THE EXTENT OF CHOICE IN CONTEMPORARY SOCIETY IS VERY LIMITED Discuss This View.
‘THE EXTENT OF CHOICE IN CONTEMPORARY SOCIETY IS VERY LIMITED’ Discuss This View.
Before I attempt to discuss the above statement I feel it is important to define what is meant by contemporary society. The term contemporary society may be defined as a group of interacting people who share a geographical region, a sense of common identity, and a common culture which belongs to the same period of time, usually in the last 10 years. This therefore means that it is a modern group of people following a common meaning (7)(Wikianswers 2008). To evaluate whether choice is now more limited in contemporary society it will be necessary to contrast it with various sections of society from previous decades. I will attempt to give a relative analysis by using various sections of society that have been covered in three different sections of this course.
Firstly I will look at the effects that the area of crime may have upon choice. The famous Chicago School of Sociology academics like Shaw & McKay and others studied young male delinquents in American cities in the 1920’s. The early twentieth century was a time of high migration. Immigrant groups moved from the slums areas as soon as financially possible towards the suburbs and were replaced by new arriving poor immigrants. Crime rates remained high in the slum areas but were reduced in the suburbs suggesting that it was the environment responsible for crime rates rather than a particular immigrant group. In the slum areas Shaw and his collaborators through methods like participant observation found young men had formed gangs which had there own distinctive sub-cultures where criminal behaviour was an accepted norm. These youths had been involved in a culture in which delinquent behaviour is prescribed and criminally defined behaviour patterns are acquired in a social and cultural setting (1)(Quinney).
It could be argued that because the choices of youths are limited crime gang culture seems attractive. This theory was criticised because it didn’t explain why every youth did not join a criminal gang and also with participant observation there is a risk of influencing the people you are studying. Ploscowe partly criticised the schools theory for not placing enough emphasis on other factors. “ The soundest approach to the problem of the causation of crime therefore lies through a study of the individual criminal in relation to all the social and environmental factors which have an influence on his personality” (1)(Ploscowe, 1931, p17 cited in Quinney). More recent studies have shown that gang culture remains a popular choice for young people in poor areas. Gang leaders become role models due to having high status through power and access to money. Education and other aspects of society are rejected by gang members. Choices are limited to what is acceptable to the norms and values within the gang. (2)(Smith). Media headlines have recently been made by an apparent increase in knife crime and violence in Britain. Whether there is an actual increase or not the increased reporting can create a fear in society. People may chose to stay in at night, stay away from certain areas and not answer the door. (3)(Collins et al).
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The extent of choice we have in society plays an important role in the identities that we choose. Our identity is however not only influenced by our personal choices. The degree of agency that we have over our identities is also controlled by the social structures like class, occupation, gender, nationality and education. Changes within these social structures can bring uncertainty to ones identity and the choices we make. (4)(Woodward). Class in particular can hugely influence the neighbourhood we grow up in, the schools and universities we attend or even end up in prison. Despite 11 years of a labour government some argue that social mobility is at its lower level than at any other time. “In 2007, a child born into deprivation is more likely to inherit his or her parents disadvantage than at any time in our past” “Children should be free to realise their aspirations and not be held back by the circumstances of their birth” (6)(Clegg).
The media may also be an important factor in the identity roles which are adopted by people and in particular women. In the 1950’s women magazines encouraged women to return to domestic duties after doing industrialised occupations during the war. In more recent times magazines and their advertisers show women as being more dual purpose, working as well as looking after families. Advertisements present people with a lifestyle identity hoping that consumers will purchase symbols of that identity (4)(Woodward, p20). Women are under increased pressure to look and dress a certain way and choose products which help recreate media portrayed roles.
In the same recent times work based identities for men have also changed in areas such as ‘traditional apprenticeships’. These areas which they once dominated have been in sharp decline as the economy altered. Some researchers have argued that this as created a youth sub culture of laddish behaviour who reject education because of the lack of traditional craftsman’s opportunities (4)(Mac an Gahill M, 1994 cited Woodward p67 2004). The work choices for 16 year olds are certainly more restricted and numbers staying on in education have greatly increased with 43% now going on to university. The changing face of the British economy as also had consequences for employment choices of older males. The closure of heavier industries like ship yards, steel works, and mining had a significant impact upon the labour market as the ‘job for life’ era ended. Many sectors of the manufacturing industry have also relocated abroad leading to the loss of many traditional working class jobs. This may be a significant factor in the huge increase in people claiming incapacity benefit which stood at 2.7 million in November 2007 (7)(Kirkup) rising over four fold since 1975 (8)(Faggio).
Rising house prices and increased flexible working practices mean that many more people now need more than one than one job. “Flexible labour markets play a key part in a competitive economy” (4)(HMG,1994, p50 cited in Ordering Lives: family, work and welfare). In the last 30 years, the average age of the first time home buyer as risen from 27 to 34 (9). This may be a contributory factor in that British women are choosing to have fewer children and there first child later. In 1964 British women had an average of 2.94 children. This had dropped to 1.7 at the turn of the century, rising to 1.9 in 2006 (10)(National Statistics Online). One in ten couples now remain childless. They often have higher disposable incomes than average and can choose to purchase more goods and services. (11)(BBC News 27/03/06).
Consumerism is a phenomenon that permeates the choices in contemporary society. Consumerism describes a society in which people formulate their life goals and identities partly through purchasing goods that are not needed for subsistence (5)(Stearns). However the increased demand for goods and services that consumerism creates particularly since the emergence of China and India places huge unsustainable demands upon the raw materials and fossil fuel resources of the planet creating pollution and CO2 emissions. Political ideologies and organizations have attempted to offer solutions to the environmental problems which have been created by industrialized societies. These problems include climate change, conservation, intensive farming, nuclear issues, dams, deforestation and resource depletion. If pollution exceeds this finite capacity then ecosystems can deteriorate rapidly. When fisheries and forests are excessively depleted critical thresholds can be passed resulting in the loss of ecosystems and species. (Goldblatt, p90 2004). Today consumers are much more knowledgeable and educated to the social and environmental effects of there consumption choices. They now have the choice to purchase environmentally friendly products in many areas from low emission electric cars to organic vegetables. However these products tend to be more expensive because of there unique selling points and higher costs. This means that demand for these environmentally goods will probably drop in the current economic downturn when people are more price sensitive.
In this essay I have attempted to answer the question by using 3 blocks of the course to show namely crime, identity and consumerism. Of course there are many other areas which could also have contributed. The impact of the Internet upon individual’s access to knowledge is immense. People can now make more informed decisions and choices in all aspects of their lives including education, health, work, shopping and leisure. However even if you have the knowledge to make the right the choices there can be other limiting factors in play. Social class and stagnant mobility as in previous decades still appear to be the main factor effecting life chances and wealth. This ultimately influences the choices of education, housing and lifestyles. The average life expectancy of a man born in Glasgow is 70 .5 years compared to 77.4 in Exeter.( This North/South life expectancy divide perhaps most strikingly highlights that even in contemporary Britain these social differences exist. Choices can quite be limited if you are dead.
Word Count 1495.
(1) Richard Quinney, Bearing Witness to Crime and Social Justice, State University of New York Press, 2000.
(2) Robert C Smith, Mexican New York- Transitional Lives of New Immigrants, University of California Press, 2006.
(3) Scott Collins Rebecca Cattermole, Anti Social Behaviour- Power and Remedies, Thompson Street Maxwell, 2004.
(4) Woodward, K., Questioning Identity: Gender, Class, Ethnicity, London, Routledge/The Open University 2004.
(5) Peter Stearns, Consumerism in World History, Global transformation of desire, Routledge, 2001.
(6) David Goldblatt, Knowledge and the social sciences: theory, method, practice,
The Open University, 2004.
(7) Wikianswers, . 13/09/2008.
(8) Nick Clegg, 12/09/08.
(9) James Kirkkup,
(10) Faggio, G. and Nickell, S. (2005), ‘Inactivity Among Prime Age Men in the UK’, CEP Discussion, Paper No. 673 (
(11) , 09/09/08.
(12) . 15/09/09.
(14) , 18/09/09.