The Myth of the Reflexive Worker
Will Atkinson Department of Sociology University of Bristol Email: w.atkinson@bristol.ac.uk Abstract Western societies are said to be characaterised by a relentless individualization in which identities, lifestyles and life paths have been opened up to a new process of reflexive decision-making. One concept argued to have fallen victim to this sweeping and undiscriminating shift and withered away is social class. No longer do its constraints or cultural habituations guide or constrain action, argue the individualization theorists, and this applies as much to Australia and New Zealand as to the European nations. This paper reports the key findings of a research project designed to subject these claims to comprehensive and direct empirical scrutiny in the same spirit as the Affluent Worker team confronting embourgeoisement forty years earlier. Starting out from a Bourdieusian theoretical position, it examined the life histories of 55 individuals from Bristol in the UK – a connurbation typical of Western cities through qualitative interviews examining life histories, tastes and perceptions. The overall conclusion is that, contrary to what the individualization theorists hold, class clearly continues to exert its influence over life courses in the way a Bourdieusian might expect, but that this is specified by a new social context not dissimilar to that described by Beck and the others. Introduction This paper reports the findings from a research project set up to examine in detail the theory of individualization as it relates to class, specifically its supposed current demise in Western societies. The idea that social class is an outdated or dead concept is not a particularly new one, but it is true to say the last twenty or so years have seen the emergence of a number of prominent sociological theories declaring its irrelevance – some aspects of globalisation theory, for example, or, most famously perhaps, postmodern perspectives (Pakulski and Waters, 1996) – and amongst these various theorisations it seems that the notion of individualization has been particularly influential, commanding attention in textbooks and amongst general social theorists but also in political circles. It seems to have captured a mood, describing the key processes and identities of contemporary Western societies in a supposedly persuasive

Finally there’s Zygmunt Bauman (2001). whether to change career. For him this is part . but also institutional reflexivity (or the fact that our societies now routinely produce knowledge on themselves and feed these back into people’s lives). mean that there is now a new world of choice open to people. widespread job insecurity and mushrooming social and geographical mobility have ‘disembedded’ us from our old traditional ways of life.2 way and identifying their roots in well-documented social structural changes without lapsing in to the vagueness or excesses that sometimes characterise postmodern thinking. and choose their key life decisions throughout their life course – what to do for a living. but they are all united by the notion that individuals today. plan. Anthony Giddens (1991) has put forward similar ideas – though not under the name of individualization – to the effect that globalisation and hence mediated contact with other cultures. whether to have children – and also their lifestyles and identities. which basically means that the constraints and cultures of classes have weakened and left people no choice but to choose what they want to do with their lives. this is because expanded education. growing affluence. now have to reflexively consider. Individualization and class So what exactly does individualization propose? There are a number of core thinkers here. who tends to put a much more critical and pessimistic spin on these ideas and focuses in particular on an idea raised by Beck – the idea that people are increasingly being encouraged or forced to conceive of themselves as autonomous individuals. masking the social processes that actually underlie people’s fates. For Ulrich Beck (1992). whatever their position in society. responsible for their own lot.

because what we find here is a rather incoherent patchwork of responses produced only in passing. 2004). leaving it in a similar position to the thesis of . So perhaps we can turn to qualitative studies influenced by Pierre Bourdieu to reject individualization once and for all? Again the answer is no. education and other domains of life chances – is stable. they only focus on young people. people from all walks of life are reflexive decision makers and individualists. So all in all. some people use class labels (Savage. or women. crucially. and those there have been have been far from satisfactory. and so on. there have been very few responses. but marshalling these statistics. but then as a working class phenomenon (Reay et al. the fact is. despite their sway. lifestyles and identities disappearing in the flux. How have class analysts responded? Well. 2005). but others don’t (Skeggs. like John Goldthorpe (2002) have responded by pointing to all sorts of statistical patterns to say that the class-based structure of inequality – in terms of health.3 and parcel of neo-liberal consumerist capitalism which demands constant change and individualism. So individualization seems to escape between the gaps. does not really provide any answers when it comes to identities. there is no investigation of employment histories. personal responsibility or. Sometimes reflexivity is depicted as a middle-class phenomenon (Skeggs. with class constraints. 1997). 2000). decision making mechanisms – there is no investigation of whether there is any reflexivity to speak of and whether it has replaced class cultures or constraints in producing these patterns. This is all very well. Responses Some. and of course adopting a rational choice perspective as Goldthorpe does. dispositions.

There were 55 people altogether. then. head-on evidence. What we need. looking in depth at people’s life histories . this is the void the project sought to fill. Whilst I cannot claim the research reported here was anywhere near as large scale or conclusive as the Affluent Worker studies. In light of the critique of Goldthorpe. who cluster together. wealth. conceived in terms of possession of three different capitals – economic (money. such that those with different amounts of capital have different habitus and those with similar amounts. lifestyles and views on all kinds of social and political topics.their early years. Not adhering to the myth of theory-neutral perception. culturedness) and social (connections and certain names). share similar habitus. is something like the Affluent Worker studies of the sixties.but also their self-perceptions. credentials. The key point to emphasise is that class for Bourdieu (1984) is all about relations: our possession of different . and our possession of these mediates our fundamental conditions of life – namely our distance from economic necessity as well as cultural milieu – which in turn produce within us certain dispositions and outlooks (or our habitus). though there were very few ethnic minorities. with the majority in their 20s and 30s) and occupations to cover a fairly representative spread of society. the method was qualitative. cultural (education. education and work lives . which demolished embourgeoisement once and for all by tackling it head-on and testing its propositions. and they covered a range of ages (18 to mid-fifties. though statistics provide the necessary backdrop.4 embourgeoisement in the fifties and sixties: as a substantial popular challenge to the importance of class for sociology that many who research the concept know to be misguided but without coherent. property etc). Classes are. therefore. the study was conducted from a broadly Bourdieusian point of view.

serving as a kind of executive summary. not the substantial properties that attach to them – like particular occupations as for Goldthorpe. for example – this paper will provide a synopsis of the findings of the project as a whole. i. educational level and so on – and the dominated. i. but rather than disappear in the flux class has changed with it. as instead I will try to indicate the broad processes. distant and far away from others in an overall social space. However. This will be easy enough. those with lots of capital – high income. through real changes in the substance of class. then the shift in substance relates to the expansion and increased uptake of post-compulsory and higher education and the .5 amounts and types of capital puts us above. For the sake of analytical. or particular lifestyle practices. and in many of the ways discussed by Beck and the others. their relations to one another in this structure. below. given the breadth aimed for this means there are fewer animating ‘voices’ than is often the case with qualitative papers. Education If we start first of all with education. The social scene has indeed changed in Western societies over the past few decades. in short. Rather than report a small portion of the research in detail – education or geographical mobility. or the differences of capital and the distances in social space. This is what defines the classes as clusters of people with similar capital stocks and habitus. comparative clarity the sample has been split into two factions: the dominant. the persistence of the class relations. to the findings. because there is one overarching theme running throughout all aspects of the research findings. So. those with not so much capital.e.e. or the concrete ways in which the relational differences manifest themselves. What is this overarching theme which unites the different components of the research? It is.

even when this was not the case. 2003). even if the precise course was Work This set up the interviewees for their experiences in the world of work. and the virtual disappearance of occupational reproduction or of the seamless. This manifested itself amongst the interviewees in the form of an increased consideration of options and what is best ‘for me’ amongst the respondents. the fact remained that differences in capital continued to differentiate performance at school and.6 emergence of a discourse. they could. the dominated turning instead to the vocational and physical skills they had mastery of – and took there different post-school routes – university for one. Beck and the others claim that even here class has ceased to be of much importance because . for granted. with associated policies. pass on their cultural capital through focussed help with homework and school projects but also ‘everyday learning’ – teaching them reasoning skills and knowledge of science or the arts in everyday life (cf. However. Those from privileged backgrounds had parents who could afford to send their children to high-performing private schools and. apprenticeships and work for the other up for consideration. dominant and dominated alike. thus. This meant that they performed differently in school – the dominant mastering and coming to enjoy more abstract. Lareau. academic subjects. both of which are products of the de-industrialisation of the West and the rise of a global neo-liberal consensus bent on fostering a knowledge economy through the production of human capital. revolving around options and individual choice. the options considered. unquestioning transition from school to factory floor described by Willis (1977). and did.

however. including cars.7 insecurity and the pressure to retrain and be flexible in the neo-liberal economy have scrambled patterns of life chances. houses and widescreen TVs. The dominant possessed enough economic capital (including through redundancy payouts). redundancy and lifelong learning are indeed in full effect amongst many of the interviewees. did not feel themselves able to retrain (instead transferring skills already acquired) and did not have the contacts in high places. to feel themselves able to retrain at a high level if they wish and to tap connections in order to secure work when they needed it. theatre. whilst it was found that insecurity. Those without such resources. Lifestyles So life paths remain differentiated according to class: the position in social space attained is retained thanks to capital possessions despite expanded education and the volatility of the labour market. . were pushed into whichever jobs they could find in order to meet the demands of economic necessity. because the relations of capital continued to differentiate experiences and trajectories. sports such as squash) and the more practical and bodily pursuits of the dominated (repairing cars and motorbikes. But what about lifestyles and identities? Surely it is more credible to claim that they no longer draw from class? The answer is the same as proposed so far. In particular. there was a notable divide between the more ascetic practices of the dominant (reading ‘classics’. cultural capital and social capital to afford time out of work to find a new job that was desirable. and globalisation has introduced a wide array of cultural practices in to everyday life – precisely what practices are taken up in this new context remains guided by class. again this is little more than the shifting substance. However. for whilst there may well have been a shift in the substance of lifestyles – affluence means people can afford more.

all the respondents recognised the existence of social class. downbeat electronic music (which has a ‘chillout’ aesthetic often intellectualised by commentators) and older rock music with biographical significance (e. R and B or hip hop music. most identified themselves with a class and most read it back into their own perceived advantages and disadvantages. When asked. but sometimes class did serve as an unprompted tool for understanding the differences. relaying a sense of living in separate worlds or realities from others seen as below or above them and recounting instances where that difference had engendered what Bourdieu calls ‘symbolic violence’ – the sense of shame. describing difference and social distance on the basis of capital and dispositions in a variety of ways. including with reference to class as a label? In short. Though there was little evidence of any collectivism. football) – which is in line with Bourdieu’s causal logic. people sensed their ‘place’ vis-à-vis others in the social space. furthermore. Queen). selfconsciousness and low self-worth forced upon the dominated by people who perceive themselves as superior. yes it did. Self-Perception But did this differentiation of lifestyles feed into self-perception. with a louder and more vigorous beat or lyrics that spoke to their experience.8 boxercise. This was even pronounced in the field of music. Whilst there was some mixing. . The dominated. it was found that amongst the dominant there was an overwhelming propensity to listen to three forms of music: classical (often accompanied by playing an orchestral instrument of some kind). Yet despite recognising its impact on their own lives. pop. on the other hand. tended to listen solely to rock.g. All this was often described without reference to class. a domain often thought to be more variegated and open to what Richard Peterson has called ‘omnivorousness’ whereby people show eclectic tastes.

To put it in a formula. Debates over reflexivity and individualization have gripped Europe and the Antipodes. But that does not mean the research has no relevance beyond those borders. yet at the same time a steady stream of scholarship is constantly detailing the parameters and struggles of national social spaces from Spain to Australia. Giddens and the others fails to capture present reality and instead class inequalities. deliberation and openness to the full range of experience and action described by Beck. But this is no conservative denial of social change – the way in which class manifests itself in the current neo-liberal climate has certainly changed. work histories. to suppose that if the national structures are . Is it so unreasonable. then. this is not surprising (for Australia see Bennett et al. The study may strike some as rather ‘British’ in its coverage. 1999). Whether we look at education. we might say the relations of class have stayed the same – the distribution of capital and the fact that this produces differing dispositions – whilst the substance of class – the precise manifestation of class in terms of occupations.9 very few of the respondents actually saw it as an important social or political issue – ‘you’ll always have classes’ was a common refrain – and most seemed to buy into the idea that classes were in some way necessary for society to work. lifestyles or identities the conclusion is that the kind of choice. given their shared political and educational cultures. it is bad news for the theories of reflexivity. Conclusion All in all. and. and indeed its conclusions can only be extended safely to the bounds of that nation state. educational experiences. work-life experiences and so on – has shifted with the transformations of the late twentieth century. differences and denigrations are as persistent as ever. then.

(1992) Risk Society. A. References Bauman. Pakulski. London: Routledge. . (1999) Accounting for Taste.. and Forw. (2000) Class Analysis and Social Transformation. 25 (3): 1–28. Skeggs. with national specificities. is going on in other late capitalist nation states? If nothing else it should at least. and Waters. B. and Ball. encourage researchers to determine for themselves the applicability of the conclusions presented here in their own homeland. P. Willis. David. J. Emmison. (2001) The Individualized Society. M. London: Sage. Bourdieu. D. Stoke-on-Trent: Trentham Books. Culture. Goldthorpe. London: Sage. E. J. I hope. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. (1977) Learning to Labour. Reay. M. S. Skeggs. 91996) The Death of Class. London: Routledge. (2005) Degrees of Choice: Social Class. M. London: Sage. Buckingham: Open University Press. Lareau. (2002) ‘Globalisation and Social Class’ West European Politics. Bennett. (2004) Class. Self. Giddens. A. Race and Gender in Higher Education.. P. Race and Family Life. (1991) Modernity and Self-Identity. M. B. (2003) Unequal Childhoods: Class. Farnborough: Saxon House. Z. (1984) Distinction. Berkeley: University of California Press. H. (1997) Formations of Class and Gender. Cambridge: Polity. Cambridge: Polity. Beck. J.10 homologous then the explanation for and consequences of the persistence of social space unearthed in the UK could be an indicator of what. T. Savage. U.

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