Is greater social diversity increasing or decreasing individual ability to shape one’s own life?
In what ways would one want to shape or reshape his life?
- Financial security/burden
- Maintain good health or treat disease.
- Have more time for leisure and personal interests.
What is one’s life?
- Life is about living as a human. There is something about living in the human body – its psychology, physicality, spirituality.
- Living is about being social, interactive, being part of a family, community, culture, nation-state and forming an identity about oneself and close others.
- It is about movement, travel, exploration, invention, adaptation.
- Growth – physically, mentally, maturationally, spiritually, in an area of expertise.
- Founding a family
- Associating with others
- Several other Human Rights.
The above is not an exhaustive list.
Social Diversity and Individuality
It is important to appreciate firstly what social diversity means and whether it exists. Then, a rational analysis can weigh up whether and how it may impact on an individual’s ability to shape his life (pronouns used hereafter are gender neutral). ‘Who is this individual?’ Is he an average person? Who is an ‘average’ person when there is such a diversity of individuals, groups, cultures and needs? Things that may limit one person may promote another. This individualistic analysis (Mooney et al 2004, p28) will involve an exploration of the factors common to the exercise of individual will i.e. agency – and matching those against external influences i.e. structure. The words ‘individual ability’ assume individual capacity, power or will to master one’s destiny. Any power or capacity must exist in relation to some other opposing ‘force’; else its existence or recognition is unnecessary. The decision to reshape one’s life, could be motivated by several things e.g. the want of greater financial freedom, social recognition, more time with family, or better health. This analysis will explore whether and to what extent social diversity may assist or hinder an individual determined to charting his own destiny. However, the important aspect of this analysis is not that an individual merely acts through individual agency; central to the analysis is the ‘individual’s ability’ and what might affect that in the first instance.
There are a number of factors that may limit an individual’s ability to shape his life. Broadly these lie in the domains of the biological, psycho-social and societal. It is possible that some individuals may be limited from birth by a low intellectual capacity which in itself may be due to the effect of genetic inheritance – a clear biological limitation with psycho-social implications. Poor parenting, emotional deprivation, poor education or being groomed into a life of crime by a particular kind of neighbourhood – the psycho-social limitations, may limit other individuals. Some may have grown up in a destitute third-world nation struggling with common diseases, chronic political unrest with widespread anti-western views. Such socio-political frameworks may have limited, however imperceptibly, an individual’s ability to think beyond a certain horizon about ways of changing his life. Acceptance of the status quo of his existence may have hardened his views that nothing can change. But beside these kinds of factors sits social diversity which is ever present and needs to be explored as a dimension that may help or hinder the person.
Social diversity is about the variety of patterns, choices, influences, inconsistencies, and non-uniformities that affect the way we live our lives. How will an individual exercise his will – his agency – consciously and/or unconsciously to shape a future to what exists for himself. A mesh of various tangible and intangible opposing forces, that is – structural effects – will according to circumstances, limit or enhance how much he can achieve. This structural mesh can be likened to an unfair kind of decathlon, where the course is not set, nor are the myriad of unpredictable or even invisible obstacles. In this sense social diversity is likened to the variability, inconsistency, uncertainty of obstacles on the course. These factors are often held at a common-sense level as essential to the fabric of life’s rich tapestry. But for those seeking figuratively to row upstream they can present a real source of risk if not carefully manoeuvred. It is not that diversity is rampant. There are stable domains of crime, public health, disease, human migration, trans-cultural or inter-cultural differences, international markets, employment issues etc. What has changed in the latter half of the 20th century is the degree of variation of categories, norms and patterns within those stable domains.
Adversity and equality
Inequalities in incomes in the UK have worsened in the 1980’s and 1990’s with percentages under the poverty line increasing in the same period (Mackintosh & Mooney 2004, p90). A capitalist driven economy lends greater power to those with capital. Those without capital will find it tremendously difficult to buy time or opportunity for change. This has contributed to a visible kind of social polarization i.e. a widening gap between an affluent minority and a destitute excluded majority. Some of these groups experience social exclusion (Mackintosh & Mooney 2004, p.108), not being allowed full participation in the mainstream of more affluent society. Specific groups seem to be more disadvantaged – the poor, old, single parents, women and ethnic minorities. Individuals falling into one or more of these groups will find that it comparatively more difficult to climb the social ladder. Their access to opportunity is limited from the very outset by the effects of several structural forces coming together from political and socio-economic dimensions. However, there has been recent concern by government about the underprivileged being excluded from educational opportunities. This has resulted in some shift to equalising opportunities in education from primary school through to the universities. This levelling of the playing field may in time improve the chances for those who were previously disadvantaged.
From the 1950s onwards there has been a growth in more diverse streams of knowledge, each domain associated with institutions growing ever more powerful. Medical institutions continue to dominate the production of doctors and other health workers. However, there is a growing mistrust and even rebellion against knowledge produced by institutions and experts. Individuals have a choice about which stream they can exploit. Some may wish to join traditional educational streams from an early age and work towards becoming a doctor or a nurse. The expansion of complementary medicine has come to compete with the traditional medical model of ‘medicine’ (Goldblatt 2004, p.149). This may offer individuals opportunities for recognition and new work.
For example, an individual already established in one of the healthcare professions may find it extremely difficult to shift streams to managing a business. All that he knew and was trained for was how to be a good nurse, say. However, there has been increasing flexibility of institutions that manage knowledge. It is not uncommon now for nurses to move into managerial roles, or for other health professionals to become doctors or psychologists. The opening up of educational opportunities – the very existence of institutions such as The Open University – has provided a springboard and a means for average people to work against the odds and to make choices within their means. In other words, average people can now adapt better with new and varied opportunities to the uncertainties created by the march of capitalism.
The ‘golden age’ of capitalism between the 1950’s and mid-1970’s, with its low unemployment and jobs for life has been replaced by job uncertainty. Global market forces driven by capitalist pursuits create shifting sands for those working in large multinational organisations. Workers in the UK may worry more about competition with European workers in such organisations. However, at the same time the creation of a Europe without borders – a very new development in the last 10 years has offered UK workers greater and varied opportunities for work and trade. This means that some may exploit the creation of varied opportunities in the expanding global market place. Others may become victims of such opportunities as huge manufacturing plants close shop in the UK and move to Europe.
Globalisation or globalised market forces cascade opportunity or obstacle down to the level of individuals. The effects of global economies may also be felt external to Europe, without doubt, as multinational corporations may move their business to the Far East. The world has become a kind of global village linked together by new communications technology. Large multinational organisations can exist or relocate to almost any corner of the earth yet remain fully linked together by this technology. For some people finding a niche with these large organisations may mean adapting to new cultures, and learning new languages in order to find work in other parts of the world. Some may need to develop new skills to be able to work electronically away from the office. Those who are unable to adapt quickly enough to this rapidly changing landscape (Held 2004, p. vii) may find themselves left out; casualties of the ‘system’.
In conclusion the ability of an individual to shape his life is a function of the nature and degree of agency he can exert against a whole range of structural forces and influences. Whatever the quality and magnitude of effort exerted by the individual’s will, it is likely to be underpinned in varying combinations and degrees by genetic inheritance, social and familial factors in his upbringing, and sense of identity (among other things). Individual capacity is set against sometimes imperceptible global forces that descend from thousands of miles away. These forces cascade downwards through political systems, governments, large multinational corporations, through the economic fabric of everyday living to create cultural complexity, educational and job opportunities, unstable employment situations, health risks and inequalities.
Social diversity is increasing and it creates a thicker more complex ‘jungle’ to negotiate for anyone exercising agency, to steer his life in a particular direction. However, while it may appear more treacherous for some, diversity can be exploited to an individual’s advantage. In reality greater social diversity creates greater opportunity for, and hindrance to, shaping one’s life. Therefore, social diversity both increases and decreases an individual’s ability to shape his life – dependent on how a myriad of interactive factors with the agency-structure dyad of interaction, are managed.
Goldblatt D., (ed) (2004) Knowledge and the Social Sciences: Theory, Method, Practice, London, Routledge/The Open University
Held D., (ed) (2004) ‘Series preface’ A globalising world? Culture, economies, politics. The Open University.
Mooney M., Kelly B., Goldblatt D., and Hughs G., (2004) Introductory Chapter: Tales of fear and fascination, the crime problem of contemporary UK. The Open University.
Mackintosh, M and Mooney G, (2004) ‘Identity, inequality and social class’ in Woodward, K (ed) Questioning identity: gender class, ethnicity London, Routledge/The Open University.
Thompson, K., and Woodward, K. (2004) ‘Knowing and believing religious knowledge’ in Goldblatt, D (ed.) Knowledge and the Social Sciences: Theory, Method, Practice, London, Routledge/The Open University.