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Jeanette Edwards

Local family historians in the north of England are not only intent on "finding" their ancestors but in adding "flesh" to the bones of genealogy. Many are as interested in the social life of their ancestors as they are in their family tree or pedigree and, through their research, they excavate particular social and classed histories which combine discourses of land, labor, love, and loss. As well as deepening a sense of the workings of class in England, their research renders class identity more contingent than other contemporary public and media-driven versions. This article argues that family history and genealogical research destabilizes readings of English class identities as fixed, bounded and inescapable by revealing the vagaries of fate and chance and by making explicit other relevant and overlapping social distinctions in the provenance of one's ancestors.

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Introduction

The middle class-ification of Britain

Jeanette Edwards, Gillian Evans and Katherine Smith

The articles collected in this special section of Focaal capture, ethnographically, a particular moment at the end of the New Labour project when the political consequences of a failure to address the growing sense of crisis among working-class people in post-industrial Britain are being felt. These new ethnographies of social class in Britain reveal not only disenchantment and disenfranchisement, but also incisive and critical commentary on the shifting and often surprising forms and experiences of contemporary class relations. Here we trace the emergence of controversies surrounding the category “white working class“ and what it has come to stand for, which includes the vilification of people whose political, economic and social standing has been systematically eroded by the economic policies and political strategies of both Conservative and New Labour governments. The specificities of class discourse in Britain are also located relative to broader changes that have occurred across Europe with the rise of “cultural fundamentalisms“ and a populist politics espousing neo-nationalist rhetorics of ethnic solidarity. This selection of recent ethnographies holds up a mirror to a rapidly changing political landscape in Britain. It reveals how post-Thatcherite discourses of “the individual“, “the market“, “social mobility“ and “choice“ have failed a significant proportion of the working-class population. Moreover, it shows how well anthropology can capture the subtle and complex forms of collectivity through which people find meaning in times of change.

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Reverse, restore, repeat!

Class, ethnicity, and the Russian-speaking miners of Estonia

Eeva Kesküla

In this article, I look at Russian-speaking miners' perception of their position in Estonian society, along with their moral economy. Former heroes, glorified for their class and ethnicity, they feel like a racialized underclass in neoliberal Estonia. Excluded from the nation on the basis of ethnicity, they try to maintain their dignity through the discourse of hard work as a basis for membership in society. Based on the longer-term analysis of Estonian history, I argue that the current outcome for the Russian-speaking working class is related to longer historical processes of class formation whereby each period in the Estonian history of the twentieth century seems to be the reversal of the previous one. I also argue for analysis of social change in Eastern Europe that does not focus solely on ethnicity but is linked to class formation processes.

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"The aboriginal people of England"

The culture of class politics in contemporary Britain

Gillian Evans

This article explores the legal precedent of the case of Mandla versus Dowell-Lee (Mandla v Dowell-Lee 1983) to explain how the far right British National Party mobilizes ethnic strategies and specifically the category of “indigenous Britons,“ to turn post-colonial multiculturalism on its head and thereby disavow the realities of a post-industrial, multiracial working class in Britain. The article argues that the historical moment in contemporary Britain is characterized by a shift away from the politics of social class toward collective organization and sentiment based on ethnicity and cultural nationalism. Drawing on ethnographic and historical research, conducted between 1998 and 2000 on the post-industrial Docklands of Southeast London, the article explains an exceptional local area case study, which proves the rule about the growth in influence in the first decade of the twenty-first century of far-right politics in post-industrial urban areas of Britain.

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Penny McCall Howard

This article examines the "power and the pain of class relations" (Ortner 2006) through the experience of Scottish men working in the global shipping, offshore oil, and fishing industries: industries in which the nationality of workers has changed significantly since the 1980s. It combines recent anthropological literature on subjectivity and cosmopolitanism with a Marxist understanding of class as generated through differing relationships to production. The article describes how British seafarers have experienced the cosmopolitanization of their workplaces, as workers from Portugal, Eastern Europe, and the Philippines have been recruited by employers in order to reduce wages, working conditions, and trade union organization. Drawing on Therborn (1980), it concludes that the experiences gained through this process have led to the development of multiple and often contradictory subjectivities, which people draw on as they choose how to act in moments of crisis, and as they imagine possible futures.

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Do (Not) Follow in My Footsteps

How Mothers Influence Working-Class Girls’ Aspirations

Melissa Swauger

This article examines how working-class mothers influence their daughters' aspirations. Data was gathered from focus groups and interviews with twenty-one white and African American working-class girls and fifteen of their mothers from Southwestern Pennsylvania, United States. Research revealed that the mothers' advice is gendered, class-based, and racialized, and that it emphasizes the importance of caregiving, living near family, and financial independence and security. Qualitatively examining the messages related to work and family that working-class mothers relay to their daughters and how daughters take in these messages shows the contradictions that emerge when working-class mothers support aspiration formation.

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Class Conflict in Ancient Mesopotamia

Between Knowledge of History and Historicising Knowledge

Reinhard Bernbeck

In this article I provide a critique of historiography in Near Eastern archaeology and argue that forms of narrating the past are by necessity always political in nature. Current writing styles have a bias towards the upper classes of the past. I use this insight to elaborate on new ways of writing that shift the focus to different subjects of history. As a case study, I analyse discourses about evidence from fourth millennium Mesopotamia. Finally, I point out some alternative ways to approach historiography by asking new questions about old topics.

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Revived nationalism versus European democracy

Class and "identity dilemmas" in contemporary Serbia

Theodora Vetta

Following the Belgrade riots after Kosovo's proclamation of independence in February 2008 and the rise of the nationalist Serbian Radical Party in elections since 2001, several analysts have portrayed Serbia as a highly divided and confused nation unable to choose between a European, urban, and cosmopolitan democrat identity and a patriarchal, peasant, and collectivists nationalist one. This article historicizes this widespread culture-talk by ethnographically grounding it in particular processes that constitute Serbia's trajectory toward free market economy and liberal democracy. The concept of class as an analytical tool appears accurate in trying to understand people's biographies and political choices. By deconstructing popular cultural stereotypes of Radikali, the article argues that nationalism provides a framework that resonates most with the material and symbolic needs of a wide range of population. In the absence of a strong institutionalized left, the political choices of "nationalism's supporters" are based more on rational choice than on identity quests and strategies of manipulation.

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Between Afropolitans and new Sankaras

Class mobility and the reproduction of academics in Burkina Faso

Michelle Engeler

Using the notion of Afropolitanism, which refers to highly mobile and well-connected “Africans of the world,” this article examines the relative privileges of university graduates within Burkina Faso across generational divides. Comparisons emerge between cohorts graduating in the 1970s and the 2010s. While graduates of the 1970s enjoyed access to a privileged status through their local university education and a related network of global cosmopolitan qualifications and credentials, contemporary students have only limited access to this route of class mobility. The frustration engendered by this helps to explain the shape of the uprising that ousted the president of Burkina Faso in 2014, as the diminishing access to Afropolitan identities pitches the younger generation of students into different emerging constellations of political mobilization.

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Pauline Gardiner Barber

This article addresses the politics of class, culture, and complicity associated with Philippine gendered-labor export. Several examples drawn from multisited ethnographic research explore two faces of class: migrant performances of subordination contrasted with militancy in the labor diaspora. With few exceptions, the literature on Philippine women in domestic service has emphasized disciplined subjectivities, the everyday dialectics of subordination. But class is also represented in these same relationships, understandings, and actions. Alternatively, the political expressions of Philippine overseas workers, and their supporters, is a feature of Philippine migration that is not often mentioned in writing concerned with migrant inequalities. This article proposes a reconciliation of these two faces of class expression by exploring how new media, primarily cell-phone technologies, enhance possibilities for organized and personal resistance by Filipino migrants, even as they facilitate migrant acquiescence, linked here to gendered subordination and class complicity, in the contentious reproduction of the migrant labor force.