“Class, Individualization and Late Modernity”, by Will Atkinson

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Reviewed by: Frederico Cantante


This work seeks to refute the assumptions of reflexivity and individualisation theories and demonstrates the structural power of social classes in explaining social practices, attitudes and trajectories.

In Class, Individualization and Late Modernity, Will Atkinson criticises reflexivity and individualisation theories by comparing their assumptions and conclusions with empirical information from 55 interviews with British workers. He compares these analytical views with the Bourdieusian conceptualisation of class structure and the central role played by resources and dispositions associated with it in defining practices, attitudes and life paths.

The first chapters of the book address the theoretic framework of the study. The author synthesises four analytical formulae and proposals that he considers to be the main supports of reflexivity theories, or at least the most important ones in the field of sociology. He categorises Ulrich Beck and Zygmunt Bauman as authors whose main analytical focus is on the “individualisation” process, while Anthony Giddens and Margaret Archer address the issue of “reflexivity in late modernity”. Although they use different conceptual languages and explanations, Atkinson says that these four authors have in common the fact that they defend the independence of social trajectories from class origin and believe that these processes are free, reflexively considered orientations.

After identifying the main assumptions and conclusions of reflexivity theories, the author describes the main concepts and theoretic axes of Pierre Bourdieu’s thinking. He compares these two analytical models and, throughout the book, seeks to demonstrate that the empirical evidence from his research tends to validate the arguments and assumptions of Bourdieu’s theories and invalidate the proposals and conclusions of reflexivity theories, which according to the author have little empirical support. He therefore endeavours to set out the sociological architecture of Bourdieu’s viewpoint. When doing so, he also pinpoints some limitations in this thinking in “critical interludes”, which consist largely of an attempt to shore up Bourdieu’s theories with some contributions from phenomenology. For example, Atkinson contrasts the unawareness of the action produced by an incorporated habitus to Schutz’s differentiation between spontaneous conduct and projected action. He introduces the concept of the “subjective field of possibilities”, which regards action and attitudes as operations that may arise from conscious processes of choice and reflection, even though they are structured and based on systems of evaluation and knowledge of the habitus (p. 54).

In the second part of the book, Atkinson sets outs the empirical information gathered in the interviews and explores four dimensions of analysis that he considers decisive in evaluating the argumentative pertinence of reflexivity theories. He first analyses to what extent an education pathway is the result of individual plans and choices or whether this trajectory reproduces class inequality. He writes that the pathways that he has analysed confirm statistical trends in inequality of access to tertiary education and the importance of the cultural and economic capital of the family of origin in defining the extent and roadmap of education. He also says that, among his interviewees, he found diverging education trajectories characterised by (structurally unexpected) success in people from families with few cultural and educational resources. In these cases, he claims that parental strategies have considerable explanatory power and they result in family positions, dispositions and trajectories that are slightly different from those found in most “dominated” families (p. 99).

Atkinson then analyses the interviewees’ careers. Both those belonging to the “dominant classes” (who have more economic and/or cultural capital) and those in the “dominated” classes (those with fewest resources) talk about their careers and follow a logic of reflexivity, i.e. they describe them as being marked by decisions, plans and choices. He believes that this “superficial level” (p. 114) of these personal narratives describes as choices events in their career’s broadly determined by objective capital, though mainly by incorporated capital, which are conditions of possibility or pertinence of thought and reflection. It is therefore “false reflexivity” (p. 109).

The third dimension analysed is the issue of lifestyles and the author seeks to ascertain how far people’s cultural practices and individual tastes have been separated from their position in the area of resources in a globalised, consumer-oriented world. Although he says that today’s field of practices and tastes has changed since the time when Bourdieu wrote La Distinction, the oppositions and symbolic differentiations between classes still remain (e.g. the aestheticisation of household chores as opposed to a practical command of these tasks, a taste for the abstract and high culture as opposed to lack of interest and a taste for realism…), along with the pertinence of a relational understanding of forms of distinction and symbolic opposition. His critique is directed not only at reflexivity theories but also at some of the arguments and conclusions of the book Culture, Class, Distinction.

Finally, Atkinson discusses the importance of social class as a discursive category and structural variable of political representations. He first portrays social class as an important “discursive vehicle” in the categorisation of behaviours, practices and governance policies (p. 161) and as a reference in social identification, differentiation and positioning. He believes that class is still decisive in defining people’s political propensities, in that their social position and trajectory help to mould their political perceptions and affiliations and/or material interests. The great change has to do with the loss of importance of social class as a political entity that mobilises action and collective awareness and, essentially, the class struggle based on perceptions of inequality and social injustices.

In this book, Atkinson not only tests the sociological validity of reflexivity theories but also Bourdieu’s scheme of thought, by comparing the theoretical premises and conceptual tools of these two analytical perspectives with the empirical reality. The main conclusion of the study is that social class, as defined by Bourdieu, has maintained its hermeneutic topicality and explanatory power. Resources and the positions occupied in the social space are decisive in defining processes of distinction and inequality between people, as they are objective, dispositional constraints on their choices, attitudes and representations. Although he accepts individual awareness and reflection, he claims that they exist and are produced from a series of objective possibilities of thought and action and therefore constitute “subjective field of possibilities”.

See Will Atkinson’s article “Same Formula, Diffferent Figures: change and persistence in class inequalities”, published in the journalSociologia, Problemas e Práticas (2010, nº 63).

See Will Atkinson’s lecture about social class, inequality and reflexivity. The event took place in Lisbon University Institute (ISCTE-IUL).

Originally published in Observatory of Inequalities, 2012