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Questioning Identity: Gender, Class, Nation.

Kath Woodward, (ed.) (2000) Questioning Identity: Gender, Class, Nation, London: Routledge. ISBN: 0-415-22288-5.

This publication is part a series of books for the study of social science through the Open University, published in 2000 it is probably a little dated now as it pulls from examples no later than the 1990s. However, as a book for a broader and better understanding of what identity is and how it is formed, used, seen and understood by others is useful to a photographer.

The book consists of four chapters, 1 – Question of Identity, 2 – Identity and Gender, 3 – Identity, inequality and social class, 3 – Identity and nation. Then each chapter is sub-divided into sections that address different aspects that are part of that chapter’s topic with further sub-sections that look at these topics in further detail. The book also includes activities for the student to participate in to help learn and understand.

Notes and Quotes


The discussion of identity in this book is organized around three central questions…

 The first question is: how are identities formed?

Identities are formed through interaction between people. When people take up different identities there are different processes taking place as people position themselves, and are positioned in the social world. These processes include a focus on the personal dimensions of the identity equation as well as an interrogation of how these connect to the society in which we live. (pp.1)

Discussion of the role of social factors in identity formation raises second framing question: to what extent can we shape our own identities?

The changes which are identified are largely structural: in the economy, in new technologies, through migration and ethnic diversity, in the organization of domestic and family life, and in gender roles…Identity necessarily involves an interrelationship between the personal and the social which can also be expressed as a tension between structure and agency. This tension is a key concern of the book. (pp.1)

The third framing question is: are there particular uncertainties about identity at the moment in the UK?

There have been significant changes in forms of domestic living family life and employment in the Years have seen a proliferation of new technologies and communication systems which might appear to open up the possibility of transforming our daily lives. Such changes take place at the global level but have an impact on the UK. The structure of the UK is changing politically with devolution, separate assemblies and more explicit recognition of the political identities of Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland. The UK is a multicultural society with a diverse ethnic population which challenges the notion that being British means being white. Identities are changing and fluid and this very fluidity creates uncertainty and diversity…(pp.1-2)

Each of the three framing questions is about finding out and about producing knowledge, upon which it is possible to make claims about identity. This involves an introduction to some of the methods adopted by social scientists, as well as some discussion of the production of knowledge through culture for example, through symbols such as language and visual images. (pp.2)

Identity involves:

  • a link between the personal and the social;
  • some active engagement by those who take up identities;
  • being the same as some people/groups and different from others as indicated by symbols and representations;
  • a tension between how much control I have in constructing my identities and how much control or constraint is exercised over me.
  • A passport example illustrates the tension between how I see myself and how I am seen by others, between personal and social.
  • Institutions play an important role in constructing identities.
  • Official categories contain omissions fully accommodate the personal investment we have in our identities nor the multiple identities that we have.
  • Our own constructed identities is based on how we imagine ourselves.
  • We achieve this by visualizing ourselves, thinking in symbols.
  • the identity position which we take may be the result of unconscious feelings which we may try to rationalise but which we may not know for sure.
  • Many aspects of identity derive from childhood experience so that identity is constructed by the past as well as the present.
  • Identity is not fixed and unchanging, but the result of a series on conflicts and of different identification.
  • Both gender and sexuality are important to our understanding of identity. Our sense of who we are is most significantly linked to our awareness of identities as either men or women.
  • Interpellation – a process whereby people recognise themselves in a particular identity and think, ‘that’s me’.
  • Interpellation links the individual to the social.
  • It may work consciously or unconsciously.
  • Organization of society is important in shaping our identities.
  • Class, gender, ethnicity and place are important factors to identity.
  • These factors illustrate the tensions between the individual and the social and between individual’s control or agency and that of the social structures.
  • Difference in unequally weighted and can create some people as outsiders.
  • Well over half the UK population live below average income.
  • The numbers on poverty rose sharply in the UK in the 1980s and 1990s.
  • Important determinants of where you are in the household income distribution are occupation and household structure, including the number of children within the household.
  • Management of financial wealth as capital confers power.
  • Marx and class – for Marxists, class is rooted in the economic organization of production.
  • Weber and class – Weberians see class as being rooted in market position.
  • Identity and collective action in the Weberian tradition focus more on status group than on class.
  • Class as a source of collective identity may be being eroded by a more individualistic and consumerist culture.
  • Some sociologists argue that consumption has replaced class as the key factor structuring social division and identity.
  • There is good evidence for increasing social polarisation in the contemporary UK in terms on income and employment experience.
  • Research suggests that income related and work related identities do not greatly differ between poor and better off people.

How do we know which people are the same as us? What information do we use to categorise others and ourselves?…what is often important is a symbol, like a badge, a team scarf,….,the language we speak, or perhaps the clothes we wear. Sometimes it is obvious. A badge can be a clear public statement that we identify with a particular group. Sometimes it is more subtle, but symbols and representations are important in distinguishing ourselves as different from others. (pp.7)

Identity provides a link between individuals and the world in which they live. Identity combines how I see myself and how others see me. Identity involves the internal and the subjective, and the external. It is a socially recognized position, recognised by others, not just by me. (pp.7)

However, how I see myself and how others see me do not always fit….The link between myself and others is not only indicated by the connection between how I see myself and how other people see me, but also by the connection between what I want to be and the influences, pressures and opportunities which are available. Material, social and physical constraints prevent us from successfully presenting ourselves in some identity positions – constraints which include the perception of others. (pp.7)

Identity involves:

  • a link between the personal and the social;
  • some active engagement by those who take up identities;
  • being the same as some people and different from others, as indicated by symbols and representations;
  • a tension between how much control I have in constructing my identities and how muck control or constraint is exercised over me. (pp.8)

The work of the social philosopher George Herbert Mead, published in the 1930s, has been extensively used in thinking how we see ourselves and the ability of human beings to imagine how others might see us. (G. H. Mead, (1934), Mind, Self and Society)…Mead argued that it is the capacity to imagine how others would see us and our capacity to carry images in our heads which is an important distinguishing feature of human beings. We do this, he argued, through symbolizing. This is best illustrated in our use of language, where words operate as symbols. Pictures, images and gestures are also symbolic in that they too represent something else. a symbols stands for something else. For example the word ‘table’ stands for the object which we call table. Having the word allows us to talk and think about the object, namely the table, even when there is no table within view….We symbolize the sort of person we want others to think we are through the clothes we wear and the ways in which we behave… (pp.12)


  • In constructing identities we imagine ourselves.
  • We do this by visualizing ourselves, thinking in symbols. (pp.13)

3.2 Every Day Interaction (pp.14-15)

Individuals, like actors, are performing for an audience. Speech, acts and gestures all require someone else to be watching or listening. The parts we play may be already written but we bring our own expectations and interpretations to those roles. We have to be convince in order to persuade others in the audience that this is an authentic part we are playing. (pp.14)

Sometimes we give information o other people directly. In these instances Goffman describes the public display which we intend to make when we give information as front stage. Appearance, clothes and features are crucial in the presentation of self, but sometimes the information presented may inadvertently reveal more about a person than the information directly or intentionally given. We give off information which we do not quite intend, for example, the nervous interview candidate who twists his fingers unintentionally is giving off an impression of anxiety whilst attempting to give a confident performance. The friend who is trying to look interested but who is all the while drumming her fingers and looking around may be giving off an impression of boredom. (pp.14-15)

Interpellation: (pp.19) A process whereby people recognise themselves in a particular identity and think ‘that’s me’

Louis Althusser (Althuser, L. (1971) Lenin and Philosophy, and Other Essays, London, New Left Books)

.…Louis Althusser who argued that when people are recruited into identity positions they are interpellated or hailed. (Althusser 1971)….Imagine that you are walking down the street and someone calls out your name. you stop, turn around and think ‘that’s me, they’re calling me’. Althusser argued that this is how we come to feel that our identity is the one which fits is – as a member of a religious community, as a New labour voter, as a lad, as a mother, as a ‘new man’, as a European. The process is one of recognition, of looking at yourself and thinking, ‘that’s me!’ (pp.19)

  • Interpellation links the individual to the social.
  • It may work consciously or unconsciously. (pp.20)

One of the ways in which scientists have attempted to explain work-based identities is to relate them to a class. Social class is used by social scientists as a means of classifying the economic and social divisions of a society. Different economic systems create social class grouping, which involve some degree on inequality…..Another source of inequality can be found in gender relations…There are areas of the labour market and of domestic work, including unpaid caring work within the home, which are seen as ‘men’s work’ or ‘women’s work’. In industrial societies, paid work is exchanged for remuneration and is hence more valued and has higher status than unpaid domestic work or caring work. The former has been seen as masculine and the latter as feminine. This has been enacted in most Western societies through the notion of a male breadwinner which is primary to a man’s identity, whereas women’s work has been seen as an extension of they roles as wives and mothers and thus as a secondary activity….This indicates the importance of gender as part of the organisation of a society and not just a part of each individual’s experience. It is part of the culture of a society. Assumptions about what is appropriate for women and men can shape and influence our identity and the scope which we have for deciding both ‘who we are’ and who we want to be’. (pp.21-22)

National identity is an important part of the culture of a society…It highlights the importance of place, of where we come from and of institutional constructions of citizenship….Rights of citizenship can provide people with either considerable freedom or with restraint….The rights conferred by citizenship are often gender-related. In the UK, rights to civil citizenship have depended on gender because historically the main criterion for citizenship has been independence, based mainly on economic status. (pp.22)


  • The organisation of society is important in shaping our identity.
  • Class, gender, ethnicity and place are important dimensions of identity.
  • These factors illustrate the tension between the individual and the social and between the individual’s control or agency and that of social structures. (pp.22)

Kobena Mercer, the cultural critic, argues that ‘Identity only becomes an issue when in crisis’ (Mercer, K. (1990) ‘Welcome to the jungle’ in Rutherford, J.(ed.) Identity, Community, Culture Difference, London, Lawrence & Wishart.) . Is there a crisis? there is evidence that this may be the case, for example in the ethnic and national conflicts across the world. Micheal Ignatieff (1993) argues that one explanation of current concern with identities that it is a useful explanatory concept providing a means of exploring conflict in the global context, such as Yugoslavia, in Rwanda, in parts of the former USSR and in Ireland. identity matters, People have a strong personal investment in political and ethnic identities, even to the extent of being willing to die for them. In such context, crisis might be the appropriate word. (pp.24)

The relative nature of poverty is an old theme in social science. Adam Smith, the eighteenth century writer who is often regarded as the founding father of economics, put it this way: ‘By necessaries I understand not only the commodities that are indispensably necessary for the support of life, but whatever the custom of the country renders it indecent for creditable people even the lowest orders, to be without’. (Smith, 1776, quoted in Sen, 1981)…Ideas of what it is to be poor are thus closely tied up with difficulty in maintaining the basic decencies of life….As a result, the idea of being ‘poor’ carries s stigma it is a label that many people living on low incomes resist. For example, in a set of interviews in the early 1990s, 85 social security claimants were asked whether they thought ‘poverty’ existed in Britain, and if so, who were the poor and were they themselves ‘poor’? Almost everyone could answer these questions, and almost two thirds of the interviewees said that they did not consider themselves as poor. The answers were also gendered. Men were more likely than women to deny poverty, suggesting that men may be likely to be ashamed and women more realistic…. (pp.84)

The interviewees in the survey expressed many different meanings of the word poverty. Some saw poverty more as a state of mind than a fact: poor people were’ people who think they’re poor’. an idea often associated with the notion that people bring poverty upon themselves. The survey author comments that some interviewees seemed to see admission of poverty as a kind of self-indulgence: they insisted that there were many worse off than themselves, or that ‘real’ poverty no longer existed. Others felt that poverty implied a lack of dignity or cleanliness and cited there clean homes as evidence that they were not poor. Others straightforwardly resisted what they saw as an undesirable classification: some said that they did not ‘class’ themselves as ‘poor’, but as ‘ordinary working class’….Poverty is therefore not only a relative matter. Representations of the poor in British culture are often demeaning. As a result of these derogatory meanings, it is hard for people struggling on low incomes to identify themselves as ‘poor’ and to use that identity in campaigning at the level of national policy. National anti-poverty lobbying has been largely conducted by ‘experts’ and professional campaign groups. This is in contrast to the effective organisation and national lobbying carried out on their own behalf by, for example, people with disabilities (many of whom suffer from poverty) who have individual expectations (Beresford and Croft, 1995 ‘It’s our problem too! Challenging the exclusion of poor people from poverty discourse’, Critical Social Policy, 44-5, pp.75-95). Campaigns of this kind require people to identify with a label; but, as a participant in one conference of poverty put it: ‘I think this word poverty is a real crusher’ (Lister and Beresford, 1991,Working Together Against Poverty: Involving Poor People in Action Against Poverty, Open Seminar project, p.10) (pp.86)


  • Claims about who is poor are rooted in shared and constructed ideas about the basic necessities of life.
  • The experience of poverty is both relative and relational. It is defined by what people have, and what they do, relative to the opportunities of others.
  • Poverty carries derogatory meanings, so it does not easily provide a basis for collective identity. (pp.87)

Describing inequality:

The Class Sketch, from The Frost Report, Broadcasted, 7, April, 1966, BBC. Left to right: Upper-class: John Cleese, Middle-class: Ronny Barker and Working or Lower-class: Ronny Corbett.

One of the most graphic ways of describing the distribution on incomes is by using the ‘income parade’ that was invented by a Dutch economist, Jan Pen. It conjures up, in the words of two British economists who have lined up a new UK parade, ‘a surreal world where the height of each person in the UK has been stretched in proportion to his or her income, and then everyone was lined up in order of height, the shortest (poorest) on the left and the tallest (richest) on the right’ (Jenkins and Cowell, 1994,”Dwarfs and giants in the 1990s: trends in the UK income distribution’, Fiscal studies, vol.15, no.1, pp99-118). (pp.87)

Wealth and class identity

Income is very unequal in the UK, but wealth holding is even more dramatically unequal. Data on the very wealthy are hard to collect, but according to the Inland Revenue (the only collectors of non-voluntary data!) in 1994 over half (53 percent) the financial wealth in the UK was owned by 5 percent of the population (ONS, 1998, Social Trends, 28, p.104). Conversely, most people have virtually no financial cushion. The less wealthy half of the UK population has less than £500 per household in savings (and owns only 6 percent in total of the financial wealth), while the last wealthy quarter has savings of less than £50 (Banks et al., 1996, “Patterns of financial wealth holding in the United Kingdom’; Hills, 1995, Joseph Rowntree Foundation Inquiry into Income and Wealth Vol;s.1 and 2; ONS, 1998). (pp.93)

Wealth and privilege are not very visible….People in Britain, when asked to identify the privileged, tend to refer to an aristocracy or landed class rather than their own managers and employers (Scott, Poverty and Wealth, 1993) This ‘them and us’, ‘rich and poor’ notion of class is weakening but it is still influential and is fed by media images of the ‘upper class’ whose relationship and activities are represented in the popular media as being of enormous interest….The weakening of these particular class distinctions is, in part, due to the spreading of private non-financial wealth downwards in the UK in the last 50 years. Houses and pension funds are also a form of wealth: 66 percent of homes are now privately owned; 75 percent of men working full time and 65 percent of women working full time have occupational or private pensions. This is not ‘wealth’ in quite the same sense of financial assets: since we need them to live in and on, we cannot sell our houses and pensions without replacing them in some form. However, these forms of private wealth underpin ‘middle class’ living standards and self-perceptions. Adding them to financial wealth makes wealth distribution less unequal but even so the less wealthy half of the population still only own 10 percent of the UK’s wealth between them. (pp.93-94)

Most of the wealthy are employers, either directly through owning shareholdings in companies, or as company directors. While the rest of us – if we own anything – usually have wealth in the form of houses and pensions, the top 1 percent (those of wealth over £500,000 in 1994) held around 40 percent of the wealth in company shares (Hills, 1995, p.98)….Wealthy business people thus invest their own capital and – predominantly – the capital of others in equipping business, in employing people and in producing goods and services. They respond to market opportunities in ways that shape our working lives. This economic system – the one within which most people in the world now live – is called capitalism….There has been a huge rise in total output of goods and services and enormous changes in the way we work and live, including huge international as well as national divergences in living standards. The perceived division capitalism has generated between those who own and manage capital and those who are employed is another enduring element to our notion of social class. (pp.94-95)

Examples of recent capitalist opportunities turned into developments that have dramaticly affected modern lives.

The Internet

New Credit Score Financial Services

Image provided from: Accessed 08/02/2022.

Mobile Phones & Accessories | Argos

Smart phone technology that has, in recent years, both transformed business opportunities and society through social interaction, shopping, banking, gambling and much, much more.

Image provided from: Accessed 08/02/2022

5.1 Seeing ourselves in class terms

The British Social Attitudes Survey provides one regular source of evidence of how class permeates people’s understanding of society. The 1995-96 edition showed that 69 percent of people surveyed thought that a person’s social class affected his or her opportunities a ‘great deal’ or ‘quite a lot’ (Jowell el al.,1995, British Social Attitudes: the 12th Report) In a different 1996 survey, two-thirds of those interviewed agreed that ‘there is one law for the rich and one for the poor’ and that ‘ordinary people do not get their fair share of the nation’s wealth’ (Adonis and Pollard, 1998, A Class Act, p.11) (pp.95)

Social class can provide us with a sense of belonging; it can tell us who ‘we’ are and who ‘they’ are, hence to relate to the world around us. many people see the UK as a society sharply divided by class divisions and sense of class identity. Whether, or how strongly, you identify yourself as a member of a social class will be shaped by your personal experiences of struggle and conflict…..Many socialists argue that class has lost much of its signification for identity, some go so far as suggesting that ‘class is dead’ (Pakulski and Waters, 1996, The Death of Class).The evidence offered for these claims mixes changing social and economic structures and the rise of other sources of identity and belonging. In the immediate post-war era, large scale manufacturing and mining employed far more people than in 1990s, and working-class identification was reflected in mass membership of organisations such as the Labour Party, trade unions, and work-based social and political clubs. Many of these organized sources of identity were dominated by, or exclusive to, men. The rise of mass unemployment in the 1970s and 1980s, the shift to service industries and the increase in the number of women working led to many of these institutions fragmenting, and membership dropped. An identification with work-based community cultures may have declined with it.

Other work-based structural changes reinforced this erosion of identities based on work. As national collective bargaining declined, trade unionism fragmented into more sectional identities. The Labour Party Leadership worked hard in the 1990s to shed any identification of the party with working class, seeking the ‘middle’ social ground. Work-based identities have also been cross-cut with other sources of identity. the rising importance of gender and ethnic identities and the emphasis in the mass media on divers consumption-based lifestyle, has reinforced awareness that individuals play an active role in the construction of there own identity.

Social class is both a central and highly contested concept within social science: there is little agreement over its meaning, measurement, or how it should be used as an explanatory device. However, as a field of social scientific inquiry, social class is dominated by two distinctive traditions of thought – Marxism and Weberianism. these traditions are rooted in the writings of Karl Marx (1881-1883) and Max Weber (1864-1920). while Marx and Weber differ in important ways in their understanding of class and society, both share a view of classes as groups structured out of economic relationships. upon this central foundation, successive generations of social scientists have reworked and reformulated the arguments of Marx and Weber in the light of social, economic and political change. each tradition brings together, in distinctive ways, an analysis of the economic roots of class, and a perspective on representation and the construction of class identities. (pp.96-97)

5.2 The Marxist theory of class

Marx and his close associate Friedrich Engels were responsible for a theory of class that has been important both for its intellectual influence upon subsequent generations of social scientists, and for its wider political influence. Marx’s ideas were a product of nineteenth century European and British society. When Marx was writing, European society was going through a period of profound upheaval and transformation. The industrial revolution had brought new industries and occupations to the ever-expanding towns and cities, where much of the working class population lived in dreadful conditions. This was also a period of profound political change, as newly emerging social groups struggled for power. Trade unions were developing, and the new industrial working classes increasingly fought for better working conditions, better housing and education, and political representation. Marx’s theory of class reflects this period of social upheaval and conflict.

Marx’s theory of class was part of a much wider project of explaining the historical emergence of industrial capitalism, as the new type of society was called, and its main driving forces. He saw the key defining feature of a society as being the way in which goods and wealth are produced. The organisation of ownership of the means of production – tools, machines, workplaces and raw materials – shape the social relationships between individuals and groups within society. The factories being constructed in mid-nineteenth century Britain were means of production of the industrial capitalist system. The owners of capital, that is, of the financial wealth invested in a new manufacturing processes, were identified by Marx as the new ruling class. (pp.97)

For Marx and Engels, capitalist society generated two main classes, or as they put it – ‘two great warring and hostile camps’ (Marx and Engels, 1848, Manifesto of the Communist Party, p.49), a capital-owning class and a propertyless class, who occupied different positions in the organization of production. They called these classes the ‘bourgeoisie’ and the ‘proletariat’, or the ruling class and the working class. In return for their labours, the workers received a wage but the products of their labour were appropriated by capitalists and sold for profit, a process that Marx called exploitation. (pp.98)

….For Marx and the later Marxists, class is a structure rooted in the economic organization of production. (pp.98)

Marx expected that as capitalism developed, big business would gradually squeeze out all the small-scale capitalists, the self-employed and the small shop-owners. The result would be a growing divide between the bourgeoisie and a proletariat who were constantly threatened with impoverishment. (pp.98)

According to Marx, two factors were necessary for a fully developed proletarian class to exist: objective factors, that is workers who share the same relationship to the means of production. and subjective facts. The latter refer to an awareness of a shared class position and of the existence of other classes with opposing class interest…..Thus full class consciousness only emerges through experience of solidarity and collective action. Marx put forward a strong notion of collective class identity which was rooted in economic structures that he saw as inherently conflictual, and developed through collective action in the experience of organization and class struggle. Marxism, then, sees social relationships and human action as being constructed by the economic structures of society, but argues that those structures also generate the conditions for collective consciousness and identity. The development of a new type of society necessitates collective, not individual action. (pp.98-99)

5.3 Max weber’s theory of social stratification

Weber’s perspective, and the tradition of social analysis based upon it, offers al alternative vision of social class of that put forward by Marx.

Weber is credited with drawing attention to forms of stratification other than class, in particular to divisions of status and what he call ‘party’. “Party’. In Weber’s writing, refers to any organization or voluntary association that brings together people with common backgrounds, aims or interests in pursuit of particular policies or control of a particular organization….Like Marx, Weber recognises the existence of economically defined social classes, but his starting point is individuals. In Weberian sociology, class refers to identifiable groups of individuals who have certain interests in common. These common interests can be summarised as market position, that is, individuals having similar opportunities for earning income through work or trade.

Different class groupings thus have distinct market situations which either privilege them or make them more vulnerable. Because of privileged access to the means of production and consumption, members of certain groups will enjoy better ‘life chances’ than others. Life chances refer to opportunities for education, health, housing, employment and levels of income. The key point is that for Weberians, class division and inequalities reflect different life chances in the market, whereas for Marxist, class relationships are founded in exploitation production relations.

Weber, like Marx, identifies a division between propertied and propertyless classes, but also highlight divisions within those classes, divisions that are the product of differential reward by the market. For example, professional employees tend to find themselves in a privileged position in the market relative to semi-skilled workers. Markets operate in a way that divide and sub-divide classes. As a result, the differentiation between groups of employees becomes increasingly complex.

For Weber, this fragmentation of classes is accentuated by differences in status, that is, the different amount of prestige, honour or social standing that society attaches to different social groups. Thus status relies on people’s subjective evaluation of social differences: ‘”Classes” are stratified according to their relations to the production and acquisition of goods; whereas “status groups” are stratifies according to the principles of their consumption of goods as represented by special “styles of life”‘ (Weber, quoted in Hughes, 1984, ‘The concept of class’ in Anderson, R. and Sharrock, W. (eds) Teaching Papers in Sociology, p.8).

Membership of a particular status group may confer certain benefits or rewards, or prohibit people from access to them. For example, members of different ethnic minority or religious groups may find themselves alternatively privileged or prohibited in this respect, irrespective of their class position. Hence, different groups may find themselves occupying similar economic class positions while being distinguished by differences in status, and status may be more significant than class as a source of identity. Groups may also experience inequalities in power deriving from party, that is, from the ability to organise themselves to further their own interests and so marginalise others. Weber thus sees class, state and party as cross-cutting, with class more concerned with production of goods and status with their consumption. This vision of social fragmentation and increasing social diversity contrast sharply with the Marxist image of class-based social polarization. (pp.100-101) 


  • Both traditions see class and class division as rooted in economic structures.
  • In Marxism, class is structured by the ownership and organization of production; in Weberianism, class is structured by market position.
  • Class is more central to the Marxist tradition than to the Weberian tradition.
  • Weberians identify non-class elements of social stratification, notably status and party, that are independent of social class.Class consciousness – involving identification as a member of a class – in the Marxist tradition emerges through collective action.
  • Identity and collective action in the Weberian tradition focus more on status group than on class. (pp104)

6.1 Class and consumption

Peter Saunders, an influential British sociologist, argued that in the 1980s that consumption and differences in lifestyle had become more important than occupation-based class constructing identities and in explaining social behaviour attitudes (Saunders, 1984, ‘Beyond housing classes the sociological significance of private property rights in means of consumption’, International Journal of Urban and Regional Research, vol.8, no.2, pp.202-27). (pp.105-106)

Voting preferences have long been identified by political scientists and sociologists as one of the key indicators for assessing the prevalence of class identification. The period following 1945 is said to be characterised by class alignment, that is, people tended to vote along class lines, with the working class predominantly voting Labour and the middle and upper classes opting for the Conservatives…Conversely, Labour’s declining share of the vote in the 1980s and early 1990s was attributed to class dealignment, reflecting an erosion of class and work-based sources of identity. (pp.106)

Saunders argued that a major process of ‘social restratification’ was taking place during this period, with growing division between a ‘middle mass’ of those who could increasingly satisfy their consumption needs through private ownership of cars, housing and even private education and health care, and those who remained insecurely dependent on state provision of housing, public transport, education and health care. He predicted: ‘an increasingly visible fault line in British society, not along the lines of class, but on the basis of private ownership of the means of consumption’ (Saunders, 1984, p.211)….Saunders was not only arguing that new forms of stratification have emerged, but also that these are independent of work and class-based social divisions. thus divisions of consumption now influencing and shaping identity and social attitudes to a far greater extent. (pp.106)

Pierre Bourdieu, a French sociologist, has examined the interelationship between class and consumption through empirical studies of consumption habits. In his book Distinction, Bourdieu explores the ways in which people express their identity through consumption Bourdieu, Distiction: a Social Critique of the Judgement of Taste, 1984). Because consumptions tastes are one way we distinguish ourselves foremothers, consumption patterns differentiate both within and between classes. In this way, he argues, consumption both establishes and expresses social difference. People invest effort as well as money in consumption, and two people with similar incomes but different economic class position will be likely to have very different consumption patterns. Bourdieu, who looks explicitly back to both Marx and Weber, sees occupational class and consumption as interrelated, not opposing, influences on identity. (pp.107)


  • Class as a source of collective identity may be being eroded by a more individualistic and consumeristic culture.
  • Some sociologists argue that consumption has replaced class as the key factor structuring social division and identities.
  • Sociologists such as Bourdieu also emphasis consumption as a major influence on identity, but analyse consumption as an expression of differentiation within and between classes. (pp.107)


How are identities formed?

The processes involved in taking up identities require some connections between individuals and the world in which they live. We have to be recruited into an identity, which involves some kind of active engagement on our part. (pp.155)

How are we recruited into these identities?

One important aspect of the process is the way in which people represent themselves and recognize others. We use symbols, such as language, clothes, flags, to mark ourselves as having the same identity as one group of people and a different identity from the others. (pp.155)

Identity is always in some way marked by difference and sameness. Identity relies upon individuals’ understanding of these symbolic markers, whether of gender categories, or class identity, or national or ethnic identities. Differences may be stereotyped and involve an exaggerated selection of defining characteristics or,…they may be much more complex and subtle, as well as involving contradiction and conflict. In order to identify with an identity position we have to be able to imagine ourselves as occupying that position; that is, to think of ourselves, in our heads, as British or Irish, as the good mother, the successful career person, as streetwise, as female or male….The process of forming a gender identity is not only influenced by our biology. Children have to understand the categories through which their own society classifies femininity and masculinity and to pick up the appropriate clues. (pp.155)

Sometimes the process of recruitment might even be unconscious. We may not be fully aware of why we appear to have embraced a particular identity. The process of identification is complex and can involve the operation of factors which are part of our own personal histories, such as early childhood experience. At times there may be a moment of recognition in the identification process, where we may not be quite sure why we think ‘that’s me’, but it just seems right. The concept of interpellation offers insight into what is going on when people recognize themselves; for example, in advertisements or in political recruiting material. (pp.155-156)

Although as individuals we have to identify – that is, to take up identity actively – there are also structures in the social world with which we identify….Gender categories are constructed through our biological bodies and through social and cultural classificatory systems. At some points in history, class identity has been very important…Traditional views of identity, including the Marxist and Weberian approaches to class, have emphasized the role of social structures in shaping people’s identities. More recent approaches have stressed the interaction between the social and the personal, such as when individuals and groups negotiate their identities and represent themselves through patterns of consumption. Ethnicity and race are also social structures which influence the identities which people can adopt. However, these structures are changing and may be renegotiated. Identities are not fixed; they are fluid and both individuals and social structures are changing. (pp.156)

To what extent can we shape our own identities? (pp.156)

….There are severe constraints on the degree of agency which we may be able to exercise. For example, economic circumstances, changes in employment, poverty, racism and lack of recognition of our ethnic or national identities all deny us access to identities which we might want to take up. Cultural construction of gender, social regulation and even legal categories prevent individuals from taking up alternative identities….However, the interrelationship between the personal and the social involves negotiation. People reconstruct their own identities, even within the constraints of poverty. Through the collective action of social movements, of class-based action, and through asserting ethnic identities and separate national identities within a multicultural UK, people reshape the social structures which restrict them. Even at the level of the individual, through body projects, it is possible to recreate our identities through transforming our bodies, by getting fit, by challenging stereotypes. (pp.156-157)

…Our third framing question: are there more uncertainties about identity at this moment in the UK? (pp.157)

The book has presented several examples of social change in the contemporary UK. Certainties about employment, especially male employment in manufacturing industry, about family life and gender roles, and the ethnic and national composition of the UK itself have shifted in the period since the second world war. There has been a move away from class-based identities and the security that might have been afforded by particular patterns of employment and the associated gender roles within families. In one sense these changes can be seen as indicating greater uncertainty.

Contemporary concerns with identity can be seen as focusing on presenting ourselves to others, through consuming identities, and through lifestyle and developing ourselves as individuals. This can be contrasted with the changing ways in which collective identities have been forged – for example, through class classification. New social movements have produced a new focus for the politics of collective identities,  with their concerns for gender, sexuality and race, in some instances making ‘the personal political’. Uncertainties can also be expressed as response to change and the opportunities for diversity which are offered. In the twenty-first century there is a greater diversity of forms of domestic living than in the 1950s. Gender stereotypes are challenged by reconstructions and more fluid identities. The UK is a multicultural society, albeit one which still manifests the constraints of racism. There is legislative as well as cultural recognition of the separate identities of Irish, Scottish and welsh peoples within the UK, Uncertainty and diversity coexist. (pp.157)

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