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Critically analyse the ways that the social construction of identity impacts upon social welfare and on a person's experiences of inclusion and exclusion. Draw on the experiences of working class women.

Since the late nineteen eighties feminist theorist such as Skeggs(1997) have maintained that in any social analysis women should be treated as a separate class. Women’s class position by and large has been determined by the father or their husband’s occupation and this has now led Skeggs (1997) and others to speak of the gendering of class. Bradley (1997) maintains that race and ethnicity as well as gender and class are all sources of identity and also sites of inequality these things can be analysed separately but Bradley maintains that although this is the case there is a very close interaction between different sources of identity.

It has become almost a commonplace to say that classes are gendered and that gender relations are class-specific. Similarlythe other dimensions of ace/ethnicity and age impinge on individual class and gender experience and in any particular concrete example it is hard to separate out the different elements (Bradley, 1997:19)..

This paper will analyse how, and in what ways the social construction of the identities of working class women impacts upon their experiences of social welfare and of inclusion and exclusion. The paper will examine Skeggs (1997) view that class is gendered, it will then assess what this has to say about women’s identities and particularly the identities of working class women.

Socialisation and Identity

Socialisation is a process whereby an individual acquires the group values and skills that the group holds to. Hurley (1988) says that socialisation takes place between the socialiser and the individual coming into a group. It is a two-way interactional process where both parties are mutually influenced. Buckenham (1998) maintains that just as we are socialised into society, so when we enter the world of work we are socialised into the work role. Work socialisation may be regarded as part of the wider process of socialisation into adult life. Jenkins (1996) maintains that identity is our understanding of who we are and who other people are. Identity, he argues is created on the basis of human interaction. Identity and our understanding of it, even if that understanding is wrong, is part of social life, thus Jenkins writes:

More often than not, men and women going about their everyday lives are concerned with specific social identities. We talk, for example, about whether people are born gay or become gay as a result of the way they have been brought up. About what it means to be grown up. About what the difference is between Canadians and Americans. We observe the family who have just moved in around the corner and shake our heads: what can you expect they come from the wrong part of town. We watch the television news and jump to all sorts of conclusions about current events on the basis of identifications such as ‘Muslim’ ‘fundamentalist’ ‘Christian’ or whatever (Jenkins, 1996:5).

Our identity is how we understand ourselves and differentiate ourselves from other people but theorists maintain that the identity we own is largely constructed for us by society. This is particularly relevant when it comes to gender roles.

The Social Construction of Gender

We are brought up to think that the differences between men and women are biologically based but Oakley (1974) maintains that these are socially and culturally constructed and reproduced. She argues that the behaviour of boys and girls from an early age is shaped by modern industrial society. She outlines four ways in which this construction of gender roles takes place. These are, manipulation, where more attention is paid to the way little girls’ appearances, canalisation, whereby girls are given dolls to play with, the kinds of things which encourage domesticity, and boys are given cars and guns which encourage more aggressive behaviour. Verbal appellations are used to encourage children to identify with adults of the same gender and finally children are exposed to different kinds of activities. This role stereotyping is reinforced throughout our lives and the growth of the media industry has meant a proliferation of men and women in traditional roles. Thus, Oakley (1974) has argued that gender roles are socially constructed, rather than natural, in that they are learned.

Feminists argue that all women in society are subordinate to men and that a great deal of this has come from the institution of the family and the division of labour in the home (Abbott and Wallace, 1997). Women’s dependence on men within the family unit has resulted in unequal power relationships between men and women, and this has resulted in men’s greater access to material resources. Feminists (e.g. Oakley, 1974 and Coontz and Henderson, 1986) maintain that these inequalities are the result of social and historical circumstances:

…a number of scholars have begun to address the issue of male dominance as a historical phenomenon, grounded in a particular set of circumstances rather than flowing from some universal aspect of human nature or culture (Coontz and Henderson, 1986:1).

Victorian ideology had it that a woman’s place was in the home, but for a long time this applied mainly to upper and middle class women as many working class women still had to go out and earn a living. Oakley (1981) contends that this began to change in the second half of the century as there was a ban on child labour and increasing restrictions on the employment of women. The removal of women from the public sphere also meant that they had less access to the resources of society, as Weiler (2001) points out this

‘has meant that men alone had access to the resources that allowed them to become socially respected and acknowledged intellectuals. As a result, men have claimed authority to speak for all’(Weiler, 2001, p. 1).

The result of this was that most women were relegated to the home and the role of housewife. This was particularly difficult for working class women because it often meant that the family income was drastically reduced and because they were not able to provide properly were also viewed as unfit mothers. In this sense class and gender are closely intertwined in the social construction of identity and both gender and class are sites of women’s oppression.

Gender and Class

Goldthorpe maintains that women’s class position should continue to be determined by their male relatives because of the differential in earning power. Numbers of other theorists, including Barratt (1991) argue that women’s class position should be determined by their own earning power and by other factors in their lives. Some thinkers argue that class is a lot more than earning power and that it has become linked to a person’s pathology. Thus Kuhn (1995) maintains that:

Class is not just about the way you talk, or dress, or furnish your home; it is not just about the job you do or how much money you make doing it; nor is it merely about whether or not you went to university, nor which university you went to. Class is something beneath your clothes, under your skin, in your psyche, at the very core of your being. In the all-encompassing English class system, if you know that you are in the ‘wrong’ class, you know that therefore you are a valueless person(Kuhn, 1995: 98)

In this way class relations become pathologised so that they are not just about economic relations, but about personal judgements of superiority and inferiority and thus include shame. This is further manifested in political discourses and in current policy making.

As Bordieu’s (1993) work demonstrates one cannot simply walk away from one class into another because of economic changes. Rather class is embedded in a person’s history and cannot be easily escaped and this is largely due to what he has termed symbolic and cultural capital. Cultural and social capital relate to specific forms of knowledge which Johnson (1993) describes in the following way:

.(it)…equips the social agent with empathy towards, appreciation for or competence in deciphering cultural relations and cultural artefacts…The possession of…cultural capital Is accumulated through a long process of acquisition or inculcation which includes the pedagogical action of the family or group members (family education), educated members of the social formation (diffuse education) and social institutions (institutional education) (Johnson, 1993:7).

Social and cultural capital aquire prestige or recognition over time and it is this recognition which turns them into symbolic capital. For Bordieu this belongs to the middle classes and is evident in knowing the right thing to do, the right thing to say, coming from the right place, and speaking with the right accent. Not being in possession of this symbolic capital means failure and lack of cultural competence (Lawler, 1999). It is this lack that Walkerdine () argues makes the working classes into the other, something to be feared and avoided. This is evident in many current Government and welfare discourses, it is arguably the case that the reason that there has been such a sharp rise in the number of ASBOs (anti-social behavioural orders) is a fear of the working classes.

Welfare, Exclusion and Working Class Women

Walkeerdine (1990) and Skeggs (1997) argue that working class women are consistently marked out as ‘other’. They are patholigised because of their gender and they are again pathologised because of their class.

The ‘working classes’ have been the source of much disappointment and disgust for the middle-class observers who have studied them, and, in large part, this is marked out through the lack of legitimacy granted to working class cultural capital(Lawler, 1999:11)..

Sociological accounts of working class life have not helped in this matter because people are often portrayed as untrustworthy and the cause of social problems as they do not have the right values or do the right things (Roberts, 1999). Skeggs (1997) maintains that working class women are particularly singled out in this pathologising of a class and they are branded as bad or insensitive mothers. They are also portrayed as dirty and displaying the wrong kind of femininity (Walkerdine, 1990). Within sociological discourse there is an emphasis on the communal nature of working class society and thus many writers will speak of working class communities. Current Government policy focuses on citizenship and the rights and responsibilities of communities with regard to citizenship. Some people however, are spoken of as if they were outside of the community and excluded from the rights of citizenship the most often discussed group of women who are treated in this way are single mothers in receipt of welfare benefits. Government discourse often refer to these women as if they are excluded from the realms of citizenship. Citizenship works as a force of exclusion designating those who are included and those who are not (Burns, 2000). Burns argues that single mothers are most often referred to as a collective group outside mainstream society and therefore a kind of underclass, the way in which these women are spoken of implies that they are a threat to citizens and to respectable society.

The notion of an underclass began in the 1990s with the work of Charles Murray, increasing unemployment meant that the working classes were reduced to claiming benefits. The working classes, as a result of circumstances, were further pathologised as criminal and amoral. The Conservative Government of the time had vowed to cut back spending on welfare and to discourage notions of a nanny state. Lone mothers were singled out as a group that had children to get council houses and then lived a life of ease on benefits, thus Murray wrote,

The past two decades have witnessed the growth of whole communities in which the dominant family structure is the single parent on welfare, whose male offspring are already immersed in a criminal culture by the time they are teenagers and whose daughters are destined to follow the family tradition of unmarried mothers. (Sunday Times, 28 February 1993)

Murray argued that in order to discourage such communities from bringing up criminals and children without fathers there should be a stronger link between rights, responsibilities, and citizenship. Government discourses vilified single mothers through the notion of citizenship. Although this vilification has lessened somewhat under New Labour the responsibility of parents to bring their children up in a responsible manner alludes to this through the lens of good citizenship. Unemployed single mothers are seen as detrimental to the building of communities of good citizens (Burns, 2000). In his construction of an underclass, and his singling out of lone mothers, Murray further pathologises working class women who are already disadvantaged in so many ways.

Purcell (2002) maintains that women are among the lowest paid in society their average earnings continue to be lower than those of men and working class women are often the least well off. Brine (1999) maintains that far from being concerned about the glass ceiling that prevents so many middle class women from gaining the same career and economic status as men, working class women are still trying to break through the ‘class’ ceiling. The class ceiling consists of the structures and processes that prevent working class women from climbing out of the poverty trap and the wider social exclusion that results from this.

Government policy maintains that the only way out of the poverty trap, and the way in which social exclusion may be overcome is through education, thus the Government tends to promote what it calls lifelong learning Hodgson (2000). However current policy fails to address the current problems for working class women who may want to access further training and education. Government makes insufficient provision for childcare and neglects the many roles that women, and particularly working class women are called upon to play. The 1990 Care in the Community Act has meant that many women are caring for relatives who would previously have been looked after in hospital or by the local authority. These extra burdens can serve to exclude working class women even further because they cannot afford to pay someone else to do the caring while they access further education and training.

Conclusion

Working class women are, to a large extent, excluded from discourses on citizenship and from accessing the education that might enable them to get better jobs and climb out of the poverty trap. The identities of all women have been pathologised, they are seen as less able and less trustworthy than men. The social construction of working class women’s identities has meant that they are doubly oppressed. They are oppressed because of their gender and because of their class, these two things together leave them at the mercy of Government discourse when it is looking for someone to blame. If one were to believe much of what one hears and reads then women, and especially working class women are a burden on the welfare state who are bad mothers. They produce succeeding generations of petty criminals and fatherless children and they are thus a threat to model middle class citizens. The social construction of working class women’s identities results in their unfair treatment in the welfare system and their exclusion from the resources to better themselves. It is therefore, arguably the case, that working class women’s experience of welfare and exclusion are closely connected with the social construction of their identities.

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