Friday, 25 July 2008

Fantasy Islands

By Mark Featherstone

As a sociologist of utopias, currently engaged in surveying Zygmunt Bauman’s work on liquidity and globalisation, I was interested to read Oliver Burkeman’s ‘Fantasy Islands’ article in last week’s Guardian. I can only imagine that if Bauman himself had read the article he would have found further evidence of the reality of liquid modernity in Burkeman’s examples of fantastic utopias built to travel the world’s oceans. How else can we interpret tall tales of floating cities but as materialisations of the very trends that Bauman discusses in his work on the global elites who surf through life and try to avoid any contract or relationship that might tie them down for any length of time?

Burkeman’s article tells the story of the fantastic freedom ship, and of Norman Nixon, the CEO of Freedom Ship Inc, the company which proposes to build this floating city capable of housing 60,000 people. If we bracket out knowledge of Bauman’s old socialist critique of the liquid society for a moment, the obvious utopianism of the freedom ship resides in the way in which it engages with fears of climate change, flooding, and the watery world that may await us in the 21st century. Imagine if climate change caused various global cities, such as New York and London, to flood. For the rich inhabitants of these now no-man’s lands, freedom ship style utopias would offer the perfect escape route. What is more, the inhabitants of these new utopias would never have to worry about further floods, since the point of the freedom ship is that it is water-born. Although this catastrophic scenario cannot fail to put one in mind of various cinematic dystopias, such as Kevin Costner’s Mad Max update Waterworld, it is too easy to fall into the trap of thinking that the freedom ship simply trades off mythological fears of biblical floods. On the contrary, the idea of the freedom ship as eco-topia speaks to the very real fear of flood present in the post-Katrina world. In the case of the New Orleans catastrophe what separated the haves from the have nots was the ability to flee to higher ground. Is this not exactly what the freedom ship promises those rich enough to buy a residential unit on board?

Burkeman suggests that this is the case because he relates his discussion of Nixon’s freedom ship to the case of Harvard School students Kiduck Kim and Christian Stayner who proposed a similar solution to possible future flooding of New Orleans. According to the Harvard Grads, the best way to prevent a future Katrina-style catastrophe would be to transform New Orleans into a floating city. Although we should, of course, support such utopian schemes, regardless of how unlikely they are to ever materialise, we have to wonder who exactly would make it on-board the floating city, since it is unlikely that the new construction would be able to carry the entire population of the landed city, even though that population has decreased by almost 60% since the deluge in August 2005. Again, we approach the other side of the floating eco-topias or fantasy islands Burkeman discusses, which is that these places are also libertarian utopias, where the rich have no social responsibility for the poor, and do not have to bother thinking about their neighbours. Moreover, it is not only that the new eco-topias have no need for taxation, but that they also avoid the messy side effects of leaving the poor to rot which continue to plague landed cities – think rising crime, enormous incarceration rates, and neighbourhoods characterised by fear and insecurity - by simply barring the poor access to the ship in the first place. A world without the poor – the rich man’s dream, even if it is probably the capitalist’s worst nightmare.

But before rightists leap to the conclusion that the new eco-topias could potentially kill two birds with one stone by offering to solve the problem of eco-catastrophe and social dis-order, let us consider Burkeman’s final example, New Utopia, which resides somewhere in the Caribbean, but has its head office in Florida. According to Burkeman this fantasy islands, ruled over by self-proclaimed aristocrat Prince Lazarus Long, has been investigated by the American Security and Exchange Commission and declared a fraudulent internet scheme set on exploiting those rich and stupid enough to think they can buy their way out of the messy reality of human society.

However, regardless of whether the various fantasy islands Burkeman discusses are fraudulent schemes or honest fantasies, they rely on the naivety of their potential inhabitants in the important respect that it is not possible for anybody to escape responsibility for other people in the age of globalisation where we are all so completely inter-connected. Bauman makes this point in many of his books – the radical inter-relatedness of everybody under conditions of globalisation means that we are all responsible for everybody else and that this enormous responsibility is precisely what generates the fantasy of escape in not only the world’s selfish individuals, but also everybody else who cannot but be responsible for the miseries of the global poor. This is why, even if Burkeman’s utopias become material reality, concrete examples of the selfish individualism Bauman talks about in his books on the liquid society, they will always remain nothing more than fantasy islands.

Bring back mothers?

By Emma Head

Sociologists have long been interested in the transition to motherhood. Perhaps the best known study of this important time in a woman’s life was Anne Oakley’s work Becoming a Mother (1981), based on in-depth interviews she conducted with women in the 1970s. Earlier this month (July 2008) the Modern Motherhood conference in London focused on first-time motherhood and reported the findings of two research projects, The Making of Modern Motherhoods project led by Professor Rachel Thomson and Dr Mary Jane Kehily (Open University) and Becoming a Mother project led by Professors Wendy Hollway (Open University) and Ann Phoenix (Thomas Coram Research Unit at the Institute of Education). Throughout the day various contributors made the point that while politicians and policy documents now tend to refer to the gender-neutral ‘parenting’, this doesn’t reflect the social reality as the bulk of caring for children continues to be carried out by mothers.

This is a point taken up in a new report from the National Families and Parenting Institute (NFPI) titled Listening to Mother: Making Britain Mother-friendly. The report states that “The language of parenting has not always equalised the relationship between men and women: it has sometimes masked inequalities which have not been properly thought through or tackled”. The NFPI report goes on to argue that talking about ‘parenting’ in such a generalised way obscures the particular needs of mother, such as the needs for support services in the period immediately after childbirth. Britain has a shortage of midwives and a review of NHS maternity services has identified “serious flaws” in care, including a lack of support for mothers who have given birth. The numbers of health visitors, a group who provide support and advice to new mothers, are also in decline. The report identifies the way that the transition to motherhood has a far greater effect on the lives of women, than becoming a father has on men.

So how important is language? Is it time to stop talking about ‘parents’ and to give fuller recognition to the ways that the roles of mothers and fathers do differ in contemporary Britain. Or would an emphasis on mothers serve to perpetuate the difficulties women are facing in getting men to take on more caring tasks and also be exclusionary to those fathers who are increasingly involved in the care of small children?

At Keele, the motherhood and parenthood agenda is a hot topic: modules on the changing nature of the family and parenting relationships are on offer at levels 2 and 3 on the undergraduate programme, as well as modules on parenting and consumer culture. We also offer advanced Sociology of the Family as part of our Masters' in Research in Sociology.

In our research, there are a number of activites relating to the shaping of modern motherhood and parenting: Lydia Martens has an ongoing interest in this field, with specific reference to the ways consumer cultures shape motherhood, babyhood and children; Emma Head is also working on parenting styles and motherhood; the two of them, with Rebecca Leach, are developing a new project in this field. Lydia has recently been awarded (with Pauline Maclaran in Marketing at Keele) an ESRC seminar series on Mothers, Markets and Consumption.

Thursday, 10 July 2008

Food waste on the agenda

By Emma Head

Food waste is on the news agenda: Gordon Brown wants to ensure that households stop wasting food at a time when food prices are on the increase. Around 18% of food bought by British households is estimated to end up in the bin rather than eaten. This is not the first time a government has urged the public to be more thoughtful over food consumption. During the second world war posters urged people to make use of leftovers.

In the current fight against food waste, BOGOFs (buy one get one free offers) and 3 for 2s are being seen as a particular problem. This is a concern that has been raised by Steve Webb, Liberal Democrat Shadow Environment Secretary and a feature in the Guardian recommends avoiding such offers as one tactic to cut down on food waste.

A few years ago I interviewed a young woman called Angela, who lived with her two year old daughter in a deprived area of a large city. I asked her to talk about where she did her food shopping and how she found managing her household budget. She told me she didn't really do a big food shop, as she didn't have enough money for this. In fact, she often missed meals as she had to prioritise feeding her daughter. Studies of families living through hard times throughout the twentieth century have tended to find that when money is tight family members usual get fed in the following order - father, children, mother. Sometimes Vicky got help with her food shopping from her Grandmother, who would look out for offers in the supermarket and on a weekly basis would bring her the 'free' items. So for Vicky, 3 for 2s and BOGOFs weren't about waste or global food shortages but had other meanings. They gave a reason for her grandmother to visit her and broke up the monotony of her day; they showed her that her Grandmother was thinking about her and her daughter; and they provided something unexpected to eat in a diet that didn't vary much.

Food is being wasted on a massive scale, but we need to ensure that any strategies to try and cut down on wastage don’t impact too heavily on those who are already struggling to feed themselves and their families adequately.

Emma Head is Lecturer in Sociology at Keele University. Her research explores lone parenting, work (paid and unpaid) care and motherhood, especially in the contexts of poverty, inequality and social exclusion. She teaches modules on the Sociology of Work and Research Methods.

Wednesday, 9 July 2008

Knife crime in the news

By Helen Wells
Knife crime has again dominated the news this week as the number of teenagers killed by knives in London since the start of the year reaches 18. A review of news coverage about knife crime from just one day this week reveals a variety of different solutions to the problem being proposed across the Government, opposition, campaign groups and the media itself. Ideas include situational crime prevention, early intervention, and general deterrence and, as such, demonstrate a variety of different assumptions about how and why crime happens and can be prevented from happening. However, there is also some scepticism about what the statistics are ‘really’ telling us about the problem.

David Cameron suggests that prison is the answer for anyone found carrying a knife without good cause. He says “The Government should say not just that there is a presumption you will be prosecuted if you carry a knife, but that there will be a presumptions that you will go to jail. It is not a minor offence. There is no excuse for carrying a knife when you walk out of your door.” However, he also suggests that the breakdown of family life has played a part in the current “epidemic”, and suggests that, as part of his Knife Crime Action Plan, “family measures” should be combined with a clamp down on school discipline and a National Citizens Service scheme – much like national service – for 16 year olds. (The Sun, 7th July 2008)

Cherie Blair, in her role as the Chair of the Street Weapons Commission told the Daily Telegraph that she believes “that there are no quick fixes to solve the problems of gun and knife violence in Britain.” She cautioned that no single policy would “reverse the trend of young people carrying weapons…but an effective response will need action from a wide range of organisations - from central government, the police, local authorities, schools, communities and individuals.” The report of the Street Weapons Commission (link) recommends “rigorous action by the police through intelligence led targeting of 'impact players’, focussing on weapon crime 'hotspots’, and preventing criminal gangs from operating, and so helping remove the glamour and financial rewards of criminality [as well as] more support for voluntary and community groups working on the ground with vulnerable young people”. It, too, believes a combination of enforcement prevention is the answer: “Enforcement has a crucial preventative role in itself that needs to be acknowledged. All ways of dealing with knife and gun crime have an important role to play and there is more to do through all means of tackling the problem - diversion, support and sanction.” (Daily Telegraph, 7th July 2008)

Other reports suggested that hospital and school employees had begun to demand body armour to protect them amid fears of stabbings by members of the public. The Daily Express claimed there has been a “stampede” from doctors, nurses and teachers when they were offered protective vests by a private company. (Daily Express, 7th July 2008)

Elsewhere, suggestions have been made that we need to know more about the problem before we can hope to solve it. Jacqui Smith (Home Secretary) has suggested that hospital staff should be compelled to inform police when patients are treated for stab wounds in the same way that they have to report gunshot wounds. She said that this would help to establish the true scale of knife crime in Britain amid concern that many offences go unreported. (Daily Telegraph, 7th July 2008)

Also sceptical about our level of knowledge about knife crime are most police officers, according to a ‘think-tank report’ reported by the Daily Telegraph. 80% of police officers apparently think that knife crime has got worse in the last five years. The Telegraph reports that “Its findings are in stark contrast with the British Crime Survey, which states that the level of knife crime has remained stable in recent years.”

Of crucial importance here is the fact that the British Crime Survey does not include interviews with under 16s about their experiences of crime. In May this year the BCS launched consultation on the issue of extending its methodology to include under 16’s experiences of victimisation. (

Monday, 7 July 2008

Gifted and Talented?

By Mark Featherstone
Over the last couple of weeks I have heard numerous mention of the Government's 'Gifted and Talented' policy initiative from colleagues and friends with school age children. My own son has not yet reached school age. As I understand it the aim of this education policy is to identify 'Gifted and Talented' children and make special provision for them in the classroom. Although this policy seems innocuous enough, in that it simply suggests that different children have different educational needs, I could not help but feel that there is something rather dangerous hiding behind the idea that gifted children need special attention. Again, there is nothing particularly controversial in the idea that talent is natural, but the overall effect of rooting this assumption in social policy is to make it appear that differences in educational achievement and success in later life are somehow natural effects that should be encouraged, rather than managed by the state. But what does this mean?

Let me explain. The first point we must consider is the idea of the gifted or talented child. Although this notion is rooted in common sense, this does not mean that it does not carry a lot of weight in the world. Quite the reverse. However, having said this, I'm sure nobody would be surprised if it turned out that the majority of gifted and talented children measured by state standards came from middle class families. In other words, it would come as no surprise to anybody if we were to find out that the rich produced gifted and talented children who were therefore deserving of special treatment in order to ensure that they eventually replaced their parents in their privileged place in society. This is, of course, called class reproduction. One response, the conservative response, to this view would be to say that the rich are rich because they are gifted and talented. In other words, society is constructed on the basis of natural abilities. The alternate leftist, and I would say properly sociological, response would be to reverse the equation and say that the rich are gifted and talented because they are rich and that the idea of gifts and talents simply naturalizes social inequality making it seem acceptable to those who are less rich because they can tell themselves that their problem is that they are naturally less gifted and talented.

Nobody would deny gifted or talented children the right to express their abilities, but it is problematic to feed this idea through policy into the education system. The current 'Gifted and Talented' initiative 'naturalizes' inequality. It is likely to reproduce social divisions through education. Such policy is entirely ignorant of the ways in which ability and intelligence are culturally coded and more or less reliant on access in order to emerge into the light of day. Who knows what happens to the child who is excluded from the elite club of the gifted and talented and does not therefore live out the rest of their life under those labels? Moreover, from what position do educationalists presume to make judgments about gifts and talents? In answer to the first question, one would have to assume that life would be a lot easier once one is labelled gifted and / or talented, mainly because one can command the resources given over to the new state-identified brainy elites. In answer to the second question, presumably one must have some knowledge of gifts and talents oneself in order to make decisions about which individuals possess gifts and talents in some embryonic childhood state? Given the current New Labour government's commitment to measure everything by statistics, which always gravitate towards the mediocre, I doubt there is any real sense of how to spot gifts and talents in the current policy makers of the British state. The really gifted and talented will always be outsiders, simply by virtue of their position vis the majority. I think that the idea that such people can be identified and harnessed by the state is the product of the overly bureaucratic idea of reality operative in contemporary New Labour Britain, which is, in many respects, similar to the thought processes that led the East German state to believe that it could identify and produce athletes and swimmers in the 1960s and 1970s.

Finally, I think we have to ask ourselves why New Labour would want to lavish so much attention on our gifted and talented children? Like the East Germans, I think that we must assume that they are not particularly interested in the child's right to self-expression. On the other hand, if the government was interested in real social improvement surely it would be a better idea to try to raise the level of failing children and leave the gifted free to express themselves outside of educational hot houses? I think the answer to this question resides in Gordon Brown's desire to produce a new entrepreneurial elite able to keep Britain in the race that is contemporary global capitalism. Given this aim, and in a capitalist world where innovation is all that matters, the fate of Britain's gifted and talented children is extremely important. Thus the 'Gifted and Talented' policy initiative is indicative of the rise of what we might call the new utilitarianism of brains where all that matters is convincing educationalists that you have some kind of useful skill or creative ability that can profitably advance the cause of Britain in the worldwide knowledge economy.

As a sociologist of utopias and dystopias with an over-active imagination I was struck not only by the comparison between Gordon Brown's efforts to foster gifted and talented children and the East German state's desire to produce communist super-heroes who would demonstrate the superiority of Marxism through athletic success, but also by the similarities between New Labour's 'Gifted and Talented' project and Plato's Ancient theory of the philosopher kings. In both worlds, our contemporary capitalist society and Plato's fictional city, all that matters is convincing the people who matter that you have the brains to become part of the ruling elite. Similarly, in both societies it does not pay to be left out of the elite, it does not pay to be labelled 'ordinary and mediocre', because those who cannot demonstrate special abilities occupy the lower orders and become the service sector workers of society.

Wednesday, 2 July 2008

Basic standard of living: what is poverty these days?

By Rebecca Leach
The Joseph Rowntree Foundation have just published a new report which gives findings from their survey of the British population on which items are regarded as 'essential' for a basic standard of living. Some of the findings are surprising: a car is considered a 'luxury' item, but holidays and bottles of wine are considered 'essentials' by most people.

Much of the media debate this morning has focused on the hysterical response to this kind of contrast: partly fuelled (do you see what I did there?) by rising fuel prices, there are many indignant cries of 'How dare you call a car a luxury, when I must drive everywhere and there is no public transport!?', alongside equally indignant objections to the idea that people on low incomes ought to be entitled to live in reasonable comfort as opposed to abject misery: 'how dare single mothers feel they need a DVD player; why aren't they out scraping streets with their babies strapped to their backs in sackcloth and ashes...?'. And so on ad nauseum.

But what the JRF is doing is opening a really interesting debate about quality of life. In a wealthy country like ours, expectations should be higher. Beyond basic food, shelter and clothing (but let's not forget for many people, this is still the main issue), poverty is a relative concept. In the UK and the US for example, there is plenty of money to go around to provide people with relative comfort: the problem is that most of it is still in the hands of the wealthy. In fact, the government measure of poverty is already a relative one (usually measured at 60% of the median income - which means it changes all the time, and this is one reason why the government is finding it very hard to meet the target they set on child poverty).

If a 'minimum standard of living' can be established, then a 'minimum income standard' can be established which gives more precise guidance to policy makers about what people need. According to the JRF, this is about £13,000 per year for a single person and around £27000 for a couple with kids. Many on the BBC site (linked above) are screeching that this is far too low. That may be true for people with high consumer expectations. But for many people on really low incomes, or managing on benefits, £13k would be a lifeline.

This raises some interesting sociological questions too. How do we value stuff? Is it OK to include previously luxury items as essential? Who decides? One way to think about this is to get some perspective on how this boundary between luxury and necessity changes over time and space. 400 years ago, for some people, wearing purple silk was a necessity; for others, it was banned. In Papua New Guinea, string bags are essential for status and subsistence - they could count as both luxury and necessity at the same time. Tampons are taxed as a luxury in the UK. What this flexibility tells us is that the distinction between essential and luxury is a social distinction, used to define status boundaries, membership and identities (it performs a 'function' for society if you want a 'perspective' to label it with).

All this and more essential (!) discussion with your resident Keele experts on consumer culture, objects and taste: Lydia Martens and Rebecca Leach; and on policy issues relating to family life: Emma Head and Graham Allan: we teach a range of modules on similar topics on our programme...