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Challenging choices

Challenging choices: Ideology, consumerism and policy

Michael Clarke
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  • Book Info
    Challenging choices
    Book Description:

    Choice pervades our society: it is founded on political rights to choose and our economy on market choices, but we have now reached the point where choice is extended almost everywhere. This lively and topical book provides a critique of choice in contemporary society and policy, arguing that we can have too much of a good thing. And there are alternatives. In part one, the author shows how choice works at a personal level, its demands, and how it can fail. By examining healthcare, education and pensions, he then explores the alternatives, such as provision. In part two the book reviews the impact of choice through the life cycle, in areas such as careers, relationships fertility, retirement and death. The author considers whether this enhances or burdens our lives, and questions the assumption that more choice is always for the better.

    eISBN: 978-1-84742-866-0
    Subjects: Political Science

Table of Contents

  1. Introduction
    (pp. 1-6)

    Go into your favourite supermarket and you will find something like ten thousand different products from which to make your selection. For some this involves bustling round, identifying the necessities for self and family and trying to select the best value for money, or simply the cheapest. For others it is a pleasure to look for new lines and old favourites. The supermarket is but the most prominent example of what is now a leading, if nottheleading, leisure activity: shopping. Vast shopping centres compete with high streets, department stores with out-of-town megastores, to offer everything from electrical goods...

  2. Part One: Choice and consumerism

    • ONE What is choice?
      (pp. 9-16)

      How do we characterise choice? Clearly it involves reacting to circumstances, but that immediately raises two issues: on the one hand a deliberate refusal to react is also a choice, and on the other we can think of examples of reaction to circumstances which we would hesitate to call choice. Does the sunflower choose to face the sun? Chemistry would be impossible if different chemicals did not react to one another, but we would not call that choice. This points us to a key feature of choice: mental intermediation. Choices are made by individuals, or sometimes groups, appraising reality, constructing...

    • TWO Making choices: just fun?
      (pp. 17-36)

      In this chapter we need to make some preliminary and very general points about the kind of society we live in and the ways in which this interacts with choice.¹ In the next chapter we can go on to look at the more specific ways that choice has become a salient characteristic of our society, and the ways in which it has been presented as a universal good. So, how do we feel about and respond to choices?

      Human beings have spent almost all of their existence in conditions in which choices are, in three major ways, limited. First, it...

    • THREE Choice and the consumer society
      (pp. 37-66)

      There will be those who will have responded with frustration to the last chapter: ‘This is all about process, not outcome. So we have a lot more choices to make than we used to, but we have adapted, we cope with it. You pointed out that adaptation is what we are good at. Maybe choice is not always fun, but overall its expansion has given us a vastly increased control over our lives, individually and collectively, and enabled us to do things undreamed of in the past. It is the results of the expansion of choices we should be looking...

    • FOUR When choice does not work
      (pp. 67-94)

      The last chapter looked analytically and historically at how a society dominated by choice – a consumer society – developed, and where it came from. This chapter provides a range of examples of how that society and, in particular, choice mechanisms work; or, rather, examples of how they work inadequately or perversely. By using examples it does not seek to be exhaustive, or to condemn the consumer society as comprehensively pernicious, but rather to indicate some of its limitations which, as it has been argued throughout, is a matter that choice as an ideology naturally ignores.

      There is a very...

    • FIVE Some wider problems with choice
      (pp. 95-120)

      The last chapter was concerned with the alternatives to choice as a mechanism through intermediaries (a partial alternative) and provision. Problems with choice in a consumer society arise very widely, however. Choice does not always work very well even if there is no readily available alternative. Sometimes these problems seem to be simply those of ‘bad behaviour’ – of people taking advantage – but on closer inspection turn out to be more entrenched and intractable. This chapter will look briefly at a number of examples, beginning with one that demonstrates the manipulation of choice in markets.

      The preservation of choice...

  3. Part Two: Choice and the life cycle

    • SIX Introduction: choice and the life cycle
      (pp. 123-128)

      Our lives are marked and structured by major features that determine who we are and how we live. Still the most important is where we are born, socially and geographically. This provides us with the elements of an identity, national, regional and in terms of social class position, religion and political and social outlook, childhood security and, thence, education. These inherited features can now be more easily challenged, modified or discarded, although they remain, for most, powerful influences throughout our lives – the social class position you were born into, for example, remains the best predictor of the position you...

    • SEVEN Jobs and careers
      (pp. 129-136)

      As a child I became familiar with the question: ‘What do you want to be when you grow up young man?’, and with the immediately acceptable, if jocular, answer that was often offered: ‘An engine driver, I expect’. That was what all boys were assumed to aspire to (although I am afraid my reaction to the vast clanking mechanical wonders of the steam locomotive was, for a good many years, more fear and awe than any desire to control one). What is of most interest in the question today, however, is the unreflective use of the word ‘be’. Intergenerational relations...

    • EIGHT Lovers, partners, spouses
      (pp. 137-144)

      It is striking how similar our habits in respect of one of the other major choices affecting our adult life have become to those in respect of work. There we saw a move to reversibility rather than commitment – no more jobs for life, lowered concern for job loyalty, a willingness to switch occupations and careers as well as jobs. There was also a concern to delay making serious job choices, initiated by the extended period of education and sustained during young adulthood by many in the desire to prolong a period of youthful hedonism, and in some cases to...

    • NINE Fertility and family
      (pp. 145-154)

      The diversity of relationships, of sexual partnerships, and the requirement for constant choices between them and about whether to maintain them, is arguably an outcome of a commitment to personal fulfilment through intimate relations. It seems that we just find it difficult to get it right and have increasingly high expectations. Perhaps, then, the pains of perpetual choice here are worth the candle. With fertility, however, there can surely be no such toing and froing. You cannot get ‘a little bit pregnant’ and children introduce a third party, who is not only very dependent, but who had no part in...

    • TEN Retirement
      (pp. 155-166)

      Retirement has recently become a pressing issue in respect of pensions, but the complexities surrounding the funding of old age beyond work should not distract us from considering wider issues about the retired as a social group that has grown substantially in recent generations and is projected to grow larger as a proportion of the population as people live longer. I will suggest below that the unclear and marginal status of this group, and the lack of clear expectations, recognition and rewards that should attend it in the way that they do other groups – children, youth, workers, parents, especially...

    • ELEVEN Death
      (pp. 167-176)

      It might seem fanciful to the point of contradiction to suggest that we might choose our own death. Surely death is the one thing over which we do not have control; the one great irreversible in our lives that we only get one go at. If we were magically to be given the option of choosing, surely we would choose to put it off? Near death experiences apart, it is certainly true that death is a one-way trip. The very fact that Jesus was supposed to be able to reverse it is taken to be final proof of his non-human...

  4. Part Three: Conclusions

    • TWELVE Choice and meaning
      (pp. 179-188)

      Choice requires context if it is to be meaningful and intelligible. Children sometimes ask adults questions such as: what is your favourite colour? Your favourite number? No doubt most of us would recognise vague sentiments in respect of these questions but, unless we have a specific context, for example an interest in mathematics or gambling, or a strong concern with interior design, it is difficult for us to mobilise an answer. The main reason for this is because we cannot identify clear reasons that we would accept as compelling for one preference or another. What sustains this context? A reasonably...

  5. THIRTEEN Conclusion
    (pp. 189-192)

    This book has attempted to unpick the taken for granted character of choice in our society, to explore what it is and identify where it came from. There is no question of our going back to the traditional form of society in which choices were much more limited and structured. Our society has been characterised, especially with the impact of industrialisation over the past two centuries, by a very rapid rate of change in almost all areas of life; changes which have introduced new choices and continue to do so. Yet, as we saw in Part One, choice is Janus...