Making Social Lives

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Introduction: Material lives
Steve Hinchliffe

Introduction: Material lives

Introduction: Material lives
This book is about how society is made and repaired. It asks what kinds of activities make society today. In the chapters that follow, you will learn about contemporary UK society and the special insights that the social sciences can give you as you develop an understanding of how society is made. The book will introduce both the ideas and the forms of investigation developed by social scientists. Each chapter starts with or refers to the contemporary UK, and involves you reading about a street or streets. You will soon realise, however, that the street is only a starting point. Some chapters travel back in time to understand how contemporary society is coloured and even partly produced by its past. Some extend well beyond the conventional boundaries of the UK (in other words, the land area shown on maps) in order to understand how societies are made in part through their connections to other people and places. The chapters in this book have been arranged into three strands – ‘Material lives’, ‘Connected lives’ and ‘Ordered lives’. You will read more about the second and third strands in the introductions that precede each group of chapters. This first strand, ‘Material lives’, looks at how people live, their material existence, and how these ways of life have consequences for their own and other people’s welfare, for society and for the environment. In order to start you thinking about how people live today, the kinds of things many of them do, one particular feature of contemporary UK society which all three chapters in this strand share as a focus and starting point is consuming and shopping. Why choose consuming and shopping? One answer is that for some people and for many social scientists, contemporary UK society differs from societies in the recent past in that people tend to define themselves less by their jobs and more by what they consume. Another answer is that, as at the time of writing the UK enters a deep recession, the state of the high street and the amount of shopping people do has become a key issue in economic and social recovery. Jobs, welfare, urban renewal, social order; these all seem to be dependent on where and how people shop. So, in Chapter 1 Kevin Hetherington notes that, in the past, much of the UK could be considered an industrial society, marked that is by its factories and its workers, and with lifestyles organised to a large extent around working lives. Today, social life 3

Introduction: Material lives

seems to revolve as much if not more around what people buy and what they do with their possessions. We are, at least in part it seems, what we wear, what we eat, watch, listen to, live in. Indeed, we are what we consume is a common enough claim (see Figure 1). No longer simply defined by our jobs (teacher, nurse, office worker, shop worker), we also tend to define ourselves and others by what, as Hetherington puts it, ‘we are into’ (cycling, music, clubs, cars, collecting, clothes…). The opening chapter reflects upon this possible shift in emphasis in how social life is organised. It looks at what is sometimes called a consumer society.

A human hand holding up a credit card-sized piece of paper on which is written the words ‘I shop therefore I am’ in large red letters.

Figure 1 I shop therefore I am – a screen-print by Barbara Kruger, 1987. The artwork plays on the phrase ‘I think therefore I am’ which has often been taken to be a defining statement of human being

As you read Chapter 1 you will notice that Hetherington traces an image of a consumer society which is awash with material goods, where choice seems to be the order to the day. Faced with this range of goods and services offered from many different shopping outlets, he asks us to think about the role of shopping and consumption and what we buy in terms of who we would like to be. But, he notes, this is not all...
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