Does the underclass really exist?

Can you truly define the underclass? Some argue this is pointless as it diverges from the real issue. However, it is also contested that there is no underclass due to equal opportunities and social mobility available in the UK. Despite this apparent meritocracy you cannot argue against the existence of outsider groups in society throughout history; ‘othering’ (the process of marginalisation of a group) is not a new phenomenon.

In 1851 Mayhew described a devious, dangerous, work-shy class:

 “The nomad…is distinguished from the civilised man by his repugnance to regular and continuous labour – by his want of providence in laying up a store for the future – by his inability to perceive consequences ever so slightly removed from immediate apprehension – by his passion for stupefying herbs and roots…and for intoxicating fermented liquors…by an immediate love of gaming… by his love of libidinous dances…by his delight in warfare and all perilous sports – by his desire for vengeance – by all looseness of his notions as to property – by the absence of chastity among his women, and his disregard for female honour” (Mayhew, 1851 cited in Hayward, K. & Yar, M. (2006). The ‘chav’ phenomenon: consumption, media and the construction of a new underclass. Crime Media Culture, 2 (1), 9-28)

You can track the exclusion of groups in British history:

  • 1830s – ‘Street Arabs’ – a homeless child who begs and steals
  • 1860s – ‘Garrotters’ – a term used to describe early muggers in London
  • 1890s – ‘Scuttlers’ – early groups of youths who would fight in packs
  • 1930s – ‘Immoral Youth’ – the supposed lack of morality in post-war youth
  • 1950s – ‘Teddy Boys’ – the Americanised youth gangs of their day

Each decade since has seen its own ‘dangerous youth movement’ – the Mods, Skin Heads, Ravers, Chavs etc. Although, Jock Young has argued events such as the clashes between Mods and Rockers were amplified by the media and did not really constitute their label as a dangerous group.

The underclass, a class of people who rely on benefits, or on a minimum wage and engage in criminal activity are very often excluded from mainstream society as people view them as ‘different’ and ‘other’ them. This ‘othering’ creates two teams, if you will, the ‘them’ and the ‘us’ which festers hostility as society marginalises those who do not conform and the ‘others’ violently resist any attempt made to pressure them into conforming.

This is evident in the Conservative view of ‘othering’ as noted by Young (The Vertigo of Late Modernity, 2003) which contends outsider groups have alien values preventing integration. Although the Liberal view is kinder towards the ‘others’, stating they are essentially like the rest of society and if they are helped up the ladder they could become respected members of mainstream society. However, which ever theory you believe it leads to the same result, a group is excluded and labelled as ‘different’ and ‘dangerous’. There were a couple of Pete Doughty quotes my lecturer found which sum this up pretty well.

“I can’t tell between death and glory, New Labour or Tory.”

“It’s one and the same.”

Charles Murray, as stated in ‘Single Mothers and Problem Families’, claims the rise in single mothers, male labour market inactivity and criminal propensity identifies an underclass of welfare dependency. He also adds welfare benefits act as incentives to remain unemployed.

Theories on the left also look towards the economy to explain the existence of the underclass. Wilson claims a decline in the traditional labour market, with the loss of industrial and mining jobs, leads to ghettoisation, whereby those who can afford to move out of an area do, leaving the poorest in one area separating them from the rest of society. Giddens similarly claimed changes in the economy leads to marginalisation and thus, the structured rejection of mainstream values.

On the other hand, there are those who argue against the existence of an underclass. Jock Young (The Exclusive Society, 1999) proposed that society consumes all culturally, but regurgitates some structurally – hence Cannibalism and Bulimia.

P. 82 – “The social order of the advanced industrial world is one which engulfs its members. It consumes and culturally assimilates masses of people through education, the media and participation in the market place.”

Young contends the problem is structural exclusion alongside cultural inclusion as the underclass hold the same values as mainstream society but achieve them through different means (e.g. Merton, who shall be explored at a later date). Young supported this conclusion by including Bourgois’ study on New York crack dealers and Nightingales’ ethnography of poor children in Philadelphia. Both found evidence of extreme cultural inclusion in the most structurally excluded population in the US in that they hold society’s values more than mainstream society itself.

“Already at five and six, many kids in the neighbourhood can recite the whole cannon of adult luxury – from Gucci, Evan Piccone and Pierre Cardin to Mercedes and BMW…from the age of ten , kids become thoroughly engrossed in Nike’s and Reebok’s cult of the sneaker” (Nightingale, On the Edge: a history of poor Black children and their American dreams. 1993, P. 153-4)

Therefore, can we really argue they are excluded? Are they the epitome of the American Dream? Can they really constitute an underclass when they subscribe so strongly to mainstream values?

Do you believe in the underclass? Or is it a question of unfair stereotyping and media/deviance amplification?

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The Loss of Culture

I’m sure you remember the news a year or so ago about the closure of libraries? Well now it seems other public cultural spaces are also to suffer with museums and galleries under threat.

Almost a quarter have closed all or part of their sites, most alarmingly perhaps is the hit school services are taking. Many children only go to these places with school; is a new culture-deprived generation going to emerge? What effects will this have? Studies show the more culture a child experiences the better they achieve throughout their school career.

Elias and Scotson (2008) recognised how one group monopolises and uses sources of power to stigmatise others, later applying this to class. The education system shows that the dominant classes’ values are expressed, leaving working-class students at a disadvantage. Bernstein (1973) identified two forms of language, the elaborated code which is context-independent and universal and the restricted code which is context-bound and consists of less complex vocabulary. Whereas middle-class children are well equipped to deal with both, working-class pupils are disadvantaged as they are only accustomed to the restricted code. Therefore, middle-class children are more likely to succeed, leaving the working-classes to be viewed as less intelligent, hence, creating a cycle of inequality due to the social and cultural differences experienced by the classes. However, Bernstein has been criticised for his crude, stereotypical distinctions between the middle and working classes (Rosen, 1974).

Bourdieu argues cultural capital allows one class to hold an advantage in education, stating the dominant culture is misrecognised by the subordinate classes as legitimate; meaning excellence and academic achievement are defined in terms of the dominant cultural paradigm. Therefore, those who receive the appropriate cultural training are most likely to succeed (Jenkins, 2002). Also, Bourdieu and Passeron (1990) claimed the disposition of students to capitalise on their experience and thus succeed depends on the chances attached to the social classes. On the other hand, Halsey et al (1980) criticised Bourdieu since they saw state education as creating cultural capital in those who were from backgrounds which consisted of no formal education, thus suggesting education advocates social mobility rather than reproducing class inequality (Jenkins, 2002).

Already the extent of relevant cultural experiences affects grades since education has a very middle-class atmosphere; so, with the increased limitations on the ability of some to access cultural spaces such as museums and libraries will the gap between middle-class achievement and working-class achievement widen in the years to come?