THE TAMING OF THE ROOT – constructing body hair through socialisation, subjectivity and context


This research addresses the acquisition of meaning of body hair, giving a brief historic overview and concentrating on how personal and social relationships influence processes of signification. It focuses specifically on subjectivity and context to highlight how hairy bodies are placed inside or outside normativity. The normative hair, when cited as a proof of an unproblematic embodiment, for instance to demonstrate womanly or manly traits, appears to implicitly reinforce structural imbalances through representation. I have used semi-structured interviews and metaphors to investigate overt and symbolic meanings justifying practices. Given the wide amount of data that proved body hair as an effective methodological tool to address a multitude of topics, the results had to be selected and reported exclusively following the research aims. Parents and peers proved to be important for the socialisation into hair removal/reduction whether the participant was able to acknowledge it or not. Hair removal was acquired as a social skill through examples, policing or training but participants were only able to question it when awareness about the power issues involved was present. Alternative conceptions of body hair, typical of othered bodies and geographies, can expand the rigidity of beauty and attraction boundaries while remaining isolated and circumscribed examples. It is only by addressing the implicit structures and the distinctive imaginary behind body hair at all levels, especially through educational and legislative interventions, that body hair can lose its vital role in the representation of distinctive bodies.






2.1         A history of distinction

2.2         Previous research

2.2.1     Mapping body hair meanings

2.2.2     Practice rationale

2.2.3     Implications

2.3         Theoretical frames

2.3.1     Social constructionism

2.3.2     Habitus, taste, performativity

2.3.3     Context

3.0         METHODOLOGY

3.1         Standpoint theory, cultural constructionism and the sample

3.2         Methods and ethics: interviews and comparisons

3.3         Data interpretation: ethics and thematic analysis


4.1         The metaphoric hair

4.2         Socialisation, embodiment and emotional relationships

4.2.1     Deviant and collective persuasion

4.2.2     Trainers

4.3         Mapping the body

4.4         Hairy sexuality versus hairless competition

4.5         Data narratives and recommendations

5.0         CONCLUSION




TABLE 1 – Sample composition

TABLE 2 – Hairy and hairless metaphors

TABLE 3 – Human and animal comparisons



I first thought of body hair as a research topic when, reading an article on taking it all off for the coming season, I started reflecting on how I was socialised into hair removal. I soon realised that it was more interesting than the recurrent magazine articles would give out since it was taken for granted: there was something hegemonic about it. Body hair is hereby intended to include both body and facial hair with the exception of head hair. After researching relevant literature, I noticed that context had been placed somewhat in the background and that subjectivities were only discussed by American studies (see Fahs in chapter 2). The aim was therefore to specifically explore body hair cultural construction addressing contextual practices and subjectivities from a Western perspective while also investigating the process of persuasion into removal. Although it is a topic relevant to religion I have chosen to overlook this aspect since I believe it deserves a research of its own. The project started as a general exploration and it was later focused to fit the research aims. In order to explain current constructions, it was vital to look at how body hair had been historically constructed and what research had highlighted so far. I could then identify the best theoretical tools to reach the aims. The advantage of considering context and subjectivity is that, although results cannot be generalised, they address specificity and diversity and they can highlight alternative takes that may be applicable to practices. Exploring socialisation and history, on the other hand, is useful to understand the conscious and unconscious processes of construction of body hair.


As Foucault has indicated, the production of knowledge informs the production of discourses (1981). Body hair makes no exception: the contemporary Western discourses are the result of historical and geographical production of knowledge. In order to untangle body hair from its complex web of knowledge, agents and contexts this theoretical chapter is structured in three parts: a focused historical analysis, a review of previous research and an overview of useful theoretical tools.

2.1 A History of distinction

Body hair removal is not a recent practice, customs have changed over and over in history, with body hair being a shifting and distinctive visual signifier (Hansen 2007). For a better understanding of today’s practices I only deem relevant to highlight three moments of the cultural construction of body hair: ancient Greece, the late 19th century and the early 20th century. Ancient Greece, specifically Athens, provides an example of how hair removal was informed by a spatial distinction between genders (private/public) and a claim of civilisation. The public exposure of citizens’ shaven genitals was used as one of the punishments alternative to death for adulterers (Rubarth 2014). In contrast women, who were banned from citizenship and generally relegated into households (unless they were prostitutes or slaves), were removing their pubic hair because its display would be stigmatised as uncivilised (Sherrow 2006 cited in Hansen 2007). ‘So distasteful was the presence of body hair on women in ancient Greece, that Greek artists molded their statues of women without pubic hair’ (Sherrow 2006 cited in Hansen 2007:10). The mayor shift towards the modern Western conception of body hair seems to coincide with Darwin’s publication of ‘The descent of Man’. Comparing women’s and men’s amount of body hair, he justified women’s relative lack as functional to attract the best mate, implicitly reinforcing two concepts: beauty as a woman’s duty and compulsory heterosexuality (Rich 1980). Hairlessness-as-beauty, by becoming an evolutionary trait, marked once again the boundary between the civilised and the uncivilised (Hamlin 2011).

While the scientific beauty ideal measured femininity, sexuality and distinction from the animal realm, deviancy was enclosed in the fields of sub-humanity and pathology. Bearded women of colour were shown around in circuses as a living proof of ‘the missing link’ between the animal and the human [sic!] and dermatologists were allowed to problematise any perceived ‘excess’ of body hair on Western white women as masculine, unnatural, superfluous while also policing their heteronormativity and ladylike demeanour (Hamlin 2011). The medical discourse around ‘excess’ of hair was so persuasive that women actually underwent pain, disfiguration and even death (radiotherapy was at some point proposed as a ‘cure’) in order to match the hairless ideal set by the Darwinian discourse (Hamlin 2011). The scientific narrative proved to be functional to the beauty industry when from the early 20th century the focus shifted from body hair ‘excess’ to its visible presence being revealed by increasingly shorter and sleeveless clothing (Hansen 2007, Toerien and Wilkinson 2003). Women’s magazines and targeted advertisement, turned beauty and hairlessness into an attitude necessary to attract the right husband but most importantly to keep him (Ewen 1976 cited in Basow 1991), tacitly theorising mating as a lifelong competition whose outcomes depended on women’s behaviour. For men body hair remained largely unquestioned with the exception of the workplace where facial hair removal could signify ‘uniformity’, ‘mutual identity’, ‘conformity’ in order to transpire ‘stability’ (Synnott 1987:385).

2.2 Previous research

Body hair removal/reduction is not just a personal practice but it involves imagined audiences (Terry and Braun 2013) and the consequent assumption or knowledge about its positive or negative appraisal. Removers are also the audience of all sorts of media and of their culture and heritage. Research points to a significant variation in meanings according to gender (Synnott 1987, Toerien and Wilkinson 2003, Terry and Braun 2013), the area of the body/face (Toerien et al. 2005), the visibility (Basow and Braman 1998) and the colour (Synnott 1987). Body hair may also reinforce assumptions about gender, class (DeMaria and Berenson 2013), sexuality (Fahs 2011b), age (Synnott 1987), and ethnicity (Fahs and Delgado 2011) resulting in practices that tend to avoid multiple stigmatisation (Fahs 2011b). In order to explicate the multiple aspects highlighted by previous research, I will report it following a narrative of body geography, practices and implications.

2.2.1    Mapping body hair meanings

In general women indicated hairlessness as a sign of femininity and sexual attractiveness (Basow 1991) while men assigned masculinity, manliness, virility to hairiness (Synnott 1987, Toerien et al. 2005, Fahs 2011a, Terry and Braun 2013). A visibly hairy woman is thought to be a lesbian, manly, transgender, unhygienic, distasteful, angry, animal-like, uneducated, mentally instable (Basow 1991, Toerien and Wilkinson 2008, Fahs 2011a, Fahs 2011b, Fahs and Delgado 2011, Terry and Braun 2013).A hairless man can be thought to be gay, feminine, into sports (Fahs 2013). Facial hair is a very strong signifier of masculinity and maturity for men and as such it is opposed to both femininity and youth, making facial hair on women socially unacceptable (Synnott 1987, Hamlin 2011). Eyebrows, as long as they are shaped, are a symbol of beauty and neatness for women (Toerien et al. 2005) while no research I am aware of highlights their significance for men. A hairless armpit is often associated with femininity, neatness and hygiene for women (Toerien and Wilkinson 2008) while hair display is socially sanctioned (Toerien and Wilkinson 2003, Braun et al. 2013).

Hygiene seems to apply to men who reduce or remove it too (Terry and Braun 2013). Back hair, although often perceived to be unattractive by men and therefore removed (Martins et al. 2008) has not been, as far as I am aware, investigated in its meanings. Chest hair has shifted its significance with time. It was a clear sign of masculinity in the past, as shown in previous James Bond films where main actors had hairy chests but it is not such a clear symbol anymore with more and more men removing it (Terry and Braun 2013). Pubic hair in general is a liminal site between the public and private (Braun et al. 2013). For both women and men its removal is often linked with sensations of hygiene and perceived enhanced sexual attractiveness although women tend and are expected to engage in the practice far more than men (Braun et al. 2013).Leg hair is quite gendered and deviance is socially sanctioned. To women its removal signifies femininity, neatness and distinction from the animal realm (Basow and Braman 1998, Toerien et al. 2005). To men a hairy leg is a symbol of masculinity and some social policing is applied to them as well if they begin to remove it (Fahs 2013).

2.2.2    Practice rationale

Current practices are informed by beliefs about body hair. In a consumerist culture where marketing sells aspirational images beside the products to achieve it (Elliot 1998, Elliot and Wattanasuwan 1998), and where the body can be either an expendable capital or a source of stigma, the majority of women tend to remove all visible hair (Toerien and Wilkinson 2008). They do it both in order to avoid stigmatisation, stares, comments and to feel more attractive, confident, cleaner, neat and normal, their imagined audiences being an internalised male gaze (Toerien and Wilkinson 2008, Holland et al. 2004 cited in Terry and Braun). For men hairiness seems to be the norm with the exception of facial hair. Especially in the corporate world, men are pressurised to conform to a shaved look (Synnott 1987) and women seem to prefer them shaven too (Basow and Braman 1998). Although it is becoming more acceptable and even desirable for men to remove their body hair, removers can still face homophobia and judgements on their masculinity depending on their audience (Fahs 2013). With metrosexuality and manscaping possibly influencing new trends based on the aesthetics of removal, especially for younger generations (Terry and Braun 2013, Martins et al. 2008, Fahs 2013), the gaze is still male as they tend to worry mainly about other men’s reactions (Fahs 2013).

2.2.3    Implications

Both women and men generally start the removal/reducing around puberty. For women it is mostly other women friends and family members who initiate them to the practice (Braun et al. 2013, Terry and Braun 2013) but once started they are influenced by a wide variety of contexts and relational moments where their hairlessness is expected. Women appear to have internalised the hairless norm as one of the social norms pertaining their body in order to feel in control, managing personal anxieties and social assumptions. There appears to be a correlation between conformity to hairlessness, bodily dissatisfaction and other body altering practices (Fahs 2011b). Men also face pressures to conform but deviancy does not seem to hold the same amount of negative perceptions as with women. The changing masculine ideals may drive men towards an increase in hair removal but it is still unclear how widespread or persistent these new trends are (Terry and Braun 2013, Fahs 2013).

2.3 Theoretical frames

Previous research has been invaluable in getting the wider picture about body hair. In order to explore body hair in detail, I will be building on it to investigate hair removal as a learnt and internalised behaviour and at how one’s embodied subjectivity interacts with social interaction to produce practices that mirror power relations in specific contexts. In order to do so I will combine social constructionism with Bourdieu’s habitus and taste, Butler’s performativity and Lefebvre’s contextual theories.

2.3.1    Social constructionism

Social constructionism is generally used as a methodological instrument locating the construction of meaning in language (Edley 2001). It also analyses the perception of reality since ‘Too often the language of objective reality is used as a means of generating hierarchies of inclusion and exclusion’ (Gergen 2009:41). As such it can be a useful theoretical tool to interrogate the perception of body hair and the structural imbalances through language. Perceptions get internalised as values and are apprehended through various stages of socialisation entailing the micro of significant others, the meso of institutions and the macro of society (Berger and Luckmann 1967). Subjectivity also plays a role in the perception of reality. It is the result of the complex interaction between the body, the psyche, one’s own perception of oneself, one’s identification, society’s depiction of oneself, significant other’s ideas about oneself, negative and positive expectations (Berger and Luckmann 1967, Gergen 2009). Social constructionism will be useful to problematise the lack of questioning around body hair to investigate how socialisation into hair removal is often accepted as unproblematic. Since metaphors are ‘central aspects of our understanding’ (Spence 1987 cited in Gergen 2009:35) it may also help in the analysis of the animal metaphors that seem to surround body hair (Basow 1991).

2.3.2    Habitus, taste, performativity

Women often justify hair removal as a personal choice. In order to explore the implications surrounding claims around choice I am going to use Bourdieu’s and Butler’s theories. Bourdieu theorised taste as the result of the mutually reinforcing combination of material conditions and the habitus. The habitus is the reiterated practice within a social field that supports one’s structural positioning and one’s perception of the self as ‘asserted through difference’ (Bourdieu 1984:172). Taste thus becomes ‘the propensity and capacity to appropriate’ (Bourdieu 1984:173) a lifestyle: it turns a lifestyle into a form of embodied capital.The reiteration that the habitus entails is quite consistent with the most common practices of hair removal. Bourdieu theorised the habitus as referencing to social field normativity where the habitual reproduction of conformity ends up constructing subjects that are unconscious both about structures and about their formation (Butler 1999, Bourdieu 1984). Butler applied Bourdieu’s ideas about the habitus to gender. She focused on language to highlight how a repeated interpellation, for instance being called girl, is unconsciously and unproblematically internalised during the socialisation process. The internalised naturalisation becomes then constitutive of the unconscious performances, i.e. performativity, related to identity (Butler 1993, Butler 1999). Shaving one’s beard off every morning is, for instance, a performative and constitutive act: it does masculinity by unconsciously reinforcing one’s identity through the repetitive routine and by addressing a gendered and visible body area such as the face.

2.3.3    Context

Body hair visibility draws a line between the private and the public and determines which visible hair is acceptable in each temporal and spatial context. The geography of the body blurs with culture in mapping appropriate and deviant bodies. In order to address how space and time may influence the experience of body hair and vice-versa how bodies influence context, I will use Henri Lefebvre’s thought. Theorising the body at the junction of space and time, Lefebvre looked at space as the product of (reiterated) practices, knowledge and creative processes (Simonsen 2005).Observing how bodies materially produce and occupy space, their boundaries marking the separation from the internal to the external, he noticed how the bi-dimensional spatial and temporal distinction of the self from the ‘Other’ (that Lacanian psychoanalysis addresses) entails that bodies are contemporarily forging and forged by space due to the distinctive symmetries/dualities (such as man/woman) that subjectivity produces (Lefebvre 1991).Funding his theory on lived experience he observed how repetitive everydayness worked towards reinforcing structures by leaving them unquestioned. Everyday activities are often labelled as trivial since the combination of the linear rationality that explains them and the natural cycles (such as days and nights) within which they are performed concur to mask their structures (Lefebvre and Levich 1987). ‘The everyday can also be analysed as the uniform aspect of the major sectors of social life: work, family, private life, leisure. These sectors, though distinct as forms, are imposed upon in their practice by a structure allowing us to discover what they share: organized passivity.’ (Lefebvre and Levich 1987:10).


Body hair presents several facets: biological, cultural and subjective. All these aspects and the explorative nature of this research led me towards a methodology that was primarily informed on various levels by feminism and social constructionism. Feminism is not a uniform movement. I have used a qualitative approach focusing on subjectivities (including the researcher) and questioning the system of power relations (Alvesson and Sköldberg 2005). In order to achieve such a level of problematisation I have borrowed from feminist methodology standpoint theory and reflexivity. Standpoint theory questioned hair attitudes from the subjects’ point of view (Ramazanoglu and Holland 2002). Reflexivity involved highlighting my role as a researcher, unravelling my positioning in the power relations during the research process and addressing ethics (Ramazanoglu and Holland 2002). This chapter will cover the research practicalities and outcomes including the sample, the interviewing process and data interpretation along with the methodological reasoning behind it.

3.1 Standpoint theory, cultural constructionism and the sample

Since the topic was presenting a lot of particularities, standpoint theory was the best way to represent the complexity of different experiences starting from different identities and identifications. Standpoint theory focuses on how the positioning informs power relations and it generally involves oppressed and less represented groups (Ramazanoglu and Holland 2002). It was ideal to embrace the feminist politics behind my enquiry but it could be problematic in the assumption that a certain identity or identification necessarily makes the participant feel oppressed (Ramazanoglu and Holland 2002) or that oppression enables subjects to produce objective accounts (Stoetzler and Yuval-Davis 2002). It would have been equally controversial to ignore positioning when examining difference in practices that previous research highlighted as gendered, sexualised, classed and raced (Fahs and Delgado 2011, Fahs 2011b). In order to avoid generalisation while at the same time stirring away from relativism (Ramazanoglu and Holland 2002), I combined standpoint theory with social constructionism discussed in chapter 2. Experience, perceptions and more importantly imaginations were regarded as data, not because they were seen as mirroring an objective reality but because they contributed to the construction and positioning of the participants as subjects (Skeggs 1997 cited in Ramazanoglu and Holland 2002, Stoetzler and Yuval-Davis 2002). Since I interrogated habitus and performativity (see chapter 2), I used standpoints as a way to analyse how ‘subjects are formed and reformulated’ (Butler 1999:125) by the conflation of the personal with the social.

The sample was, specifically selected for differences in gender (trans*, queer, woman, man), sexuality (lesbian, bisexual, gay, queer, heterosexual), ethnicity and age; it was reached through snowball sampling and has been anonymised. By asking participants to choose their own pseudonym I hoped to empower them, although some of them did not deem it important to choose and were assigned one by me. Ideally aiming at approximately 1 representative (Denzin cited in Baker and Edwards 2012) for each group, the ideal sample size was theorised as composed of 16 people.I only managed to get 14 participants due to two drop outs. The drop outs were both male (although I have no way of knowing how they identified) and I struggled to find men, in particular heterosexual ones, willing to participate. Whenever I asked they shied away, avoided me or just plainly stated that they’d rather not talk about this topic. I had to actively negotiate men’s participation (with one exception) while females accepted more promptly and showed more enthusiasm. Men unanimously perceived advertisement as something targeting mostly women which might partially explain their reluctance to relate body hair to themselves despite the work they put on a regular basis on their facial hair.Agewise the sample was composed of participants from 20 to 60 year old. The final size of 14 people was still acceptable according to Adler and Adler that suggest 12 participants are enough for a graduate research due to the small amount of time to complete the task (cited in Baker and Edwards 2012). Since a fair amount of diversity was nonetheless achieved, the research is still valid provided the reader is aware of the limits of sample composition highlighted in table 1.

TABLE 1 – Sample composition

Participants 14
Currently removing hair 11
Mostly trimming 1
Currently not removing hair 2
Sexual orientation
Heterosexual 7
Gay 2
Bisexual 2
Lesbian 1
Loves men but prefers to have sex with women 1
Queer 1
Women 8
Men 3
Queers 2
Trans man 1
Other identifications
Feminists 3
Asians 2
Black 1



3.2 Methods and ethics: interviews and comparisons

The research involved semi-structured interviews therefore engaging with ‘researcher provoked-data’ (Silverman 2006:201). This kind of data was at clear risk of being romanticised by the journalistic belief that interviews are necessarily the best way to access experience (Silverman 2006), that data speaks for itself (Ramazanoglu and Holland 2002) and that the context does not influence the production (Alvesson and Sköldberg 2005). The research could have been designed to access naturally occurring data (Silverman 2006) but since it was exploratory, I believed that the difference in standpoints that I was aiming at was only accessible through interviewing participants directly. Data does not speak for itself, it needs thorough analysis to make sense of it and that has been achieved using thematic analysis (see subchapter 3.3). The whole asking process about body hair was designed not only to produce data but to work towards the empowerment of participants by triggering reflection about a topic that is generally given for granted (Campbell and Wasco 2000). My influence in data production was clear both to me and to some of the participants who stated that they had not consciously thought about body hair so much prior to the research.
To minimise the discomfort during the interview, the place was agreed mutually and Skype interviews were made available. Skype interviews were included both to optimise the participants’ time and resources, to make them more comfortable in their own chosen environment and to enhance their ability to manage discomfort or anxiety by interrupting the interview with a click if they so wished (Hanna 2012, Deakin and Wakefield 2013). Only two interviews took place via Skype and one participant only agreed to email me the answers. Participants were also emailed questions in advance so they could both familiarise with them and discuss anything they might find uncomfortable with me beforehand. The questions are illustrated in appendix A and were designed to explore the general perceptions about body hair, what it was expressing to others and how they read it (or its lack) on others. Question four and five were investigating socialisation into hair removal and how advertisement was involving self-perception. I was also interested to explore pain perception and its negotiation and hygiene. I prepared a number of prompts to investigate routine, insecurities, motivations that can be partially read in appendix B where Unicorn’s interview, is being reported as a sample. On top of semi-structured interviews, participants were requested to fill in the comparisons ‘As hairy as…’ and ‘As hairless as…’ and to give a set of adjectives for each comparison. Metaphors are often used to describe ‘people and actions as out of place’ (Cresswell 1997) and they are effective in capturing everyday life (Lefebvre cited in Cresswell 1997). They were therefore used to investigate the contextual references behind body hair.

3.3 Data interpretation: ethics and thematic analysis

Interpretation of data is an area fraught with power issues for which accountability of the researcher needs to be discussed (Ramazanoglu and Holland 2002). For most of the participants I was an ‘insider’. While it helped to gain access and establish a trusting relationship it did not necessarily mean that we shared views on body hair. Recognising my own prejudices against hair removal (and making beauty) as an empowering tool, I tried to question them in the data analysis. The extent to which I have achieved the abstention from judgement is limited by the political scope of the research and by the methods used.There was a power issue in interpreting data of immigrants and migrants into the UK. The risk was of ‘colonising other people’s experiences’ (Ramazanoglu and Holland 2002:139) or being what Silverman has termed as ‘tourist’ researcher using research to examine the odd and unusual (2006:6). The awareness of this risk along with an approach based on the validity of data rather than on its oddity was used to counterbalance it. Accountability towards participants was also offered in the form of transparency both about the process and about the outcomes. Whenever they showed interest in knowing the results I offered to email the whole dissertation to them. The method used to analyse the data was thematic analysis in its constructionist interpretation (Braun and Clarke 2006). Body hair proved to be methodologically effective in discussing broader issues. The data produced was so dense and rich that it was not possible to provide an overview in such a short dissertation. Themes were therefore theoretically driven, the focus being on an in-depth description of selected themes (Braun and Clarke 2006). The analysis interested the latent level of the data and was conducted in two phases. The first one consisted in highlighting general themes in the interviews and the second in the individualisation of theoretically related themes in both interviews and metaphors (Braun and Clarke 2006).


In order to collate both interviews and metaphors data this chapter begins addressing the comparisons, follows with specific themes emerging from the interviews and finally discusses the implications of the data presented. The part addressing interview data is divided into two subchapters. The first one addresses processes of socialisation into hair removal focusing exclusively on family and peers (due to space restrictions) and it involves context in its temporal connotation. The second targets context in its geographical and material sense, referencing to body parts. Brighton as a recreational and sexualised space is compared with competitive and formal environments such as workplaces where the normative hair is a performance of ‘properhood’. Throughout the whole process, since it is not practical to report the whole range of responses, I had been looking at the binary extremes of the data.

4.1 The metaphoric hair

This symbolic part of the research was designed to test the construction of hair against its opposites. It was meant to investigate both the recurring animal metaphors for hairiness (Toerien and Wilkinson 2008) and its ‘double opposition to women and to children’ (Synnott 1987:390) that previous research highlighted (see also chapter 2). What is noticeable from the results in table 2 is that the same number of comparisons for both hairy and hairless prompted far more adjectives for the former and that a consistent number of them were related to wild animals with what appears to be fairly negative connotations (see note). The hairless ones were more positive, varied and not as strongly connected to childhood as the hairy ones were to animals (see table 3).

Animals Human Objects Total
Hairy 16 3 1 20
Hairless 6 7 7 20
Positive Negative* Neutral Total
Hairy 20 45 9 74
Hairless 31 15 9 55

*Some adjectives were not intrinsically negative. They were deemed negative because of their position in a string of negative ones or because the participant made explicit reference to it. I did not directly ask all of the participants how they perceived them.

Metaphor n° of times cited
Bear 6
Ape 3
Monkey 3
Gorilla 2
Wolf 1
Cat 1
Metaphor n° of times cited
Baby’s part (cheek/bottom) 2
Baby 1
Old person 1
Bald man 1

As Jack Halberstam (2013) noted, both the animal and the child have been thought of as wild, outside normative adulthood and in need of heavy training. It is thus possible to equate wildness on one hand with anarchy as the unpredictable state that is not governed by orderly rules but also with freedom from the policing that training entails. It appears as if the hairy imaginary is not constructed against the hairless one but against the dyad human/animal that turns the hairy body into a geographical Other ‘Both denied and desired’ since ‘the Same or Self requires an Other against which it can identify itself’ (Longhurst 1995:99). A distinction that is also theorised by Bourdieu as aspirational and class-related and that connects to the construction of hairlessness as a symbol of civilisation highlighted in the subchapter 2.1. The imaginary concerning primates (apes, gorillas, monkeys), in a country like Britain where they do not live freely, seemed also to mirror the Darwinian distinction between human kind and the animal realm and all its derivations previously discussed in the sub-chapter 2.1.

4.2 Socialisation, embodiment and emotional relationships

Socialisation or training into hair removal for this research presented striking similarities with a recent broader research investigating appearance management during adolescence (Johnson et al. 2014). The training, although prevalent during puberty, did not seem to end with primary socialisation (Berger and Luckmann 1967). Anytime a comparison resulted in the perception of personal flaws regarding body hair, the subsequent feeling of lack of power triggered an active involvement in ‘improving’ one’s appearance or doing beauty as a means to gain (or not to lose) social (Bourdieu 1986), economic and emotional capital (Zembylas 2007). Congruently with research highlighted in the subchapter 2.2, hairlessness was described as a tool to perform womanhood in order to feel proper, adult and to fit in with peers during puberty.

To me I guess it was like getting into adulthood by starting to do things that women and older women would do […] it was the woman thing to do […] I guess everybody was doing it and I was doing it too. – Music Madness

Men (again in line with previous research) used body hair to perform masculinity, virility and neatness.

I’m a trans man and so for me my beard and the ability to sort of demonstrate a kind of very visible masculinity are extremely important. James

Our generation was brought up on the image of Sean Connery as James Bond, so a hairy body (especially chest) was considered a mark of virilityPeter

I’m very much into trimming and keeping things tidy and short and clean – James

Minimising hair’s importance to them was also a way to show conformity and normalcy. This might partially explain the reluctance to participate to the research as a means to perform manhood.

Now body hair is not of particular importance to me. It sort of ended up in what I consider to be a fairly average range neither very little nor a great deal – James

I don’t think my body hair has any particular message for anyone, being rather average. – Peter

Peter was the only one to acknowledge media influence (see previous quote) and he was also the only one to casually and indirectly mention parents, although they seemed to have played quite a role on his perception and insecurities around body hair.

My father commented that my brother would turn out to be “the hairy one” (like Esau) and I would be the “smooth one”, like Jacob. This was the first time the subject had even occurred to me. […] Beards were sometimes considered a sign of weakness (that was certainly my mother’s view, she hated beards!), so I never grew one. […] Abundant body hair on other men might sometimes be a slight source of envy – Peter

Scott directly acknowledged peers’ influence

I have red hair. It was much more red when I was younger. There comes a point, especially in the UK with red hair, when you can become very self-conscious about it […] for a long time I was deeply uncomfortable with the colour of my hair […] I had a lot of facial hair […] I wanted to get rid as much of it as possible just because of self-consciousness about the colour. – Scott

describing how awareness due to bullying led him to remove his facial hair more often.

Female participants, on the other hand, acknowledged the influence of mothers and female peers extensively. Their narratives describe how the emotional bonds with caring figures and comparisons with peers perceived as successful influenced their decision.

I did many different treatments when I was younger… mostly because my mum asked me to do it… didn’t ask me… I don’t know Music Madness

She had already started having boyfriends and she was shaving and another friend was more outspoken and more sociable than me so she was going clubbing every week end etc. she was also already shaving and I thought ‘Ok, I should start shaving as well’ […] when you are 16 you emulate people, right? You look for examples or for tutors in a way. So they were doing it, I started doing it as well. Amanda

I saw my mum epilating, […] I remember that it really hurt but I remember also that I didn’t question why she was doing it, it was really a given to me. […] I think I just saw her doing it and it took me maybe another two or three years to do it to my own body. Unicorn

The bonds made it difficult for participants to acknowledge the power of their models since it was not performed as an authoritarian imposition but as mentoring: a socially approved and encouraged practice theoretically addressing the wellbeing of the trainee.

4.2.1    Deviant and collective persuasion

When models were not mirroring collective norms, they were not persuasive. Margaret’s feminist mother not only did not convince her daughter that she did not need to shave but ended up buying her tools for removal for her birthday. Only a consistent group of visible hairy women seemed to have had an inspirational effect in challenging the hairless norm.

There were loads of women who weren’t shaved, with really hairy legs and armpits and it was a really empowering experience for me – Mishka

The power of the group also worked towards undermining confidence as with bullying, in another example of ginger hair teasing.

[In] Primary school, I used to get bullied for being ginger. […] I was very very very aware from that age about hair and I think that might have influenced how I feel about it. […] Because I was insulted about it, when it started growing, immediately it was gone. Immediately. – A

Where power was recognised as manifest and imposed, it allowed for a margin of protest and challenge.

On this dating website called OK cupid […] one of the questions was to the men ‘Are women obliged to remove body hair?’ and over 90% of them said yes. […] If they think that we are obliged to do that, I want to show that we’re not – A

Collective criticism influenced the victimisation of the participant while collective appreciation acted as an empowerment. Collectivity acts as a magnifier of power but as highlighted earlier if it involves an openly authoritarian implication (as ‘obliged’) it is easier to detect and question.

4.2.2    Trainers

I define trainers as those agents whose attributed educational role makes them collectively responsible of the trainee’s behaviour. They can be parents, older siblings, carers etc. Analysing the trainer’s side, there were two main factors that seemed to have triggered pressure and policing: avoidance of stigma at all costs because of the emotional connection with the trainee and positive social reinforcement for the trainer if they succeeded in the persuasion.

When I was 14-15 I started to have a lot of hormonal problems and I had some chin hair, so she would take me to the beautician to have them removed. And from them I started to do[…] ’glycolic acid’ […] It was fucking painful […] And then, after that, you know they started to do these laser machines, I think it was early 2000 and so my mum said: ‘You can go to do the laser on your legs’. At that time it was super expensive and I told her: ‘Mum, to be honest I really don’t care to do it’ ‘No, no. Do it because then you feel better’ – Music Madness

They [sisters] would warn me about doing it, giving me pressure but I didn’t feel it like a negative pressure, it was like positive, not positive but it was making me aware of something, a social rule. […] To grow a moustache […] was also a sign of class. People that belonged to the lower classes wouldn’t take it away, they were not aware. Kyrilla

If you see somebody removing their pubic hair, people instantly think that you’re a sort of a sexual pervert […] My children are strongly affected by the Western culture […] and they understand the difference between body hair in this country and Japan […] so when they go to Japan, they just prepare not to remove their pubic hair even though their boyfriend and girlfriend insist on them doing that. That is really important for them and for me as well. In Japan we have this tradition of having common baths, hot spas. And you go there without wearing anything. – Masako

The trainers’ relation to their own body hair mattered. For instance Music Madness’ mother hardly had any body hair: that might have helped shaping her daughter’s hairy body like a threatening Other to be tamed. Their pressure mirrored the combination of their own feelings around body hair, their perception of their educational role and the training they received because of their social and cultural positioning.

4.3 Mapping the body

A and Amanda were the keener removers in terms of body areas covered and dedication. A took pride in the results but not in the process, Amanda took pride in the process, particularly in waxing rather than shaving despite the pain. Amanda also described extensively contexts that would make her feel uncomfortable. In both of their discourses they used verbs (emphasised) that described objective obligation or need to control their hair.

I don’t like shaving but I like the results so I suppose I do it because I like the results. […] For legs it could be an extra ten to fifteen minutes. Arms, down there and it used to be eyebrows as well so I could say it goes 30 minutes probably and I will do it every couple of days. The eyebrows has to be everyday, the arms are everyday for me as well and I used to do my forearms as well. I got into the habits of shaving arms and my forearms, then I stopped doing that because I thought ‘I don’t want it to grow back thicker’ but I think for some reasons I got into doing that because I just want to be all completely smooth. – A (emphasis added)

When I go swimming I don’t want my underarms too furry […]When I go running I don’t want to see hair when I look down. […] and also of course when I go on holiday, definitely. Before going on holiday, regardless of where I go, even if I was to go skiing [I remove body hair]. […] when there is an event or something coming up and I feel I have to get waxed. […] if I had a partner probably I would get waxed more often. […] Of course my face is always visible so the face has to be taken care of regardless. […] if I had to go to the hospital, urgently and I wasn’t waxed […] I wouldn’t feel very comfortable at all. […] When I wax my calves […] it’s ok, it’s not painful […] upper leg is a bit painful but it’s ok, I can stand it. Bikini line and Brazilian […] that’s really painful. It’s unbelievably painful for me but I do it anyway. As I said I feel more comfortable and I would never shave. I wouldn’t do my bikini line nor would I ever do a Brazilian with the razor. Underarms are ok, they are not too painful, just a little. – Amanda (emphasis added)

These comments highlight a geography of the body that may be matching the imaginary of specific cultures and periods with gender and legacy. A and Scott’s hair colour might have been a geographical reference to their non-English heritage since red haired people are statistically more present in Ireland and Scotland. In a period in which racism against Irish and Scottish was condoned in London (Fogg 2013), this attitude might have been mirrored by the peers’ bullying. Amanda was born and lived in Italy like me and we are approximately the same age. Waxing and epilating for our generation was constructed as the only appropriate way of hair removal and it was a way to perform both class and womanhood. Since the cultural context matters, travelling can inform different geographies of the body.

When I lived in Uzbekistan it was quite attractive for women to have a uni-brow. And for the women who didn’t have it, like naturally, they would actually put mascara and paint it on […] It’s interesting because […] I assumed that most of the females there from America […] probably stopped shaving […] cultural shaming just was not the norm. – B

Beauty, where defined by the visible presence of hair (even if it’s just eyebrows) dispels the Western paradigm of hairlessness and the metaphor human/animal although it still reinforces the idea that beauty-work is a woman’s job.

4.4 Hairy sexuality versus hairless competition

Diversity can also be found within the UK. Unicorn and Margaret mostly did not remove their body hair (although Unicorn said her hair is not very visible) and they were both part of the queer community in Brighton. They highlighted how their hairy bodies passing unnoticed made Brighton a place where hairiness was in the open more than in any other British place.

I think Brighton is a very diverse and very inclusive and open community: if it’s warm and you’re wearing a short dress with lots of body hair you wouldn’t necessarily raise an eyebrow, but during the summer holidays when lots of tourists are here you can really feel the difference – Unicorn

I certainly know people here who don’t [remove hair] and I think that also if I go to another part of the country and people see my body hair and then they hear that I’m from Brighton then they go: ‘Oh ok’. […] I went to Edinburgh and literally like… just walking out of the airport lots of people were staring at me. And I was quite surprised because I always forget that there is a chance that Brighton is slightly a nicer place to live than other places. – Margaret

Margaret in particular concluded that the British gaze imagines Brighton as a ‘free zone’ where behaviours and appearances that are otherwise unacceptable are condoned and even expected. It constructs Brighton as a circumscribed transgressive and sexualised area (Munt 1995) which could be equated, getting back to the animal symbology, to a zoo. There was a stark difference though, from how the Brightonians in the sample viewed their body hair depending on whether they identified as queer or lesbian.

Queer is an umbrella term to describe any expression of the self that transcends norms and policing. It can be sometimes used to encompass the whole range of diversity within the LGBTI community and beyond. Within lesbian culture, the butch/femme couple entails a gendered presentation of the self whose conventions of behaviour and appearance vary with the degree of ‘butchness’ (Halberstam 1998).

I did the butch thing for years where I had shaved head, didn’t shave my legs, did trim my armpits with scissors but didn’t shave them and then at my sister’s wedding two years ago I had to shave my legs because I wore a dress. […] So I’d rather have shaved legs than not, whereas for years I just didn’t bother because A) I had it in my head that I wasn’t attractive enough to wear feminine clothes and be feminine and B) you can’t be gay… it was easier being gay with hairy legs. […] Shaving is part of the girly faff. That’s sort of what feminine women do. I can’t say feminine. More… I don’t know. Girly faff, really. Because I don’t think you’re necessarily any less feminine if you don’t shave your legs and you don’t wear a dress but I kind of prefer it. I mean: to me, years and years and years of being gay, before I thought I can be gay and like the girly faff and I can wear a dress and I can shave my legs and my mother doesn’t necessarily win. – Mishka (emphasis added)

In Mishka’s statement there is quite a lot at stake: her confrontational relationship with her mother, her past identification as butch and her own relation with her body.

The butch/femme couple is based on a mutual erotic gaze that presumes and opposes specific appearances. The butch appearance allows mutual visibility and recognition in a public space like the street where the femme gaze lingers upon her to signal attraction (Munt 1995). In the shift from a butch appearance to liking ‘girly faff’, Mishka seemed to have missed the erotic public gaze on her hairy legs in favour of the ability to pamper and appreciate herself. The shift also meant that in order to deserve an appreciative or a neutral gaze both from her audience and from herself, she now needed a visible proof of active engagement such as hairless legs. The same meritocracy that converts an appreciative gaze into a positive reinforcement for doing hairlessness and beauty turned dating into a competitive context where economic language was used.

If you are competing in a world where partnerships are getting harder and harder to come by, you tend to do whatever little things make you feel more attractive, that show that you look after your body – Mishka

Visible leg hair can be conceived differently depending on the positioning. Outsiders may justify it as an acceptable eccentricity within what they conceive as a leisure and queered space. Insiders are not uniform. The specificity of butch appearance requires body hair to construct the equation sexy-hairy by making it a tool for personal and political identification. Queer, being a term that eschews distinctions, constructs itself on personal choice and although it does not dismiss body hair as a tool of expression, it rejects body hair as a tool to claim anything but personal freedom.

Not only body hair norms had to do with situations of distinction or conformity linked to conventions and customs, but as in Mishka’s previous quote, competitive contexts also triggered both policing and self-awareness/control. The workplace was particularly relevant to competition. B was an entrepreneur who would only shave her armpits when visible and she witnessed her colleague, a dance teacher with a sleeveless dress, sporting hairy armpits at one of her events. James was a self-employed and Saudamini a professional dancer. They all talked about proper presentation as a duty towards their imagined audiences.

I was actually really shocked because it’s a very bold thing to do when that is your business […] and especially here in England I think you have to… I think I would have thought ‘Oh my clients might think that as a bit off-putting so I should probably shave my armpits, I don’t usually do it but I should probably do it’. […] I think it was a really interesting thing for that to happen, you know… the fact that I was so shocked by it even though I probably hadn’t shaved my armpits – B (emphasis added)

I would shave around my beard, probably two or three times a week and that’s partly depending on when I’m working and seeing clients so I’ll make sure that I’m looking smart. – James (emphasis added)

I waxed my legs […] this was within a work context where I had to insure that […] my legs were clean Saudamini (emphasis added)

The work context is fraught with power relations. It is an arena where the body is scrutinised and disciplined and where strict rules about appearance apply as ‘Selling […] also involves selling oneself’ (McDowell 1995:94). The economic remuneration constructs the audience (employer, colleagues, clients) as a jury on whose verdict both one’s position and the transaction depend. There is not much space for a ‘deviant’ appearance or creativity in presentation (as underlined verbs indicate) since conformity is used to reassure and persuade the customer about the validity of the product/service.

4.5 Data narratives and recommendations

The focus of the data presented, whose purpose was to broaden the discursive understanding of the construction of body hair and its removal, has shown how during the socialisation process emotional bonds with peers and family, in particular mothers and admired peers, mattered (Johnson et al. 2014). They were at the heart of mirroring hair removal for females. Men were less likely to recognise the importance of familiar conditioning and bonds in hair removal because of how masculinity was constructed against the average body hair. The products of socialisation, though, were not informed by gender. Behaviour that was modelled against a perceived negative distinction, (for instance Peter’s shaving in order not to show weakness or Kyrilla’s upper lip hair removal in order not to appear of a lower class) informed long-term routines and insecurities. In most cases it still informed current perceptions and practices unless they had been deconstructed by active questioning and self-reflection. Identity and identification also informed the performativity (Butler 1993) of hairlessness and hairiness in order to constitute coherent perceptions of the self. Hair removal practices were embodied thanks to the historically and geographically constituted habitus: the perceived ‘personal’ taste was a product of emotional attachments to the models of socialisation, the values attributed to the practice in a specific context and culture and the power relations and perceptions within it. Context mattered. Hair removal appeared more important in places or moments where the performance of distinction or conformity to rules was perceived as a duty. The distinctions performed were of various kinds: the self was distinguished from others (separating the personal from the social), the context from other contexts, the ordinary from the extraordinary etc.

Environments perceived as competitive or unequal triggered a wide range of comparison, insecurities, anxieties around one’s own and other’s appearance. The lack of power resulted in the perception of hair-related flaws to be amended where possible. The visible amendments were a capital in themselves, traded for a positive or neutral gaze on the social level and for self-confidence on the personal one thus reinforcing body-awareness, control and policing through the reiterated practice. The eagerness of the display of visible amendments was proportional to the insecurity around one’s hair and was partially connected to the visibility of the body area involved. Exceptions to the hairy/hairless norm like those of the hairy queers in Brighton and hairy eyebrows on women in Uzbekistan on one hand illustrate other possibilities to the Western rigidity around beauty, gender and body hair but on the other their exceptionality and marginality serve only as a reinforcement of the myths around body hair. Sexual and gender playfulness and alternative grooming involving body hair are circumscribed to othered and peculiarly out-of-place spaces.

In order to get rid of the rigidity and prejudice surrounding body hair, the Darwinian myth that men are intrinsically hairier than women, justified by evolutionary attraction that distinguishes us from the animal realm, needs to be carefully deconstructed at educational, normative and personal levels. Only addressing the whole sets of assumptions such as gender as a binary, compulsory heterosexuality (Rich 1980), a ‘natural’ hairlessness of women and hairyness of men, that inform structural imbalances can we avoid to be tamed by our own construction of body hair. Hairiness as a symbol of the wild allowed the equation hairy-animal that informed and still informs stereotypes about age, gender, sexuality, class and ‘race’. It is less a matter of dismissing grooming, since it ‘apparently promotes the intricate bonds of affection that are so important for social animals’ (Smith 2011:14), and more a matter of discerning what is promoting affection and wellbeing against the practices that are dividing us into opposites and inflicting unnecessary anxiety, insecurity, physical and emotional pain. And this is by no means trivial.


Concluding, the research aimed at investigating contextual and subjective practices concerning body hair by also looking at processes of socialisation into practices. In order to explore the topic I interviewed a sample of participants selected by diversity of identity and identification. I additionally asked them to complete hairy and hairless metaphors and data was then analysed using thematic analysis. Metaphors indicated the role of the symbolic distinctions (such as animal/human or man/woman) that the visible presence or lack of hair embodies. The dualities highlighted are at the root of structural imbalances constructing out-of-place spaces and social groups. This process of distinction is reinforced by training, habits and competition. Trading compliance with social acceptance leaves little space for self-expression and choice whether one is part of the mainstream culture or smaller ‘deviant’ groups. While ‘deviant’ groups and spaces can open up to the possibility of a more varied, playful and relaxed approach to body hair in order to deconstruct the imaginary around it, for the moment their marginalised position construct them as the exception to confirm the rule. It is only by addressing myths constructed with the aid of body hair at micro, meso and macro level that awareness about the structures they sustain can reverse even partially the given for granted practices and perceptions.


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Appendix A – Questions

1)    How important is body hair (where by body hair I mean both facial and body hair)?

2)    What does your body hair (or the lack of it) tells others about you? Think about different degrees of others like your partner/a friend/ someone you don’t know and feel free to distinguish between different parts of the body.

3)    What does body hair on others tells you about them? Think about different degrees of others like your partner/a friend/ someone you don’t know and feel free to distinguish between different parts of the body.

4)    Could you describe the first time you were made aware or became self-conscious about body hair?

5)    How do you find hair-removal advertisements?

6)    What role does pain or pain-avoidance has or had in the decision of if, when and how you remove or avoid removal of body hair?

7)    Body hair and hygiene. Please state your views.


Appendix B – Unicorn interview

1)   How important is body hair (where by body hair I mean both facial and body hair)?

That’s an interesting question. Hm, I think it’s not very important to me, it’s not something that I would think about a lot, it’s not something that I would talk with friends unless it’s a specific feminist discussion at the feminist collective where we might have body hair as a topic. Yeah, otherwise…

Ok. So… you never think about it?

I rarely think about it, if I do then it’s not something that takes up a lot of friends space or it’s not something that I obsess about. I wouldn’t think a long time about what kind of razor I would buy or what kind of method I would use. Actually a few weeks ago my friend, she did sugaring. So you could wax: there’s a new technique that’s sugaring and she told me about it. I was interested but it wasn’t important to me, it’s not something I would care much about.

Do you remove your body hair?

No, very rarely, sometimes I kind of shave my bikini zone a little bit but I have my armpit hair and my leg hair always, all year, not just summer. Also because I have bright body hair you can’t really see it anyway. And I sometimes wonder if I… like I have a lot of friends that wear short dresses in the summer and they leave their dark body hair, to them it’s a really strong statement. I couldn’t have that statement because no one really sees my bright body hair anyway. So I was jokingly saying last summer that I was a bit jealous that I can’t protest properly because it doesn’t matter if I shave or not, no one will notice.

2)   What does your body hair (or the lack of it) tells others about you?

That’s interesting. I think when I was younger I really had a strong sense that I had to shave in order to be seen like a clean person, like someone who’s looking after themselves especially as a woman, now I think, in my circle of friends or in my social world it doesn’t tell them anything about me that I don’t shave. But I think it does tell people outside my usual social world definitely something about me, especially as a queer woman with long hair. If someone is very sensitive and they’re looking for signs, the only thing that as an outside straight person would make them think that I might be queer is that I’m not shaving. But maybe that’s in my head, I don’t know.

You were talking about somebody that you don’t know, but what about a partner or a friend?

Hm… I don’t have a partner.

Think about an ideal one.

Hm, I think a close friend, again wouldn’t mind if I shaved or not. I have a friend who’s really obsessed about shaving, to her is self-care and she… for example she would get ready for a party and she would have a shower and shave from head to toe and come out and be really happy and I think that’s really cute and I think in my circle of friends we have this understanding that it really doesn’t matter and it’s about personal choice, it’s not more radical to not shave or anything else if you do shave, you know you just do what you want to do. In a relationship, the same really. I think that I’ve considered dating in the last two years, I’m pretty sure that they have the same kind of thoughts in that they think everyone should just do what they want to do.

What if you were asked to shave? Or if you were asked not to remove your hair?

I think I would be flexible, I think it would really depend on how deep the relationship is with the person. If someone I just started dating came up to me and say ‘Look I really want you to shave your legs cause Ugh!’ I would be like: “Er… no!’ but if someone shows me that they really care about me and it’s kind of a more trusting long-term relationship and they can explain to me in a really nice way why they really like shaving or not shaving then I would consider doing it. I wouldn’t do it every day because it’s a lot of effort and takes a lot of time but I would definitely consider doing it.

3)   What does body hair on others tells you about them? Think about different degrees of others like your partner/ a friend/ someone you don’t know and feel free to distinguish between different areas of the body.

I think at the beach in Brighton, being around queer people and feminists when we go out… well obviously my body hair is bright so you can’t see it but I think if I see other women not shaving it makes me smile, it’s more like… you know I can smile at them in solidarity and get: ‘Hey! I’m not shaving either, woo!’. But it doesn’t tell me anything about them as a person even if I know their reasons for shaving or not shaving. I don’t think I would ever meet someone here in Brighton and see their body hair and make any big conclusions about it. Does that makes sense?

Yes, it makes sense. What about someone you don’t know?

Hm, if I meet a stranger and saw their body hair?

I think if I saw a stranger that’s female and straight I wouldn’t be surprised if they do shave, I think that’s the expectation I would have because it’s the norm, it’s what I’ve learnt.

But how can you tell whether she’s straight or not?

That’s a good question, it [hair removal] would be an indicator to me if I’m really honest although it’s a shame because I really wish we wouldn’t need these labels and even if they do exist then we wouldn’t use physical traits as an indicator. But as a survival strategy, that’s what you do.

So you would assume she’s straight if she shaves.


What if she has hair?

I think if she has hair, if I would like her that would make me more hopeful that she isn’t straight but I wouldn’t be able to tell, obviously.

What if it was a man?

If it was a man, I think I’ve never really spent a lot of time thinking about men’s body hair, whether they are shaving or not I have no friend who has very hairy legs and who does shave. I think I know that it does attract a lot of tension but I don’t even know anything, I’ve never really thought about men.

What about a hairy partner?

I think again I really wouldn’t mind. Yes it’s not even something that would come up in a conversation very early on in a relationship. I don’t think I would start dating someone and have a shower with them and be like: ‘Hey, why are you not shaving?’ or ‘Why are you shaving?’

But would you be appreciative if they had hair?

I wouldn’t care honestly.

I am asking because you said that you would be appreciative if you’d meet a stranger on the beach who doesn’t shave.

Yes that’s more like friendly solidarity, I think. Because I know that as a group of hairy women on the beach we would attract attention, you know that’s not about attraction, or finding it attractive or not attractive, it’s just about knowing that we are a group standing out at the beach and smiling at each other in solidarity.

Are there any other places where you think having hair is a political statement?

The swimming pool. I think the swimming pool and in the summer just the city in general because it gets really hot and people show more skin and I think in the summer… I think Brighton is a very diverse and very inclusive and open community: if it’s warm and you’re wearing a short dress with lots of body hair you wouldn’t necessarily raise an eyebrow, but during the summer holidays when lots of tourists are here you can really feel the difference, I feel. When people are going out to clubs and you see them in the streets and I think that people that are kind of deviating from the norm are sticking more out and there really is a change of atmosphere over the summer in Brighton where maybe people do raise eyebrows.

4)   Could you please describe the first time you were made aware or became self-conscious about your body hair?

Really, really early, probably I think… I remember being really young maybe nine or ten I saw my mum epilating, so she removed her body hair with the electric machine, I remember that it really hurt but I remember also that I didn’t question why she was doing it, it was really a given to me. I just didn’t know my mum any other way, it was a bit of a ritual: every two or three weeks she would sit in the living room and do this machine thing, and I knew it hurt and looking back it was really weird that I never questioned, I never asked her: ‘Why are doing something that hurts you?’. I think I just saw her doing it and it took me maybe another two or three years to do it to my own body and you know I noted that I had body hair. I think I started shaving really early maybe at 12 already. My mum was always liberal I was always allowed to do whatever I wanted to do. I had my first piercing at 12 as well, I had my nose pierced. If I asked for something… actually I already worked at the time so I had my own money to spend, I could buy my own razor, I didn’t need to tell her that kind of thing. I was babysitting, so I had a bit of money that I could handle myself and buy razors if I wanted to. And I know, I remember I was reading a lot of women’s magazines, with lots of silly silly things that weren’t good for me, I think that just perpetuated the idea that I was… I knew I was expected to be shaved and I think I didn’t really question that until I was maybe twenty or twenty-one. So during that time, maybe eight years, I always shaved and put a lot of effort in it. Like I used foam and cream after and I did it quite regularly maybe every two or three days. Yes, lots of work.

What happened next? How did you realise you wanted to stop?

Yes I ended a relationship with a straight man when I was twenty-one. We were dating from when I was seventeen to when I was twenty-one, for almost four years. I think in the last part of that relationship I started questioning lots of things: what I wanted from life, I did a bank training at the time and I think that this decision to do that had a lot to do with him and the expectations that were kind of… that people around us had about us and our relationship. So I broke up with him and I think that was a big coming of age thing or thinking harder what I really wanted, even though he’s been really supportive I don’t think I have been in that relationship and he was imposing a lot of things on me, I think he wouldn’t have minded if I hadn’t shaved, really. But it was just that kind of framework that made me not question that kind of stuff. And then I left my town at twenty-one, I moved to London, I met lots of new people and at the time I didn’t really specifically meet feminist or queer women or anyone who would specifically sit down with me and go: ‘You know, actually you don’t have to shave’. It was more like generally having more freedom in my life and thinking different things and realising that that’s one part of it. And I had a really, really hard job at the time so that was the first time that self care became an issue for me, or something that I would think about like thinking about my free time and what I wanted to do. Then shaving kind of belonged to having a shower or having a bath and be nice to your body kind of thing, and painting your toenails. And I think as a teenager I had this idea that having time or treating myself was something that would include that kind of thing [shaving], and then I realised that actually I was not doing necessarily something nice for my body, unless I really cared about my skin being soft but I didn’t. So yes, I think that at that time self-care just did it for me and I still have really nice baths and everything but I stopped shaving.

5) How do you find hair-removal advertisements?

How do I find them? I think they’re awful, I think they are so ridiculous, I mean I don’t even know where to start. I think they are always pink, or sometimes they are turquoise, I know the women in them are always photoshopped and I think that’s very hurtful. I think I shield myself from a lot of advertisement so if I do see them I am more aware of it. I don’t watch TV, I have an ad lock on my computer, I don’t listen to the radio. So I’m blocking some media channels, I use the internet a lot but I’m very specific about the websites that I do visit. I actually don’t see that many advertisements for shaving products anymore. But if I am in the supermarket, say at Boots or something, it does amaze me how gendered they are and how unrealistic about women’s bodies and how the benefits of a certain product are marketed as a… you know it’s never about making you feel good about your body it’s about being efficient with your hair and about pain-free and being super smooth and definitely the opposite of being empowering.

What do you think about smoothness?

I think it’s a nice feeling I can really appreciate… I have nothing against someone who says: ‘I enjoy shaving because I love how smooth my legs are’. Legs can feel really smooth for half a day after shaving and then it stops and then I think, for me personally it’s not worth it, it’s too much work, but I can see why people might like it and I don’t have anything against it. I think it’s important to be aware of the fact that this idea of being smooth can be related to being child-like and pressing women in a way that’s making them feel like they need to stay young but I think if you’re aware of that and you just enjoy very smooth skin then there’s nothing to be said against that, it’s a very personal choice.

Do you feel represented in the advertisements?

No, really not.

Do you remember any in particular?

I couldn’t even name the razor but I can vaguely remember the last time seeing a TV advert and it was something on a beach and a there was woman in high heels…

On the beach?

(laughing) Yes, on the beach. Her legs were ridiculously long, so they were definitely photoshopped, it was a very flashy kind of advert that did not relate to my life at all. And I couldn’t even say how… you know if I wanted to buy that kind of product, how I would see something that would relate to my life. I think if I was interested in shaving products, or in hair removal ones, I would go to Lush because I know that they are very ethical, they have lots of vegan products, the products are natural and they smell amazing. I think if I was interested in that then I would be looking in that kind of thing.

Do you think that if the ads weren’t so silly or weird they would attract more customers?

Would they attract me more, or generally?

Both you and generally.

I think generally I am sad to say that women… or general discourse around women’s body is so specific and so removed from reality that an advert that wouldn’t play by these rules that we have as society at the moment would not be very successful and would not attract more interest or customers because that’s just what women grew up with and believe in. I think for me maybe, if Lush came out with say a really easy way or a natural product that would make shaving easier then I would consider it for the summer or something, or for a special treat or a date to shave my legs and have smooth skin. As I said it’s really nice to have smooth skin, I just think it’s not important enough to me to put that much effort in it. It’s unlikely that there could be anything that would really attract my attention.

What about advertisements for men. Do you remember any?

Oh! I think I mainly remember razor blades or machines for men’s beards. It just strikes me how different and differently gendered they are to women’s hair removal products. The colours are brown or dark or maybe green. And the buzz words are very different it’s more about power and efficiency and getting ready for your busy day in the office kind of thing.

Efficiency was also there for women…

Yes, efficiency is probably the only thing that they do share in common. I don’t know, maybe I would even… if I was a woman that was interested into shaving or hair removal I might even look into men’s products because for my experience they’re just more practical, more stable and cheaper often and of higher quality. Yes, that’s an interesting aspect that I would probably look into men’s products. I think I do even remember that I bought men’s razors as an older teenager because they were much cheaper.

6) What role does pain or pain-avoidance has or had in the decision of if, when and how you remove or avoid removal of body hair?

I have tried waxing as a teenager and I mean, what I said earlier that I don’t shave has much to do with the fact that it just takes a long time, you have to do it very often. The alternative for me would be to wax very rarely maybe every two or three weeks if I wanted smooth skin. The fact that I’m not doing that has a lot to do with the fact that it hurts and it takes a lot of effort. I don’t think that if I really wanted it then the pain would put me off. I think it’s bearable, it’s ok, it’s not very nice but you can do it. Yes, but I think it’s unpleasant and unnecessary. Pain does play a role but it’s maybe 50% the other 50% is just convenience, I just can’t be bothered to do it.

You said you don’t get much negative feedback as well, does that plays any role in you not being bothered?

The feedback is interesting because as I said my body’s hair is bright and I’ve just been with my grandparents over Christmas and I was in a situation where I really rarely am, I was being slightly criticised I came down with my flat boots that I always wear and it was Christmas and my grandma was a bit like: ‘Couldn’t you have made more effort because it’s Christmas?’. So I think if I was under the pressure of having very visible dark hair, that might change my feeling slightly, maybe I would then shave once or twice over the summer, I don’t know, but I think it would definitely annoy me and I think it would be something that I would definitely be thinking about if I was being put under pressure by other people.

7) Body hair and hygiene. Please state your views about them.

I think that the idea of not shaving is unhygienic is definitely something that I used to believe as a teenager and it’s definitely a message that we are being given as women, less so as men. I think that maybe, but I’m really not sure about it, I use deodorant and I think I needed to use it less when I was shaving my armpits, but I don’t think that plays a big role. You know, we all shower all the time, we use lovely soap and it really doesn’t matter if someone shaves or not. It doesn’t really tell me anything about the hygiene. I wouldn’t make assumptions about someone’s hygiene just based on their body hair. I know so many people who use so many products, I love Lush, their glittery soap and they have a vanilla soap and I love it, I love the smell and it just doesn’t have anything to do my body hair.

I can see you paint your eyebrows. Would you like to talk about that?

Yes, it’s interesting, my eyebrows are really really bright and I feel strongly that my face looks very different without it because I just look really pale and my eyebrows are bright so if I don’t use any make up my face is completely white apart from my blue eyes and I wouldn’t say that it looks ugly, I think I thought like that as a teenager and as a teenager I felt so strongly about never being seen without make up. When I would stay at friend’s houses I would wake up in the morning and apply makeup, that’s how worried I was. Or even if I had long term boyfriends they would never see me without make up, ever. I would either use waterproof make up all the time in case it rained, so it was really a big thing for me. I think now, my face without make up doesn’t necessarily look ugly but it looks very very different.

Do you think you look more childish?

Yes I definitely look younger and it’s not necessarily a judgemental thing and I’m not saying that I’m going to be judged but I think it’s very natural for human to… there are a lot of studies in psychology that look at people that are very different and are deviating from the norm and I don’t necessarily want that kind of attraction really. I do go out sometimes without makeup and I really celebrate it but I am aware that I look like a ghost almost, like an Icelandic person. I have permanent makeup on my eyebrows, really because it’s a lot easier and it doesn’t hurt as much as a tattoo, I have lots of tattoos. You have to do it once every three years, so it’s really really easy. Of course compared to waxing it’s more painful but then you really have to do it every two or three years.

So it is a sort of tattoo?

Yes it is a sort of tattoo and it kind of fades away after a couple of years and then you do it again. Sometimes I use a bit of a pen and colour that brown in the morning but I don’t feel that tense about it anymore, I’m fine being seen without makeup. And I hate plucking my eyebrows as well, I do that very rarely, I won’t do it until it really looks weird and then I’ll do it.

I’m finished with the questions, if there is anything that you want to add…

Nothing really but I felt that was really cool.



Discuss the ways that Lacan’s theory of the Symbolic can be used to shed light on our social and cultural contemporary realities.


Lacan was quite an original thinker within psychoanalysis. While he elaborated significantly different theories from Freud’s he also did so thoroughly analysing Freud’s texts (Grosz 1990) and upgrading them with concepts borrowed from other disciplines. Because his theories were developed throughout his career and he integrated them as he went along, it would not be possible to address them as single tokens without grounding them into the cosmogony of his thought. He theorised the Symbolic as closely intertwined with the Imaginary and the Real and aligned this triad with that of need, demand and desire where the Symbolic corresponds to desire, the Imaginary to demand and the Real to need (Grosz 1990, DiCenso 1994). The point of contact between the Imaginary and the Symbolic was crucial for him, in the development of a social identity for individuals: a shift between a narcissistic ‘me’ to a subjective ‘I’ (Lacan et al. 1981).  In that shift, that ‘symbolic anticipation’ (De Grave 2004) the subject becomes part of the social order and gets embedded into culture. Anchoring speech and its ambiguities with the unconscious and the Symbolic, Lacan theorises language as pre-existing consciousness (and the subject that speaks it) thus transcending Freud’s biological fixity (Grosz 1990). With Lacan, the Symbolic (and the unconscious) is placed outside the subject, into the culture that shapes it, while remaining personal instead of  becoming collective as with Jung (Žižek and Hanlon 2001). Lacan was not a pure social constructivist though: the Symbolic as a hegemonic site and process of cultural construction, was not for him exclusively discursive but grounded in unconscious projections and internalisations that bordered with the Real and the Imaginary of pre-oedipal and oedipal conditions (Frosh 1997).  This paper will address the drives behind hegemonic discourse grounded in the human psyche. The Symbolic, as the site constituted by those drives, in its close interaction with the Real and the Imaginary, will be analysed to find how it is still actual, addressing contemporary socio-political situations. Due to space restrictions, the focus will be exclusively on gender, sexuality and ‘race’.

The Symbolic for Lacan is an encompassing unconscious structure located in language (Homer 2005). Following Freud’s interest in symbols and his own interest in structuralism he got in touch with Saussure’s semiotics (Minsky 1998, Homer 2005). Semiotics is the study of signs where a sign is composed of a signifier (letters and sounds) and a signified (meaning). Reversing the idea that meaning was produced by agents who would then attach it to signifiers, he theorised instead that the structure of the language, the grammar and syntax, the chain of signifiers that make sense of one another were not only creating different meanings in different historical moments but were pre-existing the subject’s consciousness of itself (Grosz 1990). Consequently, the Symbolic becomes with Lacan, ‘responsible’ for the creation of the subject provided that the subject can speak and has therefore undergone the repression proper of the ‘Law of the father’ or ‘Paternal metaphor’ (Homer 2005, Lacan et al. 1981, Minsky 1998, Grosz 1990, Chiesa 2007).  Being a signifier itself, it is not possible to grasp what the Symbolic stands for without explaining its negative: what it does not stand for. The Symbolic is not the Real and it is not the Imaginary but it is interconnected with them and shapes them both (Murphy 2005). The three realms that Lacan theorised can both be interpreted as a developmental theory of human growth or as co-existing and co-influencing moments in socio-cultural life. The Real  can be the origin for the Imaginary and the Imaginary a phase preceding the Symbolic or they can be elements shaping the micro of unconscious processes or the macro of cultural ones (Grosz 1990, Murphy 2005, DiCenso 1994). The Real is never accessible and ‘escapes signification’ (Moncayo 1998:184). It is therefore antithetical to the Symbolic as the realm of signification and it is through the Real that the given for granted can be subverted (Žižek and Hanlon 2001). As Butler notes: ‘the human is not only produced over and against the inhuman, but through a set of foreclosures, radical erasures, that are, strictly speaking, refused the possibility of cultural articulation’ (1993:XVII) which makes the foreclosed  threatening to the Symbolic. In the developmental version, the Real can be interpreted as the biological matrix, thus referring to the primal helplessness of birth (Grosz 1990). The Imaginary is intertwined with the Real through the ‘mirror stage’, a primal repression that helps the child to partially overcome its physical dependency (lack) and inability to survive by identifying with an image outside itself (usually that of the carer but it can be anyone) (Grosz 1990). The lack of awareness of physical separation from the other (with a lower case letter, to be distinguished from the Other with upper case pertaining to the Symbolic) allows an identification which is full and unmediated by reflection. This identification brings forward a subjectivity in terms of narcissistic self-awareness (which can be read in socio-political terms too) facilitated by the image (Grosz 1990). The understanding that identification is illusory and that the subject is in fact separated from its image, becomes clearer when the utopic demand for unity meets with the lack and failure of the other to embody totality for the subject’s needs. Only through the renunciation of the fantasy of unity with the other can the subject turn to the social, driven by the desire of recognition as validation for the self. The symbol becomes then something which is able to stabilise the subject filling the lack. But this post-oedipal promise of stabilisation requires the acceptance of castration proper, the letting go of the Imaginary so that one can enter speech. Castration is a requirement for the subject to submit to language, through the acceptance of its laws and structures by the acceptance of the Law of the Father (Grosz 1990, Homer 2005). Lacan’s unconscious structure as a language used the metaphor and the metonymy to evoke the Freudian concepts of displacement and condensation (Grosz 1990). The metaphor is used to select and agglomerate signifiers while the metonymy works to provide a setting for signifiers (Grosz 1990). The exception is constituted by ‘signifiers cast out from the signifying chain and thus unable to signify or to be integrated into conscious discourse’ (Grosz 1990:114) such as the Phallus, a metaphorical reference to the male power whose acceptance (as lack or presence) is instrumental to the resolution of the oedipal stage.  Like a changing language, though, the Symbolic allows for meaning to shift between signifiers over time (Homer 2005, DiCenso 1994). One of the contentions on whether Lacan’s theory is contemporary and can be used to describe current phenomenon is whether ‘master signifiers’ (Bracher cited in Murphy 2005:523), the largely taken for granted assumptions on which identity is based (Bracher cited in Murphy 2005), do or don’t change over time.

Slavoj Žižek, one of Lacan’s passionate advocates, claims that in the late Lacanian theory ‘the Big Other doesn’t exist’ (Žižek and Hanlon 2001) while other scholars see its existence as the founding base of their critiques. Žižek, starting from Miller’s paradigms of jouissance, identifies four stages of Lacan’s thought. The first structuralist one is the one described earlier. Jouissance in this stage is the surplus energy that keeps the desire concealed from consciousness. In this paper this will be the version that is mostly discussed with a few brief references to the others. As Žižek goes through the other stages that happen to follow the mayor political history of the period Lacan was living in, what emerges is a picture where the name of the Father co-exists with other post-paternal ideologies, within a Symbolic structure which allows for political and linguistic change without being modified by it. The society resulting from this unsubstantial changes is one where there are still traces of the old unmodified assumptions along with the new ones (Žižek 2001).  In this sense, the paternal metaphor and the Phallus do not look like static signifiers in contrast to the early feminist critique that saw Lacan’s language choice for master signifiers as problematic because of the fixity they evoke (Grosz 1990). There can still be situations where as Grosz put it: “Through the phallus, each sex is positioned as a speaking being, ‘giving reality to the subject’; through the phallus, the reality of anatomical sex becomes bound up with the meanings and values that a culture gives to anatomy” (1990:131).  The examples are unfortunately still numerous as they significantly affect the life of women. From the estimate of 100.000 women missing worldwide theorised by Amartya Sen to the metaphorical association of the female body with beauty, to the evident minority of women in position of power, it is beyond this essay’s scope to enumerate them all, but it is still quite evident how the role of women’s construction as nothing but objects of desire (Grosz 1990) for the male gaze is still affecting them structurally. On the other hand, Lacan highlights very well how the paternal metaphor affects both men and women by being the motor behind the assumptions about masculinity and femininity that subsequently cause inequality. His theory of the Symbolic shifts the responsibility from men as a biological category to patriarchy as a cultural ideology based on biological assumptions (Grosz 1990, Žižek and Hanlon 2001). While both masculinity and femininity are still defined by the patriarchal structure, cultural changes have allowed for new signifiers like ‘metrosexuality’ to be socially accepted in certain countries. A heterosexual football player like Beckam, is able to display characteristics that were once  deemed as feminine in the UK without fear of losing its masculinity (Murphy 2005), if patriarchy was fixed, this could not be possible. Lacan’s theories seem therefore quite useful in making sense of contemporary debates about gender while also being controversial by positing the woman as a negation of man (Grosz 1990).

The Phallus for the early Lacan is the meta-symbol of the Symbolic, and he poses it as having no connection with the penis whatsoever (Grosz 1990). As Butler notes, in order to evoke it, the Phallus cannot have any other relation to the penis other than a denial of a relation (1993). The Phallus qua ‘object of exchange or union between the sexes’ (Grosz 1990:121) though , can present a problematic heteronormativity and at the same time it allows for its subversion if it loses its fixity of presumptions about lack and possession (Butler 1993). Reading Lacan’s Phallus qua power as defining women through the lack of it and men through possession of it, Grosz describes it as a locus of power in the relation between men and women. This power derives from the sexual relation where men can be reassured of having it by relating to the lack in women and where women can aspire to it through the desire of men for them (1990). It must be noted that Lacan is known to have said that there is no such thing as sexual relations (‘il n’y a pas de rapport sexuel’) (Dean 2003:243) which complicates matter further. Dean claims  that Lacan’s Symbolic is counter-heteronormative precisely because it goes beyond the ‘natural’ narratives of biological discourse (with object a anticipating gender) and yet it does not settle exclusively in discourse as Foucault mostly did (Dean 2003).  He compares and contrast Lacan’s thought and queer theory going as far as to suggests that queer theory and politics might be closer to Lacan and Freud then to Foucault. Queer theory is a product of the failure of identity politics to contain the demonization operated by mainstream discourse towards specific communities (gay, drug user, ethnic minority) during the first outburst of AIDS (Dean 2003). In the period following the outburst, identity became politically counterproductive as stigmatization doubled from the link between identity and the disease portraying the disease as the product of deviant behaviors (Butler 1993). Queers then started reclaiming deviance of all sorts from what they identified as privileged identities while refusing to identify with specific categories (Dean 2003). Queer power is then the power to desire beyond the normative while resisting identification (Dean 2003). There is a common ground with Butler who sees in the marginalized and in the unthought-of a potential disruptive power that may threaten hegemonic norms (Butler 1993). In order to understand how the acquisition of power happens, we need to clarify how the Symbolic as the universe of desire works.  The Symbolic is the realm where the subject is counterbalanced by the unconscious Other. The ‘Other is understood not as another person or a social differential, but as an impersonal zone of alterity created by language’ (Dean 2003:249) that is thought to posses the utopist unity that the subject lacks: the agalma of object a (Chiesa 2007). It is interesting to note that Chiesa highlights five different possible interpretations of object a that partially contradict, integrate one another and coexist with previous ones (2007). The initial contradiction of heteronormativity in the Phallus as sexual relation, can thus be downgraded if we shift the focus from the Phallus to object a. The agalma drives the subject of the Symbolic with an envy of the supposed jouissance (the excess of enjoyment that the subject lacks) of the Other (Chiesa 2007).  In this sense jouissance can be used to account as to why heteronormative assumptions together with a distorted fantasy of the Other can drive to homophobic behavior: the homophobe assumes homosexuality as an excess of pleasure from which s/he is barred (Žižek cited in Dean 2003).  This can also shed light on why, in normative heterosexual discourse, homosexual desire is often assumed to be exclusively sexual downplaying its affective side to oppose gay and lesbian’s political struggle towards equality or to criminalise homosexuality as an unnatural sexual act (Itaborahy and Zhu 2013). There are still 76 countries that criminilise homosexuality, 5 of them with death penalty and only 15 where marriage (in its total equality of access to the heterosexual institution) is allowed (Itaborahy and Zhu 2013).  As with gender, the Phallus qua heteronormativity is still very much alive and it can be used to explain contemporary phenomena as it co-exists with counter-normative discourses.

The structuralist effect of the Symbolic so far highlighted has posited dualities. There is a duality at play between the I and the Other that reflects into the cultural oppression at play in the making of the subject of contextual and historical realities. The patriarchal signifier defines the woman, the heteronormative one defines the homosexual and we are about to address how the racist/colonialist one defines the ‘black’. Of course dualities can fail to account about the Others that are lost in the assumption of a dichotomy (Fuss 1994). The various degrees of intersexuality and the transgender are lost in the dichotomy man/woman, the various degrees of bisexuality are lost in the sexual orientation opposites and the various degrees of blackness (which are very actual in a globalised world where ethnicity might not match language or the geographical location it refers to) are lost in relation to ‘race’(Fuss 1994). By analyzing linguistically ‘The Agency of the Letter in the Unconscious or Reason since Freud’ where Lacan gives the famous example of ‘urinary segregation’(cited in Boswell 1999:119) of two bathroom doors with the writing ‘ladies’ and ‘gentlemen’ in order to clarify its inversion of Saussurian’s semiotics, Boswell claims that there are significant linguistic references to ‘race’ in it, so much so that it seems, an unconscious presence in the lecture. This claim is instrumental to conclude that Lacanian psychoanalysis is capable of accounting for racist ideology even when it does not name it directly (1999). ‘Race’ and its historic vocabulary of colonialism and slavery seems to occupy an invisible place within the lecture, so that it cannot be seen despite being there but at the same time it cannot be denied in the naked materiality of the black letter on white background and in the choice of words (Boswell 1999). Fanon also addresses ‘race’ through Lacan’s work. At first he conceptualises the black ideologically, as not-white just like the woman is posited as a barred subject within the Symbolic. In the Symbolic the black can only be cited in relation to the white, while the white does not need any reference but itself (Frosh 1997). Later, though, Fanon placed the black subject beyond the Symbolic rooting it to mechanisms of subject formation in a dialectic which is demanding likeness and alterity at the same time (Fuss 1994). The question of space is crucial in relation to racial reference, as Fuss notes: ‘space operates as one of the chief signifiers of racial difference’ (1994:21) with its continuous reference to a historical, physical and metaphorical segregation of the black. Fanon influenced Said’s ‘Orientalism’ (1977) where racial othering is explained through the historical fantasy created by the West about the East. Žižek also addresses the othering process through jouissance. He sees the fear that the Other is enjoying too much behind new forms of racism where the migrant and the black/muslim foreigner is perceived as a threat to dominant national identity, culture and lifestyle. But he also sees multiculturalism as a form of othering too because of its ‘secret desire for the Other to REMAIN “other”’ (Žižek 2001:69).

Concluding, we have highlighted the duality of structural and discursive imbalances of ‘race’, sexuality and gender by looking at the Symbolic. It should be clear that none precedes the other but rather that they operate simultaneously (Butler 1993). They are all rooted in fantasies about the natural and the body (fragmented or whole) that find in language a locus of narrative expression of power. The Symbolic qua paternal metaphor can be used to explain both sexist processes and structural imbalances whose genesis lies in the anatomical difference captured by language. The Phallus qua normative desire can be a useful tool to explore how heteronormativity and homophobia are rooted in the unconscious fantasy about the homosexual that the queer partially attempts to neutralise destabilising the idea of a fixed identity. The letter/signifier qua ‘black’ can also be useful to explain how segregation has been justified in shifting historical discourses to adjust to despise, aggressive drives or of projective phobias. There still are areas of contention in Lacan’s thought, so much so that joking Žižek stated that almost anything can be attributed to Lacan (Žižek and Hanlon 2001). But while the later Lacan seems to be shifting beyond the Symbolic in a dialogue with the Real (Žižek 2001) thus allowing for more recent interpretations of socio-cultural realities, the Symbolic remains contemporary even in the light of its ambiguities.


Boswell, M. (1999) ‘”Ladies,” “Gentlemen,” and “Colored”: “The Agency of (Lacan’s Black) Letter” in the Outhouse’, Cultural Critique, (41), 108-138.

Butler, J. (1993) Bodies that matter : on the discursive limits of “sex”, New York ; London: Routledge.

Chiesa, L. (2007) Subjectivity and otherness : a philosophical reading of Lacan, Cambridge, Mass. ; London: MIT.

De Grave, D. (2004) ‘Time to separate the men from the beasts: Symbolic anticipation as the typically human subjective dimension’ in Dubois, D. M., ed. Computing Anticipatory Systems, 435-444.

Dean, T. (2003) ‘Lacan and queer theory’ in Rabaté, J.-M., ed. The Cambridge companion to Lacan, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 238-252.

DiCenso, J. J. (1994) ‘Symbolism and Subjectivity: A Lacanian Approach to Religion’, The Journal of Religion, 74(1), 45-64.

Frosh, S. (1997) ‘Psychoanalytic agendas. Gender, homosexuality and racism’ in For and against psychoanalysis, London Routledge, 175-227.

Frosh, S. (1999) ‘Feminist psychoanalysis’ in The politics of psychoanalysis : an introduction to Freudian and post-Freudian theory, 2nd ed. ed., Basingstoke: Macmillan, 196-240.

Fuss, D. (1994) ‘Interior Colonies: Frantz Fanon and the Politics of Identification’, Diacritics, 24(2/3), 20-42.

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Compare and contrast the methodological and theoretical approaches of two different pieces of social science research exploring the same topic/issue.

The two journal articles analysed hereafter are both about comparative research related to domestic violence. This paper will analyse differences and similarities in ontology, epistemology, methodology, methods and data sources and how they inform and influence each other (Grix 2002) concluding with a personal evaluation of both. Frìas and Angel’s study (2012) investigates the chance of being subjected to domestic violence for poor Mexican women in USA and in Mexico. The purpose of the research was a cross-country analysis of negative and positive correlations with the risk to experience domestic violence for the sample. The sample of interest was composed by three sub-samples of Mexican women experiencing relative economic deprivation: those who lived in urban areas in Mexico, those who had migrated to three urban US cities and those who were born in the same three US cities. The research was conducted utilising secondary data from two studies: ENDIREH, the ‘National Survey of Household Relationship Dynamics’ for Mexico, and the Welfare , Children and Families Study (WCF) for the US (Frìas and Angel 2012:18). The relevant sub-samples were extracted and data was cross-analysed. The dependent variable concerned violence was measured with a Conflict Tactic Scale (CTS) whose identifiers were adapted from English to Spanish in the ENDIREH study (Frìas and Angel 2012:18), while there were various independent variables to test possible correlations between the occurrence of violence and three different perspectives: family violence, acculturation and feminist (2012:7). The findings, some of which seemed at odds with previous research, were re-interpreted in the light of feminist theory and methodological flaws. The relevant results were then used to give recommendations to organisations dealing with Mexican victims of domestic violence in the US. Mullaney’s study, attempted to explore differences between the account of violent men’s immediate post-violence behaviour to the researcher and compare it with the account of their partners on the same subject (2007:222). Unfortunately, due to problems encountered during the research, she was unable to find a relevant sample of partners that could make a significant comparison (2007:227). Nonetheless, she found important differences between men’s accounts of violence and the accounts of (or resistance to talk about) their own negotiation of it with partners (2007:229). The sample was composed of fourteen men, who were following or had completed two different counselling programmes aimed at reducing the likelihood to reiterate domestic violence (2007:228). The purpose of the research was originally to investigate if men’s accounts were in any way related to women’s decision to stay in abusive relationships. However, it turned out to be more about how hegemonic masculinities (and perceived lack of power) potentially shape the construction of accounts of violence adapting them to the audience and how this process may reinforce a sense of self (2007:223,243). Using previous research on men’s explanations of violence, Mullaney identified four categories of possible accounts to frame violence in relation to the acceptance (or refusal) of responsibility. She then used them as a yardstick to interpret her qualitative data. In her final conclusions she suggested that organisations dealing with ‘batterers’’ programmes may benefit from raising awareness in their users about contextualised unconscious construction of their masculinity (2007:224-226, 244).

The ontological assumptions behind the two research studies seem quite opposite at first glance: Frìas and Angel’s focus on statistic data, suggests that there is an objective reality that allows for measurement, therefore adhering to a foundationalist ontology (Marsh and Furlong 2002:22) while Mullaney, on the other hand, seems to focus on a subjective, contextual and dynamic reality more suitable to an anti-foundationalist one (Grix 2002:177). But, on a closer look, Frìas and Angel’s inquiry is looking at the variance of risk in connection with the context, role, relational and economic status of women (2012). Although the research does not involve a cohort study and is therefore only able to capture a static picture of the situation (Williams 2003:46), it analyses correlations between the length of residence in a foreign country (2012:18-19) and the odds to be subjected to domestic violence after migration, thus allowing for the temporal element to be somehow considered. In short, it does not appear as antagonistic as it did in the first place from Mullaney’s research if not by refraining to give any weight to the role of the researcher in influencing the research. Given this set of characteristics, Friàs and Angel’s study cannot fit a positivist epistemology (Alvesson and Sköldberg 2009:18). Although it shares with positivism a faith in the objectivity and in the ability to observe at least part of reality (Campbell and Wasco 2000:780), the other two mayor assumptions of logical positivism do not follow. The empiricism is not absolute (it allows for the existence of a reality independently of the possibility to detect it) and the equation between empirical and measurable is rejected by considering flaws in methodologies as potentially influential in the results of the research (Alvesson and Sköldberg 2009:18, Frìas and Angel 2012:19). It therefore seems to fit, quite neatly, in a critical realist paradigm which is informed very much by its ontology (Alvesson and Sköldberg 2009:39-49). Critical realisms advocates that reality is best analysed through the multiple lenses of ‘the empirical, the actual and the real’ (Alvesson and Sköldberg 2009:41). In Friàs and Angel’s research, the secondary data of the two surveys would be identifiable as ‘empirical’ and the impression that it is unlikely (but not impossible) for Mexican born women to be less at risk than their counterpart in the US as the ‘actual’. The ‘real’ is then extrapolated from the relation between what has been observed (the statistical correlations) and different theoretical perspectives. Their study also considers structural imbalances by focusing on domination (Alvesson and Sköldberg 2005:217) in dual relationships (like breadwinner/economically dependent) and normative behaviours (like married/unmarried) which draws it close to feminist structuralism but more as a collateral theory to test than as a paradigm (Friàs and Angel 2012:11). Dubious results are not rejected or accepted but interpreted further in the light of theories that may justify them. The final product is not a single table of replicable truths, but rather a set of strong or weak possibilities (Alvesson and Sköldberg 2009:42) of risk emerging from the interrelations of culture, gender and language (Frìas and Angel 2012). The likelihood of violence to occur is not dictated only by how often it has happened before (a ‘statistical regularity’) but by the interplay between the universal nature of domestic violence (Frìas and Angel 2012:6) and the contextual realities (Alvesson and Sköldberg 2009:42).

The epistemology of both studies is multilayered with one overarching paradigm and a few partially intersecting theories. Mullaney’s one, for instance, on one hand follows the anti-foundationalist ontology evolving into a subjectivist (Denzin and Lincoln 1998:27) and interpretivist epistemology typical of social constructionism (Campbell and Wasco 2000:780). The researcher’s role and influence, in fact, is appraised along with the ‘objects’ of the research (Mullaney 2007:227) since the researcher is never thought of as neutral (Bryman 2001 cited in Grix 2002:178). But on the other hand it abandons the subjective to focus on texts and language thus entering a post-structuralist frame (Alvesson and Sköldberg 2009:36). Being domestic violence usually labelled as a ‘women’s issue’ (Campbell and Wasco 2000:778), it is quite common that feminist theory gets used to frame it. Feminism has been anything but a single approach (Campbell and Wasco 2000:774) with subsequent waves adding complexity to a core assumption of power imbalance between genders. This multiplicity has informed a variety of feminist epistemologies (Alvesson and Sköldberg 2005:209). Mullaney’s research seems to fit into a poststructural feminist overarching paradigm where gender is a ‘label’ (Alvesson and Sköldberg 2005:213) informed by relations and communications and therefore, ever changing (Alvesson and Sköldberg 2009:29). Mullaney explores discourses and meanings looking at the ‘given-for-granted’ and resistance as a source of possible internalisations that may mirror societal expectations, functions and may shape or validate gendered roles, identities and (violent) behaviours (2007:223, Alvesson and Sköldberg 2009:29). Given four ‘degrees of radicality’ within social constructionism: ‘critical, social, epistemological and ontological’ (Alvesson and Sköldberg 2009:35) it can be argued that Mullaney’s research seems to reach the ontological level. Not because she believes that domestic violence has no ‘reality’ in itself but rather because its ‘construction is real’ (Alvesson and Sköldberg 2009:33) since ‘individuals are created by texts or discourses’ (Alvesson and Sköldberg 2009:36). The subjective construction of violence perspiring from men’s accounts seems to allow them to justify it and reject the ‘violent’ label. This rejection might be constructed from their interpretation of (tacit or explicit) norms, meanings and context related to gender (Mullaney 2007).

Both studies have contrasting methodological stances which are consequential either of their ontological or epistemological positions (Grix 2002). In Mullaney’s study post-structural feminist and constructionist epistemology inform the qualitative methodology while in Friàs and Angel’s research, the ontological focus of critical realism ‘does not engage with methodological matters much’ (Alvesson and Sköldberg 2009:43). Although it rejects the validity of individualist accounts in representing structural mechanisms (Alvesson and Sköldberg 2005:43), it allows for the object of the research to determine which method suits it best in order to represent it (Danemark 2002:70 cited in Alvesson and Sköldberg 2009:44). Social constructions are conceived as measurable and therefore translated into independent variables (Alvesson and Sköldberg 2009:41). For instance, the research checks the relevance of the family violence perspective (which advocates that violence is learnt) by coding for the presence or absence of low level of education, deprivation, employment etc. (Frìas and Angel 2012:17-18). Mullaney’s approach distances itself from Friàs and Angel’s by interpreting instead qualitative semi-structured interviews and using self-reflection and discourse analysis. Both studies partially consider constructionist methodology, analysing accounts through different degrees of coding. But Friàs and Angel utilise secondary nominal data gathered in different periods of time, in different ways (computer survey versus one-to-one interviews), in different languages and with different statistical significance (from p<0.1- to p<0.001). Their ability to intersect meaningfully the data pool is at stake due to all these differences. Mullaney researches instead directly in the field, gathering primary data by reaching her interviewees through specific programmes, but while she fails to analyse how the context of forced programmes as a punishment for misdemeanour may influence their behaviour (Presser 2005:2070-2071) she is aware of her role as a female and as a researcher and willing to reflect upon how it may influence men’s accounts. The unfolding and scopes of the two studies are also different. The former privileges a comparison between quantitative datasets and theories, coding relevant elements to initial theories, going through a first stage of statistical regression only to re-analyse the results interpreting them in the light of theories which may offer an explanatory frame (2012). The latter is structured through the direct collection of qualitative data and subsequent analysis of it (2007). Mullaney starts with a group of 14 men and goes on to generalise about the cultural construction of masculinity in connection to domestic violence almost refraining from giving a geographical frame to her research although her study has taken place in the US (2007). Friàs and Angel geographically contextualise their research narrowing down the samples of two research studies to include deprived Mexican women only and finally go on to generalise about the impact that structures may have on migration and domestic violence in the two states for the sub-samples (2012). Thoroughly highlighting methodological flaws, limitations and problematics of the secondary data and of the research progress becomes part of methodology for Friàs and Angels (2012:19-21) while Mullaney’s privileges a description of the difficulties she encountered (2007:227-229). The focus of the sample in reference to domestic violence is also totally different: Mullaney investigates the perpetrators of violence because the feminist-poststructuralist frame allows a vision of gender which goes beyond patriarchal structures not limiting the research to women’s perspective (Alvesson and Sköldberg 2005:212). Friàs and Angel, instead investigate only women’s account (although the ENDIREH study was focused on households rather than on women only) (2012:13). Finally, both studies share a descriptive frame of domestic violence but they both end up with some prescriptive recommendations for organisations operating in the field.

The studies would both be open to various critiques if we were not aware of their overarching paradigms that already define their limits (Grix 2002). It would be rather pointless, for instance, to argue that Mullaney’s study is not statistically significant since it is not in its purpose to be. Friàs and Angel already offer a quite comprehensive critique of their own study acknowledging most of the problems within it and the limitations they pose (2012:19-24). There are two extra critiques that may be moved. Their reluctance to admit the likelihood of being less at risk of domestic violence for the residents in Mexico rather than in the US may be interpreted in a postcolonial light. But this critique is very faint given that one of the researcher is Mexican and that women in Mexico were interviewed face-to-face in their households (where the partner or husband might have been present) on such a sensible topic as domestic violence thus increasing the likelihood that their responses were dictated by the means of collecting data rather than by the context. The other one is that since they present a ‘core objective’ to ‘explore’ and ‘explain’ (Frìas and Angel 2012:7) domestic violence within the parameters given, it can be concluded that the exploration is successful and quite interestingly so, but the explanation, as a causal relationship between the findings and ‘reality’ is not so convincing because of the bias they so cleverly highlight in the process. Mullaney’s study instead seems to pose ethical issues. First of all she does not anonymize her sample (Williams 2003:165), giving details such as first names, jobs, ‘race’ and the names of the charities and programmes where the samples were recruited (2007:244). She refrains to give a geographical connotation larger than ‘Mid-Atlantic’, though (2007:223) which may partially attempt to set back a minimum of privacy. Disclosing ‘racial’ identities of the participants in particular seems completely out of place since she does not use it to claim anything other than demographics and it is a contestable categorisation because of the potential racialisation of crime. The other ethical problem concerns the language she uses to describe the men in her sample. Defining them as ‘batterers’ (without inverted commas in the article) is potentially creating an identity from a behaviour (no matter how recurrent it may be) and seems more suitable for a structuralist feminist paradigm rather than a post-structural one. Concluding, to make a musical metaphor, Friàs and Angel study appears to me like a very enjoyable virtuoso exercise perfectly executed but whose contribution is rather toward technique than towards music, while Mullaney’s study although less perfect in conception and execution is far more convincing and seems to add up something valuable to the knowledge (and the prevention of) of domestic violence.


Alvesson, M. and Sköldberg, K. (2005) 'Language/gender/power' in Reflexive methodology : new vistas for qualitative research, London: SAGE, 200-237.

Alvesson, M. and Sköldberg, K. (2009) 'Post Positivism, Social Constructionism, Critical Realism: Three Reference Points in the Philosophy of Science' in Reflexive methodology : new vistas for qualitative research, 2nd ed., London: SAGE, 15-52 [online] Available at [Accessed 08/06/2013].

Campbell, R. and Wasco, S. M. (2000) ‘Feminist approaches to social science: Epistemological and methodological tenets’, American Journal of Community Psychology, 28(6), 773-791.

Denzin, N. K. and Lincoln, Y. S. (1998) ‘Entering the Field of Qualitative Research’ in N. K. Denzin, Y. S. Lincoln, eds. Collecting and interpreting qualitative materials, London: SAGE, 1-34.

Frìas, S. M. and Angel, R. J. (2012) ‘Beyond Borders : Comparative Quantitative Research on Partner Violence in the United States and Mexico’, Violence against women, 18(1), 5-29.

Grix, J. (2002) ‘Introducing Students to the Generic Terminology of Social Research’, Politics, 22(3), 175-186.

Marsh, D. and Furlong, P. (2002) ‘A Skin not a Sweater: Ontology and Epistemology in Political Science’ in Marsh, D. and Stoker, G., eds., Theory and Methods in Political Science, 2nd ed., Basingstoke: Palgrave MacMillan, 17-41.

Mullaney, J. L. (2007) ‘Telling it like a man – Masculinities and battering men’s accounts of their violence’, Men and Masculinities, 10(2), 222-247.

Presser, L. (2005) ‘Negotiating Power and Narrative in Research: Implications for Feminist Methodology’, Signs, 30(4), 2068-2090.

Williams, M. (2003) Making sense of social research, London: SAGE.

‘God is a meme’. Does this explain the persistence of religious belief and practice in the modern world?


The term ‘meme’ is generally linked to Richard Dawkins’ book ‘The selfish gene’ where it was mentioned to describe a replicative analogy with the gene (1976 cited in Jahoda 2002:1,57, Blackmore 2000:25).  While he was formulating a theory that, from an evolutionary point of view, explained the presence of genes as their ‘selfish’ ability to produce hosts capable of their replication, he equally suggested the existence of ‘memes’: competing abstract inhabitants of our brains who use it as a means to being copied (Jahoda 2002:57). Dawkins later defined the meme as ‘a unit of cultural inheritance’ or ‘a unit of information’ (1982:109 cited in Aunger 2000:5) complicating matters further. The very definition of memes has vast implications on what the scope of the meme is, which organisms it affects (humans or animals as well) (Blackmore 2000:12), what it consists of, the extent of agency of the organisms it ‘inhabits’, the modalities of replication and the purposes of their study. Since the meme affects culture and how it is passed from a subject to another, it is necessarily an interdisciplinary subject (Conte 2000:85) and it has been engaged with both on academic and non-academic level. Anthropologists, cognitive scientists, biologists, philosophers, psychologists but also software engineers and atheists (which are rather relevant to this topic) with different agendas and perspectives on it, have been concerned with framing the meme. This paper will attempt to address the multiplicity and complexity of perspectives in structuring an answer to the question in the title. Because of the generalisation of God as if it was a unique entity rather than a complex multitude, you will see God addressed with the pronoun ‘It’ rather than He or She. The choice of the pronoun needs not clash with the reader’s own idea of God. It is merely a simplifying strategy in the drafting of this paper that aims to stir away any attention from gendered representations one may have in mind and focus instead on supposedly super-natural gender-neutral qualities of an ideal God-meme. The use of the capital letter addresses too such an abstraction (and helps me distinguish ‘It’ referred to God from ‘it’ referred to the meme) rather than a personal belief in one or more supreme beings.

One of the challenges faced by memeticists is how to prove that memes are ‘real’ and not just abstract concepts, since no meme has yet been located in the brain and neuroscience deems it as unlikely to happen (Gatherer 1999 and Dennet 1995 cited in Aunger 2000:6). There is no unitary approach in overcoming this challenge. Aunger distinguishes two main currents: behaviourists and mentalists. Behaviourists obviate by identifying in artefacts and behaviours the equivalent of the genome, i.e. the presence of information passed on through generations. Mentalists would instead interpret the same behaviours as the observable demonstration of the existence of memes in the person who behaves in a certain way (Aunger 2000:5-6). In proving that God is a meme, the implication of this difference is that a mentalist will take the presence of religious belief and practice as a proof of the God-meme contagion while for a behaviourist religious outcomes like religious practice, behaviours and artefacts will be explanatory of the presence of a memetic hereditary transmission. Although the meme ontology may be posing a threat to its credibility, there is a third tendency advocated by Blackmore, which would focus instead on the benefits that a memetic approach equip us with, rather than crystallise on the methods of knowledge (2000:25). Memetic discourses may be roughly divided into epidemic and evolutionist perspectives for their framing of the meme (Aunger 2000:8). The two perspectives may co-exist although one of them may be prevalent in the memeticist’s account. God has been explained both as a parasite that we can get rid of if only we recognise the irrationality of perpetuating It in modern scientific times (focusing on the here and now) (Dawkins 1993 cited in Blackmore 2000:35, Gray 2008) and as a meme exhibiting extraordinary ‘fitness’ throughout history (Dawkins 1989:193 cited in Kuper 2000:179). According to the epidemiologic approach, God would be a virus infecting our minds whose sole ‘purpose’ is to use us as means to being copied. It would have us perform costly rituals (like sacrifices when there is scarcity of food) in order to improve Its copying fidelity (Dennett 2006:141).

The point that Brodie makes in his book ‘Virus of the mind’ is that since the meme-virus does not have our own benefit at heart, if  we understand how it works its way through our compliance, our meme-consciousness can enhance our happiness reducing the detrimental effects that the lack of agency on our side implies (Brodie 2009:XX,184). Brodie then identifies various methods of more or less conscious ways of spreading memes which not all memeticists agree with. He distinguishes between primary and secondary instincts or ‘buttons’, which, if activated or ‘pushed’ in the communicative act, will make us pay more attention than we normally would to the message and will therefore make replication more likely (Brodie 2009:72). This distinction basically mirrors the one between the atavic (and therefore evolutionary) needs for survival (like mating, getting fed, avoiding danger) and socialisation processes (Brodie 2009:75-78). Secondary needs such as conformity to authority, need of approval, ‘faith’, ‘tradition’, ‘evangelism’ and ‘making sense’ also seem to justify the concept of God as a meme (Brodie 2009:78-81).  Brodie identifies various kind of ‘programming’ and ‘attention grabbing’ techniques which the meme uses to enhance its colonisation of the human mind. Repetition is one of them. Attending a ceremony/rite/prayer regularly and often, is deemed as likely to trigger explanations of random events through God/karma (Brodie 2009:128). The carrot and stick approaches of operant conditioning combined with social repercussions when transgressing a religious norm is again explained as a method of infection by the God virus-meme (Brodie 2009:127-134). A prospect of a better afterlife, the comfort from the fear of death, combined with the advantages of being part of a group (such as the sense of belonging and the need of approval), being able to explain otherwise unexplainable phenomenon through myths (Gray 2008:2) and delegate difficult decisions to God (Dennett 2006:132-133) are all supposed advantages that may favour the subscription to the belief in God. Some religions may seem attractive due to the cognitive dissonance effect that being obstructed by hindrances and norms and delays has on receiving a reward (Dennett 2006:132-133). Those who regard God as a product to sell, such as modern evangelists, may use sales techniques like mirroring body postures or acting altruistically or performing trust to create a bonding effect which might minimise or overcome discontent, distrust and resistance (Dennett 2006:140-141).

The meme has since its conception been compared to the gene, an analogy which has triggered relative use of Darwinian and genetic terminology. In God’s instance, the evolutionist branch of memetics has described Its persistence as the result of a cultural selection (as opposed to natural selection) that made Its features more likely to be selected and replicated in comparison to any other meme It had to compete with (Blackmore 2000:35). This process has been described as ‘fitness’ in resemblance to the genetic meaning of the word. Blackmore, goes even further by theorising that ‘maladaptive’ memes like God, operating in memeplexes like religion interacted and keep on interacting with genes in shaping natural selection (2000:36-37). When the meme interferes with the gene (as it seems to be in God’s case, God being seen as either useless or harmful for the gene’s replication interests) the gene equips the human hosts (which Blackmore defines as meme-fountains) with tools (like reason) which allows them to be selected only if they abandon the interfering meme (Blackmore 2000:36-37). Given that Darwin’s theory of natural selection was mainly an observation of how biological traits slowly mutated among successive generations, increasing their adaptation to their specific environments, the meme analogy presents several controversies. There is not a limited environment since the meme does not apply to a specific cultural context but to culture in general (Kuper 2000:187).  Messages, ideas, information can be easily distorted both in reception and in reproduction. This may cause a struggle to maintain a good copying fidelity that would then allow a favourable mutation for the meme to increase its likelihood of being copied (Dennett cited in Aunger 2000:3). Another controversy concerning memes is whether they are applicable to the animal realm or not. Dawkins was initially describing a birdsong as a meme (Dennett 2006:345).  Being replication in behaviour, a birdsong does not require the ‘vector’ (as Dawkins addresses the replicator) to understand or attach a meaning to the song but only to feel an appeal or a need to replicate it. Blackmore agrees with Dawkins that imitation seems to be the only way to account for evolution and she therefore finds herself at odds with Brodie’s inclusion of conditioning and learning as means of memetic acquisition (Blackmore 2000:27).  But while pigeons, have been noted to perform elaborate dances upon casual dropping of food pellets (Dennett 2006:118) which might seem to suggest a particular attention to ‘supernormal stimuli’ (Tinbergen cited in Dennett 2006:122), if we think of God, it seems unlikely that the signifier God may be replicated if the signified God is not understood. It equally seems highly unlikely that animals (for our current knowledge of them) may be able to grasp such a concept without a language or a culture (Dennett 2006:123). This ability of the receiver to decode not only the information it receives but the meaning through multiple means of transmission (spoken word, visual representations, audio representation, writing, exemplar behaviour, artefacts etc) makes the intergenerational traceability which is possible for genes thanks to DNA, impossible for memetic transmissions. (Aunger 2000:3).

The virus perspective meets resistance too, from various sides. Accepting that a meme (and consequently God) is a unit of culture or of information which is spread by transmission make anthropologists like Bloch, pose several objections. The first is that the single unit of information does not make sense unless it is contextualised and integrated in a cultural whole which confers it meaning (Bloch 2000:194). Bloch compares and contrasts diffusionism, an anthropologic perspective very similar to the meme theory in advocating the possibility to account for culture with fragmented units, with the various kinds of structuralism. He starts with the structuralist perspective according to which any new concept entering a culture inevitably gets adjusted to it. He follows with Levi-Strauss’ structuralism which stressed instead the psychological necessity to fit a new concept into a structure. And he finishes with Sperber who distinguished between the transmission of a concept from the reception of the same, which is the main problem that any kind of communication faces  (Bloch 2000:198) even if the focus is on the message rather than on transmission methods. Burkhart’s research on Nahuatl miracle narratives is an encompassing example of structuralist perspectives. Burkhart noted that, in their post-Colombian encounter with Catholicism, the Nahuatl population adopted the Virgin Mary as a deity rather than as an intercessor between them and God. The Marian cult was supposedly aided by their legacies with pre-Colombian feminine deities. The fact that the pre-Colombian Goddesses were harder to please may have induced the population into a psychologically more advantageous form of belief. The actual implementation of the Marian cult supposedly took place thanks to a complex intersection of circumstances. The introduction of miracles accounts which were previously extraneous to the Nahuatl, an internal conflict going on in the Catholic Church at the time in Europe about the orthodoxy of Marian cults and the limited translated texts available for them may, all in all, be able to explain their specific form of religious integration (Burkhart 1999).

Another doubt Bloch raises concerns the fact that the units do not present clear boundaries. Discordance in defining the meme complicates the identification. Is God a ‘meta-meme’ (Brodie 2009:12) of a religious hymn? We probably wouldn’t have a tune, words and people singing praises to God if someone didn’t believe in God in the first place and the God-meme hadn’t spread, but the fact that they equally rank as memes is confusing in being able to assess which are the units and which their by-products. Blackmore seems to resolve this problematic by distinguishing between meme and memeplexes. She regards religion as a ‘memeplex’  but seems to agree with Dawkins on God being a meme (Blackmore 2000:36). Memeplexes are defined as ‘clusters’ (in analogy with genes) of memes reinforcing the same idea (Bloch 2000:194) which would explain why both God and the hymn are not hierarchically distinguished in the cauldron of the religion memeplex. But this interpretation raises again (in an endless cycle) the first objection that any God alone, without a specific religious context is a sterile concept (Kuper 2000:180). The scientific rationality implied in the memetic account also tends to exclude the emotional bonds that God or a religion may instead imply (Kuper 2000:179).

Both the evolutionist and the epidemiologic branch of memetics face criticism on the basis of the little agency they recognise in the memetic transmission and reception. This may be due to the overlap of the message with the meme (Aunger 2000:206) or to the partial portrayal of the gene (in its analogy with the meme) as a social engineering agent which rules out any human influence in human evolution (Jahoda 2002:56). Blackmore, for instance, regards the human ‘self’ as a memeplex itself, whose existence is relative to both memes and genes, dismissing any agency and the very existence of an ‘our’ side altogether (Blackmore 2000:41). Conte, by taking a social-cognitive stance, notes that considering human beings as a means to imitation or replication is reductive and does not account for the possibilities of agency and autonomy which the acceptance of beliefs, goals and obligations presents (Conte 2000:87). Virus memeticists  generally only allow human agents the potential to fail in the accuracy of the meme-reproduction (Conte 2000:87) while evolutionist like Blackmore only allow the genetically selected capability of discerning dysfunctional memes (Blackmore 2000:37-38). Evolutionists describe religious belief (or the God-meme) as acquired mainly through intergenerational imitation, the exposure to parental religious influence is deemed per se as effective in passing on the God-meme (Blackmore 2000:38, Gray 2008). This assumption may be either justified by the two different currents either by the offspring imitative behaviour or by parental authority and influence actively pursuing religious education (Brodie 2009:128). Conte seems to accept that the trust in or the bond with the memetic source together with the coherence with previously held beliefs (in accordance with Bloch’s accounts of structuralism) may be conducive to imitation. But she objects that while coercion can play a role in replicating behaviour, it does not play any role in the formation and preservation of belief. (Conte 2000:91).

She deconstructs belief into scales of ‘certitude’, ‘retractability’ and ‘connectivity’ accounting for how strongly the belief is felt to be, the probability for the subject to give it up or modify it and how linked to previously held belief the new one is (Conte 2000:91). The impact that a non-negotiable religious dogma (such as the existence of God) poses on a believer, is clearly different if compared to a mere superstition. Conte also investigates how beliefs are acquired and she distinguishes between conformity and reinforced belief/goals. She describes conformity as the result of an internal mission ‘to be like given others’ (Conte 2000:98) where only the agency of the meme-receiver is implied. The meme-receiving agent, in fact, infers who s/he is going to imitate without the active intervention of an external control and is oblivious to collective behaviour (Conte 2000:104). This self-extrapolation of the religious norm/belief/goal/meme from the transmitter’s behaviour does not necessarily require any maintenance from the latter (whom may not be fully aware of the indirect influence s/he has on the receiver) or any consciousness of the acquiring process from the ‘buyer’ of the meme (Conte 2000:93). The active reinforcement situation instead, because the lack of constant control may lead to the explicit norm/meme being dropped, discontinued or changed, requires both maintenance from the transmitting side and consciousness of the reinforcing process on the receiving end (Conte 2000:98, 99).

Concluding, although at first memes may seem a persuasive and appealing tool to explain the persistence of religious traditions, when the memetic account comes under deeper scrutiny it appears to be either too simplistic or biased. Although the interdisciplinary approach is interesting in addressing the mechanisms involved in the memetic transmission, Dennet’s question: ‘Cui bono?’ (2006:141), if applied to the memetic perspective, may seem to favour atheists and scientific discourses which reinforce the idea of Enlightenment rather than God. Memetic evolutionism, in its functionalist gaze of human nature, may end up being used to glorify ‘better’ meme-fountains while vilifying religious belief, the same way that Social Darwinism was used to excuse racism or sexism (Bloch 2000:190). Whilst the evolutionist perspective attempts a semi-neutral approach, the viral perspective places from the start a negative value on God in order to prospect a ‘cure’. The medical phrasing denies the ‘patient’ any fruitful relationship with God (be it a fictional entity or not) and insists in its patronising assumption that all ‘infected’ patients would be better off with the cure. The memetic approach is not clear on what God is: information, unit of culture, idea, artefact, behaviour. If artefacts are memes, some atheists could paradoxically produce religious ones for the mere economic profit of it, thus helping spread the meme while remaining better meme-fountains. It is not clear how exactly the memes spread, whether by imitation, replication, interaction or conditioning. It seems rather unlikely that belief could spread for so long without any agency of believers. It is not clear how religious inputs are translated into meaning, but it is likely to require awareness of the signified attached to the signifier and it is likely to be related to given contexts and social relations. All these considerations together make the meme an unconvincing explanation of God’s historical tenacity.


Aunger, R. (2000) Introduction In: Aunger, R. (2000) Darwinizing culture : the status of memetics as a science, Oxford: Oxford University Press. Ch.1, p.1-23.

Aunger, R. (2000) Conclusion. In: Aunger, R. (2000) Darwinizing culture : the status of memetics as a science, Oxford: Oxford University Press. Ch.11, p.205-232.

Blackmore, S. (2000) The memes’ eye view. In: Aunger, R. (2000) Darwinizing culture : the status of memetics as a science, Oxford: Oxford University Press. Ch.2, p.24-42.

Bloch, M. (2000) A well disposed social anthropologist’s problems with memes. In: Aunger, R. (2000) Darwinizing culture : the status of memetics as a science, Oxford: Oxford University Press. Ch.10, p.189-203.

Brodie, R. (2009) Virus of the mind : the new science of the meme, London: Hay House.

Burkhart L. (1999) Marian miracle narratives in a Nahuatl manuscript. In: Griffiths, N. and Cervantes, F. (1999) Spiritual encounters : interactions between Christianity and native religions in colonial America, Birmingham: The University of Birmingham Press. Ch.3 p.91-115.

Conte, R. (2000) Memes through (social) minds. In: Aunger, R. (2000) Darwinizing culture : the status of memetics as a science, Oxford: Oxford University Press. Ch.5, p.83-119.

Dennett, D. C. (2006) Breaking the spell : religion as a natural phenomenon, London: Allen Lane. Ch. 4-5&appendix A, p.99-151 &341-353.

Gray, J.  (2008) ‘The Atheist Delusion’, The Guardian (Review),  15.03.08 [online] <available at:<; [accessed 20/11/2012].

Jahoda, G. (2002) ‘The ghosts in the meme machine’, History of the Human Sciences, 15(2), 55-68.

Kuper, A. (2000) If memes are the answer, what is the question? In: Aunger, R. (2000) Darwinizing culture : the status of memetics as a science, Oxford: Oxford University Press. Ch.9, p.175-188.

Which market failures occur in private insurance markets and to what extent can social insurance schemes overcome these failures?


The argument of market failures could not be more up-to-date and more controversial. While in a historically liberal country like the US the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act has been recently passed and justified with the failure of the insurance market to deliver insurance for all (US Congress 2010), in the UK we are witnessing a reverse situation where significant cuts to state provisions are taking place along with a stigmatisation of benefit claimants in order to reduce the pool of applicants and increase both employment and tax revenue thus maximising efficiency and reducing public debt. Although a number of market failures are described in the economic literature, this paper will briefly address asymmetric and uncertain information, incomplete and missing markets, merit goods, externalities and increasing returns to scale only (Dollery and Wallis 2001:64, Barr 1992:747). This choice is both due to space restrictions and because the failures selected have been deemed as being more relevant to the private insurance market. The first part of this paper will address market assumptions investigating how the concepts of efficiency, equity, risk and redistribution inform the concept of failure in insurance markets and the controversies arising from different focuses. The second part will discuss market failures giving examples of the modalities and contingencies concerning them. The last part is going to briefly talk about the possible responses to market failure, largely simplifying them into three broad groups: social insurance, social assistance and contingent benefits. Finally, conclusions will be drawn to answer the initial question.

Economic theory is based on a series of assumptions in its framing of markets. Private property is one of those core assumptions and there are controversies on whether all goods can or should be traded, owned or given a transaction value and the effects that commodification has on values and democracy (Appleby 1998:38, Satz 2004).  Theorising an ideal market against which to test the heterogeneity of ‘real’ markets, the theory sets up a model where both demand and supply and costs and benefits determine how, the quantity in which and whether a product or a good comes to exist in a market.  The quality and quantity of information available for every agent about processes, quality of the product and competition involved in the transaction is supposed to be perfect.  In the same way competition is supposed to be optimal and agents are assumed to use rationality in all of their choices (Alcock et al. 2008:42-49, Sinn 1997:250). Utilitarian efficiency in allocation of resources (often referred to as Pareto efficiency or Pareto optimal), where the total utility sum is ‘the sum of each individual’s utility’ and which implies that in optimal allocation ‘no single individual can be made better off without making someone else worse off’ is highly problematic and inevitably leads to market failures (Appleby 1998:36, Satz 2004:14).

Failures in efficiency are often used to justify government’s intervention, although governments face failures of their own (Barr 1992). Market failure theory has been extensively criticised for various reason. The procedure of testing an ideal model against a real one in order to find possible discordances between the two has been contested as biased. It has been advocated that the real situation is doomed to be faulty and the challenge is rather to find the best solution in a comparison between two existing realities (Demsetz 1969:1 cited in Dollery and Wallis 2001:69). Considering the labour market, where employment directly affects tax revenue, Netzer and Schauer have argued that uncertainty caused by adverse selection will lead workers to increase their labour supply thus regarding state intervention as harmful to achieve efficiency (2007:1520). It could be counter-argued though, that they did overlook both the equity argument and possible externalities like long-term psychological effects that uncertainty has on anxiety levels, the health treat given by reduced attention when working longer hours (presumably in low-skilled jobs) or the disaffiliation and conflict that may arise should the workers understand how a technicality like efficiency can be deemed more important than their wellbeing in policymaking (Castel, 2000:531).

It is interesting to note that the concept of efficiency (and consequently that of failures) does not necessarily imply equity and vice-versa (Alcock et al. 2008a:47). Pareto efficiency, in particular, fails to address the presence of inequalities prior to the optimal allocation (Sinn 1997). There have been attempts of integrating fairness with efficiency in the definition of market failures but at the price of increasing complexity. Wolf, for example includes both opposing them and defining failures as a fault ‘to produce economically optimal (efficient) or socially desirable (equitable) outcomes’ (Dollery and Wallis 2001:64). The concept of equity is in fact multifaceted and there are many definitions depending on the kind of equality sought which does not necessarily focus on outcomes. Wolf  has proposed a list of some of them including equality of opportunity, equality of outcome (like the NHS which is free to all at the point of delivery), equity as a maxim applicable to all, horizontal and vertical equity (equal treatment among equals and disparity of treatment among different situations), Marxian equity (‘from each according to ability, to each according to need’) among others (1989 cited in Dollery and Wallis 2001:65).  The final product of redistribution and insurance is  also different whether we focus on processes, opportunities or outcomes (New Zealand Treasury 1987 cited in Dollery and Wallis 2001:65). The extent to which state intervention is accepted or desirable is determined by the kind of stance taken. Lassez-faire liberals like Hayek advocating exclusively procedural equity, allow only a minimal intervention in case of external or internal attack of the state, in the application of the rules of property, contract and tort through law and in the supply of public goods that the market cannot produce efficiently (Pierson 2006:44, Barr 1992:754).

The concept of insurance stems directly from the concept of risk. Insurance is also considered as intertwined with redistribution by some. Sinn, for instance, sees both of them as ‘the two sides of the same coin’ (Sinn 1997:258). Considering them from an ex-ante perspective where we are not aware of our destiny before or at birth, redistribution can be interpreted as insurance from future risk. On the other hand considering them from a ex-post perspective where the awareness about specific risks is present, redistribution appears to be implied in the insurance contract (Sinn 1997:258). If we contemplate social insurance, for instance, we can see that it aims to redistribute resources horizontally (being a compulsory measure) in the occurrence of specific contingencies like age and unemployment (Barr 1992:754-755, Alcock 2008:24). Horizontal distribution is unthinkable in the private sector operating in a non-regulated market where competition is present. In order to be privately insured, risks need to be predictable by statistic calculation, that is, they need to be actuarial. Uncertain information constitutes a market failure in itself. It would be unlikely for private insurance companies to insure risks they don’t have statistic evidence about (and whose incidence is therefore unpredictable) as they would not be able to calculate a premium (Barr 1992:753) and the ‘market allocation will not in general be efficient’ (Netzer and Scheuer 2007:1520). That’s one of the reasons why, for example, the very ability of setting a competitive price, given the contingent regulations (or the absence of them), depends on the ability of the insurer to predict the odds of the risk to occur with a fair approximation for any given category (Appleby 1998:39).

This characteristic of private insurance, to categorise individuals in order to predict the likelihood of risks has its pro and cons both for the insurer and for the insured. It can give those who fall into the low risk group an advantage in obtaining a lower insurance premium but it can also discourage or block “bad lemons” (Akerlof 1970, Rothschild and Stiglitz1976 cited in Barr 1992:749,750) (high risk individuals) from purchasing an insurance altogether . From the high risk insured viewpoint the premium can be so high that the advantages of purchasing it can be erased by the disadvantages or the insurance might not be available (missing market) (Appleby 1998:40). The insurer can deem the risk too high and either fail to provide the product or try to discourage its purchase by providing a level of insurance so low that it’s not desirable. This phenomenon, called adverse selection, creates two types of market failure: incomplete/missing markets discussed earlier and asymmetry of information. Asymmetry of information arises when the subscriber is able to conceal the real category of risk s/he belongs to, to the insurer (Barr 1992:752) which consequently results in an increase in premiums for the low risk pool (Appleby 1998:39). In order to overcome this disadvantage in the health insurance market, insurers have controversially started to demand genetic tests prior to contract subscription (in the countries where they are allowed to) (Eisen 2006:39). Fears are that this testing procedure will lead to the exclusion of those diagnosed with a genetic condition from insurance (Eisen 2006:39). This discriminating behaviour which keeps ‘undesirable’ categories such as the elderly, the poor (Ranade 1998), those with genetic conditions, disability, long-term and chronic illnesses (Brown and Connelly 2005:283) long-term unemployed and those returning to employment after a long period of time (Barr 1992:765) out of the insurance market is not free from costs for society. Even when a state is not committed to equity at all, it will still need to take care that the overall sanitary conditions and the general wellbeing of society do not fall under a certain minimum level which would otherwise threaten public health, public security and public life (Barr 1992:768).

Incomplete markets thus become an externality: an extra cost that is not comprised in the price of the premium (or the lack of it) which impacts on the whole of society. On the other hand, if a state is committed to equity, it can intervene before any private insurance can. If we consider the’ veil of ignorance’ ‘ex-ante’ condition preceding birth which doesn’t allow one to know which group or category one is going to inhabit, state intervention, by supplying a certain level of education and health care for all, can insure against the risks that being born into a lower class or in a disadvantaged group may have on one’s future achievements, career and ability to sustain oneself. The insurance market is not able to provide such a cover since it is only allowed to stipulate contracts with adults, who are clearly not in a position of ignorance (Sinn 1997:259). State intervention, though, may be regarded as paternalistic, for instance in the case of merit and demerit goods when the policy maker takes over people’s choices in the market.  Social insurance, for instance, since it is compulsory, can be regarded as a public good (Barr 1992:754). The state can provide or make some kinds of consumption deemed as necessary compulsory or it can rule out/regulate the consumption of goods regarded as negative. It can achieve these goals, by regulating private activities or by taking them over altogether (Barr 1992:748). The reasons behind this limitations of free choice are various but the main is that individuals may not always be able to pursue their best interest (Dollery and Wallis 2001:66). The government therefore steps in when the presence of externalities requires it. It might intervene when a given behaviour threatens a public good, for instance an environmental risk due to production (industrial pollution) (Satz 2004:14) or to excessive consumption (pollution arising from excess of use of private transport). It might intervene when the behaviour is threatening one’s health (excessive consumption of alcohol, for example) in order to avoid the externalities discussed earlier (Barr 1992:748). Or, it might intervene when the knowledge about the product available to consumers is not enough for them to exercise an informed choice and there is an asymmetry of information. An example of the improbability of being able to choose is health care. Patients in need (and often in pain) are arguably capable of being as rational in their choices as the market theory would assume (Appleby 1998:38). Moreover the knowledge about their specific case might not be available to them prior to being treated. Both of this reasons cause to doubt altogether ‘customer sovereignty’ (Appleby 1998:38). There are exceptions to the rule, though: in chronic disease markets patients are often as informed about the products available to them as the doctors but their choices might be nonetheless regarded by the policymaker as myopic considering efficiency when they fail to take into account prevention and focus exclusively on pharmaceutical short-term solutions (Watts and Segal 2009).

It is equally arguable, that states can be over-idealised. The assumption that the state is able to access all the information necessary to deliver adequate policy better than individuals and that government officials’ self-interest doesn’t play any role in their work can be weak (Dollery and Wallis 2001:67-68). The state as well as the private sector might find difficult to overcome the phenomenon of  moral hazard that happens when subscribers of an insurance start to behave differently from how they would otherwise if they weren’t insured (Barr 1992:752). Moral hazard may imply that full insurance allows excessive use, for example fully insured health care patients may be prone to use services more often and more extensively than they actually need (Barr 1992:753). Or it may arise because a third party that is interested in providing the service might induce excessive use of the insurance as with pharmaceutical industry in health care markets (Watts and Segal 2009, Barr 1992:753). Another possibility is that, as in the example of chronic diseases, there is a failure to consider or adopt preventive behaviour and a margin for pareto-improvement in policy (Watts and Segal 2009). Insurance markets, health insurance in particular, are also subject to increasing returns to scale when a number of companies come together in order to be able to insure certain risks, thus forming a monopoly. While it may be a positive factor for the subscriber as it allows to insure risks which would otherwise be difficult to cover, because it implies a form of imperfect competition, it can cause a disproportionate rise in prices and it also contravenes market’s assumptions and undermines consumers’ choice (Appleby 1998:38).

Only externalities arising from uncertain/asymmetry of information and adverse selection which causes incomplete/missing markets justify social insurance (Appleby 1998:38). As Anderson pointed out market failure is ‘a theory not of what is wrong with markets, but of what goes wrong when markets are not available’ (1993:192 cited in Satz 2004:14). Social insurance, though, can only be partially efficient in its redistributive aims because it is a horizontal redistributive measure and its eligibility assumes a past of contributions. It requires for the subscriber to be or to have been in employment thus ruling out those who have not. Either the length of contribution or employment income or both influence the final level of distribution (Barr 1992:771). Moreover social insurance is subject to demographic changes, employment rates and inflation which may weaken its ability to deliver efficiently in the long run (Barr 1992:769-771). Low birth rates combined with an increase in life expectancy are worrying to states with Pay As You Go (PAYG) pensions, since a balance in the ratio between the number of contributors and the number of those benefiting from the insurance is required in order to be able to provide the pensions. The state can struggle in the long run unless it increases the age of retirement and keeps unemployment as low as possible (Barr 1992:769-770).  Social assistance on the other hand, being a vertical  means-tested kind of redistributive policy can step in where social insurance fails to deliver acceptable redistributive outcomes, targeting directly disadvantaged groups (Alcock 2008:24). Social assistance entitlement can be linked to the compliance to specific behaviours (Alcock et al 2008:307). While the ‘carrot and stick’ approach can attempt to induce desirable behaviours, the consequences of failing those not willing or not able to comply will still affect society as a whole. Contingent benefits, often referred to as universal benefits, are a third possible approach. Although they are free from tests, claimants may still need to demonstrate they are affected by the contingency addressed by the policy along with other requirements such as residence in the country (Alcock et al 2008:307-308). In the UK, for instance, in order to receive child benefits one needs to demonstrate that one has a child and that one is resident in the UK (Alcock et al 2008:308).

Concluding, there are a variety of situations when market failures occur in insurance markets. Some of them can be attributed to the unattainable assumption of the ideal market and some to real market limits that inform insurance companies. The competitive imbalance created by increasing returns to scale can be overcome by laws advocating competitive fairness. Laws, targeted policies, and taxes can attempt to prevent moral hazard behaviour and keep away the externalities arising from negative conduct of the insured. The insurance market is particularly weak in the presence of adverse selection and information asymmetry or uncertain information, thus failing to deliver efficiency or failing to deliver the market altogether. Those specific market failures can justify state intervention in order to reduce the  gaps left by the private market and to avoid the externalities that arise as a consequence to those gaps. Social insurance though, may not be the best social policy instrument to fill the gaps. Because of the contributory and contingency requirements for eligibility and depending on how it is conceived, funded and delivered, it can fail to provide that minimal standard required to function in a given society (Barr 1992:771). Redistribution can be better achieved by vertical measures such as social assistance or by a combination of social insurance and social assistance where the latter intervenes when the former fails. Alternatively, where the state recognises that the delivery of a specific service may serve a shared interest, it may resolve to contingent benefits which perform a relative equality of outcome given that one fulfils the contingency requirements without requiring contributions or tests.


Alcock, P. (2008) Social policy in Britain, 3rd ed. ed., Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan.

Alcock, P., May, M. and Karen, R., eds. (2008) The student’s companion to social policy, 3rd ed., Oxford: Blackwell.

Appleby, J. (1998) ‘Economic perspectives on markets and health care.’ in Ranade, W.  ed. Markets and health care : a comparative analysis, London: Longman. Ch.3, 33-53.

Barr, N. (1992) ‘Economic Theory and the Welfare State: A Survey and Interpretation’, Journal of Economic Literature, 30(2).

Brown, H. S. and Connelly, L. B. (2005) ‘Market failure in long-term private health insurance markets: a proposed solution’, Applied Economics Letters, 12(5), 281-284.

Dollery, B. and Wallis, J. (2001) ‘The theory of market failure and equity-based policy making in contemporary local government’, Local Government Studies, 27(4), 59-70.

Eisen, R. (2006) ‘Adverse selection in the Health Insurance Market after Genetic Tests’ in Chiappori, P.-A. and Gollier, C., eds., Competitive Failures in Insurance Markets, London, England: The MIT press, 33-54.

Netzer, N. and Scheuer, F. (2007) ‘Taxation, insurance, and precautionary labor’, Journal of Public Economics, 91(7-8), 1519-1531.

Pierson, C. (2006). Political Economy and the Welfare State. in: Beyond The Welfare State. 3rd ed. Cambridge: Polity Press. 40-65..

Satz, D. (2004) ‘Noxious Markets: Why Should Some Things Not be for Sale?’ in Pattanaik, P. K. and Cullenberg, S., eds., Globalisation, Culture, and the Limits of the Market: Essays in Economics and Philosophy, New Dehli: Oxford University Press, 11-38.

Sinn, H. W. (1997) ‘The selection principle and market failure in systems competition’, Journal of Public Economics, 66(2), 247-274.

United States Congress 23/03/2010 111-148 The Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act.[pdf] Available at: <; [Accessed 29/12/2012]

Watts, J. J. and Segal, L. (2009) ‘Market failure, policy failure and other distortions in chronic disease markets’, Bmc Health Services Research, 9.

Learning journal – Disability


Topic: Disability: individual rights, structure and society

Summary of reading

The very definition of disability is at the heart of sociological disputes. The account of those conflicts usually indicates the ‘disability studies’ approach as in contrast with the ‘medical sociology’ one. Disability studies encapsulate the social relational model and the social model. The social relational model theorised by Finkenstein and Hunt from a Marxist/materialist perspective, advocates that disability is a product of society’s barriers rather than a physiological impairment. The social model theorised by Shakespeare and Watson, stems from the social relational one but, considering postmodern and poststructuralist perspectives, challenges the exclusion of the body and of impairment in the account of disability by their predecessors. Medical sociology, on the other hand, focusing on the link between biology and impairment tends to highlight the role of the body in informing disability. Whether through the socio-medical model theorised by Bury or through the critical realism stance of Williams, medical sociology seem to share the focus on the body with the social model. Thomas defends the social relational model from the critiques about the censorship of the body. He affirms that biological impairments can be given for granted if we interpret disability as one of the ‘-isms’ that structure society and calls for future research to analyse the ways able-bodied exclude impaired.

Analysis of topic 

Conceptions of disability inform how impairment is perceived. Parson with his functionalist account of the ‘sick role’ was the first to challenge the organic depiction of disability, and to offer an account of the social consequences and duties of being disable or sick (Marks, 1999:60-62). The fact that disability was not seen as a social matter backs up Oliver’s claim that disabled are confined in the private and personal sphere (2004 cited in Thomas, 2004:578). The functionalist perspective on disability is debatable for the dichotomy it creates between concepts of normative ability and health. This distinction portrays ability as desirable and ultimately informs how impairment and sickness are perceived as deviant (Marks, 1999:60). The generalisation that disability and sickness are necessarily related, while it may not be so (Marks, 1999:61), along with the argumentation by Frank that disability might not necessarily be perceived as a negative experience by the agent (Thomas, 2004), constitute further criticisms to Parson’s account. Medicalisation of disability has censored disabled voices forcing dependency of ‘treatment’ on them and exposing them to unnecessary vulnerability (Marks, 1999:64). Mental illness, in particular, has been stigmatised by the medical profession. The process of being labelled mentally ill is somehow influenced by class and social capital (Marks, 1999:64). Once the label is applied, there has been a tendency of medicine to treat mentally ill as outcasts: asylums have generated additional mental strain through marginalisation (Marks, 1999:65). The medical profession has inflicted all sorts of bodily harms while claiming to ‘cure’, which have later been recognised as cruel, unnecessary and harmful (Marks, 1999:65-66). Finkenstein’s perspective distancing disability from the body and collocating it within social oppression, offers a fresh way to look at disability without having to deny the body but being able to give it for granted (Thomas, 2004).

Key learning

The social relational model has had a great impact in advocating societal responsibility in the construction of disability. The use of language, discourses, focus (on the body), policies all in all seem to understand disability through ability thus ‘othering’ it. We explored the othering that comes to place in racism in the Social Inequality and diversity module. But individuals are not passive recipients of discourses and helpless victims of power, as Foucault made clear in ‘The history of sexuality’ (that I read for the ‘social inequality and diversity’ module) that power is something we inhabit from within, thus advocating the constant possibility of agency. Lukes too in his analysis of ‘Power’ (that I read in preparation of the ‘social conflict’ module) ultimately rejects structural determinism (Lukes, 1974:55). The welfare state with the Beveridgean account of disease as one of the ‘giant evils’ to be fought by providing health care for everyone, was at the heart of the medicalisation of disability. I studied the birth of the welfare state in the social policy module. In the same module we explored how older people’s policy and sociology is informed by discourses that have similarity with disability, as the older person’s body is perceived as impaired and socially the elderly are expected to cast themselves aside from society.


The current disability debate places itself in a period where the government is reassessing incapacity benefits of disabled and sick with a medical test to determine their ability to work. While at a first glance it looks like an attempt of empowerment (by allowing those involved in the test to reconsider their abilities and strengths), it seems ironic that it uses a medical organic gaze to generate agency reinforcing a concept of disability distant from that theorised by Finkestein and Thomas. The body thus becomes a warzone of authority where institutional tests, with their ability to cut financial support, stigmatise, silence and once again oppress the ‘tested’. I would like to read both Barnes and Mercer’s book and Foucault’s ‘Madness and civilisation’ to get an in-depth understanding of how the ability’s standpoint informs choices of life and death and of an explanatory overview on discourses on mental illness.

Overall summary and conclusion

Sociological perspectives on disability comparing and contrasting the social relational model, the social model, the socio-medical model and critical realism were being analysed. Thomas’s conclusion about the practical positive changes that the social relational model has achieved, with its conception of disability as a socially imposed form of oppression was considered as starting point for future research into ‘ableism’ as a societal structural attitude. Connections were made with recent government discourses advocating empowerment while opposing welfarism in a context of economic crunch. A focus on impairment as medically testable in recent policies was contrasted with the social relational model account. Concluding, Finkestein’s model appears to be all but out of date, linking the hegemony of the body with ontologies and epistemologies of ability eventually informing concepts of life and death.


Lukes, S. (1974) Power : a radical view, Studies in sociology, London: Macmillan.

Marks, D. , 1999. Medicine and its allied profession. In Disability. Oxon: Routledge.

Thomas, C. (2004) How is disability understood? An examination of sociological approaches. In: Disability and society, 19(6). London: Taylor & Francis.

Discuss the ways in which feminists present the reasons for violence against women in modern society.


Feminism as a movement has attempted to explain and challenge subordination, power imbalance, violence and domination within a gender frame analysis of structure, agency, ideologies and discourses. But feminism has not been a uniform movement (Abbott et al. 2005:27), there has been a variety of theoretical starting points developed throughout  history such as Radical, Liberal, Marxist, Dual-systems, Postmodern, Black and Postcolonial (Abbott et al. 2005:31-50) and a similar variety of focus such as structuralist and post-structuralist (Abbott et al. 2005:61-64). This richness of analysis will inevitably mirror the variety of reasons, often mixing together different perspectives, offered in relation to violence against women. The term ‘Violence against women’ (VAW), is quite a comprehensive umbrella term that encompasses a wide variety of acts and practices. Due to the magnitude and complexity of VAW, this work will not aim to offer a comprehensive account on it.  An explanatory definition of the term is offered by the United Nation general assembly that, addressing it in December 1993, described it as:

any act of gender-based violence that results in, or is likely to result in, physical, sexual or psychological harm or suffering to women, including threats of such acts, coercion or arbitrary deprivation of liberty, whether occurring in public or in private life.’(UN 1993)

The declaration, stressing the importance of equality and human rights, marked an important milestone of institutional recognition of feminist perspectives and critiques on VAW. In the declaration the assembly made a further distinction of violence by spaces and roles women occupy and structures that justify it, mirroring feminist critiques of the dichotomy private/public (UN 1993). Women have been consistently relegated in the private sphere in history by institutions such as the family, the market or the state, although class and ‘other social conditions’ (Hunnicutt 2009:556) have often operated a separate distinction between women (Walby 1990:179). The feminist slogan ‘the private is political’ has challenged this relegation to replace women in society and eventually challenge the epistemology of malestream explanations of women’s oppression (Walby 1990:187-201, Abbott et al. 2005:9-11). In analysing feminist explanations of VAW a brief overlook of patriarchy will be presented and contrasted with discourses that oppose it through the research of Nancy Berns. A micro to macro order will then be followed starting with experiences of VAW in the home to expand to the public sphere before drawing the final conclusions. The order followed may not result as straightforward as intended because of the ways structural, ideological and power issues related to VAW often overlap both in the public and the private sphere mutually influencing each other.

Early uses of the term patriarchy by authors such as Virginia Woolf or sociologists like Weber referred to  the literal meaning of the power of the man as the ‘natural’ leader of the traditional family (Abbott et al. 2005:61) over other family members. Radical feminists have theorised ‘patriarchy’ as a powerful, universal and omni-pervasive tool for men’s oppression on women, embedded in social structures, language, practices, knowledge, history and in the difference between men and women (Abbott et al. 2005:33). Brownmiller, a radical feminist researching violence, saw patriarchy as central to gendered violence and theorised it both as social and individual tool of dominance and control exerted by men over women (1976 cited in Walby 1990:134-135). Hammer and Saunders, analysing wife beating, highlighted an active involvement of the state in not preventing it (1984 cited in Walby 1990:135). The stance they take is similar to Bachrach and Baratz’s dual description of power both as influencing decision making and non-decision making (Lukes 1974:16-20). They saw both the welfare state responsibility in relegating working-class and middle-class women out of employment and the apparently neutral stance in familiar internal tensions and violence (marital rape in England and Wales became a crime only in 1991) as an active assertion of male power and control over women (Walby 1990:135). But the concept of patriarchy has been largely criticised both by feminist and non-feminists. It presents flaws in reducing the complexity of power relations between men and women. It fails to explicate how the construction of masculinities is affecting men too. It is also problematic in advocating universality of men’s domination: black/postcolonial feminists have criticised the ‘western’ feminist stance in the accounts of patriarchy seeing it as racist and ethnocentric (Abbott et al. 2005:47-48). The account of female genital mutilation (FGM) has proven to be particularly controversial (Wade 2012). Early western feminist work failed to consider the cultural meaning FGM has in the culture where it is practiced. This stance brought feminist to label it either as a specific African problem (Wade 2012:38) or as a barbaric practice (Wade 2012:35). Western feminist’s views evolved through time to consider the post-colonial critique and started to operate a distinction between the different practices enclosed in FGM while avoiding stereotyping practitioners (Wade 2012).  Hunnicut advocates though, that patriarchy can still be a useful theoretical tool for VAW, provided that it is revised in the light of criticism (2009:567). She advocates a new account for the variety of patriarchies that inhabit the cultural, structural and social textures. She supports a patriarchy that elaborates the idea of hegemonic consensus theorised by Gramsci (Hunnicutt 2009:561). And she suggests a use of patriarchy that sees power both as simultaneously located in multiple positions and as a constantly changing process, as theorised by postmodernists and poststructuralists (Hunnicutt 2009:559, 568).

Feminists theorising VAW and women reporting it had to constantly oppose patriarchal form of resistance that Berns describes as ‘Degendering the problem and gendering the blame’(2001:262). She analysed how VAW was discussed in men’s and political magazines from 1970 to 1999 using a critical theory approach. A consistent body of research and official statistics shows that violence is correlated with gender and being a woman increases the chance of being victimised for specific crimes (Hunnicutt 2009:556). In the UK recent research shows that there is a prevalence of women who experience ‘interpersonal’ violence, especially of sexual nature (Walby and Allen 2004:74) and women are significantly more likely than men to be subjected to repeated victimisation. The percentage of women who experienced more than four attacks, is in fact as high as 89%(Walby and Allen 2004:25). Women are also more likely than men to suffer severe physical injuries as a consequence of physical violence and mental illness as a consequence of sexual violence (Walby and Allen 2004:34-35). In the United States the situation is similar: the National Violence Against Women Survey 2003 data showed that 85% of women were victims of Intimate Partner Violence (IPV) (Rennison and Welchans 2000 cited in Hunnicutt 2009:556) and they were significantly more likely to report serious levels of violence than men (Tjaden and Thoennes 2000 cited in Hunnicutt 2009:556). Yet, Berns accounts that in order to undermine patriarchy as an acceptable frame, discourses in the magazines she analysed used various techniques to put in doubt statistic evidence (Berns 2001:265-269). One was to portray violent men as a very small and deranged minority in need of psychological aid or regard them as isolated cases, the second was to cite studies such as Gelles and Straus and the third was to use women’s critiques of feminist theories as a tool of delegitimation (Berns 2001:265-269). Gelles and Straus’ study about domestic violence used Conflict Tactic Scale (CTS) in order to account for self-reported domestic violence and found that women were equally if not slightly more violent than men.The research is often cited as a proof of women’s underrepresentation as violent partners. Critics have argued that the study failed to account for the motivations behind the violence, for the outcomes of it and for other forms of violence that were not strictly physical such as threats (Berns 2001:267-268). Gelles himself disagreed with the instrumentalisation of his work admitting that women suffered injury consistently more than men (1997:93 cited in Berns 2001:267). Research shows that women’s violent behaviour is often a response to violence (Dobash et al. 1992 cited in Hunnicutt 2009:557). Despite the claims that women and men are equally abusive Berns found that the articles she analysed followed a ‘gendering the blame’ pattern targeting women only. She summarises the pattern as composed of: an emphasis on examples of violent women opposed to a lack of examples of violent men, placing the responsibility of the attack on the woman (and in one case even implying that there was a form of enjoyment in remaining in a violent relationship), challenging only the tolerance of women’s violence while advocating that feminists activists and supporters are intentionally biased in over-victimising women to gain attention (Berns 2001:269-275).

Bern’s analysis of discourses in malestream media, somehow mirrors the assumptions and ideologies that the feminist political movement, activists and researchers had to deconstruct while challenging structural bias. Ideology can be embedded in language: the very term ‘domestic violence’, for instance, refers to the place where the violence takes place instead of referring to the perpetrator (Abbott et al. 2005:295). But ideology was also inscribed in institutions such as the family and marriage. Bograd stated that: ‘As feminists, we believe that the social institutions of marriage and family are special contexts that may promote, maintain, and even support men’s use of physical force against women’ (1988 cited in Taylor and Jasinski 2011:342). Adrienne Rich recognised in the cultural construction of  ‘compulsory heterosexuality’ and in the social (and feminist) acritical acceptance of it a problematic ideology influencing VAW and the responses to it (1980). Familiar ideology, shaping the sense of value and identification of women as strictly linked to the success of relationships, has been theorised as one of the reasons to explain why women do not leave violent partners (Ogle, Maier-Katkin and Bernard 1995 cited in Hunnicutt 2009:562). The traditional family has been historically recognised by feminists as the locus of an unbalanced relationship between wives and husbands where women were, and often still are, assigned extra unpaid duties ranging from practical tasks such as cleaning or caring for elderly and children to sexual and reproductive tasks (Abbott et al. 2005:296). Marxist feminists view this imbalance as instrumental to capitalist interests while radical feminists interpret it as patriarchal domination. They both agree though, that familiar frames and ideologies are responsible for the oppression and the exploitation of the woman (Abbott et al. 2005:147-148). The perception of neglect  of the wifely duties has been found to be potentially triggering for VAW (Dobash and Dobash 1980 cited in Abbott et al. 2005:296). The ideology of roles goes hand in hand with institutional responses. There is a reported reluctance of police to charge husbands with assault (Abbott et al. 2005:295). Police’s attitudes of disbelief and discredit towards victims have been linked with VAW being largely under-reported (Walby 1990:141, Lees 2000). But even when police do charge with assault, there is a tendency by the Crown Prosecution Service to drop the case especially if the violence takes place within marriage or to lower the sentence somehow subtly recognising a right of sexual-ownership to the husband (Lees 2000). This concept of ‘sexual proprietariness’ (Daly and Wilson 1988 cited in Taylor and Jasinski 2011:349) has been useful in conceptualising homicide and serious sexual assault from male intimate partners as an outcome of the sense of entitlement and ownership that men use to control women through fear in order to discipline sexuality and reproduction (Daly and Wilson 1988 cited in Taylor and Jasinski 2011:349). The loss of control over women appears to be a triggering factor for serious violence and homicide. (Taylor and Jasinski 2011:350). Research shows that women are more at risk of serious violence (sexual or otherwise) when they decide to leave abusive relationships (Browne 1987, Wallace 1986, Wilson and Daly 1993 cited in Taylor and Jasinski 2011:349, Lees 2000), in case of estrangement (Adinkrah 1999, Block and Christakos 1995, Brown et al. 1999, Campbell 1992, Chimbos 1978, Dawson and Gartner 1998, Dobash et al. 1992, Ellis and DeKeseredy 1997, Goetting 1991, Jurik and Winn 1990, Smith et al. 1998, Websdale 1999, Wilson and Daly 1992, Wilson et al. 1995 cited in Taylor and Jasinski 2011:350, Walby and Allen 2004:66), during pregnancy (Davies et al. 2009 cited in Taylor and Jasinski 2011:351) and when the husband suspects or knows of the wife’s infidelity (Wilson and Daly 1992 cited in Taylor and Jasinski 2011:352). Research on feminicide, a term used by feminists to describe misogynistic driven homicides, shows that there is again a trend of loss of control by men. But in addition, feminicides perpetrated by intimate partners often present a pattern of repeated abuse, threats, coercion that culminates with the pre-meditated homicide or with the death of the woman as a result of the violence in the assault (Browne 1987, Campbell et al. 2007, Goetting 1991, Smith et al. 1998 cited in Taylor and Jasinski 2011:345). Lees presents a possible correlation between marital rape and murders by hypothesizing that rape can potentially be a trigger for the woman to leave the relationship and leaving or attempting to leave it can expose her to murder (2000).

Discourses of gendered patterns of aggression are often resisted with the argument that not all women are targeted by men because of their gender. Hunnicut points out how a multitude of patriarchal ideologies, while making a distinction between acceptable behaviour, appearance and status, tend to offer protection to those women abiding by the written or unwritten rules of law, religion, culture while exposing the others to potential backlash (Hunnicutt 2009:565). Women’s need of protection, becomes a declaration of powerlessness and vulnerability (Hunnicutt 2009:565)  that feminist activists have thoroughly resisted while advocating empowerment. The risk of being raped, often justified by statistics, is used by institutions to target women as a group with advices on how to avoid rape or violence in public spaces. It is almost unheard of for men to be equally targeted at systematic level with public advices on how to avoid raping women or on how consent is crucial in every sexual encounter. A recent example of institutional propaganda of a rape myth such as the responsibility of women in rape and of feminist resistance to it was the cab-wise campaign by Transport for London (TfL). Posters were showing a screaming woman on a cab while the message was emotionally suggesting that women should avoid taking unbooked cabs to minimise the chance of being raped. The campaign included targeted emails to women subscribing the TfL mailing list stressing the perils of unlicensed cabs. After the emails were received, the London Feminist Network campaigned to contrast the view that rapes are a woman’s responsibility and eventually managed to have the posters withdrawn (London Feminist Network, 2010). This account of resistance to the myths encompassing rape is very similar to Lovendusky and Randall accounts of women’s resistance to police attempts to control their behaviour during the Yorkshire ripper’s murders (Abbott et al. 2005:292). Rape has often been justified as being a sexual crime. The implication being that rape is an uncontrollable sexual urge explained in terms of biological and hormonal differences. Research conducted by anthropologists like Toner and Sanday accounted for ‘virtually’ ‘rape-free’ societies referring to the organisation of the society as being matriarchal rather than patriarchal or holding nature (as a metaphor of the feminine) sacred when ‘rape-free’ (Toner cited in Abbott et al. 2005:291, Sanday cited in Hunnicutt 2009:559, 564). These results strongly suggest that rape might be a culturally learned behaviour rather than a biological problematic. Amir, finding that 70% of  rapes were planned and 57% of perpetrators were not strangers (1971 cited in Abbott et al. 2005:294) suggested that the extemporary urge frame might be biased too. Radical feminists like Brownmiller who theorised that both sexuality and violence were socially constructed (Walby 1990:134-135) also refused the sexual frustration argument after examining how the presence of prostitutes in the American army during the Vietnam war did not prevent soldiers to rape women (Walby 1990:134). Analysing popular content of songs and films, she highlighted how strength, violence and macho culture were accepted and encouraged and how this justification and encouragement of acts of violence was amplified by an all-male military setting (Walby 1990:134). She also, along with others (Enloe 1983 and Greenham common women cited in Walby 1990:134), exposed how a military environment was directly influential on the rise of rape (Brownmiller cited in Walby 1990:134). Gloria Steinem also advocates that war and rape are inter-related. She emphasises that, although it was not always the case (the American colonisers account of how the indigenous population did not rape the women they held captive), offensive wars and rape seem to be related. Steinem justifies rapes in conflicts as the result of an extreme construction of masculinity (as a denial of femininity), manipulation of group dynamics and insecurity of self-identity (cited in Wolfe 2012). Similar stances regarding problematic masculinities seem to be advocated by South African feminist activists to explain the preoccupying rise in VAW and ‘corrective rape’ (which has sometimes lead to murder) against lesbians in the country. Despite South Africa’s progressive constitution and the presence of laws that criminalise hate crime (Martin et al. 2009:8), activists denounce both a rise in a macho culture objectifying women and a reluctance to intervene at structural level by the police or the state.  ‘Women’s bodies have become warzones’ (Phumi Mtetwa cited in Martin et al. 2009:16) of ideology between the theoretical law of the state advocating equality and the norms policing gender and sexuality embedded in practices of violence advocating domination. As Hunnicut has noted, ‘patriarchal ideology may endure despite structural gains in gender equality’ (2009:562).

Concluding, feminist perspectives about patriarchy still appear to be a valid tool for explaining VAW where women are specifically targeted because of their supposedly deviant behaviour from culturally constructed malestream norms about gender and/or sexuality. There seems to be an inversely proportional correlation between the perpetrator’s perception of his own power/control and violence that calls for an analysis of how patriarchy affects masculinities. Some masculinities seem to operate a disempowerment on others within the patriarchal frame thus possibly influencing indirectly VAW (Hunnicutt 2009:560).  Patriarchies need to be contextualised to the culture they apply rather than be judged from culturally distant frames but, on the other hand, cultural frames cannot become frames of justification of VAW either. The power relation between the perpetrator and the victim cannot be oversimplified by implying powerlessness of the victim or intentionality in reproducing patriarchy of the perpetrator. As Hunnicutt has noted, malestream ideologies do not need coercion to exist as they are surprisingly self-reproducing (2009:561). The shared responsibility of women, men and the media in the reproduction of the ideology cannot be downplayed either (Hunnicutt 2009:564).  And since the victimisation of women has less to do with victims and more to do with perpetrators (Hunnicutt 2009:560) and the systems around them, feminist political activism shifting the focus away from the victim appears to be still a valid way of deconstructing the ideology to challenge myths.


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‘Social mobility is what characterises a fair society, rather than a particular level of income equality.’ (Nick Clegg, Guardian 24.11.2010) Do you agree with Nick?


In analysing whether it is essential for a concept of fairness that social mobility outrules income equality as if they were totally incompatible with one-another, this paper will analyse the points in Nick Clegg’s statement that led him to the conclusions of the title. In particular, the focus will be on his assumptions about what constitutes poverty and on the limits that the economical recession is posing on public policy. An analysis of the nature and extent of social mobility in Britain, accompanied by a very brief historical overview of discourses concerning it, is also due in order to contextualise how relevant is the claim that this view of justice is, as new and progressive as advocated (Clegg 2010). Comparing and contrasting philosophical views of distributive justice will eventually facilitate a coherent conclusion on the virtues and faults of the initial statement.  Research highlighted by the book ‘The spirit level’ (Wilkinson and Pickett 2010), regarding the outcomes of income equality, will also be discussed before final conclusions are drawn.

Nick Clegg’s statement about social mobility is part of a wider reflection that starts with a discourse about poverty and ends with considerations about the role of institutions during economic recession. He sees poverty as constituted by both financial and non-financial components (2010). He identifies the financial ones as being portrayed by the traditional ‘poverty line’ that draws a distinction between the better off and the vulnerable. And he describes the non-financial relative identifiers of poverty as a spatially deprived geography where poor health care, security and education influence individuals’ ability to raise above certain standards of income (2010). His criticism towards the precedent government’s aim to get people above the poverty line is grounded in two different directions: one economical and one philosophical. The first addresses the moral responsibility of intergenerational equity where future generations do not deserve to suffer from the actual generation’s failure to address deficit in the short term. This stance allows him to defend the decision towards austerity measures and cuts. The second consists in analysing what the state role is and concluding from a liberal point of view that the state interference (and expenditure) should be minimal in allocating resources to individuals and should rather focus on maximising opportunities and ‘life-chances’ in the long run. He somehow identifies the direct allocation of resources to individuals as a weakness, both because of the costs involved and because he doesn’t believe that inequality (no matter the extent) equals injustice unless it is intergenerational  (2010). Social mobility, therefore, provides the optimal time-span and relative amount of spending necessary for the indirect effects that the coalition government aims to achieve.

Clegg’s very definition of poverty is debatable, Amartya Sen, economist and nobel prize famous for his economic and philosophical research about poverty and justice, offers strong arguments in opposition to Clegg’s discourses. Although they both agree that poverty is not only an economic issue, their views are quite different in focus and in substance. While Clegg discusses how trivial is being just above the ‘poverty line’ in term of life chances (2010), Sen points out that it is essential to know both the extent of the gap below it and the amount of those in poverty (2000:102). They both agree that income can be just partially responsible in determining poverty, but Sen asserts that poverty is a state of deprivation of individual capabilities (2000:111) while Clegg focuses on deprivation of equality of access to public resources and deprivation of security (2010). Sen provides a practical starting point by considering how effectively capable poor would be of climbing the social ladder, regardless of their income, health, disposition or attitude (2006:480-481). Clegg seems to totally dismiss this aspect as relevant, failing to acknowledge how unequal, equality of access might become where a lack of capability applies. Sen is also very critical towards policy makers who, due to lack of resources, accommodate their definition of poverty and the aims of policy in order to stir the few resources available away from it. He clearly warns that the very definition of poverty marks how poverty is or is not addressed. And despite recognising that policy ultimately has to be achievable, he argues that failing to target poverty is not justifiable by the mere scarcity of means (2000:107).

The variations in the understanding and definition of poverty consequentially apply to the complexity of social mobility. Statistics of social mobility in Britain tend to focus either on income mobility or on occupational stratification mobility, stressing intergenerational and intragenerational differences (Wilkinson and Pickett 2010:157, Savage 2000). This account fails to consider cultural components of one’s place in society and of one’s actual chances of changes. The French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu unveiled a very complex intersection of measurable and non-measurable influences in one’s position in society. He advocated that one is not only the product of one’s own social, cultural and economic capital. The ‘habitus’, an unconscious internalisation of the limitations posed by our capitals and by society’s reactions to it (very similar to Focault’s panopticon), dictates our tastes and needs ultimately influencing our social position too. (Wilkinson and Pickett 2010:163-165, Butler and Watt 2007:173). Yet social mobility is often advocated either as a first step towards ‘life chances’ or as constituting a life-chance in itself.  Even when ruling out all of the non-economic aspects of mobility and relying exclusively on statistics, total mobility rates clearly fail to account for total life chances. In fact, total mobility rates are composed of vertical and non-vertical mobility, the latter being mobility within jobs or incomes that do not shift significantly one’s position in society. Vertical mobility, moreover, is constituted by both upward and downward mobility (Savage 2000:78). When advocating mobility in order to increase life chances, Clegg was supposedly talking about intra-generational upward mobility only. He clearly failed to identify the extent of the necessary time-span for mobility to operate such changes. And he also failed to describe how social mobility alone would be determining life opportunities in a period of recession when unemployment rates are rising despite the rise in jobs (BBC 2012).

Although deeply rooted popular wisdom still sees social mobility as the logical prize for the performance of the right abilities, aspirations and behaviours such as ‘hard work, effort and talent’ (Savage 2000:73), statistics seem to suggest that the logical connection of behaviour and effective mobility is not as straightforward as it seems. Quite on the contrary, researchers highlight a trend of stability (when they don’t highlight a decline) for mobility in the UK  (Osberg and Smeeding 2006:453, Goldthorpe and Jackson 2007:541,Wilkinson and Pickett 2010:159-161). Research shows that mobility increases only for the lowest classes, but not for the better. Analysing the type of mobility patterns of horizontal, downward mobility and mobility in and out of employment seems to prevail (Savage 2000:92-93). It might be questioned then, why the use of social mobility as a political tool to gain consensus is quite common in Britain and has become a ‘recurrent theme in speeches by government ministers’(Goldthorpe and Jackson 2007:526). While in the Tatcherite era, the aspiration of the working classes to social mobility was encouraged through policies which promoted  status like property ownership (Jones 2011:60) but never mentioned the term, New Labour has made extensive use of it. Tony Blair himself advocated the necessity of promoting social mobility and described it as being ‘The great force for social equality in dynamic market economies’ (cited in Goldthorpe and Jackson 2007:526). The Labour Secretary of State for Education in 2005 described it as basic to a ‘just society’ (Kelly cited in Goldthorpe and Jackson 2007:526). The only substantial news in Clegg’s claims is that he opposes social mobility to income equality denying the ‘fairness’ of the latter and that he advocates that an unequal society is fair provided there is intergenerational mobility (2010).

In order to understand where Clegg’s statement stands and how justifiable it is, the most common philosophical stances in distributional justice will be compared. Natural liberty (Sandel 1998:68) will be deliberately left out both because it advocates entitlements that even Clegg refuses and due to lack of space. Utilitarianism targets the maximisation of the total-sum utility in order to maximise everyone’s increase in share, focusing on the added value that one would have in case of total-sum increase. This approach does not provide factual data and does not address distribution, needs or initial endowments (Sen 2006:474-476). Total utility egalitarianism, instead, pursues the equality in the share of the total that each component gets. Those like Clegg, who advocate equality of opportunity (Sandel 1998:68) and hold meritocratic views usually oppose this approach. Since they consider the losses and gains that each individual gets from competition in a free market as deserved (provided there’s an equal start), they find total utility unjust towards those who, pursuing virtue, are not entitled to their achievements (Sandel 1998:72-73). This view that total utility might be biased appears irrespectively of the assumption that it is feasible its absolute form, which would require continuous adjustments by the state to level inequality (Sen 2006:478). Meritocracy, though, is not free from controversy. John Rawls, while analysing desert, objects that people don’t deserve their initial endowments as they are arbitrarily provided by birth. He goes further to say that even if a society was to succeed in providing an equal start for everyone (a goal that is equally difficult to achieve in reality), people would still not deserve the fruits of their labour. (Sandel 2009:154). He doesn’t recognise a moral ground for desert because he fails to recognize virtue or ownership in both efforts and skills that justify virtue or ownership in their results (Sandel 1998:71). Virtue, in particular, is a label that is attached to the endowment by the very institution that promotes and appreciates it, and it doesn’t hold any value in itself (Sandel 1998:76, Sandel 2009:163-164). The solution for Rawls consists in considering the totality of natural endowments as a common pool for society, from which the better endowed are allowed to take their advantage only if and to the extent in which they benefit the less endowed (Sen 2006:479, Sandel 1998:77, Sandel 2009:156). Sen, despite recognizing that Rawls’ theory  is powerful, claims that his portrayal of advantage fails to account for the relationship between the specific advantage or disadvantage and the person (Sen 2006:480). He claims that a form of utilitarianism that focuses on ‘basic capabilities’ rather than on total-sum utility could account for the processing of possessions into resources. This would equip the policy maker with a wider picture on the subjects of policy, provided that there is clarity on the cultural context and that capabilities could be listed in an index (Sen 2006:481).

Clegg’s statement, all in all, doesn’t seem as progressive and fair in aims as Rawls or Sen’s as he only recognises injustice in a form of protracted inequality in time rather than in inequality itself (Clegg 2010). But let’s consider how relevant is his claim that the pursue of income equality fails to ‘liberate and empower’ individuals (Clegg 2010). Wilkinson and Pickett researched official statistics for the EU and US to see if there were any correlations between the spectrum of income equality/inequality with various psychological and practical aspects that would make life better or worse. The aspects were: ‘level of trust, mental illness, life expectancy, obesity, children’s educational performance, teenage births, homicides, imprisonment rates and social mobility’ (Wilkinson and Pickett 2010:19). The results of the research are extremely interesting. While national average income does not show any particular correlation with any of the aspects cited earlier, when researching different levels of income equality the correlation is evident and findings regarding both European and American states are consistent in showing a trend (Wilkinson and Pickett 2010). The trend is that inequality in income affects negatively everybody’s lives, even those who are relatively better off. Death rates comparison across classes between Sweden and England and Wales showed that there is still a considerable difference between the two countries even at highest income levels. Infant mortality comparison showed the same trend (Wilkinson and Pickett 2010:178-179). And what might come as a surprise to Clegg is that countries where income equality gaps are minimal show the highest levels of social mobility (Wilkinson and Pickett 2010:160). The widening of gaps might explain for the difficulty to move upwards (Blanden, Gregg and Machin cited in Wilkinson and Pickett 2010:161). But even wanting to consider the non-economical aspects of mobility cited by Clegg, like education, health and the sense of safety we can see that countries where income equality is higher have better educational achievement, better life expectancy, better physical and mental health and better levels of trust (Wilkinson and Pickett 2010). Since education is regarded as the primary source of mobility it is worth noting that state investment in education is strongly correlated to income differences (Wilkinson and Pickett 2010:161). The coalition government’s choice of raising university fees by reducing funding, seem highly irrational and irresponsible under this light, whether we look at the immediate consequences or at the long-term ones.

Concluding, Clegg seems to underestimate, in his unjustifiably optimistic defence of equality of opportunity, the power that politics and politicians have in changing the state of facts instead of delegating contingent responsibilities to the next government or generation. While he is very conscientious in stating that deficit should not be passed on (Clegg 2010), he’s not so keen to advocate that the negative effects of competition and inequality that a free market inevitably generates, are to be avoided or counterbalanced. His idea of social mobility is romanticised to fit common sense rather than grounded in evidence and takes the form of a justification for lack of investments. His future projections of minimal investment and maximal gain in the long run, appear, at best, fictional. All in all, the political discourse takes the form of an excuse to delegate the responsibility for inequality and injustice to the very recipients of inequality and injustice. Social mobility in itself does not account for fairness in a given society. Dignity, trust, health, knowledge, well-being and satisfaction do. Phenomenon like ‘displaced aggression’ (Marcus-Newhall et al cited in Wilkinson and Pickett 2010: 166) and labour exploitation are results of competition and inequality. By failing to recognise them as unfair in order to utter a blind faith in fictional entities like so called ‘free’ markets, politicians fail to acknowledge the centrality of humanity in democracies, their power as policy makers to change the status quo by setting fair aims in the first place and their representational role of the community as a whole.


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Sandel, M. (2009) Justice. What’s the right thing to do, London: Penguin books.

Savage, M. (2000) ‘Social mobility and the ‘Nuffield paradigm” in Class analysis and social transformation, Buckingham: Open University Press, 72-95.

Sen, A. (2000) ‘Poverty and affluence’ in Inequality reexamined, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 102-116.

Sen, A. (2006) ‘Equality of what?’ in Goodin, R. and Petit, P., eds., Contemporary Political Philosophy, Oxford: Blackwell Publishing, 473-483.

Wilkinson, R. G. and Pickett, K. (2010) The spirit level : why equality is better for everyone, New [ed.]. ed., London: Penguin.


Policy brief – Asylum seekers: a journey towards humanity?


Policy brief

(British Red Cross, 2011)


A journey towards humanity?





  • EU and International agreements that defend human rights clash with UK immigration and asylum policies that use detention, destitution, restricted access to health care and stigmatisation as a deterrent to asylum claims. This policy will advocate for a human rights focus that cannot include detention, removal and deprivation of health care.


  • Media depiction of asylum seekers is often biased. Faulty depiction condones prejudice of any kind as an acceptable practice. Media stakeholders should be deemed responsible for inaccuracy.


  • The current meritocratic system demands to claimants a proof of their status of necessity in order to support them. Proving their situation can range from very difficult to impossible. Homosexuality, for example, cannot be proven beyond doubt. This policy will therefore advocate a system of casual draws of refugee status that will rule out any judgment of the claimants and whose scope will be limited by economic restrictions only.




The UK has subscribed EU and International agreements such as the European Commission of Human Rights (ECHR) and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) which state that asylum is a human right (House of Lords House of Commons Joint Committee on Human Rights, 2007:12). One has the right to be supported when driven away from one’s own country by an adverse situation (be it political or natural).  This right clashes with immigration laws which force asylum claimants to present evidence of their status of necessity. Since 1998, in the UK, the Labour government started a politic of deterrence which has been described as a ‘Xeno-racist political strategy’ )(McGhee, 2005:70) in order to discourage asylum claims (see Appendix A). Xeno-racism is explicated as ‘fear, hatred or defensiveness’ towards foreigners (Sivanandan, 2001 cited in McGhee, 2005:68). This tendency towards stigmatization and depiction of asylum seekers as ‘asylum shoppers’ driven by economic greed rather than by necessity hasn’t been reversed yet. Since the start of this policy, asylum seekers’ human rights have been consistently breeched. Arbitrary detention that lasted over 6 years (Welch and Schuster, 2005:338), abuse and a suspect death during removal (Amnesty International UK, 2011), riots that threatened the security of refugees after they were forced to move in deprived areas of the country (McGhee, 2005:82-87) fail to picture the whole asylum system as complying with the idea of ‘humanity’.

Biased media depiction of refugees still contributes in building up myths and prejudices against them. The distortion about figures, motivations and supposed threat to the economy that asylum seekers pose on Britain is still a weekly if not a daily reality in the press. The distortion has been widely condemned by NGOs, researchers and independent bodies alike. According to Home office data, numbers of claimants are clearly in decline since 2002 (See appendix A)and the UK average of asylum seekers for 2010 is below the European standard (Blinder, 2011:2). Yet the frequency and quality of depiction in the press has not improved. Media accountability for biased depiction and cultural construction of prejudice is mostly needed. The phone hacking scandal has highlighted how media integrity affects trust between institutions and the public. To quote Lord Justice Leveson that chairs the current inquiry: ‘any failure within the media affects all of us’ (The Leveson Inquiry, 2011) and biased depiction is a failure in accuracy of information, the core purpose of media. The press is not innocent in the creation of culture. Cultural construction of myths has long lasting effects in the popular imaginary, can create ‘moral panics’ (Cohen, 1972) and a sense of ‘otherness’ that affects community cohesion. There is therefore, a stringent need for stakeholders to be held accountable for the deontology of the service.

Finally, sexual orientation asylum claims offer a challenging perspective on the idea of ‘fair’ assessment of meritocracy. Homosexuality is described by Stonewall referring to the most recent studies as ‘a combination of environmental and biological factors’ (Stonewall, 2012) and is, therefore, far from being scientifically assessable. This makes it difficult, if not impossible to prove or disprove one’s sexual orientation. Yet Brenda Namigadde, a Ugandan lesbian, had her asylum claim rejected because she did not show interest in LGBT media. The lack of interest was deemed as ‘evidence’ by the judge (Pink News, 2011). Appendix C will briefly give an overview of philosophical justice perspectives of asylum and highlight the focus of the policy recommendations.





1999 Immigration and Asylum Act
  1. Voucher system to replace cash benefit system
  2. No choice National dispersal policy
  3. Increase in the practice of detention
  1. Institutionalised stigmatisation of asylum seekers.
  2. Riots in deprived areas such as Caia Park and Sighthill put at risk the safety of those who had been granted asylum.
  3. Rise in the breech of human rights condition in detention centres. A man was imprisoned for 6 years and 2 months (Welch and Schuster, 2005:338)
2002 Nationality, Immigration and Asylum Act
  1. Appeal system changed to a single appeal.
  2. Fast track processes.
  3. Detention centres are redenominated ‘Removal centres’ to stress detention as final act.
  1. Less bureaucracy but also less chances to see rights of asylum recognised.
  2. The speed of process affects fairness. Victims of violence might be penalised by difficulties in disclosing their story. (House of Lords House of Commons Joint Committee on Human Rights, 2007:73)
  3. Asylum seekers are held in detention at the beginning of the process of asylum.
2004 Asylum and Immigration (Treatment of Claimants, etc.) Act 2004
  1. Cuts to legal aid
  2. ‘Restriction on the time available for solicitors to respond to Home Office decisions’(Centre for Social Justice, 2008:38)
  3. Statutory Instrument 614- restricted access to health care (Centre for Social Justice, 2008:60)
1.&2. A peak in first refusal of              asylum claims3. Only life threatening conditions are treatable.  
2006 Immigration, Asylum and nationality Act
  1. Employers and employees face fines and jail for illegal work.


  1. Asylum seekers who are not removed or returned to home country voluntarily face destitution.


Appendix A – Changes in legislation concerning the problems highlighted

Appendix B – Asylum applications and estimated inflows (Blinder 2011):3

Social Justice and asylum

The very idea of human rights is based on the philosophy of Immanuel Kant that saw in humanity an absolute goal that applies at all times. In his view, any human being exercising the freedom of autonomous thoughts by putting aside needs, desires or tastes would recognize in humanity an end in itself and would therefore, pursue it. The challenge to apply an absolute concept like humanity to a relative life like ours where needs, desires and tastes are all too real is huge. Yet, John Rawls, by theorizing a social contract where parts would be unaware of their position in society somehow makes more understandable why human rights are often advocated although their implementation is not easy.Asylum is currently bounded by economic limits of the host country and by an Aristotelian ‘honorific’ idea of ‘virtue’. Asylum seekers currently have the ‘burden’ of demonstrating the consistency of their claim. ‘Success or failure will be determined by the extent to which their account of events as to the past is accepted as being credible’ (Wilman and Knafer, 2009:31). Kant would probably argue instead that they deserve support just because they are humans. While this policy proposal will not ignore relative economic restraints, it will pursue the Kantian imperative against the idea of virtue.

Appendix C – Sandel (2009).

Policy options

Policy nº1- Human rights first (integration of policy nº3)

-Abolishment of detention centres. Detention centres have proven to be places where human rights are often disregarded, where detention is arbitrary and where the length of detention is not determined.-Abolishment of forcible removals. Amnesty International has highlighted how forcible removals are carried by private companies who are not trained in handling human beings.-Free health care. Full access to health care at any stage of the asylum process.

  • Strengths:

  Removals put failed claimants who fear for their lives under a lot of anxiety and stress. -Removals are costly and money can be spent on welfare for asylum seekers rather than in using force against them. -Not providing healthcare to asylum seekers can pose a threat to the general population.

  • Weaknesses:

-Asylum seekers may decide to go illegal once refused asylum.

-Numbers of destitute refused asylum seekers may increase drastically.

-Costs of healthcare

Policy nº2- Media accountability

-Prosecution for all the stakeholders in the media that are found guilty of promoting prejudice, using offensive behaviour and allegations to create popular myths about minorities and vulnerable groups.-An authority that guarantees accuracy, honesty and integrity of media communication and that forces media to compensate for faulty statements not based on facts.

  • Strenghts:

Quality culture and information contribute in spreading knowledge, trust and a sense of community.

  • Weaknesses:

-Freedom of expression will be limited.

-Medias’ prejudice censorship might not result in the end of popular prejudice.

Policy nº3

 The end of meritocracy: a mixed system of randomly assigned refugee status and sponsorships programs.

(integration of policy nº1)

-Abolishment of judicial assessment of merit concerning asylum.-Establishment of quotas.-An independent body will assess the country’s capability of asylum seekers inflow per annum.-The distribution will be totally casual and followed by a third independent body to guarantee its rigour.-5% of the total quotas will be reserved for Vulnerable Individuals (VI): minors without parents, disabled and elderly over 75. VI’s applications will be drawn casually too within the 5% pool.-Weekly draws of asylum will ensure a quick response to applications.-Winners of asylum will receive a permanent leave to stay and refugee status. They will receive housing, healthcare and benefits in cash rather than in vouchers.-Detention centres will be transformed in centres of support for Refused Asylum Claimants (RAC) and in temporary accommodation for those awaiting the draw.-They will be run in cooperation with charitable bodies such as the Red Cross and Amnesty international to ensure that human rights standards never fall short.-Support case workers will be given to any RAC. Case workers will address RAC’s preoccupations, picturing a full risk-assessment for return in one’s own country.

-Targeting Canadian, Australian and Swedish voluntary return rates (Centre for Social Justice, 2008:72, 76), case workers will provide RACs with a full picture of their chances, addressing anxiety and possibly transmitting a sense of empowerment.

-RACs will be able to choose the gender of the case worker.

-RACs will still have the chance to gain lawful access to the country through a sponsorship.

-Citizens, private sectors firms and charitable bodies will be able to contribute in any form to a Sponsorship Trust.

-Sponsorships will be time-bound (from six months to 2 years) and will allow the individual to work.

-Sponsorships will be distributed considering the amount of time spent in the UK since asylum claim (50% of weight) and risk assessment (50% of weight). Those whose risk of return is high and have spent a considerable length of time in the country will be given priority.

-If one can demonstrate to be able to support oneself at the end of the sponsorship period, one will be given leave to stay for 5 years at the end of which, one will be allowed to apply for British citizenship.

-Vulnerable individuals will be given indefinite chances of asylum drafts.

-Legal costs cuts (amounting to 12.3 millions in 2010), forcible returns cuts and administrative costs cuts will be re-invested in providing free healthcare and case workers training.

  • Strengths:

-Economic concerns about asylum can be put to rest by allowing as many asylum seekers as one country can afford.

-Asylum seekers are not put under unnecessary stress or stigmatisation by the asylum system

-Punitive and deterrent approach in contrast to human rights is dropped.

  •  Weaknesses:

-Random assignment of asylum can result in a lack of support for those who are more in need than others.

-Private and charitable contributions to the sponsorship programme could be insufficient to cope with the number of refused asylum seekers especially in times of high asylum income flows.



Concluding, in order to reverse the current situation where the discourse regarding asylum seekers gravitates around myths and fears rather than around facts, the policy recommended is a mix of the three policies proposed. Through casual draws of refugee status with an eye on vulnerability, the abolishment of detention and removal, the policy is aiming to prevent the state from using the asylum process as a deterrent. The policy’s object is to prevent the use of asylum seekers as scapegoats for popular discontent about the economy while advocating for human rights, dialogue and empowerment. The only obstacles recognized by this policy in the achievement of a better humanitarian system of asylum, are of economic nature. They are addressed by the establishment of affordable quotas for the country and a by the sponsorship programme. Quotas for vulnerable individuals are designed to balance the accidentality of the system. Finally, media regulation will reinforce the idea that prejudice of any kind towards any human being is not acceptable.


Social differences lead to discrimination and inequality. Discuss with reference to sexuality.


Sexuality is defined by the Oxford dictionary both as sexual orientation and as sexual activity.  Sexual activity aims can range from mere pleasure to reproduction. Sexual activity or non-heterosexual orientation is often believed to be a very personal, private and ‘particularistic’ matter (Plummer and Stein 1996:129) rather than a social one. To understand if and how differences in both sexual activity and in sexual orientation can lead to discrimination and inequality I will start analysing to what extent sexuality can be defined as a ‘historical construct’(Foucault 1981 cited in Weeks 2010:13). This section will investigate how the sexuality paradigm has shifted in recent history to underline a moral and medical policing of the body, of reproduction and of pleasures. I will continue through the debate on gender constructivism and Rich’s critique of ‘compulsory heterosexuality’ examining how the construction of masculinities and heteronormativity ties gender with sexuality. I will then compare sociological debates about homosexuality and queer theory to see how they inform the discrimination/inequality frame. Referring to moral and sex panics I will assess how labelling and risk concepts informed the AIDS epidemic, and how they still prevent a comprehensive sexual education. Before concluding with final thoughts I am going to discuss agency in sexual resistance through sex workers sociological depiction.

Sexuality as historical construct

The seventeen century is commonly portrayed as a turning point in sexuality discourses and body representations (Foucault 1981:3). There is a sense of shift in sexual debates from the public sphere to the more ‘confined’ space of the ‘conjugal family’ (Foucault 1981:3) that implies a number of consequences for actors and activities alike. Reproduction is described as the unique aim of sexuality, children become de-sexualised, the parents’ bedroom emerges as the only acceptable space for any display of sexuality and ‘the legitimate and procreative couple’ becomes the norm (Foucault 1981:3). Terms like ‘silence’, ‘prudery’, ‘secrecy’ are associated with ‘sanitised speeches’ (Foucault 1981:3). Restriction of the sexual discourse is  seen as imposing on alternative voices either silence and/or constraint in specific spaces like asylums and brothels (Foucault 1981:4). As Foucault points out, ‘Repression operated as a sentence to disappear, but also as an injunction to silence, an affirmation of nonexistence, and, by implication, an admission that there was nothing to say about such things, nothing to see, and nothing to know’(Foucault 1981:4). On the other hand Foucault argues that this ‘taboo’ depiction of sexuality in the Victorian era, does not take into account the growth of intensity in vocabulary and speech which the medical and psychiatric field experienced in order to police sexuality (Foucault 1981). He advocates that sexual behaviours were ‘drawn out, revealed, isolated, intensified, incorporated’ from people’s desires and bodies (Foucault 1981:48) and power relations placed sexuality ‘not only in an economy of pleasure but in an ordered system of knowledge’ such as the scientific discourse. (Foucault 1981:69).


Constructivism, manhood and sexuality

Academic discourses of functionalist pre-feminist literature, failed to analyse ‘unequal power relations’ between men and women. They tended to view instead, masculinity and femininity as innate conducts linked to biological sex, instead of  seeing them as a consequence of ‘domination and subordination acts’ (Schrock and Schwalbe 2009:278). Feminist theorists were the first to claim a distinction between gender and sex advocating a cultural construction of gender as intrinsically different to the anatomy of the individual (Butler 1999:10). DeBeauvoir’s famous sentence: ‘One is not born a woman, but rather becomes one’ implies that ‘woman’ is a cultural content to occupy one’s anatomy (Butler 1999:11). Defining masculinity and femininity as a cultural construct, though, can be problematic. Carrigan et al. (1985) defined masculinity as a ‘configuration of [collective] practices’ (Schrock and Schwalbe 2009:278) which result in a hierarchy of power between men and women and between dominant and subordinated masculinities (Schrock and Schwalbe 2009:278-279). It is not evident, however ‘which of men’s practices constitute masculinity’ (Martin 1998 cited in Schrock and Schwalbe 2009:279). Practices can vary depending on many factors  related to the ‘actor’, to the ‘audience’ of the performance (who needs to validate the act),  to the place, time and situation where the performance takes place (Schrock and Schwalbe 2009:280). As Schilt’s research on transmen suggests, if the act is not convincing enough because it does not fit into the accepted code of what a man is thought to be in a determinate place and time (in her case, the workplace and USA) the audience is likely not to validate it. Transmen who, only for their appearance, were not convincing enough in their acts according to the white American man stereotype, were more likely to receive negative feedback from the employer and co-workers (Schrock and Schwalbe 2009:284). According to Schrock and Schwalbe, the concept of manhood rather than masculinity serves better the purpose of highlighting gender and sexual related inequality (2009:286-287). They identify the fragmentation of studies on multiple masculinities as problematic for keeping the focus on inequality and as a way to relieve men’s agency. (Schrock and Schwalbe 2009: 279, 286). They define manhood as an act of distinction from females/women that enables men to assert their place of power. A ‘self imputed to an individual based on information given and given off in interaction’ (Schrock and Schwalbe 2009:280).  An act that is being taught from the early stages of life and that is grounded and reinforced in language, media depiction, heteronormativity discourses (Schrock and Schwalbe 2009):281-284. Males are expected to refrain from displaying emotions which would make them look as weak and passive and which would ‘sexualise’ them as women (McGuffrey 2008:212 cited in Schrock and Schwalbe 2009:282) . Violence and aggression are often excused and justified and become a subtext of the socialisation process into manhood, for example through competitive and rough sport activity (Schrock and Schwalbe 2009:282). Manhood is thus reinforced by displays of heterosexual activity, appetite and knowledge and by bullying/harassing and exclusion of those who do not fit the heterosexual enactment or fail to act according to the contextual and cultural conceptions of manhood (Schrock and Schwalbe 2009:282).

Gender and sexuality

In 1980, Adrienne Rich wrote a critique of ‘compulsory heterosexuality’ based on the lack of credit given to lesbian sexuality by feminist writers at the time. Lesbian sexuality was undervalued or depicted as ‘immature’ or irrelevant to feminist claims. Rich advocated that ‘compulsory heterosexuality’ was an institutionalised ideology (Rich 1980:638), a contradictory narrative that even the majority of feminists who claimed to empower women against the patriarchal system, were not willing to recognize as being at the very root of inequality and power imbalance between sexes (Rich 1980). Rich highlighted the links between gender and sexuality: how men and women are socialised differently and how that impacts not only on sexual behaviours but on various accounts of life from the micro of the household to the macro of economics, media, colonisation, capitalism (Rich 1980:642, 643, 646, 659). Citing Barry (Rich 1980:638-640) she suggested that abusive sexual practices like forcible marital rape and marriage, genital mutilations, sexual trafficking were part of a discourse that saw violence as tolerable and as a mean to reinforce the power relations of ‘compulsory heterosexuality’. By depicting heterosexuality as being ‘innate’, by giving credit to the medical/psychoanalytic claims that viewed lesbian sexuality as immature or implying a problematic relationship with men, by equating lesbianism to an ‘alternative life-style’, by showing lesbians as negative characters in art and films (when they were showed at all) both political, medical and sociological debate was erasing their credibility and forcing them back into oblivion.(Rich 1980:640). Oblivion which had characterised the invisibility of alternative sexual orientation in historical accounts (Rich 1980:649, Katz cited in Weeks 2010:11).

Homosexuality and Queer theory

Rich’s analysis received critiques for failing to account the specific patterns of oppression of ‘sexual stratification’ that were not linked to gender alone (Plummer and Stein 1996:132). Differences in sexual orientation appear to be not straightforward to detect to the naked eye. The very existence of coming out as a voluntary and never-ending affirmation of one’s identity or as ‘performative act’ (Warner 1991:16 cited in Plummer and Stein 1996:133) is opposed to ‘secrecy and outing’ as a threat. This peculiarity place sexuality in general and homosexuality in particular within a framework of domination where one has to either monitor and evaluate the information that one gives out about oneself (Sedgwick cited in (Plummer and Stein 1996:133) or indulge in ‘confession’ (Foucault 1981:67). As Weeks points out ‘what early gay liberation theory and more recently queer theory have sought to do is to see hostility towards same-sex desire and unorthodox gender behaviour as structured and systematic’(Weeks 2010:14). But while sociology and feminism have been advocating cultural construction of sexuality well before queer theory emerged, they failed to problematize categories and language as the locus of power (Plummer and Stein 1996:135). Queer theory advocates that sexuality is constructed through institutionalised discourse and problematise the very existence of heterosexuals and homosexuals as distinct and ‘real’ identities (Plummer and Stein 1996:135-137). This premise allows to analyse sociologically relationships between sexuality and power in unusual frameworks such as the economic one (Plummer and Stein 1996:135). Queer theory has received various critiques. The fact that its texts are ‘resolutely and unapologetically laden with theoretical jargon’ (Plummer and Stein 1996:141) might constitute a limit to the accessibility to information. Advocating playfulness and postmodern reconstruction of texts might result in loss of touch with real life experiences and the complexities of intersecting multiple identities (Plummer and Stein 1996:139). A portrait of individuals as ‘passive recipients’ of discourses does not account for agency and resistance (Plummer and Stein 1996:138). As Foucault points out ‘where there is power, there is resistance, and yet or rather consequently, this resistance is never in a position of exteriority in relation to power’ (Foucault 1981:95). Plummer and Stein suggest that the challenges of future integration of queer theory by sociology will consist in rethinking heterosexualised spaces (such as classrooms) and practices (1996:141).

Sexuality and moral panics: AIDS and sexual education.

The concept of ‘moral panics’ highlighted by Stanley Cohen in 1972 defines how a certain social category is stigmatised. The process of ‘moral panics’ works through consequent phases: identification of a social category as a threat, stereotypical media depiction in order to amplify concerns about ‘risks’ and ‘folk devil’ creation which might or might not end up in a political change. Moral panics are constructed by ‘moral entrepeneurs’ whose interest is to lead to political changes (Irvine 2006:82). Although Cohen was referring to crime-related panics, moral panics can be of sexual nature and are referred to as ‘sex panics’ (Irvine 2006:82). The AIDS ‘epidemic’ is a typical example of moral and sex panic. Since it ‘is primarily transmitted by sexual activity or contaminated blood products or needles’ (Holland et al. 1990:506) the appearance of AIDS has magnified sexual fears that were already grounded in existing social hierarchies (Holland et al. 1990:499). The early depiction of AIDS as a ‘gay cancer’ or ‘African disease’ or drug-related problem operated by the media, led already marginalised groups to experience a further wave of intolerance (Holland et al. 1990:501). Medical risk assessment, labelling social categories rather than practices as high or low risk, had high implication in the social segregation and in the stereotyped depiction by the media of the former. Being portrayed as responsible for the spread of AIDS resulted in reinforcement of racism and homophobia (Holland et al. 1990:502-504). AIDS has brought forward many contradictions which still apply today. While there is a need for clear and up to date information on sexual practices, this is clearly ostracised by religious, conservative or pro-family groups (Holland et al. 1990:507, Irvine 2006:82,92). These groups, in order to pursue their political agenda, use highly medicalised language and research developed in their own institutes to trigger emotions like fear, anger and disgust and win audiences (Irvine 2006:89). Moreover, ideological discourses about ‘individual responsibility for personal health’ (Holland et al. 1990:511) (which neo-liberalism in Britain has strongly advocated) clash with power relations within the sexual act where the ‘dominated’ and ‘weak’ part is contradictorily assumed to be in a position to demand and obtain safe-sex (Holland et al. 1990:509).

Sex workers

Victimisation within a power and agency frame are controversial and at risk of being biased. Sex workers are a typical example of how the extent of agency and power at stake, has been questioned and has shaped sociological perspectives about sex-workers. The oppression framework, picking up from feminist theory, focuses mainly on street workers and advocates their role as ‘victims’, ‘survivors’, ‘slaves’ problematising the client (Weitzer 2009:214). The empowerment discourse on the other hand, seeing the sexual act as a ‘service’ and sex-work as an alternative kind of employment with better economical gratification if compared to low-skilled jobs, focuses mainly on home-work and advocates high level of agency and satisfaction (Weitzer 2009:215). Both theories tend to highlight a ‘one-sided’ discourse of sex-work which addresses primarily female prostitution and fails to account for differences among sex workers like gender, class, ethnicity and reasons for entering sex work (Weitzer 2009:216-230). All of these factors are important to the collocation of the sex worker within the sex market structure especially since there seems to be little mobility (Weitzer 2009:222). A third ‘polymorphous’ framework encompasses the ‘multiple pathways into prostitution’ and allows for differences of experience to include both the possibility of coercion and agency depending on the reason, needs and type of sex-work (Weitzer 2009:215). Weitzer advocates that in order to analyse the ‘power relations’ within sex-work, sociology will need to broaden the scope to transgendered and men sex-workers and to investigate how both clients and legality inform sex-work (Weitzer 2009:230).


Concluding, social differences concerning sexuality have distinct features. Deviant behaviours and orientations are rarely evident and are revealed in acts similar to confessions (Foucault 1981). This allows for a possibility of concealment of one’s sexual activity or sexual orientation which can become a form of self-control and self-constriction that mirrors moral, political and medical discourses about sexuality. Thus, inequality as a status can be not only the product of active or passive discrimination by external forces but also a self-inflicted status resulting from power relations. On the other hand, discrimination operates placing difference outside itself and distancing itself from it. By placing deviance outside the norm violence becomes often condoned if not encouraged as a punishment. Inequality, violence and discrimination can also be fuelled or maintained by using aversive emotions to construct moral panics (Irvine 2006). Sexuality as a cultural construct is not detachable both from the multiple differences that constitute one’s identity (intersecting particularly with gender) and from historical contextualisation. Sexuality as a performance, can become an act of awareness and resistance. As Butler points out, dominant sexuality “’know(s)’ its own possibility of being undone” (Butler 1991:23 cited in Plummer) by non-validating audiences and individuals alike who thus retain agency.


Butler, J. (1999) Gender trouble feminism and the subversion of identity, Oxon: Routledge.

Foucault, M. (1981) The history of sexuality Vol.1, An introduction, A Peregrine book, Harmondsworth: Penguin.

Holland, J., Ramazanoglu, C. and Scott, S. (1990) ‘AIDS: From Panic Stations to Power Relations Sociological Perspectives and Problems’, Sociology-the Journal of the British Sociological Association, [e-journal] 24(3), 499-518. Available through Web of Science [accessed 10 December 2011].

Irvine, J. M. (2006) ‘Emotional Scripts of Sex Panics’, Sexuality Research and Social Policy: Journal of NSRC, 3(3), 82-94 [online] Available at <; [accessed 4 December 2011].

Plummer, K. and Stein, A. (1996) ‘”I Can’t Even Think Straight”: “Queer” Theory and the Missing Sexual Revolution in Sociology’ in Seidman, S., ed. Queer theory/sociology, Cambridge, Mass: Blackwell, 129-143.

Rich, A. (1980) ‘Compulsory Heterosexuality and Lesbian Existence’, Signs, [e-journal] 5(4), 631-660. Available through JSTOR [accessed 25 November 2011].

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How important is class as a source of social identity in contemporary society?


The lack of a single definition of class which is unanimously recognized makes it a controversial topic in sociology (Roberts 2001, Bottero 2004, Bradley 1996, Surridge 2007) and this seems to be the only agreement about it. As Bottero (2007:985-986) and Surridge (2007:207) suggest the very definition of class, influences the structures and outcomes of the various sociological debates which consequently reach different conclusions about how important, relevant and ‘real’ class still is in modern society. In the course of this essay I am going to analyse the major theories about class and how they inform the concept of social ‘identity’ as differentiated from the concepts of social ‘consciousness’ and social identification. I will then draw on the work of Pierre Bourdieu, Beverley Skeggs and Zygmunt Bauman, as an aid for concluding thoughts on the pertinence of class today.

Class, in Britain, has been traditionally ‘measured’, portrayed, identified through quantitative research, one of the institutionalised instruments being the Registrar General’s Social Class Index (RG). Accounting for a set of occupations linked to an index of social classes in the first place, and skills later on (Roberts 2001:24), the RG has been a very useful tool to highlight the interdependence between some employment patterns and other factors like education or life expectancy (Butler and Watt 2007:6). It has been criticised for various reasons among which the fact that ‘there has never been thorough large-scale research to justify the placement of occupations’ (Roberts 2001:24) and that it did not account for the non-working sector of the population, failing to include people who were not employed on short or long term basis. It has been substituted by the National Statistic Standard Occupational Classification (NS-SEC) which serves the purpose of portraying out of employment patterns and correlates with social mobility too (Butler and Watt 2007:6).

The definition of class that stems out of such classifications, though, links it to economic resources alone. The ‘cleavage’ of inequality that statistic data is consistently portraying (Roberts 2001:1) has not matched the increase in class consciousness and the subsequent shift from ‘class in itself’ to ‘class for itself’ (Bradley 1996) that Marx advocated. ‘The embarrassing absence of clear-cut class identities’ (Bottero 2004:987), the ‘ambivalence’ (Savage cited in Bottero, 2004) and reluctant attitude of lay actors to ‘feel’ part of classes that both quantitative and qualitative research highlights (Bottero 2004, Surridge 2007) produce the impression that the effects of class seem to concern more sociologists than laypeople (Bottero 2004:995). The analysis of class-conflict, the most evident manifestation of class inequality, may contradict that impression, thought. It may seem difficult to compare the expression of basic needs like the hunger-led riots of the Peterloo massacre with the purposes of the ‘Sofa riots’ in Edmonton, where an urgency in hoarding iconic goods was prevalent (Butler and Watt 2007:166). Yet, if we accept Butler and Watt’s suggestion that the ‘sofa riots’ (and I would add the recent ‘August riots’ in London too) were a new form of classconflict based on consumerism, then both Bauman’s analysis of consumerism (2005) and the role of ‘places of consumption’ may become explicative of the construction of class identities (Butler and Watt 2007:167).

All these complexities and ‘difficulties in studying class identities’ according to Savage have caused an ‘impasse in class analysis’ (Surridge 2007:207) and have been interpreted differently depending on the meaning attached to class. Pahl, Clark and Lipset as a
consequence of the limits of the definition of class, in the early 1990s started to question that class as concept, was an effective tool in achieving the purposes of sociological class analysis (cited in Butler and Watt 2007:3, Bottero 2004:986, Surridge 2007:207) that is ‘to understand… processes and consequences of social inequality’ (Marshall 1994:48 cited in Bradley 1996:46). Beck and Bauman instead, focused on lay perception of ‘their action and their ‘fates’ as the consequences of their own, free, individual choices rather than social structural forces’ (Atkinson 2010:1.1). They suggested that this attitude was responsible for the lack of self-identification with class and the lack of sense of class as a communitarian entity and they concluded that ‘class’ had become only a theoretical concept. This theory is referred to as ‘Individualisation’ theory and although Beck believes that ‘individualisation’ is a product of ‘welfare state policies’ (Atkinson 2010:1.1) and labour market uncertainties while Bauman identifies it as being a consequence of ‘neo-liberalism, individualism and consumerism’ (Atkinson 2010:1.1) they both agree that the lack of self-contextualisation within society is affecting the ‘reality’ of class as a social group (Atkinson 2010:1.1). Both classical and ‘culturalist’ class analysis are very critical on the ‘death of class’ currents highlighted above, although for different reasons. Traditional class theorists like Goldthorpe, Marshall, Hout that view class as strictly linked to the economic and employment fields generally use quantitative data to back up their theories and are reluctant to include in their analysis ‘social identity’ (Bottero 2004:988) but dismiss altogether ‘death of class’ theories. Goldthorpe, for example, suggests that the difference in ‘opportunities (and risks)’ that being placed in a given class imply, consequently informs actors’ behaviour (Bottero 2004:988). The existence of class is given for granted in his discourse, although he doesn’t imply that culture is involved at all. ‘The new generation of class theorists’ (Bottero 2004:988) started to demand that the scope of class be widened to investigate ‘processes of culture, lifestyle and taste’ (Bottero 2004:986). This ‘new generation’, influenced by the work of French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu, advocate that class in its extended meaning is ‘alive and well’ because the lack of ‘clear-cut identities’ reflect both economic and cultural processes in act (Bottero 2004:988). Qualitative analysis, with its limits, seems to be prevalent in this school of thought with due exceptions (Surridge 2007:209-210). A description of the amount and differences in cultural studies of class is beyond the scope of this essay, although a few significant examples will be mentioned.

Pierre Bourdieu, advocated that in portraying class ‘what is at stake is the very representation of the social world’ (Bourdieu and Thompson 1991:229) and therefore a one-dimensional account of class is limitative and ‘leads one to overlook the symbolic struggles that take place in different fields… and in particular the hierarchy within each of the fields and between the different fields’ (Bourdieu and Thompson 1991:229). Bourdieu argues that economic capital is just one of the capitals that are traded within the social space, the others being social capital (derived by networks and social connections) and cultural capital (derived by education and skills) (Butler and Watt 2007:173). He also advocates that the sum of capitals that agents possess requires an external recognition of its overall value in order to be traded and/or reconverted and he defines this additional capital ‘symbolic’. Symbolic capital plays an important role in placing oneself into the social world. By giving credit to ‘the legitimate vision of the world’ created by dominant discourses, interiorising it and taking for granted one’s own social position without questioning it, contextualised self-placement can be one way of reinforcing inequalities that does not imply any awareness of the concealed processes in the subjects involved (Bourdieu and Thompson 1991:235-238). Bourdieu’s qualitative research linked to education, highlights discourses where the dominated perceive their low educational attainment through ‘common sense’ as a consequence of the lack of natural talents and therefore sees the dominants as possessing them (Atkinson 2010:2.5). As Bourdieu puts it, in forming ‘common sense’ subjects bring along their symbolic baggage ‘acquired in previous struggles’ (Bourdieu and Thompson 1991:239). Therefore the place one occupies in the social space is not neutral as one is subject to different social imprinting and discourses that vary according to one’s position (Butler and Watt 2007:174). Bourdieu defines the set of sensibilities, dispositions and tastes ‘habitus’ where sensibilities as dispositions are, citing Butler and Watt, ‘both cognitive and affective components’ (2007:174) while taste is better defined as antagonistic of other’s taste and it is related to consumption (Waquant 1998 cited in Butler and Watt 2007:174).

Bev Skeggs (1997) drawing on Bourdieu, Foucault and feminist theories used a disidentification process to highlight how women that identified as ‘respectable’ were avoiding to identify as working-class (Bottero 2004:989). The gendered avoidance of the workingclass identity was informed by a negative cultural discourse (Bottero 2004:990). For men working-class identity implied a different and more positive identification process than for women (Bottero 2004:990). If gendered significance of class varies according to how cultural discourses informs them, then it may be suggested that this happens for other social groups too (Surridge 2007:214). Skeggs also adds that ‘The working class are never free from the judgements of imaginary and real others that position them, not just as different, but as inferior, as inadequate.’ (1997:90 cited in Butler and Watt 2007:177). Feelings of inadequacy are also advocated by Bauman’s analysis as the result of a ‘consumerism-driven ethic’ that has substituted a ‘working ethic’. According to him since working was once considered normative, it informed how being unemployed was portrayed: either lacking will to work or lacking work (Bauman 2005:37). Now unemployment is mainly portrayed through ‘boredom’, ‘depression’ and ‘frustration’ discourses that inevitably collide with the portrayal of happiness that finds ‘boredom’ not only unacceptable but to be avoided at all costs (Bauman 2005:39). The ‘work moral’ excluded the notion of ‘working poor’ (introduced by Booth and Rowtree) a priori and could not conceive that work was not necessarily an assurance against all evils (Bauman 2005:36-37). The winning model proposed was once that of the ‘self-made man’ that implied that anyone who worked hard enough could be capable of becoming like the rich (Bauman 2005:40). Now, wealth itself embodies the goal and being not wealthy causes frustration against oneself rather than frustration versus an opposed category (Bauman 2004:39-40). This does not necessarily mean that actors are totally unaware of how class informs their lives but as Atkinson points out, they might ‘envision its [class’] primary role in terms of interpersonal relations and symbolic violence’ and ‘so long as it [class] is associated with symbolic violence alone its amelioration will be conceived primarily in terms of recognition (acceptance and appreciation of difference) rather than redistribution of wealth (Atkinson 2010:6.2).

Concluding, class in general and hierarchies of stratification in particular, retain a high significance in the formation of social identity. Class might not seem to generally inform in a straightforward manner identity, although it is still important for certain categories (Surridge 2007:223). A wide range of changes that have occurred during the last 50-60 years may prevent lay actors from recognizing collectively in class a huge factor of inequality. They might be also prevented, as individuals, from perceiving class identity as significant in connection with each of the multiple other identities that form their lives. But class processes happen regardless of the actor’s consciousness about them and sociologists are able to detect them both through qualitative and quantitative research, provided that they widen the scope of class beyond the means of production alone and they monitor their own assumptions and common sense.


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If social inclusion/exclusion has become such a central feature of debates about the purposes of welfare, what implications does this have for more traditional ideas of social equality and social justice?


Gender, considered as a social construct rather than limiting it to the biological sex of birth or of reassignment is going to be the focus of this paper in order to clarify how the social exclusion debate intersects with welfare ideologies. As Daly and Rake point out,  gender is better considered as  “a social practice” where individual and collective actors, institutions and government are interconnected in the process of shaping it (2003).  Welfare provisions and discourses, are the result of government plans and ideologies in order to shape the social text (Daly and Rake, 2003). The original idea of the purposes of the welfare state in Britain was linked to the Beveridgean five giant evils and was used as a synonym of well-being linked to the individual and obtainable through redistribution. At least in theory welfare was described as “the duty of the state to maintain the well-being of all its members by guaranteeing them a minimum of income and services, and insuring them against the hazards of sickness, unemployment, and old age” (Mowat, 1952). In practice however, gendered assumptions, stemming from  social roles and relations, conceptions and values influenced and were reinforced by political, ideological and juridical action or inaction (Daly and Rake, 2003) contributing to the creation or preservation of gendered inequality. Existing gaps and gendered inequalities although addressed by legislation with laws as the Equal Pay Act and the Equality Acts are still far from achieving their full purposes (Pascall, 2008). Normative processes alone cannot affect power relations and social expectations disguised as values that apply particularly to the gender discourse such as the “male breadwinner” or the “woman carer” and that are linked to the social construction and interpretation of the family. The debate on social exclusion shifts the focus from the original well-being and redistribution purposes (Levitas cited in (Davies, 2005) of welfare to social responsibilities and contributions as a collective duty. It marks non-participation as exclusion and assesses risk-based priorities through statistics with an eye on geographical deprivation. Being gender in itself not as directly linkable to exclusion as class is, the social exclusion policy somehow sides gender inequalities or addresses only a few of them indirectly by either focusing on households and families as recipients of benefits or by focusing on employment to lessen dependency (Bennett, 2002).


Shifting the focus of gender from an almost fixed biological difference (with the exception of transsexuals and intersexuals who challenge this assumption) to a dynamic social construct is useful in order to understand how gender issues are the result of action and reaction at individual and political level. It would be more appropriate to talk about gender relations (Daly and Rake, 2003) rather than consider gender alone. Gender relations play an important role within the State, the market and the family frame. The very definitions of state, market and family shape “power relations” and consequently forge imbalances in resources and social roles. Resources are used here in their wide sense meant to include time and opportunities as well as income (Daly and Rake, 2003). Social roles that individuals are expected to fit in, are norms shaped by social consensus and ideologies. The “bread-winner” model, for example, was a product of Victorian times: medical/eugenic theories about children being at risk if the mother was a labourer met unionist expectations of higher wages for men and COS approval of the bread-winner wage as a reward for proper male behaviour (Clark, 2000). Gendered metaphors have depicted the liberal minimal welfare state as masculine and the socialist ethical welfare state as feminine (Sawer, 1996). New Labours “Third way” was conceptualized as a critic of both, in particular of individualism present both in Thatcherism and in post war socialism. The perspectives on individualism seem to vary greatly from Blair to Giddens though. Blair uses a moral approach by placing the responsibility for social exclusion in individualism rooted in past ideologies: Thatcher’s economic indifference to social outcomes and Old Labour’s social indifference of the economic outcomes of liberal rights and entitlements. He therefore advocates paid work in the community and the traditional family, in particular marriage (Rake, 2001), as the way out of social problems and depicts community as a new form of self-help (Davies, 2005). Giddens, on the other hand has a post-traditionalist approach view of society. He sees changes both  in families and society as a product of modernity and welcomes individualism as a chance to broaden choices (Driver and Martell, 2002).


The term “social exclusion” became prominent in New Labour government discourse in 1997, when Peter Mandelson announced the creation of the Social exclusion unit, stressing it as a wider term that addresses multi-dimensional deprivation rather than poverty alone (Davies, 2005). The level of exclusion was to be assessed by a wide set of indicators that would measure how “deep” and multi-faced it was. The multi dimensionality of social exclusion was the key to determine a hierarchy and a geography of welfare provision The depiction of social exclusion as a static state rather than a dynamic one has been criticised and questions have been raised about whether the socially excluded would label themselves as such (Davies, 2005). Geographical needs links the deprived individual to the community it belongs to in a reciprocal bond of responsibility that does not apply to individuals who are rich and free to move and relocate as they like. As Davies points out concerning the freedom wealthy people enjoy in being able not to use public services “it seems that the government is attempting a mix of permissive individualism and voluntary commitment to community at one end of the social spectrum with moral authoritarianism and obligation to community at the other” (2005). However, while communities are gender-neutral if we do not look at power relations within them, families are historically gendered.

The traditional idea of family with the male-breadwinner role and the woman carer that was a central assumption of the Beveridgean welfare state, is the main source of gender inequality and has never been dismissed or deeply challenged by any welfare ideology or social policy so far in Britain. Men were assumed to support their partners with their wages and after retirement with their pension contributions. This assumption segregated women to unpaid caring roles excluding them from the labour market, limiting their independence and putting them at higher risk of poverty as they became older (Pascall, 2008). With the evolution of familiar life where marriage rates have fallen, divorce rate have risen (Pascall, 2008) and new forms of reciprocal bonds such as civil partnerships are made lawful, the Beveridgean model and reinforcement of the traditional family appears inadequate and obsolete. Social exclusion addressing lower income households and social inclusion encouraging women in the labour market can be seen as both preventing and addressing older women’s needs. However, inequality issues that are not addressed in employment are going to be mirrored by poverty in older age. Pension rights and unpaid work may now be recognized in the occurrence of divorce on one side and the 2007 Pensions Act is designed to help those with interrupted work patterns to be granted a Basic State Pension (BSP) still, the entitlement to a BSP for women is incredibly lower than the male counterpart (Pascall, 2008). This situation might be a consequence of gendered assumptions like the possibility in the past to opt out of National Insurance, low pay or caring roles forcing interrupted work patterns (Pascall, 2008). Without tackling assumptions, inequalities are only partly addressed. The Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) in 2005 forecasted that only by 2025 over 80% of women will be entitled to a BSP (DWP, 2005 cited in (Pascall, 2008). In the meantime, however, DWP data shows that women are more likely to live in households below average income after the age of 65 (cited in (Palmer, 2010).

Pascall (2008), asks how far have New Labour shifted from the male breadwinner model focusing on employment, pensions, care and power relations and she comes to the conclusion that mothers have been particularly targeted by policies whether directly or indirectly (through children policies) but without addressing gender equality in “care, time, income and power”. Employment was a central preoccupation of New Labour government and it did encompass gendered inclusion in the labour market through New Deals policies (Rake, 2001). Women have been strongly encouraged to join the labour market within the social inclusion discourse more to minimize their dependence from the State than to enhance their own independence or the independence from their partners (Bennett, 2002). Policies like Childcare strategy, New Deal for lone parents, Working Tax Credits, Child Tax Credits have helped to achieve changes in the quantity of women employed but not necessarily in the quality of their employment or of their income (Pascall, 2008). The gender pay gap in 2009 was still 16.4% for full-time work and 35% for part-time. It is significant that part-time work, generally associated to women working patterns, shows a wider gap than full-time. Pay gaps concerning multiple discriminations such as ethnic minority (Indian 18%) and disabled women (22%) show how imbalance in power and pay secrecy still allows to undervalue women (especially the most vulnerable ones) in the workplace (Lewis and Smee, 2009). Low pay, part-time employment and interrupted careers are still typical traits of  women’s’ employment (Pascall, 2008). The Youth Cohort Study shows that lower wages for women find no consistency in their educational attainment (measured through GCSE qualifications) which outshines their male counterpart independently of class and ethnicity and describe on the contrary a male underachievement which is particularly linked to class (measured through free school meals entitlement) (DFE, 2010).

The social exclusion discourse associates male youths from deprived backgrounds, school dropout rates and criminal behaviour labelling harmless behaviours such as littering among anti-social behaviours. Young individuals’ depiction as potential criminals, emphasized by the media with the result of moral panic (Cohen cited in Newburn, 2007:95), puts them at greater risk of early contact with the Criminal Justice System (CJS). The breaching of Anti Social Behaviour Orders (ASBOs) whether purposely or accidentally made, may result in a criminal record and custody thus worsening the chances of social integration. Criminalization of smaller offences has raised concern from the Commissioner of Human Rights in the Council of Europe who after noting that anti-social behaviour is subjective “question(s) the appropriateness of empowering local residents to take such matters into their hands” (Newburn, 2007:735-736). New Labours stress on marriage and parental responsibilities held families, fathers in particular, responsible for their son’s attainment and (mis)behaviour, without balancing these expectations with an equivalent encouragement in getting involved in their role as fathers (Rake, 2001, Driver and Martell, 2002). Additional Paternity leave has only been recently (3rd April 2011) enforced by the Coalition government allowing six month unpaid leave on top of the two weeks paid leave. It might seem quite surprising that this government, given its composition of Conservatives and Liberal Democrats, which is presumed to have at heart the free market and minimal regulation of business like (or possibly more) than the precedent one, is enforcing rules that find in businesses their main critics and could potentially result in a political backlash. Small businesses in particular, have clearly manifested their reluctance of seeing their male employees stay home for up to six months (BBCnews, 2011). Whether their worries are consistent or not, will be determined by the amount of takers for the scheme: six months unpaid leave is going to affect men’s pensions and income quite heavily. This could be interpreted as a way of discouraging paternity for families where income is lower, a double standard where only those who can afford to be fathers are entitled to, if they wish (cultural role constructions, though, may prevent them from wishing). Within this perspective, the coalition government’s move is not so surprising. It may follow in Conservative’s footsteps since a “divisive strategy designed to reward the ‘productive’ while marginalizing ‘parasitic’ members of society” according to Jessop, has been central to Thatcherites (Davies, 2005). Britain is still far from Iceland egalitarianism where maternity and paternity leave is shared and paid for by the state.

Concluding, the stress on moral collectivism typical of the social inclusion/exclusion discourse is not effective in engaging with gender.  It addresses gender issues only partially, setting a list of priorities where deprivation seems to be the main (if not the only) aim. Gender is targeted indirectly through deprivation thus addressing only a few categories (mothers, older women) (Rake, 2001, Pascall, 2008, Bennett, 2002) without challenging the gendered relations and roles as a whole. This indirect approach can be interpreted as an attempt to cure the disease without curing the symptoms. New Labours’ use of encouragement in participation through inclusion discourses, tend to minimize governmental responsibilities in favour of communitarian consensus (Davies, 2005). In crime prevention, this resulted in populist policies that favoured the creation of scapegoats in young male adolescents to feed dissatisfaction in communities instead of favouring a reduction in crime. In family issues, the reinforcement of marriage and traditional family fails to acknowledge the changes that family has undergone and presents contradictions. The lack of promotion of paternal involvement in children upbringing, contrasts with encouragement for mothers to get involved in the labour market and in the demand for fathers to respond of their young and adolescent son’s behaviour (Rake, 2001, Driver and Martell, 2002). This does not mean that social exclusion/inclusion is to be totally dismissed, it just means that making it central to describe the purposes of welfare regarding gender is reductive and either limits governmental targets thus leaving gendered inequalities unquestioned or ends up reinforcing social division.


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Discuss some of the factors which led to the emergence of the modern welfare state in the 40s


The emergence of the welfare state in Britain is a much discussed topic in other countries too since despite not being the first or the most extreme application of universal provision to a state, it has undoubtedly been characterised by the pioneering “cradle to the grave” vision that led Beveridge and the Fabians to enhance the pre-existing minimal provisions such as David Lloyd George’s National Insurance Act.  In order to understand how the welfare state came to be thought, widely accepted and finally brought to life in the 1940s I am going to analyse the role and nature of the pre-existing provisions by the Poor Laws and the shift that recession, the Napoleonic wars and industrialisation brought to the abrupt changes of the 1834 reform act. Pointing out the reasons and extent to which the Poor Laws became felt as unpopular and outdated, and comparing the 1834 restricting changes with the 1940s inclusive ones, I am going to draw a conclusion about social policy and the welfare state.

The Poor Laws date as far back as 1351 when they were thought as a measure against vagrancy rather than a relief for those in need (Fraser, 1985:31). They attained the latter meaning with the Tudor acts of 1598 and 1601 also known as the 43rd of Elizabeth (Fraser, 1985: 32). Substantially parishes were appointed to provide for poor relief, which was to be administered depending on the ability to work of the destitutes. The paupers were thus divided into three categories based on their conditions: the impotent were to be helped placing them in ‘poor houses’, the able bodied were to work in workhouses if they were adults and to become apprentices in some trade if they were children. Finally, those able bodied who were idle ‘by choice’ were to be punished in a ‘house of correction’ (Fraser 1985:33). This form of stigmatisation of the undeserving, not only brought with it the seed for future means-testing and the debate about merit that still applies today but made Poor Laws quite unpopular, particularly after the reform act of 1834. Although Poor Laws are mainly remembered for their local faults in deliverance (Harris, 2007:19), masterly pictured in works of contemporary writers such as Charles Dickens, the practical issues of concern at the time seemed to be the perception of expenditure and distribution, questioned by administrators, economists and if we are to give credit to testimonies of the later Poor Law Commission, poor alike who, fearful that undeserving individuals might stir away relief from them, seemed to favour means-testing (Harris, 2007:29). The dispute about merit harshened in the aftermath of the Napoleonic wars, a period marked by a drastic economic downturn, an exceptional demographic boom (the population doubled) and  popular discontent that culminated in social agitations such as the Peterloo massacre or the Swing Riots. Economists, theorists, Treasury officials such as Ricardo, Smith, Malthus, Nassau and Chadwick saw in the Tudor Poor Law and especially in the Speenhamland system of allowances the reason for population growth, economic and social distress (Fraser, 1985:39). From their point of view, the lowest wage of the labourer was being influenced by the highest Poor Law provision and this mechanism was interfering with the labour market. These ideas played an important role in influencing the harsh 1834 reform act. Seeing the problem from the opposite perspective, it could have been argued that wages were too low since they matched the provision of relief (Fraser, 1985:42-43) but this was not the historical trend of that time.  Had Malthusian abolitionists won the dispute about Poor Law inutility, the social consequences might had been far worse, but since their dawn Poor Laws had a social stability function (Fraser, 1985:31) that could not be possibly challenged to the full extent especially in times when social stability was threatened by a suffering economy and a widespread popular dissatisfaction.

The convincement that less expenditure of poor relief would benefit the economy got the Government to halve it in 60 years between 1830 and 1890 and to effectively raise wages giving the pound a long lasting stability until 1914 (Harris, 2007:21) but economic stability brought with it bitter social consequences to those in poverty. Because The 1834 reform act did not only aim at cutting the expenditure but stressed the ‘self-help’ concept, it targeted both the restriction of entitlement to relief which theoretically became available for indigents (whose level of subsistence was to be below the lowest ‘free’ labourer) only, and the transformation of workhouses into unpleasant places to be. What was born as a measure to attenuate poverty in the Tudor rural economy (Harris, 2007:21) soon became something to avoid falling into in the growing industrialised society. The ban on outdoor relief was never effectively put into place, even if the reform brought about a certain degree of centralisation (Feldman, 2002:91; Fraser 1985:51), as Fraser points out: ‘The central Poor Law Commission had very limited powers when faced with a union that failed to co-operate’ (1985:51). In the Commission’s view, cutting outdoor relief was also a mean to support the migration from poor rural areas in the south where work was scarce, to industrialised ones, in the north of England (Feldman, 2002:92). In order to achieve this goal, though, the Commission had to repeal the previous Law of Settlement which allowed parishes to remove ‘strangers’ (be they immigrants, of other belief or migrants)  and send them back to their parish or country of origin very easily. This somehow forced local authorities to provide some support, for example the Irish who emigrated during the Great Famine doubled in number (Feldman, 2002:93) but the quality of this support, being largely up to the local administrators and flawed by their prejudices was often more punitive than the central legislator had intended (Feldman, 2009:101). What the Commission failed to take into account in encouraging social movement, was the instability of manufacturing labour, that had peaks and lows for which the working houses were an inappropriate, insufficient and counterproductive measure.

Throughout the second part of the 19th century, there were reviews in administration: the Commission was replaced first by the Poor Board in 1847 and in 1871, the Local Government Board took over. This evolution in delivery was partly an acknowledgement of failures and limits of the 1834 act and partly an adaptation to the need to convey relief outside of the Poor Laws constriction of self-help. The Commission, though, was not the only ‘self-help’ oriented provider of relief. Quite curiously, Victorian times saw an impressive growth of charities that shared the same vision. Those benevolent givers did not see any contradictions in their delivery of help and the philosophy that wanted the poor proactive in their independency. They instead, based their intervention on fears that extreme poverty might lead to a revolution (such as the French one) and on the patronising vision that one became poor as a consequence of personal failure therefore they saw their provisions as a temporary encouragement to get back on track rather than a final measure to tackle poverty or an interference to the self-help philosophy (Fraser, 1985:130). Humanitarianism was also moved by a ‘conceit’ factor: the publication of names of benefactors, the exhibition of wealth through the architecture of the buildings the charities used, the display of balls and other social network activities which were actually decreasing the budget at disposal for the primary aim of the charity while possibly trying to incite donations, highlighted how motivations and organisational skills of most charities were questionable and naïve (Fraser, 1985:126-131). Eventually in 1869, the Charity Organisation Society (C.O.S.) was created to address the chaotic approach that had characterised the voluntary sector. COS’ thought was, again, in line with the self-help ideology. Helen Bosanquet’s (who was one of the leader of COS) majority report is a clear example of the self-help ideology. Despite this, COS’ practice was based on scientific approach and it proved influential in the way it framed familiar social casework (Fraser, 1985:130).

The beginning of 20th century saw the Liberal electoral victory over the Conservatives in 1905 and in the same year, the Royal Commission on the Poor Laws and the Relief of Distress started to review what was to culminate in 1909 with the presentation of both the minority and majority reports that greatly influenced social policy since (Alcock, 2008:4). A season of much needed reforms was implemented by the government up to 1911: free school meals, the children charter, a basic pension and the National Insurance Act provided the base on which  Beveridge could build up its broader vision of fighting the giant evils. British economy, in the meantime, was shifting from an internationally focused economy based on trade to an internally focused economy based on production (Harris, 2007:23). The Treasury’s faith in the Poor Laws as a mean for stabilizing economy, trembled with the 1930s depression and thus allowed radical economic views such as Keynes’ (who favoured government expenditure in welfare as a mean to come out of the financial downfall) to sink in (Harris, 2007:23). When in 1940 Churchill’s appealed to the nation for endurance and effort, people’s hoped it would be counterbalanced by some form of reward had the war been won (Fraser, 1985:208) and since he never wished for universal welfare provisions to come forward, the Beveridge report in 1942 embodied people’s hopes and rose Labour party to power in the post war years, thus allowing the welfare state to became reality. It has to be said that without the propelling force of a war that directly influenced civilians on a large scale and on British soil, the actual realization of welfare state might have been delayed, nonetheless since the early 20th century, provisions gradually began to be administered outside the Poor Law spectrum, eventually dictating their end. The nature of World war II, the bombings which forced a considerable amount of the population to be evacuated, dangers lying equally on the poor and on the wealthy contributed if not in obliterating, in drastically reducing class division (Fraser, 1985:208) and in changing the conception of ‘need’ that was finally freed from stigma.

Concluding, welfare state has sprung out from the seed of Tudor Poor Law conception of provision as a safety net. None of the systems has proven to be free from faults although they were both successful in addressing their goals for a certain period of time. Welfare state, for example, has proved inefficient in the long run when faced with inflation and has been subjected to means-testing in its history as much as the Poor Laws (Harris, 2007:25-26). The very idea of provisions has historically changed restricting or enlarging its spectrum of action. Economic perspectives seemed to have been pivotal in the fluctuation of targets in the provisions. It is, in a way, logic since wealth is needed in its distribution but seeing the final users of provisions merely as an economic target excludes other perspectives and as in the 1834 reform act, proves to be short-sighted. On the contrary, euphoria about universal targets has proven to be equally naïve about economic factors in the long run. Comparing periods of social stress such as 1834 and its post Napoleonic war financial problems, demographic boom and intermittent unemployment with the 1948 similar post-war struggles, we can see how crucial political decisions can be in the making of stepping stones towards social change or social decay.


  • Alcock P., 2008, Social Policy in Britain, 3rd ed., Basingstoke, Palgrave and Macmillan
  • Feldman D.,  2003, Migrants, Immigrants and Welfare from the Old Poor Law to the Welfare State, Transactions of the Royal Historical Society, [e-journal] 13 (6)pp.79-104 available through JSTOR, [accessed 05/02/2011, 12:20]
  • Fraser D., 1985, The Evolution of the British Welfare State: a History of Social Policy since the Industrial Revolution, 2nd ed., Basingstoke, Palgrave and Macmillan
  • Harris J., 2007, The aims of social policy: Principles, Poor Laws and welfare states in Hills J., Le Grand  J., Piachaud D. (eds) Making social policy work, Bristol, Policy Press, Part one.

Born or made? Discuss this question with reference to research on whether police officers acquire authoritarian views after joining the police, or whether they have a ‘predisposition’ towards holding such views.


In order to understand how the police came to be scrutinized for authoritarianism we need to get an historical overview of the facts and of research that led to such questioning. The conjecture of a police culture that would back up personality and traits typical to the policing job dates back to the years following World War II in the US. On one side academics were researching authoritarianism in general and on the other the high arrest rate concerning lower class and ethnic minorities subjects (Skolnick, 1966:85; Goldman, 1963; Wald 1967:139-151; Wilson, 1968a cited in Galliher, 1971) draw attention on the possibility of the existence of a prejudiced police subculture. Scales to measure authoritarianism were then submitted to various subjects within the police force with controversial results. Various debates have sprung out as consequence of the controversies. The validity of scales, the effects of the dichotomy between the perceived role of the police by the public and the actual demands of the job, the role of internal and politic governance, the impact of training, education, class and discretion within the force have been scrutinized and accounted as relevant within the debate. The aim of this essay is to draw a conclusion comparing and contrasting debates with a specific focus on the importation versus socialization hypothesis.

After World War II and the atrocities committed by ordinary men obeying violent regimes, academic research focused on theorising the existence of an ‘authoritarian personality’. Adorno, Frenkel-Brunswik, Levinson and Sandford tried to explicate the popularity of earlier dictatorships by defining the characteristic personality traits that someone who was attracted by them would exhibit (Whitley, 1999, Adorno et al., 1950), and implemented various scales (A to S) to measure these traits (Adorno et al., 1950). The F scale (being F the abbreviation for Fascism) in particular, was designed to assess the authoritarian views of a sample and was further developed during the years by other researchers such as Rokeach, Piven (Balch, 1972), Lederer and Altermeier (Meloen et al., 1996). The scale was targeting adherence to conventions, submission to authority, inclination to attack (verbally or physically) those not conforming, superstition and belief in a corrupted and dangerous world, stereotypy, social dominance, cynicism, attitudes toward the punishment of criminals (Balch, 1972, Adorno et al., 1950). The attitudes towards punishment were also studied in two famous experiments: the Milgram experiment and the Stanford prison experiment. In the first one volunteers were encouraged to deliver what they believed were gradually increasing electric shocks from 15 up to 450 Volts to a subject anytime his answers were not correct. The experiment was repeated changing the environment and the setting but, although the number of people who carried out the instructions up to 450 Volts slightly changed depending mostly on the proximity of the victim, the percentage of those compelling was still disturbingly high. After the experiment, Alan Elms submitted Adorno’s questionnaire to the participants and found that those who complied with the highest voltage of shocks also scored high on the F scale. (Milgram, 1974). In Zimbardo’s experiment, that took place in 1971, a prison-like environment was constructed at Stamford University, a group of 24 middle class males screened to be the most psychologically stable among 70 were casually divided into guards and prisoners. The experiment presented a particular stress into driving the participants to believe it was a real situation (and it succeeded so much in that purpose that one of the prisoners in an interview said that he did not regard it as an experiment but as ‘a prison run by psychologists’). The prisoners, already ‘dehumanised’ by being referred to as numbers and humiliated by having to wear a dress, underwent increasing mortifications by the guards who had quickly identified into their role. The experiment had to be terminated a week earlier than planned because of the conditions of prisoners and because it had clearly gone too far and was becoming highly unethical (Zimbardo, 2009, Zimbardo, 2006). A similar experiment was then set up in Britain in 2002 and it had to be ceased earlier too but for different reasons. The guards, in fact, had failed to identify in their roles and were overthrown by prisoners who then set up a tyranny. Unlike Zimbardo’s experiment, the BBC was involved, every participant had a microphone and was aware of being under surveillance all the time which made volunteers conscious that they were in an experiment and not in a real prison (Haslam and Reicher, 2002, Zimbardo, 2006). Milgram experiment stressed what Hannah Arendt had theorized earlier: trust in an authority figure is likely to lead ordinary men into the blind obedience of carrying out dehumanizing orders (Milgram, 1974). Stanford prison and the BBC experiments might suggest  that being in a role of power where violence and degradation is encouraged can bring even psychologically stable individuals to abusive behaviour unless some surveillance is in act (Zimbardo, 2006). Studies on prejudice have highlighted its structure to be constructed by two different variables: right wing authoritarianism (RWA) and social dominance orientation (SDO). The first is mainly associated with hostility towards out-groups which might turn into violence (or other affective responses) when a treat is perceived by the authority figure of the in-group. SDO, on the contrary, relates to the in-group maintaining dominance on the other out-groups by using stereotypes as ‘delegitimizing myths’ (Sidanius, 1993, Sidanius & Pratto, 1993; Sidanius et al., 1994 cited in Whitley, 1999). Because women are not part of the dominant group they have been found to be less prejudiced towards out-groups than men (Whitley, 1999). Studies about moral judgement have found to be linked to authoritarian traits too. Hogan cited in (Carlson and Sutton, 1975) found that two contrasting patterns were predominant: one that considered social control as the only way to manage the otherwise instinctual and faulty nature of human beings and  the other which, stemming from a belief in the basic goodness of individuals, sees social control as an oppressive practice. Authoritarians in general and police in particular are believed to belong specifically to the first group.

Robert Balch commented the traits described by Adorno, saying that all of them with the exception of superstition could easily apply to a “Police mentality”(Balch, 1972). To understand what he meant by police mentality we need to overlook the police role in society. Police officers are far from being part of a uniform force (Waddington,1999 cited in Newburn, 2007). There are significant differences both within different ranks and throughout the world in the way policing practice is applied. Yet it is often perceived as sharing similar goals: the protection of the public, the prevention of crime, the detection and punishment of the offenders, the preservation of the order (Bowling and Foster, 2002). These broad goals often interfere with each other. In case of a public protest, for example, the police main aim is the restriction of possible public disorders which suspends and overlaps the protection on the segment of the population that is protesting (Bowling and Foster, 2002) since it is perceived as a potential threat to order. The perception of policing is often distorted by the idea that wants police officers, patrolling officers in particular, always on the lookout for criminals and does not take into account the quantity of paperwork that the job requires (Hollin, 1989). These distortions in perception by the public and future recruits, the peaks of a job that requires sudden attention and readiness among long periods of frustrating administrative work, shifts, the difficulty to detach from their role when off duty, are all factors of stress in the policing job (Cooper, 1982, Terry 1981 cited in Hollin, 1989). The “canteen” culture where prejudice is openly disclosed within the police force can be a response to the stress experienced by individuals even if recruitment tends to screen future officers for their resistance to stress (Newburn, 2007). Research shows that disturbing, prejudiced language does not necessarily lead to an equivalent behaviour towards individuals but can lead to discriminatory practices in the abuse of discretion (Bowling and Foster, 2002). In Britain, police has the discretion to stop and search, arrest, detain (Newburn, 2007) and this power, if not challenged and screened internally can lead to abusive practice. Serious riots such as the first one in Brixton, was a consequence both of SUS laws that allowed the massive stop and search carried out in the area and of racist views that equalling ethnic minorities individuals to perpetrators led to abuse in the discretion of  identification of suspects (Newburn, 2007). Authoritarian views can be challenged at individual level and the presence of minorities within the police can encourage changes (Chan, 1997 cited in Newburn, 2007, Bowling and Foster, 2002).  Police forces have often justified authoritarianism and prejudiced views within its ranks by outsourcing responsibilities. They either have blamed a few radical and flawed individuals or, by seeing themselves as a mere executory force, have suggested that the focus be shifted on the law and criminal system as a whole.  The first theory, often known as the “bad apple” theory, is in contrast with research that suggests that prejudice might be “institutionalized” (Newburn, 1999; MacPherson, 1999; Williamson, 2000 cited in Bowling and Foster, 2002) . The combination of a few prejudiced officers (possibly employed in high ranks) with a system that reinforces in itself prejudice as a mean of effectiveness might be the cause of power abuse. Reversing the view, mutual reinforcement can be stopped when prejudice is addressed at personal and institutional level (Chan cited in Bowling and Foster, 2002, Newburn, 2007). The second theory also known as “the legalistic-bureaucratic” theory fails to address the gap between policy and practice and the discretion that individuals might have within police rank in the enforcement of the law.

Early research in the US by Stewart and Hoult, commenting Adorno’s and other independent American studies on authoritarianism, concluded that it seemed particularly associated to: low education, age (being the elderly most authoritarians), religion (being the catholic the higher scorer), violent family upbringing and isolation. They also provided a link between authoritarianism and police by theorising the possibility of its existence as an “occupational necessity” thus disagreeing with the importation model (Stewart and Hoult, 1959) although the authoritarian picture they gave: a low class, unskilled, catholic white man could have fit many patrolmen at that time, in USA. Balch, commenting on McNamara (1967) research observed that, being the background of 60-70% of recruits in the New York police department identifiable as working class suggests that recruits are showing traits typical of the class they come from (Balch, 1972). It is not clear though if recruits were choosing the force because it reflected their authoritarian values or if the force, by recruiting unskilled workers, determined a rise in authoritarianism within its lower ranks. Niederhoffer (1967:118-119 cited in Galliher, 1971) on the contrary, suggested that authoritarianism was an acquisition of the role. Rokeach (1971 cited in Hollin, 1989) favoured the importation theory while Genz and Lester (1976 cited in Hollin, 1989) advocated the socialization one. Carlson and Sutton (1975) confirmed the socialization hypothesis and found significant differences in authoritarianism according to the roles  and ranks, with jail aids scoring higher than any other rank and role. Austin et al. (1987 cited in Hollin, 1989) examined the authoritarianism of police officers that had been made redundant claiming that if the socialization model was consistent hardly any traces of it should have been detected in the redundant sample. They found that authoritarianism was linked to age and race but not to the departing from the force, thus siding with the importation theory. British research is equally contradictory. Police officers were found to be more or less authoritarian than the control groups depending on the sample, the control group and the scope of the study; geographical differences and rank differences were also found (Brown and Willis, 1985). Colman and Gorman (1982 cited in Hollin, 1989) found that despite age and education were not pertinent to  their study, it supported the importation model while Brown and Willis’ conclusions on the contrary, inclined to the socialization theory (Brown and Willis, 1985, Hollin, 1989). The differences in results have been attributed to the variety of scales used, the differences in the sample, the presence and kind of control groups and the possibility that officers might be able to respond according to social expectations rather than personal convictions (Balch, 1972, Brown and Willis, 1985). Studies are difficult to relate to one another because they use one or a combination of different scales that measure different attitudes. Control groups seems to be flawed by class. Matarazzo (1964), Remington (1965) and Sysmond (1972) cited in (Brown and Willis, 1985) suggested that firemen were an ideal control group to cross reference class, but as Hollin points out (1989), the fire brigade neither shares with the police patrolling activities that put them in contact with ethnic minorities, nor do they share the goal of public order. Moreover, in Brown and Willis study (1985) for example, fire recruits lacked women among their ranks and were less in number if compared to police officers, while female officers were present in both of the police recruits group. Finally, as Hollin (1989) points out, there is a lack of a national longitudinal study that prevents from getting a wider picture of the effects of policies, promotion, geographic differences and so on.

Concluding, “Police behaviour is public behaviour” (Balch, 1972) and the public plays an important role in perceiving, interpreting and rejecting police actions. Abusive behaviour at all levels, weakens public trust in the police role (Morgan and Newburn, 1997; Reiner 2000a cited in Bowling and Foster, 2002). Research controversies on whether officers join the force because the role suits their previously existing authoritarian views or become authoritarian as a result of the role, lead to think that one does not exclude the other but rather, personal and institutional authoritarianisms reinforce each other. Although institutionalised racism and machismo, social isolation and cynicism typical of the role (Bowling and Foster, 2002) might be influential in the development of authoritarian views once joined the force, individuals who value authoritarian views can find police employment attractive and if they make it through screening and training, they can be responsible for reinforcing authoritarian views. In order to break this detrimental process external pressures are not sufficient. Lord Scarman inquiry suggestions, for example, did not avoid the second Brixton riots. Changes need to be structural as well as personal with a stress on accountability at all levels and mutual surveillance. This can be achieved through recruitment screening, training and promotion (Chan cited in Bowling and Foster, 2002). Community policing and encouraging diversity among the force can also challenge prejudice from within and reduce the sense of isolation which encourage solidarity among officers when abusive practices happen (Chan cited in Bowling and Foster, 2002).


ADORNO, T. W., BRUNSWIK, E. F., LEVINSON, D. J. & SANFORD, R. N. 1950. The Authoritarian Personality. By T. W. Adorno, Else-Frenkel-Brunswik, Daniel J. Levinson, R. Nevitt Sanford, etc. [In collaboration with other writers.], pp. xxxiii. 990. Harper & Bros.: New York.

BALCH, R. W. 1972. The Police Personality: Fact or Fiction? The Journal of Criminal Law, Criminology, and Police Science, 63, 106-119.

BOWLING, B. & FOSTER, J. 2002. Policing and the police. In: MAGUIRE, M., MORGAN, R. & REINER, R. (eds.) The Oxford handbook of criminology. 3rd ed. Oxford: Oxford University.

BROWN, L. & WILLIS, A. 1985. Authoritarianism in british police recruits – importation, socialization or myth. Journal of Occupational Psychology, 58, 97-108.

CARLSON, H. M. & SUTTON, M. S. 1975. Effects of different police roles on attitudes and values. Journal of Psychology, 91, 57-64.

GALLIHER, J. F. 1971. Explanations of Police Behavior: A Critical Review and Analysis. The Sociological Quarterly, 12, 308-318.

HASLAM, A. & REICHER, S. 2002. The BBC Prison Study [Online]. Available: [Accessed 07/03/11 16:12].

HOLLIN, C. R. 1989. Psychology and the police. In: HOLLIN, C. R. Psychology and crime : an introduction to criminological psychology, London, Routledge, p.126-151

MELOEN, J. D., VANDERLINDEN, G. & DEWITTE, H. 1996. A test of the approaches of Adorno et al, Lederer and Altemeyer of authoritarianism in Belgian Flanders: A research note. Political Psychology, 17, 643-656.

MILGRAM, S. 1974. Obedience to authority: an experimental view, London: Tavistock Publications.

NEWBURN, T. 2007. Policing. In: NEWBURN, T. Criminology, Cullompton, Willan. 598-634

STEWART, D. & HOULT, T. 1959. A Social-Psychological Theory of the Authoritarian Personality. The American Journal of Sociology, 65, 274-279.

WHITLEY, B. E. 1999. Right-wing authoritarianism, social dominance orientation, and prejudice. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 77, 126-134.

ZIMBARDO, P. G. 2006. On rethinking the psychology of tyranny: The BBC prison study. The British Journal of social psychology, 47-53.

ZIMBARDO, P. G. 2009. The Stanford Prison Experiment: A Simulation Study of the Psychology of Imprisonment [Online]. Available: [Accessed 07/03/2011 9:22].

Violence Against Women presentation

Slide 1


Definition: WHO (2010)

Forms of violence: Pickup, Williams and Sweetman (2001)

Photo taken at Reclaim the night march 2010 organised by the London Feminist Network

                                                                                      Slide 2

Source: Dobash et al (1992)

Photo: Peanuts (Schulz)

                                                                                       Slide 3

The myths: Pickup, Williams and Sweetman (2001:84-85)

The facts: Pickup, Williams and Sweetman (2001:84-85)

Pictures: Cabwise London and SAVE campaigns

                                                                                        Slide 4

Sources UK: Home office (2010) ; Dodd et Al (2004) cited in Women’s aid (2010:5)

Sources WORLDWIDE: Sen (1990); Pickup, Williams and Sweetman (2001:87)

Picture: Mafalda (Quino)

                                                                                        Slide 5

Source: Coy M., Kelly L. and Foord J. (2007:37)

                                                                                         Slide 6

Sources: Open Democracy (2010), Pickup, Williams and Sweetman (2001)

Photo: Reclaim the night 2010




To what extent do factors such as gender, class, ethnicity, sexual orientation shape our experiences of education?


In order to understand how much belonging to a minority can influence the experience of education, we are going to analyse the issues and the implications that social studies have brought up for each of the groups. The aim of this essay is also to find out any common features in the performance of inequalities and the social and personal perception of the educational space, concluding with a reflection on practices and policies.


Britain prides itself to be a multicultural country, however multiculturalism “works only if the demands of visible and distinct ethnic groups are not too ‘different’ and not too rejecting of the welcoming embrace of the ‘host’ society” (Mirza, 2009: 90). The Youth Cohort Study (YCS) of England and Wales data suggest that inequalities and underachievement in students belonging to different ethnic groups is an issue not only for their education, but do also affect the sense of belonging within society and their future career. Gillborn and Mirza (2009: 36) analysing data from the 1998 YCS, point out that “there are consistent and significant inequalities of attainment between ethnic groups”. But, at the same time they also found out that a given ethnic group underachievement might improve significantly depending on where they are located (2009:29) suggesting that Local Education Authorities (LEA) policies might make the difference. The variance in achievement between ethnic groups might also be related to the different ways in which they are portrayed, stereotyped and expected to perform. The recent wave of Islamophobia and ethnicization of crime (Mirza, 2009:92), the assumption that a certain ethnic group has “inherent and innate ability” (Mirza and Gillborn, 2009:29) and therefore performs better or worse than another, the personal pre-conceptions that teachers may have about an ethnic group can influence the student’s performance and achievement. However, as Brine (2000: 131) points out quoting Griffiths (1995) “we are not totally passive to the construction of others as we ourselves move, resist and take on multiple and changing identities”.


This might be the case of the exponential rise of attainment in female education. Despite still facing “stereotyped advice” (Gillborn and Youdell, 2000 cited in Mirza, 2009:173) when presented with choice of subjects and being sometimes prevented to achieve higher grades because of placement in the intermediate level in math examinations (Stobart et al., 1992 cited in Mirza, 2009:173), the YCS data shows that girls performances measured through the number of GCSE attained have increased significantly in the last 30 years resulting in an out performance if compared to the male counterpart. The phenomenon of this rise is found regardless of the class or ethnicity of the sample (Mirza and Gillborn, 2009:39), but the exceptional attainment does not result in a consequential social mobility or career success as it would be expected. On the other hand the same data has drawn media and academic attention to boys underachievement commonly known as the “gender gap” and the possible causes of it. The hypothesiss formulated around the subject seem to indicate as a possible reason the changing role of man and masculinity in family and society (Mac an Ghaill, 1994 cited in Mirza, 2009:34 ; Weiner et al., 1997:627 cited in Burgess and Parker; Davison, 1996 – Frank, 1987 – Epstein et al. 1998 – Kenway, 1995 – Martino 1994 cited in Davison et al. 2004). This approach however tends to look at the gender gap phenomenon as an uniform one while Mirza and Gillborn suggest (2009:34-35) that it is quite a circumstantial one, being particularly marked in certain areas and almost absent in others. Alarm seems to be excessive when, considering statistic, we observe that race and particularly class gaps are consistently wider than the gender one (Mirza and Gillborn, 2009:34-35; Davison et al., 2004:58) but do not get the same attention.


The 1944 Education Act was the first example of policy commitment towards equal access to education (Burgess and Parker, 2000:186). However, for lower classes, access did not result in achievement or social mobility.  Jackson and Marsden (1962) cited in Burgess and Parker (2000:189) suggest that social mobility carries with it a sense of isolation, being the home experience so distant and different from to the school one. This might explain the culture of resistance that is sometimes enacted by  pupils as an alternative to “dominant schooling” (Willis, 1977 – Kunjufu, 1986 – Mac an Ghaill 1988 cited in Davison et al., 2004:59). Resistance is not related to pupils alone as Gazeley and Dunne’s research for Multiverse suggests (2005:9). They found out that some teachers were uncomfortable in recognizing or reluctant to addressing social class as relevant in underachievement. This denial, might be the result of an image of a modern society that cannot afford to portray itself as still deeply flawed by class inequality.

Sexual orientation

The British Government policy throughout the last ten years regarding homosexuality has shifted abruptly from the section 28 censorship which prevented local authorities and schools from “promoting” it (and which was repealed only in 2003) to the civil partnership act of 2004 (which came to be effective in 2005) that has provided rights once allowed only to civil marriage for same sex couples too. Despite the changing way in which homosexuality has been portrayed and lawfully recognized, Hunt and Jensen (2007:2) research on British school homophobic bullying highlights that 65% of pupils have undergone direct bullying, 98% report homophobic language being used in their school and only 23% of schools clearly disapproved of homophobic language and behaviour. Data suggests that section 28 is still operating on subconscious levels in many schools through the reproduction of “compulsory heterosexuality”, a term first coined by Adrienne Rich in 1980 meaning that heterosexuality is assumed to be the only sexual orientation possible (even by homosexual themselves). It is not trivial that, for homosexual students, the perception of the educational environment as hostile, not safe or rejecting might be an additional factor to the pressure towards heterosexual conformity perceived within family, religion (when applies) or friends leading  to possible internalized homophobia and sometimes, suicidal tendencies if all the above mentioned apply. Meyer (1995:38) suggests that internalized homophobia, stigma and actual discrimination are key factors that can lead to “minority stress”.  Although the “minority stress” theory relating minority status and mental health has been widely criticized for data does not always  shows correlation between the two, for example Mirowki and Ross (1989) cited by Meyer (1995:39) suggest that economic status is more relevant than belonging to a minority, Meyer objects that in the case of homosexuals bias might apply to data. Homosexuals who do not accept themselves as such or fear consequences in revealing their sexual orientation are less likely to volunteer their participation in researches or surveys.


Experiences of education are the interwoven product of personal background, resources, and self-perception with the social texture of schoolmates, teachers, local educational authorities and government policies applied. As Puwar (2004:51 cited in Mirza, 2009:127) suggests “Social spaces are not blank and open for any body to occupy. Over time, through processes of historical sedimentation, certain types of bodies are designated as being the ‘natural’ occupants of specific spaces.” This might lead non-dominant “bodies” to experience education as a rejecting, unwelcoming, and excluding environment. Common patterns that might lead to detrimental experience and inequality in access or fruition of education, such as invisibility, stereotyped portrayal and conceptions, resistance and denial in addressing discriminatory issues should therefore be tackled at any “stage” of the educational and social governance in order to improve everyone’s experience of the educational space. However, being sometimes believed that equality statements and commitment is equivalent to  equality practice (Ahmed, 2005:8 cited in Mirza 2009:122), students and families need to actively question those statements and commitment where policy alone does not lead to practice.


-Burgess R.G. and Parker A. (2000) Education in Taylor S. ed. (2000) Sociology, issues and debates. Basingstoke. Palgrave

-Davison K.G., Lovell T.A. , Frank B.W. and Vibert A.B. (2004) Boys and underachievement in the Canadian context: no proof for panic in Ali S., Benjamin S., Mauthner M.L. Eds. (2004) The politics of gender and education. London. Palgrave MacMillan

-Gazeley L. and  Dunne M. (2005) Addressing working class underachievement [online] Multiverse, University of Sussex. Available at: [accessed 14/11/2010, 21:47]

-Hunt R. and  Jensen J., (2007) The experience of young gay people in Britain’s schools [online] Stonewall, London. Available at: [accessed 14/11/2010, 22:30]

-Meyer I.H., (1995) Minority stress and mental health in gay men [online] Journal of Health and Social Behaviour 36,1. Available at:

[accessed 14/11/2010, 21:30]


-Mirza H.S. (2009) Race, gender and educational desire. Oxon. Routledge.

-Ali S., Benjamin S., Mauthner M.L. Eds. (2004) The politics of gender and education. London. Palgrave MacMillan