Monday, 18 February 2013

Masculinity in the dock

By Bill Dixon

A jury at Nottingham Crown Court are told that a Derby man was responsible for the death of six of his ten children in a house fire when a plot to frame his ex-girlfriend went tragically wrong. Five male members of staff at the Chetham’s School of Music in Manchester are accused of abusing the young women they were paid to teach. The world’s most famous disabled sportsman, a Paralympic champion and, uniquely, an Olympian too, is in custody in Pretoria facing allegations of murder after the woman in his life was shot four times. Also in South Africa, a 17 year old girl is gang-raped, mutilated and left for dead by an unknown number of men.

Only one of these men – Chetham’s former director of music, Michael Brewer – has been convicted of any offence and you may well ask what links events in council-owned semi in Derby last May with behaviour at an elite music school over the last 40 years, the shooting of a minor local celebrity in a luxury home on an exclusive, gated golf estate and a brutal attack on a very ordinary working class young woman who seems to have spent her last few hours at a sports bar. For some observers Mick Philpott’s domestic arrangements make him an archetypal member of what Charles Murray famously called the underclass. The men responsible for attacking Anene Booysen in the farming town of Bredasdorp may turn out to be, like her, black and not very well off. But if class or ‘race’ are relevant here, how do we explain the behaviour of not one but five brilliant musicians in prestigious and relatively well paid jobs? And what about the national and international sporting icon that is (or was) Oscar Pistorius?

The common factor of course is that all these alleged offenders are men. And they are accused of either killing or abusing children or women, often, as in the case of the Chetham’s teachers and the Bredasdorp rape-murderers, very young women or girls. We do not know whether the allegations made against these men are true and may never know exactly why they did what they did. But one thing is clear from what we have been told thus far: the ability of these men to exercise power over a woman or women more generally is likely to be deeply implicated in their behaviour.

According to the prosecution, Philpott was a ‘very controlling and manipulative man’ who wanted to punish his ex-lover for rejecting him. The teachers at Chetham were confident that they could treat their young pupils as they pleased, and molest them more or less at will. That several of them went on to successful careers elsewhere suggests that their confidence was not entirely misplaced. Anene Booysen would have had no chance when she was set upon by a group of older, stronger men. Precisely what happened at the Pistorius residence in the early hours of Valentine’s Day remains a mystery. But the omens are not good and it would be no surprise if Reeva Steenkamp was not the victim of mistaken identity but the latest in a long line of women to have stepped out of line too often or too far and paid the ultimate price at the hands of a very angry man.

None of this is to say that men are to blame for everything that is wrong with the world. Being a man myself, I hope not. But it has been a very bad week indeed for certain kinds of hegemonic masculinity.

Friday, 15 February 2013

What is the Precariat? Sociology Seminar, 27th February

By Mark Featherstone

On 27th February the Sociology Seminar will host Guy Standing, Professor of Development Studies at the University of London, who will talk about his recent book The Precariat. The notion of the precariat, which first emerged in Pierre Bourdieu’s work on neoliberal capitalism in the 1990s, is particularly important today because of the economic crisis that has engulfed global capitalism. The concept itself refers to a global class of people who survive on the basis of low wage, unstable, work in the post-fordist economy where the need for labour is always uncertain and short term. For this reason, the precariat does not form a traditional class, such as the Marxist proletariat or working class, but instead comprises a strange shifting, amorphous, category of people. In this respect, the precariat is much closer to the Marxist idea of the lumpenproletariat than a traditional class grouping. Similar to the lumpenproletariat who represented the dregs of the Marxist class system, the precariat has no clear sense of identity, because the people of the precarious mass may have very little in common with each other. As such, the precariat has no clear politics of its own, but for this precise reason represents a potentially dangerous reservoir of people who might be easily exploited by powerful rhetoric able to form them into an angry mob organised against marginal others. In this respect Standing’s great worry about the precariat is that it may easily turn to fascism under conditions of economic recession. I agree that this is a real threat across Europe especially, where immigration is a constant cause of unrest. In many respects this shift to the right through the mobilisation of the precariat is already taking place today. This is not surprising. Psychologically speaking the impact of recession and economic instability on people who are already living on the edge is that they seek to save themselves by turning against others who appear weak, the losers of late capitalism. As Max Weber and then later Erich Fromm explained, this is the sado-masochistic psychopathology of capitalist society. The very competitive nature of capitalism means that it is always in danger of tipping over into authoritarianism and fascism when conditions become bleak and I have written about this very threat on the blog over the course of the last four years. Against this very real dystopian threat, Standing proposes a new utopian politics adequate to address the condition of the precariat. I think that the invention of this new utopian politics for the disenfranchised is perhaps the task of sociology and politics today. We need this to avert the alternative, a dystopian politics of sado-masochistic violence similar to those explored by Erich Fromm in his work on fascist psychology.   

Professor Standing’s seminar will run from 4pm to 7pm and include responses from Professor Clare Holdsworth (Geography, Keele) and Professor Ronnie Lippens (Criminology, Keele). The seminar will be introduced by Dr Mark Featherstone (Sociology, Keele). There is limited space available for this event. If you would like to attend, please e-mail Dr. Featherstone at

Tuesday, 12 February 2013

Michael Gove’s Educational Reforms: A Utilitarian Education System with Little Use Value

By Keely Hughes, PhD student in Sociology

Last week we saw Michael Gove (Secretary of State for Education) take a “U-Turn” on his decision to scrap General Certificates of Secondary Education (GCSE’s) in core academic subjects and replace them with English Baccalaureate Certificates (EBC’s). He stated in the House of Commons that the decision to replace GCSE’s with EBC’s was “one reform too many” … “a bridge too far”. The questions to be asked are; exactly how much of a reversal is this for Gove? And what type of education system is Gove trying to form?

The Coalition set out their aims for education in the Importance of Teaching White Paper 2010 where a tighter curriculum, rigorous exams and a restructuring of league tables were of high priority, alongside toughening academic subjects, reforming vocational education and increasing schools autonomy. In the context of the aims set out in the 2010 White Paper, the reversal for Gove on the EBC’s is small, as academic rigor will still be enforced, only now through GCSE’s. Gove’s vision for education is a splitting and distinction of the academic and vocational, where the academic becomes the greater good of the two but both nonetheless Gove claims are important for Britain’s economy and society’s contemporary needs. The rhetoric is that these reforms will enable Britain to compete globally with the world’s best education systems and more importantly will provide economic prosperity for Britain’s future. On the surface this does not appear problematic, why shouldn’t our pupils have the right to a world class education securing them a “valuable” position within our economy whether it is academic or vocational. Gove’s vision shows similarity to the tripartite system of education during the post-war era which created to some extent a stasis, where we had pupils trained in vocational education upon which leaving school would take their place within the working class labour force and an academic middle-class high-tech worker maintaining power and generating wealth off the labour force. I believe that this is what Gove is trying to recapture. The problem is however, that during the post-war era we had an industrial sector, which through Thatcherism and the rise of neoliberal capitalism has been eradicated.

Gove is backing away from the idea that every individual can go to university and become a high-tech worker. His two tier education system suggests that he is trying to re-construct an old working class, but there is a problem, we no longer have a working class industry. The implementation of state education for all in the 1870’s was based on utilitarian principles, on a need to train the working-class for the economy. However, the reality today of training individuals as workers for an industrial workforce which does not exist will only lead to our young falling out of the bottom of the working class and joining the ever increasing unemployed class. We have witnessed increasing unemployment levels during the recession and I fail to see how an education system constructed for the training of individuals for an industrial economy will reduce unemployment in the current neoliberal system, which is committed to privatisation, marketization and competition, and which centralises the economy and society around the mechanisms of “consumption”.

I believe that current reforms will leave us with a utilitarian education system which has little “use” value. If we train pupils in vocational education within markets which (1) have a limited use for vocational education and; (2) give higher “value” to academic education, vocational education and training becomes “value-less” and will provide our young with little or no stake in the economy. Youth unemployment, as we have witnessed over the last few years, has risen dramatically and even those with university qualifications are struggling to find work, taking lower-paid jobs which do not match the skills and qualifications gained from university. For individuals where low-paid work matches their skills and qualifications they are again being pushed out of the bottom of the economy by other individuals who are over-qualified taking these limited available jobs. I think that ultimately, a massive underclass will develop. These individuals will be young with no stake in society and in order to survive in an ever increasing high end consumer society will have to take what they cannot buy. This will lead to a rise in the penal state but with cuts in the penal system also, school for those who cannot compete and become high-tech workers will become a disciplinary institution in which education will become about creating workers for an economy without work and socialising behaviour to make people more compliant. This is a million miles away from Gove’s rhetoric of a world-class education for every individual which will secure each individual with a “valuable” place in our economy.

My PhD research at Keele University focuses on these contemporary educational issues, on the relationship between contemporary neoliberal discourses of economic value and its impact upon education for ‘advantaged’ and ‘dis-advantaged’ youth groups, aiming to understand the ways in which social class impacts upon the experience of education in a period of economic stress and educational reform. My main concern is with the extent to which neoliberal education reproduces class division and inequality through its focus on the relationship between education and economic usefulness.

Saturday, 9 February 2013

Cesare Lombroso 2.0 and the search for Shatner’s Bassoon

By Andrew Henley, Graduate Teaching Assistant in Criminology

This week the Mail Online brought us news of a German ‘neurologist’ who claims to have discovered a ‘dark patch’ at the front of the brain which is present in people with records for criminal violence. Dr Gerhard Roth apparently claims that “the 'evil patch' lies in the brain's central lobe and shows up as a dark mass on X-rays.” The story comes complete with pictures of Hannibal Lecter (everyone’s favourite fictional psychopath), Adolf Hitler and Josef Stalin. This story immediately aroused the part of my brain associated with the detection of ‘woo’ on a number of levels.

As all students of criminology will know, the notion of criminal behaviour as being somehow biologically determined is nothing new. Indeed, at the very roots of the criminological project we encounter Cesare Lombroso - the founder of the so called Italian School of Positivist Criminology. Lombroso was convinced that ‘born criminals’ could be distinguished from ‘non-criminals’ through the identification of physical defects which marked out the former group as atavistic throwbacks or “savages”. The criticisms of Lombrosian criminal anthropometrics are too numerous to list here, but suffice to say a wide range of alternative explanations for crime have emerged in the century or so which have followed the Italian School. These have included a greater appreciation of the social, economic and cultural factors associated with those harmful acts which are given meaning by our labelling them as ‘crimes’.

However, the re-emergence of biological determinism as in this story does play into a deeply held belief on the part of many people that somehow ‘they’ (criminals) are not like ‘us’ (law-abiding citizens). As I’ve already stated in an earlier blog post, there are approximately 9.2 million people on the UK Police National Computer with a recorded conviction for a criminal offence – and these are just the people who get caught and convicted. This somewhat undermines the comforting but false notion that criminality is solely the preserve of a select number of ‘hardened criminals’ and that all that remains is to somehow identify them and keep them away from everyone else.

Yet, the content of this story is also pretty suspect on a scientific level too (although I’m sure my colleagues in the Schools of Medicine and Psychology will correct me if I’ve got this all wrong). The Mail describes Roth as a ‘neurologist’ which I had always understood as a medical doctor who specialises in the diagnosis and treatment of those disorders associated with the brain and central nervous system. It seems that Roth is, in fact, a ‘neurobiologist’ which is something altogether different. The story also refers to “the brain’s central lobe”, but a quick trawl of most human biology textbooks seems to reveal that the brain is actually divided into the ‘occipital’, ‘parietal’, ‘frontal’ and ‘temporal’ lobes with no mention of a ‘central lobe’. Fans of Brass Eye will remember that the creator of the programme Chris Morris once managed to convince that esteemed medical expert Noel Edmonds to warn young people about the dangers of ‘Cake’ – a ‘made up drug’ which affected a part of the brain known as ‘Shatner’s  Bassoon’. One wonders if through all this talk of ‘evil patches’ readers of the Mail are being led up a similar garden path to that of Mr Edmonds.