In the mid-1970s, I attended a rally when a speaker summed up a long harangue by concluding that the most oppressed person in the USA would be a working-class, native-american, gay, woman. The young woman beside me suddenly grew wide-eyed and murmured, "Why that's me!" Was the speaker right? Are race, gender and sexual orientation additive factors to be treated cumulatively in judging oppression? Did the young woman's membership in four oppressed categories make her significantly more oppressed than other Native American women or working-class lesbians? Alternatively, to what degree are racial, citizenship, and gender categories more or less substitutable markers, buttresses reinforcing inequality, used to justify relegation to the lower ranks? In North American cities, African-Americans are often given the least skilled and least stable factory jobs, in Northern Ireland, Catholics occupy those positions, in France, North African Muslims. In these cases, religious and ethnic prejudice are related to class loc ation.
The intersection and overlapping of racial, gender, and class hierarchies are now so well documented that few believe that inequality can be reduced to a single underlying principle, such as class, or that each form of inequality is generated independently. The urgent need is to understand how pre-existing forms of inequality are incorporated into new social structures. In many countries of the industrial world, over the last two centuries, small enterprise and agriculture have given way to global corporations and agro-business and suffrage has become nearly universal, yet many of the racial, gender and ethnic biases that predominated in pre-industrial societies emerge recast within newly constructed class or citizenship categories. How does this happen? This remarkable book identifies a handful of causal mechanisms that work to structure new organizations in ways that preserve existing categories of inequality while constructing new ones.
Charles Tilly argues that understanding how categories are employed and constructed is key to the analysis of social inequality. He claims that the most persistent and powerful causes of inequality are due to a concatenation of causal mechanisms that shape category formation; these mechanisms lead to the fashioning of general categories from individual transactions by the operation of organizations and networks.
Why, Tilly asks, do new organizations, even organizations devoted to economic efficiency, persistently reproduce antecedent racial, ethnic and gender divisions and so perpetuate them? Tilly focuses on four causal mechanisms, exploitation, opportunity hoarding, emulation and adaptation. "Exploitation" refers to the unequal distribution of rewards proportionate to value added. In nineteenth-century South Africa, employers and the state worked to solve problems of labor shortage in the expanding farms and mines by dividing up the indigenous population into categories, assigning them different homelands and ethnic identities based on sometimes subtly distinguished, linguistic groupings. The creation of different categories of natives sowed the seed of divisions that made united collective action difficult while securing employers a low wage labor force. "Opportunity hoarding" indicates the members of a categorically-bonded population able to acquire monopoly of a valuable resource. It explains how distinctive gr oups fill new categories. Opportunity hoarding perpetuates inequality when it becomes a tool of exploitation as in the case of white South Africans who obtained privileged access to skilled jobs in mining and in industry. "Emulation" designates the transplanting of existing social relations from one setting to another. The transformation of pre-existing social/racial hierarchies, white, coloured, and black into similarly ranked categories of South African citizenship is an instance of how social orders emulate existing divisions in new structures in order to preserve them in the old. "Adaptation" is the elaboration of daily routines around categorically-unequal structures. In South African mining, supervisors frequently used ethnic loyalties to inspire their work team to compete with other teams and so increase production. Such work-based rivalries often resulted in friction outside work, heightening ethnic tension and strengthening ethnic identity.
Together exploitation, opportunity-hoarding, emulation and adaptation go far in explaining the perpetuation of inequality in all its forms from generation to generation. They also explain the creation and emergence of collective identities. Initially, ethnic designations may be artificial constructions imposed on individuals, as was the case with many ethnic labels in South Africa, but finally homelands and reservations developed political institutions that gave groups the means to exert influence and win concessions. Thus, artificially-created categories designed for exploitation become meaningful social categories that mobilize men and women to fight exploitation.
If widely adopted, Tilly's arguments would transform present debates over the character of inequality, but adapting these arguments to historical research will not be easy, and Tilly has not provided his usual wealth of detailed historical illustrations to facilitate the task. Rather than offering a road map, Tilly is more like an old farmer giving directions to Sunday sightseers; "over yonder," he says, and points in a general direction. "Getting there is half the fun" had better be the motto of anyone using Tilly's sketch of social dynamics. Tilly's causal mechanisms are defined most clearly with reference to his familiar turf, the rise of large-scale capitalist enterprise and contemporary consolidated states, yet the timeless cast of his argument shifts attention from his radical new reinterpretations of the transition to capitalism and early modern state transformation. Tilly daringly attempts to define exploitation as an empirically-verifiable category but, unable to build on a specific historical conte xt, the discussion of how it might be operationalized lacks his customary clarity. At times, interesting ideas appear that almost demand development. Tilly emphasizes that his categories of inequality are not simply markers. They have unique features: for instance, gender cuts through the boundaries of household, community, and class while race often coincides with such boundaries. Citizenship demarcates an entirely different kind of border. How the different qualities of categories of inequality respond to the four mechanisms he propounds and shape the character of inequality surely warrants closer attention.
A great deal of Tilly's problem in briefly explicating his ideas flows from the enormous nature of the change proposed. While Tilly leaves space for agency, the actors he considers are collective actors, not individuals. The cast of his argument, relying on networks and network relationships, is thoroughly opposed to arguments centered on methodological individualism. Indeed, his argument makes us realize the prevalence of individualist assumptions that remain in social models generally considered collectivist. From Mill to Marx, our utopian visions praise collectivist societies for their ability to satisfy individual needs. Tilly's repudiation of individualism is more thoroughgoing than the great nineteenth-century social thinkers because he views categorical classification as absolutely central to all social processes. In economists' terms the "transaction costs" of evaluating individual performance are simply too great to make it an effective method of allocating positions in any but the smallest organiza tion. In individual terms, if alternatives are available, few will long remain in an organization subject to perpetual evaluation and reevaluation or constant supervision. When they require loyalty, elites create categories, such as tenure or seniority, guaranteeing their subordinates a degree of autonomy. While Tilly's emphasis on categories is compelling, envisaging a functioning egalitarian society in which categorical classification would remain central demands a radical rethinking of our own ideals and political projects. A long intellectual tradition has taught us to think of equality in terms of individuals; we have little experience in conceiving of equality in terms of groups.
What this book shares with the best of Tilly's work is a sense of engagement with important issues, the working of a bold and keen intelligence, and the determination to address social problems by recourse to evidence. It is an invitation to join in an ongoing research project rather than a summa of existing knowledge.
It represents a major effort to untangle the problem posed by the multi-layered character of inequality and deserves wide attention.
New School for Social Research
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|Publication:||Journal of Social History|
|Article Type:||Book Review|
|Date:||Sep 22, 2000|
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