Consumed by the way we live

21st February 1997 at 00:00
The National Lottery and Spanish football fans are a good place to start teaching a new A-level sociology topic, says Paul Manning.

It could be you," says the big finger pointing from the billboards reminding us that the National Lottery can rapidly transform our lives. The "lucky" winners will find that a sudden event can turn our predictable lives upside down, changing relationships with family, altering perspectives on life, dissolving long-established attachments to locality.

Cultural change and its impact on the way we see ourselves is the concern of the sociology of culture and identity, the new topic scheduled to appear in A-level sociology exams next year. Its inclusion in examination syllabuses should be welcomed - if ever there was a topic which could be related to the experience of young people studying sociology, it is this.

But, with the new textbooks not likely to appear before June, teachers must approach this topic without the help of a ready-made topic plan. They could do worse than start with three unrelated social phenomena, the National Lottery, the arrival of Real Madrid football supporters in Brighton on February 8, and the "Cross-Over" music chart.

If anything is a symbol of the consumer culture which, it is suggested, is all pervasive, the National Lottery is it. The prospect of happiness through the sudden possession of an enormous capacity to consume is offered to "us all", irrespective of locality or background.

Market researchers claim that the old sociological categories that once shaped consumption patterns have dissolved. We live in a "consumer culture" which transcends social class and opens up "lifestyle" choices. We express our identities, it is suggested, through our choices of restaurant, clothing, and so on. Whether or not the sociological categories of class, gender, race and age have ceased to shape our lives in predictable ways is one of the key themes to be explored through the sociology of culture and identity.

Some sociologists, Paul Willis for example, have been dazzled by the "symbolic creativity" displayed in the consumption patterns of even the most disenfranchised social groups. For Willis, the era of the spectacular working-class youth subculture is over because capitalism has provided so many consumer goods that everyone can use their "symbolic creativity" in diverse ways to construct individual identities for themselves outside work.

On the other hand, others insist that social class makes a difference because those in higher class positions retain the authority to set the rules of the "cultural field" in a way that privileges their tastes. Ask an A-level sociology class to analyse a television "culture slot" in these terms. Whose tastes are promoted on the BBC2 Late Show? Whose culture is likely to be excluded?

February 8 was a remarkable day in the history of Brighton Football Club not because the team won for the first time in weeks but because of a successful "united nations" protest organised by the club's fans. Faced with the threat of the club abandoning its Brighton home, the fans turned their campaign into an international event.

Their appeal was answered by fans from the US, Holland and Madrid, all of whom attended the Brighton game displaying their teams' colours.

Here we find an intriguing paradox. Another recurring theme for the sociology of culture and identity is the impact of commercialisation. One consequence is the detachment of culture from local context. Premier league football is a perfect example, with the impact of television encouraging young fans to support the big teams rather than the less glamorous locals.

With players, managers and directors growing more mercenary in their outlooks, and "sacred" old grounds being demolished in favour of sterile new stadia, traditional fans may be forgiven for wondering what is left that is "local" about football.

Yet, despite the commercial pressures and the "Sky logic" which point towards the emergence of "Euro leagues" or even "global leagues", attachment to locality is as strong as ever among many supporters and, paradoxically, Brighton fans have shown how globalised systems of communication can be used in campaigns to preserve it.

The music business has set up the "Cross-Over" chart to accommodate the inclination of classical musicians to "slum it" at the popular end of the market. This questions how culture is defined. Postmodernists insist that one of the features of the "postmodern condition" is the collapse of distinctions between high and popular culture.

But some critics, including Richard Hoggart in his book The Way We Live Now, are alarmed by such cultural relativism. He argues that to abandon cultural distinctions is to slide into an uncritical populism. This debate should wake up even the sleepiest Monday morning class.

One interesting test is to ask students to use a listings page to construct their TV schedule for a day and to compare their rationales. If nothing else, the sociology of culture and identity should sort the young Lord Reiths from the John Birts in your class.

Dr Paul Manning lectures in the sociology department at De Montfort University and has written the "Culture and Identity" chapter for Sociology in Perspective, edited by Mark Kirby, to be published by Heinemann in June.

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