‘Don’t Risk Dudeness’: The Politics of Women’s Body Hair

Hair on women’s bodies has been in the news a lot so far in 2014 – and I don’t mean the hair on their heads.

We have had movie star Cameron Diaz advising women to think twice before they permanently remove their pubic hair. There was also controversy over waxing products company Veet’s advertisement, depicting a woman who turned into a (bearded and very hairy legged) man because of failing to shave her legs that day. The voice-over tells women ‘Don’t risk dudeness! Veet Wax Strips. Feel womanly around the clock.’ The advertisement was subsequently withdrawn and Veet issued an apology. Meanwhile, photographer Ben Hooper recently added to his ‘Natural Beauty’ series which aims to challenge what he says is ‘societal brainwashing’ by the beauty industry. Hooper’s new series of photographs depicts young women with armpit hair.

The last time women’s body hair hit the news was in 2012, when a young Sikh woman called Balpreet Kaur responded most eloquently to an incident where a photograph of her had been posted online (without her knowledge or consent), and which had led her to become the subject of online abuse about her facial hair.

These news stories ARE news stories because each in their own way challenges cultural norms that govern women’s body hair in many countries. These cultural norms mean that, in the UK for example, over 80% of women pluck, shave, wax or remove in some other way their ‘unwanted’ body hair – eyebrows, facial hair, armpit hair, leg hair, pubic hair.

Why do so many women remove so much of their body hair? Drawing on the work of sociologist Connell (1987), women removing their body hair can be seen as a ‘technology of femininity’. It’s a way of ‘negating’ the ways women’s and men’s bodies ARE alike (both have body hair, and in the same places), in order to make them SEEM more different and distinctive than they otherwise are. Of course, women get the short straw here – women have to work hard (and spend money) to make their bodies less like a man’s by removing body hair.

The few sociological studies done on women’s body hair have found that women regard hair removal as a normal and taken-for-granted activity in order to achieve a body that is acceptably feminine. The evidence also suggests that women who don’t conform to hair removal norms report feeling negatively perceived by others – as repulsive, unfeminine, unattractive, unclean. A study by Fahs and Delgardo (2011) found that women of colour and working class women were the groups most negatively affected by failure to conform to the hair removal norm. For such women, being (too) hairy and in the wrong places added an extra layer of bodily oppression to the stigma they already experienced as marginal women. Moreover, for some women of colour, body hair can be dark, coarse and so more noticeable than is the case for white women.

In the past, as in the story of Samson, men’s hair has been associated with power, strength and virility, and facial hair (and other body hair) with manliness. Women’s hair has been more negatively perceived, with long, flowing (head) hair linked with sexual licentiousness and ‘bearded ladies’ paraded as freaks in circuses and fairs. But, before the twentieth century, it has been argued, few women in Western countries removed their body hair.

Nowadays, in the twenty first century, removal has become big business. Cultural norms including for pubic hair, are ever more anti-body hair – especially for women but also for men too. Increasing numbers of men are removing their chest and back hair, for example (although beards seem to be in fashion for men).

With both women and men removing body hair, perhaps the role of plucking, shaving, and waxing in ‘negating’ the differences between masculine and feminine bodies is disappearing: in the future, will both men’s and women’s bodies conform to the hairless ideal? Or, as the news stories I mention above might suggest, is there the beginnings of a rising cultural and consumer tide against the hairless orthodoxy –  for women at least?

Further reading

Connell, R. (1987) Gender and Power, Cambridge: Polity.

Fahs, B. and Delgardo, D. (2011) The Specter of Excess. Race, Class and Gender in Women’s Body Hair Narratives’ in Bobel, C. and Kwan, S. (eds.) Embodied Resistance, Nashville: Vanderbilt University Press.

Lesnik-Oberstein, K. (2006, ed.) The Last Taboo: Women and Body Hair, Manchester: Manchester University Press.

Toerien, M. and Wilkinson, S. (2003) ‘Gender and Body Hair: Constructing the Feminine Woman’, Women’s Studies International Forum 26 (4): 333-344.

Toerien, M., Wilkinson, S and Choi, P. (2005) ‘Body Hair Removal: The “Mundane” Production of Normative Femininity’, Sex Roles 52 (5/6): 394- 406.

Change-slow-a-coming: the persistence of gender inequality

Two reports published in September 2013 –  one from the World Bank and one from the UK’s Office for National Statistics –  are timely reminders of the extent to which gender continues to shape the opportunities, experiences and life chances of women and men around the world.

The World Bank report Women, Business and the Law 2014 draws on data from over 100 countries to examine legislation, and also considers how women’s access to institutions and property have changed since the 1960s. Overall, the report shows that although inequalities between women and men have reduced globally, progress has been uneven around the world. Regions of the world that have made the least progress include the Middle East and North Africa, and Saudi Arabia is the country with the most laws that limit women’s experiences and opportunities. In Saudi Arabia, for example, whilst there is no law banning women from driving cars or other vehicles, the locally issued licences necessary to drive legally are not available to women. In May 2011, a Saudi woman called Manal al-Sharif filmed herself driving a car in Saudi Arabia, posted the video on YouTube, and called for other women to take up driving. She was later arrested and spent nine days in jail. In 2013, activists began another campaign to lift the Saudi ban on women driving with a women’s driving day planned for 26 October. In some African countries, though, women are making significant breakthroughs including into formal, parliamentary politics. For example, women are reported to hold the majority of seats in the Rwandan parliament, whilst Malawi, Liberia and Senegal have women head of states or Prime Ministers.

In the UK, of course, there is formal, legislated for equality between women and men which in theory allows for their same access to opportunities, experiences and life chances. Women in the UK are allowed to drive cars and other vehicles, even though jokes about women drivers are a routine part of popular culture. But, jokes and legal equality aside, gender still matters in the UK and so we should not be content and rest on our laurels. Women may have had the vote on the same terms as men since 1928, but it was 1979 before the first (and so far only) woman Prime Minister took office and even in 2013, women are just 22% of MPs in the House of Commons. In paid work, a report on Women in the Labour Market published by the UK’s Office for National Statistics in 2013 shows that gender continues to matter both in terms of the type of jobs women and men do, and in terms of the pay they get. More women are in paid work compared to the middle of the last century, but they remain concentrated in lower-paid, traditional ‘women’s occupations’ such as care services and secretarial work. For example, 82% of workers in ‘caring, leisure and other services’, and 77% of administrative and secretarial workers are women. Despite equal pay legislation, there remains a 10% gap between the pay of full time women workers and full time men workers and men make up the majority of workers in the top 10% of earners for all employees.

Women in the UK do have more opportunities than their counterparts in, say, Saudi Arabia. But gender continues to matter in the UK in a myriad number of ways, affecting careers, living standards, prospects, and experiences throughout the life course.

‘Our Stuff’ Or, A Social Science of the World in 100 Objects

We’ve all got our ‘stuff’, objects we have been given, we have bought or we have made, that we use in our lives either practically or aesthetically. Its what we move when we move house or move out, or when we have a clear out, or what we leave to others in our wills when we die. Our stuff matters to us in lots of ways, including emotionally, for our sense of self, and our social status and identity. Aleksander Hemon, a Bosnian writer uses his ‘stuff’, his objects, in his book of autobiographical essays, The Book of My Lives. He writes, ‘…you can reconstruct the story of your life from the objects you have access to, but if you don’t have the objects then there are holes in your life’.

In academic disciplines, stuff is key to the work of archaeologists and historians, and if they haven’t been able to find objects, then there are holes in knowledge about societies, cultures and peoples. Even so, museums are full of ‘old stuff’ or objects used to tell us about human history. A very successful example of the use of historical stuff in this way is the BBC Radio 4 series ‘The History of the World in 100 Object’, a 2010 partnership between the BBC and the British Museum.

I had the idea that the social sciences could take a similar approach: focusing on stuff or objects to tell people a social science of the world. With the support of the University of Leicester’s College Of Social Science, my idea has now come to fruition. It came to me after I had attended the Campaign for Social Science Roadshow event at the University of Leicester. I started to think about ways to increase public understanding of the importance of social science and the contribution it has made and continues to make to our everyday lives. My hope is that through focusing on everyday familiar objects, the project will help people recognise the value of social sciences, whose contribution to our society is too often overlooked.

So, the Social Science of the World in 100 Objects project provides a social science angle to everyday objects. Using the Leicester Exchanges public engagement forum, academics from the College of Social Sciences draw on their specialist research and knowledge to deliver thought-provoking perspectives on a range of familiar objects, beginning with the mobile phone, the television, a cotton bobbin, and a mirror.

My own piece was on the rocking horse, which I used to convey the sociological perspective on childhood as a life course stage. I’m thinking of doing one on the bra next…….

What objects would you like to see included in the series? 

Further information:

You can read the press release about the Social Science of the World in 100 Objects here, and you can also listen to a podcast of me talking about the project here.

Sociology’s contribution to saving the planet: the politics of climate change and Giddens’ missed opportunity

Sociology’s contribution to saving the planet?: the politics of climate change and Giddens’ missed opportunity

Two planets meet up for a chat. Planet A says: “How are you?”
Planet B says, “Not so well, I’ve got a bad case of Homo Sapiens”
“Don’t worry,” says Planet A, “I had the same once. They won’t last long.”

This joke was told by Anthony Giddens during his talk on the politics of climate change at the University of Leicester in October 2012. Giddens has, of course, written an influential book about the politics of climate change, and has spoken many times on this theme (see for example, one of his lectures on You Tube). My comments in this blog relate only to the lecture I heard Giddens give at the University of Leicester, at the invitation of the Department of Sociology.

Giddens focused his talk on three themes: the unprecedented threat contemporary civilization faces from global warming/climate change; the compelling nature of the scientific evidence for climate change, despite the views of climate change sceptics; (some aspects of) the politics of climate change, particularly the indifference of the populace to the issue and the ineffectiveness of governance in developing and implementing political and technological strategies to address climate change.

For me, Giddens’ lecture was a useful review of the evidence for climate change, a necessary corrective to the disproportionate attention given to the view of the climate change sceptics and, ultimately, a rather depressing hour of my life: basically, we are all DOOMED, and very little is being done about it. Above all else, though, my response to Giddens’ lecture was one of disappointment. I had expected Giddens to provide a more sociologically informed discussion of the politics of climate change itself, ideally linking this focus with his earlier works, say, on structuration, in elaboration of strategies to make the governance of global warming more effective, or how to engage with the populace. I agree with another commentator on an earlier speech on climate change by Giddens: what was missing from Giddens’ lecture was what he thinks we can do about the politics of climate change, and specifically for me, how sociology can contribute to this process.

Here are some examples from Giddens’ lecture where I think he missed an opportunity to show the importance of sociology for tackling the problematical politics of climate change.

During the course of his lecture, Giddens identified both good and bad nations in terms of the politics of climate change. The baddies are especially the USA and China (though closely followed by Russia) who between them account for nearly half of the world’s climate changing greenhouse gas emissions. The goodies are especially Germany and Denmark who have done the most to reduce their reliance on environmentally damaging energy and to develop renewable sources of energy on a large scale. In his lecture at Leicester, Giddens did not attempt to address the issue of why there are such significant differences in national responses to energy policy and to the climate change issue more generally. A sociological response here would be to ask, for example, what is it about the political, social and economic structures and cultures of Germany and Denmark that explains their progressive action with regard to tackling climate change? What is it about the political, social and economic structures and cultural processes of (very different from each other) China and the USA that makes their climate change politics so conservative? What is the relationship between neo-liberalism/capitalism/consumerism and the politics of climate change?

Giddens’ lecture at Leicester discussed ‘politics’ especially in terms of national and supra-national governance, and mainly in terms of their ineffectiveness at developing and implementing solutions to climate change. He had little to say about civil society and social movements and even less to say about the agency of individuals. Giddens’ account of climate change stressed its uniqueness as a problem; for him, no other civilization has ever faced such a threat, on a global apocalyptic scale. But that’s not to say, in my view, that we cannot learn from how social and political change has been achieved in the past and present in the face of apparently insurmountable countervailing forces. Here, too, sociology can make a contribution.

Giddens’ spoke about ‘tipping points’ in terms of key and potentially devastating events of climate change (such as the melting of the permafrost, which will in turn release even more greenhouse gases). What he didn’t talk about was ‘tipping points’ in term of the politics of achieving social change, including the idea of achieving ‘critical mass’ – relevant to the understanding of how the cumulative behavioural changes of countless individuals can make a profound difference to social change including climate change (the personal is the political).

In short, in his Leicester lecture, Giddens downplayed forms of politics other than supranational and national governance as a route to saving the planet. Yet, Giddens stood before his Leicester audience as an individual (albeit a Lord, and a public intellectual) and delivered an almost evangelical speech appealing to us as individuals in his audience to wake up and smell the coffee when it comes to climate change and the disasters we face. Presumably he wouldn’t have bothered if he believed the personal isn’t political. But in response to a question from a member of the audience, Giddens was rather dismissive of ‘nudge theory‘, which assumes that individuals can be encouraged into desired behaviours by (amongst other things) highlighting social norms.

Giddens’ lecture was engaging and his ideas make an important contribution to the politics of climate change. But in my view, Giddens (apparently the most quoted sociologist in the world) did not stand before his Leicester audience as a sociologist who was concerned to proselytise the significant contributions his discipline can make to solving the very real and imminent threat represented by global climate change.

Girl Power! (….and Responsibility)

Children carry a burden of responsibility for the future, at both an individual level and a societal level – but girl children especially so.

There is a commonly held notion that, at an individual level, if childhood isn’t ‘right’, the adult self will not be ‘right’ either. Freudian psychoanalysis, for example, looks back to childhood in the explanation of difficulties affecting adult life. Social policy initiatives like Sure Start in the UK target children in socially deprived communities, in part to break the cycle of disadvantage repeating itself over generations in individual families. At a general level, too, children and childhood are commonly attributed with responsibility for the successful (re)production of society over time. If the children of now are unhealthy/individualistic/anti-authority/overly consumerist, whatever will society be like in the future, when they are the ones (the adults) making the social and cultural world go around?

In my own research and writing, I have explored the burden of responsibility placed on the ‘Children of the Nation’ by health education policy in England since the late nineteenth century. It was from this time that children’s bodies began to be the sites of intensive body work by health educators in schools. This is because children were identified as the key to the future health of ‘the Nation’. For example, in 1928, the government’s Board of Education proclaimed that in childhood lays “the foundations of a health conscience in the minds of the English people of the next generation”. My argument is that, in fact, its girls in childhood who were especially constructed as embodying responsibility for the avoidance of dirt, disease, malnutrition, ill-health and sexual immorality in health and sex education policy and practice. So, rather than ‘Children of the Nation’, we should really talk about ‘Girls of the Nation’.

The burden of responsibility borne by girls is not just historical, however. Girls in the contemporary world can also be the focus of social policy and public controversies. I want to give two examples: the charity Plan’s ‘Because I am a Girl’ campaign and recent controversies over girls’ clothing fashions in the UK. I think these examples illustrate both the power of girls and also the very heavy burden of responsibility that is placed upon them for the reproduction of society, including in terms of (sexual) morality.

Plan is a charity which promotes and manages the financial sponsorship of individual children, typically those living in poverty in developing countries. One of its campaigns is ‘Because I am a Girl’. This campaign highlights both the particular difficulties girls can face in some developing countries (including the denial of education and forced marriage) and also the huge potential girls have to ‘break the cycle of poverty’. You can watch a rather beautiful and inspirational short film about this campaign on You Tube by clicking here. According to Plan, with ‘education, skills and the right support’, it is especially girls who can be a ‘huge part’ of creating lasting change. ‘An educated girl is: less likely to marry and to have children whilst she is still a child: more likely to be literate, healthy and survive into adulthood, as are her children; more likely to reinvest her income back into her family, community and country’. Plan were also instrumental in bringing about the first ever United Nations International Day of the Girl, on 11th October 2012.

The ‘Because I am a Girl’ campaign quite rightly focuses attention on the disadvantage and discrimination faced by poor girls in some developing countries. But such campaigns also place a huge burden of responsibility on girls for the future growth and prosperity of their families, their communities and their nations – just as English health and sex education policy did for girls from the late nineteenth century onwards.

In the UK, and elsewhere, there have been a series of public controversies over girls’ clothing fashions. Retailers, including Primark, New Look and Marks and Spencers, have been criticized in the media, by politicians and by interest groups for marketing to girls styles of ‘sexualized’ and ‘inappropriate’ clothing (such as padded bras, thongs, bikinis and high heel shoes – see, for example, Williams 2010). In 2010, the UK  interest group Mumsnet launched its ‘Let Girls Be Girls’ campaign, with its stated aims of curbing ‘the premature sexualization of children [sic]’. The UK government recently ordered an enquiry into the ‘pressures on children to grow up too quickly’ and its findings were published as the Bailey Review (2011). One of the outcomes is that the British Retailers Consortium has launched a new set of stricter ‘best practice’ guidelines for retailers. The controversies, campaigns, enquiries and policy initiatives around girls’ fashion have quite rightly involved questions being asked about childhood, sexual morality and consumerist values. However, once again it is girls who have been at the centre.

As in other areas of social and cultural life, both historically and contemporaneously, it is girls-as-proto-women and their ‘troublesome bodies’ (Smart 1995) that are invariably seen as problematic, responsible or transformative – or some combination of the three. In other words, it is girls/women who are often regarded as key to many a societal problem.


Pilcher, J. 2012 ‘Girls of the Nation: Body work in school health education in the 20th century’, Poster presentation at the British Sociological Association Annual Conference, University of Leeds, April.

Pilcher, J. 2007     ‘Body Work: Childhood, Gender and School Health
Education in England, 1870 to 1977’, Childhood14 (2): 215-233.

Pilcher, J. 2005    ‘School Sex Education: Policy and Practice in England 1870-2000’, Sex
 5 (2) : 157-174.

Pilcher, J. 2004    ‘Sex in Health Education: Official Guidance for Schools in England,
1928-1977’, Journal of Historical Sociology 17 (2/3): 185—208.

Smart, C. 1995  Law, Crime and Sexuality, London : Sage.

Williams, R. 2010 ‘Padded bikinis unleash a storm over sexualised clothing for kids’ , The Guardian 17th April.

Virtual old age: learning about being old

Product designer (and gerontologist) Patricia Moore, at 27 years old, used latex wrinkles, make-up, a wig and clothing to disguise herself as a woman aged in her 80s. Over a period of three years, Moore went about as an old woman and found that, for example (younger) people pushed ahead of her in queues, assumed she was deaf, and that she would be easily confused. One of Moore’s conclusions was that, ‘perhaps the worst thing about aging may be the overwhelming sense that everything around you is letting you know that you are not terribly important any more’ (Moore and Conn, 1985: 76).

Moore’s experiment shows that old people are disadvantaged, not necessarily by their physical old age, but by other (younger) people’s stereotypical assumptions based on their appearance of being old.

Moore may have looked like an old person, but she can’t really claim to have physically felt like an old person. A new innovation in Germany addresses this issue. Scientists have invented an ‘Age Man Suit’ (sic), designed to give the wearer the physical sensations of being old (defined as over 75). The suit, which weighs 10kg, consists of ear-protectors that muffle hearing, a yellow visor that blurs eyesight and makes it hard to distinguish colours, knee and elbow pads which stiffen the joints, a vest which constricts the chest, and padded gloves.

The suit, also known as the ‘Age Explorer’, has been developed by Rahel Eckardt, a senior physician at Berlin’s Evangelical Geriatrics Centre to enlighten medical students about what the physiological sense of being old feels like, and to help product developers be sensitive to the needs of older people. Journalist Kate Connolly experienced wearing the suit and reported that ‘A walk up the stairs leaves one breathless and tired, trying to remove tablets from a blister pack is a fumbling disaster, and the heaviness coupled with the stifled hearing and vision is distinctly disorienting’.

With the ageing of the population, product designers and medics are just two amongst many groups in society that have to better understand the experiences of being old. Technologies (like the Age Explorer suit) which enable younger people to experience virtually the physicality of old age are a step in the right direction; and we can all learn lessons from Moore’s experiment in how just looking like an old person can lead to stereotyping and discrimination.

But from a sociological perspective, being old is not just about the physiological appearance or sensations that come with having a long-lived body (Pilcher 1995; Hunt 2005). Physiological ageing is one part of the ageing process, along with social ageing through the life course and through cohort. The life course is the socially and culturally defined timetable of events and experiences that our particular society expects of us as we grow up and grow older. Because societies’ structures and cultures vary over time and place, what old people are expected to do and how they are meant to be also varies. Cohort location in historical time also makes a difference to the experiences of being old: the ‘when’ of old age as a stage in the life course matters just as much as the ‘where’, and just as much as the physiological experiences in and of themselves. In fact, the three ageing processes work together across the life span to fundamentally influence a person’s experience of the physicality of old age, amongst other aspects.

From a sociological perspective, ageing is a multi-faceted social phenomenon as much as a physiological one. The ‘Age Explorer’ suit is a great invention, giving a sense of the physicality of being old – but it cannot give medics or product designers and so on the full rounded social experience of being an old person, someone who has lived through a life course, and is a member of a particular historically determined cohort.  For example, by virtue of their life course and cohort, old people may adhere to social values, styles of clothing, forms of technology and sources of entertainment that seem ‘old fashioned’ by contemporary standards. As Dowd (1986) argues, these social aspects of ageing can make old people appear to (younger) others as if they are ‘immigrants in time’ and make themselves feel like they are ‘strangers in their own land’. Women, who make up a great proportion of old people, are at a much greater risk of poverty than men in old age. This is not a function of physiological processes of ageing, but of gendered life course histories which mean that women have had a much more intermittent history of paid work, with consequences for their pensions and savings. These are social processes of ageing, important aspects of the experience of being old that medics and product designers and so on also need to know about, and not just the physical difficulties that can come with old age.


Connolly, K. (2012) ‘Suit lets medical students experience symptoms of old age’, The Guardian, 9 July.

Dowd, J. (1986) ‘The Old Person as Stranger’ in Marshall, V. (ed.) The Social Psychology of Aging, London: Sage.

Hunt, S. (2005) The Life Course, Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan.

Moore, P. and Conn, C. (1985) Disguised: A True Story, London: W Pub Group.

Pilcher, J. (1995) Age and Generation in Modern Britain, Oxford: Oxford University Press.

The Sociologist’s newspaper

When I was studying ‘A’ level sociology, back in the 1980s, my wonderful teacher emphasised to us the importance of regularly reading a quality newspaper. Sociology students, she said, need to be especially well informed about what is happening now in the society around them. This is a message I give out to my own undergraduate students too, stressing that sociology is a subject that should have its finger on the pulse of contemporary social life, and that a well informed and up-to-date interest in current social and cultural happenings is a necessary characteristic of a good sociologist.

Reading a quality newspaper regularly is a great way to get the sociological antenna twitching and beeping. For me, in the UK at least, there is none better than The Guardian. Yes, it fits with my own personal left of centre politics – The Guardian has long been both praised and criticised as a beacon of liberal democratic politics. More importantly, in both print form and on-line, The Guardian has a dedicated ‘Society’ section, giving prominence to a range of social and cultural news items and features. It also has a ‘Datastore/Datablog’ feature, presenting wonderful data on sociological topics, such as divorce rates, child poverty, health, the economy, unemployment and so on. I continuously use links to news reports and features from The Guardian in my teaching (I do sometimes use other newspapers too……..).

It’s not just these special sections in The Guardian on topics of sociological importance that I find so useful. It’s also the attention it pays to important social and cultural happenings and trends and the evidence based social scientific research it reports on throughout its pages. The journalist Polly Toynbee mentioned The Guardian in her speech at the launch of the Campaign for Social Science held at the House of Lords in February 2011. She said, in a semi-serious humorous exaggeration, “I think The Guardian pages, about 90% of its pages, are filled with the valuable work that [social scientists] do that tells us so much about the life we live”.

 So, for me, The Guardian is THE sociologist’s newspaper – and, for the time-being at least, you can access it on-line for free!.

Useful links:



 For a history of The Guardian newspaper, see http://www.guardian.co.uk/gnm-archive/2002/jun/06/1

 For more on Datastore/Datablog, see http://www.guardian.co.uk/news/datablog/2009/mar/10/blogpost1

 To listen to Polly Toynbee’s speech praising social science, go to http://www.youtube.com/watch?feature=player_embedded&v=gMjD6e5hiyg

Where is a sociology of adulthood?

I was not the first to bemoan the lack of a sociology of adulthood (Pilcher 1995), and others have since marvelled at its continued absence (for example, Blatterer 2007). Yet, here we are in 2012 and it remains a social category, a stage in the life course, that is largely taken for granted within sociology. A great deal of sociology is about the experiences and practices of adults – but it tends to take that ‘adultness’ as something that need not be directly addressed.

Even publications in the field of the sociology of the life course tend to sidestep the adulthood stage. Hunt’s (2005) book The Life Course: A Sociological Introduction offers a very useful discussion of  life course stages (including dying and death), but it shies away from an explicit focus on adulthood. There are chapters on childhood, youth, later life – but not on adulthood. Hunt does discuss adulthood, but in a way that only supports the points I am making here that sociologists do not always ‘see’ adulthood as being as worthy of our attention in the same way as the other life course stages are. What Hunt does is subsume his discussion of adulthood under cover of two chapters, with the titles ‘Relationships, Sexuality and Family Life’ and ‘Work, Consumption and Leisure’. His rationale for doing so is that ‘the theme of adulthood’ (his words) is best approached via a survey of the ‘settings in which adult life is experienced’ (2005: 126). But these are ‘settings’ which are not exclusive to ‘adults’, and so once again, the result is that the social category of adult is left virtually uncontested.

Attention has been paid by sociologists to transitions to adulthood in contemporary Western societies, especially in the context of the so-called ‘prolongation’ 0f youth and the ‘deferral’ of adulthood as a consequence of declining youth labour markets, the expansion of higher education and the rising age of family formation. I think this kind of work on transitions to adulthood can be very useful for our understanding of adulthood as a social category. Blatterer (2007) has been at the forefront of arguments that transitions to adulthood are changing under conditions of late modernity. He insists that, rather than morally judging young people as somehow failing to become adults, what we need to recognise is that the standard, normative model of adulthood by which they are measured is out of date. A ‘new’ form of adulthood, suited to the circumstances of late modern societies, is being practised and achieved by young people: they are full participants in society, just not in ways that are recognised by the idealised model of adulthood enjoyed by those who made their transitions during the post-WW2 Golden Age.

The ‘Inventing Adulthoods’ study by Rachel Thomson and colleagues (Henderson 2007) is an another example of how analysing transitions to adulthood can encourage deeper analytical focus on what it means to be an adult in social terms. The ‘Inventing Adulthoods’ study suggests that young people may not be achieving adulthood in terms of the (out of date) measure of attaining stable economic independence at a fixed point, but they are achieving adulthood in other ways – including ones which are often regarded as anti-social, delinquent or anti-status quo (‘early’ pregnancy, dropping out of education, travelling and working casually as a life style choice, engaging in the grey economy).

Despite this body of work on transitions to adulthood, we still don’t know enough about destinations within adulthood, and how this is changing over time. Even the National Cohort Development Study, which tracks a birth cohort from 1958 to the present, can only tell us about that cohort’s experiences of being adults (NCDS 2012). Sociologically speaking, adulthood continues to be as Graubard (1976) described it decades ago: an undifferentiated catch-all-category about which we are insufficiently informed.

Blatterer, H. (2007) ‘Contemporary Adulthood: Reconceptualising and Uncontested Category’, Current Sociology 55 (6) : 771-792.

Graubard, S. (1976) ‘Preface’ in Erikson, E. (ed.) Adulthood, New York: WW Norton.

Henderson, S. et al (2007) Inventing Adulthoods, London: Sage.

Hunt, S. (2005) The Life Course: A Sociological Introduction, Basingstoke: Palgrave.

NCDS (2012) ‘Guide to the National Child Development Study’ , http://www.esds.ac.uk/longitudinal/access/ncds/l33004.asp

Pilcher, J. (1995) Age and Generation in Modern Britain, Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Writing wrongs: its time for a sociology for the people

How the academic sociology genre loses friends and alienates people……

Recently, when I tried to write a journal article on children and clothing, I felt that what I wanted to write was being restricted by how I was meant to write. In other words, I was boxed in by the genre of academic writing and particularly of writing for journals: by what Bourdieu (1990) says are ‘illusio’, or the rules of the game. Other writers such as Becker (1986) and Hamilton and Pitt (2009) have also taken the academic genre of writing to task. For Wolff (2007), academic writing is often boring for the reader, not least because of the rules about the structure of an academic argument, and especially the rule that the whole of the argument is summarised at the start. In other words, the structure of academic writing all too often means that, for the reader, there is no developing engagement, no exciting suspense. Readers do not get ‘hooked’ in, because they don’t need to work out what is going on: they’ve been told the crime novel equivalent of who did it at the start.

There are other things about the academic genre of writing (particularly for journals) that make both writing and reading it so often a chore and rarely a joy, to quote Wolff. The language and grammar used in the academic genre has to be quite formal and technical in order to give the appearance of authority and support the purpose of academic writing (which is to make and display knowledge), and arguably, protect the exclusivity of that knowledge as a means of professional defence. As Hamilton and Pitt (2009: 68) point out, these rules of the game mean that ‘those trying to be creative with [the academic] genre are likely to experience protest from those who see changes to the collective authoritative academic voice as an attack on established ideas and practices, and indeed an attack on the purposes of the genre’.

Hey, Journals! The problem is with YOU!

In the academic line of work, journal articles (which all too often represent the worst kind of the academic genre of writing that even academics find dull) are the key to professional reputation and advancement. It’s a shame, then, that with the bulk of academic writing time given over to writing them, most journal articles are only likely to be read by a handful of people, and most of these readers will be fellow academics rather than members of the general public. Perhaps if sociology journal articles could be written in a more engaging and relaxed style then sociology would have a much wider readership and its contribution to everyday life would be recognised and valued. Perhaps if other forms of academic output (text books, magazine and newspaper articles, blogs) were valued more highly in terms of professional reputation and career progression, then sociology would stop being a subject about or ‘of the people’ and start being a subject of interest and relevance ‘for the people’ .

The problem of academic sociology: its of the people but not for the people…..

You might not agree that there is a problem with the way sociological knowledge claims are made, in what publications they are made or to whom they are made. Yet, sociology, like other academic, publicly-funded disciplines, faces increasing demands to show ‘impact’, to engage with the general public and to demonstrate relevance and outcomes beyond the ‘ivory towers’ of higher education. One route to this goal is to write sociology in a style that is more ‘user friendly’.

I am not saying that sociology needs to dumb down; just that rigorous and important sociological ideas do not have to be presented (even to fellow academics) within the straitjacket formalism of the academic convention. Sociology can be written in a way that is both pleasurable and intellectually meaningful – for both writer and reader.


Becker, H. (1986) Writing for Social Scientists,Chicago:ChicagoUniversity Press.

Bourdieu, P. (1990) Homo Adademicus,Cambridge: Polity.

Hamilton, M. and Pitt, K. (2009) ‘Creativity in Academic Writing’ in Carter, A., Ivanic, R., Lillis, T., and Parkin, S. (eds.) Why Writing Matters,London: John Benjamin Publishing Company.

Wolff, J. (1997) ‘Literary boredom’ The Guardian 4th September. http://www.guardian.co.uk/education/2007/sep/04/highereducation.news

Tomboy: why its ok for a girl to be like a boy but not vice versa…

The movie Tomboy (released September 2011 in the UK) depicts a 10 year old girl who presents herself, physically and socially, as a boy. It has prompted at least one woman commentator (Stephanie Theobald) to reminisce about her own tomboy childhood. For sociologists, the movie and reactions to it, could be a useful teaching tool about the social construction of gender and concepts such as Connell’s  (1987) ‘gender hierarchy’. Theobald herself uses the idea of girls ‘passing’ themselves off as boys, offering a way in for students to Garfinkel’s (1967) ethnomethodological account of gender via his case study of ‘Agnes’

Another useful teaching resource on the issue of the hierarchy of gender identities is the extract from Ian McEwan’s novel, The Cement Garden, spoken by the character Julie (aged 17) and also appearing at the beginning of Madonna’s song What it Feels Like for a Girl.

“Girls can wear jeans and cut their hair short, wear shirts and boots, ‘cause its okay to be a boy. But for a boy to look like a girl is degrading, ‘cause you think that being a girl is degrading”.

This gives expression to Thorne’s (1993) claim that girls who are tomboys gain benefit from associating with masculinity, but boys who behave or look like girls are ‘contaminated’ by their association with lesser valued femininity.

For sociological studies of tomboys, see Reay (2001) and the overview of research provided by Renold (2008)


Connell, R.W. (1987) Gender and Power, Cambridge: Polity

Garfinkel, H. (1967) Studies in Ethnomethodology, Englewood, Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall.

Reay, D. (2001) ‘Spice Girls’, ‘Nice Girls’, ‘Girlies’, and ‘Tomboys’: Gender discourses, girls’ cultures and femininities in the primary classroom’ , Gender and Education, 13 (2).

Renold, E. (2008) ‘Tomboys’, in C. Mitchell and J. Reid-Walsh (Eds.), Girl Culture: An Encyclopedia, Westport, CT: Greenwood Press.

Thorne, B. (1993) Gender Play, Buckingham: Open University Press.