2016 | 3 | 13-43
Article title

British Sociology, the Bourgeois Media-Sociology Hybrid and the Problem of Social Class

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This article advances the scandalous argument that we live in a post-social class modernity, and that the perpetual reinvention of class as the key concept for understanding social inequality is untenable. Class is not only a zombie concept but also an ideology that reflects a set of normative attitudes, beliefs and values that pervade sociology. Its starting point is that, sociology, once adept at imagining new ways to interpret the world, has become a subject field that wants to claim a radical space for itself while simultaneously relying on outworn theoretical frameworks and denying the work radicals do. The article begins by suggesting that the problem of class has its roots in the deep structure of sociology. Taking its cue from Jacques Rancière’s classic study The Philosopher and His Poor it develops the argument that if class was once upon a time the fundamental issue in the study of social inequality, today sociology urgently needs an alternative cognitive framework for thinking outside this paradigm which it uses to open up a critical space for its own intellectual claims rather than reflecting society in the round. After arguing that we a living at the ‘end of Class’, the critique explores the limits of the work of Pierre Bourdieu, who has replaced Marx and Weber as sociology’s key theoretician of class. It is argued that in Bourdieu’s sociology, contentment is permanently closed to ‘the working class’ that thumps about like a dinosaur that survived extinction, anachronistic proof of the power and privilege of the theorist and his sociology rather than proof of the usefulness of his ideas. The key to understanding the limits of this interpretation, it is argued, is that it assumes a ‘working class’ that has little or no agency. It is subsequently argued that sociology and the bourgeois media are coextensive. The specific function of the bourgeois media-sociology hybrid is to provide ideological legitimation of class inequality and of integrating individuals into sociology’s interpretation of social and cultural life. Focusing on the work of two self-identified ‘working class’ journalists who have successfully made the transition into the bourgeoisie and who seek solid validation of their new found status in the bourgeois media it is demonstrated that social inequality is neither expressed nor examined in a convincing way. Framing ‘working class’ worlds even more ‘working class’ than ‘working class’, the bourgeois media, at best, lay them bare for clichéd interpretation. Here the article argues vis-à-vis Quentin Skinner that words are not so much mere ‘reflections’ of the world, but ‘engines’ which actively play a role in moulding the worlds to which they refer. Drawing on Rancière’s idea of the partage du sensible (distribution of the sensible) it is argued thereafter that here thinking ends up as the very thought of inequality because by posing social inequality as the primary fact that needs to be explained the bourgeois media-sociology hybrid ends up explaining its necessity. The final part of the article offers some suggestions about how to rethink social inequality after class, and it concludes with the observation that the predicament facing sociology derives not just from its theoretical limits but also from its failure to give social inequality human meaning and the people who suffer it the proper respect by acknowledging their own interpretations of their own lives.

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  • Sheffield Hallam University
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