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?

Living with Obsessive Compulsive Disorder

After watching Jon Richardson’s programme on channel 4 about living with OCD I wondered how common it is. I mean, sometimes little things annoy me or something has to be done in a particular way. For instance, if the teaspoons aren’t all facing the same way in the drawer and I have to eat all the foam off the top of a mocha or cappuccino before drinking it (do you eat or drink foam?). But this isn’t OCD, sure I get annoyed if my morning routine is interrupted but I move on, I can forget about it and enjoy the rest of my day. For others though, this isn’t an option. It’s either their way or no way.

What surprised me is how much of an effect this has on people’s lives. Missing all the cracks on a pavement is livable, might slow you down a bit but that’s all. One teenager has to tap the door frame twice on both sides when he walks through a doorway. What does he do for lifts? Automatic doors? He’s 16, been doing this since he was six and it’s only getting worse with little habits appearing for every action most people would do without thinking, like pouring a drink.

Why doesn’t he just stop? I hear you ask. It has no real influence and he knows it’s irrational, but it has to be done.

Another woman is practically housebound due to an obsession with cleaning, when she’s not cleaning she’s planning on what to clean, how to clean it etc by making extensive, detailed lists.

OCD is ruining people’s lives, it’s a killer. It’s a real issue, not a joke or something to be taken lightly. Lots of people say “I have OCD about this”; “I have OCD about that”, when really it’s not OCD at all, not in the real sense.

People with OCD can move up and down the scale, usually it’s triggered by stress. Anxiety over career, bullying or other uncontrollable health issues. However, some believe it can be genetic. This could be both nature (biology) or nurture (growing up around it and developing you own ‘tics’ or ‘quirks’). One mother, unable to bring up her son due to OCD, has to live with the knowledge that OCD was passed onto her son, who committed suicide as he impulses stopped him from doing anything, all he could do was pace backwards and forwards.

Jon Richardson was told he does not have OCD by an expert at Bath University. For this he feels extremely lucky, he has obsessive compulsive order, not disorder. He knows his ‘quirks’ reassure him, give him a little control, but he does not become too distressed if things aren’t ‘right’.

Living with OCD must be hard, it affects people’s lives and those around them, just as much as any other illness. If someone has OCD telling them to stop won’t help, it might even make it worse as they worry about their compulsions and impulses. OCD is treatable and people can move down the scale as well as up, all is needed is support and guidance, and the end to the stigma this very real illness holds.

Are we really anti-social criminals?

Anti-social behaviour has become an increasing problem in recent years and sociologists have examined the reasons for this in order to determine whether it is a real issue or merely a moral panic created by media amplification. Anti-social behaviour is usually associated with young people, and it is normally males who gain a worse reputation with the police and society for being ‘hoodies’, also, football hooliganism is another aggressive, predominately masculine culture that is depicted in the media more and more and is already a severe problem for police, especially since some football fans are in bitter, violent rivalry with the opposing teams’ fans.

It is important to distinguish between what is actually anti-social behaviour and what is a social construct created by the media. Some recorded anti-social behaviour is not serious or indeed, really anti-social but has been created by a fear of groups of young people, especially around town. Paul Willis did a study on macho lads and found that since they were labelled as disobedient by teachers and the police they began to believe and live up to this label, creating a self-fulfilling prophecy. Although, statistics show that over the past few years a ‘ladette’ culture has appeared with female crime rising by around a quarter whereas male crime has remained at a steady level. All over the country men are telling their girlfriends, “leave it, it’s not worth it!” 🙂

Anti-social behaviour occurs due to boredom and the lack of places for young people in city areas to go in the evenings. For instance, over the past view years the amount of free youth clubs has declined meaning that young people find other places such as parks or even bus stations to meet and here they are seen as a threat by the neighbourhood and so become known as anti-social. The media has exaggerated this with help from the government and the introduction of ASBOs (Anti-Social Behaviour Orders) which were designed as a caution young people and were meant to put them off repeating deviant or criminal acts. The media reported where and when these ASBOs were being given out and so created a minor moral panic in certain neighbourhoods. Moreover, instead of being a deterrent to young people, having an ASBO was seen more as a badge of honour in some areas. In fact ASBOs were more affective for the middle classes, who are neither the main problem nor the main target group. (ASBOs have recently been replaced by CBOs – Criminal Behaviour Orders).

Marxists would argue that the media reports large amounts of anti-social behaviour in order to keep attention away from white-collar crime and the activities of the upper classes. Hence, media amplification serves to unite society against groups of young people who are most likely to be working class; an example of this was researched by Jock Young (1971) who used Becker’s ideas on the labelling theory in order to study marijuana users. He found that the police saw them as lazy, dirty drug addicts although at first they were not causing any trouble. Over time they became ostracized from mainstream society and so lived up to their negative label as deviant. The media coverage on the early hippies greatly emphasised the amount of drugs being taken and the amount of deviant or criminal acts being committed and as a result the hippies took to these labels and created a deviant subculture since they were excluded from the rest of society.

Of course, occasionally, a member of the middle to upper class will be singled out as deviant, and used as an example that white-collar crime isn’t ignored. Just think of Jimmy Carr’s tax avoidance, although it wasn’t illegal, it was a deviant act that led to criticism from both politicians and the media. For once, News International and David Cameron were seen as being able to take the moral high ground (not a regular opportunity for either).

Overall, over the years the media has had a profound influence on levels of anti-social behaviour due to its broad scope across society which ensures everyone in the country is aware of social issues that may or may not be exaggerated in a bid to attract readers, watchers or listeners. Is what we see in the media a true picture? Can we really trust our stereotypical images of ‘the criminal’?

On a Mission to Become a ‘Geek’ – why do we stereotype?

Recently my friend, Isabella, proclaimed she wished to pursue a new venture; that of becoming a ‘geek’.

This idea first came about when a fellow uni student took her into a comic book store in the city. A trip which prompted a trip down memory lane, remembering old Beano comics before the pages were “glossy”.

Anyway, after buying a Spiderman comic, insisting it stay in pristine condition and thus, putting it off reading it, I was reminded of the boys (as they can hardly be described as ‘men’ in my book) on ‘The Big Bang Theory’. A comparison which was strengthened with the declaration of a desire to learn the difference between ‘Star Trek’ and ‘Star Wars’.

Although my friends and I have always worked hard for our grades, the term ‘geek’ wouldn’t be first I think of. In fact, there are so many different aspects of people’s personalities, it’s wrong to group them according to one characteristic. Why can’t people take influences from different stereotypes rather than subscribing to just one?

It annoyed me (and still does annoy me) how in school the ‘cool’ kids would look down on those who didn’t fit their image and even those outside of the ‘cool’ group would similarly look down on the ‘nerds’ or ‘geeks’ while simultaneously complaining about how they were ostracised for having the wrong bag or clothes or family. Is this the same in all schools? It probably is. And when does this trend end? Probably never.

A survey shows that “more than 90 per cent of bosses admit that when they get an overweight and a slim candidate of the same ability, they are more likely to hire the worker of “normal” size.” It also suggest half of human resource managers believe weight to influence productivity, with bigger people lacking in discipline.

All through life you are judged on how you look, or how you speak, or where you come from, when in fact none of that should matter. What should matter is who you are, your individuality and abilities outside those stereotypes and prejudices.

I suppose as a sociology student it’s my job to question social phenomena like this, but it should be an issue recognised by all, not just those who have a vested interest in noticing things as it will help them pass their exams.

The question is, why do we stereotype? Is it because of what we learn from those around us? Many would argue our parent’s attitudes influence how we think about others and ourselves. Indeed, socialisation is key in shaping beliefs and values as children are impressionable and what they learn at a young age is very often carried through the rest of their lives, meaning they pass the same prejudices onto their children. This cycle can be broken, as can be seen throughout history with the end of slave labour and the decline in the belief in strict victorian values where the man is the sole breadwinner of the family. However, everytime one prejudice is abandoned, another takes it place. Why? Where does our compulsive need to judge people on first sight come from?