more sociology from the Daily Mail (well – the LSE actually… but nowhere as beautifully presented as here)

I think the commonly used phrase is “You couldn’t make it up”…

Yes – the same families that were at the top of the social pecking order following 1066 are still there 2013.  This is surprising if one thinks of events like the Industrial Revolution in crudely Marxist terms as radical overturn of a hitherto feudal society where the aristocracy is in charge replacing it with a capitalist society where the bourgeoisie is in charge – i.e. an event of massive social mobility. It is also surprising if one thinks of a capitalist market society in crudely Liberal terms as one of opportunity, which should mean continuously increasing social mobility ever since the 17th century and accelerated mobility under pro-market governments such as, ideal-typically, the Thatcher administration. None of that – there seems to be a perennial “elite”.

The funny thing is – the Daily Mail don’t pick up on the researchers out-of-thin-air explanation for the persistence of status difference: they think it’s some sort of genetico-cultural inheritance – the ideal justification for elitism and against the much hated “social engineering”

Strong forces of familial culture, social connections, and genetics must connect the generations. There really are quasi-physical “Laws of Inheritance.”

They do not reflect on the plausibility of each single element of these proposed “quasi-physical laws” and thus imply that these people have some superior family culture and genetic make up (whereas the “social connections”, i.e. good old social closure is played down several times in the paper – not convincingly though). There is a simple problem with the quasi-Darwinian argument: How can you think that what is superior “character” adaptation, a better fit, in the times of Norman Conquest, in the feudal feuds throughout the Middle Ages etc. is supposed to be also a better suited character to deal with the challenges of the Industrial Revolution, and then with the post-Fordist economy the later 20th century, i.e. how the same adaptation should be advantageous in radically different environments, is anybody’s guess… But if anybody were to buy into the idea that the privileged are privileged and remain privileged because they are just hereditarily of superior character, I thought the the Daily Mail might have been the most likely place to find such a view (I haven’t checked, but maybe in the comment boxes, surely?)

There is a much better explanation though: For England, not only is the liberal myth of mobility under capitalism not true (for an introduction into reasons for just why that my be – consult Ralph Miliband…), the traditional Marxist story is also flawed – according to Marxist historian Ellen Meiksins Wood who not only shows that the English road to capitalism went through an unbroken line of ownership from feudalism via agrarian capitalism to industrial capitalism (Wood 1991), but also that this is in line with Marx’s own theory of the origins of capitalism, while the story of the urban bourgeois revolution against rural aristocratic feudalism is not (Wood 1995). It is a case of inheritance after all – but not so much of genes and culture, but one of connections, power and property.

Miliband, Ralph (1969): The State in Capitalist Society: An Analysis of the Western System of Power, New York: Basic Books

Wood, Ellen Meiksins (1991): The Pristine Culture of Capitalism: A Historical Essay on Old Regimes and Modern States, London: Verso

Wood, Ellen Meiksins (1995): Democracy against Capitalism: Renewing Historical Materialism, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press


daily mail on middle class whiteness and the purity of language

The Daily Mail  really should come with a subtitle “The Sociologist’s Friend” – it is a spring  of examples to be used in undergraduate teaching, e.g. on race and class. Here the Mail’s Nick Harding is deeply concerned about the spread of inner city London accents into the Shires.

With her ear glued to her mobile phone, my 11-year-old daughter, Millie, was deep in conversation, her brow furrowed as she discussed some arrangement with a friend.

I listened in, as I made jam in the kitchen. ‘Lol, that’s well sick!’ Millie said. ‘DW, yolo!’

This indecipherable code-speak (‘sick’ means awesome, ‘DW’ is don’t worry and ‘yolo’ means you only live once) was delivered in an accent I could only place as somewhere between South London, downtown Los Angeles and Kingston, Jamaica.

It certainly isn’t indigenous to our home village of Ashtead, in the rolling Surrey hills.

This invasion of what the author calls “Amerifaican” (and a worse because, I assume, even blacker version: “Jafaican”), but, he tells us, academics call “Multicultural Youth English” or “Multicultural London English” troubles him. But why? He talks of “linguistic atrocities” and a “random hotchpotch”. It seems to be a matter of aesthetics. So that means it’s about class. Well, it is in this case. For one, there is an open acknowledgement that accents are relevant in the labour market and the fear that speaking like a black London kid will lead to declassement.

“It is not just snobbery about accents which is stoking parental concerns. Diction has a direct bearing on how speakers are perceived, especially in the job market”

Note how the open admission of racial and class discrimination in the labour market is taken as an unproblematic fact. It only becomes problematic when the middle-class White English person confuses matters by not speaking “posh”, sorry: “received pronunciation”. This is textbook Bourdieu: class boundaries are maintained by the internalisation of ahabitus that comprises all aspects of comportment including ways of walking, ways of talking etc. A middle class taste to go with this also includes a preference for visiting museums in the cultural capitals of the world. But what will the neighbours say?

Her new language, comprising alien words and abbreviations delivered with faux West Coast American inflections, will not stand her in good stead when she embarks on a school trip to visit museums in Berlin.

Now, Berlin has changed a little since Lord Rothermere last stayed at the Hotel Adlon. It is a bit like London actually, inclusive a metropolitan multicultural idiom known under the name of “KanakSprak”. So in all likelihood Nick Harding’s daughter will, in case she comes in contact with the locals, come across as doubly cool. One because she’s British, and two because she’s urban (yes, that’s sort of culturally “Black” in the way David Starkey meant it…).

“Kanak Sprak” is, actually, an interesting case: In Germany there are the same fears about loss of purity, messed-up grammar and style. Of particular concern, however, is the loss of inflection in verbs, articles and nouns due to the mixture of languages (the main ingredients: German, Turkish and some Slavic languages are all highly inflected). Surely a language needs inflections – the more the better. Hold on. What now counts as “good” English (which, I hope, I am using right now) has undergone this very process centuries ago when Anglo-Saxon was infused first with Danish and then French. Learning English is by no means easy, but the one thing the learner does not have to worry about is inflections – just an “s” at the end of third-person verbs, that’s all. That English still is one of the main languages in world literature shows that the beauty and power of a language is not a property of its grammatical awkwardness and the number of redundant features. The (in comparison to France and Germany) relative absence of the nationalistic penchant for purity may have allowed for inflections to go out of the window, but it has also opened the door for new words which resulted in the richest and most nuanced vocabulary. Multicultural London English has been a major contributor to this refinement of English over the centuries. It is the conservationists that do most harm to language as in an attempt to maintain its utility for race and class segregation they curtail its organic growth as a means of expression and communication.

As Nick Harding professes he’d much rather see fluency in a proper foreign language like French or German, here’s a quote from the great Austrian literary critic Karl Kraus’ Die Sprache

Die Sprachreiniger sind in Wahrheit nur das, was sie auch außerhalb ihrer Funktion sind: Sprachpeiniger

Or just take it from Stephen Fry