Modern sociology

Notes from Modern sociology classes.

The Birth of Sociology #

Before the birth of Sociology, its objects of study were treated by different disciplines, such as philosophy, religion, and politics. Due to the process of cultural elaboration that took place during the Enlightenment, its blurry boundaries became standardised and codified.

Sociology is actually a very recent discipline, as it was born in the 19th century due to the very nature of sociology; sociological studies evaluate and criticise social structures, but, in order for this to occur, social structures need to be understood within the context of a social existence, and not within the context of a natural or divine order. For such a change of perspective to occur, it had to take place during the age of the Enlightenment, characterised by the ideas of intellectuals such as Thomas Hobbes, John Locke, and Jean-Jacques Rousseau.

The ideas and theories of these intellectuals were mostly centred around notions such as:

The refusal of socio-religious views

The refusal of tradition as the accepted “social norm”

A radical understanding of men (e.g.: according to Locke, human beings are “tabula rasa”, AKA, the authors and the subjects of the norms they follow)

The development of sociology was also helped by the industrial revolution because it brought about relevant economic, scientific, and social change in the world. This way, it provided sociologists with a host of various social problems that needed solving, such as:

Concentration in urban spaces and loss of previous personal relationships

Bad living and working conditions

Tensions, criminality, diseases

There were quite a few approaches taken when sociologists attempted to find the answer to these problems. One of these was the positivistic approach, which was based on a strong reliance on science and brought into existence by August Comte (1798-1857). One of the other most important exponents of positivism was Herbert Spencer (1820-1903).

August Comte (1798-1857)

According to August Comte, society evolves over time (much like a big, complex organism). He developed what we call an evolutionary theory, which is a theory based on the assumption that societies gradually change from simple beginnings into even more complex forms. Early sociologists beginning with Auguste Comte believed that human societies evolve in a unilinear way towards something better.

Comte considered his Law of Three stages to be the most important. According to him, human thinking undergoes evolutionary processes, and each succeeding stage is superior to and more evolved than the preceding stage:


The theological stage is the first stage that characterised the world prior to 1300. Here, all theoretical conceptions, whether general or special, bear a supernatural connotation. At this level of thinking, there was a marked lack of logical and orderly thinking. Overall, theological thinking implies an unshakeable belief in some supernatural power.

This type of thinking was found among primitive populations. In the theological stage, all natural phenomena and social events were explained in terms of super natural forces and deities, which ultimately explained everything as the product of God’s will. This stage was dominated by priests and ruled by military men.

This stage has three sub-stages, namely:

Fetishism (a philosophy which believes that supernatural power dwells within inanimate object)




The metaphysical stage started in about 1300 A.D. and is almost an extension of theological thinking. It corresponds very roughly to the Middle Ages and the Renaissance.

Supernatural beings were replaced by supernatural forces in form of essences, ideas and forms. Rationalism started spreading like wildfire.

In the metaphysical stage, speculative thought was unchecked by any other principle. The human body was considered to be the spark of divinity. Lawyers and churchmen dominated society. Law remained under the control of the state.


Finally, in the 1800’s, the world entered the positivistic stage. The positive stage represents the scientific way of thinking. Positive or scientific knowledge is based upon facts, and these facts are gathered through observation and experience. All phenomena are seen as subjected to natural laws.

Herbert Spencer (1820-1903)

British philosopher Herbert Spencer elaborated the concept of “social” evolution, according to which humans adapt “culturally” to their environment on micro and macro levels. Social change is thus a strategy for survival, where it’s “survival of the fittest”. This concept was actually expressed by Spencer in his “Principle of biology” (1864), written after Darwin published his “Theory of Natural Selection” (1859).

Spencer’s theory can also be referred to as “Social Darwinism”, as, according to him, principles of evolution, including natural selection, apply to human societies, social classes, and individuals as well as to biological [species]( developing over geologic time. In Spencer’s day social Darwinism was invoked to justify laissez-faire economics and the minimal state.

Ultimately, Spencer believed that the process of natural selection acting on variations in the population would result in the survival of the best competitors and in continuing improvement in the population.

Both Comte and Spencer regarded sociology as a scientific theory, i.e., a method of establishing a causal relationship between a set of concepts by relying on the instruments of science. In practice, a good theory should allow itself to be tested, supported, or rejected on the basis of empirical research. These characteristics are also applicable to social theory, which is actually based on societal norms.

Classical Theories

August Comte’s and Herbert Spencer’s approach towards sociological theory is present in the typical methodological procedure of classical authors. These authors are:




These three individuals can well be considered the canon for contemporary sociology.

Karl Marx (1818-1883)

Karl Marx was a very eclectic intellectual, mostly known for his theory of capitalism. This last notion in particular involved deep sociological issues such as inequality amongst the population and how this would affect their social relationships. His analysis was based on the study of how a capitalistic economy automatically places individuals into social groups, and, according to Marx, the social position of people depended greatly on their class status. With the word “class”, Marx intended to indicate what position was occupied by people within the economy.

Marx’s approach is dichotomous because society is divided into two groups:

The owners of the means of production

Workers producing commodities and profit for owners

These two groups are linked by an exploitative relationship that operates at the expense of the workers. The only way the proletariat can improve their agency, according to Marx, is by acknowledging the fact that owners need workers to make the system work. If workers refuse to cooperate, the capitalist system collapses upon itself.


The expansion of capitalism and its need to have bigger and bigger global markets for its commodities create capitalist societies whose progress is defined by the extent of their bourgeois capitalist culture, i.e., their adaptability to meeting the demands of capitalism by producing commodities for domestic and global consumption. Western capitalism has expanded to create a globalising capitalist world in which consumer goods are the common global cultural currency.


Capitalism is one way of organising production in order to meet the needs of our existence; it is the mode of production that characterises our organisation of society. Capitalism is a mode of production based on unequal private ownership of the means of production. This inequality, according to Marx, is inherent in capitalism; it is both necessary to, and a consequence of, capitalism.


Marx’s theory is often referred to as historical materialism because he focuses on the material (economic) conditions in society and how these determine social structures and social relations.

History, Marx emphasises, does not simply evolve independent of individuals and of the objective social relations (e.g., unequal class relations) which condition their lives. Rather, Marx argues that historical change, i.e., change in the material conditions of society and in how economic-social relations are organised, emerges out of the contradictions perceived in the existing economic and social arrangements.


Through production, we create and recreate a mode of existence that is compatible with who we are as a species. Throughout history, individuals have always existed in relation to other individuals, both physically and socially.

Individuals’ material existence, therefore, what people do in everyday life and how they do it, is what matters; it is this “practical activity” that we need to focus on, Marx says. Existence, for Marx, is not something abstract or philosophical.

Hence if we want to apprehend what is going on in society, the nature of social structures and of social relations, we must study the “life-process of definite [real] individuals … [who] produce materially, and are active under definite material limits”. This is what sociologists do. We don’t simply philosophise about social life; we go out into society and investigate how real people live in definite social contexts.


Marx emphasises that the notion of private property developed as the world became more populated and more complex in its social organisation. Society has long been stratified (organised into unequal classes or strata). Inequality is not the result of the transition to capitalism or the result of industrialised, factory production. Rather, from as early as the slave-owning Roman Empire, inequality has characterised social organisation and social relationships.


Marx singles out capitalism for specific critique, however, largely because in his assessment (and in accord with his view of the progressive march of history), capitalism had outlived its usefulness. Marx underscored the fact that capitalism is a system of commodity production – its fundamental objective is the production of commodities whose sale in the marketplace produces capital (money/economic resources) which accumulates as profit for the capitalist. This, according to Marx, is what sets capitalist social relations apart from those in ancient Roman or in feudal systems.

Capitalism as a system of profit production and accumulation requires the factory-owner or corporation to maintain economic competitiveness vis-à-vis other companies, and thus to cut production costs (including employees) in order to maintain profitability and its economic viability.


In a capitalist society, the capitalists care about workers only insofar as they have use-value, i.e., the extent to which they can be put to use in producing something useful. Thus, the extent to which use-value converts into capital, into profit, becomes the criterion determining social relations in a capitalist society.

What is especially distinctive about capitalism vis-à-vis other historical systems of inequality is that under capitalism, workers are free. The entwining of economic and political freedom produces the historically unusual circumstance whereby in capitalist societies, free workers (must) sell their labor (their labor power) on the market. And in doing so, wage-workers themselves become commodities to be bought and sold. Capitalism thus requires and is built upon the commodification of labor power.

The freedom under capitalism is really an illusion, Marx argues, because in reality capitalism is a coercive system of labor exploitation. The movement of labor may appear on the surface to be done freely, but it is in fact required, demanded, and coerced by capitalism.

Accordingly, for Marx, wage-labor is in essence “forced labour”, whereas slavery is “direct forced labour,” wage-labor is “indirect forced labour.”

Emile Durkheim (1858-1917)

While with Marx we talked about social relationships, we now ask ourselves with Durkheim: what is sociology about? For Durkheim, sociology was the “science of civilisation”. He embarked on the analysis of “social facts”, which are the objects of sociology. In history, you have interactions, events happening, and cause-and-effect relationships between sequences of events. For Durkheim, in social sciences, rather than events, we should talk about facts/happenings/peoples’ behaviour. We can look at this through different lens:

The relationships

The patterns

The organisations/institutions

In Durkheim’s point of view, society is not simply a collection of individuals, but is a collectivity with features and characteristics of its own. It is a sum individuals that has its own reality, which he calls a “suis generis” reality (a collective reality that exerts its own force independent of individuals).

Durkheim emphasises that social facts are objective, meaning also that crime, homelessness, and other “social problems” are, in fact, sociologically “normal”. They are worthy of investigation to show how they vary in different social contexts. A normal social phenomenon becomes problematic for Durkheim when its incidence becomes abnormally high.

But if social facts are independent, how, then, do individuals, whose individual nature is different from the collective nature of society, manage to live in it? This is the core of sociology: analysing social morality, AKA, the formal/informal social rules that permeate and regulate individuals’ behaviour.

The behaviours of individuals and groups are shaped moreover by forces and necessities. For him, social facts are objects/things. Individuals react to existing forces, regulated by social norms. Their ideas/emotions/behaviour are shaped by the collectivity. Different parts of society are interdependent, and change thus can only be collective.

The methodological implications of this are that:

Social facts have to be measured

We need definitions

We need indicators

We need data

The sociologist os an “objective” observer

The above paragraph in particular expresses Durkheim’s views quite well: people’s social position largely determines their repetitive pattern of behaviour, which is prescribed by “law” (social norms and customs), and thus it is”external” to the individual and learned through socialisation. If people do not behave accordingly, they will be laughed at and excluded.

In emphasising the external and constraining force that society exerts on the individual, Durkheim is highlighting that society exists independent of the individual, and that it is a necessary constraint. Durkheim’s core thesis is that individuals are socially interdependent. Social cohesion comes from individuals’ ties to others; our sense of social belonging comes from our ties to other people and to the groups of which we are a part.

Social change, whether large-scale (e.g., same-sex marriage) or local (e.g., change in the structure of the campus cafeteria), does not occur without a struggle; most change is initially resisted as a result of the collective force of existing social facts. The patterns and structures already in place cast a long shadow on people’s expectations of what is “normal,” or of what functions effectively.

Although social change occurs, it is not simply willed by individuals. It has to be accomplished collectively and in tune with collective forces.

Max Weber (1864-1920)

A big concern of these authors is the question of freedom. They are all very political thinkers with regard to how meaningful “social action” is. In particular, Weber’s sociology concerns the interpretation of motivated and contextualised social action.

For Weber, ideal or “pure” types exist to orient sociological research; in his view, the usefulness of any idea-type categorisation was to be judged in terms of the empirical results it yielded in a particular socio-historical context.

Weber actually divided action into categories:



Weber’s Protestant Ethic demonstrated that values are a well-spring or motivator of social action; in his perception, values, irrespective of their content or substance, not only motivate action but can motivate rational action. Value-rational action occurs when an individual or a group, organisation, or whole society values some ideal or belief such that they decide to rationally act on that value, to demonstrate their commitment to that value, regardless of the expected or unexpected costs of that action to them.

Value-rational action is “determined by a conscious belief in the value for its own sake of some ethical, aesthetic, religious, or other form of behaviour, independently of its prospects for success”.


Another type of rational behaviour Weber sees as dominating modern capitalist society is what he calls instrumental rational action. In contrast to value-rational action, which is driven by our commitment to a particular value, instrumental rational action is strategic, cost–benefit action; we are interested in achieving a particular, rationally calculated goal or end (e.g., economic wealth) and we assess the most effective means to achieve that end among the options available.

We are motivated by instrumental logic, which kind of places us within an iron cage where we are deprived of the freedom of being ourselves. In our modern world, material goods have gained an increasing and inexorable power over the lives of men as at no previous period in history, especially because the modern economic order is bound to the technical and economic conditions of machine production which determine the lives of all individuals.


Here, we are motivated by emotions or traditions. Emotion is at the root of a lot of social interaction. Weber recognised the socially meaningful significance of emotion — categorising emotional action as a third type of social action, that which is determined by the actor’s specific feeling states.

In the passage above, we can briefly outline the key difference between Durkheim and Weber’s theories. While Durkheim explains society in collective terms, Weber claims that society is composed of individual forces that independently strive to satisfy themselves by means of “economic acquisition”.

This irresistible force drives them into an iron cage consisting of fixed and repetitive patterns. This way, individuals are actually victims of bigger forces, and Weber is sceptical about whether they have the ability to acknowledge that.


According to Weber, domination is the probability that certain specific commands will be obeyed by a given group of personas, and ever genuine form of domination implies a minimum of voluntary compliance or interest in obedience.

The reason why individuals do not acknowledge their status as victims is because, to a certain extent, they believe the illusion that they can profit from the situation. On the other hand, authority figures also feel that they have positive gains from this pattern of blind obedience.

According to Weber, there are three types of authority:




If this is reality, how do we understand it past what is apparent and superficial? Firstly, it’s important to understand social behaviour and the meaning behind individuals’ actions through:




George Herbert Mead (1863-1931)

Mead was a pragmatist who believed that human beings reflect on the meaning of a stimulus before reacting to it (a notion called reflexivity). The self itself is a social structure that derives from social experience, which is mainly interaction with others. In this circumstance, individual experiences/reactions and shared meanings of words and symbols are quite important. On the basis of these premises, Herbert Mead underlines the importance of individual expectations and reactions.

The three main paradigms that Mead borrows from classic sociological theory are:

STRUCTURAL FUNCTIONALISM (References: Spencer and Durkheim)

Here, society is in equilibrium and is a system of highly interrelated structures that function together harmoniously; people share the same values and know what to expect from each other. Conflict is the disruption of that.

The sociological question arises: what is the role of this to the whole?

CONFLICT THEORY (References: Marx, Weber)

Here, society is constantly changing, responding to conflicts between groups to achieve equality. Social order is the result of domination strategies from the category in a position of power. It is functional to increase their wealth, power, and prestige.

The sociological question is: who benefits from this?

INTERACTIONISM (References: Mead, Goffman, Garfinkel)

According to this paradigm, society is composed of a series of person-to-person interactions, and focuses on how the individual makes sense of the social world in which they participate.

The sociological question is: what is the meaning of this?

Michel Foucault (1926-1984)

The principal figure who transformed the body from a biological or physiological subject to an object of social inquiry was the late French philosopher Michel Foucault. Foucault wrote extensively on philosophical questions probing the nature of knowledge, truth, and power. Foucault’s fame derived in part from the wide range of topics he covered and his interest in challenging what we tend to think of as the “natural” order of things; how, for example, societal definitions of sexuality are not natural or preordained categories but human-social creations, and thus social constructions.


Weber was also interested in “discipline” insofar as it reflected and contributed to the increased rationality of modern society. Unlike Foucault, however, he did not discuss the body as an object of rationality in and of itself.

For Foucault, the history of civilisation is the ever-expanding increase in rational surveillance of and over the body. Through the physical-spatial layout, time scheduling, and supervisory and other organisational practices employed in prisons, hospitals, asylums, military academies, and schools, modern society, Foucault argues, produces docile bodies (that may be “subjected, used, transformed and improved”).

Foucault used the Panopticon, a model of a prison proposed by Jeremy Bentham in the 18th century, to illustrate how disciplinary power works and how its continuous penetrating surveillance gives the individual no res.


Bio-power is the linking of biological (body) practices to economic and political power. According to Foucault, this notion coincided with industrialisation and capitalist growth in the 18th and 19th centuries, and in the related expansion of the nation-state and other social institutions.

He elaborates how, for example, the Census of Population (a demographic data resource that government officials rely on) became an instrument for monitoring and controlling the practices of the body/bodies, as demographers had to categorise, document, analyse, and publicise all those acts that people did with their bodies.


Bio-politics and its technologies, according to Foucault, invented sexuality. Through the Census, for example, we have invented the categories by which we come to label and enumerate different sexual circumstances and behaviours. Foucault argues that how society categories sex or anything else is highly arbitrary.

Thus, there is nothing natural about the Census definitions or categories; they are administrative-bureaucratic constructs and, as such, are relatively arbitrary ways by which we carve up the use of sex, and also too, how society controls sex. Sex is not only categorised, but defined and regulated by society.


Historically, the bio-political production of discourse on sex meant that, like sex, the body too became something to be regulated and controlled. It produced a “constant alertness” among institutional authorities as to what was “normal” and “pathological” regarding both sex and the body.

These institutional sites radiated discourse aimed at sex, intensifying people’s awareness of it as a constant danger, and this in turn created a further incentive to talk about it.


The incitement to talk about the body and about sex, Foucault argues, has a socio-historical genealogy originating in the sixteenth century. This was when the Catholic church gave increased emphasis to the obligatory ritual of confession. Because of the Catholic prohibition on sex outside of marriage, sex became a prime topic of confessional interrogation.

Thus, the Catholic confession became one of the core techniques of bio-power; its procedures sought to extract truth about something that was omnipresent yet repressed because of its “sinful” aura.

In short, the penitent was obliged through self-examination of conscience, and further interrogated by the priest during confession, to “transform desire, every desire into discourse”.


Discourse, therefore, produces truth. This “truth,” however, is a truth produced by the institutional apparatuses, the system operating in a given society. Foucault argues that every society has its regime of truth.

For Foucault, the confessional discourses extracted by the church, and the various discourses produced by the state, the military, the medical and the criminal justice systems, and by schools too are institutional regimes that produce truth. Hence, truth is not something that is independent of society, of the political and institutional contexts in which it is produced.

In his theory, knowledge has an “archaeology” and a “genealogy”. In sum, truth is entangled in politics and power, and is far from pure.


For Foucault, power is relational rather than, as for Weber, consolidated in specific institutional locations. Power does not flow in a top-down, hierarchical fashion, but has many sources and points of shifting impact and resistance.

In other words, for Foucault, power is not contained in any specific location, person, or social status; it is omnipresent and has no one anchor but continuously flows in all directions.


The circulation of power as discourse is all the more controlling because it is essentially masked in and through discourse. When we are talking with our friends about the sex lives of celebrities we are not aware that the very discourse we use is itself subjecting us to a particular, regulated way of thinking/talking about, categorising, and practicing sex. We think we are just talking about sex, but we are really engaged in reproducing bio-power.

Thus, it is in discourse that power and knowledge are joined together. Therefore, although we use a more explicit sexual vocabulary today, our sexual discourse also contains many silences about sex and the body. We silently collude in various forms of sexual exploitation including prostitution, for example, which tends to get discussed only when it involves political scandal.


According to Foucault, we are all engaged in the ongoing production of power, whether we want to be or not. Discourse is power and we cannot escape from producing it even as we try to thwart it. Individuals and groups are always within relational power struggles, struggles that are fluid but also never-ending – “there is no point where you are free from all power relations”.

This is where Foucault’s understanding of discourse/power may make us feel trapped and frustrated – though he argues that it is more correct to think of power as a (never-ending) struggle than as entrapment. Nevertheless, we cannot use silence or language to reject power. This is because for Foucault, language is itself compromised by power.


Not surprisingly, given Foucault’s emphasis on both the historical-institutional invention of sexuality and the arbitrariness of all categories, he was highly influential among scholars attentive to sexual politics.


Steven Seidman’s heterosexist bias is a bias stemming from the presumed naturalness of the founding fathers’ “privileged gender and sexual social position” as heterosexual men. In other words, when we read social theory we take it for granted that when theorists write about “man in society” they are assuming a heterosexual man whose sexuality is a given and about which there is nothing problematic.


The social movements of the 1960’s and 1970’s that transformed consciousness about gender and racial inequality also chipped away at the privileging of heterosexuality as the only normal sexuality.


In the 1980’s and 1990’s, sociologists, gay activists, and others spent much time debating the nature of homosexuality, a debate driven largely by the attempt to legitimate and normalise hetero-divergent sexualities. This “sexual turn” in social theory thus ended sociological silence on sexuality and challenged the conventional sociological view of sex as an ascribed, i.e., biologically inherited, role status.


The debate on homosexuality has many strands but it has revolved around two contrasting perspectives. On the one hand are those who argue that homosexuality is a biological given. On the other, are constructionists.

In the first view, frequently reported in research interviews with gays and lesbians, gay people are born gay. This essentialist view of sexuality posits a core, natural difference between homosexuals and heterosexuals, a difference used by some activists to advocate a separatist identity politics that reinforces differences between homosexuals and heterosexuals. The essentialist view is also used to support the political claim that since gay people are born gay, it is not their “fault”; it is a natural orientation, they cannot do anything about it, and, therefore, they should not be discriminated against by social rules that exclude gays.


The social constructionist view of sexuality avoids discussion of the biological basis of sexual desire. It instead emphasises that all labels and categories in society and the meanings attached to them come out of a particular socio-cultural and historical context; they are socially defined and not prescribed by non-human forces.

In this framing, there is no one type of sexuality that is “natural”. Rather, the meanings we assign to sexuality and what is “normal” and “less normal” vary across societies, and within any one society, across time. In this view, people learn how to present themselves as gay by internalising what society labels as “gay” behaviour; they seek out social ties with others whom they perceive to be gay, and form various gay subcultures.


Steven Seidman proposes the queering of social theory. Most queer theorists are in the humanities, and they approach social categories and social identities just as they would the language used in literary texts. They regard the language used to categorise social behaviour as a semiotic code — language used not simply to denote a particular reality but as a signifier, an indicator, of a more deeply structured and culturally understood context of meaning.

Queer theorists argue that reality is not binary; it is more complicated. For queer theory, the key binary of interest is that of heterosexuality/homosexuality. Queer theorists argue that political and scholarly debates about the biological or social nature of homosexuality simply reproduce the pervasiveness of the binary, either/or categories we use to think about sexuality. All binary categories contain an implicit hierarchy of difference or of Otherness.

Dichotomised categories of opposites (e.g., heterosexual/homosexual; male/female) overstate differences as well as projecting the presumption that one side of the binary couplet has greater significance and value than the other: in our society, heterosexuality is more valued than homosexuality; male is more valued than female. And these categorical differences get translated and embedded into institutional practices.

The homosexual/heterosexual binary, queer theorists argue, reinforces the idea of sexuality as involving basic foundational differences (e.g., of sexual desire, attraction). Yet Arlene Stein observes that being lesbian is not simply about sexual desire but about woman identification and the development of a lesbian consciousness.


Queer theory thus pushes for a move away from and beyond the homosexual/heterosexual categorisation. The queering of social theory, then, aims to be disruptive. It is rebellious; “a theoretical sensibility that pivots on transgression or permanent rebellion”. It challenges the very use of such words as “the closet” and “coming out”.

Seidman states: “I take as central to Queer theory its challenge to what has been the dominant foundational concept of both homophobic and affirmative heterosexual theory: the assumption of a unified homosexual identity. I interpret Queer theory as contesting this foundation and therefore the very telos [progress/agenda] of Western homosexual politics.”

The very use of the word “queer” in queer theory captures this disruptive strategy.

Queer theory thus seeks to destabilise the homosexual/heterosexual distinction and how it is used to reproduce power and inequality based on sexual orientation, and in sociology, to destabilise the discipline’s core heterosexist assumptions and knowledge.

Pierre Bourdieu (1930-2002)

Pierre Bourdieu emphasised the thoroughly social nature of social life and how it is that a certain social order gets maintained. But unlike Durkheim, Bourdieu made social inequality a key focus. In particular, he underscored how the objective structure of social class and class relations conditions the individual’s everyday culture and social interaction.

Bourdieu’s approach to conceptualising inequality and stratification shows the influence of Marx, but especially Weber. Unlike Marx, who regarded economic capital as the basic source of inequality in society, Bourdieu saw economic capital as just one, though a very important, dimension of inequality.

Like Weber, Bourdieu conceptualised inequality as having multiple dimensions; specifically, he identified the inequality stemming from individuals’ and classes’ differential amounts of what he termed economic capital, social capital, and cultural capital.


Bourdieu argued that we should think of society as being hierarchically organised/stratified in a three-dimensional space characterised by different types of capital (or power). Within a social space (any society), there are many different classes and class subcomponents, all of which are primarily distinguished by “their overall volume of capital, understood as the set of actually usable resources and powers – economic capital, cultural capital and also social capital”:


What comprises economic capital is straightforward and easy to measure: money in the bank, home-ownership and other property, investment assets, etc. While we tend to think of the wealthy as a homogeneous group, Bourdieu highlights the differences within economic groups (i.e., among those who occupy a broadly similar social class position). He argues that economic capital varies and is a source of competition between what he calls class fractions, sub-components of social classes.


Bourdieu’s concepts of social capital and cultural capital follow a logic of acquisition, use, and exchange that is parallel to how we think of economic capital, though these concepts are more difficult to define and measure.

Bourdieu was particularly interested in how formal education and informal everyday cultural habits and experiences enhance an individual’s cultural competence. Each social class (and class fraction) has its own culture, and individuals regardless of social class have a certain cultural competence. By the same token, different social contexts vary in the value placed on specific cultural competencies.

Nevertheless, in the objectively stratified order in society as a whole, some competencies are more highly valued than others. Specifically, it is upper-class culture that is the most highly valued – it is the legitimate culture. In any case, unlike the balance sheet we can read detailing our stock of economic capital, it is more difficult to itemise and make a tally of individuals’ cultural capital.


For Bourdieu, social capital is the aggregate of the actual or potential resources which are linked to possession of a durable network of more or less institutionalised relationships of mutual acquaintance and recognition – or in other words to membership in a group.

Thus, social capital refers to individuals’ social connections, the social networks and alliances that link them in all sorts of direct as well as indirect and informal ways to opportunities that can enhance their stock of capital. As with economic capital, the accumulation of social and cultural capital takes time, and while each is distinct, there are multiple links among all three.


Bourdieu is very attentive to the roles played by economic and cultural capital in producing and reproducing social inequality. Economic and cultural capital are analytically independent (though interrelated) resources.

Because all types of capital are exchangeable, an individual can use one type of capital to gain more of another type. This is exactly what many economically rich people do – they pay to acquire cultural capital.

Bourdieu uses the term “institutional field” in a somewhat similar way to how sociologists discuss different, specialised domains of institutional behaviour in society; he also emphasises that there is nothing automatic about the relationship between economic capital and cultural capital. There is autonomy or agency in how any particular family or individual chooses to use their economic capital.

In any case, capital is not simply something that an individual or a social class or class fraction has, it is also something they use, and (must) use to show, establish, or change their positioning in and among the economic-social-cultural hierarchies that comprise society.


Bourdieu underscores the sociological significance of the family of origin in determining an individual’s access to capital. Someone from a relatively poor family can, through educational qualifications (what Bourdieu calls academic or educational capital), subsequently gain a considerable amount of capital. At the same time, however, there is a close positive relationship between socio-economic background and educational capital. Academic capital is contingent on the cultural capital inherited within the family.

For Bourdieu, children who grow up in families with cultural capital are exposed to everyday cultural experiences and habits that cultivate in them the “natural” disposition and habits necessary for success at school – success both in the classroom and, importantly too, among one’s peers on the playing fields and in other daily activities. These habits are also crucial to developing the individual’s more general “cultivated disposition”.

Both the family and the school are engaged in cultural transmission, and these institutions entwine to reinforce the dispositions and practices that constitute and facilitate the accumulation of cultural and economic capital.


Bourdieu offered a dynamic and nuanced analysis of how schools worked that was way ahead of his time. He highlighted the analytical and empirical independence of different types of capital, i.e., that cultural capital can be autonomous of economic capital, he advanced sociological recognition that schools produce and transmit cultural capital.

At the same time, Bourdieu’s emphasis on the linkages between economic and cultural capital, and between family/social class and school, showed that while the school (or education as an institutional field) has some autonomy from the economy and from family, it is nonetheless positioned to reproduce the socio-economic inequalities that antecede, are reflected in, and extend beyond the school. Importantly, however, this reproduction effect is not automatic; the analytical separateness of cultural and economic capital fosters slippage in the reproduction of both privilege and inequality.


He emphasised the social class conditioning of taste in all the “ordinary choices of everyday existence”. These dispositions and tastes are not the result of formal learning, Rather, taste is part of our cultural habitus. The habitus, for Bourdieu, refers essentially to the everyday tastes and dispositions we actively and literally (though unconsciously) embody, the relatively enduring schemes of perception, appreciation, and appropriation of the world that we enact.

Similarly, Bourdieu argues that we learn – quite readily, almost naturally, as a result of our own family’s class-conditioned and gender-mediated habits – to embody cultural expectations of what “people like us” eat and do – how we live.

Bourdieu also elaborates on the class-mediated gender differences in the disposition toward food and the body: “There is also the principle of the division of foods between the sexes, a division which both sexes recognise in their practices and their language. It behooves a man to drink and eat more, and to eat and drink stronger things”.

In sum, our judgments of taste are conditioned and structured by the intersecting family and social class context in which we are socialised. We internalise and act on these conditionings through a myriad of everyday practices.


In contrast to the upper-class habitus, the working-class habitus, Bourdieu argues, produces a taste and style that are dictated by economic and cultural necessity. Their choices are co-determined by the coincidence of economic and cultural necessity: among the working class, conformity rather than personal autonomy is valued.

There is thus what Bourdieu calls an economy of practice in working-class taste, an economy that also characterises the practices of all social classes.

Furthermore, Bourdieu emphasises that, because taste is produced in and by a class-conditioned habitus and hence is a relatively enduring system of judgments and dispositions, the individual’s taste does not change just because he or she suddenly wins the lottery. “Having a million does not in itself make one able to live like a millionaire”. To live like a millionaire, or as an upwardly mobile rich person, requires the acquisition of a new class disposition such that the individual can be at ease in claiming as his or her own that which he or she can afford.


The different, economically conditioned class cultures of everyday life reinforce the objective distinctions between the classes. One structural consequence of this system of distinction is the reinforcement of class inequality. In sum, we distinguish ourselves by the distinctions we make. Our taste reveals who we are.


Bourdieu’s discussion of everyday taste highlights his larger theoretical emphasis that micro-level individual action matters in society, and at the same time, individual choices are invariably conditioned by and work back on macro-structural processes. Ordinary, everyday existence is saturated by society and we cannot escape from its structural and cultural forces.


Bourdieu adds to the sociological understanding of how and why structures of inequality are so resilient. His analysis illuminates how individuals acting on their own (socially conditioned) taste in making everyday choices about apparently mundane things are really enacting practices and habits that are grounded in, reflect, and reproduce society’s institutionalised social hierarchies. It cautions us that change in the social order is a long and slow process.

Feminist Theories


In 1985, two prominent feminist sociologists, Judith Stacey and Barrie Thorne, diagnosed the “missing feminist revolution in sociology.” They argued that sociology was resistant to the theoretical challenges presented by feminism and to rethinking sociological understanding of the permeation of gender inequality in all societal processes. Today, many feminist sociologists voice frustration that gender is still marginalised within the discipline.

Feminist theory comprises several different strands and feminist sociologists research a great variety of topics. At the core of feminist theory is a focus on women’s inequality, and how that inequality is structured and experienced at macro and micro levels.

Gilman (1911) underscored that women and men live in a “man-made world,” an “androcentric culture” in which one sex – man – is “accepted as the race type,” as human, and women are considered a “sub-species”; thus, men have “monopolised all human activities, called them man’s work, and managed them as such”.

For Gilman, the right to work is core to human existence; it is neither male nor female: “Labor is not merely a means of supporting human life — it is human life”. True progress could only be achieved, Gilman argued, when society transcended its abnormal androcentric divisions and allowed women to be both workers and mothers.

For Gilman, both motherhood and economic labor were natural feminine-maternal instincts. She stated: “As a matter of fact industry is in its origin feminine; that is maternal. It is the overflowing fountain of mother-love and mother-power which first prompts the human race to labor”.

Bolstering her view that women could/should mother and work for pay, Gilman envisioned the occupational professionalisation of home cooking and home cleaning through the employment of those who are scientifically trained and best able to do such work.

Feminist theory resurged as part of the transformation in the public consciousness of social inequality that came to the fore in many western countries in the 1960’s and 1970’s as a result of that era’s social and political protest movements. In particular, the women’s movement challenged the status quo that saw biological differences between men and women as naturally legitimating social role and status inequality.


Dorothy Smith elaborates how the practices of sociology crystallise the larger structural and everyday dilemmas of gender in a patriarchal society. It is not that men are intent on sabotaging women, but the structures and expectations institutionalised in society are the historical creation of men.

We can readily list some of the ruling texts in western society. The Bible is one. It is a text written by men. And it is men who through history have been the Bible’s primary interpreters. In the Catholic church, only men can be popes, cardinals, bishops, and priests.

Texts are critical to organising a society’s ruling practices. And these practices, in turn, determine the kinds of texts and ideas that are produced and validated. Texts are thus the centrepiece of what Smith calls the relations of ruling.

As Smith would underscore, the texts that govern being a woman do not end – as they do for many men – at 5 p.m. (when the regular work-day ends), and nor do they end when the kids are settled in bed; the texts operate 24/7.


Among these ideologically powerful texts are all of those (often contradictory) texts that compose a distinctive discourse of femininity. The ruling texts of femininity structure, and are situated in, the gender relations in society – relations organised around women as objects.


Smith also argues that the ruling texts of sociology marginalises women.


Our learned, sociological way of thinking, of knowing what is relevant and what isn’t, intertwines with other ruling institutions in society. In particular, what we research is contingent on the expectations of the government, industry, and funding organisations that predetermine what topics and issues are worthy of research.

And while much of this information has relevance for our lives, Smith underscores that it excludes the direct experiences of women and other subordinated (e.g., racial) groups in society. But, we continue to think of sociology as neutral and not as a “sociology written from the standpoint of men located in the relations of ruling our societies”.

Consequently, Smith argues, “Sociological procedures legislate a reality rather than discover one”. Thus, Smith reminds us that although we talk in abstract conceptual terms about various social processes (e.g., stratification, domestic violence, etc.), these processes are not abstracted from but determine and are shaped by the embodied realities of real people in particular social locations.


The exclusion of the varieties of social experience produces distorted knowledge. Hence knowledge, despite its promise, veils rather than illuminates social processes. Smith argues that “The only way of knowing a socially constructed world is knowing it from within. We can never stand outside it”. Knowing from within means that “sociological inquiry is necessarily a social relation”.

We cannot talk about social reality as if there is just one reality similarly experienced by all. The existence of different standpoints means we cannot accept as universally true the objectified (male-centred) reality given authority by ruling texts.


Smith argues that women’s phenomenological reality, their everyday “here-and-now” relevances, also matter. Women’s reality is the domestic world – the worlds of household, children, and neighbourhood. This domestic world is not just different from men’s reality, the public world, but, Smith argues, it must defer to men’s reality; the male world stands in authority over the domestic world.

Men know that paid work is valued, and women too learn to know that men’s work/reality is more valuable than their home-based experiences. When women say “I’m just a housewife,” they are not simply being humble about how they spend their time; they are speaking for society. And yet, at the same time, women know from their embodied experiences in the domestic world that it is different from how men define it to be. Hence there is a disjuncture between what women know and what men tell them they should (objectively) know to be the objectified reality.

Following a Marxist theoretical strand, Smith argues that women are objectively alienated from their own everyday experiences by the systematic way in which the subordinated domestic world and their experiences within that world, are deemed irrelevant by the male ruling structure.


Women who move between these two worlds, the public and the domestic, come to know from direct experience what Smith calls a bifurcation of consciousness.

Consciousness of this bifurcation becomes especially accessible to women who move between the domestic and the public worlds; their everyday experiences as workers and as mothers, for example, expose them directly to the contradictions within and between the two worlds. Traditional gender roles “deny the existence of the contradiction; suppression makes it invisible.”

The structure of work (and the public world in general) is such that it depends on the smooth functioning of the domestic world, the world wherein women do the work to maintain men’s participation in the public world; it’s hard to envision the president/prime-minister without also thinking of the “first lady” who sits/stands by his side, who props him up, especially in times of scandal. When women enter the public world, however, they still maintain a large responsibility for the domestic world, and hence must negotiate the contradictory demands of the two worlds simultaneously.

Women’s relations to men are structured by the ruling discourse of femininity. This is a discourse which exacerbates women’s disempowerment rather than helping them deal with questions emerging from the daily/nightly contradictions they necessarily experience.


Smith advocates a sociology that would begin from women’s standpoint and which would attempt to deal seriously with that standpoint. In short, “an alternative sociology, from the standpoint of women, makes the everyday world [the real, actual world outside the text] its problematic [domain of inquiry]”.

Smith thus challenges sociology to address Marxist-inspired questions about the relations of domination, questions whose answers will emancipate women and men.


Doing sociology (and politics, business, etc.) from the standpoint of women entails taking seriously women’s experiences and using the knowledge that comes directly from those experiences to reorder social life and social institutions.

Many ethnographic studies reveal aspects of the mosaic of social and institutional inequality and illuminate the many ways in which inequality impacts individuals’ everyday lived experiences.

This research, however, does not fully approximate the kind of alternative sociology envisioned by Smith. She argues that an alternative sociology “has no prior interpretive commitment”. Smith calls this approach institutional ethnography (IE). She does not mean us to simply conduct ethnographic research on specific institutional sites or settings, but to discover women’s experiences within these institutional processes and from those experiences explore and discover how institutions work and might work better for women and men.

IE research is particularly useful in identifying institutional interventions that can improve the lives of the people (women and men) who are subject to particular organisational routines and procedures; much of this research is conducted by sociologists active in the IE section of the Society for the Study of Social Problems (SSSP) and in the IE thematic group of the International Sociological Association.


In short, Smith outlines the mechanisms that produce women’s subjugation and the varied consequences of that subjugation not just for women, but for society as a whole. At the same time, building on Marx’s analysis of structural inequality, Smith underscores how the power structure in society – relies on institutional texts and practices that are structured so as to maintain women’s inequality vis-à-vis men.

For Smith, a feminist standpoint is emancipatory for women and men; beginning with women’s experiences, it would produce transformative knowledge and social equality.


Paralleling femininity, masculinity is sharply delineated in society and its standards and expectations are a part of, and differently impact, gender relations and gendered institutional and everyday practices. R.W. Connell’s writing and research from the early 1980’s onward give particular attention to how notions of masculinity have evolved and impact gender and power in society.

Connell (1995: 71) argues that “Gender is a way in which social practice is ordered … Gender is a social practice that constantly refers to bodies and what bodies do, it is not social practice reduced to the body.”

Social practices – across all spheres of society including the economy, the state, law, family, sexuality, culture, etc. – construct and structure femininity and they also construct and structure masculinity (1995: 65). And as such, masculinity marginalises certain types of male behaviour and accentuates others.

Connell argues that there are multiple masculinities that vary by class, race, and sexuality. Masculinities exist in relation to each other and their status is positioned by the dominant and culturally most authoritative definition of masculinity institutionalised and rewarded in society.

Connell argues that the dominant or hegemonic masculinity in western society is the dominance of heterosexual men and the subordination of homosexual men, and the marginalisation of, for example, black gay men.

As currently construed, however, it affirms heterosexuality, a strong and fierce physicality, an emphasis on competitive sports, and the suppression of emotional vulnerability.

The power of the culture of hegemonic masculinity lies precisely in the fact that it so authoritatively pervades the various institutional settings. Although resistance against the dominating forces of masculinity and femininity is possible – and change does occur – most of the time most of us are complicit in the reproduction of patriarchal, hetero-masculine norms.


Patricia Hill Collins, another major feminist and standpoint theorist, dissects how the absence of black women’s voices from the structures of power has both defined black women and exacerbated their oppression.

She avoids making the essentialist claim that all black women think and act alike, whilst simultaneously recognising the commonality of black women’s shared history.


Enslavement, Collins argues, was critical to the development of a different understanding among black women of the relation between family and work. Unlike the split between the domestic and public worlds that defined (middle-class) white women’s experiences, slavery prompted a different way of organising everyday life for black women.

Enslavement pitted blacks (property), regardless of gender, against whites (property owners). Black women combined mothering and work (as slaves for their owners); as workers, they were powerless, but as mothers and as enslaved workers, they had the support of an extended black family-community.

The end of slavery expanded the opportunities for black women and men in the work-place. Nevertheless, because of the limited educational, work, and political opportunities available to African-American men in particular, and the resulting negative effects on black men’s earning power, black women, Collins argues, continued to combine work and family to help ensure a sufficient family household income.

The challenge today, as Collins sees it, is for black feminist scholars “to re-articulate these new and emerging patterns of institutional oppression that differentially affect middle-class and working-class Black women.” And she warns that “If this does not occur, each group may in fact become instrumental in fostering the other’s oppression”.


Collins draws attention to the controlling images of black women that are used by the white male status quo in an attempt to suppress black women’s vocal resistance to their subjugation and inequality.

Rather than being allowed to define themselves, a definition that would likely draw on the diversity of black women’s experiences and their active struggles against domination, black women are stripped of these experiences and portrayed in ways that distort the rich complexity of their diversity. They become defined as “Other”, a threatening strangeness that needs to be controlled, suppressed, excluded. This depiction of Otherness, in its various guises, provides ideological justification for black women’s gender, racial, and class oppression.


Black feminist thought is thus produced by black feminist sociologists such as Collins and, importantly, by all black women who vocalise their experiences of and responses to the cultural contradictions they encounter as black women, caught between two histories of oppression.

Black feminist thought, somewhat akin to white women’s knowledge, is outside the paradigm of objective knowledge, i.e., that which Smith and Collins debunk as the allegedly universal knowledge created from the standpoint of (Eurocentric white) men. Collins further underscores, however, that “Black feminist thought, like all specialised thought, reflects the interests and standpoint of its creators”.


While emphasising the specific standpoints from which knowledge is created, Collins calls for appreciation of the concrete intersectionality of all experiences.

Theorists of race relations have long argued that who is Other and what it means to be. Other are always relational. Further, as Goffman elaborates, who is “normal” and who is stigmatised depend on a given social relational context.

Whatever the sources of oppression, Collins argues, it is their intersectionality that matters. In everyday life, one is not just a woman, or black or Latina, or working-class, or poor or an immigrant, but typically, some combination of these subordinated statuses.

Different structural locations, therefore, interact and crisscross to produce different lived experiences and different conditions for the transformation of inequality and oppression. Collins thus pushes us to move beyond dichotomous either/or analyses of Otherness.

As Collins notes, while “white women are penalised by their gender, they are privileged by their race; thus depending on the context, an individual may be an oppressor, a member of an oppressed group, or simultaneously oppressor and oppressed”.


The activist knowledge generated from within intersecting matrixes of resistance is emancipatory – empowering individuals to take action against their oppression. Thus, Collins argues, although African-American women are victims of oppression, they are also active resistors of oppression. The interplay between oppression and activism is core to black feminist thought, Collins argues, and as such it advances the politics of empowerment.


She argues that “moving from an exclusive focus on Black women to a broader one that encompasses how the politics of gender and sexuality frame the experience of women and men alike creates new questions for investigation and, perhaps, a new antiracist politics that might follow”. In Collins’s view, the pursuit of anti-racist policies cannot be successful unless black women and men confront intertwined questions of gender and sexuality, and in particular the oppressive ideology depicting them as the “embodiment of deviant sexuality”.

She extends her attention to the need for blacks themselves to rethink and reclaim their sexuality. This involves what she calls “the sexual autonomy of honest bodies”.


Reclaiming “honest bodies,” i.e., a sexual identity and sexual feelings and experiences that are real for the people involved rather than a distortion of sexuality by those who oppress black women (and black gays), presents a number of challenges.

The reclaiming of sexual autonomy/honest bodies also challenges the association of eroticism with sexual violence and the extent to which intimate and family relationships involve violence.

Love and sexuality are insufficient for confronting the economic exploitation, political powerlessness, and sexual violence of the new racism.


Through much of its history, sociological theory was relatively inattentive to emotion, though theorists did not completely ignore it. Emotion continues to be marginalised by influential contemporary theorists such as Habermas.


Arlie Hochschild turned the sociological spotlight on emotion. Her landmark book, “The Managed Heart” (1983), succeeded in making sociologists recognise that feelings and emotions are of core relevance to societal processes.

While most of us tend to think of emotion as a natural reflection of how we are feeling at a given moment, Hochschild makes us think about emotions as work; she highlights the feeling rules that determine emotion. She emphasises that emotion is a socially structured, patterned way of feeling and of acting on feeling. We are socialised into learning how to recognise, and how and when to feel, certain emotions.


Hochschild argues that “both men and women do emotional work, in private life and at work”, but that “Our culture invites women, more than men, to focus on feeling rather than action”.

There is a socially and culturally structured, gendered specialisation in emotional work. Women are more responsible for smiling, being nice, celebrating others, empathising with others, whereas men are expected to do the aggressive emotional tasks. By extension, when women engage in emotional work that is culturally unexpected of their gender – being angry – they are denigrated, and their credibility and femininity are called into question.

Hence, they are more likely than men to be the object of emotional ridicule and attack. Emotion work is, in a sense, easier for men: they are more protected from the negative emotions of others, and they have less emotion management to do.

Some feminist scholars, such as the psychologist Carol Gilligan (1982), argue that women are more emotional than men. In this (popular) view, women are seen as having a “natural,” gender-specific way of accessing emotions and hence are more emotional and relational than men.

Hochschild and other sociologists fully acknowledge that emotion involves physiological and biological processes, but sociologists also stress that the organisation of emotion work is socially and culturally, not biologically, determined. Thus the gendering of emotion and of emotional tasks is not based on biology, but on society’s evaluation of biological sex differences and their translation into social structures and cultural processes.

As Hochschild observes: “Women’s feelings are seen not as a response to real events but as reflections of themselves as ‘emotional’ women”.


This is a core concern for Hochschild. She gives particular attention to the production and control of human emotion not just as work, but at work, and to what she calls the commercialisation of feeling. Emotion work also includes the work done by those whose labor-force participation is contingent on their continuous production of specific emotions as required by the marketplace.


Hochschild’s definition of emotional labor is influenced by Marx, C. Wright Mills, and Goffman. From Marx’s discussion of the commodification of labor, Hochschild construes emotions as commodities. Jobs that call for emotional labor “require face-to-face or voice-to-voice contact with the public.


Hochschild’s emphasis on emotion management is also very close to Goffman’s theorizing. Hochschild’s contribution, however, though influenced by Goffman, extends beyond SI in two major ways. First, as Hochschild points out, Goffman’s analysis of social actors does not pay any attention to the actor’s inner feelings and to how social actors actively name and manage inner feelings.

Goffman takes it for granted that social actors manage the display of emotion in their self-presentation. He is not interested in the feelings beneath or behind the role performance, but in role performance irrespective of the actors’ feelings.

Second, Goffman’s analysis does not probe why emotion work is required in a capitalist (or socialist) society, nor how it is produced and regulated. In contrast, Hochschild argues that the habits individuals have or acquire in managing emotion vary by gender, social class, age, religion, and other socio-cultural locations.

Hochschild argues that emotional labor constitutes self-estrangement or self-alienation. Drawing on observation research she conducted at Delta Airlines’ training sessions, and interviews she conducted with Delta flight attendants, training supervisors, and company executives, Hochschild uses the flight attendant as the quintessential exemplar of emotional labor.

Emotional labor is different, Hochschild argues, in that the emotional labourer’s feelings must be given over to the work; they no longer belong to the person but to the employer who has purchased them for use in the creation of profit. Specific emotions must be produced by the worker as part of his or her labor (“the airline passenger may choose not to smile, but the flight attendant is obliged not only to smile but to try to work up some warmth behind it”). This split between felt and produced emotion, Hochschild argues, weakens the worker’s ability to relate on a deep emotional level to others and can adversely affect her own intimate relationships.


By focusing on emotional labor, Hochschild makes a two-fold feminist contribution. First, she redresses the male bias in sociology that downplays the social significance of emotion. Hochschild demonstrates that emotions matter, and they matter not only in the domestic sphere but in the workplace.

Second, as Hochschild notes, women comprise a disproportionate number of workers employed in service occupations requiring a substantial amount of emotional labor.

Further, Hochschild’s attentiveness to the personal and social costs of emotional labor makes a significant contribution not only to sociologists’ understanding of the social and gendered contexts of emotion, but to broadening our understanding of occupations and labour-market processes. Hochschild makes a strong case that emotional labor is more costly to the self and social relationships than is manual-physical labor.

Race, Racism, and the construction of Racial Otherness


William Du Bois, a Harvard-trained black sociologist, writer, and political activist, is widely recognised as “the prime inspirer, philosopher, and father of the Negro protest movement,” and among the most influential pioneers in black sociology.

What, then, is the colour-line problem? It is the persistence of racism in the everyday lived experiences of non-whites as they go about finding a job, securing a promotion, getting a bank loan, hailing a cab, hanging out with friends on the street, driving on the highway. Although there is no one overarching sociological theory of race and racism, the writings of Du Bois and of several contemporary scholars variously employ Marxist-inspired, and to a lesser extent Weberian and other concepts to address the historical, economic, social, and cultural dimensions of race and racism.


The idea of Otherness, and specifically of racial Otherness, of racial difference, was given prominence by the Palestine-born, American literary and post-colonial theorist Edward Said.

In his book “Orientalism” (1978), Said argues that the Orient, the East, is not simply a geographically defined category of place, but an idea, a form of representation, of imagining and accentuating cultural difference.

The West represents the Orient not only as different from, but as inferior to, the West. Said argues that the relationship between the West and the East is a relationship of power and domination. This relationship is rooted in their shared history, and in what Marx would identify as the lived material realities of the coloniser and the colonised in their relations with one another.

Central to this relationship is the West’s casting of the East as Other (different, inferior); its invocation and reinforcement of an Otherness that reproduces the cultural superiority of the West and its attendant political power to colonise (literally and metaphorically) the East. Thus the notion of Orientalism is not simply an idea or a geographical place; it is “a cultural and political fact”.


Frantz Fanon, a Caribbean-born writer and medical doctor says that “the fact of blackness” overrides all the other attributes of a person.

In the overarching stigma system that race is, if “the normals” in Goffman’s terms are white, then blacks and other people of colour are “less than human”. Their Otherness is not simply a matter of difference but of inferiority, an inferiority that is collectively imposed and collectively felt (by blacks, Arabs, Asians, Latinos, etc.) in subtle and not so subtle ways every day.


Black identity politics entails blacks’ collective recovering and remembering of a shared history (of oppression), and their simultaneous pursuit of policies implementing black equality. This translates into a political agenda that compels white society to institutionalise laws and public policies that affirm blacks’ social, political, and economic equality with whites, while simultaneously acknowledging blacks’ history of difference.


The sociologist Howard Winant notes: “There is a prominent, indeed growing tendency to consider this task as largely accomplished: to operate, in other words, as if racial oppression had already been largely overcome, as if the errors of white supremacy had already been corrected”.

Robert Blauner argues “there are two languages of race in America.” What he means by this is that blacks and whites have different interpretations of social change and different understandings of whether and how race matters in everyday social reality.

Racial inequality is not just something that is subjectively experienced by an individual, but something that gets objectively structured into social institutions and everyday culture. Race, therefore, and racial categorisation, are an engine of, and mechanism reproducing, inequality, whether we focus, following Marx , on economic relations, or more broadly, following Weber, on economic inequality, social status, and cultural world-views.

Just as gender and sexuality categories are used to impose, legitimate, and reproduce distinctions that appear determined by biological characteristics but which are, in fact, distinctions used as a veil for maintaining the power of one group at the expense of another, so too is race.


Several sociologists argue that any theorising about race must also include attention to the construal of whiteness. This is because both “white people and people of colour live racially structured lives”.

Ruth Frankenberg explains that “whiteness is [first] a location of structural advantage, of race privilege. Second, it is a ‘standpoint,’ a place from which white people look at ourselves, at others and society. Third, whiteness refers to a set of cultural practices that are usually unmarked and unnamed.” The task for the sociologist is to problematic the taken-for-grantedness of whiteness, to investigate how its meanings change in different social-historical eras and contexts.

David Roediger, using a Marxist-inspired and historical analysis, argues that in the US, whiteness became a sought-after identity for white working-class European immigrants (e.g., Irish, Italians) in Boston and other northern industrial cities in the nineteenth century. Although considered “non-white” – because they were ethnically, culturally, and economically inferior to the capitalist class of (largely) English, Protestant origin – these low-wage workers affirmed their whiteness as a way to gain social status by differentiating themselves from and as superior to blacks.

Fearing economic dependence (against the backdrop of a slave-owning society and the relations of black inferiority it created), the white working class constructed blacks, and not the white capitalist class, as Other, as a racially inferior out-group. This sowed the seeds of the long and continuing complex history of racial prejudice among working-class whites.


Although there are many forms of persistent inequality in society, racial inequality carries an intensely symbolic and emotion-laden burden. This is largely because of the specifically racial history of slavery.

As Winant argues, the modern world-system, the development and expansion of capitalism, cannot be understood without taking full account of the centrality of race “as both cause and effect” in its origins and development. Slavery, Winant argues, the coerced “chattelisation” of others, was central to capitalist expansion.


Several scholars emphasise that the construct of race is flexible, in that racial categories and their meanings change over time and across different societal contexts. Large-scale social forces, such as colonialism, immigration, post-colonialism, and globalisation, invariably impact the societal and cultural context in which race is defined.

As Stuart Hall, a highly influential race and cultural theorist argues: “Cultural identity … is a matter of ‘becoming’ as well as of ‘being.’” The “traumatic character” of slavery and of colonialism for black people and black experiences can only begin to be understood, Hall argues, by recognising how different subordinated groups internalise a particularised identity of themselves.

This interplay between cultural differences and similarities, between discontinuities and continuities, underscores the difficulty of talking about the colonial experience or about the post-colonial experience as if there were just one, or as if there were one that similarly defined the experiences of all subordinated racial-ethnic groups.


Orlando Patterson argues that slavery must be understood – in the conceptual language of Marx – as a relation of domination, and more specifically as an extreme instance of such relations. countries). Patterson underscores the distinct centrality of coercion in the master–slave relationship and the heavy social-psychological and cultural costs that slavery imposed on slaves. In Patterson’s analysis, slavery, in essence, is a form of “social death”.

Additionally, Patterson argues, the slave was denied all ties to his family and blood relatives, and to his cultural ancestry; he was dispossessed of his “community of memory”. As such, the slave’s dishonouring had severe emotional and psychological consequences for slaves.

Patterson, using a Marxist framing, underscores that in terms of the societal power structure, the slaves’ social relations were denied legitimacy; the only legitimacy given the slaves’ lives was that which they did in servitude for their master. Thus, slaves’ sexual and parenting relationships were not socially recognised.

Similarly, Patterson acknowledges that slaves had a past, had a history, but, he maintains, the conditions of their enslavement did not allow slaves to process and integrate this past as we, for example, would do in telling our family story, the narrative of our family heritage. In all of these ways, therefore, slaves were considered social non-persons and treated as such; “The slave was the ultimate human tool, as imprintable and as disposable as the master wished”.


As several Marxist-inspired black scholars emphasise, the experience of slavery produces an alienated consciousness in blacks. Du Bois called this a double-consciousness, meaning that blacks as ex-slaves must invariably see themselves through the eyes of the white master.

Overall, however, as Du Bois argues, the legal emancipation of slaves did not ensure their economic and social emancipation. Emancipation, rather, though welcomed by some in the South who felt “that the nightmare was at last over”, was followed by the economic and political enslavement of the freed slaves, whose new-found legal freedoms competed with the economic objectives of white landowners, white labourers, and white small farmers. Du Bois thus gives particular emphasis to the economic sources and consequences of racial inequality and elaborates on the significance of slavery in the creation of capitalist profit through the exploitation of blacks.


Although preoccupied with the slavery/post-slavery economic and social conditions of blacks, Du Bois’s vision of social equality was not confined to the plight of blacks alone. He contended: “The emancipation of man is the emancipation of labor”, and he envisioned a democracy in which “all labor, blacks as well as white, became free”.

Du Bois’s writings present a critique of capitalism that is more closely aligned with Marx’s than with Weber’s, even though Du Bois too, like Weber, recognised the significance of religion and culture as autonomous engines of social life.


Prophetic for his time, Du Bois also emphasised the intersectionality of inequality, namely the ways in which social class, race, and gender are intermixed in the reproduction of inequality.


Frazier argued that the cultural characteristics of the black middle class stemmed from and reflected the racial divide, the chasm that existed between the black and the white middle classes. This divide, Frazier argued, led the black middle class to reject its own history and collective pride in that history, while seeking acceptance from its economic peers in the white middle class, an acceptance that had not been forthcoming.


By contrast with the racial divide that separated the black middle class from the white middle class in the 1950’s and 1960’s, many sociologists writing today argue that, in the US, race has declined in significance relative to class. William Julius Wilson, the foremost sociologist of race and class inequality, argues that the contemporary black class structure makes it “increasingly difficult to speak of a single or uniform black experience”.

Wilson argues that as a result of economic and policy changes since the 1970’s, and of the shifts that have occurred in economic and occupational mobility patterns, “class has become more important than race in determining black life-chances in the modern industrial period”.

Wilson thus draws attention to the ever-growing economic divide among blacks. He argues, moreover, that racial strife today has more to do with socio-political issues than with economic opportunities per se. Race continues to matter a lot in regard to decisions about the public funding of schools and municipal services, for example, but has significantly less importance in determining access to jobs and economic competition and conflict in general. He argues that it is “the intersection of class with race” that is crucial.

The economic barriers encountered by the black underclass today, unlike in the past when there were (race-based) barriers against virtually all blacks, “have racial significance only in their consequences, not in their origins”.


Manning Marable points out: “The greatest casualty of racism is democracy. Afro-Americans have understood this for many decades.

Cornel West argues that any discussion of race must begin with an analysis of the structural and cultural conditions which perpetuate racial inequality.

The price that blacks pay for their marginality in and to white society, West contends, is nihilism. He chooses the word “nihilism” not to denote some abstract, existential, philosophical sense of loss but to underscore “the murky waters of despair and dread that … flood the streets of black America”. Nihilism, he states, is to be understood as “the lived experience of coping with a life of horrifying meaninglessness, hopelessness, and (most important) lovelessness”.


West highlights the social-psychological scarring caused by the economic and cultural battering of blacks and black identity.

The scarring of black America, or what, following Durkheim, can be referred to as the social disintegration in black communities, is underlined, West argues, by the high incidence of suicide among young black people. The disintegration of black communities is further underscored by the high rates of incarceration of black men, the fragility of blacks’ interpersonal and social relationships, and the attendant violence among blacks.


Much of black popular culture, and especially its rap songs, music videos, and movies, gives voice to racial inequality and to the scarring of and social disintegration in black communities. The appeal and power of pop culture lies precisely in its ability both to comment on the realities of lived experience and simultaneously to fantasise about more extreme and more benign versions of those realities.

Black popular culture presents a complex mix of images and content. One thing it does is celebrate consumption and commodification.

Another theme that black pop culture accentuates is the inequality and oppression among blacks. Both Patricia Hill Collins and Cornel West discuss the degrading ways in which heterosexual black men treat black women and queer black individuals.


West, Patterson, and other black scholars highlight the need for visionary black leaders who will confront rather than deny the cultural problems that exist within black communities.

West calls for a transformation in political leadership among blacks, one that promotes a politics of conversion. He argues that black nihilism and despair have to be countered with a vision of hope, a vision that leads blacks to affirm their individual and collective self-worth.

West calls blacks to form coalitions with non-blacks and to nurture the anti-racist strands that can be found among whites, Jews, Latinos, and Asians. In addition to building solidarity across races, he argues that conversion must work to produce an authentic solidarity among blacks themselves. In particular, in accord with Du Bois’s vision, West stresses the imperative of working toward the achievement of a black cultural democracy. In short, black cultural democracy rejects the pervasive patriarchy and homophobia in black American life.

In a similar vein, Guinier and Torres (2002) argue for the creation of a new racialised politics. They emphasise the need to think about race not in biological or cultural terms but in political terms. They use the term political race to describe their vision, whereby “racialised identities may be put to service to achieve social change through democratic renewal”.

Guinier and Torres emphasise the necessity for a trans-racial commitment to social change. They state: “Political race seeks to construct a new language to discuss race, in order to rebuild a progressive democratic movement led by people of colour but joined by others”.


In his book “Against Race” (2000), Gilroy argues against the idea that the colour line matters in modern times. Instead of colour lines, he argues, it is culture lines that are critical to the production of conflict and inequality, and to how culture and power get intertwined in ways that divide and subdivide humanity.

When white suburban teenagers emulate black street culture and fashion their “acting black” might be seen as an effort to cross over and transcend racial differences. It might also, however, effectively reinforce the cultural (and economic) divisions between blacks and whites (Roediger 2002: 212–240). Whites can act black, but, unlike blacks, they invariably do so with the secure knowledge that they can stop acting black whenever they choose and moreover, that their chances of economic success, of being arrested, etc., will be largely unaffected by acting black.

When black students strive to achieve educational success – recognising education as a pathway to socio-economic mobility – they are denigrated by their black friends for “acting white,” thus dampening black students’ motivation to succeed in school.

More generally, Gilroy is concerned that race has become commercialised such that we are drawn to advertisements which proclaim the glamor of racial differences. The commercialisation and commodification of race detracts from and “do[es] nothing to change the everyday forms of racial hierarchy”.

On the contrary, this “actively depoliticised consumer culture … of racialised appearances”, one that is propelled by globalisation and the new immigrant flows across countries, blurs the boundaries of racial difference. One important consequence of this superficial blurring is the creation of new tensions from the anxiety that takes hold when individuals and groups cannot draw the clear lines of racial difference.

Gilroy argues that race as such – race as a persistent source of political and social inequality – becomes secondary to the primary purpose of using black bodies and black popular culture to make cultural statements about consumption, beauty, and adornment, even as this adornment reproduces reminders about the well-established historical inferiority of blacks. In sum, Gilroy argues, the biological basis for socially categorising racial differences on the basis of body colour has now been displaced by a cultural colonisation, one that racialises bodies in ways that fit market and consumption criteria.


The commercialisation of race is part of the broader culturation of racial differences, and both are components of what is often called the new racism: the racism that emerges when a dominant racial-cultural group attributes core cultural (not biological) differences to the worldviews and ways of being of minority racial groups.

It presumes that “nature, history, and geopolitics dictated that people should cleave to their own kind and be most comfortable in the environments that matched their distinctive cultural and therefore nationalist modes of being in this world”. A racism based on cultural separateness, of keeping people with their “own kind,” was the ideological justification for apartheid in South Africa.

Rather than saying that members of a minority racial or ethnic group are (biologically) inferior to the dominant race, the new racist tendency instead is to emphasise that “these people” are culturally different.

In short, highlighting cultural distinctions between groups, even or especially when those differences are romanticised as in the “celebration” of racial and cultural difference, can be a veil used to denigrate those who are not part of the dominant culture.

Many individuals today aspire to claim (and some to negate) a cultural identity that is based on a particular racial genetic inheritance. The expectation of scientific clarity on racial composition/ identity that technology promises can also exacerbate what Gilroy refers to as the crisis of raciology. The crisis surrounding the boundaries between the races, between what comprises and doesn’t comprise a particular racial identity, may be further muddied rather than illuminated by technology. Just as the commercialisation of the glamor of black bodies confuses the representation of race and the boundaries between racial categories, technological innovations may have a parallel effect.


Gilroy offers a way out of this uncertainty by challenging us to think differently about race. He counsels a move toward what he calls a non-racial planetary humanism. A planetary humanism would require the abandonment of the exclusionary ways in which race and all group differences (based on gender, nationality, etc.) are construed. It would, by extension, also require the abandonment of the militaristic and other aggressive and symbolic means used to affirm and defend group identities and group differences. This is a utopian recommendation (as Gilroy admits).

It is not that we have to renounce the embodied realities of our existence. But in thinking beyond race (and gender, etc.), we are empowered to begin to recognise the humanity we share with people whose bodies are (biologically and culturally) different from ours.



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