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?