We “need to know how it works”

Note: This posting originally appeared in my research journal. Technical issues prevented its publication here at that time.

“Those of us who are not part of the ruling class, race, or gender, not a part of the minority which controls our world,” writes Nancy Hartsock (1987/2010) in response to a common post-modern tendency to devalue assertions about physical reality, “need to know how it works” (p. 496). Pauline Rosenau (1992) picks up the theme:

Post-modern views of reality are reproached for some of the same shortcomings as idealist philosophical conceptions of reality. Critics argue that debate over issues such as the existence of an independent reality are of interest only to post-modernists (and other intellectuals) who, insulated from reality, never personally experience the violence, terror, and degradation prevalent in modern society. They point to the brutal presence of an “obviously existing reality” that solidifies around poverty, starvation, AIDS, drugs, and gang warfare. Only if one’s daily life, daily “lived” reality, is not harsh and unpleasant could one conceive of reality as entirely a mental construction. (pp. 111-112).

Inequality is very real. It was a mere eleven years from the time that Thomas Jefferson, disregarding women and people of color, wrote in the U.S. Declaration of Independence that “all men are created equal” before James Madison (1787/2003) was advocating for a constitution that would manage factions and protect minority rights—not of any disadvantaged or stigmatized group, but rather the property rights of wealthy white males. Madison made it amply clear that it was these men whom he trusted with governing, those whom he felt could afford to put aside their personal interests to govern in the interests of the entire nation.

Whether in fact they do so, or whether they instead use their position to further advance their own interests at the unjustifiable expense of those who are not in power is the substance of an ongoing dispute between, as Gerhard Lenski (1966) casts the opposing sides, conservatives and radicals. Lenski, seeking a Hegelian synthesis between the conservative thesis and the radical antithesis, selects evidence which, on balance, supports a conservative functionalist position, endorsing coercive authority and social inequality. Other scholars, both preceding and following Lenski, have not been so easily mollified, and it might be said that Lenski’s dichotomy has outlived his conclusions, appearing at least as the conflict between commercial and indigenous society (Bodley, 2008); strict father and nurturant parent morality systems (Lakoff, 2002); controller and integrator cultures (Slater, 2009); and, perhaps most famously, dominator and partnership models of social organization (Eisler, 1995).

Unfortunately, knowing, in Hartsock’s (1987/2010) words, “how it works” (p. 496) does not yield a solution. What it does do is unmask at least a part of the rulers’ motivations, and lay bare the immorality of a coercive hierarchical system of social organization. This essay will analyze functionalism, a theory which claims that “[social] stratification arises basically out of the needs of societies, not out of the needs or desires of individuals” (Lenski, 1966, p. 15), to expose the immorality and the motivation. Further, it will explore how resistance to rulers may be hobbled by a focus on diversity and seek a path through the reality that diverse people face diverse conditions to a theoretical grounding for resistance that may possibly enable Cornel West’s (1990/2010) “sophisticated ironic consciousness” to overcome the obstacles he saw to “analyses that guide action with purpose” (p. 520).


One difficulty with the functionalist view is that it privileges an unsatisfactory claim of necessity over views of human rights which form part of the cultural socialization of most European and European-derived societies, the barest minimum of which is equality of opportunity, a claim that all humans should have an equal chance to succeed and prosper. As Thomas Shapiro (2005) put it,

A core element of the American credo is that talent, skill, hard work, and achievement largely determine life chances. We believe that everyone has a fair shot at whatever is valued or prized and that no individual or group is unfairly advantaged or disadvantaged. . . .

Despite our egalitarian values and beliefs, social inequality has been an enduring fact of life and politics in the United States. Some groups of people have sufficient power—through family, neighborhood, school, or community—to maintain higher economic class positions and higher social status in American society. (p. 3)

The functionalist view insists that inequality is necessary (Sernau, 2006), which also distinguishes functionalism from the traditionalism that Paula Gunn Allen (1986/2010) finds important in indigenous—traditionally egalitarian—societies. Lakoff (2002) derives this conclusion from a “strict father” value of competition in a dangerous and scary world:

If competition is a necessary state in a moral world—necessary for producing the right kind of people—then what kind of a world is a moral world? It is necessarily one in which some people are better off than others, and they deserve to be. It is a meritocracy. It is hierarchical, and the hierarchy is moral. In this hierarchy, some people have authority over others and their authority is legitimate. (Lakoff, 2002, p.69).

However, certain forms of discrimination, bigotry, and prejudice are difficult at best to dismiss as mere “unequal outcomes.” Rather, evidence of their existence juxtaposed with the enduring privileges of rulers may be interpreted to confirm that elites retain their position not through intelligence or “merit,” but rather through social position (Fischer, et al, 1996/2005), which they go to great lengths to maintain, in part by stigmatizing “others,” and especially by—in an almost literal sense—scapegoating the least fortunate (Gans, 1995/2005).

It is also increasingly apparent that commercial society faces a contradiction in addressing its own ecological unsustainability (Bodley, 2008). Bodley’s dichotomy is between, on one hand, indigenous society which has lived sustainably and, it seems, mostly peacefully, in harmony with the environment for hundreds of thousands of years in small, low-density, largely egalitarian groups with stable population sizes; and on the other hand, commercial society, which has arisen within the last 6,000 years, features high-density and rapidly growing populations governed by coercive hierarchies, and advances technologically at the cost of an unsustainable extraction of resources that compels territorial expansion, and thus the colonization of increasingly marginalized indigenous peoples. Those who do not hide in the hills or in remote terrain face “force, brutality, cruelty, sadism, conflict, and, in a parody of education, the hasty manufacture of a few thousand subordinate functionaries, ‘boys,’ artisans, office clerks and interpreters necessary for the smooth operation of business.” Their “societies [are] drained of their essence, cultures trampled underfoot, institutions undermined, lands confiscated, religions smashed, magnificent artistic creations destroyed, extraordinary possibilities wiped out” (Césaire, 1955/2010, p. 348). Too often left unsaid is that many of the women among them are raped and forced into prostitution to ensure that the entire society understands hierarchy (Castañeda, 1999; Copelon, 1995). After all of this, Hartsock (1987/2010) writes in words that might apply to any disadvantaged group,

the colonized emerges as the image of everything the colonizer is not. Every negative quality is projected onto her/him. The colonized is said to be lazy, and the colonizer becomes practically lyrical about it. Moreover, the colonized is both wicked and backward, a being who is in some important ways not fully human. As [Albert Memmi] describes the image of the colonized, feminist readers of de Beauvoir’s Second Sex cannot avoid a sense of familiarity. We recognize a great deal of this description. (p. 497)

It will not just be the losers who pay the cost. Given an understanding of how commercial society’s attitudes towards nature differ from those of indigenous people, how commercial society sees nature as something to be dominated rather than lived with in harmony, and how this attitude is inseparable from human attitudes towards each other (Oelschlaeger, 1991), Bodley’s critique implicates coercive hierarchical social organization; and because the planet is finite, commercial society—many of whose people can imagine no other way—faces an existential crisis. Hartsock’s conundrum of “how it works” is thus a matter not merely of justice but rather urgently of human survival.

Origins and nature of coercive hierarchy

It is nearly certain that coercive hierarchy’s origins lie in sedentary agriculture, as it arose at the end of the last Ice Age, as food surpluses made it possible for populations to grow and for people to specialize in roles—no longer was it necessary for everyone to produce food; some could be craftspeople and some could be administrators. As states arose, so too did wars over resources (Burroughs, 2005; Diamond, 1999; Lenski, 1966; Oelschlaeger, 1991). All too quickly, administrators became rulers, and as Max Weber (1918/2010) observes, “ultimately, one can define the modern state sociologically only in terms of the specific means peculiar to it, as to every political association, namely, the use of physical force” (p. 114). He continues, “to say that a state is a human community that (successfully) claims the monopoly of the legitimate use of physical force within a given territory” (p. 115), thereby implicating not only the dichotomy between rulers and subjects, but the dichotomy of the border—between “us” and “them,” in which they are not entitled to that which “we” have—and which “we” may defend against “them,” which “we” may expand against “them,” but which “they” may not expand against “us,” and in which even where ancient communities are divided by these artificial lines, those on the “other” side are constructed as inferior (Anzaldúa, 1987/2010), as undeserving.

But borders are not necessarily drawn on maps and wars are not always physically violent. Responding to a question about fairness in taxation, Warren Buffet famously told the New York Times, “There’s class warfare, all right, but it’s my class, the rich class, that’s making war, and we’re winning” (Stein, November 26, 2006). One might accuse Buffet of using the term war in the vernacular, too loosely, but:

Structural violence usually has the effect of denying people important rights, such as economic well-being; social, political, and sexual equality; a sense of personal fulfillment and self-worth; and so on. When people starve to death, or even go hungry, a kind of violence is taking place. Similarly, when humans suffer from diseases that are preventable, when they are denied decent education, affordable housing, opportunities to work, play, raise a family, and freedom of expression and peaceful assembly, a kind of violence is occurring, even if no bullets are shot or clubs wielded. A society commits violence against its members when it forcibly stunts their development and undermines their well-being, whether because of religion, ethnicity, gender, age, sexual preference, or some other social reason. Structural violence is a serious form of social oppression. And it is regrettably widespread and often unacknowledged. (Barash & Webel, 2002, p. 7)

Castes in the United States

If a caste system exists in commercial society, at least in the United States, one boundary is likely between the very wealthy and everyone else. The wealthy isolate themselves by access to opportunity (Turner, 1960/2005), empowerment (Mills, 1958/2005), deferential treatment under the system of criminal and civil law (Reiman, 2004), education, social clubs, and even mating possibilities (Domhoff, 1983/2005). For the most part, the experience of people who are not members of the ruling class illustrates the injustice of functionalism, as the gap in wealth and income between rich and poor has widened considerably since the 1950’s and 1960’s, when Lenski (1966) reached his conclusions supporting functionalism, and when the middle class enjoyed relative prosperity, in part due to union influence, in part due to political and economic policy, and in part due to a lack of global competition (Barnet & Cavanagh, 2005; Hacker & Pierson, 2010; Keister, 2005; Sernau, 2006; Stiglitz, 2007; West, 1990/2010), and when Daniel Bell (1960) could write:

Few “classic” liberals insist that the State should play no role in the economy, and few serious conservatives, at least in England and on the Continent, believe that the Welfare State is “the road to serfdom.” In the Western world, therefore, there is today a rough consensus among intellectuals on political issues: the acceptance of a Welfare State; the desirability of decentralized power; a system of mixed economy and of political pluralism. In that sense, too, the ideological age has ended. (p. 293)

In fact, the controversies which Bell had thought settled were merely in temporary abeyance; Nobel Prize-winning economist Paul Krugman (March 5, 2012) would be able to criticize economics as a discipline for having failed to adequately respond to the financial crisis and associated recession that began in 2007 (National Bureau of Economic Research, December 11, 2008) because so many economists had forgotten many of the lessons that formed a part of Bell’s consensus. But it was Charles Reich (1970) who wrote presciently, of an all-out assault on the New Deal gains that underlay that consensus:

Every step the New Deal took encountered the massive, bitter opposition of Consciousness I people. They found their world changing beyond recognition, and instead of blaming the primary forces behind that change, they blamed the efforts at solving problems. They totally lacked the sophistication necessary to see that a measure such as the Wagner Act might be redressing an existing oppression rather than creating oppression. The businessmen who were the most vocal in their opposition had a pathological hatred of the New Deal, a hatred so intense and personal as to defy analysis. Why this hatred, when the New Deal, in retrospect, seems to have saved the capitalist system? Perhaps because the New Deal intruded irrevocably upon their make-believe, problem-free world in which the pursuit of business gain and self-interest was imagined to be automatically beneficial to all of mankind, requiring of them no additional responsibility whatever. In any event, there was a large and politically powerful number of Americans who never accepted the New Deal even when it benefited them, and used their power whenever they could to cut it back. (pp. 56-57)

Social mobility is now more difficult in the U.S. than in other developed countries and wages have not kept up with productivity growth. Meanwhile, the middle class has suffered a loss in economic security (Baker, 2007; Fischer, et al, 1996/2005; McLeod, 1987/2005) and “managed to sustain modest income growth [by the 1970’s] only by mothers taking jobs and fathers working longer hours” (Fischer, et al, p. 10). The outcome is stark as even these measures may be seen to have failed. Using the supplemental poverty measure, and defining “low income” as less than double the poverty line, the Census Bureau reports for 2010 that 47.9 percent of U.S. residents are in poverty or low income (Elliott, December 16, 2011; Short, 2011).

Preserving the status quo

Weber (2010a) would not have been surprised. He considers it “the most elemental economic fact” (p. 120) that an economic system of exchange inherently privileges whomever is most able to say no. Weber sees what Karl Marx (1867/2010a, 1867/2010b, 1867/2010c) seems not to have, that it is control of resources (property) rather than the provision of labor that weighs most heavily in the marketplace—and works in favor of employers at the expense of workers. Moreover, this can be understood as a positive (destabilizing) feedback that combines with another positive feedback, the unacknowledged power of symbolism in advertising that encourages unsustainable consumer spending—indicated by an increase in debt relative to income—and supports an illusion of a rational, egalitarian market (Federal Reserve Board, December 13, 2011; Horkheimer & Adorno, 1944/2010; Krugman, March 5, 2012); in the absence of sufficient negative (stabilizing) feedbacks, the result is seen in the widening gap between rich and poor as well as in the financial collapse of 2007.

There are, of course, negative feedbacks that have so far helped the system to retain some semblance of what school children are indoctrinated to believe it is. But an overview of the interplay of these feedbacks reveals a pattern not of justice, nor even of the “merit” which the ruling class assigns itself, but rather, with apologies to Malcolm X (February 14, 1965), a determination to preserve elite privilege “by any means necessary.” One feedback, of course, is government regulation. But if C. Wright Mills (1958/2005) is to be believed, lawmakers and regulators have a conflict of interest. He writes:

In so far as the power elite is composed of men of similar origin and education, of similar career and style of life, their unity may be said to rest upon the fact that they are of similar social type, and to lead to the fact of their easy intermingling. This kind of unity reaches its frothier apex in the sharing of that prestige which is to be had in the world of the celebrity. It achieves a more solid culmination in the fact of the interchangeability of positions between the three dominant institutional orders [the political, the military, and the economic]. (p. 141)

Bureaucrats and politicians will naturally be reluctant to impose harsh or punitive constraints on potential future employers, but Mills (1958/2005) points out that the people in charge of the political, economic, and military hierarchies are in effect the very same people. They have the same interests because they nearly all live on the upper side of that possible caste boundary between the wealthy and everyone else and because they allocate their positions somewhat interchangeably to themselves in what has sometimes been called a “revolving door” between industry and government (with the latter including the military). So naturally, they combine in defense of their privilege. In his history of class conflict in the U.S., Howard Zinn (2005) attributes the preservation of the ruling class privilege to tactics including war, police violence, and the sowing of division, but also writes:

The Constitution, then, illustrates the complexity of the American system: that it serves the interests of a wealthy elite, but also does enough for small property owners, for middle-income mechanics and farmers, to build a broad base of support. The slightly prosperous people who make up this base of support are buffers against the blacks, the Indians, the very poor whites. They enable the elite to keep control with a minimum of coercion, a maximum of law—all made palatable by the fanfare of patriotism and unity. (p. 99)

For all the hullabaloo so often heard, both on the right and on the left, about how far the U.S. may have deviated from the intent of its founders, an appearance remains that at least in so far as Madison’s trust in the wealthy may be concerned, the Constitution may be functioning very much as intended.

The “other” caste

Zinn (2005), however, seems also to be observing what may be another line of caste division, that between workers in the formal economy and those Herbert Gans (1995/2005) recognized as being cast as the “undeserving poor,” who create a wide range of jobs in criminal justice, who ensure that non-poor whites have access to illegal drugs, who work in sweatshops, who provide an example of what happens to workers who get out of line, who may be demonized in a moral dichotomy between good and evil, who may be seen as lazy in a society motivated by the Protestant work ethic, who serve to increase popular support for tough-on-crime policies and politicians, who may be discounted in unemployment statistics to keep the unemployment rate down, and who in a great many ways serve as propaganda for the status quo. Many such people are people of color and W. E. B. Du Bois (1903/2010) observed of them that “to be a poor man is hard, but to be a poor race in a land of dollars is the very bottom of hardships” (p. 170). Robert Merton (1938/2010) observed that Freud’s (1930/2010) notion of id and a civilizing ego are reified in a way that stigmatizes non-conforming humans—that is to say, those who fail to prosper from, if need be, hard work—as animalistic.

Du Bois (1903/2010), too, points to the dichotomy between “us” and “them” that will be a recurring theme, writing that “men call the shadow prejudice, and learnedly explain it as the natural defence of culture against barbarism, learning against ignorance, purity against crime, the ‘higher’ against the ‘lower’ races” (p. 171). To give such “men” the benefit of the doubt raises questions. If it is culture or learning that are at stake, then how can one explain the dismal conditions in public schools for the poor, where children cannot escape the knowledge that they are judged unworthy of investment (Kozol, 1992)? If it is “purity” or the “higher” that are at stake, then how can one explain the disproportionate choices in which harmful activities are criminalized, which people are suspected, which people are investigated, which people are charged, which people are tried, and which people are sentenced harshly (Reiman, 2004)? If it is civilization that is at stake, what can be so noble about a systemic refusal to recognize and properly value the economic contributions of housewives and those who work as mothers and other caregivers (Gilman, 1898/2010; Eisler, 2007)? Or about Northern and Southern employers’ tacit agreement to pit poor white workers against poor black workers to prevent them from uniting to demand a fairer share that might cut into profits (Du Bois, 1935/2010)? Or that employers may hire women “to tolerate lower wages and double days of work” (Harding, 1995, p. 126), and fire the men? And if Gans is wrong about the “uses of undeservingness” for the elite, then how can we account for the discrepancy between what are socially acceptable life goals and the means by which people may achieve them (Merton, 1938/2010)?


It is an unfair world, we are told, and Lakoff (2002) explains why, according to strict father morality, this must be so:

Even if survival were not an issue, even if the world could be made easier, even if there were a world of plenty with more than enough for everybody, it would still not be true that parceling out a comfortable amount for everyone would make the world better and people better. Doing that would remove the incentive to become and remain self-disciplined. Without the incentive of reward and punishment, self-discipline would disappear, and the people would no longer be able to make plans, undertake commitments and carry them out. All social life would come to a grinding halt. To prevent this, competition and authority must be maintained no matter how much material largesse we produce. (p. 69)

Eisler (2007) is more explicit, arguing that,

Certainly environmental or other circumstances can lead to real scarcities. But artificial scarcities are constantly created by dominator politics and economics through overconsumption, wastefulness, exploitation, war or preparation for war, environmental despoliation, and failure to invest in high-quality human capital by not giving value to caring and caregiving. (p. 130)

It is necessary to be clear about where commercial society does and does not face scarcity. It does face scarcity in the ways that it has developed unsustainably. The acquisition of fresh water, for instance, is a much more complicated affair today than before development destroyed the natural processes that previously provided it (Outwater, 1996). Oil is increasingly difficult and hazardous to extract (Gosselin, et al, 2010; Klare, March 13, 2012; Reed & Carroll, May 13, 2010). It cannot, however, be so easily claimed that scarcity exists where there are over five times as many vacant homes as homeless people (Loha, December 21, 2011), or where undergraduate students have difficulty registering for the classes they need to graduate while colleges cut back programs due to lack of funding (Spinner, February 16, 2011), or where increased obesity rates accompany increased food insecurity rates (U.S. Centers for Disease Control, February 27, 2012; U.S. Department of Agriculture, September 7, 2011). These latter problems are problems of distribution—the very problems that an economic system of exchange is supposed to solve—rather than of scarcity. They are ideological in origin, can be considered structural violence as described by Barash and Webel (2002), and because the “business cycle” can thus be construed as ruling class violence against the middle and working classes, charges of class warfare, such as that made by Warren Buffet (Stein, November 26, 2006), are not without merit.

Maintaining control

In a context of class warfare and artificial scarcity, it is possible to understand that the entire motivation for our present social structure is control. Whether this or any system of control may be justified depends on assumptions about human nature. Lenski (1966) assumed that humans could be seen as altruistic only within groups, that altruism—or “partisan self-sacrifice” (p. 28) as he preferred to call it—is mediated by the closeness of the relationship between benefactor and beneficiary. It must be said, however, that the majority of the evidence which would lend credence to this proposition is found in a commercial society whose sanity must be questioned, which seems to produce insanity in individuals, and which induces the very self-seeking that is in question (Fromm, 2010). Erich Fromm accordingly advocated a largely egalitarian communitarian socialism (which is difficult to distinguish from anarchism), but Weber (2010b), approaching the problem differently, points out that humans are now so conditioned to obey authority and that it would be a trivial matter for authority to re-establish itself even if it were somehow abolished. A resolution for this question will need to wait for another essay.

Understanding that much social injustice is motivated by control, by a desire to preserve an inequitable distribution of resources, we can observe a range in the instruments of control from what Mills (1958/2005) understated as a “seemingly permanent military threat” (p. 141) that is manifest in a nearly permanent condition of war to the mainstream academic reaction to feminist scholarship.

War and Feminist Archaeology

Since 1775, working from a history compiled by Roger Lee (February 5, 2012), it seems there are only sixteen calendar years in which the U.S. military has not been engaged in conflict. The U.S. may be only one example. War, as an organizational phenomenon, seems to have arisen largely with the transition from the hunter-gatherer Palaeolithic to the sedentary agricultural Neolithic that also yielded the surplus that allowed specialization and enabled the development of hierarchy. Noting that “there is scarcely any evidence of warfare during the Palaeolithic” (Burroughs, 2005, p. 271), William Burroughs writes,

In exploring Palaeolithic warfare, the first point to make is that absence of evidence is not the same as evidence of absence. The lack of signs of warfare in the Palaeolithic may merely tell us that such activity at the time did not involve structures (e.g. defensive systems) that left lasting evidence. The case rests principally on examples of human remains that show signs of a violent death, of which there are precious few examples in the Palaeolithic. In addition, there is no significant evidence of conflict in the art of the Palaeolithic. All of this seems to point in the direction of Rousseau. (p. 271).

Max Oelschlaeger (1991) reaches a similar conclusion:

In the context of agriculture, war became conceivable and sometimes desirable. Archaeological evidence (for example, skulls with traumatic injury inflicted by an ax) confirms the existence of lethal violence during the Paleolithic. Hunter-gatherers episodically engaged in physical confrontations both within and between clans. Institutionalized warfare, however, seems unlikely for Paleolithic culture, since there was neither booty to be won, property to be protected, nor a central authority to organize an army. Hunter-foragers have a biological rationale not to fight among themselves, since injuries and mortalities would threaten group survival. (p. 29)

Lenski (1966), too, observes that “warfare is clearly much more frequent and much more important among [horticultural societies] than among hunters and gatherers” (p. 122), a phenomenon he attributes to increased leisure time. But he also acknowledges that “the fruits of war usually go only to the elite” (p. 69) and, of agrarian social development, that

the advances in military technology created an important social cleavage. No longer was it possible for every man to make for himself weapons as good as those of every other man. The new technology favored those who either controlled enough manpower, e.g., slaves and serfs, to build fortifications, or possessed enough wealth to hire the specialists required to build the new equipment like chariots and armor. Thus, for the first time in history, technologically based differences in military might became a basic reality within human societies, and opportunities for exploitation were correspondingly enlarged. (p. 194)

Barbara Ehrenreich (1997), however, argues that evidence of war first appears on a rock drawing some 12,000 years ago and attributes the rise of war to the decline of large animals. She writes,

As encounters with wild animals (both game and predators) became less central to human survival, so, potentially, did adult males become less central in the survival of women and children. Women could grow crops, and certainly do so almost single-handedly in horticultural societies today. Women—and children—could care for domesticated animals (although armed men would still be more effective at defending the herds against wild predators). There was no indispensable and uniquely male occupation left. (p. 124)

Ehrenreich (1997) argues “that war may indeed have arisen to fill the void” (p. 124). Because, apparently, men could not lower themselves to grow crops or care for domesticated animals. Ehrenreich’s timing appears to be simplistic. Mass extinctions of large animals occurred between 51,000 and 40,000 years ago in Australia/New Guinea, between 17,000 to 12,000 years ago in North America, and around 4,000 to 8,000 years ago in Eurasia (Burroughs, 2005; Diamond, 1999). The rock drawing Ehrenreich cites as evidence of war was found in the Spanish Levant and “massed skeletons of the same vintage have been unearthed in southern Egypt and in East Asia, with piercings by spear and arrow points suggestive of deliberate massacres” (p. 117), in other words, some 4,000 to 8,000 years before the extinctions that supposedly left men scrambling for ways to prove their manhood. Ehrenreich nonetheless joins in a certain fanaticism that appears in resistance to what would seem to be a well-supported and well-argued feminist interpretation:

An interesting example of this questioning relates to the stick and line forms painted on the walls of Paleolithic caves and engraved in bone or stone objects. To many scholars, it seemed obvious that they depict weapons: arrows, barbs, spears, harpoons. But . . .these line paintings could just as easily be plants, trees, branches, reeds, and leaves. . . . All other evidence showed that a particular kind of harpoon called biserial didn’t appear until the late Paleolithic or Magdalenian age—even though scholars kept “finding” them in “sticks” thousands of years earlier in the wall paintings of prehistoric caves. Moreover, why would Paleolithic artists want to depict so many hunting failures? For if the sticks and lines were in fact weapons, the pictures had them chronically missing their targets. . . .

Under a microscope, [Alexander Marshak] discovered that not only were the barbs of this supposed harpoon turned the wrong way but the points of the long shaft were also at the wrong end. But what did these engravings represent if they were not “wrong way” weapons? As it turned out, the lines easily conformed to the proper angle of branches growing at the top of a long stem. (Eisler, 1995, pp. 4-5)

Mainstream archaeologists, it would seem, have some explaining to do. It is one thing to challenge interpretations of evidence. It is another, as at Çatalhöyük, to downplay feminist interpretations to promote diverse viewpoints and to avoid antagonizing local sensibilities (Rountree, 2007). But when Bruce Thornton (1999) uses a peer-reviewed journal, Arion, to ridicule rather than refute feminist archaeology, and when, in another context, University of Nevada-Reno archaeologist Gary Haynes seems to suggest that such treatment is to be expected, telling the Washington Post, “anyone advancing a radically different hypothesis must be willing to take his licks from skeptics” (Vastag, February 29, 2012), one is entitled to wonder whether such slings and arrows are necessary to ensure disciplinary rigor or are part of what Donaldo Macedo (2006) charges is an academic effort to uphold the status quo that jeopardizes the career of anyone who dissents, anyone who, as Edward Said (1994/2010) described intellectual exiles, “cannot go back to some earlier and perhaps more stable condition of being at home; and, alas, [one] can never fully arrive, be at one with [one’s] new home or situation” (p. 648).

What can be inferred is that much as mainstream archaeologists may resist the conclusion, there is significant evidence to suggest that elites, who could not appear before the Neolithic, are substantially concerned with who may do what to whom and what, in what territory, and that this has been a principal concern for them for more or less as long as they have existed. Because it is so evident that war exists largely to advance elite ends as to physical territory, this control invites examination of other boundaries beyond those of physical territory to see how conflict may advance elite interests in other realms. These borders are the boundaries of ethnicity, race, gender, sexual preference, and ability, the innumerable ways in which humans seem determined to distinguish themselves from each other (de Beauvoir, 1949/2010). To the extent that control may intrude upon these realms, it creates the possibility of pervasive control. Judith Butler (1991/2010) argues that “identity categories tend to be instruments of regulatory regimes, whether as the normalizing categories of oppressive structures or as the rallying points for a liberatory contestation of that very oppression” (p. 563). Race, for instance, is a brutally reified fiction (Gates, 1986/2010), but whether these categories have any validity or not, whether they are social or biological constructions, these labels essentialize those “others” and “us,” and it is in such dichotomies as that between “us” and “others” that “additive models of oppression are firmly rooted” (Collins, 1990/2010, p. 542).

Lorraine Code (1991) and West (1990/2010), as well, have critiqued this binary system of categorization—the same, it must be admitted, that distinguishes between conservatives and radicals—as historically, and, for Code, inevitably, privileging one half of the true/false, black/white, male/female, rich/poor and other dichotomies, and as implicating the associated system of categorical logic. While it may not be possible to “dismiss[] [the ruling class vision] as simply false or misguided” (Hartsock, 1987/2010, p. 500), Code wants us to find truth with rather than against, an approach that both challenges the entire conception of authority in commercial society and declines to rebel against it.


There has, however, been a trend toward recognizing diversity, towards recognizing that the problems of straight white women are not the same as those of, say, black lesbians. Nor, can we understand the complexity of diversity simply by adding, say, black plus homosexual plus female plus national origin. Sandra Harding (1995) points out that social position can be viewed as a system of interrelationships that “do not designate any fixed set of qualities or properties of individuals, social or biological.” Further, these are “institutionalized relations that distribute economic, political, and social power” (p. 122; see also Collins, 1990/2010). Strikingly, she not only denies that inequality has a biological origin, but

Moreover, [racial and gender inequality] are not caused by prejudice—by individual bad attitudes and false beliefs. The tendency to see prejudice as the cause of racial (or gender, class, or sexual) inequality tends to lodge responsibility for racism on already economically disadvantaged whites—the “Archie Bunkers” (in sociologist David Wellman’s analysis)—who have not learned to avoid making overtly racist statements, as have middle-class people, and who are forced to bear a disproportionately large share of the burdens of affirmative action and equal opportunity programs. (p. 122)

In light of the racism that has afflicted Barack Obama’s presidency (Pugh, September 18, 2009), that seems generous. While it is difficult to distinguish many of the antics that have occurred from a zero-sum perception that whites must lose in order for blacks to gain, it is also difficult to imagine anything like the “birther” fury that questions Obama’s eligibility for the presidency arising had John McCain, Obama’s opponent in 2008 who was born in what was then the U.S.-controlled Panama Canal Zone (Hulse, February 28, 2008), been elected instead. Further, survey evidence suggests that many Tea Party supporters, with whom “birthers” have generally been identified, are not “Archie Bunkers” but instead, rather well off, in fact, “wealthier and more well-educated than the general public, and no more or less afraid of falling into a lower socioeconomic class” (Zernike & Thee-Brenan, April 14, 2010).

While it is possible to fetishize difference, it has become evident that differences among the disadvantaged are sufficiently serious as to preclude people from “speaking for others” (Alcoff, 1995). Sabina Sawhney (1995) observes that “the liberal demand for a staging of exoticism is countered by the conservative insistence on an eradication of differences” (p. 213). West (1990/2010) critiques efforts to combat racism that sought “to show that Black people were really like White People” or that “all Black people were really alike” (p. 518). Henry Louis Gates, Jr., (1986) points out that rulers even set the standards for judging human capacity and, more fundamentally, determining whether subjects are human at all (which invites questions about contemporary moves to eliminate or reduce affirmative action programs). Butler (1991/2010) points out that this standard-setting also appears in heteronormative assumptions about sexual preference, but it all can be summarized as the dichotomy between a ruling class “us,” privileged to “speak for all” (Hartsock, 1987/2010, p. 499) and a multifaceted “other,” which is troubled by considerations like “a strong, albeit contested, current within feminism which holds that speaking for others—even for other women—is arrogant, vain, unethical, and politically illegitimate” (Alcoff, pp. 97-98), and further, that speaking for others may disempower and thus “result[] in many cases in increasing or reinforcing the oppression of the group spoken for” (p. 99).

Unfortunately, speaking for others is not the only way to be complicit in oppression. In focusing on interrelationships rather than “qualities or properties of individuals,” Harding (1995) seems to be invoking complexity theory to say that the condition of each identity category is to some degree emergent, that is to say, somewhat unforeseeable and not analytically reducible to the sum of its parts. Edgar Morin (2008) would carry this a step further:

Why do we continue to see human beings solely in terms of their social or professional status, their standard of living, their age, gender or however else they figure in opinion polls? Every human being, even the most anonymous, is a veritable cosmos. Not only because the swarm of interactions in her brain is larger than all the interactions among stellar bodies in the cosmos, but also because she harbors within herself a fabulous and unknown world. (p. 93)

A problem is immediately apparent. For all the diversity to be observed in less advantaged people, reduced to individuals or even relatively small groups, they face a united, relatively homogenous ruling class whose position is protected by the military and police (Lenski,1966; Mills, 1958/2005). Further, to focus on the ways in which relatively disadvantaged people face different conditions is to obscure the degree to which those conditions are imposed by rulers who benefit from any inability of their subjects to unite. As Hartsock (1987/2010) phrased it, “The ruling class, race, and gender actively structure the material-social relations in which all the parties are forced to participate” (p. 500) and it seems safe to assume that they do so for a reason. Against this, Alcoff (1995), observing that some people enjoy a privilege to speak which is denied many others, concludes that they should speak, but should do so in cooperation with those others, so that they all may have any voice at all. In this light, Code’s (1991) injunction to find truth with rather than against becomes not merely epistemological advice, but advice applicable to action.

Another problem should also be apparent, that the functionalist claim of necessity is the only conceivable justification for the present social order. Stripped of claims to morality or justice, what Stuart Hall (1996/2010) refers to as a “narrative of the nation” (p. 609) is hollow. The national identity he writes about runs aground on the reality of diverse society, a reality conservative theorist Richard Weaver (1964/1995) was unwilling to countenance in what he approvingly called a “tyrannizing image” (p. 11), in which he associates homogeneity with cultural value and high social status with cultural attainment:

There is a center which commands all things, and this center is open to imaginative but not logical discovery. It is a focus of value, a law of relationships, an inspiriting vision. By its very nature it sets up rankings and orders; to be near it is to be higher; to be far from it in the sense of not feeling its attraction is to be lower. Culture is thus by nature aristocratic, for it is a means of discriminating between what counts for much and what counts for little; this no doubt explains the necessity man feels to create it. It is his protest against the uniformity and dead level of simple succession. He will establish a center of value and see to it that the group is oriented toward it. (p. 12)

Functionalism needs necessity, for it seeks to justify tyranny.


Alcoff, L. M. (1995). The problem of speaking for others. In J. Roof & R. Wiegman (Eds.), Who can speak? Authority and critical identity (pp. 97-119). Urbana, IL: University of Illinois.

Allen, P. G. (1986/2010). Who is your mother? Red roots of white feminism. In C. Lemert (Ed.), Social theory: The multicultural and classic readings (4th ed., pp. 573-577). Boulder, CO: Westview.

Anzaldúa, G. (1987/2010). The new mestiza. In C. Lemert (Ed.), Social theory: The multicultural and classic readings (4th ed., pp. 552-558). Boulder, CO: Westview.

Baker, D. (2007). The productivity to paycheck gap: What the data show. Washington, DC: Center for Economic Policy Research. Retrieved from http://www.cepr.net/ documents/publications/growth_failure_2007_04.pdf

Barash, D. P., & Webel, C., P. (2002). Peace and conflict studies. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.

Barnet, R. J. & Cavanagh, J. (2005). Mass production in postmodern times. In T. M. Shapiro (Ed.), Great divides: Readings in social inequality in the United States (3rd ed., pp. 112-120). Boston: McGraw Hill.

Bodley, J. H. (2008). Victims of progress. Lanham, MD: Altamira.

Burroughs, W. J. (2005). Climate change in prehistory: The end of the reign of chaos. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University.

Butler, J. (1991/2010). To theorize as a lesbian. In C. Lemert (Ed.), Social theory: The multicultural and classic readings (4th ed., pp. 562-573). Boulder, CO: Westview.

Castañeda, A. I. (1999). Sexual violence and the politics of conquest in Alta California. In Z. Vargas (Ed.), Major problems in Mexican American History (pp. 54-61). Boston: Houghton Mifflin.

Césaire, A. (1955/2010). Between colonizer and colonized. In C. Lemert (Ed.), Social theory: The multicultural and classic readings (4th ed., pp. 348-350). Boulder, CO: Westview.

Code, L. (1991). What can she know? Feminist theory and the construction of knowledge. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University.

Collins, P. H. (1990/2010). Black feminist thought in the matrix of domination. In C. Lemert (Ed.), Social theory: The multicultural and classic readings (4th ed., pp. 541-552). Boulder, CO: Westview.

Copelon, R. (1995). Gendered war crime: Reconceptualizing rape in time of war. In J. Peters & A. Wolper (Eds.), Women’s rights, human rights: International feminist perspectives (pp. 197-214). New York: Routledge.

de Beauvoir, S. (1949/2010). Woman as other. In C. Lemert (Ed.), Social theory: The multicultural and classic readings (4th ed., pp. 345-347). Boulder, CO: Westview.

Diamond, J. (1999). Guns, germs, and steel: The fates of human societies. New York: W. W. Norton.

Domhoff, G. W. (1983/2005). The American upper class. In T. M. Shapiro (Ed.), Great divides: Readings in social inequality in the United States (3rd ed., pp. 156-164). Boston: McGraw Hill.

Du Bois, W. E. B. (1903/2010). Double-consciousness and the veil. In C. Lemert (Ed.), Social theory: The multicultural and classic readings (4th ed., pp. 167-172). Boulder, CO: Westview.

—. (1935/2010). Black reconstruction and the racial wage. In C. Lemert (Ed.), Social theory: The multicultural and classic readings (4th ed., pp. 242-245). Boulder, CO: Westview.

Ehrenreich, B. (1997). Blood rites: Origins and history of the passions of war. New York: Metropolitan.

Eisler, R. (1995). The chalice and the blade: Our history, our future. New York: HarperSanFrancisco.

—. (2007). The real wealth of nations: Creating a caring economy. San Francisco: Berrett-Koehler.

Elliott, J. (2011, December 16). Are those startling poverty numbers accurate? Salon Retrieved from http://www.salon.com/2011/12/16/ are_those_startling_poverty_numbers_accurate/

Federal Reserve Board. (2011, December 13). Household debt service and financial obligations ratios. Retrieved from http://www.federalreserve.gov/releases/ housedebt/

Fischer, C. S., Hout, M., Jankowski, M. S., Lucas, S. R., Swidler, A., & Voss, K. (1996/2005). Why inequality? In T. M. Shapiro (Ed.), Great divides: Readings in social inequality in the United States (3rd ed., pp. 9-15). Boston: McGraw Hill.

Freud, S. (1930/2010). Civilization and the individual. In C. Lemert (Ed.), Social theory: The multicultural and classic readings (4th ed., pp. 149-151). Boulder, CO: Westview.

Fromm, E. (2010). The sane society. Milton Park, Abingdon, Oxon, UK: Routledge.

Gans, H. J. (1995/2005). In T. M. Shapiro (Ed.), Great divides: Readings in social inequality in the United States (3rd ed., pp. 85-94). Boston: McGraw Hill.

Gates, H. L., Jr. (1986/2010). “Race” as a trope of the world. In C. Lemert (Ed.), Social theory: The multicultural and classic readings (4th ed., pp. 521-526). Boulder, CO: Westview.

Gilman, C. P. (1898/2010). Women and economics. In C. Lemert (Ed.), Social theory: The multicultural and classic readings (4th ed., pp. 174-178). Boulder, CO: Westview.

Gosselin, P., Hrudey, S. E., Naeth, M. A., Plourde, A., Therrien, R., Van Der Krak, G., Xu, Z. (2010). Environmental and health impacts of Canada’s oil sands industry [Executive summary]. Retrieved from www.rsc.ca/documents/expert/ RSC_ExP_ExecutiveSummary_ENG_Dec14_10_FINAL_v5.pdf

Hacker, J. S., & Pierson, P. (2010). Winner-take-all politics: How Washington made the rich richer—and turned its back on the middle class. New York: Simon and Schuster.

Harding, S. (1995). Subjectivity, experience, and knowledge: An epistemology from/for Rainbow Coalition politics. In J. Roof & R. Wiegman (Eds.), Who can speak? Authority and critical identity (pp. 120-136). Urbana, IL: University of Illinois.

Hartsock, N. (1987/2010). A theory of power for women? In C. Lemert (Ed.), Social theory: The multicultural and classic readings (4th ed., pp. 495-500). Boulder, CO: Westview.

Horkheimer, M., & Adorno, T. (1944/2010). The culture industry as deception. In C. Lemert (Ed.), Social theory: The multicultural and classic readings (4th ed., pp. 325-329). Boulder, CO: Westview.

Hulse, C. (2008, February 28). McCain’s Canal Zone birth prompts queries about whether that rules him out. New York Times. Retrieved from http://www.nytimes.com/ 2008/02/28/us/politics/28mccain.html

Keister, L. A. (2005). Wealth in America: Trends in wealth inequality. In T. M. Shapiro (Ed.), Great divides: Readings in social inequality in the United States (3rd ed., pp. 26-33). Boston: McGraw Hill.

Klare, M. T. (2012, March 13). A tough-oil world. TomDispatch. Retrieved from http://www.tomdispatch.com/post/175515/tomgram%3A_michael_klare%2C_why_high_gas_prices_are_here_to_stay/

Kozol, J. (1992). Savage inequalities: Children in America’s schools. New York: HarperPerennial.

Krugman, P. (2012, March 5). Economics in the crisis. New York Times. Retrieved form http://krugman.blogs.nytimes.com/2012/03/05/economics-in-the-crisis/

Lakoff, G. (2002). Moral politics: How liberals and conservatives think (2nd ed.). Chicago: University of Chicago.

Lee, R. (2012, February 5). American military history. Retrieved from http://www.historyguy.com/american_military_history.html

Lenski, G. (1966). Power and privilege: A theory of social stratification. New York: McGraw Hill.

Loha, T. (2011, December 21). Housing: It’s a wonderful right. Amnesty International. Retrieved from http://blog.amnestyusa.org/us/housing-its-a-wonderful-right/

Macedo, D. (2006). Literacies of power. Boulder, CO: Westview.

Madison, J. (1787/2003). The federalist no. 10. In G. Wills (Ed.), The federalist papers (pp. 50-58). New York: Bantam.

Marx, K. (1867/2010a). Capital and the values of commodities. In C. Lemert (Ed.), Social theory: The multicultural and classic readings (4th ed., pp. 51-60). Boulder, CO: Westview.

—. (1867/2010b). Capital and the fetishism of commodities. In C. Lemert (Ed.), Social theory: The multicultural and classic readings (4th ed., pp. 60-62). Boulder, CO: Westview.

—. (1867/2010c). Labour-power and capital. In C. Lemert (Ed.), Social theory: The multicultural and classic readings (4th ed., pp. 62-67). Boulder, CO: Westview.

McLeod, J. (1987/2005). Social immobility in the land of opportunity. In T. M. Shapiro (Ed.), Great divides: Readings in social inequality in the United States (3rd ed., pp. 22-26). Boston: McGraw Hill.

Merton, R. K. (1938/2010). Social structure and anomie. In C. Lemert (Ed.), Social theory: The multicultural and classic readings (4th ed., pp. 229-242). Boulder, CO: Westview.

Mills, C. W. (1958/2005). The structure of power in American society. In T. M. Shapiro (Ed.), Great divides: Readings in social inequality in the United States (3rd ed., pp. 139-145). Boston: McGraw Hill.

National Bureau of Economic Research (2008, December 11). Determination of the December 2007 peak in economic activity. Retrieved from http://www.nber.org/ cycles/dec2008.html

Oelschlaeger, M. (1991). The idea of wilderness. New Haven, CT: Yale University.

Outwater, A. (1996). Water: A natural history. New York: Basic.

Pugh, T. (2009, September 18). There’s no denying Obama’s race plays a role in protests. McClatchy. Retrieved from http://www.mcclatchydc.com/2009/09/18/75694/ theres-no-denying-obamas-race.html

Reed, S., & Carroll, J. (2010, May 13). The paradox of deep water: Lots of oil, lots of danger. Business Week. Retrieved from http://www.businessweek.com/magazine/ content/10_21/b4179017397376.htm

Reich, C. A. (1970). The greening of America. New York: Crown.

Reiman, J. (2004). The rich get richer and the poor get prison: Ideology, class, and criminal justice (7th Ed.). Boston: Allyn and Bacon.

Rosenau, P. M. (1992). Post-modernism and the social sciences: Insights, inroads, and intrusions. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University.

Rountree, K. (2007). Archaeologists and goddess feminists at CatalHöyük: An experiment in multivocality. Journal of Feminist Studies in Religion, 23(2), 7-26.

Said, E. (1994/2010). Intellectual exile: Expatriates and marginals. In C. Lemert (Ed.), Social theory: The multicultural and classic readings (4th ed., pp. 646-650). Boulder, CO: Westview.

Sawhney, S. (1995). The joke and the hoax: (Not) speaking as the other. In J. Roof & R. Wiegman (Eds.), Who can speak? Authority and critical identity (pp. 208-220). Urbana, IL: University of Illinois.

Sernau, S. (2006). Worlds apart: Social inequalities in a global economy (2nd ed.). Thousand Oaks, CA: Pine Forge.

Shapiro, T. M. (2005). Introduction. In T. M. Shapiro (Ed.), Great divides: Readings in social inequality in the United States (3rd ed., pp. 1-7). Boston: McGraw Hill.

Short, K. (2011). Supplemental poverty measure: 2010 (Report No. P60-241). Retrieved from http://www.census.gov/prod/2011pubs/p60-241.pdf

Slater, P. (2009). The chrysalis effect: The metamorphosis of global culture. Eastbourne, UK: Sussex.

Spinner, A. (2011, February 16). College students socked by budget cuts. CNN. Retreived from http://money.cnn.com/2011/02/16/news/economy/budget_cuts_hit_students/

Stein, B. (2006, November 26). In class warfare, guess which class is winning. New York Times. Retrieved from http://www.nytimes.com/2006/11/26/business/ yourmoney/26every.html

Stiglitz, J. E. (2007). Making globalization work. New York: W. W. Norton.

Thornton, B. (1999). The False Goddess and Her Lost Paradise. Arion, 7(1), 72-97.

Turner, R. H. (1960/2005). Sponsored and contest mobility and the school system. In T. M. Shapiro (Ed.), Great divides: Readings in social inequality in the United States (3rd ed., pp. 71-76). Boston: McGraw Hill.

U.S. Centers for Disease Control (2012, February 27). U.S. obesity trends. Retrieved from http://www.cdc.gov/obesity/data/trends.HTML

U.S. Department of Agriculture (2011, September 7). Food security in the United States: Key statistics and graphics. Retrieved from http://www.ers.usda.gov/Briefing/ FoodSecurity/stats_graphs.htm

Vastag, B. (2012, February 29). Radical theory of first Americans places Stone Age Europeans in Delmarva 20,000 years ago. Washington Post. Retrieved from http://www.washingtonpost.com/national/health-science/radical-theory-of-first-americans-places-stone-age-europeans-in-delmarva-20000-years-ago/2012/02/28/gIQA4mriiR_story.html

Weaver, R. M. (1964/1995). Visions of order: The cultural crisis of our time. Wilmington, DE: Intercollegiate Studies Institute.

Weber, M. (1918/2010). What is politics? In C. Lemert (Ed.), Social theory: The multicultural and classic readings (4th ed., pp. 114-116). Boulder, CO: Westview.

—. (2010a). Class, status, party. In C. Lemert (Ed.), Social theory: The multicultural and classic readings (4th ed., pp. 119-129). Boulder, CO: Westview.

—. (2010b). The bureaucratic machine. In C. Lemert (Ed.), Social theory: The multicultural and classic readings (4th ed., pp. 108-114). Boulder, CO: Westview.

West, C. (1990/2010). The new cultural politics of difference. In C. Lemert (Ed.), Social theory: The multicultural and classic readings (4th ed., pp. 511-521). Boulder, CO: Westview.

X, M. (1965, February 14). After the bombing: Speech at Ford Auditorium. Retrieved from http://www.malcolm-x.org/speeches/spc_021465.htm

Zernike, K., & Thee-Brenan, M. (2010, April 14). Poll finds Tea Party backers wealthier and more educated. New York Times. Retrieved from http://www.nytimes.com/ 2010/04/15/us/politics/15poll.html

Zinn, H. (2005). A people’s history of the United States: 1492-present. New York: HarperPerennial.

23 thoughts on “We “need to know how it works”

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.