Free Schools – Arguments and Evidence for and Against

Signpost

This is relevant to the educational policy aspect of the education topic within the sociology of education.

What Are Free Schools?

A Free School in England is a type of Academy, a non-profit-making, state-funded school which is free to attend. Free schools are not controlled by a Local Authority (LA) but instead governed by anon-profit charitable trust.

To set up a Free School, founding groups submit applications to the Department for Education. Groups include those run by parents, education charities and religious groups. Ongoing funding is on an equivalent basis with other locally controlled state maintained schools, although additional start-up grants to establish the schools are also paid.

Between 2010 and 2015 more than 400 free schools were approved for opening in England by the Coalition Government, representing more than 230,000 school places across the country.

Similarities between Local Authority schools and Free Schools

  • They are both free for students to attend

  • They are both have similar amounts of funding

  • They are both subject to same rules about how the select students (they have similar admissions policies)

  • They are both subjected to Ofsted inspections

Differences between Free Schools and Regular State Schools

Local Authority Schools

Free Schools

Must follow the National Curriculum

Don’t have to follow the National Curriculum

Funding controlled by Local Authority

Funding comes straight from government

‘standard’ school day and term times

Free to set school days and term times

Teachers must be qualified

Teachers don’t have to be qualified

A brief history and overview of types of Free School

Free Schools were introduced by the Coalition government in 2010 general election as part of the Big Society initiative. The first 24 Free Schools opened in autumn 2011.

Since 2011, any Local Authority in need of a new school must seek proposals for an Academy or Free School, with a traditional Local Authority school only being allowed if no suitable Free School or academy is proposed. Since July 2015 the government is regarded all new academies as Free Schools – hence if there’s demand to establish them, any new school being established will be a free school.

To date, since 2010 there have been around 400 Free Schools established, which translates into about 250 000 school places, and the government hopes to establish an other 500 Free Schools over the next few years.

Types of free school

The majority of free schools are similar in size and shape to other types of academy. However, the following are distinctive sub-types of free school:

Studio school – A small free school, usually with around 300 pupils, using project-based learning.

University Technical College – A free school for the 14-18 age group, specialising in practical, employment focused subjects, sponsored by a university, employer or further education college.

Arguments for Free Schools

Free schools are a very good example of a neoliberal policy – the government is taking power away from Local Education Authorities (local government) and giving more power to parents, private businesses and charities to run schools.

Supporters claim that

  • There is a higher proportion of outstanding free schools – Twice as likely according to C4’s Full Fact
  • Free schools create more local competition and drive-up standards –
  • They allow parents to have more choice in the type of education their child receives, much like parents who send their children to independent schools do.
  • They also claim that free schools benefit children from all backgrounds – which could especially be the case with….
  • We need more school places – because of the recent increase in the birth rate, not to mention increasing migration and free schools could play a crucial role in this. In fact, where primary schools are concerned, about 70% of applications for free schools are in the areas where there is most need for new schools (See Channel Four’s Full Fact)

Arguments against Free Schools

Critics argue that…

  • There is a higher proportion of failing Free Schools – According to this article (March 2015) from The Independent newspaper Free Schools are a failure: One third of them have been rated ‘inadequate’ or ‘requires improvement’ compared to only one fifth of Local Authority Schools.
  • This list of failures includes three school closures, worst of which seems to have been the Al-Madinah free school which imposed strict Islamic practice on staff and students (for example by forcing even non-muslim female teachers to cover up) and was found to be so bad that OFSTED had to create a new category of ‘dysfunctional’ to grade it before ordering it to close.
  • Free schools benefit primarily middle-class parents with the time to set them up, fueling social segregation – I can really see this being the case with ‘studio schools’. (I can’t help but imagine a nice, small school with extensive playground and playing fields in a Devonshire village, so nice in fact that the yummies occasionally leave their 4WDs at home and walk the school run, at least when they’re not in the mood for heels.)
  • Free schools divert money away from existing schools – There is a set amount of money in the education budget, and if free schools (and academies) get initial start up grants from the government (which some do) this means relatively less money for the Local Education Authority maintained schools.
  • They are not actually needed and have lead to a surplus of school places – More than half of Free Schools opening in 2012 opened with 60% or less of the student numbers predicted by the impact assessment documents of each institution, leaving more than 10% spare places. Elsewhere, where Free Schools are fully subscribed, regular Local Authority schools have surplus capacity. This replication of capacity is grossly inefficient.5. People don’t actually want Free Schools – Polling in April 2015 put public support for Conservative proposals to increase the number of Free Schools by at least 500 at 26%.
  • While the image of Free schools might be of motivated parents setting them up, Peter Wilby, writing in The Guardian, predicted that Free Schools would be run by private companies rather than parents, teachers or voluntary groups. There is also the fact that in 2012 over 60% of free school applications were made by faith groups.

Analysis – Free Schools Good or Bad?

To be honest at this stage it’s difficult to say – because Free Schools have only been around for five years, and because there are so few of them – it is difficult to make reliable comparisons between the results of free schools and local authority schools.

As it stands, Free Schools seem to be having a polarising effect on educational achievement – with both a higher proportion of schools achieving outstanding and being graded unsatisfactory at the same time. This is pretty much what you’d expect when you give middle class parents etc. with cultural capital a fat wedge of cash and a considerable degree of freedom to run their schools in a way that they see fit.

Whether or not you think polarisation is a good thing probably depends on your politics. If you’re right-leaning (neoliberal or new right) you’d probably interpret these trends in a positive way – more success at the top end should eventually drag all of the other schools up, even if there’s a few initial teething problems with a higher proportion of schools failing at the bottom. Eventually, demand for those failing schools should fall so they’ll either close or be taken over by the more successful schools.

However, if you’re more left-leaning then you’d probably hypothesise that the children in the outstanding free schools are probably those from middle class backgrounds, and those in the failing schools – probably more likely to be from working class backgrounds, so all we are seeing here is an intensification of the reproduction of class inequality, although we don’t yet have the data to assess this.

Find out More…

Given the ideological nature of Free Schools, be careful of where you source your information form – A good starting point to find out more is go to Channel Four’s Full Fact which takes a cautious look at the statistics on various aspects of Free Schools.

Proactive Women and Individualised Men? Gender Differences in Mid-Life Solo-Living

 

The long term increase in Single Person Households in well documented – as in the infographic below.

Single Person Households UK

As is the fact that older people are more likely to live alone that younger people.

Single Person Households by age UK

As can be seen from the above chart, most of the increase in solo-living has come from middle aged people (45-64 year olds) and a recent longitudinal study: The Demographics of Living Alone in Midlife explores this in more depth:

The headline news (see the chart below, unfortunately going back to  2007) was that

  • At ages 35-49 there are approximately twice as many men living alone as women  – On average about 13% of men live alone compared to about 7% of women in these age categories.
  • At ages 50-54 the numbers of men and women living alone are approximately equal.
  • From age 55 and upwards the numbers of women living alone outnumber men and ratio gets larger as the population ages.

Percent Living Alone age and sex

To break this down into more detail….

  • The percentage of both men and women living alone has increased in all age categories.
  • For ages 35-39 approximately 15% of men live alone, compared to 6% of women.
  • For ages 40-49 approximately 12% of men live alone compared to 6% of women.
  • For the age categories 35-39, 40-44 and 45-49 the proportions of men living alone approximately doubled between 1984 and 2007 and in all of these aged categories there are twice as many men living alone as compared to women.
  • For the same age categories for women, the number of 35-39 year olds trebled over this period, and for women in their 40s, the the number living alone doubled between 1984 and 1997 and then stabilised from 1997 to 2007.
  • For the age category 50-54 roughly similar proportions of men and women live alone, with men rapidly catching up with women.
  • For people aged 55 and over, there are more women than men living alone and numbers have increased at similar levels.

This research also takes a more in-depth and comparative look at the social characteristics of middle-aged men and women who live alone – which reveals some of the possible reasons for the increasing numbers of men and women living alone.

Firstly – women who live alone are much more likely to be educated than men:

males females living alone education

Women living alone aged 35-64 are much more likely to have degrees – 38% of women living alone have degrees compared to 25% of men.

Men living alone aged 35-64 are twice as likely to have no qualifications – 15% of women have no qualifications compared to 27% of men living alone.

Given that men and women tend to couple up with people of similar (ish) ages (actually women on average go for men 6 years older, but that’s fairly similar) and people of at least similar class backgrounds  and levels of educational achievement  – the overall increase in people living alone across both sexes could be down to 20 years of women outperforming men in education resulting in a much higher proportion of educated women compared to men.

So possibly, we’re now living in a society in which millions of educated women aged 34-49 are living alone because they don’t want to settle for an uneducated male partner.

The converse of this is that we’ve also got millions of uneducated men aged 34-49 who are living alone, not out of choice, but because their more educated female peers don’t see them as a viable prospect.

Thirdly (I’m sure there are two reasons above!?) – If we look at the situation of people living alone in relation to children, we find that the increase in men living alone is probably mostly down to two combined factors – the long term increase in divorce and the fact that children (where they exist) are more likely to go and reside with the mother than the father…

families - children

As the table above shows us, for 35-64 year olds, an average of 15% of men living alone have at least one dependent child compared to only 2% of women, reflecting the fact that hardly any women with dependent children live apart from them.

To conclude on some Social Theory, one might tentatively say that the above research supports Giddens’ idea that increased gender equality has led to women being less prepared to settle for shallow relationships, as there is evidence of more (educated) women choosing to live alone rather than settling for any old relationship.

However, where men are concerned, perhaps Beck’s individualisation Thesis applies more – they appear to have less choice than women about whether they live alone or not – middle aged male solo-livers seem to be the ones being left on the shelf altogether or abandoned by their partners and children after a failed relationship.

Of course the above is hypothetical, you’d need to do some qualitative research with middle aged men and women to uncover the extent to which they’ve ‘chosen their solo lives.

Food Inc – A Summary

This is a Superb documentary which demonstrates the downsides of the industrialisation of the food system in the USA.

It is relevant to the following areas of Global Development within A level Sociology.

  • Illustrating the downsides of Industrialisation

  • Illustrating unfair trade rules (corn is subsidised in America)

  • Illustrating the downsides of forced neoliberalisation

  • Illustrating the incredible power of Transnational Corporations in America and the negative consequences of them controlling the food chain ‘from seed to supermarket’.

  • There is also one example (the local farmer guy) of People Centred Development

  • Illustrating the limitations of western models of development

Scene One – Food Inc.

The Film starts by outlining the unrealities of the modern American supermarket, where there are no seasons and the meat has no bones. Then a bold statement – there is a deliberate veil drawn over the realities of the food production chain, which is basically a factory system, an industrialised system. The rest of the documentary is devoted to outlining the downsides of this system.

Scene Two – Fast Food for All

It’s suggested that the move towards an industrial food system started with McDonald’s – when the McDonald brothers got rid of their waitresses and invented the drive through to cut costs, it caught on massively and McDonald’s and other fast food outlets expanded, and so did the mass demand for standardised food products.

McDonald’s is now the largest purchaser of Beef in America and one of the largest purchasers of potatoes, tomatoes and even apples, and of course corn-syrup (and hence corn). It was the demand for large volumes of standardised food goods that led to a concentration of food production into massive farms and factories.

Such is the concentration that only four companies now control 80% of the beef packing market, with similar concentrations in other food sectors, so even if you don’t eat in a fast food restaurant you’re probably eating products produced by the same system, by the same food companies. One company name to look out for in particular is Tyson!

Tyson, which is the largest food production company in the world has redesigned the chicken – so it grows in half the time it used to, and has larger breasts. It has also redesigned the chicken farmer and the whole process of chicken farming.

The video now takes the inevitable trip to the battery farm – where hideous abuses take place, most all IMO for the chicken farmers who are kept in debt by Tyson because Tyson keeps demanding they upgrade to new systems. Keeping chickens in abusive conditions is very actually very expensive!

Scene Three – A Cornucopia of Choices

Starts with an interview with the most excellent Michael Pollen – ‘The idea that you need to write a book about where our food comes from shows you the scale of the problem’.

There are only a few companies involved and only a few food products involved, and much of our industrial food turns out to be clever rearrangements of corn… Ketchup, Peanut butter, Coke, and even batteries contain corn derivatives.

So important is corn that even though yields have increased from 20 to 200 bushels of wheat an acre, 30% of the US land base is planted to corn – which is subsidised which in turn leads to over production. Subsidies are in place because the big food TNCs (Tyson and Cargill) want cheap corn, and they have the ears of the government (no pun intended).

There is a transport network which transports corn to CAFOs (Concentrated Animal Farming Operations) where thousands of cattle are kept standing in their own manure until they are slaughtered.

The fact that cattle are now fed corn rather than grass has created the conditions in their stomachs for e.coli to breed, this comes out in manure, and because cattle in CAFOs all live close together shit is transferred between them and it spreads and gets in the food chain and to the consumer

Scene Four – Unintended Consequences

Which ends up with children dying.

In the movie we are persistently shown how food is farmed along factory lines – we go to the inevitable battery chicken factory and processing plants, massive corn fields and CAFO’s – or Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations – where thousands of cattle are farmed together, literally standing in their own shit all day, before being slaughtered.

NB this is very different to how food is marketed to Americans – It is marketed in a very misleading way with images of small scale farmers out in the open air with their free range animals. (NB if you’ve never thought of the concept of ‘industrialisation’ as being applicable to food production as well as to the manufacturing of goods then this shows how good a job the food industry has done with its marketing!).

The reason given for this industrialisation/ rationalisation of the food system is the profit motive – It’s cheaper to mass produce things, which is something demanded by the handful of companies who control the entire food chain in the US and require standardised food products for mass distribution.

Costs are further kept low because the American government subsidises corm production so that it can be sold for less than the cost of producing it. Corn is the main constituent of animal feed today, so cheap corn = cheap meat.

This industrialisation of agriculture has several downsides:

  1. EXPLOITATION and ABUSE of animals – we see several images of animals being kept in atrocious conditions and dying.

  2. Exploitation of workers – battery farm owners are paid very little, and the often illegal migrant workers who pack chickens even less.

  3. The spread of diseases and health problems linked to animals being kept in appalling conditions. Includes children dying of E.coli, and the companies responsible being allowed to carry on producing.

  4. Environmental damage – when cattle and pigs are kept in mass enclosures excrement becomes a pollutant rather than a fertiliser (which would be the case if they were kept in open fields with enough room to graze. Also because corn rather than grass has become the main feed for factory ‘farmed’ animals we have a situation where corn is shipped to meat growing houses, then the meat shipped to consumers, with all the attendant petrol costs, which you wouldn’t have with local food production systems.

Scene Five – The Dollar Menu

Starts off with a low income family shopping at Mcdonald’s – they in fact buy lots of junk food over healthy fresh vegetables because the former is cheaper. The biggest predictor of obesity is income level –

The industry claims a ‘crisis of individual responsibility’ for obesity – but the problem is that we are biologically hard-wired to seek out three tastes – salt, sugar and fat, which are very rare in nature, but are everywhere in modern society thanks to the industrial food industry, so this claim is clearly disingenuous.

The father of poor family has diabetes (his pills cost something in the region of $200 month) and 1 out of 3 people born after the year 2000 in the US will develop early onset diabetes.

Scene Six – In The Grass

Featuring Joel Salatin from Polyface Farms – basically a farm where their livestock eat actual grass and they slaughter them by hand– and have much conditions than your average meet factory – the livestock also manure the fields automatically – basically a sensible, truly efficient farm.

As a contrast, we now take a trip to Smithfield Hog Processing Plant, the largest in the world in North Carolina, where over 30K hogs go through every day, where they treat their workers like their hogs – the workers are drawn from the poorest people and work in a conveyor belt system, sometimes getting covered in feces and blood and developing infections to the extent that finger nails separate from hands.

They effectively use up workers – few of the local population work at the plant, workers are now bused in from 100 miles away, and they also employ illegal immigrants from Mexico (ie people desperate for the money) – who have come to America because of NAFTA which led to cheap US corn flooding into Mexico, putting 1.5 million Mexican corn farmers out of business, who now work illegally for giant meat multinationals under appalling conditions. US meat companies actually actively recruited these workers from Mexico, with adverts and buses laid on.

Of course the government response is to crack down on the illegal immigrants rather than the meat companies.

Scene Seven – Hidden Costs

You wouldn’t want to buy the cheapest car – so why do we apply the same principle to food?

In any case, once you add up the environmental, social and health costs of industrial food, it ends up being far more expensive than locally grown, ethical, organic food.

Back to Joel Salatan who says that although some people make a round trip of 500 miles to get to him, he has no desire to upscale and argues that he can’t do so without compromising the integrity of his business.

This is then contrasted to Stonyfield yoghurts, who are the third biggest yoghurt brand in the states, run on ethical principles.

Like many other ethical companies, these are now owned by a massive international corporation and deal with companies like Walmart – who are stocking more ethical products for economic reasons. The argument for this is simply the impact.

Scene Eight – From Seed to the Supermarket

Back at the turn of the century, the average farmer could feed 6-8 people, now it’s 120 people. The change to farming has been profound – I mean, who sees a farmer anymore.

We now take the inevitable trip to Monstanto Land – who developed both Round Up (a pesticide) and then the Round Up Ready Soya Bean.

In 1996 – 2% of Soya beans grown in the US for Monsanto’s

By 2008 – this had risen to 90%.

Since the 1980s its now legal to patent life, there are now prohibitions on saving seed – when the concept first came about farmers were appalled now it’s just accepted and Monsanto effectively control 90% of Soya production in the US.

Monsanto as a team of private investigators (sometimes ex-military) who visit farmers who save their own seed.

We now take a trip to a farmer who didn’t switch to Monsanto’s GM seed, but his fields are contaminated by Monsanto’s seed because of cross-contamination.

We’re also shown the case study of Monstanto suing a certain ‘seed cleaner’ (used by the 10% of farmers who aren’t GM and save their own seed) who is already in debt to the tune of $25 000 and he hasn’t even been in a court room, and friends of 50 years no longer talk to him for fear of coming under Monstano’s wrath.

The end result is that Monsanto effectively own the Soya Been and they control it from seed to the Supermarket – you have to be in bed with Monstano to be a soya farmer

Scene Nine – The Veil

Covers the revolving door between the Justice Department, the development of seed-patenting law and Monsanto’s Corporate executives – its seems that for the past 25 years the US government has been dominated by people who work for food multinationals.

This is a case of centralised power being used against workers, farmers and ultimately consumers.

This has resulted in legislation which prevents the labelling of GMO products and also criticism of the food industry.

There is now an outline of the legal protections the meat industry has – The most famous case being when Oprah said Mad Cow Disease had meant she didn’t want to eat another Burger – the industry sued her for lose of profit and the case spent 6 years in court and a million dollars in fees – sometimes the industry will sue just to send out a message even if it knows it can’t win.

Scene Ten – Shocks to the System

Basically the food system is precarious – fewer food substances, fewer companies and heavy dependence on petroleum.

The cracks are definitely showing, and every time the public get a glimpse of the truth, they tend to turn their backs on this industry.

The battle against the tobacco industry is the perfect model that illustrates the possibility of breaking monopolistic controls over a system by a few powerful corporations.

Credits

You can vote to change this system three times a day.

Buy from ethical companies who treat workers and animals humanely.

Choose foods that are organic and grown locally and in season, shop in Farmers Markets

Tell the government to enforce food safety standards….

‘You can change the world with every bit’.

See the Food Inc documentary for more information…

The Gender Pay Gap – A Brief Analysis

This chart shows what most of us would regard as a generally positive trend – the decline in the gender pay gap – which is down to 9% for full-time workers, and even lower for part-time workers.

Gender Pay Gap 1 2014

However, there’s a lot more going on than this….

For starters, there is considerable variation by age – with women in their 20s and 30s actually earning more than men in the same age categories, with  a significant pay gap then emerging between older workers.

Gender Pay Gap by Age

The ONS notes that the gender pay gap between workers 40+ is probably down to women taking time off to become primary child carers, which to my mind is pretty bleak – Given the ‘negative’ gender pay gap between younger workers, this suggests women are getting into jobs which will give them the same (or better) wages than men (reflecting their higher educational achievement) but that this is then abruptly reversed when childcare responsibilities fall on the mother rather than the father.

It also seems that women in higher paid jobs lose out more compared to men in lower paid jobs – with the gender pay gap for the highest 10% of earners being near 20%, while it’s nearer 5% for the lowest 10% of earners (so rich women are less equal to rich men than poor women are to poor men, at least if we look purely at income). Of course this will also reflects the gendered age differences in the chart above.

Employment - gender pay gap

However to complicate matters there’s not a straightforward correlation between occupational class and the gender pay gap – it’s actually the traditionally masculine jobs which have the highest gender pay gap, not the highest income ‘professional and managerial’ jobs.

 gender pay gap occupation

There’s various explanations for this larger gender pay gap in traditionally male occupations – It could simply be the later entry of women into such occupations compared to women going into the professions – thus there are fewer older women than older men, so women on average earn less compared to men because older workers earn more than younger. An alternative explanation would be that women who go into these professions are less likely to return them after taking time out to raise children, in which case the question of whether this lack of return is due to gender-barriers, or genuine free-choice would arise. Of course, it’s probably a mixture of all three of these reasons.

Finally, it might be worth exploring what’s going in in Northern Ireland that’s led to such a significant reduction in the gender pay gap….. Whether this is down to social policy or just societal changes I don’t know, drop me a line if you do!

Employment - gender pay gap 1997 to 2014

 

Consuming Life, Zygmunt Bauman – A Summary of Chapter 3

Chapter Three: Consumerist Culture

A brief summary of chapter three, mostly just paraphrased, and basically just my own notes, comments and links to follow!

An influential, widely read and respected fashion handbook, edited by a highly prestigious journal for the autumn–winter 2005 season, offered ‘half a dozen key looks’ ‘for the coming months’ ‘that will put you ahead of the style pack’. This promise was aptly, skilfully calculated to catch the attention: and very skilfully indeed, since in a brief, crisp sentence it managed to address all or almost all anxious concerns and urges bred by the society of consumers and born of consuming life.

In order to belong You have to metonymically identify with the pack, it is not simply enough to follow its rules/ procedures (belonging is not a given!)

The only way to guarantee security is to stay ahead of the pack!
The reference to ‘staying ahead’ is a precaution against the danger of overlooking the moment when the current emblems of ‘belonging’ go out of circulation.
Fashion items come with a use by date – however great your gain from promptly following the call, the gain won’t last forever. In the liquid modern world, slowness means social death. This chimes with pointillist time.
Thirdly you have to make a choice, but you have only a limited range of products to choose from and you have no control over the range of choices!

The major difference which sets consumerist society apart from its productivist predecessor seems to be the reversal of the values attached respectively to duration and transience – consumer society rests on the denial of the values of procrastination and deferred gratification.

The ‘consumerist syndrome’ is all about speed, excess and waste – not only do we rush to acquire things, but we rush to get rid of them too, and because there are so many choices and insecurities, it is rational to hedge your bets (buy three outfits, and only ever where two of them for example).

A consumer society cannot but be a society of excess and profligacy

There are two basic ideas about why society is necessary:

Firstly the Dukheimian/ Hobbesian idea that it is necessary to prevent war

Secondly the Levinas/ Logstrop – that it is necessary in order to make the unconditional conditional (through establishing laws).

The classic scholars worried that if society disappeared we would descend into a war of all against all or become overwhelmed with a sense of moral responsibility but this has not happened because we are taught that now we only need have responsibility for ourselves, not for others.

However, the concerns of previous sociologists assumed that there would be some sense of the social in people’s minds – there isn’t any more…the advent of consumerism has sapped the credibility of both cases – each in a different way, though for the same reason – the expanding process of the dismantling the once comprehensive system of normative regulation. Ever larger chunks of human conduct have been released from explicitly social patterning, supervision and policing, relegating an ever larger set of previously socialized responsibilities back to the responsibility of individual men and women.

As Pierre Bourdieu signalled as long as two decades ago, coercion has by and large been replaced by stimulation, the once obligatory patterns of conduct (duty) by seduction, the policing of behaviour by PR and advertising, and normative regulation by the arousal of new needs and desires.

An intensely and extensively cultivated sentiment of urgency provides individuals and institutions alike with illusionary, though nevertheless quite effective, relief in their struggles to alleviate the potentially devastating consequences of the agonies of choice endemic in the condition of consumer freedom.

Following Aubert….Permanent busyness, with one urgency following another, gives the security of a ‘full life’ or a ‘successful career’, sole proofs of self-assertion in a world from which all references to the ‘beyond’ are absent…. When people take action, they think short-term – of things to be done immediately or in the very near future . . . all too often, action is only an escape from the self, a remedy for the anguish… and the deeper one sinks into the urgency of an immediate task, the further away the anguish stays.

An additional benefit of declaring a constant state if emergency is that  it makes people easier to manage – where work is concerned asset stripping and downsizing keep people in a constant state of needing to be updating their skills sets to look for work.


In a society of consumers and in an era when ‘life politics’ is replacing the Politics that once boasted a capital ‘P’, the true ‘economic cycle’, the one that truly keeps the economy going, is the ‘buy it, enjoy it, chuck it out’ cycle.

The life of a consumer, the consuming life, is not about acquiring and possessing. It is not even about getting rid of what was acquired the day before yesterday and proudly paraded a day later. It is instead, first and foremost, about being on the move.

If the ethical principle of the producing life was the delay of gratification, then the ethical guideline of the consuming life has to be to avoid staying satisfied. For a kind of society which proclaims customer satisfaction to be its sole motive and paramount purpose, a satisfied consumer is neither motive nor purpose – but the most terrifying menace.

Not being satisfied with what one has is crucial for the society of consumers – profit depends on it – and stigma is attached to those who settle for fixed needs or those who sit still, or are happy with who they are – such people are stigmatised as ‘flawed consumers’.

Consumers should be constantly striving to be someone better, or to be someone else altogether, they should always be on the move – and afraid of boredom and stagnation; and to be a good consumer, forgetting is as important as moving on.

Despite consumerism being dressed up as freedom… what is not allowed is the freedom to not change.

Pointillist time is uniquely suited to separating us from the past and helping us forget the future – part of the experience is thus life lived as ‘serial births’ – of life as an unending string of ‘new beginnings’

Lesław Hostyn ski, an insightful analyst of the values of consumer culture, has listed and described a long series of stratagems deployed in the marketing of consumer goods in order to discourage the young (and ever younger) adepts of consumerism from developing a long-term attachment to anything they buy and enjoy.

One such strategy is the replace the old barbie doll scheme through which Mattel promised young consumers they would sell them the next Barbie at a discount if they brought their currently used specimen back to the shop once it was ‘used up’…. Exchanging one Barbie doll for a ‘new and improved’ one leads to a life of liaisons and partnerships shaped and lived after a pattern of rent-purchase.

As Pascal Lardellier suggests, the ‘senti- mental logic’ tends to become ever more saliently consumerist: it is aimed at the reduction of all sorts of risks, the categorization of the items searched for, an effort to define precisely the features of the sought-after partner that can be deemed adequate to the aspirations of the searcher. The underlying conviction is that it is possible to compose the object of love from a number of clearly specified and measurable physical and social qualities and character traits.

Following Erikson…. pointillism  may well be the most salient feature of our times – the desire to forget the past, not be constrained by it, and experience everything in a lifetime – in a carpe diem way, but of course there is not enough time to experience everything and hence…we live in a tyrannical situation.
The individual consequences of extreme hurriedness are overwhelming: both the past and the future as mental categories are threatened by the tyranny of the moment . . . Even the ‘here and now’ is threatened since the next moment comes so quickly that it becomes difficult to live in the present.

A further consequence, examined ny Elzbieta Tarkowska, a prominent chronosociologist, has developed the concept of ‘synchronic humans’, who ‘live solely in the present’ and who ‘pay no attention to past experience or future consequences of their actions’, they live in a presentist culture – a culture which breeds humans who lack commitment to each other.

(As outlined in ‘Liquid Love’) Human bonds nowadays tend to be viewed – with a mixture of rejoicing and anxiety – as frail, easily falling apart and as easy to be broken as they are to tie.

Freedom from commitment is the most valued attribute of the typical relationship in consumer society, freedom to be able to eject a stale relationship is more important than committing.

Allowing another individual into your sphere of intimacy has always been anxiety inducing because others are inherently unpredictable – however modern relationships are different because the principle source of anxiety today pertaining to relationships is the fear of missing out on other relationships – the better highs one might be experiencing with new partners compared to the drudgery of committing to one person forever.

Anxieties no longer arise because of the other they arise because of the possibility of not having to be committed, which means relationships today are constantly judged against what other joys they are preventing us from experiencing (experienced automatically as a kind of opportunity cost).
The internet is the perfect medium for the intimate relationship in consumer society – because it takes little effort to forge relationships and even less to cut them off, the later being achievable at the click of a button.

Electronic (non face to face) relationships allow for a quick cutting off ’emotional ties’ – this ability to cut off ties quickly is what people value the most – and it is this that is the perfect training for life in a market-mediated consumer society – where the disposability of things is valued more highly than their acquisition.

Numerous members of the knowledge classes (who spend a lot of time online) have suggested that the internet offers a viable alternative to the traditional institutions of democracy, which people seem to be decreasingly interested in.

However, political communication online tends to take the form of shouting about one’s virtues – stating that you are for or against something rather than doing anything about it and forming a movement for change – Political Communication online has become fetishised – It enables people to feel as if they are doing something when in fact they are not.

In reality, the internet is an unlimited space which soaks up dissent into a stagnant pool, where dissent is recycled in the knowledge economy of forgetting, recycled as soundbites, while real liquid modern politics is able to go on largely unchallenged.

Bush and Blair were still able to go to war despite significant amounts of virtual protest. The internet sets up a chasm between real politics and citizens (if you can still call them that!)

In the liquid modern society of consumers no identities are gifts at birth, none is ‘given’, let alone given once and for all and in a secure fashion. Identities are projects: tasks yet to be undertaken, diligently performed and seen through to infinitely remote completion.
Even in the case of those identities that pretend and/or are supposed to be ‘given’ and non-negotiable (such as class/ sex/ ethnicity), the obligation to undertake an individual effort to appropriate them and then struggle daily to hold on to them is presented and perceived as the principal requirement and indispensable condition of their ‘givenness’.

Identity is a sentence to  lifelong hard labour. Remember that consumers are driven by the need to ‘commoditize’ themselves – remake themselves into attractive commodities

Two things alleviate the constant stress of having to continually remake oneself… Cloakroom Communities – which are phantom communities where one subjectively feels like one belongs just by being amongst others and Fixed Term communities – where some kind of collective activity takes place but one is free to leave with no consequence.

Both types of community have two things in common – firstly, the primary means whereby you indicate your belonging is through shopping – for products which display that you are part of the group, and secondly there is the absolute right to exit without penalty. In both of these communities the idea of the integrated self is a myth.

It seems as if the only types of identity community are temporary and based on buying in and then discarding, identities are short lived and experiential – you adorn yourself with that which is necessary and invest short term into the moment – then you move on.

The problem with all of the above is that (A) you’ll wake up with the same old self after every session, only older and poorer after every such session, and (B) this means of constructing and expressing the self denies everyone else recognition – because you can always exit at the drop of a hat.

It is as if we have constructed a social world where the only means of belonging comes with an in-price (through consumption) and will only ever last for the short-term – so you have to continually put a lot of effort into getting ready to take part in these short-term (fictitious communities) (NB – He doesn’t actually give any examples of these communities!). Identities constructed online are carnival identities – to be taken up temporarily and discarded whenever one is bored with them….

The ‘community’ of internauts seeking substitute recognition does not require the chore of socializing and is thereby relatively free from risk, that notorious and widely feared bane of the offline battles for recognition. In the internet-mediated identification game, the Other is, so to speak, disarmed and detoxified. The Other is reduced by the internaut to what really counts: to the status of the instrument of one’s own self-endorsement.

All of this comes from being brought up in Pointillist Time —

Daniel Miller’s Stuff – A Summary

Stuff Daniel MillerA summary of Stuff by the anthropologist Daniel Miller

The premise of this book is that things make people as much as people make things. Following Bordieu, Miller argues that individuals learn to become members of society, not through formal education, but because they are inculcated into the general habits and dispositions of that society through the way they interact in their everyday practices, which is already pre-structured in the objects they find around them.

For example, in modern society, we grow up to think of cars as being a normal part of life not just because of the fact of cars themselves, because so much of our environment is shaped around cars (the layout of cities and houses for example), and thus few of us ever seriously question the place of the car in our society.

Miller is also at paints to point out that it is not just in more materialist cultures where stuff is important in framing people’s life experiences – things are just as important in those cultures which have many fewer material items – even in Aboriginal cultures stuff is intricately bound up with the the processes of human communication and the construction of self and society. (He is an Anthropologist after all!)

For Miller, the primary process in society is social interaction, or communication – and things are part of this process, not separate from it (things don’t precede and shape culture like crude Marxism suggests and things are not just made to perform functions that have been predetermined by previous generations) – hence the concept of ‘material culture’, things are intimately bound up with the processes of identity construction and boundary maintenance, in all cultures.

Following Hegel and to a lesser extent Marx, material culture develops (I think for Miller ‘evolve would be the wrong word) through a dialectical process that is contradictory, paradoxical ambiguous and full of doubt. The agentic process of ‘doing material culture’ is a means whereby some people empower themselves, but the process of making and using things can disempower others, and things themselves become objectified and (almost?) take on an agency of their own, developing a kind of power over us. In this later aspect of his theory of material culture Miller draws on Gofmann to argue that the real power of things lie in their ability to frame our view of the world – certain objects come to have power over us because we are so used to them – something which Miller refers to as the ‘humility of things’

So what you see in any material culture (which is all culture) is people using stuff to facilitate communication, and as a result some people become empowered, but at the same time, this stuff becomes objectified and constrains people in unanticipated ways – leading to a range of responses (people always have agency).

Miller gives the classic example of the Kula Ring (a classic example in anthropology which I won’t repeat here) -his point is that the goods in this trading ring don’t have to be traded, they are traded as a means to facilitate social communication – and some people get wealthy through participating – however, the fact that the trading rings exists means that anyone who doesn’t participate (and some people choose not to) risks being branded a witch.

Elsewhere he analyses the ‘normal’ clothing strategies in London as a blasé response to a material culture in which there is too much choice – London is one of the shopping capitals of the world for fashion, and yet look around the streets and so many people choose very similar looking clothes – (blues, blacks and greys!). Millers theory seems to be that fashion is used by some people to empower themselves (women in particular, although personally I don’t buy this, excuse the pun) – but the majority of us fashion appears as bewildering and so we revert to choosing not to choose by wearing very similar clothes to everyone else.

Elsewhere he focuses on housing – In modernist council housing, which was very much imposed on the poor, people feel a sense of alienation because it was built for them and has since become associated with a sense of drugs and crime – however, people try to undo this sense of alienation by decorating them – but mainly couples – because of a combination of woman providing the aesthetics and men providing the DIY – where singles live together, hardly any changes have been made.

He also says that he feels inferior to his own early 1900s house – because it is a period property which he feels he can never decorate appropriately – objects have agency in some way, power over the individual. Simply having a nice house doesn’t lead you to a utopic state he says.

In Conclusion – what I like about the book…

  1. Well, if you want depth you can’t really fault anthropological methods – the on the ground research, using Pobs and interviews over several months in each case does reveal the complex ways people use material objects in a variety of ways. These methods are useful in understanding how people use stuff!

  2. I also buy the whole material culture existing everywhere argument too – I think he’s correct to remind us that less material cultures are still material

  3. And, yes he’s right in that stuff can empower us – it is employed socially – part of the fabric of social life, and yes it does create opportunities for some and constrain others.

In conclusion – what I don’t like about the book…

I guess I’m uncomfortable about the fact that all of the above is where it stops – the point is to elucidate on a theory of material culture rooted in in-depth observations – there’s no real critical analysis – despite the fact Miller says he’s left-leaning at one point.

I’m especially uncomfortable with the chapter on housing – where he seems to be suggesting that couples in council housing have more material freedom in relation to their house than he does in his period property, and I don’t buy the idea that shopping is a means for people who are traditionally marginalised to empower themselves.

I think the whole study needs relating more to the amount of money people have – shopping for sure, is probably liberating for the wealthy, but is unlikely to be so for people who cannot afford to shop.

Also, I think we need more of an objective position on what liberation viz stuff actually means – if you can empower yourself with less stuff – such as a monk who has expert knowledge and perceived rights to access and interpret and manipulate scarce religious symbols, I think it’s fair to say you’re a lot more liberated than an uneducated 40 year old house wife who needs to spend £1500 a month on clothes to feel empowered, and is about to regret that pre-nup she signed because her high-income earning husband’s on the verge of upgrading to a younger model.

Is any one who thinks this  woman is liberated an idiot?
Is any one who thinks this woman is liberated an idiot?

Sociological Perspectives on Modern Apprenticeships in the UK

The material below is relevant to the Vocationalism topic within the Sociology of Education and  should help students to answer essay questions such as ”Evaluate Sociological Perspectives on the role of Vocational Education”, or various questions on contemporary education policies, as well as hopefully just being of general interest.

What are Modern Apprenticeships?

An apprenticeship is a job with training which allows an individual to earn while they learn, whilst gaining a nationally recognised qualification. Apprentices aged 19 and over are entitled to the National Minimum Wage at the same level as regular employees, but 16-18 year olds can be paid less – £3.30 an hour (from October 2015) compared to £3.87 an hour for regular employees. Of course an apprentice aged 19 or over would probably be paid less than a qualified person the same age, given that they are less experienced.

Apprenticeships are available for anyone aged 16 or over, but the most common ages for people starting them is 16-24. Apprenticeships must last for a minimum of one year, but can take up to five years to complete.

There are three main levels of Apprenticeship:

– Intermediate apprenticeship (level 2)

– Advanced apprenticeship (level 3)

– Higher and degree apprenticeships (level 4 or above).

Apprenticeships are tied into more traditional vocational qualifications – anyone undertaking a level two apprenticeship will work towards a related city or guilds or BTEC qualification, while anyone doing a higher level apprenticeship will work towards a degree.

Apprenticeships are available in over 170 industries the most popular apprenticeships in 2014 by sector being:

  • Health and social care
  • Business administration
  • Management
  • Hospitality and catering
  • Customer service
  • Children’s care learning and development
  • Retail
  • Construction skills
  • Engineering
  • Hairdressing

So in short apprenticeships are basically on the job training leading to a qualification, and besides saying this, it’s impossible to give a representative account of what a ‘typical’ apprenticeship looks like given the huge variation.

How many people are doing apprenticeships?

  • Since 2010 there have been over 2 million apprenticeship starts – so more than 2 million people in the country (unless they’ve emigrated since) have either done them or are doing them.

  • In 2013-14 there were 500 000 apprenticeship starts

  • In 2013-14 850 000 people were earning and learning while doing an apprenticeship

  • There are typically over 25000 apprenticeships being advertised online at any one time.

Why have apprenticeships grown so quickly?

I put it down to three things –

  • Underlying historical demand for vocational training courses as opposed to academic learning – The UK has had a large NEET population (16-24 year olds not in employment, education or training) for over a decade now, which suggests there has been a significant demand for alternative pathways to employment other than courses offered in colleges.

  • The recent government ‘pincer movement’ on young people – 18 year olds are now (since 2015) required to be in some kind of training or employment, and combined with the government clamp down on benefits for young people, this means they have fewer options.

  • Government support for employers – The government invested £1.5 billion in apprenticeships in 2014-15 and from 2016 will exempt employers from paying National Insurance Contributions for under 25 year olds. Basically government support makes it cheaper to hire apprentices.

What are the benefits of apprenticeships?

Firstly, looked at statistically, they seem to offer economic benefits to most apprentices, employers and the economy more generally – Mainly taken from the ONS web site….

  • 90% of apprentices stay in employment after the apprenticeship has finished.

  • 70% stay on with the same employer.

  • 19% of level three apprentices advance on to Higher Education.

  • Businesses report an increase in productivity of £214/ week when they hire apprentices (which effectively means they cost the average company nothing given the low wages!).

  • Small businesses get a £1500 grant towards the start up costs of New Apprenticeships if they employ 16-24 year olds. (Any training costs for 16-19 year olds are, possibly obviously, covered by the government.)

  • For every pound of government investment in apprenticeships, the economy gets £18 – £28 back (estimates vary).

  • Apprenticeships were estimated to contribute £34 billion to the UK economy in 2014

Secondly, they diversify the education system – offering a much greater choice of training opportunities by a much wider range of providers than Further and Higher education providers could ever hope to provide.

Thirdly (but I would need to look into this further to verify it) they seem to be offering a very real alternative for young people who would otherwise be NEET because there is a distinct correlation between the increase in apprenticeships (mostly taken up by 16-24 year olds) and the recent decrease in the number of NEETs. (Of course correlation doesn’t necessarily mean causation, but in this case I think it’s pretty safe to conclude that it does!)

What are the downsides of Apprenticeships?

You wouldn’t think there were any judging by the ONS site, but if you dif around there are those who voice some legitimate criticisms of Modern Apprenticeships

Firstly: Apprenticeships might really about firms getting cheap labour:

Kathy Glover from The New Left Project points out that it’s cheaper for an employer to hire an apprentice than someone qualified – Glover cites one case study of an estate agent who sacked most of their staff in order to replace them with cheaper apprentices. Not only is this bad for the experienced, sacked staff, it’s difficult to see how a cohort of apprentices can learn anything without any more experienced people to.

There is also some evidence that the Engineering sector in the UK is preferring cheaper apprentices over already qualified people.

Also, the number of in-work training programmes have reduced by about 250 000 in recent years, which suggests that work places are simply shifting their training onto apprenticeships – meaning the government pays for it rather than them paying for it, in which case apprenticeships aren’t about more training, there just about the tax payer paying for it, not the employer.

Secondly: Apprenticeships don’t necessarily lead on to real jobs:

Firms are not obliged to take apprentices on full time after their training period and it’s cheaper for an employer to hire a string of apprentices for one-two years at a time rather than to take someone on.

The rapid expansion of more apprenticeships might even harm the wider job market in certain sectors – Glover cites UK manufacturing, which despite declining employment in recent years, has greatly increased the number of apprenticeships – BAE systems, for example, has expanded its apprenticeships programme by 25%. This must mean decreased demand for already qualified people.

Thirdly: Apprenticeships are really about saving the government money

Kathy Glover points out that Apprenticeships allow the government to cut costs because it is much cheaper for them to pay a couple of thousand pounds or so to an employer for a year rather than to have a young person on unemployment benefit.

The problem with this is that it might mean that some people on apprenticeships are worse off than when they were on benefits. She uses the case study of Michael, 16, from Liverpool, employed at a large charity shop through the retail apprenticeship scheme to illustrate this:

“I work 37.5 hours a week for £100 a week with around 20 other staff, most of who are on some sort of work placement or volunteers. My auntie, who I live with, has lost around £70 a week in benefits due to me going on this apprenticeship because I’m now classed as being in full-time employment. The council has done things like deduct £3 per week from her housing benefit which I’ve been told I must now pay. I don’t get any separate travel expenses so I’ve also got to pay for the two hours travel per day out of my wages. By me going on this apprenticeship we’re worse off than when I was in college so I’m considering leaving the scheme and going back into education.”

Fourthly, Modern Apprenticeships remain heavily gender stereotyped

For example, females take up 94% of positions in early years childcare but only 1 and 2% respectively in construction and plumbing. All other sectors also conform to gender stereotypes.

Average wages for apprenticeships also vary between males and females – for males the average is £186 compared to females who earn on average £147 per week (2007 figures). This is because the sectors where females dominate are the lowest paid (such as early years childcare), and have little scope for career progression, so are mainly level 2 and 3 apprenticeships. The sectors where men dominate tend to offer apprenticeships which are higher paid and offer greater career progression, onto level 4 apprenticeships for example – in sectors such as engineering and IT.

Fifthly, in some sectors the training you receive may be of a very low standard

Only 22% of apprenticeships in customer service and 13% in hospitality and catering are offered at level 3, and a retail or customer service needs to only complete a minimum of two hours training a week.

Tess Lanning of the IPPR suggests that this is because Government targets to increase the number of apprenticeships, combined with a lack of interest from many employers, have led to a watering down of what constitutes an apprenticeship. New Labour widened apprenticeships to include level 2 qualifications, which evidence suggests have little to no value in the labour market, and opened them up to adults, meaning they have lost their purpose as a tool to prepare young people for entry into the labour market.

Apprenticeships: Should you do one?

I guess this depends on what sector you’re looking at – If you’re interested in Engineering then it’s probably worth spending a bit more time researching your options than if you were interested in going into retail or hospitality…

The Apprenticeships Self-Development Pack for young people is designed by the government for you to work through to see if an Apprenticeship is for you – Warning – This links pretty much exclusively to the government’s own propaganda videos about how great apprenticeships are and oozes ‘careers advisory document’ out of every pore, and yes there is the dreaded skills assessment exercise at one point too.

Ultimately it’s down to you whether you do an apprenticeship or not, but whether or not you do one, keep the following question in mind – Assuming university isn’t for you, and assuming you want/ need a job, then do you actually have the choice not to do some kind of apprenticeship, or have you been steered into it by social forces?

Further Reading/ Sources used

Apprenticeships: Fact Sheet for Parents (the best introductory summary sheet I’ve found on the topic but warning – complete lack of critical content!)

Facts, Figures and Statistics about Apprenticeships – Does what is says – The main source I’ve used for any statistical information above.

The Youtube Apprenticeship Channel – featuring apprentices and employers talking about the advantages of apprentiships (warning – complete lack of critical content!)#

Further Education and Skills: Learner Participation and Outcomes

Also see links in the document above.

Marketisation – bringing out the worst in the middle classes

This documentary (The School Scandal: Playing the System, BBC1 August 2015) shows the lengths parents will go to in order to get their children into the top performing state schools in London.

Some of the schools shown have 10 applications for every place, and catchment areas of just a few hundred meters, meaning competition for these places is fierce to say the least.

It seems that middle class parents are basically prepared to commit fraud in order to make applications to the best schools, demonstrated by the following two strategies:

  1. Renting accommodation temporarily in the school catchment area while still having a main residence outside of the catchment area (this is fraudulent btw!)
  2. ‘Pew jumping’ (a term I’d never heard before) – where parents attend church for a year or two just to get their kids into a church school – here a vicar with a spread sheet demonstrates that at one point 11 out of his 23 church attendants basically stopped attending straight after school offers day – clearly they weren’t there to worship a god!

The show follows two case studies of parents trying to get their kids into their local schools – depressingly we see the screamingly middle class parents (dad’s a doctor, mum teaches in a private school) breaking out the champers as they get their child into their first choice local school, while the not so well-off (but by no means poor!) parents fail to get their child into their local church school, despite the fact that the mother had attended the church for 23 years.

The documentary ends up lamenting the fact that the system is clearly unfair – and it’s likely to carry on that way because to date there have been no prosecutions for middle class parents defrauding the system.

NB – This isn’t the only way middle class parents try to reproduce class inequality…. See here for an overview of how this works in the grander scheme of things…

Sociological Theories of Consumerism and Consumption

consumerism and consumptionMany of us spend a lot of time thinking about the things we might consume, and how we might consume them, and we do this not only as individuals, but as friends, partners, and families, and so intensely do we think about our consumption practices that the things we buy and the experiences we engage which are linked to them become invested with emotional significance and central (crutches) to our very identities.

The consumption of goods and services is so thoroughly embedded into our ordinary, everyday lives that many aspects of its practice go largely unquestioned – not only the environmental and social consequences have got lost on the way, but also they very notion that consumption itself is a choice, and that, once our basic needs are met, consumption in its symbolic sense is not necessary and thus is itself a choice.

In sociological terms one might say that contemporary reflexivity is bounded by consumption – that is to say that most of the things most of us think about in life – be they pertaining to self-construction, relationship maintenance, or instrumental goal-attainment, involve us making choices about (the strictly unnecessary) things we might consume.

Even though I think that any attempt to achieve happiness through consumption will ultimately result in misery, I would hardly call anyone who tries to do so stupid – because all they are going is conforming to a number of recent social changes which have led to our society being based around historically high levels of consumption.

There are numerous explanations for the growth of a diverse consumer culture and thus the intense levels of unnecessary symbolic consumption engaged in by most people today – the overview taken below is primarily from Joel Stillerman (2015) who seems to identify five major changes which underpin recent changes in consumption since WW2.

The first explanation looks to the 1960s counter culture which despite having a reputation for being anti-consumerist, was really more about non-conformity, a rejection of standardised mass-consumption and promoting individual self expression. Ironically, the rejection of standardised consumption became a model for the niche-marketing of today, much of which is targeted towards people who wish to express themselves in any manor of ways – through clothing, music, foodism, craft beers, or experiences. Some members of the counter culture in fact found profit in establishing their own niche-consumer outlets, with even some Punks (surely the Zenith of anti-consumerism?!) going on to develop their own clothing brands.

A second discussion surrounding the normalisation of consumerism centres around changes in the class structure, following the work Bourdieu and Featherstone (2000). Basically these theorists see the intensification of consumption as being related to the emergence of the ‘new middle classes’ as a result of technological innovations and social changes leading to an increase in the number of people working in jobs such as the media and fashion.

Mike Featherstone focuses on what he calls the importance of ‘cultural intermediaries’ (who mainly work in the entertainment and personal care industries) who have adopted an ‘ethic of self-expression through consumption’ – in which they engage in self-care in order to improve their bodies and skills in order to gain social and economic capital.

The values of these early adopters has gradually filtered down to the rest of the population and this has resulted in the ‘aestheticisation of daily life’ – in which more and more people are now engaged in consumption in order to improve themselves and their social standing – as evidenced in various fitness classes, plastic surgery, and a whole load of ‘skills based’ pursuits such as cookery classes (yer signature bake if you like).

A third perspective focuses on individualisation – as advanced by the likes of Zygmunt Bauman and Ulrich Beck.

ishop

In their view, after World War II, universal access to higher education and social welfare benefits in Europe led to the erosion of traditional sources of identity provided by family, traditional authority, and work. Today, individuals are ‘free’ from the chains of external sources of identity, but this freedom comes at a price. Individuals are now compelled to give meaning to their lives without the certainty that they are making the right choice that in the past had come from tradition. Individuals are forced to be reflexive, to examine their own lives and to determine their own identities. In this context, consumption may be a useful vehicle for constructing a life narrative that gives focus and meaning to individuals.

As I’ve outlined in numerous blog posts before, Bauman especially sees this is a lot of work for individuals – a never ending task, and a task over which they have no choice but to engage in (actually I disagree here, individuals do have a choice, it’s just not that easy to see it, or carry it through!).

Fourthly, Post-modern analyses of consumption focus on the increasing importance of individuals to consumption. Building on the work of Lytoard etc. Firat and Venkatesh (1995) argue that changes to Western cultures have led to the erosion of modernist ideas of progress, overly simplified binary distinctions like production and consumption and the notion of the individual as a unified actor. They suggest that in contemporary societies production and consumption exist in a repeating cycle and retail cites and advertiser have increasingly focussed on producing symbols which individuals consume in order to construct identities.

These changes have led to increasing specialising of products and more visually compelling shopping environments, and F and V argue that these changes are liberating for individuals and they seek meaning and identity through consumption, which they can increasingly do outside of markets.

Fifthly – other researches have looked at the role of subcultures in contemporary society, where individuals consume in order to signify their identity as part of a group, and doing so can involve quite high levels of consumption, even if these groups appear quite deviant (McAlexander’s 1995 study of Harley Davidson riders looks interesting here, also Kozinet’s study of Star Trek fans).

Something which draws on numbers 3,4 and 5 above is the concept of consumer tribes (developed by Cova et al 2007) which are constantly in flux, made up by different individuals whose identities are multiple, diverse and playful – individuals in fact may be part of many tribes and enter and exit them as they choose.

Finally, Stillerman points out that underlying all of the above are two important background trends

  • Firstly, there are the technological changes which made all of the above possible – the transport links and the communications technologies.
  • Secondly there is the (often discussed) links to the global south as a source of cheap production.

Very finally I’m going to add in one more thing to the above – underlying the increase in and diversification of consumption is the fact that time has sped up – in the sense that fashions change faster than ever and products become obsolete faster than ever – hence putting increasing demands on people to spend more time and money year on year to keep up on the consumer treadmill….

So there you have it – there are numerous social trends which lie behind the increase in and diversification of consumption, so the next time you think you’re acting as an individual when you’re getting your latest tattoo, maybe think again matey!

Related Posts 

Consuming Life (Bauman, 2007) – A Summary of Chapter One

 

If you like this sort of thing – then why not my book?

Early Retirement Strategies for the Average Income Earner, or A Critique of Curiously Ordinary Life of the Everyday Worker-Consumer

Available on iTunes, Kobo, and Barnes and Noble – Only £0.63 ($0.99)

Retirement Cover5

Also available on Amazon, but for $3.10 because I’d get a much lower cut if I charged less!

On giving up screens, meditating, and the importance of ‘not doing’

Because of my slight obsession with Forest Gardens and compost heated showers (and LOTS more on those later) I’ve been using the Internet more than usual recently and it’s definitely having a negative impact on my state of mind – I’ve been feeling less in control of my life and distracted. It’s not just the lame personal advertising (and if I’ve just bought something, no I probably don’t want a duplicate immediately afterwards!) but also the distraction to other places, the Pointillism to coin a phrase used by Zygmunt Bauman – I start somewhere and end up somewhere else…. Fine if I’m allowing myself time to do this, but not if I have a purpose in mind first.

The last descreen/ meditation period I did was back in January of this year, and when I contrast my state of mind now to how I was back then when I was meditating 4 times a day, I was so much more centred : my basic rules were no screens in the morning or evening, except a quick email check, or if writing something specific. No idle surfing, no watching TV over dinner, and then basically an evening routine which went something like:

  • Eat dinner
  • Tidy
  • Meditate
  • Read if you must, preferably about Buddhism
  • Yoga
  • Meditate

Obviously I’m not against the use of the internet or screens, I am well aware that connectivity is necessary and even advantageous in my line of work, and the net’s great for new ideas, speed of access to info and the dreaded self-promotion. However I defo need to restrict it because it encourages all of the following negative traits:

  1. It leaves no real time for actual people (not that I’m that into people anyway)

  2. It encourages me to take a superficial approach to knowledge rather than a deep approach

  3. It scatters my mind, it pulverizes my attention into tiny moments, leaving me adrift in an anomic sea of montage.

  4. It exposes me to the great evil empire of advertising.

(Actually reading that lot perhaps I should just disconnect altogether?!?)

Because of the extreme negative traits uncontrolled net use encourages in me, I’ve developed the following guidelines to restrict my usage of it, and in order to promote mindful living! By screens below I really mean ‘net use’ – (I’m currently writing this off line, so this wouldn’t count for example).

  1. Remember the ideal of the concentrated Buddha – Remember that I don’t need this internet shit!

  2. Limit the amount of time online – Structure my day so it begins and ends without screens, and live the majority of time off-screen. This actually easier said than done given that my job involves a lot of screen use, so all I’ve got left is to make sure that the vast majority of time not at work is spent off-screen. To this end I’m endeavoring to check personal emails no more than twice a day (and respond to them) and try and have 30 mins of screen time in the evenings and at wknds max. In the holidays I’m going to try for 3/4 days totally offline.

  3. Before going online I must have a clear purpose, a list of specific tasks I want to fulfill. I’m also going to time my usage to keep it down.

  4. When online only have one window open at a time, unless I’m specifically cutting and pasting/ adapting.

  5. Switch off PC and iPad at the end of the day and keep in the office, not the bedroom or living room.

Having written this, I feel more mindful already, and if yer reading this online, then see you not so soon in the future…

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

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