We are living in a period of rapid change and over the last twenty years radical changes have occurred in every sphere and level of society. A number of competing theories have emerged to explain these changes and their impact on identities. At one end of the theoretical spectrum, it has been argued that we have entered a new postmodern period, characterised by fragmentation of experience, the dissolution of structural forces such as social class and gender, a diversity of lifestyles and the loss of predictability (Aronowitz and Giroux 1991). At the other end of the theoretical spectrum, modernist theorists argue that, despite a fragmentation of structures, the weakening of traditional ties and the breakdown of 'ontological security' (Giddens 1991), these changes do not mean that the metanarratives of social class, race and gender have ceased to say anything useful about identities in the new millennium (Phillips 1999).
A particularly influential theory, which reflects on self-identity at the beginning of the twenty-first century, has been Beck's (1992) thesis of individualisation. According to Beck the certainties of the industrial era have been eroded and a new set of risks have emerged. These risks range from global risks stemming from the threat of environmental disasters and nuclear wars to risks which individuals need to negotiate routinely in their everyday lives. For Beck, while individuals' life chances remain highly structured, they are increasingly likely to seek solutions on an individual rather than a collective basis. Experiences are individualised in a process in which setbacks and crises are viewed as personal failure even when they are connected to processes beyond the individual's control (see also Bhatti, this volume).
Clearly, these theories have much to say about the development of class identities in the new millennium. Valerie Walkerdine, Helen Lucey and June Melody (2001), steering a theoretical path that draws on both modernist and postmodernist conceptions, argue that in order to understand social class injustices in contemporary society it is crucial to recognise class identity in two ways; both as a phantasmatic category that is discursively constructed but also as a category that still retains considerable power to explain social, cultural and material differences