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In memory of Michael Martindale, who dedicated his life to the ideal of a better life for all in the community

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This book originally arose out of some work written for the Open University course D203 ‘Understanding Modern Societies’. I wish to thank David Held of Polity for offering me the chance to expand on my exploration of ‘interacting dynamics’. At times it has seemed an act of sheer hubris to write a book dealing with so many aspects of social inequality. I have drawn on the advice of people more expert than myself in specific areas. Jonathan Skerrett has been a patient and forbearing editor. Thanks go to two anonymous reviewers for useful comments on this second edition.

Introduction to Second Edition

Much has changed since the publication of Fractured Identities in 1996. In the following year, 1997, a long period of Conservative government in the UK came to an end, with the election of the ‘New Labour’ government under the leadership of Tony Blair. Thus, what has become known as the ‘Thatcher Era’ was succeeded by the ‘Blair years’. The New Labour method of running the country involved a mix of economic conservatism with progressive social policies, with a strong focus on confronting inequalities, opening up opportunities to people of all classes and backgrounds and bringing an end to child poverty. At the election, Blair proclaimed that ‘Education, Education, Education’ was the key to producing a fairer and more just society, and a mass of policies have been developed over the past decades targeted at making schools more effective and opening further and higher education to all. Some students using this new edition of my book on inequality and identity may have been the beneficiaries of such policies.

However, while there have been improvements in some areas of disadvantage, the gap between rich and poor has not been closed; on the contrary, the latest figures show that it has become wider than ever in Britain, and the same is true of the United States of America. In later chapters of the book, I shall be addressing the reasons for this, but, very broadly, it can be argued that the attachment of Bush and Blair to neoliberal economic policies impeded any attempt to break down the barriers of class and poverty. In Britain, the widening of the gap has been even more marked since the coming to power of the Coalition government of David Cameron and Nick Clegg in 2010. It will be argued in subsequent chapters that the policies of austerity espoused by the Conservative – Liberal Democrat Coalition have benefitted the rich while pushing the poor and unemployed into severe poverty, opening up the spectre of ‘Food Bank Britain’, while bankers' bonuses continue unchecked.

The past eighteen years have also seen some crucial and devastating political events which have had very strong impacts in the field of ethnic relations. The terrible events of 11 September 2001, when two planes hijacked by Muslim terrorists plunged into the twin towers of the World Trade Center in New York, causing the towers to collapse in front of the eyes of millions of horrified TV watchers and killing some 3,000 people, was to bring to the fore issues about the relation between Islam and the rest of the world. America responded by declaring a ‘War on Terror’. In 2003, tensions were compounded by America's decision to invade Iraq, with the support of Tony Blair, despite the vocal opposition of thousands of Britons. Bombs exploded by suicide bombers on the London Underground and on a bus in Tavistock Square on 7 July 2005 brought the realities of the ‘War on Terror’ to London, with important impacts on the lives of Britain's Muslim populations (Bangladeshis, Pakistanis, North Africans and Somalis, among others).

Less dramatic, but equally important in its impact on ethnic relations, was the enlargement of the European Union (EU) with the addition of ten new member states, largely from the old Soviet bloc, and including Poland, Hungary, Latvia, Slovakia and Cyprus. This added 100 million people to the Union, and was followed in 2007 by the accession of Bulgaria and Rumania. Since citizens of member states have rights to work in other EU countries, this opened up new patterns of immigration, thereby increasing the diversity of the UK's multiethnic population. Many Eastern European migrant workers, especially Poles, have come to Britain and Ireland to find better-paid jobs than those available in their home countries.

These developments have led to extensive debates about nationality, identity and integration within the UK, seen as one of the world's most ethnically diverse nations. In particular, a controversy has evolved around the notion of multiculturalism, which will be discussed in chapter 6 of this book. Arguably, all the political events mentioned above have kept ethnicity and racism to the fore as a particular focus for sociological research and discussion, with some of the other aspects of social differentiation, such as gender, receiving rather less public and academic attention. The combination of European migration to Britain and public panic about Muslims, described by sociologists as Islamophobia, has led to much more overt expressions of racism, contributing to the increased political presence of racist and anti-immigration parties, such as the English Defence League; in 2014, the UK Independence Party, headed by the charismatic if controversial Nigel Farage, made major advances in local and European elections and achieved a 13 per cent share of the vote in the 2015 General Election.

Multiculturalism and migration are often linked to processes of globalization. Globalization, which has economic, cultural and polit­ical dimensions, is hardly a new phenomenon, but it can be argued that the last eighteen years have seen global processes increase in intensity and rapidity. These increases have been encouraged by technological developments, such as the spread of cheap air flights, the enhanced power and capacities of 3G mobile phones and the phenomenal expansion of the internet as a medium for the provision of information, for economic transactions, for social networking and for cultural exchange. It can be stated that we have now definitely entered the Digital Age. Globalization and new technologies will be discussed in chapter 3.

All these developments have led to important changes in the lives of the citizens of the twenty-first century. Some of the trends that were discussed in the 1996 edition, such as social fragmentation, increased geographical mobility and the growth of insecure employment, are now more deeply embedded. The latter trend has led to the identification of a new class grouping, known as the ‘precariat’, which will be discussed in chapter 4. Processes of social identification, as a result, can be seen to be even more complex and fluid than in 1996. It is sometimes difficult to resist the impression that we live in a shifting society, where the old certainties are being constantly eroded. However, within this scenario of change, one thing remains constant. Britain continues to be a deeply divided society, with marked patterns of class, gender, ethnic and age-based segregation. In this new edition, these four dimensions of social difference remain the centre of analysis and, in the chapters dealing with them, I indicate the impact of the changes sketched above on these entrenched patterns of inequality in additional sections.

I originally chose these four types of social division to explore in detail because they have long been the focus of sociological study and debate. However, there are obviously other forms of social division which figure largely in some people's lives, so in this edition I have included an extra chapter which deals briefly with three of these: disability, sexuality and religion.

This is not to say that these are the only forms of difference we could study. For example, in Britain and other countries regional differences are often marked; we talk of the North–South divide. If we are thinking about some of the currently fashionable social policy issues we could argue that our Western obsession with body size and weight is bringing a social division between thin and fat people! There is much talk about a ‘social epidemic of obesity’ which is overburdening the National Health Service, and this has led to stigmatizing of larger people as lazy, self-indulgent and undisciplined, while the slimmer citizens labour away working out in gyms and controlling their food intake. Randy Newman satirized this tendency for people to formulate reasons for difference and discrimination in his song ‘Short People’, the prejudiced narrator saying ‘I don't want no short people around here’, on the grounds of their little hands, feet and tiny teeth!

However, there are good reasons for focusing on these three particular additional aspects of discrimination. In 2010, the Labour government produced a new Equality Bill, designed to consolidate the existing 117 pieces of existing legislation dealing with discrimination and equal rights. This followed the institution in 2007 of a new single equalities body, the Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC), which replaced the Equal Opportunities Commission (EOC), the Commission for Racial Equality (CRE) and the Disability Rights Commission (DRC). This exemplifies the prolonged attempt by Labour, mentioned above, to use legislation to counter discrimination and make Britain a fairer society. The brief of the EHRC is to deal in an integrated way with the six forms of inequality already covered by British law: race/ethnicity, gender, age, disability, religion and sexual orientation, plus three other aspects of people's lives which may lead to discriminatory action (marriage and pregnancy, gender reassignment and marriage / civil partnership). These nine aspects are described in the legislation as ‘protected characteristics’. Public-sector organizations have a duty to take steps to prevent discriminatory employment practices on any of these grounds and were meant to submit any proposed structural or policy changes to ‘equality impact assessments’: although this provision was overturned by the Coalition, it is still considered good practice by progressive organizations. It is notable, though, that these protected characteristics do not include class, although the Labour politician Harriet Harman, who was the main architect of the legislation, was greatly concerned with class divisions. Ironically, one month after the Act was passed, Labour was defeated in the General Election and the Coalition took over government.

During the eighteen years that have passed, there have also been some changes within the discipline of sociology itself. In 1996, there was a sharp divide between proponents of a postmodernist or post-structural perspective and the defenders of the older structural approaches, which were linked to modernism and built on concepts from the sociological classics. This theoretical conflict provided the framework for Fractured Identities. Reviewing both positions, I argued that a ‘both/and’ approach, drawing on insights from both post-structural and structural perspectives, should be sought, rather than espousing an ‘either/or’ stance. To some extent, this seems to have happened. Certainly the heat has gone out of the debate, which is no longer such a central concern, with both sides appearing to tolerate the other's work and theoretical parameters. Currently, both sides appear to be converging in a concern with studying the impacts of the political doctrine of ‘neoliberalism’, which espouses the primacy of the free market and seeks to remove all barriers to the operation of markets (including equality legislation). This was the position espoused by the Conservative side of the Coalition.

Instead of the structural/post-structural split, it appears to me, there has evolved a kind of theoretical and methodological pluralism which has led to a fragmentation within sociology. It is much less clear which are the key issues and theories that might form the body of a sociology undergraduate programme. Rather, students are presented with a range of options in a pick-and-mix approach. The borders between sociology, social policy, cultural studies and political science seem less clear, with options on topics such as nationalism, multiculturalism, identity, health, music, crime and deviance often breaching disciplinary boundaries. Yet there can be perceived signs of some contrary tendencies. There is still a feeling that social divisions should be a core part of the discipline, and while, as I have already mentioned, ethnicity and racism continue to be ‘hot’ topics, there has at the same time been a clear re-emergence of interest in class. This rediscovery of class, which is dealt with in chapter 4, does not necessarily mean a return to the classic forms of class analysis. Rather, much of the new work on class draws on Pierre Bourdieu's ideas of habitus and different forms of capital. In 1996, the biggest theoretical hero in sociology was Michel Foucault. Although Foucault's influence and ideas remain strong, arguably Bourdieu has taken his place as sociology's preferred leading man. At the same time, as environmental issues become a major sociological and polit­ical focus of the current decade, there has been a growth in interest in Ulrich Beck's conceptualizations of risk.

The introductory chapters of the book have been adapted to reflect these sociological trends. Nonetheless, the conclusions I reached in 1996 about the nature of identities in the contemporary world, and about contradictory tendencies to polarization and fragmentation, remain valid today. One of the symptoms of this is an increasing concern with the notion of intersectionality – that is, the ways in which different forms of social division interact with each other to create distinct patterns of disadvantage and difference, say, for example, in the lives of Pakistani women, or of young gays and lesbians. This is one response to the fragmentation of the discipline, with an attempt to pull differing areas of analysis together. This notion of intersectionality and consequent fracturing of identities was a key theme of the original version of Fractured Identities and is developed further in this edition.

Attempting to do justice to all the dynamics of inequality discussed in this book has been quite a daunting task. Readers should be aware that I cannot do full justice to the wealth of literature in each area. Rather, the focus in the book is on intersections and complexity: with regard to each dimension, I merely seek to pull out the key strands of debate alongside some empirical data, and focus on recent changes.

Sociology as a discipline has always been concerned with both continuities and change. In this new edition, I seek to highlight continuities in patterns of inequality, while at the same time situating them in the context of contemporary change. The notion of context has becoming increasingly common in sociological analysis and is certainly part of the legacy of postmodernism. We are now more sensitive to the dangers of abstraction, and aware that each phenomenon we study must be analysed within its particular context, even if that does somewhat undermine the ability of sociology to make generalized statements about social life. But it seems to me that the exploration of uniformities within differences has always been a key task for the discipline and remains so today. It is a delicate balance, but one we must pursue, if we are to understand the persistence of inequalities within changing and increasingly diverse societies.