top-rated free essay

Making Social Lives

By robbo1964 Mar 18, 2011 2002 Words
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 about equal choice. Not everyone is equally able to consume. There are people who are better placed than others to join the consumer society. There are divisions between young and old, the employed and the



How are differences and inequalities produced? Or, who are the winners and losers in a consumer society?

unemployed, able-bodied and less able, ‘in’-crowds and ‘out’-crowds. A consumer society is, then, a divided society. As you read the chapters, and engage with shopping and consumption, it’s useful to bear the key questions for this course in mind. To help you, I have extended these questions and rephrased the first two of them so that they apply to the content of the chapters in this part of the course. We shall return to these questions in the conclusion for this strand.


How are differences and inequalities produced? Or, who are the winners and losers in a consumer society?

First of all, as already stated, a consumer society implies a shift in emphasis away from what people do for a living to how people live their lives. This can seem liberating (as well as being a policewoman, carer or office worker, a person can also be a car owner, proud homeowner or into collecting rare dolls …). But it can, as Hetherington argues in Chapter 1, make divisions in society just as, if not more, apparent. ‘Old’ divisions between rich and poor may now be intensified. Participating in consumer society quite clearly favours those who have plenty of money over those who have little. But, as Hetherington also tell us, consumer society seems to favour an ‘in’-crowd who have particular lifestyles, bodies and abilities to consume in the right way. Meanwhile, as John Allen argues in Chapter 2, consumer society is also characterised by some big players, the Tescos and other major retail organisations, who not only play a role in shaping the high streets of the UK but also influence how, where and what people buy and how the things they buy are grown, produced and manufactured. Whether these large organisations are a force for the good of society or for the impoverishment of parts of that society is a question that Allen poses. And in order to answer the question he introduces the important social science concept of power, asking you to consider the ways in which power is understood and used in social science and other accounts. Finally, this issue of who wins and loses in a consumer society is picked up again in Chapter 3, where Vivienne Brown asks us to focus on the part of consumption that most of us choose not to think about – rubbish. Consumption is not just about buying things, it is also about disposal – finding somewhere for all the waste that goes with


Introduction: Material lives

consumption (the food that isn’t eaten, the packaging that isn’t needed, the old radio that becomes obsolete once a new digital one has been purchased, and so on). Thinking about where all this stuff goes provides another sense of winners and losers, and prompts Brown to consider not only the plight of people who receive all the rubbish (which is increasingly exported from the UK to China, India and elsewhere) but also the effects of a ‘wasteful’ society on the environment.


How is society made and repaired? Or, what role do materials play in a consumer society?

The title of this strand, ‘Material lives’, suggests we live in a world that is dependent on material things. This may have always been so. Society is not just about people, it is also about people and the materials, objects and environments that help to make that society and which in turn are made by society. But what is different about a consumer society? A consumer society suggests that people are not just dependent on things for life’s necessities. They also consume for pleasure, fun, out of habit, to be part of a group, to look different … and, many people consume inordinate amounts of items in today’s society in a way that they did not sixty years ago. While it has always been important for social scientists to study people and the things that surround them (indeed if you study past societies it is necessary to focus on the things that people left behind in order to understand their society – you probably already do this when you visit museums, for example), contemporary consumer society is clearly shaped by people’s relations to material things. In Chapter 1, for example, Hetherington shows how luxury goods are used by people as a mark of status and therefore as a way of saying something about who they are. He also describes how, in the nineteenth century, department stores became adept at selling the image of luxury to people through the goods that they displayed and sold. In Chapter 3, the relationships between people and the things they value, and conversely those which they want to get rid of, become a key element for understanding contemporary society. In short, to understand society, we need to think about people’s relations not just to each other but also to the vast array of goods, technologies and wastes that surround them.



How is society made and repaired? Or, is consumer society sustainable?

How many of our modern possessions do we need?
This cartoon shows a hen in a henhouse, surrounded by electronic goods, including a computer, a portable CD player, a stereo and a hairdryer. The hen is listening to an mp3 player through headphones.

3 How is society made and repaired? Or, is consumer society sustainable? The consequences of all this consumption are more and more matters for concern. From the sheer volume of materials that go to make an average life in the UK to the amount of waste that this often involves, a question arises as to the sustainability of all this consuming. From the polluted skylines of Chinese cities where a good deal of consumer goods that find their way to the UK are manufactured, to the waste incinerators and landfills where old items and packaging end up, the downside of consumer UK is evident. Can current patterns of consumption continue for long without devastating effects on social and environmental life, now and further into the future? All three chapters touch on this issue, and give us greater understanding of the difficulties we face in trying to think about the consequences of consumption – for in helping us to understand consumption they give us a real insight into what needs to be done if we want to start to change how society consumes. In sum, all three chapters take shopping and consumption as starting points to understand many aspects of contemporary society. They will help you to learn more about contemporary social life and develop your 7

Introduction: Material lives

The waste mountains: a consequence of and cause for concern for consumer societies This picture shows a yellow earth-moving vehicle on top of a large pile of rubbish in a landfill site, with seagulls flying overhead.

social science understanding. In each chapter you will also learn important skills and start to explore how social scientists approach issues and topics of social concern. The focus is on social science understanding, something which includes practices such as describing a social scene or how a society does things, offering explanations as to why things are this way and then formulating arguments, using concepts, theories and models, to inform that understanding. Towards the end of each chapter there is a ‘How do we know?’ section, which asks you to reflect on the approaches social scientists use to understand the world. We shall return to the lessons for social science understanding in the Conclusions for these chapters.


Cite This Document

Related Documents

  • Social Lives

    ...surroundings, the greater troubled the individual becomes. According to Mills (1959), the philosophy of liberation from being trapped is proposed through the ‘Social Imagination’. This concept refers to the ability that will help develop an understanding of the correlations between historical traditions, along with the comprehensions of soci...

    Read More
  • The Social Side of Decision Making

    ...The Social Side of Decision Making In our group for this assignment we used a few techniques to arrive at a combined agreement. Group Polarization was definitely present in this group, so was dictatorship and conformity. The group worked together verbally; since a face to face was not applicable. Moscovici & Zavalloni describe group polarizati...

    Read More
  • Social Networking in Our Lives

    ...control for other factors and found that a Facebook user who uses the site multiple times per day is 43% more likely than other internet users and more than three times as likely as non-internet users to feel that most people can be trusted. Facebook users have more close relationships. The average American has just over two discussion c...

    Read More
  • Social Networking in Our Lives

    ...Social networking in our lives The world today has shrunk and it is rightly referred to as a global village, with information, data and news flying across to different corners at the blink of an eye. All it requires is the click of a button and all the information you need is in front of you on your screen. The availability of information h...

    Read More
  • Technology Making Our Lives Easier

    ...As we are raised in a society where everything is simply handed to us, we tend to take many things for granted that others in the world do not have. Things like GPS, phones, credit cards, cameras, and insulin pumps help us live a qualitative and productive life and NASA has played a very key role in developing many technologies like these. From ...

    Read More
  • Social Network: Making or Breaking Society?

    ...Donna Vincent Dr. George English 101- B51 22 October 2013 Social Network: Making or Breaking Society?                 Fifteen or fifty five, the number of people that belong to a type of social network today compared to 30 years ago has sky rocketed. Whether it is a form of micro-blogging, photo sharing, or an on...

    Read More
  • To Live

    ...Isaac Lee Language A: English HL World Literature Paper 6/3/2013 Word Count: 1215 A New Perspective on Chinese History Isaac Lee WLP Ball 1 The novel, To Live, by Yu Hua was banned in China when it was first published because the novel exposed the faulty rule of the Communist party in China. This literary masterpiece depicts four decad...

    Read More
  • Is social media making us less social

    ...2.2 Is Social Media Making Us Less Social? In a world where 850 million people are linked through a single website we feel more connected and social than ever before (Marino, “Is Social Media Making Us Socially Awkward”). Social media removes the need for people to physically talk and communicate to one another because we can connect wit...

    Read More

Discover the Best Free Essays on StudyMode

Conquer writer's block once and for all.

High Quality Essays

Our library contains thousands of carefully selected free research papers and essays.

Popular Topics

No matter the topic you're researching, chances are we have it covered.