speech, and learn the backward step that turns your light inwardly to illuminate yourself. Body and mind of themselves will drop away, and your original face will be manifest. If you want to attain thusness, you should practise thusness without delay.

If we taste reality, we must engage it directly. If you have the least gaining idea, you are not fully engaged.

Right meditation is where everything is alive, where we neither create nor manipulate, possess nor obsess, neither try nor fail.

Chapter Nine – Freedom (pp 110-)

There are two types of knowledge – One consists of beliefs, opinions and conjectures, an intellectual grasping of concepts – this is not true knowing and the result of relying on more conceptual knowledge is more fear, discomfort and confusion. We think our beliefs and ideas can be relied on to give us satisfaction, but if we examine them carefully, we realise that they only temporarily satisfy us…. in fact, they are our primary sources of anxiety and fear, because they are always subject to contradiction and doubt.

By their very nature, all our ideas are frozen views – fragments of reality, separated from the whole. Because what we rely on (conception) is different to what we see (perception) there is unrest in our minds. Underneath all, we are uneasy, and furthermore we know it.

The fact is, were already enlightened, even now. We know truth, we just habitually overlay our direct experience of truth with thoughts, our beliefs opinions and ideas, developing conceptual frameworks without knowing what it is we are doing.

(p111) The problem isn’t that we do this, we cant help but conceptualise…. the problem is that we do not realise we are doing this… and we run away with our thoughts, thinking we have captured some aspect of reality. What we overlook is that underneath our ideas, reality is shifting, and thus we cannot help but experience doubt. This is the deep end of dukkha – existential angst. In the very moment we overlay our direct experience with concepts doubt is attached to it. The biggest mistake we make in all this is by separating out self and other – this leads us to look for satisfaction out there – we even turn enlightenment into an object, but if we examine our direct experience, we realise that such dualities do not exist.

As we’ve seen, there’s a second type of view, right view – which is simply seeing reality for what it is. It’s relying on bare attention… true immediate, direct experience of the world in and of itself, it is seeing thus. Herein lies freedom of mind, and fearlessness.

With the two types of views there are two kinds of mind….. we all have what we could call ordinary minds – the mind you’ve always assumed you’ve had. It is a calculating, discriminating mind, a fragmented mind. It’s the mind of ordinary consciousness, what we call ‘my mind’.

But there is another kind of mind, unborn, ungrown and unconditioned – to this mind, there is no other mind. This mind is nothing other than the whole. This mind is there in every moment, always switched on, all we need to do is rest our frontal lobes in order to see it. This means letting our conscious mind die down, like ripples on a pond.

Another reminder – that you can’t get to seeing, you can only see.

At the close of our millennium, it’s getting harder and harder for us to find meaning in our lives. We’ve seen through too many of the old stories. Even though we no longer believe in God, we swing between cynicism and dogmatism to inject meaning into our lives. We don’t easily understand that we create this problem or that problem of meaninglessness ourselves through our deluded thinking. If we could just see this moment for what it is, meaninglessness would never arise in the first place. It is in our very trying to define and arrange things for ourselves – trying to identify and assign meanings to things – that we end up creating a world that is ultimately meaningless.

Liberation of mind is realising that we don’t need to buy any story at all. We just need to see reality.

The deep, hollow ache of the heart arises from a life in search of meaning. But its by our very desire to find meaning (I think he means in fixing the world through concepts) that we create meaninglessness (NB – If we live in a society where people are objectifying themselves and there appear to be multiple meanings to see through then surely this makes it more difficult to see that these efforts result in meaninglessness – because this mistaken quest for meaning is the norm… and now there are many meanings to choose between.)

Reality – if we see it – is where questions of meaning are transcended, it just is.

At least he finishes off by saying that the eightfold path is like a raft….

Also, NB – A lot of this stuff is I think really for monks maybe???? (A la Bikkhu Bodhi) – the rest of us are so mired, we need help a bit lower down the order of awareness maybe???

Posted in Buddhism | Tagged: , , , | No Comments »

Three Score Years and Twenty – An Analysis of the Ageing UK Population.

Posted by Realsociology on December 13, 2014

I just listened to this useful Radio 4 Analysis podcast – Three Score Years and Twenty on Ageing Britain. It’s of clear relevance to the demography topic within the SCLY1 families and households module….

Here are some of the main points.

In 1850,half the population in England were dead before they reached 46. Now half the population in England are alive at 85; and 8 million people currently alive in the UK will make it to 100 years or more. And if we extrapolate that to Europe, we can say 127 million Europeans are going to live to 100.

Hans Rosling points out that: We reached the turning point five years ago when the number of children stopped growing in the world. We have 2 billion children. They will not increase. The increase of the world population from now on will be a fill up of adults.

Health Secretary Jeremy Hunt: The two biggest issues that we face as an ageing society are the sustainability of the NHS and the sustainability of the pension system; and within the NHS, I include the social care system as part of that.

The basic problem we have in Northern European countries is the generational tension between individualism and communal responsibility – Across the generations within a typical family we have become more individualistic and less collective/ communal:

People in their 80s (who grew up in the 1960s) are generally very individualistic – they have retired into property wealth and are unwilling to relinquish the independence this gives them. They have also socialised their children into being more independent: most people today in their 50s (the children of those who are in their 80s) have bought into this – The family norm is one of the typical 50 year old living an independent life with their family, miles away from their own parents. Grandparents today of course help out with childcare occassionaly and pay regular visits, but they are generally not taking a day to day role in childcare, and finances are kept seperate.  This arrangement is mutual – People in their 80s don’t want to be burdens on their children, they want them to have the freedom to live their own lives – to be able to work and raise their children without having to care for them in their old age. (So I suppose you might call the 2000s the era of the individualised family).

(This is very different to what it used to be like in the UK, and what it is still like in many other parts of the world where grandparents live close by and are an integral part of family life, taking an active role in raising their grandchildren on a day to day basis. Various interviewees from less developed countries testify to this, and to the advantages of it.)

Within this context of increasing ‘familial-individualism’ a number of problems of the ageing population are discussed:

Firstly, one of the main problem which this increasing ‘familial-individualism’ creates for people in their 80s is one of increasing isolation and lonileness as their friends and neighbours move away or die.

One proposed solution is for older people to be prepared to move into communal supported housing where there are shared leisure facilities, like many people do in Florida. However, people are quite set in their ways in the UK and so this is unlikely. A second solution, which some immigrants are choosing is to return to thier country of origin where there are more collectivist values, trading in a relatively wealthy life in the UK for less money and more community abroad.

A second problem is that healthy life expectancy is not keeping pace with life-expectancy, and there are increasing numbers of people in their 80s who spend several years with chronic physical conditions such as arthritis, and also dementia – which require intensive social care. As with the above, this is more of a social problem when children do not see it as their duty to care for their elderly parents – It is extremely expensive to provide round the clock care for chronic conditions for several years, and this puts a strain on the NHS. Basically, the welfare state cannot cope with both pensions and chronic care.

On potential solution to the above is mentioned by Sally GREENGROSS: The Germans in some cases now export older people to Eastern European countries because they can’t afford – or they say they can’t – to provide all the services they need in Germany itself. Could this be the future of chronic elderly care in the UK – Exporting demntia patients to poorer countries?

However, the idea of care-homes themselves are not dismissed when it comes to end of life care – the consensus seems to be that the quality of care in UK elderly care homes is generally very good, and better than your typicaly family could provide (depsite all the not so useful scare programmes in the media).

A third problem is for those in their 50s – with their parents still alive and ‘sucking money out of the welfare state’ there is less left for everything else – and this has been passed down to the youngest generation – As a result people in their 50s now face the prospect of their own children living at home for much longer and having to help them with tuition fees and mortgage financing, meaning that their own plans for retirement in their late-50s/ early 60s are looking less likely – In other words, the next two generations are bearing a disproportionate cost of the current ageing population.

Worringly, there is relatively little being done about this in government circles – Yes, the state pension age has been raised, and measures have been taken to get people to bolster their own private pensions, but this might be too little to late, and it looks like little else is likely to be done – The issue of the ageing population and the cost of welfare for the elderly is not a vote-winner after all.

The programme concludes by pointing out that pensions and care homes are only part of the debate. What will also be needed to tackle the problems of the ageing population is a more age-integrated society, a possible renogiation at the level of the family so that granparents are more integrated on a day to day basis in family life (trading of child care for a level of elderly care) and also social level changes – to make work places and public places more accessible for the elderly who might be less physically able than those younger than them.

Here’s the full transcript of the show -analysis-ageing


Posted in Family | Tagged: , | No Comments »