The Return of Character: Parallels Between Late-Victorian and Twenty-First Century Discourses

Taylor, Nick. 2018. The Return of Character: Parallels Between Late-Victorian and Twenty-First Century Discourses. Sociological Research Online, 23(2), pp. 399-415. ISSN 1360-7804 [Article]

Taylor 2018 - The Return of Character - parallels between late-Victorian and twenty-first century discourses.pdf - Accepted Version
Available under License Creative Commons Attribution Non-commercial.

Download (730kB) | Preview

Abstract or Description

There has been an increasingly common trend in the UK to identify character skills and traits as the basis for various individual successes and achievements. In education policy and employment services, character has been linked to the making of successful, morally aware, employable and socially mobile citizens. This article explores the late-nineteenth century use of character discourses, focusing on the economist Alfred Marshall. During this period character was associated with future-oriented subjects – those displaying provident and thrifty habits and dispositions – and held particular class, race and gender prejudices. The article draws parallels between this late-Victorian approach to character and the ‘return’ of character in twenty-first century education and welfare-to-work policy, in particular where cultivating character is linked to improving employability and social mobility. We can make productive comparisons between character’s Victorian legacy and its reemergence more recently amid increasingly moralized discourses around poverty, inequality and unemployment. In doing so, we might better understand the historical antecedents to stigmatizing character discourses today, insofar as they leave the burden of responsibility for particular social outcomes in life and the labour market with individuals and their ability to cultivate their own human capital.

Item Type:


Identification Number (DOI):


Character, Victorian, Alfred Marshall, Social mobility, Employability, Human capital

Departments, Centres and Research Units:

Politics > Political Economy Research Centre


7 March 2018Accepted
30 April 2018Published Online
1 June 2018Published

Item ID:


Date Deposited:

16 Apr 2018 10:10

Last Modified:

29 Apr 2020 16:44

Peer Reviewed:

Yes, this version has been peer-reviewed.


View statistics for this item...

Edit Record Edit Record (login required)