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of class and social differentiation more

generally, there is a danger that class is simply

conflated with the diffuse practices of social


A reemphasis on cultural class practices is in

part a reaction to the growing influence of the

cultural turn within the social sciences. However,

the turn to culture, with its emphasis on individualized

identities and the politics of recognition,

resonates positively with neoliberal defenses of

the market and the importance of individual

rights. Furthermore, a stress on the primacy of

recognition may effectively sideline issues of redistribution,

which have always been central to

class analysis. Moreover, there are important ontological

issues that have implications for recent

culturalist discussions of class. In particular, if

it is argued that culture and the economy cannot

be separated (or if class is conflated with hierarchy),

then how can the different elements that

contribute to structures of social inequality be


N. Fraser (“Rethinking Recognition,” 2000, New

Left Review; see also J. Scott, Stratification and Power,

1996) has recently suggested a resolution to these

problems that returns to the Weberian distinction

between class and status. Her argument rests on

the analytic separation of culture and economy.

She suggests that class and status reflect two,

analytically distinct, dimensions of social justice.

Class relates to the distribution of disposable resources,

status the allocation of recognition. The

cultural definition of different categories of social

actors (status groups) can result in social subordination

and thus a lack of full partnership in

social interaction. Fraser argued that claims for

both economic redistribution and cultural recognition

can be appraised against the same

evaluative standard of participatory parity, that

is, the social arrangements that permit all adult

members of society to interact with one another

as peers (it may be noted that this argument implicitly

resurrects Marshall’s idea of citizenship).

In conclusion, recent debates in class theory

and analysis suggest a continuing need to recognize

both that stratification systems are multistranded

and that social class is a vital component

of these systems. The way ahead for class analysis

is to recognize the increasing complexity of

inequalities in modern societies, without either

beating a retreat in the face of this complexity, or

attempting to resolve the issue by dissolving the

boundaries between the contributory elements.


social closure

The terminology of closure and the closely related

language of exclusion and monopolization appears

first in Max Weber’s Economy and Society

(1922 [trans. 1968]). A relationship that is closed

against outsiders is one in which the “participation

of certain persons is excluded, limited, or

subjected to conditions.” Weber noted that many

relationships, including the exclusive erotic monopoly

of marriage, membership of sects, personal

relations of loyalty, the caste system, exclusive

clubs, guilds, monastic orders, and various kinds

of hereditary groups which asserted rights also

used the means of closure. In the context of the

economy, the idea of closure as monopolization

is related to the concept in economics of rentseeking,

and Weber noted that there was a tendency

for the economically successful to preserve

their position by closure. The concept of closure,

however, had little impact until it was revived

in the 1970s and 1980s, when it was applied and

elaborated in two different ways.

social class social closure


The first of these uses arose in a specific historical

situation, in which the traditional Marxian

criterion of class membership no longer corresponded

to the distribution of wealth and life

chances, and where social position was transmitted

and preserved between generations by

means other than the inheritance of wealth.

Among the intellectual sources of the idea of

social closure as a solution to this and related

problems about the nature of power was a book

by Randall Collins entitled The Credential Society: An

Historical Sociology of Education and Stratification

(1979), which suggested that modern society was

a “credential society,” in which such credentials

as academic and professional certification, which

were more accessible to the children of the successful,

had become primary determinants of

income and social power. Another early source

was Frank Parkin’s Marxism and Class Theory

(1979), in which he argued, against the Marxian

concept of exploitation, that exclusion from

the work force rather than the exploitation of

the employed was the major determinant of life

chances. Raymond Murphy in Social Closure: The

Theory of Monopolization and Exclusion (1988) later

developed these ideas by arguing that the power

to exclude or monopolize better explained the

phenomenon of economic power than Marxian

notions and avoided their difficulties, notably

with the labor theory of value. Murphy also argued

that many social conflicts could be understood in

terms of the creation and defense of monopolies,

which were then contested by those who were

excluded, who attempted to gain access to their

benefits, or, in Murphy’s terms, to “usurp them.”

The second major use is associated with James

S. Coleman, in Public and Private High Schools: The

Impact of Communities (1987), who applied the

notion of closure to informal processes of social

contact, to explain an important and anomalous

empirical finding in the study of American

schools. He had discovered that students in Catholic

schools did significantly better than stateschool

students on standardized tests, and that

controlling for differences in the students and

the schools did not explain the discrepancy. He

argued that the relatively closed social relations

between parents in Catholic schools enabled the

development of norms for student behavior, and

that this was a valuable form of social capital that

raised and enforced expectations, leading to improved

life chances. He later applied this insight

to norm-generation in general.


social conflict

The contrast between conflict and consensus as

interpretations of society was at one stage fashionable

as a criterion for classifying sociological

theories. For example it was argued that an emphasis

on social conflict was the defining characteristic

of Marxism, whereas an emphasis on

social consensus was the defining characteristic

of structural functionalism. More specifically,

this classification contrasted the legacy of Karl

Marx and class analysis with the influence of

Talcott Parsons who allegedly ignored or neglected

conflict in favor of the study of how shared

values underpin social order. This simple classification

is now regarded as inadequate because

any theory of conflict will imply a theory of consensus,

and therefore sociologists will inevitably

have to address both aspects of social life. As

David Lockwood argued in Solidarity and Schism

(1992), whereas consensus theory overstated the

normative integration of society, conflict theory

depended too heavily on a utilitarian model of

social action and could not explain how norms

were important in the explanation of social


Marx’s theory of social class conflict continues

to be a foundation of any general analysis of

conflict in capitalism. Whereas classical economists

had recognized that a major source of conflict

in society was the struggle over resources,

and hence scarcity is the principal driving force

behind conflict over access to goods in a competitive

market, Marx concentrated on the emergence

of social classes in capitalist societies, where

there is a structural contradiction between the

interests of workers, who want higher wages,

and those of capitalists, who want higher profits.

Conflict in modern societies, according to this

theory, is primarily economic conflict. Marx’s

analysis of capitalism was modified by Ralph

Dahrendorf in his Class and Class Conflict in an Industrial

Society (1959) who argued that in modern

industrial relations policy there had been an institutionalization

of conflict because industrial disputes

were often settled by negotiation between

trade union officials and the managers of firms.

In the early stages of capitalism, disputes between

workers and capitalists could always escalate

into strikes, social disruption, or revolution. In

advanced capitalist societies, such disputes were

managed through bargaining processes that avoided

the revolutionary potential of industrial

conflict, but such industrial settlements, when

they resulted in a wages spiral, often resulted in

social closure social conflict


inflation. As a result, postwar British society was

characterized by industrial disruption, wage inflation,

and low productivity that, in policy terms,

resulted in classic “stop-go” economic crises. Inflation

can be seen therefore as an alternative to

class conflict. In more general terms, it is often

claimed that the growth of social citizenship – as

described, for example, by Thomas H. Marshall

(1963) in his Sociology at the Cross Roads – brings

about a reform of capitalism by the inclusion

of workers in society, and thereby reduces their

propensity for social conflict.

In contrast with Marxism, Max Weber’s sociology

was seen to provide a more flexible and

subtle understanding of conflict over power.

Resources in human societies are diverse; they

include economic, cultural, and honorific or

status resources. In Weber’s conflict sociology,

groups attempt to monopolize access to resources

through various strategies of power that involve

some form of social closure. One example of social

closure involves credentialism as an aspect of

professional closure: that is, occupational groups

will seek to protect their advantages in the marketplace

by preventing competition from groups

who are deemed to be unqualified. The historical

competition between barbers and surgeons, and

between homeopaths and allopaths, in the history

of medicine is a classical illustration of social

closure. The professional conflicts between registered

doctors, bone setters, apothecaries, and

quacks was brilliantly described by Roy Porter

in his Bodies Politic. Disease. Death and Doctors in

Britain 1650–1900 (2001). The idea that conflict can

occur over any resource has been developed, in

differing forms of social capital theory, by Robert

Putnam in Bowling Alone (2000) and by Pierre

Bourdieu in Distinction (1979 [trans. 1984]), in

which he distinguished between cultural, economic,

social, and symbolic capitals. Conflict will

occur in every field of the distribution of capital in

society where groups struggle to gain competitive

advantage. Bourdieu saw intellectual disagreements

between academic traditions as conflicts

over the control of symbolic and cultural capital

in the academy in his Homo Academicus (1984

[trans. 1988]).

In the study of race and ethnicity, Weber’s

conflict sociology was employed by John Rex to

develop a conflict theory of the competition between

ethnic communities over resources. While

Rex drew inspiration from Weber in the development

of his Social Conflict. A Conceptual and Theoretical

Analysis (1981), he also followed the British

colonial administrator John Furnivall who, in

his Colonial Policy and Practice (1968: 304), wrote

that there is a “medley” of different ethnic communities

in the market, but socially they “mix

but don’t combine.” Race relations theorists have

subsequently argued that in a plural society social

conflict will be along racial rather than class lines.

This argument raises serious questions therefore

about the possibility of multiculturalism. Contemporary

societies are consequently characterized

by various forms of conflict in terms of ethnicity,

class, and gender. These contemporary conflicts

are, in plural or multicultural societies, seen to

be conflicts over identity, especially in societies

where religion comes to dominate politics, giving

rise to identity politics. These conflicts, insofar

as they appear to involve major conflicts between

civilizations, have been described by Samuel

Huntington in a famous article in Foreign Affairs

(1993) as the “clash of civilizations”. Because conflict

is ubiquitous, it is assumed that a special

theory of social conflict is redundant.


social constructionism

A set of theories and concepts in sociology and

other disciplines that seek to explore and explain

social phenomena and occurrences on the basis

of their historical context and social framing,

constructionism thereby traces how seemingly

natural occurrences are constructed through a

history of human actions and interactions. It refutes

assumptions of essentialism and realism,

namely that an external, objective world exists

outside our categories of perception and interpretation.

Social constructionism is thus part of a

relativist turn in social sciences in which categories

and forms of knowledge are contextualized,

debunking myths of their transcendental quality.

Peter L. Berger and Thomas Luckmann’s Social

Construction of Reality (1965), generally recognized

as the major social constructionist work of

modern sociology, explores the social construction

of reality as the basic category of human

perception and interaction. While they do not

argue that the material world is in itself constructed,

our realities within this world are. Subsequent

case studies identify instances of social

constructionism across the spectrum of social

classifications, identities, and material objects,

including nationalism, physical and mental illness,

moral panics, social class, taste, technology,

sexuality, gender, and knowledge.

In the sociology of science, studies focusing

on the construction of scientific knowledge in

disciplines such as mathematics (for example

social conflict social constructionism


P. Ernest, Social Constructivism as a Philosophy of

Mathematics, 1998) and physics (for instance

A. Pickering, Constructing Quarks, 1984) have been

met with hostility by other scientific communities

in the so-called “science wars.” Ian Hacking, in

The Social Construction of What? (1999), attempts

to reconcile contrary positions on whether scientific

facts or laws, such as the concept of Quarks,

are universally true – in other words based on

discoveries of facts that exist independent of

human cognition – or socially constructed. He

proposes a spectrum of possible positions between

these polarities depending on responses

to three questions about the particular idea or

fact that is assumed to be constructed. First, are

alternative explanations or concepts possible

(“contingency”)? Second, do the ordering and

structure of knowledge follow from our own and

hence constructed systems of perception or reflect

an independent structure of the material world

(“nominalism”)? Third, how do we explain the

stability of certain facts and ideas? Natural scientists

may claim that such stability derives from

the accuracy of knowledge whereas social constructionists

point to the context of scientific research

(the institutionalization of research, and

the economic and political framing of research

funding). Hacking’s argument is that, in all three

positions, we find a mixture of both constructionism

and essentialism, and both epistemological

perspectives inform scientific knowledge.

Hacking also seeks to define the objects and the

purpose of social constructionist studies. Social

constructionism in particular focuses on occurrences

and classifications that are perceived as

“natural,” despite being not inevitable but a

product of human action and interaction. The

aim of social constructionism is therefore to

“unmask.” In particular, studies on the social construction

of gender and sexuality, which have

formed the foundational core of gender studies,

serve this purpose of unmasking. Simone de

Beauvoir in The Second Sex (1949 [trans. 1984]) first

documented the historical, cultural, and social

context through which gender is formed, and

thereby undermined the understanding of gender

as biological fact which was prevalent until

the mid twentieth century. Numerous feminist

scholars have followed de Beauvoir in unmasking

the ideological function of a perception of gender,

and associated roles such as motherhood, as naturally

given as a tool of patriarchy. Equally, queer

theory has aimed to expose heterosexual norms

and legislation as repressive instruments. The implication

in this and other social constructionist

work is that the socially constructed objects, classifications,

or categories they investigate are undesirable

and should be transformed or abolished.

Hence, social constructionism has been particularly

popular in areas of sociology that address

questions of power, inequality, and discrimination

and propose social change.

Whereas the purpose of social constructionism

appears obvious, its objects of study are more

difficult to define. Hacking distinguishes in this

context between “objects” and “ideas,” arguing

that objects exist independently of human classification

and social construction, whereas ideas,

as the way we represent and comprehend these

objects, are socially constructed. The concepts of

Quarks or child abuse, for example, are constructed,

yet Quarks and child abuse are also

actual objects that exist beyond this construction.

These examples reveal two problems: Quarks can

only be encountered and verified through the

idea of quarks; we cannot see or experience them

otherwise. Child abuse, in contrast, is a relatively

new idea, yet we find an extensive historical

documentation of child abuse prior to the rise of

the idea. However, the rise of the idea of child

abuse has in itself impacted on the phenomenon.

The consequential distinction between “indifferent

kinds” and “interactive kinds” seeks to separate

between objects such as Quarks which are

oblivious to our classifications and objects involving

social actors that are impacted by the

construction of ideas.

The balance between essential and constructed

aspects of non-social objects also forms the key

concern of social constructionist studies in the

sociology of media and technology. They explore

the question of whether to assess the interaction

between technology and history through

the prism of discovery and innovation of such

technologies, or by emphasizing their history of

adaptation and use. Various qualitative studies

of the social shaping of communication technologies

have thus sought to counter the claims of

medium theory and technological determinism

which, following Marshall McLuhan in Understanding

Media (1964), propose that the inherent

essence of technologies shape human history

and behavior; in McLuhan’s example, there is

only one, very definite meaning of the atom

bomb. Social constructionists in contrast point

to the specific socio-historical and cultural circumstances

that formed the necessary preconditions

and contexts that made the adaptation and

proliferation of particular technologies possible.

In a social constructionist sense, the history of

social constructionism social constructionism


television, for instance, is hence not a history of

mere technological advances (involving radio

transmission or the Braun tube) but a product

of a wider process of individualization, suburbanization,

and the rise of consumer society.


social contract

This concept derives from political theory to explain

the acquiescence of free citizens in the political

authority of the state. Under the unwritten

contract, the citizen trades unfettered freedom

for the freedom that derives from the rights

and obligations of citizenship under the protection

of the state. The concept is associated with

political philosophy in the seventeenth century,

especially with liberal theorists such as Thomas

Hobbes (1588–1679) and John Locke (1632–1704),

and with the eighteenth-century republican

Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1712–78).

In the twentieth century, the liberal social and

political philosopher John Rawls (1921–2002) developed

the idea of a hypothetical social contract

in A Theory of Social Justice (1971). Using the

device of the “veil of ignorance,” he argued that

people would agree to an equitable principle of

distribution without knowing their own position

in society and hence the implications of the

principle for themselves. More recently, the metaphor

of the contract has been central to workfocused

welfare reform in a number of welfare

states, notably the United States and the United

Kingdom. In the former, the Republican Party’s

“Contract for America” framed the debate about

welfare reform in the Clinton era. The outcome

was the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity

Reconciliation Act 1996, which, with bipartisan

support in Congress, replaced Aid to

Families with Dependent Children with the highly

conditional Temporary Aid to Needy Families.

In the United Kingdom, the New Labour government

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