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Risk as a shaping force

June 27, 2013

Steven Threadgold and Pam Nilan present a very interesting study of Australian youth, in which they consider how reflexivity serves as cultural capital for contemporary youth. In their own words, “This article expands upon concepts of habitus, cultural capital, reflexivity and risk in young people’s lives.” (p.47) I really enjoyed it – some of the statements which I found interesting are below:

youth in a ‘risk society’

The term ‘risk society’ indicates a global state of uncertainty and threat (Beck, 2000). In this environment, reflexive modernity constitutes questioning and suspicion of ‘bads’ or risks, while commodified techniques, products and services for managing risks generate profits. Public debate on risk rages while private lives see awareness of risk heightened at the everyday level (Lupton and Tulloch, 2002: 318). Perceiving risk, whether ‘real’ or ‘socially-constructed’ (Ekberg, 2007: 347), individuals constantly try to insulate and protect themselves from an ever-increasing matrix of risks – unemployment and financial security, loneliness, personal relationships, health problems, crime, ecological disaster and terrorism [-p.50] (Denney, 2005), as well as personality defects and physical imperfections. Increased perceptions of, and reactions to, specific new kinds of risk therefore characterize the way people live and think in late modernity. Theorists of ‘reflexive modernity’ propose that we face increasing uncertainty in a world complex and difficult to understand, as we move towards a ‘post-traditional society’ (Giddens, 1994) in which fixed sources of meaning such as religion, gender, class, marriage, lifetime employment and the nuclear family diminish. Given the ‘rise of the network society’ and the ‘information age’ (Castells, 1997), young people grow up in a ‘risk’ society that did not exist for their parents’ generation (Beck, 1992; Furlong and Cartmel, 1997). Their capacity to foresee and manage risk as individuals is emphasized – a process that appears to support the ‘individualization thesis’ (Beck and Beck-Gernsheim, 2002; Giddens, 1991). Yet as Brannen and Nilsen usefully point out, the problem is that:

Individualisation theory emphasises the agency side of the classic sociological dynamic – between the individual and society – and downplays structure. When discussing how people construct their own life course trajectories, how they make choices and decisions and cobble together do-it-yourself biographies, little reference is made to the availability of resources to do so. (Brannen and Nilsen, 2005: 422)

We address this downplaying in this article.” (pp.49-50)

People may no longer want to identify with class positions, and it is difficult to categorize social stratification in traditional class terms. Moreover, in the climate of uncertainty that rapid change engenders, our contemporary roles in life are not fixed, but constantly reinvented and constructed: so ‘we have no choice but to choose’ (Giddens, 1991: 81; Tulloch and Lupton, 2003: 61) in an apparently free consumer market. Yet while setbacks and crises in the life trajectory do come to be understood as individual inadequacies, rather than as outcomes of social and economic processes that sustain inequality (Furlong and Cartmel, 1997: 4), there is no doubt that unemployment, for example, remains far more often the experience of the socioeconomically marginalized rather than a universal engagement, and most people are aware of this.

It is claimed the reflexive individual negotiation of risk has replaced traditional ‘class consciousness’. In this sense, reflexivity embodies the idea of that which is self-referring, even self-constitutive in a continuous and ongoing way – a kind of feedback loop of information and reinvention. In the individualizing drive of late modernity, ‘the self is reflexively understood by the person in terms of his or her biography’ (Giddens, 1991: 53) – a narrative or story about individual progress through life. Accordingly, ‘life plans’, or in our case, ambitions, become the ‘substantial content of the reflexively organised trajectory of the self’ (Giddens, 1991: 85), involving constant surveillance of the self, making comparisons, getting ideas on how to improve physiology and lifestyle, assessing one’s value in the social stakes and so on.” (p.51)

“As Bauman (1998: 86) points out, ‘all of us are doomed to the life of choices, but not all of us have the means to be choosers’. It is the lack of acknowledgement of the importance of socioeconomic position, and the often uncritical attitude towards effects of inequality and life chances, that we find deficient in reflexive modernity theorizing.
In many influential British youth studies, risk is recognized as a shaping force in youth subjectivities: ‘young people today have to negotiate a set of risks which were largely unknown to their parents; this is true irrespective of social background or gender’ (Furlong and Cartmel, 1997: 1). These new, intensified risks implicitly construct reflexivity as a form of cultural capital. Our youth data indicate that the perceived obstacles to stated [-p.52] ambitions often symbolize a desire by the young person for the successful reflexive management of possible present and future risks. In Australia, it is obvious that one’s material circumstances still have a considerable effect on educational access and achievement, pertaining directly to future life chances (Collins et al., 2000: 135; see also Bynner, 2005: 375 on Canadian youth; Ball, 2003 on British schools). Such ‘impacts’ are still those addressed by Bourdieu’s theory of the social reproduction of privilege and disadvantage….” (pp.51-52)

Threadgold and Nilan explain Bourdieu’s theory of the social reproduction of privilege and disadvantage:

Bourdieu promoted productive class analysis through a sophisticated conceptual framework in which the complex relationship of structure and agency was foregrounded. Bourdieu’s’ primary notion of ‘field’ identifies domains of power, for instance: education, economics, culture or politics, or smaller specific domains of taste or opinion. ‘There are . . . as many fields of preferences as there are fields of stylistic possibilities’ (Bourdieu, 1984: 226). Simultaneously a space of conflict, competition and creativity, a field exists to the extent that entering ‘players’ believe in, and actively pursue the prizes it offers (Wacquant, 1992: 19). So both education and paid work operate as fields, hierarchically organized where the individual’s access to, or ownership of, various forms of capital constrains the possibility for success. The three forms of capital are economic, social and cultural. Distribution of capitals among individuals in classes determines ‘the chances of success for practices’ (Bourdieu, 1986: 242). Cultural capital facilitates success in the fields of education, lifestyle and ‘taste’ and includes resources such as verbal facility, general cultural awareness, aesthetic preferences, information and educational credentials (Swartz, 1997: 75) and intangible inflections of style. It is ‘differently formed in accordance with the different experiences and conditions of existence of the different social classes’ (Bennett et al., 1999: 11).
Although it may be acquired, cultural capital flows from habitus (Bourdieu and Passeron, 1990: 74–6). The habitus of a given individual is formed via the symbiotic relationship between ‘outside’ elements of family, friends, education, geography, class, race and gender, and ‘inside’ elements such as taste, appearance, use of slang and bodily dispositions. Habitus consists of largely unconscious decision-making principles and dispositions that generate and organize practice, ‘enabling agents to cope with unforeseen and ever-changing situations’ (Bourdieu, 1998: 72), one’s ‘practical sense’ or ‘feel for the game’ (Bourdieu, 1993: 5) – a ‘generative principle of regulated improvisations’ (Swartz, 1997: 101). In short, habitus is a set of dispositions that form a matrix of realistic choices or actions in which one may engage in particular situations.” (p.52)

“Central to Bourdieu’s theorizing of social reproduction is how habitus instils ‘a sense of one’s place’ (Bourdieu, 1984: 466), which can manifest as a reluctance by individuals to seek employment and cultural experiences outside what is ‘normalized’ for their particular habitus, excluding themselves from what they are often already excluded from because ‘that’s not for the likes of us’ (Bourdieu, 1984: 471).” (p.53)

Threadgold and Nilan conclude:

“The arguments made in relation to data in this article support the proposition that the successful or unsuccessful negotiation of risk through the ‘generative disposition’ of reflexivity is still heavily reliant on one’s socioeconomic or class position. While Montesano students acknowledged having to deal with risks (obstacles to their ambitions), these were mostly conceived as structural impediments to getting a good education and a good job. The stated ambitions of students from Sunnydale High and Rydell Grammar were much less material. The future was something to be negotiated reflexively, and the risks they nominated focused on individual traits, the need for self-discipline and knowledge, including selfknowledge. In the overall tone of responses, those higher in cultural capital showed a more casual, relaxed and individualized approach towards the future. Their expressed attitudes demonstrate that the individualization thesis is about perception of reality rather than an actual effect of it. Plumridge and Thompson (2003: 220) draw critical attention to the ‘optimism’ of the individualization thesis in modelling reflexive modernity, and it may be that the middle-class youth in our study are unrealistically optimistic about the future – perhaps convinced by the late modern hype of the infinite potential of the entrepreneurial self. In fact, we carry from the data the sense that it may be the upwardly mobile working-class Montesano High youth who have the most realistic grasp on the present and the future. Their scepticism about the future, and their strong sense of having to struggle for achievement, may prove to be prescient if the current global downturn continues.

The arguments made in this article also support the proposition that reflexivity is mediated through the habitus as a form of class-based, embodied cultural capital. For example, at the level of the ‘self’, Montesano youth thought they would be judged as inherently deficient in the middle-class job and labour market, and that only dedicated hard work on their part could overcome this. This is a traditional working-class view of the struggle for prosperity and upward mobility, exemplified in Willis’s (1977) Learning to Labour. The commentary and responses of young people at Sunnydale High and Rydell Grammar match the reflexive modernists’ claims much more closely. Sunnydale youth seemed to assume their inherent acceptability within the middle-class job and labour market. Their ‘problem’ was to decide how and when to be part of it, and whether this fitted with their philanthropic and self-discovery aims. [-p.65] Montesano High, their future life trajectories were assumed as much less negotiable than the way those higher in cultural and economic capital perceived their futures. In conclusion, for lower SES youth in Australia the imagined ‘prolonging of current calculable damages into the future’ is still predicated, it seems, on current woes (Beck, 1992: 33). This confirms that ‘living in a class-divided society means that not all young people have the same resources, experiences and opportunities’ (White and Wyn, 2004: 16). When considering their future, the dispositions of youth from more privileged backgrounds included the reflexive idea that their personal biographies can be self-shaped and self-managed. This was less so for less privileged youth, who imagined the future in terms of material ambitions and risks largely modelled on the project of transcending the experiences of the people who surround them in their local environment. To rephrase Bauman (1998: 86) – all these young people look forward to an adult life of choices, but not all of them have the means to be choosers.” (pp.64-65)

Ref: (italics in original; emphases in blue bold, mine) Steven Threadgold and Pam Nilan (2009) Reflexivity of Contemporary Youth, Risk and Cultural Capital. Current Sociology 57(1): 47-68

NB SES refers to socioeconomic status


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